Category: Politics

Alternative Fact: Don’t Quote Me On That

Alternative Fact: Trump has tapes from his meetings with Comey (and tune in later this week to hear exciting news about them!).

Real Fact: Rationally, if Trump had something that exonerated him, he would have produced the evidence WEEKS ago. Hell, the day after Comey’s testimony would have been late but suitably theatrical. But it is a little silly to expect rational behaviour from someone who has thus far displayed nothing of the sort.

With the “but it was a ‘scare quote’ so he didn’t literally mean it” argument from March’s wire tapping bit of craziness

how can I possibly be asked to believe he has “tapes”?

Bonus real fact: It is impossible to differentiate scare quotes (the phrase in quotes is used sarcastically, ironically, or otherwise without intending the actual meaning of the word) from highlight quote (the “word” is what should be emphasized in this sentence) without prescient knowledge.

Broadcast Blackout

Seems like the White House Press Office is trialing banning audio and video recordings of their press briefings. My first thought is that this can backfire. You don’t want to give me video to go with my report, I’ll make some. They are allowed to write stuff down, right? Some agency gets a court stenographer credentialed for the briefing; Melissa McCarthy can dress up and recreate the scene for news agencies to record. Get the political cartoonist to draw the scene a la the courtroom sketches from closed proceedings. Or, hell, send the sketch artist you’ve already got on staff.

 

Witch hunts and reasonable enquiries

This morning Donald Trump twitted “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt”. The thing he’s neglecting to consider is that motivation matters in employment cases. I used to work with corporate HR, gathering data when employees were being investigated for breach of company policy. Thing is, the breach was rarely the impetus for firing the individual. It was just the easiest and most defensible reason for firing an individual. Even in an at-will work state, a company is still open to charges of discrimination when terminating an individual.

An example was a call centre rep who had no interest in being polite to customers. He was rude, sometimes vulgar, and happy to convey how little he cared about the callers problem beyond “dad made me get a job, so I’m stuck here talking to people like you for three more hours”. Sure, he could have been reviewed poorly on each quarterly cycle, placed in the performance improvement program designed to assist employees become at least average contributing members of the company, reviewed poorly another time or two, and then fired for poor performance. That’s 18 months of bad customer service to provide overly-cautious legal coverage for a possible wrongful termination suit.

Or we find some policy that he has violated — there are a lot of laws, there are a lot of company policies. Look hard enough and you can find a violation for just about anyone. Held the door for the person walking behind you? That violates security protocols. Printed a pass for a concert you’re heading to after work – misuse of corporate resources. Forwarding jokes via e-mail to coworkers, using company computer resources to surf the Internet … in this particular chap’s case, it was consistently signing back in after his break a few minutes late. I wrote a job that compared his sign-on time for the phone system with his break times and automatically alerted supervisor and HR when sign-on was late. The first day, he was verbally warned about signing in late. The next day he was written up. Day three was another write-up with a warning that the next infraction would result in termination. And the next day, he was terminated. Now this is an extreme example because the employee did absolutely nothing to change his the proximal cause of his firing (i.e. had he started signing into the phone when his break ended, they would have needed to come up with something else). But the fact remains, he violated a company policy. Termination was recommended to redress his repeatedly late return from break.

Equally possible that the call center manager could have a old dude that they want to fire because they are old. It isn’t like I was told of the guy’s failings that led to the investigation. Found that out later from office chatter. Sign into the system late, get fired … and still have a perfectly valid wrongful termination suit for age discrimination.

What does all this have to do with Trump? Well, he decides he doesn’t like Comey because the guy isn’t finding a convenient scapegoat and ending the Russia investigation. Trump asks some of his administration for their opinion of Comey’s actions regarding the Clinton investigation last year and gets honest feedback (the call center dude DID sign in late from his break). The distal cause for termination can still constitute obstruction of justice. And, yes, the very people who recommended the termination when provided the proximal cause may well consider the distal cause distressing.

Alternative Fact: Witch Hunts

Alternative Fact: “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history” — Donald Trump, on Twitter (where else).

Real Fact: Donald Trump may have been a little young at the time, but hello: Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in America!?! Now if “great” doesn’t mean widespread or terrible but rather goofy, I have to go with Christine O’Donnell.

Bonus real fact: Hyperbolic untruth is still lying.

