Saturday, December 6, 2014

A trio of Sentences to Ponder

All three encountered this week in articles that are well worth reading in full. (HT for No. 3 to Mike the Mad Biologist.)

From "Sorry New York Times, the state of American marriage is not good": "A married upper class and an unmarried peasantry is exactly what you see when you look at the British Isles in the early 20th century."

● From "Is Uber's rider database a sitting duck for hackers?": “Most people,” Lewis said, “have really bad operational security.”

● From "What schizophrenia can teach us about ourselves": "In Europe, people are generally more comfortable with the ambiguity between psychosis and religion ..."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A negative argument in favor of human rights

Thomas Jefferson: Smart dude. 
I had a discussion with a colleague this week that touched on the question of human rights. My colleague said that in in his view, the concept necessarily has a religious underpinning: You can't have human rights without presupposing a God who grants them. It's right there in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness ...
Far be it from me to cast aspersions on Thomas Jefferson, indisputably one of the greatest intellects of his age, or any age. But we have learned a few things since 1776. We know that the human species wasn't created; it evolved. And while many people believe that at some point, God turned up and inserted souls in us ... I can't see it. We're primates, natural and mortal, down here all by ourselves. Sad but true. Deal with it.

How then can I justify my belief in universal human rights? I do so negatively, by noting how bad the arguments against them are. Here's how it goes:

When I look inside myself, I find I have certain desires and goals, as well as certain aversions. I'd like to keep living, I'd like to have some scope of action to achieve my desires and goals, and I'd like to, you know, actually achieve them. I'd prefer not to suffer pain, despair and death. Let's call this a general preference for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Looking at other people, I can rationally conclude they have similar desires, goals and aversions, broadly speaking. I know this because (a) they act that way; (b) biology and psychology tell me they're built basically the same way I am.

Now, it turns out, human life being what it is, that those other people and I will have a better chance of achieving our goals if we cooperate. No man is an island, and all that. We have to form teams. OK, what kind of team should I be willing to join?

Consider the simplest case of a team: a dyad. Two people, A and B, can relate in one of three ways: A outranks B, A and B are equal, or B outranks A.

If I'm A, it's pretty clear which of these arrangements I prefer. Suppose I propose to B the setup "A outranks B." I get to order him around, and dispose of the goodies our team obtains as I see fit. B objects, naturally enough.

What answer can I offer? I basically have two choices. I can either say (a) "This arrangement will work out better for you than the alternatives," or else (b) "My wellbeing counts for more than yours."

The success of (a) depends, ultimately, on whether it's true. Maybe it is! B may survey his desires and goals and decide it's in his interest to use his powers of free action to follow my lead. I believe we call this "the just consent of the governed."

(Communism and fascism, by the way, were failed (and coercive) arguments of type (a). "Follow us and we'll make your life better." Didn't work.)

How about my argument (b)? To put it plainly, it sucks. B has no reason whatsoever to prefer me achieving my goals and desires to him achieving his; quite the opposite. He's he and I'm me. I sure wouldn't accept that argument if he made it! And we're basically the same kind of entity, so if I wouldn't buy it, I can't argue that he should.

But what if he's not the same kind of entity? That, historically, has been the justification for granting human rights to some people but not others. "We're fully human, you aren't." To me, one of the great achievements of naturalism is to show how terrible those arguments are. To a first approximation, everybody's human, so everybody deserves human rights. It's not metaphysics, it's straight-up empiricism.

Pushing that thought a little further, I don't think it's coincidence that the "my wellbeing counts for more than yours" argument tends to come wrapped in a thick layer of self-interested theology. "My God says we are his Chosen People." "This is my Promised Land." "I rule by Divine Right." And so on. I think it's a great step in grounding human rights to realize what terrible justifications those are. "I made up an imaginary friend, and he tells me my narcissism is A-OK." R-i-i-i-g-h-t.

So there's my argument: Human rights exist because I want to have them, and from my naturalistic standpoint, I don't have any coherent justification for awarding them to myself without awarding them to everyone else, too. QED.

One final point. I do think it's the case that the concept of human rights arose out of the Christian tradition. But how could it not? All social thinking in early modern Europe was saturated with Christianity. It was used to justify everything, from the Brotherhood of Man down to slavery, torture and murder. And for a good reason: There wasn't anything else to work with.

Now there is, and we should use it. Contingent history doesn't imply conceptual necessity. We don't have to ground our social systems in medieval theology any more than we have to build planes with canvas wings, just because that's how the Wright brothers got into the air.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ramen and cholesterol: I am a world authority!

Mind the palm oil.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled "Ramen, my cholesterol and the history of the world," explaining how I'd been blithely treating instant ramen noodles as a health food, when in fact they're chock-full of palm oil, which is basically the stuff you put in your veins when your goal is to help your local cardiac surgeons pay off their student loans early. 

The post got a fair number of hits, which is always nice. Then, a couple of months ago, I noticed something weird: It had become the No. 1 result for the Google search on the words "ramen" and "cholesterol." Try it! As of this writing, it was still the case. 

That should tell you something about the reliability of the Internet. I'm not a nutritionist, and make no pretense of being one. Nor have I delved deeply into the ramen-cholesterol link: I read one NPR article, photographed the back of a package, and wrote a single post. But as far as Google's search algorithm is concerned, I'm your go-to guy.

