• 21st Century Gerrymandering Is Finally Getting a Close Look

    Yesterday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared the state’s congressional districts unconstitutional because they had been so badly gerrymandered. The result of the 2016 election bears out how effective the gerrymander was: Republicans won 54 percent of the congressional vote but received 72 percent of the congressional seats (13 out of 18).

    Conventional wisdom says that federal courts are unlikely to accept an appeal since the ruling was based solely on state law. Because it was a per curiam decision there was no lengthy opinion to explain the court’s reasoning, but they made clear that it was based on violations of the Pennsylvania state constitution.

    Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district, drawn to help Republicans maintain a political edge.

    Mother Jones; National Atlas

    However, even though the Pennsylvania case doesn’t officially have any bearing on federal cases of gerrymandering, it does provide yet another boost to the already skeptical judicial atmosphere surrounding them. The Supreme Court has never ruled against a redistricting plan, treating it as a purely political question, but that could change this year when the court rules on a pair of gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland. They’ll turn on the power of technology in a couple of fundamental ways:

    • In the past, courts correctly assumed that gerrymandering could be taken only just so far. Human minds can only do so much, after all. But computerized mapping has become so advanced that it’s now possible for even the most dimwitted party leader to create a wildly gerrymandered map at the touch of a button. There’s no longer anything that prevents any state with one-party control from adopting the most partisan gerrymander that’s mathematically possible.

      This changes things considerably. The basic question here is: at what point does a quantitative change become so large that it becomes a qualitative change? Similar questions are at the root of many recent privacy cases. In the past, for example, there was a natural limit to how extensively law enforcement agencies could track people since surveillance required human manpower that was in limited supply. But modern technology has changed that: cell phones and cheap video cameras and keyword analysis of wiretapping make it possible to track dozens or hundreds of people with virtually no effort. Is that something the founders expected?

    • If technology has created this problem, it’s likely that technology is also the solution. In the cases that have appeared before the court recently, plaintiffs have argued that it’s now possible to rely on clear and impartial computerized algorithms that put hard restraints on the allowable amount of gerrymandering. Chief Justice John Roberts famously called this “sociological gobbledygook” in the oral arguments for one of the current cases, but it’s not clear if a majority of the court still agrees with him about this.

    My sense of the Supreme Court is that they’ve been too reluctant to acknowledge the changes that technology have made in the political landscape. It makes maximal gerrymandering a routine occurrence. It allows police departments to keep an unlimited number of people under constant surveillance. It allows states to suppress minority votes using sophisticated data mining techniques that quickly find alternate justifications for their actions.

    Needless to say, this is only going to get worse as technology improves. When technology makes something 20 percent or 30 percent more effective, it’s easy for the court to decide that nothing fundamental has changed and its old rules should still apply. But when technology makes something 100 percent or 500 percent more effective, it gets a lot harder. Something fundamental has changed, and that means technology almost certainly has to be the answer.

    Of course, that also means Supreme Court justices are sometimes asked to make rulings based on arguments that rely on intricate algorithmic disputes. This is decidedly not something they’re comfortable with, but if they want to stay relevant in the 21st century they’re probably going to have start doing it anyway. Not every question can be solved by recourse to the text of a document written in 1787.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Remember that photo of the yellow house in Ballina, the one with the picture of a window painted on the front? I promised to eventually show you closeups of the painted window, along with another one in Ballina, and today’s the day. The one on the left is from the yellow house. The one on the right is from a nearby, paler yellow house. I’m not sure if this business of covering up windows and then painting pictures of windows on them is some kind of Ballina tradition, or if it’s just a coincidence. Maybe some Irish readers would like to chime in?

  • Stormygate Continues to Move Forward, Inches at a Time

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

    Stormygate continues to amble along. By now everyone agrees that evangelical Christians and other Trump supporters couldn’t care less that Donald Trump had a lengthy affair with a porn star shortly after his wife had a baby. I mean, Melania was probably gross looking, right? What was the guy supposed to do?

    But there’s still the issue of that $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels a few weeks before the election in return for her agreement to say the affair never happened. Trump and his comically bellicose attorney, Michael Cohen, have somehow managed to avoid having to address this even though nobody denies the payment itself. That’s enough of a knothole for the good folks at Common Cause to jump through:

    Today, Common Cause filed complaints with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that the payment of $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford (a.k.a. Stormy Daniels), through an LLC, was an unreported in-kind contribution to President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign committee in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act. The complaint also asks the agencies to determine whether the payment was made by the Trump Organization or some other corporation or individual, which would additionally make it an illegal in-kind contribution to the campaign. Corporations are prohibited from contributing to federal candidates and individual contributions are limited to $2,700.

