Monday, July 31, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – Part VI: Campbell's Law et al.

The familiar concerns with factors that undermine and distort educational metrics appear to have crossed the ocean.

I asked two experts in statistics — Nat Malkus, from the American Enterprise Institute, and Bryan Graham, from the University of California, Berkeley — to help me evaluate the findings. “This is good evidence of positive effects,” says Malkus. Both pointed out that the study’s results are complicated by Bridge’s high dropout rate: While a third of public-school students dropped out, nearly half of Bridge students left during the study and were unable to take the final assessment. ‘‘The high attrition rate should give one pause,’’ Malkus says, ‘‘when considering the full effect of the program.’’ Graham, co-editor of The Review of Economics and Statistics, says that ‘‘organizations are under a lot of pressure to do these studies and ‘prove’ their program works. Reasonable and informed people could look at the information in that report and come to widely different conclusions about the effect of Bridge on academic achievement as they measure it. It’s information, just not especially actionable information.”

Another area of achievement that Bridge trumpets is the success of its students on the eighth-grade K.C.P.E. test. In 2015, according to Bridge, 63 percent of Bridge students who had been there for at least two years passed, compared with 49 percent of Kenyan students nationwide. But it’s unclear whether Bridge’s approach will be sustainable as the company grows. Former Bridge employees told me that in preparation for the 2015 exam, those on track to get a lower score were asked to repeat a year. The rest were taken to a residential cram school and prepped for the test by teachers who flew in from the United States.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The nuclear moose option

[UPDATE: The conversation continues with The Republicans' 3 x 3 existential threat.]

[Just to be clear, I am not claiming that any of the following is inevitable or even likely, but I do think it falls in the category of things to consider.]

We've been arguing for quite a while now that the conservative movement's social engineering experiment has achieved its considerable success over the past few decades at the cost of exposing the party to genuinely existential threats. I had meant to precede this post with a bit more foundation, but events seem to be accelerating and I need to get this down.

Political parties have survived major rifts before. We could find numerous notable examples for both Democrats and Republicans, and, in all of those cases, the wounds were real but temporary. However, these divisions, though bitter, took place in broad-based relatively healthy political parties, I would argue that the Republican Party of 2017, though nominally controlling most of the government, is perhaps uniquely fragile and cannot survive a nasty internal conflict.

Here is a scenario of how such a conflict can arise and grow into an existential threat. I won't say that it is probable, but I think each link in the chain is definitely plausible. This is certainly true for the first link since between the time I outlined the concatenation of events and the time I sat down to write this, the first one had already happened. (That's why this is something of a rush job.)

First, a bit of background from our game theory post back in February  (Charles Schumer predicted a break between Trump and the party in three or four months. I said a year of two. Perhaps we should have split the difference):

The relationship between the Trump/Bannon White House and the GOP legislature is perhaps uniquely suited for a textbook game theory analysis. In pretty much all previous cases,  relationships between presidents and Congress have been complicated by numerous factors other than naked self-interest--ideological, partisan, personal, cultural--but this time it's different. With a few isolated exceptions, there is no deeply held common ground between the White House and Capitol Hill. The current arrangement is strictly based on people getting things they care about in exchange for things they don't.

However, while the relationship is simple in those terms, it is dauntingly complex in terms of the pros and cons of staying versus going. If the Republicans stand with Trump, he will probably sign any piece of legislation that comes across his desk (with this White House, "probably" is always a necessary qualifier). This comes at the cost of losing their ability to distance themselves from and increasingly unpopular and scandal-ridden administration.

Some of that distance might be clawed back by public criticism of the president and by high-profile hearings, but those steps bring even greater risks. Trump has no interest in the GOP's legislative agenda, no loyalty to the party, and no particular affection for its leaders. Worse still, as Josh Marshall has frequently noted, Trump has the bully's instinctive tendency to go after the vulnerable. There is a limit to the damage he can inflict on the Democrats, but he is in a position to literally destroy the Republican Party.

We often hear this framed in terms of Trump supporters making trouble in the primaries, but that's pre-2016 thinking. This goes far deeper. In addition to a seemingly total lack of interpersonal, temperamental, and rhetorical constraints, Trump is highly popular with a large segment of the base. In the event of an intra-party war, some of this support would undoubtedly peel away, but a substantial portion would stay.

Keep in mind, all of this takes place in the context of a troubling demographic tide for the Republicans. Their strategic response to this has been to maximize turnout within the party while suppressing the vote on the other side. It has been a shrewd strategy but it leaves little margin for error.  Trump has the ability to drive a wedge between a significant chunk of the base and the GOP for at least the next few cycles, possibly enough to threaten the viability of the party.

With that in mind, consider the following possible developments:

1. Trump fires Reince Priebus. Keep in mind, the choice of Priebus was (probably accurately) seen as an early indicator that, for all of his outsider talk, Trump intended to run a partisan administration with close ties to the Republican establishment. The firing has to be seen as a weakening of that relationship;

2. After ever increasing harassment, Jeff Sessions jumps or is pushed out of the administration;

3. This, along with other transgressions, prompts Graham and a few other Republican senators to start actively pushing for investigations into and greater accountability from the White House;

4. The strongest remaining link between the administration and the GOP establishment, vice president Mike Pence, is finding it increasingly difficult to keep his skirts clean from the Russia scandals. He does his best to distance himself and, as a result, further marginalizes his role;

5. Further developments in the Russia scandal exacerbate existing tensions;

6. While Trump does have his loyalists and the number of Republicans willing to publicly attack him remains fairly small, the majority of the party starts to see the president as a dangerous liability and attempts to distance itself from him, whenever possible refusing to take sides;

7. Angry at the lack of loyalty and feeling pressure from the investigations, Trump escalates his attacks on the GOP;

8. (Any of the following)
a. Trump fires Mueller
b. Mueller or some other investigator uncovers a major criminal conspiracy involving Trump, his family, or his business
c. Polls start showing serious erosion in support for Trump and the GOP in the conservative base
d. Things just keep getting ugly

9. At some major events such as a large rally or even the state of the union address, Donald Trump announces that, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, he has realized that both parties are hopelessly corrupt and the only way to drain the swamp is by starting a third-party. So it is his intention to run in 2020 as the candidate for the MAGA Party and to field candidates in every major statewide contest.

Now, I want to be careful about how we frame this. Trump forming a third party remains unlikely, but it would not that unlikely if we hit events 1 through 8 and, taken individually, none of these events seem all that improbable.

I should probably polish this post a bit more, but given the pace of things these days, you have to make your predictions as quickly as possible.

Health care reform can have consequences

This is Joseph

Steven Attewell
When I heard Republican Congressmen talking about how only people who’ve led “good lives” deserved coverage for pre-existing conditions, I would scream at the monitor that the idea that health is tied to moral virtue is a medieval fantasy, that illnesses like mine could strike anyone at any time for no reason at all. My cancer hadn’t been the result of smoking or poor diet or environmental factors or genetic predispositions; it was just two genes in one cell mis-transcribing themselves next to one another randomly. So for the next sixth months I walked around in a daze knowing that if the Republican plan became law, I would be a health care pariah, forever marked as a cancer survivor.
I want to say more about this line of argument at some point.  But I think that the big issue here is that, at the costs we currently have, it's basically impossible to self insure against this type of cancer.

These decisions have real consequences for real people.  Let's try and get them right.  

The Trump-anchor paradox

The more that congressional Republicans believe that Trump is dragging them down and threatening their majorities in 2020 and perhaps even 2018, the greater their incentive to stick with him if they want to get any legislation through in the next decade. This effect is exacerbated by demographic trends and a remarkably unpopular agenda. They had hoped to minimize the negative impact of the latter by slipping a misrepresented version past an unengaged electorate. Unfortunately for the GOP, that particular ship has sailed.

Now, their last and perhaps only hope of achieving long cherished goals such as dismantling the Great Society and possibly even the New Deal depend on getting legislation through under the current configuration. When Trump threatens that configuration, he only makes himself more essential. I doubt very much that he thought this through and made a deliberate decision, but the end result is much the same.

