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Where have you gone Woodward & Bernstein?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, December 11, 2017)

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

As journalism dies in this country, the major news media organizations are gaining customers. These two trends are not unrelated.

First, television and digital news audiences for many media outlets have been steadily growing since the election of Donald Trump. He is their dream come true.

According to the News Media Alliance, “Newspaper websites in the United States have seen an increase in paid subscribers (in 2017) — The New York Times has grown to more than 2 million paid digital-only customers, while The Wall Street Journal passed the 1 million mark.”

Despite being branded as ‘fake news by President Trump, CNN saw its 2017 3rd Quarter ad revenues grow by 9 per cent compared to last year. Likewise, CNN’s biggest competitor in the anti-Trump television news business, MSNBC, saw its prime time viewership grow 26 percent in November 2017 compared to November 2016.

Say what you want about President Trump, he is good for the news business.

The second trend is not a good one, however. Journalistic practice within national news outlets appears to be in a straight-line decline. Every few weeks now a news story has to be publicly retracted for fundamental inaccuracies. Perhaps more disturbing is that these journalistic fumbles aren’t just happening at the 24-hour-news-cycle-dependent television networks, but at the major national newspapers as well.

The most recent “reporting error” occurred on December 8th when CNN broke from its morning anti-Trump philippic to announce a “breaking news” CNN exclusive regarding an email in which WikiLeaks supposedly offered the Trump campaign prior access to the DNC’s Russian-hacked emails before they were made public.

According to CNN, multiple anonymous sources confirmed the e-mail contents.

MSNBC and CBS quickly repeated the CNN report on their own news platforms, presumably because they too had independently confirmed the e-mail contents.

This story, had it been true, would have been the first piece of concrete evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with a reputed Russian intelligence intermediary (i.e., WikiLeaks) to coordinate the release of information meant to damage the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists that broke the Edward Snowden story in 2013 and a favorite target of the Democratic Party’s neo-liberal elites, offers a much more detailed description of CNN’s reporting error and its consequences in a recent article posted on theintercept.com. Additionally, his article lists just some of the recent reporting errors made by major news organizations:

  • Russia hacked into the U.S. electric grid to deprive Americans of heat during winter (Wash Post)
  • An anonymous group (PropOrNot) documented how major U.S. political sites are Kremlin agents (Wash Post)
  • WikiLeaks has a long, documented relationship with Putin (Guardian)
  • A secret server between Trump and a Russian bank has been discovered (Slate)
  • RT hacked C-SPAN and caused disruption in its broadcast (Fortune)
  • Crowdstrike finds Russians hacked into a Ukrainian artillery app (Crowdstrike)
  • Russians attempted to hack elections systems in 21 states (multiple news outlets, echoing Homeland Security)
  • Links have been found between Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci and a Russian investment fund under investigation (CNN)

All substantively false or misleading stories that were (and may still be) promulgated as fact.

Isn’t the Trump menace justification for a little journalistic fudging?

A prominent Democratic Party operative recently asked if Donald Trump is capable of feeling shame for his actions. It is reasonable to ask the national news organizations the same question.

“But Fox News is far worse,” is frequently the first response when anyone suggests the news media is biased (particularly against Trump).

Well, yes and no. There is no question Fox News, under Roger Ailes leadership, pioneered a potent form of partisan advocacy within the context of a “news” organization. Ailes’ project turned the Fox News Channel into the nation’s most powerful cable news network.

Ailes’ formula was simple. Take selective, often loosely connected, facts and weave a storyline that fits a particular narrative favorable to the agenda of political conservatives.

For example, part of President Obama’s early childhood education was spent in a Muslim-majority community in the Indonesia. This is a fact. As President, Obama’s 2009 speech at Cairo University apologized for some past U.S. actions with respect to the Muslim world. Two facts with virtually no direct or concrete connection, yet, some Fox News commentators (e.g. Sean Hannity) openly conjectured over the possibility that Obama was secretly more sympathetic to the Muslim world than he was towards the U.S.

No serious person trying to understand U.S. policy in the Middle East under the Obama administration would make that connection, but Fox News did without hesitation or regret.

Fox News was, in that instance, engaged in an extreme form of what my former journalism professor called ‘interpretive’ or ‘conjectural’ journalism. In its non-partisan form, newspapers used to run these types of stories under the ‘news analysis’ banner. Such journalism serves a valuable purpose.

Standard journalism often provides only a gestalt-like representation of an event (such as the Trump-Russia “collusion” investigation) and it is through interpretative (or conjectural) journalism that an event’s meaning or relevance becomes more apparent. Journalists and commentators are doing the public a service when they fill in those evidential gaps.

That is not what the major news organizations are doing today, however.  Instead, many journalists, who are often wholly dependent on anonymous sources (often within the government) for their information, are being fed false or un-contextualized information in order to craft news stories that fit into pre-determined narratives (i.e., the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton). Who concocts these narratives? It ranges from individual journalists, the incumbent administration, political parties, private corporate interests, to some combination therein.

Are the front line journalists and commentators complicit or just pawns in this symbiotic relationship? Considering that most broadcast journalists and political analysts are hired for their prior experience in either political campaigns or government service, it is likely the relationship between the news organization, the journalist and the source is a mutually-rewarding one for all involved.

In the big picture, it matter less that journalists are being manipulated than the fact that false, misleading, and/or illegally leaked information is increasingly entering the nation’s information blood stream.

So, how can it be mitigated or stopped?

Given the large news outlets are witnessing significant growth in their bottom line financials since the 2016 election, it is naive to think the news organizations and their corporate owners will kill their own golden goose.

They won’t. But, perhaps, the public can start holding news organizations more accountable for abusing their dependence on anonymous sources (i.e., power elites) for news stories.

The national news media’s failure is more fundamental than just a few ‘false’ news stories…

After reading the Greenwald piece on CNN’s most recent Trump-Russia collusion story retraction, I dug out an old essay I wrote last spring critiquing another CNN news “exclusive” on information they uncovered linking the Trump campaign to Russian intelligence operatives.

The March 22nd CNN story exemplifies the failure of modern, American-style journalism.

The substance of CNN’s story (here), written by Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Jim Sciutto, was in its first two paragraphs:

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(Washington) – The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing. (March 23rd revision, CNN.com)

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I don’t doubt one word of the story.  But that’s the problem.  There is nothing to doubt.  It is devoid of substance.  Filtered throughout the entire story are modifiers like “possibly” and “may have.”  It’s not a news story, it’s a tease for an actual news story.

With this CNN story, and many like it since, we are either being entertained with the ‘sausage-making’ details of investigative journalism or, worse, being manipulated by anonymous sources who share the goal of bringing down a presidency that don’t like.

Woodward and Bernstein popularized anonymous sourcing, but they also knew its proper role in investigative journalism…

As news consumers, we should all be asking ourselves: What does good investigative journalism look like?  To what extent should we discount journalism that fails to meet our own expectations and standards for good news reporting?

These are not easy questions to answer.  But in my own effort to answer them, I reached into the news archives and re-read the actual reporting that led to our nation’s first presidential resignation. For me, what I found was stunning and more relevant than ever.

So, find an old pair of white stripe “Big E’ Levi pants (with the flared boot cut) and follow me back in time to the early summer of 1972…

Washington, D.C. (June 18, 1972):

Richard Nixon is in the middle of his presidential re-election campaign when a news story breaks in The Washington Post.  The headline on June 18, 1972 reads:  5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here (Original Story Here).  The first four paragraphs in the story, written by Alfred E. Lewis, reports about a simple break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.:

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(Washington) – Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.

Three of the men were native-born Cubans and another was said to have trained Cuban exiles for guerrilla activity after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

They were surprised at gunpoint by three plain-clothes officers of the metropolitan police department in a sixth floor office at the plush Watergate, 2600 Virginia Ave., NW, where the Democratic National Committee occupies the entire floor.

There was no immediate explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the Democratic National Committee offices or whether or not they were working for any other individuals or organizations.

—————————————————————————————————————-

From this story, we know who, did what, where, when and how:  Five men, a former CIA employee, three Cubans, at DNC offices, June 17th at 2:30 a.m. The most important paragraph is: There was no immediate explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the Democratic National Committee…or whether or not they were working for any other individuals or organizations.

Those questions, of course, eventually would be answered.

But this is just crime-blotter reporting. Right? It’s not investigative journalism. How can you compare court record regurgitation to the hard work required to understand the potential complexities of the Trump-Russia connection? You can’t. Enter Bob Woodward (who did the legwork on Lewis’ story) and Carl Bernstein — two young, ambitious Washington Post reporters who are given a story assignment that they cannot know beforehand how it will change this country’s history.

Their August 1, 1972 Washington Post story, three months before the general election, gives the first real glimpse into the potential scope of their investigation — which, itself, is mirroring an ongoing FBI investigation. Sound familiar?

The headline reads: Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds (Original Story Here).  The story’s primary information is not reliant on anonymous sources or baseless conjecture. No clever innuendo required:

—————————————————————————————————————-

(Washington) – A $25,000 cashier’s check, apparently earmarked for President Nixon’s re-election campaign, was deposited in April in a bank account of one of the five men arrested in the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters here June l7.

The check was made out by a Florida bank to Kenneth H. Dahlberg, the President’s campaign finance chairman for the Midwest. Dahlberg said last night that in early April he turned the check over to “the treasurer of the Committee (for the Re-election of the President) or to Maurice Stans himself.”

(Four more paragraphs down in the story…)

A photostatic copy of the front of the check was examined by a Washington Post reporter yesterday. It was made out by the First Bank and Trust Co. of Boca Raton, Fla., to Dahlberg.

—————————————————————————————————————-

The story is a little over three months old when a September 29, 1972 Woodward and Bernstein story carries the headline: Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund (Original Story Here).  The substance of the story connects the Watergate break-in to the Nixon administration:

—————————————————————————————————————-

(Washington) – John N. Mitchell, while serving as U.S. Attorney General, personally controlled a secret Republican fund that was used to gather information about the Democrats, according to sources involved in the Watergate investigation.

Beginning in the spring of 1971, almost a year before he left the Justice Department to become President Nixon’s campaign manager on March 1, Mitchell personally approved withdrawals from the fund, several reliable sources have told The Washington Post.

Those sources have provided almost identical, detailed accounts of Mitchell’s role as comptroller of the secret intelligence fund and its fluctuating $350,000 -$700,000 balance.

Four persons other than Mitchell were later authorized to approve payments from the secret fund, the sources said.

Two of them were identified as former Secretary of Commerce Maurice H. Stans, now finance chairman of the President’s campaign, and Jeb Stuart Magruder, manager of the Nixon campaign before Mitchell took over and now a deputy director of the campaign. The other two, according to the sources, are a high White House official now involved in the campaign and a campaign aide outside of Washington.

—————————————————————————————————————-

There is no rhetorical hedging with words like ‘may have’ or ‘possibly.’  Note also that Woodward and Bernstein rely on multiple, anonymous sources.  And, more notably, these FBI sources, which are involved in an ongoing investigation, are willing to confirm names, dates, and timelines.  There is no conjecture or speculation.  The story is built on the best information available at the time.  Further down in the story, Woodward and Bernstein give the reader some important background information on the anonymous sources themselves:

—————————————————————————————————————-

Sept. 29, 1972 Washington Post story continued…

The sources of The Post’s information on the secret fund and its relationship to Mitchell and other campaign officials include law enforcement officers and persons on the staff of the Committee for the Re-election of the President.

—————————————————————————————————————-

In today’s daily, often leak-driven, news cycle, such detailed background on anonymous sources is rarely provided.  When it is, it is so vague and amorphous it denies the reader any real context to judge the veracity or reliability of the source(s).

While there are still special prosecutors and congressional hearings to be appointed and held in the future, Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative work reaches its apex in their story on October 10, 1972.  Citing conclusions from the FBI and Department of Justice investigations, they lay the foundation for what will be a national obsession over the next two years.  The Post headline reads:

FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats (Original Story Here).  The story wastes no time cutting to the chase:

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(Washington) – FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.

The activities, according to information in FBI and Department of Justice files, were aimed at all the major Democratic presidential contenders and — since 1971 — represented a basic strategy of the Nixon re-election effort.

During their Watergate investigation, federal agents established that hundreds of thousands of dollars in Nixon campaign contributions had been set aside to pay for an extensive undercover campaign aimed at discrediting individual Democratic presidential candidates and disrupting their campaigns.

—————————————————————————————————————-

On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigns from the presidency, over two years after the Post’s initial break-in story.

Folks, that is how high-quality investigative journalism is conducted.

Sadly, we must return to present day journalism…

…the times have changed and journalists have been forced to change with it.  The Washington Post in 1972 wasn’t competing with 24-7 cable news networks.  And is it fair to compare the journalism on today’s CNN with The Washington Post or any other national-audience newspaper?  They have different audiences and business requirements.  Nonetheless, we should all expect more from today’s journalists than what we getting in the coverage of the Trump-Russia connection.  The use of anonymous sources is just one mechanism today’s journalists use to generate more stories faster.  The blurring of hard news with news analysis also increases the volume of content.

And though I am singling out CNN here, I could have cited any major news organization.

After the March 22nd CNN story broke, none other than Carl Bernstein himself said on Don Lemon’s CNN Tonight, “I don’t think there is any question there is a cover-up and the people in the FBI will tell you there is a cover-up going on.”

Perhaps Bernstein will be proven correct.  But it is interesting that the other half of Woodward and Bernstein offered a different set of conclusions on the Trump-Russia investigation up to that point.

“Apparently, what had happened here is a couple of (foreign) diplomats who can be legitimately wiretapped were talking about meeting with Trump or people on his transition team,” said Woodward on the March 23rd broadcast of Fox News’s O’Reilly Factor.  “Under the rules (for the U.S. intelligence community), and they’re pretty strict, it’s called minimization; you don’t name the American person who’s being discussed (and) the idea that there was intelligence value here is really thin…This could be criminal on the part of people who decided, ‘Oh, let’s name these people.’”

As of today, there is still no direct evidence of collusion between the Trump camp and the Russians.  On the other hand, we know intelligence leaks and the improper naming of U.S. persons within intelligence reports occurred during the Obama administration in its effort to collect intelligence on the Trump campaign and transition team.  In all likelihood, these were felonious acts.

My journalism school taught me about the reporting techniques of Woodward and Bernstein because they represented a clear break from the past.  Our uncritical acceptance of anonymous sources today was not the norm in the early 1970s.  The Watergate story would not have broken as quickly as it did without Woodward and Bernstein’s use of anonymous sources.  But, as the above Post excerpts indicate, their inclusion was supported by considerable biographical information regarding those sources.  And, even then, the Post received significant criticism (including by some journalists) for its use of anonymous sources.

So, while we should all take Bernstein’s comparisons of the Trump-Russia investigation to Watergate seriously, we need to be careful to separate fact from opinion.  On Don Lemon’s show, Bernstein was giving an opinion based on unsubstantiated facts to which we lack direct access.

After hearing Bernstein’s conclusions, even Don Lemon had to admit, “Nothing has been found yet.”

That remains essentially true nine months later.

Perhaps the most rational (while also cynical) reaction to the March 22nd CNN story came from Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov: “This is another piece of information without any sources which can’t be commented on, neither can it be taken as some serious thing.”

Was he wrong?

Good journalism requires multiple, independent confirmations of the crucial facts and their cogent, unbiased recitation by the journalist(s) or news organization.

The Only Reliable Defense for Bad Journalism, ‘Fake News,’ and Russian interference is an Educated Public

Can we expect today’s news consumers to consistently recognize and ignore bad journalism that fails to meet even the basic journalistic standards?  Perhaps not.

Can we expect the news and political opinion industries to self-police with respect to the dissemination of bad journalism and ‘fake news’?  Most definitely not. ‘Fake news’ in particular has set up a permanent encampment on the Worldwide Web.

So what do we do?

We must empower individuals to draw their own conclusions regarding the news they consume, and only then will our society and political system be protected from the corrosive impact of bad journalism and ‘fake news.’

Until that day comes, the public is on its own.  There is no industry or government solution to this problem (though, God knows, the Congress and lobbyists are already writing laws and regulations in the attempt to solve the problem).

Yet, there is reason for optimism based on research regarding the ability of news consumers to discern the levels of quality and bias in news reporting.  One such study, a 2013 experiment conducted by the Ilmenau University of Technology and reported by the European Journalism Observatory (EJO), found that all types of news consumers (in terms of education and interest) could recognize the differences between high- and low-quality news.  Another study, also reported by the EJO, concluded that “media users recognize comparatively well whether a news article is up-to-date, answers the important questions of who, what, why, when, and gives information about causes, consequences, and classifications of an event.”  More importantly, the same research showed that media users are reasonably good at evaluating the bias in a new story.  Where media users came up short, according to the researchers, was in their ability to determine if the information in the news article was accurate and comprehensive.  That is where the news consumer is truly at the mercy of the journalist(s).

Therefore, as you digest future Trump-Russia collusion stories, I suggest you look for the following attributes to determine if the story is accurate and comprehensive:

  • Are the story’s facts linked to named sources that would be expected to know such facts?
  • If the story’s primary information heavily dependent on anonymous sources, is there sufficient background information provided on those sources to know if they would have likely access to this information?  Has the journalist or news organization referenced these same anonymous sources in previous stories and has their information proved reliable?
  • Does the journalist connect the story’s facts in a logical and comprehensive way or does it seem more like an ad-hoc collection of information with no inherent or obvious connection?
  • Is the story full of weasel-words like: “possibly,” “may have,” “could indicate” or “suggests”?

As for Trump-Russiagate, the reporting has typically violated these attributes.

A good example is a February 14th New York Times story that broke the news that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador talked about sanctions prior to Donald Trump’s inauguration (Original Story Here):

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(Washington) – Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said.  The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.

The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

—————————————————————————————————————

That last paragraph should have sent any discerning news consumer immediately to the sports page.  I am not quibbling with the Times running the story, even if the story read more like the notes a journalist would take while investigating a story.  With today’s infinite shelf-space for news, a journalist’s daily notes now qualify as news.  These are the times we live in.

Yes, the New York Times is more reliable than CNN (or any other cable news network).  That’s is not a high bar.  But, in comparison to the news stories associated with the Watergate crisis, the news industry covering the Trump-Russia story are peddling something in between “fake news” and high-quality journalism.  To put it differently, when I read the sequence of the Woodward and Bernstein stories, I was reading history.  Even when they were wrong on the facts (and there were at times), they corrected them (publicly and with high visibility) over the course of their investigation.

We are lucky to have the Watergate reporting legacy of Woodward and Bernstein to remind us what real journalism looks like.

K.R.K.

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

Is Obama’s Justice League clearing a path for Kamala Harris?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, November 30, 2017)

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

A new Justice League has formed.

No, not the bad CGI-laden movie that failed to break $100 million in box office receipts in its opening week. [Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) was still awesome though].

This new Justice League is real and believes its on a mission to save humanity from a rogue force far more menacing than Steppenwolf or Darkseid.

Their Hall of Justice, at 2446 Belmont Road NW in Washington, D.C., looms just a few blocks from this dangerous cozener’s current quarters, the White House.

Of course, Donald Trump is the existential threat in this picture and the new Justice League is led by our former president Barack Obama.

Joining Obama in the Hall of Justice are his former Attorney General Eric Holder, former campaign manager David Plouffe, senior political advisor David Axelrod, long-time aides Valerie Jarrett and David Simas, DNC chair Tom Perez, former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, White House speechwriter Jon Favreau and a host of other former cabinet officers, aides and Chicago friends.

Regular meetings are held in the Obama’s D.C. residence, according to a source directly aware of these meetings. So many, in fact, that rumors flew around in March within the right-wing blogs that Valerie Jarrett had moved into the Obama’s new $5.3-million mansion in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Though the Jarrett rumor proved wrong, the real story was no less significant. Obama was building a team to retake control of the U.S. government from Donald Trump and the Republicans using the Obama’s house as the operation’s headquarters.

Their mission is a straightforward: Get Democrats in control across all levels of government and restore the Obama legacy that Trump continues to dismantle.

Its not like Obama has been hiding his intentions regarding his post-administration activities.

“I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days,” President Obama said in a farewell address to supporters in Chicago.

All the same, on January 21, it wasn’t clear what a relatively young 55-year-old Obama was going to do with himself in retirement, particularly at a time with his party in a ceaseless crisis over the Trump presidency.

Obama can’t just go away and write books like most other former presidents, can he?

Even before Obama left office, the obligatory presidential library was in the works and its parent organization, the Obama Foundation, created in 2014, was already laying the groundwork for the Obama post-presidency.

At its creation, the Obama Foundation’s board of directors included a Clintonesque mix of billionaires (John Doerr), investment bankers (former UBS Global Investment president Robert Wolf, GCM Grosvenor CEO Michael Sacks and Ariel Investments president John Rogers), friends (Vistria Group CEO Martin Nesbitt), political allies (former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick) and Obama administration holdovers (David Plouffe).

Its this nation’s A-team for neo-liberal corporatists. As one former Obama official told me, “If you don’t control at least a billion dollars, you ain’t gonna accomplish shit in this town.”

Obama Foundation CEO David Simas, a founding member of this new Justice League, describes the Obama Foundation’s purpose as being more grassroots oriented and focused on “identifying, training and connecting the next generation of civic leaders throughout the country first and then around the world.”

Where the Clinton Foundation facilitated opportunities for the world’s financial elites and oligarchs to participate in substantive, public image enhancing humanitarian projects, the Obama Foundation is more concerned about building a political infrastructure parallel to (if not in place of) more traditional political structures such as the Democratic National Committee.

And while the Clinton Foundation will die with Bill and Hillary Clinton’s political relevance, the Obama Foundation is designed to survive well beyond Obama’s lifetime — and, in that effort, Obama has a plan.

Step 1: Take control of the DNC

In February, Obama’s former Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, was elected chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), stunting the attempted takeover of the DNC by the party’s progressive wing, led by Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.

While Obama never inserted himself into the DNC chair election, his former Attorney General Eric Holder did when he endorsed Perez in early February.

“As we’ve seen since the inauguration, there is much at stake for our nation, and our democracy and our party. We need a DNC chair who is a proven fighter and a proven uniter. Tom Perez is that person,” Holder said in support of Perez.

Holder is a former cabinet officer, close Obama friend, and a direct proxy. By electing Perez, the DNC is now tentatively controlled by the Obama wing of the party.

