Quick hits (part I)

1) I remain a techno-optimist when it comes to the future of nuclear power.  Newer designs are so much safer and more efficient that the 40-50 year old designs we are using, if we would just give them a real chance.  Like small modular reactors:

For the last 20 years, the future of nuclear power has stood in a high bay laboratory tucked away on the Oregon State University campus in the western part of the state. Operated by NuScale Power, an Oregon-based energy startup, this prototype reactor represents a new chapter in the conflict-ridden, politically bedeviled saga of nuclear power plants.

NuScale’s reactor won’t need massive cooling towers or sprawling emergency zones. It can be built in a factory and shipped to any location, no matter how remote. Extensive simulations suggest it can handle almost any emergency without a meltdown. One reason is that it barely uses any nuclear fuel, at least compared with existing reactors. It’s also a fraction of the size of its predecessors.

This is good news for a planet in the grips of a climate crisis. Nuclear energy gets a bad rap in some environmentalist circles, but many energy experts and policymakers agree that splitting atoms is going to be an indispensable part of decarbonizing the world’s electricity. In the US, nuclear power accounts for about two-thirds of all clean electricity, but the existing reactors are rapidly approaching the end of their regulatory lifetimes. Only two new reactors are under construction in the US, but they’re billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Enter the small modular reactor, designed to allow several reactors to be combined into one unit. Need a modest amount of energy? Install just a few modules. Want to fuel a sprawling city? Tack on several more. Coming up with a suitable power plant for a wide range of situations becomes that much easier. Because they are small, these reactors can be mass-produced and shipped to any location in a handful of pieces. Perhaps most importantly, small modular reactors can take advantage of several cooling and safety mechanisms unavailable to their big brothers, which all but guarantees they won’t become the next Chernobyl.

2) I’m no so big into watching baseball, but I still find it intellectually interesting.  Like this, about the baseballs:

SAN DIEGO—Baseballs with a lower seam height coupled with a “change in player behavior” were among the primary causes of the power surge that resulted in players hitting a record 6,776 home runs in 2019, a panel of scientists commissioned by Major League Baseball to study the issue said Wednesday.

The committee’s report attributed 60% of the spike to less wind resistance on the balls themselves and 40% to what it described as “launch conditions”—essentially differences in how batters swing.

Throughout the 2019 season, pitchers across the sport questioned whether the league instructed Rawlings, the MLB-owned company that manufactures the baseballs in a factory in Costa Rica, to intentionally “juice” them to generate offense. The report dismissed that theory, saying that “no evidence was found that changes in baseball performance were due to anything intentional on the part of Rawlings or MLB and were likely due to manufacturing variability.”…

The latest study comes closer to identifying an explanation: inconsistency in the height of the seams, which the professors said can have a dramatic effect on how the ball behaves.

Newly developed laboratory techniques enabled the committee to show a correlation between seam height and drag. The average seam height in 2019 was lower than 2018 by less than one-thousandth of an inch. Still, that was enough to account for 35% of the change in drag.

“This is something that escaped our observation in the preceding study simply because the equipment that we were using was not precise enough to determine that,” said Alan Nathan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois and the chair of the study.

The problem is that the committee still can’t figure out the other factors that contributed to the decreased drag. It did rule out certain hypotheses such as roundness, surface roughness and lace thickness. Further breakthroughs will require more study. Asked how long that might take, Lloyd Smith, the director of the Sports Science Laboratory at Washington State University, said, “We have no idea.”

3) This is good from Chait, “Hunter Biden Is the New Hillary Clinton Email Server”

The email scandal was not just a Fox News narrative. It dominated mainstream news coverage of Clinton’s campaign, because it was a real issue, albeit a small one. Mainstream reporters made a historic blunder by devoting far more attention to the email issue than it deserved, but this is an inevitable result of the incentive system in the mainstream press, which prioritizes critical coverage over passive transmission of a candidate’s chosen message. The email issue was the “toughest” subject reporters could cover, so they focused a lot of attention on it. The bizarre result of this coverage choice was that voters came away concluding Clinton’s mishandling of email protocol was a crime on roughly the same scale as Trump’s endless array of massively unethical and illegal acts. Clinton, by the way, apologized for using the private server, but the apology did not stop reporters from highlighting the issue…

Most of Trump’s lax security protocol is both far more serious than Clinton’s snafu, and still not on anybody’s list of the 100 worst things Trump has done in office. For that reason, reporters obviously aren’t going to give it anywhere near Clinton-email levels of attention. Nobody who voted against Clinton because they thought her emails were a major scandal is going to realize Trump’s information-security record has been worse.

