Sunday, April 21, 2019

When memories were fresh

Richard Nixon was referred to in grand jury documents as an "unindicted co-conspirator." He was unindicted because the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel had issued an opinion that a sitting president could not be charged with a crime. That Justice Department policy (it is not a law) remains in effect to this day.

When Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski turned his findings over to Congress, his documentation was referred to as a "road map" for congressional action. The "road map" was a meticulous legal account of Nixon's transgressions which laid out the way forward in pursuit of constitutional remedies that were unavailable to Jaworski.

That still-effective OLC policy determined how Robert Mueller decided to proceed with his own investigation and convey his findings. Mueller wrote in his report that

"we determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes."

Mueller explained that

"a traditional prosecution or declination decision entails a binary determination to initiate or decline a prosecution, but we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment"

because, in part,

"[t]he Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has issued an opinion finding that 'the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions' in violation of  'the constitutional separation of powers.'"

Mueller's explanation sheds useful light on the report's saying that

"[i]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of  justice, we would so state. We are unable to reach such a judgment."

It does not take a lot of reading between the lines to suspect that Mueller believes that crimes were in fact committed, especially when one reads the exhaustive legal case he lays out for specific examples of obstruction by Trump—in addition to his belaboring the reasons he could not bring charges. I hope Mueller wouldn't object to such a reading. Mueller's case, in its detail, presentation, and analysis, can be rightly viewed as a "road map" for further action that Mueller himself is unable to take.

At a minimum, Mueller deemed it important to establish a definitive record, not least because other remedies are available that could benefit from it.

"Given those considerations, the facts known to us, and the strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of the criminal justice system, we conducted a thorough factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available."

What other remedies are available which would benefit from preservation "of the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available?" Impeachment, of course. But also, in due course, prosecution:

"The OLC opinion also recognizes that a President does not have immunity after he leaves office."

A president may be prosecuted for previous crimes once he's no longer in office. His not being in office can be a result of impeachment and removal, or merely having his term expire. Richard Nixon could have been prosecuted after he resigned, except that Gerald Ford pardoned him. And Bill Clinton could have been prosecuted after his term ended, except he reached a settlement with prosecutors on his final day in office. That settlement involved his paying a fine and having his law license revoked.

Because being in office confers immunity, Trump has a strong incentive to win reelection.

Mueller is walking a very fine line, which itself raises difficulties, but it's the best he can do. He notes that

"[f]airness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that  judgment [of criminality] when no charges can be brought. The ordinary means for an individual to respond to an accusation is through a speedy and public trial, with all the procedural protections that surround a criminal case. An individual who believes he was wrongly accused can use that process to seek to clear his name. In contrast, a prosecutor's judgment that crimes were committed, but that no charges will be brought, affords no such adversarial opportunity for public name-clearing before an impartial adjudicator."

Again, when Mueller belabors in such detail what he could not or should not do, it suggests what he would otherwise like to do, were circumstances different.

It's even more delicate when a president is involved:

"The concerns about the fairness of such a determination would be heightened in the case of a sitting President, where a federal prosecutor's accusation of a crime, even in an internal report, could carry consequences that extend beyond the realm of criminal justice."


Having a special counsel's accusation hanging over his head would place the president in an untenable position relative to the duties of his office, so no accusation was made. And yet, the evidence laid out is serious and perhaps damning, and goes some way toward the compromise of the president that Mueller seeks to avoid. As I said, it's an unavoidably fine line that Mueller walks.

Mueller noted that even a sealed indictment (to be unsealed when the president leaves office) was deemed unworkable for fear that it would become public. His multiple explanations for why no charges were brought, and that the president was not exonerated, is a strong indication that in his opinion crimes were committed. But the remedy is not with Mueller, but rather elsewhere.

So what Mueller delivers is a "road map" to allow the constitutional system to run its proper course, offering this observation:

"The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law."

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Here we go again

Stop me if you've heard this one ...

Donald Trump said in an interview with the Washington Post that his health care plan to replace Obamacare was nearly complete. It will be a great plan—both better and cheaper than Obamacare. And every child will get a pony.

Everybody will get great coverage: "We’re going to have insurance for everybody," Trump said. Everybody! "There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us." Excellent.

The insurance will be "much" simpler, "much" less expensive, and "much" better. Because when Republicans do health insurance, better and less expensive no longer pull in opposite directions. Consumers will see "lower numbers, much lower deductibles." Trump said he wants "to be able to take care of people," and that everybody will be "beautifully covered." Even though that might sound like single payer, Trump said that's not what he's advocating.

This remarkable plan is almost ready to go. "It’s very much formulated down to the final strokes," Trump said. "We haven’t put it in quite yet but we’re going to be doing it soon."

But Republican legislators who would have to deliver on Trump's promises are plenty worried. They know that no such plan exists, even though they've had many, many years to be working on one. They can do repeal, but replacement is another matter entirely. Replacement along the lines of Trump's promises is a pipe dream.

All this was from January 2017, shortly before Trump's inauguration.

Now we're hearing it again. At the president's insistence, the Trump Justice Department has said not only will it not defend the Affordable Care Act in court, but also that the entire law should be invalidated. A judge in Texas has ruled that the law is unconstitutional now that the individual mandate has been removed—by Republicans, you will recall. The Justice Department reluctantly agrees. I say "reluctantly" because the attorney general and the HHS secretary are opposed to invalidating the ACA, but Trump and Mick Mulvaney overruled them.

Invalidation of the Affordable Care Act will require action by higher courts, of course. Trump says not to worry about its demise. In fact, he wants the courts to sweep the whole thing away.

When that happens, says the president, Republicans will be ready with their own plan. Of course they will. They could take that great plan from January 2017 off the shelf. Not the one they eventually went with, but the beautiful plan of Trump's imagination.

