Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The 2020 Annual Ditty: The Donald

We Are Glad 

(with profuse apologies to Shakespeare and King Henry V)

We are sad The Donald is so unpleasant with us;

His presence a double bogey we won’t say thanks for:

When we marched our voters to the polls,

We did, perchance, escape the sand, take the match

And strike his bilious frown as just the hazard.

Told him he hath offended both friend and stranger

Packed all the courts so rule of law will be disturb'd

Ah, Censorious faces. Now we understand him well,

How he lorded o'er us and denied his wilder days,

Admitting not what sore use he made of them.

We ne’re before deeply valued this poor seat of POTUS;

And therefore, in ’16 took the chance, and gave ourselves

To trust in process; as 'tis ever common

That men are elevated when in The People’s House.

But tell the Donald we will keep our States,

We won them true and will spurn his tweetings

We need not rouse ourselves so chance begins anew

Or plod like duffers unable to make the shot  

Yea, show the Donald bold to look on us.

And tell the putrid prince this mock of his

Hath turn'd his hopes to rubble; and his soul

Be held sore charged for his wasteful vengeance

That shall fly with them: for many a thousand victims

Shall this his mock mock out of dear husbands and wives;

Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;

And even some yet ungotten and unborn

That shall have cause to curse the Donald's scorn.

But this lies all within the Founders’ will,

To whom we do appeal; and in whose name

Tell you the Donald, we are coming on,

To cleanse the ground as we may and to put forth

A rightful hand in a well-hallow'd cause.

So get you now to Pence, and tell the Donald

His jest will savor those but of shallow wit,

When thousands jeer more than did laugh at it.

We give you now safe conduct. Convey it well.

Let's hope for a better 2021


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Night Several Days After Christmas

 Twas the night before New Years, when outside my flat

The Pols were stirring, but I said “no, no, not that.”

Screens were a’ flicker, with cheer and not Fox,

In hopes that the ball would shimmy, and glisten, and drop.

The children were rolling their eyes as I peek,

Just a few surveys, and op-eds that I seek

And M in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,

With Iowa’s numbers tucked in the nap.

When out from the street there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the couch to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Newspaper truck with deliveries, perchance?

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Reflected the pale visage of Michelle B. below.

I rubbed my eyes, when what should appear,

Michelle became Sarah, and eight tiny reindeer.

Ah, I cried, not her, I pled,

McCain, you idiot, go back to bed.

More rapid than sled dogs his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Perry! Now, RonPaul! Now, Rickster and Mitten!

On, Huntsman! On, Newter! On, T-Paw and Hermen!

You’ve had your fun; you’ve run your race!

Now dash away! Dash away! Save your face!"

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pounding of a rather large hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Out the elevator came Christie came with a bound.

He was dressed in a suit, red tie with a flag

And his shoes were bright polished, he carried a bag.

A bundle of stickers he had on his back,

And he looked like a lawyer, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!

He said, not to worry, it won’t be Perry!

I said, “how ‘bout Newt?” He gave me a grin

“Not Newt, and not Ron, after I begin.”

“You picked Mitt, I replied, endorsed him well.”

“So I did,” said he, “It made him feel swell.”

He had a broad face and quite a big belly,

That shook when he giggled, like a bowlful of jelly!

Chris spoke no more words, but went straight to his work,

Pasting stickers on doorways then turned with a jerk.

And emptying the bag of his precious load,

And giving a nod, down, down the elevator he rode!

My kids, hearing sounds, called out my name.

“Dad, please come back, have you no shame?

I turned on my heel, Mitt’s up by three I declare

D, stop that, they beg, you’ll go mad, we don’t care.

Watch football, they said, not the Jets, they will lose.

Pick college, Northwestern, something to soothe.

So I turned my thoughts to the upcoming bowls

Hawkeyes and Gamecocks? What are the polls?

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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Biden Wins: America Passes the Marshmallow Test

By Michael Liss

Put a small child in a room with a single marshmallow.    Tell him that, if he can wait for five minutes, he gets a second one. Leave the room, and see what he does.  Can he sit there, staring at that scrumptious-if-a-tad-rubbery mound of goo and powdered sugar and just fight off the urge to grab it, tear it to bits, and, like the Cheshire Cat, leave nothing but a smile?We, the voters, did it. We passed. Joe Biden will be our next President. America voted for stability and cohesiveness, for deferral of the pleasure of an adrenaline rush in return for a better outcome.  We will, on January 20, 2021, be a better country for it.   

We need to be better. Love him or loathe him, few could argue that President Trump was not a perpetual disrupter. Time may bring the perspective for more dispassionate analysis of his policies, but, right now, perhaps for just the next year or two, we need a different path.

There is an enemy at the gates we must confront and subdue. To do that, it’s increasingly clear we need an intense effort on the medical side, acceptance of public health measures, and system-wide cooperation. If we don’t get COVID-19 under control, we will not only let death walk amongst us unchallenged, but wreck our economy and our children’s future.

This is simply a truth. What is also a truth is that this is something Trump could not master. No virus ever succumbed to bluster, just as blunt force trauma is not universally effective as a negotiating strategy or in encouraging civic virtue.

As is appropriate in our system, eventually the voters get to choose. It is clear that Trump wanted to make the 2020 election about him, and he did. But in doing so, he assumed he could, once more, defy the laws of political gravity. Presidents are not just judged on demeanor and policy, but also how they handle crises. We did choose, and enough of us rejected his self-promotion as a sort of swashbuckling Albert Schweitzer to show him the general direction of the door.

This all seems a little unreal, both in the moment, and in hindsight. Against all odds, Joe Biden proved to be a serendipitous choice to face off against Trump’s unique skill set. I wasn’t thrilled with Biden’s entering into the nominating process. I thought him too old and too dated on policy, and I was desperate for Democrats to find new blood and resolve the disputes between the moderate and progressive wings of the Party. What’s more, while I wrote last September that Biden’s service had earned him the right to compete and that, like Lincoln, he was, in David Brooks’ phrase, “a very poor hater,” I questioned whether he could win the General Election with a candidacy that was based mostly on affect.

This was a fair concern. Biden was weak in the early primaries and, on the debate stage, he took attention from the other, more articulate and vigorous moderate candidates like Klobuchar, Harris, and Buttigieg. I feared his continued presence would splinter their support, while leaving Bernie and Warren clear shots at the nomination. This wasn’t what I wanted—the Left had passionate spokespeople; the Center needed a strong front-runner.

Then, a miracle and a nightmare. Representative Jim Clyburn stepped in with a critical endorsement, right before the South Carolina Primary, and Biden stomped the field. Centrist candidates dropped. A few days later, on Super Tuesday, Biden did it again. Then, hospitals (and mortuaries) in the Northeast began to fill up with victims of a disease that no one really seemed to understand.

Hindsight, as the virus now rips through states that were initially spared, is easy. Trump first saw COVID as a distraction from his central messaging, which was a steroidal mix of traditional Republican orthodoxy on economic and social issues, and a Pat-Buchannan-inspired, closed-fist approach to enforcing them. What is truly fascinating about Trump’s appeal (and what is indecipherable to Democrats) is how many of his supporters approach him as they would an all-you-can-eat barbeque. Take as much of the stuff as you like, skip the things you don’t, and go away happy. Trump, the long-time entertainer and casino-owner, instinctively understood it. Give the customer a thrill, and leave the moralizing to others.

Like it or not, it’s fair to say that, without COVID, Trump would have swaggered to reelection, while Democrats dithered and second-guessed one another about their search for the perfect mate. In light of Trump’s eternal quest for grievances, if I were he, I think I’d shake my fist at the sky. Jim Clyburn may have given him a weak-at-the-time opponent, but fate, and his own hubris, made that opponent formidable. Joe Biden won, convincingly, and Donald Trump lost, convincingly. As Larry Sabato tweeted,

This was NOT an especially close election. #PresidentElectBiden won 306 EVs plus a 4-5 million-votes plurality. You want close? Look at 1960,1968,1976,2000, among others. NETWORKS—Stop feeding this false storyline.

What’s next? Well, first we have to get through the thicket of Republican challenges and the toxicity of their language. Trump owns the GOP and few of its elected officials can chance not echoing the claims he makes. Both Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson have promised investigations. There will be avid forum shopping to find Trump-favorable judges to issue Trump-favoring rulings, perhaps all the way up to the Supreme Court. But many Republicans privately acknowledge that this is being done largely to soothe Trump’s ego, and in their desire to delegitimize Biden and rough him up. The voters may have spoken, but nothing beyond common decency requires Republicans to acknowledge it, and there’s a shortage of that right now.