So, on Tuesday, I get this:
I hope all is well with you.  Healthline just published an infographic detailing the effects of high cholesterol on the body.  This is an interactive chart allowing the reader to pick the side effect they want to learn more about. You can see the overview of the report here
Our users have found our guide very useful and I thought it would be a great resource for your page: "Ramen, my cholesterol levels and the history of the world."
I would appreciate it if you could review our request and consider adding this visual representation of the effects of high cholesterol to your site or sharing it on your social media feeds.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
All the best,
Maggie Danhakl • Assistant Marketing Manager

Become a scare-quote "expert," and you get solicitations from real ones! I went and checked out Healthline's site. Their cholesterol graphic is indeed attractive (click it to visit the original):

On their site, when you point to the various organs, you get a popup with more information. Also, their information, unlike mine, has been medically reviewed by an actual doctor, George Krucik, MD, MBA.

So by all means, check out Healthline. Happy to oblige, Maggie! Also, go easy on the instant ramen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Notes on cooking

Four plantains yielded nine
mofongo patties. Here's one of 'em.
I've been cooking for myself for a couple of decades now. I'm no one's idea of a great chef, but I get by. With few exceptions, I stay comfortably inside my area of expertise (basically, Asian food, plus various kinds of vegetarian stew and goulash) and all is well.

One nice thing about sticking to what you know is that you learn how the recipes work, so you can improvise if need be. To wit, on Monday night, I finally got around to using the plantains in my refrigerator. I'd bought them to make mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish. It's straightforward: You boil them, mash them up with some garlic, salt and pepper, form them into balls and fry them. Very tasty. (And yes, I realize they're neither Asian nor goulash.) 

Unfortunately, I added too much stock during the mashing stage, so the plantains were too goopy to fry properly. What to do? Well, if you want to wring moisture out of something, baking works nicely. And if I pan-fried the goop beforehand and let it absorb some oil, I figured it would taste about the same in the end. 

So it did. Fried the goop, spooned it into some muffin pans I happened to have, baked for 10 minutes at 425 degrees, and voilà. I actually like this approach better, because deep-frying uses so much oil. It's messy, and the plantains suck it up like crazy. I think this will be the new SOP.

The plantains were four for $1, and it looks like I'll get three meals out of them. That's about as cheap as it gets. Which brings me to Good and Cheap, the free downloadable cookbook aimed at people in SNAP, aka food stamps. You should try it! Apparently it's reaching its target audience (NPR says it's been downloaded more than 200,000 times), and it should. It's a fine cookbook, and very practical.

I've liked the GandC recipes I've made, and I was delighted to find I'd already stumbled on my own onto many of author Leanne Brown's helpful hints for shopping and eating. (Though I have to say, I don't feel anywhere as nearly as strongly as she does about freshly ground pepper.) Fundamentally I agree with her basic attitude: If you do it right, you can eat within fairly tight time and money budgets and still eat very well. 

Don't know that I'd give my own cooking the honor of that "very," but I'm getting there. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bad compatibilism

(Note: Written in February, but I never hit "publish.")

Phil Plait, the author of the Bad Astronomy blog at, is distressed that America has such a major hangup when it comes to evolution: 
Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country. 
“Provably wrong.” A bracing phrase, and an accurate one. But if that’s the case, then why do millions of Americans embrace said belief, why do conservative politicians constantly scheme to have it taught in classrooms? The problem for us rationalists, says Plait, is the messaging: 
The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs. But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true. 
Pope John Paul II acknowledged evolution’s reality, Plait notes, so surely religion and evolution can be harmonized. Sadly, many Americans associate evolution with atheism, which they revile. So break that link! More religious people should speak up for evolution, Plait says, and show it’s not a threat:
[I]f we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.
Plait then attempts to show just that ... and falls flat on his face: 
Whether you think life originated out of ever-more complex chemical reactions occurring on an ancient Earth, or was breathed into existence by God, evolution would take over after that moment. It’s a bit like the Big Bang; we don’t know how the Universe came into existence at that moment, but starting a tiny fraction of a second after that event our science does a pretty fair job of explanation. 
That's what's known in the trade as the “god of the gaps” argument, and it automatically earns you an "F." Tucking God into a couple of early moments in the universe that we can't quite explain might look like an innocuous way of keeping the supposed Omniscient Author of the Universe in business. But consider: What happens if and when we find explanations for those moments, too? Does Plait really think the God's-breath theory of life's origins has a chance of beating out the complex-chemical-reaction theory? 

More to the point, Plait is basically conceding that we don't need God as an explanatory factor for roughly 99 percent of the history of the universe. That's quite a lot, and rather more than a believer is likely to be happy with.

Listen, for example, to the believers cited in this post about the HBO documentary "Questioning Darwin" (my italics in what follows):  
I think a lot of rationalists tend to fall into thinking creationists are just dumbasses. What I really liked about the documentary was that it didn’t hesitate to show how creationists can be articulate and actually quite persuasive, if you accept their premises. Indeed, a lot of them talked at length about how their belief in a loving god who specifically created the universe for them is fundamentally incompatible with evolutionary theory (and other scientific theories based in astronomy, physics, and geology that demonstrate that the universe and our planet are very, very old—Ken Ham at one point tries to argue down the idea that light from stars is millions of years old when it gets to us), and you know what? I found that argument persuasive. Certainly more persuasive than the typical attempt to reconcile the obvious fact that evolution is true with the desire to believe in a loving god, which is usually some variation of, “Well, God created the universe through evolution.”
To believe that, the creationists point out, you have to believe their god is a complete and utter moron, that he spent billions of years spinning out galaxies and stars and let the Earth lay dormant for billions of years before sparking a single-celled life into being and then spending the next billion years carefully guiding evolution until finally he got what he wanted: A human civilization that is literally only a few thousand years old. If you’ve ever been to a museum where they put a piece of paper on top of a rock formation to show how insignificant we are in terms of time—or if you’ve ever pondered how tiny our planet is in the great expanse of space—then this is beyond idiotic. It’s like taking multiple generations of people tending an oven to make a cupcake.
Ex-ACT-ly. Nine times out of 10, if people say they've reconciled science and religion, it's either because they don't understand the former or they've rendered the latter into vague, formless mush. To take Christianity as an example, surely St. Peter, St. Paul and the rest of the church fathers thought their doctrine amounted to more than "be nice to each other and feel a sense of wonder about the world." But allow pretty much any substantive metaphysics into your Christianity — the personal God, the divinity of Jesus, the immortal soul, miracles, the resurrection of the dead — and you bump up against major contradictions with the scientific worldview. Conversely, if you pay attention to what the scientific method tells us about coherence, falsifiability, standards of evidence and so on, theology becomes very hard to take at all seriously. Just wishing these two intellectual disciplines could play nicely with each other, won't make it so. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The apotheosis of the kleptorporation

