27 December 2015

GOP is dead, long live the GOP?

And other political observations for the new year.

Something I've noticed over the last year or so in politics is that Republican pundits seem to think their crop of candidates is a sign of political strength, and that this is a "deep field", with many good options.

There is a problem with that assumption. Actually a lot of problems.

1) Almost none of those people who were thought to be part of that "deep field" are winning polls or likely to do well. He who will not be named has been doing well and mocking the rest of the field. Cruz is a hated figure within his own party. Carson is a surgeon and not a particularly interesting candidate for President. Meanwhile, Jeb has floundered to the point of irrelevance despite raising a boatload of cash. Rand hasn't been able to get any traction on civil liberties and foreign policy as the Republican field has whipped itself into a frenzy declaring who they want to start a war with next. Rubio hasn't really run a good campaign thus far, suggesting he doesn't understand the political situation (perhaps not a good "retail politician", as it were). Christie has struggled to overcome a position of high disdain within his own party. Scott Walker, believed for some reason to be a plausible candidate, didn't even make it out of the summer. This is not an inspiring bunch if they cannot handle a bully, a blowhard, and an out of his depth doctor to overtake them in polls. There's still time of course, as the polling is early, but most of these candidates are probably going to remain irrelevant while these middling idiots run circles around them.

A deep field would imply such candidates would be keeping out the riffraff rather than the other way around.

2) There's very little in the way of major policy differences between the individual candidates at this point (other than the aforementioned Rand disparity on IR and the NSA). This too could change, but there have been several debates upon which to draw this out. That hasn't really happened yet. Some squabbling about immigration. Some squabbling about Putin and Syria. But all of them have endorsed some combination of being anti homosexual, anti choice, pro lower taxes, anti min wage hikes, etc (note: the entire platform jsnt intolerable, but the parts that are most commonly distinguishing from the left often are. Meanwhile. The "interesting" fault lines on immigration, Muslims, Syria, and entitlements, are mostly "interesting" because Republicans are mostly racing to take more and more extreme positions. Positions which are broadly intolerable to wide swaths of the country. The previous method of running for a general election was to stay somewhat near a tolerable center of the American polity. Lacking that center, the farther out one goes the less likely mildly associated voters will stick around, and the less likely partisan opponents might defect. This also has impacts downstream, upon House and Senate races, local and state elections, and so on. It may not be very pretty. (In fairness, several Democratic figures and tbeir positions have strayed far afield as well. The difference is that almost nobody believes a Clinton Presidency would do most of the things that are outside of a centrist orthodoxy, or that she would be capable of enacting all she wished anyway with a divided power structure. This seems likely in some of the Republican cases that they could get some of what they want into law or to adjust courts and other forms of oversight.

Here if there were much depth, we should expect to see fairly interesting arguments about how best to provide sensible answers, or even sensible ideas about what the most pressing questions are, and in so doing see some adjustment and rancor between the field itself. This has occurred on a few topics, but not many. This would instead imply most of their candidates are interchangeable rather than necessary focal points.

3) Clinton is not perceived to be a particularly strong candidate (for now), but virtually anyone doing well among Republicans (with the exception of Rubio, who hasn't gotten a full vetting yet) is much less popular than she is, and usually more despised as well. This is not a recipe for winning a national popularity contest. There may be more names who are believed to compete against her in a national election, but this says little about whether those names actually matter. Hostility toward both the Clintons and liberal policies in general is fairly high among conservatives and has been for many years. But instead of regathering their agenda in a functional way and trying to make sure they would have a candidate who will be capable of beating her, the party establishment seemed content to nominate another Bush. Who would be most likely incapable of doing so. This is not an encouraging sign that they either believed there was much depth, or that they had correctly determined their political problems coming in.

