Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 September 2016

The First “Great” Debate

[For eleven good reasons to vote for Hillary and downballot Dems, click here.]

Last night a fifteen-year-old boy in the body of a man met an experienced and savvy but emotionless pol on the stage of a presidential debate. The result was as disappointing and soulless as it was bizarre.

The two contenders mostly spoke past each other, often refusing to answer the moderator’s questions. Our Founders, no doubt, were not just rolling over in their graves. They were rotating at a rate high enough, had they been hooked up to generators, to have increased our national output of electricity.

Who won? If you are a college-educated person with some knowledge of history and current reality, Hillary won hands down. Donald’s puerile self-justification, interminable “proof” by anecdote, and consummately selfish perspective revealed his vacancy as a thinker and human being, let alone a leader. But if you’re a bully who reasons like a fifteen-year-old boy, he might have rung your bell.

In other words, Donald kept his base, and Hillary kept hers. Neither likely expanded it much. So the fate of our nation will rest, as is our wont, on the desultory reactions of people who (as the song goes) don’t know much about history but make up their minds based on fleeting impressions from chance encounters with ads and activists in the last week of the campaign. Since TV ads seem to be having less and less effect, the so-called “ground game” may be everything.

Since most readers of this blog may have forgotten how fifteen-year-old boys “reason,” let’s look at three examples.

The most glaring example was Donald’s response to a challenge to his most famous Big Lie: his “birther” conspiracy. He didn’t deny his lie or his recently repudiating it. How could he? Given permission by his own recantation, the media that have made this miscreant famous and powerful finally began piling on. His own recantation took repudiation out of the hands of the “fact-checkers” on page twenty and onto the front pages.

So how did he defend? He accused Hillary of doing the same thing. Without specifics, he pointed to racist tinges in Hillary’s own campaign against Barack Obama in 2008.

There were indeed such tinges, as I noted in this blog at the time. But the contrast with Donald’s lie is as blinding as the Sun. Hillary used innuendoes and guilt-by-association from real facts—such as Obama’s actual attendance at edgy sermons of the unfortunate Reverend Wright—in an attempt to gain an edge in her campaign. In contrast, Donald’s own big and outrageous lie drove right to the heart of Obama’s legal qualification and gave Donald his own start in politics. Without his Big Lie and the notoriety it gave him, Donald would be back on reality TV, not interfering without our collective future reality and perhaps our species’ survival.

To a fifteen-year-old, it’s enough to answer your own big wrong with the challenge, “you did wrong, too!” The issues of magnitude and perspective never arise, let alone the notion that two wrongs don’t make a right. All wrongs are equal to a fifteen-year-old brain trying to excuse itself.

The second example of adolescent “reasoning” related to Donald’s tax returns. He “justified” his refusal to disclose them by saying: (1) he would after their current audit closed (no doubt after the election!), and (2) they didn’t contain much useful information anyway, at least not much more than financial disclosures he had already made.

The second point is trivial to bat down: if the returns don’t have much useful information, why not disclose them? What does he have to hide? And the first point was just another Donaldic razzle-dazzle. Nothing in law or practice requires anyone to avoid disclosing tax returns voluntarily during an audit. Donald didn’t even try to make that connection with anything like logic or reasoning.

The third point of Donaldic reasoning was pure puerility. He proposed forcing our allies, by “negotiating,” to pay for more of the defense that we offer them. Hillary pointed our that a lot rides on the reliability of American defense commitments, including the possibility of war. Donald’s response? It’s unfair for our NATO allies, for example, not to pay more for their defense. While castigating Hillary for allegedly disclosing her plans for beating ISIS, Donald never mentioned the effect of such negotiations on our allies and their adversaries. Might a big push to get allies to pay more, using the threat of the US reducing its commitment to them, embolden our mutual enemies and perhaps encourage war?

As any adolescent psychologist can tell you, things like consequences don’t matter much to the fifteen-year-old mind. That’s why Donald could answer so quickly to the charge of paying no taxes at all in certain years. His paying no taxes was “smart.” Yes, Donald, you were as smart as any fifteen-year-old boy who thinks it’s all about him.

In the final analysis, Donald is the ultimate heir to the “halo” of Saint Ronnie. As you may recall, it was Reagan who, with his cry “It’s your money!,” began our two generation national love affair with selfishness. That love affair is at stake in this election.

But Donald has one-upped Saint Ronnie in every way. He is not just an advocate for political selfishness. He is the apogee of personal selfishness.

His stiffed his contractors, employees, and students. So what? That’s just good business. He, a rich man whose brags about his wealth and success, never paid any taxes at all in the two years for which he has disclosed tax returns. So what? That was just smart!

He wants to risk degrading longstanding alliances, thereby upsetting our allies, emboldening their (and our!) enemies, and destabilizing international relationships that have kept the peace among major powers for over 70 years. Why not? We pay more than our fair share for defense. If our allies want our backing, they should pay more, regardless of consequences.

Do you see a theme here? And what about Donald’s push for “law and order”? Is shooting unarmed civilians down in the streets because they happen to be black “law and order”? I guess it is if you’re not black and you have a fifteen-year-old tribal mentality. But if you think justice applies to all of us, it’s a different story.

