Thursday, July 3, 2014

essay 5 from rpca - party role & limits

The Reform Party of California: Its role and its limits
To a large extent, politics is the art and science of spotting problems, finding solutions, predicting the future and trying to get something done. That has to occur within the confines of the constitution and constraints of a chaotic democracy. More than a little of the chaos associated with competing perceptions of reality is at least partially grounded in the factors mentioned before, ideology, special interests and (self-interest - link to essay 3) competing against the public interest. Expert pundits and politicians offer an endless stream of confident predictions of what policies will work best for the future. All of that is based in no small part on an endless stream of [spin - link to essay 4] and usually profound differences of opinion over what relevant facts might be and their relevance to defining and solving problems. In that environment, politics may be more self-serving art (80%?) than public service science (20%?).

Despite the great confidence and sometimes arrogance that routinely comes from expert pundits and politicians, they turn out to be surprisingly bad at predicting future events, especially in view of their usual confidence in their own prowess. A study into what constitutes expert political judgment showed that at the most, expert pundits got predictions of future events right about 20% of the time.[1] Most were not even that good. Stranger still, some statistical models looking at the same scenarios got the future predictions right about 50% of the time. That says that statistical models absolutely trounce human experts when it comes to predicting the future. That is very strange indeed.
Not so strange is the finding that experts are expert at rationalizing or minimizing their failures, but puffing up their egos when they do get something right. Experts tend to accept, with little or no question, facts and outcomes that generally support their world view (ideology) while rejecting facts or, being much more critical, that tend to contradict their world view. When you dig into this, it is clear that all kinds of fascinating human behavior is at work, most of which appears to be subconscious.
For example, experts that made wrong predictions usually softened the psychological blow to their egos by arguing that they were almost right, will soon be right, were wrong for the right reasons or not wrong at all (a very strange reaction to objective failure). Sometimes, they succumb to hindsight, rewriting their own memory of the situation before and after their failed forecast. In the case of hindsight, experts who made wrong predictions tended to partially forget what they believed before making the bad prediction. To save face, they recalled having a better grip on the weight of various factors than what the data said they had to start with.[2] The observed hindsight effect wasn't conscious. When faced with knowledge that one of their predictions was wrong, many experts simply changed the "facts" about their own beliefs without knowing it. In essence, human brains were subconsciously rewriting history in hindsight to protect the ego.
Little downside: The nature of how the human mind works to distort reality cannot just be obliterated, even if someone wanted to do that. It is a matter of biology and is part of what makes humans what they are. However, that does not mean that there is no choice but to simply accept what human nature in conjunction with the two-party system foists on us. When pundits and politicians make their predictions and sometimes base policies based on those predictions, there is no way for the public to know the track record of who is speaking. Finding quality in experts is like trying to compares costs between hospitals for specific medical services. It is difficult, if not impossible. Given the lack of an accessible, potent mechanism for imposing more accountability and reality into politics there is often, maybe usually, little downside for the players when they are wrong.
That makes sense. For example, the pundit Mike Huckabee has recently predicted that, unless democrats gain greater control of congress in the 2014 elections, president Obama will be driven out of office (impeached) before the end of his second term. That is due to his alleged complicity in an alleged coverup regarding the embassy attack in Bengazhi, Libya in September of 2012. If Mr. Huckabee's prediction turns out to be right, the public will no doubt be fully informed, if nothing else by Mr. Huckabee himself. However, if he is wrong, the public likely won't remember it and probably won't hear much or anything about the failed prediction. Finding out about the failure (or his track record to date) would require a significant effort. That is something very few people are willing or able to do.
Given the way things work, including the human ego and two-party politics, it is very hard to imagine experts voluntarily submitting themselves to a fair, unbiased system of critical review so that the public can easily see how good or bad they really are and how well their work compares to statistical models. There is no upside from the status quo point of view to establish that sort of a quality control system in politics. That alleged lack of upside is the two-party system's perception, not the RPCA's perception. Doing that would likely be a benefit to the public interest[3] from the RPCA's point of view.
What the RPCA offers and can do
If you accept the arguments the Reform Party of California (RPCA) in essays 1-4 and the context discussed above as mostly true, then it is fairly easy to see that two-party system politics is inefficient and error-prone, to say the least. But what can or should a pragmatic, non-ideological political party do in the face of complexity, uncertainty, lack of consensus, massive differences in perceptions of reality and low trust in politics, assuming those things are problems that would be good to address?
