Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Art of the Mask

The Art of the Mask on Etsy.

Defamation Suits and Fake News

Lately people targeted by right-wing conspiracy buffs have been taking to the courts to fight back. The latest is Brennan Gilmore, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who was filming the protests in Charlottesvill on August 12, when James Alex Fields rammed his car into a group of protesters, injuring several and killing Heather Heyer:
When Gilmore’s video circulated in the media, Alex Jones immediately claimed he was a “deep state shill” and “CIA asset” who in fact spearheaded Fields’ attack. He published pieces that described the violence in Charlottesville as a “staged” act, one executed by left-wing political operatives and financed by George Soros. In one rant, Jones claimed, “They got State Department and high-level CIA. One guy is paid 320,000 a year on the payroll of Soros. He doesn’t just get money from Soros, he personally is paid 320 a year, and then he is there—CIA, State Department—and he is on the news. And when people pointed out who he was, they took his name of the State Department website and stuff, but Google has all the [screen]shots of it. I mean it’s like WOW, WOW—CIA? Your senior guys?”

The website Gateway Pundit was all in, too: “The random Charlottesville observer who was interviewed by MSNBC and liberal outlets turns out to be a deep state shill with links to George Soros. It looks like the State Department was involved in Charlottesville rioting and is trying to cover it up. But after Deep State got caught they are trying to erase this guy from their records.”

As the Gilmore complaint notes, Jones and Gateway Pundit “quickly mobilized their army of followers to launch a campaign of harassment and threats against Mr. Gilmore.” They published the addresses of Gilmore and his parents online, and he began to be inundated with hate mail, death threats, and hacking attempts. White powder was sent to his home.(Gilmore says the police ultimately told him the powder was harmless.)

The suit, filed by Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic names Jones, InfoWars, Gateway Pundit owner Jim Hoft, reporter Lee Stranahan, former Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida, and others who disseminated such stories. Gilmore seeks a jury trial and damages, and he says he will not accept a cash settlement from Jones, who has been known to pay off litigants or just retract his false stories.
So what are we to make of this? On the one hand there is no legal right to publish personal attacks you know to be false. You can't just say with no evidence that private citizens with cameras are CIA agents and on the payroll of George Soros; making up stuff and spreading it as fact is not protected by the First Amendment. But what if Jones counters that he is just an entertainer and never expects anybody to believe his stories? The tabloids have been getting away with that for decades. And can he really be blamed if his followers carry out a campaign of harassment that he never personally advocated?

I waver. On the one hand this stuff is rotten. On the other hand I have no faith in our legal system and worry about a future flood of lawsuits against web sites that attack people who can afford lawyers. But back to the first hand, is there any other way to fight the flood of lies?

Friday, March 16, 2018

Larry Kudlow's Abysmal Record on the Economy

All the liberal outlets are pointing out that Larry Kudlow, apparently tapped to be Trump's new top economic adviser, has an amazing record of being wrong about everything:
In 1993, when Bill Clinton proposed an increase in the top tax rate from 31 percent to 39.6 percent, Kudlow wrote, “There is no question that President Clinton’s across-the-board tax increases … will throw a wet blanket over the recovery and depress the economy’s long-run potential to grow.” This was wrong. Instead, a boom ensued. 
So there's one massive error.
Rather than question his analysis, Kudlow switched to crediting the results to the great tax-cutter, Ronald Reagan. “The politician most responsible for laying the groundwork for this prosperous era is not Bill Clinton, but Ronald Reagan,” he argued in February, 2000.
I don't think this is completely absurd, I mean, who knows what the time lag is between actions taken by the government and economic results? But on the other hand it completely contradicts what he had been saying just a few years before.
By December 2000, the expansion had begun to slow. What had happened? According to Kudlow, it meant Reagan’s tax-cutting genius was no longer responsible for the economy’s performance. “The Clinton policies of rising tax burdens, high interest rates and re-regulation is responsible for the sinking stock market and the slumping economy,” he mourned, though no taxes or re-regulation had taken place since he had credited Reagan for the boom earlier that same year. 
You see the pattern.
By the time George W. Bush took office, Kudlow was plumping for his tax-cut plan. Kudlow not only endorsed Bush’s argument that the budget surplus he inherited from Clinton — the one Kudlow and his allies had insisted in 1993 could never happen, because the tax hikes would strangle the economy — would turn out to be even larger than forecast. “Faster economic growth and more profitable productivity returns will generate higher tax revenues at the new lower tax-rate levels. Future budget surpluses will rise, not fall.” This was wrong, too.
Was it ever. I remember these debates well. Kudlow and company were vehement that the CBO's economic forecast was not nearly rosy enough, and that people saying "but what if we have a recession?" were foolish Cassandras. Instead, that forecast proved far too rosy, we got a recession, and the deficit soared.

