Sobering Thoughts

Comments on politics, the culture, economics, and sports by Paul Tuns. I am editor-in-chief of "The Interim," Canada's life and family newspaper, and author of "Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal" (2004) and "The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau" (2015). I am some combination of conservative/libertarian, standing athwart history yelling "bullshit!" You can follow me on Twitter (@ptuns).

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Friday, September 21, 2018
 
Some voters want fighters
The Washington Post reports that Senator Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) is becoming a favourite of liberals because she's been particularly blunt when taking on the Republicans:
Hirono is quickly becoming a hero on the left. Her sudden appeal to broad swaths of the Democratic Party reflects her ability to channel the anger of the party’s base like few other elected officials, at a moment when many of these voters are itching for a fight against Trump and Republicans, with the midterm elections less than two months away.
“She speaks for a large contingent of people out there that want to see the Democrats show a little bit more fire in the belly,” said Brian Fallon, who heads the liberal group Demand Justice ...
Being unapologetic and blunt lets voters know that a politician is clearly on their side. That is, sometimes voters are not just looking for someone with which they agree, but a champion to take up their cause. The blunt talk is a sharp knife in a political battle. Hillary Clinton held many of the same views as Bernie Sanders but he appeared willing to fight for his supporters and did surprisingly well in the primaries. Donald Trump was able to convince some voters to back him who might not like his lifestyle or agree with all his policies because he appeared willing to fight on their behalf (against terrorists, against secular liberalism, against invasive immigration, against unfair trade deals). This helps explain Doug Ford's popularity in Ontario: fighting on behalf of normal people against bureaucracies and crony capitalists. Sometimes this fighting stance appears intemperate and pundits think that the tone hurts their electoral chances. While it doesn't work for every candidate and in all political environments, sometimes having a politician willing to take the fight to the political opponent or some other enemy is what attracts outsized support and even devotion. This dynamic can help candidates on both the Left and the Right. There is the risk that at some point the fighting tone tips over the edge to bellicosity, at which point it becomes an electoral albatross.
This post may appear to contradict the Andrew Coyne thesis that I also think is true, namely that so-called immoderate positions are less of a concern to voters than an immoderate tone. To a swathe of centrist, swing voters, moderate tone is important and so-called fringe views will be at least tolerated if presented in a respectable way. But clearly there are also times at which some segment of voters appreciated having political leadership not merely on their side, but fighting for their side. These views may be reconciled by admitting that the fighting, intemperate candidate is winning more votes by becoming a champion to some voters while turning off another, smaller segment of voters worried about the immoderate tone of the candidate. As I often note here, election outcomes are the result of a complex interplay of thousands of factors. The point is that sometimes politicians can find advantage in taking the fight to a political opponent using blunt language.
One last point. Theresa May could help herself considerably with her party and British voters if she was seen to be fighting for Britain in her Brexit negotiations. Perhaps she could get as good a deal. Perhaps she would force the EU to take the UK more seriously during negotiations. But politically, there would almost definitely be a payoff for the Prime Minister if she was seen to be fighting Brussels.


 
Algorithms and evidence-based
First rule of politics: people pay attention to the evidence that supports their priors and ignore evidence that contradicts them. This is true of politicians, pundits, and the public.
Madeleine Carlisle writes in The Atlantic about how bail-reform activists are worried that algorithms used to determine an offender's flight risk might perpetuate racial discrimination. These activists are confusing disparate impact with unjust discrimination. A more important point is about evidence-based policy and programs. Smart algorithms -- that is algorithms that take into account what has happened in similar cases or with similar factors -- are evidence-based. But some activists don't like what the evidence says because it counters or challenges some of their values (race-blindness). Algorithms are not completely neutral tools, but unless they are static they are evidence-based.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018
 
