Why Back-Channel Diplomacy Does Harm.

President Donald John Trump has apparently used back-channel diplomacy on multiple occasions and not just in the case of Ukraine for which he will likely be impeached. Setting aside the issues of impeachment for the moment, the question arises why back-channel, off-book things like those perpetrated by Rudy Giuliani are so dangerous.

The watch-word here is surprise. The official channels are at risk of being blindsided by facts they aren’t prepared for. They may find out that promises were made that either cannot be kept, or that required more care to complete than is possible in the needed time frame. Members of Congress are at risk of supporting bills that are at cross purposes to those of what is the de facto policy being pursued by the administration. Businesses and individuals that trust the policy of the country and invest in foreign markets may find their positions eroded by sudden shifts they couldn’t predict.

But the easiest mistake to make with the most dangerous game that Donald John Trump has played is outright warfare erupting (or existing conflicts made worse) due to miscommunication. An ally expecting a promise to be kept and finding it unkept (this actually happened, for those keeping score), or an adversary expecting a concession that does not come, and suddenly a countermove is interpretted to be unprovoked aggression and the result is destabilization. There is nothing more foolish than a simpleton like Donald John Trump thinking it’s okay to muck about with the well-defined and necessary diplomatic processes.

War is bad enough when necessary, but when you botch your way into one, that’s a stupid and wasteful thing.

Okay, but war is not the most likely scenario. Loss of international respect and trust is much more common. That is likely both for the United States, and also between other nations uninvolved, because there’s a kind of tragedy of the commons nature of trust between nation states. If a big, proud nation like the USA is seen as lacking in trust, other countries tend to trust each other less as well.

There are also major security risks in employing folks to handle policy that are not versed in security and are not following protocols designed to limit security risks. Breaches can make matters all the worse by allowing adversaries to outmaneuver efforts or sow dissent among allies who are hearing different policies roll out simultaneously.


The Republicans should put themselves in Ukraine’s shoes and ask, if Donald John Trump had promised to fill their campaign coffers, and he called them and said, “I’d like you to do me a favor, though,” requesting some fraudulent press statement as a condition of releasing their campaign funds, would they not think it bribery? They would. But they already go along with that, because that’s the situation Republicans are in: the favor is normalizing and covering up for Donald John Trump’s many misdemeanors (and spending money at Trump Organization properties), and the payoff is their reelection prospects (particularly in primaries) are bolstered by his lack of opposition if not his support. They have had their own quid pro quo with Trump this whole time.

And the American people, if their boss at work said, “I have a bonus for you. I’d like you to do me a favor, though.” If their boss asked them to fabricate some paperwork for a bonus? Same thing. Cut the crap, Republicans. What Donald John Trump did is wrong, and the law requires acknowledging that. Who we are as Americans requires us to see it for what it was.

Facebook, Lies, and Politics

Twitter is banning political ads. Facebook is banning political ads from people they believe lie about being politicians. But Facebook will allow bona fide politicians to lie in ads.

What is the role for a platform, both in ads and in moderating?

That’s the wrong question.

The question we must ask is not what is the shape of a proper social network. Why not?

  1. There may be several, and they may coexist.
  2. The shape may change over time, including in cyclical ways (e.g., during an election cycle versus outside of it).
  3. These networks span the globe, so fighting for changes in domestic rules won’t help the most vulnerable overseas.
  4. We don’t know what we don’t know, per Donald Rumsfeld.

The proper question about social networks is: How do the people gain enough leverage to serve as a forcing-function to shape social network behavior, rather than merely being shaped by it?

Traditionally, the answer to that question has been money, and the answer to how to influence them through money has been competition. That is, if their income is threatened by the easy choice of users to go next door, then they don’t do things that harm users enough that they go next door.

In the case of Facebook, their money comes from advertisers of all sorts, including politicians, scams, major brands, and in the case of President Trump’s campaign, all three at once! (Gotta take the cheap shots as they come.)

But Facebook is global. It has diversity of users, including people who think their small business depends on it, including media types who think their traffic depends on it, including politicians who think they’re connecting with constituents, and, yes, including grandparents and such who feel social connection because of it.

Competition doesn’t seem to make sense in social networks, in terms of the need to maintain copies of one’s social graph in several services simultaneously. Instead, either you have several social graphs that look different per service, or you are migrating from an old social graph on one service to a new one on a new service.

But in what substitutes for competition, if you want to move people off of Facebook, you’re basically saying that those benefits need to flow to those users. You have to engage with the politician on Service X, so that their office recognizes that people are there, so that they care more about Service X. You have to let your grandparents see you responding to them on Service X. And so on.

That is how these networks function. People go where the people are. And a site like Facebook will respond only when they see that movement, or some other threat to their revenue. Lacking a brain, a heart, and courage, that’s all that can convince them that letting politicians lie for money is dumb as hell.

