Childhood obesity and nudges

Perhaps you heard the good news that childhood obesity rates are going down.  Hooray!  Nobody is quite sure why, but there’s a number of theories.  The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot weighs in (pun only semi-intended) on one policy-based explanation:

In 2009, the U.S.D.A. made a major revision in the list of foods that could be bought with coupons from the federal program known as W.I.C. (short for the Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children). The new package included more healthy items (fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, and low-fat milk) and fewer dubious ones (sweetened juices, cereals and breads that are not whole-grain). This was significant not only because the changes were so purposefully aimed at improving nutrition for low-income Americans but because W.I.C. serves so many of them—fifty per cent of American infants, twenty-five per cent of children under five, and twenty-six per cent of postpartum women are enrolled in the program…

In many of the low-income neighborhoods where women and children rely heavily on W.I.C., supermarkets are few and far between. Residents with limited funds for transportation are often forced to shop at the kind of gas-station quick marts and dusty-shelved corner stores where they can find plenty of beef jerky, chips, and soda and, other than a bruised banana or two, not much in the way of produce. But when a team of researchers from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity studied W.I.C.-authorized stores across Connecticut, they found that the stores had responded to the new rules by “improving the availability and variety of healthy foods.” The businesses “found a way,” as the researchers from Yale put it, to make room for low-fat milk on their shelves, and to stock fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads and other products they had not sold before. In so doing, they revealed a previously unsatisfied consumer demand. The researchers found that nearby stores that did not accept W.I.C. also started offering healthier foods, either because they now had new supply chains to take advantage of, or because customers were now asking for them, or both.

Marlene Schwartz, the director of the Rudd Center, thinks the W.I.C. reforms surely played a role in the reduction of obesity reported this week. The sheer number of families affected is part of the reason. And for two- and three-year-olds, who don’t need as many calories, a relatively small change—a switch to low-fat milk, a dip in the amount of sweetened juice they’re chugging—“can be pretty significant.” …

Information and moral suasion—Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the like—are important, but in the salty-sweet sea of temptation we all swim in, they’re not really enough. Big Junk Food, with its ubiquity and its advertising juggernaut, will always swamp earnest nutritional pamphlets and public-service announcements. Unless, that is, there are rules and money on the other side. The Republicans have, by and large, taken to treating public health as a private matter—as though we could all count calories in a self-actualizing vacuum. And that’s too bad, because when it comes to battling obesity, we all need some of the will power that only government can provide.

Writing about the broader idea of government “nudging” citizens towards their enlightened self interest through changing policy defaults, David Brooks comes down on the side of the nudgers (here’s what I’ve written on the matter in the past):

But this raises a philosophic question. Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no. This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do. Policy makers have their own cognitive biases, which will induce them to design imperfect interventions even if they mean well.

Individuals may be imperfect decision-makers, but they still possess more information than faraway government rule-makers. If government starts manipulating decision-making processes, then individuals won’t learn to think for themselves. Even just setting a default position reduces liberty and personal responsibility.

The pro-paternalists counter that government is inevitably setting contexts and default positions anyway, so they might as well be aligned with individual and social goals. There’s very little historical evidence that there is an inevitable slippery slope leading from soft paternalism to hard paternalism. If companies are going to trick people into spending more on, say, bank overdraft fees, shouldn’t government step in to prevent a psychological market failure?

I’d say the anti-paternalists win the debate in theory but the libertarian paternalists win it empirically. In theory, it is possible that gentle nudges will turn into intrusive diktats and the nanny state will drain individual responsibility.

But, in practice, it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option. It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner. It’s hard to feel manipulated if I sign up for a program in which I can make commitments today that automatically increase my charitable giving next year. The concrete benefits of these programs, which are empirically verifiable, should trump abstract theoretical objections.

Yep.  Not always happy with Brooks, but I think he gets this very much right.  When it comes to abstract theory versus empirical data, I’ll go with the actual data every time.   And the data suggest that policy “nudges” are a very sensible approach to public policy that do not inevitably lead down a slippery slope to tyranny (every now and then a slippery slope argument is actually right, but not usually in my experience).

A nudge for breastfeeding

I listened to a podcast this morning of a recent NPR story on New York City’s attempts to get more new mothers to breast feed instead of relying on formula.  The basics:

Starting next month, dozens of hospitals will participate in “Latch on NYC,” an initiative aimed at encouraging new moms to breast-feed instead of using baby formula.

