Friday, July 29, 2016

DNC Wrap-up and Two Reasons Why Hillary Clinton Needs More Speech Reviewers

General John Allen; Source: Getty
Gratefully, both major party conventions are finally over. And like the Republicans, the Democrats emphasized nationalist themes on the final day in an effort to rally their supporters.

Captain Khan's Needless Death
To this end, one speech was particularly noteworthy. Khizr Khan delivered an emotional speech about his son, Captain Khan, who was a Muslim US soldier who died in action in Iraq. The purpose of the speech was to (appropriately) criticize Donald Trump's previous calls to ban immigration of Muslims. Captain Khan was just as American as anyone else, his father said. At one point in the speech, his father held up a copy of the US Constitution and encouraged Trump to read it. Khizr Khan said his son had made the ultimate sacrifice for this country, while Donald Trump had sacrificed nothing.

That's true enough. But it's worth asking why Captain Khan had to sacrifice at all. In one of the more powerful passages, his father made the following contrast:
Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son "the best of America." 
If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America.
Again, that's true. But remember, Captain Khan died in Iraq. That means, in some ways, Captain Khan's fate really was up to Hillary Clinton. And when his fate--and that of thousands of other American soldiers and Iraqi civilians was in her hands--she was an indispensable supporting voice in the Senate that made the Iraq War possible.

Donald Trump's rhetoric on Muslims and foreign policy is often appalling, but when it comes to actual, practical records on the topic, Hillary Clinton has few equals. And not in a good way.

General Allen, Or How Democrats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Militarism
Of course, when sympathy might not be enough, there's nothing quite like bombast to inspire nationalist unity. That need was fulfilled by retired 4-star General John Allen of the Marine Corps, who gave a speech that consisted of a series of shouted orders.

After marching out with an entourage of military brass to a snare drum, General Allen's speech was put together well; it just sounded like something one would typically hear at a Republican gathering. Here are a few quotes to give you an idea (our snark in parentheses):
The free people of the world look to America as the last best hope for peace and liberty for all human kind. (And the people that aren't free are likely ruled by an American-backed dictatorship, so they're probably looking somewhere else.)
We believe in her vision of an America as a just and strong leader, against the forces of hatred, the forces of chaos and darkness. 
With [Hillary] as commander-in-chief, we will continue to lead this volatile world. We will oppose and resist tyranny and we will defeat evil. (I really hope no one tells Saudi Arabia or Bahrain about this.)
But I also know, with her as our commander-in-chief, our international relations will not be reduced to business transactions. (Of course not. A business transaction is voluntary and both sides get something of value in exchange. That does beg the question though. If our international relations aren't a business transaction, what are they exactly: charity or extortion?)
It is telling that in the course of General Allen's speech, chants of "USA! USA!" broke out spontaneously at moments that made no sense. At first, it seems like they are just enthusiastic nationalists. But when you listen more closely, you here weaker chants of "No More War!" in the background just as happened to Leon Panetta the day before. The DNC got wise to this tactic, however, and thus instructed loyal Clinton delegates to chant the rhythmically similar "USA!" to drown it out. It was generally an effective strategy. It's also a great metaphor for the Democratic Party's nomination of Hillary Clinton.

A weaker, smaller contingent holding true to its principles calls for peace, only to be overcome by an establishment candidate whose views are every bit as hawkish as Donald Trump's.

Hillary's Big Speech
Hillary Clinton wrapped things up with a headline speech that was predictable and professional, yet decidedly unimpressive when compared to the performances earlier this week from Bernie, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

It's not news that public speaking isn't Hillary's strongest suit, but it will be interesting to see how it affects poll numbers after the convention. If you were undecided at the beginning of this week, there's a chance that Bernie or President Obama might have persuaded you to vote for the Democratic nominee in November--Hillary's speech probably did not.

In essence, Hillary's platform is the standard progressive agenda, minus the good parts. If you start with the ideas of Bernie Sanders and then remove his professed opposition to war, his occasional nod to the fact that Palestinians are humans too, his opposition to marijuana prohibition, and his general disdain for corporate welfare, then you end up with Hillary Clinton. From a libertarian perspective, that means there's nothing left to support, unless you believe she's serious about reforming the criminal justice system. But given that she was actually instrumental in helping to make the criminal justice system as bad as it is, that ought to be a tough sell.

There were no outright gaffes in the speech, but there were also parts that were so ready for mockery that one almost imagines there was a mole working to put them in. Or they're just counting on Americans to be completely ignorant of both American history and news that happened last week. For example:
Well, a great Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came up with the perfect rebuke to Trump more than eighty years ago, during a much more perilous time. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Yeah, about that. See, the trouble here is that among Trump's most outlandish positions are rounding up illegal immigrants for deportation, rounding up Syrian refugees in particular, and banning Muslims from entering the country. While the first is a slightly separate issue, the others are clearly playing on the idea of divided loyalties, terrorism, and national security. So if that's the problem with Trump, you could scarcely choose a worse figure from history to offer a rebuttal than FDR. After all, to my knowledge, FDR was the only President in the post-Civil War period who deliberately and systematically targeted a group, Japanese-Americans, based on its national origin and threw them in internment camps. The justification was the idea that they were disloyal and dangerous to the US--precisely the idea that Trump is playing on when he makes awful policy suggestions about Muslims.

Simply stated, FDR's presidency doesn't offer a rebuttal to Donald Trump, but it might have offered some inspiration. FDR is viewed as a hero. Maybe Trump just wants to earn the same acclaim from left-leaning historians of the future.

Another moment from Hillary's speech ripe for ridicule related to playing the Woman Card:
And you know what, if fighting for affordable child care and paid family leave is playing the “woman card,” then Deal Me In!
From a purely political angle, I think emphasizing the Woman Card is probably going to be counterproductive. But whatever one thinks of that strategy in general, this is an exceedingly poor application of it. Why? Because, just one week ago at the RNC, Trump's daughter Ivanka stressed that these exact same issues were part of Trump's platform as well (emphasis added):
This has long been the philosophy at the Trump Organization. At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.

Women represent 46 percent of the total U.S. labor force, and 40 percent of American households have female primary breadwinners. In 2014, women made 83 cents for every dollar made by a man. Single women without children earn 94 cents for each dollar earned by a man, whereas married mothers made only 77 cents. As researchers have noted, gender is no longer the factor creating the greatest wage discrepancy in this country, motherhood is. 
As President, my father will change the labor laws that were put into place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce. And he will focus on making quality childcare affordable and accessible for all.
Again, set aside whatever you may think of these ideas. Trump and Hillary are advocating for the exact same concepts. If doing so in Hillary's case means playing the Woman Card, then does that make Trump a feminist? Awkward.

These similarities could be found throughout. Trump supports raising the minimum wage now, and so does Hillary. Hillary wants to say no to trade deals (now), and so does Trump. Hillary wants to expand government dramatically without solving the deficit or debt, and so does Trump. And so on down the line.

There are differences, to be sure--on immigration, Russia, and, if we're charitable to Hillary, criminal justice reform to name a few. But the candidates agree on much more than is commonly supposed. As with past elections between Republicans and Democrats, the biggest difference is probably found in rhetoric, not policy. And if you want Hillary to win, that's bad news.

Because while the Secretary may be many things, an engaging speaker is not one of them. She's long on policy and political details, but short on clever rhetoric. Broadly speaking, that description also fit the one-time Republican favorite Jeb Bush. And I, for one, expect Hillary Clinton to meet the same fate--failure. Indeed, the most recent polls suggest it might already be happening.

*Standard Disclaimer: I don't support Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for President; I think the actions they take will be generally awful, but the unintended consequences of those actions will ultimately be beneficial. I probably prefer the unintended benefits of Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, if forced to choose. Fortunately, just like everyone else I'm not forced to choose, and I will be voting for a third-party candidate instead.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

July 28, 2016 - The Politics of Good Intentions, Heckling for Peace, and the Fed Holds Interest Rates Steady

Update on the DNC
President Obama was the headliner at Day 3 of the Democratic National Convention, and he didn't disappoint. A solid speech as normal and, sadly, no memorable teleprompter interruptions. The message was one of optimism for the future and celebration of the accomplishments made already--not by him, but in typical Democratic fashion, by all of us. At one point, in a pointed rebuke to Donald Trump's popular slogan, Obama remarked "America is already great."

