A Reflection on America’s Long Term Strength

I should start by acknowledging that there are no new ideas in the post.  I just want to remind us all of something its easy to forget in the news cycle.

Notwithstanding our largely paralyzed political process, a party and President with plans to effectively destroy our openness and our generosity to the less fortunate, and an international environmnt with several major players whose committement to the values for which we have stood is, dubious to say the least, our overall assets are such that any other country and leader could only dream that their nation will possess them in their children’s time, if ever.

Not only do we still have massive economic power now backed by a powerful innovation machine, we have most of the leading educational institutions, speak the utterly dominant language, have a human capital pool from every country in the world, democratic values that remain a beacon for those of goodwill throughout the world, a political system with checks and balances that usually work, although not always as quickly as they have in the last three weeks, and not just a free free press but a system in which multiple layers protect that essential ingredient of freedom and progress.  (If you have any doubt about how all those interact in a time of crisis, just look at the list of amici in the immigration case in the Ninth Circuit, as discussed here.)

Now, lots of terrible harm is going to happen to lots of people.  The sate net will take vicious hits.  There will be serious limits on voting rights.  Government support of education and research will be very seriously hit.  Only by a miracle will the damage to our health care system be less than the good that is done — although “repair” might end up giving us a better system in some states.  One could add to this list.

But, unless our entire political system is destroyed (and I am actually less worried about that right now) most of our essential uniqueness will remain.  Unless things get much worse, people will still want to study, teach, and invest here.  They will still see English as the only non-native language they need to speak.  Above all, we will remain the only country that large groups of people in every country see as the model to emulate.

If we are really lucky, or rather if we really deserve it, the way we ultimately overcome our current challenges will enhance our uniqueness and appeal.  Few countries have the capacity for defense in depth of democracy that we have already shown.  It may take four years, or even eight, but this too will pass.  To quote Lee Hayes from an earlier era: “I’ve had kidney stones and I know.”





We Need the Voter Fraud Investigation — Assuming It is Fair and Real

Its hard not to be freaked out by Trump’s call for a voter fraud investigation, and to worry that it might lead to more suppression efforts.

But I ask you to think forward four years, and where we will be likely be with a President who has just been defeated in the election, and is now publicly doubting the result, and is suggesting that he should not leave.

We would like to hope that Republican colleagues would shut that down, but given their repeatedly demonstrated inability to resist the lures of craven self-interest, I find it hard to be confident about that.  (It is true that so far they have not gotten onto this particular anti-fact bandwagon, but not at much risk.)

Obviously, such a study/investigation would have to be truly bi-partisan and fact based, and willingness to engage in such a process, also critical to restore the overall legitimacy of our political process, should be a test of ability to transcend narrow interests.

If such a process were successful, it might be a model for other shutdowns of fact-free expeditions.

P.S. I have to emphasize that this assumes that such a project would be open, fair and real.  I had added the last qualification to the title to make this clear. (added Jan 26, 2017)

Resurrecting the Online Trump Team Lie Detector

The idea of a TV Trump lie detector system, proposed here, really did not get much initial traction.

Thus the TASS (Trump Assertion Scoring System).  I trust that those old enough to remember the Soviet news Agency and its endlessly repeated and utterly predictable falsehoods will appreciate the joy of thinking of this name .  .  .

TASS would be deployed on one or more news source networks, in the form of maybe a visual Pinocchio, or other graphic, maybe in the bottom left of the screen, showing the accuracy or not of the current assertion. One could also use an icon system to note the percentage of lies in the speech. Indeed, the Washington Post Fact Checker already uses a Four Pinocchio scoring system.  But it is not in real time. Polifact does some livechecking, but it seems to be text driven, and in any event not on the major network news feeds.

But now, with the media finally getting that they have to do something about the obviously intentional lying of the Trump administration, it is the time to get this going.

The great thing is that the Trump team has now degenerated so much that so much of what they say is immediately recognizable as a lie.  So it would not take much staff to do it.

It would be easy to pilot with the press briefings.

Please Help Us Figure Out How to Build a Trump Provocation Engine

My mind has been drifting over the obvious question as to how to provoke Trump to issue a twitter rant against someone, preferably as gratuitously as possible.  My thoughts so far.

Make a comment in derogation of his sexuality and/or, masculinity.

Make sure that it has some capacity to reduce his economic interests, since those seem to be the core driver.

Make sure your tweet is likely to resonate with his base, since that is what he cares about.

Try to have the provocation include something with which he can respond with something that will demonstrate his power to intimidate.

Give him some bait so that the topic and response will get broad media attention.

In terms of days, time it for when he is most desperate for misdirection to stop people from noticing whatever he or his appointees are doing behind the curtain.

Choose a day when he has been “quiet” for a time

In terms of hour of the day/night, best time seems to be around 3 AM.