The noise may continue, but our Presidential-succession magic act will as well. A President at the end of his term goes into a box, a wand is waved, and another one comes out. Joe Biden will be inaugurated and the nuclear football will be passed to him. There are whispers that Trump will simply refuse to leave the White House. It won’t matter. Presidential power comes from the office, not from the place. Joe Biden will be President, and Donald Trump will not.

So, if you are Joe, what do you do when you actually get to sit in the big chair? You start by remembering that the Presidency is a unique blend of pastoral and policy initiatives. You do what he’s already signaled he is going to do: Aim right at COVID-19 with a laser focus, and give assistance without looking first as to whether or not the state voted for you. That’s an immediate break from the past, and a healing one. While you are doing that, rejoin the WHO as a sign that we will be reentering the world. Push out those Executive Orders to reverse Trump’s vandalism. Don’t waste time arguing about them, just do them.

Find a way for Kamala Harris to be relevant, and pick a quality Cabinet—people of ability with the intellectual capacity to be adaptive. Joe faces multiple crises at the same time, and he needs every type of help he can get. That kind of Cabinet starts with a superior Secretary of State, yet another signal to the world that America is ready to re-engage with them, applying a combination of open-mindedness and strength.

While Biden appointees are doing the spadework on the policy side, Joe truly is Commander-in Chief of the pastoral. Preach bipartisanship and comity on every issue. Make a legitimate effort to negotiate with Republicans over legislation—give them a chance, and some goodies.

Will Republicans accept this? Doubtful, at least at first. McConnell expects to resume his role as master obstructor, and Donald Trump is not going away, and will put their feet to the fire if there’s even a hint of “fraternizing with the enemy.”

This is where Joe’s backslapping may have to be with a slightly firmer touch. The limits of Executive Power have just been redefined by Trump, and those goalposts won’t be moved back all that easily. McConnell has created a minefield of conservative judges for any Democratic President, but many of them came out of the Federalist Society’s farm system, and have professed a belief in an Imperial Presidency. Of course, we expect some of them to be selective in their application of that belief, but most go-it-alone Biden moves will stand. A strong Chief of Staff and legislative aides can make that point to McConnell and McCarthy, while letting Biden float above the fray.

Then, after Joe has conquered the virus, and brought about world peace, there’s the Democratic Party. In an election where their candidate won the Presidency, their performance everywhere down-ballot ranged from poor to appalling. This, only two years after they had a terrific Midterm Election. There are reasons for this: Democrats have a blurred message, say a lot of scary stuff, and don’t seem to stand for very much beyond fighting with one another. Abby Spanberger (7th CD, Virginia) had it right when, on a conference call, she called leadership out for undercutting moderate incumbent Democrats, many of whom were Freshman in just won-for-the-first-time seats. This is something that needs to be fixed. If Democrats don’t get their act together, 2022 will be a bloodbath.

Biden should never get involved in intramural struggles between ideological wings, but he can help deliver a better farm system with well-chosen appointments that will elevate future candidates. And he can frame a message through his own policy choices. For far too long, Democrats have mouthed “we care,” without concrete proposals to show that care. Biden actually does care, and he should make it a priority.

And the GOP? There is a fantasy held by some liberals, and even some Never-Trumpers, that some type of evil spell has been cast upon the Party, and, when the King is dead, the curse will be lifted and they (and political life) will return to regular order. This is a fairy tale. I do believe many elected Republicans would prefer not to join in the excesses of the Trump Era, but they have, and they continue to do so. Trump has managed to create an entirely new army of voters (with whom he communicates constantly) to meld with the business and Evangelical wings of the Party. Voters mean winning elections, and those who put their integrity and principles in a blind trust for the duration are now faced with an uncomfortable truth: They have lost the Presidency, but not Trump. They still work for him. The Republican Party you see now is the Republican Party.

What’s the next chapter? First, the obvious. Trump will never genuinely concede, will never participate in any transition, and will do as much damage (and feather as many nests with public assets) as he can. Then, Joe, Kamala, and Company will get down to work. What people should realize right now is that a President’s success is every American’s success, and his/her failures are everyone’s failures. So, if you are a Democrat, and Joe is too moderate for your tastes, root for him to win anyway and support someone else in the 2024 primaries. And, if you are a Republican, indulge yourself in criticism, oppose him where you need to, but hope he can make some headway against our problems.

In closing, I’m going to quote from an email I got from a Millennial reader.

All those with political power have demonstrated over the course of my entire life is their ability to get more and more vicious towards the other side—a dynamic, which, by 2020, has developed to the point of abject refusal to entertain the humanity and legitimacy of those you don’t agree with. And there are already too many people my age who have learned that lesson—to quote a former colleague of mine from a conversation a year ago, ‘some people are too evil to humanize.’ When the election was called yesterday afternoon, I was relieved Trump would no longer be President. After Biden’s acceptance speech, though, I began to be just a little bit hopeful that those in power might begin the process of disarming the conflict and governing together for the whole country.

May it be so.

Biden Wins: American Passes the Marshmallow Test was first published on November 9, 2020 at 


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Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Consummately Corrupt Election of 1876

By Michael Liss  (October 12, 2020, 3Quarksdaily.com)

There are times where we are simply unable to surpass our elders. 

“Corrupt” doesn’t capture it. Neither does any other epithet or adjective or modifier you care to couple with corrupt. When it came to ballot stuffing, voter suppression, intimidation, bribes, and just garden variety mendacity, the Election of 1876 had it all.

In some respects, this all makes perfect sense. In 1876, America is seething. It is the last year of the (impressively corrupt) Grant Administration, early in the Gilded Age, where the buying and selling of virtually everything is more a question of price than right or wrong. Reconstruction has been a mess: eight of the former Confederate States have thrown off their “Carpetbagger” governments and are now controlled by “Redeemers,” the same old folks that seceded from the Union after Lincoln was elected. The substantive meaning of the 14th and 15th Amendments as they relate to former slaves has evaporated in most places. There is xenophobia and anti-Catholic agitation and the continued threat of violence. And there is a dawning realization that the two-party system no longer sorts itself out with consistency when addressing the growing divide between the rich and poor, labor and capital, industrialized vs. agrarian, hard money vs. soft, lavish spending on internal improvements vs. frugality, and so on. It is still possible for Republicans to ”wave the bloody shirt” and recall the Civil War, but a surprising number of former adversaries are finding common interests that seem to supersede allegiance to whatever uniforms they previously wore. Democrats have been shut out of the Presidency since James Buchanan, but, in 1874, at the height of the recession caused by the Panic of 1873, they rode a Blue Wave to control of the House. Is 1876 the year they can break the Republicans’ iron lock, especially with federal troops still propping up Reconstructionist governments in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana?

It is November 8, 1876, the morning after Election Day. In this pre-exit-poll, pre-electronic-tabulation era, while the results are still trickling in, it looks like the Democrats have finally taken the Presidency. The extraordinarily dull Samuel J. Tilden, the present (and future) Governor of New York, not only has a lead of 300,000 in the popular vote, but also at least 184 Electoral Votes, just one short of a win. Rutherford B. Hayes, the present Governor of Ohio (and no live wire himself), has no more than 165. Three States are quite close—Florida (of course), which is leaning toward Tilden, South Carolina, with a slight margin for Hayes, and Louisiana, with a significant margin for Tilden. In a fourth, Oregon, a Republican Elector has turned out to be ineligible, and the Democratic Governor claims the right to replace him (with a Democrat). Twenty Electoral Votes out there, and all Tilden needs is one.

The Hayes people are initially depressed. If the reported margins are correct, if either Louisiana or Florida go to Tilden, then the game is over. It is General Dan Sickles who first grasps that, if the Pacific-rim States come in for Hayes, and those three wayward Southern States can be swung in his direction, and whatever bizarre thing that is happening in Oregon can be averted, than Hayes would hit 185 and win the White House.

Sickles might have been one of the most colorful personalities 19th Century America produced (and there was a lot of competition for that crown). Among his many notable accomplishments were leading a heroic, if ill-chosen, stand at Gettysburg (where he lost a leg), serving in the House of Representatives and as Minister to Spain, and, my personal favorite, being the first person in the United States acquitted of murder by reason of temporary insanity. Sickles had accosted Phillip Barton Key II, nephew of Francis Scott Key and then U.S. Attorney, across the street from the White House, and shot him dead for sleeping with Sickles’ (much younger) wife. After a dramatic trial, he was set free.

Fortunately, that little dalliance with unreality was past, leaving Sickles ready for the moment. He quickly roused other Republican powers, including Zachariah Chandler, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee (who apparently had fortified himself with a substantial quantity of spirits the evening before, and was not entirely coherent). These men contacted Republican elements in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana (all three still under federal control as part of Reconstruction, with “Carpetbagger” governments), plus Nevada and Oregon, and told them all to hold fast. The Cavalry might still be coming.

