Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Remembering Duke Cunningham's bribe menu

It might get topped by Trump Administration revelations in the near future. But before it does, I thought I might let tell you the wildest corruption story of my time following American politics.

Back in 2005, Duke Cunningham was a Republican Congressman from California. Mitchell Wade was a defense contractor who found every chance to bribe him. When Cunningham was selling his house, Wade bought it for $1.675 million. Shortly afterwards, Wade's firm started getting tens of millions of dollars in contracts. The house was back on the market for $975,000 months later. That amounts to a $700,000 bribe.

The smaller bribes were more garish. In DC, Cunningham lived on Wade's docked 42-foot yacht. Cunningham would shop for expensive stuff he liked (Persian rugs, a used Rolls-Royce), and Wade would pay for it. Prosecutors uncovering the corruption found a strange memo on Cunningham's office stationery, in his handwriting:
What is this? My friends, it's a bribe menu. To complete the bribe for $16 million in contracts, Wade gave Cunningham control of the boat, which cost $140,000. For each further million in contracts, Wade would have to bribe Cunningham $50K. But after getting to $20 million in contracts, Wade would have to pay only $25K for each million. If you didn't know that you could get volume discounts in bribing corrupt politicians, well, that's the sort of information I'm happy to provide.

The prosecutors' document described it as "malversation unprecedented in the long history of Congress" which is some pretty serious... malversation? I've never heard that word before. Anyway, Cunningham was sentenced to 8 years in prison. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

But is he a blue whale or a right whale?

While it would be pretty neat if Trump were colluding with the Prince of Whales, I’ve never believed these deep state conspiracy theories.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Ethnic nationalism before and after the Cold War

I wonder if the rise of ethnic nationalism in recent years is simply a reversion to what was historically normal up until the Cold War.

This history is extreme in its horrors. Ethnic nationalist conflict in the first half of the 20th century included World Wars and genocides that killed tens of millions. For centuries before that, colonial empires enslaved and committed genocides against native peoples. The greatest slaughter occurred under governments whose ideologies were those of peoples with one blood -- the Third Reich, the Belgian monarchy, the British Empire, and everyone who sent their young men to die in the trenches of World War I.

With the Cold War came more universal, abstract ideologies. One might fight for communism against capitalism, or for democracy against dictatorship. These ideologies suited the purposes of decision-makers in Moscow and Washington, and made for better advertising to Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans who were rising in power after the end of colonialism. For obvious reasons, developing-country folk were an implausible market for Russian or American nationalism. But you could get them interested in communism or democracy.

When the Cold War ended and its banners were put away, the strongest political units in the world were still national rather than international. So it was easy for the old flags of ethnic nationalism to come out again, for whatever reasons people had flown them before. That's what we're seeing now.

Will new versions of the old horrors come back with them? This may be the great and terrible question of our time. I hope that global economic changes will help to dampen conflict -- for example, the rise in prosperity after the end of colonialism and the necessity of international cooperation in the modern economy. But there are reasons for pessimism too, as technology lets us harm each other much more easily than we could before, whether through war or climate change. And if the past is any guide, we can fall very far.

My role models for such times tend to be the old scientists -- in philosophy, I guess the flavor would be sort of Vienna Circle. They enjoyed the clever weird ideas of their smart friends from different countries, and faced their collapsing world more with public-spirited Enlightenment optimism than cynical postmodern world-weariness. I think their sort of liberal internationalism wins in the end -- well, there's optimism for you. But win or lose, those are the people I identify with in times like these.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

How we got here on abortion

I just looked through the last 15-25 years of of polling on abortion. Depending on which questions you ask -- and Gallup asked a lot of them -- you can get opinions moving slightly in either direction over time. I'd say this means that opinions have stayed more or less the same.

The abortion bans we're seeing in Alabama and other places aren't the result of a change in public opinion. They're effects of Republican electoral success over the past few decades. Republicans pass these laws now because they expect Republican-appointed anti-abortion judges to approve them. The judges were confirmed because Republicans won elections. (Some people say the judges probably won't approve these extreme laws. But the laws they will approve will soon be forthcoming.)

I think Republicans won the key elections largely because of weird stuff involving electoral maps. Their party has become more rural and less urban, giving it increasing structural advantages in Congress and the Electoral College. If not for these advantages, Democrats would have won 6 of the past 7 Presidential elections and they'd have a solid Senate majority. (The Republican state legislators passing these bills are often in gerrymandered districts, so they made their own luck.)

Anyway, as far as I can tell, people didn't change their minds that much one way or the other. Republicans got stronger because we have a badly designed system that was established as a compromise with powerful slaveowners. They manipulated that system for their own purposes. Fixing the system so that it doesn't give Republicans constant partisan advantages is how you stop abortion bans, protect refugees from brutal mistreatment, and save the planet from climate change. So it's something I really focus on.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Getting electability right

It's important to win Presidential elections and not lose them. So it makes sense for Democrats to care about which primary candidates are more likely to win than others. Unfortunately, Democratic thinking on electability has followed a bad strategy: choosing the candidate with the most salient Republican cultural signifiers.

Today those are the whiteness and maleness of Joe Biden. But in late 2003, deep in the shadow of 9/11, it was John Kerry's record as a decorated war veteran. Unfortunately, a Republican smear campaign cast doubt on Kerry's reputation (some will recall the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth). Because of that and other things, Bush was re-elected in the depths of the Iraq War.

In 2007, still in 9/11's long shadow, probably nobody theorized that Democrats had to nominate an African-American whose dad was from Kenya, whose middle name was "Hussein", and whose surname rhymed with "Osama". But we nominated him, and he won the election and the next election.

The point here is that having Republican cultural signifiers just doesn't predict that much about how likely you are to win the general election. Maybe it helps a little in winning over persuadable Republican voters, which I guess is the whole idea. But that effect is mediated by big random things and can't be relied on.

Some people say that you should just vote for whoever you prefer, and that'll guide you to the most electable candidate. That's probably better than the Republican cultural signifier method. But we want to go beyond our own idiosyncracies, and I think we can do that.

My main method is to look at polling data. In particular, I like looking at candidates' national favorability ratings in a good selection of national polls, right when it's time to vote. In early 2008, Obama was pretty consistently getting net favorability numbers over +20 and occasionally over +30 (the best was 61 favorable, 27 unfavorable). This doesn't predict everything. The campaign can go badly, as it did for Kerry. But if a candidate is scoring high without exhibiting the Republican cultural signifiers, it's a sign of political talent, which Obama definitely had.

(Democrats also seem to do better when nominating relative neophytes like Obama and Bill Clinton than when nominating old party hands like Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. Maybe a shorter record just has less bad stuff. I count inexperience as a slight plus for electability, which is weird but fits the data too well. Maybe the favorability thing encompasses the whole effect? I want more data.)

Anyway, don't worry too much about electability now. There's a big campaign ahead of us. There's plenty of time for Elizabeth Warren to build a national reputation for having awesome ideas about how to give you more money, and put that weird Native American scandal behind her.

But if you want to think about it when the time comes, look at polls. They're a survey of the voters, and the voters decide. The information you want is there.

Friday, May 3, 2019

NUS hires Fatema Amijee and Ethan Jerzak!

NUS Philosophy is proud to announce the hiring of two young philosophers with prolific research achievements: Fatema Amijee and Ethan Jerzak!

Fatema's research has focused on metaphysics and the history of philosophy. Her forthcoming papers include "Explaining Contingent Facts" in Philosophical Studies, "Neo-Rationalist Metaphysics" in an Oxford volume on the Principle of Sufficient Reason that she is co-editing, "Metaphysical Explanation in Spinoza and Leibniz" in the Routledge Handbook of Metaphysical Grounding, and "Russell's Commitment to the Principle of Acquaintance" in the Oxford Handbook of Bertrand Russell. She got her PhD from the University of Texas in 2017, four years after publishing "The Role of Attention in Russell's Theory of Knowledge" in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy.