I'm not sure the party entirely survives this election cycle. Party elites, quasi libertarians, anti interventionists, pro big business types, and moderate Republicans (such a species sort of exists still), don't have much of a future where they are. Some of that has been true for decades, some is merely emerging as the conservative voter base becomes more frustrated with being unable to roll back agendas they see as encroaching on their values. I would be very surprised it doesn't partly implode and make very serious efforts to reform to avoid splintering entirely. At the risk of reducing their national footprint further in order to consolidate party power somehow.

4) Bernie Sanders fans remain the Ron Paul fans of this election cycle. Convinced their candidate winning meaningless polls means something, and convinced that his flaws are either an invention of media trying to tank for Clinton, or things that he would overcome if only media gave him the opportunity to reach out to voters who remain roughly unaware of him. As it is, his main problem in this campaign remains the same as it was months ago. He's talking about several issues which aren't as high on the radar for minority voters, and probably shouldn't be, and which they therefore do not fully trust him to handle. This results in polling which shows that he is moderately popular among liberals and Democrats, but has very much higher negatives and unknowns among the same group than Hillary.

This is not a recipe that suggests he will matter. Even on top of unprecedented high levels of establishment and party backing for Clinton, there isn't much he is doing that in any way suggests he is pushing past it and will overtake her in some way. This was never a realistic view. And yet it remains a view that I see pop up at least once a week on social media feeds that something the Paul campaign did also means something now, despite it having failed in conservative circles quite significantly (and repeatedly).

Completely random sportsball post

I haven't followed football at all this year. I am vaguely aware that the Panthers are undefeated in spite of this limitation, simply because football information is damn near inescapable in America. I was asked, as one often is when one is male at a larger social gathering, of an opinion for the quality of NFL prospects for winning the Super Bowl. One thing I do know, or at least think I know, is that the computer rankings of NFL teams tend to be much, much more reliable than raw records in forecasting performance. Records are mostly irrelevant because football teams do not play enough games, nor against the same quality of schedule to use it as even a casual basis for evaluation. Every year a few teams can and frequently will accumulate gaudy records against inferior competition, with limited skill of their own often by what amounts to sheer luck, and a few teams will struggle for the same reasons. By contrast, baseball, basketball, and hockey teams all play many more games, and against somewhat more even schedule qualities that a record can signify roughly the actual performance of a team (there is still some variance that can be examined and usually explained by things such as a higher or lower quality bullpen).

It was further assumed that home field advantages matter. They don't matter that much. Quality of opponents may matter as a route to a title game, and that can give advantages to higher ranked teams by record that they may get to play crummier teams in the playoffs, but higher quality teams will tend to win games where ever they are played, and seeding isn't a guarantee of playing lower quality teams.

The reason this came up is that when I replied with the relevant information I could look up quickly and form an opinion based around, the teams I said would worry about would be the Seahawks and Cardinals over the Panthers. These are teams rated ahead of Carolina in computer rankings (Seattle in fact is rated well ahead). Cardinals are at least the #2 seed in the conference, so most people would expect them to be a reasonable challenger. The Seahawks only clinched a playoff spot in the last week. Seattle may end up playing Carolina in the playoffs fairly early (assume that Seattle beats the NFC East winner, and Minnesota loses to Green Bay).

So why is a computer ranking system so sour on an undefeated team? They appear to have very poor quality special teams, and only an above average offense (not a good offense, just a little above average) to pair with an excellent defense. Their competition has very good offenses (Arizona #3, Seattle #2, both well ahead of Carolina at #8) paired with very good defenses (Arizona's is rated #3, Carolina is #2, Seattle is #5).

None of that means that I would think Carolina is a bad team, unlikely to compete for a title. Football playoffs can break oddly and unpreditcably more easily than most sports. And they are a good team this year. But that's also not what I was asked (something like who has the best chances was the question).

What sometimes happens when people ask me a question I find is that they expect a certain answer. And then don't get it. And get something somewhat unconventional instead. That can make for a very interesting conversation. Except I think many people ask questions on the expectations that some other person will affirm their beliefs and suspicions when they answer. This makes for more rapid conversation and less argument.

21 December 2015

Cultural notes, spoiler-y

Jessica Jones.

Marvel's Netflix foray continues to be pretty good. It's darker, much more clearly rated R material than the Avengers work. This was better than Daredevil in most every way (except the fight choreography in Daredevil is totally badass. It has several of the best fight sequences ever shot in my opinion). Jessica is more clearly conflicted than Murdock, she doesn't need to know how to fight most people (because she can intimidate them with raw strength), has a sometime sidekick or two, etc.

The main reason it works though is that the villain's evil genius power is Professor X crossed with the Joker. Near the center of the X-Men universe is a question that's rarely examined: what happens if someone can control minds, or influence people to do whatever they want? And further, what happens if what that person wants is petty, violent, and selfish? How do we stop them? How could we protect ourselves? Who could we trust? These are questions that cycle around continuously in the first several episodes of the season. Taken away from the comic book elements of direct mind control, there are serious philosophical and psychological questions about who is really calling the shots in our behavior and how much influence others have over us when we do things "we don't really want to", or even determining what it is we really want to do in the first place. This is referred to a few times within the series as some people almost expressing a kind of relief at not being responsible for the actions and will someone else had imposed upon them (Jessica notably does not do this, not really, but she encourages everyone around her to do so).

The show has gotten a lot of "feminist" buzz and aplomb. It's feminist in so far as they took roles for men (in one case, it was a male in the comic), and flipped it to cast a woman as the main character. They did some more extensive flipping than just casting however. Men are typically the "eye candy", in some state of undress. Women not so much (usually). Jessica's main relationship dynamic isn't with a male (Luke Cage), it's with her best friend (Trish) (In my experience, men are more likely to define a "best friend", and the person with whom they have the most dynamic relationship as someone they are also romantically attached to, although this is not universal and certainly is not the only way Hollywood tells stories, ala Kirk and Spock, Batman and Robin, etc). Her main problems, flaws within her past, are what may be regarded as more typically problems women would encounter than men (psychological abuse/control and rape, plus a super-creepy stalker), they are just amplified by superhero qualities. It's also a way of saying it doesn't matter how strong someone is (and she's very strong), someone can break into your life and do terrible things. Most importantly it says: this is not your fault that you were "too weak".

Jones' character is not particularly feminine or feminist, but she is a heroine. There are few such depictions as yet in TV or film for this generation in sci-fi or fantasy roles (Black Widow, eventually Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, depending on how Civil War goes Scarlet Witch, Leia, another which I'll get to in a minute). Progress is occurring here, again, but it is complicated. Widow doesn't have a stand-alone franchise within the Avengers for example. So the series lets a lot of that air out that somehow a female hero doesn't carry a series or couldn't carry a movie.

There's a few choppier bits, and it seems clear the show wanted to introduce another villain arc for later on that feels like it interrupts the existing arc too much in the moment (and this is, at least tacitly, acknowledged by the show itself). But there's a lot of raw power in some of the moments where our hero is being isolated and broken down by her villainous opponent who is systematically trying to break her again, and she knows it and is fighting to find ways out of the traps.

Force Awakens.

I have more mixed reactions here.

Good:. Rey was fantastic (and is another in the lineage of superheroines listed above). Almost all of the "unanswered questions" surrounding the series coming up to the next one have to do with her, on top of her being a badass. The first sequence where Finn meets her is hilarious (she gets attacked and into a fight, he starts to run over to help, and the fight is over with them on the ground and her picking her stuff back up before he can make it a few steps).

Harrison Ford seemed to have actually pushed the "actor" button that has gone unpressed for about 20 years. He did a good turn as Solo. I think he was happy to get killed off finally. (oh right, that's the main spoiler: Han shot first. And now Han dies).

