Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Walker Percy Explains the Rise of Inequality

Yesterday I stumbled across this, printed on a t-shirt:
Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. . . . True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever.
It's a quotation from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, published in 1961. It sums up how many elite Americans felt about the 1950s: a boring, sordid time, when the mass culture was Leave it to Beaver, politics was Eisenhower balancing the budget, and the iconic vehicle was not a Packard or a Tesla but the 57 Chevy. Kept from filthy riches by 90% income taxes, the business elite focused gaining status by being more respectable than everyone else. The serious artists reacted by creating Abstract Expressionism, Beat Poetry, and other forms designed to be completely impenetrable to the Levittown masses in their horrible little suburban houses. The intellectuals seethed and scorned.

Looking back from the cruel, exciting 21st century we now recognize that the 50s and early 60s were the most economically equal time in American history. The elite seethed partly because the masses had more of the money than ever before, and through their taste in television, movies and music were setting the cultural tone like never before. Artistes recoiled from the spreading suburbs, but in those suburbs, for the first time in human history, ordinary working people were able to afford decent houses.

I don't have time to get into everything that was wrong with the 1950s, which we all know about. But think about the basic socio-economic facts: that was what an economically equal America was like. That was when television and Hollywood catered to the tastes of the real masses. That was also when our politics was least partisan, with the most bipartisanship in Congress and the most split-ticket voting.

And the nation couldn't stand it. It all seemed like a straight jacket of conformity, a gray prison we couldn't wait to burst out of. And by the nation here I mean mainly the elites. The businessmen hated the high taxes, the corporate conformity, the way union contracts and oligopolies limited their ability to create, innovate, and get rich. The feminists hated suburban motherhood. Black leaders hated the polite racism, which was sometimes more galling than the mailed fist kind had been. Young college students hated the path laid out before them toward corporate offices and suburban houses and longed for something more authentic. The intellectuals hated everything. The Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War provided the spark, but the explosion was coming anyway. Our restless, ambitious country was not going to sit still in identical suburban houses watching three tv channels, voting for tweedledum or tweedledee. We could not accept mediocrity as a national principle.

Everything that has happened since has been about breaking free: from rigid gender roles, from segregation, from television shows pitched to the average suburban family, from a static business world defined by starched white shirts and ever more tightly controlled factories. And we got our revolution: women's rights, minority rights, gay rights, trans rights, 500 television channels, the internet, the global economy, universities with no curricula and no grades, a flood of immigrants bringing a hundred new cuisines, designer drugs, a hundred kinds of music, an upper middle class numbering millions with huge houses, swanky cars, and foreign vacations.

The price was the collapse of economic equality and the disappearance of any unifying culture. And a political echo: the people who miss that world, both its economic equality and its cultural conformity, the people who elected Nixon and have now elected Trump. Because not everybody thought Levittown was a disaster, or that Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show were tedious dreck. For many people, that was America at its best. And every time you mourn our own problems – inequality, partisan rancor, a business world dominated by egomaniacal billionaires – think on the 1950s. Because any equal America, any America really run in the interests of working people, is going to be a lot more like that.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Rembrandt, Crucifixion

The CBO on the Senate Health Plan

I have followed this year's health care debate with some care, because I think 1) American health care is a mess, 2) Obamacare is somewhat helpful but no kind of solution, and 3) I agree with some libertarians in finding the whole insurance model a bizarre way to pay for anything, guaranteed to add fantastically to the cost.

So I've been wondering if Republicans would come up with anything helpful. Not expecting that they would, mind you, just curious.

I think the answer is supplied by the Congressional Budget Office in their analysis of the Senate plan. The Senate plan rescinds Obama's Medicaid expansion and substitutes tax credits that are supposed to help the working poor buy private insurance instead. The CBO finds that the private insurance likely to be offered on the Senate's terms will be so expensive and so useless (deductibles up to $6,000/year) that "few low-income people would purchase any plan." Plus the law repeals Obamacare's ban on pre-existing condition bans, so these folks won't be able to get insurance if they do get sick, so they're screwed all around.

As a theoretical construct, it makes sense to me that the way to limit health care costs is to have people pay more of the cost out of their own pockets; a model in which the patient pays none of the bill and doctors get paid more the more care they provides seems like a golden road to spiraling costs. The problem is that American health care is so expensive that without massive government help, a third of the country simply can't afford it. Therefore the Senate's cuts mean millions more will go without.