There are, of course, limits to how far this can go. This administration has already managed unprecedented levels of scandal and incompetence six months in. While there is no telling where they will be another year from now, it is probably safe to say that the chances of things getting better are far less than the chances of them getting much, much worse. We have already seen the mechanisms that have kept the conservative movement viable for decades starting to break down. If things start to spiral in a really ugly way, the leaders of the GOP and of the movement will need to worry less about their agenda, and more about their jobs their institutions and possibly even the continued existence of their party.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

I want to point out a Vox article on self-driving cars

This is Joseph

Mark and I have been discussing this point so I was pleased to see a recent Vox article.  David Roberts makes the increasingly obvious point that self-driving cars really aren't going to be a game changer in terms of congestion.  After all:
All things being equal, if AEVs get comfortable and affordable, people will want to own one. The more affordable they get, the more tempting individual ownership will be.
So how do we solve this?  Apparently this is the proposal:
The only way to counteract that is through policy to “discourage or restrict private ownership of AVs,” like it says on the list — or to develop shared alternatives that are so convenient and attractive that private ownership declines naturally.
The whole list is worth reading.

But the politics of this move to restrict self-driving cars are no different than a major push in this direction now to restrict normal cars.  I could use a combination of buses and taxis [Ubers/Lyfts] all of the time, if owning a car was prohibited.  But, this could make roads less safe, as people might retain traditional cars if it is illegal to own a private self-driving car.  Safety has typically been the most successful argument in passing transit rules and a move that makes the roads less safe seems counter-intuitive.

But if the technology is cheap (certainly plausible at scale) and successful (not sure how likely but let's assume this for a moment) then, if anything, it will make car ownership cheaper due to lower accident insurance costs.

As for banning or restricting private cars, I see two obstacles that seem fundamentally insurmountable.

1) You make a great deal of suburbia a lot less livable.  Even a transit co-op will run into issues with everyone wanting to use the self-driving minibus at the same time (work, soccer practice, Jim is late so everyone is late for work).  This will create a great number of losers and, at best, would require the will to spend huge amounts of money easing this dislocation

2) Regulating cars is very, very tough politics.

Consider Washington state where an anti-tax activist is trying to undermine public transit by ballot initiative.  The catch is that he wants to undermine Seattle public transit by appealing to voters who live in other parts of the state:
Eyman said that the size of ST3 affects voters statewide even though it is paid for by voters within the district.
“When you’re dealing with $54 billion being spent on any one thing, that is having an impact on everyone in the state,” he said. “There’s only so much money available.”
Now this ballot initiative might fail.  But look at the political risk that it creates for any public organization devoted to transit.  Do we really think that private companies will be able to fill this void effectively and to solve the sorts of issues that might crop up (nobody likes Jim and so nobody wants him part of their bus pool).

This does not mean that we should give up on improving transit.  But that the main issues that are blocking these reforms are political and not regulatory.  We could make car ownership expensive and restricted, like in Singapore.  Look at the cost of 10 year license to buy a car -- which is about $55-60,000 in US dollars.  This is nearly double the cost of a new car in the US.  They also have congestion pricing on roads.  We could certainly adopt these policies for traditional cars now.  But, like with medical care, people seem to look at only part of how Singapore makes things work.

We don't because the politics are really, really hard. But we live in a country where people lead tax revolts over tens of dollars per year in vehicle fees.  Self-driving cars don't really change that calculation without a parallel change in politics.

Go and read the whole article.  

Shame he didn't think of this before they did all those artist's renderings of elevated hyperloops

I thought about adding this to the previous Elon Musk post (which actually hasn’t run yet in my timeline {sorry, been watching Dr. Who}), but the focus here is less on who said the quote and more on the people who wrote it down. Besides, this makes a really nice follow-up to yesterday's "undertakings of great advantage" post.

The following was from a pretty good Wired article on Musk’s “proposal” to build multiple layers of tunnels under Los Angeles.
“We’re just going to figure out what it takes to improve tunneling speed by, I think, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 percent,” he said Sunday during a hyperloop design competition at SpaceX. “We have no idea what we’re doing—I want to be clear about that.”

As I just mentioned, the Wired piece was pretty good and is not included in the following criticisms, but there were plenty of entirely credulous outlets that reported on his story. Presumably, all of them at least saw the 500 to 1,000 percent claim. This should have been one of those points where the credibility of the subject goes to zero. You don’t just decide that you are going to improve a process by a factor of five or ten. This is especially true when we are talking about widely used technology which a large number of the world’s most gifted engineers are constantly trying to improve. If Musk had said he was planning on going to the track every day next week and just picking winners, the statement would have been more believable.

Barring a belief in magic (which, I’d argue, is disturbingly common in 21st-century journalism. That is, however, a topic I need to address when I have more time), there is simply no way that a responsible and competent reporter can cover a planned project where one of the fundamental elements is this implausible without explicitly and emphatically dismissing the whole thing.

[At this point, I am supposed to acknowledge that this or that is possible. The problem with that particular journalistic convention is that possibility is such a broad standard as to be useless. Outside of axiomatic systems, it can be genuinely difficult to come up with a non-trivial example of an impossibility.]

Of course, claims of huge improvements don’t have to be improbable or implausible, but in order to be credible they must be grounded in some way. You need to specify some technological advance or infrastructure upgrade or radically different approach. Such claims might still be improbable, but at least there is what you might call a path to plausibility.

When someone says “I’m going to take a look at [some complex problem that smart, serious people have been struggling with for a long time] and come up with some amazing solution,” reporters and editors have a professional obligation to call the bullshit bullshit. Doing otherwise leads to bad investments, bad public policy decisions, and bad presidential elections.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is."

Another excerpt from Charles Mackay's  Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I believe "a company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is" was an initial business plan for Groupon.

Some of these schemes were plausible enough, and, had they been undertaken at a time when the public mind was unexcited, might have been pursued with advantage to all concerned. But they were established merely with the view of raising the shares in the market. The projectors took the first opportunity of a rise to sell out, and next morning the scheme was at an end. Maitland, in his History of London, gravely informs us, that one of the projects which received great encouragement, was for the establishment of a company "to make deal-boards out of saw-dust." This is, no doubt, intended as a joke; but there is abundance of evidence to show that dozens of schemes hardly a whir more reasonable, lived their little day, ruining hundreds ere they fell. One of them was for a wheel for perpetual motion—capital, one million; another was "for encouraging the breed of horses in England, and improving of glebe and church lands, and repairing and rebuilding parsonage and vicarage houses." Why the clergy, who were so mainly interested in the latter clause, should have taken so much interest in the first, is only to be explained on the supposition that the scheme was projected by a knot of the foxhunting parsons, once so common in England. The shares of this company were rapidly subscribed for. But the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which showed, more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one, started by an unknown adventurer, entitled "company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is." Were not the fact stated by scores of credible witnesses, it would be impossible to believe that any person could have been duped by such a project. The man of genius who essayed this bold and successful inroad upon public credulity, merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of 100 pounds each, deposit 2 pounds per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to 100 pounds per annum per share. How this immense profit was to be obtained, he did not condescend to inform them at that time, but promised, that in a month full particulars should be duly announced, and a call made for the remaining 98 pounds of the subscription. Next morning, at nine o'clock, this great man opened an office in Cornhill. Crowds of people beset his door, and when he shut up at three o'clock, he found that no less than one thousand shares had been subscribed for, and the deposits paid. He was thus, in five hours, the winner of 2,000 pounds. He was philosopher enough to be contented with his venture, and set off the same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A few points to keep in mind when reading any upcoming story about Elon Musk

First, a quick update from the good people at Gizmodo, specifically Ryan Felton:

Elon Musk awoke on Thursday with the intention of sending Twitter into a frenzy by declaring that he received “verbal govt approval” to build a Hyperloop in the densest part of the United States, between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. This is dumb, it’s not how things work, and requires, uh, actual government approval.

