Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Will Trump vs. Clinton...

...really come down to which of them is the lesser of two evils? Or, more specifically, will it come down to who gets to appoint justices to the Supreme Court?

That's not a bad way to think about it. Or is it?

On Friday night my wife and I were out with another couple and the conversation turned to -- surprise! -- politics. (Okay, I was the one who -- surprise! -- brought up the subject.) And, although the woman was a typical Fox News-brainwashed baby boomer, her husband (a former college professor) took a more nuanced view. He conceded that he probably wouldn't vote for either candidate but said he didn't want Mrs. Clinton to be the one to shape the Supreme Court for generations.

I nodded silently (I didn't argue, remember?), but wondered later, Will there ever be another justice elevated to the Supreme Court?

I'm only half-serious, but before I get to why, let me remind you of a post I wrote back in February in which I noted that three of the remaining eight Supreme Court justices will be 78 or older in November:

What if -- what if -- one or more of those other justices died? Or retired? What if, in the next year or so, they all did. (That's not so far-fetched is it? How many people do you know over the age of 77 that are still working?) Then what? Would President Obama get to replace any of them? Would the next president? Or would the Supreme Court of the United States just have to get by with five justices? Will any president ever get to nominate another Supreme Court justice? Or would the institution just wither away?

Then this morning I read in the Times, "Rulings and Remarks Tell Divided Story of an 8-Member Supreme Court" (my emphasis):

Justice Ginsburg, the leader of the court’s liberal wing, sounded less content with the current state of affairs on Thursday at a judicial conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“Eight, as you know, is not a good number for a multimember court,” she said.

In his own remarks, Justice Breyer said an eight-member court was capable of deciding most cases, supporting the point with statistics from recent terms.

“We’re unanimous 50 percent of the time,” he said. “Twenty percent of the time we’re 5-4, and half of those are kind of random, not what the press would call the usual suspects.”

So in other words, maybe we do -- or maybe we don't -- need nine judges after all.

But let's get back to my original question: What if they never vote to approve another Supreme Court justice?

I mean, let's go through the various scenarios. First, if Trump or Clinton got elected with a 60-vote, filibuster-proof, super-majority in the Senate, their appointees would likely sail through. Fair enough. But how realistic is it that either party would gain a super-majority in the upper chamber? Worse, what if Trump or Clinton were elected with the other party in control of the Senate? Then, surely, nothing would happen.

I know what you're thinking: But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (above, left) said he's only "following a longstanding tradition of not filling vacancies on the Supreme Court in the middle of a presidential election year." If Mrs. Clinton were elected in November he'd certainly confirm her justices, right? Right?

I'm not so sure. This is the same crowd that accused President Obama of trying to "pack" the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by the radical practice of appointing judges to fill vacancies. Do you really think they wouldn't come up with some other cockamamie reason for blocking a President Clinton's SCOTUS nominees?

And, to be fair, after this year a Democratic Senate led by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York (above, right) probably wouldn't approve a President Trump's nominees, either. What goes around, comes around.

So, the bottom line is that maybe the Supreme Court isn't the biggest factor in this year's election. Maybe there will never be another nominee confirmed in our lifetime. Who knows?

Michael Dann, head...

...of programming at CBS in the 1960s, died at age 94.

To give you an idea of how dominant his network was, Dann's obit notes (my emphasis):

In the 1963-64 season, CBS had 14 of the top 15 shows, with [NBC's] “Bonanza” spoiling the clean sweep. In 1966-67, CBS had eight of the top 10 shows (“Bonanza” and ABC’s “Bewitched” filled out the list) and the following season, all of the top five series were on CBS.

Television was a little different back then.

Will Scott Brown...

...be Donald Trump's running mate? Who? You know, that guy who served out Ted Kennedy's term in the Senate?

According to Paddy Power, the leading candidates are:

Newt Gingrich, 6/4 odds
Scott Brown, 7/2
Joni Ernst, 8/1
Bob Corker, 8/1
John Kasich, 8/1

I used to think the establishment would "draft" Gov. Kasich of Ohio (click here). Then I considered the possibility of Gingrich (click here). Tennessee Sen. Corker hit my radar when I heard his name mentioned by both Jonathan Alter and Dan Senor (click here). And I even weighed the prospect of Sen. Ernst of Iowa (click here).

But I hadn't heard Scott Brown's name until recently. I mean, come on, the guy only served in the Senate for three years! (He was defeated for reelection by a little-known college professor by the name of Elizabeth Warren.) He's a . . . a . . . male bimbo -- a "mimbo."

And, yet, Scott Adams (whom I just discovered) thinks it will be Brown. Why? From his blog (my emphasis):

Of the remaining options, Scott Brown is probably the best fit to run for office on a ticket with the Master Persuader. Trump says he wants someone with legislative experience, and Brown has that. He’s also an ex-attorney with a good education. Smart. But he is also famously handsome. Attractiveness is more important than most other factors, whether we like to admit it or not.

Brown’s “flaws” as a Republican are the kind that will help in a general election. He’s in favor of abortion rights and banning assault rifles. Trump could make that work, one way or another. It plays to “common-sense conservative.”

Another advantage Brown has is his last name. As silly as this sounds, it makes him seem less white. Science tells us that people are more influenced by names than common sense would suggest. For example, people with so-called “lower class” names such as Justin are less likely to get job interviews. People named Dennis are more likely to become dentists, according to studies.* And my guess is that people named Trump are more likely to be associated with winning (trumping). By this same line of thinking, Brown would take some of the white off of Trump. That could help in the general election. And yes, I am totally serious. People trained in persuasion would likely agree.

As I said, predicting a VP choice is nearly impossible until the last minute because the situation is fluid. A candidate might need some help in a key state, based on current polling. Or the opponent might open up a new line of attack that needs a defense. A lot can change in a few weeks.

But as of today, and according to the Master Persuader filter, I put the odds at 90% than Trump picks Brown as his running mate.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Scott Adams is not only...

...the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, but also an author, blogger and "trained hypnotist."

Huh? What?

That's right. In a recent piece in Slate, "They Totally Knew: The People Who Foresaw the Rise of Donald Trump," Mr. Adams is quoted as saying (all emphasis mine):

 “I have a background as a trained hypnotist and I’ve been studying persuasion and influence in all its forms—everything from advertising and marketing to you name it—for decades. I’ve gone deeper than most people in the art of influence..." 

Now, I know what you're thinking: That's fascinating. But why should I care?

Because the quote concludes by saying:

...and when I started watching [Donald] Trump I realized early that what looked like the random behavior of a clown to people who were untrained, was almost pitch perfect persuasion.”

If you'll recall, I quoted Adams in a post on Friday:

If you imagine politics as a stick fight, all other stick fights have been won by a person with a stick. But here was Trump who said, ‘I read the rules and there’s nothing against bringing a flamethrower.’

I haven't read the comics in years and so was barely familiar with Adams, but I thought that was really interesting -- and scary. Scary because:

Adams thinks Trump will win the general election in a “landslide.” 

So imagine my surprise when Adams appeared as a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday night, a show I never, ever miss.

And you know what? I went from scared to terrified.

Not really. (I still believe in an America that will reject a demagogue like Mr. Trump.) But you should visit Adams's blog anyway. And keep in mind:

I’ll remind readers that I have disavowed all of the candidates. My political views don’t line up with any of them. My interest is in Trump’s persuasion skills.