Trump now says he wants the GOP to be "the party of health care." Just as at the beginning of Trump's presidency, congressional Republicans are bewildered. Bewildered because they're not working on health care at all, and because their previous attempts have not been salutary.

It was obvious in January 2017 that Trump had no idea what he was talking about as he was making his grandiose promises. A month later he allowed that "nobody knew health care could be so complicated." In fact, just about everybody but Trump knew. For some unexplained reason Trump didn't get it that Republicans never wanted to provide great health care to everybody. Had they wanted to, they certainly did not know how. They just wanted to repeal Obamacare.

They got their best chance in mid-2017, under united Republican rule. In May of that year, Republican lawmakers celebrated in the White House Rose Garden after the House voted very narrowly to repeal the ACA. Trump gushed that the House bill was "incredibly well crafted" and a "great plan," even as it was projected to cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their health insurance. Later Trump said the House bill was "mean, mean, mean," and encouraged the Senate to pass a bill that was "more generous." As usual, the clueless president was finding things out on the fly. And as usual, Republican legislators weren't interested in being "generous."

The Senate bill was an ugly duckling birthed in turmoil: a so-called "skinny repeal" that would have left large portions of the ACA intact and required difficult negotiations with the House. All this floundering ultimately ended with John McCain's iconic "thumbs down" on the Senate floor, which derailed Republican efforts until they were able to repeal the individual mandate as part the 2017 tax bill later that fall. The tax bill was itself passed without any Democratic support under budget reconciliation rules, and without a single committee hearing.

Despite this messy history, Trump has doubled down, without consultation with Republican legislators, and once again to their great consternation. In the 2018 midterms Democrats retook the House with a gain of 40 seats, in large part thanks to concerns of the electorate over healthcare. So naturally Trump wants to touch that hot stove again. Doing so could be a useful test.

Useful because these latest developments might yield a strong clue about the enduring gullibility (or not) of the American electorate, and its insensate susceptibility to repetitious nonsensical propaganda. Fool me—how many times? Will we keep falling for the same old scam, over and over? The midterm results suggest we might not.

In February 2017, Trump said: "We have a plan that I think is going to be fantastic. It's going to be released fairly soon. I think it's going to be something special ... I think you're going to like what you hear." At the time he was freelancing, making things up without any understanding, just like now.  There was no such plan. And nobody liked what they heard.

Here we go again? Let's.

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

This just in

The Bureau of Economic Analysis has finally released the GDP numbers for 2018. The report had been delayed due to the partial government shutdown.

Many headlines were like this one: "U.S. economy grew faster than expected in Q4."

The better "than expected" result for Q4 was 2.6 percent. Well, ok. But here's what I wrote in my previous post, on February 6, before the release:

Trump's big hurrah was 4.1 percent GDP growth in Q2 of last year. That was a one-off result that followed from a confluence of factors that won't be repeated. The growth rate has subsequently declined, and is expected to continue declining significantly going forward. Q3 came in at 3.4 percent. Q4 could be a little under 3 percent. (Apparently the Q4 report has been delayed thanks to Trump's partial government shutdown.) For all of 2018, GDP growth should be approximately 3 percent, which is solid but hardly breathtaking.

The GDP growth for all of 2018 came in at either 2.9 percent or 3.1 percent, depending on which way you do the calculations. I said the rate for the year "should be approximately 3 percent."

 [Update 2019-03-28 - It turns out 2.6 percent fourth quarter growth was indeed too high. The Bureau of Economic Analysis has revised it down to 2.2 percent in their third estimate. GDP growth for the year remains unchanged. The fourth quarter's weakness has apparently continued into Q1 of 2019, which was expected.]

The official headline GDP number for 2018 was 2.9 percent, which exactly equals Obama's best year, 2015. If you use the alternative methodology that gives 3.1 percent for 2018, then 2015's rate becomes 3.8 percent. So Trump either matches, or significantly under-performs, Obama. Your choice. GDP growth for 2017, Trump's first year in office, was 2.2 percent.

In my previous post (you really ought to read it) I quoted Trump from his State of the Union Address: "An economic miracle is taking place in the United States," said the president. The title of my post was "Keeping Trump honest," which is a never ending task.

"In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom, a boom that has rarely been seen before," said the president in his speech. "There has been nothing like it," Trump said.

The Q4 numbers, and thus the year's, are subject to further revision.

As I've previously said, with respect to GDP it's all down hill from here. The best year of Trump's presidency is already behind him. GDP growth is expected to be much lower this year than last, and anemic over the coming decade. Some miracle.

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Keeping Trump honest

Donald Trump has narrowed but not closed the job creation gap I've previously written about between himself and his predecessor. Trump has created a little less than 4.9 million jobs over his first full 24 months in office, for a monthly average of 203,000. (Update: Trump's monthly average sank to 196,000 with the February 2019 jobs report. Only 20,000 jobs were added in the most recent month.) Which isn't bad. Barack Obama created almost 5.1 million over his final 24 months, for a monthly average of 212,000. Obama's monthly average over his final 5 years in office was 207,000.

Dishonest as always, in his State of the Union address Trump claimed 5.3 million new jobs, but as usual he's counting from the election and thus stealing some of Obama's jobs. Even if we give them to him it doesn't help his monthly average, but it would bump Obama's average up to 221,000. Whatever. That's assuming 27 months for both presidents.