Obama's speech highlighted the important tension Democrats have to wrestle with this season. They have to simultaneously acknowledge that things aren't perfect while taking credit for some progress. That's a difficult balancing act, particularly in an environment where many people clearly are not happy with the country's current trend lines. If all was well, the Bernie and Trump movements would not have been more than a blip this year.

After the speech, it's clearer than ever that Hillary is running as the continuation candidate, and Obama's rhetorical effectiveness reminded us why she is inclined to be framed as his third-term.

It is far less clear that this will work, however.

If it was literally Obama's third-term, he would probably win easily. But Obama has the ability to deliver effective speeches and isn't widely disliked as a human being. Inexplicably high speaking fees notwithstanding, Hillary doesn't have either of those qualities. That's going to make the general election an uphill battle.

One other item evident from Obama's appearance is that the Democratic Party is cementing its brand as the politics of good intentions. It does not matter whether something is right, or whether it might have disastrous long-term effects. What matters is what they meant to accomplish. Thus, in an introductory video, the auto bailout program was not presented for what it was--namely, massive corporate welfare for a company that did not deserve more resources. In the video though, this was an act of political courage because Obama did it to protect the workers.

President Obama also took the opportunity to spike the football on the Affordable Care Act, noting that health care is no longer a privilege but a right. It doesn't matter that that system is already showing clear signs of breaking down, and is, as we suggested in a prior article, inherently unstable economically. No problem, the goal was to give people access to healthcare. The fact that in the long-run, it will work directly counter to this end does not matter. Only the intention counts.

The same analysis could be offered of many other points in the speech as well. Interestingly, the disastrous Libyan intervention--perhaps,the greatest example of good intentions gone awry in the Obama years--did not appear in the speech. This is intriguing since, to counter Donald Trump, Democrats have lately been making much ado about the importance of facts. The truth is that neither party has shown much interest in them--not in the ones that matter.

Heckling for Peace
Amid otherwise predictable proceedings at the DNC, there was one bright spot that the Bernie folks (and apparently Oregonians) most likely deserve the credit for. When former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta came to the podium to explain why Hillary Clinton is the best warmonger for the Oval Office, he was interrupted with chants for peace: "No More War!" It's a nice reminder that, in spite of President Obama, at least some Democrats are still on the side of peace.

Federal Reserve Keeps Interest Rates Flat
The Federal Open Market Committee finished today, and Fed Chair Janet Yellen announced that the Fed will be keeping a key interest rate target stable. The Fed implied that the economy is clearly strengthening, which has many people expecting the next rate hike in September.

In reality, it's very unlikely the Fed will raise rates again before the election is over. The last time they tried this, the stock market quickly plummeted. Their cautious actions since suggest they understand just how fragile the economy is, even if they're unwilling to say so publicly. That's why they won't raise rates and won't risk throwing the election even more certainly to Donald Trump.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Daily Summary - Humanizing Hillary and the Russians Get Blamed for Something New


Bill Clinton Humanizes Hillary at the DNC
Day 2 of the Democratic National Convention proved to be a much smoother affair than Day 1. Hillary Clinton was officially declared the nominee, and the headliner of the evening, Bill Clinton, managed to make an effective case that Hillary is in fact a decent human being, breaking sharply with popular opinion on the matter.

Like Trump's children at the DNC, Bill made his case for Hillary with a series of vivid anecdotes. He stayed on the subject, and his approach was sufficiently understated that it didn't draw attention to himself. The crowd seemed to be with him as well--a courtesy not afforded to all of the previous speakers. Also, as with the stories about Trump, the details of Bill's stories included many specific details (places, issues, etc.), that would seem to be readily falsifiable if they were in fact untrue. Thus, we should assume most of them were true, if perhaps embellished a bit.

And the picture they paint would surely be appealing to most of the American people--that of a headstrong woman and mother trying to make a difference in the lives around her. Her tool of choice was government action in most of the cases surveyed, so some skepticism is certainly warranted about the actual results. But if half of Bill's stories are to be believed, her intentions wouldn't be in question.

Then again, it's not unheard of for people to start out idealistic and end up something else. And the Hillary Clinton of Bill's speech is going to be difficult for many to reconcile with the consummate warmonger that she's been in public life. How can one be deeply concerned about the disadvantaged in America that have been left behind, and then be utterly dismissive of the millions of disadvantaged people oppressed and/or killed by US policy and US-backed regimes throughout the Middle East? Perhaps the answer is simple Trumpian nationalism, as we suggested was true of Bernie Sanders. Or maybe it's a misguided faith in the omnipotence of American foreign policy? Or maybe it's just craven political ambition?

None of those avenues fit particularly well with the clever and caring portrait offered by Bill. And for consistent folks on the left who prioritize foreign policy, however many still exist after eight years of President Obama, it's going to be a significant barrier to overcome. And for any libertarians fooled by the usefulness of lesser evil voting, her record on war should remain a nonstarter.

Finally, given that this was a Bill Clinton speech, I would be remiss not to mention the creep factor. Admittedly, he kept it in check pretty well. But with his scandalous sexual history--specifically the various rape allegations--I suspect there were a few phrases they might wish to have back. Personal favorites below:

When speaking of the time he first saw Hillary:
After the class I followed her out, intending to introduce myself. I got close enough to touch her back, but I couldn’t do it.
That's definitely what I go for when I meet someone I'm attracted to. No handshakes needed, just start out with the back.

And later, this:
So like me, in a different context, he [Obama] had to keep asking.
I feel like, "If they say 'No', just keep asking," isn't exactly an acceptable practice. I mean, I know it was a different time, Bill, but still, you might want to keep these comments away from an open mic.

Granted, in context, he's actually referring to asking her to marry him multiple times, which was discussed much earlier in the speech. Still probably not his best line.

Neither of those are on par with "You better get some ice on that," which he allegedly said to one of his rape victims after assaulting her. But rest assured, the Bill Clinton creep factor is alive and well.

New Self-Sabotage at the Hillary Campaign - It Was the Russians!
I apologize for talking still more about the Presidential race, but it appears we're going to need a recurring feature profiling all the terrible strategies deployed by the Hillary Campaign.

(Note that I'm not a Trump or Clinton supporter; that's not my purpose here. Rather, I'm just fascinated by the unending string of bad decisions Team Hillary makes, in spite of the fact that they must employ the best experts money can buy. I view it as a hopeful reminder that the bar is always lower than we think. Or stated another way, the empress has no clothes.)

Needless preface aside, yesterday's gem was immediately hiring the scandalized Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Now they're attempting some retroactive damage control on the DNC leaks themselves. The message: It was the Russians that hacked us to tilt the election towards Putin's buddy, Donald Trump.

Technically, this is possible, but contrary to mainstream supposition, there's no proof at all. There's just official-sounding conjecture, echoed a hundred times over. There are any number of people that would take delight in taking down the DNC and Hillary Clinton, so jumping to blame Russia without any publicly released proof so far is a bit of a stretch. This is especially important in this case since cyber security breeches are notoriously difficult to prove.

What is far more interesting than the validity of these claims, is their political effect. As I see it, here are the ways this is likely to be interpreted by voters:

  • The Russians are our mortal enemy and now they're even trying to take down our democracy.
    • This will play well to conservative / nationalist types. But the nationalist / tough guy vote is definitely going to Donald Trump, so that's not really a helpful message Hillary.
  • It's not that the Democrats were being careless with email; it's just that the Russians are really smart and unstoppable.
    • Clearly, this is problematic. If you really do think the Russians are trying to hack us, are you going to vote for the party that they already proved they can compromise? No, that's absurd.
  • Oh yeah, Putin likes Trump. I guess we haven't heard that idea enough times yet, so here it is again.
    • For even moderately antiwar types, this is a feature of Trump, not a bug. Shouldn't we want our president to have a good relationship with the leader of the other major nuclear power in the world? By now, that question should be rhetorical.
    • For everyone else, the idea seems to be that Trump is inexperienced, and the Russians want him so they can manipulate him. But again, Trump's campaign and party isn't the one that just had 20,000 emails stolen.
The only non-catastrophic takeaway is to strengthen voters' connection between Trump and Putin, since the latter is unpopular among Americans. But every other implication of the Russians-hacked-us story is overwhelmingly negative for Hillary's / Democrats' appeal.

