Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Few Quick Thoughts

A few quick thoughts on our situation.

First, I wonder how helpful it is to make specific, clear arguments about what Trump did wrong. Specifically, he lied about why he took so long to speak quasi-forcefully about neo-Nazis, and he inexplicably claimed that there were "very fine people" who joined marchers chanting "Jews will not replace us!" by torchlight. He also did less than the bare minimum to express outrage at white supremacist terrorism on U.S. soil.

Many people criticizing Trump chose to be fairly vague about what he had done wrong. Since most of the audience is probably not paying enough attention to draw fine distinctions, this may have been harmless. But I wonder if it obscured the stakes—now Trump is attacking straw men and defending the existence of Confederate statutes, which, while offensive, are not nearly as unpopular as neo-Nazis. I think I would have preferred for people to put a little more work into clearly defining Trump's violation.

Second, I'll have more to say about this later, but Trump is displaying two of his signature moves. First, he is playing the role of protector of the "common man" against elite consensus. Second, he is defying near-universal condemnation and demands for apology. So far he has not paid much of a material price for this practice, and by shifting the conversation away from neo-Nazis and toward Confederate statues he clearly hopes to escape unscathed yet again. (I'm not saying he hasn't paid a price, just that it hasn't been realized in any electoral results.)

And this is exactly how norms fall. Norms exist because people fear to violate them. When someone violates them with impunity, it basically calls society's bluff. Unfortunately it often is a bluff, for a variety of reasons.

Anyway I am afraid of what happens next. Trump is clearly trying to inflame racial divisions to protect himself, and this is one area where he has actual skill.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What Trump Is Like

I read a story a long time ago that I think captures my thoughts on Trump pretty well. I'll start with the pithy version of the idea, which is Sarang's description of Trump as an "idiot savant" who is masterful at certain kinds of communication but lacks practically any other skill, intelligence, or curiosity. This is clearly right, and in a sense it's all I need to make my point, but... you know me.

The longer version of the idea requires me to summarize the story, which I think is by Mark Twain, but in any case is one I read a very long time ago, and I'm probably misremembering much of it. (Update: It is "Luck," by Mark Twain. My memory was not so far off. You should read it!) Anyway, the story goes that the narrator knew a young man who was a hopelessly bad student at a military academy or something like that. Just hopeless. But the young man was facing his final exam (which might have been some kind of oral presentation), and the narrator agreed to help him prepare. The difficulty was that the exam would cover a very particular topic, but there was no way of knowing which one in advance. The narrator's solution was to train the young man extremely well in one narrow area and hope against hope that this would be the area tested.

And it works—by some miracle, the exam covers exactly the topic that the young man crammed, and he performs magnificently. He goes on to a successful career in the military despite being a complete fool.

The Twain story is probably open to different interpretations, including the possibility of an unreliable narrator. But the literal reading is how I think about Trump's success. It just so happens that he was bestowed with exactly the right attributes to appeal to the Republicans in 2016, as the Onion predicted.

And of course he was incredibly lucky in the way the general election played out—the hacking of the DNC's and John Podesta's emails, the Comey letter, etc. (including, yes, an opponent who turned out to be weaker than many of us had hoped and expected).

The key point here is that, just like the idiotic cadet in the Mark Twain story, Trump managed to pass through a sorting mechanism that should weed out people like him, but that didn't for reasons that were extremely unlikely ex ante. (I'm not saying his approach was unlikely to work ex ante, I mean that only his combination of racial resentment and boorish behavior, combined with bizarrely effective communication skills, could get such an incompetent man into the White House.) And the upshot is that he's vastly stupider and less disciplined than you would expect based on where he ended up.

This creates cognitive dissonance so strong that I usually can't override my disbelief. He can't be that stupid and undisciplined, can he? Yes he can. In fact probably the best mental model for Trump is "typical but mean-spirited deranged old white guy whose only pursuits are golf and watching Fox News." (There is also all of the self-enrichment and tax dodging and whatnot, but for functional purposes we can ignore that. If Trump actually becoming a billionaire is the worst thing that happens during his presidency, we will have gotten off light.)

