Add A Third Adjective: White, Male & [_]

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As part of my futile war on bad analysis, I give to you today a piece at Salon by H.A. Goodman titled “Hillary Clinton just can’t win: Democrats need to accept that only Bernie Sanders can defeat the GOP.”  The thesis of the article, as you may have surmised, is that Bernie Sanders is a better general election candidate than Hilary Clinton.  As usual, I am not taking sides on the conclusion, just the reasoning, and here we have a particularly bad example of the latter.

According to Goodman, in the leading sentence of his second paragraph:

Bernie Sanders is the only Democratic candidate capable of winning the White House in 2016. Please name the last person to win the presidency alongside an ongoing FBI investigation, negative favorability ratings, questions about character linked to continual flip-flops, a dubious money trail of donors, and the genuine contempt of the rival political party.

If this is supposed to be a compelling argument, then Goodman doesn’t have much of a case.  There have only been 43 Presidents (and 44 presidencies) in the United States since its inception.  If you exclude white and male, virtually any description of a President leaves him looking different than his peers (excepting lawyer, Virginian and farmer).  For example, please name the last time a Jew won the presidency?  When was the last time a socialist won?  Or we can string adjectives together to make it sound as if we are dealing in precision: please name the last time a New York-born Jew, who graduated from the University of Chicago (though clearly not from the economics department) who is an avowed, socialist, who was played by Larry David on Saturday Night Live won the presidency?

I don’t know whether Goodman will be proven right or wrong that “Vermont’s senator will become our next president,” but I do know that if this is the level of analysis behind his prediction then it will be because of chance, not reasoning.

No Climate No Peace

Drivel from Jason Box and Naomi Klein at the New York Times:

The connection between warming temperatures and the cycle of Syrian violence is, by now, uncontroversial. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in Virginia, this month, “It’s not a coincidence that, immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region.”

and

“To the contrary, as the author and energy expert Michael T. Klare argued weeks before the attacks, Paris “should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference—perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history.” But it can only do that if the agreement builds a carbon-safe economy fast enough to tangibly improve lives in the here and now.

And thoughtful analysis from Francis Menton:

I think the answer is obvious: the single most important thing the U.S. can do to enhance its national security is to pursue policies to keep the price of hydrocarbon fuels low.

Read both and understand the difference between projection and analysis.

Nancy Pelosi – The Greatest Number of Logical Errors in the Shortest Amount of Space

I find this incredibly funny on multiple levels, including the sheer number of logical fallacies and non-sequiturs packed into such a small space.

1) This is the definition of “begging the question”;

2) Pelosi responds to a reporter’s question of when life begins with multiple non-sequiturs in the same sentence;

3) She asserts she is a devout Catholic while rejecting a main tenant of Catholicism;

4) She makes one of the worst appeals to authority I have heard – ‘I am a mom therefore I know more than you about science’;

5) She asserts that a question about when life begins in the context of an abortion question is irrelevant to public policy; and

6) The Huffington Post reporter, Amanda Terkel, who posted the story believes the statement is some sort of a zinger, rather than a poorly reasoned response that makes Pelosi seem like a moron.

Big Money for Me But Not for Thee

Over at the Daily Beast, Cliff Schecter is talking about some of the rich guys who are giving money to implement gun control: Bill Gates, Nick Hanauer, Mike Bloomberg, Bill Allen.  And he LOVES it.  He loves the fact that Gates is backing Initiative 594 in Washington, which will require universal background checks in Washington State.  And he most definitely loves that these wealthy .0001%ers can toss around as much money as they want to take care of an issue about which Schecter feels very strongly:

Bloomberg is worth $33 billion, but if that’s not enough, Gates is worth well over two times that amount. Who knows, with that kind of dough, maybe even measures that “only” enjoy 56 percent support like bans on assault weapons and/or high-capacity magazines could pass via direct voting by uncorrupted American citizens. Or perhaps state legislators and members of Congress who bend easily to the will of these Lords of War could be swapped out for those who live in a closer neighborhood to the best interests of the American populace.