Another Terrorist Attack in France--And a Thing Not to Do
Yesterday, France suffered yet another terrorist attack from men who reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS. They used a knife to execute an 86-year-old Catholic priest at a mass, and were killed by security forces shortly thereafter.

As is so often the case, one of the attackers in this case was known to police and was actually placed on house arrest because they suspected he was a threat. This sort of an event will lead many to conclude authorities should have just prosecuted or locked up the attacker when the initial suspicion arose to prevent things like this--thereby eroding whatever remains of due process in France today.

However, there is at least one better solution for this case and others like it. You see, in this case, the reason authorities got suspicious in the first place is because the attacker tried to travel to Syria, they believed, to join ISIS. This was also true for the Charlie Hebdo attackers (if you replace ISIS with Al Qaeda, that is).

This seems to beg an obvious question. If the authorities have reason to believe someone is trying to travel abroad to join a terrorist organization, why in the world would the solution be to prevent them from leaving? Wouldn't it clearly be better to let them go, lest they decide to carry out their terrorist ambitions locally instead of joining the war? This is even more true in a US context, given that legally, the US isn't at war with anything in the region right now.

Of course, there would be real challenges (legal and practical) related to trying to figure outwho left for the purpose of joining ISIS et al to prevent them from coming back later, without affecting aid workers with a nonviolent reason for being in Syria.

Still, it seems a good first step to reduce these events is to let suspected terrorists leave in some way. To do otherwise is madness. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Daily Summary - Bernie at the DNC and the Political Version of Accountability

Bernie Calls for Unity at the DNC
The first public day of the Democratic National Convention got off to a rough start as outgoing Democratic chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was greeted with a round of boos at the morning breakfast. Wasserman-Schultz was at the heart of the DNC email leak scandal discussed yesterday, and, given her position, was also the person most directly responsible for tilting the playing field against Bernie in the Democratic Primary. Thus, the numerous and vocal Sanders delegates gave her a piece of their minds. She actually left without giving remarks, because she couldn't overcome the heckling for long enough to complete a sentence.

This scene contrasts markedly with the message of Bernie himself. In his primetime address, Bernie called for unity and received enthusiastic applause.

His speech was pretty standard. He made the usual error of discussing inequality in terms of arbitrary statistical aggregates and talked about a lot of his other core issues as well--climate change, the minimum wage, student debt, Citizens United, and so on. It was a good speech, and it was delivered well. Still one couldn't help a sense of cognitive dissonance throughout the proceedings. For example, here was Bernie:
But the struggle of the people to create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1 percent.
And yet, the candidate he's endorsing is part and parcel of that 1 percent, and she has even raised more money than Donald Trump. You may be surprised to learn that many of Hillary's donations were substantially higher than $27. Granted, one's particular station in life should not really have any bearing on the merits of their ideas. But the Democratic Party, even more so than the Republicans, is all about identity. Thus, criticizing the 1 percent while nominating the 1 percent is a bit awkward.

Another interesting facet of Bernie's speech is what wasn't in there. There was no mention of legalizing marijuana (since Hillary's not likely to support that), and there was also no mention of peace in the speech (since Hillary steadfastly opposes it). Rather, Bernie stuck to the domestic areas where Hillary had largely adopted his platform. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to persuade his voters to stay in the Democratic Party.

Make a Mistake, Get a Promotion
Yesterday we also noted that the same DNC chair mentioned above, Wasserman-Schultz, was forced to resign for her fantastically unprofessional behavior towards the Sanders supporters. Now we know where she landed. The Hillary Clinton campaign created an executive chair position for Wasserman-Schultz, which she appears to have accepted.

This is the latest initiative undertaken by the Hillary campaign to give a large metaphorical middle finger to former Bernie supporters.

It also portrays an interesting message to Americans in general. Wasserman-Schultz displayed terrible judgment in her use of email, and when revealed, she immediately found a powerful alternative job. It may even be a promotion if Hillary wins. It's kind of like what Hillary's trying to do with her whole campaign--she made terrible decisions with email (and many other things), and now she's trying to get the biggest promotion of all.

Legal Pot Replaces Pain Medication
We're recommending a remarkable new article from The Washington Post, which offers empirical evidence to support one of the long-assumed benefits of legalizing marijuana. Namely, medical marijuana gets prescribed as a substitute for more powerful (and thus more dangerous) conventional medicines that could treat similar things.

Specifically, the underlying study compared the number and types of prescriptions given by doctors in states without legal medical marijuana to prescription patterns in states with medical marijuana. The results are overwhelming, as indicated by the chart below:

But while this is impressive, the article points out the challenge these trends create. Since medical marijuana displaces traditional prescriptions, that means major pharmaceutical companies will fight as hard as they can to keep marijuana illegal in the remaining states. Medical marijuana is a cheaper, safer, and better alternative in many cases, and Big Pharma can't compete legitimately. Instead, they have to try to get the government to outlaw the competition.

Hopefully, these efforts will prove unsuccessful. Here's the link:

One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana

Monday, July 25, 2016

Daily Summary - The DNC Leaks, Hillary's VP, and More

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Email Leaks Confirm What We Already Knew
It turns out that the Democrats' email problems weren't confined to Secretary Clinton. Last Friday, Wikileaks released roughly 20,000 emails that had been hacked from the DNC servers. The leaks were somewhat overshadowed by news of Clinton's delightfully foolish Vice Presidential pick (we'll get there).

Nevertheless, the story is an important one. In effect, the leaks confirmed long-held "conspiracy theories" of the Bernie Sanders supporters that the DNC working to undermine the Sanders campaign and support Clinton instead. This always seemed true, and now we know it was. Here are a few of the details:

The Bad
One email has the DNC considering trying to get Sanders to admit being an atheist in public to hurt him in more religious states. Another email has the thoroughly unpopular DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, calling Sanders' campaign manager a "damn liar"; in another "an ASS"--with caps lock in the original.

Elsewhere, the DNC could be found trying to offer a counter-narrative for why Bernie failed. Instead of DNC favoritism towards Clinton (which we now know existed), an email proposed saying it was because the Bernie camp never got their act together.

And the emails also show the DNC pushing back on scheduling debates with Bernie, even those that had already been agreed to. This doesn't really make sense if they were impartial; more Democratic meant more publicity for the party's ideas. And given that Sanders was not attacking Clinton at all (to a fault), it's not like either one was going to be bruised coming out of it. So what explains this? Why, their support for Hillary Clinton of course.

Clearly, the DNC understands that there's a distinct inverse relationship between the amount of time Clinton spends in public and how much people like her. Postponing or eliminating debates was necessary to slow down the political decay function. And it worked.

All of these things make perfect sense if they came from the Hillary campaign itself. They would be trying to assassinate Sanders' character by outing him as an atheist and they would be avoiding debates at all costs. The problem is that they're coming from an institution that is, at least theoretically, supposed to be impartial in the primary process. When Sanders supporters accused the process of being rigged against them, this is what they had in mind. The leadership of the Democratic Party was loyal to the Clinton campaign and actively worked against Sanders.

The Aftermath
Understandably peeved, Bernie Sanders called for the chair to resign from her post based on this new evidence of unprofessionalism. And yesterday, she announced she would resign, in an apparent olive branch from the Democratic Party to former Bernie supporters.

That said, it's worth noting here that none of this is illegal, nor should it be. The political parties have no obligation to have a fair or transparent nominating process, any more than a private company needs to consult its customers on its internal operations or product design decisions. The remedy to bad behavior is also the same in both cases. If you don't like how a political party conducts itself, then stop supporting it.

Hillary Chooses Vice Presidential Candidate to Reassure Trump of Victory
Speaking of olive branches to Bernie supporters, Hillary's vice presidential pick wasn't one of them.

She chose current Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who is known in Washington, DC for a record of bipartisanship. His most recent bipartisan foray was to expand the usage of the civil liberties black hole known as the terrorist watch list to exclude people from buying guns. (Fortunately, that effort failed.)

Kaine's positions are pretty similar to Clinton's as a moderate Democrat. For instance, he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership originally, but now plans to vote against it. Another revealing sign is that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham likes him, which does not bode well for Kaine's judgment. Perhaps Kaine's most laudable position is that he called for President Obama to ask Congress for authorization of the now almost two-year-old illegal war against the Islamic State. It's not clear whether he would vote in favor such an authorization if it were allowed to come up, however. (Probably yes.)

