Monthly Archives: May 2017

Upside Down Politics

We humans are a disagreeable bunch. Put two of us together and give us the job of making a decision that’s binding on both and sooner rather than later you’ve got an argument. What movie to watch, what pizza toppings to order, what color curtains to buy, whatever the issue at hand we’ll find a way to bang heads about it. And that’s just two of us. Imagine trying to split hairs among 320 million opinions on really important stuff like tax rates, social security, and access to healthcare.

Luckily for us we have a specialized set of institutions to handle these big collective conflicts. That’s basically all a representative democratic system is, just a big conflict management mechanism. That mechanism has worked pretty well in the United States, repeatedly showing itself strong enough to handle Defcon Level Three magnitudes of dissent without the wheels coming off.  Sure, there’s plenty of sturm and drang during election season, and ample rations of finger pointing and policy caterwauling by opposing political teams in between full-on ballot box clashes. In the normal course of things, no big deal. Democratic systems swallow  differences, masticate them into the bitter paste of compromise, and digest them into a painful legislative bowel movement. Everyone agrees that the end result stinks, but, boy, it sure makes everyone feel better.

That process works best, though, when disagreement takes a particular form. Take any given policy issue—gun control, taxes, education, welfare, whatever—and imagine different preferences on what the government should do about that issue. Take gun control as an exemplar. The range of opinions on gun control is massive. On one end is the firm belief that government should not regulate guns at all, that the only thing standing between us and jack- booted totalitarian dystopia is Uncle Fester and his private stash of military-grade weaponry. On the other end is the equally firm belief that Uncle Fester is a nut bag. He’s not making anyone safer, including himself. His concealed shooter will never bag the baddies of his fevered Chuck Norris delusions, but there’s a decent chance it’ll blow off his own butt cheek while he’s dropping trou in the Walmart crapper. For folks on this end of the spectrum, the government should control access to things that go bang very tightly, maybe even regulate them out of existence.

In between those two extremes there’s a lot of room for degrees of difference, a sort of gun regulation policy dial with multiple settings. I’m not suggesting that any one of those settings is better than the other, I’m just saying consider what that big range of opinions looks like.  Because the distribution of preferences on gun control, or any other issue, can take on very different shapes. And that shape helps determine how, or even if, our democratic institutions can handle our disagreements on that issue. What political scientists would consider a nicely behaved shape would look something like this:

This is a normal curve, and in reality a lot of policy preferences (and a lot else in the world) roughly approximate this distribution. If opinions on policy issues look like this in the general population and that distribution of preferences is actually represented in a legislature, then representative democracy is in business. If we take this shape as representing preferences on gun control, on one end of the distribution we’ve got libertarian firearm fetishists and on the other we’ve got fainting daisies who want trigger locks on Nerf guns. Most opinions, though, are piled up in the middle, i.e. most people think guns should be regulated, but not to the point that gun ownership is onerous to the average law abiding citizen. Because that center is where most opinions (and most votes) reside, representative legislatures will naturally gravitate to that as the law making sweet spot.

The problem is that on many issues, that particular distribution of preferences doesn’t exist, at least not as they are represented by legislators. These days most lawmakers are elected to office as tribunes of the right or left, and do not represent the beliefs of the moderate and less ideological center. Well, no worries, our democratic institutions can deal with that. Say we do not have one normal distribution of preferences, but two distinct distributions, one for conservatives/Republicans and another for liberals/Democrats. So the range of opinions we might actually see represented in a legislature look something like this:

 

Here there really isn’t one middle ground, but two. The average conservative lawmaker prefers something fairly distinct from the average liberal lawmaker. Things tend to get a lot more partisan and contentious in this situation, but as long as those two curves have a reasonable amount of overlap a legislature can still converge to a point in between the two sets of average preferences. True, getting there can involve a lot of nasty kicking and screaming. Both sides are more likely to describe the resulting law or policy as snatching bread from the mouths of babes and mothers than a reasonable half-a-loaf. But compromise is still possible. Friction on the democratic gears might be high, but the machine itself grinds on.

That friction gets higher the further those two distributions move apart. In the extreme case the two curves cease to overlap and there’s no middle ground at all. People standing on the extreme tails closest to each other might be able to talk to each other, but the rest of their tribe isn’t going to let their wacko moderates actually build bridges to the other side. In this sort of a situation the democratic machine tends to just lock up.

That’s bad enough, but what we’ve got today is something even worse. On a lot of issues we’ve got upside down politics. Take a look at the first figure and imagine it upside down, something like this:

This inverted normal curve would represent a situation where preferences are split in two and piled up at the extreme ends of the distribution. Not only is there no middle ground between the two sets of preferences, there’s no middle ground on either side. The distribution of preferences now falls into a dichotomy—you’re either with us or against us. Here compromise isn’t the normal price of dealing in democratic politics, it’s surrender. Any attempt to accommodate the other side’s interests represents unforgivable apostasy.

Disagreements characterized by an inverted preference curve are intensely resistant to compromise. This is the politics of first principles, where the other side doesn’t simply have a different point of view, the position they hold is morally repugnant and they must be defeated, not bargained with. Democratic institutions aren’t designed to deal with this, they basically just lock up. The only way to unfreeze the machine is for one side to get a big enough majority to ram its preferences through without any input from the other side. Of course if the other team wins come next election, they’ll ram through exactly the opposite. This can be even worse than a complete lock up because the system is redlining as it lurches from one extreme to the other. At some point the engine will burst a gasket or throw a rod and the whole thing will blow up like my extended mechanical metaphor.

Does this mean there’s no hope for a more civil polity? Hardly. That upside down curve is an uncomfortably accurate description of contemporary policy legislative preferences in Congress and an increasing number of state legislatures. What it doesn’t describe – at least not yet – is the shape of public opinion among the actual electorate. On most issues, peoples’ beliefs still look pretty normally distributed (picture 1), or at most as two reasonably distributed sets of preferences with plenty of overlap (picture 2). So why do we have legislators practicing upside down politics (picture 3)? The simple answer is we let the people on the far end of the distribution pick our legislators. It’s those guys who actually bother to show up in primaries and determine our choices in a general election.

If we want the system to get back to working better then we in the big not-so-ideological middle need to vote in lawmakers who actually represent a reasonable distribution of preferences. Is that likely to happen? Right now I doubt it. But it’s high time the voters threw the system a normal curve.

The New Abnormal

The 44 men elected to serve as chief executive officer of the United States are a bit of a mixed bag.* They range from superlative statesmen (Lincoln, FDR) to mumping mediocrities (Pierce, Dubya), from embodiments of national aspiration (Reagan, Obama) to symbols of national damnation (Hoover, Nixon).  They’ve included everything from paragons of public probity (Washington) to dolly-pronging cad lads congenitally incapable of keeping their plonkers holstered (Clinton, Harding, JFK).

Yet despite all the differences of party, policy, and personal peculiarity, all presidents have, at least until this point, shared a certain a certain deference to the office they occupied. This included respecting the institutional niceties, genuflecting before democratic norms, and generally at least trying to act like they were serious adults doing a serious job. And even if they weren’t serious adults, they at least tried to keep whatever sordid, sleazy, stupid, criminal, or bat shit crazy shenanigans they were up to behind the Oval Office’s tightly drawn curtains.

Then we got Donald J. Trump. He not only gleefully waggles his non compos mentis in front of open windows, he gooses it nekkid across the White House lawn. Just a few months into his administration and the standard norms of the presidency are being abandoned faster than an inconvenient campaign pledge. Trump is giving us a new normal for the presidency, or perhaps more accurately a new abnormal.

A recap of recent events: Trump fired the head of FBI saying it was on the recommendation of the Department of Justice. Then he basically admitted it was because of an FBI investigation into his campaign’s Russia ties. Then he tweeted veiled threats to the agency head he just canned. Then he owned to passing on classified information to a government hostile to the interests of the United States—and doing it in the Oval Office, no less. He also claimed to have invented the phrase “priming the pump” (we’re still trying to get economists jaws off the ground), and told Time he gets two scoops of ice cream while everyone else at the White House table gets one.

Now, in and of itself, nothing in the previous paragraph marks Trump as a particularly precedent-busting president. Plenty of his predecessors racked up impressive records of scandal, silliness, and engaged in stuff that was weird or creepy. Nixon started firing people when they got too close to the truth of Watergate. Reagan had a guy selling missiles to Iran out of the White House basement. Jimmy Carter said he was attacked by a vicious rabbit (seriously). Lyndon Johnson was notorious for—and I’m being quite literal here—willy waving. Johnson called his johnson “jumbo”, which might explain why so many people thought LBJ was such a dick. And, BTW, sorry for phallic theme that seems to be developing here, but it’s sort of inevitable given that the voters keep limiting this club to Y-chromosome carriers. Boys and their toys and all that.