What Cliff Schecter most definitely does not love is people being able to spend money in politics on policies which he does not like.

In sum, Cliff Schecter thinks the 1% should be able to spend tens of millions of dollars to influence policies and legislation, but when ordinary citizens want to pool their money to achieve the same objectives they should be prohibited from doing so.  How very progressive.

The “Everybody’s Doing It” Defense

Allies of Hillary Clinton have been promoting a new defense to her e-mail woes. Jeffery Toobin in the New Yorker and Matthew Miller in the Politico argue that the government over-classifies material, and thus Hillary Clinton should be excused for having classified material on her server. It’s a nice move because it conflates a legitimate policy concern with a specific case of malfeasance in an attempt to make the latter more palatable by linking it to the former.

There is a very good case to be made that the government over-classifies information to the point of it being absurd. Even publicly available information that everyone knows gets classified by the government. Miller has an excellent example:

Intelligence officials also often argue that information is classified even when the same information can be gleaned from unclassified sources. While still at the Justice Department, I once wrote a draft press release that a Department attorney claimed contained multiple pieces of classified information. He accused me of a grave violation of the rules for handling classified information, instructed me to destroy all copies and threatened to refer me for investigation. But I had drawn the release from unclassified sources and had never even been briefed on this particular underlying secret—how could I possibly have exposed something of which I wasn’t aware?

However, the ridiculousness of the government’s policy on classification does not, as much as Toobin and Miller would like it to, absolve Clinton of her responsibilities within the confines of that policy. As a member of the government and its employee, she was bound to follow the same procedures and policies as other government workers. It would have been fair for her to have criticized those policies, but it was not appropriate for her to set up a system that allowed for the easy breach of those policies and then claim the policies should have been different. In fact, ironically, as Secretary of State if she had really thought the policies governing classification were a problem she could have used her authority to change the system. I have heard nothing to indicate that it was a concern for her at all.

Other allies want to excuse Clinton because she (allegedly) never sent any e-mail with classified information – she only received it. This, they argue, while a poor decision, makes her mistake something that should be forgiven as a no-harm, no-foul situation (despite not knowing if any foreign governments hacked Mrs. Clinton’s server). Writing in the New Yorker, Steve Coll distinguishes between Clinton and John Deutch, David Petraeus and Sandy Berger because those individuals were involved in cases where “serious or willful neglect was… much clearer than anything that has emerged about Hillary Clinton’s e-mailing.” It is a fair point – what Clinton did is categorically different from what the others did. However, it still doesn’t excuse Mrs. Clinton’s behavior which, while different, was egregious in its own right.

Secretary Clinton, for her personal political reasons (to maintain control over all her communications and to prevent normal oversight), willfully removed herself from the normal channels of government communication. She decided that her privacy and her ability to control her information was more important than any government policy. She created a situation where she was in a position to receive classified information on a piece of equipment not sanctioned by the government. The fact that she (allegedly) never sent any classified information is irrelevant. She should have known that there was a chance – a good chance – that classified information might be sent to her via e-mail when she became Secretary of State. She created a vulnerability that a foreign government may have been able to exploit.

Miller argues that we should excuse Clinton because the situation was no different than “had she been using an unclassified State Department email account, which, like her personal account, would not have been authorized to receive classified information. “ That is simply incorrect. Had she received classified information on the State Department’s servers, the security procedures, safeguards and technicians involved in State’s computer systems would have been able to be involved. Once it was determined that classified information was sent to her non-classified e-mail, they could have traced how it got there and done forensics to determine if anyone had hacked in. That e-mail system would also, presumably, have been subject to anti-hacking technologies employed by the government. It may be true the government isn’t adept at counter-hacking (see OPM), but it is almost certainly more adept than the individual who set up her home server and Platte River. Finally, she would have the safe haven of having followed proper procedures.