Do your own calculations. It's fun. Here are the latest monthly numbers back to 2009. Click on the table that follows, and the graphs below, for a larger view.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

And here's a graph of the unemployment rate over the past decade:

Source: St. Louis Fed

Never mind that slight uptick at the end. These things happen, and anyway increases in the unemployment rate can sometimes represent positive developments, such as previously discouraged individuals electing to look for a job, thereby re-entering the workforce after a long absence. Trump is still correct that the rate is the lowest in quite some time, but as always he takes liberties with the truth when he said in his address that "unemployment has reached the lowest rate in over half a century."

It hasn't. Today's rate is 4 percent. The lowest rate of the Trump presidency was 3.7 percent last November. The rate in April, 1969, was 3.4 percent, three tenths of a percent better than Trump's best. That was not quite 49 years ago. Oh, and the rate was 3.8 percent in April of 2000, less than two decades ago. Follow the links in the graphs' captions and do your own analysis. You can put in any date ranges you want. Run your mouse pointer over the graph on the Fed's web site and it'll tell you the exact rate for particular months.

Source: St. Louis Fed

Looking at the graphs, you'd be excused for thinking Trump simply rode the downward momentum of Obama's long steady decline in the unemployment rate; that of course the rate was bound to keep falling, and in any case the graphs show Trump hasn't done anything to alter the trajectory prevailing when he took office.

Except if you squint you'll notice that the curve has flattened slightly under Trump, which means the decline has actually slowed a tiny bit. To be fair, that is what you'd expect as the economy approaches full employment. But there is simply no point on the graphs that shows Trump doing anything other than continuing the unemployment reduction achieved by Obama, while slightly under-performing his predecessor in terms of raw numbers of jobs and in the slope of the unemployment rate curve. As I've said before, in a lot of ways this is still Obama's economy.

The point here is not about dissing Trump's economy. Rather, it's to keep Trump honest—a never ending duty that musn't be shirked. Trump wants you (well, not you but—let's be blunt—his information-challenged base) to think he came in and turned things around, when what he actually did was keep things more or less rolling along as they'd being going for quite some time.

So honesty is the objective. We must reject self-aggrandizing hyperbole which shades into propaganda. Hyperbole and propaganda such as this: "An economic miracle is taking place in the United States," said the president Tuesday night in the well of the House. That's what he says now, but candidate Trump didn't think Obama's economy was miraculous, even though Obama created more than 10 million jobs in his second term, the one abutting Trump's. As I said, Obama averaged 207,000 per month over his final 60 months.

Trump wants to claim he's done something remarkable. "In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom, a boom that has rarely been seen before," said the president in his speech. "There has been nothing like it." [my emphasis]

Which is both false and laughable. By what metric is Trump's economy "unprecedented," and in what sense has he achieved a "boom?" (Funny: Trump's "boom" is reminiscent of his Electoral College "landslide.") Not in job creation, as we have seen, where he's been late to the party, taking unwarranted credit for what he was given. What about GDP growth?

Trump's big hurrah was 4.1 percent GDP growth in Q2 of last year. That was a one-off result that followed from a confluence of factors that won't be repeated. The growth rate has subsequently declined, and is expected to continue declining significantly going forward. Q3 came in at 3.4 percent. Q4 could be a little under 3 percent. (Apparently the Q4 report has been delayed thanks to Trump's partial government shutdown.) For all of 2018, GDP growth should be approximately 3 percent, which is solid but hardly breathtaking.

Obama's best year was 2.9 percent in 2015, as the economy was still digging out of depression. Obama's best quarters saw 4.5, 4.7 and 5.1 percent growth, but those occurred in a time of great volatility and were thus accompanied by very weak quarters as well.

The most recent example of a true boom was in the 90's under Bill Clinton: 1994 - 4 percent; 1995 - 2.7 percent; 1996 - 3.8 percent; 1997 - 4.5 percent; 1998 - 4.5 percent; 1999 - 4.7 percent; 2000 4.1 percent. That was a pretty good run. Even George W. Bush had years of 3.8 and 3.3 percent GDP growth. Trump's best year is worse that those, and is already behind him.

Indeed, Goldman Sachs downgraded its GDP forecast for 2019 to just 2.1 percent. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts GDP growth of 2.3 percent this year, and 1.7 percent next year. Last year the CBO forecast annual GDP growth of just 1.9 percent through 2028.

Some miracle. Some boom.

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

That's a technical term

Columnist Roger Cohen directs us to what he calls a "seminal" essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt entitled "On Bullshit." The essay was published in book form in 2005 to considerable acclaim.

Despite the frivolous sounding title, Frankfurt's essay was, in the words of Quinta Jurecic writing in the Lawfare blog, actually a serious treatment of "moral and epistemological philosophy."

Cohen referred to Jurecic's own essay, which was written a couple of months prior to Donald Trump's inauguration. Jurecic's essay is a significant work in its own right, and important.

You might think she and I are pulling your leg when I tell you her essay includes the sentence: "But Trump’s victory forces us to consider what it means for the president himself to be, as it were, full of bullshit." But we are not.

Jurecic is deadly serious, as was Frankfurt before her. And Lawfare is a serious venue that considers deep legal and constitutional matters.

Whereas Frankfurt wrote years before Trump's ascendancy, Jurecic's piece was written after Trump's election. She wonders how a "bullshit" (according to Frankfurt's meaning) president-elect can possibly situate his presidency inside a framework that understands the law as "a highly systematized structure of meaning used to evaluate the merit and relevance of facts and arguments," and to render consequential rulings based on them. It's an important question when you consider that neither facts, nor meaning derived from them, figure prominently in Trump's own epistemology.

And how he can "take care" that the laws be "faithfully executed," as the Constitution requires?

"Is it actually possible for a bullshitter to 'take care' or to act 'faithfully' in the execution of the law?" Jurecic wonders.

Treat yourself to some serious reflection by reading and pondering Jurecic's essay.

