26 Comments

I agree it would not have changed Donald Trump's behaviour.

But would it have changed the behaviour of some Republicans? Would Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney have been so ostracized by the party? Would they have got the handful of extra votes they needed to convict?

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I remain gobsmacked at the blind hatred of Donald Trump in Canada generally, and by the Canadian bien pensants in particular. Its as if no Canadian has ever previously encountered a brash bullshitting New Yorker, yet there are legions of them. As off-putting as Donald Trump may be to Canadian sensibilities, he is not THAT exceptional. I am not sure you can even call him a liar per se, he is more of a chronic bullshitter (there is a technical difference). And I don't think even as someone ethically challenged, he is much different from most current politicians.

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author

Every serious look at the man and his business practices written before he ran for president -- please note -- describes him as I have described him here. The evidence is abundant and perfectly clear. As to your claim that he is not much different from most current politicians, I have known many politicians and even the most grasping and ambitious of them is quite far removed from him. Trump is sui generis.

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I disagree, but then we are destined to disagree on a lot of things. I do, however, enjoy reading your articles.

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author

And please note that the harshest statements condemning Donald Trump were uttered by Donald Trump. For example: https://www.gq.com/story/donald-trump-howard-stern-story

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The cost of Ford not pardoning Nixon has nothing to do with Trump. The real payback would have come from seeing a responsible person doing a difficult job. This was a crime on a grand scale and after Nixon’s resignation, Ford could feel self-righteous for the wrong reasons, Congress could, with a sigh of relief, move ahead without further ado, fast food restaurants needn’t manage their young workers, Boards of Directors could just pay off their problems, S&L’s could take one risk too far and be bailed out. We forfeited management, grossly.

Real management and supervision very difficult, very personal tasks and are very hard to teach in the workplace. The art of covering over and covering up is the easy way out and has become too standard in all walks of life. We should be proud that we are currently seeing the Federal Reserve take responsibility in the SVB case.

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founding

To me the important question is not about Trump’s behaviour but about the reaction of the public and of other political actors to that behaviour -- did Ford pardoning Nixon help establish the environment where members of congress and others, particularly on the Republican side, refuse to take seriously Trump’s misdeeds (up to and including voting to acquit, twice)?

Whatever the answer, I think both Iran-Contra and the Clinton impeachment are likely at least as important as precedents, perhaps more important than the Nixon pardon.

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As a retired HS history teacher, I must thank you for this insight and your causing me to reflect.

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Counterfactuals are rubbish and not logically useful to understand anything. They’re the tools of charlatans.

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author

Care to explain why you believe that?

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Here’s a stellar example of why Counterfactuals are absolute garbage. I call this “statistical charlatanism” because they’re highly prone to estimate and input biases and errors. You can’t recreate history involving complex adaptive systems with ANY certainty. Trying to do so is complete folly. It’s pure intellectual masturbation.

At least the study’s authors included a huge disclaimer about the danger of accepting their conclusion as fact. Unfortunately, the NYT sold this story as fact, and millions of readers accepted it as fact. The comment section for this story on FB was evidence of that.

“We note these counterfactual experiments are based on idealized hypothetical assumptions. In practice, initiating and implementing interventions earlier during an outbreak is complicated by factors such as general uncertainty, economic concerns, logistics and the administrative decision process. Public compliance with social distancing rules may also lag due to sub-optimal awareness of infection risk. We acknowledge that our counterfactual experiments have simplified these processes.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/us/coronavirus-distancing-deaths.html?fbclid=IwAR0UflEVs7YTXdAfYRmwcHLwYdoId-DNVfMrv5sEf5h5NHY5G23TRiK6-v0&mibextid=Zxz2cZ

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author

If you said counterfactuals can be misleading, and they don't deliver certainty, charlatans sometimes use them to ill effect, I'd nod my head the whole way along. But "X has been used badly" isn't proof that "X is always and everywhere bad." Your claim is overreaching.

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My claim is that Counterfactuals are always wrong and unfalsifiable. And therefore garbage. Thats not overreaching in the least.

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author

In the example I presented here, the counterfactual acts a way to look at the problem from a different perspective -- a perspective that reveals the seemingly plausible conclusion of a different perspective is, in fact, shaky. That strikes me as useful. But you seem to think that anything which doesn't produce irrefutable proof is valueless, even contemptible. Why? Are you aware of how much human knowledge would vanish in a puff of smoke if we took that standard seriously?

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Human knowledge that would vanish ... ? Now that sounds like an incredible overreach. You cant quantify your claim and make that argument remotely persuasive. It’s pure conjecture. An opinion. A counterfactual.

Equally impossible to quantify, but likely more impactful (in my mind) is all the terrible policy and decisions made based on biased imperfect humans reimagining the past.

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Because they’re pure speculation. Fiction. Unprovable. Unobservable. Unfalsifiable. They exist in one’s imagination only. And then people use them to form opinions and make decisions, which is beyond ludicrous, and completely reckless.

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author

Do you apply the same standard to claims like Beschloss's? It's based on observed facts, not a counterfactual, but it, too, is quite unfalsifiable -- after all, it's only the flip side of the counterfactual.

Or to put this more broadly, you seem to be suggesting that any claim that cannot be established by scientific experiment -- the usual mechanism for falsifiability -- is ipso facto nonsense. Care you to bet that you don't actually apply that standard to historical claims? Or in your life?

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Are you asking if I play the game of “if-only-I-had“ in my personal life? Sure, thats human nature, but it’s also completely useless. It suppose it could unconsciously influence my decision making process, but I consciously rely on actual facts, not reimagined facts.

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author

With respect, you almost certainly don't. I don't know any human who does. We simply can't function that way. What you likely do -- as we all do, to one degree or another -- is apply tougher evidentiary standards as circumstances permit and warrant. Which is a reasonable thing to do. But it is also reasonable for Beschloss to make a causal claim that he cannot possible prove to scientific satisfaction and for me to test it similarly. Because that's the best we fallible monkeys can do in this complex world.

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author

Incidentally, you may be interested in Niall Ferguson's essay in that book I linked to. It's a broad survey of the subject that begins with historians and philosophers who are critical of counterfactuals and includes a discussion of complexity theory and what it suggests. But it does land on a conclusion quite contrary to yours.

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Thanks. I’ll check it out. I do admire your work and have regularly recommended Science of Fear and Future Babble to college students & young advisers I mentor.

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author

Much obliged. Don't worry about objecting here (not that you come across as a shrinking violet.) The subject of counterfactuals has inspired some furious debates (Ferguson quotes a philosopher or two who sound like they're *this close* to apoplexy) and will likely keep on doing so in perpetuity. (Another unfalsifiable claim!)

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How about he ran for president because he knew what Nixon said to Frost.

If not for the belief that once you are a president you are truly untouchable would he have ran at all?

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author

Yes. Because another trait of his -- evident his whole life -- is an insatiable need for attention, praise, and status, and no position in the United States comes to delivering on those counts like the office of president. Which is undoubtedly why he talked about running for president, and tried to make a spectacle of himself at presidential conventions, since the 1980s.

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