One of my personal favorites was a post, "About Those Trump Policy Details":

It might mean that Trump is a skilled persuader who understands that people don’t make decisions based on policy details, logic, reason, common sense, or any other illusion of rationality. People are emotional creatures who rationalize their actions after the fact. Science knows that free will is an illusion. Trump knows it too. I say that about Trump with confidence because you can’t be a Master Persuader until you understand that people are fundamentally irrational.

This one hit home in particular because my wife and I had just gone out to dinner on Friday night with a couple from Milwaukee in their seventies. Since the man was once a history professor at Stanford and USC I couldn't help asking him about the current race and Trump in particular. I wasn't so surprised to hear that he was a mainstream Republican who originally backed Jeb Bush and then moved on to Marco Rubio before finally voting for John Kasich in the Wisconsin primary.

When he asked for my views I started by saying that the first question one should ask is, Is this person qualified to be president? And, by any objective measurement, Trump is clearly unqualified for the office. (I even referenced Mitt Romney so they wouldn't think I was some sort of bomb-throwing radical.) After all, Trump has never served in either elective or appointive office, has no military experience and his business career is completely opaque so long as he won't release his tax returns. (Is Trump worth what he says he's worth? What does he pay in taxes? Does he pay anything? Does he give to charity? Does he -- as some have alleged -- have ties to organized crime? We'll never know.)

At that, the woman we were out with demanded, Is Hillary qualified to be president? Yes, I replied, she was a United States senator before she was secretary of state. (The level of Hillary hatred out there is truly astounding -- and irrational.) And then she went on the usual Fox News tirade about "Benghazi," Mrs. Clinton's private email server and even a new one I hadn't heard about the number of assistants Michelle Obama has. (How come my mother never mentioned that? You're slipping, Ma!)

I was on my best behavior (you can ask my wife!) and didn't argue with her at all.

(I desperately wanted to point out, however, that several Congressional committees led by Republicans have been investigating "Benghazi" for several years at a cost of millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours and not one thing -- zero! -- has been produced to implicate Clinton in any wrongdoing. Sigh.)

But the point is that Adams is right: people are fundamentally irrational. (Even me?) How could anyone think Donald Trump is qualified to be president? But, more disturbingly, Adams may be right when he says that Trump could win in a “landslide.”

As I concluded my own post on Friday:

For now, the math favors Mrs. Clinton. But that flamethrower of Mr. Trump's worries me.

And it's keeping me up at night.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Times has an opinion...

...piece this morning, "California’s Midlife Crisis," that, really, could have been written about anywhere. Take the second paragraph, for example (all emphasis mine):

The real Los Angeles is gray and beaten down, an older man trying to fit into a younger body. We Angelenos are reminded of this when we drive down roads that have been repaved and retrofitted for a half-century or longer. To enter my local freeway, I cross a bridge built in 1940, past a crumbling concrete railing that has been struck so often by speeding Edsels, Ramblers and Explorers that it looks like a relic from a World War II battle.

This gets at one of the biggest knocks on Los Angeles that I hear from people, both in my hometown of Chicago and in LA itself: The traffic!

And I just want to say: What do you think it's like everywhere else?

Do you see that picture above? That's Chicago. It's from an article in the Tribune last year that conceded that although the Los Angeles area had the top three most congested stretches of road in the United States, five of the top 20 are actually in the Chicago area.

In fact:

Drivers in the northeastern Illinois-northwest Indiana region suffered the misery of 61 extra hours behind the wheel on average in 2014 — equivalent to a week and a half of work — because of delays caused by gridlock, construction zones and collisions that tied up traffic, according to the Urban Mobility Scorecard released late Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Turns out, traffic is bad in lots of places:

The Washington, D.C., area, at a numbing 82 hours of delay per commuter, ranked No. 1 on the Texas A&M list of the most gridlocked metropolitan areas last year. Rounding out the top 10 were Los Angeles; San Francisco; New York; San Jose, Calif.; Boston; Seattle; Chicago; Houston; and Dallas.

"The national congestion recession is over,'' the report concluded. "The total congestion problem is larger than the pre-recession levels.''

So, as I tell people here and in LA, it's not just your city, it's pretty much everywhere. In fact, when I hear people complain about how expensive a town is, or how high the taxes are, or how bad the traffic is, I just tell them that anywhere I'd want to live is going to have those problems. If you really want to avoid all those things then go live in the middle of nowhere where no one else wants to live either.

When I go to LA I hear people there complain about how bad the traffic has become. And I always say, Gee, the traffic in my town has gotten worse, too. In fact, it's gotten worse everywhere. (Maybe if you traveled outside your little bubble you'd notice that.) You see, there are more people and more cars in all major metropolitan areas. So of course the traffic has gotten worse.

Hey, Angelenos: Cry me a river! My town has become more crowded, more expensive and the roads more congested. (And we're about to get socked with higher property taxes.) But you know what? At least you have nice weather every day. We only get it for half the year.

A friend of mine once said that all jobs suck, so get a high-paying job that sucks. (Sage advice.) So if all big cities have the same problems, live in one (LA) with nice weather every day that has all those problems.

How should Hillary Clinton...

...campaign against Donald Trump? That's a good question, and if I knew the answer I'd be an extremely well-paid political adviser.

We all watched the Republicans flail about against the Donald in the primaries. Most of his early targets, like Jeb "low energy" Bush, tried to take the high road. It didn't work. Then "Little" Marco Rubio, for example, got down in the gutter with Trump by attacking the size of his hands. That didn't work either. Ted Cruz may have had the best strategy of all: he embraced Trump until the race became pretty much mano a mano. If you'll recall, though, on the day of the Indiana primary in which Trump crushed "Lyin' Ted," the New York tycoon suggested that Cruz's father was somehow connected to the Kennedy assassination. The Texas senator suspended his campaign that evening.

As Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, said:

If you imagine politics as a stick fight, all other stick fights have been won by a person with a stick. But here was Trump who said, ‘I read the rules and there’s nothing against bringing a flamethrower.’ 

(That was from a very interesting piece in Slate, "They Totally Knew: The People Who Foresaw the Rise of Donald Trump," and probably the best description I've heard yet of the Republican race.)

So, again, how do you fight a guy who brings a flamethrower to a stick fight? Or, more specifically, how do you answer charges about Bill Clinton's extramarital affairs, Vince Foster's suicide, Whitewater, and whatever else the Donald chooses to dominate the news cycle on any given day and throw Hillary off her message?

Well, Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in Bloomberg, "How Clinton Can Demolish Trump," says:

Her most powerful message against Trump might be a non-ideological one: His lack of knowledge, seriousness and impulse control make him too dangerous to put in the presidency.

My guess is that Clinton and her advisers will reach the same conclusion, and make Trump’s unfitness for the presidency the central message of her campaign. Her real meaning will not be explicitly spelled out, but will be unmistakable nonetheless: You may not like either of us, but you should fear him.

Since the blog you're reading right now is free, here's some advice for Mrs. Clinton that may very well be worth the price I'm charging. But, hey, opinions are like you-know-whats -- everybody's got one. So here's mine.

Every time Trump brings up some non-issue from the '90s and forces reporters to ask Mrs. Clinton about it, I'd have her answer their queries with a question of her own. For example:

"Mrs. Clinton, Donald Trump is talking about Monica Lewinsky. How do you respond?"

