Saturday, September 30, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Dan Simmons' Hyperion Quartet

Dan Simmons' Hyperion Quartet has become an acknowledged classic of contemporary science fiction. A stunning galaxy-spanning space opera with literary debts to Chaucer and Boccacchio, the story is set in motion in the first volume, Hyperion:
In the 27th century, humanity has spread across the galaxy, first aboard "Hawking drive" ships and then through "farcasters", which permit nearly instantaneous travel regardless of distance. However, many planets are of little economic interest and disconnected from the farcasters. These planets can only be reached by spaceship, resulting in time dilation effects which cause "time debt" accruals.
The farcaster network (the "WorldWeb") is the infrastructural and economical basis of the Hegemony of Man and thus determines the whole culture and society. Also flowing across these portals are the structures of the datasphere (a network reminiscent of the Internet in design, but far more advanced). Inseparable from mankind's technologies is the powerful, knowledgeable, and utterly inscrutable TechnoCore, the vast agglomeration of millions of AIs who run almost every piece of high technology of mankind. The unthinking hubris of man resulted in the death of the home-world (Earth)—which was consumed by an artificial black hole running out of control—and this arrogant philosophy was carried forth to the stars, for centuries.
The Hegemony itself is a largely decadent society, relying on its military to incorporate into the WorldWeb the colony planets, even unwillingly, and to defend the Hegemony from attacks by the Ousters, "interstellar barbarians" who dwell free of and beyond the bounds of the Hegemony and shun all the works of the TechnoCore (especially farcasters). Ostensibly a direct democracy governed through the "All Thing" forum, the Hegemony is also managed by a chief executive officer advised by the TechnoCore advisory council and the Hegemony Senate.
All the 'Core's advice and predictions are confounded by mysterious structures on the remote colony world Hyperion (named after the moon of Saturn) that are commonly regarded as the Time Tombs. The tombs are encased in an anti-entropic field that is theorised to be carrying them backwards in time (suggesting that the tombs were built in the distant future for some unknown purpose) and are said to be guarded by a legendary time travelling creature known as the Shrike. The Shrike is the subject of a cult, the Church of the Final Atonement, commonly known as the Shrike Church. Occasionally the church sends a prime number of pilgrims to the Time Tombs; there is a legend that all but one are slaughtered and the remaining pilgrim is granted a wish.
The Ousters have been long obsessed with Hyperion, and on the eve of their invasion and a probable war, a final pilgrimage has been organised. Seven pilgrims have been carefully selected by unseen elements of the TechnoCore to make the journey to the Time Tombs and the Shrike, with the objective of aiding the Hegemony in the imminent war. Aboard a treeship the pilgrims finally meet after being revived out of their cryogenic storage state; and, collectively overwhelmed by the mystery and magnitude of their situation, they decide that they will each tell their tale to enliven the long trip to the Tombs, to get to know each other, and to make sense of their situation. Simmons uses this device to unfold the panorama of this universe, its history and conflicts, and each story gives a greater context to the others. The story opens in medias res with the Consul recalled to the WorldWeb and the seven pilgrims (the infant Rachel does not count) drawing lots to see who will tell their tale first in the hopes of revealing a reason they were chosen and how to survive.
The story continues, with many a fabulous adventure and exotic locale, in the uniformly excellent follow-ups, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. And the whole saga is beautifully written! Try this one, you won't regret it.  

Today's Useful Data: As a Matter of Fact, Economics Does Have a Lot To Do with the Rise of Populism

It has become fashionable in certain quarters to deny any connection between the effects of the economic crisis on voters' communities and the rise of populist political parties. Political scientists Chase Foster and Jeff Frieden are out with a paper, summarized in The Monkey Cage blog, that puts paid to this ridiculous notion.  Foster and Frieden explain in their blog piece:
Could the rise in populism and loss of faith in institutions be the result of increasingly nationalist and extremist views?
In short, the answer is no. Neither changing views of national identity and nationalism, nor a rise in political extremism among the population, can explain the acute decline in civic confidence. In fact….there has been no significant change in ideological or nationalistic sentiment over the last decade according to some measures, despite the collapse in citizen confidence in national and regional political institutions.
During the past decade, Europeans have voted for populist parties in record numbers. But that’s not because of an underlying increase in extremist or nationalist sentiment, which….has remained stable for roughly 15 years, and has even gone down by some measures. What’s changed has been citizens’ willingness to vote for more extreme and more nationalistic parties.
[T]he proportion of Europeans identifying exclusively in national terms has gone down in many countries since 2010, while the share of the population with ideologically extreme views has been roughly stable.
So who’s voting for populist parties? Citizens who say they have lost faith in their political institutions and leaders.
Our analysis shows that this loss of faith comes from the dismal economic conditions of the past 10 years. The more dismal the conditions, whether at the national or individual level, the greater the loss of faith.
I can't believe we actually have to argue about this. But the urge to write off vast swathes of the electorate as culturally hopeless is apparently irresistible to some.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: Big Star

Big Star was a power pop band out of Memphis, TN that, in its first incarnation, put out two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, that are true classics and influenced a zillion bands that you're more likely to have heard of. Formed by Alex Chilton (of Box Tops/The Letter fame), Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, that incarnation didn't last long, but boy were they great. Absolutely essential listening.

I also strongly recommend the documentary, "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me". Beautiful.

Today's Useful Data: Democratic Wave Building?

Special elections provide important clues on political momentum. One under-analyzed area of special elections is state legislative seats. There are many more of these than there are of the heavily-publicized Congressional specials. Brian Stryker and Zac McCrary of ALG Research provide a detailed analysis of the legislative specials and detect very considerable Democratic momentum. Bottom line: the patterns are so strong that if they continue they could be enough to shift dominance of state legislature from Republicans to Democrats in 2018. That would be huge. 

Caveats apply of course and Stryker/McCrary provide some at the end of their article. And Republican advantages from incumbency are considerable. Still, their results are rather striking and in an area where Democrats pay far too little attention.

Note this also about where Democrats should compete:
Additionally, many Beltway pundits continue to debate whether Democrats should target so-called blue-collar Obama-Trump type districts or more white-collar, suburban Romney-Clinton districts. The answer so far on the legislative level, is “Yes”; Democrats need not acquiesce to that false choice. Just like FiveThirtyEight, we find that Obama’s 2012 performance and Clinton’s 2016 performance in a district are equally predictive of 2017 results….
Because both 2012 and 2016 have been equally important predictors, a lean Obama district that swung heavily to Trump is just as ripe an opportunity as a strongly Romney district that shifted to Clinton. Republican legislators who hold either of those types of districts — as well as a much broader swath of GOP districts — should be very worried by what has occurred at the legislative level over the past several months. Likewise, Democrats do not necessarily need to choose between targeting state houses in places like Iowa where Trump did well in 2016 or states like Arizona or Virginia, where Trump is generally weaker than other recent Republicans.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Today's Useful Data: Read My Lips--No New Tax (Cuts for the Rich)

The new GOP tax plan is heavily tilted toward the wealthy. No surprise. But it's worth noting just how extraordinary unpopular this stuff is as policy. Vanessa Williamson of Brookings has an excellent piece out today that goes over the key data. She notes:
If you ask Americans what bothers them about taxes, the most common answer is “the feeling that some corporations don’t pay their fair share.” The next most common? “The feeling that some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share.” Not even ten percent of Americans say that the amount they pay is what bothers them most. And even Republicans are more likely to say they are bothered by corporate tax avoidance than by their own tax responsibilities. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Today's Useful Data: A Massive Decline in Teen Births

I hate to be the bearer of good news but the decline in teen births is absolutely staggering. New CDC data show teen births declining by 9 percent in just the last year and by 51 percent in the last decade. See, not everything is going to hell in a handbasket!

Today's Useful Analysis: The Decline of Dutch Social Democracy

Continuing the theme of the Crisis of European Social Democracy™, there are parties from that family that have done worse than the German Social Democrats' awful performance in last Sunday's election. One such party is the Dutch Labor Party, usually abbreviated as PvdA. In last March's election, they polled an amazingly low 6 percent of the vote and lost 29 of their 38 seats in the Dutch parliament. Their parliamentary representation is now just barely above that of the mighty Party for the Animals. 

So what explains the crash of the historically very powerful PdvA? I recommend this lengthy interview with Rene Cuperus of the PdvA's think tank, the Wiardi Beckman Foundation. I know Cuperus from various European conferences and have always found him a very astute observer and analyst of the left. In the interview, he discusses the historical evolution of the PdvA, the rise of populism, the fragmentation of the left and the urgent need for new approaches and coalitions across the left. Much food for thought for anyone who is interested in the fate of progressive parties in Europe.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Today's Useful Data and Analyses: The German Election

The Crisis of European Social Democracy™ continues as the German Social Democrats crash to a post-World War II low of a mere 20 percent of the vote. Pathetic. The Alternative for Germany, the far-right populist party, makes it into parliament for the first time on 13 percent of the vote (third most support of any party). Merkel will be chancellor again, though her party, at 33 percent, had its worst showing since 1949. What on earth is going on?

The place place to start of course is with the data.. And the best place for that is that a set of charts and maps in the Financial Times. A nice feature of German exit poll/election analyses is that they always calculate where gains and losses of each party came from among previous nonvoters, first-time voters and previous supporters of other parties. Also, great maps. 

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the FT article is where they show how the SPD hemorrhaged votes in economically depressed parts of western Germany and the Left party gained votes among youth and professionals while losing support in manufacturing areas. Interesting and similar to the evolution of left oppositions in other Western countries.

For context, I strongly recommend this interview in Jacobin with University of Basel sociologist Oliver Nachtwey. Actually published pre-election, it is very good on the "radical centrism" of Merkel and the challenges faced by the various constituent parts of the left. 

Finally, John Judis points correctly to the unpleasant implications of the probable "Jamaica" coalition Merkel may form that includes both the Greens and the Free Democrats. The difficulties this will present to French President Emmanuel Macron's ideas for EU/Eurozone reform are considerable, since the Free Democrats are total hard-liners on not giving an inch on reform to other European states that they view as profligate. 

In other words, the beatings will continue until morale improves.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Today's Useful Data: The Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood

What's going on with today's young adults? How does the situation of Millennials compare with that experienced by earlier generations? The Census is out with a very detailed report on all this which is chock full of amazing and useful (if perhaps not so uplifting) facts. Here's just one: 
In 2005, the majority of young adults lived independently in their own household, which was the predominant living arrangement in 35 states. A decade later, by 2015, the number of states where the majority of young people lived independently fell to just six. Of the top five states where the most young adults lived independently in 2015, all were in Midwest and Plains states.

Science Fiction Saturday: Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge is not terribly prolific but the science fiction he produces is among the best in the genre. The novel pictured above, A Fire Upon the Deep, is easily one of the best SF novels I've ever read. Here's the basic set-up of the novel:
An expedition from Straumli Realm, an ambitious young human civilization in the high Beyond, investigates a five-billion-year-old data archive in the low Transcend that offers the possibility of unimaginable riches. The expedition's facility, High Lab, is gradually compromised by a dormant superintelligence within the archive later known as the Blight. However, shortly before the Blight's final "flowering", two self-aware entities created similarly to the Blight plot to aid the humans before the Blight can escape.
Recognizing the danger of what they have awakened, the researchers at High Lab attempt to flee in two ships, one carrying all the adults and the second carrying all the children in "coldsleep boxes". Suspicious, the Blight discovers that the first ship contains a data storage device in its cargo manifest; assuming it contains information that could harm it, the Blight destroys the ship. The second ship escapes. The Blight assumes that it is no threat, but later realizes that it is actually carrying away a "countermeasure" against it.
The ship lands on a distant planet with a medieval-level civilization of dog-like creatures, dubbed "Tines", who live in packs as group minds. Upon landing, however, the two surviving adults are ambushed and killed by Tine fanatics known as Flenserists, in whose realm they have landed. The Flenserists capture a young boy named Jefri Olsndot and his wounded sister, Johanna. While Jefri is taken deeper into Flenserist territory, Johanna is rescued by Tine pilgrims who witnessed the ambush and deliver her to a neighboring kingdom ruled by a Tine named Woodcarver. The Flenserists tell Jefri that Johanna had been killed by Woodcarver and exploit him in order to develop advanced technology (such as cannon and radio communication), while Johanna and the knowledge stored in her "dataset" device help Woodcarver rapidly develop in turn.
And at that point, the plot's just getting started! The Tines--where each "person" comprises a group mind of 4–8 members, connected by ultrasonic waves, and each "soul" can survive and evolve by adding members to replace those who die--are one of the most fascinating and truly alien races I've encountered in an SF novel. Very, very highly recommended.

"Fire" is the first of three novels in Vinge's "Zones of Thought" series. The prequel, also an outstanding novel in its own right, is A Deepness in the Sky. The direct sequel, The Children of the Sky, is weaker but still interesting. 

Another outstanding Vinge novel is Rainbow's End. I don't think I've read a more convincing social and technological extrapolation to the near future of existing computer technologies (Vinge is a computer science professor, now retired). Finally, Vinge's early short fiction is generally credited with being the first to come up with the concept of "cyberspace". His excellent short fiction has now been collected into a very fine anthology

If you haven't read Vinge yet, you're in for a real treat. Go for it!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Today's Useful Data: The Supporters Trump Is Losing

Ron Brownstein provides an in-depth analysis across a number of polls and various support indicators to highlight which groups of Trump supporters are becoming less so. In brief, Trump is hemorrhaging support among Republican-leaning Americans who are under 50 and/or college-educated. That's a lot of people. 

Obscure Music Friday: Screaming Lord Sutch

Who was Screaming Lord Sutch you ask? Here are the basics from Wikipedia:
David Edward Sutch (10 November 1940 – 16 June 1999), also known as 3rd Earl of Harrow, or simply Screaming Lord Sutch, was an English musician. He was the founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party and served as its leader from 1983 to 1999, during which time he stood in numerous parliamentary elections. He holds the record for losing more than 40 elections in which he stood from 1963 to 1997. As a singer he variously worked with Keith MoonJeff BeckJimmy PageRitchie BlackmoreCharlie Watts and Nicky Hopkins.
During the 1960s, Screaming Lord Sutch was known for his horror-themed stage show, dressing as Jack the Ripper, pre-dating the shock rock antics of Alice Cooper. Accompanied by his band, the Savages, he started by coming out of a black coffin (once being trapped inside of it, an incident parodied in the film Slade in Flame). Other props included knives and daggers, skulls and "bodies". Sutch booked themed tours, such as 'Sutch and the Roman Empire', where Sutch and the band members would be dressed up as Roman soldiers.
But all that really doesn't do him justice. You gotta watch the video to get the full flavor. So turn up the sound real loud and enjoy. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Democratic Bounce-Back

It is not generally appreciated how good the special elections have been for the Democrat this year, probably because people have not concentrated on the swings in these elections relative to Democratic performance in 2016. It is these swings, rather than the absolute outcomes, which tells us the most about how the political climate is shifting. Daniel Donner over at the excellent Daily Kos elections--a treasure trove of useful electoral data--has analyzed these swings and reports the following:
There has been considerable consternation and many pixels spilled about the regions of the country where the Democratic margin in the 2016 presidential election fell sharply compared to 2012, including the entire states of Iowa and Ohio. Was this the beginning of a permanent realignment? Was it a new baseline? Or would Democrats be able to recover?
We now have some answers, illustrated in the chart at the top of this post. There have been 10 special elections in districts where the presidential margin shifted 10 points or more toward Donald Trump compared to the 2012 margin. And in all 10 of those, the margin has shifted back toward Democrats in the special election. What’s more, in eight of the them, it has shifted past the 2012 presidential margin, and Democrats have outright won six of them (those where the dark green dot is to the right of the vertical axis).
With just 10 elections in this category, we have to be a little careful, but we can say one thing with certainty: Democrats are not stuck at 2016’s presidential numbers.
The times they are a-changin'. And, as these data indicate, for the better. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Is Liberal Democracy Dying?

Doubtful. Very doubtful. Charles Kenny, author of the seminal New Optimist book, Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--and How We Can Improve the World Even More, explains:
Already, both Trump’s election and Brexit are looking a little less apocalyptic than a few months ago. The incompetence of the U.S. Administration has blunted its impact. Courts have reined in some of Trump’s immigration restrictions, Congress is restraining some of his cuts and is providing cover to independent investigators. And it is still possible that Brexit will not happen—at least opinion has turned against a “hard Brexit” that would have meant no access agreements with the European Union. Even with such an exit, predictions are that it will shave a few percentage points from the UK GDP. Not good, but not a civilizational collapse. That is to say nothing of the thumping victories of Emmanuel Macron in France and Justin Trudeau in Canada, or the recent defeat of extremist parties in Austria and the Netherlands.
And the idea of liberalism remains in reasonable shape worldwide....The World Values Survey of attitudes across the planet suggests we are slowly converging toward common opinions on liberal values. Take the statement “democracy may have its problems, but it’s better than any other form of government.” World Values Surveys responses in favor of that statement ranged from 81 percent in the former Soviet Union to 92 percent in the West in the middle of the last decade. Since the turn of the millennium, progress toward democratic governance has indeed flat-lined according to most available measures, but we are still close to the all-time peak, far higher than during the Cold War.
It isn’t just about the ability to vote, either: There is growing global commitment to liberal values of equality as well. Take views toward homosexuality: Again according to the World Values Survey, the proportion of people who thought homosexuality was never justifiable has dropped from an average of 59 percent to 34 percent between the early 1990s and the turn of the last decade. That matches heartening worldwide progress over the past twenty years toward legal recognition of gay rights, including in North America and Europe, but also in Uruguay, Taiwan, and South Africa. Globally, we do still face an immense amount of homophobia, sexism, racism, and nativism. Illiberal democracy is strong. But the long-term trends toward inclusion are positive, not negative.
And while Luce worries that support for democracy has “plummeted across the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” that might be overselling things. Take attitudes toward having a strong leader who does not have to answer to parliament or elections: According to the World Values Survey, 80 percent of Germans thought this was a bad idea at the turn of the millennium, although that number dropped five percentage points by this decade. In the United States during the mid-1990s, 71 percent opposed, now that number is 63 percent. A worrying decline to be sure, but hardly a plummet. And there has never been a time with more widespread equality of rights and treatment in the country—compare that to the Jim Crow era, or before the Equal Pay and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, or even before the 2015 Supreme Court decision that declared same-sex marriage the law of the land.
Legal changes, once again, reflect broader changes in attitudes. Take racism: Support for interracial marriage in the United States only crossed the 50 percent barrier in 1997. It is now at 87 percent. Hate crimes in the country fell by almost half between 1994 and 2015. The percentage of Americans who think immigrants strengthen the country through hard work and talents has climbed from 31 percent in 1994 to 59 percent in 2016 (although the uptick in support is concentrated amongst Democrats).
This last statistic suggests that anti-immigrant views aren’t quite the inevitable mass response to the growing challenge of inequality that the media might have us believe. Indeed, data for the United States and the UK illustrate the fact that these are the attitudes of an aging and shrinking minority. Fifty-five percent of retirement-age voters supported Donald Trump—that compared to 31 percent of those aged 18 to 29 (the old in America have long been more right-wing, but this demographic gap is growing). Brexit votes similarly skewed toward the elderly. And as Emmott points out, retirees cannot justify their move to the political extremes as resulting from increased dispossession—they are a group cosseted with guaranteed pensions and free health care. Nativist pandering isn’t aimed at the left-behind, and most of those left behind know it won’t help them.
More positive attitudes toward liberal values—especially among the young—might, in part, reflect material circumstances that are not quite as grim as suggested by The Retreat. Globally, the last twenty years have seen the fastest reduction in absolute poverty ever. Economic performance in Europe and America, meanwhile, has lagged. But while Luce points to stagnation in incomes for most people in the West over the past three decades, it is perhaps better seen as a slowdown from historically unprecedented growth of the post-war period. Economists Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner look at the incomes of those in the 81st to 90th percentiles of global income distribution in 1988, a group predominantly made up of the poorer half of Western countries and former communist nations. Income growth for that group was about 1 percent a year over the subsequent 20 years. That is a cumulative total of around 20 percent between 1988 and 2008—less improvement than the bulk of those below them in the global income distribution as well as the world’s richest ten percent, but not nothing. (U.S. median household income in particular did decline in the fourteen years between 1998 and 2012, but it has largely recovered since then.)
This somewhat more positive view extends to a number of other measures of the quality of life. Luce notes that, since 1985 in the United States, the cost of higher education and health care has exploded. True, but thanks to the lower cost of food and other manufactured goods, alongside policy reform like the Affordable Care Act, it is also the case that more people can afford them (if accompanied with greater student debt). The percentage without health insurance has fallen from 15 percent to 9 percent between 1997-2016, with the most notable decline coming after 2014. With the failure of Congressional efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that number should stay depressed. Meanwhile, the percentage of 18-24 year olds in college in the United States climbed from 31 percent in 1989 to 41 percent in 2015.
So can everyone just calm down a little bit? Liberal democracy is still in good shape and will likely be with us for a good long time, despite its undeniable and well-documented problems. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Greg Egan

There's hard science fiction and then there's Greg Egan. This Australian science fiction author and computer programmer is justly celebrated for his incredibly imaginative and rigorous extrapolations of cutting edge math and physics. Science fiction just doesn't get much "harder" than Egan's stuff. 

Permutation City is one of Egan's early novels and one of my favorites. Here's the description:
Paul Durham keeps making Copies of himself: software simulations of his own brain and body which can be run in virtual reality, albeit seventeen times more slowly than real time. He wants them to be his guinea pigs for a set of experiments about the nature of artificial intelligence, time, and causality, but they keep changing their mind and bailing out on him, shutting themselves down.

Maria Deluca is an Autoverse addict; she's unemployed and running out of money, but she can't stop wasting her time playing around with the cellular automaton known as the Autoverse, a virtual world that follows a simple set of mathematical rules as its “laws of physics”.

Paul makes Maria a very strange offer: he asks her to design a seed for an entire virtual biosphere able to exist inside the Autoverse, modelled right down to the molecular level. The job will pay well, and will allow her to indulge her obsession. There has to be a catch, though, because such a seed would be useless without a simulation of the Autoverse large enough to allow the resulting biosphere to grow and flourish — a feat far beyond the capacity of all the computers in the world.
Far out man! But Egan pulls it off and the Kindle edition can be had for the low, low price of $2.99.

And he just keeps coming up with amazing ideas. Here's the idea behind his Orthogonal trilogy published 2011-2013.:
Orthogonal is a science fiction trilogy by Australian author Greg Egan taking place in a universe where, rather than three dimensions of space and one of time, there are four fundamentally identical dimensions. While the characters in the novels always perceive three of the dimensions as space and one as time, this classification depends entirely on their state of motion, and the dimension that one observer considers to be time can be seen as a purely spatial dimension by another observer.
The plot involves the inhabitants of a planet that comes under threat from a barrage of high-velocity meteors known as 'hurtlers', who launch a generation ship that exploits the distinctive relativistic effects present in this universe which allow far more time to elapse on the ship than passes on the home world, in order for the ship's inhabitants to develop the technology needed to protect the planet. The three novels deal with a succession of increasingly advanced scientific discoveries, as well as a number of radical social changes in the culture of the generation ship's passengers.
Technically, the space-time of the universe portrayed in the novels has a positive-definite Riemannian metric, rather than a pseudo-Riemannian metric, which is the kind that describes our own universe.
Other great stuff includes novels Diaspora, Quarantine, Distress and Schild's Ladder, as well as any of his collections of short stories (Axiomatic is particularly good).  

If reading Egan doesn't blow your mind, you just aren't paying attention!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

"I am the God of Hellfire and I bring you......Fire". With those immortal words and with its associated hook, Arthur Brown and his band, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, forever burned their way into our consciousnesses. Well, maybe not forever because now he is  mostly forgotten. Too bad! The song "Fire" is an all-time classic. Give it a listen and also check out the theatrics in the video, which is how he used to perform on stage, complete with real flames. He also used to be lowered from the heavens on a winch to begin the act. Alas, I never got to see him live!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Despite Widespread Panic, It Now Seems Unlikely Trump Will Succeed in Dismantling Obama's Legacy

After the unfortunate events of last November, there were widespread fears on the left that Trump would reverse everything the Obama administration managed to accomplish. At the time I thought that was quite unlikely, not because Trump might not want to, but because politically and institutionally this would be very hard to do.

I believe that the impressive ineffectiveness of the Trump administration so far indicates that the (typical) pessimism of the left was not justified. The Obama legacy is highly likely to survive to be built on by later progressive politicians. An excellent piece by Perry Bacon on 538 makes the case. Bacon synthesizes various sources to come up with Obama's top 10 accomplishments and then considers what has happened to them under the Trump administration.
1.      The 2009 economic stimulus and the drop in the unemployment rate that followed it.
2.      The bailout of the auto companies.
3.      The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
4.      The Dodd-Frank bill that increased regulation of big banks and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
5.      The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that allowed openly gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the U.S. military.
6.      The killing of Osama bin Laden.
7.      The drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
8.      The agreement reached between Iran, the U.S. and five other nations to attempt to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
9.      The normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba.
10.  The 200-nation Paris climate change agreement that Obama helped negotiate and the slew of additional environmental initiatives that were promulgated through new rules and provisions in the stimulus.
A review of this list shows how much of what Obama achieved can’t be unwound by Trump simply because we are in a different time in history:
§  The stimulus was a specific policy in response to the economic crisis.
§  Ditto for the auto bailout.
§  The country has moved leftward on gay rights, with gay marriage now recognized as a constitutional right. So it’s very unlikely that Trump will try to reimpose the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (In a sign of that shift, Trump is instead seeking to limit new recruits to the military who are openly transgender.)
§  Osama bin Laden isn’t coming back to life.
§  It’s difficult to see Trump returning the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan to anywhere near the levels — 140,000 in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan — that existed when Obama took office. Although Obama didn’t succeed in his stated goal of bringing all the troops home, he lowered the numbers to about 6,000 in Iraq and 8,400 in Afghanistan by the time he left. Trump has recently committed to boosting the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but there are now only about 11,000 U.S. troops there.
That’s five of 10 major Obama accomplishments that are more or less etched in stone. The other half could in theory be unwound. Indeed, it is the official policy of the Republican Party, as stated in the party’s platform, to reverse Obama’s initiatives on Cuba and Iran, end U.S. participation in the Paris agreement, and repeal Dodd-Frank and Obamacare.
But so far, even the easier achievements to get rid of haven’t gone anywhere. The new president is essentially 0 for 3, with two incompletes.
You’re familiar with the Republican failure to repeal Obamacare. Trump has also spoken of his dissatisfaction with the Iran deal but has not withdrawn the U.S. from it. In June, Republicans in the House passed a bill to roll back parts of Dodd-Frank, but that provision has little chance of becoming law, because that would require 60 votes in the Senate and Democrats oppose it. So that’s three areas in which Obama’s legacy, at least for now, remains in place.
In June, Trump declared, “I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” But the policy that Trump announced that day was far short of a full reversal of Obama’s moves: Embassies in Havana and Washington remain open, new flights and cruises to Cuba are still operating and formal diplomatic relations between the two governments continue. (Trump did make it harder for American tourists to go to Cuba and U.S. businesses to operate there.) Trump seems potentially headed toward a full reversal of that major Obama initiative. But he’s not there yet, so that one is incomplete.
Similarly, on the environment, Trump made a much-ballyhooed announcement that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris agreement. But he didn’t totally unwind Obama’s work there either. First, Obama and his administration worked hard to make the Paris agreement a worldwide deal, so the U.S. withdrawal does not by itself destroy the agreement. Trump’s announcement has not yet caused a stampede of other nations to pull out, with China, France and Germany in particular recommitting to the agreement even after the new American president declared his opposition to it. Secondly, because of the rules of the agreement, the United States cannot officially withdraw from the Paris deal until Nov. 4, 2020. Trump could withdraw that day, but a President Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders might be elected the day before, on Nov. 3, 2020, on a pledge to keep the U.S. in the agreement.
And the wind and solar power initiatives that Obama championed appear not to be under any threat from Trump’s team, probably because these policies aren’t viewed as punitive, unlike the perception of Obama’s regulations on coal.
So Trump is not the end of the world--better days are coming! For more on how and when, consult your copy of The Optimistic Leftist. And keep your sunny side up.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

So What Are We to Think about Sanders' Medicare for All Plan?