One of the Republicans’ real vulnerabilities in this fight (beyond the fact that Tilden had a sizable lead in Louisiana) was that they had been absolutely pulverized in the 1874 Midterm Elections. The loss of the House was critical, since the House was where all contested Elections were supposed to end. So it had been in 1824, when John Quincy Adams bested Andrew Jackson with some assistance from fellow candidate Henry Clay. So it would be in 1876, if the Republicans weren’t careful. The pesky 12th Amendment clearly said so. Hayes needed to get to 185.

Nowadays, the two parties send platoons of lawyers to dispute votes, but, in those days, lawyers were considered too scrupulous, so a collection of distinguished worthies (Civil War officers, men of means, newspaper editors, lobbyists, men of even more means) were dispatched to the contested States. These folks were called, apparently without irony, “visiting statesmen.” The visiting statesmen’s job was to twist (or massage) enough arms so that “returning boards” (which had the actual authority to decide what the exact tallies were) would be impressed enough with the justice of the candidate’s cause to display the appropriate amount of vision.

It was Hayes who needed serendipity, but, as was the custom of the day, neither candidate acted as a leadership voice in the argument. That would be considered unseemly, as personal campaigning was. Electioneering (and “influencing”) was a team sport, and, in 1876, the Republicans had the better team. They also had Grant’s troops to protect returning boards should those returning boards make the “correct” (but quite possibly unpopular) decision.

First, to the job at hand: securing the Electoral Votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

South Carolina was the putatively the easiest—the unofficial count had Hayes up by between 600 and 1000 votes, but Democrats seemed to have won both the Governorship and control of the State Legislature. That wouldn’t do, so the five-man, all-Republican, South Carolina returning board got creative, and, on November 22, invalidated all (as in, “all”) the votes from two Democratic counties, Edgefield and Laurens. That both confirmed Hayes’ State-wide lead and managed to flip back the State Legislature. Then, the Republicans in the Legislature refused to accept the newly elected (and returning-board-rejected) Democrats from Edgefield and Laurens, and declared Daniel Chamberlain the winner of the Governor’s race. Angry Democrats then walked and set up a rival government (yes, a rival government) under Wade Hampton, a former Confederate General. This didn’t solve Hayes’ problem completely, as both parties would later send their slates of electors to Washington, but, since he had won the preliminary tally, it seemed sufficient.

Next, to Louisiana, and here’s where things were very dicey. Tilden held a substantial lead—roughly 6,300 votes, difficult simply to wave a wand at unless the person holding the wand (at that point, James Madison Wells, former Governor and then head of the returning board) was sufficiently pliant. Wells was particularly fond of money, and money was available in return for flexibility. On December 5, in a move that showed flexibility to the point of double-jointedness, the returning board tossed out enough votes to turn Tilden’s 6,300 vote edge into a Hayes margin of more than 5,000. In the same breath, it also flipped back the State Legislature. Just as in South Carolina, angry Democrats set up a rival government. As unfair as a net exchange of nearly 12,000 might seem to the objective eye, the well-meaning Hayes was convinced by his friends that the original Tilden (and Democratic) edge was the result of the Democrats having terrorized black voters, and so justice was done.

On to Florida. There, Hayes trailed by 94 votes, and, again, Democrats seemed to have won both the State Governorship and State Legislature. But Florida was ground zero for the more flamboyant forms of cheating—multiple voting, the odd dead person, stuffing some ballot boxes, “misplacing” others, even reports of Democratic ballots printed with Republican symbols to fool illiterate voters (in 1870, 20 percent of the total population was illiterate, 80 percent of former slaves). So there was every reason to believe that Tilden’s edge might not have been entirely earned. Of course, the Republicans did some of the same things leading General Lew Wallace, a Hayes visiting statesman and later the author of Ben Hur, to report back that he couldn’t tell which side was worse. Once again, Florida’s returning board (controlled by Republicans) found votes to flip (a net of about 1,000), and there went the State to Hayes.

Those three states gave Hayes 185 Electoral Votes, and the victory, if anyone would accept it. Except, not quite yet. Oregon provided the Democrats a last toe-hold, and they gripped it hard. In Oregon, Hayes clearly carried the popular vote, but one of his Electors was a federal employee, which was clearly prohibited by the 12th Amendment. Presumably, he would simply be replaced by another Republican—except that Oregon’s Governor (the colorfully named La Fayette Grover) was a Democrat, and, at the behest of DNC Chairman Abram S. Hewitt (also known as the Father of the New York City Subway System), he picked the replacement—a Democrat.

Under the 12th Amendment, all States needed to certify their Electoral Votes and send them on to Washington to be “counted” by December 6. Thirty-four of those States complied. Our four got creative—Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana sending completely rival slates, and Oregon with one slate having the all-Republican Electors, a second with one Democratic Elector.

Now it was time for the lawyers, because the two sides immediately disagreed on what the 12th Amendment actually meant. It says the “President of the Senate” (usually, the sitting Vice-President, unless he has passed away) shall “count” the votes sent in by the States in the presence of the House and Senate. No one was exactly sure what that meant, down even to the word “count.” Hayes, given that the Republicans still controlled the Senate, insisted that “count” meant, in effect, “decide,” and that the “counting” should be done by then President Pro Tem of the Senate, Thomas Ferry of Michigan (unsurprisingly, a Republican), standing in for the deceased Henry Wilson. Democrats, needless to say, disagreed, and said the “counting” should be done by either throwing it to the House (which they controlled), or, at the very least, to both Chambers, and “counting” should also include Hewitt’s suggestion, which was to reexamine how the returning boards made their decisions. One thing was certain: as long as Democrats controlled the House, no Republican Senator was going to decide, on his own, who got to be the next President.

The two sides squared off. Interestingly enough, although Hayes was insistent that the only “counting” could be done by Ferry (to his mind both the correct and winning decision), in those days, there was still interest in preserving Congressional prerogatives, and many of Hayes’ fellow Republicans pushed back.

The old adage that politics makes for strange bedfellows began to come into play. Not every Republican was with Hayes, and not every Democrat with Tilden. Both local and regional interests began to chip away at party discipline.

Hayes’ most serious individual defection was Roscoe Conkling, a powerhouse in New York, who insisted on controlling the State’s patronage, something to which Hayes would not accede. Some Southern Republicans were more wary of a Hayes Presidency than a Tilden one, as Hayes had expressed warm, conciliatory thoughts toward the South (although he had not openly made any hard commitments). These Southern Republican Senators worried about being isolated in a region dominated by hostile Democrats.

As for Tilden, not only did his cold-fish personality and detachment fail to inspire loyalty, there were also legitimate concerns coming from Southern Democrats. They wondered if it was better to cut a deal with Hayes—support in return for a hard commitment to Home Rule, getting rid of the troops, the Carpetbaggers, and (more quietly) any substantive rights for former slaves. With those in place, the South would be solidly Democratic in the span of a few years.

Not to be ignored were economic interests. Business wanted markets, infrastructure spending, and taxpayer favors. The most potent of the businesses were the railroads, already the beneficiaries of insanely rich subsidies. Their lobbying forces, led by Thomas A. Scott, the President of both the Pennsylvania and the Texas and Pacific Railroads, had their hands everywhere, using a variety of inducements to gain another round of largess. They were able to frame this as a regional issue for Southern politicians—the North had received the lion’s share of internal improvement money, and the South needed parity to have a chance to grow. But also lobbying was Scott’s sworn enemy, Collis P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific, who proposed to build West to East, without subsidies. Unsurprisingly, there was considerable resistance amongst Northern politicians of both parties to a big new round of grants, particularly to the South. The importance of railroad influence on the final election result has been debated by historians (I recommend C. Vann Woodward’s Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction), but there is little doubt the railroads swung a big stick.

What the power brokers and regional interests were really seeking was more about leverage and less about party. Tilden’s ascetic campaign (he ran mostly on Reform in a time of economic depression) enthused few, so they looked to Hayes for clear commitments that their needs would be served.

Hayes wasn’t especially good at cutting deals. He still believed he was absolutely entitled to the win, without further ado, and he had talked himself into believing that “counting” simply meant “counting by my loyalist who will accept only results favorable to me.” That being said, he was also willing to allow close associates like John Sherman (then Senator from Ohio, later Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury, and McKinley’s Secretary of State) to represent that they understood his private thoughts, while Hayes, himself, didn’t have to commit to anything.