What makes Trump such a harbinger of the new abnormal is not necessarily what he’s done, but how much of it he’s managed to cram into so short a period of time. What makes that paragraph above so cosmically gobsmacking is not that it packs in enough scandal and impropriety, fib and fabrication, and kook and crazy to leave lasting marks on a presidential legacy. It would certainly do that if it was spread out over four-year administration. What marks Trump as different is that all came out within the past twelve days. It’s kind of hard to process. Minds more agile than mine are working overtime to keep pace with the boggle.

And that’s just some of the most recent stuff. The scandals, misfires, gaffes, blunders and general epic levels of ineptness are multiplying faster than Jimmy Carter’s rabbits. Last week The New York Times editorial board put out a list of mortifying presidential precedents Trump has set, which include attacking private citizens on social media, charging an immediate predecessor with criminal activity without providing any evidence, intimidating congressional witnesses, undermining the legitimacy of the judiciary, refusing to release tax returns, engaging in bald ass nepotism, and going golfing most weekends at a staggering cost to the taxpayer. The Times’ list was extensive, but mostly notable for two things. First, it was representative not comprehensive, in other words it left out a lot. Second, the Times’ felt compelled to update it only 48-hours after publishing it because, well, that’s plenty of time for the Trump administration to produce another three or four solid claimants to any catalog of presidential shame.

I know how the Times op-ed scribes feel. In the hour since I started writing this—I completely kid you not—another scandal hit. This was the one about Trump asking the FBI director not to investigate Mike Flynn, the national security adviser pink slipped for fibbing about his contacts with Russian officials. By the time I post this I wouldn’t be surprised if that was old news, a distant three-scandals-ago-memory languishing in the outer reaches of our twitter feeds. To heck with it, though, I’m not even going to try and stay current with the expeditiously moving target of Trump administration peccadillos. I can’t keep up and tallying the crises (plural) de jour isn’t the point.

The point is that in just a few months Trump has sullied the presidency in ways that it took his most nefarious predecessors’ years of dedicated skullduggery to equal. He has literally managed to set the bar so low for presidential behavior that making it through 24-hours without a major shite cyclone is now considered a political win by legislators in his own party. Here’s a selection of quotes from GOP senators made in the past few days: the White house is “in a downward spiral”; Trumps tweets “take us off in a ditch”; the scandals are “Watergate size”; “we could do with a little less drama from the White House; and, my favorite, “can we have a crisis free day? That’s all I’m asking” (respectively Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Susan Collins).

Again, that’s just the Republicans we’re talking about. The Dems are past tut-tuts and disapproving harumphs and ready to get their impeachment on. That it got to this point in less than four months—four freakin’ months—shows just how removed from normal the Trump administration is. Now in fairness, Trump was not elected to be normal, to carry on with politics as usual. But jeez, I don’t think any serious grownup contemplated this. This is less about draining a swamp than sinking into one.

I suppose, though, we all better get used to it. It’s the new abnormal.

*Little known fact: though Trump is officially the 45th president, only 44 dudes have actually had the full Hail to the Chief treatment. Grover Cleveland won election to non-consecutive terms and was technically the 22nd and the 24th president.

 

 

 

Trumpcare Treats the Winner’s Curse

I’m a political centrist receptive to certain conservative arguments, but since big chunks of the Republican Party took the cuckoo train to looney town I’ve had a hard time finding common ground with the GOP. This past week, though, I’ve been surprised to find myself sharing certain attributes with the House Republican caucus on a critically important political issue. To be specific, like most Republicans in that chamber I have neither read the American Healthcare Act of 2017 (ACA) nor do I have an inkling of its real implications.

I’m not surprised I know jack about the ACA. My general impression is that it’s a tangle of bosh and baloney, the sort of legislative sneaky beaky undertaken by partisan bagmen and interest-group special ops. But who knows. It’s a heavy read (full text here) and it’d take days for me to parse out even its broad-stroke ramifications. I can’t be bothered because we professional observers of politics just have too much else on our plates these days. The Trump White House’s typical daily schedule of a morning Twitter calumny, a noon-time peccadillo, the three o’clock scandal, the five o’clock firing, all topped with a busy evening of minions competing for victory in the arch madness bracket, just doesn’t leave us much time for anything else.

So there, I admit I know diddly about ACA except what’s reported in the media, and I’m pretty skeptical about that because I guarantee most of the professional gum-flappers haven’t read the bill either. If you and I lack a full and nuanced understanding of a complicated piece of legislation, though, it’s not supposed to be a big deal. We have tribunes representing our collective interests and they get paid to pay attention to these details on our behalf. So it’s galling in the extreme to discover that scads of them just voted to re-order a sixth of the nation’s economy and adjust the probabilities of millions getting health care coverage without reading any of the fine print or, I’m pretty sure, even the large-print Cliff’s Notes cheater card.

