HOW AM I BETTER AT THIS THAN YOU ARE

Posted in Rants on November 27th, 2016 by Ed

It has been more than 15 years since I gave up on American conservatism, but since it represented a big change in my (at that time young) life I still remember much of the process quite clearly. Two things in particular were the deciding factors for me. One, I watched the Southern wing of the party slowly become dominant and it made no sense to me why anyone would take policy cues from and submit to the leadership of people representing the absolute worst parts of the country. "Do we really want to make the country more like Mississippi? Why?" was a question I asked a lot and never got a satisfactory answer. The second tipping point (Is it possible to have two of those?) was the realization that the American definition of conservatism is like the American definition of mayonnaise – it would not be recognized as such anywhere else in the world. American conservatives are not conservatives. Their ideology is better described as either nationalism, anti-government-ism, or some combination of the two.

The fundamental principle of conservatism in political history is, in my view, the defense of the institutions of government (or, as some people argue more expansively, society as a whole). This implies the utmost respect for the rule of law and the constitutional process. Republicans, however, gave up any pretense of that during the 80s and 90s. While I would never describe myself as a conservative (because people would interpret that incorrectly), I still believe that adherence to the power-sharing arrangements of our system of government takes precedence over anything else in the political arena. Without that foundation, we have a system of majority rule that is wide open to manipulation and abuse of power.

Defense of political institutions is necessary because without it, people lose sight of the necessity of the same. When faith in the institutions of government disappears, people are seduced by all manner of nonsense in its place. They might even, hypothetically, react favorably to authoritarian appeals to give one individual the power to act as he pleases without the constraints of any rules or institutional checks and balances. What we see today is nothing more than the logical end result of forty years of telling people that government is evil, rotten, and the obstacle between America and Greatness. How many times can people be told that government is the problem in their lives before they conclude that it serves no purpose that they can see?

American conservatives gave up long ago on defending our institutions. If the Supreme Court makes a decision they don't like, they shit all over the Supreme Court. If the president is not a Republican, they slander him as illegitimate. Any law they do not author is a direct attack on the Republic and its humble, freedom-loving citizens. If they do not win an election, then the election was rigged. Is any of this sounding familiar? Somehow the American left became better at the traditional role of conservatives than conservatives themselves. Al Gore had to be the one to go on TV in 2000 and tell the country that we are obligated to respect decisions of our institutions even when they are obviously riddled with problems.

The Republicans have been living dangerously with their new, nihilistic take on the role of government for years. Despite constant references to their love of the Constitution, they've encouraged Americans to look the other way for the sake of advancing their own agenda. But now it appears that the mood they cultivated has gotten out of their control and they've no longer control their own party. They've been taken over by a con man / publicity hound who doesn't even want to do the job he was elected for. Republicans needed to hawk the importance of the rule of law just enough to maintain control of the institutions they used to acquire or maintain power. But they pushed it too far, like the thief who keeps coming back for one last big heist over and over until he ends up in cuffs. "I should have walked away when I had the chance" summarizes what a lot of Republicans must be feeling today, even if they don't verbalize it and on paper they control all of the levers of governing. They know now that what they have are majorities, not control.

Now the Republican Party is under the control of someone who doesn't even pay lip service to institutions and the rule of law, which is the final nail in the coffin of any meaningful claim to the term "conservative." Token shows of backbone during the election have been replaced by a parade of Republicans into audiences with their new master, groveling for favor and a whiff of the spoils. It isn't the racism and nationalism that means that the GOP is now officially an authoritarian movement; the giveaway is the eagerness with which they embrace government by Big Man, not to be inconvenienced by anything as insignificant as the rule of law getting between America and greatness.

THE NEXT BEST THING, CONT.

Posted in Rants on November 21st, 2016 by Ed

So, I don't do this often but yesterday's post and its Facebook cousin spawned an unusually large number of useful comments. I thought I would follow up by addressing two of them here.

First, there was criticism of the idea of writing off a lot of rural and remote urban areas rather than reinvesting in them. That sounds good, but it fails to account for many of the reasons these places were 'de-invested' in the first place. Who exactly is going to do this investing now? We're talking about places that suffer from poor location, poor quality of life, urban decay, poverty, and a potential workforce generally lacking in relevant skills. What exactly is going to bring investment to Decatur, IL or Muncie, IN when there are better, more convenient locations nearby like Indianapolis or Chicago? The company executives don't want to live in the middle of nowhere with a workforce riddled with problems ranging from low skill levels to the associated negative side effects of poverty (crime, drug abuse, lack of support networks, etc).