If you jaywalk and get hit by a car, you have no right to then claim the driver should have been more careful. Clinton went outside of the bounds of standard operating procedure and wound up with classified material on her computer. To try and turn around and blame the people who sent it (who do have some responsibility, though of a different nature) or the fact that it was not marked is the equivalent of blaming the driver. When a person creates a situation where she can reasonably foresee injury, then she doesn’t have much of a case when injury occurs.

Matthew Norman Vs. Matthew Norman

Writing a newspaper column means never having to be right:

May 5, 2015 column in the Independent

But some of that enthusiasm is positive, and for this Ed Miliband takes the credit. Regardless of who forms whatever kind of government (and assuming the opinion polls are accurate), Miliband will come out of this election cycle as the clear winner, and deservedly so. A sensational Opposition leader, he has steered his party clear of the widely anticipated internecine strife. Labour are now remarkably united, while the Tories face civil war if they scramble another coalition together. For five years David Cameron deftly walked the line between the Lib Dems and his own back-bench headbangers. If he clings to power, he will be at the mercy of his far right and will surely lose his footing.

Yet what makes Miliband so promising is something grander than a knack for party management. It is perspective. He was the first major politician to see the leftward shift in the political centre of gravity, which still remains invisible to the terminally obtuse. For all the policy vagueness and the campaign cross-dressing, he has acted on that vision to present a clear choice.

May 8, 2015 column in the Independent

The two countries to which we awoke seem to have nothing in common, nothing whatever to bind them. England, as those of us naive enough to have forgotten are reminded, is an essentially right-wing country which is happy to blind itself to the victimisation of the poor and disable. It feels older, tireder and more sclerotic than ever today.

Brent Budowsky: Party Loyalty At The Court

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Writing for The Hill Brent Budowsky is “90 percent” confident that John Roberts will “join a majority of justices to uphold the subsidy proviso of the Affordable Care Act.”  If he is wrong “and Roberts and the other Republican justices overturn the subsidies and destroy ObamaCare in a party-line vote, the Supreme Court will become another Washington institution that loses legitimacy with a large number of citizens and falls into widespread public disrepute.”

So, if a party-line vote brings down ObamaCare, it destroys the Supreme Court.  On the other hand, if a party-line vote saves ObamaCare, with all 4 liberal justices holding together and adding one conservative, then the reputation of the Supreme Court remains intact.

This double standard appears time and time again by liberal commentators.  They never question the integrity of liberal justices, who vote as a block to such a degree on controversial matters that it is simply assumed, at the outset, that they will vote in a certain way (and the assumption usually proves correct).  On the flip side, they question the integrity of the conservatives, who do break with the presumed position from time to time for jurisprudential reasons.

Let’s Make Government Big?

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At the Huffington Post, James Roumell takes up the task of identifying the proper size of government. His answer: “The Proper Size of Government is Big.” He doesn’t just like his government big; he likes it European-style. He asserts that his goal is to put the debate in context, but his commentary studiously ignores all aspects of the debate which do not reflect positively upon larger government size, thus reducing the “context” to nothing more than simple issue advocacy. Moreover, his issue advocacy focuses on just one issue – capital allocation – without even so much as mentioning some of the significant and substantial reasons why proponents of a smaller government take their position. Perhaps that is a reflection of Mr. Roumell’s perspective as an asset manager. However, it is no excuse. If he were writing a newspaper column, where space was at a premium, it might be acceptable, but in a blog format where space constraints are irrelevant, the failure to even address the counter argument when purporting to give “context” to a debate is deficient.

Advocates of small government favor restrictions on its size not just on the basis of economic efficiency, but also on the basis of individual liberty. We are concerned about the concentration of power in the hands of a few, regardless of whether such a concentration would be economically efficient. Mr. Roumell asks, rhetorically, “Americans might want to ask themselves if they were forced to choose between reducing the public sector by 15% versus increasing it by 15%, which would they prefer?” But small-government advocates, before getting to that question, would ask “would you, as an American, be willing to live under a dictatorship if it meant a better standard of living?” Undoubtedly, some people will say “yes,” but I suspect that vast majority of Americans would say no (although the number of consents will assuredly increase the greater the economic advantages bestowed).

