Waiting For GoMueller

Every week, it seems, there’s an article about the timing of when Robert Mueller will finally complete his investigation and present his report on President Trump.  Some articles report that “insiders” who are supposedly privy to the workings of the investigation team confidently predict that the report will be out next week; other pieces are written by savvy pundits who have read the tea leaves and concluded that Mueller is timing his report for this or that reason and next week the report will be out.

1551885010588But the report never comes.  The stories speculating about the timing of the Mueller Report remind me of the plot of Waiting for Godot, where Vladimir and Estragon wait, and wait, and wait for Monsieur Godot’s arrival — but he never shows up.  And then the articles that predicted that this would be the week for the Mueller Report get flushed down the memory hole, and new articles that predict that next week will be the week that we get the report, for sure, take their place.

The constant anticipation of the Mueller Report has gotten to be so bad that Newsweek — which I didn’t think still existed, frankly — is reporting that some aged and sick Americans are desperately trying to hold on to their thread of existence just so they can finally read Mueller’s findings.  It’s a pretty thin story — based on the comments of one person who regretted dying before he could read the Report, a reaction to those comments from another senior citizen, and a quote from a third person who thinks her mother would have said the same kind of thing before she joined the Choir Invisible — but it sure seems weird that being unable to read the Mueller Report is the one regret voiced by people who are dying.

The constant fixation on the Mueller investigation and the breathless anticipation of its ultimate report seems pointless to me.  Investigations take time — the Mueller investigation has been going for about two years, already — and good investigators play their cards pretty close to the vest.  At this point, why worry about when, or credit anyone who claims to have special insight into the timing of the report?

One of these days, Godot is going to finally get get here.  Mueller and his team will finish their work, publish their report, and everyone will have the chance to review it.  Until then, Vladimir and Estragon need to stop waiting and get on with their lives.

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The Handshake Analyzed ‘Round The World

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met yesterday at the G-20 summit.  Presumably they had something important to discuss — but you wouldn’t know it from the press coverage.

gettyimages_810247620-0No, newspapers around the world were more interested in the Trump-Putin handshake, and more specifically which of these leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries got the better of the other during the handshake.  The New York Post even consulted a body language expert who concluded that Trump “won on points” because he used the palm-up approach, which apparently is some kind of domineering power-play technique that allows the handshake to proceed to a vise-like grip.  From the breathless analysis, you’d expect that President Trump carefully considered, but ultimately didn’t use, the “knuckle-roll” approach to really let ol’ Vlad know who was boss.

The reporting on this brief incident make it seem as though these two leaders were behaving very consciously during every instant of the handshake encounter.  Perhaps that is so at the international leader level, but for most people a handshake is a pretty unconscious event.  You meet someone, you reflexively stick out your hand — a tradition that apparently stems from ancient times, where the open hand indicated you weren’t holding a weapon — and give the other person’s paw a basic shake.  It’s only a noteworthy incident if the other person’s hand is weirdly damp, or their handshake is incredibly limp, or they try the bone-crusher approach.  Absent something like that, the handshake moment passes by in a flash without a thought and you get into the substance.

In our modern media, though, substance just isn’t as interesting as trying to read “body language” and speculating about what each twitch and eye movement meant and being distracted about meaningless minutiae.  Next thing you know, the media will be asking Putin what he thought about President Trump’s hand size.

Let’s hope Trump and Putin actually focused on something more meaningful.

Media Row

Ohio might not be the hottest battleground state this time around, but that doesn’t mean that the news media is uninterested in the Buckeye State.  Along Third Street, in front of the Statehouse, are the antenna trucks and equipment trucks and multiple tents to protect the talent from the rain.

It’s weird to see these network reporters sitting on chairs and standing on boxes, staring intently into monitors, and realize they are talking to people half a continent away.

Avoiding The Squirrel Distraction

Sometimes it’s hard to really figure out what is happening in the country.  During the glitz and glimmer of a presidential campaign, the American public, and most of the news media, is like a dog in a yard, sniffing this and that and always ready to be distracted when a squirrel goes capering by.  That’s why we focus, briefly, on stories that appear for a day and then vanish into the mists of time.

imageUnderneath that surface glitz and glimmer and the ginned-up controversies it produces, however, is the serious stuff.  It’s the stuff that harder to follow, and more boring to read.  It’s the stuff that the talking head pundits on the “news” shows don’t want to address, because they probably don’t understand it themselves and because it can’t be reduced to a funny one-liner or a clever tweet.  From time to time, though, a real journalist will tackle the serious stuff and produce an article that serious people really should read if they want to get even a glimpse of the challenges that our country is facing.

