Friday, December 31, 2021

The wisdom of crowds

   "Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

          Winston Churchill, Nov. 11, 1947

The United States is not supposed to be a democracy. By intention we have a republican form of government. Most citizens' capacity to practice good self-government extends to choosing representatives who give governance the attention it requires. Presumably they can make wise, informed decisions. 

Senator Rand Paul termed the Wisconsin election stolen because it included votes by people he considered to be coddled into voting. The Democratic Party's voter outreach and convenient ballot drop boxes made it too easy to vote, he said. 

Democracy and theories of government overlap with theories of finance. For 50 years economists and students of markets have argued that markets are approximately "efficient." The stock price presumably embodies the "wisdom of crowds." In theory, all the knowledge about the fair value of a company is subsumed in the total buying and selling activity of the marketplace. The Efficient Market Hypothesis coincides with an overarching idea in biology, social science, and game theory that every organism is in a struggle to survive and reproduce. All life is a descendent of survivors. Therefore, what is, is what is meant to be, the sum of competitive interests. This is not the best of all imaginable worlds but it is the best of all possible ones in the netted-out balance of self-seekers. 

My observation is that financial markets are not efficient. They are the sum of ignorance and emotions. Humans are not rational, nor are they always self-seeking, nor do they understand their self-interest. Humans are not individual actors. We are a semi-herding species; we herd less than sheep, but more than orangutans. Humans take leadership from authorities. Humans look for cues from others. We believe confidant liars. We join crowds. There is money to be made in investments when prices become irrationally fearful. I lived it. There were giant opportunities in 1974, 1982, 1987, 2002, 2009 and 2020. Fear was in the air, breathed deeply and spread, even by the least engaged people. 

Currently Democrats are fighting to preserve "voting rights," which translates into wanting voting to be easy and accessible for Blacks and other historically disadvantaged groups. Those groups are the acknowledged target of The American Conservative article Rand Paul quoted. Subterfuge can disguise intent. A law reducing drop boxes for ballots to one per county can claim to be a neutral effort to avoid wasteful duplication. Knowing that Fulton County, Georgia and Harris County, Texas contain heavily Democratic Atlanta and Houston, each with millions of people, means knowing long lines are certain to dissuade the undesired people from voting. They just happen to be urban Blacks. 

Both markets and elections have low-information, low-engagement participants. I am one myself when I am cajoled on behalf of office morale to enter a March Madness NCAA tournament bracket. I go along to be part of the office team. When representative government works as intended there is a healthy division of labor between the broad electorate and the decision makers. Even uninformed voters are subject to the laws of the polity, so fairness requires they be able to vote. Presumably, uninformed voters can do little long-term harm because they are electing knowledgeable people of discernment.

This is where we have a breakdown. The independent judgement function of republican government still persists, more or less, among Democrats. This is an artifact of their weakness and division, not high principle. No one has persuasive sway among Democrats--most certainly not Biden. Leaderless Democrats have room for independent thought. Trump, however, has been extraordinarily persuasive and effective in leading Republican voters. He has been ruthless in culling disloyal members of his Party. GOP officeholders are terrified of him and should be. 

The officeholders are afraid of their voters, so they silently enable Trump. We are observing democracy.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

A computer scientist considers democracy

Garbage In. Garbage Out.

If you input bad data into the computer you get bad results, even if the computer program calculates it perfectly.

Trigoboff, then
Today's blog post is an edited dialog with  Michael Trigoboff, a computer science professor.  He used to look hippy-wild; now he looks straight. He used to be easily defined as a liberal; now he works in the middle of the hothouse of cutting edge woke social justice equity activism--Portland Community College--and he is resisting its illiberalism and demand for conformity.

He commented on yesterday's post. I had observed that Rand Paul claimed the 2020 election in Wisconsin was stolen because it included legally cast and counted votes from the "wrong sort of people"--urban Blacks. I considered that a shocking revelation of anti-democratic thinking.

Michael Trigoboff commented:

Democracy is an attempt to extract high-quality decisions from large masses of low-quality components.

We hope that voters will care about and be informed about the issues. How is the quality of electoral decisions affected by including voters who are so unmotivated that you literally have to chase them down, put the ballots in their hands, and then put the ballots in the mailbox for them? How much attention have they paid to any of the important issues?

Things like “motor voter“ are just a way to empower a different set of political elites, ones aligned with the Democratic Party. Some people (I.e. Democrats) think this is a good idea, for obvious reasons. But casting these schemes as “the essence of democracy“ is just the latest political propaganda from a particular faction.

I told him I might use that in a blog post and asked for clarification. I wrote:

Democracy seeks to reflect the consent of the governed.  There are protections against bad decisions in the fact that states can chart their own path, protections of minority rights and protections of individuals in the bill of rights. It presumes that the majority is sometimes wrong.


