Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘US politics’

Pathetic Republicans

The name of the Republican Party derives ultimately from the Latin res publica, meaning “public matters”. Which suggests a posture diametrically opposed to that which Senate Republicans have taken to the Kavanaugh sexual assault accusation. It seems obvious that, from a public policy perspective, there are broadly three possible stances you could have toward these allegations: 1) They are facially incredible; 2) They are credible but irrelevant to his fitness to serve on the Supreme Court; 3) If true they may (or certainly do) disqualify him from the Supreme Court, so it is essential to take pains to ascertain their truth or falsity. (I suppose there is a fourth as well, the mirror of (1): We believe the accuser, so the nomination simply needs to be withdrawn.)

Republicans seem to have settled bizarrely on the first part of (3), but then veered off into personal pathos. The accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, has requested that an independent investigation determine some essential facts before her testimony, and that other witnesses be called. Republicans have rejected this, and seem generally to represent her testimony as a personal favour to her, to assuage her suffering.

Senator John Cornyn:

We don’t know if she’s coming or not but this is her chance. This is her one chance. We hope she does.

Why is it “her chance”? Presumably it is the nation’s chance to avoid having an attempted rapist and perjurer on the Supreme Court. I understand that the disposition of a crucial witness is important, but surely that cannot affect the need to resolve the matter before an irrevocable decision is taken. Senator Bob Corker:

I just felt that it was important that if she had these types of serious allegations that she ought to have the opportunity to be heard. And I hope she is going to take advantage of that. If she doesn’t — that’s a whole other thing.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:

Dr. Ford has talked to the Washington Post, indicated she wants to talk to the committee, and we’re going to give her that opportunity on Monday.

Pseudo-centrist and sometime feminist Susan Collins is particularly concerned about Brett Kavanaugh’s feelings:

I think it’s not fair for Judge Kavanaugh for her not to come forward and testify.

The subtext is, if she doesn’t help us, we’ll just have to move ahead and confirm him. Which suggests that they really don’t think this is important, raising the question, why are they inviting her to testify at all? Surely the Senate Judiciary Committee is not the place for a public therapy session, particularly when the witness will be bringing great public opprobrium on herself, regardless of how the hearings turn out.

Had enough Kavanaugh?

To adopt for a moment the president’s rhetorical style:

The Federalist Society isn’t sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
We need a total and complete shutdown of men being appointed to positions of power and influence until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in male supremacy, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.

Trump’s branding

In reading Donald Trump’s rant on the anonymous freak who wrote in the NY Times that, yes, Donald Trump is a raving loon, but no need to take any extreme measures like electing Democrats, because the people supposedly working for him have everything under control, I was reminded of a weird tic that Trump has that I’ve never seen remarked upon. It’s in this line:

“We have somebody in what I call the failing New York Times talking about he’s part of the resistance within the Trump administration. This is what we have to deal with,” he told reporters in the East Room early Wednesday evening.

Now, if you’re trying to insult someone, you say, “He’s an idiot.” You don’t say, “He’s what I call an idiot.” Calling attention to the fact that this is merely your private designation saps the force of the insult.

Trump is enormously proud of his ability to brand people with epithets (even if no one else actually uses them). So proud, that he needs to call attention to his invention at every opportunity, even against the objective of the epithets. One of the many ways that he acts like a toddler (or a Hollywood producer). “Look Mama, I made it self!”

I imagine a version of the Odyssey featuring Homer’s trademarked characters “what I call grey-eyed Athena” and “Odysseus, or as I call him, ‘sacker of cities'”.

Fake secrets. A paradox of Trumpism

The story of Donald Trump’s effort to intimidate his critics by threatening to revoke security clearances has entered a new and paradoxical phase:

On Sunday, national security adviser John Bolton… told ABC’s This Week: “A number of people have commented that [Brennan] couldn’t be in the position he’s in of criticizing President Trump and his so-called collusion with Russia unless he did use classified information.”

I thought the story was that the “so-called collusion” was all a pack of lies. But can lies be classified? Is there fiction whose release threatens national security? Or are there lies which cannot be told without certain secret true information?

Truly, a paradox.

Tense times for Trumpism

Troy Balderson, the Republican candidate who just may have squeezed out a narrow victory in a special election for a House seat heavily Republican-leaning district in Ohio, can’t quite remember when America is our was our is going to continue to be great:

Over the next three months I’m going to do everything I can to keep America great again.

I guess people have been overwhelmed by the rapidity of the national salvation that Trump accomplished…

Untouchable

Is there any better example of Trump’s disjunctive speech patterns than that moment in his Helsinki press conference where he seemed to be trying to support Paul Manafort by comparing him to Al Capone?

With Paul Manafort, who really is a nice man, you look at what’s going on, it’s like Al Capone

Boom times for crisis actors

While other creative professions suffer high unemployment, actors apparently are in consistently high demand for anti-conservative propaganda films. Even groups of actors that would usually have difficulty finding work — such as hispanic children — are now at full employment, presumably commanding high salaries from George Soros. At least, that is what we can infer from this remark of senior advisor to the president Kellyanne Conway in a recent television interview:

“These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now, do not fall for it, Mr President,” she said, staring directly into the camera.

