US politics

Please support Equal Citizens

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 23/10/2018 - 5:17am in


US politics

Last year, I asked you to help support science. This year, I am asking you to pitch in to help end the corruption of U.S. democracy through a donation to Equal Citizens. Equal Citizens is pursuing several important projects such as fixing the Electoral College, ending SuperPACs, and ending voter suppression. There is tons of information concerning the specifics of how they are doing this on

Equal Citizens does not bombard one’s mailbox with constant requests for donations like some other organizations. Indeed, they haven’t done this kind of a campaign in a year. To help support them, I am hosting a fundraiser through Facebook where I have committed to matching up to $500 of donations. Won’t you add your support as well? You can do so through my Facebook fundraising page or directly through the Equal Citizens site. Thank you!

Can Climate Science Be Rendered Conservative-Friendly?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 19/10/2018 - 6:00pm in

How to pitch environmentalism to climate change deniers.

See what the two main American political parties have become

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 14/10/2018 - 12:00am in

David Lindsay See what the two main American political parties have become. On any one or more of torture, Guantánamo Bay, mass surveillance, workers’ rights, consumer protection, environmental responsibility, treaties with Native Americans, healthcare for people with pre-existing conditions (that is, people like me), the President’s supposed immunity from indictment, and the President’s supposed power to pardon himself, Brett Kavanaugh could easily have been blocked by enough Republicans and all Democrats, plus Bernie Sanders. But instead, the useless Democratic Party made it about a #MeToo and #IBelieveHer story that it was impossible to prove. The party of Glass and Steagall repealed Glass-Steagall. The party that put a man on the Moon has become the party that puts a man in the ladies’ room. The eventual party of Civil Rights has regressed to being the party of the lynch mob. I am not going to do the line about the Democratic Party’s having gone “from a chicken in every pot, to a chicken on pot,” because the truth is even worse. Those who had cut their …

Normativity Erosion – #Make Norms Normative Again

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/10/2018 - 1:40am in


US politics

That time a ‘Constitution in Exile’ borderline anarchist libertarian and a Catholic integralist wandered into a Twitter thread to discuss political legitimacy, and it crossed neither of their minds it might be a normative notion (rather than a descriptive synonym for power, give or take.)

Scroll down the original thread for the Adrian Vermeule contribution.

Sorry I know it’s weird quoting tweets that are, like, days old. But in the old days, things took longer. Like when there was blogging. Speaking of old days: if Barnett ever gets around to rewriting Restoring The Lost Constitution in light of his new-found, neo-Thrasymachian doctrine of ‘legitimacy’, it will, at least, save trees. (And, I assume, the old cover will be replaced with one of those Banksy-fied images that has been been making the rounds. It is, at any rate, new to propose that the Framers were pranksters who implanted a shredder in the frame, to go off in 2018. And we must play along because – originalism?)

It was not ever thus. A guy named Randy Barnett once wrote:

I will contend that, if a constitution contains adequate procedures to assure that laws imposed on nonconsenting persons are just (or not unjust), it can be legitimate even if not consented to unanimously, whereas a constitution that lacks adequate procedures to ensure the justice of valid laws is illegitimate even if consented to by a majority. Indeed, only by realizing that the “consent of the governed” is a fiction can one appreciate the imperative that lawmakers respect the requirements of justice (whatever one believes those to be).

But this is now!

In order for a constitutional order to be legit it is necessary for critics of it to shut up already. Barnett is casting about for mechanisms. He clutches Thrasymachian pearls at the sight of ‘visigoths’, demanding justice. (The notion!)

Well, it’s possible that equating desire for justice with barbarism will work, rhetorically.

Here’s another idea. All this noise is wrong because it would have been smarter to ‘woo’ Kavanaugh. But, alas, it’s too late.

This wins my vote for most tone-deaf Barnett tweet.

Let’s review. A main concern about Kavanaugh, you may recall, is that he may have held a woman down and assaulted her and, when she cried out, covered her mouth. And then, years later, lied about it, denying he did it. Now, if the thought of such behavior offends against your sense of justice, then Barnett’s suggestion that the prudent (hence proper) thing to do to those who cry out about the one who cried out, and had her mouth covered, is to cover their mouths, so their cries do not further anger Kavenaugh now, causing him to do them harm by his judicial decisions …

Proposing to restage the alleged crime – to inscribe its form, forcefully, into the body of the justice system itself – is … not a great look.

But maybe BK didn’t do it!

That is true.

Let’s review the normative ‘illegitimacy’ charge sheet.

Those who are hopping mad about what happened are not always clear-headed about saying exactly what has got them so mad. This inconsistency can be exploited by those on the other side, making it sound like there really isn’t any coherent critique. But it’s just a case of at least three things seeming ‘illegitimate’, in somewhat different senses.

1) The Garland affair.
2) Brett Kavanaugh.
3) The Countermajoritarian Long Con.

Taking them in order:

1) The Garland affair.

Conservatives have got this thing going about how, actually, they were doing Garland a favor by not giving him a hearing. At least they didn’t drag his name through the mud, like poor Kavanaugh. But this misses the point. The Garland business crossed a line in the following sense: it revealed, in a way that hadn’t been so clear before, that the confirmation process is pure partisan politics. There was no ‘well, if the candidate is qualified …’ pretense. Everyone said Garland deserved it, on the merits. It was nice of them to admit that, in a way. (Nice for Garland.) But admitting that means admitting anything that follows from that.

For example, it concedes Republicans were doing Garland a favor insofar as, if they had been (somehow) forced to give him a hearing, they would have done everything in their power to drag his name through the mud. If you can’t stop the hearing, smear at the hearing. This is the presupposition that is supposed to make Republican look good for not holding a hearing. But, obviously, if the worst you can even imagine Dems did to BK is that they followed the rule Reps themselves follow …?

So the process is pure partisan politics – the Garland business sealed the deal on that. (It’s maybe nice to be able to say, sometimes, it’s not personal, it’s just pure partisan politics. But that’s still partisan politics.) And the nomination process. Obama tried to pick a moderate in Garland. But Republicans will pick the most radical partisan they think they can ram through. The next Dem won’t try to pick a moderate, to woo the other side. There would be no point. So it will go.

It doesn’t follow BK is illegitimate – or that the court is – from the fact that nominations are, post-Garland, completely openly politicized. But it does follow that ‘BK should be given the benefit of the doubt’ is not sensible. No one says ‘should be given the benefit of doubt’ is the standard for a candidate for the House or Senate.

There has been much job interview vs criminal trial back-and-forthing, but a better analogy would be: election. BK got elected by the Senate to the Supreme Court. Each party wants to elect a candidate likely to decide according to that party’s policy preferences (and reject any other candidate.) Now: this does not mean that elected judges will, if they win election, do as they were elected to do by their party. (Why Republicans have had worse luck with judges going rogue – that is, ‘going institutional’, so to speak – is a nice question.) But it does mean it would be odd to expect a SC election process to be less mud-slinging than, say, any other election process.

2) Brett Kavanaugh.

[I don’t know why I didn’t just say: read Henry.]

In his wisdom, Barnett links to this Federalist piece, which is about the thing I just said: the Garland business. Also this:

Kavanaugh, meanwhile, takes his seat amid swirling debates about the Supreme Court’s “legitimacy,” with substantial portions of the population thinking he’s a rapist, or at least that he would’ve been if he weren’t too drunk to pull it off. Justice Clarence Thomas went through something similar 27 years ago, but Kavanaugh’s experience in our new-media age must have been even more searing.

The idea that swirling debates about “legitimacy” caused substantial portions of the population to suspect bad things about BK is, among other strange things, backwards. (And same goes for the Thomas point.) The problem is that a letter came out – and testimony from Ford – making this charge quite plausible. Plausible things are plausible. What are you going to do: repeal epistemology? Political norm erosion may lead to some epistemic erosion, in a descriptive sense – more bias. But it for sure can’t erode it in a normative sense. It is reasonable to suspect that BK did what Ford alleges. There isn’t a force in the universe that can make it not reasonable to calibrate your credence that P to match your estimation of the likelihood of the truth that P. (Anyway, even descriptively, the Federalist cannot reasonably hope to make everyone unreasonable about evidence. Their readership is too small.)

But in what sense does being reasonably suspected of bad stuff undermine BK’s ‘legitimacy’, in either a descriptive or a normative sense?

The descriptive sense is easy: why are people pissed off? (I’ll let you fill that in, to suit your own taste in stating the fairly obvious.)

A harder question is: whether (many) people will be right to regard 5-4 decisions, with BK voting with the 5, as illegitimate – to what degree and in what sense?

Barnett – the old one – had what I think is a pretty good way of framing why we have to ask. Let me quote at some length.

Few stop to consider whether the Constitution is legitimate.

This is unfortunate because if the Constitution is not legitimate, then it is not clear why we should care what it means. And if it is legitimate, we may need to know why before we can settle on how to interpret what it says. The Constitution’s legitimacy cannot, then, simply be assumed. Unless we openly confront the question of its legitimacy, we will never know whether we should obey it, improve upon it, or ignore it altogether. (111)

A following bit is also good and seems relevant as well. Why would, say, a law professor NOT be willing to entertain a facially plausible challenge to constitutional legitimacy?

Perhaps because they seek the obedience of the faithful and, were their delegitimation entirely successful, why on earth would anyone adhere to the commands of a law professor or philosopher or political scientist? For that matter, why adhere to the commands of the man or woman in a black robe, apart from the fact that disobedience is likely to land you behind bars in an extremely treacherous environment? By subtly undercutting the legitimacy of the Constitution while at the same time preserving its much-revered form, a constitutional scholar (or judge) can become the man behind the curtain, which perhaps is every scholar’s fondest wish. Pay no attention to that bookish professor; the great and powerful Constitution has spoken!

This is a fraud on the public. (112)

For example, were it ever to happen that someone – we’ll call him Scott Shapiro – challenged the legitimacy of a judge in a robe, and someone else – we’ll call him Randy Barnett – pantomimed total inability even to hear that challenge in a normative register? What a shame and a fraud that would be. I’m sure all reasonable souls agree. (Now, in fairness to Barnett, the original passage contains a complication. Namely, he thinks the real fraud pinnacle is not plugging your ears to all challenges to legitimacy in a normative register, but doing so while insisting the interpretive norm be living constitutionism. We shall return to this point.)

As I was saying, we have to ask; and I think Barnett’s answer has a lot of plausibility as well. He talks about how legitimacy doesn’t imply (hence doesn’t require) consent. Now, that could sound kind of rape-y, so I could be snarky here. But I won’t because that would be entirely unfair (and, whatever else I may be, I wouldn’t want to be the slightest bit unfair to Barnett here.) Barnett’s simply correct, in my opinion. If everyone has to consent, positively and expressly, for the constitutional order to be legit, then – apart from fairly unusual sorts of cases – you can’t get there from here. If you think any constitutional arrangement can be legitimate, in principle, you’d better find some lower-bar way to clear it as such.

