The 2016 California Senate Primary

In June 2010, California voted to adopt a non-partisan, top-two primary system for many political offices, including US Senate. Under the system, all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run in the same primary, and the top two candidates from the primary go on to the general election. This, in theory, allows the general election to be between two candidates from the same party.

The new system officially took effect at the beginning of 2011, so the first year it was used for a US Senate race was 2012. That year, no Democratic candidates other than the incumbent, Dianne Feinstein, got significant traction. Thus, the election pretty much turned out the same way it would have under a more normal primary system. The second-place finisher in the primary was Elizabeth Emken, a staunch Republican who is now working as Donald Trump’s spokeswoman. California being a solid blue state, Feinstein crushed her opponent in a historic landslide.

This year may be different. Barbara Boxer decided not to run again, so now there are two strong candidates on the Democratic side: California attorney general Kamala Harris, and US House of Representatives member Loretta Sanchez. Sanchez is nominally a member Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats, but based on her voting record and public statements, she appears pretty solidly liberal. Indeed, I’ve had a hard time finding significant policy differences Harris and Sanchez. Both for example, support a $15 nationwide minimum wage.

There are only a few differences between Harris and Sanchez I can manage to care about:

  • Sanchez has legislative experience and a voting record (20 years worth in the House). Harris, as a career prosecutor, doesn’t. The platform on Harris’ website mostly sounds good to me, but you have to take her word for it.
  • Harris seems to have made her career as a prosecutor being anti-sex work. She mostly frames it in terms of “human trafficking”, but has a history of making comments that imply nobody voluntarily choses sex work.
  • I suspect it’s generally bad that being a prosecutor is such an effective route to political power in America, it may be worth fighting against that tendency.

Sanchez has a record as a free-trade skeptic, but Harris recently went on record attacking the Trans-Pacific Partnership for lacking sufficient protections for workers. I have my own doubts about the TTP (particularly the intellectual property provisions), but that sounds a bit like an all-purpose excuse to oppose all free-trade deals. Also, Harris seems to be working on a general heuristic of “give the progressive movement whatever they want,” which in the current political climate means being a free-trade skeptic.

The major Republican candidates are Tom Del Beccaro, Ron Unz, and Duf Sundheim. The first two are non-starters for me; Del Beccaro seems to think he’s the second coming of Saint Ronald, while Unz is running on a hardcore anti-immigration platform. Sundheim is more interesting. In many parts of the country, he’d probably qualify as left-of-center (or libertarianish):

  • Supports gay marriage
  • Says he’s personally pro-life, but supports legal abortion
  • Supports medical marijuana
  • Says he wants to do revenue-neutral tax reform
  • Opposes big minimum wage hikes (a good thing, in my book)

(The above bullet points are based on me researching Sundheim’s views online, then e-mailing him with follow-up questions.)

If California had ranked-order voting, my ranking would probably be Sundheim > Sanchez > Harris > Del Beccaro > Unz. But a top-two primary isn’t ranked-order voting, so we have to think about voting strategically.

Polls have consistently put Harris in first place, and Sanchez in second, so it’s widely expected that they’ll face off in the general election. But one of the Republican candidates might pull into second. I think it would be a disaster if this happened with Del Beccaro or Unz. Not only do I personally dislike them, but both are too extreme to make for an interesting general election. If I were seriously afraid of the Republican vote coalescing around either of them, I’d vote for Sanchez to block this.

However, looking at recent polls, I’m not super-worried about a second-place finish by Del Beccaro or Unz. So what about the strategic implications of a Harris v. Sundheim face-off? It’s possible that no matter how moderate his politics, the (R) next his name could sink Sundheim. But the election might at least be interesting. So it looks like I’ll be voting for Sundheim.

Thinking about automation

Holden Karnofsky recently posted an article on the Open Philanthropy Project’s blog giving some background about the OPP thinks about AI. One paragraph in particular stuck out at me—one of several examples of what Holden calls “transformative AI”:

AI systems capable of performing tasks that currently (in 2016) account for the majority of full-time jobs worldwide, and/or over 50% of total world wages, unaided and for costs in the same range as what it would cost to employ humans. Aside from the fact that this would likely be sufficient for a major economic transformation relative to today, I also think that an AI with such broad abilities would likely be able to far surpass human abilities in a subset of domains, making it likely to meet one or more of the other criteria laid out here.

My first reaction to this is that this might not be as big of a transformation as it might seem. For example, according to the BLS, between 1910 and 2000, farmers and farm laborers went from 33 percent of the workforce to 1.2 percent. Many “industrial” jobs peaked around 1950, then declined to well below their 1910 level—the awkwardly named “production and other operatives” category (mostly factory workers AFAICT) declined more than 50% in that time period, while “mine operatives and laborers” declined by a whopping 95%. Furthermore, the proportion of clerical jobs in the labor force has greatly increased, since 1910 but improvements in information technology has greatly reduced or even eliminated the need for many sub-categories of clerical jobs.

I think most people realize that the decline in farm jobs is not because we suddenly decided to let huge amounts of land fall fallow, but because we learned to farm the same amount of land with a lot fewer workers, through harvesting machines and so on. Something similar is true in manufacturing. In spite of the widespread assumption that the decline in manufacturing jobs in America is because all the jobs have been shipped to China or Mexico, in fact industrial production in America is as high as it’s ever been. This is thanks to the incredible rise of automation in factories.

Overall, the data I’m seeing from Measuring Worth is that there was more than a seven fold increase in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) GDP per capita from 1910 to 2000. Increases in GDP per capita must ultimately come from increases in worker productivity. In other words, in the year 2000 workers were getting more than seven times as much done with the same amount of work (probably somewhat less work, actually). Some of that probably came from things like improvements in industrial organization, but a lot of it undoubtedly came from more and better machines, including computers.

If you described the technology of the year 2000 to a person in 1910, it might sound to them like technology was going to eliminate huge numbers of jobs. But we largely haven’t noticed, beyond vague background awareness of harvesting machines and those weird-looking factory robot arms, because the jobs that got eliminated by technology got replaced with other jobs. Engineering, healthcare, law, computers, education, sales, and food service are just some of the occupations that have seen massive growth in employment.

The example of “transformative AI” described above would be a big deal—equivalent to over three decades of economic growth, using the US’s rate of economic growth as a baseline. But I’m not sure it would qualify as being as important as the industrial revolution (another rough definition Holden suggests for “transformative AI”). Holden suggests there’s a 10% chance of humans developing “transformative AI” in the next 20 years. If 50% of all currently-existing jobs were eliminated by automation in the next 20 years, then in 2036 we’d all be talking about the amazing worldwide economic boom of the 2020s―but that would be the main effect.

There’d be fretting about job loss due to automation—but probably various government policies would do an okay job of making it possible for displaced workers to move to new jobs. When I say “government policies”, I don’t just mean feel-good stuff like more funding for job training, I also mean boring issues of central bank policy. Maybe unemployment creeps up, prompting the US Fed to try negative interest rates for the first time, while in Europe anger over unemployment finally causes the Eurozone to break up, which leads to a period of painful turmoil followed by an economic boom one the European labor market is no longer shackled by ECB short-sightedness.

The one catch is the word “unaided” in the quote from Holden. Imagine a scenario where a huge portion of the labor currently done by humans is done by semi-autonomous robot drones, and the drones have remote operators, but they’re autonomous enough that one remote operator can manage a fairly large number of drones. Maybe the AI that Holden is imagining goes beyond even “one drone operator can manage a fleet of 100 mostly-driverless trucks”. But I’m not sure how much the difference between that scenario and true 100% automation vehicle automation matters in terms of the impact on society. (At least when many other jobs are still being done by humans—automating the last few human jobs could be a big deal.)

The “human gets replaced by robot” model of automation is nice and tidy and easy to reason about. But in the real world I’m not sure there’s always a clean line between jobs being eliminated and jobs being radically transformed.

Why I’m feeling panicky about this election and what I’m doing about it

It started with learning about investing.

If you invest your retirement savings in the US stock market, what kind of return should you expect to get on that investment? Well, you can look at historical returns on the US stock market, but that’s going to be misleading. Many countries had a much less good record of economic growth than the US did over the 20th century. Argentina, for example , was one of the richest countries in the world in the early 20th century, but has not had such a good run of things since.

