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Presidential Debates: Entertainment Over Education, Soundbites Over Substance

Nobody likes Hillary Clinton.

Fewer still like Donald Trump.

And yet here we are, the morning of the first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, talking about Clinton and Trump.

The whole process confirms what P.J. O’Rourke said about American politics a quarter-century ago — that it all boils down to “money, television, and bulls**t.”

There are a number of famous one-liners uttered by presidential and vice presidential debate participants that we remember for their perceived silly or clever qualities.

It’s of dubious though often-repeated reason that any of these statements turned an election one way or the other.

The inside-the-Beltway sect of the mainstream media will try — hard — to manufacture at least one, but probably many more, “gotcha” moments tonight.

But it’s unlikely that anything that is said will really matter come Tuesday, November 8.

I would wager that Trump — who remains an entertainer at his core — will say a few things that register on both the “intentional” and the “unintentional” comedy scales.

Clinton is too put-together to say anything too terribly interesting in such settings, on purpose or otherwise.

So let’s take a walk through recent debate history.

“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” said Gerald Ford in 1976 — a gaffe that’s still thought to have paved Jimmy Carter’s road from his Georgia peanut farm to the White House.

The truth is the unelected incumbent faced serious structural disadvantages and probably would have lost even had he better expressed his thoughts on the indomitable spirit of ordinary people trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Doesn’t matter. As editor Maxwell Scott, played by Carleton Young, says in the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The inside-the-Beltway sect of the mainstream media will try — hard — to manufacture at least one but probably many more “gotcha” moments tonight.

In 1980, movie-star-turned-California-governor-turned-conservative-movement-icon-turned-president Ronald Reagan iced Jimmy Carter with the smoothest of good-looking-guy-with-great-timing put-downs, “There you go again.”

That was after The Great Communicator emasculated George H.W. Bush during that cycle’s Republican primary, declaring to the crowd before a Nashua, New Hampshire, debate, “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” and thus assuring the participation of Bob Dole, Howard Baker, John Anderson, and Phil Crane in that evening’s rhetorical festivities.

In 1988, Lloyd Bentsen knew the 35th president of the United States! And he made Dan Quayle painfully aware of this association: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Bentsen’s acerbic wit was no help to Michael Dukakis, who suffered popular- and electoral-vote drubbings at the hands of George H.W. Bush.

In 1992, Admiral James Stockdale, a salt-of-the-earth hero who earned that distinction before it became commodified and Ross Perot’s running mate, opened his prepared remarks with the rhetorical questions, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

In 2000, the rakish, brush-clearing rancher from Texas, George W. Bush, made Al Gore, the braggadocious technocrat who claimed he “invented the internet,” look like a sanctimonious, stuffy geek with whom nobody would ever want to share a beer with nothing more than a dismissive-and-cool nod/smirk as the vice president invaded his space.

It wasn’t quite a one-liner, but the gesture — a sort of “Hey, how ya’ doin’?” from the jock to a jerk — stuck and helped cement “regular guy/Beltway guy” impressions in the electorate’s collective mind.

So here we go again… again. And even before the candidates — these candidates — take the stage tonight, we have another question at least as banal as Stockdale’s but as compelling as Bush Jr.’s.

What the f**k?

You have to be a special kind of animal to survive the decades-long scrum that separates and identifies those of “presidential” heft.

And we Americans surely love animals, more so than we love other humans.

Even stranger is the fact that as much as we say we want substance, Americans are loath to actually dig into fact-heavy, data-centric policy discussions. They’re boring. Horse races are exciting.

“Future generations may look back on current economic modelling rather like today’s medics look back on their medieval predecessors: practice based on plausible myths.”

That’s why the mainstream media, particularly the inside-the-Beltway strain, feed us the crap they do: Because we eat it up.

It’s well past time that we look for new ways to make policy. Perhaps a more enlightened process will help stir up better candidates from among us.

We can’t get too crazy, however. To paraphrase something Sid Hudgens said in an L.A. Confidential voiceover: Something has to be done, but nothing too original, because hey, this is Washington.

We’re fans of guys like Daniel Kahneman, George Akerlof, and others who study economics and finance as a function of human behavior.

Their insights into decision-making — here’s a quick-and-dirty breakdown: We’re not at all times rational and utility-maximizing — are applicable across all sorts of cost-benefit analyses.

Perhaps if we follow the suggestion of David Halpern, a British psychologist and civil servant, we might be more satisfied with government and the people who run it.

Halpern is now CEO of the Behavioural Insights Team, which was known as the Nudge Unit before it was spun out from the Government of the United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office.

In short, Halpern thinks “it’s time to bring more realistic models of human behavior into economic policy and regulation.”