Economic confidence and potential trouble for Trudeau
Voters will tolerate one of these phenomenon being true: a decline in one's standard of living, believing that one's children will be worse off, and feeling that one's values or way of life is under attack. My thesis about populist politics is that while voters can tolerate any one of these being true and politics will remain relatively normal (there is minimal interest in disturbing the status quo), if two of them are true it becomes a problem for incumbents, and if all three are true it leads to serious political tumult, and sometimes not just for the party in power.
Last week, Finance Canada issued a report, "Real Progress for the Middle Class," trumpeting select economic indicators to suggest the Canadian economy is doing just swell. It had charts highlighting growing consumer and business confidence in the Canadian economy. Based on unemployment figures and (modest) wage growth, people are feeling good about the state of the Canadian economy and probably feeling pretty good about their own financial situation. This confidence is buttressed by a new Pew Research Center survey of 28 countries and economic confidence ten years after the financial crisis. It finds that 63% of Canadians believe the current economic situation is good. That is in line with American and Australian confidence (65% and 67% respectively) and well ahead of the UK (46%) and France (43%), but about 15 percentage points behind Netherlands and Sweden. That looks good for the government, but there is also some economic anxiety. The problem for the Liberal government is that Canadians are among the most pessimistic when it comes to whether they believe their children will be better off financially. Just one quarter of Canadians believe their kids will be better off, compared to a third of Americans and 35% or more of Dutch, Swedes, and Germans. We are more in line with Britons (23%), who are dealing with the Brexit uncertainty, and Spain (24%), a country with a youth unemployment rate above 30%. Pew has only being doing these types of polls for four years, so we don't have a lot of data to know whether this is a long-term trend or, more importantly, the political consequences in past elections. But if my thesis about populist politics is true, when two-thirds of Canadians believe their kids will be worse off, we have an important ingredient being mixed into our politics that could lead to the sort of tumult we've seen in other countries. That isn't good for Justin Trudeau, but it might not be so good for the main opposition parties, either.
Elections are too often reduced to simple narratives. The decisions of voters are based on dozens of reasons. And I'd still bet on Justin Trudeau winning the 2019 federal election. But concerns about the economic well-being of our youngest Canadians might have under-appreciated political ramifications.


 
Thank God for copy editors
The Observer reports on a correction by the New York Times:
Tuesday’s print edition of The New York Times incorrectly identifies a picture of actress Angela Bassett—the Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee who has played Tina Turner and Betty Shabazz—as Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former Trump employee who has played herself on both network television and in real life.
The mistake was pointed out on Twitter by Buzzfeed journalist Julia Reinstein, and acknowledged as a genuine error by the New York Times communications Twitter account. “We regret running an incorrect caption from a photo wire service in some early print editions,” the Times tweet reads. “We will issue a correction in tomorrow’s paper.” ...
It’s unclear how the caption made it all the way to the approved print edition, even if the mistake was indeed the fault of journalists at a wire service such as the Associated Press. Omarosa was not even in attendance at last night’s Emmy awards ...
Last year, the Times eliminated the copy editor position at the paper and folded the copy editor’s traditional duties into a catchall editorial position.
That might not be working, but at least the struggling Times saved a few dollars.
Instapundit's Stephen Green observed of the Times mistake, "Pretty sure that’s racism when a right-leaning publication does it."