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Death of Expertise

My friend eyed the books on the end table and asked if they were mine. I said they were. Are they any good? he asked. Maybe he was just making polite conversation.

The one I'd just finished was The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols, a lifelong Republican, and professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Its subtitle is "The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters." Much has recently been written by well-known intellectuals about our being in a "post truth" society. Such commentators include former CIA and NSA director and retired Air Force general Michael Hayden, among many. Hayden recently wrote The Assault on Intelligence, subtitled "American National Security in an Age of Lies." I wonder if he intended the title to be a pun.

Hayden opens his book about our "age of lies" with lies by President Trump—lies that were publicly repudiated in Congressional testimony by Trump's own FBI director and NSA director. Even Rex Tillerson warned, in a commencement address, about "alternative realities," an obvious rebuke of the president who had recently fired him (by tweet, of course). The term is reminiscent of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway's reference to "alternative facts," which set an early anti-truth tone for the new administration as a follow-on to a mendacious Trump campaign. Because the adjective "alternative" does great damage to the word "fact," Conway's unfortunate pairing of them aptly illustrated the strained relationship between the administration and empirical reality. To say the relationship remains strained is a gross understatement. Trump himself, who famously rejects all manner of expertise, has continual difficulty with the truth on a scale unprecedented in the American presidency.

So the problem pervades top to bottom, and all the way through. Nowadays many of us, from the president on down, have a profound difficulty understanding what is real. That's in large part because we no longer listen to experts, and because many of us don't know how to gauge expertise. Too many seek "experts" who tell them what they want to hear rather than what is objectively true. Increasingly, experts are even disparaged as "elites;" their learning somehow makes them worthy of disdain, as if we imagine they think they're better than everybody else. Unfortunately, ours is an age not just of lies but of intellectual egalitarianism, where facts are reduced to opinions, and one opinion is as good as any other. On top of all that, there's a generalized ignorance about almost everything, despite whole libraries of knowledge at our fingertips, and a serious deficit of critical thinking skills to go with it. All told it's a pretty dismal picture.

Nichols discusses in successive chapters what he sees as primary causes of society's disdain of expertise, but for me the most important point was just his affirmation of the disturbing new intellectual landscape as I've been observing it, where objective fact is continually subordinated to poorly informed opinion in our discourse. No longer do we have mutually agreed touchstones against which to gauge claims of fact and construct a common understanding of reality.

I highlighted this failure in my most recent blog post, about the Republican tax cuts of a year ago, where expertise—such as from economists, the Congressional Budget Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation—was utterly ignored in favor of an irrational, unsupported belief that tax cuts in some overriding sense pay for themselves.

This way of thinking constitutes a sort of Republican tax cut "religion" that takes precedence over genuine expertise. Such rejection of expertise was demonstrated with the legislation in question by the complete absence of congressional hearings, where experts would normally be asked to present their analysis prior to passage of such an important law—a law, after all, which massively and fundamentally overhauled the U.S. tax code. Such lack of hearings and public debate is almost unthinkable: an abdication of legislative responsibility and certainly of regular order. Everywhere you look, including in government, the norms of intellectual inquiry are breaking down.

Republican leaders, who already "knew" everything they needed to know as a matter of faith, weren't interested in anything an actual expert had to say about their tax cuts. In fact, they did everything possible to suppress expert judgement, such as the CBO scoring required by law and which would have been front and center had any hearings been held. Even so, the relevant authorities such as CBO and JCT, though shut out of congressional deliberations, projected the tax law would add around $1.5 trillion to the national debt over 10 years—a debt which Republicans previously claimed to abhor.

And so it has happened that in one short year under the new tax law the deficit has exploded, with corporate tax receipts down a jaw-dropping $92 billion over the previous year despite a growing economy. (Think how many of Trump's walls that would pay for.) Corporations were the single largest beneficiaries of the tax law.

So expertise, which elucidates objective reality and provides a best-available explanation of things we've learned, is having a pretty rough go of it. Even so, you'd presumably still want the most expert radiologist to read your CT scan, and the most expert geologist if you're going to drill oil and gas wells, and the most highly trained and experienced engineers to design your jet airplane. Funny how we don't rely on intuition and opinion and "common sense" when it comes to our aircraft.

Such special cases aside, expertise of all sorts is routinely discounted, a symptom of the epidemic of the credulous ignorance and irrationality ravaging modern society. Which is pretty ironic when you consider that we got to be "modern" by cultivating expertise and thinking rationally. Amidst all the learned knowledge that's available to all, many of us now routinely dismiss experts in favor of our own uninformed opinions and prejudices—typically dictated by our tribe, and poured into our heads with our own acquiescence and even invitation—on the most important and (indulge me) most interesting questions of our time.

Questions such as climate change, of course. Death panels. (Have you met with yours yet?) Or the risk/reward calculation on vaccines, which experts tell us overwhelmingly works out in favor of reward. The age of the universe: 13.8 billion years. Of our own solar system: 4.6 billion. Evolution through natural selection, the foundational principle of modern biology.

Questions such as the prevalence of in-person voter fraud, which experts, who have studied the matter repeatedly, say is essentially non-existent in the U.S. (The current president suggested there were 3 million illegal votes in 2016, all for his opponent, and by remarkable coincidence the exact number by which he lost the popular vote. His short-lived commission headed by the vice president and conspiracy theorist Kris Kobach went looking for those votes, but quickly disbanded without issuing a report.)

Questions such as whether there are Ebola-infected terrorists swarming across our southern border: a concern primarily, it seems, of Fox News viewers. (Those alleged swarms notwithstanding, there has not been a single credible demonstration that either Ebola or terrorists have ever crossed the southern border.) About whether any material agreement has been negotiated with North Korea on nuclear disarmament. And questions about the fiscal and macroeconomic effects of tax cuts.

