Sunday, April 10, 2016

Is There an Affirmative Case for a Bernie Sanders Presidency?

The fact that Bernie Sanders has run a poor campaign is clear for anyone to see. From his insistence on using the term 'Socialist' to describe himself to his narrowly focused ideology to his unnecessary willingness to defend firearms manufacturers from lawsuits to his personal demeanor and appearance, he has sacrificed much in order retain the trappings of an obscure liberal northeastern politician. Obviously, no one, including Sanders himself, had any idea that there was going to be a significant constituency for his message, and that he might actually have been a viable contender from the beginning. It's interesting to imagine what the race would look like today if he had spent the previous year or two seriously building the image, message and operation necessary to compete in a major party presidential primary.

Alas, all that is water under the quaint Vermont water wheel. The math is, as they say, the math, and the primary process is structured to protect the lead of the frontrunner. In 2008 Obama led with only about 100 pledged delegates at the end of February, and even with a strong finish - including a win in California - Hillary Clinton was simply mathematically unable to close that gap. So we're left to consider what might have been, and to watch the sad, angry, often ugly recriminations from a populist constituency that never could quite figure out how to 'support' their candidate of choice.

In every campaign, particularly since the rise of cable news and digital media, it's important to separate the official campaign's messaging from that of its most passionate supporters. People frequently support a particular candidate for narrow or even ambiguous reasons, and often they are far too uninformed and politically naive to make a genuinely compelling argument in favor of that candidate. But it's impossible to pretend that the impressions and understanding of the supporters and fans aren't the direct result of the campaign itself. And while the Sanders campaign kept repeating its single tune about 'Wall Street Money' and income inequality - important issues, certainly, but not all by themselves the basis for a presidential campaign - his supporters were unable to find anything they could get their hands and heads around, any narrative they could weave that described why Sanders should be elected President.

If they couldn't make an argument in favor of Bernie Sanders, they were left looking for another approach. Ultimately, the Sanders constituency settled on a dual message: The media was biased against him and the Right Wing had been right all along about Hillary Clinton. She was horrible, toxic, corrupt, dishonest, a tool of banks and corporations and represented everything that was wrong with American governance. The media bias message is particularly incoherent - in a way it's similar to the more common conspiracy theories. The story is that the media is keeping the Sanders message from getting out, and in some cases even intentionally favoring Clinton in their coverage. How do they know this? Why, they can SEE it of course. It's just all those other people - presumably the people who favor Hillary Clinton - who are blind sheep who can't see that the media is fooling them. This is a classic closed-loop self-serving narrative, where the conspiracy is obvious but inexplicably only people who believe in the conspiracy can see it.

This approach has, necessarily, extended to attacking and smearing any pundit who even asked basic questions about the campaign's messaging. Even - or perhaps especially - iconic liberal voices have been repeatedly accused of corruption and self-interest. Paul Krugman is one of the popular liberal pundits that has come under vicious fire from Sanders supporters. One of the things I admire about him is his willingness to carefully examine his own beliefs and conclusions to make certain he's not arriving at them because they are things he truly would like to believe, but rather that they are borne out by the facts and models, and that they pass empirical as well as intuitive tests. So when he - as a Nobel Prize winning economist and author of the number one college economics textbook - asked specific questions about the Sanders economic plan, he was immediately smeared as a corporate tool (!!) and accused of angling for a job in the Clinton cabinet. They find it simply inconceivable that an economist might question the economic assumptions of a Presidential candidate.

Now, many of these attacks by Sanders supporters have been offensive, vile smears often descending into rank misogyny. But more annoying than that is their arrogant certainty - the absolute refusal to consider that someone might actually be offering principled support for Clinton, support based on something other than blatant corruption or outright evil. The belief that they are right, and all others are not just wrong, but intentionally wrong with malicious intent. When you couple that with their irrational belief that the majority of Americans would support extremely liberal economic and political policies, in spite of a century of evidence to the contrary - and the fact that Clinton has received almost three million MORE primary and caucus votes than Sanders at this point in the process - you find a deluded, irrational, angry, reactionary rabble. What you cannot find, sadly, is a single argument IN FAVOR of a Sanders presidency.

