Email & Equality

Since today is inauguration day, my thoughts are turning back to the last eight years and how we came to be inaugurating a Republican president, again, despite the fact that most Americans disagree with the GOP on most matters of substance.

It’s Not About Women

First off, let’s address the claim that Hillary lost because of American sexism.  Yes, Donald Trump is an unreconstructed 1950s male stereotype (i.e. a horrible human being), and many Americans — including many women, latinos, and a surprising number of blacks — chose to overlook this, but this ignores the fact that the GOP has been consistently lowering the bar for whom they will nominate for office, and it always causes outrage on the left, and it never matters.

Ike was a general. Nixon was an alcoholic witch-hunter. Reagan was a stool pigeon and an idiot. Quayle was an even bigger idiot. Palin made Quayle look professorial. Republicans don’t care if the president (or a senator, or a supreme court judge) has brains, or even sound character: they just want tax cuts and they’re pretty sure their guy is more likely to give them than the other person.

In fact, it’s quite surprising to me that the first black president turned out to be a Democrat, and the first female candidate was also a Democrat. It’s actually conservatives who tend to nominate minorities because it lets them ratchet up the crazy elsewhere. (Margaret Thatcher. Clarence Thomas. Heck, Neville Bonner.)

Incidentally, this is also the same reason that things like sexual peccadilloes and shady practices that would utterly destroy a Democrat seem to slide harmlessly off Republicans.

By the way, I should pause here and say that this has nothing to do with parties. When the Democrats were the party of White Supremacy and the Republicans were the party of Management it was the Democrats who were similarly immune to charges of corruption and sexual misconduct. When the Republicans subvert democracy today and argue that it’s something “everyone” does, they invariably point out actions of Dixiecrats — the folks who left the Democratic party after Roosevelt put desegregation into the Democratic Party platform and joined the Republicans.

A Thought Experiment

A very popular experimental template in the social sciences is to take some common process, like applying for a job or testifying in court, and compare how well candidates do if you signal that a participant is male or female, black or white, has a prison record or not, and so forth, find out there’s a different outcome (which I imagine there almost always is given a nearly inexhaustible number of disadvantaged categories of people), publish the results, and inch closer to tenure.

E.g. I heard on Radio Lab, and I have no reason not to believe, that if you apply for a job using a stereotypically black male name (such as “Jamal”) you are much less likely to be called back than if you use a stereotypically white male name (such as “Steve”), even if the white CV adds a criminal record. The white name is equivalent to eight years of experience. (This implies to me that whatever criminal record they invented was pretty minor.)

The same kind of study has shown women to be less credited as expert witnesses, less likely to be promoted, and so forth and so on. There’s no doubt a lot of sexism in our society, but I’m pretty sure women aren’t as far behind men as blacks are behind whites (eight years experience or a prison record…), and Barack Hussein Obama is more than a stereotypically non-white name. His middle name is the same as a guy we went to war with twice, and his surname is one letter away from Public Enemy Number One when he ran for office.

Obama was an exceptional candidate — he didn’t just beat Hillary for the 2008 nomination, he beat Biden (whom most Democrats think would have been a better candidate than Hillary) and Kucinich (who was a better Sanders than Sanders). And then he beat John McCain and Mitt Romney, the best candidates the Republicans have had in my lifetime.

Now, let’s look at Hillary. Imagine for a moment that Hillary Clinton were in fact some random male Democrat you’d vaguely heard of with her exact track record (post First Lady, since it’s hard to imagine a man with Hillary’s baggage from being married to Bill). So, forget Whitewater and Lewinski and just think — New York senator with a typically exceptional Ivy League education and legal background but no great accomplishments or distinction who then served as Secretary of State from 2009-2012. Would you elect him?

What if I remind you that Chelsea Manning released 10M State Department cables in 2010 and that despite this our candidate continued to use outdated and insecure email practices in direct contravention of State Department rules of which, apparently, he remained willfully ignorant throughout. What if I remind you that the 2012 Benghazi attack happened on his watch despite repeated requests for upgraded security. And yes, lots of requests are made, but this was in Libya during the aftermath of a war. As yes, it was a subordinate who turned down the requests, but who hired that subordinate?

Oh, and by the way, what Good Things happened in 2009-2012 that our candidate can point to?

I’m not saying Clinton did anything criminal. I’m saying that in any reasonable political system she would have been held accountable for Benghazi, forced to resign, and her career would have ended. Similarly, the email business reflects three spectacular failures of judgement (first: to ignoring security policies, second: to continue ignoring the security policies after an epic security breach, third: to fail to improve said security policies meaningfully after said epic security breach). Again, had she still been Secretary of State when the email business came out, she should have been fired for it, and that alone would probably have ended her political career.

By the way, I choose give her a free pass on the Iraq war vote, because I think she did it as a political calculation, and it was a reasonable choice at the time. (I’m actually far more critical of the far broader, unthinking support for the invasion of Afghanistan.) But for some of my friends her vote on Iraq, alone, is unforgivable.

