Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Trump and the Russians,

Eli,

If I understand Friedman’s and your argument correctly it goes like this: The Russians interfered in the US election. Trump can’t or won’t defend the US against this attack  (Friedman puts the election in the same category of attack as Pearl Harbor and 2001), that means our democracy is in serious danger and that threat is Trump himself: “The biggest threat to the integrity of our democracy today is in the Oval Office.”

When I hear this argument I hear something different. And now I’m (unfairly?) putting you and Friedman into this camp:  Trump’s election was a shock.  There has to be a reason such a loathsome person won. Because he is loathsome there has to be a way to invalidate the results. Russian interference and collusion sounds plausible because of Trump's praise of Putin, the Clinton-purchased Steele dossier and the hints that Trump’s real estate deals are financed by Russian money.

Even if the anti-Trumpers hadn’t been trying to invalidate the election since the election, I’d be skeptical of such a claim. But this is one in a series of accusations and arguments made, (Trump never wanted to win, he’ll resign; the Intelligence Community should brief the electors of the electoral college; pleas to the electors to vote for Clinton; calls for impeachment before he took office; and my favorite, conclusions by psychiatrists that Trump is crazy without ever examining him) to change the outcome of the election. If the reaction to Trump’s election hadn’t been so hysterical maybe I would be more open to the Russian collusion argument. Probably not, but the reaction by the Dems and the media harmed their credibility in my eyes.

And the hysteria continues today. The TV headlines after something Russian is announced  are often Mueller is “closing in” on Trump. The headline itself reveals the belief in the conclusion that Trump is guilty of something. Or take Friedman’s argument that 1) Trump is hiding some threatening item or 2) he’s criminally incompetent. There are certainly many more options than that. Trump doesn't have to be hiding anything. Maybe he's hiding something that has nothing to do with Russia. Maybe he is incompetent but not criminally. Maybe he's super competent but Friedman doesn't like the results.  I find it difficult to be sympathetic to Friedman’s false choice argument. This type of argument, by its nature, is either 1) lazy or 2) deceitful. Or your headline, “Traitor Trump.” Really? Traitor? Thank you Red Queen, first the verdict, then the trial.

Friedman doesn’t embrace the collusion theory, at least explicitly, although he hints at it. He is worked up over Russian interference and I understand that and share that concern, although I’m not alarmed. Admittedly, it’s not a compelling argument when I speculate this probably isn’t  Russia's first time interfering in another country’s elections. Nor is it comforting to point out other countries (China, North Korea, Iran, even our allies to some extent) also interfere in our elections. And it is rather meaningless to point out the US interferes in other country’s elections.

Maybe one of the reasons I’m not too alarmed is because I've been told repeatedly there is no voter fraud in the US. This is as good as any explication of that view. But that’s a cheap shot and somewhat avoids the issue. No one, yet, is claiming that Manchurian voters were sent to the polls. Although when the claim is made the Russians “hacked” the election that is implied. The argument is that the Russians engaged in a campaign that confused voters into not voting for Clinton, voting for Trump or simply not voting.  We do know the Russians tried to sow confusion. We don’t know if it was effective. 

Mueller’s indictment against the Internet Research Agency states the Russians began as early as 2014 to “interfere with the U.S. political system,” and “addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues,” with a “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system,” and this included the 2016 presidential election. They started out raising rabble and then moved on to supporting candidates Trump and Sanders and attacking candidates Clinton, Cruz, and Rubio . The stated goal was “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

The indictment doesn’t say why the Russians supported Trump and Sanders. My guess is because it was the best way to support its mission of sowing discord. If my presumption is true, it doesn’t rise to the level of collusion.

From my reading of the indictment, the interference of the Russians through the Internet Research Agency is pretty small time stuff. For example, an Instagram post from  “Blacktivist” that read in part: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote." and social media posts,“  “American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims in the middle east and voted yes for invading Iraq.” Or contacting Trump's campaign in Florida to suggest flash mobs for Trump.

The exact amount spent on these posts is undisclosed other than “millions” over the 2 or 3 year time period and in the month of September 2016 $1.25 million. It is difficult for me to believe this had an impact on the election.  And much of the FaceBook ads are posted after the election. Elliot Schrage, VP of Policy and Communication at Facebook pointed out “44% of total ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) were before the US election on November 8, 2016; 56% were after the election.” (https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2017/10/hard-questions-russian-ads-delivered-to-congress/). This makes sense to me if the intent is to sow confusion, but less sense if there was collusion and further supports the idea there was a very small impact, if any.

