Thursday, December 29, 2016

Sailboat Racing, Current, and Trump

A while ago I was crewing on a racing sailboat; at the start of the race, there was very little wind and a strong current flowing directly opposite the direction we were trying to sail.  We made it almost up to the starting line, and even though it was a fast boat, and we were moving nicely through the water, the water was moving at the same speed, so the boat was standing still.  No matter how carefully we trimmed the sails, the bow of the boat stayed just about two feet from the starting line. 

This was frustrating.  We were sailing the boat well, the boat was moving through the water, and we were getting nowhere.  The skipper in particular was getting very frustrated.  He said, "This isn't working, let's tack."  If we tacked, the boat would no longer be pointing into the current, but would be pointing across the current, so the flow of the current would be hitting the side of the boat.  A couple of us said, "No, don't tack!"  We knew that if we stopped sailing directly into the current, we would just get pushed farther away from the starting line. The skipper didn't tack, but after another minute or so, he wanted to tack again - he just wanted to do something, change something.  Once again we talked him out of it.  But by the third time, there was no talking him out of it, so we tacked, and promptly got shoved sideways by the current  back the way we came, away from the starting line.  In seconds we lost 40 feet.  We had to tack back to our original heading and try to slowly crawl our way back up to the starting line. The only plus was that most of the other boats had similar problems, and the race was cancelled.

I think a lot of people who voted for Trump were feeling the same way as the skipper - they were feeling frustrated, feeling like they were getting nowhere, feeling like they needed to change something.  So even though they were told (and maybe even agreed) that Trump was a jerk and a racist and a sexist, they voted for him anyway.  Not because they thought he was a good candidate, not because they were racist or sexist, not because they believed or agreed with everything he said, but because he represented change. 

Voting for Clinton was like staying in the same place, no matter how well you sailed the boat.  So even though they knew that voting for Trump might make them worse off, they just could not sit there going nowhere any longer.  Unfortunately this race is not likely to get cancelled, and we will get pushed back.

p.s. at some point when the current gets too strong and you are being pushed backwards, it is better just to anchor, so you can hold your ground and not get pushed back any farther.

Friday, November 11, 2016

How to Become President (aka "Machiavelli, The Sequel")

In the aftermath of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States, I reflected on the things that matter and don't matter when trying to become President.  I looked at this election, and looked back at past (post-Nixon) elections, and tried to figure out an explanation for how the US voted.  Here is my take.

Things That Matter:

Warm and Fuzzy and "Authentic" - This is the most important characteristic.  Ideally, people will like you, or at least your public persona.  But what is most essential is that you not be seen as cold and remote and overly scripted.  If you are, people will feel like you are hiding something, that you are not sincere, and you are just saying what the polls and focus groups tell you that you should say.  You are not being "real."

This coolness and distance was the kiss of death for Gore, Romney and Hillary Clinton.  People would say how warm and friendly they were in private, in one-on-one conversations, but it did not come across in public.  The most successful candidates - Reagan, Bill Clinton, Obama, Bush 2 - came across as warm and friendly even in front of thousands of people and a scrum of journalists.  And the best of them managed to combine that warmth with a sense of dignity at the same time - not an easy feat.

Trump did not have that warmth, but his radically unfiltered speech (and tweets) gave a feeling of authenticity - he is saying what he really means (even if 80% of it is bullshit).  Not perfect, but viscerally more appealing to voters than Hillary Clinton's uber preparation and control.

Team Spirit - People like to belong to a group, to root for a team (and against the other team).  The political parties tap into this.  "I'm a Democrat/Republican, so I will vote for the Democrat/Republican."  Clinton got a lot of votes because she was the nominee of the Democratic Party, so loyal Democrats voted for her.  Trump likewise got votes from loyal Republicans because he was the Republican nominee.  For team voters, their character or positions do not matter (although Trump in particular had some defectors due to his departures from the team's traditional positions).  I was an Oakland Raiders fan in the 1970's - they would play dirty, but I didn't care (and maybe even relished it) because they were my team.  This is one reason why third parties struggle, even when they field good candidates.  In recent years the Republicans have cultivated team spirit better than the Democrats, and that helped Trump.

There is a second way this plays out, especially in the party primaries, where everyone is on your political party team.  And that is if you feel that the candidate is speaking for you, or cares about you, then you become part of their team.  This is why Sanders and Trump did so well - they did the best job of picking up on the dissatisfaction of their respective parties' voters.