Mary Williams Walsh of the New York Times wrote one such article recently, about the American public pension system — and how its liabilities are legally, but chronically, underreported.  Told in the context of one tiny pension plan, for California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, the article relates how public pension funds keep two sets of books — one that is officially reported, and one that reflects the “market value” of the pensions and that is kept hidden from the public eye.  The officially reported numbers paint a much rosier picture than the latter.

And that’s where the real problem lurks.  For California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, which covers only six people, the official books showed a large surplus.  The market value books, however, showed that the pension plan in fact had a deficit — and when the plan decided to convert itself to a 401(k) plan, Calpers, the giant California public employee retirement system, required the pension to make a totally unexpected, and large, payment to satisfy the market value of its liabilities.

The different bookkeeping is all about how the pension funds discount their future payments to present value.  It’s the concept of the time value of money — that a dollar today, which can be invested and earn a rate of return, is worth more than a dollar 10 years from now.  Future payments, like those made by pension plans, always get discounted to their present value.  The key issue, though, is what interest rate you use to do the discounting.  Using smaller, more conservative rates will show a higher present value of future payments, whereas using a higher, more aggressive rate will produce a much lower present value — and perhaps even show a surplus.

In the case of the Citrus Pest Control District, the officially reported present value was calculated using the assumed annual rate of return on investments — which is 7.5 percent.  Using that discount rate showed the little pension had a large surplus.  Of course, anybody who does any investing knows that a constant, 7.5 annual percent rate of return achieved over the course of decades of pension payments would be a fantastic rate of return.  Anybody who lives through the down markets of 2008 and 2009 also knows that it’s just not a realistic, long-term assumption.

The upshot is that we’ve got a serious problem in this country with public pension funds that are terribly underfunded.  One of these days, someone is going to have to pay the piper, as Citrus Pest Control District No. 2 did.  But at the presidential debate next week, will anyone ask Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump about this important issue, which could bankrupt many of our local government entities — or will we get questions about pneumonia, hydration or whether it was wise to use the word “bomb” before knowing that a bomb was in fact used in the New York City dumpster bombings?

Look, a squirrel!

Hillary’s Bar Exam Failure

Recently I was reading an article and ran across the statement that Hillary Clinton had failed the District of Columbia bar exam when she took it back in the ’70s.  I was startled because it was something I’d never heard about her background, so I actually did a search to check on whether the statement was true.

D03G3PBS07 A FEAIt was.  In the summer of 1973, Hillary Rodham took the D.C. bar exam.  817 people took the exam, and she was one of the 261 who did not pass.  She also took, and passed, the Arkansas bar exam, so rather than stay in Washington, D.C. she moved to Arkansas, where she and Bill Clinton later were married.  According to the link above, she kept the D.C. bar exam result a secret from her friends until she made a reference to it in her autobiography, Living History.

I mention Hillary Clinton’s bar exam failure not to bash her for something that happened more than 40 years ago — lots of famous and accomplished lawyers and politicians have encountered an initial failure at the hands of the bar exam — but simply to note how selective the reporting on political figures can be.  Story lines somehow get set, and facts that are inconsistent never get mentioned.  Hillary Clinton is portrayed as a brilliant law student at Yale who worked on one of the congressional Watergate committees, then went on to achieve great success with the Rose law firm in Arkansas before Bill Clinton was elected President.  Her failure on the D.C. bar exam is a clinker in that story line of unbroken accomplishment and gets discarded.  Do you think a failure on the bar exam by, say, a politician like George W. Bush would be overlooked — or that we would hear about it, over and over, as evidence in support of the narrative that he wasn’t really very smart?

This reality is a significant failing by the news media and the punditocracy, and it does a disservice both to political candidates — whether they have a positive narrative or a negative one — and to the public.  It assumes that the general population can’t really sift through the good and bad of a public figure’s life and reach a fair judgment about them, so facts get edited and blemishes get removed until the story line leads inexorably to one conclusion.  We’re told, over and over, that someone is a genius or an idiot — and then, when contrary facts are disclosed, it comes as a shock.  I’d much rather get the facts, good and bad and in-between, and come to my own conclusion.  And by the way, stories where people overcome some adversity tend to be much richer and more interesting than airbrushed sagas of ever-increasing triumphs.  Take Lincoln, for example.