My old friend John Judis says it's a step forward for the Democratic Party. I'm inclined to agree. Sure Republicans will attack it as stupendous overreach. Sure the details are shaky and in practice such a transition would be hard to pull off--at least all at once. But as Judis points out, it's aspirational in a bold way that Democrats have avoided to their detriment and very easy for the average voter to understand. These are very good things!

The Overton window is moving so let's not worry too much about how "practical" the proposal is. Instead view it as a positive--even inspiring--sign of where our politics is going.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Can Democrats Take Texas (or at Least Part of It)?

Sometimes it feels like Texas is the Great White Whale for the Democrats. They're obsessed with it but they just can't catch it. Will Texas always be that way or are there chances for Democrats even now to make progress?

Francis Wilkinson in an excellent piece for Bloomberg makes the case that really are opportunities, starting in 2018. He explains:
In 2016, while Hillary Clinton was losing states previously won by Barack Obama, she substantially outperformed him in Texas, losing the state by 9 points compared with Obama's 16-point loss in 2012.
Republican strategist Liam Donovan analyzed the swing, from 2012 to 2016, in congressional districts nationwide. Six of the 11 districts with the greatest swing in presidential vote from Republican to Democrat were in Texas.
Donovan emailed:
Traditional swing seats are still going to swing, and there may even be enough for Democrats to recapture the House, but the opportunity for realignment lies in these affluent suburbs where Clinton capitalized on Trump's relative weakness among college-educated white voters. Democrats have been seeking to turn Texas blue on the strength of Hispanic turnout, which is necessary, but thus far insufficient. Whether Democrats can win in the near term will depend on whether they can figure out how to peel off Republican-leaning Trump skeptics in places like Highland Park (metro Dallas) and Memorial (metro Houston).
You cannot peel if you do not play. Clinton received 44 percent or more of the vote in five Texas districts currently held by Republicans. More striking, Clinton defeated Trump statewide among voters under 40, and won the youngest cohort, 18- to 24-year-olds, by a thumping 26 points. Turning Texas youth into loyal Democrats should be a Democratic crusade. One-quarter of the state's population is under the age of 18.
Sound like a real opportunity to me. We'll see if the Democrats can take advantage of it. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

What Do Democrats Stand For?

Excellent question! You'll find much to ponder in a new interview by Susan Glasser of five prominent Democrats in the new edition of the Politico magazine. They are: Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, historian Michael Kazin, Mitch Stewart of 270 Strategies, Jess O'Connell, CEO of the Democratic National Committee and Tom Perez, chair of the same organization. 

Glasser remarks:
It was striking, in fact, to hear Perez open by talking about “the loss of over 900 seats in state legislatures, the movement from 60 Democrats in the Senate to 48, the loss of governors and secretaries of state and state attorneys general, etc.,” over the course of the Obama presidency—and equally so to hear Tanden, who advised Clinton on her economic strategy in last year’s race and runs perhaps the party’s leading think tank, say “we have to show a bolder economic plan than we have before.”…..
[T]here was surface agreement on Perez’s “every ZIP code strategy”; how could there not be, with Trump having won the election by claiming the three swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin on the basis of his appeals to their disaffected white majorities? But nagging worries remained: Could the Democratic Party address the lost white working class with its policies? Would it? Or were the economic fears Trump claimed to address really just a cover for a darker Trump agenda of racial exclusion and immigrant-bashing that Democrats won’t and shouldn’t cater to?
 Does this roundtable answer these questions, not to mention the Big One about what do Democrats stand for? You be the judge.