Sunday, February 28, 2016

No, Donald Trump is not "Destroying" the Republican Party

The Party will be fine. Different, but fine...
The Republican Party has been at loggerheads with itself for decades. As a political organization, it existed to serve the needs of business and the wealthy. Ideologically it was focused with laser precision on massive deficit-financed tax cuts and limits on regulation that interfered with corporate profits. They were true laissez-faire free-marketeers, except when they could use the power of government to put a thumb on the scale in favor of the owners of capital. Their problem has been manifest for a long time - in order to gain the political power to achieve their ideological goals, a political organization needs voters. The Republicans had funding, they had leadership, they had a clear set of political goals - but the 1% makes a rather pathetic voting bloc. So the party leadership, in a very calculated manner, added a set of social issues over the core platform. It started with abortion, which led to an army of evangelical protestants, which led to southern whites, which led to disaffected working class bigots. So they adopted maximal positions on immigration, law & order, education, voting rights, affirmative action - anyplace they could drive a wedge into American society that would carve off another set of voters.

But along the way, this army of political ground troops, trained and honed by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Fox News and the fever swamps of right wing media, began to notice that despite all the love and promises lavished upon them by the Republican Party, they kept losing. They were losing on immigration, on civil rights, on marriage equality, on environmental regulations. They were voting for a party that was damaging them economically in exchange for a return to 1950s social norms, and they kept getting nothing out of the deal. The Republicans thought of these people as 'their' voters, but what they didn't realize is that their loyalty to the Party was tenuous at best. What they wanted was a political organization that would use its power to advance their social issues, and they really didn't care if it cost the wealthy some income and businesses some profits.

The stood by in rising frustration as the party establishment replaced their tea party firebrands with first John McCain and then with Mitt Romney. They knew what they wanted, they just didn't know how to get it. And then along came Donald Trump. Northern, often somewhat liberal billionaire blowhard, he could clearly see who made up the Republican Party, and he spoke to them. He addressed their fear of the  other, their anger at the shifting norms of a modern, diverse culture. He used the same coarse language of racial and tribal insults they used - no longer coded 'dog whistles', but he just said back to them what they KNEW to be true. And now, as a result, the party has the leaders and the donors, but Donald Trump has the voters.

So now people are looking at this civil war between the traditional Republicans and the movement conservatives they courted for years, but never married, and they tell us the this will 'destroy' the party. And that's silly - the party has been a dysfunctional marriage of convenience for decades, and Trump is in the process of putting it back together again. No matter what happens in the 2016 election cycle, the GOP is never going to be the same. They are going to have to follow Trump's lead, defining a kind of conservative populism that actually attempts to deliver what the voting base wants, even if it costs them some of the Chamber of Commerce 1%. The Republican Party will exist - stronger than ever, as it moves at long last in the direction of its base voters. The message will have to evolve, and the emphasis will have to change. When they take power, they will still cut taxes and regulations, but they will also have to follow through on the red-meat promises them made to their voters.

This may not be a good thing for America - but it is an undeniable win for the American conservative voter.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Facts Have a Well-Known...Er, Never Mind

I already know the answer. Now. What's the question?
I used to believe that there was a fundamental, really an absolute difference between liberals and conservatives. We were the empiricists, willing to follow the evidence and evaluate the facts no matter where it took us. It was better to start with a clear eyed view of reality and then try to develop policies that would lead to our desired outcomes. Unlike conservatives, we were not so desperate to find confirmation of the things we so desperately wanted to believe that we could be bamboozled into believing anything - from tax cuts increase revenue to believing that we are faced with annihilation by Muslim terrorists. It was the conservatives that would unquestioningly believe anything that told them things they wanted to hear, or that confirmed a worldview that couldn't stand up to honest scrutiny. As bad as we wanted certain things to be true, if the facts took us another direction we would sadly - perhaps even reluctantly - give up on those beliefs in favor of a worldview grounded in reality.

