Quick hits (part II)

1) Though I only dabbled in Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager, fair to say it has changed by firstborn’s life and I enjoy learning about it vicariously through him.  The Post with an article on how the game is really booming these days.  It only gets a sentence or so in the article, but I think it is quite interesting the degree to which the boom is substantially due to some really smart revisions with the latest (5th) edition of the game, in contrast to the very-much-panned 4th edition.

2) Given the chance, the dingo really will eat your baby.  Harrowing tale of parents saving their toddler from dingos.  And, no way can I resist including this:

3) Interestingly, Mr. “I have the best memory” doesn’t seem to have such a great one when he’s in legal jeopardy:

Mr. Trump rarely lacks for certainty in his public statements on camera, but has shown more caution when under oath.

He said, “I don’t remember” 24 times during a 2012 deposition in a lawsuit involving his now-defunct Trump University and 35 times during another deposition related to the university suit three years later, not counting 10 more times in the two interviews that he said, “I don’t recall” or “Can’t remember.” (He eventually settled the legal claims for $25 million.)

Prosecutors said such selective memory tended to make them suspicious.

“It’s always a red flag when a witness appears to selectively forget the events most likely to be damning,” said Dwight C. Holton, who spent 14 years as a prosecutor, most recently as United States attorney in Oregon.

“And when you have a witness who repeatedly and publicly thumps his chest about how great his memory is, then all of a sudden he has sudden massive memory loss — well, let’s just say that’s a target I’d like to cross-examine in front of a jury.”

4) Sarah Sanders is almost as odious a figure as her boss.

After admitting to investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, that she delivered a false statement from the White House podium, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, defended herself in Trumpian fashion on Friday morning. She counterattacked.

The Mueller report revealed that Ms. Sanders had acknowledged that her repeated claim in 2017 that she had personally communicated with “countless” F.B.I. officials who told her they were happy with President Trump’s decision to fire James B. Comey as the agency’s director was a “slip of the tongue” and not founded on any facts.

Asked on “Good Morning America” if the report had damaged her credibility, Ms. Sanders responded that she had made the statement in the heat of the moment, and that it was not “a scripted talking point.”

But then she added, “I’m sorry that I wasn’t a robot like the Democrat Party that went out for two and a half years and repeated time and time again that there was definitely Russian collusion between the president and his campaign.”

Apparently complete and total fabrications are just fine in the heat of the moment.  Good to know.

4) I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to deem it evil, what Mick Mulvaney has done in undermining the CFPB’s ability to help Americans who have been cheated by the financial industry.

5) Asha Rangappa is great on the Mueller report, “How Barr and Trump Use a Russian Disinformation Tactic: They were able to define “collusion” to benefit themselves.  Don’t let them twist meanings again with their “spying” investigation.”

The Trump administration seized on this legal ambiguity early on, with the refrain that “collusion is not a crime.” The standard set here is that anything falling below criminally chargeable behavior is acceptable. When it comes to the presidency, this is not true. The Constitution lays out the procedure for removing an unfit president from office for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Nevertheless, we took the bait: Collusion may not be a crime, lawyers and pundits responded, but conspiracy is. This “reflexive” response adopted criminality as the bar to be met.

But as we found in the report, conspiracy is very narrowly defined: It requires proof of an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime, and an “overt act” in furtherance of that agreement. Unlike collusion, moreover, conspiracy requires that a party have a specific state of mind — knowledge — of the criminal nature of his or her actions. As a former F.B.I. special agent who conducted counterintelligence investigations, I can attest that foreign intelligence services do not operate on the basis of explicit agreements or even actions that, standing alone, constitute criminal activity.

Foreign intelligence services rely on manipulating vulnerabilities over time — like greed, or fear of exposure of a secret — to puppeteer those under their influence into acting in their interests without saying a word. Our adversaries also want to make sure they have plausible deniability, so it would be impossible to uncover an agreement made directly with a foreign government itself: As detailed in Mr. Mueller’s report, most of Russia’s overtures were made through cutouts and intermediaries, seeking to capitalize on the ambition of members of the Trump campaign to push along their efforts. Counterintelligence is, in effect, chasing ghosts, which is why the tools used to investigate foreign intelligence activity are secret, like human sources or electronic surveillance. It is not the stuff of which criminal prosecutions are made, and it is partly for this reason that operativesrarely see the inside of a courtroom.

