The Polls in Iowa

The most recent poll of Iowa has Sanders 25%, Buttigieg 18%, Biden 17%, Warren 15%, and Klobuchar 8%. If that’s accurate, the caucus were held today, and the Iowa caucus were a primary rather than a caucus, that would mean that the top four candidates would receive those percentages of delegates and split the remaining delegates proportionally among themselves. The RCP Average of polls gives Biden a very slight lead.

But it’s a caucus and, due to the way it’s run, institutional and organizational support confers an edge. At this point I think that Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg will fare slightly worse than their polling numbers suggest while Biden does slightly better. That could mean that Warren would be cut out entirely.


In medias res

When I read retired Adm. James Stavridis’s recent column at Bloomberg, I felt as though I had come in to a movie in the middle. In the column he advises Secretary of State not to enter into direct talks with the Venezuelan Maduro government:

Maduro, meanwhile, has indicated a willingness to undertake direct negotiations with the U.S. This is something Pompeo should avoid. The confrontation needs to be taken out of Venezuela-versus-the-U.S. mode and viewed comprehensively, as a disagreement between Venezuela and the rest of the region over legitimate democratic norms.

I couldn’t figure out what either side had to gain by negotiating with the other. I found this passage particularly puzzling:

This is not the time for the 82nd Airborne Division to parachute in to the rescue. Having once commanded the U.S. Southern Command – charged with all military activity south of the Mexico border — I know that the old sentiment, “Yanqui go home,” remains central to the political zeitgeist of Latin America and the Caribbean. But it is “la hora de la verdad” for a unified regional approach, a push for humanitarian relief, and a carefully graduated ladder of economic punishments and inducements.

IMO this is not the time to be suggesting U. S. military intervention in Venezuela, even obliquely.

As I piece things together the United States has imposed economic sanctions against the regime, has been encouraging other countries to do the same, and backed a recent round of failed multi-lateral talks which aimed at accomplishing the goals Adm. Stravridis lists in the passage above.

It seems to me that the only reasonable role for the U. S. in this drama is one of concerned bystander. The OAS doesn’t need our encouragement to want to get rid of the Maduro government. That regime threatens to destabilize all of Venezuela’s neighbors. They have plenty of incentive. They’re at least as humanitarian as we are and positioned better to provide aid. As to “a free and fair election by a date certain” overseen by international observers, Ukraine had such a thing. That didn’t stop the U. S. from sponsoring a group of which included fascists to overthrow the government that election installed. Maduro is certainly aware of that. Distrust of the U. S. is such that our sponsorship or participation in talks is an impediment to their success.


Why Biden Will Be the Nominee

At FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver explains how a “contested convention”, the modern term for what used to be called a “brokered convention” could happen:

I’d say a contested convention is a case where the nomination outcome is genuinely in doubt at the time the convention begins.

I realize that this introduces a little bit of subjectivity (what does “genuinely in doubt” mean?).2 The problem is that the most common alternative definition — that a contested convention is any convention that requires multiple ballots — doesn’t capture the spirit of a contested convention very well.

That’s because there could be situations where a convention nominally required multiple ballots to resolve, but the outcome wasn’t contentious. Say in the scenario above — where Warren had won a clear plurality of pledged delegates — everyone agreed that the best way to ensure party unity behind Warren would be to have Biden and Sanders delegates respect the original primary and caucus vote on the first ballot and vote for Biden and Sanders. Then everybody would get behind Warren as a show of force on the second ballot. Moreover, say all of this was scripted and widely disclosed to the press weeks ahead of the convention. It’s hard to think of this being a contested convention in any meaningful respect.

Conversely, it’s possible to imagine the outcome being genuinely in doubt — but the relevant negotiations to resolve the deadlock take place before the first ballot is cast. Say, for instance, that after the Virgin Islands, the delegate count was Sanders 32 percent, Biden 28 percent, Amy Klobuchar 25 percent, and Warren 15 percent. There’s a lot of doubt about the identity of the nominee when everyone gathers in Milwaukee. But Biden offers Klobuchar the vice presidency in exchange for Klobuchar instructing her delegates to vote for Biden on the first ballot. Klobuchar agrees and almost all of her delegates go along, so Biden is nominated with 53 percent of the vote on the first ballot. To me, that ought to count as a contested convention, even though it technically required only one ballot.

I think the most likely outcome is that Joe Biden will come to the convention with a plurality of pledged delegates with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and, possibly, Pete Buttigieg, each coming to the convention with fewer pledged delegates. Under those circumstances the superdelegates would become vitally important and they will overwhelmingly support Biden, just as the system was designed to ensure.

