I have the Perfect Title For the Best Book on the Trump Presidency: One Million Minutes

While the exact number is subject to change when the nightmare ends, the concept is clear.  The book would begin something like this:

The now concluded Trump Presidency consumed one million minutes, five thousand presidential tweets, 100 million dollars in investigations, and ten cabinet firings or resignations.

Those minutes were perhaps the most fragmented, fast moving, chaotic, destructive, shocking, confusing and testing minutes in our nation’s history.

The damage done to nation, planet, international system and human beings will take decades to assess fully. 

Above all, the story of those endless minutes is the story of the ultimate resilience of our institutions, notwithstanding the weaknesses and failures of so many who were to play roles in those institutions as they faced the test.

I am less confident of exactly how the book will end, but I am confident that the ultimate resolution will put us on the road to recovery.

 

The Deeply Disturbing Implications of the Washington Post Story of the Inadequate US Response to Russian Hacking, and a Long Term Proposal

It is almost impossible to force oneself to read the Washington Post’s brilliant reporting of the US failure to respond adequately to the Russian election-related hacking.

However, attention must be paid, and the implications go far further than judgements about the Obama administration, that I am sure will go well explored in classic blame the victim manner.

First,  I think we have to admit that the current situation of a largely unpunished and undeterred coup/attack on the US has to be broadly blamed on the entire political process in the US.  While the lack of response, either public or covert, is hard to defend either now, or then, it has to be seen as in part the product of the hyper-politicization of foreign policy.  The Obama administration was operating in a toxic environment in which any honest reporting or respect was, and would be thrown back in the face of the government and the electorate, without any concern for considerations other than short term victory.   The administration could not ignore the reality of that environment.

That must be recognized as a product of Trump active encouragement of hacking, of his trivialization of any reporting, and of his contempt for truth.  The enablers carry as much if not more of the blame.

Second, we must be honest about where we are.  We no longer can be confident that the American people control our own fates through the political process.  It was and has to be assumed to be about to be again, another Pearl Harbor.  (That the US has its own long bi-partisan history of interference in other counties electoral, and political processes, not to mention coups, does not make this any less serious, it only makes it harder to defeat.)  Given the massive reluctance of Trump to take this threat in any way seriously, or even to recognize the risks of the legitimacy this has already lost him, we can have no faith that the governmental system will protect us against more and worse future surrenders of control.  (If Trump is forced out, as I strongly believe he has to be, and will be, this last is no longer true, but issues of trust and legitimacy will long remain.)

Finally, we have to build a new layer of institutions that protect the integrity of our political system regardless of short term interest.  For a start, I can imagine a Commission led by prior presidents, with an independent staff, with direct access to the intelligent services.  The Commission would have a mandate to issue public reports, including on the credibility of challenges to our democratic electoral system, and to publicly and privately urge actions of all kinds, thereby making it easier for presidents to take needed actions without being effectively accused of putting partisan interests first.  While hacking will be one part of the charter of duties, all forms of foreign interference and collusion will need to be included.

The problem, as always, and as we learned in the cold war, is that is is almost impossible to give groups power that is not democratically constrained without then in fact surrendering democracy to those powers.  In the absence of the consensus of  the cold war years, the need is even greater than it was then, and the risks are far greater.

It is a measure of what Trump and his enablers have wrought, and what his opponents have failed to do, that we now face this choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NBER Report Suggests We Should Not Blame Polarization on the Internet.

The National Bureau of Economic Research has long been a highly respected and independent source of analysis on economic and statistical matters.  So it is well worth paying attention when they focus on the impact of the Internet on polarization.

A recent Report concludes:

We find that the increase in polarization is largest among the groups least likely to use the internet and social media.  .  .  .  Across intermediate age groups, the growth in polarization is consistently higher among older respondents. Polarization increases more for the old than the young in eight of the nine individual measures. A similar pattern emerges for groups of respondents divided by our broader index of predicted internet use.

The paper admits that there may be ways of explaining the phenomenon to dissolve the inconsistency, but, given its breadth of measures, that seems unlikely.

Indeed un-linking Internet access statistics from polarization does not exclude the possibility that the existence of the Internet incentivizes the taking of extreme positions, and that those incentives work on populations regardless of their internet access.  It may be, or example, that what the Internet did was make it possible for marginal voices to be amplified much more by mainstream media who reach lower information people.  In other words, we would be worse off without the Internet.