Nevertheless, we reached an informal agreement with the White House over the last two years: The test of Mr. Trump’s fitness for office rested on Mr. Mueller’s findings that the president committed a crime, namely, conspiracy with the Russian government to influence the election.

6) Joseph Stiglitz on progressive capitalism:

America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people. One can get rich either by adding to the nation’s economic pie or by grabbing a larger share of the pie by exploiting others — abusing, for instance, market power or informational advantages. We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking), and too many of our talented young people followed the siren call of getting rich quickly.

Beginning with the Reagan era, economic policy played a key role in this dystopia: Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities. Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.

The result is an economy with more exploitation — whether it’s abusive practices in the financial sector or the technology sector using our own data to take advantage of us at the cost of our privacy. The weakening of antitrust enforcement, and the failure of regulation to keep up with changes in our economy and the innovations in creating and leveraging market power, meant that markets became more concentrated and less competitive.

Politics has played a big role in the increase in corporate rent-seeking and the accompanying inequality. Markets don’t exist in a vacuum; they have to be structured by rules and regulations, and those rules and regulations must be enforced. Deregulation of the financial sector allowed bankers to engage in both excessively risky activities and more exploitive ones. Many economists understood that trade with developing countries would drive down American wages, especially for those with limited skills, and destroy jobs. We could and should have provided more assistance to affected workers (just as we should provide assistance to workers who lose their jobs as a result of technological change), but corporate interests opposed it. A weaker labor market conveniently meant lower labor costs at home to complement the cheap labor businesses employed abroad.

We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.

7) I’ve got a student doing an honor’s thesis on felon enfranchisement.  Jamelle Bouie on an idea, apparently, gaining some momentum:

But the growing tide against felon disenfranchisement raises a related question: Why disenfranchise felons at all? Why not let prisoners vote — and give the franchise to the roughly 1.5 million people sitting in federal and state prisons? Why must supposedly universal adult suffrage exclude people convicted of crimes?

There is precedent for this idea. California allows voting for those in county jails (with limited exceptions). Colorado does too. New York recently allowed those on parole or probation to vote. And two states, Maine and Vermont, already let prisoners vote. In fact, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont affirmed his support for voting rights in prison the same week Warren backed automatic enfranchisement for former felons.

“In my state, what we do is separate. You’re paying a price, you committed a crime, you’re in jail. That’s bad,” Sanders said, responding to a question at a town hall. “But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that, yes, I do.”…

We ought to have that conversation now. Americans may see it as common sense that you lose your right to vote when you’re imprisoned, but in many democracies prisoners retain the right to vote. When that right is revoked, it’s only for particular crimes (in Germany, it’s for “targeting” the “democratic order”), and often there is a good deal of judicial discretion. Mandatory disenfranchisement is unusual, and permanent disenfranchisement is even rarer.

7) I have noticed that the plethora of new apartment buildings near NC State campus look similar.  Apparently, it’s not restricted to Raleigh and there’s a reason for this.  “Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same: Cheap stick framing has led to a proliferation of blocky, forgettable mid-rises—and more than a few construction fires.”

8) Enjoyed this shared by a female reporter friend, “Journalist Jana Shortal is breaking the unspoken dress code for on-air reporters.”

9) Some groundbreaking new research on all the world’s “missing” women.

And yet, for as long as people have been keeping records, nature shows a different, dependable pattern: For every 100 babies born biologically female, 105 come out biologically male. Scientists have speculated this mysteriously male-biased sex ratio is evolution’s way of evening things out, since females consistently outlive their XY-counterparts—for every man that reaches the age of 100, four women have also joined the Century Club.