Ethan's research is primarily on philosophy of language, epistemology, and logic. He will receive his PhD this year from the University of California at Berkeley. Two of his papers have already come out -- "Non-Classical Knowledge" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, and "Two Ways to Want" in the Journal of Philosophy, for which he won a Sanders Graduate Award. He is also author of "Paradoxical Desires", forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.

One of the best things about working at NUS is the constant stream of stellar junior colleagues who keep appearing around me. Adding Fatema and Ethan is a great success for our department, and I look forward to having them around in the coming academic year.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Impeachment leads to Trump acquittal. Take it to the people!

Mueller Time has come. Some writers characterize his report as an "impeachment referral", which seems like the correct read of his intentions. The by-the-book move was to refer questions of collusion and obstruction to Congress, and Mueller is a by-the-book guy.

Unfortunately, some things in the Constitution don't actually work. Impeachment is one of them. Here we run into the unfortunate fact that the founders didn't see political parties coming.

In a less partisan time, 67 independent-minded Senators might have been able to agree to convict. It won't happen now, because Republicans have a majority and their Senators aren't independent-minded. Republican primary voters love Trump, and their Senators often worry more about their primaries than about the general election. Moreover, Trump has satisfied Republicans' core commitments on judicial nominations and taxes. So the Senators aren't in any hurry to impeach.

Nancy Pelosi counts votes as well as anyone ever has, and she knows we won't have the numbers. This isn't a lack of boldness -- she's willing to make bold moves when Senate passage is possible but uncertain. I remember when she got major climate change legislation through the House in 2009. That time we needed 60 Senators, and we had that many Democrats until Ted Kennedy died. This time we need 67 Senators, and we have 47 Democrats. With Mitch McConnell's accursed ability to hold his caucus together behind Trump, there's no way impeachment is happening, at least on the current Mueller Report.

So if you're going to support impeaching Trump in the House, you have to face the consequences of his acquittal in the Senate. When Russia issues come up in the 2020 campaign, I don't want Trump to be able to boast that he was acquitted, and say that the issue is behind us. Starting impeachment proceedings is supposed to be a punishment, but here it may just give Trump the gift of acquittal. It's too bad that the founders didn't build us something that actually worked.

The way to get rid of Trump always was the 2020 election. There's stuff in the present report to help with that. Further investigations from other prosecutors who are currently following up on the redacted parts of the report will help even more.

Russia probably shouldn't be the main thing we run on, but it'll be among the things worth bringing up. "Elizabeth Warren cares about you; Donald Trump cares about Vladimir Putin" will be a nice kind of subsidiary message. I look forward to using it in to win a vote where we don't need to get 67%, and which isn't held in Mitch McConnell's lair. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The strategic power of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Since I like to tell my political friends about insidery Pelosi-type stuff where I feel I can provide new information, I don't end up discussing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez much. She plays the outside game. And she plays it so well.

She has an amazingly varied political skillset that we don't have anywhere else -- social media ability, strategic acumen in asking questions during congressional investigations, and a sense for how to move the Overton window leftward. Her early advocacy for higher taxes helped to bring Sanders' similarly large income tax increase and Warren's especially interesting wealth tax within the frame of legitimate discourse.

She can do this because she's in a district where Democrats win 75%-80% of the presidential vote share. Republicans can depress her poll numbers nationally -- which they're doing with constant Fox News attacks -- and she'll still win her district comfortably every time.

I like the fact that she's taking so much right-wing lightning and not running for President. Having a Congressional lightning rod sticking up to where Presidential candidates are getting zapped less often is nice!

It's the same way I like seeing Republican media still shooting at Hillary. She won't be running again! Gentlemen, keep wasting your ammunition on a non-candidate. And perhaps when you're beaten in 2020 by someone you should've been shooting at instead, that will be Hillary's strange revenge against those who hated her.

Rumor has it that AOC has attracted a Republican challenger for 2020, who wants to run on a pro-ICE line in the 50% Hispanic district. I hope Republicans donate heavily. Waste your money too, gentlemen. Maybe we'll beat the Senators you should've donated to, and pass the wealth tax. Don't worry, it'll cost you a little less after you wasted that money.