Sadly, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign has disabused me of such a quaint, naive notion. Motivated reasoning is not, it turns out, a conservative weakness, but more of a universal human weakness to be carefully guarded against. No matter who we are, no matter our ideology and political belief system, there are certain things we fiercely want to be true, and we react with anger and resentment when presented with facts that tell us they are not. Now, it has been historically true in recent decades that liberals were more willing than conservatives, upon reflection and analysis, to give up those cherished beliefs and build a new worldview on a foundation of factual analysis. But we are learning, as the Democratic primary season plays itself out, that sort of self-inveigled understanding of fairly basic political and economic realities is not solely the province of silly old white men in tri-cornered hats.

Indeed, just as American Christianist extremists adopt a whole set of social taboos and structures that are often in perfect alignment with the Islamist extremists they claim to hate, other than the political/economic/governance policy disagreements, it's become surprisingly different to tell a liberal hippie from a tea party conservative. The much-argued comparisons between the Trump and Sanders campaign is fairer than may are willing to accept. While they espouse diametrically opposed policy positions, they do so with the same kind of vague mumblings under shouted promises, all wrapped up in a few clever slogans.

We laughed when Jeb Bush ludicrously promised 4% annual economic growth, but then were surprised at the anger and outrage when we laughed at an analysis of Sanders economic policies projected 5.3% annual growth. Just a few years removed from a bloody multi year legislative fight that produced Obamacare, providing health insurance to an additional 20 million Americans and income security for millions more, the Sanders campaign tells us the ACA is a disappointment and that fully government funded single payer is not only the solution, it is a solution they promise to deliver. Ask how they plan on overcoming the immense political, ideological and economic hurdles that have prevented anything like that in the past, they respond with more vague mumblings and shouted accusations of corruption.

Many years ago, I left my beloved online community of Sadly, No! because I had grown exhausted and frustrated trying to have a meaningful conversation with people who refused to agree to a single, standard definition of common words. It was Upton Sinclair who famously advised: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" Similarly, when it is more important to someone to believe the world is a certain way than it is to learn how the world actually functions, there are no facts or arguments that can sway them.

Frankly, I'm looking forward to Super Tuesday next week so we can stop arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and start counting delegates in earnest.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Whither SCOTUS?

It was fun while it lasted
First, let's be clear. There is no chance of an Obama appointment to replace Justice Scalia. None. All it takes is Ted Cruz, and there are plenty more behind him if he wavers. It's actually not so bad in the near term - many of the lower court decisions that will stand in the event of a deadlocked Supreme Court will be decided by much more rational, progressive judges than you find on the Roberts court. Which is to say, there are cases that would probably overturned that won't be, and cases that simply won't be challenged in a court unlikely to be able to overturn the lower court ruling.

But the interesting challenge comes in a year from now, when we have inaugurated the 45th President. There is no rule or requirement governing the Article II provision around 'Advice and Consent'. Only a set of obsolete, gentlemanly norms. Esteemed colleagues, unanimous consent, friction and veto points - the cooling saucer of government, as George Washington is said to have called it. So if we assume that a Democratic President is elected in November - remember, that President is certain to either be the hated and reviled Hillary Clinton or an aging northeast liberal socialist who would inspire perhaps even more cross-aisle acrimony - it's hard to see the Republicans in the Senate consenting to the creation of a **GASP** liberal supreme court. As the Republican party has lurched so far to the right, they have been unable to enact their agenda through legislation, and have depended on the courts to make the policy they could not. And from immigration to law enforcement to voting rights restrictions to campaign finance - even to putting the odious GW Bush in the White House in 2000 - they have done exactly that. As their only real source of political power, movement conservatives are loathe to lose their influence on the court.

Ah, but what if the Republicans win in November? That's an equally interesting question. Senate Democrats will be rightfully butthurt - they will believe they were "owed" an appointment and it was taken from them in an expression of raw, unconstitutional lawlessness. While it's harder to see the Democrats going an entire four year presidential term without approving a Supreme Court Justice, it's equally hard to see them willingly plunge into hearings and votes on President Trump's judicial nominations. Just as the filibuster went from being a rarely used tactic of last resort to a routine supermajority requirement to move legislation, one can see how two years of political trench warfare over the Supreme Court might lead to a new sense of 'normal' that would make it easier for either side to refuse to confirm the President's nominee.

