Streetwise Professor

October 31, 2017

Kelly Causes Mass Apoplexy, Again

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:56 pm

John Kelly shares his boss’ ability to cause mass apoplexy on the left. And I think he knows it, and does it deliberately.

Kelly caused today’s mass freakout by making remarks about Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. He committed three grave sins.

First, he criticized presentism, which is an -ism that the left wholeheartedly endorses:

“There are certain things in history that were not so good, and other things that were very, very good,” Kelly said. “I think we make a mistake as a society, and certainly as individuals, when we take what is accepted as right and wrong, and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say, ‘What Christopher Columbus did was wrong.'”

“Five hundred years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then. I just think it’s very very dangerous. It shows you how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is,” said Kelly, a retired Marine Corps General.

Just so. Exactly.

Then, he defended Robert E. Lee as an honorable man:

“Robert E. Lee was an honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state,” Kelly said. “One hundred and fifty years ago, that was more important than country — it was always loyalty to state back in those days.”

As a matter of historical truth, this is also spot on. Who disputes that Lee chose his state over the United States?–but only after secession, and when his state was threatened with invasion.

Whether this conduct is honorable or not is fundamentally subjective. Honor–as Lee understood it, and as people like Kelly understand it–means living up to a certain code of conduct, adhering to one’s beliefs, even at great personal cost. The underlying beliefs are not objectively verifiable: they inhere in the subject. Honor involves adhering to them.

Now, you may object to Lee’s code, and what his beliefs were. But it is nigh on to impossible to dispute that he made his choice in good conscience, fully recognizing the personal risks he was taking.

Insofar as that code is concerned, Lee was acting on the basis of a theory of the United States, and the Constitution thereof, that was widely held in the South. Namely, that the Union was a compact of sovereign states, and that states had the right to depart from the Union of the federal government infringed on the rights of the states. In this view, the purpose of Union was to defend the rights of the states, and an infringement by the federal government on those rights justified the dissolution of the Union.

The Civil War basically ended that theory as a practical force in American politics, but it was a viable, and widely held, theory in 1861. And under that theory, one was a citizen of the US via one’s citizenship in a state. The state was more basic, more fundamental, than the union of the states.

Many object that Lee swore an oath to the US. A couple of things here. First, hard cases–situations where basic principles are in conflict–make bad law. Lee indeed agonized over his oath and his divided loyalties. Second, under the theory that Lee (and others) operated, obligations went both ways: the federal government had obligations to the states, and their citizens. In the minds of many Southerners, the government’s violation of its obligations relieved them of theirs. And rightly or wrongly, many Southerners viewed those rights to be at risk as the result of Lincoln’s election in 1860.

This theory was taken very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it greatly–and some would argue fatally–impaired the Confederate war effort. Southern governors, most notably Joseph Brown of Georgia, drove Jefferson Davis to distraction with their strict insistence that the Confederate government in Richmond respect the rights of their states. Jefferson Davis was one of those who claimed that this was indeed fatal to the South because it undermined a unified war effort necessary to achieve victory. When he said the epitaph of the Confederacy was “Died of a Theory,” the theory he was referring to was that of states’ rights.

It is true that many have dishonestly claimed that the insistence on states’ rights shows that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. In fact, these are not alternative theories of secession, or the war, but complementary ones. The right that Southern states were insistent upon, to the point of dissolving the Union, was that of a state to choose its “domestic institutions.” And the domestic institution the Southerners were willing to fight over was that of slavery.

You may argue against the theory, but you can’t credibly argue that Lee was dishonorable in adhering to the principles thereof. One may be an honorable and faithful servant of a false god.

Among his contemporaries–including many Northerners–Lee was considered an honorable man, and indeed perhaps, the archetypal honorable man. Recall that Grant saluted Lee on the steps of the McClean House at Appomattox, after accepting the surrender.

Lee was also from an honor culture, or cultures, actually–the South, and the military (and the antebellum military was deeply infused with Southern cultural values). Lee’s idea of honor no doubts resonates with Kelly, the product of another honor culture, the US Marine Corps.

Again, you may dislike or even ridicule this culture (as Twain did in Huckleberry Finn) but you cannot deny its existence or fundamental features, or claim that Lee did not strive to adhere to its values and strictures.

But Kelly’s biggest sin was this:

Now it’s different. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.

This is what really got heads exploding. Deep thinkers like Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Jake Tapper (you know, the ex-VH1 reporter who made his bones by doing snarky, superficial, and rather sleazy programs on, say, the legal battles over the Lynyrd Skynyrd legacy), and Ta-Nehiesi Coates inveighed against Kelly for daring even to suggest this.

In fact, Kelly’s remark is correct, as a matter of logic and of history.

Insofar as logic is concerned, a necessary condition for conflict is the failure to reach agreement–compromise. Those who make a deal aren’t fighting.

Insofar as history is concerned, sectional conflict was avoided throughout the 19th century through arduously negotiated compromises. The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise Tariff (1833), the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Sectional compromise was the leitmotif of mid-19th century American political history: the Civil War was the exception to that rule, the time when compromise failed.

Abraham Lincoln’s political idol–Henry Clay–was known as “the Great Compromiser” for his work in negotiating the first three of these. But Clay was dead in 1860, as was another major figure in negotiating deals, Daniel Webster. Moreover, the political balance had changed, and the pernicious effects of Kansas-Nebraska made compromise even more difficult.

But nonetheless compromises were attempted. The Crittenden Compromise, introduced to Congress in December, 1860, was the most notable of these. It was satisfactory to southerners, but not to northerners, so it died aborning. (One of Crittenden’s sons became a Union general, another a Confederate general. The latter died in battle in 1861.)

Yet even in March 1861, Lincoln was making conciliatory gestures to the South in an attempt to achieve compromise. Lincoln ran explicitly denying any intent to interfere with slavery where it existed (a position he also took during the debates with Douglas), and conceded fundamental states rights principles to the South in his inaugural address:

have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

Note well this sentence: “we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” Lee would have agreed: he viewed the prospect of an invasion of Virginia by the government of the US to be a lawless act, and it is on that issue of lawlessness which he and Lincoln disagreed.

Lincoln went so far as to accept what was an anathema to abolitionists–the Fugitive Slave Act–arguing that the controversy was a matter of details (“a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it should be kept”), not Constitutional principle:

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution–to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause “shall be delivered up” their oaths are unanimous. Now, if they would make the effort in good temper, could they not with nearly equal unanimity frame and pass a law by means of which to keep good that unanimous oath?

There is some difference of opinion whether this clause should be enforced by national or by State authority, but surely that difference is not a very material one. If the slave is to be surrendered, it can be of but little consequence to him or to others by which authority it is done. And should anyone in any case be content that his oath shall go unkept on a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it shall be kept?

In other words, even Lincoln was perfectly willing to reach a compromise that preserved slavery where it existed, and which allowed Southerners to retrieve escaped slaves from anywhere in the US.

The basis for compromise on the lines of those thrashed out 1820-1854 existed, and many on both sides strove to realize it. But the Fire Eaters in the South in particular rejected it. So it is historical fact that the war came because the politicians of 1860-1861 failed to reach compromises like those their predecessors had accomplished a few decades before, despite attempts to do so.  There is a very solid historical basis for what Kelly said.

Now of course any such compromise would have perpetuated slavery. But this is something that Northerners were overwhelmingly willing to accept. And here is the irony. By rejecting the compromises that the North (and the Republicans specifically) would have been willing to offer that would have extended slavery, the Southern radicals embarked on a course that resulted in its destruction within a handful of years. They turned the would-be successor to the Great Compromiser into the Great Emancipator.