This argument is conventional wisdom in the personal finance world–but it has unsettling implications for what the history of the 21st century is likely to look like. It’s natural to believe that the United States’s track-record of success as a country reflects deep strengths as a country that will continue into the 21st century. But what if we’ve just gotten lucky repeatedly? The more I learn about American history, the more I see points when with worse luck, things could have turned out very differently:

  • I’m currently reading Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and dear Lady Liberty  is it easy to imagine something going wrong in those early years in a way that would lead to the history of North America looking a lot more like the history of Latin America.
  • The Civil War. This should be self-explanatory.
  • The Great Depression/WWII. FDR put people in concentration camps. I suspect this was less a reflection of FDR’s character than the political currents of the time. A less scrupulous leader could have been much worse. It’s very easy to imagine an alternate history where Huey Long or Douglas MacArthur establishes himself as absolute dictator over America.
  • The Cold War. It’s total luck that we didn’t blow ourselves up during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about Matt Yglesias’s argument that American democracy is doomed–that the Madisonian system of checks and balances is actually a recipe for constitutional crisis, which we only avoided in the 20th century because segregation prevented the emergence of ideologically coherent parties.

I almost said “avoided so far”, but I think the Civil War might count as a constitutional crisis. To really understand the Civil War, you need to understand the flaws in the Madisonian system of government. Do you realize how much of the run-up to the Civil War involved horse-trading around admission of new states to the union, so that the North and South would have equal representation in the Senate?

Finally, I’ve come to believe that too many people have worldviews dominated by whatever was going on in the world when they were in their 20s. Sometimes, this leads to irrational freak-outs. Was inflation high when you were young? You will spend the rest of your life terrified of hyperinflation. I suspect my own generation will spend the rest of our lives living in fear of another 9/11 that never comes.

But the corollary is that almost nobody learns from history. If you haven’t personally lived through a particular type of catastrophe, you will act as if it cannot possibly happen again. During the Cold War, many veterans of WWII made the mistake of thinking WWIII could be fought like the previous world war. But now that baby boomers are running the world, our leaders think another war on that scale is impossible. Similarly, the idea of America becoming a dictatorship seems impossible to take seriously.

Now look at the 2016 election. Here are our choices:

Clinton, Rubio, Kasich:

The “establishment” candidates. All three have argued for a no-fly zone over Syria. I’ve argued that this would be a good way to start a nuclear war with Russia. Since I’ve started saying this, a number of people have told me these worries are overblown. But as I’ve gone looking for specific counter-arguments, what I’ve found has not been reassuring. For example, an article in Foreign Policy magazine argues:

Critics may say that safe zones will require greater military commitment to Syria and risk a military clash with Russia — if, for instance, Putin decides to test the no-fly zone by infringing on it, as he has done for years with the airspace of NATO allies in the Baltics, and more recently in Turkey. These critics may well be right.

But weakness and indecision seldom prevent aggression; instead they encourage it.

The article doesn’t even try to argue there’s some way we could establish a no-fly zone over Syria without risking military conflict with Russia. Instead, it falls back on cliches about appeasement.

Or consider this WaPo article, co-authored by a Harvard professor and a former US ambassador, which dismisses the risk that a no-fly zone would lead to escalation with Russia with a single sentence: “Once a zone were established, we do not believe Russia would challenge the stronger U.S. and NATO forces, particularly if they were operating mainly from Turkey.” Again, there is no pretense that Russia might actively support a no-fly zone–but the authors insist Russia would nevertheless back down.

So would Russia back down in the face of the US shooting down, or threatening to shoot down, Russian planes over Syria? Some people insist the answer is “yes”, citing other examples of cases where planes have been shot down without the incident escalating into a larger war. But I’ve looked at the examples that get used in this argument, and they generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Someone screwed up (navigational mistake led to violating someone’s airspace, or a civilian flight got mistaken for a military flight)
  2. Someone got caught trying to secretly do something they weren’t supposed to be doing (spy flights)
  3. Someone did something they weren’t supposed to do, but successfully passed it off as a screw up (this is a hypothetical possibility—or is it?)

By contrast, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria would require the US (or NATO, if we postulate that it would be a team effort) to assert rights that Russia does not currently recognize. That would be a dangerous gamble.

The distinction between, say, shooting down a Russian plane over Turkey and shooting down a Russian plane over Syria may seem arbitrary. But the very idea of national borders itself is to some degree arbitrary, and no one imagines that the US ought to be able to violate Russia’s borders with impunity.

Why do we respect national borders, anyway? On a deep level, it’s because “fight to preserve the status quo, but not otherwise” is game-theoretically stable. In this case, we have to recognize that the status quo is that Russia can fly bombing missions on behalf of one of its allies. The Atlantic recently ran an excellent profile of Obama that nailed this issue:

“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” [Obama] said…

“People respond based on what their imperatives are, and if it’s really important to somebody, and it’s not that important to us, they know that, and we know that,” he said. “There are ways to deter, but it requires you to be very clear ahead of time about what is worth going to war for and what is not. Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it. The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action that is tangential to that particular area is somehow going to influence the decision making of Russia or China is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years.”

Here, Obama is showing he’s an excellent game theorist. The candidates who’ve proposed a no-fly zone over Syria, on the other hand, are giving us tough talk with no clear strategic thinking behind it. They show no sign of having a clear view of what is and is not worth going to war for.

To be clear, if the US and Russia wound up in a standoff over Syria, I think that both sides would try to find a way to resolve the crisis without a war. But a drawn-out standoff would greatly increase the odds that an equipment malfunction or the actions of a jumpy submarine commander could cause an unthinkable catastrophe. That’s a risk I don’t think we can afford to take.

Trump. Trump? Trump!

The thing that bothers me most about Trump is not his saying that Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists and murderers. Nor his promise to build a giant border wall. Nor his promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Nor even his plan to bar Muslims from coming to the US. None of these things come close to being what worries me most about Trump.

Rather, it’s Trump’s openly-expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin. And Kim Jong-Un. And, lest you think this is some bizarre tactical calculation that authoritarianism just happens to be what Americans are hungering for this year, he praised the Chinese government for showing a “firm hand” in dealing with the protests in Tienanmen square.

I think Trump honest-to-God wants to be an authoritarian dictator. I recently heard it said, “It’s important to understand that a man like Trump is the type of personality that cares much less about how he is remembered. What Trump cares about is that he is remembered.” That’s the impression I got reading two biographies of Trump. And what better way to ensure you will be remembered than to become America’s first dictator?

Some people might assume that there’s no way Trump could become a dictator even if he wanted to. But there are several reasons to be afraid. In America, we’re going on fifteen years of dramatic expansions of presidential power in the name of fighting terrorism. Bush authorized torture and indefinite detention. Obama has ordered the assassination of US citizens.

Trump is already talking about “shutting down parts of the internet” in the name of fighting terrorism, and changing libel laws to make it easier for him to sue his critics. Then there’s the way his rallies are turning violent. And Trump wouldn’t need to abolish democracy all at once. In his book Winter is ComingGarry Kasparov describes how Vladimir Putin destroyed democracy in Russia gradually (building on legally questionable things Yeltsin had done).

Trump’s one saving grace is his age. If elected, he’ll be the oldest president in US history, eight months older than Ronald Reagan was on taking office. A 50-year-old version of Trump might be able to serve two terms, run for VP with a trusted lieutenant at the top of the ticket for a de facto third term, then get loyalists he spent twelve years installing in state legislatures to pass an amendment allowing him to become president for life. (Cf. Vladimir Putin’s four-year stint as Russian Prime Minister while his lieutenant Dmitry Medvedev served as President.)

Yet another of the many books I’ve been reading over the past few months is Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to PowerThe parallels to Trump are uncanny, including the complacency of many observers and the fact that Hitler never openly proposed death camps, and instead talked about deportations. At this point, all Trump needs to do is accuse ex-Muslim converts to Christianity of being secret Muslims, and the parallels will be complete.

(Though I’m still pretty sure death camps aren’t a likely outcome of Trump—Ozy suggested a better analogy for what might happen under President Trump is the Trail of Tears.)

I’ve joked that worrying about Trump starting a war with Russia is like opposing Hitler because you were worried he might start a war with Italy. On the other hand, Mussolini did threaten Nazi Germany with war at one point as a result of their dispute over Austria. On the other other hand, Trump’s admiration for Putin seems to be sincere, so perhaps he would be quick to back down if he stumbled in to a confrontation with Russia.

One other thing: in retrospect, we could have done much worse than electing Obama in 2008. But damn him if President Trump ends up using Obama’s drone warfare program as a precedent to justify killing political opponents.

Ted Cruz

At one point, I thought Ted Cruz might be the least-bad option within the GOP field. But Cruz’s track record of dishonesty gives me pause. Few politicians are entirely truthful—but usually, it’s a matter of half-truths, exaggerations, and poorly-checked rumors, with bald-faced lies reserved for when they’re backed into a corner. And usually the untruths are kind of obvious. But Cruz’s lies seem crafted with a care that disturbs me. It’s also not clear that Cruz’s lies are in the service of any ideology. He’s lied about his immigration record in ways that make him seem more rigidly ideological than he really is.