Not far off.
Comcast is the nation's largest cable provider and it is a notoriously horrible company. Its products are overpriced, and its customer service is barely distinguishable from extortion. It gets away with this because it has de facto monopoly power vis a vis customers and monopsony power vis a vis media companies. It maintains that power by lobbying all levels of government wth feral intensity. Internally, Comcast is a dysfunctional mess. For running this dog's breakfast of a company, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts was paid $31.4 million in 2013.

Comcast has honed its modus operandi to a fine point, but its basic strategy is hardly unique, notes Matt Stoller in "Lazy Corporate Monopolies Are Why America Can't Have Nice Things," reposted at Naked Capitalism earlier this month (my emphasis):
Without restraint on behavior, corporate executives will work to grab as much market and political power as possible, because only market power and political power allows them to have pricing leverage without investment, risk, or innovation. ... Since this dramatic shift in antitrust enforcement, corporate power in every industry from cable to railroads to rental cars to banking to health insurance to pipelines has skyrocketed. The result has been inefficiency and price gouging.
The other day, I was reading a New Yorker article about Vladimir Putin that made reference to Russia's reputation as a "kleptocracy." I think it's high time we had an analogous word for companies. I hereby propose "kleptorporation." It's as ugly and clunky as what it refers to, yet clear in meaning. Also, it has "torpor" in the middle, which nicely captures the "lazy" part of the package.

Down with kleptorporatism! Fight the kleptorporocracy! It's a word whose time has come.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Behavioral economics, the coffee edition

Back in January, I received a gift card for my birthday to Cross Keys, a coffee shop about half a block from where I work. They're valid for 15 coffees: You get the card stamped each time, filling up the little grid on the back. It's very good coffee, by the way.

I liked using the card instead of fiddling with cash (I've never gotten into the habit of using credit cards for purchases that small) so after I used it up, I bought another one. And here's the thing: Even though I know perfectly well that I paid for it, it feels like I'm getting a free coffee every time.

It really does. And what a psychological difference there is between giving money and getting a stamp. The latter feels almost like an accomplishment: a coffee merit badge.

I've noticed a similar thing with EZPass: The payment is invisible. When I zip through a tollbooth, I know I should think, "There goes $7.43," or whatever it is, but I don't. Contrast that with feeding quarters into a vending machine to get a $1.75 soda. "Crap, is this thing expensive. @#%& inflation!"

The subjective friction of transactions matters a lot. It's nuts that I get more pleasure out of a gift-card coffee than a cash coffee, but I do. It's nuts that spending $1.75 at a vending machine irks me more than spending $17.50 on a restaurant meal, but pulling out a $20 bill or a credit card is quick and easy, so it does.

This is why I will never set up automatic bill pay, and it is no doubt why the utility companies keep insisting I should.

Friday, July 25, 2014

We could fund Social Security with the output gap

Via the Economic Policy Institute
This was going to be part of a larger post, but I think it's so striking that it deserves a post of its own.

Very briefly, the estimated output gap in the U.S. economy in 2013 was $868 billion. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security outlays that year were $808 billion.

In other words, we could pay in full for our single largest federal program, and have billions of dollars left over, with all the wealth we're not generating because we can't get our economy running properly.

That's something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone going on about how extravagant and unsustainable our retirement programs are.

Last month, I wrote a post called "Every year, we waste Spain." I should probably title this one, "Last year, we failed to produce Turkey." (Its nominal GDP in 2013 was $821 billion.)

Egemenlik, kayıtsız 
şartsız Milletindir. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Oh, Lorde

Am I the only fencer who, however briefly, saw the title of "Foil," Weird Al's parody of Lorde's "Royals," and thought he'd written a song about our sport? Well, probably yes. It's a wonderful parody as usual, but if only Al had skipped down in his Mirriam-Webster from definition 3 to definition 5. Then we'd have had ... well ...

... maybe something like this:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

On re-reading the Euthyphro

Socrates: No sock-puppet, he
I have long considered the Euthyphro dilemma - posed by Socrates in Plato's dialogue of that name - one of the peak moments in Western thought, one of the best insights anyone has ever had about anything. What with one thing and another, it's been on my mind lately (it's been on Jay-Z's mind, too, apparently) so I thought I should reread the dialogue, for the first time in forever.

It's short - 15 pages in the Hamilton-Cairns edition - and pretty amusing. The famous bit leaps out at you the way such things always do (like "nasty, brutish and short" in Hobbes, the one quoted sentence in a roughly 600-page book).

But so do other elements. In particular, I was struck by poor Euthyphro, who gets increasingly frustrated as Socrates punctures one definition of piety or holiness after another. In a lot of dialogues, including more than a few of Plato's, there's a "sock-puppet" feel, but the Euthyphro reads like a well-made play, with both characters allowed free rein to be themselves and react naturally, like real people.