The morals of sectional compromise are also not nearly as clearcut as the Ta-Nahiesi Coateses of the world would have it. Yes, Lincoln would have willingly been complicit in the perpetuation of a great evil–something that he recognized as a great evil. But by rejecting Southern terms, and insisting on Union, Lincoln unleashed a war that resulted in the deaths of ~2.5 percent of the US population–and about 20 percent of the military age male population in the South. As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, “every drop of blood drawn by the lash was paid by another drawn by the sword.” War is a great evil too. You may prefer one evil to another, but you have to acknowledge that it is indeed a choice between great evils.

This raises another issue that I will write about in the future. It is relatively straightforward to understand why the South seceded, and to recognize that at root it left over slavery. It is harder to understand why the North fought to keep them in the Union. It most certainly was NOT to eradicate slavery: even by 1863, emancipation did not have majority support in the North, and the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865 only by the slimmest of margins, and with the help of some very swampy political dealings.

So why? I have some conjectures–largely unsatisfying–that I’ll share in the future. Suffice it to say it is far too neglected a subject, especially in contrast to the  vast amount of ink spilled over explaining secession.

In sum, for all of the freaking out that Kelly’s remarks induced, he has a far firmer grasp on historical truths than those freaking out do.

But he had to know that what he said would spark a backlash. Yet he went ahead. This is actually quite fascinating, and revealing. He did so after the left attempted to shut him up and shout him down for going after the execrable Florida representative over the Trump phone call to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger. By speaking up on such a controversial topic so soon afterwards Kelly is making it very clear that he will NOT be intimidated.

Further, it demonstrates on matters of substance that Kelly’s beliefs track Trump’s very closely–or should I say that Kelly’s sincere beliefs track positions that Trump has staked out? Further proof that anyone thinking that the temperamental difference between Trump and his chief of staff reflects differences in political positions is sadly deluded. Indeed, Kelly’s gravitas (isn’t it funny that word is usually reserved for Democrats, even those who don’t really have it?)  will make Trump far more effective. Kelly is an effective spokesman, and an unapologetic one.

Semper Fi. That makes him a very formidable foe for the left.He is not afraid of a fight, and knows how to win one.



October 30, 2017

Michael Weiss: Stupid or Dishonest? I’m Going With “Both!”

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:18 pm

The usual suspects spent the weekend wetting themselves over the news of an impending Mueller indictment. This morning the eagerly anticipated event happened: Mueller indicted Paul Manafort and a heretofore nobody–Manafort’s former business associate Rick Gates.

BFD. The indictments had nothing to do with Trump, Trump’s campaign, or Trump collusion with the Russians. It involved Manafort’s concealment of his dealings with the Ukrainians (the ousted pro-Russia Yanukovych regime) and moneys associated therewith.

As Andrew McCarthy notes, the indictment seems shaky and overcharged, and a boon to Trump because it is an implicit validation of his assertion of no collusion. He further claims that the indictment is an attempt to pressure Manafort into cooperating.

Well, if that were the intent, it is likely that Mueller failed. Usually such cooperation would be negotiated in advance of an actual indictment, and the cooperator would then plead guilty to a reduced charge: that’s the negotiated quid pro quo. Here, it looks as if Mueller threw everything he had (which isn’t much) against Manafort, and then Manafort pled not guilty–hardly the actions of a cooperating witness.

As an aside, my friend, Houston attorney Tom Kirkendall, the most dogged follower of the Enron prosecutions, has told me that shaky overcharging in order to coerce witnesses is the MO of Mueller assistant Andrew Weissman, who was in charge of the Enron cases. Weissman is truly a piece of work, as detailed in this Rowan Scarborough article.

It is particularly interesting–and appalling–to note that Weissman was head of the DOJ Fraud Section that allowed a Russian the FBI (under Mueller’s and Comey’s directorships) had implicated in a vast bribery scheme connected to the Uranium One deal–including donations to the Clinton Foundation–to plead to a trivial charge (likely in violation of DOJ charging guidelines) with virtually no publicity. Quite a contrast, eh? Quite revealing that the one time where Weissman went against his normal MO resulted in the burying of a case that was highly damaging to the Clintons.

The most damning thing the Manafort indictment indicates is that Trump showed very bad judgment, and a serious lack of due diligence, in hiring Manafort. Another example of Trump’s injudicious choice of associates is one George Papadopolous, a Trump campaign advisor who pled guilty to lying to investigators. Throw in Carter Page, and it is clear that Trump’s campaign was so desperate to attract people that it scraped the bottom of the barrel and didn’t look too closely at what it dredged up. Trump is paying now for that carelessness.

The Papadopolous plea does provide some comic relief, however, for CNN’s Michael Weiss attempts to leverage it into evidence of Trump collusion with Russia. As with most Weiss efforts, it is a laughable failure, making up in gruesome wordiness for what it lacks in substance (or logic, for that matter).

Where to begin?

Well, let’s start with the biggest howler–a classic bait-and-switch. One wonders if Weiss is too stupid to recognize the fundamental logical defects in his argument, or thinks we are so stupid that we’ll miss it:

But “[o]n or about” April 26, 2016, Papadopoulous again met with the Professor in a London hotel. The complaint reads that the Professor told him he had “just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials” where he learned that the Russians “have dirt” on Hillary Clinton; “the Russians had emails of Clinton” — “they have thousands of emails.”

This date is important because The Washington Post only first reported on June 14, 2016, that the hackers working for the Kremlin had penetrated the servers of the Democratic National Committee. And while this correspondence, first published by WikiLeaks in late July, days before the Democratic National Convention, was distinct from Clinton’s personal emails and those she turned over to the FBI as part of the investigation into her use of a personal server to conduct government business while she was secretary of state, it nonetheless caused a scandal within the Democratic Party.

Did you see what he did there? The first quoted paragraph refers to “thousands of emails [of Clinton]” the Russians claimed to have in April. The second paragraph refers to Democratic National Committee emails, the leaking of which was reported almost two months later. Two very different things. Very different. The emails the alleged interlocutor for the Russians mentioned are NOT the emails that subsequently appeared on Wikileaks, meaning that Weiss is either to stupid to know the difference, or so dishonest that he is trying to obscure the difference in order to make a hit on Trump.

It’s trivially easy to see what was going on here. Everybody and his 5th cousin knew about Hillary’s secret server by April, 2016, and there was widespread speculation that the Russians (and the Chinese, and the Iranians, and your Aunt Fanny) had hacked it. The Russians were clearly trying to entice the Trump campaign by dangling the bait of Hillary emails.

This pretty much blows the collusion narrative to smithereens, eh? If Trump (or his campaign) was colluding with the Russians, why would as late as April the Russians have to use an intermediary to attract  Trump’s attention by claiming to have the widely-speculated about Hillary emails?

Obviously: they wouldn’t.

This is a piece with the Trump Tower meeting, where a Russian intermediary again attempted to attract Trump’s attention by claiming to have dirt on Hillary. Again, if the Russians were already providing information to Trump, that would have been completely unnecessary.

Note that the Weiss article makes it plain that the alleged Russian-connected source (who was not Russian, but presumably a Greek or maybe a Cypriot, and who mainly asserted tight connections) was willing to tell whoppers to convince Papadopolous of her ability to deliver the goods: she introduced Papadopolous to a Russian national who claimed to be Putin’s niece. Hilarious. Did she also claim to have connections with Marie of Roumania?

