• Whose “Fault” Is the Government Shutdown?

    Miguel Juarez Lugo via ZUMA

    “Why aren’t you writing anything about the shutdown?” The masses demand to know what’s up. Well, I’ve been busy with some other stuff this weekend, and anyway, I’m not even sure what to say.

    Let’s start with an obvious point: any government shutdown is the result of disagreements between Democrats and Republicans. In that sense, it’s not really anyone’s “fault.” Either side could cave at anytime if they really wanted the government to start running again.

    That said, the question of who bears most of the fault for the current shutdown depends on who’s making the more outrageous demands. I can’t pretend to be neutral about this, but let’s roll the tape.

    Republicans control Congress, but this year they never even came close to passing a budget because they were too busy failing to repeal Obamacare and enacting big tax cuts for corporations. Democrats, for reasons best left unexamined, gave Republicans the headroom to do this by agreeing to multiple continuing resolutions that would keep the government running in the meantime. All along, however, Democrats had one demand: that the eventual budget include language that restored DACA, the “mini-DREAM” act that Donald Trump killed. Eventually, they said, they’d stop voting for more CRs that didn’t include DACA. And so they did. Republicans have known this for months.

    Now, Republicans are allegedly in favor of restoring DACA too, so the easy solution would have been to include it in the latest CR, perhaps along with some kind of concession from Democrats on military spending. All done, and then everyone can get down to the serious work of writing real appropriations bills. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

    I’ll confess up front that I don’t know precisely what DACA demands Democrats are making, but I don’t think they’ve moved the goalposts on this noticeably. They just want DACA. So do Republicans. So does the vast majority of America.

    So what are Republicans demanding in return? Unfortunately, it’s all but impossible to figure that out. At first it was a few restrictions on chain migration and some money for border security. Democrats were willing to work with this, and Donald Trump said he’d sign anything Congress sent him, even if he didn’t like it that much.

    But then Trump changed his mind and decided the bill should contain an almost complete wishlist of Republican demands from past immigration negotiations. This was faintly ridiculous, since Democrats would certainly want more in return for all that than merely DACA. Nonetheless, Dems were willing to compromise and accept much of this. Once again Trump seemed amenable. And once again he changed his mind after Stephen Miller and Tom Cotton got to him. Mitch McConnell threw up his hands, saying he couldn’t really do anything until he knew what Trump wanted, and Paul Ryan maintained a studious silence. And then the government shut down.

    From a PR standpoint, Democrats have a positive message: we just want protection for Dreamers. That’s very popular. But Republicans have one too: Democrats are willing to shut down the government over illegal aliens. That also polls well. I don’t know how that will play out.

    However, in terms of demands, it’s hard to see how anyone would think Democrats are being the outrageous ones. They want something that’s simple and reasonable (and popular); they’ve been consistent about what they want; and they’ve generally been open to compromise to get it done. Republicans, by contrast, have demanded concessions for something they supposedly support themselves; their demands have become ever more onerous over the past few weeks; the president keeps changing his mind about what he wants; and at this point literally no one knows what it would take to close a deal with Republicans. Democrats couldn’t cave in even if they wanted to.

    Republicans even refused to pass a routine measure to keep paying the military during the shutdown, something that would have passed easily on a bipartisan basis. Why? So that when they go on TV to argue that Democrats are responsible for the shutdown, they can also blame Democrats for service members not getting paychecks.

    Am I missing anything important here? Have Democrats raised the stakes in ways I’m not aware of? Have Republicans been more consistent in their demands than I’m giving them credit for? Why is this whole question even remotely debatable?

  • A Decade After the Great Recession, We’re Outsourcing Home Appraisals to India

    Manuel Romano/NurPhoto via ZUMA

    The Wall Street Journal reports that banks are getting tired of performing actual appraisals for high-volume home loans—the kind that get packaged into mortgage-based securities—and are turning instead to less rigorous broker price opinions:

    Now these perfunctory valuations abound, underpinning tens of billions of dollars of home deals. Sometimes the process is outsourced to India, where companies charge real-estate agents a few dollars to come up with U.S. home values by consulting Google Earth and real-estate websites. BPOs have been used to value collateral in the more than $20 billion of bonds sold by institutional landlords, such as Blackstone’s Invitation Homes Inc., and in the fast-growing business of lending to individual house flippers.

    What could go wrong? “Their popularity,” says the Journal, “shows how Wall Street is finding ways to adapt to government efforts to crack down on some of the excesses that contributed to the housing crisis.”

