Sunday, January 31, 2021

Please make it stop

This is Joseph

From the Washington Post:

Meanwhile, the inexorable arithmetic of dollars times demography has taken us past the point of no return. It’s no longer possible to say that, by starting now, we can avert massive, and massively unfair, changes in the promises we have made, or that current beneficiaries have nothing to worry about. That line was crossed even before the emergency budget blowout of 2020 added trillions to the debt tab we will dump on younger generations.

 Honestly, how do we even address this one? First, national debt includes investment (like purchasing a house) and debt used to increase investment can actually improve the long term fiscal outlook of the nation. Second, there is not a shortage of resources to pay for social security. Before you call this an question of all of the programs, note this piece:

A start on mitigation would be for the Social Security Administration to begin including in beneficiary bulletins a disclosure that, starting soon, the system cannot fulfill all of its commitments. The disclosure could then provide sample calculations of the amount of savings a given recipient will need to replace those expected payments under alternative scenarios.

This is not a "Medicare only" concern. But are we really, as a nation, incapable of generating enough wealth to pay social security benefits? By 2035 (somewhat of a demographic local peak), these benefits are projected to rise from 5% of GDP to 6.1% of GDP. But there is room for large tax cuts apparently, such as TCJA. Note that we could cover this entire gap by (for example) raising taxes to the levels of France or Germany. 

This is not to say that there are not risks in budget deficits. But these risks are just as real for tax cuts as they are for entitlement expenses. Similarly, the idea that you should never increase taxes is bonkers, but rather that this needs to be balanced. You could find the difference by dropping military spending to UK levels, for example, and still have revenue to spare. Or follow Matt Yglesias on the road to One Billion Americans, and drop the cost as a % of a much larger GDP. 

There are lots of decisions that can be made. Why are the retirement security programs always the first things on the chopping block? Because it looks like a declaration of values rather than a financial necessity. 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Be very wary of the standard Gamestop narrative

 We'll be coming back to the hopelessly wrong-headed short-seller take (when your arguments come from Elon Musk...), but you should also take a hard look at the "little guys beat the big boys at their own game" headlines. This spike certainly did screw over a multibillion dollar hedge fund, but that doesn't mean that the small retail investors are on the whole going to come out ahead on this. If this is a once and future $5 stock, it's safe to say that a lot of RobinHood traders will not (did not?) time the peak.

 Putting aside the complicated options discussion for a later time, we have reason to  believe that for every individual investor who bought at $20 and sold at $200, there are a few who jumped in after the stock had gone up 1,000%. 2021 is not likely to go well for the latter group.



As always, for a smart take on a muddled story I recommend Hiltzik.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

If I had waited three years, I would have had much better examples

 The big difference that jumps out at me comparing the view now and then is that in 2017 I felt compelled to make the case that the delusional fringe was big enough to threaten the GOP.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The GOP needs the crazies more than the crazies need the GOP.

The following is not really a voting paradox, but it is kind of in the neighborhood. You have three stockholders for a company. A holds 48% of the shares, B holds 49%, and C holds 3%. Assuming that any decision needs to be approved by people holding a majority, who has the most power? The slightly counterintuitive answer is no one. Each shareholder is equal since an alliance of any two will produce a majority.

Now let's generalize the idea somewhat. Let's say you have N shareholders whom you have brought together to form a majority. Some of the members of your alliance have a large number of shares, some have very few, but even the one with the smallest stake has enough that if he or she drops out, you will be below 50%. In this scenario, every member of the alliance has equal veto power.

I apologize for the really, really basic fun-with-math explanation, but this principle has become increasingly fundamental in 21st-century politics. At the risk of oversimplifying, elections come down to my number of supporters times my turnout percentage versus your number supporters times your turnout percentage. Arguably the fundamental piece of the conservative movement has been to focus on ways to maximize Republican turnout while suppressing democratic turnout. (Yes, I'm leaving a lot out but bear with me.)

There are at least a couple of obvious inherent dangers in this approach. The first is that there is an upper bound for turnout percentage. This is especially worrisome when the number of your supporters is decreasing. Sen. Lindsey Graham was alluding to this when he observed that they weren't making enough new old white men to keep the GOP strategy going.

There is, however, another danger which can potentially be even worse. When you need nearly 100% of your supporters to show up to the polls in order to win, you create a situation where virtually every faction of your base has veto power. One somewhat perverse advantage of the large base/low turnout model is that groups of supporters can be interchangeable. You have lots of situations where you can alienate a small segment but more than make up for it elsewhere. In and of itself, this allows for a great deal of flexibility, but the really important part is the power dynamic. You have to represent a large constituency in order to wield veto power.

Probably since 2008 and certainly since 2012, pretty much every nontrivial faction of the GOP has held veto power which means the question is no longer who has it, but who is willing to use it. The Tea Party was the first to realize this. Now the alt-right has caught on to the dynamic as well.

Even with increasingly aggressive and shameless voter suppression techniques, Republicans tend to get fewer votes. It is true that they have, through smart strategy and tactics, managed to get an extraordinary number of offices out of those votes, but it is a precarious situation. We can debate how many people really believe in shadowy Jewish banker conspiracies or Martian slave labor camps, but it is almost certainly a large enough group to sway some close elections if the crazies collectively decided to go home or, worse yet, opt for a third party.

Ed Kilgore (whom I follow and generally respect) had a badly ill-informed post Trump Should Emulate Buckley and Tell Racists: ‘I Don’t Want Your Vote.’ That simply won't work for Trump or the GOP. They need the crazies more than the crazies need them.


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Smullyan's vampires and and insane humans might come in handy

Particularly at a time when identifying the truly crazy has become a high priority.

For those not familiar with the late, great mathematician-philosopher-magician's work...

Inspector Craig Visits TransylvaniaInspector Craig of Scotland Yard was called to Transylvania to solve some cases of vampirism. Arriving there, he found the country inhabited both by vampires and humans. Vampires always lie and humans always tell the truth. However, half the inhabitants, both human and vampire, are insane and totally deluded in their beliefs: all true propositions they believe false, and all false propositions they believe true. The other half of the inhabitants are completely sane: all true statements they know to be true, and all false statements they know to be false. Thus sane humans and insane vampires make only true statements; insane humans and sane vampires make only false statements. Inspector Craig met two sisters, Lucy and Minna. He knew that one was a vampire and one was a human, but knew nothing about the sanity of either. Here is the investigation: Craig (to Lucy): Tell me about yourselves. Lucy: We are both insane. Craig (to Minna): Is that true? Minna: Of course not! From this, Craig was able to prove which of the sisters was the vampire. Which one was it?— From Logician Raymond Smullyan

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

This may not be the perfect bitcoin story, but it's pretty damned close

This sort of thing happens more often than you'd expect... unless you've kept up with the crypto world, in which case this sort of thing happens exactly as often as you'd expect.

 From CNN:

 A British man who accidentally threw a hard drive loaded with bitcoin into the trash has offered the local authority where he lives more than $70 million if it allows him to excavate a landfill site.

IT worker James Howells got rid of the drive, which held a digital store of 7,500 bitcoins, between June and August in 2013. He had originally mined the virtual currency four years earlier when it was of little value. 

But when the cryptocurrency shot up in value and he went in search of it, he discovered that he had mistakenly thrown the hard drive out with the trash.  

Now, with his lost bitcoin having soared even further, Howells has approached Newport City Council in Wales to ask for permission to dig a specific section of the landfill site where he believes the hard drive ended up. 


"The value of the hard drive is over £200m (around $273 million) and I'm happy to share a portion of that with the people of Newport should I be given the opportunity to search for it. Approximately 50% would be for investors who put up the capital to fund the project, and I would be left with the remaining 25%," he added.

Of course the city, realizing the vanishingly small likelihood of finding and retrieving data from a hard drive thrown away almost seven years ago, has chosen not to approve this, but hope is not yet lost for Howells. Fortunately for him, the kind of people who would invest millions in a bitcoin scheme seldom have a really strong grasp of the concept of expected value.

Monday, January 25, 2021

"So it would appear that, in August of the election year, we have a political party not so subtly suggesting that its nominee should drop out."

I had forgotten about this bit of wishful thinking from the GOP almost five years ago.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

"On any other day, that might seem strange"

[I didn't realize it until I started doing the background reading, but the parts about the Collegiate Network fit nicely with the origins-of-conservative-media-in-the-seventies thread that started yesterday and will continue when I get around to commenting on this.]

If, like me, you're spending way too much time on political news lately, you certainly heard about this report from ABC's Jonathan Karl:
Republican officials are exploring how to handle a scenario that would be unthinkable in a normal election year: What would happen if the party's presidential nominee dropped out?

ABC News has learned that senior party officials are so frustrated — and confused — by Donald Trump's erratic behavior that they are exploring how to replace him on the ballot if he drops out.

As the reliable Josh Marshall has pointed out, there is no direct evidence from the Trump camp that the candidate has any thoughts of dropping out. These rumors look something like trial balloons, albeit an odd one, since the event in question is unlikely and, more to the point, the people floating the balloon have no say in whether it happens.

Rather than speculate on the intent of the message (hint, empty threat, groundwork for intervention, blowing off steam -- I'm kidding about that last one), I think it's more interesting to think about the path this and other stories take to get to our news feeds. In situations like this, the source of the rumors is often more telling than the content. In this case, that would be Karl, and that is remarkably informative.

Karl is not just a conservative journalist, he is a carefully cultivated product of a decades-long, highly successful conservative movement media initiative.

The Collegiate Network (CN) is a non-profit tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization that provides financial and technical assistance to student editors and writers of roughly 100 independent, conservative and libertarian publications at leading colleges and universities around the United States. The CN estimates that member publications have a combined annual distribution of more than two million[citation needed]. Since 1995, the CN has been administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware


In 1979, the Institute For Educational Affairs (IEA) responded to the request of two University of Chicago students for start-up funding for a new conservative newspaper, Counterpoint. By 1980, the grant program had been expanded and named the Collegiate Network, and by 1983, under the continuing administration of the IEA, had added both internships and persistent operating grants for conservative campus newspapers. In 1990, the Madison Center for Educational Affairs merged with the IEA to maintain funding for what had expanded to 57 conservative student publications. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute took over operations in 1995 and has since administered the CN from Wilmington, Delaware.

Take a look at a few of his fellow alumni: Matthew Continetti, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, Laura Ingraham, Rich Lowry, John Podhoretz, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Peter Thiel.