It seems that right-wing media has made its people hate her, while left-wing media still hasn't gotten the message all the way out to its people yet. So to all those of you sharing AOC memes: thanks for helping. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Some SDNY speculation after Mueller

Plausible-optimistic speculation is that instead of indicting Trump himself, Mueller simply passed the investigations on to other prosecutors. If one of them is SDNY, the office that got Michael Cohen, this could really have the feel of a movie script.

SDNY is where Preet Bharara used to work (and where he won 85 consecutive insider trading cases). He was prosecuting Prevezon, a Russian mafia-linked corporation, for a $200 million money-laundering fine under the Magnitsky Act. Then the Trump Administration fired him. With the prosecution disrupted, Prevezon settled for a mere $6 million fine, as their attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya was delighted to announce.

It was Veselnitskaya, a former Soviet counterintelligence officer, and a translator who met with Manafort, Kushner, and Donald Jr in Trump Tower during the campaign to talk about the Magnitsky Act and about "dirt on Clinton". Trump Tower is geographically within the Southern District of New York.

So, that's a lot to absorb if you haven't heard it before. But here's the upshot. SDNY is famous for being ferocious. How do you think they feel about having Bharara knocked off a case against the Russian mafia, and having to settle for $6M out of $200M? I can't imagine they're too happy about it.

As it happens, the apparent quid pro quo that got their superstar fired and lost them the case was negotiated within their jurisdiction. So maybe it's for the best that Mueller didn't bring any indictments. Someone less constrained and more furious might have said to him, "This one is ours."

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Eulogy for my father

My father died in January of this year. This is the eulogy I read at his funeral, about a month ago.

Achintya Kumar Sinhababu was born in a tiny village called Kadakuli, in the Indian province of West Bengal. The name translates to “Muddy Road”, and the total population was probably under a hundred. Much of his family still lives there – we’re the only ones who live in America. They’re having a funeral for him there too now, with hundreds of people from surrounding villages in attendance.

Apart from knowing that he was born in the early 1950s, we aren’t sure about the date or even the year of his birth. Back in those days, people used to write down inaccurate birthdates to get extra rations from the government. But the modern world is full of forms that require you to claim a birthdate, so April 3 1951 is what he used.

If you met my father in the last few years, you probably knew him simply as a sweet old retired man, which is indeed who he was. But since you might not know as much about his journey from that poor village in India to being a top research scientist in America, that’s what I want to spend some time telling you about.

Those of us who are born in the US take it for granted that we’ll be able to go to high school. But many people on the village didn’t have any education beyond elementary school, and India was poor enough back then that high school had to be paid for privately. Fortunately, my dad had stellar test scores in junior high, and my grandfather used those scores to convince the headmaster of a boarding school some distance away to admit him for free.

Despite coming from a poorer background than many of his fellow students, Dad kept doing well academically and soon got a reputation as the smartest kid in the class. Only two meals a day were provided at the high school, and during hard times back home he had trouble getting enough money from the family for a third. But because of how well he was doing in class, wealthier students were happy to trade their food to him for tutoring.

In high school, Dad discovered chemistry, the focus of his work for the rest of his life. He told me a month before he died that the one thing he always had was that he understood the atom better than anyone else. And that’s how he achieved success in life – understanding chemistry from the atoms up.

He did well enough on the exams at the end of high school to win a scholarship to Presidency College – the most prestigious university in the state and one of the most prestigious in all of India. From there, he was accepted to do his Masters degree at IIT Kanpur, a top Indian science and engineering school. At the next level, American universities started to get interested. After sending out applications to places that didn’t insist on charging application fees, because he didn’t have the money to pay, he was invited to do a PhD at the University of Iowa.

Right before he went to Iowa, he married a girl from a village a short distance away.  Mom’s mom had been going to the temple and praying that Dad would marry her daughter. Grandma was delighted, and it also turned out very well for my brother, my sister, and I that they got married.

So after setting up in Des Moines, Dad went home to bring his wife along with with him. It must have been bewildering for Mom – a girl from an Indian village, going straight into an Iowa winter. She had to learn her English in America. We don't really have any pictures from back then, because Mom and Dad didn’t have enough money for a camera.