And it really does seem to be the case that many cast votes for this bill while being unburdened by any real understanding of its potential consequences. There was no independent analysis of its costs, no hearings, and it was being heavily amended the night before it was frog marched out onto the House floor for a vote. The ACA was the legislative equivalent of a 300 pound churro and there’s no way anyone choked that down in a few hours. This was never going to end well and it didn’t. Republicans initially took a victory lap, crowing that the ACA was the dog’s bollocks plus a bag of chips. Then reporters started asking all the high-fiving gloaters what was actually in the bill and what did it all mean and the umming, and ahhing began. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that whatever was in the bill, it was at best a half-baked dogs breakfast and almost certainly political kryptonite for the GOP.

Late-night comedians pounced, and the sheer ineptitude of some of the spluttering gas passers who yayed the proposal nearer to law would be funny if the issue wasn’t so serious (here’s John Oliver making the point). A dawning recognition that they’d just dropped themselves into five fathoms of poo sent the Gang that Couldn’t Toot Straight slinking home for recess and hoping voters didn’t notice the stink. The few Republicans brave enough to face their constituents this week got the rotten tomatoes treatment, egged on by Democrats who were busily organizing schadenfreude squads. Most GOP House members just laid low, only mingling with constituents whose sycophancy qualified as a pre-existing condition. As for the rest of the voters, the GOP crew mostly seemed to be hoping they’d suffer a mass attack of convenience amnesia and forget what a colossal cock-up the House just made of things.

Well, good luck with all that. The real question is why did the House Republicans do this? Forget all the bumpf and babble about how the bill is going to be a huge improvement on what we currently have. Outside the House, even most Republicans don’t buy that. Plenty of GOP Senators, for example, are treating the bill the House just handed them like it was the towel used to clean up after an epic case of the bad-churro squits.

Any way you cut it, the ACA is bad press, bad politics, and almost certainly bad policy. Yes, the jury is still out on exactly what the bill costs and how it will shape health care access and delivery, but the uncertainty is mostly about whether it’s merely awful or catastrophically dire. Voters are ticked at House Republicans, pretty much the entire swath of healthcare-related interest groups are ticked at House Republicans, and even Senate Republicans are ticked at House Republicans. It seems puzzling that the majority of an elected legislative chamber would load both barrels, pull the trigger and perforate their lower extremity with such deliberate gusto.

I think the primary reason for the eagerness to commit this self-inflicted wound boils down to a variant of the winner’s curse. To social scientists, the winner’s curse technically describes the tendency of people to overpay in auctions of common value. Roughly translated into actual English, that basically says that people who aren’t fully aware of the value of something (or its cost), tend to bid up its price. This leads to buyer’s regret, the feeling you get after blowing a hole in your wallet on something that turns out not to be the dog’s bollocks and a bag of chips. That’s the winner’s curse.

And that’s what I think House Republicans have on healthcare. Over the past eight or nine years they have ridiculously bid up what they can fork out for a healthcare plan. They’ve argued Obamacare is a disaster that’s failing and that only they can fix the problem and win the nation a shiny new, super-duper most-definitely-not-Obamacare health plan. Complicating their bid was the spreading realization among voters how much they liked at least bits of Obamacare, especially stuff like preventing insurers from denying coverage, requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions, and keeping children on parental coverage into their mid-20s. And the millions who got healthcare thanks to Medicaid expansion definitely want to keep that.

Well, no worries said the Republicans, you can have all that, plus you won’t have to pay for it. That’s a pretty damn high bid and as long as Obama was in the White House the GOP didn’t have to worry about having it called. Then they won. Everything. And having so fervently promised their frothing base how Obamacare was all death panels and socialist overreach, they had to make good on their bid or look like pikers of the highest order. Problem was, all they had to back their bid was the political equivalent of wooden nickels and monopoly money. They had to lay their currency down, of course, burning through pretty much all their political capital to purchase the bill they so desperately wanted. And finally having closed the sale on an Obamacare repeal they now own it. Indeed, as Nancy Pelosi said, they positively “glow in the dark” with it. They are also belatedly starting to realize their shiny new phosphorescent purchase isn’t worth what they paid. In precise political terms its value is diddly and squat.

Carrying that into the next election really is likely to be a curse, one Republicans cast upon themselves by winning.

