Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Charles Grassley, Charles Grassley

Some time before 40-plus years in Congress
Charles Grassley and I go back a long way. I don't know Senator Grassley personally, but I've known of him for a long time. My acquaintance goes back to the late 60s or early 1970s when I was still an ardent young Republican. Grassley began his career as a politician in 1959 (when I was six years old), serving in the Iowa Legislature from Bremer County and surrounding regions. Grassley quickly became a prominent voice in the Iowa Republican Party, which was divided between moderates, such as Bob Ray and Fred Schwengel, and conservatives like the incumbent Congressman from Grassley's part of the state, H. R. Gross, and Gross’s protégé, Charles Grassley. Gross and others like him (such as ol’ Ben Jensen in my Seventh District), had served in Congress since the New Deal and were still busy trying to repeal it. They were known for their staunch anti-government and anti-Communist agendas. (Well, anti-government unless it involved farm programs.) This split in the Republican Party between moderates and conservatives had festered for a long time, but the split became acute in 1964 when Barry Goldwater wrestled the nomination away from moderate Republicans, which would have included even Richard Nixon, who seems almost a Communist by current Republican standards.

I recall making some disparaging or belittling remark about Grassley in front of our family friend, Bob Tyson, who had served in the 1960s as the executive secretary of the Iowa Republican Party, and who later served in Bob Ray's gubernatorial administration. Bob knew pretty much everyone and everything about the Republican Party in Iowa. He cautioned me against taking Grassley too lightly. Remarking that while Grassley may appear simply as a bumpkin just off the farm, in fact, he had a master’s degree in political science from UNI and had begun work toward a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa (which I was attending at the time as a political science major). Well, I’ll be darned!  Grassley never played that up. As most Iowans know, Grassley has a friendly, awe-shucks demeanor with a voice and delivery that comes awfully close to that of mimicking Huckleberry Hound.

Fast forward now to 1974, when just married, I was living in Cedar Falls and the off year elections were just coming up. Richard Nixon had just resigned as president, and it was not looking to be a good year for Republicans. H.R. Gross decided to hang it up that year, and the Republicans nominated Charles Grassley to replace him. On the Democrat side, they nominated a bright young attorney from Waterloo, Stephen Rapp, who, as I recall, was reported to have shared rides with Grassley down to legislative sessions in Des Moines. By this time, I was starting to wander around a way step-by-step and vote-by-vote away from the Republican fold (and not because I had just married a pretty Democrat). So this election gave me my first opportunity to vote against Charles Grassley, and I did so—to no avail. And not for the last time. Grassley eked out a very narrow victory over Rapp and began his stint in Congress that has now run over 40 years.

Eventually, Grassley moved on to the Senate, where he initially served with a guy named Roger Jepsen, a vain and unimaginative senator, and together they were dubbed “Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dumber. However, based on the insight from many years before that I'd received about him, I knew this was an unfair assessment of Grassley, as many have learned since. Charles Grassley is dumb like a fox. Anyone who is survived in politics as long has knows how to do things right [sic], at least in the minds of Iowa voters. During his time in the Senate, I heard Grassley speak both in person and in the media, and his low-key demeanor—if not persuasive—is at least not off-putting. Also, I had the opportunity to observe him in casual situations. On trips to visit our daughters living on the east coast, we would see him at the Cedar Rapids airport flying back and forth from Washington DC. He traveled alone, without an entourage, without flourish, and he could have gone totally unnoticed but for the occasional newspaper and television images of him that would have tipped off an observer that a member of the Senate was amongst them. Also, because we had a daughter who played on the club volleyball circuit in high school, we saw Grassley at a large tournament one weekend in Cedar Falls. One of Grassley’s sons is a prominent volleyball coach in the area, and there was Senator Grassley tootling around the gymnasium complex just as if he was another grandpa to watch a granddaughter's matches, quietly shuffling along with the crowd. (Maybe he had a granddaughter playing, I don’t know.) I have to admit that no one could accuse Grassley of putting on airs.

Also in the early 1990s, Grassley surprised a lot of other people and me when he voted against President George H.W. Bush’s resolution to attack Iraq to take back Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Of course, Grassley was on the losing end of that vote, but it seemed to me a courageous thing to do, bucking the trend that a majority of Republicans and Democrats, along with his Republican president. It suggested to me that Grassley had a genuine streak of independence and judgment about him.

