Pur Autre Vie

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Political Bundling

In antitrust law, "bundling" or "tying" happens when you require someone to buy goods or services together rather than à la carte. The economics of it is complicated—it is not always anti-consumer, although it often involves cross-subsidies that favor people with certain preferences.

Anyway the same thing happens in politics in two senses, one of them interesting and the other fairly boring. The boring version is simply enforcing a political deal that has been struck. So for instance, the Democrats might agree to support spending on highways in exchange for spending on mass transit. You put those policies into the same bill to prevent either side from reneging, since in isolation the Democrats might not want the highway spending and in isolation the Republicans might not want the transit spending. So each would fail in a separate vote, but together they pass.

The more interesting version involves public perception. I've been thinking about this in connection with gun control. There are at least four distinct public policy issues that could in theory be separately addressed. (1) The U.S. has a very high rate of gun homicide. This is largely a function of easily available handguns. (2) The U.S. has frequent mass shootings, which are far more shocking to the public but which cause significantly fewer deaths than more ordinary murders. This is largely a function of easily available semi-automatic rifles, which are unsuited for ordinary gun crime. (3) The U.S. has a high rate of death from gun accidents, often involving toddlers. This is largely a function of the loose regulation of gun storage. (4) I have seen evidence that guns increase the rate of suicide. This is a function of the availability of guns in general.

You could very easily address any of (1), (2), and (3) in isolation, while (4) cuts across the other issues. In other words, a rigorous assault weapon ban could make it much harder to carry out a mass shooting while doing practically nothing to address common gun crime. Similarly, a handgun ban could reduce the murder rate while having no effect on mass shootings. And simply requiring guns to be locked up when not in use would save children's lives without affecting gun crime much at all.

If the momentum for gun control grows, Democrats will face a choice about how to present their policies. They could go for across-the-board gun control addressing all of the issues I've mentioned. In a sense, they would be harnessing national outrage over school shootings to make policy gains along another dimension. Alternatively, they could focus on assault weapons, calculating that a broader push will be harder to pull off. These are not easy decisions! I haven't looked up the data, but it seems likely that the victims of school shootings, while diverse, are whiter on average than the victims of ordinary gun homicide. This is one reason that it is difficult to mobilize the public to support broad gun control efforts. But by the same token, tying an assault weapon ban to ordinary gun control might cause it to lose steam.

Of course there is a strategic dynamic where Republicans are essentially on the opposite side of the bundling decision. They can always propose amendments to set up separate votes on the separate issues, or they can insist that any gun control effort should satisfy a long and hard-to-meet list of conditions. Their allies in the media can mock the Democrats for failing to protect their urban constituency or for trying to ban handguns that are not especially deadly in school shootings.

The same thing happened with DACA, obviously, with the bundling question essentially driving everything else. Anyway I don't have much more to say about it, it's just a dynamic to watch whenever the public feels strongly about an issue and a party has a longstanding view on adjacent issues that might or might not be bundled.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Dangers of Wokeness

Another thought on public defenders (following up on my previous post). I think it's almost 100% bullshit when people criticize the Democrats for "abandoning" white working class voters. Democratic policies are far better for working class people than Republican policies. And if anything, the party has moved to the left in recent years—that is, toward policies that will help working class people of all races.

But I do think that it is legitimately shocking to see liberals embrace the idea that public defenders shouldn't represent their white clients zealously, or that when they do the media should refuse to report their exculpatory statements. That really does amount to an attack on working class white people! An important political aspect of building a more just society is that it can't appear to be balanced on the backs of working class people. Again, most Republican rhetoric along these lines is bullshit. "How can you look a worker in the eyes and tell him an unproven scientific theory is more important than bringing home enough money to support his family?" Bullshit!

But if liberals really are committed to undermining the legal rights of poor white people, the Republicans will be able to argue honestly that white people have good reason to think they will be better off under Republican leadership. I think this would be disastrous on all levels—bad policy and bad politics. It's important not to get so woke that we decide actively undermining white people's right to counsel is a good thing.

