Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category.

Mueller Is Revenge on Republicans for Bill Clinton Impeachment

When special prosecutor Ken Starr finally presented charges to Congress against Bill Clinton, it was for lying under oath about his sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky.  Did someone really originally authorize Starr to look into this?  No, his original mission was to look into any criminal wrongdoing associated with the Clintons and the Whitewater Development Corporation from Clinton's days in Arkansas.  But he got nowhere with that, so like a typical prosecutor he looked for something else illegal so he could still score a "kill".

The other day, special prosecutor Mueller staged a very high-profile raid on President Trump's long-time attorney.  His original brief was to look into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russians to win the election.  Readers will know I have always been skeptical of this.  I believe while the Russians were spinning propaganda about the election, its effects were incidental and likely not coordinated with Trump, though he may have benefited.  I think one could craft at least as strong a story about Clinton connections with the Russians as you can about Trump connections.

Anyway, the raid the other day made it clear that Mueller is getting no farther with Russia than Starr got with Whitewater.  He raided Trump's attorney's office (a pretty aggressive move) to get evidence of ... lying about details related to Trump's Stormy Daniels affair and perhaps for details about the famous Trump Access Hollywood tape.  While I am skeptical that there is much in the Russia story, I am more than willing to believe that there may be lying and fraud related to Trump's business and sex lives.

If history does not repeat itself, it certainly echoes.

Postscript:  When Republicans see the far Left slate of candidates the Dem's are likely to field for President in 2020, they are going to long for Bill Clinton.  Heck, I could list a lot of states that would happily run Clinton as their Republican candidate for Congress in 2018.

Some Thoughts on Congressional Hearings

I have a small bit of experience with Congressional hearings (I have been a witness at two) so I wanted to answer a question asked at Engadget after the Facebook hearings:

Throughout the hearings, Congressional leaders repeated questions that had already been asked. We heard them ask again and again whether the company would work with Congress on legislation that would impose regulations on social networks like Facebook and others. We also heard many leaders ask when exactly Facebook learned that Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained user data. This repetition continued with questions about changes to policy, Facebook's dense terms of service and whether users have been notified if their data were purchased by Cambridge Analytica. If time was so precious to these individuals -- and it should be, four minutes flies by and this is an important topic -- wouldn't they try to avoid repeating the same questions ad nauseam?

I have two answers for this

  1. Congresspersons don't really care what the answer is to these questions.  OK, they may care a little, but probably only a little because they seldom leave any time for answers after they are done with their public posturing.  What they really care about is that their constituents back home see that they CARE and are DOING SOMETHING about a timely issue of concern to ordinary people.  Representative Loony is playing to his local media in East Random, WV.  The Representative from East Random doesn't care if four other Representatives have asked the same hard-hitting question.  Those other repetitions are not going to show up on the local news in East Random.  What is going to show up is Representative Loony asking the question.  He will look like he CARES and like he is DOING SOMETHING.  He is likely not really concerned that he is mocked in the Washington Post for wasting his questioning time, because no one who is going to vote for him in East Random reads the Washington Post anyway.
  2. Many (but not all) Congresspersons are not that bright.  I remember sitting in the committee hearing listening to the questions they were asking me and the other folks testifying and thinking, "how did these folks get here?"  I decided the only common denominator had to be pure will.  Because they were not all smart, not all charismatic -- not even as a group particularly impressive**.   Anyway, whether bright or not, most do not really understand technology and related issues.  And so their staffers write their questions for them.  And if someone else asks the questions first?  Some have the ability to improvise but I can tell you for a fact that for some, all they can do is just proceed and read the questions their staffers gave them.

** Postscript:  Ayn Rand used to write that everyone assumes that people in power got that way by beating out everyone else, such that they must be excellent at something.  Rand always said this was false, that people in power were the zero where conflicting forces cancelled out.  Their being in power (vs. someone else being there) was a happenstance due to external factors and having little to do with that particular individual.  I never really understood this the first few times I read it but in modern times I am starting to understand it better.  Donald Trump strikes me as following Wesley Mouch's career arc.

 

Sex and Gender on the AZ Driver's License

Via the AZ Republic

Two Democratic lawmakers are trying to give transgender and non-binary Arizonans the chance to more accurately represent themselves on state-issued documents — in life and in death.

House Bill 2492 would offer driver's-license applicants a third gender option, "non-binary," to indicate they don't identify as male or female.

House Bill 2582 would require death certificates to reflect gender identity, one's emotional and psychological sense of gender, including when it appears to conflict with a person's anatomy.

This is what happens when you forget what the purpose of something actually is.  The individual descriptive information on a driver's license is for identification purposes -- it is not a Facebook profile page to communicate our sense of self or current emotional state.  One's personal, inner "emotional and psychological sense of gender" is useless on an identification document because a third party can't sense that in any way.

