Wednesday, May 31, 2023

A budget deal is a win for America. And for Biden.

It looks like some kind of debt limit deal will get done. 

It turns out that Biden is good at this.

Biden is preserving America's status of a reliable country. Biden is preserving "normal." He isn't publicly celebrating or spiking the football. He is letting Kevin McCarthy do that.

Republicans don't really want to cut spending on anything specific. They love defense spending, Medicare, Social Security, infrastructure spending and nearly everything else that costs money. What they want is to say that they won and owned the libs.

Let them. 

The debt deal reflects approximately what would have been worked out in any sort of normal budget appropriation push and pull. The debt deal contains a bit of tinkering around the edges on work requirements for nutrition benefits, student loans, IRS spending, and future caps on spending. 

Republicans are going to complain, but they can celebrate that there will be fewer IRS audits of their donors and that they made life a little harder for some undeserving people. Democratic complaints are an essential part of the performance to assure Republicans that they won big. The simple reality is that no one should expect to win big. If Democrats expect New Deal-type increases in the social safety net, they need to elect New Deal-type majorities. 

Democrats have a skin-of-the-teeth majority in the Senate, possible because Joe Manchin from a conservative fossil-fuel state is an essential vote. No one should be surprised that there is an earmark pork allowing the go-ahead of the Mountain Valley Pipeline stuck in the proposed deal. Climate activists are outraged. People in West Virginia think otherwise, and -- unfortunately for Democrats -- Joe Manchin is the very best that Democrats can hope for in a West Virginia senator. Half-a-loaf deals are what one gets when one has narrow majorities. Democrats are unhappy. So are Freedom Caucus Republicans.

Biden has demonstrated what he is good at. He worked out a compromise deal. He has the talents of a senator. He let others win on some points and save face. In 2020 Americans voted for normalcy, not high drama, and that is what they got.

The budget deal also defines the two political parties. Democrats are the grown-ups. Republicans are the risk-chaos party. The GOP is split between business people, social conservatives, and populists. Social conservatives in the coalition are more focused on abortion and gender than on debt default, but they are suspicious of secular elites right along with the populists. They are swept along in agreement, led there by Trump. However, big business and Chamber of Commerce Republicans understand that they have chaos agents in their party. In the past the factions could get along, uncomfortably to be sure, but with a common purpose of lower taxes and smaller government. That era is over. Populists like big government. Populists dislike financial elites and secular cultural elites. 

The New York Times' David Frum called it win-win for Democrats and Republicans:

McCarthy wanted a win on principle: use of the debt ceiling as a weapon. Beyond that, his caucus could not agree on specific demands.

Biden yielded on principle, which opened the way to prevail on the substance. Each got what he most wanted. Win-win

Not so. This is a loss for Republicans. Financially sophisticated people understand that using the debt ceiling as a weapon is a gun to one's own economy. Republican populism is dangerous. Trump lit a fire and is feeding it. The movement is bigger than Trump now. It isn't the party of Romney, Pence, McConnell, or even Kevin McCarthy. They are the establishment, and they lost control. GOP populism is a bull in a china shop. The business wing of the GOP owns that shop.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

New York, New York

Headline: "Airlines are in a hiring frenzy." 
Headline: "Airline prices up 25%, outpacing inflation."
Headline: "U.S. Hotel occupancy back to pre-Covid levels."

Americans have decided Covid is over. Tourism is back. 

Tam Moore, whose 60-plus year career as a journalist suggests his age, did not let Covid-caution stop him from traveling across the country to see a grandson graduate from college. He wrote two Guest Posts about touring historic Boston. Another frequent Guest Post author, Jack Mullen, is a lifelong sports fan. He mixed his interest in sports with his wife's interest in opera to travel to New York City to see an opera about a welterweight boxer.

Today's post is not about the economy and how people think about it. (People think it is terrible for others, but that they themselves are doing OK, so they are continuing to spend, including travel.) But that subject is for another day. Today the Guest Post is about seeing an opera at Lincoln Center on the economy-track -- but that didn't get in Jack Mullen's way. Everything worked out great.

