Kevin Drum

It Was Night Goggles, Not the Taliban

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 12:15 PM EDT

Here's the result of an Air Force investigation:

A solid plastic case designed to hold a set of night-vision goggles was ultimately responsible for causing the crash of an Air Force transport plane that killed 14 people in October, the Air Force announced in a statement last week.

This is obviously a tragedy, all the more so for having such a trivial cause. But what's interesting is what came next:

Twenty-eight seconds after takeoff, 14 people, including the four crew members, two Air Force security personnel and five civilian contractors aboard, were dead. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the crash, saying it shot down the aircraft.

I often wonder how many claims of this nature are actually true. Many of them are, obviously. But it's pretty easy to claim responsibility for just about anything, and it's good PR to take credit for killing a bunch of Americans. Maybe too easy.

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No, Bernie's Taxes Don't Show That He's a Hypocrite

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 11:27 AM EDT

This argument was tiresome a decade ago, and it's still tiresome:

Bernie Sanders released his 2014 tax return this weekend, revealing that he and his wife took $60,208 in deductions from their taxable income. These deductions are all perfectly legal and permitted under the U.S. tax code, but they present a morally inconvenient, if delicious, irony: The Democratic socialist from Vermont, a man who rages against high earners paying a lower effective tax rate than blue-collar workers, saved himself thousands using many of the tricks that would be banned under his own tax plan.

....The deductions left Sanders and his wife effective federal tax rate of 13.5 percent. If that seems low to you, your instincts are right: According to the Tax Foundation, the average federal income-tax rate for a couple making $200,000 to $500,000 in 2014 was 15.2 percent.

....What Sanders did, using every option and advantage available under a Byzantine tax code to minimize his tax payment, is a normal practice for many Americans. But it’s also exactly what the targets of his anger do. You can argue about whether or not that’s greed, but it’s impossible to argue that it isn’t hypocrisy. The paragon of liberal purity is not as pure as he’d like the world to believe.

This isn't even close to hypocrisy. If you don't like the designated hitter rule in baseball, does that mean you should send your pitcher to the plate just to prove how sincere you are? Of course not. You play by the rules, whatever those rules are.

I favor universal, government-funded health care. Does that mean I should virtuously refuse MoJo's employer health care? Does anyone on the planet think that makes any sense at all?

Tax laws are tax laws, and there's nothing hypocritical about following them even if you disagree with them. Just the opposite, in fact. It speaks well of Sanders that he supports changes that would hurt him personally. It's a helluva lot more than Republicans ever do.

Trump, Clinton Remain Way Ahead in New York Primary

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 9:36 PM EDT

I'm not sure how reliable primary polling has been this year, but the Pollster aggregates are pretty clear for Tuesday's primary in New York. Donald Trump retains a commanding lead on the Republican side, even though New Yorkers should know better, and Hillary Clinton is ahead of Bernie Sanders by 15 points in the Democratic primary. Both Trump and Clinton have increased their leads slightly since the beginning of the month.

Sam Wang forecasts that a big win in New York puts Donald Trump on track to win the Republican nomination outright with 1265 delegates by the end of primary season. His probability of getting 1237 or above is 64 percent. Hillary Clinton, of course, has basically already won the Democratic nomination thanks to her current lead in pledged delegates and her overwhelming lead in superdelegates. The Democratic primary has been little more than shadow boxing for at least the past month.