I suppose a real libertarian would say that while this hurts in the short term, it is what we need because it will lead to the proliferation of cheap "minute clinics" and the like that poor people could actually afford. There is something to this; within my lifetime most hospital patients slept in wards rather than private rooms, which cost a lot more. But I can't see it working; cheap health care would require a revolution, not just in health care, but in our whole social expectation that doctors will be well-paid experts. We would have to eliminate all the limits on who can practice medicine, and do away with medical malpractice claims, and probably a hundred other things. And I still don't think we could do it.

The only way to provide health care to poor Americans is massive government subsidies. The Republicans have had their chance now to show that this isn't true, and they have not come up with any solution. Cutting the subsidies means less care, no matter how you try to hide it.

Dueling Studies on Seattle's $13/hour Minimum Wage

Two studies have come out recently on the broader economic effects of Seattle's experiment in dramatically raising the minimum wage. Broadly speaking, studies have found that the modest minimum wage increases we have seen in the past have had little effect on the number of jobs or hours worked. But there haven't been any studies on the sort of dramatic increases being tried now, because we have never tried that before.

The first study was from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at Berkeley, which is a lefty activist group. They found that neither the first increase (from $9.47 to $11.00/hour) nor the second (from $11.00 to $13.00/hour) had any meaningful impact on the number of jobs or the hours worked, so (they say) the increase was a major net gain for workers.

The second report was from the Minimum Wage Study at the University of Washington, an entity created by the state specifically to study the impact of the new minimum wage. They found that the first increase, to $11.00, caused a 1.9% decrease in the number of hours worked by low-wage workers in the city, which as they say is insignificant and might just be statistical noise. But they find that the second increase led to a decline of about 10% in hours worked, which means the increase was a net loss to low-wage workers of about $100 million per year.

The authors of the Minimum Wage Study report note that unnamed others have found different results, but they say their results are different because their study is better. As they would.

Kevin Drum:
This study is more pessimistic than previous studies, but it’s well done and scrupulously honest. Nor should it necessarily be a surprise. There’s a mountain of evidence that modest increases in the minimum wage have little effect on low-wage jobs, but the key word here is modest. We’ve never tested how high the minimum wage can go before it starts to have a serious impact on low-wage jobs, because no one has ever raised the minimum wage more than modestly. This means that the question of how high the minimum wage can go is an empirical one—and there’s no special reason to think it’s $15. It could be higher or lower. And if this study holds up, the answer at the moment is around $12.

One other thing worth noting: Among other rich countries, the minimum wage is roughly 50 percent of the median wage. Depending on how you measure it, that comes to $11-$13 in the United States. So if the ideal minimum wage turns out to be $12 per hour—roughly the same as it was in the 60s—no one should be taken aback.
Economists are going to be fighting over this for a while, and I won't pretend to know who is right. But it seems to me almost a logical necessity that some level of the minimum wage would wreck the economy (for example by driving many jobs underground or off-books), and the $15/hour figure that has become a progressive mantra was not arrived at on the basis of careful calculation. Based on what I have been able to read, the Minimum Wage Study seems like a much less biased entity than the IRLE, which doesn't even pretend to be balanced. So my guts goes with this latest study.

On the other hand all the careful Democrats (Obama, Hillary, me) responded to the $15/hour campaign by saying, "we should raise the minimum wage but maybe not in such a radical way – how about $12/hour?" so maybe I should be especially skeptical of a study that seems to confirm all my own biases.

Burma: What Democracy Can't Do

Depressing news from Burma, where democracy has only made the country's ethnic conflicts worse. We all cheered when pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and led her party to a landslide victory over parties backing the half-mad generals of the military junta.

But as soon as democracy seemed on the rise, the non-Burmese peoples of the country's mountainous north began to agitate for independence. The people of the north (Karen, Kachin, Mon, San and others) were never really ruled by the Burmese until the British conquered them and attached them to their colony of Burma. When Burma was granted independence, British officials who knew the north warned that the hill peoples would not accept Burmese domination, and they have not. Burma's early post-colonial leaders promised seven ethnic minorities an eventual referendum on independence, but that never happened. The ongoing conflict has been one of the main reasons, or at least pretexts, for the military's big role in Burmese politics, and the military has for decades been strongly against independence or autonomy for minority groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi, to her credit, has tried to organize talks with no preconditions, but the military has balked, and so have many members of the pro-democracy movement. So she has moved very cautiously. Peace talks have also been opposed by some of the ethnic rebel groups, some of which have been accused by Human Rights Watch of being little more than drug-smuggling gangs. While the government dithers and the generals work to prevent any real dialogue, the conflict worsens. And that's without even getting into the problem of the Rohingya, Muslims who look more like Bangladeshis than other Burmese and who are considered by most Burmese to be recent interlopers not deserving of even the restrained oppression meted out to long-resident minorities.

