Liveblogging the Midterms, Part V

10pm: We are back at the top of the hour. Democrats are doing well in the House, though it’s not a wave. Florida and Georgia are especially disappointing. It looks like the nation is getting strong turnout from those who strongly dislike President Trump, but also from those who strongly favor him.

Some heartening developments, too. Jared Polis was elected the first openly gay governor in Colorado. Sharice Davids is also a gratifying victory. Laura Kelly is a great win in Kansas, defeating Kris Kobach.

Democrats estimated to have 80-90% probability of taking House, with an estimated 225 or 226 seats.

Republicans will win close Senate races in Texas, Arizona, Florida. Very frustrating. Re-enfranchisement bill in Florida will make a difference. Note: Arizona still too close to call, with slight Democratic edge.

House now has 95% probability of Democratic majority. The night looks a little less dour with strong Democratic House victories. Nice governor pickups, too. Especially Walker and Kobach. Michigan, too.

Steve King is losing in Iowa. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

And as disappointing as the narrow losses in Florida are, the passage of the felon enfranchisement initiative – expanding the electorate by something like 1 million voters – probably makes Florida a Blue state from now on. That’s a big win; try to draw a map where the Republicans take the Presidency without Florida or Pennsylvania. It basically can’t be done.

Most of all, the Democrats’ popular-vote edge was somewhere above 8%, just where the pre-election polls had put it. I admit to being disappointed; I thought all the money and enthusiasm and organizing effort would lead the Dems to over-perform. But winning the two-party vote 54-46 means that this isn’t, and never will be, Trump’s country.

Good night.  It’s still a republic, and we still have to keep it.

My mom’s not bluffing, young non-voters



If you don’t vote, my mom will come to your house. Where she will offer unsolicited, yet eerily perceptive commentary about your relationship and about your BAE. And no. I don’t know what a BAE is. But my mom does. And she just friended yours, on Facebook.

Fear of Crime and Information Theory

An appropriate lead-in to this post is the quote attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This fits very nicely into the structure of information theory, as formulated by Claude Shannon sixty years ago. His measure of information is equivalent to the reciprocal of the probability of occurrence of an event (specifically, the logarithm of this number). That is, if the probability of an occurrence is 100% (1.0), that is, if it’s certain to occur, then its information content is the logarithm[1] of 1, or 0; if the probability is 10%, its information content is 1; if its probability is .001, its information content is 3. In other words, the less likely the event is to occur, the higher the information content of its occurrence. That’s why it’s also called a measure of “surprise,” because the occurrence of a highly unlikely event is more surprising than one that is highly likely to occur.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with fear of crime? A lot, it turns out. As Steven Pinker has shown, violence and violent death has declined markedly over the past few centuries, and we are much, much less likely than our ancestors to die at the hands of others, either through wars or by crimes of violence. But this very fact means that (per the quote at the top of this post) each violent death nowadays has a greater surprise value than it did in the past. And that greater surprise value translates directly into greater fear – fear that oneself or one’s family is going to be harmed by others.

So we have this paradox: the safer we make ourselves, the more fear we have – of the unknown, of “them” (any outsider), of MS-13, of the person walking toward you (“Quick, get out your gun before he gets his out”). And of course, it is all so easy to stir up fear in a population, especially when those in power, whom we expect to be responsible adults, are the ones stirring it up.

‘Nuff said.

[1] To make it easy to follow, I’m using logs to the base 10. For those who slept through math class, the logarithm of a number goes up much more slowly than the number itself, so in the examples above the log of 1 is 0, of 10 (the reciprocal of 1/10) is 1, and of 1000 is 3. End of lesson.

