Quick hits (part I)

1) Benjamin Wittes (who really knows what he’s talking about) gives 10 reasons “it’s probably too late to stop Mueller.”  I think he’s right, but I’d be happier without the “probably” in there.

2) Nice Monkey Cage analysis from Political Scientist Charles Smith III on why we have to wait so long for election results now.  This is the new reality we just need to get used to:

his slow process of counting ballots has produced considerable controversy. But it shouldn’t. Both state laws and sheer logistics make it impossible to finish counting ballots on election night or even within a day or two. Here’s why that is — and why newly counted ballots seem to favor Democratic candidates.

Why the counting isn’t done on election night

The election night tradition of gathering around the television to see the votes come in and news organizations “call” the winners gives us a false impression: All the votes that need to be counted can, and should, be tallied in the minutes after  the close of polls.

But this is wrong. For one, in almost every state, provisional ballots will have been cast on Election Day by voters whose registration cannot be verified.  In 2016, 2.1 million voters cast a provisional ballot, 71 percent of which were eventually counted after the registration was verified. States are currently in the middle of verifying the registration status of those who cast provisional ballots in 2018, and decisions are being made about whether to count those ballots in this election. Moreover, millions of ballots have been mailed in, which now need to be opened, have voters’ signatures compared to the signature on record and then scanned.

In some states, this means that a large number of votes are counted after Election Day. In 2016, California and Washington counted less than half their votes within a day of the election. Three other states, Alaska, Arizona and Utah counted only about 60 percent. Another six states had counted only 90 percent of their ballots.

In Arizona, ballot-counting takes extra time because three-quarters of Arizona’s voters cast ballots by mail. Many of these are returned in person on Election Day. Processing mail ballots is labor-intensive and can take days if not weeks to complete…

What’s happened in Florida and Arizona is nothing new. In fact, it’s entirely consistent with current trends in election law and election administration. Voters across the United States have demanded greater flexibility in how and when they cast their ballots. This greater flexibility comes with a price: a delay in counting ballots.

Of course, one must guard against shenanigans that could occur during the counting of these additional ballots.

But to date, nothing about the vote-counting in Arizona and Florida suggests that the growing number of votes or their Democratic tilt are due to electoral improprieties.

3) I loved learning all about how the kilogram is being redefined to a universal standard.  It’s wild that until know our basic unit of weight is based on a piece of metal sitting in France.

4) I love NC State basketball and certainly understand the desire to name things after Jim Valvano, but this name is ridiculous: Kay Yow Court at James T. Valvano Arena at William Neal Reynolds Coliseum

5) Good Krugman piece on how the general failure of the Republican tax cuts undermines much of the rationale of Republican economics:

Meanwhile, there’s no sign of the vast investment boom the law’s backers promised. Corporations have used the tax cut’s proceeds largely to buy back their own stock rather than to add jobs and expand capacity.

But why have the tax cut’s impacts been so minimal? Leave aside the glitch-filled changes in individual taxes, which will keep accountants busy for years; the core of the bill was a huge cut in corporate taxes. Why hasn’t this done more to increase investment?

The answer, I’d argue, is that business decisions are a lot less sensitive to financial incentives — including tax rates — than conservatives claim. And appreciating that reality doesn’t just undermine the case for the Trump tax cut. It undermines Republican economic doctrine as a whole. [emphasis mine]

About business decisions: It’s a dirty little secret of monetary analysis that changes in interest rates affect the economy mainly through their effect on the housing market and the international value of the dollar (which in turn affects the competitiveness of U.S. goods on world markets). Any direct effect on business

6) Drum’s headline captures this well, “Military Experts Say We Should Cut Medicare to Fund Bigger Military.”

7) Nice piece from the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer on the difficulty of controlling California’s wildfires:

Fires in the United States are getting larger, and the country is rapidly losing the ability to deal with them. During President Ronald Reagan’s first term, the federal government spent a couple hundred thousand dollars a year fighting fires, according to Williams. This year, it plans to spend $2.25 billion just battling fires; its full budget for managing them can exceed $5 billion. Yet forest-fire damage has ballooned nonetheless. Since the early 1980s, the land area burned by wildfires every year has increased by 1,000 percent.

“Fires are outrunning us. We’re trying harder than ever to put them out, and they’re continuing to win, more and more, every year,” Williams said. “And it really isn’t for lack of effort. Even when we know it’s been stupid policy to fight every single fire, we’re still trying as hard as we can to do that.”

It’s a message he wishes he could drill into the head of every American. As the California fires have dominated the news, Williams has been asked by friends and journalists why we can’t just fix wildfires, why we can’t just put them out. We have solved all sorts of complex environmental-engineering problems. Why not wildfire?

The question illustrates “the root problem that got us into this mess,” Williams told me. “We think that we as humans should be able to dominate this phenomenon of wildfire. And in reality, we can’t. Even though we can put a person on the moon, and even though we can create this global computer network, we can’t. This is a natural phenomenon that is similar to the ocean in that it is really big, that it is much larger than us when it really gets going

8) Oh, so much wrong with this news story:

9) Hat tip to my wife (and amateur linguist) for this cool article on how your language affects your color perception:

There wasn’t an English word for the color “orange” until 200 years after the citrus fruit of the same name arrived in Europe. Before then, the color was called by the two other colors that, when mixed, make orange: “yellow-red.”

This is just one striking example of the ways in which color categories are shaped by culture. Ancient languages, including Greek, Chinese, Hebrew, and Japanese, didn’t have a word for blue. And Russian speakers have two distinct category words for light blue vs dark blue: Something is never “blue,” in Russian, it’s either “siniy” (dark blue) or “goluboy” (light blue.)

These words don’t simply reflect what we see, but multiple experiments suggest they influence our perception. In one recent study, published in Psychological Science and reported by the British Psychological Society, researchers showed groups of Greek, German, and Russian speakers (103 people in total) a rapid series of shapes, and were told to look out for a grey semi-circle. This semi-circle appeared alongside a triangle in different shades of blue and green, and participants later reported whether they saw a complete triangle, a slight or strong impression of the shape, or didn’t see it at all.

Researchers found that Greek and Russian speakers, who have dedicated words for light and dark blue, were more likely to see a light blue triangle against a dark blue background (and vice versa), than they were to identify green triangles against green backgrounds. Speakers of German, which has no such distinction, were no better at seeing shades of blue triangles than green.

10) I loved this youtube video on why Led Zeppelin’s John Bohnam was such an amazing drummer.  I’ve long-believed that having a great drummer is an under-appreciated fact of why some very good rock bands are great rock bands.

11) Connor Friedersdorf on the folly of blaming “white women” for Trump and Republican victories.

12) I’ve long thought the Post’s Charles Lane responsible for some of the most fabulously inane columns.  He’s so convinced himself of his “both sides!” sensible centrism that he writes columns like, “Voters took on gerrymandering. The Supreme Court doesn’t need to.”  I don’t need to explain to you how utterly short-sighted that is.

13) Interesting piece in Chronicle of Higher Ed on helping college students confront their biases.  My more simplistic approach– start ever single class with Ezra Klein’s “How politics makes us stupid.”

14) Found this article about big box stores trying to cut property taxes via “dark store theory” pretty interesting.

15) Dana Goldstein writes, “Voters Widely Support Public Schools. So Why Is It So Hard to Pay for Them?”  My theory is that it has something to do with the fact that there is a political party committed to telling voters that taxes are bad and no matter what and encouraging delusional thinking like we can have good schools without paying for them.  I won’t name that political party.

16) Wild stuff (literally).  Escaped-from-a-theme-park Rhesus macaques in Florida carry a deadly herpes virus.

17) Somehow I missed this story last week about a man who died from eating a slug.  I brought it up today when I told my kids not to eat the slug in the front yard.  My wife told me this was so last week.  Umm, also, real.

18) This graphic of what treatments are effective for the common cold in children and adults is awesome!  I’m a big fan of the ibuprofen plus pseudoephedrine plus caffeine approach (caffeine does not directly address the basic symptoms, but in my experience when combined with the others really helps with the “generally feeling like crap” symptom).

19) I found the new/recent Peter Rabbit movie (currently on Netflix) unexpectedly charming.

20) I had seen all week that this piece on Larry Nassar (the gymnast-molesting-physician) was amazing and after yet another recommendation, finally read it yesterday.  Just read it.


Trump on policy

We’re so used to how incredibly stupid and inane Trump can be on matters of policy (photo ID to buy cereal?!), that it’s too easy to just laugh it off and say, “there he goes again.”  But it’s worth it every know and then to just stop and think about the fact that our president is simply stunningly ignorant of how policy actually works (on balance, I would say that’s a good thing– the old “malevolence tempered by incompetence”– but , still).  It’s not that Trump would just come nowhere near passing my college Public Policy course, I would be embarrassed to hear his answers from my 12-year old (who is, admittedly, pretty smart).  Anyway, Yglesias digs into Trump’s latest Daily Caller interview to remind us just how bad this is.  You should read through Trump’s rambling, incoherent answers for a reminder.

Trump is utterly unable to discuss policy

A unique aspect of Trump as a politician is that he can’t talk about the substance of any policy issue in a remotely coherent way. Tough interviews can sometimes obscure exactly how bad he is at this because they become combative. But here is he grappling with a softball:

THE DAILY CALLER: Sir, I do want to turn to policy.

TRUMP: That’s why I always joke when I say they’ll all be endorsing me. ’Cause I don’t know what happens to their business after I’m gone.

THE DAILY CALLER: Sir, right now, in 2010 we saw several pieces of major legislation passed in a lame-duck Congress. What can we expect your and the Republican agenda to be in this Congress? Is it going to be an immigration fix? What about criminal justice reform? What are the two to three things you’re looking at?

TRUMP: We’re working on many things. Criminal justice reform we’re working on very hard. We have a meeting today, did you know about that? We have a meeting today.

THE DAILY CALLER: We heard about that.

TRUMP: Get these two in, all right? I think we have a chance at that. We should be able to fix health care. We should be able —

THE DAILY CALLER: Just one second, sir, on that criminal justice bill. Is that the Jared Kushner-backed bill that you want to focus on?

TRUMP: The answer is I’m looking at it very closely, okay? I am. It’s a good thing. You know, Texas is backing it, if you look at Mississippi and Georgia and a lot of other places, they believe in it, those governors, and they’re conservative people. Rick Perry’s a big fan.

You know, a lot of people are backing it. Look at the people that are backing it. Even, you know, like Mike Lee, he votes against a lot of things and we respect Mike and Mike is backing it. We have a lot of people that are backing this.

If you haven’t been following this issue, you might be curious as to what the content of the bill Trump is backing is. What does it do? How will it impact your life and your community? Trump has nothing to say about this, nor does he seem up to speed on what the actual state of play in Congress is. He just knows he has a meeting and also that his energy secretary likes the bill and that Utah Sen. Mike Lee “votes against a lot of things.”

Of course, nobody in politics is an expert on everything that crosses his desk, but when Trump gets a question on his signature issue of immigration, he starts ranting about Mueller again:

THE DAILY CALLER: What about immigration, sir? Are you willing to shut down the government if you don’t get a certain set of policies?

TRUMP: I may be. I may be. I’ll have to see how it plays out. But I may very well be willing to shut down the government.

I think it’s horrible what’s happening and, you know, building the wall, it’s in smaller stages, we can build it very quickly. I’m building the wall in smaller stages and we moved the military there, we put up barbed wire, we did all sorts of things. You have to have a barrier. You have to have a barrier.

Look, we have a chance of, they can do presidential harassment, put very simply, and I’ll be very good at handling that, and I think I’ll be better than anybody in the history of this office. And in a certain way, I look forward to it because I actually think it’s good for me politically, because everyone knows it’s pure harassment. Just like the witch hunt, the Mueller witch hunt. It’s pure harassment. It’s horrible. It’s horrible that they’re allowed to get away with it.

Again, not Senate-confirmed but, you know. You have 17 people, half of them worked for Hillary Clinton, some on the foundation. The Hillary Clinton Foundation. I mean, you think of it.

Where Trump does have detailed, albeit entirely made-up, beliefs is on the subject of voter fraud — a phenomenon he claims to believe is widespread despite all evidence to the contrary…

As David Brooks tries to reassure us that Trump is too inept to be a scary authoritarian, the Caller review is a reminder that it’s really a both/and situation.