Guest Post by Jack Mullen

No city stirs one’s emotions like New York City, especially for someone who grew up in faraway Medford, Oregon. As my wife and I planned for a three day stay in the Big Apple, we researched all the Broadway and off-Broadway productions. None floated our boat.

Knowing my wife loves opera, I took a wild stab at mentioning “Champion”, a modern opera about Emile Griffith, a boxer that I remembered from my youth. Even though Jennifer prefers traditional over modern opera, and didn’t have the vaguest idea who Emile Griffith was, she agreed we should venture to Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera. We purchased two box seat tickets in the lower tier balcony, seats that we were warned had an obstructed view.

Wide eyed, yet acting cool, we arrived at the Met early enough to check out our seats. I quickly realized my view from the third row of our box seats cut off two-thirds of the stage. Having perfected the fine art of moving to empty, but more expensive seats at ball games, I decided, once the curtain was drawn, and the opera started, that we could move to the empty box closest to the stage. We quickly moved to our new box, and as I looked down at the orchestra pit, I realized this vacant box had not only an unobstructed view of the stage, but we may just be in possession of the best seats in the house. No one came to tell us to move.

The mid-20th-Century Medford of my youth was a "Friday Night Lights" type of town. Before venturing across town for the 8 p.m. kickoff of Medford Black Tornado football games, everyone tuned into local Channel 5’s Gillette Cavalcade of Sports to watch live boxing from Madison Square Garden. Among the household names of boxers in the pre-Muhammed Ali era was Emile Griffith, a charismatic welterweight from the Virgin Islands.

What I, as a 14-year-old, and everyone else of my generation who watched Friday night boxing remembered, was Emile Griffith knocking out his opponent, Benny "Kid” Paret in the 12th round of a championship fight. Paret lay motionless on the canvas. Most of us didn’t realize that Emile Griffith was bisexual and that Paret had unmercifully taunted Griffith for being gay. As a result of the taunts, Griffith unleashed such a fury of punches that they left “The Kid” in a coma. Paret died one week later.

Emile Griffith’s hard-scrabble life of abandonment by his mother leading to the apex of boxing, a world championship, then the guilt of having killed a man, provided Terrance Blanchard a perfect operatic script.

Opera needs to attract a new, younger audience. The Met seems to realize that operas such as “Champion” are needed to appeal to a wider demographic than just old folks who, when they pass away, leave opera as some sort of museum relic. “Champion” fit the bill of a modern opera with its gay nightclub scenes, a beautifully choreographed fight scene, and a sad, old Emile Griffith fading away in a retirement home. I noted an audience at the Met that was both young and old, gay and straight, and African American and White.

During the long intermission, I chatted with the two elderly gentlemen in the adjacent box. Just before the curtain raised before the next act, one of the gentlemen, with a gleam in his eye, informed me that we were sitting in the “Director’s Box.” At the end of the opera, after all the curtain calls, my new best friend in the adjacent box told me, “I didn’t think you were the Director, I just thought you were a wealthy patron.”

In the song New York, New York, Frank Sinatra sings "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” Well, in my one and only trip to Lincoln Center, I made it to the best seat in the Met. A nice way to experience New York, New York.

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Monday, May 29, 2023

Gave their Lives

"Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori."

(It is sweet and fitting to die for one's fatherland.)

The Roman poet Horace wrote it. It is the sort of thing that people engrave on bronze memorials.  It is the final line in the plaque in my nearby community of Ashland, Oregon.

Vietnam combat veteran Larry Slessler has a Memorial Day comment about that.

Guest Post by Larry Slessler

The two toughest days of the year for me are Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I will not repeat what drives me bat guano crazy. OK, just a peek at my inner demons. When any speaker refers to thanking the men and women who "Gave their lives. . . ", my inner voice screams: "Gave my ass, you SOB." Life was ripped from these young people in horrible ways and their future life denied them.


Let me be clear: I endured war with one overarching goal. That was to go back home intact of body and soul. The day I left for my tour I said goodbye to my two-year- 10-month-old daughter. She looked up, smiled, and said "Goodbye, Daddy" like I was headed to the store for a loaf of bread. I was devastated. Would that exchange be our last? A few days prior I had walked with my father and we stood on the Medford Main Street bridge overlooking Bear Creek. I told Dad I didn't want to go. He replied to his eldest child and only son, you signed a contract and you must honor that contract. That had to have been hard for dad.   