Toward the end, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain the fruits of piety: Farmers produce food, generals produce victory in war, so what is produced by propitiating the gods? By this time, Euthyphro knows that anything he says will be shot down; he answers with this cri de couer (my bold):
"Just a little while ago I told you, Socrates, that the task is not a light one, to learn precisely how all these matters stand. I will, however, simply tell you this. If anyone knows how to say and do things pleasing to the gods in prayer and sacrifice, that is holiness, and such behavior saves the family in private life together with the common interests of the state. To do the opposite of things pleasing to the gods is impious, and this it is that upsets all and ruins everything." 
Take that, Richard Dawkins! Seriously, though, doesn't that 2,400-year-old outburst sound eerily contemporary? Sure, you have to change "gods" to God and make a few other adjustments to the rhetoric, but isn't that the emotional heart of it? With God, all things are possible; Without God, all goes to rack and ruin.

I think many people deeply believe that. And considered, not as a metaphysical assertion, but a psychological one, I would be hesitant to say it's entirely false. (As would Jay-Z.)

Curiously, editor Edith Hamilton (the front half of Hamilton-Cairns) is somewhat dismissive of the Euthyphro. In her prefatory note, she writes:
[The dialogue] is chiefly an attempt to define piety, and comes to nothing, but in the course of it Socrates makes a distinction fundamental in reasoning and often disregarded, that the good is not good because the gods approve it, but the gods approve it because it is good. 
The real interest of the dialogue, however, is the picture of Socrates just before his trial. 
I beg to differ. The reason we still look to Socrates to this day is because he freely and happily died in service of the right to pose goofy yet unsettling philosophical questions like the Euthyphro dilemma. So how can the very kind of question he died for not be "the real interest of the dialogue"?* Plato wrote a dialogue, not an Attic personality puff piece. He didn't have to stick the dilemma in there. That he did strongly suggests he thought it was crucial and essential and worth thinking about. You can't just flick it away like soot off a marble bust.

*Not to mention that Hamilton completely begs the question of how accurate Plato's fictionalized account is. That "picture of Socrates" may have as much connection to a real person as Dickens' picture of Sydney Carton.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Fight the powers that be.
Over at The Automatic Earth, a blogger named Raul Ilargi Meijer has a piece titled "The Future of Banking Is Pay Cash Only," in which he riffs off a Wall Street Journal column (Note: paywall) by Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman. 

Mostly, Meijer grumbles about big banks' ever-growing clout and about Gorman's warped vision of our Brave New Banking World. And fair enough, banks are too powerful and Gorman's vision is warped. But at the end, Meijer says this: 
If and or when all our financial transactions are electronic – excuse me, digital - they’re all traceable too. Is that what we want? For many of us, I’m sure, it’s not. Which means that at some point someone will be smart and driven enough to start a “campaign” calling upon people everywhere to pay cash as much as they can. Most stores still accept cash, though perhaps not in all aisles. Dollars and euros and zloty’s and what not are still legal tender. There are plenty businesses, second hand cars etc., that accept only cash.
We find it comfy and easy to pay with plastic. But the more we do that, the more the power and wealth of the Mr. Gorman’s of this world increases. Literally at our cost, don’t forget that. And the power of the NSA and related global “services” increases at the same time, they can trace our whereabouts and purchases. 
In a certain limited way, I suppose the suggestion makes sense. There's a reason most dope dealers don't take Visa. But seriously, do you really think bankers gain an edge when they discover you paid $26.99 for a pair of pants at JC Penny? Of course not. They couldn't care less. Rather, banks' power comes from defining what $26.99 is. How much purchasing power it represents, and how that compares to its value yesterday and tomorrow, how many yen or dinar it buys. That's what gives them their mojo.  

Decades before bonus points, APRs and minimum monthly payments, J.P. Morgan had no difficulty turning a big chunk of the U.S. economy into a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street. Looking at the other end of the power spectrum, ordinary Germans in the 1920s and ordinary Zimbabweans in the 1980s had abundant opportunity to strike a blow against The Man by paying cash. From what I can tell, it didn't help.

Money, as the best Onion article ever points out, is just a symbolic, mutually shared illusion. It does not matter whether that illusion is embodied in shiny pieces of stamped metal, pieces of paper with dead presidents on them, or bits and bytes on a hard drive somewhere. What matters is who sets the rules for the illusion, who decides on interest rates, lending standards, bank capitalization, money supply and so on. 

I can sort of understand why someone might think gold is the "really real" money - it's shiny and heavy and looks valuable and all - but c'mon, cash? Meijer is arguing that the use of fiat paper returns power to the people. That's like saying you're president because you own a flag.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A remarkable outburst of civility

Louis Michael Seidman
Via the usual roundabout way (one click leading to another), I came across this 2013 item on the Library of Economics & Liberty website in which libertarian economist Russell Roberts interviews Constitutional scholar Louis Michael Seidman. Seidman had recently published a book, On Constitutional Disobedience, arguing, as Roberts puts it, "that we should ignore the Constitution in designing public policy, relying instead on the merits of policy regardless of their constitutionality." Roberts has little sympathy with this thesis, to put it mildly.

