Friday, September 17, 2021

The cage match goes wild

This is Joseph

Mark had a thoughtful reply to me here. In response I am going to make a strong argument that there is a very simple way to find places to increase density. Build where the prices are high. Not just the cities where the prices are high. I mean the residential neighborhoods with the highest underlying cost per square foot of residential land.

Housing tends to be a ladder. If there is a great new apartment building in Georgetown then people will move there (with its proximity to all sorts of great things) and that will ease pressure from gentrification in Anacostia. It is close to a lot of amenities and people want to live there -- the median house price exceeds a million dollars. This is more than double that of Anacostia

Georgetown lacks a metro station, it is true, but that could be remedied with political will and how better to generate than than the residents of a high resource area? If you try an experiment in Watts (a Los Angeles neighborhood) that doesn't work so well, there is a lot less pressure to implement fixes. 

That said, the environmental issues do matter. It is unclear whether we need more density in New York city, for example, given rising sea levels and already high levels of density. It is probably a good case for stewardship of the infrastructure that is there and some tough thinking about sea walls. This is a good argument for the "every case is different' and the reason why a national conversation is so hard. Seattle has a completely different risk from climate change than New York City or Miami, due to geography alone. Denver can probably ignore any plausible amount of rising sea levels, but might care a lot more about drought. 

This issue is not just a US issue -- look at the changes in London Ontario housing prices

This is a mid-sized city with a mid-ranked university and a 9-10% unemployment rate. Rents are also spiking, so it isn't just houses that are becoming expensive. Unsurprisingly, London now has a growing homelessness problem. And really, that is the entire game. The real reasons that you have had the rise of the density movement is not that crowded is good, it is that there are a limited number of ways to combat the escalating cost of housing that is slowly crushing young people and generating housing problems for people on the margin. 

I remain open to alternative proposals that would drop the cost of housing, I am just worried that car commuting is hitting structural limitations, cars are getting a lot more expensive, and that dense housing is the best shot to drop prices. Very happy to lose in the next round of the epic cage match! 

EDIT: Mark pushed back hard on the September 16th post on using neighborhood examples, which were in this post before I had a chance to read his second post. I think that this exclusion of examples puts one in a hard spot. Real estate is unusual in that every case is always different in some details (no two pieces of land have the same geometry, for example). 

So one can argue that my Georgetown example is one small parcel of land. But DC is extremely expensive (see million dollar median home prices cited above) and has a huge height limit. There are buses, metros and all-season walkability, with many employers in walking distance from NW DC. 

I think the crux of NIMBY versus YIMBY is the question of whether people living in an expensive neighborhood have the ability to increase housing costs, via scarcity, at the cost of limiting the rights of others to develop property that they own. Obviously YIMBY have daft ideas, but the London, Ontario example is a great case of an entire city tripling housing costs and seeing rents go up by as much as 15% per year. The city has 380K inhabitants (and is surrounded by farmland not other developments), so it seems unlikely that the city has simply hit the carrying capacity of a city, beyond which cars cannot work, while simultaneously being unable to develop transit alternatives. 

Los Angeles is a terrible example because Los Angeles county is a complex metro area with non-trivial geography issues and ten million inhabitants. Similar issues are true for New York City and San Francisco. The real canary in the coal mine is the huge cost increases (and consequent rise in homelessness) in cities that are small, have plenty of road capacity, no geographical constraints (London is on a plain, surrounded by farms), and that did not suffer any of these issues 20 years ago.

Now it is true that one apartment building in Santa Monica isn't going to change things. But something is going very wrong if even small cities are seeing these huge increases in housing costs. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Yes, YIMBYs can be worse than NIMBYs Part II -- Peeing in the River

Last time, I suggested the following rules for prioritizing development:

 1. Locations should be centrally located in a high population area. Important to think in terms of traditional and electric bikes, as well as other micromobility options in addition to public transportation (particularly buses).   The object is to have access to the widest possible range of jobs, shops, schools, etc. Sites cut off in one direction by mountains or large bodies of water are always sub-optimal.

2. And well served by EXISTING public transportation. Ideally within walking distance of a major hub like Union Station. Failing that, directly connected to one of these hubs by rail or rapid bus lines. Think North Hollywood. Particularly if not served by a good metro line, it needs a good selection of reasonably high frequency bus routes going north, south, east and west. Think Echo Park. 

3 Given the costs and carbon footprint of construction, we should avoid sites that are viable now but which probably won’t be in the near future.

a. For coastal cities, elevation should be at least twenty feet. For areas prone to storm surges (pretty much everywhere back East), add another twenty feet to that. Given the economic and environmental costs of building and demolishing large structures, it makes no sense to put them in locations that will be underwater by 2050.

3b. For cities in the West, areas with high risk of megafires should be avoided. In addition to the obvious importance of not putting people in harms way, keeping housing out of burn zones makes essential controlled and managed burns easier. At the very least, we shouldn't have policies that encourage development in Western wildland-urban interfaces.

4. Money matters. Developable land matters. Constraints matter. Magnitude matters. None of the distributions are uniform. The costs of increasing density by, say, a couple of thousand people per square mile varies wildly from town to town and neighborhood to neighborhood.

How do these rules align with where the YIMBYs focus their efforts, attention and political capital?