In 1980, Dad got his PhD and was offered a postdoc at the University of Kansas. He would finally have enough money to start a family, so that’s when I come into existence. It’s also when there’s enough money to buy a camera, so we have more pictures starting around then. Robin is born in 1983.

Dad raised us with an immigrant’s sense of the amazing possibility ahead of us in America. To him, America was the land of opportunity, the place where he could rise to levels of success that weren’t really possible in India. He wanted us to work hard and succeed in the amazing new world ahead of us. He still tried to teach us some of the best things of the old country – we watched the 94-part Indian TV series of the Mahabharat, the great Indian epic. But the overall cultural direction was forward into America. We learned baseball, not cricket. Dad was a big fan of Westerns. He really liked High Noon and its iconic theme song.

When he wasn’t at home, Dad was off in the lab doing science. Since Dad being amazing at chemistry is what’s driving this whole story, I want to tell a little science story to help you understand that.

This is from when Dad was a postdoc, working in the lab at the University of Kansas, trying to answer the questions chemistry researchers are supposed to answer. He was researching a reaction that was important to industrial chemists, who were trying to set it up in factories to make a lot of some useful molecule. A problem they often run into is that their reactions only make a small amount of the molecule, and make a lot of waste. With the reaction Dad was researching, Kansas, an input molecule kept reacting with itself, leading to lots of waste products which happened to smell terrible.

Dad got the idea that the surface of silica gel had the right structure to hold the input molecule apart from other molecules of its kind when the reaction was started. Separated from each other, the input molecules woldn’t react with themselves. Then the reaction would proceed efficiently, without the bad-smelling waste products. I think he could just see this in his scientific imagination as he thought about the molecules. So he put some silica gel in when he did the reaction, and got very little waste. He published a paper on this in the September 1983 volume of the Journal of Organic Chemistry. The title is "Silica gel assisted reductive cyclization of alkoxy-2, .beta.-dinitrostyrenes to alkoxyindoles."

After the paper came out, he went to a conference where two chemists working in industry publicly thanked him for figuring out how to do a clean synthesis of the desired product. One expressed wonder that silica gel, of all things, was the way to make it work. If I understand how Dad figured that out, it’s basically a matter of understanding the atom, working your way up from there to how atoms come together form the surface of silica gel, and then understanding what that surface will do to affect a chemical reaction.

While the actual science was going well, Dad still wasn’t finding the job openings to become a professor like he’d always wanted. So in 1988, he and Mom took me and Robin to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Supriya would soon be born. That’s where he would start working in the pharmaceutical industry for Glaxo, which eventually became Glaxo Wellcome, which eventually became GlaxoSmithKline, which is now called GSK.

Once he got to industry, Dad’s career really took off. He turned his understanding of atoms and molecules to a new and important topic: Drug metabolism, or how to make sure pharmaceuticals do what they’re supposed to in your body. When you take some medicine, it has to be swallowed, survive the stomach acid, get absorbed in the intestine, not be toxic to something else in your body, and then actually do the thing it’s supposed to do. Shaping a molecule so that it could dodge all the stomach enzymes and get absorbed and not be toxic and do its job was the order of business. Dad started out working on that as a pharmaceutical chemist, and later in his career was hired to manage teams of scientists working on those issues for major pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Those management responsibilities are what brought him from North Carolina to Philadelphia with GlaxoSmithKline, and Philadelphia to the San Francisco Bay area with Genentech. They brought him in to build new groups of scientists working on drug metabolism. And that’s what he did, hiring fast and building big teams of scientists.

After his work with Genentech was finished, Dad retired to Roseville, where many of you know him from. After five decades of hard work, he was finally free to relax. Nature and science were never far away – he’d spend the evenings watching YouTube videos about the animal kingdom and space exploration. I wish he could’ve had many more years of contented evenings like that – it would’ve been a fitting reward for decades of contributing to scientific knowledge. But I don’t think he felt he really needed a reward for that. Figuring out the answers is what a scientist wants to do, for its own sake, and that’s what he did.