Friday, February 16, 2018

In Defense of Defense Attorneys

I am a lawyer, though not a criminal lawyer. (Or at least, I don't practice criminal law.) I mention this mostly to reveal my professional bias, which runs very much in favor of the Constitutional rights that criminal defendants enjoy in the United States. These rights are attacked by conservatives as "technicalities" that force the police to jump through hoops and allow guilty people to go free, and  by leftists as get-out-of-jail-free cards that only the rich can afford. Of those two critiques I find the leftist one more persuasive, but my strong inclination would be to increase poor people's access to decent representation, not to strip away the rights.

Anyway that's my bias. I was therefore distressed to see people on Twitter criticizing Nikolas Cruz's defense attorneys (public defenders, it so happens) for describing him as a "broken child" who is sorry for his actions:

Something that may not be clear to non-lawyers is that our system is adversarial. It's not the defense attorney's job to seek some higher truth—to see that the defendant is convicted if he is guilty and acquitted if he is innocent. It's also not the defense attorney's job to address racial disparities by, say, providing unenthusiastic representation to white defendants. The defense attorney is supposed to do whatever it takes (within the bounds of law and ethics) to promote the interests of the defendant.

So if a defense attorney, motivated by a thirst for racial justice, said, "Look, unlike Tamir Rice, who was 12, my client is a fully-grown white man. He knew what he did was wrong, and he did it anyway. There's really no excuse for it, and there's no extenuating circumstances either," I would report that attorney to the disciplinary board. He would have no business being a defense attorney.

Now you may find it abhorrent to describe someone like Cruz in sympathetic terms. But this is actually one of the least abhorrent things a defense attorney is ever called upon to do. If your client is charged with rape, it is your job to question the accuser, to suggest (if it is plausible) that she consented to the sex, to cast doubt on her version of events. (Note that you don't have to suborn perjury, though, and you certainly don't have to be counterproductively aggressive.) This can be distasteful in the extreme, but it's part of the job. It is what keeps prosecutors from bringing shitty charges, it is what keeps innocent defendants out of prison. Not everyone is cut out for it. I'm certainly not. But I am grateful that there are lawyers out there willing to work for relatively little money to represent indigent defendants, and I am extremely unhappy to see those public servants called "abhorrent" for doing their jobs. To my mind it is the opposite of "shameful" for Cruz's attorneys to put his actions in the best possible light, to put forth exculpatory evidence, and generally to work their asses off to see that he is treated fairly.

Trump's Immigration Position Seems Very Simple

A quick point about yesterday's immigration votes in the Senate, which I hope to follow with a more substantive post when I get a chance to figure out the details of the legislative maneuvering. It is pretty clear that if Trump had wanted a very Trumpy "victory" he could have had one. Democrats were prepared to fund his wall in exchange for various degrees of protection for DACA recipients and the broader Dreamer population. This would have been good for Trump in several ways. First, the wall is the most obvious tangible promise that Trump made to his supporters. Second, Trump's reputation hinges on his skills as a negotiator, and he could have dunked on the Democrats for the rest of his term. "I said I'd get a wall and I easily tricked the Democrats into giving me one! I am the greatest!" Third, actually deporting Dreamers is bound to be unpopular, and to the extent it turns into a voting issue, it will hurt Republicans. Having an excuse not to do it would seem to be a political winner.

There are complicated explanations for Trump's refusal to make a deal on those terms. I may even end up believing one. But for now I've seen nothing to contradict the most basic explanation, which is that Trump is dancing with the one that brung him. By this I mean that Trump won the nomination with a consistent strategy of never letting anyone get to his right on policies that matter to the base, particularly immigration. I'm not sure Trump would have won the nomination if (A) Rubio hadn't been tainted by his association with "amnesty," or (B) Sessions had endorsed Cruz. Trump knows that the only sure play is to avoid any exposure to attack from the right.

