Sunday, November 27, 2016

Most Other Republicans Did Better Than Trump & Did Better Than Some Democrats Think

Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief at Vox, says, “Democrats won the most votes in the election. They should act like it.” He bases this claim on the results from elections for senator as well as the presidential election. But Klein is cherry-picking the statistics he likes while ignoring the mountain of statics that render his opinion absurd.

For one thing, the bulk of the United States population is concentrated into the big cities with most of them rounded up on the northeastern and western coasts, with a few pockets in the megalopoli of Illinois and Texas. Indeed, one of the biggest holes in Klein’s argument is that neither of Texas’s senators was up for reelection this year; so there is a large population of voters who did not vote for a senator of either party. Texas did vote for Trump, However.

What is truly striking is that several Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate out-polled Donald Trump. Not only did Trump not have coattails—meaning that he did not help candidates further down on the ballot, but many of them seem to have won more votes than he did i  their states or districts, as if, perhaps, it was the senatorial and gubernatorial candidates who helped Trump get votes, not the other way around. To be sure, Trump did better than other Republican candidates in some areas, but it seems that in many cases he did not.

While Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton got about 62.5 million popular votes and Republican Donald Trump got about 61.2 million, Trump won 290 electoral votes and counting (Michigan’s as yet unassigned 16 electoral votes will probably go to Trump) against Clinton’s 232. This is the sixth time in U.S. history that the winner in the Electoral College has lost the popular vote. Calls for the abolition of the Electoral College are being heard (from Democrats, naturally) as we speak, but these calls have been heard before without result. The Electoral College is in the United States Constitution and will not be eliminated easily, and thank goodness! It was intended as a great equalizer between the states, which have a much better shot than they would have otherwise at choosing the president. If the popular vote determined the occupant of the presidency, then the largest cities and coastal regions of the country would pick the president every time. The Electoral College gives the “fly-over people” in the middle of the country more say in the election of the president.

Let us go down the list of states where Republicans won seats in the Senate in 2016. There are 21 of them, while there are only 12 states where the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate won. What is more striking is how many of these Republican Senatorial candidates won with more votes than Donald Trump. Below, see the election results from states where a U.S. Senate race was held, compared to the results for president, and, where applicable, for governor. (Out of eleven states holding gubernatorial elections, five Republicans won and one state’s gubernatorial election remains so close that we can only say now that it looks as if the Democrat probably won.)

State     Republican Senator         Republican President     Republican Governor
Alaska                      111,382                 130,415 (+)
Arizona                   1,089,324              1,021,154
Utah                         659,769                 452,086                                650,269
Idaho                        447,342                 407,199
Oklahoma                 979,728                 947,934
Kansas                     716,661                 656,009
South Dakota            265,494                 227,701
North Dakota            267,964                 216,133                                259,067
Wisconsin              1,479,262            1,409,467
Iowa                         923,280                 798,923
Missouri                1,370,240            1,585,753 (+)                         1,424,730
Arkansas                 657,856                 677,904 (+)
Indiana                 1,423,001              1,556,220 (+)                         1,396,437
Kentucky              1,090,151              1,202,942 (+)
Ohio                     3,048,467              2,771,984
Pennsylvania        2,893,833              2,912,941 (+)
North Carolina       2,371,192             2,339,603                               2,276,383 (lost)
South Carolina      1,228,844             1,143,611
Alabama               1,323,184             1,306,925
Georgia                 2,110,737             2,068,623
Florida                  4,822,182             4,605,515

Notice that Trump won more votes than the Republican running for Senator in only six states and that three Republicans running for governorships got fewer votes than Trump did (+). In North Carolina, where Trump won the popular vote, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate appears to have won, but by less than 10,000 votes! Trump won over 63,000 more votes than the losing Republican gubernatorial candidate. However, in two states, Vermont and New Hampshire, where Clinton beat Trump, Trump won 71,196 fewer votes and 7,783 fewer votes, respectively, than the winning Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Where I live, in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, the only other election besides the presidential was for the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Republican winner received 207,758 votes according to the Virginia Department of Elections, while Trump received only 195,190. The coattail-effect of Donald Trump could be just as elusive at the bottom of the ticket as it seems to be in the middle.

My conclusion is that the Republicans did stunningly well in 2016.  At the state level, they won big (or bigly as I take it we are supposed to say now) but without much help from Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. Klein’s thesis that the Democrats somehow scored some kind of victory in an election where they lost Congress and the White House as well as most governorships is delusional. That the Democratic Party happens to control most of the major population centers does not mean that it controls the country. 

Update on Duolingo's free language courses

This is an update to "Duolingo: Learning a new language for free," which I wrote last month. As I reported then, my free online lessons in French seemed to have come to an abrupt end. When I got to the end of the page of French lessons, there were no more lessons to be had, no new page was unlocked, and I was demobbed, so to speak, mustered out - or so I thought - and simply certified 55% fluent (which really only refers to my reading ability, not any ability to speak French) and seemingly fixed at level fourteen in the language learning game. (Duolingo imitates video games where the player reaches higher and higher levels of advancement.)

