Contrasting Temperaments


If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

This week’s featured post is “Choose your enemies well“.

This week everybody was talking about the State of the Union

In the featured post, I describe why Biden’s speech was strategically brilliant. Joe Biden will never have Barack Obama’s skillful delivery, but Tuesday he pulled off a maneuver Sun Tzu would have appreciated: He occupied an easily defended position and then baited his opponents into attacking him there.

One thing I forgot to mention about Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the Republican SOTU response: She painted Biden’s America as a dystopia and blamed Democratic policies. I was struck by this quote:

After years of democratic attacks on law enforcement and calls to defund the police, violent criminals roam free while law-abiding families live in fear.

It’s worthwhile to look up the states with the highest homicide rates in the country, as of 2020 (the most recent year I could find statistics for): Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas. All have Republican legislatures, and only one (Louisiana) has a Democratic governor. So whatever might be causing violent crime, I doubt it’s Democratic proposals for police reform.

and the earthquake

I don’t have anything to add to the mainstream media reports. The death toll continues to rise as would-be rescuers dig bodies out of the rubble. It’s currently up to 36,000.

and House Republicans’ hearings

When Republicans took control of the House, the big thing they promised (other than the debt-ceiling hostage crisis currently scheduled for June) was investigation. A few of their planned topics are legitimately things Congress should look into, like how people defrauded Covid relief programs and whether there was a better way to withdraw from Afghanistan. Good hearings on these topics could generate lessons for future Congresses.

But most of what McCarthy & Company have planned is political theater, meant to popularize and legitimize right-wing conspiracy theories: Anthony Fauci’s role in creating the Covid virus, the Twitter/FBI conspiracy against Trump, some previously unenumerated set of crimes that Hunter Biden’s laptop supposedly proves, and so on.

Kevin McCarthy’s problems securing the speakership delayed opening night, but now the hearings are underway. Sadly for him, though, they’re not going according to plan. You see, unlike the auditions that Fox News has been airing for two years now, the actual hearings include Democrats, some of whom are quite smart and do their homework. (My favorite source for clips from these hearings is to follow Acyn on Twitter.)

For example, House Weaponization Committee Chair Jim Jordan called “expert” witness Jonathan Turley to testify that

The Twitter Files raise serious questions of whether the United States government is now a partner in what may be the largest censorship system in our history. The involvement cuts across the Executive Branch, with confirmed coordination with agencies ranging from the CDC to the CIA. Even based on our limited knowledge, the size of this censorship system is breathtaking, and we only know of a fraction of its operations through the Twitter Files.

But then Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz made him admit that he doesn’t actually know anything beyond the cherry-picked claims the rest of us have seen.

DWS: Mr. Turley turning to you. Have you ever worked for Twitter?
Turley: No.
DWS: Do you have any formal relationship with the company?
Turley: No.
DWS: Do you have any specific or special or unique knowledge about the inner workings of Twitter?
Turley: Nothing beyond the Twitter Files and what I read in the media.

In this clip from the House Oversight Committee, AOC interviews Anika Collier Navaroli, a former member of Twitter’s content moderation team. She reviews then-President Trump tweeting that AOC and three other women of color in Congress should “go back where they came from”, and gets Navaroli to verify that:

  • At that time, Twitter’s content moderation guide specifically mentioned telling immigrants to “go back where you came from” as an example of banned abuse.
  • A higher official at Twitter overrode the content-moderation team’s assessment that Trump was in violation of the site’s policy.
  • Within days, that example was removed from the content moderation guide.

AOC: So Twitter changed their own policy after the President violated it, in order to essentially accommodate his tweet?
Navaroli: Yes.
AOC: Thank you. So much for bias against the right wing on Twitter.

That hearing was supposed to focus on a nefarious conspiracy between Twitter and Democrats in government to suppress free speech. But in fact the most striking case was of Trump trying to get a tweet by model Chrissy Tiegen removed because she called him a “pussy ass bitch”. (Trump can dish it out, but he can’t take it. Maybe that’s because he’s a … no, I won’t repeat it.)

And then there’s this epic rant by Rep. Jared Moskowitz. No single quote stands out; it’s just an end-to-end takedown. Along the way, he mentions this recent article from the WaPo, describing the direct financial benefits that Donald Trump and Jared Kushner have gotten from their relationship with Saudi Crown Prince MBS. The corruption described is much less speculative than what Hunter Biden is accused of.