Mr. Roumell does not touch upon this issue at all. Perhaps he has the same problem that a CNN reporter had when interviewing some members of the Tea Party. The Tea Party was protesting the stimulus bill because its members felt that it was wrong and that it was being orchestrated by powerful interests in Washington, while they had no say. The CNN reporter was nonplussed at the protest and tried to explain to the protesters that they would be getting money from the stimulus. She was simply unable to comprehend that it was the method and process – not just the money – that mattered, and that these people were upset on a philosophical level as to how their government was being run, something which was more important to them than immediate financial gain. Of course, one can take the position that the Tea Party is foolish for doing so, but it at least must be recognized that economic outcomes are not the only things that are important to citizens when they choose a government.

A corollary to this point is that many people who advocate for smaller government are concerned not with its overall size, but its composition and power distribution. For instance, smaller government advocates often are in favor or a robust military, police force and judicial system. They also tend to favor institutions that are controlled at a more localized level. So, PTA boards “yes,” the Department of Education “no.” The size is important, but what is more important is the level of intrusiveness and the loci of power. Mr. Roumell either considered these arguments and rejected them out of hand or failed to consider them when constructing his column. Neither was appropriate.

Philosophical arguments aside, Mr. Roumell’s economic efficiency arguments are, overall, weak on their own terms. Aside from his observation that that the OECD countries spend a high percentage of their GDP on the public sector, most of the points he makes to support his arguments are ambiguous, at best. Take, for example, his reference to Eisenhower founding NASA and the precursor to DARPA. While NASA achieved great things in getting to space and the Moon, there are many who would argue that the agency has wasted vast sums of money on projects that aren’t necessary or provide little return for the investment dollar. As for DARPA, Roumell likes it because it created the Internet. DARPA is a valuable asset to the United States because it provides a way for the government to invest in promising military technologies that might otherwise go unfunded, but that does not mean the Internet is a great example of big government. Had DARPA not funded the early internet, it would likely have come into being anyways. Students and scientists at university would have fooled around with networking technology until it sprang into existence. In France, the proto-internet was implemented by businesses; it wascalled the Minitel.

Another dubious point in favor of big government is the observation that “the wealthiest nations on earth are all characterized by economies with a dynamic and robust public-private partnership.” The same could be said for some of the worst autocracies and kleptocracies in the world, some of which are very poor. Almost all nations seek to implement public-private partnerships. While they are often present in wealth societies because there is money to spend and a rule of law, they are also found in the poorest societies because there is still (the people’s) money to spend, while at the same time the law can be bent to accommodate whatever is necessary.

I won’t argue with Mr. Roumell’s point about the superior capital allocation capabilities of the government in certain circumstances regarding long-term health and welfare. Indeed, I think most small-government advocates would agree that the government has a role to play when there is a market failure due to a time horizon beyond the return period in which corporations are interested. However, Mr. Roumell conflates that sort of spending with the benefits of computing that were derived from government defense initiatives, which is a problematic argument for two reasons. First, small-government advocates generally acknowledge that national defense is an area where the government can and should be “large”. Second, while we should always take advantage of any derivative benefits that come from a military or other government program, arguing that we should have a large government in order to create such benefits is silly. The Internet would have come into existence without DARPA. On the other hand, how many programs has DARPA invested in that have led nowhere, with no return to the taxpayer? In the case of DARPA, those negative returns are balanced out by the fact that we need a mechanism to promote early-stage advanced technologies due to their vital role and the fact that the market is unlikely to provide them. Where is the similar justification for spending by the Department of Energy, Education, Labor and others?

And how does Mr. Roumell come to the conclusion that small-government proponents are “adolescents pumping their chests to proclaim that they don’t need mom and dad… [a]nd then Katrina, Sandy or Ebola hit and the most ardent detractors, and often their Republican Governors, come crawling to Uncle Sam asking for help”? The examples he cites are all in areas where the Republicans have no issue with government – emergency and disaster relief and threats of bodily injury to the American people. Mr. Roumell does cite successes by the EPA and FDA In the areas of pollution and drug safety, but he fails to mention the enormous economic damage the EPA has inflicted on industry – sometimes capriciously – with many of its rules, or the people that have died as drug approval has lingered at the FDA. For all the good that Mr. Roumell cites at these agencies, there is much damage done by them.