Of course, the evenly divided 4-4 court isn't going to remain in place for long. Ginsburg is 83, Kennedy will be 80 in July and Breyer is 77. So the court could fluctuate between ideologically neutral, conservative or liberal as the number of sitting justices declined and could not be replaced. The problem isn't really ideology - the problem is an obsolete Presidential system with two legislative bodies with co-equal power. Our system was designed for the earliest popular democracies - before trains, before telegraph, when horses provided the fastest mode of transportation and communication. The system worked as long as it did because the political parties tended to be of mixed ideologies - you had, for example, liberal northeastern Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. There was less to be won or lost by one party or the other, and they could sit together and make deals to do the people's business.

Now, the political parties have hardened along strict ideological lines, and compromise has come to be viewed as tantamount to defeat. Every issue is all or nothing, and there is no congeniality or political give-and-take. Driven by an increasingly angry and frustrated consituency, both parties seek to make progress while denying any advantage to the other side. In a divided government like we have today, this results in stasis, the status quo of endless trench warfare, neither side able to find leverage within a system that provides so many tools of obstruction. The Republicans in particular see this fight over the Supreme Court as a matter of life and death, and it's hard to see how they could be convinced to give in when a single Senator can block a nominee forever.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Apple vs. The FBI - Is Tim Cook Objectively Pro-Terrorist?

Over/Under: 45 Million Attempts
On December 2, 2015, Syed Farook had three mobile phones. Two were his own devices, while the other, an iPhone 5, was issued by his employer, the County Department of Public Health. In the aftermath of the shootings, the investigation determined that he had destroyed his private devices, but not his company iPhone. The Department of Justice issued a warrant for his iCloud backup, which Apple dutifully turned over to the FBI through its compliance office. The FBI was frustrated to discover that, for a variety of reasons not clearly understood, the last iCloud backup was from October 19th. That meant that any relevant information that device might contain would still be on the phone.

The good news is that, being an older iPhone, the passcode is a simple numeric string. The bad news - at least from the government's standpoint - is that the iOS operating system, like virtually all operating systems, contained a lockout function. After a series of ten unsuccessful login attempts, the phone would wipe it's memory and storage. This is one of the oldest, most basic OS security functions, a very straightforward common sense protection of private information in case the device itself is stolen or compromised.

Now, the FBI forensic team is pretty certain they can crack the passcode on Farook's iPhone using brute force - just by connecting it to a program designed to try millions of numeric combinations until, ultimately and by complete accident, hitting on the right one. But before they can do that, they need to the core OS lockout functionality to be disabled. Of course, there IS no version of iOS without that function - it's been a common security feature in all operating systems for decades. Enter your friendly authoritarian surveillance state.

The DoJ simply issued another court order, this one requiring Apple to provide a version of iOS compatible with the device in question that did not include the lockout function. Only Apple can do this because any operating system upgrade or change would have to be 'signed' with Apple's own digital signature - another form of encryption that is used for authentication - or the phone itself would refuse to install it. Apple has so far refused to comply, and is challenging the legality of the court order.

There are many, many reasons why Apple should not be required to provide the requested code, very few of which have anything to do with Syed Farook or the tragic events in San Bernardino. After all, if he had any real concerns about the information on the iPhone, it seems as if he would have destroyed it too. The fact that he chose to destroy his privately owned devices would indicate that there isn't much, if anything, of interest on the iPhone. But even so, let's think about what the government is demanding here. A warrant requires a person or organization to produce something in their possession - an item - a gun, a computer, a safe, specific documents - or knowledge, such as GPS data or billing records. In this case, the government isn't asking Apple for the passcode - they know Apple couldn't possibly know what it was, and therefore could not provide it if they wanted to - instead the government is asking Apple to create a security-crippled version of their operating system and hand it over to the FBI for use in cracking the Farook iPhone.

