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Why character issues usually don’t matter

May 29, 2016

Many people who hate Clinton policies think the email scandal  will help defeat her electorally, and more importantly that it reveals something special about how she will govern. Unless she is (improbably) indicted or charged,  the email scandal will not hurt her politically, and also reveals very little about  how she will govern. This is generally true in politics about this sort of scandal.

Lets start with the idea that this will hurt her politically.  Most of the time, well known politicians are not brought down by scandal short of a criminal conviction. Think of “family values.”  David Vitter who has been able to remain a sitting Senator despite the prostitution scandal. He had to give up his run for Governor, because the scandal first came to light too late in the game. The email scandal, whatever its merits, has been around long enough to be unlikely to hurt Hillary. There have been so many phony scandals around the Clintons that at this point, even if a real one turns up, it will be tough to get anyone who is not already a Republican to believe them.  And that is mostly the case. Even when people are brought down by scandals, mostly it is due to  having already lost political support. The one exception is when somebody can actually be brought to trial or believes that they can be, and resigns as part of a deal to avoid jail.  Short of that, scandal gets ignored.  And when it comes to character in general, people ignore most scandals. People do very much judge politicians on character, but not by the stuff normally thought of as “Character issues”. They judge character by indicators of what side the politicians are on.  Judging politicians by which side they are on rather than personal characters is actually quite a reasonable thing to do. The problem is when that judgement is based on symbolism rather than substance.

For example, as a lefty, I think Ronald Reagan was a horrible President. He was a liar and often seemed to have trouble distinguishing reality from parts he played in movies. He pushed Pentagon spending up, busted unions, shifting tax burdens from the rich and upper middle classes to working and poor people. He slowed down, and in some cases even reversed civil rights gains.  Here is the thing though. Most people who voted for him wanted those things. They saw which side he was on and supported it.  I know very few people who voted for Reagan who regret it. Even if they suffer for his policies today, they find scapegoats for what is happening to them that don’t include their beloved Reagan.  In spite of his personal issues, he made it clear which side he was on and pretty much governed the way those who supported him expected.

And in general that is true. If a politician has actually picked a side, and sticks to it, that is a much more important indicator of what that politician will do than their personal character.  So I’m not only picking on the right here: Adam Clayton Powell was a staunch Black left-liberal and civil rights leader, who was well known to be personally corrupt. But he was re-elected no matter how deep his hand was in the till because his constituents correctly perceived that he would fight on their side on issues important to them, and do so  more intelligently and with greater strength than any bland characterless anti-corruption replacement.

Thus even on the immediate political level, the email scandal has no value. It has no impact on the perception of which side Hillary is on. Moreover, focusing or not on scandals represents a disparity on views of what  electoral politics are about.

Some view politics as the art of getting good people into office. If good people are elected then they will use that office to do good things – to the extent circumstances allow. That is a view most politicians love. Who does not see themselves as good people? So any politician either running for or serving in office can thus justify just about anything that helps their political career. After all, say politicians to themselves, if awesome me can advance to higher office, then awesome things will naturally follow. And, most politicians seem to believe, given that I’m elected rather than king, really anything I do is pretty awesome cause awesome me is here being awesome at making the hard choices.  Note that for such politicians, the more they can lower expectations about what is possible, the more awesome they appear.

The other view of electoral politics is that the point of  electing someone to office is for them to accomplish some things. And to the extent they can’t win everything they are to fight for them and win as much as possible. The former  is the difference between the politician who wants to do something and the politician who wants to be something. Neither type can win everything. But the politician who is out to do rather than be will try and fight for what they want, and get as much of it as they can. If they have to take half a loaf or even a quarter loaf , it is as  compromise to be used as a basis for further fights to get more.  A politician out to *be* something will  accept  that quarter loaf as a glorious victory – which means down the line  if the quarter loaf is cut in half, that is a glorious victory too, cause it is still more than a single slice. The majority of politicians who run on personal awesomeness, depend on a constant lowering of expectations, so that wherever they are is the best possible outcome in this best of all possible worlds.  Some of them, of course, pretend to be on a side they are not learning the cultural signifiers of those in that fight. But that is something only the most skilled politicians such as the Clintons can do.