    I eagerly await comment from election law experts about the critical question at the core of this lawsuit: Is hush money a campaign contribution that needs to be reported to the FEC? Maybe! In the meantime, the folks at CREW uncovered an interesting tidbit this morning:

    Huh. So…maybe the Trump Organization paid off Stormy, and then got reimbursed by the campaign? I would normally be skeptical on the grounds that no one could possibly be this stupid, but this is Trump we’re talking about.

    Then again, maybe the Russians paid off Stormy! I definitely think that’s plausible enough that Robert Mueller should subpeona Cohen for a brief chat under oath. Remember, kids, attorney-client privilege doesn’t cover conversations made with the intention of committing or covering up a crime or fraud.

  • A Brief Observation About Our President

    Gary M Williams/EFE via ZUMA

    Roughly speaking, there are three institutions that can investigate a president:

    • The press
    • The opposition party in Congress
    • The FBI and the Justice Department

    Donald Trump has declared war on all three. Coincidence?

  • New Poll Suggests People Are Pretty Satisfied With Work

    There’s a new NPR/Marist poll out today titled “Picture of Work in the United States.” It’s got a zillion questions about various aspects of work that I mostly didn’t find especially enlightening,¹ but there was one question that caught my eye. They asked respondents whether they feel their employer values their work. Here are the results for various demographic pairs:

    This is just one small data point and I don’t want to make too much of it. That said, feeling valued is a strong component of job satisfaction and therefore of satisfaction with the economy in general. As you can see, it approaches 90 percent for nearly everyone. In particular, Trump voters don’t feel any less valued than anyone else. Neither do millennials or men or conservatives. In fact, the only groups that feel substantially less valued than average are the poor and working class (income < $50,000) and nonwhites. But both of those are generally Democratic constituencies, not Trump supporters. Even among the white working class, 89 percent say they feel valued at work, right in line with the average.

    By itself, this poll question doesn’t mean too much. But if you combine it with other survey results about job satisfaction, personal financial stress, and so forth, it’s one more small bit of evidence that economic anxiety is neither widespread nor a strong motivating factor for Trump voters.

    ¹It’s not that the questions themselves were uninteresting. The problem is that a big pile of one-time data doesn’t tell us very much about the changing workplace. What we really want to know is how things have evolved over time, and this poll just doesn’t do that. This is true of the “value your work” question too, but comparing different demographic groups does tell us something about a political question.

  • Quote of the Day: Always Remember Your Twitter Password!

    From Hawaii Governor David Ige, explaining why it took him so long to tell everyone that the missile alert a couple of weeks ago was a mistake:

    I have to confess that I don’t know my Twitter account log-ons and the passwords, so certainly that’s one of the changes that I’ve made.

    I suppose that’s not as bad as nearly starting a nuclear war over a flock of geese, but it’s in the same category, just updated for our brave new social media era. A million years from now, when some future historian writes about the demise of the first human civilization, I expect they’ll conclude from archeological evidence that it was due to some 13-year old posting a joke on Facebook.

  • There’s No Such Thing as Populist Conservative Economic Policy

    Zach Gibson/CNP via ZUMA

    Over at National Review, Peter Spiliakos writes that Sen. Tom Cotton’s sterling hardline performance in the immigration standoff has strengthened his chance of being president someday:

    He was the most effective Trump surrogate and has earned the “fighter” reputation that Cruz wanted so desperately. He needs a broader populist economic policy to go along with his support for transitioning to a system of high-skill immigration. He should work with Senator Mike Lee on pro-parent tax policy and with James Capretta on health care. A populism that is only about immigration isn’t populist.

    This is a real question, not snark: what “populist” economic policies could a Republican nominee for president possibly support? “Pro-parent” tax policy is mostly just handwaving: usually a modest increase in the child tax credit and elimination of the marriage penalty. It’s peanuts. And no Republican has ever proposed anything in the same zip code as populist health care policy. Spiliakos mentions James Capretta, but Capretta is a standard issue conservative who champions “market-based” reforms like forcing consumers to pay a bigger share of their health care expenses; premium support for Medicare; high-risk pools; and killing off Medicaid in all but name. This may be conservative health care policy, but it would be wildly unpopular. There’s nothing remotely populist about it.

    What else? Taxing the rich? That’s out. Support for labor unions. Please. Higher taxes on capital income. Not gonna happen. Government regulation to rein in the cost of pharmaceuticals? Nah. Free college for everyone? Nope. A higher minimum wage? Not a chance. Wage subsidies (the “thinking man’s minimum wage”)? That costs money, so it’s out of the question.

    It’s popular these days on the right to simply declare policies they like to be populist, but that doesn’t actually make them populist. Anything truly populist is almost by definition something that corporations and the rich oppose, and that means Republicans will never be economic populists. Donald Trump sure isn’t, no matter how much he blusters about his love for the common man.

  • Christopher Wray Is Finally Fed Up With Trump’s War Against the FBI

    The Republican obsession with FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe is too bizarre to bother trying to explain. The nickel version is that he’s literally done nothing wrong, but details are here if you really want to torture yourself. The end result of this jihad, however, has been an increasing drumbeat to fire McCabe even though he’s already set to retire in a few months. Axios reports that FBI Director Christopher Wray finally got tired of this crap:

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions — at the public urging of President Donald Trump — has been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, but Wray threatened to resign if McCabe was removed, according to three sources with direct knowledge. Wray’s resignation under those circumstances would have created a media firestorm. The White House — understandably gun-shy after the Comey debacle — didn’t want that scene, so McCabe remains.

    Good for Wray. The insane war against the FBI by Republicans desperate to derail the Russia probe needs to get more of a spotlight. If it doesn’t stop, Wray should start calling it out publicly.

  • Trump Slashes Jobs in Solar Industry

    Dong Naide/Xinhua via ZUMA

    America first, bitches:

    The Trump administration announced Monday that it would impose hefty tariffs on the cheap, imported panels that have driven the rapid expansion of solar power in the United States, a move that industry groups warned would slow the spread of renewable energy and cost thousands of jobs….Companies that install solar panels will probably trim their workforces, industry analysts warned, as the tariff — which starts at 30% on the imported panels and gradually declines each year — threatens to substantially raise the price of solar power in the United States.

    There are a couple of ways this could play out:

    • The price of solar panels rises. This might seem to be good news for American solar panel manufacturers—though there are hardly any left—but if prices go up 30 percent it means that solar becomes less cost effective vs. other forms of electricity, which means fewer roof installations and fewer utility-level installations. This in turn means fewer jobs for Americans who work in the solar industry.
    • Other countries get into the solar panel biz and prices stay low. American manufacturers aren’t affected one way or the other.

    Behind Door #1, consumers have to pay 30 percent more for solar panels. Behind Door #2, the whole thing has no effect at all. So this policy might be bad for America or neutral for America, but there’s not much chance it will be good for America.

    On the bright side, these tariffs basically act as a subsidy for fossil fuels, so Trump can pretend that it’s good for coal miners. And that’s what matters, amirite?

  • We Are All Just Overclocked Chimpanzees

    Imago via ZUMA

    Having spent the weekend arguing about whose “fault” the government shutdown was, we have moved on. The government is back up and running and we’re now obsessed with who “won.”

    So who did win? Beats me. On the one hand, Democrats caved by agreeing to yet another continuing resolution that doesn’t restore DACA. On the other hand, Democrats got CHIP funding out of the deal, as well as a promise from Mitch McConnell—admittedly a bit nebulous—to allow a vote on DACA restoration in the Senate. Is that a win? On the one hand, Democrats got CHIP. On the other hand, they would’ve gotten CHIP eventually anyway. On the third hand, getting CHIP now means that kids won’t start losing health care as the current funding slowly disappears state by state.

    OK, but what other evidence is there? Well, there’s the fact that Mitch McConnell seems to be really happy today. Does that mean he’s pretty sure he put one over on the Democrats? Probably—but then again, McConnell is no immigration hardliner, and he hates the Bannon/Miller wing of the GOP. So maybe he thinks he put one over on them. Besides, if McConnell was really so sure that Republicans were winning this showdown, why didn’t he just let it continue to play out?

    But wait. A bunch of Democrats voted against the deal and are unhappy about it. Is that evidence that Democrats are admitting that McConnell beat them, as Aaron Blake suggests in the Washington Post? Maybe. But let’s not be too naive here. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein? They’re both from California, where a hard line against Republicans plays well. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? They’re the leaders of the resistance. Kirsten Gillibrand? She’s running for president. They all have good reasons to insist that they’d never betray the Dreamers like this.

    And anyway, if there’s no deal in the next three weeks, the government will shut down and Democrats will have a fresh chance to show how dedicated they are to DACA. So maybe this doesn’t even really matter.

    To summarize, then, I have no idea who won. But I do know this: the fact that we’re so obsessed with this is just a bit of fresh evidence that H. sapiens as a species is little more than a modestly souped up version of P. troglodytes. For chimps, knowing precisely who won and who surrendered in every encounter—and therefore who outranks you—is vitally important and has been bred into the species by millions of years of evolution. A few hundred thousands generations later, it still controls human society. The only difference between chimps and humans is that they do it with screeching and feces flinging, while we do it with Twitter and cable news. I think their way is probably more dignified.