Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Exploiting the Stupids: The Intellectual Foundation of Movement Conservatism

Exploiting the Stupids: The Intellectual Foundation of Movement Conservatism

 From about the age of 8-12, I read a lot of sci-fi.  Along the way, I stumbled across Robert Heinlein, in particular his novel The Day After Tomorrow, initially published as The Sixth Column.  It was so crudely racist I avoided from then on anything with Heinlein’s name on it.

The plot went like this: The evil PanAsians have conquered America and set up a vicious tyranny.  A few scientists, holed up in a secret lab in the mountains of Colorado, have discovered a powerful weapon that can turn the tide.  They’ve tweaked it so it can kill only “Asians”, leaving white people unaffected.  How to organize a nationwide resistance that can take advantage of it?

The PanAsians, to pacify their subjects, have permitted religious activity to continue, so the scientists organize a new religion.  They use their skills to perform “miracles” that suck in the ignorant masses.  Meanwhile, a cadre is secretly recruited who use the religion as a front in order to disseminate the new weapon and train an underground army who know how to deploy it.  

The Weirdest Thing about Claims of Electoral Fraud

The Weirdest Thing about Claims of Electoral Fraud

Imagine that, on the eve of a national election, a candidate is far ahead in all the polls and seems to be cruising to victory.  Then the results come in, and the unthinkable has happened: the candidate has lost handily.  Your first instinct would be to take a look at how the election was carried out and the votes tabulated to see if everything was kosher.

But that’s not what happened in November 2020.  In case you forgot, here’s 538’s final forecast from November 3.  The actual results were a big setback for the Democrats on all fronts, House, Senate and President.

That’s what’s so bizarre about the claims of Trump, Hawley, Cruz et al.  They did way better than the polls said they would.  It’s as if the Democratic bust of 11-3-20 disappeared down a memory hole.

Getting the Shakespearean Part Right

Getting the Shakespearean Part Right

 At his rally before the invasion of the Capitol, Trump said to his minions:

And after this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down–

We’re going to walk down. Anyone you want, but I think right here, we’re going to walk down to the Capitol.

But then he ducked back into the White House to watch the whole thing on TV.  That’s how you know he’s Richard III and not Henry V.

Post-Putsch: Why There Should Be Consequences for Enablers of the Capitol Invasion

Post-Putsch: Why There Should Be Consequences for Enablers of the Capitol Invasion

 I usually find myself agreeing with Glenn Greenwald, but not today.  GG has posted a heartfelt warning against overreaction to the attempted fur-and-horn putsch at the Capitol Building Wednesday.  He says the mob trampled on symbols of state power but otherwise did little of consequence, and vilifying them and their supporters will lead to repressive overreach, just like we saw after 9/11.  Cool it, says Glen.

Actually, I agree with one piece of this, the use of the “t” word, terrorism.  No the mob was not a terrorist brigade; it was mostly unarmed and did not commit mass or random violence to induce passive cowering from the rest of us.  There was minimal effort to locate and assault politicians; the intent was mostly to physically prevent the certification of the electoral college votes that would legally end any opposition to the replacement of Trump by Biden.

Thoughts on the Invasion of the US Capitol

Thoughts on the Invasion of the US Capitol

 It’s all happening as I write, but here are a few reactions:

1. Fortunately we see Q-Anonics, Loud Boys and other right wing crazies invading the Capitol Building and not Black Lives Matter or the Left.  Think how many lives would have been lost if it had been the other way around.

2. It will be interesting to see how deeply investigators will delve into the lax security preparations for today’s senate meeting.

3. In the end, it all comes down to one question: where do the loyalties of the police and armed forces lie?  That is always the bottom line, but we can go for decades without confronting it directly.  When the left challenges state authority the issue is never in doubt, at least in the U.S.  When the challenge comes from the right we have to hold our breath.  There were video images a few moments ago of police gently escorting Trumpists out the door and down the stairs with no apparent thought to arresting them.  This indicates at least some softness toward the cause on their part.  On the other hand, I don’t expect there will be military or police resistance to the eventual securing of the building.  If the folks in uniforms were to go over to the other side, that would be the end of the political order.

Zooming in on the Defects of PowerPoint

Zooming in on the Defects of PowerPoint

 I’ve just finished several days of staring, hour after hour, at the year’s economics meetings via Zoom.  What really struck me, beyond the content of the talks, was the way Zoom exacerbates “death by bullet point”.

PowerPoint’s capabilities encourage speakers to load up their slides with lots of text and graphics, which then leads the audience to glue their eyeballs to the slides and not the speaker.  This defeats the core purpose of public speaking in the post-Gutenberg era, which is to use the audience’s engagement with the speaker as a vehicle for communicating thoughts and feelings that the written word, even accompanied by pictures, can’t express.  The worst scenario, which all of us have experienced way too often, is when a speaker crams lots of text in tiny fonts into each slide and then reads it word for word.