So what would Ted Cruz be like as president? I feel like I have no idea, and that scares me.

Bernie Sanders

I can’t pretend electing Bernie Sanders would carry no risks. He speaks eloquently about unintended consequences of US military actions, but seems to think not at all about unintended consequences in the realm of economic policy. Would Sanders end up bungling economic policy catastrophically, perhaps via his ideas about the Federal Reserve?

Last July, Sanders floated Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Reich as possible cabinet picks. I’m not sure about Reich, but I’ve read a fair amount of Krugman’s and Stiglitz’s writings and I’d feel pretty optimistic about a Sanders administration advised by either or both of them on economic policy. (Among other things, I think they’d try to reign in Sanders’ worse instincts regarding trade.)

If the United States didn’t have presidential term limits, I’d prefer electing Obama to a third term to electing Sanders. But given the available options, I’ll take my chances with Sanders.

What to do?

First of all, right now I’m doing everything I can to support Sanders. Post-Michigan, I think he has a significant chance of winning the nomination. The Sanders for President forum on Reddit has a lot of stuff on what people can do to help.

At the same time, though, I’ve started a Change.org petition designed to try to get candidates who’ve endorsed a no-fly zone over Syria to walk back their comments. (I mainly hope it will influence Clinton, but I thought the petition would be more effective as a general call.) This is a long shot, and I don’t expect it to influence the candidates directly, but if it gets some media attention maybe a debate moderator will press the candidates on it.

If Clinton walks back her support for the Syria no-fly zone, she’ll become a candidate I can tolerate, and vote for in good conscience in the general election if she wins the primary, even if I’m not thrilled with her. If not, I’ll be seriously considering voting third-party.

Another thought: given the way Clinton has been using Obama as a way to deflect all criticism of herself from the left, maybe someone can press her on why she’s called for a no-fly zone over Syria in spite of the fact that Obama has called the idea “half-baked”. Just a thought.

But above all else–I beg the people reading this, take this election seriously, and don’t think that America’s enormous success so far as a country are a guarantee of future results.

Full transcript of the 1985 Sanders interview sampled in Univision’s debate (with some commentary)

During the Democratic debate hosted by Univision on Wednesday night, the debate moderators pulled out a clip from a 1985 interview with Bernie Sanders where he appeared to praise Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Sanders explained that he had been merely making the point that the US government should not have tried to overthrow Castro, and agreed that Cuba is an “authoritarian undemocratic country”.

Then, Hillary Clinton decided to use part of her response to the moderators’ next question to press this attack on Sanders. She said:

I think in that same interview, he praised what he called the revolution of values in Cuba and talked about how people were working for the common good, not for themselves.

I just couldn’t disagree more. You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.

When I heard this, it seemed pretty damning, but then it occurred to me to do some fact-checking. I found the video of the full interview on Buzzfeed’s site (they were apparently the ones to originally dig it up),  and I watched the whole thing. Sanders came across as extremely reasonable, and the “revolution of values” line was nowhere to be found, as far as I could tell.

But knowing it was possible I’d just gotten distracted for the relevant 10 seconds of the video, I gave a company called CastingWords about $70 to make a complete transcript of the interview. I’ve decided to make the transcript–which disproves Clinton’s claim–freely available below. (Note to my less tech-savvy readers: you can use CTRL+F, or command+F on a Mac, to quickly search the transcript.)

Clinton may have meant to refer to an article in the Daily Beast that was posted a couple weeks ago, which appears to say that in 1989, Sanders told The Burlington Free Press that Cuba had had “a revolution in terms of values”. Actually, it’s a little unclear what the source for this quote is supposed to be, and the Daily Beast’s article contains at least one careless factual error–incorrectly describing the one-on-one, sit-down interview that Sanders gave in 1985 as a “press conference”.

The transcript also shows Sanders’s explanation of his remarks on Castro (at least the ones in the clip Univision showed) is correct: he was merely pointing out that the Kennedy administration was deluded to believe the Bay of Pigs invasion would lead to a popular uprising against Castro. Indeed, this is something the Kennedy administration itself quickly recognized after the invasion failed. The Bay of Pigs invasion is literally a canonical case study in group-think. Sanders’s comments on it should not be controversial.

Update: Someone on Tumblr alerted me to the fact that there are errors in the transcript, including at least one error that changes the meaning of a sentence–substituting “countries” for “Contras”. I’ve fixed that error, but others may still be there.


Interviewer: [0:07] Hi. We’re here with Mayor Bernard Sanders to talk a little bit about his recent trip to Nicaragua. Welcome.

Bernie Sanders: [0:13] Hi.

Interviewer: [0:14] Hi. I think maybe a good way to start is to ask you when you first became interested in Central American issues.

Bernie: [0:21] I don’t know. Ever since I was a kid, for some strange reason, I was always interested in the problems of Latin America, and had done some reading about it as a young person and in college.

[0:29] Uh, I think one of the things that concerned me, uh, was the way that the United States government had always treated Latin America. And basically, uh, as you know, our history has always been that we have the right to unilaterally get involved and overthrow governments that we, we, don’t like.

[0:46] Uh, President Roosevelt, back in when he was president, uh, when somebody said, “Well, why do you keep supporting all these horrible dictators, these, these people who oppress their people?” He says, “Well, they may be sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches.” That was exactly what he said.

[0:59] Uh, and you know, I, I think at a certain point, one reaches the conclusion that if one believes in democracy, and that, presumably, is what our nation is supposed to be about. How can you defend the right that we, we, can go in with the marines, uh, as we have on many, many occasions, and overthrow any government that we don’t like.

[1:17] And then, if you think a little bit further about it, and you study, uh, political science, or economics, then you understand that time and time again, these interventions in Latin and Central America have been at the, for the benefit of large corporations.

[1:30] Whether it’s the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, or the tin companies, or, or the copper companies in Chile, and you say, “Gee whiz, should foreign policy be made for the benefit of large corporations who want to exploit the people of Latin and Central America? Is that what America is about?” I don’t think it is.

Interviewer: [1:48] Well, when you went down there, how did some of your ideas change? You had a picture of what it looked like in your head, and what did you see?

Bernie: [1:57] Well, like everything else, I mean, I think one of, you know, one knows this is the mayor. It is important to talk to real people and be involved in a real situation. It’s one thing to read books or read articles. It’s another thing to be there.

[2:08] And when you’re there, the whole picture…I mean you see a lot more than you do when you just read something. You know, people have criticized me. They said, “Oh, he came back. He knows everything about Nicaragua. He was there for all of seven days.”

[2:19] It’s not true. I do not claim to be an expert on Nicaragua. I think I learned something in seven days. I am not…I don’t…uh, I’ve never claimed that I know everything. Uh, but I think what one had the opportunity, what I had the opportunity of doing down there, is talking to real, live people.

[2:35] I was very fortunate in being able to talk to many of the government leaders, their President Ortega, and Ernesto Cardenal, and Tomas Borge, and so forth.

[2:43] But, I also, quite intentionally, went out on the streets. We would go into the poorest neighbors of Managua, neighborhoods of Managua, and elsewhere, talk to people. We’d see people sitting on a fence. Stop the car, let’s talk, “How are you…?” And my Spanish is not great, but I could ask some questions, and I had a translator.

[2:59] [intermittent machinery noise]

Bernie: [3:00] Uh, so I tried to get a feeling and a flavor of, uh, what was going on, and I enjoyed that.

Interviewer: [3:05] Hitting the streets and asking people what they thought is, is, an urban kind of thing to do. I think that you get that from growing up in a city and knowing that that’s where the real opinions and the real voice is. What kind of pe-, what kind of response did you get?

Bernie: [3:22] I’ll tell you the response that I got. Among poor people, and working people, and, and what one has to understand is that Nicaragua, while not the poorest country by any means in Central or Latin America, is a poor country. They are all very, very poor countries.

[3:35] You walk into houses and they’re not houses like we know in Burlington, Vermont, or in the state of Vermont. They are shacks. They are plywood shacks, often with dirt floors. OK? Those, those are, that’s where people live. And you talk to people and you say, basically, “How are things now, since the revolution in 1979, as opposed to it before?”

[3:54] And, almost without exception, there were exceptions. I mean, uh, no one should think that the Sandinista government has the support of a hundred percent of the people. They most certainly do not. They had an election where all they got was 62 or 63 percent of the vote.

[4:07] OK, that means 35 percent of the people voted for somebody else. So, we talk to people and among poor and working people, there was a very strong feeling that the revolution that they had made was their revolution. That they had fought against a very horrible Somoza dictatorship, which was Somoza owned the whole country, and he and his friends ripped off the whole country.

[4:26] They were rather vicious in dealing with their political opposition, and most of the poor people, and the working people I talked to, felt that the situation was much better now than it had been before.

[4:33] There was, and make no mistake about this, serious concerns about the economic conditions in Nicaragua. People were telling you, “It just costs us a fortune to get this item and that item.” And some of those people are blaming the government.

[4:44] But, I think what should be understood is that problem exists all around Central America, it’s not, and Latin America. I, I, I don’t want to get into that. I want to talk about the trip, but I think many Americans are not aware of the horrendous conditions existing all around the Third World.

[4:58] You see the pictures on television about Ethiopia, all right. Well, that’s obviously not happening in Nicaragua. But all over Latin America and Central America, you do have hunger, you have malnutrition, you have disease, very, very serious problems. The Third World today is facing the most serious crisis it’s faced since the Depression, if not ever. And those problems exist in Nicaragua.

Interviewer: [5:20] What kind of things…You went not only and spoke with the people, but you went to hospitals, and schools, and different places like that. How would you evaluate the progress that the Sandinistas have made in those areas?

Bernie: [5:32] Nobody denies. I mean, you go and you speak to the leaders of the opposition, and they will not deny. How can you deny when you had illiteracy of 50 percent several years ago, and now it’s down to 13, or 14 percent?

[5:41] No one denies that that’s of great importance. No one denies that they are building health clinics. Health care in Nicaragua is now free. It is terrible. It is very primitive compared to what we get. You know, it’s not the Medical Center of Vermont there, believe me, but they now have it free.

[5:56] They are doing a lot of preventative health care. Kids were dying there because they had diarrhea, and they couldn’t resist the diseases that came. They’re now effectively treating that. Uh, infant mortality has been greatly reduced.

[6:07] Uh, so I think, in terms of health care, in terms of education, in terms of land reform, giving, for the first time in their lives, real land to farmers so that they can have something that they grow. Nobody denies that they are making a significant progress in those areas.

[6:23] And I think people understand that, and people of Nicaragua, the poor people respect that. Rich people, needless to say, or used to have the good life there, are not terribly happy. And I think where the confusion is, is that by the time that Somoza was ready to go out, everybody despised this guy.

[6:38] There was an earthquake, as you know, in Nicaragua. Millions and millions of dollars came in from all around the world to help rebuild Managua, and this guy pocketed the money. It was typical. And he was a thief and a crook. So, by the time he was ready to go, everybody, even the business community who had worked with him for years, despised the guy.

[6:55] But then, after he was gone, I think what many members of the Nicaraguan establishment felt, “Well, we’ve got rid of that guy. Now, we’ll get a nicer guy in there who’ll also protect the interest of the rich people, but not as viciously or in as ugly a way as Somoza did.”

[7:05] Well, the Sandinista’s apparently did not agree with that. They really were talking about a transformation of society giving power to the poor people, to the working people, and that has caused the conflict, uh, needless to say, in Nicaragua which we’re seeing today.

Interviewer: [7:17] Do you find that the people of Nicaragua are relatively sophisticated in their political views?

Bernie: [7:22] Oh, I mean, when you talk politics in Nicaragua it is not like talking politics in the United States. You know, people saying, “Well, gee, I don’t know who I’m going to vote for. I probably won’t vote,” or, “I saw a commercial on television last night. Maybe I’ll vote for that thir-,” you know, “good 30 second commercial.”

[7:35] In Nicaragua, what you’re talking about is life and death. It is a question of whether their children are gonna have any kind of dignity or not. When they tell you, and I would ask these questions, “Are you frightened about the possibility of a, of a United States invasion?”

[7:49] And they, you know, their response was,” We’ve been through so much. We’ve had to fight for so long that we don’t want a United States invasion.” Believe me, they’re not macho types, “Eh, we’re gonna take on the United States’ Marines, no problem.” They do not say that. They understand what they’re up against.

[8:05] But, I think when, when President Reagan tells the people of Nicaragua, and he said this many months ago, he says, “Basically, if you get down on your hands and knees, and you cry, ‘Uncle!'” Remember that? This is wonderful, diplomatic relationship. This is the way that our government deals with the Third World.

[8:19] “If you cry, ‘Uncle,'” In other words, if you say that we in America, United States, are going to be the boss, we’ll let you survive.” You can’t say that to these people.

[8:26] I mean, Ortega himself was in jail for eight years. Borge was tortured. All of these people fight. Their wives were killed and raped. I mean, these people are not going to get down on their hands and knees to anybody.

[8:37] And I think what I learned…One of the things that I, I think I learned on my trip, you know, as, as a Socialist, the word socialism does not frighten me, and I think it’s probably fair to say that the Nicaraguan government is primarily a socialist government.

[8:48] But what you, you, learn down there is that they…socialism, or anti-capitalism, is much less prevalent than nationalism. Basically, what they’re saying is, “We’ve been under the thumb of the Marines…”

[9:01] As you know, the Marines installed the Somoza Family. Uh, “We’ve been under the thumb of the United States for our entire modern history, and we’re not going to be under the thumb of anybody anymore. Nicaragua is our country. We will do the right things or the wrong things. We will make our mistakes. But we will make them independently, as an independent and free nation.”

[9:21] That is the theme of their revolution. And I think that that’s very widely felt. Now, I think where there may be confusion…It’s a funny thing, you know, you talk about, “Does the Sandinista government have political support?” Well, as I indicated, in election, they got 63 percent of the vote. A little bit more than Ronald Reagan got, you know.

[9:35] It would be like saying, “Does Ronald Reagan have political support?” Well, if you say that half the people in America did not vote for anybody for President, and of those who voted, Reagan got 60 percent of the vote, that suggests that he has about 30 percent of the support of the American people.

[9:47] If you go around into communities, like in Burlington, Vermont, where he was overwhelmingly defeated, go to Harlem, where 80 and 90 percent of the people did not support him, does he have overwhelming support? He has the support.

[9:57] Does the San-? Sandinista government, in my view, has more support among the Nicaraguan people, substantially more support, than Ronald Reagan has among the American people.

[10:05] And where there’s also, I think, confusion on the part of some people in the United States, is even people who voted against the Sandinista government, they voted for somebody else for President, do you think that that means that they’re going to support an invasion of their own country?

[10:16] I mean, it’s like saying, “I voted against Ronald Reagan.” That does not mean to say that I want to see an invasion of this United States to get rid of Ronald Reagan. We will deal with our own internal politics in our own way. I hope we will vote Reagan out, and reactionary Republicans out.

[10:30] That does not mean to say we want an invasion, and I think many people in Nicaragua feel the same way. They say, “Hey, I don’t like the Sandinista government, but don’t invade our country. We’re going to have to stand with them because we’re an independent people.”

Interviewer: [10:40] So, so you think that the notion of a Civil War running rife in that country is a misconception?

Bernie: [10:45] Oh, God. It absolutely…It’s the same thing, you know, they never learn. You may recall, way back in, what was it, 1961, they invaded Cuba. And everybody was totally convinced that Castro was the worst guy in the world, that all the Cuban people are going to rise up in rebellion against Fidel Castro.

[11:00] They had forgot that he educated the kids, gave them healthcare, totally transformed the society. You know, not to say that the Fidel Castro or Cuba are perfect. They are certainly not, but just because Ronald Reagan dislikes these people does not mean to say that the people in their own nations feel the same way.

[11:15] So, they expected this tremendous uprising in Cuba. It never came. And, if they are expecting a tremendous uprising in Nicaragua, they are very, very, very mistaken.

[11:24] I spoke to Ortega, you know, and I asked him this question. And I said, “If the United States’ government stopped funding the Contras, how long do you think they would last?” You know, and he went, “They wouldn’t last very long.”

[11:36] What you’re talking about is a United States invasion of another nation. Without the support of the United States’ government, these people would be gone very, very quickly.

[11:46] Uh, and, and I think that that’s clear to understand. You’re not talking about a civil war, massive discontent. You’re talking about a small number of people, very heavily armed, trained, and financed by the United States of America.

Interviewer: [11:58] How do the Nicaraguan’s perceive the American people?

Bernie: [12:01] It is, that’s a totally unbelievable phenomenon in which I, I, I quite, quite frankly cannot understand and comprehend. Uh, I remember talking to their Foreign Minister, Father d’Escoto, and he was very clear that they are trying very, very hard to hold down anti-Americanism. And they are succeeding.