But now we come to recent time. After his election in 2008, President Obama looked to the Senate Finance Committee in an attempt to work out a health care reform proposal that could gain acceptance from at least some on both sides of the aisle. He hoped to work with Grassley. After all, Obama knew that his plan was essentially that of the conservative Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney, who sponsored a similar program when he was governor of Massachusetts. But when the Obama Administration came knocking on Grassley's door, Grassley refused to answer. Indeed, virtually all Republicans refused to answer, apparently taking their cue from Mitch McConnell, who described their job as one of making sure that Obama would only be a one term president, (That worked well, didn’t it?). I'd never call Charles Grassley enlightened, progressive, or nonpartisan, but I thought he would negotiate to reach some agreement on this important issue. Instead, Grassley went on the hustings and countenanced talk about “death panels”.  My begrudging admiration for Grassley took a plunge equivalent to that of the stock market in 2008. Grassley was now displaying the type of partisanship that has destroyed the public's confidence in Congress, which currently receives a whopping single-digit approval rating. This same extreme partisanship continues to poison the well of political debate. I was disappointed with his intransigence, especially because Grassley had never lost an election and seemed more than safe to keep his seat until he retires or croaks (at age 82 you need to be frank about this possibility). But I underestimated his attachment to keeping a Senate seat and the fear that he developed about the growing Tea Party (or alt-right) wing of the Republican party that was taking down incumbent senators and representatives— some dyed-in-wool conservatives—as too moderate. The extremists were on the move, and they obviously scared Grassley.

During the Obama administration, Grassley has only grown worse. Now as chairman of
The Grinch of the Supreme Court
the Senate Judiciary Committee, he’s shirking his constitutional duty to act upon a presidential nomination to the Supreme Court. Grassley has refused to do his job. His excuses for doing so, including “leaving it to the people" by shunning his duty until after the next election. The argument is weak to the point of being farcical. It is an unalloyed act of partisanship that indicates he wants Donald Trump (more on this guy later) to fill this current Supreme Court vacancy. Despite the unimpeachable credentials of President Obama's nominee Merrick Garland, a moderate and sensible jurist praised by Grassley upon his approval for the US Circuit Court of Appeals, Grassley actively collaborates with the obstructionist leadership of the Republican Party to keep the Court partially vacant rather than approve another Obama appointee.

I thought my estimation of Senator Grassley could not go lower, but I learned that it could. He supports Donald Trump. And he has attempted to excuse Trump's racist remarks about a U.S. District Court Judge (Curiel). Of course, this is only the one instance of a non-stop eruption of offensive and demagogic nonsense that issues from Trump’s mouth (or Twitter account). Grassley, seeking re- election this year, is buying into it, excusing it, and even promoting it.

The term “Vichy Republicans”, which alludes to the French government that collaborated with the Nazis, has become a hashtag on Twitter and represents the attitude of Republicans who know (and admit to knowing) a demagogue when they encounter one. One can argue that this is an overblown metaphor, but it captures the level of capitulation that Republican leaders, which ought to include Grassley, have sunk in accepting the demagoguery of Donald Trump. It’s obvious that more than the welfare of the Republic, Grassley wants reelection. He believes that by joining in the politics of resentment and nativism cultivated by Trump, Grassley can avoid the wrath of the extremist right and win reelection. He’s counting on his good name and reputation—and the lassitude of most voters—to overlook his bargain with the devil. Damn the consequences of a demagogue like Trump to the nation, damn the judgment of some courageous Republicans like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Max Kirk of Illinois, who have repudiated Trump—to retain his position and power for another six years, Grassley is willing to aid and abet the politics of Trump. Charles Grassley wants reelection at age 83 more than he cares about the integrity of our politics. He’s sold us out.

So again in 2016, I’ll vote against Charles Grassley, as I have on every occasion available to me since my first effort in 1974. Senator. Grassley has always been able to convince a majority of voters that he's the better choice, but now it’s no longer simply a matter of likeability, “common sense”, or sound judgment. Charles Grassley's has destroyed our ability to attribute those virtues to him. He no longer deserves to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Wherein I Take the @nntaleb IYI Test & Fail

Your image of this writer
Herr Doktor Professor: stern master
I’m going to take the Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNT) test to determine if I am an IYI (“intellectual yet idiot”). Of course, right off the bat you can see I’m trying to play chess with Washington Square hustlers or a pick-up game with NBA studs—I’m out of my league here. I’m not an intellectual, I’m not an academic, and I don’t write for a living outside of legal briefs and memos. I’m just a practicing lawyer. But I do have an abiding interest in ideas. I’ve always been fascinated by how the world works, how it came to this point, and how we might tinker with it. I've enjoyed and believe that I've benefited from reading NNT's books (Bed of Procrustes excepted). But I must emphasize, unlike NNT, I’m an amateur, not a flâneur.