Tuesday, September 18, 2018
 
Systemic racism in American legal system
Libertarian Radley Balko, who used to write for Reason magazine but now bangs out pieces for the Washington Post, has a thorough article on the problem of systemic racism. He begins with explaining why conservatives and others on the Right shouldn't recoil from talk about systemic racism considering its roots and how it leads to a violation of the rights of individuals:
Of particular concern to some on the right is the term “systemic racism,” often wrongly interpreted as an accusation that everyone in the system is racist. In fact, systemic racism means almost the opposite. It means that we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them. When you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives concluded, will concede rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept black people in their place. For much of the early 20th century, in some parts of the country, that was its primary function. That it might retain some of those proclivities today shouldn’t be all that surprising.
In any case, after more than a decade covering these issues, it’s pretty clear to me that the evidence of racial bias in our criminal-justice system isn’t just convincing — it’s overwhelming. But because there still seems to be some skepticism, I’ve attempted below to catalog the evidence. The list below isn’t remotely comprehensive.
On the war on drugs, Balko writes:
Black people are consistently arrested, charged and convicted of drug crimes including possession, distribution and conspiracy at far higher rates than white people. This, despite research showing that both races use and sell drugs at about the same rate.
Also, jury selection remains tainted by racial bias:
Though the Supreme Court made it illegal for prosecutors to exclude prospective jurors because of race in the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky, that ruling has largely gone unenforced. The New Yorker reported in 2015 that in the approximately 30 years since the ruling, courts have accepted the flimsiest excuses for striking black jurors and that prosecutors have in turn trained subordinates how to strike black jurors without a judicial rebuke. A 2010 report by the Equal Justice Initiative documented cases in which courts upheld prosecutors’ dismissal of jurors because of allegedly race-neutral factors such as affiliation with a historically black college, a son in an interracial marriage, living in a black-majority neighborhood or that a juror “shucked and jived.”
Balko provides summaries of and links to multiple studies and stories to buttress his points. His article is a long, challenging piece of journalism that deserves to be read and taken seriously.
One possible angle that might rebut some of the findings is that it can be difficult to separate race and class. Getting ensnarled in the American legal system is not an inexpensive proposition and I don't just mean the cost of lawyers: time off from part-time or precarious work (or finding childcare), paying bail, and finding a job after minor youthful infractions. There is no shortage of ways in which the poor are at a huge disadvantage once they get caught up on the legal system, and that might affect some segment of the black population disproportionately.


Monday, September 17, 2018
 
Boudreaux on 'retaliatory tariffs'
Donald Boudreaux at CafeHayek: "Mutual Self-Impoverishment is Foolish." Boudreaux explains the harm done by tariffs and counter-tariffs:
My first objection is based on ethics. It is unethical for Uncle Sam, in an effort to drum up additional sales for some Americans, to obstruct other Americans’ freedom to spend their incomes as they choose and in ways that everyone agrees to be otherwise acceptable. Even if the result of such “retaliation” would be a net gain to Americans collectively – measured in money or utility or both – I know of no principle of ethics that, in the ordinary course of affairs, excuses holding Smith economically hostage for the benefit of Jones.
My second objection is grounded in economics. Contrary to your (and Pres. Trump’s) assumption, foreign-government protectionism weakens rather than strengthens foreign economies that practice it. Why should we “retaliate” by weakening our own economy?
The economic literature comes out overwhelmingly on the side that tariffs harm the collective even when they benefit particular sectors (although Rajit Biswas of the Indian Statistical Institute suggests it harms the protected sector, too). But Boudreaux's point is well-taken.


 
Leaders' debates are over-rated
SkyNews is leading a campaign to #MakeDebatesHappen, to ensure that (televised) debates among the political leaders is a permanent and guaranteed feature of future British election campaigns. James Snell writes at CapX about the problem with leaders' debate during election campaigns:
But even well-organised debates with little surrounding froth about process are hardly a great advert for democracy. Indeed, they are often not really “debates” at all, but a chance for senior politicians to trot out carefully prepared soundbites and gags at their opponents’ expense.
Certainly, the most arresting moments can stick in voters’ mind. Ronald Reagan’s folksy quips and Donald Trump’s outrageous comments (“because you’d be in jail”, for instance) both show how a candidate can seize the initiative. Although those moments can live long in the memory, they also underline that debates can easily substitute affability and ‘being good value’ for seriousness and political skill.
Voters learn little about policy, or about how candidates would perform in office.
My guess is that there would be tremendous overlap in a Venn diagram of people who complain about the reliance on soundbites amongst leadership contenders in political debates and those decrying these same leadership contenders avoiding leadership debates. That is not to say leaders' debate should never occur. Some leaders want them and others don't. That in itself -- or more accurately, the reasons they give for participating or eschewing debates -- is something by which to judge potential future prime ministers. But the idea that they are necessary to informed decision-making by voters seems to overestimate ... well, almost everything: the honesty of politicians, the depth of policy discussion in debate (or alternatively, the importance of platitudes), the intelligence of viewers, the open-mindedness of viewers, among much else. Probably at their best, leaders' debates are about signaling of shared values between leaders and their base and some very small percentage of swing voters that might be won over by such messages. But the idea that democracy depends on leadership debates is myopic, at best.