So far, so disappointing, but the key word here is "seems." There seems to be no further vocabulary available to learn, so far as I can tell. Nowhere in the existing lessons did I find "racrocher" which means "to hang up" (the phone) or the phrase "sans compter que" ("besides that"). However, I have since learned that there is more to be done at Duolingo - other than to move on and learn other languages. Duolingo encourages learners to go back over the lessons in the courses that they have already completed. Although I could go back and do every lesson over again from the beginning, Duolingo selects and thereby recommends a number of lessons to retake, which changes each day. Yesterday, I was given a surprise. I have now been kicked up to level fifteen, and my fluency has been upgraded by one percent to 56%. Evidently, Duolingo takes into account the fact that we become more fluent with practice. Just because I have completed the course, does not mean I cannot improve by retaking it. [Update, January 2017: My French fluency is now listed as 58% and I have risen to level 17, all through going back every day and repeating lessons.]

I have been supplementing my French learning experience by using other resources:

Collins "French-English, English-French Dictionary," French flashcards, Georges Simenon's novels that I took out of the nearby university library ("La Neige √Čtait Sale" ["The Snow Was Dirty"], and "Monsieur La Souris" [Mr. La Souris (The Mouse)"] and any other books about French I can dig out of my library. (Somewhere, I have St. Exupery's "Le Petit Prince." I also have a pictionary called "What's What?/ Que ce que c'est?" that gives the names of a wide variety of objects in both English and French; it's amazingly comprehensive and detailed.)

I am now taking Duolingo's courses in six other languages besides French. I am furthest along in German (level 7) and Russian (level 6), and I am also at level 6 in Esperanto. I am at level 2 in Swedish (6 % fluent) and Spanish (4 % fluent) and I am at level 2 in Romanian. Some of these courses are not giving me any percentages of fluency. Russian and Esperanto do not, while Spanish does, even though I am more advanced in Russian and Esperanto. I do not understand that at all.

In the German course, I have come to the lesson on "Nature" and to my surprise, it is not at all gung ho about an ideological environmentalist message as is the French lesson on "Nature." This might be because each language course is designed and administered by a separate team; evidently, they do not necessarily consult each other about ideological content, which I count as a good and promising thing.

Each course, in fact, seems to be run by an independent team with its own quirky predilections. The Esperanto lessons, for example, keep referencing Duolingo itself and, in particular, its mascot owl, Duo; whereas, the other courses have so far been silent on the mascot or Duolingo in the contents of their lessons.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back into the Washington, DC Swamp...

Earmarks are amendments added into legislation to either provide funds or exemptions to groups or specified projects in the state of the politician who requested the earmark. At the end of the last decade, the rules on earmarks were tightened by both political parties in the House of Representatives so that groups and projects requesting earmarks had to apply for them under tighter restrictions, and congressmen who sponsored such measures had to swear or affirm that they themselves were in no way lined up to benefit financially from the allocation or exemption involved in a given earmark. This is, of course, the conceit of the DC insider, that the appearance of non-direct benefit equals non-benefit. But benefits in Washington often accrue indirectly and at a distance in time and financial space. If you contribute to a congressman’s personal political action committee or other fund, that is deemed not to be a direct contribution even though, at some point in the future, the congressman will benefit from those funds. The Senate has not been as restrictive, so earmarks get into legislation when it gets to the Senate.

There are arguments in favor of earmarks; advocates say that the Executive Branch’s departments make such allocations anyway, though they usually require competitive bidding, whereas congressional earmarks are often given to a favored company or project without considering whether some other group or project might be a better way to spend the money. The late John Murtha (D-Pa) left a scandal in his wake (no pun intended) when it was exposed that he had sponsored earmarks for a company that contributed heavily to his reelection. The company was subsequently drawn into an inquiry into its lobbying firm by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

To put it harshly, earmarks can be essentially legal graft in the form of little measures that are plugged into each bill passed by the United States Congress for the benefit of each member’s district. Theoretically, a senate bill could have one hundred earmarks attached to it, one for each senator’s political supporters back home. The process rewards political cronies for their support and generally raises or diverts money that could have been used for a more worthy purpose—one that might benefit the entire country instead of greasing the palms of businessmen or politicians in one city in one state—or that money could have been left in the pockets of hard-pressed taxpayers. 

While some allegedly worthy projects claim to have benefited from this process (drones for example), it seems to me that the process corrupts politicians and the marketplace by bestowing federal largess on some at the expense of others. It turns government into a cynical game of staying in power by scratching the backs of the connected. It also creates the annoying situation where a bill on healthcare might contain a provision on corporate financial paperwork that has nothing whatsoever to do with healthcare, or a defense bill might have a provision for building a statue of a congressman or senator in his hometown.

As I said, the use of earmarks by the House of Representatives has been down since 2010, but, this week, Congress was considering restoring earmarks to their former glory. That is, they WERE going to do it until commentators in the media began to talk about it. The almost universal public revulsion led House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wi) to pivot in midstream and announce that the House would not be voting on this measure any time soon. We are left to imagine that they will wait until no one is paying attention and then revisit the vote to restore earmarks. 