One thing democracy cannot do, it seems, is to resolve conflicts among groups of people who are not sure they want to be in a country together at all.

A Roman Commander, Second Century CE

Bust of a Roman commander, probably dating to the second century. Recently sold by the Denver Art Museum to raise money; it fetched $930,000.

The (Non) Domestication of Cats

A major new study has been published on the historical genetics of house cats and their ancestors. The findings are very interesting, even though they confirm what most people had long suspected. First they show that all domestic cats are descended from one subspecies of wild cats, Felis silvestris lybica, native to north Africa and the Middle East (in the picture above). It seems that the first cats to live with humans began hanging around farming villages in the Middle East before 6000 BCE. Then in classical times cats from Egypt spread widely across Europe and west Asia; modern domestic cats are descended from those two groups. The study shows that cats found in human settlements remained genetically nearly identical to wild cats until the middle ages, when they began to be bred for different color types and so on.

So modern domestic cats are different from their wild ancestors. But they are much more similar to wild cats than dogs, horses, cows, or pigs are to their wild ancestors, and they lack the common suite of features (all based on neoteny, that is, looking more like babies) that is shared by other domesticated mammals.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke, Gardens of the High Line

I'm writing this post to recommend an amazingly beautiful book, Gardens of the High Line by Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke (Timber Press, 2017). Oudolf, one of the hottest landscape designers in the world, was the main designer of these gardens, and I believe Darke is responsible for the gorgeous photographs. The result of their collaboration may be the most beautiful garden book I have ever seen.

The other reason I am writing this post is because I recently learned, through a professional project, about the modernist tradition in landscape architecture. There is such a thing, and the dominant tendency is the creation of landscapes that look natural, except better. There are parklands around Washington that were carefully laid out in this way, but until I did this recent study I had no idea that they had been landscaped at all. They just look natural; that is, until you take time to consider how the trees vary in shape and height, how well placed the dogwoods are to light up the spring woods, how the Fall colors sparkle. Piet Oudolf is a master of this style; every plant along the mile long High Line was carefully selected and placed, and much of the result looks like the above: a meadow, you think, not much different from the weeds that grew here before the park was built.

But these landscapes bloom in unnatural profusion, with stunning variety.

They have interest in every season.

Including winter, because many plants were chosen for their interesting, long-lasting seed pods. The meadow plants are not cut back until early spring, just before they start growing again.

Given the limitations imposed on the designers – this is after all an elevated rail line, unsuitable for large trees, exposed to a hostile urban environment – the result astonishes. And this book brings it vividly to life.

A Definition of Materialism

In the face of a hubristic humanism, it insists on our solidarity with the commonplace stuff of the world, thus cultivating the virtue of humility. Dismayed by the fantasy that human beings are wholly self-determining, it recalls to us our dependence on our surroundings and on each other.

–Terry Eagleton

Pilgrimage Scroll

Details from a scroll showing a Shiite pilgrimage, purchased by cartographer Carsten Niebuhr in Karbala, Iraq, 1761-1767. Source.

Solar Power in India

India's biggest coal company just announced that it is closing 37 of its least productive mines, partly because of competition from solar power. In recent auctions solar companies have been bidding to supply power for record low amounts, as little as 2.44 Rs/kilowatt hour, which works out to about 4 cents. That's with no subsidies. Coal-generated electricity in India costs at least 3.2 Rs/kwh, or 5 cents. The government recently predicted India would generate 57 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2027, far beyond the target set in the Paris Accords.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Jean-Léon Gérôme

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was a French academic painter and sculptor. Like the other French academic painters I have featured he came from a bourgeois family, worked as an assistant to a notable artist (in his case Paul Delaroche), attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and entered the competition for the Prix de Rome scholarship. Gérôme failed to win a scholarship because his drawing was "inadequate," so he stayed in Paris kept painting. (One of Gérôme's most famous works, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890)

Gérôme's first success came with this painting, Young Greeks watching a Cock Fight, which he entered in the Salon of 1846. It perfectly caught the spirit of the times, with its slick finish and "Neo-Greek" theme, and Gérôme embarked immediately on a career as a professional painter.

Bacchante, 1853.

One of my favorite paintings that resides in Baltimore, Duel after the Masquerade, c 1857. I always assumed this must be a well-known story, perhaps from a famous novel, but apparently Gérôme conceived this oddity by himself.