    It’s remarkable how fast we’ve decided to ignore the lessons of the great housing bubble and the subsequent crash. Republicans, of course, never wanted to learn any lessons from the very start, but Wall Street stayed cautious for at least a few years. Now even that’s receding into the rear view mirror, a mere decade after the second-worst recession of the past century. Republicans are naturally happy to help this process along, because the market is always right, even when the market is wrong. Plus the finance industry is generous to politicians who let them do whatever they want.

    It took upwards of 50 years to unlearn the lessons of the Great Depression. The Great Recession took only ten. I wonder how long we’ll pretend to have learned anything from the next one?

  • How Exactly Is Blockchain Supposed to Change the World?

    Rowan Walrath wrote yesterday about bitcoin. She talked to Pai-Ling Yin, a professor at USC:

    While cryptocurrency investment has a “bubble element,” she says, that doesn’t mean blockchain has no value. To put it simply, blockchain is an anonymized, decentralized system for managing data and keeping accounts, and while it’s most commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, it has potentially far-reaching implications for the future direction of the internet….Does this mean investors are right to value bitcoin at $20,000? Not necessarily, Yin says. “It’s high for now. Let’s put it that way,” she says. “There could be a time where the valuation we see now does correspond to the value of what the technology is.”

    I should admit up front that I obviously don’t “get” bitcoin, but I really don’t get Yin’s comment. In what way should bitcoin reflect the value of the technology behind it? Owning bitcoin doesn’t give me a patent on blockchain technology, after all. There’s tremendous amounts of technology that go into making a penny too, but it’s still only worth one cent.

    Anyway, blockchain. It’s an interesting technology. As Walrath says, it’s decentralized. That means it’s a way of conducting reliable transactions without having anyone in the middle to verify them. This has some potentially interesting uses, but only if you care deeply about not having anyone in the middle. The Visa network, for example, can process billions of transactions quickly and accurately, as all of us know since we use our credit and debit cards every day with no hassle. Transaction processing per se is not a problem that needs solving. However, all the transactions are managed by Visa. If you don’t want Visa to know what you’re doing, this is a problem.

    It’s not clear to me just how widespread this desire is. Drug dealers and money launderers, obviously, like to keep a low profile. Ditto for organizations that are banned from using the banking system. And of course, anyone who’s just generally paranoid. But how big a market is that? It doesn’t seem all that big to me. But then again, I don’t get it, do I?

    Plus there’s the issue of just how blockchain manages this reliable, decentralized verification of transactions. The answer in the case of bitcoin is that thousands of computers around the world are engaged in bitcoin mining, in the hopes of getting rich. In the course of that mining, they maintain the blockchain. That’s all fine, but how does blockchain work when there aren’t thousands of people around the globe with a profit motive to maintain the blockchain? Beats me.

    I dunno. Blockchain is an interesting technology, but I continue to have a hard time seeing it as revolutionary. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see.

  • Men and Women View the Seriousness of Sexual Assault About the Same

    After a massive set of complex calculations, I now have the results of the sexual assault survey broken down by gender. And it’s genuinely interesting! Here’s the chart:

    Of the 2,019 responses, about 80 percent were men and 20 percent were women. In general women ranked everyone a consistent half point higher than men. So there’s a difference here, but not really a large one. The two exceptions were Harvey Weinstein—who doesn’t count since he was pretty much maxed out already—and Al Franken. I’m not sure why men and women agreed only on Franken. Feel free to take guesses in comments.

    But that’s not the interesting part. What’s interesting is that men and women rank-ordered these nine cases exactly the same. Although the actual scores are a little different, both men and women agree, for example, that Matt Lauer is worse than Charlie Rose and Garrison Keillor is worse than Al Franken.

    I don’t want to pop off too much on this before I’ve had a chance to mull it over, but these results suggest a couple of obvious things:

    • The scores ranged from 2 to 10. Obviously we are all—both men and women—perfectly capable of distinguishing the seriousness of different kinds of sexual assault and harassment.
    • The fact that men and women agreed on the rank-ordering¹ suggests that, no, women are not trying to ban flirtation or romance or anything of the sort. The cases that didn’t bother men all that much also didn’t bother the women all that much. The moral here is not to pay too much attention to the screeching outliers on Twitter or elsewhere.² There are always screechers around. Instead, try to pay attention to the actual bulk of mainstream opinion.