At any rate, scandals are effective in only a certain circumstances. One is when they can lead to actual indictment or charging. Another is when they undermine a political narrative about where a politician stands. A third is when an entirely new scandal, as opposed to a mere update on a well known existing scandal, can be broken at the last moment. The Clinton email scandal does none of these. It does not clarify how conservative her economic and foreign policy history is, or for that matter how much her support for welfare and criminal deform have hurt women and black people far more than initiatives she has supported to help them.  It is not likely to lead to actual prosecution under a sitting Democratic President.  And because it has dripped out a little at a time, it will not shock anybody.













Making a big deal of Hillary email is lousy politics

May 29, 2016

I think Hillary will make a lousy president for many reasons.  For example, in foreign policy she has almost always supported wars and coups and sanctions and bombings that killed and displaced  hundreds of thousands, probably millions.  (Anti-Iraq sanctions, the Iraq war, Libya,  Honduras,  and now Brazil are just a few greatest hits.)

But I don’t think anyone who considers themselves a leftist or even a progressive or liberal should focus much on the email scandal.  Keeping email on an insecure server is the same kind of nonsense the US government gets whistleblowers on. For example,  Tom Drake, an early whistleblower about NSA abuses  was convicted of “exceeding authorized use  of a computer” after the government failed to  convict him under the espionage act.

I admit to a certain  schadenfreude at seeing Hillary harassed for the same bullshit charges she cheered on when used against whistleblowers.  But after gloating just a little, I have to reject actually supporting this bullshit.  I don’t want join in any chorus that implies that the biggest problem with Hillary is that she is insufficiently  supportive of the national security state. For that matter I don’t want to imply that the problem is  *not* prosecuting Hillary, rather than prosecuting whistleblowers.

There are plenty of other issues on which to oppose her nomination. These include the long term hawkishness already discussed, plus her equally long term support of class warfare by the rich against the rest of us in only a slightly less vicious form that advocated by Republicans. (Note to Clinton supporter friends: no she is not even nearly as bad as Trump – which is not the issue in this post.)

Lastly, I know some people think the email nonsense is important because of what it reveals about her character.  My answer to that is that character issues are almost always bullshit.  I’m going to save that for another post. I want to discuss what is usually wrong with the “character issues” in politics on its own, using the email thing as one example in a more general discussion.


Clinton and Honduras

March 8, 2016

Before it slips down the memory hole it is worth remembering the role Hillary Clinton played in the Honduras coup. With the assassination of Berta Cáceres, and the detainment of her fellow journalist and activist Gustavo Castro Soto, (who barely survived the same assassination attempt) the US Government’s role in preventing OAS action against that coup and human rights disaster that followed needs to be remembered.

As Clinton herself says in her 2014 book Hard Choices , “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexicoz …We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”  This was an election with no trace of legitimacy, where the opposition press was shut down or forbidden to cover politics, where violence was used against peaceful demonstrations and campaigning. To confirm this see the Organization of American States Inter American Commission on Human Rights report of Jan 2010 Honduras: Human Rights and the COUP D’ÉTAT.

Since the coup, violence against journalists, union members, members of indigenous communities, has sky rocketed in part due to impunity and lac of judicial independence, according to both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Why President Bernie could do more than President Hillary – Part 2 of my election series

February 15, 2016


My first post on Bernie Vs. Hillary made a case for Bernie being the more electable of the two.  This post takes on the 2nd most common argument for Hillary: given Republican obstructionism, ether Bernie or Hillary would get about the same amount done. Many Hillary supporters suggest that her smaller bore demands and greater executive experience mean that she could get *more* done.  Here is why that is wrong.

