Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 21st, 2017

Worst. Negotiator. Ever.

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Mike Lofgren is an interesting guy: a former Congressional staff member who served on House and Senate budget committes and the author of The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.  He writes in the Washington Monthly:

If there is one thing Donald Trump wants us to know, it’s that he negotiates great deals. He has also been shrilly disdainful of Obama’s foreign policy handiwork, particularly the nuclear agreement with Iran (which, it must be pointed out, involved not just the United States and Iran, but all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany). This, Trump said, was the worst agreement ever, presumably including the 1938 Munich agreement, presupposing he has ever heard of that one. Nothing so criminally naïve as the Iran deal would ever happen on his watch.

Yet it appears that we may be on the road to a diplomatic agreement under President Trump which will make the Iran deal look as if that country had unconditionally surrendered to the United States.

In interviews with The Times of London and Bild that occurred less than a week before his inauguration, Trump said he could envision dropping economic sanctions against Russia in exchange for nuclear arms reductions between the two countries. A simple quid pro quo, right?

As someone who has long favored a U.S.-Russian nuclear builddown, I can understand the superficial attractiveness of Trump’s trial balloon. But there are compelling reasons why it is a bad idea.

First, nuclear arms negotiations should not be linked to extraneous issues. Agreements such as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 were complex, highly technical treaties with years’ worth of negotiations and even “pre-negotiations” before they were signed. Dragging in additional issues could very well have killed them.

Second, the United States negotiated multiple nuclear agreements with the Soviet Union even when the latter was under considerably more stringent sanctions from the allied powers than Russia is today. Under the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), exports of even some of the most basic Western technologies were under a strict embargo. (By contrast, Western high-technology firms such as Intel, Google, and HP now operate software development centers in Russia). Somehow, the Soviet Politburo saw fit to negotiate solely over arms even when under more stringent economic sanctions than those faced by Vladimir Putin.

During nuclear negotiations with Iran, critics asked why President Obama did not use the negotiations as a framework to free American citizens imprisoned by the Iranians. The Obama administration answered – correctly – that doing so would be advantageous to Iran, diluting the Western powers’ negotiating strength on the central issue of ratcheting down Teheran’s nuclear program and not only incentivizing Iran to be more recalcitrant by giving it another bargaining chip, but possibly even encouraging it to imprison more U.S. citizens for negotiating leverage.

At this point, readers may think they detect a logical weakness in my argument: why am I saying that economic sanctions should not be mixed into nuclear negotiations with Russia when sanctions relief was the tradeoff for Iran cutting back its nuclear development? Simply because reducing sanctions was the sole inducement that the six major powers offered to get Teheran to denuclearize. It is not as if the United States or France had offered Iran concessions on sanctions and put their own nuclear arsenals on the negotiating table.

With Iran, negotiations constituted a one-for-one deal: sanctions relief for nuclear concessions. Trump’s little gambit offers Russia a two-fer: dropping sanctions plus U.S. nuclear reductions in exchange for Russian nuclear cuts. If sanctions relief for Russia were ever to be proposed, it should be kept separate from mutual arms reductions. Conceivably it could be offered in connection with ending the Russian-sponsored insurgency in Eastern Ukraine or the forcible annexation of Crimea, which were the proximate causes of the sanctions in the first place.

Why, one might then ask, would Vladimir Putin be so interested in arms control in isolation from any other bilateral issue? What is his incentive to negotiate if we don’t sweeten the pot as Trump is appearing to do?

Maintaining, let alone modernizing, Russia’s vast arsenal of approximately 4,500 deployed and stockpiled nuclear warheads and their associated delivery systems is a heavy financial burden, and Russia is not in a favorable economic situation. However much Western sanctions may be personally inconveniencing individual oligarchs in Putin’s circle, this is not the main stumbling block for Russia’s economy. Until recently, over half the country’s federal revenue came from the production and export of petroleum products, and this heavy dependence is a severe problem.

As recently as 2013, Russia’s gross domestic product stood at about $2.2 trillion. The record oil prices of the early 2000s meant that Putin was able to garner tremendous personal popularity among the Russian people as the man who presided over improved living standards and who seemed to have rescued the country from the lost decade of the 1990s. Russia had vaulted into the ranks of the middle income countries.

