Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Burden Of So Many Brackets

Yesterday Paul Ryan participated in a "roundtable" in New Albany, Ohio, to discuss the need for tax reform. According to Ryan, one reason we need tax reform is that there are too many brackets, and consequently people "don't know what to pay."

Here is my transcription of the "brackets burden" part of Ryan's remarks:
On the individual ... Families are dealing with a tax code that is extremely complicated. There are seven different brackets. They don't know what to pay at any given time. And the compliance costs are just really taking a lot of time and money away from hard working families, and so we want to clean up the individual side of the tax code. We propose to consolidate down to three brackets...

An alternative title to this post might have been, "When smart people say stupid things." Not, mind you, that I generally acknowledge Ryan is smart. His supporters and much of the media think he is, however, and I will grant that point here, momentarily, for the sake of moving along.

So about those brackets. When is the last time you were befuddled by your tax bracket? Did you know there were so many? Do you know which one you are in? Does the proliferation of tax brackets keep you from "knowing what to pay at any given time?"

No. No. And, of course, no.

When I file my tax return (I use Form 1040), I compute my income, reduced by deductions and exemptions, look up the result in the provided tax table, and voila! I'm told what to pay. Your tax preparation service or software accomplishes the same thing. There is not a tax bracket to be found, anywhere, while you are figuring out "what to pay."

I highlight this silly and admittedly trivial example because it demonstrates Paul Ryan performing his usual shtick, in which he plays a smart person but talks nonsense, and nobody seems to notice. There is, alas, a dearth of critical thinking skills in these troubled times. The problem is that Ryan is often clueless regarding subjects in which he claims expertise, including the economy and healthcare. He receives far too much undeserved deference from the media and fellow legislators.

Paul Krugman, a longtime critic, says that Ryan "isn’t actually a serious, honest policy expert, but plays one on TV. He rolls up his sleeves! He uses PowerPoint!" And it's true. In the roundtable video linked above, Ryan delivers his condemnation of too many brackets with his sleeves rolled up. Way back in 2010, Krugman called Ryan The Flimflam Man.

(Aside: Do you ever wonder why writers like me say things like "in the video linked above," sending you off looking for the link when they could just reproduce it where you're at, like here? Sloppy editing. Time-strapped bloggers working solo might be excused, but publications like the New York Times and such, with teams of editors, can't.)

Tax reform, properly done, is a good idea. But do not expect a Republican Congress to do it properly, particularly when the effort is led by Paul Ryan.

As for all those brackets, who cares? A bunch more would do no harm, and might help. For the record, I advocate a highly progressive, bracketless system. In my vision, the brackets are replaced by a tax rate represented by a continuous increasing curve, with each extra marginal penny of income taxed at a minutely higher rate than the previous penny, topping out in the range of 50-70 percent for the gazillionaires. It might require some complicated math to figure out "what to pay," but no worries: There will always be someone, or software, or a tax table, to tell you what you owe.

Note that my shocking headline number represents a marginal rate: Because each subsequent small increment of income is taxed higher than the preceding increment along the tax rate curve, it is also true that each preceding increment is taxed at a lower rate. Thus at each point on the curve income ("at the margin") receives a higher tax rate than what preceded it.

For the very highest income taxpayers, the highest rate applies to all income above a certain very high threshold; below that they're taxed according to the "curve" like everybody else. The top rate is just the point where the tax rate curve stops increasing. Thus gazillionaires wouldn't pay an effective rate of 50-70 percent on all their income, so we're not soaking them as much as you might think. (Another way to think about this is the gazillionaire only pays the same amount of tax as you do on his first increment of income up your income.)  But we need to soak them plenty, and I've got nothing against gazillionaires.

Also note that our current bracketed system likewise operates with marginal ratessomething a lot of people fail to appreciate. It's just that in that system the "margin" is precisely specified as being the boundaries between brackets. Anyway, a bracketless system, unlike Ryan's proposal, means no bracket games would be played, which eliminates at least one possible financial distortion in the system. Because the gazillionaire (and everybody else) is taxed only the tiniest bit more on his next penny of income than he was on his last, there is no point where it makes sense for him to quit earning income.

Paul Ryan would find my approach appalling, but if he calls me that is what I'll tell him.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 03, 2017

What Trump Should Do About Health Insurance

The Republican health care legislation has failed spectacularly in the House of Representatives and has been withdrawn.

"We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future," said House speaker Paul Ryan.

Maybe that's for the good, opined President Trump, because Obamacare will implode (Trump actually said "explode") on its own, and Republicans (and especially Trump) can then say I told you so. Just give it a little more time.

Ryan's "living with" assessment notwithstanding, it is well within the capabilities and motivations of Trump and HHS secretary Tom Price to make Obamacare's failure a self-fulfilling prophecy, so any sensible cynic naturally expects that they will. The ACA requires benevolent supervision by the executive, along with certain inputs from the Congress, and they are all Republicans. A government that doesn't want the law to work has lots of ways to see to it that it won't. There are early signs we are headed in that direction.

Oh, how they hate Obamacare! That's the only explanation for the abysmal legislation that came out of the House. (Well, not the only explanation; we could talk about what Paul Ryan wants to do to Medicaid.) These past weeks it became increasingly and abundantly clear how downright horrible the Republican replacement was. The CBO projected the law would reduce the number of insured persons by 24 million over ten years, with 14 million losses occurring in the first year.

Horrible, yes, but Republicans countered that Obamacare is "failing," in a "death spiral," and anything is better than its inevitable collapse. So, really, they were doing us a favor by putting Obamacare out of its misery.

Except that's just not true. Not even kind of true.

Signups on the ACA exchanges declined slightly (by about 4%) this year, for the first time since the law took effect. The slowdown came after a very strong early start in the open enrollment period, and coincided with Trump taking office and cutting open enrollment advertising and outreach activitiesan example of the countless ways the executive can affect the trajectory of the law, as I alluded above. Open enrollment messaging is important to successful signups for any insurance system. You have to get the word out.

Even so, 12.2 million people bought insurance on the exchanges, despite all the current political upheaval. If the ACA really were in a "death spiral" consumers would be fleeing the markets in droves; they're not. Add to that the many millions who obtained coverage through Medicaid expansion and the uninsured rate remains at historic lows.

Premiums have been up recently but that alone doesn't say much. For the first years of the ACA premiums came in well below initial projections, which actually puzzled insurance experts. (Companies might have been selling below cost to establish market share.) Now they are at approximately the level they'd been expected to be at this point in time, so the premium performance over the law's complete existence is basically on track with early projections.

In other words, the only reason the current big hikes seem like an "explosion" in premiums is that they're being compared with their unexpectedly low levels in the early going.