Sunday, September 16, 2018
 
Petitions
An email from the Ontario NDP says:
New supporters have been flooding in through our online petitions against Ford’s agenda. The fundraising numbers are also encouraging: with hours left before the deadline we are closing in on our fundraising goal.
Doug Ford may prove to be one of the best volunteer recruiters to our movement, but we’re going to need to raise the money to organize these new supporters into an effective opposition.
There is nothing wrong with using petitions to build a data base. Indeed, that is what petitions are for, if we are brutally honest. Many people think petitions are about sending a message to elected officials asking them to do or not do something. That is what they are ostensibly for and when it does send a message (or, more accurately, when the message is received and acted upon), that's a bonus. But few governments are moved by petitions. But petitions are an effective organizing tool for political parties or third parties. People who sign petitions should be aware of that.


Saturday, September 15, 2018
 
Social capital and populism
Ross Douthat has a very good column on religious voters based on research from the excellent Voters Study Group. The whole column is worth reading because it explains how the GOP has changed in recent years and might continue to change in the near future. Donald Trump is not alone in being responsible for the divisions and direction of the Republican Party; there are some pretty deep sociological roots that nourished the mood for Trump's message. Douthat writes:
But in general, churchgoing Republicans look more like the party many elite conservatives wanted to believe existed before Trump came along — more racially-tolerant, more accepting of multiculturalism and globalization, and also more consistently libertarian on economics. Secularized Trump voters look more like the party as Trump has tried to remake it, blending an inchoate economic populism with strong racial resentments.
Interestingly in the survey the different groups make about the same amount of money, which cuts against strict economic-anxiety explanations for Trumpism. But the churchgoers and nonchurchgoers differ more in social capital: The irreligious are less likely to have college degrees, less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced; they’re also less civically engaged, less satisfied with their neighborhoods and communities, and less trusting and optimistic in general.
This seems to support the argument, advanced by Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner among others, that support for populism correlates with a kind of communal breakdown, in which secularization is one variable among many leaving people feeling isolated and angry, and drawing them to the ersatz solidarity of white identity politics.
The whole column is worth reading, but this sentence is worth re-reading: "support for populism correlates with a kind of communal breakdown, in which secularization is one variable among many leaving people feeling isolated and angry, and drawing them to the ersatz solidarity of white identity politics." Relationships are generally a good thing and those who have more of them are less prone to messages of despair. On a purely practical level, a church broadens and deepens the pool of people to which a person can be connected, never mind the social capital one gains from living virtuously.


Friday, September 14, 2018
 
Chelsea Clinton ties her religiosity and abortion advocacy
The Daily Caller reports:
Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton said that overturning Roe V. Wade would be “unchristian” and that doing so is totally unthinkable in a SiriusXM interviews Thursday.
“We can’t go back to that [pre-Roe V. Wade]. That’s unconscionable to me,” Clinton said.
“As a deeply religious person, it’s also unchristian to me,” she continued.
Two quick observations:
1) Chelsea Clinton's comments lack Christian humility when she describes herself as "a deeply religious person." Indeed, I've never heard anybody I would describe as holy or religious describe his- or herself as "a deeply religious person."
2) The only time people like Chelsea Clinton describe themselves as Christian, it seems, is when they are promoting socially liberal position at odds with the traditional moral teachings of Christian churches.
Also, in a classically Clintonian way of boosting themselves, Bill and Hillary's kid compares her abortion advocacy online and in interviews to the work of Supreme Court justices: "I’ve had the temerity to, as the Supreme Court did in 1992 in Planned Parenthood V. Casey, to point out that our ability to participate fully in our society, including economically, hinges on our ability to be able to make choices for our bodies."