"I have a question for Mr. Trump: how exactly do you intend to deport 11 million Americans?" And then I would have her cite reasons from this piece in the Times on how utterly unrealistic that would be.

Next day:

"Mrs. Clinton, Donald Trump is talking about Vince Foster. How do you respond?"

"I have a question for Mr. Trump: tell us more about that wall with Mexico you plan on building." And then I would have her cite some of the reasons from that same piece on how impractical that whole idea is.

Next day:

"Mrs. Clinton, Donald Trump is talking about Whitewater. How do you respond?"

"I have a question for Mr. Trump: tell us more about your plan to prevent all Muslims from entering the United States." And then go on to explain how ridiculous that would be.

In other words, every time Trump tries to capture the news cycle by putting Mrs. Clinton on the defensive with some stupid charge I would advise her not to even answer him, but instead throw one of his own loopy proposals right back at him with some facts on how crazy it would be. If there's one thing everyone can agree on (even his supporters, I suspect), it's that Trump is a complete ignoramus on policy who has gotten a free pass so far from the media, his Republican opponents and almost everyone else. I'd hammer him on how clueless he is and therefore utterly unfit for the office.

For now, the math favors Mrs. Clinton. But that flamethrower of Mr. Trump's worries me. Time to take it out of his hands.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Andrew Card, President...

...George W. Bush's chief of staff is the latest name to surface in the speculation surrounding Donald Trump's running mate. TRUMP/CARD. Get it?

Don't blame me for that; it's from a piece in USA Today, "VP Power Rankings: Corker tops list, Gingrich back in play."

The article mentions a number of the usual suspects, including Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arizona governor Jan Brewer, and Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley, both of South Carolina.

And I thought it might be useful to divide the various possibilities into two categories, those thought to have a future in politics, such as:

Corker, Ernst, Kasich, Rubio, Walker, Scott and Haley.

And those who, let's face it, don't:

Gingrich, Christie and Brewer.

Why is this important? Because if someone with a real future accepts the VP nomination with Trump it means Republicans think the Donald has at least a fighting chance. But if he ends up picking someone like Newt Gingrich, well, bet the ranch on Hillary crushing Trump in November. No one with a future in Republican politics is going to want to hitch his or her wagon to Trump if he's going to just crash and burn in the fall. This could be the best indication of what Washington insiders are really thinking.

An article in the Times...

Charlie Munger, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
...today, "Are You Successful? If So, You’ve Already Won the Lottery," begins with (all emphasis mine):

Chance events play a much larger role in life than many people once imagined.

It reminded me of the whole idea of free will and the Nature vs. Nurture debate I can't seem to let go of.

It also reminded me of an exercise I once took part in which was about the role of luck in our lives. And one woman in particular -- I swear! -- attributed all of the unfortunate things in her life to bad luck while all of her successes to her own good choices and hard work. Seriously. And she was a highly-intelligent, successful person. (I think I laughed out loud -- and she looked at me as though I had two heads.)

The piece goes on:

To acknowledge the importance of random events is not to suggest that success is independent of talent and effort. In highly competitive arenas, those who do well are almost always extremely talented and hard-working. As Charlie Munger, the vice chairman of Warren E. Buffett’s holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, has said, “The safest way to get what you want is to try and deserve what you want.”

Perhaps the most useful advice for someone who aspires to material success is to develop expertise at a task that others value. Such expertise comes not from luck but from thousands of hours of assiduous effort.

Warren Buffett, I recall, had a more nuanced view:

I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.

But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society values my talent, and gave me a good education to develop that talent, and set up the laws and the financial system to let me do what I love doing — and make a lot of money doing it. 

(Question: Would Bill Gates have created Microsoft had he been born in Uganda?)

So which is it, luck or hard work? Or some combination of the two?

Take me, for example. I was born into a solidly middle-class family with two parents who lived well beyond my childhood. In typical post-war fashion, my father worked outside the house while my mother raised the kids. Like my dad, we all completed college. I went on to get married, have kids and lead a comfortably middle-class existence myself. If you looked at my childhood and how my life turned out it would probably come as no surprise. Was it luck, though, or hard work?

Maybe, like that woman I mentioned above, all of the unfortunate things that happened to me in my life were the result of bad luck while all of my successes were due to good choices and hard work on my part.

Or not.

The other Name of the Day...

...belongs to John Tory, the Progressive Conservative (Tory) mayor of Toronto.

What, did you think he was a member of the Liberal Party?

The Name of the Day...

...belongs to Jennifer Howe Peace (middle), an associate professor of interfaith studies at Andover Newton Theological School.

What, did you think she worked at the Department of Defense?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I know that Massachusetts...

...has a GOP governor who would presumably appoint a fellow Republican to replace her, but how about Elizabeth Warren as Hillary Clinton's running mate?

You want an attack dog? Just check out that video, above. I wonder if it might take a woman to bring the fight to a bully like Trump. After all, the only Republican that laid a glove on him in the primaries was Carly Fiorina. Also, Sen. Warren could unite the Sanders and Clinton wings of the party like no one else I can think of. Oh, and by the way, she's also a highly-intelligent, highly-principled person who is actually qualified to be president (unlike someone else I could mention).

Finally, at long last Sen. Warren could give the Democrats a real chance to turn the Bay State blue in the fall.*

From Paddy Power:

Julian Castro, 5/2 odds
Tim Kaine, 5/1
Elizabeth Warren, 11/2

* JK!

I first heard Sen. Bob Corker...

...mentioned by Jonathan Alter on MTP Daily as a possible running mate for Donald Trump. Now I hear Dan Senor predict Corker on With All Due Respect. (These are two people worth listening to.)

So where is the Tennessee senator in the betting markets? Well, on Paddy Power he's in fifth place at 9/1 odds:

Newt Gingrich, 13/8
Scott Brown, 7/2
Joni Ernst, 6/1
John Kasich, 8/1
Bob Corker, 9/1

I'm not sure if Sen. Corker would want the job or not -- are you kidding? He'd grab it with both hands! -- but I think the Republican establishment is desperate to have one of their own on the ticket to hopefully "influence" the Donald in the right direction. Kasich clearly doesn't want it, and the first three on the list don't impress me as serious candidates. (Come on, Newt Gingrich?) After Corker, you have to go all the way down to Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, at 25/1 odds, to find someone else that's credible.

Right now it looks as though Corker may turn out to be the guy asked to "take one for the team."

P. S. I also heard Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana mentioned. He's at 33/1 odds.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Remember this issue...

...of the National Review titled "Against Trump"? That was just four months ago.

From the editors (my emphasis):

But he is not deserving of conservative support in the caucuses and primaries. Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.

Whoa.

But even on immigration, Trump often makes no sense and can’t be relied upon.

In fact,

This plan wouldn’t survive its first contact with reality.

But is he qualified?

Indeed, Trump’s politics are those of an averagely well-informed businessman: Washington is full of problems; I am a problem-solver; let me at them. But if you have no familiarity with the relevant details and the levers of power, and no clear principles to guide you, you will, like most tenderfeet, get rolled.

What about his experience?

The burdens and intricacies of leadership are special; experience in other fields is not transferable.

Trump’s record as a businessman is hardly a recommendation for the highest office in the land. 

Finally,

We sympathize with many of the complaints of Trump supporters about the GOP, but that doesn’t make the mogul any less flawed a vessel for them. Some conservatives have made it their business to make excuses for Trump and duly get pats on the head from him. Count us out. Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.