This backsliding into corruption has led many commentators to wonder whether Congress saw the results of the recent election for the rebuke of Washington, DC, corruption that they were. It would appear not. Less well publicized is Monday’s vote in the House for HR 985, a bill entitled “The Concrete Masonry Products Research, Education and Promotion Act of 2015(!).” This bill—which was originally introduce in February of last year—would create a federal Concrete Masonry Products Board to “coordinate research, education and promotion of concrete.” In order to fund the board, manufacturers of concrete will be assessed (read taxed) something between one and five cents per unit of concrete. The trouble is that 1) there is no reason why the concrete industry could not form a private board if this were necessary; there is no need for a government board; and 2) the tax will be passed on to consumers of concrete, meaning that construction costs will go up and construction jobs will be lost or wages cut.

Basically, the large manufacturers of concrete asked for this legislation in order to tax their smaller competitors out of business. (If truth be told, that is the purpose of a lot of federal legislation as well as federal court decisions; it is what is meant by the term “crony capitalism,” which is that politicians penalize the competitors of the corporations that contribute to their campaigns and give these contributors unfair access to government grants.) As with the restoration of earmarks, this boondoggle has the fingerprints of electorally tone-deaf Republicans all over it, having been introduced by Representative Brett Guthrie (R-Ky), although it was opposed by the Republican Study Center and the Republican House Liberty Caucus. Liberty Caucus spokesman Representative Justin Amash (R-Mi) called the bill “another corporate program that benefits some businesses at the expense of others.”

Amash was among the 38 congressmen who voted against the legislation. Only one Democrat, Jared Polis (D-Co), was among the nay voters. The yea voters consisted of 188 Republicans and 167 Democrats. Another 38 congressmen did not vote on the measure. My representative was among the 188.

Monday, November 14, 2016

How the Media Got It Wrong(?)

In the aftermath of the election surprise, it is sobering to read what one former New York Times reporter had to say about the culture at one of the United States’ most influential papers. The reporter had previously worked for the Los Angeles Times and there had found the editors interested in what the reporters were hearing from their sources in order to understand what was actually going on in the world outside their newspaper. 

“It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called the narrative. We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.”

Sorry, but this is a recipe for the inevitable results of navel-gazing groupthink; you are going to end up reporting what you expect to exist rather than what actually exists.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The 102nd Anniversary of the "Battle of the Bees"

On 3 November 1914, British Indian troops invaded German East Africa. The Africans won—with the help of bees, which is why the Battle of Tanga is sometimes known as the Battle of the Bees. Disturbed by the human combatants, angry bees attacked both sides, interrupting the battle. By the fifth of November, however, the battle had been won, but not solely by the bees. After the bee attack abated, the human battle had resumed, but the Indians were demoralized. Their British commander, Maj. Gen. Arthur E. Aitken, had assumed that his Indian troops could roll over any opposition from Africans. He was wrong. The African Askari troops were well-trained and led by a German army officer, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. This tough army was made up of soldiers from different tribes but especially the Dinka of the Sudan, and the Hehe and Ngoni of Tanzania (though the Ngoni tribe is actually spread over various territories in southern African). 

Aitken was demoted to colonel subsequent to the Battle of Tanga, although, eventually, he was rehabilitated and made an honorary brigadier general. Lettow-Vorbeck, on the other hand, became a general on his merits. He spent the entirety of World War I in Africa, fighting an undefeated guerrilla campaign against the British, Belgians and, later, the Portuguese, despite being out-numbered, out-gunned and out-supplied. His guerrilla force did not surrender until after Germany had surrendered in Europe.

We know that World War II was truly a global event because its major and minor battles took place in Europe, Africa and Asia, but we tend to think of World War I as a primarily European catastrophe, even though it was global, too. It was fought in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but it is also true, for example, that Japan was a participant in World War I (allied with Britain in this war but with Germany in World War II). Japan captured islands from the Germans in the Pacific and even sent a few ships to the Mediterranean Sea. World War I even saw sea battles fought off the coast of Latin America. The war affected Africa, too, just as World War II would, more than two decades later.

In war, famine and disease often kill far more soldiers and civilians than bombs and guns do. Both sides in Africa during World War I left behind them swaths of ruined crops and starving people, rendering everyone on all sides vulnerable when the Spanish Flu arrived in 1918 and decimated the region’s population. Tragically, many of the Askaris who had survived the war itself died from the flu while in British custody following their surrender.

Lettow-Vorbeck went back to Germany where he later tried to forge a political coalition against the Nazis before they came to power. When Adolf Hitler offered him the ambassadorship to England in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck is said to have turned it down with a stream of obscenities. Although he did not serve in World War II (He was 69 in 1939), both of his sons were killed in action. He was impoverished following the war but managed to survive until 1964. In that year, the West German government awarded long-overdue back pay to 350 Askari veterans who had served under Lettow-Vorbeck.