But think about it - this 'back doored' version of iOS will be nothing but a digital file - copies will be saved on hard drives just in the process of making the intended use of it. Even if we accept that the FBI will follow the rules of the court around how and when they could use such information - hah! - does anyone truly doubt that within a week it will be in the possession of the NSA? And once a piece of malware is in the wild, it will show up in all sorts of places - it's just too easy to copy and share.

Further, the government's legal premise here is a piece of the Judiciary Act of 1789 called the "All Writs Act". The AWA is quite brief and tremendously broad, and essentially says that in the absence of alternative remedies, United States Federal Courts may "issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law." If the courts begin to determine that there is no limit to the kinds of requirements they can place on people and companies to access private information, it's very hard to see where any of this ever ends. Compromised encryption, real-time data feeds, targeted malware - what limits would exist?

And, of course, looking at it from the other side, the government is treading awfully close to 'be careful what you wish for' territory here. If a global community, such as the old Open Software Foundation or the GNU project or the Linux community, came together to develop a set of free open source encryption tools that were hardened against any kind of compromise, there would be no owner or organization who the writs could be issued against. The government could try to crack these tools, but since they can't even crack oPGP - 20 year old technology - one might think they'd want to be a little more cautious in their demands.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Air Force Wants to Retire the A-10, But All Those Pesky Wars Keep Getting In the Way

Sometimes nothing else will do
All air to ground combat is not created equal. A B-52's hundreds of bombs, the intelligent guided Hellfire missile being used against a tank or bunker, a precision guided bomb dropped on a bridge, a cruise missile suddenly striking a headquarters in the middle of a city - these are all different manifestations of the way air power can be used in wartime. And they all require certain capabilities, but they all have spent decades transferring the intelligence and guidance from the pilot and the airplane to the weapons themselves. This allows a more diverse set of airframes to do a more diverse set of jobs. And that can lead to a certain blind spot when there are applications of air power that require an airframe with a very specific set of features - specific roles that intelligent weapons can't fill, at least not by themselves.

The two primary remaining cases that call for specially designed aircraft are the air superiority role and the close air support role. The US continues to have the dominant air superiority fighter in the world in the F-22 Raptor - that the fleet of Raptors is pitifully small is an important consideration, but it cannot be said that the Air Force is ambivalent about the air superiority role. But here's the problem - the US has been 'at war' for the better part of two decades and has NEVER in that time had to operate in contested airspace. In these kinds of 'permissive' environments, stealth and air-to-air capability are useless, and with troops engaged in daily small-unit combat, effective close air support is critical. And the US Air Force provides tremendously effective CAS using the venerable A-10 Warthog and the AC-130 gunship. Both provide the ability to visually identify where the good guys are and where the bad guys are, and then put devastating fire precisely where it is needed by the troops, even when it's 'danger close'.

Unfortunately, the Air Force did something we are taught not to do from kindergarten. They put all their eggs in one basket, a basket called the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Because they are committed to buying about 2500 of the expensive jets, they've had to drastically reduce other procurement programs. They canceled the F-22 program after taking delivery of only 187 airframes. And now, even worse, they are committed to retiring the only dedicated CAS airframe in inventory, the A-10. The Air Force insists they can replace the Warthogs with the F-35 and advanced drones, but that's theory. Real life seems to indicate even they know that's not even close to true.

America has found herself fighting endless wars in the middle east, with both American and allied troops engaged in daily combat across a broad thousand-mile front from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa. These are all small unit battles fought on the ground with very limited artillery or armor - the quintessential permissive airspace. And despite the rhetoric that has been used to support the elimination of the A-10 from the inventory, the pesky old Warthog just keeps proving too valuable, even necessary to actually do so. The conundrum they face is somewhat ironic - they want to eliminate the A-10, but they fairly obviously won't be able to do so until the US can free itself from these endless decades-long conflicts. As long as we are engaged in this endless "forever war", the A-10 and the AC-130 are going to have to be there, supporting the infantry on the ground.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Single Payer Blues

Umm, OK. But I have a few questions.
Bernie Sanders recently released a campaign plan to create a government-funded single payer health care program that would cover everyone and cost nothing at the individual level. While this plan is fraudulent in a number of ways - more about that in a bit - it has at least started a conversation about the next step in health care reform after the ACA. While that conversation is good, and necessary, it is also fraught with myths, wishful thinking and outright falsehoods. While a properly constructed single-payer plan would be a good thing, America has some unique conditions that make it very difficult to get there, and if it wasn't crafted carefully and thoughtfully, it would leave people much worse off than they are today.

