Saturday, December 31, 2016

China's next cultural revolution: No more ivory poaching

In an amazing cultural revolution, China Bans Its Ivory Trade, Moving Against Elephant Poaching. The story is from the New York Times.

This, my friends, is a very BFD.

China announced on Friday that it was banning all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, a move that would shut down the world’s largest ivory market and could deal a critical blow to the practice of elephant poaching in Africa.

The decision by China follows years of growing international and domestic pressure and gives wildlife protection advocates hope that the threatened extinction of certain elephant populations in Africa can be averted.

“China’s announcement is a game changer for elephant conservation,” Carter Roberts, the president and chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund, said in a written statement. “With the United States also ending its domestic ivory trade earlier this year, two of the largest ivory markets have taken action that will reverberate around the world.”

According to some estimates, more than 100,000 elephants have been wiped out in Africa over the past 10 years in a ruthless scramble for ivory driven by Chinese demand. Some Chinese investors call ivory “white gold,” while carvers and collectors call it the “organic gemstone.”

Elly Pepper, a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is based in New York, wrote that China’s announcement “may be the biggest sign of hope for elephants since the current poaching crisis began.”

Wildlife advocates have said for years that the most important step in putting poachers out of business would be shutting down the ivory industry in China.

I call it greed. Humans are an invasive species. What we don’t eat, we burn or kill. (Doubt that? See the book The Sixth Extinction.)

Elephants, the real creatures, not the GOF kind, are majestic creatures. In 2014 Mr. and Mrs. Scriber witnessed a charging elephant scare two lions off their kill. Sorry - the elephants are the true kings of the jungle. This last September we filmed infant elephants imitating their elders at a water hole and a group of young males engaged in a bout of play. See the video clips at my other blog site,

Friday, December 30, 2016

Prop 206 (minimum wage) survives GOP assault: AZ Supreme Court declines injunction

Guv Duce and the AZ Chamber of Commerce failed in their attempt to get the Court to stop the increased minimum wage from taking effect on January 1st. Howard Fischer at the Arizona Capitol Times (subscription required) reports that the Arizona Supreme Court declines to block Prop 206. Here are snippets.

More than 700,000 Arizonans will get a wage hike beginning Sunday.

Without comment the state Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a last-ditch bid by the business community, with support from Gov. Doug Ducey and legislative leaders, to delay the effect of Proposition 206. That measure, approved earlier this year by voters on a 58–42 margin, raises the current minimum wage of $8.05 an hour to $10 at the beginning of 2017.

The same initiative eventually increases that to $12 an hour by 2020. And beginning July 1 it requires employers to provide workers with at least three days of paid sick leave each year.

Thursday’s ruling does not end the matter.

The justices have agreed to consider claims by initiative foes that the measure violates a constitutional provision that requires all ballot proposals that result in new state spending to have a dedicated revenue source. But that won’t occur until February, meaning the $10 requirement will remain in place at least until then — if not beyond.

But Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, conceded Thursday that getting an injunction even then could prove difficult.

Arizona court rules provide a multi-part test for judges to consider when deciding whether to enjoin a new law from taking effect. One factor is whether the challengers are likely to prevail after a full-blown court hearing.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Kiley, who last week turned down the request for an injunction, said in a 13-page ruling that the chamber and its allies had not met that burden. The Supreme Court, with Thursday’s order, essentially ratified his conclusion.

In my legally unschooled opinion, that sounds like Prop 206 opponents are unlikely to prevail. Good on AZ voters!

There is also the fact that Thursday’s order says the chamber’s request to block the wage hike was considered by all five of the current justices. And there was no indication any of them sided with initiative foes on the request.

However, it’s not over until the fat legislature sings.

… Hamer said something else will be different by February that could help the chamber make its case that the initiative is an illegal mandate to increase spending.

“The facts will be clearer by that point in terms of its effects on the state budget,” he said.

All the Lege has to do is to treat Prop 206 the same way they treated education - plead poverty.

Reich to Obama: Take more shots

Here is what Robert Reich thinks Obama should do in preparation for the Trump administration: My Wishes for Obama’s Parting Shots.

President-elect Donald Trump is accusing President Obama of putting up “roadblocks” to a smooth transition.

In reality, I think President Obama has been too cooperative with Trump.

In the waning days of his administration, I’d recommend Obama take the following last stands:

  1. Name Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution gives the President power to fill any vacancy during the recess of the Senate. The Supreme Court is no exception: Justice William Brennan began his Court tenure with a recess appointment in 1956. Any appointments made this way expire at the end of the next Senate session. So if Obama appointed Garland on January 3, the appointment would last until December 2017, the end of the first session of the 115th Congress.

  2. Use his pardoning authority to forgive “Dreamers.” With a flick of his pen, Obama could forgive the past and future civil immigration offenses of the nearly 750,000 young people granted legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Without an immigration offense on their records, they could more easily apply for legal status.

  3. Impose economic sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election – including blocking all loans or investments by Russian nationals in all real estate ventures in the United States.

  4. Protect the civil service from the Trump transition. Instruct all cabinet departments and agencies not to respond to any Trump transition team inquiry that might intimidate any individual members of the civil service.

  5. Issue an executive order protecting the independence of all government fact-finding agencies: Included would be the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Energy Information. (Trump could repeal the order, but that would be politically costly.)

  6. Issue an executive order protecting the independence of all Inspectors General in every cabinet department and agency. (Ditto.)

  7. Issue a report on possible tax and benefit cuts, showing which state’s citizens will most benefit from tax cuts going to the richest Americans and largest corporations (overwhelmingly the citizens of blue states), and which will lose the most from cuts in Medicaid and repeal of Obamacare (overwhelmingly red states), along with estimates of such gains.

Regarding #3: There are reports today (Dec 29) that some kind of retribution for the election interference is imminent.
UPDATE: The NY Times reported on Obama’s actions - expelling 35 Russians and enacting more sanctions. This morning we find out that Putin will not retaliate, at least not for now, reportedly content to wait out the next three weeks for his favored candidate, Donald Trump, to take office: Vladimir Putin Won’t Expel U.S. Diplomats as Russian Foreign Minister Urged.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Trump Foundation in the Mind and Mouth of the Master of Mendacity

Scriber awards a few dozen pinocchios to Deceitful Donnie for his shameless lies about the Trump Foundation. Steve Benen (MSNBC/MaddowBlog) reports that Trump gets caught lying about his charitable foundation.

The short of it is that it charitable foundations abide by strict rules when it comes to what they spend money on. And political donations are illegal. It is now well known that the Trump Foundation crossed that line when it gave money to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s campaign. One of the consequences is that the Trump Foundation is now under investigation by the New York Attorney General.

Note in passing that the focus during the election was on the Clinton Foundation and the supposed, but never proved, pay-for-play. I blogged about the two foundations’ finances and spending here and here. The Clinton Foundation is fundamentally clean, I concluded. The Trump Foundation is not.

So what spin does the Mendacious Meister Deceitful Donnie put on it? Here are snippets from Benen’s report.

The president-elect nevertheless seems eager to talk about the end of his scandal-plagued foundation, arguing via Twitter last night that “all” of the money it raised was “given to charity.” He added soon after that “100%” of the millions raised went to “wonderful charities.”

We know Trump’s lying, in part because the Trump Foundation has already admitted that some of its money covered non-charitable expenses.

Trump used foundation money to buy giant portraits of himself. Trump used foundation money to make illegal campaign contributions. Trump used foundation money to settle private-sector lawsuits. Trump used foundation money to support conservative political entities that could help further his partisan ambitions.

A month ago, the Trump Foundation admitted in official documents that “it violated a legal prohibition against ‘self-dealing,’ which bars nonprofit leaders from using their charity’s money to help themselves, their businesses or their families.” The materials, filed with the IRS, were signed by Trump himself – so it’s not as if he can credibly claim he had no idea what was going on.

In other words, when Trump boasted last night that “100%” of the money raised by his foundation went to “wonderful charities,” it was one of the president-elect’s more obvious lies.

Indeed, what’s alarming about Trump’s latest deception is how brazen it is. The president-elect knows his claims are false, and he must realize that anyone with a passing familiarity with current events knows it, too. But Trump just doesn’t care about getting caught lying, in part because his followers don’t care, in part because he’s counting on news organizations to push back against his lies with kid gloves, and in part because he assumes much of the public will reject any evidence published by journalists.

The more inclined Trump is to keep this up-is-down experiment going, the more mind-numbing the next four years are going to be.