Unfortunately, Hillary missed a big opportunity to call out this adolescent, selfish thinking for what it is. It’s not just un-Christian and un-American. It’s contrary to every altruistic impulse that made this nation great—from Native Americans bringing food to our First Thanksgiving, through farmers leaving sandwiches on their window sills for itinerant hobos during the Great Depression, to our military aid to Europe during World Wars I and II and our aid to Israel today. If you believe, as I do, that empathy, compassion and altruism are the essence of our species, such über-selfishness is inhuman.

Donald Trump is not the most dangerous candidate for president ever because of his big ego, impulsiveness and scattered brain. He is the most dangerous because he is the most selfish and self-centered man ever to rise to a semblance of power in America. He stands literally and emphatically against all that has made this nation great, from Care packages and the Peace Corps to international monetary bailouts and military aid to threatened democracies. He stands for the age-old call of the desperate and despicable, “Every man for himself!”

There were other opportunities that Hillary missed. She agreed with Donald that nuclear proliferation is the greatest threat to our species. It is not. Global warming is.

The dangers of nuclear proliferation are doubly contingent. The may arise if: (1) bad actors get nukes, and (2) they are stupid and reckless enough to use them for anything other than their primary purpose: deterring conventional attack and invasion.

Nothing about global warming is contingent. It is happening today. Indeed, recent trends and the likelihood of positive feedback suggest that it may be reaching an exponential inflection point. We cannot stop it because the carbon and methane that go into the atmosphere today will continue excess heating for decades or centuries. The only thing we can do is slow its acceleration by severely curtailing our burning of fossil fuels—even before they run out—or find some way to sponge greenhouse gases out of our atmosphere on a global scale.

If we do nothing, the Greenland Ice Cap may melt soon, raising global sea levels over 10 feet and inundating many densely inhabited coastal areas worldwide. And that’s all in addition to more frequent and devastating storms, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes and the steady march northward of tropical diseases like malaria, dengue and zika. Compared to this, a small nuclear war between minor powers fades into insignificance: our species exploded many more atomic bombs above ground during the sixties, before test bans took effect.

A true leader must begin to lead even while still campaigning. Donald claimed to have done that by being the first to challenge modern trade agreements as the source of job losses. (Of course this claim, like most he makes, was a lie. Ross Perot warned of the “sucking sound” of NAFTA pulling good jobs to Mexico in 1992.) But that baseless claim at least shows aspiration to leadership.

If Hillary wants to claim real leadership, she must not agree that something speculative and contingent, like nuclear war due to nuclear proliferation, is as dangerous as something real and present, like global warming. More important still, if Hillary wants to be president, she must point out Donald’s diabolical selfishness and its origin in consistent Republican policy over two generations. That, at least, is what Bernie might have done.

To any intelligent, sentient creature, Hillary “won” the first debate because she is a real, qualified candidate with positive human impulses. Donald Trump is an abomination. Our media helped create this Frankenstein monster with their mincing “not-my-job” approach to truth. Now, maybe, they will undertake their real job and help us see Donald as he really is: a fifteen-year-old boy in a man’s body who wants his finger on The Button so no one will disrespect him.

So yes, Hillary “won” the debate. But there’s a lot more that she could do, and should do, to show us Yanks and the world what an abyss Donald would drag us into and how to avoid it.

Endnote on first names. Careful readers will note that, in this essay, I have changed my references from “Trump” to “Donald.” I am doing this just to put the two candidates on the same level and to avoid any show of undue bias. I have used “Hillary” consistently not out of any particular affection for her, far less out of disrespect for her or for women generally. I use her first name to distinguish her from Bill, because it is shorter and less cumbersome than “Hillary Clinton” or “Secretary Clinton,” and because “Mrs. Clinton” might imply that she’s not running on her own steam, which she clearly is.

As for “Trump,” I still like its shortness and harshness. It reminds me of how Republicans use “Democrat,” harshly, as an adjective to derogate Dems. But I don’t want to put this excrescence above Hillary or show him one iota of respect that he nowise deserves. So “Hillary” and “Donald” it will be, from now on, until she crushes his adolescent dreams or we all lose our Republic, like Germany in the 1930s.


22 September 2016

Eleven Reasons to Vote for Hillary and Downballot Dems

1. She can win
2. If you favor Johnson or Stein, Hillary is your woman
3. If Trump wins, there will be violence
4. A Trump regime will be utterly unpredictable
5. A Trump presidency will be built on lies
6. We already had one Hitler; we don’t need a second
7. Despite her flaws, Hillary promises much more
8. Hillary is a Democrat, and a pretty progressive one, too
9. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a sacred duty, and Hillary is the best available
10. If you don’t vote for Hillary, and Trump wins, you will regret it, big time
11. If everyone who polls today as voting for Johnson or Stein voted for Hillary and downballot Democrats, the Dems could make a three-branch sweep

1. She can win. This is not a reality show. This is reality. For all his horrors, Donald Trump is actually the GOP’s candidate for president. For all we know now, he has a nearly even chance to win.

Neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein has any chance to win. The more popular of the two, Johnson, can’t even get the 15% consistent support he needs in the polls to take part in the debates.

So when you wake up on November 9, Hillary or The Donald will be our president-elect. Barring an assassination or untimely death in the interim, one of them will be your president when you wake up on January 21.

There are no other options; you must choose between those two. If you vote for Johnson or Stein, or if you stay home, you will help Trump win. You will be like the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, thereby giving Dubya just enough of the popular vote to let our Supreme Court steal the election for him.

