The Republican Party is fantastically corrupt and cowardly

Look at these current headlines:

We’ve got self-dealing on an absolutely brazen and unprecedented scale; we’ve got an admission of a gross abuse of power quid-pro-quo, and we’ve got us in a total foreign policy fiasco with Turkey.  And what do Republicans have to say about it all?  Not much.  Just imagine if any one of these things was going on from a Democratic president.

This is not about tax cuts.  This is not about disagreements on environmental regulation.  This is not even about legistimate disagreements on presidential power.  This about gross, rule-of-law-defying abuses of presidential power.  This is about basic democracy under threat (not hyperbole) stuff.  And Republicans just shrug their shoulders out of a combination of corruption and cowardice.  Not Okay!   There really are more important things than political power; though, it seems preciously few Republican officeholders seem to feel this way.  This is literally how democracies die.  I think we’ll make it, but if it were up to current Republicans, we would not.

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Trump is just not very good at this

My twitter feed was all alight yesterday with the ridiculous letter that Trump sent to Erdogan.  Jon Bernstein builds off this to clearly make the case at just how stunningly incompetent Trump is at being president:

Every once in a while, some event offers a clarifying reminder of the president’s poor judgment. On Wednesday, it was the release of a letter Trump wrote to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The letter itself was an embarrassment, in which Trump, soon after telling Erdogan on the phone that U.S. forces would move out of his way to enable Turkey’s invasion of Syria, tried to walk things back. Sort of. As Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman put it at the Monkey Cage, the president opted for “threatening rhetoric reminiscent of a Mafia boss” to “make loud threats that he may not be able to deliver on.” As soon as the letter was published, professional diplomats and historians said they had never seen something so amateurish from a U.S. president.

But what really underlined Trump’s problem for me wasn’t that he wrote an incompetent letter to follow up on what seems to have been an incompetent phone call. Or that his Syria policy, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Eli Lake notes, has resulted in chaos and death. Or that, on a crass political level, he’s managed to alienate his congressional allies just as he needs them most, with House Republicans voting overwhelmingly on Wednesday to condemn his decision.

No, what really got to me was that Trump distributed copies of this letter to congressional leaders when they showed up at the White House for a briefing. Think of it. Even if the letter had been perfectly normal, what Trump was handing them was an Oct. 9 request to Erdogan to halt his invasion — a request that Erdogan has, as we’ve seen, totally ignored. Trump was bragging about what he considered to be a sign of his own brilliance without realizing that it was instead evidence of abject failure.

This isn’t new, of course. Trump still brags about how the 2018 election was a glorious victory for Republicans (it wasn’t). He brags that a published summary of his call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy cleared him of wrongdoing (it incriminated him). And on and on. The thing is, it’s possible for others within the political system to deal with a liar. But how do you deal with a president who can’t tell the difference between victories and losses? Someone for whom normal incentives don’t apply because he doesn’t seem to realize when things are going badly?

Every president has policy fiascoes at some point. Every president slumps in the polls. Every president makes hiring decisions that go wrong. But normal presidents, most of the time, recognize their errors — even if they don’t admit them publicly — and work hard to improve things. Trump, to be blunt, doesn’t. It’s destroying his presidency, and damaging the nation.

On a kind of related note, Bloomberg has a very aggressive paywall, but lets you get all the Bernstein you want for free in a daily email.  I’m glad I subscribed to it.

Quick hits

Sorry to be so late.  Had a great time visiting DC on a “learning lab” with NC State’s Park Scholars.  Learned a lot and had so much fun.

Anyway…

1) I loved Stephen Pinker’s “Linguist’s guide to quid pro quo” (I think my son, David, really appreciate this one– read it!)

It’s true that the transcript of the reconstructed conversation does not reveal a smoking sentence with an “if” and a “then.” But to most readers, Mr. Trump’s claim that he was merely musing about his druthers does not pass the giggle test. That is because people in a social relationship rarely hammer out a deal in so many words but veil their offers in politeness and innuendo, counting on their hearers to listen between the lines.

