Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pastimes - Pt. 2

Our "National" One
The regular season of baseball will wrap up in the next week, and there will be plenty of critical moments in games with direct effect on the qualification for postseason play. For this, we can thank the addition of the Wild Card (1995), and particularly the second Wild Card (2012).  All six of the division championships are now basically locked up (the clinching games in a couple should occur early this week).  Without the wild-card spots, the last week of the season would now be just a mop-up exercise; instead, there are 10 teams with a mathematical possibility of making the playoffs in the American League, and eight in the National League, of which five in each league will actually participate in the postseason.  The positive effect on late-season attendance is what you would expect.

The prospect of  a wild-card berth, one game to win or go home, might seem a tease, but it is not so. Because of the tightly contested races for the spots that seem to occur every year, typically at least one wild-card team will come into the playoffs as a red-hot meteor which can blast through a round or more of the longer series.  In fact, in the 21 years since baseball introduced the wild card, six wild-card teams have won the World Series and five more ended as the World Series losers; seven more made it to League Championship Series of one league or the other.  In two years, 2002 and 2014, both teams in the World Series were divisional also-rans.

In the National League, where the postseason matchups are basically set, I would be surprised if one of the wild-card teams made such a run.  Although Miami and Pittsburgh are technically still alive, the two spots will be divided among three teams:  St. Louis, San Francisco, and the New York Mets, The survivor among them will face the best team in the major leagues during the regular season, the Chicago Cubs, who will come in well-rested and with their starting pitching rotation set.  An upset is always possible (the Giants may have some even-year magic going for them), but I would expect the Cubs to pass through and face a tough match-up in the League Championship Series, against either the Washington Nationals or the Los Angeles Dodgers, both formidable squads.

In the American League, everything is up for grabs:  seven teams are in the running for those two wild-card berths, while the three division leaders are virtually tied in their contest for home-field advantage in the playoffs. I would pick the Boston Red Sox, and either AL West winner Texas,or the survivor of the wild-card playoff game, to meet in the League Championship Series.

As for my preseason picks, though I had only two of the six division winners correctly (Cleveland and Chicago), if the Houston Astros, Mets, and Toronto Blue Jays win wild-card spots (not at all unlikely), I will have picked eight of the 10 playoff teams.  Of my picks, only the Arizona Cardinals are definitely out (I believe the Pirates are still mathematically in it).   My World Series pick--Astros over Mets--would get me somewhat astronomical odds at this point, if I were to bet upon them; they are unlikely to make one of those vaunted wild-card runs for the same reason they are on the outside trying to get in:  too many injuries to starting pitchers.

I end this section with a sad note:  Jose Fernandez, the 24-year-old pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died this morning in a boating accident.  Fernandez, a defector from Cuba, was having an outstanding 2016 season, after two years marred by injury (including a "Tommy John" elbow surgery) after winning NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2013.  If he had remained healthy, he was on a trajectory for a career of Sandy Koufax-type proportions, as he had that kind of talent--great ability to get strikeouts and keep runners off base.  I don't know about his personal qualities, though I have heard they were sterling, but his passing is certainly a great loss to major league baseball.

I will get on the sandbox and argue on another occasion for one or more major league teams based in the Caribbean/Central America (and another in Canada, some consideration for East Asia), but I will say that Fernandez is just another example of how the game has transcended mere "national" status, and that with more quality marketing such as the Wild Card expansion (an idea somewhat stolen from the masters of the craft, the National Football League), baseball could become a sport with global fan support comparable to that of soccer (or at least of rugby or cricket!)

Other Sport, Briefly
Speaking of soccer, the global football season started about a month ago.  As the British might say, in the English Premier League "normal service has been resumed" after the shocking upset championship run by Leicester City last season.  My team, Chelsea, has recovered its mojo somewhat after a disastrous season; with its talent, and a new coach, the Blues should aim at least to rejoin Champions League play next season.  The two Manchester teams are likely to finish in the other two top spots--City is packed with talent (headed by ex-Chelsea player Kevin DeBruyne), while United has ex-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (our new nemesis), has added depth, and also has an ex-Chelsea star, Jose Mata (who didn't get along with Mourinho at all when they were both with Chelsea).  Arsenal and Liverpool are also typical top teams that seem to have the means to return to contention.

Otherwise, I see Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich as the teams which have the depth of talent to compete for the Champions League title and dominate their national competitions.

American Football:  I don't get too interested in the season until Thanksgiving or so; I have no opinion on the NFL after Peyton Manning (though it seems the Patriots will take the Brady-gate suspension for ball-tampering in January, 2015 in their stride and do just fine).  In college, I am for any team playing against the SEC or Ohio State; in this regard, I will probably be rooting for the U. of Louisville, which pounded pseudo-SEC team Florida State, ranked #2 at the time, scoring 63 points against them.

Basketball:  I am a little disheartened by the fact that the return of Cleveland and Golden State to the NBA finals, which would be for the third straight year, seems assured before the season even starts (barring season-ending injuries to LeBron, Stephen Curry, or new G.S. Warrior Kevin Durant).  There is some hope that the Indiana Pacers may provide some competition in the Eastern Conference, while in the West, with Oklahoma City and San Antonio weakened, one must look to the  L.A. Clippers, or maybe Portland, to be the opponent in the conference finals.  In any case, GSW will be very hard to stop at any level, and the preseason discussion is about how close they will come to their record-breaking regular season performance last year.

As for the college game--which I should say I enjoy greatly--every year is basically a new beginning, with last year's teams erased by the effects of the NBA draft. I don't spend too much time looking at it until MLK Day or so.  As always, I will be rooting for the Kentucky teams, and against those from North Carolina.  It's petty, but one must stay loyal to one's tribe.

TV
I watched the Emmy awards show this week, something I have rarely done in the past.  For me, it is a way to hear about some of the shows that I never see, not being a subscriber to Netflix or any of those other Internet-only sources.  I was a bit appalled to see all the awards given to "The People vs. O.J.", which for me is just a rehash of one of television's greatest historical failures--the elevation of a sordid celebrity crime scene into a major topic in the national agenda.  I was pleased to see the awards for "Veep", a show that entertained, informed, and then knew when to quit.  I was duly impressed by the diversity of award nominees and winners--apparently some changes were made to the voting process which helped make it possible.  I hope the Motion Picture Academy was paying attention.

I was not that impressed with the hosting by Jimmy Kimmel, who seems to have filled the Jay Leno hole for middle-brow inoffensive comedy.  I will admit that he gets good guests on his show, though if I were in NYC and wanted late-night exposure I would go to Stephen Colbert to be on his show,.  

In the new TV season, I have seen a couple of decent new shows.  One is the wacky comedy set in Heaven, "The Good Place", which posits that the omnipotent essences are "only human", in the sense that they make mistakes, too.  No doubt this paradox will be explained at some point.  

"Designated Survivor", a series which premiered last week, has an interesting, though alarming, premise:  a terrorist attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union address (not impossible) eliminates the President and all of the Cabinet except the titular Cabinet member who is held out from the event for just that eventuality.  I am hoping it doesn't just become "24" redux, with the same star (Kiefer Sutherland); I was pleased to see the lovely Natasha McElhone as his wife--I can't say I've seen her in anything since "The Truman Show", but she looks just the same.
Three bones of contention in the first episode:

  1. The Sutherland character met with "the Iran Ambassador" after the event and played some brinkmanship with him, on the suspicion  that his country may have caused the outrage.  It's not impossible that it could happen, but Iran has not had an ambassador to the US in over 35 years. 
  2. The script started with the Sutherland character being designated for immediate firing at the beginning, effective the day after the SOTU, being offered the alternate job of "ambassador to the ICAO" (you can look it up; it's an actual minor international organization).  Sutherland character (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) was actually considering taking the job. 
  3. The President would not designate someone who was to be fired the next day to potentially take his job in the case of catastrophe.  Nice irony, but not realistic. 
I must mention "The Night Of...", the miniseries on HBO that concluded a couple of weeks ago. Criminal justice drama is a genre that I am deeply bored with, but this one was remarkable for the performances, for the deep understanding of its real-life practice in New York (or other major US cities), some interesting casting choices (not least John Turturro as a lowlife defense lawyer afflicted with psychosomatic eczema), a nice resolution, and an OK opening for a possible sequel should the moneymen greenlight it.

Then there is the first debate tomorrow.  The election of the Presidency is serious business, but the first debate is basically a TV entertainment show.  My plan is to DVR the debate, watching Monday Night Football (Atlanta at New Orleans), or, if that gets too boring, some televised program (I have recorded "Defying the Nazis:  The Sharps' War" from PBS and may watch that).  After the great event is over, I'll fast forward through the debate after the opening statements, watching for those all-important visual cues.  There might be some substance in the subsequent debates, but I don't expect the solid to outweigh the froth coming out of this one.

I do have some recommendations for Hillary Clinton, who I am sure is fully prepared from a content and strategy point of view:

  • Sleep late on Monday.  Make sure you get plenty of sleep. 
  • Don't skimp on the time needed to get a real good makeup job--cover those wrinkles, get the lipstick just right.    
  • Get the best fashion advice available on 7th Avenue to make sure your clothes give the right message--happy, youthful, plenty of energy, maybe a little shiny.You have the privilege and advantage of being able to wear something other than that boring dark blue suit and red tie that male Presidential candidates always have (though I was impressed by the quality of Romney's suits, and I am sure Trump will go off his branded product for some Armani or something). 
  • "There you go again"--this phrase, which would resonate with all those moderate Republican-leaning folks who long for St. Ronnie as their candidate, and are disappointed by This Year's Model--could be the witticism which punctures Trump's pose of reserve and triggers his unbridled anger--something that would be a huge payoff.  It should be reserved for the second or third baldfaced Drumpf lie in a single night, so you might have to wait for the second or third debate.  I am anticipating Trump will keep it more low-key, avoiding overexertion, excessively provocative language, or hyperbole in tomorrow's pilot episode. 

Finally, moving off the small screen to the stage, "Hamilton", the historical rap musical which took Broadway by storm, is coming to our town this week.  I bought some high-priced tickets several months ago (for the third performance here), the proceeds of which will go to a charity, the Foundation Fighting Blindness (HQ a couple hundred yards from my home).   I recognize that the future first American Cabinet Secretary for Culture,* Lin-Manuel Miranda, has withdrawn from the cast, but I'm hoping he will show up to thank the crowd for their contributions. (He is coming to town for the premiere, I believe.)


*I just made that up--France has a Minister for Culture; I don't think it would hurt the US to consider having one.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pastimes - Pt. 1

Fall Movie Preview
Until very recently, 2016 has been a poor year for film.  To be more precise, I'm speaking of movies in general release (as opposed to showing only in film festivals) that are not mere titillation, action, silliness, nor animaion (more later on this).  I would name only three that have made a positive impression on me:
1) Hell or High Water--Nominally, this is a standard cops-and-robbers story about two bank robbers and the Texas Rangers tracking them down.  What makes it special is the combination of well-drawn characters, great acting, a powerful script with humor and edge, and devastating East Texas locations that make a statement about modern poverty in white America.  Once again, Jeff Bridges makes an Oscar bid with his Ranger, something seemingly stuffed "between teeth and gums" in his lower mouth throughout; Chris Pine was just as strong as the brains of two brothers' convoluted Robin Hood-ish spree.
2)  The Free State of Jones - This one came out too early in the year; Matthew McConnaughey's ground-breaking performance (once again!) will be long forgotten, superseded possibly even by another of his roles, but I loved the way this largely-factual story turned Confederacy-lovers' false narratives of the Civil War upside down.  It was loved by neither the public nor critics, but we don't really care about that, now, do we? I recommend trying to find it if you missed it.
3) Snowden - This was a near-ideal subject for an Oliver Stone flick--lots of opportunity for his investigative journalistic-style conspiracy forays.  The film focuses on Snowden's career as a spook through flashbacks from the climactic release of his material to Guardian journalists in Hong Kong. To Stone's credit, he handled this one well, not straying from the known factual record, and concealing effectively the line where Stone's speculation begins.  An excellent performance by the title lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and by two supporting actresses, Shailene Woodley as Snowden's girlfriend and Melissa Leo as the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (I'd like to see Poitras' film at some point).

Although I am a strong supporter of privacy rights, I have not been one of those to make a hero of Snowden's whistle-blowing.  First, I didn't find much surprising about the fact the NSA can and does snoop into any and all transmissions (the one thing in the movie/Snowden's disclosures that really bothered me is the ability to turn on and use the camera of sleeping laptops); second, he clearly broke his oath of secrecy, so I don't think the US should or will offer him total amnesty, only some eventual leniency.  Finally, though, I don't think too much has changed as a result--if we didn't already know that any device that's turned on and online is fair game for the spooks, we do now, and the revised FISA regime provides very little protection for the innocent.

Enough about that and those--the good news is that the fall season will be rich in releases.  Some are guaranteed box office, and several appear to be prizeworthy.  A quick rundown of the notable release with expected dates follows.  I've classified them into four groups--the Serious Contenders, Pretenders (to serious contention), Interesting Variations (creative and different from the usual), and those that will be light enjoyment and/or big box office.  Clearly, the border between the first two categories could be blurry and I could guess wrong on some, but as it is, with 13 films I list as "contenders", I am expecting some spreading around of the Oscars (as there was in 2015), which is generally a good sign. A quick rundown, with expected release dates, follows.

Serious Contenders
10/21 American Pastoral --from the Philip Roth novel, directed by Ewan McGregor, starring McGregor, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Connelly.  Roth= HEAVY! It will not be enjoyable, it may be indispensable, but will it be watchable?
11/11 Loving - an interracial couple whose bid to marry in Virginia violated the law, the case going to the Supreme Court.  Ordinary follks oppressed by reactionary government--looks like a winning formula for Hollywood awardgivers.
11/18 Nocturnal Animals - a story-in-a-story thriller with Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, directed by fashion superstar Tom Ford.  The starpower looks irresistible if the movie is any good at all.
11/18 Manchester by the Sea  - Michele Williams tearjerker with good buzz from Sundance; a possible breakthrough role for Ben Affleck's little brother Casey. If I have to.
11/25 Lion - The star of Slumdog Millionaire (Dev Patel) with a Life of Pi-kind of story and Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara in the cast.  Have to take it seriously.
12/2 La La Land  - Romance between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who plays a jazz pianist.  I'm skeptical, but the buzz is persistent, and if Gosling's keyboards are real and convincing, he could have a Best Actor play.
12/9 Jackie  - Natalie Portman as Jackie Onassis.  The miracles of camera angles will make up for any height deficiency, and I expect Portman can handle the demands of the role  and earn an Oscar nom.
12/9 Burn Country - James Franco's serious role, with Melissa Leo.  A war journalist returns from Afghanistan and finds trouble in the homeland.
12/16 Collateral Beauty - Will Smith trying a serious dramatic role, with a cast full of stars.  Michael Frankel, a prolific TV and movie director, making his own bid for the big time.
12/16  (limited release) The Founder - I don't like the limited release game, and I'm not that fond of Michael Keaton, but this story of the original McDonalds, and how Ray Kroc took it over and took it worldwide, sounds very interesting to me.   One to see in early 2017.
12/25 - Gold  - Matthew McConnaughey strikes gold in the wilderness of Indonesia, gets bilked out of it.  I've seen the trailer, and it told me too much.  It should play well in the US, maybe not abroad.
12/25 Toni Erdmann -  Germany's submission for best foreign language film - serious drama of a man and his grown daughter, directed by a woman- Maren Ade.
12/25 Fences - Like Will Smith, Denzel Washington seems to have put aside his action playthings and is looking for some recognition (additional, in his case).  Story by the famed playwright August Wilson.

Pretenders
9/30 -  Deepwater Horizon - seems to be more about the tragedy of the platform workers than the endless cleanup which got the news.  Stars Mark Wahlberg.
10/7 - The Girl on the Train - this year's missing woman Gone Girl-type story.
11/4 Hacksaw Ridge - This was a tough call:  the true story of an American conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor for WWII exploits saving lives sounds like a winner.  The director was Mel Gibson, though, and we know how much Hollywood hates him now.
11/11  Elle - Isaelle Huppert tracking down her rapist.
10/14 The Accountant - A weird story premise, with Ben Affleck as an Asperger's genius accountant for the mob who has to take up arms.  Seems ludicrous to me.
12/9 Miss Sloane - Although I'm a fan of its star, Jessica Chastain, I'm picking this story of a woman challenging the gun lobby to be a miss.  It has been done, and gun control does not seem to be welcomed as a real issue these days.
12/21 (limited release) Patriots Day - Another Mark Wahlberg effort, investigating the bombing of the Boston Marathon.  It might work for some, but I am totally sick of crime forensic dramas.

Interesting Variations
10/7 -The Birth of a Nation -  This account of the slave revolt of 1831 in Virginia led by Nat Turner and violently repressed is like the bookend to The Free State of Jones.  It is likely to be even more controversial--in the current Black Lives Matter/Charlotte riots context, and because it will differ so markedly in perspective from the William Styron novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.  When it's released, you will be forced to endure discussion of who, exactly, is entitled to tell the story of a tribe/ethnic group/nationality, and who is not.  I'm more interested in whether the film will present the entire arc of the story--the motivations of the rebels, of the frightened, vengeful slaveowners, and of those who were neither one nor the other.  If it works, it could be another 12 Years a Slave. And, finally, note the title, an intentional disrespectful reference to the "classic"1915  KKK movie by D.W. Griffith.
10/21 Moonlight - This is to be the first of a three-part narrative about a black man living in Miami. Once again, high potential for controversy, and the serial film strategy is an unusual one (for something that's not science fiction or fantasy).
11/11 Arrival - Amy Adams plays a linguist recruited by the military for a secret mission:  translating alien communications.  I will take a chance on Adams on almost anything, so I hope it will not be a waste of my time and money.  The alien arrival thing has potential but it has also been done a bit too much, considering how low the likelihood.
12/16 Neruda - a Spanish/French production of the life of the radical Chilean poet, played by Gael Garcia Bernal. Chile's submission for Best Foreign Language consideration.
12/24 Inferno by Dante - I saw a trailer for this:  it is very unusual, with narration by Eric Roberts and veteran Italian actor Vittorio Gassman, both about Dante's creation and with some presentation of it with paintings providing visuals.  Will not be a big hit, but I will see if it if I can find it.
12/31 Strangers in a Strange Land  - 12 comedic shorts set in 12 global cities.  Interesting idea, and I like the reference to Heinlein's sci-fi classic.

