Monday, October 23, 2017

Scott Adams and Peggy Noonan on the Tweeter in Chief

Scott Adams counts as one of the most relentless and successful self-promoters working today. By trade he’s a cartoonist. He calls himself a hypnotist. And now he insists that he has developed a theory about persuasion—which used to be called rhetoric, though he does not seem to know it.

As I have written previously on this blog, being a cartoonist does not make you a competent theorist. Adams’s theories are really disguised self-promotion. We cannot fault him for making a living, but the rest is silliness.

Adams did predict the ascendance of Donald Trump and continues to give himself credit for his prescience. He thrilled to the way Trump seemed to be confirming the Adams genius, though one suspects that he will take credit for whatever happens.

If you agree with Adams that Trump is the master of the art of tweeting, you ought also pay a little lip service to the fact that Trump’s approval ratings are wallowing at around 38%. Given the nature of the Democratic opposition, it might be enough to get him re-elected, but it does not suggest a master communicator or even a master persuader. An even more significant majority has told pollsters that it would be happy if Trump stopped tweeting altogether.

Adams does not seem to know it, but the word “tweet” is an onomatopoeia that is most often associated with little birds. Little birds go tweet, tweet, tweet. Big birds do not. Lions roar; they do not tweet. Bears growl; they do not tweet.

Every time Trump tweets, all newscasters are obliged to say that Trump tweeted. The phrase, containing the word itself, makes him seem small and weak. Adams misses the point entirely. I suspect that he is not alone.

In an article from today’s Wall Street Journal Adams suggests that Trump is involved in the art of smack-tweeting. Does he have no sense of humor at all?

He writes, concerning one of Trump’s tweets:

Consider this one: “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked,’ in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!”

When Mr. Trump smack-tweets a notable public critic—Ms. Hill has called the president a “white supremacist”—it violates our expectations of his office. That’s what makes it both entertaining and memorable. He often injects into his tweets what memory expert Carmen Simon calls a “little bit of wrongness” to make it hard to look away. If the wrongness alarms you, consider that for years he has adroitly operated within a narrow range of useful wrongness on Twitter without going too far. That suggests technique. In the Twitter environment, strategic wrongness is jet fuel.

It is not just about violating the expectations of the office. Trump has taken on someone who is so far below him on the great socio-political pecking order that he has diminished himself. And he has diminished the presidency. A president should stand tall and proud. He should not stoop t the level of Jamele Hill. When he does so he gives people the impression that he does not know who he is or what his job is.

The great majority of American people consider this to be seriously disconcerting. Tweet, tweet, tweet.

As for Trump’s put-downs of his Republican opponents during the presidential primary campaign, Adams loved them because they seemed to prove that Adams was right. And yet, when it comes to passing legislation in Congress some Republican senators who were trashed by Trump have found it very easy to defy him.

Some do it out of personal pique. Some do it for the wrong reasons. But, when you are exercising leadership you need to develop relationships with the people you want to lead. As of now, Trump has had difficulty doing so.

Trump has been one of the most open and communicative presidents in recent history. He speaks to the press far more often than did many of his predecessors. And yet, he often misspeaks or distorts the facts… and this to a press that lives to attack him.

We might want to rationalize Trump’s failure to communicate well or clearly. We might want to understand that his grasp of facts and even of his job is weak, on a good day. If so, he does not need to have Dilbert’s puppetmaster telling him that he is a master persuader or a brilliant communicator. He would do best to stop tweeting and to find someone who can speak effectively for him. A constant pattern of miscommunication does not a great communicator make. Using your tweets to undercut your cabinet secretaries does not help either.

Don’t believe me? Ask someone who actually knows something about presidential communication, Peggy Noonan. Last Friday she wrote this:

He proceeds each day with the confidence of one who thinks his foundation firm when it’s not—it’s shaky. His job is to build support, win people over through persuasion, and score some legislative victories that will encourage a public sense that he is competent, even talented.

Many of Trump’s unforced errors involve tweeting. Some involve press conferences. Noonan continued:

He thwarts himself daily with his dramas. In the thwarting he does something unusual: He gives his own supporters no cover. They back him at some personal cost, in workplace conversations and at family gatherings. They are in a hard position. He leaves them exposed by indulging whatever desire seizes him—to lash out, to insult, to say bizarre things. If he acted in a peaceful and constructive way, he would give his people cover.