Justice Department releases FISA warrant applications on Carter Page

My quick analysis:
400-something pages, mostly redactions, and the rest mostly boilerplate that gets repeated from application to application.
Still, what’s left is interesting. And, naturally, the documents make complete nonsense of the conspiracy theory Devin Nunes and his House Intelligence Committee Republican colleagues have been pushing.
Everything about the Steele Dossier – including Steele’s decision to talk to the press just before the election – was fully revealed to the court, and there was plenty of non-Dossier support for the idea that Page was acting as a Russian agent. Moreover, the extension applications continue to recite that the Bureau believes “Source 1’s” (that is, Steele’s) “reporting herein to be credible.” If the wiretaps conducted under the warrant had in any way disconfirmed Steele’s material, the Bureau could hardly continue to recite that Steele’s reporting was credible.
First application in October 2016, extended January, April, July. (90 days is the limit for a FISA warrant; an extension requires a new application.
Each application is signed by the FBI Director and the Attorney General (or substitute after the Sessions recusal). October and January applications are signed by Sally Yates as AG.
Last two are signed by Boente (April) and Rosenstein (July). Comey signs as FBI Director the first three times; Wray signs in July.
[Footnote: I was close to the parallel process for wiretap applications, requiring sign-off by an Assistant Attorney General. That was taken enormously seriously, the signature was not a rubber stamp. Each application was read in detail by someone on the AAG’s personal staff, and more than one application was sent back or refused outright. Hard to believe FISA applications aren’t taken comparably seriously.]
Presumably much of the redaction is about the product; every extension has to show that the previous 90 days were productive. The Times counted pages: 66 pages  in the original, while the extensions counted 79 pages, 91 pages and 101 pages, suggesting that there was significant product. But that was already clear from the fact that the extensions were requested and granted. Courts frown on continuing to drill dry holes.
Basis of the first application was the FBI belief that Page was “collaborating and conspiring with the Russian Government” and that “the Russian Government’s efforts [to mess with the campaign] were coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with Candidate 1 [Trump]
Can you say “No collusion”? I was sure that you could.
Update: Leah McElrath points out that this assertion – like the assertion of the reliability of Steele’s reporting – is repeated verbatim in the three extension applications, which it couldn’t be if the wiretaps had failed to confirm it. More detail from Twitter account @PwnAllTheThings.
The application recites that Carter was a knowing intelligence agent, recruited by three named SVR officers acting under Non-Official Cover, one of whom, Buryakov, was arrested in January 2015 and pleaded guilty to a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by acting as an unregistered foreign agent in May 2016, getting 30 months.
Page’s mission is said to have been “clandestine intelligence activities (other than intelligence gathering activities).” If that applied to Buryakov, that might explain why he was charged with a FARA violation rather than the more serious charge of espionage.
Comic relief: In February, 2017, Page asks the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division to investigate whether the Clinton campaign had engaged in “severe election fraud”  involving “disinformation, suppression of dissent, hate crimes, and other extensive abuses” by saying mean things about Page.
Conclusion: The warrant was issued on the basis of the FBI’s belief that Carter Page, a Trump adviser, was knowingly working for the Russians, and that other Trump campaign personnel might be doing the same. It was then extended three times, strongly suggesting that the taps yielded, and continued to yield, valuable counterintelligence. And the terms of those extension applications strongly suggest that the Steele Dossier, and the claim that Page was conspiring with Russia to help Trump, kept looking good.
It gets harder and harder to credit the good faith of anyone who still insists that there is doubt that Russia, as a matter of national policy, interfered with the 2016 election to secure victory for its favored candidate, and that at least one Trump campaign official knowingly helped.

Gillibrand bets on Tobin

Gillibrand stakes out a brave and wonkish position.

A progressive group of Democrats, “We the People”, have just held an early beauty contest of five presidential hopefuls and possibles: Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

In this report, I only saw one interesting position.

Gillibrand … in response to a question … said she supports a tax on financial transactions.

Presidential hopeful at work

A Tobin tax!  It’s a wonk’s dream, tailor-made to appeal to the all-important RBC reader demographic: something like 0.003% of the US electorate, concentrated in a handful of blue states where Ricky the Spider-raccoon on the Democratic ticket would be a shoo-in.

