Sunday, November 29, 2020


 It occurs to me that our current president has engaged in a rather large number of actions that are unprecedented by any other president, as well as some only rarely happening and not for a long time, many of which for nearly all other politicians would make them viewed as simply unacceptable for being a president.  However, with him, there have been so many that people simply ignore most of them as being, "Oh well, there goes Trump again being himself."

First of all I do not have a full list of his norm-shattering precedents. In googling I saw an article that proclaimed he had violated 20 "presidential norms." But it was behind a firewall.  And even though these may have been norms, it may be that other presidents violated at least some of them.  Anyway, here goes a a partial list.

The first president to be accused of violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution.  Actually there are two such clauses, the more famous one involving foreigners buying off a president, and then a domestic one as well.  He has been accused of violating both of them on numerous occasions, although never formally convicted of any, with a couple of law cases in court, mostly involving just the Trump Hotel in Washington.  But the list of likely violations is long and involves many properties and forms, with at least 22 foreign nations reputedly involved.  The funny thing is that just because something is forbidden in the Constitution does not immediately make it specifically against the law.  In any case, it remains that somehow no other president has even been accused of violating either of these clauses, but Trump is pretty clearly massively guilty of actually violating both of them blatantly and numerous times, with only the mildest outcry even from his critics.

He is the first president to have been legally charged with engaging in racial discrimination.  This would have been in 1973 right after he began working for his father's real estate business.  He was not found officially guilty but had an out of court settlement in which he was ordered to stop doing what he had been doing. As it was, the Justice Dept later accused him of doing exactly that, returning to his previous racially discriminatory practices, after which he seems to have more or less stopped.  Of course there are past presidents with much worse race relations records than his, such as outright owning slaves as did most of the Founding Fathers from the South.  But in those days what they did was legal, if immoral.

The first president to be sued for breach of contract.  I do not have the exact number of times that he has been so sued, but it is a lot.  As it is he has been involved in over 3500 lawsuits, although more often than not with him as the plaintiff.  This is more than the combined lawsuits involving the top five construction businesses in New York City.  Many presidents have been sued for a variety of things, such as defamation or policy actions they engaged in as president.  Not a president, but Hillary Clinton has been sued about 900 times, mostly by people upset with policy actions by her, never for breach of contract, despite all her and Bill's Whitewater shenanigans.  Somehow I would think that repeatedly violating something so basic as simply keeping one's word in a business contract would make one ineligible to be president, but I think many of his followers inaccurately think this is a sign of him being a "good businessman," a reason many people voted for him in 2016 reportedly.

The only president to go bankrupt more than once, in his case six times, another matter suggesting he has not been as good a businessman as many think he has been.  Four other presidents have gone bankrupt, each of them once and in all cases due to cosigning for loans where the person they cosigned with engaged in conduct that led to the financial problems that dragged the president into having to declare bankruptcy.  Those four included some distinguished ones: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, and William McKinley.  Of course Jefferson was a profligate spender and poor money manager, dying deep in debt.  Lincoln's wife, Mary, was a notorious overspender. Grant generally had poor experience in his business affairs, with his bankruptcy occurring after he left office, with some attributing his drinking to his poor business judgment.

The only president to suggest that those who died in military service for the US were "losers" and "suckers," apparently the last straw that led John McCain's widow, Cindy, to support Biden for president.

The only president to publicly lie in office more than 1000 times.  The latest count for him now exceeds 23,000 times, and this is in a bit less than one term.  Actually I could not find an exact count for any other president basically because they did it so infrequently nobody seems to have kept count, so it is possible I am wrong on this. But certainly nobody came remotely close to him in his lying rate.  Digging around it seems that his closest rivals were actually a predecessor-successor pair: LBJ and Nixon.  LBJ notoriously repeatedly lied about the Vietnam War, a very serious matter, with the Gulf of Tonkin incident at the top of the list.  Of course, Nixon repeatedly lied about Watergate.  Almost certainly every president lied while in office, with the lies ranging from serious to strategic (FDR in WW II) to political to sexual (Bill Clinton) to careless unawareness of facts (Reagan) to just frivolous.  In digging into this I found an article excoriating Obama for supposedly lying 37 times about details of the ACA, with the article, written by a critic while he was in office, suggesting that this would ruin the entire rest of his presidency and nearly rose to the level of impeachability.  Oh how we have moved on.

Which brings us to refusing to concede defeat when an election was called against him by leading observers.  We need to be clear here that a number of elections were not called for a long time and involved difficult and even extra-constitutional machinations, including 1800, 1824, 1876, and 2000. But in all those cases once the unusual delays ended in determining the winner, the loser conceded forthwith without further efforts to undo the outcome.  As of almost a week ago Trump did finally allow the GSA to allow transition activities to begin, but only because he could still contest the election outcome, which he continues to do, with I gather a majority of his backers still supporting his efforts, even as nearly all his lawsuits have failed and enough states have formally certified their results to guarantee that indeed Biden will have more than 270 electoral college votes.

This leads us to a last item, not completely unprecedented and not yet done by him, but not done since 1869, and on twice before then, in 1801 and 1829 some in connection with those dragged out contested elections, but with this one a pretty clearly solid win for Biden.  It would be if he refuses to attend and participate in the inaugural of his successor.  Even Herbert Hoover did so in 1933 for FDR in what many have identified as the last really hostile and difficult transition, although Hoover did not contest the landslide outcome against him.  Trump may yet change his mind, but current reports have him considering not only not attending but holding a rival event at the same time, a rally in which he would declare his candidacy for 2024, and if he does that, it would be another unprecedented action.  John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and the also impeached Andrew Johnson did not do anything like that when they did not attend the inauguration of their respective successors.  And if somehow Trump does not attend, expect his fervent followers to be all impressed rather than duly shocked.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Is Bitcoin A Bubble?

 We have all thought so, with no income and nothing backing it, and it went zooming from nearly nothing to over $19,000, only to fall back hard down to around $3000, where it more or less hung out for a couple of years with the occasional up  to $6000 or so.  But recently it has moved up to over $18,000, near its previous peak, and some other cryptocurrencies have also moved up sharply, with #2 Ethereum essentially doubling in price in the last month or so.  So, is this another round of bubble speculation that will be followed by another crash?

I note that some other non-monetary assets have been moving.  After long sitting around $1200 to $1300 per ounce, with reportedly the Chinese central bank keeping it above $1000 whenever it occasionally headed down in that direction, gold this year has also moved up to near its old high.  It is now over $1800, not far from its previous high of over $1900.

Oil is not anywhere near a high, but just in the last week or so has suddenly been moving up. While hanging our around $40 per barrel for both Brent crude and West Texas crude for a long time, and even down almost to the mid-30s not too long ago, Brent as of today is at $48.70, pushing 50 for the first time in a long time, with WTI a few dollars behind.

Some are saying all this is due to a fear that the US dollar will collapse.  Maybe, although I do not know.  It is not screamingly obvious why that might happen now more than at other times.  Pro Trumpers might push this, but they were pushing the stock market would collapse if Biden won.  And, heck, the announcement of allowing transition to Biden sent the Dow over 30,000 for the first time ever, not exactly a collapse, although Trumpers say this is all due to the vaccine hopes, and all that is due to Trump.  Sure.

Anyway, back to bitcoin in particular, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution (and I guess in a Bloomberg column also) has suggested there might be an improvement in fundamentals that might be consistent with a more solid upward move in bitcoin's price, even if we see some "correction" ahead. The reason is that a number of entities out there have recently announced that they will accept payments in bitcoin, with this not likely to be reversed.  This suggests that it is not gong to collapse and disappear and also that its use as a medium of exchange may continue to spread.  This would  make it a more seriously established alternative form of quasi-money with more solidity to its longer run price.

Of coures, technically speaking all fiat currencies that are not backed by a commodity are bubbles.  They only have positive value because people think other people think they will be accepted, a sort of giant mass hallucination.  But as long as the belief holds, it works.  These are stable bubbles, not the sort that zoom up and then crash, which is what a lot of people mean when they a particular price movement is a bubble (and this may happen still with btc). This is the argument of the original overlapping generations models due to Allais and Samuelson, that fiat currencies are essentially stable bubbles that can continue because they can passed on to future generations.

Of course fiat currencies, like the USD, have their governments supporting them in a variety of ways, if not with a specific commodity, and bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies do not.  That certainly makes the cryptos a lot shakier than national fiat currencies.  But maybe they, or at least bitcoin, will now have a higher floor for its price than was the case a year ago or so.

Barkley Rosser

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Yemen: More Damage To World Peace And Security Due To Trump Wrecking Everything As He Exits

Michigan certified its vote results for Biden, and now crucially Emily Murphey at the GSA has agreed and now recognized officially that at least Joe Biden should be allowed to transition properly as has always happened in the past normally.

But in his lame duckery, still denying his obvious loss, Donald Trump is trashing everything in sight.  Very serious matters of foreign policy are part of this. One of these has been discussed in comments here previously, the removal from the Open Skies Treaty, which right now I am watching Rachel Maddow report that DOD is destroying the planes US used for this. Ack!!!

But for this post I am noting another awful thing they are doing along a bunch of others.  This involves Yemen, long one of the worst humanitarian disasters on the planet, horrible, but so in place for so long that most people pay no attention anymore because, bore, been there done that snore. But it continues to be a place of ongoing civilian deaths from bombs and economic deprivation.

So, just to make things "better," the Trump admin has decided to declare that the Houthi group who rule not only most of northern Yemen, but also its capitol, Sana'a, to be officially a "terrorist group." The immediate result of this ruling is that all kinds of humanitarian aid that has been going to people in the parts of Yemen they live in will no longer receive it.  This is morally awful and just plain stupid.

So this is part of Trump frustrated in his anti-Iran policy.  He exited the Iran nuclear treaty, leading to a massive increase in enriched uranium there.  Ooops! He killed a top general from there to stop attacks on US forces in Iraq by Iranian militias.  But those continue, with more political support in Iraq. Duh.

The argument for this move on the Houthis is that they are backed by Iran, which they are.  But that is a far secondary matter. The Houthis are Zaydi Shia in contrast with the 12-Iman Shia of Iran, not close at all. While Trump admin has long claimed Iran has armed them, most evidence has suggested not much.  Most of the Houthi arms are leftover US arms.

The other part of this is the Saudis, who have been waging war against the Houthis, with Trump deeply tied to the murderous Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has been behind this awful war against the Houthis in Yemen, support that dates back to the Obama admin.  This makes this a serious issue for the incoming Biden admin. I note that Congress has in recent years moved away from supporting this horrendous war in Yemen that has led to massive deaths among innocent civilians. Those votes that had support from many GOPs in Congress were turned down by Trump vetoes. So, I think it will not be that hard for Biden to finally end this corrupt relation between Trump and MbS to end US support for this war.

Barkley Rosser 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Janet Yellen Will Be Treasury Secretary

 I have long been a great fan of hers as well as knowing her and her husband, George Akerlof, personally.  Back in 2009 I was the first person to call for her to be named Fed Chair. I am very pleased with this appointment.  This is as good as it gets. (For those who wanted Lael Brainerd, we need her at the Fed where all the current governors are Trump appointees other than her).  Elizabeth Warren also would have been good, but Mass has a GOP governor who would appoint her successor, not so good. Yellen is the best pick and will be great.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, November 20, 2020

The New Coup Attempt

 OK, I thought that the collapse of Trump's lawsuits and the flight of his top lawyers was going to do in his coup attempt.  But we now see a far more desperate effort going on, although with Trump still trying to stay at least marginally within legal boundaries, although not by much, and clearly trying every single thing he can do to block Biden's victory.  It is getting down to blocking certification of results in enough states so that even if he cannot get legislatures to approve pro-Trump electors, highly unlikely as illegal in all the swing states actually, but to have the situation undecided so that nobody goes from enough states so that when Electoral College votes on Dec. 14, Biden falls short of the necessary 270, which would then throw it to the House of Representatives, where Trump would win because a majority of the states have majority GOP representation, and the voting is by state. The last time the House determined the outcome was in 1824, when second place John Quincy Adams defeated first place in both popular and electoral votes Andrew Jackson, as Henry Clay threw his support to Adams in return for being appointed Secretary of State.

The sign of how desperate Trump has become is that even though GOP Sec of State in Georgia Raffensperger has certified that Biden won Georgia, in the face of calls for his resignation and death threats, that needs to be signed by the GOP Governor Kemp, whom apparently Trump is calling and pressuring not to sign off, again, the effort to simply have things unresolved as of Dec. 14.

Needless to say, the conspiracy theory pushed by Guiliani and Sidney Powell in yesterday's insane press conference is completely off the wall, that there has been a nationwide conspiracy to use Dominion machines to add votes for Biden in certain major cities, with the program coming from Venezuela via some antifa people where it was written originally to help keep Hugo Chavez in power. Wow. But only two GOP senators have stepped forward to denounce this nonsense: Romney and Sasse, with supposedly 70% of GOP voters still buying the story that the election was "stolen" from Trump, with this wild Venezuela theory the latest to support that, even as nearly all the legal cases have collapsed due to a total lack of any evidence.

The immediate focus of this new coup effort has been on Michigan, where Trump is encouraging the militias who have threatened to take over the state house and start executing "tyrants" on TV, most certainly including Gov. Whitmer.  For the first time in US history ever we nearly had a Board of Canvassers not certify a clear electoral outcome, this in Wayne County, which includes Detroit.  The two Republicans initially blocking the certification then backed off after pressure arrived, but with Trump calling them on the phone, they apparently want to go back to non-certifying.  But too late, all counties have now certified.  Which puts it up to the state board, which must act on Monday, Nov. 23, but one of the two GOP members there is talking about non-certifying, and Trump is meeting right now with the GOP leaders of the legislature, presumably about trying to get them to appoint pro-Trump electors in any case, in clear violation of existing law.  The only good thing there, aside from Biden having a 157,000 vote lead, is that apparently Gov. Whitmer has the legal authority to replace a member of the State Board of Canvassers, so hopefully if they do try to refuse to certify, she will act to make sure there is a certification. But the hard fact is that Trump is throwing everything he has to block Biden getting the 16 electoral votes from Michigan.

He has called for a recount in the two most Dem counties in Wisconsin, which is going on now and will probably not change Biden's 20,000 plus lead much.  But also he is playing to the state legislature and the Board of Canvassers to block Biden.  Apparently the legislature has no authority to do anything other than support the certified winner. The positive there is that ultimately it is the Chair of that board who certifies, and she is a Dem.  It is astounding that we are getting down to this.

He is making efforts in AZ and NV, but they do not look like they are going anywhere, although in AZ GOP is in control of the state machinery, so cannot yet be ruled out.

Which brings us to the big prize of PA, where Trump has been throwing more efforts, both legal and political, than anywhere else, well, with the possible exception of MI. Biden has a more than 50,000 vote lead, but the effort has been to block certification in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (Allegany County).  He did get one of his few legal victories there, leading to over 2,000 absentee ballots in Allegany Cty not getting counted. But that will not overturn things there.  The gov and AG are Dem, but I am not sure who is in charge of certification at the state level, and Trump has been playing to legislators. There are more suits there still ongoing, with apparently 18 still nationwide, including at least one in NV, also trying to block certification.

It may be that MI and PA are Trump's best shots, unless he can get Gov. Kemp in GA not to sign off on the certification that has already happened there. If he can keep MI and PA from sending electors, Biden would still win with just barely 270, PA having 20 and MI having 16, with Biden currently leading with 306.  So if it is just those two, Biden will squeak in, although at this point I am now worrying that indeed Trump is so desperate he may yet try something else.  But he needs a third state, and I do not think it will be Wisconsin, with its good government traditions, despite some bad GOP actors there.  We may still be back to the He who wins Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, wins the White House, but maybe only by a hair against a wildly extra-constitutional coup-like effort.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Biden Won Because Of White Men?

 OK, I confess I am mystified.  An article in The Guardian by Musa al-Gharbi looks at the data now available on voting patterns in the US presidential elections of 2016 compared to 2020.  Almost all groups moved towards being more pro-Trump, including both Black men and women, Hispanic men and women, Asian men and women, and white women.  The only group that moved away from Trump was white men, with his margin declining from 31% to 23%.  It is true that the minority groups overall supported Biden more than Trump, but they did so by smaller margins than they supported Clinton over him in 2016.  Some sub=groups of minorities actually favored Trump, including Cuban Americans and Vietnamese Americans.  The only sub-group moving away from Trump was Japanese Americans.

In terms of swing states, the move of Hispanics toward Trump gave him Florida and Texas, and the move of Blacks toward him gave him North Carolina. However the flips of Michigan and Arizona were led by shifts of white men.

As I opened, I really do not know what is going on with all this, although the article noted that most of these trends have been going on for some time, if not especially noticed before.

Barkley Rosser

Will President Biden Scrap GILTI?

Congratulations to Brad Setser for being selected to be the Agency Review Team for the Office of the United States Trade Representative. I’m curious, however, as to his views on certain aspects of President Elect’s proposals with respect to corporation taxation. There was lots to criticize as to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Conservative economists were correct to note that it made corporation taxation more complicated. Progressives objected to the dramatic reduction in corporate tax rates. Biden wants the statutory rate raised to 28%. He also is not happy with certain aspects of the Global Intangible Low-Tax Income (GILTI) provisions. Brad Setser ties trade policy and international taxation in a post that brings up transfer pricing abuse. The Cliff Notes version of his insights is that Big Pharma may source production of these new coronavirus treatments in places like Ireland so that they can abuse transfer pricing to make sure their high profits face low tax rates even if the patient is American. My understanding of all that BEAT, FDII, and GILTI jazz was to shore up transfer pricing enforcement by complex legal schemes. Conservatives can rightfully complain that all these legal complications make compliance by multinationals just trying to pay their fair share of taxes very costly. Progressives will note that the large multinationals who want to avoid US taxes find clever means around these silly rules. And to add to our woes – these bizarre rules frustrate our allies abroad who will respond with their own complex rules both in trade and tax issues. Maybe a simple idea might be for all parties involved including our foreign allies to sit down and scrap these legalese and simply get back to enforcing the arm’s length standard using sound economic principles. Just saying.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

New Reasons To Believe Trump Will Not Attempt A Coup

 Officially Trump continues to hold a hard line of denying he has lost, with most GOP officeholders continuing to support his denials publicly, and he is likely to continue to not officially concede in various ways, including such as blocking official support for the transition process to a future Biden admin, which is potentially damaging in various ways.  Nevertheless, after some important developments in the last day or so and Trump's presser today (well, technically yesterday as it is now early morning on Saturday, Nov. 14), I think there is good reason to believe that whatever irresponsible and damaging things he may yet do, I think it is now seriously unlikely that he will attempt a coup to block the transition.

I think the most important development that has triggered this is one I did not foresee: the sudden withdrawal of law firms supporting his legal efforts to demand ballots to be thrown our and to block certification of results, with those efforts becoming less able to overturn the electoral results given the calling of both Arizona and Georgia for Biden. A crucial part of the scenario I posed was Trump piling on endless lawsuits, however frivolous and vacuous, in various crucial states in a way to block clear certification of results in those states, leading ultimately to a confused or contested outcome when the Electoral College votes in mid-December, all of this opening the door for him to refuse to step down while bringing in various forces to support him.  

What I did not know is that courts can punish attorneys for bringing clearly ridiculous lawsuits, especially repeatedly, with judges able to actually throw them in jail for contempt of court, not to mention them possibly losing their licenses to practice.  Add all this to just more general public embarrassment as these suits became increasingly absurd, we have now seen several major law firms that were making these suits for Trump decide to withdraw from doing so.  This has crucially undercut Trump's strategy, such as it was.  He has always liked to sue and sue and sue, but I do not think he has ever so overdone it that his own lawyers have abandoned him.  But they have been doing so now, and I think this is the bottom line fatal development for any coup effort by him, with others supposedly under his authority in various parts of the government beginning to openly refuse to do his bidding.

On the sort of positive side is this alternative that he has been reportedly increasingly considering seriously, to let Biden get in, even if he continues not to allow a proper transition and engages in other inappropriate and damaging conduct, but not to concede and continue to claim he deserved to win, but then to use this as a basis for running for president in 2024.  For various reasons, such a run may well run into serious problems quite quickly once he is out of office, but the hope to be able to do so, bolstered by his 89 million Twitter followers, may be sufficient to allow him not go to the extreme move of trying to remain in office by means of a coup.

While he certainly did not clearly concede in his remarks in his presser (in which he showed up with gray/white hair with the orange gone), one aside remark suggests he knows that the end has arrived.  In talking about future Covid policy, he referenced "whatever administration will be in charge" after Jan. 20 to carry out the policy, obviously a recognition of the possibility it might not be his administration.  Let us hope indeed that the reality he has lost the election really is penetrating and Donald J. Trump will not attempt to remain in power via a coup.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Project Perjury

The Washington Post has a story about the Erie, Pennsylvania postal worker who claimed to not have not recanted his fantasy about overhearing a conspiracy to backdate ballots. For some unknown reason Project Veritas thinks the audiotape of the postal worker's interview with investigators from the Post Office Inspector General's proves the opposite of what it does. There is no coercion in the interview. The investigators repeatedly advise Hopkins of his right to not speak to them and his right to have a lawyer present. And in no uncertain terms, he recants his affidavit story, even claiming he didn't read what the Project Veritas lawyers had written for him to sign.

Of course the MAGA cultists commenting on the Youtube audio are aghast that an investigator would ask a courageous whistleblower questions in a way that makes him think twice about what he had sworn to in an affidavit. I would copy and paste the Washington Post article here but I don't want to violate copywrite. I'm sure it will show up in comments.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Is Trump Going To Attempt A Coup?

 I realize that Joe Biden just held a press conference where he basically dismissed the refusal of Trump and a lot of other Republicans to concede the presidential election to Biden as "embarrassing," laughing at SecState Pompeo who earlier today talked about a transition to a second Trump term, and said it will all be over and fine by Jan. 20.  Maybe, but I am somebody who has taken seriously for a long time words from people like Michael Cohen and more recently Mary Trump who have said he simply will not go willingly and will continue to refuse to accept defeat.  I have watched various commentators supporting him from time to time thinking, "Will they support him if he declares martial law?"  Unfortunately, I think a lot of them will.

He certainly is laying the groundwork for making an attempt. The obvious such sign was yesterday's firing of SecDef Esper, reportedly because Esper made it clear in June he would not order US troops to move on peaceful civilian demonstraters in Washington.  Rumor has it he is about to replace the FBI and CIA directors also. And the Undersec of DOD is also out.  It certainly looks like he is trying to stock the top levels of the military and intelligence establishment with total toadies who will do his bidding.  If he makes the move and invokes the Insurrection Act or simply declares a National Emergency, which, frankly, is in his legal power. Will these newly installed flunkies stand up to him?  Who will?

I am seriously worried about this, and the more I see people like Mitch McConnell and Sean Hannity just spouting rank lies about the election, my concern grows.  I hope I am wrong, but I am now afraid we may be facing a very serious showdown over this, and I see the refusal of certain foreign authoritarian leaders friendly to Trump, such as Putin, not accepting the result, as a sign that they would support him if he made such a move, and we know he really likes and admires those guys.  This is a very bad situation.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Language of Slavery

 The New York Times today has a story about a new study that claims Alexander Hamilton owned slaves right up to the end of his life.  There doesn’t seem to be new evidence but a new, more assertive interpretation of it.  I know little about the period or Hamilton in particular, so my opinion doesn’t mean much, but the argument struck me as persuasive.  I would be surprised to find out that Hamilton wasn’t a slave owner.

But here’s the thing: the article’s writing endorses the new language around slavery.  We no longer have slaves but enslaved people, not slave owners but enslavers.  It is an attempt to personalize the issue.  The word “slave” is said to carry a connotation that the individual in question was somehow different by virtue of their status; instead we want to convey the idea that they were just like anyone else except that, at some point (or repeatedly), other people enslaved them.  Myself, I never thought that slaves were anything other than ordinary folks who had been delivered into slavery, so for me it’s a distinction without a difference, but if other people need the change in terminology to respect the full humanity of slaves I’m OK with that.

The enslaver bit is a different story.  An enslaver is someone who alters the status of another human being from non-slave to slave.  Those who captured previously unenslaved people, whether from a village in Africa or a native community in the New World, were enslavers.  Those who participated in the institution of slavery by buying or selling those already enslaved or by directing their work were slave traders or slave owners but not enslavers.  If we care about precision in language, we should be careful about the words we use.

But the problem goes much deeper than this.  The campaign to replace slave owner with enslaver is part of the larger movement to make politics a matter of individual responsibility.  Slavery was a horror, and this horror, we are to believe, was the product of the individual consciousness and behavior—personal racism—on the part of each person who participated in it.  According to this view, we need to use the word “enslaver” to not let these evildoers off the hook.  If Alexander Hamilton was an enslaver he was personally responsible for the enslavement of the individuals forced to work in his household.

Now personal responsibility is real, but not mainly in this way.  We are all called upon to consider our position in an unjust social order, not because each of us individually creates some small piece of it, but because it rests on our acceptance of it.  It was not Hamilton who authored the enslavement of his servants; it was the slave system itself that placed them in that position and ensured that, with few exceptions, if he didn’t own the slave in question someone else would.  At the margin, an enlightened rich person like George Washington could free a few slaves (in his case upon his death), but slavery as an institution grew and prospered.

At stake is the understanding of politics itself.  Is slavery just an accretion of individual choices by enslavers or an institution with legal, economic and social underpinnings?  Is racism today also institutionalized and reproduced legally, economically and politically, or is it mainly the outcome of racist thoughts and actions one individual at a time?  How does social change happen?

In the case of slavery, it didn’t really matter that Hamilton was active in the Manumission Society, which encouraged slave owners to release individual slaves, nor would it have mattered much for the course of slavery in America if he had refused to purchase slaves from their prior owners.  At the margin again, it was better to promote manumission than not, and it would have been even better if Hamilton weren’t such a hypocrite about it by owning some of his own.  But manumission did not end slavery nor could it: that was accomplished only by a civil war and the subsequent constitutional amendments outlawing it.  It took collective action, and a lot of bloodshed, to bring about this social change.

Obviously the battle for social justice is far from over.  Our society is riven by deep inequalities and change is still on the agenda.  But just as in Hamilton’s day, more enlightened personal behavior is nice but also something of a distraction.  The real personal morality is about participation in movements to dismantle the institutions of inhumanity.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Visiting Charlottesville On The Day Biden-Harris Declared Victors Over Trump-Pence

 Really, it was not planned with politics in mind.  In Harrisonburg, VA we are an hour drive from Charlottesville, VA, and we have in the past maybe about 2 times every 3 months or so gone over there to shop, eat, hang out, etc.  I used to go to UVa to the library or to see people I know, but all that has faded away to nothing over time.  In the pandemic we have cut it way back, and it had been several months since we had been there.  But today the weather was nice, clear and in the 70s, with the leaves just past max over there, so time to go, not to mention picking up some holiday stuff.  We had been planning it for several days, again, nothing to do with politics at all.

The word of the Biden-Harris victory came just before we left to go there, but we still did not think about political implications. Indeed we initially did some upscale grocery shopping elsewhere before we went down to the Mall, where 4th Street crosses, where Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist, and where the statues of both Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan Jackson (that is what is no the base of it) still stand, probably to go in the not too distant future finally.  

I had thought nothing of all that as got there, although we did see the statues as we drove up and discussed their status.  We parked several blocks away, but it was only as we got within a block of the Mall, oh about 3 PM, that it finally dawned on me.  People were randomly breaking out into cheers. Music was playing, and people were clearly celebrating vigorously and with great pleasure.  We would eat at a funky restaurant sitting on the Mall, and regularly people coming by would start shouting and cheering, and everybody would join in (or most of them anyway), and the place was packed on this gorgeous afternoon.  It was a massive and total spontaneous celebration.

Of course as we first encountered the celebrations I remembered the significance of this particular location in all this, and how it was totally appropriate that it would be erupting in ongoing outbursts of loud celebration, people jumping up and down and dancing, with many musicians playing all kinds of music.  Heck it was just plain great.  I loved it.

We did go to Fourth Street to the site that has since Heather Heyer died there has been festooned with many signs and objects commemorating her and what happened there.  I am also extremely aware of the fact that when Joseph R. Biden, Jr. announced his candidacy for the presidency, the main point of his talk, what he claimed motivated him more than anything else to run, was his disgust with Donald Trump's characterization of the violent demonstrations by overt racists and neo-Nazis on August 17, 2017 that "there were good people on both sides" or words to that effect.  Biden said that this comment of Trump on the death of Heather Heyer on August 17, 2017 on Fourth Street in Charlottesville, Virginia motivated him to run for President of the United States of America, and given that, I am glad he has defeated the man who made those odious remarks, and I hope for the best not only for the USA, but for the whole world, as I know that most people outside of the US have been hoping for the outcome that has arrived today.

My deepest regards and peace to all who read this.

Barkley Rosser



UPDATE: George W. Bush: “I just talked to the President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden. I extended my warm congratulations and thanked him for the patriotic message he delivered last night.”

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Whining Pundits

 As I write this the outcome of the presidential election remains uncertain, although the trends seem to be heading steadily in Biden's favor and it seems very unlikely he will lose, but the hanging on of this is beginning to get to many of us.  Most other races have been decided, although some of those are still up in the air.  In any case, although it is near certain Biden will win, it will be by a substantially lower margin that forecast by the main polls, with him not taking several states he was forecast to take.  This is also mirrored in Congressional (and some state legislative) races, with it unlikely, although not completely out of the realm of possibility, that Dems will control the Senate as had been forecast as a 2 to 1 likely outcome by 538, and instead of gaining seats, the Dems lost some in the House while retaining control, with the exact number of losses also still a bit uncertain.  In short, Trump and the Republicans did much better than generally forecast, and this has lots of people upset and lashing out at each other, including, reportedly, Dem members of the House.

No, I am not going to join the mob howling at the pollsters, nor am I going to join the mob howling at Schumer and Pelosi.  I shall look at how I think the pollsters got it wrong, although I think they have been doing their best and trying to avoid certain errors they made in 2016, when they also underpredicted how well Trump would do.  Nor am I going to join those dumping on Schumer and Pelosi. I think the Congressional outcomes have a big fat zero to do with anything either of them have done or said or not done or not said.  It was all about the down-ballot GOPs gaining from the underpredicted surge of Trump supporters coming out to vote for him, the phenomenon that needs to be understood.

Who I am going to pick on, although not too much really, are some reporters and commentators I shall simply label as pundits, "whining pundits" to be precise.  To name three who all appeared in the Style section of the Washington Post, not the editorial page, I note Monica Hesse, Hank Stuever, and Margaret Sullivan, roughly in order of how annoying and hypocritical I find their whining.  

I note of these I have long respected Margaret Sullivan a lot, and she was mostly fairly factual, covering in fact the difficult problem of the pollsters messing up ("Who who won, but it wasn't the pollsters"). In fact while accurately noting details of how off the pollsters were, she, who regularly covers the media, extended the critique to the broader media beyond the pollsters. She accurately noted the sparcity of coverage of the degree to which Trump was appealing to Latino males, especially those in South Florida.  But she may have overdone it when she appeared to blame the media for relentlessly covering Trump's mishandling of the pandemic, which she suggested allowed Trump to appeal to his followers by pointing to a hostile mainstream media.  What she did not do when she came up with that was to note that she herself has much of the time in recent years dumped on the media for not being relentless enough in exposing the various flaws of Trump.

From his byline of "Critics Notebook," Hank Stuever ("Difficult to tune out, but even harder to watch") focused on the election night TV coverage.  Much of this is reasonable, but he too turned to whining, not about the polls or even the coverage, but the naive optimism of sucker liberals among the public.  He did this by quoting TV reporters who made sneery such remarks as the results began to turn unexpectedly so much for Trump.  So we get "Long before the post-midnight madness, CNN anchor Jake Tapper reminded viewers that there has been a lot of magical thinking lately on the part of Democrats and liberal pundits, who spent too much time entertaining pie-in-the-sky dreams of tipping Texas and Georgia [which now appears likely to in fact end up gong for Biden] to blue states, imagining a landslide victory for Biden. "As they say, 'You can't get high on your own supply,'" Tapper zinged."  OK, but I am unaware of either Tapper or Stuever expressing such views prior to the election.  Ooops!

Somehow Monica Hesse ("Crushed by a landslide that never heppened") makes these other two look completely reasonable with her sneering whining, also lacking any previous reporting on how wildly over-optimistic all these people were.  She accurately notes that election officials had warned of "an election week," but then we had "in some liberal circles there was a jacked-up fantasy that nobody would have to wait for Pennsylvania's tortured ballot count because by 10 p.m. Joe Biden would turn Florida and North Carolina blue [this latter remains a possibility, although not too likely] - and maybe Texas, why not?"  As an added dig she adds that "for the past years, the demographics in my inbox who most fervently believed in a 2020 blue landslide were White liberal men and occasionally White liberal women. Surely, they insisted, what had happened in 2016 was a blip." This may be right, and she does then argue that Black women and others did not have such illusions. 

OK, for all the hypocritical whining and sneering by these folks who did not issue these warnings previously, the problem seems to boil down to observers taking polls seriously.  538 had a national gap of 8% nationally for Biden while Real Clear Politics had it at 7%.  A likely outcome will have Biden at 4-5% ahead.  This is a larger gap than in 2016, when the final 538 predicted national advantage for Clinton was 3%, with her getting a 2.1% lead. How then did things go so wrong in 2016?  Ah, the errors varied across states, with some having the polls on the money, but they messed up badly in the crucial three states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, especially the first, and they were what provided the surprising outcome of a Trump electoral college victory.

The national gap this time looks to be somewhat larger, but the variation across states also seems to have reappeared. Some have been on the money, such as the respected Selzer poll in Iowa that nailed the Trump lead almost on the head.  But then we have Wisconsin again, where one poll in the last few weeks actually had Biden ahead by 17%, with the overall averages having Biden ahead by 5-6%, but in the end having less than 1 percent lead (again, thank you Prairie du Chien!). 

For myself on Facebook in comments I speculated that due to a likely higher turnout with such intensity on both sides, there was a larger variance to the likely outcome, with the 538 projections of the expected for Biden too optimistic, but with indeed there being also a non-trivial chance of him getting a landslide. And we should note that if 538's main forecast had happened, 8% lead, this would have been viewed as a landslide, with indeed both Florida and North Carolina for Biden by 2% and with Texas a tossup, despite the whiny sneering by Monica Hesse.  It was not just obviously pie-in-the-sky fantasy to take such an outcome seriously, although arguing it as an inevitability clearly was so.

As it was, even though I thought the pollsters had made some appropriate changes since 2016, with one for a bias about educational levels widely reported, I worried about "silent Trump supporters," and I think those in the end were out there, especially among the better educated, despite the awfully loud and proud shouting by many Trump supporters. So I generally lopped 2% off the forecasted projections, but that was still not enough by a percent or two, although it does actually lead to pretty close to accurate the outcomes of which states would go which way.  

I shall note that besides election officials one group that was also cautious about this and preparing for a high turnout by Trump's supporters has been those in the Biden campaign.  Many criticized him for not going to Texas and some other out-there possible states (although he made a few such trips).  Of course, he laid low a lot in his basement, possibly too much.  But when he was out he very heavily concentrated on the core three states that unexpectedly flipped in 2016, and it looks like this was a good decision, with Wisconsin and Michigan flipped back, and hopefully and likely Pennsylvania as well.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Two Questions about the Election

 I am about to turn in and let the vote counting continue without me.  It will be a troubled sleep, since the election was mostly a disaster.  (Universal preschool won in Oregon, and if everywhere were like here I would be happier.)