About that campaign contribution: I blogged about it back in September:

The appearance, if not the reality, that of pay-to- play. One requirement of causation is an antecedent-consequence relationship: Bondi asks for money, gets money, and drops investigation of Trump University. But perhaps more seriously, it looks like someone at the Trump Foundation, tried to cover up the Bondi donation by listing it as a nonexistent donation to that Kansas charity.

That’s Dirty Donald for you.

… since Trump can’t dissolve an entity while it’s still under investigation …” this matter of mendacity will be with us well past the inauguration date.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In the aftermath of a 20,000 stock market, what next?

Catherine Rampell (Washington Post) states a fact and asks a question in Trump is being handed a great economy. What happens when it goes south?

The economy was in shambles when Obama took office. Now it is roaring ahead. Some of it is the short-term bounce from Trump’s promises of a tax cut and a regulation cut. But the low unemployment rate is not due to Trump. Regardless of all this (and you can check Rampell’s editorial for more details on the economy) the only thing that the economy can do under President-elect Trump is to head south.

… if Trump implemented some of the other wacky policies he’s flirted with — a trade war, mass deportation, defaulting on our federal debt obligations, returning to the gold standard — a painful recession would ensue, according to multiple private-sector economic forecasters.

Regardless, the historical record suggests that four more years of expansion are unlikely. That is, even if recoveries don’t die of old age, and even if Trump doesn’t spark a worldwide financial crisis by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, it seems reasonable to expect that we might face a recession at some point during his presidency.

So, what happens when the numbers turn against him?

Three consequences seem likely.

One, the administration will start searching for scapegoats other than Trump’s own party and its choices. Immigrants, minorities, Fed officials: Watch out.

Two, assuming Trump will have already signed a major fiscal stimulus package during an expansion, there won’t be much powder left in the keg when Keynesian stimulus is actually needed. That is, fiscal tools available to mitigate the recession will be unusually limited.

And three, the numbers will become suspect once again, and Trump may even try to mess with the official government numbers to suit his narrative. This — and not a recession, blame-gaming or impotent policy response — would cause the most enduring damage to our democracy.

It’s not really that the numbers are suspect - it’s just that Trump has a habit of making them appear so in order to make himself look good. Given Trump’s track record it is totally imaginable that Trump could accuse Obama of causing the next recession.

$1,000,000,000: The AZ cost of Obamacare repeal

You have seen some of these numbers before, but the Arizona Capitol Times (subscription required) has gathered them all. The reporter asks Do you have $1 billion to spare? He answers: what Obamacare repeal would look like for Arizona.

Repeal would raze Arizona

The financial fallout from repealing Obamacare without replacing it will make everything else Arizona’s policymakers have so far worried about look like small potatoes.

Officials from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System [AHCCCS], the state’s Medicaid program, have mapped out several scenarios if the federal law is abolished outright, and the options aren’t pretty. Under the worst scenarios, a straight repeal would devastate Arizona’s health care infrastructure, undermine the state’s much-touted managed care system, and leave a gaping hole in the state budget.

It’s unclear what a replacement would look like, but officials say Arizona will face a steeper challenge under a block grant, under which the states would have more flexibility in running Medicaid but face more financial exposure since they would get a set amount, instead of a guarantee that the federal government will shoulder the burden of insuring anyone who is eligible. Additionally, Arizona is under a voter mandate to insure all low-income residents, and the courts are unlikely to accept in perpetuity policymakers’ argument that the state can’t afford to adhere to the people’s will.

Congressional inaction amid so much talk of repealing Obamacare would also sow chaos on the insurance market place, as insurers get increasingly unsure about how many will enroll, and enrollees face uncertainty about their ability to keep their health plans.

Here are a few numbers to think about. (All are quoted from the Capitol Times report, lightly edited.)

$3.2 billion would be sucked out of Arizona’s economy …

If 425,000 residents lose Medicaid coverage, lawmakers would have to find $328 million …

1.9 million Arizonans are insured through AHCCCS.

50% of the AHCCCS population is between 19 and 64 years old. 44 percent are between the ages of 0 and 18.

$1 billion more: That’s how much the general fund would have to shoulder if Medicaid expansion was rolled back … For context, $1 billion is about 10 percent of the state’s annual budget and roughly pays for the spending of all smaller state agencies, not counting money for education, health care, corrections, the universities, welfare, and child safety.

$24 million is available to spend in the next fiscal year, if the governor and lawmakers want to maintain a structurally-balanced budget. That’s not counting $460 million in the state’s rainy day fund account.

74 percent: That’s the share of federal spending for Arizona’s Medicaid program. Currently, the feds assume the bigger risk of providing health care coverage, as the entitlement program guarantees coverage of anybody who is eligible and the federal commitment to help the states in paying for the program is open-ended.

Paul Ryan’s replacement has an Ayn-Randian smell

How much of this would be changed with a “replace” tacked onto “repeal” depends on how the “replace” would be structured. As noted from the report above, Arizona, along with the rest of the nation, would still take a hit under a block grant program.

After years fruitless votes against Obamacare while dodging the replacement issue, Paul Ryan this last summer came out with some details of what a replacement plan would look like.

You can find the details, such as they are, in this NPR report: If Republicans Repeal Obamacare, Ryan Has Replacement Blueprint.

Soon after the release of the policy paper, TalkingPointsMemo named five key points of Ryan’s plan.

Republican leaders are patting themselves on the back for the rollout of what they’re portraying as their Obamacare replacement plan. The policy paper, which consists of a broad set of aspirations without any dollar amounts or legislative mechanics, promises to slow the growth of health care costs through caps on government programs and on the tax breaks currently offered on employer-provided health plans. It does not, however, make any guarantees of universal coverage, nor does it provide enough details to assess its impact on the federal deficit or how Republicans plan to pay for what they’re promising. Many of the proposals have been trotted out before and have their own downsides when looked at in a standalone fashion.

Here’s what you need to know about the “new” approach:

(1) The policy paper comes after six years of GOP promises to present their own Obamacare alternative.
(2) Republicans would nix Obamacare’s mandates, subsidies and exchanges in favor of a tax credit.
(3) Ryan wants to change Medicare and Medicaid as you know them, akin to his “Blueprint For America” budgets.
(4) Ryan also loosens Obamacare regulations that have helped it achieve its more popular goals.
(5) While this policy paper is more extensive than past promises, Ryan is mum on legislative specifics.

On this last point, the devil is in the details that have yet to be specified. TPM continues.

At 37 pages, Wednesday’s policy paper is more extensive than the usual statement of principles put out by Republicans, but it is still lacking key details when it comes to legislative specifics. The GOP aide on the press call Tuesday for instance said it would be up to legislative committees to “litigate” the size of plan’s caps as well as its tax credits – which the paper promises will be “large enough to purchase the typical pre-Obamacare health insurance plan” – and how they’ll be doled out. He also said they didn’t “have any analysis” on the approach’s effect on premiums or job growth, but that “we believe that it would be double-digit” percentage drops in premiums. He also said there is no deadline planned for crafting the legislative.

As for the more essential question of what the GOP approach would mean for coverage rates and for the 20 million people have received insurance because of Obamacare, the aide also punted:

“You’re getting to the dynamic effect of the plan and we can’t answer that until the committees start to legislate,” he said.

So for Arizonans, we don’t know how much the Ryan replacement plan will cost the state let alone what effect it will have on the nation.

Repeal without replacement?

But for some in the GOP, replacement is a dirty word. Forbes reports on the GOP hardliners who want repeal without replacement.

Opposition is mounting from conservatives against Republican efforts to delay any full repeal of the Affordable Care Act from within the ranks of those who have opposed the law for more than six years.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan earlier this month told 60 Minutes that Congress would “work on an orderly transition to replace” Obamacare for 20 million Americans who gained coverage under the law. And President-elect Donald Trump has said people will maintain coverage after the law is repealed and replaced. Meanwhile, other Republicans have floated ideas that the ACA would be repealed first and replaced over a period of years .

But any delay of a repeal or even a repeal linked to a replacement implemented two to four years down the road won’t work for some of the law’s longtime opponents. They want a repeal. Period.

“From our perspective, delay is not a repeal,” Twila Brase, president of Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom, said in an interview. “You can’t wait for the replacement or you will never get the repeal. My concern is we will never have a repeal.”

Snap. Just like that the conservatives are willing to cut loose 20 million people from their health insurance.

From Scriber’s perspective, the Ayn-Randian stench is real. The Ryan plan places the burden of universal health care on individual decision-making. Obamacare, through its individual mandate, treats health insurance much as we as a nation treat automobile insurance or mortgage insurance or unemployment insurance or social security or Medicare. The Ryan/GOP plan would single out health insurance from our mix of insurance mandates.