I did not hate the enemy, or give a rat's ass about Domino Theory, Containment, Hearts and Minds, and the Communist threat. God, motherhood, apple pie, Chevrolet, and night baseball were meaningless to me. Doing my tour of duty with honor and my buddies and me going back to "The World" (Home) were all that mattered to me. Being an old man of 26 was a negative.The average age of an in-country vet was 19.5. An 18-and-19-year-old's self-belief in his own immortality and survival is a gift that quickly is stripped of one as we age.    


Frank Murphy, a WWII vet, in his memoir Luck of the Draw writes: "At the end of the day, combat soldiers do not fight for love of country or because they hate the enemy. They fight for each other."   


So spare me the parades, the political speeches and the discounted or free meals. Do me a favor, and once during Memorial Day give silent prayer or thoughts for the soldiers of all nations that had their lives taken from them and the survivors that still did, and continue to, pay a price. War zone duty sucks.


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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Easy Sunday: Obama and Trump side by side

Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump announced assassinations. 

Jimmy Kimmel played it for laughs.

Take one minute and 24 seconds.

The difference between them is dramatic. I was reminded of Obama's grace and seriousness. I was reminded of Trump's narcissism and lack of class.

And yet.

And yet about half of our fellow Americans choose Trump, and a great many of them refuse to believe anyone so wonderful could possibly have lost an election.

Try watching the video a second time, this time ignoring the Kimmel audience laughter. Look at Trump. 

Watch his gestures and demeanor, and compare it to Obama's. Trump is animated. His gestures are big and loud. Face, hands, and arms are all part of the big show. His words are the language of tabloid newspapers and casual speech. In one sense, it is utterly inappropriate for the circumstance. As his former Chief of Staff, Attorney General, and other top Cabinet officers have said, Trump is "unfit" for the presidency. But he is relatable as a peer to the demographic that has become the centerpiece of the GOP base. 

"He died like a dog. A beautiful dog. A talented dog," Trump said. Trump was smirking at a trophy.

"Easy Sunday" is intended to be a lighthearted post, but take a moment to remember the culmination event in the oldest story in Western Civilization, The Iliad. Achilles, after defeating Hector in battle, celebrated by dragging his body behind his chariot. The gods were offended, disgusted. It was unseemly. Yet what Achilles did was all-too-human, the victor spiking the football. It was the behavior of the self-centered, prima-donna hero. A star. 

Trump told us about stars. When you are a star you can do what you want. Women let you fondle them. Men let you shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. Circumstances reveal Trump is largely correct, alas. White women voted for Trump, even after the Access Hollywood revelation. His supporters laughed along with him when he called E. Jean Carroll a whack job. The many legal cases against him appear to be increasing his support. 

Trump is a star. He is heroic, not in the Bible sense of good, evil, and obedience to God, but in the Iliad sense of warrior culture, glory, and willfulness. 

He is not elected by the Greek Gods, nor by modern arbiters of decorum. Trump condemns those do-gooder arbiters as elitists, fake, the swamp, and woke. Trump is elected by people who considered Obama an imposter who rose above his true station in life. A great many Americans see Trump for exactly who he is, and prefer him. They resent the fact that people laugh at Trump for being plain spoken. It means the audience is laughing at them, too.

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Saturday, May 27, 2023

Decoration Day: Rest in Peace.

"Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 
Shovel them under and let me work— 
                                          I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 
Shovel them under and let me work. 
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 
                                          What place is this? 
                                          Where are we now? 

                                          I am the grass. 
                                          Let me work."
                            Carl Sandberg, "Grass," 1918

Decoration Day -- now Memorial Day -- demonstrates the human impulse to recognize, in the face of mortality, the momentary flicker that is life. 

We want to believe the dead rest in peace. We want reconciliation and peace ourselves. After the mass death of World War One, Sandburg reflected that emotion. Memorial Day reflects it as well.