So with my disqualifications in place, let me go through the NNT test, line-by-line, to obtain my ranking. Taleb’s criteria are in plain type followed by my responses in italics.

What's IYI?

 Intellectual Yet Idiot:  [I just said, I’m not an intellectual. Whether I’m an idiot or not is open to further discussion. I imagine—nay, know—there are compelling arguments in the affirmative for this conclusion]

semi-erudite bureaucrat [I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the bureaucratic party. I’ve been either in a partnership or self-employed for about 30 years]

who thinks he is an erudite [I aspire to erudition, I do not claim it];

pathologizes others for doing things he doesn't understand not realizing it is his understanding that may be limited [Maybe, sometimes. Who hasn’t made this error?];

imparts normative ideas to others [Like NNT?]:

thinks people should act according to their best interests [A question of definition here: narrowly or broadly defined? And note “should”, not “do”]

*and* he knows their interests, particularly if they are uneducated "red necks" or English non-crisp-vowel class. [Well, to some extent, yes. I’ve had people pay me for my advice & opinions for over 30 years. On the other hand, I hope I have some sense of humility. Do you know this word, “humility”?]

More socially
subscribes to the New Yorker [Yes, I do. Are you suggesting Paris Match instead? In the New Yorker I skip the ads and focus more than I should on the cartoons; indeed, we have a whole book of New Yorker cartoons—quite fun. Is there a penalty for having a New Yorker book--or two?];

never curses on twitter [Although known on occasion to use profane, scatological, or crude language in person, I abjure it in public discourse. There’s already enough vulgarity out there—plus someone would always out do me.  I do, however, admit to excessive snark on Twitter. Perhaps there’s a New Year’s resolution in there]; 

speaks of "equality of races" and "economic equality" but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver [We’ll I’ve lived and hung with people of different races, and I’m in favor of a greater degree of economic equality than what we currently experience. I grew up middle-class in a small Iowa town where rich kids (by local standards) pretty much had to mingle in school with poorer ones because there was only one school and too few of us to avoid some mingling. As to drinking with a cab driver, no; but with my fellow road construction workers? Oh, yeah. It was, you may say, satisfactory]; 

has considered voting for Tony Blair [N/A. I’m not a Brit! But I did vote for Bill Clinton 2x & will for HRC (see below)];

has attended more than 1 TEDx talks and watched more than 2 TED talks [Never been to a TED Talk, but I’ve watched more than two. I rather like them on the whole. I’ve also watched NNT on YouTube at festivals (presumably not literary and not in the UK). How does that score? BTW, some of my favorite peeps have given a TED Talk]; 

will vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable [Deferred to the finale];

has The Black Swan on his shelves [I have two copies: one hardcover in storage & one on my Kindle. Do I get extra credit?]

but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence [It’s a catchy slogan but I have to bone up to determine if the converse is also true: absence of evidence may be evidence of absence. In which case, how do we distinguish the two instances? I will say this from my humble perch as a practicing attorney: try convincing a judge or a jury that X exists when you have no evidence (an absence of evidence) that X exists—a case not to take on a contingent fee. If I find no evidence of tigers in my yard (sightings, paw prints, scats, animal carcasses, etc.), then it's highly likely—although not certain—that there are no tigers in my yard. Despite appropriate and convincing examples in The Black Swan, NNT tries to skate too far with this slogan];

is member of a club to get traveling privileges [no, just credit card miles; no clubs. I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member!];

if social scientist uses statistics without knowing how they are derived [Not a social scientist. I’m respectful but wary of statistics, suspicious that they may conceal lies and damned lies];

when in the UK goes to literary festivals [I’ve never been to a literary festival in the UK, but when in India I go to the Jaipur Literature Festival. How did you like your sojourn there, NNT?];

drinks red wine with steak (never white) [Usually red, but then I’m from the Midwest and care more about the steak anyway];