Felton goes on to contact the government agencies that would absolutely have to sign on to such a project. Where he was able to get comments, they generally boiled down to "this is the first we're hearing of it." The closest he came to an exception was the federal Department of Transportation, which replied

We have had promising conversations to date, are committed to transformative infrastructure projects, and believe our greatest solutions have often come from the ingenuity and drive of the private sector.

This is a good time to reiterate a few basic points to keep in mind when covering Elon Musk:

1.    Other than the ability to make a large sum of money through some good investments, Elon Musk has demonstrated exceptional talent in three (and only three) areas: raising capital for enterprises; creating effective, fast-moving, true-believer corporate cultures; generating hype.

2.    Though SpaceX appears to be doing all right, Musk does not overall have a good track record running profitable businesses. Furthermore, his companies (and this will come as a big slap in the face of conventional wisdom) have never been associated with big radical technological advances. SpaceX is doing impressive work, but it is fundamentally conventional impressive work. Before the company was founded, had you spoken with people in the aerospace community and asked them "what is closest to being Mars ready, who has it, and who are the top people in the field?", the answers would have been the type of engine SpaceX currently uses, TRW (which sued SpaceX for stealing their intellectual property), and the chief rocket scientist SpaceX lured away from TRW. By the same token, Tesla is pretty much doing what all of the other major players in the auto industry are doing in terms of technology.

3.    From the beginning, Musk has always had a tendency to exaggerate and overpromise. Smart, skeptical journalist like Michael Hiltzik and the reporters at the Gawker remnants have taken any claim from Elon Musk with a grain or two (or 20) of salt.

4.    That said, in recent years things have gotten much, much worse. Musk has gone from overselling feasible technology and possibly viable business plans to pitching proposals that are incredibly unlikely then supporting them with absurdly unrealistic estimates and sometimes mere handwaving.

5.    The downward spiral here seems to have started with the Hyperloop. This also seems to be the point where Musk started trying to do his own engineering rather than simply taking credit for the work of those under him. On a related note, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Elon Musk has no talent for engineering.

6.    Musk’s increasingly incredible claims have started to strain the credulity of most of the mainstream press, but the consequences have been too inconsistent and too slow-coming to have had much of a restraining influence on him. Even with this latest story, you can find news accounts breathlessly announcing that supersonic travel between New York and DC is just around the corner.

7.    Finally, it is essential to remember that maintaining this “real-life Tony Stark” persona is tremendously valuable to Musk. In addition to the ego gratification (and we have every reason to believe that Musk has a huge ego), this persona is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Musk. More than any other factor, Musk’s mystique and his ability to generate hype have pumped the valuation of Tesla to its current stratospheric levels. Bloomberg put his total compensation from Tesla at just under $100 million a year. When Musk gets tons of coverage for claiming he's about to develop telepathy chips for your brain or build a giant subterranean slot car race track under Los Angeles, he keeps that mystique going. Eventually groundless proposals and questionable-to-false boasts will wear away at his reputation, but unless the vast majority of journalists become less credulous and more professional in the very near future, that damage won’t come soon enough to prevent Musk from earning another billion dollars or so from the hype.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Disruption Fetish

This analysis by Brent Goldfarb is the best thing you'll read about Tesla this year, but the most important part may be his dismantling of the cult of the disruptor. Pay particularly close attention to the ways the fetishists ascribe nearly magical powers to disruption. This is about to be a major theme in the blog (and possibly in an upcoming book).

By conventional measures, Tesla is a small concern, but investors are placing their bets that it is a disruptor, a concept that has near-magical qualities in some business circles. The term comes from the work of the Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen’s Innovators’ Dilemma.

While the term is often used loosely to describe any exciting new company, disruption is actually defined fairly precisely in Christensen’s work (if with plenty of wiggle room). In theory, an existing firm can be disrupted if it complacently ignores the needs of its customers — or at least technological trends that threaten to make its market and technology positions obsolete.

A disruption theorist would explain Kodak’s downfall by arguing that Kodak ignored the threat posed by digital photography because it was too focused on the seemingly steady and solid profits produced by selling film. Likewise, Blockbuster ignored Netflix’s DVD-by-mail model and later streaming, leading to its bankruptcy. [As previously mentioned, I have a quibble with the omission of Redbox here, but it in no way undercuts Goldfarb's point. – MP]

Ignoring these innovations may have seemed sensible at first: Low-resolution digital photography did not appeal to Kodak’s customers, and Netflix started out by offering odd and old movies, i.e., not blockbusters. Why would Blockbuster bother to compete with that?

Slowly the quality of these offerings improved and neither Kodak nor Blockbuster were able to catch up. A textbook disruptive strategy targets the low end of the existing market. But sometimes disruption can come from above! Nokia as well as RIM (maker of the Blackberry) were unable to respond to the iPhone and Android one-two-punch. A disruption theory purist would insist that Kodak, Blockbuster, Nokia, or RIM might have navigated the technological transition — and thrived — if only they’d paid attention to the changing markets.

But a more plausible, if conventional, argument might be that transitions in those instances were not only improbable, but not even advisable. It would have been a herculean task to transform a chemical company specializing in the production of silver oxide film to a consumer electronics firm, fighting for attention in a low-margin industry.

Sometimes firms weather disruptive threats with little trouble. New biotechnologies that allow us to modify DNA led to a completely different drug discovery technology, eroding the drug discovery capabilities of large pharmaceuticals. However, the list of top pharma companies has barely changed in the past century. Their capabilities in shepherding drugs through the FDA process, as well as selling and marketing drugs — none of which biotech startups have easily replicated (Genentech notwithstanding).

The biotech startups still make money, but they typically end up licensing their technologies to, or are purchased outright by, big pharma. In 2000, online grocer Webvan set out to disrupt the bricks-and-mortar grocery business with a model that may have worked — if only 25 percent to 40 percent of groceries were purchased online. Sadly, that wasn’t the case then and still isn’t the case. As of 2016, about 5 percent of groceries were purchased online.

Nevertheless, the story soaked up $1 billion from public and private investors before failing. On-line ordering and delivery survivor Peapod eventually purchase by Giant, has taught us that online ordering complements bricks-and-mortar grocery stores, rather than substitutes for them. Most shoppers like to see, touch and feel their fruits and vegetables before purchasing them. Amazon deemed it wise to buy Whole Foods, as opposed to building an on-line fresh foods department independently.

The disruption fetish

A Google search for “disruption theory” produces almost the same amount of google hits as “competitive advantage.” Impressive for a theory that suffers from vagueness and has a poor record in explaining outcomes. My objection is not that incumbents never fail — that would be absurd. My point is that this rarely happens because managers are not paying attention to the competition.

Incumbents fail when their resources and capabilities become obsolete and they are unable to develop new capabilities themselves at a reasonable cost, or to buy these capabilities. That is, to believe in the disruptive potential of a company, it is necessary to also explain not only why the firm’s technology will be successful, but also why the incumbents cannot compete. Not superficially, but through careful consideration of these capabilities for both potential disruptors and incumbents.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Brooks underplayed the only cultural signifiers that matter -- "All you need is juice and a whole lotta money"

In recent years, I have become something of a compulsive Wikipedia checker. When I see a business story, I look up the industry. When I hear a politician make a particularly offensive comment, I look up his or her district. And when I come across someone who has achieved a high position in an extremely competitive field at a young age without displaying any special talent or intellect, I look up his or her background. In a plurality and perhaps even a majority of the cases, biography reads: well-to-do and well-connected parents; obnoxiously expensive prep school; elite university; dream job straight out of college.

Obviously, this is a very small group, more the 0.1% than the 1%. The chances against picking such a person random are vanishingly small, Nonetheless the institutions that keep us informed and often make our decisions for us are absolutely lousy with them. While we are not exactly talking about a lifeboat situation here, it is fair to say that in some cases smarter, more capable candidates were pushed aside to make way for Horace Mann School alumni.