2. If you favor Johnson or Stein, Hillary is your woman. You may think that voting for either of the two “fringe” candidates is a sign of idealism. Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, stands for personal freedom and a low-profile foreign policy, presumably with less war. Stein, the Green candidate, stands for clean energy, protecting our environment, and fighting global warming.

But here’s the rub. If you don’t vote for Hillary, you will help Trump win. And what will Trump do with your idealistic purity? He will stomp on it, just as he will stomp on the rights of Muslims and Mexicans. Here’s how.

Trump says he’s for a low-profile foreign policy. But so did Dubya. In the 2000 campaign, Dubya promised a “humbler” foreign policy, with no nation building. Then what happened? After 9/11, Dubya invaded and occupied two sovereign foreign nations (Afghanistan and Iraq), and we have been at war there and nation-building ever since.

Trump will be similar. How do we know? Because he appears to like violence. He styles himself a strongman like Putin. He has mused about using nukes, as long as we have them. But most of all, his policies of failing to support our long-time allies will lead to war.

Peace requires strength and consistency. Trump proposes neither. What do you think will happen if Trump abandons our allies, whether in Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or the South China Sea? Putin or Xi will test them, just as the Soviets did JFK in the Cuban missile crisis. Without our leadership and strength, our allies will be alone, scared and more likely to blunder into war.

And don’t forget that Britain, France and Israel have nukes, which they might be forced to use. If war comes, we Yanks may get dragged in, just as we were in World War I, World War II, Gulf I, and today’s civil war in Syria.

As for the environment, one issue transcends and subsumes all the others: global warming. Fighting it is a major motivation for clean energy and a clean environment, and a necessity if our children and grandchildren are to live as we have done.

And what will The Donald do about global warming if elected? He’s already told us. He thinks global warming is a Chinese hoax and the Paris Accords are a joke. He will rescind our participation in that warming-fighting accord and get to “work” drilling for and burning more fossil fuels. He will set global warming back on a path toward runaway acceleration. If Trump wins, all your dreams of a stabilized climate and a clean planet for your children and grandchildren will crumble into dust.

3. If Trump wins, there will be violence. Cities and neighborhoods will burn, just as in the sixties, or maybe as in the runup to our Civil War. One of them could be yours.

How do we know? Because Trump has encouraged and appears to delight in violence. He has twice called obliquely for assassinating Hillary. He has many times called for violence against protestors and objectors at his rallies. If you want a full list of Trump’s calls for violence, read this piece by Dana Millbank. Or this one. You will be appalled.

But the clearest calls for violence by Trump are implicit in his policies. Marginalizing and excluding Muslims as all or mostly suspects for terrorism will set Muslim against Muslim and non-Muslim against Muslim. Like any people under siege, Muslim-Americans will circle their wagons. Their doing so will not just increase the risk of terrorism at home; it will encourage additional violence of American against American.

The most awfully violent consequences of Trump’s misguided policies will come from his deportation of Mexicans. Right now, we have over eleven million of them living and working peacefully among us.

What do you think will happen when Trump begins deporting them en masse? Overnight, he will turn the eleven million into desperate fugitives who have nothing to lose. That will cause many of them to disappear, at the slightest rumor or provocation, from your local slaughterhouse, restaurant, or hotel—or from tending your garden or your children. If will cause some, maybe many, to turn to crime and violence, because they will fear incarceration and deportation if they go to their normal places of work.

Want eleven million desperadoes among us? Vote for Trump. Desperate people do desperate things, and Trump will turn our eleven million into desperadoes.

So we have a guy who encourages assassination and political violence, and whose policies have war and violence as their natural consequences. Think your neighborhood will be safe if he’s elected? Better be ready for your “Second-Amendment solution.” You’ll be on your own. Only the trigger-happy hotheads among us will be happy; Trump will make every day a field day for them, and a nightmare for you.

4. A Trump regime will be utterly unpredictable. The only thing you can know in advance about a Trump regime is that you won’t know anything reliable in advance. Almost everything Trump has said, he has later contradicted or back-pedaled. He still insists that Mexico will pay for his wall, but President Peña Nieto gave him the lie. After budget authorities ridiculed his $ 2 trillion tax cut as breaking the bank, he no longer touts it. Now at long last he has repudiated his bald lie that Obama is an alien, which gave him his start in politics, but he lyingly blames Hillary for starting the lie. That man has no shame, decency, or memory of what he did yesterday.

The truth is that Trump is a scatterbrain worthy of his own sitcom. After spending eighteen months interviewing him, his biographer had this to say about him:
”[I]t’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes . . . . If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time[.]”
Such a man can be manipulated or controlled by cleverer, more purposeful men. Think of Dubya and Cheney. If you want to see someone like Mitch McConnell in effective charge of the Executive Branch, help Trump win by voting for someone other than Hillary.

5. A Trump presidency will be built on lies. We now know how Trump got his start in politics: with a brazen lie, the so-called “birther” conspiracy. We know it from Trump’s own mouth; under great pressure from his fellow Republicans, he has admitted that Obama’s alien birth was a lie from the very beginning.

There are other lies, too. One is that Mexico will pay for his wall. The only way that will happen is if Trump threatens to nuke Mexico otherwise. (Mexico has no nukes of its own.) Want that?

But the birther lie alone should give everyone pause. For five years, Trump maintained it, knowing it was a deliberate, conscious, premeditated falsehood. Trump also knew that telling the lie would give him a bizarre start in politics—in which he had no experience—-and tear down a good President who did.