The attraction of a Chinese-style authoritarian government is that well-informed people make decisions. This means that they have the metric system and good infrastructure decisions, but it also means that the governing elite needs to suppress dissent because the credibility of the leaders is diminished when things work out poorly. It doesn’t self-correct easily.


Anyhow, you aren't dead wrong. But I do think your comment reflects the point of view of a person whose life experience and position puts him among the “elite.” That makes you smart, but it doesn’t make you right and it most certainly doesn’t mean your decisions are popular


Trigoboff responded:

In computer science, there are error correction codes like Hamming Codes. Error correcting codes can detect these flipped bits and flip them back to what they should have been.

The subject area of error detection and correction covers how to get correct results despite the presence of faulty hardware components, faulty data transmission, etc.
Trigoboff, recent
The space shuttle, for instance, was operated by three computers running in parallel. As long as they all agreed, the shuttle did what they commanded. If one of them disagreed with the other two, that one was dropped out of the decision process and a fourth identical computer was swapped in. If there was no agreement at all between the three computers, they were all dropped and a different computer running software written by a different company stepped in and took over.

You can look at an election as a decision process involving a large number of components (voters). Some of those components are likely to be faulty or of otherwise low-quality. Can we design that decision process to produce high-quality results despite those low-quality components?

Looked at that way, working hard to include even lower quality components (voters who are less-informed, less-motivated, etc,) is not going to improve the quality of the decisions made by the electorate. It will just lead to an electorate even more susceptible to disinformation and manipulation.

Which is not to say that I am a supporter of Chinese authoritarianism. I am definitely not, and I am probably more likely than most of your readers to be in favor of defending the independence of Taiwan with military force if that's what it takes.

Science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote a book called Starship Troopers. It describes a future history in which "the disorders" happened, and society broke down to the point where the military had to take over. The military institutes a new system of democracy in which only military veterans have the right to vote because only military veterans give enough of a rip about the survival of their society to be willing to put their lives on the line. I kind of like that idea, even though I wouldn't get to vote under that system.

I am not necessarily advocating for that particular system, but I think at this point in our country's history we are not asking enough of our citizens. When you have to chase people down and hand them the ballot and then “help them vote” (presumably the “right way,” according to the helper) and collect the ballot from them so that all they need to do is not die during the process (although perhaps not even that), I think we are not asking enough. People tend not to value things that are just handed to them.

I am not saying these things because I am "elite." I am saying them because I value competence and excellence and hard work. I say what I think is right, and I don't worry a lot about whether that will make me or my thoughts popular. Alfred Wegener was not popular, and his theory of continental drift was widely derided for decades, until conclusive proof of it emerged in the 1960s. But he was competent and excellent, and he was right. I would rather have been him than all of his critics put together.

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[Note: In tomorrow's blog post I will share my thoughts about the supposed "wisdom of crowds" as it relates to investment pricing. Spoiler alert: I think the premise is crazy.]

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Voting legally is "cheating."

Rand Paul said the quiet part out loud.

Rand Paul accused Democrats of stealing the 2020 election because Democrats voted legally.

It looks like parody. It isn't. It is just indiscreet.

Rand Paul's tweet, unedited.

A significant number of Americans believe that Biden won by stealing the election. 

People have sorted themselves politically by geography, religion, education, and political tribe. A White, male, Evangelical Christian without a college degree living in a small town or rural area would find that nearly everyone he knows likes Trump. (This describes the demographics of Jared Schmeck, the subject of my previous two blog posts. Such people saw Trump had huge rallies. People flew Trump flags on pickup trucks. Biden had neither. It doesn't have to be proven. It just makes common sense from observation. Trump is unwavering in saying he won in a landslide. Trump can sell.) 

Some people want a mental path that explains away audits that came up empty. Electronic manipulation provides one. We know technology does mysterious things, and some of it is malevolent. We are reminded that technology can be hacked by repeated "security updates." The fact that paper ballot audits don't show fraud is unpersuasive. Technology does magic, and magician performances teach us not to believe our eyes. 

Some people want a technical legal justification. My own congressman, Cliff Bentz, is among the Republicans who voted to disallow Pennsylvania's presidential vote. Changes to voting procedures made by election officials were vetted and approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and were the same for all residents of the state, but were not specifically approved by its legislature. A Republican state legislature, therefore, arguably, can choose their own electors and assign them to Trump. Trump asserts this today and faults the Supreme Court for not backing him. This idea still festers.