used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed [True--after learning about Art DeVany in NNT’s Fooled By Randomness (read in 2007), and then on to Gary Taubes, Mark Sisson and other others of their ilk];

takes statins because his doctor told him so [No, not necessary. Good cholesterol profile because of good fats; see the previous answer];

fails to understand ergodicity and when explained forgets about it soon later [Got me! I’ll check it on Wikipedia later. Allowed?];

doesn't use Yiddish words [Only a schmuck wouldn’t!];

studies grammar before speaking a language [no, my wife—an ESL teacher—wouldn’t let me be so foolish. Besides I need to eat and use the restroom];

has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen [Really? Come on, are all your readers from the UK? I don’t have a Queen];

has never read Frederic Dard [Who? Okay, you got me. But have you read Hammett, Chandler, McDonald, Elmore, Greenleaf—you know, authors that others read? Okay, the last name was a plug for my cousin],

Michael Oakeshott [no, on my list to read, but you’ve read Collingwood & rate him ahead of Oakeshott, correct?],

 John Gray [short pieces only],

or Joseph De Maistre [read about him in the autumn of 1975 in Shklar’s After Utopia & he didn’t seem worth my time; on review, he still doesn’t. Time better spent on Burke. Yes, I know, but Burke is Anglo-Irish and writes in English]; 

has never gotten drunk with Russians and went breaking glasses [Guilty, but I don’t feel guilty];

doesn't know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba [Not off the top of my head, no]; 

doesn't know that there is no difference between "pseudointellectual" and "intellectual" [I’m not sure, but you’ll tell me]; 

has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past 5 years [No, I don’t understand it, although from what I know, it is intriguing];

knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation [I follow GW (for non-Americans, George Washington) do attempt to maintain a good reputation. I don’t buy the Trumpian notion that any publicity is good publicity.]

But a much easier marker: doesn't deadlift. [I do, but not as often as I should. Do you get credit for kettlebell swings and standing presses? Pavel would give me credit]

The IYI, Taleb adds, look down at the great unwashed Plebes who haven't read Foucault in college [Mme neither, I’m too old, he wasn’t a big deal then]

and treat them like crap - as if they were inferior forms of life incapable of directing their own affairs. [Nope, I don’t truck with that attitude].

But when you make them feel uncultured, lacking in intellect, and unlearned, like all bureaucrao-journalists, being all tawk, they get very queasy: hit them where it hurts.

They are arrogant down, they will be arrogantified from up.

Speaking of arrogance, back to my deferred answer about “will vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable.” A few words:

NNT is using—what is to his mind—guilt by association. Perhaps it’s my attorney-mind or perhaps my wishful thinking that reason can ultimately trump [irony] innuendo, but I have to call “baloney!” on this. (I concede demerits here for not swearing.) Maybe NNT has a good argument about Monsanto and GMOs. As a matter of personality and pragmatics, I give a lot of credence to the precautionary principle. But a lot of those who’ve given these issues serious thought disagree with NNT about the safety of GMOs. I don’t claim to have a definitive answer. Nor does Hillary Clinton, I suspect. (Neither on her campaign website nor in an issues Wikipedia entry could I find anything about GMOs.)  The meme NNT wants to draw upon is that HRC is an insider and therefore in cahoots with multi-national corporations who want to mess with our food while lining their pockets. (Can I get credit for “cahoots” as exotic, albeit not Yiddish?)  Well, okay, the part about the corporations is probably true, but it assumes a naïve understanding of what a person—even a president—knows or can do about any particular issue, especially one not likely to affect the outcome of an election.

The other point is that I support Hillary Clinton for president. I don’t do so because she’s “electable”, I do so because she is the best choice for my vote, and has been since the beginning of the primary season. An unusually large number of people want to kvetch (award Yiddish use points please) about the candidates this year, and if it makes them feel better, go ahead. As Clay Shirky has so persuasively explained, in the end, one of two persons will be elected the next president. One is an experienced prototypical politician with insider experience and credentials—thank goodness! (Non-swearing demerit acknowledged.)  The other is a demagogue. Each election tests a voter’s political intelligence and savvy in deciding whom to vote for or (if politically active), whom to support. But this year it isn’t just a test of political judgment, it’s a test of character and of fundamental issues of political morality. To suggest otherwise is reprehensible.

And if supporting Hillary Clinton means I fail the test, then screw the test! (Can I get half-credit for this last phrase, Herr Doktor Professor?)