Thursday, August 23, 2018

Information Please

As campaign season 2018 heats up, we can see the outlines of the party messaging forming. On the Democratic side, tying candidates to Trump, family separation policy and the tax cut that blew up the budget in order to increase corporate profits should be big. Plus, now, with the Mannafort and Cohen convictions, corruption will resonate with many. On the Republican side it's a little hard to know what they can run on. They'll still have immigration and government regulation, along with their old standbys racial animus and tribal fear and hatred, but it's hard to see how well that will play after two full years of Trump. It gets them into the 30% range, but it's not going to push them over the top like it did in 2018, when people could still think hopeful thoughts about a Trump White House with unfettered congressional power.

But in the real world - and assuming the economy doesn't collapse in the next 80 days, much of the discussion will center on health care. And after the implementation of the ACA and the angry tantrum on the right that resulted as they were forced to make it clear that they just didn't think poor people should be able to go to the doctor. This 'survival of the richest' Darwinian social experiment has played out, and people have now seen what even limited government intervention in the health care marketplace can do. The American electorate, to a large degree, is ready to have a conversation about shifting the health care system to a more modern, effective, subsidized system like all other industrialized economies have implemented.

But here we find ourselves at a crossroads. What will it be? Medicare for All, a Medicare buy-in option, a full-blown public option to compete with private insurers? What will public funds be used for, and how much public money will be necessary? We got a taste of where this is leading during the Bernie Sanders campaign. He dangled a concept - single payer - in front of people without being upfront about what that meant to him, how it might be passed, what it would cost and how those funds would be raised. Many of us accepted his good faith at his word and asked questions. These questions were immediately shouted down as the desperate cries of neoliberal shills out to protect the status quo. Huh?

Look. There's hundreds of ways to implement some kind of publicly funded universal coverage system. If I ask you questions, it's not because I'm trying to prevent your preferred program from becoming law, but rather because I'm going to work my ass off to prevent a BAD program from becoming law. If I have questions, it means we're engaging with each other to try to solve this problem once and for all. And if you can't tell me how much your program would cost, we can't even begin to have a conversation about it, because THAT'S the issue we have to address. The gigantic, bloated American military is the largest in the world by far, the most expensive in history, and it costs about 4% of GDP. Here we're talking about somewhere between 10 and 20% of GDP. The Republican tax bill cost $2 trillion over ten years. Here we're talking about more than $2 trillion dollars in year one alone!

So yeah, if I ask you how your health care program would be funded, you can't just shrug and say 'tax the rich'. If you can't say how much money you need, you don't know if that's a viable solution or not. Is your program means tested? Why - or why not? How does your program control costs? Since you're using public money you can't just pay whatever the doctor or hospital puts on the invoice. Are you using Medicare reimbursement rates? What will you do if not enough health care delivery organizations agree to take patients at those rates? What about employer-funded health care? How do you transfer those private costs to the public sector, and can you require employers relieved of those costs to raise wages or benefits?

See, there's really only one point here. If you say you want universal or single payer health care in the US, you should never react negatively to people who ask questions. You NEED to be able to answer the questions, because you can't actually get what you want until you take a nebulous concept and flesh it out with some real information. You also should realize that if you support a badly designed or stupid program, many of us will point this out. Not necessarily because we don't want a better universal health care system in the US, but because we don't want one that will fail. It seems fairly clear that we're beyond the point of arguing about human rights vs. Socialism, and we can begin to have a serious conversation about caring for all American citizens. So we need to get used to talking in some detail as opposed to shouting bumper stickers at each other.

This is a GOOD thing.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Whither the White Working Class?

Man, there's a whole lot of stupid coming out of Democratic politics as the campaigns for the November mid-terms begin to heat up. Which is not to say that there's not even more stupid in the Republican campaign messaging - it's just that they decended into incoherent hooting and feces-flinging long ago, to the point where there's just nothing interesting to say about them. But on the Democratic side we have a full-blown, totally unnecessary argument about 'socialism' that isn't socialism - it's just basic FDR New Deal liberal economics. We have Democrats who should know better adopting the feel-good joys of old-fashioned authoritarianism, working to silence voices they don't like. But the one that really takes the cake for me is this argument about whether/how Democrats should attempt to win the votes of a demographic group we have chosen to call the 'White Working Class'.

If we were to be honest, the white working class shouldn't even be a thing. The working class has very serious issues - education, health care, addiction, flat wages and job losses. But none of these issues are problems for white members of the working class alone. They are serious problems for every American who works for an hourly wage. And yet, we know with certainty that the working class voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while the subset of that same demographic group with white skin voted overwhelmingly for Trump. So one has no choice to ask, if they all face the same problems - hunger, addiction, substandard housing, lack of health insurance and a dark future for their children - why did people of color vote for the party whose very existence is predicated on solving these specific types of problems while the white members in precisely the same set of circumstances turned out to elect a millionaire liar heading a party that has done everything in its power to destroy their lives and families for decades?

The answer is we KNOW the answer. Those white people, less educated working poor, may have the same needs as their African American and Latino peers. But for decades the Republicans have used their racial animus, their hatreds and their fears, their superstitions and their willful ignorance to convince them to vote against their best interests. And they have, turning out reliably in droves to support a party that goes to work every day hell bent on making them poorer, sicker and ever more miserable. Even today, when thousands of them die every month from opioid overdoses, when their wages are lower than they were twenty years ago, when their children can't go to college and have zero hope of a better life, the Republicans know they can count on them to do everything they can to perpetuate their own immiseration.

So now, if you tell me that just turning out  the Democratic base isn't enough, that in order to win enough congressional seats in November to make a difference we have to change the minds of the 'White Working Class' I'll tell you you are deluded, and desperately wrong. All we can do is the same thing we've ever done - keep telling them their lives and their families would be much better off under a Democratic government, and if their own self interest isn't enough to make them change their minds, they are well and truly a lost cause. Indeed, they are the enemy of the American people in a very real sense, working to help the most authoritarian nativist bigots destroy the most important American constitutional values in the name of raw power and tribal hatred.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For

So, as has been discussed and documented endlessly, the arc of the Republican party over the last several decades has been to increasingly put winning politically over governing responsibly. Under Clinton, they tried hearings and even impeachment. Then, under the odious GW Bush, they discovered that, hey, governing is really hard and probably takes a level of expertise and careful attention to detail that they were unable to muster. Then, under Obama, they discovered that full on burn-it-down, sand in the gears obstruction didn't result in any political costs at all. And now, under Trump, they are fully prepared to sacrifice American sovereignty as long as they can hold onto power.