Effects are much better, it did not look like a CGI mess like the prequels. Several sequences are clearly in there just to show off. The one exception is the tentacle monsters on Han's cargo ship, I could have done without that whole sequence really.

The bar owner character was solid. I liked her as a semi-Yoda-ish channeler.

Middle: I'm not sure what to make yet of the villain. Ren wasn't terribly intimidating except in terms of raw rage. His opening sequence where he stops a blaster bolt mid-air is very impressive, but he fades down the stretch, particularly at the end when Rey easily bests him in a duel despite being mostly untrained. He therefore comes off almost like a whiny teenager. This is still a miles wide improvement over the young Vader/Anakin who came off like a block of wood for reciting terrible dialogue but it doesn't give me a clear idea where he is going next or what sort of conflict is actually going on within him. Luke was much more dynamic in this sense. There are a lot of directions Ren could go that would be interesting next. But Rey is by far more compelling in this work. A weak or bland villain is fairly common lately in film (Loki maybe one of the few good ones for comic book/sci fi purposes).

Isaac's character, Po, was okay. I could have used both more and less of him.

There were some nice moments of nostalgia. Way overdone, but some were good. The plot was lifted almost whole cloth from New Hope so it gets to be too much easily.

Max von Sydow's cameo felt totally wasted, though it was nice to see/hear him.

Poor: Dialogue can be choppy. There's at least one line that was repeated verbatim from New Hope that made absolutely no sense when it was used. It's like they edited it in at the wrong time.

Rebel/Resistance plan to take out the Star Killer base is pretty lame and not built up much. New Hope it makes more sense because they have to sneak out the droid to analyze the plans and try to destroy it based on those. The sneaking out of the droid here has to do with something else. They basically luck into the ability to attack this thing.

I'm extremely tired of watching the Rebels blow up planet destroying bases anyway. This is undoubtedly the reason Empire Strikes Back is so good is it moves on from the "we have to destroy this thing or everybody dies" plot device common to sci-fi/comic book films and centers the conflict within and between the major characters. This may have been necessary nostalgically to establish that this is in fact a Star Wars film. But it wasn't very interesting.

The first Star Killer attack doesn't really make sense or have much impact because the politics of this universe don't make much sense. Universe building failure here. Alderaan being destroyed made a lot of sense. This does not. Really the main thing Abrams seems to have done is rebuild the old Star Wars pre-prequel universe without really trying to a) understand it or b) show us something new and awesome or terrible within it. It feels more like the film wiped out the "Republic" simply to start over on the board, like the way Abrams "reset" the Star Trek universe with time travel and then moved the same old pieces around in a haphazard way without understanding the universe from which they were built.

The Stormtrooper commander (Phasma) was lame.

Finn wasn't very well scripted for my tastes, or the actor wasn't very good. I'm not sure which (or both). He ought to be the other interesting internal conflict because of his status as a defector/traitor to the First Order, but he mostly spends a lot of time running around being a plot device and generally acting like a goof.

18 December 2015


I don't take his chances at winning the nomination that seriously yet (much more so than Trump's, but not high end legitimacy, largely because if he gets picked, like with Trump, the GOP gets trounced. And they know it, at the top end at least).

What I did find interesting is that he tried, and mostly failed, to draw some kind of distinction on foreign policy in the last debate. This was supposed to be Rand's job, but he's been so irrelevant that nobody really bothers.

Here's the issue. The GOP's foreign policy over the last 15 years, really over the last 25 or so, has been mostly run by neoconservatives, many of whom tend to be among the most hawkish political figures imaginable and cartoonishly likely to press for military interventions abroad, often unilaterally with limited or non-existent diplomatic legwork. This has led to a number of major blunders in foreign policy through hasty and reckless interventions for anything from "humanitarian" purposes to "democracy promotion", to anti-communist regime changes back in the Cold War days. For the most part, this branch of the GOP's three-legged stool has been unrepentant in its ways, insisting that Iraq was fine until a Democrat got into office, things like that. It remains so now.