There’s no clear line between Trump’s dishonesty and his sincere lack of information, or between his tendency to engage in vain but pointless boasting and his alarming efforts to overturn legitimate election results.

The main throughline is that even though Trump makes no sense, tramples on basic values routinely, and has no grasp of the actual substance of his job, he does have a large, well-financed, and fairly relentless conservative propaganda apparatus at his back that tries to obscure his failings from their audience while trusting that keeping him in power is broadly beneficial for the goals of the conservative movement — even if he is only dimly aware of what those goals are.

So we’re left with a president who is both relatively likely to blunder us into some catastrophe and likely to respond to catastrophe in inappropriate or illegal ways. [emphasis mine]

Amazon and the insanity of state/local incentives

I was going to put this excellent Derek Thompson column in quick hits, but it’s clear its become “the” read on Amazon this week.  He’s exactly right that the Amazon HQ2 saga highlights what is so wrong about states and municipalities competing with each other for jobs.  It’s one thing if we lure jobs from another country, but when companies are lured from one state or city to another by incentives, the company gets richer and taxpayers lose.  Thompson:

Every year, American cities and states spend up to $90 billion in tax breaks and cash grants to urge companies to move among states. That’s more than the federal government spends on housing, education, or infrastructure. And since cities and states can’t print money or run steep deficits, these deals take scarce resources from everything local governments would otherwise pay for, such as schools, roads, police, and prisons. [emphases mine]

In the past 10 years, Boeing, Nike, Intel, Royal Dutch Shell, Tesla, Nissan, Ford, and General Motors have each received subsidy packages worth more than $1 billion to either move their corporate headquarters within the U.S. or, quite often, to keep their headquarters right where they are…

But there are three major problems with America’s system of corporate giveaways.

First, they’re redundant. One recent study by Nathan Jensen, then an economist at George Washington University, found that these incentives “have no discernible impact on firm expansion, measured by job creation.” Companies often decide where they want to go and then find ways to get their dream city, or hometown, to pay them to do what they were going to do anyway. For example, Amazon is a multinational company with large media and advertising divisions. The drama of the past 13 months probably wasn’t crucial to its (probable) decision to expand to New York City, the unambiguous capital of media and advertising.

Second, companies don’t always hold up their end of the deal. Consider the saga of Wisconsin and the Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn…

Third, even when the incentives aren’t redundant, and even when companies do hold up their end of the bargain, it’s still ludicrous for Americans to collectively pay tens of billions of dollars for huge corporations to relocate within the United States.

No story illuminates this absurdity more than the so-called Border War, in which the Kansas and Missouri sides of Kansas City have spent zillions of dollars dragging companies back and forth across state lines, within the same metro area. Several years ago, Kansas lured AMC Entertainment with tens of millions of dollars in incentives. Then Missouri responded by stealing Applebee’s headquarters from Kansas with another incentive package. Back and forth they went, until both states had spent half a billion dollars creating no net new jobs but changing the commutes of 10,000 Kansas City workers who got caught up in an interstate duel.

Thompson outlaws several straightforward policy solutions that could be implemented at the federal level.  Alas:

But no one is yelling and screaming. Instead, in a starkly divided country, corporate pandering is the last bastion of bipartisanship, an activity enjoyed by both Democrats and Republicans at every level of government. New Jersey and Maryland, both blue states, insisted that Amazon take $7 billion in tax savings just months after congressional Republicans passed a corporate income-tax cut that some analysts project will save Amazon nearly $1 billion over the next decade.

Corporate America is getting all the help it doesn’t need. You and I may not like it. But executives such as Jeff Bezos have no reason to care. They are winning by the rules of a broken game.

Just one more way American politics is broken.  We can and need to do better.

2nd Amendment vs the human body

Last week 60 Minutes had an excellent report on the AR-15– the weapon of choice for mass shooters.  Yes, of course handguns can kill lots of people, too, but the simple fact is not nearly as many.  Assault rifles use high-powered ammunition that is designed to be uniquely lethal because the bullets are far more damaging to the human body.  There’s a nice demonstration of this (with simulated human tissue) in the story.   Shoot 15 people with a handgun there’s got to be a significant number that survive.  Shoot 15 people with an AR-15 and the vast majority and the vast majority die.  Any mass shooting is awful, but human deaths and a lot more awful than survived gun shot wounds.