So now, as the truth about the 2016 Trump campaign slowly trickles out, the Republicans, both in government and in the electorate, are working themselves around to a simple conclusion about Russian interference. It amounts to "so what?" Once it becomes impossible to argue, even on the margins, that the Russian government didn't intentionally hack the Democrats and work with the Trump campaign to influence American voters in the run-up to the 2016 elections, the party and its voters will simply decide that foreign interference doesn't matter - that it's essentially no different from any other interested party. Voters can make up their own minds, and if no actual votes were changed, the election was free and fair.

But here's where that's going to get dicey. If the November mid-term elections go as expected, the Republicans are going to be massively butthurt. Led by their Tweeter-in-chief, they're going to be screaming about rigged elections and voter fraud and...wait for it...interference. As soon as they need evidence of electoral shenanigans to support their desperate cries that they simply COULDN'T have lost, suddenly that interference by the GRU and the Internet Research Agency is going to take on a whole new look.

Now, hypocrisy as a political gaffe long ago lost its cachet. You can look at Mitch McConnell shepherding through the Kavanaugh nomination and compare what he's saying to what he said when Merrick Garland was the nominee, and see that the most blatant hypocrisy doesn't merit any more than an occasional snarky tweet. But this is going to be political hypocrisy on an entirely new level. Suddenly all the denials about Russian interference and collusion with the campaign are going to switch to a full-throated condemnation of the Republican party and its candidates for winning as a result of Russian interference and campaign collusion.

And just like that, in the course of two years, American electoral credibility will be gone forever. By placing this stunted, angry man-child in the highest position in the land and letting him and his cult members dictate so much of the narrative, we will have reduced every electoral outcome to a matter of opinion to be argued about and never accepted. I always thought American small-d democratic institutions were strong enough to withstand even the GW Bush/Trump onslaught. That might have been optimistic, because I just never anticipated the attacks would follow such a bizarre path, and the institutions would be threatened in such an indirect manner.

Monday, August 13, 2018


It's endlessly amusing to watch how Trump responds to every accusation, charge or innuendo. He's like a pathological eleven-year-old, stealing cookies and breaking lamps and repeatedly denying it. Everybody's lying. All the women who accuse him of sexual misconduct are lying, even though we have all heard him on tape saying he regularly gropes and abuses women. He says people who call him a racist are lying, despite the fact that he regularly says racist things right out loud. He says the media is lying whenever it reports on his own behavior, even when we all witnessed that behavior. And now we have Omaraosa and her book. He says she's lying - and she says she has audio recordings.

In the end, it doesn't matter if she has recorded conversations. Because to Trump, it's not about reality - it's about what's in his own head. He told Lester Holt on live television that he fired Comey because of 'the Russia thing'. And still he claims there was no obstruction of justice. He dictated the message for his son Don Jr. claiming the meeting with the Russian agents at Trump Tower in June was about adoption, something we now know was not true, and that Trump knew it was false at the time. Still he claims there was 'no collusion'.

I know, we've been at this for a couple years now. But sometimes you have to take a couple steps back and look at who America elected to lead the free world. This stupid, intemperate, fragile little man is making a mockery out of political leadership and good governance all over the world. It's the tyranny of a toddler, throwing tantrums, stealing cookies and insisting that everyone else is lying about everything. We've been so lucky, with all the turmoil with Russia and China and Turkey and Syria that we haven't faced a serious international crisis. Because it's very hard to see a way this administration might navigate a true crisis without making it worse.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The OTHER Facebook Problem

So we've been discussing endlessly the rights and responsibilities of the social media companies that have effectively taken over and 'privatized' the public square. First it was Russian GRU influence operations, and lately it has been Alex Jones and free speech in the age of privately owned platforms. Ironically, it was that latest argument about what Facebook can - and more importantly should - do about publishers like Jones that led me to my most existential problem with Facebook.

See, I LIKE Facebook. It seems like a wonderful idea, a whole bunch of people all over the world hanging out together, shooting the breeze, laughing and joking and also discussing the important issues of our time. That really appealed to me. I'm interested in a lot of things, from music and science to foreign affairs and public policy, and being able to discuss them with people who may not agree with me seems like an exciting, stimulating opportunity to learn and grow from each other. And while that's true in a perfect world, the world, alas, is a lot less than perfect. And people, well, that's a whole 'nuther kettle of fish.

It was in a conversation on Facebook the other day that I had this rather unpleasant epiphany. See, I don't much care for Alex Jones, but when it comes to his right to access the public square I would always err on the side of too much speech. I can - and do - choose not to read Jones' idiocy, but as soon as somebody is banned, I no longer get to make that choice. And if it's Jones today, it might well be you or me tomorrow. Well, most people I know disagree with me on this topic. That's fine, in fact it's downright interesting to hear what they have to say. But one of my 'friends' took the opportunity to post a needlessly harsh, mean, rude, personal attack on me, and to make it worse, he was blatantly dishonest in how he characterized my position.

Now, communicating in text form can get dicey, as it's not always clear the intention of the people doing the communicating. But when you have been 'friends' on Facebook for a long time, you should be able to expect kindness, not hostility, and you should always give your friends the benefit of the doubt. But people are, at the end of the day, emotional animals, and when communications happen in a format that is not in any way face-to-face, they sometimes feel empowered to indulge a kind of hard wired mean streak. That same mean streak exists in other formats, but it is suppressed because it's HARD to be mean, rude and insulting right to someone's face. But most of those social inhibitions just seem to vanish in conversations on the internet.

