Archive for the ‘news’ Category

Madding Crowds

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

[An earlier version of this entry was posted to Facebook on 30 September.]

A bad leader whose leadership is accepted with little resistance is more frightening than a bad leader whose leadership is accepted grudgingly, and who knows that the acceptance is reluctant.

A sense that Trump would have the freer hand will make some people vote for Clinton who might otherwise have voted for him; a sense that Clinton would have the freer hand will make some people vote for Trump who might otherwise have voted for her. Where these particular calculations are concerned, Clinton has an actual advantage in there being a present Republican majority in both chambers of Congress, because it is expected that Congress would frustrate Clinton more than it would thwart Trump.

But a bad leader is more frightening if he or she has many loyal followers even if these followers are outside of government. The composition of the Congress could change in the upcoming election or in one to follow; and, even if it did not, a President with greater popular support can accomplish more than otherwise, even without his or her party in the majority in either chamber.

Thus, the failure of the vast majority of the most vocal supporters of each of these two candidates truthfully to acknowledge their candidate for what he or she is makes each candidate far more scary to those who are undecided or weakly decided.

Almost no one who is now undecided or weakly decided thinks that either Clinton or Trump is merely not perfect; the voters most likely to be moved see both Clinton and Trump as awful people, and see this with good reason. To be less scared of these candidates, these voters need to read and to hear acknowledgments, from supporters, of just how flawed their own candidates are. (Becoming still more scared of one candidate is not at all the same thing as becoming less scared of the other, though indeed an increase in fear of one could strengthen support for the other.)

Were these supporters more rational, they would change their pitch. But, psychologically, they cannot. Some of them are simply swept-up in the urges of inverted narcissism;[1] and, more generally, supporters cannot admit the truth to others without to some extent recognizing the truth and acknowledging it to themselves. The world would have to be faced as a bleaker and more uncertain place.

[1] Inverted narcissism (popularly confused with covert narcissism, a markèdly different condition) is the felt need to treat some individual as magnificent, even if careful consideration would show him or her not to be so. The inverted narcissist is thus a sort of complement to the narcissist, supplying the admiration that the narcissist needs for comfort. Inverted narcissism plays a hugely important rôle in politics.

Theatre of the Absurd

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

It is often asserted that the current President runs a continuous campaign; that, even now, when he can no longer be reëlected nor get a Congress more to his liking before his Administration ends, he campaigns.

Well, more generally, his Administration has been theatre. The apparent campaigning is a manifestation of that. And to-day I read that he has produced a trailer for his up-coming State of the Union Address. A trailer. It makes perfect sense, because the Address is theatre. It has long been theatre, but he does theatre as did no President before him.

He's been concerned to posture and to act in ways that he expects to be made to look good by to-day's mainstream media and by that bloc of historians who decided, even before he took office, that they would depict his Administration favorably almost without regard to whatever he ended-up doing.

The recent climate accord, for which there was so much build-up and from which nothing came but loose and unenforceable promises, was theatre. The negotiations with Iran, in which many meetings were held to agree that the United States would throw up its hands (something that it could more simply have done unilaterally) were theatre.

Even the Affordable Care Act has become theatre. As costs spiral out of control it approaches its implosion, but it will be portrayed as a Noble Effort, ruined by Republicans and by the inherent wickedness of market forces.

And it was theatre when the man who has killed so many children with his drone strikes wept for the murdered children of Sandy Hook.

Theatre. The cost of the ticket is very high.

Tearing off the Masks

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

I've read that Anonymous has found the names of about a thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan, and is preparing to release them.

I'm hoping that none of the 10 other people in this nation with the same first and last name as I are members, because it could be Hell for the rest of us. I'm also hoping that Anonymous doesn't add names of people whom it dislikes, especially as I might be amongst them.