Some analysts think the ACA markets have completed a "correction" and that insurance companies who remain are now positioned to make money, or at least stop losing it. It seems it took some time for insurance companies to figure out the lay of the land in this new environment, and now they have. That shouldn't be a surprise.

Some that exited arguably had ulterior motives. For example, Aetna threatened it would leave if its merger with Humana was blocked. It was. It did.

The premium hikes were never such a big deal from the standpoint most consumers, because most (but not all) of the persons buying insurance on the exchanges get subsidies from the government, and those subsidies adjust to at least partially offset higher premiums.

More problematic is the issue of high deductibles. It seems downright bizarre to hear Republicans complain about that, however, because high deductibles and narrow provider networks have always been central to Republican insurance philosophy. What's ironic is that Obamacare is in so many ways a Republican plan through and through; it's just that Republicans abandoned their own principles wholesale once the Democrats enacted them into law and attached Obama's name to it. Anyway, the now-withdrawn Republican legislation would have increased deductibles, not lowered them. A recently published analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation projected deductibles going up an average of $1,550 under the Republican plan.

Which is essentially a critique in microcosm of what Republicans were offering, an offering that consistently failed to address even the acknowledged problems with the ACA that its critics complain about and its supporters agree exist. Not only would the Republican plan not have helped; it would have made things worse pretty much across the board. (There would admittedly have been some winners, such as healthy young people with good incomes. And the very rich, who would have seen tax breaks in the hundreds of billions of dollars.)

The overarching problem with the status quo is that ACA was birthed into the most extreme partisan political cauldron, one in which scorched-earth Republican opposition negated any possibility of bipartisan cooperation. So none of the fixes, tweaks, and improvements that any law as large and complicated as the ACA would obviously need were possible in the years following its enactment. That itself is an anomaly: traditionally there's been bipartisan agreement that an enacted law be adjusted as needed to make it better, but Republicans have done nothing but promise complete repeal. It's frankly amazing how well the ACA has performed while under constant hostile attack from the right.

So what to do now, as along with Paul Ryan we contemplate "living with" Obamacare, warts and all?

This is of course fantastical to imagine, but Donald Trump could, conceivably, change everything for the better. Doing so would require a level of personal understanding and engagement that he is almost certainly incapable of, and he'd have to abandon a lot of his campaign rhetoric denigrating the ACA. On the other hand, he could keep other rhetoric while burnishing his populist bona fides.

What kind of rhetoric might we want him to keep? As recently as this January, Trump submitted to an on-the-record interview with the Washington Post's Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein in which he promised that the pending Obamacare replacement would offer insurance that was better, cheaper, and would cover everybody. That was so spit-out-your-coffee absurd that you had to wonder if Trump had any idea what he was talking about. But darn it, he actually said it. And were he to actually attempt to make those things happen, we could all applaud. I would.

But as I said, his interview was absurd. The only conclusion that makes sense is Trump was completely, utterly clueless; that he never had the slightest understanding of the issues surrounding healthcare. Trump seemed to have really believed, during the election campaign and after, that Obamacare was so poorly conceived and incompetently constructed that all that was needed to set things right was to bring to power a government that knew what it was doing; he and the Republican Congress were just that government. How else to explain his grandiose promises that were as improbable as a perpetual motion machine? The fix in Trump's mind would be easy, cheap, and comprehensivejust wait and see! And every child would get a pony. Paul Ryan, who had other ideas, cringed in horror.

But maybe, just maybe, Trump's cluelessness betrays the scantest germ of a nascent genuine affinity for at least the idea of making health insurance more comprehensive, more affordable, and more universala notion clearly at odds with prevailing Republican ideology as exemplified by the legislation the House tried to pass. I am trying to edge up to this strange possibility cautiously. Maybe Trump, given a chance, would actually prefer to think about healthcare differently than the Republicans with whom he has so far made common cause. It's admittedly a long shot.

How could that conceivably happen? The first thing Trump would have to do is to actually learn some things. I am not being flippant or merely demeaning by pointing out that this is asking a lot, perhaps far too much given what we have to work with.

Trump is clearly not a detail person. He also has some genuine issues with discerning reality. Trump's conspiracy-theory mentality impedes not just his judging the place of Obama's birth and the role of Ted Cruz's father in the Kennedy assassination (among so many other things), but also his grasp a vast array of basic empirical understandings that are necessary to actually govern. His mind might be appropriately wired for self-promotion, doing real estate deals, and generally cashing in on a variety of sub-ethical hucksterish ventures (Trump University, for example), but it seems to not be a comprehensive general-purpose dot-connecting issue-understanding disciplined mind capable maintaining the requisite attention needed to work through big, complex problems—especially problems that don't involve a payoff to Trump at the far end.

But suppose Trump resolved to make the effort. Determined to learn. Aspired to understand. How should he proceed? He would clearly need to get out of the Republican echo chamber and imbibe a lot of information he's not heretofore been exposed to. The first thing would be to bring in healthcare experts from the other side; preferably, even, the architects of Obamacare, and allow them to teach him some things. They could explain why Obamacare is the way it is—why it must be the way it is, or something very similar. What are the strengths and weaknesses of its model, and of alternative models. Why the personal mandate was selected as the best way to provide for community rating—the requirement that insurance companies cover everybody for the same price, regardless of preexisting conditions. Trump might marvel that there are reasons, and that they make sense. It might also come as news to him that Obamacare has in many ways performed quite well.

Trump could learn what Obamacare costs the government. What it costs taxpayers. Who pays the taxes. Its effect on the deficit.

He could learn about the tradeoffs between coverage and premiums. Of what drives out-of-pocket costs.

He could learn about how Obamacare's web of agreements and relationships with providers and interests of all sorts specifically sought to ensure the solvency of hospitals, and to extend the solvency of Medicare by years.

Trump could learn about why and how Obamacare reduced the uninsured population in the U.S. by 20 million, while for the first time requiring a comprehensive suite of benefits (including prescription drug coverage, hospitalization, preventative care, mental health coverage, maternity care, and more) where previously the private market was dominated by bare-bones stripped-down plans that could be canceled as soon as the insured got sick. (Republicans often say these are the kinds of plans people "want." No. People don't want junk. It's just that before the ACA they were the only kinds of plans people could afford. People often didn't realize how useless they were until they needed them.)

Trump could learn what are the difficulties with selling insurance "across state lines," and why it is not a panacea. He'd have to understand the complexities of managing provider networks, and avoiding "race to the bottom" situations.

After learning all these things, Trump would need to judge whether or not Obamacare's goals are reasonable, and whether its approach (notwithstanding whatever problems it may or may not be having) is fundamentally sound. If they are and it is, then the obvious way forward is to keep the good and address the problems. To identify and fix what isn't working while not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. To build upon an already solid framework, if indeed that is what we have—not dismantle it and start over.

