Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday grab-bag

● Via The Browser, an article on Australian wildlife, with possibly the lede of the year

The platypus is an animal that looks like it was designed in a pub, by a committee, the night before it was due. To make one at home, you'll need a duck bill, a small beaver, four webbed feet, a venomous spur, some spare parts (like five X chromosomes), and a watch battery to operate the electrosensitive bill. ... There are a few anatomical giveaways that the platypus was a rush job (for example, they forgot to give it nipples, so that it has to sweat milk through its skin), but for the most part it holds together well. 

Video of the week: For my father, who turns 82 in a couple days. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Flipping over the gerrymander

Via's link to a Scranton Times-Tribune editorial, I arrived this evening at state Sen. Daylin Leach's demonstration of the awesome power of gerrymandering:
On top is the actual, GOP-made gerrymander of PA Congressional Districts. 13-5 Republican. Below is a drawing I did of a legal 13-5 Democratic gerrymander. I flipped 8 Congressional seats with every single PA voter voting exactly the same way. So who here is relevant, the voter? Or the guy drawing the lines?

The Times-Tribune editorializes:

The answer is to make congressional and legislative districting apolitical, inherently favoring neither party.

I think I know what the T-T means to say, but jeez, what a dunderheaded way of saying it. Make districting apolitical? Nothing in politics is apolitical. Inherently favor neither party? How would that work, exactly? To take one example, Pittsburgh last had elected a Republican mayor in 1933. You let the facts on the ground stand, the Democratic machine will simply maintain in perpetuity the lock it has on the city - which is roughly as strong as the one the Republicans have in the hinterlands. Does that inherently favor neither party - or merely recognize the huge pre-existing favors they've built into the system for themselves?

It would take better causistry than I'm capable of to spin an answer to that one.

What the Times-Tribune means to say is something less unattainably idealistic, namely: "get redistricting out of the hands of the party bosses." And that would be a worthy goal, even though it wouldn't accomplish either of the aims offered in the quoted sentence.

What it would accomplish is ... well, here's how Sen. Leach puts it:
My takeaway from this map is how accurately it would represent the Commonwealth’s various regional interests in Congress, compared to the current map. It is a map where the issues big urban areas have in common with smaller, denser  deindustrialized cities and towns get a lot of strong advocates in Congress, and the big empty areas where nobody lives get the representation of 5 Congressmen, as they deserve.
"As they deserve." As Sen. Leach no doubt knows, those are fighting words. Many of the voters in the middle of the state (a) are convinced of their moral superiority to the Sodom that is Pittsburgh and especially to the Gomorrah that is Philadelphia; (b) live in fear of being sucked dry by the Big Cities' appetite for tax dollars. Asking them to acquiesce to a fair representation of Pennsylvania's urban interests is akin to ... well, they don't call it "Pennsyltucky" for nothing.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What makes a city great

Lancaster Newspapers published a letter to the editor Sunday from a Massachusetts man who apparently quite enjoyed his time here. This is the part I liked:

It all speaks to the notion of a clean, friendly, historic and forward-looking city. Even the panhandlers were polite.

"Lancaster: Where even the panhandlers are polite." We need to get that on a T-shirt. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saturday grab-bag

● Esquire blogger (and epee fencer) Charlie Pierce's 10 best posts of the year

● The Salon article Poverty Nation references this Bloomberg Businessweek piece on government assistance to low-wage workers. The stats should certainly give one pause. One quarter of Americans with jobs are on some form of public assistance. Half of Americans in the fast-food industry are. And Bloomerg gives the lie to what I suspect remains a prevalent middle-class illusion; namely, that the typical McJobster is a callow teenager earning pocket money on top of a long-overdue introduction to the world of work discipline. Bloomberg: "68 percent of fast-food workers are single or married adults who aren’t in school—and 26 percent are raising children."

Video of the week: For Pope Francis, Time Magazine's Person of the Year:

Friday, December 20, 2013

In which Megyn Kelly reminds me of Greek philosophy

Megyn Kelly, 2013:
They have a piece that Santa Claus shouldn't be a white man anymore. Yet another person saying it's racist to have a white Santa. By the way, for the kids at home, Santa just is white. ... Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact - as is Santa.
Xenophanes of Colophon, c. 570 BC - c 475 BC:
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired. ...
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
You can take Xenophanes' observation to be a powerful argument for atheism; or, if that's too ruthless a conclusion for your liking, you could say the lesson is that every culture will naturally apprehend the Godhead in its own fashion. No, no, no, insists the Fox News anchor, the real point here is, the Thracians were right ...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Saturday grab-bag

AKA what would have been called the "Friday grab-bag" if I had managed to get it written and posted on time.

● This is the best article on crime policy I have read in ages. Here's what journalists call the nut graf:
I argue that (blue-collar) crime—theft and assault, in all their varieties—is still a real and major problem; that its economic and social costs are vastly under-appreciated; that its primary victims are disadvantaged minorities and poor people; that the current criminal-justice system wrongs them by under-enforcing the law against those who victimize them (who are, of course, mostly people like them in racial and class terms); that better criminal-justice policy could give us less crime and less incarceration; and that better and more equal law enforcement ought therefore to be as central a progressive political goal as better and more equal education or health care.

● I don't think many people have heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership yet, but they will. Here's Crooked Timber on why it matters. If CT is right, then NAFTA is a good reference point for understanding the TPP; Dean Baker explains why he thinks NAFTA was a raw deal for most Americans here and here.