Wow! I guess they didn't like him.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, however, Trump has the support of eighty-five percent of Republicans.

Never mind.

Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump...

...by about five points in February. Yeah, you're probably thinking, So, what? The most recent polls show the race in a dead heat.

Well, according to Sam Wang,* a professor at Princeton (my emphasis):

Amusingly, national polls won’t reach their February levels of accuracy until August. The Clinton-Trump margin in February was Clinton +5.0%. So how about if we just use that until after the conventions. Can you wait?

What's more, Professor Wang thinks by November it will be Clinton +6.5%.

* Who the heck is Sam Wang? He's the guy who pretty much got it perfect in 2012.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Tom Toles...

...cartoon of the day.

Whenever someone tells me...

...that, Hey, I think this Trump guy can win -- I mean, Hillary's negatives are so high! -- I always say, ask any Hispanic or African American what they think of the Donald. And, if it's in person, I get a blank stare in response; if it's over the phone I get crickets. And I always laugh to myself: the person I'm talking to probably doesn't know or even come into contact with any blacks or Hispanics.

Now, I don't want to sound too smug or "worldly" (after all, I am admittedly a Boring Old White Guy), because I've spent the vast majority of my life surrounded by other white people, but just try my little experiment some time.

In my wife's non-profit we have at least one young man who grew up in both the United States and Mexico (I'm sure Spanish is his first language) and several African Americans. I also talked to some of the protesters at the Trump rally at UIC, above, a few weeks ago. Heck, I ask the question every chance I get.

And the response is usually a non-verbal look that suggests hatred. I know you're never supposed to make comparisons with Nazi Germany, but it's the kind of look I imagine you'd get if you asked a Jew what they thought of Hitler.

I'm reminded of all this by a piece in the New York Times this morning, "Mexico Prepares to Counter ‘the Trump Emergency’" (my emphasis):

[Mexican] President Enrique Peña Nieto likened the candidate’s language to that of Hitler and Mussolini in an interview with Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper. And he recently shuffled his diplomatic corps in the United States, replacing Mexico’s ambassador to Washington and installing new consuls general around the country, in part to strengthen his administration’s response to the rise of Mr. Trump and what it reflects about American sentiment toward Mexico.
___

The two countries are now enjoying one of the more harmonious periods in a turbulent history. But many in Mexico fear that the friendship would rupture should Mr. Trump win the election and follow through on his threats to undo the North American Free Trade Agreement, force Mexico to pay for the construction of a wall between the countries by interrupting remittances and deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, about half of whom are Mexican.
___

Mexican critics of Mr. Trump say he has already damaged the image of their country and of the Mexican people with his espousal of views that many regard as xenophobic. At a rally to kick off his campaign in June, the Republican candidate suggested that many Mexican immigrants were drug traffickers and rapists.
___

Instead, most of the Mexican agitation against Mr. Trump has come from the general public. At the beginning of his campaign, many Mexicans viewed Mr. Trump with a mixture of alarm and amusement. But the amusement has mostly fallen away.

“Why should we worry?” Mr. Krauze asked, rhetorically. “I couldn’t think of a reason not to worry, no?”

In the fall, Mr. Krauze and Carmelo Mesa-Lago, an emeritus professor of economics and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh, drafted a letter denouncing Mr. Trump’s campaign. Sixty-seven prominent Latinos — academics, scientists, writers and filmmakers in the United States, Spain and Latin America — signed it.

“His hate speech appeals to lower passions like xenophobia, machismo, political intolerance and religious dogmatism,” the letter said.

In recent months, Mr. Castañeda has been pushing a pro-Mexico social media campaign with the hashtag #ImProudToBeMexican. Aiming at an American, English-speaking audience, he has uploaded videos to Facebook and a campaign website extolling the diversity of the Mexican diaspora and its contributions to the United States.

Explaining the American focus of this lobby, he said: “I don’t want to convince Mexicans how nasty Trump is, because everyone knows that. That’s a done deal.”

I've heard some people say that blacks and Hispanics won't turn out this year in the numbers we've come to expect, partly because President Obama won't be on the ballot. But, I'm telling you, from the people I've talked to (and, admittedly, it's not exactly a scientific sampling), they'll turn out. They'll turn out in huge numbers. Just watch.

Are Trump and Clinton in a dead heat?

That's what the headline in The Daily Beast said linking to a new ABC/Washington Post poll showing the Donald leading Hillary, 46 to 44 percent.

Oh, no!

But wait. All the betting markets still show Mrs. Clinton with a sizable lead over Trump. So, what? you're probably thinking. Well, I follow this stuff more than any normal person should. And in my experience the betting markets are far more reliable than the polls. Not perfect, but better. While polls go up and down with every piece of news, gaffe, etc. the bookies seem to keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs.

But if you're really worried about Donald Trump becoming president of the United States -- and who wouldn't be? After all, this is serious! -- and you find, more and more, that otherwise sensible people you know are being tempted to vote for what they consider to be the "lesser of two evils," remind them of what Mitt Romney said back in May (all emphasis mine):

Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He's playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.

I don't find myself agreeing with Mr. Romney too often, but he was spot-on about Trump. And if you know a Republican-leaning person who's warming to the Donald you may want to quote Romney:

But wait, you say, isn't he a huge business success that knows what he's talking about? No he isn't. His bankruptcies have crushed small businesses and the men and women who worked for them. He inherited his business, he didn't create it. And what ever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there's Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks, and Trump Mortgage? A business genius he is not.

Remember, if Trump had just invested his inheritance in index funds he'd be far wealthier today. Think about that: the Donald would have been better off doing crossword puzzles all day than in investing in real estate these last several decades.*

I am far from the first to conclude that Donald Trump lacks the temperament to be president. After all, this is an individual who mocked a disabled reporter, who attributed a reporter's questions to her menstrual cycle, who mocked a brilliant rival who happened to be a woman due to her appearance, who bragged about his marital affairs, and who laces his public speeches with vulgarity.
___

Dishonesty is Trump's hallmark: He claimed that he had spoken clearly and boldly against going into Iraq. Wrong, he spoke in favor of invading Iraq. He said he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11. Wrong, he saw no such thing. He imagined it. His is not the temperament of a stable, thoughtful leader. His imagination must not be married to real power.
___

We will only really know if he is the real deal or a phony if he releases his tax returns and the tape of his interview with the New York Times. I predict that there are more bombshells in his tax returns. I predict that he doesn't give much if anything to the disabled and to our veterans. I predict that he told the New York Times that his immigration talk is just that: talk. And I predict that despite his promise to do so, first made over a year ago, he will never ever release his tax returns. Never. Not the returns under audit, not even the returns that are no longer being audited. He has too much to hide. Nor will he authorize the Times to release the tapes. If I'm right, you will have all the proof you need to know that Donald Trump is a phony.
___

Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants, he calls for the use of torture and for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit first amendment freedom of the press. This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.

Romney says this is a "Time for Choosing." And he's right. You probably won't get too many chances in your life to Do The Right Thing on a national scale. This is probably the time. If Trump gets elected (and I still think he won't), and you voted for him, you'll have to look yourself in the mirror for the rest of your life with that knowledge. You'll have to say that when it was your time to "answer the bell" you failed.

Don't do it; vote for the one person who is truly qualified to be the Leader of the Free World. You don't have to "like" her; this isn't about having a beer with someone. It's about electing a president. And it's probably the most important thing you'll ever do in your life. Don't blow it.