Kudlow then denied we were in a housing bubble and denied that mortgage bonds posed any risk to the economy. When Obama came in he joined the chorus arguing that the stimulus plus the Fed's "quantitative easing" would lead to high inflation, and in fact he spent the next eight years arguing that high inflation was just around the corner, that the CPC was somehow underestimating real inflation, and so on.

It is pretty hard to imagine how any mainstream pundit could end up with a worse record. So of course he is due for a high profile job in the government. . . .

We need to get away from treating economic questions as matters of faith – tax cuts always increase revenue, a higher minimum wage is always better – and use some data to figure out what is really going on.

The Number of "Disabled" Non-Workers is Falling; What Does that Mean?

From the Times:
The employed share of the population 25 to 54 years old — the age range economists generally consider a person’s prime working years — is still almost a full percentage point below where it was on the eve of the Great Recession, and more than two percentage points below where it was before the 2001 recession.

One factor was a steady increase in the number of people not participating in the labor force because of health problems or a disability. In 1994, the Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that 4 percent of Americans 25 to 54 were not seeking work because of those reasons. By mid-2014, the number had risen to almost 6 percent of that age group.

Economists were especially alarmed because the increase appeared tenacious. It was rising before the 2001 recession, rose faster in response to the 2001 and 2008 recessions, then kept rising during the subsequent recoveries.

But then it began to fall: slowly at first and then, beginning in 2016, faster. Over all, the number of prime-age people who cite disability as their reason for not working has shrunk by 7 percent since mid-2014.
When the economy is really humming, even many people who consider themselves disabled can find work.

Which raises a lot of questions about what "disabled" means. I see this as a big problem for America moving forward. I think we absolutely need a government program to take care of people too sick or handicapped to work. But on the other hand the perception is growing that disability is a scam, and all of us have heard stories about people who could work but decide not to. If this perception continues to grow, the program could be threatened – Trump's latest budget proposes a modest cut – which I think would be a disaster.

I have the sense that many working people in America could qualify for disability payments but choose to keep working despite the hardships. After all, disability does not pay as well as any sort of decent job – the average payment in 2017 was $1171/month – plus many people would rather work than endure the shame/stigma of living off disability payments. At the other end there is work that even severely disabled people can do. So disability exists on a continuum, from people who would have great difficulty finding any sort of work, to people who could work but with pain and exhaustion, to people who are well within the norm for the working population but decide for whatever reason to seek disability instead.

And what might that reason be? I think this chart from Forbes provides a clue. You can see that disability applications track the unemployment rate fairly closely. It seems that many people decide to apply for disability after they lose their jobs, or perhaps when they give up searching for a job because conditions are too bleak.

To get back to the continuum I mentioned: I think the variables that determine whether a person seeks disability include the availability of work, how well that work pays, and what sort of work it is. People will endure a lot of discomfort to do a job that provides decent pay and status, or that they enjoy or find meaningful. They will put up with a lot less to be abused by the boss at minimum wage.

Personally I don't have any problem with this. If the existence of programs like Disability Insurance make it harder to hire people for lousy jobs at miserable wages, well, great! In a society as rich as ours, I don't think anyone should have to put up with that just to exist. But I understand why other people disagree; after all it can be galling to see people getting paid not to work when their health problems are no worse than your own.