A few years ago, I challenged their attack on Stratfor. Stratfor was a journalistic enterprise, focussing on issues of global politics (including military action) and security, and publishing both free content and content that required a paid subscription. Some at Anonymous were sure that Stratfor were, effectively, a criminal undertaking because

  • Stratfor communicated off-the-record with policy wonks and with state officials (as did and do almost every other major journalistic enterprise and many of the minor journalistic enterprises); and
  • Stratfor expressed opinions with which Anonymous vehemently disagreed.

So Anonymous stole e.mail, e.mail addresses, and credit-card information from the Stratfor servers. If one had so much as subscribed to a free newsletter from Stratfor, then one's e.mail address was made public, and one was subjected to hoax e.mail from Anonymous. Many who had simply paid for something from Stratfor had their credit card information used to make contributions to charitable organizations (each of which then had to spend resources on returning the stolen money, at a net loss).

The e.mail itself was given to WikiLeaks, which processed it with the help of other journalistic institutions. Some of these institutions shamelessly used the stolen information to their own advantage, though it didn't provide evidence of wrong-doing by Stratfor. Indeed, after almost four years, no evidence of criminal wrong-doing has ever been presented. Stratfor's greatest sin was gross incompetence in the field of security.

None of the major media outlets has drawn attention to the point that the supposed end that was to justify Anonymous's means was not met. They have been virtually silent about this attack on journalistic freedom. That's because, as I suggested in my entry of some years ago, these outlets are themselves afraid of being attacked by Anonymous.

Journalists are fond of seeing their profession as brave. Well, there truly are some brave journalists in this world, but they're in a minority, and the rest don't deserve to see themselves as heroes for keeping company with that minority.

for generations to come

Saturday, 4 July 2015

I believe that I last wrote here about what became the Affordable Care Act — aka Obamacare — in an entry posted on 28 July 2008. I've been meaning to write about it since, but I paused to await the outcome of NIFB v Seleblius, and then again to await the outcome of King v Burwell.

To understand what really drove the Democratic Party to pass the Affordable Care Act, one may look at the experience of the Social Security Act (1935).

The programme of old-age benefits — which is what most Americans have in mind when they refer to Social Security — is one that had been failing slowly over the many decades of its existence. Population growth has slowed strikingly, and life-spans have been extended significantly, so that the number of people paying into the system has declined dramatically relative to the number of people to whom payments have been made. At the same time, in various ways the typical payment per individual has been allowed to climb. The tax used to fund it has never collected enough revenue to do so indefinitely. At times, revenues have been much greater than benefits; but, none-the-less, there has never been a moment over the last 50 years or more when the demographics did not show that, within the expected lifetime of a young person, promised benefits would exceed revenues and exhaust whatever had been saved under the revised programme.

Congress did not plan for the old-age benefits programme to fail, slowly or otherwise. Congress simply didn't take a careful look at the future. The immediate concerns of Congress were to exploit the political gains to be had from promising a pension programme, and to short-circuit political support for the ruinous Townsend Plan.[1] But this slow failure has proved to be hugely rewarding to the party most responsible for effecting the programme.

Because the programme has failed slowly, there was sufficient time for a large share of Americans to become dependent upon it. It was even, for a while, said to be the third rail of American politics — analogous to the rail delivering current to an electrically powered train, in the sense that touching it would prove fatal. As failure has recurringly loomed, Republicans (having increasingly become the party of opposition to the New Deal Coälition) struggled with how to respond to the failure of a programme with such broad support, while the Democratic Party has been able to position itself as rescuer. The slow failure of their creature has been an important part of the success of their party.

Although supporters of the programme often speak and write as if opponents would simply and abruptly withdraw benefits from all recipients, a more common suggestion has been to phase-out the present programme in favor of an overt poverty-relief programme. Thus, for example, those born after some point in time would received reduced benefits — perhaps in some cases no benefits — if they had income or wealth measured above some levels. This idea meets resistance not only from those who would lose benefits, but from those who would then find themselves on welfare.