  1. Dealing with a recalcitrant Congress means a Democratic President will constantly be in negotiating mode. Starting out with small bore demands puts Hillary in a worse negotiating position, not a better one – assuming policy differences between her and Bernie are of degree, not of kind*.
  2. Getting something done in spite of a recalcitrant Congress requires popular pressure to impose political costs on the Republicans. Small bore demands arouse small bore passions. A president who starts by aiming for major changes can stir up  more popular support than one who  puts forward wonky tinkering.   Keeping that popular support does not require winning those battles – just being seen to unabashedly fight them. An important mistake mainstream politicians make: taking triumphant victory laps for every crumb extracted. A President can celebrate the fact that even a crumb was more than the other side wanted to give, while still emphasizing that the other side is to blame for blocking a whole picnic and forcing people to settle for crumbs.
  3. Mid-terms. A fighting President who puts forward big bold proposals is the Democrats’ best chance of not suffering the usual mid-term losses to Republicans. It even provides a small shot at mid-term gains, something rare for the party holding the Presidency.
  4. Executive power. Some of what Hillary says in debate seems to imply that there are win-win deals. Her expressed view is that it will be necessary to *work* with Republicans rather than merely negotiate with them. It as though all her experience still has not taught her that necessary negotiation with Republican lawmakers is a battle against vicious opponents, not a settlement of honest disagreements between people acting in good faith.  This view, which she has expressed in debate, would would imply that she would repeat the Obama mistake of not making maximal use of domestic executive power until the end of her Presidency.
  5. Hillary supporters still insist she has the most realistic view of how to govern in the current political environment. Just remember her advisers are the same geniuses who managed to lose the House, the Senate and a majority of State Legislatures in spite of a Presidency held by a popular, brilliant and charismatic President. These are the same “political realists” who thought that discouraging every mainstream competitor in the primary would result in a Hillary cakewalk to the nomination.

* A future post will show that policy differences between Hillary and Bernie are fundamental not just a matter of how far to go.





Bernies health care numbers DO add up

February 13, 2016

The latest attack on Bernie’s health care numbers by the  Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB)gets the numbers wrong. This is not surprising if you consider that CRFB is a Pete Petersen project, devoted  to cutting Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs.  Normally I’d just point to a refutation rather than attacking the source, but this has widely spread throughout both old and new media, spun as from a non-partisan source.  And it is quite true that CRFB is staffed by both Democrats and Republicans who advocate cutting Social Security and Medicare.   That does not however make it a credible source; nor is it known for rigorous analysis.

Since it has been updated in the last few days to support instant hit pieces, well known economists such as Doug Henwood and Dean Baker have not yet had time to rebut it.  I no longer have the eyesight required for significant research, but a friend pointed me to a good some-guy-on-the-internet comment in a Reddit thread.  After printing it out in a large font, it seemed to me to be an excellent analysis.  So I’m quoting this rebuttal to be considered based on its own merit rather than on the reputation of analyst.  (Though, the author seems to be intelligent, thoughtful and informed, and I suspect that if I hung around Reddit, I would be very familiar with NonHomogenized. )

The first point NonHomogenized makes is that CFRB relies on estimates that revenue-maximizing top rates for capital gains taxes are about 30%. Wheres a Center onBudget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) study(pdf) “found capital gains rates that maximize capital gains revenues well above 30 percent. The CRS result implies that studies such as the new CBO-JCT paper may be picking up temporary spikes and declines in realizations around the time of a tax change — trends that cannot be sustained permanently.”

CBPP also quotes the CRS as saying:

in addition, JCT’s 28.5 percent estimate represented the rate at which capital gains revenues are maximized, not total revenues. If policymakers shrink the gap between the capital gains rate and the top marginal rate on ordinary income, ordinary income tax revenues are likely to rise, as taxpayers stop converting as much of their ordinary income into capital gains to take advantage of the differential. The capital gains tax rate that maximizes total tax revenues is thus likely to be higher than the rate that maximizes revenues just from the capital gains tax.

The capital gains rate that maximizes total revenues depends on both the capital gains rates and the difference between the tax rates on capital gains and the rates on ordinary income.