This greasing of the skids leads back to our previous discussion of David Brooks' recent column. In all the brouhaha over Brooks' ill-conceived trip to the deli, a more serious flaw was largely overlooked. Brooks has a habit of starting a piece with a strong, clear-eyed examination of some substantial problem like income inequality or the rise of pseudoscience. He then, however, has a tendency to divert the conversation into distracting, trivial, and sometimes even dishonest arguments. The honest initial assessment allows him to maintain his standing as the conservative that liberals can love; the triviality and distortion allow him to avoid the logical conclusions of those premises. He generally ignores policies and attitudes that are likely to have a direct impact because those are not the sort of policies that a conservative (evening New York Times conservative) can get away with endorsing too often.

The now notorious sandwich column holds true to this formula. His opening points about upper-class entrenchment are valid and well presented. He then slides into a discussion of possibly valid but certainly secondary factors like zoning laws, before completely giving himself over to the food culture silliness.

The spine of this story is brutally simple. More money means more connections. More connections mean more money. Repeat. Policies that limit access to economic opportunity, that encourage greater and greater concentration of wealth and power make this situation worse. Furthermore, there is no great mystery as to what these policies are or how to reverse them, and the solution has nothing to do with introducing the masses to artisan bread, heirloom produce, or the healthful miracle that is kombucha (Gwyneth Paltrow swears by it).

Thursday, July 20, 2017

New York Magazine has a problem with pseudoscience*

Not just New York Magazine, of course. The issues here are almost industry-wide (Cracked and the Gawker remnants have fairly clean hands), but NYM might be a bit worse than average and is, at the very least, a good place to start given its association with the conspicuous consumption lifestyle porn that drives so much bad health science.

There is a troubling symbiotic relationship between journalists and people like Gwyneth Paltrow who can be subjects, sources, advertisers, even potential colleagues and employers.

Here's what came up next to one of the stories below.

The problem is compounded by an ethical code focused on covering your ass rather than getting at the truth. NYM reporters are particularly adept at working that system, including just enough snark and caveats to give themselves just sufficient distance. Take a look at this recent example:

I Took the Best Nap of My Life on a $9,000 Crystal Bed by Allie Jones

I hate to do this, but I have to recommend a moderately expensive wellness practice that has no scientific basis or proven medical benefits whatsoever. Last week, I tried Crystal Bed Therapy at the recently opened alternative medicine studio Modrn Sanctuary, and I was changed. I don’t think it did what it was supposed to do (realign my energy field?) but it did make me feel intensely relaxed and also sort of high.

To belabor the obvious, “no scientific basis” doesn't mean much if it's followed by a testimonial, but it does immunize Jones to a degree from the criticism that she's promoting pseudoscience. That's clearly what she is doing, but if challenged, she has plenty of qualifiers to point to.

If you do the promoting in passing, you don't even need the caveats. Check out the end of
Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams are Getting Into the Food Business Together

Subscribers of the DIY-smoothie company can choose from among three plans that ship frozen “superfoods” to their door on a weekly or monthly basis. Plans run between $48 to accommodate the ingredients for six smoothies and $168 for a month’s supply. It is unknown if the smoothies are delicious, but they will undoubtedly be healthy.

“Undoubtedly”?!? First off, there are no “superfoods.” Second, the suggestion that you can count on a Paltrow product to be healthy (or safe, for that matter) is somewhere between funny and sad.

Of course, those are just quick little fillers. Is the standard higher for a major feature? Yes and no...

The Wellness Epidemic by Amy Larocca

Wellness is a very broad idea, which is no small part of its marketing appeal. On the most basic level, it’s about making a conscious effort to attain health in both body and mind, to strive for unity and balance. And it’s not a new idea either. Homeopathy, which uses natural substances to promote the body’s ability to self-heal, was popularized in Germany in the late-18th century, and 50 years later, the YMCA set its mission as caring for the body, mind, and spirit. Dan Rather did a 60 Minutes segment on wellness in 1979, but it was approached more as a fringe phenomenon. “Wellness,” he said, “that’s not a word you hear every day.”

Putting aside the annoyance at seeing the Y (an organization based on giving young men an alternative to taverns and brothels) in bad company, you can't simply say this about homeopathy. This is not a practice that “uses natural substances to promote the body’s ability to self-heal”; it is a practice that does nothing. It is the poster child for medical pseudoscience.

Or later on...
It can be easy to be cynical about wellness, about the $66 jade eggs that Gwyneth Paltrow suggests inserting in your “yoni.” There’s something grotesque about this industry’s emerging at the moment when the most basic health care is still being denied to so many in America and is at risk of being snatched away from millions more. But what’s perhaps most striking about wellness’s ascendancy is that it’s happening because, in our increasingly bifurcated world, even those who do have access to pretty good (and sometimes quite excellent, if quite expensive) traditional health care are left feeling, nonetheless, incredibly unwell.

Cynical is not nearly a strong enough response.  Writing for Gizmodo, Kristen V. Brown explains:

“A lot of things here are concerning,”said Jen Gunter, a San Francisco OB/GYN. “For one, this is a porous rock you’re putting in there, not medical-grade silicon, and who knows what bacteria can lodge in those nooks and crannies. Then there’s also this magical belief that putting something inside you can do something to your aura or chi.”

Gunter, whose practice specializes in pelvic floor disorders and infectious disease, said it’s not just that Paltrow is peddling pseudoscientific eastern mysticism—it’s actually bad medical advice.

If you really wanted to strengthen your vagina’s pelvic floor, for example, Gunter said that sleeping with a weight down there or walking around with it inside of you won’t do the trick. The key, she said, is exercises to tighten and relax the muscles. Keeping an egg up there, she said, could actually do the reverse and damage those muscles.

21st Century journalism has a problem with pseudoscience, It's time for an intervention.

* And real science, too.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

One more quibble with Goldfarb – – why Netflix and not Redbox?

I'm starting to feel really bad about this. Brent Goldfarb recently wrote one of the best and most important analyses of the Tesla business model and of the larger question of the disruption fetish, but so far, all we've managed to do is complain about relatively minor issues in his piece. That said, this one has bothered me for a long time. Furthermore, I believe the point that follows, though it somewhat contradicts Goldfarb's account, actually strengthens is argument.

Here's the passage in question:
A disruption theorist would explain Kodak’s downfall by arguing that Kodak ignored the threat posed by digital photography because it was too focused on the seemingly steady and solid profits produced by selling film. Likewise, Blockbuster ignored Netflix’s DVD-by-mail model and later streaming, leading to its bankruptcy.

Ignoring these innovations may have seemed sensible at first: Low-resolution digital photography did not appeal to Kodak’s customers, and Netflix started out by offering odd and old movies, i.e., not blockbusters. Why would Blockbuster bother to compete with that?

Why talk about Netflix and not Redbox? It is not at all clear to me that the DVDs by mail model is any more innovative or "disruptive" than the DVD by kiosk model. Nor is it immediately obvious that Netflix played a bigger role in Blockbuster's demise. Redbox targeted virtually the same market as the rental giant and it did so very successfully.

Redbox Automated Retail, LLC is an American company specializing in DVD, Blu-ray, and video game rentals via automated retail kiosks. Redbox kiosks feature the company's signature red color and are located at convenience stores, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, mass retailers, and pharmacies.

The company surpassed Blockbuster in 2007 in number of U.S. locations, passed 100 million rentals in February 2008, and passed 1 billion rentals in September 2010. Competitors include Netflix and Blockbuster. In Q2 2011, kiosks accounted for 36 percent of the disc rental market, with 38 percent of that attributable to rent-by-mail services and 25 percent to traditional stores, according to the NPD Group. As of Q2 2011, 68 percent of the U.S. population lived within a five-minute drive of a Redbox kiosk. The numbers for Q2 2013 shows that the Redbox rentals had surpassed 50 percent of the total disc rentals in the country.

At the risk of oversimplifying, you could argue that competition from these two companies killed the Blockbuster chain, but for some reason, only one of the two makes it into the narratives. Why is the still highly visible kiosk service so often forgotten? Some might suggest that it has to do with the decline of the DVD, but while that might affect the valuation of the company going forward, it is not at all relevant to the period in question.

