Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Affairs and graft are the predicates of progress

From Obama Stayed Out of the Swamp, and That Hurt Him by Megan McArdle.

McArdle is a libertarian with a strong penchant for analysis and logical argument. I have long been a fan of her work. She was, initially, an Obama supporter and has been quite strong in her reservations about and opposition to Trump. Her column presents an argument, the main point with which I agree - that Obama was less effective than he might have been because he was not a normal deal-making politician.

I have made the same point a number of times. He was really good at winning elections but had no administrative experience and no record of negotiation, deal-making, and actual achievements. He had a marked disinclination to do deals in which everyone might win something and no one would win everything. While this was clearest in his interaction with Republicans, I heard the same thing from Democratic friends and read similar assessments from the Democratic press in Washington.

He invested little or no time in cultivating relationships with his own party in Congress and no time in the minutiae of legislation. He had ideas and when Congress couldn't or wouldn't pass them, he simply resorted to executive orders where possible.

McArdle puts it like this:
People really expected a new and better sort of politics to attend his administration. And as he leaves us, it seems worth assessing how that went.

The obvious answer is, “Not nearly as well as Obama and his supporters expected.” The obvious question is, “Why not?” One answer is that Obama and his supporters were expecting too much from a single human being. Another, I think, is that many of the things that we loved about him -- those that seemed genuinely desirable, even admirable -- turned out not to be very good qualities in a president.

It seems safe to say that no other president in our lifetime has attracted quite the same frenzy of admiration from a certain professional class. We loved him because he is, well, us: bookish and somewhat introverted, fonder of white papers and technocratic planning than backroom dealmaking and rubber-chicken grip-and-grins. That gave him genuine strengths as a president.
I would pick at details, but I can broadly agree with this. And I think the various polls are supportive of this construction as well. He carried himself with dignity (though behaviors could often be petty), he gave well-crafted speeches, he was a dapper dresser, he clearly was a family man. All good attributes. And the polls show that he attracted usually at least 50%, often more, people who essentially liked him as a man while large majorities were disappointed or disapproving of his policies and the outcomes.

Where I diverge from McArdle is in terms of the implications of Obama's management style. She says:
Obama’s policy-making was, as these things go, extremely clean. I’m not saying it was good, mind you; that’s an argument for a different day. But there was a lot more evidence-based policy-making, and less wildly illogical “don’t just stand there, do something!” exhibitionism, than you normally see. And we saw far fewer "you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” trades.

As a result, most of his scandals were minor and at best weakly tied to the White House. Because where do scandals normally come from? Helping your political friends with either legislation or jobs. Obama rocketed upward through politics so fast that he didn’t pick up the faint residue of grimy dealmaking that glows from the skin of most politicians, nor the cadre of grasping hangers-on who usually surround them.

But to make policy work, you need politics. And politics is not about white papers. It is about making unsatisfactory deals and calling in favors from your friends, friends you usually made by helping them out with an unsatisfactory deal of their own. An intellectual approach to policy-making that tried to bypass those unseemly details, it turned out, didn't necessarily result in good policy.
I have three reservations about this line of thought.

First - McArdle treats policy-making as an exercise in arriving at the findable answer. I think that is broadly incorrect. Yes, we want to leverage knowledge as far as it will go, but in most cases, the challenge is that knowledge is insufficient and our goals are mixed and self-contradictory. There is no answer to be discovered and implemented. There are only compromises with reality (the gap between what we do know and what we need to know) and compromises with each other (because of our differing goals).

Second - Yes, we want a clean process, but we want also want positive outcomes. Good processes without good outcomes is still a failure.

My third reservation is that there is an implication that because there were no scandals of flesh and venality, there were no scandals at all. I discussed this a couple of weeks back in No scandals? Different, perhaps, but not none.

I would make the argument that Obama managed down the number of fleshy and venal scandals but that the scandals he did generate were much more consequential because they were scandals of power and governance. And they were a direct consequence of his inability to negotiate and bargain.

By avoiding negotiating with his allies and his opponents, he certainly avoided the "faint residue of grimy dealmaking that glows from the skin of most politicians." But in order to get anything done, particularly after the first two years when his policies led to the loss of Congress for his party, he had to corrupt the system by circumventing Congress (as the voice of the people), circumventing the law (hobbling the Inspector Generals, going after whistleblowers, and using the IRS to undermine his opponents), and arrogating powers to the Executive not supported by the Constitution (see the high failure rate of his cases before the Supreme Court and the volume of executive orders.)

Ours is a system of checks-and-balances designed to ensure that governance is achieved with the consent of the governed and much of Obama's administration was spent in undermining and avoiding those checks-and-balances. That is not a partisan issue, that is a citizen's issue. We don't want a corrupted system and we don't want corrupt individuals but the corrupted system is far more dangerous than corrupt individuals.

In sum, I think McArdle is turning a blind eye by defining corruption as only that of the flesh and wallet. She does allude to the broader issue without actually analyzing it with clarity.
The Obama administration didn’t think that way; all it thought about was the principle. In some sense, that’s really admirable. In another, it’s completely lunatic.

Arguably, this is why we can all now enjoy the next four years of President Trump. Some of these rules convinced evangelical voters that they were under existential threat from the left. I’ve heard from a number of them who said that the only reason they voted for him, despite their loathing of everything he stands for, is that he, at least, would not actively try to legislate their communities, their schools, and their way of life out of existence.
She makes some strong points in her concluding paragraphs.
I suspect that Obama fell prey to the worst delusion that we bookish intellectuals cherish, which is that History has a side, and we’re on it. Somehow, this Marxist chestnut survived its explosive refutation in the fall of the Soviet Union, and it has had a home in left-wing circles for the last eight years.

The culture wars were over, and their side had won; Republicans were on their way to becoming a regional rump party, confined to the South. When History is protecting your right flank, you don’t worry much about overextending your advance.

[snip]

Politics is the art of creating winners and losers, and getting some of the losers to vote for you anyway. The basic tools of this trade are, for want of a better word, tawdry: shameless pandering and cheerful hypocrisy, sucking up and selling out.

The fact that Obama seemed above this made him an attractive figure to those of us who hated politics-as-usual. But as we enter our ninth year of politics-as-unusual, it’s fair to wonder which sort of politics really occupies the moral high ground.
Megan McArdle is by no means a Marxist. By-and-large, outside of a few fringes in academia and elsewhere, no one is.

And yet the optimistic conceit, tracing back through Marx to Plato, remains common across segments of the the left, center and right. The belief that we can engineer people towards perfection, that there is a static optimal outcome, an answer which ensures happiness and prosperity everywhere and for all. But that Platonic/Marxist belief is the launch pad that always leads to authoritarianism because if there is a single and right answer, then anyone who disagrees with that answer is wrong, evil and in the out-group to be re-educated, ostracized, exiled or destroyed.

Put me in the camp who believe there is great good in humans but tragic flaws as well and that we progress by participative engagement, in fits and starts towards some better emergent order. Yes, there are failures and affairs and graft and corruption along the way. We are human. But we discover the better future together and create it together. We don't ever find it through the imposition of predetermined "right" answers from figures of authority.

Laugh One

Early in the day and two laughs already.
An early morning meeting of the BSA Key 4 for my district. My District Committee Chair, myself and our two District Executives. Lots of talk and planning. We all order breakfast. She orders a virtuous oatmeal.

As we zoom through the agenda, we are all scarfing down our food. Eat, eat. But the oatmeal is almost untouched.

We are reaching the end of the breakfast meeting. We are concerned she hasn't had a chance to eat.

She looks ruefully at her barely dented oatmeal. "My New Year's resolution was to eat better but I didn't know it would taste so . . . healthy."
Heh. I love the euphemism for "bad" - healthy.

Laugh Two

Early in the day and two laughs already. Here is the second.