And that's it, that's my point. Interpretations of Trump that turn on his intelligence or strategic insight are wrong. He is very good at a very narrow set of things, and by weird coincidence it landed him in the White House. His decision-making should be understood by analogy to, say, a dog that is easily distracted by squirrels, not a rational individual capable of anticipating the future or delaying gratification. (His advisers may have those attributes, but he seems to be unmanageable.) I'll have more to say about this, but for now I just want to take note of this basic fact about where things stand.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Take a Law School Class with Me

Law school is arguably a waste of time. It could be shortened to two years, in my view, without much loss of value. You could probably shorten it even further if you integrated it with an apprenticeship program of some kind. In point of fact, I think law school is used to subsidize other, less lucrative fields of higher education, which I'm mostly fine with (though you can certainly make a case against it). Either way, though, legal education as it exists seems needlessly protracted and wasteful.

However, law school does involve reading a lot of cases and thinking about tricky issues that are not exactly rocket science but not entirely intuitive either. A classic example is the "mistaken identity" line of rape cases. My memory (which could be very wrong—this is not legal advice!) is that if a man, say, crawls into bed with a woman who thinks he is her husband, and has sex with her, that's rape. The idea is that she didn't consent to sex with this man, she consented to sex with her husband. However, this logic only extends so far. If a man pretends to be a famous actor, when in reality he's a waiter in a restaurant, this is not the sort of deception that vitiates his partner's consent. If she says, "But I didn't consent to sleep with a waiter (ugh!), I consented to sleep with a famous actor!" the court will not be moved. And weirdly, I believe this is true even if the waiter pretends to be a particular famous actor. (Though not, of course, if he pretends to be the famous actor who is married to the victim. That would just be our first example. By the way, the rumor is that Leonard Cohen pretended to be Kris Kristofferson in order to sleep with Janis Joplin, although apparently she was not deceived.) The thing is that if you think about it, it's very hard to know where to draw the line between different kinds of deception. What if he says he's had a vasectomy, when he hasn't? What if he says he's free of HIV, when he isn't? (In fact the HIV cases required some novel legal theories and statutes, I believe.)

Anyway that particular example, while interesting, might not give us much insight into other areas of life. But some of the classic tort cases focus attention on causation, and so lawyers tend to have a more nuanced understanding of it than lay people.

The example I'm thinking of is a case in which two individuals have carelessly started a fire that has burned down a valuable forest. Imagine the following defense: "I should only be held liable to the extent that my behavior caused any damage to the owner of the forest. But my behavior was irrelevant—the other fire would have spread throughout the forest and burned the whole thing down anyway. My negligence contributed nothing to the damage." Assume this claim is factually true (either fire, by itself, would have burned the whole forest down). Should the defense be permitted?

No! The problem is that both of the careless fire-causers might be able to use this defense, leaving the forest owner without recourse, even though there was clearly wrongful activity that damaged his property. It's often helpful to think about the marginal damage that a wrongdoer has caused, but in some cases this kind of thinking can go awry. (By contrast, I believe—though again, don't quote me!—that a careless fire-starter would get away with it if the second fire were caused by something like lightning. In that case, the forest was going to burn down anyway with or without any carelessness, and so the forest's owner has no legal recourse against the fire-starter. I think! Not legal advice! The law is weird.)

Anyway that is what I am thinking about when I see that people are debating whether Trump or McConnell is responsible for the GOP's failure to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act. My feeling is that each man "started his own fire," and would have fucked the whole thing up on his own. Each of them is like the negligent fire-starter who points his finger at the other and (rightly!) claims that his own behavior caused no marginal damage because the other one fucked it up so badly. If you haven't been exposed to the "two fires" case, you might have trouble seeing that in fact there is no non-arbitrary way to divide the blame.

(And by what deception did Trump convince the GOP to get in bed with him?)

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Dogs and Bacteria

Zed retweeted this tweet, with the obligatory comment that it is the story of Alan's life:
I am obsessed with the video. Of course it is a short clip and the surface interpretation—that the dog thinks the swimmer is drowning—could be wrong. But I'm prepared to take the clip at face value.

One deeper question is what is going on in the dog's head. That is to say, even if the dog "believes" that the swimmer is drowning, is that a subjective belief, or is it a description of a mechanical process? (In other words, does the dog "believe" the human is drowning in the same way that a computer might "believe" a shape resembles a butterfly?) But these sorts of philosophical questions are pretty much unanswerable, I think. I want to believe that the dog is experiencing urgent concern for the swimmer, but it's hard to say.