People can certainly issue naked offers and threats. But the clarity of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” or “Your money or your life” comes with costs. The exchange may be taboo, as in prostitution, bribery or extortion, and even when it is legitimate, overt deal-making can be disagreeable. Each side must hold the other to the terms of a hard bargain, sacrificing flexibility and making the relationship feel cold and transactional.

For these reasons people often cloak their exchanges in the trappings of a communal relationship, in which friends, relatives or comrades share goods unstintingly, with no one keeping track. Deals that are struck under the charade of a fictive friendship may have more forgiving terms, and the parties may throw in sweeteners to secure the other’s loyalty and cement the relationship.

Thus, businesspeople may treat their customers as faux friends. Conversely, casual companions (who often do have to exchange favors) take pains to avoid any impression that they are dickering for goodies or bossing each other around. They soften each other up with sympathetic banter and pleasantries. And they couch any request as an idle observation, such as “I was wondering if you could pass the salt,” knowing that the hearer will mentally fill in the premise that turns the non sequitur into a sequitur.

Often the genteel hint consists of a prerequisite to the favor. It makes no sense to ask someone to pass the salt if you already have the salt, if you don’t like salt or if the hearer is incapable of passing the salt. So by airing a thought like “There isn’t any salt down here,” “I could use some salt” or “Can you pass the salt?” a polite diner can plant the desired next step into the head of his tablemate and get what he wants without seeming to treat her like a flunky.

2) Good stuff from Seth Masket in LA Times, “Opinion: The trouble with Democrats who are still reliving 2016”

I’ve been interviewing political activists in the early primary and caucus states as part of my research project on how party insiders decide on the best direction for their party in the current political environment and settle on a nominee for the next presidential election. In some ways, those activists and party leaders are doing what they usually do — weighing the strengths of the candidates on the issues and trying to figure out who has the best shot of getting elected.

But what’s unusual is how these people who, in many cases, have been volunteering and working in politics for decades, still talk about being traumatized by the 2016 presidential election and how it changed their understanding of politics. That disorientation is playing a central role in whom they’ll choose for 2020.

One Iowa activist, who has been working on presidential campaigns since the 1980s, said fears of tearing the party apart continue to haunt her and her colleagues. “One of the most negative things out of 2015 and ’16 was the animosity between many of Hillary supporters and many Bernie supporters. People don’t want to pick too early because they don’t want to get sucked into the internecine conflict.”

The other trauma was Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump despite her consistent polling lead and her strong performances in the debates. The outcome undermined many activists’ longstanding beliefs about just what sorts of candidates are electable.

3) Of course the Ukraine scandal has it’s roots in Russia.  Jeffrey Toobin is on it.

But the Russia and Ukraine scandals are, in fact, one story. Indeed, the President’s false denials in both of them capture the common themes: soliciting help from foreign interests for partisan gain, followed by obstruction of efforts to uncover what happened. Both, too, share roots in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Mueller’s two indictments of Russian interests—the first involving the use of social media and the second the hacking of Democratic Party e-mails—are perhaps the most detailed chronicle ever published of foreign interference in a U.S. political campaign. Trump’s team was appreciative. When a public-relations adviser to a Russian oligarch’s family e-mailed Donald Trump, Jr., offering dirt on Hillary Clinton that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” the candidate’s son gave a straightforward reply: “If it’s what you say I love it.”…

Mueller famously closed his investigation without rendering a judgment on whether the President committed crimes. “We did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct,” he wrote. The time, though, for ultimate conclusions is approaching. One way of looking at Trump’s evolution from candidate to President, from Mueller’s time to Schiff’s, is that his abuses are accelerating, with each unpunished act serving as a license for more. The Constitution gives Congress the tools to halt this cycle in Trump’s out-of-control Presidency. The question now is whether the people’s representatives will use them.

4) This is good from Robinson Meyer, “Five Radical Climate Policies That Most Americans Actually Like.”