The big problem, of course, is that by now the well has largely been poisoned. So many have been told for so long (by—don't forget—the same people who brought you the abysmal just-failed Republican replacement) that Obamacare is a disaster. That revealed wisdom is now something that millions (including, apparently, Trump himself) just know. The universe of possibilities has shrunken accordingly by years of dishonest or ignorant rhetoric so that discussants have a hard time even agreeing on reality. Admittedly a little bit of un-shrinking has recently been done as many have suddenly come to realize what they were about to lose, and have belatedly protested (in congressional town halls, for example) its threatened removal. Nevertheless, the problem of agreeing on what is and isn't real is immense, perhaps insurmountable. And as we have seen, Trump just might be the last person you'd depend upon to gauge reality.

But if we wanted to try—if Trump wanted to try—how would we fix "what isn't working"? Consider an example. It's been widely reported that some areas of the country have only one health insurance carrier offering coverage on the exchanges, even as there are other parts of the country that have active, robust markets. (For example, the California insurance marketplaces are thriving.) Data show that premiums are higher in areas with less competition. Data also show that regions with few insurers tend to be sparsely populated. That suggests it is harder for insurance companies to make a profit in rural areas (Wyoming, for example), which seems utterly unsurprising. If that is so, the question becomes one of figuring out how to serve sparsely populated regions of the country—a goal that ought not to be controversial even if it is judged to be difficult or expensive. Some changes to the law might need to be made to address this.

So maybe we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what to do about rural counties.  Doesn't it make sense to approach this from within the framework of the ACA? Alternatively, how would scrapping Obamacare make the rural problem more tractable? Don't forget: The private insurance market was broken prior to the ACA; just going back isn't a solution.

As an aside, one possible approach to addressing the rural problem would be to revisit the "public option"—an idea that received favorable CBO scoring in 2009, and came very close to being part of the original ACA law except for a threatened filibuster by one Joe Lieberman. Another would be to allow premiums to rise (while providing offsetting subsidies) until there are adequate carriers in underserved markets.

There is of course no free lunch. Ensuring that rural areas have access to affordable healthcare has a cost, and somebody must pay it. But we are a rich country; we are also the only advanced country in the world that doesn't guarantee healthcare to all its citizens. We need to decide what we want.

Back to Trump. Suppose he learns about Obmacare, understands its motivations, and agrees with its approach. Suppose he decides that the best way forward is fix what isn't optimal and to improve what we already have. At that point some very interesting possibilities open up.

The biggest interesting possibility is that Democrats become interested in working with the president instead of opposing him. Almost unthinkable, I know. But what if Trump could demonstrate he really gets it, and really wants to do something good? How could Democrats resist? They would have to at least explore the possibilities.

Suppose, further, that an engaged Trump exercising real leadership (oh, how improbable!) brings along a sufficient number of the least ideological Republican moderates who are willing to adopt his approach: improve, not replace. Real bipartisanship breaks out.

Can you imagine? I know, it's hard. But the thing might build its own momentum. Trump really learns and understands. Trump convinces Democrats of his sincerity. Trump explains to the country that he's got religion, that this time he means it. Republican obstruction starts to crack, not least because they'd be obstructing their own president. But also because some Republican legislators have seen for themselves (through the current wave of town hall meetings, for example) what a lot of their constituents want, and what they don't want to lose.

The forces arrayed against this possibility are immense. Paul Ryan would have none of it. Ryan's core motivation, his reason for being, is the dismantling of the welfare state. (Hence the gutting of Medicaid in the just-failed Republican legislation.)

Tom Price, Trump's HHS secretary, has been a devout, committed opponent of the ACA, which is why he was selected in the first place. There's no way he'll go along with Trump's conversion, so he will have to go.

The House "Freedom Caucus"—the most extreme right wing of a right wing party—will have to be cut loose. No big loss: their extremity makes them useless as a governing partner pretty much across the board. Ditch those few dozen in exchange for a true bipartisan relationship with Democrats.

Perhaps just as problematic, Trump himself almost certainly doesn't have the temperament and skills to pull this off—even if he were to be convinced of its rightness. Ryan's recalcitrance would provoke a Trump counter-attack, with all the name-calling and vitriol we've come to expect. Anyway, Trump needs Ryan for the rest of his agenda. And that remaining agenda is more important to Trump than healthcare, which means my entire exercise in fantasy has been misbegotten from the get-go.

Given the sheer improbability of what I've been suggesting, it's easy to imagine a more probable alternative (given the possibilities at hand) is the Bernie Sanders / Michael Moore vision of civil war and national bloodletting that eventually leads to single-payer. As the Chinese curse puts it, may you live in interesting times.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sick People: Unite!

You've heard the ironic quip, "I lose money on every sale, but I make it up on volume."

That inanity came to mind when I heard Tom DeLay opine on how to skin the "preexisting condition" cat:

"I would take Rand Paul's idea that I heard last night: Come to the Senate floor next week, and pass a bill that allows people with pre-existing conditions to join pools, associations, co-ops, to buy insurance, and show that you're going to remove the government and the regulatory structure away from it, so that the insurance companies can sell to people the kinds of policies they want."

Because if you can just let all those sick people organize, to band together as a big pool of sick people, then, by golly, the insurance calculus will change, and those sick people will magically be able to buy "the kinds of policies they want."

No, really. Imagine the market power all those sick people would have if we'd just allow them to join forces without any government meddling. What insurance company wouldn't want to insure sick people if only there were enough of them?

As for "the kinds of policies they want," you might presume that means polices that cover their health conditions.

Except that is not what DeLay means. DeLay means not policies that cover their conditions, but policies they can afford. And because we are talking about people who are sick, these are mutually exclusive outcomes when the sick are segregated and delivered to the tender mercies of insurance companies.

Come to think of it, when DeLay says "insurance companies can sell to people the kinds of policies they want," the "they" perhaps refers to the companies, not the customers. Which is why you need to get government and its infernal regulating out of the way.

This is, truly, how many on the political right think, and they're not embarrassed to say it on national radio.

Reminds me, too, of how in the years leading up to the financial meltdown, reams of low quality subprime mortgages were bundled into tranched securities. The lower tranches of those securities, consisting entirely of crappy loans top to bottom, were then themselves rebundled and retranched, sometimes through multiple iterations, sometimes forking off into CDOs or other exotic instruments, until what came out the other end were triple-A-rated investment grade securities. All it took to get to the desired result was a sufficient number of iterations through the sausage mill. It probably all made perfect sense to Tom DeLay.

Can't we do something like this with health insurance? No.Whether with mortgages or with insurance, there is no alchemy that turns lead into gold. You can't do it with obfuscation, either.