Gérôme ended up as one of the three full professors at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a post near the pinnacle of the academic art world. The school was limited to French citizens, but Gérôme also took on many foreigners as private students, notably the Americans Mary Cassatt and Thomas Eakins. (Diogenes, 1860)

The Execution of Marshall Ney, 1868. Ney was one of Napoleon's greatest lieutenants and he was condemned by the victorious allies after Waterloo. This painting was criticized when first exhibited as being too recent and painful a subject for a history painting.

In 1853, thanks to a generous stipend from the government of Napoleon III, Gérôme traveled to Istanbul. He loved the East and returned at least thrice more, to Greece and Turkey in 1854, to Egypt in 1856, and a three month grand tour in 1868. His orientalist paintings were (and still are) hugely popular. Above, Prayer in the Mosque (1871) and The Snake Charmer (1879). Gérôme did his share of eroticized, exotic images of the East – after all, that was what sold – but I think a painting like Prayer in the Mosque shows his broader interest in Muslim culture.

Heads of the Rebel Beys at the Mosque of el Hasanein, Cairo, 1866. Orientalism had two sides, the erotic and the violent. But there is nothing inauthentic about the subject matter, since the Ottomons still displayed the heads of criminals and especially rebels into the 20th century.

Bashi-Bazouk, 1869. The Bashi-Bazouk – "headless ones" – were unpaid irregular soldiers who fought for the Ottomans in hope of plunder. Gérôme found them fascinating and painted them many times. He did this painting in Paris by dressing a model in clothes he had bought during his most recent trip to the Middle East.

A Carpet Merchant in Cairo, 1887.

The second half of Gérôme's career coincided with the decline of academic painting, under assault from Impressionists who hated the technique, Realists who despised the subject matter, and proto-modernists who hated everything. Gérôme fought back, so he was for decades prominent in the quarrels of the European art world. Gérôme acknowledged the criticisms of academic painting mainly by trying to broaden its subject matter and craft new, distinctive images. Like the Pygmalion and Galatea at the top of the post and this one, Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind, 1896.

Jerusalem, or, Consummatum Est.

Health Insurance and Health: the Latest Science

There is a long-running debate about whether health insurance really makes people healthier; some studies have found not much effect either on death rates or on whether people with chronic conditions like diabetes do better with insurance. Other studies have found big effects. The problem is complicated because in America having health insurance tends to go together with other stuff that we know effects health, like education and income. Once you correct for these things, some studies have found that people with insurance get more health care but don't end up healthier.

Via Marginal Revolution, here is a big new paper by three top academics reviewing all the recent evidence on the question. I would summarize it as follows:
  • health insurance leads to a significant improvement in people's financial situation: fewer bankruptcies, fewer run-ins with bill collectors;
  • health insurance leads to a general reduction in life stress;
  • health insurance leads to a large (circa 30%) reduction in depression, probably through a combination of stress reduction and treatment;
  • health insurance leads to modest improvements in the lives of people with chronic conditions;
  • health insurance leads people to feel better about their health, with more reporting good health and fewer reporting bad; this sounds trivial but actually over a ten-year period people who say they have poor health have a mortality rate two to eight times higher than people who report good health, so it is one of the most powerful measures we have;
  • health insurance leads to a reduction in mortality rates equal to one fewer death per year for each 239 to 830 people who get insurance
The numbers for mortality are difficult partly because none of these studies has covered more than a decade, and people die for all sorts of reasons that health insurance can't touch. Hence the wide range of the estimates. But even one death/year for each 830 people is a significant number; if the CBO is right and the House health care plan would lead to 20 million people losing insurance, that adds up to 24,000 additional deaths per year. Plus we know that poor Americans have higher death rates than poor Europeans and Japanese who all have health insurance, so the macro-scale picture fits with this conclusion.

None of this is cheap, of course; one study found that one life was saved for each $327,000 to $867,000 the government spends on Medicaid expansion.

Some libertarians have argued that having insurance doesn't matter because poor people manage to get the most important care by showing up at emergency rooms, and this is true to some extent. But I find this to be a bizarre argument, because the cost of their care has to be paid by someone, and under the current system that means it is paid by people who do have insurance. Does that make sense?

Plus, you know, Americans say they are upset about inequality. Pretty much the only significant thing the government has done recently to fight this problem is Obamacare, which takes hundreds of billions from the rich to give the working class health insurance. I think that is a good idea.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bad Orcas

National Post:
The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.”

A report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.

“It’s gotten completely out of control,” Alaska fisherman Jay Hebert told the paper.