Since Perez’ ascendancy, the DNC has seen dismal fundraising totals, despite a Republican president at historically low approval levels. In August 2017, the DNC reported raising only $4.4 million dollars, compared to $7.3 million for the Republican National Committee.

Yet, none of the Democratic Party’s senior leadership is suggesting Perez should be replaced.  Why? Because Perez wasn’t endorsed for the chairmanship position for his fundraising prowess. Perez takes anti-charisma to thermonuclear levels.

Instead, he is a caretaker selected for his loyalty to Barack Obama and willingness to act in the interest of the 44th president. More importantly, he prevents a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders loyalist from sitting in the DNC’s command position.

For all intents, constructions, and purposesObama now controls the DNC, but to what end?

It is wrong to assume Obama wants to personally select the next Democratic presidential nominee in order to avoid the mistake made in 2016. Obama is too smart and too strategic to think in such a limited way.

Obama understands history. He, more than anybody, respects the importance of the competitive process in selecting a presidential nominee. The legitimacy of the nominee is predicated on the assumption that he or she is the preferred candidate of the majority of Democrats.

In 2008, when Hillary Clinton was the presumptive favorite for the Democratic nomination, it was Obama who emerged from the nomination process as the party’s nominee. As his stock rose among Democrats following his Iowa Caucus victory, Obama’s communications team eagerly juxtaposed Hillary’s establishment candidacy to Obama’s outsider status.

Given his thin resume in 2008, Obama benefited from the Democratic Party’s competitive nomination race. Merely going toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the early nomination debates lifted Obama’s credibility among voters.

In contrast, Hillary did everything in her power to limit the number of nomination challengers in 2016, thereby solidifying her establishment-candidate status at a time when the public mood was not favorable to such candidates.

Obama certainly understands this dynamic and recognizes a competitive nomination process in 2020 will help the Democrats’ eventual nominee.

That said, Obama has told confidants, according to our sources, that Hillary cannot be allowed to either run or be central to the process in picking the next Democratic nominee. While Obama genuinely believes the Russians interfered in the 2016 election and holds himself partially responsible for not doing more to expose Russia’s interference, he also believes Hillary was ill-equipped to overcome such a challenge.

“Anytime he (Obama) is reminded that Hillary blames him for not doing more to stop the Russians, he gets visibly upset,” says a long-time Obama friend. “He truly believes he would have run the 2016 race by more than 10 points — and thinks Joe (Biden) would have won by a similar margin.”

So, it should not surprise anyone that Obama is actively working to prevent something like Hillary’s covert takeover of the DNC in 2016 to happen in 2020. Obama simply will not allow it.

Step 2: Make the electoral field level again

Yet, for Obama’s Justice League to usher in the next Democratic governing majority, they also need to dismantle the structural barriers that disproportionately prevent Democrats from winning elections. Chief among those barriers, at least for U.S. House races, is gerrymandering.

The Associated Press estimated that Republicans won as many as 22 additional U.S. House seats in 2016 over what would have been expected based on the average vote share in congressional districts across the country.

Knowing this, the Obama team has asked Holder to oversee the Democrats’ National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) to correct gerrymandering and other structural barriers to fair elections. Partnering with the Obama-aligned progressive group, Organizing For Action (OFA), their plan starts with winning more state-level races.

“Fixing gerrymandering can be the key that unlocks progress on so many issues the American people care about,” says Kelly Ward, the executive director of the NDRC.

In an email, Obama told OFA volunteers they would “provide the grassroots organizing capacity and mobilization that we’ll need to win state-level elections and move other initiatives forward ahead of the 2021 redistricting process, making sure that states are in the best position possible to draw fair maps.”

Their task will not be easy and will not reap benefits any time soon, as the Democrats will need to control far more state legislatures and governorships than they do at present. Furthermore, redrawing congressional districts may not be enough to level the playing field. FiveThirtyEight.com’s David Wasserman contends that the Democrats have a geographic clustering problem that will work against their efforts to redraw electoral maps.

“Even if Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points — a pretty good midterm by historical standards — they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats,” says Wasserman.

According to Wasserman this result is attributable to both GOP gerrymandering and Democratic voters’ clustering in urban districts.

“The net result is that the median House seat is well to the right of the nation,” adds Wasserman.

Redistricting is a long-pole project and the Obama team needs to address a more immediate problem: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Step 3: Unify the two wings of the Democratic Party by marginalizing the party’s two biggest names (not named Barack): Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The Obama team’s efforts will be for naught if they allow Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to lead the party going into the 2018 and 2020 elections. Hillary in particular has too many loyalists in key party functions, including fundraising among big donors, to assume she won’t leverage those connections for her own purposes, whether its running for president again or hand-picking the next presidential nominee.

To stop Hillary from injecting herself into the 2020 campaign, the Obama team is engaged in an ongoing and coordinated effort to discredit Hillary (and to a much lesser extent Bernie Sanders). The trick however is to do so without alienating Hillary’s core supporters.

Former DNC interim chair Donna Brazile launched the first attack in November when she released her book — Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House — about the 2016 election. Despite some recent backtracking, Brazile’s descriptions of the ham-fisted tactics used by Hillary’s campaign were less than flattering.

“As Hillary’s campaign gained momentum, she resolved the party’s debt and put it on a starvation diet,” Brazile wrote in a November 2nd Politico article. “It (the Democratic National Committee) had become dependent on her campaign for survival, for which she expected to wield control of its operations.”

In practical terms, Hillary Clinton used the Democratic National Commitee’s (DNC) as a fund-raising clearinghouse.

Federal Election Commission law limits direct individual contributions to presidential campaigns at $2,700, but the limits are less restrictive for contributions to state parties and the DNC.

As Brazile notes in her Politico article, “Individuals who had maxed out their $2,700 contribution limit to the campaign could write an additional check for $353,400 to the Hillary Victory Fund—that figure represented $10,000 to each of the 32 states’ parties who were part of the Victory Fund agreement—$320,000—and $33,400 to the DNC. The money would be deposited in the states first, and transferred to the DNC shortly after that. Money in the battleground states usually stayed in that state, but all the other states funneled that money directly to the DNC, which quickly transferred the money to Brooklyn.”

In other words, the Clinton campaign engineered a fundraising system where money meant for the eventual nominee and state-level races was funneled directly to Clinton. Was that legal? Probably. Was it ethical? No.

Brazile’s skill for artful dodginess emerged a few days after her Politico article when she pulled the reins on those who interpreted her sharp criticism of the Clinton campaign to mean Clinton had rigged the nomination.

“I found no evidence, none whatsoever” that the primaries were rigged, Brazile said during a November 4th appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”

Despite Brazile’s tamping down of the ‘election rigging’ charge, the conclusion had already metastasized within the mass media and was impossible to depose.

And for good reason. While presidential nominees typically take control of their party’s administrative apparatus after they’ve secured the party’s nomination, the Clinton campaign, confident in its inevitability, absorbed the DNC months prior to actually winning the nomination.

Is that rigging the election? Given the facts and the timeline, it is a reasonable conclusion.

Bill and Hillary Clinton had no reason to expect Donna Brazile’s loyalty. Hillary had already been burned by Brazile during the 2008 nomination when Brazile, who was on the DNC rules committee, tried to block Hillary’s attempt to seat national convention delegates from Florida and Michigan, the majority of whom were committed to Clinton.

The problem for Hillary’s 2008 campaign was that those two states had violated party rules in scheduling their primaries and, according Brazile at the time, seating those delegates would have changed the rules in the middle of the game and that was tantamount to “cheating.”

Calling Bill or Hillary a cheater is a good way to get your name taken off the Friends of Bill (FOB) or FOH list and Brazile is permanently off that list — if she was ever on it.

And while Brazile attempted in the 2016 election to get back into the good graces of the Clintons by feeding debate questions to Hillary before a 2016 CNN-televised debate, everyone knows the Clintons have long memories.

However, Brazile’s Judas kiss didn’t sting the Clintons nearly as hard as the knee-to-the-crotch move New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand planted on them a couple of weeks after Brazile’s article.

In the midst of allegations that Minnesota Senator Al Franken had given a female performer an unwelcomed tongue-kiss during a 2006 USO tour in Afghanistan, Gillibrand was asked during a New York Times podcast if she thought President Bill Clinton should have resigned during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“Yes, I think that is the appropriate response,” responded Gillibrand.

While there is no evidence Gillibrand was acting as an Obama surrogate when she suggested the 42nd president should have resigned, she nonetheless helped the Obama team’s effort to weaken Hillary’s power within the party.

The woman hand-picked by the Clintons for the New York Senate seat vacated by Hillary when she became the U.S. Secretary of State had gone rogue. Cue the Clinton bootlickers.

Philippe Reines, a top adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rebuked Gillibrand on Twitter:

Reines would have a point if we were just talking about a ‘consensual blowjob’ with an intern. Unfortunately, by the time the U.S. Senate voted to save Clinton’s presidency in 1999, journalists had documented our 42nd president’s lifetime of sexual predatory behavior and a repeated pattern of denials, lies and slut shaming — and the co-pilot through every new bimbo eruption? None other than Hillary Rodham Clinton, the enabler-in-chief.

Even women that should know better defended Bill and Hillary’s from Gillibrand’s blindside attack.

“I admire her (Gillibrand) for speaking out and for being really honest and blunt and brutal about it, even when it comes to Democrats and even when it comes to President Clinton,” said longtime Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, a former Hillary Clinton aide…”

here comes the ‘but’

“…But, Gillibrand’s fight is far from a straightforward one even within the party, added Cardona. “President Clinton is beloved.”

As Cardona is learning, the #MeToo movement has ushered in a new paradigm for how men and women conduct themselves professionally (at least in the news media and entertainment business). Cardona and Reines are two decades behind the public mood and Bill Clinton is now the poster child (along with Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, and Matt Lauer, and others) for a type of work behavior that is unacceptable going forward (we can hope).

As many of Hillary’s loyalists continue the attempt to put distance between Bill’s creepy history and the former First Lady, the Obama-wing of the Democratic Party has seized on the current zeitgeist to end any hope the Clinton’s had of being significant players in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

While the Clinton machine easily dismissed Gillibrand’s comments as the calculated move of a potential presidential candidate, the broadside delivered by Obama’s Secretary for Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, made public a critique of Clintons that had, up to then, only been heard in the fringes of the Democratic Party (i.e., millennials and Bernie supporters).

Unlike Brazile or Gillibrand, Sebelius is still in good standing with the party establishment and her motives cannot be assigned to the strategic calculations of a likely 2020 presidential candidate.

It was during a podcast with former Obama senior strategist David Axelrod, a founding member of the new Justice League, that Sebelius decided to lay some serious wood on Hillary Clinton.

As Axelrod led the conversation into a discussion of the current sexual harassment and assault debate, Sebelius took the topic of Bill’s libertinism to a new level for mainstream Democrats.

“Not only did people look the other way, but they went after the women who came forward and accused him,” said Sebelius. “And so it (the White House) doubled down on not only bad behavior but abusive behavior. And then people attacked the victims.”

The next logical step for Sebelius was to go where no loyal Democrat had ever gone before.

Sebelius told Axelrod it is legitimate for Democrats to criticize the former first lady and Secretary of State for her role in what Sebelius called “a strategy of dismissing and besmirching the women who stepped forward” with allegations against Bill Clinton.

Though the mainstream media had moved on to the newest wave of sexual harassment allegations and the latest Trump tweets, the Democratic establishment heard Sebelius loud and clear: Hillary Clinton cannot be the standard bearer for the Democratic Party going forward — not in these new times. Her inability to effectively leverage the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape bears some responsibility for the electoral debacle in 2016.

Any other Democratic presidential nominee would have possessed the credibility to hit back hard against Trump. But not Hillary.

And it was no accident that Sebelius made this monumental statement on The Axe Files. Both Axelrod and Sebelius are Obama loyalists. Sebelius’ statement on Hillary was likely crafted at the highest levels of the Obama team.

Clearing a path to the nomination is not ‘rigging’ the election.

As long as Hillary Clinton continues to suck oxygen out of the Democratic’s Party’s air, rising stars like California Senator Kamala Harris (who was one of Obama’s earliest supporters in 2008) and Gillibrand are going to find it difficult to elevate their stature on the national stage.

It doesn’t help them that almost all big Democratic donors still have strong ties to the Clintons and, should Hillary run again, will be compelled to help her again amass a large campaign war chest going into 2020.

The Clintons have been playing this game for years and they are good at it.

The Clintons’ joint plan since Bill left office was a top-down strategy focused on facilitating Hillary’s rise to the presidency. Clinton Foundation fundraising, though ostensibly independent of Hillary’s U.S. Senate and presidential political campaign activities, shared many of the same big money domestic donors (e.g., Harvey Weinstein). This overlap, though legal, played close to the ethical margins and invited charges from Hillary’s political opponents that she was too often less than honest and always a bit dodgy. 

The Obama post-presidency, so far, is taking the opposite approach. Where the Clintons’ top-down leadership style kept the power and money under their control, the Obama approach appears, at this early point, to be directed towards building from the bottom up.

The irony here is that, during the Obama presidency, the Democratic Party’s state and national infrastructure was neglected. Perhaps driven by guilt, Obama now recognizes the Democrats will not realize the full extent of their demographic advantages vis-a-vis the Republicans until they regain their electoral footing at the local and state levels.

For almost three decades, since Michael Dukakis’ defeat in 1988, the Democrats have prioritized presidential politics over all other considerations.

It has paid dividends at the presidential level (Bill Clinton and Obama) and left the party needlessly weak and demoralized at other levels.

The Trump presidency has changed the Democrats’ orientation however — though it remains to be seen how the Resistance’s energy can reduce the Democrats’ geographic clustering problem. Unless there is a secret plan in the works to relocate some California Democrats to Montana and Iowa, the Democrats will struggle to win and maintain control of the U.S. House and the Electoral College will always confound their efforts to win back the presidency.

The good news for the Democrats is that Obama and his Justice League team are working all angles of the problem. They want the presidency back as well as control of the U.S. Congress and all other levels of government.

In this project, Obama will never publicly promote one presidential candidate over another until that person has secured the Democratic nomination, but he will never allow the Clinton’s to be significant players in selecting the next Democratic nominee either.

With an assist from the Russians and FBI Director James Comey, Hillary Clinton blew it in 2016 in part due to her inability to credibly exploit Trump’s documented mistreatment of women. Obama and his team have subtly but definitively let Democratic donors know that.

Hillary’s acolytes nonetheless continue to plant seeds of hope that she will run for president in 2020 (Mike Vespa’s plea is a good example) — but that will not happen. The Clinton era is finally over. And say ‘Hello’ to the Democrats’ next presidential nominee, Kamala Harris.

K.R.K.

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

 

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

Alabama is more than happy to stick Roy Moore up the political establishment’s mud flaps

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, November 28, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

Roy Moore is going to win the Alabama U.S. Senate race on December 12th.

That is bad news for the national Republican Party.

At a time when Nikki Haley and Paul Ryan should be the images of the party’s future, instead, we get a man that tacitly acknowledges, as a 30-something assistant district attorney, he dated minors (with their mother’s permission).

Jethro Bodine has a more honorable dating history.

But here are the facts on the ground…

As of now, the RealClearPolitics.com polling average for the Alabama U.S. Senate race shows former Alabama Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore (Republican) and Democrat Doug Jones in a close race with less than two weeks to go in the campaign.

To many observers outside of Alabama, it defies explanation that Moore is competitive after The Washington Post published allegations of improper sexual contact between Moore, a 32-year-old assistant district attorney at the time, and a 14-year-old girl.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell views the allegations against Moore as believable and the National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said the Senate should expel Moore, even if elected by Alabama’s voters.

Democratic challenger Doug Jones, a bland politician generally seen as a “sober, competent public servant,” may become the first Democrat to win an Alabama U.S. Senate race since Howell Heflin in 1990. [Heflin was stridently pro-life and pro-gun Democrat — such people roamed the political landscape once.]

However, Jones knows clubbing Moore over the head with The Washington Post‘s sexual misconduct allegations is not a winning strategy for a Democrat in Alabama.

Jones has only tangentially brought up the Moore allegations during the campaign, which should signal to political pundits outside Alabama that the impact of the allegations is still unknown. So unknown that attempting to understand why Alabama might still elect Moore is a fool’s errand…

…but here it goes…

Moore is all too familiar to those of us who grew in America’s Bible Belt (…I grew up in Iowa andyes, Iowa is part of the Bible Belt).

As others with an academic understanding of pedophilia have made clear, Moore cannot be classified as a pedophile based on the accusations of the women who have come forward describing their encounters with Moore when they were still minors.

“Moore is not a pedophile,” Rachel Hope Cleves, a professor of history at the University of Victoria, and Nicholas L. Syrett, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas, write in The Washington Post. “If you believe his accusers, as we do, he is a powerful man who has serially harassed and even assaulted teenage girls.”

However, explaining Moore’s alleged behavior through the prism of “age, class, gender and power” differentials, as Hope Cleves and Syrett do, conflates contextual factors with causal factors. By explicitly linking Moore’s behavior to the #MeToo movement’s addressing sexual harassment and assault within the broader society — particularly in the workplace — Hope Cleves and Syrett are succumbing to a bandwagon mentality instead of an interest in doing solid social analysis.

There are obvious commonalities between Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore. No adult male pursues relationships with young girls or younger adult women without exploiting differences in age, class, gender or power — but those are situational prerequisites, not causal explanations.

Instead, our best (and still disturbing) understanding of Moore is offered by his own defenders within the evangelical community.

Pop psychology doesn’t get much creepier than Pastor Flip Benham, the national leader of North Carolina-based Operation Save America, a pro-life group, attempting to explain why a 32-year-old Roy Moore preferred female minors to women his age.

“All of the ladies, or many of the ladies that he possibly could have married, were not available then, they were already married, maybe, somewhere,” Benham told a reporter for The Hill. ”

It gets worse…

“The lady that he’s married to now, Ms. Kayla, is a younger woman.” Benham remarked about the 14-year age gap between Moore and his wife. “He did that because there is something about a purity of a young woman, there is something that is good, that’s true, that’s straight and he looked for that.”

So there you have it. It was most likely inconceivable to a 32-year-old Roy Moore to propose to a woman with prior sexual experiences — which ruled out most of the single women his age at the time. This scenario is not a justification for improper contact with a minor, but it is an explanation.

Roy Moore, in his mind, is not lying when he says he has never had inappropriate contact with underage girls, and while Moore and his supporters won’t say this outright (except for Pastor Benham), the 32-year-old Moore was probably trolling for a chaste wife when he approached a 14-year-old child. From their biblical-centered perspective, what Moore may have done in the 1970s to find a wife was entirely appropriate.

Laugh (or cry) in disgust if you must, but Jones’ avoidance of the allegations against Moore on the campaign trail signals it is not a laughing matter to Democrats still trying to win elections in the Heart of Dixie.

Liberals gleefully extol their belief in a corrosive connection between the religious right, sexual repression, and the anti-feminist political agenda of the Republican Party. They aren’t entirely wrong — which is why Roy Moore is so dangerous to the future of the Republican Party.

The Republican Party needs to be seen as the party of Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Rand Paul, Nikki Haley, and Paul Ryan, not Roy Moore.

Now is not the time for the Republican Party to re-wage its war on the sexual revolution. That war was lost long ago and there are too many issues far more important (size of government, taxes, regulations, Middle East war) to allow dinosaur’s like Roy Moore to tarnish the Republican brand.

The post-1960s sexual revolution changed Alabama just as much as it did other parts of the country. The religious right will not bring back the 1950s.

Instead, they will have to be content with sticking Roy Moore up the ass of Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Senate.

Despite recent polling trends, Roy Moore will win on December 12th.

Moore’s drop in the polls has reached bottom (around 46 percent of likely voters) and a more aggressive Moore has already started to emerge on the campaign stump in the past few days. Republican Lee Busby’s write-in candidacy will as likely take votes from Jones as it will from Moore. This means Moore can win without passing the 50 percent threshold.

Assuming the turnout differential between Democratic and Republican partisans holds fairly close to past elections, Moore will win in a close election. That, in itself, is a miracle of biblical proportions for the Democrats.

Whatever the outcome, expect the Democrats to over-interpret the result as further evidence of the Republicans’ forthcoming demise in the 2018 midterm elections.

The Republicans, for their part, will equally misdiagnose the results as a merely an outlier specific to the unusual factors present in the Moore-Jones race.

Both interpretations will have flaws.

The Democrats are far from certain to take back the U.S. House in 2018 and the Alabama special election, should Moore lose, will offer little insight into the 2018 midterms.

However, if Roy Moore becomes a U.S. Senator, the impact on an already damaged Republican brand could be the tipping point that brings not only the U.S. House but the U.S. Senate back into the Democrats’ hands in 2018.

Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Far from it.

Predictit.com shows a 31 percent chance of the Democrats regaining the Senate in 2018, and a 53 percent chance of taking back the House. If Republicans aren’t scared right now, they should be.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake gets is exactly right. A Republican Party defined by Donald Trump and Roy Moore is not a winning national brand.

Should Republicans be rooting against Roy Moore on December 12th? Yes. Hell yes.

The economy is booming right now, due in part to the Trump administration’s swift rollback of burdensome regulations that were needlessly hurting U.S. companies and doing little good for the nation-at-large.

In typical times, strong economic growth would keep the incumbent party’s midterm losses to a minimum. These are not typical times.

Trump’s job approval ratings are stalling around 39 percent and do not appear linked to conditions in the U.S. macro-economy. Somebody in the White House that actually knows shit needs to step up and lead an effort to frame the 2018 midterms on the strong economy.

For the Republicans to have any chance of staving off the Democrats onslaught in 2018, the midterm elections need to be less a referendum on Trump and more on the state of the economy. As detailed in a previous NuQum.com post, under current (strong) economic conditions, Trump’s job approval numbers, as measured by Gallup, need to be north of 41 percent for the Republicans to have a chance to keep control of the U.S. House.

If Alabama elects Roy Moore on December 12th, keeping control of the U.S. House will become even more difficult than necessary.

K.R.K.

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

A Citizen’s Guide to Partisan Detoxification (Part 2)

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, November 27, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

[This essay is in two parts: Part 1 examines the effect of today’s hyper-partisanship on Americans; Part 2 details some simple steps to recover from hyper-partisanship]

Hyper-partisanship is hurting the Democrats more than the Republican for one simple reason: the Democrats’ party ideology is predicated on the idea that the government exists to solve problems and facilitate economic growth, and without it working effectively, Americans suffer.