One of the effects of disability insurance is probably to keep more people in regions with fading economies like coal country or factory-less factory towns. For a fifty-year-old person with a bad back, taking disability may seem a lot simpler than moving to a new city to start over. As a result, areas like Appalachia and northern Maine have disability rates up to twice the national average. If there has been a national conversation about this, I have missed it, but I think it is worth having: how hard should be try to get working-age people move to places with more jobs? Should we pursue policies that may drive certain communities to extinction, or should we consider programs like disability insurance a lifeline to keep struggling towns alive?

All of this seems very complex to me; how would you go about writing a set of rules that provide help to those who really need it but don't encourage slacking? Beats me. But I would rather see the effort put onto the carrot side, luring people back to work with a higher minimum wage and better work rules, than threatening to cut them off.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Republican Bind

The special election in Pennsylvania is the latest sign that Republicans may lose a lot of seats this fall. But they are finding it hard to do much about their problems.

Problem number one is that Donald Trump is not popular in the country as a whole, and he is especially unpopular in middle-class suburbs. His erratic behavior and growing list of scandals won't help. But he remains wildly popular with the Republican base, which makes it all but impossible for any Republican to run away from the president. So Republicans are stuck with this albatross.

Problem number two is that during the campaign Trump positioned himself as a moderate on a range of economic issues, promising to preserve Social Security and Medicare, to be tougher on big banks than Hillary would be, and so on. This seems to have helped him win. But Republican Congressional leaders are strongly conservative on all these issues, and so far they have been driving the agenda. Their plans are not popular with swing voters; Obamacare has gotten a lot more popular since Obama left office, and Social Security reform has always polled horribly. But they are the main thing, pretty much the only thing, to the party's donors and much of its intellectual leadership, making them impossible to abandon. So the Republicans are going into this election with both an unpopular leader and an unpopular economic agenda.

Of course the Democratics have big problems of their own, so I don't see a Democratic wave as a given. But it looks more and more likely.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Paul-Albert Besnard

Paul-Albert Besnard (1849-1934) was French artist who did many, many portraits. Here are a few of the better ones. Above, Portrait of Jean Gorges.

Young Woman with Upswept Hair.

Self Portrait at the Age of 18, with Renaissance painter's beard.

Portrait of Sir Henry Hoare.

Space Genes

Scott and Mark Kelly are identical twin brothers — at least, they were until Scott spent a year living in space.

When Scott Kelly returned to Earth after a 340-day voyage aboard the International Space Station (ISS) two years ago, he was 2 inches taller than he'd been when he left. His body mass had decreased, his gut bacteria were completely different, and — according to preliminary findings from NASA researchers — his genetic code had changed significantly. (Interestingly, Scott Kelly has since shrunk back down to his initial prespaceflight height.)

A new NASA statement suggests the physical and mental stresses of Scott Kelly's year in orbit may have activated hundreds of "space genes" that altered the astronaut's immune system, bone formation, eyesight and other bodily processes. While most of these genetic changes reverted to normal following Scott Kelly's return to Earth, about 7 percent of the astronaut's genetic code remained altered — and it may stay that way permanently.
Being in space is not good for you.

Trump Blocks a Merger

It's been a while since Donald Trump did something I approve of, so let's pause to celebrate this small victory. Bloomberg:
President Donald Trump's decision to quash an overseas bid for Qualcomm Inc. was almost certainly the right thing to do. . . .

Broadcom Ltd., based in Singapore, had made an unsolicited $117 billion offer to acquire Qualcomm, a leading U.S. chipmaker. Amid scrutiny of the bid by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. -- a panel that reviews such deals for security concerns -- Trump issued an executive order blocking it. It was only the fifth such deal ever held up by a U.S. president, and the largest by far.

Although Trump didn't explain his decision, the bid raised some obvious national-security concerns. Qualcomm is a major supplier for the Pentagon and holds numerous classified contracts. Its facilities are subject to a security clearance that could be jeopardized by foreign ownership. An acquisition of this kind was bound to raise red flags, whoever was doing the buying.
But that isn't actually why the merger was blocked:
Last week, CFIUS warned that Broadcom, an enthusiastic cost-cutter, might slash Qualcomm's R&D spending in pursuit of short-term profits. In doing so, it could put Qualcomm at a disadvantage in the race to offer next-generation wireless and diminish its influence in setting standards and protocols. That, in turn, could give a leg up to Qualcomm's top competitor, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., which has ties to the Chinese government and which U.S. intelligence agencies have deemed a security threat.
Various business journalists have confirmed that Broadcom is a big cost cutter and has done little in the way of research. This seems to me like a great reason to block a merger; if the US is going to stay wealthy, our firms have to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

But then I've never understood why we allow mergers in the first place. The essence of capitalism is competition; mergers reduce competition; therefore, mergers make capitalism less efficient. The only people who win from most mergers are the executives who arrange them and the Wall Street guys who finance them; consumers and workers almost always lose, and often ordinary stockholders do, too. As Adam Smith put it,
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.
Mergers are conspiracies against the public, plain and simple. Trump's administration has already blocked five, and the more they block – for whatever idiosyncratic Trumpish reason – the happier I will be.

RIP Stephen Hawking

They’re named black holes because they are related to human fears of being destroyed or gobbled up. I don’t have fears of being thrown into them. I understand them. I feel in a sense that I am their master.

– Stephen Hawking

Arresting the Body

In 17th- and 18th-century England creditors could seize a debtor's corpse and refuse to release it for burial until the relatives made good on the debts. In 1700 the body of John Dryden was "arrested" in this way.

This ended in 1804 when Lord Ellenborough ruled, in the case Jones v. Ashburnham, that the practice was
contrary to every principle of law and moral feeling. Such an act is revolting to humanity, and illegal, and, therefore, any promise extorted by it could never be valid law.
Via Futility Closet.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Graham Sutherland in World War II

British painter Graham Sutherland (1903-1980), best known these days for a portrait of Churchill that Churchill hated and destroyed, spent World War II in the employ of the government, painting bomb damage and factories. Above, The City, a Fallen Lift Shaft, 1941.

Devastation: Burnt Paper Warehouse in the East End, 1941.

Devastation: An East End Street, 1941. It occurs to me that many of the modernist paintings I like depict war and other horrors. Almost as if the only thing modernism is good for is creating feelings of terror and woe.

But not entirely! I like this of Furnaces in Wales, 1944.

And Landscape with Red Sky, 1945.

Foreign Brides in Dark Age Bavaria

Fascinating new study from Germany:
In a handful of medieval Bavarian farming hamlets populated mostly by blue-eyed blondes, more than a dozen women with dark hair, dark eyes, and unusual elongated skulls [center and left in the photo above] would have stood out. . . .

The remains, which date to about 500 C.E., are part of a pattern of elongated skulls found in gravesites across early and medieval Europe and Asia. The Bavarian skulls were unearthed alongside regularly shaped ones [on the right in the photo] near six modern southern German towns along the Danube River starting in the late 1960s. Few clues exist as to their identities, or how and why the skulls were stretched. Curious about the “tower-shaped” skulls, anthropologist and population geneticist Joachim Burger, from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, set out to sequence their DNA.

Burger and colleagues compared the DNA from tiny bone fragments in the graves with each other and those of modern populations throughout Europe and Asia. The DNA of 10 men—and 13 women with normal skulls—most closely matched modern populations in central and northern Europe. Most had genes for blond hair and blue eyes. But DNA from the 13 women with elongated skulls told a different tale. The genetics of these women matched modern populations in southeastern Europe, specifically Bulgaria and Romania, and they had genes for darker hair and eyes, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Well that's cool. Here we have a group of women from an intrusive population who also have a distinctive cultural trait: their heads were shaped in the way that many people on the steppes did, by strapping their infants to cradle boards.

The excavators want these to be "treaty brides", given to secure alliances between invaders and settled people. That seems like a stretch; usually such alliances were secured by one or two royal matches, not a mass wedding of commoners. The woman could equally well have been captives taken after a victory by Bavarians over an invading force, or brought back after a foray to the east. But however they came to be buried in Bavaria, they are another sign of the great mobility and cultural mixing of that age. It really was a time of migration and upheaval.

Monday, March 12, 2018

More Spring

Spent the weekend down in Richmond, where spring is a little farther along than at home.

Terraces at Maymont Park, river in the background.