The three areas that have long been in heavy rotation with the California YIMBYs are, in order, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Trailing the pack, the NYT has singled out La Cañada Flintridge and Matt Yglesias did a post on Beverly Hills. I'm not cherry-picking here, at least not consciously. With the possible exception of some gentrification battles in majority-minority neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, these are all the places that come to mind.

San Francisco is one of the worst places in the Bay Area to build if you want to alleviate the housing crisis and reduce commuting. It's an hour and a half from the population and employment hub of San Jose and Silicon Valley. Geographically, it's an isolated postage stamp (though still far larger than any of the other cities/neighborhoods on this list). Even if you could build up every one of its forty-seven square miles (and, of course, you can't), you'd still have a trivial impact on housing compared to similar development in larger and much less dense towns such Oakland and, yes, San Jose. There's always the chance that new housing will attract more Silicon Valley tech workers willing to make the hellish commute in order to have a cool zip code. Just the opposite of the outcome we're hoping for and already a problem.

While the fixation on San Francisco is odd, the focus on Santa Monica and Venice is simply bizarre. Tiny (covering combined about twelve of LA County’s four thousand square miles), out-of-the-way, cut off by ocean to the west and mountains to the north. Scoring miserably on places readily accessible by public transit (the E line is terrible though proposed upgrades may improve this somewhat). A big chunk of SM is designated a wildland-urban interface. Venice, while safe from fires, is one of the few parts of LA low lying enough to be threatened by rising sea levels. 

La Cañada Flintridge, in addition to being tiny and isolated, is almost uniquely menaced by megafires with wild-land on both north and south. 

Beverly Hills may be the leper with the most fingers here, but it is still very small (<6 square miles), not centrally located, cut off to the north by hills and canyons, and obscenely expensive. [I hope I’m anything on this last one. BH is one of the parts of LA I’ve explored the least. It’s not a very interesting place.]

To summarize, when you put aside gentrification of black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods,  practically all of the discussion of of the villainy of California’s anti-density NIMBYs and the heroism of the YIMBYs has focused on pieces of land that are vanishingly small and situated in some of the worst spots imaginable for development. 

This is not a coincidence. It is a direct result an overly appealing but fundamentally flawed narrative combined with fatally misaligned market forces and a dollop of NYT toxic provincialism (I expect so much better from Paul Krugman). The quality of the discussion is so badly thought out and relentlessly trivial that it is next to impossible for serious solutions to get any traction.

Next time, why things are so bad (after a rebuttal from Joseph).

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

They used to wait till the last minute

Via Andrew Gelman

From NBC News:

Republican Larry Elder appealed on Monday to his supporters to use an online form to report fraud, which claimed it had "detected fraud" in the "results" of the California recall election "resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor."

The only problem: On Monday when the link was live on Elder's campaign site, the election hadn't even happened yet. No results had been released. And Elder was still campaigning to replace Newsom as governor.

While the timetable has moved up, the basic idea has been around for a long time.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Lifetime caps on dementia costs

This is Joseph.

So I was looking at this proposal in the United Kingdom to cap dementia costs over one's lifetime to £86,000 per person. End of life care costs are challenging, especially as spouse's often pool assets over a lifetime and disentangling what is what can be quite hard.

But the other side of this proposal is that it does nothing to protect the future access to assets of the person under care, as dementia is an irreversible disease that tends to lead to poor outcomes. Now, that would be different if a person was abandoned as soon as they run out of assets. But even stingy countries like the United States use Medicaid to prevent that

Instead, the main thrust seems to be to protect the inheritance of the upper middle class. If your house is worth £100,000 and you have £8,000 in savings then the cap does little to protect assets. If you have a house worth £800,000 and £12,000 in savings (say you bought a house in the correct part of the country to benefit from asset inflation) then you have a lot of protected wealth, which you (as a dementia patient) are not going to be spending. 

This is not to say that this policy is necessarily bad or that there might not be good reasons for the design, as is, but that these are very hard policies to design well. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Is the US Supreme Court political?

This is Joseph

This came up in two recent contexts. One, is the question of whether Justice Breyer is likely to retire now, while there is still a good chance of confirming a left wing replacement. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg did not, and the result was being replaced by Amy Barrett Coney. Two, ironically Amy Barrett Coney is worried that the Supreme Court is being seen as political.

At this point I think there is no chance that it is anything but. A classic and recent example was CJ Roberts dissent in the Texas abortion law ruling, where he pointed out that the issues in the law required it to argued on the merits. Instead, the Supreme Court decided to refuse to intervene, which led to the US Government suing

The problem for looking neutral is that in the case of the Texas law (SB8), the court took a "look and see" approach to a major constitutional question, giving a huge amount of deference to the state government. Yet it is interventionist on other areas like immigration law (where it actually started altering foreign policy) and public health, which are conservative priorities. 

So of course it is political. If it wanted to not be political then it would be more consistent in rulings regardless of the individual political views of the justices. But of course that is not what is happening. It is honestly insulting to think that people would keep Scalia's seat open for nearly a year (replacement nominated March 16th, seat open February 13th), give a big push for one of their side to retire at a key moment, and then rush in a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsberg at the absolute last minute (seat opens September 18th, nomination September 26th). The asymmetry means that people think that nominating a justice is important, and why would that be if it had no practical political impact? The people doing the nominations and confirmations are, after all, professional politicians. 