Tax cuts and incentives, right? Just offer enough tax cuts and incentives that some business will want to locate there. Again, that works in theory. The problem in reality is that you can throw a dart at the U.S. map now and hit a location where state and local officials will shower you, a potential employer, with free public money in the form of incentives, rebates, breaks, and infrastructure improvements. The Decaturs of the world have no competitive advantage. The company can get the same lavish treatment from vastly better locations, particularly in the South. Tax incentives are kind of a collective action problem; if a few places offer it, then it achieves the desired goal. If everyone does it, everyone loses.

The economy as a whole has enough problems across the region that a business could reap plenty of freebies locating near Chicago, 20 minutes from the world's busiest airport, 45 minutes from Lake Michigan shipping, and with a college educated or otherwise skilled workforce numbering in the millions to pick from. Oshkosh and Anderson and Lima can't compete with their nearby, economically stronger neighbors. The only businesses left in the more remote Rust Belt outposts are only there because elected officials throw such an insane amount of public money at them – far beyond any amount that makes economic sense – that it would cost more to leave Moline than to stay. The incentives game is an arms race, and eventually the smaller players have to go nuclear to "win."

Could the government be The Investor? Say, investing massively in infrastructure in these areas to give them a boost? In theory, yes. The political will to do so appears to be lacking, and the rational case for building up the infrastructure of economically dying places experiencing population aging and decline really need new roads and bridges. From the point of view of an elected official, this will have the odor of a Dig Hole, Fill Hole project. A new highway isn't going to bring Youngstown an economic revival, so falling into the trap of investing in new infrastructure continuously just to keep the place afloat is a real danger. Of all the proposed solutions, though, this is probably the most realistic. It has at least some chance of happening, although it remains unlikely with Republicans in control of Congress.

The second major point was that a revival of pro-labor, anti-Capitalist Greed rhetoric once held great appeal to the white working class and could therefore be a viable strategy moving forward. All I can say is…it's possible. It's not IMpossible. It's very difficult to see how that idea takes root at this point, though. The culture wars, the free markets = free people delusion, and the general lurch toward the right over the past three-plus decades are pretty firmly entrenched. We are at the point where the two "sides" of the political debate aren't even speaking the same language and have their own versions of reality.

There aren't enough young people in the most troubled Rust Belt areas to make that work, in my view. I may be wrong. But one of the worst problems the region deals with is the continual skill drain. Young people and people with marketable skills or motivation get out as soon as they can, and the population left behind is largely older, poorer, less skilled, and more resistant to change. As I understand it, building a labor movement relies on turning workers into activists for their own self-interest, and that's hard to do when you bring the idea to a city full of laid-off ex-assembly line workers in their mid-50s or older. I don't know – perhaps the world's greatest orator, leader, and organizer is out there and can find some way to pull that off. He or she will deserve all the praise that follows from accomplishing that. But I think a very natural impediment to labor organizing in these already severely depressed areas is that a lot of the younger workers who would be most involved in the movement are gone, long since having loaded up the moving van and headed somewhere less bleak.

In any event, the comments on this one were unusually numerous and good. I know defeatism is not a popular ideology, and it's possible that I project way too much of my own take on living in one of these places from experience. That said, I don't think the optimistic view can fail to account for the limitations inherent to the ideas mentioned here. It could work, but it's awfully easy to make the Devil's Advocate argument for why it will not.

THE NEXT BEST THING

Posted in Rants on November 20th, 2016 by Ed

If I have to listen to one more Brooklyn- or DC- or Bay Area-dwelling Hot Take artist explain that Democrats lost this election because they didn't do enough for (or pay enough attention to) Rust Belt, low-education white people I am going to put my foot through…I don't know, Ezra Klein's head. Post-election narratives rarely do more than provide an oversimplified explanation – in the form of a conveniently untestable hypothesis – but in some cases they actively distort the truth.

Explain exactly how the Democratic Party wrote off white Rust Belt voters. By trying to make sure they had health care access when their employers stopped offering benefits? By supporting unions that might actually provide them some job security or wages over $10/hr? By supporting and trying to increase minimum wage? By trying to protect the social safety net, including unemployment benefits and workers comp, that Republicans have been hacking away at for decades? That's an odd definition of "ignored." The implication that if only the Democrats had worked a little harder these voters would have been satisfied is ridiculous.

Of course the counterargument is that trade agreements made in the 1990s with the blessing of Bill Clinton are a major cause of manufacturing job losses. This is true, although it conveniently ignores that Clinton was almost the only Democrat willing to back an idea the Republican Party brought to the table. Why are the Republicans not the ones culpable for NAFTA, if this narrative makes any sense?