* To be fair, here's a different take on the subject. (But, as Mr. Romney pointed out, without Trump's tax returns we'll never know what he's really worth.)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Just as the Beatles'...

...Rubber Soul album begat the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the latter begat the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which in turn begat SMiLE, the Beach Boys album which was begun in 1966 but not released in its entirety until 2011.

While most musical "experts" seem to agree that SMiLE was the finest work by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, I find myself, to paraphrase Paul Ryan, just "not there" yet. But that's okay; I remember how Pet Sounds was an acquired taste back when I discovered it sometime in the mid-1970s. (That's probably considered their second-best album. While I've come to like it, I still prefer the earlier stuff about girls, surfing and cars. Sue me.)

But one song that's really catchy from SMiLE is "Heroes and Villains." Originally released as a single in 1967, the song had "an innumerable amount of alternate edits," according to Wikipedia.

From Songfacts:

The Beach Boys did at least 20 recording sessions for this song over a period of several months, as Brian Wilson was very particular about it. Sections known as "Cantina Scene" and "Bicycle Rider" were dropped, although The Beach Boys often included them in live performances of the song.

What the heck is it about? Good question.

Written in collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, Wilson has called SMiLE "a teenage symphony to God."

It is generally acknowledged that Wilson and Parks intended "SMiLE" to be explicitly American in style and subject, a conscious reaction to the overwhelming British dominance of popular music at the time. It was conceived as a musical journey across America from east to west, beginning at Plymouth Rock and ending in Hawaii, traversing some of the great themes of modern American history and culture including the impact of white settlement on native Americans, the influence of the Spanish, the Wild West and the opening up of the country by railroad and highway. Some historical events touched upon range from Manifest destiny, American imperialism, westward expansion, the Great Chicago Fire, and the Industrial Revolution.

When Wilson first played the melody [of "Heroes and Villains"] to him, Parks devised the opening line on the spot, modeling its lyrics in the style of Marty Robbins' "El Paso." Wilson credits Parks with the title, while Parks credits Wilson, explaining: "I think he made that up. I think it was a great title, and he suggested it. To me, 'Heroes And Villains' sounds like a ballad out of the Southwest. That’s what it was intended to be—as good as any of those—and, really, to be a ballad. This Spanish and Indian fascination is a big chapter in Californian history, and that’s what it’s supposed to be—historically reflective, to reflect this place. I think it did it."

And yet:

Though the lyrics are distinctly Western with some allusions to the American Indian genocides, former wife Marilyn Wilson claimed that Brian meant the "heroes" and "villains" to represent the ones in his life.

Either way, it's a good tune.

P. S. In my final semester of college I had to turn in a ten-page term paper on the last Friday of some class I was taking. We also had to take the final exam that same day and the grades needed to be turned in to the registrar's office by the following Monday. I remember thinking at the time that there was no way the professor could possibly read all those papers and correct all those finals (which were essays in blue books) in one weekend. So I decided to have a little fun and wrote smack-dab in the middle of my paper, "I can't believe you're actually reading this." He circled it in red.

And the moral of the story is, I wonder if anyone is actually reading any of these recent posts on the Beach Boys. If so, thanks for indulging me.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Alan Young, who played...

...Wilbur Post, an architect who owned a talking horse in the 1960s sitcom Mister Ed, died at age 96.

According to his obit in the Times, Mr. Young:

...started the rumor that the crew got Ed to “talk” by coating his mouth with peanut butter. Actually, the crew would place a piece of nylon in Ed’s mouth; the horse would then try to remove it by moving his lips, giving the illusion that he was talking...

That's funny; when I was a kid my parents said they did it with "trick photography." (Everything they couldn't explain was done with "trick photography.")

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Oh, Carol, I know" was...

...the line that lyricist Tony Asher originally wrote that Brian Wilson misheard as "Caroline, No," which became the title of this beautiful ballad from the 1966 Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. The song, a collaboration between Asher and Wilson, was about two women, both coincidentally named Carol, for whom the pair still carried a torch.

The song begins with the melancholy lyrics:

Where did your long hair go
Where is the girl I used to know

Asher's contribution was:

...inspired by his former girlfriend, who had moved to New York and cut her hair: "I had recently broken up with my high school sweetheart who was a dancer and had moved to New York to make the big time on Broadway. When I went east to visit her a scant year after the move, she had changed radically. Yes, she had cut her hair. But she was a far more worldly person, not all for the worse. Anyway, her name was Carol."

For Wilson, the song was about a:

...teenage crush on a cheerleader named Carol Mountain. He had been obsessed with the girl as a student, rhapsodizing about her beautiful complexion and long dark hair. By 1966, Wilson had discovered that Mountain was married and still living in their hometown of Hawthorne, not far from his Hollywood home. Though also married, Wilson began to call his unrequited high-school love, who had no inkling of his true feelings until decades later. "He didn't sound drugged or anything, but it was very strange," Mountain told author Peter Ames Carlin. "He'd call at 3 a.m. and want to talk about music. ... But it was nothing inappropriate. It was just a strange thing he was going through, calling and connecting."

Though they didn't meet in person, Wilson grew depressed that the torch he carried for Mountain had begun to dim. "If I saw her today, I'd probably think, 'God, she's lost something,' because growing up does that to people," he explained decades later.

P. S. Those are actually Wilson's dogs, Banana and Louie, barking at the end of the song.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

When I first heard...

...that Jonathan Chait had written a piece comparing Hillary Clinton to Harry Truman I thought Daniel Larison had it right with this tweet:

Presiding over a costly foreign war and then leaving office with extremely low approval ratings? Sounds right

But then I read it and particularly liked the last three paragraphs (my emphasis):

There is a model here for Clinton, and not just that a presidency lacking in ecstasy can still deliver the longer-term satisfaction of effective governance. Though the country is not in a 1940s-style crisis, its politics is strained. A passion for conflict and ideological purity defines the Sanders movement on the left; the right is enveloped in reactionary madness. (During Truman’s presidency, that madness took the form of the surreal ascent of pathological liar and demagogue Joseph McCarthy.) Clinton, by rejecting both impulses, has reminded us that she has always been a creature of the middle. An Über-Establishment president leading in anti-Establishment times may, over the long run, come to be seen as commanding the American center — even, perhaps, something like an American consensus.

Truman was a figure of crushing ordinariness, a quality that, over time, came to assume something close to greatness. Clinton gives off a similar sensibility (despite her extraordinary life experience). If you withdraw the presumption of calculation that is attached to her every action, one can see her character aging well through history: a woman who broke into male-dominated fields; a policymaker who is one of the few nerds who are still not cool. It is impossible to predict how Clinton will handle foreign policy, but it is not fanciful to hope that her experience (unusually deep for a president) will enable her to imaginatively face the confounding challenge of radical Islam.

And even if Republicans stymie her domestic initiatives, she might put her imprint on new policies that inspire successors. Clinton has proposed a modernization of the welfare state to include early education and child care. Though Truman’s proposal for universal health insurance failed, the power of his vision remained, and over time its association with Truman added to its grandiosity. And when Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, that evening, he and his aides celebrated its passage on the Truman Balcony.

As I mentioned in a previous post, more people have voted for Mrs. Clinton in this year's primaries -- 13,192,713 -- than any other candidate. It's easy to miss that in a year when two other candidates have gotten so much attention.