The Iowa caucuses, which take place a week from Monday, will be a test of sorts of that. I think that, despite all of the hoopla, Joe Biden is likely to win more pledged delegates than any of the other candidates, probably 40% with Sanders receiving about 30% and Warren and Buttigieg each receiving about 15%. Unless Klobuchar somehow manages to break through and secure 15% or more of the delegates, she is likely out of the race entirely.


The Self-Refuting Mr. Zakaria

In his Washington Post column Fareed Zakaria whines about “deglobalization” and complains that it’s all our fault:

This phase of deglobalization is being steered from the top. The world’s leading nations are, as always, the agenda setters. The example of China, which has shielded some of its markets and still grown rapidly, has made a deep impression on much of the world. Probably deeper still is the example of the planet’s greatest champion of liberty and openness, the United States, which now has a president who calls for managed trade, more limited immigration and protectionist measures. At Davos, Trump invited every nation to follow his example. More and more are complying.

The emphasis is mine. How can deglobalization possibly be attributed to U. S. policy and Donald Trump in particular, if China is the impetus? More evidence from earlier in the column:

Ruchir Sharma of Morgan Stanley Investment Management points out that since 2008, we have entered a phase of “deglobalization.” Global trade, which rose almost uninterruptedly since the 1970s, has stagnated, while capital flows have fallen.

I also find the notion that other countries follow our lead laughable. That’s a pretext. They’re pursuing their own interests.

Although China’s manifest zero-sum game approach to economics (I win—you lose) is a contributing factor to the disillusionment with globalization, it isn’t the only reason. I don’t just blame China. 98% of the economic surplus from trade with China is being captured by producers. Millions of jobs in manufacturing have evaporated, many moving to China. In today’s United States most of the jobs being created fall into one of three categories:

  • Bedpan emptiers
  • Burger flippers
  • Jobs that will be filled by outsourcers

Month after month since the early Aughts that’s what the Department of Labor’s monthly Labor Situation Report has said. People have noticed and politicians are following, very belatedly, what the people want.

China presently has enough productive capacity in a number of sectors not only to supply China’s needs for the foreseeable future but to supply the world’s needs and it has announced its intention to do the same in several of the sectors of the future. If your mission is to save globalization, you will need to start changing hearts and minds and most of those hearts and minds are either in China or corporate boardrooms.


Who Cares About Illinois?

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the Democratic presidential candidates are assiduously avoiding Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot:

WASHINGTON — Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democratic progressive, is going to make a presidential endorsement before the March 17 Illinois primary, and after talking to her on Thursday, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to go to progressive rivals Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

“Apparently not progressive enough for them,” Lightfoot said.

I asked her to tell me more.

“It is what it is. They haven’t reached out. They’ve been to Chicago. They were very supportive of the Chicago Teachers Union strike but didn’t feel it was necessary to talk to the new black LGBTQ mayor.”

Warren, from Massachusetts, and Sanders, from Vermont, sent Lightfoot a message with their lack of reaching out about an endorsement when they were in Chicago. The attitude coming from them was “Why bother?” Lightfoot said.

That’s a far cry from the days when people seeking the nomination as well as candidates came to kiss a Daley’s ring. Chicago is no less solidly Democratic than it was then. What’s changed? Flyover country.


Everything Old Is New Again

At the New York Times Yanzhong Huang recounts the history of the Chinese authorities’ response to the SAR outbreak of 18 years ago:

The Chinese government’s initial response to SARS was, at least at the national level, a combination of inaction, denial and deception. The earliest case of SARS occurred in mid-November 2002; it’s clear that by late January of 2003 the Health Ministry was aware of a dangerous new type of pneumonia in Guangdong Province.

Yet the government did not issue a nationwide bulletin to hospitals with instructions for preventing the spread of the disease until April 3. And it was not until mid-April that it formally listed SARS as a disease to be closely monitored, with daily reports.

In the wake of that debacle, the Chinese government does seem to have become more willing to share disease-related information with both its people and international health organizations. But the government continues its top-down, state-dominated approach in disease surveillance, reporting and response.

suggesting that, like the Bourbon dynasty, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. There is an enormous difference between now and eighteen years ago in China. The people are much more prosperous, three times as many people have mobile phones, and most of those have smartphones. It is much harder to keep a secret than it used to be.

Not only that but there is considerably more travel between China and the rest of the world.