Superstition and Politics

One of the biggest problems with politics is superstition. Every time a candidate wins, their campaign strategists are treated as having conjured up a magical creature known as victory out of thin air. They are treated thusly by the party they won for, but also largely by the media. They pushed the right button combination, they cut the right wire, they made the thing happen. Never mind all the factors outside of their control, the flukes, the weather. They get credit without any definitive evidence that they even knew what they were doing.

But that’s not the whole of superstition in politics. It extends to all sorts of frets and worries that interrupt policy and legislation. The NRA has a monkey’s paw that will unleash torment upon Republicans if they don’t fall in line. Rich criminals like Weinstein and Epstein were insulated from accountability (again, in both the media and in political circles) by superstition, primarily. The worry about what it would mean to the unknown backwaters and backrooms of power to cross people who are the equivalent of made-men in those circles.

Superstition dictates that Republicans can’t compete in blue states, nor Democrats in red ones. They certainly shouldn’t treat those foreign lands as opportunities to throw some spaghetti at the wall on the cheap. I mean, it would be bad luck to run a Republican candidate in LA on the platform of (insert some idea that Republicans generally don’t run on but won’t be offensive).

The media similarly has its superstitions around politics, including what kind of coverage is expected, what polls really mean, which voters count more (evangelicals, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, etc.), who gets access, what the differences are between Republicans and Democrats, and so on. It has its superstitions about who is important and what ideas are important. Campaigns should be about identifying problems, but they’re mostly about offering canned solutions to undefined problems, and then the solutions become the focus and they aren’t perfect so candidates get tarred for that.


The problem of superstitions is quite extensive in our lives. They represent blockages that prevent honest progress, out of fear of the unknown. The media’s focus on the ten-year-cost of Medicare-for-All, despite the actual ongoing economic cost already being greater, is one example of this. The Republicans’ reluctance to give up on repealing the ACA, in favor of some real policy is another.

These superstitions exist because of mere coincidence. The apparent interest in Republicans around the time they championed repealing the ACA caused them to believe that people wanted repeal, rather than the people wanting further development of healthcare policy toward some unknown better system. The media believes then ten-year costs of Medicare-for-All are important because they believe big numbers are important.

I don’t think Medicare-for-All is the be-all-end-all of healthcare. It is one way to do the thing. But I do think that continuing to refine healthcare funding is entirely necessary, and systems that tend to diminish the involvement of employers in healthcare are generally superior to those that do not. Over a ten year period where healthcare isn’t provided by employers, ceteris paribus, we should expect a healthier economy and a healthier population.

2020 Democratic Debate 4.0

The version number keeps going up, but the bugs don’t seem to get fixed!

Climate change in this nomination race got one forum on CNN and a couple of special episodes of Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show. Its mentions in this debate were scant. A shame.

But many of the issues could have been brought back to climate. For example, diversifying manufacturing and trade deals both have major consequences for the climate. Minimizing transportation costs in manufacturing are just as important as doing so in agriculture. Buying local veggies is good, but so is buying locally manufactured goods.

Trade deals are a net-positive, but they often fall short on worker protections and environmental issues. While some folks seem to think we should avoid trade deals, trade should be a tool for helping on climate. The basic idea is that, all things being equal, a country can prefer goods manufactured with worker protections and environmental protections.


These debates have grown more tedious. It might be the record-setting number of candidate present. It might be the repetition of the same questions and same answers (or same non-answers). There hasn’t been a lot of movement in the race, and most candidates haven’t had breakout moments in the debates. This debate was even less notable, it seemed.

My biggest complaint isn’t the questions or the answers, but the fact that their combined effect is a failure to debate. For example, pressing Warren to say that, yes, taxes will go up, but the total costs will decrease, doesn’t get to the actual meat of the policy difference between Medicare-for-All and public option proposals, which seems to amount to:

  1. Adverse selection—If a lot of people only switch to the public option when they need expensive care, the government costs will be far higher than if healthy people are in the risk pool.
  2. Employer-bound coverage—This has always been a bad thing, only better than people being without coverage. Having your insurance tied to your current employer makes switching jobs harder, makes taking risks on entrepreneurship harder, makes a lot of things harder. It also masks incomes, complicates income taxation, and stifles competition in unrelated industries (because companies compete on something outside of their core market when they have to fiddle with healthcare rather than making widgets).

All these other issues that don’t get covered at all in the healthcare debate because everyone wants to goad Warren into saying the thing she doesn’t want to say.

On other issues, like guns, there are people mad at O’Rourke for proposing a mandatory buyback of certain weapons. Most people will abide by the law, but apparently that’s hard for even Democratic candidates to fathom, so they talk of door-to-door confiscations as though that would be the policy. Not to say that mandatory buybacks are the way to go—any reasonable licensing and background requirements should be about as effective as buybacks. Only to say that treating it like it’s some completely irrational idea is wrong. Many policies are possible, and it’s unheard of for a candidate’s proposal to become law directly, so putting out ideas, discussing them, these are useful. Dismissing them because your opponent isn’t polling well is just lazy.