Just for the Fun or Box Office of it - 
9/23- Magnificent Seven - big hype, big cast, been done too much already.  Pass.
9/30 - Miss Peregrine's home for Peculiar Children - a Tim Burton creepfest, from the young adult novel by Ransom Riggs, with a pretty big-time cast.  If my children insist on my going.
10/21 Keeping up with the Joneses - Zach Galifianakis/Jon Hamm/Isla Fisher/Gael Gadot (new WonderWoman).  A comedy about spies (or terrorists) and ordinary people in the suburbs.  I've seen the preview twice and it had me in hysterics both times--I hope they didn't use all the good stuff in the trailer.
10/28 -Inferno - Tom Hanks re-reprises his DaVinci Code role in another Dan Brown mystery thriller, directed by Ron Howard, and including the felicitous Felicity Jones.  I will watch it for the locations:  Florence, Venice, Istanbul.
11/18 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - The other movie on my teenage daughter's must-see list,  J.K. Rowling's new Harry Potter prequel.  I will not contribute directly.
12/16 - Rogue One - A pretty good idea, a Star Wars spinoff between #3 and #4 (the original), starring Miss Jones again.  Better idea than the new series, I'd say.  
12/25 Why Him? James Franco as the boyfriend unappreciated by her Dad, Bryan Cranston.  Seems pretty lightweight.
12/31   Mata Hari - David Carradine (Kung Fu series, Kill Bill series) tries his hand at directing the classic story of the WWI woman spy.  Could be interesting, more likely howlingly bad.   It's listed for 12/31, but I'm thinking its release will be held up.
1/6  F.U. Woody Allen - A black man's true story of trying and failing to get in a Woody Allen movie (it seems he never casts African Americans).  Not a 2016 release, apparently, but could have some sneaky support from Hollywood elements who are a bit peeved at Allen's snotty weirdness.

Finally, there is the strange saga of Terrence Malick, who might be both the most-loved and most-hated American auteur director.   His 2016 oeuvre has two parts:  First was The Knight of Cups, a delayed-release early-2016 flop with a big cast (including Christian Bale), which appears to be the only film this year to which perennial top cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki contributed.  It disappeared before I could ever find it.   The other part is a documentary short, Voyage of Time: Life's Journey, which appears to have some astronomical outtakes from The Tree of Life (if you've seen that movie, you'll have a good idea what I mean) and was narrated by the impeccable Cate Blanchett.  It would be a good pick for that obscure Oscar category if nominated.

P.S. If you're wondering about The Lobster--I saw it, and I have to admire the sheer weirdness of it.  Did not like it--at all.  Satire is my favorite movie genre, but that was not recognizable to me as such--maybe because I'm not a paranoid single.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

After Labor Day

Three themes on the question of "after labor", then my first official 2016 general election predictions, and a couple of brief obits.

Britain After Labour (and Scotland?)
An American expat friend of mine residing in Europe (basically, on both sides of the English Channel) sent out a link to the full text of a three-hour British Parliament debate, a response to a petition (signed by 4 million Brits) requesting a new referendum on Brexit. Reading the debate's text--something I don't necessarily recommend if you have only casual interest--one would see that the petition had no chance.  Partially this was because the terms proposed for the new referendum's being decisive (minimum 60% plurality, with 75% participation) were excessively stringent, but mostly because no one dared to say something on the order of, "we didn't pose the question to the people in the right way, so we got the wrong answer.  We should try again."   Instead, out of fear of contradicting the will of the electorate, everyone will go forward and try to implement a decision which still has no plan for execution and which most feel is totally wrong-headed.

As Donald Trump realized in his bird-brained comments June 24 (the day after the referendum), it's a lot like having him as President, if that were to happen.

It is clear from the debate that there will be no new referendum, no opportunity for a "do-over". There is likely to be a vote in Parliament on the terms the Government will negotiate with the EU for Britain reversing its entry into the European Community.  There is some ambiguity about whether legislation is required by the EU Constitution's Article 50, but I would expect the Government will ask for Parliament's endorsement.  This will be one of those career-defining moments for many of the Members of Parliament, perhaps comparable to the one when Britain voted to authorize participation in the invasion of Iraq.

My advice on this is to the parties other than the Conservative party (besides the UKIP, which I advise to follow the example of their former leader, Nigel Farage: declare victory and exit, stage right).  Labour, what's left of the Liberal Democrats, and the Green party must all unequivocally and unanimously oppose whatever terms are finally put forward. If the Conservatives can get their act together--meaning, complete the required complex negotiations and unify all their members behind legislation--and then bring it forward before the next general election, they would not need any support from the other parties.  That would be their "victory", but then they would own the result.

There were elements of the Labour opposition party that were in favor of exiting Europe--mostly because of concerns legal labor migration was undercutting British workers economically--just as there were many in the Conservative party opposed to Brexit.  We can expect that the next election will be a referendum on the Conservative government's handling of the exit, and it will allow Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and Greens to unite for a single slate of opposition candidates.

This building of a coalition is crucial. Labour, by itself, does not look as though it will ever be able to govern again.  The radical leadership elected by its members, headed by Jeremy Corbyn, has minimal support from the Parliamentary caucus, but remains stubbornly in place, and its membership seems determined to retain Corbyn, reject the politically successful New Labour of Tony Blair, and inhabit the wilderness of bootless opposition.

To make things worse for Labour, the party's ineffective opposition to Brexit has further estranged it from its onetime solid support in Scotland.  When this exit gets determined, Scotland will want out (of Britain, but staying in the EU), and one way or the other, Labour has lost them.

Are We There Yet? 
 After Labor Day is when the US Presidential campaign is finally supposed to get serious.  Yet, remarkably, some 40% of likely American voters indicate they would vote for Donald Trump! Obviously, in the words of John McEnroe, "You cannot be serious!" (I don't know his political persuasion, but I'd love to see an anti-Trump ad with him saying that.)

Thankfully, 40% is not going to be enough to elect him--he will need  about 45% on Election Day to have an even shot at winning the election, but he is close enough to make me very uncomfortable, once again. In the last few weeks, his support has firmed up, while Hillary Clinton's has been eroded by a lot of negative publicity. With the current reality, though his stunt of "reaching out" to the African-American community with his speech at the Detroit church will fool very few blacks, or deceive few of other ethnic groups to believe he is not bigoted (if they did not already believe that), even if he only moves one in 50, or moves his support from 1% of blacks to 5%, that moves him a 10% of that distance.

And sometimes we are so gullible. The first debate looms, and no one can be sure what kind of verbal snake oil he will uncork.  I'm thinking that it will be some kind of accusation that Hillary Clinton is soft on ISIS--ridiculous on the face of it, a complete falsehood, but one that would be a trap:  If she responds by defending her actual hawkish history and tendencies, she will sound, ironically, defensive, while reminding others, of a more pacifist orientation who may be on the fence, that she has supported war in Iraq and attacks on Libya (and, of course, there's Benghazi!).   Worse would be if she "softens" her line, as some may advise her to do. My own hope is that she will mock him, ask him how much he will suck up to Putin if elected, or challenge him on what to do about North Korea (a question so difficult that he is certain to say something stupid), but I suspect she will be serious and dignified, while he will seek to present himself as the charming clown.  She will "win" the debate on points, but he will gain--among the factually challenged.

Climbing out on the General Election Limb
Anyway, I think it's time to make my first official prediction.  Popular vote:  Clinton 46.5, Trump 42.7, Johnson + Stein + Others 10.8.   Electoral College:  Clinton 296, Trump 242.

That Electoral College estimate is a little cautious: I am now thinking it will not be such a decisive victory as seemed likely just a few weeks ago.  That Electoral College result is Obama's 2012 states won minus Florida, Iowa and Maine's 2nd Congressional district.  I have been considering whether North Carolina would go the other direction, providing Clinton a pick-up vs. Obama's 2012 level (though he did win it in 2008), but I see a negative trend that I think might continue. 296-242 is still OK; I could even be wrong about Ohio, which is very close, and the result would not be overturned.  Just as long as Pennsylvania stays on the Democratic side, and it still seems safely so thus far.

In the Senate, I'm predicting the Democrats to pick up five seats (WI, IL, IN, NH, and PA, with Nevada staying Democratic by less than 1%), which would give them 51; in the House, a 17-seat gain for the Democrats, leaving them 13 short of control.  A decent result, but not the spanking the Republicans deserve, and not sufficiently decisive to break the Congressional deadlock, which may reasonably be expected to get even worse after the 2018 midterm election.

As for my Predictit.org strategy (account up about 50% since I signed on a year ago), I have played it cautiously for the most part:  a lot of positions, but small ones, and backing out, when possible, of probable losers.  Making lots of small profits by taking a position and riding opinion upwards.  For a few questions which I feel could go either way, I have successfully straddled, taking advantageous positions on both sides of the question--certain not to lose, but not going to win much.  For example, on the question of which party will win North Carolina in the Presidential election, I have equal-sized bets on Yes for the Republicans (at 57%) and Democrats (at 36%)--I will gain 7% if either party wins the state. I am more out on the limb on the winner of the Presidential election, the overall results in the Electoral College, the House and the Senate.

