Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Quote of the Day

Ben Smith, New York Times --

But the American media plays a bizarrely outsize role in American elections, occupying the place of most countries’ national election commissions. Here, the media actually assembles the results from 50 states, tabulates them and declares a victor. And — we can’t really help ourselves — the media establishes the narrative to explain what happened.

This fact is poorly understood outside the USA, and sometimes even within it. 

Also poorly understood, and interacting with the above, is that the USA does not have a directly elected President. but that's for another day. 


The ship of state may be sinking, but the New Yorker will always use the diaeresis --

Is the Postal Service Being Manipulated to Help Trump Get Reëlected?

The Marxist Club dilemma (Groucho version)

Gerard Baker, today's Wall Street Journal --

As our cultural, media and corporate chiefs deliver their social and political wisdom from their redoubts in New York’s Hamptons, Palm Beach, Fla., and the greener pastures of the San Francisco Bay Area, America’s cities have been ravaged by successive predations of lockdown, disorder and violence.

Gerard Baker, from his July 2017 interview, in the White House, with the Trumps:

TRUMP: Well, then you have to go and decide on what [healthcare] plan you want, which way you’re going to go. You want to decide on is it repeal or repeal and replace. If it’s repeal and replace, which one do you want to go? Which form of existing conditions? I mean, there’s many things. But once you’re in there, then you can really negotiate. This is actually the heart, though. Once you’re there, you can, you know, Gerard — oh, say hello. 

IVANKA TRUMP: Hi, Gerard. How are you? 

BAKER: Oh, hey. How nice to see you. How are you doing? 

IVANKA TRUMP: I heard you were here. I wanted to come by and say hi. (Cross talk.) How is your Arabella?

BAKER: Oh, very — (inaudible). She just got back from Costa Rica. She was there for two weeks. And how’s — and how’s yours? 

IVANKA TRUMP: Oh, very good. (Inaudible.) 

BAKER: It was nice to see you out in Southampton a couple weeks ago.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

If only the Tsar knew

New York Times --

Far from a strongman, Mr. Trump has lately become a heckler in his own government, promoting medical conspiracy theories on social media, playing no constructive role in either the management of the coronavirus pandemic or the negotiation of an economic rescue plan in Congress — and complaining endlessly about the unfairness of it all.

This is an increasingly popular pundit / political reporter narrative about Trump: that somehow, the head of state and government is isolated from governing. It allows everyone else -- the Cabinet, the appointed officials, the Congressional leadership, governors who depend on the federal government playing its role, and media who report on it -- to absolve themselves from blocking, speaking up, or walking out as the country stumbles through a disaster. 

The USA is experiencing a systemic, structural failure, and the fantasy that it's just one malevolent detached leader, an inverse of the benign Tsar who just didn't know what was going on in Russia -- is part of the problem. 

People were slow to realize the narrative that was being set up in 2016 -- yes, Trump is horrible, but so horrible that Hillary will win, therefore we can concentrate on her flaws. We know where that got us. Don't fall for another version of it in 2020. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Quote of the Day

Chemi Shalev, Haaretz --

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly spread word of his intention to call snap elections. In the latest version of his unattributed leaks, November is the target date, in close and even suspicious proximity to the November 3 elections in the United States. Perhaps Netanyahu envisages a joint heroic leap with U.S. President Donald Trump into the abyss, a la Thelma and Louise.

Joe Biden, do not pick Susan Rice as your VP nominee

Susan Rice, 16 January 2017 --

We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.


A great detail in the New York Times obituary for Peter Green --

Mr. Green’s main instrument in Fleetwood Mac was a 1959 Les Paul Standard, known as Greeny, that had one pickup installed in reverse, creating a distinctive tone because it put the instrument’s two pickups magnetically out of phase. After leaving Fleetwood Mac, he sold the guitar to the Irish rocker Gary Moore; in 1995, Mr. Moore made an album of Mr. Green’s songs called “Blues for Greeny.” The guitar is now owned by Kirk Hammett of Metallica.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Bobos of Summer

Janan Ganesh in the FT Weekend (subs. req'd)

The corollary, of course, is a view of summer as the vulgarian's season, good for socialising but not real intimacy, for surface pleasures but not the life of the mind.  

It's an excellent rumination on the low cultural esteem in which summer is held, especially in the mid-upper latitudes (both income and geographic). 

