You can only lie about policy in Washington, DC

Brendan Buck is Chief Communications Advisor to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Last week – Was it only last week? – Buck got in hot water because he falsely denied that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had said that Donald Trump and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher were being paid by Russia. When initially confronted, Buck flatly stated: “That never happened.” Confronted with the existence of a tape, Buck shifted gears to say that Rep. McCarthy was merely joking.

I’m glad Buck was called out for his lie. In fairness, this wasn’t entirely a lie. McCarthy was sort of joking. Of course, Buck’s comment wasn’t entirely truthful, either. The joke – to the extent it was a joke – rested on the accurate premise that President Trump and Rep. Rohrabacher are weirdly close to Vladimir Putin in a way that demands further scrutiny.

But here’s the real irony. Buck was humiliated over a lie that was far less significant – and really less of a lie – than many policy statements emerging from his own office that receive far less attention.

[…]

If you tell a verified lie about some political scandal, you are in trouble in Washington. You can’t say “I did not have sex with that woman,” or “I did not have communications with the Russians” without consequence. But if you lie about policy – for example to say that having Medicaid is no better than being uninsured, or that you are expanding access while leaving 23 million people without health insurance – you’ll usually get a pass. The disparate response to political lies and policy lies is one cause and symptom of our broken politics.

More here on policy lies in AHCA….

The Wall Street cherry picking festival

A textbook example of cherrypicked data from Bret Stephens.

Fruit picking, Cao Quan-Tang  Source

You would have thought Mr. Bret Stephens, the up-and-coming climate-confusionist hack hired by the New York Times to general scorn, would have been on his best behaviour after the virulent reaction to his first column. Well, here’s the second, and it’s no better. Stephens uses the alleged failure of three climate policies – corn ethanol, the European Emissions Trading Scheme, and the German Energiewende – to undermine the idea of climate mitigation. Imagine such coward’s reasoning – this may not work, let’s do nothing – applied in medicine or war.

Of course, qualified climate activists have been criticising corn ethanol and the ETS since before Stephens got his first job. The problem is that they have been structured as giveaways to capitalists, though you won’t find Mr. Stephens saying so. But on the Energiewende, there is a truly amazing example of cherry-picking. Stephens (my emphasis):

There’s also been some acknowledgment that Germany’s Energiewende — the uber-ambitious “energy turn” embarked upon by Angela Merkel in 2010 — has been less than a model for others. The country is producing record levels of energy from wind and solar power, but emissions are almost exactly what they were in 2009. Meanwhile, German households pay nearly the highest electricity bills in Europe, all for what amounts to an illusion of ecological virtue.

First, a fact-check digession. “Embarked upon by Angela Merkel in 2010”? It took me under a minute to find the Wikipedia article on the Energiewende. The term dates back to 1980; “in its present form it dates back to at least 2002.” The first feed-in tariff dates back to 1991, though it wasn’t very successful. The key legislation, the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) , was adopted in 2000 at the instigation of the Greens, then junior partners in a coalition government. It has been revised several times since. The Energiewende has been multipartisan German policy for over 17 years.

That’s mere ignorance and carelessness [CORRECTION: see footnote]. The dishonesty is in the claim that “emissions are almost exactly what they were in 2009”. I thought I would have to spend another minute or two with Google to find the data, but they are right there in the link he provides in the online version.

Here is Clean Energy Wire’s chart of German GHG emissions since 1990. Continue reading “The Wall Street cherry picking festival”

A long-overdue letter to the editors of the New York Times

I wrote this today in response to an editorial decrying “Two Presidential Candidates Stuck in the Past.”

Thank you so much for continuing the Times’s pattern of false equivalence between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton which did so much to elect the former and besmirch the latter. Trump’s pathological need to tell whoppers at campaign rallies instead of governing is not at all the same as Clinton’s factual answers to a reporter’s questions. There is no doubt that James Comey’s October surprise re-opening of the e-mail investigation damaged her election prospects, nor is there any doubt that Russia interfered on her opponent’s behalf, though direct complicity by the Trump campaign has yet to be proven.

The editors’ instruction to Clinton to stop talking about the election sounds a lot like, “Women should be seen and not heard.” I look forward to your issuing a similarly stern warning to Bernie Sanders, who continues to peddle his fraudulent claim that Clinton “stole” the primaries by defeating him. Until you do, I’d be grateful if you’d stop pretending that Clinton’s telling the truth is somehow the same as Trump’s lying.

Gresham’s Second Law

The inventor of the Web writes to its 2bn users.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who with Robert Cailliau created the World-Wide Web 28 years ago with the specification for HTML, has published an open letter to the Web’s 2 billion users today.

The text is here, in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. He invites everybody to share it, so I’ll save you the fatigue of clicking on the link to reproduce it below the jump. Some quick comments from me to get you going.

Internet users by country, 2011

1. Berners-Lee is one of the few people who can speak with real authority on this stuff. If he says we have big problems, it’s a safe prior that we do. If he says they can be fixed, there is a very good chance they can.

2. The approach is too narrow. I rely here on another authority, Mike O’Hare of this blog. He has written about the crisis in society created by the arrival of transmission and reproduction of information at near-zero marginal cost, leading to the implosion of subscriber revenues for journalism and the dramatic thinning out of newsroom staff.

Let’s give this insight a catchy name: Gresham’s Second Law.

Robert Gresham was an English financier of the Elizabethan era, who has given his name to the first genuine economic law: that is, a generalisation based on solid observation, explained by a robust theory. (He had eminent predecessors including Copernicus so the attribution is a little unfair.) The Law reads:

Bad money drives out good.

That is, with a bullion specie currency, when the king debases it by reducing the bullion content of the coins, the price of the metal rises in nominal terms, and anyone who can get hold of the old, fatter coins can make a quick doubloon by melting them down. So the good old coins disappear.

Gresham’s-nth-granddaughter’s Second Law, which I have just invented, is similar:

Bad information drives out good.

The cost of production of good information – science, literature, accurate reporting – is high. The cost of production of lies, bullshit, smears, pornography, and rumours is negligible. On the consumption side, bad information is designed to appeal to our lower human nature (Kahneman’s System 1). Good information is often difficult, unwelcome or both, and requires the support of the lazy System 2. So the good information always has a struggle to be heard.

Now consider a technical innovation that lowers the cost of reproduction or transmission of information: say from hand copying to print, or print to the Internet. In the print era, Adolf Hitler had to struggle to get his message across. He had to find a printer for Mein Kampf (the title was accurate). He had to build a united movement from the hard-right flotsam floating round Munich, through endless face-to-face meetings in beer halls. Even in favourable conditions, it took him a decade before he could mount a credible challenge to gain power. Contrast Donald Trump. Starting from nowhere politically in 2015, he won an election in a much larger country with little more infrastructure than a Twitter account and support from the Breitbart website.

The contrast can be explained in terms of  Gresham’s Second Law. The drop in transmission costs removes an obstacle to the dissemination of bad information, and releases its advantage in lower costs of production. So the problem has got worse.

3. Berners-Lee is right that we need to brake bad information. His example of political advertising linking to fake news is just one abuse. Americans in particular need to rethink free speech absolutism. Citizens United represented to many of us a reductio ad absurdum. As legal persons, corporations are slaves, with inferior, not equal rights to the humans they serve. Should corporate bodies – with access to much bigger megaphones than individuals – be held to a higher standard of care in their public speech? Companies that mislead their stockholders face severe sanctions, and deception in advertising is limited to suggestio falsi and suppressio veri, outright lies being banned. I don’t see why the privilege of corporate political and cultural speech should not face analogous restrictions.

4. We also have to think positively: how can the good information be paid for? The answer for science has been socialism leavened by philanthropy. Literature and music seem to be doing all right in the market system, though that’s just a non-expert impression. A sufficient number of customers for music seem prepared to pay one or two dollars for a song rather than pirate everything, a convention that relies more on an honesty-box ethic than on sanctions. The immediate crisis is in reporting. It’s good news that Sir Tim’s team will be looking at micropayments. They should be looking at socialism too. It’s already how we pay for education and health.

* * * * * *

(Letter over the jump) Continue reading “Gresham’s Second Law”

It is the media, but it’s not their fault

This is the time we bit-stained wretches compete to identify “the cause” of the election debacle.  Hillary was a bad candidate; no, Comey put his thumb on the scale; no, racism/sexism…  Stop it; when your house burns down because you left something on the range frying instead of boiling, and the grease ignited, and your kitchen fire extinguisher was out of date and didn’t work, and the fire department got there late, there are just multiple ’causes’:  if any had been otherwise, the outcome would have been different.

This doesn’t mean nothing mattered; everything did. One of those was completely atrocious coverage in print and video, as well as the ‘off-the-books’ discourse on social media, and that has mattered so much that if we fixed everything else we would still be in terrible trouble.  “The media”, wrapping up facebook, blogs, real newspapers, and tweets, created an uninformed electorate voting in the dark from the heart instead of the head, and from fear and anger instead of hope and reflection. TV news, and print media, uncritically peddled Trump’s nonsense hour after hour as though it were the considerable discourse of a basically serious person;  wallowed in vacuous ‘damn email stuff’ and horserace opining rather than policy; and so on.  These are sound criticisms, but it’s not Wolf Blitzer’s fault or the New York Times‘ that they didn’t do better. All the media are deep in a downward spiral not of their making, and it will get worse before it gets better. There may be incompetent journalists, cynical meretricious tweeters and bloggers, and venal production company execs, but even Edward R. Murrow could not have fixed this. Continue reading “It is the media, but it’s not their fault”

Quote of the Day

This is not the republic of my imagination.

–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)

“An unfortunate series of coincidences and errors”

That’s the latest spin on the Trump University/Trump Foundation/Pam Bondi scandal from the Trump campaign. I think we can all agree on “unfortunate.” Harder to believe in “coincidences” and “errors.”

Since the cable nets, the New York Times, and the Associated Press have all been too busy trying to find wrongdoing at the Clinton Foundation to cover it, and even now don’t seem to be able to get the facts straight, here they are (courtesy of CREW and the Nonprofit Quarterly:

  • Trump University fleeced students around the country.
  • Some of them complained.
  • The Attorney General of New York backed the students legally.
  • Victims in Florida asked the state AG – then and now, Pam Bondi – to do the same.
  • Bondi called Trump personally and asked for a campaign contribution.
  • The Trump Foundation issued a check for $25,000 to Bondi’s captive PAC, called “And Justice for All.”
  • Of course a foundation can’t give charitable money to a PAC. That’s illegal. Internally, the Foundation recorded having paid the money to another group called “And Justice For All,” a Utah-based disability-rights group. That group never actually received any money from the Trump Foundation.
  • When the Foundation filed its annual report with the IRS, it didn’t list the illegal contribution to Bondi’s “And Justice for All” PAC. Nor did it list the imaginary contribution to the Utah disability-rights group (which would have been legal). Instead it reported a contribution in the same amount to a Kansas-based anti-abortion group called “Justice for All,” which also never got a nickle from Trump.
  • Three days later, the Florida AG’s office announced that it would not join the lawsuit against Trump U.
  • A few months later, Trump and Rudy Giuliani headlined a fundraiser for Bondi at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, giving the campaign a bargain-basement price for the use of the space.
  • After the scandal broke, Bondi’s PAC tried to return the money, but the Foundation said “Never mind.” Trump wrote a check to the foundation as “reimbursement,” as if that made everything OK.
  • The IRS just now hit Trump with a $2500 penalty.

So, if you’re like the White Queen, and practice believing six impossible things before breakfast, you can try to believe that:

  • Bondi, when she made the fundraising call, didn’t know complaints against Trump were pending before her office, and didn’t bother to check.
  • Trump, who brags about making political contributions to buy influence, made this one entirely innocuously.
  • Trump somehow mistakenly ordered a $25,000 political contribution made illegally out of his foundation rather than writing a personal check.
  • The Trump Foundation staff coincidentally found two other groups with similar-sounding names and actual charitable status. They actually sent the check to the correct address in Florida, but mistakenly recorded it internally as having been made to the Utah group and then made a completely different mistake by reporting to the IRS a contribution to the Kansas group, in the latter case with the correct address – not, of course, the address to which the check had actually been sent – and IRS number. And all of this mere sloppiness happened to one of the foundation’s biggest disbursements of the year.

Or, if your mind is as cynically twisted as mine, you can believe instead that Bondi asked for a bribe (or made an extortionate demand), that Trump made the payoff as demanded but tried to get a tax break for it by making it out of foundation money, the Foundation staff did the best they could to cover the whole thing up, the investigation was duly killed, and Trump made the balance of the payoff (or simply indicated his gratitude) by hosting the fund-raiser.

 

What FOX showed rather than inspiring speech by Muslim parents of American GI lost in Iraq

Good catch by Ben Mathis-Lilley at SLATE:

One of the most effective pieces of oratory at the Democratic National Convention was delivered Thursday night by Khizr Khan, a Pakistan-born immigrant whose son Humayun was killed in Iraq in 2004. (Humayun Khan, an Army captain, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.) Khan’s speech—which directly condemned Republican nominee Donald Trump—took place just after 9 p.m. and was aired in its entirety on CNN and MSNBC. As you can see above, Fox News made a different programming choice.

Watch it below. The Pravda-like mission of FOX news continues to impress.

How much damage could Donald Trump really do, after all?

Some of the people planning to cast protest votes in November have a bedtime story they love to tell themselves. In the story, Donald Trump’s election wouldn’t be such a bad thing because the diffusion of power in the American political system would prevent him from carrying out the worst of his lunatic schemes.

Now, there is a germ of an idea there: political and institutional constraints greatly limit the power of a President. But it’s worth noting that the political constraints generally act through the perceptions of the President and those around him about what he can, and can’t, get away with: that is, precisely the sort of thing that would have kept Trump-the-candidate from, e.g., hurling ethnic insults at a federal judge. A President unfazed by criticism, and willing to ignore advice about the limits of his lawful authority from the Office of Legal Counsel, actually can get quite a lot done.  No President in the modern era – even Nixon – has dared to say what President Jackson said about a Supreme Court ruling: “Mr. Justice Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” But what if we had a President who was willing to behave that way, surrounded by advisers egging him on to do so?  Trump’s power for evil might be substantially greater than (e.g.) Obama’s power for good.

Today a friend challenged me on this point: Make a list of ten really, really bad things that President Trump could actually do. A little bit of emailing around produced the following list. I’ve divided it into two groups: the “stroke-of-the-pen” things that a President could accomplish just by ordering them, and other things that would require Congressional approval or help from state governments. But let’s not forget that Trump’s election would almost certainly mean both that he had a Republican Senate and House to work with and that the Republican members of those bodies would mostly be terrified of primary challenges should they oppose the imperial will.

The distinction between the two groups is not absolute; in principle, the appropriations power could be used to constrain virtually any Presidential action, in the extreme by zero-budgeting the Executive Office of the President, leaving The Donald to write his own orders. And of course there is always the impeachment power. But again, an election that brings us Trump would be likely to disable those safeguards as well.

“With a stroke of the pen”