Hope for the Future - Unless everybody is really happy, they want to know that you will make things better.  Promising the status quo is not appealing if people are unhappy with the status quo.  This was another Hillary Clinton failure; she basically promised more of the same, but unless you are a tech millionaire or a Wall Street banker or other member of the super-privileged, odds are that you are not happy with more of the same.  For most of us, job security and real wages have gone down, while the cost of living and the cost of economic and social advancement (a college degree) have gone up.  We are not happy with the status quo, and Hillary Clinton basically promised no hope of change.

Obama pulled this one off brilliantly, with his "Hope" poster and his eloquent and inspiring speeches, and the excitement of being the first African-American President.  And he had the benefit of following Bush 2, with the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the crash of the entire economy.  People were absolutely ready for a change, and he promised a better, brighter future.  By comparison, Carter did well with this as a candidate, but as President he largely failed (by being somewhat of a downer), and Reagan capitalized on that with an optimistic tone promising change.

Trump likewise promises change - "make America great again," whatever that means.  While it can be understood to have potentially negative connotations, by itself it is a promise of change for the better.  Trump's vitriolic attacks on anyone who criticized or opposed him diluted this message, but there was no question he was going to shake things up - whatever else he did, things were going to be different.  And hey, this frying pan sucks, so maybe I'll try the fire. Again, advantage Trump.

An Effective Campaign -  In addition to these factors, there is a basic prerequisite to winning, which is to have an effective campaign.  If you don't have that, you will likely lose at some point, often in the primary election. In addition to their other problems, Gore and Kerry and Dole were also harmed by this. (Although Dole may not have even been trying that hard.) But as Obama and especially Trump and to some extent Sanders showed, there is more than one way to run an effective campaign.

Things That Don't Matter:

Experience - Look at all the more experienced candidates who lost to less experienced ones: Carter beat Ford, Reagan beat Carter, Clinton beat Bush 1, Bush 2 beat Gore, Obama beat Hillary Clinton and McCain, and now the most extreme example, Trump beat all the other Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton.  Johnson and Weld had significantly more experience than Trump, but got only a tiny sliver of the votes. Experience does not appear to matter in any significant way.  Hillary Clinton's heavy emphasis on her experience was misplaced.

Courage and Toughness - Combat veterans have not done well - Gerald Ford and Bush 1 did not get reelected, and Bob Dole, John McCain and John Kerry all failed in their election bids to candidates who had not experienced such (literal) trial by fire.  Kerry also showed courage in his anti-war activities and his investigation of the BCCI scandal. Hillary Clinton went through the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, and was Secretary of State while the Middle East was melting down, only to lose to a spoiled rich brat whose idea of hardship was getting only a $1 million loan from his father.  Proven courage and toughness? Doesn't matter.

Policy - This one is hard for me, because this is the primary basis for how I vote, but for the majority of voters this appears to be secondary at best. Otherwise it is hard to explain the oscillations of position on things like protecting the environment and reproductive rights, where we swing back and forth between Carter and Reagan, and Clinton to Bush 2 to Obama to Trump.  Voters may choose their party team based on policies and issues, but will then stick with that team's candidate even if he or she folds or switches positions on the issues, like Bill Clinton on welfare reform or Obama on shutting down Guantanamo or his "all of the above" energy policy.  Team identity comes first.

Ethics - In the post-Nixon era, the President of each party that was generally considered to be the most ethical - Ford and Carter - did not get re-elected. Bill Clinton was already known as "Slick Willy" when he was elected (and then re-elected). In some situations, especially the primaries, ethics may matter, as a candidate may be perceived as too tainted to successfully represent the team (because the other team will happily point out ethical failings).  But again, once past the primaries, team identity and warm-and-fuzzy are more important - if you like a candidate and they are on your team, you will vote for them despite their ethical failings.  Trump is ethically challenged, but he won anyway.


I am not saying that everyone bases their vote on these criteria - there are voters who vote based on policies and issues (economics, environment, abortion, gay rights), or for whom the ethics of the candidate are most important, but they are in the minority.  Nor am I saying that I endorse or agree with these criteria - like Machiavelli (who has unfairly gotten a bad name), I am just observing that I think these factors are the most important ones in the US for electing the President.

My bottom line? I think we may not be doing this the best way...

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Propositions! 65 and 67

The Battle of the Bags! (In reverse order.)

Prop 67 - Yes. If it passes, Prop 67 would enact a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags (like some of us are already used to due to local ordinances), with a minimum 10-cent charge for paper or reusable bags. The money charged for the bags would go to the store. (I actually reused "single-use" bags, so I never quite understood why thicker bags or paper bags are that much better, but that is just me.) Please note that Berkeley and Patagonia and Gov. Brown and Trout Unlimited support Prop 67, while Dow Chemical and the plastic bag manufacturers oppose it. Enough said, vote yes.