The closest analogy to our own recent history was Cheney’s Big Lies: that Saddam had something to do with 9/11, and that Iraq was making nukes. The closest analogy in world history was Adolf Hitler’s lie that Jews in Germany were conspiring to undermine its economy and society.

Cheney’s Big Lies have produced 4,424 American dead, 31,952 American wounded, an estimated 1.5 millions Iraqis dead, millions more displaced, and the annihilation of Syria and diaspora of Syrians. Hitler’s big lie produced the Holocaust. Trump’s big lie already has caused an orgy of hate for an American president unprecedented since our Civil War. What new lies will Trump tell as president, and what consequences will they have?

6. We already had one Hitler; we don’t need a second. The Russians have a saying. If you are gardening and step on the short end of a rake, the long handle will rise up and hit you in the head. If you do that once, it’s tough luck. It you do it twice, you are stupid.

The rake, in this case, is a political actor who promotes and endorses violence, who has no consistent programs or policies, who scapegoats and bashes minorities, and who tells outrageous Big Lies to promote himself and delude voters. We humans already have stepped on such a rake. His name was Adolf Hitler.

To the German people at the time, Hitler seemed an antidote to disarray and unjust international ostracism for Germany’s role in World War I. But Hitler utterly destroyed Germany for over half a century. What once had been a leading society in math, science, technology, industry and the arts was reduced to forlorn people scrabbling through rubble. [If you want only a small dose, set the timer at 5:00.]

We humans ought not to step on that rake a second time. We especially ought not to do so in the world’s strongest economy, with the world’s strongest military, let alone in the nuclear age.

If you don’t believe this election is different, think of just two things. Trump wonders why we have nukes that we don’t use. And Trump wants to deport eleven million peaceful Mexicans—something no country, let alone ours, has ever done before. (Stalin deported millions internally inside the Soviet Union, in the runup to World War II. But to my knowledge no single deportation involved as many as eleven million people.)

If Trump’s musings actually come to pass, they could produce new heights of human brutality and depravity. If nukes are involved, they could extinguish part or all of our species.

7. Despite her flaws, Hillary promises much more. She may have lied about her e-mails at State. She may have issues with “transparency.” But on her worst day, Hillary is infinitely better than Trump.

Three things we know about Hillary, and all are good. First, she had nothing to do with the deaths of our diplomats in Benghazi. After years of profligate investigation, the final report cleared her. Second, she has repented of her hasty and ill-advised support for Dubya’s unnecessary war in Iraq, which is still ongoing and still involves our troops. Third, counting her terms in the Senate and as Secretary of State, and ignoring her eight years as First Lady, she has twelve years of public service; Trump has none.

In comparison to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton will be a comedown. She has neither Obama’s sure and steady judgment nor his preternatural political skill. We will miss Obama’s presidency, terribly.

But an actual third term of Obama is not in the cards. Our Constitution precludes it, except for succession from a Cabinet position he does not now hold, after some unimaginable disaster. So we must accept the best we have.

Hillary is the best we have. For progressives, she’s the second-best candidate in the entire field of both parties, save Bernie. She beat Bernie fair and square, and she’s now the Dem’s candidate. A lot of people, including many women and almost all African-Americans, have enthusiasm for her.

Second best is not bad, especially when the alternative is a Hitler clone. So the adult thing to do is to buck up, accept reality, and vote for Hillary. If enough of us don’t act like adults this fall, we Yanks could experience a next half-century much as the Germans did from 1939 to 1989.

Some people seem to prefer Trump because he’s so willful and bizarre that he will “shake things up.” But isn’t that precisely what Hitler did in Germany? If you have any older German friends, ask them how that worked for them.

8. Hillary is a Democrat, and a pretty progressive one, too. She may not be as progressive as Bernie, but she was among the more progressive senators. You can often tell a pol by her opposition: Hillary is anathema to the haters, the war-mongers, the crooked bankers, and the gun nuts. At least they all appear to want anyone but her, even Trump.

Whatever you may think, or not think, about her character, Hillary is on record as supporting four vital things that every Dem and progressive desires. First, she recognizes global warming as the existential threat to humankind that it is. She wants to fight it by converting to clean energy, and by creating millions of good, new jobs. Second, she’s for “fiscal stimulus,” i.e., putting our middle class back to work by investing in infrastructure, clean energy and better education. Third, she supports winding down our massive student debt and working to give our youth free or nearly free higher education in the future, just as my generation had.

Finally—and most important—Hillary will appoint justices to our Supreme Court who will protect our rights and the rights of minorities and women, and who will chip away at our rigged economic system. Those she will appoint won’t eliminate inequality and injustice overnight. But those that Trump would appoint would entrench and exacerbate inequality and injustice for the foreseeable future.

As many as three justices might retire or die during the next four years. Just imagine what three new, young, strong, arrogant and self-assured Scalias would do to our economy, our equality, our human rights, and our democracy. Our nation would never be the same again. We would become a plutocratic theocracy with a gigantic underclass.

9. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a sacred duty, and Hillary is the best available. Waiting for the perfect candidate is like waiting for the perfect spouse. There’s no such thing. You have to accept the best available, and the best who can actually win.

We have names for people who hold out for the perfect spouse. We call them “bachelors” or “old maids.” We also have names for people who hold out for the perfect candidate for president. We call them “citizens of a failed democracy.”

Some of us refused to vote for Al Gore and gave us Dubya. So we got two unnecessary wars, which are still ongoing and still killing our troops thirteen or more years later. We got bank bailouts and obscene inequality. We got Citizens United and a horribly corrupt excuse for democracy.