● This interview with Joshua Greene makes me want to read his book Moral Tribes. Robert Wright's The Moral Animal blew me away back in the day, but that day was 1994; we've had another 20 years of research since then.

Video of the week: Damn, this is a beautiful song:

Here are the lyrics (Source):

Asimbonanga (We have not seen him)
Asimbonang' uMandela thina (We have not seen Mandela)
Laph'ekhona (In the place where he is)
Laph'ehleli khona (In the place where he is kept)

Asimbonang 'umfowethu thina (we have not seen our brother)
Laph'ekhona (In the place where he is)
Laph'wafela khona (In the place where he died)
Hey wena (Hey you!)
Hey wena nawe (Hey you and you as well)
Siyofika nini la' siyakhona (When will we arrive at our destination)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The natural resource lever looks better when there isn't much to move

Matt Yglesias puts up the following chart (original source here - PDF) showing median income changes county-by-county between 2007 and 2012:

He writes:

A little natural resource boom can do wonders for your economy, at least in the short term.

That’s not quite right, and the reason why is important.

Take a look at Pennsylvania. It’s hard to see (again, try the original), but the three counties showing median income growth are Bradford, Fayette and Indiana. In Bradford and Fayette, that’s definitely due to the natural gas boom. (I’m not sure what’s going on in Indiana.)

So, hurrah for those three counties. But Bradford County’s population is 62,792. Fayette County’s is 35,660. Those are drops in a bucket for a state of 12.7 million. It’s not hard for the gas industry to have a disproportionate effect on such small economies, which is also why the Dakotas and a couple counties in Texas are doing so well.

Meanwhile, look at the Philadelphia region. All the way out to Lancaster County, an hour and a half away, you see median income decreases. That’s well over 4 million people right there. The Marcellus has not budged median incomes for the 1.2 million people of Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh), even though they're smack dab in the heart of the Western Pennsylvania drilling region. The changes there are "not statistically significant." Maybe the county would have been purple without the Marcellus? But if that were the case, then the industry should have had no trouble boosting wages into the green range in Lycoming County, the jumping-off point for drilling in the Northern  Tier, where the population is a mere 117,168. 

A more correct statement, then, would be, “A little natural resource boom can do wonders for your economy, at least in the short term, provided you have a small population and not much other economic activity.” A boom for sparsely populated parts of rural Pennsylvania does not translate into a boom for the state as a whole. (Which is why many people find it alarming that our governor seems to base his economic strategy on the Dakota model.)

Addendum: Here's Paul Krugman saying basically the same thing last year. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Fourth quarter urnings report

On Saturday, we held a memorial service for my mother, who passed away on Nov. 22. It was a lovely ceremony, conducted with warmth and compassion by the Rev. Gaea Thompson. A number of my parents' oldest friends attended, people I haven't seen, in some cases, since the late 1980s. The service was formal, yet touching. I think my mother would have been pleased.

Gaea is the chaplain at Canterbury Place in Pittsburgh, the long-term care facility where my mother spent her last years. I realized just how remarkable Gaea is when my uncle and I attended her Easter service in Canterbury's Alzheimer's unit last year. During the proceedings, my mother asked for blessings for "my brother and ... this other one," meaning me. Mom, mind you, was one of the highest-functioning patients there. (She got one out of two!) Yet Gaea handled it all with kindness and good humor. She conducted a truly meaningful service with people whose tapestries of meaning consist of a few tattered cobwebs in the basement. That's a rare and admirable talent.

The morning of Saturday's service, we picked up mom's "cremains" at Winter Funeral Home. It's almost impossible not to feel surreal when you're carrying the remnants of one of the most important people in your life in a metal cylinder the size of a football.

After Winter's, we had to make another stop nearby. There was a shuffle of coats and parcels, and the easiest place to put mom was the driver's seat. "That'll be nice for her," Debbie remarked, looking at the urn. "She hasn't been behind the wheel for years."

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Been pretty quiet here lately

What with one thing and another, it's been tough to find time to post. Starting Monday, though, I'm going to try to get back to something approaching the previous pace.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The way things are

On the one hand:

My first year on Wall Street, 1993, I was paid 14 times more than I earned the prior year and three times more than my father's best year. For that money, I helped my company create financial products that were disguised to look simple, but which required complex math to properly understand. ... 
After a few years on Wall Street it was clear to me: you could make money by gaming anyone and everything. The more clever you were, the more ingenious your ability to exploit a flaw in a law or regulation, the more lauded and celebrated you became.

On the other hand:

The alarm rang on John Stewart’s phone at 1:10 a.m. Up at 1:30, he caught one bus north into Philadelphia a little after 2 and another bus, south toward the airport, half an hour after that. He made it into work around 3:25 for a shift that started at 4, for a job that pays $5.25 an hour, which he cannot afford to lose.
Stewart is 55, tall and thin and animated. At work he wears a clip-on tie, a white cotton shirt with a fraying collar and a pair of black sneakers he nabbed on sale for $12.99 a few days ago. He wheels elderly air passengers from the ticket counters through security and to their gates, and back again, and every once in a while they tip him. Usually for lunch he buys a candy bar. His skin flakes from psoriasis, which gets worse when he worries, which, these days, is all the time. He can’t pay for treatments to soothe the itching or for a car to shorten his pre-dawn commute.

The articles are well worth reading in full. HT for both to Mike the Mad Biologist.