The importance of saying “importance”

Susan Collins — Republican Senator from Maine — has made herself a legislative punchline by consistently pretending to be moderate by expressing her “concern” for the potential consequences while voting down the line for right-wing priorities. In particular, she claimed repeatedly to support abortion rights while voting for the Trump Supreme Court nominees who were committed to overturning Roe v. Wade. (She infamously proclaimed — after voting against conviction in Trump’s first impeachment trial — that she believed the president had “learned his lesson”. Which, in a sense, was true.)

Now she is shocked at how those justices deceived her. But the evidence is… unconvincing. Her staff have shared notes with the NY Times, from her discussions with Brett Kavanaugh during the time when the Senate was considering his nomination. He said:

Start with my record, my respect for precedent, my belief that it is rooted in the Constitution, and my commitment and its importance to the rule of law… I understand precedent and I understand the importance of overturning it

Roe is 45 years old, it has been reaffirmed many times, lots of people care about it a great deal, and I’ve tried to demonstrate I understand real-world consequences

“Lots of people care about it.” No suggestion that he cares about it. The only thing he says about his own intentions is literally the opposite of what Collins suggests. If he had said in a secret meeting with Trump “I understand the importance of overturning” precedent, everyone would understand that he was promising not to protect Roe v. Wade. It actually takes a lot of wishful thinking — Collins’s specialty — to interpret that as a promise to protect abortion rights precedents. That would normally be expressed as “the importance of not overturning precedent”.

Out-of-the-box approaches to the school shooting problem in the US

Now that the proverbial “good guys with a gun” — 19 of them, in fact — have singularly failed to prevent the mass slaughter of children in Uvalde, Texas, the American Right is resorting to ever more absurd proposals to deal with the terror that Americans feel over the threat of children being shot to death in school. Some are proposing that Guns don’t kill people, doors that let gunmen in kill people. Others argue that we stop sending our children to school altogether.

Eventually I expect they’ll hit on an old Cold War-era solution. Back in the early 1980s Ronald Reagan expressed dismay, in one of his State of the Union addresses, about a survey that found like a majority of US children said they feared there might soon be a nuclear war. Cartoonist Mark Stamaty, in his series Washingtoon, showed a group of leading generals listening to the speech and exclaiming, “American children suffering in fear of a nuclear war. That is unacceptable!” And they task the Pentagon with solving the problem… by commissioning a television series starring “Willie the Warhead” that will teach children to welcome rather than to fear nuclear war.

I foresee a similar solution eventually arising from the Christian Soldier circles. Our children should not live in fear of being murdered by a nut with a gun in their schools. In the television series Straight to the Top, they’ll learn to see school shootings as a shortcut to the delights of heaven. Each week another group of blameless godfearing youth get dispatched by a leering antifa Democrat, and then get to eat ice cream and play video games in the divine presence, and enjoy watching the leftist killer being tormented in Hell. A recurring gun-grabber character will be the comic relief, until it turns out that he’s actually the one training the killers, in order to further his plot to carry out a Marxist revolution in a disarmed America.

Rothian perspectives on the current political moment in the US

The juxtaposition of “pro-life” jubilation at saving embryos without even paying lip service to preserving the lives and health of pregnant women, with their equally full-throated defence of the weapons that slaughter young children reminds me of the opening of a little-known book of satirical monologues and dialogues by Philip Roth, published around 1972 under the title Our Gang. The main character of these sketches was Tricky, his barely veiled caricature of Richard Nixon.

The first dialogue is titled “Tricky Comforts a Troubled Citizen”. The citizen is responding to Nixon’s 1971 statement about the need to restrict “abortion on demand”, because of his “personal belief in the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn”. The citizen agreed with this position, but was unsure how to square it with Nixon’s decision to show special leniency to Lieutenant William Calley, who had been convicted of murdering civilians at My Lai, in Vietnam, in 1968.