Monday, January 30, 2017

Wrong tool but right inclination

An interesting column which I am only just now coming across. From Is Trump Stronger Than He Seems? by Nate Cohn. It is a week old and Trump's numbers have strengthened somewhat in that space of time but I think Cohn is calling attention to something interesting.
It would be easy enough to say that Mr. Trump enters as an unprecedentedly unpopular president. But how many times over the last year and a half were the polls cited as evidence that Mr. Trump was historically unpopular? I don’t mean the horse race numbers, which generally showed Mr. Trump competitive for the nomination and the presidency. I mean the questions about character, which painted a far more pessimistic picture of his chances.
But . . .
The other possibility is that there’s something about Mr. Trump’s appeal that’s not captured in the traditional approval ratings or the character questions.

One piece of evidence seems consistent with this possibility: the seeming optimism about his presidency.

Take the most recent Quinnipiac poll. At first glance, it’s bleak for Mr. Trump. Just 37 percent of registered voters — a narrower group than the adult population — view him favorably or approve of his performance. But just about every other question is better for Mr. Trump: 45 percent think he’ll take the nation in the right direction, and 52 percent of registered voters are optimistic about the next four years with Mr. Trump as president.

Just about every new poll tells a similar story. The most recent CNN poll says that just 40 percent of adults approve of his performance, but 48 percent say they think he’ll do a “very good” or “fairly good” job as president. And 48 percent say his policies will move the country in the right direction. An even larger 61 percent say that he’ll bring back well-paying jobs to economically depressed areas.

An ABC/Washington Post poll found that a majority of Americans expect he’ll do a good or excellent job handling the economy, jobs, terrorism, the budget deficit, and in helping the middle class.
Cohn goes on to try and square the circle of unpopularity and optimism. He is unsatisfied with any of his explanations.

I have a different perspective and would put it in different terms. The metaphor would be to a small building project. You are looking forward to building a garden shed to get the lawnmower out of the basement where it is filling the house with fumes and making a mess. You are really excited about the future shed. However, your budget is tight. Your hammer has a loose head, your saw is rusty, your measuring tape tattered, etc. Your tools are not great but they are what you have.

Perhaps that is what is going on with Trump. Voters were desperate to change the rule book in Washington (get rid of the self-dealing, the lying, the ignoring of the citizens in the hinterlands, the corruption, the tolerance of the status quo, the arrogance and the condescension, etc.) In this scenario, Trump was never seen as an attractive alternative (just like the junky tools) but everyone did want to rebuild Washington. From that perspective, Trump is not a popular choice but he was the only one available to achieve the goal that was actually desired.

That would explain the seemingly paradoxical polling results. No one was pleased with Donald Trump as the instrument of change but they are excited for the change that he might bring about. He may or may not end up being popular but regardless, as long as he begins to drain the swamp, reduce the deficit, restore pride in country, protect citizens - no matter how crude his manner or unpopular the actions, people may end up being pleased with the outcome. There is no way to know at this moment how this will turn out and the fears and panic among some are, in some ways, understandable.

But if your goal was to move away from the technocratic, insider corruption, poor competence and low economic growth of the past nearly twenty years, then likely you are more optimistic with a Trump than you would have been with a Clinton. Wrong tool but right inclination.

It is a mystifying spectacle

From A Parliament of Clocks by Shannon Love. A most pertinent column from way back in 2007. Well worth reading in its entirety.
Essentially, a parliament of clocks votes on the correct time. (Even scientifically, this is true.) By fiat, we say that the clocks that deviate from the consensus time are inaccurate, but logically that need not be so. Different technologies or different levels of care in setting, winding or servicing the clocks could lead to the minority clocks being more accurate. However, if all the clocks agree, then no lay person will have grounds for suspecting that the majority clocks don’t keep accurate time.

As a practical matter, articulate intellectuals face the same problem. They deal in areas in which no means exist for easily or quickly falsifying and testing their ideas. Like the king with the clocks, lay people looking at their work from the outside cannot evaluate the accuracy of their work. No means exist to make an objective measurement that would determine the accuracy of a particular literary criticism. Historians agree that certain events occurred at certain places and times and then argue furiously over the events’ import and consequences. Journalists do the same thing. Various theories in many academic fields knock around for decades before simply fading away, apparently because people grow bored with them.

In order to maintain their power and position within society, articulate intellectuals must convince the larger population that they really do have a superior understanding of the issues they study. The do so using a parliament of clocks. By enforcing rigorous conformist standards on their members, they seek to create the illusion of accuracy by making it appear that all people knowledgeable in a particular field all reach the same conclusion. If all the supposed experts in a particular field all tell the same story the lay people are much less likely to guess that none of the experts know what they are talking about.

You can see this effect quite clearly in the herd mentality of journalists. Researchers have shown that journalist rapidly converge upon the same perspective on even very complex stories. Why? Well, how does an ordinary consumer of news media judge whether a particular news story is accurate? Simple, they check with another news source. What if the different sources disagree? What grounds does the consumer have for determining which source is correct? The consumer might conclude that none of the sources are making an accurate report and they may stop consuming news media. The media prevents this from happening by converging on the same story. If every source that the consumer can reasonably check tells the same story, then the consumer won’t have grounds for doubting any of the sources. (Notice that news outlets brag that they get stories before the competition, not that they provide superior information to the competition.) Back in the ’70s when a tiny handful of media outlets dominated, trust in the media ran very high. Only with the coming of cable and the Internet did trust in the media begin to seriously erode when consumers began to see that not all news sources held the same perspective. Like the king, they began to wonder just which shops really sold the accurate clocks.

The desperate attempt to substitute consensus for accuracy shows up in the articulate intellectuals’ perspective on everything from artistic critique to climatology. When people really cannot prove what they believe, they must resort to peer pressure to keep people from questioning them. Yet history, both recent and ancient, shows that elite consensus fails far more often than it succeeds. Without some means of objective falsification such as experimentation, functional technology, military victory or business success, the consensus of any group merely serves the social needs of the group and not the decision making needs of the broader society.
There is a common trope that the mainstream media are Democrats-with-bylines and in terms of observed behaviors, it is reasonably true. Even the bulk of political donations from journalists at Fox News goes to Democrats. But that is an observed outcome, not an explanation.

Why would the mainstream media be so ideologically aligned. My explanation has been that it is primarily a function of shared circumstance - that they are all college educated, upper income, city-living and that those are the drivers of the outcome. Universities in general, and humanities in particular, are overwhelmingly Democrat. Cities are overwhelmingly Democrat. They are a product of their environment.

I have also made the point that there is a strong element of virtue signaling in any community. It pays to be seen as among the in-group and you signal your status in the in-group by virtue signaling which leads to conformity.

Love introduces a new element, which now that I read it, I suspect is true. There is the further pressure among journalists to conform with one another in order to, guild-like, protect their collective brand and shared commercial model.

Seen from this perspective, the frenzy of hysteria, fake news, partisan reporting, irresponsible reporting, etc. which has been so marked since the election begins to make a little more sense.

I can remember the election of seven presidents (four more elections when you count second-term challengers who lost) - Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump. In all cases, with some ebbs and flows, the mainstream media was always derogatory of the Republican candidate and reasonably oppositional during their administration. I do not, however, recall any period of such blatant and almost unhinged partisan opposition as we are seeing at the moment. So what is different?

It in't enough to simply claim that Trump is different. All the allegations of mental inadequacy, ignorance, erraticism, ideological intransigence, etc. were certainly present with Reagan (and the others) though he is now held in high regard.

My suspicion is that Love's insight is part of the explanation. What is different this time is that there is a crack in the oligopoly of mainstream media. Their power has been eroding for some decades but I wonder if perhaps this election reflects a tipping point which has spurred the hysterics. They were not, despite their best efforts, able to deliver the win for their overwhelmingly preferred candidate. If they are not able to deliver when they are in lock-step, then likely they are concerned about their perceived future relevance.

Certainly Trump's use of Twitter and YouTube to circumvent the media is part of the equation. Layer that on top of the public's distrust (only 8% have a great deal of trust in the media) and you can see where, as a guild of news purveyors, they might view their business model as under threat. Finally, with the increasing influence of non-guild members - Drudge, Breitbart, Daily Mail, and legions of others, it begins to seem likely that the perceived threat of loss of influence is what is driving the craziness.

