Thursday, October 20, 2016

The last of the debates

Whew: the last debate is over. In the first one I was nervous that Clinton might succumb to Trump's personal attacks, or somehow be too wordy, or start up her crazy smile or ... whatever. Who could have foreseen that Trump would be so completely awful, or that Clinton would neatly eviscerate him with the story of the former Miss Universe (as usual we didn't get to hear from the Venusians and Martians, or the women from Alpha Centauri III). How great was that, and his later Twitter insanity?

In the second debate, of course, we couldn't wait to have the "tape from the bus" discussed. Clinton was not great, but Trump was worse, and the tape "spoke" for itself.

But what could happen at this third and final confrontation? Would Trump, at the urging of his handlers, finally overwhelm her with his "populist" (in this case bull sh*t) take on everything? Would he go over, calmly and verbatim, some of the Wikileaks leaks of her conversations with Goldman Sachs honchos et. al. and make her look like a financial-sector groupie? Would he say, with humility, that he would abide by vox populi on election eve? Not to worry. Clinton was not only prepared with dignified and believable statements on abortion, the 2nd Amendment, Isis etc., but she had jabs that, I think, drew blood. She compared her work in the Senate and State Department with Trump's work on The Celebrity Apprentice. Then she really started to bully him. She pointed out his dependence on conspiracy theories to explain his varied failures (losses in some primaries, diving poll numbers, and, especially vexing to him, the failure of his TV show to win an Emmy. (Walking into the trap, he interrupted "Should have gotten it". Wow!) She sniped that, under her tax plans, her Social Security withholding would go up, as would his unless he could "figure a way to get out of it." That's when he uttered the now famous T-shirt line: "Such a nasty woman."  Beautiful!

Okay, there was all of this, but the thing that the pundits and probably most other people took away from this Trump hog-tying was his failure to at least give lip service to the apres-vote "will of the American People" stuff. Yes, that was a major error unforced by Clinton, and from which the moderator Chris Wallace gave him ample time to recover. The important thing to remember here, I think, is that this idiocy doesn't so much prove that Trump is unfit to be President, but rather that Trump's general unfitness to be anything resembling a decent person led to this idiocy. 

There should be some "Heavenly Court" which hears the case for his humanity and renders the verdict "You're Fired."

Monday, October 17, 2016

Jeffrey Sachs on Free Trade and more on Jeffrey Sachs

Today's Boston Globe has a two page article by Jeffrey Sachs of The Center for Sustainable Development (Columbia University) on free trade pacts such as NAFTA and TPP. This is a very nicely organized summary about what is good and bad about these agreements; it can be useful for organizing one's thoughts and arguments. Here is a link: The Truth About Trade

By the way, Jeffrey Sachs was one of the group of Harvard people who advised members of the Russian government under Yeltsin about converting what was left of the Russian state economy to some version of "private enterprise". Although Sachs seems to have avoided the scandal, this group of Harvard economists and economic "advisors" seems to have done real damage to the prospect of an orderly and legal transition to "western capitalism" in the former Soviet Union (esp in Russia). In fact, the rise of the so-called Russian "oligarchs" who made a mockery of "free market capitalism" is arguably traceable to the early influences of these Harvard folks (who include, incidentally, Larry Summers, former Harvard president and member of Obama's cabinet). They used the cover of the Harvard Institute for International Development, with the at least tacit support of the Clinton Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to work with Yeltsin's economic "czar" Anatoly Chubais to privatize (i.e. loot) the assets of the Russian state. Later, two of this group (neither Summers nor Sachs) were accused of using their connections with corrupt Russians for their own profits. You can read more in this story from The Nation.

You may want to look at this posting for more on Larry Summers' role in this. It claims that Harvard's loss of a related lawsuit was an important if not determining factor in his dismissal as Harvard president.

Of course you won't hear much of these misdeeds of big-government and big-business (and big-higher-education) in the Tea Party version of reality, but truth meanders in and out of Republican and Democratic (and Tea Party) histories. It's not just Donald Trump who was involved with Russian oligarchs... 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"It's the Supreme Court Stupid"

It seems to me that the real crucial item in this year's election is the Supreme Court. We've had a conservative-majority court now for a generation, and it has done some pretty conservative things -- radical changes to the Voting-Rights act and the Citizens United decision. Filling Scalia's now vacant seat can change that very quickly. And, of course, there's the tenuous life of Roe v. Wade. This is the main reason, I think, that the presidential election has made a lot of otherwise sane Republicans swallow Donald Trump. There are vast financial and social stakes here. The same is true for the religious right. They all know Trump is a sinner, but they can swallow what he has to offer if he can put another conservative on the Court.