There is more that could be said. On any question of elite consumption patterns, it's always worth heading back to Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and sure enough the great man has a ready quote:

Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness. But the whole of the life of the gentleman of leisure is not spent before the eyes of the spectators who are to be impressed with that spectacle of honorific leisure which in the ideal scheme makes up his life. For some part of the time his life is perforce withdrawn from the public eye, and of this portion which is spent in private the gentleman of leisure should, for the sake of his good name, be able to give a convincing account. He should find some means of putting in evidence the leisure that is not spent in the sight of the spectators. This can be done only indirectly, through the exhibition of some tangible, lasting results of the leisure so spent — in a manner analogous to the familiar exhibition of tangible, lasting products of the labour performed for the gentleman of leisure by handicraftsmen and servants in his employ.

In other words, as wealth grows while the old means of signalling status decline -- titles, castles, land, huge household staffs, banquets -- it's only so far that visible spending will get you. For the time that the well-off person is not engaged in conspicuous consumption (Veblen's famous coinage), he has to be able to show that, even then, he was consuming his leisure in a way that others with whom he's competing for status would have trouble replicating. 

Thus, for the upper middle class, summer is useless. The most visible manifestation of a leisurely summer is ... a tan. Which anyone can get, from a cheap holiday, or a bottle. Of course you could try to up the ante with the "beach bod," but that's a dangerous arena of competition for Bobos, because it's vulnerable to competition from other classes through luck, effort, or wealth, and in any event, increasingly prone to bourgeois guilt as a goal. 

As Ganesh indicates with a hygge example, winter is much, much better for conspicuous leisure than summer. All sorts of refined wealth signalling are possible through activities, decor and culture, more than access to sun alone will allow. 

The final, almost cosmic, irony is that it was those winter conspicuous leisure types who brought Coronavirus from the Alps to all over Europe, and beyond, and ruined summer for the rest of us. 

[Previously on Veblen: his "epic troll" (as the kids say) of dog owners]

Friday, July 24, 2020

Quote of the Day

Dr Ashish Jha, Harvard Global Health Institute, quoted in a Wall Street Journal article on how Europe has kept coronavirus under control compared to USA:

"When I look at Europe, there is no single, best way: There are lots of ways," he adds. "There is no magic formula, but they all begin with taking the virus seriously and not having debates about inane things."

Monday, July 20, 2020

A campaign foretold

New York Times, 1 September 2013 (yes, 2013), headline Campaign Journalism in the Age of Twitter by the great David Carr (died far too young, aged 58) --

What does this all mean for the next election? Liz Sidoti, national politics editor for The Associated Press, loves social media’s ability to reach and involve audiences, but she is less fond of what it is doing to the political press corps that is feeding the beast. “I worry that reporters are so busy looking after the bells and whistles that they need to on social media that they are not working as finders of fact, asking the tough questions and doing the analysis,” she told me. Mr. [Peter] Hamby suggested that politicians who came of age in the Twitter era — Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Martin O’Malley, Senator Marco Rubio and others — will have an advantage over Hillary Rodham Clinton, who relies on a command-and-control approach in which information is carefully doled out and any journalistic offenders are disciplined. “I wonder if the machinery of Clinton-world, the layers of staff and ’90s-era wise men, are prepared to deal with the next generation of Instagramming journalist, social media natives who fetishize authenticity,” he said.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

It's not over till it's over

New York Times, 6 November 2016. Yes, 2 days before the election:

And they [Trump campaign staff] know that his chances of winning the election are iffy: Perhaps their best hope, the F.B.I. inquiry into Mrs. Clinton’s email server, fizzled on Sunday with no charges or revelations. But they maintain that there is unseen money and muscle behind Mr. Trump’s political operation — and a level of sophistication that outsiders, and people who have run traditional campaigns, cannot fully appreciate. At times, however, that is hard to detect. Over a cheeseburger, fried calamari and an “Ivanka Salad” at the Trump Grill in the basement of Trump Tower last week, several aides flipped open a laptop and loaded the popular website 270towin.com, which allows users to create their own winning electoral maps. For 10 minutes, they clicked through the country, putting Democratic-leaning states won by Mr. Obama four years ago, like New Mexico and Colorado, into Mr. Trump’s column. Their analysis seemed more atmospheric than scientific. “You can go to Pennsylvania,” the campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, said, referring to a state that polls show favors Mrs. Clinton. “You can almost slice the excitement with a knife. You can feel it in the air there.” And even as early-voting returns indicated a surge for Mrs. Clinton, they tried to reassure themselves, over and over, that nobody finishes stronger than Mr. Trump, comparing the wisdom of his political judgments to Babe Ruth pointing his bat to the stands to predict where he would hit a home run. Back on his plane, heading into the campaign’s final weekend, Mr. Trump reclined in his leather chair and refused to entertain any suggestions that his unorthodox, unpredictable and now uncertain campaign for the presidency would end in defeat. “I’m going to win,” he said.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