There are many reasons for a Justice not to retire. But arguing that the reason is to keep politics out of the replacement process is so counter to the facts that it is kind of insulting. 

Yes, YIMBYs can be worse than NIMBYs -- the opening round of the West Coast Stat Views cage match

To change the framing a bit from Joseph's post, as currently being waged, are there NIMBY/YIMBY battles where we are better off going with the NIMBYs? Yes, frequently, but to see why we have to move past the general (where the ideas are mostly good) to the specific (where terrible choices are routinely prioritized). 

First, though, let's get a few things out of the way.  

1. This is a post about the debate over urban densification and how to pursue it, not about other not-in-my-back-yard issues like public transportation and housing for the homeless where I am considerably more YIMBY than the YIMBYs. 

2. All reasonable people agree on the need to build more housing (and productive conversations don't spend time on the fringes). To paraphrase Shaw, we've established that; now we're just haggling over the locations. 

3. YIMBYism is a movement, not an organization or a political platform, so there's always a danger of overgeneralizing. I tend to rely on Vox's David Roberts and NYT's Farhad Manjoo and recently Paul Krugman as representative examples, but there are other self-identified YIMBYs such as Noah Smith who take a very different approach and with whom (particularly in the case of Smith) I find it much more difficult to argue. 

4. I'm putting aside discussion of SB-50. A crappy bill that misses being a very good one by a small margin (partially because of the factors we'll be going through in this post). Too much to cover here, but a possible topic for next time.

5. I'm also putting aside any discussion of the massively complex issue of gentrification except to say I'm sympathetic to the NIMBYs of Boyle Heights and Watts and similar neighborhoods that always seem to bear the brunt when we try a new experiment in urban planning.  

Much of the discussion on densification seems to take a curiously late 19th century view of this early 21st century problem. The live across the street from your job model works best with a single breadwinner working for the same company in the same spot cradle to grave. In age of multi-income families, frequent job changes, mergers/acquisitions/reorgs, multi-hub metro areas, and telecommuting, this view is dangerously antiquated. 

A popular alternative framing views the problem through the lens of supply and demand. Just deregulate and let the magic of the market solve the problem for us. This approach sounds more sophisticated though it’s not. It ignores a misalignment that undercuts the whole-- but I’m getting ahead of myself.    

What if, instead of job proximity, we approached it as a question of job access? Here’s the metric I’m using to get a handle on the problem: Development locations should be judged on the number and quality of jobs (and to a lesser extent, schools, shopping, cultural opportunities, etc.) accessible on foot or by bike/micromobility or public transportation in less than an hour. (If I hadn't decided not to talk about it, I'd mention SB-50 incorporated some of these ideas but didn't take them far enough.)

This metric suggests a few basic rules. Here are the three main ones:

1. Locations should be centrally located in a high population area. Important to think in terms of traditional and electric bikes, as well as other micromobility options in addition to public transportation (particularly buses).   The object is to have access to the widest possible range of jobs, shops, schools, etc. Sites cut off in one direction by mountains or large bodies of water are always sub-optimal.

2. And well served by EXISTING public transportation. Ideally within walking distance of a major hub like Union Station. Failing that, directly connected to one of these hubs by rail or rapid bus lines. Think North Hollywood. Particularly if not served by a good metro line, it needs a good selection of reasonably high frequency bus routes going north, south, east and west. Think Echo Park. 

3 Given the costs and carbon footprint of construction, we should avoid sites that are viable now but which probably won’t be in the near future.

a. For coastal cities, elevation should be at least twenty feet. For areas prone to storm surges (pretty much everywhere back East), add another twenty feet to that. Given the economic and environmental costs of building and demolishing large structures, it makes no sense to put them in locations that will be underwater by 2050.

3b. For cities in the West, areas with high risk of megafires should be avoided. In addition to the obvious importance of not putting people in harms way, keeping housing out of burn zones makes essential controlled and managed burns easier. At the very least, we shouldn't have policies that encourage development in Western wildland-urban interfaces.

4. Money matters. Developable land matters. Constraints matter. Magnitude matters. None of the distributions are uniform. The costs of increasing density by, say, a couple of thousand people per square mile varies wildly from town to town and neighborhood to neighborhood.

This is probably a good stopping point. Lots more to come in this thread, but I’d like to let these points sit with you for a while before we move from what we should be doing to what we actually are.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Friday Spyday -- It takes a lot of balls to do this job

Former CIA Chief of Disguise Breaks Down Cold War Spy Gadgets

Thursday, September 9, 2021

How we got here -- a 2016 flashback


One of the few good things about the past few years was the way the various crimes and crises forced clarity on a lot of members of the political and media establishment. Recently, though, I've noticed certain journalists and publications falling back into old habits at what may be the worst possible time. 

 Perhaps it would be useful to revisit the conversation of five years ago.


The cognitive dissonance phase

Let's have the essential Josh Marshall set the scene.
We've had a number of looks recently at how The New York Times appears to be revisiting its 'whitewater' glory days with its increasingly parodic coverage of the "Clinton Foundation" - I'm adding scare quotes to match the dramatic effect, even though of course the Clinton Foundation is a named legal entity. Beyond the 'clouds' and 'shadows' TPM Reader AR flagged to our attention, as Paul Glastris explains here, the latest installment from the Times explains how Bill Clinton's request for diplomatic passports for aides accompanying him on a mission to secure the release of two US journalists held captive in North Korea constitutes the latest damning revelations about the corrupt ties between the Foundation and the Clinton State Department.

The Times uniquely, though only as a leading example for the rest of the national press, has a decades' long history of being lead around by rightwing opposition researchers into dead ends which amount to journalistic comedy - especially when it comes to the Clintons. But here, while all this is happening we have a real live specimen example of direct political and prosecutorial corruption, misuse of a 501c3 nonprofit and various efforts to conceal this corruption and the underlying corruption of Trump's 'Trump University' real estate seminar scam. It's all there - lightly reported here and there - but largely ignored.

The core information here isn't new and it's definitely not based on my reporting. Much of it stems form the on-going and seemingly indefatigable work of Washington Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold who's been chronicling Trump's long list of non-existent or promised but non-existent charitable contributions. In this case, it goes to a $25,000 contribution Trump made to the reelection campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2013. The neglected story has only popped up again now because Trump was penalized by the IRS for a relatively technical part of the corrupt act.


But all of these pale in comparison to the essence of the transaction itself. Trump made this substantial contribution to Bondi at just the moment when her office was evaluating whether to bring legal action against Trump's 'Trump University' real estate seminar scam. Indeed, Bondi admits she reached out to Trump to solicit the contribution just as the decision was on her desk. She eventually declined to take legal action against Trump, overruling the recommendations of career investigators.
A mounting legal case was also underway in Texas, by career investigators under then-Attorney General and now Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott overruled the investigators recommendation for legal action. Shortly thereafter Abbott got $35,000 from Trump. In this case Trump at least mad the contribution without the commingling of nonprofit funds that go them in trouble in Florida.


At the risk of stating the obvious, these facts are textbook examples of the sort of political and prosecutorial corruption journalists are supposed to uncover. Trump used money to buy protection from the consequences of his bad acts from friendly politicians. He then tried to cover up his payment of protection money. And on top of all that he made the either bizarre or incompetent mistake of paying the protection money out of his Foundation - the money from which mostly comes from other people beside Trump.

So here you have straight-up bad acts, political corruption to enable prosecutorial corruption to escape the consequences of fraud perpetrated on vulnerable consumers. And yet the page space gets dedicated to Clinton Foundation stories which raise 'questions' that could 'create appearances' and all other journalistic workarounds reporters use when they haven't found what they were looking for. The North Korea rescue mission Glastris pinpoints in the Times latest salvo just gets the whole enterprise to the point of self-parody.

Now why this disjuncture?

I think there are basically three reasons, some more understandable than others but none of them good. The first is that the Times had a decades long institutional issue with the Clintons. There's no other way to put. It goes beyond single reporters and even individual executives editors. Why this is the case I'll leave to biographers and psychologists. But that it is the case is obvious from reading a quarter century of their reporting on the topic.

We've reached the point where much, if not most, of the campaign coverage produced by the New York Times can only be explained by cognitive dissonance. What we are seeing is the journalistic equivalent of the day after doomsday in " When Prophecy Fails."

How we got here is a long and convoluted story dating back at least a quarter-century involving self-interest, declining journalistic standards, class and regional prejudices, the kind of social psych forces normally associated with isolated tribes and high school lunch rooms, and (inevitably) Maureen Dowd, but the result is a set of beliefs so deeply held that they define the paper and so inextricably interconnected that challenging just one can bring down a world view.

As these beliefs have become less and less defensible, those holding them have clung more and more tightly. Particularly over the past year and a half, organizations like the New York Times and the Associated Press have tended to let they expected and/or wanted to see blind them to what was obviously happening. We've seen this in a string of absurdly off-base predictions, a number of stories that had to be retracted because the sources were obviously unreliable, a reliance on ominous and insinuating language that has become the stuff of punchlines ("these clouds cast a shadow over the Clinton campaign"), and most recently, an account of Trump's widely anticipated immigration speech that actually managed to report the exact opposite of its contents.

Self-criticism is always a painful process, but when it requires up ending a number of fully internalized and tightly networked erroneous beliefs, it can be absolutely traumatic .This is especially true for the NYT, where faith in the paper's superiority is fundamental to the institution's sense of identity. Ironically, this very article of faith has become the biggest impediment to the paper reversing its decline. In order to once again be the best, it has to acknowledge that it hasn't been the best for a long time.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Tuesday Tweets on Wednesday

[That's what happens in a four day week.]

Opening with some cyber-silliness

Feral disinformation respects no borders.

And another case study of insane humans...

And sane vampires.

Speaking of vampires, Vance is, of course, a protégé of Peter Thiel. 

And another for our cult of personality file.

The conservative movement's targeting of strategically valuable elections and offices is also relevant to another recent conversation.
Not to mention related tactics.

I've been too busy putting off other things, but I've been meaning to dig into the relationship between marketing psych and behavioral economics.

And finally the thread you never knew you always wanted (not to brag, but I guessed where they were going with the underwear).
I'd dedicate this to the memory of James Burke, but he's not dead yet. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Another quick hit

This is Joseph.