Certainly there will be movement--my Predictit strategy should benefit from it--but I have tried to anticipate likely deviations and a less-than-optimal debate outcome.  The only reason I would change would be if Trump does something unusually outrageous, like shooting his supporters on Seventh Avenue.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
This year's general election campaign seems very chaotic in terms of issues; nothing seems to have caught and kept the attention of our 24/7 search for something relevant to focus upon.  Maybe we just can't--focus, that is.  And, while I feel the ability of a President to effect the course of economic events is vastly overrated, I do think that some attention to our labor market may be warranted.  Last week's announcement showed a disappointing, slowing amount of net job growth, though it remained positive.

What I would like to hear is not empty promises, either that tax cuts for the rich and corporations will magically transform into more, better jobs (the Republican line), or that the Democrats can somehow get Republicans to agree to massive infrastructure projects.  This kind of Keynesian pump priming might generate job-creating momentum at a time when the economy is slumping.  We may be there before long, but right now it's a fantasy.

Rather, I would like to hear a mature discussion about how our society can adapt to new realities in the job market:  broadening automation and the globalization of manufacture (and now, even more web/phone servicing jobs) are real and permanent.  Demand for  full-time jobs that last and carry with them essential benefits exceeds, and will continue to exceed, the supply.  "Job creators" are generally more focused in reducing employment expenses than in expanding them.  Part-time jobs are a feature of the job landscape, more likely to increase than not, and our society is not well prepared to provide people who can only get, or can only manage, part-time work (even two or more such jobs) a stable way of life.  Some creative thinking on solutions to this problem would be one of the greatest contributions government could make toward making American society work better.

Some types of meaningful jobs are going to expand--programming and systems design still remain strong. Employment in the arts and entertainment is ever broader and America's contribution to the global art scene remains prominent. Demand for people to care for the elderly will increase for some decades still.  There are jobs for those with the right skills in many areas, but training and education--both public and private--are lagging behind the needs, and there is the question of who pays for that training.

Quick obits
Islam Karimov, Phyllis Schafly -a couple of welcome departures.  Karimov was the autocrat who ruled Uzbekistan since the breakup of the Soviet Union.  He may have been "our" dictator, but the time for that kind of thinking is long past.  Schafly was an extreme anti-feminist, right-wing rallying point for bad thinking since the '60's.; most recently, she advertised how much she liked Donald Trump.  "Deplorable"!

Gene Wilder - Wilder was a versatile comedic actor--not one to tell jokes, but able to show the human side of lovable, slightly kooky, characters.  His partnership with Mel Brooks led to classic movies ("Blazing Saddles", "Young Frankenstein", "The Producers"), and his portrayal of Willy Wonka remains the definitive one.  He succumbed to the effects of Alzheimer's, the true dread malady of this age.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Priorities

Meme for Republicans:  Mene, tekel upharsin!
(Hint:  Biblical handwriting is on the wall for you.)
Before leaving us--I won't say abandoning us--for a month-long hiatus in the middle of this fall's campaign, comedian Bill Maher gave us a command:  we must keep as our priority the defeat of Donald Trump.  He used that argument in his "New Rules" closing segment as the reason he would relent on his efforts to ridicule those who would  impede bathroom access for transgender people.

I suppose that one can wait; the embarrassment the North Carolina law to that effect is having on the re-election campaign of its Governor McCrory is its own deserved reward.  With regard to Mr. Trump, though, the Drumpfite policy of Assured Self-Destruction seems to be taking care of that concern on its own--though we should never resist the openings to slag him when they present themselves.  This week, we can see that Drumpf has adopted his Apprentice TV strategy ("you're fired") in managing his campaign efforts, and I have no doubt that the latest stooge, the one of Breitbart heritage, will be the next scapegoat for the campaign's continued failures.  At this point, Trump's single hope is what I have called the "David Duke Effect", the possibility that the poll numbers conceal a large number of bigots who will vote for Trump on Election Day but won't own up to it beforehand, either out of ethical guilt or fear of being ridiculous. Those people, to the extent they exist and are registered to vote, will find a reason to justify this cowardly behavior when the time comes.

Instead, we can expand our objectives beyond the mere Electoral College defeat of Trump; as we discussed last time, Trump's chances boil down to winning all of Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio (along with North Carolina), and they equate to those of winning Pennsylvania (or if not PA, then sweeping New Hampshire, Nevada, and Iowa), where Clinton is winning now by about 10 points in polls. Meanwhile, Clinton is imperiling Trump's chances in such "automatic" red states as Georiga, Arizona, and even Missouri and Utah.

The number one priority, then, if Trump's campaign (which so far is amateurish and poorly focused) does not turn things around, will be to utilize his poor performance and inferior candidacy at the top of the ticket to degrade the Republicans'  status across the country.  Again, most of the best opportunities in Senate races coincide with the most important state races for the Presidency, so organizing efforts should focus naturally on those seven states.  In addition, though, there are seats which can and should be gained in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana--the latter, now that Evan Bayh has entered the race, moves from a possibility to a highly promising target.  Besides those three, New Hampshire appears to be the most likely candidate as the fourth Senate pick-up, the minimum requirement to gain control of the Senate. Beyond that, PA, OH, and now, NC, are 50-50 chances, with additional targets worth pursuing in AZ, MO, FL, and IA.  A fifth pick-up out of all these is more than desirable; one state's Senate seat currently held by a Democrat, Nevada, is endangered--Catherine Cortez Musto is currently slightly behind in the polling.

The House picture is more complex and, in general, less hopeful.  A landslide victory at the top of the ticket is the best--probably the only--possibility to enable the Democrats to make up the 30 seat gain needed, as the number of districts held currently by Republicans in which political affiliations and the strength of candidates would favor a pick-up is considerably smaller than that. I am deluged by emails from prospective Democratic House candidates and Democratic Representatives in close races; most or all of those appeals are coming from legitimately contested races, but I cannot distinguish among them (at least, not yet), so I am just giving to the DCCC (headed by my Congressman, the estimable Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico), trusting that group will do the critical analysis to identify how to allocate their resources to maximize the result.

I have my eyes on the long-term prize, the destruction of the Republican party.  This year's campaign is all that I could hope for, in terms of highlighting the split between the Cruzian hard-core conservatives and the Drumpfist backward-looking bigots. No doubt they will do their best to pretend they can cooperate, both as Election Day nears and then after the debacle that seems likely that day, but I'm not buying it.  2018 will be a head fake in the big picture, as the midyear political dynamics will favor the Republicans, as will the number and type of Senate seats the Democrats will have to defend; however, there will be a number of state races, for governor and state legislatures, that will be critical for control of redistricting after the 2020 census.  2020 will be the key year in determining whether the Republicans can recover the momentum they have lost since 2004 or whether their trend remains unmistakably downward:  I think either the Cruz Lizard at the top of the ticket or a toned-down Drumpfist (a contradiction in terms?) would be a disaster; only a more moderate, diversity-welcoming candidate can reverse their decline.

Clinton vs. Trump shows more clearly than ever that the Democrats have now become the natural governing party; the failure of the Republican-controlled Congress is equally evident, and it will be the future humiliation of Paul Ryan by his party that will make that clear to all.  I anticipate fireworks with regard to a battle for control of the Supreme Court, but if the Democrats have control of the Senate and of the White House, the outcome can only be delayed, not prevented, by dubious filibuster.

The Olympics in the Side-View Mirror
I have to admit that I was somewhat wrong in a couple of aspects of my preview:  the NBC coverage on TV has not been as good as I had hoped, and the welcome of Rio's Cariocas  to the world's visitors has been better than feared, while the beauty of the setting is as advertised.

With regard to NBC, the cynicism of the programming and advertising is all too typical.  The prime-time network telecasts are all-American, heavy on the personal profiles, setting up long ad breaks, and light on the variety of sports being presented. Their auxiliary channels have not adequately compensated for the weakness on the network telecast.  I would cite as highlights the volleyball, men's and women's, indoor and beach, and, of course, the track and field (more track than field) . The soccer was OK--at least they carried the final between Brazil and Germany live on one of the other channels--that was probably the second highlight of the games (after Usain Bolt) in the eyes of the world.  The coverage of the return to the Olympics of golf on NBC-owned Golf Channel was surprisingly not as sleep-inducing as golf on TV usually is. After that, I have little good to say about the coverage:  I get it that NBC has to recoup the billions they paid for the rights and deliver the ratings they promised to their corporate bosses and in their ad sales, but the other channels did not have those limitations--and broadening the range of coverage  could extend their ratings. For example, where was table tennis?  Millions of Chinese-Americans would like to know; what I heard was that their attempts to plug into Chinese TV were most difficult.  Field hockey? Badminton? Kayaking? Cycling (if there were no Americans or Brits in the final)?  You may think I'm kidding; I'm not. 

The multiple-channel viewing of the "NBC Olympic Experience" was disappointing; the channels to choose from didn't have Olympics half the time, and the interface was slow and clumsy.  I tried the
"live streaming of all events" as always with live streaming (at least for me), was a rabbit hole (what is userID and PIN for your cable service? I don't have one).  Well, maybe they can get it right in four years.

Finally, the prediction of dominance of the American women's team was accurate (except for the surprise upset in the quarterfinals of UNWNT, the US women's soccer team, which actually adds to the interest level for future women's soccer competition).  The operative comparison for US medal levels is not recent summer Olympics but 1984, when the Soviet Union boycotted "our" Los Angeles Olympics to get revenge for our (Afghanistan-inspired) boycott of Moscow's 1980 one. I'll note the final total comparison in a comment in a day or two when the dust settles.

The two TV personal profiles that did turn my head somewhat were both focused on Brazilians:  the original "Girl from Ipanema" from the song--there is a specific one, she is in her 70's, still very attractive--and the story of Vanderlei di Lima, the marathon runner who was leading in 2004's race in Athens when he was attacked by a deranged spectator.  Vanderlei's mojo was disturbed by the incident (once they pulled off the intruder), but he pulled it together and won the bronze medal.  For the opening ceremony in Rio, he was selected as the national hero who lit the Olympic flame in the Stadium.


I apologize for publishing the first draft yesterday, filled with errors.  I was in a hurry to leave on a car trip and -yes--distracted by the Olympics.

Friday, August 05, 2016

And Now for Somethings Somewhat Different.....

Let's Fly Down to Rio. Not.
I have loved my visits to "Hio", but I cannot recommend this as the time to go there.  I am not expecting any trouble, as such, but the atmosphere will be tense, there will be a lot of defensiveness of one kind or another among the locals who remain, and going as a spectator will be cost-ineffective.  On the last point, I found that to be true going to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and hat was a lot less trouble.

Anyway, it still has to be a bit of a plus for the city, which (always) could use a bit of sprucing up, and the development of public transportation, if safe and effective, could be a game changer there.  I'm not expecting them to blast big holes in all those (populated) hillsides, but just an effective coastal system could be great. Rio is hugely spread out and difficult to navigate.  Finally, it will remind people all over the world that there is a place called Rio de Janeiro, and it looks like it does.  I hope that NBC gets some good dirigible rights! In general, I am against moving the Olympics to new cities all the time when there are plenty of cities with all the required facilities and of recent vintage; however, it made sense to have someplace in South America.  Now we should stop adding new ones for awhile.

The coverage should be all that one could hope for this time--another reason not to bother going.   If it starts getting boring on one channel, then there are going to be plenty of options.  That should cut down on the percentage of time we will have to watch the narrated life stories of our American athletes.  Not that they aren't interesting, sometimes, but it's good to have an option, something we did not have in the past (particularly for the Winter Olympics). I'm not going to suggest the "streaming" option in the Internet, which sounds like a recipe for madness at extreme cost (unless you get it for free somehow--and if you do, don't tell me).

So, what will I be watching?  Not the opening ceremony, for which I imagine the theme will be "What's that Smell?  Oh, It's just Bug Spray."   Thousands of people standing around, hoping not to get bitten.  I hope that tonight's highlight will be the entry of the Refugee Team, which I believe is supposed to be near the end, right before the host country.   I'm pretty conventional; I will take it slow the first week, not too much gymnastics, please.  Track and field does interest me, and then there are the finals of the team sports--I am particularly interested in volleyball (both the indoor and outdoor versions), men's tennis, rugby sevens, and women's soccer.

The last one brings me to what should obviously be the story of the Olympics:  the complete domination of the American women.  With the suppression of Russian contestants (complete in track and field, significant in many others) US men should also win their share or more, but the women could reach unheard-of levels.  In sports like swimming, gymnastics, and basketball (and tennis?), US women are going to be beyond reach.  That is why the soccer should be interesting:  the US is clearly the favorite, but there is risk.  And Carly Lloyd just blew everyone away with her performance at the last World Cup--if she can do anything like that at the Olympics, there will be no Katy to bar the door (to endorsements, finally!)

Political note:  The question will be whether Hillary will be able to lay off the potential for prideful boasts about "our women".  I hope so; there is no need--let Donald do it, because he will trip over his member doing it and thus do himself more damage


Song of the Summer
Entertainment Weekly (July 11) had an incredibly lame article in which it announced that it could not announce its Song of the Summer.. My surmise was that they had prepared an article that had the right choice but it had been nixed by the higher-ups.  In further  research today on their SotS ruminations, I saw a couple of dozen songs named, with many different contributors, but still nothing about the song which has clearly dominated the airwaves for the last two months.

Here's a clue:  According to Billboard Magazine, this song is now only the fourth ever to be No. 1 on their Rock, Alternative  and Adult Alternative listings (you would think there might be more, but that's how fragmented the music world is, now).   So, I guess Rock doesn't exist anymore, in the EW universe.   Whatever--I'm speaking of "Dark Necessities", of course, the new Red Hot Chili Peppers' single.

The Peppers have been grinding out quality rock for 25 years or more; they do have different styles they can play, but I would venture to say that their greatest accomplishment has been their consistency over time with an excessive variety of lead guitarists.  That is to say, they needed a change.

Enter Danger Mouse, the top rock producer and man behind the scenes for much of the best music of this era.  The song "Dark Necessities" has the usual Anthony Kiedis vocal styling and the frequently-observed raw insistence of RHCP's great rhythm section (Flea on bass; Chad Smith on drums), but there is something else (besides some new guy on lead guitar, really limited to a solo in the song's final minute):  keyboards, all the way through.  Our man does more than just produce the music, though he is nowhere to be seen in the "Official Video". Thank you, Brian Burton!

So, what is the problem with acknowledging the song's evident greatness?  The title, I think, reveals the problem:  the song does have a forceful tone, maybe a bit overbearingly masculine, and the lyrics' content--lightly nihilistic philosophy, with drug references--might make it less acceptable than the usual love stories that prevail in the pop world these days.

To be fair, though, the lyrics really seem to be there to fit the song's cadence, which is polished, and also both chunky and high-speed.  Just listen  past that plucked bass and hear the tasteful keyboards, and you will see how D.M. has taken the RHCP's natural gifts and raised them a level.

Political Note: I am expecting to see some of our heroes put together a fund-raiser to stop Drumpfism, but they better hurry up. 

YTD Movies
This will be my usual late-summer lament for the quality of the films being produced this year.  I don't have the previews for the year-end binge of "Oscar contenders" yet to encourage me.

I admit I haven't been a regular filmgoer for 2016's output; most of them don't inspire me to go watch. I did see "Zootopia", which was OK--looked like a pilot for a series of sequels to me--but didn't leave me with much.  I never get around to wanting to see most of the action hero/superhero stuff  (Captain America whatever, Bourne, Ghostbusters, Ice Age whatever, and certainly not "Batman vs. Superman"--what a stupid idea!). I am mildly curious to see if "Suicide Squad" ("Dirty Dozen" with superheroes) will live up to the hype, and I will see the Star Trek film.  I like that for this episode they are putting a little less emphasis on the vagaries of human behavior (though that is what Star Trek's basic theme is about), and a little more on the possible nature of alien behavior.

The one movie so far this year that truly made an impression on me was "The Free State of Jones".  A good choice for an election year, it covered a true story of a rebellion against the Confederacy in Mississippi and how it turned out.  Once again, Matthew McConnaughey rose above expectations. On the other hand, the critical darling of the first half, "The Lobster", did not appeal to me.  I like satire as much as anyone, more than most, but this one's premise--that people without a soul mate will be condemned to death in the future--didn't strike me as particularly perceptive.  It did give me a few chuckles, but generally the viewing experience was awkward and tense, and I was somewhat impressed with Colin Farrell's taking on such a weird role.

Looking just forward:  One movie for which I (perhaps alone) am anticipating the release is "The Light Between Oceans", a tearjerker set in Western Australia (a current interest of mine) with a strong cast. I am looking for a place to see "Captain Fantastic", a satire about holier-than-thou living off the grid starring the estimable Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn, of course).  And, after having seen several times the preview for Woody Allen's "Cafe Society"--a strong cast, with Jesse Zuckerberg in the usual Woody-ish role--I have not seen anywhere that the movie is actually playing. Woody may be afraid to go back into the US market with all his bad press, but that is no way to recoup the expenses of a heavy star-filled cast.

Final Political note: "Birth of a Nation", the snarkily-titled story of the slaves' rebellion led by Nat Turner in Virginia, is, to be released in October, could produce some major reaction, as the subject is a highly provocative one.   Talk about the authorities cracking down on African-Americans!

Monday, July 25, 2016

The 2016 Election: It's PFONI!

I don't mean to suggest at all that this is a "phony" election, with its outcome rigged, or with no difference resulting from the outcome.  There are real differences between the national candidates and the national party platforms (immigration, tax policy, climate change), and even larger differences in the governing and leadership style.  If that doesn't convince, there is the Supreme Court, experiencing a 4-4 stalemate on most issues since Scalia's death, and the prospect of a couple of other Supreme Court nominations coming in just the next four years  (Thomas, Ginsburg).

"PFONI" is a mnemonic acronym, a shorthand term I've coined to summarize the focus of this year's election.  Both the Presidential election and control of the US Senate will be decided in a handful of states, and my new word is composed of their first letters, and in order of priority (specifically for the Presidential election).  Technically, it should be PFO3NI, as there are three "N" states that make the cut.  It is partially a coincidence that the key Senate races are in these states; a coincidence that they all have Senate races (2/3 have a contest in a Presidential election year), but of course not coincidental that close Senate races tend to be in states that are close for the Presidential contest.  And yes, there are some other consequential Senate races outside the seven key states (I'll come back to that later), but these seven have most of those that look to be close at the finish.

The background story is President Obama's 332-206 Electoral College margin vs. Mitt Romney in 2012.  To win the election, Trump must net a gain of at least 63 Electoral votes; the states below gave 83 to Obama and 15 to Romney. Let's go through them one at a time:

Pennsylvania  (20 Electoral Votes)- This is the single state that I believe will be most determinant of the outcome:  if Clinton wins it, it is very unlikely she will lose; if not, she is in trouble. Fivethirtyeight.com (will be abbreviated as "538", but don't use that to check the website) has it at 60% probability for Clinton (their "polls-plus" forecast, which takes all into account and estimates election day likelihood), the same as the election in general.  Predictit.org has it at 66% probability for Clinton, the same as her price on winning the election.
If one looks at the demographjcs of the election and of the state, PA will depend on Clinton's ability to draw the votes of the college-educated in suburban Philadelphia and the margins she can draw (turnout) among African-Americans.  As in the election in general, it is all there to be won by her campaign. In this regard, the choice of Philly for the site of the Democrats' convention looks smart, as long as it comes off well.

The Senate race promises to be close.  Pat Toomey is a Republican that is too conservative for the state; he won in a poor Democratic year (2010) against Joe Sestak (perceived to be a weak candidate by the party elders).  Sestak lost the primary to Katie McGinty, who is running neck-and-neck with Toomey in the polling.

Florida (29 EV) -  A must-win state for Trump;  it is nearly impossible for Trump to win without FL (ignoring the nonsense Trump campaign people offer about totally blue states like NY, CA, CT, IL). Tthe only alternative would be to overturn and sweep states like MN, WI, MI, all of which have been consistent--close, but Democratic--in every recent Presidential election.  FL's basic demographics will match large margins for blacks and Latinos for Clinton against those among white non-college voters for Trump; the deciding factor might be the large elderly population, so Trump's positions on Social Security and Medicare (which I haven't clearly heard yet) could be make-or-break--expect him to try to out-pander the Democrats in this area.  It's very much 50-50 right now, though I think the longer-term dynamics will favor Clinton.

The Senate race  will be one of the highest-profile ones, and the outcome is far from certain.  Marco Rubio's late entry, a complete reversal from what he had always said (but still not too surprising), turns it from an uphill struggle to hold his seat to something somewhat likely.  Rubio is not particularly popular in his state these days, as evidenced by the trouncing he took from Trump, but the Democrats are not ready to take him on:  a fierce primary battle between two Congressmen, one a Blue Dog (Patrick Murphy) and the other a raving, ethically-compromised radical (Alan Grayson).  Grayson wins my award for the most consistently amusing emails, but I share the party's doubt that he may be the strongest potential opponent.

Ohio (18 EV) - As always, a key state for the Republicans' hopes, and what should be fertile ground for Trump's appeal to embittered, working-class whites.  He would be favored if not for his failure--so far--to make peace with his defeated rival, Gov. John Kasich.  Without Kasich's support, or if it comes too late, Trump has to be considered the underdog. (538 has it about 50-50, Predictit 60-40 Clinton).

The Senate race has a lower profile than Florida's, but it is also very close, with each party nominating strong, somewhat bland candidates who are proven winners in statewide elections, Rob Portfman for the Republicans and Ted Strickland for the Democrats.  It will likely be a tossup all the way to Election Day.

Next come three "N" states, I'll start with the one with the most Electoral votes:
North Carolina (15 EV) - This is the only one of the seven which went Republican in 2012 (after going very narrowly for Obama in 2008); we are told the demographics are gradually shifting more toward the Democrats in the state, but this year's vote may show a  reversal of the trend.  It polls very close right now, but I tend more to the 538 view (60-40 Republican) than Predictit's 50-50.

The Senate race has an incumbent, Richard Burr, against a promising woman contender, Elizabeth Ross.  Burr is what passes for a moderate Republican outside New England, and Ross is a moderate Democrat.  The state's politics have been roiled by the passage of the infamous legislation requiring transgender persons to use the public bathroom of their "birth gender", which is causing great embarrassment to the Republican-dominated state government.  Predictit gives the Democrats a 40% chance to pick up this seat.

Nevada (6 EV) - This state has moved from reliable Republican to narrowly favoring the Democrats in national elections; the question is whether the impending retirement of the state's political kingpin, Senator Harry Reid, will change the balance of power. It is polling even, but I would favor the Democrats.

The race for Reid's Senate seat is perhaps the most critical of all; the Democrats need to gain four seats (and keep control of the White House, or five without it) to regain control of the Senate.  All of the other seats mentioned are Republican-held and many represent good or great chances for Democratic gains, but losing this one would make the Democrats' task doubly hard.  Of course, a smaller state's Senator gets the same vote as the Senators from New York or California. The Democrats' candidate, Catherine Cortez Musto, was previously the state Attorney General; the Republicans', Joe Heck, is a Congressman and party regular. It will be a hugely expensive race and is a true tossup;  Cortez Musto will have plenty of support from national organizations.

New Hampshire (4 EV) - The Granite State provides surprises, but usually just in the primaries:  it gave Bernie Sanders a large margin, and Donald Trump in the same day.  In its polling, third-party candidates are unusually strong.  Really alone among the states of the Northeast, there is doubt about the likely outcome, but it is also unlikely NH will make the difference in the Electoral College.

The Senate race is a high-profile battle between two strong candidates, Gov. Maggie Hassan and the Republican incumbent, Kelly Ayotte.  Ayotte has tried to maintain some distance from Trump and has avoided being tarred with the brush of the darkest Republican slurs. Hassan is at least at parity in the contest.

Iowa (6 EV) - IA was a great state for President Obama (two general election wins, and a crucial win in their 2008 caucuses) but has been less-than-great for Hillary Clinton.  This year she eked out a narrow win over Sanders which would have been disastrous if she had lost.  This is not a state where the Democrats' huge advantage with minorities will help her; she will have to win this on her appeal to college-educated whites.  In this regard, it is typical of the fulcrum of the which will decide the national race.  (See below for the demographics discussion on a national level)

The Democrats are pressing to make the Senate contest here a close one but the odds are somewhat against them.  The longtime incumbent Chuck Grassley, is a little vulnerable because, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is single-handedly preventing Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, from getting a hearing (though everyone knows he is fully qualified and actually quite moderate).  Unfortunately for Democratic nominee Patty Judge, the issue has not ripened much anger, and it would not convince many Republican-leaning independents to turn against Grassley, who has always won easily in the past.

I must mention three Senate seats for which the Democrats are currently favored to pick up seats, in order of likelihood:  Wisconsin, where Russ Feingold seems headed toward gaining revenge for his surprise loss to conservative Ron Johnson in 2010; Indiana, which has suddenly become a great pickup target for the Democrats to gain the seat being vacated by Republican Dan Coats, with the late entry of former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh (this deserves a column in itself); and Illinois, where the expected large Democratic turnout makes Rep. Tammy Duckworth the favorite to defeat the slippery incumbent, Mark Kirk, in a battle of candidates with physical handicaps (Duckworth a veteran amputee, Kirk a wheelchair-bound survivor of a serious stroke).  Kirk emails me regularly with his progressive positions on the environment and social issues, is a leader in attacking the Iran deal, and dodges Trump at every opportunity, but I don't think it will save him.   These three make the Democrats' task of gaining the Senate very achievable.

There are some other races beside all these where the Democrats have some chance:
Missouri, where they have a strong candidate in Jason Kander, but he will have an uphill battle because of the state's Republican lean in the Presidential race; Arizona, where John McCain is facing his toughest challenge yet and is at odds with the Trump campaign; and Georgia, which is a longshot possibility for the Democrats also in the Presidential race.   The shortest route for the Democrats to gain control is winning WI, IL, IN; one of OH, PA, or FL; and holding onto NV.

Demographic Shifts & Final Notes
538 has an interactive tool which I love for this Presidential contest (originally they called it the "swing-o-matic", now it is the more dignified question, "what would it take to turn the Blue states Red?"). It allows the reader to try out shifts in the turnout and party percentage, on a national basis, for five demographic groups (college-educated whites, non-college educated whites, blacks, Hispanic/Latinos, and Asian/Other) from their starting point, which is the 2012 data, updated for demographic changes.  Those shifts you choose are then applied on a state level and you can see if they cause a change on the state-level voting outcomes.  This was done several months ago and the basis of the projection is static--it's not updated for recent polling, and it doesn't take into account third-party voting.  (To adjust for that factor, I would suggest to keep the party vote percentages the same, so as to maintain their relative shares, but reduce turnout--more on the white groups, less on the minorities.)

My own starting scenario for the general election (two-party version) makes the following shifts, which I think are all arguable:

  • College-Educated Whites go from 56% Republican with 77% turnout to 51%/71%;
  • Non College Educated Whites go from 62% Republican with 57% turnout to 67%/65%;
  • Blacks go from 93% Democratic with 66% turnout to 90%/59%; 
  • Hispanics go from 71% Democratic with 48% turnout to 83%/55%; and 
  • Asian/Other (includes Native Americans) goes from 67% with 49% to 75%/56%. 
Guess what?  Those changes offset such that the result in the Electoral College is the same, 332-206. Shifting the turnout down, as I proposed, only shifts NC into the Democratic column.  If, from the changes I suggest above, I revert College-Educated Whites to the edge Mitt Romney gained, IA and OH flip, but the Democrats retain a 330-208 margin.   After that, then, the swing comes from the margin (much more than the turnout) for the Hispanics: At the 2012 level of 71% Democratic, the Republicans get 295 EV, picking up WI, VA, NH, PA, and FL.  The tipping point on Hispanic support, with that unfavorable scenario (bad news on whites, lower turnout for blacks) turns out to be 80% Democratic, when it flips suddenly to a 295-243 margin for the Democrats.

