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American psycho

[ 40 ] May 14, 2016 |


The voice is instantly familiar; the tone, confident, even cocky; the cadence, distinctly Trumpian. The man on the phone vigorously defending Donald Trump says he’s a media spokesman named John Miller, but then he says, “I’m sort of new here,” and “I’m somebody that he knows and I think somebody that he trusts and likes” and even “I’m going to do this a little, part time, and then, yeah, go on with my life.”

A recording obtained by The Washington Post captures what New York reporters and editors who covered Trump’s early career experienced in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s: calls from Trump’s Manhattan office that resulted in conversations with “John Miller” or “John Barron” — public-relations men who sound precisely like Trump himself — who indeed are Trump, masquerading as an unusually helpful and boastful advocate for himself, according to the journalists and several of Trump’s top aides.

In 1991, Sue Carswell, a reporter at People magazine, called Trump’s office seeking an interview with the developer. She had just been assigned to cover the soap opera surrounding the end of Trump’s 12-year marriage to Ivana, his budding relationship with the model Marla Maples and his rumored affairs with any number of celebrities who regularly appeared on the gossip pages of the New York newspapers.

Within five minutes, Carswell got a return call from Trump’s publicist, a man named John Miller, who immediately jumped into a startlingly frank and detailed explanation of why Trump dumped Maples for the Italian model Carla Bruni. “He really didn’t want to make a commitment,” Miller said. “He’s coming out of a marriage, and he’s starting to do tremendously well financially.”

Miller turned out to be a remarkably forthcoming source — a spokesman with rare insight into the private thoughts and feelings of his client. “Have you met him?” Miller asked the reporter. “He’s a good guy, and he’s not going to hurt anybody. . . . He treated his wife well and . . . he will treat Marla well.”

Some reporters found the calls from Miller or Barron disturbing or even creepy; others thought they were just examples of Trump being playful. Today, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president faces questions about his attitudes toward women, what stands out to some who received those calls is Trump’s characterization of women whom he portrayed as drawn to him sexually.

“Actresses,” Miller said in the call to Carswell, “just call to see if they can go out with him and things.” Madonna “wanted to go out with him.” And Trump’s alter ego boasted that in addition to living with Maples, Trump had “three other girlfriends.”

Miller was consistent about referring to Trump as “he,” but at one point, when asked how important Bruni was in Trump’s busy love life, the spokesman said, “I think it’s somebody that — you know, she’s beautiful. I saw her once, quickly, and beautiful . . . ” and then he quickly pivoted back into talking about Trump — then a 44-year-old father of three — in the third person.

Trump is a narcissistic weirdo, so there’s almost certainly a lot more stuff like this out there.


Did John Roberts’ unwillingness to overturn legislation cause Donald Trump’s nomination?

[ 138 ] May 13, 2016 |


That’s the novel theory being put forth (independently I guess) by Randy Barnett and Ilya Shapiro:

The vast majority of constitutional law scholars don’t believe Obamacare violates the Constitution, but never mind that. The far loopier claim is that John Roberts, of all people, upheld Obamacare because he doesn’t believe in striking down democratically-enacted laws. This is the same Roberts who provided the deciding vote to gut the Voting Rights Act, to overturn decades-worth of campaign finance laws, and to strike down gun control legislation, to name just a few of the many cases in which Roberts has shown no hesitation to overturn the decisions of political majorities. . .

Leave aside that this supposed unwillingness is, as noted above, completely fictitious. How delusional do you have to be to believe that a significant number of the people voting for Donald Trump are doing so because they are upset about the theory of judicial review John Roberts employed in the Obamacare case? This is such an obviously preposterous idea that to restate it is to refute it.

The American right has been throwing a six-year-long temper tantrum about the passage of Obamacare. It’s hardly surprising that part of the right’s strategy for attacking the law has been to cook up a bunch of “creative,” i.e., dubious, legal arguments about how the law is supposedly unconstitutional. That, after all, is how the legal-political game is played in this country.