The reasons that you hear more about Netflix than about Redbox, are the same reasons you hear so much about Netflix. First, the company has considerable Silicon Valley sheen, the kind that guarantees excessive hype. Second, and far more important, Netflix spends a god-awful amount of money making sure that people talk about it. The marketing and PR budget for the company has been astounding and astoundingly successful. Think about all of the news stories you seen about the company, including the stunningly embarrassing "look what's coming to Netflix this month" which regularly runs in otherwise respectable news publications.

Goldfarb argued that bullshit hype and the disruption fetish distort markets and divert money and talent into bad projects. The fact that even he is influenced by this hype only goes to support his larger thesis.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

David Wallace-Wells, autism and bad science

David Wallace-Wells has been catching a lot of flack (most of it richly deserved) for his recent New York Magazine article on climate change. It is a hugely troubling sign when the very scientists you were claiming to represent push back against your article.

This controversy illustrates a larger problem with science reporting at the magazine. We already have a post in the queue discussing the neutral-to-credulous coverage of topics ranging from homeopathy to magic crystals to Gwyneth Paltrow's goop empire. The Wallace-Wells piece takes things to another level and goes in a very different but arguably worse direction. Rather than giving bad science a pass, he takes good science and presents it so ineptly has to do it a disservice.

I am not going to delve into that science myself. The topic has been well covered by numerous expert and knowledgeable writers [see here and here]. The best I could offer would be a recap. There are some journalistic points I may hit later and I do want to highlight a minor detail in the article that has slipped past most critics, but which is perfectly representative of the dangerous way Wallace-Wells combines sensationalism with a weak grasp of science.

Other stuff in the hotter air is even scarier, with small increases in pollution capable of shortening life spans by ten years. The warmer the planet gets, the more ozone forms, and by mid-century, Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has projected. By 2090, as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level; one paper last month showed that, among other effects, a pregnant mother’s exposure to ozone raises the child’s risk of autism (as much as tenfold, combined with other environmental factors). Which does make you think again about the autism epidemic in West Hollywood.

No, David, no it doesn't.

I want to be painstakingly careful at this point. These are complex and extraordinarily important issues and it is essential that we do not lose sight of certain basic facts: by any reasonable standard, man-made climate change is one of the two or three most important issues facing our country; the effect of various pollutants on children's mental and physical development should be a major concern for all of us; high ozone levels are a really bad thing.

But the suggestion that ozone levels are causing an autism epidemic in West Hollywood is both dangerous and scientifically illiterate. You'll notice that I did not say that suggesting ozone levels cause autism is irresponsible. Though the study in question is outside of my field, the hypothesis seems reasonable and I do not see any red flags associated with the research. If Wallace-Wells had stopped before adding that last sentence, he would've been on solid ground, but he didn't.

Autism is frightening, mysterious, tragic. This has caused people, particularly parents facing one of the worst moments imaginable, to clean desperately to any explanation that might make sense of their situation. As a result, autism has become a focal point for bad science, culminating with the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. There is no field where groundless speculation and fear-mongering are less welcome.

So, if ozone and other pollutants may contribute to autism, what's so bad about the West Hollywood claim? For that, you need to do some rudimentary causal reasoning, starting with a quick look at ozone pollution in Southern California.

Here are some pertinent facts from a 2015 LA Times article:

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy selected a limit of 70 parts per billion, which is more stringent than the 75 parts-per-billion standard adopted in 2008 but short of the 60-ppb endorsed by environmentalists and health advocacy groups including the American Lung Assn. The agency’s science advisors had recommended a limit lower than 70 -- and as low as 60.


About one-third of California residents live in communities with pollution that exceeds federal standards, according to estimates by the state Air Resources Board.

Air quality is worst in inland valleys, where pollution from vehicles and factories cook in sunlight to form ozone, which is blown and trapped against the mountains.

The South Coast air basin, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, violated the current 75-ppb ozone standard on 92 days in 2014. The highest ozone levels in the nation are in San Bernardino County, which reported a 2012-2014 average of 102 parts per billion.

Now let's look at some ozone levels around the region. West Hollywood, it should be noted, is not great.

But just over the Hollywood Hills, the situation is even worse.

Go further inland to San Dimas and the level is even higher…

Higher still in Riverside ...

Though still far short of what we find in San Bernardino.

If you look at autism rates by school district and compare them to ozone levels, it is difficult to see much of a relationship. Does this mean that ozone does not contribute to autism? Absolutely not. What it shows is that, as with many developmental and learning disabilities, the wealthy are overdiagnosed while poor are underdiagnosed. It is no coincidence that a place like Santa Monica/Maibu (a notorious anti-vaxxer hotspot) has more than double the diagnosis rate of San Bernardino.

The there's this from the very LA Times article by Alan Zarembo that Wallace-Wells cites [emphasis added]:

 Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist at UC Davis, suspects that environmental triggers such as exposure to chemicals during pregnancy play a role. In a 2009 study, she started with a tantalizing lead — several autism clusters, mostly in Southern California, that her team had identified from disability and birth records.

But the hot spots could not be linked to chemical plants, waste dumps or any other obvious environmental hazards. Instead, the cases were concentrated in places where parents were highly educated and had easy access to treatment.

Peter Bearman, a sociologist at Columbia University, has demonstrated how such social forces are driving autism rates.

Analyzing state data, he identified a 386-square-mile area centered in West Hollywood that consistently produced three times as many autism cases as would be expected from birth rates.

Affluence helped set the area apart. But delving deeper, Bearman detected a more surprising pattern that existed across the state: Rich or poor, children living near somebody with autism were more likely to have the diagnosis themselves.
Living within 250 meters boosted the chances by 42%, compared to living between 500 and 1,000 meters away.

The reason, his analysis suggested, was simple: People talk.
They talk about how to recognize autism, which doctors to see, how to navigate the bureaucracies to secure services. They talk more if they live next door or visit the same parks, or if their children go to the same preschool.

The influence of neighbors alone accounts for 16% of the growth of autism cases in the state developmental system between 2000 and 2005, Bearman estimated.

In other words, autism is not contagious, but the diagnosis is.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Maybe Brooks' lunch date was just a horrified food critic

I have to confess that I've tended to be overly dismissive of Besha Rodell.  By replacing the irreplaceable Jonathan Gold,  she immediately became the Roger Moore of restaurant critics. To make matters worse, (depending on your feeling toward Henry Rollins) Gold had frequently been the only good thing about the Village Voice owned LA Weekly.

I need to reevaluate my opinion on Rodell. This review beautifully lays out the fundamental rottenness of conspicuous consumption dining and nicely rebuts the infamous David Brooks column that came out a day later.

There's an odd, pervasive myth about the way Americans eat that at its most basic goes like this: The privileged among us eat well, while the poor eat poorly. It's an assumption that's deployed frequently when discussing food deserts, obesity, nutrition and other issues of food insecurity and hunger. But it also smacks of classism and ignores the fact that most Americans, regardless of financial status, eat poorly. In fact, I'd say that if we are going to generalize, it would be more accurate to say that the very wealthy in this country have some of the worst taste when it comes to food.

What other explanation accounts for the mostly terrible (yet very expensive) restaurants in Malibu, a city with one of the highest median household incomes in L.A. County? The dumbed-down selections on so many Beverly Hills wine lists? Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, many very good (and also very expensive) restaurants survive thanks to customers with both the money and taste to patronize them. But my guess is that if you surveyed the dining-out proclivities of the 1 percent, you'd find mostly crappy chardonnay, too-sweet cocktails, safe but expensive steakhouse fare and terrible pan-Asian food.


Perhaps it's unfair to pick on Tao. The food isn't that much worse than what's available at any number of popular chain restaurants, from the higher end through fast food (though I would much rather eat the orange chicken at P.F. Chang's or Panda Express than the orange chicken at Tao). But I wanted to try to understand this very popular thing — surely there's something to learn from Tao's massive success. We in the food world live in our food-world bubble; we tie ourselves in knots talking about the peril of cultural appropriation in Portland food trucks while the highest-grossing restaurant in America blithely offers bottle service under a giant, reclining Buddha statue as paintings of demure geishas cast their eyes alluringly downward behind the bar.