An outsider looks at the behavior and sees it as unprofessional and disqualifying but if you are inside the bubble, I am guessing that it seems to make sense to appeal more strongly to your kin-spirited in-group readers by being increasingly partisan. It is essentially doubling down on the only business model you know, despite its declining effectiveness. This, perhaps, isn't about Trump but about loss of influence, loss of prestige, loss of money, and loss of relevance. The same dynamic is affecting two close-allied guilds, universities and entertainment and so the panic, both intra-guild and inter-guild is likely self-fueling and disorienting. Thus explaining what we are seeing. For the other 95% of the citizens, it is a mystifying spectacle.

Regardless of what Trump does (and almost certainly he is in the short term, good for media business), in the longer term, members of the guild will have to become accustomed to being a specialized rump purveyor of information to a minority of consumers, or they will have to broaden and diversify their orientation. It is not clear to me yet which way they will evolve.

Genes and family override egalitarian social policy

This isn't what the blank-slate social engineering people want to hear. From Cognitive development and social policy by Firkowska AN, Ostrowska A, Sokolowska M, Stein Z, Susser M, Wald I. The abstract:
The city of Warsaw was razed at the end of World War II and rebuilt under a socialist government whose policy was to allocate dwellings, schools, and health facilities without regard to social class. Of the 14,238 children born in 1963 and living in Warsaw, 96 percent were given the Raven's Progressive Matrices Test and an arithmetic and a vocabulary test in March to June of 1974. Information was collected on the families of the children, and on characteristics of schools and city districts. Parental occupation and education were used to form a family factor, and the district data were collapsed into two factors, one relating to social marginality, and the other to distance from city center. Analysis showed that the initial assumption of even distribution of family, school, and district attributes was reasonable. Mental performance was unrelated either to school or district factors; it was related to parental occupation and education in a strong and regular gradient. It is concluded that an egalitarian social policy executed over a generation failed to override the association of social and family factors with cognitive development that is characteristic of more traditional industrial societies.
I am reading this to say that a forty year longitudinal study originating in communist Poland, with the presumed expectation that it would prove that social engineering can determine individual outcomes, instead demonstrates that individual outcomes are determined by genetic biology and familial structure/culture and that environment and social engineering were not predictive of outcomes.

That is consistent with much of our US evidence but interesting to see it is consistent across radically different government structures. Calls into question many of our mainstream education and HUD assumptions.

Using "intersectionality" without sneering

This mirrors a good conversation I had with a cousin this weekend.

In our conversation, I phrased it differently.
Everyone has multiple and changing goals. Everyone has multiple and changing priorities and trade-offs among those goals. Everyone has multiple and changing means of achieving those goals. Everyone has multiple and changing identities (father, husband, sibling, son, employer, neighbor, volunteer, sports fan, alumni, member of a congregation, etc.) Everyone has multiple and changing communities-of-interest associated with these identities. Everyone has multiple and changing resource constraints (time, money, expertise, etc.)

Given continuing exogenous changes, the intersectionality between goals, priorities, trade-offs, means, identities, constraints and communities-of-interests and given the complexity of the human system, it is virtually impossible to slot an individual into a single identity silo (with predictive value) or to expect there to be consistency between words and deeds over time. It is impossible, at a moment in time under a snapshot of circumstances and history, to reliably forecast how an individual might process (System 1 and System 2) the balance of anticipated consequences and associated risks among competing goals and stakes among different communities.

Our knowledge of the individual and their interests is so limited and our knowledge of the complexity of the human system is so vestigial that, for all intents and purposes, people function as if they have free will. Ignorance constrains our ability to forecast in the face of complexity.
I believe all that to be true and yet we still have ideologies that are insistent on pigeon-holing people as if they are predictable widgets to be better engineered for some end.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Crabtree's Bludgeon

From At the Christmas party by Tony Delamothe.

Crabtree's Bludgeon.
No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated.
It is part of the beauty and wonder of the human world that this is so. Usually saluted with "What were they thinking" or "I can't believe it."

Pharaonic teambuilding

An interesting account about pyramid construction and the rudiments of "management" and "team building." From The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson.
The scale of the project seems almost overwhelming today, but to the government machine of Khufu's reign, with the benefit of a generation's experience in the construction of vast pyramids, it may have appeared less daunting. The ancient Egyptian approach to any large-scale undertaking was to divide it up into manageable units. When it came to pyramid buildings and the organization of a vast workforce, this proved both efficient and highly effective. The basic unit of the workforce was probably a team of twenty men, each with its own team leader. This kind of organization would have produced a team spirit, and a sense of friendly rivalry between teams would have encouraged each to try and outdo the others. This was certainly the case with larger units of the workforce, as surviving inscriptions testify. Ten teams formed a two-hundred-strong division, known today by the Greek term "phyle." Five phyles, each with its own leader and identity, made up a gang of a thousand workers. And two gangs, again with distinctive and often jokey names (such as "the king's drunkards"), made a crew, the largest unit of men. The pyramid-shaped structure of the workforce reflected the monument itself. Like the regiments, battalions, and companies of an army, the organizational arrangement engendered a strong sense of corporate identity and pride at different levels of the system. Team vied with team, phyle with phyle, and gang with gang to be the best and to win recognition. This structure was a simple and ingenious solution to a massive task, and it ensured that motivation was maintained.

It needed to be. Throughout the two decades it took to build the Great Pyramid, the construction work was hot, unrelenting, exhausting, and dangerous. The conditions must have been particularly unpleasant down in the main quarry, a few hundred yards south of the pyramid itself. Choking clouds of limestone dust, the blinding glare of the quarry face, the constant din of chisels, swarms of flies, and the stench of sweated labor: it was not a pleasant environment. The rawest of recruits had to serve their time here, earnestly hoping for promotion—and working hard to achieve it. Not that the alternative was any less strenuous. Hauling the vast stone blocks from quarry face to construction site was backbreaking work. Each block, weighing a ton or more, had to be levered onto a wooden sledge, then dragged by ropes along a carefully prepared track. At the end of its journey, it had to be taken off the sledge and moved carefully into position, ready for shaping and finishing. And all this at the pace of one block every two minutes, for ten hours a day.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

They understood the stagecraft of statesmanship

From Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham. On page 5, about the similarities between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. I am struck by the overlap in their reading.
They had been born eight years and an ocean apart—Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire; Franklin Delano Roosevelt on January 30, 1882, at Hyde Park in Dutchess County, New York. They loved tobacco, strong drink, history, the sea, battleships, hymns, pageantry, patriotic poetry, high office, and hearing themselves talk. "Being with them was like sitting between two lions roaring at the same time," said Mary Soames. With Roosevelt in his naval cape and Churchill in his service uniforms, they understood the stagecraft of statesmanship. "There was a good deal of the actor in each," said Mike Reilly, Roosevelt's Secret Service chief, "and we Secret Service men who had to arrange their exits and their entrances found we were working for a pair of master showmen who were determined that no scenes would be stolen by the other."

They were the sons of rich American mothers. Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874; Sara Delano became the second wife of James Roosevelt in 1880. Roosevelt, the cousin of a president, came from the Hudson Valley, Groton School, Harvard College, and Columbia Law School; Churchill, the grandson of a duke, from Blenheim, Harrow, and Sandhurst. In a sign of how small the elite Anglo-American world in which they moved was, one of the wives of Winston's cousin the duke of Marlborough was romanced by Winthrop Rutherfurd, the husband of Franklin's illicit love, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. As boys, Roosevelt and Churchill were obsessive collectors: stamps, birds, books, and naval prints for Roosevelt, toy soldiers and butterflies for Churchill. Cousin Theodore's legend fired young Roosevelt's political imagination; Lord Randolph's career fascinated his son. As children and young men, they read the same books: Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense, the naval writings of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, G. A. Henty's boys' books about the glories of empire, Kipling's poems and fiction, and Macaulay's history and essays. They loved Shakespeare, the Sermon on the Mount, and movies—even bad ones.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The dread pirate Paul Jones

A few days ago, I purchased several unrelated books in a library sale including John Paul Jones by Evan Thomas about the American 19th century maritime hero and Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham about the World War II leaders Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the relationship between them, and how that shaped the post-WWII course of events.

At least, I thought they were unconnected until I came across this passage early in the John Paul Jones book, page 5.
Still, over the years, his popular legend grew. In cheap penny chapbooks, British children in the late eighteenth century read about the terrifying "Pirate Paul Jones" who had plundered their seacoast. Throughout the nineteenth century, authors with a romantic bent — Alexandre Dumas, James Fenimore Cooper, William Thackeray, Rudyard Kipling — made him a character in biography and fiction. He was exalted as "an audacious Viking" in a fictionalized telling of his triumphs (Israel Potter) by Herman Melville. Teddy Roosevelt's cousin Franklin was entranced by the legend. In the mid-1920s, FDR wrote a perfectly awful screenplay treatment of Jones's life. (At a strategy meeting during World War II, FDR's aide, Harry Hopkins, had to interrupt the President as he digressed into a debate over Jones's tactics against the Serapis with the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.)

Lies, opinions, probabilities and the 2016 election

Well, I wasn't going to write about this. I am trying to get back to gleanings from my reading.

But being heavily involved in decision-making and epistemology, I was heavily tempted. Then, listening to Terry Gross, she made a statement that pulled me in.

The original report was Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers in the New York Times.
President Trump used his first official meeting with congressional leaders on Monday to falsely claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants had robbed him of a popular vote majority.
To lie, from Webster:
Definition of lie
lied; lyingplay \ˈlī-iŋ\
intransitive verb
1
: to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive
2
: to create a false or misleading impression
Now to know whether Trump was lying (making an untrue statement) we would have to know 1) How many people voted and 2) of those who voted, how many voted fraudulently. In order to get the latter number, we have to agree on what constitutes fraudulent voting.

Any one of these numbers is extraordinarily hard to get but I'll go into the details in a moment. The key issue is that at this moment in time, we do not have either a fixed number as to how many voted nor do we know how many voted fraudulently. Without that information, we don't know that Trump is lying because we don't know, can't know whether what he is claiming is untrue.

For reasons that I think will become clear shortly, I think it highly unlikely that millions of fraudulent votes were cast. But it is possible. We are talking probabilities not facts. We can agree that Trump made an improbable statement but the NYT is sloppily claiming that he lied when they do not, and cannot, know what the truth is.

Now was this simply a headline writing error? Was it their bias? Was it their poor grasp of mathematic principles? I have no idea, but to claim someone else is lying when no one yet knows the truth is simply irresponsible journalism.

The only reason I am posting on this is that this sloppy thinking seems to be spreading. I heard Terry Gross interviewing a Guardian journalist, Luke Harding, and she repeated the same claim as the NYT.
He's saying that there were millions of votes cast for Hillary Clinton that were cast by illegal immigrants who shouldn't have voted. The facts say that those allegations are not true. The facts don't support it.
Does Terry Gross know how many people voted fraudulently? No, of course not. No one does. She presents her conviction as truth when there is no fact, only opinion.

So let's start at the beginning. As soon as I went to validate the number of voters in 2016, I immediately encountered the malleability of "facts." Based on the best number I could find, it appears that 137 million people voted in the presidential election on November 8, 2016, representing a 59.0% turnout. But that's a pretty obscure site, though credible. That number was not in any of the first dozen mainstream media accounts I accessed.

If you do a search on "how many people voted in 2016 presidential election" you get all sorts of noise. The leading headline is Over 90 Million Eligible Voters Didn't Vote in 2016. Then you have Voter turnout at 20-year low in 2016 from CNN. Makes you think not many people voted, doesn't it.

In fact, according to Fivethirtyeight, No, Voter Turnout Wasn’t Way Down From 2012. This was written on November 15th and the numbers are even higher now.
Approximately 58.1 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in last week’s presidential election, according to the latest estimates from Michael McDonald, associate professor at the University of Florida, who gathers data at the U.S. Elections Project. That’s down only slightly from 2012, when turnout was 58.6 percent, and well above 2000’s rate of 54.2 percent. Turnout may end up being higher than in any presidential election year between 1972 and 2000. (It’s already higher than in any midterm election since 1896, according to McDonald’s numbers, including the paltry 35.9 percent of voters who turned out two years ago.)
The Washington Post gets in on the game with the seemingly contradictory headline More votes were cast in 2016 than in 2012 — but that doesn’t mean turnout was great. As opposed to CNN and Washington Post, the real numbers indicate that this election saw the highest number of voters ever and the third highest voter participation rate in 44 years, since 1972.

The MSM headlines are clearly trying to tell a different story than what the numbers indicate.

OK, we know how many people voted. Now we get into the interesting analysis. How many fraudulent votes were there? We don't know. No one checks or tracks that number.

We do know some other things which give credence to the possibility that there was fraud, though almost certainly not of the magnitude that Trump is claiming.

What are the sources of uncertainty?
1) The US, by-and-large, and unlike European countries, conducts its elections broadly on the honor system. Yes, some states have some sorts of voter identification requirements but even those pale to the rigor of European poll identification.

2) It is well established that most electoral rolls (names of people deemed eligible to vote) are significantly flawed. Many places fail to routinely purge, sometimes for decades, voters who have died, voters who have left the district, voters who have been convicted of felonies, etc.

3) It is relatively easy for non-citizens to obtain sufficient identification to register to vote even though, as non-citizens, they are ineligible to do so.

4) With the rise of early voting, it is easier than ever to vote on behalf of someone else.
Is there any evidence that this happens? Sure, plenty. It is a party line of the Democrats and their allies in the mainstream media that there is no evidence of voter fraud. (Well, that was the party line until they briefly decided that Russian voter hacking might have caused the 2016 outcome, though they now seem to have backed away from that claim.) They also actively seek to prevent investigations into voter fraud which is probably the clearest indication that there is fraud to be found if you look for it.

The potential magnitude of the problem is clear from Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade from the Pew Center on the States. Findings:
Approximately 24 million—one of every eight—voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.

More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters.

Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state.
So 29 million names on the electoral rolls are not accurate for voting purposes; remember, there were 137 million voters. 29/137 = 21% of electoral roll voter names are faulty or prohibited from voting.

In this most recent 2016 election, we have this from The Detroit News, Records: Too many votes in 37% of Detroit’s precincts. In 37% of their voting precincts, there were more votes cast than there were voters on the rolls. If Detroit were experiencing rapid population growth, this might be possible. Given that Detroit has been rapidly shrinking in population, this outcome is almost impossible without fraud.

It is not uncommon for there to be claims of excess voters over those on the voter rolls: see Philadelphia, Florida, Illinois as a fairly representative sample. Sometimes there are innocent explanations, particularly if the voting area includes population centers with high churn such as universities or military bases. But often there are not good explanations.

Other instances:

Early voting fraud: Florida, Iowa, Virginia

Votes from Beyond the Grave

Nevada GOP Chair Cries Election Fraud in Early Voting

Do non-citizens vote in U.S. elections? by Jesse T. Richman, Gulshan A. Chattha, and David C. Earnest concluded that "up to 2.8 million votes could have been dropped by illegal aliens into ballot boxes during elections held in 2008 and 2010."

From the Washington Post in 2014, Could non-citizens decide the November election? by Jesse Richman and David Earnest.
Could control of the Senate in 2014 be decided by illegal votes cast by non-citizens? Some argue that incidents of voting by non-citizens are so rare as to be inconsequential, with efforts to block fraud a screen for an agenda to prevent poor and minority voters from exercising the franchise, while others define such incidents as a threat to democracy itself. Both sides depend more heavily on anecdotes than data.

In a forthcoming article in the journal Electoral Studies, we bring real data from big social science survey datasets to bear on the question of whether, to what extent, and for whom non-citizens vote in U.S. elections. Most non-citizens do not register, let alone vote. But enough do that their participation can change the outcome of close races.

Our data comes from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Its large number of observations (32,800 in 2008 and 55,400 in 2010) provide sufficient samples of the non-immigrant sub-population, with 339 non-citizen respondents in 2008 and 489 in 2010. For the 2008 CCES, we also attempted to match respondents to voter files so that we could verify whether they actually voted.