Josh Marshall is a really sharp operator and his comments on the political (as opposed to legal) implications of the latest ruling in Whole Woman's Health, et al., Applicants v. Austin Reeve Jackson, Judge, et al.

But now they’ve essentially managed not only to overrule Roe but do so with a law that lets that guy you knew in High School who’s always sharing right wing memes on Facebook sue your sister who drove you to the clinic for a $10,000 cash prize. In a way the antis and the Court have done abortion rights advocates a favor by creating a reality in Texas that exposes the hideousness of the Roe opponents’ aspirations: both shackling and predatory.

The problem is so severe that even the center right can see where this is going. Look at Outside the Beltway:

I can’t stress enough that what is going on here is a ban that would normally be implemented via the criminal code is being enforced by civil actions. And, one should note, this is being done to undercut a procedure that is legal under federal court rulings. The pretzel here twists expansive standing with the ability of plaintiffs to receive financial awards as a way to stop providers from engaging in an otherwise legal activity. No doubt abortion opponents find this clever (and, it is–it is certainly creative), but a dispassionate assessment should lead one to see the way in which it is subverting the legal system to get around Supreme Court rulings on a process the Court has deemed as constitutionally protected. If the threat of harassing lawsuits can empower a state to block rights and privileges that are otherwise deemed constitutional, then we have a true subversion of the legal order at play here. 

These are not wild-eyed liberals.  In his previous post, Steven Taylor even focused on John Roberts as having the best dissent (his dissent is the only one he explicitly agrees with) based on it being entirely focused on the issue of procedure and and not focused at all on the substance. There is a serious chance that Roe vs Wade seems likely to be overruled this year in a different case, with better facts than this case, not that better facts would be hard to achieve. Why let the case with bad legal structure proceed and not be disciplined and wait for the best shot?  

There have been some attempts to argue that this should be fought via a series of civil challenges. But the legal fee rules make this complicated:

Still, even getting a lawsuit dismissed can be burdensome and, at times, require expensive lawyers. The abortion law specifically bans plaintiffs from being ordered to pay defendants’ legal fees; opponents fear that the risk of filing a baseless lawsuit is low for plaintiffs and that defending from many lawsuits — even if they are dismissed — could still be financially damaging to a clinic or doctor.

as do the venue rules

Adriana Piñon, a senior staff attorney and policy counsel for the ACLU of Texas, said the new law “stacks the deck” against defendants and encourages plaintiffs to sue by including various mechanisms in the law, such as barring a change in venue unless all parties agree, limiting the legal defenses that the defense can present and awarding the plaintiff $10,000 at minimum if they are successful in the suit

This upends standard rules on standing and personal jurisdiction that seem to have very broad implications. Regardless of what you think about the merits, the structure itself seems poised to create a wave of lawsuits that are procedurally 

There is a lot more to say, about the rights that are actually harmed and about the evils of the "Shadow Docket" (where major decisions are made without discussions of merits), but I suspect the procedural stuff is enough to make it clear that this is a bad law. We all focus on the Supreme Court decision not to intervene, but notice that the appeals court has been preventing a hearing on the merits by just deciding to neither stay the law or have a hearing. It's just a mess.

Whatever one thinks of where we ended up, is this really the type of process we want? 

Monday, September 6, 2021

Quick Hit

This is Joseph.

There has been a lot of discussion about leaving Afghanistan and the consequences thereof. For the record, I am generally supportive of the decision to leave, given that the opportunity for long term nation building (i.e., the Japan model) was botched long ago. While we can discuss some obvious places that we could improve policy (easy Green Cards for Afghani residents who helped the US seems like a bit of a no-brainer), the truth is that the war was not achieving any important goals and people were dying. We might not like some of the policies that the Taliban is bringing, but they appears to have much broader support than in 2001 (which is a huge critique of the operation) and war is not really a great way to improve human rights (collateral damage from modern military operations tends to undermine moral credibility). 

But smart people can disagree.

What I find somewhat amazing is people who left the conflict in 2015 (aka the British) are suddenly upset that the US is leaving. The easy way to ensure that an operation continues is to be a part of it. There were only 8000 US troops in Afghanistan -- at it's peak the UK had more and could have decided to send these troops back. 

The narrative that the leaving process was botched is only credible insofar as we think that the complete collapse of the Afghan state was a sign of previous failure. But how do you fix such a problem, 20 years into the conflict? Honestly, I think Trump and Biden made the best of a bad situation. 

It's Labor Day, so we're taking time off and running a repost

Look for the Union Label

The ILGWU sponsored a contest among its members in the 1970s for an advertising jingle to advocate buying ILGWU-made garments. The winner was Look for the union label.[9][10] The Union's "Look for the Union Label" song went as follows:

    Look for the union label
    When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse,
    Remember somewhere our union's sewing,
    Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house,
    We work hard, but who's complaining?
    Thanks to the ILG, we're paying our way,
    So always look for the union label,
    It says we're able to make it in the USA!

The commercial featuring the famous song was parodied on a late-1970s episode of Saturday Night Live in a fake commercial for The Dope Growers Union and on the March 19, 1977, episode (#10.22) of The Carol Burnett Show. It was also parodied in the South Park episode "Freak Strike" (2002).

