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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saskia Van der lingen

My longtime acquaintance, friend, and relative by marriage died yesterday in Granada, Nicaragua. The cause of death was an antibiotic-resistant blood infection.

Saskia was a very intelligent person.  Fully fluent in four languages (at least--English, Spanish, Italian, and French), she had an excellent eye.  She was a skilled photographer (old school), and had a successful career as a young woman as a fashion editor (an assistant at Vogue--she said her experiences there with Polly Mellen were the real basis of "The Devil Wears Prada"--and a more senior role with Details). She was very generous:  her trademark was the quality of her gifts, which were carefully considered, sometimes way too expensive, and always included with a kind, loving note.  She was a great hostess and a great cook.

Born and raised in Rome, Italy to expat parents--her Dutch father and American mother (and named for Rembrandt's wife)--she was a true internationalist, with friends all over the world. She hated the very idea of Donald Trump:  At least she will not have to endure seeing him as our President.

I would not say she was a person of moderation, with the way that she loved--married twice, to a charming Frenchman and a handsome Spaniard--danced, partied, or, on occasion, hated.

Saskia was a person who lived life to the fullest extent.  Though she died relatively young (early '50's), who's to say that's wrong?   I am just sorry for her daughter, her sister, and others who loved her (one wonderful man was with her at the end).

Losing someone you know well makes you acutely aware of your own mortality.  Live accordingly.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Manchurian President (-elect)

Now we hear that the Russians had a dossier of compromising information on Presidential candidate Trump, and they were not hiding that fact.  What they did with it is not yet reported, though clearly they chose to release publicly their Clinton research and not that on Trump.  Perhaps they let Trump know what they had; perhaps it helps explain why Trump has never said a negative word about Russia and its government in this campaign or afterward.  Of course, maybe they didn't need to tell him what they had; he might already have known it.  At the least, the classified (but leaked) report indicates that the US intelligence agencies briefed Trump on the alleged existence of the dossier.

I recently had the occasion to see the '50's movie "The Manchurian Candidate", a fictional story about American soldiers in the Korean War (1948-53) who were captured, "brainwashed" and sent back to America to act, against their own will, to promote the objectives of the Communists--in this case to help, through targeted assassinations, the Presidential candidacy of an extremist demagogue.  I was not particularly impressed by the movie's verisimilitude--in particular, they seem to conflate inaccurately the effects of brainwashing and hypnotism, and to overstate the range of actions a brainwashed/hypnotized person might take.

Still, the question remains:  can the malign influence of a foreign power reach even to the White House? How could we know?  One thing is clear, there is an unmistakable tendency from Trump, in his statements and in his nominees for office, to take the most positive view possible of Russia, its actions, and its own public posturing.

On Electoral Tampering
Intelligence reports now publicly released make clear their unanimous assessment, with "high confidence", that the Russian government sponsored interference in the Presidential election, with a clear intention to undermine the integrity of the election, and an apparent intention to damage Secretary Clinton's candidacy.

We can be offended by the lack of fairness of the Russian interventions.  I don't think we have the right to call this unprecedented or something previously unthinkable.  There is evidence that, among other intrusions in other nations' politics, the US itself involved itself in the affairs of our close ally, Italy, during the Cold War, favoring the anti-Communist Christian Democratic party (and against the Italian Communists).

What isn't fair, though, is that only the Russians should get to try to influence the US Presidential elections.  Our elections results affect every country in the world, and the campaigns go on for so long, it should be very tempting for many countries to get involved, though they may have more ethical scruples than Russia.  There are two sad facts about this:  one is that virtually all of our friends and allies would have expressed their preference for Hillary Clinton, with whom they worked successfully and whom they respected; and the second is that American voters wouldn't really give the slightest consideration to what the rest of the world might think.  It's true that the President is only responsible to the American electorate, and only has direct responsibility for American government, but if we claim to be the leaders of the free world, we might want to know what the rest of the free world would like to follow.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Lightening Up...Or Trying

Movies: 2016
I'm very happy for Hollywood that 2016 set all-time records for box office--contrary to the current perception that television rules, the money still seems to be in the movies.  Netflix is OK, I guess--I still have some problems with the concept that only getting to watch what they select for you, whenever you want, is somehow better than a broader selection of choices with limited time selection (especially since the advent of the DVR somewhat frees up the time limitations), but in terms of the experience, for me there is no contest.  Movies affect me much more deeply.

That being said, the movies that draw the crowds generally have a different sensibility from mine. There is one exception, which I will get to shortly.  The only movies in the top 20 of box office receipts in the year which were not "superhero" comic heroes or cartoons were "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story", "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them", "Jason Bourne", "Star Trek Beyond", and "Central Intelligence".  The first four, I would say, continue the theme of total escapism; only the last, a comedy with Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson which I had totally forgotten, is the only exception to the rule that extreme absence of reality is what drove financial result (it was #20).

I'm not immune to the appeal of such movies:  one figures in my top 5, two in my bottom 5, while one of them (the Star Trek movie), I saw, I paid for,  I enjoyed it,  but I had forgotten I had seen it. Mission Accomplished!

My Top Five Movies of 2016: 

  • Arrival
  • Rogue One
  • Moonlight
  • Hell or High Water
  • Free State of Jones

Honorable Mention:  Birth of a Nation, Allied, Queen of Katwe, Youth, Where to Invade Next, Hello My Name is Doris.

Comments: "Arrival" is my favorite movie of the year, and I'm hoping Amy Adams will win her long-deserved Oscar for her performance.  "Rogue One" is the Star Wars movie I liked best, by far, since "Return of the Jedi".  "Moonlight" is a touching story, beautifully filmed, and one with a critically-important message.  "Hell or High Water" feels real to me, and is also very entertaining. The other movies are all underrated, flawed, but valuable.

Serious Movies I Have No Right to Judge - though those with * I criticize for their pseudo-2016 release strategy:

  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Hidden Figures*
  • Jackie*
  • Silence*
  • La La Land
  • Captain Fantastic (did they have a release strategy?)
  • Fences*
  • Lion*
  • Loving
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Patriots Day*
Comments: "La La Land" and "Manchester by the Sea" are considered the other main contenders for Best Picture along with "Moonlight".  I will see both of them eventually but am in no hurry; I do not feel that we have a lack of escapist show-biz kid self-worship that "LLL" is going to fill, though--I will be rooting against it, though that may be in spite of my feelings after I actually see it.  Both had the late release more right--general release on Christmas is the tried-and-true approach. "Hidden Figures" could be the sleeper for the Oscars, but its late release (why?) will hamper it.  "Silence" may be the movie Martin Scorsese had to make for decades, but it looks like a miss to me.  "Captain Fantastic" is probably the one of all this list I most want to see; I simply missed it because it never came close to my area.


A Few Movies I Did Not Like:


  • Nocturnal Animals
  • The Lobster
  • Suicide Squad
  • Knight of Cups
  • The Divergent Series: Allegiant
  • Superman v Batman:  The Dawn of Justice
Comments:  With the exception of the last two, which I just saw on TV after their runs, the others actively disappointed me.  There were other movies, such as "Race", "Snowden", "Sisters", or "Hail, Caesar", which were about what I expected, but no more.  "Office Christmas Party" and most of the cartoon movies fall into a category I would describe as "No Objection to seeing them, but I will wait and see them for free".


Sports at the Moment
Though arguably this is exactly the time when the fate of 2017's baseball teams are being determined, there is really no news to report.  The Hall of Fame election this year looks to be a total PR disaster, no matter who is or isn't elected.  For the record, my choices this year would be  Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ivan Rodriguez, Tim Raines, Fred McGriff, Lee Smith, and Vlad Guerrero.

Next, I must brag on my team in English soccer.  Chelsea is on a 13-game win streak--no losses or draws in 13 league games--which has lifted them to the top of the table.  They will be challenged to continue the streak, which would be a record, against Tottenham on Wednesday.  Chelsea has simply got everything going well right now.  Off last season's disaster, they have no Champions League distractions, and new coach Antonio Conte has them extremely well focused.  I think he's going to be a keeper (not a goalie).

I am very critical of the structure of college football, but I would not say there is a lack of talent, sometimes even excitement.  Yesterday's Rose Bowl, won 52-49 on a last-second field goal by USC over Penn State, was clearly the game of the year.  It goes to show that the playoff system as it is now will always be about those #5/#6 teams proving they should have been it.  On the other hand, though there are way too many bowl games, the variety and structure does tend to bring teams of similar ability to face off, with the decisive factor being motivation level. The final should be a ho-hum win for Alabama, assuming they aren't checked out already.  I don't think their obsessive, hectoring coach Nick Saban will allow that to happen.