What Ryan and the rest of the GOP are saying is that if you have the money, and the foresight to use it, you can buy health insurance. If not, sickness is your own damn fault.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Point-counterpoint: Normalizing Trump?

Point:Why we should ‘normalize’ Trump” writes Doyle McManus in the LA Times (reprinted in the Daily Star this morning). Here are snippets.

At every step, anguished opponents have appealed to the public, to the media and to Congress: Don’t normalize Trump.

In a narrow sense, they’re right: When Trump violates norms of public conduct – by lying about nonexistent voter fraud, refusing to accept evidence of Russian hacking or dismissing concern over conflicts of interest – nobody should pretend that’s normal.

For the media, treating Trump as a normal president means we should cover Trump and his administration as aggressively as we can. The media accord most presidents a presumption of honesty when they come into office; Trump forfeited that during the campaign. Newspapers and broadcasters should continue to use words like “false,” “bogus” and even “lie” in reporting his tall tales.

What’s more, this is an opportunity for a renaissance of investigative reporting. An administration staffed partly with rookies and hotheads is going to have plenty of problems. A first family with global business holdings will run into conflicts of interest, even if they try to avoid them (which this one isn’t, so far).

That doesn’t mean no off-the-record sessions at Mar-a-Lago. The media know when a politician is trying to co-opt them. Trump isn’t the first president-elect to offer a reporter a drink. He knows he’ll need goodwill from the people he described as dishonest scum.

We should give Trump a chance – a chance to normalize himself, in the sense of complying with the norms every president should observe. Giving him a chance doesn’t mean giving him a break; quite the contrary. It means subjecting him to tough scrutiny, holding him to high standards and judging him against his own promises. In short, treating him like a normal president – whether he likes it or not.

Counterpoint: ‘Normalize’ Trump? That’s impossible. LA Times readers respond in these letters to the editor.

To the editor: Doyle McManus writes as if the opponents of Donald Trump like me question his legitimacy as president-elect. Not so. I fully accept that an unfit con man has been voted in as president, and it strengthens my resolve to fight him. (“Why we should ‘normalize’ Trump,” Opinion, Dec. 21)

McManus suggests that Trump “normalize himself” despite no evidence he can do so. People with eyes and ears know that this spoiled man of 70 is not going to change. He brags that he’s great the way he is, and he’s a big winner, so why change?

McManus urges Trump to stop tweeting, tell the truth, listen to his advisors and honor his campaign promises on jobs and cheaper healthcare. I’m actually a bit jealous of McManus for the faith he has put in a pathological liar, but as for the rest of us, we tremble in fear because of the power vested in an amoral and unqualified man. We will oppose, denounce and resist Trump at every turn.

I am afraid of my new president. He cannot be normalized.

Counter-counterpoint: Another reader responds.

One prime normalizing force will be Congress. Who actually believes that it will actually pass legislation covering tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare, financial reform, infrastructure upgrades and any of the other Trump promises that require congressional approval? This is a Congress that could not even pass a proper appropriations bill in 2016.

Whether Trump likes it or not, he will be normalized.

Scriber responds: The readers are correct. Left to his own devices, Trump will never “normalize” himself, and Congress is unlikely to act productively. And all that is exactly why McManus is also correct: only the press can hold Trump accountable and must do so whether he likes it or not.

The Psychology of Election 2016

The New Yorker science writer Maria Konnikova reports on The Psychological Research that Helps Explain the Election.

At the end of most years, I’m typically asked to write about the best psychology papers of the past twelve months. This year, though, is not your typical year. And so, instead of the usual “best of,” I’ve decided to create a list of classic psychology papers and findings that can explain not just the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. but also the rising polarization and extremism that seem to have permeated the world. To do this, I solicited the opinion of many leading psychologists, asking them to nominate a paper or two, with a brief explanation for their choice. (Then I nominated some stories myself.) And so, as 2016 draws to a close, here’s a partial collection of the insights that psychology can bring to bear on what the year has brought about, arranged in chronological order.

I’ll try to give you a flavor of each one but you should read Konnikova’s essay to develop a deep appreciation for what psychological sciences has to say about Trump and polarization.

What you already know is dangerous to your thoughts - and the more you know …

… a paper that made sense of a common, and seemingly irrational, phenomenon: that the beliefs we hold already affect how we process and assimilate new information. In other words, we don’t learn rationally, taking in information and then making a studied judgment. Instead, the very way we learn is influenced from the onset by what we know and who we are. … This process, which is a form of what’s called confirmation bias, can help explain why Trump supporters remain supportive no matter what evidence one puts to them—and why Trump’s opponents are unlikely to be convinced of his worth even if he ends up doing something actually positive. The two groups simply process information differently. … [Moreover] the polarization effect was particularly powerful among strong partisans.

"political and intellectual tribalism”

Like seeks like, and like affirms like—and people gravitate to the intellectually similar others, even when all of their actions should rightly set off alarm bells.

Trump, [Harvard psychologist Stephen] Pinker said, won over pretty much the entire Republican Party, and all those who felt alienated from the left, by declaring himself to be opposed to the “establishment” and political correctness. And this all happened, Pinker wrote to me, “despite his obvious temperamental unsuitability for the responsibilities of the Presidency, his opposition to free trade and open borders (which should have, but did not, poison him with the libertarian right), his libertine and irreligious lifestyle (which should have, but did not, poison him with evangelicals), his sympathies with Putin’s Russia (which should have, but did not, poison him with patriots), and his hostility to American military and political alliances with democracies (which should have, but did not, poison him with neoconservatives).”

Authoritarianism comes to America

… authoritarianism: the desire for strong order and control. Most people aren’t authoritarian as such, Stenner finds. Instead, most of us are usually capable of fairly high tolerance. It’s only when we feel we are under threat—especially what Stenner calls “normative threat,” or a threat to the perceived integrity of the moral order—that we suddenly shut down our openness and begin to ask for greater force and authoritarian power. People want to protect their way of life, and when they think it’s in danger they start grasping for more extreme-seeming alternatives.

The outrage factor and coalition-building

… the use of outrage to help mobilize coalitions. Their main claim is that humans, like other animals, are predisposed to coalition-building: in order to best protect ourselves, we coöperate with those we see as within our coalition, and we fight those we see as outside it. One of the ways coalitions can be galvanized to action, the authors showed, is by uniting them against a perceived outrage—and this dynamic played out repeatedly in the Trump campaign, both with Trump supporters and the opposition. Play up the outrage factor and suddenly groups bond together like never before—and prepare to attack like never before.

Cultural tightness

… when people perceive higher threat levels and are under stress, they flock to leaders who promise tighter rules, greater strength, a more authoritarian approach. [Michele] Gelfand calls this “cultural tightness”: a desire for strong social norms and a low tolerance for any sort of deviant behavior. As threat perception increases, even looser cultures—those with high tolerance and lower norms—begin to tighten up.

Throughout the election, Trump himself stoked the feeling of threat and fear, so that he became a seemingly more and more fitting leader. In Europe, rhetoric about terrorism, immigration threats, and the like is doing much the same thing. The greater the perceived threat, the tighter the culture becomes. Indeed, Gelfand has found that the strongest supporters of Trump were also those who thought the U.S. was under the greatest threat.

Hopelessly hopeful

So why didn’t anyone see this coming and try to reverse any of the trends? In ongoing research, the psychologist Tali Sharot is investigating something known as “optimism bias”: we think the future is going to be better than the past. We tend to dismiss things we don’t particularly like, or that we find disturbing, as aberrations. Instead, we assume that the future will be far more promising than current signs might make it seem. We are, in a sense, hardwired for hope. … many Trump opponents hold out hope that once he assumes office he will act differently than he has on the campaign trail. People keep hoping for the best, even in the face of great odds. And it’s a hope that helps us survive, even when those great odds defy us.

Scriber’s nomination for quote of the day: Amidst the almost totally bad news in this morning’s Daily Star, we read this headline: “Americans hopeful for a better 2017”.

We can hope for the best, but given “this coming” is happening every day, we’d better plan for the worst.

Monday, December 26, 2016

America's fundamental divide: The deserving vs. the undeserving

Catherine Rampell (Washington Post) writes about Why the white working class votes against itself. We Democrats are convinced, rightly, that our policies would help those voters that reject our programs even though they gladly accept the benefits of them (e.g., Medicare and Social Security, for example). Clearly there is a continuing disconnect, but what is it?

Rampell defines the problem.

Why did all those Economically Anxious™ Trump voters reject policies that would have helped relieve their economic anxiety?

Maybe they believed any Big Government expansions would disproportionately go to the “wrong” kinds of people — that is, people unlike themselves.

Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss, particularly in traditionally blue strongholds, has led to lots of rumination about what the Democrats must do to reclaim their political territory. Smarter marketing, smoother organization, greater outreach and fresher faces are among the most commonly cited remedies.

But there seems to be universal agreement, at least among the Democratic politicians and strategists I’ve interviewed, that the party’s actual ideas are the right ones.

Democrats, they note, pushed for expansion of health-insurance subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans; investments in education and retraining; middle-class tax cuts; and a higher minimum wage. These are core, standard-of-living improving policies. They would do far more to help the economically precarious — including and especially white working-class voters — than Donald Trump’s top-heavy tax cuts and trade wars ever could.

Here’s the problem. These Democratic policies probably would help the white working class. But the white working class doesn’t seem to buy that they’re the ones who’d really benefit.

Just as they did as a consequence of the New Deal!

Rampell cites research that exemplify the problem. For example:

In Wisconsin, rural whites are similarly eager to “stop the flow of resources to people who are undeserving,” says Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison …

The people Cramer interviewed for her book often named a (white) welfare-receiving neighbor or relative as someone who belonged in that basket of undeservings — but also immigrants, minorities and inner-city elites who were allegedly siphoning off more government funds than they contributed.

More broadly, a recent YouGov/Huffington Post survey found that Trump voters are five times more likely to believe that “average Americans” have gotten less than they deserve in recent years than to believe that “blacks” have gotten less than they deserve. (African Americans don’t count as “average Americans,” apparently.)

None of this should be particularly surprising.

We’ve known for a long time, through the work of Martin Gilens, Suzanne Mettler and other social scientists, that Americans (A) generally associate government spending with undeserving, nonworking, nonwhite people; and (B) are really bad at recognizing when they personally benefit from government programs.

Hence those oblivious demands to “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” and the tea partyers who get farm subsidies, and the widespread opposition to expanded transfer payments in word if not in deed.

It’s no wonder then that Democrats’ emphasis on downwardly redistributive economic policies has been met with suspicion, even from those who would be on the receiving end of such redistribution. And likewise, it’s no wonder that Trump’s promises — to re-create millions of (technologically displaced) jobs and to punish all those non-self-sufficient moochers — seem much more enticing.

No American likes the idea of getting a “handout” — especially if they believe that handout is secretly being rerouted to their layabout neighbor anyway.

So, are we a nation of Ayn-Randians, simply characterizing others less fortunate than ourselves as “moochers” and “looters”? That’s certainly true of the incoming administration. But here is another psychological view of what is going on.

To paraphrase the white working class voter’s dissatisfaction: I deserve what I get but I don’t get all I deserve because someone else is getting what they don’t deserve. Adding an agent to the mix: I don’t get what I deserve because of the government. Someone else is getting more than they deserve because the government rewards laziness.

This deep-seated view calls to mind Social Psychological biases such as the Fundamental Attribution Error. In the present case, I get what I get because of my hard work but others get what they get because they are lazy. This is an example of a dispositional bias. The reasoning focuses on the individual personality traits and diminishes the role of situational, environmental factors for other people.

I propose that this bias is a fundamental cause of the great division that played out in the 2016 election. “Smarter marketing, smoother organization, greater outreach and fresher faces” alone are not going to cut it come 2018 and 2020. Dems must confront and counter the dispositional bias with a clear economic agenda. But, to the extent that the dispositional bias discussed here is truly fundamental, that will be a very heavy lift. Ironically, Trump may make the load lighter if he follows through on the anti-worker agenda suggested by his cabinet choices.

Update: Rampell’s essay was reprinted as the editorial in this morning’s Daily Star.

Toons for the terrified

Here are your Monday morning tunes from AZBlueMeanie at Blog for Arizona. If you woke up with optimism, you will go to bed with pessimism.

Today is December 26th. It’s 26 days and counting to Disastrous Donald.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays from the SkyIslandScriber

Scriber is taking a day off and wishes you and yours a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

I’ll be back with the blog tomorrow but for today I am pondering some fundamental psychological angles on the question of why voters vote against themselves. More on that in the days to come.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Trump's attactics against the press

The Democratic Club of the Santa Rita Area (DCSRA) presents a program on “The Role Of The Media In The Election And Their Responsibility Going Forward.” The panelists will include Sarah Geracht Gassen (Daily Star editorial page), John C. Scott (radio talk show host), Andrea Kelly (AZ public media) and be moderated by your very own Scriber. It will be in the upstairs conference room (#203) in the Continental Shopping Plaza on January 14th at 3:00. Wine and cheese reception to follow.

Therefore, the following is timely.

Robert Reich, in his blog, describes the four features of Trump’s assault on the freedom of the press.

Historically, tyrants have tried to control the press using 4 techniques that, worryingly, Donald Trump is already using.

  1. Berate the media and turn the public against it. Trump refers to journalists as “dishonest,” “disgusting” and “scum.” When Trump lies – claiming, for example, “massive voter fraud” in the election, and that he “won in a landslide” – and the media call him on those lies, Trump claims the media is lying. Even televised satires he labels “unfunny, one-sided, and pathetic.”

  2. Limit media access. Trump hasn’t had a news conference since July. (His two predecessors had news conferences within days of being declared president.) He’s blocked the media from traveling with him, and even from knowing with whom he’s meeting. His phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which occurred shortly after the election, was first reported by the Kremlin.

  3. Threaten the media. During the campaign, Trump threatened to sue the New York Times for libel in response to an article about two women who accused him of touching them inappropriately years ago, and then another that revealed part of his 1995 tax returns. He says he plans to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

  4. Bypass the media and communicate with the public directly. Trump tweets incessantly, issues videos, and holds large rallies – all of which further enable him to lie directly to the public with impunity.

The word “media” comes from “intermediate” between the powerful and the public. The media hold the powerful accountable by correcting their misstatements, asking them hard questions, and reporting on what they do. Apparently Trump wants to eliminate such intermediaries.

Historically, these 4 techniques have been used by demagogues to erode the freedom and independence of the press. Donald Trump seems intent on doing exactly this.

That’s American Authoritarianism on the march.

More Republican math: Electors' votes matter more than citizens' votes

Yesterday, in one of my posts, I quoted the AP: “Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote is now at 2,864,974.”

CNN reports that the count in the electoral college was 306 to 232 favoring Trump. So to compare apples to apples, let’s look at the difference: 174 electoral votes is what tipped it to Trump.

Now consider this ratio of those differences: 2,864,974 ÷ 174. The result of that division is 16,465.

So one electoral college vote offsets 16,465 popular votes. Or, to put it in terms of Republican math: 1 > 16465.

Veterans Affairs will be test of Trump's X-antiX cabinet formula

The LA Times reports that Trump won votes promising to protect veterans, but major veterans groups are rattled by his plans. Here are selected snippets.

Under pressure from conservative activists, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and organizations funded by the Koch Brothers, Trump is contemplating choosing an agency chief who would upend the entire veterans healthcare system. That would come over the protest of the country’s major veterans groups.

An appointment like that could prove an early test of whether the voters who backed Trump in November will continue to stick with him when his agenda smacks into interest groups that have been crusading on their behalf for decades.

And the selection process has set up the Veterans Affairs department to be a possible test case of the political impact of infusing the free-market approach championed by some conservative groups into a major government bureaucracy that serves millions of Trump’s most fervent supporters.

Which way Trump will turn remains very much uncertain. More than a dozen names of potentially serious candidates have been floated, ranging from fairly traditional picks, including some former military officers, to conservative activists.

Sarah Palin ’s name has been raised. Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown has openly sought the job. Some in the transition team have touted Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic and a cardiac surgeon who served in Vietnam. Obama considered him for the job several years ago.

And those two - Palin and Brown - are qualified by what? It gets much worse.

Most alarming to some of the country’s main veterans groups is Peter Hegseth, the former executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, one of a network of nonprofit groups bankrolled by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. The 36-year-old Hegseth, a Fox News contributor, has met with Trump more than once.

During the campaign, Trump indicated support for the blueprint proposed by the Concerned Veterans group, which would offer all veterans the option of acquiring health care at the doctor of their choosing through a Medicare-style system, instead of routing them automatically through VA facilities.

All this is a tilt towards the X-antiX pattern: for a given agency X, pick as its cabinet rep someone who is antiX. Mas:

Concerned Veterans operates in a very different orbit than most of the major veterans organizations, which are heavily involved in guiding management decisions at the VA and helping their members gain access to services. It instead works with Republican lawmakers to take aim at the department, where problems have proven a politically potent weapon against Democrats in recent elections.