5) Vox on the backlash against meatless meat

But if the emergence of meatless meat a few years ago was hailed unanimously as a good thing, the response to its mainstreaming has been tinged with skepticism. The adoption of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products by fast-food chains hasn’t exactly been welcomed in some quarters, even among those you would think would be more supportive of this development.

Call it the backlash against the fast rise of meatless meat.

For instance, the CEO of Whole Foods and the CEO of Chipotle both criticized Beyond and Impossible products, calling themtoo highly processed. Food writer and former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, who has long called on Americans to eat less meat, criticized “the new higher-tech vegan meats” for not addressing “resource use and hyperprocessing” (though he has hailed them in the past). His website, Heated, has also given plant-based meats some favorable coverage, but recently wrote nostalgically that “not so long ago … Veggie burgers didn’t masquerade as something they weren’t.” Meanwhile, numerous articles have questioned the health impacts of the products.

There’s certainly some truth to the critiques. The Beyond and Impossible burgers aren’t exactlyhealth food (something I’ve written about previously), though they’re not more unhealthy than the meat products they’re displacing. The Impossible Whopper might help save the planet, but it’s still high calorie, greasy, and probably not a good idea to eat everyday.

But the critiques go further than just observing that fast food isn’t health food. Often, critics end up voicing disdain for the whole process of producing food at scale in the way it has to be produced to feed hundreds of millions of people. In that way, as the Breakthrough Institute’s Alex Trembath has argued,the plant-based meat backlash reflects how much classism and elitism creep into our national conversations about our food system — and how they might stand in the way of fixing it.

6) I love Sandra Boyton so much.  I can still recite all of Hippos Go Beserk by heart.  I had no idea it was her first book. Loved this short profile of her in the Atlantic.

7a) NPR asks, “Did Secretary Pompeo Forget His West Point Pledge?”  Ummm, I think you know the answer to that.

7b) Dan Drezner, “Why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should resign: He’s been an unmitigated disaster at everything except catering to President Trump.”

8) Sad, but true, “Don’t be mad at the NBA. Hundreds of U.S. companies have sold out to China’s regime.”

9) Great stuff from Annie Lowery on the political and social failure that billionaires represent:

But there are far more urgent reasons than poverty to get rid of billionaires and reverse the trend of economic polarization. A growing body of economic and political-science research demonstrates that Gilded Age–type inequality does not just mean having too many with too little. It is warping the very social fabric of the country, stifling mobility, innovation, investment, and growth, and putting the country at political risk.

Dramatic inequality in wealth means dramatic inequality in terms of political power means a political system unresponsive to what most people want. Wealth inequality, in other words, is an anti-democratic force. [emphases mine] A remarkable study by Lee Drutman found that just 31,385 people—one ten-thousandth of the population—accounted for more than a quarter of all political donations in the 2012 campaign cycle, with politicians getting more money from fewer people than in any other year analyzed. No wonder low-income households’ policy preferences have little effect on political outcomes in the United States, whereas high-income households’ policy preferences do, as research by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern forcefully shows. One of those political outcomes? Inequality itself: Unequal societies tend not to correct their own inequality, because of the political influence of the rich.

The country’s inequality is also stifling mobility and damaging the country’s human capital. As the country has become more unequal, it has also become more sclerotic and class-dominated. Despite all the money the government spends on public education, private education, health, and welfare, rich kids are likely to stay rich and poor kids are likely to stay poor. Measures of absolute mobility have fallen: Children born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of doing better than their parents did, whereas children born in the 1980s had just a 50 percent chance of the same. The steps of the income ladder are too far apart for kids to climb them, in other words…

Given all this evidence, wealth taxes are not simply a way to pay for programs for the poor. They are a way of reducing the incentive for the rich to soak up all that money in the first place. They are a way of pushing the steps of the income ladder closer together to make them easier to climb. They are a way of ending what two leading economists on inequality, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, call “oligarchic drift,” and its attending political risks. They are a way of building a healthier economic future for everyone—including those 400 families up at the tippy top.

10) This was interesting from law professor Ilya Somin, “Immigration Law Defies the American Constitution: Immigration restrictions have been held to a far lower constitutional standard compared with almost any other exercise of government power.”