So, according to Weiss, the Russians told outrageous lies, but Papadopolous–and the Trump camp–were supposed to know that the claims regarding Hillary emails were gospel. Gospel I tells ya!

OK. Sure.

But the hilarity has just begun! Note that if the Russians were referring to Hillary emails, if Weiss believes the Russians were telling the truth (as his story requires) that would be an admission that Hillary’s server had indeed been hacked. Andy Kaufmann lookalike Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA, who is more absurd than Andy ever was) has made a similar implicit admission.

I really think they are too stupid to have figured that out. LOL.

But there’s more! (Isn’t there always?) The Trump campaign spurned the Papadopolous offer. But it’s even better than that: the alleged mastermind of the Russo-Trump collusive scheme–Manafort himself–is the one who told Papadopolous to pound sand:

In the event, no meeting ever took place. CNN reported in August 2017 that it was in fact Paul Manafort who “immediately dismissed the idea of meeting with top Russian officials and advised Trump to do the same.”

Manafort “[i]mmediately dismissed.” Self-satirizing.

The cherry on top of this comic sundae is this:

Gibbs is quite right to stress in his affidavit that using “nongovernmental intermediaries,” such as academics and think tankers, is one way Russian intelligence advances the Kremlin’s interests overseas. And there’s recent precedence for this in London, as I’ve documented elsewhere.

Uhm, Mike–the US does that too. And I would add journalists to that list: no conjecture there, as this is a widely documented fact. Further, I am highly confident that you fall into the category of U.S. “nongovernmental intermediary” as both a think tanker and a journalist. Heck, maybe this pathetic excuse of an article is just another example of that.

I could go on, but eviscerating this piece (of what, I’ll leave to your imagination) is far too easy. I need a much bigger challenge. So should I shoot fish in a barrel or steal candy from babies?

October 26, 2017

John Kelly is From Mars: The New York Times is From Planet Clueless

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:55 pm

It’s quite amusing to observe the dismay and panic expressed in this NYT article about Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly. OH MY GOD. HE ACTUALLY BELIEVES IN TRUMP’S AGENDA! WE THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO TAME THE BEAST! WE’RE DOOMED! DOOMED I SAY!

For all of the talk of Mr. Kelly as a moderating force and the so-called grown-up in the room, it turns out that he harbors strong feelings on patriotism, national security and immigration that mirror the hard-line views of his outspoken boss. With his attack on a congresswoman who had criticized Mr. Trump’s condolence call to a slain soldier’s widow last week, Mr. Kelly showed that he was willing to escalate a politically distracting, racially charged public fight even with false assertions.

And in lamenting that the country no longer holds women, religion, military families or the dignity of life “sacred” the way it once did, Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan, waded deep into the culture wars in a way few chiefs of staff typically do. Conservatives cheered his defense of what they consider traditional American values, while liberals condemned what they deemed an outdated view of a modern, pluralistic society.

A Marine who “harbors strong feelings on patriotism.” Who could ever conceive of such a thing? And interesting choice of words, isn’t it? “Harbor” is often used to suggest something illicit, like harboring a fugitive, or to insinuate concealment. No, I would imagine that Kelly wears his patriotism on his sleeve.

And again, what does one expect from a career Marine who achieved four star rank? Yes, there are exceptions–cf. Smedley Butler–but high ranking Marines do tend to be conventionally patriotic, and in the right tail of the patriotism distribution.

And a Marine who takes national security seriously. Again–who knew?

Insofar as immigration is concerned, this should not be surprising either, for two reasons. First, as the transnational progressives/globalists at the NYT never cease telling us, there is a strong correlation between American nationalist beliefs (which, I must note, are different in key ways from the European nationalism which the likes of the NYT and its readership wrongheadedly confuse it with) and hostility to open borders. Second, is it any surprise that Trump chose someone who was in agreement with him on immigration to head DHS, which is responsible for immigration policy?

This article is self-satirizing. Which makes thing easy for me. I just have to point you to it, and you can take the laughs from there.

The Times and others (including house broken “conservatives” like Jennifer Rubin at the WaPo, who cites Kelly as a reason there should be no generals in the White House) somehow think that because the steely, disciplined, controlled Kelly is temperamentally different from the mercurial and indisciplined Trump that he must be ideologically different as well.

What idiocy! I would in fact think it highly likely that Kelly is more innately and consistently committed to MAGA and a MAGA agenda than Trump: Trump has been all over the ideological map in the last nearly 40 years, and there is a lingering suspicion that his new identity as American nationalist champion is little more than a cannily chosen political strategy, rather than a matter of conviction.

In contrast, there is little doubt that Kelly is a man of conviction, and the irony–which is driving the NYT into apoplexy, and which is probably enriching many therapists on the Upper West Side (who are probably themselves getting therapy)–is that it is eminently possible that Kelly will get Trump to internalize those convictions, and moreover, attempt to achieve them in a more disciplined, strategic, and steady way.

In other words, NYT: be very, very careful what you ask for. You just might get it.

One last thing. The very article that frets neurotically about Kelly’s pointed remarks about how few Americans serve in uniform (he calls those that do “the one percent”) and how little those who don’t serve know about those who do provides proof of the ignorance that Kelly criticizes. For catch this:

Correction: October 27, 2017 

An article on Thursday about the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, misidentified the branch of the armed forces in which his son, who was killed in combat, served. He was a Marine, not a soldier.

Anyone with passing familiarity with the US military would know that members of the United States Marine Corps are not “soldiers,” and indeed, bridle at the term: they are Marines, dammit. There was a time (and there may still be occasions) where making that mistake could get you a black eye and a bloody nose. The NYT (including the writer, fact checkers, editors) obviously does not even have passing familiarity with the US military, which is why they  find someone like Kelly utterly unfathomable.

John Kelly is from Mars: the New York Times is from the Planet Clueless.


October 24, 2017

Maybe the Clinton Campaign Should Have Used a Staten Island Hosting Service Instead

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:48 pm

Today’s breathless “EXCLUSIVE” about Russia’s nefarious plots in the US is from the Daily Beast. In a nutshell, the crafty Russkies used a web hosting service in Staten Island to spread their fake news and propaganda on BLM and other issues.

The shambolic nature of the effort chronicled in the DB (appropriate acronym!) is laughable when compared to the massively expensive digital efforts of the Clinton and Trump campaigns. Here is a long Politico tongue bath slobbering all over the Clinton operation. And Clinton also had the benefit of the efforts of tech titan Eric Schmidt.

Here is a snarky Medium piece, which in the end grudgingly acknowledges the effectiveness of the Trump campaign.  Trump’s efforts specifically focused on Facebook, and at one point in the campaign he was spending $70 million a month on the digital portion of his campaign.

The sophistication and magnitude of the campaign efforts dwarfed anything the Russians did, Staten Island servers or no. Contrasted with the massive Republican and Democratic efforts to jam the airways and inter webs , the Russians’ activities were like a weak electromagnetic signal received from a distant star system. Background radiation at ground zero of a nuclear test.

Yet the hysterics focus on that, because in the end, it’s all they’ve got. It’s hard to know what is more laughable: the story itself, or the fact that anyone takes it seriously. But “journalists” like Miriam Elder at Buzzfeed (deeply implicated in the dissemination of the Steele dossier, an act Mikhail Fridman et al may well soon cause her to regret to the end of her days) cackle in glee at it. They actually think it is significant, a smoking gun. Amazing.