Gingrich is offering his own advice, lobbying Trump to pay no mind to the veterans groups. At an event last week sponsored by the Washington Post, Gingrich said that praise for [current head of the VA] McDonald by veterans service organizations reflected a preference for “access to Veterans Administration offices, rather than making sure that veterans are taken care of.”

Gingrich called for “straight-out war” with the agency’s bureaucracy.

And Draft-Dodging Donald Disses other veterans groups in his apparent tilt toward the un-Concerned Veterans group.

As Trump considers his options, among those advising him on the Veterans Affairs transition team are Darin Selnick, a senior advisor at Concerned Veterans, and Amber Smith, who worked there until recently. The more mainstream veterans groups, meanwhile, are still waiting for their meeting.

“We think it is important for the President-elect to talk with us,” said Verna Jones, executive director of the American Legion.

“We are there. We are around. We collectively represent 5.5 million veterans. He should let us tell him what we see, and talk to him about what we can do.”

But Trump has not done that and Scriber thinks he will not.

What makes all this tricky for Trump is an internal tension in his picks for the cabinet. On the one hand, he supports an expanded military with his picks of generals to head the Defense Department. On the other, his approach to all other agencies (other than commerce and finance) fits the X-antiX formula. Which will prevail?

Scriber thinks all the vets who supported Draft-Dodging Donald are likely to get stiffed.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Ayn Rand and the coming economic nightmare

We are entering an Age of Ayn Rand.

Remember, from Atlas Shrugged, that the non-rich are “moochers”, “looters”, and “unthinking brutes.” The rich, on the other hand, as supposed job creators, are of value.

The term ‘job creator’ has crept into the political lexicon on both sides of the Atlantic. It sounds harmless, but don’t be fooled – it is the quiet vanguard of a political and economic nightmare.

Here are more snippets from a Jan. 19th, 2015, article in _The London Economic_: The Nightmare Economics of Ayn Rand

Calling Ayn Rand a novelist is generous, calling her a philosopher borders on the ludicrous. But her corpus of regressive ideas has ignited the hard right in the United States. The coming Republican presidential primaries will give deficit hawks and would-be economic philosophers ample time to wedge their favourite heroine into public discourse. The mainstreaming of her ideas has been going on for years, but in parliament houses from Washington to London, there is a now a groundswell of support for policy decisions that consciously and unashamedly favour the rich.

Today, Rand’s policies are embodied by US politicians like Rand Paul (yes, he was named for her) and Ted Cruz, both potential Republican presidential candidates. Cruz wants to abolish the IRS and the minimum wage, Paul wants to get rid of laws that stop businesses from committing racial discrimination. The message is simple: let the rich do whatever they want and everyone will benefit. It’s important to understand what Rand’s devotees think those ‘benefits’ are. We’re used to hearing the hard right call welfare recipients ‘takers’ or even ‘parasites’ but to Ayn Rand, ordinary workers were parasites, too. Employees are a regrettable but necessary component in running a business and their cost should be kept as low as possible. The worker is a tedious commodity, like an ink cartridge for the photocopier. And the most pernicious idea is that workers should feel grateful to their super-rich bosses. No ‘job creators’ mean no jobs, right? Your subsistence wage wouldn’t get paid without the initiative of the millionaire CEO.

A philosophical system that sees workers’ rights as a barrier to business, that ignores macroeconomic reality and always blames the poor for being poor, that elevates the rich to the status of economic saviours – that is the new reality for America’s conservatives. It is slowly but consistently seeping into the mainstream conservative outlook on this side of the Atlantic. Any political party that promotes tax cuts for the rich while simultaneously cutting protections for workers and the poor is on the outer edge of the Ayn Rand economic death spiral.

John Cassidy (New Yorker) reports on how serious the incoming administration is about Randian economics - and realizing the society envisioned by Rand - in Ayn Rand and corporate tax cuts won’t mend the economy. Cassidy argues that “The theories being trumpeted by Trump and his allies have been put to the test, and they have failed.

In a post on LinkedIn the other day, Ray Dalio, one of the world’s richest and most successful hedge-fund managers, offered some thoughts on the incoming Trump Administration. If “you haven’t read Ayn Rand lately, I suggest that you do as her books pretty well capture the mindset,” Dalio, the founder and chief executive of Bridgewater Associates, wrote. “This new administration hates weak, unproductive, socialist people and policies, and it admires strong, can-do, profit makers. It wants to, and probably will, shift the environment from one that makes profit makers villains with limited power to one that makes them heroes with significant power."

Dalio, whom I profiled, in 2011, himself holds a harsh, Darwinian view of the world. One of his sidekicks at Bridgewater, David McCormick, is being considered for a senior post in the new Administration. Dalio, however, views himself as an analyst and investor rather than a partisan, and his unvarnished post reflects the reality that Donald Trump, after running as an economic populist and tribune of the working stiff, has stuffed his Cabinet with billionaires, bankers, and conservative political ideologues.

Remember that Trump is the guy who stiffs his contractors and is now stuffing the swamp with more alligators. You gotta wonder how long it will be before those who voted for him catch on.

“This will not just be a shift in government policy, but also a shift in how government policy is pursued,” Dalio wrote. “Trump is a deal maker who negotiates hard, and doesn’t mind getting banged around or banging others around. Similarly, the people he chose are bold and hell-bent on playing hardball to make big changes happen in economics and in foreign policy (as well as other areas such as education, environmental policies, etc.).”

That view is in perfect accord with Trump’s cabinet picks in those “etc.” areas other than the military and commerce.

One of the economic claims promoted by Trump and other conservatives is that if we treat corporations and the rich very well, good things will happen. Cassidy does not see that happening. It’s already been tried and failed.

[Dalio again writes] "… if this administration can spark a virtuous cycle in which people can make money, the move out of cash (that pays them virtually nothing) to risk-on investments could be huge,” he wrote. In addition, he went on, Trump’s America could also attract a lot of capital from abroad, because a “pro-business US with its rule of law, political stability, property rights protections, and (soon to be) favorable corporate taxes offers a uniquely attractive environment for those who make money and/or have money.”

Although Dalio used some of Keynes’s language, this is not actually a Keynesian argument. It is the sort of Randian analysis long favored by many people on Wall Street, and recently promoted by some of Trump’s closest economic advisers: if you want capitalism to work more effectively, offer greater rewards to the capitalists. Cut taxes, rein in regulation, and create an environment that incentivizes financial risk-taking. The free market—or, rather, the John Galts who inhabit the free market—will do the rest.

Cassidy lays out reasons why this approach will not work.

The final, and perhaps most important, point to note is that the Randian theory now being trumpeted was put to the test, not very long ago, and it failed. In 2004, the Bush Administration introduced a “tax holiday” for corporations that repatriated profits they were holding abroad, arguing, much as Kudlow, Cohn, and others are now, that it would spur capital investment and job growth. What actually happened, according to a Senate subcommittee that surveyed twenty leading multinational companies, was that “the 2004 repatriation tax provision was followed by an increase in dollars spent on stock repurchases and executive compensation.”

Of course, things could turn out differently this time, but even some analysts at Cohn’s firm, Goldman Sachs, doubt that will happen. In a recent research note to clients, Goldman predicted that three-quarters of the money that big corporations bring back to the United States next year under the Trump tax plan will end up being spent on stock buybacks. “We estimate that $150 billion out of $780 billion of S&P 500 buybacks in 2017 will be driven by repatriated overseas cash,” the Goldman research note said. “We forecast that S&P 500 companies will repatriate close to $200 billion of their $1 trillion of total overseas cash in 2017, which will be directed primarily toward share repurchases.”

It seems unlikely, therefore, that giving big tax breaks to major corporations will do much to raise capital spending and growth, although it could give another boost to the stock market, in the short term, anyway. Indeed, this may help explain why the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen by more than sixteen hundred points since the election and is now flirting with the twenty-thousand level. For big investors like Dalio, the Trump honeymoon is continuing. For everyone else, a large dose of skepticism is in order.

In short, in the coming Trumpworld, socioeconomic Darwinism (aka AynRandianism) is the new order. The rich will get richer, because they deserve it, and the sick and the poor will get sicker and poorer - because they, as the “moochers”, “looters”, and “unthinking brutes,” deserve it.

What Kellyanne Conway "effectively" communicates

The AP reports (via the Daily Star) that Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote is now at 2,864,974. That’s what we would take away from the report. What Trump supporters hear: Trump won in a landslide.

In other news, also from the Star, Trump elevates Kellyanne Conway to position as “White House Counselor”.

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump has named close adviser Kellyanne Conway as his White House counselor, elevating the woman who led his campaign to victory to a senior West Wing position.