Do people like Barnett and Shapiro actually believe their claims that a series of highly technical (and again, highly dubious) legal arguments failed to overturn that law because John Roberts values democracy more than a correct interpretation of the Constitution? Furthermore, do they really believe that widespread anger about this supposed preference is what has led to Donald Trump’s impending nomination?

Because if they do, that’s actually crazier than Trump’s nomination itself.

How worried should we be about Donald Trump becoming president?

[ 358 ] May 12, 2016 |

apocalypse now

This is not the same question as “what are the odds that he’s going to win?”

The reason is because it makes sense to be quite concerned about a potential catastrophe, even if the odds are low that it will happen.

My view is that a Trump presidency would be a genuine catastrophe, at a completely different level than anything the country has ever seen before in terms of presidential politics. Besides being almost unbelievably ignorant about pretty much every topic relevant to the office, Trump appears to be a mentally unstable person who shouldn’t be in command of a set of steak knives, let alone a set of nuclear launch codes.

So, in my view, a ten percent chance of Trump becoming president is in itself a sort of ongoing disaster, as in Apocalypse x .1 = Omigod This Can’t Be Happening. Which brings us to Thomas Edsall:

There is also strong evidence that most traditional public opinion surveys inadvertently hide a segment of Trump’s supporters. Many voters are reluctant to admit to a live interviewer that they back a candidate who has adopted such divisive positions.

In matchups between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump does much better in polls conducted online, in which respondents click their answers on a computer screen, rather than in person-to-person landline and cellphone surveys.

An aggregation by RealClearPolitics of 10 recent telephone polls gives Clinton a nine-point lead over Trump. In contrast, the combined results for the YouGov and Morning Consult polls, which rely on online surveys, place Clinton’s lead at four points.

Why is this important? Because an online survey, whatever other flaws it might have, resembles an anonymous voting booth far more than what you tell a pollster does.

In a May 2015 report, Pew Research analyzed the differences between results derived from telephone polling and those from online Internet polling. Pew determined that the biggest differences in answers elicited via these two survey modes were on questions on which social desirability bias — that is, “the desire of respondents to avoid embarrassment and project a favorable image to others” — played a role.

In a detailed analysis of phone versus online polling in Republican primaries, Kyle A. Dropp, the executive director of polling and data science at Morning Consult, writes:

Trump’s advantage in online polls compared with live telephone polling is eight or nine percentage points among likely voters.

This difference, Dropp notes, is driven largely by more educated voters — those who would be most concerned with “social desirability.”

These findings suggest that Trump will head into the general election with support from voters who are reluctant to admit their preferences to a live person in a phone survey, but who may well be inclined to cast a ballot for Trump on Election Day.

This is a kind of variation on the so-called Bradley effect, the continued existence of which is controversial. Will there be a Trump effect, and if so will it be strong enough to overcome the many excellent reasons to think that Trump will be an exceptionally weak candidate?

Other reasons to worry include:

The argument that Hillary Clinton is herself an exceptionally weak candidate.

This argument is usually based on some combination of the claims that she’s a bad campaigner, that she’s going to have to deal with serious legal complications because of the email thing or whatever other “scandal” the GOP cooks up, and that she’s a prototypically establishment figure at a time when the zeitgeist is going very much in an anti-establishment direction. I think the first two claims are seriously overstated, while the third is a genuine cause for concern.

The argument that Trump is a unique candidate, and that existing precedents for analyzing his strengths and weaknesses are of relatively little value.

Trump certainly is a unique candidate, but his uniqueness seems to be manifested in ways that are unambiguously bad for his election chances (there’s never been a major party candidate with anything like both his negatives, and his extra-political fame. In other words everybody knows him and most people hate him because they know him, which seems like an exceptionally unpromising combination). So the argument that you can’t really assess his chances seems like bare assertion at best.

The argument that something could happen that could change the present political landscape in a radical way: a big terrorist attack, an HRC health crisis, or who knows what else.

Again, this seems to add up to the claim that while things look bad for Trump now, they could look different five months from now, which is true by definition, and therefore trivial.

The argument that Trump will get massive media coverage, even beyond that given to a typical presidential nominee, because he’s great for ratings, and that this coverage will normalize him, because of the reflexive structure of political coverage in this country (“both sides do it, the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” etc.)