The NFL playoffs and the NBA playoffs both look somewhat predictable at this point.  Dallas and New England are large favorites to meet in the Super Bowl, and Golden State and Cleveland to meet, for the third straight year, in the NBA championships.  College basketball, on the other hand, has the most exciting playoff system in sports, and  this year should be no exception.  Although the laws of probability still apply, there is plenty of room for surprise.

Before the Door Closed on 2016...
Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds stepped through it.  Both were highly intelligent actresses who played a variety of roles, on screen and in life.  Fame was hard on them but they were never defeated.  I identify Reynolds, above all, as the "Unsinkable Molly Brown", a movie role now largely forgotten by the world, but which I will never forget.  Look it up.  The manner of Debbie Reynolds' death, directly following her daughter's, was remarkable. As for Carrie Fisher, one can certainly say she lived a full life.

It is fair to say that 2016 had an inordinately large number of notable persons who passed away, but I feel that this is not a transitory, one-time occurrence.  Those born in the first years of the baby boom have been dominating our news in all areas for many years; now many of them, particularly those who lived hard, loved hard, consumed hard, are passing on.  There is no objective measure of this, but I suspect we're in for a few more years of famous folks falling fast.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Now They Went and Did It

The official vote of the Electoral College will apparently be:  Donald Trump 304, Hillary Clinton 227, Colin Powell 3, John Kasich 1, Bernie Sanders 1, Ron Paul 1, and Faith Spotted Eagle 1.  What is wrong with this picture (apart from the outcome)?

One of those talk-show panels on Sunday was discussing this Electoral College vote--they all agreed that the human element should be replaced by a strict point system.  Yes, that would remove the embarrassment of the votes for the five recipients who were not Presidential nominees; however, I think embarrassment is exactly the feeling we should have about this antiquated, anti-democratic, randomizing system we use to select our President.

The question of whether our Founding Fathers preferred the Electoral College to a national popular vote is way off-base:  there was no popular vote for President in most states until much later.  It was not even considered.  The Electoral College system proved itself unworkable by the second contested election, in 1800.  After that, they fixed some of the obvious flaws in that original formulation, but it really hasn't gotten better.  Look up the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, 1960, 1968, and, most recently, 2000, 2004, and 2016 (of course).   In all of them the Electoral vote outcome differed sharply and meaningfully from the popular vote outcome, and in five of them, completely opposed it.

I support that legislation, driven by states, to make a binding compact that their states will cast their electoral votes for the winner of the popular vote--once 270 states' worth of electoral votes agree to it. I support it, even though I hardly believe it's foolproof, because it's the only route that seems possible right now--the Republicans have now convinced themselves that the Electoral College is their new best friend, the only protection against rule by the urban elite mob, even though just months ago, the talk was of the Democrats' "electoral college lock".

I credit the Republican strategists for recognizing that the Blue Wall was not impenetrable; the evidence that the Upper Midwest was vulnerable was present, as the margins have been very small in several states in recent elections (though consistently in the Democrats' favor).  Pennsylvania, the state most decisive in the result (along with Florida), was the huge surprise, the bridge too far that had been the Republicans' impossible dream in several recent elections.

Of course, radical that I am, I advocate pulling the thing out by its roots and going with the popular vote, but with a twist.  All voters would get to select their first and second choice of Presidential ticket.  If no candidate gets a majority, the two top vote-getters would have an "instant runoff":  only those two would remain in the contest, and  second-choice votes would be allocated to them, from among those votes that did not go to them in the first round.

As for those who agitated to overturn the result from Election Day, it was always a bootless exercise, one that had no chance and little justification.  Even when the result, equally tainted, was much closer in 2000--Bush won by two electoral votes --there was no chance of changing the outcome. No mere elector would take the responsibility to overturn the system--We are stuck with The President for the 46%.

The next vain effort will be the one to try to convince VP Joe Biden and the Democratic Senators to suspend the rules in that moment before the new Senators will be sworn in and vote for Merrick Garland. I'm not familiar enough with the Senate rules to know how it really works (definitely not like that), but I feel the Democrats do owe Garland a motion for a vote, one which will be blocked--it should have been done long ago; however, that kind of mischief on that day can never work.

What About Aleppo? 
The question which was Gary Johnson's downfall in his pretension to be a serious Presidential candidate will not go away.  60 Minutes had a segment on Friday about the "White Helmets", the trained volunteers who try to dig out survivors in Aleppo, Syria when their houses are destroyed by Syrian/Russian bombs. It was truly heartbreaking to watch, and one can only feel sadness for the civilians being killed so barbarously in this Civil War--though Civil Wars are always like this, to be honest.

It was rather pathetic to see our UN Ambassador Samantha Power take the Syrians and Russians to task--"Is there nothing that can shame you?"--or to hear President Obama declare that the blood of these people is on the hands of Syria and Russia.  And yet we do nothing about it.

Well, someone did something about it, today.  A Turkish man killed the Russian Ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in the capital, Ankara, shouting out that his act was revenge for Syria and Aleppo.  I can't endorse the violent response to violence, and I don't know whether  the Ambassador's deeds themselves provide cause for revenge, but I will say this:  atrocities such as those committed by the Syrian government and its allies have consequences.  President Assad's day is coming, and others should also be subjected to punishment for their war crimes.

It appears that the slaughter may be nearly over;  there is a truce now which is permitting the evacuation of civilians.  Where they go, and what awaits them, people don't seem to be saying; at this point, though, we are just praying for this to end.  Unfortunately, in Syria this will then give way to the next slaughter, and the one after that.  Meanwhile, the civilian hostages in Mosul are starving.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Some Quick Hits

On the Rapidly-Approaching Advent of the Drumpfenreich
Conflict of Interest - As Trump himself has said, there is none.  It's all about his self-interest.  See, no conflict!
Blind Trust - Trump already has it; it was conferred upon him by about 65 million deluded voters.
Celebrity Apprentice - He should have President Obama host it, and he can be the apprentice who gets pushed around.  I would pay to see that (he could keep his share of the profits).
Intelligence agency disrespect - Fits perfectly with Trump's persona; he has no respect for anyone's intelligence except his own.
Power without a Mandate - We are about to see an experiment come to life before our eyes:  Can a radical movement which has majority opposition, but controls all the levers of government impose its will?  If it is ruthless enough and/or clever enough to provide the "bread and circuses" the public demands, it could succeed.  We have plenty of examples from history, though not in American history (Russian Revolution, Fascist coup of Italy, rise of Nazism)--though it is near sacrilege to suggest, the  closest in our history might be Abraham Lincoln's rise to power . The test of Trump's triumph of will comes in 2020--short of major scandal, there will be only internal dissent before then which can stop him and the Republicans--and the answer will likely be determined by a small number of voters.  0.1% of national voters moving from Trump to Clinton in four states--Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida--would have given Clinton as decisive an Electoral College "landslide" as the one Trump claims.

The Russia/Putin Thing - It's hard to be sure how this dynamic situation may play out.  The facts are all in dispute, regarding anything the Russians may have gotten from their hacking efforts on the Republicans.  Probably not much, as frankly, the Wikileaks from the Democratic Committee were not all that impressive.  There is no doubt that Putin & Co. wanted Trump to win, but little reason for them to think their efforts were making a difference. Unless....unless their technique is so good that they were able to hack voting tallies in the key states and erase all trace of their efforts.  Something we will never know.

The Cabinet - It's basically looking like a suicide pact:  anti-labor man in Labor, anti-environmentalist in the EPA, an Education Secretary who wants to gut the public schools.  Same for Interior; State looks like it will go to a fossil-fuel dealmaker with deep Russian ties--a recipient from Russia of the Order of Friendship.  The only ones who look as though they will be committed to the mission of their agencies are Defense and National Security.  (And Trump can forget about CIA helping out; at least FBI might...) Heidi Heitkamp will be given a job with Agriculture; she will take it to avoid the embarrassment of losing her Senate re-election, and the Republicans will get another  Senator (by replacement).  Trump's best appointee is probably South Carolina Nikki Haley, but he picked her for a job he could neglect entirely (Ambassador to the U.N.), and to get a critic out of the way and elevate a supporter (the state's Lt. Governor). Then there's Attorney General-to-be Sessions:  he will be hopelessly bottled up by courts that will block him at every step.   Finally, his legislative liaison seems to be  Speaker Ryan, who will be turned loose to cut agency budgets and entitlements left and right;  the apparent governing strategy will be to shrink the government's regulatory and services to grow the military.