Most important, however, is what Tim Kaine is not. He is not a strong progressive that could bring the Bernie Sanders voters back into the Democratic fold. He's mostly a copy of Clinton, except that broad swaths of the population don't have a visceral dislike for him. That could play well if he were the actual Presidential candidate. In a VP pick, however, it's going to be useless.

Independents who strongly dislike Hillary are still going to vote for Trump or possibly Gary Johnson; a more likable VP can't sufficiently compensate for the unfavorability of the president. Neoconservatives who prioritize Israel or a hawkish foreign policy generally were already going to vote for Clinton because Trump is too much of a wildcard in this regard.

Only two sets of voters were really up for grabs in Hillary's VP decision--undecided independents concerned about the status quo, and hardcore progressives. Her decision appeals to neither.

Undecided independents will find little to like in Kaine, who has been in politics a long time and holds very conventional opinions.

Hardcore progressives will be similarly disappointed. Mainstream Democratic politics is not enough--that was the emphatic message of the Bernie campaign. And yet, that is precisely what Hillary is going to offer. More of the status quo (and more war). Don't be surprised if many Bernie supporters stay home. This is the one outcome that Clinton could not afford, but that's the outcome she'll get.

Thus, the Clinton campaign proves anew how surprisingly bad it is at politics, and Donald Trump is the likely beneficiary.

More recent emails from the DNC have not yet been leaked. But if they were, I'd expect Clinton's explanation to read something like this: "Eh, I didn't really want to win anyway."

US-backed Allies in Syria Call for US to Stop Causing Instability
After recent US targeting mistakes killed scores of innocent civilians in Syria, the local US-backed faction called on the US to end the strikes. They said the strikes were being used as a recruiting tool by ISIS, which is likely true.

But the US has said that the strikes will continue anyways and it blamed ISIS for putting civilians in harm's way. One wonders how convincing that message of sympathy will be to the victims' families.

In any case, this might mark a new low point for the Syrian war. When the US's own proxy armies are concerned about causing instability, that's a pretty clear sign things aren't going too well.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Economic Populism, America First, and Cheers for Gay People at the RNC

Source: The New York Times

Republican National Convention
We watched the final night of the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Donald Trump's acceptance speech so you didn't have to. Here's what you missed:

First, a Positive Disclaimer
I have a fantastically low bar when it comes to watching the two major parties. In effect, I'm expecting it to be uniformly bad. When it's not, I'm pleasantly surprised and those are the things that stand out to me. Naturally, that's what I emphasize in the analysis below as well. It's not that I don't notice the horrifying parts as well; I just take those as a given. If you'd prefer a more balanced or negative take, there is no shortage of apocalyptic overviews for you to seek out. Like this one.

Cheers for Gay People
One of the most encouraging aspects of the evening came from a risky inclusion in the speaking lineup--billionaire entrepreneur and libertarian-leaning Peter Thiel. You may be asking, what's one more billionaire amongst friends?

Well, Thiel was risky for a Republican convention because he's an openly gay man who was expected to address LGBTQ issues--not exactly the bread-and-butter of the GOP. After raucous disapproval of Ted Cruz the night before, there was a solid chance that Thiel would be greeted with boos when discussing his sexual orientation.

The exact opposite happened.

In the speech, Thiel chastised Republicans for getting distracted by "fake culture wars" in general and worrying about the North Carolina transgender bathroom kerfuffle in particular:
When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?

Then, in what may have been the highlight of the night, Thiel declared his identity and received a standing ovation:
I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American.
That got loud applause at the RNC. And it was followed by chants of "USA! USA! USA!" It was as beautiful as either of the two major parties can be circa 2016.

A similar moment also occurred during Trump's own remarks after he discussed the Orlando shooting and vowed to protect the LGBTQ community from hateful ideologies. Cheers broke out, and Trump explicitly acknowledged them:
And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.
This line wasn't in the original draft of his speech. Apparently, Trump was as relieved as the rest of us that Thiel and the discussion of the LGBTQ community received a surprisingly positive reception.

America First
Trump's foreign policy comments remained predictably inconsistent in his acceptance speech. He vows to defeat ISIS quickly in one breath (implying an invasion of some sort), but then opposes nation-building and regime change. He opposes regime change, but can't stand the most prominent instance where diplomacy was used in lieu of regime change (Iran). He correctly blames Hillary Clinton for advocating the intervention that destroyed Libya, but then blames her--the woman who counted Egypt's former dictator Hosni Mubarak as a family friend--for supporting / engineering the Egyptian dictator's overthrow, which is clearly false. He also criticizes Obama for not drawing a firm "red line" on Syria, but had that "red line" been more firm, it would have meant regime change in Syria--which, again, Trump is supposed to oppose.

You get the idea. He can't help but contradict himself all over the place. Some of it's good, some of it's bad, and it can't all fit together. Given how obvious many of these contradictions are, one wonders how they persist. Do his advisers really not understand this? Or maybe it's just some form of political compromise to the hawkish elements of the party? Tough to say for sure.

What is clear, however, is that Trump is pushing the America First theme. This phrase, or some variant of it, occurred repeatedly in his remarks, as an explanation of his priorities on foreign policy and immigration. The term is historically associated with a prominent antiwar movement, and we have to believe Trump knows this. Whether he truly favors this approach, or is simply using it as a marketing ploy is anyone's guess. But it does bode well for the antiwar cause in the upcoming debates. He may not be consistent, but Trump is setting himself up to take the more peaceful stance relative to Hillary Clinton.

Also worth noting here is another great line from Peter Thiel's speech: "It's time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild America."

Incredibly, that was an applause line at the RNC. One wonders if similar remarks will be heard at the Democratic National Convention, given their nominee.

Economic Populism and Outreach
Another major theme of the evening was economic populism. Trump may want to cut taxes (at least in this speech), but that shouldn't be confused with him wanting to shrink the size of government. Quite the opposite.

Trump's daughter Ivanka highlighted the (highly misleading) idea of a gender wage gap in her speech, attributing it primarily to challenges faced by working mothers. In response, Trump plans to advocate for an affordable child care system and possibly new employment laws preventing discrimination. While superficially appealing, it's not likely these will work well in practice. Do you want to send your kids to the daycare equivalent of the VA? I didn't think so.

Trump's own speech naturally focused on bad trade deals. Light on details but heavy on emotional appeal, he vowed not to sign another deal that harmed workers, and that American companies who tried to shift jobs overseas would face consequences.

Given this mood, you may not be surprised to learn that Trump was making very direct appeals to the Bernie Sanders voters, by favorably referencing the Democrat's populist candidate multiple times. He also referred to the economic plight of African-Americans and Latinos at a couple places in the speech, emphasizing how his policies would help them and all Americans suffering from the "rigged political and economic" system. Of course, this was a theme that Sanders drove home often as well.

With the exception of tax cuts and a few half-hearted nods to deregulation, Trump's economic policies will turn out poorly. But politically, that does not matter. Last night, Trump committed to branding himself as the candidate of the working man--his policies, his rhetoric, and even the personal anecdotes shared by the other speakers were all designed to convey this message.

The End of #ImWithHer
Trump concluded the evening by coining a response to Hillary's ubiquitous slogan #ImWithHer. Instead, Trump offered a different pledge to the American people: I'm with you.

Love him or hate him, this was brilliant.

In effect, it says that Hillary is in this race to just enhance her own personal power and influence and her supporters are pawns to help her achieve this end. On the other hand, Trump is the candidate who is in the race for selfless reasons, just to fight for the American people. Again, it doesn't matter whether you actually think this is true or not; it's a powerful message that fits his strategy.

And if I was a betting man--that is, if it was not illegal for me to wager large sums of money on political outcomes--I'd bet that Trump's strategy is going to work.

Hate, Rage, and "Others"
Disclaimer in mind, Trump's remarks were more moderate and more positive than I expected. The Hillary campaign already issued its verdict, which is exactly what you'd expect, summarizing it as "more fear, more division, more anger, more hate"

And to be sure, there was some of that. But not as much as you'd think.

Trump still wants a wall and is still worried about illegal immigration. He also called to stop all immigration from countries where terrorism is rampant. But in both cases, his remarks were less categorical than usual.

On immigration, he was no longer fixated on all ~11 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the country. Instead, his focus was on some 180,000 who were illegal immigrants that committed crimes. One might question what crimes are included and whether this number is right, but this is clearly an improvement over calling for all illegal immigrants to be deported. Similarly, on the terrorism question, he no longer called for a ban on Muslims as such, he wanted it to be based on country. That position won't win any points with libertarians, but it is certainly better than banning people explicitly based on their religion.