If the argument is that gender is not a useful identification tool, then remove it entirely from the damn license or death certificate and let's move on.  Or replace it with something that is useful and discernible by a third party (how about "has external genitalia y/n" lol).

Postscript:  Well, I just looked at my AZ licence and it does not use the word "gender" anywhere.  It says "sex".  Now, people I know who self-identify as "woke" have explained to me that "sex" is a function of biological plumbing whereas gender is more a function of state of mind and social programming and such.  Well, the license says "sex" so why are we talking about gender at all?

Banning Racists From Social Media Is Just Helping Them By Reducing Transparency on Their Distasteful Views

Via Engadget

Twitter is continuing to act on its promise to fight hate speech, however imperfectly. The site has banned Wisconsin Congressional candidate Paul Nehlen after he posted a racist image that placed the face of Cheddar Man (a dark-skinned British ancestor) over actress and soon-to-be-royal Meghan Markle, who's mixed race. The company said it didn't normally comment on individual accounts, but said the permanent suspension was due to "repeated violations" of its terms of service.

Nehlen, who's hoping to unseat Paul Ryan in the 2018 mid-term elections, has a long history of overtly expressing his racist views. Twitter suspended him for a week in January over anti-Semitic comments, and he has regularly promoted white supremacist ideology. In private, he used direct message groups to coordinate harassment campaigns. Breitbart supported Nehlen's ultimately unsuccessful run against Ryan in 2016, but distanced itself from him in December 2017.

As the title of the post implies, I am torn on this.  On the one hand, there is an argument that removing a powerful communications tool from bad people makes it harder to spread their, um, badness.  On the other hand, I am not sure that driving these folks underground is the right approach.  Sure, Nehlen has likely rallied some people of a similar mind to his side, but the flip side is that he has advertised himself to  LOT of people as having distasteful views.  I know that from my point of view, my awareness that awful folks like this still exist on the peripheries of power has grown from social media, whereas without it I likely might have convinced myself this sort of stuff was a thing of the past.

It reminds me what I wrote a while back about putting the Confederate flag on license plates:

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  ... Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol [the Confederate battle flag] on their car is a racist. Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

To take this to an extreme, think about the effort to de-platform certain college speakers.  I like to imagine who the most extreme example of such a controversial college speaker would be, and I come up with that old standby, Adolf Hitler.  So what if in 1938 Adolf Hitler came to the States for a college speaking tour in 1938.  Couldn't that have been a good thing?  Many of the mistakes made by the world in 1938-1945 was underestimating both Germany's appetite for expansion and its ruthlessness in its approach to the Jews.  Wouldn't it have been better to listen to a bad guy and potentially get some clues to this future?

Whoever Introduces the Word "Treason" Into An Argument Automatically Loses

Here is Coyote's 37th (or so) rule for public discourse:  He who introduces the word "treason" into an argument automatically loses.  For two reasons:

  1. In real life, it's never treason.  Trust me.  It may be disrespectful.  It may be counter-productive.  It may reveal things the government would rather not revealed.  It may be insufficiently committed to values many other Americans hold.  It may be inflammatory. It may be offensive.  It's not treason.  Whatever it is.
  2. Accusing someone of treason means one has run out of good arguments.  Accusations of treason are a substitute for a good argument, not a good argument in and of themselves.

A few other words come close to having this rule applied -- "racist" comes to mind.  But though the racism accusation is way overused, and frequently is used as a substitute for making good arguments, unlike treason racism actually does exist and is sometimes an accurate description.

Topology Question

Is there some sort of metric for the complexity of a boundary like this one for PA Distric 7, among those invalidated in PA (in a decision the Supreme Court today refused to review)?

I keep wondering whether there is an objective standard we can set, rather just the sort of "I know it when I see it" one that everyone seems to use.

One way I can imagine testing is to do it Monte Carlo style by drawing a series of lines from one random point in the shape to another random point in the shape and calculating which percentage of the lines cross the boundary at least once.  That metric for a circle or a rectangle would be zero, but would be very high for this shape.

 

OK, I Have Devised A Brilliant New Trojan Horse Plan For Using Trump To Promote Freedom

Since Progressives refuse to accept and opposes anything Trump supports, let's get Trump to start professing interest in all sorts of bad socialist ideas.  Perhaps we can steer Progressives away from some of their own worst proposals.

Trump's proposal to nationalize the future 5G data network is a good start along these lines.  This article in and of itself is proof my strategy works.  I can guarantee that if Barack Obama has proposed a nationalized data network using social justice and inter-sectional language, the economically illiterate socialist millennials at Engadget would have been writing articles about what a fabulous idea it was, and not about how it would be impossible.

On the Short-Sightedness of Politicians

The Republicans are running around counting coup, crowing that the Democrats totally caved on the continuing resolution and talking about how much bigger their political cojones are than the Democrats', or something.

My question is -- given that this entire negotiation has to happen again in 3 weeks -- how does this make even a small bit of sense?  All they are doing is firing up the Democrats to fight harder the next time this happens which is ... in 3 freaking weeks.  This is like the Cleveland Browns publicly calling out Tom Brady for being overrated just before their next game.  Are politicians so desperate to win one 12-hour news cycle that they are willing to bollix up the playing field for the next battle?

Moving the US Embassy in Israel

From a pragmatic point of view, it is in the worst possible policy box.

Politics, Peer Virtue-Signalling, And the Agency Problem

The other day Megan McArdle wrote an article entitled "The CFPB Fight Is Completely Pointless...Why is either side spending political capital for brief control over this agency?"  In short, the the folks on the Left who mostly populate the Elizabeth Warren / Barrack Obama created agency argue that deputy director Leandra English should become acting director after the current director stepped down.  President Trump argues he should be able to appoint the acting director (as the President would for any other agency) and appointed CFPB critic Mick Mulvaney.

My heart thrills as readily as anyone’s to the sight of a doomed soldier playing Horatius at the Bridge. But at least Horatius Cocles had a purpose: He secured an orderly retreat, allowing the army to live to fight another day. What, exactly, do [Leandra] English and her supporters hope to achieve, other than a spectacle for wonky Washingtonians?

The most they can get is a brief period of business as usual, during which it will be hard to enact binding decisions because the legitimacy of her leadership will be in doubt. At worst, they get a humiliating smackdown from the courts, cementing their place in history as elitists who thought they were above petty restraints like elections or the Constitution.

And in the broader political picture, if you think Mulvaney is a bad, dangerous man who will privilege the interests of rich bankers over those of ordinary Americans, you’d probably rather have him running the CFPB than in his current job -- overseeing the entire federal budget. Even if English wins and sends him back to OMB, this seems like a Pyrrhic victory for the left.

While most everyone else on the Internet seems to be able to automatically intuit everyone else's internal motivations, I don't claim to have that ability.  So I will offer one possible motive why Leandra English might see personal benefit from this otherwise pointless struggle.

It is no news to say that the US has arrayed itself into multiple tribes that hate each other.  The election of President Trump has only accelerated this.  Trump is so disliked by those on the Left that folks on the Left can score major points with their tribe by publicly opposing him, even when their effort is doomed and ultimately pointless.   Wendy Davis is a good example of a politician who greatly increased her status in the Left-tribe with an ultimately doomed filibuster of an abortion bill in Texas (so much so that a hagiographic movie is being made about her).  I have wondered whether several of the judges who have temporarily halted controversial but probably legal executive actions by Trump were not motivated as much by playing to the audience in their tribe as they were by making a thoughtful legal decision.

Which brings me to the agency problem, which Wikipedia defines thus:

The principal–agent problem, in political science and economics, (also known as agency dilemma or the agency problem) occurs when one person or entity (the "agent") is able to make decisions on behalf of, or that impact, another person or entity: the "principal".[1] This dilemma exists in circumstances where agents are motivated to act in their own best interests, which are contrary to those of their principals, and is an example of moral hazard.

Common examples of this relationship include corporate management (agent) and shareholders (principal), politicians (agent) and voters (principal), or brokers (agent) and markets (buyers and sellers, principals).[2] Consider a legal client (the principal) wondering whether their lawyer (the agent) is recommending protracted legal proceedings because it is truly necessary for the client's well being, or because it will generate income for the lawyer. In fact the problem can arise in almost any context where one party is being paid by another to do something where the agent has a small or nonexistent share in the outcome, whether in formal employment or a negotiated deal such as paying for household jobs or car repairs

I think too often people define the agency problem only about economic incentives, e.g. my broker only recommends the stocks that pay him the highest commission.  But most of us are motivated by many things in addition to money.

Consider the example of a media conglomerate with multiple cable channels.  The managers of this media conglomerate are mostly of the Left.  One of their channels is called the shooting channel and focuses on gun reviews and the shooting sports.  The channel needs a new president, and it hires Hannah Progressive, either internally or from another successful media company.  Hannah is a talented media person with a proven track record of building cable channels and a perfect fit in every way except that she is disdainful of the shooting sports and groups like the NRA.  But let's say that Hannah is a true professional and can put that aside.  But what may be harder to put aside is the reaction of her peers.  She is going to get teased, maybe even bullied, by folks in her social circles.  Her peers are going to look down on her, even if she is successful (maybe especially if she is successful).  There is going to be tremendous pressure on her, both from her social circle as well as well as when she thinks about future job prospects an the industry dominated by the Left, to virtue-signal to others on the Left.  She could be tempted to shift content, alliances, advertisers,etc. in ways that signal virtue to her tribe but might alienate her current viewers and actually hurt the financial results of her company.

I frequently think about this in the context of how university presidents respond to protests, or how the NFL does so, or when seeing ESPN programming changes.  I have even seen it with programmers, working harder to impress their peers with the elegance of their code than to try to actually write things that serve the company and the customer.

Reasonable People Will Disagree -- The Tesla Example

Too often people today in public discourse assume that those who disagree with them are bad people, or have bad motivations.  Or at best, they assume others don't have all the facts and have been influenced by some biased media source.

But perfectly well-motivated people with the exact same data can reach stunningly different conclusions.   A while back I signed up for a (free) investing website called Seeking Alpha.  In doing so, they asked me to list some of the stocks I followed, and they send me email alerts when those stocks have new articles on the site.  One of the securities I put in there was Tesla, so I have been watching the flow of articles on this one company.

It has been an amazing exercise!  Most all the authors are working with the exact same data set, in this case the financial reports and public statements of the company.  And each time new information comes out, there is an absolute flood of articles from different authors.  Many of which have completely opposite reactions to the data -- one says its wildly positive for x and y reasons, another says it is wildly negative for z reasons.  The timeline of articles on Tesla is here.

As a disclosure, I was short Tesla until the other day when I covered at the bottom of their big price drop.  Yay!  I finally made money on a short.  I think Tesla is a mess, and its merger with SolarCity borderline corrupt.  My brother-in-law, a successful entrepreneur in the tech space, thought the merger was brilliant and part of a grand strategy with Musk playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers.

Apparently Democrats Applied Blue-State Model To Their Own Finances

I really thought this article (editorial? letter?) by Donna Brazille in Politico was fascinating.  First, it is not that often that partisans of either flavor air their internal dirty laundry in public.  And second, it is a pretty interesting story.  Apparently Obama left the party deeply in debt (that is probably not unusual after a campaign, since politicians do the same thing with public budgets when they actually hold office).  Debbie Wasserman-Schultz "had outsourced a lot of the management of the party and had not been the greatest at fundraising" and thus was doing little to pay down the debt.   Eventually, Wasserman-Schultz and a few other party leaders turned to the Clinton campaign to bail them out, which they did -- over a year before the convention when Clinton became the actual Democratic nominee -- in exchange for an agreement that:

Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.

Apparently Wasserman-Schulz could not be reached for comment in her current location under the bus.

Evolution of Black Lives Matter

1.  BLM highlights a real problem and creates a pretty decent plan for addressing that problem

 

2.  BLM totally abandons their reasonable plan and concentrates on acting as a virtue signalling vehicle

 

3.  BLM completely loses their minds by antagonizing a natural ally and opposing important minority rights protections


A few days ago I said I did not understand this anti-free-speech position well enough to pass an ideological Touring test.  Several commenters took a pretty good shot at making the argument for it from the perspective of the oppressor-oppressed political axis.  Let me, though, explain why I think the BLM argument does not work on their own terms.

The key thing to understand is this:  Speech codes are written by and for the privileged.  They are written by the oppressor to shut up the oppressed.  George Wallace did not need the First Amendment, black kids trying to go to the University of Alabama needed it.  So the BLM opposition to free speech is either 1) completely misguided, as the oppressed need these protections the most or 2) an acknowledgement that they and their allies are now the privileged, they are the ones in power, and they wish to use speech codes as they have always been used, to shut up those not in power.  In broader society the situation is probably #1 but on University campuses we may have evolved to situation #2.

Saw This Coming From A Mile Away: Russia Ads on Facebook Not Necessarily For Trump

In general, the whole Russia Facebook ad purchase story has been a huge yawner.  In an election where Hillary Clinton and her supporting PACs spent $1.2 billion and Trump spent about half that, are we really concerned about the impact of $100,000 in ad spend on Facebook?  Has there been anyone other than Russia and the Koch Brothers who the media could seriously write stories about manipulating an election by spending 0.0055% of the total advertising in the election? If that 0.0055% really turned the election, please send me the name of their ad agency.

The really interesting part of this story is that absolutely no one has said anything about that $100,000 actually having been spent on Trump.  People talk about the story as if they obviously were for Trump, but perhaps tellingly no one has actually confirmed this.  Certainly if you had asked me to guess in June of 2016 who Russia would have been making ads for, I would not have assumed Trump rather than Hillary was a sure bet.  And then there is this today from CNN

At least one of the Facebook ads bought by Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign referenced Black Lives Matter and was specifically targeted to reach audiences in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, sources with knowledge of the ads told CNN.

Ferguson and Baltimore had gained widespread attention for the large and violent protests over police shootings of black men. The decision to target the ad in those two cities offers the first look at how accounts linked to the Russian government-affiliated troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency used geographically targeted advertising to sow political chaos in the United States, the sources said.

Hmmm.  I guess the apple does not fall far from the tree.  In the Cold War this is exactly the kind of thing the Soviets would have funded.  Though given how tribalized politics are I am not sure that spending money to target a political tribe to reinforce them in their already strongly-held beliefs is a super-productive way to spend money.  More to follow I am sure.

Woah! You Mean Illegal Activity That We Never Punish is Still Occurring?

Democrats are having fun noting the hypocrisy (after all the focus in the last election on Hillary's email practices) of Trump Administration members doing official business via personal email.  I will leave them to their fun.**

But I will note that I am a huge supporter of FOIA and government transparency and from the very beginning I criticized Hillary Clinton's use of private email primarily because it was clearly done to evade government transparency laws.  We did not punish her for obvious violations, and we did not punish Gina McCarthy when she used private email as the head of the EPA to avoid public scrutiny of her contacts with environmental lobbying groups.  So we should not be surprised if lots of other people are doing the same thing.  Politicians would love to sweep all their private conversations under the rug if we let them.  We need to start charging people for this crime -- even one high-profile person to start pour encourager les autres would be a start.

 

** This is an example of the good side of partisanship -- someone is always in opposition.  Engadget never did a single article on Gina McCarthy or other Obama Administration officials evading FOIA through private email accounts, presumably because it was much more sympathetic to that administration.  But it does not like Trump so it is on the case.  Which is fine-- the watchdogs across administrations don't always have to be the same people, they just need to be there.

 

Is This The Hill You Want to Die On?

My managers often get frustrated with the government entities for whom we operate facilities.  They frequently try to escalate trivial issues.  I then attempt to explain to them that they only have a limited number of "points" they can spend in trying to get action in conflicts, and that spending these points on trivial problems is both a waste of time and counter-productive to solving larger problems that crop up later where we really do need to go to the mattresses.  I frequently ask them "Is this the hill you want to die on?"  I feel like this is a concept that no one ever taught Donald Trump.  He seems willing to die on any hill that happens to wander into his path.  Maybe that is why his core of supporters love him, I don't know.

Net Neutrality , White Supremacy, and Baking Cakes

I was thinking about these two stories in the context of net neutrality (the theory if not the practice)

The folks who are cheering this on seem to be the same folks who support net neutrality (Venn Diagram, Professor Perry?)  Look, if I had an Internet business, I would not want to serve or subsidize these folks.  But then again, I have always opposed net neutrality rules.  I suppose that one could argue net neutrality is narrowly about ISP's, so this stuff is not relevant, but what if Cox Communications decided the same thing?  Do they not have the same rights of association that GoDaddy and GoFundMe have?  And if every registrar and web hosting company refuse to serve a certain person or viewpoint, does net neutrality at the ISP level even matter?  This is part of the hypocrisy of companies like Google, which demand Cox act as a common carrier for its YouTube traffic (because Google does not want to foot the full cost of the amount of bandwidth they use) but act as anything but a common carrier in its core search business.

And while we are on rights of association, am I legally required to bake a cake for James Fields?

Postscript:  I wonder if people on the Left, which dominate most of the calls for net neutrality, would be demanding net neutrality if they thought most ISP's were controlled by folks on the Left?  Google and Facebook are known to be controlled by the Left, and thus no one on the Left demands neutrality of them  -- in fact the Left likely would oppose calls for neutrality at Google and Facebook as their hope is that opposing voices to theirs will be disproportionately screened out by these companies.

Well, The World Polarizes Just A Bit More

In my mailbox today is a press release some firm in town called Spectrum Experience.  This press release begins:

 The Tempe-based communications firm, Spectrum Experience, released an email statement yesterday informing clients the firm will no longer work with companies, candidates or causes that are unwilling to publicly state: Black lives matter. Spectrum works with dozens of political candidates and legislators in Arizona, as well as nonprofits and corporations throughout the US; the firm said it does not wish to provide communications support to these clients if they shield White supremacy.

Hmm.  I am pretty sure that the specific phrase "Black lives matter" has become loaded with a lot of political baggage such that failing to entirely endorse it is not the same as shielding white supremacy.  Sort of like refusing to say "I'm with Her" is not really the same as shielding misogyny.  But I will say that this is beautifully representative of the flavor of politics today.  One wonders how a company that claims on its website to "craft innovative strategies for companies, causes, and campaigns dedicated to changing the world" does so while refusing to engage with anyone who disagrees with them.

My take on BLM is here, which is critical of it as I share many of their goals but think their tactics have devolved into unproductive virtue-signaling at the expense of actual progress (sort of exactly like this email).

Perhaps Trump's Craziest Action

Trump seems to have adopted the Dow Jones Industrial Average as his primary metric of success.   Talk about buying at the top.  Not sure I would tie my performance appraisal to a market where the Shiller PE is over 30.