Fishing lines are also being pillaged by sperm whales, the large square-headed whale best known as the white whale in Moby Dick.

“Since 1997, reports of depredation have increased dramatically,” noted a report by the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project.
Above is a still from a video showing a big sperm whale stealing fish from a line.

I wonder when we will reach the limits of our tolerance for wild predators. Big predators eat a lot; there was a case a few years back in which clever sea lions ate almost all of the endangered salmon lining up to use the fish ladder at a big California dam. Orcas have lately been eating lots of sea otters, making people wonder about their future.

Plus when it comes to fish, there are only so many in the sea, and the more orcas eat the fewer there are for us. I would not be surprised to see major fishing nations starting to kill toothed whales within the next few years, because of the competition for fish.

Random Summer Flowers

Bottom photo from my garden, the few daylilies that the deer missed on their catastrophic flower-eating raid Tuesday night. The rest were taken within a block or two of my office.

Racism, Liberalism, and avoiding Civil War

Scott Alexander is frustrated with liberals who keep trying to end political debates by crying "racism". So he wrote a long, long post that begins with an extended discussion of what the word "racism" means, and proceeds to a discussion of what the word "murderism" would mean, takes up the difficulty of understanding people from other cultures, and concludes with a plea that we need to try harder "because it’s the only alternative to having another civil war." An extract:
There are a bunch more frameworks like this, but they all share the common warning that cross-cultural communication is really hard, and so a lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense. And most of them say that our demographic – well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason – are at especially high risk of just dismissing everyone else as too dumb to matter. The solution is the same as it’s always been: hard work, renewed commitment to liberal values, and a hefty dose of the Principle of Charity.

Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them.

This frees you from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to understand other people, or the hard work of changing minds, or the hard work of questioning your own beliefs, or the hard work of compromise, or even the hard work of remembering that at the end of the day your enemies are still your countrymen. It frees you from any hard work at all. You are right about everything, your enemies are inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death, and the only “work” you have to do is complain on Twitter about how racist everyone else is.

I guess it sounds like I’m upset that we’re not very good at solving difficult cross-cultural communication problems which require deep and genuine effort to understand the other person’s subtly different value system. I’m not upset that we can’t solve those. Those are hard. I’m upset because we’re not even at the point where someone can say “I’m worried about terrorism,” without being forced to go through an interminable and ultimately-impossible process of proving to a random assortment of trolls and gatekeepers that they actually worry about terrorism and it’s not just all a ruse to cover up that they secretly hate everyone with brown skin. I’m saying that when an area of the country suffers an epidemic of suicides and overdoses, increasing mortality, increasing unemployment, social decay, and general hopelessness, and then they say they’re angry, we counter with “Are you really angry? Is ‘angry’ just a code word for ‘racist’?” I’m saying we’re being challenged with a moonshot-level problem, and instead we’re slapping our face with our own hand and saying “STOP HITTING YOURSELF!”

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”

You say we must protect freedom of speech. But would you protect the free speech of racists?

You say people shouldn’t get fired for personal opinions that don’t affect their work. But would you let racists keep their jobs?

You say we try to solve disagreements respectfully through rational debate. But would you try to rationally debate racists?

You say people should be allowed to follow their religion without interference. But what if religion is just a cover for racism?

You say we need to understand that people we disagree with can sometimes have some good points. Are you saying we should try to learn things from racists?

You say there’s a taboo on solving political disagreements by punching people. Are you saying that we can’t punch racists?

The argument goes: liberalism assumes good faith and shared values. It assumes that, at the end of the day, whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, you can still be a basically good person. . . . Some people prefer liberty to safety, other people prefer safety to liberty, but if the voters choose the wrong one then at least they’ve erred in an understandable way by preferring one real value to another.

But if there’s some group out there who aren’t connected to normal human values at all, some group that’s deliberately rejected reason; if they’re willing to throw liberty and safety under the bus in pursuit of some kind of dark irrational hatred which is their only terminal goal – then the whole project falls apart. Dialogue based on mutual trust may be all nice and well when it’s supposed to help us choose the optimal balance between liberty and safety, but if you give a platform to the people whose only value is hatred, then they’re just screwing over everybody. . . .