11) As always, there’s a lot of Atlantic stories.  The difference is that if you want to read them, now, you have to pay for it.  It’s worth it.  Then again, I just looked and they more than doubled the price I paid last year– wow!  Still, I shall re-up.

12) Nice NYT magazine feature, “The W.N.B.A. Is Putting On Some of the Best Pro Basketball in America” and nobody cares.

13) Kevin Kruse with a useful history of presidents and candidate supplying their tax returns.

14) How repeated exposure to falsehoods leads us to believe them:

Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda for the Nazi German government of the Third Reich, understood the power of repeating falsehoods. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it,” he asserted, “people will eventually come to believe it.” This phenomenon, pervasive in contemporary politics, advertising, and social media, is known in cognitive psychology as the “illusory truth effect.”

Though multiple studies have found that repeated statements seem more truthful than novel ones, the illusion was thought to be limited to uncertain statements, or those in which people had no other information available, such as prior knowledge.

A recent study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review indicates that, contrary to accepted knowledge, belief in all statements, be they plausible or implausible, increases with repetition…

The implications for daily life, where consumers of news and products are often repeatedly exposed to both plausible and implausible falsehoods, is that even patent lies may slowly become more credible, provided enough repetition. Considering this vulnerability, it becomes critically important to not repeat falsehoods, even while we attempt to debunk them—lest we legitimize lies by reiteration itself.

15) Historian Jordan Taylor on the Founders efforts to protect us from foreign interference.

16) William Barr is awful.  Supposedly, he wasn’t always this way.

17) Watched the new Netflix Breaking Bad movie with my aforementioned firstborn today.  It was really, really good.  If you were a fan of the show, definitely worth your time.  And if you’ve never watched the show, what are you waiting for?!

 

 

 

 

Constitution. Meet crisis.

For reals.

Chait:

The letter complains that the House fails to grant Trump sufficient control over the impeachment agenda. Though there’s a reason for that — the trial takes place in the Senate, not the House — Trump could in theory try to negotiate for more Republican input into the process. In a briefing with reporters, a senior administration official was asked what changes Trump would need to cooperate. “A full halt” was the answer. That is, Trump will cooperate with an impeachment probe if Democrats stop the impeachment probe.

Such Catch-22 absurdities give this administration no embarrassment. Since Democrats took control of the House last January, Trump has asserted it has no right to investigate him for crimes, no right to obtain his tax returns despite a law clearly authorizing exactly that, and that prosecutors can neither charge nor even investigate his criminal activity. He has claimed the right to start or stop any federal legal proceeding. Some of his positions grow out of the extreme unitary executive theory that figures like William Barr have developed for years, though only for Republican presidents.

But it is, in the main, an expression of Trump’s idiosyncratic convictions. This is a president who asserted his “absolute right” to investigate any person he wants, for any reason even while facing impeachment for abuse of power. He has no conception of the law, except as a tool to compel his opponents to submit to him. His every response to impeachment proves its necessity. [bold is mine]

Paul Campos:

It should go without saying that the legal(ish) arguments in this letter are preposterous. They all revolve around the absurd argument that an impeachment inquiry is somehow subject to the federal rules of criminal procedure, as opposed to being, you know, a congressional investigation specifically authorized by the Constitution, which also specifically does not specify in any way how that investigation is supposed to be carried out.

And I know we’re all inured to this stuff, but I can’t imagine a more straightforward constitutional crisis than a presidential administration simply refusing to cooperate with the legal process laid out in that document by which the legislature is supposed to investigate potential serious executive misconduct.