CITIZEN: Inasmuch as I feel as you do about the unborn, I am seriously troubled by the possibility that Lieutenant Calley may have committed an abortion. I hate to say this, Mr. President, but I am seriously troubled when I think that one of those twenty-two Vietnamese civilians Lieutenant Calley killed may have been a pregnant woman.

TRICKY: … We have a tradition in the courts of this land that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty. There were babies in that ditch at My Lai, and we know there were women of all ages but I have not seen a single document that suggests the ditch at My Lai contained a pregnant woman.

Tricky goes on to explain in his lawyerly way that Lieutenant Calley would have had no way way of knowing if the woman were pregnant, and in the state of panic she would have been in it is unlikely to have been capable of communicating that to him.

CITIZEN: But, sir, suppose that he did know she was pregnant.

TRICKY: Well, we are down to… this issue of “abortion on demand”, which, admittedly, is totally unacceptable to me, on the basis of my personal and religious beliefs.

CITIZEN: Abortion on demand?

TRICKY: If this Vietnamese woman presented herself to Lieutenant Calley for abortion… let’s assume… she was one of those girls who goes out and has a good time and then won’t own up to the consequences… and Lieutenant Calley, let’s say, in the heat and pressure of the moment, performed the abortion, during the course of which the woman died… Well, I just have to wonder of the woman isn’t herself equally as guilty as the lieutenant… Consequently, even if Lieutenant Calley did participate in a case of “abortion on demand”, it would seem to me… that there are numerous extenuating circumstances to consider…

Presumably this explains the lack of concern the American Right shows over taking any action to prevent incidents like the recent school shooting in Uvalde. The murdered girls were all too young to be pregnant. No danger that any abortions were committed. That would be, in Tricky’s words, “totally unacceptable”.

Self-deconstructing clichés: Polymeter edition

For earlier editions of this occasional series, see Weight-loss edition, Supreme Court edition, Europe edition, Bill of Rights edition, open door.

I remember very clearly when the figure of speech “the mother of all X” came into English. It was during the first Gulf War, and Saddam Hussein gave a speech threatening the US-led alliance with “the mother of all battles” should they have the temerity to attack. I recall how the phrase was so strange that an area expert spoke on television, explaining that this was the literal translation of a somewhat flowery Arabic expression, used to evoke an exceptionally strong superlative.

Because, the thing about mothers is that they are a) important, and b) unique. Which makes it surpassingly odd that Trump propagandist and still-congressman Devin Nunes some time ago, in the context of Trump’s first impeachment trial, referred to the allegations against the president as

“one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories” to imagine that “somehow the president of the United States would want a country he doesn’t even like … to start an investigation into Biden.”

To paraphrase an old saying, “a victory has a hundred fathers, but a conspiracy theory has a hundred mothers”, apparently.

The de-wormer turns

Apparently, a conference in Florida to promote the use of anti-parasite treatment Ivermectin for Covid, turned into a super-spreader event.

“I have been on ivermectin for 16 months, my wife and I,” Dr Bruce Boros told the audience at the event held at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, adding: “I have never felt healthier in my life.”

Boros is now reported to be gravely ill with Covid, and at least six other physicians who attended were also infected. It seems to me, if you don’t want people to dismiss your miracle treatment as “horse de-wormer”, you might choose to hold your national gathering somewhere that is not an equestrian center.

Last chopper out of Dallas

So, two weeks ago we had desperate people fleeing the victorious entry of misogynistic religious extremists into Kabul:

Not Texas

This week we had desperate people fleeing another group of victorious misogynistic religious extremists:

Salesforce CEO Mark Beinoff said the company will help employees move out of Texas if they so choose after the state’s Republican governor signed a strict ban on abortions. “Ohana if you want to move we’ll help you exit TX,” Beinoff tweeted Friday, sharing a link to a CNBC article about the company’s decision.