Trump — who also announced his senior White House communications staff, including naming former Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer as press secretary — has a strong rapport with Conway and she was seen as a positive influence on his often chaotic campaign. Conway, who took over as campaign manager in the summer, has been one of Trump’s most visible advisers, making frequent television appearances on his behalf.

“She is a tireless and tenacious advocate of my agenda and has amazing insights on how to effectively communicate our message,” Trump said in a statement Thursday announcing the position.

Among those things that Conway effectively communicates is that Trump won in a “landslide” - a claim debunked by Nate Silver, Nate Silver Destroys Kellyanne Conway’s Ridiculous Claim That Trump Won In A “Landslide” and that Trump’s win was a “blowout”. “Not only was Trump’s victory not a ”blowout,“ but it was actually pretty unimpressive.”

After spending an entire election cycle spewing ridiculous nonsense, it’s no surprise that Kellyanne Conway and the Trump campaign climbed back aboard the crazy train on Monday [Nov. 28] to say that Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory on Nov. 8 was a “landslide.”

That’s more Republican math: 304 (electoral votes) > 2,864,974 (popular votes).

Among Conway’s other “effective” communications were her twists and dodges last night on the Rachel Maddow show. As I recall, when Rachel asked Conway about Trump’s tweet about expanding the US nuclear capability, Conway said she didn’t know what that meant. She might be forgiven because no one else knows either. Judge for yourself. Here’s the Dec. 22nd tweet.

The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes

The Guardian responds to the tweet in Trump’s latest tweet about nuclear weapons is both daft and dangerous.

I think Richie Havens would have agreed. Here is his performance of Handsome Johnny at Woodstock. Part of the song goes like this.

Hey, what’s the use of singing this song
Some of you are not even listening
Tell me what it is we’ve got to do, wait for our fields to start glistening
Hey, wait for the bullets to start whistling

Hey, here comes a hydrogen bomb and here comes a guided missile
Here comes a hydrogen bomb, I can almost hear its whistle
I can almost hear its whistle

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Tricky Trump's "U" settlement

“U” is in quotes because it never was a true university. It was just another source of cash flowing into Trump’s pocket.

Part of Trump’s preparation for the inauguration is setting aside oodles of cash as compensation to the poor saps who got suckered into the now defunct Trump University. Plain and simple: Trump U was an intentional scam.

If you do not want to believe that of an incoming president, you are left with few options to explain the settlement imposed by the court (presided over by the Latino judge who Trump so maligned). As I see it, your one alternative explanation is that Trump failed miserably in the responsibility to choose faculty with impeccable credentials and integrity. That’s called incompetence. Or maybe call it culpable neglect.

Either way, this is a first as Steve Benen (MSNBC/MaddowBlog) reports in Details emerge on ‘Trump University’ settlement.

… as things stand, Donald Trump is poised to become the first American in history to headline a presidential inauguration and payoff the victims of an allegedly fraudulent scam in the same week.

I continue to think this is one of the under-appreciated parts of the president-elect’s background. The “Trump University” operation is awfully tough to defend, and it offers some striking parallels to the broader political circumstances: a controversial celebrity, eager to capitalize on his notoriety, made ridiculous and unrealistic claims, which he swore without evidence would produce amazing results. Those who chose to trust him, soon after, came to regret it.

The difference is, students from “Trump University” could file a civil suit, accusing Trump of orchestrating a fraud. Voters won’t have that luxury.

Let’s also note that the suit – which Trump promised not to settle, shortly before he settled – probably would have gone the plaintiff’s way had it continued. The New York Times had this report a few weeks ago:

Mr. Trump’s confident assertion clashes with the evidence gathered by prosecutors and plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case. Those documents include dozens of sworn statements by students and instructors, some of whom described the program as a scheme to cheat customers out of thousands of dollars, and sales playbooks that called for tapping into “the roller coaster of emotions” to get students to sign up.

In court, the president-elect would have contended with the personal and potentially damaging testimony of aggrieved students. One recounted in a legal filing that he had faced “strong pressure” to sign up for more expensive mentoring, including a push to increase his credit limit to pay for a $25,000 course. Another said his already difficult financial situation deteriorated further as a result of the program, leaving him “insolvent.” A third simply called it a “scam.”

We’ll never know how the case would have turned out, but the evidence against Trump painted a very ugly picture.

No American president has ever been accused of defrauding members of the public and knowingly running a scam operation, bilking unsuspecting victims of their money. It’s one of many reasons Donald J. Trump is in a league of his own.

One thing the voters will have in common with the victims of the Trump U fraud: “Those who chose to trust him, soon after, came to regret it.”

We are all time travelers

This is a political blog but from time to time, I travel a different path and digress into psychological science. Bear with me. I’ll get back to politics at the end of this post.

Consider the equation ΔE = c (O - E) and let E = E + ΔE where c is a decimal fraction (0 < c < 1). With successive iterations, E will converge on O.

This mathematical system was proposed as part of a theory of Pavlovian conditioning by two Yale psychologists, Robert Rescorla and Allan Wagner in 1972 (the Rescorla-Wagner model). The equations, as an instance of error correction, are also the foundation of a form of artificial intelligence known as artificial neural networks (see parallel distributed processing aka connectionism).

Now let me put a different twist on all that. In the equations, O stands for what is observed, what actually happens in the environment and E stands for what you expect to happen. When there is a discrepancy, you modify your expectations. That is, you learn from that discrepancy. You use your memory of past experiences to shape your anticipation of the future.

In order for all this to work, your memory (E) must be reliable. If it is not, thinking now of E as a random variable, then E never converges on O. In other words, again, your anticipation of the future depends on the accuracy of your memory of the past. And it depends on the reliability of the past. On one fictional account, Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, the past protects its accuracy and is resistant to change even from attempts by a time traveler to change it.

The New Yorker science writer, Maria Konnikova, explains the importance of memory for personal time travel in How to build a time machine.

Before long [that is, after 1895 and H. G. Wells’ Time Traveller] , it was difficult to imagine an existence in which the idea of travelling through time didn’t exist. It quickly permeated science, with Einstein’s theory of relativity and notions of how to surpass the speed of light; found its way into literature, with Virginia Woolf’s “stretching and warping” of time; and seeped into popular culture, with vanity exercises in building time capsules. Why did time travel become so central, so quickly? Part of the answer is surely that the most central part of time travel is the one we carry with us, always: our memory. For what is remembering something but travelling through time? Once the notion of time travel starts to come naturally to the human mind, it is supremely easy to assimilate it into our mode of thinking. We don’t have to do any mental calisthenics to fathom how it could come to pass. Memory enables personal time travel immediately. If you have no notion of the passage of time, you cannot project yourself to a future point in it. In recent years, it has become clear that the centrality of memory is even more extreme: the very way our memory works allows us to imagine different futures, not just recall what has taken place. Memory is the very stuff of time travel.

For some time, scientists have known that memory is anything but precise. It doesn’t record the past accurately, and it plays tricks on us. For decades, this was seen as a kind of design flaw. Now some researchers suspect that the fallibility of memory isn’t necessarily a quirk or negative side effect of neural wiring but a necessity for being able to imagine the future. At Harvard, Daniel Schacter, a psychologist who studies memory, proposes that thinking about the past is absolutely necessary for imagining the future. “Imagining the future depends on much of the same neural machinery that is needed for remembering the past,” he writes. What’s more, the fact that the past is flexible—that our memory “sins,” to borrow a word from Schacter’s writing—is what allows us to imagine things that have never happened. We recombine elements from what we recall into memories that have never taken place. The future is based on a realignment of what we know, not a straightforward recapitulation of it. Schacter calls this the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis. If our memory is too fixed, we cannot flexibly recombine elements. “Think of the brain as a fundamentally prospective organ that is designed to use information from the past and the present to generate predictions about the future,” he explains.

Gleick [the author of Time Travel is not a believer in the feasibility of actual time travel, now or ever. “It does not exist. It cannot,” he writes. We cannot go back in time and change how Clinton approached the election. All we can do is learn from what happened, and wait for the chance to do it better.

But to do “it” better, we must remember the past so that we can imagine the future. And the failure to do so may explain partly the outcome of the 2016 election.