I think this is probably the single best reason to worry that Trump’s chances are better than conventional analysis would suggest.

In any case, there’s going to be a lot of gin in my freezer between now and November.

Ted Cruz is ready to jump back in the race

[ 54 ] May 10, 2016 |


Ted Cruz floated the possibility of restarting his presidential campaign if he wins Nebraska’s GOP primary on Tuesday and avoided saying whether he supports Donald Trump’s bid for president.

Cruz, who suspended his White House run last week, said he does not expect to win Nebraska’s primary but is leaving the door open.

“We launched this campaign intending to win. The reason we suspended our campaign was that with the Indiana loss, I felt there was no path to victory,” he said Tuesday on conservative host Glenn Beck’s radio program.

“If that changes, we will certainly respond accordingly.”

Gentlemen prefer bonds

[ 86 ] May 10, 2016 |


Some comments on Trump’s suggestion that he’ll reduce the national debt by getting creditors to take a haircut:

Donald Trump is an ignorant fool. He doesn’t know anything about anything, and worse yet he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know anything about anything. (In psychology, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect). The sum total of his talents consists of having the foresight to be born to an immensely wealthy father, and possessing a Rain Man-style idiot-savant capacity for self-promotion. That’s it.

A couple of days ago he provided a frighteningly clear illustration of the bottomless depths of his ignorance when he suggested that he might reduce the national debt by using his deal-making skills to get America’s creditors to accept less than full payment for the nation’s debt obligations to them.

That is an idiotic suggestion, which could only be made by someone who has no idea how bond markets, the American legal system, and the world economy work. . .

In the wake of his mind-blowingly stupid comments, some observers have tried to rationalize Trump’s astonishing ignorance. For example, Matt Yglesias writes that “Trump is a businessman, and in terms of thinking like a businessman his idea makes sense.” The idea here is that it sometimes makes sense for a business to threaten not to pay its debts, because if it files for bankruptcy creditors will get little or nothing. Creditors will then accept what in the trade is known as a “haircut” – less than what they’re legally owed – to avoid this outcome.

But this is giving Trump far too much credit. Real businesspeople, as opposed to a lifelong self-promoting scammer like Trump, understand perfectly well that public and private debts are not equivalent, and that governments (and most especially the U.S. government) can’t operate like private businesses in regard to their debt obligations. That is why real businesspeople invest in U.S. bonds, despite their current near- zero rate of return: because they know that the U.S. government — assuming it isn’t taken over by the maniacs at the head of the contemporary Republican party – can’t and won’t engage in strategic default.

(After the storm of criticism his comments provoked, Trump characteristically claimed this morning not to have said what he clearly did say).

Yglesias’ reaction is an understandable defense mechanism; it’s one that we’ll be seeing a lot of between now and November. He can’t allow himself to contemplate just how ignorant Trump really is, because that would force him to contemplate the extent to which the Republican party has actually gone mad. In other words, Donald Trump’s impending nomination is merely a symptom of a much deeper disease.

Stupidity, celebrity, plutocracy

[ 157 ] May 5, 2016 |

trump reagan

Trump and the revolution:

Electing Donald Trump president would be as insane as electing Kim Kardashian president, and for the same reasons. He’s a reality TV star, and that is all he is. But in America in 2016, the cult of celebrity, like the cult of stupidity, is so all-encompassing that being famous for being famous is a sufficient basis for winning a major party’s presidential nomination, at least if that party is the party of Reagan, the know-nothing B-movie star who took over the GOP.

Finally, Trump’s ascendance marks the triumph of plutocracy in its purest form. Ronald Reagan hated government, and loved business, to the point where he helped create our national infatuation with the idea of the heroic businessman, who may have no idea what an administrative agency is or how to find Mexico on a map, but who knows how to Get Things Done.

And that is Trump in a nutshell. His other qualification for high office, besides being a total moron and having appeared in People magazine a lot, is that he’s a fabulously successful businessman. Of course Trump’s business success seems to be as phony as everything else about him (to the extent that he’s actually rich he appears to have made his money the old-fashioned way, that is, he inherited it), but in a culture that worships both stupidity and celebrity, the self-serving lies of famous plutocrats are often swallowed whole.