The two delve deeply into what it is that the Supreme Court is really doing when it declares a law constitutional or unconstitutional, and what would happen if the justices and the rest of us admitted how little the Constitution constrains interpretations, whether liberal or conservative; that is, how badly the "calling balls and strikes" model fits the facts. It's an intense back-and-forth between two well-informed debaters on a topic about which they deeply, fundamentally disagree. But there's this delightful aside (my bolding):
Roberts: I'm going to push back on that in a second, but before I do that, I want you to talk about Constitutional Disobedience generally, which you've written about; and you invoke it in your article, arguing that it has a long history. You mention Jefferson. Talk about some other examples that you might want to refer to.
Seidman: Before I do that, I hope you won't mind if I just say it is a real pleasure to have an intelligent conversation with somebody who is skeptical about my argument. Over the last several weeks, I've gotten something over 1000 abusive emails, many of them anti-semitic, some of them threatening violence. So this is a pleasure.
Roberts: Ditto. I get to do it every week, so I'm lucky.
(Note: Roberts and Seidman are referred to as "Russ" and "Guest" in the original.) 
Indeed, the discussion is thoughtful and respectful throughout, and (to me, at least) extremely interesting and productive as a result. At the end, both men say they learned something; I did, too.

If only more of our political discourse looked like this.

Addendum: It's a more of a traditional Q&A than the above, but Tyler Cowen's interview with Ralph Nader strikes me as another good example of two well-informed people actually talking substantively with each other, not just scoring points. The full, unedited version is here. (PDF)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Teatopia, my eye

Reihan Salam has a dream.

When I read Reihan Salam's "Teatopia" essay last week, I assumed the blogosphere would be drawn to it like wolves to a lame caribou, eager to rip it apart and spray its blood across the tundra. For some reason, though, with the exception of Salon, the wolves have stayed away. (Perhaps they're World Cup fans.) It's a shame, because the piece deserves merciless drubbing. It also raises the question: Has Salam ever met a real Tea Partier?

For starters, Salam asserts that the Tea Party's principal tenet - the thing that gets Tea Partiers out of bed in the morning, the hill they're prepared to die on - isn't the notion that we are Taxed Enough Already, even though that's what "Tea" stands for. Rather, it's something called "subsidiarity":
Deep divisions notwithstanding, there are a number of principles that unite the movement. The most important of them is a devotion to subsidiarity, which holds that power should rest as close to ordinary people as possible. In practice, this leads Tea Party conservatives to favor voluntary cooperation among free individuals over local government, local government over state government, and state government over the federal government. 
Is that so? Then why is this alleged devotion to a finely nuanced view of federalism indistinguishable from a rabid and indiscriminate hatred of government at all levels? Seriously, have you ever met a true believer who said, "Why, yes, that's a fine government program. It just needs to be handled at a more grass-roots level"?! One who was any happier paying his property taxes than his payroll taxes? These are people who seriously doubt whether education and roads should be core government services. Or for that matter, public safety: I heard a guy ask our mayor awhile back why he didn't privatize the police.

Salam goes on:
Teatopia would in some respects look much like our own America, only the contrasts would be heightened. California and New York, with their dense populations and liberal electorates, would have even bigger state governments that provide universal pre-K, a public option for health insurance, and generous funding for mass transit. They might even have their own immigration policies, which would be more welcoming toward immigrants than the policies the country as a whole would accept. 
Again, Salam asserts a level of moderation and reasonableness that is nowhere evident among the movement faithful. Once you're committed to the Tea Party view of government, it doesn't matter where that government is, or whether your fellow citizens endorse it and would like more of it. Tea Partiers in Texas and Arizona aren't about to go all laissez faire when it comes to the socialist cesspools of California and New York. A subsidized expansion of health insurance anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.

According to Salam, schools and roads would be defunded only in Teatopia's "more conservative states." Nonsense: They'd be defunded anywhere the movement could manage it. To repeat: Nowhere outside Reihan Salam's head does the Tea Party's proclaim, "Let's strike the right balance locally." Always and everywhere, it's "Stop taking my damn money, you lazy bums."

Let's continue:
To get to Teatopia, we’d have to revisit the fact that almost all states are subject to balanced budget requirements, which are a big part of why state governments have lost ground to the federal government over the years, particularly during recessions.
We'd also have to revisit the Civil War, the outcome of which is a suspiciously sore point for many in the movement. 

And that bit about "revisiting" balanced budget requirements? That's Salam's euphemistic way of admitting that countercyclical fiscal policy, also known as deficit spending, can really come in handy in fighting recessions. You remember how supportive Tea Party types were of the stimulus, right? Having your own fiat currency helps, too. I thought Tea Partiers were mostly hard-money, goldbug types, but for Salam, those folks who chanted "End the Fed" actually meant, "Let Rhode Island set its own exchange rate."

On military policy, Salam enthusiastically endorses two Cato Institute scholars' proposal to have the government prefund veterans' benefits through outside contracts:
Military personnel would be given enough additional pay to purchase benefits at actuarially fair rates from private insurers. If war is looming, it is a safe bet that private insurers would jack up their rates to account for the fact that service members would face an elevated risk of death and dismemberment. Suddenly the federal government would have to pay for its war-waging ways even before the first shot is fired. 
And this program would work exactly as planned, according to the guy proclaiming his deep distrust of government. C'mon, Salam, we just fought two wars largely off the books, funded through supplemental appropriations; you really think Washington couldn't fudge a few insurance policies? 

The insurance industry would help with the fudging. In the real world, unless you're very careful, you don't get market prices when the private sector bids on a military contract; you get $400 toilet seats and $400 billion airplanes that catch on fire when they try to take off. The government didn't get fair rates when it ran its student loan program through private lenders; it got a bunch of unnecessary middlemen skimming themselves a generous cut of the take.

 It's also worth noting that Salam is making a very cynical and morally icky argument: He's basically saying voters will notice (and and get angry about) deficits and/or higher taxes faster than they'll notice (and get angry about) dead soldiers, aka the blood of their children and fellow citizens. 

Salam passes over in silence the Tea Party's cultural sensibilities, its white Christian chauvinism; indeed, he conspicuously cherry-picks his examples to appeal to liberals. ("See, with the Tea Party you'd have less war, and more pre-K, at least in certain limited jurisdictions. You guys like that stuff!") Overall, "Teatopia" is remarkably disingenuous. Or, in plain English, it's a bait-and-switch.