However, when you think about it, the “beauty” of the “Internet did it” meme is that no one needs to take responsibility.  Not the commentators, not the politicians, not the newsfolks, not the religious leaders.  Not the increase in inequality, not the massive insecurity, not the reduction of need for those with traditional blue collar jobs.  Not the increasing costs of housing and education and the impossibility of getting both.

Holding people responsible for what they say and advocate — and what they said yesterday, and weeks, months and years ago is easier than ever before.  Understanding economic change should also be easier than ever.

So, while the Internet alone may have some second order effects, its much more important to look at the big picture of ideas and leadership.

 

 

What Would Martin Luther King Have Done on that United Flight

I would like to think that he would have led the way in blocking  the aisle by just lying down and linking arms with others.

I would also like to think the would have sought to engage the security cops (who were obviously utterly untrained for this situation) and the other airline employees.

I also suspect that he would have acknowledged to them that they, the employees, were under huge pressure to get things done to unreasonably tight timelines.  Indeed, maybe he might have suggested that the cabin crew and passengers were both victims, and that to see each other as adversaries is the wrong way to go.

Maybe the video would not have been so dramatic, but maybe it would have helped foster a much more powerful dialog about avoiding being divided, but rather uniting (so to speak.)

In any event, I hope many who fly are asking themselves what they would have done if they had been on the flight.  I suspect that next time round, things will play out very differently.

 

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)

A President’s First Duty Is To Protect the Legitimacy of The Electoral System

In any political system, the first duty of the leader to maintain the clear legitimacy of his or her power.  If that legitimacy derives from the military, then that support had better be clear, for example.

In our constitutional system, therefore, the first and  most critical task of the President is to protect the legitimacy of the election.  That duty is greater than protecting your own win.  This legitimacy is seriously threatened by any credible evidence of external interference, particularly by a traditional adversary.  For there to be such a serious threat there does not need to be conclusive proof of such interference, or its impact.  A CIA finding obviously rises far beyond such a standard.

Therefore, any president-elect who ignores, trivializes, or refuses to take seriously such a finding has to be in gross violation of his as yet unsworn oath.

While everybody, including the Electoral College Electors, has to consider how to respond to this simple and unarguable fact, we need to be honest and direct that it exists.

To put it a slightly different way, Nixon’s White House dismissed the significance of a “third-rate burglary attempt.”  They did not deny that a burglary had occurred.  They did not, as least nominally, fail to cooperate with the investigations.

 

Focusing Research To Support an “Appropriate Unrigging” Agenda By Getting Beyond Symptoms

If I am right that our change strategy has to be based on understanding how Trump voters and potential Trump voters think about the term “rigging,” then we need to be doing research that shows how and why the system is rigged, and for whom.

My own personal feeling that much of the problem is that research, after currently being mediated through the media, ends up reporting on symptoms, but not on causes and dynamics.  For example, the recent numbers on suicide, health and life expectancy in declining counties did get widely reported, but I bet they made it through as just that, leaving the impacted population to fill in their own “low information” explanations, that probably focused on external threats, (drugs and foreign competition), rather than lack of opportunity caused by American corporate decisions, lack of health care caused by Republican de-funding, etc. (That hypothesis in itself would make a fascinating research project)

While we can not reshape the media, at least in the shot term, I fear, we can start to do research that focuses not so much on the symptoms, but on government and corporate behavior, with symptoms as only the afterthought, and with analysis of the mechanisms of the impact that causes those symptoms.

We should be conducting focus groups and testing messages that are specifically not about getting short term support for specific changes, but getting insight into people’s understanding of underlying dynamics and finding what would disrupt or replace those understandings.

For example, this paper from the FTC on big data raises many questions about the possible discriminatory and exclusionary impacts of big data.  I would suggest that these impacts might include pricing policies that have discriminatory impact on the declining county areas, others that make it harder for people from those areas to apply for jobs, or even get health care assistance online.

So the research needs to be about the direct line from the corporate behavior, in this case the use of big data, to the impacts that the population of those areas feel.

An economist would say these big data techniques help make markets even more perfect.  Others might experience them differently.  The point is for research to provide the information and does not allow victims to be set against each other.