So for now I find myself avoiding Facebook. I'm not one to make grand pronouncements - I'LL NEVER POST ON THIS SHITTY WEBSITE AGAIN!! - but until I feel comfortable scrolling through my newsfeed again, I'll probably mostly refrain from posting. Because this is the most intractable kind of problem - it's something we evolved a solution for hundreds of thousands of years ago, and therefore have no solutions for today. People are mean. They're self-interested and often angry. And if you give them a safe platform from which to fly that mean-human flag, you can often expect them to do just that. But when it comes from someone you like and trust, someone who you felt was a friend, it feels like betrayal...

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Terms and Conditions

Lemme tell you why we're doomed.

It's not particularly hard to grasp. We're doomed because there are two 'factions' that hate each other viscerally because, ultimately, they just can't agree on a basic starting point. One set of facts, one observed reality. From there, we could figure out what needed to happen, from government intervention to civil war. At least there would be a way forward, even if it was fatal.

But as long as people are alowed to argue 'they're protesting the anthem' when they tell us very clearly what they're protesting, as long as people can argue that the people in power are the victims of racial prejudice and animus, when they can ignore the way 21st century American law enforcement treats African American men despite voluminous documentation - well, see, there's the problem.

If there's no problem, there's nothing to solve, and if those in power are actually the victims the solutions - however harsh - are clear...

Monday, July 9, 2018

All the News that's Fit to Complain About

Both sides do it. Complain about the news, that is. On the Conservative side, they've been so deeply enmeshed in lies, propaganda and conspiracy theories for so long that they can't begin to figure out how to address actual facts, quotes and events. On the Liberal side, well, we hate pretty much everything. You don't see nearly as much whining about 'Fake News' from liberals - Fox News is state TV, the propaganda outlet for the Republican party, and other outlets like Breitbart traffic in such bizarre nonsense that to call it fake news would be to lend it a cachet of credibility far beyond its own intrinsic worth. Liberals complain about coverage and content choices. At this point one might reach the conclusion that Twitter exists primarily as a medium for complaining about the media.

But here's the thing. The 'news' all these politically active people on both sides of the ideological divide are complaining about? It's not. News, that is. In many cases it is a costly, extravagantly produced television show designed not to inform, but to sell products. Television shows, just as a reminder, are profitable because they are a delivery medium for advertisers. As a result, the television news suffers from time constraints - it is fundamentally impossible for them to discuss ANY issue at even the minimal depth to actually inform their viewers. It doesn't matter if they're talking about health care policy, SCOTUS, North Korea or immigration, they leave out even the most salient details. They leave them out because the producers don't believe people want to know them, and because, with only 40 minutes of content per hour, they simply don't have time to deliver a complete picture of the issue, let alone the events of the day.

Then there's the other delivery mechanism, an anachronism from previous centuries we like to call a newspaper. This is where the complaints get, well, weird. People complain about what's being covered, and they complain about what's NOT being covered. They complain about who's writing the stories, the topics of the stories, the amount of coverage the story gets (too little/too much) and they complain about the overarching editorial choices the newspaper's management staff makes. Person X has a paid job writing for the NY Times? That's shameful and ridiculous. Person Y DOESN'T have a job writing for the NY Times? They are silencing our voices. Person Z wrote something I disagree with - he must be fired now.

Frankly, I don't understand any of this. Sure, the right-wing echo chamber is an embarrassment of false and incomplete narratives, primarily because it exists to support a right-wing political contingent that long ago ran out of anything of value to offer, and is now utterly dependent on false and incomplete narratives to sell its toxic set of policies to a public that is every year worse off for supporting them. But we're supposed to be the smart ones, literate and deeply concerned with actual facts, whether they support our desired policy positions or not.

Read what you want - don't read what you choose. But complaining about what is said or written in these ridiculous entities we call television and newspapers is pointless. They will never get it right, because they are so fatally flawed that it is impossible for them to do so. They will take shortcuts, offer anecdotes, quote sources and frame a narrative that is at best so incomplete as to be hollow, and at worst just farcically incorrect. If you actually care about public policy, read the source material, seek out the authoritative sources, read the longform deepdive white papers and research studies. If you're concerned about legislation, read the bill(s). If you're concerned about regulation, read the rules. If you care about international affairs, see what the politicians, journalists and pundits in other nations are saying.

Here's an example. When Supreme Court Justice Kennedy resigned, the immediate implication was all around abortion, and Roe v Wade. But Roe was decided almost fifty years ago - did you go back and read the original decision, just to be clear on what might be at stake? Have you read it, even now? What about Casey v Planned Parenthood? When Trump rants about NATO funding, did you do a little research on how NATO is funded, just to see what the hell he's talking about? Whining about what CNN isn't covering or what some NYT OpEd writer said in a clickbait weekend column isn't informing you or anyone else - once again, because it is impossible to be informed by watching TV/Cable news and reading newspapers online.

Do yourself and everyone else a favor - find out what's happening, don't complain about how certain flawed media outlets are telling the story. Because they no longer have value as sources of information.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Why Competence Matters

One of the major problems of both the Trump campaign and the administration that resulted is the utter incoherence of the message. Whether you're a journalist, pundit, economist or part of another nation's government, trying to figure out what he wants and why he wants it has become the largest part of the job. It's pretty clear it was never intended to turn out this way, but from where we are today, looking back over the last three years, the primary method of operation, perhaps even the desired end-state itself, has been some kind of large-scale economic warfare. Part of it stems from the position of victimization that Trump has exploited in the conservative community - THEY are cheating, THEY are taking advantage of us, WE have to make them play fair and pay up! - and another part of it stems from the fact that his understanding of global trade and political norms is essentially that of a precocious ten-year-old with a large cache of comic books.

First it was sanctions. Economic sanctions are a kind of targeted trade war designed to stop short of actual warfare, in order to coerce another nation to either act in a certain way, or to stop acting in a certain way. The idea is that they function as both a carrot and a stick - the stick damages the wealth and income of targeted individuals, corporations and governments, while the carrot is that once the behavior is changed, the sanctions are removed and everybody can go back to the business of business.

Then came the tariffs. Similarly, tariffs are a kind of economic warfare, designed to force other nations to participate in a regime of trade protocols that is healthy for everyone, and to make sure that governments don't use their economic and national power to put a thumb on the scale to favor that nation's business interests.