With Trump, the dangers are far greater than ever before. He would not just continue our obscene inequality and our national decline. He would jump feet first into the pit, heedless of science, global warming, military risk and even common sense. He is eager to lower taxes on himself and other rich folk and give more unchecked power to himself and his cronies.

Never before have we had a candidate who has zero political experience. Never before have we had a candidate hint twice at assassinating his opponent. Never before have we had a candidate who mused aloud about using nukes, and who so resembles Hitler. If there was ever a time to vote for the lesser of two evils enthusiastically, this is it.

10. If you don’t vote for Hillary, and Trump wins, you will regret it, big time. The Crash of 2008 and its aftermath have been hard on youth. Good jobs are scarce. Lots of college-educated youth are unemployed or underemployed and living with their parents. Most are burdened by massive student debt that their present jobs could never justify.

But if you think this is bad as it can get, you need to read some history. The Great Depression was many times as bad as the Crash of 2008: unemployment reached 25% and stayed high for over a decade. Then came World War II, which killed over 400,000 Americans and wounded many more. For four years, ordinary citizens had to use ration cards to buy everything from food to tires and gasoline. Loyal Japanese-Americans were Interned here at home, and their property was confiscated, while their sons fought the Nazis in Europe. Loyal African-Americans who fought bravely on both fronts faced Jim Crow after they won and came home.

And if you want to see what things might be like at home if Trump wins and the worst happens, go read a history of our Civil War. Still today, that war was responsible for about as many deaths of Americans as all the foreign wars in our history, including our Revolution.

So don’t believe the pessimists. It’s not so bad today, and it could get a lot worse. There are worse things than underemployment. There’s war abroad that drags us Yanks in and requires millions of us to fight, not just tens of thousands. There’s violence in our own communities, not just due to terrorism, but to Yank turning against Yank. There’s literal darkness that may come from returning to coal and other fossil fuels, which pollute our air while the seas rise, hurricanes and tornados increase in number and strength, and the fuels that now power our civilization begin to run out.

There’s sitting at home and watching helplessly as inequality increases, the homeless take over our streets, and militarized police take over our cities. There’s watching one minority after another succumb to prejudice, incarceration and injustice until there’s no one left.

These things have happened in other lands. They are real. They are dismal parts of human history. We have even had small vignettes here at home, such as the police and army killing striking workers in the early twentieth century, the Japanese Internment in World War II, and the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.

So things could get a lot worse. If Trump wins this election, they will. To escape that sad fate, every sentient creature must register, vote, and vote for Hillary.

Hold your nose while voting if you must. But do it. If you don’t, and if Trump wins, you will be sure to regret it. The regret will start the minute you have to salute The Orange One as your Commander in Chief, and the minute you realize he has his scatterbrained fingers on our Nuclear Button. And if you’re young today, that regret and remorse will continue for the rest of your sorry life, because the sad consequences of Trump’s misrule will far outlast his single term. The misguided justices he would appoint to our High Court would continue to rule us for decades.

11. If everyone who polls today as voting for Johnson or Stein voted for Hillary and downballot Democrats, the Dems could have a three-branch sweep. If you’re 35 or under today, you’ve never seen American government in action. All you’ve seen is gridlock and posturing. The reason is simple: ever since you became old enough to vote, that same party that controlled the White House never controlled Congress. (For a short time during Obama’s first term, the GOP claimed the Dems did, but that claim, like that of Mark Twain’s premature death, was greatly exaggerated.)

So your “experience” tells you that government does nothing for you. You have become jaded and cynical.

Yet all this could change overnight if Hillary got to the White House and took both branches of Congress for the Dems. Then you could have everything in her and the Dems’ platform. You could have single-payer health insurance. Regardless of your age and employment status, you could buy into Medicare, and your insurance would be portable. You could have free tuition at public colleges in your state. You could enjoy the new, green jobs that would arise from massive investment in our infrastructure and in fighting global warming, complete with ramp-ups in solar and wind power, electric cars and safe nuclear power. You could enjoy the better job prospects and improved health that would come from greater investment in medical and other scientific research. You could be sure that our Supreme Court would protect your rights, the rights of working people, the rights of women, and the rights of minorities, including Muslims and Mexicans. You could rest easy that you or yours wouldn’t have to go to war because a strong, experienced leader would work with strong allies to insure a stable and peaceful world. You and our nation would have a secure future leading our species where it must go to survive and prosper in a sustainable way.

The only things that stand between you and that bright future are Donald Trump and your own cynicism. You can’t control Trump. You can’t even predict what bizarre thing he’ll say or do next. But you can quell your cynicism, vote for Hillary, and vote for every other Democrat on your ballot.

That’s the best you can do, but it’s a lot more than nothing. If enough of us do just that—and if we don’t throw our votes away on symbolic candidates with no chance of winning—we will all wake up January 21 with Hillary in the White House, a Democratic Congress, and a progressive and enlightened future. We can take back our country from the racists, do-nothings, plutocrats and “deplorables” and put it back on a hopeful, pragmatic path. To get there, all you have to do is get practical yourself, and vote for the best candidate who can win, from the top to the bottom of your ballot.


16 September 2016

Uncertainty and Error Bars in “News”

[For a recent post on why Hillary needs to increase her empathy rating, click here. For a brief comment on the quickest and easiest way to restore our democracy, click here.]

