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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.

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society

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.

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society

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.

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society

1619 and Hard Choices

The thing I think most about when I think about slavery is the hard choices that people faced, and the many failures and successes they had in thought and action that contributed to history arriving to us as it did. The best histories draw out those choices, and they remind us of our own challenges on issues like climate change or having a generally horrible president.

Consider, for example, the southern tradesman who made farm equipment. Maybe he believed in abolition, believed slavery a grave and indecent institution, and yet he was powerless (in his mind) to stop it. He had choices. He could speak out against it to all who could hear, mostly his customers, losing their business. He could move north or west or overseas, giving up all he had worked for and risking his family’s future. He could do the little things, trying to raise the issue indirectly through microaggressions against the institution.

There were plenty who did all of them, and more who ignored their call, and others still who did worse. One tell that’s worth noting is that those die-hard slavers bothered to make arguments about the intellect of the enslaved and other pseudoscientific endeavors in that vein. That’s a good sign they knew everything was not right. Nobody bothers to excuse the digging of dirt, for nobody is afraid that the dirt is capable of offense. But those who went through major efforts to distinguish and codify the condition of the enslaved Africans seemed often in doing so to admit their guilt.


Today’s hard choices are often on the backs of Republicans who are faced with the institution of Trumpism. The stakes are not now as high as with slavery, at least in terms of numbers, but they are more dear to us in that they are real to us today. And the same options avail the average Republican as then. And the same excuses bubble in their minds, that their livelihood depends upon them going along with the wickedness. Or that they would risk too much for not themselves but for their family. Or that they are merely powerless, too insignificant and too busy.

And today’s hard choices are on all our backs, with climate change. That we do not and cannot decipher the choice between metal straws and paper straws and maybe we should all just carry around funnels and pour liquids in our mouths that way. Or that we need the SUV rather than something more efficient, because roads are dangerous. Or we need the SUV to show we’re not sissies into that green revolution shite.


That’s where I come to mostly when I think about slavery. The stain on the fabric of society that it represented, and how we have our own stains today, most of which are not as directly evil, but still significant and still we face the same sorts of difficulties in navigating them, which acts to slow our ability to wash clean our body and act surely for our own and our children’s betterment.

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society

2020 Democratic Debates 2.1 and 2.2

What are the issues? What’s all the debate about?

Climate Change

How long do we have to do something? How to reduce our carbon pollution? Do we invest in R&D, focusing on carbon capture, farm-based sequestration, carbon tax, more EV charging stations? All of the above? That’s the debate.

The main reason this is so dire is that the Republicans generally refuse to work on any real policy (and Trump uses executive orders and rulemaking to attack our home, earth). One apparent bright spot came in the Senate this past week when the Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously moved on a bill that would direct $10 billion toward emission reduction and infrastructure built to mitigate damage from a harsher climate. But it’s a tiny step compared to the major needs.

Healthcare

To have a Medicare-for-all system or improve on the Affordable Care Act? Or will they end up the same thing—a public option slipping into single payer? That’s the debate.

Similar to climate, the Republican side is the lawsuit supported by Republican AGs and the Trump Department of Justice to kill the Affordable Care Act entirely. They have no plan for the millions who would be affected. It would be a major mess, with sick people thrown to the wolves, job losses that might tank the economy—the equivalent of dropping a legal bomb. They have no policy to replace it. Worse, the ACA is relatively conservative in its approach, so any replacement would likely be more liberal and less likely to pass the Senate at a time when immediate action would be needed to restore confidence and save lives.

The Republican lawsuit comes after years of trying to revoke the ACA without ever putting forward even a skeleton policy of what could replace it.

Immigration

To decriminalize border crossings or not? Should any future Trump-style president be able to use the mere fact of crossing as an excuse to separate families? If the law remains criminal, rather than a civil process, that proposition remains. That’s the debate.

(There’s also a lot of media-imposed strife on whether undocumented immigrants deserve to have access to healthcare, because. . . I don’t really understand the issue. They’re humans. Every human needs healthcare at some point. I think some are conflating access with unpaid access, which isn’t really the issue.

I understand part of the media’s MO is to show contrast, but if they can’t effectively articulate the issue, maybe they should do their job first. Once they have explained what the issue is, they can freely show contrast on it.)

The Republicans are much more divided, with a minority constantly eager to blow up any compromise between the parties—it’s been that way for over a decade at this point. Any deal is deemed by the Freedom Caucus types as a bad deal. But, as with the environment and healthcare, Trump is using executive orders and rulemaking to undermine any order or compassion in our immigration system.

Education

Cancel student loans? For everyone or just the lower class? That’s the debate.

On this one I don’t really understand why there isn’t emphasis on increasing the number of colleges and other options to drive prices down. But oh well.

But education also includes the need to integrate primary education. Which is really a need to integrate communities generally, because shuttling kids about rather than having them live in the same neighborhoods with their classmates is pretty nuts.

Once again, Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos are seeking to undermine any useful oversight of our educational system, including giving for-profit institutions carte blanche to reap profits while not providing education.

Impeachment

Would Trump being acquitted in the US Senate help him more than not impeaching him? That’s the debate.

Biden

Is his record from before 2008 more important than his record since? What about 2008-2016? Are those years off-limits because Obama remains popular? Is there redemption for being wrong in the past? How do his mistakes balance against his other votes and acts that remain positive? That’s the debate.

Trump

Vote him out. There is no debate.


In general, the second pair of debates seemed worse than the first in many ways. It might be useful to explain how people choose their candidate.

Let’s go back to 2008, when John McCain lost to Barack Obama. McCain was regarded as a maverick. Come 2012, Mitt Romney was the leader in the race. There were many in the party who kept trying on other candidates, only to find them ill-fitting, and Romney ultimately won the nomination and lost to Obama.

In 2016, similar situation except Jeb! Bush was the leader. Unlike 2012, the folks wanting change latched onto Donald Trump and did not sway.

It works a little bit different for Democrats—different values—but not much:

  1. If there’s an incumbent, a lame duck’s vice president, or a runner-up from the previous cycle, probably go with that or a surrogate for that.
  2. But, if a real, natural leader emerges (think John F. Kennedy), pick that one.
  3. Otherwise, go for something different than last time, unless those alternatives are obvious duds.

For 2020, a #1-style candidate could be Bernie Sanders. There’s some built-in support for #1s. The previous president’s voters, or their own primary voters from the last time around. On the other hand, Joe Biden kind of fits as a #1 with the vice president, having declined to run in 2016. There’s some confusion whether he qualifies, a whole cycle removed.

But if any of the candidates can break away, it will be on the basis of them channeling serious charisma—#2s. A few have had a moment here or there. Bill Clinton was the most charismatic figure of the past 30 years. Ronald Reagan also had good charisma for his time. Kennedy was very charismatic and well-spoken, so much so that it’s still a drinking game to take a shot when a Dem quotes him in a debate. For whatever reason, #2s are fairly rare.

But in 2020, Democrats might not be ready to call it with a #1. There are enough competitors that they can choose alternatives to both Biden and Sanders. There are several people adjacent to each of them, and if any of them show some charisma or other edge to their candidacies, the nomination will be up for grabs.

The other factor to consider is that this field must shrink. As it does so, some of the moderates will fall out, some of the liberals will fall out. The remaining personalities will seem more distinct. The choices clearer. The confusion of trying to deal with so many faces and names will fall away. Those who supported a candidate (donors, voters, and staff) who drops out will shift their support to others. That contraction will be highly clarifying.