The important thing to remember in effectively using sanctions and tariffs is not their application - that is the difficult, risky part - but rather their removal. The goal is not the economic warfare itself, but rather to coercively drive certain very specific changes in the behavior of the targeted nations. The point is changing behavior, and the economic actions are merely the method for accomplishing that goal.

All of which brings us to Donald Trump. As US president, he loves sanctions and tariffs. He violated the JCPOA precisely in order to re-impose sanctions on Tehran. And this year he has imposed tariffs on most US trading partners, both friend and foe alike. Now let me ask you - have you seen any reporting on what the purpose of these punitive economic measures might be? I'm guessing you haven't, because, appallingly, Trump has never specified what he wants those nations to do.

That's right - he has imposed a massive regime of economic warfare against multiple nations around the globe in order, one presumes, to make them bend to his will. But he has not said, ever, what it is they might do to get the tariffs or sanctions removed. In the case of Iran, he has on occasion said something about regional conduct, missile development and a sunset clause, but that agreement was signed several years ago and was not open for negotiations. If he wanted to negotiate another treaty, he could try, but there was no need to abrogate an existing agreement in order to do that.

On tariffs, it's even worse. He says he wants global trade to operate in ways that are fairer to the US, but never says in what way. He says EU tariffs are too high, but overall EU tariffs are a negligible 3%. He says Canada is taking advantage of the US and risking national security, but the US actually runs a trade surplus with Canada. He says China is running roughshod over existing international laws around intellectual property, but he makes no demands around this issue. It's impossible for these nations to come into compliance with a set of trade rules that exist only in Trump's imagination. Which means there can be no actual end to this trade war, because nobody knows how to win, or even to surrender.

What is Trump doing? Well, he's pandering to 'the base'. He's listening to whatever they say on Fox News. He brings a zero-sum transactional mindset along with a raging egotistical arrogance that prevents him from accepting advice, even - perhaps especially - when he's in deeply over his head. But what the specific changes he's trying to create in the international order might be, no one - not even he - has any idea.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Tyranny Fantasy

I've neglected this blog in recent months. My life has been...challenging, and the remarkable collapse of the American federal government under Trump has sucked all of the air out of the room. It's hard to think about various issues, even really important ones, when every morning Twitter delivers a new set of atrocites and blossoming fascism. But I wrote a piece about the upcoming political campaign, and in the course of coming back to teh Blogger, I found a comment on a piece I wrote some time ago about the 2nd Amendment. Now I'm not here to pick on commenters - I LOVE commenters - even though this one has a bit of a problem with coherence.

But I was taken by this comment because it reflects a common argument among second amendment maximalists. And the argument is offered in such sincere seriousness while taking what amounts to two opposite and logically incompatible positions that it always fascinates me. Notice the use of the phrase "Government Tyranny", used multiple times in a single paragraph. It's a descriptor of some set of events that is so broadly understood and accepted on the far right that they really believe it needs no explanation.

But what are they describing with this phrase? What set of events in the United States are they anticipating that would place them in open warfare with the US government? The commenter refers to the slaughter of billions and billions of people - but what historical precedent are they examining? Sure, we can think about Armenia, we can think about Nazi Germany, we can think about Stalin's Soviet Union, we can think about Rwanda - but do those historical events apply somehow to the largest, oldest, most successfully established democracy in the world? What established democratic nation can we look to that has somehow fallen victim to 'government tyranny' to such an extent that it's citizens found themselves in open warfare with their government? Not Syria. Not Egypt. Not Libya. These were nations that HAD authoritarian, tyrannical (if you will) governments, nations where the people had no hope for their children or their future.

Sometimes they invoke some kind of 'economic meltdown' that leads to widespread looting and the collapse of American society. But they never describe what events might cause such a 'meltdown', falling back on phrases like 'runaway inflation' and 'Wiemar Republic', neither of which do they seem to understand either economically or historically. Fueled by some kind of fascination with Zombie movies and stockpiling weapons and supplies coupled with a barely suppressed desire for an opportunity to kill lots of black and brown people without paying a legal price, they envision a world where cities are in ruins and only them and their heavily armed friends will survive, killing looters and defending their compound from the ravenous hordes.

Do they not understand that American service people take their oath to the constitution seriously? Do they not understand that the US is comprised of 50 State governments in addition to the federal government, each sovereign and each with dozens or hundreds of armed law enforcement agencies and a military force controlled by the governor? Do they not understand that America has strong, mature democratic institutions that would short-circuit any descent into whatever they imagine 'tyranny' represents? Apparently they do not.

But wait - it gets weirder. If we give them even a small benefit of the doubt - if we, as a thought experiment, postulate that this 'government tyranny' is underway - then we can examine the key claim of the argument. So in this near-future America, cities are in ruins from rioting and looting, people are dying in huge numbers, there is no law enforcement, everyone is on their own while the government relentlessly hunts down the rebel leaders and puts entire communities into prison, labor and re-education camps. But wait - the brave 2nd amendment crew, in their 5.11 Tac Vests, boots and MOLLE gear, with their ARs and AKs and pistols are coming to the rescue.

Of course, this is government tyranny. You know - the US government. Predator drones circle out of rifle range, watching everything. A team planting IEDs at night is clearly visible in the thermal sensors, and a Hellfire missile obliterates them. A raiding party approaches a government installation, and a circling AC-130 kills all of them in 45 seconds - they never fire a shot. The tyrannical government sends troops into Memphis to round up the rebel leadership. The brave Tennessee fighters get their rifles and shotguns, paint their faces and send platoons into the streets to ambush the government troops. But the troops are riding MRAPs and Bradleys and Strykers, covered by precision artillery fires from the nearest firebase. Again, drones have seen the brave freedom fighters setting their ambushes. As the artillery barrage tears apart their positions, the government troops roll through, with machine guns and anti-tank rockets mopping up the remains of the resistance. The fighters never saw a single dismounted infantry unit to target with their rifles, and without air, armor or artillery of their own, they are all dead in an hour.

So there you have it. In the same breath, they tell us that American government tyranny is a real thing, and is very likely if not inevitable, and that they need their poodle-shooters and street-sweepers to stop it. The thing these two scenarios have in common is they are both ridiculous fantasies. There is no mechanism where a mature democracy would descend rapidly into open rebellion and warfare, and there are no weapons in civilian circulation that can have even a minor, temporary effect on a modern combined arms force.