(Donald Trump, the modern-day "pathological liar and demagogue Joseph McCarthy," garnered 11,266,422, while the quixotic Bernie Sanders, the modern-day left-winger Henry Wallace, has received 10,158,889.)

Mario Cuomo once famously said, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." Mrs. Clinton would probably not only govern in prose, but she campaigns in prose. And that's her biggest problem.

But I still think, just as in this year's primaries, Hillary will end up with the most votes come November. (The true "Silent Majority" in America will quietly, if not passionately, support her.) I expect she'll both preserve and expand on President Obama's legacy while governing from the center. Mrs. Clinton may not be flashy, like the Donald, or inspirational, like Bernie (or Obama), but I think she's both highly intelligent and highly capable -- not at all "a figure of crushing ordinariness" like Truman -- and will turn out to be a much better president than anyone expects.

And I'll also bet she serves two terms.

"God Only Knows," from...

...the 1966 Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, was not only written in less than an hour, but was also said to be Paul McCartney's all-time favorite song.

Really? "God Only Knows" isn't even my favorite Beach Boys tune, and I'm a big fan.

But the song has gotten all sorts of "ink" on the fiftieth anniversary of the famous album's release. From Rolling Stone:

According to a 2015 Guardian interview, Wilson claims that he and Tony Asher composed the song in just 45 minutes. "We didn't spend a lot of time writing it," confirms Asher. "It came pretty quickly. And Brian spent a lot of time working on what ended up being the instrumental parts of that song. But the part that has lyrics really was one of those things that just kinda came out as a whole."

Author Jim Fusilli theorized that the song's title was born out of a love letter Wilson wrote to his wife Marilyn in 1964, signing off with "Yours until God wants us apart." Whatever the true genesis, this reference to God created a dilemma for the two collaborators. "We had lengthy conversations during the writing of 'God Only Knows,'" remembers Asher. "Because unless you were Kate Smith and you were singing 'God Bless America,' no one thought you could say 'God' in a song. No one had done it, and Brian didn't want to be the first person to try it. He said, 'We'll just never get any airplay.'" Though a handful of Southern radio stations banned the song for blasphemy, it was warmly received nearly everywhere else.

And from Wikipedia:

Brian originally intended to sing lead vocal on "God Only Knows" but after the instrumental portions of the song had been recorded, Brian thought [his younger brother] Carl could impart the message better than he could. Brian reflected in October 1966, "I gave the song to Carl because I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice. He brought dignity to the song and the words, through him, became not a lyric, but words." At the time, it was rare for Carl to sing lead on a Beach Boys song.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Name of the Day...

...belongs to Pope McCorkle, "a former Democratic consultant who teaches at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy."

Just when you (and I)...

...thought I was done with the whole Nature vs. Nurture debate, out comes a piece in The Atlantic, "There’s No Such Thing as Free Will: But we’re better off believing in it anyway."

While the author, Stephen Cave, argues that free will is probably a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it? (my emphasis):

For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
___

In 2002, two psychologists had a simple but brilliant idea: Instead of speculating about what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose, they could run an experiment to find out. Kathleen Vohs, then at the University of Utah, and Jonathan Schooler, of the University of Pittsburgh, asked one group of participants to read a passage arguing that free will was an illusion, and another group to read a passage that was neutral on the topic. Then they subjected the members of each group to a variety of temptations and observed their behavior. Would differences in abstract philosophical beliefs influence people’s decisions?

Yes, indeed. When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs told me, she and Schooler found that “people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.”

It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts. Vohs emphasized that this result is not limited to the contrived conditions of a lab experiment. “You see the same effects with people who naturally believe more or less in free will,” she said.

In another study, for instance, Vohs and colleagues measured the extent to which a group of day laborers believed in free will, then examined their performance on the job by looking at their supervisor’s ratings. Those who believed more strongly that they were in control of their own actions showed up on time for work more frequently and were rated by supervisors as more capable. In fact, belief in free will turned out to be a better predictor of job performance than established measures such as self-professed work ethic.

Another pioneer of research into the psychology of free will, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, has extended these findings. For example, he and colleagues found that students with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to volunteer their time to help a classmate than were those whose belief in free will was stronger. Likewise, those primed to hold a deterministic view by reading statements like “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion” were less likely to give money to a homeless person or lend someone a cellphone.
___

The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.

Interesting stuff. But what if they have it backwards.

For example, while I had always thought that Catholics were more comfortable with order and discipline, what if those who were more comfortable with order and discipline were more inclined to convert or remain Catholic?

In other words, what if people who are "more likely to behave immorally" are less inclined to believe in free will?

Or those who "showed up on time for work more frequently and were rated by supervisors as more capable" were more inclined to believe "more strongly that they were in control of their own actions"?

Or what if those "less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another" also believe that free will is an illusion?

Maybe there really is no such thing as free will and people are acting according their genes or what has been imprinted on them by the environment.

The debate goes on.

Take a look at this map...

...of the 1964 presidential election. That was a blowout, wasn't it? As you can see, Lyndon Johnson carried Utah, Wyoming and Oklahoma, the three states that gave Mitt Romney his greatest margins in the last election.

Now take a look at this one, from the 1972 election just eight years later:

Another blowout! Except this time it was the Republican's turn. In almost a mirror image, Richard Nixon carried Hawaii, Vermont and New York, President Obama's best states in 2012.

Finally, take a good look at this map from the last election (click on it to enlarge):

Why? Because this year's will probably look a lot like it.

Paul Waldman has a good piece in The Week, "The 2016 race could be a lot closer than you think," in which he argues rather persuasively that, well, the 2016 race could be a lot closer than you think. (But Hillary will still win.) He reasons, and I agree (my emphasis):

The vast majority of Republicans will cast their ballots for Trump, even if he's not the person they wish he would be.

Take my oldest brother and my sister, for example. I can pretty much guarantee that they'll both hold their noses and vote for the Donald. (Even if they don't admit it.)

That means that in a closely divided country, Trump is going to have enough support to stay close with Clinton, even if he has alienated key voting groups and even if he isn't able to mobilize some huge new constituency of angry white people. It's why, in the general election horse race polls, he's only trailing Clinton by a few points.

That's the bad news for those who view a Trump presidency with horror. The good news is that a "close" election can actually be less close than it appears.

Consider 2012. Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 51-47, around the same size difference as Clinton v. Trump shows now. But Obama won the Electoral College by 332-206. And if you look state by state, it's hard to imagine which of the states Obama won that Trump could move into the Republican column.
___

Nevertheless, given all the beating of breasts and tearing of hair on the Republican side, it might be easy to fall into the trap of thinking this will be a blowout election for Democrats, with Clinton winning by a spectacular margin. That won't happen, because partisan attachments have become so firm that they can survive even the candidacy of Donald Trump. Lots of Republicans have misgivings about him, but as the election goes on they'll find ways to convince themselves that he deserves their votes. That will put a floor on his support — probably somewhere around 45 percent — that it will be almost impossible for him to fall below.

Which means that for the next five and a half months until election day, the polls probably won't show Clinton pulling away — and indeed, you may even see a few showing Trump in the lead. But before you panic, remember that it was always going to be this way.

Here's my prediction five and a half months out: Hillary defeats Trump by a slightly larger margin than Obama beat Romney, say 53 to 47 percent. I'll also say the map looks pretty close to the one from 2012, with the possible exception of North Carolina in the blue column. The Democrats will take back the Senate by about a 52-48 margin and gain 15 or so seats in the House, falling well short of a majority.