One of the hardest things for non-scientists to stomach is that everything we humans think we know is uncertain, at least to some degree. Understanding the fact of that uncertainty is crucial to understanding ourselves and our world. Quantifying the extent of that uncertainty is the beginning of wisdom.

Scientists and engineers know uncertainty. It’s part of what they do every day. In reading a paper in science or engineering, more often than not you will see numbers and graphs presented with so-called “error bars,” indicating their uncertainty.

For example, consider an “exoplanet” thought to be orbiting a distant star. Astronomers infer its existence from minute variations in the light coming from that star. So you might see the planet’s radius expressed as 3 ± 0.5 ER. That means we think it has about three times our Earth’s radius, plus or minus one-half. As far as we really know, it could have anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 Earth radii.

The quantity ± 0.5, read “plus or minus oh point five,” we call the “error bars.” The upper and lower limit it expresses is that within which we expect the actual value to fall. Anything within that range is consistent with our current human knowledge, at least as expressed in that paper.

The same concepts apply to the “dismal science” of economics. For example, quarterly GDP growth projections often come with error bars, such as 0.5 ± 1 %. That means the next quarter’s GDP could grow by up to 1.5% or slow as much as 0.5%—and perhaps begin a weak recession. (An “official” recession requires two consecutive quarters of slowing GDP growth.)

Another key application of uncertainty is in public-opinion polling. Pollsters can’t possibly poll all voters, let alone everybody in the nation. Even if they tried, the poll would take so long to conduct that many people would change their opinions in the interim. So pollsters only contact small “samples” of the public, typically one or two thousand subjects. That’s out of a nation of 319 million, or at most 0.006%.

When you have a sample that small compared to the total polling “universe,” you have to work hard to be sure your sample is “representative” of the whole universe. If not, your poll might be meaningless.

It wouldn’t be too hard, for example, to find 1,000 or 2,000 people all of whom want to vote for Trump, Hilary, or any of the two fringe candidates. Then you’d have a 100% polling result that would be 100% meaningless.

The mathematics of statistics and probability help us avoid this sort of gross error. They help us find samples that we think are representative of the whole polling “universe” and so give useful results. The same math also helps us calculate the error bars for polling results, i.e., the amount of error we can expect simply because our polling sample is a small fraction of all the voters whose opinions, in theory, we seek.

The error bars in polling typically depend primarily on the size of the sample (number of voters) relative to the size of the whole “universe,” for example state voters in a state election or federal voters in a national election. We calculate the error bars based on the notion that our small sample is chosen randomly from the universe. In other words, we use probability theory to calculate what our most likely range of error would be if we did the same polling over and over again with different samples of the same small size, all chosen randomly from the same universe.

Error bars in public-opinion polling are typically around ±3%. Why? Because most pollsters tend to use roughly the same sample size. To use bigger samples would cause delay and raise costs as compared competitors’ polling. So everyone seems to have settled on sample sizes of, at most, a few thousand people.

When you review the results of presidential election polling, you need to keep this all in mind. When the newspapers say the race is “neck and neck,” that could mean anything from Hillary wins by 3% to Trump wins by 3%.

But even that’s far from all the uncertainty. Statistics is not a ouija board. It doesn’t have magic powers. It predicts error bars correctly only when all errors in polling are random—arising only from the small size of the polling sample compared to the polling universe.

But suppose the errors are not random, but systematic? What then?

Students of history will recall that great photo of Democrat Harry Truman, as president elect, holding up a newspaper headlined “Dewey Defeats Truman.” That bad call from the wire services arose from systematic, not random, error. The pollsters had reached their conclusions by telephoning their subjects. But at that time, in 1948, more well-off people, who were Republicans, had telephones than poorer Democrats. So their polling sample was biased systematically toward Republicans, not just off-base randomly.

This year’s bizarre presidential election has several big sources of systematic error. Some are technological and some are social.

There are two sources of technological error. The first is the explosive rise of smart phones and the consequent abandonment of land lines, especially by youth. The second is the equally explosive rise of robo-marketing and various strategies to avoid it. Smart phones and caller ID now allow consumers to screen calls and avoid taking those from unknown sources. The explosion of robo-calling and the annoyance and waste of time it involves give them big incentives not to answer calls from unknown sources.

Under these circumstances, busy workers in mid-career (and maybe raising families) are unlikely even to respond to telephone polls. Those most likely to pick up the phone are, in this order: the unemployed, the elderly, and youth out of jobs and school with time on their hands. Think these groups might favor Trump?

In this unprecedented and bizarre election, there are also unique social causes of systematic bias. All come from strong incentives for voters not to reveal, or to reveal, their tentative choices. All arise also from strong feelings about each “mainstream” candidate.

One I call the “Yes, Dear” factor. There must be many women eager to vote for the first serious female candidate for president but reluctant to let their husbands, cohabitants, friends or even children know. If they get a call at home while doing household chores in the presence of family or friends, they might say “undecided,” or even “Trump,” rather than provoke an argument. But we know for whom they’ll vote.

Similar factors apply in Trump’s favor. He is so controversial and so despised by many that some polled voters will undoubtedly say “undecided” or “Hillary” just to avoid an argument over voting for him.

The opposite may be true as well. Trump’s entire candidacy is little more than a shout of anger and angst on the part of the white lower middle class. The angry ones are quite likely to answer “Trump!” vehemently to any pollster. But, after they’ve done so, who’s to say they might not reconsider, weeks later, before going to the polls? Having gotten that off their chests to the pollster, who’s to say they might not simmer down and take a closer look?