The return of quota sampling

Everyone knows about the famous Dewey Defeats Truman headline fiasco, and that the Chicago Daily Tribune was inspired to its premature announcement by erroneous pre-election polls. But why were the polls so wrong?

The Social Science Research Council set up a committee to investigate the polling failure. Their report, published in 1949, listed a number of faults, including disparaging the very notion of trying to predict the outcome of a close election. But one important methodological criticism — and the one that significantly influenced the later development of political polling, and became the primary lesson in statistics textbooks — was the critique of quota sampling. (An accessible summary of lessons from the 1948 polling fiasco by the renowned psychologist Rensis Likert was published just a month after the election in Scientific American.)

Serious polling at the time was divided between two general methodologies: random sampling and quota sampling. Random sampling, as the name implies, works by attempting to select from the population of potential voters entirely at random, with each voter equally likely to be selected. This was still considered too theoretically novel to be widely used, whereas quota sampling had been established by Gallup since the mid-1930s. In quota sampling the voting population is modelled by demographic characteristics, based on census data, and each interviewer is assigned a quota to fill of respondents in each category: 51 women and 49 men, say, a certain number in the age range 21-34, or specific numbers in each “economic class” — of which Roper, for example, had five, one of which in the 1940s was “Negro”. The interviewers were allowed great latitude in filling their quotas, finding people at home or on the street.

In a sense, we have returned to quota sampling, in the more sophisticated version of “weighted probability sampling”. Since hardly anyone responds to a survey — response rates are typically no more than about 5% — there’s no way the people who do respond can be representative of the whole population. So pollsters model the population — or the supposed voting population — and reweight the responses they do get proportionately, according to demographic characteristics. If Black women over age 50 are thought to be equally common in the voting population as white men under age 30, but we have twice as many of the former as the latter, we count the responses of the latter twice as much as the former in the final estimates. It’s just a way of making a quota sample after the fact, without the stress of specifically looking for representatives of particular demographic groups.

Consequently, it has most of the deficiencies of a quota sample. The difficulty of modelling the electorate is one that has gotten quite a bit of attention in the modern context: We know fairly precisely how demographic groups are distributed in the population, but we can only theorise about how they will be distributed among voters at the next election. At the same time, it is straightforward to construct these theories, to describe them, and to test them after the fact. The more serious problem — and the one that was emphasised in the commission report in 1948, but has been less emphasised recently — is in the nature of how the quotas are filled. The reason for probability sampling is that taking whichever respondents are easiest to get — a “sample of convenience” — is sure to give you a biased sample. If you sample people from telephone directories in 1936 then it’s easy to see how they end up biased against the favoured candidate of the poor. If you take a sample of convenience within a small demographic group, such as middle-income people, then it won’t be easy to recognise how the sample is biased, but it may still be biased.

For whatever reason, in the 1930s and 1940s, within each demographic group the Republicans were easier for the interviewers to contact than the Democrats. Maybe they were just culturally more like the interviewers, so easier for them to walk up to on the street. And it may very well be that within each demographic group today Democrats are more likely to respond to a poll than Republicans. And if there is such an effect, it’s hard to correct for it, except by simply discounting Democrats by a certain factor based on past experience. (In fact, these effects can be measured in polling fluctuations, where events in the news lead one side or the other to feel discouraged, and to be less likely to respond to the polls. Studies have suggested that this effect explains much of the short-term fluctuation in election polls during a campaign.)

Interestingly, one of the problems that the commission found with the 1948 polling with relevance for the Trump era was the failure to consider education as a significant demographic variable.

All of the major polling organizations interviewed more people with college education than the actual proportion in the adult population over 21 and too few people with grade school education only.

Less than zero, part 2

In a long-ago post I wrote about how huge debts don’t make you poor, and illustrated this with the story of real-estate mogul Donald Trump. Negative large fortunes are closer to positive large fortunes than either is to zero. (I later had to correct my interpretation later, on discovering that the counterintuitive behaviour of Trump’s creditors was largely a reflection of their involvement in money laundering.)