Assuming it would benefit the public interest, and the RPCA firmly believes that to be the case, a pragmatic or centrist political party like the RPCA can be a source of unspun context and information for assessing the nature of issues and policy options without bias. Because of the RPCA's non-ideological starting point for politics and its openness to a real competition in a marketplace of ideas, i.e., assessing the merit of competing ideas, the RPCA can provide the kind of information that neither party is comfortable giving to its members. For example, the California Democratic Party will tend to shield its major power bases, e.g., public employees and their unions, from information that might reflect badly or imply that there is a better way to do things relative to the power base. The the California Republican Party is no different. Both have vested interests they protect, partly as a matter of self-interest and partly as a matter of ideology. Because the RPCA is even handed in looking for merit, there is no threat to party ideology. Self-interest for the RPCA is grounded in service to the public interest, not special interests so that will have to take care of itself. Either the public will accept that or reject it. Merit can come from the left, right, center and/or elsewhere. The RPCA's product is unspun reality, unbiased analysis based on honest assessment of competing ideas.
When it is feasible to do so, the RPCA can also offer for consideration political options arising from unbiased analytical models. Statistical models may be much better than the best experts in predicting the future and thus shedding light on which policy choices would seem to be the most efficient over time. It does not necessarily follow that what the RPCA or its members might ultimately decide for any given issue will fully or partially accord with what comes from that exercise. It could be the case that the RPCA or its members consider other factors than pure efficiency to be important and thus in accord with a policy choice that differs from what a model suggests.
Nonetheless, such options can serve at least as a reference point for what an unbiased source might conclude. Those options can then be accepted or rejected in whole or in part in the face of those choices. If nothing else, that exercise could make it easier to more objectively consider policy options that might be harder to accept if they came from sources who some people might consider to be biased or self-serving. Resorting to neutral sources should, over time, make it easier or more comfortable to objectively assess the strengths and weaknesses of various opinions and points of view. There is value in approaching political issues in that neutral manner.
In short, the RPCA can and will offer a neutral, non-threatening context in which to assess reality and policy options. The point of that is to get better, more intelligent politics than what the two-party system can deliver in view of the severe constraints it has to operate in now (as discussed in essays 1-4).
Another important product the RPCA offers is a transparent source that can be trusted to provide unbiased assessments of policy options and respect for competing ideas. Most Americans are largely passive participants in politics. Many people do not have the time or inclination to assess the details or merits of various policy choices and competing perceptions of reality. Doing that takes real time and effort. For those people, the RPCA can offer a source that ties together disparate threads of information (from non-profit public service sources and in the press and elsewhere from the two-party system) for easy consideration. Obviously, that requires trust in what the RPCA is doing and why it is doing it. The best that the RPCA can do to build trust is to be transparent, non-ideological and honest about the potential and limits of what can be, none of which you get from the two parties now in power.
What the RPCA cannot offer or do
The RPCA cannot make differences in individual perceptions of reality and personal values disappear. Each individual will incorporate those concerns into their own opinions. However, the RPCA does hope that that process will occur after neutral consideration of competing options and arguments pro and con. Regardless, individual values will play a role. The goal of that approach is to reduce the massive gulf in perceptions of reality between the left and right and to give the center a point of view that is not distorted by the ideology of the left and right.
No party can come up with policy choices that all of its members will agree on. Disagreements within political parties are common. Some Tea party members have threatened to leave the republican party because core principles or ideological beliefs have been compromised too much. The best that a party can do is to be transparent about its policy choices.
Special interests: The RPCA cannot dictate to special interests about how they choose participate.  Two-party politics is pay to play for the most part and many interests may want it that way.  Special interests with money, both legal entities and wealthy individuals, have to decide what they want out of politics (a focus on self-interest or public interest) and whether pay to play or competition on the merits is how politics should operate.[4] All the RPCA can offer is a changed status quo based on the merit of competing ideas in lieu of pay to play. The RPCA's vision of politics might be appealing to at least some special interests who do not participate in pay to play or who like the idea of competition based on merit. On the other hand, most willing participants in status quo politics may not much care for what the RPCA is offering. That is no surprise. There can be excellent return on investment in the two-party system as discussed in essay 2.
What the RPCA would like to achieve
It may be the case that the RPCA can narrow differences in individual perceptions of reality by looking at alternatives in less threatening ways, e.g., presenting pros and cons of issues in a value/ideology neutral manner. That is what the RPCA wants to achieve. Obviously, that requires significant voter support. The two-party system tells us that we are far apart on most issues but more careful, less biased,  sources say that most Americans (not ideologues) are often not that far apart. One RPCA goal is to at least partially convert politics from win-lose ideological and/or self-interest combat to a search for win-win, win-neutral or neutral neutral scenarios whenever that serves the public interest.