Rand Paul's justification is yet another way to believe the election was stolen from Trump, and it is the most dangerous. It most affects future elections. He complains that voting legally is cheating when the wrong sort of people vote. Rand Paul's tweet links back to an article posted in The American Conservative. The article asserts that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated money to fund voter outreach in several states, including Wisconsin, and it succeeded in increasing the Democratic vote:

The American Conservative

The article lists four strategic objectives of the effort:
***First, to “encourage and Increase Absentee Voting (By Mail and Early, In-Person),” mainly through providing “assistance” in absentee ballot completion and submission, and the installation of ballot drop boxes.
***Second, to “dramatically expand strategic voter education & outreach efforts, particularly to historically disenfranchised residents.”
***Third, to recruit new election workers, mainly from among paid young activists who would replace the usual, older election day volunteers.
***A distant fourth, both in emphasis and level of funding, was the funding of Covid-19 related safety measures.
The article complains that voter outreach targeted "cities" and "certain voters," and "a variety of communities," and "historically disenfranchised residents." There was almost no mention of race or ethnicity in the article, but anyone reading it understands who those "certain voters" are. The effort targeted and turned out urban Black and Hispanic voters. That is the complaint.

There is a premise underlying what Rand Paul said, and it was voiced most explicitly in 1980 by Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of The Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority. Readers can watch him say it or read it below:

Many of our Christians have what I call the "goo goo" syndrome. Good government. They want everyone to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people--they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the election quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Rand Paul is noteworthy within GOP senatorial circles for his outspokenness. He tweeted "in the open," not in code, what Paul Weyrich said. The idea is best said in code because it is heresy. It contradicts the American civic religion that we are the good guys who practice the beliefs in our civics textbooks. Our civic religion says that every American is equal, and that everyone has a stake in our democracy, everyone is subject to the laws, to taxes, perhaps to military service. We believe in equal opportunity, which is what justifies un-equal outcomes. Equality means voting must be legally and practically available to everyone. That is the "good government" idea.

There is a contrary idea, understood but usually left unsaid: We don't want some people to vote. Amid the dog whistles and code and obfuscation, Rand Paul said it directly: Democrats did not win. They stole the election by getting too many people to vote legally. Those voters are Democrats generally, of course, but they cheated by especially targeting--you know--them. Those people in cities. You know. Those people who don't really have a legitimate right to turn out to vote. You know.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Update and Correction: "Let's go, Brandon."

"Let's go, Brandon" isn't a pleasantry.

The Oregon guy who said it to Joe and Jill Biden didn't blurt it accidentally.

Now Jared Schmeck is a celebrity hero.

My error was to think "Let's go, Brandon" was so normalized within some circles that it had become a familiar and positive affirmation, said in parting. I thought it was perhaps equivalent to "Have a nice day."  

My point in yesterday's blog post was that Trump-oriented people on the political and religious right, people who publicly assert their Christianity, have conflated Trump with Christ. They have replaced Christian virtues with the Trump's warrior temperament and virtues. The replacement is necessary because this is wartime. I had thought that politics has so thoroughly infused Christian nationalism that coded "Fuck Joe Biden" had lost its meaning as crude insult. Therefore, Schmeck saying "Merry Christmas and Let's go Brandon" was borne of habit, not intention.

I was wrong. Jared Schmeck meant it as an insult. He took two days to get his political feet under him and get his story buttoned down, but he has done so. He is a celebrity guest in right wing media. I was fooled by the situation and his demeanor--until the last half second, which ended abruptly with a video edit. That made me question my conclusion. Here, again from yesterday, is the three-minute video:

I had understood this call to be primarily an interaction between parents of young children and the Bidens, acting as trackers of Santa. Parents of young children are familiar with this kind of intergenerational attention from older adults. The adults understand it to be part of the social education of children. The adults ask questions about toys and Santa, and the children's responses are greeted with apparent seriousness and enthusiasm. Kids are being taught that adults other than their parents are interested in them, and kids get practice interacting politely with adults. I saw it as socialization.

Surely, I thought, a parent wouldn't screw up a future keepsake for the children with a code shift from smiley Santa talk to crude political trolling. I was wrong. Schmeck's "Let's Go, Brandon" sprung the trap. Got'cha. It was equivalent to Jill Biden responding to young Piper's desire for a Barbie doll by saying, "She's a vapid slut. What's wrong with you?" 

Jared Schmeck became a folk hero within right-wing media. He was criticized. That made him a victim. The liberals are howling because I exercised my free speech, he said. 

He was invited to be on Steve Bannon's show, where he wore a MAGA hat and said he was a "Christian man." He said, "Donald Trump is my president and he should still be president right now. The election was 100% stolen. So, I just want to make that clear." Here is a two-minute clip:

Schmeck on Bannon's show

Schmeck is having his moment. He is getting praise. He feeds the appetite of a very profitable audience segment. The segment represents much of the new GOP remade by Trump. This audience feels itself under siege. The dominant culture outvotes them and its values shape the primary organs of culture: News media, Hollywood, universities--but not Evangelical churches. The segment believes that Schmeck and people like him are victims, but Schmeck is fighting back. The culture is teaching their children things they don't want them taught. The culture calls them racist, both personally and in the institutions they created. It wants to tax them to give the money to people who don't deserve it. 