The entire Trump movement is about anger, and in truth it is easy to understand why these people are angry. I live in the Rust Belt. I have spent all but a sliver of my life here. Outside of a small number of major cities that have weathered the storm (but have their own serious problems) economically, people live in small towns or minor cities that have declined steadily since 1960. People who have spent long lives in these places remember when things used to be better – when the city wasn't half-empty, when there were enough jobs, when the jobs that were available didn't pay squat with terrible benefits, and when the side effects of poverty and neglect hadn't turned the physical city into a decent setting for a modern post-apocalypse film. They are mad and they have a reason to be mad.

The reality is, the version of their communities that they remember is NEVER coming back. It's not. It's gone. It's never coming back because we cannot recreate the context that allowed it to happen – a post-World War II environment in which the U.S. was the sole industrial power on the planet that wasn't teetering on collapse and / or reduced to rubble. Eventually the rest of the world caught up, and we felt the beginning of the decline in the 1970s. The embrace of neoliberal trade policy in the Reagan and post-Reagan years only accelerated trends that were already established. All the while the GOP didn't lift a finger to ameliorate any of this. They offered tax cuts (which would magically create jobs, but didn't) and helpful reminders that if you're poor it's because you don't work hard enough.

These places are dead and dying because economically there is no longer any reason for them to exist. They were established at a time when their location near resources or now-outdated transportation links made them important. Now, and no politician will ever admit it in public, there simply isn't any reason for Altoona or Youngstown or Terre Haute to exist anymore. The jobs are never coming back. Nothing is coming back. The Democrats have not given the white Rust Belt working class an answer to their problems because there is no answer. Nothing will resurrect these places, all of which have long since crossed the point of no return in their economic and population decline. Automation, union-busting, outsourcing (much of it within the U.S., to impoverished Southern states) and race-to-the-bottom subsidy wars among state and local governments are ensuring that the situation isn't about to improve.

And here's the kicker: Trump didn't offer any solutions either. All he did was offer them something to blame. They liked hearing someone lie to their faces and promise that the jobs are coming back, and they liked even more having someone tell them that it's OK to direct all their anger at the people they don't like anyway: the immigrants, the Hispanics, the urban poor (the rural poor are still virtuous, of course), the gays, the liberals, the youths who can't wait to turn 18 and get out, the academics, the media who don't tell them what they want to hear…you name it. That's all Trump did. He pointed at the scapegoats and promised that he would make it OK to direct anger and scorn toward them.

The false narrative implies that the problem of the Midwestern white working class is solvable. It isn't, short of a time machine that can take us back to 1953. It further implies that Trump offered some kind of solution that Democrats are too pompous or too inarticulate to offer. This is a half-truth; Trump didn't offer any answers beyond vague, empty Strongman promises that he will reverse economic reality by the force of his personality alone. He offered them a distraction and an ironclad promise that if their lives aren't going to improve – and they won't – at least they can content themselves with lashing out at a convenient list of people who are somehow Different and therefore deserving of scorn under any circumstances.

Given that reality, the Democrats' failure was in not offering a scapegoat. Maybe it's time to dust off the Joe Hill / Mother Jones / Eugene Debs playbook. If scapegoating is the only thing that wins these people over, then the best strategy is to point them in the right direction again and remind them that Capital is the enemy of Labor. End the worship of and fixation with Job Creators and the idea that the boss is your buddy and your role in the economy is a matter of personal responsibility, fully within one's own control.

Is that going to work? Doubtful. Racism is an easier, more effective play. Anything that requires people to think is going to lose out to anything that plays directly into their basest prejudices. I don't know how you beat the path of least resistance. The older I get, the less I believe that is possible.

THE LETDOWN

Posted in Rants on November 15th, 2016 by Ed

Given that the Clinton campaign was defined throughout this interminable election by its inability to get potential supporters anywhere near as fired up as they had been for candidates like Obama or Bernie Sanders, the torrent of emotions that came pouring out of Clinton voters last Tuesday and Wednesday is, in a vacuum, surprising. I saw adults literally weep. Is it possible that anyone could be that broken up over missing out on four to eight years of centrist, lukewarm New Democrat "I've got it! Civil unions!" horseshit? Are there people in the world at this moment who are legitimately crushed that America will miss out on the Hillary Clinton presidency?

Of course there aren't. OK, maybe a handful. The narrative has said that the sadness that overwhelmed so many people in the wake of this election had nothing at all to do with Hillary Clinton and everything to do with fear of a Trump presidency. Clinton eerily paralleled the Kerry / Edwards campaign in the end, making a persuasive case for why the Republican opponent is terrible but offering nothing to recommend themselves beyond "We're really experienced! I've been in Washington forever!" and essentially expecting voters to motivate themselves out of sheer terror. Indeed, many people (particularly people who don't happen to be white, male, or white and male) did so.