For those needing a schadenfreude booster, I strongly suggest the Politico article, released two months and a day before the election. But be careful! It could lead to a schadenfreude overdose, for virtually every paragraph contains a statement which in retrospect is  a howler that makes the Clinton campaign look very, very bad:

What cities Clinton campaigns in and what states she competes in, when she emails supporters and how those emails are crafted, what doors volunteers knock on and what phone numbers they dial, who gets Facebook ads and who gets printed mailers — all those and more have Kriegel’s coding fingerprints on them.

To understand Kriegel’s role is to understand how Clinton has run her campaign — precise and efficient, meticulous and effective, and, yes, at times more mathematical than inspirational. Top Clinton advisers say almost no major decision is made in Brooklyn without first consulting Kriegel.

So why hasn’t Hillary blamed him yet?

Now, with Donald Trump investing virtually nothing in data analytics during the primary and little since, Kriegel’s work isn’t just powering Clinton’s campaign, it is providing her a crucial tactical advantage in the campaign’s final stretch. It’s one of the reasons her team is confident that, even if the race tightens as November approaches, they hold a distinctive edge. As millions of phone calls are made, doors knocked and ads aired in the next nine weeks, it is far likelier the Democratic voter contacts will reach the best and most receptive audiences than the Republican ones.

“Donald Trump investing virtually nothing in data analytics.” Hahahahaha. Famous last words! It’s just that the Trump people were smart enough to keep their massive effort (which was disproportionately digital and largely eschewed the massive TV ad buys that the more conventional campaign lavished money on–3 times as much as Trump, in fact) under wraps, while the narcissists in the Clinton campaign chose to preen and brag about their superiority.

Karma is a bitch.

But as they say, there’s more!

Some Republicans aren’t just nervous about losing to Clinton in November. They’re alarmed at the possibility of falling multiple cycles, even a generation, behind in creating a culture of data-intensive campaigns. Romney hardly had an autonomous analytics department. Trump has called data “overrated.” Kriegel, meanwhile, is incubating the next generation of Democratic talent — his team rivaled the size of Trump’s entire headquarters operation for much of the primary — the no-name analysts of 2016 who will emerge as the key players in 2018 and 2020.

Think of all that wasted money. Small is beautiful!

And more!

One Democratic strategist, an Obama veteran with knowledge of the Clinton campaign, marveled at Kriegel’s sway in Brooklyn. “I have never seen a campaign that’s more driven by the analytics,” the strategist said. It’s not as if Kriegel’s data has ever turned around Clinton’s campaign plane; it’s that her plane almost never takes off without Kriegel’s data charting its path in the first place.

Apparently Kriegel’s data did not include exotic places like “Wisconsin.”

And I guess Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania weren’t battleground states, ‘cuz otherwise they would have consulted The Amazing Kriegel:

Four years ago, Kriegel similarly won the trust of Obama’s top brass as the battleground states analytics director in The Cave, the much-heralded Obama 2012 data war room. “We didn’t make a single decision about battleground state strategy without first talking to Elan about his numbers,” said Jeremy Bird, then Obama’s national field director and now a Clinton consultant.


As Trump has stumped in far-afield states like Mississippi, Washington and Texas, Republicans have implored his team to incorporate some data inputs to something as fundamental as the candidate’s schedule.

So tell me again who had the idiotic schedule?

I can’t stop laughing. The Democrats just KNEW that all tech-y, science-y, big data types were progressives and the Trump people were knuckle dragging idiots licking stamps to fix to mailers printed on a mimeograph machine. But in reality, the Trump people beat them at their own game. Or maybe not. Note that in the Politico article a main focus of the Kriegel analysis was deciding where to place TV ads, whereas the Trump campaign figured out that targeted Facebook appeals would be much more effective. In other words, the Clinton campaign grafted new analytic methods on top of old school media, while the Trump people focused on new media. Clinton played the old game in new ways, and Trump played a new game. Yet the Clinton people–and their media acolytes–were so busy with bragging about their own superiority that they never knew what hit them. Maybe they should have hired Sergey Kashyrin and some Russian trolls instead. It would have been a lot cheaper, in any event!

These different but related stories are a testament to the absurdity of American politics at present. The attention lavished on the Staten Island server specifically, and the fringe Russian propaganda effort generally, shows how unhinged the losers of the 2016 election have become in their desperation to find an explanation and an excuse for their defeat, and a way to try to undo the result of that election. The Politico story reveals unintentionally the real reason for that loss: a smug, self-satisfied elite operating in a bubble, thinking it knew everything worth knowing, and all the while completely oblivious to a seismic political movement that was largely a reaction to them.



October 22, 2017

Cranking the Russian Absurdity to 11: Logical Consistency Need Not Apply

Filed under: Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 4:37 pm

The absurdity of the Russia collusion investigation knows no bounds. The most recent iteration is that a Russian troll farm placed Facebook ads that promoted political division in the US. A far cry that from Trump personally canoodling with Putin, but put that aside. Front and center among the most recent allegations is that said troll farm placed material advancing Black Lives Matters themes with the intent of stoking racial division.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are extremely critical of Facebook for failing to derail the ads:

“This is a very fragile moment in time for African-Americans across this country,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the CBC, told reporters. “What we needed Facebook to understand is that they play a role in the perception of African-Americans, and they are influencers that use their platform to influence this country.”

. . . .

CBC lawmakers said they think the Russian ads promoting Black Lives Matter would have been easily flagged, and likely not seen by as many as 10 million people, had Facebook employed more people of color. Sandberg committed to adding a person of color to the board of directors soon, Richmond told reporters.

Several comments about this.

First, far be it from me to defend Facebook, but can you imagine the hue and cry had Facebook blocked similar–or even identical–content from any BLM-affiliated or sympathetic group or individual? The CBC would have been first in line to scream censorship. And does anyone believe that “people of color” at FB would have been more likely to flag and suppress pro-BLM messages? In what universe? Thus, this chin pulling is a case of ad hominem argument: it is not the content that they find objectionable, but who placed the content and for what purpose. (I doubt that the foreign origin of the material matters either: I imagine that the same people would be quite comfortable with similar messages being spread by ideological allies from say, Venezuela or Cuba. The alleged Russian origin only looks problematic in hindsight in the aftermath of the election.)

Second, the Obama administration was very sympathetic to the BLM agenda. Obama hosted BLM leader DeRay McKesson at the White House. I daresay he met privately with DeRay and other BLM leaders more than he met with some cabinet secretaries. Even more outspoken than the president was his Attorney General, Eric Holder. Holder traveled to Ferguson, Missouri at the height of the turmoil there and made remarks that hewed very closely to the BLM line–that was pretty damned divisive.  He gave speeches praising BLM.  BLM played a prominent role at the Democratic convention in 2016, and Holder said “black lives matter” during his speech there.

Again, if such BLM-themed remarks are racially divisive when made in Facebook ads placed by Russians (allegedly) and seen by a relatively small number of people, aren’t they much more so if expressed repeatedly by the president and the country’s chief law enforcement official at a time this issue was very raw, and receiving wall-to-wall coverage in all forms of media? Is BLM-themed rhetoric dangerous per se or not? If it is, that is true regardless of who says it.

And if advancing BLM-related themes is inherently bad, why are the same people criticizing the Facebook ads (and Facebook) the most outspoken defenders of kneeling NFL players, and the most vocal critics of a president who criticizes those players?

The logical fallacies and logical contradictions are rampant.