She continued:

This week Sen. John McCain famously gave a speech in Philadelphia slamming the administration’s foreign-policy philosophy as a “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” Fair enough—the famous internationalist opposes Trumpian foreign-policy notions. There are many ways presidents can respond to such criticism—thoughtfully, with wit or an incisive rejoinder.

Mr. Trump went on Chris Plante’s radio show to tell Sen. McCain he’d better watch it. “People have to be careful because at some point I fight back,” he said. “I’m being very nice. I’m being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.”

FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were pretty tough hombres, but they always managed to sound like presidents and not, say, John Gotti. Mr. McCain, suffering from cancer, evoked in his reply his experience as a prisoner of war: “I’ve faced far greater challenges than this.”

That, actually, is how presidents talk.

In truth, when his time came, John McCain did not know how presidents talk. He did not know how to conduct a presidential campaign himself. He seems to be voting out of spite to bring down the Trump agenda. And yet, Trump showed himself to be petulant, as one might see in the schoolyard. It is not the sign of a great communicator.

Noonan rejects the idea that it’s just the Trump style:

But the problem is not style. A gruff, awkward, inelegant style wedded to maturity and seriousness of purpose would be powerful in America. Mr. Trump’s problem has to do with something deeper—showing forbearance, patience, sympathy; revealing the human qualities people appreciate seeing in a political leader because they suggest a reliable inner stature.

Here you have it. Scott Adams toots his own horn, proclaiming to the world how smart he is. The truth is: he doth protest too much. If you have to use that level of self-aggrandizement, you are an empty rhetorician.

On the other side, Peggy Noonan’s analysis accounts for Trump’s sagging approval ratings and for the fact that most people, supporters and detractors, think that he is bringing himself down to the level of a Jamele Hill by his incessant tweets.

Tweet, tweet, tweet.

Who Was Vladimir Lenin?

Apparently, American students no longer know anything about history. They know how to complain about their grievances. They even know how to protest. They know how to find safe spaces where they can suck their thumbs and hug their blankies.

They love socialism… so much so that if you take the Trump tax plan and tell students that it was proposed by superannuated socialist Bernie Sanders, they immediately support it.

They have been so thoroughly disembarrassed of their rational faculties that they cannot examine a policy position and formulate an opinion. They are like cult followers who will believe anything their cult leader proposed.

For reasons that escape me, the New York Times has run a few articles purporting to present a fair and balanced approach to Communism. You recall the most famous argument: while everyone was starving to death and living in abject misery, women were having more orgasms. Don’t think that Communism forgot about women.

For those who could not have forgotten history—because they never knew it in the first place—the Times offers a column by esteemed novelist Martin Amis about none other than Vladimir Lenin. Since the grossly overrated Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has happily embraced the worst of Lenin’s legacy, it is time to offer an analysis of the phenomenon of Leninism. If you want to find out which of your friends is an intellectual pretender, apply this formula: anyone who thinks that Zizek is a great thinker does not know how to think.

Amis begins with the most salient point, a point so salient that I made it myself in regard to Sigmund Freud, in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. Whether in the hands of Freud, Marx or Heidegger, great revolutionaries were dismayed to see that their theories did not work in practice. Rather than modify their theories, they decided that human nature was defective and needed to be changed. Keep this in mind before you start whining about who is or is not ignoring facts.

Amis writes:

The chief demerit of the Marxist program was its point-by-point defiance of human nature. Bolshevik leaders subliminally grasped the contradiction almost at once; and their rankly Procrustean answer was to leave the program untouched and change human nature. In practical terms this is what “totalitarianism” really means: On their citizens such regimes make “a total claim.”

The following is from “the secret archive,” published as “The Unknown Lenin” (1996), and the entry is dated March 1922: “It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) …” At this point the unversed reader might pause to wonder how the sentence will go forward. Something like “pursue all avenues of amelioration and relief,” perhaps?