At the end, Salam makes some sense, when he says the Tea Party is a real political movement, not a passing fad. That it is, to be sure. Which makes this off-hand comment worth of notice: 
We’re talking about the Tea Party’s long-term vision, whether or not it’s particularly realistic.
Well, what if it isn't particularly realistic? What if at root the Tea Party is, say, a fundamentally reactionary crusade fueled by an aggressively revisionist reading of America's political heritage, transmuting legitimate anger at the cronyism of big business and big government into seething rage at anything more communitarian than a bill of sale? If so, then it's exceedingly important to the country's civic health that it be portrayed realistically, understood realistically, and therefore, that apologias like "Teatopia" be recognized for the humbug they are.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Every year, we waste Spain

The other day I posted a link to this Atlantic article on Facebook. I can't offer a pithier summary than the headline: "U.S. Healthcare: Most Expensive and Worst Performing." 

In my post, I said a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows we waste more than $1 trillion a year on health care spending. A blog isn't quite an envelope, I suppose, but here are the numbers:

U.S. GDP was $16.7 trillion in 2013, according to the CIA World Factbook (via Wikipedia). According to the article, 17.7 percent of that is spent on health care, far above the portion spent by other countries. Judging from the chart in the article, 9.7 percent would count as middle-of-the-pack, more or less. Well, 17.7 - 9.7 = 8.0, and 8 percent of $16.7 trillion is $1.336 trillion. QED. 

How much money is $1.336 trillion? A lot. If our wasted spending were an economy, it would be the 14th largest in the world, just behind Spain. (Wikipedia again.) Spain, in other words, manages to feed, clothe and house 47 million people, maintaining most of them in reasonable First World comfort, and manages to build all the roads, power plants, airports and so on that they need, not to mention hospitals, with what we spend on excess administration and paperwork, redundant and/or pointless procedures and drugs and services that cost way more than they should. 

Every year, in our health care industry, we waste Spain. 

You've got to admit, it's kind of an impressive achievement. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

My father vs. the stapler

"I broke my stapler," my father said the other day.

"That's too bad," I said.

"So I was taking it to get it repaired ..." 

"Why wouldn't you just buy a new one?" I said. "Staplers cost, like, five bucks."

"Oh, they do?" my father said.

"Give or take," I said. 

 "I didn't know that," he said. "But anyway ..." 

"So you took it to get it repaired," I said. "Where did you go?"

"Staples," he said. 

"Of course," I said. "How did it go?"

"I showed it to the young man at the counter. He took a look at it, and he tried this and that and the other thing. Lo and behold, in about 15 minutes he got it working. So I asked him how much, and he said no charge."

"That was nice of him," I said. 

"Well, I wanted to tip him. I took $10 out of my wallet, but he said, 'Sir, I can't accept that.' I said, 'Why not?' He said, 'We aren't allowed.' I said, 'Call your manager over here.'

"So the manager came over," he went on, "and I said to her, 'Ma'am, this young man has just won a bet with me. I bet him $10, and I believe when you lose a bet you should honor it. Is that OK with you?' The young man didn't know what to think."

"I bet he didn't."

"She said, 'I don't see any problem with him taking that $10.' So he did, and I got the stapler in a bag and drove home."

"Well, that's a story," I said. 

"And then I dropped the fucking thing getting out of the car," he said. 

"You're kidding me," I said.

"Busted it worse than before. I've just spent two hours trying to fix it."

"Two hours?!" 

"Two solid hours and no luck at all. I just threw it in the trash can. Tomorrow I'm going to Staples to buy a new one." 

"Jeez, Dad," I said. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Duly noted

Seen on Route 222 North today: A black Range Rover with the license plate "ROI CEO."

For me the first part keeps flipping between English and French ...

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


A colleague of Debbie's has a child's birthday party coming up, and wanted something special for the decorations. So for the past couple of days I've been working on this:

You'd be surprised how much patience it takes to paint a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine on 30" x 40" foam core using tempera! I was given this for a model:

We decided to dispense with the 3D head, but apart from that, I think it's pretty comparable. Here it is in the very early going:

And a bit later, at the start of the painting stage:

There were two main problems. First, I foolishly chose to rough out the design on the board itself, rather than drawing it on paper first and scaling up. That meant I was doing all the measurements on the fly, on a surface that doesn't erase well at all. I ended up goofing up one dimension and fudging a couple of others. Never assume something's going to be simple just because it looks simple.

Second, the first paint I tried didn't stick properly, but just sort of slopped around, staining here and there. Ugh. Fortunately, the competitor's brand worked.

I also made things hard for myself by being too tentative about the edges, leading to a lot of extra touching up toward the end. But all in all I think it worked out alright.

I'm especially pleased with myself for including Thomas' headlamp, down there on the left side of his chassis. (From Thomas' POV, his right side.) It's a prominent fixture on the real Thomas, but it's always omitted when he's stylized. Not this time!

It's certainly not Art with a capital A, but it was more fun than I expected.

