Quick hits (part I)

1) Really interesting Atlantic piece on automotive safety. I was particularly intrigued to learn about speed limits:

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that speed is a top risk factor in motor-vehicle crashes. Yet the most prominent way of setting and adjusting speed limits, known as the operating-speed method, actually encourages faster driving. It calls for setting speed limits that 85 percent of drivers will obey. This method makes little provision for whether there’s a park or senior center on a street, or for people walking or biking.

As a matter of law, the operating-speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law—speeding motorists—to rewrite it: Speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal. Other legislation amplifies the harm from this method. In California, for example, cities are sometimes obligated by law to raise speed limits against their will, and local governments are barred from lowering them even for safety reasons. This occurs against a backdrop of radical under-enforcement of the speed limit nationally, and the widespread banning of proven but unpopular lifesaving technologies such as automated speed cameras.

Just as telling as what activities the law regulates is whose interests it seeks to protect. Dozens of our peer nations require carmakers to mitigate harm to pedestrians caused by their products. U.S. design regulations, however, require only measures that enhance the safety of car occupants. Just as SUVs are becoming taller, heavier, and more prevalent—and pedestrian fatalities are surging—U.S. regulators have not required carmakers to embrace those more comprehensive design standards. Instead, they’ve launched campaigns baselessly blaming pedestrians for their own deaths.

2) Crazy story about how a metal straw actually killed somebody.  If this was in a movie you’d say– no way.  I still love my plastic straws and enjoy the metal straws I recently received (as an NPR contributor gift).

3) The sycophancy that surrounds Trump really is amazing (and, oh my, how does William Barr even live with himself):

Still, sycophancy is an effective path to favor with any President, especially this one. Trump retains a Manichean view of the world, bracing in its Trump-centric simplicity. This informs foreign policy, domestic policy, and key decisions about hiring and firing—basically, everything he does. On his mystifying affinity for Vladimir Putin, for example, the Mueller report’s inconclusive findings suggest that there may be no more accurate explanation than one that Trump himself gave, in public, in 2016: “He says very nice things about me.” It’s a line Trump often uses in the accounts that have emerged of his private conversations in the White House, and his subordinates have clearly received the message. Consider Attorney General William Barr’s performance in the Rose Garden on Thursday afternoon, when he and Trump were announcing that the Administration would back off on Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census. Bowing to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against it, Barr claimed that the choice to forgo putting the question on the census was essentially a “logistical” obstacle, about timing. He applauded Trump for courageously agreeing to abide by the Court’s decision, declaring, “Congratulations again, Mr. President.”

4) Never actually bought a Kidz Bop CD, but damn did I used to see the ads all the time.  Alas, it’s tough times for compilations of sanitized version of pop songs.

5) Thought-provoking interview, “What if life did not originate on earth.”

So the four-billion-year and the ten-billion-year estimates—there is no scientific basis for either estimate? Is that what you are saying?

No, no, no. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. And the universe, at least based on estimates from the Big Bang, is something like fourteen billion years. So, if life evolved somewhere else, that buys you about ten billion years of time. But I’d rather it bought you a hundred billion years of time or a thousand billion years of time. That would be more satisfying.

Why would it be more satisfying?

Well, because it allows more time. See, the thing is, if you look in the fossil record, where’s the first evidence of life? Well, you can see evidence of bacterial life, things that look like bacteria, the things that are called stromatolites, which are a kind of blue-green algae bacteria that live in colonies. Those things form good fossils, and you can see those about three and a half billion years ago. So, life had already evolved to the point of there being pretty complicated bacteria very quickly, after the Earth cooled.

And, you know, most lay people would say, “Well, yeah, duh, bacteria are pretty simple.” But bacteria are not simple. Bacteria are incredibly complicated. Bacteria are the self-replicating robots that electrical engineers dream of. These guys can make a copy of themselves in twenty minutes, with four thousand parts.

So, O.K., what’s the upshot of what you’re saying about the bacteria?

They were super highly evolved, and I think they got here as soon as the Earth cooled, and they just started growing. And they’ve been spreading across the Milky Way and maybe the whole universe. For example, you’ve heard about seti, right? The people who are looking for intelligent life?

Also reminded me of ideas in one of my favorite science fiction novels, Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God.