But no. This is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of “a party of a new type,” who continues: “… carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy. … Precisely at this moment we must give battle to [the clergy] in the most decisive and merciless manner and crush its resistance with such brutality that it will not forget it for decades to come. … The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason, the better.” Church records show that 1,962 monks, 2,691 priests and 3,447 nuns were killed in that year alone. Religion, you see, was part of human nature, so the Bolsheviks were obliged to suppress it in all its forms (including Islam and Buddhism).

The fun part is that Communism was the most ambitious and radical attempt to create an atheist civilization. Nowadays, we still have legions of atheists who believe that rejecting religion makes them enlightened. Of course, none of our atheist contingent believes that when you create an atheist civilization you get Lenin and Mao and Communism. 

This is very strange indeed. People who hew to the value of empirical science and pragmatic thought reject real world results that tend to disprove their theories. We are obliged to conclude that they are not promoting rational thought but are proselytizing an ideology.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Male Feminists Who Sexually Abuse Women

Twas always thus. Harvey Weinstein should not feel so all alone. He is certainly not the first male feminist, beacon of leftist and gender woke thinking, to be exposed as an abusive misogynist, an accused rapist.

James Kirchick explains it all in The Daily Beast:

Ever since second-wave feminism became part of the political left, there have been men who, ostensibly enlightened in the realm of gender relations, are in fact deeply misogynist and believe that their progressive street cred somehow obviates their attitudes about women, attitudes as regressive as those held by the Mad Men-era males who ruled the earth just before the sexual revolution. 

Male feminists are often hypocrites who think that their adherence to the cause protects them from charges of sexual abuse. And, women, including feminists, have allowed them to get away with it... seemingly forever.

Harvey Weinstein got the memo. Right now one expects that, as he completes a week of rehab, he cannot understand why everyone is picking on him… what happened to his feminist get-out-of-jail-free card:

What unites 60’s-era revolutionaries with Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Julian Assange, earnest “male feminists” and vulgar Brooklyn podcasters is not political ideology per se (Assange and Clinton have little in common politically, never mind the former’s contempt for the latter’s wife), but rather the belief that commitment to particular progressive causes — whether economic redistribution, abortion rights, an “anti-imperialist” foreign policy, or exposing governmental surveillance — insulates then from being misogynist pigs. In this view, anything – beginning with basic propriety and respect for women and ending with fundamental individual rights like freedom of speech and private property — can be excused if one has the “right” politics. 

Kirchick also regales us with stories about Andreas Baader, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Gerry Healey, George Galloway, Jamey Kilstein, Hugo Schwyzer, Mark Ames and Sam Kriss. 

Some of these people you have heard of. Some you have not. They are all sympathetic to the feminist cause. And they all treated women appallinglyKirchick’s indictment is informative and well-presented. It is well worth a read.

The Case of the Whining Millennial

More often than not the people who write to advice columnists are of the female persuasion. Occasionally one has the chance to read the heart felt and gut wrenching thoughts of a letter write of the male persuasion. One would happily have foregone the experience.

Whenever you find yourself feeling unsympathetic to a female letter writer, this letter will give you an idea of the millennial men they have to deal with. This man sounds like he attended the Pajama School of manly behavior.

It’s from Carolyn Hax in the Washington Post:

My girlfriend and I have been together for almost a year and are moving in together at the end of the month. She’s not perfect but neither am I, and she’s awesome at understanding and supporting me. She’s younger (27 to my 33), but because she’s A LOT more mature than I was at 27, I’ve overlooked it — until now.

We started the move-in process at the end of summer, after I was stressed because of repeated family visits. She understood, but instead of offering to wait a few weeks, kept pushing to look at apartments. I wonder if she did that because she’s really eager to move on to the next stage of her life — move out of the rowhouse she hates, get a dog, keep developing a social network beyond loser, alcoholic roommates. That’s all great! But I worry that she’s so eager that she’ll ignore my needs in doing so.