Yale historian David Blight describes an incident in Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Civil War was ending. General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Lincoln was assassinated on April 15. Charleston, where the war had begun, was a bombed-out wreck during the spring of 1865. Whites had evacuated the town. Freed Blacks and former slaves lived in the wreckage. A prominent local landmark, the racetrack, had been used as a site for a mass grave of some 300 Union soldiers. Townspeople moved the bodies to individual graves. Schoolchildren brought flowers. Townspeople set up a stage. Fourteen people spoke. It was May 1, 1865. It was probably the first "Decoration Day." 

Three years later, on May 5, 1868 the head of a veterans group for the Grand Army of the Republic, Major General John Logan, tried to put regular order onto "Decoration Day" events taking place spontaneously all over America, in both North and South. He said it should be May 30, where flowers are in bloom everywhere. 

People were decorating graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. The spontaneous celebrations portended the short life of the Reconstruction impulse to bring racial equality in America. Majorities in Congress -- led by so-called "Radical Republicans" -- advanced the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Acts, over the objection and vetos of pro-South presidential successor to Lincoln, Andrew Johnson. Wartime bitterness was combined with a desire for reconciliation, reflected in Decoration Day remembrances.

Let it go. Forgive. Stop the fighting. Union and Confederate, all brothers in arms. Rest in peace. Let the grass work.

Sentiment in the North remained anti-slavery, but there wasn't  widespread sentiment for equality or integration. Racial prejudice was commonplace. Most Northerners considered the status of Black Americans to be the South's business, with their Black Codes, legal segregation, voter suppression, all-White juries, and a two-class society. 

Northern desire for unity, peace, and reconciliation was greater than the desire for racial equality. It took a century for images of injustices in the South, shaming by the USSR in our competition for alliances and alignments, and the inspiration of a charismatic leader, to inspire a new sentiment for change in the face of resistance, resulting in what we call the Civil Rights era.

And, as before, that progress creates its own sentiment for backlash and retreat. 

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Friday, May 26, 2023

Lexington and Concord: A well regulated militia

A musket in one hand. A plow by his side.
New England "Minuteman"
There is a history to militias and the right to bear arms.

Journalist Tam Moore visited the Boston area to witness the college graduation of his grandson on Monday. The Ukrainian ambassador was the speaker at the Boston College commencement. Moore made a history-themed vacation out of this trip and went on a Boston-area excursion every day. I published an "Easy Sunday" Guest Post last weekend, where he described some of the places he had seen on the Freedom Trail. The next days he visited Harvard and the JFK library.  

Today he describes the history of Minutemen. Colonial "irregulars," i.e. settlers out of uniform fighting under the command of local officers, skirmished with the British at Lexington and Concord. They fired from cover at the British soldiers as the Redcoats took casualties as they marched back to Boston. The Minutemen were breaking that era's rules of regular-order warfare. They were citizen soldiers, the militia.

Tam Moore has been doing journalism for 65 years, going back to his time as a reporter for the Oregon State University newspaper. He was a TV journalist for KOBI, a Jackson County Commissioner, and a print reporter for the Capital Press.

Guest Post by Tam Moore

For decades I’ve ignored the tension between the two clauses in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This past week as I toured the North Bridge historic site in the Town of Concord, Massachusetts, the tension came into focus, aided by an impromptu bit of commentary from Charlie Bahne, our tour guide.

Bahne is an historian, author, and since he graduated from MIT decades ago, a professional tour guide in the Greater Boston area. For a refresher in U.S. History, the North Bridge over the Concord River is where at about 9:30 a.m. on April 19, 1775, British Regulars and local militiamen shot at each other for the second time in a day. The first shots came about 5 a.m. at Lexington Green, 10 miles away on the road from Boston to Concord. Eight colonials, called to the green by peeling of church bells, died in a volley fired by the British.

Both sides in this run-up to the Revolutionary War regrouped after exchanging shots. They kept their cool. Then British troops, on a mission to seize gunpowder and weapons stockpiled by the colonial militia, marched west toward the Concord targets identified by their spies. When shots were exchanged at the Concord River, the shooting continued. That day, and for over seven years after.