Here is another parallel to Biden’s Burisma problem. While he allowed the appearance of impropriety, Trump has allowed actual impropriety. Not only are Trump’s children making money off their relationship — Ivanka received a lucrative patent deal in China; Don Jr. got bulk party purchases of his book — President Trump himself is collecting payments from foreign and domestic sources who have government business. The ethical impropriety involved in Trump running a large business concern while serving as president is so enormous it defies all the applicable laws and terms. The structure built to insulate the president from conflicts of interest never anticipated conflicts on this scale. The idea that Trump’s opponent has a liability on this issue is an absurdity. It would be like electing Ted Bundy president because his opponent once kicked a dog.

And yet, such an absurdity is not just a possible outcome: the incentives of the news media turn it into a likely one. Reporters aren’t going to stop asking Biden tough questions about a legitimate ethical shortcoming just because his opponent’s sins dwarf Biden’s a thousandfold. Clinton’s example suggests that an apology wouldn’t do Biden much good.

4) Really cool Upshot feature, “The Age That Women Have Babies: How a Gap Divides America”

Becoming a mother used to be seen as a unifying milestone for women in the United States. But a new analysis of four decades of births shows that the age that women become mothers varies significantly by geography and education. The result is that children are born into very different family lives, heading for diverging economic futures.

First-time mothers are older in big cities and on the coasts, and younger in rural areas and in the Great Plains and the South. In New York and San Francisco, their average age is 31 and 32. In Todd County, S.D., and Zapata County, Tex., it’s half a generation earlier, at 20 and 21, according to the analysis, which was of all birth certificates in the United States since 1985 and nearly all for the five years prior. It was conducted for The New York Times by Caitlin Myers, an economist who studies reproductive policy at Middlebury College, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

The difference in when women start families cuts along many of the same lines that divide the country in other ways, and the biggest one is education. Women with college degrees have children an average of seven years later than those without — and often use the years in between to finish school and build their careers and incomes.

People with a higher socioeconomic status “just have more potential things they could do instead of being a parent, like going to college or grad school and having a fulfilling career,” said Heather Rackin, a sociologist at Louisiana State University who studies fertility. “Lower-socioeconomic-status people might not have as many opportunity costs — and motherhood has these benefits of emotional fulfillment, status in their community and a path to becoming an adult.”

There has long been an age gap for first-time mothers, which has narrowed a bit in recent years, driven largely by fewer teenage births, Ms. Myers said. Yet the gap may be more meaningful today. Researchers say the differences in when women start families are a symptom of the nation’s inequality — and as moving up the economic ladder has become harder, mothers’ circumstances could have a bigger effect on their children’s futures.

A college degree is increasingly essential to earning a middle-class wage, and older parents have more years to earn money to invest in violin lessons, math tutoring and college savings accounts — all of which can set children on very different paths. Yet an education and a high-paying career also seem out of reach for many people.

5) John Cassidy argues that impeachment is a win for Democrats

If Trump is to be defeated next year, his opponents will have to maintain that energy and build upon it. To do so, Ezra Levin, the co-founder and co-executive director of the Indivisible movement, which now has more than five thousand affiliated local groups, insists, it was utterly necessary for the Democrats to react to the shocking Ukraine revelations by issuing the ultimate congressional rebuke to Trump. Speaking hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed that the House Democrats would go ahead and file articles of impeachment, Levin said, “I see only positive sides to this. I see a system that is working. For all the millions of people who got involved with politics after 2016, it shows that all the hard work they did mattered. That is going to get them involved again in 2020.”