Ultimately, the RPCAs' goals include a higher GDP growth rate and a slow, intelligent recovery of fiscal control. The party wants to build a more efficient, responsive and transparent brand of politics compared to the often non-responsive, opaque product the two-party system typically delivers. Given the way politics now works, there is no reason to believe that better, more efficient governance can promote average economic growth without fomenting economic debacles like the 1980s S&L crisis or the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. In terms of its business climate, the business community perceives California to be a relatively unfriendly place (Chamber of Commerce; business community perceptions; think tank perceptions). The RPCA believes that California's business and tax climate can and should be improved without loss of regulations that most Californians clearly want, despite contrary business sector wishes. Although achieving an optimum balance has been impossible to attain so far under the two-party system, it is the RPCA's goal.[5] Without economic growth and health, it is difficult or impossible to be compassionate in governing.
1. Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How good is it? How can we know?, Princeton University Press, 2005, see, e.g., pages 49-51 and 53-54. Maybe not surprisingly, there is no universal agreement among social scientists that something like "expert political judgement" can even be measured. That school of thought sees politics about like this; History is "ultimately one damned thing after another, a random walk with upward and downward blips but devoid of thematic continuity. Politics is no more predictable than other games of chance." (page 19) Of course, if that perception of reality is true then why should anyone listen to any pundit or politician confidently expressing any opinion about anything relevant to politics? And, why (i) were the statistical models so much better than human experts and (ii) is it that certain types of human thinkers were consistently better than others in predicting the future? It must be the case that expert pundits and politicians themselves believe in their own ability to see the future, otherwise they would not be so certain that they possess anything more than a faint idea of what they are talking about or why they feel the way they do. To say the least, all of this can be disconcerting to some people, especially ideologues. Unspun reality has a nerve-wracking tendency to undermine ideology. That implies that many (most?) ideologues will reject or distort the science and the results described here. If they didn't, that would open the door to a real, critical review of exactly what the two-party system has done, especially ideologues, and how effective they have been and might be going forward.
2. Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment, pages 202-205. "Hindsight bias is a failing of autobiographical memory." Page 205. The human mind is adept at playing quiet, comforting tricks with memory and thus perceptions of reality. Unfortunately, we are typically unaware of this and many people will tend to deny or disbelieve it when confronted with this aspect of human nature. Discomforting as it may be, science strongly suggests that our brains betray us by distorting memories a little each time we recall them (link to the original scientific publication describing recall-induced memory distortion). Hindsight bias seems to be part of the phenomenon at least when a challenge to the ego is involved, e.g., when an expert is told that his or her prediction is wrong.
3. One can argue that knowing how good or bad expert political judgment is does not serve the public interest because politics is just a game of chance. But, if the results of the science discussed here really do apply across the board, experts playing that game of chance are wrong at least 80% of the time. Knowing how effective the experts really are would thus only serve to undermine trust our whole political system and that would harm the public interest. That is one way to see it. Conveniently, that "ignore it and it won't bite you" vision tends to preserve the status quo. Another way to see it is to call the two-party system's bluff and demand to be treated like adults. Why does the two-party system think that indulging in endless spin (link to essay 4) and confident prognostication serves the public interest any better than brutal honesty? Why treat American citizens like mushrooms? When one looks at the poll numbers, trust in government in Washington (and in California to a lesser extent) has been low for years. Being more honest and transparent would increase public trust and better serve the public interest. That just might make governing easier and maybe a bit more efficient.
4. The RPCA fully understands that most special interests, including the two parties, will strenuously argue that what they do serve the public interest over special interests and that politics is not pay to play. Those interests will be able to point to many things that support their arguments. Those arguments are heard and have been considered. They are not persuasive. The balance of the evidence (as discussed in this series of essays and from many other sources) and common sense have led the RPCA to the firm conclusion that money plays too big a role in accessing government and that service is tipped too far in the direction of serving special interests at the expense of the public interest. This amounts to differing perceptions of reality. The question is obvious: What does your instinct and common sense tell you about how politics works and who it serves? The RPCA's positions on those points and why it holds those positions and should now be clear. This is a fundamental dispute over what politics is and how it should operate. In these regards, the RPCA is different from the California Democratic and Republican Parties.
5. The issue here is one of reasonable balance. Democratic ideology and approach to governance embraces an ever growing and complex web of regulation. That imposes an increasing burden on essentially all aspects of commerce and society.  Republican ideology and approach to governance embraces stark deregulation, including deregulating things that most Californians want some regulation of. There has to be a better balance. Because democrats dominate California government, complexity and burden will increase even if it is not needed or wanted.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Tax policy change is not possible