But with the oil price slide, Russia’s GDP has fallen to only $1.3 trillion. It has slipped to the level where its economy is smaller than that of South Korea or Australia, countries with much smaller populations. Could oil prices recover? They certainly might, but with enhanced recovery, tighter fuel economy standards, and increased use of alternative energy, there is likely to be a lid on future oil price rises, and Russia has a lot of ground to make up.

Putin has another incentive for arms reductions unlinked to sanctions. For several years, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2017 at 9:13 pm

How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next

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William Davies writes in the Guardian:

In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic datapublished by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government “is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here”.

Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various “experts” that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some people’s sense of political decency.

Nowhere is this more vividly manifest than with immigration. The thinktank British Future has studied how best to win arguments in favour of immigration and multiculturalism. One of its main findings is that people often respond warmly to qualitative evidence, such as the stories of individual migrants and photographs of diverse communities. But statistics – especially regarding alleged benefits of migration to Britain’s economy – elicit quite the opposite reaction. People assume that the numbers are manipulated and dislike the elitism of resorting to quantitative evidence. Presented with official estimates of how many immigrants are in the country illegally, a common response is to scoff. Far from increasing support for immigration, British Future found, pointing to its positive effect on GDP can actually make people more hostile to it. GDP itself has come to seem like a Trojan horse for an elitist liberal agenda. Sensing this, politicians have now largely abandoned discussing immigration in economic terms.

All of this presents a serious challenge for liberal democracy. Put bluntly, the British government – its officials, experts, advisers and many of its politicians – does believe that immigration is on balance good for the economy. The British government did believe that Brexit was the wrong choice. The problem is that the government is now engaged in self-censorship, for fear of provoking people further.

This is an unwelcome dilemma. Either the state continues to make claims that it believes to be valid and is accused by sceptics of propaganda, or else, politicians and officials are confined to saying what feels plausible and intuitively true, but may ultimately be inaccurate. Either way, politics becomes mired in accusations of lies and cover-ups.

The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.

Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?One way is to view statistics through the lens of their history. We need to try and see them for what they are: neither unquestionable truths nor elite conspiracies, but rather as tools designed to simplify the job of government, for better or worse. Viewed historically, we can see what a crucial role statistics have played in our understanding of nation states and their progress. This raises the alarming question of how – if at all – we will continue to have common ideas of society and collective progress, should statistics fall by the wayside.

In the second half of the 17th century, in the aftermath of prolonged and bloody conflicts, European rulers adopted an entirely new perspective on the task of government, focused upon demographic trends – an approach made possible by the birth of modern statistics. Since ancient times, censuses had been used to track population size, but these were costly and laborious to carry out and focused on citizens who were considered politically important (property-owning men), rather than society as a whole. Statistics offered something quite different, transforming the nature of politics in the process.

Statistics were designed to give an understanding of a population in its entirety,rather than simply to pinpoint strategically valuable sources of power and wealth. In the early days, this didn’t always involve producing numbers. In Germany, for example (from where we get the term Statistik) the challenge was to map disparate customs, institutions and laws across an empire of hundreds of micro-states. What characterised this knowledge as statistical was its holistic nature: it aimed to produce a picture of the nation as a whole. Statistics would do for populations what cartography did for territory. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2017 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Math

I think we will see an abrupt change in direction for the Civil Rights Division

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In the New Yorker Jennifer Gonnerman has a profile of Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Deartment of Justice.

From the article at the link:

. . . Gupta joined the Justice Department in the fall of 2014—nine weeks after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. She spent the next two years travelling all over the country—to Ferguson, Cleveland, New Orleans, Baltimore, and elsewhere—to meet with mayors, police chiefs, and citizens, in an attempt to repair the deeply damaged relationships between police departments and their communities. Under Obama, the Civil Rights Division took a more aggressive approach than ever before to stamping out systemic police abuse: the Division negotiated twenty-four agreements with law-enforcement agencies to reform their practices; fifteen of those agreements were consent decrees, which are enforced by a court.