Abortion is the primary wedge and it gives a bright line justification for feeling their cause is just. Beyond abortion, Schmeck is part of the opposition to the general cultural movement toward acceptance of diversity. White Christians are pushed from the default center of cultural and political power. They know it and don't like it. They want to fight a guerrilla war against it. In a guerrilla war, the normal rules of religion, democracy, politics and even courtesy don't count. 

Schmeck is a hero. He poked the bear.

Monday, December 27, 2021

WTF? Normalizing "Let's Go Brandon."

Joe Biden: "Well, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas."

Jared Schmeck: “Yeah, I hope you guys have a wonderful Christmas as well. Merry Christmas, and let’s go, Brandon.”

Joe Biden: “Let’s go, Brandon, I agree.

Jared Schmeck is from Southern Oregon. His name was chosen to share Christmas Eve greetings with Joe and Jill Biden. He put a video of the chat on YouTube. It was a warm, friendly call, full of smiles and Christmas banter. Biden asked about the Schmeck family kids. Griffin wanted Santa to bring a piano, Hunter wanted Nintendo, Piper wanted Barbie, and two year old Penelope wasn't saying. Jared handed the phone to Griffin and Hunter, so they got to talk with the president--a nice keepsake for them.
The video gives an unmistakable impression of friendly happy-talk between strangers. Dogs do something similar by sniffing each other. Humans do it with words, but the words don't matter. It is signaling good will and friendly intention.

The video has been seen 311,000 times as of Monday morning. Jared is listed as the office administrator at an electrical contracting business. Winema Electric made repeated $500 and $1,000 contributions to Trump and the RNC in the summer and fall leading up to the 2020 election. The company website and Facebook pages were taken down, but third party sites quote the company philosophy:

THE WINEMA WAY Grounded in Christian Values, Winema Electric is lighting the future of the electrical industry, by providing a higher standard of service that exceeds expectations. 
OUR CORE VALUES Our way is to create an environment that changes the way work is done; a place where employees become family; where we empower one another to succeed in every aspect of life; building enthusiasm in our company so everyone goes home safe with love and pride for their work; creating lifelong relationships with those we serve, our team, our customers, and our community; inspiring one another to live every day with the basic Christian value of always doing the right thing."

Jared was contacted by the media, and he says his parting words were just a friendly joke made as a "free-thinking American and a follower of Jesus Christ." He told the Portland newspaper, "I understand there is a vulgar meaning to 'Let's go Brandon,'" but Biden "seems like he's a cordial guy. There's no animosity or anything like that. It was merely an innocent jest to also express my God-given right to express my frustrations in a joking manner."

The sign-off by Schmeck did not appear to be a political statement. Afterwards, when pressed to explain himself by a reporter, Schmeck put a rational justification for it, but I suspect it was him scrambling to make sense of what he had blurted. Biden had been pleasantly engaged with his young children, and he ended with coded "Fuck Joe Biden." 

Conservative media are loving this. They suggest that Joe Biden is unaware that "Let's go, Brandon," is code for "Fuck Joe Biden." Of course, Biden knows what the phrase means. Biden was staying on task on Christmas Eve, doing happy-talk.

The blurted comment exposes the toxic effect of the marriage of Christian evangelism and the GOP under Trump. Trump normalized incivility and transgressive rule-breaking. It changed unconscious, automatic behavior of people in the religious/political tribe. "Let's go, Brandon" was a companion phrase to "Merry Christmas," not a reversal of it.

The coarsening of behavior is troubling to some Christian writers and ministers who worry Christ is getting the short end of this marriage. Christians get the federal judges they think they want, but they are substituting Christian virtues with warrior virtues. Empathy is for losers. The Golden Rule is for the meek, and the meek are wimps. It shows up as commonplace coded insults. Donald Trump, Jr. urged the faithful understand and embrace the new Church. We need to understand the limitations of Christianity, he told the cheering crowd at Turning Point USA. He said Christian Republicans are hobbled by too much civility. "We’ve been playing tee-ball for half a century, while they’re playing hardball and cheating, right?”

I don't think Jared Schmeck meant to be uncivil. He is in a faith community and political mind-set where saying "Fuck Joe Biden" in code is a pleasantry.  Or, maybe not. Look at the last half second of the video again. Was that a smirk? Did he just get away with a naughty prank?