Third, assuming the allegations re Russia are correct, and indeed, assuming that this was part of a political influence operation run by Russian intelligence, it is nothing new! The Russians/Soviets have done this for years and years and years. The medium–social media–is new, but the methodology is tried-and-true: the Soviets/Russians have always used available media as part of these operations, so it should be no surprise that they have turned to social media given its current dominance. Further, the Russians/Soviets have focused on sowing racial division in particular during periods of racial strife in the US (e.g., the disinformation campaign claiming that AIDS was a CIA plot to kill black people). It is only the historical idiocy of the American establishment/political class that leads them to find something novel and uniquely dangerous in this new iteration of a very old game.

Indeed, when I argued years ago that ZeroHedge was a Russian influence operation it was precisely because it exhibited tells and used methodologies that I became aware of during the height of the Cold War. I noted specifically the seeding of pro-Occupy stories and themes in ZeroHedge as an indication that it was an influence operation. Replace Occupy with BLM and ZH with FB, and the analogy is exact. Again, anyone who thinks this is something new and a unique threat to the Republic is an historical idiot.

Indeed, look at the similarities with what is alleged about the social media strategy and ZeroHedge. ZH has long run very contradictory messages. Yes, there were many Occupy-themed posts. But there were also many Ron Paul-liberatarian posts, and anti-Obama administration posts. The common theme was that the posts addressed controversial issues in inflammatory ways. There was no common ideological line: they pushed everybody’s buttons. This is exactly what is alleged in the Facebook-Russia story.

This hysteria over this recent–and rather mild, by historical standards–iteration on this methodology wreaks of desperation to rationalize a devastating political loss, and an intent to delegitimize the winner of that election.

The triviality and triteness of this alleged conduct is all the more evident when one considers another story–one which the media is doing its damndest to ignore. The Hill–hardly a fellow traveler of Breitbart–has run several stories detailing the myriad links (including specifically financial links) between the Clintons and Russia, which were contemporaneous with the decision by the US government to approve the sale of Uranium One (which owned 20 percent of US uranium production) to Russia. Further, The Hill reports that the FBI had engaged in a thorough investigation of corruption surrounding the deal, which ultimately resulted in an indictment and conviction of one of the Russian principals–something which the FBI and DOJ announced with virtually no fanfare. Further, the plea covered a fraction of the criminal conduct that had been uncovered, greatly undercharged the offense, and was delayed until after it could have scotched the Uranium One deal.  Congress and the government body that must approve foreign takeovers over national security-sensitive companies were kept in the dark about the massive bribery scheme. The US informant has been gagged and threatened with criminal prosecution if he talks to Congress.

The Clinton Foundation was at the center of a nexus of connections between the corrupt parties to the transaction. The fact that many of the main actors in the Trump-Russia imbroglio–Hillary, Mueller, Comey, Rosenstein, and McCabe–were also deeply involved in the events reported by The Hill makes it all too much, really.

Today the Daily Caller–yes, closer to Breitbart than The Hill–notes the potential connection with the Russian spy ring story of 2010.

I’m not going to try to parse these stories–it is not necessary to do so for my present purpose here. Suffice it to say that the connections reported by The Hill–which, in turn, were allegedly uncovered as part of an FBI investigation that resulted in a conviction–are far more substantial and better documented than any of those that involving Trump, despite the assiduous efforts of legions of journalists and investigators to find the latter. What’s more, The Hill allegations involve Hillary Clinton’s actions while she held the most senior post in the president’s cabinet, and the concealment of the details from Congress and the American public required the complicity of Holder and Obama, as well as the FBI. All of which means that if the more flimsy allegations against Trump warrant a special counsel and numerous Congressional inquiries, those against Clinton (and the Obama administration) deserve at least as much, if not more.

Again–is a little logical consistency too much to ask for? That was a rhetorical question, folks.

The upshot of all of this is that the frenzy regarding Russia right now has little, if any, relationship to its substantive importance. The new social media-related allegations are ad hominem in nature: if advancing a BLM narrative is racially divisive, and that is inherently bad, Russian troll farms are the least important offenders. Obama, Holder, and Colin Kaepernick are far more culpable. Further, the alleged conduct is par for the Russian course, and indeed, is exactly the kind of activity that I pointed out in 2009–and which was well known decades before that. Lastly, the Democratic hysteria over Russia has to be the greatest case of projection in political history, when one considers the myriad Clinton-Russia connections.

This cranking of the Russia absurdity to 11 has nothing to do with facts or realities or even logical consistency. In fact, I should say especially logical consistency. The grotesque inconsistencies demonstrate instead that it has everything to do with a peculiarly American disinformation campaign intended to overturn the results of an election, and to kneecap the victor thereof.

October 17, 2017

Dead Penguins Don’t Matter If They Don’t Advance a Political Point

Filed under: Climate Change,Politics — The Professor @ 7:25 pm

What, you didn’t hear/read the story about the “massive breeding failure” among Adélie penguins, in which only two–yes two–offspring of 18,000 breeding pairs survived? Well, there’s a reason for that.

You can guarantee that you would have heard about it 24/7 had it been even remotely plausible to pin this catastrophe on anthropogenic global warming. Algore, every A through Z list celebrity (looking for an opportunity to distract from Harvey Weinstein’s shrubbery), every politician from Australia to Zimbabwe would have been on about it incessantly, at high volume, and in the highest dudgeon.

But the die-off was due to–wait for it–excessive sea ice which greatly increased the distance that the adults had to go to get food. So because they died for the wrong reason–and indeed, died for a highly inconvenient reason (or would that be truth?)–the story made barely a ripple. Move along, nothing to see.

Financial Regulators Are Finally Grasping the Titanic’s Captain’s Mistake. That’s Something, Anyways

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:11 pm

A couple of big clearing stories this week.

First, Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council (and ex-Goldmanite–if there is such a thing as “ex”, sorta like the Cheka), proclaimed that CCPs pose a systemic risk, and the move to clearing post-crisis has been overdone: “Like every great modern invention, it has its limits, and I think we have expanded the limits of clearing probably farther beyond their useful existence.” Now, Cohn’s remarks are somewhat Trump-like in their clarity (or lack thereof), but they seem to focus on one type of liquidity issue: “we get less transparency, we get less liquid assets in the clearinghouse, it does start to resonate to me to be a new systemic problem in the system,” and “It’s the things we can’t liquidate that scare me.”

So one interpretation of Cohn’s statement is that he is worried that as CCPs expand, perforce they end up expanding what they accept as collateral. During a crisis in particular, these dodgier assets become very difficult to sell to cover the obligations of a defaulter, putting the CCP at risk of failure.

Another interpretation of “less liquid assets” and “things we can’t liquidate” is that these expressions refer to the instruments being cleared. A default that leaves a CCP with an unmatched book of illiquid derivatives in a stressed market will have a difficult task in restoring that book, and is at greater risk of failure.

These are both serious issues, and I’m glad to see them being aired (finally!) at the upper echelons of policymakers. Of course, these do not exhaust the sources of systemic risk in CCPs. We are nearing the 30th anniversary of the 1987 Crash, which revealed to me in a very vivid, experiential way the havoc that frequent variation margining can wreak when prices move a lot. This is the most important liquidity risk inherent in central clearing–and in the mandatory variation margining of uncleared derivatives.

So although Cohn did not address all the systemic risk issues raised by mandatory clearing, it’s past time that somebody important raised the subject in a very public and dramatic way.