And now I’m still stressed and slated to move in with her. ARGH!!!! All I want is a few weeks of hikes on the weekend and eating right during the week, not scrambling to pack and find movers. I worry that once we move, we’ll have to unpack, decorate the new house, and then the holidays! She’s generally good at compromise, but if we got this far with me being stressed 24/7, can I trust future compromises? And if I can’t trust her and am so nervous about this move, should I be in this relationship at all?
To her credit or discredit, as you wish, Hax is sensitive to this man’s concerns. I find him to be a pathetic whiner, a modern version of the man who is fully in touch with his sensitive side. She recommends that he communicate better with his girlfriend. Apparently, those who worship at the altar of the god Hermes believe that communication will solve all problems.

And yet, you ask yourself, what are the problems here? The letter writer, who calls himself  “Butterflies or Warning Signs?” has agreed with his girlfriend to find a new apartment and to move in together. Fine and good. Apparently, said girlfriend has been moving the process forward. She has taken charge and shows no consideration for his whining ways. In truth, she is doing him a favor. Most women prefer to take charge of their homes. They prefer to choose the home that feels right to them and to decorate at according to their taste. One understands that most women are not supposed to want to be homemakers, but most women still have a nesting instinct. A man ignores it at his peril.

I hate to have to mention it, but this man thinks that his girlfriend should be more sensitive to his moodiness, to his weakness, to his decided lack of manliness. She should not. He should get over it. He should shut the fuck up and let her arrange things as she wishes. If he cannot live with a woman who is acting like a woman… and not like a therapist or his mother… then it is time for him to suck it up and let his wonderful girlfriend do as she wishes.

He understands that she might want to move out of a row house she hates, row house she shares with alcoholic roommates. But he seems not to think that that matters. In the kind of pathetic whine you expect from people who have done too much therapy, he is worrying that she is insensitive to his needs. Imagine a 33 year old man mewling: What about my needs? Sorry, I know that that will ruin your appetite for the day.

If he cannot suck it up he should move back home with his mother. Case closed.

The Coming Bond Market Collapse

Savvy investors have been crying wolf for so long that one is tempted to ignore their warnings. Whereas Robert Rubin once told Bill Clinton that he could not just do as he pleased, because he had to answer to the bond market, today’s politicians do not seem to have the same worry. 

Apparently, central bankers have taken charge of the bond market… which means that the market is effectively being rigged… in order to keep interest rates low, to keep mortgage rates low, to keep real estate prices high and to flood the system with money that moves the stock market higher and higher. The bond market has, in its terms, mispriced risk.

Of course, it does not make a great deal of sense to speak of an advanced free market economy when the biggest market of them all, the bond market, is rigged.

As you know, I am not even close to being able to explain it all. William Cohan offers some seemingly sage advice in Vanity Fair. I pass it along for your edification.

He begins by emphasizing the importance of the bond market.

The stock markets get most of the attention from the media, but the bond market, four times the size of the stock market, helps set the price of money. The bond market determines how much you pay to borrow money to buy a home, a car, or when you use your credit cards.

What does a rigged market look like? Cohan explains:

… the yield on European “junk” bonds is about the same—between 2 percent and 3 percent—as the yield on U.S. Treasuries, even though the risk profile of the two could not be more different. He correctly pointed out that this phenomenon has been caused by “manipulated behavior”—his code for the European Central Bank’s version of the so-called “quantitative easing” program that Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, initiated in 2008 and that Mario Draghi, the head of the E.C.B., has taken to heart.

Bernanke’s idea was to have the Federal Reserve buy up trillions of dollars of bonds, increasing their price and lowering their yields. He figured lower interest rates would help jump-start an economy in recession. Whereas Janet Yellen, Bernanke’s successor, ended the Fed’s Q.E. program in 2014, Draghi’s version of it is still going, which has led to the “manipulation” that so concerns Gundlach. European interest rates “should be much higher than they are today,” he said, “. . . [and] once Draghi realizes this, the order of the financial system will be turned upside down and it won’t be a good thing. It will mean the liquidity that has been pumping up the markets will be drying up in 2018 . . . Things go down. We’ve been in an artificially inflated market for stocks and bonds largely around the world.”

The Gundlach in question is first named Jeffrey. He manages so much money invested bonds that people around Wall Street call him the Bond King.

Cohan ends on a sober note. Forewarned is forearmed:

But the major propellants of the stock market these days are the economy Trump inherited, the tax cuts that may turn out to be a chimera, and an overinflated bond market that misprices risk every day. When it all comes crashing down, will Trump take credit for that too?