Even the Fear of a Trump Planet narrative doesn't explain the powerful emotions that the election brought out of so many people. I'm as bad at reading minds as the next person, but what I hear when friends, strangers, students, random internet commenters, and media figures talk about this election is a shattering sense of disappointment. Not in Hillary Clinton, who was little more than a cipher, but in the people around us. In the people who voted for That Man. It is not too extreme to say that for a lot of voters, particularly younger ones, the outcome on Tuesday seriously shook their faith in…well, mankind.

Many people subscribe to a school of thought called "optimism," or so I'm told, and they like to believe that their fellow man is fundamentally good. They believe that when presented with a racist demagogue who does not even go through the motions of pretending like he has a plan or knows what he is doing, they will not fall for it. Being people of character and decency, they will say "This charlatan is offensive in every way and we should be embarrassed even to be considering him." People would like to believe that the American public could not elevate to the White House a candidate who is openly racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic, because that would imply that millions of the people we share this society with are those three things or at least possessing sufficient moral cowardice to overlook those qualities in a candidate.

On Tuesday, all of us alike learned that, yes, America is – pick one – worse than we hoped or as bad as we suspected. We learned that 61,000,000 American adults eligible to vote, essentially half of the electorate, signed off on a man with zero experience (governing or otherwise), a child's temper, the attention span of a fly, and without any substance to his rhetoric that would not be familiar to someone who has studied the speeches of Mussolini or Franco. Yes, we know our institutions are strong. Yes, we know there are checks and balances. But even if a Trump presidency is nowhere near as bad as many expect or predict, nothing will ever change the fact that the man our fellow citizens voted for was the racist demagogue. As I said weeks ago, this election has done lasting damage. It doesn't matter at this point if Trump moves to the center and becomes the wisest, most enlightened statesman in history – we all saw how they cheered when banged the xenophobic drums, we all saw the crowds wink and cheer when he talked about "certain areas" and "certain people," we saw them act like a colorized film of an old fascist rally when he barked about "Law and Order", we all saw the "Lock the bitch up" shirts, we all saw them worked into a frenzy when he talked about killing and torturing, we all heard them chanting, we all saw them make excuses for every horrendous thing he has said and done. Nothing can undo that.

That's why people cried on Wednesday and on Election night. Nobody gives a shit about Hillary Clinton, and the fact that we are in the current predicament casts that fact in high relief. But we wanted to believe that our neighbors, our families, our fellow citizens were better than this, and now we can't. We know now going forward that we can never give the people we share this country with the benefit of doubt or tell ourselves that they are kind, decent people who could Never Do Such Things. We have seen them do it. We know better now. It is not a pretty thing to see when hope dies and is replaced by hard, cold mental armor.

STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE

Posted in Rants on November 13th, 2016 by Ed

To distract ourselves from the clown car of halfwits currently being installed into positions of authority and influence in the Executive Branch, let's take a closer look at something that received only token attention during the election: Trump's "First 100 days" agenda. At the time, given his poor performance in the polls, it seemed like a cute attempt to play President for a day. In the new un-reality it deserves a closer look. Nothing here will strike you as strange or unfamiliar, I promise.

Trump's agenda is essentially the far-right part of the Republican Party's economic platform with a smattering of populist-centrist stuff thrown in to make Trump look "different" from the standard Old Republican White Guy. What will undoubtedly happen, now that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are in charge (nominally, in Ryan's case) of a chamber of Congress, is that all the folksy Populism will be a non-starter in the Capitol. The agenda will be shredded, and when the knives are put away we'll be left with – stop me if you've heard this before – big tax cuts, a partial Health Care Reform repeal (they lack the balls to get rid of the popular parts), and more big tax cuts.

The parts of the Trump agenda fall into three categories: blatantly unconstitutional, totally unrealistic, and standard GOP fare that any Republican suit would bring to the White House and has been since the 70s. Consider, for example, these populist proposals to clean up corruption:

* FIRST, propose a Constitutional Amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress;

* SECOND, a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health);

* THIRD, a requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated;

* FOURTH, a 5 year-ban on White House and Congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service;

* FIFTH, a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government;

* SIXTH, a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.

One: good luck passing an Amendment. Two is within the president's power for some Federal agencies. Three is unconstitutional on its face and looks like a middle school kid wrote it. Four and Five, blatantly unconstitutional. Six is redundant on existing FEC rules. I'm not cherry-picking here. This is how the entire thing unfolds.