All this jockeying back and forth was taking time off the calendar. It wasn’t so much that Tilden was growing stronger, as that the internal cross-currents were still being negotiated. In mid-December, the parties managed an ingenious, but highly questionable solution. The two sides decided to create a committee of 15, an “Electoral Commission” consisting of five members of the House, five of the Senate, and five Supreme Court Justices—in all, seven Democrats, seven Republicans, the 15th, a Supreme Court Justice considered “neutral.” In our politicized time, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a recipe for rank partisanship, but the two sides actually had someone in mind for that 15th slot—Justice David Davis, Lincoln’s friend and former campaign manager, who had sat on the Court for nearly 15 years, and was considered fair-minded. In effect, the Electoral Commission really consisted of one man—David Davis. What was amazing was that enough people had confidence in his principles that they would place their (political) fate in his hands.

Ah, best laid plans. Before Davis could actually assume his duties, the Democratically controlled State Legislature of Illinois (possibly induced by Tilden’s thoroughly corrupt nephew) selected him to be their Senator, presumably also thinking that this might influence his decisions on the Commission. To modern ears, this sounds completely crazy: Who would step down from a lifetime appointment on SCOTUS to take a Senate seat—particularly in an era in which the State Legislatures, and not the voters, selected Senators? But Davis was an ambitious man who had previously expressed interest in being President, and, on January 25, he accepted.

Best laid plans, Part II. Davis really was honorable (if a bit of a lifetime operator) and promptly resigned from the Commission, because he didn’t want the implication he’d been bought. The Illinois Democrats had shot themselves, their Party, and Tilden in the foot. With Davis out, what the Electoral Commission got was a consistent eighth Republican vote, that of Justice Joseph P. Bradley. Why Democrats went along with this is unclear—likely they thought he was the best of a bad lot, given his previous decision on the unpopular-in-the South Enforcement Act, but it was Bradley who subsequently came in for most of the blame (including the unproven but tantalizing allegation that he changed his mind as to how to vote at the very last moment, under some influence).

February 1, 1877. It began. A joint session of Congress heard the reading of each State’s returns, until it got to Florida. The conflict was joined, the dispute was referred to the newly created Commission, and the Joint Session adjourned.

Immediately, the critical question was upon them. Should the Commission “go behind the vote” (as Hewitt had wanted and planned for)? More specifically, could (and should) they investigate whether the final vote totals as certified by Florida, in particular, and, by extension, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon, did in fact reflect the popular will? In many respects, this was not only a threshold question, but a decisive one.

In fairness, this was not easy. No one, not even the fiercest partisan, seriously believed that Florida, or any of the disputed election tallies, was accurate. What the Commission’s decision on this point would come down to was, in essence, an irrevocable choice to favor slates certified by the then Republican-controlled States, and not those proposed by Democrats. This was, in effect, Hayes’ position from the beginning—or, to put it in less delicate terms, the side with the power to cheat last would win. Complicating this was that the Florida Supreme Court had already weighed in on December 14, saying that the Democrats had indeed been defrauded, and permitting Democrats to take control of the State government on January 1, 1877. But the Commission didn’t feel itself bound by the State court as it related to the counting of Electoral Votes, and it bought the argument of Republicans that a recanvass was essentially impossible, particularly given how little time was left to Inauguration Day (March 4, 1877). With that, on February 9, by an 8-7 decision, with Bradley in the majority, Florida went Hayes.

Anyone reading the tea leaves could have predicted what came next, and both candidates did. Hayes started planning his Cabinet and sketching out his policies. Tilden turned his attention to a European trip. Democrats were furious, but they were also basically powerless. Having agreed to let the Electoral Commission resolve the election, and having acceded to Bradley’s selection, they knew they were being cheated and also understood that, beyond a miracle in Louisiana, all they had left were procedural moves.

Democrats played the card they had—the threat of a filibuster, and delay. They wanted something, most particularly Home Rule and the end of Carpetbagger governance where it still existed. Railroad money was also being fire-hosed about, and roughly three dozen Democrats pushed for subsidies for the Texas and Pacific plan.

February 12, Louisiana, perhaps the last levee. In hindsight, it’s hard to say why the Commission didn’t take a harder look at the State, given the extent of what was clearly fraud, and being mindful of the shift of what amounted to about eight percent of the entire vote. But the game had been decided when the Committee refused to go behind the votes, and, with that construct, the Democrats’ Louisiana case was, in form and substance, identical to that of Florida…and just as hopeless. On February 16, the Commission went 8-7 for Hayes.

Hayes really started measuring the drapes. He now was faced with a new round of questions—how free a hand would he give the Redeemers in the South, when would all the troops be withdrawn, and what would happen to the rights of the former slaves? Also emerging, the growing insistence of the railroad forces, who were nominally backing Hayes as the perceived winner, for concrete promises on their deliverables.

Hayes continued to be coy. He seemed to be promising a great deal of “friendship” and “looking kindly on” to virtually everyone, but no one could pin him down. It’s hard to say whether it was out of principle or calculation, but it was shrewd politics, with his Inauguration seemingly assured.

Southern Democrats weren’t quite done. They wanted concessions, particularly in Louisiana and South Carolina, where Home Rule also meant to them the recognition of Democratic Governors Francis T. Nicholls and Wade Hampton. This was a tough pill for Hayes and the Republicans to swallow, especially since both Gov. Stephen B. Packard of Louisiana and Gov. Daniel H. Chamberlain of South Carolina were doing their utmost to keep their States Republican, even at the risk of their personal safety.

There was an intellectual point as well, one that went to the legitimacy of the Hayes Presidency. Packard and Chamberlain were the beneficiaries of the same vote-switching scheme as Hayes. If his claim to office was based on those tallies, why wasn’t theirs?

More dissonance, this time from an unexpected source. Southern Republicans, again angry about Hayes’ stroking of Southern conservatives, and fearful of being cut loose to Democrats’ tender mercies, threatened to bolt to Tilden if they weren’t mollified with some tangible goodies, like Cabinet positions. They were made some vague promises and then whipped in the Senate vote on the Louisiana decision on February 19.

Everyone was running out of time. Democrats had only the threat of not ratifying the Commission’s decisions, and only if they could hold through a filibuster. They realized the public would not be happy about the chaos that would occur on March 4 if there were no President, and they had absolutely no viable path to winning. The best they could do was negotiate around the edges.

Hayes wasn’t the easiest man to negotiate with. The soon-to-be President Elect was now right in the middle of trying to assuage everyone’s fears, while not conceding anything publicly. More anodyne statements without substance emerged from his spokesmen.

February 23, Oregon. Quickly disposed of (and possibly the only fair decision of the four), the Commission gave Hayes all three of Oregon’s Electors.

Then, a last minute gaffe came from an unexpected source. An editorial in the Ohio State Journal, considered very friendly to Hayes, called for Grant to uphold Packard’s Governorship in Louisiana with the use of federal troops. This was exactly what Southerners, who had thought they had extracted a promise of the end of “bayonet rule,” feared. If Hayes was behind this, it was a signal he wasn’t going to deliver. The day after Oregon was decided, fired-up Democrats forced a two day adjournment. They wanted what they thought was promised to them. President Grant then took an interesting step, saying that Louisiana Democratic Governor Nicholls should be entitled to stay in office.

It was time to work something out. Edward Burke, then the personal representative of Louisiana’s Democratic Governor Nicholls, huddled together with Sherman and a few others in Stanley Matthew’s rooms at the Wormley Hotel. Matthews, a future Senator and Supreme Court Justice, had been among those arguing Hayes’ case before the Electoral Commission. Everyone wanted something. Sherman needed to hear from Nicholls that the rights of blacks would be respected in Louisiana (Hayes would have insisted), and that outgoing Governor William Pitt Kellogg’s appointment as Senator would be left untouched (Senate Republicans needed the seat). A great deal of discussion took place between all of the parties, with other interests (including that of the railroad lobby) coming into play. Deals were made, some to which Hayes might not have agreed, like the abandonment of Packard. It’s not clear that any new ground was broken, but sometimes the appearance of activity is as important as the substance.

February 27, the Commission met again, and, again, by the same 8-7 margin, settled South Carolina for Hayes. With that formality, and the deals at Wormley, the stage seemed to be set for the closing act.

But the count did not go well. On February 28, the Democrats were back to filibustering, and forced the House to adjourn without taking action. On March 1, the session resumed with ferocity. Men jumped on desks and shouted at each other and at Speaker Samuel Randall, who ruled against the holdouts time after time. While the back and forth continued, Louisiana’s Democratic Congressmen sent a message to Grant, urging him to withdraw troops from their State immediately. Grant, through his Secretary, showed them a text of a telegram he would send to Republican Governor Packard, stating that he (Grant) would not support Packard’s government, provided that the count continued. William M. Levy of Louisiana rose, was recognized, and announced he had received sufficient assurances from both Grant and friends of Hayes that the new Administration’s policy toward the South would be one of “conciliation.”