There is nowhere in the world more conducive to the outbreak of zoonotic diseases than China, although probably now less so that at any previous time in China’s history. If a great pandemic occurs, it will probably emerge from China. Although we shouldn’t panic, we should be treating episodic outbreaks as trial runs. It would be nice if the Chinese authorities were more forthcoming but you deal with the China you have rather than the one you’d like to have.


Criminalizing Politics

I’m a bit surprised that this op-ed by Josh Blackman at the New York Times headlines its opinion page. In it he articulates the argument that I did here, namely, that soliciting a political benefit is not or at least should not be an impeachable offense:

The way things look, President Trump will almost certainly not be removed from office. The precedents set by the articles of impeachment, however, will endure far longer. And regrettably, the House of Representatives has transformed presidential impeachment from a constitutional parachute — an emergency measure to save the Republic in free-fall — into a parliamentary vote of “no confidence.”

The House seeks to expel Mr. Trump because he acted “for his personal political benefit rather than for a legitimate policy purpose.” Mr. Trump’s lawyers responded, “elected officials almost always consider the effect that their conduct might have on the next election.” The president’s lawyers are right. And that behavior does not amount to an abuse of power.

Politicians pursue public policy, as they see it, coupled with a concern about their own political future. Otherwise legal conduct, even when plainly politically motivated — but without moving beyond a threshold of personal political gain — does not amount to an impeachable “abuse of power.” The House’s shortsighted standard will fail to knock out Mr. Trump but, if taken seriously, threatens to put virtually every elected official in peril. The voters, and not Congress, should decide whether to reward or punish this self-serving feature of our political order.

I made it here some weeks ago. I continue to believe that president’s statement made in the notorious phone call between him and the Ukrainian president was not the way we want presidents to do business with foreign governments and was, as some have put it, “boneheaded”. The president should have been censured for it. The Congress should immediately have enacted a law proscribing such conduct although I honestly don’t believe they could and meet Constitutional muster.

Rather than waiting until November they chose to impeach in December. That’s not only a “no confidence” vote in the president, it’s a “no confidence” vote in the Democratic presidential nominee, whoever he or she might be.


DNA Discoveries in Central Africa

There is an interesting article in Science about something once thought to be impossible—the discovery and recovery of ancient DNA in Central Africa:

In the new study, geneticists and archaeologists took samples from the DNA-rich inner ear bones of the four children, who were buried 3000 and 8000 years ago at the famous archaeological site of Shum Laka. The researchers were able to sequence high-quality full genomes from two of the children and partial genomes from the other two. Comparing the sequences to those of living Africans, they found that the four children were distant cousins, and that all had inherited about one-third of their DNA from ancestors most closely related to the hunter-gatherers of western Central Africa. Another two-thirds of children’s DNA came from an ancient “basal” source in West Africa, including some from a “long lost ghost population of modern humans that we didn’t know about before,” says population geneticist David Reich of Harvard University, leader of the study.

The discovery underscores the diversity of African groups that inhabited the continent before the Bantus began to herd livestock in the grassy highlands of western Central Africa. The Bantus made pottery and forged iron, and their burgeoning populations rapidly displaced hunter-gatherers across Africa. Analyzing DNA from a time before this expansion offers “a glimpse of a human landscape that is profoundly different than today,” Reich says.

Here’s the part most interesting to me:

The team compared the children’s DNA to ancient DNA extracted earlier from a 4500-year-old individual from Mota Cave in Ethiopia and sequences from other ancient and living Africans, using various statistical methods to sort out how they all were related, which groups came first, and when they split from one another. The team’s bold new model pushes back Central African hunter-gatherer origins to 200,000 to 250,000 years ago—not long after our species evolved. The model suggests their lineage split from three other modern human lineages: one leading to the Khoisan hunter-gatherers in southern Africa, one to east Africans, and one to a now-extinct “ghost” population.

An early diversification of modern humans fits the great variation seen in fossils of early Homo sapiens, says paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati of the University of Tübingen, who is not part of this study. The lineages would have parted company and moved off into different parts of Africa 200,000 to 250,000 years ago, preserving their distinctness by only occasionally interbreeding at the boundaries.

IMO the “out of Africa” hypothesis is already teetering on the edge of being disproved and I am one of those benighted souls who believe that the human species is more then 250,000 years old. Making decisions about these things would be facilitated by a more rigorous definition of “species”. When I read about interbreeding between our species, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, it raises my hackles. These are clearly different subspecies not different species. The designation should be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis not Homo neanderthalensis. Heck, I’m still holding out for erectus to be determined to be a localized variant of our species.