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Sunday, December 26, 2021

Potential good news on COVID

   "Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray
It might come true. . . 
   And then we'd be happy (and then we'd be happy)
Oh, wouldn't it be nice?"
          The Beach Boys, 1966

Covid-conscious Democrats are in a mindset of risk and potential catastrophe. 

Sometimes things work out OK. If so, take the win.

COVID steered conscientious people toward thinking about dangers, both known and unknown. Caution is prudent. We could get infected. We could be intubated. We could die. There could be a chain of infection that gets to us. We get vaccinated and boosted. We wear masks and hope the fit is tight enough around the nose. We can imagine getting COVID, notwithstanding our effort. We can imagine COVID taking a turn for the worse and becoming as infectious as measles and as deadly as ebola. It is too early to know what affects COVID might have on us a decade or more from now. Look at shingles, springing back 60 years after a minor childhood bout with chicken pox. Worry. 

But wait. Imagine a scenario where omicron is a good thing and it helps end the COVID problem. Wouldn't that be nice?

Smallpox killed about 30% of the people it infected in Europe. Often the people who survived were horribly scarred with pock marks. In 1796 an English physician, Edwin Jenner, noted that milkmaids got a mild disease, "cowpox," but when they later contracted smallpox they survived. He guessed that having cowpox provided an immunity to smallpox. He experimented by putting some of the pus from a cowpox sore into the arm of the child of his gardener. He then intentionally exposed the boy to smallpox. The boy never contracted smallpox.
There is a basis for hope

The early indication from South African data is that omicron causes a milder form of the disease than earlier strains. People get infected, but are less likely to need hospitalization. It could be like cowpox. Or not. We don't know yet. 

Democrats need to recognize that reflexive pessimism on COVID is as unscientific as is blind optimism. Infections sometimes become endemic and a mere nuisance, e.g. the "common cold." Omicron is so contagious that it is the equivalent to a program of mandated mass vaccination. Everyone will get exposed. The unvaccinated will get the omicron version of COVID and a few of them will die, but perhaps far fewer than if they had gotten the stronger delta variant. Having had omicron, they may then have the same risk profile of the vaccinated.. 

Democrats must not appear disappointed if it turns out that COVID disappears and Trump-supporting vaccine resisters escape some karmic justice of hospitalization and death. Some GOP leaders--and some Fox News guests--argue that the best way to end COVID is by the entire nation having gotten and survived the disease. Get it over with! They will crow that they were proven right, at least for those who survive omicron. We will have gotten herd immunity the hard way, after a million deaths, concentrated among the unvaccinated, but, still, herd immunity, like they predicted. If COVID burns itself out this way, Democrats should declare victory and take credit. No need to prolong mandates and controls just because they are the Democratic brand. No need to be trapped by policy inertia and argue that vaccines, masks, and other human interventions alone solve COVID.

The British were saved from the Spanish Armada by the intervention of a favorable wind. The British took it as God's intervention on their behalf. They took credit for the wind. They didn't insist that British gunships keep firing away long after the Spanish ships were sunk.

Democrats should do the same if omicron turns out to be a game changer. Sometimes wishes come true. Take the win.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Tis the season to be jolly.

You better not shout. You better not cry. You better not pout, I'm telling you why:

We are in an economic boom.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Our problems are good problems to have.

The stock market is up. Way up. So far up people are worried. In this first year of the Biden administration, the U.S. stock market reached 75 new highs, with a total return of 25%, and that is just through December 23. 

SP500 for past five years.

This year was the second-best year in history for new stock market highs. Calendar year 1995, when Americans realized that the internet was going to change everything, was a bit better, with 80 new highs. That year of tech euphoria investors bid up stocks on the basis of potential sales. This year, investors bid up stocks on the basis of extraordinary earnings, a much better foundation. Take Apple stock, for example. Sure, it is trading at 31 times past earnings, but those are growing earnings at the rate of 33%. They are making stuff people want and can afford to pay for.

A stock of local interest to people in Southern Oregon is Lithia Motors, headquartered here. The company's stock sells for only eight times earnings, its revenue is growing at some 70% a year, its income growing at 94% a year, and its earnings are growing at 47% a year. Wall Street analysts predict the stock will be up another 53% in the next year.  Are they right? Who knows? But they think the company will sell and repair even more cars next year, and that they will make a boatload of money doing it. 

The U.S. economy is booming. The U.S. economy has grown over 7% in the last quarter and is up 6% from last year. 

U.S. Economy the past five years

It is the kind of growth one sees in developing countries where, finally, they get electricity or a railroad line into an area. America is developed and growth is slower from its higher base. We are getting a boom anyway.

Prosperity brings problems--good, predictable problems associated with booms. These include dislocations from too many people feeling so prosperous they want to buy things faster than they can get manufactured or delivered. We hear people fussing about the busy ports and clogged supply chains, calling it a problem. The clogged supply chain is because we are so prosperous we are buying so much. 

