Friday, December 02, 2016

OGE Scandal

It sometimes seems these days like the world has contracted some form of insanity. According to this ThinkProgress article, someone at the U.S. Office of Government Ethics was making mocking tweets, on the USOGE twitter account, about Donald Trump:

The Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for ensuring executive branch personnel don’t run afoul of conflict of interest laws, has been pressuring Trump to place his fortune in a blind trust, like virtually every president before him. But Trump has thus far refused — and in his Wednesday tweetstorm, he purposefully did not say he plans on actually divesting from his own company.

That omission was not lost on whomever manages the OGE’s official Twitter account. Shortly after Trump’s announcement, the OGE shot off a series of tweets mock-congratulating Trump for putting his conflicts of interest to rest by divesting from his company, which Trump very much did not do....

The tweets first appeared Wednesday morning, but were initially deleted before being re-posted shortly before 1:00pm, according to The Washington Post. There were nine similarly flippant tweets in all from the OGE, an uncharacteristic departure from its usual social media strategy of sharing such pressing updates as “OGE launches new Confidential Financial Disclosure Guide for OGE Form 450.”

The full tweets were (I've only been able to find seven, though):

.@realDonaldTrump OGE applauds the "total" divestiture decision. Bravo!
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonalTrump As we discussed with your counsel, divestiture is the way to resolve these conflicts.
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump OGE is delighted that you've decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump this aligns with OGE opinion that POTUS should act as if 18 USC 208 applies.
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump this divestiture does what handing over control could never have done.
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

.@realDonaldTrump - we told your counsel we'd sing your praises if you divested, we meant it.
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016

The USOGE later confirmed that the tweets, which struck people as bizarre, were authentic:

Like everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-elect's twitter feed indicating that he wants to be free of conflicts of interest. OGE applauds that goal, which is consistent with an opinion OGE issued in 1983. Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not. We don't know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it.

This statement, of course, doesn't clarify anything at all, and looks very much like a bad attempt to save face over someone's stupid decision.

It shouldn't have to be said, but unfortunately in this political environment apparently does, that such an action is obviously a serious violation of basic principles of government ethics. The USOGE exists to give guidelines to civil servants on conflicts of interest and to assist Congress and the President in reducing and eliminating conflicts of interest for appointees. It only has authority to advise, train, and provide information; it does not have authority to enforce the guidelines it gives nor to pressure anyone to follow them -- that is under the authority of other agencies. What is more, the President is not subject to normal conflict of interest statutes (which govern civil servants and political appointees), nor normal ethical guidelines (which emanate from the Office of the President itself and thus are not superior to it). As noted in the opinion the tweets reference, the President is not in any way bound by anything that the OGE's province covers, even though it is a good idea in general for the President to lead by example on these matters. The OGE thus does not have any authority at all in this matter except to advise. Likewise, it is not an agency which has the authority to investigate, and therefore to evaluate, the ethical situation of the Presidency; it is an advisory body that should be giving advice to Trump and to the White House and to Congress, and not mouthing off in public.

What is more, while a President-Elect will soon be President, he is not yet; he is still a private citizen, not the holder of a constitutional or statutory office. It is utterly inappropriate for the USOGE to discuss a private citizen's affairs in public in this way, without full authorization to do so. Not only that, but this kind of evaluation is entirely unprofessional, because the USGOE has not seen anything of Trump's actual plan, and it is utterly unprofessional to use an official medium of government communication to pronounce on a matter that has not undergone an appropriate and official process of evaluation. Nor is the tone of these tweets professionally appropriate to the situation. Nothing whatsoever about this behavior is in any way acceptable, especially in an agency serving such an essential function in the preserving the ethical integrity of the civil service itself.

The election of Trump was not a holiday from sanity. The obligations of citizens and civil servants are as they ever were. Honor is still honor, virtue is still virtue, moral law is still moral law. As they always have been, reason is reason and truth is truth. There is no excuse for such failures of good sense.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

A New Poem Draft


The oak leaves now cover browning grass,
brown upon brown mixed with green,
but the verdure too will soon pass,
and the oak leaves crumble, and not be seen.

And the path I now walk will fade away,
the paving devoured by rain and wind,
and my companions will soon be yesterdays
as I walk without kin and without friend.

And my skin will be weathered in the storm,
and my eyes dimmed by wear of time;
my bones to dry dust will be reformed
and blown on the breeze to better clime.