Of course that makes compromise essentially impossible. Trump's demand on immigration is that any reform must please the Republicans with the most extreme views. I think he really does want a compromise to happen along those lines! But who wouldn't? Unless the proposed reform protects his right flank, he is not going to sign onto it, regardless of the political advantage he has to sacrifice to maintain this position. He's not a strategic thinker, he's an instinctive guarder of his right flank, and that's how to understand his behavior.

[Updated to add: when I say Trump isn't a strategic thinker, I don't necessarily mean that as an insult! Most of the Republican primary candidates in 2016 strategized themselves right out of the race. Sometimes a simple heuristic is better than all the game theory in the world. That's particularly true when your base itself isn't strategic and is simply out for blood. That said, of course an approach that works in one environment won't necessarily translate well to another environment, and Trump might be well-served by throwing his weight around. But that doesn't mean he will.]

Quantitative and Qualitative Failings

Arguments about Trump often go like this.

Me: Trump simply has no regard for the truth. It's irrelevant to him.

My interlocutor: As opposed to the countless GOP politicians who have spent the last decade casting doubt on climate science?

Me: Well, right, but Trump is worse.

Trump's ascent has forced me to think a fair amount about the line-drawing we do between expected levels of dishonesty and corruption and unacceptable levels. It can get pretty uncomfortable! Here's an example of what I mean:

This is an insightful tweet. And the National Enquirer really is much worse than mainstream media organizations. There's a huge quantitative difference, and it encompasses lots of flat qualitative differences as well (for instance, no mainstream newspaper would pay sources, since this tends to encourage exaggeration or outright lying). But to point this out is to invite mockery ("Oh, I suppose the New York Times never puts profits ahead of truth-seeking?"). The same thing happens with the FBI, or the courts, or the Democratic Party, or whoever. None of these institutions is perfect, and if Trump is just worse as a matter of degree, then what's the big deal?

I have no satisfying answer. The obvious move is to claim that at some point a quantitative difference turns into a qualitative difference, but this is obviously a subjective claim that an unsympathetic audience need not accept. Note that part of the dynamic here is that a lot of people have axes to grind with these institutions (Glen Greenwald being the obvious example when it comes to the Democratic Party and liberalism/left wing politics in general), and to them Trump presents an irresistible opportunity to gain advantage against institutions that they have long sought to destroy. But of course, that doesn't make them wrong! It just makes them eager for any opportunity to boost Trump at the expense of, say, the Democrats.

So at the end of the day this turns into another exhausting argument of the kind I described in my previous post, where the imperfection of human institutions ends up serving as a shield for Trump whatever he may do.

Ugghh

Something that I struggled with quite a bit, growing up in Arkansas, was the lack of any resolution to arguments about evolution and Creationism. The arguments were interminable because there was always something to quibble about. Basically if someone is willing to be unreasonable, there is no amount of evidence or logic that can bring him around. There is a kind of fractal character to these arguments. For each issue, you can get into the weeds, each of which turns into its own issue with its own weeds. So for instance, if you start with the fossil record, there are a lot of details, including, "How do we know the fossils are that old?" So then you get into a discussion about carbon dating, which itself is a somewhat complicated thing. Creationists will fixate on any shortcoming or past error to argue that carbon dating is unreliable. You have to firm it up if you want to "win" that portion of the argument. One annoying aspect of this is that Creationists sometimes educate themselves quite heavily on this kind of minutia, which can make them seem better-informed to a casual observer. "Oh, so your claim is that carbon dating is solid science? What do you make of such-and-such incident, in which it was way off?"

My point is not so much evolution, because who cares, but the nature of debate itself. I went through a period of my life when I thought that essentially everything was indeterminate, and then I kind of aged out of it. Partly that came from my exposure to the legal system, which for all its faults actually does tend to reach judgments about difficult questions. Of course it's political, and of course it's not perfect, but it made me realize that it's simply unreasonable to tolerate endless debate.