Militiamen by the thousands took potshots at the retreating British for much of 17 miles back to the safety of Boston. War continued until the Treaty of Paris in 1783 birthed the United States. The Second Amendment says “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Bahne, our tour guide, was standing beneath the famed statue of the colonial minuteman at Concord Bridge. He told us that Massachusetts Colony had a tradition dating back to the Pilgrims of 1620. Every male from 16 to 60 years old was to have a firearm and be part of the militia which defended their settlement. It worked as the colony expanded inland on land that was home to Native Americans. It worked on a larger scale when militia from several colonies were mobilized during the near-decade-long French and Indian War. Militias fought with the British against the French and their native allies.
In the unrest following Britain’s efforts to get the Colonies to pay part of the costs for that war, Bahne said some New England towns formed an elite unit of their militias – the Minutemen. They pledged to drill weekly, keep muskets handy and hurry to a pre-determined rallying point if the town alarm sounded. At Concord that morning, Minutemen rallied on a hill above North Bridge. They saw smoke coming from the town center, where in the main street British troops burned seized supplies. The Minuteman commander ordered his company to the town they thought was afire. From 96 to 120 British troops – the record is fuzzy on the number—guarded the North Bridge the Minutemen had to cross to reach the town center. Two Minutemen died as the British shot, and the Minuteman’s commander ordered his men to return fire.

Charlie Bahne describes the Minuteman commitment. That was a well-regulated militia at work. Casualties for both sides are estimated at 120 killed, 400 wounded. By the time the British troops reached Boston that evening, an estimated 4,000 colonial militiamen were on the scene. Within days, the “New England Army,” as they called themselves, numbered 10,000 men from a half-dozen colonies. The British were trapped in Boston by the well-regulated militia pledged to defend colonial rights to self-government.

On the tour bus taking us back to Boston that afternoon, Bahne was recounting capabilities of the basic infantry muskets used by both sides.

Trained soldiers who made up cartridges of shot and gunpowder beforehand could fire perhaps once every 20 seconds. Militiamen who hadn’t made up cartridges would fire once, then run into the woods, reload and jog to a new firing position. “When you think about the Second Amendment (to keep and bear arms) that’s the kind of weapons they were thinking of weapons has changed a lot since that time.”

Warren Burger, former chief justice of the Supreme Court, kicked up a public fuss about present-day gun control in 1991, saying on television “The gun lobby interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat fraud, on the American people by special interest groups
that I have seen in my lifetime.” He likened government regulation of cars and boats – and their operators – to legislation needed. “Sale and use of guns should be regulated, just as driving a car is regulated. . . .”

When the contemporary Supreme Court again took up gun control (District of Columbia v. Heller 554 U.S. 570 [2008]), a 5-4 decision found that D.C. could not lawfully ban a homeowner from having a handgun. The court went further, finding a person doesn’t have to be a militia member to own a weapon. Just last year the high court, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing for the majority, found that governments can’t require concealed weapons permits because “prudent ordinary citizens” need a means of self-defense (New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v Bruen.).

For legal “originalists” who say they interpret the Constitution on how they perceive framers of that document thought at the time particular language was adopted, it appears the tension between need for a well-regulated militia and a right to bear arms has been forgotten – in favor of bearing arms regardless of the consequences.

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Request of Readers

I welcome a Guest Post submission.

I would like to hear from someone who is enthusiastic about the re-election of Joe Biden, and will say so.

This is a blog about policy and political messaging.  Voters aren't looking for a policy checklist. On the margin, among voters not thoroughly locked in by party identification, people vote their gut. They vote for the person, evaluating the spoken and unspoken brand of that candidate. 

I have been tough on Biden. The ideal guest post will not bother telling readers that I am an ageist jerk. That is already established. Instead, please make the reasoned argument that Biden deserves to be re-elected and why voters will agree with you that Biden would be a good president.

I don't promise to publish what you send, but I will read it. I do hope to publish one or two submissions. 

If this works out I will ask for a Trump supporter to do the same thing.

Peter Sage

Thursday, May 25, 2023

"Support the team,” Peter.

I learn from my critics.

Yesterday I wrote that I welcomed additional  candidates filing for the Democratic nomination for president. 