Here's a characteristically blunt take on the relationship from Charles Pierce back in 2013:
Long ago, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio once told me that she thought my craft went bad when it became the province almost exclusively of the over-educated, that it had professionalized itself out of its traditional role, that she wished there were a few more people practicing journalism who'd first worked on a loading dock, or in a mine, the way people used to come to the job. Here, with Karl, we apparently have a perfect product of the well-financed and staggeringly successful network of conservative institutions and programs launched more than 40 years ago by The Powell Memo. Assuming the FAIR report is accurate, then Jonathan Karl was not trained as a journalist, because the Collegiate Network doesn't produce journalists. It produces partisan warriors. He was not trained as a reporter, because the Collegiate Network doesn't produce reporters. It produces propagandists. He was not trained as a newsman, because the Collegiate Network doesn't produce newsmen. It produces hacks.

This is, of course, indelicate for someone in my business to say but, at every level of his steady rise in the business, some executive should have looked at Karl's resume, seen The Collegiate Network there, and then shitcanned the thing before the interview process even began. Are there conservatives who are good reporters? Absolutely. But all the ones that I know came up the same way I did, and none of them came up through the coddled terrariums of the activist Right. They learned their craft. They were not trained to be spies in the camp of the enemy. They were not trained to be moles. And every damn one of them would have checked those phony e-mails before throwing them out to the public, and most of them wouldn't have fallen for them, because they are journalists, reporters, and newsmen. They are not partisan warriors, propagandists, or hacks. If Jonathan Karl doesn't like being called a hack, then he should stop being a hack. Here's one way to do it.

Like many successful journalists including Woodward and Bernstein, Karl's career is largely based on his close relationship with a network of well-placed contacts. In this case, the contacts are overwhelmingly in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, when Jonathan Karl breaks the story, it is usually something that the leadership of the GOP would like to get out there.

So it would appear that, in August of the election year, we have a political party not so subtly suggesting that its nominee should drop out. Even if nothing comes of it, that is an extraordinary development.

But these  are strange times.


Friday, January 22, 2021

Back in 2013, we suggested that the Conservative Movement was losing control of its disinformation machine and the result threatened the GOP...

I'm trying not to be too dickish about this but, yes, there is a degree of "we told you so" in these reposts. It's satisfying to go back and see that most or your old arguments (some of which very much ran counter to conventional wisdom) have held up over the years. There is, however, a more important point. One of the ways we check the quality of our hypotheses and narratives is to see how well they age. If you keep telling variations on the same story for eight or ten years and it continues to be reasonable and relevant, perhaps there's something to it.

 From Journalistic Decline and GOP Dysfunction

On the right wing media side, journalists traded off their normal role as providers of feedback in order to be more effective motivators. This is perhaps most obvious with Ailes and Fox News where the goal (after turning a profit) was clearly to shape (and in some cases, falsify) the facts in such a way as to keep the base loyal and energized. In the short term, the strategy worked well but it always had inherent risks, risks that have finally started doing serious damage.

You can read this partly as a cautionary tale of Straussianism gone awry. The first, the most fundamental assumption of any society based on the noble lie is that you have a hierarchy with well-defined classes of the liars and the lied-to and that all major decisions are made by people in the first class.

Here's an analogy: officers have been known to paint overly rosy pictures for soldiers ("Things are going great on the Western front." "The enemy's factories are in ruins." "Victory is near."). We can argue over the ethics of this kind of lying, but it's easy to see why some officers might do it.

Now imagine that through a combination of field promotions, broken lines of communication and general confusion,  strategic and tactical decisions start being made by people who actually believe all of the misinformation that was fed to the ranks. I'm no military historian but I'm fairly sure this would probably end badly.

We had a pretty clear example of this kind of a breakdown in the Romney team's analysis of poll data in the last days of the election. There was clear value for Romney in having his supporters believe that he was ahead but that value was more than negated by having his advisers believe the same misinformation. You can see similar dysfunction in the recent shutdown where many congressmen made what now appear to be disastrous decisions based apparently sincere belief in such Fox News talking point as "people won't get that upset about a shutdown."

Put more broadly, the processes that allow the right version of the truth to get to the right people – something that has been an integral part of the Republican strategy – has seemingly broken down entirely.

In addition to the largely random flow of misinformation, conservative media created an unforeseen problem in the rank and file with narrative momentum. When most members of a group get much of their information from outside, there's a natural friction on in-group narratives when members realize that their version is not shared by the general public. Conservative media is immersive to an unprecedented degree. Narratives like "the only time Republicans lose is when they become too moderate" are allowed to build unchecked.

On a related note, the immersive quality also greatly facilitates social norming. This greatly encourages extreme positions and widens the gap when members of the group try to communicate with outsiders.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

It would have been wrong somehow if the Trump administration hadn't seen a Bitcoin resurgence

Fortunately,  the Financial Times has been doing its usual first-rate job poking at the bubble. Here Jemima Kelly explains how meaningless the standard Bitcoin narrative is. The whole piece is highly recommended as is the HODL link and Trolly's blog.

The first problem is that bitcoin is not of course a company — nor even, we would argue, an asset — so working out its “market cap” is a non-starter. As some of you might remember, it was originally designed to be a currency that could be used to buy actual things! And although it fails to meet all the criteria that would make it a currency, it does have one thing in common with it: its price is underpinned by sheer faith. The difference being that with fiat currencies, that faith is effectively placed in the governments of the nation states who issue them, whereas for bitcoin, the faith is placed in . . . the hope that other people will keep having the faith. A faith in faith, if you will.

Another problem is that although 18.6m bitcoins have indeed been mined, far fewer can actually be said to be “in circulation” in any meaningful way.

For a start, it is estimated that about 20 per cent of bitcoins have been lost in various ways, never to be recovered. Then there are the so-called “whales” that hold most of the bitcoin, whose dominance of the market has risen in recent months. The top 2.8 per cent of bitcoin addresses now control 95 per cent of the supply (including many that haven’t moved any bitcoin for the past half-decade), and more than 63 per cent of the bitcoin supply hasn’t been moved for the past year, according to recent estimates.

