Category Archives: Random Blogging

Measuring Up

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by our human obsession with measurement, and the ways in which measuring something affects–and often distorts–our ability to understand it.

There’s polling, of course, for the political among us. Despite the admonitions of the pollsters themselves, we far too often see the “snapshots” they provide– not to mention the selected populations they quiz and the often-ambiguous questions they ask–as descriptive of the whole of America’s electorate and thus predictive of the future.

In education, legislators have embraced subject-matter testing without considering the way it distorts what happens in the classroom. Subjects that will be tested get extra time and attention; subjects that are of equal (or often superior) importance, like civics, get short shrift because they aren’t tested. (And don’t get me started on the mistaken belief that students’ test rresults measure teacher competence…)

Scientists know that the very act of testing something  can change the results. Scholars also remind us that drawing unwarranted conclusions from what we have chosen to test can lead us astray. Which brings me to a Guardian column by Joseph Stiglitz, one of my favorite economists.

The world is facing three existential crises: a climate crisis, an inequality crisis and a crisis in democracy. Will we be able to prosper within our planetary boundaries? Can a modern economy deliver shared prosperity? And can democracies thrive if our economies fail to deliver shared prosperity? These are critical questions, yet the accepted ways by which we measure economic performance give absolutely no hint that we might be facing a problem. Each of these crises has reinforced the fact that we need better tools to assess economic performance and social progress.

Stiglitz proceeds to point out problems with relying on GDP–long the standard measure of economic performance–to measure a country’s economic performance. (GDP is the sum of the value of goods and services produced within a country over a given period.)

As Stiglitz notes, GDP metrics don’t fully reflect impacts of things like Europe’s austerity measures on long-term standards of living.

Nor do our standard GDP measures provide us with the guidance we need to address the inequality crisis. So what if GDP goes up, if most citizens are worse off? In the first three years of the so-called recovery from the financial crisis, about 91% of the gains went to the top 1%. No wonder that many people doubted the claims of politicians who were then saying the economy was well on the way to a robust recovery.

For a long time I have been concerned with this problem – the gap between what our metrics show and what they need to show. During the Clinton administration, when I served as a member and then chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, I grew increasingly worried about how our main economic measures failed to take into account environmental degradation and resource depletion. If our economy seems to be growing but that growth is not sustainable because we are destroying the environment and using up scarce natural resources, our statistics should warn us. But because GDP didn’t include resource depletion and environmental degradation, we typically get an excessively rosy picture.

In other words, Stiglitz is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we measure economic performance and social progress.

Getting the measure right – or at least a lot better – is crucially important, especially in our metrics- and performance-oriented society. If we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If our measures tell us everything is fine when it really isn’t, we will be complacent.

A recent article in Time suggests that other nations are coming around to Stiglitz’ view.

New Zealand became the first nation to formally drop gross domestic product (GDP) as its main measure of economic success. The government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the budget would aim not at maximizing GDP but instead at maximizing well-being.

Apart from schools, hospitals and roads, whose budgets would be allocated in the normal way, resources would be distributed according to their impact on five government priorities: mental health, child well-being, the inequalities of indigenous people, building a nation adapted to the digital age and fashioning a low-emission economy.

Shades of Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” index!

Stiglitz says it is now possible to construct much more accurate measures of an economy’s health.. I think it is fair to say that we should adopt those measures–but only after we subject them to a rigorous analysis to assure ourselves that the elements being measured are the ones that should be measured, the ones that will give us a more accurate understanding of ecological and economic (and inevitably social and political) reality.

What we choose to measure will tell us what we really value.

 

 

Speaking Of Faux News…

Quartz recently published an in-depth description of a widespread scam that focused on the elderly–actually, on a very specific subset of elderly Americans.

The scam itself consisted of selling precious metals–especially coins–to people worried about impending government actions that would devalue their assets or even confiscate their savings. Obviously, the scam required an ability to find people sufficiently suspicious and fearful of government to harbor these fears.

A former salesperson for one of the companies implicated in the scams told Quartz that the ideal targets were people who believed the dollar could collapse tomorrow, people who had a deep-seated distrust of government, the elite, Wall Street, and the entire system.

How does a scammer locate people likely to be sufficiently gullible?

Facebook provided the means to show scare-mongering ads, like one that blared “Is Your Retirement Protected from the Deep State?” exclusively to those people. This ad, which ran in March 2019, contained a “sign up” form that included a link to Metals.com’s privacy policy.

Just like a diaper company can pick from Facebook’s targeting options to show its ads to parents, whoever purchased Metals.com’s ads could choose very specific groups of people.

Quartz found a large network of Facebook ads with various connections to Metals.com. According to the “Why am I seeing this” information given to people who saw the ads, those ads were designed to reach people over 59 years old whom Facebook had classified, based on their tracked web browsing history, as “very conservative” or “interested in” Fox News personality Sean Hannity or other conservative media figures….

When a Facebook user clicked on certain Metals.com-affiliated ads, many of which didn’t mention Metals.com, like one ad from “Fox News Insider Reports,” they would be taken to a website with a URL such as FoxInsiders.com.co. The web page urged them to “Call NOW” while a countdown timer created a false sense of urgency, over a line that read “Offer Only Valid For Next 15 Minutes.”

Fox has disclaimed any relationship to the companies involved, and is reportedly assessing its legal options.

In fairness, Fox wasn’t the only bogus imprimatur; other ads purported to be connected to the “US Retirement Bureau” or “Republican House Committee.” All of them, however, claimed rightwing political identities and played on the fears common to elderly conservatives. (One promised to “protect your savings from the coming account freeze.”)

And as the article points out, Facebook approved every one of those ads.

Even after Facebook implemented new political-ad rules that it said would “ensure that you can see who is paying for the ad,” some ads, running under the name of “Retired Republicans,” included a disclaimer saying that they were “Paid for by Webinar Technologies.” That is the name of an anonymously registered Wyoming corporation. Later ads from the “Retired Republicans” page linked to Metals.com’s privacy policy. Other ads said they were paid for by entities such as “Precious Retirement Strategies,” which Quartz was unable to confirm exists.

Facebook accepted at least $3 million, and likely much more, for ads affiliated with Metals.com‚ according to a Quartz analysis of statistics published by Facebook. The social network displayed the ads tens of millions of times over at least 21 months, despite Facebook’s claim of keeping a close eye on its powerful political advertising tools after they were used by Russian operatives in the 2016 election. The ads under the “Webinar Technologies” name were listed as the 18th-largest political advertiser on Facebook a few days after election day in the US in November 2018.

The article is lengthy, and contains a number of stories about the plights of the elderly people who were defrauded. As unfortunate as these examples are, they point to the larger harms being facilitated by social media’s ability to “targetcast.” 

They also confirm the accuracy of unflattering characterizations of the Fox audience–elderly, white, unsophisticated and frightened–and underscore the dangers of living in a bubble.

Any bubble.

 

Who Do You Resent?

Political polarization has created newly rigid political identities, complete with required enemies. Not only do partisans detest each other, devout Republicans and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Democrats also coalesce around those common enemies.

Democrats disparage the “un-woke,” distrust billionaires and powerful corporations, and rail against climate-change-deniers.

Republicans sneer at higher education, fear immigrants, use “socialism” as a dirty word (despite considerable evidence that most of them have no idea what it is), and really, really hate “elitists” –i.e., experts who actually know what they’re talking about.

“Elitists” populate the equally despised and mischaracterized “deep state.”

Frank Bruni recently had a column in the New York Times in which he explored the GOP’s resentment of professionalism–especially the patriotic public servants that Trump’s current, despicable press secretary labels“radical unelected bureaucrats.”

The impeachment inquiry and the events that led to it tell many stories. One, obviously, is about the abuse of power. Another illuminates the foul mash of mendacity and paranoia at the core of Donald Trump.

But this week, as several longtime civil servants testify at the inquiry’s first public hearings, a third narrative demands notice, because it explains the entire tragedy of the Trump administration: the larger scandals, the lesser disgraces and the current moment of reckoning.

That story is the collision of a president who has absolutely no regard for professionalism and those who try to embody it, the battle between an arrogant, unscrupulous yahoo and his humble, principled opposites.

Bruni notes that Trump’s contempt for professionalism is part and parcel of his aversion to norms of all sorts, including tradition and simple courtesy, and that such contempt has been a “distinct theme” in his business career, which has been “rife with cheating, and his political life, which is greased with lies.”

Go back to his initial staffing of senior posts and recall how shoddy the vetting process was. Also notice two prominent classes of recruits: people who had profoundly questionable preparation for the jobs that he nonetheless gave them (Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Stephen Miller, Javanka) and genuine professionals who wagered that their skills would be critically necessary — and thus highly valued — and that Trump would surely rise to the established codes and expected conduct of his office.

Now look at how many of those professionals (James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, Dan Coats) are gone. And tell me whether Trump has ever had the epiphany that the presidency is, in fact, a profession.

Interestingly, the Trump Administration’s sorry excuse for vetting came to public notice again just this week, when multiple media outlets reported that a senior official had embellished her résumé with highly misleading claims about her professional background, and had gone so far as to create a fake Time magazine cover with her face on it. She had invented a role on a U.N. panel, claimed she had addressed both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and implied she had testified before Congress, none of which was true. Lying at this level should have been easy to uncover, but she was appointed–and continues to serve–as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department.

As Bruni says

A crisis of professionalism defines his administration, in which backstabbing is the new glad-handing, firings are cruel, exits are ugly, the turnover is jaw-dropping, the number of unfilled positions is mind-boggling, and many officials have titles that are prefaced with “acting” — a modifier with multiple meanings in this case.

Trump slyly markets his anti-professionalism as anti-elitism and a rejection of staid, cautious thinking. But it’s really his way of excusing his ignorance, costuming his incompetence and greenlighting his hooliganism.

Two of the professionals who have come forward to testify about Trump’s effort to blackmail the President of Ukraine were described by Michael McFaul, a former United States ambassador to Russia, in a recent essay for The New York Review of Books titled “The Deeply Dedicated State.”

Both always have struck me as first-rate government servants, singularly focused on advancing American national interests. Both have served Republican and Democratic presidents, and even after decades of interacting with them both, I could not guess how either of them votes.”

He characterized them as “accidental heroes” who aren’t “likely to seek the limelight.” “They are extremely well trained, competent, and highly regarded professionals,” he summarized.

That’s why they bucked Trump. And that’s why he can’t bear them.

When people resent competence, when they sneer at honorable public servants as “elitists” or label them members of a nefarious “deep state,” it tells you a great deal about their own deficits.

Such resentment permeates today’s Republican Party, and that explains a lot.

 

I Just Don’t Get It

It’s really getting to me.

A week or so ago, a federal court ordered Donald Trump to pay two million dollars to charities he had defrauded by using his ostensibly charitable foundation as a personal and political slush fund. Veterans were among the causes from which he stole.

Veterans.

A Facebook meme I’ve seen several times since that court order says something to the effect that “what if you lived in a country whose leader stole from charity—and no one cared? You live in that country.”

Of course, that isn’t accurate. A lot of us care. But then, there are Americans who clearly don’t–Americans who continue to support Donald Trump no matter what despicable things he does– and for the life of me, I can’t understand why.

I realize that most people who support Trump neither follow nor understand public policy, and are basically unaware of the dreadful policies pursued by his administration. They also aren’t watching the Impeachment hearings–they’re just hearing about them from Fox.

Given all the data about civic ignorance, I can also believe that most of his “fans” don’t have the faintest idea how government works, what the Constitution requires, or how much of an assault on critical democratic norms his administration represents.

But here’s the thing.

According to polls, some 40% of voters still support Donald Trump. That’s despite an unending stream of disclosures that have been so widely reported that even people who watch Fox News could hardly have escaped hearing about them. It is virtually impossible to live in the U.S. and not know about the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape, or his payoffs to porn stars, or the numerous women who’ve accused him of sexual assault. They could not have avoided witnessing his crude, rude and ignorant behaviors, or reading at least some of the unending series of tweets in which he brags, lies and insults using ungrammatical English and misspelled words.

People who voted for him because they thought he was a businessman must now know about his multiple bankruptcies. Even if they dismiss those as “smart” strategies to avoid paying what he owed, surely his increasingly frantic efforts to hide his tax returns would have raised a question about what it is that he’s so determined to hide.

Voters and elected Republicans who still support him have rejected the Mueller Report. They’ve ignored pictures of refugee children in cages. They have refused to believe the testimony of war heroes and longtime diplomats. I could go on and on…but everyone reading this blog can supply additional examples.

Andrew Sullivan recently described the phenomenon:

“The GOP as a whole has consistently backed Trump rather than the Constitution. Sixty-two percent of Republican supporters have said that there is nothing Trump could do, no crime or war crime, no high crime or misdemeanor, that would lead them to vote against him in 2020. There is only one way to describe this, and that is a cult, completely resistant to reason or debate. The tribalism is so deep that Trump seems incapable of dropping below 40 percent in the national polls, and is competitive in many swing states. The cult is so strong that Trump feels invulnerable.”

The question is: why?

I understand partisanship, and the reluctance of people who have voted for someone to admit to themselves and others that they made a mistake. I understand the loyalty of the White Nationalists who see Trump as the Great White (Christian, male) hope. I’m even prepared to recognize that there are people who simply don’t read or listen to any news other than Fox.

But surely that isn’t forty percent of American voters.

I understood the people who wanted to have a beer with George W. Bush. He was personally pleasant, at least. Donald Trump, however, is personally repulsive—someone with no apparent redeeming characteristics. He’s a walking, bloviating example of everything American schools and churches and nonprofit organizations purport to reject. I can’t believe there are people who would want their children or grandchildren to model their behaviors on his.

So—why? Surely, 40% of our neighbors aren’t all bigots.  Could 40% of Americans actually believe Trump’s transparent lies?

My (formerly conservative Republican) brother-in-law thinks they do. He quotes Abraham Lincoln’s famous line  “you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time…”  and says that the 2020 vote for Trump will provide an exact count of the number of Americans who can be fooled all of the time.

Other theories are welcome, because I just don’t get it. I’m at a loss.

 

So Here’s Where We Are….

I did it again. This should have posted tomorrow morning. Sorry.

 

This week saw the start of the public phase of the House Impeachment process. Media outlets–left, right and center–have reported on testimony, the behavior of various Representatives, the White House and a multitude of partisans. Still other outlets have reported on those reports.

In other words, there has been a lot of noise. Amid the clamor, though, I think Josh Marshall has made the most incisive observations.As he points out, the question commonly asked is whether the Democrats can make their case convincingly to the American public. And as he also points out, that really isn’t the question.

What’s really being asked is whether Democrats will be able to convince not the American people but Republican partisans and more specifically congressional Republicans. And that is by design an all but impossible standard because they are deeply and unshakably committed to not being convinced.

This is not only the obvious verdict of the last three years. It’s even more clear with the questions which have emerged since September. Congressional Republicans have hopped from one argument to another: from no evidence of wrongdoing, to the wrongdoing is actually fine, to a rearguard action against a corrupt process. The chaos of arguments has zero logic or consistency beyond the simple and overriding one: of refusing to accept that the President did anything wrong no matter what evidence emerges and simply use whatever argument is available to justify that end.

Marshall is right. The pundits who are evaluating the Democrats’ “performance” by their success in moving immovable Republicans are applying a ridiculous standard. As he says, no sane person willingly plays a game or has an argument or even wages a war in which the adversary gets to decide who wins or loses.

That not only guarantees failure it breeds a a sense of helplessness and mawkish begging. It demoralizes supporters and puffs up opponents with a sense of unmerited power.

Public opinion surveys show the public is already pretty well convinced even in advance of public hearings. Overwhelming numbers see this kind of extortion and foreign election interference as wrong. Similar numbers believe the President did these things. Even in advance of public hearings roughly 50% of the voting population already supports the extreme step of removing the President from office – something that hasn’t happened in almost a quarter of a millenium of American history.

Marshall points out that the evidence of illegal behavior and abuse of power is already overwhelming. Damning testimony has come from Trump’s own appointees, and to the extent details are still missing, it’s because Trump has kept people who could fill in the blanks from testifying.

Certainly it is important to air the evidence publicly, clear up good faith confusions and nudge as many people who believe the President did something wrong but are hesitant about the upheaval of impeachment in the direction of supporting impeachment and removal. But the basic case simply makes itself. The evidence is overwhelming.

His conclusion–with which I entirely agree–is sobering.

It’s not the Democrats who are on trial here, needing to prove themselves with some magisterial performance. Indeed, it’s not even really the President whose guilt is obvious and not even questioned with serious arguments. Who and what is on trial here is the Republican party, which has made it pretty clear that they are willing to countenance any level of law breaking and abuses of power so long as it is done by a Republican or at least as long as it is Donald Trump.

The Democrats’ job is to lay out the evidence in a public setting and get elected Republicans to sign on the dotted line that this is presidential behavior they accept and applaud. That won’t be difficult. They have one last chance to change their answer. Democrats real job is to clarify and publicize that that is their answer.

This isn’t pollyannish. It is simply recognizing the nature of the crisis in which the country finds itself and avoiding nonsensical, bad-faith exercises that can only end in frustration. The aim for Democrats is to set forth, calmly and clearly, what the Republican party accepts and what it is and consolidate the non-Republican, non-authoritarian nationalist vote which supports the rule of law and the constitution. Since the GOP is self-indicting, President Trump will almost certainly not be removed from office and these questions, properly set forth, will go before the people in one year.

What We The People do then–and the margin by which we do it– will tell us who we really are.