Monday, April 22, 2019

If Trump Were Impeached Then What About The Judges?

McGahn did Trump two huge favors. He kept him from firing Mueller, which would have put a nail in the presidential coffin. And he delivered Trump’s greatest triumph on the right, conspiring with Mitch McConnell to fill the courts with socially conservative judges intent on undoing government regulation.
From Maureen Dowd's Week in Review column

There seems to be a lot being written since the redacted Mueller report has been released about whether it warrants impeachment of Trump.  For example, in today's NY Times, Charles Blow's column asks, Impeach Donald Trump?  Blow answers in the affirmative.  The House should go ahead and do this, although it is unlikely that the Senate would vote to convict.  I agree with Blow about the Bill Clinton precedent being an inappropriate comparison.  The nature of the charges against the two men are quite different.  That should matter.  Similarly, in Michelle Goldberg's most recent column, In a Functional Country, We Would Be on the Road to Impeachment, she takes a similar line though makes clear there is a difference between what we ought to do and what is likely to happen.

In this piece I would like to juxtapose the normative (what we ought to do) with the positive (what we expect will occur) but extend the thinking to consider the disposition of those conservative judges in the event that impeachment occurred and Trump was then convicted.  It seems to me this should be gamed out (as in apply a game theoretic analysis) to understand the various issues.  I'm reasonably competent as a game theorist, but I'm mainly ignorant of the applicable law.  That needs to be taken into account as well.  What I'd like to see is such a game theory analysis done by somebody who does understand the applicable law.  Here I'll make my poor man's version of that.

To begin, I'd like to distinguish between the obstruction of justice charges, which pertain to after Trump took office, firing Comey might be the most visible of these acts, from the "back scratching" with the Russians, that happened during the campaign.  It matters, in my way of thinking, whether the latter itself are sufficient grounds for impeachment, or if only the former count for impeachment.  If the activities during the election are viewed as sufficiently heinous, the election itself then is not legitimate, in which case Pence should not succeed Trump.  Given the line of succession, Nancy Pelosi would become President, which would be incredibly ironic as she is on record for not wanting to impeach.  This is my way of saying that in game theory you do consider rare events (very low probability) because they matter in analyzing the overall strategic situation.  How would a President Pelosi consider all the conservative judges appointed before Trump was removed from office.  Would it be regarded as a fait accompli or as something reversible?  If the latter, what would be the means for reversing these appointments?

If it is only the behavior after having assumed office that constitutes the impeachable offense, then Pence would become President and in the remainder of this term nothing would be done about the conservative judges.  Would something then be done after the 2020 elections, if the Democrats sweep in with the Presidency and large majorities in both houses?

Let us return to the paragraph by Maureen Dowd that starts this piece.  Were Trump and McConnell merely convenient bedfellows?  Or is this process of turning the Senate into a factory for processing judicial appointments itself a crime because it is based on two antecedents that are criminal.  The first is McConnell not having the Senate take up the Merrick Garland nomination when Obama was President.  This was a clear violation of the Constitution.  The second is ignoring the various impeachable activities that Trump engaged in, as this was necessary to keep the processing of judicial appointments rolling.  If this was indeed criminal, then leaving the judges in place would seem to show that crime does pay.  From a normative perspective, then, either it must be argued that the Senate acted in a legitimate, if highly Machiavellian, manner or that the justices should be removed.

Let's turn to a positive perspective.  I want to now envision negotiation between Chuck Schumer, the Minority Leader, and McConnell in the subgame where the House has already passed articles of impeachment against Trump.  Might Schumer secure enough Republican votes to get conviction if he promised not to make a big deal about the judicial appointments thereafter?  In other words, might McConnell want to cement the gains he has already achieved here and so allow conviction to occur?   The other part of this worth thinking through is whether such an agreement would hold after the 2020 elections.  I wish I understood the politics better. I suppose the answer to this depends a great deal on who is in the White House and what that person would like to see.

* * * * *

My purpose in writing this is to request that those who can consider the issue of the judges with more to bring to the table than I can then do their own analysis.  We tend to go one step at a time only.  We really need to think several steps ahead to make sense of the current situation. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I am not a hippee. Are you a hardhat?

Before I get to my piece, let me apologize to my readers for the recent lack of output.  I've had a really bad cough for the last few weeks.  Many nights I didn't sleep well as a consequence.  It's hard to find the energy to write when sleep deprived.  Last night I did get some sleep, so I'm going to give it a go.  But I will not go on and one here, as I usually do, to make it more likely that I finish what I've started.  (On proofreading this piece, it turns out that was too much of a promise for me to make.)

I'm trying to make sense of a couple of different things about our relationship with the media that we consume.