Barnett’s suggestion, as quoted above, is that a constitutional arrangement could be legitimate – that is, could generate a prima facie morally binding duty of obedience – if it is, plausibly, just. “Regardless of what conception of justice one holds, so long as one holds some conception of justice, constitutional legitimacy can be seen as a product of procedural assurances that legal commands are not unjust.”

Now, back to BK. The problem with his legitimacy, as a judge – hence the legitimacy of his judgments, of decisions that result from his vote – is that this condition is, plausibly, unmet. (I’m ok with this Barnettesque way of illegitimizing BK.) How so? There are a couple levels to it. I’ll get down to the deeper levels in the next section – the countermajoritarian long con. But first, the personality problems. If BK overturns Roe, pro-choice folks who don’t like that result may reasonably (important normative notion!) suspect the worst: this guy likes to control women’s bodies, against their will. That is, he just isn’t the type of guy who should be given the say-so about this sort of question. That’s harsh but, under the circumstances, kind of unavoidable. Maybe, in fact, he is innocent as charged. Maybe his legal motives and mental moves are on the up-and-up. But, honestly, given what we’ve seen of the guy, we can’t say we’ve seen that he’s a guy who can put his own emotions and partisan preferences aside and be a fair judge. (I mean: maybe what goes around comes around was a drinking game in high school. But it doesn’t sound like it.)

Maybe this is a casualty of the confirmation process being so partisan. It was an election (post-Garland). Everyone elected looks like a politician. Every politician looks like a partisan, not a fair judge. But, either way, it comes to the same: if the legitimacy of BK’s decisions require that they be seen as ‘a product of procedural assurances that legal commands are not unjust’, it’s hard to see how Grassley and Graham and co. ramming the candidacy through, in this manner, clears the bar. And then, ever after, it’s uncleared. (Polls, so far, make it look like people see it this way. Dems hate it, Reps love it, and independents don’t like more than they like. This is descriptive, not normative. But I’ll be it’s descriptive of people correctly perceiving the normative situation: BK didn’t get seated in a way that establishes him as a reliable source of justice.)

There is one element of the scene that is especially bad and – if BK is really innocent, by some chance – then it is the worst moral luck that this gets hung around his neck. Nevertheless, there it is. What is? They didn’t pull him and put in Barrett. Why not? Well, they wanted the base to be happy. In his testimony, after Ford gave her (credible) performance, BK played to the base. Why not? It’s an election (post-Garland). But, then again, why should someone regard a justice who wins election by playing to the conservative base as being the product of procedural assurances of justice? And there’s this. Trump obviously likes that BK was standing up to accusations of sexual assault. It’s not hard to see Trump’s personal motive in shifting the norms against #METOO. So, when reasonable people look at the court and wonder whether its decisions are legitimate, they naturally ask how the judges got there. And, concerning BK, the answer is: in substantial part because Donald Trump wanted to keep the world safe for sexual assault. That’s harsh but simply true. It may not be fair that BK gets wrapped up in that, if – let’s assume so – he’s totally innocent. Nevertheless, that’s the story of how he got there. It’s not a pretty picture. And by ‘not pretty’ I mean: no one thinks judges seated to keep the world safe for sexual assault have been rightly selected. That’s a problem.

But let’s leave BK behind. He’s just a guy, although one whose bad judicial philosophy is going to wreak havok for decades. This third item is the big ticket, in a normative, legitimation sense.

3) The Countermajoritarian Long Con.

Dems are talking court-packing and other extreme measures. They are protesting the undemocratic quality of the situation. Justices nominated for life by Presidents who didn’t win a majority, then confirmed by a Senate majority that didn’t win a majority. There is a non-trivial chance that the Republicans will retain the House, the Senate, the Presidency and the Supreme Court, without being able to claim legitimacy any any case, based on a Democratic majority. If the Dems manage to take the House, as they probably will – but probably not the Senate – then it’s a little less bad. But the strikingly un-democratic character of the conflict is the same either way. Barnett and other conservatives are telling jokes, as is their wont and their right. Here’s one that Barnett retweets:

One could point out that this isn’t what ‘popular vote’ means (as various people did.) But, honestly, you know where that kind of quibble gets you? You can’t refute a joke. And that’s fine. But the fact remains: when your best bet for answering critics is deflecting with jokes, maybe your position is a joke. Normatively. Not descriptively.

But what about the standard, civics class answer about why the thing is set up this way to keep those who have the advantage, in this system, from getting hypothetically steamrollered by big population California and New York, under some other scheme?

The problem is that, although that is a descriptively true account of why the system was adopted, it is not true that, simply because, in a flood, a firehose would be counter-indicated, therefore in a fire, you shouldn’t use a firehose to put out the fire with water.

But these are the rules!

That’s fair. But only up to a point.

Here, let me help: in politics, messed up stuff happens. Parties and candidates have advantages, and those advantages are clung to, until they slip away and things change. 10 years ago it was Dems riding a wave of demographic destiny. Now Republicans are in the cat-bird’s seat and so it goes. You win, you lose. Losers whine about it until, someday, they win again. There’s wisdom in that, even a kind of normative legitimacy, plausibly. (Justice is balance, and teetering back and forth is a poor man’s balance. But sometimes if it weren’t for poor justice, there would be none at all.)

The problem here is really what the Republicans are aiming at – what their strategy is, their best-case where-do-we-go-from-here. There is often a kind of symmetry between Democratic and Republican efforts. Which is, all the same, morally asymmetrical. Republicans try to suppress votes. Democrats try to register lots of folks to vote. Both sides are trying to win. Nevertheless, winning by forcibly depriving people of their rights is worse than winning by nudging people to exercise their rights. (Unless you want to argue otherwise.) Trying to build a new, emergent majority is morally less problematic than trying to be a permanent, governing minority that can ignore what most of the country wants.

Don’t think I couldn’t go on and on about the thorough-going badness of what Republicans are hoping to bring about, to let them cling to power! But the bottom line is: they will succeed or fail, their power holds or doesn’t. But, either way, it won’t be plausibly legitimate, in a normative sense, if justice is needed for that. If anyone wants to argue otherwise, you are welcome to try. I can’t think that you will do much better than Hugh Hewitt – “Trump May Be Outside Our Norms, But He’s Succeeding For Us All” – and that seems ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ bad enough, on its bare face. (Again, argue otherwise if you think you can.)

But suppose Barnett wants to cling just to this bit – very first lines from Hewitt’s op-ed:

As President Trump’s first two years in office come to a close, we’ve seen two originalist justices confirmed to the Supreme Court, 26 originalist appeals court judges confirmed, 10 more nominated , and 41 new district court judges on the bench and dozens more pending.

Ah, the dream! After that exile. I’m not going to ask Barnett to disdain what must look to be, from his perspective, an oasis in the desert of long lost constitutionalism. No one who feels parched can be faulted for lapping at dirty stuff. (I’m not an unreasonable person, I hope.) Yes, I get it that all sane people know that conservatives have dominated the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, for decades. (All that howling about liberal judicial activists is shameless ref-working. I totally agree.) Nevertheless, Barnett is a total flaming radical, and radicals live in exile and have to feel good when it looks like, crazy enough, some part of their radical dream is actually coming true, coming home.

But what about legitimacy?

I’ve been amused by Tom Nichols twitter, of late. His Atlantic article on why Kavanaugh finally broke him and he’s left the Republican Party pissed off some conservatives, naturally. Now, there’s a big contrast between Nichols’ reasons for regarding both Republican means and goals as illegitimate – meaning: very incompetent and destructive and bad – and broadly leftish reasons for thinking the same. (I don’t mean to imply a false unity to the anti-Trump perspectives.) But Nichols’ way of skewering some of his critics seemed to me quite on-point.

First, the maybe-Trump ‘calling balls and strikes’ metaphor is nonsense. I’ll let him say it:

And then there’s the upside argument.

Getting back to the judges. If you like ‘em, I guess you take them. But, against the backdrop of Trump, it’s hard to see why you would call them ‘legitimate’. It’s a category error. ‘Never let a good catastrophe go to waste’ may be Machiavellian wisdom, but it isn’t a recipe for legitimacy, in a normative sense – just for some accidents you may like. Originalists ought to feel very queasy, to say the least, about getting the results they like in this way. If we recover from Trump, originalism will be tainted by association with him, even though – in theory – the two are distinct. Originalism doesn’t just want to be. It wants to be, legitimately. I take it. That’s a big part of it.

But let’s get back to ‘balls and strikes’. The fallacy here is – I dunno what it is. But I think I’ve got a term for those who commit it. Those conservatives who don’t just view Trump from the sidelines as spectators, vaguely hoping for something they like from the wreckage, but who support Trump, while yet saying they view him like an umpire – balls and strikes – are actually ‘con Hindenburgs‘. (I just named them.) Von Hindenburg actually wasn’t such a horrible guy, you see, although remembered badly because the Hitler thing really didn’t pan out. Von Hindenburg teamed up with Hitler, not to destroy the Republic – but not to call balls and strikes on Nazis either.

Conservatives who support Trump, while viewing him more or less as Tom Nichols does, are not judiciously buying a few good bits. By supporting him, in the hopes of good bits, they are buying the package, hoping for a few good bits, but knowing it could blow up.

Now, legitimacy: no con Hindenburg-types are seriously in a position to complain that the other side is illegitimate, if somebody sits on a statue. Or says a mean thing.

The dilemma for originalists (acute, in the age of Trump) can be stated like this …maybe. Suppose the only way to restore the lost Constitution, just possibly, is to ‘heighten the contradictions’, as they say, by riding the Trump tiger and hoping not to end up on the inside (with some others.)

[Dilemma for textualist originalists, if you prefer. Or ‘lost constitutionalists’, perhaps.]

Originalism is, in a doctrinal sense, not an end but a means to an end: namely, legitimate results. There’s something kind of weird about radical devotion, not to an allegedly legitimate end, but to legitimate means to an end. At all costs?

Are you or are you not permitted to use any means necessary – legitimate or illegitimate: fair or foul – in pursuit of your ideal of pursuing ideally legitimate means to your end? Can the means justify … the means? That would be the pinnacle of living constitutionalism. Sacrificed and raised from the dead, as it were.

Well, anyway, I thought it was funny that Barnett and Vermeule pretended not to be aware that ‘legitimate’ can have a normative sense.

Only time will tell, I guess, whether stumping for Trump, in this way, means going to Syracuse – or only, as it were, transferring to the Syracuse branch of Dunder-Mifflin. Let’s hope the latter, for the sake of the republic.

Was this post too short? Probably not.

The Center Held in 2008

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 01/10/2018 - 6:57am in

In a week when the antipathy between Republicans and Democrats is at a fever pitch, it is worth recalling the desperate events ten years ago this month when America’s center held together very well. A financial panic, the first in a century, seemed to come out of nowhere to threaten a depression even worse than that of the 1930s. The White House put its full support behind the Federal Reserve Board’s role as lender of last resort. Congressional leadership of both parties reluctantly backed the president.