Forty years after Ronald Reagan came within an inch of taking the Republican nomination from President Ford, Donald Trump represents every horrible personality trait and political instinct that fueled the Reagan revolution. He is that revolution on steroids, and the very embodiment of our national cults of stupidity, celebrity, and plutocracy.

And . . . scene

[ 270 ] May 3, 2016 |

Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for president of the United States.

This comment thread seems from a different era altogether than the one in which we live now.

The key to a more egalitarian society is for everyone to go to elite colleges

[ 145 ] May 3, 2016 |


Now nobody actually comes right out and says this, for the obvious reason that it sounds pretty idiotic when you say it out loud. But a lot of people sort of believe it anyway:

Higher education, once seen as the nation’s great leveler, has become a guardian of class division and privilege in America. At the country’s most selective schools, three percent of students come from families in the bottom economic quartile, while the top economic quartile supplies 72 percent. A high-achieving poor student is only one-third as likely to go to a competitive school as her wealthier counterpart.

If you’re actually interested in attacking class distinctions, as opposed to looking for tips on exactly what you have to do to get Cameron and Abigail into the most selective preschool in the area, you will notice that there’s something rather disturbing about the math in this paragraph. To wit: a “rich” kid (broadly defined) is twenty-four times more likely to go to a selective college than a “poor” kid (broadly defined.)

Is this because selective colleges are discriminating against poor kids? Well obviously they are, in the sense that their selection criteria result in schools with essentially no poor kids (again, “poor” here is a term of art, meaning lower middle or working class, as well as actually poor). What to do?

It doesn’t seem as if closing this gap should be so difficult. Some 30,000 low-income high school seniors in America each year are top students but don’t go to selective schools, or to college at all. Catharine Bond Hill, a prominent economist who studies equity in higher education, found that the share of low-income students at highly selective colleges could rise by 30 to 60 percent with no decrease in academic quality.


About 3.3 million people graduate from high school in the USA every year. 30,000 is less than one percent of that total. So, based on current entrance criteria, the hypothetical creation of a perfectly egalitarian system of admissions, in which SES had no effect whatsoever on an applicant’s chances of admission to a selective college, would result in an increase of what is essentially a statistical handful of “poor” (sic) kids getting into such schools. (If currently 3% of students at selective colleges are “poor,” a 30% to 60% increase in this figure would result in between 3.9% and 4.8% of all students at those colleges falling into this economically ecumenical category).

Also, too:

Getting a bachelor’s degree is the best way to escape poverty.

Wait, are we talking about selective colleges, or just college? Apparently the former:

Talented students should go to the best college they can — and not just for the career advantages later. A student who could get into a top school is nearly twice as likely to graduate there than if she goes to a noncompetitive school. The top colleges are the only ones where students of all income levels graduate at the same rates. The reason is money: Selective colleges are richer. They can afford to provide specialized counseling and lots of financial aid. And running out of money is the most common reason people drop out.

Again, nobody ever says “let’s make society more equal by sending more people to selective colleges” because, you know, math: The overwhelming majority of Americans (conservatively, 95%) can’t go to selective colleges, BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT IT MEANS FOR A COLLEGE TO BE SELECTIVE.

Indeed a large majority of Americans won’t graduate from college, period — one third of adults have college degrees, up from 5% in 1950 — because among other things college functions as a signaling mechanism and a purveyor of positional goods (i.e., degrees) and as college degrees become more common the signal becomes fuzzier and the goods become less valuable (by definition).

In sum if your egalitarian social theory is that the way to attack social inequality is to send more poor kids to Vassar — or indeed any college — you need a better theory. But that theory is what passes for social criticism on much of what passes for the liberal left in contemporary America.


[ 86 ] May 2, 2016 |


Although I’m only a casual follower of the big Euro soccer leagues, I’m impelled to note what is in waging terms probably the most improbable upset in major sports history, as Leicester City won the English Premier League today, after Chelsea came back to fight Tottenham to a bloody 2-2 draw.