Health insurance works by spreading the risk widely, among the sick and the healthy, and having everybody share in the cost of paying for benefits, preferably over a lifetime. The healthy pay for the sick. It's as simple as that. They do so willingly, on the assumption that they too will some day be sick. Everybody gets his turn. It's a good bet.

The larger the insured pool, the more uniform the cost sharing, and the greater the overall stability of the system. Except that if the pool consists only of sick people, the "distributed" costs will be uniformly high, and thus not affordable. This goes against the very reason for having insurance. It's like having an auto insurance group consisting only of policyholders who will total their vehicles this year. What good is that?

Risk pools made up exclusively of sick people don't make sense, except to insurance companies, which profit by collecting premiums but not paying benefits.

Or to governments, which want to pretend they are subsidizing premiums paid by members of "high risk pools," but with a way of limiting that subsidy to something less than necessary. High risk pools are a way of doing things on the cheap, and you get what you pay for.

High risk pools, whether government run or not, don't magically reduce risk or lower costthey just move it around. There is no alchemic benefit to such slicing and dicing. Because eventually everybody will be sick, segregating the sick into separate groupings guarantees that each of us will one day be unhealthy outcasts.

It ought to be clear that what's good for insurance companies isn't good for society, but you can be sure that a lot of ostensibly smart people don't get it.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lindsey Graham Slanders Senate Democrats

Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat from Illinois, made an important distinction when he addressed Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch in yesterday's Judiciary Committee hearing.

"The Democrats of the Senate Judiciary Committee will extend to you a courtesy which Senate Republicans denied to Judge Garland, a respectful hearing and a vote," Durbin said.

Democrats are still fuming that the Supreme Court seat in question was "stolen" from President Obama and his nominee, Merrick Garland. Republicans refused to even meet with the centrist and unquestionably qualified Garland, let alone hold hearings on his nominationdespite there being nearly a year remaining in Obama's term when the vacancy occurred. In a maneuver without historical precedent, Mitch McConnell decided instead to bequeath the nomination "right" to the next president, not the one then holding office. Republicans, as is their wont, fell into line. So here we are.

On the matter of Obama, Garland, and, indeed, basic decency, Senator Lindsey Graham tellingly uttered that which should not be spoken in public.

"I have no doubt in my mind," said Graham, "if the shoe were on the other foot, the other side would have delayed the confirmation process until the next president were elected."

In other words, Graham justifies the McConnell maneuver by rhetorically dragging Democrats down to the of sleazy level of Republicans and sayingsee?we're all the same. But condemning Democrats thusly in his "mind" is not something the senator is allowed to do: they need to earn his condemnation, and they haven't.

Claiming on no evidence that your opponent is as despicable as you, in order to justify your own reprehensible behavior, is out of bounds.

And the Republicans' move was reprehensible; if it wasn't Graham could have just said so: no need to refer to the Democrats, and what he has "no doubt" they would do, at all. But Graham instead claimed equivalence, even though his is the only "side" that did, indeed ever did, the deed in question. Needless to say, claiming the other guys are just as bad as you are isn't something to put on your résumé.

Note that I have used derogatory words here such as "sleazy," "despicable," and "reprehensible." By contrast with the senator, my usage is quite proper, because I am referring to sleazy, despicable, and reprehensible behavior that actually did happen. See how it works?

Senator Graham and his party need to wear that despicable behavior exclusively, themselves. Leave the Democrats out of it.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 06, 2017

An Autocrat In Tweets

This piece was originally written as private correspondence. It contains certain allusions that might make more sense in that context.

On Friday night in Seattle a federal judge, James Robart, issued a temporary stay of Donald Trump's immigration, travel, and refugee executive order, in a suit brought by the state of Washington. Washington argued the order is unconstitutional. At least 15 state attorneys general concur.

Unlike earlier court actions staying parts of the order in particular circumstances, this one has the effect of blocking the order entirely and across the government. This has, for the moment, the effect of restoring conditions to what they were before the order was signed, which means travel from the seven excluded countries has for now resumed.

For our purposes here, it's instructive to look at how Donald Trump reacted to the judge's ruling, with an eye toward assessing his temperament, judgement, and honesty. Any thinking person acting in good faith can go a long way in making such an assessment, even without an in-depth understanding of long standing immigration, travel, and refugee policy that preceded the order. Give it a try.

As usual, Trump's reaction comes to us primarily through a series of tweets. Thus we have a good sequential record about how he's thinking and what he's trying to communicate to the American people.

Here is a gaggle of tweets sent by Trump on Saturday and Sunday. As a first pass, read these with an eye toward considering decorum, civility, respect for a co-equal branch of government, appreciation of checks and balances in our constitutional system, and understanding of the rightful and necessary functioning of the judicial systemin other words, temperament.

TRUMP: The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!
TRUMP: When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot, come in & out, especially for reasons of safety & security - big trouble!
TRUMP: Interesting that certain Middle-Eastern countries agree with the ban. They know if certain people are allowed in it's death & destruction!
TRUMP: What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?
TRUMP: Because the ban was lifted by a judge, many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country. A terrible decision.
TRUMP: Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!
TRUMP: I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making the job very difficult!

It's quite unusual, for reasons of decorum and constitutional propriety, for a president to attack a judge. This "so-called judge" (Trump's words), a conservative jurist appointed by George W. Bush and duly confirmed by the Senate, occupies a rightful place in our legal system. When the executive branch finds itself at odds with a court, the normal approach is to be civil and courteous; to acknowledge the disagreement calmly but forcefully (eg., "we strongly disagree"), perhaps indicate some disappointment, and express confidence in the rightfulness of your position and in a favorable outcome as the legal process proceeds.

Instead, Trump is petty and demeaning. He snipes and attacks, and gratuitously insults whoever stands in his way. He alonethe great leaderis right and righteous, and any impediment to his designs warrants withering attack. "If something happens," Trump tweets, "blame him [Judge Robart] and court system." And bring your pitchforks.

Thus Trump undermines the rule of law by attacking the judicial process upon which it depends, and erodes the public's support for a constitutionally essential processexactly as he eroded the public's trust in our electoral systems by making hyperbolic unsubstantiated claims that the system is "rigged" and fraudulent. In this way does he tear at our most important and necessary democratic institutions. The court as an independent co-equal branch is one of the founding geniuses of our system, and I hope it is obvious that it literally, and by design, stands in the way of tyranny.

On that previous point, it should occur to you that an executive who can't abide an independent constitutional check on his authority is one hallmark of an authoritarian. Pause for a moment and let that register. Can you see how thoughtfully paying attention to events as they unfold allows you to "connect the dots"in this case, to give credence anew to what others have been saying for a long time about Trump's authoritarian dispositions? In particular, I told you [my email correspondents] that conservative intellectual David Frum recently wrote a thoughtful essay on the heightened risk of our sliding into autocracysomething novel in our history. Here, then, is another data point, small in isolation but connected to all the othersthat illustrates Frum's warning.