Two attempts were required to persuade the House of Representatives to authorize the Treasury Department’s $700 billion supplement to the Fed’s own funds. The second succeeded, the measure passed, and US leadership galvanized the central banks of the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan in a coordinated monetary easing.

In late September, twelve of the thirteen most important U.S. financial firms had been at the brink of failure, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke later told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. By mid-October the unbridled fear had given way to full-alert wariness. Much of the credit for stemming the panic belongs to George W. Bush, who put the full force of his presidency behind the effort, before stepping out of the way of the presidential election campaigns. (His wise choices weren’t obvious at the time.)

Instead of unthinkable gridlock, the US economy sank into a deep recession.

A persistent itch remains to blame the crisis on the Bush administration, at least in some quarters. After all, Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and New York Federal Reserve Bank President Timothy Geithner were hired during his watch, Geithner (by the NY Fed) in 2003, Paulson and Bernanke in 2006. Two books arguing against the heroic interpretation of their performance of the roles have appeared recently.

The Fed and Lehman Brothers: Setting the Record Straight on a Financial Disaster (Cambridge), by Laurence Ball, of Johns Hopkins University, argues that Bernanke and Geithner had the authority to save the troubled investment bank whose failure initiated the panic and that the central bankers were bullied by Paulson out of doing so. A Crisis of Beliefs: Investor Psychology and Financial Fragility (Princeton), by Nicola Gennaioli, of Bocconi University, and Andrei Shleifer, of Harvard University, claims that the Lehman failure should have been no surprise, that policy beforehand should have been more aggressive, and that the systemic run on the banking system was unpredictable was mostly a myth. (Shleifer, unfortunately, didn’t predict it.)

Neither interpretation is likely to stand up to professional scrutiny. The first-person accounts of the policy-makers – Bernanke (The Courage to Act), Paulson (On the Brink), and Geithner (Stress Test) – and the wealth of supporting material that has grown up around them are likely to remain the primary narrative of the crisis.

Today another crisis of great magnitude threatens, this one involving the US Supreme Court. Once again former President Bush is involved, this time as a key supporter – as of last Thursday – of nominee Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh

It was Bush who hired Kavanaugh into the White House an assistant counsel in 2001, who promoted him to staff secretary in 2003. (Those who followed the tribulations of Rob Porter, staff secretary to President Trump, will know something of the close bond that develops between a president and the supervisor of his decision-making queue.) Bush presided over the marriage of his long-time personal secretary Ashley Estes to Kavanaugh in 2004, then two years later nominated his fellow Yale alum to the federal appellate court bench.

Bush last week reiterated his support of Kavanaugh after the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, having earlier told Politico, “Laura and I have known and respected Brett Kavanaugh for decades, and we stand by our comments the night Judge Kavanaugh was nominated.” On that occasion he had said, “He is a fine husband, father, and friend – and a man of the highest integrity. He will make a superb Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Then came the dramatic news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would spend an additional week digging deeper into the nominee’s past. Meanwhile, the significance of Judge Kavanaugh’s partisan and untrustworthy testimony last week will continue to sink in. It won’t get any easier for the former president to maintain his support.

Probably no opinions outside the Senate, public or private, matter more to the fate of his nomination than those of George and Laura Bush.  The Republican Party is in disarray. If it still has a leader, it is Bush



The post The Center Held in 2008 appeared first on Economic Principals.

Once Again: What Are The Odds? – Blue Pill Philosophy Edition

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 30/09/2018 - 8:15am in


US politics

Attention conservation notice: TOO LONG. But I wanted to rewrite my last post to my own satisfaction. So I did it different, but same.

People of the internet, I have long been openly opposed to loose dispensing of the blue pill.

“You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.”

No, the story doesn’t end there. That’s tomorrow-never-comes thinking. Read the warning label! You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want? What a way to run the railroad. Morpheus is giving this stuff out like candy to any slacker bro who looks the least bit likely. Is he out of his mind?

Because, seriously: what is it you are sure to want to believe? You will want to believe you took the red pill – and we are off to the races! You will believe, falsely, you’re Neo. Past which point you will be no good to yourself or others. At best.

Most folks will be too tempted by the lazy beguilements of blue pill lifestyle, so we are soon up to our collective armpits in mass fantasies of red pill-popping pop-paranoid philosophy of politics. Gets so you can’t throw a rock without hitting ‘the One’ in some Spartacus line-up of ‘Ones’. (#METOO, but for Ones.)

Virgil poetized of the gates of horn and ivory. Even he never conceived of a gate of pizza. And now Kavanaugh (although he isn’t a gate yet, though I can’t imagine why not.) It is never going to end until someone figures out a way to stop Morpheus, a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood.

So I thought to myself: what will be the sign that BK has busted us through the basement, driving the right crazier? I designated a canary: if Dreher takes the blue pill, in a Kavanaugh-related manner, that will mean the right has found a way to delve deeper into crazy. That is, if Rod Dreher says he takes the red pill, that will be a sign he’s taken the blue pill. That will mean things are worse. And sure enough.

Why Rod Dreher, as my dead canary designate down a conservative coal mine?

Basically, because he doesn’t like Trump, largely for sexual ethics and all-around character issues.

So I had some hope his concern for character would cause him to maintain his equilibrium in the Kavanaugh case. But he has not. But I have some hope still that he is actually just intellectually turned around about how to think about the probabilities of a case like this. I think he might be making a math mistake. If so, then, if I can convincingly show his math is wrong, maybe he’ll change his tune. So this post is addressed to Rod Dreherish-types on the right. Maybenevertrumpers, I recommend you consider and assess the following arguments on the strict, rational merits.

To give us a target position in need of correction, here is Dreher summarizing his own thinking:

It’s not that I believe Kavanaugh is innocent. I think it is possible that he is guilty of what Ford accuses him of. But I believe he is not guilty, in the sense that there is not nearly enough evidence to judge him guilty of the accusation. Ford has nothing to support her accusation but her accusation. Kavanaugh strongly denies it, as you know, and he has offered evidence (e.g., his summer calendar) that he could not have been where he was supposed to have been. And, none of the people Ford has said could corroborate the event say they were there.

If we allow Kavanaugh’s nomination to go down on the basis of unsupported accusations, then we set a terrible precedent. We give a veto to anyone who makes an accusation against a nominee, however groundless. What strikes me is that liberals assume his guilt because he belongs to a class, and has an identity, that they despise: upper-class white male conservative.

There is serious but incidental confusion to be noted, first, and set to one side (for later reference.) You can’t seriously suppose conservatives don’t assume his innocence because he belongs to a class, and has an identity, that they exalt: upper-class white male conservative. The issue can’t be badness of tribalism. If that were it, there would be no impulse to jump right, of all directions. But maybe presuming innocence, in a tribal way, seems more humane, than presuming guilt? So in this case the right’s tribal defensiveness seems more like mercy for their own than vindictiveness towards the other side. Fine. Let it be so. The real problem is, in any case, elsewhere. Dreher’s thinking about evidence is just confused. Let me explain as clearly as I can. (Much of what follows rehashes my previous post, but in improved form I hope.)

It’s quite right to think that ‘there is not nearly enough evidence to judge him [BK] guilty of the accusation’ in a legal, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt sense. But that’s clearly the wrong standard. (See below.)

It is very wrong (here we get nearer the math error) to think ‘Ford has nothing to support her accusation but her accusation’. First of all, her accusation does support her accusation, in that it is plausible and coherent, as Dreher concedes. But, even more to the point, we don’t need her accusation to support her accusation. What we want to know is whether her accusation supports the proposition that BK is guilty. We care whether BK is likely to be guilty. This is his confirmation hearing. Does her accusation increase the likelihood of guilt – not itself.

But (the response will run): can it support guilt without first supporting itself?

Yes. The fact that a coherent, plausible – but unsupported – story of guilt is told can, in itself, lend credence to the proposition that BK is guilty. This is a perfectly reasonable and quite ordinary thing to happen.

How is this miracle possible? Well, suppose you know BK likes beer. Now someone tells you they saw BK in a bar, drinking a beer. The latter fact, in light of the former, lends some credibility to the proposition that BK was at the bar, drinking a beer. It isn’t that the statement is ‘self-evident’ or ‘self-supporting’, whatever that means. People just say stuff and we believe it all the time. Often that’s unreasonable but sometimes totally reasonable. Even if the people are kind of random and we don’t know them all that well it may be reasonable.

(Note that if someone says he saw the Pope walk into a bar, the situation is rather different. The event is so unlikely that a mere story doesn’t cut it. The difference between our ‘priors’ in the two cases is quite crucial.)

Why is this not obvious? I suspect Dreher is (vaguely) assuming evidence in this case can only be something on the order of a piece of paper, a record preserved from the time of the event. Something that could be labeled Exhibit A at trial, bagged, and introduced in accordance with proper rules of evidence. No, that’s too restrictive. What we care about here is likelihood of guilt. Anything that bears on that is fair. We want to weigh any factors whatsoever that factor into reasonable estimates of the likelihood that BK is guilty, whether or not those factors could be labeled Exhibit A at a criminal trial, whether or not they would be admissible at any trial we would call legally respectable. Those factors can be anything. This includes, notably, evidence in the form of overall, circumstantial judgments of character, now or in the past, when the alleged events happened.

Dreher is going to balk at this because he thinks it sounds very, very wrong to suggest we could, justifiably, damn BK as guilty by association with some class of rape-y teens. Not to put too fine a point on it.

BK seems like a rape-y type, because he hung with rape-y types, and wrote rape-y sounding stuff in a yearbook. So we’ll haul off and assume he has increased probability of guilt of sexual assault.

That statement is so far from being admissible at any fair trial – it is so far from being a thing that could or should be bagged and labeled as Exhibit A – that we recoil too far away from it. Because, rationally, it should factor into a reasonable judgment of likelihood of guilt.

One way to see that is to flip the point: Dreher has no problem introducing judgments of character in BK’s favor. BK seems like a good man to him. But you can’t possibly introduce apparent good character as evidence of likelihood of innocence unless you are also prepared to weigh apparent bad character as well. Maybe it’s the decent thing to do to think the best of someone, if there seems to be good in them. Maybe it’s the loyal thing to do if they are ‘on your side’. Maybe loyalty is a virtue. But no one can think that’s judging likelihood of guilt – as opposed to expressing loyalty or averting one’s gaze, decently, from something ugly.

No one thinks the rational way to weigh pro and con is to set aside con and just weigh pro, or vice versa. That’s just crazy.

Dreher is fully prepared to introduce apparent good character into evidence, regarding BK. As well he should be. But then you must finish the thought: we must factor in all factors that could be indicative, including judgments of character – good or bad. We are judging him innocent by good association (with that team of girls he coaches, with the Federalist Society, with Yale Law.) We must judge him guilty by bad association with Judge and wild parties where sketchy, skeezy stuff clearly happened. We have to size up the kind of person BK seems to be, and to have been. We have to size up the kind of person Ford seems to be. We have to weigh all – necessarily uncertainly. If we don’t, we literally can’t possibly come to any reasonable judgment about likelihood of guilt whatsoever. If we don’t weigh both sides, we are just saying what we want to be true.