I'll add one more, for the Catholics with whom I sometimes argue: the non-existence of the historical papacy in the first few centuries of the Church, as affirmed even by the most esteemed and expert Catholic scholars.

On the question of the early papacy, a Catholic friend complained quite literally that I was bringing "experts" (his word!) such as historians into a matter that is rightly resolved by Church "teaching." Which is to say by faith. At least in some spheres we're supposed to divine even historical happenings by faith—evidence and reason notwithstanding. My friend's objection succinctly illustrates why our discussion was doomed, thanks to an irreconcilable understanding of what constitutes authority on empirical questions. If only we could confine the problem to matters of pure religion, and set it aside as a one-off human evolutionary quirk that stands apart from other kinds of understanding, then perhaps all would not be so dire.

But we can't, it seems. A lot of us fundamentally don't know how to think, and that deficit of thinking pollutes everything. But why? Nichols has some ideas, and he describes the failures of certain important institutions such as higher education, journalism, even experts themselves. Whatever the reason, critical thinking skills are sorely needed but mostly absent. Tribalism is ascendant. "Motivated reasoning" and "confirmation bias" derail rational thought and logical analysis. Myths proliferate wildly over the Internet to a dim and undiscriminating populace; apparently the intellectual gatekeepers of yore were more crucial than we realized. Facts are waved away, reduced to a smorgasbord of opinions, from which you can pick whichever you prefer to construct your own version of reality.

So this is where we've come: reality itself is up for grabs. Unfortunately for the weak-minded, and thus for all of us bound together by societal institutions (not least democracy), the ability to reason logically is prerequisite to understanding that a world where facts are fungible is a world where objective reality doesn't exist. What an unfortunate place to be.

Happy New Year

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Give more money to rich people

The year was 2011. Even though job creation had finally turned positive in the U.S. after the bloodletting of the Great Recession, the country's and world's economy was still depressed, and would remain so for years. Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman's book End This Depression Now! would not be published for another year, and his advice would not be taken. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz warned it would be many years—a decade all told—before the economy returned to normal. And so it was. Depressions are like that, especially if left unattended.

So naturally Republicans in the Congress back then were fixated on the debt. Majority leader Eric Cantor even tied the debt to the depressed economy, but by getting cause and effect exactly backwards. Cantor bizarrely suggested the debt caused the depression, or at least exacerbated and prolonged it, not the other way around. As economics it was absurd. Which is to say: exactly what you'd expect from a Republican politician.

Krugman recently posted a very short essay in which he notes that U.S. "fiscal policy has been off the rails since 2010, not because of what it has done to the national debt, but because of what it has done to the macroeconomy." (Fiscal policy refers to things like government spending, borrowing, and tax policy, whereas monetary policy refers to the interest rate setting and money supply functions of the Federal Reserve.)

"Here’s what fiscal policy should do," Krugman writes. "It should support demand when the economy is weak, and it should pull that support back when the economy is strong. As John Maynard Keynes said, 'The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.' And up until 2010 the U.S. more or less followed that prescription. Since then, however, fiscal policy has become perverse: first austerity despite high unemployment, now expansion despite low unemployment." This perverse policy has coincided with Republican control of the House and later the full Congress.

Back in 2012, Krugman's prescription to End This Depression Now! included ending the austerity insanity driven by deficit hysteria that was keeping the economy depressed far longer than need be. A weak economy is precisely when government spending financed by borrowing is called for, because the government is uniquely able to make up some of the sorely needed demand that's missing from the economy as the private sector pulls back. In other words, the government can buy things when nobody else can or will, keeping businesses solvent and workers employed while the economy heals. This is textbook economics.

By contrast, the Republican prescription is for the government to cut spending at the same time as the private sector, leading to deeper cycles of economic weakness. One reason this is perverse is that the resulting downward spiral leads to even less business activity and more layoffs, and so even less government revenue. If that weren't bad enough, the layoffs lead to higher outlays for things like food assistance and unemployment insurance. So the deficit increases from both ends by the very act of trying to contain it by cutting spending. As economist Brad DeLong noted in 2013, "the debt-to-annual-GDP ratio has a denominator as well as a numerator," an observation you should ponder until  you understand its implication.

Adding insult to injury, such economic disintegration delays recovery and reduces future economic output relative to what it otherwise would have been, which impacts government revenues and thus debt over the long term. The crucial need for government deficit spending is one of the many unpleasant but unavoidable realities of a very weak economy.

But now, in 2018, with the economy near full employment, a very economically strange thing happened: Republicans passed a large tax cut, providing massive fiscal stimulus at a time when, according to Krugman and Keynes, the economic support should be pulled back, not expanded.

The tax cut is not just backwards as a matter of economics; it's also horrible as a matter of fiscal policy. That huge tax cut will add at least $1.5 trillion to the debt over a decade, at a time when that debt will do little good and much harm. Consider, for example, that with the labor market already tight, deficit spending now will "buy" far fewer jobs than it would in a depressed economy with high unemployment.

To restate, deficit spending is called for in a weak economy, not a strong one. Already the deficit has exploded in the wake of the tax cut—even as economic growth has been solid. A strong economy should generate more tax revenues and drive the deficit lower, but the opposite is actually happening. This is quite unprecedented.

So Keynes tells us the government should run deficits when the economy is weak, and should balance its budget or run surpluses when the economy is strong. Republicans, in word and deed, unfailingly say the government should practice fiscal austerity when the economy is weak and desperately needs stimulus, and should be fiscally profligate when the economy is strong and doesn't need it.