There was previously a Powell doctrine style approach to the use of military interventions, for clear strategic purposes that can be accomplished quickly and with a minimum of losses and destruction. This view was dominant in the First Gulf War, and it approaches a more realist foreign policy, of a sort which was once common as a method of waging the Cold War, through a mostly indirect style conflict. Among its elements was a capacity, though not always an eagerness, to work with strategic partners diplomatically, to limit engagements to strategic goals (like crushing military power projection abilities and protecting territorial sovereignty), and to work with strategic rivals for mutual gain or diplomatic purposes rather than to wage dangerous and pointless conflicts. Importantly, it was not a common event to hear Presidential candidates risking or calling for open war with a major state (say Russia or Iran), and it was common for American politics to tolerate some fairly nasty people abroad for strategic purposes of our own to be achieved through stability or (perhaps, though not always) the suppression of some other fairly nasty people.

Today, such an approach is described as "GOP hearts dictators forever." Such an approach might have left us with unsavory people in power in Iraq, Egypt, Libya. And as is still the case, Syria and countries such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but might have had the effect of weakening institutional groups seeking to overthrow those governments and conduct operations of aggression through international terrorism. This is not however a strategy which is widely accepted or promoted is the tolerance of unpleasant people like a Qaddafi or Hussein or Assad in the furtherance of some purported large strategic goal (the suppression or elimination of hostile Muslim radicals in the region). If this was something that Cruz was actually pushing into the light, it might have made for an interesting debate.

The problem with this vague notion being taken seriously is that it was paired with a very aggressive stance on virtually any other form of foreign policy. For example, to call for aggressive bombing of ISIS territory (including civilians). Or most notably (and confusingly) effectively stating that we are at war with Iran, or that we should be if not, for the purposes of regime change. In so far as there is a major state player elsewhere on the globe that is most likely to oppose both ISIS and al Qaeda, it is the Iranian state. So if the idea was to propose that we be strategically flexible in our partnerships, that made no sense to immediately demand we take out someone who might be a partnership worth looking into (they're also one of the most likely players to talk to in order to remove Assad, if that was also the goal). If the idea was to present some kind of basis for not being super-ultra-blood-thirsty in foreign policy, there wasn't anything presented as to what that would be, or what it would look like. Not doing "democracy promotion" and then turning around and saying we should be toppling another major state government to do... democracy promotion?

If we assume that a reasonable foreign policy goal should be the use of significant military power projection against non-state actors like ISIS or al Qaeda (or the Taliban, Boko Haram, etc), and if we assume this is a significant if not central foreign policy question is how we should respond to such actors, both of which I think are dubious assumptions, then the question becomes how best to use the forces available to do so. Including Russia and Iran and Syria. What seems more likely than some well-crafted geo-political response being tested out was that Cruz was throwing out some carefully prepared red meat for the conservative base.

Eg "I hates Iran/Russia forever, but don't really care what happens in Syria/Iraq/Libya as long as it stays in house." Things like that. So taking it seriously as a set of policy proscriptions is undoubtedly unwise. But given that belligerent talk toward possible allies or useful agents in the region is not liable to purchase us their cooperation, and given that there does not as yet appear to be the base of support for a wider operation involving significant ground troops and major air assaults (we're not conducting those either), it may not be worth tossing it out except as a cynical political statement. The sad part is that his minor two-step here aside from predictably Rand Paul's relative sanity within the party was considered an improvement over the outrageous belligerence and stupidity of the rest of the field (Rubio, Bush, and Christie in particular).