That crazy guy who's spending all his money in San Antonio

As with the previous post, looking at how Trump was perceived as a candidate is ... interesting. Here's a summer 2016 New York Times discussion of how Republican insiders thought he was a lost cause and they need to conserve their money for Congressional races:

The party is in turn providing much of the fund-raising expertise and technological backbone, including up-to-date donor lists and systems that will send roughly a billion emails by Election Day. A third of the party’s digital team is now embedded at the San Antonio firm that formerly built websites for Mr. Trump’s properties and is now leading his campaign’s online efforts. Payments to that firm, Giles-Parscale, amounted to $8 million in July, most of which was paid out for online advertising to reach grass-roots supporters and donors, according to party officials. “The R.N.C. has built the most efficient and effective ground game in the party’s history,” said Lindsay Walters, a party spokeswoman. “No other campaign, committee or organization has been doing this for as long as we have. We are the infrastructure for the entire G.O.P. ticket. And the Trump campaign has embraced that.”

Giles-Parscale was the then obscure firm, identified by Jared Kushner and run by Brad Parscale, managing the campaign's digital strategy. Subsequent events made them look like geniuses. 

A kinder, gentler Tweeter

New York Times, 5 October 2015 --

Mr. Trump has called Arianna Huffington, the liberal website publisher, “unattractive both inside and out”; described Bette Midler as “extremely unattractive”; and declared that President Obama had guaranteed “you won’t see another black president for generations.” Asked about his judgment in sending those messages, he defended all but one: his mockery of Ms. [Kim] Novak. “I would have preferred I didn’t send it,” Mr. Trump said. “That was done in fun, but sometimes you do things in fun and they turn out to be hurtful, and I don’t like doing that.”

Friday, July 17, 2020

Electoral polarisation or polarising elections?

In last week's Polish presidential election runoff, Andrzej Duda got 10,440 648 votes and Rafal Trzaskowski got 10,018,263 votes. The percentages are 51-49. 

The explanation of this result concentrated on highly plausible factors like rural / urban, culture, party, and of course potential unfairness in terms of stance of state media and the incumbent government. 

But in fact, this knife edge result is strange. It's a bit remarkable that Poland is just 210,000 individual decisions apart on ostensibly fundamental issues (the number of voters that had they switched from Duda to Trzaskowski, it would have changed the result). 

The 2016 USA presidential election was even stranger, because of the thresholds caused by the electoral college. Looked at in terms of impact on electoral college margins, there were around 80,000 critical votes

In both countries, lots of people (around one-third in Poland and nearly one-half in USA) did not vote. 

So is it that Poland is really divided almost exactly 50:50 on the issues at play in the election, or that the election itself sets off its own dynamic that sorts the voting public (not the overall public) into these balances of power? 

We tend to think of elections as reflecting societal divisions, which they certainly do. But the messier possibility is that elections aggravate them. The median voter may be a very noise-susceptible voter. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Quote of the Day

A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. 

Roland Barthes, The Face of Garbo (1957). 

They Know

New York Times, evening of 10 July

Friday, July 10, 2020

Farewell then, Russian bounty "scandal"

Re-upping our April post on the futility of outrage cycles based on upstream intelligence.  Trump is a horrible president. We don't need partial leaks of fragmentary intelligence to insider reporters looking for red meat to toss to Putin-phobic rolling news audiences to know that. 

How others see us

Peter Beinart's much-discussed Jewish Currents article in which he converts himself to a one-state solution for Israel / Palestine --

The reasoning is intuitive. In divided societies, people are more likely to rebel when they lack a nonviolent way to express their grievances. Between 1969 and 1994, when Protestants and the British government marginalized Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) killed more than 1,750 people. When the Good Friday Agreement enabled Catholics to fully participate in government, the IRA’s violence largely stopped.

Adopting this terminology, Catholic participation in government was implemented in 1973-74 ("Sunningdale") but was done in by Unionist opposition and a weak Labour government that wouldn't stand up to them. The edifice collapsed and was painstakingly rebuilt first through a renewed acceptance by Britain of a role for Ireland in Northern Ireland (the Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985) and then through the GFA to which Beinart refers -- which was Sunningdale 2.0.