Here he is, in an August 23, 2016, guest post at Bank Underground:

Behavior science has had major impacts on policy in recent years. Introducing a more realistic model of human behavior — to replace the “rational” utility-maximizer — has enabled policymakers to boost savings; increase tax payments; encourage healthier choices; reduce energy consumption; boost educational attendance; reduce crime; and increase charitable giving. But there remain important areas where its potential has yet to be realized, including macroeconomic policy and large areas of regulatory practice. Businesses, consumers, and even regulators are subject to similar systematic biases to other humans. These include overconfidence; being overly influenced by what others are doing; and being influenced by irrelevant information. The good news is that behavioral science offers the prospect of helping regulators address some of their most pressing issues. This includes anticipating and addressing “animal spirits” that drive bubbles or sentiment-driven slowdowns; reducing corrupt market practices; and encouraging financial products that are comprehensible to humans.

The full post includes a specific list of 10 things he would do if he were a central banker or economic regulator, so he’s not just offering a broad theoretical overview.

He concludes:

Future generations may look back on current economic modelling rather like today’s medics look back on their medieval predecessors: practice based on plausible myths. The U.K.’s medium-term economic future, and perhaps much of the world’s, rests heavily on sentiment. This in turn rests on the mental shortcuts and social influences that affect so much of our behaviour.

Empirically based behavioural models are leading to real advances in other fields, and they need to be brought into economic regulation too.

Former “sabermetrician” Nate Silver, so crucial to innovating in the field of baseball statistical analysis, also contributed vitally to one of the great advances in American political journalism with his data-driven approach.

Rather than the pseudo-savvy assertions of inside-the-Beltway handicappers, we can now rely — almost 100% — on what Silver’s proprietary analytical tool tells us about the real state of the race.

Silver’s “secret sauce” incorporates economic and historical data as well as polling data. That’s the formula that helped FiveThirtyEight.com predict the 2008 and 2012 elections with pretty cool precision.

And it gives Clinton a 59.9% chance of winning, versus Trump’s 40.1%.

Trump has certainly closed the gap since mid-August, when Clinton’s chances were near 80%.

Rather than the pseudo-savvy assertions of inside-the-Beltway handicappers, we can now rely — almost 100% — on what Silver’s proprietary analytical tool tells us about the real state of the race.

But as of 9:00 p.m. ET on September 22 (the numbers are updated multiple times each day, based on new polling and other data), Clinton was still tracking to win 284.4 electoral votes compared with 253.5 for Trump and 0.2 for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

Clinton’s popular vote share would be 46.8% if the election were held “right now,” versus 44.8% for Trump and 7.1% for Johnson.

You can expect the candidates to spend a lot of time in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Hampshire — the states with the highest probability of providing the decisive margin in the Electoral College.

If Clinton is in California or Trump is in Texas, it’s to raise money, not earn votes.

Be sure to stick to your screens (television, computer, smartphone) tonight.

We’d love to hear what you think of all their bulls**t.

Upticks, Downticks

Uptick The Russell 2000 posted another solid weekly gain, adding 2.75% during the five trading sessions ended Friday. The main small-cap index pushed out to a 52-week high in early September, but then sold off along with the rest of the stock market. It’s two straight winning weeks for the Russell now, and the index is sitting just 2% below its all-time high.

Downtick The Federal Open Market Committee (again) held the line on its benchmark interest rate, but (again) signaled the next move is nigh. Its policy statement explained, “The committee judges that the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened but decided, for the time being, to wait for further evidence.” Fourteen of the 17 FOMC members expect rates to rise before the end of 2016.

Uptick Stocks rallied after the Fed’s Wednesday announcement of no new rate hike, the S&P 500 approaching another new all-time high. Low rates are good for stocks.

Downtick The U.S. dollar weakened after the FOMC announcement and extended its decline into Thursday before firming on Friday. The Bloomberg Dollar Spot index shed 0.8% last week.

Uptick Gold softened a bit on Friday, but still posted its best weekly performance since July, rising to $1,336.72 per ounce in London. The yellow metal was up about 2% last week.

Downtick The National Association of Realtors reported that “existing home sales declined by 0.9% in August to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.33 million,” according to MarketWatch. That’s below a consensus forecast of 5.48 million and the second straight month of declines.

Uptick Initial claims for U.S. unemployment benefits fell by 8,000, to 252,000, for the week ended September 17. That’s the lowest level since July.

Downtick Curtis Hanson, the producer/director/co-writer who brought James Ellroy’s novel of mid-20th-century Los Angeles to vivid cinematic life with the 1997 neo-noir classic L.A. Confidential, died at 71 on Tuesday.

Smart Investing,

David Dittman
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily

David Dittman

, Contributing Writer

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