The reason this matters. Unless some major scandal occurs, or Hillary falls out of an airplane or some such related issue, she will be the Democratic nominee, and except for a couple of the GOP field who might be able to run effectively against her (Rubio for example), she will almost certainly become the next President. Without there being a genuine foreign policy debate within the GOP, I am quite certain what hers will look like, and it won't have much of a contrast with what they have to offer. Basically neoconservative with a little more talking involved, and a remaining excessive focus on the Middle East, fighting several undeclared wars with non-state actors in regimes of high instability, with at best a moderate indifference to the Pacific theater in geopolitical terms, and a continued high reliance on what appear to be dragnet style civil liberties abusing surveillance systems that serve little or no strategic purpose in our current troubles, such as they are in fact troubles. This is not a position I find I can endorse with much optimism as it is probable success in producing either improvement in our security nor our status and prosperity in a global sense. I should like to see someone capable of making cogent arguments against it running in a position of notice. I expect I shall be sorely disappointed.

As a side note, I'm really curious how, or even if, the GOP manages to remain a functional political party after this election. It seems like the main poles on the big tent have all wandered off in their own directions. It also seems like several factions of the conservative world believe they have a number of "promising" candidates. None of them so far have the ability to a) rally conservatives or b) rally anyone else, except out of despising them as insipid or bigoted. That does not suggest this is a well-populated field with many options. It suggests to me there's a lot of human beings running in the misguided belief they could become the next President. An additional defeat, after having put up nothing of note in 2012, putting up whatever they end up with here, presumably with a "moderately conservative" figure selected instead of something perceived as half-assed, will make the next two years very interesting to see if they can remain as a cohesive unit in political terms. 

17 December 2015

on human migration

Couple things I noticed

- The persistence of the analogy being made to "letting someone in my house/family" as a property right type analogue for allowing people to migrate within borders. In this case, it's also variously described as letting anyone grab the microphone at a radio station or anyone try to play point guard for the Knicks. (The latter situation might be warranted anyway.)

The stupidity of this argument could be applied to, say, Ohioans moving to Michigan or vice versa. Or the people of the town of Shelbyville restricting access to the people of Springfield nearby. What is actually happening is not the same thing as some sort of uninvited personal guest making unreasonable demands that we are acceding to in order to let them come here. This is a terrible analogy. It's more like "I now have a new neighbour to ignore". Nobody is forced to give them a job. We do a fair amount to acculturate refugees and help them succeed, but no one is required to help them (there is a fairly modest amount of tax money to initially settle them and help fund the charitable groups that do the work of resettlement, but this is easily recouped by the economic contributions of refugees, and the associated tax receipts they generate, on average within a short time frame, no more than a few years).

This I think gets at the heart of the problem more closely is to say that most people opposed to (more) immigration believe they won't or don't or couldn't like their new neighbours. They therefore think it unreasonable that they should have such neighbours, or that their very existence is a demand upon their well-being (given we have a long history of redlining and housing segregation throughout the country, this should not be a surprising feature to discover might apply to migrants from other countries). People in support of it either don't care, or will even enjoy the new cooking or music that's now made more accessible to them from a new cultural heritage placed at their doorstep.

- The salience and overwhelming power of the economics arguments for more open migration is nearly universally accepted, I don't really see anyone pushing against it in this piece, and it's practically non-existent in mainstream economic literature simply because it so easily passes a cost-benefit curve.

But that is not the primary argument individuals disposed to be against immigration use (see above). Which means "arguing" over it doesn't really improve the moral arguments for allowing refugees and immigrants to come here. It's already part of the bedrock because it's become inarguable. What needs to be argued against is questions of culture, national identity, and security, all of which I would argue are strongly improved by having a more open policy toward both refugees and immigrants, or even migrant labourers.

- The position however that "libertarian economists" are the only ones in favor of open borders, or more open borders, or that the nation-state would disappear if such a state existed is nonsense. It's pointed out directly in the bit that the US and UK both had for decades, if not centuries, fairly open borders allowing virtually anyone to come and live and work there. Both of these are countries typically regarded as some of the most successful world powers in world history and have a strong coherent national identity as nation-states, complete with distinct legal and moral traditions to which these historical flows of immigrants have often made powerful contributions.