(Note that I'm not talking here about the hard-core Trump supporters who simply love the guy.)

Why the Tea Party?

The latest issue of The American Prospect contains a very fine review by editor Robert Kuttner of several books whose authors try to explain the reasons why so many Americans support the Tea Party (and Donald Trump). Rather than try to summarize, let me just post the link:

One of the authors, Arlie Russell Hochschild, quotes a Louisiana bayou resident:

" The state always seems to come down on the little guy. Take this bayou. If your motorboat leaks a little gas into the water, the warden’ll write you up. But if companies leak thousands of gallons of it and kill all the life here? The state lets them go. If you shoot an endangered brown pelican, they’ll put you in jail. But if a company kills the brown pelican by poisoning the fish he eats? They let it go. I think they overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top. "

As Kuttner points out, this could have been written by Bernie Sanders... 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Who wins debates?

Conservative economists generally define the value of goods or services (including securities) as the price set for them by "the market". It is an elegant definition which, of course, dovetails nicely with their reverence for "the market" and its judgements. 

(Of course, the word "value" already has a whole set of meanings which include moral, ethical, aesthetic and historical considerations, all of which can be applied to goods, services, and behaviors. Thus, by emphasizing the monetary judgement of "the market", they are subtly suggesting that these other ways of describing value are somehow secondary or derivative to market monetization -- when, in fact, the reverse is mostly the case.)

I was thinking -- in a Milton Friedman moment -- that maybe the winner of a debate could be defined simply as the person that the polls ultimately show to come out on top. At least for political debates, after all, the purpose of the verbal jousting is to convince people to vote for a particular candidate, party, or program. If you can do this, then you've accomplished your aim, and if you can't, you've failed in what is most important to you.

Thus, following this idea, it doesn't really matter what pundits or talking heads say about a debate -- unless, of course, what they say convinces enough people who listen to them to support the person or cause advocated by one of the debaters. It all comes out in the public opinion wash, and makes it easy to make a neat determination of a winner.

However, just as with the facile market-based definition of value, there are problems because words in long-time, common usage have meanings which formal and slick re-definitions don't capture. If a debater lies and most of the audience believes those lies, is that what we mean by "winning"? Maybe yes, if one is cynical enough. Maybe no, but then one has a more complicated task of defining "winning".

Needless to say, last night's vice-presidential debate made me give some thought to this. On the basis of style, annoyance factor, and other aesthetic judgements, I and many commentators initially agreed that Mike Pence "won" the debate. He was cooler, somewhat more congenial, and didn't interrupt his opponent Tim Kaine very often; Kaine, on the other hand, had a dogged, wise-guy, somewhat sneering aggressiveness about him that was certainly off-putting to many. So Pence won, right?

Well, not so fast. What, after all, did viewers themselves think? We don't know, since no "scientific" polls have yet appeared? Suppose when they do, we find that most viewers liked Pence. So Pence won, right? Well, not so fast. Suppose that in the next week or so Hillary Clinton's poll numbers climb -- or even remain about the same (much higher than Trump's). Arguably her surrogate, Tim Kaine, accomplished his objective, namely to keep the electorate's attention focused on Trump's awfulness. In addition, fact checkers have already pointed out that Pence's claims that he and Trump never said or did the things Kaine said they did are demonstrably (i.e. by video) false. Did Pence still win the debate? Was this, after all, a debate about the likeability of Kaine vs. Pence? Was it about concrete proposals on the economy or war and peace?

I wish Kaine were more likeable (and that he pointed out Pence's basic intolerance, for which he outdoes Ted Cruz). Nevertheless, the question of who "won" the debate does not have a clear answer. And, of course, as Nate Silver and Co. suggest, the whole debate will be discussed and evaluated (and be remembered) for at most one news cycle, then it really doesn't matter very much (maybe).

Just wondering...