NonHomogenized makes additional point. Note that the blockquoate that follows is from NonHomogenized, not from CRS:

But only giving part of the picture is hardly the limit of the problems with their analysis:

The analysis being reported on also cited the CBO for estimates of how much revenue would be raised from an increase in income tax rates of 1%… but the CBO’s estimate wouldn’t include the payroll tax being paid on capital gains being treated as ordinary income, so the numbers shouldn’t be strictly comparable in the first place. Additionally, people would no longer be deducting their health insurance premiums and costs, and would instead be paying taxes on that additional income. The CBO scoring applies to a completely different proposal with different implications for revenue.

Similarly, there are issues with their analysis of the employer-paid payroll taxes. For one thing, the numbers on the CBO estimate for an increase in payroll taxes start in 2015 (at $45 billion), while the numbers for Friedman’s analysis start in 2017 (the CBO estimate for a 1% increase in payroll taxes, incidentally, is that it would raise $74 billion in 2017).

If you take the CBO average for 2015-2024, it would be $80 billion per year, but the CBO average for 2017-2024 is close to $86 billion per year. More importantly, however, that estimate assumes a “reduction in individual income tax revenues that would result from a shift of some labor compensation from a taxable to a nontaxable form”, but in this case, the payroll tax would in many cases be replacing the health insurance coverage employers already provide, which is generally already untaxed.

Later in their analysis, they talk about the Laffer Curve and Bernie Sanders’ proposed top tax rates, and repeat an obvious mistake I have seen many sources make: adding employer-paid payroll tax rates to the tax rate paid… but not including that same money in the compensation (which affects every tax rate, since that ‘compensation’ is untaxed). If your employer pays 6.2% of your wages as a payroll tax, and you make $100,000 per year, and someone wants to calculate the tax rate you’re paying, they can’t say “oh, you’re paying 6.2%”, because that $6200 needs to be included in your compensation, and it goes untaxed. That means you’re paying ~5.84%, and this adjustment needs to be made for every other tax you pay as well. It might seem like a small difference, but when you’re talking total employer-paid payroll taxes of 14% of income, it adds up: taking the number from their analysis (a top marginal tax rate of 77%), it would actually be nearly 10 points lower, or about 67.5%.

(My comment: Note that an effective top rate a bit under 70% that Sanders proposes (0nly for people with incomes in the millions) is generally considered to be in the range that maximizes revenue. Given the stimulative affect of overall spending increases in Bernies budget, we could expect the economy to grow faster that under other budges.)

The CFRB also cites Professor Kenneth Thorpe’s takedown(annoying Scribdb download) of cost estimates for Sander’s health care plan. In response Professor Gerald Friedman politely but vigorously rips Thorne a new one. I am tempted to quote Thorne almost in full as I did with NonHomgenized, but since Thorpe’s  rebuttal is far more easily accessed than a comment buried deep in a Reddit thread, I will content myself with a summary

  1. Thorpe does not adequately document all his assumptions.
  2.  Thorpe’s low estimate of administrative savings is less than the savings simply from replacing insurance company overhead by a Medicare like system. Additionally, to arrive at his number, Thorpe must be assuming savings of zero to providers in needing to deal with only a single insurance plan.
  3. Thorpe makes  a number of actuarial assumptions contrary to Sander’s actuarial assumption without providing justification.  Tharpe’s estimate derives from a study considering a not-single-payer plan in ONE state.
  4. Because Thorpe has underestimated administrative savings, he assumes cost savings must come at the expense of actual health care.
  5. Thorpe underestimates savings from negotiating large scale purchases of pharmaceuticals and from reduced medical inflation.
  6. Thorpe assumes an increase in utilization of 14% which would mean an increase in discretionary spending of 38% per year.
  7. These and many other justification by Thorpe are not only contrary to common sense, and in some cases contrary to basic arithmetic. They also go against real-life experience with single payer systems all over the world.


CFRB attack on Sander’s healthcare plan 

CRFB is a Pete Petersen shill organization, devoted to winning cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other social programs.