Social Justice Warriors in One Photo: Virtue Signalling > Actual Change

 

Update:  Finem Respice had a great photo in the same vein back during Occupy Wall Street.

Politicians Will Burn Down Anything That Is Good Just To Get Their Name In The News

Via Zero Hedge:

a group of 12 Democratic Congressman have signed a letter urging the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a more in-depth review of e-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc.'s plan to buy grocer Whole Foods Market Inc., according to Reuters.

Rumblings that Amazon is engaging in monopolistic business practices resurfaced last week when the top Democrat on the House antitrust subcommittee, David Civilline, voiced concerns about Amazon's $13.7 billion plan to buy Whole Foods Market and urged the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing to examine the deal's potential impact on consumers.

Making matters worse for the retailer, Reuters reported earlier this week that the FTC is investigating the company for allegedly misleading customers about its pricing discounts, citing a source close to the probe.

The letter is at least third troubling sign that lawmakers are turning against Amazon, even as President Donald Trump has promised to roll back regulations, presumably making it easier for megamergers like the AMZN-WFM tieup to proceed.

It is difficult even to communicate how much Amazon has improved my life.  I despise going to stores, and Amazon allows me the pick of the world's consumer products delivered to my home for free in 2 days.  I love it.  So of course, politicians now want to burn it down.

I say this because the anti-trust concerns over the Whole Foods merger have absolutely got to be a misdirection.  Whole Foods has a 1.7% share in groceries and Amazon a 0.8%.  Combined they would be the... 7th largest grocery retailer and barely 1/7 the size of market leader Wal-Mart, hardly an anti-trust issue.  So I can only guess that this anti-trust "concern" is merely a pretext for getting a little bit of press for attacking something that has been successful.

The actual letter is sort of hilarious, in it they say in part:

in the letter, the group of Democratic lawmakers – which includes rumored presidential hopeful Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey – worried that the merger could negatively impact low-income communities. By putting other grocers out of business, the Amazon-backed WFM could worsen the problem of “food deserts,” areas where residents may have limited access to fresh groceries.  "While we do not oppose the merger at this time, we are concerned about what this merger could mean for African-American communities across the country already suffering from a lack of affordable healthy food choices from grocers," the letter said on Thursday.

Umm, the Amazon model is being freed from individual geographic locations so that everyone can be served regardless of where they live.  This strikes me as the opposite of "making food deserts worse."  It is possible that Amazon might not deliver everywhere at first, and is more likely to deliver to 90210 than to Compton in the first round of rollouts.  But either they do deliver to a poor neighborhood, and improve choices, or they don't, and thus have a null effect.  And it is really sort of hilarious worrying that new ownership of Whole Foods, of all groceries, is going to somehow devastate poor neighborhoods.

By the way, if I were an Amazon shareholder, I would be tempted to challenge Bezos on his ownership of the Washington Post.  In a free society, he is welcome to own such a business and have that paper take whatever editorial stands he wishes.  However, we do not live in a fully free society.  As shown in this story, politicians like to draw attention to themselves by using legislation and regulation to gut successful companies, particularly ones that tick them off personally.  In this case:

So far, it’s mostly Democrats who are urging the FTC to take “a closer look” at the deal. However, some suspect that Amazon founder Jeff Bezo’s ownership of the Washington Post – a media outlet that has published dozens of embarrassing stories insinuating that Trump and his compatriots colluded with Russia to help defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton – could hurt the company’s chances of successfully completing the merger, as its owner has earned the enmity of president Trump. Similar concerns have dogged CNN-owner Time Warner’s pending merger with telecoms giant AT&T.

 

So I Was Wrong Again -- American Politics and No Way Out

About 30 years ago there was a Kevin Costner movie called "No Way Out".  If you never saw it and ever intend to, there is a major spoiler coming.  Anyway, Costner is a military officer having a fling with a woman played by Sean Young, who is also having a fling with Costner's superior officer.  Sean Young turns up dead (probably a fantasy for the director since every director who worked with her wanted to kill her).  There is some sense that Costner's superior officer may be guilty, and Costner is named by the officer to lead the investigation, but with a twist -- the officer is trying to get the girl's death blamed on a mysterious Russian spy, who may or may not even be real, to divert attention from his adultery and possibly from the fact that he was probably the killer.  Things evolve, and it appears that Costner is going to be framed not only for the girl's death but also as the probably mythical spy.  The movie is about Costner desperately trying to escape this frame, and in the end is successful.  But in the final scene, Costner is seen speaking in Russian to his controller.  He is the spy!  The original accusation was totally without evidence, almost random, meant to divert attention from his superior's likely crimes, but by accident they turned out to be correct.

I feel like that with the Russian election hacking story.  For months I have said the Russian election hacking story was a nothing.  It made little sense and there was pretty much zero evidence.  It was dreamed up within 24 hours of the election by a Clinton campaign trying to divert attention and blame for their stunning loss.  I have called it many times the Obama birth certificate story of this election.

But it turns out that pursuing any Trump connection whatsoever with Russia has turned up some pretty grubby stories.  In particular, seeing a Presidential campaign -- and the President's son -- fawning over unfriendly foreign governments to get their hands on oppo research is just plain ugly.  That the Clinton campaign may have done shady things to get oppo research of their own is irrelevant to the ethics here (and perhaps one good justification for electing Republicans, since the media seems to be more aggressive at holding Republicans to account for such things).

Sorry.  I fell victim to one of the classic blunders - the most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never underestimate the stupidity and ethical flexibility of politicians."

Postscript:  In general, my enforced absence from both twitter and highly partisan blogs is going quite well.  I will write more about it soon, but I have to mention this:  I had a small break in my isolation yesterday when I was scanning around the radio on a business trip.  I landed on Rush Limbaugh, and would have moved on immediately but the first words I heard out of his mouth were "golden showers".  OK, I was intrigued.  He then used that term about 3 more times in the next 60 seconds (apparently he was going with the "everybody does it" defense of Trump by accusing the Clintons of getting oppo research from the Ukraine, or whatever).  Anyway, any issue that has a Conservative talk show host discussing golden showers from Russian hookers can't be all bad.

Why SJW's Are the Worst Mystery Writers (Spoiler Alert: The Culprit is Always Racism)

A while back I wrote "Why haven't we heard any of these concerns?  Because the freaking Left is no longer capable of making any public argument that is not based on race or gender."

A classic example of this is Nancy MacLean's new book Democracy in Chains.  She has apparently detected the great conspiracy behind the modern Right, which according do her is a racist backlash against the civil rights movement.  And the person at the heart of this conspiracy is... economist James Buchanan?

For those who don't know, which is probably most of the folks in this country, Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in economics for his development of public choice theory.  If you are unfamiliar with this body of work, I encourage you to investigate it, but in short it analyzes government officials as self-interested and subject to all the same incentives as ordinary people.   This is in contrast to highly idealized analyses that consider government agents as perfectly serving the public and judges proposed government actions by their stated goals, rather than their likely operations as run by real human beings.  It was developed in part as a reaction to  market critics who would cite real world issues in complex markets and compare them to idealized results of hypothetical government regulations.  It tends to explain things like special interest politics, regulatory capture, cronyism, and rent-seeking much better than traditional, rosier theories of government.  For example

So the Progressive Left tends to hate public choice theory.  They have nearly infinite faith in government action and don't like to hear about its limitations.  So it is not surprising that MacLean would write a thoughtful, scholarly critique of public choice theory, backed by a variety of economic evidence.  HAH!  Just kidding.  This is 2017.  Academics in the social sciences, mostly on the Left, don't operate that way.  The only approach they know to refuting such a theory is to link it with racism.  And so that is what she attempts.  This is part of the summary from Amazon:

“[A] vibrant intellectual history of the radical right . . .” – The Atlantic

“This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains. . . . If you're worried about what all this means for America's future, you should be” – NPR

“Riveting” – O, The Oprah Magazine (Top 20 Books to Read This Summer)

An explosive exposé of the right’s relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, and change the Constitution.

Behind today’s headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect—the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan—and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority.

In a brilliant and engrossing narrative, Nancy MacLean shows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite’s power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. In response to the widening of American democracy, he developed a brilliant, if diabolical, plan to undermine the ability of the majority to use its numbers to level the playing field between the rich and powerful and the rest of us.

Corporate donors and their right-wing foundations were only too eager to support Buchanan’s work in teaching others how to divide America into “makers” and “takers.” And when a multibillionaire on a messianic mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, Charles Koch, discovered Buchanan, he created a vast, relentless, and multi-armed machine to carry out Buchanan’s strategy.

Hah, this is the Progressive Left, so you just knew the Kochs had to be implicated as well.  A couple of thoughts

  • My first response is:  if only.  It would be fabulous if, say, the Republican Party was constructed on top of the work of Buchanan and public choice theory. Alas, it is not
  • The links to racism the books rests on are simply a joke, but typical of the quality of public discourse today.  You see it all the time.  Coyote gave money to the Cato Institute.  Joe Racist and Jane Hatemonger also gave money to Cato.  So Coyote has been "linked" to these bad people, and therefor must believe everything they do.**
  • Yet another in a long line of books about how libertarians are plotting to enslave you by devolving power to the individual and leaving you alone
  • Don Boudreaux has been collecting a lot of links to critiques of the book.  Beyond the silly vast-right-wing-conspiracy level of scholarship, apparently MacLean edited a lot of the key quotes she uses in the book to essentially reverse their meaning.