The House Oversight Committee’s hearings about the border are also revealing more than Republicans expected. This full hearing is three hours, but if you skip to 1:40, you can hear Scott Perry (of 1-6 conspiracy fame) question John Modlin, chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. Perry quotes statistics showing that more migrants were apprehended at the border after Biden took office, and then badgers Modlin to tell him “what changed?”, clearly fishing for a condemnation of the Biden administration. Instead, Modlin explains that during post-arrest interviews, migrants said that they thought the border was open now.

Perry: The migrants said that they thought the border was open, right?
Modlin: Yes.
Perry: Why did they think that?
Modlin: They thought that, sir. … well, I don’t know. What they told us was that they had heard it was open. Sir, in my experience, it only takes a few people to say the right words, and it travels.

Why did they think the border was open? I don’t know, Scott. Maybe it’s because lying about Biden’s “open border” policy has been a major Republican talking point. (In the last Congress, for example, a number of Republicans introduced the “Close Biden’s Open Border Act“.) Maybe migrants think the border is open because they listen to people like you.

George Santos is not unique. There also appear to be problems with the story Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) tells about herself.

but I want to give you an example of what “sifting” means

Every week, I see upsetting headlines that I decide are not worth your attention. This week, I ran across one so perfect that I thought I would highlight it as an example of the kinds of links you should ignore when they appear on your news feed: “Bill would ban the teaching of scientific theories in Montana schools“.

I have to confess that my first reaction was “Bill Who?”. But then I clicked through and read the article and the proposed legislation it’s based on.

Here’s what it’s about: A newly elected member of the Montana Senate introduced a truly stupid two-page piece of legislation that would limit K-12 science classes to teaching “scientific fact”, which it defines as “an indisputable and repeatable observation of a natural phenomenon”. Anything else is a “theory”, which is “speculation and is for higher education to explore, debate, and test to ultimately reach a scientific conclusion of fact or fiction”.

The bill looks like an attempt to get theories like evolution or climate change out of the K-12 curriculum. But the author clearly has no idea what “fact” and “theory” mean in a scientific context. A fact is something immediately observable, like where Jupiter is in the sky at a particular moment. A theory is a model that explains facts; the solar system, for example. (You can never “observe” the solar system. You can just observe where the planets are.) And no matter how many facts go into forming a theory, or how often a theory is confirmed by observation, it never becomes “indisputable”. (Think how many times Newton’s laws were confirmed by experiment before scientists started testing them near the speed of light, where they don’t work.)

So the whole idea that science chews on theories until they become “fact or fiction” is misguided. Theories and facts are two different kinds of things; one never becomes the other. (The missing word here is hypothesis, which is an insufficiently tested theory. Science tests hypotheses against observations until they are either disproved or become increasingly trustworthy.)

OK then, it’s a dumb bill that would, among other things, ban Montana schools from teaching kids about the solar system. But why do I say you shouldn’t concern yourself with it? Wouldn’t this be a terrible law?

Yes, of course it would. But so far it’s just one ignorant man spouting off. If you live in Great Falls and he happens to be your senator, you should care. But nothing about the bill indicates that it’s on its way to becoming law. It has one sponsor. It has been heard by the relevant committee, which took no action on it. And the bill’s official record already includes a “legal review note“; two lawyers working for the legislature point out that it would violate the Montana constitution, which doesn’t give the legislature this kind of power over curricula.

Conclusion: Don’t waste your energy getting upset about this bill.

Every week, I see stuff like this and decide not to call it to your attention. Thought you should know.

and you also might be interested in …

Every day or two now, we hear about another atmospheric object that the Pentagon is shooting down. There’s still no good explanation of what they are, who put them there, and what they were intended to do. The Atlantic Juliet Kayyem offers a simple if still speculative explanation: Maybe we’re seeing more of these objects because we’ve started looking harder.

Mike Pence has been subpoenaed by Special Counsel Jack Smith. This move opens up all kinds of speculation: about how close Smith is to charging Trump for his role in instigating the January 6 riot, whether Trump will claim executive privilege to prevent Pence’s testimony, and so on.

When it comes to Trump’s legal jeopardy, I’m just about done with speculation. Wake me up when somebody — whether it’s Smith or prosecutors in Georgia, in New York, or somewhere else — either file charges or announce that they’re not filing charges.

Meanwhile, more classified documents have turned up at Mar-a-Lago, including some that were scanned onto an aide’s laptop.