"End offshoring" with "tariffs," spend massively to improve infrastructure…yeah, Mitch McConnell is definitely going to be cool with that. School vouchers? That drum has been banged for 15 years; where is the money going to come from? Building a wall? Unless it's a chain-link fence from Menard's, show me where the money is supposed to come from. Oh, right – those big tax cuts, including slashing the corporate tax rate by more than half, are gonna generate SO MUCH revenue that the lower rate will actually result in more tax dollars. Any of this sounding familiar? If you're the kind of person who "reads books" and stops believing in theories when they're "proven not to work" you may have noticed that Supply Side Economics has a rather…dismal track record. Yet, here we go again.

Attempts at restricting immigration in some draconian fashion, at which he only hints in his agenda, are likely to be the only substantive part of the agenda aside from the tax cuts that Congress is willing to touch. Even then, Congressional Republicans are likely to trim off a lot of the crazy in a cynical effort to win back some ground with Latino voters. Then again, they may go all-in with their new demagogue. Many of them, particularly in the House, are nihilistic enough to do it.

Trump was a godsend for the GOP in one sense – he distracted everyone for an entire year from evaluating just how poorly the party has done with control of Congress. "Obstructionist" doesn't even begin to cover it, as the term implies that they at least accomplished something that counts as what a middle school teacher would describe as an Action Verb. And now Trump, as well as the rest of us, are about to be rudely reminded that for all the talk of the presidency as though it is a Third World dictatorship the office depends heavily on Congress to get anything substantive done, and this is a Congress that has shown that other than tax cuts and trying to close abortion clinics there is basically nothing they will actually do. Add to the equation a president with no temperament for negotiating with pinhead legislators in safe, gerrymandered seats and no real understanding of how the legislative process works and we are looking at several years at the least of getting only the worst parts of what was already bound to be a very bad agenda.

TYPE I ERROR

Posted in Rants on November 9th, 2016 by Ed

I'm not the least bit embarrassed to have gotten it wrong, since having done so puts me in an exclusive club called Everyone at the moment.

Predictions have to be made based on the data available. All of the available data pointed toward one outcome. Polling has a margin of error, and we understand that. Even accounting for the margin of error, there's a 1 in 20 chance that the result lies outside of it. I don't think anyone wants to read a lengthy treatise on confidence intervals, normal distributions, and p < 0.05 right now, but the entire process of statistical analysis of pre-election data (and most data in the scientific world, period) is built upon the reality that 5% of the time you will accept a hypothesis that in reality should have been rejected. Beyond that, statistical models depend on any number of assumptions that can and often do turn out to be incorrect. The biggest loser this week is the obsession within political science with quantitative wizardry ("Check out my new estimator, bro!") and in the political media with forecasting models updated by the second as reality overtakes their assumptions.

Here's the problem: There are other ways, but there are no better ways.

Oh, you "had a bad feeling" about the election? That's nice. You had some theory you pieced together that managed to predict correctly the outcome of a contest with only two possible winners? Amazing. You have a brilliant post-election take on what "would have" happened had Bernie been nominated, had Jill Stein voters not voted for Jill Stein, had X not done Z? That's great, I can also sit around and make up hypotheses that can't be tested, theories that can't be proven or disproven. There's nothing wrong with any of this, and it's what people do during and in the wake of elections. But make no mistake about what you are doing when you engage in this kind of "logic" – you are pulling things out of your ass. You're guessing. You're in 6th grade writing a Persuasive Essay based on the prompt, "How would the election have turned out differently if ____?" Would Sanders have done better against Trump? Intelligence is not being able to answer that question; intelligence is understanding that any answer you can offer to such a question is pure conjecture.

I don't look forward to the months of hand wringing, of people explaining ("explaining") why this happened. The construction of post-election narratives is a process that interests me only in that none of them can be proven and we go through a collective process of deciding which one is Correct based on feel, like a clueless car buyer kicking tires and deciding that this model truly is superior to the alternatives. The world of data-driven predictions is not a perfect one, and it is one in which we all accept that we will be wrong a not-insignificant percentage of the time. It is a better world to live in, though, than one in which we all sit around filling the world with our Hunches and gut feelings. The modern world, and certainly our educational system, strongly encourages people to think unscientifically – begin with your conclusion, then construct an explanation that supports it. This process has the advantage on the user end of allowing everyone to feel like they are correct, with the obvious disadvantage of being like the gemstones – pretty, alluring, and fundamentally worthless.

THE LONELIEST MAN ON EARTH

Posted in Rants on November 7th, 2016 by Ed

As I write this on Monday evening I'm aware of how many people feel about jinxes and other such tempting forms of bad logic, so let me preface this by saying that the assumptions here are based on all of the available data (actual data, discounting hunches, gut feelings, magical theories about how data is wrong, and so on) suggesting that Trump is highly unlikely to prevail on Tuesday.