So when they tell you they need their guns to protect us all from 'Government Tyranny', they are describing a situation that cannot occur, and a solution that cannot be effective.

Good job, guys.

Friday, June 29, 2018

What, Me Worry?

In less than two years, the vultures have come home to roost. The Republican party, as the political organization representing movement conservatism, has fought an increasingly impossible generational war to avoid slipping into demographic irrelevance. And now, the fallout from that war, represented by the presidency of Donald Trump and the rise of white supremacy and violent misogyny is weighing heavily on the electoral hopes of conservative America. The upcoming mid-term elections should represent the best opportunity for the Democratic party to take control of federal governance in decades. Indeed, before the rise of Trumpism, the most optimistic projections for a Democratic House majority were centered on 2024 or 26. With Trump, it's all in play, right now.

There are two things that worry me. They are both things that the Democrats can control. There's no point in worrying about the economy, or a war, or Trump's health, or any other factor beyond control. When things happen, both parties have to react to them, and the chips fall where they fall. One thing worries me a little - that because it's truly evergreen, a problem with Democratic policy choices and messaging forever. The other is bigger, and risks creating problems that even the desperate Republican party could exploit.

The smaller of these two problems is policy messaging. This has always been a strong Republican advantage. They do bumper stickers - "Morning in America", "Make America Great Again" etc. - while Democrats do White Papers. Now, I LIKE White Papers, but you have to be able to communicate effectively in four minute cable news hits and Twitter, neither platform lends itself to the White Paper format. So we say "Healthcare is a Human Right" and wow, that's so vague as to be meaningless. So we try "Medicare for All" and not even the people who say it can agree on what it means. It's the same when we call for "Comprehensive Immigration Legislation", and it only goes downhill when we shout BREAK UP THE BANKS or demand that businessmen be sent to prison en masse. It's important to remember that the spittle-flecked madmen and madwomen largely on the other side, so you should try to keep the message rational and constitutional.

I do think that some of the nuance and detail in policy is important to communicate, even though there is neither in Republican messaging. But that's mostly because the Republican party is fully invested in barefaced lying to support their positions, so the Democrats have to have some built-in firewalls to protect them from the lies. (Remember Death Panels?) So, again going to healthcare - it's going to be THE big issue from now until 2021 at least - if we shout SINGLE PAYER we're opening up the opportunity for them to scream about raising taxes. And not even dishonestly, although they will find a way to exaggerate the issue. Americans spend $4 trillion dollars a year on health care, and that would be a LOT of taxation - far more than could be borne  by the richest 10% alone.

Oddly, the second problem is easier to solve, because it would be such a brutal self-inflicted wound. The conventional wisdom is that running as the NOT-TRUMP is not enough. That Democrats have to STAND for something, to be for things rather than just against him. First of all, the Democrats ARE for things - and health care and immigration will be two of them at the forefront. But come on. Open a newspaper. Open a browser. Turn on the news. What is everyone talking about? It's Trump. Remember that America elected an African American president not because of his message, but because he was NOT GW Bush. This is THAT on steroids.

In every opportunity, every speech, every rally, every cable news hit, Democrats need to emphasize that they're NOT Donald Trump, they're not a corrupt crime family with a third grade education and a massive inferiority complex. Even though it's the mid-terms, every Democratic candidate should run against Trump. They should tie their opponents tightly to Trump, they should explain what they'll do to stop Trump from acting, and they should promise to clean up the cesspool that the West Wing has become under Trump.

And this should not worry them. With 56-58% of the popular vote, they can sweep both houses of congress. None of this is about convincing Trump supporters to vote D. Anybody who's still a fan of the Trump White House at this point is a lost cause, but the numbers keep saying that shouldn't matter. And frankly, if the nation continues down that path after two years of seeing it in action, we truly will have the government we deserve.

One additional point. Liberals want to see liberal policies enacted - that's only rational. And the more liberal one's ideology, the more liberal the policies one wants to see. But during the 2016 campaign, I saw that morph into an odd belief that more liberal policies would be more popular, and receive more votes. That's not only politically wrong, it's statistically impossible. Ideology is a bell curve, with the vast portion of the electorate near the center. Every step to the left loses more votes than it gains, just as the Republicans kept moving right until they'd lost everyone but white southern men. So perhaps we can tone down the rhetoric, reduce the use of the word 'socialism' and talk about how we're not DJ Trump and what we might do to make our country a better place.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Pointless Feel-Good Madness of the Rising Facebook Fury

Wow. Everybody hates Facebook, and they'd like something bad to happen to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, because - um - some bad stuff happened, and nobody's doing anything, and we really need to BLAME somebody or something for the bad stuff that happened. Here's the key question: What did Facebook do to earn such bitter enmity and loathing? If you can't explain it in a couple of sentences, and instead fall back on shouting "Privacy!" or "He SOLD our data" or "FAKE RUSSIAN NEWS", you need to go back, do some serious research, and think about it a little harder. Perhaps I can help.

There are two issues here. One is the Facebook business model. When you run the largest multi-datacenter consumer internet site in the world, your growth models are premised on offering billions of dollars of technology services for free, and you base your revenue models on advertising, you need to deliver effective advertising. The way to do that is to understand as much as you can about every user, so that you can deliver the ads they are most likely to click on. Those advertisers will recognize the higher response rates on your platform and pay you correspondingly higher advertising rates. Let's be very clear - THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS. Companies have ALWAYS sought to know as much as they could about their customers - when you use your loyalty card at the grocery store, they give you a discount, because the information they are collecting about your purchasing habits is valuable to them.

The key to this discussion is that there are two kinds of data. There is PII - Personally Identifiable Data - and there is masked or aggregated data, where the trends and characteristics of a user or group of users can be analyzed and shared without exposing WHO those users are. Every company has PII in their internal systems. Whether it's payment data, address, banking, age, health, financial status, home ownership etc - it's impossible to work with people without collecting information about them. Social media is it's own thing - people, in the course of using the platform, tell the system a great deal about themselves, both directly (I have two kids and another on the way, I have four dogs, I live in Cleveland etc) and indirectly (Likes, Emojis, Quizes etc).