[UPDATE the 2nd: obviously I should insert a true theory of the ethics of ‘profiling’ at this point. I wish I had one. Sometimes it’s impermissible but sometimes obligatory and sometimes merely unfortunately necessary. I think it must be permissible in a case like an SC nomination. You have to judge someone ‘on the content of their likely character’. But it’s a fraught question, no doubt.]

Everyone has an opinion about BK’s likely guilt, these days, so if you want to be doing better than contributing to keeping up the noise/ signal ratio, or lending a shoulder in the partisan scrum, you have to be honest about what you think the factors are that justify your judgment, be it what it may be. (If someone sincerely thinks they can come to no judgment whatsoever about whether BK is likely to be guilty, they are suffering some strange cognitive defect and should recuse themselves from the ongoing national controversy forthwith.)

So we are now going to weigh factors. But first, one more preliminary. Let’s be honest and clear in advance about what the benchmark will be for a necessary ‘no’ against confirmation.

The right ‘no’ standard is, I say: if there is a fairly high chance that BK is guilty he can’t be confirmed. This is especially clear after the latest hearings. Because if BK gave that performance, and he’s guilty, then he’s unfit for the seat. Because if he’s guilty, and crying like that about his innocence and the injustice of it all, he’s either totally delusional about his past, or he’s a devious, unrepentant, angry, lying liar. He thinks he’s the sort who should be able to abuse with impunity just because he went to Yale.

Please note what I just said: it isn’t that the crying makes it more likely that he’s guilty. It makes it worse IF he’s guilty. It speaks to his character now, and obviates any ‘but he was only 17’ defense.

So what does ‘fairly high chance’ mean? This is squishy. I would say: if a reasonable person could give BK an approx. 50% chance of being guilty, then that is clearly too high. So if we have a reasonable range of reasonable estimations of guilt, from, say, the 30% – 70% zone, kind of belling in the middle, that’s too high. Then you have to vote ‘no’. Because you can’t have reasonable people looking at the court and thinking, reasonably, ‘ah, the maybe rape-y Justice!’ That’s incompatible with the Court retaining a vital level of respect and credibility with the American people. That’s just the way it goes. The confirmation hearing is about maintaining the dignity of the court.

But isn’t it cruel to drag BK’s name through the mud like this if he might be innocent? Don’t the Dems need to be punished for this viciousness, by confirming him in the teeth of their attacks, if he even might be innocent?

No. Whether he’s guilty or innocent, it’s not Dems fault this is happening. The Reps shouldn’t have nominated a guy whose bad boy past frankly invited some such thing coming up and at least looking plausible. And they should have pulled him the instant it was clear they’d made a mistake. If Dems embarrassed the Reps a bit by springing Ford’s letter late, rather than early, in some leaky way, that’s a bit of shenanigans and a black eye for the Reps. But the issue can’t be that the Dems engaged in fairly mild shenanigans regarding the timing of a letter leak. The Reps – the President – could have spared BK this grinding humiliation by pulling him quick, when the letter came out – early or late. They could have put out some bland, mildly wounded statement about the unfairness of it all. Most people would have felt a bit sorry for BK and he would have gone on with his nice life.

But, no, that didn’t happen: Ford is a spear and the Republicans are throwing BK insistently onto the spear, again and again, hoping he’ll break it before it actually kills him. If that looks too awful, stop throwing him on the spear already, again and again. If BK finds it too awful, he should resign from his new job of guy thrown on a spear, repeatedly. He could regain a lot of his reputation by writing a wounded letter and withdrawing, loftily, ‘for the sake of the process’. He could save face that way. If he chooses not to, he can’t complain about how awful it feels to be thrown on a spear. It’s his choice. And they could just get Amy Coney Barrett instead.

That’s really the thing. If it wasn’t the case that there is no partisan, ideological cost to the Reps in pulling BK, you could say the Dems have forced their hand, forced them to torture BK. No, they can just pull him. Tomorrow. They have time to go for Barrett, and they’ll get her, after all this. No question. No one who even might vote ‘yes’ will vote ‘no’ on Barrett after this. She will glide. It will be a cakewalk.

But couldn’t this happen to anyone? If BK, then anyone. No, no it really couldn’t. (Quite apart from the part about how he could just withdraw back to his former nice life.)

Now, we get to the Bayesian math part of the lesson. I did the calculation in my previous post. In fact, I left out a few technically requisite twiddles, but the result of that was that my 40% likelihood of guilt answer should have been 39%. The twiddles are confusing, and the degree of correction is swamped by the fact that these are made-up numbers. Garbage-in, garbage-out. But the exercise is worth doing because people are just bad at thinking about probability in cases of this sort.

What I want to do now is retell my Bayesian story – same story – but more informally, in a way that makes more intuitive sense of why the Bayesian equation works. Exactly what is it we are multiplying and dividing, and why does it makes sense that multiplying and dividing those things would be the way to estimate this thing we want to know? This takes a bit of talking through, even making it simpler. If you want to skip down to the REALLY REALLY EASY EXPLANATION, scroll down to where it says that.

Bayes equation:

P(A|B) = P(B|A) x P(A)/P(B)

Informally this says the chance of A given B equals the chance that B given A times the chance that A, divided by the chance that B.

Here are our A & B.

A = BK committed sexual assault.
B = serious allegations of sexual assault are made in the course of BK’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

We want to solve for P(A|B); that is, the likelihood that A is true, given B is true. Because B is true.

To do this, we need to estimate P(A) and P(B) and P(B|A). Three pieces.

See my first post for a few more numbers (and notes on the minor technical adjustments). But here goes.

P(B|A) means
the chance of B, given A. That is, what is the chance that BK is accused, on the assumption that he’s actually guilty?

That is, if you are a sexual assaulter, who never got caught, what are the chances that, if you get nominated to the SC in 2018, this is the thing that makes your former victim(s) step forward finally to tell her (their) story?

Call this: guilty BK’s fear factor. (Please note: we aren’t begging the question by assuming that he’s guilty. Rather, an element of the equation is estimating the likelihood of exposure IF he’s guilty.)

This is hard to estimate but the thing is: it’s got to be pretty high. An SC confirmation hearing is an under-the-microscope examination. The other side is going to be looking for dirt on you. If you are someone with something seriously bad in your closet that you’ve hidden all these years, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if an SC confirmation hearing is the thing to bust open the closet door. And if that thing is sexual assault in the 80’s, and the year is 2018, those odds go up.

In my previous post I gave this fear factor a 0.5 value. Even-odds it blows up in your face if you are guilty and you try to slide in 2018 (of all years) onto the SC (of all places) without anyone dredging up your bad past.

If 0.5 seems pseudo-precise let’s just call it: relatively risky odds. That seems safe.

Now, P(A). This says: the probability that BK is guilty of something of the sort – sexual assault – independently of any accusations. This judgment is based on everything else we know: 1983, privileged, football, heavy drinking, best friends with Mark Judge, “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep”, what he wrote in the yearbook, joined Truth and Courage at Yale, etc. And now we should add: all the lies he pretty obviously told at the hearing. What’s he hiding, exactly? Gotta wonder.

What percentage of possible guys who fit this Band of Bros Truth and Courage profile are guilty of sexual assault at some point?

I said and I still say: P(A) = 0.1.

1 in 10 guys like that assaulted some girl at some party at some time.

I’ve had some critics – my dear wife, who went to the National Cathedral School For Girls – tell me this is too low. Some folks find it hard to believe it could be this high. 1 in 10 guys like that really engaged in actual sexual assault, back then? It was that hellish?

I could point out that some of BK’s defenders seem to put the number much higher: all boys engaged in ‘horseplay’. I’m not going to argue it here. I will just say: I honestly think a 10% estimate is not just reasonable but actually pretty generous. I think my wife is right that 1 in 5 would be more reasonable, strictly. But we’ll say half that: 1 in 10. The fact that such an alarmingly high number is independently reasonable is hugely important. Basically, it dooms BK to a situation in which, if anyone says anything plausible against him in the youthful misdeeds department, it will stick. It will stick because reasonable people will, reasonably, give credence to such reports.

It sucks to be in a position in which the people you hung around with 30 years ago are dragging down your reputation, even if maybe you did nothing wrong. But this is a thing that can happen.

Suppose we had an SC nominee who turned out to have Mafia associations from 30 years earlier. No allegations against the nominee. Those were just boys from the old neighborhood. Well, maybe. But now someone makes a credible accusation that the nominee was part of some loansharking operation. No evidence but the story kind of hangs together. Then he’s toast. If it hadn’t been for the old associations, the loansharking charge would be outlandish and incredible. If it hadn’t been or the allegations, maybe the old associations could have been overlooked as something the candidate had overcome in time. But the combination would sink any candidate. If the loansharking charge is false, after all, then it’s bad luck for the candidate. But no one has an absolute right to be on the SC through having old Mafia connections politely overlooked.

We don’t normally think of going to Georgetown Prep as like having been part of the Mafia. But if we believe the school was a hotbed of sexual assault, in the bad old days – as we should – then there is some validity to the analogy.

If you think 1 in 10 sounds not too high but too pseudo-precise, let’s just say: hazardously high odds, because of the Georgetown Prep/”Sixteen Candles” factor. As a candidate for confirmation, BK is unfortunately distinguished by having a demonstrated bad past. That’s a fact, even if he’s changed his ways since.

So that’s the numerator: relatively high odds times relatively high odds. [Update: actually I adjust one of the numerator factors from 0.5 to 0.55 before calculating – see below. Sorry for unclear exposition.]

What about the denominator?

P(B) means the chance that BK is accused, irrespective of guilt.

In my previous post I made a technical error, as mentioned above. It’s more confusing than it’s worth to do the math exactly right. The garbage factor in the numbers we are inventing too obviously swamps niceties of calculation. But there’s no point doing math wrong. So let’s sort of fake it – informally but honestly.

Suppose you had to bet: what is the likely ratio of false accusations to true accusations in this sort of context? If all you know is that someone has accused an SC nominee of sexual misconduct, in a confirmation hearing, what odds do you give – knowing nothing else – of it being true vs. either a malicious frame-up or a crazy person saying something crazy?

In my previous post I basically picked the following number, for argument’s sake: 2 false accusations for every 1 true accusation. I used slightly wobbly math to get there but this time I’ll just jump there. 2 to 1. I consider that quite a generous allowance in the paranoia department. Lest this post get even longer, I’m not going to go through everything I went through in the previous post about how it’s actually pretty unlikely that there will be conspiracies to frame candidates, or crazy ex-girlfriends (or whomever) coming out of the woodwork with oddly plausible but delusional, false charges.

Let me illustrate the implausibility briefly, in light of the hearings. Sen. Grassley has said he believes Ford thinks she’s telling the truth but, nevertheless, she isn’t, because left-wing conspiracy. It’s a bit hard to see how that makes sense. How would Dems have engineered it (never mind why.) They find Ford and wipe her memories and implant false ones? Or they find someone who is credible, but happens to have just the one element of delusion they need, and they put her forward? That’s a unicorn. (And for what? Just to get Barrett on the SC? Not enough payout for such a fiendish scheme.)

If someone seriously wants to argue that every top-flight Federalist Society member is being tracked by a team of crack Dem frame-up artists, waiting to spring into action in the event of a nomination; or that every Federalist Society member has an ex-friend with the most inconvenient delusions conceivable – then make your crazy INFOWARS case. I will concede that, in the wake of Ford’s letter, and testimony, in light of the national controversy of the case, all bets may be off about what crazy or ill-intentioned people might say and do. I have more or less locked my own views on the subject (like a controversial Wikipedia article with editing shut off.) At this point, any new stories, that aren’t corroborated, could be bullshit of various sorts, from either side, advanced for a variety of reasons. (I’m actually worried that any fresh accusation might be a false flag, meant to explode a day later and thereby cast doubt retroactively on Ford.)

Let’s step back to the strange past world of Before Ford’s Letter Was Released. (It seems a more innocent time.) I say: if Ford hadn’t come forth, Kavanaugh would have sailed fairly smoothly. Ford is credible. Those appear to be the facts, whatever happens next.

None of this fits with the Grassley theory that there will always be fake accusations so we have to ignore credible accusations as likely fakes. That’s like arguing that all swans are black on the basis of one apparent white swan. Not a good inductive argument, to say the least.

So we run with 2 to 1 ratio, fake to true. We are assuming that most allegations of this sort are fake, but some are true.From above, we estimate true accusation rate at 5%. (That’s from 10% guilt and 50% chance of accused IF guilty.) So the overall accusation rate is 15%. Or rather, it’s slightly lower because these possibilities can overlap so they don’t just add. Don’t worry your head about it. The answer is about:

P(B) = .14

Or if you just want to be vague about it: pretty low odds.

Adding the 10% chance of false accusations to the 50% change of true accusation IF guilty, we get a P(B|A) of about 55%. (Again, we can’t just add them.)

So we run the numbers.

0.55×0.1/ 0.14 = .39 and some change.

That is, even assuming we live in a universe where fake and false accusations of sexual assault against the powerful outnumber true accusations 2 to 1, a reasonable person will still regard BK as about 40% likely to be guilty of sexual assault.

Obviously if you make a less paranoid assumption – which I think would be reasonable – the odds of guilt go up. This number is way too high to confirm. QED.

But Bayesian math is still kind of opaque to most folks. It seems like some weird, arbitrary rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick. So let me now do my best to make Bayes intuitive (which is an exercise worth doing, quite apart from BK-related concerns.)


Taking it from the top: P(A|B) = P(B|A) x P(A)/P(B)

But that is very not-intuitive.

How about this translation? (Nodding to our A and B values – A being an event, B a report of that event.)

If A is likely to happen; and if, if A does happen, A is likely to be reported; and if inaccurate A reports are not too likely; then reports of A are rather believable.

Obviously the converse also makes good sense: If A is unlikely to happen and/or unlikely to be reported if it does; and/or and if inaccurate reports are to be expected either way; then reports of A are worth not so much.

Makes sense, right?

Let’s run a few examples just to illustrate the parameters.

Suppose you overhear someone say that Trump just tweeting about ‘little rocket man’ again. Should you believe it? Well, that’s the kind of thing Trump might do (although why this week?) And it’s the kind of thing people would talk about if he did. It’s not the kind of thing people would lie about, in particular. (Who would bother to invent a Trump tweet? There are plenty of real weird ones.) So it seems reasonable to give this statement modest credence. Even if you literally don’t know who this person you overhead is. It’s not that the statement is ‘supported’. It’s plausible and coherent. That can be enough.

Suppose you hear that Obama tweeted about Kim, calling him ‘little rocket man’. Well, that would be so weird and out of character for Obama that surely it is some mistake. And you don’t change your beliefs. (Honestly, I wouldn’t even bother to Google. No way.)

Suppose you stumble on an article claiming scientists have discovered most dinosaurs had bright yellow feathers. That’s weird. I would not believe it, not because I feel confident that they couldn’t have had bright yellow feathers. Rather, I can’t imagine how, if that’s true, the truth of it could lead to (true) reports now. How could evidence of this have survived? And even if there’s some evidence for some one species, due to some fantastic fluke of preservation, how could we have evidence for MOST dinosaurs? Seems impossible. So, although I don’t see any reason to doubt most dinosaurs were yellow, and no obvious reason for someone to lie about this, I would give P(A|B) – the probability of reports of yellow feathers GIVEN yellow feathers – low credence, so the numerator remains tiny. Until someone explains to me how I’m wrong.

The easiest cases to understand in Bayesian terms are, of course, one’s in which lies are likely. We all get how, if there is a very high likelihood of reports of A, whether A is true or not, then reports aren’t worth much. If someone is going to cry wolf, whether there’s a wolf or not, then you may believe in a wolf, but not on the basis of any crying.

Now, BK. His problem isn’t mean SJW’s. His problem is his big numerator and small denominator. Big times big divided by small equals big.

To put it another way, my yellow-feathered dinosaur case may seem outlandish and at odd angles to our current BK confirmation concerns, but it really is not. Normally a cold case that isn’t even reported until it’s very very cold is not credible. If some victim comes forth, for the first time, 35 years after the fact – with no corroboration – you wonder why. Your bike was stolen 35 years ago and you only thought to mention it now? Why? Why would this report be made, and only now? That is, like the dinosaur case: even if it were true, there surely wouldn’t – couldn’t – be a report of it NOW. So I’m reasonably going to doubt it’s true, on the basis that the likelihood of B IF A is low.

But the fact is: we aren’t surprised in the least by Ford coming forth only very late. We get it that it was the 80’s then, and now it’s 2018, and it makes total, plausible sense that IF it happened (IF!) she would have said nothing at the time and is only coming forward now, in the #METOO era. Normally some old story, with no backing, is incredible. But this is not that. This old story is, unusually, perfectly credible. This is an important and rather unusual feature of the case.

So BK has got an unusually high chance of being guilty (that’s his bad boy past catching up.) He’s got a high chance of being reported IF guilty way back then (that’s a SC confirmation hearing in 2018). There isn’t an especially high chance of false reports. That is, there’s no way to make the denominator really huge. So the number is going to be big. Reasonable people may differ as to whether BK is 30% likely to be guilty or 70%. But that’s going to be the likely range.

Remember the mistake: Dreher says we can’t believe it because there’s no evidence for the accusation. Surely mere ‘coherence’ and ‘plausibility’ isn’t enough. Nevertheless, as these examples show, it’s perfectly in order for coherent, plausible statements to cause us to adjust our beliefs, rationally, even if we are not also presented with independent, corroborative evidence that the statements are true. Bayes makes sense.

Dreher also says he’s worried about his kids. If any conservative can be accused, they can be accused someday. This is upside down and backwards. If there had already been #METOO in 1982, BK would be better off now. Because there would have been more expectation that Ford would have come out with her complaint then, hence more question as to why she comes out only now. A world in which everyone knows there are lots of serious crimes going unpunished is a world in which lots of people can be plausibly accused of committing those crimes. The solution is not to squash accusations. The solution is to make it so such crimes are punished more.

There’s another way to put this point. Dreher has another follow-up post with a letter from a reader allegedly turned new-minted Republican by Kavanaugh’s sorry treatment. (I have my doubts that this isn’t one of those ‘independents’ who turns out to have always voted Republican all along, but whatever.) The conclusion.

The way he spoke – he could have been me or any one of my friends up there!

This is an exceedingly ugly time in our national politics, and I don’t know how long things can continue this way. I fear for the world that my children will inherit from us.

But I will remember this moment for a long, long time.

A man — one like me — played to win! And not just to win a seat on the court, but something much more important — he played to win his honor and that of his family and friends.

So this guy, who didn’t like Trump, is now a Republican, because Kavanaugh stood up for guys like him. Now, the thing is: he doesn’t deny that Ford was very compelling and plausible in her testimony. He doesn’t say he disbelieves her. I find this combination outrageous and offensive for various predictable reasons. He’s one of those who deplores tribalism without noticing his own reactions are purely tribal animus. He’s throwing himself a lavish pity party, this guy. But one implication of what he’s saying seems to be lost on Dreher – and the author himself – so I’ll draw it out.

Suppose I grant for the sake of the argument that he’s entitled to his pity party because white guys have it worse than anyone. (I don’t buy this for a heartbeat, but I’ll play along.) Let it be so. What do we plan to do about it?

The idea is – or was – that BK should be judged fairly. As an individual. This feeds into the idea that innocent-until-proven-guilty should be the righteous standard. That’s wrong, per above. But, having worked up all this angry energy around how innocence isn’t being sufficiently presumed, the energy is fired off in a manner wholly inconsistent with the thought that fair procedures should rule in this case. The suggestion, weirdly, is that the focus should now shift to this ‘much more important’ feature, which has got this man voting Republican, because the Republicans have BK’s back.

The ‘much more important’ feature has nothing to do with the likelihood of BK’s guilt or innocence. This writer wants Republicans to decide the nomination issue based, not on that, but on a judgment of relative issue saliency. Which of two things is more serious, or worse:

1) innocent men losing reputations due to false accusations.
2) sexual assault being committed with impunity against women.

The writer is saying – undeniably implying anyway – that, in order to preserve white men’s tribal ‘honor’, we should discount plausible charges of sexual assault against women. Kavanaugh on the court will be the symbol of that deal done.

The man is proposing that we take the blue pill so that we can believe whatever we want for tribal ‘honor’.

And we have to overlook sexual assault to preserve honor. If a sexual assault accusations threaten the stability of honor, we disbelieve. Such is our prerogative

This being flagrantly immoral as well as dumb – what with women having the vote and all – I hope some conservatives will take this 11th hour opportunity to spit out the perhaps only half-dissolved blue pill and come to their frickin senses.

But, honestly, isn’t the left just as bad? Aren’t some lefties saying we should smear BK just because we don’t like his judicial philosophy? Just like Rod Dreher is (seemingly approvingly) posting a letter that basically says we should discount Ford’s credible testimony, not because she isn’t credible, but because men’s honor is inviolable, so women’s bodies can’t be? (We have to wage a defensive war of honor against women?) Aren’t both sides being just horrible about gobbling the blue pill, to believe whatever horrible thing they want to believe, to make them feel good about themselves?

I have seen a couple people say something like: we should believe Ford because BK has a terrible judicial philosophy. That’s a terrible thing to say. You shouldn’t accuse someone of sexual assault because you think they are going to do some other bad thing. But, in fairness, I think people who are saying these things are maybe a bit confused by the swift current of change in the wake of the Ford letter coming out. It’s hard to keep up and keep track.

Remember when every Democrat (except maybe one or two) was going to vote against BK because he has a terrible judicial philosophy? If confirmed, he is going to use bad philosophy of language for decades to undermine the values on which our cherished republic was founded? Since that’s true, we should vote against confirmation.

OK, let’s actually go back a bit further. Remember when it was kind of a norm that anyone who looked good in the suit, and had the credentials, got the nod, so long as the President wanted them?

Let’s rank these possible norms.

1) Anyone who is ‘qualified’ and nominated gets confirmed. Qualified is a fairly high bar. You need to be a fairly distinguished lawyer. Some gravitas, if you please. If the ink is still wet on your law diploma, sorry – maybe in 20 years. This was Harriet Miers’ problem, more or less. She managed to fail this test to the dissatisfaction of both sides. (Yes, conservatives were also worried about her ideological solidity. But, nominally, she got knocked back for being a lightweight, legally.) If a significant portion of Americans are going to think you just look hopelessly sloppy in the robe, with the wrong temperament or a totally inadequate background, you can’t be confirmed.

2) Anyone who is qualified and not some sort of extremist ‘outside the mainstream’ gets confirmed. This is vague, of course, but you could have – arguably we did for a while – a system under which each side sort of self-restrains in the ideological extremism department. I don’t want to argue with you right now about how real this was, but it’s, anyway, possible, albeit inherently unstable and likely to collapse. It would be perfectly possible for Dems to take the view that they would vote for Trump’s nominee, so long as it isn’t someone like Kavanaugh or Barrett, both of whom are obviously extremely partisan. Pick someone who isn’t on Leonard Leo’s short list, so there’s some chance he or she isn’t just a total ideologue. That would actually be a way to ensure some moderation, some freedom from pure ‘judicial activism’, as it were. For Dems the equivalent ask from Republicans would be something like: you have to nominate someone like Merrick Garland – some moderate, not a real left-winger. Otherwise we won’t consider him or her. (You can judge for yourself, based on history, whether Dems would be likely to go so far as to nominate someone like Garland, if such a demand for ideological moderation were made of them.)

Everyone knows that ‘to bork’ is a verb conservatives use to mean knock back a qualified conservative candidate by pretending he or she is an extremist. But, before that “there was an earlier usage of bork as a passive verb, common among litigators in the D.C. Circuit: to ‘get borked’ was to receive a conservative judicial decision with no justification in the law.” So, opinions differ. And that is why 2) is probably inherently unstable.

3) Total partisanship. If you want to win this vote for confirmation, you have to win this seat. Otherwise, go sit and spin. This is the norm, post-Garland, thanks to Republicans. (But, fair enough, Dems have done their – in my opinion smaller and milder – part to ratchet up partisanship over the years.)

Now, in deciding whether to confirm a candidate, you have to decide what norm you are going to follow. Everyone agrees with at least 1. Pretty much everyone is actually at 3 now. But let’s think about something I said at the start.

I started out by laying down a rule – a bar to clear: if reasonable people are going to think there’s a reasonable chance the nominee is guilty of sexual assault, and likely lying about it under oath, you have to vote ‘no’. Maybe you want to privately forgive possible excesses of youth. That’s fine. Be forgiving. But you can’t very well forgive them on behalf of your fellow citizens, who may not want to forgive them. And, in any case, the lying under oath speaks to current character issues.

What does this bar have to do with norms 1-3? Note that I didn’t say that, so long as the candidate clears the bar, you have to vote ‘yes’. (I’m careful like that.) Obviously you can insist on a lot more in a candidate than ‘not likely to be guilty of sexual assault’. This bar I set is actually a lower bar than 1. Not being plausibly guilty of a crime is one part of being a respectable professional nominee.

And so BK fails 1. He’s not qualified because, if confirmed, too many people will, reasonably, regard him as an illegitimate pick, because of background and character concerns that are totally reasonable.

This is a bit head-spinning because, just last week, we were all hovering in our minds around 3). Will we have total partisanship or won’t we? Could we peel a few Republicans off to vote against, a few Dems to vote for (thereby providing a veneer of bipartisanship)? Only time will tell!

But now it’s all changed. Republicans know that Ford is credible. After her testimony everyone was saying, for 10 minutes, that it was all over. She was highly believable. You can’t confirm then. To admit that Ford was credible is to admit that BK can’t clear the bar even for 1).

And then – BK got angry. And everything changed. Now Republicans are going to vote to confirm him, not because he discredited Ford but because it’s in the cards. The angry white man card trumps the credible woman card.

In pharma terms: guys get to go blue pill. They get to wake up and believe whatever they want, for honor. BK on the Supreme Court is the seal on that deal.

And that’s why I’m sort of hoping Rod Dreher will sit up and say: oh my gosh, I made a simple math error due to not thinking about the nature of evidence correctly. BK is 40% guilty and that’s too high. He should not be confirmed.

What Are The Odds?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 27/09/2018 - 12:35am in


US politics

Kavanaugh. Suppose – just suppose – we wanted to estimate the likelihood that BK was guilty of sexual assault in his bad old “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep” days. Given that Ford (and Ramirez) have accused him, what is the likelihood he is guilty?

Kavanaugh’s defenders seem divided between two calculations of the odds:

1) the charges are so bad they are extremely unlikely to be true. BK is a decent sort now, so it’s pretty intolerable to entertain the possibility that he was horrible as all that before. Likelihood Ford’s story is true: approx 0.

2) the charges are so likely to be true (‘boys will be boys’) that therefore they can’t be serious. BK is a decent sort, but everyone like BK engaged in horseplay like this in high school. The non-seriousness of Ford’s charges is established by the very fact that the likelihood of her story is high: approx 1.

The fact that conservatives scatter, away from the mid-point, is an argument in itself for giving Ford’s charges a credence value somewhere in the middle.

Here’s another argument for a rough 0.5 rating. Ford’s defenders emphasize her account is credible. BK’s defenders emphasize that, after more than 30 years, memory must be suspect. The defenders are more wrong than right, I suspect. Yet the skeptical point may be right for slightly different reasons. Paradoxically, although we should regard Ford as highly believable, we shouldn’t necessarily believe her highly. Focusing on the relative reliability of memory, in a case like this, is likely to trip you up into a base rate fallacy. Wikipedia’s example is good enough: suppose 1 in 1000 drivers is drunk and the breathalyzer will always catch that, but it has a 5% false positive error rate. 95% accuracy sounds good. But, in light of the low base, only 2% of the drivers the test ‘catches’ are drunk. Ford’s allegations against BK are not entirely analogous, but the basic point holds that if you think it is unlikely, in the abstract, that BK is guilty, and you think there is some chance Ford is mistaken, you should land somewhere in the middle.

Let’s make up numbers. The first one we have to make up is going to be pretty important, and we’ll keep coming back to it, so let’s be clear what we are asking, and think what we really want to answer.

Let’s estimate the likelihood that BK was guilty of something of the sort, independently of Ford’s accusations. That is, take the rest of what we know: 1983, privileged, football, heavy drinking, best friends with Mark Judge, “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep”, what he wrote in the yearbook, joined Truth and Courage at Yale, etc.

What percentage of possible guys who fit this Band of Bros Truth and Courage profile are guilty of sexual assault at some point?

I say: 10%. 1 in 10 guys like that assaulted some girl at some party at some time.

That’s quite high. (I mean the chance, not the estimate.) Probably Mitch McConnell agrees with me. I infer this from the fact that he didn’t like BK as nominee. He saw the risk from his background, I guess.

Let’s call this 10% number the Sixteen Candles Creep Factor (SCC Factor). I name it in honor of Michael Brendan Dougherty, who concedes the factor, but wants us to rule it out of consideration.

Should it be ruled out of consideration? Is it unfair to think of someone as a 10% sexual assaulter, just for being wild in the John Hughes era? It would be unfair in certain contexts. But it isn’t irrational to judge the likelihood that someone did something based on a sense of the type of person they seem to be (or have been.) Indeed, there’s really no way you can arrive at any estimate of the likelihood of BK’s guilt or innocence without making up some such number. Even so, there could be procedural objections to ‘profiling’. Let’s come back to this.

We are still thinking through the base rate fallacy problem. Let’s run the numbers right. I have said: 10% chance BK is guilty before we hear from Ford.

And now he stands accused by Ford (and also Ramirez). How much should I update my priors, as they say? Well, suppose I think Ford’s memories should be deemed 90% credible. That is, there’s only a 10% chance she is maliciously fabricating or, more likely, mis-remembering who, what (where and when.) The reasonable thing to conclude, balancing these chances, is that BK is 50% likely to be guilty. He’s a 0.5 sexual assaulter. (That’s hard to think. We’ll come back to this.)

0.5 is lower than a lot of his accusers seem to rate his likely guilt. But higher than most of his defenders concede. (Apart from those who give him – and all boys – an approx 100% chance. But I don’t think the Senate is going there quite yet.)

I’m easing into baby Bayesian analysis. Let me just use Bayes Theorem.

First, let me concede (what is perfectly obvious) that there is no way for a bit of formalism to transmute a 30-plus-year old he-said-she-said into something magically more knowable than it possibly can be. There is a garbage-in, garbage-out quality to what I am about to do. But the value of it is as follows. I need to estimate four or five (depending how you count) likelihoods. Then combine them. You don’t like it? Fine. Pick YOUR numbers. Because, if you want to make a reasonable estimate, you should probably go through these thinking steps for yourself.

Bayes’ theorem:

P(A|B) = P(B|A) x P(A)/P(B)

Informally this says the chance of A given B equals the chance that B given A times the (independent) chance that A, divided by the (independent) chance that B.

Here are our A & B.

A = BK committed sexual assault.
B = serious allegations of sexual assault are made in the course of BK’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

We want to solve for P(A|B); that is, the likelihood that A is true, given B is true.

To do this, we need to estimate P(A) and P(B) and P(B|A). Three pieces.

We’ve got P(A). It’s my SCC factor. I said 10%. So:

P(A) = 0.1

P(B) is trickier. Independently of BK’s guilt, what is the likelihood that he will be (would be) accused of such serious wrongdoing during his confirmation hearing? (Suppose you had been taking odds on him being accused of sexual assault before the hearings started? What odds would you have taken?)

Basically we need to estimate two ‘chances’ to figure this. 1) The likelihood that, if guilty, he will be (rightly) accused. 2) the likelihood that, guilty or innocent, he will be wrongly accused. (You can be wrongly accused even if guilty. A Gettier case, get it?) Figuring 1 & 2 and adding them is a bit tricky. Maybe it’s easier to start by arriving at an estimate of P(B|A).

What is the chance that BK will be accused assuming he is guilty?

That is, we assume ourselves down from the overall possibility space – nine-tenths of which is populated by innocent BK’s. We are looking at just the guilty BK quadrant and trying to estimate the chance this lot will be accused. The less possible-world-y, more intuitive way to think about this that we are estimating guilty BK’s fear factor, going in.

Imagine you are BK and you did bad stuff but what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep has gotten you through life so far, up, up the ladder of success. But a Supreme Court confirmation hearing is a new magnification of microscope. You’ve been vetted, yeah, and none of the bad stuff showed, so it’s probably not going to show now. It was a long time ago. Any accuser will be a target of death threats and smears. The Federalist Society has got your back and guys like Ed Whelan will come up with galaxy brain spin. Nevertheless, if you know you did something bad, you’ve got to worry. Ronan Farrow is a thing.

How worried are you if you are guilty BK? I dunno. 50%? Let’s go with that, for lack of anything better. It’s got to be a significant worry, if you really are guilty. If you did something like what Ford said, and it never came out before, but now you are being confirmed for the SC, maybe there’s a 50% chance that someone like Ford comes out now?

P(B|A) = .5

But wait! This isn’t quite the right number because we need to add in the chance that you could be guilty and wrongly accused. But we’re getting there. (Hold that thought.)

Wrongful accusations come in two different kinds. Dirty tricks and delusions, let’s call them. Or: the Nixonian CREEP factor (NC Factor), and the Unexploded Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Factor (UCEG Factor).

First, dirty tricks.

The thing about Nixon’s Plumbers: it didn’t make sense. Such an elaborate, devious, low-down thing to do, yet not worth it. Downside risks outweigh likely upside benefit. Dumb, dumb.

The fraudulent framing of a Supreme Court nominee would be like that. You’d have to be a special, scheme-y sort of nut to try it. (Feinstein? I think not.) It would be hard. It would need a conspiracy. All under bright lights. And for what? To get Amy Coney Barrett in? And if the scheme is exposed? Someone goes to jail. Everyone on your side loses credibility for a generation. Nevertheless, crazy-stupid happens. We can’t logically discount the possibility that Ford is a fanatical, lone-wolf, left-wing operator. (All we can say is there is no evidence whatsoever that she is one. Zero. None.)

To humor the paranoid, I rate this possibility: 5%. That is, every time a Supreme Court nominee gets a hearing, there is a 5% chance the candidate will be the target of some sinister, elaborate frame-up. (Honestly, 1 in 100 would be likelier, but, sure: 5%. Just to see the numbers.)

Next, delusions.

The obstacle here is: crazy and credible do not mix.

It isn’t easy to be so troubled as to suffer from severe delusions, yet your delusions are basically plausible. Your personal history must not reveal you are crazy. But you have to be crazy. Furthermore, you need to be close to the person you accuse. You need to be able to establish that there were places and times – drunken parties, say – where the crazy contents of your delusion could have happened.

Again, I humor the paranoid: 5%. Let it be so. Every Supreme Court nominee is 5% likely to have a secret crazy person in their personal orbit – someone no one has noticed is crazy, but who is waiting to jump out and swear to the Senate that a bunch of untrue stuff is true. (I think 5% is on the high side here. I give it more like 1 in a 1000, because politics is crazy so never say never. But, sure, 5%. Just to see the numbers.)

Now we have the pieces we need. First, we modify P(B|A) to include the chance of false accusations.

P(B|A) = 0.6 (0.5 chance of accusation assuming guilt + 0.1 chance of sinister frame or delusion irrespective of guilt.)

And we need to figure out P(B) – that is, the likelihood of accusation irrespective of actual guilt or innocence. Per above, there is a 0.05 chance of BK being guilty and accused. (That’s from a 0.1 chance of guilt, and a 0.5 chance that IF guilty, he’ll get accused.) There’s a 0.1 chance of him being innocent and accused (per my paranoid assumptions about conspiracies and crazy people.) Thus:

P(B) = 0.15 (0.05 + 0.1)

We have P(A) = 0.1. We calculate:

P(B|A) x P(A)/P(B) is

0.6×0.1/0.15 = 0.4

The likelihood of A (BK’s guilty) given B (BK’s accused) is 40%.

Did I do the math right? (Correct me if I slipped, or if you think I misapplied the formula.)

[UPDATE: per Salem’s comment, I am treating some probabilities as mutually exclusive when they should be independent, hence potentially overlapping. It comes out about the same: 39 instead of 40. I am not going to update the math because I want to think a bit about the clearest way to present the case – and events have overtaken the facts, such as they were. See comments #45,7]

If my calculations are reasonable, then, even under highly paranoid assumptions about possible frame and false witnesses, BK is quite likely to be guilty. Which is too high for confirmation, surely. (If I lower the paranoid chances to 1% each, which I would probably prefer, we get about a 75% chance of guilt. You decide.)

Being 40% likely to be guilty is a confusing state. Morally, there’s no such thing. Either he did it or he didn’t. Emotionally, there’s no right way to feel about someone who is 0.4 guilty. What emotion would that be: 40% righteous indignation against, 60% righteous indignation on behalf of? [UPDATE: had those number reversed. Corrected now.] There isn’t some ‘burden of proof’ to be lifted and carried, since there is nowhere to tote it to. No epistemic there we can get to from here. Nope, this is probably as far as it goes: BK is someone about whom it is reasonable to have a high level of dark suspicion, concerning his character and early life. (Quite apart from his judicial philosophy and mid-career as a partisan dirty trickster.)

This is, of course, a perfectly normal state of affairs, despite its moral imponderability: uncertainty whether someone did a thing.

There is no uncertainty, however, as to what the Republicans should do, if they care about credibility for the court – or if they are even able to see 3 inches past the tips of their partisan noses. Pull BK on the grounds that this is not good. BK is going to kill Roe v. Wade. That’s what they are hiring him to do (among other, more business-related matters.) Now when that happens, pro-choice folks will say old white, Republican men just want to control women’s bodies. And they will be able to point to BK. They will say they believe this is BK doing the same thing as the time he held a girl down and covered her mouth. And, if they are honest, all Republicans will be able to reply is: well, you very well could be right about the girl, but we think you’re wrong about why he did it this time. This time it was for moral and legal reasons, even if – who knows? – that time maybe he wanted to control a woman’s body, illegally, against her will for immoral reasons.

Honestly, part of me is glad to get BK, if it has to be someone so conservative. It rips off the mask. The fact that they could swap in Amy Coney Barret, with no loss of ideological extremism – actually, an increase – suggests it isn’t even just ideological extremism. (I take for granted it has little to do with views about proper hermeneutic techniques to apply to old documents, but I would hope Federalist Society members would at least have the decency to feed the Constitution to the moloch of partisan ideology, not the moloch of negative partisanship. Standards, people.) Nope, they are going to ram BK through to ‘own the libs’. It will be bad for them, bad for the court, bad for the country.

Are they the least little bit right to be enraged at the Dems for raking their boy over the coals? Maybe the document leaked as part of a delaying tactic? Maybe that was a bit of a dirty trick? Eh. The basic problem is that 10% chance in my numerator. They nominated a former hard-drinking bad boy Georgetown Prep bro, in 2018, to the Supreme Court. What a stupid plan.

But shouldn’t there be some ‘innocent until proven guilty’ procedural norm? I do wish people would only ask this after conceding he looks quite likely to be guilty. There is obviously no legal barrier to nixing him via a no vote. It won’t violate existing anti-discrimination laws to do so. If Republicans want to take a high moral stand on ‘innocent until proven guilty’, even though not legally obliged, then they can’t whine when people insist on taking a reasonable view of the facts: namely, there’s a good chance the new Justice got away with sexual assault, and lies about it to this day. There isn’t any way to make that not true by saying ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Here’s another way to put it. I can imagine a possible world in which very comprehensive, well-intentioned anti-discrimination law might, weirdly, make it impossible to nix a SC nominee just because you suspect him of being guilty of a serious crime. That is, I can imagine a law that would make it illegal to ‘profile’ job candidates and refuse them employment if they are deemed to have criminal backgrounds (as part of a push to re-integrate offenders into society, say.) If that made it impossible to reject a SC nominee on the grounds that he didn’t have the character for the job, that would be a perverse consequence of such a law. But given that we don’t actually live in a world in which such a law is, in fact, generating this perverse consequence, there’s no need to pretend we are in that world, only to the extent of insisting on this particular form of perverse consequence of rigid anti-discrimination policy.

One last point: there’s a lot of ‘suppose he’s guilty’ in this post because that’s what Bayes’ theorem needs me to estimate, and the fact that BK’s likely to be guilty is the concern here. But suppose he’s innocent! He’s really innocent. It could well be. That is, he was kind of a drunken shithead in high school and college (by his own admission.) But he never assaulted anyone. Ford is mistaken, her memory somehow in error. She experienced something terrible, traumatic, but it wasn’t him.

Who – or what – should we be indignant at, if – IF – he’s innocent?

If BK really is innocent then, in a sense, he, like Ford, is a victim of the fact that a whole class of serious crimes went frequently unpunished and unreported back in 1983, and still today. BK wasn’t assaulted, like Ford, but the fact that there were so many assaults, and so many went unpunished, makes it plausible that he is guilty of unpunished assault. Lots of unpunished crime is bad for victims, of course, but, to a lesser extent, for everyone else, including those who might, later, stand wrongly accused in the course of some belated effort to see delayed justice done.

Suppose, instead of happening in 2018, #METOO erupted in 1978 and was so successful that – within a few years – it became much more common for victims like Ford to report all such things promptly, and receive the sympathy and redress they deserved. That would have made it better for Ford and, decades later, better for BK, who would, as a knock-on result, be a lot less likely to be falsely accused. And, were he falsely accused, the false charge would be harder to make stick.

If BK is a victim here, he’s not a victim of some social justice warrior crusade gone crazy, he’s a victim of the fact that it started too late to help the likes of him.

Ten Years Ago

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 17/09/2018 - 6:59am in


US politics

Ten years after the Panic of 2008 began, the hardest thing is dealing with the might-have-been in its immediate aftermath.  What if President Barack Obama had better understood the situation he inherited?

He might have emulated Franklin Delano Roosevelt and begun his term as explainer-in-chief. He might have devised some modern equivalent of FDR’s “fireside chats” – the thirty-one radio broadcasts the president made in 1933 and 1934.

Obama then could have proceeded to explain what had happened in the last few months, what the Federal Reserve Board, the Bush administration, and the US Congress had done about it and why, and what steps his administration would take next.

He would have said that, in the days after September 15, when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the US had suffered an uncontrolled banking panic, the first such since the Panic of 1907 – not just the United States, but the entire global banking system.

He would have explained how the 1907 panic, halted the old-fashioned way by a syndicate of wealthy bankers led by J.P. Morgan, was so severe that it led Congress to create the Federal Reserve System as lender of last resort in such emergencies.

He would have explained that an incipient panic after 1929 had paralyzed the inexperienced Fed in the early 1930s, and that Roosevelt had been able to ease the fears with that first chat. He might have told, as an aside, how Roosevelt’s Fed chairman Marriner Eccles had diagnosed the paralysis, and, drafting the Banking Act of 1935,  centralized lending decisionswith the seven-member Board.

Obama would have explained that only after the Panic had commenced did Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and New York Fed chief Timothy Geithner understand the intricacy with which the shadow banking system (as it would become known) was connected to the familiar banking system.  He might have commended the Paulson eventual valor (if not his foresight) and explained that he was asking Tim Geithner to lead his Treasury Department, that he would nominate Bernanke to a second term  as well.

He could have explained that, while a decline in home prices was the proximate cause of the crisis, it was better understood as an increasingly frenzied search for safe assets coming near the end of a thirty-year global boom that had begun in the late 1970s.

Therefore, he might have said, there was no reason to take the crisis out on homeowners.  His administration, he would have told listeners, had begun an urgent search for a way of freezing subprime mortgages at their teaser rate for however long was required to avoid mass foreclosures.

Only then would he have moved on to the difficult topic of stimulus – the deficit spending he was asking Congress  to authorize to counteract the rapidly deepening recession, which has been aggravated by a breathtaking if quickly reversed decline in world trade. And he would have warned that similar difficult choices lay ahead for members of the European Union.

True, the leaders who halted the stampede — Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson, and their respective teams—didn’t understand themselves at first what they were up against. No one had seen a banking panic in the US for seventy-five years. They were thought to have become impossible.  Four days were required to get government departments on the same page; another two weeks to persuade Congress it had no choice but to act.

But by Inauguration Day, those who had battled the panic had a pretty good idea OF what had happened and why.  Bernanke, Paulson and Geithner told their stories last week at the Brookings Institution in a remarkable two-day conference on the tenth anniversary of the panic.

Obama, on the other hand, either did not have a good grasp of the situation, or he did and chose to ignore it. Obama had hired Hillary Clinton’s campaign economic advisor, Jason Furman, after he defeated her in the spring; he signed former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers as his chief advisor on the Friday after Lehman.

That’s not to say that Summers is a bad economist.  But he clearly does not share the Bernanke-Paulson-Geithner view of what was distinctive about the crisis.  Summers helped persuade Obama to support the gauzy Troubled Asset Relief Program appropriation known as TARP that President Bush requested that Friday morning. And Obama never reversed himself on the campaign trail. But he had little or nothing to say about the rescue of the financial system

Instead, “stimulus” had become the mantra of the Obama team even before the election. The only question was how much could Congress be expected to approve?  The Congressional Republicans, who had no better version of what had happened to take to voters than did the Obama team, hit the warpath.

Much has been said about the utter failure of “new classical” economics to give an account. But “new Keynesian” thinking was not much better (though it was better). Read Larry Summer’s first major speech, in March 2009.

How should we think about this crisis?…  [I]t was the central insight of Keynes’s General Theory that two or three times each century, and now is one of those times, the self-equilibrating properties of markets break down as stabilizing mechanisms are overwhelmed by vicious cycles, as the right economic metaphor becomes not a thermostat but an avalanche, and that is what we are confronting today.

To see what Summers thinks today, check out “The financial crisis and the foundations for macroeconomics,” his op-ed article in The Washington Post last week.  Or wait, if you like, for A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions, by Reed Hundt. (Rosetta, February 2019). Hundt, another star of the Clinton administration (think Internet) and a veteran policy entrepreneur, was one of the would-be advisors who was cast aside after the election, along with campaign economist Austan Goolsbee, FDIC chief Sheila Bair, and Fannie Mae receiver Herbert Allison. His is the best account yet of what went on behind the scenes in those first six months.

Perhaps Obama would have done better to stick with Goolsbee, the economist who had come with him to the dance, rather than rely on Summers. With his University of Chicago connections, and his modest professional ways, Goolsbee would have brought fewer preconceptions to the job. He might have negotiated a more genuinely bi-partisan economic stance with which to begin the Obama administration – one that put the panic at the center of his account and acknowledged that the main event had been boldly and satisfactorily resolved by Bush administration appointees four months before Obama’s term began.

Hindsight is twenty/twenty. We’ll never know. The meeting at Brookings last week, a joint undertaking of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy and the Program on Financial Stability at the Yale School of Management, was terrific. It took ten years to happen, instead of ten weeks in the autumn of 2008. But, even now, we may hope for a better understanding of the crisis than the one we have today.

The post Ten Years Ago appeared first on Economic Principals.

The Other Shoe

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 10/09/2018 - 9:46am in

Donald Trump continues to advertise his itch to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, presumably in hopes of short-circuiting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian probe. There is another reason replacing Sessions is a bad idea.  The practices of the Clinton Family Foundation during the period Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State remain under investigation by the FBI.

The existence of the Clinton probe was established a week before the 2016 election by reporter Devlin Barrett in The Wall Street Journal. A few months later, Barrett left the WSJ for The Washington Post. Earlier this year, Barrett and Matt Zapatosky reported that the investigation had continued after the election.

Confidence in the attorney general’s decision-making is thus doubly important. Sessions has shown himself to be sturdily perpendicular with respect to the Russia investigation; there is reason to expect his judgement will be level with respect to the Clinton matter as well.

Meanwhile, sniping at the FBI has continued, from Congress and in the conservative press. The feud within the Bureau apparently continues as well. Last week the Post’s Zapatosky reported that federal prosecutors had been using a grand jury to investigate charges that former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had lied when he denied authorizing the disclosure of the Clinton investigation in the first place, placing his own interests above those of the Justice Department, at least according to Michael Horowitz, the DOJ’s Inspector General.

If the provenance of the FBI’s Russia investigation was somewhat tainted – Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid for the so-called Steele dossier, which helped prompt the investigation of Russian influence on the Trump campaign – the predicate of the Clinton Foundation investigation was apparently equally suspect. Agents in four FBI field offices had read copies of Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, by Peter Schweitzer, president of a foundation created by Breitbart editor Steve Bannon, and financed by the right-wing Mercer Family Foundation.

It has been clear since the 2016 election that the political legacy of Bill and Hillary Clinton is due for a full-scale reappraisal, as background to the 2020 campaign and beyond. Too few experts are working on the narrative of their foreign policies, chiefly NATO expansion and various humanitarian interventions; fewer still on the successes of their domestic policies; and fewest of all, I suspect, on the sources of the virulent opposition they faced, and their reaction to it. The Clinton Foundation seemed like a bad idea since the beginning. Whatever it concludes, the FBI investigation won’t make it any easier to begin to locate the Clintons in American history. That process will take decades.

The post The Other Shoe appeared first on Economic Principals.

A Week in the Midwest

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 27/08/2018 - 10:33am in


US politics

I just spent seven days in the upper Midwest, driving across the states that gave Donald Trump his victory – Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania – talking to friends as I went. It was mostly vacation, but I carried with me Midwest at Noon, by Graham Hutton (University of Chicago Press, 1946), and read a little every day.

Hutton, for many years an editor of The Economist, spent much of World War II as head of the British Information Service in Chicago. An admirer of Alexis de Tocqueville, a close reader of The American Commonwealth (1888) by James Bryce, Hutton aimed to give a friendly analytic account of a region “mostly unknown, widely misinterpreted, and greatly misunderstood.”

The endpapers of the book tell the basic story:  the early routes over the Appalachian Mountains created the Old Midwest, settling Kentucky, Missouri and the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The impulse came from Virginia; the first governor of Illinois is still listed as having been Patrick Henry. Kentucky joined the Union in 1793, and the other four states had been admitted by 1821.

New York and the New England states remained preoccupied with their Atlantic trade.  Only with the Land Ordinance of 1785, with its six-mile-square townships, four of each of their thirty-six sections reserved to the federal government to provide provide revenue, and a fifth to finance public schools, was the Northern interest in the western lands aroused.  The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, was the initial overture.

Hutton writes, “The civilians of the South and the East were largely disillusioned with the more settled and rigid society of the seaboard colonies before they decided to pull out…. These dissenters from Eastern society quickly became anti-colonial, anti-class-society, and anti-Eastern,”

Pioneering and agricultural settlement predominated until 1860; industrial urbanization took over after that. Immigrants from Europe poured in; many farmers of the Old Midwest moved on to the Great Plains and the Far West, taking vagely resentful Midwestern ways with them. Those who remained mixed and mingled, especially in state legislatures.

After 1920, the young and the poor in the Midwest tended to vote Democratic; the well-to-do were Republican for the most part.  In 1946, Hutton wrote, “However different they were in their origins, and whatever they brought in with them, [the Midwesterners] all had to adapt themselves to the new and growing life of a of a new and growing region.” The region had become, he wrote, “the greatest single repository in the world of nineteenth century liberalism and the individualism which underlay it.” Little noticed, the economist Milton Friedman returned to the University of Chicago the same year.

It was the New Midwest that I was traveling across last week, and I was struck as I left Indiana for Ohio how different are the accommodations each has reached in the present circumstances. Former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is Vice President of the United States; Mitch Daniels, another former governor once bruited as a presidential candidate is president of Purdue University. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who grew up in Pittsburgh, lost the Republican Party nomination to Donald Trump in 2016; after two successful terms, he is ineligible for re-election. He leaves office in January 2019.

Pence’s accommodations are clear; he seems to represent the religious conservatism of Old Midwest. The other two are creatures of the upper Midwest – the Old Northwest, as the region was called after the implications of the Louisiana Purchase sunk in. Their accommodations are of a later vintage.

Columnist Paul Krugman, of The New York Times, wrote last week that the Republican Party, has become a shambles, its commitment to shared political discourse, the pursuit of “objective reality,” a thing of the past. “There is no serious GOP opposition to Trump or his vision,” he wrote.

All the more after reading Hutton, and talking to those I saw last week, high and low, I think he is mistaken. Trump’s influence has become a political bubble, I believe; the pusillanimous present leadership of the GOP to be explained by the adage, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”  Eventually, of course, the music stops, the bubble bursts. And at that point those who made the mess are often called upon to repair the damage.

The Trump presidency has come to resemble that of Richard Nixon, not in its particulars but in the growing consensus that the man as not a suitable occupant of the office.  No impeachment proceeding is necessary. The next election is only two years away.

What’s needed next is an ameliorative presidency, like that of another Midwesterner, Gerald Ford (See When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency (Free Press, 2018), by Donald Rumsfeld, for an affectionate memoir). I don’t know by exactly what path the Republican Party might get there, but I won’t be surprised if they find a way.

.                                          xxx

Martin Shubik, of Yale University, one of the last of the generation that made modern economics, died last week. He was 92. A student of John von Neumann and, especially, Oskar Morgenstern, a contemporary of John Nash and Lloyd Shapley, Shubik was made a fellow of the American Economic Association in 2010.. He published too much, spent a decade doing applied economics at RAND Corp., General Electric Co and IBM.He joined the Yale faculty in 1963.

He made several crucial contributions to the entry of game theory into classical economics and so helped open the door to a broad new era of interplay between economics and psychology. And towards the end, he completed, with physicist Eric Smith, The Guidance of an Enterprise Economy, an important treatise on macroeconomics, despite a long struggle with inclusion-body myositis.

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