Leicester City, which was in the English third division less than a decade ago, and which little more than a year ago was dead last in the EPL and seemed certain to be relegated, was (were?) given 5000-1 odds by the London bookies at the start of this season to win the league.

Now hindsight is 20/20, but when a 5000 to 1 shot comes in that strongly suggests those odds were, ex ante, completely out of wack. Again I’m just a casual fan, but Leicester was the 14th-best team in the league last year in terms of points (and they were better than that in terms of goal differential, which is probably a better indicator of underlying quality). Anyway, the idea that it’s a 5000 to 1 shot for the 14th best team in one year to win the league in the next is obviously absurd on its face.

The 14th best team in the EPL is roughly equivalent to the 20th best team in MLB or the NBA or the NFL, in terms of distance from the top. Now obviously a whole bunch of things have to break right for for a 75-87 team to have the best record in baseball the next year. It’s quite unlikely — but quite unlikely as in 50-1 or maybe even 100-1. But 5000 to 1? That’s more like a 16 seed in the NCAA tournament winning the whole thing.

Yes I’m aware that only four clubs have won the EPL over the course of the last 20 years, and that the analogy with American major professional sports is inexact for a variety of reasons (in particular there are far fewer rules designed to maintain some sort of competitive parity in big time soccer leagues than there are in American major sports leagues.). But still — 5000 to 1? That kind of miscalculation should have put some bookmakers out of business.

All that aside, it’s a great story.

Being here

[ 29 ] April 28, 2016 |

being there

A couple of days ago the Wall Street Journal published what almost seemed like a parody of an op-ed, arguing for a third way party — “the Innovation Party,” naturally — that would allow Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to Lean In on partisan politics, and create a non-ideological hack for civic republicanism, etc.

This text created a target-rich environment for satire, which led Esquire to publish a piece featuring insights such as:

The Innovation Party will be phablet-first, and communicate only via push notifications to smartphones. The only deals it cuts will be with Apple and Google, not with special interests. We will integrate natively with iOS and Android, and spread the message using emojis and GIFs, rather than the earth-killing longform print mailers of yesteryear. This will give us direct access to netizens, so we can be more responsive than any political party in history.

Now that’s pretty funny — IMO LOL — although admittedly the WSJ piece already read like satire, so this exercise seemed a bit redundant, like satirizing Goldfinger or Donald Trump. But whatever.

The problem was the Esquire piece was run under this byline:

Prof Jeff Jarvis is a Hyperglocal thinkfluencer and a Journalism 3.0 advocate. He is the cofounder @ Mogadishu:REinvent unconference and CEO Mogadishu Capital Partners LLC. Not @JeffJarvis.

That turned out to be a problem because there’s an actual Prof. Jeff Jarvis, who is apparently well-known in certain circles, or at least well known enough to have inspired a parody twitter account, run by somebody supposedly named Rurik Bradbury, who turns out to have been the “real” — assuming that word means anything any more in this postmodern hypertext cyberworld — author of the Esquire item:

“Prof. Jeff Jarvis” isn’t former Entertainment Weekly editor and well-known future-of-media pontificator Jeff Jarvis. Rather, it’s a character developed in a parody Twitter account run by Bradbury. Well-known in certain media circles, @ProfJeffJarvis initially satirized the thoughts of Jarvis himself before growing into a more general and very funny riff on the pie-in-the-sky gambits of new media.

The piece has now disappeared from Esquire’s website, apparently because the real Jeff Jarvis, also a journalism professor, “emailed […] Hearst executives” who “brought in other editors,” setting up a chain of events that seem to have resulted in the piece being removed entirely.

But of course nothing can be removed entirely from the Internet (see for example the sad story of the now ex-chancellor of UC-Davis), plus there’s the Streisand Effect, of which this incident is a nice example I suppose.

Anyway this all seems like tricky territory. How famous do you have to be to legitimize someone satirizing you in a national magazine via a fake Twitter account? Is it OK that Jeff Jarvis used his friends in high places to pressure Esquire to throw the article down the memory hole? How do we balance the fact that people spend 15 seconds or whatever looking at satirical pieces that aren’t obviously satire with the fact that it takes 15 seconds to confirm whether something is satire if you bother to check which of course no one does because short attention spans 3.0? Surely there’s an app for questions such as these in development even now, or at least I hope so.

