Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘US politics’

Don(ald) Corleone

I’m fascinated by how The Godfather has become the touchstone for all attempts to understand the Trump administration. And by a line of thinking that has hardened into conventional wisdom, clearly stated in today’s op-ed by the NY Times’s token theo-conservative Ross Douthat:

As the hapless Don Jr. — the Gob Bluth or Fredo Corleone of a family conspicuously short on Michaels — protested in his own defense, the Russian rendezvous we know about came before (though only slightly before) the WikiLeaks haul was announced.

We’ve given up on any pretense that the president of the United States isn’t a gangster. Conservative thought leaders are well into lamenting that he isn’t even a competent gangster.

Learning to count

The US espionage services promised last year to reveal roughly how many Americans were illegally spied upon through “accidents” in the warrantless surveillance law restricted to communications by foreigners overseas.

Last month the promise was retracted.

“The NSA has made Herculean, extensive efforts to devise a counting strategy that would be accurate,” Dan Coats, a career Republican politician appointed by Republican President Donald Trump as the top U.S. intelligence official, testified to a Senate panel on Wednesday.

Coats said “it remains infeasible to generate an exact, accurate, meaningful, and responsive methodology that can count how often a U.S. person’s communications may be collected” under the law known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

So we’re supposed to believe that the NSA is capable of making brilliant use of the full depth of private communications to map out threats to US national security… but isn’t capable of counting them. Presumably these “Herculean” efforts involve a strong helping of Cretan Bull—-.

I am reminded of this passage in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man without Qualities]:

Es gibt also in Wirklichkeit zwei Geistesverfassungen, die einander nicht nur bekämpfen, sondern die gewöhnlich, was schlimmer ist, nebeneinander bestehen, ohne ein Wort zu wechseln, außer daß sie sich gegenseitig versichern, sie seien beide wünschenswert, jede auf ihrem Platz. Die eine begnügt sich nicht damit, genau zu sein, und hält sich an die Tatsachen; die andere begnügt sich nicht damit, sondern schaut immer auf das Ganze und leitet ihre Erkenntnisse von sogenannten ewigen und großen Wahrheiten her. Die eine gewinnt dabei an Erfolg, und die andere an Umfang und Würde. Es ist klar, daß ein Pessimist auch sagen könnte, die Ergebnisse der einen seien nichts wert und die der anderen nicht wahr. Denn was fängt man am Jüngsten Tag, wenn die menschlichen Werke gewogen werden, mit drei Abhandlungen über die Ameisensäure an, und wenn es ihrer dreißig wären?! Andererseits, was weiß man vom Jüngsten Tag, wenn man nicht einmal weiß, was alles bis dahin aus der Ameisensäure werden kann?!

Thus there are in fact two distinct mental types, which not only battle each other, but which, even worse, generally coexist side by side without ever exchanging a word, other than that they assure each other that they are each desirable in their own place. The one contents itself with being exact and keeping to the facts; the other is not content with that, always looking for the big picture, and derives its knowledge from so-called great eternal truths. The one gains success thereby, the other gains scope and value. Of course, a pessimist could always say, the results of the one have no value, while those of the other have no truth. After all, when the Last Judgment comes, what are we going to do with three treatises on formic acid, and so what if we even had thirty of them?! On the other hand, what could we possibly know about the Last Judgment, if we don’t even know what could happen by then with formic acid?!

The NSA is focusing on the big picture…

Up from disaster

US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had this to say about the Senate’s attempts at a “healthcare” bill:

“Obamacare is a disaster,” said McConnell, according to video captured by the Louisville Courier-Journal. “No action is not an option. But what to replace it with is very challenging.”

It makes you wonder: If current policy is unquestionably a “disaster”, why is it such a challenge to find an alternative that is superior? It’s like, “Living in a hole in the ground covered by a board really sucks, but it’s challenging to find good housing…”


This graphic from the US Department of Health and Human Services has been getting a lot of attention.

Mainly, people have commented on the egregious deceptiveness of the content. The government’s plan is to increase the number of uninsured by 22 million. It’s like Hitler fulminating against Soviet barbarity (which he did — and was probably sincere). But I am fascinated instead by the Trumpification of official US government communications. Leaving aside the sheer novelty of government agencies putting out propaganda against current laws, the first “informational” slogan ends with an exclamation point! Is that normal? And am I merely fantasising the phallic-impotence imagery of the second one? (I mean, it’s hard to imagine why that image is there. Who thinks of mercury thermometers as a symbol for medical care these days? How many people have even seen one? And if that is a thermometer, did Obamacare fail by not getting the fever high enough?)

Extreme left

Vox is explaining Jeremy Corbyn to Americans:

He is far to the left of Bernie Sanders: Corbyn has proposed renationalizing Britain’s rail system, abolishing tuition for British universities, massively hiking taxes, capping CEO salaries, and imposing rent controls to deal with Britain’s affordable housing problem. He’s even suggested reopening the coal mines that used to be a big part of Britain’s economy.