Monday, May 12, 2014

People of Buffalo, hold on to your wallets

Buffalo Sportz Corridor

It seems someone has a bright idea for waterfront redevelopment in the city of Buffalo, N.Y.:
Another proposal was released on Monday that would include a new stadium for the Bills and a new sports complex. The Buffalo Sportz Corridor has a project that would also include a complex for amateur sports as well as a new Convention Center.
You don't say? Details, please:
The idea for what they are calling Olympia Sports Park envisions an enormous complex featuring facilities to accommodate a full range of activities, from hockey, football and baseball to golf, archery, tennis, mixed martial arts and even beach volleyball. Other areas would be designed for boating, fishing, indoor track, lacrosse, soccer and swimming. There would also be walking and bike paths ringing the area.
The ultimate concept even includes a new domed stadium for the Buffalo Bills, as well as a convention center, south of the Small Boat Harbor, plus a sports outlet mall, a Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and several restaurants. And it envisions an extension of the Metro Rail line or an elevated tram from Canalside straight through the Outer Harbor to the new Bills stadium.
Any chance this is being pitched with pie-in-the-sky assertions of transformative economic impact?
The goal, they say, is to turn the area into an economic development engine that would create thousands of jobs, draw hordes of visitors and tap into the $9 billion world of amateur sports tourism. And that would capitalize on the momentum Buffalo is already experiencing.
“Buffalo is starting to catch on right now,” said Jefferson Burke Jr., president and CEO of Burke Sportz[.]
Well, that sounds convincing! And since this sure-to-be-a-hit project is being built in America, where entrepreneurs invariably haul themselves up by their own bootstraps, I trust this project will have purely private backing, and will stand or fall on its economic merits?

Ha ha! Silly me:
“This funding would be a combination of private enterprise and we would be involving different types of municipalities using bond funding, so some of the money that the state of New York has designated would be used.”
Translation: If this thing is built, government money will do the heavy lifting, the private parties will make out like bandits, the project will run enormous deficits, and the taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

They even included an elevated tram. Jeebus.

You know the phrase, "take something with a grain of salt"? There's not a salt mine in the world large enough to season this proposal. Every single element is a sure money loser. Convention centers lose money. Stadiums lose money. Malls are dying. And while I'm sure Buffalo is a nice place to visit, and convenient to Niagara Falls, may I nevertheless suggest that perhaps pitching it to tourists as a beach volleyball destination is a bit of a long shot?

In a just world, local officials would tell the developers of this cockamamie proposal, "You think this will work? Fine. You pay for it." We do not live in a just world. Good luck, Buffalo!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

5 dirty secrets about the U.S. economy looks at Tom Corbett's latest ad

● I would genuinely like to try Soylent

 Clarence Thomas, the last Confederate.

Video of the week: Didn't make it to local soul band Shrimpboat's show at Tellus 360 Friday night, so I'm posting their video instead. Hardly the same thing, but one does what one can. 


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

● This post is more than a year old, yet it was somehow only this week that I came across the anti-loneliness ramen bowl:

Photo: MisoSoupDesign via CNET

Toys are getting cheaper, necessities are getting more expensive. With this remarkable graphic (HT Brandon): 

Video of the week:  In light of my post about Maria von Trapp this week, this seems appropriate.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Maria von Trapp, author

The real Maria von Trapp
My spare time reading for the past week or so has been, of all things, Baroness Maria von Trapp's autobiography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Amazon was selling the Kindle edition for $1.99, and my parents and I watched The Sound of Music on TV a bunch of times when I was a kid, so why not, I thought. It might be interesting.

Interesting it has proved to be, and then some. Maria writes with verve, and she has a hell of a story to tell. It does not bear much resemblance to TSoM. The first part of the book has the same broad outline - a young would-be nun is sent to care for a baron's children, and ends up marrying him - but practically the only incident from the musical that appears in the book is the bit about assembling the children with a whistle.

Maria and Georg von Trapp were married, not on the eve of the Anschluss, but in 1927. On Maria's telling, she was more or less coerced into the union; the Reverend Mother informed her it was God's will that she get hitched, whether she wanted to or not. Here's how Maria reacts:
Minutes had passed and I was still kneeling, trying to understand. I knew this was final and no argument was possible. ... All my happiness was shattered and, and my heart, which had so longed to give itself entirely to God, felt rejected. Heavy waves of disappointment and bitterness swept over it. 
She returns to the von Trapp estate, where the captain is waiting.
"Well, and ..." was all he said.
Timidly I went over; and all of a sudden there came all the tears I hadn't found before.
"The-they s-s-said I have to m-m-marry you-u!"
Without a word he opened his arms wide. And what else could I do -- with a wrenching sob I buried my face on his shoulder...." 
Rather a far cry from "Climb Every Mountain," isn't it? She mentions her affection for Georg in the years after the marriage, but in their courtship, such as it was, the emotion is all on his side. She repeatedly says she loves the children, which makes the lacuna of feeling toward their father all the more conspicuous.

The movie ends with the family fleeing Austria, but the majority of the book takes place after that, as the von Trapps work to build a new life in America. I was struck by how touch-and-go it was for them, how for years they barely scraped by. They eked out a living by singing, but they were stiff, unnatural performers at first, and their concerts weren't that popular.

There's a funny scene when they meet American Indians for the first time:
[The Indians were] nice friendly people who looked at us as curiously as we at them. They had never seen Austrians in their national costume, either.
By "costume," Maria doesn't mean a stage get-up. The von Trapps made their own clothes in Austria, and they had no money to buy new outfits, so they just kept on wearing them. They were wool, and apparently pretty uncomfortable in American summers.