Commenter Highgamma asked me whether this was from my lips to Cohn’s ear. Well, since I’ve been sounding the alarm for over nine years (with my first post-crisis post on the subject appearing 3 days after Lehman), all I can say is that sound travels very slowly in DC–or common sense does, anyways.

The other big clearing story is that the CFTC gave all three major clearinghouses passing grades on their just-completed liquidity stress tests: “All of the clearing houses demonstrated the ability to generate sufficient liquidity to fulfill settlement obligations on time.” This relates to the first interpretation of Cohn’s remarks, namely, that in the event that a CCP had to liquidate defaulters’ (plural) collateral in order to pay out daily settlements to this with gains, it would be able to do so.

I admit to being something of a stress test skeptic, especially when it comes to liquidity. Liquidity is a non-linear thing. There are a lot of dependencies that are hard to model. In a stress test, you look at some extreme scenarios, but those scenarios represent a small number of draws from a radically uncertain set of possibilities (some of which you probably can’t even imagine). The things that actually happen are usually way different than what you game out. And given the non-linearities and dependencies, I am skeptical that you can be confident in how liquidity will play out in the scenarios you choose.

Further, as I noted above, this problem is only one of the liquidity concerns raised by clearing, and not necessarily the the biggest one. But the fact that the CFTC is taking at least some liquidity issues seriously is a good thing.

The Gensler-era CFTC, and most of the US and European post-crisis financial regulators, imagined that the good ship CCP was unsinkable, and accordingly steered a reckless course heedless to any warning. You know, sort of like the captain of the Titanic did–and that is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, now there is a growing recognition in policy-making circles that there are indeed financial icebergs out there that could sink clearinghouses–and take much of the financial system down with them. That is definitely an advance. There is still a long way to go, and methinks that policymakers are still to sanguine about CCPs, and still too blasé about the risks that lurk beneath the surface. But it’s something.

October 12, 2017

Trump Treasury Channels SWP

SWP doesn’t work for the Trump Treasury Department, and is in fact neuralgic to the idea of working for any government agency. Yet the Treasury’s recent report on financial regulatory reform is very congenial to my thinking, on derivatives related issues anyways. (I haven’t delved into the other portions.)

A few of the greatest hits.

Position limits. The Report expresses skepticism about the existence of “excessive speculation.” Therefore, it recommends limiting the role of position limits to reducing manipulation during the delivery period. Along those lines, it recommends spot month on limits, because that is “where the risk of manipulation is greatest.” It also says that limits should be designed so as to not burden unduly hedgers. I made both of these points in my 2011 comment letter on position limits, and in the paper submitted in conjunction with ISDA’s comment letter in 2014. They are also reflected in the report on the deliberations of the Energy and Environmental Markets Advisory Committee that I penned (to accurately represent the consensus of the Committee) in 2016–much to Lizzie Warren’s chagrin.

The one problematic recommendation is that spot month position limits be based on “holistic” definitions of deliverable supply–e.g., the world gold market. This could have extremely mischievous effects in manipulation litigation: such expansive and economically illogical notions of deliverable supplies in CFTC decisions like Cox & Frey make it difficult to prosecute corners and squeezes.

CFTC-SEC Merger. I have ridiculed this idea for literally decades–starting when I was yet but a babe in arms 😉 It is a hardy perennial in DC, which I have called a solution in search of a problem. (I think I used the same language in regards to position limits–this is apparently a common thing in DC.) The Treasury thinks little of the idea either, and recommends against it.

SEFs. I called the SEF mandate “the worst of Frankendodd” immediately upon the passage of the law in July, 2010. The Treasury Report identifies many of the flaws I did, and recommends a much less restrictive requirement than GiGi imposed in the CFTC SEF rules. I also called out the Made Available For Trade rule the dumbest part of the worst of Frankendodd, and Treasury recommends eliminating these flaws as well. Finally, four years ago I blogged about the insanity of the dueling footnotes, and Treasury recommends “clarifying or eliminating” footnote 88, which threatened to greatly expand the scope of the SEF mandate.

CCPs. Although it does not address the main concern I have about the clearing mandate, Treasury does note that many issues regarding systemic risks relating to CCPs remain unresolved. I’ve been on about this since before DFA was passed, warning that the supposed solution to systemic risk originating in derivatives markets created its own risks.

Uncleared swap margin. I’ve written that uncleared swap margin rules were too rigid and posed risks. I have specifically written about the 10-day margining period rule as being too crude and poorly calibrated to risk: Treasury agrees. Similarly, it argues for easing affiliate margin rules, reducing the rigidity of the timing of margin payments (which will ease liquidity burdens), and overbroad application of the rule to include entities that do not impose systemic risks.

De minimis threshold for swap dealers. I’m on the record for saying using a notional amount to determine the de minimis threshold to determine who must register as a swap dealer made no sense, given the wide variation in riskiness of different swaps of the same notional value. I also am on the record that the $8 billion threshold sweeps in firms that do not pose systemic risks, and that a reduced threshold of $3 billion would be even more ridiculously over inclusive. Treasury largely agrees.

The impact of capital rules on clearing. One concern I’ve raised is that various capital rules, in particular those that include initial margin amounts in determining liquidity ratios for banks, and hence their capital requirements, make no economic sense, and and unnecessarily drive up the costs banks/FCMs incur to clear for clients. This is contrary to the purpose of clearing mandates, and moreover, has contributed to increased concentration among FCMs, which is in itself a systemic risk. Treasury recommends “the deduction of initial margin for centrally cleared derivatives from the SLR denominator.” Hear, hear.

I could go into more detail, but these are the biggies. All of these recommendations are very sensible, and with the one exception noted above, in the Title VII-related section I see no non-sensical recommendations. This is actually a very thoughtful piece of work that if followed, will  undo some of the most gratuitously burdensome parts of Frankendodd, and the Gensler CFTC’s embodiment (or attempts to embody) those parts in rules.

But, of course, on the Lizzie Warren left and in the chin pulling mainstream media, the report is viewed as a call to gut essential regulations. Gutting stupid is actually a good idea, and that’s what this report proposes. Alas, Lizzie et al are incapable of even conceiving that regulations could possibly be stupid.

Hamstrung by inane Russia investigations and a recalcitrant (and largely gutless and incompetent) Republican House and Senate, the Trump administration has accomplished basically zero on the legislative front. It’s only real achievement so far is to start–and just to start–the rationalization and in some cases termination (with extreme prejudice) of Obama-era regulation. If implemented, the recommendations in the Treasury Report (at least insofar as Title VII of DFA is concerned), would represent a real achievement. (As would rollbacks or elimination of the Clean Power Plan, Net Neutrality, and other 2009-2016 inanity.)

But of course this will require painstaking efforts by regulatory agencies, and will have to be accomplished in the face of an unrelentingly hostile media and the lawfare efforts of the regulatory class. But at least the administration has laid out a cogent plan of action, and is getting people in place who are dedicated to put that plan into action (e.g., Chris Giancarlo at CFTC). So let’s get on with it.




October 9, 2017

The Thaler Nobel: A Nudge to Progressivism in a Populist Age

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 9:02 pm

Richard Thaler won the 2017 economics Nobel. Another win for Chicago. Ironic, in a way, given that in many ways Thaler is the anti-Chicago. The fact that the prime critic of homo economicus is on the faculty of the school most associated with neoclassical economics that utilizes homo economicus as its primary analytic engine is an indication of Chicago’s self-confidence, and reflects a belief that intellectual tension is a spur to scholarly innovation. Also, it may well indicate a canny instinct about future trends in economic science.