Hmmm. The rail system is already nationalised in US, as in most developed countries. Sanders himself did propose abolishing tuition at public universities in the US and raising taxes. He formerly advocated a maximum wage, though he retreated from that in the most recent election campaign. Rent control is, for obvious reasons, seldom an issue in US presidential campaigns, but it is certainly an issue that Sanders advocated as mayor of Burlington. As for reopening the coal mines, that’s kind of crazy, but it’s a Trump policy.

I think this shows, above all, how far Britain has drifted to the right (NHS notwithstanding) and the US has drifted to the left (despite the persistence of gerrymandered Republican control).

What we’ve come to

I wonder whether any Republican legislators, in a quiet moment alone, is troubled to realise that the path they’ve followed has led them to work to trash the reputation of a highly respected moderate Republican former deputy attorney general and (until very recently) director of the FBI. Does it ring any alarm bells for them? Do they think, this isn’t really what I expected to be doing with my life?

Exponential vernacular

Like most mathematicians, I think, I’m irritated by the way “grows exponentially” has come into common parlance as a synonym for “grows rapidly”; whereas exponential growth in mathematics may be fast or slow, depending on the current level of the quantity. This has even crossed into technical discussions, as when I heard a talk by a cancer expert who objected to standard claims that cancer mortality increases exponentially through adulthood — which it does — because the levels actually stay low through the 50s, and so only “increase exponentially” after that point.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the vernacular application of this mathematical concept was fairly recent. So I was intrigued to find the cognate concept of “growing geometric”  popping up in Evan Thomas’s Nixon biography, on the Watergate tapes. In the context of cancer. Used correctly! It’s quite a famous part of Watergate lore, where John Dean refers to Watergate as a “cancer… close to the presidency”.

We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it’s compounding.

Trump’s cheap shyster responds to the former FBI director

I know that Donald Trump is famously stingy, but I would have thought a man with his history of persistent involvement with the shady side of the law would appreciate the value of competent legal assistance. Instead, he has this guy:

President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer on Wednesday responded to fired FBI Director James Comey’s prepared testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee by saying that Trump felt “completely and totally vindicated.”

“The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russia probe,” Marc Kasowitz wrote in a statement. “The president feels completely and totally vindicated.”

Seriously? The FBI director has presented what most people would consider overwhelming evidence of attempted obstruction of justice, attempting to block investigation of his close associates, strikingly similar but even more blatant than the actions for which Richard Nixon was forced to resign. The best his lawyer can come up with is to say that, in the course of the discussions in which he attempted to obstruct justice the president received assurances that he was not, at that point, two months ago, personally a target of investigation. That’s what he calls “totally vindicated”.

I suppose this is what you get when top law firms consider the president too skeezy to associate with.

The other statement is overridden

Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler used to be the gold standard for political obfuscation, with his declaration (when he had to reverse previous insistence that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate break-in “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”

Trump, recognising that his Watergate reboot won’t pull in 21st-century viewers if they have to watch a “third-rate burglary” investigation playing out over 2 1/2 years, is ramping up the malfeasance (Russian espionage! billion-dollar bribes!) and the pace, while still hitting the classic Nixonian marks (asking the CIA to block an FBI investigation!) One place where they’ve been exceeding their originals is in the obfuscatory rhetoric. Following on Kellyanne Conway’s celebrated rechristening of lies as “alternative facts”, we have budget director Mike Mulvaney explaining why Trump’s explicit promise not to cut Medicaid was now being reversed. NY Times reporter John Harwood:

“Overridden”! Like a good reboot, it’s reminiscent of the Zieglerian original, yet somehow punchier, with a novel twist. (Tens of millions of poor people losing access to healthcare. Great cliffhanger!) The critics, though, might carp at them reaching for effect this way on their policy statements, where Nixon himself was pretty solid, leaving perhaps less headroom for further amplification when we get to the corruption charges.

Some are saying the show might not even be renewed for another season.

By the way, I’ve just read Evan Thomas’s biography Being Nixon. I’ve never had much patience for those who claim that Nixon got a raw deal over Watergate — the burglary and cover-up were just the most salient aspect of the presidential malfeasance and abuse of power — but I understand better why many people would have seen his fall as tragic. Great talents that could have served the country well, sadly bonded to a flawed personality that dragged himself and the country into a mire of recriminations.

Comparing Trump to Nixon is deeply unfair to Nixon.

Republican humour

I’ve tended to think of republicans as a fairly humorless bunch. But with information coming out more about the pattern of top Republicans making “jokes” (Trump on stopping the Flynn investigation, House Majority Leader McCarthy on Trump being paid by the Russians) under conditions of absolute secrecy, I have to consider the possibility that there’s a whole underground world of Republican humour.

And they’re obviously sincere, since they also mistook President Obama’s secret private warning about Flynn for a joke.

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