And I agree with this chain of logic. Using violence to enforce conformity to social norms has always been the historical response. We invented liberalism to try to avoid having to do that, but you can’t liberalism with people who refuse reason and are motivated by hatred. If you give the franchise to green pointy-fanged monsters, they’re just going to vote for the “Barbecue And Eat All Humans” party. If such people existed and made up a substantial portion of the population, liberalism becomes impossible, and we should go back to just using violence to enforce our will on the people who disagree with us. Assuming they don’t cooperate with our strategy of violently suppressing them, that means civil war.
I think we're a long way from civil war, but as I keep saying it is the logical end point of our politics.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Self-Branding for Experts

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand made it into the news this week by promising to recover, before the end of the year, the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum back in 1990. Which was a great publicity stunt in itself, but that is only the beginning of his public relations genius. In the course of reading half a dozen stories about him, I have found him described as a "vigilante art hunter," a "super sleuth," and "the Indiana Jones of the art world." Impressive, Mr. Brand. Now find the paintings.

Stonehenge Backwards

Everybody knows that Stonehenge points toward the midsummer sunrise. Which it does, viewed from a certain angle. In the computer rendering above, the midsummer sunrise is along the line extending toward the upper right.

But what if the monument actually pointed in the other direction? Because if you follow the line that extends toward the lower left, that points toward the midwinter sunset. (Isn't astronomy cool? No wonder people used to be so obsessed with it.) This photograph of a model shows how impressive it might have been to watch that sunset through the tallest trilithon.

There is other evidence that Stonehenge was mainly a midwinter temple. Deposits of sheep and cow bones from feasting have been found nearby, and they seem to have been butchered in winter, not summer. The other grand neolithic monuments of the region (e.g., Newgrange in Ireland) are generally focused on midwinter astronomy.

Plus, the European tradition as a whole just puts a lot more emphasis on the midwinter solstice than midsummer; compare Christmas to St. John's Day or July 4th to get the general idea.

Obviously we don't know and may never, and anyway the monument could equally well serve both functions. But sometimes I find it fascinating  to turn  things around and look at them from the opposite direction.

Let's Get Back to Quilting

The BBC reports on political turmoil in the online quilting community:
It started with political chat and ended up with abusive messages, calls for boycotts and an online civil war between liberals and conservatives. A familiar story, perhaps - only this time it happened in the world of quilting.

The traditional American hobby has - like knitting, baking and other skills - been given a new lease of life by social media, through Reddit discussions, online commerce and the ease of spreading tips and knowledge via digital videos.

But in recent weeks, online communities and bloggers have been discussing a series of screenshots which appear to show socially conservative quilters organising campaigns and hurling insults about other enthusiasts who don't share their political beliefs.
Ok, "Conservative with a Common Interest" is a secret Facebook group, so if they want to mock liberals in a closed forum that's their business, right? But then this:
Members organised a drive to send complaints to an exhibition which had put out a call for quilts protesting against the Trump presidency. They contacted the sponsors of one liberal quilter to suggest that she should be dropped because of her opposition to Trump.

They sent homophobic messages to gay artists and contacted quilting trade shows, asking organisers to cancel classes run by quilters they thought were too liberal.

And they suggested boycotting certain quilters, or reporting them to the IRS - the American tax authorities - so that they would be tied up in tax investigations. Targets were chosen because of their support for things like Planned Parenthood and and women's rights, among other liberal causes.
Quilting has long been a political art in America, as projects like the AIDS quilt or the anti-Trump quilt show, but really. Trying to get the IRS after liberal quilters?

But I was pleased to read that after quilting blogger Eric Suszynski exposed this group, the most common response he got was,
Let's not talk about it, let's move past it. Let's ignore this problem and get back to quilting.

Truth and Trust

Tom Friedman called ethicist Dov Seligman to get his perspective on the current political situation in America:
“What we’re experiencing is an assault on the very foundations of our society and democracy — the twin pillars of truth and trust,” Seidman responded. “What makes us Americans is that we signed up to have a relationship with ideals that are greater than us and with truths that we agreed were so self-evident they would be the foundation of our shared journey toward a more perfect union — and of respectful disagreement along the way. We also agreed that the source of legitimate authority to govern would come from ‘We the people.’”

But when there is no “we” anymore, because “we” no longer share basic truths, Seidman argued, “then there is no legitimate authority and no unifying basis for our continued association.”
This is indeed the great danger, and the thing most to be feared. What to do about it is the great question, and I have heard no compelling answers.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Yawns at CERN

Since the announcement of the Higgs Boson in 2012, no news from the frontiers of particle physics:
Some 5,000 physicists are back at work here at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, watching their computers sift the debris from primordial collisions in search of new particles and forces of nature, and plan to keep at it for at least the next 20 years.

Science is knocking on heaven’s door, as the Harvard physicist Lisa Randall put it in the title of her recent book about particle physics.