In Trump's worldview, at least as expressed last night, the relevant distinction is not (legal) immigrant or non-immigrant; not black, white, or Latino; not Evangelical Christian or LGBTQ. It is American or not American. And he wants to put Americans first. 

Of course, nationalism has a dark side too. If Trump ultimately wins, we may be reminded just how dark it can be. But last night, nationalism convinced a room full of conservative Republicans to cheer enthusiastically for gay people. I say that's worth celebrating.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Daily Links: US Coalition Enters Body Count Competition With France Attacker, Wins Easily

US Coalition Enters Civilian Body Count Competition With France Attacker, Wins Easily
Depending on who does the counting, it appears US-backed airstrikes in Syria have killed at least 76 and possibly as many as 200 civilians this week. After recent terrorism in Nice, France and then Berlin, Germany, many were asking the usual question: Why do 'they' hate us? In addition to targeting ISIS, the airstrikes were designed to give a decisive answer to this question and end any further speculation.

Surviving civilians in Syria initially demanded revenge after the incidents--with many assuming the Russian air force was behind the atrocities. The Syrian civilians were relieved to discover their loved ones were actually killed by a targeting mistake by US-led forces instead. One local man expressed the prevailing sentiment perfectly, in an interview that did not actually take place:
It may not bring my son back, but it's good to know the Americans were trying to kill bad guys instead. My son always knew he was taking a risk by being an Arab in the Middle East.
Pivotal Melania Trump Plagiarism Scandal Draws to a Close
The scandal which shook America to its foundation came to an anticlimactic end yesterday. A random staffer, one Meredith McIver, took full responsibility for accidentally incorporating phrases from Mrs. Obama's 2008 speech into Melania's address, noting that Melania admired Mrs. Obama greatly.

In a letter that was released publicly, the staffer also said she tried to resign over the incident. However, Donald Trump refused the resignation, saying "that people make innocent mistakes and that we learn and grow from these experiences."

Key takeaways:
  • This story still doesn't matter, but hopefully it's finally over.
  • If this episode has any effect at all, it will be to the benefit of Donald Trump. By mocking his wife, Trump's opponents in the mainstream media achieved a feat that no number of sappy testimonials from his family could have. They turned an arrogant billionaire demagogue into more of a human being. And the Trump Campaign's response capitalized perfectly.
Recommended Article for the Day
Check out this quick summary of the attempted coup in Turkey from the always reliable Patrick Cockburn. The situation has gotten considerably worse since this article was first published. Still, it's a helpful primer. We'll have more coverage of this crisis in the coming days.

As you can tell, I'm experimenting with the format of the blog again. Right now, I'm considering a daily sarcastic summary of some top stories on weekdays (roughly like the above), with long-form articles of my own a couple times a week. Let me know what you think of the format above in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

The Case for Political Optimism Part II: Donald Trump
Today, we continue to make the case for political optimism in the 2016 Presidential Election. And yes, that case even extends to possible election of Donald Trump, who was officially confirmed yesterday as the GOP nominee.

The basic premise of our belief is straightforward. The near-term outcomes of US politics may be a tragedy, but in the long-term, they are an opportunity. Yesterday, we discussed the upside of Hillary Clinton; today is Trump's turn.

Evaluating the likely impacts of a Trump Presidency are more challenging than considering Hillary's effects. While Hillary is a known quantity, Donald Trump is anything but. He has been known to express contradictory positions within the same week, and occasionally, even within the same speech. It's not even entirely clear whether he does this on accident or deliberately, which would basically mean taking political posturing to a new level.

With that said, there are still some consistent themes that have emerged. And from a libertarian perspective, they are almost exclusively bad--trade (less of it), free speech (more restrictions and lawsuits), police brutality (less accountability), and immigration (build a wall and deport immigrants already here).

On the question of terrorism and foreign policy, Trump is slightly more complicated. On the one hand, he has taken Islamophobia to new and appalling levels, and his emphasis on national security does not bode well for civil liberties. However, he has also been (at least during the election season) one of the most outspoken and effective critics of US regime change operations overseas. When Donald criticizes US intervention, he's unfortunately not sophisticated enough to make the blowback argument--that these interventions are in fact the dominant motivation for terrorism against Western targets. For Donald, Islam is still the leading explanation of that, which informs his other bad ideas. Still, the fact that the Republican standard bearer is willing to criticize US intervention at all--albeit not consistently and imperfectly--is decidedly new ground. It's also not something we're going to hear from Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail.

Most of the above items were strong strikes against Donald Trump. But as with Hillary, the benefits of a Trump Presidency lie more in his unintentional impacts than his deliberate policy proposals.

Animosity with the Press
The media's loathing of Donald Trump is palpable and unprecedented. Partisan biases in the media are nothing new, but this is something else. Indeed, we recently reported with glee on a particularly enjoyable outburst of antagonism between Trump and the press. You'll recall that this was in regards to a Trump fundraiser where the exact amount of funds raised was being questioned. After being pestered about it for weeks, Trump seems to have called a press conference for the sole purpose of berating the media. And it was an absolute delight:
[Trump] called one reporter "a sleaze", the general group "unbelievably dishonest" , and said they should be "ashamed" of themselves.

In response to the abuse, one of the reporters, apparently shaken, asked if it was always going to be like this.

Reporter: "I think you've set a new bar today for being contentious with the press corps, calling us 'losers' to our faces and all that...[interruptions]...Is this what it's going to be like covering you when you're president?"

Trump: "Yeah. It is...Yeah, it is going to be like this, David."

It's not clear whether our lovable reporter David was hoping for a peace offering or just deciding whether to go into another line of work. But, his question is revealing. As it stands, the press corps typically enjoys a very friendly and pleasant relationship with people in power, including presidents. That's why they have a highly publicized White House Correspondents' Dinner ("Nerd Prom") where everyone enjoys champagne while making light (or ignoring) of all the atrocities the amiable President invariably committed in the past year. It's also why the New York Times sees fit to publish fawning pieces like this one on our current president--Sure he's murdered children, but he has so much integrity and grace when he does it!
In the aftermath of the episode, the good folks at the New York Times (and probably many other places) took it upon themselves to explain the critical role of the press to hold politicians accountable. This was ironic, since it is those same news outlets which have proved fantastically inept (or disinterested) in holding anyone in power accountable--including their own journalists that helped sell America the Iraq War. But I digress.

While other politicians consistently receive favorable, uncritical coverage in the media, Donald Trump does not--not now and not when/if he occupies the Oval Office. So far, most of the critical coverage has been petty and trivial (OMG, one of Trump's forty-seven businesses failed!). But we should assume that if a President Trump ever had a real scandal or tried to implement some of his worst ideas, he would soon find an adversarial press corps to be alive and well--for the first time in years.

Public Outrage
Another positive factor (for all of us, if not for Trump himself), is that Trump seems to spark considerably more outrage among the general public than past Republican politicians. People may not have liked Romney for instance, but they weren't going to move to Canada if Mitt took office.

It's worth debating whether the degree of outrage about Trump is really justified. Our own answer is yes and no. Yes, he's an awful candidate, but no, he's not a uniquely awful candidate:
Trump's real crime is not his ideas or his biases. It's his willingness to express them in explicit ways that should and do make us all uncomfortable. He doesn't support enhanced interrogation techniques; he supports Torture with a capital T. He doesn't just support a "strong national defense"; he wants to go after people's families. Unfortunately, there's little that's new here. But it's not often that all of America's worst ideas are thrown out into the open for all to see. That is Trump's core offense. It's why he's inspiring more passionate opposition than any candidate in recent memory. But if the ideas are really bad, and they are, they should have been opposed all along--no matter what form they took and which party was supporting them.
Right or wrong though, the intense opposition to Donald Trump is healthy and useful. I wish all presidents faced such opposition; we might not be where we are now.

What this unprecedented public opposition means is that, contrary to popular belief, Trump is actually likely to wield far less power than President Obama currently does. There's little doubt that Trump, like Obama and Bush before him, would seek to expand his power. But Trump is going to be watched much more closely, by the media and the public. This is an important constraint.