Clive Wearing was a prominent musician who, in 1985, lost his ability to remember. As far as he was concerned, only the last few seconds of any given day had actually happened. “It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment" …

Wearing’s amnesia came with benefits: he truly lived in the present moment. … every moment was to him a new gift; every meeting with his wife, a revelation; every piece of good news, a source of incomparable joy. But he was forever stuck in the pre-time-travel era—and for him even the time travel of imagination was not possible. And that is a tragedy in itself …

It is as if Trump’s supporters desperately wanted to travel backwards in time but were unable to do so, unable to reflect on the past and thus, like amnesiacs, were unable to imagine a very unpleasant future. That future is unfolding day by day.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Trump's fiscal follies and the new director of OMB

Remember when the Republicans wanted to not raise the debt ceiling and thus to trash the “full faith and credit” of the United States - not withstanding the unconstitutionality of that action? Those were the good old days. Trump’s OMB pick might presage a fiscal folly.

Catherine Rampell writes in the Washington Post about how Trump’s OMB pick seems poised to ignite a worldwide financial crisis.

Over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump tapped Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to be his director of the Office of Management and Budget. This Cabinet-level post is responsible for producing the federal budget, overseeing and evaluating executive branch agencies and otherwise advising the president on fiscal matters. It’s a position with tremendous, far-reaching power, even if the public doesn’t pay much attention to it.

Which is why it’s so concerning that Trump chose Mulvaney, who seems poised to help Trump ignite another worldwide financial crisis.

Mulvaney was first elected to Congress in 2010 as part of the anti-government, tea party wave. A founding member of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, he is among Congress’s most committed fiscal hawks. He has repeatedly voted against his own party’s budget proposals because they were insufficiently conservative.

Whatever their differences on line-item details … Mulvaney and the president-elect have at least one major thing in common: an alarming openness to defaulting on the federal debt.

As you may recall, during the campaign Trump repeatedly flirted with the idea of defaulting on U.S. debt obligations. In a CNBC interview in May, he suggested that his experience in offloading private debt would translate nicely to federal obligations. That is, he’d simply persuade the country’s creditors to accept less than full payment.

“I would borrow knowing that if the economy crashed you could make a deal,” he said.

When the financial press freaked out, he walked back the language — only to revive it a month later.

Mulvaney has also questioned the need to preserve the country’s sterling reputation as a borrower.

He ran for Congress promising to never raise the country’s debt ceiling, and he has mostly kept to that pledge. Since taking office in January 2011, he has voted against (ultimately successful) legislation to raise this ceiling four times. He also publicly questioned whether failing to raise the ceiling would be such a bad thing, and whether it would necessitate defaulting on our debt.

To be clear: It would, and it would.

Raising the debt ceiling is about enabling the federal government to make payments that have already been promised, not new spending. Refusing to increase this limit would call into question the country’s creditworthiness.

Set aside the fact that this flippancy about making full and timely payments on our debt would likely violate Section 4 of the 14th Amendment. That’s the part of the Constitution that says that the “validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.”

One might hope that once Mulvaney adopts his new role, he’ll become more cautious about encouraging default. That seems optimistic, though, given that, as budget expert Stan Collender put it, Mulvaney will probably be the most ideological and least-qualified OMB director in decades.

Steve Benen (MSNBC/MaddowBlog) concurs and explains Why Mick Mulvaney may be one of Trump’s most alarming picks.

… OMB is easily the most important agency the country knows very little about, and the fact that Donald Trump has picked a far-right congressman to lead the office is, to put it mildly, unsettling.

Reviewing the Republican congressman’s record, “sanity” is not the first word that comes to mind. Mulvaney, for example, is a Tea Partier who helped create the right-wing House Freedom Caucus.

When GOP lawmakers shut down the federal government in 2013, it was Mulvaney who helped lead the charge, celebrating the shutdown as “good policy.” When Republicans launched their debt-ceiling hostage crisis in 2011, threatening to push the nation into default unless the party’s demands were met, Mulvaney not only championed the dangerous scheme, he publicly argued that default wouldn’t be a big deal, and undermining the full faith and credit of the United States would carry few consequences.

Mulvaney eventually lost that one. But in his new post as OMB director he can do more damage short of a government shutdown.

It’s important to remember that leading the federal Office of Management and Budget means more than crunching numbers and looking at balance sheets. NBC News’ report added, “As the White House’s budget director, Mulvaney would be responsible for reviewing the budgets of federal agencies and making sure they align with the administration’s priorities.”

I realize this may sound dry, but we’re talking about an office that has “central authority for the review of Executive Branch regulations,” determining whether or not agencies’ budgets are in line with Donald Trump’s broader goals.

About those goals and priorities? Think of these associations. Perry –> Energy. DeVos –> Education. Sessions –> Justice. Price –> HHS. Zinke –> Interior. Carson–> HUD. Pruitt –> EPA. Now add Mulvaney –> OMB to the mix and apply the authority of the OMB to Trump’s goals and priorities.

As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum noted the other day, “Mulvaney will be the patron saint of ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of federal regulations – which, in Republican hands, normally means totting up the costs and ignoring the benefits. In particular, it means that environmental regulations, even those with immense benefits, will be scored into oblivion and never see the light of day.”

Trump has made a variety of alarming personnel decisions in recent weeks. This one is among the worst.

Mulvaney and his new boss Trump are riddled with fiscal fallacies which, if acted upon, will visit a fiscal folly of immense proportions on the economy of this country and thereby create an economic global nightmare. Even if that future is not realized, the face of America is likely to be scarred by Trump and his cabinet of socioeconomic horrors.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda"

Here is how we can reverse the Republican Math and make 2,700,000 greater than 270 again.

Congressional staffers have prepared A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. (h/t Michele Manos)

Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen.

You can obtain the guide either as a pdf file or as a Word doc. Please do and then share this widely. As Ed Shultz says: Let’s get to work.

Following is a top-level, short view of what the staffers advise.

We: Are former progressive congressional staffers who saw the Tea Party beat back President Obama’s agenda.
We: See the enthusiasm to fight the Trump agenda and want to share insider info on how best to influence Congress to do that.
You: Want to do your part to beat back the Trump agenda and understand that will require more than calls and petitions.
You: Should use this guide, share it, amend it, make it your own, and get to work.

Here’s the quick and dirty summary of this document. While this page summarizes top- level takeaways, the full document describes how to actually carry out these activities.

How grassroots advocacy worked to stop President Obama. We examine lessons from the Tea Party’s rise and recommend two key strategic components:
1. A local strategy targeting individual Members of Congress (MoCs).
2. A defensive approach purely focused on stopping Trump from implementing an agenda built on racism, authoritarianism, and corruption.

How your MoC thinks — reelection, reelection, reelection — and how to use that to save democracy. MoCs want their constituents to think well of them and they want good, local press. They hate surprises, wasted time, and most of all, bad press that makes them look weak, unlikable, and vulnerable. You will use these interests to make them listen and act.

Identify or organize your local group. Is there an existing local group or network you can join? Or do you need to start your own? We suggest steps to help mobilize your fellow constituents locally and start organizing for action.

Four local advocacy tactics that actually work. Most of you have three MoCs — two Senators and one Representative. Whether you like it or not, they are your voices in Washington. Your job is to make sure they are, in fact, speaking for you. We’ve identifed four key opportunity areas that just a handful of local constituents can use to great effect. Always record encounters on video, prepare questions ahead of time, coordinate with your group, and report back to local media:
1. Town halls. MoCs regularly hold public in-district events to show that they are listening to constituents. Make them listen to you, and report out when they don’t.
2. Non-town hall events. MoCs love cutting ribbons and kissing babies back home. Don’t let them get photo-ops without questions about racism, authoritarianism, and corruption.
3. District office sit-ins/meetings. Every MoC has one or several district offices. Go there. Demand a meeting with the MoC. Report to the world if they refuse to listen.
4. Coordinated calls. Calls are a light lift but can have an impact. Organize your local group to barrage your MoCs at an opportune moment about and on a speci c issue.

As individuals, we don’t have to do all of these things. But if each of us seizes on just a few or even just one, collectively we can be effectively resistant. Now download the document and expand your choice of tactic[s].