Italian Garden.

Ben and Clara clowning in the grotto.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Emilio Sánchez Perrier

Emilio Sánchez Perrier (1855 – 1907) was a Spanish landscape painter, born in Seville. His father was a clockmaker and his family just barely in the middle class. But his talent for drawing was such that he was singled out from a young age and attended the best art schools Spain had to offer. Above is the wonderful painting through which I discovered Sánchez Perrier, Andalusia in Winter, 1880.

Sánchez Perrier began his professional career in the Seville in the 1870s. After winning a gold medal in the Madrid salon in 1879 he moved to Paris to broaden his horizons, remaining there for a decade. Evening in Seville, 1870s.

A painting Sánchez Perrier first exhibited in Paris, Garden of the Alcazar, Seville.

Sánchez Perrier had a thing for scenes like this of boats on lazy rivers; this one is from 1886, so painted in France.

And another, undated.

Sánchez Perrier traveled extensively in Europe and did many paintings of Italy. This one is of Scotland.

He also spent time in North Africa, doing paintings that wikipedia and other online sources describe as "orientalist," but I think they don't realize what "orientalist" means. An ordinary Moroccan landscape like this, in no way exotified, is not orientalism. Just a Moroccan landscape. If he did any Seraglio scenes I haven't been able to find them.

After returning to Spain in 1889 Sánchez Perrier founded an artists' colony in in Alcalá de Guadaíra, a forested region near Seville. Trina, 1889.

Landscape near Guisors, 1895. It is these late paintings that I like the best, so it is rather sad that Sánchez Perrier died at 52.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Why Are the Prices of Antique Furniture Declining?

Prices of antiques are collapsing:
Compared with the heyday of antiques collecting, prices for average pieces are now “80 percent off,” said Colin Stair, the owner of Stair Galleries auction house in Hudson, N.Y. “Your typical Georgian 18th century furniture, chests of drawers, tripod tables, Pembroke tables,” he noted, can all be had for a fraction of what they cost 15 to 20 years ago.

In 2002, Mr. Stair sold a set of eight George III-style carved mahogany chairs for $8,000; in 2016, he sold a similar set of eight chairs for $350.

In 2003, he dispatched a Regency breakfront bookcase for $9,500; in 2016, the sales price of an equivalent piece had plummeted to $1,300.
Tyler Cowen has some theories:
1. eBay and the internet have increased supply more than demand. . . .

2. The article also demonstrates that many buyers are refocusing their demands on newer pieces. Our attitude toward the past may have changed in some fundamental way, with items before a certain date just not existing in most people’s aesthetic universes. . . .

3. Homes have changed: “More homes have open-concept, casual living spaces rather than formal dining rooms and studies, which reduces the need for stately mahogany dining tables, chairs and cabinets.”

4. The aesthetic of the internet itself has pushed people away from “old and musty.” Just look at the kind of images you see on Instagram.
To which one might add:
  • Trends happen.
  • Comfort is everything now – look at the way we dress.
  • What isn't comfort is convenience.
  • And, yes, we seem to be in a very present-oriented era, in which the past is increasingly just that time when we had slavery and patriarchy. The other day I was looking at a book about the work of a neotraditional architect and though it was very much my own aesthetic the pictures creeped me out a little because they looked like the homes of rich Republicans who hate taxes and think the poor deserve it. (Hey, part of the reason I hate brutalism is that it looks like Stalinism in concrete.)
But if you always wanted some 200-year-old furniture, now is the time to buy.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Ancient Rope

Cache of 4,000-year-old rope in an Egyptian cave at a place on the Red Sea coast known as Wadi Gawasis, uncovered by archaeologists in 2004.

Ethnobotanist Saskia Wolsak:
Everybody knows about fire and the wheel, but string is one of the most powerful tools and really the most overlooked. It’s relatively invisible until you start looking for it. Then you see it everywhere.
The oldest known rope in on the order of 10,000 years old, but hints like impressions in clay and the existence of beads meant to be strung suggest that twisted string goes back 50,000 years or more.

The basic knots are also ancient, at least 5,000 years old and perhaps much older.