But again, that’s somewhat avoiding the issue. What do we do about Russian, or any foreign actor, interfering in our elections. Should we regulate speech on Facebook, and Twitter? Should we limit all political speech on all media platforms? I’m opposed to limiting speech, so it’s a thorny issue. 

You and Friedman want Trump to do something, and since he isn’t doing what you want, he’s a traitor and should be impeached or resign. Well, I guess that is a conclusion that can be drawn, but it does seem rather perfervid. Plus, it’s a very strange solution. Besides presuming guilt before there is evidence of guilt, how will that solve foreign interference in our elections.

Again, my conclusion on all this is some people don’t like the outcome of the election, and they are willing to go to any lengths to invalidate it, including believing in a conspiracy theory worthy of Jim Garrison.

The heartbreaking aspect of these events is that the Russians have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They have sowed discord and chaos into our elections, mostly because some refuse to accept the outcome of the election and have latched onto a theory that explains to them a very surprising decision by the American voter and now are desperately seeking a way to invalidate the election. I prefer the simpler theory: The election was a coin toss between two despicable candidates and the toss came up Trump.




Bill

Monday, February 19, 2018

Traitor Trump

Bill


I think Thomas Freidman's OpEd today pretty much makes the case. Sooner or later, the truth will out.


Eli

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Self Defeating Environmental Policies.

Eli,

The Boston Globe article "Our Russian ‘pipeline,’ and its ugly toll," is pretty good. I wish it would focus on another self-defeating "environmental" policy: NY State's ban on hydraulic fracturing. If NY allowed hydraulic fracturing it would lower prices to consumers, particularly the poor, result in high-paying manufacturing jobs, if displacing coal result in lower carbon emissions as well as displace the gas from the Russian suppliers.

Oh well.

Bill

Monday, February 12, 2018

Eli,

The whole article on automation and job losses is pretty smart. An excerpt:

While automation may be a question of engineering, job loss is even more a question of economics. A key part of the agriculture story is that people were unwilling to purchase all of the food that farmers were capable of producing, even though food was getting cheaper. But not all industries share this with agriculture.

Suppose that the automation in agriculture had only been for chicken farming and not for any other food production. Chicken would have gotten cheaper relative to beef, fish, vegetables, fruit, etc., and that would have caused people to buy more chicken and less of other types of food.

Many — even most — of the extra chickens produced would have been purchased by consumers, and there would have been less need to reduce employment in chicken farming.

The most dramatic job losses would have occurred in the food industries like beef and fish that were not automated and that compete with chicken. In other words, jobs that are difficult to automate from an engineering perspective may be exactly the jobs pushed to extinction by automation because they cannot compete.

It all depends on the competitive landscape and how willing are consumers, encouraged by lower prices, to absorb the extra output made possible by automation.

Trucking is a modern example, because engineers are predicting that machines will soon do a lot of the driving formerly done by trucking employees. But the result may be more jobs for people in trucking and fewer jobs for people in railroads, airlines and shipping that compete with trucking (unless they also get more productive at the same time that trucking does).

Bill

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Maybe we should all start smoking

Eli,

This Times article was interesting, "Preventive Care Saves Money? Sorry, It’s Too Good to Be True: Contrary to conventional wisdom, it tends to cost money, but it improves quality of life at a very reasonable price."

I like this part:

Does spending on prevention save the country money over all?

A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests the answer is no. The budget office modeled how a policy to reduce smoking through higher cigarette taxes might affect federal spending. It found that such a tax would cause many people to quit smoking — the desired result. In the short term, less smoking would lead to decreased spending because of reductions in health care spending for those who had smoked.

In the long run, all of those people living longer would lead to increases in spending in many programs, including health care. The more people who quit smoking, the higher the deficit from health care — barely offset by the revenue from taxing cigarettes.

Maybe I should take up drinking again also.

Bill

Monday, January 29, 2018

Same as it ever was

Eli,

I loved this illustration from Thomas Hazlett's "The Political Spectrum," a history of the FCC and its regulation of radio/TV and other forms of communication.


We like to think our problems are unique, but most of them aren't.

Bill

Tuesday, January 23, 2018