So, my feeling is that Tim Kaine is a good pick for Hillary, apart from the fact that she likes him, and that she feels he could do the job:  he should help with blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites.

A different scenario results from leaving all the breaks the same as 2012 but shifting just the non-college educated to the high-turnout, high-Republican level above.  That shifts FL,OH, IA,NH, and crucially, CO (by 0.1%) to the Republicans and gives Trump a 272-266 margin.

As for the polls, my suggestion is to ignore them until August 15:  once the impact of the conventions has settled, we will see if Hillary has a real lead or not.  We should certainly expect that the percentage choosing neither will drop from 20% to about 10%, but it will make all the difference if it looks more like 47-43 Hillary or 45-45.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Well, They Went and Did It


I wake up in the morning, and I wonder
Why everything's the same as it was
And I can't understand
No, I can't understand
Why life goes on the way it does

Why do the birds go on singing? 
Why do the stars shine above? 
Don't they know it's the end of the world? 
--Herman's Hermits (1964)

OK, it's not that bad--not yet. Nothing really bad has happened yet to the country simply because the Republicans have nominated as their Presidential candidate a poorly-informed, bigoted bully who seems to be running because it feeds his ego. 

I remember feeling this way, though, in early 2001 once we had gotten past the disaster of the 2000 election and its aftermath:  Bush hadn't done anything stupid yet.  And we know how that one came out. 

We have already covered the question of whether Trump is the "least-appealing" candidate of the postwar era (or is it now the prewar era? History will tell) Due to his uncertain ideology and his relatively weak ability to lead an effective national campaign, I rated him only the third most-dangerous candidate of the last 60 years, behind Reagan and Dubya.  But that would change if the American electorate does the unthinkable and actually elects him. 

His views are perhaps unprecedented in modern times among Presidential candidates for their virulence (though Nixon may have been as bad, he was less open about it).  In terms of riding an unexpected popular movement, taking a politically inexperienced businessman candidate to of uncertain party loyalty to a Republican nomination, though, I can think of a precedent.  Wendell Willkie, a former Democrat, appeared practically from nowhere to take the 1940 Republican nomination; he ran a spirited campaign but lost the Electoral vote, 449-82.  Willkie's political career after the defeat infuriated his party; in those days, after World War II had started but before Pearl Harbor, he stood out as one of the strongest backers of greater involvement.  Unlike Trump, he had very progressive, internationalist views.  Though we remember Franklin D. Roosevelt's death shortly after being re-elected one more time, in 1944, Willkie actually died before he did 

So, that is encouraging, but of course Hillary is no FDR.  At least, I don't think so. 

Status Report:  Ship Still Sinking
Personally, I think Donald should use the word "titanic"--it would be a good addition to his vocabulary, fits well with the other adjuectives he typically uses, and it would be a delicious reference to his chosen party and its state.  The Republicans have hit the iceberg, and it has a name: Drumpf. 

George Will does a good impersonation of a rat, and so it is appropriate that he has already bailed on the party.  I have to respect those, like John Kasich and Mitt Romney, who have taken a firm stance on principle against their party's nominee, though rowing in the opposite direction of the tack the wind is pushing the boat does not work very well.  Most of the more respectable members of the party resemble those who are reaching in desperation for anything still floating after the vessel sinks under the waves. Finally, there is Ted Cruz, who has commandeered a life raft and is heading further out to sea.  I have sensed (not watching, saying "la-la-la" so as not to hear) that Cruz has released his supporters from any obligation to vote for his nemesis; he is positioning himself well for a 2020 bid to run as the True Conservative, At Last.  I like it. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Conventional Thinking

Donald Trump looks at the national party convention as a big TV show--and he's not wrong about that.  He will judge his TV production's success by the TV ratings his "showbiz" package produces, as compared to the one the Democrats will put on the following week.  Therefore, the least I can do as a public citizen is to vote with my remote:  the Republican convention's live broadcasts on the various networks will not receive one minute of my television monitors' time.  There may be some drama, very likely a metaphorical train wreck of some kind or other (either inside or outside the convention hall), but I can catch up with them through alternate sources (Stephen Colbert with Jon Stewart, Bill Maher's coverage, Rachel Maddow's....)

From the Democratic convention I expect little drama, but the roster of speakers will be far more impressive:  both Michelle and Barack Obama, both Hillary and Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden.  I am flying out for vacation on Wednesday of that week (and we don't have home TV service where I'm going), but I'll do my best--maybe head to a local watering-hole Wednesday night for the President and Thursday night for the President-to-be.

My Problems with Hillary Clinton
I have been remiss in clearly proclaiming my endorsement of the presumptive Democratic nominee for the Presidency, though I believe any reader of my past posts would see that I always believed she both should and would win this election. Now that even Bernie Sanders has provided his endorsement, I certainly have no reason to hold back:  I promise my full support for her campaign. 

Still, I have some reasons for concerns, which I now intend to list, explain, and also point out some concerns others have that I do not share.  I hope this does not qualify me for the social media epithet, "concern troll", the meaning of which I confess I do not understand.

Concern 1:  Too Much Continuity - This is a concern more about electability than substance.  I am not looking for major changes from the policy directions President Obama has been pursuing; the lack of efficacy in the federal government (or in most state governments) is a function of Republican obstruction.  The question is whether the country needs a change, and, if so, can Hillary Clinton be expected to deliver it.  I was more concerned about this when it appeared the race might be Clinton-Bush II (the first was 1992!) , and now that it's Donald Trump that will be her opponent, it seems the question will be about change for change's sake rather than status quo vs. a plausible alternative.

The return to the White House of the Clintons after 16 years does seem a bit reactionary, as though we could wish away the last decade and a half  (or, at least, it seems nostalgic).  My desire is that Hillary win as big as possible, carry the Senate and bring the House closer to an even split, do her best to hit the ground running in 2017, have a good two years, campaign hard for the party in 2018, and then decide:  does she really want or need four more years of this?  Unless I am mistaken and she falls in love with the power (which would be a big problem), I think she can pass the torch to her designated successor--which is exactly why her choice of VP is so important--and leave office in January, 2021 with her place in history secure.

Concern 2:  Too Cozy with the Moneyed Elite - I don't think it's entirely fair to criticize her for the positions she took in favor of Wall Street when she was their Senator, nor do I think that her performance as Secretary of State gave unusual preference to American business (the fact is, it's just business as usual for State to seek to promote American business interests abroad).  What she has done since then as a private citizen doesn't concern me, either:  she and Bill have been reaping big bucks, for themselves and for their very worthwhile Clinton Foundation, and that's fine with me.

The concern I had is about the big money contributions she has been happy to receive, for her campaign and for the PAC's that support her.  I recognize that President Obama did the same as she has been doing, with the valid justification that unilateral monetary disarmament is a fool's strategy; however, she seems a bit too comfortable with it.  I will say in her defense that a lot of the big money she has raised has been passed on to other Democratic candidates, and that she has come out clearly for a Constitutional Amendment to reverse Citizens United (something that will seemingly never pass) and, more importantly, for making it a litmus test for Supreme Court justices she will nominate. Again, though, I wish she would walk the walk a little (more in the mode Bernie Sanders did):  it means little unless she is willing to sacrifice her self-interest, at least a little, for the cause.

Concern 3:  The War Hawk Thing - Let's just say that it would be good if Hillary has an opportunity to say "no, thanks" to some proposed military incursion between now and November.  She has more than established her strong support for a robust American military posture.  A little more than required, even.  At least she has the good sense to regret that her 2002 vote to give Dubya authorization for military action in Iraq turned out the way that it did, something Mike Pence does not have.

That's it.  Now for a couple of concerns I've heard expressed that I don't share.

She Didn't Accommodate Bernie Sanders Supporters Enough -  Hillary does not have to make the concession of choosing a Sanders follower, or Sanders himself, for her Vice Presidential nominee, and she won't.  In some sense, Sanders might have made sense as the nominee once it became clear Trump would end up being the Republicans' nominee; get the cat to catch the rat, as they say.  It was never going to happen, however.  From the point of view of giving the Democratic primary campaign and the platform for the general election some real substance, I am glad Sanders ran, and also glad that his efforts were so successful. It's now part of the party's DNA, and that will pay great dividends in the future.  When it comes to the VP pick, though, Hillary should pick the best person to get white, college-educated voters to support her, someone intelligent who could carry on as President if needed.

I don't blame Bernie for the delay in his endorsement, either.  For one thing, he didn't need to give up his shot until the off chance that Hillary might be indicted had passed (was that months ago, though?) He owed his passionate supporters a good battle over the platform, which was duly battled, and seems to have emerged as a reasonable center-left amalgam. In particular, it calls out the issues of climate change, income inequality, and campaign reform more than it would have without his influence.