Reform Party of California Commentary

On occasion, especially during elections, some politicians and candidates for congress or president promise tax policy reforms which typically refer to tax code changes. That has been the case for years, maybe a few decades. Analysis of tax data suggests that the U.S. treasury loses over $400 billion per year to tax evasion, which is illegal non-payment of taxes owed. A reasonable estimate is that unknown hundreds of billions per year is lost to tax avoidance measures that congress never intended, but which are nonetheless legal. Tax policy changes could significantly alter the situation, but the chances of that happening appear to be very low at best.

To the Reform Party of California (RPCA), indefensible, incoherent tax policy is one of the most persuasive factors, maybe the single most persuasive, that the two-party system, congress and the White House is not really serious about improving America's fiscal situation. The sheer magnitude of the money that could be collected from tax evasion alone, probably  $320 to $350 billion/year,  is strong evidence that there is insufficient political will for either tax code reform or collection of most of what is due. Collecting tax revenue that is owed to the U.S. treasury is not a matter of raising any new tax and thus it should not offend conservative political anti-tax ideology. As for liberal political ideology, there is nothing obvious that would render either reasonably effective collection of taxes owed or tax code reform necessarily objectionable.

The circumstances here include a federal debt well over $17 trillion[1], federal spending heavily subsidized by new debt and hundreds of billions of dollars/year in "free" money that is allowed to simply vanish. Collecting at least some of the owed money does not require tax code reform, but it is nonetheless not done. Given that, it is fair to conclude that the two-party political system uses the tax code for payback for campaign contributions. If collecting what is owed is an unattainable political goal, then asking for real tax code reform is even less attainable because bipartisan cooperation would be needed in addition to the political will to overcome resistance from lobbyists who fight to maintain the status quo on behalf of their clients.

The RPCA is not alone in seeing tax policy as difficult or impossible to touch in any meaningful way. On Dec. 12, 2013, C-Span broadcast a Q&A interview with Marty Sullivan, the chief economist for Tax Analysts, which is a non-partisan, non-profit provider of tax news and analysis with about 200 employees.[2] Dr. Sullivan, a well-known analyst and former republican, is no longer affiliated with the democratic or republican parties. His focus is on communicating intelligent tax analysis to his customers and the public without partisan political baggage. The 59 minute interview focuses on tax avoidance tactics, which Sullivan has studied in detail (key comments on tax avoidance tactics are are at 2:15 to 6:20), but other topics including tax policy issues are also discussed.