Yet, recent evidence calls the Democratic thesis into question.

Eight years of the Barack Obama presidency produced two major legislative accomplishments: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). And those historic pieces of legislation were passed without any bipartisan support.

Apart from those two accomplishments, Obama’s presidency is best described as eight years of partisan gridlock. And what was the result of that gridlock? Eight years of consistent (though stubbornly slow) economic growth.

Almost one year into the Trump administration and not one piece of significant legislation has passed Congress. And, again, the net result? The fastest economic growth in over two years.

It is not unreasonable to suggest the U.S. economy does not need increased interventions by the U.S. government to flourish. Hyper-partisanship, so far, has not hurt the U.S. economy.

Yet, collectively, there is a growing consensus that hyper-partisanship is hurting our daily lives in very tangible ways. Recently, two researchers found that hyper-partisanship has reduced the amount of time many of us spend with relatives around holidays.

Whether hyper-partisanship is depresses the U.S. economy is debatable; that it is hurting our civic culture is undeniable. Americans are divided on a scale we have not seen in our lifetimes and an increasing number of us are trying to find ways to reduce this dangerous tribalism.

The good news is that hyper-partisanship does not need to be a permanent aspect of our democracy. We can reduce today’s ideological polarization and the political dysfunction it breeds, and we can do it without shutting down Facebook or forcing people to watch broadcast television news again.

Six Steps to Partisan Detoxification

A full recovery program from hyper-partisanship requires a level of self-awareness most of us do not possess by nature. Therefore, we must through training create personal habits that compensate for our biological inclinations.

Thus, the first step is the most critical and complicated. Without it, the subsequent steps are impotent.

Step 1: Know yourself

Commonly in substance abuse recovery programs, patients are asked to first recognize they have a problem. Hyper-partisanship is no different. A person can’t complete a partisan detox program without first acknowledging they are a hyper-partisan.

What is a hyper-partisan and what if I am not one?

If the survey research is to be believed (and I do believe it), most adults in the U.S. are not strong partisans (hyper-partisans are a subset of this group). Pew Research identifies roughly one-third of the 2017 U.S. adult population as being at “consistently” ideological.

Source: Pew Research, 2017

One-third of Americans as strong partisans seems accurate.

Hyper-partisans, a subset of strong partisans, are defined by: (1) long-term, straight ticket voting, (2) policy positions consistently to the left of their party’s opinion distribution (if they are a Democrat/liberal) or to the right (if they are a Republican/conservative), (3) their closest friendships are exclusively with people that conform to their opinions and beliefs, and (4) the vast majority of their information intake comes from sources that conform to their opinions and beliefs.

Hyper-partisans live in the proverbial “bubble.” They actively avoid and reject information contrary to their partisan view of the world.

Given this definition, most people can quickly determine if they are a hyper-partisan. Some people will resist the label, and for those that do, they should have their hyper-partisanship assessed by a third party — a casual friend or colleague — preferably with an opposing political perspective. Like-minded friends and family are often useless for this task. They will tell you what you want to hear.

If the majority of those third party assessments describe the person as hyper-partisan, then that person is probably a hyper-partisan.

Anyone identified in Step 1 as hyper-partisans can therefore move on to Step 2. Anyone not accepting the label are either like the majority of Americans — non-ideologues — or in complete denial of their hyper-partisanship.

For the those uncertain of their ideological leanings, I recommend using Pew Research’s online political typology tool which uses a respondent’s answers to a series of policy questions to assign them to an ideological category. It is not perfect, but the tool is good at differentiating strong partisans from weak ones.

Step 2: Take inventory

Once someone has determined their status as a hyper-partisan, the next step is to identify the positive and negative impacts of hyper-partisanship on their daily life over the past year. This can include family, friends, neighbors, work colleagues, online friends, and strangers.

Ask these questions:

Of the people you talk to on a daily or weekly basis, how many do you feel comfortable talking ‘politics’ or sharing strong personal opinions?

Have you had any conversations in the past year that turned heated or confrontational because of political topics?

Conversely, have you come to a ‘meeting of the minds’ in the past year with someone you previously disagreed with on a sensitive political topic?

There are no right or wrong answers here. This step simply allows someone to refresh their memory about where partisan politics enters their regular routine.

Step 3: Humble yourself and build a bridge

I do not have any generalized empirical data on the percentage of hyper-partisans that have had a confrontational experience with someone in the past year on a political subject. However, my very biased sample of hyper-partisans (family members) finds that every single one has experienced at least one heated and unproductive confrontation with someone in the past year on a political topic — often with someone they know through their social media activities.

The third step, therefore, is straightforward. Hyper-partisans need to reconnect with at least one person they’ve had a recent unproductive political or ideological confrontation.

Just reconnect. There doesn’t need to be a reconciliation on the disputed issue, but there does need to be some acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the opposing view. That’s all. “I heard what you said, and while I still disagree, I understand your point of view.”

Warning: In building bridges, do try to avoid condescension. People have an uncanny ability to know when they are being talked down to by someone else. Remember what we learned earlier: Everyone, including very highly-educated people, believe in some ideas that are just plain wrong. Nobody, regardless of education, is immune from false consciousness. Nobody. That includes YOU.

What if my argument was with a neo-Nazi white supremacist on genetic determinism?

A simple answer: Some bridges aren’t worth building. So, move on to a past confrontation over a more mainstream issue. Those issues can be nearly as contentious (abortion, Middle East conflicts, immigration, etc.) but those are the bridges we, as a society, need to build up again.

Step 4: Cleanse your media palate

My experience is that this step can be the most surprising and rewarding. For at least one week, stop using your typical news and information sources and, instead, rely exclusively on a small number of ostensibly non-partisan media outlets. So, if you are a hyper-partisan Democrat, do not turn off MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and watch “Fox and Friends.” That is too big of a leap at this stage. It runs the risk of increasing your ideological entrenchment.

Rather, choose a comparatively non-partisan news source.

Do they even exist? Even BBC America has a globalist, if not left-leaning bias, after all.

Actually, according to the media bias watchdog, allsides.com, the BBC is centrist. But there are also other non-ideological new services left in the world. As such, I have found these news services (in no particular order below) to be refreshing in their generally non-partisan, though often bland, presentation of U.S. news:

  • CCTV – the major state television broadcaster in mainland China provides a number of English-service news channels available through local cable and the internet. While I wouldn’t recommend CCTV for news on Chinese politics or U.S.-Chinese trade policy, their coverage of U.S politics and events unrelated to China is remarkably uncontaminated by ideological bias. CCTV is almost annoyingly non-partisan.
  • BBC World Service – the most popular international news service in the U.S. and for good reason — the BBC remains the gold standard for international news. Its news features often have an internationalist (globalist) perspective that could be viewed as biased towards Democrats/liberals, but on most stories covering the U.S., they avoid the overbearing partisan trappings found on mainstream U.S. cable networks (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News)
  • Al Jazeera – based in Qatar and created by former BBC staff, this may seem like a controversial choice as non-partisan news option, but this news service comes the closest to the BBC standard — and in some ways — surpasses the BBC. Their English-language service covers a wide range of U.S. news events and, with the exception of U.S. policy in the Middle East — mostly avoids anti-Trump and other tiresome, partisan rants.
  • i24news – based in Israel and available in English, French and Arabic, I recently stumbled upon i24news while searching for Middle East news. Though its only been available since February 2017, I was surprised at the quality, breadth and depth of this news services’ U.S coverage. Apart from its coverage of U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly as it relates to Israel and the Palestinians, their other U.S. coverage was remarkably blunt and free of partisan politics. For an American hyper-partisan, this news service will not feel like MSNBC or Fox News. They are clearly trying to draw a line somewhere in between.
  • The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) is an international news organization that, in their words, “delivers thoughtful, global coverage via its website, weekly magazine, and daily news broadcasts. As a young journalist in the 1980s, I considered the CSM newspaper and its companion radio news service to be our nation’s closest equivalent of the BBC — much more so than National Public Radio (NPR). Economics have eroded the breadth and quality of CSM news coverage, but as an alternative to today’s mainstream news networks, they are still relatively non-partisan and objective.

Of course, someone is free to find their own non-partisan news services for this fourth step. The point of this step is simply to reacquaint hyper-partisans with what objective news coverage looks, sounds and feels like. After a week of going cold turkey on U.S-based news networks, a few hyper-partisans will even find it hard to go back. For some, this step will feel analogous to going from breathing Los Angeles’ air to breathing the air in Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are polluted with former White House and partisan political operatives. They are not news services, they are partisan propaganda entities.  Hence, it is impossible to discern objective truth from partisan agendas on these networks. Impossible.

Step 5: Be humble, be teachable, and always keep learning

One of my former bosses had a sign above her office door that read: “Be humble, be teachable, and always keep learning.”

That is a good summary for Step 5.

Regardless of age or educational background, find an issue, preferably one that is new or with low visibility on the national policy stage, and do some deep-dive research on the topic, making sure all possible perspectives are considered.

After a week or two of intense study, share the knowledge with a wide range of people — but do not give a policy prescription. Instead, let others give their opinions and policy preferences. Anyone completing this step with an open-mind and heart may be surprised at the people with whom they share the most agreement.

The objective in this step is not to persuade someone to agree with your position on a subject. Quite the opposite, if done earnestly, this step will allow many hyper-partisans to experience what it is like to have their opinion formed or modified by someone else’s opinion.

Presently, persuasion is a lost art. Both political parties in this country openly reject persuasion as a tool of electioneering and governance. That is a sad outcome of our current political system.

This fifth step is based on class exercise I experienced during my first-year as political science graduate student. According to the professor, the exercise was designed to disabuse first-year students, who often come into political science graduate programs with strong partisan views, to understand the potential bias inherent in any objective analysis driven by partisan prejudices.

Partisanship kills objective analysis. If you are a partisan, you are not capable of doing meaningful journalistic or academic research.

Step 6: Share your partisan detoxification experience with others

This final step is the easiest. Having successfully completed the previous steps, now is the time to share that experience with others.

Perhaps it is a new favorite news channel or website you discovered in Step 4. Or share any new ideas or expertise gained from Step 5. Whatever is shared, it should be bring comfort to others knowing that living outside the partisan bubble is not disorienting or destructive to anyone’s self-esteem.

These six steps to partisan detoxification, moreover, are not intended to turn a hyper- or strong partisan into a centrist. That is not only hard to do, it is not the point here. The purpose of partisan detoxification is to expose and minimize, if not eliminate, the arrogance and intolerance that infects today’s political partisans.

Failing to fulfill this purpose on a national scale sentences us to a future defined by political stalemate.

And, no, Donald Trump did not cause the political stalemate we see today in Washington, D.C. Its roots likely go back to the Reagan administration, when Democrats, much like today, were in a constant tizzy over what would happen to this country with an B-movie actor for a president.

We prospered economically and defeated the Soviet Union, for those unacquainted with this period in American history.

Partisan detoxification does not forbid disagreements on policy. It does however admonish those who judge someone’s intelligence, or social background, or motives based merely on their policy views. Once we’ve gone down the hyper-partisanship path, we have entered a battle arena where acts of cooperation, compromise and consensus are signs of weakness and where cunning, inflexibility and conquest are the coins of the realm.

Today’s politics is like watching a badger fight a wolverine. Only one outcome is certain — one of them will die.

Winning and losing will always be apart of American politics. As Barack Obama liked to say, “elections have consequences.” Unfortunately for his administration, that view stunted any chance he had of securing a positive and lasting impact on American society. When your governing principle is, “We won.” The result becomes, “We all lose.”

Regardless of which side started today’s partisan gridlock, the future is not as bright if this political polarization continues.

There will be time when Americans will need both parties working together to solve a major problem in the country. In 2008, George W. Bush and the Republicans made the necessary compromises to ensure this country did not fall into an even deeper recession than necessary. The Obama administration, likewise, worked initially to reinforce the bipartisanship of late 2008.

Unfortunately, this bipartisanship died quickly and has been replaced by today’s toxic partisanship. Finding blame for this tribalism is fruitless. Instead, we need to move on and prepare ourselves and our government for the next existential crisis that may arise where we need both parties working together to solve a serious problem.

We know we can do better than what we see today in Washington, D.C. We just have to starting doing it…soon.

K.R.K.

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

A Citizen’s Guide to Partisan Detoxification (Part 1)

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, November 17, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

[This essay is in two parts: Part 1 examines the effect of today’s hyper-partisanship on Americans; Part 2 details some simple steps to recover from hyper-partisanship]

The partisan divide has grown so wide in this country that today, when asked if he dated ‘teenage girls’ when he was in his 30s, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate can answer, “Not generally, no….I don’t remember ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother,” and that candidate is still competitive in statewide polls against his Democratic opponent!

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) deserves credit for saying he believes the women accusing former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore of sexual misconduct, but what is striking is how few Republicans in Moore’s home state are willing to distance themselves from their party’s nominee.

Partisanship should not be so blinding as to allow a man of such alleged questionable conduct the privilege of running for a U.S. Senate seat.

However, it is not insensitive to sexual assault victims to wonder if we are rushing to judgment in Moore’s case before he has the opportunity to defend themselves from such accusations. Unfortunately for Judge Moore, his public responses betray him as much as the accusations themselves.

“…I don’t remember ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother,” he told Sean Hannity. Moore was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney at the time and we have women willing to go on the record accusing Moore of sexual misconduct, including a fellow attorney and co-worker who said Moore’s fondness for underage girls was well-known.

Spare us the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ standard. U.S. Senate candidates need to be held to a higher standard than that of defendants in a courtroom proceeding.

However, the media brings its own mephitis to this unsavory story. The original Washington Post story included women that were willing to go on the record with their accusations against Judge Moore. That alone is unusual in today’s anonymous-source-centric journalism. Yet, it is perfectly understandable — even necessary — to ask the unpleasant question, “Could there be another motive driving these ‘well after-the-fact’ accusations?”

Conservative radio icon, Mark Levin, wondered out loud about the coincidence that these four accusers of Judge Moore, who do not know each other, would within days separately contact Washington Post reporters to share their allegations about Judge Moore. Somebody, external to the Washington Post, may have coordinated these interviews. There are occasions in journalism when how a story comes into being is as important as the story itself.

The Judge Moore story is one of those cases. We should know how the Washington Post discovered these four women in such a short time frame.

False rape allegations do occur, including high profile cases like the one involving the Duke Lacrosse team or the Rolling Stone story, since discredited, about sexual assaults at a University of Virginia fraternity.

Writing for Slate.com, Cathy Young, laments that “a de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.”

Awareness of sexual assault has heightened since the release of Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape and the more recent allegations regarding former Fox News chief Roger Ailes and Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. For good reason, such behavior is now widely condemned and tolerance for it can no longer be rationalized as a defense of a ‘boys will be boys’ cultural norm.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that some of this new awareness is driven by a myopic, amoral hyper-partisan political environment.

Hyper-partisanship Exploits Social Problems And Prevents Solutions

Hyper-partisanship gives us the worst-of-all-possible worlds: it exploits and amplifies societies many problems but serves as the major impediment to enacting any solutions. The partisan divide in this country has risen to a such degree that it has become toxic to our basic democratic and legal institutions.

Yet, for all pundit chatter about the dangers of extreme partisanship, there is no serious social movement attempting to repair this damage to our political culture.

In that effort, I offer some loosely-connected steps anyone can follow to begin the process of partisan detoxification — but before I describe them, here are some reasons why hyper-partisanship has become so toxic to our nation’s political collective and why it will be hard to reverse.

Hyper-partisanship gnaws at the foundations of collective action.

Empirical evidence is building that excessive partisanship in our daily lives is causing increased levels of stress at work and home. In an opinion poll conducted by the American Psychological Association this past January, just over half of Americans (57%) said that the current political climate was a “very” or “somewhat” significant source of stress in their lives. This level of stress was even higher among Democrats (72%), for obvious reasons.

Self-reported stress measures are correlated with individual-level physiological stress indicators which medical research informs us can shrink our brains, lower our IQ (at least temporarily), increase heart disease, and wreck our personal relationships.

Hyper-partisanship may be destroying us physically.

At a societal-level, an increase in political polarization corresponds to a geographic polarization with liberals clustering in urban areas and coastal regions, and conservatives living in rural areas, suburbs, and middle America.

Geographic clustering is consequential as it is now easier to draw congressional districts that are ideologically homogeneous (i.e., gerrymandering) and harder to find districts with a significant percentage of “persuadable” voters. Over time, as the electorate has polarized along geographic and ideological lines, the number of competitive U.S. House races has been in decline.

Only 40 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House were considered competitive heading into the 2016 election, according to David Wasserman, an analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington. In contrast, in the 2010 U.S. House elections, over 100 seats were considered competitive just before Election Day.

While the 2018 U.S. House elections are headed towards being more competitive with 79 races being classified as competitive by 270ToWin.com, when considering the average tenure of U.S. House or Senate members, our current legislators are near record-breaking levels for average length of tenure (see chart below).

The result of this polarization is a political system less responsive to voters. From a policy output perspective, the politicians elected from increasingly ideological polarized districts are less likely to be ideologically “moderate” and less willing to compromise on policy when they enter state and national legislatures.

The loss of “moderates” in the U.S. House has been especially dramatic among Republicans (see chart below), who started their ideological long march from the center just prior to the election of Ronald Reagan’s in 1980.

In terms of actual policy output, the last three congressional sessions witnessed near record lows in the amount of legislation passed each session (Perhaps that is a good thing…don’t we have enough laws already?).

A polarized American electorate is not simply a psychometric phenomenon, but a social one that has led to tangible changes in this country that will be hard to reverse.  Our political system is more rigid, unresponsive, and less productive. In good economic times, many could argue we don’t need an activist government passing large numbers of laws. But there will be economic downturns in the future when we will require an engaged, responsive and productive Congress — the question is: will our political system be ready when it is called upon to do its job.

What are the barriers to partisan detoxification?

If we are to reduce the electorate’s polarization, we will need to understand the many aspects of human psychology that foster hyper-partisanship and become barriers to its reversal.

The biggest barriers may be the hardest to change: our general lack of self-awareness, fragile egos, imperfect ability to empathize with others, and basic physiological need for companionship.

Taken together, our human flaws conspire against our ability to open our lives and minds to new ideas and alternative points of view.

For example, on average, we think we are smarter and better-looking than any objective measure would indicate. Human conceit may be a constant through history, but with the rise of social media these psychological frailties can distend into narcissism and other forms of self-absorption.

Social media is now the primary news source for 60 percent of Americans and its effect on the electorate may be central to understanding recent trends in political polarization. But it may also be leading to other negative outcomes in the electorate.

Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, presented study results at the 2011 annual convention of the American Psychological Association showing how teens who spend more time on Facebook are more likely to show narcissistic tendencies and other behavioral problems (such as low academic performance).

A 2010 study of Facebook users from ages 18 to 25, conducted at York University (Canada), assessed the subjects on the Narcissism Personality Inventory and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The researchers also measured each subject’s level of ‘self-promotion’ on their Facebook pages, defined as updating their status every five minutes, frequent posting of pictures of themselves, photos of celebrity look-alikes, and quotes and mottos glorifying themselves. The researchers concluded that the people who used Facebook the most for self-promotion tended to have narcissistic or insecure personalities.

Neither of these studies prove that frequent use of social media sites cause increased levels of narcissism, but they do suggest a strong link between social media use and various personality disorders.

Additionally, studies have shown that social media use can limit the breadth of our information sources and reduce our exposure to other points of view. If true, that is a toxic outcome for a democracy.

Ashik Shafi (Bethany College) and Fred Vultee (Wayne State University), in their analysis of a 2014 survey of students at a large Midwestern university, found that “social media use negatively predicts respondents’ knowledge about political processes, institutions and current events when other possible predictors of political knowledge are controlled.”

While their study does not prove a causal link between social media use and political knowledge, it does suggest social media may negatively impact users’ political knowledge through two mechanisms: (1) information filters — where social media allows users to systematically filter out specific sources of political information, and (2) time replacement — where the time people spend on social media replaces time they would have spent engaging in social activities in the meatsphere (real-life).

This process mirrors Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s ‘bowling alone‘ thesis that explained Americans’ declining participation in social activities, such as bowling and political activism, by their increased time watching television.

Through social media, we create personalized echo chambers that reinforce our existing opinions, resulting in increasingly intransigent opinions vis-a-vis other opinions in the world we purposely tune out of our Facebook news feeds and posts.

Social media narrows our knowledge base and filters out evidence of our own fallibility, creating a feedback loop that inflates confidence in our own capacity to comprehend complex social phenomena. This feedback loop limits our exposure to divergent opinions and maximizes inputs from like-minded people, thereby reinforcing our existing partisan biases. The more we personalize our media choices, the more partisan we become.

Social media has turned us all into thinking we are PhD. sociologists and economists and, subsequently, less willing to consider opinions and ideas from actual PhD. sociologists and economists.

Political scientists that study ‘media effects’ refer to the partisan selective exposure among information seekers to explain the potential effects of social media on political partisanship and ideology. In other words, we avoid information that might contradict our existing opinions and seek out information that confirms them. Political scientists W. Lance Bennett and Shanto Iyengar call this ‘individualized reality construction‘ — and it may not be a good thing for sustaining a healthy, constructive political culture.

The rise of social media (and individualized reality construction) has also coincided with a demise of the inadvertent audience.

“During the heyday of network news, when the combined audience for the three evening newscasts exceeded 70 million, many Americans were exposed to the news as a simple byproduct of their loyalty to the sitcom or other entertainment program that immediately followed the news,” according to Bennett and Iyengar. “It is likely that this ‘inadvertent’ audience may have accounted for half the total audience for network news.”

During the peak audience years for broadcast network television, a significant percentage of Americans were exposed to news and political information that they would not have sought out on their own. One result of this large ‘inadvertent audience’ may have been that it helped build a national political culture where people, regardless of political orientation, shared the same information sources.

Social media may be eroding mass media’s function as a cultural bonding agent and replaced it with an information environment that now divides us more than unite us. We can delude ourselves into thinking our 1,000+ Facebook friends actually measures something good about us, but it may indicate something much more privative.

Along with our new social media-driven echo chambers, there are two other flaws in our neuro-cognitive biochemistry that deserve mentioning and that may stunt any attempt to open our minds to new opinions and ideas.