Younger people, looking at a future tax burden, and perhaps doubtful that the next major reforms will prove sufficient to maintain the programme through their own retirements, are most often open to suggestions of reform. But, as time passes and they age, they find themselves having paid much of the tax that they might earlier have hoped to avoid, so that the principal pecuniary result of a phasing-out would be either to deny them benefits or to place them on welfare. Additionally, as they age, so do their parents, who go from being perhaps middle-aged to being elderly.

A sense may often be retained that they would have been better-off had the programme been phased-out when they were younger,[2] and that those now young would be better-off if the programme were phased-out now. There is, thus, something of the flavor of a sub-optimal Cournot-Nash equilibrium to it all. A lot of people would admit that the programme ought not to have been instituted; but, since it was, and since they would personally be hurt by an attempt to end the programme, they will not assist in an unwinding, and may even actively oppose an unwinding.

And, so, they are increasingly inclined to support the Democratic Party, which continues to promise to do whatever is necessary to keep the programme going.

The Affordable Care Act was intended to creäte another slowly failing programme with a large number of people dependent upon it. There was no illusion on the part of most of those who voted for the Act that this programme would be the one exception in the history of large state programmes. They might not know the core reason that such programmes perform so badly, but they've had plenty of observations of failures. As with the Social Security old-age benefits, each time that failure loomed for Obamacare, the Democratic Party could position themselves as rescuers of the programme and thus of the people dependent upon it in order to receive medical treatment. And the Republican Party would again be forced to choose between protecting their brand and protecting their jobs. The public might perhaps conclude that they would have been better-off had the programme not been brought into existence in the first place, but they'd see themselves now being made still worse-off in any unwinding, however an unwinding might benefit later cohorts.

Indeed, when the President acted to preserve the programme by ignoring the plain wording of the law, a large part of the defense of his action was that a substantial number of people had become dependent upon the programme. Even a great many people who had been insured, at lower cost, previous to the programme could have suddenly found themselves uninsured, and the programme was defended on the basis of a dependency that it had induced amongst those people. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, though returned to power largely because of voter discontent with the programme, has been widely criticized for not agreeing upon some view as to how health care ought to be allocated, and then presenting that view to the public. Many Republicans essentially propose adopting a position they are just stuck with Obamacare, since the Supreme Court has twice now refused to stop it.

However, Obamacare is not a slowly failing programme; it is a rapidly failing programme.

In my entry of 28 July 2008, I explained that the programme was effectively to tax the insurance policies of the healthy in order to subsidize the unhealthy; and that, in the absence of compulsion, the healthy would not insure, causing premia to spiral upward.

In order to make passage of the law politically palatable, the compulsion was relatively weak. The annual penalty for failure to buy insurance is well less than the cost of insurance, and the IRS is forbidden to attempt to collect the penalty (if not paid voluntarily) except by reducing the annual tax refunds of those against whom it is charged. I suspect that the Democratic leadership had some awareness that this penalty structure was going to be inadequate, but were thinking of this weak compulsion as the camel's nose — they planned to get the rest of the beast into the tent in some later session, with higher penalties and more freedom of action for the IRS. They didn't understand that they'd lose control of one chamber in the very next election.

So, indeed, many of the relatively healthy chose not to buy insurance, despite repeated extensions of the buying period. And, as a consequence, premia are going to rise by more than 10%. This increase makes insurance a bad buy for an even larger group of people, who will choose not to buy insurance next year. That will cause a further rise in premia. And so forth. Premia should be expected to increase by more than 10% every year, until the programme implodes as affordable insurance moves out of reach for a huge share of people. (With annual increases of more than 10%, premia would more than double over just eight years, but I do not expect the programme to survive to a doubling of premia!)

There was talk of how, if King v Burwell were decided against the President, Obamacare would go into a death spiral. In fact it was already in a death spiral. King v Burwell could have accelerated that sharply; if the spiral were faster, then the health-care system would have been less distorted by Obamacare, and the unwinding would thus be injurious to fewer people.