On January 12th, Gupta had been in Baltimore announcing a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department to address the egregious injustices identified by the Division in an earlier report. The next day, she had been in Chicago to release a devastating hundred-and-sixty-one-page report on that city’s police department. Now she had no idea what might come of all this work. Early in his tenure as Attorney General, Eric Holder had called the Civil Rights Division the “crown jewel” of the Justice Department. Now Senator Jeff Sessions—who had attacked the Civil Rights Division, in 2015, at a Senate hearing called “The War on Police,” saying that it had “an agenda that’s been a troubling issue for a number of years”—was poised to become the next Attorney General.

During the Obama Presidency, the Civil Rights Division was at the center of many of the nation’s most contentious political battles: over policing as well as voting rights, fair housing, hate crimes, and transgender rights. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2017 at 6:02 pm

An interesting and sobering take on how the practice of politics has changed and with what results

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

The man who was compared to a Messiah when he won the presidential election in 2008 has been on an excruciatingly long goodbye tour. First there was his farewell speech to the United Nations in September. Next came his farewell tour across Europe in November – the Messiah’s last foreign trip. Then there was his farewell speech in the U.S. Yesterday, there was a tortuously vacuous farewell press conference, which toward the end, had the feeling that actors from central casting had replaced real journalists in the press room in order to memorialize the greatness of this President.

Whenever I think about this President, I think of Bruce Dixon, the Managing Editor of the Black Agenda Report in 2008 during Obama’s first presidential campaign. The Black Agenda Report writes for black Americans. Dixon wrote the following in February 2008:

Whether it is truly possible to hold elected officials accountable in a political system where big money, big media, big corporations and the very rich call all the  shots is uncertain.  But we have tried and will keep trying.  So will others.  The stakes are too high not to…

The 2008 Obama presidential run may be the most slickly orchestrated marketing machine in memory. That’s not a good thing. Marketing is not even distantly related to democracy or civic empowerment. Marketing is about creating emotional, even irrational bonds between your product and your target audience. From its Bloody Sunday 2007 proclamation that Obama was the second coming of Joshua to its nationally televised kickoff at Abe Lincoln’s tomb to the tens of millions of dollars in breathless free media coverage lavished on it by the establishment media, the campaign’s deft manipulation of hopeful themes and emotionally potent symbols has led many to impute their own cherished views to Obama, whether he endorses them or not.

We were also not among the converted as a result of spending months conducting a forensic examination of Obama’s campaign accounts. In May of 2008, we wrote the following:

The Wall Street plan for the Obama-bubble presidency is that of the cleanup crew for the housing bubble: sweep all the corruption and losses, would-be indictments, perp walks and prosecutions under the rug and get on with an unprecedented taxpayer bailout of Wall Street. (The corporate law firms have piled on to funding the plan because most were up to their eyeballs in writing prospectuses or providing legal opinions for what has turned out to be bogus AAA securities. Lawsuits naming the Wall Street firms will, no doubt, shortly begin adding the law firms that rendered the legal guidance to issue the securities.) Who better to sell this agenda to the millions of duped mortgage holders and foreclosed homeowners in minority communities across America than our first, beloved, black president of hope and change?

Why do Wall Street and . . .

Continue reading.

Obama has been an historic president, for sure, and in many ways he’s been a good president (IMO), despite the determined opposition of the GOP, which conducted a take-no-prisoners campaign against him. Obama finally brought a version of national health insurance into being. That can—could have—served as a foundation for a true national health insurance, though it’s gone now.

Still, Obama did some things that don’t sit well with me: he made too many Wall Street appointments to regulatory positions, with a revolving door return to Wall Street; his refusal to obey the law and investigate and prosecute those guilty of war crimes; his vindictive persecution of whistleblowers and leakers; lack of transparency and infrequency of press conferences; and so on.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2017 at 3:19 pm

What does the Women’s March on Washington mean to the marchers, individually? Particularly conservative marchers?

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Terrence McCoy has a very interesting article in today’s Washington Post:

Seventy-one miles into a 162-mile trip, the women riding the bus began to stir as the blackness of the morning lifted. They had gathered at 3:30 a.m. in a parking lot in Williamsport, Pa., and now, as signs for Washington started appearing, one woman applied makeup with a mirror, another bounced a baby on her lap, and two more talked about what could happen when they got where they were going.

As the bus entered the city on Baltimore Washington Parkway, Joanne Barr looked out the window. “So many buses,” she said quietly to herself. “It’s a lot of people.”