I have stepped out of my bubble long enough to appraise Tao and to declare it bad in almost every way, and now I'll go back to my comfort zone of real Asian food (whatever that means) and Californian small plates, thanks very much. I set out to understand Tao's allure, to find the fun in Hollywood's gaudiest glam, and have found myself only more bewildered — and more aware of the cultural schisms that separate us.

Friday, July 14, 2017

We could have just run this post weekly for the past six months

Near the beginning of the year, we ran a post about how the incumbency advantage is based on processes and mechanisms that, at least on the Republican side, appear to be breaking down. Since then we've gotten dozens of examples. This recent piece by TPM's Matt Shuham is amusingly representative.

Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) dodged questions about Republicans’ health care bill on Tuesday, according to video of a tumultuous press conference published by a progressive group.
Poliquin had visited Nason Park Manor, an assisted living facility in Bangor, Maine, to promote his proposal to sell off federally owned buildings in order to fund a one-year cost of living increase for Social Security recipients.

A photo on Poliquin’s website shows him chatting with Nason Park Manor residents.

But video clips from the event posted by the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive group, show Poliquin dodging questions about his support for the American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ Obamacare repeal bill that would carry with it deep cuts to Medicaid.
“Representative, my son is not going to have a wonderful summer with a cut in Medicaid,” Walker is heard saying at the end of the event, as Poliquin scurries toward the door.

“Congressman, you promised to take a question from this constituent, would you keep your promise for once?” another voice is heard saying, as the congressman disappears to his car.

Walker told TPM by phone that Poliquin has a habit of ducking tough questions from Mainers.
“He does nothing open to the public,” she said. “We did have a town hall, and he didn’t show up.”

Slate’s Jim Newell described a similar response in May, after asking Poliquin for his thoughts on an earlier version of the AHCA: “He said nothing and made a beeline to the restroom,” Newell wrote. “Unfortunately it was the door to the women’s restroom that he had first run to, so he corrected himself and went into the men’s room. When he emerged several minutes later, he was wearing his earbuds and scurried away.”

That was July 12th. Here's what we were saying on February 8th.

Though, to be perfectly fair, Tennessee has always been a hotbed of leftist radicals
We have all heard the statistics about how difficult it is for a Congressional representative to lose his or her job. This is partially because of things like gerrymandering and spigots of campaign cash, but it also reflects a process that does a pretty good job allowing a reasonably competent and dedicated legislator to keep the constituents fairly happy in his or her district. A big part of that process is the maintaining of good relationships and lines of communication with voters and communities. Many political career has ended when voters felt someone had "lost touch with the people back home."

In this context, stories like the following from Talking Points Memo's Allegra Kirkland take on a special significance.
Constituents requesting that Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R-TN) hold a town hall on repealing the Affordable Care Act aren't being met with a polite brushoff from staffers anymore. Instead, Duncan's office has started sending out a form letter telling them point-blank that he has no intention to hold any town hall meetings.

“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals,” the letter read, according to a copy obtained by the Maryville Daily Times. “Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them.”

In the first weeks of the 115th Congress, elected officials dropping by their home districts were surprised to find town halls packed to the rafters with concerned constituents. Caught off guard and on camera, lawmakers were asked to defend President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and provide a timeline on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

Now, many of them are skipping out on these events entirely. Some have said large meetings are an ineffective format for addressing individual concerns. Many others have, like the President himself, dismissed those questioning their agenda as “paid protesters” or radical activists who could pose a physical threat.

Voters turning out to town halls are pushing back hard on this characterization, arguing that they represent varied ideological backgrounds and have diverse issues to raise. Constituents unable to meet with their elected officials over the weekend told TPM that they’re not attending town hall events to make trouble. Instead, they say they want accountability from the people they pay to represent them.

Kim Mattoch, a mother of three and event planner, told TPM that she tried to go to a Saturday town hall in Roseville, California with GOP Rep. Tom McClintock but couldn’t make it in. The 200-seat theater hosting the event was quickly filled to capacity, leaving hundreds waiting outside.

“I’m a constituent of McClintock and a registered Republican in a very Republican district—though I don’t really align very well these days with the Republican Party,” Mattoch said in a Monday phone call. “So I wanted to go to the town hall because I legitimately had questions for the congressman.”

Mattoch said the protesters waiting outside had a wide range of “legitimate concerns.” She personally hoped to ask her representative about how the GOP was progressing on repealing and replacing the ACA and why House Republicans last week voted to kill a ruling aimed at preventing coal mining debris from ending up in waterways.

Yet McClintock told the Los Angeles Times that he thought an “anarchist element” was present in the crowd outside his event, and said he was escorted to his car by police because he’d been told the atmosphere was “deteriorating.”

Ramon Fliek, who attended the McClintock event with his wife, told TPM on Monday that police “were kind enough to block the whole road” to make space for the overflow crowd, and that he overheard protesters thanking law enforcement for “doing their jobs.”

“If you look at the videos from the event, you can’t get any notion that it was aggressive,” he said. “There was an older woman with a poodle that ran after him and it’s like, okay, the older lady with the poodle is not going to threaten you. I understand that he might want to give that impression, but it was very pleasant.”
Admittedly, it is a long time until midterms, but possibly not long enough to repair this kind of damage.
And since we like to end the week with a clip...

Thursday, July 13, 2017

In his first draft, he took her to Red Lobster for chipped beef

David Brooks has gotten a lot of attention for this passage from a recent column:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Surprisingly few of the commenters, however, have picked up on the overwhelming sense of déjà vu in the anecdote. One of Brooks early successes was an essay analyzing class differences in America based on things like where we ate and shopped. It was a hugely popular and influential piece, slightly marred by the fact that many of the most memorable illustrating examples were not true.

 Sasha Issenberg did the definitive take down.

There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to sales data, one of Goodwin’s strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That’s probably not, however, QVC country. “I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country,” says Doug Rose, the network’s vice president of merchandising and brand development. “Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas.” Rose’s standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code — Beverly Hills, 90210 — covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk “the myth that they’re all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day.”

“Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors,” Brooks wrote. “When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.” Actually, six of the top 10 states in terms of illegal-alien population are Red.

“We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books,” Brooks asserted. A 2003 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater study of America’s most literate cities doesn’t necessarily agree. Among the study’s criteria was the presence of bookstores and libraries; 20 of the 30 most literate cities were in Red states.

“Very few of us,” Brooks wrote of his fellow Blue Americans, “could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country.” He might want to take his name-recognition test to the streets of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series’s highest-rated television markets — three of the top five were in Blue states. (Philadelphia was fifth nationally.)

As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu — steak au jus, ’slippery beef pot pie,’ or whatever — I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee’s,” he wrote. “I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and ’seafood delight’ trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.”

Taking Brooks’s cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The “Steak and Lobster” combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. “Most of our checks are over $20,” said Becka, my waitress. “There are a lot of ways to spend over $20.”

The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts “turn-of-the-century elegance.” I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce. Afterward, I asked the inn’s proprietors, Walt and Sandy Filkowski, if they had seen Brooks’s article. They laughed. After it was published in the Atlantic, the nearby Mercersburg Academy boarding school invited Brooks as part of its speaker series. He spent the night at the inn. “For breakfast I made a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato tart,” Sandy said. “He said he just wanted scrambled eggs.”

Issenberg's expose got plenty of attention and you might expect Brooks to shy away from dubious anecdotes about the dining habits of “the lower 80 percent.” We might even use this as a jumping off point for a critique of Brooks's character (a man who teaches a course entitled “humility” kind of opens himself up for that sort of thing), but that would be a rather petty exercise of questionable value.

The important question is not "what kind of man is David Brooks?" But "why does someone like David Brooks do so well in 21st-century American journalism?"

David Brooks has a long history of distorting events, omitting pertinent details, making convenient mistakes, and sometimes simply making shit up. The New York Times knew about all this when they hired him, but it didn't particularly bother them because David Brooks was and is the ideal conservative columnist for the paper.