One of those is whether the press misses the real story, more often than we care to admit.  For example, yesterday in doing a search on an earlier version of my post title, I found this book at Amazon, which apparently argues that much of the stereotypes we think about in regard to the Vietnam War were more myth than truth.  Most of those who served were blue collar types.  Eventually, blue collar types were heavily against the War.  This particular customer review is impassioned on this point.  But I also want to note that elsewhere I've written that the Democrats put themselves on circuit overload under LBJ, by pursuing both the Great Society and the Vietnam War, with the latter crowding out the former. So, unlike the author of that customer review, I'm willing to believe that there was something to Nixon's Moral Majority, something we now associate with his "Southern Strategy."  We were divided then about matters of race, as we still are, even if we were more united about being against the war than we realized.  Nevertheless, the question is whether the press is an accurate barometer of things or if it makes distortions of a particular type and, if it does make distortions, why does it do this?

The issue now may be somewhat different from the issue during Vietnam as the competition between media outlets then was far more muted than it is now and the competition between news programming and entertainment was no big deal at all then, while it is a major issue now.  Now we seem to have only stories about a handful of topics that focus only on a handful of people - because other stories wouldn't attract a big audience.  In my view, that shouldn't be the criterion to determine whether a story is newsworthy.  And in advance, it's impossible to tell whether that other story with the more narrow audience might eventually lead to something big.  This is a model of how the press might very well miss things, without needing to rely on an explanation that says it's conservative bias or liberal bias.

The other thing that's been bothering me is the perception that the media is a propaganda machine and that regular viewers, of Fox News in particular,  are the unwitting dupes of these master manipulators.  I wrote my daily rhyme this morning on this topic.  The idea that brainwashing is occurring a la The Manchurian Candidate has some appeal to liberal voters, because it allows these voters to blame the messenger and not blame those who are being brainwashed.  But is it happening or is it only a perception?  Archie Bunker was who he was.  He was not the product of media creations, even if the character itself was a media creation.  Is it different now?  Would blue collar types be more tolerant and far less angry if not for Rush, Sean, and the other provocateurs?

I really don't know, nor do I know how to tell.  So I'm going to suppose for a moment, but only for that.  What should be done about it, if anything, were it known to be true?  Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine?  Try some relabeling so that the various bloviators continue with what they do, yet are not considered part of "news programming" but are in some other category?  Would that or anything else get rid of the propaganda or mute its effect?

I don't consider myself a product of the liberal view, but rather my own eclectic worldview, which I will try to sketch below.  I am much less sure this is true for my friends from high school or my former colleagues from academe.  So I wanted to sketch some of my principles, in part to show where others who don't know me would get the story wrong if they regarded me according to the stereotype, in the hope that this sort of approach might be replicated by others, liberal and conservative alike, for them to show how they are their own person and not so like the stereotype that is depicted of them.

* * * * *

Personal Philosophy

1.  Raison d'ĂȘtre - I'm motivated by a need for self-expression much more than by other reasons.  Some of this shows up in a desire to write.  When in a group setting it shows up by an impulse to make wisecracks.  I like making it up as I go along much more than I like following the rules.  There are occasions where the latter is necessary, I will admit.  But I believe in discretion in my own approach, for the most part.

A second important impulse, sometimes it is separate from the self-expression while other times they are one and the same things, is to treat others decently and offer help for those who are apparently struggling.  I believe I'm sensitive to the needs of others in my immediate sphere and have a way for others to come to trust me so they can articulate their views and their needs.

2.  Attitude about money - I'm quite okay with creature comforts and expect to live a lifestyle where those are readily available.  Beyond that, however, I think the pursuit of wealth, particularly as a way to keep score about how well you are doing in the game of life and possibly to express power and influence, is worshiping false idols.  Almost as bad, from my perspective, is for the very well off to insulate themselves against the needs of ordinary people.  I'm afraid there is quite a lot of that insularity.  Such people are selfish, perhaps without realizing it.  I'm very interested in finding ways to overcome this insularity.

3.  Sense of identity - I think of myself first and foremost as an academic, then as a Jew culturally, but a doubter/agnostic regarding attitudes toward religion.  By appearances I am a white male, but in discussions that lump that with a set of attitudes, I share almost none of them.  Yet I used to like boys night out to play poker (dime-quarter, three raise limits) and playing golf with the guys.  I believe I can get along with most folks and enjoy schmoozing over coffee.  However, I find myself with my own thoughts at home quite a lot and rather enjoy private time for reflection now.