What all this means is that real liquidity — the actual available supply of bitcoin — is very low indeed. That’s quite obvious even without knowing the stats above from the price moves — you don’t see smooth ups and downs like you might expect in other markets where the demand is coming from real supply-and-demand dynamics rather than speculation, but sudden lurches upwards and cliff-like drops.

So the idea that you can get out of your bitcoin position at any time and the market will stay intact is frankly a nonsense. And that’s why the bitcoin religion’s “HODL” mantra is so important to be upheld, of course.

Because if people start to sell, bad things might happen! And they sometimes do. The excellent crypto critic Trolly McTrollface (not his real name, if you’re curious) pointed out on Twitter that on Saturday a sale of just 150 bitcoin resulted in a 10 per cent drop in the price. As Trolly said to us over the phone:

If you can destroy the market like that in the space of seven or eight minutes, that shows there is no liquidity and no depth — nobody is there to take the other side of the trade when things start moving. You have these extreme moves because everyone is on the same side.

More than 2,000 wallets contain over 1,000 bitcoin in them. What would happen to the price if just one of those tried to unload their coins on to the market at once? It wouldn’t be pretty, we would wager.
    What we call the “bitcoin price” is in fact only the price of the very small number of bitcoins that wash around the retail market, and doesn’t represent the price that 18.6m bitcoins would actually be worth, even if they were all actually available.

So the “market cap” is in this way nonsense multiplied. You times two things together that don’t reflect what they claim to — the “circulating supply” and the “price” — and voilà!

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

For some reason, this feels like the real end of 2020

So here's some music for a belated New Year's Day. 


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Real World Evidence and the covid-19 vaccine

This is Joseph

Israel is currently the world leader in giving vaccines for covid-19 with > 2 million first doses and only 400,000 second doses. They are also in the midst of a surge of cases, among those with a single shot. Now some of this can be attributed to people taking risks before the vaccine has time to kick in and build antibodies. But it shows the challenges of estimating the actual outcome of policies like "First Doses First" without trial evidence. 

Now this approach may yet be vindicated -- it is too early in the Israeli experiment to draw firm conclusions and the popular press account lacks a great deal of information other than that the country is setting case records. We may find out that things end up better than it currently looks once the analysis allows tighter sequencing between vaccine timeline and incident infections. 

But I think that this just emphasizes how important it is to get a wide rollout of the full vaccine protocol in the most expedient manner possible. 

Vaccination is the ultimate stimulus

One of the great strengths of Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal is his insistence on making sure listeners never have a chance to forget fundamental context. He opens or closes segments with reminders that the the markets are not the economy and that China doesn't pay the tariffs, we do.

Marketplace has also consistently pointed out that the economy can't recover in the middle of a deadly pandemic. The corollary being that the best way to help the economy is to speed up distribution of the mRNA vaccines and, perhaps more importantly, fast track the approval for AstraZeneca.

But it could be hard to sustain that optimism in the short term, said economist Robert Frick at Navy Federal Credit Union.

“If retail spending doesn’t climb back, if companies aren’t really investing because so many people have COVID, we can’t ignore how tough the next few months are going to be,” Frick said.

He predicts that six months from now, by midsummer, enough people will have been vaccinated that spending will pick up again. More people will be making restaurant reservations, going out to shop and buying airline tickets.

But, “a lot of people are assuming it’s going to be like a light switch,” Frick said. “Given the troubles with vaccine rollout and the number of people who don’t want to get vaccinated, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, which is herd immunity. That’s going to take probably not until some time next year.”

Harvard economist Jason Furman said the economy is gonna have a lot of fuel to burn.

“People will have money. They actually had higher incomes after taxes and transfers in 2020 than normal, [and] they had lower spending,” Furman said. “So there will be about $2 trillion of dry powder — of excess saving — to spend.” 

Furman said there will be two big problems, though: A lot of long-term unemployed people will be out of savings altogether, and a lot of businesses will have closed their doors for good.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Martin Luther King’s Acceptance Speech, on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, December 10, 1964

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice. I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace …

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity. This same road has opened for all Americans a new era of progress and hope. It has led to a new Civil Rights Bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a super highway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that We Shall overcome!

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. I say I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally.

Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible – the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.

So you honor the dedicated pilots of our struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit. You honor, once again, Chief Lutuli of South Africa, whose struggles with and for his people, are still met with the most brutal expression of man’s inhumanity to man. You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth. Most of these people will never make the headline and their names will not appear in Who’s Who. Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvellous age in which we live – men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization – because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.

… peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.

I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners – all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty – and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.


Friday, January 15, 2021

A must read from Marginal Revolution

This is Joseph.

We get a bit testy with MR from time to time (see here) but this is completely on the mark:

A vaccine isn’t like a limited supply of water that needs to be rationed until you arrive at the next oasis. The sooner you get the vaccine out the better! Start lowering R now! If you run out of vaccine, well scarcity is bad but running out means that at least one part of your system is working well!

Now there might be other reasons why this plan is being adopted. Public health and vaccine logistics are hard -- very hard-working people are taking on once in a generation level challenges to sort out a complex cold chain and logistics problem. Hard to second guess the people in the trenches.

But the explanation should be clarified. Like is it spacing out second doses or because of clinic capacity? Or, if spacing the shots out is the sole reason, I see easy opportunities to improve vaccine delivery. 