The Democrats had played a weak hand well, and, with Levy’s remarks, they essentially read it into the record. The leadership called for a vote, but, even at this last moment, 57 diehards continued to obstruct, and final passage didn’t come until 3:38 a.m. It went to the Senate, and, at 4:10 a.m. on March 2, Hayes finally got his reward.

As March 4 was a Sunday, Hayes was sworn in privately at the White House on March 3, with a public ceremony on Monday March 5. At the same time as his private ceremony was taking place, incensed Democrats, not and never to be reconciled to what had occurred, introduced and passed a resolution declaring Tilden the winner of the 1876 Election. As is often true in politics with public responses to the seamy, it was an empty gesture.

Special thanks to Professor Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College, who was kind enough to point me in the right direction after I received an email from a reader suggesting the 1876 election as a topic.

If you are interested in Rutherford B. Hayes (and the Election of 1876), you may wish to visit the website of his Presidential Library, where there are two excellent pieces—the first, the text of a speech by Michael Holt, and, the second, a chapter of a longer book, Disputed Election, by Ari Hoogenboom. 

The Consummately Corrupt Election of 1876 was first published on October 15, 2020 on 3quarksdaily.com  


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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Joyous Bit of Politics: FDR's Fala Speech

 By Michael Liss

It is March of 1944, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is dying. His physicians, Lieutenant Commander Howard Bruen and Vice-Admiral Ross McIntire, know it, as do a handful of others McIntire brought in. FDR probably knows it as well, no matter how much his doctors may have sugar-coated their findings. He has cardiac insufficiency, arteriosclerosis, congestive heart failure, an enlarged and failing left ventricle, and mitral valve issues. Modern medicine would likely have offered more productive years of life, but, in the era before sophisticated heart surgery, before the development of a heart-lung machine, and with a very limited formulary of drugs, it is just a matter of time, maybe a year at most. 

His decline was obvious. You could see it on his face, in the amount of time he needed to recover from exertion, in the loss of weight. He had undertaken a long sea trip on the USS Baltimore to visit American forces in the Pacific, but spent much of it in his stateroom, resting. An ordinary man of that time would have scaled back, gradually becoming a convalescent. But FDR was no ordinary man, and 1944 no ordinary time. Obviously, the Democratic Party would re-nominate him for an unprecedented fourth term, if he wanted it, but there was deep concern in the family that he would never survive. Eleanor Roosevelt was later quoted as saying, “If Franklin loses, I’ll be personally glad, but worried for the world.”

It was also a time of war-weariness. America was on the offensive, but the going was slow, progress not linear. Germany and Japan were wounded, but by no means anywhere near surrender. The public was unhappy. There had been reluctance to involve ourselves in the first place, and, while few people openly voiced resistance after Pearl Harbor, many of the old isolationists became critics of Roosevelt’s leadership. Republicans, still at an electoral disadvantage after carrying the legacy of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, nominated Thomas E. Dewey to oppose FDR. Dewey was credible. He had built a national reputation as an incorruptible crusading prosecutor who took on the rackets and convicted Lucky Luciano, then gone on to become New York’s 47th Governor by the time he was 40. This was Dewey’s second chance; he had run for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1940 and been considered a favorite, but his early non-interventionalist stand caused him to lose support as Germany marched through Europe. By 1944, having become more internationalist, he defeated Wendell Wilke (FDR’s victim in 1940) to obtain the nomination. 

Dewey was not a magnetic campaigner: If truth be told, he was more than a little bit of a stuffed shirt, with a routinized method of campaigning calculated down to the minute. His themes were ones he clung to as a prosecutor, things like corruption, mismanagement, and Communists, but Democratic wisemen thought him a serious threat to FDR, especially a weakened FDR. The omens were bad—in the 1942 midterms, with America fully engaged in a war that, at that point, was not going well, the GOP picked up 47 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.

More seriously, Roosevelt’s few extended public appearances gave them little comfort. There was no way to ease him out of the job (and the impact on the public would have been profound), but the possibility of his losing (or being unable to complete his term) had to be on their minds. He gave a particularly poor radio address from the Portland Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, on August 12, and, quietly, friends and close advisors began to urge him to find a venue to show the old magic. 

A bit of good luck occurred when, in early September, a Republican Congressman, Harold Knutson of Minnesota, accused Roosevelt of having left behind his dog Fala in the Aleutians when on his Pacific trip, and then sent back a ship (and then a plane) to retrieve him, at enormous cost to the taxpayers. Orson Welles, who was then campaigning for FDR, noticed it, and passed on to FDR the suggestion that Knutson’s remarks created an opportunity.  

FDR may have been physically diminished, but his political instincts were still sharp. He decided to give an address to a friendly audience (the Teamsters, who, by Roosevelt’s description, had “big hands” for applauding) on September 23, 1944. What followed was one of the best performances you will ever read or see (I’ve only been able to find a partial video, but even that is worth the time, particularly for the entirely serious demeanor Roosevelt keeps during the entirety of it). You may also find that very little is new in politics, not just in ideas and issues, but in the value of pure talent, which Roosevelt had in abundance. 

Roosevelt on Labor: 

We all know that certain people who make it a practice to depreciate the accomplishments of labor—who even attack labor as unpatriotic—they keep this up usually for three years and six months in a row. But then, for some strange reason they change their tune—every four years—just before election day. When votes are at stake, they suddenly discover that they really love labor and that they are anxious to protect labor from its old friends.

Roosevelt on flip-flopping: 

We have all seen many marvelous stunts in the circus but no performing elephant could turn a hand-spring without falling flat on his back…. What the Republican leaders are now saying in effect is this: ‘Oh, just forget what we used to say, we have changed our minds now—we have been reading the public opinion polls about these things and now we know what the American people want.’

Roosevelt on money in politics: 

But, you know, even those candidates who burst out in election-year affection for social legislation and for labor in general, still think that you ought to be good boys and stay out of politics. And above all, they hate to see any working man or woman contribute a dollar bill to any wicked political party. Of course, it is all right for large financiers and industrialists and monopolists to contribute tens of thousands of dollars—but their solicitude for that dollar which the men and women in the ranks of labor contribute is always very touching.

Roosevelt on voting: 

They are, of course, perfectly willing to let you vote—unless you happen to be a soldier or a sailor overseas, or a merchant seaman carrying the munitions of war. In that case they have made it pretty hard for you to vote at all—for there are some political candidates who think that they may have a chance of election, if only the total vote is small enough.

Roosevelt on blaming the other Party for what your guy did: 

For example, although I rubbed my eyes when I read it, we have been told that it was not a Republican depression, but a Democratic depression from which this Nation was saved in 1933—that this Administration this one today—is responsible for all the suffering and misery that the history books and the American people have always thought had been brought about during the twelve ill-fated years when the Republican party was in power.

Through all of this, his audience cheered and hooted, and he milked it for all he could. But he was saving the choicest cuts for later. He rolled through a fairly prosaic few paragraphs and then went for the jugular, with the timing of a comic genius.

These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself—such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.

The crowd (by this point thoroughly juiced up, both metaphorically and actually) went nuts, as, I would imagine, did millions at home listening to their radios. I doubt anyone paid much attention to the rest of the speech. Roosevelt had done his job. He was still the same old FDR, suave, virile, witty, tough, ready to fight the Germans, the Japanese, Dewey, and the Republicans all at once. He was still their hero.

The coverage was phenomenal. He got page one in the major dailies, even those who had opposed his running. Republicans foolishly took the bait, starting at the top. Dewey made some tone-deaf remarks about Roosevelt’s joking while our boys were dying overseas and insisted that he would “now campaign all the harder.” It just confirmed many people’s views of him as a stuffed shirt’s stuffed shirt. Paul Porter, who was serving as the DNC’s head of publicity for the 1944 campaign, wrote a memo saying that the race had become one between Roosevelt’s dog and Dewey’s goat. He then allocated a considerable amount of campaign funds to running a radio spot with the recording of the Fala portion of the speech, introduced by the old country song, “They Gotta Quit Kick’n My Dawg Aroun.’”

There is no question the speech changed the dynamic of the race. In an era before 24-hour television cameras, Roosevelt could limit his exposure through to November, with Fala the closing argument. Six weeks later, Roosevelt swept to victory, with an Electoral College margin of 432 to 99. Democrats lost one Senate seat, but picked up 20 in the House. The old man had done it again.

It was, in many respects, the last hurrah. FDR’s health continued to decline, and his evident weakness showed itself both privately and in public. He was a gaunt, hollow-eyed shadow at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and arguably was taken advantage of by Stalin. On April 12, 1945, after several earlier health crises, he was felled by a massive stroke.  