Friday, September 3, 2021

Where we ended, where we started

A policy of undermining trust in scientific institutions (like medical authorities) may have unintended consequences. 


Strauss and the war on data

The most important aspect of Randianism as currently practiced is the lies its adherents tell themselves. "When you're successful, it's because other people are inferior to you." "When you fail, it's because inferior people persecute you (call it going Roark)." "One of these days you're going to run away and everyone who's been mean to you will be sorry."

The most important aspect of Straussianism as currently practiced is the lies its adherents tell others. Having started from the assumption that traditional democracy can't work because most people aren't smart enough to handle the role of voter, the Straussians conclude that superior minds must, for the good of society, lie to and manipulate the masses.

Joseph and I have an ongoing argument about which school is worse, a question greatly complicated by the compatibility of the two systems and the overlap of believers and their tactics and objectives. Joseph generally argues that Rand is worse (without, of course, defending Strauss) while I generally take the opposite position.

This week brought news that I think bolsters my case (though I suspect Joseph could easily turn it around to support his): one of the logical consequences of assuming typical voters can't evaluate information on their own is that data sources that are recognized as reliable are a threat to society. They can't be spun and they encourage people to make their own decisions.

To coin a phrase, if the masses can't handle the truth and need instead to be fed a version crafted by the elite to keep the people happy and doing what's best for them, the public's access to accurate, objective information has to be tightly controlled. With that in mind, consider the following from Jared Bernstein:
[D]ue to pressure from Republicans, the Congressional Research Service is withdrawing a report that showed the lack of correlation between high end tax cuts and economic growth.

The study, by economist Tom Hungerford, is of high quality, and is one I’ve cited here at OTE. Its findings are fairly common in the economics literature and the concerns raised by that noted econometrician Mitch McConnell are trumped up and bogus. He and his colleagues don’t like the findings because they strike at the supply-side arguments that they hold so dear.
And with Sandy still on everyone's mind, here's something from Menzie Chinn:
NOAA's programs are in function 300, Natural Resources and Environment, along with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and a range of conservation and natural resources programs. In the near term, function 300 would be 14.6 percent lower in 2014 in the Ryan budget according to the Washington Post. It quotes David Kendall of The Third Way as warning about the potential impact on weather forecasting: "'Our weather forecasts would be only half as accurate for four to eight years until another polar satellite is launched,' estimates Kendall. 'For many people planning a weekend outdoors, they may have to wait until Thursday for a forecast as accurate as one they now get on Monday. … Perhaps most affected would be hurricane response. Governors and mayors would have to order evacuations for areas twice as large or wait twice as long for an accurate forecast.'"
There are also attempts from prominent conservatives to delegitimize objective data:
Apparently, Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, is accusing the Bureau of Labor Statistics of manipulating the jobs report to help President Obama. Others seem to be adding their voices to this slanderous lie. It is simply outrageous to make such a claim and echoes the worrying general distrust of facts that seems to have swept segments of our nation. The BLS employment report draws on two surveys, one (the establishment survey) of 141,000 businesses and government agencies and the other (the household survey) of 60,000 households. The household survey is done by the Census Bureau on behalf of BLS. It’s important to note that large single-month divergences between the employment numbers in these two surveys (like the divergence in September) are just not that rare. EPI’s Elise Gould has a great paper on the differences between these two surveys.

BLS is a highly professional agency with dozens of people involved in the tabulation and analysis of these data. The idea that the data are manipulated is just completely implausible. Moreover, the data trends reported are clearly in line with previous monthly reports and other economic indicators (such as GDP). The key result was the 114,000 increase in payroll employment from the establishment survey, which was right in line with what forecasters were expecting. This was a positive growth in jobs but roughly the amount to absorb a growing labor force and maintain a stable, not falling, unemployment rate. If someone wanted to help the president, they should have doubled the job growth the report showed. The household survey was much more positive, showing unemployment falling from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent. These numbers are more volatile month to month and it wouldn’t be surprising to see unemployment rise a bit next month. Nevertheless, there’s nothing implausible about the reported data. The household survey has shown greater job growth in the recovery than the establishment survey throughout the recovery. The labor force participation rate (the share of adults who are working or unemployed) increased to 63.6 percent, which is an improvement from the prior month but still below the 63.7 percent reported for July. All in all, there was nothing particularly strange about this month’s jobs reports—and certainly nothing to spur accusations of outright fraud.
We can also put many of the attacks against Nate Silver in this category.

Going back a few months, we had this from Businessweek:
The House Committee on Appropriations recently proposed cutting the Census budget to $878 million, $10 million below its current budget and $91 million less than the bureau’s request for the next fiscal year. Included in the committee number is a $20 million cut in funding for this year’s Economic Census, considered the foundation of U.S. economic statistics.
And Bruce Bartlett had a whole set of examples involving Newt Gingrich:
On Nov. 21, Newt Gingrich, who is leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination in some polls, attacked the Congressional Budget Office. In a speech in New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich said the C.B.O. "is a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation and does not believe in data that it has not internally generated."

Mr. Gingrich's charge is complete nonsense. The former C.B.O. director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, now a Republican policy adviser, labeled the description "ludicrous." Most policy analysts from both sides of the aisle would say the C.B.O. is one of the very few analytical institutions left in government that one can trust implicitly.