If you're Donald Trump, this has been a hell of a ride. He relishes attention like whales relish krill, and it's hard to think of any person in the history of the modern world who has gotten more attention of this duration and intensity. American media, and to a lesser extent that of the world, has been Trump-focused for the better part of 18 months now. It has been impossible to get away from him or to avoid hearing his name, and god knows a lot of us have tried. If his goal was to bask in publicity and attention, to force everyone to focus on him whether they want to or not, then inarguably he succeeded. He succeeded beyond even his own wildest dreams. 2016 has been the Year of Trump.

It's all about to come to a screeching halt, and I think he knows it.

Three weeks ago, noted twit David Brooks offered a surprisingly thoughtful take on "Donald Trump's Sad, Lonely Life." It felt premature; as long as this election continues, he will be surrounded with people variously doing his bidding or kissing his ass. I do think Trump is sad, as Brooks muses, but I believe it's because some part of his twisted psyche knows that he isn't going to win and he knows, ultimately, what that means for him. On Wednesday morning, he is going to wake up to find himself the most hated man in the world. He will be able to count the people who want anything to do with him on one stubby little hand. That everyone to the left of Mitt Romney hates him is obvious, not to mention already true. But for the sake of the party, many people in the Republican orbit have been…well, they've pursued a number of strategies. Humoring him. Faking enthusiasm. Going through the motions. Tepidly and generically offering ambiguous statements of support. Endorsing him in language that does not actually endorse him. It's rational behavior on their part.

But here's the thing about Republicans, and about American conservatism more broadly: the movement can never fail or be wrong. It can only be failed and be wronged. It is always the candidate's fault. And oh my god and baby jesus in heaven are they going to throw Trump under the bus the second this election is over. He thinks, at this moment, that his followers are going to be loyal to him. Some of them will retreat into fantasies that he was cheated out of victory. Most of them will grow to see him (with the encouragement of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy and its mouthpieces) to see him as that most loathsome of all things in their worldview. They will see Donald Trump as a loser. For a movement based entirely on concepts like superiority, dominance, and nonspecific Winning, for a group of people that adulate Winners above all else, Donald Trump is not going to be able to survive being a Loser.

The Republican establishment, already in full Damage Control mode, will declare him persona non grata. His paid campaign staff will drift away and sell their stories to salivating media outlets – "You won't believe how terrible he was!" The media will leap at the opportunity to stop pretending for the sake of Balance to treat him as anything but a joke. And that army of numbskulls he believes will follow him to Trump TV will find that Fox News, right wing radio, and the rest of the noise that makes up their lives is pushing a new, curiously convenient message: He was the problem. He's a loser. He failed. We need a winner. We need to move on. We were so close, and we would have won if he didn't screw up so much. People who screw up and say "Grab 'em by the pussy" on tape aren't winners. They're losers.

We all know how effective the noise machine is at establishing its preferred narrative of reality. It will turn on Trump. Everyone associated with him will run for cover. Every Republican failure in this election year will be laid at his feet. And then it will move on. Fox and the RNC and the Koches and everyone else will say, "See? We told you so. Now never disobey us again," and the entirety of the Trump phenomenon will go down the memory hole. He will be marched before the firing squad and preserved as a corpse that will be dragged out only when the base needs to be reminded of the consequences of deviating from the path determined by their right wing elders.

Remember, nobody in the GOP wanted or likes this guy. Fox News banged the drum against him and only recently (and half-heartedly) supported him out of some sense of obligation toward the R next to his name on the ballot. We've seen the right tear into one of their own with amazing ferocity even when that person is someone they generally hold (or held) in high regard. Imagine what they will do to a con man who infiltrated their ranks at a time of weakness and made a mockery out of the party to the point where the brand name may be damaged permanently.

Trump on Tuesday evening will be a convict enjoying his last meal before execution, and he knows it. The saying goes that in politics that first they love you and then they turn on you, a bit of wisdom that bodes particularly poorly for someone who They didn't love in the first place.

AND HERE WE ARE, EXACTLY WHERE WE HAVE BEEN FOR MONTHS

Posted in Rants on November 6th, 2016 by Ed

The real kick in the teeth about this transcendently horrible election is that we've suffered through it mostly for naught. Very little about the candidates' relative standing has changed since the conventions. The recent FBI / Emails commotion, for example, was a textbook example of a non-story. No new information was involved. "Something something Hillary Clinton's emails or something." We've all been hearing about this for months. To anyone inclined not to vote for Hillary because of the email thing, nothing changed here. For people who don't care about the issue at all…well, nothing changed here either. In fact, the only movement in the polls since October 1 has been a slight bump for Trump – from defecting Gary Johnson voters. Johnson has gone from 8-10% to a predictable 4-5% (and probably won't do even that well on Election Day). The difference has accrued to Trump, presumably because your average Johnson supporter is a disaffected Republican.