Insofar as the Nobel is a measure of impact, this one is warranted: there is no doubt that behavioral economics, of which Thaler is the recognized leader, has had an impact on the profession. That said, this area was recently recognized with Kahneman’s Nobel a few years back, and it would have been preferable IMO to have awarded Thaler along with Kahneman.

Insofar as the substance of behavioral economics is concerned, I largely agree with Mario Rizzo’s opinions on the Thaler award. Along with Rizzo, I find it useful to divide things into positive and normative economics.

With respect to positive economics, as Rizzo notes the primary use of the rational actor assumption is to derive predictions about aggregate/market behavior. It is not at all evident how the irrational actor assumption leads to more empirically robust models.  I vividly recall Gary Becker’s discussion of irrationality in an Econ 301 class at Chicago, in which he showed that rationality (in the form of utility maximization) is not necessary to derive the law of demand (though it is sufficient). Random choices on the budget line lead to a downward sloping demand curve, meaning that the location of the opportunity set, rather than how agents choose a point on that budget set, is the more important factor in causing the demand curve to slope down.

Indeed, there is a danger of falling prey to the fallacy of composition: even if certain behaviors are observed at the level of the individual does not imply that they will characterize behavior at larger elements of aggregation. Allowing for individual irrationality certainly adds modeling degrees of freedom, but that’s more of a bug than a feature, especially given the now vast number of alleged behavioral biases. There is always the risk of cherry picking this bias or that to explain a particular phenomenon, and then cherry picking another (which could be completely at odds with the first one) to explain another. This creates the risk that behavioral economics is empirically vacuous.

Further, there are already plenty of degrees of freedom even within the standard economics maximizing agent framework. Information environment–note that the most die-hard advocate of neoclassical economics and the exemplar of the Chicago School, introduced costly information in the form of search costs to explain price dispersion, which is inexplicable in the Marshallian costless information, perfect competition framework. Preferences–which raises a question: is habit persistence rational or irrational? Strategic interaction–one of the problems with game theory is that virtually any outcome is possible with rational actors depending on the details of the game, the information environment, beliefs, etc. Many phenomenon that seemed anomalous in one type of model with rational actors have been explained by tweaking one of these features all the while retaining the rational actor assumption.

So I’ve yet to see how deviating from the maximizing agent framework (and maximization is really what rationality means) improves the ability of economics to improve the empirical performance of its predictions regarding aggregate/market behavior. Meaning that the contributions of behavioral economics to positive economics are dubious, in the sense that they are unnecessary, and often subject to abuse.

But what really distinguishes behavioral economics is its avowedly normative thrust. People are irrational, and would be better off in objectively measurable ways if these behavioral biases were corrected. Furthermore, many behavioral economists, and Thaler specifically, are quite confident in their ability to identify and correct these biases–and make people better off–through “nudges”.

I have two major objections to this. The first is the fallacy of composition problem mentioned earlier. Nudged agents interact in markets, organizations, and institutions. Individual behavioral changes will lead to changes in prices and market outcomes. It does not follow that “better” individual behavior will result in “better” market outcomes–that’s the fallacy of composition in action. Economies are emergent orders, and small changes in individual behavior can lead to very different emergent outcomes. The law of unintended consequences is ruthless in its operation in emergent settings.

My second objection is more straightforward. Behavioral economics of the nudge variety is relentlessly progressive, in the political sense. There are the elite nudgers, and the irrational hoi polloi who can be improved by the beneficent interventions of the nudgers. Moreover, the elite are apparently not just benevolent, but also devoid of their own behavioral biases.

To which I reply: one of the major biases identified by behavioral economists is the overconfidence bias. Mightn’t the nudgers be particularly prone to that bias? The likely commission of the fallacy of composition suggests that they are. As does the dreary experience of social and behavioral engineering efforts large and small, where technocratic elites in their overweening confidence wreaked great havoc around the world.

Ironically, I would assert that behavioral economics actually feeds the overconfidence bias among its practitioners. A seemingly powerful intellectual tool has the tendency to do that. In economics, I would proffer Keynesianism as an example.

Shall we consider other biases as well? Given that there are many of them, we could be here for a while. Suffice it to say that once you admit the nudgers are themselves imperfect decision makers, the case for nudging becomes very weak indeed. When you add the fact that even Spock-like nudgers operate with seriously limited information (about outcomes of emergent social processes in particular), the case becomes weaker still.

Behavioral economics therefore is just what a would-be technocratic elite ordered. It provides a justification for their existence, and also for an existence that should be independent of check by popular institutions. For it would be irrational, wouldn’t it, to subject rational, bias-free technocrats to the whims of irrational individuals crippled by various behavioral biases? Decision making elites unconstrained by popular forces is the essence of progressivism (and in its extreme form, totalitarianism).

Behavioral economics is particularly precious to the elite in this populist age when technocratic elites are under attack from the hoi polloi. The Nobel committees are notoriously political, and often make political statements through their choices. I would not be surprised if the Thaler award has a strong political undercurrent, given the palpable elite panic at resurgent populism, and the decidedly elitist, progressive thrust of behavioral economics generally, and its Thaler-inspired nudge variety in particular.

Behavioral economics is very congenial to top-down approaches to social problems. It is viewed by deep skepticism with people like me who believe that the knowledge problem; emergence and the law of unintended consequences; and the deforming effects and perverse incentives of power (to name just three things) make top down solutions disastrous in most cases.

So the Thaler Nobel is accurately reflective of the influence of behavioral economics on the profession, and on the profession’s contribution to policy debates. And that is a disturbing reality.

October 6, 2017

Las Vegas, the Liberty-Gun Nexus, and Gun Control

Filed under: Guns,Politics — The Professor @ 11:21 pm

The horrific massacre in Las Vegas has, predictably, led to calls for greater gun control. Or “common sense gun control” as the no-doubt-focus-group-tested Democratic/liberal mantra puts it.

But here’s the thing. Gun control measures (even up to attempted confiscation) will have the least impact on mass shootings a la Las Vegas or Virginia Tech or Aurora or Sandy Hook. Restrictions on guns (like restrictions on drugs, or alcohol) don’t make these things disappear: they raise the cost of acquiring them. The higher cost indeed induces some people not to buy them: but these people are the marginal demanders, those who get relatively low value from them. In contrast, someone like Stephen Craig Paddock is way inside the margin. The likes of him are about as infra-marginal as you get.

Paddock acquired a large number of weapons and a large amount of ammunition. He rented an expensive condominium as his sniper’s nest. He made elaborate plans. He clearly spent lots of time, effort, and money to carry out his twisted plans. Raising the cost or difficulty of obtaining firearms substantially –and far more than the “common sense gun control measures” would– would not have deterred him from his evil plot. He obviously had a high willingness to pay, and an ability to pay.

But there is a perceived need to do something, and hence much time and breath is wasted obsessing on what are in reality trivial details. In the Las Vegas shooting, the focus is on “bump stocks” which allow a shooter to increase the rate of fire of a semi-automatic weapon to near automatic weapon levels: Paddock had such stocks on several of his weapons.

Well, particularly for the kind of shooting that Paddock was doing, it is doubtful that the bump stock (or even a fully automatic weapon) increased his lethality, and quite possibly reduced it. Automatic fire from a non-crew served weapon is notoriously inaccurate: it isn’t referred to as spray and pray for nothing. Although the first models of the M-16 had a fully automatic selection, later models eliminated it. This was in large part due to the fact that the military learned that aimed single-shot fire is more accurate and more deadly than rocking and rolling on full auto.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to distinguish fire from American troops from that of jihadis: the Americans fire single rounds, the jihadis blaze away on automatic. Those fighting Americans often find this disconcerting, in part because it communicates discipline and control and training. This can be unnerving. In contrast, firing on automatic often mainly provides a psychological boost to a shaky amateur, or serves to keep an enemy’s head down while other elements of a fire team maneuver to close with the enemy.