Moreover, there is a genuine fear of Trump having all the power that is already vested in the President by historical precedent (though not by the constitution). Trump is the perfect combination of arrogant and despised to start a real conversation about the necessary and proper limits of executive power. Undoubtedly, this conversation would be initiated with a primary goal of scoring partisan political points. But it could lead to useful outcomes nevertheless.

Trump may also help folks on the left rediscover the merits of state's rights / the Tenth Amendment as an invaluable tool to block unwarranted excesses of the federal government. The left (along with libertarians) has already made major progress using the Tenth Amendment strategy in recent years to legalize marijuana. This same approach could be employed to prevent implementation of Trump's controversial deportation policies, just as northeastern states used it prior to the Civil War to resist the appalling federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. If things get bad enough, we might even see far-left states like Washington or Vermont begin to contemplate secession as a possible remedy (Vermont already has a group advocating for precisely this). For reasons we won't elaborate on here, this too would probably be a good thing.

Economic Policy
Finally, on economic policy, Trump is likely to prove blandly disappointed. Like Hillary Clinton, Trump's major economic policies--namely, erecting new trade barriers--will be calamitous for the US economy. Unfortunately, because Trump is a businessman and a member of GOP, which has a completely undeserved reputation of promoting free markets, an economic disaster on Trump's watch will probably be blamed on capitalism rather than the policies that caused it. There is a minor chance that Trump himself would be blamed given the previously discussed media hatred for him. But even if this did happen, the blame would probably be placed on Trump and his demeanor rather than particular policies. Thus, it's unlikely a failure under Trump will have the same educational value as a failure under Clinton would.

One possible upside comes from some off-hand and decidedly sensible remarks Trump made with regards to the US debt early on in the campaign season. In essence, Trump acknowledged that US debt would need to be restructured. This was viewed as blasphemous because the media still pretends paying off the debt at par is going to happen (it isn't). And Trump immediately walked the comments back the next day, and tried to pretend he never implied that the US would have to default.

It's not clear if he would make any game-changing decisions on US debt as President. Cutting spending has not figured as a priority in his plans, so it's unlikely he will make progress on the deficit. This, in turn, makes it likely a President Trump would face a debt-ceiling showdown just as Obama did.

Now that Trump has publicly acknowledged that the debt won't be repaid (even if he did retract that comment), this could make the next debt-ceiling crisis far more interesting. If investors perceive a real threat that Trump will allow a default, US debt could finally lose its perceived status as a risk-free investment. And when that happens, all bets are off. Interest rates would adjust sharply higher as investors unload US bonds, and the shock would almost certainly spark the next financial crisis, if it hadn't already occurred by then. But in spite of the short-term pain, this correction is actually a great thing for the long-term stability of the financial markets.

The ever unpredictable President Trump may help accelerate this process by his mere existence. If he does, it be a major step toward getting the economy back on a sustainable course. It will also finally discredit the dominant Keynesian view of economics which holds, in effect, that the US can continue accumulating debt indefinitely with no adverse consequences. Both of those outcomes would be welcome news.

Thus, we find that even a Donald Trump Presidency has serious upsides for the state of US politics four years hence. As with Hillary Clinton, the benefits are derived not from his affirmative policies but by the substantial opposition forces that will be unleashed against him. The strength of the Executive Branch and the federal government might receive overdue scrutiny, and Trump's mistakes will be highlighted by an adversarial mainstream press corps that is finally interested in holding the powerful to account. These forces will slow Trump down at every turn, mitigating the impact of his worst ideas.

Another likely benefit of Donald Trump is that his election would thoroughly shatter the prestige of the President. While that sounds bad at first, it really just means that people will clearly understand that the US President is human like anyone else and deserves at least the same level of skepticism. In a time when each of the last two presidents has claimed the power to prosecute new wars without Congressional approval and assassinate people without any semblance of due process, the unpopularity of Donald Trump could provide a much needed remedy.

And that's why there's no need to be pessimistic in this election cycle. Trump or Clinton will win the election, and they are just as bad as you think. But America will survive their leadership. And the reaction against their failures will pave the way for a better path forward.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Case for Political Optimism Part I: Hillary Clinton

The Washington Post / Getty Images
Let's face it: July has been a bad news month. It's also about to get worse, as two historically unpopular candidates become the official presidential nominees for their respective parties.

It does not really matter whether you think Clinton is the worst case scenario and Trump is the second worst, or vice versa. Most Americans aren't excited about either candidate, and after July, it will be all but certain that one of them occupy the White House come 2017.

This is cause for concern, of course. But the downside is not nearly as great as many believe. I can't remember the last election that didn't occur at a "historic" and "pivotal" moment in the nation's history. And yet, here we are. America survived the foreign and domestic interventions of George W. Bush, and it survived the foreign and domestic interventions of Barack Obama. It will survive Trump or Clinton too. And there's good reason to believe our politics will emerge in much better shape in four years. This is the case for political optimism.

The Upside of Hillary Clinton
From a libertarian perspective, there's not much to like about Hillary Clinton. Her particular form of centrism is opposed to libertarian principles on nearly every count--drugs (mostly pro-prohibition), war (for it), minimum wage (screw poor people), and so on. Thus, the upside to Hillary lies primarily not in what she will try to do, but in what she will fail to do.

Before getting there, though, it's worth noting there is one area where the winds of political pragmatism may call Clinton to do something helpful intentionally. As we discussed yesterday, Campaign Zero has proposed a slate of generally useful reforms for stopping police brutality. They have also compared the candidates' policy proposals to their core recommendations to identify areas of common ground / obstruction. Clinton comes out favorably on this score. Granted, she supports items that, in our view, are the most watered down and among the least important reforms. And of course, all she's doing is undoing some of the harm caused by the 1994 crime bill that was signed in to law (with her help) by her husband. (Don't worry, the harm was only directed at child "super predators", whom she also likened to dogs.) But with all that said, there's a chance some good will come of it. And given that the police brutality problem is liable to get worse before it gets better, she may consider more drastic (and hopefully helpful) reforms if and when she actually is president.

Foreign Policy
That good news aside, it must be acknowledged that Hillary Clinton is an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy. This doesn't make her all that unique, but she's far worse than most of her party in this area. In essence, she's bad on the same things that President Obama is bad on. She just takes them to new extremes and throws in a few extras for good measure. Some choice examples:

I don't have enough time in the day to provide a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. When there's a choice between peace and coercion, Hillary Clinton will choose coercion almost every time.

This is clearly bad news if you're an American concerned about terrorism, civilian casualties, or American soldiers needlessly dying overseas. It's even worse news if you happen to be a civilian in any of the countries that a Hillary Clinton Presidency would probably try to get more involved in.

The only real upside in this area is that Hillary is likely to overplay her hand. Among the few virtues of President Obama has been restraint (by recent American standards, that is). His administration has intervened and bombed seven different countries during his presidency. This included the violent overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya via NATO intervention. But to date, Obama has not backed a full-scale effort to overthrow President Assad in Syria, and the troop redeployments in Iraq number in the thousands currently, rather than the tens of thousands that they did during the occupation. His policies have still been egregious, but he had enough political sense to do it quietly. Rather than send the amount of troops needed to accomplish the stated (if futile) goal of uprooting ISIS, Obama has quietly increased the troop count hundreds at a time to avoid any meaningful debate. Politically this works for him, and it means the resulting policy is less bad than it otherwise would be.

Hillary Clinton's deep-seated hawkishness suggests she is unlikely to exercise the same degree of subtlety and tact. More likely, she will push for major new interventions. Iraq is probably the first candidate for greater intervention, with Syria and Libya following close on its heels. When this happens, it's tough to predict how the politics will play out. It's possible that the Democrats will manage to hold their nose while many Republicans offer wholehearted endorsements of the aggression they have always clamored for from the Oval Office, post 9/11. However, if Hillary pushes far enough, the tolerance of the Democrats is likely to wear thin, and Republicans will realize that attacking Hillary on war is politically effective. We saw this right-left unity briefly coalesce around opposition to bombing Syria back in 2013. There's a small chance that Hillary Clinton could revive it, to the benefit of all of us.

Economic Policy

While there's a chance of positive political effect from foreign policy, the biggest upside to a Clinton Presidency lies in the sphere of economics.