[12:18] Uh, as an American going there I was treated with a great deal of friendliness. And I think it’s not just because I was a quote-unquote dignitary. The other thing that one learns, when one goes, and this I didn’t know before, and it may sound naïve, is Central America is America. OK.

[12:34] See, I didn’t know that before. They are Americans. They play baseball, you know, they watch the same crappy television, American television programs. They consider themselves to be Americans. There is a natural fondness. There is a, you know, Ortega articulates this, and average people on the street feel this.

[12:51] You know, as I was talking to some guy there in the, a low-level guy, in the government, he says, “Yeah, we got Russian films here. Nobody watches the Russian films. They’re very boring. Their cars are uncomfortable.” They feel much more closely aligned with the United States.

[13:04] Now, Ronald Reagan may be successful in doing something which is in fact very hard to do, but he may in fact, be successful in driving this country, which wants to be close to the United States, into the arms of the Soviet Union.

[13:15] I mean, if he invades that country, if he tries to destroy that nation, he may bring about the impossible, is make them into a rigid communist country aligned with the Soviet Union. It will be very hard to do, but his policies are leading us in that direction.

[13:28] Everything being equal, they would like to have a warm relationship to the United States, and they like American people. They do not hold the average American responsible for what Reagan is doing.

Interviewer: [13:37] How do you find the sincerity of Sandinista leaders?

Bernie: [13:40] I was impressed. Now, obviously, I will be attacked by every editorial writer in the Free Press for being a dumb dupe. Uh, maybe I am. Uh, I was impressed by their intelligence and by their sincerity. These are not political hacks, you know. They don’t, you know, you don’t fight and lose your family, and get tortured, and go to jail for years to be a hack.

[14:01] Uh, they have very deep convictions, which people can disagree with, and I think what is understood is, even within the Sandinista government, they’re not monolithic. There are some, well, you know, more socialistic than others.

[14:12] You know, there are priests who hold, you have at least two priests who hold…you have at least two priests, Ernesto Cardenal is a priest, then Father d’Escoto was a priest. Many differences, there are different points of view. They’re not monolithic.

[14:21] Uh, I was impressed by Father d’Escoto and the thought that, uh, I visited him when he was having his, uh, fast, when he was fasting. And, and, my thought is, uh, is if this guy is the leader…

[14:32] Ronald Reagan has decided that Nicaragua is a terrorist nation. And if this guy is the Foreign Minister of a terrorist nation, then they should get another Foreign Minister because he is a very gentle, very loving man. He’s familiar with Burlington, Vermont. He had a niece who graduated, uh, from, uh, Saint Michael’s College, actually, who is now working for the government of Nicaragua.

[14:51] Uh, Ortega is an impressive guy. Uh, Ernesto Cardenal is a, is a funny-looking guy. He has gray hair, and he really does remind you of the hippie.

[15:00] I mean Ernesto, and in fact, uh, you know, we talked…he’s very strongly into poetry, uh, he is, uh, very proud of the fact that they are now teaching poetry, not only to peasants and to workers, but in the military, uh, in the police department. A, a very impressive guy.

Interviewer: [15:19] Um, were they interested in Burlington, to know about what you do and the people here?

Bernie: [15:27] Yeah. The answer is yes, then, and they are aware of the fact that we have a Sister City Program. It was also obviously clear that as the…

[15:34] I mean, it’s unbelievable to say that a mayor of the city of 38,000 is now the highest-ranking American to visit them during the celebration of their revolution. I was treated, you know, in, in a special way. I think it’s clear they wanted to make an overture to Americans and they were very kind to me.

Interviewer: [15:51] Did you have suggestions for them how they could organize their, um, PR a little bit more effectively?

Bernie: [15:54] I think it’s, yes. I mean, I, I, the point that I try to make, to many of the people that I spoke to, is they’re getting killed in the American media.

Interviewer: [16:01] Mm-hmm.

Bernie: [16:02] They just cannot compete. Reagan and his people are so sophis-, they own the airwaves, of course, Reagan and the media. Every time Reagan gives them a photo-opportunity, thousands, “Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you very much for telling us another lie.” Uh, you know, and the media, of course, is not allowed to ask sharp questions of the President. That’s not allowed.

[16:18] Uh, and, you know, my point to Ortega is they are not getting their message of what they are trying to do out to the American people. And there’s, there’s just no question about that. Uh, and they just don’t have that kind of sophistication to understand how to manipulate the media as, you know…

[16:35] The White House has dozens of people who are trained. They are trained and well-paid people who are professional manipulators of the media. They have their contacts in CBS, and NBC, and ABC. That’s what they’re paid to do, and they do it very, very well. You know, Ortega is the President of a country of three million people. They have, probably, one television station.

[16:51] They have no sophistication. They have no knowledge as to when you call, you gotta like call, press conferences that the media can’t even use here in the United States ’cause it’s the wrong time. You know, there’s a whole science around this which they’re not aware of. They have contacts now with, they’ve hired a public relations firm in the United States and their trying to improve it.

[17:08] But, the main point is I think they have got to very greatly improve their ability to communicate with the average American, uh, and that’s what I said to them.

Interviewer: [17:18] Um, the woman who’s the head of the Human Rights Commission in Nicaragua, when we went to see her, said, “In a way our work here is much easier than your work in America. You have to convince the people of America that there is a problem.”

[17:34] What can you see, first is what you would like to do as mayor, or can do, and what people, American Citizens, can do to help that country?

Bernie: [17:42] I think the first…American people, many of us, are intellectually lazy, and we really don’t have that right. What’s going on in Nicaragua, and the poverty that exists in Nicaragua, is not, certainly, unusual, given the nature of the Third World.

[17:59] I don’t know that many people in the United States understand now, that one quarter of the world, the entire world, is facing hunger and starvation. The burning issue around much of the world is not whether it’s the New Coke or the Old Coke. It really is not. It’s whether, or not, we’re gonna get any rice or any sustenance at all to keep our children alive. And I think many of us in this country do not understand that.

[18:20] All that I would ask is that Americans unders-. We made a revolution 200 years ago against the British. And, believe me, the causes of our revolution, which were just and right, and we’re very proud of our revolution, were nickel-and-dime stuff compared to what’s going on in the Third World.

[18:36] George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were not fighting ’cause their kids were starving. That’s, that’s the truth. What’s going on in Latin America today is a crisis unparalleled in the history of that continent. The economies of many countries are literally collapsing.

[18:50] People bring up the point, and they say, “Gee, look what’s going on in Nicaragua. There’s inflation, the cost of everything is very high.” It’s absolutely true. But, look what’s going on in Guatemala. In Bolivia, the economy has collapsed. Money is no longer worth anything. It’s 15,000 percent inflation. They can’t pay off their debts to the United States’ banks.

[19:05] The amount of money that the Third World and Latin America are getting for their commodities, whether it’s coffee, or cotton, or, or, or natural resources, minerals, uh, is, is not as much compared to what they have to pay for to process the materials, the manufacturing material.

[19:20] Crisis all over the place, and if President Reagan thinks that anytime a government comes along, which in its wisdom, rightly or wrongly, is doing the best for its people, he has the right to overthrow that government, you’re going to be at war. Not only with Latin America, but with the entire Third World.

[19:33] And what you’re seeing, of course, the media doesn’t portray this terribly much in the United States. What we are doing is not supported by the rest of the world. It’s not supported by our, you know, neigh-, our allies in Western Europe.

[19:43] It is, I mentioned this to Ortega, I said, “You know, when you came and you went to the Soviet Union, that’s all that the American media were full of. The American media, and the American people, think that your only allies that you’ll have in the world are Cuba and the Soviet Union.”

[19:53] He says, “I know.” He says, “But, when I was on that trip, I also went to Western Europe, met with many leaders of Western Countries, we received…” I believe they received $200 million from the Soviet Union in help, $200 million from Western Democracies in help.

[20:06] Canada, the great communist-totalitarian country to the north of us, 50 miles north of us, has just entered into a very positive trade relationship with Nicaragua.

[20:15] All over Latin America, even when there are disagreements with the Sandinista governments, none of these countries are saying to the United States, “Come on in and invade these people.” No country is saying that in Latin America.

[20:25] So, the United States’s attitude and its belief that it can overthrow any government that it wants, especially a democratically-elected government, nobody around the world, we’re getting out-voted in the United Nations, we’ve got a handful of countries, you know, may-, probably South Africa is staying with us on this issue

[20:40] And I think Americans do not understand the degree to which we’re being isolated. There is a crisis in the Third World. People are fighting to keep their children from starving to death, and, frankly, they don’t give a damn about what Ronald Reagan feels. They’re trying to do the best that they can do.