It has three other characteristics.
1. It’s a genuine policy proposal. Other countries have tried it (Sweden for equities and bonds). It’s tricky, but there’s a big literature. It isn’t handwaving like Sanders’ “break up the banks.”
2. Though the tax really does stick it to Wall Street, it won’t be easy to explain this to the Rustbelt voters. How many know there is a highly organised worldwide foreign exchange market, let alone that it turns over $5 trillion a day?
3. The tax is anathema to Wall Street, a huge lobby in Washington and in Gillibrand’s home state, and a major source of political donations. Maybe their counterattack will help with problem 2.

Any Democratic nominee in 2020, whether it’s one of this five or Ricky the Raccoon, will run on the same basic platform: joined-up honest government, expanded health care, fighting climate change, reversing tax cuts for the rich, rebuilding alliances, letting the Dreamers stay. But to get the nomination, the winner will have to mark out something distinctive, in character and policy. Was Gillibrand improvising or flying a kite? She does not strike me as an impulsive politician. Walking back the proposal would damage her chances as a “flip-flop”. It looks to me like a calculated risk, and a pretty brave one. Have any of the other contenders staked out comparable positions on anything difficult?

Note on the FX market. The $5trn a day is from here. The real total is higher, as not all trades are cleared through the New York clearing-house. Physical global trade is about $16 trn a year, or $44 bn a day.  Add services and long-term investment flows, and you might double that. What economic purpose is served by inflating this 50 times, with banks and dealers taking a cut – a small one, but a cut – on each artificial transaction?

Update one day later

The comments thread below confirms my point about the RBC readership. The Tobin tax is public policy catnip to you. Good, but nobody has picked up on the electoral politics. Gillibrand has moved the financial transactions tax from a nice academic speculation to live policymaking. She may well not become President, and may not prioritize the proposal if she does. On the other hand, a successful rival may take it on board – like Edwards’ health plan in 2008 that eventually became ACA. Folks, there is now a decent chance the Tobin tax will happen. Reporters should take an interest. Just who has Gillibrand been getting advice from? I’m sure Shiller, Krugman, Stiglitz, Arrow or deLong would take her calls.

Deflection

One of my pet peeves is that newspapers will publish stories about some court opinion or other public document, but not provide any link to the documents themselves.  As a consequence, readers will walk away with only the reporter’s view of why the document was of significance, which view is likely further circumscribed by an editor who is hard put to limit the amount of information in the story due to space considerations.

Sen. Ron Wyden sent a letter to the NRA.  His letter was prompted by his interest in determining “the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections by abusing the rules governing 501(c)(4) tax exempt organizations.”  Sen. Wyden asked for material relating to four specific areas of inquiry.  He received from the NRA only  a partial response to the four specific requests.  I have posted, as a single file, Sen. Wyden’s letter and the NRA’s response with my markups.

The response is, at best, an attempt to deflect the inquiry.   For instance, the NRA was asked:

  • To “identify any remuneration, transaction, or contribution that involved any of the 501(c)(4) entities associated with your organization and any entity or individual associated with any Russian official, Russian national, or Russian business interest.”  The NRA simply ignored that request; and
  • To provide “all documents related to any remuneration, transaction, or contribution” and to identify all such documents that “have already been turned over to United States authorities.”  Both requests were ignored.

Without being specific, the NRA assured Wyden that it always complied with federal election laws. Ultimately, it offered this: “As a longstanding policy to comply with federal election law, the NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections.” (Emphasis supplied.)

In other words, the NRA did not deny that it was, in terms of its lobbying and “educational” efforts, a mouthpiece of the Russians, but merely that Russian cash had not found its way into any direct political contribution fund.

Nothing to see here.

Cross-border election meddling and “whataboutism”

The Russian government intervened, overtly and covertly,  in the 2016 U.S. elections to damage Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. Whether the primary goal of that activity was actually to elect Trump, or instead merely to weaken Clinton in the event of her expected victory, isn’t really an answerable question.