Alternative Fact: Ignorance of the Law

Alternative Fact: According to Paul Ryan (R-WI), it’s OK if Trump asked the FBI Director to end the investigation of Michael Flynn and then fired the Director in an attempt to change the direction of the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Real Fact: Ignorance of the law does not exonerate a person. “I’m new here” might work when you violate a corporate norm in your first week at work — I didn’t know we didn’t brew a new pot of coffee after 4PM. I didn’t know the boss sits in the middle seat along the window wall at meetings. Yeah, someone will notice your transgression and let you know. I didn’t know that we don’t embezzle money … that’s on you to know, and you are fired. Possibly facing criminal charges too.

Possible bonus real fact: Trump did not realize that some branches of the government are actually meant to be independent of the White House. Seriously – that’s the implication behind Ryan’s “he is new at this” defence.

Alternative Fact: What Constitutes Privilege

Alternative Fact: James Comey “unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications” – Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, in a public statement.

Real Facts: I was a little surprised to hear that Comey himself leaked the meeting notes, but it makes sense in the broader context. And someone with vast legal knowledge and experience in law enforcement will know if something is illegal (i.e. request immunity before testifying to the fact) or not (i.e. announce it in widely broadcast Congressional testimony). He specifically wrote the memo to be unclassified, so the White House could not claim disclosure of classified information.

So they went with “privileged”. Trump does not understand that FBI lawyers are not actually his legal council (bit of a frightening proposition)? They certainly aren’t his spouse or clergy (although I believe both spouse and clergy can unilaterally waive privilege under the Federal Rules of Evidence).

Alternately, Trump wants to assert executive privilege. Equally nonsensical. Executive privilege could have prevented Comey’s testimony in the first place. Or can be used when refusing to disclose information/evidence to legal or legislative bodies. Executive privilege does not protect information from the Executive branch from being disclosed to media outlets. Or subsequently published. And even so, Executive privilege can be denied if the information is deemed critical to the case (i.e. if a Congressional investigation is meant to determine if Trump obstructed justice in pressuring the FBI director to end an investigation … testimony from the FBI Director regarding Trump’s requests to conclude the investigation are central to the investigation. Which, I assume, is why the White House did not even try to claim privilege and prevent Comey’s testimony.).

Bonus Real Facts: Oh, Marc Kasowitz’s statement following James Comey’s testimony. Where to start? Saying it would be good to find out if some peripherally related individual is found to be guilty of collusion isn’t actually support of an investigation. It could also be interpreted in the full context of the conversation as “it would be good if this whole investigation got closed up quickly. Here’s how you do it: find some stooge from my campaign and pin it all on him.”.

Not being investigated does not mean anything — the original scope of a case may be an individual. The initial investigation implicates a few more who then become part of the investigation. The new targets yield evidence that implicates new people and so on. This is the fact behind Comey saying he did not want to publicly state that Trump was not under investigation for collusion with the Russian government — if something comes up that brings into question Trump’s actions, he will be under investigation. At which point, the ‘duty to correct’ means the FBI would need to announce that Trump is under investigation … substantively meaningless as many people are investigated without being guilty.

I was investigated for bribery in negotiations with China – not because I even knew my company had negotiations with China but because I was involved in the internal corporate investigation and participated in evidence gathering (i.e. they were investigating if the evidence “gathering” was more of an evidence purging activity). I had properly collected the evidence and turned it over to inside council, end of investigation. At the outset of the investigation, though, an announcement that “Lisa is under investigation as part of our inquest into international bribery” sounds bad.

Worse, though … Nixon didn’t personally break into the Watergate hotel, but covering it up after the fact and obstructing justice was illegal. Reagan didn’t personally ring up the Ayatollah to delay the release of Iranian hostages – but having a campaign adviser speaking to a cleric representing the Ayatollah … sounds illegal to me even if the investigation got curtailed in sympathy for a man with cognitive decline. Bill Clinton’s impeachment was over testimony regarding an extramarital affair — also nothing to do with the original investigation. When someone is determining if your actions constitute obstruction of justice, proclaiming your innocence in the initial matter is a complete red herring. Normally, yeah, innocent people don’t intentionally obstruct justice. Letting the Chinese bribery investigation run its course served me well — no personal harm, no professional harm. Just a few wasted hours of paid time.

But the investigation is hampering Trump’s agenda, and getting rid of the investigation might leave him clear to pursue legislative initiatives. The investigation, regardless of guilt, is causing harm. Which makes obstruction … well, not outside the realm of possibilities.

 

Don’t drink the water and don’t breath the air

I was about eleven years old when I heard Tom Lehrer’s song “Pollution“. I wondered if the pollution in America was ever that bad — and took some time to research my own question. Pollution in the Cuyahoga River was sufficiently bad that the sludge on top of the water caught fire (not just once, either … but once that received national media attention). Decades earlier, a toxic smog cloud killed a dozen people near Pittsburgh, PA. Not the only occurrences of either air or water pollution in the United States, but some of the most stunning.