Though I believe that, short of clear misbehavior by the nominees, a President should be able to get the Cabinet he or she wants, Trump will be getting the worst advice in the world--not least from his co-chiefs of staff, Reince "Rancid Priapus" Priebus, to provide the views of the sell-out party establishment and Steve "Race" Bannon, that of the loony extremists. Still, I don't think it will quite play out the way his advisers may want:  the civil servants will put up resistance to anything too radical in the way of self-destruction.  If Trump has any redeeming quality, it will be the benefit in this case that he doesn't listen to anyone very much.

The Taiwan Call Gambit - I don't object to the President-elect's taking a phone call from the President of Taiwan.  It should have been, and apparently was, a carefully-considered move  taken under advisement.  In itself, it is not a big deal, though it violated protocol around the US official "One China" policy it has maintained, under the People's Republic's careful watch, for forty years or so. The US does not need to slavishly follow China's dictates, and this was perhaps an opportune moment to show that.  Still, Trump must be extremely careful--there is no more certain way to escalate tensions with China to the point of actual military conflict than to go too far with Taiwan, such as endorsing its President's aspiration to make it into an independent nation.  He must not listen to people like John Bolton, who I hear is due to be Deputy Secretary of State, who will get the US into a war at every possible opportunity.

France and Italy - So, what nation will be next to join the nativist, nationalist bandwagon? I have heard that South Korea, in the wake of the popular insurrection leading to the President's impeachment, but I really don't understand the dynamics of that country to have an opinion.

France has the opportunity coming up; Marine Le Pen has all the elements of a Trumpist upset in the making.  She gets the benefits of all the racist, bigoted dog-whistle support derived from her father's movement; she is much more intelligent and nuanced in her platform than he.  Still, the smart money is on the nominee of the center-right party, Francois Fillon, who may be able to rally support from all the parties to his left if the alternative is Le Pen.  The Left is its usual, fractured self:  incumbent President Hollande, suffering from one of the lowest approval ratings I have seen for a head of state not under indictment, has opted not to run again, so his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, is the likely nominee for the Socialists; however, there are at least a couple others who will run from leftist parties, which will make it difficult for Valls to finish in the top two and reach the runoff.

Italy has just resoundingly rejected the referendum to reform the Constitution and make its upper house non-elective, seemingly on the model of Britain's House of Lords.  Hard to imagine this would be viewed as an improvement, but the real point was to take away that body's ability to prevent legislation, which it has frequently done in the past.  The defeat led to the immediate resignation of Matteo Renzi, probably the most intellectually honest and uncorrupted politician Italy has had in the last century (with the possible exceptions of Enrico Berlinguer and Aldo Moro); the good news, is that, in Italy's republic, defeat does not mean disappearance--political careers all seem to go on indefinitely.  There will be a caretaker government headed by Renzi's party, which still has a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, which could persist as long as 2018.  When the elections come, though, we should beware a possible combination of the non-partisan, populist Five Star Movement somehow combining with the nativist Northern League (those "takers" from the South being their Other, along with all the other foreigners) to follow the Trumpist trend.  I would look for the movement to fall apart before that can happen, though.

So, What Country Can Claim to Lead the Free World in the Meantime? - Germany is one obvious candidate; though it doesn't seem to want to lead in the usual way. which is probably a plus.  Angela Merkel's Germany has shown great leadership in maintaining the European Union and in providing refuge to asylum seekers. Now, she will be put to the test in Germany's national elections; there is a lot of resentment, even within her party coalition, but I see no one who can refute her stands who has the stature needed.

There are a couple of candidates from the Third World, nations with vital, contested democratic elections.  Indonesia, under its Obamaian President Widodo, and India, the largest democracy in the world,  Think about it.

More Folks Heading for the Exit
John Glenn - Glenn is an exception to the rule proposed by one of my friends never to trust a man with two first names.  He was the most trustworthy person one can imagine.  His life story would make a great movie (should be played by Ed Harris, who had the role of Glenn in The Right Stuff): Marine, test pilot, astronaut, Senator, Presidential candidate, the fall in the bathtub, his wife and her conquering of stuttering.  Although altogether good, it would not be boring.  I have to admit that I wanted Senator Glenn to get the Democratic nomination in 1984--send a cat to catch a rat (Reagan), I thought.  He turned out to be a very unsuccessful candidate, unfortunately, though it's hard to imagine he could have done worse than the party's ticket (Mondale/Ferraro) did.

Greg Lake - Only months after his more famous bandmate, Keith Emerson, progressive rock guitarist Greg Lake has died.  He was one of my favorites in the 1970's; he was idealistic and talented.  His first major claim to fame was as bass player, vocalist and contributor to the first two King Crimson albums (he knew Crimson's mastermind Robert Fripp from school days); then he saw a major opportunity joining with master keyboard man Emerson of The Nice and drummer Karl Palmer (Atomic Rooster).  ELP made it big for several years, with Lake's lyrics and guitars providing a counterpoint to Emerson's showy instrumentals. When the world passed him by, he eased into a quiet retirement in the English countryside.  Smart.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

In Defense of 2016

On Thanksgiving Day, it seems appropriate for me to give some thanks. 
In his last episode of the season for his show "Last Week Tonight", the comedian and social commentator John Oliver dedicated his last segment to a condemnation of the year 2016.  It included a series of people, famous and not, directing profane insults toward 2016.

Now, let me say first that I am a John Oliver fan.  There are few that can write and deliver better-aimed streams of insults toward the deserving than he, and I do appreciate his sense of humor.  I paid good money to see him ring in this new year in a Chicago theater.  I do want to differ with him in his characterization of the current year, though.

Yes, this is what they refer to as an "Election Year", in the US anyway, and this year's  model was a disappointment--worse, a massive error of historic proportions, an epic failure, a sin against history and against all of humanity.  So, yeah, bad outcome, but certainly an entertaining spectacle, a three-ring circus (the two party primary contests, and the general election) generally worth the price of admission--a price that seems to have been entirely charged for future payment.

It was also a Leap Year--love that extra day!--and a year of the summer Olympiad.  Oliver put down the Rio Olympics in his excoriation of the year, but I disagree:  the coverage here in the US may have been the usual narrow-cast, parochial, patriotic commercialized rot, but the competition itself was outstanding, and the hosts did not embarrass themselves at all.  Not even when Ryan Lochte chose to slander them to try to excuse his juvenile hijinks.

A few more positives from sport:  Chicago and Cleveland each had major sports triumphs to celebrate:  the Cubs' first World Series victory in 108 years, and Cleveland's first major sports championship in any sport in something like 50.  Both championships were exciting comebacks by the winning team after coming back from 3-1 behind in full, seven-game series ending in a thrilling finale. There was also one of the most dramatic finishes in NCAA basketball history, won by Villanova with a buzzer-beating three-point shot (by Kris Jenkins).

Some wonderful people passed on from this life in 2016, particularly in music  and arts--we have chronicled a few (some additional ones noted below); however, we have their contributions to our civilization which survive them.  "Ars longa, vita brevis," that quote, attributed to Hippocrates, is appropriate.

Finally, I will point out that the year 2016 should be one entirely governed (in the US) by President Barack Obama.  This will surely be the last year we will be able to say that.  He has been one of the best; we will rarely, if ever, see his like in the office again.  It may well be that we--even the deluded Trump voters, and the skeptic and constant complainer John Oliver--will all look back at 2016 as one of the good years.

Some Exits, Hasty and Not

I love you in a place where there's no space or time
I love you for my life
You're a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song to you
 --Leon Russell "A Song For You"

A bit of a rush for the exit around Election Day--I'm sure it's just a coincidence:
Leon Russell (died Nov. 13) was a musician with a unique talent and character, most famously one of the late '60's touring rock bunch fronted by Joe Cocker called Mad Dogs and Englishmen. He was in the first group, being from Oklahoma originally.  A songwriter with a generous spirit, he played piano and sang with a charming drawl.  His was the second major rock concert I ever saw (after Steppenwolf, in 1970).
Leonard Cohen (Nov. 7)-- A particularly gifted songwriter, his performances often disguised his limited vocal ability with beautiful arrangements and sidepeople.  Many of his songs were best performed by others, but he ranks with Dylan and a few others for the quality of his lyrics in the field of "popular" music.
Pete Burns  (Oct. 23) --  Age 57, he was the writer and creator of the 1984 new wave/disco hit
"You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)", with a group called Dead or Alive.  There have been many remakes.
Mose Allison (Nov. 15) - Speaking of many remakes, there are few songs that have been covered more than Allison's "Parchman Farm", a classic rock favorite referring to the Mississippi penitentiary near his hometown.
Gwen Ifill (Nov. 14) - This spectacularly good-natured, fair-minded journalist's death came as a complete surprise to me.  She hosted "Washington Week" for many years and PBS' high-quality "News Hour" for a recent few.  A great loss to the field, and to us who depend upon journalism for information.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Oct. 13) - On the other extreme, the last "King of Siam" was known to be dying for a decade or more.  He reached age 88 and served for 70 years, the longest in the history of Thai kings. The reverence the Thai people had for him was extraordinary--though mandated by law, it was more than that.
Tom Hayden (Oct. 23) - one of the original '60's radicals, he was a founder of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in the early '60's, then one of the defendants in the so-called Chicago 7 trial after the 1968 convention and police riot (charged with inciting violence, but acquitted)).  In his later life he was married to Jane Fonda (for 18 years--a record?), and made a couple of bids at elective office.
Janet Reno (Nov. 7) - She was the Attorney General for two full terms under Bill Clinton;.  She is remembered for ordering the siege on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, which turned out rather badly.  She was responsible for the Federal prosecutions of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.  This was domestic terrorism before Al Qaeda's heyday.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lessons Learned/ Escape Plans