Here we are, one day before the election, exactly where we have always been. My best prediction today is no different than what I said in June or in March or in 2015: There is no plausible scenario in which a candidate can win a presidential election in the modern era with essentially no votes from black or Hispanic voters. Factor in how much Trump has done to alienate women and you have no argument that does not involve an MTS (Magical Turnout Scenario). Every single prediction of a Trump win that I've read or heard over the past couple of months relies on an MTS. There's a "silent majority." There are people who have never voted before who will come out of the woodwork to vote Trump. African-Americans and Hispanics won't vote, because reasons. People are too scared of Scary Liberals to admit in polls that they support Trump but they're totally going to vote for him on Election Day. Huge conspiracies to vote fraudulently will be unraveled by patriots bravely monitoring polling places. On and on it has gone. Deluding themselves that improbable scenarios – in some cases pure fantasy – are going to save them has become an art among Republicans.

That leaves the related question of why we keep hearing that the election is so close. Neck-and-neck. On a razor's edge.

I'm beating a dead horse here, but just remember how "close" the election was claimed to be in 2012 versus the reality we observed. The media are driven by ratings. This is not a crazy conspiracy theory or some kind of adolescent Chomsky-esque slander; it's a simple statement of fact. Elections are their biggest ratings events, and they have every possible incentive to sell the narrative that the horserace is coming down to the wire. They have no incentive whatsoever to tell you that Clinton has a lead outside the margin of error and Trump needs some sort of miracle to close the gap. Already suffering from low ratings in the more competitive environment of modern media, TV news networks and political news sites badly need people to buy into the narrative that the race is close. If not, they will stop watching in the same way that the TV audience is likely to wander away when the Super Bowl is 50-0 at halftime.

Mitt Romney and John McCain were not exactly blown away or routed, but they were solidly defeated. That happened with each candidate getting something like 25-30% of the Hispanic vote. Trump is barely in double digits. Romney and McCain similarly did not go out of their way to alienate women, something Trump has turned into an X-Men superpower. While it is true that Hillary Clinton is statistically less popular and likable than voters felt Obama was in those two elections, none of the available evidence suggests that Democratic-leaning voters are any less likely to show up this year.

If I'm wrong I'll refund your money and we can start digging bunkers together. But I am highly confident that the scenario that plays out on Tuesday is going to be reminiscent of 2012, when the major media outlets declared 15 states "toss ups" and then one candidate won 14 of them, in some cases by large margins. No matter how many ways they try to convince themselves that there are, there simply are not enough dumb, old, or dumb and old white people to make an electoral majority without appealing to any other demographic in the electorate. In 1952 it was enough. The GOP seems hellbent on learning every four years that it no longer is.

URBAN TORPOR

Posted in Rants on October 31st, 2016 by Ed

Cities overemphasize population as a measure of economic health and overall vitality. If the population is stable or growing, the logic goes, then certainly there must be enough amenities and jobs to explain why people are moving or at least staying. Population loss certainly is a bad sign, one difficult to explain away. But growing or stable population is not necessarily what it seems. If you want to get a sense of the direction an urban area is trending, look at changes over time in population density.

Why does that statistic matter more? Let's look at one of my favorite Rust Belt punching bags. Peoria, IL is a good example, but honestly you could choose from the lengthy list of declining Midwestern and Northeastern industrial cities and prove the same point.

In 1950 the Census recorded 111,856 people in the city proper; 2015 Census estimates were 115,070. If it seems surprising that a city often cited as an example of decline actually grew (slightly) since the often-cited base year of 1950, it is. A closer look at how it managed the feat reveals a serious underlying problem. In 1950 the city covered 12.9 square miles. In 2015, that figure exploded to 50.3 square miles. Population density, then, fell from 8671 per sq. mile to 2288.

That's staggering, but so what? The main problem is that urban infrastructure is expensive, and the more a city spreads out in an effort create the appearance of population growth or stability the more of that infrastructure it needs to provide. Roads, police and fire, utilities, sanitation, and any other costly function of modern urban governing become more difficult to provide over an ever expanding area with a declining number of taxpayers – individuals and businesses – to support them. Leaving aside the fact that economic opportunities in such cities almost inevitably are shrinking, each taxpayer becomes "responsible" for more and more infrastructure. That's not a great formula. Add in the fact that populations in these places almost inevitably become older and more impoverished over time and it's a disaster. Add in the current anti-government hysteria that makes even modest attempts to raise revenue a pitched battle and you have a place where you really don't want to live unless you can't afford to get out.