We are bad at making predictions, particularly when they are negative

If we are honest with ourselves, we realize most of our personal predictions never come true. In fact, psychological research on generalized anxiety disorder has found that more than 80 percent of our negative predictions never materialize. And even when these predictions do occur, the consequences are often far less serious than we had previously imagined. Nonetheless, the anticipation of negative events cause levels of stress that can drive us deeper into the dark dynamics of individualized reality construction.

Most of what we believe as fact is, in truth, wrong

In addition to our attraction to negative predictions is our tendency to believe things that are just plain wrong. We may think we know how the economy works, or why some kids grow up to commit crimes and other don’t, or how human activities affect the global climate, but in most cases, we don’t. Most of what we believe is superficial and often not true on some important, fundamental level.

Ask a well-educated, partisan Republican about the likely effects of lowering federal taxes for the economy-at-large, and you will get a simple, coherent answer: “Lower taxes will grow the economy.” But that opinion is just wrong.

Does lowering taxes increase economic growth? The economic research does provide quotable, pithy answers to that question.

Two economists at the left-leaning Brookings Institute, William G. Gale and Andrew A. Samwick, concluded in their 2014 study that “if the tax cuts are not financed by immediate spending cuts they will likely also result in an increased federal budget deficit, which in the long-term will reduce national saving and raise interest rates.” Even if there is a short-term boost to economic growth from a tax cut, the long-term net result may be small or even negative, according to Gale and Samwick.

Even the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation has concluded that simple statements such as “lower taxes lead to economic growth” do not reflect reality enough to inform budget and tax policies.

The Tax Foundation’s William McBride writes: “The economy is sufficiently complex that virtually any theory can find some support in the data.”

Yet, the Republican Party has achieved 40 years of political dominance partially around the much over-simplified belief that lower taxes lead to more growth.

But its not just the GOP. You can’t go to a Democratic Party rally without someone calling for an increase in the minimum wage, on the belief that such a policy move would increase the economic security of millions of working Americans.

Would it?

The economic research is mixed, at best, at the effectiveness of minimum wage increases at increasing the standard of living for low-skilled labor. Some research suggests raising the minimum wage actually reduces employment opportunities for low-skilled labor. The very people that need these minimum-wage jobs the most may be most harmed by increasing the minimum wage.

Yet, Democratic Party leaders are not held accountable for the empirical weaknesses in their policy proposals. Sure, Fox News and the Republican Party will hold them accountable, but today’s partisan voters are so well-trained to avoid contradictory information that they may never hear substantive counter-arguments to raising the minimum wage. In Walter Cronkite’s 1968, the average voter had a good chance of inadvertently coming into contact with information that might challenge the voter’s view of the world, but not today.

Now for the good news…hyper-partisanship is not necessarily a permanent aspect of our modern democracy. We can reduce today’s ideological polarization and the political dysfunction it breeds. And we can do it without shutting down Facebook or forcing people to watch broadcast television news again.

Part 2 of this essay provides some simple steps to recover from today’s hyper-partisanship epidemic.

K.R.K.

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

 

Is Virginia pointing the Democrats to the Left?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, November 8, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

Rush Limbaugh tried hard on Wednesday morning to rationalize the Republican defeat in Virginia as something unrelated to President Donald Trump — but, after an hour, his enthusiasm for the project waned.

“I don’t do phony optimism and I don’t try to cheer people up when it isn’t warranted…I’m the mayor of Realville,” said Limbaugh.

For those of you not sure, Realville is not an actual place — which was symbolic of Rush’s plea to his faithful listeners. His rationalization of the Virginia elections was going nowhere.

[Fact Checker’s Note: There is, in fact, a Réalville. But it is in southern France and we verified that Rush Limbaugh is not their mayor.]

There is no positive spin Republicans can assign to the Democrats’ victories in Virginia (and elsewhere). The GOP didn’t just lose in Virginia, they weren’t even competitive. More distressing to them should be the turnover of Virginia’s lower house to the Democrats.

The Democratic Party’s victory on Tuesday was deep in northern Virginia, and may foretell the ‘Thus Always to Tyrants‘ state finally becoming reliably blue for Democrats.

Hillary Clinton won Virginia in 2016 by a 50 percent to 44 percent margin, with 6 percent of the vote going to third party candidates. Ralph Northam beat Ed Gillespie by a 54 percent to 45 percent margin, with only one percent going to Cliff Hyra, the Libertarian candidate.

Without an intensive look at individual-level vote data (such as The Washington Post’s exit poll data), it is difficult to make strong conclusions about the 2017 Virginia elections; however, Tuesday’s election results are consistent with Berniecrats’ claims that a large majority of the third party presidential vote in 2016 would have gone to the Democratic candidate had the nominee been anyone other than Hillary Clinton.

Yet, the shift of 2016 third party voters to Northam in the Virginia gubernatorial race is not the takeaway from Tuesday’s elections. The story was the vulnerability of incumbent Virginia legislature Republicans in what had been strong Republican districts.

Democrats won Virginia districts in places they had no business being competitive.

A 73-year-old Republican incumbent, Bob Marshall, an aggressively anti-LGBTQ state house legislator, lost to Danica Roem, the first openly transgender candidate in U.S. history. Their northern Virginia district is an historically conservative district along Highway 28 with a resident population that is prosperous with strong ties to the Washington, D.C. and federal government economy.

That Virginia state house race saw Roem pursue a clear, but understated, millennial-centered social justice agenda versus a Republican incumbent clinging desperately to a worldview that fit well in 1957, not 2017.

The Republicans should hope that race does not reflect nationwide trends. However, it probably does.

However, let’s step back from the this week’s GOP shellacking and think more strategically about the lessons both parties should have learned from the Virginia results. The early conclusions from mainstream pundits, unsurprisingly, are punctuated with hyperbole and unsupported speculation.

This was a referendum election, not an ideological one. Virginia independents, representing about 28 percent of the voter population, went slightly for Gillespie over Northan (50% to 47%, respectively), according to the Washington Post’s exit poll analysis. Gillespie did slightly better than Trump among independents.

Still, beyond the importance of partisanship and turnout, there are other significant lessons both parties can take away from Tuesdays results.

First, the Republicans:

Lesson 1:

The American political system is venting Republicans like Bob Marshall. Their worldview is not relevant or sustainable in our country’s globalized, intercultural social landscape.

A good share of these Republicans will survive in a smattering of Southern and Midwest states, but the Bob Marshalls are done. Being a bigot isn’t just a bad way to go through life, in politics it produces socially radioactive fallout whose blowback is hard to predict and control. The Republicans don’t need that uncertainty right now. And they definitely don’t need it

The Republicans of the future are going to be more like United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley or U.S. House Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Washington’s 5th congressional district). If the 2017 Virginia results teach the Republicans anything, it is that the GOP old guard needs to retire — which they are…in droves.

To paraphrase Gothmog, lieutenant of Morgul in The Lord of the Rings, “The age of old white men is over, the time of multi-ethnic women has come.”

Nikki Haley, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard, Tammy Duckworth, Jaime Herrera Beutler…..

To be fair, not all white men need to retire.

Bernie Sanders thrives because he speaks with credibility and passion on the issues and concerns of millennials and young, working-class Americans. The Bob Marshalls (and Chuck Schumers) do not.

Just as many of us prepare for winter by sorting through our firewood supply and throwing out the wet and rotted logs — usually the older logs on the bottom of the pile — that is what the Republicans are doing in preparation for 2018 and 2020.

In this way, the 2017 Virginia state house results did the GOP a favor.

Lesson 2:

The Virginia 2017 election results were a referendum on Donald Trump, not on conservatism.

As far as we can tell from the aggregate voting data on Tuesday, the results were not rooted in an ideological re-alignment of voters, but rather resulted from a partisan turnout differential caused by an unpopular president. In northern Virginia, populated by a high percentage of federal government workers and contractors, the voter turnout was decisively in favor of the Democrats.

The Washington Post’s election analysis describes well the dynamic in Virginia. The vote was highly partisan — very little voting across party lines. In addition, Democrats were far more energized than the Republicans. That is the definition of a ‘referendum’ vote. Democrats are angry and frustrated and they took it out on Virginia Republicans.

There is no indication, as yet, that weak Republican partisans or Republican-leaning independents made a wholesale shift towards the Democrats. If that did happen, then the Republicans would really be in trouble going into 2018 and 2020.

For now, they have a much more tractable enthusiasm problem.

Lesson 3:

Donald Trump doesn’t really care about Republicans or conservatism, or anything requiring significant amounts of intellectual investment. It took him about 10 minutes to throw his own party under the bus after learning about the Virginia results.

That was a predictable prick move on the part of President Trump. We’ve come to expect this from him. [Is anyone in a near-orbit to Trump telling him that the strong economy is not translating into support for his presidency?]

Electoral success at all levels of government requires a coherent and coordinated team effort and it hurts a party on the down-ballot races when their own president shows no propensity for teamwork. [Obama and the Clintons weren’t much better in this regard — ‘cult of personality’ candidacies never end well for the respective party]

He still inspires a significant percentage of disgruntled Americans — perhaps as high as 40 percent and as low as 30 percent of Americans. He does not, however, appear capable of inspiring another 10 to 15 percent of Americans required to form a durable electoral majority at all levels of government.

That is a problem Republicans need to address ASAP.

Now, for the Democrats:

Lesson 1:

There is no evidence Tuesday’s results were ideological. It was a referendum on Donald Trump. This is hardly news, but its strategic ramifications are still too often over-looked.

The vote outcomes in Virginia, New Jersey, Georgia and Washington state were turnout-driven partisan body counts. Democrats (and Democrat-leaning independents) came out to vote and they voted for the Democrats. In contrast, the now infamous Trump working-class Democrats did not show up in high numbers. Republican incumbents, never previously considered vulnerable, went down all over Virginia and Georgia.

The ‘not Donald Trump’ message will probably work just as well in 2018 (though one year is a long time in politics). The past failures of the Democrats’ mobilization-centric strategy — where money and time is spent on getting partisans to the polls and little spent on voter persuasion — will most likely work well in 2018.

But, the Democrats cannot pretend that the 2017 results are more than this simple fact: a large majority of Americans in shock about the behavior of their current president and are going to take it out on the party that enables him.

The Virginia vote does not portend a larger movement in support of the national Democratic platform. Danica Roem talked more about road building and infrastructure than social justice issues.

Had we seen traditional Republican voters turning out to vote for Democrats, then an ideological shift could be conjectured. As far as we know now, that did not happen.

Lesson 2:

Democrats can be competitive in districts presently viewed as ‘safe Republican’ districts. If the conditions behind the 2017 results hold, the Republicans will lose the U.S. House and it won’t even be close. It could be on a scale similar to the meltdown the Democrats experienced in the 2010 midterms.

A good example of this new competitiveness is found in Virginia’s 10th House of Delegates district, which covers much of the U.S. Highway 50 corridor west of metropolitan Washington, D.C. The Republican incumbent Randall Minchew received more votes in the 2017 election (14,014) than in any previous election, and still lost to Wendy Gooditis by over 1,000 votes.

That is what a partisan edge in voter turnout will do for the Democrats. But the important lesson to Democrats is that they should never be slaves to data analytics and simply ignore districts the “models” deem unwinnable. The models have been wrong in many important races, and they will be wrong again.

Lesson 3:

The Democrats need to hedge their bets and move to the political center.

The enthusiasm may not always be on the side of the Democrats. To assume so, and thereby continue their mobilization-focused strategy in 2018 and beyond, risks the momentum the Democrats currently possess.

It is not a crime against the political gods to hedge one’s bets going into the 2018 midterms. As underwater as Donald Trump’s approval numbers are right now, nobody knows where his approval numbers will be in November 2018.

One substantial international confrontation could overnight put him over 50 percent. And it won’t require a 35-point approval jump George W. Bush saw after 9-11. President Kennedy saw his highest popularity ratings just AFTER the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. President Ford’s approval ratings jumped sharply after the May, 1975, rescue of the Mayaguez ship crew — where 41 U.S. troops were killed! It is hard to predict how Americans will react to the next international crisis, but don’t assume Democrats and independents, especially those with family members in the military, won’t rally around the Trump presidency during a crisis.

More likely, the American economy will remain strong and at some point that will pay real dividends to the Trump presidency. It hasn’t happened yet, but many Americans still attribute the current economic strength to the Obama administration. That will change as time passes.

In that event, the Democrats need to reacquaint themselves with the political center.

But didn’t I read recently that there is no political center in the U.S. anymore? We are a ‘Center-Left’ country after all.

Many political analysts are saying the growing partisan divide in this country has left the political center empty. Go here and here for recent examples. And many Democratic-leaning pundits have argued the U.S. is a fundamentally Center-Left country (here and here).

All of these conclusions have serious analytic problems.

They are over-reliant on survey-based data, confuse statistical artifacts as findings, misinterpret existing research, and are just blind to the countervailing evidence. Even using the same data and research the ‘go left’ advocates cite, not only is the political center obvious, it is large and still determines close elections in the U.S.

Pew Research’s portrayal of the ideological structure of the American voting public shows a significant political center.

Source: Pew Research, 2017

Yes, America is more politically polarized than ever. That does not, in itself, negate the political value of moving to the center. As you can see in the above chart, half of American voters are still between the mean ideological positions of the two parties, but that doesn’t alone justify moving to the center. For example, research is consistently finding that even moderate voters prefer candidates that take distinct policy positions. In corporate marketing, they call it brand differentiation. But taking a distinct policy position is not the same as taking a strong ideological position.

It is possible to be a distinct politician without being a highly ideological.

Here are the three realities that should drive Democrats (and Republicans too) to consider the need for a move to the center:

  • When looking at Americans’ opinions on a wide range of topics, particularly outside of a political context, they are predominately non-ideological.
  • Americans have a very unfavorable view of both parties (and it is not because they want the parties to become more extreme!)
  • Objective policy results still matter in American politics — believe it or not.
Americans are politically ‘Center-Right,’ even if they may be socially ‘Center-Left’

Democratic pundits suggesting we are a ‘Center-Left’ nation put too much weight on survey data alone. Yes, public opinion surveys provide insight into voters’ minds. But these measurement instruments are mirrors, not crystal balls. Change the survey context or the questions themselves and you can get dramatically different results.

Furthermore, the term ‘Center-Left’ is relative. ‘Center-Left’ to what? And is it possible that Americans could be socially liberal, but not politically liberal (Author’s note: That has been my position on this topic in the past).

There are many analytic comparisons a researcher can employ to make this judgment:

  • Compare Americans within one election or period of time (cross-sectional)
  • Compare Americans over time (longitudinal)
  • Compare Americans to other countries (cross-national)
  • Compare actual policy outcomes to ideological divisions (Outcome approach)
  • Compare Americans using a relativist measure of ideology (Relativist approach)
  • Compare Americans to an objective measure of ideology (Objectivist approach)

I won’t go through all these approaches, but would like to highlight the last one.

The Voter Study Group’s lead analyst, Dr. Lee Drutman, takes the objectivist approach in which the center position in a survey question represents the dividing line between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives.’ The researcher determines objectively what defines a ‘liberal’ from a ‘conservative’ and looks to see how the American public matches up to the researcher’s definitions.

There is a significant danger of bias in such an approach. It is prone — scratch that — it invites the results to conform to the researcher’s view of the political world. It fulfills what conservative pundit Ben Shapiro describes as the left’s pathological need to believe most Americans agree with them. This approach imposes a cognitive structure on respondents that doesn’t necessarily mirror how respondents actually think.

Furthermore, the objectivist approach ignores the ability of political parties to strategically redefine ideology within the dynamics of electoral politics.

The objectivist approach becomes obsolete as soon as one party redefines what it means to be ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal.’

Oh, when has that ever happened?!

Most recently, the dramatic ideological shift on trade policy is one example of when assumptions on what is the ‘left’ versus ‘right’ position has proven to be fluid relative to time and space.

But the most dramatic example is the Republican Party in the mid-1970s.

The Republican Party in the mid-1970s was a smoldering wreckage following Watergate and the Vietnam War. The dominant question within the Republican Party in 1975 was “what do we stand for?”

“Moderate” Republicans such as President Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller were not popular with the Republican base.

Enter Ronald Reagan who redefined ‘American conservatism’ in a way that persists to this day.

And, subsequently, in reaction to the Reagan revolution, Bill Clinton redefined liberalism, not just to re-center the Democrats on economic policy (which he did), but to define a new form of ‘liberal’ that embraced free markets and the progressive Democratic social agendas (minus LGBTQ issues that would need to wait until the Obama administration to see significant positive action).

Ideological plasticity is where strategic-thinking parties and politicians excel  in order to win elections.

So, Democrats, there will always be a ‘conservative’ America out there, regardless of how you define ‘conservative.’ And, over time, they will win half of all elections.

Using the opinion survey method to map ideology includes other qualifiers. If you ask the right set of questions framed in a specific context, Americans can look as leftist (or rightist) as you want them to look. That doesn’t mean the objectivist approach is fruitless, but it does mean a skeptical person should look for additional information before concluding we are a ‘Center-Left’ nation.

So here is a brief look at another ideological data source…

University of North Carolina political scientist James Stimson has been tracking the political mood of Americans for most of his academic career. Unlike Pew Research or the Voter Study Group, Stimson’s measure of public mood (which is analogous to ideology) looks out over 60 years of survey data using multiple survey vendors and questions (an in depth methodology description of Stimson’s public mood measure can be found here). Pew Research and The Polling Company (the survey vendor for The Voter Study Group) do good survey research. But I prefer a survey-based opinion measure that aggregates multiple survey vendors and questions over time and looks at more than just voters, but the entire U.S. adult population.

Stimson’s most recent update on public mood shows America (as of 2016) is still centrist, compared to other times in American history since 1952.

Source: Dr. James Stimson (http://stimson.web.unc.edu/data/)

The mean value in public mood is 63, almost exactly where American public mood stood in 2016. As I’ve said, it is very likely this country has become significantly more liberal since the 2016 elections. That is the common ideological reaction to a new president. Notice that prior to 1980, America’s mood was the most conservative it had ever been since 1952. Hence, Ronald Reagan wins in landslide over Jimmy Carter. Immediately after the 1980 election, we witness the American mood becoming more liberal.

[Author’s note: Many of us still remember how the American mainstream media outlets ‘freaked out’ at Reagan’s victory in 1980, in much the same way they are reacting to President Trump today.]

In 2016, heading into the November elections, Americans were about as liberal as they were in 1984, right before Ronald Reagan won the biggest presidential landslide since FDR in 1936.

However, the real power of Stimson’s public mood measure is its visualization of the significant year-to-year elasticity in public mood. Real changes in public mood materialize in relatively short periods of time. This is why we shouldn’t be too surprised when opinion data in 2017 is more ‘liberal’ than it was prior to the 2016 elections. It also means analysts, researchers, and pundits should confess more humility before making declarations about how this country is ‘Center-Left’ or ‘Center-Right.’ [Author’s note: I would benefit from some of that humility too.]

To declare that Americans are more liberal today than on November 7, 2016, that’s fine. It doesn’t change the fact that we were a centrist country going into that election and any ideological moves since then can be quickly reversed or accelerated.

Maybe the real conclusion should be that declaring the the U.S. as “Center-Left” or “Center-Right” is analytically unproductive. Any such judgment is as permanent as a child’s sand castle. Perhaps the real effort from analysts and party strategists should instead be focused on the forces that build (and destroy) those ideological castles.

Yes, there is a political center and it deserves our attention

There need not be a large number of voters at the political center for the strategy of moving to the center to be effective. Voter behavior is not as spatially-driven or as simplistic as often assumed by the “go left” Democrat crowd. Gabriel Lenz’ research shows that many voters move their attitudes towards their preferred party and candidates’ positions, not the other way around. So parties or politicians aiming for the thick part of the ideological distribution are not necessarily the most successful. Thus, the ideological distribution of Americans today is not, ipso facto, an argument for where the party should go in the future.

Here is the actual secret sauce to durable and sustainable electoral success in the U.S. political system….

…enact good public policies (which, sometimes, means ‘do nothing’) and voters will reward the party and politicians in power. Good policies attract voters.

Is that why incumbents win over 90 percent of the time?

No, not entirely. But it would be inaccurate to suggest this country has made a lot of bad public policy decisions. This country is as strong economically as it as ever been. For the  most part, our political leaders make good policy and are thus rewarded for this.

Are you out of your f**king mind?! Have you heard of G. W. Bush’s Iraq War? The Defense of Marriage Act? The Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988?

Yes, there are really bad U.S. public policy decisions in the history books. In most cases, the incumbent party was punished for them.

We can’t allow an aggregate statistic such as incumbent re-election rates to blind us to the real political changes that occur during bad economic times or counter-productive military adventures.

Americans reward good policy and punish bad policy.

And knowing that should shape how the Democrats move forward.

If Democratic leaders believe raising the minimum wage to $15-an-hour, or providing free tuition to public universities for qualified students, or raising taxes on high-income households, or imposing a carbon tax on energy users and producers, or creating a single-payer health care system, or creating government-funded child care are good public policies, then, absolutely, the Democrats need to move left.

If you are skeptical that these policies can be implemented in a cost-effective manner (or would even work if implemented) and that there is a limit to the long-term debt our economy can carry, then, as a Democrat, you must pump the party’s brakes on these leftist economic policy ideas.

That leaves the social justice issues as the only other area where the Democrats can move left. But here is the problem with that move….the Democrats are already on the extreme left on many of these issues. There is no place farther left position than your last presidential nominee’s position of ‘unrestricted access to abortion.’  Allowing people to choose their bathroom based on their self-determined gender identity, independent of their birth sex assignment, is ex vi termini the ‘extreme left’ position. Where is there left, pardon the pun, for the Democrats to go?

The ‘go left’ Democrats are still fighting the war against Hillary Clinton — a unapologetic centrist that put corporate interests ahead of all other considerations. But, Hillary’s problem wasn’t her squishy centrist positions. The problem was her. She was too unlikable to overcome her bland ideas. As we saw in Virginia when the Democratic base in energized, the Democrats win. In 2016, the Democratic base was’t energized, but it wasn’t because of Hillary’s tendency for centrism.