It's All Bad
When I am king you will be first against the wall 
With your opinion which is of no consequence at all
--Radiohead, Paranoid Android 

It is difficult for me to express the strength of my feelings about this disastrous electoral result from last week. We have had nights of severe disappointment before:  Nixon '68, Nixon '72, Reagan '80, Reagan '84, Bush '00, Bush '04, but this is worse than any one of them.  Trump combines the worst characteristics of each Republican protagonist--Nixon's paranoia, profanity, ethical shortcomings, and closet bigotry; Reagan's opportunism and unchallenged appeal based on celebrity; Dubya's blissful ignorance and disinterest in detail or governing.  What makes the disappointment even more extreme was the widespread expectation, near universal, that this year's election, though close, was more likely to turn out favorably.

Of those (miserable) memories, I would select 1968's election as the one most resembling 2016's. Passions ran similarly high all the way through the campaign that year.  Other shared characteristics include the dissatisfaction with both the major party nominees, a significant third-party effort,  appeal to "law 'n order", and the Republicans' rallying around the notion of challenge to a  liberal Democratic administration. As in 1968, the popular vote ended in a photo finish, though the Republicans had a more decisive Electoral College win decided late on Election Night.

In spirit Trump might wish for a Nixonian type of administration--like Nixon, his ideology is flexible, and he takes more interest in the personal struggle for power and prestige.  His quotations of alt-right dogma have sounded more like the verbal equivalent of red meat for the rabid dogs than real conviction.   Like Nixon, he seems to long for the dramatic, surprise result (and he got one Election Night). If he wanted to, Trump could immediately change the dynamic of the relationship with the opposition by asking Mitch McConnell to consider the highly-qualified moderate President Obama proposed for the Supreme Court vacancy, Merrick Garland. Unfortunately, he seems to be painting himself into a policy corner in which he will only hear the extremists like Steve "Race" Bannon,  Jeff "Beauregard" Sessions, Lt. General Michael "Wacko" Flynn, and the sycophantic shills and trained liars like Reince "Rancid Priapus" Priebus and Kellyanne Conway (see this takedown of her, posted by a good friend).

Given the advice he is choosing to surround himself with (we can disregard as feints the invitations to the likes of Mitt Romney or Nikki Haley), it is hard to imagine anything positive coming out of Trump's administration.  It may be worth the Democrats' time to participate in the negotiations on topics like tax reform or infrastructure investment, or electoral reforms (I haven't heard anything about that since the election), but we should expect that the ultimate proposals will not be accepable. I would humbly suggest that Trump consult Romney about what changes to "Obamacare" might make sense from the Governor's point of view, since the reform could equally be called "Romneycare" (though he said he would have done it differently), rather than wasting Romney's time talking to him about a Cabinet position offer that will not be forthcoming.

What to do Now?
Greed is a bottomless pit
And our freedom's a joke we're just taking a piss
And the whole world must watch the sad comic display
If you're still free start runnin' away
'Cause we're comin' for ya.......
So I'm up at dawn, putting on my shoes
I just want to make a clean escape
I'm leaving but I don't know where to
--Bright Eyes, "Landlocked Blues"

I've moved fairly quickly through the stages of coming to terms with grief:  denial lasted only a dozen hours or so that awful night; anger (the second) was definitely present; I've been through bargaining (I was entertaining the thought that Trump might have a plane crash or something and we could live with Pence, who is at least a known quantity); depression was threatening me but a luxury I cannot afford, and now I accept that Trump as President does seem to be unavoidable. 

Yes, I briefly considered the extreme measure of quitting my job on Jan. 21 and heading for some other, less benighted land  (call it "Denial of Service" to Trump's project).  Italy, naturally, came to mind--it has its downside, but also a superior quality of life.  I recall my analysis, made back in the '80's, that Mauritius (look it up--middle of the Indian Ocean) would be the last major settled place to receive the radioactive cloud if the general nuclear annihilation of the Northern Hemisphere comes to pass.  But who really wants to be On the Beach watching it come in?  I don't. Ultimately, I am an American born and bred and will never be anything else, much as I might want to transcend my humble, parochial origins. 

So, I will stay and try to Keep America Great (or at least some of it, somewhat great), a defensive posture to be sure, but all that is left to one whose opinion "is of no consequence at all" (see the epigraph under this post's headline).  What does that mean, to me?  Frankly, I am not going to get too hung up about Trump's domestic agenda, except when it comes to inhumane  proposals or offenses against our liberty.  There is a basic economic scenario that I expect from this four year period:  irrational exuberance, deficit-expanding spending and tax cuts, inflation, and economic recoil--either a tightening of rates leading to recession, or an accelerating inflation cycle.   Either should lead to a definitive defeat of this President, or his party's successor as candidate, in 2020, and we should make that an absolute priority.  Trump has control of Congress, he will have the Supreme Court, and whatever he works out with Paul Ryan will be hard to prevent--at least, temporarily. 

The set of issues which concerns me the most and will bring the most forceful actions from me are those which deal with America's relation with the rest of humanity.  They (the rest of the world, with the exception of a couple of other demagogic autocrats) are all alarmed, confused, uncomprehending (much as many of us here are).  First item to mention is that Trump has made statements saying he intended to go back on the US' commitments to the Paris accords on reducing greenhouse gases and limiting the damage caused by climate change.  This myopic failure has not yet come to pass and must be blocked.

Alongside that is the urgency of trying to prevent Trump's immaturity, ignorance, and wrongheadedness on foreign relations from creating a massive international disaster.  He will face pressures to renege on the international agreement which has stopped Iran from moving forward on its nuclear program toward possibly developing a weapon; this must not happen.  He seems to think he can play footsie with President Putin of Russia.  I will say this:  the leaders of Iran and Russia are not rubes that he can gull; they are sophisticated, ruthless survivors of brutal environments who will look for soft spots and exploit them--this can cause an overreaction which could be tragic.  

A professor at the University of Chicago business school, Luigi Zingales, posted an excellent article in the Times Friday on "The Right Way to Resist Trump".  Zingales drew upon his observations from the political struggles against Italy's version of Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, who combined elements of nationalist demagoguery, celebrity status, mastery of media, and ethical compromise which would be very familiar to watchers of the Drumpfenphenomenon.  (Trump also shows some elements of a previous Italian leader, Benito Mussolini.)  What Zingales found was that the successful challengers against Berlusconi, over his 20-odd years of political prominence, treated him as just a normal political opponent, not someone to be demonized.  (The names of the leaders were Romano Prodi and Matteo Renzi, both people with formidable intellects and the confidence to rise above Berlusconi's bluster.) 

A few more points about what to do: 

  • The objective is 2020.  We can see right now that the elections in 2018 are going to be a disaster:  there are a number of Democratic-held Senate seats which will be at great risk; the party is certain to have a net loss of seats, and a 8-seat gain, giving the Republicans a filibuster-proof supermajority, is not impossible.  Democrats must do what they can to minimize the coming short-term disaster by: 
  • Building a 50-state strategy (or maybe 40 states, there might be about 10, in the upper Rockies, deep South, and Great Plains, for which efforts are clearly going to be futile); 
  • Reorganizing for success.  I support Keith Ellison's candidacy for head of the Democratic National Committee; I think he's the right person.  I heard him this morning on the topic, and he seems to have read Zingales' article. 
  • Give Trump enough rope.  As I said above, his domestic program will lead to disaster and failure, and there will be no way for us to stop it.  When it comes to ethics and self-dealing, Trump is blind and foolish--I predict that this area will be his downfall.  We will let him set his own rules there, and then he will ruin his own cause (as was the case with Nixon).  