Fala never quite got over it. At FDR’s private burial, he howled and turned over several times.  He lived until 1952, when his Scotch soul joined Franklin’s and, then again, at the FDR Memorial in Washington, where the two old friends talk of old times, and no one, ever, dares to pick on Fala.

A Joyous Bit of Politics: FDR's Fala Speech was first published on 3Quarksdaily.com on August 17, 2020. 

Please find us on Twitter @SyncPol 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

How We Choose (In A Pandemic): An Interview With Richard Robb

By Michael Liss

On November 11, 2019, I wrote a review of Willful: How We Choose What We Do (Yale University Press, November 2019), by Richard Robb, Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and CEO of the investment firm Christofferson, Robb & Company.  He was kind enough to let me interview him in our changed times.

Michael Liss: Richard, last fall you published Willful, which introduced a new model of how to think about the way we make choices. Willful reached beyond classical “Rational Choice” to something you called “For-Itself Choice.” I know it is an economist’s job to be able to project into the future, but did you ever anticipate having such a bonanza of opportunities to demonstrate your ideas as that which arose because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Richard Robb: I didn’t foresee COVID-19, Michael, if that’s what you’re suggesting! But yes, the pandemic has given us a “stage”—however ugly—on which to test a variety of ideas, including a few of mine. 

My book was published in November last year, and my hope was that the phrase on which I rest my thesis—“for-itself”—would someday seep into the language. It would have come in handy during the pandemic. For instance, when President Trump, seeking to scoff at those he saw as COVID-wimps, said that we continue to drive cars despite auto accidents, Dr. Fauci called that “a false equivalency.” He could have explained that it’s a false equivalency because the choice of how quickly to de-isolate is for-itself.

Here’s what I mean. Sometimes our choices—as individuals or as a society—involve trade-offs where we can pick what’s best. We rank all possible options on a common scale and choose what best satisfies our preferences in light of our resources. If we think clearly throughout this calculation, we’re exercising what economists describe as rational choice. If we fall prey to biases, like overconfidence in our abilities, then we’ve entered the realm of behavioral economics. Both scenarios fit into what I call “purposeful choice.”
But this can’t be the whole picture. Why? Because there are often times when there’s no comparison or trade-off that we can make. So we choose without regard to whether one option is better or worse than the alternatives. Such a choice is neither rational nor irrational. It stands “for-itself.”

I think the phrase adds analytical value, and has the virtue of being almost self-explanatory. But it will take a while for it to catch on. As far as I can tell, only my wife and children use it right now, and I’m pretty sure they’re humoring me. 

ML: You have pointed out that pretty much all public policy involves trade-offs: setting speed limits on a highway, or regulatory oversight for an industry. These calculations can be both necessary and cold, like literally setting a value on a human life. Given the massive economic cost of extended shutdowns, how do policy-makers decide on a metric of risk? To put it more starkly, what level of fatalities is acceptable per percentage point of GDP? And against what metric are we measuring it? Spanish Flu? Garden-variety Flu? 

RR: Auto safety is purposeful and can be approached via rational choice, even though the stakes are life and death. Motorists choose to take risks every time they go for a drive, and policymakers have to decide on regulations like speed limits. When drivers are in a hurry, they accept a slightly higher risk of dying and of killing others, while policymakers generally follow the “cold” (as you put it) advice of economists: raise the speed limit to the point where the value of the time saved equals the value of the lives lost. And yes, this requires assigning a value to life. 

Economists usually try to infer the value that individuals assign to their own lives from the choices they make, like how much to spend for a better motorcycle helmet that will reduce the probability of death by a small amount. Using this approach, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pegs the “value of a statistical life” at around $9.5 million. This may sound cold-blooded, even repugnant, but policymakers don’t have much choice. When departments of highway safety do their job, one way or another, they commit to an actuarial calculation. 

ML: A few months ago, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said “No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” My first reaction to that was that Patrick was constructing a type of “trolley problem,” volunteering himself and his fellow seniors to be the ones pushed. How would you have analyzed this, both on a personal and policy level?

RR: My book used the trolley problem, originally devised by Philippa Foot, as an example of a pure for-itself life-and-death decision—in contrast to auto safety at the opposite extreme.
In one version of this thought experiment, you’re on a bridge above the tracks of a trolley that’s racing towards five construction workers. The only way to stop the trolley is to throw something heavy in its path. A fat man is standing next to you. You could push him in front of the trolley, killing one person to save five.

What is the right thing to do?

Most people say they wouldn’t push the fat man. I probably wouldn’t either. And if I did push him, I wouldn’t argue that it was morally right to do so. This decision stands for itself.
In pushing, you would kill a particular human being, what Camus called “the man who shaved this morning.” Unless you’ve talked yourself into a radically utilitarian worldview, you can’t compare one individual in the flesh with another, or even with five others. The highway safety problem and the trolley problem may look similar on the surface, but they lie at opposite extremes on a spectrum of action.

So, where does reopening the economy in a time of COVID fit in here? Is reopening subject to a rational cost-benefit analysis like auto safety, or is it for-itself, like the trolley problem? 
I think it’s somewhere in between these extremes, but feels closer to the trolley problem. While some people will have fatal accidents because the speed limit is five miles per hour higher than it might have been, we can’t know in advance who they will be. They are abstract and far away. But we do know who the “fat man” is. If we de-isolate precipitously, we know who’s most likely to die: people with underlying health conditions and the elderly. In short order, we’ll know precisely who has died.

Even in the for-itself realm, cost-benefit calculations can still be useful. If I’m deciding whether to push the fat man, I’d like to know if he’s dying of a terminal illness and whether pushing him will save five people or five hundred. A cost-benefit analysis for reopening the economy is useful in the same way, as long as we don’t become caught up in the pretense that it dictates the right actions according to a scientific formula.

To be sure, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas would be heroic if he were to choose an excruciating death for himself in exchange for the greater good. But that choice has not been offered to him. 

ML: A Texas Republican might very well react differently than a Northeastern Democratic Governor. Given how fractious American political life is, we would expect polarization here, even as to basic facts. You have lived and worked abroad. Compare, say, Japan, where total COVID deaths are under 1000. Are there cultural differences that reflect themselves in how public and private choices are made in times like these? 

RR: In late February, South Korea experienced two weeks of exponential growth in COVID-19 cases, rivaling that of any country. Within a month, its cases were almost down to zero. My son, who lives in Bucheon, South Korea, has told me of the near-universal compliance with social distancing and contact tracing. (An exception was a fringe religious group.) This happened throughout East Asia. As of mid-July, the U.S. had 10,200 cases per million and rising; the hardest-hit East Asian country is the Philippines with 333 per million. Asia’s voluntary compliance is not possible in the U.S. for several reasons. American individualism is traditionally a source of strength, but not at the moment. Americans are less likely to trust authority. President Trump amplified this reflexive skepticism recently by retweeting the views of a Catholic archbishop who’d said that COVID-19 is a “deep-state” plot to undermine his achievements. 

ML: How do the economic calculations during the pandemic apply to individuals? We know that the economically disadvantaged have been disproportionately impacted, and the loss of income can be catastrophic, even down to basic necessities. It seems society has a moral dilemma: We either command these people to stay home, and possibly starve, or, as in the meatpacking industry, we deem them essential and tell them they have to come in, and take real risks.

RR: People losing their income shouldn’t be a moral quandary. The government can make it up to them—after all, we’re a rich country. And to a great extent, that has happened—both here and abroad.

But it’s a shame to squander public resources on bailouts for industries that don’t need them, like airlines or casinos. Let some airlines go bankrupt. The industry won’t vanish and we’ll still be able to fly. Airlines will reemerge from bankruptcy, as they always do. This is not a financial crisis like 2007/2008—financial markets are working just fine—so the Federal Reserve doesn’t need to buy corporate bonds, exchange traded funds and the like.
Let’s not forget, also, that many professional decisions are made for-itself. Healthcare workers have chosen a noble profession. Some may feel pressured to work on the front lines, but many choose it. Work is tied up with identity and has many dimensions—it’s not just a sacrifice of leisure time for money to buy material goods. The choice to rise to this challenge is partially for-itself. This applies not just to medical professionals, but to all essential workers.

ML: There’s something new about this crisis that seems to demand more nuanced decisions. It’s not a car safety measure, or even something like an occupational hazard regulation, where the number of potential injuries and fatalities is comparatively limited. One person, or one group of people, can effectively act as a Typhoid Mary, and we can’t easily identify any specific group and have to impose far broader restrictions. In effect, the vast majority of us are, temporarily at least, the fat man being thrown on the tracks. How do politicians create public policy on the fly that works, get buy-in from the population (because voluntary compliance is critical) and find the “Goldilocks” balance?