Anyway for the last couple of years that exhausting kind of debate feels as though it's come roaring back. Maybe it's just that I'm older, but I have very little taste for the debate now. I have very little interest in pretending that there is any such thing as getting to the bottom of anything. Of course in a sense that's how they get you. Someone has to go out there and make the argument. But I can see the appeal of a depoliticized life, particularly given the degree to which bad faith and stupidity have come to dominate political discussion.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Fake Twitter

Not going to provide much comment, but people should be aware that someone (plausibly Russia) is out there using Twitter to sow all kinds of discord. People are far too easily taken in by fake social media accounts, and until we learn our lesson we will remain easy targets for their manipulation.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Tea Party

[I started writing this post as a kind of naive "Did the Tea Party really stand for anything?" analysis. But while writing it I realized that first of all, probably not, and second of all, it doesn't really matter. The Tea Party (under a new name) will spring up whenever a Democrat is President again. This is the cycle of U.S. politics, and I don't see a way out.]

When Obama became President, the "Tea Party" emerged as his most vocal opposition. Ostensibly the Tea Party was focused on debt and deficits, with a sort of sideline in quasi-libertarianism. These are the people who showed up at townhall meetings and screamed at their representatives about Obamacare. They also mobilized against Obama across the board, handing the Republicans big gains in 2010 and 2014.

This set up a toxic dynamic that caused a tremendous amount of needless suffering. Tea Party (and Tea Party-inflected) rhetoric so dominated the Republican caucus that the Republican Party effectively functioned as a purely anti-Obama institution. As Obama told Michael Lewis, the Republicans saw any interaction with him as a zero-sum game. (Obama attributed the same attitude to Putin.) If Obama was for it, then the Republicans were against it.

This made it impossible for the Republican leaders to negotiate with Obama in good faith. Now you can certainly question whether they wanted to negotiate in the first place, but I am inclined to think that they did (Boehner more than McConnell, but both of them more than their caucus would allow). Obama was left to pursue his agenda unilaterally, which was unfortunate in many respects. To the extent Obama did attempt to compromise, he viewed himself (rightly I think, but more below) as compromising with the Tea Party ideology, and so he proposed entitlement cuts combined with tax increases. The Republicans rejected it. They also starved the economy of fiscal stimulus at a time when it could have made a big difference to employment and desperation. In essence they created the desperate voters inclined to view Obama's economy as a failure.

Now of course we have Trump, and Congress has approved vast tax cuts and spending increases. The tax cuts are not good, but they are also not very damaging from a macroeconomic perspective, while the spending increases largely restore the sanity that prevailed before the Tea Party arrived.

In other words, the pattern here is for any Democratic President to be hamstrung with painful austerity, while any Republican President will get expansionary, lift-all-boats fiscal stimulus. This will give Republican administrations the appearance (and to some degree the reality) of simply being better for the economy.

What is to be done? The problem is that it simply doesn't matter whether the Tea Party was acting in good faith. In fact, probably millions of its supporters were acting in good faith, in the narrow sense that they subjectively believed the rhetoric they embraced. This shows the limitations of good faith, since they have now conveniently shifted their views, and will conveniently shift them back again if a Democrat, especially a nonwhite Democrat, is in the White House again.

But it just doesn't matter. When a political group has power, you have to treat it as a real entity, even if it will opportunistically change its colors when circumstances change. If Obama had said, "You claim to be a bunch of small-government patriots, but in fact you're mostly a bunch of racists who will gladly embrace trillion dollar deficits as long as the executive branch is making nonwhites miserable," it would have accomplished nothing. In fact it would have been politically devastating.

Now maybe the point is not to attribute any ideological valence to the Tea Party. If you simply think of it as a white racist/anti-Obama expression of rage, then maybe you won't be tempted to "negotiate" with it at all. But that leaves you pretty much where Obama was: making policy unilaterally. Most of his concessions were not meant to get the Tea Party on board, but to get conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans to vote for his bills. And again, those moderates don't have the luxury of calling the Tea Party what it is or ignoring it.