Automatic fire–and bump stock quasi-automatic fire–also increases the risks of jamming. Apparently several of Paddock’s weapons were found jammed.

So ban bump stocks, but realize that it is a ritualistic act not one that will make would-be mass shooters less lethal.

Other proposals are even more asinine. Hillary–you’re shocked, I’m sure–was first to the post in asininity, tweeting that just think how much worse things would have been if Paddock’s weapons been equipped with “silencers” (currently heavily regulated, but which some Republicans have proposed making easier to obtain). After all, if his guns been “silenced,” the no one would have heard the shooting and Paddock would have had more stationary targets!

Nice of Hillary to attempt to score political points against Republicans while the bodies were still warm.

Where to begin? This is stupid beyond words. Many have pointed out that even a suppressor (a more accurate term than “silencer”) merely reduces the noise caused by the explosive release of gases from the muzzle of a weapon when it is fired. But that’s not even the most ludicrous thing. A high powered rifle firing a standard cartridge shoots bullets traveling faster than the speed of sound. So the bullet creates a sonic boom–heard as a cracking sound: a suppressor does nothing to reduce the intensity of this sound. A suppressed gun still makes a big noise. Further, downrange, the bullet is still moving through the air, and creates a ripping sound as it passes. Which means that if you are downrange you will hear the bullet passing by before you hear the report of the weapon.

Suppressors can reduce the sound of pistols noticeably–because they fire subsonic rounds. But you ain’t going to shoot people 1000+ feet away with a pistol.  Similarly, if you fire special subsonic ammunition from a suppressed rifle, the report can be substantially reduced. But again, because of the lower power of these rounds, you won’t hit anything beyond 70 yards or so (i.e., smoothbore musket range). (US special operators have sought subsonic rounds for use on raids to enhance stealth, but they would be using this ammunition at close quarters.)

Here are a few videos that illustrate these points. Note to Hillary: 30 seconds on YouTube are all that you’d need to find this information, and loads more. But why let facts get in the way of a good narrative to score some political points, right?

So every one of Paddock’s weapons could have had a suppressor, and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference. (I’d also note that because he was firing in an urban environment with lots of hard surfaces at various angles, the sound would have bounced around so much that pinpointing his location based on sound would have been nearly impossible.)

This all means that the “common sense” gun control proposals are totally senseless, if the goal is to reduce, let alone eliminate, mass shootings, or to reduce the lethality of people like Stephen Paddock.

Thus, more draconian measures–likely including mass confiscation–would be required. And this is something that a large majority of Americans have made it clear that they will not condone. In essence, for most Americans, periodic mass shooting is something that they are willing to accept in order to retain their ready access to guns of pretty much all types.

This the American left, and most of the rest of the world, finds utterly inexplicable, and downright horrifying. The defiant embrace of firearms by a large portion of the American populace, and the tolerance of this embrace by another large portion, is shocking to them.

The embrace, and the understanding even by many of those who do not embrace, reflects the strong connection in the American mind between ownership of guns and individual liberty. In Europe, long before the US was formed, bearing arms was emblematic of autonomy and status. That connection was even more pronounced in America. Free men can bear arms: slaves, serfs, and the otherwise subservient cannot.

An expression, of which there are several variants, expresses this: “God made men, Samuel Colt made them equal.” (The Colt website, perhaps respecting religious sensitivities, has it “Abraham Lincoln freed all men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”) When armed, in other words, I am equal before all men. Since, as de Tocqueville noted, liberty and equality are paramount to Americans to a degree unparalleled in the rest of the world, restrictions on firearms are deemed a dangerous encroachment on fundamental freedom. It’s not just about guns qua guns. It’s about what guns mean for freedom.

In the American mind, the right to bear arms is fundamental precisely because it is viewed as the thing that makes Americans a uniquely free people: the very horror with which other nationalities view American gun culture in fact reinforces the American attachment. This demonstrates the uniquely robust nature of American freedoms, as opposed to those enjoyed by the citizens of other nations. Similarly, the fact that gun sales actually tend to increase in the aftermath of mass shootings is likely due to a belief that it is at precisely these times that this symbolically potent liberty will be restrained.

Law abiding gun owners are also deeply incensed, and take it quite personally, when their responsible possession of guns is threatened as a means of reducing murder or suicide or even mass shootings because this lumps them with street thugs, drug dealers, the emotionally troubled, and the psychopathic.

Thus, the left is actually acting against its own policy preferences when it ratchets up the rhetoric in the aftermath of a Las Vegas or a Sandy Hook. That rhetoric triggers (yes, pun intended) a passionate reaction against additional controls on guns because many perceive this to be a blow against personal freedom generally, and an attack on their characters.

It is fascinating to note that American support for gun control–any gun control, including measures far less draconian than in place in most of the rest of the world–has decreased in recent decades. I don’t think this is accidental. This has also been a period of increased government power, and increasing encroachments of the state on individual liberty. My argument about the liberty-gun connection predicts exactly such a relationship. Similarly, in the United States, those who are most supportive of an expansive government are most supportive of gun control: those most hostile to or suspicious of the government are most opposed.

To which a good German (or a good liberal) is likely to reply: but look at the carnage that such a sentimental attachment to liberty–and guns-causes! Well, when I look at the carnage that good German subservience to the state causes (world wars, mass murder), I know which is the much lesser of two evils.

By its nature, America always attracted the most independent, most rebellious, and most recalcitrant of the people of Europe. They were attracted by the greater personal liberty, and this in turn generated a kind of turbulence that was and is the source of great creativity and energy, but which had as one of its downsides a greater propensity for personal violence. Life is about trade-offs, and this is a fundamental trade off that has characterized America since even before its founding as a nation.

Thus, to many Americans, guns and liberty are a package deal: you can have both, or you can have neither. Yes, like all things, guns have their cost. But despite this cost, to many the package of both is still vastly preferable, given the value of liberty.

You may find this incomprehensible. You may find this stupid. You may even find this evil. I don’t, but I understand there are those who do. But I believe it is a reality, and in a democracy, you have to deal with the people as they are. And a lot of people–perhaps not a majority, but a strong minority at least–believe in the package deal. Those who do, believe in it passionately, intensely. So if progressives want to change fundamentally the laws on guns, they have to change fundamentally the people–or act in highly undemocratic ways.

The left is of course totally cool with trying to change the people: it is one of their abiding passions. They are also not averse to undemocratic means to achieve their objectives–that was understatement there, folks. But ironically, the harder they push, the greater the pushback. The Trump presidency is probably the most notable result of that pushback.

This is why even horrors like Las Vegas do not lead to major shifts in public opinion, and if anything, lead to a hardening of that opinion. In the United States, for deep historical and cultural reasons, there is a strong nexus between personal liberty and firearms. A threat to the latter is deemed a threat to the former. And since personal liberty is so fundamental to many Americans, a threat to the former is an existential one, or close to it. This is not conducive to compromise: to the contrary.  So the not-so-passionate-about-liberty left will push, and the passionate-about-liberty non-left will push back, leaving us in exactly the same place, but only more hostile and bitter in our division.



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