The obvious things to say about this are:

  1. That was a wicked thing for Putin & Co. to do.
  2. Encouraging that help, accepting it, exploiting it, and subsequently covering it up was and is a wicked thing for Trump & Co. to do. It should mark everyone who engages in it and defends it as profoundly disloyal, and make all of them political pariahs.

The defenders of Putin and Trump make four responses: Continue reading “Cross-border election meddling and “whataboutism””

Is Roy Moore guilty beyond reasonable doubt?

Image result for leigh corfman

Leigh Corfman says that she was fourteen years old and waiting with her mother outside a courtroom before a custody hearing when Roy Moore, then thirty-two and an assistant district attorney, offered to stay with Corfman while her mother went into court. Corfman says Moore used that opportunity to get her phone number, and subsequently took her out on several dates. On one of those occasions, he took her to his home, undressed her down to her underwear, undressed himself to the same extent, fondled her through her bra and panties, and attempted to put her hand on his genitals.

If what Corfman says is true, Moore committed a felony under Alabama law (which hasn’t changed in the meantime). Moore says that none of it happened: “I never knew this woman. I never met this woman.”

Moore’s defenders say that he ought to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and that a “mere accusation” (as Donald Trump called it) shouldn’t block Moore’s election to the U.S. Senate. “It’s just he-said, she-said” is the favored phrase. (Moore and his friends also want to ignore the three other juvenile but barely legal girls who say he took them out and kissed them.)

As Mitt Romney among others has pointed out, this is absurdly confused; it’s an attempt to apply courtroom standards outside their proper realm. No one thinks an ordinary political charge needs to be proven beyond reasonable doubt before voters take it into account, and there’s no reason why a charge that happens also to be felony should be any different. (Moore’s attempt, and that of his supporters, to blame the Washington Post for concocting “fake news,” while it might be effective political rhetoric, lost all of its logical force when the Wall Street Journal re-interviewed the Post‘s sources and found that all of them confirmed that the Post had accurately reported their statements.)

Even if this were a criminal trial, Moore might well be convicted. Leigh Corfman’s sworn testimony would be sufficient to establish a prima facie case. It would then be up to the jury to weigh the credibility of the accusation against the credibility of the denial and decide whether they were convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Moore was guilty. Sometimes the jurors decide that they are so convinced, even if it’s simply the bare word of the accuser against the bare word of the complainant: in a mugging, for example, there may be no other witness or physical evidence. If the victim has no apparent motive to lie – while the accused has the strongest of motives, the desire to escape a felony conviction – it may not be unreasonable for a jury to decide that the accusation is convincing enough to convict.

But Moore’s position is actually much worse than that of our hypothetical robbery suspect. Continue reading “Is Roy Moore guilty beyond reasonable doubt?”

Type K Error

What statisticians call Type 1 errors (incorrectly rejecting the null hypothesis) and Type 2 errors (incorrectly accepting the null hypothesis) initially arose from signal detection theory: is that blip on the radar screen a signal or just noise? The two errors were known to us engineers (my former life) as either a false alarm or a missed detection.

But these are not the only statistical errors that can occur. Andrew Gelman proposed two additional statistical errors, Type S (confidently stating that a value is positive when it is negative, or vice versa) and Type M (confidently stating that a value is small in magnitude when it is large, or vice versa). They have less to do with the actual statistics than with interpretation of those statistics.

In furtherance of Gelman’s extension of statistical errors, I’d like to propose a new one, the Type K error. This is in recognition of the attempt by Kris Kobach (Kansas Secretary of State and vice chair of a federal voter fraud commission) to deny the vote to (at least)  tens of thousands of US citizens in order to prevent the two or three improper votes (out of millions cast) from occurring. [My numbers may be off, but you get my meaning.]

There have been other manifestations of this “error” in recent days. A report detailing the economic consequences of admitting refugees did not include the overwhelming financial benefits they provide over the long haul. In other words, the Type K error might be defined as “the deliberate and wrongful act associated with a statistical evaluation of the effect of only one side of a policy.”