Meanwhile two questions:

1. What went wrong with the polls?  They didn’t do too badly in 2016; the popular vote was close to the consensus prediction, and the electoral college was a squeeker within the margin of error.  This time though the polls were apparently way off.  Yes, the votes are not all in, but it doesn’t look like we’ll see the massive popular victory for Biden they foretold.  In fact, as I fade away tonight, it’s still possible that Trump could pull out a legitimate electoral college victory, something that seemed almost impossible a day or two ago.  Take Wisconsin (my home state) for instance.  We saw numbers ranging from 5-13% for Democrats, and now it’s nip and tuck.  Meanwhile, analysts were giving the Dems a better than even chance of taking the senate, but that looks out of reach now.  So what gives?  Supposedly the weights were adjusted to better reflect the role of education, and the “shy Trumpster” effect was taken into consideration.  But here we are.

2. And how do we understand the politics?  We’re dealing with a president whose failures were about as massive as could be, especially in the context of a pandemic.  He made a fool of himself in the first debate.  He is mired in corruption.  And the Republican senate has repeatedly blocked measures to support workers, small business and local governments devastated by the economic effects of the virus.  If this isn’t enough to expunge them from office, what is?

I hope the news is better when I wake up.

Biden Narrowly Leads In Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin

 Several months ago I forecast that "He who wins Prairie du Chien wins the White House."  I also argued more generally that SW Wisconsin would determine Wisconsin.

As of right now Trump is leading by about 2% in Wisconsin, and he seems to be ahead in most of the counties of SW Wisconsin, although Milwaukee has not yet come in.  And the county Prairie du Chien is in, Crawford Trump is leading 4620 to 3953.

But, for what it is worth, in the City of Prairie du Chien itself Biden is ahead 1303 to 1223.  So we shall see.

BTW, I think this is all the votes for that area, but I am about to go to bed, waiting to see Trump make a statement, but I am not going to wait up for the Milwaukee or other long counts.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Signs and Portents

 My favorite ; A hand-made sign a few blocks away from my house:


Amen to that!

The Queen’s Gambit Declined

 I made it through episode 5 of The Queen’s Gambit last night, but I doubt I will finish it.  A noticeable deterioration takes place on all fronts as the story proceeds: weak dialog, dull cinematography, clumsy editing.  It’s as if the creative folks behind the project had done what they set out to do and were now just playing out the endgame.

But here I want to focus on the chess, the way the game is portrayed in the Netflix series.  I have some experience at this, since I was a “promising young player” during the mid-sixties, the period during which The QG is set.  I traipsed around to open tournaments, staying in downtown hotels in mostly midwestern cities (few as glamorous as the ones Beth Harmon visits), and developing a bit of a reputation on the circuit.  No, I never made the leap to professional stardom, not having either the talent or dedication it requires, but I saw the real life version of what the TV series portrays.

Some gripes:

1. The pace and ambience are all wrong.  No, players don’t routinely blitz out their moves, nor do they slam the pieces down and stare into their opponents’ faces, much less talk with them during the game.  Tournament rooms are eerily quiet, with the loudest sound at the board being the nerve-wracking ticking of the chess clocks.  I realize that drama has to be poured on for mass entertainment purposes, but surely a few sequences could have been taken slowly and silently to convey a different, truer type of tension.

2. No post-mortems!  In real chess tournaments, as soon as the game is over the players head to the analysis room, where they try to figure out what just happened.  The winner, of course, takes the lead in explaining where the loser went wrong, unless the stronger player was the one who lost.  (More on that in a moment.)  There are a lot of “what were you thinking when....?” questions, or “what about this other move?”, when alternatives rejected during the game are given a new look.  If the players are highly rated, their board is quickly surrounded by a crowd of observers eager to see how the best chess minds think.  The jockeying and camaraderie of the analysis room is where the social side of chess tournaments gets played out.

3. The role of luck in chess is completely eliminated in the show.  No, the stronger player doesn’t always win, nor does a single win demonstrate who is stronger.  And lots of games are draws, especially as you move up to the higher ranks of the sport.  Chess players talk about the “draw zone”, the window between a small advantage and a small disadvantage in which neither side, with reasonably accurate play, can bring home the full point.  A better player can blunder, get caught in an opening they hadn’t prepared for, or just randomly miss something crucial beyond their calculation horizon.  And often the advantage that results from better play just isn’t enough to move the game beyond the draw zone.  A brilliant player regularly loses and draws against their inferiors, although of course they win often enough to maintain their position.  How one deals with regular, unavoidable disappointment is the central emotional issue in competitive chess.

4. Soviet chess is misrepresented to feed Cold War stereotypes.  Yes, Soviet players playing abroad were often accompanied by KGB agents, more to keep them in line than to strategize with them.  But, the greatest chess sin committed by the QG is to present Soviet chess as stolid, boring and “bureaucratic”.  (This word actually appears in the dialog.)  But the opposite was true.  It’s not a defense of the ugliness of the Soviet regime to acknowledge the innovative, creative accomplishments of the players churned out by its chess machine.  The art of positional sacrifice, for example, advanced by leaps and bounds among the Soviets, along with paradoxical opening ideas—consider the Taimanov variation in the Sicilian Defense, to take one example.  Yes, Soviet chess was the best, but not at the expense of inspiration.  (I began subscribing to Shachmatny Bulletin, the leading Russian chess magazine, when I was 14 to get that inspiration from the source.)

I could add a lot more, but these were the jarring miscues that undermined the chessic part of the story.  The believability of the emotional side I’ll leave for others.