Current Affairs – US

I had an interesting conversation with a prospective client yesterday as part of my day job.
Their IT service vendors are unable to meet some of their requirements for staffing IT delivery projects at present, because the suspension of fast-track visa processing means that they cannot quickly bring any new resources into the USA from elsewhere in the world.
This seems to be happening all over the place, from other conversations i have held this week with work colleagues. Fast Track visa processing is on hold, and renewals of current visas are being denied. I know of one IT consultant at one of my previous clients whose H1B visa expires in August and is not being renewed, so he is going to have to move his family back to India and go back there in August to find work.
Now, I know that some people are sitting there thinking “good, that means more jobs for US workers”, but it’s not as simple as that. There are two factors that work together to make this a significant issue
1. Right now, the bench for some IT skills in the USA is weak to non-existent. A lot (and I mean a LOT) of experienced IT people are currently retiring, they are part of the Baby Boomer generation. Many of them are genuinely old enough and have enough money in the bank to retire, and a lot of them are burned out and ground down by 10+ years of slash-and-burn by IT departments. The retiring people have 20-30 or more years of experience, and they will not be easy to replace. Anecdotally, I have around 220 names on my Skype Contacts list internally. I know of at least 3 people who have retired in the last 9 months off of that list. While retirements might improve my job security, the current SNAFUs on immigration and visa processing will negatively impact corporations in the USA. There aren’t the people out there in a working age bracket ready to step in and provide help.
2. The commodity mindset for IT services is well-established, even for people-based delivery. Corporations have been buying on price for a while. If the Indian “pure plays”, who currently have tens of thousands of people here in the USA on (mostly) H1b visas, run into visa issues, they will go to Plan B. Plan B will consist of them moving most of those people back to India, from which they will still hire them out to US corporations, only this time cheaper. The corporations will bite. Hell, they would hire penguins in Antarctica if it looked like a good deal.
(2) has negative consequences that go beyond the non-re-appearance of IT jobs. The people who leave the USA , who were all employed and paying taxes and spending money, will no longer be doing either, so the GDP and tax revenues of the USA will be impacted, as will service industry businesses.


Replacement bill for PPACA introduces new charging system

Washington DC, 7th March 2017 – The replacement bill for the PPACA, announced today by the Republican Party, includes a radical overhaul of the charging structure for US healthcare.
Under the terms of the bill, all charges on all estimates and bills for healthcare in the USA after the bill becomes law will be denominated in IPU – iPhone Units.
“iPhones are now the preferred measure of the wealth of the poor” commented Rep. Jason Chaffetz at a press conference given to announce the publication of the bill. “If the wealthy poor always compare healthcare costs to iPhones, by God, we intend to make it easier than ever for them to work out the cost of healthcare”.
Asked if Apple might object to their brand name being used without permission to name a charging structure like this, Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, was blunt. “Apple has a nice business in the USA, be a shame if something was to happen to it” he said, winking at the questioner. He continued, “they have a lot of cash that they want to bring back to the United States, and I am sure that they will be amenable to a quid pro quo for the use of this name”.


Graham Statement Of The Obvious – Healthcare bullshit

If a Republican politician, when discussing healthcare, utters the phrase “access to healthcare”, activate your bullshit detector.
What you are listening to is most likely going to consist of sophistry and doublespeak. The context in which it is usually used is a statement along the lines of “we will ensure that every American has access to healthcare”.
The phrase, in that context, is bullshit. Everyone of us has access to healthcare. As long as we can pay for it…
The weasel word “affordable” is also cause for one hand to be on the bullshit detector. “Affordable” for a millionaire Congresscritter is not “affordable” for an unemployed factory worker in Upper Podunk.
Pay attention to the weasel words, folks. The GOP had no plan for replacing the ACA, and the weasel words are a positioning game to create confusion and buy time.