NonHomogenized rebuttal

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Study

Thorpe attack on Sanders’ health care plan (annoying scribdb link)

Friedman takedown of Tharpe attack:







Bernie Sanders may have better odds of beating Trump or Cruz than Hillary (Post 1 in my election series)

February 12, 2016

The most common reason Hillary supporters I’ve encountered give for supporting Hillary over Bernie: electability. (I’ll deal with others in future posts) Here is why I think they are wrong:

I) Establishment figures don’t have a lot of luck beating right wingers who appeal to populist sentiment. Jimmy Carter beat Ford when Carter was an insurgent, but as an incumbent he not only lost, but was blindsided by Reagan. Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college against Bush. And yes, cheating, media bias and (in the Gore case) a dishonest Supreme Court were involved.  Overcoming this type of obstacle is not a matter of personal toughness, or insider baseball resume. It requires the ability to mobilize large numbers of people. Nobody on the Democratic side rioted when the Florida Republican machine and the Supreme Court stole Florida from Gore. The Republicans managed a Brook Brothers riot throughout the recount. Passion matters.

People are angry right now. A lot of that anger is among racists and among Taliban evangelicals.  To beat that requires someone who can tap into less misdirected anger, anger at the 1%.  If you are a former Secretary of State, a former first lady who redefined the position of first lady to mean co-president, good luck portraying yourself as the outsider in the race. That is especially true if you boast publicly of your long relationship with Henry Kissinger.

2) Turnout:  To win you have to turn out not only the activists who show up during primary season, but the less engaged voters who may or may not show up during general elections.  Someone who can point to a clear enemy, the very rich, and a long record of fighting them will do better than someone who has a long record taking their money, of serving on their boards of directors. (Hi Walmart. Serving on the board of a woman bashing, union busting behemoth like you is a really good feminist and pro-worker credential.)

I know the Democratic establishment’s line: “We are the experts. We know practical politics and Clinton is the practical choice. ” Just remember, these are the geniuses and “realists” who in the past picked Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John Kerry.


[Correct typo. as happens when typing while fighting off blindness]

Electoral Politics Explained Entirely in Music Videos

November 4, 2015

Since this is the day after an election,  many of us are feeling a bit down. Anyone who enjoys silliness with a bit of a dark edge might like this post which summarizes the electoral process entirely in music videos,  mostly non-political classics. A few are general satires of the political process, not targeting any one party or political ideology.

The first two videos summarize the themes around which most electoral campaigns center:

We got trouble right here in River City sung by Richard Preston.

Big Rock Candy Mountain   – Tex Ritter version

The deeper electoral game: EVITA: Art of the possible Jim Austin and Company version:

One always picks
The easy fight
One praises fools
One smothers light
one shifts left to right
It’s part of the art of the possible

The next songs are sung by the winners.

First up, the immortal clip of Groucho Marx singing “If you think this country’s in bad shape now, just wait till I get through with it”.

Followed by How could you believe me when I said “I love you” when you know I’ve been a liar all my life? This is the Eartha Kitt version, both because Eartha Kitt was awesome, and because it is ten times better than the original.

Of course we should not forget today’s foreign policy consensus which seems to span most major parties and most nations world wide:
Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper

Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity
40, 000 men and women every day
(Like Romeo and Juliet)

(We can be like they are)

What if your preferred candidate lost? The classic Big Maybelle song One monkey don’t stop no show has a message for you. Unfortunately some stupid producer forced her to drop the vernacular and release with the title and lyric of “One Monkey Don’t Stop the Show”, which dilutes the impact. So I chose the version that seems to me closest to what Big Maybelle would have done if allowed, the Bette Midler version.

For those who want a way forward, I suggest that Ozark Mountain Daredevils classic: If you wanna get to heaven, you got to raise a little hell

And if we do that we might finally force our politicians to take seriousrly the message in Lorde’s Royals “We’ll never be Royals”

Feel free to suggest additional songs in comments. It’ll be more fun if you play by the same rules I did. Repurpose non-political songs, plus songs whose political message is very general, not obviously aimed at a particular political party or tendency.