Prop 65 - NO. This measure was put on the ballot by the plastic bag manufacturers to counter Prop 67.  It does not require or implement a ban on plastic bags or a fee for bags, but if there is a fee charged, this proposition would require the money to go to a new state environmental fund, rather than to the store.  While that sounds okay, I think this is just a move to get retailers to oppose bag fees. (Especially since this is sponsored by the plastic bag manufacturers.)  This is yet another bullshit proposition that should not be on the ballot, and whose only purpose is to confuse and mislead voters.  Fuck that, vote NO on 65.

Propositions! 61, 63, 64

Another batch of propositions - now we get to drugs, guns, and pot!

Prop 61 - Yes?  Maybe - it is kind of weird. The state of California buys drugs, generally for MediCal and CalPERS.  This proposition would prohibit state agencies from purchasing prescription drugs at prices higher than the price paid by the VA, which tends to be able to negotiate low prices.  That sounds good, except for a few things: 1) This proposition doesn't order to drug companies to sell at the lower price, but only orders the state agencies to buy at the lower price.  What if the drug company refuses to sell at the lower price? Then the state agency has the quandary of either not buying the drug or violating the law (or the other likely option of being paralyzed).  Not good options. 2)  The state agencies have generally been able to negotiate decent prices, so it is not clear how much this will save. 3) This gives the drug companies an incentive to raise prices to the VA, which would not be a good thing. 4) Why is the price paid by the VA the only criteria?  Seems like that could cause some problems or anomalies. On the other hand, the drug companies are spending massive amounts of money to defeat this, which must mean they think it would cost them even more.  That by itself tends to indicate that this might save the state some money.  So while I have some reservations, on balance I think maybe a yes vote would be okay.

Prop 63 - No. (Surprise!)  This proposition would require permits to buy or sell ammunition and ban large-capacity ammunition magazines, along with some other tweaks to California's gun control laws.  Most of the provisions are well intended, although it is not clear how effective they will be.  The problem with this proposition is that it largely duplicates legislation that was just passed into law this year - despite that, Gavin Newsom kept pushing ahead with this initiative.  I think this do-little proposition is just Newsom grandstanding in preparation for his run for governor - not a great reason for a proposition to be on the ballot.  And because this would be enacted by popular vote, if problems show up or adjustments need to be made (which is common - laws rarely work exactly as intended), any attempt to fix it would require another popular vote - the legislature couldn't do it.  As I read more propositions, I am getting tired of shit being on the ballot that does not need to be there (like Prop 59 asking you how you feel about Citizens United, and Prop 60 requiring condoms for porn actors).  Maybe I am just getting cranky about seeing even more of that in this election, and I don't want the NRA to think I agree with their extreme position, but I am still inclined to vote no on this one.  But if you want to vote yes just to say "fuck you" to the NRA, I won't mind.  Your call.

Update on 63 - I talked to a friend who knows more about the legislative maneuvering on this one, and that person's take was that the legislature was playing more games than Newsom, and that Newsom had legitimate reasons to continue to push this initiative (i.e. he was not just grandstanding).  Still considering what this means for my vote; you decide what you want yours to be.

Prop 64 - Yes! Please!  This proposition would legalize marijuana for recreational use under California law. (It would still be illegal under federal law.)  Prohibition of marijuana has been a dismal failure that has done little but drive up the profits of drug traffickers and the growth of violent cartels, and result in environmental degradation from illegal grows.  Alcohol prohibition gave rise to organized crime, and marijuana prohibition has done more of the same. (Duh.)  This proposition would legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana.  The arguments against Prop 64 from the right are the same old prohibitionist scare tactics that gave us the expensive-in-every-way "war on drugs;"  there are some arguments against it from the left, but they are also pretty weak.  It is important to push the feds to legalize marijuana, and California voting to do so would be a good push.  Please vote yes.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Propositions! 58, 59, 60

I am getting tired, so this fourth installment may be a bit shorter in the descriptions.

Prop 58 - Yes. This would allow for bilingual education in schools, repealing the "English only" Proposition 227 from 1998.  Having the state mandate "English only" for all schools never seemed like a good idea to me - it always felt like it was intended to be more punitive than educational.  Vote Yes.