It will still be gridlock, but gridlock with a Democrat in the White House. Big difference. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, will be 80 years old in July. That means a President Clinton could appoint two judges (including Antonin Scalia's replacement), tipping the Court into a 6-3 liberal/conservative split.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"Pet Sounds" was released...

...fifty years ago yesterday (I'm a day late; sue me), and you may or may not be surprised to learn that it's not my favorite Beach Boys album. (I like it; it's just not necessarily my favorite. Which one is? I don't know; I'd have to think about that.)

Apparently, the title track was written as a potential theme for the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice.

From Rolling Stone (all emphasis mine):

The record's bossa nova-flavored title track began life as an instrumental called "Run James Run." The James in question is 007 himself. Perhaps inspired by the 15-second James Bond-esque theme that opens the American version of the Beatles' 1965 Help! soundtrack, Wilson apparently decided to take a stab at a full track. "It was supposed to be a James Bond-theme type of song," Wilson revealed in 1996. "We were gonna try to get it to the James Bond people. But we thought it would never happen, so we put it on the album." The cinematic orchestration hints that Brian Wilson could have had a strong future in film scoring.

But according to the Huffington Post:

The title track was originally meant for the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice.” When the film studio declined, the band put it on “Pet Sounds.”

Wilson initially called the song that is now known as “Pet Sounds” something more fitting for its original intent — “Run James Run.” Although the exact agreement Wilson had with the production team behind the Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” remains murky — both credited producers are dead — Wilson confirmed he made the track for the film.

“They turned it down,” Wilson said, contradicting accounts that he actually never submitted the track after losing his nerve.

Further explaining why the track ended up on the album after missing out on Bond, [band member Al] Jardine said, “Usually, when you’d do an album like that in the old days, you’d have nine or 10 good tracks that you’re happy with, but you’re required to have at least 11 or 12. So we’d always make an instrumental track or two to fill out the album.” With a laugh, Jardine said, “That was available ... so that’s really what happened.” 

The New York Times headline...

...of the day (from the print edition): Clinton Tries to Fend Off Sanders in Kentucky...

P. S. Here's an interesting longread on Colonel Sanders. Hat tip: Joe T.

Bill Backer, who created...

...this famous 1971 Coca-Cola commercial, died at age 89.

Monday, May 16, 2016

I once heard my niece...

...go on and on about the shortcomings of her health insurance company, blaming it all on "Obamacare." (She said it as if the Affordable Care Act was some sort of "government takeover of health care.") And I thought, "Isn't your complaint really with the American health care system?"

I was reminded of that yesterday when reading an opinion piece in the Times, "Sorry, We Don’t Take Obamacare: The growing pains of the health care act are frustrating patients."

First of all, it's important to remember that there's no such thing as "Obamacare" (unlike "Medicare" here or in Canada). The goal of the Affordable Care Act, as the piece concedes (all emphasis mine):

...which took effect in 2013, was to provide insurance to tens of millions of uninsured or under-insured Americans, through online state and federal marketplaces offering an array of policies. By many measures, the law has been a success: The number of uninsured Americans has dropped by about half, with 20 million more people gaining coverage. It has also created a host of new policies for self-employed people like Ms. Moses, who previously had insurance but whose old plans were no longer offered.

Yet even as many beneficiaries acknowledge that they might not have insurance today without the law, there remains a strong undercurrent of discontent.

That's right: without the ACA, many self-employed people (like my wife and me) might not have health insurance. Were we thoroughly pleased with my employer-provided health insurance before? Of course not. Every year, it seemed, it got more and more expensive while it covered less and less. (And wages stayed flat. Is there any connection there?)

The title also refers to "growing pains."

Many of the problems may well be the growing pains of a young, evolving system, which established only broad standards for A.C.A. plans and allowed insurers — a large majority of them for-profit — considerable leeway in designing their exact offerings. The specific requirements and policing mechanisms vary by state, and are still works in progress.

The ACA, like any law, will be fine-tuned over time. In fact:

Across the country, lawmakers and regulators are refining the plans’ requirements to make sure they work better.

The piece then circles back to its original point:

The research thus far suggests that the differences between plans offered through the A.C.A. and those offered by employers may be quite significant. A study in the policy journal Health Affairs found that out-of-pocket prescription costs were twice as high in a typical silver plan — the most popular choice — as they were in the average employer offering.

Remember, the ACA plans were created for people who didn't get their insurance from their employer. In many cases, these individuals didn't have access to insurance at all.

There are essentially two things we could do about the ACA. First, repeal "every word of it" as candidate Ted Cruz would do. But that would be kind of foolish, wouldn't it? (People forget that health care reform was the most pressing domestic issue in the election of 2008 before the financial collapse in the fall.) No, we can't go back to the old system that left so many people uncovered.

The second thing to do would be to work with the ACA to make it better.

My guess is that the American health care system will look more and more like Germany's: everyone will have private insurance from cradle to grave that's heavily regulated by the government. Every doctor and hospital will take everyone's insurance because they will all look the same. If you can't afford it the government will subsidize you. Insurers will resemble public utilities and compete on service rather than price. Since we can't get around the private insurers, we'll simply achieve a de facto single-payer system "through the back door." It's not pretty, but it's the only way.

The New Yorker cartoon of the day:

“Take this toaster—it’ll really freak out whoever finds you in sixty-five million years.”

Sunday, May 15, 2016

On a plain ol' left-right...

...axis I think you could describe this year's election this way:

Bernie Sanders --- Hillary Clinton --- Donald Trump --- Jeb Bush (or any of the other Republican establishment candidates).

But other than the far left and far right of that axis, it's really not that helpful because on trade, immigration, foreign policy and maybe some other issues Trump is actually running to the left of Hillary.

So maybe a better way to think of it would be a matrix (similar to the one above) that would organize today's voters in four boxes. In the upper-left hand (red) corner would be the title "Democrats who have benefited from the last thirty or so years" and in that box would be the name "Hillary Clinton." In the upper-right hand (blue) corner would be the title "Republicans who have benefited from the last thirty or so years" and in that box would contain the name of "Jeb Bush," "Marco Rubio," or some other establishment Republican that ran and lost this year. In the lower-left hand (green) corner would be the title "Democrats who have not benefited from the last thirty or so years" and would contain the name "Bernie Sanders." Finally, in the lower right-hand (purple) corner would be the title "Republicans who have not benefited from the last thirty or so years" and would contain "Donald Trump."

Think about it. If you went to college and had a reasonably good career, invested in the stock market from a young age, were prudent in borrowing, and yet didn't approve of the jingoism, religiosity or social conservatism of the George W. Bush years you're probably a Hillary supporter. If, on the other hand, you went to college and had a reasonably good career, invested in the stock market from a young age, were prudent in borrowing, and yet go to church on a regular basis and think W. was on balance a pretty good president, you're probably a Jeb, Rubio, Christie or Kasich supporter.

Now, if you're young and took out loans to go to college and came out and couldn't find a job that paid enough to pay back those loans you may be a Sandersista. And if you're an older white guy (or woman) who didn't go to college and can't live as well as your father did you may be a Trump supporter.

Make sense?

Friday, May 13, 2016

I'll concede that this...