This is because Brooks, better than anyone else, addresses the fundamental paradox of the New York Times political identity, that of a basically liberal paper with a legacy of class bigotry going back at least to the 19th century. Brooks writes thoughtful, literate, often elegant columns that let the readers feel bad, but in a good way, a way that never uncomfortably challenges deeply held beliefs.

There is something almost cute about Brooks' apparent belief that a mishmash of Food Network reruns and lifestyle porn constitute some kind of impenetrable cultural code. It's a bit like listening to second-graders who are convinced they've fooled the grownups when they speak in pig Latin. For the target audience, however, it is a nearly ideal message. It perfectly balances liberal guilt with a sense of class superiority.

To be fair, there are valid points here (as there are with almost all of Brooks' columns) -- Inequality and a lack of mobility are massive problems and the imbalance in education expenditure greatly exacerbates the issues. (I'm a bit more skeptical about the zoning explanation.) – though it's worth noting that the drivers of the great compression (highly progressive taxes, stronger social safety nets, substantial government investment in education, infrastructure and research) don't make much of an appearance.

Brooks is not some soulless hack like Bret Stephens, He is an intelligent, interesting, and in all probability, generally sincere writer. He is also a deeply flawed one, and those flaws and the way his employers react to them, are often highly informative.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Every fool aspired to be a knave"

Today's excerpt from Charles  Mackay's  Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds quotes perhaps my favorite line about a time of bubbles, up to and including 2007.

Exchange Alley was in a fever of excitement. The Company's stock, which had been at a hundred and thirty the previous day, gradually rose to three hundred, and continued to rise with the most astonishing rapidity during the whole time that the bill in its several stages was under discussion. Mr. Walpole was almost the only statesman in the House who spoke out boldly against it. He warned them, in eloquent and solemn language, of the evils that would ensue. It countenanced, he said, "the dangerous practice of stockjobbing, and would divert the genius of the nation from trade and industry. It would hold out a dangerous lure to decoy the unwary to their ruin, by making them part with the earnings of their labour for a prospect of imaginary wealth." The great principle of the project was an evil of first-rate magnitude; it was to raise artificially the value of the stock, by exciting and keeping up a general infatuation, and by promising dividends out of funds which could never be adequate to the purpose. In a prophetic spirit he added, that if the plan succeeded, the directors would become masters of the government, form a new and absolute aristocracy in the kingdom, and control the resolutions of the legislature. If it failed, which he was convinced it would, the result would bring general discontent and ruin upon the country. Such would be the delusion, that when the evil day came, as come it would, the people would start up, as from a dream, and ask themselves if these things could have been true. All his eloquence was in vain. He was looked upon as a false prophet, or compared to the hoarse raven, croaking omens of evil. His friends, however, compared him to Cassandra, predicting evils which would only be believed when they came home to men's hearths, and stared them in the face at their own boards. Although, in former times, the House had listened with the utmost attention to every word that fell from his lips, the benches became deserted when it was known that he would speak on the South Sea question.

The bill was two months in its progress through the House of Commons. During this time every exertion was made by the directors and their friends, and more especially by the Chairman, the noted Sir John Blunt, to raise the price of the stock. The most extravagant rumours were in circulation. Treaties between England and Spain were spoken of, whereby the latter was to grant a free trade to all her colonies; and the rich produce of the mines of Potosi-la-Paz was to be brought to England until silver should become almost as plentiful as iron. For cotton and woollen goods, with which we could supply them in abundance, the dwellers in Mexico were to empty their golden mines. The company of merchants trading to the South Seas would be the richest the world ever saw, and every hundred pounds invested in it would produce hundreds per annum to the stockholder. At last the stock was raised by these means to near four hundred; but, after fluctuating a good deal, settled at three hundred and thirty, at which price it remained when the bill passed the Commons by a majority of 172 against 55.

It seemed at that time as if the whole nation had turned stockjobbers. Exchange Alley was every day blocked up by crowds, and Cornhill was impassable for the number of carriages. Everybody came to purchase stock. "Every fool aspired to be a knave." In the words of a ballad, published at the time, and sung about the streets, "A South Sea Ballad; or, Merry Remarks upon Exchange Alley Bubbles. To a new tune, called 'The Grand Elixir; or, the Philosopher's Stone Discovered.'"

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – part V: the Tesla of education companies is also...

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this.]

As mentioned before, the people behind the Bridge have promised the moon both in terms of social good and investor returns. These incredible achievements will supposedly be possible due to tremendous innovations in the way children are taught and businesses are operated.

However, given what we've seen so far, the company is largely devoid of ideas that could be called new by any stretch of the imagination. From the scripted lessons to the hook'em and collect account management, this is all numbingly familiar. What's worse, the business practices often tend toward the sleazy. In addition to the previously mentioned (horrible facilities, nasty collection techniques), the company engages in that veritable litmus test of corporate evil, the low-level blanket noncompete.

Yes, the Tesla of education companies is also the Jimmy John's of education companies.

Bridge teachers are discouraged from talking to the press, and their contracts remind them that they may not speak on behalf of Bridge, but some agreed to talk to me provided they were not identified. A few said they were grateful for the job and happy to have a lesson script. Others expressed frustration about hoped-for bonuses that they never were able to achieve. Teachers can receive extra money if they maintain enrollment of at least 25 pupils per class. A middle-aged teacher who provides science instruction at a Bridge school told me she was encouraged to go to the market and try to enroll the children of the fruit sellers when her teaching day was done. But it was hard to recruit new students.

All the teachers I spoke to appreciated the regular paycheck. But they chafed at how they were managed, often by unseen bosses communicating with them via text or robocall. Some Bridge staff members described what they saw as a stark contrast between their hopes for Bridge and a grittier reality. One school administrator, an academy manager, described how the pressure to ensure that parents made their payments on time was disheartening. ‘‘I didn’t realize how hard it would be to talk to parents,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re ill, they’re out of work, they had a fire. No one is in the house who’s making any money. How can they pay when they have no money for food?’’ And working at Bridge, teachers said, can disrupt a career: Instructors are required to sign an employment agreement that includes a noncompete clause that prevents them from working at other nearby schools for a year after they leave.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – part IV:If your marketing is good, you don't have to be

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this.]

When you strip away all of the hype and buzz, the apparent pedagogical and business models of the Bridgeare largely devoid of anything that could be called innovative, let alone cutting-edge. as for the latter, it seems to consist of the tried-and-true formula of hooking customers into a hard-to-quit service through extensive marketing, cutting costs wherever possible, and employing strong-arm collection practices.

The Bridge founders, Weinstein wrote, decided that every school opening thereafter would as soon as possible feature a ceremony and that every new student would be given a free month of school. Kirchgasler, who studied Bridge for his dissertation, pointed out that this often ended up putting parents in what could become a difficult situation. If a family found that they couldn’t make payments, say, in the middle of the term, it was often difficult to transfer a child to a new school. ‘‘Among the families I studied, moving a child to a new school was a gamble,’’ he said. ‘‘Public and informal schools were reluctant to take students back if their new school didn’t work out’’ — potentially leaving a child out of school and making it difficult for a parent to work.

A former Bridge employee told me that the company’s own marketing could sometimes create bad feelings among the people they wanted to serve. ‘‘Many times, they would open a school and invite a local official to a grand-opening ceremony, and the local official took offense,’’ the former employee, who asked that her name not be used, says. The local officials ‘‘wanted to be engaged.’’ Another former employee told me that the free tuition was confusing to many of the poorest parents. ‘‘I believe the word ‘international,’ combined with foreign founders, led parents to expect higher quality than in other schools,’’ she says. ‘‘I believe they did become disillusioned. I believe many of them became disempowered when they wanted changes in their schools — like electricity, permanent structures — but that didn’t happen. They definitely missed the connectedness and mutually beneficial relationships that they would find in other schools.’’