Unemployment is very low. The unemployment rate is about 4.2%, near the lowest in history, and continuing to drop. It is well within the range of "full employment." 

U.S. Unemployment, past ten years

There is always a little bit of churn and turnover in a healthy labor market. People move, they go in and out of school, they change jobs. Four percent unemployment means people who want jobs can find them. Nebraska's current 2% unemployment--and 1.3% in the Lincoln job market--is setting a record. If anything, it is too low.

Low unemployment is a problem of prosperity. There is more profitable work to be done by businesses than there are people to get it done. Good! We hear complaints from small businesspeople in retail and hospitality, and even manufacturing. They cannot find workers when they offer low pay, no benefits, and a dead-end future. Workers are becoming choosy about bad pay, bad hours, bad conditions, or bad bosses. Workers are demanding and getting a better deal. Again, goodThat means those workers can afford to pay rent, pay off student loans, buy cars, and get off public benefits. Taxpayers ought to be celebrating. I am.

What would Trump do if he were president?  

He would be selling this as the best recovery in the history of the world!  He would say he was doing a tremendous job. Merry Christmas, he would say. He would turn inflation and the supply chain jams into positives, the sign of so much winning.

Trump isn't president. Joe Biden is. I don't hear Biden saying it, at least not so well that it is changing the overall public mood. I will do it for him. America is winning. We are doing ok. It's getting better all the time. So much better.

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Friday, December 24, 2021

Biden pivots on COVID. Trump, too.

     “We don’t have to shut down schools because of COVID-19. We can keep our K-12 schools open. That’s exactly what we should be doing."
             President Joe Biden, Dec. 21, 2021

Biden is trying to re-position Democrats. Good. Smart. High time. 

It will work best if someone criticizes him bitterly for it.

Biden announced a change in direction on COVID. Democrats have been associated with COVID shutdowns and mandates. They are the disciplinarian party. The spoilsports. The ones that mandate vaccinations and say to wear masks outside. They are the party that shuts down businesses and schools and holiday gatherings. Biden is saying it is OK to start getting back to normal. Meanwhile, Trump said he was boosted and suggested others make up their own minds and then get boosted, too. He praised the vaccines and took credit for their fast development. Two pivots.

America is moving on because of Omicron, not despite it. Omicron ends any notion we can hide from COVID. This variant is very contagious, but appears not be as dangerous as the Delta variant, especially for the vaccinated and boosted. Those two facts close the loop for the COVID-concerned majority of Americans. 
We have no choice but to live with COVID, and we can do it. The COVID-conscientious are exhausted by COVID protocols and are ready to move on. COVID-minimalists were ready from day one. Vaccine and mask resisters are everywhere, and even vaccinated people get breakthroughs and are briefly contagious. Time to go back to near-normal life, defined by vaccinations and frequent testing, not by sheltering.

Extra people will die every year. Americans are ready to pay that price, as long as they need not acknowledge openly that it will be paid. No one will say aloud that it is OK if an extra 500,000 people  die in the next twelve months, but accepting deaths is the accommodation we have made with traffic and gun deaths. The deaths will be concentrated among stubborn Trump supporters who have chosen their fate, and among the elderly and sick who die in the natural course of things.

It may not be evident that Biden announced a change in direction because he has not yet caught hell for it. He needs the criticism. It would be handy if Anthony Fauci publicly condemned the policy. Biden needs some public health experts to say "Too soon! Too soon!" so that Biden can disagree. It would show that Biden is in control and not a doddering puppet of public health professionals and White House staff.

Trump has countless flaws, but he understands public sentiment and political body language. He has a showman's skillset. He realized he was associated with vaccine refusal and stubborn know-nothing conspiracy thinking on vaccines. The one-two punch of his insisting the 2020 election was stolen on top of vaccine denialism gave him a credibility problem. Trump had a solid grip on the support of rural Americans driving pickup trucks with "Let's Go Brandon" flags, but educated suburban moderates were catching an undeniable scent of kookiness. They were vaccinated but did not notice that they had become pawns of Bill Gates or George Soros. Trump announced in front of a conservative crowd that he was boosted. He got boos. It was exactly what he needed.

The confrontation showed Trump had the courage to disagree with the vaccine-resisters he created within his own team. It gives vaccinated moderate voters a basis to think Trump is not wacky, not really. Maybe Trump isn't at fault for the disproportionate deaths among his supporters. After all, he said to get vaccinated.

The boos made us notice. Trump didn't back down. This confirms that Trump leads a movement; he is not a pawn of it.

Biden needs boos from people who represent past COVID policy. After getting them, he needs to be resolute to show he leads America's COVID policy and is not a pawn of anybody.