To which we are tempted to ask whether Barack Obama really deserves credit for an economic recovery that was engineered by the Federal Reserve. Unless, of course, you want to credit him for having set up policies that made that recovery the most anemic in recent history. As I often noted during the Obama administration, he looked to me like an "apres moi le deluge" president.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Freed from Responsibility

From Maggie's Farm, a thought for today:

Fake News about the Opioid Epidemic

Recently, the Washington Post and CBS touted a blockbuster story about the opioid epidemic that is ravishing our nation. As might be expected, the paper wants the story to pin blame for the problem on Republicans, especially on Congressional Republicans. If you are a propaganda organ of the Democratic Party your role in life is to fight Republicans. No more and no less.

As it happens, no one doubts that responsibility for the opioid crisis lies with pharmaceutical manufacturers, physicians who prescribe the drugs, and the government agencies that approved the new drugs. But, Congress... not so much. Anyway, there is a lot of blame to go around.

Unfortunately, the Post’s breathless expose about the Republican-led Congress suffers from a notable defect in reasoning. Writing in the Wall Street Journal Holman Jenkins identifies it:

Unless the Washington Post and CBS ’s “60 Minutes” have discovered a new, physics-defying form of quantum action at a distance, their splashy exposé last weekend identified neither the cause nor any solution.

I’ll admit I didn’t read the Post’s 7,800-word opus on first pass. To the credit of some merciful editor, the lead sentence told me I needn’t bother. The piece begins: “In April 2016, at the height of the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history, Congress effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation’s streets.

In other words, whatever the sorry tale of the sausage factory to follow, the abuse epidemic was already in full swing when Congress acted barely a year ago, so the DEA’s “potent” weapon perhaps wasn’t so potent.

Get it. By the time Congress got around to passing its bill, the “most potent weapon” that the DEA had had against the drug companies had been failing. And had been failing badly. It’s nice to see such a blatantly dishonest lead in a news article. Surely, it deserves attention.

The tool in question was “immediate suspension orders” against drug distributors. Yet, as Jenkins points out, these orders were already being reduced, well before Congress got into the act:

Moreover, the Post hardly bothers to substantiate the central pinion of its story—its claim that the DEA has been deprived of a vital tool, known as “immediate suspension orders” against drug distributors. Such orders peaked at 65 in 2011 and have fallen to single digits. But is this a meaningful gauge?

A federal survey finds misuse of prescription opioids peaked in 2012 and has returned to 2002 levels. Suspension orders were already being dialed back—41 in 2012, 16 in 2013—before Congress intervened. Maybe the message got through to drug distributors via a tactic that didn’t lend itself to being repeated or accelerated.

The article wants mostly to blame the Republican Congress. And yet, the vote on the bill was unanimous. All Democrats voted for it. The legislation was supported by the Justice Department and signed by Barack Obama. It was one bill among many. And yet, why miss an opportunity to bash Republicans:

In an accompanying editorial, the Post fulminates that “Congress alongside the pharmaceutical industry helped fuel the opioid crisis,” but fails to mention the bill in question was one of 18 that the Associated Press called a “mountain of bills addressing the nation’s opioid abuse crisis.”

The measure in question, which rewrote the legal standard for suspension orders, was approved by the Obama White House, DEA and Justice Department. It was unanimously supported by Congress. It reflected, as the New York Times noted, a Congress under pressure from drug lobbyists to show an interest in “ensuring access to narcotic painkillers” for patients even while “addressing the addiction epidemic linked to those drugs.”

Finally, we get to the real target of this totally dishonest investigative report: one of the bill’s authors, Rep. Tom Marino, a man who was being nominated to be the Trump administration drug czar. But then, you need to ask yourself how important the drug czar really is.

Jenkins has the answer:

I got around to reading the rest of the Post piece after it prompted one of the law’s many authors, Rep. Tom Marino (R., Pa.), to drop out of consideration for Trump drug czar. Don’t worry. I am not about to overplay the significance of this consequence. The drug czar is a largely powerless office whose value is symbolic at best.

Fake news, anyone?