Don Quixote legislation attempts aka Virtue Signalling

A significant percentage of the cockanamie, likely unconstitutional legislation that is proposed almost daily by the censorious nitwit wing of the GOP is what I call Don Quixote legislation.
The people floating the legislation often have not bothered to draft them properly, and may not even have considered all of the implications of the proposed bills (this is probably why at one point the state of Texas proposed marriage protection legislation that, absent any different interpretation by the courts, could have outlawed heterosexual marriage. Personally I think the state should not be in the business of setting rules for marriage other than that the parties to the marriage are capable of informed consent, but that’s because on these any many other matters I am a libertarian).
The proposers of these bills know full well that they are unlikely to (a) ever make it into law, and (b) if they make it into law they will most likely soon be struck down by one or more courts.
They don’t care about these practical items. Their purpose is not really to get the half-baked cockanamie bill or bills passed into law. Their purpose is virtue signalling. They are saying to their base, for example “look, I know you’re terrified about perversion of The Children, and you’re for tough legislation against those three-legged trisexual perverts using the bathroom, so I just tabled the Unbelieavabubble Three-LeggedTrisexual Bathroom Bill”.
Virtue signalling is a no-lose tactic. If, by some bizarre series of events or miracles, the Unbelievabubble Three-Legged Trisexual Bathroom Bill makes it into law, they get to say to their base “look, I came through for you”. If the bill dies in committee (which is where most bad bills go to die), then they get to say to their base “look, I tried”.
If the bill makes it into law and gets struck down, they get to say to the base “see, here we go again – unelected judges legislating from the bench again – Please Send Money”.
If you want an excellent contemporary example of virtue signalling at national level, you can examine how the GOP, after gaining control of the House of Representatives in 2012, proceeded, over a 4 year period, to schedule at least 57 separate votes to repeal the PPACA. The votes were purely symbolic, a total waste of House time, and our taxpayer dollars, but they were a means of signalling to the GOP base that the party was Deadly Serious about repealing what they named “Obamacare”.
There is no downside to this form of political masturbation for the person doing the virtue signalling.


Donald Trump is the Electoral College President

Donald Trump is the Electoral College President.
He was elected by the Electoral College 304-227. This is the 46th largest winning margin ever out of 56 elections where there was a clear result. So calling it a “landslide” is bullshit on both raw numerical and ranking grounds.
Donald Trump gained 46.1% of the popular vote compared to 48.2% for Hillary Clinton. So he did not win a majority of votes cast.
A total of 26% of eligible voters voted for Donald Trump.
If anybody attempts to argue that Trump voters are the “silent majority”, ask them how they can explain this using math. You might want to go get some popcorn and sodas to keep your body busy while you wait for a coherent logical answer.


The pointless search for a redemption narrative in President Trump’s speech

One thing I noticed a long long time ago when I first came to the USA was that people here (and by extension, the media) love a redemption narrative.
The steps in the story are utterly predictable:

– Individual with a good (in some cases, virtuous) public profile either starts to behave publicly like a total dick, or crazy person, or is discovered to be secretly behaving badly.
– Individual is excoriated, body-slammed by the internet, the media etc. and suffers various negative consequences, up to and including loss of liberty, bankruptcy etc. etc.
– Individual suddenly changes behavior, often accompanied by ostentatious public displays of new-found virtue.
– Media and public acclaim reformed behavior of individual and praise said individual to the heavens
– Everybody pats themselves on the back and lives happily ever after.