Politics vs. Culture

Barack Obama's time in office seems to have convinced him that solutions to our problems don't lie in politics but in culture. He is said to be negotiating a show for himself on Netflix, but not to talk about politics:
Mr. Obama does not intend to use his Netflix shows to directly respond to President Trump or conservative critics, according to people familiar with discussions about the programming. They said the Obamas had talked about producing shows that highlight inspirational stories.

But the Netflix deal, while not a direct answer to Fox News or, would give Mr. Obama an unfiltered method of communication with the public similar to the audiences he already reaches through social media, with 101 million Twitter followers and 55 million people who have liked his Facebook page.

“President and Mrs. Obama have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire,” Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to the former president, said Thursday. “Throughout their lives, they have lifted up stories of people whose efforts to make a difference are quietly changing the world for the better. As they consider their future personal plans, they continue to explore new ways to help others tell and share their stories.”
He seems to feel that the worst things about America right now are in our heads: anger, fear, despair about the future. I recall his advice to liberals after Trump won the election, which was to watch cat videos.

Cultural Melding in Quebec

Dan Bilefsky says that the younger generation in Montreal is moving beyond the Anglo vs. Quebecois fights that long defined the city:
One in four Anglophones in Quebec marry French Quebecers.
I of course think this is a great thing, but if I were Quebecois I would worry that intermarriage would mean the eventual end of my culture.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Leigh Ayres, Diving Duck

Suicide and Addiction in a Pretty Nice Place

Depressing story by Juliet Macur in the Times about Madison, Indiana, an ordinary town with a suicide rate 3.2 times the national average:
The unemployment rate here in Jefferson County is around 4 percent, just about the same as it is nationwide, and among those employed residents, about a quarter work in manufacturing. The county is mostly rural, and overwhelmingly white. In Madison, which is marked by three riverfront smokestacks that can be seen for miles, the median household income in 2016 was about $51,500, and two of every 10 children under 18 lived in poverty.

The tourists who travel here see Madison’s antique shops and frequent its art, music, food and boat-racing festivals. But beneath all that are the crises that threaten to drag this town under: suicide, depression, child neglect, abuse and addiction to drugs. 
I see this as the question of our age: why so much hopelessness among young people, even in towns with jobs? Why such a pervasive sense that things are out of whack, that the world is in decline? Why are we so fearful? Why is crazed alarmism such an effective political strategy?

I go back and forth in my own mind, from "things aren't really any worse than they have always been" to "something vital is missing from our society."

Is it too much news, all of it focusing on the bad? Is it an evolutionary misalignment between the hungry village life we evolved for and the mass society and material abundance we have ended up in?

Macur's story focuses on a high school football coach who lost his own brother and is now determined to help kids stay alive. It's easy to be cynical, but if high school sports rivalries won't give small town folks the excitement and sense of community they need, what will?

I don't have any answers, other than a sense that our public culture of outrage, blame, anger, partisan hate, and general woefulness is making things worse.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Speaking of Turning Against Democracy

Let's hear from one of the new anti-democratic voters, Sonia Valentini of Italy:
Salvini is a good man. I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?
This expresses pretty well what a lot of people feel, including many who voted for Trump. The messenger may be an odious human being, or have some ideas you consider outrageous, but if he is the only way to get the message across, so be it. The message must be sent.

If democratic leaders can't make the government work for ordinary people, they will be voted out, and the angriest alternative will be voted in.

Why People are Turning against Democracy

Sean Illing of Vox interviewed Yascha Mounk about his new book, The People vs. Democracy. Mounk thinks people genuinely are becoming less enthusiastic about democracy. That's because, he says, they were never really devoted to democracy, just to what seemed to be working, and right now democracy doesn't seem to be working:
Yascha Mounk
People no longer feel that the political system is actually delivering for them. I think there are three primary drivers of the rise of populism. One of them is the stagnation of living standards for ordinary people. From 1935 to 1960, the living standard of the average American doubled. From 1965 to 1985, it doubled again.

People never loved politicians or Washington, but when it came time to vote, they said, “Well, I’m doing twice as well as my parents did. My kids are going to do twice as well as me, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.” But living standards haven’t gone up in decades, and now they’re just saying, “Let’s throw some shit against the wall and see what sticks.” . . .