Forty-two people were riding with her, adding to the tens of thousands of people pouring into the city on 1,800 buses to join the Women’s March on Washington and protest the inauguration of President Trump. They have come, for the most part, from Hillary Clinton’s America: large metropolitan communities like Chicago or Atlanta, or smaller college towns like Ann Arbor, Mich., or Madison, Wis. But there were some women, though far fewer in number, who departed the America that fueled the rise of Trump, and this is the America of Williamsport.

A mountainous town of 30,000 residents in central Pennsylvania, its economy and culture have long been tethered to the vagaries of hard industry — first lumber, then manufacturing, then natural gas — and it anchors a county that is 92 percent white and went 71 percent for Trump.

This is the only town, the only America, that Barr, 54, riding the bus with her daughter, Ashley, 30, has ever known. A petite woman who feels most comfortable when no one is looking at her, she has never done anything like this before. She has only been to Washington one time, and big cities intimidate her. Back home in Williamsport, she manages a hardware store, which exclusively employs white men and almost exclusively services them. Most days, she adores the job. But more and more, especially after the campaign and election, she has begun to feel claustrophobic not only there, but in Williamsport.

Is she happy? Is she living the life she was supposed to? Is it too late at this point in her life — a middle-aged, divorced mother of three — to be someone different?

Why has she come?

She sat quietly toward the front of the bus, unsure, but hopeful, that this march, this trip to Washington, might provide an answer.

A woman transformed

Two days before that moment, Joanne was in a house with a bare refrigerator.

“No food in this house,” she said of her home miles outside Williamsport, up serpentine roads leading into the hills, where she moved a decade ago to escape the bustle and people of town. She went to the fridge and checked a grocery list hanging beside a schedule of local Alcoholic Anonymous meetings that her son had recently begun attending.

Grocery list in hand, she headed for the car, past a bookcase with 20 books she has read on addiction and recovery: “Addict in the Family,” “Why Don’t They Just Quit,” “Heroin is Killing our Children.”

There was a time when Barr thought addiction was something that happened to other families, to people not as successful, religious and conservative. But that was before her husband went from painkillers to cocaine to crack, before her son nearly died of a heroin overdose, before she realized how quickly success can yield to debt, religion to doubt, conservatism to whatever she had now become.

Getting behind the wheel, she flipped the ignition, and the radio came on. It was CNN Radio, and a voice was saying, “This is truly the beginning, as of right now, you’re witnessing it right now, the beginning of President-Elect Trump’s time in Washington, D.C.” At one time, she would have quickly turned the dial, worried she wasn’t smart enough to learn about politics. But now “I listen to it constantly. I used to listen to music and stupid things. Now I listen to this.”

She often thinks about all the things she once did — and did not do — wondering how she could have been so insecure for so long. In Williamsport, she grew up only wanting to marry a man who would take care of everything, and that’s exactly what she got. Bill was everything she was not: confident, effervescent, assertive. He owned two hardware stores and properties across the city, and they raised three children in a big, showy house in a nice part of town. He said he always knew best, and she always believed him, even when he told her not to worry about all of his empty prescription pill bottles and frequent nose bleeds and increasingly erratic behavior. For years she found a way to excuse everything he did, until one night in September 2006 when “he punched her in her face with a closed fist,” according to the criminal complaint, and told her “he would ‘kill her’ if she called the police.”

She now pulled the car out to the end of the driveway, stopped at the mailbox and reached inside to grab a package. . .

Continue reading.

I imagine that events like this do inevitably alter the trajectory of many lives. They meet new people, encounter new ideas, realize that they can do things, and form a network and begin to get involved in politics. And I bet it works better with the connections that can be secured via the internet: email, Twitter, Facebook, and on and on. So they enter politics, and organizing skills are gender-neutral (and I would guess favor women, who often have organizing pushed off on them because it can get tedious), so that it might be a very effective block.

This time seems somewhat different: what is at stake is starkly clear, not just in the sexual assault issue but in the President’s absolute refusal to avoid conflicts of interest. I would bet that for him conflicts of interest are a feature and not a bug: he can schmooze a foreign potentate and lay the groundwork for lucrative projects, and do it all on someone else’s dime (that would be yours and mine: we taxpayers are fronting the costs for Trump to build his own (commercial) empire. It’s a gold mine! ).