I have struggled with my weight at various junctures in my life.  Some of that is what my mother would call - being a fresser - which makes it purely about eating as a reward.  But after all of these years, I believe some of it is about not wanting to be disciplined and constrained, even if rationally I know I'd be better off from doing that.  And some of it is a sense of inadequacy that I believe is tied to my being a very large kid and thus unlike others size-wise.  I don't believe I ever got over that, even if my height now is normal and not exceptional.  Now getting my weight down is a matter of health - a way to manage the arthritis in my hip.  I know I need to do it, but it is daunting as to whether I actually can.

4.  A need to work things through for myself from first principles -  I like to come up with my own opinion about things, spending time to put two and two together, and then building a narrative from that. With some frequency, I find that I'm reading some essay in a book or a magazine, such as the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly, or possibly an Op-Ed in the NY Times, only to realize I've written a blog post on the same topic earlier, with some overlap between what the author says and what I concluded.  When this happens, it gives me a sense I'm on the right track.  I also use this approach to react to the pieces I read where I haven't given the issue prior thought. I then go through my approach to the topic and am critical when I find the author doesn't consider a factor that I deem important. 

Attitudes about Politics and Social Issues

1. Origins - I grew up in Bayside Queens, NYC in a middle class neighborhood.  I attended public schools, which were reasonably good.  My dad was a New Deal Democrat and worked as a lawyer.  My mom, who was a survivor of the Shoah, tutored foreign languages and then eventually taught French in high school.  When the Vietnam War came to prominence, I was in junior high school.  Soon thereafter, just about everyone I knew was against the war.  My uncle Fred (my mother's brother) was actually a hardhat.  He was also an Orthodox Jew, at least at home.  In contrast, we were Reform Jews, hardly religious at all. 

College, first at MIT then at Cornell after I transferred there, was an eye opener in many ways, more so socially.  Pot was everywhere, or so it seemed.  I've written elsewhere about learning to like the Grateful Dead from my friend and housemate, Steve O.  I believe that I embraced many of the social mores that were common then.  Wealth should not be displayed, just as there shouldn't be public displays of affection.  Hair was worn quite long.  Outwardly, this was the time I was closest to looking like a hippee.  In all these things, I was a follower.

The first quarter at Northwestern for graduate school in economics, I worked extremely hard, definitely much harder than as an undergrad in the sense that I was at it night after night.  Part of this was experimental consumption for me - did I have what it takes and if I gave it my all then what did I think about doing this stuff?  There are answers in that I became an academic economist.  I don't know whether this served as a complete counter force to the tenor of the times and the thought that I was on the path to become a hippee, but to the extent that I embraced the hard work, intellectual theorizing, and interacted with others who did likewise so I thought I was cut out for that, I bought into the Puritan work ethic (old notion) and meritocratic structure of rewards (newer notion).   And I went on the job market with my dissertation incomplete (fairly common at the time) because I was tired of living like a grad student.  Though I never thought of myself as a yuppie, I did make the move for materialistic reasons, though I'd argue that my materialism was contained thereafter.

I should also mention my training in macroeconomics, which influences that part of my political outlook.  That first quarter I had Robert Eisner as a professor, a noted Keynesian.  We read The General Theory in his class, as well as Hicks' bastardization, the IS-LM model. In the second quarter, we learned more about the policy debate between Keynesians and Monetarists.   Not that long ago I wrote a rather long blog post to explicate those issues and also to pose questions about the apparent productivity slowdown we are experiencing now (which parallels the productivity slowdown that was happening while I was a graduate student).

2.  Eclectic views about taxation and about reading our economic history - I have been arguing for quite a long time a long time, at least since spring 2011, that households like mine income-wise, comfortable but not rich, should have their taxes raised. This would be part and parcel of raising taxes on the rich as well.  I've written quite a lot about it.  Yet I've not seen anyone embrace the idea.  The core liberal idea now seems to be to raise taxes on the uber rich, but ignore everyone else.  I think that is a mistake, though my idea might be political suicide.  But if politicians are leaders, they make the case and then get the voters to understand why it is a good idea.  I yearn for that but am not yet seeing that.

The economic history of the early Reagan years is misread by both parties, but in different ways.  Let me say first that looking backward to then, I'm quite okay with the first tax cut that was passed under Reagan.   You can see why by looking here.  This is a table that I produced using publicly known information about tax rates, trying to do inflation adjustments for income, and then making comparisons across focal income levels, only for the category Married Filing Jointly (the category I use in filing my taxes).   The table and how to interpret it is explicated in this post.  Taxes were remarkably high, even after the first tax cut under Reagan, but I'm guessing most people don't realize this.