It's precisely its deep reservoir of respect that makes Mr. Gingrich hate the C.B.O., because it has long stood in the way of allowing Republicans to make up numbers to justify whatever they feel like doing.


Mr. Gingrich has long had special ire for the C.B.O. because it has consistently thrown cold water on his pet health schemes, from which he enriched himself after being forced out as speaker of the House in 1998. In 2005, he wrote an op-ed article in The Washington Times berating the C.B.O., then under the direction of Mr. Holtz-Eakin, saying it had improperly scored some Gingrich-backed proposals. At a debate on Nov. 5, Mr. Gingrich said, "If you are serious about real health reform, you must abolish the Congressional Budget Office because it lies."

Because Mr. Gingrich does know more than most politicians, the main obstacles to his grandiose schemes have always been Congress's professional staff members, many among the leading authorities anywhere in their areas of expertise.                                                                                                                                                                                                

To remove this obstacle, Mr. Gingrich did everything in his power to dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it. When he became speaker in 1995, Mr. Gingrich moved quickly to slash the budgets and staff of the House committees, which employed thousands of professionals with long and deep institutional memories.

Of course, when party control in Congress changes, many of those employed by the previous majority party expect to lose their jobs. But the Democratic committee staff members that Mr. Gingrich fired in 1995 weren't replaced by Republicans. In essence, the positions were simply abolished, permanently crippling the committee system and depriving members of Congress of competent and informed advice on issues that they are responsible for overseeing.

Mr. Gingrich sold his committee-neutering as a money-saving measure. How could Congress cut the budgets of federal agencies if it wasn't willing to cut its own budget, he asked. In the heady days of the first Republican House since 1954, Mr. Gingrich pretty much got whatever he asked for.

In addition to decimating committee budgets, he also abolished two really useful Congressional agencies, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The former brought high-level scientific expertise to bear on legislative issues and the latter gave state and local governments an important voice in Congressional deliberations.

The amount of money involved was trivial even in terms of Congress's budget. Mr. Gingrich's real purpose was to centralize power in the speaker's office, which was staffed with young right-wing zealots who followed his orders without question. Lacking the staff resources to challenge Mr. Gingrich, the committees could offer no resistance and his agenda was simply rubber-stamped.

Unfortunately, Gingrichism lives on. Republican Congressional leaders continually criticize every Congressional agency that stands in their way. In addition to the C.B.O., one often hears attacks on the Congressional Research Service, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Government Accountability Office.

Lately, the G.A.O. has been the prime target. Appropriators are cutting its budget by $42 million, forcing furloughs and cutbacks in investigations that identify billions of dollars in savings yearly. So misguided is this effort that Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma and one of the most conservative members of Congress, came to the agency's defense.

In a report issued by his office on Nov. 16, Senator Coburn pointed out that the G.A.O.'s budget has been cut by 13 percent in real terms since 1992 and its work force reduced by 40 percent -- more than 2,000 people. By contrast, Congress's budget has risen at twice the rate of inflation and nearly doubled to $2.3 billion from $1.2 billion over the last decade.

Mr. Coburn's report is replete with examples of budget savings recommended by G.A.O. He estimated that cutting its budget would add $3.3 billion a year to government waste, fraud, abuse and inefficiency that will go unidentified.

For good measure, Mr. Coburn included a chapter in his report on how Congressional committees have fallen down in their responsibility to exercise oversight. The number of hearings has fallen sharply in both the House and Senate. Since the beginning of the Gingrich era, they have fallen almost in half, with the biggest decline coming in the 104th Congress (1995-96), his first as speaker.

In short, Mr. Gingrich's unprovoked attack on the C.B.O. is part of a pattern. He disdains the expertise of anyone other than himself and is willing to undercut any institution that stands in his way. Unfortunately, we are still living with the consequences of his foolish actions as speaker.

We could really use the Office of Technology Assessment at a time when Congress desperately needs scientific expertise on a variety of issues in involving health, energy, climate change, homeland security and many others. And given the enormous stress suffered by state and local governments as they are forced by Washington to do more with less, an organization like the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations would be invaluable.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Thursday Tweets

I've been meaning to do a post on the really terrible job the press (particularly in NYC) with rising sea levels and bigger storm surges. While you're waiting, try this exercise at home. Look up cities on the West, East and Gulf Coasts. Make a list of cities under 25' elevation. Add 15' to that if the region has been hit by a hurricane in the past twenty years. I'm betting you see a pattern.

"Interesting" but not unusual. You often hear successful conservatives who have gone through periods of financial hardship often cite their time on the dole as evidence of their status as self-made men.

Up till now with a handful of exceptions, the business model of the digital on-demand subscription services (Netflix, Spotify, and even SubStack) has been to cash in on fame and followings built in older, more open, and generally free media. If open media dies, will exclusive media have to change its model?

Ohio's legislature has the best writers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

A bit of historical context

Kulldorf's tweet is a little less surprising if you know a bit about his recent activities and affiliations. We could make this a discussion about the heavily subsidized anti-vax adjacent libertarian faction but it's been a long day and the thought of diving into this topic makes me feel even more tired. 