Similar concerns were voiced by Salima Namusobya, executive director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, a civil rights group in Kampala, Uganda, that, along with the union there, has campaigned against Bridge and other private-school operators. Far from educating poor children, she says, Bridge uses aggressive marketing to enroll children who are already in public schools. ‘‘The fact that they have the word ‘international’ in the school name, they think they’re getting an international curriculum.’’

The lack of electricity was just the beginning of the problems with the facilities.

In the public and informal Kenyan schools I visited, school administrators welcomed my impromptu drop-ins warmly, showed me their classrooms and introduced me to their teachers, who spoke frankly about their challenges. Bridge teachers and managers say that sort of openness is not allowed. At some Bridge schools I visited unescorted, staff members said that they would need to contact superiors if I didn’t leave.

One of these schools was Bridge Diamond in Mukuru, a slum of 600,000, just east of central Nairobi. The schoolyard fence was made of patched, bent gray metal and barbed wire. The school building itself was shabby and neglected. In the schoolyard, about 30 feet away from where children enter their classrooms, was a deep trench of fetid garbage and rotting bags of feces; when residents can’t use the communal latrines they use ‘‘flying toilets’’ — defecating in a plastic bag and throwing it as far as they can. The chicken-wire windows were rusted and ripped. Some classrooms were empty. One had 15 students sitting at desks but no teacher.

Staff members at Diamond were eager to show the poor conditions in their school but also urged me to leave quickly. Last summer, a University of Alberta doctoral candidate, Curtis Riep, was gathering enrollment information in Uganda for an international organization of teachers’ unions, which later put out a report on the number of children enrolled in Bridge in that country and the number of untrained teachers at the head of Bridge’s classrooms. He made unescorted visits to three of its schools near Kampala. The acad­emy managers contacted company executives, and Riep was arrested by the Ugandan police, though the charges, criminal trespass and falsely identifying himself, were quickly dropped. Riep calls it ‘‘pure intimidation.’’ May says Bridge acted responsibly because a stranger was at the school.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Yeah, "self-honouring" sounds much better

We've been so focused on the embarrassing pseudoscience of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop that we've neglected all of the other embarrassing parts. Fortunately, the Guardian's Lindy West is on the beat.
Towards the end of his speech, Sadeghi tells a story about an epiphany he had in the anatomy lab. He says he discovered that the first valve of the heart flows straight back into the heart: “Selfish little organ there! No, no, not selfish – self-honouring. Wooo! What a difference! I could never give anything to anybody – ask my beloved wife – until I take care of me. Until my needs are met. Right? Right? When you fly down, the first thing that they tell you is that before you put the mask on anybody else, put it on yourself.”

I hear that idea repeated over and over again at the Goop conference – take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Put your mask on first. Hold space for yourself. Be entitled. Take. At a certain point, it begins to feel less like self-care and more like rationalisation. I don’t know anything about the personal lives of the women at In Goop Health – who they give money to, what hardships they have endured, why they were drawn to this event – and every person I interact with is funny and smart and kind and self-aware. But it is self-evident and measurable that white people in the US, in general, are assiduous about the first part of that equation (caring for ourselves) and less than attentive to the second (caring for others).

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Bring red flags, lots of red flags – Part III: burying the lede

[This buzzword-filled and often somewhat patronizing (particularly at the beginning) New York Times Magazine account of entrepreneurs and Ivy League grads from the USA rescuing the poor children of Africa from poverty and ignorance is so filled with disturbing details, portents of disaster, and indications of general bullshit that we will need to take more than one pass at this. You can find part one here and part two here.]

NYT Magazine pieces tend to be heavily formulaic. The second act often introduces the complications and reveals the flaws. It's the journalism school equivalent of something from the Save the Cat beat sheet. It makes a certain amount of sense in terms of story structure, but it means that really, really important stuff (like the hero's a fraud and the miracle cure will actually kill you) doesn't show up until the middle of a very long piece.

In this case, author Peg Tyre waits till about a third of the way through before making her way to the feet of clay.

At the start, the Bridge founders quickly learned that Kenyan parents did not necessarily see Bridge schools as a better option. ‘‘When the first academies opened, our mentality was a bit like, ‘If we build it, they will come,’ ’’ said Marie Leznicki, then Bridge’s vice president of brand strategy, in the Stanford case study. The case study authors explain that one challenge for the company was that parents were largely illiterate and therefore saw little difference among schools. But some academics who have studied the for-profit, low-fee chain say that some poor Kenyan parents were wary of the model. Sending a child to Bridge was more expensive than the village public school, though less expensive than some informal schools. The poorest families simply couldn’t afford the tuition and additional payments that Bridge required. ‘‘They have to pay enrollment fees, they have to pay for uniforms, they have to pay for lunch,’’ says Christopher Kirchgasler, a former charter-school teacher in the United States who spent 10 months studying Bridge schools in Nairobi and Nyeri County, north of Nairobi, for his doctoral dissertation. ‘‘For us, a matter of a few dollars is nothing, but for these very poor families, it can be a monumental obstacle.’’

For many who did enroll, Bridge’s strict payment system quickly became onerous. Bridge’s business in Kenya depends on most parents making routine electronic payments by mobile phone. But slum-dwelling parents in Kenya are mostly occasional workers who rarely have a predictable income. In informal settlements around Nairobi, I visited 10 or so parents in their homes who explained the fragile finances of their lives. A sick child, an uptick in the price of corn meal or even a prolonged rainstorm can throw a family on the margins into an economic crisis. In most informal and public schools, payment terms are flexible, and the subject of protracted negotiation. Bridge says that it works with families to meet their needs. But many people told me that the school sends children home if fees are not paid.

‘‘They tell you, ‘Sit at home with your child until you get the money,’ ’’ says one parent, a vegetable seller married to an unemployed welder who has two children enrolled at a Bridge school in Nairobi’s Mathare slum. Another mother with a 9-year-old child says she found it difficult to make Bridge payments: ‘‘At times I’ve gone without eating so I can pay school fees.’’

Bridge executives say their schools depend on paying customers. ‘‘We get criticized for being bloodless capitalists,’’ Michael Conway, Bridge’s East Africa director of operations, told me when I met him in Nairobi last September, ‘‘but we know families make choices about who gets paid first. We don’t want to be the last vendor paid. If we become that, then our financial model would be difficult to sustain.’’

 At the risk of spelling out what can probably stand on its own, the whole  raison d'être of this company was supposed to be doing well by doing good. If you can't sustain your model without putting the screws to the very people you're supposed to be helping...

Bridge does not comment on the details of its financial performance, so neither May nor Kimmelman would say how many of Bridge’s Kenyan schools maintain enough enrollment to sustain their model. May says that Bridge currently has 80,000 students enrolled, down 10,000 from last year. ‘‘Before the campaign to attack Bridge began, the academies across Kenya were financially sustainable,’’ she says. Conway acknowledged that the situation on the ground made things complicated. ‘‘It is difficult to keep up enrollment and make the schools break even,’’ Conway said, ‘‘because the churn is so high.’’ He explained that in 2017, thousands of enrolled children were not paid up.
We need to stop and mention that the notably bloodless term "churn," which us corporate types generally use to discuss credit cards and gym memberships, in this case refers to major, possibly traumatic disruptions in children's schooling.

Some education experts say that Bridge’s plans for an international chain of low-fee, for-profit private schools rests on a flawed assumption. While such schools can work well for the relatively small number of families in poor communities who have salaries, says Keith Lewin, a professor emeritus of development and international education at the University of Sussex in Britain who has opposed the model, it is unrealistic to expect the most impoverished families to be able to pay. ‘‘People who engage in a discourse around making a vast number of the poorest people in Africa pay $6 every month for school tuition are people who have no idea what the lives of people living at or below the poverty line are actually like.’’

Keep in mind this article started with the familiar disruption narrative: tech entrepreneurs jump into a field with no real background or experience, shake things up with their fresh ideas and radical approaches and blow through problems that had left the established "experts"" befuddled for decades. If it turns out that the disruptors didn't know what they were talking about, their solutions didn't work, and the "experts" were pretty damned expert all along, that probably should have made it into the first few paragraphs.