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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Body language and tone: "Faith cometh by hearing"

     "You can tell a lot about who is winning a political debate by watching it on TV with the sound turned off."
          James Fallows
    "Faith cometh by hearing."
           St. Paul's letter to the Romans, 10:17

I agree with both statements. They are not contradictory.

An ongoing theme of this blog is that political communication that shapes the nation does so by sharing the internal emotional life of the speaker. Politicians have a brand, created in large part by their party affiliation. Beyond that, politicians fill in nuance through their biography, their tone, their posture, their gestures. During 99% of Trump's presidency Mike Pence backed everything Trump did, literally standing behind him. Yet we know Pence and Trump project entirely different political personas. Pence was Mr. Goody Goody; Trump was Mr. Bad Boy. We did not get that profound difference from policy statements. We got it from the rest of the communication signals, including body language.

The strong form of that statement is the comment by Fallows that you can evaluate who is winning a debate by watching with the sound off. I agree with a recent comment sent to this blog:
When you watch Trump with the sound off, you can see that he projects very strongly. Obama did as well, and so did George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. When I watch Biden with the sound off, there is nothing happening. Kamala Harris is even worse. She looks sad and very uncertain.

St. Paul did not mean faith came by "hearing about something" in the sense of learning about it. He literally meant that faith came from hearing the spoken word. In Biblical times, hearing the spoken word meant a person was in the immediate presence of the speaker. He was saying that reading his letters would not bring people to faith. Hearing preaching would. People change when they observe conviction and confidence, communicated by tone of voice, posture, and gestures. Trump reading a teleprompter was Trump going through the motions. Trump was real at his rallies. That is what moved opinion. 

I am presenting a video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an example of political communication. It came to mind because the contrast with Biden is so profound. I am not anti-Biden. Biden is not dangerous, and Trump was, and is. That is dispositive for me. Presidential scholar Richard Neustadt observed that "the power of the president is the power to persuade." I have watched Biden on TV the past 48 hours, saying important things about an improving economy and announcing a redirection in our struggle to contain COVID. He read weakly from a teleprompter.  All the passion is stripped out.  

I am uncomfortable with AOC's politics. She is more liberal, progressive and urban-oriented than is the country as a whole. She does not appear to appreciate the power of capitalism to create material abundance, and that turns off a great many Americans. She does not communicate bridges to people comfortable with traditional values. She pushes the edge. She is young. Maybe America will catch up with her. 

The denoted message of the video below is the list of 21 things she rattled off in rapid fire. The real message--the one that matters--is that amid the overall sense that Democrats are hobbled by division and gridlock and COVID's slow grind, AOC is making positive changes with energy and optimism and joy. She is doing her job and things are happening! 

She changes the narrative. Biden cannot do that. None of the 20+ Democrats I saw in New Hampshire or Iowa did it. Some Democrat had better get going on that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Manchin: Country's highest WAR score.

 WAR, in sports, has a special meaning.   Wins Above Replacement.

The best thing that can happen to Joe Manchin is for Ilhan Omar to be doing exactly what she is doing. 

Omar and Manchin are staging an act. I hope they both realize it. 

There is a word in professional wrestling to describe a wrestling performance: kayfabe.  It is pronounced KAY-fabe. Definition:

 Kayfabe is a shorthand term that involves acknowledging the staged, scripted nature of professional wrestling, as opposed to a competitive sport, despite being presented as authentic. As a concept, kayfabe involves both the fact that matches are scripted and that wrestlers portray characters for their show.

Ilhan Omar and Joe Manchin are certainly serious and 100% earnest about their politics. They own and embody the characters they play. That isn't fake. But they do not need to own in equal sincerity their public dispute. The shouting, insults, the Fox interview, the claim of White House staff insults, all combine to look like professional wrestling. I hope so. It would be smart. 

The public spectacle gives each of them room to compromise on a new version of Building Back Better. The dispute gives Omar and the progressives political permission to agree to half a loaf. Omar and the Squad aren't stupid. They know the votes for a big progressive bill aren't there. They also understand that Manchin is a West Virginia Democrat.

Manchin insists he is a conservative, but in fact he is a pro-choice FDR-type liberal, elected in a state that had been Democratic because of "solid South" racism. Modern Democrats forget that FDR openly appealed to the attitudes of working men as he found them, and he tolerated their racism as the price of holding office. When open racism became unacceptable for Democrats, West Virginia became Republican. Voters replaced racism with cultural conservatism and suspicion of shiftless, lazy welfare cheats. That is the new political glue in West Virginia and Manchin survives by going along. Whatever Building Back Better bill gets passed must appear to fulfill that glue mandate, and stand up to inevitable accusations that it doesn't. The public fight makes Manchin credible when he claims total victory, even for a bill that includes universal pre-K and some version of a child tax credit.