Another old post that seems relevant


Rational actors, stag hunts and the GOP

We have hit this idea in passing a few times in the past (particularly when discussing the Ponzi threshold), but I don't believe we've ever done a post on it. While there's nothing especially radical about the idea (it shows up in discussions of risk fairly frequently), it is different enough to require a conscious shift in thinking and, under certain circumstances, it can have radically different implications.

Most of the time, we tend to think of rational behavior in terms of optimizing expected values, but it is sometimes useful to think in terms of maximizing the probability of being above or below a certain threshold. Consider the somewhat overly dramatic example of a man told that he will be killed by a loan shark if he doesn't have $5000 by the end of the day. In this case, putting all of his money on a long shot at the track might well be his most rational option.

You can almost certainly think of less extreme cases where you have used the same approach, trying to figure out the best way to ensure you had at least a certain amount of money in your checking account or had set aside enough for a mortgage payment.

Often, these two ways of thinking about rational behavior are interchangeable, but not always. Our degenerate gambler is one example, and I've previously argued that overvalued companies like Uber or Netflix are another, the one I've been thinking about a lot recently is the Republican Party and its relationship with Trump.

Without going into too much detail (these are subjects for future posts), one of the three or four major components of the conservative movement's strategy was a social engineering experiment designed to create a loyal and highly motivated base. The initiative worked fairly well for a while, but with the rise of the tea party and then the Trump wing, the leaders of the movement lost control of the faction they had created. (Have we done a post positing the innate instability of the Straussian model and other systems based on disinformation? I've lost track.)

In 2016, the Republican Party had put itself in the strange position of having what should have been their most reliable core voters fanatically loyal to someone completely indifferent to the interests of the party, someone who was capable of and temperamentally inclined to bringing the whole damn building down it forced out. Since then, I would argue that the best way of understanding the choices of those Republicans not deep in the cult of personality is to think of them optimizing against a shifting threshold.

Trump's 2016 victory was only possible because a number of things lined up exactly right, many of which were dependent on the complacency of Democratic voters, the press, and the political establishment. Repeating this victory in 2020 without the advantage of surprise would require Trump to have exceeded expectations and started to win over non-supporters. Even early in 2017, this seemed unlikely, so most establishment Republicans started optimizing for a soft landing, hoping to hold the house in 2018 while minimizing the damage from 2020. They did everything they could to delay investigations into Trump scandals, attempted to surround him with "grown-ups," and presented a unified front while taking advantage of what was likely to be there last time at the trough for a while.

Even shortly before the midterms, it became apparent that a soft landing was unlikely and the threshold shifted to hard landing. The idea of expanding on the Trump base was largely abandoned as were any attempts to restrain the president. The objective now was to maintain enough of a foundation to rebuild up on after things collapsed.

With recent events, particularly the shutdown, the threshold shifted again to party viability. Arguably the primary stated objective of the conservative movement has always been finding a way to maintain control in a democracy while promoting unpopular positions. This inevitably results in running on thinner and thinner margins. The current configuration of the movement has to make every vote count. This gives any significant faction of the base the power to cost the party any or all elections for the foreseeable future.

It is not at all clear how the GOP would fill the hole left by a defection of the anti-immigrant wing or of those voters who are personally committed to Trump regardless of policy. Having these two groups suddenly and unexpectedly at odds with each other (they had long appeared inseparable) is tremendously worrisome for Republicans, but even a unified base can't compensate for sufficiently unpopular policies. Another shutdown or the declaration of a state of emergency both appear to have the potential to damage the party's prospects not just in 2020 but in the following midterms and perhaps even 2024.

So far, the changes in optimal strategy associated with the shifting thresholds have been fairly subtle, but if the threshold drops below party viability, things get very different very quickly. We could and probably should frame this in terms of stag hunts and Nash equilibria but you don't need to know anything about game theory to understand that when a substantial number of people in and around the Republican Party establishment stop acting under the assumption that there will continue to be a Republican Party, then almost every other assumption we make about the way the party functions goes out the window.

Just to be clear, I'm not making predictions about what the chaos will look like; I'm saying you can't make predictions about it. A year from now we are likely to be in completely uncharted water and any pundit or analyst who makes confident data-based pronouncements about what will or won't happen is likely to lose a great deal of credibility.


Thursday, January 14, 2021

One of the many benefits of media consolidation

Ken Levine (MASH, Cheers, Simpsons, you name it) has a non-covid explanation for Warners decision to simultaneously streaming all of its theatrical on the under-performing HBO-Max. It all comes down to the great foundational principle of Hollywood accounting, self-dealing.

Let’s go back to the ‘80s and that now quaint form of entertainment -- television.   If you had a hit sitcom the studio would sell it into syndication to the highest bidders.  If you happened to be a writer or actor or director who had a piece of the show you got insanely rich.  The studios would get richer, but that’s fair.  They also laid out all the money above the license fee to produce the show.  And lots of shows fail and the studios lose money.  But still, in success, everybody scored big.  

Then the studios started launching cable networks.  And of course they needed product.  Let’s take MASH — an absolute cash cow in syndication.  Owned by 20th Century Fox.  The studio debuted FX.  The studio decided to run multiple episodes of MASH.  Its value in syndication dropped because no longer were local markets the exclusive provider of the show.  20th made less money on MASH.  But they made more money on FX.  They sold and kept all the advertising.  Anyone who was a profit participant in MASH got screwed.   As a result, Alan Alda sued 20th and won a hefty settlement.   