As for me, my checkbook is closed for political contributions, for the time being.  Although there were a few Congressional candidates who I supported and who won close races, there were a lot more disappointments (Feingold, Clinton, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors' Association).  I particularly was disappointed in PAC's performance, and especially the End Citizens United group, which abandoned their core position in favor of being an ineffective Clinton cheerleader.  If we want to end Citizens United, we will need to get Republican politicians to understand (or to agree publicly) that the system works against them, and their constituents, too.  (The same goes for the Electoral College, a longtime personal bugaboo.)  I will only give to groups that explicitly and exclusively will use the money to develop grassroots organizations across all the country, and nothing that may or will go to TV ads. 

Update-- A couple more quick lessons learned:   
 Dumb it Down.  It has been demonstrated that any thought above an 8th-grade level of reading is wasted effort, politically.  The 10-point program is derided, but largely because it's too many points, and not enough of them tend to be completed.  No more than five; probably three is best. And no big words. 

And, closely related, Get some Starpower Candidates.  Think of it:  Has there ever been an American celebrity running for a major office who has not won? (I am pointedly excluding intellectuals.)  Actors are OK, but that's not the only kind.  Sonny Bono, Darryl Hall (of Hall and Oates), Jesse Ventura--and of course, Reagan, Trump, Al Franken, Arnold Schwarzenegger.   Here are some thoughts:  Tom Hanks.  Bruce Springsteen. Robert Redford.  Leo DiCaprio. Van Jones, or Anderson Cooper, or Megyn Kelly!  There is no substitute for name recognition, and as we are seeing now, particularly if that comes from something other than association with political activity.  (I'm not talking about Kanye West, who is a blockhead.)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Deplorable

adjective - lamentable; deserving strong condemnation..  synonyms:  disgraceful, shameful, dishonorable, unworthy, inexcusable, unpardonable, unforgivable. 
"lamentable" is the first definition in Merriam-Webster; I believe that would be because it is the original meaning of the word. The rest of it--the more judgmental meaning, and the synonyms--is the more modern usage, as provided by Google.  That word--both definitions--is the perfect one to describe the result of the 2016 Presidential election.  Hillary Clinton didn't have it right when she said that half of Trump's supporters were a "basket of deplorables".  Deplorable is an adjective; describing a person as "a deplorable" is incorrect.  I don't believe that people are deplorable, though some of their opinions and actions may be.

That the result itself is deplorable I think is self-evident--if not, I will not explain it here, but refer you to my previous post, in which I listed the probable consequences of a Trump victory.  The causes are many
--bad tactical decisions by the Clinton campaign on the use of their many resources;
--FBI Director James Comey's blundering and harmful messages on the Weiner laptop emails (which slowed Clinton's momentum, probably not changing many minds but suppressing some turnout among some of her likely supporters);
--the randomness of decision by Electoral College (a switch of some 0.05% of the national vote in three states would've changed the results);
--the lack of focus on change initiatives from the candidate herself;

--and yes, it is possible, though unprovable, that Bernie Sanders might have done better against Trump, though the die had already been cast for Clinton by the time Trump locked up his nomination.

The real blame for the result belongs entirely on those people who voted for Donald Trump. They should have known better.

I'm not talking about the personal peccadilloes involved, in this era of indiscretions--I suppose we can cancel the misdeeds of Trump against those of Bill Clinton (if they are at all relevant to Hillary's candidacy) or the BFD issue of Hillary's choice of server for her emails-- I never cared much about these, and apparently the supposed moral conservatives didn't, mind much, either.  With regard to my own insistence that it is foreign and military policy that matters in a President, it was no contest (Clinton) but not critical; to the extent Trump's actual positions are known, they don't differ much from Clinton's (except for questions like sucking up to Putin, supporting our allies, or abrogating our treaties and international agreements).

Even if one focuses on the domestic issues that people of both parties would have cited as being important, such as jobs, taxes, education, and entitlement programs, Clinton's positions were clearly articulated, grounded in reality, and generally ignored; Trump's were vague and unrealistic. Try going to his website and look for something about Medicare or Social Security--you will find nothing, only his blather about "Obamacare", his positions on which are rapidly evolving to something not appreciably different from Clinton's "enhance and improve" stance.   But enough about that--there is plenty of evidence that voters did not know the candidates' positions on these issues, nor care about them, nor was there more than a smattering of attention to them in the media's coverage of the campaign.

What I am talking about is the reasons people give for their votes for Trump, a subject which is getting excessive attention now that it is too late to remedy those fatal errors.  Voters' decisions are typically emotional ones, and it is there that I am most amazed.  Why they would choose to put their trust in a person who continually lied (or misstated facts, if that is something different), who has a long history of defrauding his employees, customers, contractors, business partners, and investors, I will never know or understand the answer.

The reason often cited that he is "one of them" does not hold water. He is even more an elitist than the Clintons, and his interests are those of the moneyed class.  Far from being a press-the-flesh politician (or even salesman) he actually has an aversion (well-hidden) to physical contact with the proletariat.  Although he is an outsider to Washington politics, he is very much an insider in the larger game of the American economy, and as an agent of change, there is a lot of bluster, very little beef:  what is new about tax cuts for the rich?  Where is the evidence that immigration is harming our economy or security?  There is this "tribal" theory of voting, but it hardly explains to me the 30% of Hispanics and 50% of white women who voted for this anti-Hispanic misogynist.  Some seer on one of this morning's talking heads shows said that the election was the 21st century intruding on our politics; I think it was the opposite--an intrusion of mid-20th century politics.

There is one group I think can be readily identified as the core Trump supporter:  the older, white, working-class males without a college degree.  They have been Trump's most consistent source of support throughout, and they turned out in unprecedented numbers for him on Election Day.  Though they don't appear to be appreciably poorer than average, there is a consistent thread of resentment, a claim that they are not getting their fair share anymore, and that some "others" are getting it instead.  No need to call people names, but it is this nativist, nostalgic, willing suspension of disbelief in this fraudulent con artist which is at the heart of this terrifically close, terrifying and disheartening result.

Well, I can't complain that the night lacked drama, though it was a slow-moving one.  Let's call Part I of our drama done; Part 2 will be "The Donald Trump Era and the Decline/Rebirth of the American Empire", presumably beginning January 20 and ending four years later.

Enough rant.  I will proceed immediately to another post, with lessons learned and escape plans, as promised.



Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election Night Live blog

11:20 p.m. It's not over, but I can't continue blogging right now. Michigan is now looking possible; Wisconsin does not look good.  Clinton is going to need Nevada, New Hampshire, and maybe one of those Maine or Nebraska districts. 

10:45 p.m.  Very strong trend for Trump on Predictit.org, now up to around 80%, depending on the market.  The markets are moving very quickly.  It's too late to sell out any positions, I'm going to hold on and hope Michigan turns.  Or that Arizona, which no one is yet mentioning, becomes an upset the other way.  I am hearing a lot of rationalizations, rather than panic, from a journalistic community that is absorbing a possible shocker.   New York Times is expecting Pennsylvania to end up extremely close.  I think it's time for another drink (my third).

10:30 p.m.  I see Wisconsin ultimately being a Clinton win, but Michigan is looking very bad.  Also North Carolina. New Hampshire is basically tied; on Maine 2nd Congressional District I have not seen any results.  Right now I am rooting for Evan McMullin in Utah!

In the Senate, it is looking good for McGinty in PA, not so good (so far) for Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, which would be an unmitigated disaster.  New Hampshire's Senate race is, like the Presidential one there, a toss-up.  Nevada not yet reporting.  Not looking good for Democratic control of the Senate, either.


10:00 p.m. Michigan is appearing as the possible death blow to Clinton, with Florida and Ohio seemingly out of reach and North Carolina unfavorable. Predictit.org is now projecting 276 Electoral votes for Trump, but 16 of those are Michigan's.
The possibility to me is something that Nate Silver discounted:  Clinton winning the popular vote, but Trump winning the electoral vote because of close wins in some large Electoral College states.

On CNN they are talking about that missing thing that the modelers and pollsters missed, they don't know what to call it.  I call it the "David Duke Effect"--people who are getting their revenge by voting for Trump,, though they may have pretended otherwise.

9:25 p.m. WTF?  A bit of a low point, with Clinton showing some trouble in Michigan, Virginia, and with Florida and Ohio getting away from her.  If she loses Michigan, even North Carolina (still totally up for grabs) would not protect her.  I feel this may be her low point on the night.  Let's hope so--after an early strong start, my Predictit account is bleeding money.

As I thought, it looks like a late night.