Our system has failed at one of the core ambitions of a democracy, which is to translate popular views into public policies. That’s because of the role of money in our politics, because of the revolving door between legislators and lobbyists, and because the political class has become separated from the bulk of the population. . . .

For a long time, political scientists have wanted to believe that it’s because liberal democratic ideals — rule of law, separation of powers, minority rights, individual rights — have a real, independent power among citizens, and that once German citizens saw them in action, they accepted them in some deep way. But I don’t think that’s true — in Germany or elsewhere.

Sean Illing

I don’t either, and my sense is that in Germany, as in America, people embraced a system that appeared to be working — but that attachment was always contingent upon the system working. The minute it stopped working, or was perceived to not be working, everything was up for grabs again.

Yascha Mounk
I think that’s right. This is what political scientists call “outcome legitimacy,” which means a system’s appeal is based on its ability to provide order and give people stuff, and not, as many people believe, on some deep ideological attachment.
I don't think this is the whole truth, but I think it is a big part of the truth. If you want democracy to survive, you have to make it work for more of the people. Right now a majority of Italians seems to think that democracy hasn't delivered them anything recently but corruption scandals, EU regulations, and a horde of refugees, and they are not happy about it.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Ishibashi Kazunori, Woman Reading Poetry, 1906

Ishibashi Kazunori was a Japanese painter who studied at the Royal Academy in London and generally spent the first decades of the twentieth century in Europe. After returning to Japan he painted in both western and Japanese styles, but nothing else he ever did is as famous as this.

Female Success and Male Reactions

One thing Oscar-winning actresses, victorious female political candidates, and female CEOs all have in common: the divorce rates for all of them rise after their success. The divorce rate of similar men does not rise.

Presumably related: husbands earn more than their wives at a much greater rate than what would be caused just by the usual gender imbalance in wages.

I should note that nobody knows why women are more likely to divorce after a big success. Some of it could be, "now that I'm the Senator/Oscar winner/boss, the first thing I'm going to do is ditch my obnoxious husband." But people generally assume that male resentment is that the root. This seems likely to me, although I freely confess that other people's marriages are an utter mystery to me, so I would certainly not be dogmatic.

Interesting comment from Indra Nooyi, long-married chief executive of Pepsi:
From my perspective, my mom says, 'Leave the crown in the garage.' I don’t think I could have balanced all of this had I brought my crown into the house every day. And would I have liked to have brought it in? No, not at the expense of my marriage and my children.

Best to Go Easy on the President's Team

The BBC reports the news from Burundi:
Two Burundi officials have been imprisoned after the African country's president was allegedly "roughed up" in a football match they organised.

President Pierre Nkurunziza is a 'born-again' evangelical Christian who spends much of his time travelling Burundi with his own team, Haleluya FC. He also travels with his own choir, "Komeza gusenga", which means "pray non-stop" in the local Kirundi language.

On 3 February, his team faced a side from the northern town of Kiremba.

Normally, the opposition is well aware they are playing against the country's president, and it has been said they go easy in the games, even perhaps allowing Nkurunziza to score.

But as the Kiremba team contained Congolese refugees who did not know they were playing against Burundi's president, they "attacked each time he had the ball and made him fall several times", a witness told AFP.

Kiremba's administrator Cyriaque Nkezabahizi and his assistant, Michel Mutama, were imprisoned on Thursday, the news agency reports.

AFP cited a judicial source as saying they had been arrested on charges of "conspiracy against the president".
To be clear, Nkurunziza actually plays in these games; no mere manager is this man of the people.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Kilian Schönberger, Winter’s Tale

New series from my favorite German photographer.

Three Senators Against Undeclared Wars

Yesterday's interesting news:
On Wednesday, in a show of bipartisan unity against unauthorized wars of choice, Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah),Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) courageously introduced a Senate joint resolution under the War Powers Act, directing President Trump to halt all current U.S. military activities in Yemen.

If passed, the president would have 30 days to stop U.S. forces and resources from continuing to assist the Saudi-led conflict against the Houthis there. The war has been raging on for two years and has resulted in millions of Yemeni displaced, starving, and suffering from a catastrophic cholera epidemic.