From this perspective, the key thing isn’t whether the Senate actually removes Trump from office. Levin, who is also the co-author of a new book, “We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump,” said that he wasn’t making any predictions about the outcome. But he added, “It was vital to demonstrate that elections do have consequences and that the Democrats will use their power to stand up to Trump.” If Pelosi and her colleagues had refused to launch an impeachment process, Levin went on, “it would have been enormously demoralizing for all these people who were newly engaged after 2016.”

This argument seems incontrovertible. I suspect it is why Pelosi ultimately came around to supporting impeachment, despite the reservations of some House Democrats who represent purple districts…

Of course, none of this means that the impeachment process couldn’t end up alienating some independent voters who believe Trump’s misdeeds don’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses, or who think Congress should let voters determine his fate next November. That may happen. And an impeachment trial will certainly fire up pro-Trump activists as well.

But these threats have to be balanced against the imperative of maintaining an energized front against Trump going into an election year. As a disruptive insurgent who eagerly fans social and racial resentments, he has always had an enthusiastic base—that isn’t going to change. One of the big challenges for Democrats—or anybody else opposed to Trump—is to nurture and sustain a nationwide countermovement that is at least equally passionate and engaged. From that perspective, as Levin pointed out, impeachment is already a win.

6) Really cool work from Lynn VavreckJohn Sides and 

What the Nationscape data reveal is clear: Impeachment is a top priority for almost everyone, regardless of whether they are in favor of it or against it.

Democrats are nearly 40 percentage points more likely to choose a collection of policies when it contains the position they agree with on impeaching Mr. Trump. Most of them want it to happen (among Democrats with an opinion on the topic, 86 percent support impeachment; the remainder don’t). But taken as a whole, the topic is something Democrats care a lot about right now.

The only policy more important to Democrats is family separation at the southern border (92 percent of Democrats with an opinion are opposed). Slightly less important to Democrats is whether to enact a total ban on abortion (87 percent against) or build a wall on the border (86 percent against). These are the topics Democrats are less willing to sacrifice relative to the other issues we ask about; they are issues with high impact.

To get these things, Democrats are willing to give up some issues like union rights (whether to oppose right-to-work laws) and whether to oppose an immigration system based only on merit. Even climate policies are seen as less important than impeaching the president…

Republicans are similarly focused on impeachment. They are roughly 45 percentage points more likely to choose a basket of policies when it includes their preferred position on the topic (88 percent of Republicans with a position on impeachment do not favor it). It outweighs every other issue for Republicans — including parts of Mr. Trump’s and the party’s agenda, such as building a border wall. The Green New Deal is the sixth-most important issue for Republicans — a much higher ranking than among Democrats (nearly a quarter of Republicans support it, but many more are opposed to it or just not sure).

Just like Democrats, Republicans are willing to sacrifice getting what they want on other issues, like estate tax repeal and a merit-based immigration system. Rounding out the lower-impact issues for Republicans are school vouchers, trade restrictions and a public option for health insurance.

6) 538, “Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back”

Millennials have earned a reputation for reshaping industries and institutions — shaking up the workplace, transforming dating culture, and rethinking parenthood. They’ve also had a dramatic impact on American religious life. Four in ten millennials now say they are religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, millennials (those between the ages of 23 and 38) are now almost as likely to say they have no religion as they are to identify as Christian. 1
For a long time, though, it wasn’t clear whether this youthful defection from religion would be temporary or permanent. It seemed possible that as millennials grew older, at least some would return to a more traditional religious life. But there’s mounting evidence that today’s younger generations may be leaving religion for good.

Social science research has long suggested that Americans’ relationship with religion has a tidal quality — people who were raised religious find themselves drifting away as young adults, only to be drawn back in when they find spouses and begin to raise their own families. Some argued that young adults just hadn’t yet been pulled back into the fold of organized religion, especially since they were hitting major milestones like marriage and parenthood later on.

But now many millennials have spouses, children and mortgages — and there’s little evidence of a corresponding surge in religious interest. A new national survey from the American Enterprise Institute of more than 2,500 Americans found a few reasons why millennials may not return to the religious fold. (One of the authors of this article helped conduct the survey.)