Health care professionals say breast-feeding is better for both mother and baby.

But critics — many of them mothers — say the city is inserting itself where it doesn’t belong…

Hospital officials are quick to point out that Trinidad could get baby formula if she wants it or if there’s a medical reason to use it. But it’s clear that they want to steer new moms away from the bottle.

North Central Bronx is one of 27 hospitals in New York that are participating in the “Latch on NYC” initiative. They’ve agreed to stop giving away free formula in gift bags from manufacturers and to make nurses sign out bottles of formula as they would any other medication. Policies like these are already in place at many hospitals. Still, the initiative touched a nerve with critics — including many mothers.

“You’re asking women to do something hard and basically making them feel bad if they fail,” says Ada Calhoun, author of Instinctive Parenting, and founding editor of the parenting website,

This strikes me as a classic example of a nudge.  Government pushes you in the direction of a particular behavior that is presumably for the good of society (e.g., saving for your retirement, registering to vote, being an organ donor), but you totally have a choice.  It’s just that the “default” value is pro-social.  Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline this approach in their excellent book, Nudge.   It’s a great idea.  Let government encourage behavior that will be better for society (and the benefits of breastfeeding in terms of healthier babies are clear), but still allow people their freedom to do otherwise.

The cost, in this particular case, is presumably increased stigma and guilt for the women in these hospitals who choose not to breast feed at all.  I appreciate that, but I think that cost is surely outweighed by getting more women to breastfeed who otherwise might not.  Given that my first two kids were both on hypo-allergenic formula by a month due to the inability to tolerate something in Kim’s milk, I get that breastfeeding is not going to work for everbody, but that doesn’t change the fact that we should want our hospitals encouraging breastfeeding, rather than giving away tons of free formula.  Just a little nudge.

Science versus coronavirus

So, I was just going to post about the possible airborne threat of the disease, but, after waiting a day, a few other things I also wanted to get to.

Anyway, I’ve been particularly interested in how the virus is transmitted and how much uncertainty remains on that.  I think this weekend I read from two reliable accounts that the virus is and is not airborne.  Alas, it actually turns out, whether a virus is “airborne” is complicated.  Loved this article on the matter, “They Say Coronavirus Isn’t Airborne—but It’s Definitely Borne By Air: The word “airborne” means different things to different scientists, and that confusion needs to be addressed.”

Amid the hourly updates on the new coronavirus, a single, calming fact stands out: a particle of happy news, hanging in a cloud of dread. The germ that causes Covid-19 may be responsible for a terrifying public-health disaster, but hallelujah, thank the lord, at least it isn’t airborne. [emphases in original]

This message is now dogma for news outlets and public health officials. They impress on us that droplets laced with the new coronavirus don’t remain aloft for long—that they only sail for six feet at the most before they fall onto the ground. That’s why we’re told that soap and water are the best protections one can find: 20 seconds’ worth of hand-related hygiene, repeated many times throughout the day. The virus isn’t airborne; so keep on washing when you can. The virus isn’t airborne; so you’d be wise to trade your grubby handshake for an elbow bump. The virus isn’t airborne; so don’t forget to keep your fingers off your face.

But I’m afraid this standard line—this single, calming fact about the new coronavirus—may not be as simple as it seems. When health officials say the pathogen isn’t “airborne,” they’re relying on a narrow definition of the term, and one that’s been disputed by some leading scholars of viral transmission through the air. If these scholars’ fears bear out—if the new coronavirus does, in fact, have the potential to travel farther through the air than officials have been saying—then we might need to reevaluate our standards for protecting healthcare workers at the front lines of fighting Covid-19. In fact, we might need to make some tweaks to all our public-health advice…

For public health officials such as Tedros (who goes by his first name), a truly airborne virus is one that floats around for extended periods—like measles, which is known to be infectious in the air for at least half an hour. A pathogen like this can create a nightmare scenario. A sick person might ride an elevator, for instance, and shed some virus along the way. Later on, someone else who got into the same elevator might breathe in those germs and develop the disease.