Sorry for a mess of a post.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

We Are Living in Infinite Jest

A side note to my previous post: the centrality of entertainment is a major theme of Infinite Jest, which is why in many ways it is the novel for the Trump era, down to its Trumpy president. And in fact, the analogy to addiction is a pretty good one. Our bodies are designed to attach pleasure to evolutionarily useful activities like eating nutritious food and having sex. Drugs are among the technologies that unbundle these things. In fact they strip pleasure down to its essence. This is not always a bad thing! But it can be incredibly bad for us.

Bundling and the News

If I were designing a liberal arts college, I think I would start out with a year of mandatory classes dealing with basic concepts that everyone should be familiar with. I would probably include economics coupled with philosophy and history (in other words, I would try to teach people out of the gate to speak the language of economics while being aware of the many ways it is abused). I would want to cover basic quantitative concepts and some epistemology. Of course it would be a disaster, which is why no one will ever put me in charge of a college.

Anyway one sort of high-level concept in economics is that society should be designed to channel people's desires to productive purpose. It's not a particularly complicated idea, but it is not intuitive to everyone, and it comes up again and again. At a very high level, this is how capitalism and democracy are supposed to work. People who want to get rich are supposed to try to find ways to make products better or more cheaply, as opposed to joining the mob or whatever. People who want political power are supposed to seek elective office, not join the military. Basically you're confronting human desires that can lead to very bad results and you're tying them to behaviors that tend to advance public goals.

You can look at this in a much narrower way as well. Some industries are perhaps best organized as regulated monopolies. Then you design the rules so that the monopoly is required to serve some public purpose if it is going to be permitted to operate. This often amounts to cross-subsidization of favored populations—for instance, I have read that the U.S. Postal Service effectively subsidizes rural service with its much more profitable urban mail delivery. (I have not looked at the details of this, but it seems plausible to me.)

But of course the real trick is to find what Wall Street people call "regulatory arbitrage" opportunities, where you can get the good stuff without providing the socially beneficial stuff. Uber is famous for this. It operates as a taxi service that is magically free of taxi regulation. It is like someone opening a bank that is magically free of regulatory oversight. Of course if you think that taxi regulation or bank regulation is overall a bad thing, as some of my friends do, then maybe this is is actually an improvement on the status quo ante. But it means the various social goals embedded in those regulatory systems will lose their cross-subsidy and will have to be funded differently or simply abandoned.

Anyway my real point here is that the news industry operates on much the same principle. News consumers are largely driven by the desire for entertainment, and news essentially pays for itself through a bundling process. This happens at different scales. Every news story needs some spark of interest to draw attention, so you see bundling within news stories. But you also see media organizations that publish a lot of clickbait and use some of the revenues to finance investigative reporting or whatever. Buzzfeed is maybe the easiest example, since it basically justifies itself by citing this exact phenomenon, but I struggle to think of any media organization that doesn't do the same thing. Well... except for the media organizations that don't seek to inform at all. In that case entertainment is a pure product, or perhaps it is used as a vehicle for propaganda rather than information. (These are blurry categories that obviously overlap quite a bit.)

The traditional TV network model, by the way, was very explicit about all of this. If a network had dropped its informative news reporting, it would have risked losing its insanely profitable broadcast license. The advent of cable television has slowly eroded the connection between broadcast licenses and profits, and it has allowed entrants to the market who make no pretense of informing their viewers about anything. (The price Congress extracted was the creation of CSPAN, which is financed by the cable companies. I actually think CSPAN is pretty good, but you can certainly question whether its existence is worth the price we have paid. Then again, it's also fair to question whether network news reporting was ever very good.)

The same unbundling has roiled the newspaper industry. This happened early on with classified ads, which were a major revenue source for newspapers but which quickly slipped out of their grasp once Craigslist came along. But it didn't stop there, and we may be hurtling toward a world of complete unbundling. This is what Facebook sought to do with the news—you could read and share a clickbait story from a media organization without paying for it or caring precisely which media organization provided it. Facebook would take the ad revenue, and the news organization would get next to nothing to spend on its hard news reporting. The natural consequence is for the bundling to be pushed down to the story level, where it can't be stripped out by aggregators. I don't know how you would quantify this, but I notice that stories shared on Twitter almost always have some "juicy" tidbit to draw the clicks. (But this is partly a Trump era phenomenon, see below).