For one thing, many millennials never had strong ties to religion to begin with, which means they were less likely to develop habits or associations that make it easier to return to a religious community.
Young adults are also increasingly likely to have a spouse who is nonreligious, which may help reinforce their secular worldview.
Changing views about the relationship between morality and religion also appear to have convinced many young parents that religious institutions are simply irrelevant or unnecessary for their children.

7) Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes, “If the Witnesses Could Exonerate Trump, Why Aren’t They Testifying? Trump’s defenders suggest that White House aides could exculpate the president—but the evidence suggests otherwise.”

To the extent that the lack of testimony from these witnesses creates holes in the record, those are likely to be damning for Trump. Take Bolton, for example: According to Morrison, after meeting with Trump about the Ukraine aid, Bolton told Morrison that the president “wasn’t ready” to release the aid and that Morrison should “continue to look for opportunities” to convene a meeting with officials who could persuade Trump to do so. This doesn’t sound like Bolton was convinced that the president was legitimately concerned with addressing corruption in Ukraine…

But let’s imagine for a moment that the day comes when these men are compelled to testify—and that they tell the truth. Does anyone believe that the truth will set Trump free—that the real story here is that the president had long-standing concerns about corruption in Ukraine and earnest anxieties about Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 election, and that he asked for investigations out of a disinterested anti-corruption passion he has never exhibited before in his life? …

If these men end up testifying, Republicans will face yet another moment of reckoning as the strongest defense of the president, and the last factual defense, falls away. In an ideal world, that would finally force them to acknowledge the outrageousness of the president’s conduct, and Trump’s support in Congress would plummet. More likely, they will revert to the last defense: that the phone call with Zelensky was, as the president has insisted, “perfect,” and that Trump’s abuse of power is actually a model of how presidents should behave—or if not that, then at least not impeachable behavior.

8) Greg Sargent, “The massive triumph of the rich, illustrated by stunning new data”

A new analysis prepared at my request by Gabriel Zucman — the French economist and “wealth detective” who has become famous for tracing the hidden wealth of the super-rich — illustrates that dual story in a freshly compelling way.

The top-line finding: Among the bottom 50 percent of earners, average real annual income even after taxes and transfers has edged up a meager $8,000 since 1970, rising from just over $19,000 to just over $27,000 in 2018.

By contrast, among the top 1 percent of earners, average income even after taxes and transfers has tripled since 1970, rising by more than $800,000, from just over $300,000 to over $1 million in 2018.

Among the top 0.1 percent, average after-tax-and-transfer income has increased fivefold, from just over $1 million in 1970 to over $5 million in 2018. And among the top .01 percent, it has increased nearly sevenfold, from just over $3.5 million to over $24 million.

I’m emphasizing the phrase “after taxes and transfers” because this is at the core of Zucman’s new analysis. The idea is to show the combined impact of both the explosion of pretax income at the top and the decline in the effective tax rate paid by those same earners — in one result.

The declining progressivity of the tax code is the subject of “The Triumph of Injustice,” a great new book by Zucman and fellow Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez. It charts the slow strangulation of that progressivity at the top.

As they demonstrate, the effective tax rate (federal, state, local and other taxes) paid by top earners has steadily declined since the 1950s and 1960s, when the tax code really was quite progressive, to a point where the highest income groups pay barely more, percentage wise, than the bottom.

9) Alex Seitz-Wald on Republicans and Trump:

WASHINGTON — Late in the afternoon of Aug. 7, 1974, Republican leaders in Congress traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to deliver a stark message to Richard Nixon: His presidency was over.

The public had turned on Nixon as evidence emerged about his role in the Watergate scandal and the bottom fell out once his own party abandoned him.

“None of us doubted the outcome. He would resign,” conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater later wrote of the meeting in his memoir. Two days later, Nixon stepped down.

Today, as Democrats in the House of Representatives move toward bringing articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, with the next Judiciary Committee hearing of evidence set for Monday, few Democrats are still clinging to the hope that Republicans will reach a breaking point with Trump like they did with Nixon.

“I really don’t think there is any fact that would change their minds,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told NBC News.