This is economic and fiscal malpractice. It should also put the lie, once and forever (how many times does that need to be said?), to the the notion that Republicans are innately and fundamentally averse to deficits. As their actual behavior under Reagan, Bush the younger, and now Trump demonstrates, Republicans only hate deficits when a Democrat is president. The myth of Republican fiscal conservatism has been carefully cultivated for decades, but it is complete nonsense.

Krugman concludes that, "now, with unemployment very low but a Republican in the White House, we’re getting the fiscal stimulus we desperately needed then – and don’t need now. Fiscal policy, like so much of governance in America, has been perverted by right-wing partisanship."

Economist Dean Baker notes that it's been almost a year since the Republican tax cut and there's been no sign of the promised business investment boom. That's a big oops.

It's a problem in part because it is a longstanding matter of Republican religion that tax cuts pay for themselves by stimulating business investment sufficiently to grow the economy and generate offsetting tax revenues. That claim has always been economic fantasy, akin to belief in a sort of free lunch or perpetual motion machine.

But the claim continues to be made. In promoting the tax cuts, Mitch McConnell said, "I’m totally confident this is a revenue neutral bill. Actually a revenue producer." A revenue producer! That despite CBO and JCT projections of a huge increase in debt as a result  of the cuts—projections which are already coming true.

This is what happens when you don't listen to experts—a pathology that's endemic on the ideological right. Which ought to be a parable for all kinds of ignorance in these troubled times. Pick almost any subject or question and you will find Republicans occupying the side opposite the experts.

On the present topic, the tax cuts are in fact already very revenue negative. McConnell might have been adequately forewarned had he allowed committee hearings and expert testimony on the tax bill consistent with "regular order" and proper legislative practice. Astoundingly, there were none.

Baker says if we've not seen any whiff of the promised investment growth by now, it probably won't materialize. "Cuts in corporate tax rates are not an effective way to boost investment," Baker says. "They are an effective way to give more money to rich people." Which, in the end, is what Republicanism is fundamentally all about.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Waving at Volcanoes

Talk to climate change skeptics and you will notice a couple of themes that arise with some regularity, notions to which they reliably but confusedly turn to advance their case: ice ages and volcanoes.

Despite not understanding them, skeptics presume these phenomena somehow demonstrate that humans can't or don't materially affect the climate; that human effects are swamped by natural ones. Yet the reasoning behind such presumption is so inchoate and ill informed that the skeptic can do little more than offer it as a "handwave," as if the case were made implicitly by mere mention, without any need to explain more.

In the first instance, ice ages are imagined to be imponderably immense forces of nature that demonstrate natural climactic variability far beyond any effect mere humans might have. A planet subjected to periodic ice ages needn't worry about the trifling things people are doing. To the climate change skeptic, this is self-evident. One acquaintance of mine is convinced we don't know what causes ice ages, and so by implication we don't understand climate generally. Although he might not, "we" most certainly do, on both counts. Which suggests that the first order of business is to learn some things.

Not only do we know what causes ice ages, but we also know the relative strength of the natural climate "forcings" that instigate them. And hard as it may be to believe without a little elucidation, we know that natural forcings that instigate ice ages are extremely weak compared to the anthropogenic (human-caused) forcings that are now heating the planet. Not only do ice ages not refute anthropogenic climate change, but studying ice ages has considerable explanatory value in understanding what the climate is doing in the present, and why we are changing it so dramatically.

So we should stop waving at ice ages and actually learn something about them. Same for volcanoes.

The handwave at volcanoes usually goes something like this. Anthropogenic climate change is said to be caused by emissions of greenhouse gasses—particularly carbon dioxide—through the burning of fossil fuels. But volcanoes, which are completely natural, emit far more CO2 than humans. So humans can't be causing global warming.

Of course you see the fallacy in this formulation. A moment of critical reflection informs you that what matters is not whether humans emit more or less CO2 than volcanoes, but whether the increment added by humans—whatever volcanoes also emit—is altering the climate. If the climate is stable with volcanoes, but unstable with volcanoes plus humans, then humans cause the instability.

Volcanoes, after all, have been a geological feature of the planet for billions of years, erupting and (presumably) emitting CO2 all that time. It would be pretty dumb to blame volcanoes for very recent developments unless they've become unusually active. Have they? The climate change skeptic who mentions volcanoes has no idea.

So if volcanoes emit CO2, and CO2 causes warming, and to the extent the climate has been stable, there must be other physical processes that offset or counteract emissions from volcanoes and keep the planet from becoming ever hotter. We might, for example, hypothesize that some physical process removes CO2 from the atmosphere, even as volcanoes are adding it, with the two operating concurrently to keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations (and thus climate) fairly constant. And indeed, the carbon cycle consists of processes that move CO2 between various reservoirs, including the atmosphere, the ocean, and deep earth reservoirs. Rock weathering is an important mechanism for moving CO2 from the atmosphere to deep reservoirs over geologic time scales.

Now it turns out that the climate has not been stable over very long periods of tens to hundreds of millions of years. But in the present context, and for the current discussion, we can presume stability. The longer term variations are interesting and reasonably well understood, but worrying about them at the moment would just confuse our discussion. So we won't. For our purposes we will note that except for a few minor blips, the climate has in fact been quite stable since the end of the last ice age, which is to say for the past 10,000 years or so. This is the geologic epoch known as the Holocene, in which human civilization emerged and flourished, in no small part due to that climactic stability. That's the period we are presently considering.

During this recent period of climactic stability, volcanoes have been erupting and emitting CO2, as they always have. But the planet has not been warming. Not, at least, until very recently. Whatever is now happening, volcanoes are not the cause.

In fact, volcanic activity over the past couple of centuries has been a bit less than normal. Yet over that period atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by almost half, and the planet is heating up rapidly. Don't blame volcanoes: something else must be going on.