But what if nobody answers? What if there is nothing new to discover? That prospect is now a cloud hanging over the physics community.

It’s been five years and more than seven quadrillion collisions of protons since 2012, when the collider discovered the Higgs boson, the particle that explains why some other elementary particles have mass. That achievement completed an edifice of equations called the Standard Model, ending one significant chapter in physics.

A 2015 bump in the collider data hinted at a new particle, inspiring a flood of theoretical papers before it disappeared into the background noise as just another fluke of nature.

But since then, the silence from the frontier has been ominous.

“The feeling in the field is at best one of confusion and at worst depression,” Adam Falkowski, a particle physicist at the Laboratoire de Physique Théorique d’Orsay in France, wrote recently in an article for the science journal Inference.

“These are difficult times for the theorists,” Gian Giudice, the head of CERN’s theory department, said. “Our hopes seem to have been shattered. We have not found what we wanted.”
The particular thing many physicists wanted was supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is a theory that fixes some mathematical problems with the Standard Model by positing an entire suite of particles "symmetric" to the more familiar ones, but at much higher energies. Some versions of the theory posit that some of those particles should have showed up in the CERN data by now. They have not, leading to what one researcher called "a massacre of theories."

The physics we have provides all the knowledge we need to get on with high-tech civilization, but it doesn't explain the universe. The hope was that CERN's colliders would yield new data that would point toward new kinds of explanations. But that hasn't happened, and physicists don't know where else to turn for answers.

Emmanuel Macron and En Marche

France has a completely new government. The new president, Emmanuel Macron, is the nation's youngest leader since Napoleon. The parliament is dominated by the new party Macron created just last Fall, a "centrist" entity called En Marche! The ranks of its representatives include more than a hundred who have never before held public office, including a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who was adopted by a French couple and a mathematician who won the Fields Medal for his work on "proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium of the Boltzmann equation." In one sense this is rather remarkable: French politicians tend to hang around for decades, and many come from families that have been in politics for generations. For a party to go from creation to majority in six months must be some kind of record.

And yet.

Macron may be a new man, but so far as I can see he has no new ideas. He seems to me like a standard representative of the global elite, eerily like Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, or maybe more like a white, uncool Barack Obama. His election manifesto is full of political biolerplate like, "What is our program? Bringing France into the 21st century." I spent fifteen minutes perusing the manifesto and I did not find a single plank that Obama and many other American Democrats would not have endorsed – in fact Obama did endorse Macron.

Some of this was strategy on Macron's part. His plan was to be the sane, professional, non-corrupt, pro-Europe, anti-racist, alternative to Le Pen, so there was a studied vagueness to much of what he said. More than most such documents, the En Marche! manifesto was designed not to lose any votes rather than to generate enthusiasm. The absence of a single interesting idea or controversial proposal was intentional. But that, to me, is rather chilling.

Macron does have a record in government, so we know something about what he is likely to do. He favors reducing some regulations on business to help create jobs, and he supported the controversial El Khomri law that made it easier for French companies to fire workers. He thinks the future of the French economy depends on making French companies more competitive through eased regulation and making French workers more competitive through better education and training. He supports a strong welfare state and comprehensive environmental protections, including a major effort to reduce CO2 emissions. He is strongly anti-racist and has opposed bans on head scarves but has tried to stake out a middle position on immigration, calling for both more aid to legal immigrants and tougher border control to keep out others. He is somewhat hawkish in foreign policy and has called for a UN backed military effort to remove Assad from power in Syria.

Is anti-racism plus neo-liberalism a solution to our problems? Or will it just keep the world idling along as it has been, with more and more inequality, economic and social alienation, permanent disability, terrorism, anxiety, and anger? Does it promise any hope for dealing with the bewildering future?

I know many educated French people feel that they dodged a bullet when Macron defeated Le Pen, but I have a nagging suspicion that they dodged the bullet by stepping into a bottomless mire.

Macron would probably say, and I know Obama would say, that the path we are on – globalization, diversity, the mixed economy, every-increasing pressure to study hard and work hard or else fall out of the middle class – is going to be a hard road, but it's the only road to a prosperous, democratic future. You may not like it, but there just is no other way.

There are no shortcuts to prosperity and stability, just unceasing effort.

And maybe that's right; I certainly don't have any other ideas.

I just have a bad feeling that unless something happens to change the political trajectory, the world's democracies are in for an upheaval that will make this year's Trump/Brexit explosion seem like spilled milk.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


As the arc of the sun reaches its peak, may it lift your spirits to their highest.