Trump’s done a lot of shady and unpleasant things to people over the years — spending other people’s money and saddling them with his debts, stiffing contractors, ogling pageant contestants (for sure), molesting women (most likely), but there’s no positive evidence of Trump’s ignorance or incompetence in his chosen profession. He may well be an ignoramus (and bigot) in the same mold as Henry Ford (who nevertheless was a great businessman and provided many jobs to blacks). Hillary is a professional politician and civil servant who can’t use a smartphone or a computer and has made spectacularly poor judgement calls in her chosen profession. (Kelly Anne Conway points out, in reference to Russian interference in the campaign, that the Russians didn’t make Clinton spend money in Georgia instead of Michigan or Wisconsin.)

Trump is (rightly) decried as intellectually incurious. But how is it OK for Hillary to not learn to use a smartphone, or email, or a computer when both are, or should be, a constant part of her chosen profession? Trump is (rightly) decried for having publicly sort-of supported the invasion of Iraq, but being right about that war wasn’t his job.

Trump’s an asshole and a bigot, but he seems to be good at what he does. Elizabeth Warren is a smart person but she tried to go head-to-head with him on Twitter and failed abysmally. I’m not optimistic about his presidency, but sexism is only responsible for putting Trump in the Whitehouse insofar as it was perversely responsible for Hillary being nominated.

How Do We Stop Doing This?

It’s easy to point out the failings of Hillary’s campaign in retrospect. She nearly won despite all of it. The lack of a clear or coherent message. Poor strategy. The weak VP choice. Lousy slogan (“I’m with her”). This should have been easy: the country is in good shape, it’s in far better shape than it was 4 or 8 years ago. Its signal policy is at least an equivocal success. The outgoing president is popular. What. The. Fuck?

The fact that 2012 was even close (despite Romney being a solid candidate) points to a hard truth: the Democrats fucked up Obamacare. They created a barely functional healthcare plan because they figured it would get bipartisan support even when they didn’t need bipartisan support, and ended up with something that barely worked, couldn’t be explained, couldn’t be sold, and then rolled it out slowly and incompetently. And this led to their being annihilated in the mid-terms, which meant little of consequence could be done for the remaining six years.

Remember how exceptional Obama is? He’s been a pretty good, successful president despite Obamacare, not because of it.

The solution is to think of laws as products that have to be sold. Clearly, legislators understand this superficially, it’s why a law enabling a police state is named the “PATRIOT Act”. It’s why a healthcare law that costs poor people premiums they can’t afford for lousy coverage is called the “Affordable Care Act”. But good products are more than simply clever names (and legislators aren’t even that good at names…). Here’s a hint: if you design a product where the main reason for many people to buy it is that they will be fined if they do not, then you have failed. Design a new product.

How to fix the United States

The problems of the United States are entirely self-inflicted. Fixing them is a huge political problem, even though solutions are easy to see. Here are ten ideas (that are probably politically untenable) that would address major problems in the US.

  1. End the War on Drugs. Triage recreational drugs based on whether they’re harmless, mostly harmless, or harmful and regulate them accordingly (available over-the-counter, like aspirin; available with restrictions, like booze and cigarettes; available with some kind of precaution (e.g. sign a risk waiver)). This will have a huge positive impact on inner city decay, deny organized crime, our enemies in Afghanistan, and various insane guerilla groups in South America their funding, reduce prison overcrowding, and free up the police, FBI, and judiciary to deal with stuff that actually matters. By all means allocate some of the wasted money to rehab, public education, and so forth. But let’s stop pretending that (a) this war is worth fighting, (b) it’s winnable, or (c) illegal drugs are categorically worse than legal ones.
  2. End the War on Terror. Let’s rename and rethink it. Terrorism can’t be beaten by fighting wars (indeed, wars tend to create terrorism).
  3. Pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Get out with indecent haste. Call it defeat. Call it victory. Call it “peace with honor”. It doesn’t matter. In the long run we will lose in both.
  4. Nationalize Health Care. Probably the best way to do this is go 100% public, then rebuild private insurance so that it doesn’t suck. Public health care can unsnarl the bizarre and evil relationships between insurance companies, hospitals, and other parts of the healthcare clusterfrack that costs the United States more per person than anywhere else on Earth and delivers third world results.
  5. Make Preventative Health Care a Priority. E.g. if you don’t get an annual checkup, all your co-pays go up by $25.
  6. Reduce US Military Spending to Sane Levels. No less a publication than the Scientific American once said the US could reduce military spending to 1/3 of current levels and still be more powerful than the next two most powerful countries put together.
  7. Tax Gasoline More. It only took a month of cheap gas to restore pickup sales to former levels.
  8. Slowly Ramp Up Energy Prices (via Taxation). The best alternative energy is energy conservation. Get people to cut power consumption or use alternatives by increasing the cost of energy, especially fossil fuel energy.
  9. Tax Speculative Money Market Transactions. George Soros recommended this after the Asian market meltdowns of the 90s. It’s still a good idea.
  10. Break the ISP Monopolies. I don’t care how you do it, but eliminate local ISP monopolies. In my neighborhood I have two choices — DSL or Cable, each with one possible provider. This isn’t competition (as evinced by the fact that the prices are indistinguishable). Nationalize it or break it up. Or do a bit of both.
  11. Break the TV Monopolies. Why do I have to buy channels bundled? TV as we know it is dying. Kick it in the head so that it evolves into something less retarded.
  12. Eliminate Local School Boards. Teach biology in science classes. Teach religion in religion classes. Having a national or even just state standardized syllabus would allow economies of scale in education that simply can’t exist in the current mess.
  13. Use the Internet to Fix Assessment. Use national testing schemes or have educational institutions assess students from other educational institutions. Professors should be graded on how well they are able to impart knowledge to students, not on how easy their courses are. Students should get grades based on what they know and can do. Eliminating the assessment feedback loops (where students grade professors and professors grade students) will help fix the US college system. If your professor isn’t grading you, then suddenly you want the professor to teach you.
  14. Use the Internet to Fix Teaching. This is already happening. You can download lectures from Harvard and UC Berkeley from iTunes. Why listen to your professor if another professor covers the same material better? What century is this?
  15. Force Retailers to Display Actual Prices. Pretty much everything in Economic theory involves actors having good information. In the US you generally need to perform mental gymnastics to figure out how much the simplest things cost. Fix it. The benefits will be incredibly huge.