A couple of critical points regarding tax policy jump out from the comments that Sullivan makes in his C-Span discussion. At 14:35 to 16:13 of the C-Span broadcast, Sullivan points out that congress is simply incapable of making reasonable, sensible changes to the tax code in the face of lobbyists who overpower congress as an institution. As Sullivan puts it, congress is "swarmed" by tax lobbyists who argue that proposed, common-sense tax code changes will "be the end of the world." Congress just caves in and nothing changes.

At 16:15 to 20:00, Sullivan argues that campaign contributions to key people in congress are not nearly as powerful as is the capacity of lobbyists who are technical tax experts to influence the writing of the tax code. That process is not normally subject to press scrutiny. Even if the press did decide to try to understand what was going on during legislation, the details likely would not be fully understood. In essence, it appears to be the case that the process of writing tax law is done behind closed doors between congressional staffers and special interest lobbyists who know far more about tax code matters than congressional staffers. It is no surprise whatever that the tax code is littered with tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks that congress neither intended or even understood in the first place.

Despite claims by key politicians that tax policy reform is likely in a given legislative session, Sullivan argues in comments at at 25:35 to 27:18 that such sentiment grossly overstates the odds of change by about 10-fold, i.e., if the congressional committee chairpersons say there is a 50% chance of reform, the reality is that there is about a 5% chance. The reason Sullivan gives is that when congressional chairpersons propose meaningful tax policy reform, that necessarily includes the bad news, i.e., who is going to pay for closed loopholes. When those details become known to the business community, they do not like what they see. That presumably triggers the swarms of stinging lobbyists who argue the world is coming to an end. In fact, all that ends is the political will and congressional capacity to pass any meaningful tax policy reform.[3]

Finally, at 30:30 to 31:28, Sullivan argues that democratic and republican politicians "both do a lousy job" regarding tax policy, despite the fact that republicans at least talk about the topic more than democrats and they try to elevate the importance of reform. In Sullivan's opinion, unless there is a self-interested motive, most democratic politicians just do not care enough to try anything. Sullivan's point that tax policy reform is not sufficiently important for meaningful tax reform to happen is a point the RPCA has argued repeatedly.

Obviously defenders of the two-party status quo will reject Dr. Sullivan's version of reality as nonsense, misguided, self-serving and/or otherwise simply wrong. So, who are you going to believe? You decide. While you are deciding, consider these two arguments. First, every year that passes under the status quo, the U.S. treasury loses another, say, $500-$600 billion in revenue to criminal tax evasion and unintended tax avoidance, with some, about one-third at present, of that amount financed by increasing federal debt. Second, that accumulating debt and lost treasury revenue decreases America's GDP growth by, say, 0.7% to 1.0% annually. If those arguments are wrong, it would be nice to see the unspun data and unbiased analysis that refutes those two assertions. Such data and analysis probably does not exist.

1. On the books federal debt is over $17 trillion and off the books debt amounts to about $85-90 trillion that will come due in the next 30-40 years or so.
2. The information that Tax Analysts generates is among the best sources, maybe the best, for understanding tax law and policy. U.S. tax policy and its tax code is blindingly complex. Attaining a reasonable grasp of the issues for a lay audience requires resort to politically unbiased expert analysis and opinion.
3. This is not meant to be a criticism of special interests or their swarms of technical expert lobbyists. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. It is the job of special interests to defend their special interests. It is the job of congress, not the for-profit business community, to protect the public interest. When it comes to tax policy, which is urgently needed and has been for years, congress is AWOL.

Friday, January 10, 2014

trust in govt & illegal govt activities

Reform Party of California Commentary

Poll data regarding Americans' trust in the two dominant parties and all three branches of the federal government is evidence of widespread public mistrust and unhappiness. Some poll data suggests that many Americans are now receptive to the idea that a third political party is needed to offset some of the perceived two-party ineptitude and/or corruption. Opinion here fully accords with those beliefs.

There are good reasons for Americans to be unhappy. Average people are economically stressed by long-term low wage growth and there is a common perception that the two parties are more focused on serving themselves and their concerns than they are on serving the public interest.