 

** This is an aspect of Progressive thought today that I think is not discussed enough.  I used to make common cause with folks on the Left and the Right on individual issues.  This is becoming increasingly hard, particularly with the Progressive Left, because they tend to demand conformity with them on issues x, y, z before they will work with you on issue w.  I had to step down from a leadership role in an effort to legalize gay marriage in AZ because I did not agree with groups like HRC on things like climate change.  Progressives then assume everyone else is following this totalitarian principle, so if later I make common cause with the Right, say on school choice, I am branded as being anti-immigration.  That is silly, given what I have written, but to them actual words I have written are irrelevant -- what is important is that I did one thing one time on one issue with someone on the Right, so I am now branded with whatever political baggage the Right might have.

Coke and Pepsi Healthcare Reform -- It's All About the Credit

Over the last several years, when the successes and failures of the PPACA/Obamacare/Health Care reform entirely accrued to Democrats, the Republicans fought against market stabilization funds as unwarranted subsidies for insurance companies.  My understanding is that the original PPACA included a market stabilization method, but it was written as being revenue neutral - ie funds from insurers who had healthier than average subscriber pools would be transferred to insurers who had sicker subscribers.  But soon, all insurers were losing money and premiums were rising and insurers were dropping out of the exchanges.  So President Obama transferred money from other sources to give extra market stabilization funds, e.g. subsidies, to insurers.  Republicans fought this action in the courts.  There was a principled position that Obama's actions were not legal, but Republicans were also happy to see the PPACA failing.  If Democrats in Congress could have made any one change to the PPACA last year, it likely would have been to increase these stabilization or subsidy funds, which I presume the Republicans would have fought.

Now, it is clear the public and the media is going to hang any future PPACA problems around Republican necks.  Whether this is fair or not is almost irrelevant -- one can see from Republican actions that they feel this to be true, at least in the Senate.  Because now Republicans are proposing market stabilization subsidies that are likely higher than Democrats would have even dreamed of asking for:

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases its estimate of Senate Republicans’ Obamacare discussion draft this week, it will undoubtedly state that the bill will lower health insurance premiums. A whopping $65 billion in payments to insurers over the next three years virtually guarantees this over the short-term.

Indeed, Senate Republican staff have reportedly been telling members of Congress that the bill is designed to lower premiums between now and the 2020 election—hence the massive amounts of money for plan years through 2021, whose premiums will be announced in the heat of the next presidential campaign....

Section 106 of the bill creates two separate “stability funds,” one giving payments directly to insurers to “stabilize” state insurance markets, and the second giving money to states to improve their insurance markets or health care systems. The insurer stability fund contains $50 billion—$15 billion for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, and $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 and 2021. The fund for state innovation contains $62 billion, covering calendar years 2019 through 2026.

This goes against pretty much all of the principled reasons Republicans opposed Obamacare in the first place, but given the choice of following principle or using our tax money to help buy another couple years in power, both parties will always make the second choice.  Of course, being given all that they would have wanted last year, the Democrats will likely not sign on for this as they don't want to bail Republicans out any more than Republicans wanted to bail Democrats out.

What Differentiates Republicans and Democrats

I saw this chart from Cato a while back (click to enlarge)

With the proviso that it is super dangerous to analyze this sort of data by eyeballing a scatter chart, it sure looks to me like the difference between Republicans and Democrats is mainly on economic rather than social issues.  This is surprising, I suppose, because Democrats and the media focus most of their criticism on Republicans for being social dinosaurs, but it looks like the social issues are not as much of a discriminator.  I also find it surprising given recent the Republican affinity for what strike me as liberal economic ideas, including Trump's protectionism and the strong vote for a minimum wage in red-state Arizona.

I will say however that Bryan Caplan has been on this for years.  As he reiterated the other day,

I regretfully invoke my Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.  The heart of the left isn't helping the poor, or reducing inequality, or even minority rights.  The heart of the left is being anti-market.... The second half of my Simplistic Theory says: The heart of the right is being anti-left.

I like the way he puts the last bit, because I SURE would struggle to call modern Republicans pro-market.

In this post, by the way, Caplan is skeptical about the feasibility of progressive-libertarian concerted action on certain issues.  I know my friend Brink Lindsey is working on a book to be released in the fall which will make a case for such areas of cooperation.

I will say from my personal experience that as a libertarian I was able for years to make common cause with the Left on certain issues and on the Right for other issues.  I found, starting a couple of years ago when I tried to participate in the leadership of a pro gay marriage effort, that it was increasingly hard for me to work with the progressive Left.  To work with me, they demanded not just that I agree with the issue at hand, but that I also had to pass any number of other litmus tests unrelated to the issue we were working on -- ie I could not be allowed to work for gay marriage given that I had expressed skeptical opinions on the minimum wage and catastrophic man-made climate change.