The oak leaves that curl upon the ground
are the dust of the paths on which we tread;
and our mission in life cannot be found
except by walking the road laid by the dead.

Nor can seeking hearts find lasting peace
as they rumble like drums or motor cars,
but only when quietly they cease,
to pave future paths beneath the stars.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

To Be What They Seemed

Sonnet XXVI from the Portuguese
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I lived with visions for my company
Instead of men and women, years ago,
And found them gentle mates, nor thought to know
A sweeter music than they played to me.
But soon their trailing purple was not free
Of this world's dust, their lutes did silent grow,
And I myself grew faint and blind below
Their vanishing eyes. Then thou didst come---to be,
Belovèd, what they seemed. Their shining fronts,
Their songs, their splendours (better, yet the same,
As river-water hallowed into fonts),
Met in thee, and from out thee overcame
My soul with satisfaction of all wants:
Because God's gifts put man's best dreams to shame.

The Most Basic Element of Guarding Democracy

A nice post by MrD:

We talk about the importance of guarding democracy, and it is important, but the first and most basic element of that is wanting democracy in the first place.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Tendency of Popular Governments

We speak not lightly of the people; we have no disposition to depreciate their intelligence or the general correctness of their motives; but they are almost always the dupes of unprincipled demagogues. If the good sense, if the practical wisdom, if the moral honesty of the people could always be rendered available, - if the appeal could always be made to their reason instead of their passions, to their judgments instead of their caprices,- our estimate of their capacity for self-government would be as fa­vorable as that professed by our democratic friends. But we must always bear in mind that man has fallen, that his nature has been corrupted, and that, collectively as well as individually, the people are prone to evil, and that continually. When they resist their inclinations, silence the clamor of their appetites and passions, and listen only to the voice of reason, which, though obscured by the fall, yet survives in every man, they in general take correct views and come to safe conclusions; but they listen far more readily to appetite and passion, and follow with far greater facility the suggestions of corrupt desires than the sober lessons of reason. To do evil demands no violence to natural inclination; to practise virtue always demands an effort. This is true of every one of the people individually, and therefore must be true of the whole collectively. Hence it follows that the demagogues, though but small men themselves, have always more power with the people than have wise and virtuous statesmen, and all popular governments have a tendency to become the exponents of popular corruption instead of popular reason and virtue.

Orestes Brownson, "The Republic of the United States", Brownson's Quarterly Review, April 1849.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Constitutions and Majorities

In my theory of government, the constitution is itself ultimate: for it is not the written instrument, but is the actual constitution or organization of the state. It is the sovereign, and, when wisely adapted to the real character of the country, the genius and pursuits of the people, it is always self-sufficing. But my Democratic friends who oppose me seem to me to regard the constitution merely as a written instrument drawn up by the people, and alterable at their pleasure, and, as some of them have contended in the case of Rhode Island, alterable at the pleasure of a bare majority ; and this bare majority coming together informally, and acting with out any regard to its provisions. If this be so, what restraint can the constitution impose on the will of the majority? A constitution that cannot govern the people as well as the individual, the city as well as the citizen, obviously is no restraint on the sovereign power; but, whatever its provisions, does in reality leave the sovereign power absolute, and therefore is, as I have said, as good as no constitution at all. The will of the people, not the constitution, nor the will of the people expressed only through the constitution, but the will of the people unorganized, independent of the constitution, is in this case the true sovereign, and therefore may at any time rightfully override the constitution itself. This is to bring us under absolute government, from which nothing but a constitution in the other sense, a constitution or organization of the body politic, can relieve us.

Orestes Brownson, "Popular Government", Democratic Review, May 1843.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Music on My Mind

"Guantanamera", The Sandpipers. The lyrics, of course, are culled from various poems by José Martí, arguably the greatest Cuban poet. This version skips the third verse, which is the first stanza of what is actually the most famous poem, and a gem worth recording in its own right:

Cultivo una rosa blanca
(Versos sencillos XXXIX)
by José Martí

Cultivo una rosa blanca
en junio como enero
para el amigo sincero
que me da su mano franca.

Y para el cruel que me arranca
el corazón con que vivo,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo;
cultivo la rosa blanca.

My rough translation:

I grow a white rose
in June and January alike
for the sincere friend
who gives me his open hand.

And for the cruel one who rips out
the heart with which I live,
neither thistle nor nettle do I grow;
I grow the white rose.