The issue was not the lack of mechanism for marginalized Catholics to participate in the political system. There were many issues, among them opportunism and cynicism within (not between) the communities, the reluctance of Britain to deliver what it had committed, and the reticence of Ireland to trigger a disastrous conflict. By 1997, the blockers and spoilers of 1974 and 1985 were the ones doing the deal to share power, and the violence tapered off. But that was less about a novel formula to share power, and more about the right circumstances for a deal that had been available for 25 years. That analogy leads the Israel / Palestine discussion in a very different direction. 

How others see us

Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung doesn't hesitate to use class descriptions of Irish politics, the context being Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe elected as president of the group of eurozone finance ministers --

Der 45-jährige Politiker der bürgerlichen Partei Fine Gael ist seit Juni 2017 Finanzminister seines Landes und war vorher unter anderem Verkehrs- und Europaminister.

bürgerlichen means bourgeois.

If it's any consolation, they describe Fianna Fáil the same way. 

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

In case you're wondering who orders those really expensive wines

Wall Street Journal on Wirecard #2 Jan Marsalek:

 In the early 2010s, he celebrated a personal business success with an extravagant lunch in Munich, asking the sommelier to open dozens of high-end wine bottles for a taste, according to a friend who attended. The bill was more than €100,000 ($112,000). 

Saturday, July 04, 2020

There is always a Tweet

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Coronavirus: why the advice on masks was botched

Because from February to April, the public policy elites who opposed universal mask wearing could not overcome their class consciousness.  They thought that if they advised everyone to wear masks, there would be a frenzy of infeasible N95 mask demand.  Because that's what their upper middle class circle would do. In fact,  cloth masks emerged on their own, and saved far more lives than the elite focus on ventilators. 

Friday, June 26, 2020


Frank Lampard (Snr), right, headed out on the field at Maine Road, Manchester City's ground, 21 March 1970, when West Ham stunned City who were otherwise having a fabulous season.

Frank's son, Frank, oversaw Chelsea's defeat of Manchester City last night, handing the title to Liverpool. The arc of history is ... weird. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Song in Honour of the latest DNA research findings about Newgrange

Side note: let's check back in 2 years as to how many of the media-friendly extrapolations about who is buried in the Boyne Valley neolithic tombs have stood up to scrutiny. It may be an Irish Pharaoh, but as the song says, it was hundreds of years before the dawn of history, and nobody know who they were or what they were doing. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

He's read 25 books about Saudi Arabia

The Financial Times on West Bank annexation:

 "Netanyahu was surprised to hear how angry he [King Salman] was," says one foreign ministry official. "He had been told by Kushner that the Saudis were under control." 

Dictator loses election

That's the New York Times print edition for 17 June. Someone maybe realized that with the original decree powers having been proclaimed by elites as the end of democracy in Hungary, a headline saying that the end of the decree period was the end of democracy might be a stretch. So the current web headline is Hungary Moves to End Rule by Decree, but Orban’s Powers May Stay.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Why do Trump's past tweets predict his current behaviour?

A film plot:

A post-Apocalyptic future, caused by the presidency of Donald Trump. A desperate band of survivors builds a time portal where a message can be sent back before November 2016 to warn us about Donald Trump.

The problem: the portal is not for people. It has to be a piece of code, programming, a virus (if you will). And because of the Apocalypse, the only device for which our future heroes have the needed coordinates is ... Donald Trump's iPhone. 

So the message that is sent back in time is a series of Tweets appearing to come from Trump, but in fact are the warnings to our 2013-16 selves about what a future President Trump would do. 

But just like in The Terminator, the future forces of evil are not idle. They too can send back one piece of code to foil the plot to avert our disastrous future.

That code is ... a leak of Hillary Clinton's e-mails. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Friday afternoon quality post

[Previously in this series]

The New York City disaster

The Wall Street Journal has a superbly-reported story on what went wrong with the Coronavirus response in New York City and State. It's subscription only and we're not excerpting. You'll come away with a very different perspective (worse) of Andrew Cuomo than you might have had from media coverage; your perspective on Bill de Blasio will be about as bad as you would have expected. The article should also be another nail in the coffin of the Spring 2020 ventilator hype -- as it explains, ventilators were at best a red herring, and at worst, might have actually killed people, because they were pushed into use without adequate staffing, supplies, or knowledge of how best to use them for patients that already had very poor odds by that point.