 

The Proper Victorian Gent And The Donald

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe depicted the news media as a kind of prissy, proper Victorian gent, applying notions of marriage and conduct to the Mercury astronauts and their families that were outmoded even back in the early ’60s.  As a result, to win the public relations battle, the astronauts and their wives had to relentlessly portray themselves as examples of prim domestic perfection.

victorian-vest-1I thought of Wolfe’s notion of the press as the proper Victorian gent recently as I was reading coverage of the Republican presidential campaign.  The media pundits were reacting with horror at the tone of the Republican candidates, accusing them of falling to the level of schoolyard taunting and insults and — amazingly — being more critical of Marco Rubio than of Donald Trump, whose insults and willing embrace of crassness started the candidates down that road in the first place.  It is as if the press expects, tolerates, and perhaps even celebrates that kind of behavior from Trump — boy, he sure is a rebel who is breaking all of the rules for presidential candidates, isn’t he? — but can’t abide it when other candidates meet fire with fire.  Those other candidates are presented as somehow having lost their cool or taken the campaign to the gutter.

Of course, the press is really the reason why the other candidates have resorted to mocking Trump and trying to do so in ways that will attract media attention. The media is so infatuated with Trump, and the coverage is so lopsided, that the other candidates are starved for attention.  On the night Chris Christie endorsed Trump, I turned on CNN and it was carrying a Trump rally, live, as he sprayed water from a water bottle while belittling Rubio.  Other campaigns need to buy air time to get their message out to that kind of audience, but because of Trump’s antics he gets that kind of publicity for free.  Can anyone legitimately blame the other candidates if they try to respond in kind in hopes of attracting a bit more coverage?  In Marco Rubio’s case, his willingness to hurl a few insults back at Trump seems to have worked and attracted more press attention.  And while Trump won the lion’s share of contests yesterday, his opponents won some, too, and it looks like races were closer because the other candidates finally may be starting to break through the media wall around the Donald.

Of course, I would prefer that political candidates maintain a civil discourse and engage in a spirited, but elevated, discussion of the issues.  With Trump in the race, though, such hopes have long since been dashed, and it is senseless to try to hold other candidates to lofty standards when Trump is breaking all the rules and being effectively rewarded for it.  With the media perfectly willing to cover every outrageous incident of Trumpish behavior, rather than digging into and exposing Trump’s past, the only hope for voters who want to learn about Trump’s record will be the other Republican candidates — and if they need to throw in a regrettable bit of coarseness to get the media’s attention while they do so, I’m not going to wring my hands and bemoan the lack of propriety.  This is a case where the proper Victorian gents of the news media have only themselves to blame.

Strange Bedfellows

This is the weirdest political campaign I can remember — weirder even than the awkward George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot fandango in 1992 — and yesterday it got even weirder with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump.

Trump is supposed to be the anti-establishment outsider . . . but now he’s trotting out endorsements from establishment figures like sitting governors, like having credibility with the establishment means something?  It’s a very mixed message for the guy who supposedly doesn’t give a rat’s patootie for conventional politics.  And the timing of the Christie announcement seems pretty political, too.  Trump got trounced and humiliated in the Republican debate, there’s a lot of buzz and discussion of that fact . . . and then Trump trots out Christie to try to change that narrative.  It may be smart politics, but it’s also conventional politics.  Trump is playing the game, just like everybody else.  Will his supporters ever see that?

635852763638255334-josephIt’s also pretty laughable that pundits are saying that the Christie endorsement, and other, similar announcements that may be forthcoming, will “legitimize” Trump.  Really?  As far as I’m concerned, you could trot out hundreds of governors, senators, and mayors to praise Trump to the skies, and he would be no more “legitimate” than he is now.  Trump will be “legitimate” only when he takes the responsibilities of a presidential candidate seriously and starts actually learning something about the issues.  I don’t want a President who’s going to wing it, and endorsements aren’t a substitute for actual hard work.  Until Trump starts to do some studying and show some knowledge — which will happen on the 12th of Never — he’s just showing contempt for what is supposed to be an important exercise in democracy.

The Christie endorsement makes me lose a lot of respect for the news media, and for Chris Christie, too.  The media is Trump-obsessed, and the Christie endorsement just made all of the news channels give free air time to Trump so he can engage in his antics and belittle his adversaries.  They’re playing Trump’s game because he’s a polarizing figure who will make people tune in and drive up their ratings, and his outrageous statements provide daily news stories that make their jobs easier.  The press hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory this year.  And Christie has lost whatever claim he had to being a credible national figure.  Christie is no dummy; there’s no way he can legitimately believe Trump is best suited to sit in the Oval Office.  Christie obviously is betting on what he thinks will be the winning horse.  Maybe Christie just wants to be one of those unidentified “top men” the Trumpster is always talking about using to get things done if he becomes President.