RR: Assuming we could measure the value of life and quantify the impact of social distancing on health outcomes, we’d still have to measure the cost of social distancing. The multi-trillion dollar “bailout” is a transfer from taxes paid back to a subset of taxpayers, not a cost. And since GDP was never intended to measure outcomes during a pandemic, any figure that represents “lost GDP” (even if we could estimate it) could be grossly inaccurate. Forgone restaurant meals, for instance, disappear from GDP, while meals prepared at home (net of the cost of ingredients) go uncounted. Any enjoyment during leisure time is omitted, but so are anxieties and the lost “utility” of birthdays celebrated on Zoom. GDP measures the loss of ticket sales on Broadway, but not the stalled careers of actors that might never get back on track. In the spring, I taught classes online to students dispersed around the world, which was better than I expected. GDP counts the tuition paid as output but can’t adjust for students’ lost social experience. 

Even if we could all agree on how to calculate the welfare gains and losses, most of us sense deep down that decisions about COVID-19 differ from those about auto safety. The deaths caused by de-isolating too soon do not have quite the same proximity as that of a man you pushed with your own hands, but they’re uncomfortably close. Whatever the calculation says, individuals and the government that represents them don’t want to let real people die for an abstraction.

In my view, there’s no rule book to guide politicians to the optimal response. In a Western democracy, it has to be a process that involves the consent of the governed. Public policy “on the fly” doesn’t have to feel reckless. When politicians demonstrate leadership and wisdom, like Governor Cuomo of New York State or New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, then a popular buy-in will follow. 

ML: In your book, you talk about altruism. Obviously, in these circumstances, we are seeing both extraordinary acts of selflessness and seriously repugnant behavior. Are you optimistic that we may learn something from all this, and perhaps adjust our values?

RR: I believe people are generally pro-social, by which I mean they usually have an instinctive understanding of what’s good for society and act on it more than serves their narrow self-interest. This is compatible with economic theory, which allows for self-interest to be broadly defined. The satisfaction, or “utility,” that an individual maximizes might depend on inputs like the well-being of others, altruism or adherence to ethical standards.

Most altruistic actions, according to my taxonomy, fall into the purposeful realm, where they can be understood in terms of rational choice. We act to benefit those we care about. The more we care or the lower the cost we incur, the more we do. Voluntarily wearing masks in public is purposeful: we balance the costs against the benefits. Costs are inconvenience (where did I put my mask?), discomfort and fogging up glasses. Benefits are protecting myself against infection, protecting others that I care about, and demonstrating a buy-in to the social contract. The calculation can be rational. And if I overweight small risks, it would be not quite rational but subject to cognitive bias.

Some altruistic gestures, though, are not “optimal” in any sense. Let me give you a personal example. In March, a long-lost former student back in China FedExed me a gift of hard-to-get N95 masks. Why? His altruistic act was random—he can’t lavish this degree of care on everyone he’s ever known who lives in a COVID-19 hot spot, and there’s no special reason to send them to me. But I wouldn’t say my student made a mistake, that if he’d been thinking clearly he’d have allocated those resources more efficiently. We all make for-itself altruistic gestures that we can’t (and shouldn’t have to) explain. Think of the Good Samaritan from the biblical parable. 

Getting those masks was a relatively small matter, of course, although I appreciated it. Others, as you say, are extraordinary. Who can forget Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who tried to raise the alarm about the coronavirus in the early days of its outbreak. He was muzzled by the authorities and died shortly after. His altruism can be seen in his selflessness and courage.

It’s sort of amazing how cooperative we are as creatures, although there’s no doubt room to improve. We rationally seek to promote the well-being of people we care about, and for many this extends to the whole world and future generations. 

ML: There is a strong undercurrent in American political life of disdain for technical expertise and technocrats. Yet situations like this cry out for them. How do we climb that particular wall when many resent the costs and do not see the benefit, primarily because the benefits are just the absence of infection and don’t necessarily feel “real”? 

RR: In my book Willful, I argue that we don’t just care whether our beliefs hold up against data. As Charles Sanders Peirce explained, we adopt beliefs that are “agreeable to reason,” fit with our other beliefs and are held by authorities that we recognize. Our beliefs have a for-itself element; they constitute our identity and are more than just instruments to help us get ahead. I don’t consider this irrational, but rather essential to being human. We are what we believe in. 

Adherence to social distancing protocols, for instance, goes together with a certain constellation of beliefs. People who voluntarily follow the rules tend to believe that scientific evidence is the highest standard and the system that generates this evidence can be trusted. Others, as you suggest, distrust elites, and won’t follow their advice until they can see the disease spread in their community. 
Once there’s a vaccine, I imagine the two sides will square off in a titanic battle. I reckon it will be worse if the vaccine comes out during a Democratic administration. A few weeks ago, self-described Republicans were asked about their view of the theory that Bill Gates is planning to use a COVID-19 vaccine to plant microchips into billions of people and track their movements. A shocking 44% said they believed the conspiracy theory was true, only 26% said it was false, and 31% said they weren’t sure.

ML: I’d like to talk a little bit about the implications of the social and emotional costs of distancing and the shutdowns. Is this one of those traumatizing events, like the Depression and WWII were for the Greatest Generation, that may influence future behavior for decades to come, and, if so, what are your expectations?

RR: For young people entering the labor market, the evidence suggests that the consequences will be long-lasting. Those who graduated from college during the 1980-81 recession, as I did, tend to have lower earnings than the cohorts that graduated a few years earlier or a few years later. If you begin your career during a recession, it takes longer to establish yourself, and you don’t develop the human capital to “reinvest” to generate more human capital. You never catch up.

Forecasts are tricky, of course, but I don’t think we’ll go back to the pre-pandemic normal, unlike 9/11, which was a trauma with relatively few lasting consequences for most people who were not directly affected. The social and emotional effects of the pandemic may be accompanied by a loss of dynamism in economies of the West, de-globalization, and a decline in American influence. As Leonard Cohen said, “You’re not going to like what comes after America.” 

ML: You said, “We are what we believe in.” But your professional life is built around an ongoing, dispassionate analysis of risk, and you recalibrate when the facts on the ground change sufficiently. Do you think, given people’s differing beliefs, and the intensity with which they are expressed, we are capable of that recalibration? Can we alter, just enough, what going into that “for-itself” element to avoid Leonard Cohen’s warning? 

RR: According to legend, which I believe to be true, Keynes quipped, “When the evidence changes, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” But this was rhetoric to disarm his enemies to coming around to his point of view. Like almost everyone, Keynes held reasonably consistent views over his life. 

As an investor, sure, I try to be dispassionate and recalibrate in response to the facts. But I also conduct that job in a social setting. We manage money on behalf of institutional investors, applying a steady process shaped by judgment, experience, data and consensus among my colleagues. The important facts on the ground are usually subject to ambiguity. Sometimes we have to take a for-itself leap based on evidence that can’t be readily quantified, but that leap needs to measure up to investors’ expectations.

As for the social and political fracturing in the U.S., I don’t know that beliefs differ nowadays any more than they usually do. Nor are the problems we disagree about, such as the economy or international relations, objectively more acute than in the past.

It is not practical that the country will recalibrate and settle on a common view to overcome our political dysfunction. Take free trade, for example. A lot of Americans—slightly less than half—are against it. One more lecture, “Now listen here, everyone gains from trade” is unlikely to succeed where all the previous ones have failed. As Walt Whitman said, “Logic and sermons never convince.” But it isn’t necessary that everyone agree. 

There is hope that America will reinvent itself. The next few months will, quite probably, shape the next few years.

ML: Thank you, Richard.

How We Choose was first published on July 20, 2020 in 3quarksdaily.com

You can find other work by Michael Liss at 3Q, and you can follow us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, June 22, 2020

134 Days--On 3Quarks.

By Michael Liss

Had enough of the 2020 election? Take heart, there are just 134 days left until Vote-If-You-Can Tuesday. That’s less time than it took Napoleon to march his Grande Armée into Russia, win several lightning victories, stall out, and then retreat through the brutal winter, with astronomical casualties, all the while inspiring the equally long War and Peace and the 1812 Overture.

Who will win? My renowned tea leaf collection seems a little wilted today, but it still says that absolutely nothing is out of the realm of possibility. We really could go anywhere from a 2016 redux to a Democratic sweep. Given the vintage nature of the two candidates, you can’t even rule out a variation on the West Wing Leo McGarry scenario. Expect the asymmetric.

Under any circumstances, the electoral math would have been fascinating. Conventional wisdom has always been focused on the six Obama 2012 states that Trump flipped in 2016 (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Iowa). A key portion of the “Biden Electability” argument was based on his presumed appeal in those states. They would be the battleground because that’s where the winner would be determined.

