LaLaLa . . . I Can’t Hear You

August 30, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Republicans prefer that Trump ‘listen more’ to those in GOP with experience.”

That’s the title of a graph in the new Pew report (here). When I first saw the headline, I thought, well duh. Look at the questionnaire item.

When it comes to the major issues facing the nation, do you think Donald Trump should Listen More / Listen Less / Listen the Same Amount as Now to Republicans who have experience working in government?

Who’s going to say that it’s a bad idea to listen to people with a lot of experience? Only the childish and petulant. File this question under “social desirability.”


 I was wrong. Here’s the graphic from the Pew report.


The headline isn’t technically wrong, at least not if you take “Republicans” to mean anything more than 50% of them. But for me, the takeaway is that a third of Republicans and 40% of Conservatives say, “Don’t listen to voices of experience.”*

I guess this fingers-in ears attitude is part of the populist sentiment – the Reagan idea that government is bad. In that view, people who work in government are at best incompetent and more likely venal, and therefore what’s needed is someone who will “shake up” the government. 

For these supporters, Trumpism has everything to do with expressing their resentments and almost nothing to do with actually governing. When asked what they like about Trump, nearly four times as many cite personality rather than policy.

(Click on the image for a larger and perhaps clearer view.)

Small wonder then that they want little to do with people who know how to craft policy, get legislation passed, and administer programs. The irony is that half of those who cite personality perceive Trump as someone who “gets things done.” I wonder how they would respond to a follow-up question about what those things are.

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* It’s possible that the respondents did not take the question literally. Perhaps they interpreted “listen” to mean that Trump should follow the advice of Republicans with more experience in government. They’re quite happy with Trump just the way he is. Why ruin a successful presidency by letting more experienced Republicans influence Trump?

Hijacking Charlie Parker on His Birthday

August 29, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I suppose I should feel elated that a New York Times op-ed features both Charlie Parker and Emile Durkheim. But what Arthur Brooks (here) really wants to do is not to celebrate Bird on his birthday but to caution us all against too much individual freedom.
“To be truly free to enjoy the best things in life, set proper moral standards for yourself and live within them as undeviatingly as Charlie Parker did in his music.”
Of course, when Bird, along with Dizzy Gillespie and others, started playing what came to be known as bebop, most listeners rejected the music as too free, too far outside the constraints of the melody and chords. Some musicians felt the same way. When Diz was in Cab Calloway’s band, Calloway told him to “stop playing that damn Chinese music” or leave the band.

What was “too free” yesterday is today conventional. Read what people said about Ornette in 1960, and you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Bird is not the only one that Brooks wants to play his arrangements. There’s the paradox-of-choice riff: “The ‘paradox of choice’ is a well-established phenomenon,” he says. Maybe. It certainly makes for an interesting TED talk. But a lot of research doesn’t support it. I also note that every supermarket I’ve seen in the past few years still stocks a staggering variety of jams and jellies.

As for Durkheim, Brooks has him play this line:
“[The] results were clear: Individuals are less likely to hurt themselves in communities with more clearly articulated moral boundaries.”
I’m not a Durkheim scholar, but I’d be curious to see if a text search of Suicide turned up anything about moral boundaries. I’d put it differently. The most relevant types of suicide Durkheim outlines are anomic and egoistic. “Anomic suicide” rises when the socially distributed means are out of proportion to socially induced desires. “Egoistic suicide” is highest where people are more individualistic and less attached to social groups and the society as a whole. If this involves morality, it’s a morality that de-emphasizes the collective in favor of the individual.

Brooks apparently was a decent sax player in his day, and he currently heads a successful right-wing think tank (American Enterprise Institute) whose work can include good social science. But Charlie Parker does not belong in the AEI. Why not let him rest in peace?  Bird’s music was about music – the sounds, the tunes, the chords and notes and rhythms. It was not about morality.


Here’s Bird’s 1953 recording of Confirmation, probably his best composition. (I was going to choose “Moose the Mooche,” also a fine tune based on “I Got Rhythm” changes. The Mooche was not a presidential adviser. He was Bird’s connection.)



Information and Power — Again

August 24, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a post shortly after the election (here), I speculated that person holding the real power in White House policy decisions would be the chief of staff not the president.

Regardless of whose voice was loudest and most broadcast in the media or even who had the ultimate power to make decisions, what mattered was who controlled the information that would base his decisions on. 
                                                           
As it turned out, I was wrong. The theory may have been right, but Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, did not centralize the flow of information. According to an article in Politico today,

White House aides say Priebus spent much of his time doing damage control and never instituted a holistic approach or managed to corral the flow of people and paper through the Oval Office.

That may change. Priebus is out. The new chief of staff is John Kelly, who will try to be the kind of chief of staff I envisioned.

In a conference call last week, Kelly initiated a new policymaking process in which just he and one other aide . . . will review all documents that cross the Resolute desk.
The new system, laid out in two memos co-authored by Kelly and Porter and distributed to Cabinet members and White House staffers in recent days, is designed to ensure that the president won’t see any external policy documents, internal policy memos, agency reports and even news articles that haven’t been vetted.

The keystone of the new system is a “decision memo” that will — for each Trump policy — integrate the input of Cabinet agencies and policy councils and present the president with various options, as well as with the advantages and drawbacks of each one.

In such a system, who has more power – the person who chooses A or B, or the person who controls the content of A and B? If Kelly is successful, the “advantages and drawbacks” will be reduced to tweet-length decision memos that challenge neither Trump’s attention span nor his preference for avoiding complexity.

The advantage of having a powerful central person is efficiency. Things get done. The risk of centralization is a “groupthink” structure that excludes inconvenient but important ideas. That might be an improvement over the disorganized and ineffective administration we have seen for the past seven months. But it might also mean that the things that get done turn out to be disasters – disasters that a more open system might have avoided.

Another possibility is that even Kelly will not be able to close Trump off from other sources of information – television, family, and wealthy contributors.

Repetition, Context, Meaning

August 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Barcelona” is a tender and amusing song in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” I saw a production of the show last night at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It’s early morning, Bobby’s apartment. Bobby and April, a dim-witted stewardess (this was 1970) have just had their first night together. She gets out of bed and starts putting on her airline uniform. He is ostensibly trying to persuade her to stay.
“Where you going?”
“Barcelona.”
It’s not the answer you expect when someone asks “Where are you going?” and it gets a smile or even small laugh. But when I heard the line last night, the word also reminded me of the events of a week ago – the terrorist driving a van through the crowds in La Rambla. It was a strange feeling, almost jarring at first – these two meanings of the word floating in the air at the same time. It was like hearing two versions of the same tune simultaneously in different, dissonant keys.

But by the second or third time April said “Barcelona” (she sings the word only four times, but it seems like more), the word meant to me what it had always meant. Repetition of the word in the context of the show blotted out the other connotation.

Repetition and context change a word. I was reminded of something African American novelist David Bradley said on “60 Minutes” several years ago. He was talking about the problem of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn. A censored version of the novel had recently been issued.

Bradley uses the original version, and when he teaches the novel to high school kids, the first thing he has them do is repeat the word. They just say, “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. . .” over and over, a dozen times or more. Then he says, “OK, now let’s talk about the book.”

The word repeated and repeated out of its usual context loses its usual overtones. The students will now be able to hear the word in the context of the book that Mark Twain wrote.


Here’s a version of “Barcelona” with Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks.