Condorcet’s Brexit trainwreck

Brexit as a Condorcet paradox.

Let’s stand a little back from the Brexit trainwreck – the kind you get when Dr. Evil hacks the signalling at Clapham Junction  in rush hour. I have no choice, since as an expatriate I, and a million like me, get no vote.

 

 

 

The options are:
A – Exit with no deal
B – the May deal
C – A softer Brexit (“BINO”) on Norway or Jersey lines; undefined, but probably with staying in most of the EU single market, few restrictions on movement from EU countries, and no say in the rulemaking
D – Remain.

The estimable Simon Wren-Lewis estimates the current factional breakdown of the House of Commons (n=630) over Brexit:

Brexiters – No Deal                                               100
May loyalists – No freedom of movement       200
People’s Vote [second referendum]                  150
Corbyn loyalists                                                       30
Soft Brexit                                                               150

This leads to the following first-choice vote predictions:
     A: 100 for, 530 against
     B: 200 for, 430 against (actual vote was 202 to 432)
     C: <180 for, >450 against
     D: <150 for, >480 against

There is a large majority against anything at all. A neater real-life example of the Condorcet paradox you couldn’t get. Continue reading “Condorcet’s Brexit trainwreck”

Our Presidential Atmosphere Continues to Darken

I wrote this three years ago, and re-read it today. Painful to see that in retrospect I should have been much more pessimistic about where we were headed as a country.

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Every time I see a photo of President George H.W. Bush (Here he is being a witness at a same-sex marriage ceremony) I feel nostalgia for the time when he was in The White House. Even though I suspect history will judge him as a fairly successful President, it’s less so his presidency that I miss than the way the country felt about it.

If you are young you may not believe this, but there was a time when you could have political conversations with strangers (e.g., on a bus, airplane, train, at a bar) with minimal risk of your interlocutor immediately launching into a quasi-violent denunciation of whoever was President that lambasted not only his policies, but also his moral character and his legitimacy as a political leader. G.H.W. Bush was the last President whom you could you just casually talk to strangers about. They might like or dislike his policies, but their head would not explode at the mention of his name.

The poison that has been with us for over a generation since is that a large proportion of the country has regarded the President as not just a terrible leader but also a stain on our national character who cheated his way into the office he is now disgracing. Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama have not just been opposed, but loathed and viewed as illegitimate sources of authority by a plurality of Americans. Such blind, distorting rage makes productive political debate almost impossible, and I wonder whether we can ever go back to the national sensibility about Presidents that we used to have. I am optimistic or pessimistic about our prospects depending on what causal theory seems more plausible to me that day.

The optimistic causal theory is that this is a generational phenomenon. George H.W. Bush was the last President from a generation that had a strong sense of E pluribus unum. Its members also believed that while you were not required to like the President, you had a duty to accept his political legitimacy because it derived from the voters of your democratic society. The boomers who followed GHWB’s generation had deeper political disagreements with each other that overpowered their sense of e pluribus unum. They are still fighting those bitter battles today (If it’s a Bush vs. Clinton race again in 2016, the 1960s culture war issues will no doubt be refought for the 1000th time in some form). The boomers were less likely than their parents to believe in the concepts of honorable disagreement and a loyal opposition. You agreed or you were a (insert appropriate character assassination here). If a generational change in political attitudes and tactics is what created our quarter century run of Presidential Derangement Syndrome, then this fever will break as the boomers fade from political life.

The pessimistic causal theory is that after the “big sort” within the political parties, the arrival of niche media that tells everyone that their political opinions are facts, and Internet-based technologies that allow unprecedented levels of insularity among like-minded people, we will never return to a time when most Americans said things like “I don’t agree with him at all, but I respect the fact that he is the elected leader of our country” and “I never liked his policies, but I always thought he was a good man”. If those sensibilities about the person we choose to lead our country have truly been consigned to history, it’s a terrible loss for our national political culture.

Imran Khan, blasphemer

Imran Khan is a cricket player who has gone into philanthropy and then politics in Pakistan, and until now is the leading candidate for prime  minister in the upcoming elections (despite a #metoo problem a decade old).  He has, however, committed blasphemy, which is a very big deal in Pakistan, so it will be interesting to see how events unfold.

Khan’s offense is to claim, implicitly but incontrovertibly , that the teachings of Mohammed are so unpersuasive, and his person so unprepossessing, that Islam needs the protection of a murderous regime of capital punishment and vigilante justice. This regime is a matter of national law (article 295c of the constitution), and Khan just came out in support of it. The killing is not only judicial: in Pakistan, people are also  lynched if they say something a tinpot local vigilante, or just a small-time religious nut, or for that matter a guy who thinks you looked at his sister funny, wish to view as disrespectful to the prophet, and the body count is not trivial. Along the way, this savagery devalues all professions of genuine faith, as who can tell whether they are sincere or just fearful?

Remarkable in the extreme that a national figure can show such disrespect for the prophet, adherents, and doctrines of his own faith, especially as Islam has a pretty good record (independently of episodes of conversion by the sword), attracting adherents by teaching and preaching its intrinsic merits, over 14 centuries.  It’s hard to imagine a more abject surrender of the high ground than “actually, I got nothin’ but this gun to shoot you with.”  I have no special case for Khan either way, but I hope he at least survives this suicidal episode.

 

 

Nature imitating art

It always does; never perfectly but well enough to teach us something.  At the end of The Lord of the Rings (the book, but not the movie), the evil wizard Saruman and his nasty, slinking sidekick Wormtongue Cohen arrive in the hobbits’ peaceable shire and spread ruin, fear, and mistrust. Along the way they cut down trees, destroying nature, and try to make an industrial wasteland out of it.  Eventually they are overcome, and in a final squabble resulting from Saruman disrespecting Wormtongue and betraying him to the hobbits, Wormtongue kills Saruman.

For some reason I am remembering this episode lately.

 

Aspirational history and political rhetoric

Steve Schmidt – who is as unapologetically conservative as I am unapologetically liberal – had more or less the same reaction I did to the Trump policy that literally tears children away from their mothers’ breasts: that it was horrible to see people in American uniforms behaving like Nazis.

Glenn Greenwald, who has brought anti-anti-Trumpism up to the very border of Trumpism, was horrified: not by the fact that children were being maltreated by people wearing American flag insignia, but by the notion that this was in any way unusual.

Every tweet like this that creates bullshit jingoistic fairy tales about the Goodness of America instantly goes viral. Liberals now love nothing more than über-nationalistic revisionism like this from Bush-era Republican operatives. It’s the most bizarre pathology to observe.

(If Greenwald has criticized the new policy itself, as opposed to criticizing its critics, that critique does not show up on his Twitter timeline. Greenwald is consistent in constantly bashing Trump critics but avoiding criticism of Trump and Trump’s policies.)

Greenwald isn’t alone. This is fairly standard alt-left rhetoric, just as “We’re better than this!” is fairly standard liberal anti-Trump rhetoric.

If you’re both anti-Trump and pro-American, it’s natural to say when Trump does something awful, “This is contrary to American principles and a disgrace to the flag.”

If you’re pro-Trump or anti-American or both, the natural rebuttal is, “Nonsense! America has always sucked! Are you just noticing now?” (When Trump himself was asked about his buddy Putin’s habit of murdering critical journalists, he responded. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”). The far left and the alt-right are united in thinking that Trump is perfectly normal and that any objection to him (or to Putin or Kim Jung un) by liberals is hypocritical.

Of course Trump and Glenn Greenwald have actual facts to point to. Disgraceful things have been done in the name of the United States, from the Trail of Tears and the Fugitive Slave Act onwards. Abroad the record is at least equally equivocal: the U.S. has not been – to put it gently – a consistent friend of democracy and human rights in this hemisphere. More than once, we’ve backed the tyrants FDR referred to as “our sonsofbitches.” Whether a hypothetical historian from Mars would regard those as characteristic, or instead as unfortunate deviations from national principles, it’s hard for someone with less perspective to say.

But, as Nietzsche pointed out a long time ago, “critical” history isn’t the only kind. National myths are, themselves, potent realities. A country where the belief that horrible actions Aren’t Like Us is widespread has an internal political resource that helps political actors within that country oppose such horrible actions.  A country where that belief isn’t widespread – where criminality is an accepted part of the political culture – lacks that resource, which of course is a benefit to criminal political actors within that country. The accuracy of the underlying belief is an independent question.

Or, as Matt Yglesias put in in a Tweet

Talk about how “this is not who we are” is not a literal claim about American history, and it’s permissible (praiseworthy, even) to engage in some rhetorical gambits while trying to Do Politics.

So, as a liberal and a patriot, I’m going to keep saying “This. Is. Not. Like. Us.” Saying so is one way to make it so.