For now, here's another reminder that, despite all the talk about the opposition to mandates and passports reflecting traditional American emphasis on freedom and individuality, previous generations were a hell of a lot less concerned with personal liberty than we are when it came to infectious diseases. 

First quarantine (1907–1910)

Soper notified the New York City Health Department, whose investigators realized that Mallon was a typhoid carrier. Under sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter, Mallon was arrested as a public health threat. She was forced into an ambulance by five policemen and Dr. Josephine Baker, who at some point had to sit on Mallon to restrain her. Mallon was transported to the Willard Parker Hospital, where she was restrained and forced to give samples. For four days, she was not allowed to get up and use the bathroom on her own. The massive numbers of typhoid bacteria that were discovered in her stool samples indicated that the infection center was in her gallbladder. Under questioning, Mallon admitted that she almost never washed her hands. This was not unusual at the time; the germ theory of disease still was not fully accepted.

On March 19, 1907, Mallon was sentenced to quarantine on North Brother Island. While quarantined, she gave stool and urine samples three times per week. Authorities suggested removing her gallbladder, but she refused because she did not believe she carried the disease. At the time, gallbladder removal was dangerous, and people had died from the procedure. Mallon was also unwilling to stop working as a cook, a job that earned her more money than any other. Having no home of her own, she was always on the verge of poverty.

After the publication of Soper's article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Mallon attracted extensive media attention and received the nickname "Typhoid Mary". Later, in a textbook that defined typhoid fever, she again was called "Typhoid Mary".

Soper visited Mallon in quarantine, telling her he would write a book and give her part of the royalties. She angrily rejected his proposal and locked herself in the bathroom until he left. She hated the nickname and wrote in a letter to her lawyer:

I wonder how the said Dr. William H. Park would like to be insulted and put in the Journal and call him or his wife Typhoid William Park.

Not all medical experts supported the decision to forcibly quarantine Mallon. For example, Milton J. Rosenau and Charles V. Chapin both argued that she just had to be taught to carefully treat her condition and ensure that she would not transmit the typhoid to others. Both considered isolation to be an unnecessary, overly strict punishment. Mallon suffered from a nervous breakdown after her arrest and forcible transportation to the hospital. In 1909, she tried to sue the New York Health Department, but her complaint was denied and the case closed by the New York Supreme Court. In a letter to her lawyer, she complained that she was treated like a "guinea pig". She was obliged to give samples for analysis three times a week, but for six months was not allowed to visit an eye doctor, even though her eyelid was paralyzed and she had to bandage it at night. Her medical treatment was hectic: she was given urotropin in three-month courses for a year, threatening to destroy her kidneys. That was changed to brewers yeast and hexamethylenamin in increasing doses. She was first told that she had typhoid in her intestinal tract, then in her bowel muscles, then in her gallbladder.

Mallon herself never believed that she was a carrier. With the help of a friend, she sent several samples to an independent New York laboratory. All came back negative for typhoid. On North Brother Island, almost a quarter of her analyses from March 1907 through June 1909 were also negative. After 2 years and 11 months of Mallon's quarantine, Eugene H. Porter, the New York State Commissioner of Health, decided that disease carriers should no longer be kept in isolation and that Mallon could be freed if she agreed to stop working as a cook and take reasonable steps to avoid transmitting typhoid to others. On February 19, 1910, Mallon said she was "prepared to change her occupation (that of a cook), and would give assurance by affidavit that she would upon her release take such hygienic precautions as would protect those with whom she came in contact, from infection." She was released from quarantine and returned to the mainland.

Release and second quarantine (1915–1938)

Upon her release, Mallon was given a job as a laundress, which paid less than cooking—$20 per month instead of $50. At some point, she wounded her arm and the wound became infected, meaning that she could not work at all for six months. After several unsuccessful years, she started cooking again. She used fake surnames like Breshof or Brown, and took jobs as a cook against the explicit instructions of health authorities. No agencies that hired servants for upscale families would offer her employment, so for the next five years, she moved to the mass sector. She worked in a number of kitchens in restaurants, hotels, and spa centers. Almost everywhere she worked, there were outbreaks of typhoid. However, she changed jobs frequently, and Soper was unable to find her.

In 1915, Mallon started working at Sloane Hospital for Women in New York City. Soon 25 people were infected, and two died. The head obstetrician, Dr. Edward B. Cragin, called Soper and asked him to help in the investigation. Soper identified Mallon from the servants' verbal descriptions and also by her handwriting.

Mallon again fled, but the police were able to find and arrest her when she took food to a friend on Long Island. Mallon was returned to quarantine on North Brother Island on March 27, 1915.

Little is known about her life during the second quarantine. She remained on North Brother for more than 23 years, and the authorities gave her a private one-story cottage. As of 1918, she was allowed to take day trips to the mainland. In 1925, Dr. Alexandra Plavska came to the island for an internship. She organized a laboratory on the second floor of the chapel and offered Mallon a job as a technician. Mallon washed bottles, did recordings, and prepared glasses for pathologists.


Mallon spent the rest of her life in quarantine at Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. Mallon was quite active until suffering a stroke in 1932; afterwards, she was confined to the hospital. She never completely recovered, and half of her body remained paralyzed. On November 11, 1938, she died of pneumonia at age 69. Mallon's body was cremated, and her ashes were buried at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. Nine people attended the funeral