[20:53] And we are going to be taking on the entire world. We’re going to be the enemy of the struggles of poor people, and that’s a terrible thing. If we get involved…and you know, I asked the Nicaraguans this, and their feeling about an invasion of from the United States is, “We’ve gone through a whole lot. We overthrew Somoza, we’ll endure this, too.”

[21:09] They don’t want it. They don’t want it. And if the people in the United States think that you’re gonna walk in there, and just overthrow these people, and kick them out, you’re mistaken. We are very mistaken. They are a very brave people. They’re gonna fight. And they’ll fight in the jungles and they’ll keep fighting.

[21:21] I mean, I’m not saying that the United States, which has a thousand times the military strength of a little country, three million people. You know, if the United States can militarily defeat them, no question about it, but it’s gonna be a never-ending war and the war will spread.

[21:34] Next, it’d be Guatemala, you know, and then there’ll be fighting in Chile and it’ll be here and there, and there. We’re gonna be at war with a whole continent, and it’s not a good idea.

Interviewer: [21:43] What can, uh, uh, people in Burlington to support the Nicaraguans?

Bernie: [21:47] Well, believe me, if the rest of the country was as sophisticated on this issue as the people of Burlington, Ronald Reagan would not be, uh, exercising the policies that he’s exercising today.

[21:57] Uh, I think, first of all, there’s got to be an understanding. There has got to be a statement that what is going on is criminal. It’s illegal. You cannot be giving money to people to destroy a democratic-elected government. I think we have got to stand up.

[22:08] You know what’s ironic is you read these polls, there was recently a Washington Post/ABC Poll, and I forgot exactly what the number is, but well up in the 70s. People said, “We don’t believe that we have the right to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.”

[22:21] People are saying it. That’s what the average American feels, and if you say to the average American, “Do you think we should have a Vietnam-type war in Central America?” I think the answer is overwhelmingly, “No,” but I don’t hear those voices standing up.

[22:32] Now and then, you have senators, like Senator Leahy, who has a good position on this, and, obviously, many people in the Congress. But, I think that the average American should be standing up and saying to President Reagan, “Hey, Mr. President, you’re cutting Social, you want to cut Social Security. You’re cutting health care. You’re cutting programs for the poor, for the elderly.”

[22:46] Listen, If you don’t want to help Nicaragua, fine, don’t help Nicaragua. I would like to see positive help, but at least don’t spend our money that we need here in the United States to destroy that government.

[22:55] I think people are intimidated by Reagan. They’re afraid that he’s going to get on the television, give this dramatic speech equating the murderous Contras with the Founding Fathers of our country, and that is, that is an insult.

[23:06] Believe me, that is an insult to all Americans, uh, and to the people who helped create our country and write our Declaration of Independence. The Contras are not Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, believe me. Uh, and I think, uh, people have got to stand up to Reagan, and I think maybe we’ll see more of that.

Interviewer: [sighs] [23:23] Oh, I think, um, that is my last question. I’ve got a lot that I can ask you, but I think that we’ll, um, put a stop there. And there’s one more thing that I wanted to know. You had an open invitation to the press to…

Bernie: [23:41] Yes.

Interviewer: [23:42] …talk to you about this.

Bernie: [23:43] That’s correct.

Interviewer: [23:44] How many people have taken you up on that?

Bernie: [23:45] One reporter did, a writer for the Rutland Herald, who was very concerned about the Miskito Indian situation, who wrote a very negative article on me. She took me up, we chatted for about an hour. No other reporter has come and said…

[23:55] Reporters are very upset that I did not allow…On this very complicated issue of Nicaragua, where you can talk for many, many hours. We haven’t touched the surface, and we’ve been chatting for 15 minutes. But I was not willing to deal with all kinds of questions. But, I said, “Please, anyone that has further questions, I’d be happy to sit down at length.” One reporter came in.

Interviewer: [24:11] Very good, thank you very much.

Bernie: [24:13] Thank you.

Interviewer: [24:14] This has been CCTV, with the Mayor.

[24:16] [machinery noise only]

Hillary Clinton is bad at politics, and this is a problem

I watched the Democratic debate on Univision last night, and I have a lot to say about it, but there was one line that I thing should worry anyone who doesn’t want to see Donald Trump become the next president of the United States: when Hillary Clinton said, “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.”

With these words, Clinton essentially admitted to being bad at politics. What’s more, the “in case you haven’t noticed” reads as deliberate understatement: she’s implicitly acknowledging that her lack of talent for politics has become painfully obvious by now. And boy is she right.

In 2008, she ran a campaign that seemed grounded in little more than the fact that she was married to a former president. After losing that primary, she seems to have spent 8 years working behind the scenes trying to make sure the 2016 primary would be stacked in her favor in every conceivable way. She racked up endorsements, potential strong primary opponents chose not to run, and the DNC deliberately scheduled the primary debates in a way designed to minimize viewership.

The fact that she’s struggling to lock up the nomination in spite of all these advantages is embarrassing. And it raises serious questions about her effectiveness as a general-election candidate. Part of this is her abundant baggage–the Wall Street money, the e-mail server which she hasn’t been honest about. But she’s also a remarkably inept campaigner.

As I’ve watched the debates, Clinton has gradually lost me on issues (like immigration and trade) where I initially expected to agree with her more than Sanders. She acts like she’s terrified of angering Sanders’s supporters, and is just wishing the primary would be over as soon as possible. And her attacks on Sanders, though they sometimes contain a nugget of truth, mostly feel like she’s throwing everything at the wall to see what will stick. This approach has started backfiring.

As I said yesterday, I believe that if the general election were held today, and the major-party nominees were Trump and Clinton, Clinton would win by a comfortable margin. But I dread seeing what she could do to herself through five to six months of political ineptitude. I fear Clinton’s campaign against Trump could end up looking like the bungled campaigns of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Clinton’s haphazard attacks on Sanders are especially worrying, because they suggest she may not do an effective job at exploiting Trump’s considerable weaknesses. Look at Marco Rubio’s attacks on Trump: though they included potentially very effective material about how Trump’s businesses have hurt the blue-collar whites who make up his base, he ruined it with the distraction of Trump’s penis size.

Clinton might not be so vulgar, but from her performance so far, she could easily waste time with attacks that are more high-brow but equally half-baked. Or worse, maybe she’d try to put a high-brow spin on the penis issue: “Donald Trump is never going to be president, because I think the American people see that he does not have the temperament to be commander in chief. Look, [interviewer name], he has this bizarre insecurity about the size of his hands. How do you elect someone like that president?”

As I typed out the above two sentences, trying to put them in Clinton’s voice, there was a moment where it almost felt like a clever approach. The problem is that every minute people are talking about Trump’s penis is a minute in which they’re not talking about the more serious objections to him. I’m not sure Clinton will be capable of recognizing things like that and acting accordingly.

I can’t ignore Sanders’s own weaknesses as a presidential candidate. If he becomes the Democratic nominee, the “socialist” label alone might not hurt him much, but his past statements on the Sandinistas and Castro will be a major target for attacks. Frankly, I wish we didn’t have presidential term limits so we could just run Barack Obama for a third term. But given the actual options, I’d rather take my chances with Sanders at this point.

Donald Trump is a much stronger presidential candidate than Mitt Romney

As Donald Trump’s nomination has begun to look inevitable, Mitt Romney has begun giving GOP primary voters advice on how to vote strategically to stop Trump—advice that happens to be geared to creating a brokered convention, where GOP insiders could pick whoever they want to be the GOP nominee. Whoever they want, including, as it happens, Mitt Romney.

This is a dumb idea for many reasons. If Trump got a strong plurality of the GOP delegates, only to have the nomination stolen from him at a brokered convention, it would destroy the GOP. Literally—I mean there’s a strong chance it would lead to the GOP going the way of the Whig party. A brokered convention would be the perfect excuses for Trump to do the third-party run he’s been threatening all primary season. Trump wouldn’t win as an independent, but neither would the “official” GOP nominee, so Trump would get his revenge on the people who cheated him out of his glory.

But the other reason nominating Romney through a brokered convention is a terrible idea is that Romney was a terrible presidential candidate. Remember, Romney was running on a platform that consisted entirely of:

  1. Knee-jerk opposition to everything Obama did, without any alternative policies beyond huge tax cuts for Mitt Romney’s friends.
  2. A religious conservatism that, even at the time, was obviously a fading force in American politics. (Already by 2012, the percentage of Americans supporting gay marriage was in the high 50s.)