Here is what I hope for and imagine. I would like Ilhan Omar to ask her chief of staff to call his or her counterpart at Manchin's office. They set up a meeting. No staff present, except two or three staff members from each office outside the closed door, while Omar and Manchin visit. It is a social call, so Manchin serves her something. Omar notes that they each have constituencies who get a bum rap. West Virginians have the unfair reputation for being uneducated "rednecks" who live without plumbing and marry their sisters. Her constituents are unfairly targeted as Muslim terrorists. Woe is us. She might acknowledge that West Virginia's hard, shiny anthracite coal is essential to making steel out of America's most accessible iron in her state's Mesabi Iron Range. They have some common ground. 

But maybe that is pointless and unnecessary. Maybe she should just let Manchin complain about being forced to be the center of attention and having the incredible burden of power. So many interviews.  

Oh, yes, what a burden, she might commiserate. She needs to stay in character herself, here. No eye rolling. If Manchin needs to pretend he is a victim because he has become the most powerful man in the senate, humor him. Oh, yes, senator. It will go against her grain, but women have been manipulating men this way since the beginning of time, and men have been falling for it. It is for the cause. Paris is worth a mass. Kayfabe within kayfabe.

Manchin must appear to win big
Then, with the door still closed, staff outside the door wondering what is going on, she smiles and tells him what a magnificent job he has done to win and hold office. Then she starts shouting--something about him destroying America, his blowing an opportunity to save West Virginians in poverty, that he is an utter disgrace. She can storm out of the office, furious, scolding her staff outside the door for setting up this pointless meeting. She can be confident that Manchin's staff will leak to the media, saying Manchin defied that stubborn woman.

Kayfabe. It is how America will get pre-K.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

"Spitting is dangerous, indecent, and against the law!"

Tuberculosis was killing people.

Governments tried to outlaw spitting on sidewalks and streetcars. 

People protested and spat anyway.

COVID vaccine and mask resistance is nothing new.

In the decades before and after the year 1900, men habitually spat in public. Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in America. New science connected germs and tuberculosis. Doctors reported that microbes containing TB were present in large numbers in expectorate. People stepped on spit and carried it into their homes, got TB, got sick, and died. 

It was an era of public health and a new consciousness of the responsibilities of citizenship. Individual freedom, including the freedom to spit in public places, ran up against the notion of communicable disease and the public good. The public health idea went beyond TB. Cambridge, Massachusetts passed a law requiring everyone to be vaccinated against smallpox. Henning Jacobson said he had the personal liberty to be unvaccinated. He refused vaccination and was fined. He appealed. The case went to the Supreme Court: Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 1905. A 7-2 majority affirmed Massachusetts' authority. If the Supreme Court reverses Biden's vaccination requirement, it will reverse this 116-year precedent.

The anti-spitting effort of the 1895-1915 era mixed social pressure with laws. A great many people continued spitting, citing the same arguments we observe today regarding the COVID. 

***It is a fundamental right to spit at will. We have body autonomy and the liberty to spit.

***The medical science is unproven and the so-called experts are wrong about how TB is spread.  

***The health benefits of spitting outweigh the dangers of spit. Spitting clears the lungs of mucus.

***Laws prohibiting spitting are tyrannical government overreach on a harmless and widespread practice.

***The laws are unenforceable because everyone spits, publicly or secretly, so there will be spit anyway. 

***Nobody wants to enforce laws against such a petty crime.  Besides besides the enforcers are hypocrites; some of them spit, too.

That is all familiar today. One difference is that the anti-spitting effort was visibly led by women. Anti-spitting leaders positioned spitting as uncultured, un-sanitary, and disrespectful to women, whose long skirts brushed against the spit.  The anti-spitting effort mixed the stick of the law with a carrot of social approval for being sanitary. 

Opponents of current COVID mitigation efforts made Dr. Anthony Fauci a target. He represents scientific expertise and government compulsion, both of which generate opposition. In hindsight, a campaign like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, visibly led by a bipartisan array of everyday seniors-- a Seniors' Right to Life--might have been more successful in avoiding dug-in opposition from the right. 

There appears to be little social pressure to wear masks in Trump-supporting areas of rural Oregon. At the Grange Co-op store in Central Point, Oregon almost all shoppers were mask-free yesterday. At Costco yesterday a person at the doorway reminded people to be masked. Once inside, about 10% of the shoppers openly removed their masks.

I asked store supervisors if they would attempt to get mask compliance. A supervisor with the name-tag "Damon" shrugged his shoulders and said there was nothing he could do. Enforcement is unpleasant and difficult. Attitudes need to change for behavior to change. Sometimes they do. I saw no one smoking as they shopped. I saw no spit on the floor.