The video reminds me, though, that humans and dogs co-evolved very early on. Long before cats were domesticated, long before humans started practicing agriculture, our fates had become interwoven with the fates of dogs. Putting aside what is "really" going on inside their heads, it is easy to see why dogs would evolve to display tremendous loyalty, and why we would evolve to recognize and reward it. And this, I think, is why the video makes such an impression on me. It is the vivid playing out of a dynamic that is built into our genes, and the genes of dogs.

It reminds me of a theory that occurred to me years ago. One striking fact about the human sense of taste is that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is virtually tasteless. This is odd given that it is a necessary nutrient. What I think it indicates is that until we created highly artificial environments like ocean-going ships, we seldom faced scarcity of ascorbic acid, and so there was little or no selective pressure to detect it.

By contrast, it is very easy to taste lactic acid and acetic acid, neither of which is (so far as I know) nutritionally necessary or even helpful. Not nutritionally helpful, but still quite valuable in food, because for reasons that I don't fully understand, there aren't any pathogens that can survive sufficiently low pH levels. So lactic and acetic acids are preservatives and indicators of safety, and being able to detect sourness in food and drink was probably very valuable in our evolutionary environment. More valuable than detecting ascorbic acid, it would seem!

And so it appears that, just as with dogs, acid-producing bacteria probably co-evolved with us, and our response to them has been built into our genes through long-running selective pressure. I like to think about this when I'm enjoying a sour beer. That is the taste of human history! That is a signal from my ancestral environment reverberating in my brain.

(Alcohol might be subject to the same dynamic—like acid, alcohol is effective at killing pathogens, and certainly humans are inclined to seek it out. Caffeine, by contrast, seems as though its effects must be serendipitous, because why would we evolve to respond positively to it? Coffee is healthy but it's not that healthy. Also, I don't think most humans had access to coffee or tea for most of human history.)

I should note a few boring possibilities. Maybe lactic acid and acetic acid are simply easier to detect than ascorbic acid for chemical reasons. Maybe we developed a taste for tart foods precisely because tart fruits are often (though not always) high in ascorbic acid, and not because lactic acid protects food from pathogens. (In this theory, lactic acid is detectable to us because it bears some chemical resemblance to citric acid and malic acid, I guess.)

But I prefer to believe that lactic acid tastes strong because it was so valuable to our ancestors. And I prefer to believe that dogs have a subjective feeling of loyalty and affection, and I'm certainly not going to stop enjoying videos of them displaying it.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Everything Turns to... Culture War?

Just a quick observation. A bizarre thing that has happened in recent years is that seemingly ideological or interest-group issues have been fought as though they are part of the culture war. I suppose this is because conservatives believe that they benefit by "extending the domain of the struggle" (apologies to... wow, Michel Houellebecq!). In other words, conservatives have succeeded by convincing voters that politics is a struggle between "the elites" and regular people, and so they apply that framework to everything. The particular example I am thinking of is climate change—you would think it would be a technical issue and the politics would be driven by interest groups (coal, oil, renewables) and to a lesser extent by ideologues (e.g. libertarians who don't believe fighting climate change is within the legitimate scope of government action). Of course interest groups and ideologues are in the arena, but to a surprising degree the issue is being fought like a battle in the culture wars. And I think this is true of all kinds of issues (for instance, I suspect a large share of the remaining opposition to the Affordable Care Act falls into the same framework). It is bizarre and oppressive.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

To Become Depressed, Read This Post

I just had a sobering thought. Even when Trump is gone from the political stage—even when he's gone from the world—Republicans from many states will have to speak of him reverentially so as not to antagonize his devoted followers. His impact is going to resonate in U.S. politics for years. (I really hope I'm wrong.)

Lizza and the Mooch

[Updated to add: Always trust content from purautrevie. The story is up and it's a doozy.

Update to the update: I am pretty pleased with my early sense that this story was going to be "bonkers," but it's safe to say the story exceeded my wildest expectations.]

There will probably be a Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker soon spelling it all out, but in the meantime I will point out a very funny thing that happened last night. First, Anthony Scaramucci tweeted this (it has since been deleted, so I'm posting a tweet that includes an image of it):
Tim O'Brien points out one hilarious aspect of the tweet. Scaramucci apparently thought his financial disclosure had been leaked—in fact it had been obtained through ordinary channels because it is a publicly available document. In light of this, tweeting his accusation to the FBI was hilarious.

But notice who else was named in that tweet: Reince Priebus. Why? Well, Ryan Lizza tweeted this:
So Scaramucci demanded that the FBI investigate Reince Priebus for leaking a document that not only wasn't leaked, but was publicly available by law. It's pretty easy to see why he deleted the tweet.
And there's this:
So long story short, it appears Lizza has the goods on Scaramucci and I have every expectation that his New Yorker piece will be bonkers.