Some readers were unhappy with me.
Biden in Portland, April 2022

Democratic critics help me understand the self-destructive behavior of Republicans who are riding the Trump train over a cliff. 

One reader said my observations on Biden made me a backstabber, sore loser, and Trump-ish. 

The haters and backstabbers are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by constantly tearing down Joe Biden, which you have been doing since the last presidential campaign. You sound like a big sore loser, who still can't get over the fact that Joe Biden won. So you have something in common with the Orange Traitor, whose political skills you perversely admire.
I was "racist," too.  I had written: 

Biden's team was too clever by half. They arranged to make South Carolina, not New Hampshire, the first primary state for Democrats. The DNC used the cover of saying it was to empower Black voters. Everyone knows the real reason. It protected Biden. Lock up the nomination with South Carolina Black voters before someone catches fire in New Hampshire.

That reader said of this:

The comment about South Carolina sounds like a racist rant.
Another reader told me to "support the team" and that "dissing and booing your own team is very low down."

I am grateful to these critics.

Regular readers know I have been disappointed with "normal Republicans." These are people who know better, but who go along with Trump anyway. These are people who disapprove of Trump's shameless behavior but turn a blind eye to it. Trump's unfitness is apparent to at least 60% of American voters, but they stay on their team. Why? Republican partisans enforce team loyalty. Acknowledge Trump lost in 2020 and expect to be called a RINO.

Biden's age is no secret. It bothers voters. Democrats are risking the 2024 election on two "maybes." Maybe Trump will be the GOP nominee. They better hope so. The second is that some Biden health event -- the flu, a stumble, a moment of public confusion -- won't happen in the next 17 months and irrevocably spook voters. Pointing out that risk draws objection from the loyalty police. 

South Carolina saved Biden's 2020 primary campaign. It is no secret that in the polarized racial party line-ups in the American South, South Carolina Democrats are majority Black. It is not possible to un-see this reality. But to acknowledge the racial skew in Biden's support threatens Biden's overall credibility and somehow diminishes Black voters. Democratic thought police must squash that with the nuclear bomb of political argument, calling it a "racist rant." 

That shuts down discussion about the implications of moving up the date of the South Carolina primary Some people would argue that it shows Biden at his best, his having used brute force to bend circumstances to his will. It is what strong leaders do. But on balance I think Biden would have been better off showing he could win contested elections against a credible opponent without having stacked the deck. What is the better approach? Where does Biden do best? Don't talk about it lest the Democratic loyalty police cry "racist."

"Racist!" is the Democratic version of "RINO!"

Stump speech: Iowa, August, 2019

Stump speech: New Hampshire, September, 2019

Republicans have lost much of their ability to self-correct. Party leaders are afraid of Trump and his loyalty enforcers. Democrats will better connect with voters if they retain the ability to see what is right before their eyes, acknowledge it, and assess the risks.  


Disclosure:  My wife and I have each maxed out on our legal contributions to Biden 2024, per this report, and we have each given additional contributions to Senators Wyden and Merkley, which indirectly give Biden yet more support. We also give to state and local candidates.  

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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

I am jealous of Republicans. Candidates are entering the race.

"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Woo, woo, woo."

                             Paul Simon, "Mrs. Robinson" 1968

Trump rivals are stepping up.

It is not too late for a Democrat to do the same.  

Candidate Tim Scott

People will misunderstand. Friends will criticize. It is OK. Joe Biden is so weak a feather will topple him.  Democrats need someone to be the feather.  

Today, or soon, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pence, Chris Sununu, Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswami and maybe a few more will be official candidates for the GOP nomination. Don't count them out. At this point in 1975 few of us knew who Jimmy Carter was--not until he outperformed in Iowa. At this time in 1991 what we knew about Bill Clinton was that he was a smooth talker from a backwater state with a sex scandal problem. 

It was not until June 15, 2015 that Donald Trump came down the escalator. Trump had a big reputation, but it didn't fit the situation -- not until he sold it by campaigning. He sold Republicans on a say-anything, do-anything shameless fighter, an insult comic. He was an alternative to a boring "TrusTED conservative" like Ted Cruz, or a sanctimonious prig like Rick Santorum, an over-practiced amateur like Little Marco, or establishment Low Energy Jeb Bush.