Swill Me Some Bumbo James Madison

James Madison was a bit of a wuss. He topped out at 5-foot 4-inches and needed the weight of the republic on his shoulders to tip the scales past a hundred pounds. He spoke in a high pitched whisper, had scads of (often imagined) health problems, and could at times be a goody-goody priss.  He once lost an election to the Virginia House of Delegates because he refused to “swill the planters with bumbo,” which in the modern vernacular roughly translates as declining to pick up the tab so the voters can get shitfaced.

Today these sorts of traits probably would preclude a political career. An altitude-challenged cream puff sniffling sotto voce sussurations on democratic theory? That’s not exactly a combination calculated to get the hearts of contemporary voters thumping. And more fool us, because whatever else he lacked Madison incontrovertibly had brains in copious abundance. Buckets of the stuff, great stonking piles of fizzing synapses that through some astonishing act of mental electrolysis kept precipitating republican gold from the feculent solution of politics.

And thank goodness he did, because right now pretty much the only thing standing between us and some of the more dire consequences of unchecked populism are the products of Madison’s fertile IQ factory. Let’s hope the institutional dike that brainiac put up can still hold its water because there’s some serious waves starting to hit the levee. Just this week the president of the United States bashed Congress and/or the Constitution–his splintered syntax left the precise target open to interpretation–as “an archaic system” that is “really bad for the country.” He also declared the government needed “a good shut down.” Gulp.

He also took time out from deprecating the institutions of government to launch another salvo of smoochies at his positional role model, President Andrew Jackson. This isn’t that surprising as, at least in some ways, Jackson was a man after the current president’s own heart. He ran for president as a champion of the average Joe and promising to deal with the “corrupt aristocracy” in Washington, D.C. He mistrusted pretty much all federal agencies and put the lot of them under investigation. He also is remembered for instituting the spoils system, a management method notable for staffing the executive branch with fanboys, toadies and suck-ups rather than people who actually know what the hell they are doing. Anything there sound familiar?

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America author and not a bad sort for a Frenchman, summed up Jackson by saying he craved popularity, leveraged popularity into power, having got power wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it, and ended up doing stuff no one else would dare, including pursuing sulfurous relations with most of the grownups in government and seeking to trample “on his personal enemies, whenever they cross his path, with a facility without example.” Anything there sound familiar?

That brand of politics, the sort practiced by Jackson and Trump, is exactly what Madison was trying to constrain as he labored to blueprint a system of government that, with due revisions and compromises, emerged from a 1787 mega-committee meeting as the Constitution of the United States of America. Believe it or not, the Constitution was specifically designed to create an institutional shield against populism and populist movements. Yep, the idea was to create a government that could take an incoming wave of populism and prevent it from drowning the republic.

Ever wondered why we have no direct election for president? Every wondered why the Senate has such long terms of office? Why such a massive population is represented by only 435 tribunes in the “people’s” House of Representatives? Ever wondered why the Constitution had to be amended to allow direct election of the Senate? Okay, probably not. Luckily for you, though, somebody was thinking about all this stuff before any of those parts of government existed. That dude was (mostly) James Madison.

He knew all too well that populism was a bad idea because in the late eighteenth-century state governments were giving it an enthusiastic try. The result was an economy in the crapper, an armed uprising (Shay’s rebellion) in Massachusetts, and an erosion of competence and comity in the public sphere so severe it threatened to bloom into an existential threat to the nation. Madison knew the likes of Jackson and Trump would come along because voters being voters–read the motto at the top of the page—it was inevitable that mountebanks long on we-the-people canards and short on competence were going to get elected. If you can’t rely on people–and let’s face it, you can’t–government institutions and processes needed to be sound enough to make sure things periodically don’t go smash.

The basic system he came up with was kinda complicated. It has no main spring, and to actually get the ship of state moving requires different people in different parts of the government to be cranking numerous institutional gears in synchronized harmony. That makes it damnably hard for the government to do anything. The upside is that it also makes it hard for one person or party to do anything damnably stupid with government. Madison considered that a fair trade if it gave the populist peacocks plenty of room to flash their tail feathers while preventing them from doing anything too featherbrained.

And for the most part Madison’s system has worked. Yes, all those complicated institutions and processes, and especially the people capable of mastering them, really get the goat of the Jackumps (Trumpsons?) who think running a government is sort of like getting the star turn in The Godfather. Lucky for us, though, those institutions have held. At least, they have so far. The waves coming in these days, though, look kinda scary.

I’m pretty sure the product of Jimmy boy’s nuclear noggin will continue to keep us reasonably safe from both Jackumps and ourselves. Just in case the levee falls, though, I want to go on record now as supporting a revival of swilling the planters with bumbo. I pay attention to government and voters for a living and, goddam, I could really use a drink.