As we have noted previously, the US and global economies are ripe for their next collapse. There are many different indicators that would lead us to believe the current expansion is coming to a close, and there's good reason to believe that the next collapse will be even worse than 2008-2009. Moreover, even if you don't buy these ideas, there's also just the simple matter of time. The current expansionary period, as judged by the stock market, is the second longest on record in the post-World War II period. If it were to survive through the next presidential term, it would be the longest expansion of the era by nearly two years. Given the numerous signs of cracking already, this is unlikely to happen. It's a safe bet that the US economy will undergo some kind of recession under the next president.

This won't actually be Clinton's fault--most of the blame ought to lie with the Federal Reserve. Nevertheless, Clinton, and possibly President Obama, will receive most of the blame for it.

This may not be fair, but it will have great ramifications for US political discourse. It will finally put to bed the claim that Democrats know how to "manage the economy" than Republicans. The point here is not that the Republicans are better; it's that the very idea of either party knowing how to manage the economy is absurd.

Even if the general public fails to grasp this particular point, many other things will still become clear. Most importantly, the next recession is likely to come with at least a few bank failures. From an educational perspective, this will be very useful. When banking failures or economic issues arise under a period of Republican control, the blame is always placed on the excesses and greed of capitalism. But when it occurs under a prolonged period of Democratic control, this will be a difficult pivot to make. After all, some Democrats (and the Fed) have claimed that we have implemented the essential regulations needed to keep capitalism, and especially the financial sector, stable and secure. If some of these firms fail in spite of such useful regulation, only a few conclusions are possible:

  1. The market still wasn't regulated enough--which would be awkward since Dodd-Frank was hailed as such a major accomplishment,
  2. Maybe regulation isn't the solution after all, and/or
  3. Maybe, as libertarians have argued all this time, government regulations and interventions are actually the source of our economic problems, not the solution.

Clinton's response to the economic crisis will be bullish for option #3.

After all, economist Paul Krugman is angling to be her chief economic adviser, and his remedy in the crisis will be more of the usual Keynesian stimulus prescription. An authoritarian Clinton may even take things further. Borrowing inspiration from the Democratic legend of FDR, she may make more detailed interventions in the economy--raising wages, implementing price controls, etc. None of the proposals will prove helpful, and most will actively make matters worse, just as they did during the Great Depression under Hoover and FDR.

In other words, a Clinton Presidency will offer the kind of natural economic experiment that economists are usually denied. She is not an avowed socialist like Bernie Sanders, and in some ways, that's actually better. Domestically, she is the opposite of radical. She is the embodiment of centrist conventional wisdom, so she will pursue the orthodox solutions. When they fail--and they will--it will create an unprecedented opportunity.

Twelve continuous years of Democratic rule means that when the next crisis hits, for once, the free market might not be blamed for the follies of government.

America faces many difficult problems right now and many of them will come to a head in the next four years, regardless of who gets elected. But while the short-term outlook looks bleak, there are real reasons to be excited about the state of US politics on the other side. It may be angrier and more jaded than ever, but it will also be smarter. That is worth looking forward to.

Also, look for our post tomorrow when we discuss the unlikely upside of Donald Trump.

Monday, July 18, 2016

How Private Prosecutions Could Help Stem Police Brutality

Police brutality remains in the news this week, as it has been off and on since 2014. People--disproportionately people of color--continue dying at the hands of law enforcement at a rate of approximately 3 per day. It's true that not all of these deaths happen under suspicious circumstances that suggest wrongdoing. But many do seem thoroughly unjustified, including two that we wrote about recently.

In the most egregious cases, like that of Walter Scott, there's a chance of police being charged with a crime. But this is the exception, not the rule. In 2015, eighteen officers faced charges of manslaughter or murder related to an estimated 990 individual deaths, which was actually a significant uptick from 2014. No officers were convicted on such charges during the year, though some, such as the Scott case, remained pending. Given that the United States criminal justice is not renowned for leniency, these are rather remarkable statistics. And the numerous individual cases, high-profile and otherwise, in which officers evaded convictions or even charges attest to the fact that something is deeply wrong. In spite of massive, regular protests in the wake of each new tragedy, the solution remains elusive.

Many good ideas have been proposed to help address the problem of police brutality, such as the slate of reforms promoted by Campaign Zero. But few people are talking about the most promising reform of all: Legalize private prosecution for police brutality cases.

Self-interest and Prosecution
This may sound at first like a radical idea, but it is not. In fact, it is not even a new idea at all. Under the English common law system, private prosecution was the norm. And this system was largely replicated in the American colonies. Thus, private prosecution was the dominant method of seeking redress in the US through the first half of the 19th century. It was only later that the role for government prosecutors gradually expanded and usurped the role of private prosecution. Today the practice is largely nonexistent in the US, even in states that still allow it in some form.

While idea of having a lawyer prosecute and punish people for profit may seem ripe for abuse, these risks are constrained in an adversarial justice system like ours. In principle, it's not different than the role of a private defense attorney. In our system, the prosecution is asked to present the best possible evidence in support of conviction; the defense is asked to make the best case that their client is not guilty; an impartial judge oversees the proceedings; and the jury (or judge) decides which side is right. In theory, we may think of the public prosecutor as pursuing some vague notion of justice. On Law & Order, it might work that way. But we can look any number of facts and events in the real world that would disabuse us of this idealism.

For instance, it is a completely standard practice to offer accused criminals a lesser sentence if they plead guilty to a crime than they would face if the case went to trial. This practice makes no sense at all if prosecutors are merely interested in justice--why in the world would justice require a different punishment for the same crime based on whether or not the prosecutors had to win at trial? Clearly, it would not. Additionally, prosecutors routinely cite conviction statistics when running for the reelection. But "justice" doesn't care how many people were convicted; it would only care that they were treated fairly. From this, it's fair to say that justice is not the core driver of prosecutors today. Rather, many of them are motivated by something else, probably self-interest just like the rest of us.

So when a public prosecutor litigates a case, they are (generally) making the most compelling case they can to get a conviction. This is precisely what we would expect a private prosecutor to do in the same circumstances. In order to fulfill their client's wishes, the private prosecutor must present the best case possible to bring the defendant to justice.

Conflict of Interest in Police Brutality Cases
While the incentives for private and public prosecutors may alignaligmany cases, they are likely to diverge sharply when it comes to prosecuting police officers. Here, the public prosecutor knows that they must maintain a good working relationship with the police department, and they may even have personal relationships with some members of the police force from their day-to-day work. Just as important, police unions are powerful political entities that wield considerable influence in local elections. All of these forces make it much less likely for a public prosecutor to go after individual cops, even under circumstances that indicate wrongdoing. It might be the right thing to do, but it is likely to directly contradict their own self-interest. Going up against the police union is not a battle they are likely to win.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that many police killings result in no charges whatsoever. Frequently, these cases involve extraordinary legal procedures to reach their conclusion.

Take, for example, the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While there was no video footage in this killing, there was eyewitness testimony and sufficiently suspicious circumstances that the death sparked outrage and national attention. In this case, the prosecutor took the case to a grand jury and proceeded to present evidence in support of and against indicting the officer involved. The offending officer himself testified at length in the proceeding, effectively getting to present his defense. This contrasts markedly with a typical grand jury proceeding, in which the prosecutor presents one side of the story and the jurors return the requested indictment. The purpose of the grand jury process is to throw out completely baseless charges, not to assess guilt of the defendant. And given the one-sided nature of the proceeding, prosecutors almost get the indictment they request--out of 162,000 federal grand jury cases in 2010, only 11 were declined.

But the Michael Brown case was different. There, the prosecutor involved didn't really ask for an indictment. Instead, he turned the grand jury into a makeshift trial of sorts, with no side honestly advocating on behalf of the victim. And so he got the result he wanted; the officer was not charged and the result had a thin veil of legitimacy because some kind of legal process occurred.

The case of Eric Garner followed a similar path. After an incredibly incriminating video of his killing circulated, a grand jury process was conducted, and no charges were filed. The grand jury records in that case remain sealed, so no one knows for sure whether the prosecutor completely phoned it in for that case. But the statistics above, and the appalling nature of the video, make it more likely than not. It also doesn't help matters that the prosecutor charged with overseeing the case, Dan Donovan, decided to launch a successful bid for Congress shortly after the decision. Cynics could be forgiven for suspecting politics were involved in the non-prosecution of Eric Garner's murder.