Robert F. Kennedy is polling at some 20%. There is a hunger for an alternative to Biden. I consider Kennedy a crank candidate, not unlike Marianne Williamson. Kennedy's anti-vaccine activism made him a public ally of Louis Farrakhan and Steve Bannon welcomes him into the race as a useful "chaos agent." I have heard Williamson multiple times. She offers uplift for self-actualizing individuals. Both are running because nature abhors a vacuum and they have no real credibility to lose. 

Biden's team was too clever by half. They arranged to make South Carolina, not New Hampshire, the first primary state for Democrats. The DNC used the cover of saying it was to empower Black voters. Everyone knows the real reason. It protected Biden. Lock up the nomination with South Carolina Black voters before someone catches fire in New Hampshire and do to Biden what Eugene McCarthy did to LBJ in 1968 and what Pat Buchanan did to George H.W. Bush in 1992. 

Sometimes campaigns click. Sometimes not. The campaigns give candidates a shot.

Lindsay Graham, New Hampshire, 2015

Buttigieg in Iowa, 2019
The South Carolina power play was a dis-service to Biden because the inevitable theme of the 2024 election will be that Democrats are hiding Biden's feebleness from the American people. And they are. Democrats are making the GOP talking point: Biden cannot win conflicts; he must avoid them. Biden needed to communicate bring-it-on confidence and can-do competence in a conflict. He is doing the opposite.

Biden has fringe-candidate opposition, but this leaves open the lane of spirited opposition from the far left. Possibly a Jill Stein/Nina Turner-style candidate will emerge with a message of defunding police, banning the sale of gasoline, reparation payments to Blacks, or confiscation of guns. Those ideas have appeal to a segment of left-oriented Americans, but they are not Biden's positions, and those positions are not broadly popular in a general election. A spirited and articulate campaign from the progressive left would give credence to the Republican critique that a weak, manipulated Biden will carry out their mission, not his. Biden has difficulty communicating his own mission. He is not a bad legislator. He is a poor communicator.

The solution is at hand. A nationally-electable, center left Democrat needs to step forward and articulate a case for the new generation of Democrats to continue the general policy direction of Biden. Democrats need a spokesman and hero. Grab the platform. Sell yourself.  Where are you? Where have you gone?

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Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The brain is a neural network, whatever that is.

     "You really have to watch it with neural networks."
               Michael Trigoboff

I have been trying to avoid thinking hard about artificial intelligence. It seems to change too much, too fast. I think: Oh, darn. Another whole new important maybe-dangerous thing to worry about, as if there isn't enough already.

I remember feeling the same way when I first started hearing about AIDS back about 1982. Maybe its a false alarm. If this is real it changes everything, I thought. 

I have no illusions that humans are rational, reasonable, or reliable thinkers. Humans can pass a Captcha challenge and tell crosswalks from staircases, but we also believe fantastical religions and impossible conspiracies. We know all too well about human error. There are crazy people. There are sane people who believe crazy things. Artificial intelligence is susceptible to the same problems. But AI is efficient and labor saving and cheaper, and there are good things about it. Artificial intelligence is an oncoming train. 

Michael Trigoboff retired as an Instructor of Computer Science at Portland Community College. He has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Rutgers and had a successful career as a software engineer. I asked him if he could help me make sense of Artificial Intelligence.

Guest Post by Michael Trigoboff

There are two questions about the current situation regarding the current neural network implementations of AI, and failing to distinguish between them causes a lot of confusion. The two questions are:

***Will these neural networks become smarter than us?

***What social and psychological effects will the neural networks have on our society?

"Smarter" is a pretty vague term. Chess computers can now beat the best grand master we have, Garry Kasparov. Does this make them "smarter" than Mr. Kasparov? An autopilot can fly an airplane more efficiently than a human pilot. Is that autopilot “smarter" than a human pilot? A computer can add up a set of numbers faster than I can. Does that make the computer "smarter" than me?
It all depends what we mean by "smarter". We could descend far into the weeds on that topic, in conversations suitable for stoned evenings in a college dorm. It can get very emotional; many people tend to not like the idea of machines smarter than they are. Science fiction is full of stories about malevolent smart computers; “Open the pod bay door, HAL”, etc.