 

We interrupt your ongoing abuse of presidential power for drug-sniffing dogs

I’ve been meaning to write a post on this since, oh, well, the article is dated February of this year, and haven’t.  But I just got an email yesterday from a student who wrote a great paper for me years ago on just what a bad job drug-sniffing dogs do, but, alas, our criminal justice system pretends like they are highly accurate.  Radley Balko, of course, is all over this:

Last week, I wrote a post looking at how the criminal justice system operates in an alternate reality, one in which truth isn’t dictated by facts or data, but by precedent and case law. Today, I want to look at a case pending before the Supreme Court that is a great example of the problem. [emphases mine]

At issue in Edstrom v. Minnesota is whether a drug dog’s sniff outside an apartment door constitutes a lawful search under the Fourth Amendment. If it does not, the police would be required to obtain a warrant before using a narcotics-detecting dog in that manner. If it does, then the police could take their dogs up and down apartment complexes the way they sometimes do with school lockers. Over at the legal analysis site Verdict, Cornell University professor Sherry Colb runs through what’s at stake, and offers some informed speculation on what the court may do.

For the purpose of this post, though, I want to focus on what’s missing from Colb’s analysis and, should the Supreme Court decide to hear the case, will almost certainly also be missing from oral arguments, the court’s ruling and most discussion of the case: that narcotics-detecting dogs and their handlers aren’t very good at discerning the presence of illegal drugs. Multiple analyses of drug-dog alerts have consistently shown alarmingly high error rates — with some close to and exceeding 50 percent. In effect, some of these K-9 units are worse than a coin flip…

While dogs are indeed capable of sniffing out illicit drugs, we’ve bred into them another overriding trait: the desire to please. Even drug dogs with conscientious handlers will read their handlers’ unintentional body language and alert accordingly. A 2010 study found that packages designed to trick handlers into thinking there were drugs inside them were much more likely to trigger false alerts than packages designed to trick the dogs. (Police-dog handlers and trainers responded to that study by refusing to cooperate with further research.) Many drug dogs, then, are not alerting to the presence of drugs, but to their handlers’ suspicions about the presence of drugs. And searches based on little more than law enforcement’s suspicions are exactly what the Fourth Amendment is supposed to prevent…

If the Fourth Amendment rights of drug suspects hinge on drug dogs, one would think the accuracy of those dogs would be something the Supreme Court might want to investigate. You’d be wrong

The Harris ruling made these dogs’ real-world accuracy irrelevant. In the alternate reality of the criminal justice system, from 2013 on, any police dog that is “certified” is accurate and reliable — because the Supreme Court says they are.

Two years later, a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit stretched the dimensions of this new reality. In United States v. Bentley, the defendant was searched after an alert by a drug dog that had alerted 93 out of every 100 times it sniffed. Why did it alert so often? Perhaps because the drug dog’s handler admitted that he rewarded the dog with a treat only when it alerted. The dog was confirming its owner’s hunches, and getting a treat each time it did. It also had a false positive error rate of 41 percent — 4 out of every 10 drivers searched because of a dog’s alert turned out to be innocent…

And, yet, in our criminal justice system, those searches would not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of the people inside. Because in this reality, the Supreme Court determines what is and isn’t true. And the Supreme Court has said that so long as they’re certified, drug dogs only alert when someone is guilty.

It really is astounding how little science and fact count for in our criminal justice system when weighed against past precedent and a bias towards finality.  And this comes from the very highest levels that the Supreme Court honestly just doesn’t care that drug-sniffing dogs are a horribly blunt and failure-prone instrument.  It’s like if we somehow let police regularly pull over people for speeding with radar guns that had a +/- 20mph error rate and just didn’t care.  But hey, drugs are bad!  Ugh.

How to shoot someone on 5th Avenue and get away with it

Terrific piece by Peter Beinart that brings in relevant social-psychological research to explain the evil genius behind Trump’s plain sight flouting of democracy and the rule of law:

And yet, Trump’s China remarks don’t appear to have hurt him much. The majority of Republican voters and politicians still oppose his impeachment. His China comments may even prove politically shrewd. Research into the psychology of secrecy and confidence helps explain why.

In January 2016, Trump infamously declared, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The statement was widely interpreted as a commentary on the loyalty of Trump’s voters. But it can also be understood as a commentary on the value of brazenness—of acting publicly rather than furtively and confidently rather than bashfully. It’s a value academics have confirmed time and again…

The researchers’ conclusion: There is a secrecy “heuristic”—a mental shortcut that helps people make judgments. “People weigh secret information more heavily than public information when making decisions,” [emphases mine] they wrote. A 2004 dissertation on jury behavior found a similar tendency. When judges told jurors to disregard certain information—once it was deemed secret—the jurors gave it more weight.