So the threat is large and near-term: it gets one’s attention. So the response has been commensurate with the stimulus. And with the technology we have today, things can happen quickly.

That technology, though, is a two-edged sword: the same thing that facilitates the link-ups and coordination also facilitates tracking and recording those activities by the government. (The NSA reports to President Trump.) Dissidents can be identified not only by the content of their posts, but by the pattern of clicks and likes—and I bet Facebook can cook up a “Dissident Identifier” algorithm in two shakes.

Of course, the same is true for other movements that have been able to grow through the internet: the alt-Right, Stormfront, Steve Bannon crowd. But there are laws that protect them—and, of course, Steve Bannon now has some control over the use of such resources. Perhaps it’s good that President Trump thoroughly pissed off the intelligence community before he even took office. OTOH, that might lead to the rise of a second, separate intelligence service, one on which the President (and Bannon) can rely, and I’m sure you can figure out the sort selected to staff it.

And the data have a permanency, as many have discovered when old posts and tweets and emails return years later to haunt them. And I am sure that the encounter described in this post earlier today will result in records for each person becoming a part of various permanent databases, to be used as the government sees fit.

See also: “Yes, America, you can resist the brutishness of the reign of Trump — when progressives truly unite,” by Jim Hightower in Salon.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2017 at 3:06 pm

Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

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I’m of an age that makes this NY Times article by Tim Herrera interesting. If you, too, are getting long in the tooth, you might find it helpful.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2017 at 1:53 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Trump, cops, and crime

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Radley Balko notes some ominous signs:

Within minutes of President Trump’s swearing in, his administration posted several policy positions on the White House website. The topic “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community” is striking.

A Trump Administration will empower our law enforcement officers to do their jobs and keep our streets free of crime and violence. The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration. President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.

These aren’t off-the-cuff remarks. It’s carefully chosen language that presumably went through a number of revisions. Note the wording. Trump will do more than end violence against law enforcement. He will end the “anti-police atmosphere in America.” You don’t end an “atmosphere” without some pretty drastic action. It sounds quite like a promise to crack down on speech and protest. Ominous as that sounds (and it’s pretty ominous), absent some wanton, unheard of abuse of power like federalizing the National Guard to subdue the next round of protests against police abuse, there isn’t a whole lot Trump can do directly, at least not in the short term.

But in the longer term? He could widen the spigot through which military gear flows to police departments, both from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. He has already promised this. He has already indicated that he’ll call off Justice Department watchdogging of police departments, which could encourage more aggressive responses. He could ramp up the spying and data collecting on protest groups that the federal government has already been doing for decades. He could halt the federal funding that currently promotes community-oriented policing and begin funding more aggressive, reactionary policing.

I’ll stop there. I’d hate to give him any ideas. But this is clearly a priority. It’s one of the six policies he posted immediately after taking office.

As Trump has done all campaign, to demonstrate why we need a “law-and-order” administration, the White House then cherry-picks a year of crime data to paint a portrait of, as Trump put it in his speech today, “American carnage.” Of course, while it’s true that violent crime has gone up over the past two years, the increase was mostly driven by sharp spikes in a handful of large cities. Even with that increase, the overall violent crime rate is about where it was in 2012, and remains near historic lows. (By the way, the violent crime rate in Canada also began a slight increase in 2015, also after a long decline.) One other interesting statistic: Even with the spike in some large cities, of the 11 states with the highest violent crime rates, eight are Republican-led (Alaska, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Missouri, Alabama, Florida), most with the kind of pro-police, law-and-order policies Trump supports. (Two of the other three — Nevada and New Mexico — are toss-up states.)

Thanks no doubt in large part to Trump, there is a perception that crime is getting worse. Last year, a Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans worried about crime was at a 15-year high. But Gallup has been tracking opinions about crime in other ways that are instructive for comparing fear of crime with actual crime.

In the most straightforward question, Gallup asks if Americans think crime in the U.S. gotten better or worse than the previous year. Year after year, most Americans always think things have gotten worse. Even as the crime rate reached historic lows in the late 2000s and early 2010s, 60 percent or more still thought things were getting worse. In the most recent poll, taken last October, the figure was at 70 percent.

But there’s another question that better measures of how crime affects people day to day: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2017 at 1:50 pm

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