The point is 20th was more concerned with their cable channel than one of their shows.   This type of thing happens when giant conglomerates take over studios.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

We are about to enter a period of great retroactive courage

Lots of commentators and journalists are going to start recalling just how bravely they stood up to hateful rhetoric and right-wing disinformation. It's useful to remember how much flack people like  Gabriel Sherman had to take for using a five letter word for a spade.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How things got this bad -- part 4,675

I was digging through the archives researching an upcoming post and I came across a link from 2014. It led to a Talking Points Memo article that I had meant to write about at the time but had never gotten around to.

Since then, we have learned just how much the mainstream media was covering for Roger Ailes. Ideological differences proved trivial compared to social and professional ties and an often symbiotic relationship. We have also seen how unconcerned the mainstream press (and particularly the New York Times) can be a bout a genuinely chilling attack on journalism as long as that attack is directed at someone the establishment does not like.

It was a good read in 2014, but it has gained considerable resonance since then.

From Tom Kludt:

Janet Maslin didn’t much care for Gabriel Sherman’s critical biography of Roger Ailes. In her review of “The Loudest Voice in the Room” for the New York Times on Sunday, Maslin was sympathetic to Ailes and argued that Sherman’s tome was hollow. But what Maslin didn’t note is her decades-long friendship with an Ailes employee.

Gawker’s J.K. Trotter reported Wednesday on Maslin’s close bond with Peter Boyer, the former Newsweek reporter who joined Fox News as an editor in 2012. In a statement provided to Gawker, a Times spokeswoman dismissed the idea that the relationship posed a conflict of interest.

“Janet Maslin has been friends with Peter Boyer since the 1980’s when they worked together at The Times,” the spokeswoman said. “Her review of Gabe Sherman’s book was written independent of that fact.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

As a friend of mine put it, "if your base is sending you pipe bombs, they're no longer really YOUR base"

 One of the points we've been making for years is that is that the central driver in the relationship between Trump and the GOP is his ability and apparent willingness if pushed to take the base (which now consists largely of a cult of personality) and go home. Particularly for a small-tent party built on squeezing wins out of tight margins, the loss of a previously loyal base would be devastating, even fatal and the fear of such a disaster cowed good soldiers like Graham into complete and humiliating submission. 

While there was a certain craven logic to appeasement, "we need to hold the base" arguments may now have a subtle flaw.

From an op-ed by Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer (an Iraq veteran) [emphasis added]

 Before the assault, Trump had addressed the crowd and urged his loyalists to march on the Capitol, “to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones … give them the pride and boldness they need to take back our country.”

They took something alright. Hours later, after the Capitol was cleared of insurrectionists, with windows shattered and the smell of tear gas lingering, the consequences of his dangerous lies became clear. As we moved to accept Arizona’s electors, a fellow freshman lingered near a voting terminal, voting card in hand.

My colleague told me that efforts to overturn the election were wrong, and that voting to certify was a constitutional duty. But my colleague feared for family members, and the danger the vote would put them in. Profoundly shaken, my colleague voted to overturn.

An angry mob succeeded in threatening at least one member of Congress from performing what that member understood was a constitutional responsibility.


Those of us who refused to cower, who have told the truth, have suffered the consequences. Republican colleagues who have spoken out have been accosted on the street, received death threats, and even assigned armed security.

I have been called a traitor more times than I can count. I regret not bringing my gun to D.C.

Interestingly, much of the fury seems focused on those who had been the most obsequious to Trump.

  From Talking Points Memo:

  She amplified many adoring tweets about Wood, including one theorizing that Wood was using his Twitter account to leak coded intelligence via tweets about Vice President Mike Pence deserving to be executed. Many of her recent retweets concern Pence being a traitor, including one that suggests Jeffrey Epstein was murdered because he had dirt on the Vice President. That theme follows Trump’s own behavior, as he has become increasingly infuriated with the Vice President for not exercising his power — power Pence does not actually have — to name him President for another term.


Many of her tweets actually express discontent with the Republican Party. In response to a tweet about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocking the $2,000 stimulus checks, she asserted that “D or R..y’all all have your dirty ass fingers in the same cookie jar,” ending her message with shorthand for the QAnon mantra “where we go one, we go all.”  

Monday, January 11, 2021

Perhaps the most powerful man in the world is a narcissistic con artist propped up by a cult of personality (and don't get me started on Donald Trump)

At least if you buy the money is power theory.

New York (CNN Business) Elon Musk edged past Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to grab the title of world's richest person, according to Bloomberg.

A 6% rise in Tesla (TSLA) shares early Thursday lifted the value of its CEO's stock holdings and options by $10 billion, taking his net worth to about $191 billion. A more modest rise of less than 2% lifted Bezos' Amazon (AMZN) shares by about $3 billion, putting his net worth at $187 billion.
Bloomberg's real-time billionaire tracker still has Bezos about $3 billion ahead of Musk. But the tracker doesn't update until the end of the trading day. Bloomberg posted an article confirming Musk's title.
Bill Gates is now a distant third at $132 billion, according to Bloomberg.



In case the printing is too small on the P/E ratio... 


Friday, January 8, 2021

We are still the nation that rolled out three liberty ships every two days

Extraordinary story out of Northern California. 

For me, the most depressing aspect of the pandemic, particularly over the past few weeks, has been the lack of urgency and focus. It is bad enough in normal times living in a solution-phobic society where navel gazing and hot takes now pass for public discourse, but in a time of crisis, it's the stuff of madness. 