This is the sort of arc of crash followed by redemption that some celebrities and public figures in the USA follow all of the time.
Somewhere in there, God and Jesus Christ often figure prominently. If I could have a dollar for every time I have seen a fallen-but-now-trying-to-rise individual claiming to have “found God”, I would be writing this posting from Bora Bora instead of Pennsvylvania.
This feel-good narrative cliche is relentlessly promoted by the media, who love a “bad person made good” story. It is also immensely satisfying on an emotional level for believers in simplistic good vs. bad morality tales.
The problem is that in their eagerness to find examples of this narrative, just about everybody ignores substance and becomes fixated on style.
Which brings us to the speech by President Trump last night.
It seems that, for a change, he not only had somebody write out his speech in advance, but he actually stuck to it, and did not veer off-script and into his favorite habit of speaking off the cuff, blurting out all sorts of peripheral comments, allegations and promises. Of course, this meant that he had to stick to the text on the teleprompter.
Some media commentators have been acclaiming his speech as somehow indicative of his “being Presidential”, “growing into the job”, “pivoting” etc.
Pardon me while I burst out laughing.
One thing that I notice immediately about all of these praising cliches is that they say almost nothing about substance. They are all about style and perception.
Style and perception are, as the words themselves should make clear, not in any way connected to substance.
One of the easy-to-spot endemic weaknesses in US electorates, obvious to anybody who grew up outside the USA, but seemingly and puzzlingly non-obvious to people born in the USA, is a fixation on style as an indicator of substance. I have lost count of the number of times that I heard people complimenting Ronald Reagan for “acting Presidential” or “behaving like a President”. (The cynic in me always wanted to yell “Of course he can act Presidential, he was a ****ing B-movie actor!” but my British DNA forbade me to utter that).
My take-away from these comments is that it is not enough for Americans that their President actually, you know, be the President and do all of the things that Presidents are supposed to do. He or she actually is also required to “look Presidential”.
This probably helps to explain why, given the choice between a competent but unexciting Democrat (Gray Davis) and an action-hero actor (Arnold Schwartzenegger) for the Governorship of California, a majority of electors voted for “The Governator” – more than once. Quite clearly, style won out over substance, at least the first time around. (Schwartzenegger actually turned out to be an OK governor, but one can quite easily make the right choices in life for the wrong reasons).
In Donald Trump, the electoral college elected as President a man whose entire public life has been based on relentless, narcissistic self-promotion. He had no experience in politics whatsoever; however, unlike more weaselly and equally dishonest fake insurgents like Ted Cruz, who had spent decades in Texas politics, Donald Trump could plausibly and truthfully claim to be “not a politician”, which was definitely part of his appeal.
The problem with a “not a politician” candidate being elected to a political post is that the system around you, a political system (with all of the good, bad and ugly that this entails) expects you to operate within it, not outside it. This is especially true of the US President, whose role is deliberately constrained by the Constitution in order to avoid the “Great Dictator” result that crippled European countries. The President has relatively little direct power, most of the power is “soft”power such as patronage. The idea that Donald Trump espoused of “blow the system up” is not one that he could put into practice alone. He needed willing collaborators, who would be difficult to find, since once they get into office, most politicians realize that the system as it currently works is the source of nearly all power. They will be about as enthusiastic about blowing up the system as fish would be about having their river drained.
Donald Trump, since taking office, probably believing way too much of his “blow the system up” rhetoric, has ostentatiously and publicly tried to govern without reference to any of the norms of Presidenting. Those include (but are not limited to) asking for and listening to advice, keeping your mouth shut until you actually know about something, not trying to undermine your own government departments in public, and not pissing off other countries and their leaders.
Then there is the expectation that the President will at least make a good-faith effort to be truthful in public pronouncements.
Donald Trump has been unable or unwilling to do any of these things. As a result the first 45 days of his presidency have been a total train-wreck, which is not only profoundly disturbing to people in the USA (outside of his supporters, who probably regard most of the recent outcomes as a feature, part of the “smash the system” impacts), but also deeply unsettling to the rest of the world.
Which brings us back round to…Trump’s speech last night. Not only did he speak from a teleprompter (which would be something hardly worth commenting about, were it not for his past refusal to use one, and the fact that when Barack Obama used one, the GOP pissed and moaned about it like he had committed some cardinal sin), but he seemingly was able to get to the end without either crashing and burning, or veering off into the weeds.
One would think that this is a pretty low bar for a public official to clear. What could be simpler? Read it in advance, get the delivery right, run though in private, fine-tune, go to the House, deliver it. No questions from those damn media assholes afterwards, just go home, watch the highlights on TV.
However, to read the media, it seems that Donald Trump did not so much cleat the bar with the speech as hit it out of the park. Apparently he is now a reformed man, a True President who not only is The President, but looks the part.
Folks, this is horseshit.
Donald Trump, when you take away the brownie points for, you know, sticking to the script, said nothing that was in any way superior to anything he has previously said in public. The speech was the usual collection of falsehoods, pious-sounding appeals for “unity” and “co-operation”, and deeply duplicitous promises totally at odds with recent actions.
Yet the media thinks he is in some way reformed.
Either the media commentators saying this are hopelessly gullible, or they have been ingesting some mind-altering substance that I do not want to ever ingest.
A focus on style over substance is fatal to any attempt at honest appraisal of actions or success. Looking Presidential is not enough. Ronald Reagan looked presidential, yet he ran up the deficit terribly, was a dangerously hands-off leader, and was regarded by the rest of the world (but not by the oblivious US) as a failed B-Movie actor who lucked into the job, rather than a President who happened to have been an actor.
When Donald Trump really changes, as in, he stops behaving most of the time like an out-of-control halfwit asshole, I will start believing claims that he has changed. Until then, all of this back-patting is total flim-flam which further erodes the very limited remaining credibility of the media.