While it’s unlikely Trump has heard of the secrecy heuristic, his comments about murder on Fifth Avenue suggest he grasps it instinctively. He recognizes that people accord less weight to information that nobody bothers to conceal. If shooting someone were that big a deal, the reasoning goes, Trump wouldn’t do it in full public view. The logic works even better when it comes to Trump’s comments about Ukraine and China. Most Americans know murder is against the law. Whether inviting foreign meddling in an American election constitutes a “high crime or misdemeanor,” by contrast, is less well established. By openly inviting such meddling, therefore, Trump sends the message that it’s not that important. If it were, he’d have kept his request a secret.

But brazenness entails more than just a lack of secrecy. It also entails confidence. And here too, there’s ample evidence that Trump’s confidence works to his political benefit…

If people use secrecy as a heuristic to gauge importance, they use confidence as a heuristic to gauge competence. As Cameron Anderson, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, explained to me, “There is a lot of research showing that when people exhibit confidence, they come across as more competent, intelligent, skilled, and so forth.” The word con man, the Harvard professor and former Obama-administration official Cass Sunstein has noted, is short for confidence man. That’s because “when con men succeed,” Sunstein observes, “it’s usually because they enlist the confidence heuristic. They don’t show any doubts. They act as if they know what they are doing.” Thus, they win people’s trust.

By openly asking Ukraine and China to investigate a political rival, Trump expressed confidence that he’s doing nothing wrong. And while one might think the majority of Americans would view Trump’s confidence as an outrageous sham, academic evidence suggests that con men can be surprisingly difficult to unmask.

Short version: Trump is not so great at actually being a president.  But as a con man, he is nearing “great and unmatched” ability.

Russian propaganda and the murk

Was reading this NYT Op-Ed on how Trump/Guiliani are basically copying the Russian propaganda playbook when I realized, sadly, how well it’s working.

I talked to my Teaching assistants on Monday to ask them how discussions of Trump/Ukraine, etc., had gone on Friday and wondered if anybody had actually defended Trump.  No, apparently, but quite a few of them had determined things were just too “murky” to really know what’s going on.  Essentially heard the same thing from Republican Will Hurd on 60 Minutes last night.

Interesting… so onto the Op-Ed:

The message of much of Kremlin propaganda is not to showcase Russia as a beacon of progress, but to prove that Western politics is just as rotten as President Vladimir Putin’s. We may have corruption, the argument goes, but so does the West; our democracy is rigged, but so is theirs.

The latest scandal surrounding President Trump and his dealings with Ukraine is, for this reason, a godsend for the Kremlin: The son of an American presidential candidate is suspected of using his father’s reputation to get himself a $50,000-a-month job at a Ukrainian gas company; the president of the United States is accused of acting like a geopolitical gangster, extorting kompromat about a political rival. American politics have become enmeshed in Russian and Ukrainian corruption, and much about the Trump administration seems pulled from the playbook of a post-Soviet kleptocracy. The Kremlin couldn’t have put together a better script.

As I follow the news coming from America at my home in Britain, the political culture and language in the thing once known as “the West” reminds me of my years in Moscow, where I lived in the first decade of the 21st century. Perhaps in nothing more so than in its relationship to the truth.

The media manipulation of the early Putin years didn’t try to convince you of a fabricated version of “truth.” Instead, it worked by seeding doubt and confusion, evoking a world so full of endlessly intricate conspiracies that you, the little guy, had no chance to work out or change. Instead of conspiracy theories being used to merely buttress an ideology as under Communist rule, a conspiratorial worldview replaced ideology as a way to explain the world, encouraging the public to trust nothing and yearn for a strong leader to guide it through the murk — a tactic that’s as common in Washington these days as in Moscow. [emphasis mine]

 

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