South Carolina Raises its Gas Tax

In South Carolina last month, the legislature overrode the governor's veto of a major increase in the gas tax. The current tax in 16.75 cents/gallon; under the new law the tax will raise 2 cents/gallon each year for the next six years, to a total for 28.75 cents. The money is all allocated to infrastructure spending, mainly major upgrades to existing highways and catching up on deferred highway maintenance. Sorry to be so far behind the news, but I just learned about this from a company-wide conference call in which our highway engineers in the southeast were excited about the business opportunity this presents; if this made any appearance in the national media, I missed it.

South Carolina is by some measures the most conservative state, with a rock-solid Republican majority. As in Kansas, it has turned out that cutting taxes and minimizing government have limits as a long-term strategy for running a state no matter how conservative the voters. As South Carolina's roads have deteriorated and its traffic has worsened, people have began to agitate, not for tax cuts, but for better service from the state government.

Helicopter Parenting and Authoritarianism

I've been wondering when somebody was going to make this argument, and here it is:
American childhood has taken an authoritarian turn. An array of trends in American society are conspiring to produce unprecedented levels of supervision and control over children’s lives. Tracing the effects of childrearing on broad social outcomes is an exercise in speculation. But if social scientists are correct to posit a connection between childrearing and long-term political outcomes, today’s restrictive childhood norms may portend a broader regression in our country’s democratic consensus.

Since the early 1980s, American childhood has been marked by a turn toward stringent adult control. Support for “free range” childhood has given way to a “flight to safety” characterized by unprecedented dictates over children’s routines.

More so than any other generation, parents and educators have instill in millennials the idea that, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it, “life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm.”
This author (Pratik Chougule) notes the various signs we have seen of a waning attachment to democracy, especially among the young, and wonders if childrearing is to blame:
Whether or not an authoritarian scenario unfolds in the United States could depend on childrearing trends. Indeed, social scientists have long argued that the origins of authoritarian societies can be discerned in childhood pathologies.

Among the most far-reaching adherents of this view was the late psychologist Alice Miller, a student of authoritarian regimes. Through her study of Nazism and Soviet communism, Miller concluded that dictatorships emerge when an entire generation of children is raised under authoritarian conditions replete with excessive forms of control and discipline. In the case of Nazi Germany, Miller is convinced that Hitler would not have come to power but for turn-of-the-century German childrearing practices that emphasized “unthinking obedience” and discouraged creativity.
I have long wondered about this. On the one hand it seems that big changes in childrearing ought to have big effects on everything else in society, but on the other this is hard to document. I can believe that there was a lot of rigid parenting in early 20th-century Germany, but was it really worse than a hundred years earlier? Or than in Britain at the same time? Does anybody know how parenting changed or didn't in 20th-century China? In general I have found it hard to draw clear lines from parenting styles to anything else.

Plus I think this narrative exaggerates how much American parenting really changed. My children all spent a lot more time inside than I did, but that was in spite of my constantly nagging to go out rather than my trying to keep them in. I think cable television and video games have had more to do with increasing sedentism in children than rigid parenting.

And, I think the biggest threat to American democracy is angry partisanship, not risk aversion.

But as I said I have long pondered the broader impacts of changes in child-rearing, and I wonder what the political effects of  anxious parenting will be.

Altamura Cathedral

Altamura is a small city in southeastern Italy, in the district of Bari. It was refounded in 1232 by Emperor Frederick II, after being badly damaged and partially abandoned in some war or another.

Frederick also commissioned the church, which was built between 1232 and 1254. At first it was not a cathedral but only a royal chapel – Frederick and the Pope did not get along, and while the emperor could build all the chapels he wanted only the Pope could create a bishopric. But a later treaty between popes and emperors gave it episcopal status.

The church was restored after a fire in 1316, which we know because an inscription records that Robert of Anjou sent workers to help.

The north portal seems to date to that time.

In 1485 the church was elevated and status and various accounts state that it was enlarged, restored, or rebuilt. Historians used to imagine a major reconstruction in the early 16th century, and some said that it was realigned, the altar and entrance switching ends. However work done during the most recent restoration seems to have disproved that notion. This means that the wonderful entrance is back to being an original work of Frederick's artisans, still in its original location.

Details from the door; the bottom shows Herod ordering the Massacre of the Innocents.

The interior has obviously been much changed; the overall look may date to the 16th century but many pieces are more recent still. But the basic structure of the columns and arches is medieval.

Black and white photos were taken by Paolo Monti in 1970; via wikimedia commons.