Monthly Archive: February 2017

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.

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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.

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The supposed Fox News “Swedish Defense Expert” and other bullshit

Yesterday I found a posting on my Facebook wall alleging all sorts of horrible events in Europe being executed or fomented by Muslims.
The person doing the posting did not realize how much of those allegations have little or no basis in fact. I have been monitoring some of the allegations on an off since last Fall, and almost every time I find that they originate in dystopian echo chambers and comprise uncritical re-posting of allegations from another web site that are both unsourced and unverified.
Since Donald Trump’s fantasy-land BS outbreak about Sweden last week, the US media outlets that support him have been fishing for information to back up his oddball statements, given that the remarks were, quite correctly, ridiculed.
So…the other day Fox News wheeled out a “Swedish defense expert” to issue some apocalyptic warnings about Sweden.
Except that…the guy is not a defense expert except in his own mind, and he even has criminal convictions in the USA. Either Fox News was totally fooled by this charlatan, or they knew he was a bullshitter and put him on air anyway.
Most of this light heat and sound about Europe has no credibility. There are refugee and assimilation issues in Europe. However, the Fox News worldview has, for the last 20+ years, rested on portraying Europe as a socialist hellhole afflicted with all manner of social problems. (Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous jibe about “Old Europe” after 9/11 rested to some extent on the same worldview).
The view, cartoonish in its simplicity, is then contrasted with the Mighty USA, shining city on the hill, beacon of Freedom yada yada. In neither case is a shred of evidence advanced to support the viewpoint. This, folks, is bullshit propaganda, nothing more.

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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.

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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?

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Today’s round-up – 1st February 2017

1. Thinking of trying populist economics? Not so fast
Economic populism as practiced by governments has a long history. Many governments have tried to insulate their countries from economic realities by all manner of avoidance tactics and strategies, including price control, tariffs, financial import and export controls, and, if all else fails, printing of money to perpetuate the illusion of liquidity.
As this paper analyzing the results of populism in Latin America shows, most of these measures do not work in the medium-term.

2. The illusion that trade deals are bad for the USA and that the USA can do something about it
Another rhetorical flush that Donald Trump played consistently in his campaign was to claim that most of the bilateral and multilateral trade deals that the USA has with other countries and trading blocs are really bad deals. In the typical blustery braggadocio of the deal-maker, Trump promised to renegotiate those deals and get a better outcome for the USA.
Umm…no. This article explains why some of those deals were actually quite good deals for the USA at a time when the USA had a lot more economic leverage than it currently has. The USA will find that re-opening these deals will result in worse outcomes for the USA, unless Donald Trump is thinking of upping the ante by sending over the carrier groups, or some other form of threats. That would not be a good thing. The world economy does not like uncertainty.

3. So President Trump just claimed to have negotiated down the cost of the F-35 program? Yes, sure he did
The POTUS is apparently claiming credit for a $600m cut in the cost of the next batch of F-35 planes. Remember that this was a project he was distinctly uncomplimentary about a few months ago. Now, in addition to claiming the credit for the cost reduction, he now says it is a great program.
Which is a summary of multiple layers of uttered POTUS bullshit. As the article explained. The planes were always going to cost less.

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the siren song “Buy American” and the reality

One of the refrains by Donald Trump and many of his supporters (as part of the proposed actions to Make America Great Again) was “buy American”.
When i read this being used as a phrase, i smiled inwardly and outwardly.
I understand the sentiment, particularly if you are of the worldview that your country is The Best. If it is The Best, why would you buy anything not made here?
However, the reality is going to win out every time over this fine-sounding phrase.
When i was growing up in the UK, it was a period where the British Empire had essentially disappeared, first gradually, then more rapidly. The United Kingdom had walked away from it, or given away most of it since it had become clear that it could not afford to police it or defend it any more following World War II. The UK was essentially bankrupted by that war.
The loss of Empire was jarring for many people, especially ex-military people. After all, we had seen off that nasty Mr. Hitler, so why could we not keep these damn countries in line?
Out of the overall national angst, in the middle of a period of poor UK economic performance in 1968 (the UK essentially had no foreign currency reserves, because the Pound was overvalued, being pegged to the Dollar), five secretaries in a London suburb volunteered to work an extra half hour a day to help the country.
Thus was born the “I’m backing Britain” campaign.
The campaign soon expanded beyond working unpaid time (an idea that was swiftly torpedoed by the trades unions, whose interests were diametrically opposed to this idea, they wanted people to work less hours for MORE money), to the idea that people should “buy British”.
However, like all grass-roots campaigns, it was soon surrounded by would-be hijackers, including newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, who was soon embarrassed (this is going to sound familiar) when his “I’m Backing Britain” t-shirts were found to have been made…not in the UK.
The campaign even had a theme song. (WARNING – You may be about to enter the cringe zone).
I sat and watched as the campaign started, soared, stuttered spluttered, and fizzled out within a space of about 3 months. Within a year almost everybody had forgotten about it, or did not even want to be reminded of it. Mentions of it would result in comments along the lines of “nice weather we have today”.
The reality was that at the time Britain was being flooded by cheap imported goods from a host of other countries, led by Hong Kong, as other countries began to industrialize and found that they could make finished consumer goods cheaper than UK companies. Steel cutlery, for example, used to be supplied almost exclusively from Sheffield in northern England, but by the end of the 1960s the Sheffield steel industry was becoming a historical footnote, as most of the steel cutlery was being supplied from overseas. It was part of the beginning of de-industrialization in the UK.
One of the contributory factors to the total failure of I’m Backing Britain was that for it to be successful (at least the “Buy British” part) it required consumers in the UK to be willing to pay more for domestically-produced goods. That is the sort of requirement that most people do not want to meet, particularly if they have a limited budget. The only way to ensure that people buy domestic goods is by government rigging the market, using some combination of price controls and tariffs on imported goods. The government in the UK was not prepared to do that.
I therefore remain enduringly cynical that any campaign based on the slogan “buy American” will not succeed at the street level in the USA. Consumers are not going to reduce their standard of living in order to buy US-made goods.

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