Had Hillary Clinton been even a little more honest, a little more transparent, a little more charismatic, and not deny attention to working-class America, I wouldn’t have been forced to wake up to this picture today:

K.R.K

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

The Media’s Shameless Politicization of the Death Toll in Puerto Rico

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, November 1, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

How many people died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria? It is an important question that needs a serious, non-partisan answer.

An answer we will not get from CNN or any of the major news outlets covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Why? Because they are not really in the news business. They are in the Trump-bashing business. News stories are not pursued on their merit, they are selected based upon how well they serve the current popular narrative — and that narrative since November 2016 is: “Trump-is-a-liar-and-an-incompetent-Russia-colluding-stooge.”

Why focus on the narrative over objective facts? Because strong narratives build audiences, much like presidential candidates with the strongest narrative attract the most voters. Humans prefer narratives over hard, cold facts. The research supporting this conclusion is long, varied, and convincing.

The major news outlets’ coverage of the Hurricane Maria aftermath in Puerto Rico is an exemplar of this ‘feed-the-narrative’ journalism and its hurting their credibility and the people of Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but by all objective accounts, the immediate death toll was relatively small

The official death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria stands today at 54. These are deaths directly related to the storm — mostly caused by drowning, blunt force objects, and stress-caused physical traumas, such as strokes and heart attacks. This official number includes deaths in the more remote sections of Puerto Rico, according to the Puerto Rican governor’s office.

It is not a perfect number and probably an under-count, given the realities of Puerto Rico’s terrain and socio-economic conditions.

But the news media have decided to manipulate the suffering of Puerto Ricans for a political purpose. They have discovered local and state Puerto Rican officials willing to suggest over 900 people in Puerto Rico died due to Hurricane Maria.

Here is just a sampling of recent headlines suggesting this death toll:

ABC News: 900-plus cremations since Maria, but hurricane death toll still 51

Newsweek: Puerto Rico says more than 900 people were cremated after Hurricane Maria

The Hill: Puerto Rico says over 900 people died of ‘natural causes’ after hurricane: report

Is The Hill‘s convenient use of quotations around ‘natural causes‘ meant to suggest someone is doctoring the death toll? Perhaps Donald Trump is doing it himself between 3 a.m. tweets? As if Donald Trump or anyone in his administration would be connected or knowledgeable enough to manipulate a death toll count generated by Puerto Rico’s state bureaucracy. [See, even I am willing to hitch a brief ride on the ‘Trump-is-incompetent’ narrative]

How did the news media get to this 900+ number? Its a bit murky and unsystematic, but, generally, it is coming from body and cremation counts from local morgues and funeral homes across Puerto Rico.

On a superficial level, that approach may make sense to a journalist or the general public; but, in practice, it yields an inaccurate and biased number.

CNN reporter John Sutter’s approach to covering the death toll has been particularly creepy and dishonest. It is revealed in the first personal story he offers in his Oct. 27th article on CNN.com titled: Puerto Rico’s uncounted hurricane deaths — CNN visits every funeral home in one town to test the government’s count.

He writes: “Isabel Rivera González was 80. She loved to dance, and was known in this hilly enclave of Puerto Rico for her Saturday-night merengue moves…On October 15, three weeks after the storm, Rivera died awaiting a procedure at a hospital that had lost power in the hurricane and whose backup generator failed, according to several of her family members.”

Rivera was 80 and in poor health (prior to the hurricane). This is a sad death and possibly an indirect (not direct) result of Hurricane Maria. The direct versus indirect distinction may seem hardhearted, but it is an important distinction to those who study natural disasters and help prepare local, state and national governments for the next natural disaster.

Indeed, Sutter could have saved himself a lot of effort trolling Puerto Rico’s funeral homes had he first talked to an epidemiologist or public policy expert specializing in natural disasters. His methodology, which he painfully details in his Oct. 27th article, is not appropriate for measuring direct or indirect fatalities related to Hurricane Maria.

Here is why: people die in Puerto Rico every day. They were dying long before Hurricane Maria and they will die in Puerto Rico long after the visible effects of Maria have vanished. In fact, prior to Maria, around 80 Puerto Ricans were dying every day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This is why epidemiologists and policy experts establish mortality rates prior to an event (e.g., hurricane) and re-measure that rate during a post-event period of time when assessing the impact of natural disasters.

Establishing a baseline mortality rate is a normative benchmark that can be compared to the post-Maria mortality rate. This methodology in its simplest form is called a Pre-Post measurement design.

The following research study on the measurement of indirect deaths related to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan is an excellent example of a high-quality scientific study measuring natural disaster-related mortality rates. A more basic analytic approach was employed here to measure the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the mortality rate in the Greater New Orleans area in Louisiana.

Yet, even a quick, back-of-the-envelope attempt at understanding the deaths related to Maria reveals the inherent flaw in the news media’s unscientific assertion that 900 people died in its aftermath.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20th. The 900+ death toll estimate being promoted by the media emerged around October 26th. Lets assume those estimates were derived in the week prior to the news stories, that puts us around October 20th. Rounding, that is 30 days between landfall and the 900+ death count.

Based on U.S. Census Bureau data, in just a normal 30-day period Puerto Rico would have seen around 2,400 deaths. That is the number of deaths without a hurricane at the start of the period. This makes the 900+ fatalities number a little suspect, I would say. At a minimum, it demands more information before we can take it seriously.

In fact, I wonder if Puerto Ricans didn’t become even more attentive to their sick and elderly in the hurricane’s direct aftermath, thereby decreasing (if only temporarily) the mortality rate in Puerto Rico.

No, I’m not going to go that far. That would make me no better than CNN. And it may be true that the post-Maria mortality rate is higher in Puerto Rico. Counting cremations and dead bodies in morgues however is not a reliable way of getting to that true number.

This is why the news media’s ‘feed-the-narrative’ motivation is so important to understanding what it reports as news. The primary concern of CNN or The New York Times or MSNBC or The Washington Post is not understanding the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico. Their primary motivation is finding ways to make Donald Trump look bad.

‘So what if the news media is reporting a sketchy death count, does it really matter?’

Unbiased mortality, morbidity, and financial loss estimates due to natural disasters are critical to understanding trends and long-term disaster planning. When these numbers are manipulated for political and economic reasons, public policy suffers.

“This poses a problem for any attempt to characterize trends in disaster impact and – maybe more importantly – to use those trends to identify optimal policy choices,” according to Dr. Llan Noy, from the Victoria Business School (Canada). “Trends in disaster losses are crucial because the distribution of losses across regions – and across countries at various levels of wealth and development – informs the discussion of climate change mitigation policies.”

Inflating the Puerto Rican death count may cultivate the news media’s anti-Trump narrative, but it harms those trying to prepare the world for the possible impact of climate change and natural disasters in general.

There is not going to be a quick answer to the “How many people died in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria?” question. In the meantime, exploiting this period of scientific uncertainty to bash Donald Trump should be beneath the ideals of the news media. Unfortunately, it is not.

K.R.K

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

A post-essay addendum:

I used these two imaginary scenarios to explain to my son how someone might measure the impact of Hurricane Maria:

In the first scenario, a hurricane hits an island and, sadly, a boat with 200 people from the island capsizes and everyone dies. However, on the island, nobody dies and power and normalcy return quickly. Using the Pre-Post design, the researchers would see a spike of 200 people (above the normal mortality rate) but the rate would promptly return to its historical norm. Deaths directly attributable to the hurricane would stand at 200 and indirect deaths would be around zero (assuming the 200 people that died on the boat weren’t all doctors and first-responders from the island).

In the second scenario, a hurricane hits the same island but nobody dies on the day of the hurricane. Instead, the island’s power and transportation infrastructure is destroyed and is not repaired for weeks, even months. In this case, the researchers would see no spike on the day of the hurricane but may see a steady — maybe even abrupt — increase in the island’s post-hurricane mortality rate. This mortality rate change is the estimate of the hurricane’s impact.

Of course, reality is more complicated than offered in these simple scenarios. For example, life-expectancies can change due to natural disasters and would not be easily discernible a simple Pre-Post measurement design. For this reason, researchers employ much more sophisticated (but analogous) statistical techniques to assess the impact of natural disasters.

 

 

 

Why the Uranium One deal still matters, despite what Joy Reid thinks

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, October 27, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

It was one of the busier slides in a grievously long student presentation on nuclear proliferation at the National Defense Intelligence College (NDIC) in 2009.

Buried in a slide explaining the nation’s sources of strategic minerals, such as uranium, was an indented bullet point about the pending acquisition of the controlling stake in a Canadian-based mining company (Uranium One) by a Russian entity (Rosatom).

The significance of the bullet point missed most of us in the class until the professor noted that this acquisition, if approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the U.S. (CFIUS), would give the Russians mining rights to a significant percentage of U.S. uranium deposits.

It was a WTF!? moment for me. Can the Russians really do that?

“Yes, they can,” the professor said. “It’s called an open economy.”

The professor then told us, under federal law, the CFIUS reviews any foreign investments in the U.S. with possible national security concerns. Uranium would quality in that regard.

The professor, a retired intelligence officer, was memorable in how he would lean back in his chair and start caressing his temples anytime he had a problem with some aspect of U.S. national security policy — which was most of the time. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (known as ITAR) were a particular sore spot with him.

As to the pending Uranium One sale, he told us: “The committee (CFIUS) can approve acquisitions, but only the President can disapprove of them.”

“Will they approve of this sale?” someone asked the professor.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t,” he responded, without any temple rubbing. In his view, access to uranium ore is not a substantive barrier to nefarious entities wanting to build nuclear weapons.

The student moved on in her presentation and I wouldn’t think about Canadian mining companies or uranium mining rights for another seven years.

Until the 2016 presidential election. And, even then, the controversy of whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had greased the skids to get the Uranium One deal approved, in exchange for past generosity to the Clinton Foundation, was buried under the coverage of her “email problem.”

However, the recent story by The Hill that the FBI was investigating Russian spy activities and possible bribery surrounding the Uranium One deal returned my thoughts to that NDIC class on nuclear proliferation eight years ago.

Many of the details from that class have faded from my memory, but some of the general ideas remain, such as:

  • Conceptually, it is not hard to build a simple, fission bomb. On a practical level, however, it still requires nation-state-level resources and commitments.
  • There are intelligence officers in the U.S. intelligence community (USIC) that ALL they think about is nuclear proliferation: What countries have fully developed nuclear weapons? What countries quickly could, if the need arose? What countries control any of the constituent parts and knowledge bases required to make nuclear weapons?
  • This country puts forth a considerable effort to track the intermediary and constituent parts needed to build nuclear weapons, including: raw uranium ore, weapons-grade fissile material, timing devices and detonators, centrifuges, advanced milling machines and metalworking, etc.
  • No detail is too small for intelligence officers to track if it relates to the proliferation of nuclear materials and technologies across the globe. They care about who controls the world’s uranium ore. And there is a zero chance they would stay silent if the Secretary of State (or President) fast tracks the sale of a uranium mining company to the Russians if, collectively, they believed the sale was a threat to national security. A zero chance.

As the most recent headlines emerged concerning the Uranium One deal, I couldn’t help but think about that class. How the professor seemed nonplussed by the idea of the Russians controlling up to 20 percent of U.S. uranium mining still resonates with me.

Fox News’ narrative is seductive — that something inappropriate, at odds with this nation’s security, was involved in the Uranium One deal. That somehow Hillary Clinton was repaying a debt when she made no effort to stop the acquisition of Uranium One by the Russians.

Yet, I have no evidence to suggest the intelligence community, or anyone with a non-partisan perspective, viewed the acquisition of Uranium One by the Russians as a threat to national security.

So when the Hillary Clinton says on CSPAN that the “pay for play” accusation with respect to the Uranium One deal has been debunked, I have no reason to doubt her…

…but I still have a problem with Hillary’s connection to the Uranium One deal.

Why? Because I believe the type of structural corruption the Clinton’s have exploited since they left the White House is exemplified by the Uranium One deal. This deal was right in their soft corruption wheelhouse.

My graduate school mentor always asked his students to start any social inquiry at the most general level. “Don’t get buried in the details,” he would say.  “Nuance and details are likely to deceive rather than inform.”

What is the 30,000-foot view of Bill and Hillary Clinton?

Since leaving the White House, the Clinton’s have amassed one-quarter billion dollars in net worth. How? By selling their access to power.

It’s not complicated and, worse yet, its not illegal.

Generally, it is legal to offer a service where your access to power elites can benefit others who want access and favorable decisions from those power elites. That is called special interest lobbying. You have to register with the U.S. government to do that on an international level, which is why Paul Manafort will be spending a lot of time in front of a judge over the next year.

The Clintons, of course, have no need for the special interest lobbying model. Too plebeian. Its beneath their status. Instead, they have created a hybrid approach through their intermingling of genuine humanitarian efforts with private, corporate interests. For this effort, the Clintons profit both directly (speaking fees and campaign donations) and indirectly (the Clinton Foundation).

Access to power is what the Clinton’s peddle and that is why they may retire as near billionaires once all is said and done.

However, the fact that this is legal doesn’t make it ethical. And even though Bill Clinton has made positive contributions to the world since his presidency, it doesn’t justify the methods he has used to enrich himself (and his family) since leaving office.

This truth gets lost in MSNBC host Joy Reid’s self-serving setup of a conservative journalist who didn’t understand the real meaning of the Uranium One deal. The Clinton’s are not in the quid pro quo business. Amateurs are in the quid pro quo business. The Clinton’s are in the access selling business, at a level only ex-presidents, some U.S. cabinet members, and a few former U.S. Senators can realistically claim.

You will never find an audio recording or an email where Bill or Hillary Clinton communicate, “If you give to our Foundation X number of dollars, we will  make sure Y happens.”

That is quid pro quo for dumbkopfs. That is what Paul Manafort might have engaged in, but that is not what the Clinton’s do. They aren’t so pedestrian.

Rather, this is the deal the Clinton’s have sold the world’s elites since 2000: I am Bill Clinton, a former U.S president married to a U.S. Senator and future U.S. president. Give to our family foundation and we will learn about your interests and give you access to any world leader you require to fulfill those interests.

That is the Bill and Hillary Clinton business model. It is an awesome and lucrative model. It is the model Barack Obama is poised to employ and modify over the remainder of his post-presidency. Obama will die a billionaire if our nation’s laws don’t try to address this form of soft corruption.

If you are OK with that, than the Uranium One deal really is a nothin’ burger. If, on the other hand, you have a problem with a former U.S. President and U.S. Secretary of State engaging in that type of influence peddling, then the Clinton’s are the exemplar.

For all intents and purposes, Uranium One deal is business-as-usual for the Clintons

There is a reason politicians rarely go to jail. Lawyers understand how difficult it is to prove criminal intent (mens rea). It is their ‘get out of jail free’ card and they are not embarrassed to use it.

Former FBI Director James Comey’s decision not to indict Hillary Clinton for the mishandling of classified information was largely rooted in the knowledge that proving Clinton’s general intent — the lowest level of criminal intent — would be difficult. Nay, impossible.

The most direct evidence of general intent is a defendant’s confession, which prosecutors cannot force from a defendant given their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Or sometimes general intent is discerned through a wiretapped conversation.

Without concrete evidence of general intent, much less specific criminal intent, the Uranium One deal is a dead-end for Clintons’ critics. And the smart critics know it.

Besides, that is not how modern influence peddling works…not the way it is practiced by the Clintons.

The Uranium One deal was not about U.S. mining rights

James Conca, a geologist writing for Forbes magazine, offers a lucid summary and explanation of why the Uranium One deal is not going to yield any serious criminal investigation.

“Those U.S. facilities obtained by Russia produce almost nothing, ” writes Conca. “The uranium deposits are of relatively poor grade and are too costly to compete on the uranium market, but the facilities do have good milling capacity to process ore, if anyone gives it to them, which hasn’t happened in about 10 years.”

Conca lays bare any suggestion that national security was at stake with the Russians purchasing control of Uranium One. “The real reason Russia wanted this deal was to give Rosatom’s subsidiary Uranium One’s very profitable uranium mines in Kazakhstan ― the single largest producer of commercial uranium in the world,” writes Conca. [Rosatom is Russia’s state atomic energy corporation and is the world’s largest uranium enrichment leader.]

National security aside, the suggestion that Canadian businessman Frank Giustra’s $140 million in donations to the Clinton Foundation was related to CFIUS’s approval of the Uranium One deal is equally specious. As emphasized in MSNBC host Joy Reid’s take down of Washington Examiner reporter Jen Kerns, Guistra had divested himself from Uranium One three years prior to the sale to Rosatom. Though, Reid fails to mention Ian Telfer, another Uranium One investor, who donated $1.3 million to $5.6 million to the Clinton Foundation during and after the CFIUS review.

Five million dollars is not as eye-popping as $140 million, but nonetheless invites suggestions that more was going on between the Clintons and Uranium One than just a lot of good intentions.

Also feeding the conservative media’s feeding frenzy on the Uranium One deal is Bill Clinton’s $500,000 speaking honorarium in 2010 from a Russian bank connected to the Uranium One deal. However, given there will never be an email or recorded phone conversation where Bill Clinton says, “You pay me $500,000 and I will make sure you get CFIUS to approve your Uranium One acquisition,” any suggestion of wrongdoing on Bill’s part is purely speculative and nowhere close to an indictable offense.

Those types of emails or phone calls will never be uncovered, not just because the Clinton’s understand the legal concept of criminal intent, but because that is not how their influence peddling operation works.

It is far more sophisticated and, yet, still simple.

The Clintons’ activities are filled with interpersonal relationships that feed conspiracy theories the guileless conservative media inevitably promote as the next ‘greatest scandal in American history,’ only for the Clinton-friendly mainstream media to, on cue, easily knock it down like the green pigs in an Angry Birds game app.

No, the Clinton influence peddling model is far more subtle.

The Clintons are a symbiotic dream team. One is a former U.S. president and the other is (was) a future U.S. president. They have a charitable foundation that does good work throughout the world. This foundation offers to its major donors this obvious benefit: high-ideal, visible philanthropy. In Frank Giustra’s own words: “I admire what he (Bill Clinton) does and I want to be a part of it.”

But, this is where it gets murky, and deliberately so. The Washington Post reported that a Canadian charity, founded by Giustra in 2007, kept its donors secret, despite an agreement between the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton that the Clinton Foundation would reveal its donors.

Hillary Clinton never intended to honor her agreement with the Obama administration, whose malignant indifference to Hillary’s side businesses would define their reaction to Hillary’s “reckless” mishandling of classified information and destruction of government records as Secretary of State.

The Clinton Foundation’s connection to Giustra’s Canadian foundation allowed anonymous donors, “including foreign executives with business pending before the Hillary Clinton-led State Department,” to funnel money to the Clinton Foundation.

And, boy, did they.

Over 1,000 donors to Giustra’s charitable foundation are tied to the Clinton Foundation and remain unknown to the public, according to The Washington Post.

Anyone concerned about the integrity of charitable foundations should be outraged at the lack of transparency provided by the Clinton Foundation.

Is it at a criminal level? Unknown. Is it unethical? Absolutely.

According to The Washington Post, “Bill Clinton has used Giustra’s MD-87 luxury plane 26 times for foundation business since 2005, including 13 trips in which the two men traveled together.” The Clinton Foundation does not reveal Bill Clinton’s travel behavior, including modes of transportation or travel companions.

More importantly, Giustra’s private business activities benefited directly from his connections to Bill Clinton.

To business titans like Giustra, international philanthropy enhances both his reputation and bottom line. By coincidence or intent, Giustra entered into some of his biggest deals of his business career in the same countries where he traveled with Bill Clinton for philanthropic purposes.

That is the Clinton business model exemplified.

For example, at the same time he was dining with Bill Clinton in Kazakhstan, Giustra concluded a massive purchase of uranium mines in the same country. Coincidence? That is what Bill Clinton, Frank Giustra and Joy Reid want you to believe.

Kazakhstan president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, became Kazakhstan’s first elected president in 1991 with 99 percent of the vote. By any sensible definition, Nazarbayev is a dictator and has been accused of significant human rights abuses by various human rights organizations and the United Nations.

Is there evidence Bill Clinton personally intervened in Giustra’s negotiations with Nazarbayev? None, but again, that is the hallmark of the Clinton business model. It doesn’t require Bill’s personal negotiation skills. It only requires his personal connections. Whether Giustra has the skill to negotiate with Nazarbayev is Giustra’s problem.

When Giustra formed a Colombian oil company it received important drilling rights from Colombia’s state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol. When did this happen? After Giustra met the Colombian president through his affiliation to the Clinton Foundation.

Again, coincidence? Giustra insists the approval of the Colombian government was not required for his company’s Colombian drilling rights. We have to take his word for it, but forgive those that have doubts.

But, once more, this timeline regurgitation confuses the real power the Clinton’s offer global elites. Bill Clinton (and his wife) aren’t about the negotiation details. They are about facilitation and the mutual understanding that comes with being part of the world’s economic and political elite.

If you give to the Clinton Foundation, Bill and Hillary will know everything they need to know about your private business interests. You don’t need to ask them for help. If you give them (or rather, their foundation) enough money, they will learn what they need to know about your private business interests and how they can help.

It is a nice business model if you are an ex-U.S. president (or married to one). And it is all legal.

K.R.K

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russian Election Meddling Could Turn into a U.S. Gov’t Power Grab

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, October 24, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

“We cannot turn back the clock. We cannot undo the impact of technology. Nor would we want to,” said Robert Mueller, former FBI Director and current special prosecutor investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, in his keynote speech at the March 2012 RSA Cyber Security Conference.

Mueller said the businesses and institutions embracing the newest technologies will prosper over those in denial or trying just to “keep up.”

Though he didn’t say so, the U.S. electoral system is definitely in the latter category.

Given the known Russian activities in the 2016 U.S. election, from the troll factories to the fake-news-spreading Twitterbot accounts, trying to control or eliminate foreign actors (rogue or otherwise) from participating in this country’s electoral process is a merry chase: American elections are an international affair whether we like it or not, particularly at, but not limited to, the presidential level.

Federal election regulations may be able to impede foreign money coming into our electoral system (though even that enterprise is dubious), but controlling information originating from foreign actors is a different matter. That may be an impossible task.

Do our first amendment rights give us the right to be influenced by campaign speech initiated by foreign agents?

At the individual-level, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment implicitly protects the right of any U.S. citizen to re-tweet Tweets or post Facebook content generated by foreign sources of unknown veracity and integrity.

If someone believes a news story on the Russian government-funded news website, RT.com, is worthy of being passed around to their Twitter followers or Facebook friends, it is their constitutional right to do so. Any attempt by the U.S. government to abrogate that right will be met with the appropriate outrage.

While nobody can knowingly proliferate social media content that threatens physical or permanent harm towards others, we have no legal obligation to vet the content we download and share on the internet.

Morally, however, we have a civic obligation to eschew known falsehoods and to prefer truths, as uncertain as those may be sometimes. But, Twitter, Facebook and Google are under no current legal requirement to distinguish truth from falsehood. They are merely high-tech, digital conveyor belts designed to move and share information generated by their users.

Freedom of speech is messy and social media just makes it messier.

“The main issue to remember when dealing with the internet is that people still have their basic rights intact,” says Kelly O’Connell, a senior editor for Internet Business Law services.

The internet, unfortunately, also offers individuals the means to publish and propagate malicious or erroneous information that can spread to thousands, even millions, of individuals within a short period of time. Furthermore, this false information can reside near permanently on the internet, even after it has been discredited.

According to O’Connell, internet users are subject to the same defamation laws that newspapers and television broadcasters must also follow — and if rogue actors believe they can spread false and defamatory information on the internet with anonymity, they may be disappointed. “The internet is not as completely anonymous as the typical person may presume,” says O’Connell.

Even the Russians couldn’t hide their interference in the 2016 election (assuming they were trying to hide to so).

Yet, it is unlikely our defamation laws are an impediment to Russian influence operations. A libeled or slandered politician may be able to sue individual bloggers or vloggers located in the U.S. for damages, but it is doubtful a Russian internet troll would be similarly vulnerable.

Is the internet too big and decentralized to regulate campaign communications?

The size and scope of the internet should humble any U.S. congressional attempt to regulate and manage its content. But the internet is finite.

Most of the internet’s traffic enters and leaves the United States through over 40 network nodes via submarine cables connected to Europe, South America, Asia, Australia and Africa. (see map below).

World Submarine Cable Map (Courtesy of www.submarinecablemap.com)

Despite its ubiquitous and circuitous nature, it is not impossible for the U.S. government to control the internet content available to Americans. The Chinese government does it to their citizens, facing a task only marginally easier than what the U.S. government faces. And though significant content gets past Chinese internet censors, what the government does control is still substantial.

Regardless of whether the U.S. government should, it is naive to think the U.S. government is incapable of imposing significant controls on what Americans can see on the internet.

We already know our government monitors, categorizes and selectively warehouses much of this content as it passes through these 40 entry/exit nodes. This government activity is not a secret.

Visualization of Worldwide Internet Traffic in 2012 (IPv4 addresses only), Source: Carna Botnet

However, the philosophical and practical difference between monitoring internet content, as opposed to controlling, is substantial.

Social media botnets played a visible role in the past U.S. presidential election. These accounts are generally defined as a group of social media accounts (on services such as Facebook or Twitter) connected in a coordinated fashion for malicious purposes. They are, in effect, a force multiplier for rogue actors trying to magnify their presence in the social media information stream.

Studies found that around 20% of 2016 U.S. election-related Twitter activity came from suspect botnet accounts. These botnet accounts will need to be addressed by social media internet companies and the U.S. Congress, hopefully, before the 2018 midterm elections.

However, whatever rage many Americans feel about this past election, this should not cloud our nation’s judgment on how best to protect our electoral system from malicious external actors. Any congressional legislation this country passes in response to Russian electoral interference cannot be done without strict bipartisan oversight and accountability.

Just as many feel the 9-11 terrorist attacks led to, in the name of heightened security, unnecessary infringements on Americans’ civil liberties, we must be equally vigilant against any federal government power grab under the pretense of keeping foreign influences out of our campaign communications.

What can the government do to keep the Russians out of our elections?

How Congress will monitor and regulate content on Facebook, Twitter or Google is still a work-in-progress. Congressional Democrats have been restrained so far, as evidence continues to be gathered by congressional committees and the Mueller investigation on what actually happened in 2016; but, the initial legislative ideas coming out of Washington, D.C. have been narrow and are unlikely to deter the Russians or other rogue actors determined to interfere in American elections.

One example is the Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in October by Democratic senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar and cosponsored by Republican senator John McCain, is the first legislative attempt to address Russian interference.

The bill would require political advertisers on social media and other online platforms to disclose who is paying for their ads. In effect, the bill requires internet political advertisers to comply with the same disclosure standards already required of broadcast, radio, and print advertisers. But the democratic nature of digital platforms — which, unlike radio and television, allow virtually anyone to create content — means rules aimed only at advertisements will have a limited effect.

Even the bill’s proponents agree that it will do little to hinder the Russians.

“It’s a good piece of legislation to address the modern realities of campaign financing and the need for disclosure,” Adam Sharp, former head of news, government, and elections at Twitter, told Wired magazine. “But I’m skeptical of how it will tamp down on behavior by bad actors like we saw in the 2016 election.”

Congress will need to address social media-based botnet accounts, perhaps the most effective tool utilized by the Russians in 2016, and there are a number of ways to identify and eliminate botnet accounts, some more intrusive and sophisticated than others.

Botnets distort the democratic pretenses of social network sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Their existence is inconsistent with the notion that these social networks are the modern day version of the ‘public square.’

One solution to botnets is rather mundane and easy to implement. Scholars at the University of Indiana suggest that Twitter use “captcha” tests for certain users to prove they’re human before they can post content. As a Twitter user, it would be annoying, but a small price to pay for limiting the power of botnets.

Another option would be for the social networks to allow users to directly flag suspected bot accounts — a sort of wisdom of the crowd method. This idea however could prove to be more an indication of the partisan bias of Twitter or Facebook users than a good detector of botnets.

Another option would be for the social networks to further develop sophisticated algorithms to detect botnets. While this anti-botnet solution may offer the least disruption to social network users, it places an extremely high burden on the social networks to maintain the relevancy of these artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. Where there is a will to evade such algorithms, rogue actors will find a way.

Given their potential for making decisions that could impact large swaths of social media content, using AI algorithms to identify botnets cannot be carelessly implemented simply to placate an angry Congress. AI systems are still relatively new and are limited in their operationalization.

“Real-world planning and decision-making is still beyond the capabilities of modern computers, the exception being very well-defined, constrained problems such as mission planning for satellites,” says Max Welling, who teaches artificial intelligence courses at the University of California-Irvine.

Finally, at a nation-state diplomatic level, we could implement meaningful sanctions against any country harboring agents disruptive to American elections. We know what the Russians did in 2016. Are we willing to back up our evidence with action?

I’m guessing, no. Our Congress will more likely inconvenience American citizens and social media companies with whatever legislation they finally pass to protect American elections.

Whatever Congress decides, the social media companies will likely be adversaries to their effort

Any attempt to control foreign-sourced election communications must recognize the user-count business models of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Emilio Ferrara, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California and bot specialist, says, “Twitter’s business is selling advertising but bots don’t buy products and they don’t click on ads.”

The Twitterbot problem may, in fact, expose Twitter as being less than it says it is to advertisers and investors. Twitter is claimed to have 328 million monthly active users, as of the second quarter of 2017,  though to what extent that number includes Twitterbots is uncertain.

Twitters recent announcement to no longer accept advertising from the Russian government-supported news services, RT.com and Sputnik.com, will have no impact on future Russian influence operations.

What is clear is that the Twitter stock price is largely driven by its user base numbers. When Twitter reported earlier this year that its monthly active users were up 6 percent year over year and 3 percent sequentially, investors sent Twitter stock shares up almost 11 percent.

Twitter has a strong incentive to stonewall attempts to determine the number of Twitter botnets in its user population or attempts to delete botnets from the Twitterverse.

Nonetheless, that is exactly where the Congress will need to go if it wants to defend the legitimacy of American elections in the age of social networks. Furthermore, when rogue actors illegally hack into email systems for political purposes, that is crime and should be pursued as such.

Does that mean we ignore the information, no matter how accurate or pertinent to the campaign, once it is made public by some entity like Wikileaks? Unlike a jury, it is hard to ask the American voting public to disregard information already available on the internet.

What is possible is exposing the likely source of this illegally-obtained information and letting voters decide if it warrants their consideration when making a vote decision. This is exactly what happened in 2016 and, in that sense, it was our greatest defense against Russian interference.

The Internationalization of U.S. Elections is Here to Stay

Here is a prediction: Future U.S. elections will include information (some of it ‘fake news’) created by foreign sources aiming to disrupt the election. Email servers will be attacked. Botnets will become more sophisticated. Online trolls will continue to target American voters on the various social media platforms. Even at the risk of retaliatory sanctions, the incentive for the Russians (and other nations) to influence American campaigns will not go away. This is the price of a free society.

This prediction does not mean, however, we should ignore these international miscreants. Our political parties and campaigns need to be more sophisticated in how they protect their private information. Our state governments need more secure methods for maintaining their voter registration records and more consistent technical standards for their voting machines. No entity should ever be able to hack into a U.S. voting machine from a remote location (Note: There is, as yet, no evidence this happened in the 2016 election; nonetheless, the theoretical possibility that it could happen should make us concerned).

At the same time, Americans cannot let its defense of our elections become another power grab by the federal government. Congressional Democrats, in particular, assume a government-imposed solution, often accompanied by increased federal powers, will solve the problem. It won’t.

One inference from Mueller’s speech at the 2012 RSA Cyber Security Conference was that the ‘bad guys’ will never go away and will adapt as fast as we build defenses to stop their attacks. That doesn’t mean we stop improving our cyber security efforts. It does mean we need to be realistic about what we can and can’t do. Their are no fail-safe solutions, but what we can do is keep Americans informed on what foreign actors are doing during our elections and how voters, on an individual-basis, can self-identify rogue actors and ‘fake news’ populating our social media platforms.

Americans must always have access to foreign sources of campaign information. This does open the door for other countries’ intelligence services to manipulate such information, but that risk is small compared to the risks associated with our federal government becoming a gatekeeper to what we can read, see and hear on the internet. The risk of foreign interference in our elections is attendant with our constitutionally-protected freedoms. Let us not harm the latter thinking we are stopping the former.

K. R. K.

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

Packers and McCarthy are Destined to Part Ways

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, October 23, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

As NuQum.com reported earlier this year, the Green Bay Packers and Head Coach Mike McCarthy mutually agreed, short of a Super Bowl appearance in one of the next two seasons, the team will not renew his contract after the 2018 season.

Has the Aaron Rodgers likely season-ending injury changed that informal agreement?

One Packer management source close to the McCarthy’s negotiations says, “Yes.” This year is even more critical, not less, to McCarthy’s future with the Packers.

Nothing shows the value of a coach more than how a team responds to the loss of its best player. The Packers 26-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints is not, by itself, an indicator of McCarthy’s coaching ability, but our source close to Packer senior management says this season has become more important to McCarthy’s future following Rodgers’ injury.

“Behlichick won a Super Bowl (2016) with Brady out for six games,” notes our source. “Brady missed almost the entire 2008 season and the Patriots still finished 11-5. That’s the standard we expect for the Packers as well.”

Since the Packers’ 2011 Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Packers have not returned to the Super Bowl. Considering many NFL analysts view Rodgers as the best quarterback in the game today, the Packers’ absence from the Super Bowl leaves many wondering who is to blame: Packer management or the coach? Or both?

Packer management, of course, looks at McCarthy as a key factor to success and recent results have not proved favorable to his cause.

Despite a dramatic victory over the Dallas Cowboys in last season’s playoffs, the Packers’ subsequent 41-22 destruction at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game left many in Packer management feeling McCarthy’s time with the organization is nearing its end.

That conclusion seems harsh to many that still regard the Packers’ 2011 Super Bowl victory as a testament to McCarthy’s coaching acumen. Rather, some analysts pin the blame for the Packers’ post-2011 misfortunes on Packer management itself. Namely, management’s in ability to build a championship caliber defense around their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

The Packer defense, in terms of yards allowed per game, has only once finished a season in the league’s Top 10 since the 2011 season (when it was ranked 1st in the league).

2012: 22nd

2013: 8th

2014: 18th

2015: 18th

2016: 11th

2017 (in first 7 games): 22nd

“The problem with the Packers’ defense is that it is predicated so much on Rodgers getting hot early and allowing the unit to play with a significant lead,” wrote Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer after the Packers 2017 NFC Championship game loss. “Green Bay, perhaps spoiled by Rodgers, has taken that approach too far, to the point of no return to the Super Bowl.”

Radio sports talk host and long-time Packer observer, Steve Czaban, thinks blaming the Packers’ post-season misfortunes on specific management decisions is off-the-mark; instead, he believes the Packer’s unique municipal ownership structure must share some of the blame.

“I know that Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have tried. And no, I don’t have any specific critiques of missteps on personnel,” says Czaban. “But the one, and only time it hurts the Packers to not have an actual owner is right now. It’s when those men responsible for wasting a generational talent like Rodgers’ career would otherwise feel the heat and urgency of a single billionaire calling them into his office to ask simply: “what the f**k? What… the F**K!”

Injuries have hobbled the Packers every year since their Super Bowl season, but one of the features of their last Super Bowl victory was that the team overcame a number of critical injuries that championship season.

Jermichael Finley, the Packer Pro Bowl tight end, was a big loss for the offense in 2011, but even bigger loses occurred on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive back Al Harris missed the first half of the 2010-11 season due to injury. All-Pro linebacker Nick Barnett was out the last two-thirds of the season, including the playoffs. Likewise, for starting defensive back Morgan Burnett and linebacker Brady Poppinga.

The 2010-11 Super Bowl winning season guaranteed McCarthy’s job would be safe for more than a few years. But this is 2017 and the Packers, in all likelihood, are not going to make it to the Super Bowl this year.

To what extent does the Packer management hold McCarthy accountable for the fact that the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since 2011? Packers president and chief executive office, Mark Murphy, will ultimately answer that question.

The fact that their Hall of Fame certain quarterback is no longer available for the 2017-18 season does not work in McCarthy’s favor. Should the Packers not contend for their division title this year, our sources say McCarthy will be all but done with the Packers.

Short of Super Bowl appearance next season, McCarthy will be out of a job on December 31, 2018.

 

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unitarians and Democrats: Misery Loves Company

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, October 17, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

Our Unitarian-Universalist (UU) minister was midway through a touching and powerful Sunday sermon celebrating National Coming Out Day.

She had shared a story about the pending arrival of her and her spouse’s second child and how, when telling a stranger about the new arrival, the person assumed her spouse was a man, when, in fact, she is not.

It was a funny, well-told story about a same-sex couple having a baby in America today.

Then she told a second story about a married, middle-aged man who decided, after a lifetime of hiding his true identity, to tell his dying mother that he was bisexual. In the minister’s telling of the story, the man felt a personal burden had been lifted — he no longer needed to hide who he was to his mother.

As the congregation members around me nodded their heads in approval, and some even shedding tears, the minister’s sermon moved on to other poignant ‘coming out’ stories.

But I couldn’t let go of the middle-aged man’s story. I stewed on it as the minister and congregation had moved on. Something just rubbed me wrong about a man telling his mother, in the last days of her life, about his sexual preferences.

“What a self-indulgent sack of shit he is,” I thought.

Perhaps my wife had the same visceral reaction as I had to his story? In private, later, I asked for her reaction. But, no, she thought the story was just fine. “We shouldn’t have to go through life hiding from our family about who we love,” she said.

Yeah, but…I just couldn’t articulate at that time why the story felt so off key to me. So, I kept repeating the story in my head in the drive home…

His mother is on her deathbed and THAT is the time this man decides to inform his poor mother about HIS sexual preferences.

Mother Mary and Joseph! Really? The guy couldn’t let that one resentment towards his mother go unsettled? He HAD to get it off his chest. For whose benefit? Definitely not hers.

The UU minister’s story implied the man’s mother was not so open-minded about LGBTQ issues. For this reason, the man, married with adult children, never felt comfortable sharing his sexual identity with his mother — a not uncommon and often sad story repeated all over this world.

I empathize with his struggle and the need to tell his mother; but, presented as it was by the UU minister, the story did not come across to me like an act of liberation or love. It came across as self-serving and even vengeful.

The story glorified a selfish act. That’s the conclusion I draw from it.

The minister didn’t share the mother’s reaction to her son’s news because that was irrelevant to the story’s purpose. The mother was a stage prop in a man’s vainglorious ‘coming out’ drama.

Cue the congregational choir and their spirited rendition of “Standing on the Side of Love.”

Judge Not, Lest You Be Judged

Why is my judgment so harsh towards this tormented man in my minister’s story?

Insomuch as we are all self-centered, this man’s act felt unusually selfish and senseless; and when presented by the minister as heroic, it became a serious case of rhetorical overreach.

But more upsetting to me was that I could not find anyone else in the congregation, including my wife, that shared my ambivalence with the story. Can someone empathize with this man’s lifelong identity struggle and still question the way in which he brought his dying mother into the ‘coming out’ process? Based on reactions from my wife and other UU congregants, apparently not.

“When is it a good time to come out?” was one representative response.

Maybe if the minister had brought the mother into the story more I would have reacted better? I would like to think the mother gave her son a hug and told him, “Son, I always knew and I love you no matter what.” I need closure, even if it has to be Disney-fied.

But, apparently, other Unitarians don’t.

From listening to the post-church service chatter, I realized that most in the congregation thought the ‘coming out’ story was a potent representation of the sermon’s central narrative: We should not need to hide who we really are.

What could I have possibly misinterpreted in the story to think it was a tale of self-absorption, cruelty and heartlessness? I do not rule out that the problem is with me, and not the story.

Yet, I don’t think so in this case. Something bigger is going on. Something I’ve seen developing within liberal religious communities over thirty years. Something that widens my disconnect from what I hear more frequently from the pews at my UU church.

Identity issues are an unhealthy obsession with liberals. I’m saying nothing new in that statement. We hear it all the time now, post the 2016 elections. But I’ve never felt, until now, that how my religious community was doing harm to themselves in using identity — be it race, ethnicity, sexual preferences or gender — to turn otherwise empathetic people into self-absorbed…bigots.

Ouch! That hurts just to type the word. I’ve grown up in the Unitarian tradition. I refrain from calling anyone a bigot or a racist or sexist or whatever –ist you use. Because I am a Unitarian, I look to context and root causes when trying to understand other people’s behavior and attitudes. I would like to think I am empathetic, in part, because of my liberal religious upbringing.

Sadly, times have changed…and not for the better.

Partisan Religions are a Bad Idea

Two forces are drawing Unitarians away from their better angels. One is their growing acceptance of using identity issues to label entire groups as sharing one homogeneous, subconscious mindset. This is called stereotyping. It used to be a bad thing for anyone to do. Now it is acceptable for liberals and Unitarians to do it.

People are now assumed guilty of thought crimes based on the color of their skin or their sex organs, or whatever the out-of-favor personal characteristic at the moment. That is what Unitarians used to call bigotry.

Social critic, Reni Eddo-Lodge, gives voice to this new, socially acceptable form of bigotry in her article: “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race.”

It’s not just their race that disqualifies some people from being welcomed participants in the social dialogue. It could also be their ethnic category, or their sex category, or their gender category, or their sexual preferences…or some identity category we haven’t politicized yet.

The identity-centered parables delivered from the UU pulpits today no longer just strive to present the liberal religious ideals of explorationinquiry and inclusion — they now also serve to exclude and shutdown certain groups and ideas as well.

Today’s UUs now like to identify their enemies.

The UU Church may reject the Christian concept of original sin, but have replaced it with their own original sins called racism, sexism and bigotry. Self-aware or not, we are all sinners in this regard, or so we are told from the UU pulpits.

All this dovetails into the second negative force infecting today’s liberal religious thinking: the partisan politicization of identity issues.

Much of what you hear from the UU pulpits today are also dominating conversations at the Democratic Party’s state conventions and monthly county committee meetings.

This new assumption of original sin is now part of the Democratic Party’s core orthodoxy, even if it is dishonest and ultimately harmful to the Party’s attempt to regain majority status in the state and national legislatures.

It is important to acknowledge the importance of politics in fighting for, and extending rights to, disenfranchised and disadvantaged groups in America. Without politics, slavery doesn’t end, women don’t get the right to vote, Social Security doesn’t exist, and same-sex couples don’t have the right to marry.

Politics is central to addressing social grievances.

But it is the level (and assumption) of partisanship driving social and civil rights projects today that is different. Martin Luther King met frequently with a wide range of Democratic and Republican leaders, and often non-sympathizers to the civil rights cause.

U2 frontman, Bono, tells a great story about how he persuaded North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican, to advocate increasing U.S. aid to Africa to combat AIDS.

“The great old cold warrior himself, after going through this with him and explaining that there was 2,103 verses of Scriptures pertaining to poverty, and that second to redemption, this is the second most important theme, and that sexual behavior, even misbehavior, doesn’t seem to be there that much — it’s mentioned a couple of times in the Old Testament — he was amazing,” Bono said during a PBS “Frontline” interview in 2015. “Not only was (he) moved by this; he was moved to do something. And he had a press conference where he publicly repented for the way he thought about the AIDS virus.”

Those kind of stories are not happening anymore. Not consistently. Not in a way that is changing U.S. political outcomes.

Today, once you’ve politicized an issue, you’ve guaranteed it won’t be solved anytime soon.

Increasingly, Unitarian sermons and Democratic candidates merely lecture us on how our ascribed characteristics (e.g., sex and race), gender identities and sexual preferences define us. Today’s liberal Democrats frenzy feed on the notion that our identities go a long way in explaining all aspects of our lives, including how we vote. The new business school religion called Big Data is built on this deeply flawed, error-prone supposition.

To Unitarians and Democrats, we are captives to our identities (though we have the latitude to change our gender self-identification) and, therefore, not solely responsible for our personal outcomes. Social norms and institutions — built by others in positions of privilege — are the problem.

Unitarians and Democrats take the lead in the drumbeat against privileged groups within mainstream society. In their worldview, ‘mainstream’ equates to ‘oppressor.’ To think of the social dynamic any other way is to condone and reinforce its inherent biases, excesses, and dysfunctions.

Misery Loves Company

The irony, of course, is that most Unitarians, and increasingly Democrats, are from the most privileged segments in our society. If you are looking for wealthy and/or highly-educated white people, I’d start with any local UU church congregation. Looking for African-Americans, Hispanics, working-class Americans or Muslims? They are as rare in a UU congregation as ‘shit is from a rocking horse,’ as my grandmother might say.