I’m growing increasingly suspicious of all the Kamala-Harris-has-a-problem columns I’ve been seeing in the NYT and elsewhere, almost from the moment she was sworn in. I didn’t support Harris when she ran for president in the 2020 primaries, and she wouldn’t be my first choice in 2024 if Biden decides not to run. But I’m not sure what standard she is failing to meet as vice president. I mean, was Mike Pence such a dynamic presence in the Trump administration?

The typical vice president stays in the background. George H. W. Bush’s main duty in the Reagan administration was to attend funerals of foreign leaders. Biden and Obama seemed to have a good relationship, but it was never particularly clear what Biden did in the administration. (Biden was often the comic relief, as in this cartoon about the trillion-dollar coin.) Al Gore was overshadowed by Hillary Clinton. Dick Cheney was a power-behind-the-throne in the George W. Bush administration, but that never seemed like a good thing. And the less said about Dan Quayle the better.

So what’s wrong with Kamala Harris? In my view, the most important duty of a VP is to avoid any appearance of conflict with the president. Otherwise, people with guns might get the idea that they can change the course of the nation by killing the president, as Leon Czolgosz did when he shot President McKinley and put Teddy Roosevelt into office. Done right, the vice presidency is not a job that lends itself to carving out a charismatic public persona.

I admit, Harris is not making a great case for why she should be president after Biden. But no VP does; if a current VP runs for president, the race almost always hinges on the popularity of the current president. So the more criticism of Harris I see, the more I suspect she is being judged by some special woman-of-color standard that hasn’t applied to any previous VP.

Twitter sounds like a terrible place to work these days. Recently, Elon Musk called a meeting to get an explanation of why his account’s engagement numbers are tanking. One of the engineers provided such an explanation: Musk is becoming less popular. Internal Twitter statistics say so, and so does his Google Trends score, which peaked at 100 in April and is now down to 9.

Musk had been looking for some way that Twitter’s algorithms are biased against him, which turns out not to be true. He fired the engineer.

It sounds like Jim Crow is coming back in Mississippi:

A white supermajority of the Mississippi House voted after an intense, four-plus hour debate to create a separate court system and an expanded police force within the city of Jackson — the Blackest city in America — that would be appointed completely by white state officials. … The appointments by state officials would occur in lieu of judges and prosecutors being elected by the local residents of Jackson and Hinds County — as is the case in every other municipality and county in the state.

The bill isn’t law yet, though. It still has to be passed by the state senate and signed by the governor.

The alleged purpose of the new system is to deal with Jackson’s crime problem. Why new funding has to go through a new state-appointed system rather than the existing Jackson system has not been adequately explained.

“This is just like the 1890 Constitution all over again,” [Black Democrat Rep. Ed] Blackmon said from the floor. “We are doing exactly what they said they were doing back then: ‘Helping those people because they can’t govern themselves.’”

The greenhouse effect that causes global warming is more complicated than I thought.

The price of electric vehicles is coming down and should continue to fall, according to the NYT. Three factors are coming together:

  • Production costs are falling, due to new mines opening and supply chains sorting themselves out.
  • Competition between manufacturers is increasing, as legacy car manufacturers like Ford and GM expand their offerings.
  • The Inflation Reduction Act included EV rebates.

A bit of right-wing rhetoric I haven’t decoded yet: Instead of talking about China, right-wingers talk about “the Chinese Communist Party”. One typical example comes from Marc Thiessen‘s column the WaPo:

Instead of using his speech this week to report to the American people on the recent incursion of a Chinese spy balloon and lay out a strategy to confront the danger posed by the Chinese Communist Party, Biden made only an elliptical reference

I see this again and again — and the Right doesn’t do this kind of thing by accident — but I don’t have an explanation: Why isn’t it “the danger posed by China” or even “posed by President Xi”? Anybody out there know?

and let’s close with something tiny

Every year, Nikon runs a variety of photo contests, including one devoted to microphotography. Winners are collected on Nikon’s Small World web site. Winning photos are unfailingly beautiful, even if you can’t begin to figure out what you’re seeing until you read the caption. This one, for example, is “blood vessel networks in the intestine of an adult mouse”.

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  • Nancy Browning  On February 13, 2023 at 12:49 pm

    I think that using the word “Communist” sounds way more “scary” or dangerous.

    • susanmbrewer  On February 13, 2023 at 1:09 pm

      Yes, and it also evokes 1950’s red baiting for me. Maybe “Red China” will be their next label.

  • Barb Mantegani  On February 13, 2023 at 1:13 pm

    You are EXACTLY RIGHT about the underlying issue with all the Kamala Harris criticism (or damning with faint praise). She is the wrong color and the wrong gender and even Democrats can’t get past it. Ugh.

  • Ron Cordes  On February 13, 2023 at 2:29 pm

    Re: the flock of balloons. What if their intended purpose was precisely to get blown up by us? Perhaps the whole reason for these balloons is to detect, record, and re-transmit to orbiting satellites the radar signatures (frequency, timing, modulation, etc) of our latest generation of fighters and air-to-air missiles. This is data that only a target with “a duck’s-eye view of a shotgun” can receive; data which can help our enemies jam, spoof, or otherwise confuse our fighters’ targeting radars should the balloon’s builders ever have to face our F-22s and F-35s in a hostile situation.

    Couldn’t we have sent up an old F-16 or two to shoot the balloons down with their machine guns instead of sending our latest fighters and wasting a few very expensive Sidewinder missiles?

  • Lois Strand  On February 13, 2023 at 4:14 pm

    I think the intentional use of “Chinese Communist Party” is a trick to imply that Biden is “soft” on communism.

  • donquixote99  On February 13, 2023 at 4:39 pm

    On Social Security: you state that the benefits will have to come from the general fund in the future, when the trust funds run out. Actually, benefits come from the general fund now. When FICA payroll tax cash comes in, it is used to pay current benefits. If there was a surplus after benefits, it went to the Treasury. Corresponding treasury bonds went to the SSA–that’s the ‘Trust Fund.’ The Treasury put the cash in the general fund, and spent it on whatever needed to be covered that day. So, the money is gone.

    I put the above in the past tense because things are a little different now, in that current taxes do not cover current benefits. There now is no surplus, and the shortfall has to be made up out of other general fund cash: either other taxes, or new borrowing. The SSA sends in bonds from the ‘Trust Fund’ to ‘cover’ the shortfall, which has no effect at all except to decrease the ‘Trust Fund balance.’ The bonds are not a source of cash for the Treasury. If and when the ‘Trust Fund’ goes dry, it will make no difference. SSA benefits will be funded by current FICA taxes, other taxes, or new borrowing, just like now.

    All this should tell you that Ronald Reagan was lying through his teeth when he assured Americans that the hefty FICA tax increases he put through would assure benefit payments in the future. The giant surpluses then produced were spent as soon as they came in. Basically, after cutting progressive income tax rates for the rich, Reagan increased revenue again by increasing the regressive FICA tax on the working class and middle class, which functioned as a disguised income tax.

    • donquixote99  On February 14, 2023 at 1:15 am

      Apologies for formatting failure above. Would fix if I could…😳

    • weeklysift  On February 22, 2023 at 7:00 am

      In defense of the current system, plenty of private pension funds also invest in Treasury bonds.

      • donquixote99  On February 22, 2023 at 8:43 am

        My objections aren’t to putting the cash into the treasury exactly. Really, that’s the only thing that makes sense unless there is no deficit or debt. I am just very pissed that politicians have claimed that high FICA tax surplusses in past decades were in some way ‘national savings’ that made Social Security ‘safe.’ The government cannot actually save money, it can just borrow less or more in a particular year. Spending the Social Security surplus as it came just let the government borrow less at that time. So I say there never should have been substantial surplus collections of the regressive flat rate social security and medicare payroll taxes. Those surplusses were always disguised flat rate income tax on the working and middle classes. Progressive (and uncapped) income tax is the way for the government to increase cash receipts if that is desired.

  • Eric Walle  On February 14, 2023 at 2:58 am

    Hi, Doug. I suspect that the right-wingers use of “Chinese Communist Party” is simply to inject “Communist” into the miasmatic maelstrom of misinformation, thereby implying that President Biden is “weak on Communism.”

  • EricPrinceofFlorin  On February 15, 2023 at 4:40 pm

    Really disappointed not to see any mention of the train derailment in Ohio. Maybe the long-term environmental effects turn out to be benign, but it’s a disaster nonetheless, and all signs point to it being a direct result of the shameful anti-labor practices that resulted in the recent strike busting by both parties at the federal level. I hope after a couple of weeks of learning more about the story that you will address it. As always your insights are highly appreciated!

    • weeklysift  On February 22, 2023 at 7:01 am

      You’re right. I didn’t realize what a big deal this was. Sadly, it looks like there will still be plenty to talk about after two weeks.

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