Seriously, I would really urge a researcher to look at the most any tweets and see how they correlate with the above, and other factors, such as prior activity during the last 24 hours, who is around him, general medial mood, etc.

Then we can build an automated provocation engine.  Actually, since provocation would be so good for business, you could even sell its services to the highest bidder (taking a percentage of increased revenues, and using those revenues for anti-Trump activities.)

Of course, my secret hope is that showing how predictable he is will be such a threat to his sense of his own ultimate superiority that this post will have the desired set-off effect.  If it does not do so, then it proves that he is so ordinary that he does not understand the idea, or the intellectual undermining it represents.


More Silver Linings in the Changed Political Process

This is the second of my posts trying to see the additional positive opportunities for the future that may be offered by the disruptions of the recent election.

The fact is that Trump, by tearing up the limits of prior political discourse may make it much easier for future candidates to “tell truth to power.”

Some examples of approaches that are now far less out of the mainstream for rhetorical questions by candidates or serious ones by the press, are:

Being much more explicit about the hypocrisy of candidates who change their positions with the wind.

Being much more direct in pointing out the implications of candidates personal interests in specific policy outcomes.

Being much more critical about the overall functioning of the political and economic system.

So, imagine these lines four years ago, and four years into the future.  Would they have been acceptable in the past, and will they be now?

Ask him what stocks he owns in health care — how much will he earn from this change!

Why is he so frightened of gay people?

Why does he get such a kick out of interfering with other people’s sex lives?

So, sir, if you are not influenced by campaign money, why do people give it to you?

Can you honestly say that you have NEVER been influenced in any way at all by campaign money?

People have died.  You are a killer.

Why are you so angry?  Why do always appeal to the very worst in people?  Do you see a psychiatrist?  Has anyone suggested you do?

Did you tell you wives about your affairs?  Would you tell the American people when you break promises you have made to them?

How did you get so rich? 

Not hard to go on and on.

Now, it may be that for complex political reasons some of these may do more harm than good.  Or it may be that some of these would provide rhetorical rebuttal opportunities that we would not want to provide.

But the fact is that these possibilities now have to be analyzed, whereas before they were just outside the realm of political discourse.

I am just not sure anything is beyond the pale anymore, and we have the opportunity to be much more creative.

Understanding The Wisdom and Weaknesses of Trump’s Promises

Trump has surely made a lot of promises.  Maybe it is time to analyze how voters really think about promises and the failure to keep them.  Some thoughts.

1.  Many voters treat affirmative promises as symbolic rather than specific, regardless of how specific the words appear to be.

Thus, the promise to build a wall is not expected to be kept by a physical wall.  Rather it would be kept by sending a strong unqualified message of exclusion, accompanied by strong acts of the kind others would not perform.

Moreover, the phrases that go with the promise, like “beautiful,” can often be designed to signal intentional use of hyperbole.  That the hyperbole often generates overreaction on the other side is a further plus.

In other words, such promises are easy to wriggle out of, and effective at winning elections

2.  On the other hand, voters take “negative promises” i.e. promises to not do or cause something specific, very seriously indeed.

These tend to be the promises that, if broken, sink presidencies.

When George Bush senior said: “Read my lips no new taxes,” it would have been far better for him, but not the country, if he had meant it.

Although some have argued that Johnson did not promise to keep the US out of Vietnam, all agree that the public thought that he did.  Thus his failure to keep this perceived promise doomed his presidency and much else.

Most recently, Obama’s promise that no one would “lose coverage” under Obamacare, while only technically incorrect, when shown to be inacccurate, was one of the major reasons that public support did not increase significantly after implementation.

Breaches of such “negative promises” are obviously much harder to wriggle out of, because of their specificity, and because they can not usually be said to have been met in other ways.  For example, the phrase “lose coverage” could not be redefined in the public mind to “have appropriate coverage available.”  (The dishonesty of the media coverage, while breathtaking, obviously hurt, and it is illustrative that revealing the dishonesty did not mitigate the damage much.

Moreover, the breach of these “negative promises” serves to undercut not only credibility, but often perceptions of competence and reliability, and that does ever further harm.

3.  There are advantage for candidates of promises treated by voters as symbolic rather than specific.

For a candidate, having a promise treated as symbolic is obviously a huge advantage.  It means that you can get a value, a goal, an alignment of perception, communicated to your potential voters.  Moreover, it means that many voters will not think through whether they really want the specific to happen.  This cycle there is so much evidence of voters who want their candidate to promise something, because it expresses their anger, their need to be heard, or their tribalism, without really wanting it to be done.  The obvious example is Obamacare.  While many of us would regard voting for a candidate who promises something you do not want to happen as hard to understand, not so for many of these voters.

Moreover, the really skilled candidate can present a specific promise, knowing that different voting blocks will read it as a different metaphor, thereby having their cakes eaten in many flavors.  That can be achieved by the right “dog whistle words,” by techniques such as careful selection of delivery location, staging, surrogates, etc.

4.  But there are also problems, for those then seeking to govern, in promises treated by voters as symbolic rather than specific.

The problem comes when you have to govern.  It will turn out you have made a lot of maybe inconsistent promises.  While inconsistent promises that are perceived as specific are more of a problem than those perceived as metaphorical, even the metaphorical ones can create problems.  The trick is to find ways to deliver specific “achievements” that show compliance with the symbolic versions of promises, while minimizing their overall lack of consistency.  That is not so easy

5.  To attack failure to keep affirmative promises, its a mistake to focus only on the specifics of the promise, unless you can persuade that the specific failure itself is symbolic of the failure to do what was generally promised.

The Mexico wall promise is an obvious example.  Voters do not really care about the specifics of a barrier.  But they care about their jobs and getting back the perception that the USA is for them first. Failures on either front will be potentially disastrous for Trump.  But the “Us first” failure opens him up to attack more from the right.

Homework:  Using the criteria introduced above analyze the promise that follows, from the Washington post list (#282):

“Together we will make American wealthy and prosperous again. We will make America strong again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.”

No credit given for analyzing the obvious false assumptions in the promise.

For Extra Credit:  Using the criteria, apply to all the 276 promises listed here.


The Globalization of Elections Will be a Great Thing — Provided We Survive This Awful First Phase

The digital international interference in our election — ghastly and disastrous though it is — is just the first phase on a process of the globalization of the democratic and political processes.

If we start with the obvious assumption that people in all countries now have enormous interests in the results of elections in other countries, add to it the nearly as obvious assumption that the more they realize that, the more they will expect to have a way of communicating that, you very quickly get to the idea that the international system needs to build ways that those views can be communicated to voters in each country.

Without it any way condoning Putin’s behavior, or certainly Trump’s two-faced encouragement of it, nonetheless, seeing it as an expression of that desire to be heard by a highly powerless and frightened country, may help us think of long-term ways of ensuring that cross national voices are heard.

Of course, any such approaches have to be transparent, truthful, multi-lateral, and respectful — all qualities in much shorter display than they should be.

But imagine for a moment that a mechanism had existed for Russian voters to communicate to their US equivalents their of course overblown and hopelessly manipulated fears for Russians in the Stalin-Diaspora.  Maybe those fears would then have been less subject to manipulation and hysteria.  Of course, it would have been necessary for Russian voters to have known that the fears had been communicated, and at least to some extent, heard.  I wonder also how well the working class voters in the UK who carried Brexit knew what those similarly situated in the EU, many of whom they must have met in their now cheap European holidays, felt about the issue.

There is an interesting, but failed, precedent for this.  Back in 2004, the Guardian organized a project which encouraged Brits to write to Clarke County Ohio voters (cold communication), expressing their concerns.  The experiment backfired, with the Republicans making hay with the supposed interference.  Most Republicans appear to have been more sensitive about such things in those days!  (Maybe they are less concerned about covert involvement than transparent efforts.)  Looked at from the non-US point of view, of course, that over-reaction would have shown the rest of the world that the US was contemptuous of the views of outsiders.  Again, without justifying the conclusion, such a feeling would reinforce the sense that the only way to influence  US elections is covertly.

So getting Americans used to the idea will have to be a critical component of any strategy.

Some first thoughts on ways of moving forward in the short term might be:

Having Americans living abroad reaching out to people in their host countries and systematically sharing what they hear of what people want from the US with their networks and even in a new special public forum.

Similarly, encouraging those with family abroad to solicit the views of family and share them in such a forum.

Much better cross-national polling, with explanations of countries strongly held views and explanations for those views.

General encouragement of e-mail and other communication across borders — not in one direction, but reciprocally and multi-laterally, with a particular emphasis on linking people with similar backgrounds who would tend to trust each other.  (Much easier now with translation software.)

Having a televised Presidential debate before an international audience, and with the questions submitted by that audience.  It would be a great opportunity for grandstanding, but also a wonderful test of how candidates dealt with all the challenges of that environment.  Imagine to the message to the world about our understanding of our international responsibilities.

Having the various processes by which governments consult the public be expanded to welcome international views.  It is hard to imagine the incoming administration adopting such processes, but not so hard to imagine some state governments, such as those of California, dong so.  Indeed, to think of a concrete example, the California Courts adjudicate cases all the time involving those outside the US, particularly family cases.  Would it not make sense for the California Courts, in the process of soliciting opinions from their user, to listen to to out of country users?

That is all about communication.  In the long term, we need globalized institutions that provide reassurance to voters in all countries that their interests will be protected.