The sooner that it were admitted that Obamacare were in a death spiral, the sooner that a drum might be beaten for toughening penalties upon those who refuse to buy insurance. (Or for kicking the insurance companies to the curb, and establishing a more explicitly socialistic system.) But the President is not a man to admit to mistakes, nor do supporters want to admit to yet more deep problems in a programme that has already had many embarassments, as such an admission would increase skepticism. Further, the elected Republicans are unlikely to alienate their base by acting to pull Obamacare out of a death spiral any time soon, though most of them might do so from expediency were Obamacare to last-out a decade.

[1] The Townsend Plan, advanced by Francis Everett Townsend beginning in 1933, was that each person in the United States over the age of 60 years were to be given a monthly pension of $200, conditional upon a requirement that the entire $200 be spent within a month. The theory was that this spending would result in an increase in economic activity that would, in turn, effectively pay for the pensions.

I won't endorse simply claiming that, since the CPI is now about 30 times that in 1933, $200 then would be equivalent to about $6 000 to-day. (Comparisons of so-called price levels becomes increasingly problematic as time-spans become longer.) None-the-less, one should see that a $200 monthly pension would have been rather breath-taking.

The Townsend Plan was supported by a very large number of people, and was especially popular amongst those over or approaching the age of 60 years, and amongst those economically responsible for the support of older people.

[2] This sense will be especially acute amongst those who understand that the Social Security old-age benefits crowd-out investment-savings for retirement. With reduced investment, the economy grows at a diminished rate.

It's All in the Timing

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Administration has timed its decision on what sort of immigration reform to implement by Executive Decree so that the President can be informed by whatever occurs on 11 September. Any considered reforms that would, in light of 11 September, seem foolish to the voting public will be shelved. If nothing happens domestically, then the President will feel that he has a freer hand.

Non-Violent Neutrality

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

I don't know that 'Net-neutrality were, in fact, a good thing; but, even on the assumption that it were, state action is not the proper way to promote it.

'Net-neutrality can be promoted by how people do business with ISPs. At one end, subscribers can consistently migrate towards those ISPs who deviate least from neutrality. At the other end, website owners can impede access by ISPs that do not practice an acceptable degree of neutrality.

In fact, Google and Facebook could effectively impose neutrality by announcing that, in one year, they would begin blocking access by providers who did not make pledges, renewed annually but each extending for ten years, to practice 'Net-neutrality. It might, however, require state inaction for these heavy-hitters to make such a demand. Specifically, Congress might need to clear a path in anti-trust law to allow such a policy.

He Wasn't There Again Today

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The day after my previous entry, Hugo Chávez returned to Venezuela. And the question that I'd like to ask is that of what he is doing there. I don't mean merely to ask why he is there, but indeed to ask in what action he is engaged.

By accounts, Chávez is not faring well; amongst other things, he's having trouble breathing. It doesn't seem that this move was for his health. And so there is speculation as to its purpose.

One suggestion is that he has simply gone home to die. But Chávez, in particular, has not been one to become resigned to the thought of personal death. Such thoughts in 2002 rather unhinged the man. And the official presentation has continued to play-down his medical problems. Whatever apparatus is used to assist him in breathing is removed from his person and from the view-frame when photographs are taken. I think that Chávez is indeed home to die, but not simply.

Another suggestion is that Chávez is home to stabilize the political situation. Under his administration, the institutional framework has been largely hollowed-out; his absence, even when living, creates a vacuum. His physical presence seems to reduce the immediacy of concern about what the nation is to do without Chávez. But the vacuum is far from filled by an inert Chávez, and the stabilizing effect of his mere presence can last only so long as he lives.

If Venezeula is to be stable in the wake of his death, there must be someone or something that can take his place. But only Chávez has the power to position that someone or something. Chávez would have to do something to put it in place. And I think that, in one sense, such preparation is why he is back in Venezuela; but that returning to Venezuela at this time was not Chávez's own idea.