...painting, “Untitled (New York City),” a 1968 abstract by Cy Twombly is art, but is it really worth $36.7 million? I mean, after all, Sotheby’s had it valued at $40 million.

If you think that looks like some schoolkid's scribbling on a chalk board, well, then you just don't understand abstract art.

"Ad maiorem Dei gloriam," or...

..."For the greater glory of God," is the motto of the Society of Jesus, the religious order to which Pope Francis belongs. But you could have fooled me. I would have thought it was, "Too little, too late."

That's what occurred to me after reading "Pope Francis Says Panel Will Study Whether Women May Serve as Deacons," on the front page of the New York Times. Or, in other words, Pope Francis is thinking of forming a group that may discuss why women still can't be priests.

What? Say it ain't so!

Don't worry; according to the article (all emphasis mine):

Lucetta Scaraffia, the co-editor of a monthly magazine on women and the church distributed with the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said that although the pope’s words were encouraging, they did not necessarily reflect the views of most bishops.

“I doubt much will come of it,” Ms. Scaraffia said. “I think the pope would like to open discussion, but there is strong resistance” to any ordination of women.

Phew!

Facing a shortage of priests, the church in the United States has for decades been actively encouraging men to become deacons to fill the gaps. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says there are now more than 13,000 men serving in what is called the “permanent diaconate.”

Deacons are ordained ministers in the Catholic Church, and in many parishes they handle many of the same tasks that priests do. They are permitted to preach at Mass, perform baptisms, witness marriages and conduct funeral services. Deacons currently must be men over the age of 35, and they may be married (though if a deacon’s wife dies, he is expected to remain celibate).

So, like priests, deacons must be male; but unlike priests, they can't be under 35. They don't have to be single or celibate unless their wife dies, in which case they must be. Got it.

“The real problem is that they can’t figure out why a woman can be ordained a deacon but not a priest,” according to Phyllis Zagano, an advocate of women’s ordination.

Oh, that's an easy one:

...women cannot be ordained because the disciples of Jesus were all male.

They were all fishermen, too (I think), had beards and wore sandals. So what?

Every other denomination I know of has women clergy. I guess it's just a matter of time before the Catholic Church follows suit:

Creating a Vatican commission is no guarantee of change. Such commissions can take years to reach conclusions and are only advisory. Pope Paul VI rejected the majority report of a Vatican commission in 1966 that, after three years of study, essentially recommended that the church lift its ban on artificial birth control.

Can you believe it? Fifty years later, married Catholic couples still can't practice birth control, which explains why so many of them have eight, nine or even ten children, just like when we were kids.

Every once in a while I wonder why I'm a lapsed Catholic. (Not really.) But it's articles like this that remind me.

A Tale of Two Cities, conclusion.

In the final installment (I promise) of my series on why I think Chicago is nicer than it's ever been (as long as you're white and/or live on the North Side), I want to address two final challenges facing the city, police brutality and racism, and its finances and economy.

As for the first, from that piece in The Week (all emphasis mine):

The task force said the police were guilty of "decades of racism," and had "a long, sad history of death, false imprisonment, physical and verbal abuse." Cops who brutalized black citizens, the report said, rarely faced consequences.

But as the Times article concedes:

These problems and divides are not unique to Chicago. Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., have all been convulsed after black people died in encounters with police officers, and neighborhood segregation and budget and school problems are common in the nation’s major cities.

The Times piece doesn't mention New York for some reason, but that's a picture of Eric Garner, above, just minutes before an NYPD officer put him in a fatal chokehold two years ago. (I was going to include the video but it was just too graphic.)

Or, heck, how about Milwaukee, our neighbor to the north? Just read "Democratic, Republican voters worlds apart in divided Wisconsin: Entire communities vote red or blue as metro Milwaukee grows more politically segregated with nearly every election cycle," or "The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star" if you're not familiar with racism in the Cream City.

(By the way, if you haven't been to Wisconsin lately you might be shocked by how much it's changed. The state that once produced such progressive leaders as Fighting Bob La Follette now more resembles Mississippi. One of my wife's childhood friends told her recently that the Newtown school shooting was "staged" so that President Obama could "take away our guns." She really said that.)

So it's not just Chicago, okay? In fact, it's probably more accurate to say that racism and police brutality are an American problem, not a Chicago problem. Be honest: could you say that your city is devoid of racism? And is police brutality something new, or are we just more aware of it since the proliferation of cell phones? (According to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative, between the years 1877 and 1950 nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the Jim Crow South.)

To sum it up, racism is still a problem everywhere in America (and probably always will be) but we're finally becoming aware of police brutality. If you're white, like me, just admit (to yourself, at least) that you're not color blind. The question is, would you like to be?

As for Chicago's finances, The Week says:

Chicago is "a fiscal basket case," says urban analyst Aaron Renn, with a lower credit rating than any major metropolis except Detroit.

The city's 6.6 percent jobless rate ranks 51st — dead last — among metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents.

Its strapped school system seems perpetually on the verge of collapse, and last month teachers staged a one-day strike to protest closings and budget cuts.

The [city] has incurred $20 billion in unfunded pension debt by giving generous public pensions to unions.

Deindustrialization, the Great Recession, and other economic forces eliminated 7 percent of Chicago's jobs between 2000 and 2010 — a higher share than in any other of the nation's 10 largest metro areas. Chicago has no marquee industry to help drive its economy — unlike New York (finance), Los Angeles (entertainment), and Washington, D.C. (government). "Its wealth was built by dominating America's agro-industrial complex," Renn says, "railroads, meatpacking, lumber processing, and grain processing, but that is long gone." That loss has only deepened the city's entrenched poverty and racial divisions. "Chicago is experiencing a steep decline, quite different from that of many other large cities," Renn says. "It is a deeply troubled place."

Is it really? When I walk around Chicago's neighborhoods all I see are brand-new million-dollar house after brand-new million-dollar house after brand-new million-dollar house after...

Are all those people broke or over-extended? I kind of doubt it.

According to the Times piece, Chicago:

[has added] 41 corporate headquarters and nearly 100,000 jobs here over the past five years.

And it's true. Walk around the downtown some time -- it's thriving! Don't believe me? According to a piece in the Atlantic, as recently as 2011 Chicago's GDP rivaled that of Switzerland's. And Wikipedia estimates that the state of Illinois' GDP is larger than that of the Netherlands.

So don't tell me Chicago's economy is "deeply troubled" or it's a "fiscal basket case." There's plenty of money here -- and it's still coming in! It's just a question of priorities. For example, my property taxes in Glenview were much higher than in the city. And New York City (and Philadelphia, I think) has a commuter tax. Again, the money is here to pay for all of Chicago's "problems." You just have to go and get it.

Finally, a word about Mayor Rahm Emanuel. I don't follow state or local politics nearly as closely as I do national so I'm not the best person to listen to on the subject. But, as far as I can tell, Mr. Emanuel has done a pretty decent job as mayor. He's made a lot of tough decisions that the previous mayors avoided. Also, Rahm is caught in the middle of the toxic (there's an overused word) back-and-forth between the megalomaniac Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his Scott-Walker-wannabe foe, Gov. Bruce Rauner. Who would want the job of mayor of Chicago, anyway? It's a thankless task, unless you want to use it as a springboard to higher office. I guess with all of its perceived problems, if you could turn it around you'd be a hero.

Anyway, that's my rant on Chicago and why I think it's probably the most "livable" big city in America.