Skip to content


January 23, 2017

We are in a strange time.

A large part of America is living on tenterhooks. The incoming president is quite unlike every president in our lifetime. He is a conman who cheats in business, seems quite incurious, holds grandiose estimate of his own knowledge, dismisses information he dislikes, even when it comes from government agencies whose purpose is to provide that, is quick to belittle those who criticize him, or even those just weaker than him, tosses aside national tradition, appeals to people’s worst prejudices, and is infamously thin-skinned. Character conservatives are appalled. While one can point to similar weaknesses in past presidents, none combined those to such a degree, and always were balanced by other internal resources, by sense of duty, and by staff they respected. Combined with today’s political environment, it is easy to imagine Trump’s election as the start of a dire turning point. Or just that an intemperate statement or act creates a crisis.

There are three ameliorating responses: Trump is not as bad as he seems, and even if he is, he will get better, and even if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter that much.

The first seems fantasy to me. The best case for it is that his public persona is largely an act, and that behind the truly ugly facade is someone smarter and more gentle, who just knew he had to play something approaching a fascist to win the voters he needed. If many of us find that hard to believe, it’s because as Kellyanne Conway complains about us, “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.” What makes this possibility seem remote is that con artists rarely have hearts of gold.

The second possibility is that Trump will grow into the office. The weight of the presidency no doubt changes its occupants. In this regard, it was hopeful to see how quickly he backed away from handing Kennedy any role in studying vaccines. His inaugural speech, though, was a doubling down on what got him elected.

The third path has the most resonance, but admits multiple readings. On the optimistic side, the US president doesn’t act alone. He acts with and through a host of public institutions. These constrain, supplement, and channel. These may provide some balance to even the most intemperate personality. There is a strong case to be made that business will grow, lives will improve, and America will continue its generally upward trajectory, almost regardless of who is president. Politics often doesn’t matter as much as we hope and fear.

On the pessimistic side, the new president’s personality may matter far less than the partisan sweep he led. On this reading, we didn’t march into the debacle of the Iraq war because of George Bush’s personal failings, as much as because he brought into power Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the other neocons who set us on that course. Politics matters, and it matters more than the personality of the president. So, the rise of Breitbart and the alt-right, the success of talk radio and right-wing websites in giving Republicans their own “alt-facts,” and the ever more authoritarian trend in the GOP is more important than the fact that it was Trump who swept in to take advantage of all that.

Perhaps, as this n+1 article projects, Trump will be a disjunctive president. The thing about historical patterns is that they last. Until they don’t. Sitting in the present makes it hard to scry whether today’s polarization will seem overblown, from a perspective two decades hence, or necessitating some historical break soon to come and not yet clear. Peter Leyden offers a speculative and optimistic reading of the recent election as but a bump in a positive social evolution, where California is leading the way. In eery parallel, Peter Thiel explains why it might be the GOP that nudges California out of the union, as a means of securing their power. The best hope, of course, is that America comes to its senses and sweeps Trump’s Republicans from power in 2018 and 2020.

Perhaps this apprehension will prove no more substantive than waking in the night because of a swing on the anchor. The next three months might unroll a reasonably normal presidency. That just doesn’t seem likely right now.

“America First”

January 21, 2017

“America First” was the slogan taken by folks like Charles Lindbergh, who opposed America helping the allies prior to entry into the war. Theodore Seuss Geisel penned political cartoons as well as children’s books. History may not repeat, but it has some interesting echoes.


Why the GOP won

January 20, 2017

Over the next couple of days, there will be millions of people in hundreds of protests against Trump.

And no Republican politician will give a rat’s ass. Nor should they.

The GOP won because they focused on partisan politics and local elections. Even had Clinton won the presidency, the GOP would still hold Congress and most state houses. Liberals need to stop thinking that marches and protests and similar symbolic acts are effective political action in the modern era, and instead dirty their hands in the ugly business of partisan, electoral politics. That is all that matters. Marches may be more fun. Protests more pure of heart. They matter only to the extent that they produce votes. You may find it distasteful to support politicians who compromise and take a variety of stances you don’t like. The alternative is what happened today.

The current political divide largely reflects the cultural urban and rural divide. Which gives a structural advantage to Republicans. Democrats have the demographic advantage. That won’t matter unless they learn to mobilize it.

Is it cruel to work elephants?

January 19, 2017

elephant-carrying-a-log-0Humans long have domesticated some animals for the work that they provide. Dogs help with the flock. Horses, donkeys, and camels carry passengers and load. Oxen pull carts. For thousands of years, elephants have been trained as working animals. Jon Katz argues that is no more wrong than the use of working dogs. Megan O’Malley, who worked at Ringling Brothers, describes the loss of the circus from the inside.

No doubt, working animals have been abused. And standards evolve — we would cast a dour eye on turnspit dogs. Though I am not sure that is any worse that purposely breeding dogs with skull deformities that cause breathing problems. Like Katz, what I see in PETA is zealotry and a lot of dollars being collected from those with soft hearts, rather than any real attempt to define ethical standards in the treatment of animals.

The populist turn

January 18, 2017

Despite the benefits of global capitalism, the changes it brings vary by nation and group within nation. Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut offers this explanation of current politics:

Increasing inequality leads not only to the growth of top fortunes; it also results in greater numbers of wealth-holders. The ‘1 percent’ becomes ‘2 percent.’ Or even more. … from 1983 to 2010 the number of American households worth at least $10 million grew to 350,000 from 66,000. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. … In technical terms, such a situation is known as ‘elite overproduction.’ … Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

Doug Muder writes a good post on the dangers of populism. Vox speculates on the neurological nature of normalcy, and the risks that come from normalizing behavior formerly seen as beyond the pale.

I’m a bit skeptical of explanations like Turchin’s, not only because of the inherent problems in such models, but because I see as much or more support for Trump among those who are upper income earners, as I do in those less well off. Branko Milanović offers a similar argument, in the form of an elephant graph. There may well be something to the notion that unequal advance stirs the political waters, even riling those who are doing well. Those in the elephant’s trunk may not feel it. An argument for these models is that the same shift seems to be happening on both sides of the Atlantic, reflected in the Labor Party’s decline.

Sarah Treem wonders if her new daughter will have as much freedom as she did. That is less likely now. Middle-aged Americans have enjoyed decades where civil liberty generally advanced. It is strange to ponder the future, and think that we may be at peak freedom.

Cutting through the fog

January 17, 2017

Conservatives have bent themselves into a pretzel trying to appropriate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. So at this time of the year, it is unfortunately necessary to highlight articles exploding some myths about him, and some myths about slavery.

Garry Kasparov is right, that Trump’s foreign policy as stated to date is simply Putin’s wish list.


January 16, 2017

James Kwak takes on the fallacious use of microeconomics in politics, focusing on the minimum wage. He hits the important points. First and foremost, that no model substitutes for data. Second, that it’s not enough to argue that raising the minimum wage has a disemployment effect. It matters how much, and whether it is so large as to counter the benefits. The slopes of those counterfactual curves matter. Making those quantitative assessments requires data. The bottom line is what every scientist and engineer should know: no theory takes priority over observation.