No, it is hard to find undocumented Dreamers or victims of police violence in a UU congregation. But you will nonetheless find lots of suffering, miserable people.

Many religious theologies are founded on guilt and suffering — the Unitarians are not exceptional in that regard. But having spent a few years attending Catholic services (during my first marriage), there is something qualitatively different about how Unitarian theology treats suffering. For Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, it is an intermutual phenomenon. For Unitarians, it is personal. Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists accept it (mash’ Allah, says the Koran). Unitarians soak in it.

In market research we would say, Unitarians over-index in their miserableness quotient.

We UUs do not adhere to fixed dogmas — so we renamed them principles and covenants.

Fixed dogmas. This is where the UU Church and religious liberals, in general, go off course. Their foundational assertion that they are in a constant search for truth, and that their principles and covenants are evolving ‘works-in-progress,’ is merely a pretense.

The first of the UU Church’s Seven Principles emphasizes “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Yet, as so often happens with core religious principles, a simple dictum like this becomes neutered over time.

My UU religious community, while embracing the rights and dignity of all individuals from the pulpit, in fact, acts to enforce the exact opposite approach on a societal level. To UUs, your individuality is subsumed under, not above, your identity. What you think, how you interact with others, and even how you vote is largely determined by your identity.

If this sounds like the national Democratic Party’s approach to election campaigns, it is not a coincidence. The religious Left is the conscience of the political Left. They go to the same universities, vacation in the same locations, read the same books, and invest their 401ks in the same socially responsible mutual funds.

You may think you are enlightened or open-minded or broadly accepting of others, but to religious liberals, you are a category and, in that inviolable assignment, gain the institutional advantages (or disadvantages) inherent to all people in your category. You may have the approved attitudes, but that doesn’t change who you are.

“Oh, you’re a typical white male,” my wife chides. “Sounds like a Sean Hannity-level analysis to me.” She knows how to hit with words.

I did basically steal this rant from Tucker Carlson, but still, I ask her, “What would happen if I stood up one Sunday at our local UU Church and declared that my interpretation of the UU’s First Principlethe inherent worth and dignity of every person — must include the unborn.”

Most UU congregations do not have Tiki torches readily available, but there are usually enough unclaimed potluck dinner bowls and pans in the church kitchen to cause some real damage if thrown in the general direction of someone uttering a heretical statement like that.

The religious Left has zero tolerance for opinion diversity. Zero tolerance.

Ask former Omaha, Nebraska mayoral candidate, Heath Mello, a Catholic Democrat who is marginally pro-life, about the national Democratic Party’s tolerance for opinion diversity.

Former Omaha, Nebraska mayoral candidate, Heath Mello.

The Republican candidate ended up winning the race (53 vs. 47 percent) after Democratic National Committee chairman, Tom Perez, withdrew his unqualified support for the Mello candidacy due to the abortion issue. Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential vote in Douglas County (which includes Omaha) by 52 percent to 47 percent, and lost it by a similar margin in 2012. Omaha is a winnable constituency for Democrats.

Mello’s loss is natural product of a fixed dogma.

As Ohio congressman, Tim Ryan (Democrat), puts it: “Requiring everybody to fit some purity test is a recipe for disaster.”

And its not just abortion.

Do you oppose raising the minimum wage to $15-an-hour on the basis that the empirical evidence shows such policies generally have a negative impact on employment levels for unskilled labor? If this is your opinion, do not utter it on UU Church grounds or within earshot of your county Democratic Party headquarters.

What happened to their search for truth? Some might call this hypocrisy.

Yes, but the religious and political Right are no less rigid, you may retort. Maybe. But is that the benchmark the UUs want for their church or the Democrats want for their party?

And, for those that prefer empirical data, the evidentiary case actually suggests the political Right’s voters have more opinion diversity than voters on the Left. I recommend Lee Drutman’s analysis of the 2016 election which makes this observation — though he draws from it some terribly misguided strategic recommendations for the Democrats, such as: The Democrats do not need working-class whites anymore, so let them go.

A really bad idea, Democrats.

Cradle Unitarians of the World, Unite!

I need to be clear on this point. There is no other church for me outside the UU Church. It is my spiritual home port.

I was born into a UU family, which makes me a cradle Unitarian. My parents joined the UU Church in the late 1950s in direct reaction to the McCarthy-era and the rise of an odious form of religion-sourced bigotry that settled into places like Iowa (my birth state).

Religious bigotry was not invented in the 1950s, nor was its politicization. What was different was the prosperity spreading across the U.S. at this time. My parents were both college-educated; with the exception of my maternal grandmother, their parents didn’t even complete high school.

My parents openly questioned the religious dogmas of their Midwestern upbringing and soon realized many others in their age and social group felt similarly disconnected to their traditional religious roots.

My religious journey to the UU Church was second-hand, but I still share my parents’ reasons for choosing this religious community.

Once I moved away from Iowa for work and school, I didn’t attend UU services very often, but I reconnected when needed, particularly after the end of my first marriage and the death of my father. The UU religious community never failed to be there for me at those moments.

I met my second wife at the Unitarian Church of Montclair (New Jersey) and we have raised our 11-year-old son in the Unitarian Church. There is no other church for us.

So why do I now find Unitarians so frustrating? So intolerant? So close-minded?

I fear it reflects our times. We are all more polarized and less open to new ideas. Like dark matter accelerates the expansion of distant galaxies from our own, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter seem to serve that same function here on earth. We are all moving away from each other faster than ever. Sadly, my own church is part of the problem, not yet the solution.

Unitarians are ‘canaries in the mine’ for American liberals. If liberals are on the verge of collective over-reach, this will first manifest itself, often in extreme form, among Unitarians.

In the mid-70s, when I was entering my teen years, a small but significant number of Unitarians in our congregation embraced (or, literally, flirted with) the idea of open marriages. My parents thankfully resisted the concept. Yet, even as bystanders, their marriage suffered damage.

Open marriage was an awful idea in 1970s and the broken families and psychological carnage this minor movement left in its wake quickly ended its limited popularity. The Unitarians, always willing to question social norms, paid a disproportionate price.

But Unitarians have always loved being the vanguard for any movement that rams a stick up conservative America’s ass.

Fast forward to the present, a similar dynamic exists among Unitarians with respect to identity politics, particularly transgender issues. Empathy for the bias transgender individuals experience on a daily basis is one of the admirable features of the UU Church. There is no religious tradition more supportive to those who outside mainstream norms.

However, for most Americans, the transgender issue is relatively new and it draws out many complex attitudes and deeply-held prejudices. It does not surprise me that a Public Religion Research Institute poll in February 2017 found that 53 percent of Americans oppose bathroom laws that disallow transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their choice.

It also doesn’t surprise me that 72 percent of Americans, according to a Rasmussen Poll in February 2017, don’t believe this is an issue for the federal government to address.

Unitarians have the luxury, even an expectation, to stand against mainstream opinion when it stands on the wrong side of an issue. The Democratic Party, however, does not have that freedom.

UUs would rather shame others for not supporting the bathroom rights of transgender Americans (who are about 0.6 percent of the U.S. population), than understand why 47 percent Americans have a problem with transgender individuals with male genitals going into women’s bathrooms.

Unitarians and Democrats share one unfortunate trait: their intellectual arrogance and intolerance for opinion diversity. They speak of empathy for some, but for those holding opinions outside their “green zone,” it is aggressively withheld.

There is someone else many think lacks empathy, to go along with his probable narcissistic personality disorder. Yes, that’s an provocative comparison to make, but I regret that it fits.

Donald Trump’s personal flaws are well-documented. He is ill-informed. He is dangerously inarticulate. He also appears incapable of understanding and soothing other’s pain — but isn’t identity politics just a group level manifestation of this same pathology? If you are outside an approved group, you are shunned. There is no attempt at finding common ground. That would require listening, constructive dialogue, and…well, empathy.

Dialogue? Empathy? Why bother? Its much easier just to get your people to turn out and vote.

Donald Trump is a symptom of a sickness within society-at-large, not a cause. And it infects all political persuasions. The illness doesn’t discriminate.

There are other Unitarians and Democrats that lament the current emphasis on identity theology and politics. We see its divisiveness and know that it may cause as much harm as it relieves.

We also know from experience that the tight correlations between group identities and attitudes are not permanent and can shift rapidly.

Those of us that doubt the efficacy of identity theology and politics are not all white or uneducated. Some of us may be rich, but most of us are not.

We lurk in the shadows like a secret society and exchange approving winks and nods every now and then. We exist, but we are quiet. We regret the increasingly narrow path we see our religious community going down and fear our preferred political party is not far behind.

But we are not leaving our progressive faith community and still lean towards staying in the Democratic Party, even as both make it increasingly clear that people that think like us are not welcome.

 

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

Trump and Bannon Already Conceding the 2018 Elections

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, October 12, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

Steve Bannon is a very smart man — always three moves ahead of his opponents.

When Bannon told Sean Hannity on Fox News’ “Hannity” recently that he is looking to challenge every sitting GOP lawmaker except Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), he was laying the groundwork for President Trump’s defense should the Republicans lose the U.S. House in the 2018 midterms.

“There’s a basic agenda that Trump ran on and won. He carried states Republicans haven’t carried in living memory — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. This agenda works. The American people voted for it,” Bannon told Hannity.

 

Bannon’s clever but risky move is an implicit concession that the Republicans are going to lose big in the 2018 midterm elections, but he does not want Republicans to blame the losses on President Trump’s weakness, but rather, on Trump’s strength within the Republican Party.

It would be unprecedented in U.S. electoral history for allies of an incumbent president to sabotage the president’s own party during midterm elections.

Yet, that is exactly what Bannon says he will do. By undercutting Republican incumbents now, Bannon is attempting to minimize Trump’s culpability should the GOP lose the U.S. House.

It’s a counter-intuitive strategy, but if anyone can pull it off, it is Bannon.

Unfortunately, this malignant intra-party skirmish is merely an attempt to divert the public’s attention from the real story of the Trump administration’s first year in office. There have been no major legislative accomplishments.

Will the media and the public fall for this diversionary tactic? Probably. But will Bannon’s intra-party purge attempt actually replace disloyal Republican incumbents with Trump loyalists?

That’s a more difficult question.

Primary challenges rarely succeed in U.S. House and Senate Races

According to Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute, as of July 2017, 212 U.S. House and Senate incumbents have a primary challenger who has filed a financial report with the Federal Election Commission.

In the 2014 midterms, there were only 95 incumbents with a challenger at this point in the election cycle. The chart below from OpenSecrets.org compare the number of challengers for the last three midterm elections (as of July in the year prior to the election).

“Defeats of incumbents are rare, and it is very rare for a successful challenger to go on to win the general election,” according to Dr. Robert Boatright of Clark University. “In years with no redistricting, no more than three or four Congressional incumbents are likely to lose their primaries.”

In all likelihood, few Republican incumbents are going to lose in a primary challenge in 2018. But will the Bannon-fueled primary challenges hurt these same incumbents in the general election?

Not likely.

What will happen in the 2018 midterms?

Most analytic models used to predict aggregate midterm election outcomes rely heavily on presidential job approval ratings. That does not bode well for the Republicans given Trump’s current job approval ratings hover around 39 percent job approval.

If Republicans do lose the U.S. House in 2018, it will be because of Donald Trump’s low job approval ratings. The contention that Trump can distance himself from his own party’s electoral fortunes has no analog in U.S. presidential history.

Unless President Trump’s approval ratings improve significantly, many prognosticators say the Republicans are likely to lose control of the U.S. House in 2018. The Huffington Post sees the Republicans losing control of the House by seven seats. FiveThirtyEight.com’s generic U.S. House poll averages show the Democrats about eight points ahead of the Republicans, which is the margin the Democrats will need to take back the House according to their prediction models.

However, there is still reason for cautious optimism among Republicans. The Crosstab blogsite, maintained by G. Elliott Morris, continues to predict the Republicans have a 68 percent chance of maintaining control of the U.S. House, despite the Democrats likely winning 54 percent of votes for the U.S. House in their prediction models.

The futures-based prediction market, PredictIt, also continues to give the Republicans a 55 percent chance of keeping control of the House.

But these predictions are all noise to Bannon’s ears. A lot can change in 13 months. More importantly, Bannon has an enemies list and none of these predictions can account for what Bannon’s offensive against GOP incumbents will mean to the Republican’s chances in 2018.

We are in uncharted waters.

 

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

The American Death Cult

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, October 7, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

Keith Olbermann was only half right when he tweeted, “@realDonaldTrump, the @GOP and @benshapiro have sold their souls to the NRA and the death cult.”

Not just pro-Second Amendment conservatives belong to this cult, we all belong to the American death cult.

The latest mass shooting in Las Vegas merely reinforces our cultural dependency on violence. And this dynamic is not just coming from the Republicans or the political right. We all participate.

When a Planned Parenthood medical director attending a professional conference openly describes abortion as “violence” and “killing,” it shouldn’t require an undercover conservative journalist to spark the outrage, we should all be saddened this barbaric procedure (regardless of its legal status) is considered an expression of freedom and civil justice by many. We had a presidential nominee hesitate in a debate to even rule out abortions up to the very moment of birth…and was cheered for her brave stance. The theater of the macabre, American presidential campaign style.

While the liberals turn a blind eye to the unborn, the conservatives aren’t occupying the moral high ground either. Their support for the unborn is not matched by a similar respect for the living. From their callous refusal to join the civilized world in ensuring affordable, basic health care for all of its citizens to their tepid condemnations of neo-Nazi marches, conservative America has little empathy for the weak and most vulnerable in our society. Live and Let Die could be their anthem. Its Calvinist theology as public policy.

Why do Americans tolerate such high levels of violence?

Few advanced countries tolerate violence and death like Americans do. Our media and entertainment sources soak us in it. Our politicians nurture it. Our companies package it. Our economic elites profit from it. We all grind on it.

“We have the best military in the world,” crows President Trump, stating the obvious. He even told The Washington Post there should be more military parades with F-16s over Brooklyn and Marines “marching down Pennsylvania Avenue.” And, on cue, the Democrats cry “Fascist!” at Trump’s suggestion.

Democrats, have you been to a football game or NASCAR race in this country? We already do this. Every day. What Trump is saying is not new.

With every mass shooting in the U.S., we confirm our own American exceptionalism. We are different than France, or Germany or Canada by choice. We are not just bad asses to our external enemies, we will put our own people in the rifle scope’s cross hairs.

That is who we are and neither the Democrats or Republicans have any real incentive to change this foundational aspect of American society.

But most Americans want better, more effective gun control — so why hasn’t it happened?

Americans, like most people, want to feel safe. But personal safety has a yin yang quality that gun control advocates don’t seem to understand. Yes, the statistics strongly suggest that bringing a gun into a household increases the chance a household member will die from gun violence (including suicides). But, for many, guns make them feel safe. The overwhelming majority of gun owners have good intentions. Whether motivated by security or sport, their gun ownership poses no proximal threat to society-at-large.

Still, a June 2017 national survey by Pew Research Center shows 84 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support an expansion of background checks to include private firearm sales and purchases at gun shows.

Gun control advocates rightfully suggest the public understands these types of gun control laws are just good common sense.

Unfortunately, public opinion doesn’t matter in the case of gun control. Why? Because few Democratic politicians are voted out of office for supporting gun rights. In fact, Democrats use their support for gun rights as evidence of their independence from rigid liberal orthodoxy.

Furthermore, politicians raise millions amidst America’s self-inflicted carnage, particularly on the political right.

According to Geoff West of OpenSecrets.org, an campaign finance watchdog group, “Gun rights interests have given about $41.9 million to candidates, parties and outside spending groups since 1989, with 89 percent of the funds contributed to candidates and parties going to Republicans. And in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, they let loose another $48 million (at least) in outside spending.”

In contrast, gun control interests have given only a fraction of the amount in the same time period. “They’ve given $4.2 million since 1989 (and) 96 percent of their contributions to parties and candidates have gone to Democrats,” says West. “In the 2016 cycle, gun control groups accounted for $3 million in outside spending versus $54.9 million from gun rights organizations, including $54.3 million from the NRA.”

Money is not always a direct measure of political influence. It is, however, a good proxy for influence in this case.

There simply is no stomach for gun control in America. If this country was not compelled to change gun laws after the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings of 20 children, there is no event that will bring about meaningful gun control.

The same media outlets that saturate their mawkish news coverage of each mass shooting with cloying appeals to our worst fears, inevitably remind us that we, as a country, can show our unique strength by going on with life as normal.

“Don’t let the S.O.B. change us,” former Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman told CNN’s Michael Smerconish, after 58 people were senselessly murdered at a concert in his city.

So, there you go gun control advocates. Change our gun laws? Apparently, doing so means the homicidal maniacs win.

In the privacy of our thoughts, many of us know, short of confiscating all guns from the civilian population (which will never happen), no law, new regulation, or enhanced background check will really reduce the gun violence in America. Mass shootings are a by-product of our tolerance for violence. And that is a cultural problem, not a legal one.

The American death cult needs the violence. It nourishes the American exceptionalism narrative that justifies the U.S. spending more on defense than the next eight countries combined. It rationalizes why we, as a society, spend as much money on guns and ammunition as we do on educational tutoring for our children.

We indulge in violence at all levels of our social lives. Our most popular music is violent. Our favorite national sport is violent. Our movies are violent. Even the everyday language we use to talk to each other is laced with profanity and violence, and usually unnecessary given the context of most conversations. Like a nervous tick, we use profanity as the conversational equivalent of Hamburger Helper.

With each mass shooting we remind ourselves that we can care, we can feel compassion, feelings that for many is increasingly hard to find in their daily lives.

We even feel pride and envy when the heroes are inevitably marched out by the media as symbols of our resolve and resilience against inexplicable treachery. It prompts hero fantasies that we play out in our heads.

We are a warrior culture that values the acquisition, use and taming of violence. A modern-day Sparta minus the awesome head gear. Guns are just one element of this social disorder. Mass shootings are just one symptom.

We know, collectively, without the guns and violence, we are just a more populated version of Canada (minus universal health care, of course).

 

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

Climate realists drive U.S. energy policy: Will they do enough?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, October 5, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

The alarmists and deniers dominate the climate change debate on the cable news networks, but neither dominate U.S. energy policy.

Climate realists are driving American energy policy and there is little reason to think the Trump administration can reverse the climate change initiatives already in place.

Today’s federal court ruling upholding the Obama-era EPA methane rules punctuates this fact.

Who are the climate realists? They are the forces driving the rise of natural gas for electricity generation concurrently with the development of renewable sources such as wind and solar. They include industry executives in the oil and gas sector, Wall Street investors, environmentalists, government bureaucrats, the courts and the major congressional committees overseeing our nation’s energy policies.

Are the climate realists just another arm of the Deep State? Perhaps. Whoever they are, they are not hindered by our nation’s hyper-partisanship. Instead, a massive realignment of our nation’s energy production and consumption mix is well underway and not even President Trump and EPA Chief Scott Pruitt can stop it.

Since 2000, the U.S. has restructured the nation’s electricity generation mix away from coal and towards cleaner energy sources, such as natural gas and renewables.

Primary Electricity Net Generation in U.S. from 1949 to 2016 (Billion kilowatt hours)
Data source: U.S. Energy Information Agency (July 2017)

Coal peaked at 2 trillion kilowatt hours in 2008 and has been in decline ever since; whereas, natural gas has been rising as a source of electricity generation since the late 1980s. Today, coal and natural gas each account for 33 percent of total U.S. electricity generation.

As for renewable energy sources, no politician receives less credit than George W. Bush for pushing the advance of green energy. As the governor of Texas, Bush signed legislation that created a renewable electricity mandate so that today Texas leads the nation in wind generating capacity.

President George W. Bush more than once pushed Congress to extend the production tax credits for renewable energy sources, particularly wind power. Bush’s policies had the tangible result of increasing renewable energy’s share in U.S. electricity generation from 10 percent in the early 2000s to about 15 percent in 2016.

According to U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasts, by 2050, renewable energy sources will account for about 30 percent of U.S. electricity generation, putting it behind only natural gas (40%) as the largest contributor. Coal will account for around 17 percent.

Data source: EIA (May 2017)

A number of assumptions underlie the EIA U.S. energy forecasts, one of them being the continued implementation of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which is already under threat from the Trump Administration’s executive order in March telling the EPA to kill it.

Easier said than done. Since the CPP has already gone through the full federal rulemaking process, ending it will require a similarly laborious process. As of today, the CPP still stands, if only barely, and the federal judge hearing the opposition to the CPP by 27 states — including EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma — has ruled that the Trump administration must offer its new course of action in lieu of the CPP by October 6th.

To CPP advocates, the endless mélange of arcane legal procedures and bureaucratic stodginess may appear impenetrable, but this is what happens when the federal executive and legislative branches stop working together and economic policy is implemented through executive fiat. Throw into this political mosh pit over half of the state attorney generals trying to kill the CPP and it is fair to ask, what chance does the country have at changing its national energy policies on a scale that can possibly address climate change?

It turns out,  the chances are looking pretty good — though three more years (at least) of the Trump administration is likely to sap some of that optimism.

THE U.S. IS RAPIDLY CONVERTING TO A CLEAN(ER) ENERGY ECONOMY

The major trends are undeniable. Coal is rapidly being replaced by natural gas and renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric) as the primary sources of U.S. electricity production. Recent increases in coal electricity production in 2017 are not likely to change these trends as many coal energy plants are scheduled to be shutdown over the next decade.

Along with the decline of coal, there are four other macro trends that will drive U.S. energy production and consumption over the next 30 years:

  1. Natural gas will continue as a stop gap energy source until renewables  become more cost effective and reliable.
  2. Cost decreases in renewable energy generation will continue and spur its future growth
  3. While renewable energy will continue to grow, it will not be fast enough to see the effective end of fossil fuels by 2050 (as required by the Paris Accords) unless major efficiency improvements occur in energy production and use.
  4. The U.S. will not see nuclear power playing a significant role in replacing fossil fuels (but that will not the case in China and India).

How did this all happen? Our elected leaders notwithstanding, the other players in the making U.S. energy policy (Big Oil and Gas companies, federal bureaucrats, regulators, the environmental lobby, and public opinion) have opted for a realist view of global warming.