What are some of those 'unique conditions'? Well, first there is the current process of employer funded health insurance. Most Americans never pay an insurance premium. So if you tell them you're going to give them health insurance they don't have to pay for, they don't get terribly excited because they already have that. Then, if you tell them you're going to raise their taxes to pay for that health care, they're going to tell you no thanks.

Second, the big difference between the US health care industry and other nations, particularly nations with their own single-payer programs, is cost. In the US we spend about $10,000 per capita annually on health care. This is far and away the highest cost for health care anywhere in the world. Why is that? Because in the US, we have an agreement that whatever procedures the doctor orders, the insurance company pays for. It is an unusually lavish kind of coverage which produces large profits for the health care delivery network. Single payer plans all have one thing in common - stringent cost controls. They won't just pay for everything, and they define HOW MUCH they will pay for procedures that are covered. This is where the Sanders proposal slips into dishonesty - his cost estimates reflect this kind of dynamic cost-control measures, but he promises the same levels of coverage. It can't be both - the same level of coverage would require several trillion dollars in additional taxation - 20-30% tax increases on the middle class - or there would have to be significant new limitations in coverage.

Finally, there is the question of health care delivery - the point where the rubber meets the road. Everyone wants to talk about the additional costs imposed by a private, for-profit insurance industry, but they never seem to get around to addressing a private, for-profit delivery system. If you're going to offer a plan to convert the United States to a government funded health care system, you're going to have to include the hospitals, doctors, ambulances, dentists, urgent care centers and clinics. Who owns them? Who pays the doctors and nurses and specialists? What's their incentive to cooperate? What happens if they limit the number of single-payer patients they'll see? What happens if employers continue to offer private insurance policies to their employees?

You're going to have to figure out what the comprehensive plan is, how you're going to pay for it, and then you're going to have to convince people to accept less coverage at a higher personal cost than they're paying today. In the end it would probably a good thing, but at least you should recognize that there is simply no direct route from where we are today to that point.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Republican Party and the Struggle for the Conservative Soul

And maybe their voters are catching on to the scam
For the last few decades, the Republican party has walked a fine high-wire act between the Party as a political organization and the Movement conservatives that are considered its 'base' of voters. The problem is, as much as they need each other, they don't really like each other very much. The party has a single policy agenda, which it pursues with a laser like focus. It is strictly an economic policy goal - the upward transfer of wealth from the poor and minorities to the wealthy and the corporations - essentially the 1%.  This goal explains their perpetual demands for lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations, paid for by a reduction in social spending on the poor, and reduced regulatory limits on unfettered corporate profitability. Of course, the problem with the 1% as a political constituency is that it represents, well, 1% of the voters. It's hard to gain electoral power with such a small committed voting bloc, no matter how wealthy and powerful they are.

Movement conservatives don't really care about any of that. To whatever extent such a policy agenda affects them, it harms them. What they want is an activist government that will intervene to protect white privilege, working class jobs and an unusually religious definition of social and cultural constructs. With the advent of the 'abortion issue', and the resulting politicization of evangelical Christians, the Republican party found its army of voters. Time and  again, Republican political candidates promised vast, sweeping rollbacks of modern diversity and the cultural depravity they saw as an inevitable result, along with attempts to keep a strong white male patriarchy at the top of American society. And time and again, once elected, the Republican politicians promptly forgot all that in order to get along with the business of transferring American wealth to the wealthy.