AR-15’s are the civilian version of high-powered weapons designed to kill enemy soldiers in combat.  Ordinary Americans have no more need for these than they do anti-tank missiles or rocket-powered grenade launchers.  Banning this particular class of highly lethal guns in no way undermines a general 2nd Amendment right to possess a gun.  And I know there’s been controversy about what exactly makes an “assault rifle,” but it seems to me the lethality should be the key.  High-powered semi-automatic rifles should be strictly regulated.  And, hey, maybe you need one to kill a bunch of feral pigs on your ranch.  Fine, but there’s no reason we cannot have higher standards/regulations for purchasing guns that are especially designed to take human life.

The numbers behind the wave

By this point, with almost all the votes counted, it’s pretty damn obvious, that, yes, of course, this really was a blue wave.  Love this analysis from Yair Ghitza using Catalist data comparing vote and turnout levels in 2014, 16, and 18.  Well worth taking a look at the whole thing, but here’s the key charts:

I’m actually surprised that youth turnout is only up a point compared to 2014.  But, wow, the shift toward Democrats is amazing.  And check out the shift among young whites.  I’ve been saying that “Trump is toxic” to young people.  Hell yeah.

And this:

Note that education/race wise, the Trumpiest group– non-college white– is also the largest group by far.  This was the key to 2016.  But, damn, check out that shift in white college grads.

And here’s the handy takeaway:

In sum, our data suggests that the Democratic win was multifaceted. On one hand, turnout reached record levels, with especially high turnout among young people, communities of color, and people with a college degree. On the other, there were big changes in candidate preferences, almost across the board. The biggest changes came from young voters, college-educated voters and women. It seems that among people who have historically been “in the middle” or harder to predict, they both voted at higher rates and voted more for Democrats. All of these contributed to the Democratic win in the House.

Democrats for fairness?

So, one of the things I’ve noticed this election season is just how much the gerrymandering issue resonates with college students.  I recently graded class papers on an electoral reform of students’ choosing and there were a lot of gerrymandering papers.  In a couple of talks I’ve given, students have wanted to talk extensively about gerrymandering and what to do about it.

Left, right, or center, gerrymandering is just so obviously unfair that once people understand it at all, the issue realyl resonates.  Of course, we’ve always had gerrymandering, but post 2010 we have such extreme cases (e.g., NC, WI, MD, among others), plus coverage of Supreme Court cases that the issue has gained more awareness among those who follow politics.  And, to know gerrymandering is– except for the most hardcore Republicans– to want to end it.  I’ve yet to come across an actual defense of gerrymandering on it’s merits.

I was also thinking about this in relation to Florida’s strong vote to re-enfranchise ex-felons.  From what I’ve heard, it really helped that Republicans did not take up strong, official opposition to this.  But, that said, I feel like this is such a straightforward issue– once somebody has served their punishment, why would you keep punishing them by taking away their fundamental right in a democracy— that people just get it and want to do the right thing.

So, it really shouldn’t be a partisan movement at all for better democracy, but if Republicans won’t play ball, Democrats should definitely and strongly push for more voter reforms.  David Leonhardt is on the case:

The United States finally has the pro-democracy movement that it needs.

Last week, ballot initiatives to improve the functioning of democracy fared very well. In Florida — a state divided nearly equally between right and left — more than 64 percent of voters approved restoring the franchise to 1.4 million people with felony convictions. In Colorado, Michigan and Missouri, measures to reduce gerrymandering passed. In Maryland, Michigan and Nevada, measures to simplify voter registration passed. “In red states as well as blue states,” Chiraag Bains of the think tank Demos says, “voters overwhelmingly sent the message: We’re taking our democracy back.”

Of course, there is still an enormous amount of work to do. Voting remains more difficult here than in almost any other affluent country. On Election Day, I had to wait in line for 45 minutes, even though I have a job that gives me the luxury of voting in the middle of the day.

And this country also suffers, unfortunately, from an anti-democracy movement: Leaders of the Republican Party — out of a fear of the popular will — keep trying to make voting harder. They have closed polling places, reduced voting hours and introduced bureaucratic hurdles…

Over all, though, the election was an excellent one for American democracy. The battle has now been fully joined: Progressive activists have come to understand the importance of promoting and protecting democracy. Most citizens — across the political left, center and right — agree.

Before the midterms, the leaders of Indivisible, the big progressive grass-roots group, conducted a national survey of its members — people who had marched, knocked on doors or otherwise gotten politically involved over the past two years. The survey included a list of issues, and asked which should be the Democrats’ top priorities after the midterms. It included health care, gun safety, the environment, civil rights, reproductive rights, taxes, the courts, education and criminal justice reform. And there was a landslide winner. But it wasn’t any of those issues, important as they are.

The winning issue was democracy…

This is also a moment to think ambitiously about a pro-democracy agenda. Any Democrat considering a 2020 run for president should be working on a democracy plan, much as any Democrat running in 2008 had a health care plan.

My own wish list includes universal voting by mail, which some parts of the West already use — and which lifts turnout much more than automatic voter registration alone. I would also like to see more places lower the voting age to 16 for local elections, as a few Maryland cities have. If you’re old enough to operate a lethal two-ton vehicle, you’re old enough to have a say in your community’s future.

More democratic participation won’t solve all of the country’s problems. But it will solve some of them. The United States has low voter turnout for a reason: Our system — with workday elections, long voting lines and cumbersome registration rules — is designed to discourage mass participation. That same system once barred women, African-Americans and 18-year-olds, among others, from voting.

The system has changed before, and it can change again. It is already starting to.

I truly wish this could be bipartisan, but, sadly, that won’t be happening any time soon.  That said, fighting for better democracy is obviously good policy, but it is also good politics.  This is about fairness and that is something that really resonates with voters– especially young ones.  Let’s keep pushing this Democrats.

Grattitude –> Grit

Interesting column in the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that our attempts to teach grit are misguided:

decades of research have confirmed that those who can delay gratification have better life outcomes. Good self-control has also been shown to be a key component of grit — perseverance in the face of educational challenges. It’s no wonder, then, that colleges have placed great emphasis on teaching students better self-control.

But the strategies that educators are recommending to build that self-control — a reliance on willpower and executive function to suppress emotions and desires for immediate pleasures — are precisely the wrong ones. Besides having a poor long-term success rate in general, the effectiveness of willpower drops precipitously when people are feeling tired, anxious, or stressed. And, unfortunately, that is exactly how many of today’s students often find themselves.

Research conducted by the American College Health Association shows that almost 54 percent of students report feeling high levels of stress, 60 percent report feeling very lonely, and more than 90 percent report feeling exhausted and overwhelmed at times. Anxiety and depression levels are also on the rise and, as documented in The Chronicle, are taking a tollon students’ well-being.

Efforts to emphasize willpower and executive function to achieve self-control are largely ineffective in helping those students. And evidence shows that those strategies might actually be contributing to the stress, anxiety, and loneliness students feel. [emphases mine]
So, what does work?  Well, this is really cool, because it is something I have been working on in my own life and with my kids– gratitude:

For millennia, what ensured long-term success was cooperation. Strong interpersonal relationships were necessary to thrive. But to be identified as a good partner, a person had to be trustworthy, generous, fair, and diligent. She had to be willing to sacrifice immediate self-interest in order to share with and invest in others. In short, she had to have good character. And what drives such behaviors, emerging research shows, are feelings like gratitude, compassion, and a sense of pride in one’s ability, all of which nudge the mind to accept sacrifices to cooperate with and, thereby, build relationships with others.

When a person feels grateful, he’ll work harder and longer to pay others back as well as pay favors forward. When a person feels compassion, she’ll give time, money, effort, even a shoulder to cry on to another in need. When a person feels proud, she’ll devote more effort to developing skills that others value, and will be admired for it. Although these sacrifices often cost one pleasure or resources in the moment, they enhance long-term success via the greater rewards that come through continued reciprocal interactions with others…

Focusing on feelings like gratitude, compassion, and pride offer something of a double shot when it comes to fostering success. They ease the way to perseverance toward long-term goals, and they simultaneously make people act in ways that strengthen social relationships — something that benefits the health of body and mind and, indirectly, raises educational attainment itself.

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