Google uses the information they collect to provide ad targeting services too. But there's ONE big difference. Google provides the targets themselves - no PII every leaves their possession to go to the advertisers. Facebook has at least one program where they will provide PII to the ad networks to do their own targeting. This is 100% of the problem, and will likely be reduced in light of the firestorm. But that's it - all the screaming about privacy and data protection and "selling" data comes down to nothing more nefarious than who is using the data to target the ads. It's not optimal, but it's really not the end of the world. And if you think it's sufficient reason quit using the Facebook platform, or if you think it makes Zuckerberg uniquely evil, you really should look hard at the other online platforms and tools you use.

The other issue is the ad content itself. How can they rapidly identify those ads that are problematic, that represent foreign electoral influence, for example? And is it even desirable for them to take it upon themselves to filter ad content? This gets really dicey. Yes, as a private company they are not obligated to provide unfettered speech a la the first amendment. But as a content and messaging company, they MUST retain credibility. If people feel their voices are being silenced, the platform itself will lose credibility, and thus users. And make no mistake, this would be a 'both sides' problem. If we demand that Facebook silence certain kinds of content, they're going to make absolutely certain that there is NO hint of political bias in the decision. That means they're going to silence at least one liberal for every conservative. And because content guidelines can never cover every eventuality, these decisions are going to be seen as crude and arbitrary, and there's just no way that a company the size of Facebook could provide sufficient resources to arbitrate every complaint.

The argument about "Fake News" is just a complete red herring. Yes, the Russians used Facebook (and Twitter and Instagram) to attempt to influence the 2016 US Presidential election - and they did so with both paid advertising and straightforward user postings. If you want to prevent foreign money from paying for these kinds of ads, great, but don't pretend that money can't be moved around in such a manner as to conceal its source. Russians won't purchase the ads directly, Americans will. The question of where the money actually came from, as with all campaign finance questions, will ultimately go unresolved. And, once again, if you want to empower Facebook to arbitrarily silence controversial users, don't get all weepy on me when they silence YOU too. They don't want to be in the censorship business, and if we force them to take on that role, they're, once again, going to make sure it doesn't look slanted, and that means silencing voices we want to hear.

At the end of the day, all consumers of political and public policy news should be skeptical. If you read something, and it's something you REALLY want to believe, that's the moment you should be extra-cautious about just accepting it at face value. Do your due diligence or accept that you're being lied to and used. Pizzagate was a stupid, irrational conspiracy theory with zero evidence to support it. People who believed it WANTED to believe it. People who took a moment to check other authoritative and primary sources quickly discovered the truth. This is called 'motivated reasoning' and it has NOTHING to do with Facebook or social media. Fox News is the greatest example of a propaganda outlet that KNOWS it's audience only wants to hear certain things, even if they are untrue.

So, does this mean there are no problems with Facebook and the larger social media ecosystem? Of course not. What it DOES mean is the current hysterical freak-out has much less to do with Facebook policies and processes and much more to do with our own frustration and sense of helplessness. I would think that the spittle flecked hatred of all things Zuckerberg will die down after the midterm elections, when there are more actual functional checks on Trump's madness. But ultimately, don't expect much to change, because there's really not very much to BE changed.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Kevin Williamson Saga - Ur Doon It Worng

So, at long last, our long national nightmare has come to an end. Kevin Williamson is no longer employed as a writer at The Atlantic. Your children can come out of the safe room and you can all sleep sound tonight.


I find this whole thing to be distasteful, and I am particularly disappointed with the behavior of so many of my fellow liberals. What Williamson said was foul, but I have two important reasons why we should have attacked his content (and encouraged him to produce more of it) rather than screaming for his head. The first is based in values I believe are critical to the American experience - values that are rapidly disappearing from both sides (yes, I said it) of the political spectrum. The second reason is more calculated, more pragmatic, and more important in the specific sense of women's rights and the abortion argument.

First, let's talk about writing. Williamson hasn't been silenced, exactly. He can still write a blog, and offer pieces as a free lancer. It was The Atlantic that was silenced, shouted down by a mob for doing what they believed was best for their commercial organization. They might have been wrong about that in the long run, but we'll never get to find out. Williamson was pushed out of a professional writing job. As someone who views himself as a writer first, I find that simply unacceptable. In America we have always believed that you have a right to sell your services to the highest bidder, and if that resulted in content that we found offensive, we had the option of not patronizing that particular purveyor of ideas, or of even writing our own piece denouncing the positions offered. Too often I see my fellow lefties shrieking in fury over a writer with whom they do not agree getting offered a job by a major outlet. I can only imagine how awful they would feel if some conservative hate mob ran them out of THEIR dream job for offering a political position that they found offensive. I guess I can't speak for all the people I thought I knew, but I don't want to do that.

Which brings us to the more pragmatic argument. There is NO reason why we should be arguing about women's reproductive rights in 2018 - Roe v Wade was decided almost fifty years ago. But one of the more 'powerful' (to some) arguments on the right is that abortion is murder. Indeed, they often compare abortion in America to the Holocaust or genocide. This is a stupid, specious argument, but we keep letting them get away with it.  Why? Just like this instance. What Williamson said - that a woman who had an abortion should be hanged - is really nothing but the logical outgrowth of this kind of rhetoric. In that sense, it's both logically consistent and brutally honest. In the Summer of 2016, the politically ignorant Donald Trump said the same thing on the campaign trail. Why? Because it's OBVIOUS, and he had no grounding in the tactical political messaging of the anti-abortion rabble. They KNOW this is toxic - they can go as far as suggestion some limited punishment for doctors, but the logical consequences of their "abortion is murder" stance is something that will kill their movement almost instantly.

So Williamson put it out there. It was a HUGE opportunity for the pro-choice community to engage and put other conservatives on the spot. "Is Williamson wrong? If abortion is murder, isn't he actually RIGHT?" The big, ugly secret behind criminalizing abortion would out on the table for all to see. Religious nutjobs would agree with him, politicians would run from him, but they all would have to explain how to adjudicate the mother in a world where abortions were criminalized. I would have encouraged him to speak out further on how women should be prosecuted and executed for a medical procedure. He'd do more damage to their neanderthal misogynist views on women's rights then anybody would have imagined. And for that matter, I KNOW The Atlantic quite well. I've been friends with James Fallows for over a decade, and they welcome engagement from both sides. Williamson's pieces would have opened up a major debate in their pages, and thoughtful people would have had a chance to speak to women's rights in front of an audience prepared to consider what they have to say.