This biological maxim has been so drilled into the heads of demographers—the researchers responsible for keeping tabs on how many people there are on the planet—that most don’t think twice before plugging it into any projections they’re making about how populations will change in the future. But a massive effort to catalog the sex ratios at birth, for the first time, for every country, shows that’s not such a smart strategy after all.

“For so long people just took that number for granted,” says Fengqing Chao, a public health researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore. “But no one had ever gone to the trouble of pulling all this information together to get accurate estimates of this fundamental metric.” Chao led the five-year project, combing through decades of census data, national survey responses, and birth records to build models that could estimate national sex ratios across time. In doing so, she and her collaborators at the United Nations discovered that in most regions of the world, sex ratios diverge significantly from the historical norm. Across a dozen countries, the chasm amounts to 23.1 million missing female births since 1970. The results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide an unprecedented look at how societal values can skew the laws of nature.

“It’s an incredibly important contribution,” says Darrell Bricker, a Canadian political scientist. “If the only part of the population who can produce new kids are women under the age of 45, and a whole bunch of them are missing, it’s going to have an obvious impact on the fertility of a population.” In his recently published book, Empty Planet, Bricker proposes the radical idea that contrary to a population explosion apocalypse scenario, the data suggests the world is actually more likely to run out of people. If current models are mistakenly counting women that aren’t there, that only makes his predictions that much more plausible, he adds.

10) We need to be so much tougher, policy-wise, on the anti-vaxxers.  You don’t want to vaccinate for vague, anti-scientific reasons.  Fine, lose your rights to schools, malls, public places, etc.  Our current exemption policies are way too lax in many states:

But over the last 10 years, many states have made it easier for parents to get personal exemptions for vaccinations. Recent analyses have shown that since 2009, the number of nonmedical exemptions rose in 12 of the 17 states that relaxed their laws to allow for philosophical objections as well as religious ones. In some anti-vaccine hot spots, exemption rates are nearing double digits. “It’s been a pretty recent phenomenon that people are now saying their concerns about vaccination outweigh their concerns about infectious diseases,” Silverman says. “And it’s starting to test the balancing act most states are trying to pull off.”

At least in some places, the threat of bigger outbreaks appears to be tipping the scales toward more restrictive policies. At least eight states, including some that experienced measles spikes this year, are now taking a harder look at their lax personal-exemption laws. When you add up the costs of an outbreak, it’s not hard to see why. A single five-month outbreak in Minnesota in 2017 that infected 79 people ran the state a tab of $2.3 million.

Stricter laws should help boost vaccine rates, but it’s not always enough. In 2015, California ditched its personal-belief exemptions, making it only the third state—along with West Virginia and Mississippi—to have such rigid requirements. As a result, fewer students skipped shots, and by 2018 immunization rates statewide were once again above the 94 percent threshold. But researchers discovered that over the same time period, medical exemptions grew. It turned out that many parents were getting around the new law by convincing doctors to grant them medical exemptions. That’s why California is now considering a bill that would crack down on the medical exempting process, to ensure they’re reserved only for people who really need them—kids who’ve 1undergone chemotherapy or organ transplants or who suffer from immune disorders.

11) Somehow, just yesterday discovered this Bad Lip Reading “Empire Strikes Back” edition.  Oh man did my kids and I love this

12) Honestly, probably better if Netflix had never made any new “Arrested Development” episodes, but it’s still got a great legacy:

Depressing is a word fans who fell in love with Arrested Development in its original form might call its current state: now that the show’s conclusion to season five has landed, it’s doubtful many will be praying for another renewal. It’s worth remembering though, if this is indeed its last hurrah, how good the show once was. That once there was no touching its hurricane-of-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags, surprises and syrupy moments of heartwarming family drama. Our pop culture landscape today would be drastically different without it: TV comedy in 2019 owes a godzilla-sized debt to the show. There may never have been BoJack Horseman or Archer, both of which feature stars from Arrested Development as well as generous servings of its manic, wild-eyed humour. It kicked open the door for the black comic barrage and selfish, shouting protagonists of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and blazed a trail for single cam successes like The OfficeParks and Recreation and Modern Family.

13) Happy Easter!

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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