    One way or another, these results imply that we all have a pretty good sense of how serious various kinds of sexual assault are. I’m not sure we have the vocabulary to talk about it properly right now, but the fact that our instincts are all in the same place means that eventually a common vocabulary should be possible. It’s something to work on.

    If you feel like playing around with the data yourself, a spreadsheet of all 2,019 responses is here. If you just want to see charts for each person, a screen cap of the Google summary is here.

    ¹I want to stress yet again that my readership is mostly a liberal, highly-educated, politically-minded audience. These results might apply more generally to other people like us, but they certainly don’t apply any more generally than that.

    ²Of course, that’s my advice for everything, so….

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 19 January 2018

    Every morning, when I open the door to the backyard, Hopper gallops out as if her tail is on fire. She just has to see if anything has changed in the previous 12 hours. Hilbert, on the other hand, is considerably more cautious about the whole thing. He sits in the doorway and peers out for a while, trying to make up his mind if it’s safe. It helps if I go out first and fail to be eaten by a dinosaur or something. Eventually he takes a few steps outside, but the red-in-tooth-and-claw danger of the great outdoors (dogs walking by, gardeners making noise, etc.) has made him wary. Here he is this morning while he was still in making-up-his-mind mode.

  • #MeToo Poll Results

    I got about 2,000 responses to my survey about sexual assault last night. This is probably obvious to everyone, but please note that this is a self-selected online poll of a specific readership. It’s not scientific and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the broader population. With that said, here’s how you all ranked the seriousness of various cases of sexual assault and harassment:

    Unsurprisingly, Harvey Weinstein scored highest and Aziz Ansari scored lowest. There’s a big jump between the bottom three and the rest of the field.

    For each person, I also calculated the discrete variance, which is a measure of how much everyone agreed on the scores. Here’s the same chart ranked by variance:

    Garrison Keillor generated a huge variance in opinion, especially for a guy whose mean score was so low. At the other end, there was strong agreement about the scores for Ansari and Weinstein.

    For now, I don’t have anything special to say about this. Maybe later. Maybe not. However, I do have all the raw data, which I’ll use to generate scores separately for men and women. That takes a little more work, but I’ll get to it later today.

  • Does Donald Trump Even Want a DACA Deal Anymore?

    Jeff Malet/Newscom via ZUMA

    Does President Trump even want a deal on DACA? He says he does, but after he was embarrassed at his own immigration meeting for not understanding anything about it, he’s suddenly decided to take the advice of immigration hardliners like Stephen Miller and Tom Cotton, who simply don’t want DACA restored. Jonathan Swan got a copy of a memo from the hawks in the White House explaining the few wee complaints they had with the Durbin/Graham proposal. Here is his summary along with my comments:

    As near as I can tell, they know that Trump won’t understand a word they say, so they can say anything they want. Plus there’s a tiny kernel of truth in each one of these points, so they have their butts covered in case someone calls them out.

    Bottom line: if Trump is outsourcing his negotiation to the Tom Cottons of the world, it means he doesn’t want a deal at all. Folks like that will never agree to anything.

  • Conservatives Upset About FISA Surveillance Abuse

    Boutin Dominique/TASS via ZUMA

    Apparently the US government runs a widespread surveillance program, and Republicans are upset about it. This may seem odd, since they’re usually pretty gung-ho about this kind of stuff, but I’m sure they have their reasons. Fox News reports:

    A four-page memo circulating in Congress that reveals alleged United States government surveillance abuses is being described by lawmakers as “shocking,” “troubling” and “alarming,” with one congressman likening the details to KGB activity in Russia. “It is so alarming the American people have to see this,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan said. “It’s troubling. It is shocking,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows said.

    Yikes! What is this all about?

    Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said he believed people could lose their jobs after the memo is released. “I believe the consequence of its release will be major changes in people currently working at the FBI and the Department of Justice,” he said, referencing DOJ officials Rod Rosenstein and Bruce Ohr.

    ….A source close to the matter said the memo details the Intelligence Committee’s oversight work for the FBI and Justice, including the controversy over unmasking and FISA surveillance.

    Oh. Susan Rice and unmasking again. They just can’t get enough of Susan Rice, can they? And naturally this demands the firing of Rod Rosenstein, who has treacherously allowed Robert Mueller to continue his investigation of President Trump. I’m sure it will turn out to be a fascinating memo.