6) This is cool.  Not only can I continue to think that trigger warnings are overly-woke overkill now there’s social science that shows as much.

7) Speaking of overly-woke.  I really like Farhad Manjoo on technology, and I get the argument for having non-gendered personal pronouns, but we already having a meaning for they and it’s third person plural.  And it’s confusing as hell to pretty much any native English speaker to pretend otherwise.

8) I have no interest in poker but really enjoyed learning about the AI poker-playing bot and how it got so good so fast.

9) Some good political science, “Politicians Don’t Actually Care What Voters Want: Does that statement sound too cynical? Unfortunately, the evidence supports it.”

How much do legislators really care about the views of their constituents?

Over the past two years, we conducted a study to find out. We provided state legislators in the United States with access to highly detailed public opinion survey data — more detailed than almost all available opinion polls — about their constituents’ attitudes on gun control, infrastructure spending, abortion and many other policy issues. Afterward, we gauged the willingness of representatives to look at the data as well as how the data affected their perceptions of their constituents’ opinions.

What we found should alarm all Americans. An overwhelming majority of legislators were uninterested in learning about their constituents’ views. Perhaps more worrisome, however, was that when the legislators who did view the data were surveyed afterward, they were no better at understanding what their constituents wanted than legislators who had not looked at the data. For most politicians, voters’ views seemed almost irrelevant.

10) Really nice Wired article on the physics of producing ever-faster tennis serves (I’m counting on you to put this to use, JDW).

11) Not at all surprised to learn that listening to up-tempo music can enhance a high-intensity workout. I pretty much just listen to podcasts during all my exercise, but when I really want to run, I go with this.

12) NYT with 10 findings that contradict medical wisdom.  I did know most of these.  And even though I’ve seen it, this one still surprises me:

  • To treat emergency room patients in acute pain, a single dose of oral opioids is no better than drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen.

Yes, opioids are powerful drugs. But a clinical trial showed that much safer alternatives relieve pain just as well among emergency room patients.

13) This is great from Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent, “How incompetence torpedoed Trump’s rigging of the census.”

In a presidency full of pratfalls and screwups, there have been few efforts characterized by quite the combination of boundless bad faith, obvious dishonesty and sheer incompetence as this one.

Let’s briefly remind ourselves of what a sorry mess this has been, from the beginning.

The Trump administration came into office determined to add the citizenship question to enhance the political power of Republicans and whites, as files from the hard drive of a dead Republican gerrymandering guru who had been advising the administration revealed.

The question would discourage responses from households that include noncitizens, leading to undercounts that would dilute representation and the awarding of federal dollars in those areas — which was the whole point.

Trump himself recently gave up the game when he blurted out that “you need it for Congress for districting.”

In fact, congressional districts are apportioned to states by total population, not by the number of citizens, and then district lines are also drawn using total population. But Republicans have long harbored a desire to use only numbers of citizens for redistricting, because it would allow them to supercharge their gerrymandering efforts and pull power away from urban areas where there are generally lots of Democrats.

Officials couldn’t reveal their real aims, of course, so the administration concocted a cover story that the Justice Department wanted the citizenship question as a way to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act, something about which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied under oath. The administration invoked executive privilege to keep documents about their decision-making under wraps…

Could the administration possibly have handled this affair in a more buffoonish way? It’s difficult to imagine how. Perhaps we should be thankful that they were so incompetent, because otherwise they might have gotten away with it. [emphasis mine]

13) It really is amazing the way our government is systematically, purposefully traumatizing children.  Ashley Fetters, “The Exceptional Cruelty of a No-Hugging Policy: When kids separated from their families on the U.S.-Mexico border can’t get hugs or physical comfort from the caretakers at their shelters—or even from one another—their experience becomes even more traumatic.”

14) A huge part of our mass incarceration policies is literally just a war on poor people.  Good NYT/ Pro Publica, “Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt: Ankle bracelets are promoted as a humane alternative to jail. But private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars a month to wear the surveillance devices. If people can’t pay, they may end up behind bars.”