Reasons to be unhappy with government include periodic revelations that some federal agency or another is doing things that are either illegal, almost illegal or unnecessarily damaging to personal liberties. Information on domestic spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) that Edward Snowden released is a recent example. Not surprisingly, the political system defends itself and its actions, or failures to act, while only dimly recognizing that, yet again, they have fallen short on being sufficiently honest with the public. One key NSA insider, Chris Inglis, considers what Snowden has done to the NSA to be equivalent to burning down a house so that, now that it is completely burnt, it can be rebuilt the right way.
That arrogant, dismissive attitude is just more evidence that the American people come in second to other concerns that really do not need to trump the public interest such as the public's need to know. Mr. Inglis, as intelligent as he might be, just doesn't get it. The NSA's house would have been properly built in the first place if our two-party political system was focused on service to the public interest before service to narrower perceived needs for keeping the public uninformed. Snodwen's leaked documents have prompted calls from both democrats and republicans in congress to a review and reassessment of exactly what the NSA is doing. Why are these calls for a review and reassessment of the NSA coming now? A review occurs now because Snowden forced it, not because there was any congressional intent to ever do anything. President Obama, congress and the entire two-party system was focused on themselves. They were not doing a proper job of oversight in service to the public interest.[1]

Some things don't change
A past federal "indiscretion" is worth mention.  On March 8, 1971, a group of 8 political activists broke into an FBI office in Media, PA and stole nearly every document in the office. The burglars then began leaking the documents to the press. The activists knew what they were looking for and they just got lucky that proof of their suspicions were in that office. The leaked documents proved that the FBI was heavily engaged in domestic spying, dirty tricks and other forms of politically-inspired sleaze (New York Times, Jan. 7, 2014; online here). Not surprisingly, the federal government tried to prevent the press from reporting on the, no doubt in the name of national security. The FBI was engaged in trying to suppress political and antiwar activists and dissent. The FBI even tried to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. into committing suicide by threat of exposing King's extramarital affairs if he didn't.

Some of the burglars in the 1971 burglary and theft have recently outed themselves and explained their motives. The statute of limitations for burglary charges expired March 11, 1976, so none of them can be prosecuted. They all maintained their anonymity until now because they were not interested in personal publicity. They just wanted the public to know what the FBI was doing. Without the Media burglary and theft of documents, there is no way to know when and what changes, if any, would have come to the FBI. Congress was then, just as it is now, asleep at the switch and focused on interests other than serving the public interest. It took whistle blowers to force change.

To trust or not to trust, that is the question, or at least its one question of several
There are very good reasons that millions of Americans do not have much trust in the federal government, the two parties or their politicians. That two-party system has earned distrust. It deserves to be distrusted. That raises the question about what can or does one do if the situation is deemed to be unacceptable? There does not appear to be much of anything that the public can do other than to simply walk away from the two parties and the system of politics they build and forcefully defend every single day. Events like these do not happen by accident. They reflect the reality that the two-party system does not put the public interest first. Unfortunately, that is an assertion that both parties, the federal government and special interests who benefit from two-party politics will vehemently dispute. Change is not going to come from within because from the status quo point of view, nothing is broken and therefore nothing needs to be fixed. Do you believe that or not?

1. Absent Snowden's revelations, there is no reason to believe that there would be any reassessment or change at the NSA now or ever. After Snowden, one suggested change that the NSA apparently enthusiastically accepts now would be to have an advocate arguing for the public's interest in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court. That should have been done from the start or at least sometime before Snowden blew the whistle. The House of Representatives had plenty of time to cast 40 or more votes to overturn or defund some or all of Obamacare, but it did not have time to cast an even cursory glance at what the NSA was doing. Whose interests did that serve? A separate issue is whether the presence of a public advocate in the FISA court would make a difference. Years ago, congress created the office of National Taxpayer Advocate to protect the public's interest regarding tax policy. That advocate argues intelligently and forcefully every year for common-sense tax policy changes and every year congress simply ignores everything the public's advocate argues for. If that isn't evidence that the public interest is a second- or third-order priority for the two-party system, then what is?