Rolling Out the Vaccine

Rolling Out the Vaccine

 This morning’s (Dec. 25) New York Times offers a panel discussion on the question of who should get vaccinated against Covid first.  Broadly speaking, they take a utilitarian position: it’s interesting that none disagreed with the positions taken by panelist Peter Singer, the world’s most prominent utilitarian philosopher.  And I wouldn’t either, except for one thing.

The vaccines approved by the FDA, along with those approved by other countries like China and Russia, have gone through the fastest possible testing.  Tens of thousands of individuals have been placed in control and treatment groups in order to determine two things: to what extent do the vaccines reduce the likelihood of getting infected (efficiency) and how common and severe are the side effects (safety)?  Meeting both criteria is sufficient for approval, which is how it should be.

But there is another crucial question, to what extent do the vaccines reduce transmission of the virus to others?  The answer does not affect whether these vaccines should be employed, but they do have large consequences for other policies during this phase of the pandemic, such as rules for separation and masking, restrictions on activities and events, resumption of in-person schooling, and how much should be spent on interventions like ventilation overhauls. To the extent that vaccination reduces transmission, other restrictions and investments can be modified as the vaccinated portion of the population increases.  Unfortunately, our knowledge of this issue is minimal.  We don’t have any published lab results at all, and we are at least months away from meaningful epidemiological data.

The Failure of the Public Health Establishment

Prof. Peter Dorman of Evergreen College writes at EconoSpeak and portrays Matt Yglesias’s retrospective on how the healthcare establishment failed the public when passing information on facemasks, hand-washing, distancing, etc., and how Covid is transmitted.

The direct result of not following these practices or casting doubt upon them is an elevation of Covid cases which strains the capacity and logistics of healthcare facilities, the equipment used on patients, and the supply of medicines.

Matt Yglesias has an excellent retrospective on the absurd reversals over mask usage that arose in the early stages of the pandemic.  You will recall that the public health establishment, amplified by mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, told us all to ditch our masks and concentrate instead on frequent, vigorous hand-washing.  This was transparently absurd at the time, since from the beginning it appeared that coronavirus transmission had something to do with airborne virus exposure.

We were told masking didn’t protect us.

We were told only N95 masks worked, and only if they were taken on and off just so, in a complex procedure us untrained mortals could never execute.

And we were told we had to save these precious masks so health care workers could protect themselves, even though that was in direct contradiction to argument #1.  (Later, Anthony Fauci told us that conserving the inadequate supply of N95’s was the underlying motivation, and the rest was mostly persuasion.)

Two Questions about the Election (from last night)

Two Questions about the Election

 I am about to turn in and let the vote-counting continue without me.  It will be a troubled sleep since the election was mostly a disaster.  (Universal preschool won in Oregon, and if everywhere were like here I would be happier.)

Meanwhile two questions:

1. What went wrong with the polls?  They didn’t do too badly in 2016; the popular vote was close to the consensus prediction, and the electoral college was a squeaker within the margin of error.  This time though the polls were apparently way off.  Yes, the votes are not all in, but it doesn’t look like we’ll see the massive popular victory for Biden they foretold.  In fact, as I fade away tonight, it’s still possible that Trump could pull out a legitimate electoral college victory, something that seemed almost impossible a day or two ago.  Take Wisconsin (my home state) for instance.  We saw numbers ranging from 5-13% for Democrats, and now it’s nip and tuck.  Meanwhile, analysts were giving the Dems a better than even chance of taking the Senate, but that looks out of reach now.  So what gives?  Supposedly the weights were adjusted to better reflect the role of education, and the “shy Trumpster” effect was taken into consideration.  But here we are.

2. And how do we understand the politics?  We’re dealing with a president whose failures were about as massive as could be, especially in the context of a pandemic.  He made a fool of himself in the first debate.  He is mired in corruption.  And the Republican senate has repeatedly blocked measures to support workers, small business,es and local governments devastated by the economic effects of the virus.  If this isn’t enough to expunge them from office, what is?

I hope the news is better when I wake up.

No Bumper Crop in 2020

No Bumper Crop in 2020

We took a trip this weekend, driving 180 miles each way on I-5 through Oregon and Washington State.  We kept our eyes peeled for bumper stickers relating to the upcoming election but counted only three for Trump and an amazing zero for Biden.

I’ve never seen anything like this before in the US.  (In Europe bumper stickers don’t seem to exist at all.)  Just four years ago you could see Clinton and Trump plastered on cars everywhere.

Is this your experience too?

And what does it mean?  This election is supposed to be attracting more interest than any in decades; why is it practically stickerless?  Is it because there are fewer non-virtual events and less door-to-door canvassing where bumper stickers can be handed out?