While thousands are dying each day and a frightening new variant is emerging, we have at least five vaccines ranging from pretty good to exceptional (two from the US, one from Great Britain, one from Russia and one from China). We should be moving as fast as possible, up to a occasionally beyond the bounds of safety to get shots in as many arms as possible and probably go ahead and pull the trigger on AstraZeneca as well.

Ukiah is a poor rural town of about 16,000. They have few resources and lots of challenges, but they responded to a crisis like it was a crisis which these days is sadly the exception rather than the rule.

Anita Chabria writing for the LA Times.

At 11:35 on Monday morning, senior staff at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley Medical Center in Mendocino County were holding their first 2021 executive meeting when the hospital pharmacist interrupted: The compressor on a freezer storing 830 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine had stopped working hours earlier, and the alarm meant to guard against such failure had failed.

The doses were quickly thawing.

“It was not how my day was planned,” said Adventist spokeswoman Cici Winiger, who was in the executive meeting. “At that point it was all hands on deck, drop everything.”

The Moderna vaccine is shipped and stored at frozen temperatures, and stays stable up to 8 degrees Celsius in a regular refrigerator for up to 30 days. But once it reaches room temperature, as it did in the Adventist freezer, it must be used within 12 hours. By the time the freezer problem was discovered, the vials had been creeping toward warm for some time.

Medical staff estimated they had two hours to use them before they would no longer be viable.

With the minutes ticking down, the medical team made the decision that the goal would be to inject every dose, regardless of state guidelines. The medical team believed that “the more people we vaccinate just brings us closer to herd immunity,” Winiger said.

Winiger got on the phone, trying to give the shots first to those on the priority lists. One local elder care facility took 40 doses for staff, and the hospital’s chief medical officer drove them to the facility himself.

About 200 doses belong to the county and were being stored by the hospital. Winiger said those doses were returned to the county. The county in turn gave 100 doses to the city of Ukiah, county Chief Executive Carmel J. Angelo said.


An additional 100 doses hit the fire department about 12:15 p.m., Fire Chief Doug Hutchison said. At first, garbled information he received through phone calls left him fearing all 800 doses were coming his way, leaving him thinking, “There is no way,” he said. His full-time staff of 16 had already been promised to help with other clinics.

Hutchison headed to a city conference center, and his remaining crew “began giving shots as fast as we could sit people down and roll up their sleeve,” he said. Their syringes went into the arms of police, essential city staff and firefighters — including Hutchison, who had declined earlier offerings of the vaccine to make sure his staff got it first.

“I was trying to make sure all my people got shots before I did,” he said.


In Mendocino County, Bednar, the sheriff’s lieutenant, was one of those who received the initial dose Monday, though he isn’t yet sure how he feels about it.

“It’s one of those things where I was a little hesitant at first because it’s a new vaccine,” he said. “But I have family that is older, and it’s better that I get it than possibly risk their safety.”

Even as the shots were being delivered to the jail, a big-rig accident on one of the main highways cut the hospital off from its sister facility about 20 minutes away, Winiger said, making it impossible to reach. Ukiah, a town of about 20,000 surrounded by state and national forest, has a population spread through its rural and often difficult-to-navigate territory, creating a daunting challenge to quickly deliver the doses to remote areas.

The Adventist staff turned instead to the local community, with about 600 shots remaining.

First, they sent a text asking every available medical professional to turn out at one of four sites to give the vaccines and monitor those who took them.

“We had nurses, pharmacists, physicians, even those that are not part of the hospital, coming to help,” said Judson Howe, president for Adventist Health in Mendocino County. “It was all hands on deck and a true community effort.”

Then hospital staff blasted out a text to employees letting people know that anyone who showed up could have the shot. “We just wanted to make sure none of this goes to waste,” Winiger said.

By noon, within 15 minutes after learning of the freezer failure, shots were being administered at all four sites. Lines began to form as word spread and some staff was siphoned off for crowd control. At the site Winiger ran, about 30 people were turned away after the doses ran out. At the main site near the hospital, she estimates about 120 people left without the shot.

But by the two-hour deadline, every dose had found a patient, Winiger said.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

How we saw it then -- III


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

GOP Game Theory -- things are still different

"It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

    LBJ on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,

[UPDATE: The conversation continues with The nuclear moose option and The Republicans' 3 x 3 existential threat.]

Let's start with a prediction:
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted on Tuesday that Republicans will split with President Trump within months unless the administration changes course.0
"My prediction is he keeps up on this path...within three, four months you're going to see a whole lot of Republicans breaking with him," Schumer said during an interview with ABC's "The View."
Schumer argued while most GOP lawmakers aren't yet willing to break publicly from the White House, they are privately having "real problems" with Trump's policies in his first month.

"A lot of the Republicans, they're mainstream people. ... They will feel they have no choice but to break with him," he said.
GOP leadership are largely dismissing any early signs of discord between Congress and the White House as they slowly try to make progress on an ambitious agenda.

Ed Kilgore, however, points out that Trump may not be as toxic as many people think:

So while it is hard to deny that Trump is amazingly unpopular for a new president, unless his approval ratings trend farther down the way even those of popular presidents typically do, his party may not suffer the kind of humiliation Democrats experienced in 2010. For all the shock Trump has consistently inspired with his behavior as president, there’s not much objective reason for Republican politicians to panic and begin abandoning him based on his current public standing. But in this as in so many other respects, we are talking about an unprecedented chief executive, so the collapse some in the media and the Democratic Party perceive as already underway could yet arrive.