Whatever the case, multiple different strains of humans in Central Africa is an interesting discovery. I expect we’ll ultimately determine it was more than three.


Being Held Hostage

Mark Penn’s assessment of the impeachment proceedings, posted at The Hill, echo mine pretty closely:

The first count of the two articles of impeachment against President Trump accuses the president of abuse of power by withholding aid in an attempt to force Ukraine to look into possible corruption on the part of Joe and Hunter Biden. He is called corrupt in motive for asking for an investigation of potential corruption over questions that had been raised in the New York Times, Politico, The New Yorker and other media outlets.

Bringing this up on a call to the president of Ukraine was probably a boneheaded thing to do, but not an impeachable one. Aid was not actually held up. No investigation was ordered. The president of Ukraine and other Ukrainian officials deny that any pressure was applied to them. Trump’s overall policy was, in fact, far more helpful to the Ukrainians than President Obama’s policies that denied them much aid for weapons. There was and is no urgent threat to the national security of the United States.

There is definitely something about all this that the American public doesn’t like, that reasonable people can judge as wrong, but that is quite different than removing a president from office through a process designed to use impeachment as a political vehicle. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was not a truth-seeker — he is on tape soliciting naked pictures of Trump, and he repeatedly exaggerated evidence against Trump over the last three years. He was simply a weapon jamming through impeachment and ignoring fair procedure or legal process.

The last few days in the media have underscored this bias with the release of material from Lev Parnas, who — like Christopher Steele and his dossier before him, or like Michael Avenatti, now out on bail — is a questionable character with obviously wild claims for which he has no proof, including claims against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr, whom Parnas has never met. It was a political dirty trick to release his information and him on the eve of the Senate impeachment trial, and this act alone would have gotten any real prosecutor’s case thrown out.

The second article of impeachment — obstruction of the House by the assertion of executive privilege — is, in my view, wholly without merit. Despite endless allegations of lawlessness, this administration has implemented every court ruling it has lost without exception. Asserting executive privilege is not the same as paying hush money or suborning perjury, as was alleged in the Clinton and Nixon impeachment efforts. President Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, frequently asserted privilege in response to investigations and Holder was even held in contempt of Congress, a resolution he promptly ignored.

This article should be immediately dismissed, as there is really no factual basis for it at all, especially since the House deliberately avoided allowing the president to adjudicate the claims in court by failing to subpoena witnesses or withdrawing subpoenas from witnesses who challenged them in court.

I think I called this right back in August. Here we are a half year later and it looks even more right. President Trump’s approval rating, while still extremely low by historical standards, has not collapsed. As long as the economy doesn’t tank between now and November, something that looks decreasingly likely, Trump is likely to be re-elected.

It looks right now as though the Democrats are being held hostage by their most extreme and strident members. It’s not a good look.


The Bad News Is That Trump Is Likely To Be Re-elected

After pointing out that Americans tend to return sitting presidents who preside over economic good times to office, the editors of USA Today propose some strategies that Democrats might use to offset that advantage. The best is that they should abandon their present catastrophizing. Here’s the worst:

When Trump tries to argue that electing a Democrat would result in tanking the economy, the nominee might also point out that since World War II, the economy has done better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones. In particular, Democratic presidents have been more fiscally responsible. They ran up big deficits only during wars and deep recessions and, on two occasions, in 1969 and 2001, bequeathed budget surpluses to their Republican successors.

Of the four alternatives

  • Running a large surplus i.e. “paying off the debt”
  • Running a small surplus
  • Running a small deficit
  • Running a large deficit

which do you think is the best? I think that running a small deficit is best and it’s pretty easy to explain why. Running at a surplus means that the government is removing more money from the economy than it’s putting in. How is that a good thing? The only thing that would be worse would be removing a lot more money from the economy than is being put in.

Running at a surplus has almost always resulted in a recession but it’s a lagging indicator. That’s certainly not something that should be bragged about.

Running at a large deficit, as President Trump is, under our present heavily financialized economy is doing pretty much what you’d expect—it’s producing asset inflation, something else the president is bragging about, mistakenly in my opinion.

No, running at a small deficit is best. Which of the Democratic presidential candidates is advocating that?

The headwinds favoring President Trump’s re-election are substantial. Although Democrats would do well not to underestimate them, they should do their best to paint the most optimistic picture possible of the United States and its future. Historically, that’s the posture that wins elections.