I think that the Cuban regime, expecting him to die soon, encouraged him to go home, and that they did so in the hope that he would anoint a successor, who would keep the petroleum flowing to Cuba. Of course, Chávez was not quite told any of this. I think that the Cubans quietly pray for Chávez to be transformed by the process of dying, and conceivably by the urgings of the Venezuelans around him, into the sort of fellow who will say ¡Ay! ¡Me voy a morir! Guess that I'd better pick-out my Joshua. But, so far, that's not happening. Chávez cannot bring himself to plan for his own death (perhaps especially as the Holy Land is nowhere in sight). Chávez is trying to live.

To Leave a Beautiful Corpse

Sunday, 17 February 2013

When a charismatic leader dies aburptly while still in power, his or her supporters quickly begin building a mythology of what would have been accomplished had he or she lived. That is why, for example, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was and largely is so highly regarded; in the minds of his admirers, he would have accomplished wonderful things in the last five years of a two-term Presidential Administration, regardless of what one otherwise makes of its first thousand days.

The mythological episode of such leadership is treated as having the same standing for purposes of comparison as does historical fact. When an opponent tries to construct an argument founded on logic and general fact against policies associated with that leader, supporters treat the mythology as if it is a disproof by counter-example. What's really happening then is that Faith is being mistaken for empirical data.

Even before the dire physical ailments of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías became apparent, his base of supporters had discernibly eroded as the consequences of substituting administration for markets became harder not to see in the specific experience of Venezuela and as, yet again, a socialist regime increasingly moved to forceably silence critics rather than to meet their criticism in open debate. But, if Chávez were to die, then those concerns would be played-down; and, no matter what happened in Venezuela after his death, a mythology would be constructed about how Chávez would, after all, have brought-about a Golden Age for Venezuela, for large parts of Latin America, perhaps for the Third World more generally. In effect, the Hugo Chávez Who Would Have Lived would be treated as-if an empirical disproof of any argument against sorts of socialism that would come to be associated with Chávez.

The world would be better-off without belief in that mythological Chávez. For the long-run sake of the world, I've been hoping that Chávez would bounce-back, retake the helm, and continue to run Venezuela into the ground. (I'd agree that having Venezuela run into the ground even once would be awful, but having it and other nations run into the ground repeatedly by a string of imitators seems worse. And, if Chávez were to die, one imagines that his successors would run Venezuela into the ground anyway.)

Well, it seems that Chávez is not going to bounce-back; perhaps he's going to die. But, if so, he's taking a rather long time about it. And, at least, pretty much anything short of suddenly dying undermines the effectiveness of mythologizing. That's not how it would work if this mythologizing were rational — the Leader Who Would Have Been would have moved across the stage every bit as heroically if not for senile dementia or if not for a crippling stroke as he or she would have if not for an assassin's bullet. But the matter is in the first place very much one of irrational fantasizing. Making matters worse for mythologizers of Chávez, his lieutenants, jockeying for as much power as they might have in any case, insist that Chávez is still calling the important shots; his departure would thus be less sharply defined.

Even if Chávez bounces-back rather completely, we'll still get some mythologizing — just as there will be a mythology of what President Obama Would Have Done had he had an deferential majority in Congress for eight years — but the world may be spared the sort of mythology that would have developed had Chávez died on the operating table on 11 December.

Fourteenth Amendment Re-Redux

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Perhaps I'm a Constitutional hipster, in-so-far as I was talking about section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment before it was cool to do so. After it had become cool, I felt moved to explain

[The Fourteenth Amendment] is indeed [the law that empowers the President to increase the ceiling] — where the only way not otherwise in violation of the Constitution to pay debt that has come due is to borrow beyond the existing limit. If the debt can be paid in some other way, then no special authority can be found for the President in section 4.

[…] The President doesn't get to say that he or she must raise the limit to continue funding institutions to which he or she can apply profound and moving terms, unless those institutions are indeed Constitutionally mandated.

With talk of the President raising the borrowing limit by decree again heating-up, I feel moved to labor aspects of what I'd earlier explained.