No math or probability theory can take these social and psychological factors into account. There is no sample (but one too large to poll practically) that can probe them. This is why polls from reputable polling organizations vary so widely and so consistently. In this election, polls’ real error bars are probably ±6% or ±7%.

They may be as high as ±10%, making them useless except as a marketing tool for news media. As sage observers have said for months now, the only poll that matters is the one on November 8. Until that day is done, no one should be sure or complacent about this election.

In any event, we ought not delude ourselves that error bars are the last word in uncertainty. Not all important information is quantitative, and not all quantitative information lends itself to easy calculation of error bars.

It’s vital that news media report the real uncertainty of non-quantitative information, too. A stellar example of doing so is today’s New York Times article on North Korea and its recent big nuclear test. (Choe Sang-Hun, “Always on Alert for Nuclear Tests and Unprintable Rumors,” NYT Sept. 16, 2016, at A4.)

At first glance, the article provides little new information about that test or North Korea’s nuclear program. But that’s not the article’s purpose. Its main point is to explain why news from North Korea is so uncertain and why that fact is unlikely soon to change. In essence, North Korea bars news media and restricts reporters inside it, and so it, the South and pols and reporters in both places spread unsubstantiated rumors to advance their own agendas. Thus it’s hard, if not impossible, for a reporter adhering to the New York Times’ standards of verification to get much news at all.

That short article on North Korea was one of the best non-quantitative treatments of uncertainty in news reporting that I have ever read. It should be required reading in every school of journalism, worth at least an entire class session of discussion. For it illustrates an essential truth: uncertainty is often the only story worth telling. To ignore it in North Korea or this election would be as bad a failure of journalism as falsely equating the “negatives” of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Endnote: For anyone interested in the subject of uncertainty, a recent book available for electronic download from Amazon is must reading. It’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions fail but Some Don’t, by Nate Silver. A sometime New York Times reporter now doing mostly his own thing, Silver has written the definitive modern work for non-specialists on unceratinty and our feeble attempts to deal with it using statistics and probability theory. It’s a good read for anyone involved in public affairs, whether new to these subjects or an old but rusty hand like myself.


13 September 2016

The Empathy Gap

[For an easy way to save our democracy if and after we dispose of Trump, click here.]
    “To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” —Hillary Clinton, Sept. 9, 2016
Why do our media and campaigns obsess about gaffes that have little or no implication for policy? Because many voters have no basis for evaluating policy or competence. So they judge candidates—especially those for president—mostly on character.

Voters aren’t generally trained in abstract thinking. Most don’t stay informed—at least at any level of detail required to master policy. Many are swayed by the rawest, most unhelpful emotions, including tribalism, fear, scapegoating and nationalism. But they can and do judge any candidate’s character.

John Kerry’s loss to Dubya in 2004 proved that competence can’t trump character. Kerry was (and is) a smart, diligent, honorable and extremely hard-working public servant. His success in closing the Iran nuclear deal showed that. But he’s also stiff as a board, aloof and formal. His old New England virtues prevented him from defending himself against a pack of lies about his wartime service. So Dubya won, with some help from voters’ reluctance to change horses in midstream.

Al Gore probably sealed his electoral doom—and our recent national fate—during the presidential debates, when he sighed and rolled his eyes at one of Dubya’s routine stupidities. He often sounded like a college professor, and highly educated people loved him. But most voters are not highly educated. They put themselves in Dubya’s position, saw their “teacher” dissing them, and voted accordingly.

Romney had much less chance than Gore from the very beginning. But he sealed his fate by tarring 47% of all voters as “takers,” i.e., social and economic parasites. That, of course, was Political Error 1A: you tar the other candidate, not his voters, whom you want to vote for you.

Hillary’s “deplorables” gaffe made the very same mistake. For a grizzled pol like her, it was a rare rookie error.

Now she can apologize and backtrack all she wants, but few will listen. At least those she labeled “deplorables” won’t. They won’t listen any more than Mexican immigrants that Trump labeled murderers and rapists listen to the coda of his famous anti-Mexican rant: “And some, I assume, are good people.” Some things you can’t take back.

Empathy is perhaps the most powerful human character trait. It—and not our big brains, opposable thumbs, or language skills—is what makes human civilization possible. Nelson Mandela used it to negotiate an end to Apartheid and freedom for his people from inside a prison cell. Barack Obama used it to sweep into office over a tide of racism. Since character decides elections and empathy is a pol’s most valuable single character trait, you might say that it matters.

Is there an empathy gap in this election? At first glance, you might say no. Both candidates have huge negatives, and both have legions of voters who abhor them.

But dig deeper, and you find something strange. Beneath his scatterbrained, narcissistic braggadocio and egotism, Trump does seem to have some feeling for ordinary workers and their plight. He speaks their language. He laments their loss of jobs and self-respect. He appeals to their sense of grievance. He promises to fix what ails them. His empathy is bizarrely egotistic, but it seems genuine.

Of course no one with a sense of reality believes that Mexico will pay for his wall. Nor can anyone with an iota of economic training avoid fearing his plan to deport eleven million undocumented workers. Not only will that destroy innumerable innocent families and disrupt innumerable workplaces. It will also raise prices and invite native-born Americans to take the place of immigrants in our new class of serfs.