Why? Two key changes since Nixon: a massive divide in American political life — we hate the other team more than ever before — and a media climate that fuels and reinforces that chasm, powered by Fox News on the Republican side. [emphasis mine]

10) New research says LBJ’s war on poverty worked better than is often credited:

We evaluate progress in President’s Johnson’s War on Poverty. We do so relative to the scientifically arbitrary but policy relevant 20 percent baseline poverty rate he established for 1963. No existing poverty measure fully captures poverty reductions based on the standard that President Johnson set. To fill this gap, we develop a Full-income Poverty Measure with thresholds set to match the 1963 Official Poverty Rate. We include cash income, taxes, and major in-kind transfers and update poverty thresholds for inflation annually. While the Official Poverty Rate fell from 19.5 percent in 1963 to 12.3 percent in 2017, our Full-income Poverty Rate based on President Johnson’s standards fell from 19.5 percent to 2.3 percent over that period. Today, almost all Americans have income above the inflation-adjusted thresholds established in the 1960s. Although expectations for minimum living standards evolve, this suggests substantial progress combatting absolute poverty since the War on Poverty began.

11) Dan Drezner on the toddler-in-chief:

Longtime readers of Spoiler Alerts are aware of my efforts to keep track of when President Trump’s staffers, subordinates and political allies talk about him like he’s a toddler. Over a bit less than three years, there are 1,113 documented examples of this phenomenon, which averages out to more than one a day…

During a week in which Trump finally secured bipartisan agreement on a trade deal, it also raises a question: Are examples like these evidence that, dare I say it, Donald Trump is finally growing into the presidency?

Let’s not leave this reader in suspense: The answer is no. As Aaron Rupar explains in Vox, Trump continues to behave in an unhinged, unconstrained manner. The president’s behavior has not changed one iota, which is why, until this month, the quarterly #ToddlerinChief count had shown a steady increase.

What has changed, however, is something akin to what I warned about back in January: “Shifts in the political balance of power in Washington are altering the incentives for who deploys the analogy.” In particular, two ongoing dynamics have slowed down the toddler mentions: the purging of the executive branch and the impeachment of Trump in Congress.

Within the executive branch, Trump has continued to force out subordinates who have resisted his more toddler-like impulses. The most obvious recent example was the departure of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, who was fired because of his disagreement with Trump’s decision to intervene in the military justice system. Spencer later wrote an op-ed for The Post in which he stated, “the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.” An even more recent example came this week when FBI Director Christopher A. Wray defended the FBI from baseless conspiracy theories. In response, Trump swatted at him on Twitter.

The population ecology here is simple: The more Trump makes life miserable for mature people serving under him, the more likely those people will leave the government and stop being a source of good toddler analogies. Over time, Trump’s staff is becoming as immature as he is.

12) Jonathan Last makes a good case for Biden winning the nomination.  Ugh.

13) I make a point of never using the phrase “begs the question” because I don’t trust myself to use it correctly.  At some point, though, if virtually everyone uses it to mean “raises the question” shouldn’t that be what it means.  It already kind of is.  But there’s good reason not to give in:

In fact, that wrong usage is so common some people will argue it’s not an error anymore (7). But I’m firmly in the camp that believes it’s worthwhile to stick to the formal definition. There are plenty of phrases writers can use when they mean “makes me wonder” or “raises the question.” There’s no hole in the English language that needs to be filled, so there’s no reason to use begs the question improperly.

The quick and dirty tip is to remember that when something begs the question, it begs the question: what is your support for that premise?

14) The NYT art critic defends the $120,000 banana.  Mistake.  When you are wrong in the NYT, the commenters are so much smarter.  Really enjoyed the comments on this one, e.g.,

I know the art world. I ran a successful contemporary art gallery and was editor of an international art magazine. Cattelan’s banana is rubbish, and it’s sad to see the Times critic engaged in rhetorical backflips to try convince a rightly suspicious public that their instincts are wrong. You don’t need an art education to realize that telling the public they should recognize a banana and duct tape as worthy art is little more than gaslighting by art world elites.

 

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

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