What happens next is predictable. Services get worse, costs are piled onto the remaining population that is least likely to be able to afford it, and lowest-bidder privatization farms out many essential tasks. The few remaining large employers in the area get to write their own ticket after threatening to leave, which often results in further reduced local tax revenues (through various breaks, loopholes, and handouts) and environmental degradation that no one dares try to make them clean up. Eventually the sense of decline becomes pervasive. Signs of crime and urban decay become widespread. Garbage piles up. Streets look like the Luftwaffe just bombed them. Aging water and sewerage systems fail. 9-1-1 calls go unanswered and fewer police are asked to deal with more crime spread over a greater area. Businesses shutter, and people with marketable skills take them to other places where things are not quite as bleak.

Despite the cottage industry of urban renewal and revitalization schemes, there's very little cities can do to reverse the slide into urban blight once the population density takes an appreciable drop. More accurately, there are some things they can do but hundreds of other dying and shrinking places trying to do those exact same things. Offering tax incentives to lure new businesses there? Great. So is everyone else. The end result is a sort of community-wide torpor, a "who gives a shit" mentality that sinks in after a couple years or decades of looking at empty buildings, driving over crumbling streets, and seeing visible poverty everywhere. Expectations fall and anger rises among people being asked to pay more for public services that seem to get worse every year. They seem to because they are.

If you're curious about where your favorite city is heading over the next 20 or 30 years, look at the historical trend in population density. If it declines consistently there's a good chance that great things are not on the horizon.

LOVE IN A TIME OF SHITPOSTING

Posted in Rants on October 26th, 2016 by Ed

One of the great ironies of this insufferable election is that something we all knew was inevitable and only a matter of time – the full, seamless integration of the reality TV / social media paradigm into our elections – was achieved by a highly unattractive 70 year old man. It is as apparent now two weeks out from the election as it was in the summer of 2015 when this nightmare began that Trump has no real interest in being president, a job that is by most estimates rather challenging. Instead this has been one long exercise in building the Personal Brand, of achieving the kind of multi-platform social media saturation that brings entire rooms full of Social Media professionals at SXSW Interactive to instantaneous and powerful orgasm. When a campaign spends more on hats bearing an eminently hashtaggable slogan than it does on polling, it becomes nearly impossible to argue that this is anything other than politics as viral marketing, a painfully long product roll-out for whatever insufferable Web 3.0 media product Trump plans to shove down the throats of his gullible herd of followers. It is a campaign not for votes but for Likes and Follows, the end goal being a list of potential subscribers' credit card numbers rather than accommodations on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As an adult old enough to remember the world before the internet, it isn't difficult for me or anyone else of my generation to see this for exactly what it is. We have been through enough elections and seen enough political campaigns to know what campaigns look like. We recognize, consequently, that this is not one. What I worry about a lot lately, especially given my constant contact with people in the 18-22 age range, is what long term effects this will have on the attitudes of people of different generations who have grown up with the internet and social media. Someone born in 1998 has never lived in a world without clickbait, viral videos, shitposting, memes, Facebook, Reddit, apps, and the idea of life as incidental things that happen so one can post pictures of it on the internet. It is not that today's college-aged voters are incapable of answering the question, "Is this a real campaign or is this all just a publicity stunt?" – what is troubling is that it would never occur to young adults to ask that question. When you've lived since infancy in a world in which saying outrageous and offensive things is a standard part of the repertoire for attracting valuable attention in a the internet's competitive marketplace of self-promoting assholes, this very well could appear to be normal. You can feel the collective shrug, the sense that nothing about what happened this year is in any way out of line with one's expectations about how the world of 2016 works.

One valuable Teaching Moment from this campaign was the vice-presidential debate. Students were able to see for one evening what, for most of recent history, a presidential campaign has looked like: two extremely boring older white guys using a lot of words to say very little. It contrasted sharply with the WWE Monday Night Raw spectacle of the presidential debates, which they view primarily through the lens of what they can provide in entertainment value. Much is said about the shrinking attention spans of younger generations, and I think there is a real element of truth to those fears. It's not surprising that today's young people, just like young people of years past, would find a Kaine-Pence type election extremely boring. What's worrying is the idea that, rather than considering this year's presidential election appalling and embarrassing, it not only seems normal but even desirable because it holds their interest. If they find this funny and entertaining we are likely to do it again in the future, and it will only be "funny" until one of these candidates – some media hog less personally repugnant than Trump – wins, at which point the joke will be on all of us.