Finally, consider the way Trump exploited this dynamic. For all of the ineptitude of his campaign, he consistently provided one thing that no other candidate could: entertainment, and lots of it. This I believe is Trump's true genius. Would you rather listen to Hillary Clinton talk about free college or watch Trump humiliate Jeb Bush in some bizarre psychosexual ritual? It's not even close! Reality TV honed Trump's skills to a ridiculous degree. You see this in the way he communicates—his statements are almost devoid of meaning, because meaning is beside the point. The extremely annoying "don't take him literally, take him seriously" formulation elides this by pretending that there's some underlying coherence to his words. There isn't. They are designed to do nothing more than keep you around through the commercial break.

Anyway I don't have any constructive suggestions here. We are doomed by the way our desire for entertainment has become unbundled from our desire to live in an informed society.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Nunes Memo

I think something important is being missed when it comes to the infamous Nunes memo. Future readers will probably have no idea what I'm talking about, but in short, staff for Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, drafted a memo purporting to reveal abuses in the way that the FBI obtained court permission to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser. The memo contained classified information and was misleading, and so the FBI opposed its release. However, the House Intelligence Committee voted to release it, and Trump approved.

The memo has been met with near-universal derision (here's John Reed, here's Julian Sanchez), except of course for the all-important conservative propaganda machine, which has treated it as proof of some kind of Deep State conspiracy against Trump. So in a sense the memo has already been debunked, but the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have prepared their own memo that purports to debunk it further. Since that memo, too, contains classified information, its release must be approved. The House Intelligence Committee has voted unanimously to release the Democratic memo, and it now awaits Trump's approval. He has five days to decide.

Trump is saying that he will defer to the FBI. Recall that this is precisely what he did not do with respect to the Nunes memo. The FBI clearly and vocally opposed its release, but Trump ordered it anyway.

Now consider the position this puts the FBI in with respect to the Democratic memo. On national security grounds, presumably the FBI is inclined to oppose releasing the memo for the same reasons it opposed releasing the Nunes one. On the other hand, the FBI opposed the release of the Nunes memo in part on the grounds that it was misleading, and basic fairness seems to demand that if the FBI is the final arbiter of whether the Democratic memo gets released, it should assent even if, in a perfect world, neither memo would have seen the light of day.

But the real point here is that the FBI is inevitably being politicized by this kind of exercise. If the FBI green lights the release of the Democratic memo after trying to stop the release of the Nunes memo, it will look partisan to conservatives. But if it exercises the power Trump has delegated to it to block the Democratic memo, then it will look partisan to Democrats. (However, it's worth pointing out that politically this may be a very good outcome for the Democrats.)

Practically without trying, Trump is forcing the FBI to confront choices that are bound to diminish its status as a broadly respected, nonpartisan law enforcement organization. (I suppose I have to make the obligatory point that its nonpartisan reputation wasn't exactly well-deserved, but that is not the same thing as welcoming its loss.) Meanwhile to a large extent the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has already gone to pieces.

And there you have it. There's really no amount of skill or prudence that can keep an organization from being corrupted in the Trump era, not to mention the organizations that are cheerfully marching to his tune already. I think people have this vision in their head of what authoritarianism looks like, and this isn't it. The problem is that by the time real authoritarianism shows up, the safeguards that we have put in place to prevent it will have been eroded. So I think, for instance, that Ross Douthat's optimism is badly misplaced:

Who gives a shit about a trade war with China or the explosion of NAFTA! I mean, I do, but those are just ordinary policies that are rightly subject to ordinary political debate. If the country elects protectionist politicians, it can expect protectionist policies. The problem I think is that Douthat simply isn't vigilant enough, isn't attentive enough to the damage Trump is doing to our institutions. These are the same institutions that we will rely on if and when we face real tyranny, but by then it may be too late.