Republican math: 270 is larger than 2,700,000 and 53% equals 77%

There is something very undemocratic about Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by over 2.7 million but losing 270 votes in the electoral college. It will get worse and the power grab by the Republicans that has started in North Carolina is just the beginning predicts Paul Waldman (Washington Post/Plum Line) in The GOP coup in North Carolina previews what we’re going to see everywhere
There’s a kind of coup going on in North Carolina, one that tells us a lot about just how far Republicans are willing to go to hold on to power and undercut Democrats.
Here’s what’s happening: After a close election, Democrat Roy Cooper defeated Republican incumbent Pat McCrory to win the governorship. So the Republican state legislature decided to call an “emergency” session before Cooper takes office and strip the governor of as many powers as it could.
Check out Waldman’s report for the details of what the Republicans did - and got signed by the outgoing Republican governor. Cooper threatens to sue.
To put this in context, perhaps nowhere in the country have Republicans moved more aggressively to solidify power by disenfranchising their opponents as they have in North Carolina. Immediately after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republicans enacted a voter suppression law that “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision,” in the words of the appeals court that later struck it down. The district lines already give the Republicans an enormous advantage: In 2016, Republicans outpolled Democrats in North Carolina congressional races by a margin of only 53–47, yet they held 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats.
So 53% entitles the NC Republicans to 77% of the congressional seats.
And they’re barely bothering to pretend that if a Republican governor is elected in four years they won’t just reverse most or all of these changes.
This isn’t just hardball politics. This is a fundamentally anti-democratic approach to government, one that says that when we win, we get to implement our agenda, and when you win, you don’t.
… there’s a shamelessness to the way Republicans change rules, trample over long-established norms, and generally act as though any result except one in which they win is inherently illegitimate. And that’s the fundamental principle that guides them. As far as they’re concerned, Democratic votes are not real votes and therefore can and should be suppressed; elections in which Democrats win can only have been stolen; and elected Democrats are usurpers against whom no tactic of subversion is out of bounds.
Ask yourself: What would be happening right now if Donald Trump had won more than three million more votes than Hillary Clinton, but Clinton prevailed in the Electoral College? Would he, his supporters, and prominent Republicans have said, “We don’t like the outcome, but that’s how the system works”? Of course not. They’d be screaming bloody murder, they’d be preparing articles of impeachment to file on the day Clinton was inaugurated, they’d be charging that the vote was stolen, they’d be filing lawsuits to overturn (not just recount) the results in every swing state, and Trump would be telling his supporters to use any means necessary to achieve justice. You think we’re divided now? If the situation was reversed we’d be on our way to civil war.
In the next few years, Democrats are going to be up against versions of the North Carolina model in every state where Republicans have power and at the national level as well: efforts not just to implement Republican policy goals but to change the rules to make it as difficult as possible for Democrats to win. It has already been happening for a while, and it’s only going to accelerate.
AZBlueMeanie (Blog for Arizona) summarizes:
Sinclair Lewis warned of such tyranny in his semi-satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here in 1935. It not only can happen here, it already is happening, coming silently, slowly, like fog creeping in “on little cat feet” to a GOP-controlled legislature near you.
Those 270 electoral votes were the last Republican firewall against the creep of Authoritarianism, American style. It was foolhardy to believe that any amount of protests would change these guys’ mind about accepting a dictator as our president. Now Dems need to fight back, Republican style. More on that is on the way in another post.

Monday, December 19, 2016

First annual Phouls in Phoenix award goes to State Senator John Kavanagh

The Phouls in Phoenix are phiddling while Arizona’s phires burn. “Phouls in Phoenix” is a label I coined some time ago to refer to foolish ghouls (or ghoulish fools) feasting on the common good. Here is an example headlined by the Daily Star this morning: Arizona bill would make theft of American flag a mandatory felony.

PHOENIX — Saying the American flag is a special symbol, a Republican lawmaker wants to make it a felony to steal one that is on display.

The proposal by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would carve an exception into existing law that generally determines the severity of a theft by the value of what is taken. That law says it’s a misdemeanor to steal anything worth less than $1,000, punishable by six months in the county jail and a $2,500 fine.

Kavanagh’s proposal, SB 1009, would boost the penalty to a year in state prison, regardless of the value of the flag. And felonies allow a judge to impose a fine of up to $150,000.

Kavanagh said the enhanced penalty is justified.

“You are not only stealing the flag, which is a venerable object to begin with,” he said.

“You are also stealing the expression of the person who is displaying the flag, perhaps in mourning for someone who is deceased, perhaps as an act of patriotism, perhaps as an act of protest,” Kavanagh explained.

“It is the First Amendment right of the person displaying it.”

But Kavanagh’s measure does not extend that same special protection to someone’s right of expression to other flags or banners. So it would remain a misdemeanor to steal a state flag, the flag of the University of Arizona or someone’s rainbow flag displayed to support gay rights.

“You have to draw the line somewhere,” he said. …

Scriber thinks Kavanagh stepped over another line - that one being the distinction between meaningful, problem-solving legislation and the Tom-phoolery that goes on in Phoenix every year.

For that reason Scriber awards Kavanagh the phirst Phouls in Phoenix award.

The DeVos plan to destroy public education: "any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of"

Last week the New Yorker explored the plan to break public schools that is laid bare by Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education. I’ll go along and focus on public education and the threat of choice for the sake of choice. But take heed: as the author points out, putting an enemy of public ed at the head of the education department is an example of the Trumpian implementation of the X-antiX formula. Many of the rest of his cabinet picks, including the recent pick for OMB fit the formula for a given agency X, choose antiX to lead destroy it.

Among the points that can be made in favor of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s billionaire nominee for the position of Secretary of Education, are the following: She has no known ties to President Vladimir Putin, unlike Trump’s nominee to head the State Department, Rex Tillerson, who was decorated with Russia’s Order of Friendship medal a few years ago. She hasn’t demonstrated any outward propensity for propagating dark, radical-right-leaning conspiracy theories, unlike Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s designated national-security adviser. She has not actively called for the dismantling of the department she is slated to head, as have Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee for Energy Secretary, and Scott Pruitt, the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

That the absence of such characteristics should bear noting only underlines the dystopian scope of Trump’s quest to complete his cabinet of cronies. On the other hand, DeVos has never taught in a public school, nor administered one, nor sent her children to one. She is a graduate of Holland Christian High School, a private school in her home town of Holland, Michigan, which characterizes its mission thus: “to equip minds and nurture hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ.”

To bring this down to earth, substitute “50 million school children” for “world” and you have essential DeVos.

How might DeVos seek to transform the educational landscape of the United States in her position at the head of a department that has a role in overseeing the schooling of more than fifty million American children? As it happens, she does have a long track record in the field. Since the early nineteen-nineties, she and her husband, Dick DeVos, have been very active in supporting the charter-school movement. They worked to pass Michigan’s first charter-school bill, in 1993, which opened the door in their state for public money to be funnelled to quasi-independent educational institutions, sometimes targeted toward specific demographic groups, which operate outside of the strictures that govern more traditional public schools. …

As a board member of Children First America and the American Education Reform Council, and later as the chair of the American Federation for Children, DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos expressed her ultimate goals in education reform, which she said she saw encompassing not just charter schools and voucher programs but also homeschooling and virtual education: “That all parents, regardless of their zip code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children. And that all students have had the best opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.”

So how well does all that work?

… How have such DeVos-sponsored initiatives played out thus far in her home state? Earlier this year, the Detroit Free Press published the results of a yearlong investigation into the state’s two-decade-long charter-school initiative—one of the least regulated in the country. Almost two-thirds of the state’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities. This lack of transparency has not translated into stellar academic results: student standardized-test scores at charter schools, the paper found, were no more than comparable with those at traditional public schools. And, despite the rhetoric of “choice,” lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while the parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system. Even Tom Watkins, the state’s former education superintendent, who favors charter schools, told the newspaper, “In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”

As the Republican nominee, Trump campaigned on a platform of educational reform, proposing to assign twenty billion dollars of federal funds to a block grant aimed at opening up school choice. The assumption is that productive competition between schools will result. “Competition always does it,” Trump said in September, as if he were speaking about air-conditioner factories rather than academic institutions. “The weak fall out and the strong get better. It is an amazing thing.”

… through her past actions, and her previously published statements, it is clear that DeVos, like the President-elect who has chosen her, is comfortable applying the logic of the marketplace to schoolyard precincts. She has repeatedly questioned the value of those very precincts’ physical existence: in the Philanthropy interview, DeVos remarked that, “in the Internet age, the tendency to equate ‘education’ with ‘specific school buildings’ is going to be greatly diminished.”

Scriber actually agrees with the latter quote. The internet is a powerful transformative agent. Consider as one example, the Kahn Academy, featured in this 2011 Wired article, How Khan Academy is changing the rules of education. However, this melding of technology and education is an entirely separate set of issues from DeVos’ push for public funding of private (including religious) schools.

The New Yorker author, Rebecca Mead, sums up:

Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment. If, in recent years, a principal focus of federal educational policy has been upon academic standards in public education—how to measure success, and what to do with the results—DeVos’s nomination suggests that in a Trump Administration the more fundamental premises that underlie our institutions of public education will be brought into question. In one interview, recently highlighted by Diane Ravitch on her blog, DeVos spoke in favor of “charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination, or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.” A preëmptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.

Trump himself, I point out, is an example of the X-antiX formula. He will shortly be appointed by the American people to head a government much of which he despises and intends to diminish.