Other examples could be cited as well. The picture they paint is not a pretty one. At least in this area, it appears that public prosecutors have consistently failed. The police officers involved do not get punished (which may or may not be appropriate), and the overall process lacks enough legitimacy to satisfy the public that justice was served and the rule of law exists. So police brutality continues to occur, the protests continue apace, and more recently, some troubled individuals even resorted to killing individual police officers to exact some kind of collective punishment. In short, the current system is working for no one, except the few officers who commit crimes and get away with them.

The Remedy of Private Prosecution
Now consider the remedy that allowing private prosecution in these cases could provide. The victim's family and supporters would hire a reputable attorney that they trusted, and the attorney's sole job would be to pursue justice for the victim, as it should be. That would probably mean aggressively prosecuting the officer involved to the fullest extent of the law. Some cops may ultimately still walk free in some cases as the laws themselves are very favorable to officers. But the final outcome from a private case would be far more legitimate than the ones we've seen so far, because the central conflict of interest has been removed.

It's also likely that removing the conflict of interest will lead to more cops getting successfully prosecuted and convicted. This, in turn, would influence police behavior for the better. Cops currently face very little risk of prosecution for excessive force, as the cases cited at the beginning of this piece amply prove. In this environment, we should not be surprised excessive use of force is commonplace. But as the threat of punishment becomes credible, we should expect the situation to improve. After all, our justice is based significantly on the idea that punishment deters criminal behavior. If we believe that is true for private citizens, we should expect it to be true for police officers as well.

Many proposed solutions to police brutality implicitly acknowledge the conflict of interest problem that exists currently. But rather than propose outright private prosecution, they typically envision a special prosecutor, still funded and selected in some way by the government. This is likely to be an improvement over the current system, but it is inferior to the private solution for a few reasons.

First, allowing private prosecution doesn't cost the government any additional money--in fact it actually saves money. This means it immediately bypasses one possible legislative hurdle. Second, it confers a greater sense of legitimacy and independence on the prosecutor if the victim's advocates have a direct role in selecting them. Finally, special prosecutors are appointed to all kinds of things in government (like torture, for example) without consistently producing legitimate results, so it's not obvious that police brutality would turn out differently.

One possible objection to the solution I've outlined is that poor people wouldn't be able to afford a private prosecutor. This is a legitimate concern given that many of the victims of police brutality are poor in addition to being minorities. However, the intense focus on this issue of late suggests that these cases could attract top lawyers to prosecute them, either on a pro-bono basis or with donations. Even if that didn't materialize in a specific case, the victim would be no worse off than they are now. In the absence of a private prosecutor, the government would handle the prosecution as they do currently.

Police brutality is an issue that has plagued the US for some time. While there are many different aspects of the legal system that contribute to this problem, nothing is more central than the conflict of interest between the public prosecutors and the police department. If everything else was fixed and this went unchanged, police brutality would still occur and the perpetrators would still get away with little sanction.

Allowing private prosecution in these cases is a simple and costless remedy that can begin having a positive impact immediately. By increasing the probability of conviction for excessive force, it will create a powerful disincentive for officers to resort to those tactics unless it is absolutely necessary. By removing the conflict of of interest, the resulting legal outcomes will have a level of legitimacy and fairness that the current situation desperately needs. And by letting victims choose an independent and competent advocate in the courtroom, it will at least give them a fighting chance at obtaining justice, a chance they do not currently have.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Two Arguments to Dismiss After French Terror Attack

Source: Valery Hache - AFP/Getty
Europe suffered another tragic terrorist attack yesterday, as a white semi-truck deliberately ran over scores of pedestrians in Nice, France. Reports put the death toll at 80 while more than 100 were wounded. The truck driver was also armed and apparently opened fire on civilians before ultimately being killed by police. At this point, authorities believe there was only one attacker.

At the time of this writing, there have been no formal claims of responsibility by ISIS or any other group, but the New York Times reports that ISIS occasionally takes as reports as two days before taking credit. We also know relatively little about the attacker himself, though one report claimed he was Franco-Tunisian.

Given how little information has been publicly released so far, it's possible that this was simply a random act of extraordinary violence. It is far more likely that it was a politically-motivated terrorist attack like the ones in Paris and Brussels that have also occurred over the past two years. Indeed, French President Hollande's remarks in the wake of the attack mentioned stepping up military action in Iraq and Syria, so it seems reasonable to assume there's a plausible connection to radical groups in the Middle East.

As this appears to be yet another terrorist attack, a couple observations are worth making.

The False Trade-off
Typically, the debate following attacks like these proceeds along two dimensions. There is a proposed domestic response designed to reduce the probability of similar attacks taking place in the future. And there is a proposed foreign response to punish the ones responsible--or more realistically, to punish a lot of random people that have the misfortune of living in the general vicinity of wherever the attacker and his friends are from. But I digress.

The domestic discussion takes place along the familiar lines of the liberty vs. security axis. Authorities invariably promise more security if they have more power over individual citizens. Benjamin Franklin's famous quote is dutifully cited in defense. But a terrified and bewildered population is primed for the security argument, and this side typically wins out.

The problem with the liberty-security debate is that it assumes the trade-off is actually possible. Just as economists used to believe there was a reliable trade-off between inflation and unemployment, security experts of today presume that liberty and security have a straightforward inverse relationship. When economists tried to put their views into practice, the theory quickly broke down. In the US, the stagflation of the 1970s, characterized by simultaneously high inflation and unemployment, showed that the previous assumption did not hold. A dangerous and mistaken paradigm was largely scuttled.

The same thing needs to happen for liberty and security. France may provide the necessary evidence to finally make the case convincing.

Recall that France has been drifting ever further towards the security side of the spectrum ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. And even prior to Charlie Hebdo, the country already had some of the strictest gun laws, far stricter than the ones that apply to Americans. (The guns used in that event were apparently procured on the black market.)

The most extreme shift towards security happened after the Paris Attacks in November of last year, which claimed well over 100 lives. After that tragic event, France declared a state of emergency on terrorism, suspending many civil liberties in the process. While originally intended to be temporary, it remains in effect today and failed to prevent this attack. Additionally, yesterday was Bastille Day, a French national holiday on par with the Fourth of July in the US. If anything, we would expect security to be particularly tight on such an occasion, and yet, the attack still wasn't prevented.

French security forces may simply be incompetent, but that shouldn't be our primary explanation of how this occurred. Rather, the mandate of preventing terrorism is an impossible one. The Nice Attack tragically illustrates this point. In this case, most of the damage appears to have been done by a truck, a tool which thousands of people in France no doubt have access to every day in their jobs. If we assume a similar, if scaled down, version of this massacre could have been done with any motor vehicle, then the number of people with access to such a weapon would be in the millions. And they have opportunities to commit some form of atrocity any time they pass a busy city street.

Of course, it's not just cars and trucks that are the problem. There is virtually no end to the possible vulnerabilities in a free society. In light of this, it is unreasonable to assume the French government could prevent terrorism if it just had a little more power. They cannot, and they will not, regardless of whatever new powers they try to acquire.

This is why the liberty-security debate needs to be dismissed. One side of the argument is taking the impossible as a given fact. No useful policies will come from that exercise.

Fighting Them Over There?
Another standard argument in the terrorism debate is the idea that "we must fight them over there or else we'll fight them over here". You've no doubt heard this one before. And like the alleged liberty-security trade-off, this concept could seem plausible on its face.

Recent history, however, proves it to be false.

Terrorist attacks are still thankfully rare, but successful high-profile attacks have become more common against Western targets in recent years. One could debate whether this is due to the new interventions unleashed by President Obama, or whether this is just delayed blowback from the belligerence of President George W. Bush. Most likely it's a combination, but it ultimately does not matter.

The reality is that the current interventions have not had the intended effect. If the goal was to prevent future terrorist attacks, they have failed. And thus, the primary justification for intervention is no longer valid.

If one wishes to continue to promote intervention abroad in spite of this setback, as the French President apparently does, they need a new pretext. It is not making anyone safer. And 15 years into this experiment, no serious person should believe the next intervention is the one that will actually work.

The problem of terrorism does not have any easy solutions at this point. But some proposed solutions are clearly worse than others. As we enter another round of political grandstanding on this issue, it's helpful to bear this in mind. Whatever the politicians may say, complete security against terrorism is not possible. No matter how much liberty we are willing to sacrifice domestically and no matter how many innocent bystanders we are willing to see bombed abroad in the name of prosecuting the failed War on Terror, this fact will not change.