Seriously, though, the Republicans have seemed to have stumbled their way toward a genuinely novel way of excusing crimes against humanity. This started with far-right conspiracies about “false-flag” operations to stage school shootings, as an excuse to disarm law-abiding Americans. For those who can believe it, it’s a perfect package for looking away from images that any psychologically healthy person must find disturbing — and, indeed, to transform that horror into even greater support for the policies that caused the horror.

Even the highly creative Holocaust denial industry with all their careful analysis of the capacity of gas chambers and crematoria, has never, to my knowledge, come up with the expedient of simply claiming that all those grisly photos and films of “Jews” being “shot” and “gassed” were actually just performing for political propaganda. Or maybe they were doing live theatre, entertaining the troops in a culturally unique way. I’m sure someone could come up with photographic evidence that two “corpses” in different photos look like they are the same person. Maybe they can even turn the narrative around, from Nazis massacring Jews to Nazis providing work to struggling Jewish actors.

Fraud detection and statistics

Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, has now been formally indicted for criminal fraud. I’ve commented on the company before, and on the journalistic conventions around intellectuals that fostered her rise. But now that the Theranos story is coming to an end, I feel a need to comment on how utterly unnecessary this all was.

At its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion and employed 800 people. Yet according to John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter whose investigations exposed Theranos’s fraud, the company is down to just 20 employees who are trying to close up shop.

All credit to Carreyrou, who by all accounts has done an excellent job investigating and reporting on this fiasco, but literally any statistician — anyone who has been through and understood a first-year statistics course — could have said from the start that this was sheer nonsense. That’s presumably why the board was made up mainly of politicians and generals.

The promise of Theranos was that they were going to revolutionise medicine by performing a hundred random medical tests on a drop of blood, and give patients a complete readout of their state of health, independent of medical recommendation of specific tests. But any statistician knows — and every medical practitioner should know — that the reason we don’t do lots of random tests without any specific indication isn’t that they’re too expensive — many aren’t — or that they require too much blood, but that the more tests you do, the more false positives you’re going to accumulate.

If you do a hundred tests on an average person, you’re going to find at least a few questionable results — either from measurement error, or because most tests aren’t all that specific — requiring followups and expensive investigations, and possibly unnecessary treatments.

Of course, if I had to evaluate the proposal for such a company I would keep an open mind about the possibility of a conceptual breakthrough that would allow them to control the false positives. But I would have demanded very clear evidence and explanations. The fact that the fawning news reports back in 2013-15 raved about the genius new biomedical technology, and failed to even claim to have produced (or found) any innovative statistical methodology, made me pretty sure that they had no idea what they were doing. In the end, it turned out that the biomedical innovations were also fake, which I probably should have guessed. But if the greedhead generals — among them the current secretary of defense, who definitely should be questioned about this, and probably ought to resign — had asked a statistician, they could have saved a lot of people a lot of unpleasantness, and maybe helped save Elizabeth Holmes from herself.

The meaning of “is”

One of Bill Clinton’s most famous contributions to the political lexicon is

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

This was his defense from the accusation of having lied when he explicitly said, of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky,

There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.

It was immediately obvious that there was something strange about his somewhat tortured insistence on the present tense, where what he was asked to deny was in the past. Of course, we know that he was trying to be extremely clever in making a statement that was literally true, while seeming to deny an accusation that he knew to be correct.

Now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has spoken out, not in his own defense, but in defense of the president:

“In all of this, in any of this, there’s been no evidence that there’s any collusion between the Trump campaign and the President and Russia,” he said. “Let’s just make that clear — there is no collusion.”

Is he being ironic?

Statistics, politics, and causal theories

A new headline from the Trump era:

Fewer Immigrants Are Reporting Domestic Abuse. Police Blame Fear of Deportation.

Compare it to this headline from a few months ago:

Arrests along Mexico border drop sharply under Trump, new statistics show

This latter article goes on to comment

The figures show a sharp drop in apprehensions immediately after President Trump’s election win, possibly reflecting the deterrent effect of his rhetoric on would-be border crossers.

It must be noted that these two interpretations of declining enforcement are diametrically opposed: In the first case, declining reports to police are taken as evidence of nothing other than declining reports, whereas the latter analysis eschews such a naive interpretation, suggesting that the decline in apprehensions is actually evidence of a decline in the number of offenses (in this case, illegal border crossings).

I don’t mean to criticise the conventional wisdom, which seems to me eminently sensible. I just think it’s interesting how little the statistical “facts” are able to speak for themselves. The same facts could mean that the election of Trump was associated with a decline in domestic violence in immigrant communities, and also with a reduction in border patrol effectiveness. It’s hard to come up with a causal argument for either of these — Did immigrant men look at Trump with revulsion and decide, abusing women is for the gringos? Did ICE get so caught up with the fun of splitting up families in midwestern towns and harassing Spanish speakers in Montana, that they stopped paying attention to the southern border? — so we default to the opposite conclusion.

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