When the Trump administration decided unilaterally to relax the regulatory requirements for limiting the escape of methane gas during the natural gas extraction process, the environmental lobby weighed in, but did so without undercutting the importance of natural gas in addressing climate change.

“(The Trump administration) listened to a few industry players eager to cut costs and to maximize profits in the short-term, while shirking their responsibility to help America’s booming natural gas industry stay competitive for decades to come,” said Ben Ratner, Director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Corporate Partnership’s Program.”States such as Colorado show that methane leaks, can, in fact, be managed cost-effectively and without harming production.’

So who are the Big Oil and Gas industry players like Exxon-Mobil siding with on this issue? The EDF and the climate change lobby, of course.

What?

“The major multinational oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil and Shell have said they are already following methane pollution rules finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year (2016),” says Jon Goldstein, Director for Regulatory and Legislative Affairs at EDF. ‘Better to anticipate future compliance issues today and bake them into your forward planning, than to be caught flatfooted tomorrow.”

That is climate realism as practiced by Big Oil and Gas.

Popular culture views oil executives as derivative forms of Dallas‘ J.R. Ewing. In reality, they are often Ivy League educated business managers with the education and experience  to know that risk must always be managed, not ignored. The geologic and political realities underlying fossil fuels leave just one outcome. Fossil fuels will not be the dominant energy source by the end of this century.

As regressive as the Trump administration has been on climate change policy, there is little they can do to change the global trends. Recent increases in coal electricity generation is illusory. Coal is dead. Instead, the central question facing U.S. policymakers is the extent to which natural gas extraction — including the use of fracking — is going to continue. When does natural gas stop being a stop-gap measure?

Even the most alarmist environmental lobby groups recognize that natural gas has driven the recent reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But what divides them from climate realists is their long-term view of natural gas. The alarmists will not accept an energy source (natural gas) that is only 50 percent cleaner in its greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

Climate realists, in contrast, consider the economic risks and disruption associated with a crash program to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. And economists are quick to point out that recent public and private investments in clean energy have been full of fits and starts. Forbes reported in June that “new investment in clean energy fell to $287.5 billion in 2016, 18 percent lower than the record investment of $348.5 billion in 2015 and 9 percent lower than the $315 billion invested in 2014.”

Climate realists want the trends to be in the right direction, while the alarmists want a worldwide “Man on the Moon”-like resolve to see the practical elimination of fossil fuels by 2050.

This is what divides climate alarmists from realists and it represents a mighty big chasm. The good news is that both groups agree (for the most part) on the basic science behind global warming.

ALARMISTS AND REALISTS AGREE: THE EARTH IS WARMING AND HUMANS ARE TO BLAME

Let’s immediately dispense with the scientific nonsense promulgated by those who claim the science is still unsettled. Yes, of course, some aspects of the science is unsettled. But here is what the climatologists are telling us:

The planet’s recent warming is due largely to human activities. This additional warming is not due to natural variation. It is due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases (particularly CO2) in the atmosphere.

Here is a fun little graphic from SkepticalScience.com contrasting the two contradictory views on global warming:

Even many hardcore climate change skeptics (like myself) are moved by the growing empirical evidence.

Climate skeptics are not swayed by peer pressure, which invites bias and herd mentalities. And don’t bother them with the ’97 percent of climatologists’ agree argument. That figure was basically pulled out of Harvard researcher Naomi Oreskes’ ass 17 years ago. Only recently has a meta-analysis of published research found some credence in that ’97 percent’ figure — but only after researchers ignored the majority of climate change research papers that did not take any stand regarding global warming.

Science isn’t a democracy and facts are determined by vote counts. I’m sure at some point 97 percent of physicists ascribed to the Steady State Theory of the Universe. Scientists can get things really wrong sometimes.

Instead, only evidence matters and it has been unequivocal on global warming.

Even under the new administration, NASA’s offers a convincing summary of the data evidence behind the conclusion that recent global warming is anthropogenic (human-caused):

Figure 1:  GLOBAL LAND-OCEAN TEMPERATURE INDEX
Data source: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). Credit: NASA/GISS

However, the most compelling evidence was offered in 1990, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its first forecast for global temperatures. It was impossible to know at the time, but the report’s forecast for global temperatures was relatively accurate, despite being based on a simple statistical model driven primarily by the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The 1990 IPCC report forecast an increase global temperatures between 0.10 to 0.35°C per decade. In actuality, global temperatures have risen 0.15°C per decade since the 1st IPCC forecast.

“The IPCC models do an impressive job accurately representing and projecting changes in the global climate, contrary to contrarian claims,” says science writer Dana Nuccitelli. “In fact, the IPCC global surface warming projections have performed much better than predictions made by climate contrarians.”

Figure 2:  SUMMARY OF IPCC REPORT FORECASTS
Source: IPCC AR5. Solid lines and squares represent measured average global surface temperature changes by NASA (blue), NOAA (yellow), and the UK Hadley Centre (green). The colored shading shows the projected range of surface warming in the IPCC First Assessment Report (FAR; yellow), Second (SAR; green), Third (TAR; blue), and Fourth (AR4; red).

‘Impressive’ may be an over-statement as the 1st IPCC Assessment Report (yellow shaded region in the above graph) over-estimated global warming; however, the 3rd and 4th IPCC projections were better. That is to be expected. Over time, the models should be better.

Global temperatures are rising. And by using ice core data to model climate dynamics over long periods of geologic time, the evidence also supports the connection between rising global temperatures and the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

What is the exact sensitivity of global temperatures to greenhouse gas concentrations?That’s a complicated question well beyond my background, so I will let the climate scientists debate over the answer. For the hopelessly curious, the Skeptical Scientist website offers a layman-friendly discussion of this complex issue: HERE. [My personal fear is that climate scientists exaggerate humankind’s ability to modulate global temperatures through the manipulation of greenhouse gas emissions alone.]

HOW CAN WE MAKE PUBLIC POLICY AROUND GLOBAL WARMING WHEN THERE IS SO MUCH SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY?

One reason we see variations in the global temperature forecast models is that the scientific groups making the forecasts use different specifications and parameterizations of this temperature/greenhouse gases relationship.

Here is the good news: Eventually, climate scientists will determine which models best predict global temperatures…but it will take time…measured in years. But the best models will reveal themselves, that is certain.

In the meantime, does the world have the luxury to wait for the perfect answer. Sometimes (maybe always?) policymakers are forced to work with the 80 percent solution.

We all know the phrase — ‘better being the enemy of the good’ — popularized by Voltaire. But I like John Lennon’s version. When asked by a journalist when he knew if a song he was writing was finished, Lennon replied, “I stop writing when the song is good enough.”

The climate models are far from perfect, but they are good enough to make substantive policy decisions. The problem for climate alarmists however is that those policy decisions may not go far enough for them.

Policy making in a pluralist democracy like ours is driven by a multiplicity of relatively small and autonomous groups. Despite what Bernie Sanders says, no single group of elites dominate our policy process.

Thus, scientists are not empowered to dictate public policy on climate change but must instead fight it out with other political factions and organized interests. Madison, Jay and Hamilton envisioned our system to work that way for good reason.

The structure of our political system has profound implications on policy making. It encourages small changes over large, dramatic changes in policy.

Political scientist Charles Lindblom described the incrementalist predisposition of American policy making in his famous 1959 essay, “The Science of Muddling Through.” Since incrementalism failed to explain large policy shifts, however, Lindblom’s original model was supplanted by the punctuated equilibrium model of policy making which says major policy changes will occur over brief periods of time, followed by longer periods of incremental policy changes.

How the world addresses climate change is the ultimate policy model case study.

THE CHOICE: INCREMENTALIST ACTION VERSUS DRAMATIC POLICY SHIFTS

Collectively, the world has three possible policy approaches to climate change. They are: (1) Do nothing or the ‘wait and see’ approach (Deniers), (2) Incremental decisions as events demand (Realists), or (3) Dramatic policy shifts now in anticipation of the future (Alarmists).

All three approaches have strengths and weaknesses:

Policy ModelStrengthsWeaknesses
Wait and SeeShort-term costs are minimal; policy flexibility (in the short-term, at least)If worst-case scenarios occur, policy flexibility reduced; overall costs extremely high
IncrementalismModest costs in short-term; hedges fiscal bets in case worst-case scenarios don't materialize; maximum policy flexibilityInadequate policy responses in short-term may exacerbate problems in the long-term; high long-term costs under worst-case scenarios
Dramatic Policy ShiftsLower overall costs if worst-case scenarios prove correctHigh costs in short-term; if initial policies inappropriate to the problem, long-term costs at fiscal bankruptcy levels.

As to which policy is adopted will be partially driven by political leaders’ level of confidence in the empirical data. Alarmists accept the scientific evidence as irrefutable and deterministic. There is no need for political debate. Deniers reject the evidence as flawed and driven more by partisan agendas. And realists see the empirical data as credible but probabilistic.

Scientists do not make the policy decisions. That is not their domain of expertise. Policy making is the domain of the political class.

Unfortunately, that’s where the climate change debate becomes contentious. Throw in a healthy serving of Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt (with a dash of Rick Perry), and the debate is dysfunctional.

We can ignore the deniers as their policy goal is the simplest of all — do nothing. However, as already shown, the world’s energy production and consumption has already changed in significant ways and the deniers long ago lost control of policy making process. They are nearly irrelevant (even though control the U.S. executive branch right now).

The other two climate groups are relevant.

Climate alarmists see climate change in binary terms — it is “zero net emissions” soon after 2050 or global calamity. There is no middle solution or outcome. This deterministic view of the world — as in, “I know for fact this is going to happen” — places little value on negotiation and compromise. Climate realists, in contrast, are all about negotiation and compromise.

CLIMATE REALISTS ARE RISK AVERSE BY TRAINING AND EXPERIENCE

Climate realists are creatures of the existing policy making system. They see the world through a lens of probabilistic events where there is always a chance that even the most likely events fail to materialize. Furthermore, in the context of large structural budget deficits within the public sector, climate realists incorporate risk assessments into the policy mix which further discourages dramatic policy shifts.

Climate realists bring a healthy skepticism of the science yet are sensitive to its implications. This more sophisticated understanding of the intersection of science and policy place the realists in a better position to dominate U.S. energy and environmental policy.

CLIMATE ALARMISTS WANT TO IMPLEMENT AN ECONOMIC SHIFT AT A SPEED UNPARALLELED IN HUMAN HISTORY

Climate alarmists desire to end the fossil fuel industry within the next 30 years. In other words, divert $33 trillion of capital and assets from one industry to another.

Good luck.

This plan typically includes a carbon tax system (or some equivalent) that would divert around $3 trillion annually from the fossil fuel economy to government entities. These revenues would be diverted into investments in materials and energy efficiency, renewable energy capacity, and the infrastructure necessary to accommodate a 100 percent renewable energy economy.

Alarmists will quickly note that the $3 trillion annual tax levy would ultimately save more money than it raises. Ecofys estimated the savings around $6 trillion per year by 2050.

It’s a big bet. Nothing like it has ever been attempted in human history.

What if global warming comes in at the low-end of the forecasts? The models by design suggest the real possibility.

What if the higher order effects — such as tropical storm intensities, coastal and river flooding, drought frequency, etc. — do not reach levels predicted by the climate models?

What if relatively small investments in improved building materials, better building codes, and smarter zoning and development laws are fiscally more effective than a $3 trillion annual transfer of wealth to the public sector and the nascent clean energy industry.

For the alarmists to achieve a 100 percent renewable energy economy around 2050, a punctuated equilibrium policy change may not be enough. It may require something more revolutionary and disruptive.

Luckily, the climate realists will be pumping brakes on any attempt by the alarmists to change public policy on such a scale.

CLIMATE ALARMISTS GAVE US THE PARIS ACCORDS, BUT THE REALISTS WILL IMPLEMENT IT

The Paris Accords set an aggressive global goal to have net zero carbon emissions early in the second half of this century. The difference in global temperatures between ‘low carbon emissions’ (blue shaded region) and the status quo (red shaded region) is significant:

If the world keeps energy policies at the status quo, by 2100, global temperatures will rise by 4 °C over 2005 temperatures. If we reach near zero net carbon emissions by 2050 (or soon after), global temperatures will rise only 1 °C over 2005 temperatures.

Of course, these predictions assume the global warming models are accurate. Alarmists assume humans can turn down the global thermostat and the globe will dutifully respond. The comedian George Carlin has a nice bit about this noxious type of hubris: It is just another arrogant attempt by humans to control mother nature.

But let’s play along with the idea that we can control global temperatures like the thermostats we use to control our homes’ temperatures. The only chance it happens is if we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero in a relatively short period of time. [Some scientists fear it may already be too late to prevent the globe’s temperatures from exceeding 2 °C over pre-industrial temperatures.]

From a policy perspective, getting to Paris Accords’ zero net carbon emissions target is problematic given current global reliance on coal and natural gas energy production and existing plans to build new coal and natural power plant.

Forecasts on the mix of energy sources in 2050, not surprisingly, vary significantly depending on what group is making the forecasts.

The following forecasts illustrate this variance.

A PLAN TO GET TO ZERO EMISSIONS BY 2050 (or soon after)

Energy consulting firm Ecofys produced a report in 2011 demonstrating the plausibility of ‘net zero emissions’ by 2050. In their forecast model, half of the ‘net zero emissions’ goal is met by reducing energy demand through increased energy efficiency, and the remaining part of the goal is met by the substitution of traditional energy sources with renewable sources (see chart below).

Ecofys’s forecast is aggressive and predicated on a number of strong assumptions and stretch goals, including:

  • Global energy demand in 2050 will be 15 percent lower than in 2005, despite a growing population and continued economic development in countries like India and China.
  • Create buildings that require almost no conventional energy for heating or cooling and have all new buildings meet this standard by 2030.
  • High growth rates in solar energy production will continue or decline only slightly
  • Growth rates in wind power will also continue so that it will provide one-quarter of the world’s electricity needs by 2050.
  • Scientific and technology breakthroughs will continue to lower the cost and raise the efficiency of renewable energy sources, energy conservation technologies, and energy (battery) storage capabilities.
  • And, finally, the world will collectively accept a carbon tax and levy system that will help raise the money necessary to invest in the other energy goals and milestones.

Not one of these assumptions are likely to hold, much less all of them.

Fueled by economic and population growth, total global energy demand will rise about 33 percent between now and 2050, according to the EIA, and most of this increase will come from outside the U.S. and Europe. To predicate a zero emissions plan on the expectation that American and European policy makers are going to influence domestic energy policies in China and India enough to lower their overall energy demand in 2050 from today’s levels (or 2005!) is laughable.

The safest assumption from the Ecofys plan is that renewables will continue to grow rapidly. British Petroluem’s 2017 Statistical Review of World Energy found that renewable power (excluding hydro power) grew by 14.1 percent in 2016 — which is below the 10-year average, but still robust.

The most promising Ecofys assumption is in solar energy, which recently has seen exponential growth rates. In 2016, there was a 50 percent increase in the amount of new solar power worldwide, bringing its contribution to total worldwide electricity generation to around 1.3 percent.

But Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance Outlook for 2017 is predicting this fast growth in solar power will soon slow down. Luckily for the solar energy industry, the pessimistic predictions on solar’s growth by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and business forecasters like Bloomberg have been notoriously wrong in the past. Of all of the Ecofys zero emissions plan assumptions, continued solar energy growth may be the most likely to materialize.

Where some pieces of the Ecofys zero emissions plan have merit, on the whole, it too dependent on optimism and good intentions. Using the Ecofys plan to represent the ‘zero emissions by 2050’ goal may seem like a straw man argument, but to Ecofys’ credit, the core elements of their forecast includes all of the factors that will need to align in order for the zero emissions goal to be met.

In fairness, Ecofys has removed their 2011 plan for zero emissions from their website, but the assumptions and milestones in the plan are still indicative of the massive challenge the world faces in achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions soon after 2050.

THE FUTURE IS 100% RENEWABLE ENERGY, BUT YOU WON’T BE AROUND TO SEE IT (AND MAYBE NOT YOUR KIDS, EITHER).

The following global energy forecast was published on the website PeakOil.com and is more indicative of the climate realist perspective and shows us why zero emissions is a challenging goal unlikely to occur anywhere near 2050.

Fossil fuel geeks should be familiar with the Hubbert Linearization method for estimating the level of recoverable natural resources under existing technology, economics, and geopolitical trends. Historically, the Hubbert method has typically underestimated the amount of recoverable oil, gas and coal left in the ground. To mitigate this bias, the PeakOil.com forecast is adjusted using EIA’s official projections on world oil and natural gas production from 2016 to 2040.

Their resulting forecast on world carbon dioxide emissions through 2100 makes the idea of a zero carbon emissions planet seem unattainable, in this century at least.

The good news: these forecasts are products of smart people doing a lot of guesswork. On one level, the idea that carbon emissions will peak around 2030 seems plausible given that we are already deep into 2017 and carbon emissions continue to rise with the growth of the world economy.

Where the PeakOil.com forecast may go wrong is on the downside of the fossil fuel life cycle. If renewables become significantly more cost effective than fossil fuels, the move away from fossil fuels will be much more dramatic than what the above graph shows.

That is the optimist in me speaking.

Significant issues remain ahead for renewables however. The biggest is the cost of solar and wind intermittency.

As University of Houston Lecturer and Energy Fellow Earl J. Ritchie warns, “The continuing decrease in wind and solar costs is a very positive development. However, this trend may reverse as the percentage of variable renewable energy (VRE)  energy that isn’t available on-demand but only at specific times, such as when the wind is blowing – reaches high levels.”

At that point, integration costs become more of a factor in the overall cost of renewable energy.

“When variable sources are a small fraction of electricity supply, the cost of integration is low,” says Ritchie. But when these variable sources become a significant fraction, renewable energy costs can increase. Evidence of this can already be seen in Germany, where wind and solar are heavily integrated into the national power grid.

At what fraction do these costs become significant? It depends.

One study using data from Germany and Indiana found integration costs began to become significant when renewables reached 20 percent of total energy generation. As of 2015, only four countries had variable renewable energy over 20 percent. But that number will rise rapidly in the next 10 years.

THE ABSENCE OF NUCLEAR POWER IN THEIR FUTURE ENERGY MIX SUGGESTS ENVIRONMENTALISTS ARE NOT AS SERIOUS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE AS THEY PRETEND

There is one more aspect of the climate change movement that is puzzling. Where is nuclear energy in all of the scenarios where the planet reaches zero carbon emissions?

The task is daunting enough, why make it harder?

Ideological environmentalists need to take off their ideological blinders and accept that the quickest, most direct path to zero carbon emissions is with significant growth in nuclear energy. If safety or nuclear proliferation concerns keep them from signing on to new nuclear power plants, they need to update their information because molten salt (thorium) nuclear reactors may address both of those concerns while maintaining the low carbon emissions aspect of nuclear energy.

Why weren’t molten salt reactors developed sooner? Because countries with the resources to develop peaceful nuclear power also wanted the ability to retool quickly and develop a nuclear weapons program, which the uranium reactors made easier.

Nuclear power is not intermittent like solar and wind. That is a significant advantage. Furthermore, China, India, Brazil, Argentina, and many other large, growing countries are embracing nuclear power on a level to match what the French have already achieved.

Nuclear power plants generate 75 percent of France’s electricity, though that level may fall to 50 percent by 2025 as other renewable energy sources come online. As of today, France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to the very low cost of nuclear power.

Without nuclear power out of the mix, the ideological environmental lobby is making the goal of zero carbon emissions even more unreachable.

NOW WHAT? ADAPT OR DIE.

The major energy sources that work 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year are coal, natural gas, geothermal, hydroelectric (droughts not withstanding), and nuclear.

Renewable energy is still a supplemental source of power. Without fundamental advancements in energy storage technologies, countries will still need continuous power sources on cloudy and windless days.

And this essay hasn’t even touched transportation.

Throw in combustion engine automobiles likely to be in use in 2050 and the belief that this world can be anywhere close to ‘zero net carbon emissions’ anywhere near 2050 is fantasy.

This means global temperatures are going to come in somewhere in between the ‘status quo’ and ‘zero net emissions’ scenarios. In other words, by 2100, global temperatures may be close to 3 °C above pre-industrial temperature levels. At that level of global warming arrives increases in ice sheet melting and the impact of the slow climate feedback mechanisms which may push the warming to 6 °C above pre-industrial levels, regardless of any carbon emissions reductions that occur after we hit the 3 °C milestone.

At 6 °C above pre-industrial levels, our descendants will be seriously pissed at us for failing to do more to slow global warming.

We may already be witnessing the impact of global warming on tropical storms and flooding in the U.S. Again, that is a question difficult for science to answer definitively. There is not enough data yet. The empirical evidence says we have not seen a perceivable increase in the number or intensity of tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean — even with Harvey, Irma and Maria included in the dataset.

However, that finding could change in a short period of time. Another year or two like 2017 in the Atlantic and the ‘no impact on tropical storms’ argument gets sent to the scientific dustbin.

On the positive side, if Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are a precursor of the new normal, we have gained some insight on the financial risk global warming poses to the U.S. and other countries exposed to coastal flooding and hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Puerto Rico will rebuild. The goal should be to ensure that all new construction on the island will pass rigorous building standards designed to survive Category 5 hurricanes. Puerto Rico can be the leading edge of a new urban planning philosophy for coastlines that addresses the realities of the global warming age.

The damages to residences of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico are tragic. But they are also manageable, particularly if our governments start developing concrete plans to help people migrate from at-risk areas and to improve building and zoning codes to minimize future weather-related risks.

What we don’t need to do is crush the world economy with a crash program of getting to ‘zero net emissions’ by 2050. At this point, such a goal is a castle in the sky built by climate change alarmists that have little to risk and much to gain by scaring policy makers into potentially counter-productive government interventions in the private economy.

Don’t compound the original mistake of recklessly burning fossil fuels in serving economic growth by embarking on an equally reckless path.

The Paris Accord targets were never going to be met. Any time you get that many countries to agree on something, you know it has to be more illusion than substance. Countries were willing to sign on to the Accords because it asked of its signers very little additional sacrifice beyond what they were already doing or planning on doing.

Global warming is real. Humans caused it. And there is a warming threshold (~ 3 °C) that we must avoid. And now we must pursue a series of policies that will adapt to this reality and hopefully mitigate most of global warming’s worst consequences.

 

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.