At some point we should acknowledge there’s a kind of show-your-math need here, where it becomes more important to discuss how you came to a policy than what policy you favor. Getting the right answer is important at the point where ideas become law. But up to then, process matters a lot. How a president deliberates policy is often more important than what their personal policy preference would be, anyway, because the former is what actually gets done. President Obama surely would have wanted a public option, but they didn’t see a way at the time.

Likewise now, we should hear more about why Warren thinks Medicare for All is a better choice and why she thinks it’s passable, compared to a public option. Or why some candidates think ending the filibuster is good, given the failings it’s already caused in nominations. Not whether they do—that won’t be their job or decision as president. But it might show us how they think about the issue. Is it more likely to persuade red state Republicans or to get Democrats elected continuously so that the filibuster becomes irrelevant? Dunno. I do know that unless the latter can be done, we’ll continue to live in a here-today-gone-tomorrow legislative landscape, which isn’t healthy.

2020 Democratic Debate 3.0

It’s been two minutes since I finished watching and I’ve already forgotten everything that was said.

Just kidding.

Julián Castro has the distinction of the first of the crowd to go into outright mudslinging during a debate. There may be good ways to raise issues of age and style about Joe Biden during a debate. Whatever they be, that wasn’t one. It reminded mostly of those sour 2016-cycle Republican debates.

Sure, the eventual nominee may face Trump in debates, if the president doesn’t pull out. And if Trump does debate the nominee, he’s sure to say some stupid shit and try to take some cheap shots. But the idea that the Dem nominees should emulate Trump seems to miss the point. Trump is an idiot. His gross manner is not useful and copying it will not improve anything. The biggest problem with Trump is that he has ample opportunities to do good and he chooses stupid every time.


If you do want to raise issues of age and the inevitable mental decline we will all one day face, which is an important issue not particular to Joe Biden, nor even to Donald Trump, nor to the executive branch, then do so. Call on the establishment of a standard for disqualification or qualification, not just of presidents, but of legislators and judges, too. Call for better standards for aging family members and business owners, while you’re at it.

Or don’t. Say it should be up to the voters for the executive and for the legislator, and hope that staff and colleagues can take care of the judiciary for us. We should just let the creep of aging catch some off guard and pick up the pieces and let what is a messy problem remain as messy as possible.

But have that conversation, rather than some half-assed insinuation in the middle of a debate where the issue wasn’t even properly raised by Castro or anyone.


On to Beto O’Rourke. Sure, what he said about taking AR-15s and AK-47s isn’t politically correct. It offended a lot of conservatives, including the ones who claim they read gun magazines for the articles. It’s not the way to sell the policy. But at least it is a policy. It’s a perfectly valid reaction to a terrorist attack to say we should take extraordinary measures to prevent it from ever recurring.

The Republicans don’t have an anti-terror policy here. They have a cradled phone they sit by, waiting for the NRA to call Trump and tell him that doing anything at all might be okay, so that Trump can call McConnell and tell him what his policy can be. They aren’t thinking entities in any real policy sense. They are playing the most dangerous game of Simon Says.

Bernie Sanders had to respond to a bonkers question about how his views of socialism differ from Venezuelan kleptocracy. Remember that? That was fun, having a moderator ask a candidate, point-blank, do you in fact not want to be a murderous dictator? I get the fact that folks like Sanders have at times tried to be awfully deferential on foreign policy matters, avoiding criticism of countries that are nominally socialist (or, for the exemplar with conservatives, see Augusto Pinochet). They’re all nuts to do so. Tyrants are tyrants, no matter what books sit upon their shelves.

But it’s another thing entirely to suggest that deference or caginess is somehow an endorsement or adoption of the tyrannical policy. The moderator loses points on that one.

At another point Cory Booker was again asked about his veganism. Somehow it’s taboo to say that we should all improve our diets for the sake of the climate. Just as we should all improve our diets for the sake of our health. I mean, not that the debate had time to cover it, but we have an obesity crisis among our other crises. We should want to change diets. There are (wild-ass guess) billions of dollars made per year on health food and fad diets and books and so forth. It’s a whole industry. Yet it’s something that you can’t say on climate: diet is part of the equation.


Those were the things that stood out to me. If you had others, feel free to leave a comment.

On the whole, not a transformative debate. Which, honestly, we shouldn’t expect. The top candidates aren’t going to take big risks, but it’s still too early for the other top-ten candidates, especially when they’ve already qualified for the October debates. The laggards, well they aren’t on the stage to take a shot.

One suspects after the October debate some more lower candidates will begin to drop out, and the more salient names there may begin endorsing as they do so. It may take longer. Slowly the crowd begins to thin and at the same time the support starts to shift into lanes as it becomes clear who will be around by January and who will not.