The base noticed. They got angry, they railed against the Republicans that 'made deals' and 'sold out' the cause. But the party didn't care - after all, who were they going to vote for? Bill Clinton? John Kerry? Barack Obama? Hah. When the party needed them at the next election, they'd be there again, a reliable army out in the streets knocking on doors and manning phone banks. In 2008 the party establishment convinced them they needed John McCain, a politician who represented everything they loathed, at the head of the ticket due to his 'electability'. They said that Sarah Palin would be there to protect their interests. In 2012, movement conservatives were more up in arms than ever, sputtering bile in their hatred for Barack Obama and his Muslim loving socialism. But once again, the Party sold them on Mitt Romney's electability, and Paul Ryan as the conservative that would keep things on the 'right' track.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. Neither McCain nor Romney were electable enough to actually, you know, win the election. Now, in 2016, it seems that movement conservatives have had enough. Early in the process they wrapped their arms around the incoherent but somehow charismatic Donald Trump and unlikable but dependable rigid ideologue Ted Cruz. Once the party establishment realized that Jeb Bush was nothing more than the Fred Thompson of the 2016 election cycle, and after a stronger-than-expected third place showing in the Iowa caucuses, they seem to be coalescing around the young, handsome stumblebum Marco Rubio.

So now the big question is simply this: Will the right-wing populist voting base of the Republican party once again allow themselves to be bamboozled into supporting someone who will tell them what they want to hear, use them throughout the campaign, and once again ignore them in the service to the 1% after the election? Or will they continue to thumb their nose at the party and eventually award enough delegates to Donald Trump (let's face it, despite his ideological reliability, Ted Cruz is just too appallingly arrogant and unpleasant to ever win a national election) to make him the nominee in spite of the party establishment? I think between the deeply flawed Rubio being the best the party can bring to bear, and the recent Republican electoral history, signs point to a Trump nomination.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Most Dangerous Border in the World

The simple problem - Too many factions,
too many agendas
In northern Syria, there is a jagged 700 kilometer border with Turkey. The territory along the border is occupied mostly by Syrian Kurdish rebels, but also by Turkmen rebels. The Turkmen are longtime ethnic and linguistic allies of Turkey, while the Erdogan government has recently re-started its savage war against the Kurdish population. With Russian support, the Syrian Arab Army has recently been pushing north, taking rebel held cities and towns in Northern Latakia province. Russian jet fighters make daily bombing runs against Turkman positions, which brings them into close proximity with the Turkmen's ally and sponsor, Turkey. Turkish territory juts sharply into Syria near the town of Reyhanlı, and it's nearly impossible for the Russian pilots to hit targets nearby in Syria and not overfly that part of Turkey. This has resulted in one Russian jet already downed by Syria, and more threats and increasing fury in Ankara over recent additional Russian incursions.

But while the airspace violations are certainly ongoing, it's unlikely that they are the source of Erdogan's ire. The real problem is that the al-Assad regime's troops have recaptured Rabia, a Turkman held enclave in Northwestern Latakia province. It would not have been possible for the Syrian Army to advance into Rabia without Russian support, so the Turkish regime is seeking ways to push back against the mostly successful Russian intervention in support of the Ba'ath party leadership.

In the meantime, the Turks themselves are active in Syrian territory along the frontier, carrying out a series of punishing airstrikes against the Kurds who hold most of Northern Syria. After the success of the Kurds, represented by the HDP political party, won almost 10% of the vote in the August, 2014 Presidential elections, Erdogan has found it politically expedient to re-ignite the long running civil war against the Kurdish population in the region. This is, however, complicated by the international support for Kurdish resistance -against both the Syrian regime and the Jihadist factions - and the fact that no other rebel faction - with the exception, perhaps, of ISIS - has been so effective in combat.

So all of that leaves us with a dangerous, chaotic situation along the border. Particularly in the west - from the Mediterranean to Raqqa - you have Turkmen and Kurds fighting the regime and their Russian supporters, Turkish jets bombing the Kurds and Russian jets bombing the Turkmen.  As the loyalist troops move up to the border, the possibility of direct combat with the Turkish Army - a NATO member, it must be pointed out - and of Russian involvement, at least with advanced surface-to-air missiles increases exponentially.