This is what happens when you ignore the Constitution and allow foreigners to run for president

[ 130 ] April 27, 2016 |


Look, I’ve got nothing against Canadians. They’re good fine people, most of them anyway, living in the great white north and cracking open a cool 16oz. Molson while listening to the Guess Who or maybe Celine Dion, and lingering over a Tim Horton’s donut (a jelly).

But what if I decided to run for president of Canada, or king, or whatever their Head Man is called? Would it be OK if I talked about what a huge hockey fan I was, even though I referred to the vulcanized disc with which Mike Howe and Steve Gretzky and Johnny Orr performed their respective brands of magic as the “hockeyball?” I think not:

Ted Cruz has repeatedly stated his devotion to the classic movie “Hoosiers.” In fact, he even held a rally Tuesday night in the gym where the iconic movie was filmed. Yet he stumbled a bit when it came to basic basketball terminology.

“The amazing thing is, that basketball ring in Indiana, it’s the same height as it is New York City and every other place in this country,” Cruz said during the rally, according to video from the scene.

Traditionally, we call that a “hoop” here in Indiana.

The new math

[ 47 ] April 23, 2016 |


For a couple of years now I’ve been engaged in an occasional correspondence with a Well Known Professor at a Well Known Law School. WKP, who has a background in finance, made the mistake of starting to inquire into WKLS’s balance sheet. Aware of my interest in the general subject, he passed on various numbers to me, as part of his attempt to get a handle on what was going on.

What was going on was that applications to WKLS had fallen sharply over the past few years, which in turn had led to significantly lower enrollment combined with significantly lower effective tuition (Effective tuition = sticker tuition minus discounts. WKLS raises its sticker tuition every year, as is commanded by Deuteronomy 28, but it has also massively increased its discounting, so actual per capita tuition is now quite a bit lower than it was).

After running the numbers through a Cray supercomputer, WKP concluded that getting less money per student while having fewer students added up to a lot less money overall. He then enriched his analysis by taking into account that WKLS had gone on a hiring spree over this same time, and thus its full-time faculty was now about 15% larger, while the school’s administrative staff had increased by an even greater percentage. He also analyzed changes in the school’s other source of significant income, gift income (expendable endowment income plus annual giving).

He observed that teaching loads at the school had declined dramatically, as the faculty-student ratio decreased, and lots of faculty members started operating “centers” for this and that, which required course relief (and also lots of new administrators, to help administrate the centers).

WKP: Doesn’t this all mean that we must be losing a lot of money?

Me: Yeah.

WKP: How much would you say, roughly?

Me: Approximately a metric fuckton.

WKP: How long will the central administration let us keep doing this?

Me: Your guess is better than mine.

In the midst of these pleasantries, WKLS hired a new dean. The new dean came in promising to undertake various transformative changes, which would help transform WKLS from its perpetual Semi-Prestigious Status to a new Very Prestigious Status. Such changes included, principally, hiring even more faculty and opening even more centers.

Then one fine day, a year or so into his transformative regime, the dean discovered that the school was going broke. He informed the faculty of this, while at the same time expressing considerable pique that nobody had informed him before he took the job that the law school’s finances were in such bad shape. (This guy’s professional background is in — wait for it — corporate finance).

Me: Didn’t he ask to look at the books before he took the job?

WKP: No.

Me: How about before he promised the faculty that he was going spend a whole lot more money to effectuate synergistic institutional transformations?

WKP: No.

So now the faculty have the sads, and they’re also very mad at the dean for not telling them that if you bring in a lot less money but spend a lot more something bad could happen some day.

This is far from a unique tale. In fact one of legal academia’s charms is that it’s completely routine to put somebody who knows literally nothing about law school finances in charge of a law school’s finances. This in turn is based on the theory that Smart People don’t actually have to anything about something before being put in charge of it, because really how complicated could it be? (And a lot of central university administrators now get chosen in a similar way. As well as the CEOs of lots of big companies of course).

This is all going to end badly.

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