Are the Wheels Coming Off?

There has been a cascade of embarrassing news for President Trump and his administration in the last few days. As usual, most of it was generated by the administration itself. Anthony Scaramucci, the new head of communications (and a graduate of the Harvard Law School), accused administration officials of committing a felony(!) by leaking his personal financial disclosure, but then discovered that it is publicly available by law. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened to take revenge on Alaska for Senator Murkowski's "no" vote on the motion to proceed to debate on the Republicans' healthcare bill. Trump threatened to veto a veto-proof bill (this is not necessarily stupid—sometimes forcing Congress to override a veto has a strategic purpose—but in this case it appears the administration can't do basic math). And of course, Trump has launched a Twitter attack on Jeff Sessions!

I could go on, but the point is that the administration is screwing up in ways that demonstrate a shocking degree of ineptitude. But I suspect all of this is invisible to the vast majority of U.S. voters, and in particular to Trump supporters. (The Sessions drama may be an exception.) As a result, while "elites" view the administration as an embarrassing disaster that could implode any day now, I suspect a lot of people think everything is humming along normally.

Probably the truth is somewhere in between! Certainly the administration is staggeringly incompetent, but it is also drama-loving and unconcerned with basic decorum. This can make it look worse than it really is, because normal organizations go to great lengths to keep up appearances, while the administration either doesn't know or doesn't care how ridiculous it looks. And in fairness, if most people aren't paying attention, then it really doesn't matter!

But then, the administration is in fact glaringly incompetent. It's not merely inattentive to appearances, it is also strikingly bad at practically everything it does. (A major exception is enriching the Trump family.) So while the "elites" may get an exaggerated sense of the administration's slide into chaos, I think they also have a more accurate sense of the administration's actual capacity to do... pretty much anything.

I don't have much of a conclusion, but I'll have more to write about this. It is a dynamic that I believe lends itself to a weird kind of polarization and stratification.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Why the MTP Shouldn't Pass

Rand Paul has announced that he will vote for the "motion to proceed" (MTP) because the first bill (or amendment or whatever) would be the 2015 "full repeal" bill that he favors. (My understanding is that it is not a true "full repeal" bill, but that is a detail we can ignore for now.) John McCain has also announced that he will vote for the MTP.

People are now worried that McConnell will have enough votes for the MTP. I'm worried, but I also think it would be a big mistake for senators like Murkowski, Heller, Moran, Capito, et al. to vote for the MTP. In fact I think it would be a mistake for almost any senator to vote for the MTP unless it is necessary to fend off a primary challenge. So in my mind the question is just how smart or stupid the Republican Senate caucus is.

First, my understanding is that while a reconciliation vote only requires 50 votes to pass (with Pence's tie-breaking vote), the process allows for unlimited amendments. Possibly "unlimited" is an exaggeration, but certainly the Democrats will have the opportunity to propose several amendments, all of which will be designed to force Republicans to take hard votes. So the cost of passing the MTP is baked into the cake.

Second, the benefits of the MTP are far from obvious. It appears that Rand Paul's preferred 2015 bill is dead on arrival. So are all of the other known bills. Discussion has turned to "skinny" repeal, that is, getting rid of the mandate but leaving Medicaid untouched. However, Lindsey Graham has already announced he opposes such a bill, and I suspect he's not the only one.

Of course there is another benefit. Trump has made the vote on the MTP his focal point, insisting that anyone who opposes the MTP is allied with Obamacare. Senators are feeling intense pressure to avoid Trump's ire, since one of the few things Trump presumably still has is the ability to rile up his base.

And Rand Paul is probably hoping to get a lot of senators on the record opposing the 2015 "full repeal" bill for his own purposes. Other senators may also be hoping to embarrass their colleagues for various idiosyncratic reasons.

But the point is that it would be the height of stupidity to open that Pandora's box—which at best will lead to a bunch of embarrassing votes and then a sharply negative change in public policy—unless it serves some identifiable goal. So I get why some, even many Republicans would vote for it. (In fact, for most Republicans the best thing is to vote for it while it fails.) But I don't see how it gets the votes of the Republicans with safe seats who do not prefer the outcome that it entails.

And so I am now wondering about the intelligence of the Republican senators. We'll find out soon enough.