As debt comes due, for which sufficient funding has not been allocated, the Federal government can do one or more of five things:

  • Default.
  • Increase tax collections.
  • Decrease other expenditures to allocate more revenue for debt service.
  • Liquidate assets.
  • Engage in new borrowing to service the debts from previous borrowing.
Advocates of the President raising the ceiling by decree want to pretend that the Constitutional prohibition of the first of these five options empowers the President to effect the last of these options by decree. But there would be three other options; it is appropriate to ask why the President wouldn't instead be required to choose one or more of the other three.

And, if a decision must be made amongst some or all of the four options not prohibitted by section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is not evident that it is the President's decision to make, even if the Congress will not. In the absence of Constitutional guidance, there is no apparent reason that abdicated legislative responsibility should go to the executive branch as opposed to the judicial branch.

Lying Liars

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Without some basis in fact — without at least a basis in the recognized structure of reality on some general level — fiction would instead be gibberish. And most fiction involves considerable factual elements — it describes a familiar world and may even involve passing reference to specific, familiar, real-life persons. Some fiction makes more than passing reference.

Satire normally involves more literal truth than does ordinary fiction. because some element of the real-world is a target,[1] perhaps for purposes of commentary or perhaps merely as an opportunity for absurdity.

Harlan Ellison has sometimes asserted that he might be called a paid liar. He does, after all, state things as if they were true that he knows to be false. But his fiction doesn't quite fit the ordinary notion of lying. Under this notion, to lie is to make a statement which one knows to be false, and to make it with intent to deceive. Ellison makes false statements, but presumably expects his readers to identify the fiction as such, and hence not to be deceived. Backing-up, the key is not merely that the false statement is presented in just any way as if true, but in a manner that one might hope and expect to be presuasive. Even if we should insist that any statement that one knows to be false would constitute a lie, clearly there is an important difference between willfully false statements which are hoped to mislead and those which are expected to be treated as falsehoods.

Sometimes the author of fiction relies upon immediate context to indicate the work as fiction — the work is wrapped (as by the label novel). In other cases, the content is sufficiently at odds with expectations that it would not be believed by anyone with at least an ordinary degree of rationality.

Satiregenuine satire — reveals its fictional content, as distinct from its factual content, in that the fictional component is presented to amuse by violating established expectations, while the non-fictional component does not itself seem an attempt to be funny.

Unfortunately, this convention, like many social institutions, is not consciously discerned by most of those who rely upon it, and that lack of awareness creätes an opportunity to use ostensible satire as a vehicle for deception. If one insinuates false-yet-unamusing assertions within a work, these may be taken as part of the factual component by a large share of the audience. If someone should protest that false statements are being presented as fact, that someone can be dismissed as ignoring that the work be satirical. (This dismissal will be more effective if the work also has falsehoods that few would take seriously.) Few people will be positioned to respond that genuine satire does not present deliberate falsehood as fact is presented. And so purported satire becomes a vehicle for deliberately false statements made with the intent to deceive. Lying is labelled satire, and ordinary defenses fail against it.

The use of ostensible satire to lie has been very popular since the rise of the Baby Boom Generation. But it's not as if one can give a public lecture on how to lie in this manner without undermining the device. In consequence, a lot of people are using it to lie without quite understanding how and why it works; others, more oblivious, have concluded that all these falsehoods really have been amusing, and imagine that when they too string-together falsehoods, these must likewise be amusing.

Yester-day and to-day, there was a fiasco on the American political left. First, Roger Simon made what seems an attempt to satirize the circumstances of Paul Ryan. The attempt was perhaps sincere, but it's hard to find much funny in it. And it was taken to be mostly factual by some of Simon's own tribe, including various prominent members. Tobin Harshaw is blaming this confusion on the literalism of Americans, but the primary cause is not so much literalism as it is the degeneration of the concept of satire.

(Of course, I expect those on the left who believed Simon's claims to attempt to excuse themselves by claiming that the political right has become so absurd that it is practically impossible to tell fact from fiction.)

[1] The real thing satirized may be a story or idea of something that is itself unreal; but, without some real referent (such as a story or idea), one does not have satire.