  • #MeToo: A Poll About Sexual Assault

    Erik Mcgregor/Pacific Press via ZUMA

    Much of the recent pushback to the #MeToo movement revolves around the idea that we aren’t drawing proper distinctions between serious sexual assault and less serious everyday boorishness. Here is Megan McArdle:

    I have now had dozens of conversations about #MeToo with women my age or older, all of which are some variant on “What the hey?” It’s not that we’re opposed to #MeToo; we are overjoyed to see slime like Harvey Weinstein flushed out of the woodwork, and the studio system. But we see sharp distinctions between Weinstein and guys who press aggressively — embarrassingly, adulterously — for sex. To women in their 20s, it seems that distinction is invisible.

    ….Let me propose a possible answer to this, suggested by a very smart social scientist of my acquaintance: They feel this way because we no longer have any moral language for talking about sex except consent. So when men do things that they feel are wrong — such as aggressively pursuing casual sex without caring about the feelings of their female target — we’re left flailing for some way to describe this as non-consensual, even when she agreed to the sex.

    But Anna North says young women are perfectly capable of distinguishing between coerced sex from powerful men; unwanted groping from strangers; and the awkward overaggressiveness of a guy like Aziz Ansari:

    Many of those criticizing #MeToo seem to think that modern-day McCarthys want to strip men of their jobs and lock them up at the merest hint of flirtation. But there’s no reason to think that the many people coming forward to speak out about sexual misconduct can’t handle a conversation about a variety of kinds of sexual misconduct — and a variety of possible remedies….Moreover, many critics seem to believe that women are incapable of discernment, that they see no difference between a rape and an unwelcome comment, that they are equally outraged by everything.

    ….Neither is always the case. Aziz Ansari may face career repercussions for Grace’s story, but that hasn’t happened yet. Nor is there any suggestion that he’ll go to jail. And contrary to the image of women as vindictive harridans out for blood, there are examples of women who have responded with gratitude, even forgiveness, to men’s apologies.

    I think there’s some truth to both of these comments. But I wonder: do we have even a rough consensus about how serious various actions are? In criminal law, everything is specified in minute detail, and punishments range from a $50 fine to life in federal prison. We don’t have that in real life, so instead here’s a survey for you. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rank the offenses of each of the following men? If you’re not familiar with a case, leave it blank. I ask for your gender at the end because I want to find out if there’s any kind of systematic difference between men and women.

    Obviously this isn’t scientific, and the questions are best answered quickly. The point, obviously, is to force you to make a rough but concrete judgment. I’m curious about how my readership views this stuff.

  • Hushmoneygate? Stormygate? Whatever. It’s Getting Deeper, Faster.

    Stormy Daniels: Clinton Wallace/Globe Photos/ZUMA; Michael Cohen: Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom via ZUMA

    While we all wait to see what happens with the #ShitholeShutdown, the Wall Street Journal tells us more about the hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign:

    President Donald Trump’s lawyer used a private Delaware company to pay a former adult-film star $130,000 in return for her agreeing to not publicly discuss an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump, according to corporate records and people familiar with the matter.

    The lawyer, Michael Cohen, established Essential Consultants LLC, on Oct. 17, 2016, just before the 2016 presidential election, corporate documents show….[To] mask the identities of the people involved in the agreement, the parties used pseudonyms, with [Daniels] identified as “Peggy Peterson,” according to a person familiar with the matter. Part of the draft settlement pact was published by Slate.

    Let’s just repeat this: Trump’s lawyer paid hush money to a former mistress in the middle of a presidential campaign. But Trump refuses to talk about this and Cohen refuses to tell us where the money came from. How is it that the Wall Street Journal is the only paper chasing this story?

    But fine. It’s a porn star and the president. You want the titillating gossip, don’t you? Fine. Our own Daniel Friedman writes that a few years ago Stormy Daniels considered running for the Senate in Louisiana. She gave all her cell phone contacts to a political consultant, who then emailed about it to Andrea Dubé, a Democratic political consultant based in New Orleans:

    “Donald Trump?” she wrote. “In her cell phone?”

    “Yep,” the other consultant replied. “She says one time he made her sit with him for three hours watching ‘shark week.’ Another time he had her spank him with a Forbes magazine.” Dubé and the other consultant confirmed to Mother Jones they exchanged these emails.

    The campaign consultant who wrote the email to Dubé tells Mother Jones that Daniels said the spanking came during a series of sexual and romantic encounters with Trump and that it involved a copy of Forbes with Trump on the cover.

    A fall 2006 cover of Forbes does feature Trump and two of his children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka.


    Really, Donald? Such a naughty, naughty boy.