The Damned Emails:  Here is what Hillary, and her subordinates, were guilty of:  a conspiracy to deny the American public the access to her private communication which the Freedom of Information Act allows.  Is that a crime?  I'm no lawyer, I don't know, but apparently it wasn't enough to indict a ham sandwich, let alone a major party Presidential nominee.  I am sympathetic to her desire, though I recognize that any hope of privacy is pretty much a lost cause.

As a conspiracy, it was evidently a total failure.  We now know a lot more about all her emails than we ever would have known, or care to have known, if she had used the government server.  Even if some misguided do-gooder had hacked and released them all, something not improbable in this day. They don't amount to much in their substance, and it is generally not understood that she used secure lines of communication, available to the State Department in every nation, for the really important stuff.

I have been arguing in Facebook and the like that nobody cares--outside the chattering classes of the Beltway, or the professional information security professionals who get so worked up about the rules There is another group, those who are unalterably opposed to her anyway and see it as a great opportunity to make political hay.  I'm not in any of those groups.

TP: T'Pence for His Thoughts
Mike Pence is the perfect "Veep", as in the brilliant TV satire with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss  in the title role.  There is absolutely no reason to think he will serve any purpose other than to reassure right-wingers that Trump's on their side.  In that regard, though, he was a solid choice, much better than the other two finalists, Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie, would have been.  Gingrich would have threatened to one-up his craziness at times, and Christie, by now, is so thoroughly humiliated that even Trump could not stand to have him around.

The gossip is that Pence was having trouble with his re-election bid for Indiana governor and this provided him a relatively safe harbor.   From Hillary's point of view, Pence is no threat and she can name any intelligent moderate or liberal, confident that person will show up Pence as the raving loony with a reassuringly normal look that his record shows that he is.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Turkey coup: (At least) Four Theories

In the interest of providing better information to you, my readers, I sometimes take on the task of reading posts from commentators whose views are antithetical to mine, so that I can monitor their thinking and communications strategy.  There are also those, like Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post, who are useful to read because they so consistently get things wrong:  they overthink questions, or force stuff out due to their job-related necessity of producing against publishing deadlines, and embrace wrongheaded ideas.  The logic, of course, is that if Cilizza says A, then not-A is more likely to be true.

Then there are a couple for which both of those are true:  distasteful views, offensively expressed, but also consistently wrong predictively.  Bill Kristol is one; and Dick Morris another.  So, when I read Dick Morris' assessment of the motivation for the plotters of the attempted coup in Turkey, I got a major clue for a theory to discard.  I have an intense interest in Turkey and its role in geopolitics--for me, Turkey's right at the heart of every issue in the Middle East and it can be a determining factor in many of the possible outcomes, whether positive or negative. In the aftermath of the coup yesterday, facts are few and speculation is rampant as to what they were trying to accomplish, and I will be joining in on that.

Morris, who made his name advising the Clintons for their Democratic-lite, centrist "Third Way" triangulation in the '90's, but has since shown himself to be no friend of the Democrats and an extremely unreliable source of political advice, advanced the theory that the coup plotters were trying to save secular Turkey from the Islamist tendencies of President Erdogan. His theory is not ridiculous; the Turkish military views itself as the protector of the secular state formed by Ataturk after WWI and has staged several successful coups against the civilian government in the past when the military leaders saw the government as straying too far from Ataturk's design.   ,

The problem with the theory is that Erdogan's Islamism is very mild.  While it is true that his party has broken substantial new ground in terms of accommodating religious followers of Islam into the Turkish political system, he has not governed as an Islamist, has not attempted to introduce Sharia law, has not taken action against non-believers.  He has governed as a nationalist who represents the aspirations of the Sunni Moslem majority.  Turkey is overwhelmingly Sunni Moslem, over 95%, but the degree to which Turks actively practice varies widely, and there are many diverse strains of Turkish Islam within that broad classification.

So, in fact, my first speculation on the motivation for the coup attempt is the opposite:  it is a bit of a longshot, but it's possible that there could have been a more radically Islamist faction in the military that wanted to overthrow Turkey's government to try to end its efforts in support of the anti-ISIS coalition.  As I have discussed previously,  policies with regard to the Syrian civil war are very complex:  they are first, ardently anti-Assad; second, anti-Kurdish nationalist; and only third, anti-ISIS.  Still, they have done quite a bit:  they allow the US air forces to attack ISIS positions from its Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey, they have done more to seal their borders with Syria to prevent infiltration of radicals in both directions.  There is plenty of evidence that ISIS has targeted Turkey to punish it for what it has done--suicide bombers in Ankara and, repeatedly, in Istanbul, topped off by the recent attack (apparently by Chechen supporters of ISIS) on the airport there.  I say it's a longshot, because it may have been unlikely ever to have succeeded, but a successful coup by forces friendly to ISIS would have been a catastrophe for the rest of the world.

For the next theory I would advance I have no evidence whatsoever, but it seems logical to me.  It requires some background.  The sporadic civil war in the southeast against Kurdish nationalism which simmered for decades seemed possibly to have ended just a few years ago.  The head of the movement, Abdullah Ocalan, had been captured by the Turkish authorities; in prison he had urged his followers to lay down their arms, and he seemed likely to make a peace agreement.  Recently, though, it fell apart;  ceased, there were some terroristic attacks blamed on the Kurds, and the violent struggle resumed, at a  much higher level of lethality than before:  Turkish armored forces surround the center of several Kurdish towns, where rebels have barricaded themselves and plan to fight to the death, feeling in fact that they have no choice, as surrender would lead to their movement's liquidation and their own lives' as well.

Erdogan seems much at fault to me, and his motives questionable.  It is arguable that the resumption of war was a tactic in his ongoing self-aggrandizement campaign, an effort to modify the constitution to give himself even more power.  One key for him is to drive the legal Kurdish parliamentary party below the 10% threshold required for representation in the national Parliament.  Hostilities started shortly before a snap election Erdogan called to try to boost his numbers in Parliament--he did gain, but not enough, and the party (called the HDP) remained just above the threshold.

So, the theory is that some elements of the Turkish military are highly dissatisfied with how they are being employed, killing their fellow citizens, and blaming Erdogan.  The one thing I heard from the coup side during the brief period they controlled the public media was that they were doing it to save the country from Erdogan, who "had lost all claim to legitimacy".  Less-specific versions of this military resentment theory  is that they rose up in response to his autocratic tendencies--which are clear, and frequently denounced in the West--and his suppression of civil liberties, especialy freedom of dissent and of the press.

If the intention was to provoke a popular uprising against Erdogan's authoritarianism, it failed spectacularly.  The popular uprising was among Erdogan's supporters--he deftly called his people to the streets by social media, then upon returning to Istanbul's airport from his vacation, and they answered his call.  Even the opposition parties, including even the HDP, spoke out in favor of the constitutional government and against the coup, regardless of what they deemed the motives of the plotters to be.  At the end of the day, it looks as though Erdogan's hand will be strengthened again in the reaction to the coup, with the defense of constitutional democracy ironically ending up in its reduction.

The final theory is a subtle one, but supported by some of the few facts known. Even during the height of the confusion and uncertainty, persons speaking on behalf of the government were already blaming it on followers of a Muslim cleric, Fetullah Gulen.  Gulen has been blamed before by Erdogan, for an abortive coup attempt some years ago, which gave the President the reason--whether invented or not--to purge a number of military officers and prosecute some alleged traitors.

Gulen is a moderate Islamic cleric who was once an ally of Erdogan and has many followers in the country; Erdogan may see him as his greatest rival.  After the falling out, though, Gulen flew the coop and is now actually living in Pennsylvania.  It is hard to imagine that Gulen would think he could direct a successful coup against a powerful government from such a distance, and he has denied any connection with the coup's plotters.  It is just barely possible, though, that Turkey's extensive secret police force caught wind of discontent among the military, whether related to Gulen or not, and that the government provided some secret encouragement to those forces, confident they could suppress the rebellion in the end--as they have done.

Erdogan has moved to accuse Gulen of treason and to demand he be extradited by the US to Turkey to stand trial. The Turkish government, in the aftermath of its success, has also closed Incirlik to military operations, with the argument that rebel air force elements (most of the worst damage and loss of life during the coup resulted from attacks by rogue helicopters and attack planes; generally speaking, the Army elements involved proved unwilling to take on the citizenry) are still afoot.  We shall see how long that condition lasts, but extradition is generally a long, uncertain process and Gulen might plausibly request political asylum.

Of course, more than one of these theories could be true.  The only combination logically impossible is the combination of  Morris' defense-against- Islamism one (which I discount) and my radical-Islamist one.  In particular, the combination of #3 and #4--government provocation of dissatisfied elements--seems possible to me.  We are likely to ever have any definitive proof, barring a statement in public trial from leaders of the plot, which I would not expect will be permitted.

Turkey's messy politics seem likely to involve the US ever more, but for us it is the cost of the assistance from a very significant ally (beyond Incirlik, NATO's Eastern Mediterranean fleet is based in Izmmir, on the Aegean coast).   I will be interested to see how the US Presidential candidates will respond to these challenges:  Hillary Clinton, I am certain, will be well-informed and sensible, while Trump, I expect, will demonstrate a lack of understanding of any of the subtleties, and may have trouble identifying it on a map if asked.