As befits someone who nearly became a nun, Maria is quite devout, and the book evokes an almost medieval sense of God as a presence suffusing and informing daily life. Her outlook is not even modern, let alone post-modern. Hers is a sturdy, peasant religion, and it informs a sturdy, peasant outlook; she writes dismissively at one point at one point of cosmopolitan mores and the abandonment of tradition.
The big cities have shed all these peculiarities in order to be admitted into the big-city corporation around the world. The national costumes they exchanged for street clothes worn the same in Paris, London, New York, or Shanghai on their respective Fifth Avenues; folk dances were replaced by international ballroom dances; and instead of folk customs -- the century-old voice of your own people informing you what your forefathers did at certain times and what you should imitate -- they have books now, the Emily Posts of the respective countries, giving minute instructions on what to wear if you want to be called 'smart," how to behave if you want to be "socially acceptable." 
I'm surprised at how much I like The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, and I think the surprise adds to my enjoyment. Who would have guessed that behind the great juggernaut of middlebrow entertainment that was The Sound of Music lay this idiosyncratic little gem.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

Someday soon, this blog will be more than Saturday grab-bags again. Really! But meanwhile: 

How a 700-page economics book surged to No. 1 on Amazon

● Ta-Nehisi Coates on Cliven Bundy: The initial post and the follow-up

● A GIF is worth a thousand words: U.S. imprisonment rates per 100,000 residents, 1978-2012.

Video of the week: I am a huge fan of the Uptown Music Collective, a nonprofit "school of rock" based in Williamsport. They held their Beatles concert a week or so, performing the albums "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Here's their "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds": 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

● Famines used to be unavoidable, and may become so again.

● Justice system forgets to imprison a convicted robber. He builds an exemplary life. Thirteen years later, system decides to throw him in jail after all

Uber's algorithmic monopoly. 

Video of the week: Bunch of good artists announced for the 2014 XPoNential Music Festival. Here's one (or, I guess, two) of them, Rodrigo y Gabriela: 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

 Millennials aren't buying cars or houses, which is kind of a good thing, but also a problem, because they drive so much of our economy. (H/T Al McD.)

 The book people need to read after they take Econ 101

 Vox's Cliffs Notes version of Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century

 Meet the man who created the Heartbleed bug. (Article notes that "a tiny team of 13 volunteers is maintaining one of the Internet's most important technologies.")

Video of the week: This Imagine/Band on the Run mashup got some exposure this week. And whaddaya know, it really does work surprisingly well. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On the stabbings at Franklin Regional High School

It's more than a little surreal when the top national news story is a student going on a stabbing rampage at the high school where you graduated.

Over the next few days we're going to find out a lot about Alex Hribal, 16, who (allegedly, though there doesn't seem to be much doubt) attacked dozens of his fellow students before being wrestled to the floor around 7:15 a.m. at Franklin Regional.

The school in the aerial videos looks a lot different than the one I graduated from back in 1984. Looks like they've put a nice new entrance on it. Not sure how many new wings there are - two, maybe three? Hard to tell it's the same school, really. I haven't been there in years.

On my class Facebook page, people were talking about what a shame it was, and how much youth culture has changed. Lots of spirit and solidarity. Lots of determination not to let one troubled kid take the meaning of our school and our happy memories away from us.

I have no idea why Hribal snapped, but I think it's a lot easier for a teenage boy to snap than it used to be. He can fall a lot faster and a lot farther down the rabbit hole, and he's a lot more dangerous when he does. If a kid is drawn to alienation and sociopathy, unlimited quantities of the stuff are just a Google search away. Parents are busy, school personnel are busy, too, and hemmed in by all sorts of rules and protocols.

Friends can turn on you if you become needy or weird in a certain kind of way, or maybe they just don't get it, whatever "it" is. A crowded high school hallway can be the loneliest place in the world.

Maybe it'll turn out that Hribal was bullied. But even if that's the case, it can't possibly be the whole story. Kids have been bullied since the dawn of time. There have to be other factors that close off hope, close off all your fellow feeling, and make you think, all right, I'll start stabbing people, that'll show 'em.

Here, by contrast, is a remarkably well-adjusted young man:

Who the heck asks a high school kid if he thinks he's a hero? "Hell, yeah, I'm the man." Ian, the student being interviewed, said the right things, but it was a dumb question. He knows he did well, and he's pleased to be on TV - look at the half-grins that slip out - but he also knows you're not supposed to pat yourself on the back, and he doesn't. Good for him. Overall, he's poised and serious.

Watch how matter-of-factly he answers the last question:
Interviewer: "Do you ever think it will happen at your school?"
Ian Griffith: "There's always a possibility. There's a possibility at any school, at any time." 
He's right, of course. But it's incredibly sad that a high school student should have to know that. In 1984, I sure as hell didn't.

Who are you going to believe?

Look, ma, no warming!
Talked with a local meteorologist at some length this week for a wrap-up news story on the 2013-14 winter. I had thought the weather was severe, but only by comparison with the past few mild winters. It turns out it was severe, period: we had the fifth-largest snowfall since record-keeping began, and the second-coldest January-March stretch.

It felt only a bit worse than average to me, but my childhood in Pittsburgh and my college years in Chicago tend to bias my reference standard.

It occurred to me that if I were a climate change skeptic, I would view this past winter as a great talking point. "Ha! Global warming, you say? Tell me another one! It's getting so hot that Lancaster County had its second-coldest winter in more than a century."

But that's nonsense, of course. For one thing, plenty of other places were hot this winter; Lancaster County is not the linchpin of the world, whatever some of its citizens may think.

Also, as climate scientists never tire of pointing out, the signal of climate change is very small compared to the noise of short-term temperature variation. If the world warms six degrees over the next century, that works out to ... hang on, "difficult" math here ... six hundredths of a degree a year. One winter can easily be six or seven degrees colder (or warmer) than average, as 2013-14 in fact was. You're not going to see a couple hundredths of a degree in there.

There's that old joke about the woman who finds her lover, who has been proclaiming his fidelity, in bed with her rival. As she pulls out a gun to take revenge, he exclaims, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?" On climate change in particular, but on some other contentious cultural issues, too (evolution comes to mind), the guy has a point. What the average person sees is just a small sliver of a vastly larger data set. If you take that small sliver as dispositive, you're going to be badly misled.