Importantly, I don't expect you to take these insights on my say-so. Rather, this is all "food for thought" that points to a preponderance of evidence you yourself ought to be observing, and that stimulates your own thought processes and allows you to connect the dots for yourself. The observing and thinking and dot-connecting becomes second nature with a little practice, and I highly recommend it.

More dot-connecting: Remember during the campaign how Trump attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel over what Trump deemed unfavorable rulings in his "Trump University" lawsuit? Trump slurred the judge by claiming his "Mexican heritage" prevented him from being impartial and once again attacked not just the judge but our system of laws. Judge Curiel is an American of Hispanic descent, born in Indiana. Trump said the judge couldn't be fair because "I'm building a wall." Trump, who eventually settled the lawsuit for $25 million, was publicly scornful of the judge's rulings. During the campaign, many pointed to the Curiel incident as evidence that Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president. Now we see things haven't much changed.

Another hallmark of authoritarianism is to manufacture a crisis that requires decisive action by a strong leader. And so suddenly, according to Trump, our borders have been thrown open and dangerous throngs are descending: "people pouring in" (Trump's words). The situation is fraught with danger; chaos and "peril" (Trump's word) are upon us. "Dangerous people may be pouring into our country," Trump tweeted. Pouring! "Anyone""even with bad intentions, can come into U.S." Trump warns darkly of "death & destruction," but has never articulated exactly how we're vulnerable.

But no: "anyone" can't come in. Our country is still "able to say who can, and who cannot, come in & out" (Trump's words). As always, a properly issued visa is required. And as always, extensive vetting is required to obtain a visa. Trump tweeted hysterically and disingenuously that "I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY." Well, ok, but that was already happening.

During the next several days while Trump's order is on hold, the persons entering the country will be those, and only those, who had already completed the process, including vetting, and been issued visas. The U.S. has some of most thorough vetting in the world. That's particularly true for refugees, where the process easily takes two years or more, with layer upon layer of security checks. By the way, of the roughly 3 million refugees who have entered the U.S. over the past couple of decades, not one has killed a U.S. citizen in a terrorist attack.

The point is that nothing is different now from how it was before Trump's order, and before Trump's order there was not the slightest indication of anything amiss. The U.S. already practices the "extreme vetting" Trump claimed to want, and nothing is stopping him from making a thorough review of the system this very moment and ensuring it is adequate. There has never been the slightest articulation of how the system is broken from a security standpointbefore the election, or now. Trump is simply making good on a campaign promiseone that earned him the label "xenophobe"to drastically reduce certain foreigners coming into the country. In particular, Trump said before the election that he would stop the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Refugees, for God's sake! And yes, dear Christian, "God's sake" is a pun. You might wish "those people" stay out, but there is no acute security basis for your wish.

So Trump's implication that the borders have been suddenly thrown open is a lie, pure and simple. Add it to long litany of other lies that have earned Trump the "serially mendacious" designation by commentators on the right and left. These things matter. We need to be able to take a president's words at face value, but with Trump all bets are off. You just can't believe anything he says, because he lies continuously. And by the way, yet another hallmark of authoritarianism is the leader's propensity to continually promulgate his own reality, to the point where the populace simply doesn't know what is real. See: Orwell, George.

You can certainly see how Trump's "base", persons of the "low information" variety who are far less informed, thoughtful, and sophisticated than you, would be easy prey to such a lie. But ask yourself: What kind of president would use such shameless deceit and dishonesty to whip his supporters into a frenzy in this manner? There are many millions of people who literally don't have a clue about how travel into the U.S. is managed, or how refugees are vetted. If Trump tells them we're in great peril, and that "anyone" can get in, they'll believe him. What a despicable human being to use his position of authority in such a manner.

We can be thankful that our system is designed with checks and balances that can, at least for now, stand in the way of a would-be despot. (Erosions over time that weaken those checks are another matter. Trump is not a one-act show but a constant, pernicious threat.) The judicial branch is one such check, and the legislative another. In moments of acute crisis it typically falls to the judicial branch to act, as it is now doing.

Incidentally, Trump's slander aside, Judge Robart's ruling was not on its face improper. We can see this is so by noting that an "emergency" appeal by the administration to overturn the ruling was rejected Sunday morning by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court directed each side to provide additional arguments by 3:00 Pacific time today (Monday). This could end up before the Supreme Court in short order.

A final word on dignity and decorum being so sadly lacking in this president. Shortly after Trump's order was signed, acting attorney general Sally Yates, a career attorney in the Justice Department, said she would not defend the order in court because she was not confident that it was lawful. So far the courts have validated her concern. I say "concern" because neither she nor they have advanced a final judgement.

And so Yates was immediately fired, which is the president's prerogative. Normally when someone is fired it is done quietly, or perhaps with a neutral, low-key public statement. But in Yate's case, the White House released this statement containing Trump's trademark personal attack:
WHITE HOUSE:  Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration. It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals traveling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.
The thing reads as if Trump wrote the statement himself.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Political Witch Hunt

Remarkably, a Republican Party that for four years fixated unwaveringly on the third-rate Benghazi "scandal" now seems generally nonchalant about the intelligence community's high-confidence bombshell that Russia intervened mightily in the U.S. presidential election.

That's the same Russia that is actively opposing American and western interests around the world.

Some Trump supporters have even said that if Russian intervention was required to obtain the desired result, then it's a good thing it happened.

As many commentators have already opined, Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

Ronald who? The Republican Party has undergone a breathtaking transformation these past few years, one which has only accelerated this election season. As events over the past year have made starkly clear, this is no longer the party of Reagan.

A few notables such as George Will lament the change and have departed; many just shrug.

But whose party is it? Trump's? Too soon to tell. With past orthodoxy seemingly jettisoned, the only discernible operative "ideology" appears to be political power. We will have to wait to see if there's anything more to it than that, because core Republican principles are in tremendous flux. At present very little can be described as "core."

The upheaval has been going on for a while, even if Trump has elevated things to a striking new dimension. Benghazi, for example, was never a principle but a political cudgel, wielded hysterically and incessantly until it was no longer useful.

The only enduring lesson from Benghazi is that consulate security wasn't what it should have been in an undeniably dangerous part of the world. Congressional hearing after congressional hearing in Republican-controlled committees could ultimately reach no greater conclusion. Five separate Republican committee investigations over the years finally led to the formation of a "select committee" to investigate it all again, and to reach the same result.

All this churning to discover how it came to happen that four Americans (including two diplomats) died in the swirling chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya.