15) Finally got around to reading Yglesias‘ good piece (with lots of data and political science) that argues that Democrats learned the wrong lessons of Trump’s election:

Activists are pressing candidates to take aggressively progressive stands on broad issues like Medicare-for-all but also narrower ones like including undocumented immigrants in health care plans and providing relief from graduate school debt.

This is, however, precisely the wrong lesson to learn from the Trump era.

It’s true that Trump is president, but it’s not true that Trump ran and won as an ideological extremist. He paired extremely offensive rhetoric on racial issues with positioning on key economic policy topics that led him to be perceived by the electorate as a whole as the most moderate GOP nominee in generations. His campaign was almost paint-by-numbers pragmatic moderation. He ditched a couple of unpopular GOP positions that were much cherished by party elites, like cutting Medicare benefits, delivered victory, and is beloved by the rank and file for it…

When I was a young blogger in the mid-aughts, the big issues in national politics were Social Security privatization, marriage equality, and the war in Iraq.

Trump ran as an Iraq War proponent who vowed to avoid new Middle Eastern military adventures, as an opponent of cutting Social Security and Medicare (and Medicaid), and as the first-ever Republican candidate to try to position himself as an ally to the LGBTQ community — going so far as to actually speak the words “LGBTQ.”

And during the 2016 campaign, it showed. Even though people who paid close attention to the obsessive sniping of Bernie Twitter have an impression of Hillary Clinton as the ultimate centrist Dem, voters saw her as largely liberal on the issues. Trump was perceived as conservative, to be sure, but also as less uniformly conservative than Clinton was liberal.

16) This was a really interesting legal analysis of the Mueller report from Jed Shugerman that I was quite surprised that I hadn’t seen anything like this before:

Ever since the release of the Mueller Report, countless commentators have implored everyone to just #ReadtheReport. The problem is not who is reading it—the problem is the report itself, and its many errors.

Robert Mueller made a significant legal error and, based on the facts he found, he should have identified Trump campaign felonies. Mueller’s errors meant that, first, he failed to conclude that the Trump campaign criminally coordinated with Russia; second, he failed to indict campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates for felony campaign coordination (see in a concise timeline below); third, the 10 acts of felony obstruction in Volume II fell flat among the general public because it lacked compelling context of these underlying crimes between the campaign and Russia. On top of these errors, the former special counsel said he deliberately wrote the report to be unclear because it would be unfair to make clear criminal accusations against a president.

The bottom line is that the Mueller Report is a failure not because of Congress or because of public apathy, but because it failed to get the law, the facts, or even the basics of writing right. When Mueller testifies before Congress on July 17, he should be pressed on all of this.

The DOJ’s initial appointment explicitly tasked Mueller with investigating campaign “coordination,” and it is not too much to ask that he get the law of “coordination” right. The report stated that “‘coordination’ does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law. We understood coordination to require an agreement—tacit or express.”

However, Congress purposely sought to prevent such narrow interpretations: in 2002, it passed a statute directing that campaign finance regulations “shall not require agreement or formal collaboration to establish coordination.” The Federal Election Commission established the regulations for the implementation of the statute:  “Coordinated means made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate,” with no need to show any kind of agreement.

17) I read Blake Crouch’s Recursion at the beach last week.  So good.

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

3 Responses to Quick hits (part I)

  1. BlythBros. says:

    On the pedestrian protection topic – US automakers don’t write the regulations, but since very few vehicles are sold exclusively to US customers, the domestic automakers are forced to comply, lest they lose out on the opportunity to sell to European markets. The interesting downsides of the “ped-pro” regulations are the necessary styling fixes to compensate for the bulging hoods of compliant vehicles. The size of wheels necessary to maintain design balance leads to longer stopping distances, inferior roadholding, a harsher ride, and lower fuel economy, thanks to the increase in rotational inertia.

  2. itchy says:

    7. I was watching the ultimate frisbee national women’s semifinal between UNC and Dartmouth. Dartmouth has a fantastic player named Jack. While the sportscasters were commenting on Dartmouth’s success and Jack’s abilities, they said “they have very few turnovers.”

    I couldn’t tell whether the sportscasters were saying that Dartmouth as a team has very few turnovers, or that Jack has few turnovers. (I did realize later that Jack must prefer “they,” but it wasn’t clear at all.) I’m all for *another* pronoun, but don’t co-opt they.

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