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.

The closest analogy that comes to mind is the Democrats and Vietnam, but that was a rift in a big-tent loosely organized party. The 21st Century GOP is a small tent party that depends on discipline and entrenchment strategies. It's not clear that it would survive a civil war.

Given that, I suspect the next year or two will prove Schumer wrong. There is some evidence that the president's polling has stabilized, perhaps even rebounded a bit, but even if the numbers go back into free fall, Republicans in the House and the Senate will be extremely reluctant to break from Trump with anything more than isolated or cosmetic challenges.

This isn't just a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent pissing in; this is a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent tossing grenades. 

How we saw it then -- II


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Wages of Strauss* -- Part II (Josh edition)

[*Joseph (who knows more than a normal person should on these matters) took mild exception to the previous post in this thread, specifically the way I used Straussianism as a crude shorthand for an argument that goes back to Athens. He's right but I don't have the time to do it right. (What do you expect from a blog?)]

A few days ago, I argued that the conservative movement was based on "the assumption that governing must be done by the intellectually superior elite," so they had put in place "strategies and tactics designed to allow small groups to gain and hold power in a democracy" which left them "vulnerable to hostile takeover" such as the one launched by Donald Trump.

If I would have known about this piece by Josh Barro, I definitely would have included the following quotes:
It's not normal for a political party to rent frontrunner status to cranks and charlatans for weeks at a time. Disastrous candidates are supposed to be blocked by validating institutions. Policy experts explain that their proposals do not add up. The media covers embarrassing incidents from their past and present. Party leaders warn that they will be embarrassing or incompetent or unelectable.

The problem is that Republicans have purposefully torn down the validating institutions. They have convinced voters that the media cannot be trusted; they have gotten them used to ignoring inconvenient facts about policy; and they have abolished standards of discourse by allowing all complaints about offensiveness to be lumped into a box called "political correctness" and ignored.

Republicans waged war on these institutions for a reason. Facts about policy can be inconvenient — a reality-based approach would find, for example, that tax cuts increase the deficit and carbon emissions cause climate change. Acknowledging the validity of complaints about racism could require some awkward conversations with racist and quasi-racist voters in the Republican coalition.

Of course, we're now seeing the unintended consequence of the destruction of those institutions and the boundaries they impose around candidate acceptability: In doing so, Republicans created a hole that Donald Trump could fly his 757 through.

Josh Marshall is also making similar points:
If you look around over the last week there are a number of highly sophisticated Republican voices arguing that Donald Trump is the sort of demagogue and potential strongman our political system was designed to prevent from gaining power in our country. ,,, they would be far more credible if so many Republicans - not necessarily the same writers, but countless formal and informal spokespersons including numerous high-ranking elected officials - hadn't spent the last seven years ranting that the temperamentally cautious and cerebral Barack Obama was a 'dictator' who was trampling the constitution.

 Trumpism is the product of many things. But a key one of them, perhaps the key enabling one, is years of originating and pandering to increasingly apocalyptic and hyperbolic conspiracy theories, fantasies and fever dreams which put middle aged white men up against the metaphorical wall with a thug, foreign, black nationalist, anti-colonialist Barack Obama shaking them down for their money, their liberty, their women and even their lawn furniture.

How we saw it then -- I


Thursday, March 10, 2016

The wages of Strauss are Trump

[Yet another topic that I will have to rush through to get something on the blog -- literally dictated to my phone -- then hopefully come back later and fill in the details.]

If you start from the assumption that governing must be done by the intellectually superior elite and that handing over power to the masses will lead to disaster, you are basically faced with two choices:

You could openly tear down the democratic institutions of the country and replace them with something authoritarian;

Or, you can subvert the democratic processes so that a small, powerful group can hold power even when it entails regularly going against the will of the majority.

How can you accomplish the latter?

-You can make voting less representational, either by suppressing the vote of those who disagree with you or by seeing that it counts less through measures such as gerrymandering.

-You can make sure to control certain strategic points such as K St. or state governments during redistricting.

-You can take advantage of what might be considered inefficiencies in the issue market, finding voters who put so much value on one issue that they consistently undervalue the rest and are willing to trade them away.

-You can create a favorable media environment. For supporters you construct an immersive world of tailored news and opinion. With the mainstream media you undermine, manipulate, and intimidate.

Obviously this is just an outline. Each of these bullet points could be the jumping off point for long discussions, but I am working under the assumption that everyone reading this pretty much knows what would be said.

The point of this post is that, almost by definition, strategies and tactics designed to allow small groups to gain and hold power in a democracy are vulnerable to hostile takeover.

The fact that we just saw such a takeover isn't that remarkable; the fact it caught so many people by surprise is.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

David Wallace-Wells has been pushing anti-vaxx talking points for years. When it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, he can keep his damned mouth shut.

I can't think of any 21st century journalist who has more successfully built a career on enemy-of-my-enemy dynamics than has David Wallace-Wells. When he follows the actual research, he is an unexceptional writer, saying nothing you couldn't get from a staff writer at any major publication. When, however, Wallace-Wells veers into hot takes and questionable science (which happens with alarming frequency), he is given a free pass because he is supposedly standing up to climate change deniers and covid skeptics.

There is, of course, no question about the reality and seriousness of man-made climate change and covid-19. The science is unequivocal, leaving no doubt that these are among the most important problems we now face, perhaps the most important, but this very seriousness makes bad reporting even more dangerous. We can no longer afford to tolerated journalists who get these stories wrong no matter whose side they're on.


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 the 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.