Mr. Roumell has a lot of expertise in investing and understanding capital allocation, and that is the source of his greatest misunderstanding. His column leaves one with the impression that he believes there is no difference between a company and the state. To borrow from King Louis the Fourteenth, he declares ‘the state is a business.’ Thus we get a discussion of capital allocation:

I’m a committed private-sector loving guy who invests capital for a living, so why the appreciation for the public-sector? For one, I’ve seen first-hand for nearly 30 years how private allocators of capital often get it terribly wrong, too. In 2011 Hewlett Packard bought Autonomy Corporation, PLC for $11 billion and in 2012 wrote off $9 billion. Oops. In fact, perennial corporate write-offs from over paying for acquisitions are routine in the private sector and in each instance represents a poor capital allocation decision.

This is the most troubling part of Mr. Roumell’s argument. He shows no appreciation for the difference between state and private action. Investors in HP or another private entity, are able to enter and exit their position at will. HP can exercise no control over their decisions, and the shareholders’ losses are limited to the stock that they voluntarily purchase. When the state acts, it is a different matter, entirely. Citizens cannot simply opt in and out of the country’s decisions. When a poor decision is made by the government, the citizen is tied to it, for better or worse. Furthermore, unlike in the case of the private company, when decisions are made at the federal level they are done so by people that the citizen has never heard of and never voted for. There may be many smart and wise people in government making good decisions, but nobody who has thought about these issues should make the mistake of thinking that decision made by the central government are similar to those made by private companies or individuals. It is not a matter of degree, it is a matter of kind.

Mr. Roumell concludes his column by claiming the Republic Party has been hijacked by “government haters.” Undoubtedly, there are some. However, disagreeing with the breadth and scope of our current government, and the way in which it has strayed from the idea of federalism and limited government is not reflexive hate, it is the result of study, both at a philosophical and a practical level. When government grows more concentrated, it grows more powerful and the rights of individuals recede. When government grow more concentrated and powerful, it makes it easier for well-connected and powerful interests to exert even more influence. And, when government becomes concentrated, it enables people to abuse their power far more easily. At an operating level, governments are often inefficient. They are inefficient because they sit at the center of a market inefficiency, monopoly, and thus are not subject to the corrective force of competition. If we want to have a discussion about the proper size of government, then any “context” must include all of the ways in which government has wasted money, been subject to abuses of power and makes decisions based on the furtherance of political interests, rather than objective criteria. Context requires a look at both sides of the issue.

Hillary Clinton Demands: Show Them the E-Mails!

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Hillary Clinton has tweeted:

Clinton wants those e-mails released (now, gosh darn it!).  Phew, clearly Hillary is honest and straightforward – she want’s her e-emails released just as much as all of the reporters and Republicans who have been clamoring for them the last few days.  Problem solved!

Except, not really.

According to news reports, her staff combed through her e-mails and delivered 55,000 to the Department of State.  I have prepared a handy Venn diagram depicting Clinton’s e-mails during her tenure as Secretary of State.

As I had no way to show the absence of any e-mails from her DOS account, I have had to settle for an arrow pointing to nothingness.  That aside, what do we see in this chart?

  1. Hillary Clinton has been asked to produce everything in the red circle, representing any and all e-mails she sent in her capacity as Secretary of State.  Those e-mails are the property of the American people.
  2. Her representatives combed through the red circle and delivered only what they wanted to, represented by the orange circle.
  3. We care about what is in the green circle.
  4. Clinton is a dissembler.

In her tweet, Hillary calls for release of the orange circle, despite the fact that it is the green circle in which we are interested and it is her obligation to turn over the entire red circle.  The Jews have a word for this, “chutzpah.”