9:05 p.m  (EST). - No news to report so far in the Presidential contest.  Florida, North Carolina are as close as expected; Ohio and Virginia maybe a bit closer.
The Senate isn't moving too well in the Democrats' direction, with disappointing results for Evan Bayh in Indiana and against Marco Rubio in Florida.  The other Eastern states with competitive races (NH, NC, WI, MO) have not been called, though most of the attention is still on the Presidential race.
Only real news is strong turnout for both the red and blue districts/states.  This probably means less ticket-splitting, as regards the Senate, which is not so good for Democrats' chances to regain control.
One good thing NBC had was a projection of the House--presumably on the strength of exit polls (generic).  They are projecting 235-200, which would be a gain of 12 for the Democrats.  Probably a 3-5 seat plus or minus.
I didn't get the nap I had proposed (I focused on getting some takeout), but the 7-9 p.m. was, in fact, a news dead zone.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Election Eve Guide to Sleeping Through Election Night

I want to keep this somewhat short so I can get some sleep tonight, as it may be hard to find tomorrow night. Here are a couple of guides tomorrow night that might help you catch a few moments of shut-eye during the evening, even if--as I am fairly certain will be the case--it goes very late.

When to Start --There is something to say for the argument to take a nap early, assuming your nerves will allow it.  There will be a period from about 6 to 8 p.m. during which there will be little in the way of solid returns, the networks will talk about certain characteristics in their exit polls but not the results themselves, and there will be a lot of talk about what to expect, what are the themes, etc., none of which will be very surprising.

The first first two states to report in something like full measure will be Indiana and Kentucky, both of which will be easy Trump wins.  Kentucky will be the first state in history to be called for Donald Trump in a general election, a dishonor for my native birth state.  There will be a couple points of interest in Indiana; the main one is the race for the Senate seat which Evan Bayh is trying to reclaim. He joined the race late, was favored to win, but has been damaged by the charge of being an outsider, and now is perceived from recent polling to be trailing narrowly.  If Bayh can win his race, the Democrats' chances to regain control of the Senate move from likely to highly probable, though that may take some hours to emerge.  The other is the governor's race which I interests me most, in which Democrat John Gregg is a slight favorite to take the chair being vacated by Mike Pence.

Virginia (closing 7 p.m.) will be the first good indication of the nature of the Presidential race.  Hillary Clinton is favored to win by about 5% there, and the votes should come in fairly quickly.  If she wins narrowly, or if the race is not called within an hour or two, that will be an indicator of possibly a bad night for Clinton (much worse, of course, if she doesn't win it--that would be disastrous).  So, you could tune in at 8 and see how it looks.

The Game is Underway - It gets faster and is fully engaged after 8, when the returns from both time zones begin to report for the critical state of Florida (there will be some partial, indeterminate results in the hour before). Florida is not just a bellwether, though; it is the state which will tip the balance, the whole race in a nutshell, where most of the themes will be tested--turnout and the extent of Trump support among poor whites, turnout of African Americans, and, above all, the extent to which Latinos will turn out, one-sidedly, against Trump.  We can expect the statewide outcome to be close enough that it will take a couple of hours to see who is likely to win it.  If it's Clinton, it will not be such a late night for the Presidential race; if it's tied or Trump winning, we will have to stay tuned.

Ohio and North Carolina will close their polls at 7:30, but we should not expect either of those states to resolve quickly. In the case of Ohio, unusually, it does not appear to be critical.  Trump is perceived to be leading, though the gap may be narrowing, but his victory there does not presage Electoral College success.  North Carolina's demographics are shifting and becoming more diverse; it's actually one of the states where the Latino vote will be critical, but I have learned not to trust the outcomes from there.

The next main tests will be Pennsylvania and Michigan, both of which will have their polls close at 8 p.m. I expect there will be huge lines in both states, heavily contested but without significant early voting, and they will necessitate the polls staying open in some locations, so the returns may be delayed.  In any case, PA and MI will test whether Trump has a real chance to pull off a major upset--if he can win either, the electoral map for Clinton will be dramatically more challenging.

Two Somewhat Risky Approaches - One could actually suggest extending the early-evening nap until 9:30 or even 10, with the expectation that VA, PA, and MI will go according to form,that  NC, OH, and FL will not be decided early, and one can be fairly certain that the race can not officially be called until 11 p.m. Eastern, when the polls close in California.  The following hour--between 11 and 12--will probably be the climax,, when the close Eastern time zone states will finally resolve.  There is a bit of a risk, though, that the dominoes could fall faster and you could miss the decisive moments when the outcome will be indicated.

A different approach would be to skip the nervous hours, between 8 and 10, when things may unfold somewhat predictably but also slowly.  Get those early indications before 8, and decide whther to resume viewing at 10:30 or 11 for the climax and the call, or if it looks bad early for the Democrats, set the alarm for midnight--that is probably the earliest that a Trump victory, a dead heat-type outcome, or a contested outcome could fully emerge.

Predictit.org Status and Final Predictions
In the past 48 hours, as Clinton's poll numbers stabilized, then improved (helped by FBI Director Comey's announcement that the Weiner laptop was, investigatorially speaking, a big nothingburger), the uncertainty in the betting markets has reduced dramatically.  The odds for most of the Electoral votes--with the exceptions of  Maine's 2nd Congressional District, NC, OH, and FL, in rough order from closest to a pure toss-up--have moved toward the extremes.  Those positions for the Democrats at 15% in Texas or 25% in PA have been closed out.

I have done the same, as I have unwound some of my perfectly hedged positions, like I had in Georgia, Iowa, and Nevada, shifting it toward the favorite.  I have always favored the Democrats in NH, PA, VA, and the upper Midwest states, even in the tough times.  I have moved out of most of my true underdog positions (I have some small ones on Democrats in Montana, the Indiana and Florida Senate races).  I still am hedged on the big 3, FL, NC, and OH, which will allow me to move toward one side or the other if I am so inclined, and the Nevada and New Hampshire Senate races.

Some of the more interesting markets are on some "point spread" type bets--on 1) the Electoral votes for the winner, 2) the margin of victory on the popular vote, and on 3) the final number of Republican Senate seats and on 4) the number (ranged) of Republican House seats.  My positions on each are as follows:

  1.   spread somewhat evenly on four ranges between 280 and 359 Electoral votes  (and no on the other ranges); 
  2.   evenly between 2-4% and 4-6% (holding to my original prediction of a 3.9% margin, the same that Obama had over Romney in 2012;
  3.   49 or less Republican seats (and a smaller bet on 50); and 
  4.   218-230 Republican seats (231-240 is the favored position). 
A late, welcome addition to the predictit.org is their Election Map, showing where the
markets are by state, color-coded for the strength of sentiment.  It is updated continuously, or at least has been recently.  It is currently showing 307-215 for Clinton, with ME-2 and NC classified as toss-ups.  Larry Sabato's respected political science blog had much the same, 322-216 with NC to Clinton and ME-2 to the Republicans.

As for me, I am stubbornly sticking with most of my Sept. 11 predictions.  A gain of five Senate seats (WI, IL, NH, PA, and IN, holding NV narrowly), a 3.9% popular vote margin for Clinton (though the 3rd-party vote has dropped more than I expected), but a decrease in the final Electoral Vote count for Clinton from 296 to 278 (the difference being Ohio's 18).  In other words, Obama's 2012 332 votes, minus Florida, Iowa, Maine's 2nd, and Ohio.

In this scenario, a late-night nail-biter, New Hampshire and Nevada become critical for Clinton to hold, above and beyond the states like WI, MI, PA, VA, and CO.  I am nervously expecting all of those to be held.  I have only hope, but little expectation, for Democratic wins in MO and NC, despite strong campaigns against incumbents and regret that the opportunity to defeat Marco Rubio in the FL Senate race seems unlikely to succeed.

Election Day Update:  I neglected to mention the House of Representatives.  My bet on 218-230 Republican seats was primarily because I liked the price; the median estimate is more like 235.  The two contests I will be looking for are, first:  Illinois-10, a third-time-around matchup in the suburbs (where I have my "principal", though not "permanent", residence).  Democrat Schneider won it in 2012, "Republican" Dold won it from him in 2014, and this year Dold, though nominated by his party, is running essentially as an independent.  The other is California-25, where a Democrat named "Colonel Doug Applegate" has a chance to knock off the odious Darrell Issa.  That one I will have to research the next day to find out what happened.

I plan to blog live tomorrow for at least some of the evening (no funny stuff with font size this time, sorry about that), and then the next day to review lessons learned, if Hillary wins, and escape plans if she should lose.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Looking for Relief -- Different Takes

There must be some kind of way outta here

Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief
--Bob Dylan, "All Along the Watchtower"

First, Bob himself has provided me a spot of relief, with regard to the Nobel Prize for Literature he has recently been announced to have won.  After the announcement, the silence from Dylan was troubling:  was he going to refuse the award?  Was he, a person with at least some nodding acquaintance of literature (I say that, based on some of the literary references in his songs), planning on disparaging the artistic quality of his own life's work?  Well, no--he was either too busy with his current concert tour, or he didn't know what to say about it at first.  In an interview with Rolling Stone, he acknowledged the honor, didn't opine on whether he deserved it, and said he would attend the ceremony if at all possible. 