So congratulations, fellow lefties. You took a major opportunity to advance the dialog on women's reproductive rights and threw it in the dumpster, all while you took an unnecessarily illiberal, authoritarian approach to speech. And in the battle to get ideologues fired from writing jobs, I suspect the Conservatives will be coming hard after this. We got our scalp, shot ourselves in the foot and ended up silencing ourselves.

It's just not a good look...

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Knowledge is Power, but Stupid is Eternal

One of the dumbest arguments you see in the gun rights debate is the insistence that if you don't have a deep, specific knowledge of guns, their components and characteristics, and the jargon that describes it all, you can't have a considered opinion on the topic. As someone with a typically higher level of mechanical expertise on the subject than your typical wingnut gun rights absolutist, please allow me to weigh in on the subject.

First, it's a specious argument, really a category error, because we aren't against 'guns' in this argument, but against gun violence - the killings and suicides are are destroying so many lives in our country. The obvious fact that the easy availability of modern firearms is the direct cause of the gun violence in the US - NOT just  the high profile mass shootings, but the endless nightly death and horror that occurs every day and every week, like clockwork - is the reason we'd like to see some strong limitations on the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Vigorous gun regulation works to massively limit gun violence in every nation that has tried it, and the tighter gun regulations in other nations don't seem to be causing any loss of 'liberty'.

But even in the context of this debate, it's a false imperative. YOU know what you're against. You know what a gun is, what it looks like, what it does. You are trying to stop murders - indeed, our people would never stand in the way of the kinds of regulations we'd pass if we hadn't at some point lost our collective minds as a population. You don't need to know what caliber cartridge is being used to slaughter kids. You don't need to know the difference between an upper and lower receiver. You don't need to know the make and model of the handguns that take hundreds of American lives - and destroy thousands more - every single day.

That said, the ONE exception to this rule is if you are advocating for a 'type ban'. It's fine to talk about an 'assault weapons ban' because we all know what it is we're asking for. But if you want to debate the actual functionality of the legislation - and you should, because there would be significant efforts to build in large-scale loopholes that prevent it from doing what we want it to do - then you'll have to get serious about learning what it is you want to ban. You can't ban 'assault rifles' because there is no legally agreed-upon definition for that phrase, and as soon as the NRA lobbyists get their input in the legislative language, it will be essentially meaningless anyway.

Nope, you're going to have to learn about stocks and grips and mechanisms and barrels and flash suppressors and all of the parts and pieces that will make up the meat and potatoes of your bill. You're going to have to figure out how to think like the manufacturers and include language that prevents them from designing the same rifle with different features. In that case, you're going to need to take a deep dive into the topic.

The exception to THAT, however, is if you want to advocate for a ban on semi-auto firearms. As an old-school revolver guy, I'm totally OK with that, but it's not something I'll be putting any effort into. No way congress passes it, no way a President signs it, and no way it gets through the courts who would strike it down as 'overly broad'.  Seriously, if we can move the needle on the gun debate so far that this becomes a viable solution, it will mean that some pretty effective gun control measures have already passed and the problem is still growing despite them.

I just wanted to put up this quick post because this seems to be a trending argument among the pro-gun absolutists on social media, and it's simply another attempt at obfuscation. If somebody tells you that you don't know enough about guns to argue against their easy availability, just tell them you know all you need to know because what you're really arguing against is murder.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Something Must Be Done!!!

Or maybe it should read
Get Pissed and Do Something
So today we find ourselves with two ongoing narratives battling for their share of popular outrage. One is yet another mass shooting, this time at a school in Florida, and the other is Russian social media based interference in the American (and other) democratic election process. In these cases, the outrage is expressed in remarkably similar terms - that is people demanding action. Enough is enough, they scream, and they demand somebody DO SOMETHING. And that's fine, as far as it goes - in both cases we find ourselves helpless, and in the face of that kind of helplessness, angry. And we know that, as citizens, we have no real power to change the rules, to somehow turn the world from this crazy, destructive, unsustainable path it has somehow gotten onto, and make it better, make it make sense.

Both of the outraged demands that somebody DO SOMETHING have something noteworthy in common. In both cases, nobody ever offers any real thoughts or suggestions about what it is we should do. Instead - particularly in the case of the gun murders - the best they can do is demand some magical end-state, without ever even thinking about how to get there, what it might take politically and how much time it would require. I note this partly because it is the same with demands for government funded single payer health care - we want a functional system up and running, but absolutely refuse to do the hard work of thinking about what it would take for us to get to that point.

Let's first consider the election interference, because in the case of these two impossible demands it is probably the easier one to approach. American elections are tremendously costly primarily because they require a full-spectrum advertising blitz. Not just television and radio, but internet, social media and rallies on the ground. There is nothing we can do to prevent Americans from posting political advertising and messaging, and meeting with others in support of their candidates and issues. The Russian intelligence agencies recognized this early on, and set up a group to impersonate Americans and sew chaos and division. It was incredibly effective, and probably was partially responsible for the election of the most unqualified idiot imaginable to the most powerful position in the land.

Make no mistake, 2016 was a learning process for them. In many ways they were sloppy, making only a minimal effort to cover their tracks and spending only a million dollars a month on the effort. This year, they will do a better job of hiding the source of funding and recruiting Americans to be the front men for an operation that will then supply content - both stolen (and possible altered) private messaging and emails, and social media posts of the most ugly and outrageous kind possible. Remember, the goal is to create a level of hate and discord that makes a democratic electoral system break down under the weight. The playbook is written, they are coming for us again in 2018, and they will do a better job than they did last time.

So what can we do about it? Obviously, we're not going to ban political social media messaging and posts, and while we can try to make certain that those posts that are paid advertising are purchased by Americans, but that kind of loose limitation is easily bypassed by the professionals in Russia. It's already clear that won't be near enough. Education won't work, because so many Americans WANT to believe the things they believe, and anything that reinforces those beliefs (crooked Hillary) will be believed, liked and shared. I'm wide open to suggestion, but I believe that the only option that remains is active measures.