Will Republicans, who are soon to exercise almost total power, take the same trouble to understand the nature and extent of Russian interference in our democratic institutions? It's hard to discern any particular inclination to do so, except by a few forlorn souls such as John McCain, whose principles at least occasionally transcend politics.

Russia might be a pariah, but in this instance it's our pariah. Or Trump's, anyway.

Asked about the new U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia to punish its meddling, the president-elect opined that we should just "move on." All's well that ends well, right?

Whatever happened is in the past. Not, mind you, that we're acknowledging that it happened.

There's this from the New York Times on a Friday morning interview with Trump, shortly before his meeting with the nation's highest intelligence officials to discuss their report (the unclassified version is here) on Russian influence in the election:

Mr. Trump told The New York Times in an interview that the storm surrounding Russian hacking was nothing more than a “political witch hunt” carried out by his adversaries, who he said were embarrassed by their loss to him in the 2016 election. Speaking by telephone three hours before the intelligence briefing, Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized the intense focus on Russia.

No witches here, people. Move along.

As a thought experiment, ask yourself how this would all be different were it Clinton instead of Trump who had stood to benefit from Russia's interventions. Funny, right? Benghazi would be a smoldering ember compared to the high intensity conflagration of howling Republican outrage.

As I said, this is no longer Ronald Reagan's Republican Party. Whose party it is remains to be seen.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The Politics of Power

If anything, the politics of power have gotten even more brutish as Republicans begin to exercise their newfound near-absolute control of government. Previous norms of conduct continue to fall. That's saying a lot, coming as it does after eight years of Republican scorched-earth obstruction culminatingit's still stunning to contemplate thisin the denial of a sitting president due consideration of his Supreme Court nominee.

Recent examples include the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) warning that several of Trump's cabinet nominees have not been properly vetted prior to beginning their confirmation hearingssomething that except for one relatively minor example is unprecedented in the four decades the office has existed. The OGE says the dearth of vetting of current nominees is a matter of "great concern."

There is an established ethics review process, including a requirement that nominees submit certain paperwork, that is supposed to be completed before hearings begin. Members of the relevant Senate committees can't perform proper due-diligence without those materials, but several of Trump's nominees haven't provided them, even as the process is allowed to move forward. The OGE director said that not only had a number of nominees not completed the ethics process, but the "OGE has not received even initial draft financial disclosure reports for some of the nominees scheduled for hearings."

This is highly irregular, to say the least.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan is to fast-track Trump's nominees by, as it were, "flooding the zone" with an onslaught of hearings, thereby having the effect of a bare minimum of Senate, press, and public consideration of any one of them due to sheer information overload.

Hearings for multiple high-profile nominees will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a cacophony of other concurrent events (such as Trump's first press conference in almost half a year) also competing for attention. You can only drink so much from a fire hose.

This is actually an improvement. Initially six hearings were scheduled for Wednesday alone.

Only two days of hearings have been allocated to Trump's controversial Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions. That's less review than Sessions received several decades ago when a Republican Senate rejected his nomination to the federal bench because of concerns of racism. Those concerns remain. Democrats are only being allowed four witnesses in the Sessions hearing.

While always important, vetting is especially crucial for this administration because so many of its highest profile nominees are relatively unknown to legislators, or are decidedly controversial. Some have expressed views that are openly hostile to the very missions of the departments they have been nominated to head.

The Trump transition seems to think the requirements for proper vetting consistent with constitutionally-mandated Senate consent are less a standard of good governance than a political nuisance. We should quit nit-picking and take it on the new administration's say-so that all its nominees are superb. How else to interpret this statement from the transition:

President-elect Trump is putting together the most qualified administration in history and the transition process is currently running smoothly. In the midst of a historic election where Americans voted to drain the swamp, it is disappointing some have chosen to politicize the process in order to distract from important issues facing our country. This is a disservice to the country and is exactly why voters chose Donald J. Trump as their next president.

Thus do those who insist on established norms of conduct "politicize the process."

And in an Orwellian turn, "drain the swamp" means less, not more transparency. Just trust us.

Brace yourself; we're just getting started.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 26, 2016

Fossil Fuel Subsidies

I've recently argued with somebody who should certainly know better about the fact that the fossil fuel industry receives extensive subsidies. Here's a quick survey I conducted to demonstrate what ought to be obvious.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Doublespeak and the Right-Wing Mind

The right-wing mind is fertile soil for Orwellian "doublespeak" in all its variations.To a large extent this derives from a tenuous relationship with facts that psychologists who study the conservative brain think might be a feature that's in some sense "hard wired," perhaps with a genetic predisposition. Whatever its cause, an ignorant mind makes the propagandist's job ridiculously easy. The right-winger's perennial difficulty with objective reality makes him particularly susceptible to all kinds of deliberate misinformation.

A constellation of characteristics is apparent. Having its druthers, the right-wing mind prefers symbol over substance to convey truth. Similarly, banal platitudes are commonly elevated to high profundity. All this occurs superficially, with little thought or effort. Right-wingers see little need to plumb the depths of ideas or evidence, and often seem to not know how to do so.

Thus the right-wing mind prefers "truths" that it just knows over facts that must be empirically discovered. Accordingly, the right-wing worldview is dominated by prejudice rather than thoughtful examination of objective reality. That's why conspiracy theories slide so easily into its corpus of common knowledge.

Finally, the right-wing mind's ideological rigidity causes it to invert truth to maintain a predetermined worldview, in ways that are often shockingly outrageous from the perspective of rational thinkers. Consider an example that in a sane world ought to be dismissed as trivial silliness, but which in many respects is a paradigmatic exemplar of how the right-wing mind inverts truth in a manner that is genuinely Orwellian.

I recently received an email with this image and the subject "Hypocrisy"; the sender was convinced it said something truthful:


While I can't vouch for the actual quotation, it's quite true that before the election Hillary Clinton did warn about the danger to democracy from threatening to not accept the election outcome. She did so in response to Donald Trump's claims that the election was "rigged," and his implication that the result might be illegitimate. And here is what Clinton said after the election, in her concession speech; pay attention to the word "accept":

We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.

I quote from the speech's transcript, adding my emphasis. Clinton went on to say that "our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don't just respect that, we cherish it."

At no time did Clinton or anybody associated with her campaign say or imply that the election outcome was invalid or should be questioned. Quite the contrary, she stated her acceptance of the result unequivocally. Her position could not be more clear.

By contrast, Donald Trump actually did imply, darkly and frequently, that the election result might be illegitimate. After catching flack in the media for his insinuations, Trump eventually said somewhat cheekily:

I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election, if I win.