Donald Trump Is Very Easily Disgusted

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 2:17 PM EDT

Consider the following five anecdotes about Donald Trump:

  • On Hillary Clinton's late return from a debate break in December: "I know where she went — it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting."
  • On Megyn Kelly's tough questioning during a debate in August: "She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions. You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
  • On Elizabeth Beck's request to take a breast pump break during a deposition in 2011: "He got up, his face got red, he shook his finger at me and he screamed, 'You're disgusting, you're disgusting,' and he ran out of there."
  • On his well-known germaphobia: "Trump doesn’t even like to push a ground floor elevator button because it’s been tapped by so many people....Trump especially avoids shaking hands with teachers, since they are likely to be have been 'in touch' with too many germy kids. Trump has what he calls a borderline case of germaphobia — aka msyophobia — that the American Psychological Association defines as one of the more common forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder."
  • On his one-time friendship with notorious lawyer Roy Cohn: "By virtually all accounts, one of Trump’s closest friends early in his career was Roy Cohn....When Cohn was facing disbarment in the mid-’80s, Trump testified on his friend’s behalf as a character witness. For a while, according to Vanity Fair, the two men spoke '15 or 20 times a day.' Then Trump found out Cohn was HIV-positive. He moved swiftly to cut ties with his mentor, seeking out new attorneys and transferring his legal business to them. The sudden rejection stunned Cohn."

This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt's theory of moral foundations, which suggests that although liberals and conservatives share a set of five innate moral roots, they prioritize them quite differently. Conservatives, for example, are especially sensitive to moral foundation #5:

Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination....It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants.

I wonder how strongly Donald Trump scores on this particular moral foundation? Pretty strongly, I'd guess. I wonder how much it explains his approach to politics? And I wonder how much it explains his popularity with a certain subset of conservatives?

It's just a thought. But perhaps one of the things that unites so many of Trump's longtime obsessions (immigrants, crime, kicking out protesters, anything to do with foreigners) is a fear of growing impurity in the body of the country. It might explain a lot.

UPDATE: I see that Alexander Hurst got here first. His take on Haidt's moral foundations and Trump's sensitivity to disgust is here.

Weekly Flint Water Report: April 9-15

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 1:33 PM EDT

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 905 samples. The average for the past week was 10.63.


Will Twitter Soon Be Overrun With Silicon Trolls?

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 12:49 PM EDT

Hugh Hancock muses today about the remarkable effectiveness of efforts to turn Microsoft's (now) infamous Tay chatbot into an asshole. It didn't take much. Mostly the people who did it were just having a laugh, and Tay took it from there. It turns out that being an asshole is a pretty easy thing to emulate.

So what does this mean for the future? Not the far future, mind you, but next year. Hancock has an unnerving answer:

Everyone Can Have Their Own Twitter Mob

Right now, if you want to have someone attacked by a horde of angry strangers, you need to be a celebrity. That's a real problem on Twitter and Facebook both, with a few users in particular becoming well-known for abusing their power to send their fans after people with whom they disagree.

But remember, the Internet's about democratising power, and this is the latest frontier. With a trollbot and some planning, this power will soon be accessible to anyone.

There's a further twist, too: the bots will get better. Attacking someone on the Internet is a task eminently suited to deep learning. Give the bots a large corpus of starter insults and a win condition, and let them do what trolls do — find the most effective, most unpleasant ways to attack someone online. No matter how impervious you think you are to abuse, a swarm of learning robots can probably find your weak spot.

There are some details to be worked out, of course, like setting up all the accounts your trollbot would need. Hancock addresses that. He figures the bots will be pretty good at this stuff too.

The unnerving part of this is that although Hancock is writing in a chatty tone, this is all very plausible. And for something like Twitter, where a bot doesn't need much intelligence to fit right in, it's a pretty serious near-term possibility.

So what happens? Behind Door 1, Twitter becomes an abattoir of filth and verbal war. Only the bravest dare enter. Behind Door 2, Twitter mobs become so frequent that no one cares about them anymore. Even the most sensitive among us just shrug them off. Behind Door 3, it all becomes a tedious war between semi-intelligent trollbots and semi-intelligent trollbot filters. It's just Act II of the online production that began with email spam.

On the bright side, this might put actual trolls out of commission. How can they compete? And what will they do with all their newfound free time?