In a joint press conference, Lee and Sanders said the U.S. military has been “engaging in hostilities” with the Saudi-led coalition against the rebel Houthis in Yemen in two critical ways: refueling Saudi bombers and providing aerial targeting intelligence and reconnaissance. These activities should have triggered a declaration of war or an authorization of force under the War Powers Act.

“This legislation is neither liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican— it’s constitutional,” said Lee.

“As congress has not declared war or authorized military force in this conflict our involvement is unconstitutional and unauthorized,” said Sanders. “It’s long overdue for congress to re-assert its constitutional authority.”
This bill would force Congress to vote on continuing assistance to the Saudis. Congress would almost certainly vote to continue the war, but since most Senators don't want to put their support for the war on the record, this will most likely not even come up for a vote. Which I think is sad.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Dunadd is a hill fort in western Scotland, perched atop a rock that rises dramatically from a boggy plain. It was occupied in the Bronze and Iron Ages, but its glory days came in the early Middle Ages when it was the capital of Dal Riada, the Kingdom of the Scots.

Scots, you know, came from Ireland; until they showed up around 400 AD the place was part of Pictland. Behold a nice map of Britain around 550 AD that shows the Pictish kingdoms in purplish, the Welsh in reddish, the Saxons in greenish, and the Scots in orange.

So Dal Riada was an Irish kingdom in western Scotland, with close ties to Ulster. Written sources tell us that at times in the 7th and 8th centuries its capital was at Dunadd, and most scholars think that Dunadd was the place that still bears the name.

Dunadd is a site chosen for defense. It is not convenient to much of anything by land, and the best road from the site to into central Scotland is a causeway across miles of bogs.

The approach by sea takes you past the famous Corryvreckan whirlpool, where the hag of winter was said to do her laundry, a death trap for sailors without local expertise.

This tells you something about the kings of Dal Riada; despite their golden jewelry and gold-tongued bards, they clung rather precariously to the shores of Scotland. Chronicles tell us that Dunadd was twice taken and sacked by Pictish warlords, and for long stretches Dal Riada was dominated by the Saxon kings of Northumbria.

Besides the foreigners, the Scots had problems with each other. Two powerful clans competed for lordship, the Cenél nGabráin and the Cenél Loairn, and Dunadd was pretty much on the boundary. They passed the capital and the kingship back and forth between them.

Reconstruction of Dunadd at its height.

And another. Note the long-standing problem of whether certain stone constructions (like the round citadel at the top of Dunadd) had roofs or not.

Well, on one of the lower terraces.

4th-5th centuries

Dunadd has been excavated three times: in 1904-5, in 1929, and in 1980-1. The most recent excavations were the most interesting. They established the sequence of construction of the features and rough dates for the phases. They also found lots of pottery imported from France, which presumably arrived full of wine, an interesting look into overseas trade in the Dark Ages.

6th-7th centuries

8th-9th centuries

The most recent archaeologists dug only four trenches, two of which were pretty much empty. But one landed on top of a metal-working shop of the 7th century and produced wonderful things: more than 200 crucibles, hundreds of molds and mold fragments, and numerous pieces of bronze, silver, and gold. I would love to show you pictures, but so far as I can tell there just aren't any. Grrrrrr. One day British archaeology will enter the internet age. I hope this happens before I die but I am not counting on it.

The most famous thing about Dunadd is the footprint (size 8) carved into the rock. This is not the original but a concrete cast that sits on top of the real thing to preserve it. It is supposed to be an exact recreation, and from what I can tell most folks who visit the site don't even realize the substitution.

Many people think this foot print was used in the ritual that made Dalriadan kings: you put your foot in this and said whatever one said and got blessed by some important abbot and presto, you were king. The Irish had lots of such traditions, and the famous Stone of Scone was used in making kings of Scotland until Edward I stole it and put it under his throne. But now we have democracy so anybody who hikes up to the top of Dunadd can put his or her foot on the (concrete cast of the) royal footprint and be king for a minute or so.

Seems like a wonderful place to imagine long-ago worlds.