So the right-wing Clinton "hypocrisy" meme contained in that image not only inverts Clinton's clearly stated and consistent position both before and after the election, but it also attributes to Clinton a sentiment that was actually articulated by Trump! That's pretty remarkable propaganda given how well it seems to be working. Orwell would be impressed.

In the face of such incongruity the reality-based observer is left sputtering in bewilderment. What can you possibly say in response to such prima facie absurdity? You might try presenting facts (as I have done here), but I assure you that will not work.

It won't work because, as I said above, facts (and reason, too) mean nothing to the right-wing mind. The right-winger will dismiss your facts any number of ways. Commonly, he will simply refuse to acknowledge or engage with themeven a transcript of Clinton's concession or, if you insist, a video of itor with your dishonest liberal media from which they come.

Alternatively, he might say that if you actually believe Clinton sincerely meant what she said in her concession, then you are hopelessly naïve. Which is brilliant, because the right-winger can make up whatever reality he wants, regardless of any ostensible "evidence" that may appearevidence which he can see through with his superior insight and wisdom about how things are. And happily for him, there is no work involved in any of this.

Your own failure, rational though it may be, comes from not understanding that from the right-winger's perspective Clinton doesn't need to actually say or do anything to demonstrate she's a hypocriteshe just is one, essentially by definition. Remember: right-wingers just know things. These things are just asserted, not proved. And because she is a hypocrite (and "crooked," too), it is even acceptable to ascribe sentiments to her (such as the "unless it's me!" in the image above) that she never actually espoused, and that her opponent did espouse!

The upshot is that reality is whatever the right-winger wants it to be, to the point that he makes up and promulgates "truth" that is diametrically opposed to objective fact, thereby rightly earning the adjective "Orwellian." False is true. Down is up. Since everything Clinton has said demonstrates she has never deviated, whether before or after the election, from her insistence that the results be accepted, accusing her of "hypocrisy" is thus the epitome of Orwellian doublespeak. It's remarkable to behold its power over the right-wing mind.

Yet the human mind, capable as it is (in some persons, anyway) of magnificent feats of reasoning, might even in the right-winger choke from time to time on too large a helping of doublespeak, and thus look about for quasi-rational ways to justify the "hypocrisy" claim. Should the evidence from Clinton's concession become too much for even him to deny, the right-winger will naturally point to certain recount efforts in three states by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and lay them shamelessly at Clinton's feet. It's sort of analogous to invading Iraq in response to being attacked by an Afghanistan-based al Qaeda.

Indeed, the Stein recount is the proximate cause of right-wingers' ire against Clinton. The reality-based observer remains bewildered. Not only is it Stein, not Clinton, who's driving the recount, but the Clinton campaign has said all along that it saw no evidence of fraud or misconduct, and that it would not opt to pursue any recounts. And it hasn't. Once Stein's recount efforts seemed to be gaining momentum, the Clinton campaign repeated that it did not believe that the recounts would result in any material change in the outcome. Interestingly, Stein has said the same thing, but (giving her the benefit of the doubt) she seems to think it's important to conduct a sanity check on the systems and the processes in a few close states.

As before, Clinton could hardly be more unequivocal. Clearly, the Clinton campaign is not particularly interested in doing a recount, and didn't ask for one. It certainly has never given the slightest suggestion that it doesn't "accept" the election result. Quite the opposite: Hillary said we must (her word) accept it, and that "Donald Trump is going to be our president."

Ah, but there's this: The Clinton campaign has said it will send observers (my word; and, to be clear, this includes election lawyerssee Postscript below) to monitor the recount process. Which of course is what you'd expect. And of course, the Trump campaign is doing exactly the same. For a campaign to not send observers to an official recount would be not just unexpected, it would be malpractice. Whatever one thinks about the desirability of a recount, once it is happening all relevant parties need to be present.

Right-wingers, unsurprisingly, don't see it that way. They'd rather fabricate a conspiracy theory. Because they just know things, they know Clinton is "supporting" the recount, even though it is doing no such thing. (This word-parsing gets wearying.) Such "support" is presumably to challenge the outcome, yet the Clinton campaign has never remotely suggested the election results are invalid, and has said the outcome is highly unlikely to change. No matter how carefully and clearly you explain yourselfeven trying to get out in front of a developing situationand no matter how reasonable your action, a right-winger will always find a way to invert and twist your meaning and intentions, and cast dark aspersions. Sadly, there is no evidence you can present which will have any effect at all, and don't bother reasoning either.

Thus the right-winger just knows Clinton really wants there to be a recount; that Clinton doesn't actually "accept" the election results despite what she has unambiguously said, andergo!she is a hypocrite for not accepting the results after she castigated Trump for suggesting before the election that he might not accept them. What a steaming mess of inanity.

If all this leaves you in intellectual despair, then it's likely you are sane. I, for one, have concluded that it is simply impossible to have a rational discussion with a right-winger. Their minds just don't work properly, and I have no idea what to do about it. Sadly, it seems that outvoting them is the only ultimate solution, but one that will always leave us bitterly divided. It would be far better if we could at least engage in rational dialogue along the way, even if we ultimately disagree on direction. But as I said, that seems impossible.

The particular danger now is that we are about to have a president who is an especially accomplished propagandist: one who makes up his own reality to suit the moment's needs, often for purposes of personal aggrandizement; one who was for good reason called "serially mendacious" during the campaign, and is continuing that pattern without pause. A large fraction of our citizenry will gladly swallow whatever alternate reality he chooses to dispense. The foundations of democracy are about to take a beating.

Although we've been moving in this direction for a long time, we are now accelerating toward a tipping point on our way to a post-fact (and post-reason) society, in which far too many of us have no reliable touchstone for gauging what's real. Be terrified.


Postscript: The Clinton campaign's statement of its judgements and intentions regarding the recount is more nuanced than I described above; you might want to read it for yourself. In a lengthy statement the campaign's general counsel, Marc Elias, described the numerous steps the campaign has taken to ensure there was no "outside interference [eg. hacking, Russian or otherwise -mb] in the vote tally." The campaign has quite understandably looked for anomalies using a variety of means, and will continue, says Elias, "to perform our due diligence."

Elias says the campaign had not "uncovered any actionable evidence" of irregularities, and thus had not planned to request a recount. "But," he said, "now that a recount has been initiated in Wisconsin, we intend to participate in order to ensure the process proceeds in a manner that is fair to all sides." Even though the campaign does not envision any change in the outcome, "we feel it is important, on principle, to ensure our campaign is legally represented in any court proceedings and represented on the ground in order to monitor the recount process itself."

As I said above, the recount is an official process and all parties need to be present.

Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 02, 2016

Trump's Landslide

I watched most of Trump's Cincinnati rally last night. There was much to be disturbed about. Pre-election warnings about fascism remain relevant; at a minimum we seem to be entering the "Berlusconi" era of American governance. For now, though, I'll confine my remarks to one thing.