Friday, April 8, 2016

On the Constitutional Legitimacy of the Primary Process

This is Party business. We're not doing
democracy here.
Despite the nature of the endless, breathless coverage, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz are not participating in an 'election'. What we're seeing unfold over all these months is merely the latest iteration of the political parties' nominating process. The fact that in recent years there have been efforts to better democratize that process - people go to their neighborhood polling places and cast official government-issued ballots under a process that feels identical to the election - that effort notwithstanding, people are struggling to understand that there is no constitutional or electoral underpinnings for the nominating process. The parties are unconstrained by constitutional provisions or even basic democratic norms, free to define the process and make the rules that leads, ultimately, to choosing their nominee in the general election. No amount of complaining about 'superdelegates', caucuses, proportional delegate allocation or obscure provisions governing the convention will change anything, because it is the party, not the constitutional or the judiciary that defines the functional nuts and bolts of the process.

Primary elections are mostly a new thing. The first was held in 1912 in Oregon, but it was a rare thing indeed. As late as 1968, only 13 states held primary elections. It was the entire point and purpose of a national party convention to bring the party's delegates together to choose their Presidential nominee. But, of course, we all remember the bloody and chaotic Democratic Party convention in 1968 in Chicago. The assassination of Robert Kennedy splintered the anti-war vote, Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, and while he only lost the popular vote by 0.7%, he was crushed in the electoral college by Richard Nixon. After that, the writing was on the wall. Both parties immediately began implementing changes to the selection process that would bring public sentiment into the process, while still retaining the ultimate nominating power within the party structure itself.

After the debacle in Chicago in 1968, where a viciously divided party in chaos ended up nominating a candidate who hadn't entered even a single primary, the party announced the creation of what became know as the McGovern-Fraser Commission. The commission announced a set of guidelines that would govern the nominating process in 1972 - both at the state level and at the national convention. Over the next several cycles, the party leadership became concerned that the commission rules had in essence "over democratized" the nominating process, allowing the voters too much control over what they viewed - properly - as an internal party function. So in the 1984 cycle, the Democratic party created a pool of unpledged so-called 'superdelegates' that could offset what they viewed as particularly tactically egregious voter selections. Over time, the Democrats have also adopted a proportional delegate allocation scheme that makes it incredibly difficult for an upstart challenger to overtake a party favorite.

Are these kinds of party rules undemocratic? Of course they are - the party has an interest in eliminating guesswork or randomness from the nominating process, and making sure they are fielding the candidate they feel gives them the best chance to win. Are they somehow dishonest or unconstitutional? Of course not. Those aren't descriptions that even have applicability to questions about the process. In the end, it is strictly an internal party process, the outcome of which the party leadership has a profound interest in. If you don't like the system, tough. You don't get a vote.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Susan Sarandon, Donald Trump and the Next American Revolution

Wait. What??
Bernie Sanders' entire campaign has been premised on a fundamental change in the American political dialog. In his envisioned 'revolution', the American people would suddenly rise up in huge numbers to embrace a very liberal vision of governance and economics he calls 'democratic socialism'. Instead of a long, grinding, generational fight for big ideas and strongly held ideological beliefs unfolding over decades, politics in Washington DC would suddenly shift on their axis in an unprecedented transformation in beliefs and expectations around tax policy, government services and the redistribution of wealth.

Certainly, this kind of instant gratification politics appeals to anyone who is fed up with the endless status quo, obstruction and the slow pace of progress. The high hopes for this revolution require pretending, however, that there is a vast, pent up demand for liberal political and government solutions - the very idea of which is called into question by the most cursory look at the American electorate, or an afternoon watching our House of Representatives in action. But the people who have embraced the Sanders campaign most passionately have no interest in this kind of analysis - they want a President who believes what THEY believe, and they have succeeded in convincing themselves that a significant plurality - perhaps even a majority - of the American people believe the very same things and that a fervent, passionate leader could implement them in a singe four-year term.

Take, for example, noted liberal actress Susan Sarandon. She went on the Chris Hayes television show and said that if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she'll consider voting for Donald Trump instead. Why? To hasten 'the revolution', she said with a straight face. Left tragically unexplored is what, precisely, she meant by 'revolution'. Does she believe that a Donald Trump that could actually WIN the White House would somehow trigger the kind of outpouring of liberal activism that the candidacy of BERNIE SANDERS could not? Or is she considering something considerably darker - that perhaps a Trump presidency would be so horrible for so many Americans that the people would rise up and violently overthrow his rule?

But that's even sillier. The American people are comfortable, wealthy, employed and entertained. They do not suffer from the poverty, disease, oppression and hopelessness for the future that has driven revolutions and popular revolts for a thousand years. What American has had it so awful for so long that they are willing to risk arrest, imprisonment or violent death to try to overthrow the government? For that matter, as horrible a President as Donald Trump would certainly be, can anyone truly expect that presidency to create an army of desperate, starving hopeless revolutionaries manning the barricades in cities across the country?

The entire basis for some kind of large-scale hope for near term transformative change in American governance that seems to have attached itself to the Sanders candidacy is in every way a fantasy. A Sanders presidency would be very much like a Clinton presidency, and while a Trump presidency would be significantly worse for a variety of constituencies, in the end America would look very much the same as it does today.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Money For Nothing...

...and your checks for free
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have made various proposals for essentially increasing government services to the larger share of the American population. Although they take significantly different approaches to extant political and economic realities, they both have a single overarching feature that is nothing short of a nod to the madness and incoherence that has infected our system of governance in recent decades. What 'feature' is that? They both include detailed plans for 'paying for' their service expenditures, mostly through federal taxation policy. Why do they believe this is necessary? Sadly, because conventional wisdom and deficit fear-mongering have hardened into a sclerotic fiscal system in which it is impossible to increase revenues or deficits, even if it would be obviously economically beneficial to do so.

First, we have arrived at a point where the current rate of federal spending has been arbitrarily deemed the maximum possible. We can cut spending, but any process that increases revenues or the federal budget deficit is a political non-starter. And this is true for both parties - for the Democrats, mostly because they know that the Republicans in congress would block any net spending increase, but the fact that they don't even make the simple argument I am making here is telling. As for the Republicans, they don't actually mind large deficits - as long as they are created by revenue shortfalls rather than increased spending. All the major Republican candidates for President have released a budget document that includes massive tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations without any revenue offsets. That these plans would blow up the deficit and force massive cuts to social welfare spending is a feature, not a bug.

The question is simple, and straightforward: Are deficits always 'bad'? If deficits are to be avoided at all times and under all circumstances, then the only mechanism available for raising government revenue is tax policy. But this is clearly and demonstrably not the case. If a nation borrows in its own currency, it can never 'go broke'. There are limits to how much new fiat money the Treasury should put into circulation, but in an economy approaching $20 Trillion annual GDP, those limits are correspondingly large. For nations like the US and other large economies, the key question is the cost of that money. Currently, the global economy is awash with funds seeking some kind of investment vehicle. While some portion of these funds are looking for higher returns, there is tremendous demand for American government bonds - so much demand, in fact, that real interest rates have been driven down to near zero. You don't have to take my word for it - here's the data from the Federal Reserve:

Short term inflation expectations and long term bond yields are hovering under 2%. But I'd especially call your attention to the green line on the chart. That is the 'breakeven' rate for the 10 year inflation-indexed bond. And, once again, it's sitting at zero. This makes sense - if the yield is 2% and inflation is 2% then the real interest rate on that instrument is zero. Now this raises the question that ALL American voters - left, right and center - should be asking. If we can invest in infrastructure, education, R&D, and other worthwhile endeavors at essentially zero cost, why does our government refuse to do so? When I repeatedly shout that it's the SYSTEM that is broken, and no amount of political jockeying can do anything about it until there is a functional system within which the political factions can work, this is exactly the kind of systemic failure I'm talking about. When they have created a system where an old guy sitting on his couch can clearly see the right way forward and not a single politician from either party has the political will to at least suggest it as a possibility, how is there any basis for hope?