How many non-citizens participate in U.S. elections? More than 14 percent of non-citizens in both the 2008 and 2010 samples indicated that they were registered to vote. Furthermore, some of these non-citizens voted. Our best guess, based upon extrapolations from the portion of the sample with a verified vote, is that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.
From FoxNews in 2016, Why Trump's probe of voter fraud is long overdue by John Fund and Hans A. von Spakovsky has a very long list of recent voter fraud cases.

At the federal level, there have been consistent efforts over the past eight years to both fight voter identification laws and to prevent investigations into voter fraud. The most egregious example perhaps being the targeting of the Texas based True the Vote organization by the IRS.

I posted about one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that there is systematic fraud a couple of years ago in Political Statistics referencing an interesting analysis conducted by Dan McLaughlin, Do Democrats Always Win Close Statewide Elections?. It has long been an article of faith among Republicans that "You can't just win. You have to beat them by the margin of fraud." McLaughlin was investigating whether there was any statistical support for that view. There is.
To get a sense of the answer, I took a look at all the statewide Senate and governor’s races from 1998 through 2013 (thanks to Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics for a big assist with the data) as well as all the statewide results in the presidential elections during that period. Let’s begin with the very closest races, those decided by less than one percentage point. There have been 27 such races since 1998, and Democrats have won 20 out of 27
You would expect for all contested races, that either party would have a 50:50 chance of winning. However, what McLuaghlin turns up is that for the very tightest races (<1% difference in votes), Democrats win 74% of the recounts. This statistical advantage extends all the way up to not so close races. For all contested races up to a 6% difference in votes, Democrats win 60% of the recounts.

Possibly that is just statistical noise as the sample size is only 147, i.e. there were only 147 contested elections with recounts. But the effect size is pretty compelling.

There is plenty of evidence documenting that our voting infrastructure is flawed and susceptible to voter fraud. We have numerous examples where there is strong evidence that voter fraud has occurred. We have no aggregate picture of how common this is or how persistent.

My personal estimate is that there are occasional, episodic, material, and localized instances of voter fraud. I am guessing that at an aggregate national level, the number of fraudulent votes is high in absolute terms but low in percentages, i.e. between 0.1 and 0.5%. I suspect that no national level (President) elections have been affected by these instances of fraud but that quite likely some Federal Senate and House elections have probably been swung because of voter fraud. I am guessing that voting fraud is much more consequential for State and Local races than it is for federal level races.

My final forecast is that, if we do a detailed election integrity review, we will find that election fraud is most frequent within big cities that operate under a one party system. Since most big cities have been essentially one party voting zones for fifty years and more and since they are Democrat dominated, this will end up being primarily a Democratic Party issue (as echoed by the DNC's suppression of the Bernie Sanders campaign in the 2016 election) which is why they are so adamant against voter identification laws (despite their prevalence in Europe) and why they are so adamant that there is no fraud and that there should be no investigation.

I do not believe this to be an indictment of the Democratic Party per se, i.e. they are not inherently fraudulent. This is simply a product of historical trends. Big cities have always been prey to corruption. One party systems are also inherently prone to corruption. If your party ends up being concentrated in urban areas (as the Democrats have become) and if you have no party competition for prolonged periods of time (as has been the case for most major cities), then you are inherently exposed to the possibility of voting fraud.

The final twist in all this is whether Democrats have played into Trump's hands or whether this was simply happenstance. Republicans, as alluded to above, believe, and the statistics support them, that they lose in recounts with Democrats in close elections and they believe this is due to electoral fraud, primarily in big cities. With Democrats baseless claims of Russian Hacking and Trump's exaggerated claims of vote fraud, Trump's call for a bi-partisan investigation into voter fraud would seem to have backed the Democrats into a corner. Theoretically, Democrats would want to know that Russia did not hack the election and as they have declared that there is no voter fraud, they should have no concerns about an investigation.

Was this a master strategic move on Trump's part to force Democrats to endorse a course of action that likely will be embarrassing and detrimental to them? I don't know and it seems improbable but that is certainly the effect.

Finally, back to Terry Gross and the New York Times. When they claim there are no facts to support Trump's opinion that there might have been massive voter fraud, they are simply wrong. Trump has claimed that he might have won the popular vote had there not been voter fraud. In order to win the popular vote, which went to Clinton by some 2.9 million, there would have to have been (2.9/137 = ) 2.1% voter fraud. The above studies indicate that that is well within the realm of possibility (21% error rate on electoral rolls; 2.8 million fraudulent votes across the 2008 and 2010 elections, etc.)

Gross and the NYT make a category error when they fail to distinguish between Trump's opinion that there might have been sufficient voter fraud for him to have won the popular vote and their opinion that there was insufficient voter fraud. Opinions are not true or false, therefore they cannot be a lie.

Gross and the NYT also make an error of fact by asserting (in Gross's case) or implying (in the case of the NYT) that there is no evidence to support Trump's opinion.

Trump's claim is improbable but it is conceivable. There is certainly evidence that there is voter fraud. There is even evidence that it might possibly be material. By declaring an opinion to be a lie and by denying that there is any evidence to support the opinion, Gross and the NYT markedly harm their credibility.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Norman hedgerows dated back to Roman times

From Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose, page 35.

Just as the sunken lanes hobbled Napoleon at Waterloo, the Allies in Normandy were initially flummoxed and bogged down by the hedgerows which criss-crossed the countryside.
These were the men who had to be rooted out of the hedgerows. One by one. There were, on average, fourteen hedgerows to the kilometer in Normandy. The enervating, costly process of gearing up for an attack, making the attack, carrying the attack home, mopping up after the attack, took half a day or more. And at the end of the action, there was the next hedgerow, fifty to a hundred meters or so away. All through the Cotentin Peninsula, from June 7 on, GIs labored at the task. They heaved and pushed and punched and died doing it, for two hedgerows a day.

No terrain in the world was better suited for defensive action with the weapons of the fourth decade of the twentieth century than the Norman hedgerows, and only the lava and coral, caves and tunnels of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were as favorable.

The Norman hedgerows dated back to Roman times. They were mounds of earth to keep cattle in and to mark boundaries. Typically there was only one entry into the small field enclosed by the hedgerows, which were irregular in length as well as height and set at odd angles. On the sunken roads the brush often met overhead, giving the GIs a feeling of being trapped in a leafy tunnel. Wherever they looked the view was blocked by walls of vegetation.

Undertaking an offensive in the hedgerows was risky, costly, time-consuming, fraught with frustration. It was like fighting in a maze. Platoons found themselves completely lost a few minutes after launching an attack. Squads got separated. Just as often, two platoons from the same company could occupy adjacent fields for hours before discovering each other's presence. The small fields limited deployment possibilities; seldom during the first week of battle did a unit as large as a company go into an attack intact.

Where the Americans got lost, the Germans were at home. The 352nd Division had been in Normandy for months, training for this battle. Further, the Germans were geniuses at utilizing the fortification possibilities of the hedgerows. In the early days of the battle, many GIs were killed or wounded because they dashed through the opening into a field, just the kind of aggressive tactics they had been taught, only to be cut down by pre-sited machine-gun fire or mortars (mortars caused three quarters of American casualties in Normandy).

Setting expectations

When all around are panicking and full of angst, thank goodness for some humor.



Genes to brains to writing to books to libraries to internet - continued externalizing of information

From Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
When our genes could not store all the information necessary for survival, we slowly invented brains. But then the time came, perhaps ten thousand years ago, when we needed to know more than could conveniently be contained in brains. So we learned to stockpile enormous quantities of information outside our bodies. We are the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains. The warehouse of that memory is called the library.

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person — perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.

Aristotle was the pragmatic doer, Socrates was the curious questioner, and Plato was the velvet-gloved tyrant.

A crisis of categories. Because everything has to be a crisis.

No, actually, the problem is not a crisis but something more subtle. Someone once said that in order to know something you have to name it. That is the crux of the issue I have been wrestling with for some time. What name do you use for people who's revealed preference in their words and deeds are Marxist but who neither self-identify as Marxist nor should be credibly called Marxist.