What could that something be? Well, these past couple of centuries of reduced volcanic activity and increasing CO2 and, most recently, increasing temperature, coincides with the Industrial Revolution, and the large scale burning of fossil fuels. First coal. Then coal and oil. Then coal, oil, and gas.

Given what you already knew about the long term presence of volcanoes on the planet, you probably recognized immediately that the handwave at volcanoes as formulated above is a red herring—even without knowing the relative emission amounts. But as a factual matter, do volcanoes actually emit more CO2 than humans? No, they don't. It isn't even close.

The U.S. Geological Survey says that volcanoes emit around 260 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year. Human emissions amount to 32 billion tons per year. People emit 120 times as much CO2 as volcanoes. So the handwave isn't just a red herring; it's a canard. And yet such misconceptions that climate change skeptics tell each other have a way of circulating pretty much forever.

There's more. Volcanoes are indeed an important natural but very slow (relative to humans) emitter of CO2 over very long geologic time scales. (But don't forget we also posited processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, keeping things more or less in balance.) But on human time scales, volcanoes actually promote cooling, not warming! That's because volcanic eruptions spew reflective aerosols such as sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Those aerosols block sunlight from reaching the earth and warming it.

The most prominent recent example was the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. Pinatubo was the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Fifteen months after the Pinatubo eruption, scientists measured a global temperature reduction of around 1 degree Fahrenheit. The effect is quite significant.

A more astounding example was the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia), the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. The following year, 1816, came to be known as the "Year Without a Summer," due to the massive cooling effect from Tambora. The effect was likely exacerbated by the eruption of Mayon in the Philippines in 1814. The "volcanic winter" caused by Tambora resulted in massive crop failures and food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. At that time humanity had no understanding that the frightfully bizarre weather of 1816 was a consequence of volcanic eruptions. Not only was the scientific basis for volcanic cooling not yet developed, but the vast majority of humans had no idea that there had even been a massive volcanic eruption somewhere on the planet.

By now the science behind such associations, and other physical processes that affect the climate, is well understood. Scientists refer to a large variety of natural and anthropogenic factors that cause the climate to warm or cool as "forcings," and they are reliably quantified. Positive forcings (such as CO2) promote warming, and negative forcings promote cooling. Volcanic eruptions actually have a net negative climate forcing.

Here's a subtle exception. Scientists have assigned a slight positive forcing value to volcanoes over the past two centuries to account for the fact that volcanic activity over that period has been somewhat less than normal. In other words, volcanoes haven't been erupting as much lately as they have over the longer term, and so their usual expected cooling effect is diminished a bit due to reduced activity. This small positive contribution by volcanoes goes into the larger mix of forcings that scientists combine to calculate the net result of all the factors driving the climate.

So, yes. Volcanoes are warming the planet a tiny bit. By not erupting! But the effect is minuscule, with volcanoes accounting for a small fraction (less than three percent) of the positive climate forcings presently operating.

Over geologic time scales volcanoes have been a (mostly) gradual contributor to atmospheric CO2, which in the proper amount is a very good thing, and not just because plants require it for photosynthesis. Some small amount of atmospheric CO2 is necessary to keep the climate comfortable and amenable to life. The earth would be far colder without carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But it doesn't take much. A scant 4 hundredths of 1 percent (0.0004) of  the mix of atmospheric gasses is CO2—only one molecule out of every 2,400. Compare that with 21 percent oxygen (0.21) and 78 percent nitrogen (0.78). Do not allow personal incredulity to keep you from accepting that such a tiny amount of CO2 has such a large effect on global temperature. It does, and the physics, which has been well understood since the 19th century, is quite straightforward.

Unfortunately, we now have too much of a good thing, thanks overwhelmingly to human emissions. The human CO2 contribution is a novel development in the history of the earth. Never before, over billions of years, has deeply sequestered carbon been dug up and intentionally burned.

The CO2 (and temperature) increase has been remarkably rapid compared to the rate of change that typically occurs during natural cycles, such as the progression in and out of ice ages. The long term average CO2 concentration over the Holocene was about 280 parts per million (ppm). That's the level that prevailed prior to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and is a good baseline against which to compare current levels.

Atmospheric CO2 concentration began increasing steadily when humanity started burning fossil fuels, and it has marched ever upward over the past couple of centuries as the rate of burning intensified. It recently hit 410 ppm—a 46 percent increase over preindustrial levels. CO2 concentrations continue to rise, and correlate closely with calculated emissions from burning fossil fuels, and also with an unambiguous and now rapid trend of planetary warming.

Scientists are able to accurately estimate atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the geologic past, going back millions of years. Concentrations over millennial time frames can be readily measured from ice cores. Exquisitely precise direct atmospheric measurements began in 1957. The graph of those emissions is called the "Keeling Curve". As an fascinating aside, the graph's sawtooth appearance is a consequence of annual variations correlated to the Northern Hemisphere's growing season.

Since 1957 atmospheric CO2 has increased by 100 ppm—around a third. That's a heck of a lot of CO2 added over a partial human lifetime. Mine, for example. Despite recent pledges by the world's nations to reduce their CO2 output, the steady increase continues. So does the temperature of the planet.

A sobering new special report by a working group of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warns that the planet is warming faster than previously believed; that total warming of 2 degrees Celsius (the upper limit of what was previously thought to be "safe") will have significantly worse effects than would 1.5 degrees; and that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees would require an immediate and dramatic transformation of the world's energy systems at a scale and speed that's hard to imagine. If you are tempted to throw up your hands and say it's all impossible, understand that these temperature targets are in no sense limits: things can and will get much worse if nothing is done.