Monday, October 3, 2016

How things have turned out ... so far

In a previous blog (last April) I suggested that the Democrats were pursuing the wrong strategy is trying to oppose Trump before the Republican convention. My reasoning was that other candidates were worse (e.g. Ted Cruz) in terms of what they stood for, and most would likely turn out to be stronger opponents of Clinton (who was considered the Democratic frontrunner at the time).

At least for the moment this analysis turned out to be correct. Polls showed that Clinton had a huge lead after her nomination, then that lead largely dissipated during the summer when Trump enjoyed a lot of his press attention while Clinton campaigned rather listlessly. However, many of the things Trump said were simply not subjected to much mass-media scrutiny or fact-checking. To put it simply, people were simply not acquainted with how much of a bully, liar, and general jerk he really is. Some needed to have this pointed out to them in capital letters -- which he himself, it turns out, was more than willing to do during and immediately after the first debate.

There probably is no point in going over all the things that have come out about Trump in the past few weeks. He is so obviously a fraud and embarrassment that almost every day a new newspaper has come out either endorsing Clinton or condemning Trump. These newspapers include many conservative ones that have been staunchly Republican for a century or more, such as the Dallas Morning News and Arizona Republic. Here's what happened. The American Press has been very timid, even cowardly. Most papers and news shows seem to believe that "even-handedness" means either not criticizing either party or candidate, or giving equal time and equal weight to any differences of opinion or contrary assertions, even when it is possible to demonstrate actual truth or falsehood on one side. In the first confrontation between Clinton and Trump, a "Presidential Forum" in early September where the candidates did not confront each other but appeared in separate halves of the program, the "moderator" Matt Lauer of NBC was clearly cowed by Trump and refused to call him out on several well-known lies -- e.g. that Trump had "always" opposed the invasion of Iraq. Lauer's performance was roundly criticized throughout the media. It was around this time that the NY Times described some of Trump's answers as "stretching the truth" (as did other news sources). This also provoked the criticism that a lie is a lie, and is not best described as stretching the truth. Since then the Times has described Trump's lies exactly as such. Though Trump seems comfortable with Tweeting, he somehow has not absorbed the fact that digital records are kept of just about anything these days (sort of like parking lot video surveillance), and his statements can be retrieved by just about anyone and compared with his descriptions of them.

So, the criticism of Lauer raised expectations for Lester Holt (NBC news anchor) in the first actual debate. These expectations were only partially met when he followed up on a question about why Trump persisted in the "birther" myth long after Obama produced is birth certificate. However, Trump still managed to talk over Holt, though the latter did stick to his guns until he had to move on. On the other hand, Holt allowed Trump to interrupt Clinton about 50 times when she had the "floor".

What moderators need is a "kill" switch that turns off the microphone of debaters when they no longer have the floor -- especially when they are being rude. Why isn't this done? (Answer: The networks and debate "commissions" are cowards, afraid of any loud criticism.)

By this time, I think, the networks, newspapers and even the viewers were beginning to see the reality that Trump, the emperor, indeed has few clothes and rather dull teeth, through which he lies routinely. The timing for the Donald could not have been worse, since the week or so after the debate saw all sorts of facts surface about his taxes (special treatment, failure to pay any), business practices (bankruptcies, stiffing of contractors), attitude toward women (bad), and disregard for laws such as the Cuban embargo (a very sore spot for him in Florida).

If you follow polls -- say through Nate Silver's 538 -- you'll see that Trump is not faring well at all. The media, cowardly at first, are now appropriately giving the bully's treatment to the bully himself.

Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

It ain't over yet, but I'm beginning to be happier with my statements from last April...

Friday, May 6, 2016

R.I.P. Daniel Berrigan

He was a person many of us respected for his anti-war beliefs and for his activism. The religion that informed his pacifist acts was not the religiosity that is easy to despise, but the kind of belief in what is "right" that didn't seem, to me at least, to be religion at all, but a kind of mystical humanism. (I'm sure he would strongly disagree!) Similarly, his anti-abortion stance -- and fight against Planned Parenthood, e.g. -- was not the cheap stance of a Ted Cruz but rather a principled opposition that one could disagree with (as I did and do) but can't dismiss philosophically.

Obit from Boston Globe

Obit from NY Times