Now we learn from the N Y Times that Trump has been paying $750 in federal income tax each year as president. Presumably that’s just an arbitrary number that he made up so that he could say it wasn’t zero. (Apparently even Trump has some limits to his his explicit lying.)

But here’s the thing: $750 is probably worse than $0. People have been assuming he wasn’t paying taxes. It sounds like a general insult. $750 is too specific (as well as being too small). The number becomes a shorthand for his tax-dodging, as well as inviting people to compare their own tax bills to Trump’s.

This demonstrates again how absurdly miserly Donald Trump, above and beyond his criminality. He had to choose an amount to pay purely for the symbolism of possibly needing to tell average Americans how much he had paid. He could certainly have afforded not to choose an amount large enough that even Americans of modest means would find risible. At least four figures…

The opposite of a superficial lie

“The opposite of a fact is a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Niels Bohr

The news media have gotten themselves tangled up, from the beginning of the Trump era, in the epistemological question of whether any statement can objectively be called a lie. Yes, Trump says things that are untrue, that contradict objectively known facts, but are they lies? Does he have the appropriate mens rea to lie, the intention to deceive, or is that just a partisan insult?

The opposite problem has gotten too little attention. Just because Donald Trump says something that corresponds to objective facts, one cannot infer that he is speaking the truth. (We don’t really have a word in English to correspond to the opposite of lie, in this dichotomy.) A good example is the controversy over Trump’s private and public comments on the incipient Coronavirus pandemic in February and March of this year. On February 7, 2020, Trump told Woodward

You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.

This is quite an accurate statement, and also very different than what he was saying publicly. On February 10 he said, in a campaign speech,

I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.

And February 26 in an official White House pandemic task force briefing:

The 15 [case count in the U.S.] within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. … This is a flu. This is like a flu.

When you see that someone has been saying one thing in public and something completely different in private, it’s natural to interpret the former as lying and the latter as the secret truth — particularly when, as in this case, the private statement is known to be, in fact, true, and the public statement false. And particularly when the speaker later says

I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.

With Trump, though, this interpretation is likely false.

The thing is, while his statement of February 7 was true, he could not have known it was true. No one knew it was true. We can see any number of statements by responsible public-health officials making similar statements at the time. For example, Anthony Fauci on February 19:

Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is “just minuscule.” But he does want them to take precautions against the “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.”

“We have more kids dying of flu this year at this time than in the last decade or more,” he said. “At the same time people are worrying about going to a Chinese restaurant. The threat is (we have) a pretty bad influenza season, particularly dangerous for our children.”

And it’s not just Americans under the thumb of Trump. February 6, the day before Trump’s remark to Woodward, the head of the infectious disease clinic at a major Munich hospital, where some of the first German Covid-19 patients were being treated, told the press that “Corona is definitely not more dangerous than influenza,” and criticised the panic that was coming from exaggerated estimates of mortality rates.

Researchers were posting their data and models in real time, but there just wasn’t enough understanding possible then. This is the kind of issue where the secret information that a government has access to is of particularly limited value.

So how are we to interpret Trump’s statements? I think the key is that Trump is not a liar per se, he is a conman and a bullshitter, someone to whom the truth of his statements is completely irrelevant.

In early February he probably did receive a briefing where the possibility that the novel coronavirus was highly lethal and airborne was raised as one possibility, as well as the possibility that it was mild and would disappear on its own. .In talking to elite journalist Bob Woodward he delivered up the most frightening version, not because he believed it was true, but because it seemed most impressive, making him seem like the mighty keeper of dangerous secrets. When talking to the public he said something different, because he had other motives. It’s purely coincidence that what he said in private turned out to be true.

It would be poetic justice of Trump were to be damaged by the bad luck of one time accidentally having told the truth.