Prop 59 - Yeah, I guess so, but whatever.  This one doesn't really do anything. Do you want to tell California that it should work to reverse the Citizens United decision?  You can vote yes to do so.  But it seems kind of wasteful to put things like this on the ballot.  And some potential fixes (via constitutional amendment) could cause serious problems, if done wrong. So overall I guess voting yes (assuming you don't like Citizens United) is okay.  Or you could just skip voting on this one.

Prop 60 - No.  This one would require adult film actors to wear condoms during vaginal or anal sex.  Is it just me, or this just a weird thing to have on the ballot?  I found some of the opponents' arguments pretty compelling; I tried to verify some of them by looking at the text of the proposition itself, but it is really detailed and long, and I didn't have the patience to wade through it, but it seems to set up a complicated (and expensive) regulatory and enforcement scheme.  I don't think this is worth doing that for, and I think it has the potential to cause unforeseen problems. And my guess is that it would drive a lot of commercial porn producers out of California, among other things.  Vote no.

Propositions! 55, 56, 57

Here is the third installment in this series re the state propositions.

Prop 55 - Yes.  This would extend for 12 years the existing additional income tax on high earners (over $250,000 for individuals, over $500,000 for couples) that was put in place by Prop 30 in 2012. Most of the money would go to education.  The proposition does not extend the additional sales tax added by Prop 30 - that will expire.  If the bill does not pass, the income tax on high earners would also expire, and go back down to what it was before Prop 30.  This proposition is not an ideal fix, mostly because our tax system in California is fairly messed up.  California gets a large part of its budget from income taxes on high earners; while this may feel fair, it also makes budgeting extremely hard, because high earners tend to have large variations in income from year to year.  Property taxes are generally more stable and predictable, but Proposition 13 has made them a smaller piece of the pie.  That said, until there is a comprehensive overhaul of our tax system, Prop 55 is not an unreasonable stopgap measure.  Vote yes on 55.

Prop 56 - Yes, but without much enthusiasm.  This would increase the tax on cigarettes from 87 cents per pack to $2.87 per pack, and would tax e-cigarettes like tobacco cigarettes (they are not taxed like tobacco cigarettes now).  The money would continue to fund various health and smoking-related programs.  I like that it ups the tax on e-cigarettes; I have some concern about the size of the tax increase, though.  A lot of poor people smoke cigarettes, and this just makes cigarettes a larger expense for them.  If the increase is big enough, it would encourage a black market in cigarettes, which would undercut the purpose of the tax increase. (I don't know how much of a black market there already may be in California.)  I would vote for it for the tax on e-cigarettes, but otherwise I think it may be a bit of an overreach. So I guess it overall it is a yes on 56.

Prop 57 - Yes, definitely.  Proposition 57 would allow more prisoners convicted of non-violent felonies to be eligible for parole, and would provide credits for good behavior and educational activities.  They would still be subject to a public safety screening and a parole hearing - they would not just be released. This is a good thing for a couple reasons.  One, the prisons are overcrowded (and are expensive), and this would help relieve that.  Two, strict sentencing laws (like "three strikes") removed incentives for prisoners to behave well or to get more education, resulting in discipline problems in prisons and high recidivism rates.  This would hopefully change that pattern.  In addition, the bill would change who determines if a juvenile should be tried as an adult - it takes that determination from the prosecutor and gives it to the judge.  It is not clear how much of a difference that will make in practice, but in theory it is fine.  So reducing costs, reducing the number of people locked up in state prison, providing incentives for good behavior, and hopefully reducing recidivism, all at minimal risk to the public seems like a good trade-off to me. So vote yes on 57.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Propositions! 62 and 66

Continuing with two that are important:

Prop 62 - Yes! Yes! Yes! This proposition would repeal the death penalty, and replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole.  It is impossible to get the balance right on the death penalty - you either try to be careful not to execute anyone innocent (because you can't go back and fix it if you do), but then it takes a long time (dragging out resolution for everyone) and is very expensive (like we don't have better things to spend our money on than lawyer hours).  Or you try to do it quick and cheap, but then you increase the risk of killing someone who did not deserve to die (often someone poor and not white). And if you believe in limiting the power of government, stopping them from killing people would be a good start.  Save money, save lives, and speed up justice. Vote YES on 62.

Prop 66 - No! No! No!  This is a countermeasure to 62 by those who want to keep the death penalty.  It would go for the faster, cheaper, kill-more-people-sooner approach.  Revenge is not justice, and having the state kill someone (no matter how heinous the crime) does not fix anything - it just makes the state a killer as well. And by speeding up the process, this proposition makes it more likely that innocent people will be killed at the hands of the state.  Do not support that. Vote NO on 66.