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Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Limited Art of Interpretation

by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Limited Art of Interpretation

Among the least persuasive writers on contemporary politics, for me, is Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Mind you, I often agree with him, but only because I agreed with him before reading him.  If I go into a piece of his with a different perspective, nothing he says has an effect on me.

Now, if I were intellectually stubborn, the sort of person who rarely changes his mind, that would be a statement about me, not Coates.  In fact, I’m always changing my mind.  Nearly every day my views are shifting, sometimes only slightly, sometimes a lot.  When I go back and read what I wrote several years ago, my first instinct is to grab an editor’s pen.  Maybe I’m too susceptible to persuasion.

But not by Coates.  The thing is, he seldom makes arguments in the sense I understand that term.  There isn’t extended reasoning through assumptions and implications or careful sifting through evidence to see which hypotheses are supported or disconfirmed.  No, he offers an articulate, finely honed expression of his worldview, and that’s it.  He is obviously a man of vast talents, but he uses them the same way much less refined thinkers simply bloviate.

But that raises the question, why is he so influential?  Why does he reach so many people?  What’s his secret?

No doubt there are multiple aspects to this, but here’s one that just dawned on me.  Those who respond to Coates are not looking for argumentation—they’re looking for interpretation.

The demand for someone like Coates reflects the broad influence that what might be called interpretivism has had on American political culture.  This current emerged a few decades ago from literature, cultural studies and related academic home ports.  Its method was an application of the interpretive act of criticism.  A critic “reads”, which is to say interprets, a work of art or some other cultural product, and readers gravitate toward critics whose interpretations provide a sense of heightened awareness or insight into the object of criticism.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  I read criticism all the time to deepen my engagement with music, art, film and fiction.

But criticism jumped channel and entered the political realm.  Now events like elections, wars, ecological crises and economic disruptions are interpreted according to the same standards developed for portraits and poetry.  And maybe there is good in that too, except that theories about why social, economic or political events occur are subject to analytical support or disconfirmation in a way that works of art are not.  How should we hear The Rite of Spring in the twenty-first century?  Colonial or pre-postcolonial?  Racist or deracializing?  These are meaningful questions, and thoughtful criticism can help us explore them more deeply, but neither evidence nor reasoning can resolve them.  If you want to know why the US election last year turned out the way it did, however, reasoning and evidence are the way to go.

Coates is an interpreter.  His latest piece in the Atlantic, The First White President, reads the election the way a film critic would read a film.  There are references to factual events, like quotes taken from the campaign trail, but they serve the same function that references to camera angles serve for a critic interpreting the latest from Darren Aronofsky.  In the end, Coates wants to convey his sense of what the election means, that it is a reflection of the deep racism that was, is and will continue to be the core truth of America.  If anything was different, it was that eight years of a black president ratcheted up the racism and allowed a sociopathic white extremist to prevail.  Post-election concern for the well-being of the white working class by white pundits is itself a further reflection of this truth, a turning away from the ugly reality of bigotry. This is a reading of the election as a cultural artifact.

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Habit Formation

There’s a fascinating but barely-accessible-to-a-non-neurologist article about habit formation. Here is a pretty good summary, albeit with an un-helpful title:

A single kind of neuron deep within the brain serves as a “master controller” of habits, new research in mice indicates.

Some habits are helpful, such as automatically washing your hands before a meal or driving the same route to work every day. They accomplish an important task while freeing up valuable brain space. But other habits—like eating a cookie every day after work—seem to stick around even when the outcomes aren’t so good.

Researchers found that habit formation boosts the activity of the influential nerve cell, and that shutting it down with a drug is enough to break habits in sugar-seeking mice. Though rare, this cell exerts its control through a web of connections to more populous cells that are known to drive habitual behavior.

From earlier research by the same team, and which set them on the path for that “master controller”:

The team trained otherwise healthy mice to receive a tasty treat every time they pressed a lever. Many mice developed a lever-pressing habit, continuing to press the lever even when it no longer dispensed treats, and despite having had an opportunity to eat all the treats they wanted beforehand.

The team then compared the brain activity of mice who had developed a lever-pressing habit with those who hadn’t. They focused on an area deep within the brain called the striatum, which contains two sets of neural pathways: a “go” pathway, which incites an action, and a “stop” pathway, which inhibits action.

They found that both the go and stop pathways were stronger in habit-driven mice. Habit formation also shifted the relative timing of the two pathways, making the go pathway fire before the stop.

The reason so many behavioral traits are heritable is because they are strongly influenced by our physical nature, and our physical nature, in turn, is heritable.

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The asterisk in real median household income

The asterisk in real median household income

This is a follow-up to the post I wrote last week about the latest data on real median household income.
One of the things I notes is that “households” includes the millions that are composed of retirees, a burgeoning demographic due both to healthier longevities and the demographics of the Boomer generation.
This morning Jared Bernstein helpfully includes a graph of real median household income excluding those over age 65:

Households headed by working age adults did finally surpass their 2007 income, but were still 3.4% below the all-time highs of incomes of 2000.

But mainly I wanted to follow up on that break in the graph in 2013.  It was caused by a change in methodology by the Census Bureau.