Media and press conferences

Just a reminder about the current row over media access to White House press conferences.
First, a question. When did you last see a press conference that was in any way revelatory? As in, some truly interesting information was revealed?
You’re probably scratching your head trying to remember.
Press conferences are not communication sessions. They are mostly performance art. Whoever is at the lectern spends most of their time attempting to send messages without revealing much of anything. The audience (the media) spends most of its time trying to trap or trip up the person at the lectern. It can be entertaining, but it’s seldom valuable news.
Secondly, think back to Watergate. Bernstein and Woodward did not uncover all of the various threads of malfeasance by going to press conferences and attending briefings. They rolled up their sleeves and did a lot of old-fashioned investigation, slowly connecting the dots on a conspiracy involving illegal behavior and deception.
The media does not need press conferences. They are nothing more than an age-old Punch and Judy show, and my cynical take is that many political leaders use them as a distraction. My rule of governance is “always look behind the curtain”. I think the mass media would be a lot more impactful and credible if they blew off press conferences and off the record briefings in favor of investigative journalism. It’s been out of fashion for a long time because it costs money and takes time. However, if you want to really understand what is going on behind the scenes in the US government, which is horrendously complex, there are no short cuts.


Authoritarian asshole behavior under the Trump regime

When you tell a group of government employees dominated by authoritarians that they have carte blanche to do what they think is right to Make The Country Safe, you are going to find that some of them abuse their power.
I don’t know why people are surprised at any different outcome.
Here are some of the incidents involving reasonably well-known people trying to enter or pass through the USA in the last 2 weeks:

1. an Australian children’s author
2. a retired UK professional soccer player
3. the son of Muhammad Ali
4. A world-renowmed expert on the Holocaust, held for 10 hours and then deported.
5. A British schoolteacher, denied entry
6. The former Prime Minister of Norway

All of these people have been detained and aggressively questioned on landing in the USA. In practical terms, they were treated like something that you and I would scrape off the bottom of your shoe.
At the same time, numerous people have been arbitrarily detained (and in one case, a seriously ill person was removed from a hospital) by the ICE. They even managed to detain a US Citizen for 3 days.
If you are unable to understand how godawfully assholish this makes the USA look as a country, you need to engage your brain a lot better.
There is a special place in my version of Hell for all authoritarian assholes. However, this is what supporters of Donald Trump should have known that they were voting for. All of the signs were there that he was a narcissistic, thin-skinned asshole. Narcissists want to be dictators. It’s part of the core pathology. If you voted for Donald Trump, you were voting to put an asshole in charge of the Executive Branch. If you are starting to be surprised at some of the outcomes, well, you should have been paying a lot more attention last year.
So, until there is a change in priorities and attitudes, we can expect to see more arbitrary and capricious persecution by CBP, DHS and ICE, and there will be a steady diet of stories about people being treated badly.
This will, before long, have a major impact on the image of the USA abroad. I am expecting a significant impact in tourism. Why is a non-citizen going to get on a plane to the USA, knowing that they might be treated like a piece of shit when they arrive here?
UPDATE – The asshole behavior is already having an impact on artists and creative people. Charlie Stross, the UK sci-fi author, is canceling his future trips to the USA for the latter half of 2017.


The confusion over the phrase “identity politics”

For some time now, people have been criticizing the Democratic Party for focussing on what is termed “identity politics”. The implication is that the party would have stood a much better chance of winning local and national elections if it did not.
However, when I look at how people making this argument seem to be defining “identity politics”, I am forced to conclude that the argument is over-simplistic and is rooted in a misuse of language.
The working definition of “identity politics” that people making the argument seem to be using is what they consider to be an unwise focus by the Democratic Party on disadvantaged groups such as gay, bisexual and trans-sexual people, minorities etc. They seem to think that trying to ensure that these groups are not disadvantaged is bad for the party because it avoids the party having to address issues affecting much larger numbers of people such as rural unemployed. They also think that the focus on (for example) gay rights pisses off religious people and makes them less likely to support the Democratic Party.
At least two of those arguments have some merit. Yes, the focus on disadvantaged minorities is going to mean nothing to economically disadvantaged folks in the Heartland. If you are struggling to make enough money to survive in a rural part of the USA, gay rights is this weird thing that has no meaning to you and that you are unlikely to give a rat’s ass about.
It is probably true that gay rights will piss off many Christians. However, as a person who believes that human rights are not negotiable and should not even be put to a vote, I do not care much whether ensuring that gay and trans-sexual people enjoy equal treatment under the law pisses off anybody or any group. They can be pissed off as much as they like, but I don’t care unless they try to organize to prevent equal rights from being granted. At that point I will be working to prevent them from succeeding, since they have no damn business doing that.
My view on this space is that there are two types of political and policy messaging that mainstream parties engage in:

1. Identity messaging
This speaks to the worldview and values that the parties embody

2. Policy messaging
This speaks to the detailed ways in which the parties try to govern

Identity messaging is an area that the Republican Party excels in, and where the Democratic Party is inconsistent, and mostly poor. If you want an example from the last election cycle, compare “Make America Great Again” to “I’m with Her”. One sounds uplifting and aspirational, the other sounds almost apologetic.
Policy messaging is where the Democratic Party is stronger. The Democratic Party is stuffed full of people who, in a sort of dismissive way, get called “policy wonks”.
Identity messaging is more important for major elections, since elections require parties to bring as many non-core supporters to the polls as possible. All of the evidence shows that people vote values, not policies most of the time – emotions are based on values, and people’s emotions are activated and engaged by values-based messaging.

When GOP partisans refer to “Real Americans”, that is identity-based messaging writ large. They are implying (because they are careful to not explicitly say it, then they don’t have to deny or explain it) that they represent a group of people who are the Real Americans, and other parties, by implication, must therefore be representing people who are not Real Americans. That is a form of messaging that, for me, fits the definition in the phrase “Identity Politics” far better than the messaging that the Democratic Party does. Ditto other variants like “true Conservative” and “Patriot”. This, by the way, is deeply divisive and exclusionary messaging. It is one of the main reasons why I want absolutely nothing to do with the GOP in its current form.
When the Democratic Party talks about passing legislation to ensure that gay and transgender people are not discriminated against, this is not primarily Identity Politics. It is policy messaging, but it flows from the idea that all people really should have equal rights, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation. Is it “Identity Politics” like the use of the phrase “real Americans”? Only incidentally.
If the criticism of the Democratic Party is that it should be doing more to address marginalized and disadvantaged heartland voters, then that is a valid criticism. However, this is not a binary scenario. The Democratic Party can work to advance and protect civil rights in all parts of the country, and also fight for the interests of economically disadvantaged rural people. I would argue that it’s failure to do the latter allowed the GOP, using the Identity Politics and messaging approach, to convince many of those voters that GOP cares for them (the GOP doesn’t give a damn about them. Donald Trump may well want to help them, but no policy that reduces business profits is going to get past the GOP in the House and the Senate, so those people waiting for lots of jobs to appear in rural America are likely to be disappointed).
So, my conclusion on this use of “Identity Politics” as criticism of the Democratic Party is that it is a mis-use of language. If any political party is using Identity Politics, it is the Republican Party. Quite simply, they are better at it, and have been better for decades. This is the basis of George Lakoff’s perennial complaints about Democratic Party messaging.


Spotting timewasters on the internets

As I move through life, I have had to learn to apply rapid evaluation techniques to conversations, comments, postings and arguments on the internet to determine if the conversation is worth getting involved in.
There are a few basic rules that I apply when parsing writings in order to make that determination. The presence of one or more of the following is likely to send me in the direction of Away.
1. Use of juvenile ad hominems in the first sentence.
If you have a decent argument, you don’t need to try and diminish the person you are in dialogue with. This is a dead giveaway that you are not remotely interested in a good-faith discussion, and instead you are just trying to piss on people
2. Capitalization of WORDS OR SENTENCES
For some reason, people with defective weak or non-existent arguments always seem to think that if they capitalize certain words in a sentence, it magically endows those words with significance or gravitas. It doesn’t. When I see that, i automatically activate my bullshit detector, since it invariably means I am now reading something that is mostly or entirely nonsense
3. Use of “air quotes” or other sneering devices such as “so-called”
Another tell that you are engaging in juvenile sneering. Discussions are for adults, not children.
4. The use of slogans and other forms of word salad
I am usually able to discern rather quickly whether commenters spend too much time watching TV or listening to talk radio. Talk radio fans always argue in slogans, because that is how many talk radio hosts talk. It’s the verbal equivalent of argument by meme (see below). Slogans are not arguments, and linking multiple slogans together merely shows an ability at rote cut-and-paste, not the ability to construct useful commentary.
5. Argument using memes
If a posting relies on a meme and not much else, my conclusion is that the person does not have the time or enthusiasm to bring their own voice into the conversation, but instead is borrowing slogans from somebody else. In that case, why would I bother to waste my time?