Worse, leaked video footage showed Romney blatantly insulting a huge portion of his base, saying that if you didn’t pay federal income tax in 2011, that must mean you’re dependent on the government and will never take personal responsibility for your life. What Romney was apparently too out-of-touch to realize was that “people who paid no income tax in 2011” included red state retirees and blue collar workers still struggling to find work after the Great Recession—the very people who made up much of Romney’s base.

If in December 2012, you had sat down to design the perfect anti-Romney to win the White House for the GOP in 2016—and you had no moral scruples as to how anti-Romney would go about doing this—you might have designed a candidate very much like Donald Trump.

Trump’s alternative to Obamacare is laughably vague, but he at least has the sense to reassure voters that it won’t involve letting people die in the streets. Indeed, he fearlessly embraces the entitlement programs—Social Security and Medicare—that ideological conservatives have always been uncomfortable with but that the GOP’s aging base loves. The tax-cutting agenda is there, but Trump’s heart clearly isn’t in it, except when he boasts of the number of people who will pay no taxes under his plan (a feature Romney would see as a threat to personal responsibility).

Trump pays lip service to religion. This is clearly a farce, but the farce has an upside: at a time when many people are worried that Trump could turn out to be literally Hitler, no one seems particularly worried that he might roll back gay rights. In place of religion, Trump has found a culture-war issue more suited to the times: immigration. And he ties his anti-foreign demagoguery in to people’s economic anxieties, telling people that their economic woes come from China and Mexico taking advantage of incompetent US leaders. This is a view of economics I absolutely reject—but it’s not as facially absurd as the claim that the solution to our economic woes is a tax cut for Mitt Romney’s friends.

Trump has obvious liabilities. But unlike Romney, he has yet to be caught on tape secretly insulting nearly half of the electorate. Romney won 61% of the white working class vote in 2012. Many commentators have assumed there’s no possible way the 2016 GOP candidate could top this. But imagine what could have happened in 2012 if the GOP had run a candidate who didn’t obviously hold the lower-income portion of his own base in contempt.

If all this sounds hypothetical to you, I’m from Wisconsin, and in 2012 I begged conservative-leaning friends back in my home town not to vote for Romney, using his callousness towards the lower-income Americans as my main argument. I was surprised by how readily my normally-quite-conservative friends agreed with me. I remember one saying something to the effect of, “You know, most of the time I think the stereotype of Republicans only caring about rich people is unfair—but with Romney, it really seems to be true.”

If you want to run the numbers, the poll aggregator site Real Clear Politics has a useful tool that lets you plug in vote shares and voter turnout numbers for different demographic groups, and see what it does to both the popular vote and electoral college totals. I’ve played around with a variety of numbers, but here’s a simple one you can test on your own: add 5% to the GOP share of the white vote, subtract 10% from the GOP share of the Latino vote, and add 10% to Latino turnout.

Under this scenario, the Democratic candidate wins the popular vote by a 1.4% margin. But it moves Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and New Hampshire into the Republican column, giving the Republican the electoral college by a 94 vote margin. The problem, for Democrats hoping Trump’s anti-immigrant comments will sink him, is that Latino voters aren’t concentrated in swing states. In the long run, it’s entirely possible that Latinos will turn Texas into a blue state. But expecting this to happen by November of this year is probably too optimistic.

All this said, if a Trump vs. Clinton general election were held today, I’d expect Clinton to win by margins resembling Obama’s 2012 victory. But suppose that, after a string of victories in winner-take-all primary states, Trump locks up the GOP nomination in early May. He’ll then have six whole months to focus on attacking Clinton, swinging to the center or even launching some attacks from her left. And remember, he doesn’t have to get most voters to like him—he just has to get them to dislike Clinton more. If there’s one thing Trump has shown he’s good at, it’s attacking his opponents where it will hurt.

None of this should be taken as even a partial endorsement of Trump. It’s a warning not to underestimate him. Because you know what other politician exploited working-class economic woes to win electoral victories while running on a platform of far-right xenophobic nationalism, despite being initially dismissed by many observers as totally unelectable? Hitler.

(I’m sorry, that was kind of a cheap shot. I have another post in the pipeline that will include a more serious discussion of why the thought of a Trump presidency terrifies me. I promise.)

Liberal pundits are embarrassing themselves over Bernie Sanders

I remember how I became a hard-core Richard Dawkins fan in college. I thought (and still think) The God Delusion was a merely OK book. And his comments comparing religion to child abuse were pretty cringeworthy.

But then I started reading Dawkins’s critics. They hated Dawkins for reasons that had nothing to do with the reasons I was “meh” on him. “Dawkins says the God of the Old Testament is a homophobic bully, therefore we don’t have to take him seriously.” What? Had these people read the Bible? I would hope so, since many of them were purportedly experts on religion, but I had to wonder, given that what Dawkins said about the Old Testament was just obviously true.

I’m reminded of this seeing how too many liberal pundits are covering Bernie Sanders’s campaign. It’s a very weird experience, because my policy views are closer to say, Paul Krugman’s view than those of Bernie Sanders. But many pundits who I normally respect seem to have become detached from reality in their treatment of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Consider:

I. “Bernie Bros”

CW: misogyny, transphobia, suicide

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent summary of this issue, but in a nutshell: some Bernie Sanders supporters are misogynistic jerks online–calling Clinton supporters slurs among other things. That’s awful. But some journalists decided to spin this into a narrative of Sanders supporters being especially or uniquely awful online, which there’s no evidence at all for.

The sad reality is that online abuse is a huge problem, especially for women. Both victims and perpetrators can be found among people of pretty much every political persuasion. In his post, Greenwald (who is gay and very much not a Clinton supporter) shares examples of the homophobic abuse he’s gotten on Twitter. He also points to actress Susan Sarandon getting called a “stupid bitch” for supporting Sanders.

In fact, other people have written in some detail about the abuse female Sanders supporters have experienced online. One particularly ironic (and nauseating) example I chanced about entirely by accident on Twitter involved a female Sanders supporter complaining about being told she’s not a woman because she supports Sanders… to which a male Clinton supporter responded with “Enjoy your vag” and “Not finished with your transition?” (the woman had given no indication she’s trans):

550

838

840

Mr. #IStandWithHillary’s premise seems to be that because only men support Sanders, anyone who claims to be a woman supporting Sanders must be lying (and that trans women are men pretending to be women). In reality, young women prefer Sanders over Clinton by large margins.

And now for the part I find most infuriating: when it’s pointed out that journalists and pundits have been pushing a narrative with no factual basis, some of them respond by treating the facts as irrelevant. For example, Vox.com ran one of their feature-length “explainers” on the “BernieBro” meme. Only halfway through does the author, Dara Lind, admit “Unfortunately, there just isn’t any evidence that can settle the question, once and for all, of whether Sanders fans are really more obnoxious online than fans of other candidates.” Yet then Lind dismisses the issue as “derailing”.

When individual women are complaining about harassment, changing the subject to how people on the other side of a debate have also been harassed is wrong. But when the media is pushing a narrative that one side of a debate is uniquely misogynistic, it matters whether this is actually true. If you’re a journalist who thinks there’s no evidence supporting the prevailing narrative, that should be the fucking headline of your article, not buried in the middle and then dismissed as unimportant.

Too many people in online liberal spaces have learned to treat “the other side is racist/sexist/transphobic/etc.” as a trump card in every debate. This norm contributes to a culture of abuse in many of these spaces. But if that wasn’t enough, the fact that they can be deployed to advance the agenda of a powerful and wealthy warmonger should indicate how broken those norms are.

Also amusing: in 2008, the anti-anti-Clinton narrative was all about Obama boys.

II. Single-payer math

I don’t have a ton to say about this that I didn’t say in my post on wonks and the Clinton campaign, but I want to highlight some things Vox’s editor-in-chief, Ezra Klein, has been saying about Sanders’s health care plan.

Klein quotes a line from the Sanders health care plan that promises, “no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges”, and interprets this as meaning the plan will pay for any treatment people want, so it will be impossible to control costs (“everything will be covered, under all circumstances”, in Klein’s words). But a more natural interpretation is just that the government will tell people before they get treatment whether a treatment will be deemed medically necessary, so people don’t get surprise bills. This is something many other countries with government-run healthcare systems manage to do (source: my non-US friends on Facebook and Tumblr).

I have trouble understanding how Klein could interpret Sanders’s plan any other way. “Fail to pay for charges” implies the existence of charges, which implies you’ve already gotten treated and are being billed for it. Surprise medical bills are a thing people deal with in America (my partner and I have dealt with it ourselves). And it’s a solvable problem!