It’s fair to say that fate, in the form of a pandemic and the country’s reaction to the death of George Floyd, has taken a hand. There are now multiple pathways for each man to reach 270, including several really unusual routes. The recent polling for Trump has been brutal. His top-line favorability numbers have taken a hit, particularly in the areas of race relations and handling COVID-19. That’s been further reflected in the horse race, where Biden has a roughly ten-point lead nationally.

Of course, 2016 showed in excruciating detail just how national polls can be woefully inaccurate in predicting where the Electoral College will end up. It’s reasonable to expect that past is prologue for even greater Democratic margins in places like New York and California, given the way Trump revels in messing with the Blue States. Unfortunately for Joe, once again, when you dig down deeper, you can see that many of the critical state polls are less decisive than the national ones. Joe leads, sometimes somewhat improbably (North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia) but often barely. He’s within the margin of error in Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and could easily whiff on all three. A 2.1% advantage in the popular vote left Hillary’s candidacy in smoldering ruins. I’ve seen some estimates that Biden could have as much as a 4% advantage, and still lose. 

Still, in an environment where Trump’s base support is nearly unshakable, Biden’s edge is notable. The prospect of his holding here, or even running the table, is not completely out of the question, just long odds. Biden’s absolute peak might exceed Obama’s 2008 win (365 EV) with a slightly different mix. The more probable outcome is that present polling numbers are truly of the moment, and that moment is the nadir of Trump’s fortunes. If that’s true, not only does Trump have the ability to grab back some of “his” states, but also can target at least two Biden ones. Both Minnesota (with added volatility because of George Floyd) and Nevada (casino-dependent and hurt by the shutdown) are possibilities.

If this all weren’t so incredibly important, it would be abstractly fascinating. For years, political scientists have been talking about how virtually every election has become nationalized, even when voters, in selecting their team, seem to be voting against their own interests. Consensus is out, angry tribalism is in. 2016, with its Trump-Clinton car-wreck of the unthinkable vs. the unlikeable, was the culmination of this movement. Never have a pair of candidates been so detested by so many—yet nominated.

2020 was shaping up to be much the same. Although none of the potential Democatic contenders generated nearly the visceral reaction that Hillary did, Trump was already peppering them with insults, and Trump-aligned social media spreading some poison. Suffice to say three-plus years in the White House had done nothing to mellow him. A great many people thought Trump would be a moderate businessman who would break some eggs, but in the end govern center-right. They were wrong. Vote Trump, you get deep dark dead-red Republican, with a potent dose of malevolence. That’s who he (now) is, and there are tens of millions who find that appealing. There are plenty more who would have liked the policy wins wrapped in a prettier package, but think what’s in the box looks good. When we talk about Trump’s base, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just MAGA-hatted attendees at one of his jumbo rallies or the near-monolithic support he gets from Evangelicals, but also transactional voters like seniors who want order and business people who let the bottom line guide them. A key to understanding Trump’s appeal is that he also gives, he doesn’t just take, and those who get don’t often refuse out of principle.

As long as these folks find their fulfillment (for emotional or practical reasons) in Trump, he has nationalized the election to an extent not seen before. You are either in the Trump Tent (and that includes Republican candidates for other offices) or you are the enemy. It’s all Trump: Trump dominating the screen(s), Trump meting out pain and pleasure, Trump using his incumbency for all it’s worth. That’s what Democrats anticipated as they lurched their way through the primary season. That, along with the confounding fact that, despite their strong performance in the 2018 Midterms, there was plenty of evidence that Trump’s strength in the states he had flipped in 2016 was holding.

Biden’s astonishing resurrection after the South Carolina primary on February 29th altered the emotional dynamic, but did little to change the basic math. It was still Trump’s game (and Trump’s Senate to investigate Biden on Trump’s behalf). While Biden was perceived as more electable by Democratic Primary voters, I think Trump and his brain trust entered mid-March with a feeling of confidence. Joe was feeble and battle-scarred, and they relished the idea of pulverizing another artifact of the Obama Era. They didn’t realize they were sitting on a viral stew (actually, two, the other being George Floyd) that could fundamentally change the landscape in the blink of an eye.
Trump was about to be tested by an issue no amount of Trumpiness would make go away.

Sometimes, there really are those 3:00 a.m. phone calls. I’m going to make two suggestions that seem mutually exclusive but I believe are true. First, Trump fumbled terribly in his initial response to COVID. He blustered, pointed fingers, suggested it was a hoax, picked fights with Governors, and obstructed his own government from helping. Second, it doesn’t matter, at least politically.  At worst it’s a flesh-wound for his campaign. A lot of elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, didn’t quite grasp the threat early on, and, while most of them didn’t use a bazooka on their critics, I think the public has internalized Trump’s excesses and are rarely moved by them. By the time we reach November, most aren’t going to blame him for March, April and May.

What will be important is what happens over the next 133 days, where it happens, and when. Absolutely no one can tell you with any degree of certainty what infection and fatality rates are going to be next month, much less in November. Nor can they predict whether more effective treatments or a vaccine will become available. The best that the best and most experienced minds can do is talk about probabilities.

Trump is going to have to rely on his extraordinary luck. One thing we learned from the initial public reaction to news of the virus and government attempts (or non-attempts) to get in front of it was how site-specific it was. Philip Klinkner, in an article for Vox, pointed out that “Clinton counties make up a slight majority of the US population, but so far they have seen 76 percent of the Covid-19 cases and 80 percent of the deaths.” He goes on to say, “This means Democrats and Republicans have experienced the pandemic in objectively different ways. These differences are already shaping the nation’s pandemic response—and may well influence American politics for years to come.”

Klinkner’s article was published on May 1st, and he was prescient. The divide continued to grow as new data came in, showing that the greatest infection and fatality rates were in Blue States and among the elderly and minorities. Trump’s base remained remote from the crisis, except in reacting to remediation efforts. Their resentment at restrictions and the economic implications, stoked by the President and his allies in the media, intensified. Even recent spikes in infection rates in reopening Sunbelt states haven’t yet caused universal alarm in the places they should, or action. These hands-off choices represent gambles by Governors like Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, and Doug Ducey (Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona) that the number of the seriously ill will stay below the rest of the population’s pain threshold.

Their gamble is Trump’s gamble. If he wins it, not only will he regain his grasp on some of those wavering states, but he will also put some others, presently in Democratic hands, in play for himself and other Republican candidates. The public in general has consistently supported reasonable restrictions to blunt the curve of the disease, but its patience is not infinite. People want to get back to the lives they led in early March. Trump (and Trump-supporting Governors) are telling them they can.

Timing is critical. First, Trump wants things to loosen up enough to force Biden to abandon his McKinley-esqe “Front-Porch Candidacy,” which allows Joe to husband his physical resources for the home stretch. Biden’s measured, Presidential responses, on COVID, on George Floyd, and on anything else, either in public, or from his home, are driving Trump nuts. He wants Biden to step into the (non-virtual) ring, and has been ridiculing him for his weakness. So far, Biden hasn’t taken the bait, but he will have to if conditions improve. Both his team and Trump realize his vulnerability.

Second, Trump wants to recreate 2016. He craves the adrenaline of rallies filled with mask-less people waving banners and cheering themselves silly. Trump is a master of branding and symbols, and for him, the most important quality to showcase is strength. His gathering in Tulsa just this past Saturday was a critical test. Watch the next two weeks. If he and his followers can get through it with no significant spikes in infection rates, that opens the door for more rallies, and more grievances against “weak” Governors and Mayors who insist on putting public health concerns first. If infections surge, it will be more bad PR, but Trump will try again in July somewhere else. He’s not giving up his rallies, especially as it would be seen as a concession. Trump doesn’t do concessions. 

How does this end? Which side will have a hangover on the Wednesday after? It’s unclear.  Biden is doing a little rope-a-dope, and it’s working for him, at least now. As to Trump, he’s a bit off his game, but still punching, still the apex predator. The basic Trumpian approach to everything, taking credit while refusing to accept responsibility, spiced up with what you saw in Tulsa, remains adaptable to the current situation. More importantly, Trump can also still reach transactional voters: he has a plausible argument that (unduly harsh) restrictions tanked the economy, and it’s his pro-growth policies that will lead us back. He might even get some help from the weather, as the summer heat is predicted to slow the virus.

134 days is a lot of time to get things right. Or it’s too many.  Of course, Napoleon eventually
abandoned the Grande Armée and returned home on a sleigh. It was awfully cold out there.

134 Days was first published at 3quarksdaily.com on June 22, 2020

You can also find us on Twitter @SyncPol