Saint James Cut-in-Pieces

Although it's liturgically superseded because of Sunday, today is the memorial of an interesting saint: St. James the Mutilated, usually known in the West as St. James Intercisus. Intercisus is Latin for 'severed', i.e., cut into separate pieces.

According to legend, St. James Intercisus was a Persian soldier in the army of Yazdegerd I. Yazdegerd was a fairly peaceful king, all told, but completely incapable of handling the rising religious tensions in the Sassanid Empire. The result was that while he was fairly generous to Christians at first, he began cracking down on them very hard late in his reign. St. James was from a Christian family, but he apostatized when Yazdegerd began taking harsher measures against Christians.

Yazdegerd eventually died (possibly assassinated, but nobody knows for sure), and he was succeeded by Bahram V, who intensified the persecutions of Christians. In the meantime, St. James returned to the faith (his family had always been constant), and when interrogated about it, insisted that he was Christian. He was therefore executed, and the form of the execution gives him his name: he was cut into twenty-eight pieces, starting from the extremities. He survived the loss of his limbs, and was killed by the final cut, which beheaded him.

The persecutions under Bahram were very severe, as one might expect from St. James's case, and a number of people who were marked for execution escaped and fled to the Roman Empire, which had been engaged in a series of diplomatic spats with the Sasanians. When the Persians came to demand that they be returned, Theodosius II decided it was better just to go to war. Thus began the Roman–Sassanid war of 421–422. The Romans had the upper hand throughout most of the war, but invasions by the Huns forced them to fall back and settle for a peace treaty guaranteeing freedom of worship.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Chance, Design, Necessity

Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part IX:

Though the reasonings which you have urged, Cleanthes, may well excuse me, said Philo, from starting any further difficulties, yet I cannot forbear insisting still upon another topic. It is observed by arithmeticians, that the products of 9, compose always either 9, or some lesser product of 9, if you add together all the characters of which any of the former products is composed. Thus, of 18, 27, 36, which are products of 9, you make 9 by adding 1 to 8, 2 to 7, 3 to 6. Thus, 369 is a product also of 9; and if you add 3, 6, and 9, you make 18, a lesser product of 9. To a superficial observer, so wonderful a regularity may be admired as the effect either of chance or design: but a skilful algebraist immediately concludes it to be the work of necessity, and demonstrates, that it must forever result from the nature of these numbers.

This passage has always bothered me, and I think I've put my finger on why. It is true that the feature involved is "the work of necessity", but it is a necessary feature of a base-10 place-value numeral system, and that is a work of design. The claim is not true if you shift the base, and the claim is not true in a different system of numerals (e.g., Roman numerals or simple tallies). Thus the actual situation is this:

(1) It would be possible (although in fact it almost certainly is not) for someone to design the system we have (or something like it) for the purpose of having a numeral system in which this property in fact obtains. Then, besides being a necessary feature of the system, it would be part of the system's design, in the same sense that certain principles will always be necessary for any system you design.

(2) As is vastly more likely, the numeral system was designed for other purposes (simplifying counting, etc.), and this feature was preterintentional, just not in view at all. In this sense we can say that it is a chance feature -- it was not part of the design, but as it happens is a necessary feature of the kind of system we chanced on actually making in order to fulfill our intentions. In which case it can be a chance feature while also being a necessary feature.

What Hume actually needs for the argument he wants, of course, is some much more fundamental property of numbers that does not depend on the choice of how you record them. But even doing so, he is still going to run into the fact that the necessity of the internal relations of the system and the necessity of the system actually used is not the same; the former is not enough to get the exclusion of design he is suggesting. This doesn't affect Philo's overall argument -- Philo is in fact not really making much of an argument, but only saying that, since others brought necessity into the discussion, perhaps everything is in fact absolutely necessary and we just don't know it. It's just that the example chosen is poorly suited for his particular purpose, because it doesn't actually express an absolute necessity, but only an internal necessity of one system among many.

All of this seems related to a topic I've discussed before, namely, that when we call mathematics a 'universal language', we seem to be equivocating -- in the sense in which mathematics is universal, it is not a language, and in the sense in which it is a language, it is not universal. Mathematics in practice is not a matter of pure necessity; we have to construct things to reason about mathematical necessities, and we can construct things in very different ways. This is obviously true of geometry, but it is true of arithmetic as well, since the numeral systems by which we reason about numbers are constructed in order to reason about them.