I guess some people think pointing this out is nitpicking? But I think if you’re going to attack someone for something they’ve said, you need to deal with the thing they said, and not like, reverse engineer what you think their position ought to be from how their words made you feel?

I’m sorry, I’m not sure how to deal with this without descending into several paragraphs of rambling snark. I feel like I’m being called on to prove that words with different meanings mean different things.

In case this isn’t obvious to people who don’t have experience with other countries’ health care systems–many people believe that the health care systems of other developed countries are much better than the US system in many ways. I’m one of these people. It was especially true pre-Obamacare, but Obamacare is a kludge that leaves a lot to be desired. Making our health care system much better in many ways is something we could do if Congress and the president both agreed to do it.

Klein could argue that by promising to make our health care system much better in many ways, Sanders risks misleading people into thinking the health care system can become perfect in every way–”puppies-and-rainbows” in Klein’s words. But expecting politicians to not only say true things about their plans but also issue extensive disclaimers about possible downsides is a standard no politician meets. A politician’s failure to meet that standard isn’t evidence that he’s uninformed or delusional.

III. Sanders and the Civil Rights movement

Some people were insinuating Sanders’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement was made up or at least exaggerated, even claiming a photo of Sanders at a Civil Rights protest was faked. I thought this was too absurd to mention at first but apparently TIME fell for it at one point.

(Yeah, TIME isn’t punditry–but this example was too rich to ignore.)

IV. Economic growth

When I wrote my post on wonks and the Democratic primary, I threw in a reference to Gerald Friedman’s report on Sanders’s economic plan at the last minute, because I was genuinely flabbergasted that people appeared to be trashing Friedman without actually reading what he had wrote. But let me talk about this in more detail.

Again, Friedman isn’t associated with Sanders’s campaign. Apparently he’s donated to both Clinton and Sanders, and describes himself as undecided on who he’ll vote for in the primary.

Sanders’s campaign, as far as I can tell, hasn’t actually said that much about Friedman’s report. Sanders’s policy director, Warren Gunnels, did tell the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that:

It shows that over a 10-year period, we would create 26 million new jobs, the poverty rate would plummet, that incomes would go up dramatically, and we would have strong economic growth… It’s a very bold plan, and we want to get this out there.

But that’s the extent of it. People are comparing this to Jeb Bush’s promise that he can deliver 4% economic growth, but that claim was central to Bush’s campaign, it was plastered all over his website (don’t know how long that will remain true now that he’s dropping out).

By contrast, Sanders has never talked about this, it’s not on his website, and Gunnels’ apparent endorsement may have been off the cuff. There’s no indication that Sanders’s team assumed 5.3% economic growth when drawing up their plan. It looks like they came up with a plan they thought was reasonable (after all, they’re describing things many developed countries manage to do), and then to their pleasant surprise an economist outside the campaign said the plan would be great for economic growth. So I think Paul Krugman, for example, is being seriously misleading when he claims this is evidence “Bernie Sanders’s economic program contains a very worrisome amount of voodoo”.

That said, Gunnels probably shouldn’t have talked as if Friedman’s report proved anything. A single report by a single expert rarely proves anything. Consensus judgements of experts are usually pretty trustworthy, but an individual expert can have idiosyncratic views. But unfortunately very few people understand this–which is why you also have Clinton supporters talking as if Kevin Thorpe’s report on Sanders’s single-payer plan is proof that the plan is unworkable. Clinton herself appeared to do this during one of the debates (when she said Sanders’s numbers “don’t add up”), and I think she was wrong to do that.

After looking at this debate more, it looks like Friedman’s projections are probably wrong–but also within the range of things I expect economists to argue over. His claims about lingering slack from the Great Recession look plausible to me. I’m more skeptical of his claims about productivity growth–but then, it’s a bit of a mystery why productivity growth has been so weak lately, and “we just haven’t had enough fiscal stimulus” doesn’t seem especially crazy as hypotheses about weak productivity growth go. I wouldn’t count on Friedman being right–but again, it doesn’t look like Sanders’s campaign was counting on him being right when they made their plans.

What worries me most here is the double standard. Clinton looks at things other countries manage to do and claims the math doesn’t add up. Not that doing them would be politically difficult but that they will “never, ever come to pass” and that even trying could cause people to lose access to health care. The policy in question is one Krugman himself supports. So why doesn’t Krugman call out Clinton as “not ready for prime time” (the words he uses to describe Sanders)?

V. Mission Accomplished

So far, the things I’ve talked about have been things that could be cases of mere sloppiness. This last one is more bizarre. After the Nevada caucuses, the instant consensus of punditry was that this was the end of Sanders’s campaign. Salon did a great job compiling a gallery of shame–actually, I had to read the article twice before I realized it doesn’t seem to have been intended as a gallery of shame, but uh, good job anyway Salon.

I gave the long boring version of why this is wrong a few days ago, so let me give the short version: Clinton and Sanders are exactly tied in pledged delegates, i.e. the ones people actually voted on. I mean, it’s one thing to argue that polls for South Carolina and Super Tuesday states spell doom for Sanders, but the idea that primary and caucus results so far are a disaster for Sanders has almost no basis in reality.

I say almost because there is one way losing Nevada could hurt Sanders: as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If pundits can convince Democratic voters that losing Nevada means Sanders may as well throw in the towel, Sanders’s supporters may become less likely to turn out, less likely to donate, less likely to campaign hard, and fence-sitters may vote for Clinton just to join the bandwagon.

That’s a truly nauseating thought. When influential journalists and pundits say things that are farcically absurd except (perhaps) as self-fulfilling prophecies, they forfeit any pretense that they’re seeking the truth. Rather, it’s an exercise of power, in this case an exercise of power on behalf of a politician who’s already had the deck stacked in her favor by the establishment to a ridiculous degree.

One entry from Salon’s gallery of shame deserves special mention–a front-page story from the New York Times that ran the morning after Nevada’s caucuses. It’s not punditry, but it sure reads like it. Here are the opening two paragraphs:

Senator Bernie Sanders vowed on Sunday to fight on after losing the Nevada caucuses, predicting that he would pull off a historic political upset by this summer’s party convention.

But the often overlooked delegate count in the Democratic primary shows Mr. Sanders slipping significantly behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination, and the odds of his overtaking her growing increasingly remote.

Okay, what is a claim like “the odds of his overtaking her growing increasingly remote” doing in a “news” piece? I think there are real flaws in American norms of objective journalism, but as far as I know the New York Times still claims to hold to them. Is the change in Sanders’s odds a verifiable fact? How did they go about verifying it? It would be one thing if they’d cited betting market odds–but they did not, it’s just been directly reported in the newspaper of record that Sanders’s odds are growing “increasingly remote”.

But this is actually less inexcusable than the claim that Sanders is “slipping significantly behind”. That claim is demonstrably false. In fact, the article does a great job of explaining why it’s false later on:

Mrs. Clinton already has a huge lead over Mr. Sanders in support from superdelegates — elected officials and party elders who each count toward the magic number of 2,383. But superdelegates could switch candidates if Mr. Sanders is the overwhelming choice of regular voters.

For now, Mrs. Clinton is focused on building her lead among so-called pledged delegates — those awarded proportionally by congressional districts from primary and caucus results. Mr. Sanders is aiming to score wins in states like Massachusetts and Minnesota while holding Mrs. Clinton to narrow wins elsewhere. Small margins of victory keep delegate allocations roughly even. A New York Times analysis found that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders are tied in the pledged delegate count, at 51 each.

You can’t be “slipping behind” if 100% of the reason you’re behind is that you started off with a massive disadvantage because you aren’t part of the establishment. Moreover, as a recent article on AlterNet pointed out, the fact that superdelegates can switch their votes means it’s arguably misleading to claim Clinton is ahead at all–in 2008, once Obama secured a majority of pledged delegates, many superdelegates who’d previously been supporting Clinton threw their support behind him.

I personally have little doubt that whoever wins the pledged delegate count will win the nomination, for the same reason I’ve never taken seriously speculation that the GOP would use procedural tricks to stop Trump from getting the nomination. For either party to deny the nomination to the candidate who won the actual voting part of the primary, whether through arcane procedural maneuvers or the more straightforward superdelegate method, would be signing its own death warrant.

At least that’s my opinion. What isn’t a matter of opinion is that starting out with a huge disadvantage in insider support isn’t the same thing as “falling behind”. That a front-page New York Times “news” story would suggest otherwise is shocking. I mean, this kind of screw up is what I expect from science journalists–but I expect journalists covering politics for the New York Times to understand politics.

All of this–but especially the Times story–makes it hard to avoid thinking that this primary season the journalistic establishment has been turned into an extension of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.