The US - both in the NSA and in the Military - has an offensive cyber operation in place. (So, it should be noted, does every other country.) We have the option of breaking systems, destroying networks and erasing data. Every time we can target the source of this kind of interference, we could shut it down and force them to reconstitute those capabilities. Seems like that might be effective, right? Of course, with any escalation, you're going to get a counterattack. As mentioned above, they also have an offensive cyber warfare capability, and could respond with their own active measures. What will they come for? State electoral systems? Banking systems? Railroads? Electrical grid? Then how do we respond, and where does this escalating cyber war leave us? And does any of it actually protect our fragile democratic elections?

As to guns, what we hear is 'ban AR-15s', 'ban semi-auto weapons', ban ammunition types and the old standbys, improve background checks and address our mental health crisis. And of course, none of these things are bad, per se. But they are desired end-states, not anything like a plan or a course of action. If you demand one of these end-states, shouldn't you be obligated to at least offer a rough outline of how you're going to get there? In trying to game out a path to a solution, at least you come to understand how desperately difficult solving these problems is going to be in our current political environment.

The short answer to the gun problem is going to be nothing less than a shift in political belief systems. At some point, Americans are going to refuse to go along with the status quo. Right now, a significant portion of Americans have decided that this slaughter of innocents is a reasonable price to pay in exchange for unfettered access to modern firearms. But now we're on a path that leads to more slaughter, and higher body counts. Las Vegas was a breakthrough in high-volume murder, and all the people who will commit similar crimes in the future are paying attention. It's almost certain that we will - at some point - experience our own "Australia Moment" when the carnage becomes so sickening, and comes to so many otherwise 'safe, white' places, that we demand that our leaders - at least at the State level - simply ignore the arguments about the 2nd amendment and do the draconian things we need to do to put an end to this madness.

At the end of the day, demanding action - that somebody DO SOMETHING - isn't a particularly effective political strategy. It just reinforces the understanding of the power imbalance, and lets those 550 legislators in Washington know that nobody actually believes that they will act. But to be fair, this is where we are in the process. The 2nd amendment is toxic, and it's killing Americans at an alarming rate. If enough people get out and demand action, and vote in pro gun control candidates, then change will someday be possible. So yeah - I'd like to hear concrete suggestions, but today I'll settle for anger and outrage.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Blogging in the Age of Trump and Twitter

Once upon a time, everyone was doing it
Trump ruins everything. Blogging, for me, was a kind of an extended conversation where I could think about trends and events and try to derive meaning or even understanding from them. And we had a little informal group - our 'Bloggerhood' - that would read and comment, providing feedback and input and helping the process of turning knowledge into wisdom go forward. It was fun, often hilariously funny, thought provoking and endlessly fascinating. Blog posts went from a few sentences to a few thousand words - you could easily read, digest and comment on a number of them throughout the day.

Blogging, in general, is dying today. Nearly dead. Part of it is Trump - people are so appalled and gobsmacked at his corruption, ignorance, arrogance and vicious hatred that they can't look away, they can't let a day go by without 'reporting' on his hypocrisy or damage to democracy. So that's what many blogs in my beloved Bloggerhood have become - just another website that rehashes the latest Trump outrage. It's like everybody I know has lost the ability to think about the world, and can only focus on the news from yesterday.

But here's the thing. We ALL read the news yesterday. I don't need my friends to tell me a brief tl;dr version of the news reports I read. There's seldom any thoughtful analysis provided with these days old outrage reports - which is understandable because at this point there is very little left to be learned. We know what we've got, we know what the rules are, we know that our American small-d democratic experiment is very sick - perhaps terminally so.

Today, more than ever, thinking about the intersection of society, culture, economics, technology and public policy is desperately important. These are the sources of power for individuals and groups, and the way those groups form and relate creates communities - and wars. Now would be a great time to accept that we've ALL heard the outrageous stories, and we are - to the extent of our ability to sustain outrage at this point - outraged too. PLEASE think about, instead of telling me that Trump or Hannity or Nunes or Gowdy did something awful, which we already know, tell me what it MEANS. How it fits. What it might lead to. Please think about THINKING again - there is no value in reporting yesterday's news - that's why print newspapers are dying too.

Now, to be fair, Trump isn't the only suspect in the death of blogging as a broadly democratic publishing platform. In fact, Twitter is the MAIN suspect. There is apparently a belief among many that one can do the same thing on Twitter that one could do on blogs, but it would take only a fraction of the time and effort. Of course, that turns out to be a false assumption, but ease and convenience will trump time and effort every time. One of the things that amuses me no end is the proliferation of 20, 30, even 50 part Twitter 'threads'. These are blog posts, chopped up to fit within the 280 character limit, and often incoherent as a result. But just write a blog post and link to it from Twitter? I suspect that most of the people who will read the fifteen hundred word Twitter thread would never click on that link. Blogging is SO last decade, amirite?

Obviously, this has affected me too. I write a lot less - with so much Trump overload, it's hard to come up with other, interesting topics that might engage a readership. And while my readership numbers have stayed about the same, nobody comments anymore, so the whole interactive learning thing is no longer an option. But I mostly write to work out my own beliefs and understanding of events - I've always thought you can't really know even what YOU actually think until you set out to write it down. Then you'll very likely discover that even YOU don't believe precisely what you thought you believed. But I'll never just repeat the same news I read yesterday - that's just not interesting for me or anyone else. If there's a lesson to be learned (other than Republicans in America are craven hypocrites, which we already know well), I might START with a newsworthy event, but that would never be the point of the piece.

[Tomorrow we'll see lots of blogs talking about how the GOP demanded Democrats return the Weinstein donations, but say nothing about returning the Wynn donations. Seriously, do you really think that's an interesting topic?]

Blogging is magical because it removed the barrier between the writer and publication. You no longer needed an intermediary to make your work available to a global audience. That's the most democratic thing I can think of - if the fax machine brought down the Soviet Union, then blogging changed all the rules for information management forever and ever, amen.

I'm not ready to give it up for dead quite yet.