These are people who evince a belief that humans are blank slates who can be engineered towards an ideal through social policies; who believe in the interests of the State over individual interests; who sacrifice civil/human rights in order to justify a greater good; who are intolerant of any deviation from their own perspective/belief system; who mistake correlation for causation; who believe all human choices are a product of xenophobia, misandry, misogyny, sexism, racism, classism, etc.; who set great store in experts and authorities over personal experience and knowledge.

People who subscribe, in whole or part, to faddish academic philosophies such as Social Justice, Postmodernism, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, Deconstructionism, Moral Relativism, etc.?

These attributes are not restricted to one end of the political system or the other. Nor is any one person completely free from such conditions all the time. No. But what do you call someone who evinces these behaviors and attributes much of the time?

I have veered all over the place. All the natural terms are simply too harsh and imply an intentionality that I think is missing. I have referred to Gramscian Memes (because they look like Antonio Gramsci's effort to undermine the West through Cultural Hegemony), Frankfurt School (because that seems to have been one of the chief vectors for dissemination), Cultural Marxists, Social Marxists, Reform Marxists, Authoritarians, Totalitarians, etc.

But there is an important distinction between naming something and calling things names and much of the above effort feels more like name calling than naming. The words carry too much baggage.

In addition, these specific and definable names carry too much intentionality. Most the people who subscribe to Social Justice, Postmodernism, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, Deconstructionism, Moral Relativity, etc. wouldn't even know those terms or speak in that academic language. They share an ethos behind those ideas but not necessarily the ideology itself.

But what is the name that can be used without evoking name calling but also can carry meaning?

I still do not have a good answer but it came to me in the shower that perhaps the answer might have been in front of me all along. I wonder if the three fathers of western philosophy might represent what I am trying to capture; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.

The following description borders on a caricature but it gets at the difference that I am seeing.
Aristotle

Aristotle wanted to know the What, Where, When of things. He wanted to know reality, the Objective Truth. He sought knowledge through observation. Aristotle believed in the observable real world.

Socrates

Socrates asked Why? Why do we believe this? He sought Wisdom through interrogation. He was the annoying questioner, the one who wanted to know why we believed the things we believed. Through interrogation, we could clear the clouds of muddled thinking and get closer to the truth. Socrates believed in the real world knowable through the scientific method.

Plato

Plato is the father or all rationalist totalitarians. There is a fixed and static truth which can be discerned through reason and which can be wielded by Philosopher Kings over everyone else. It is the power of the center to know the answer and impose it. Plato asked How? How do I make this perfect?

Plato sought to determine Truth through extension of abstract reasoning. Knowledge through reason. He believed in the abstractly perfect. He sought a Normative Truth
Aristotle was the pragmatic doer, Socrates was the curious questioner, and Plato was the velvet-gloved tyrant.

So maybe instead of reform Marxists, Moral Relativists, Social Justice Warriors, etc., the term to use is Platonists. It doesn't have a contemporary ring and doesn't quite convey the same level of threat that they represent but it does get away from the implied name-calling.

Maybe.

UPDATE: That was quick.



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Captain, just who the hell are we fighting, anyway?

From Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose, page 33.

At the same time that I am reading Citizen Soldiers, I am also reading an account of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. One of the marked characteristics of Napoleon's invasion army was its multi-nationality. Conscripts and volunteers were drawn from all over Europe.

Likewise with the Wehrmacht at the height of World War II. From Europe and beyond.
The Wehrmacht in Normandy in June of 1944 was an international army. It had troops from every corner of the vast Soviet empire -- Mongolians, Cossacks, Georgians, Muslims, Chinese -- plus men from the Soviet Union's neighboring countries, men who had been conscripted into the Red Army, then captured by the Germans in 1941 or 1942. There were some Koreans, captured by the Red Army in the 1939 war with Japan. In Normandy in June 1944, the 29th Division captured enemy troops of so many different nationalities that one GI blurted to his company commander, "Captain, just who the hell are we fighting, anyway?"

A massive "I told you so"

Megan McArdle has made the claim that the Obama administration had fewer scandals related to corruption and affairs because they were more focused on "clean" evidence-based decision-making, a position which I dispute in a queued post, Affairs and graft are the predicates of progress.

While there was talk about evidence-based decision-making, when it came down to the actual decision, too often the evidence was thrown out the door and replaced by ideological nostrums and assumptions.

The Washington Post had a massive example last week in Obama administration spent billions to fix failing schools, and it didn’t work by Emma Brown.
One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

“We’re talking about millions of kids who are assigned to these failing schools, and we just spent several billion dollars promising them things were going to get better,” said Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has long been skeptical that the Obama administration’s strategy would work. “Think of what all that money could have been spent on instead.”

The School Improvement Grants program has been around since the administration of President George W. Bush, but it received an enormous boost under Obama. The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015 — far exceeding the $4 billion it spent on Race to the Top grants.
The expert quoted, Andy Smarick, has his own column on the same subject: The $7 billion school improvement grant program: Greatest failure in the history of the US Department of Education? Smarick is much more pointed.
The final IES report on the School Improvement Grant program is devastating to Arne Duncan’s and the Obama administration’s education legacy. A major evaluation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and conducted by two highly respected research institutions delivered a crushing verdict: The program failed and failed badly. (The Washington Post’s article by Emma Brown does an exceptional job recounting the administration’s $7 billion folly.)

Despite its gargantuan price tag, SIG generated no academic gains for the students it was meant to help. Failing schools that received multi-year grants from the program to “turn around” ended up with results no better than similar schools that received zero dollars from the program. To be clear: Billions spent had no effect.

When Washington spends billions of dollars on something, it’s reasonable to assume it will do some good, especially when the Secretary of Education promises “transformation not tinkering.” But not with SIG.

No matter how the researchers crunched the numbers, the abysmal results were the same. SIG didn’t improve math scores. Or reading scores. Or high school graduation rates. Or college enrollment. SIG didn’t improve elementary or secondary schools. It didn’t help schools in Race-to-the-Top states or non-Race-to-the-Top states.

The results are almost too much to believe. How in the world do you spend billions and billions of dollars and get no results—especially after Secretary Duncan promised it would turn around 5,000 failing schools and hailed it as the biggest bet of his tenure?
OK, another failed government program. It is important to report it, but that isn't particularly astonishing.

Smarick gets at the core issue.
Probably the only thing more remarkable than the scope of this program’s failure is that this outcome was absolutely, positively, unavoidably predictable. Starting seven years ago, I warned that this dreadful day was coming.
He then goes on to document a series of posts in which he highlighted what was going to happen and why it was going to happen, culminating in his article, The Turnaround Fallacy in which he musters the evidence against the operating assumptions of SIG. All before the SIG program was launched. He later expanded that column into a book, The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering.

In other words, Smarick did what is so rarely done in policy making. He provided evidence, reasoning, causation and specific forecasts based on that evidence, reasoning and causation. And it turned out that his evidence, reasoning and causal understanding was in fact markedly superior to the hope-based program of the Administration.

Smarick is issuing a massive "I told you so." All the evidence was there, all of it was public, all of it was available beforehand during policy formulation and yet the administration proceeded to pursue a policy that was predicted, based on evidence, to fail. He is correct, SIG was a case, not of evidence-based decision-making, but of ideology-based decision-making.

It is rare, and therefore worth noting, that you have such a clean example of hypothesis, evidence, explicit forecast, and the realization of the forecast.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Eventually in the Normandy campaign, the U.S. First Army passed out 125 million maps

From Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose, page 27.

It is said with great truth, that an army travels on its stomach. The point is that logistics are a critical contributor to success in addition to training, courage, weaponry, etc. Or, in this case, maps.
Although the fighting had moved inland, sporadic artillery shelling and intermittent sniper fire from Germans still holding their positions on the bluff hampered movement on the beach. Henderson's job was to distribute maps (a critical and never-ending process -- eventually in the Normandy campaign, the U.S. First Army passed out 125 million maps), but because the front line was just over the bluff at Omaha, only men, ammunition, weapons, and gasoline were being brought ashore, so he had no maps to hand out. He and his section unloaded jerry cans of gasoline, the first of millions of such cans that would cross that beach.