  1. Withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on global warming.
  2. Abrogate the nuclear deal with Iran, setting the stage for either war with Iran or Iranian development of a nuclear weapon. (Or both.)
  3. Deny hostile, or even objective, journalists and media outlets access to information by refusing them admittance to press conferences, instructing appointed and public-affairs officials to refuse all interviews, and subjecting even routine data requests to FOIA delays. That will have three effects: disabling the effective capacity of the independent media to exercise oversight; giving professional and business advantages to complaisant reporters and their outlets; and creating incentives for reporters and outlets alike to stay in the Administration’s good graces.
  4. Institute criminal investigation and prosecution of political opponents. The Attorney General, the FBI Director, and the 94 United States Attorneys all serve at the pleasure of the President. (The 10-year term of the FBI Director is a maximum, not a minimum, and Bill Clinton fired Director William Sessions in 1993.) Now imagine FBI Director Chris Christie, reporting to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Those positions, and the U.S. Attorney slots, are all Senate-confirmable, but even if the Senate were to resist the President could appoint all of them on an acting basis.
  5. Use tax enforcement and the award or denial of tax-exempt status to punish enemies and rewards friends. The Director of the IRS is also a Presidential appointee. Civil-service protections would make it harder to replace IRS career staff with political loyalists, but the GWB Administration made substantial progress in filling the Justice Department with Republican apparatchiki, and the same could be done at the IRS.
  6. Attack “liberal-leaning” universities and not-for-profit research enterprises by either interfering with the grant process directly or by using financial or compliance audits to disqualify them.
  7. End enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. This is entirely at the discretion of USDoJ, and no doubt Assistant Attorney General Kris Kobach will have other priorities.
  8. Cease Department of Justice investigations into police misconduct.
  9. Mount a massive deportation process. Direct the Department of Homeland Security to target and remove persons who registered under DACA and DAPA.
  10. Investigate the “loyalty” of Muslims in the civil service and the military.
  11. Substantially reduce enforcement of anti-discrimination law, including revoking executive orders that require nondiscrimination by federal contractors.
  12. Block all entry of refugees.
  13. Wreck the Affordable Care Act in practical terms by reversing the administrative decisions that make it feasible, and destroy it legally by conceding its unconstitutionality the next  time it is challenged in court.
  14. Loosen regulation and virtually eliminate enforcement of all environmental laws, workplace health and safety laws, and consumer protections. Early targets would be the Obama Administration’s aggressive attack on air pollution from coal-fired power plants and the newly-instituted fiduciary-standards rule for pension advisers.
  15. Reinstitute torture by replacing the Army Field Manual with Bush-era interrogation “standards.” I do not believe that most, or even many, senior officers would abide by such orders. But the President is, indeed, Commander-in-Chief, and only custom keeps him from firing those who disobey unlawful orders. (When President Lincoln was told that Confederate forces had captured forty mules and two major-generals, he replied, “Too bad about the mules. Major-generals I can make.” Ranks of O-4 [major or lieutenant commander] and above require Senate confirmation, but junior officers are created by Presidential fiat, and brevet promotions are unlimited.)
  16. Encourage Russian aggression in Europe by renouncing our NATO obligations. Start by recognizing Russian sovereignty over the Crimea.
  17. Withdraw the U.S. from other treaties and international organizations: WTO, NAFTA, the U.N., the Paris Treaty on international climate change.
  18. Encourage Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons by raising questions about the validity of our security commitments.
  19. Unofficially encourage or sponsor the growth of armed far-right “militia” groups, and discourage enforcement of federal laws against them (e.g., vigilante border enforcement groups, takeovers of federal lands by “sovereign citizen” organizations).

By legislative action or with the advice and consent of the Senate, or the help of state governments

  1. Appoint at least one and perhaps three Supreme Court justices on the Alito model, locking in a right-wing majority for a generation.
  2. Reduce tax rates for the rich.
  3. Block grant food stamps and/or Medicaid.
  4. Appoint anti-worker and anti-union members to the National Labor Relations Board.
  5. End federal support for the full range of women’s health services, including ending the federal partnership with Planned Parenthood.
  6. Increase domestic production of coal and oil while ending public investment in renewable energy.
  7. Repeal of Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley, consumer financial protection laws.
  8. Disenfranchise Democrats with a combination of voter-suppression tactics (shorter voting hours, fewer voting machines leading to longer waits, hard-to-meet “voter ID” rules) and gerrymandering. In the extreme, use electronic vote counting to simply miscount the votes.

A story is told of Benjamin Franklin. As he left the Constitutional Convention – which did its work in secret – for the last time, a woman stopped him to ask, “Well, Dr. Franklin? What have you given us? A monarchy, or a republic?” Franklin answered, “A republic, madam: if you can keep it.”

This is not a game. Institutions do not maintain themselves.  Not all damage is reversible. I do not believe that Trump will be elected, and I do not believe that, if he were elected, that would be the last relatively free and fair election for President. But it’s not impossible.  Let’s not do the experiment.

I consider this list provisional. Please suggest additions, subtractions, and edits in comments. Do not take that as an invitation to debate. Comments of the form”but howsabout Hillary?” will be relentlessly zapped.