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Bernie Supporters Are Mostly Disappointed in Obama

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 12:04 PM EDT

In response to my post yesterday about the tradition of truthtellers in Democratic primaries,1 a reader emails: "Offhand my guess would be that a lot of Bernie supporters think Obama proves that an outsider/rebel/truthteller can both win and end up a very successful president." Another reader tweets the same sentiment:

Hmmm. I don't think either of these is true. Obama didn't run in the truthteller tradition. He ran more in the JFK/Clinton tradition: a young guy bringing the voice of a new generation to the White House. Obama was inspiring and wildly popular, but he didn't spend his time explaining that we all had to face up to endemic corruption or tidal waves of money or demographic Armageddon. Just the opposite. He mostly sanded the rough edges off that kind of stuff. It was all hope and change and ending the partisan bickering in Washington.

As for Bernie supporters, I don't think they view Obama as a rebel or a truthteller. Bernie himself is careful not to criticize Obama, but a lot of his supporters see Obama as basically a disappointment: just another squishy centrist who made some incremental progress and called it a day. In the end, we still don't have universal health care; the banks are still running things; the Republican Party continues to obstruct; and rich people are still rich. That's the very reason we need a guy like Bernie in the Oval Office.

This is certainly my impression, anyway. Am I wrong?

1A theme that Jamelle Bouie touches on in a much longer, more nuanced piece here about the Bernie insurgency. It's well worth a read.

Who Supported the 1994 Crime Bill?

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 11:16 AM EDT

Farah Stockman reports that the generation gap between Hillary supporters and Bernie supporters extends to African-Americans too. And the 1994 crime bill is part of it:

[Caryl] Brock said she had been a social worker in charge of the removal of children from dangerous homes in the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crack tore a path of destruction through those neighborhoods....She said she was relieved when the crime bill passed. In addition to providing more money for prisons and the police, the law banned assault weapons and offered funding for drug courts and rehabilitation. “Because of the crime bill,” she said, “anybody that wanted rehabilitation, we could process them and get them a detox bed in a hospital.”

Ms. Brock’s comments underscore a sometimes overlooked reality in today’s re-examination of the crime bill: The legislation was broadly embraced by nonwhite voters, more enthusiastically even than by white voters. About 58 percent of nonwhites supported it in 1994, according to a Gallup poll, compared with 49 percent of white voters.

Mr. Clinton has seemed rattled at times as he tries to defend the measure to younger African-Americans in an era in which concerns about mistreatment by the police and mass incarceration have eclipsed the fear of crime in many black communities.

And among these younger voters, the Clintons lack the deep admiration that they enjoy from previous generations of African-Americans. In the Democratic primary contests so far, 92 percent of black voters 65 and older cast ballots for Mrs. Clinton, compared with 45 percent of black voters under age 25, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research.

Obviously everyone should vote for whoever they want. But this piece highlights one thing that continues to eat at me: judging the past by the standards of the present. The 1994 crime bill was hardly supported unanimously, and there was plenty of criticism of it at the time. It's fine to take note of that. But the plain fact is that 1994 was a different time: crime was rampant and people were scared—including black people—and most of them supported the crime bill, warts and all. Were they wrong to do so? Maybe. But you need to seriously engage with what the world was like in 1994 and what they could reasonably have known about it before you condemn them.

A world where violent crime is no longer an obsession, replaced instead by DWB and Ferguson-style police shootings, calls for different responses. No one would propose anything like the 1994 crime bill anymore. But in 1994 things looked a lot different. You need to understand that deep in your gut before you lash out at the folks who supported it.

What's the Deal With Oldsters and Hillary, Anyway?

| Sun Apr. 17, 2016 2:52 PM EDT

It's Sunday, and that's time for some idle musing. Today's idle musing is this: why is it that us oldsters tend to favor Hillary over Bernie? Obviously we have some substantive reasons, just as Bernie supporters have theirs. But it's a funny thing. I pretty much agree with Bernie's take on money in politics. I like his attitude toward Wall Street. I have reservations about his foreign policy, but I still suspect that he'd be less interventionist and more to my liking. And yet, I still lean toward Hillary. Partly this is also substantive—she's better briefed, her proposals are more realistic, and I think she could get more done—but there's no denying that a lot of it is mood affiliation.