But Trump’s voters don’t have a good sense of reality or economic training. They have a sense of grievance and want someone to empathize with them, preferably someone in a position of power sufficient to do something about their grievances.

It’s among those people and their fellow travelers that Hillary’s “deplorables” comment stings. So do her oft-reported habits of hobnobbing with the rich, soaking them for campaign contributions, and relaxing and joking with them alone. She can coo like any grandmother in one-on-one meetings with grieving voters, but on the stump or the podium she exudes the aura of a nouveau riche who has turned her back on her origins. If she can’t fix that, and soon, she could lose this election.

The ultimate fault is one of several fundamental design flaws in our “exceptional” democracy. Unlike every parliamentary democracy, we don’t elect our supreme leader through representatives. Our people elect him directly—or our “electors” must vote for the popular choice, which is the same thing.

We compounded the error when our political parties took nominating candidates out of the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of seasoned pols and into direct primaries. Those smoke-filled rooms were the last bastion between us and the pathetic exercise in gossip and demagoguery that our election campaigns have become.

But Hillary can’t change that system. She has to master it.

There is no better guide for her doing so than Michelle Obama’s speech—the best of both parties’ conventions. After showing empathy for children of all people, Michelle sought it from her viewers. “I wake up every morning,” she said, “in a house that was built by slaves.”

Thus Michelle sought empathy for the crushing job of being a Jackie Robinson, Mohammed Ali, Thurgood Marshall, Harvey Milk, Tim Cook, or any other human being who has had to break a terrible tribal barrier. At the same time, she lauded the still-limitless possibilities of our nation and our ability to “form a more perfect Union.”

Well, you say, Michelle wasn’t actually running for anything. But her speech nevertheless made a vital point. As long your invitation to empathy doesn’t shade into self-pity, asking for empathy makes you more human and your own empathy more genuine. Empathy is a two-way street.

Unfortunately, Hillary doesn’t seem to understand that point. Her apology for supporting Dubya’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, like her apology for trying to control information at State from a private server, seemed far from genuine. She sounded like a child asked to apologize for stealing her sister’s share of cookies.

The reason badly done apologies hurt so much is that apologies are exercises in empathy. Everyone knows that you can’t change what you’ve done by apologizing. But you can show empathy for those you wronged. You can implicitly promise to do better. And you can seek others’ empathy for an honest mistake and for your own human fallibility.

Hillary does seem to “care” about ordinary people’s woes. At least she works hard to devise credible plans to fix them. But somehow genuine empathy, if she has any, gets lost in the details and a haze of noblesse oblige.

If Hillary is to win this election, let alone make a three-branch sweep, all this must change. She’s not responsible for the vast blunders in governmental structure that have turned our elections into Roman bread and circuses. But she and her campaign staff must make her seem more like Michelle Obama and less like a female Al Gore stepping in as headmistress. If she can do that, she just might save us from decaying into empire, with our very own Nero or Caligula at the helm.

Endnote: bringing back smoke-filled rooms

If a genie gave me one wish to save our Republic, I wouldn’t abolish filibusters. I wouldn’t repeal the so-called “Hastert Rule,” which gives us minority rule in our House. I wouldn’t even wish away Citizens United.

Instead, I would bring back smoke-filled rooms. I would have seasoned, savvy party elders pick the short list for every primary election from school board to president. I would have us do what every parliamentary democracy does: let people who know the candidates and have seen them close up and in action for years or decades screen the list before the people vote.

If we had had that system last summer, Trump would be on no one’s list. Neither would Cruz, whom most of his colleagues hate. Ben Carson would have remained an occasional pontificator for Fox. Chris Christie would have been out as too vindictive, and Carly Fiorina as lacking in relevant experience. John Kasich might have had a chance, although the elders probably would have cut Marco Rubio as too young and inexperienced. So we would have had a GOP field of people who actually held public office and did something.

As compared to direct primaries, smoke-filled rooms have four signal advantages. First, savvy, experienced professionals, who know the candidates intimately through long professional experience and contact, pick the short list. They know each candidate’s intelligence, character and weaknesses like family members, maybe even better. They don’t rely on the “judgment” of marginal electors who tune in two weeks before the election and get their information from TV ads and Internet slanders. (Doesn’t that sort of system give ad makers extraordinary power, not to mention the contributors who finance the ads?)

Second, the party elders who chose the short list would have the incentive and leisure to consider both positive and negative information. They wouldn’t, like a demagogued electorate, be bombarded incessantly with gobs of mud.

Third, selection by a committee of elders would encourage intra-party disclipline and cooperation. If you’re too much of a rebel and outsider (like Cruz), you’d never get nominated. So you’d learn to cooperate and compromise inside your party as you rose within it, and those skills would be useful outside the party, too.

Forth, the compromise and cooperation required to secure nomination would encourage moderation, and that moderation would slop over into inter-party affairs. It might foster bipartisan cooperation and compromise, perhaps even “getting things done.”

In contrast, today’s incentives are quite the opposite. If you are an effective demagogue like Trump or Cruz, you can march to your own tune, refuse to obey party leadership, and refuse to compromise with anyone, inside or outside your party. That, of course, is a recipe for anarchy, not democracy, which is precisely what we have now.

The nice thing about smoke-filled rooms is that we can bring them back without amending our Constitution. We might do most of the job just by changing internal party rules, although some amendment of federal election statutes might be necessary. If the GOP loses this election badly, as everyone expects, we might actually see some movement in this direction next year.