More than a flesh wound, less than a coup de grace

In the week or so after the election, I kept track of the reason's advanced for the unexpected outcome. They were legion. We have now, for the time being, settled on Russian Influence with a salting of Fake News. None of which, I suspect, is materially true. Trump and Clinton won and lost on their respective merits, regardless of any one individual's perceptions of those merits.

There were several problems for those advancing the Fake News angle. One issue was that no one could agree what constituted fake news. A second was that not many people seemed to have been aware of some of the actual fake news coming out of Romania or wherever it was. A third problem was the quality of reporting on the part of the Mainstream Media. They were so obviously partisan that their veracity was called into question. Even separate from the bias and partisanship was the issue that they so often got their facts wrong, conducted erroneous empirical analysis, presented information confusingly or omitted contextual information. Truly fake news (from Romania) was combined with native biased news along with erroneous news, inaccurate news, incomplete news and confusing news. The focus on pushing the Fake News line has softened in the face of these realities.

Now there is further evidence that calls in to question the reality and materiality of Fake News as an influencer of the outcomes. From Researchers Created Fake News. Here’s What They Found. by Neil Irwin.
Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford commissioned a survey in late November hoping to discern just how deeply some of the fake news embedded itself with American voters. The two asked people, among other things, whether they had heard various pieces of news that reflected positively or negatively on one of the candidates — of three varieties.

There was completely true news: Hillary Clinton called some Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” for example, or Mr. Trump refused to say at a debate whether he would concede the election if he lost.

There was fake news, as identified by fact-checking sites like Snopes and PolitiFact — big things like the Pope Francis story and smaller items, like Mr. Trump threatening to deport the “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to Puerto Rico.

The third category was most interesting. The researchers created “fake fake” news. That is, they invented some headlines that were the type of thing fake sites produce, but had never actually been published during the campaign. One of these placebo headlines was that “leaked documents reveal that the Clinton campaign planned a scheme to offer to drive Republican voters to the polls but then take them to the wrong place,” and its inverse in which it was the Trump campaign scheming to take Democrats to the wrong polling place.

There is some good news in that more people reported having heard, and believed, the true statements than the false statements. Only 15.3 percent of the population recalled seeing the fake news stories, and 7.9 percent recalled seeing them and believing them.

The more interesting result: Those numbers are nearly identical to the proportion who reported seeing (14.1 percent) and believing (8.3 percent) the placebos, the “fake fake” news stories. In other words, as many people recalled seeing and believing fake news that had been published and distributed through social media as recalled seeing fake news that had never existed and was purely an invention of researchers.

That’s a strong indication about what is going on with consumers of fake news. It may be less that false information from dubious news sources is shaping their view of the world. Rather, some people (about 8 percent of the adult population, if we take the survey data at face value) are willing to believe anything that sounds plausible and fits their preconceptions about the heroes and villains in politics.
The study, in my opinion, bolsters the case that Fake News was an immaterial issue, but does not completely put the issue to bed. Indeed, I suspect that it cannot be resolved because, to some degree, how you see Truth depends on where you are standing.

It is true that, on average, everyone benefits from increasing global trade. It is a huge engine for the betterment of everyone's lives, on average. It is also true that while the average improve, specific individuals may suffer. It is also true that you can be 100% enthusiastic about the value of global trade but also be 100% for managing the pace of globalization to a speed that is more tolerable. All these statements are true but depending on your goals and priorities, any one of them might have primacy and the others be deemed "Fake News."

As a matter of record, below are the explanations I saw in various articles, in the space of a week, immediately after the election. Specifically, each of these were identified by pundits and opinion pieces as the reason for the unexpected outcome of the election. I started keeping track 2-3 days after the election when it began to appear that there might be a prolonged coping period. The items are presented in close approximation to the sequence in which I encountered them. Some were much more frequently cited than others but I did not keep track of that. It is interesting to look at the list two months later.

It is also worth noting that the overwhelming number of items on this list were from Democratic operatives, pundits, insiders and sympathizers. These are the root causes as identified by Democrats.
Causes of the unexpected election of Donald Trump

White men
White women
Coastal elite bubbles
Facebook
Social media
Celebrities
Russian hacking and influencing
Rural Midwesterners
The DNC shenanigans
Gary Johnson and Jill Stein
Pervasiveness of political correctness (in the sense that PC prevented people talking about what was really going on.)
American disgust with political correctness
College-educated Americans
James Comey of the FBI
Fake News
Low minority turnout
Misogyny
Racism
Blue collar uneducated men
Obama
Obamacare
Arrogance on the part of the elite
Late breaking independents
The Media and their misreporting and biases
Abandonment of the white working class by the Democrats
Google
Pundits and Talking Heads
Media Bubble
Electoral College
Bad algorithms
Not money
Two party structure
Crooked Insider vs. Uncouth Outsider
Election cycles
Bad economy
Nationalism
Fascism
Anti-LGBT
Democratic turnout
Epistemological closure
Poor campaign management
Complacency
Poor millennial turnout
Failure of transferability of Obama coalition
Prioritizing social diversity over economic fairness by Democrats and media
Overconfidence
Anti-dynasty sentiment
Health scares (about Clinton's health)
Avoidance of press conferences by Clinton
Avoidance of rallies by Clinton
Overemphasis on money raising by Clinton
Insensitivity to desire for change
Taking Rust Belt for granted
Ignoring Bill Clinton advice
Clinton Foundation corruption
Email server scandal
Lying
Failure of Union campaign drives
Inability to adapt to a non-standard campaign
Identity politics - stench (general dislike for)
Identity politics - miscalculations (criticism about not managing it well)
Astro-turf vs. grassroots
Anti-Trump violence by DNC
DNC corruption
Wikileaks
Past corruption
Bill Clinton sexual misconduct legacy
Weakened and exposed by Sanders campaign
Ad hominem campaign
Emotions driven campaign
Not distinguishing rhetoric from logic
Taking core voters for granted (African-American and Hispanic)
No acknowledgment of problem of economy
Big donor money versus small donors
Democratic violence
Affiliation with BLM
Affiliation with attacks on police
Rising crime
Party of the professional class
Focus on diversity over economy
Virtue signaling versus honesty
Ignorant voter
Press's lack of focus on policy differences
Failure to identify Trump's real weakness (privilege rather than unfitness)
Tone deaf data-driven campaign
Insularity of advisers
Ground game numbers versus zeal
Mis-targeting of ground campaign (accidentally turning out Trump supporters)
Alcohol meme
Gimmicks over authenticity
Low energy
Cult of inevitability
Cultural misalignment
Anti-labor stance (coal)
Democratic Party obsession with race
Bigotry and demonization of opponents
Crony capitalism
Hubris
Woman is not an "identity"
Social media
Ignoring feedback from the field organization
Media focusing on accusing Trump of racism distracted them from legitimate criticisms
Condescension
Islamophobia
Xenophobia
Misweighting of demographics in polling

UPDATE: And I should probably add one perennial. It wasn't mentioned (that I saw) in the time frame above but has had a low level support from certain quarters in the weeks since: the notorious Low Information Voter.

A deep continuing reshaping of the battlefield of communication or instinctive master class trolling?

Back in November I had a post, Trump, our new FDR? in which I speculated about his use of Twitter.
It occurs to me that Donald Trump's twitter account is the contemporary equivalent of FDR's radio fireside chats. A means for a president to directly connect with the American people while circumventing the media. In the 1930's according to Wikipedia:
Roosevelt understood that his administration's success depended upon a favorable dialogue with the electorate — possible only through methods of mass communication — and that the true power of the presidency was the ability to take the initiative. The use of radio for direct appeals was perhaps the most important of FDR's innovations in political communication. Roosevelt's opponents had control of most newspapers in the 1930s and press reports were under their control and involved their editorial commentary. Historian Betty Houchin Winfield says, "He and his advisers worried that newspapers' biases would affect the news columns and rightly so." Historian Douglas B. Craig says that he "offered voters a chance to receive information unadulterated by newspaper proprietors' bias" through the new medium of radio.
FDR faced a biased conservative press while DJT faces a biased liberal press - nothing new under the sun. All that has changed is the direction of the bias and the mechanism for circumventing the entrenched interests.

