That’s not what negative feedback means

On January 30, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a segment called How The Trump Administration’s Tariffs On China Have Affected American Companies. In it, NPR’s Ari Shapiro was asking questions of Bloomberg reporter Andrew Mayeda. There was this exchange.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the scale of the impact, is this more along the lines of an annoyance and inconvenience, or is it a real economic impact, something that could lead to slower economic growth, maybe even a recession down the line? How severe is it?

MAYEDA: If you actually look at the big-picture forecasts of the impact – for example, the IMF says that if we have a worst-case trade scenario, the global economy is going to be less than 1 percent smaller than what it otherwise would’ve been. That is not catastrophic. I think what people are concerned about is that there’s some type of confidence shock. That is to say that, you know, businesses start investing less. Consumers start spending less. And it gets into this negative feedback loop where reducing confidence leads to slower growth.

Hate to tell you this, Mr. Mayeda, but what you describe here is a positive feedback loop.

Negative feedback occurs when some function of the output of a system, process, or mechanism is fed back in a manner than tends to reduce the fluctuations in the output.” Furthermore:

Whereas positive feedback tends to lead to instability via exponential growth, oscillation or chaotic behavior, negative feedback generally promotes stability. Negative feedback tends to promote a settling to equilibrium, and reduces the effects of perturbations. Negative feedback loops in which just the right amount of correction is applied with optimum timing can be very stable, accurate, and responsive.

Sadly, this isn’t the only instance I’ve encountered recently of reporters misusing the term. In all cases, reporters are characterizing the feedback as negative or positive based on the outcome. To them, if the outcome is bad, then it’s a negative feedback loop. If the outcome is good, then it’s a positive feedback loop. That’s not the way it works.

Negative feedback loops typically lead to stable systems: generally a positive result. A positive feedback loop tends to result in a system fluctuating wildly or going completely out of control: a generally negative result.

Reporters, please do a little research before using terms that you’re not familiar with. It’ll save you a lot of embarrassment, and prevent you from confusing people.

The Trump-McConnell shutdown

As the current government shutdown approaches a month, little has changed. Democrats blame President Trump for the impasse, Trump and his supporters like to blame Democrats even though the president himself said, “I will shut it down,” and pretty much everybody else blames general government dysfunction.

The truth, though, is that there’s a third party involved:  Senate Majority Leader and oathbreaker extraordinaire, Mitch McConnell, who is once more derelict in his duty.

Our system of passing legislation is supposed to be pretty simple. For legislation that involves funding the government, the House passes a bill and sends it to the Senate. The Senate debates that bill and either passes or rejects it. If it’s rejected, typically there is a conference committee in which members of the House and Senate work out disagreements. Eventually, either the bill passes or is finally rejected. If the bill passes both houses of Congress then it goes to the president, who has two choices: 1) Sign the bill, making it law; 2) Veto the bill. In the case of #2, Congress can elect to override the president’s action by a two-thirds vote. If two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote for the bill after the president has vetoed it, the bill becomes law.

If Congress were to pass a spending bill and send it to the president, Donald Trump will have to take action: sign the bill or veto it. Neither of those actions would be beneficial to the president.

If President Trump were to veto the bill, then he would have to take full responsibility for the shutdown. He could no longer blame the situation on Democrats. It would be the same as standing up and saying, “I believe that it is more important to fund my wall than it is for government to function normally.” Plus, there’s a slight possibility that two-thirds of Congress would vote to override his veto, making him look like a fool. Whereas many people think that ship has sailed, if Congress were to override his veto even Trump would see himself as a fool. And weak.

If the president were to sign the bill, something I can’t see happening, all his bluster over the last month or so would look foolish. He’d be excoriated for “caving,” his detractors would ridicule him to no end, and his base would probably condemn him as a traitor.

In short, there is no way President Trump comes out looking good if Congress presents him with legislation that doesn’t fund his border wall.

Make no mistake, Trump painted himself into this corner. He made an ultimatum, fully expecting Congressional Democrats to cave. They didn’t, and now he’s in a tough spot. The only way he can win is if the Democrat-controlled House agrees to fund his wall, and there is almost no incentive for them to do so. As much as he tries, Trump can’t deflect responsibility for the shutdown that he instigated, and the longer it drags on, the more people blame the current situation on him.

So what does this have to do with Mitch McConnell? As Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnel has absolute control over what legislation is debated in the Senate. Nothing gets heard without his approval. And for reasons I cannot fathom, Mitch McConnell has made himself Donald Trump’s protector. In 2016, McConnell prevented the Senate from holding hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. In doing so, McConnell violated his Oath of Office which says, in part, “and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.” McConnell very publicly refused to do his duty. There is no interpretation of that Oath that allows him to refuse just because it would be politically inconvenient.

In the current situation, McConnell knows that the Senate might just pass a bill that does not fund the wall, putting the president in a no-win situation. So he just doesn’t allow the Senate to debate the bill. I guess it doesn’t cost McConnell anything to do this: he’s already shredded his integrity. My only question here is why the rest of the senators don’t kick him to the curb. Allowing Mitch McConnell, a man who wouldn’t know integrity if it jumped up and slapped him across the face, to represent the United States Senate makes them all look bad.

I suppose I do have one other question: What power does Donald Trump hold over Mitch McConnell to make him act this way?

The president would have you believe that he’s fighting the good fight in the name of National Security. It’s all a smoke screen to hide the fact that he is vulnerable and fully dependent on an unscrupulous Senate Majority Leader. Trump’s supporters, even the few who know the truth of his powerlessness, eat it up and will continue to do so as long as he keeps up the bluster. Democrats are going to hate him regardless, and independents have long ago dismissed him as a fool. It costs the president nothing unless the Senate replaces McConnell with somebody worthy of the title so that Congress can get back to doing its job. Or unless McConnell somehow gets a better offer. Expecting him to find the shreds of his discarded integrity is laughably naive.

The shutdown will go on until one of these things happens, in order by increasing likelihood:

  1. Trump gives up.
  2. McConnell allows the Senate to debate a spending bill that does not fund Trump’s wall.
  3. The Senate kicks McConnell to the curb.
  4. The House passes a bill that partially funds Trump’s border wall.
  5. Trump, like he’s done so many times in the past with other things, conveniently forgets about the shutdown and finds some way to spin things for his supporters.

I consider the last two to be almost equally likely.

Whatever the case, Trump doesn’t win here. With the first three options, he’s revealed as a weak fool. With the fourth, he retains some dignity, but will have to swallow some pride because he didn’t get exactly what he wanted. The fifth option is a defeat and he loses some supporters, but his inability to admit defeat protects his fragile ego. To him, it’ll be as though the shutdown never happened.



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