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman vs. Superman - You'll Put Your Eye Out

This is how it's done in the real world
I suppose most of my regular readers by now know my feelings about superheroes in general. I don't like the concept - it's too close to mythology, to magicks, to ancient just-so stories that attempted to describe an observed reality that was beyond their technical understanding. As members of the human species, we spend every day of our lives surrounded by others of our ilk, and yet none on them, not ONE ever exhibits the kind of superpowers we routinely delegate to our comic book heroes. Frankly, I've never been able to grok why it is we need superheroes - they don't tell us anything about our world, and they don't speak to what we are capable of as homo sapiens sapiens.

But now we have a vast drooling American population slackjawed at the release of the latest fantasy blockbuster, Batman v Superman. I suppose the first question that must be asked is why these two caped crimefighters would fight each other. (I'd also like to know what's the deal with the capes, but I'm here to mock them, not shame them for their choices in outfits.) The answer, pathetically, is that for generations sixth grade boys have spent billions of hours collectively arguing on the playground the hypothetical "in a fight between Batman and Superman, who would win?"

Now, this is dumb on a number of levels, even according to the canon. Setting aside that they're supposed to be on the same 'side', Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, a very rich orphan with a lot of training and technology, but no actual superpowers. Superman, on the other hand, is an alien, an immortal, god-like creature that should be able to crush the nominally human Bat in an instant. So anytime these two representatives of their species must fight, the narrative must include a variety of unlikely - wait - I suppose, considering the premise, that nothing in the story should be considered particularly more 'unlikely' than anything else - events, conditions and substances which serve to weaken superman and make the fight more interesting, or at least ensure it will last longer than a microsecond.

If you happen to be a fan of the genre, I suppose the events in Batman v Superman have some dramatic implications, and represent an opportunity for good actors to chew up some theatrical scenery. I'm reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies where Robert de Niro's professional thief and Al Pacino's detective take a few minutes to share a tense, if somehow brotherly cup of coffee. The cinematic tension was high, the dialog was spare and powerful, and the muted colors of the late night coffee shop setting was ultimately noir. I personally doubt you can build that kind of tension between two men in tights, but at least in theory this is precisely the kind of conflict between hardened professionals that leads to both deep, violent animosity and a kind of understanding, perhaps almost kinship, that can serve to point out the ultimate pointlessness of the conflict.

We live in the world - every day of our lives. We KNOW nobody is going to be tossing cars or firing missiles from jet scooters. In the realm of conflict, humans have superpowers when they are well trained and experienced with guns, knives or martial arts. THOSE are the people who have the power to take lives, to destroy buildings, and fight at a very high, very deadly level. Audie Murphy was a superhero. Jim Cirillo was a superhero. Carlos Hathcock was a superhero. And that's what human superheroes have the power to do - they kill. They kill in vast numbers like Murphy, they kill at eyeball range like Cirillo, and they kill at long distances like Hathcock. This is the pinnacle of human superpowers - and to pretend it is anything more romantic or less ugly than that hard, simple truth is to believe in a world where benign alien gods would be unable to instantly destroy a rich human in bat ears.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Large Hadron Collider - Shifting to Glide

When 2 experiments give you the same
anomalous data...
The Large Hadron Collider in Europe follows a strictly defined schedule. They run proton/proton collisions from spring until winter, finish the year with several weeks of heavy ion collisions using lead nuclei and then spend the next three to four months in their YETS - year end technical stop. During this period they do maintenance and inspections, particularly of the cryogenics system and the four primary experiments, ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb. Now it's the end of March. That means college basketball championships, the beginning of the baseball season, and restarting the LHC.

Last year was the beginning of what CERN called LHC Run Number Two. The first several years the collider ran at much lower power, then it was shut down and upgraded to its rated energy of 14TeV - two beams at 7TeV each colliding head on at relativistic velocities. This year will be a full year running the collider at full power. Scientists expect to take at least six times as much data this year as they did last year.

There are a number of specific targets of this research. First there is the Higgs Boson - researchers observed the Higgs last year, but they observed it at a surprisingly low mass - about 125GeV. For the particle that carries the field that gives mass to everything that HAS mass, that was not an expected  result. Furthermore, two different experiments found the same statistical anomaly - an unexpected decay channel of a pair of high energy photons at 750GeV - that may indicate additional Higgs particles at higher masses.

Next is the big question of particle physics - dark matter. When a quarter of the universe is composed of some kind of particle you can neither identify nor describe, that's a question that has to be answered. Essentially, dark matter is composed of some unknown particle that has mass but does not interact with 'regular' baryonic matter. There are a number of proposed explanations - particularly SuperSymmetry, or SUSY, which postulates each particle in the Standard Model has a 'Superpartner' at a higher mass. Physicists hope that at the higher energies and greater luminosity of the LHC this year they'll begin to see some of those higher mass particles.

And, of course, there's always the possibility of something totally unexpected. This years run is a little like walking into a vast dark warehouse for the first time with a flashlight. These energies and these collision rates will take our species to a place that hasn't even existed in almost 14 billion years. What will be observed will be nothing more than what nature has always incorporated, perhaps things that other species have observed before, but we will be seeing them for the very first time. Confirming and validating existing theories is great, and necessary scientific work, but everyone greatly prefers seeing data that forces them to tear up the old theories and start over. THAT'S when this gets truly exciting.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Russia in Syria - Learning the Lessons

It was a good deal for both of them
Russian President Vladimir Putin somewhat surprisingly ordered the drawdown of its forces in Syria this week. But it's very important to understand why they would do that, and why they would do it now. When they originally intervened with their own military in September, Assad was in the process of losing the war. He was short on troops, short on weapons, and in a slow, drawn-out retreat west toward the sea. Putin ordered his forces in to relieve the military pressure on the regime, stop the rebel westward advance and push them back out of Latakia Province. Putin doesn't care about Syria - in this he is coldly rational. He wanted to keep a friendly government in Damascus, a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean and a platform from which he could influence middle eastern affairs.

One of the odd characteristics of Western military interventions is that, once we are engaged, we find it very difficult to disengage. In many cases, arguments are made for staying longer and investing more - Afghanistan is the prime example. It seems that Putin doesn't see it that way - you get in, accomplish what you can accomplish and get out again. No long quagmire, no open-ended commitment. It's interesting to remember that this is precisely what the foul and odious GW Bush promised us in 2003. An invasion, a road march to Baghdad, a quick regime change and the American troops would be home in the Summer. Whether that was ever a sincere promise is an open question, but it ultimately doesn't matter. It's not something Americans seem capable of actually doing.

For the Russians, the mission truly is accomplished. The Assad regime is stabilized, and his government is deeply indebted to Moscow for their continued power - indeed, their continued existence. Iran is seen as Syria's lesser ally, and NATO is weakened by the ongoing Turkish war with the Kurds. Russia can claim to be the driving force behind peace talks, and if Syria ends up de facto partitioned into regime, rebel, and Kurdish areas with limited combat it would absolutely be a win for Putin. Eventually, the Russian diplomats force Assad out, replace him with someone of their choosing, and work for some kind of federalized system of governance that cements the status quo.

There are so many valuable lessons to be learned here, the most important of which is that nations need to always act first and foremost in their own interest. Second, military intervention is a very specific tool - it only solves problems that can be solved by breaking things and hurting people, and once that is done the presence of combat troops becomes a costly hindrance to longer term solutions. Third, many of these conflicts have more than two factions involved - no intervention can be effective unless it chooses one side and backs that side only. As soon as there is a lack of clarity over what the intervention is supposed to accomplish, the intervention will never end, and it can never 'succeed'.