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“We Made Certain they knew that”


I was always very candid with my patients. They want to know that you are working for them, not someone else. We made certain they knew that.” Tom Price, MD – Secretary of HHS

Republicans, the Trump administration, led by Graham and Cassidy are moving forward to defund and cripple the ACA bringing millions of people back to when states decided who could have a smidgen of healthcare and who could not. This comment by Dr. and Secretary of Health Tom Price in 2016 is priceless and is the opposite of what he said then. Both he and his fellow Republicans are deliberately misleading constituents and his patients about their intentions with the ACA. Tom Price is more concerned with the politics of the ACA rather than his constituents well being. Recently, commentator/comedian Jimmy Kimmel brought this to the forefront in his monologue about Senator Cassidy who was a guest on Jimmy’s show and made comments about the most recent Republican Healthcare bill.

The same as other recent healthcare bills by Republican, the Graham – Cassidy bill will return healthcare back to pre-2008 when states could deny able-bodied people healthcare, had limited funding, could allow denial of insurance based upon pre-existing conditions, eliminate premium subsidies, not subsidize out of pocket expenses, cap healthcare, etc. These are all the things Senators Graham and Cassidy claim will still be covered in their state block grant bill for healthcare. Except, there is no mandate by Washington forcing states to have the same as what is offered today. It is all a state rights gambit with some states being generous and many not being so generous.

Kimmel: “I don’t know what happened to Bill Cassidy, but when he was on this publicity tour, he listed his demands for a health-care bill very clearly. These were his words. He said he wants coverage for all, no discrimination based on preexisting conditions, lower premiums for middle-class families and no lifetime caps. Guess what? The new bill does none of those things.”

Cassidy “just lied right to my face” according to Kimmel.

Graham: “He didn’t give (Cassidy) the courtesy of hearing his side of the story. He went on national TV and called this man — who has worked for the underprivileged and health care all of his life — a liar, (Graham referring to Cassidy), who practiced medicine before he entered politics. And I think that’s inappropriate.

I don’t like the idea of calling this good man a liar without ever talking to him first. That really says more about Mr. Kimmel then it does Dr. Cassidy,'”

The Cassidy-Graham bill would do away with Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, subsidies for private insurance, eliminate the requirement that Americans have insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and reduce payments to insurers for out-of-pocket costs. In their place, it would offer states a block grant they could use to spend on health care as they saw fit. The block grant would be 17% less than what total federal spending would be in 2026 meaning states would struggle to cover the same number of people.

There is nothing to talk about with Mr. Cassidy or even Mr. Graham both of who are indignant at being called out by Kimmel.

There will be resources in your state; but, those resources may not be of the same value as under the ACA. The Graham – Cassidy plan will favor states which did not expand Medicaid or have not had higher premium/csr subsidies. It is obvious what Graham and Cassidy are doing. Punish states which expanded Medicaid and reward states which did not expand Medicaid. California would lose $27 billion in funding, New York would lose $18 billion in funding while Texas would be rewarded with $8 billion in funding.

In a letter to both Senators Graham and Schumer, this is what the America’s Health Insurance Plans (Modern Healthcare, September 20, 2017, Matthew Weinstock), the industry’s “main lobby group” had to say on the Graham-Cassidy legislation. The Graham – Cassidy healthcare plan fails to meet five crucial tests:

• stabilizing the insurance market;
• ensuring Medicaid reforms meet beneficiaries’ needs;
• guaranteed access to coverage for all Americans, including those with pre-existing conditions;
• time for the industry to prepare for any changes to existing law;
• and getting rid of health insurance and excise taxes.

The last item called out by the America Health Insurance Plans is the Cadillac tax, which was meant to tax excessive executive healthcare plans and also force “consumers to have more skin in the game” with higher co-pays and deductibles. People would then decide if they really needed to go to the doctor or not avoiding cosmetic or unneeded doctor visits. The attempt on the later is misguided as the commercial healthcare industry has a much larger impact on rising healthcare costs than consumer doctor visits. The emphasis needs to be on controlling the commercial healthcare industry and how healthcare serves are delivered to patients with better outcomes. Most of the burden of controlling healthcare costs has been shifted to the consumer through this tax by Congress and for-profit healthcare insurance companies.

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Justice Denied

From the Daily Mirror:

None of the 400 citizens returning here after fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have been charged with war crimes.

Yet the Council of Europe’s legal affairs committee recently ruled membership of the terror group, also known as Daesh, is enough for prosecution at the Hague’s International Criminal Court.

Labour Shadow Minister Liam Byrne, representing Britain, backed the decision.

He said: “We know British citizens were soldiers and commanders in Daesh’s army of evil. Yet not a single soldier captured on their return has been charged with war crimes or genocide.”

MI5 estimates that 850 Brits have slipped into Iraq and Syria to fight for IS – half of whom have returned.

They were outside the jurisdiction of the ICC while there but could have been deported to the Hague upon their return.

Mr Byrne added: “This cannot possibly be justice. The Government must look again at throwing the full weight of international law at those who took part in crimes against humanity.”