Debate climate change all you want; debate human’s impact on climate change. Just forget about climate change – I don’t get how anyone thinks dumping coal mining runoff into the river is a good thing. Or spewing industrial waste into the air. I know people want to make money now … forgetting about compassion for others, maybe they think they’ll have enough cash to a clean environment at home. Work from home, home school the kids. Grow your own food. Raise your own animals. Grow your own cotton and make your own clothes. This is getting to be a LOT of work to avoid the pollutants you want to be able to eject into the environment. And at some point, you’re going to want to leave your biodome, right? Kid might want to go sleep over at a friend’s house? Your fav band is playing a few towns over? Medical problems require a specialist? Seriously, why can we not all agree that protecting the environment from industrial pollutants … yeah, it reduces business profits. Might even reduce opportunity / slow growth. But anyone who thinks unfettered growth is worth any price … please, take a holiday over in Beijing (where, please note, environmental protection is actually becoming a bit of a ‘thing’ as the results of unfettered growth are seen).

Redistricting By Algorithm

American government representation is, in many cases, proportional to population. This means that each Rep from Ohio in the House has a district with the same number of people as the other guys from Ohio. A Rep from Cleveland doesn’t represent more people than a Rep from Marion. There may be multiple districts across Cleveland whereas the district for Marion may include other nearby towns as well. It’s a reasonable idea – otherwise Ohio has 44,825 square miles and 16 HR members so every 2800 or so square miles would be a Rep. This means someone represents a whole lot of and and a couple people whereas someone else represents a LOT of people densely packed into a little land. Cuyahoga County covers 457 sqaure miles and has 1.2 million people. Marion *County* covers 404 square miles and has about 66,000 people. Even if Cuyahoga had 2 reps to Marion’s 1 … the population of Cuyahoga is 18x larger.

This means political boundaries are drawn around population numbers. A process which can be perfectly fair and reasonable, but a process which can be manipulated to a particular party’s advantage. The manipulation is called gerrymandering. And it is how Democrats can win 51% of the popular vote in Pennsylvania HR races but only hold 5 of the 18 seats. Statistically they should have had 9 (or even 10 since they had a slight popular vote advantage and you cannot have a fraction of a representative).

What does this look like on a map? See Pennsylvania’s District 7 — let’s take this group of left-leaning people from SE Philly, make a little isthmus, and now how many right-leaning people do we need from West Chester to make it a Republican district? The only district boundaries that have any business not being a straight line are state borders!

When I was in University in the mid-90’s, we were working on a process to analyze the gravitational disturbances caused by binary black hole collisions. Now it’s not reasonable to calculate anything across the entire universe. No one has that kind of time or computing power (oh, and there may be a basic tenet of computing and physics that precludes doing so) … but we want to know what the disturbances would look like across the entire universe. There will be areas of greater impact and areas of lesser impact. The method we used for the analysis is called adaptive mesh refinement. It’s essentially taking a broad overview of the entire universe but using a more detailed (‘refined’) view of sections where something “interesting” is happening.

I propose we use a similar system for algorithmic drawing of Congressional districts. What would that look like? Imagine a state with six million people that has been allocated six districts. Calculate the statistical people per rep — one million in this case — this is going to be our target population within a district. When we get within a percentage of that number, we’ll hold the district as it is.

Chop it in half and see what the population is like in the two ‘districts’ – and check the populations again. We’ve got one within the defined delta of the one million target (since this is a nice example, we have one at our target).

Take the oversized district and chop it in half again. Get population counts and hold any district within the delta of target.

Keep chopping …

Eventually you’ll arrive at districts that are all within the predefined delta of the target. Since a real-world scenario wouldn’t involve nice round numbers and equally spaced populations, we’ll need to have the algorithm shift the district boundaries E<=>W and N<=>S until the proper number of people are contained within each district. Algorithms are quite good at this sort of thing.

But this doesn’t take into account geographical obstacles — what if there’s a river that bisects the district and the nearest bridge is thirty miles up stream? Well, these are not polling centers – put a polling center on each side of the river.

The point of this approach is that a computer algorithm that doesn’t know a thing about the individuals in each area can easily define districts irrespective of political parties. Statistically, an individual voter may end up in a district that differs vastly from their personal beliefs. But there’s no intentional marginalizing of voters based on political parties. And when the next census numbers come in, load a new data set and re-run the program.

What would adaptive mesh districting look like? Essentially this – big squares and rectangles in sparsely populated areas, smaller and smaller squares and rectangles in population centers.