Just as with FDR, Trump is circumventing the entrenched media and setting his own agenda with the American people and driving his own news cycle. In some ways, it is masterful. Twitter is free, it is nearly universally accessible, and it is asynchronous (i.e. the public does not have to rearrange their schedule to watch the news or buy a paper; they can access his twitter account whenever it is convenient for them).
I now wonder whether he is playing an even deeper communications game. From Jon Gabriel.
The major media have warned that Donald Trump would wage a war on the First Amendment. His quick draw to call out bad reporting, boot disruptive journalists, and mock fake news were obvious signs that the freedom of the press would hang by a squib during the Trump administration.

And, lo, it came to pass Monday that all their fears were realized. Did the new President sent red-hatted mobs to smash printing presses and hijack the cable news to run non-stop ads for Trump Steaks? Even worse. In his first official White House press briefing, Sean Spicer called on reporters from the wrong side of the tracks.

[snip]

Apparently, in an unwritten rule precious only to careerist Beltway journos, the Press Secretary calls on an Associated Press reporter first then follows with questions to other large media companies. For the first time, Spicer chose less storied agencies for the first handful of questions. Did he blacklist journalists from CNN, the New York Times, etc? No, he got to them a few minutes later. In fact, Spicer stayed as long as the reporters wanted, answering questions for well over an hour.

What so appalled the press was that Spicer upset the media’s caste system. After calling on the New York Post, he went to CBN (Christian cable network), Univision (Spanish-language channel), Fox Business Network, and American Urban Radio Networks (African-American focused service). He also announced the creation of “Skype seats” that will allow reporters who live 50 miles or more from Washington DC to ask questions.
Maybe it was out of ignorance of the tradition. Maybe it was an accident. Is he just trolling them? Or maybe it was part of a deep continuing reshaping of the battlefield of communication.

With his twitter account, Trump reaches directly to the American people without the intermediation of the mainstream media.

It would appear that his press secretary might be hoisting the mainstream media on their own petard. AP, NYT, WaPo, MSNBC - all are overwhelmingly white (presenters and audience), rich, urban, college educated, left leaning knowledge workers, DNC supporters.

What is Saul Alinsky's Fourth Rule in his Rules for Radicals?
4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”
AP/NYT/WaPo/MSNBC/CBS/ABC/NBC say they value diversity and Trump's press secretary gives them diversity - Conservative news outlets, Christian news outlets, Hispanic news outlets, African-American news outlets. How can they object? Spicer gave them what they say they want and stripped them of their privileges at the same time.

Accident, instinct, deliberate strategy? We'll only know in time but the evidence is accumulating that it might be option C, a Deliberate Strategy. And will it be effective? Again, we don't know yet but all the signs so far are that it is. The mainstream media hate Trump and show no signs of giving him equal treatment to his predecessor or even professional treatment. If that is a given, then his actions seem very effective at circumventing and defanging them.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Philosophy in practice

Heh.


Thank you twelfth century

The frequency illusion at work. A couple of weekends ago I purchased a nice copy of the Folio Society 1969 edition and translation of The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, originally written in 1136.

Nine days later, I come across The British Past and the Welsh Future: Gerald of Wales, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Arthur of Britain, a 1999 paper by Julia Crick tackling the relationship between these two ancient texts.

Crick opens with:
In 1197, Gerald de Barri [Gerald of Wales], archdeacon of Brecon, in the course of revising an earlier work, launched a devastating rhetorical attack on a compatriot and fellow writer.
A Welshman from the neighbourhood of Caerleon was endowed with occult and prophetic gifts. Most notable among them was his ability to detect lies, whether written, spoken, or merely thought, a process facilitated by devils who indicated to him the offending person or passage (the man himself was illiterate).

When he was harrassed beyond endurance by these unclean spirits, Saint John’s Gospel was placed on his lap, and then they all vanished immediately, flying away like so many birds. If the Gospels were afterwards removed and the History of the Kings of Britain by Geffrey of Monmouth put there in its place, just to see what would happen, the demons would alight all over his body, and on the book, too, staying there longer than usual and being even more demanding.
Successive readers of Geoffrey’s ‘History’ have recognised Gerald’s sentiments and no doubt allowed them to colour their perceptions of Geoffrey’s work. Yet few commentators have stopped to question whether Gerald’s hostility was occasioned by anything more than his offended historical sense. This question lies at the heart of this paper.
It has to be more than a couple of years since I registered or thought anything about Geoffrey of Monmouth and yet here he is, twice in nine days. The serendipity and frequency illusion both struck me.

I am also taken with the idea, in this time of obsessing over Fake News, of unclean spirits helping to detect lies and offending passages. Thank you twelfth century.

We should be kind While there is still time.

The Mower
By Philip Larkin

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Constitution was the internet of its time

Returning to the US at age sixteen, having grown up in various countries in South America, Africa and Europe, I was, for a number of years, puzzled by the seeming primitiveness of the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to ownership of guns. However, there were many aspects of America which I had to puzzle through at that age and at that time, the Second Amendment was by no means the greatest in its inexplicability. Another mystery for me, at that time, was why the Second Amendment was not treated similarly as the First.

To an adolescent's reading, all those rights seemed to be of a like in the explicitness by which they were guaranteed in the Constitution. But in the mid- and late-1970s, guns were regulated in a fashion not extended to speech or assembly or religion, etc.

That second mystery sorted itself out on its own. As became apparent in hindsight, my teenage observation was correct that the First and Second Amendments were being treated differently even though they represented the same guarantee. In a series a Supreme Court cases, culminating in District of Columbia v. Heller, it was decided that the Second Amendment did represent an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.

But what about that first mystery? Why, in a modern society, should people need, much less be guaranteed, the right to bear arms? That was a long, and perhaps not completed, evolution in my understanding. With greater reading in American history and the philosophical experiment that was the Constitution, I did come to an understanding that, to some degree, the Second Amendment represented yet another check-and-balance in the complex mesh of checks-and-balances that is the Constitution.

The power of the State in part rests on its monopoly of sanctioned violence and the Second Amendment can be seen as deliberate mechanism that limits that monopoly.

OK - that makes philosophical sense but it was still difficult to reconcile with the toll taken by an armed citizenry.

Another dawning awareness of the possible sense of the Second Amendment can best be illustrated by an incident related by Tom Wolfe.
“He [Gunter Grass] sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”
Why does left- and right-wing fascism manifest primarily in Europe (and elsewhere) and not in the USA? In Europe, the State(s) do explicitly restrict access to arms solely via the state. There are likely many other reasons why the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe but one cannot ignore the possibility that indeed, and uniquely, that the Second Amendment does in fact function as a restraint on the State.

This secondary view of the Second Amendment is that the individual right to bear arms is not only a guarantee against the State's monopoly on violence but that it also represented something of a tactical-strategic trade-off. Yes, with individual right to arms ownership, you are going to have more civilian deaths on a yearly basis than in other modern countries. But at a strategic level, that civilian loss of life has to be set-off against the apparent frequency in which all other modern societies tip into totalitarianism with the consequent loss of life attendant to that tragedy.

In a recent conversation, I characterized the US Constitution as the Internet of its era. It is designed to route around damage via subsidiarity. It is a contraption of checks-and-balances, any one element of which can be justifiably criticized (Second Amendment, Electoral College, Near Absolute Free Speech) but which in aggregate has functioned admirably to forestall the totalitarian threat represented by vested interests, intolerant majorities, and the State itself.

There are a couple of recent books out with tangential themes linking war and violence with the development of democracy and war and its relationship with inequality (The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheide, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization by Branko Milanovic, Forged Through Fire: War, Peace, and the Democratic Bargain by John Ferejohn and Frances McCall Rosenbluth, etc.) which illustrate just how complex is the interplay between guns, governance and democracy.

My teenaged callow skepticism of the Second Amendment has given way to at least a recognition that things are far more complex than we are usually willing to acknowledge and that the Second Amendment quite possibly plays a far more consequential and strategic role than the bien-pensant acknowledge.