During a couple minutes of indecorous, self-aggrandizing chest-thumping, where Trump relived his election-night glory, he said this:

"We won in a landslide; that was a landslide."

I wrote down the quote as he said it, not wanting to get it wrong. I may have mistaken a period for the semicolon in my transcription.

At the moment he uttered those words, current tabulations had Hillary Clinton with 48.1% of the popular vote, whereas Trump received just 46.2%. Not only did Trump not receive a majority of the vote, he did not even receive a plurality. Some landslide. (Other recent presidents not claiming landslides got more than 50% of the popular vote. See table below.)

I am not arguing about who won the election. Trump won it under the rules as constituted. I am saying that a candidate and now president-elect who incessantly makes up his own reality and propagates blatant falsehoods to credulous adoring supporters is a danger to democracy.

In his "landslide" win Trump got 2.56 million less votes than Clinton. (This margin is still slightly fluid.) [Update: Dec 15, 2016 - The margin has grown to 2.85 million; see table below.] In his "landslide" Trump won the Electoral College by the scantest of popular vote margins. Had Clinton won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania as had been expected she would now be president-elect. Trump won those three states by a combined margin of around 100,000 votes. [Update: Dec 15, 2016 - The margin is now less than 78,000; see updates here.]

We might complain that Trump has employed hyperbolic bluster to redefine "landslide" to meaninglessness, but that isn't quite true. What he's doing isn't frittering away meaning; he's redefining reality. It's Orwellian propaganda, in which a clearly false reality is simply asserted from a position of power. Many ignorant or thoughtless people will take it on Trump's say-so, despite it being baldly untrue. Others who understand the absurdity will opt to passively acquiesce. That's incredibly dangerous.

Inventing reality is well-worn territory for Trump. It's why so many have described him throughout the campaign as "serially mendacious." An egregiously destructive recent example was his claim that "millions" of persons voted illegally in the election. Trump just made that up, providing no evidence whatsoever, presumably because his ego can't abide losing the popular vote to Clinton. But the harm that does to our democratic institutions is immense and intolerable.

We can expect Trump to assert all kinds of bald untruths during his coming administration, and to act upon those assertions. Whether or not he really believes these things is almost irrelevant. A president should speak the truth, but truth is becoming increasingly fungible and manipulable.

Such manipulation of reality is rightly called "Orwellian," and Orwell warned us against it for good reason. It's the stuff of authoritarian and especially totalitarian governments. We are about to experience something unprecedented in American governance: something with which our citizenry, with its increasingly flaccid critical-thinking organ, is ill equipped to deal.

I'll conclude with results from some recent elections to put Trump's "landslide" into historical perspective:

Trump's "Landslide" Compared To Recent Elections
Year Electoral Votes, Winner Loser(s) Popular Vote Margin Popular Vote Pct
2016 Trump 306 Clinton 232 Clinton +2.85 million Clinton 48.1%, Trump 46.0%
2012 Obama 332 Romney 206 Obama +4.98 million Obama 51.1%, Romney 47.2%
2008 Obama 365 McCain 173 Obama +9.55 million Obama 52.9%, McCain 45.7%
2004 Bush 286 Kerry 251 Bush +3.01 million Bush 51%, Kerry 48.5%
2000 Bush 271 Gore 266 Gore +0.54 million Gore 48.4%, Bush 47.9%
1996 Clinton 379 Dole 159, Perot 0 Clinton +8.20 million Clinton 49.2%, Dole 40.7%, Perot 8.4%
1984 Reagan 525 (that's a landslide!) Mondale 13 Reagan +16.88 million Reagan 58.8%, Mondale 40.6%


Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Unpopular Trump

In some true sense Democrats got shellacked in the just completed election. Republicans will control the presidency, both houses of Congress and, soon enough, the Supreme Court.

Much analysis in the punditry now fixates on how Democrats lost their way by trying to ride a long changing demographic wave and over-emphasizing Trump's flaws, while failing to understand that working class voters, especially whites, were tired of being left behind. True enough, this was a "change election."

But how big, really, was the mandate for change? Consider:

Hillary Clinton has a lead in the popular vote that will continue to grow as additional votes are counted in heavily Democratic states such as California, New York, and Washington; that lead could reach nearly two million. Clinton will likely end up with around 1.5 percent more of the popular vote than Trump. (Which is close, by the way, to the margin by which Clinton lead in national polls in the final days. Keep that in mind if you're tempted to think the pollsters got things badly wrong.) As some commentators have put it, Clinton won the vote but lost the election.

[Note: An earlier version of this post referred to a current Clinton lead of 1.8 million in the popular vote, but my source for that figure, The Huffington Post, now says that was a "projection," not a then-current count. As of Nov 16 the Cook Political Report pegs Clinton's lead at almost 1.2 million. Update: Nov 23, 2016 - Politico now reports that Clinton's popular vote lead has passed 2 million. Update: Dec 1, 2016 - Clinton's popular vote lead is now more than 2.5 million. Her percentage of the vote is 1.9% higher than Trump's, a margin better than 10 previous presidents. Update: Dec 15, 2016 - Clinton's popular vote lead is now 2.86 million. She received 2.1% more of the popular vote than Trump.]

Hey, that's how it works in the U.S. (And can you imagine how Trump would have reactedthe system is rigged!were the tables reversed?)

But consider this too:

Trump's win in the electoral college was, effectively, by a mere 107,330 votes. That's the combined margin by which Trump won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michiganthree "blue" states Clinton was expected to win but didn't, and whose loss cost her the election. [Update: Dec 15, 2016 - The latest tallies have Trump winning these three states by a combined total less than 78,000 votes. Here are the results for Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.] Yes, indeed, rural white working class voters were absolutely crucial to flipping these three states and sealing the outcome, but the margin as a share of the national vote was tiny. Had Clinton won 55,000 Trump votes in the right proportions in those three states, she'd now be president elect.

Or this:

Democrats managed a net gain of two seats in the Senate and and a handful in the House. Not nearly what they were hoping for, to be sure, but not an overwhelming repudiation either.

As "change elections" go, this one was long on impact but short on mandate. What's undeniably true is that the country remains deeply, profoundly, divided. It will be fascinating to watch how President Trump and the Republicans proceed to govern. And watch we shall.



Update: Nov 14, 2016Dean Baker explains that white voters are over-represented in the electoral college because smaller states are whiter and less ethnically diverse, and small states get disproportionately more electoral votes relative to the size of their populations than do larger states. To take an extreme example, Wyoming (which is largely white) gets one electoral college vote for every 195,000 residents, whereas California (which is only 38 percent white) gets  one electoral vote for every 711,000 residents.

Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved