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.