The report says that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require net anthropogenic CO2 emissions to decline 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050. Limiting warming to 2 degrees requires a decline of 20 percent by 2030 and a reduction to zero by 2075. 2030 is only 11 years away.

Regardless of what humanity chooses to do—and the prospects are not encouraging—volcanoes will remain a mute and uncaring presence on this planet we call home, doing what they have always done since time immemorial. They have neither agency nor any meaningful role to play in what comes next. Our climate, and our future, is entirely up to us. We need to stop waving at volcanoes and get to work.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Connecting the dots

Yesterday Donald Trump said he has no intention of firing Rod Rosenstein. Today Nikki Haley announced her resignation as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., effective year end. Haley, who is said to be politically ambitious, said emphatically she has no intention of running for president in 2020. What's going on?

I want to get this out now, before everybody else figures it out. Here's the plan.

Donald Trump will fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions immediately after the midterm elections. Trump will then appoint Lindsey Graham Attorney General. South Carolina's Republican governor Henry McMaster will appoint Haley to fill Graham's Senate seat. Haley, you recall, was formerly  governor of that state.

With Sessions and his cussed recusal gone, Graham will take over supervision of the Mueller investigation. That done, nobody gives a hoot about Rosenstein, so he can stay.

Because Graham is a senator, his easy confirmation is assured.

The only problem with this scenario is that Haley and her husband are said to be deep in debt. It's thought that maybe she wants to make a lot of money speechifying and so forth before resuming her political career. Still.

So that's my prediction. Don't point out that the last one didn't work out.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Perhaps you heard ...

Perhaps you heard the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.7 percent, its lowest level in almost 50 years. Meanwhile, September jobs creation came in at 134,000, far lower than expected. Because of differences in how they are measured and indeed what they measure, the two indicators do not always perfectly track each other month-to-month.

I sliced and diced the job creation performance of Trump and Obama in excruciating detail back in June. It's time for a very quick update. Trump frequently claims he's done something extraordinary with the economy, so it's important that we keep checking.

Starting with his first full month in office, February 2017, we now have 20 months of Trump job creation on the books. Trump's total is 3.8 million jobs created, for an average of 190,200 jobs per month. Obama created 4.2 million jobs over his final 20 months in office, through January 2017. That's an average of 207,550 jobs created per month.

In fact, Obama averaged 207,000 jobs created over his final 60 months—five years—in office.

Here's the latest official monthly jobs data going back a decade:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

From the standpoint of jobs creation, the Trump economy is basically a continuation of the Obama economy. There have now been 96 months of continuous positive job growth. Trump lags Obama by an average of 17,000 jobs per month. But of course it's harder to create jobs as the market tightens. As the very low unemployment rate indicates, the market is indeed tightening.

Which is what you'd expect after 8 years of continuous strong job growth. As for that amazing unemployment rate, it too is just a continuation of a fairly smooth long term decline that began after the peak of the Great Recession in 2009, near the beginning of the Obama presidency. The rate of decline has actually flattened slightly under Trump, as the following graph shows. Again, this is what you'd expect in a tightening job market. But there has been no miraculous Trump effect. None at all.

Click on the graph for a better look.

Source: St. Louis Fed

Economist Dean Baker says the real jobs hero of the past couple of years is the Federal Reserve, especially under former chair Janet Yellen. Many economists and some Fed governors had urged the Fed to begin raising interest rates as soon as the rate dipped below 5 percent, fearing that inflation would rise rapidly as the unemployment rate fell below that level.

Yellen said wait and see. She was right. Inflation remained subdued even as the job market continued to tighten. Thanks to her, a couple of million more persons are working now than might otherwise be. Too bad she wasn't offered a second term. Incidentally, the unemployment rate was around 4.7 percent when Trump took office. The peak was 10 percent in October, 2009.

The remaining pieces of the jobs puzzle are the participation rate and wage growth, which has been subdued for years. Even the recent uptick is barely enough to keep wages increasing at the rate of inflation, although much faster wage growth could soon materialize. It's hard to see how it wouldn't with the very tight job market. But we've been saying that for a while now.

A final note. The median household income has finally rebounded to its pre-recession level, adjusted for inflation. It is statistically indistinguishable from its level in 2007. As the economy remained mired in depression for years (even as the jobs rebound was getting underway), economists (such as Joseph Stiglitz) said it would take a decade to return to normal. And so it did, although we aren't yet sure what the new "normal" will look like. The best guess is that GDP growth will soon decline to a level well below 3 percent, and stay there.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Dreams of Deescalation

I had a vision. The confirmation process remained gummed up through the midterms. The Dems retook not just the House but also the Senate. A cabal of Republican Senators (Jeff Flake, Jon Kyl, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski) dubbed the "Arizona Caucus" emerged to say the only nominee they'd support in the lame duck session was Merrick Garland. Amazingly and improbably, the idea was Kyl's—a hardcore conservative former senator who was appointed to fill the seat of the recently deceased John McCain. Kyl was visited by a numinous inspiration, as if a felt but unseen hand were on his shoulder.

The Democrats immediately agreed. Mitch McConnell collapsed on the Senate floor but was revived. After having some things explained to him (no, the president can't fire senators), Donald Trump donned Solomon's mantle and acquiesced to the inevitable. Garland was quickly confirmed, leaving the court evenly split: four conservatives, four liberals, one centrist. All sides solemnly vowed to never again refuse to consider a president's duly named nominee in order to deliver the selection to his successor. A rare moment of deescalation was observed. John McCain threw back a shot of Absolut and smiled kindly down. A restless pack of coyotes yipped somewhere near Sedona.

What am I smoking? Nothing but this cheap cigar. Do I think such a thing could actually happen? Never. But it would be a story for the ages.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.