For some reason this got me thinking about fight scenes in movies. Bear with me here. If you watch a movie from 50 years ago, the fight scenes will mostly strike you as ridiculous. The staging is weak, the sound effects are amateurish, and the choreography is slapdash. Things improved over the next couple of decades, but then they went overboard. Fight scenes began to devour blockbuster movies, with directors all trying to one up each other. But really, a fight is a fight. After a while, there's little new you can do, and all the CGI in the world can't hide that. Anyone who saw the most recent Star Trek movie knows what I'm talking about. The final fight scene was absurd, tedious, and completely unnecessary. But JJ Abrams put it in because he figured his audience demanded it. And I suppose they did. But those of us who have been watching movies since the 60s or 70s found it boring and predictable.

Now on to politics. To me, Bernie is like one of those fight scenes: I've seen it all before. On the Democratic side, primaries have specialized in having at least one bold truthteller like Bernie in every cycle since the 1960s. Sometimes they're lefty truthtellers, sometimes they're "hard truths" truthtellers, and sometimes they're a bit of a mishmash. But the one thing they have in common is that they can afford to tell the truth—in the beginning, at least—because they're mostly running as rebels who don't really expect to win. And if you're not seriously trying to win, there's no downside to being entirely candid. Who cares if you're going to lose a few important demographics in the process?

Since 1968, we've seen at least one of these in every contested Democratic primary. Off the top of my head, the list includes Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Mo Udall, Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich. They all attracted a crowd of fans, some more than others, and generally speaking they were lionized by the press. None of them won except for McGovern, who went down to an epic defeat in the general election. (Probably any Democrat would have lost that year, but McGovern lost in a landslide.)

So this year I look at Bernie, and I see the same old thing: a bold truthteller who could afford not to play conventional politics because he was never really planning to win. He just wanted to get his issues on the table. The fact that he's running so close is probably as much of a surprise to him as it is to everyone else.

But this is obviously something that's far more salient to older voters than to younger ones. Bernie doesn't seem fresh and courageous to us. He seems like the same guy we've seen every four years. They all have one or two issues they care about. They want those issues on the table, and running for president is a good way to do it. They usually drop out by spring. And generally speaking, most of them probably didn't have the temperament to make good presidents.

Obviously your mileage might vary. Maybe Bernie is finally the one to do it, and I'm just too old and jaded to see it. Maybe his temperament is different, and he'd surprise us all by being a pretty good president. Maybe he'd get serious about rallying his troops to care about downballot elections, and win control of Congress. Maybe he'd really get a lot of the stuff done that he's been talking about.

I doubt it. But then again, none of the previous truthtellers has ever made it to the White House, so who knows? Maybe eight years from now we'll all be feeling the Bern.

American Independent Party Voters in California Mostly Just Screwed Up When They Registered

| Sun Apr. 17, 2016 11:36 AM EDT

I suppose I shouldn't laugh at this, but the LA Times reports today that the American Independent Party has grown to about 500 thousand members in California since it started up in 1968. Why? A survey suggests that about three-quarters of AIP members thought they were registering as lower-case independents—that is, voters with no party preference. Now that's a low-information voter.

None of this has anything to do with Bernie Sanders. As you can see, voters declaring no party preference have been on the rise for well over a decade. But it still makes a difference: if you're independent, you can vote for Bernie in the California primary. If you're AIP, you can't. So it's likely there are upwards of 400 thousand registered voters in California who may be leaning toward Bernie but won't be able to vote for him. They better re-register quick if they want to feel the Bern.

They won't, of course. Anyone who made a mistake like this isn't likely to care enough about Democratic Party politics to bother. Still, it makes you wonder if someone could siphon off, say, Republican votes by starting up the Independent Voters of the Republic Party or something. Worth a try!