Obama

If you haven’t read the transcript of his victory speech, you should. If not for pro-forma requirements (thanking Joe Biden, etc.) and gratuitous insertion of campaign slogans (“Yes we can”) this is a speech — at least in written form (I’ve only heard clips) for the ages, Gettysburg Address quality (and of course, pretty much no-one heard the Gettysburg Address).

But, of course. the Gettysburg Address is nothing without context. Had it not been uttered at that time and place it would not be significant. If Obama’s speech is merely the prelude to epic failure, it will not be well-remembered, or remembered at all.

Still, it’s a great speech. It’s not terribly long, and manages to draw together threads of societal and technological change (the way he uses the changes in the life of a 106 year old voter is brilliant), put our current situation in an historical context, transcend political divisions, begin the all important task of expectations management, and even manages to be pretty humble.

Perhaps even more remarkable, Obama appears to draw his oratorical rhythm from the secular 19th century rather than the increasingly liturgical 20th century. Unlike Clinton or Martin Luther King (two excellent speakers of recent memory) he doesn’t sound like a Southern Baptist preacher (of course, MLK actually was one).

In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.

Let’s remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.

Those are values that we all share. And while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.

As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

Great stuff. I just never like it when a speaker tells me he’s being humble. It’s ok to say we “must be humble” but it’s simply not humble to say you “are being humble”.

Anyhow, having run the best election campaign in living memory, the easy part is done.

It’s official: Paris Hilton > John McCain

You’ve probably already seen this video but in case you haven’t, well there it is.

Paris Hilton’s energy policy is actually better than McCain’s. It’s probably not intended to be taken seriously, but it’s worth noting that the two things it adds to Obama’s policy comprise an environmentally friendly version of McCain’s offshore drilling proposal which, itself, will not yield significant results in the short term, and an electorally attractive but pointless and perhaps expensive proposal to give US automakers tax incentives to do what they should have been doing all along, and are now scrambling to do without incentives — i.e. build fuel efficient cars.

US car makers spent the last twenty years bribing congress to block improvements to the CAFE fuel economy standards which would have helped make them ready for the current crunch and possibly averted it in the first place, and bailing them out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into is just a waste of time and money since all they’ve achieved in this period is to become almost economically irrelevant.

There’s been discussion lately of removing GM from the Dow Jones index since it is by far the lowest market cap member (5.8B as of writing; compare this to Caterpillar (makers of tracked earth moving equipment, among other things) with a market cap of 42.7B) and — some argue — technically insolvent. It might be replaced by Toyota (131.6B) and/or Honda (57.4B), both of which are solvent, profitable, and currently manufacture and sell reliable, fuel efficient cars in the US without special tax incentives or subsidies.

So, Paris’s energy policy is better than McCain’s since it’s essentially McCain’s existing policy (which achieves almost nothing in the short term) tempered by environmental considerations (which will prevent it from achieving much good or damage in the long term) plus Obama’s policy (which is what we should have been doing all along) plus an electorally attractive, but vague, bad idea (giving more money to failed US automakers). If she were a real candidate, I’d read this as (a) triangulating McCain’s offshore drilling proposal by saying “sure we’ll do it, but in an eco-friendly way” either turning it into a non-issue or forcing McCain to differentiate himself by saying he’d do it in an eco-hostile way, (b) co-opting Obama’s policies which are basically good, and (c) proposing a vague, but probably popular, “US worker-friendly” policy that can be disposed of after the election because it’s “no longer necessary”. I’d actually say this is better packaging than Obama’s campaign has managed for, essentially, identical policies, but Obama can’t afford to pull stunts like (c) because he’s taken more seriously than Paris Hilton (or McCain) and he’s likely to be required to put dollar amounts on it. Still, not bad for a bimbo.