How Do You Spell Relief?
This phrase has insinuated itself into American dialogue, though it does not have a natural sense outside of its original context.  That context, I must explain for you Gen X and Millennial readers, was the TV ad for Rolaids antacid tablets in the '70's, one that used the "fake testimonial" approach with actors answering the question in a variety of ways describing the product's many benefits, with the ad concluding with the 'correct answer', spelling the product name out. 

It didn't mean much to me, though the phrase embedded itself in my mind through repetition; however, in the past couple of years I have had a bit of an issue with acid reflux, so I have tried the various products.  Rolaids are OK, maybe a little better than their close cousin Tums (which is recommended for the heartburn suffered by pregnant women because of its calcium), but for me, I spell relief "GAVISCOM".  

A final note on this obscure subject:  Has anyone ever noticed, with regard to this slogan, that "to spell" has a meaning almost the same as "to relieve"?  The only difference is that spelling would seem to be always a temporary form of relief.  But then, is any form of relief permanent? 

The Endless Campaign
Certainly that question has arisen, several times, with regard to the presidential campaign.  We have felt relieved after each debate, as Clinton demonstrated her mastery of the issues and her ability to trade verbal punches with the big bully on the other side.  We have felt relieved a couple of other times when her lead in the polls seemed safe, usually because Donald Trump said something or did something so outrageous that even loyal but sane Republicans wavered in their support for him. 

Always, though, like lost lambs, they seem to wander back to their political home base.  So, recognizing this, I have resisted the temptation to revise during those brief "spells" of relative comfort my somewhat cautious prediction, made back in September. I will stand by those predictions (on the Presidential side, a 3.9% margin for Hillary in the popular vote, and a 296-242 Electoral College victory). 

Indeed, the gap has been narrowing in the past few days, even before this latest "bombshell"--the letter from FBI Director James Comey to Congressional committee chairmen that the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails will take a new turn.  With the discovery of a large cache of unknown emails involving top Clinton aide Huma Abedian on a computer owned by former Congressman Anthony Weiner (Abedin's estranged husband), the FBI has something new to examine for any possible crime related to Clinton's use of a private server, and the volume of emails linked to the Weiner laptop (I have read the number 650,000!) will ensure that resolution will not be swift. 

"Bombshell" is the term I have seen applied to this news item in most of the articles, along with "October surprise" (it just made it in time to fit that cliche).  "Bombshell" is a bit exaggerated when it is used in most cases, but I think it is appropriate here:  to carry the metaphor further, it is a powerful bit of unexploded ordnance that has embedded itself in Clinton's "electoral firewall".  We do not yet know if it will prove to be a dud, or a lethal explosive, one that will break open what has frequently appeared to be an Electoral College fortress ensuring her victory. 

It does seem farfetched that this recycled story would produce such a breakthrough for Trump, though he has already declared it a clincher for his "Crooked Hillary" characterization. First, they will have to "de-dupe" those emails found against all the ones they have already reviewed--that alone could take weeks.  If they were ever to find anything new, there would be issues about chain of evidence and the legality of the warrant; issues have been raised about the propriety of the letter, and so on.  The story likely has already done all that it can do in the run-up to the election, which is to raise another momentum-stopping round of negative press for Hillary, distracting the public from Trump's transgressions, and possibly reducing the damage to the Republican Senate and House campaigns which appeared to be developing. 

I can understand the logic which drove FBI Director Comey to take the action he did.  Though he is a regular Republican, I do not accuse him of partisan motives (others have been quick to do so), but I would say he was playing office politics. The word came out that many in the agency were dissatisfied with the recommendation against referring any possible charges against Clinton in July, so when this new angle opened up, the pressure was heavy to follow it--even if it seemed that the case had already been closed.  His manner of communicating it--in fact, the fact that he did communicate it--left much to be desired, as his letter was so vague that it was unclear whether there had already been any significant discovery. It even was vague about the circumstances of the discovery (though various leaks soon made it clear whose laptop, and the investigation--of Weiner possibly violating the law through sexual texts sent to an underage girl--which led to it).  Despite Comey having a 10-year term which would go to 2023, I think President Clinton would be well justified if she requested his resignation, sometime after inauguration, when the emails have been reviewed and nothing new found.  Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are already talking "pre-impeachment" hearings! 

At any rate, though this may be a story ultimately about nothing--it will increase Election Day uncertainty, perhaps, but I do not believe it will change many people's minds, not there are that many open to change for any reason--it is certainly the most dramatic event (so far) of Act IV, Scene 4 of our 2016 Political Drama.  Further, going back to the "no relief" theme, we can see that the bickering will continue unabated after the election, with now some new danger of a contested outcome, followed immediately with the beginning of battle cries for the 2018 campaign (in which the Democrats will go back to being the underdogs), and before long, talk will be turning  to the dreaded 2020 campaign.  I can see it clearly (with my "20/20 Vision"--sorry!)  

Surely you don't want to go through this again, do you, Hillary?  You should relieve yourself (and the rest of us) of this misery and announce, after the 2018 midterm elections, that you will choose not to stand for re-election. 

Relief from Tragedy
One topic which Donald Trump briefly brought up in the debates which might have been more convincing was on the assistance the Clinton Foundation has provided to Haiti over the years. ("billions"?)  He mentioned simply that "they don't want your Foundation over there anymore", or words to that effect, but he failed to connect the dots.  Hurricane Matthew showed that, whatever the combined efforts of the many organizations, with the Clinton Foundation prominent among them, over so many years, the place is still, literally, a disaster area, even when it hasn't just been victimized by an earthquake, tidal wave, epidemic, or hurricane.  

Clearly, Trump was not the best messenger to announce the failure of Clinton Foundation philanthropy, what with his miserable tax-dodge, self-serving joke that is the Trump Foundation. I'm guessing that the Haitians that Trump talked to in South Florida are probably more peeved that the flow of graft to them has been interrupted. Still, when it comes to convincing donors for their causes, most of the arguments coming from the relief organizations seem to be much more pleas for sympathy than arguments of proven effectiveness. Not that we shouldn't feel the urge to help our fellows when they suffer, clearly we should, but we can look back at the causes of the past and have our doubts--in spite of Live Aid, they starve in East Africa; Farm Aid recipients are still losing their farms;  Bangladesh is still Bangladesh, and Haiti is, as much as ever, still Haiti.   Relief, too often, is not just temporary, but deceptively unrelieving.  Can we hope for better? 

Baseball:  Overuse of Relief? 
Well, baseball is one area in which relief can be final: the "closer" gets to be that guy who is expected to provide finality to his relief pitching.  Unfortunately, most relief in real life is more like that of the middle reliever, who can expect no more than to pass on to others an acceptable intermediate result, or worse, the mop-up long reliever, sent in to get the team through to the other side of a hopeless scenario, in whatever condition.  

One thing that seems to have changed, perhaps permanently so, is the role of relief pitching vs. starting pitching in the postseason.  Even though team rosters have shifted toward more pitchers and less hitter/fielders, squads cannot rely on their deep bullpens to get them successfully through the 162-game regular season.  They need a strong rotation of four to six healthy starting pitchers to win with enough consistency to make it to the postseason playoffs.  In the playoffs and the World Series games, though, getting a strong starting pitching outing seems barely necessary, and certainly not sufficient.  Managers are now routinely pulling playoff game starters after less than five innings, even when they are effective, and using six and seven pitchers in a nine-inning game. 

The Kansas City Royals showed the way last year, using a thin starting rotation relatively sparingly and relying upon the quality and quantity of their bullpen pitching.  This year, the Cleveland Indians are following in their path.  The Indians' rotation has been decimated by injuries, though in all honesty, their starters have generally been well-prepared and have improved upon their regular-season level of performance.  It has been their relief pitching, though, which has made the difference in their surprising run through the first two rounds of playoffs and to the brink of World Series victory. 

At the same time, though, the Royals and Indians' path is not such an easy one to duplicate.  The Dodgers had a premier closer, Kenley Jansen, who remained basically untouched, though overworked, but gaps appeared elsewhere in the bullpen (and, in one game at least, a starting pitcher was pulled too soon), which allowed the Cubs to pull out late-inning victories and defeat them.  The Cubs have shown similar weakness in the depth of their relief corps, despite having one of the best in the business, Aroldis Chapman, as their closer.  The pattern in their three World Series losses has been falling slightly behind in the battle of the starters, then the deficit opens up as their relievers are outpitched by the Indians'. 