Byrne also had an op ed in The Times of London:

Britain has signed the Treaty of Rome. We support the International Criminal Court. Indeed, under the 1948 Genocide Convention, we have an obligation to take prompt and effective action both to prevent and punish acts of genocide. And we can try our own nationals for participating in crimes abroad, not least because there are good grounds for bringing charges against even those, who might claim “they were merely following orders”. UK policy is very clear; we allow the exercise of universal jurisdiction, like the ICC, over offences under international law.

That means we can prosecute those of our citizens caught in this country, who fought with militants abroad but then came home to escape a death on the battlefield.

MI5 believe that over 800 of our fellow country men women went to fight in Iraq and Syria. Over 400 have come home. Perhaps 150 have been deprived of their citizenship. But evidence supplied to a Council of Europe investigation suggests that just “eight returnees have been convicted for terrorist offences”. And answers to me in parliament last week confirm that not a single returning fighter has been prosecuted either for genocide or war-crimes.

Justice denied… is collaboration in both past and future crimes.

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Carbon Gridlock Redux in Washington State

byPeter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Carbon Gridlock Redux in Washington State

A year ago—it already seems like another era—an initiative to set up a carbon tax in Washington State, I-732, was defeated by the voters.  The proposal was to use the money for tax reductions in accordance with the standard economic view that taxing “bads” rather than goods generates a double dividend.  I disagree with that (I think the deadweight loss case against taxes is weak), but I agree that carbon prices operate like a sales tax and are regressive, so it’s a good idea to return the money according to an egalitarian formula, preferably equal rebates per person.

But most of the political left sees it differently.  When they look at carbon pricing they see a big new revenue stream that can be used to fund all the things they have been unable to get in a period of conservative (or neoliberal) political dominance.  They want infrastructure, mass transit, community development projects and environmental restoration, and for them returning the money is unthinkable.  So the left in Washington State, including unions, social justice organizations and most of the environmental activist community, opposed 732, denouncing it as a corporate subterfuge.  A carbon tax is always going to face headwinds, but with the left as well as much of the right in opposition, it was doomed.

So here we are again, looking at another round of state carbon tax initiatives for 2018.  The group that organized the left campaign against 732, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, is drafting their version, which will surely funnel most of the money to the causes (and in some cases the organizations) of their constituents.  But, perhaps in a play to get a bigger voice in the process, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, an umbrella group of 57 tribal governments in the region, has just announced it has begun drafting its own initiative, one that earmarks most of the money for environmental purposes, with a chunk dedicated to the tribes.  The prospect is for heated backroom meetings, where the leadership of various organizations push and pull to divvy up the potential carbon cash.  Whether the product of this process can survive at the polls is another question.

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Hurricane workarounds for industrial production and housing

Hurricane workarounds for industrial production and housing

Hurricane Harvey has already affected some of the August data releases.  Irma has already started to affect some weekly releases, and will undoubtedly affect the September monthly releases.
I have already begun to adjust for the hurricanes in the case of initial jobless claims.  But what of the monthly data?
While there is nothing so timely and precise as backing out affected states from the initial jobless claims report, there are workarounds that can at least tell us if there has been any significant change in trend for both the industrial production and housing reports.
I will put up separate posts, but to cut to the chase, we can use the Regional Fed reports (minus Dallas, and adding the Chicago PMI) to give us a reasonable estimate of industrial production in the non-hurricane affected areas. Similarly, we can make use the regional breakdowns in the housing report by subtracting the South and determining the trend in the remaining 60% of the country outside of that census region.  I have already looked at this morning’s housing report, and it turns out the effect is not what you would think!  I’ll have that post up by tomorrow.
Unfortunately there is no regional or state-by-state breakdown of retail sales or regional consumption expenditures on any sort of timely basis, so we’re kind of stuck there.

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Social justice activism in your own backyards?

by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Another Year of Equity at Evergreen

The following email was forwarded to me and many other Evergreen faculty:

On [date deleted], students, staff and faculty of The Evergreen State College will hold a Re-Convocation Rally on Red Square to express and affirm their commitment to goals of equity, inclusion and success for all in pursuit of higher education. The rally is organized by Staff and Faculty Acting for Equity, a group that works in partnership with Evergreen students. Rally organizers stated that the “focus will be on healing from the events of last spring and celebrating our collective cultural wealth as the Evergreen community.” Evergreen community members and friends are invited to participate in an afternoon of speakers, music, dancing, discussion, and creative expression.

Staff and Faculty Acting for Equity said in a statement that “the Re-Convocation Rally will carry forward the community spirit and dedication to equity that motivates Evergreen. We believe that our success as members of a community is dependent not only on ourselves, but on the success of the most vulnerable. We acknowledge the particular strengths of and challenges faced by first-generation, Black and Brown, undocumented, Latinx, trans*, queer, veteran, and disabled students who have been traditionally underserved by higher education. We strive to center their voices as we move toward more equitable outcomes for all our students.”  (I deleted the date—PD)

Needless to say, I agree with nearly all the sentiments expressed here—until I come to the final sentence, which manages to pack, depending on how you count them, two-and-a-half to three untenable and politically destructive assumptions in just its first six words.

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