The Democrats today seem to extol the rates under Carter, but as I noted we were suffering from stagflation in those years, so some tax cuts could readily be justified for that reason alone, as a stimulus to growth.  But Democrats treat it as the beginning of the end and in one way they are right, because we then had a series of tax cuts thereafter, as if the first one was simply whetting the appetite, not the full deal.  The Republicans are worse in my view, because they seem to claim that it is the cuts, rather than the current level of taxes, which increases economic growth.  By this logic, of course, which I think is just plain stupid, we should keep cutting taxes till there are none at all.  That may be be the real Republican view.  If, however, you think public goods are necessary and should be invested in at a proper level, then taxes need to be there to pay for the public goods.  Under this view, taxes can be too high, but they can also be too low.  That's the more sensible perspective, in my opinion.

3.  Articulating a good narrative before articulating public policy - Since Republicans of the Libertarian/Laissez-Faire sort seem to be against government entirely, their rhetorical issue is easy to solve.  Democrats have a harder time in communicating what should be done, because they want to use government spending to address social issues. From where I sit, they move too quickly to solutions and don't spend enough time building a narrative on the issues that the solutions are meant to address.    Let me explain why this a problem.

If you assume up front that everyone agrees what the social issue is, then moving immediately to solutions makes sense.  There might still be disagreement about the best way to address the issue, but there wouldn't be disagreement about the issue itself.  However, without working through the narrative about the issue, there might be latent disagreements that only are forthcoming when the policy ideas get debated.  That is not good, but that seems to be the way things are done now.  I am going to illustrate with the college for free policy recommendation, but essentially the same issues are there with the Medicare for all policy recommendation.

The core problem is taking something that is actually rather complex and reducing it down to one or two dimensions, so it can be presented as a soundbite.  College for free sounds good, especially if you are a parent with college age kids and don't want to absorb a huge debt to send them to a good school.   I'm going to try to address that by still trying to keep things simple but to increase the dimensionality slightly to bring out the reasonable concerns.

Suppose we talk about not just college cost, but also college quality.  To keep things simple consider quality along a single dimension and assume that is vertical (better or worse) rather than horizontal (different approaches but that can't be ranked along a vertical scale).  Here we want to ask, if there is a college for free option offered, what quality will that be? Will there also be a college for big bucks offered and what quality will that be?  If there is the latter, will the families that go that route also be willing to have their taxes raised to keep the free college alternative at a reasonable level?  What confidence do we have that even if the answer to this is yes at present, that they will continue to do so in the future? If they lose this willingness to be taxed, will the quality of the free college alternative drift downward?  Is there anything else that might be done to prevent that from happening?  Let us note that public schools in K-12 are free to the students.  Are there lessons we can take from there regarding free college for all?

I actually want everyone to have access to good education.  I really do.  And I think I'm credible in saying so as it it is a major focus of this blog.  But I think getting that will be quite difficult to achieve, because the paying for it issue is not nearly well enough thought through. I'm afraid that the current free college effort is a gimmick.  Bernie Sanders loves sound bites.  The younger potential beneficiaries of these policies get excited about an approach seemingly addressed to them.  I wish they were as skeptical as I am and then demand a more full story.  Do they have answers to the questions I raised in the previous paragraph?

4.  Identity issues that are not economic - do those exist? It definitely is easier for me to argue about issues with an economics component.  Free childcare as an option, paid family leave, and healthcare benefits for a spouse in a world of same-sex marriage, all are economic issues in support of identity politics.  I find it easy to endorse all of these, even while I find some other identity issues hard to work through, micro-aggressions for example, and where to draw the line on those.  Likewise, the acceptable on giving hugs and casual social touching versus where sexual harassment begins is something I've struggled with.  In that sense I may be remarkably shy and a follower rather than a leader.  I wish I were more hip on these matters.  But I'm not.

One Last Point Before Closing

We seem to be more divided as nation and continuing to move in this direction.  Thomas Edsall's column today makes the point that the current primary system produces this result.  Moderate voters don't participate as much during the primaries.  If that were a generally accepted fact, and if there were some general agreement that we as a country need to come together rather than remain divided, then we might consider structural changes to our process, as an example consider mandatory voting, that would produce different results.  Again, as with the political issues themselves, we need to argue the concerns before getting to the remedies.  We don't do that very often at all.  I believe we should.

Wrap Up

I've tried to write this in a way for a conservative reader to learn something about me.  Admittedly I didn't have a specific person in mind, but rather some idealized construct. Nevertheless, I wonder if somebody who is not part of my usual audience read this, whether there would be any revelation for that person, or if this only confirms prior held beliefs.  My hope is that it would be more than that.

If so, as I mentioned earlier, it might encourage others to write their narrative, to illustrate how they are unlike the stereotype and how they've come to their views.  I'd love to read something like that and then argue with that person about where we might find common ground.