Update  Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, when the torture question first arose, Glenn Reynolds (“Instapundit”), who had been vociferously pro-war, was briefly anti-torture. (He changed his mind when torture was defined as a partisan issue, with Democrats plus McCain against it and Republicans for it.) Reynolds approvingly quoted another warblogger as answering the question, “Why shouldn’t we torture terrorists?” with “Because we’re the f*cking United States of America, that’s why!” Seemed to me an excellent answer, in part because it claimed the high ground of patriotism for the anti-torture position.

High Crime and Misdemeanor

The second article of impeachment against Richard Nixon provided, in pertinent part:

Using the powers of the office of President of the United States, . . . , in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purposed of these agencies.

* * * * *

5. In disregard of the rule of law, he knowingly misused the executive power by interfering with agencies of the executive branch . . . in violation of his duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

 

In the last two days, Trump has unleashed a Twitter-storm directed against Amazon.com. Today, Amazon’s stock declined by 5.12%, representing a loss of market cap of over $34.6 Billion.  As reported by Gabriel Sherman of the Atlantic:

[A]ccording to four sources close to the White House, Trump is discussing ways to escalate his Twitter attacks on Amazon to further damage the company. “He’s off the hook on this. It’s war,” one source told me. “He gets obsessed with something, and now he’s obsessed with Bezos,” said another source. “Trump is like, how can I fuck with him?”

* * * * *

Even Trump’s allies acknowledge that much of what’s fueling Trump’s rage toward Amazon is that Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, sources said.

There is no longer any question that we have now crossed into impeachment territory.  One needn’t rely solely on Sherman’s reporting.  After all, Trump’s actions are the same as a mobster extortionist who says:  “Nice business you got here.  It’d be a shame if something happened to it.”  Yet, the media is strangely silent on the connections between Trump’s actions in the last two days and impeachment. Could it be that many simply view Trump as the bloviating crazy uncle that no one takes seriously?  Sherman’s reporting calls into serious question this response:

Advisers are also encouraging Trump to cancel Amazon’s multi-billion contract with the Pentagon to provide cloud computing services, sources say. Another line of attack would be to encourage attorneys general in red states to open investigations into Amazon’s business practices. Sources say Trump is open to the ideas.

Now, regardless of any further turn in the Mueller investigation, it is time to remove Trump from his office.

Our awkward problem of political gerontocracy

I wrote at Vox today about an awkward problem we should discuss without rancor or euphemism:

In one of the most dramatic moments in the Senate in years, 80-year-old John McCain rallied from surgery and a diagnosis of brain cancer to cast a 1 am vote that torpedoed Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare — for now. The vote had been put on hold once already, to give him time to recuperate.

For all the drama, we shouldn’t be surprised that a medical emergency interfered with Senate business. The highest levels of American politics bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a gerontocracy. From the Senate to the presidency to — perhaps most strikingly — the Supreme Court, top positions are held more and more by people in their 70s or above.

Disruptive medical tragedies are an unavoidable statistical consequence of this trend, as is the risk that key political actors will develop cognitive impairment. There’s no easy solution to the problem, but it demands a frank conversation.

Reforms such as term appointments for justices could help with the problem, but it’s just as important to try to shift societal norms to take more seriously some elemental realities of human aging.

One paragraph that didn’t make it into the piece for space is also pertinent:

Where policies affecting same-sex marriage, student loans, immigration, climate change, and net neutrality are being debated, we need more young voices at the table. Particularly in safe districts with low partisan turnover, senior politicians accumulate privileges of seniority while they consolidate their personal power. Veteran politicians like Charles Rangel become difficult to dislodge, even when it’s past time for them to pass the baton.

What’s more, young adults who don’t see their issues prioritized, and who see elite politics dominated by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations can easily tune out, ceding the process to others.

More here.

Moderate mini-drama: It’s time for a little game theory on AHCA

Prediction: There will be some AHCA mini-drama with a key moderate who hesitates or refuses to sign on. The purpose of the mini-drama is to elevate that person to a key role. That moderate will extract some shiny-object concession such as a showy opioid treatment fund or ornamental consideration for medically-fragile children that don’t address the core difficulties of AHCA.

The strategic function of the mini-drama is threefold: (1) to make AHCA look slightly less hideous–ideally with a maximum of conservative grumbling–without actually fixing its deeper problems, which will remain in the final Senate version; (2) to help McConnell and the moderates quickly coordinate their bargaining, and (3) to provide a dignified political path for moderates to sign onto a bill they publicly criticized when the House passed something very similar barely a month ago.