But it only matters if we give these neural networks control of things that could hurt us. And this is true, regardless of whether they are, or can become, smarter that we are. We should not give neural networks that sort of control. We should not because we fundamentally do not know what we have created when we build and train one of these things. You can train neural networks, but you really have no idea what they have learned.
I have heard this possibly apocryphal but illustrative story: a neural network was trained to recognize lung cancer in x-rays. It was shown millions (billions?) of x-ray images which were labeled either lung cancer or not lung cancer. Then it was tested against unlabeled x-ray images and it got the decision right at a very high rate.

Then the researchers did something very difficult: they picked apart how this neural network was making the decision. They discovered that, at that time, every x-ray image had text in one corner saying things like the patient's name, the date of the x-ray, where the x-ray was taken, etc. The neural net had figured out that x-rays taken in a hospital were significantly more likely to show lung cancer than x-rays taken in a doctor's office, and was basing part of its decision on that text.

You really have to watch it with neural networks. It's very difficult to tell what they are doing even when it seems like they are working correctly. Why is that?

A neural network consists of many layers of simulated "neurons”. The image above shows a very simple neural network. The arrows represent connections from each neuron to neurons in the next layer, going from left to right. Each connection has a strength associated with it: a number between zero and one that specifies the strength of that connection.

The learning process for a neural network consists of giving it a "training set". That could be a few million pictures containing a cat, and a few million pictures with no cat. Every time the neural network thinks it saw a cat when it actually did, you "reward" the neurons that made that decision by increasing their connection strengths. Every time the neural network gets it wrong (either it didn't see a cat when there actually was one, or vice versa), you "punish" the neurons involved by decreasing their connection strengths.
If the training has gone well, you eventually get a neural network that can reliably tell you if there is a cat in the picture. At this point, it "knows" how to identify a cat. But what does it know?

The neural network will actually consist of millions, if not billions, of simulated neurons, and a much higher number of connections between them. The "knowledge" gained from the training process will be nothing more or less than a huge gray mass of connection strength numbers, all of which are between zero and one. No one can look at that gray mass of numbers and even begin to understand how the neural network identifies cats.
This is a huge problem with neural networks. You can't tell what they know, or what the limits of their knowledge are. You can't tell when something like ChatGPT will "hallucinate" and not only make up fictitious "facts”, but go on to cite fictitious scientific papers that support those facts. Everyone was surprised when ChatGPT tried to convince a New York Times reporter to leave his wife, because ChatGPT "knew" that the reporter loved it more. Neural networks are a classic example of a black box; we can see what it does, but we don't have a very good idea of how it does it.

Whether or not they are smarter than us, it would be a very dangerous to put them in charge of things like electrical grids or NORAD. I would not want a neural network, of whatever degree of "smartness", to decide whether or not to fire nukes back in response to what seemed to be an attack by a foreign adversary. Scenarios like that are best left to the movies.

War Games, 1983
Which brings us to the second question: social and psychological effects.
Neural networks are going to cause a new wave of automation and job elimination, and this time it is going to be white-collar jobs on the chopping block. Paralegals, accountants, pharmacists, and many others will see a significant reduction in demand for workers. It will affect people who write code; ChatGPT does a pretty good job, and has even written entire smart phone apps.
What will happen if there are far fewer reasonably good jobs available? A previous guest essay on the topic of AI proposed that people would live on basic universal income (BUI) instead.
I have serious doubts about this. Even if BUI were to be implemented at a relatively decent level of income, I believe that many people need a sense of purpose in their lives, a sense that they are wielding useful skills to contribute to the progress of society. We see so many "deaths of despair” in our de-industrialized areas; suicides and fentanyl addictions involving people who have lost the sense that they have a place in society. While I personally know a few people who would be happy to live on some sort of dole, I suspect that a lot of us have a Drive to contribute, and would not be happy living out our lives in Neutral or Park.

I don't know the answer to this problem; it's not my field of expertise. But I think it's a much bigger concern than whether the machines are going to become smarter than us.

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