It has long been true that, in the World Series, good pitching generally can shut down even the best hitting teams. While there have been more 1-0 games than usual in the postseason this year, it is not that runs have been hard to find, and the trend seen during the regular season for an increase in home runs seems to have continued.  The game seems to be a matter of pitchers with great ability to throw curves of various kinds for short periods of time and batters who can't hit those pitches.  And woe to the team that can't produce 4-5 innings per game of star quality relief. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Act IV, Scene 3: Live Blog from the 15-rounder

I will try an experiment and post updates through the evening.  I have to warn you that I may interleave my comments on the debate with ones on the Cubs-Dodgers game, in which I have also considerable emotional investment.  As I've said previously, I'm rooting for the Cubs to win it all, on behalf of my father, a lifelong Cubs fan. 

13th Round:  Entitlements
Wallace criticizes both sides' programs.  Social Security and Medicare:  will you consider a grand bargain with tax increases and benefit cuts?
Trump:  Obamacare (not an entitlement program)
Clinton:  raise Social Security tax on wealthy ("assuming Donald can't figure out a way to get out of it" Donald "such a nasty woman!")  No cuts to benefits!   Affordable Care Act - extended Medicare Trust fund.

14th Round Closing Statements"
Wallace:  Why should you be President?  (No closing statements agreed by the campaigns.)
Clinton:   Help all of you.  Jobs, education.

15th Round Trump's Turn
Trump:  She's raising the money from the people she wants to control. (What?)  Immigrants. Policemen and women disrespected, law and order.  I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos.  We can not take four more years of Barack Obama, and that's what you get with her.

Closing! They do not shake hands. 

First reaction on CNN:  Astonishing he would not agree to abide by the results of the election.
Second reaction:  he was well-prepared, except for that.


I apologize for the small-type formats--I've tried to fix them four times and Blogger has not yet cooperaated. 

Result:  the slight edge Clinton had became a technical knockout. 

10th Round:  Free-for-all--What about Aleppo? 
Trump quotes John Podesta (Wikileaks) and Bernie Sanders against her.  Poor choice of Clinton "opponents".   He says Assad is a lot smarter than her and Obama. More about appeasing Iran.  He is opposed to helping the anti-Assad rebels?  Syrian refugees Trojan horse. "Lots of luck, Hillary"--he believes he will lose!

11th Round:  No-fly Zone
A provocative policy, contrary to Obama's--she answers carefully.  Refugees--the 4-year-old boy. She hasn't talked enough about Americans, though.  Trump butts in and insults our military/diplomatic leadership.

12th Round:  Our National Debt
Wallace quotes some group saying debt would increase a lot under Clinton and much more under Trump. Trump:  They're wrong, we are creating an economic machine. Take back our jobs--we don't make anything anymore.  We should use businessmen to negotiate our trade deals, instead of "political hacks". (He ignores the fact that the deals are done to benefit US business, will she?)
Clinton's off topic a bit with her attack on Trump for attacking Reagan (in the same terms as now); she has a natural edge on this.  "Middle-out growth" her new phrase to try.

Ninth round:  Syria
Wallace asks about the attack on Mosul, whether we would put troops in to hold it.  Clinton has the first answer, gets to express her position (but no troops, including no-fly zone, negotiation with all parties)..  Trump:  why didn't we make a sneak attack?  She is helping Iran.  Their leaders (ISIS) are smart. 

Sixth round:  Fitness
Wallace asks Trump a tough one, on the women who accused him.  Trump blames it all on the Clinton campaign. The stories have been "largely debunked".  "I want to talk about something slightly different--the emails."
Clinton hits deeply; Trump accuses Clinton campaign of provoking violence at Trump rallies.

Seventh round:  Conflicts of Interest  
Battle of the foundations--slight edge to Clinton over the laughable Trump foundation.  Clinton successfully turns it to his lack of tax payment. Trump going over the top:  you should have changed the law. Clinton doesn't get to answer:  Trump does not know how a bill becomes law.

Eighth round:  Election rigged
That proposition bet goes to Yes--would "rigged" be mentioned by the moderator.   I bet Yes at 57%, market was at 54%. at the debate's start, but it had dipped to 20%.

 Trump refuses to endorse the outcome of the election.  He's a LOSER, and a bad loser at that.  Wallace lectures him on that failure.  Clinton wins big here.

4th round: Russia
The punches are thrown wildly on this topic, which Wallace does not introduce:  Hillary with very effective body blows against Trump, who brings up nukes--Hillary well-prepared for that one.  10 people who have had the codes have said Donald should never have them.  Donald calls her a liar.

Fifth: Taxes
Hillary:  wealthy will pay their fair share--will she avoid the dig at Donald for not paying his? Yes!
Trump: Does not answer the question about his tax plan.  Instead goes back to other countries:  why aren't they paying us? Trade - NAFTA.  
Hillary does well to defend Obama's program and avoid criticizing its scale (as Wallace suggested). 
Trump: India grows at 8%; CHINA - at 7% and its a terrible problem.  Last jobs report, it was so bad. All because of the bill her husband passed.   Trans-Pacific Partnership:  they actually fact-checked, and I was right. (for once!) When you ran the State Department, $6 billion dollars disappeared (a new one!)
Went on long, not decisive.

First Rounds
The debate begins:  Trump to his corner, Clinton goes to hers as well.  0 for 1 on the bets.  
The next one that may get decided is whether the words "Merrick Garland" will be mentioned by the moderator, with the topic being the Supreme Court.  I bet Yes at 42%; that has now gone down to 10%.  I won't sell at that price; I will hold and probably lose.

Donald Trump on the Supreme Court:  lame attack on Justice Ginsburg (I'm looking for Hillary to appoint Barbara Mikulski to replace her as the "aggressive woman" on the bench), for him it's all about the Second Amendment.

Guns:  Trump Chicago blah-blah, sniff.  Abortion:  Trump overturn Roe v. Wade. Clinton:  Trump said "women should be punished".   Chris Wallace puts out the partial-birth abortion chum for Trump.

Immigration: Trump - Strong borders; no drugs; all the border police, they want the wall. Then we'll decide what to do with the people (no deportation talk today).  Clinton takes on Trump on the deportation force, that Drumpf "choked" with the Mexican President. Trump:  Clinton wanted "the wall". Clinton:  takes on the question about what to do about undocumented workers, throws some shade on Trump's employment of them.

"Open borders" - a proposition bet as to whether the moderator would mention it. Trump thanks Chris Wallace for it.  Hillary uses it to turn on Trump for encouraging Russian espionage.  "Nice pivot"--says Trump--fair enough!

Setting the Scene
This is Las Vegas, and I feel that Trump will feel at home and ready to gamble it all.  The pattern I expect is a reasonably sane exchange for an hour, and a last half-hour when they both let it all loose: Trump will bring out his heaviest opposition research ammunition, and Clinton will probably counter-attack.

Predictit.org has set up several proposition bets on the night, which I will go through shortly (time permitting), particularly around whether various words will be uttered, by the moderator, the participants, or by either.  One proposition that I would have liked to see is whether the word "fraud" will come up.  It would need some severe provocation for her to pull it out, but I expect that will be present.  As in:

Your pretense to represent the working families' interest is a fraud.
Your tax plan is a fraud designed to benefit you, your businesses, and a few cronies.
Your attempts to present yourself as a patriot is a fraud:  you are a draft-dodger who doesn't pay his fair share of Federal taxes.
You defrauded your investors and took the losses for yourself; you defrauded thousands of persons who enrolled in your university, performed services for you, or trusted you enough to be employed by you.
You have defrauded the Republican primary voters who chose you thinking you were a Republican, you have defrauded those who thought you were a populist and not a snobby elitist; you have defrauded those who believed you had integrity, morals, ethics.
Your hair is fake, your complexion is fake, your posture as a successful businessman is largely a fake. You have shown amazing audacity in the scale of your frauds, and now you want to take it to a gigantically new level.
My fellow Americans, the Drumpfster is a fraudster!

I have recouped some paper reversals of gains suffered when the polling gap narrowed almost to the vanishing point--I am back to about 50% profit on my account. The response since then has overshot somewhat, which has given me the opportunity of hedging certain bets.  I don't anticipate any major flips from here to the finishing line, but I am edging somewhat toward a narrowing of the gap by Election Day.  I will post later some of my principal positions, and what action is going on with them tonight.
In the meantime, the first proposition bet is whether they will shake hands at the beginning.  I bet yes at 53%; it has moved to 64% Yes,

And now, we start, with Chris Wallace--for Fox News, a very fair moderator.