There are very good reasons to believe—and good reasons for public-health officials to assure the public—that the new coronavirus virus isn’t “airborne” in that specific and apocalyptic sense. But the definition used by these officials may also be obscuring vital details of transmission. In particular, it papers over all the nuances in how someone’s virus-laden cough or sneeze or breath really travels through the air…

This black-and-white division between droplets and aerosols doesn’t sit well with researchers who spend their lives studying the intricate patterns of airborne viral transmission. The 5-micron cutoff is arbitrary and ill-advised, according Lydia Bourouiba, whose lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focuses on how fluid dynamics influence the spread of pathogens. “This creates confusion,” she says. First of all, it garbles terminology. Strictly speaking, the aerosols are droplets, too…

For researchers like Bourouiba, who study the physics of pathogens’ paths, any virus traveling in the air might as well be described as “airborne.” But there is no consensus among scientists as to which pathogens should get that label and which shouldn’t…

For researchers like Bourouiba, who study the physics of pathogens’ paths, any virus traveling in the air might as well be described as “airborne.” But there is no consensus among scientists as to which pathogens should get that label and which shouldn’t…

When it comes to this virus’s ability to travel in air—in hospitals or elsewhere—it’s hard to know where things will ultimately land. Until then, describing it in absolute terms seems risky.

So, wow– it’s really complicated.  That said… very safe to conclude: 1) wash your hands; 2) avoid breathing air closely with a bunch of other people.

Also a good article here on the issue:

The reason the measles is so, well, viral, is that the microbe is so small and hardy that it is able to stay suspended in the air where an infected person coughed or sneezed for up to two hours, making it one of the only viruses that can exist as a true aerosol.

Now there are conflicting reports on whether the new coronavirus can. The studies suggesting that it can be aerosolized are only preliminary, and other research contradicts it, finding no aerosolized coronavirus particles in the hospital rooms of Covid-19 patients…

The weight of the evidence suggests that the new coronavirus can exist as an aerosol — a physics term meaning a liquid or solid (the virus) suspended in a gas (like air) — only under very limited conditions, and that this transmission route is not driving the pandemic. But “limited” conditions does not mean “no” conditions, [emphasis mine] underlining the need for health care workers to have high levels of personal protection, especially when doing procedures such as intubation that have the greatest chance of creating coronavirus aerosols. “I think the answer will be, aerosolization occurs rarely but not never,” said microbiologist and physician Stanley Perlman of the University of Iowa. “You have to distinguish between what’s possible and what’s actually happening.”…

“If it could easily exist as an aerosol, we would be seeing much greater levels of transmission,” said epidemiologist Michael LeVasseur of Drexel University. “And we would be seeing a different pattern in who’s getting infected. With droplet spread, it’s mostly to close contacts. But if a virus easily exists as an aerosol, you could get it from people you share an elevator with.”…

Even if the virus infects only a small fraction of those who come into contact with it, the extremely low rate among close contacts and the absence of infections in some household members of patients suggests that it rarely exists as an aerosol in most real-world situations.

“It’s more evidence that [Covid-19] is predominantly spread through droplets and not as an aerosol,” LeVasseur said….

The much-discussed hope that warmer, more humid weather will strangle the Covid-19 pandemic may or may not pan out, but there are solid data that it will make a difference to any aerosol transmission. The SARS virus survived better at 30% to 50% relative humidity than at 80%, with a half-life of only three hours rather than 27 hours at 30% humidity. Other research has also found that coronaviruses have much more difficulty existing in aerosol form in warm, humid conditions.

That reflects the fact that the SARS virus has an “envelope” that falls apart in warmer, more humid conditions. The new coronavirus has a similar envelope.

Lots of cool science in both those.  Definitely worth reading in there entirety if you have an interest in the science of the disease spread.  

And, while we’re on the science.  Damn they are getting a vaccine trial started fast.  Everything still says “at least a year” but I’m going to choose to be optimistic on that based on how fast they are moving so far.  Also, more cool science on how this new generation of vaccines may work:

Moderna uses genetic material — messenger RNA — to make vaccines, and the company has nine others in various stages of development, including several for viruses that cause respiratory illnesses. But no vaccine made with this technology has yet reached the market…

Work on the vaccine started in January, as soon as Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus on the internet. Researchers at Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases identified part of the sequence that codes for a spike-like protein on the surface of the virus that attaches to human cells, helping the virus to invade them.

A nonprofit group, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, helped pay to manufacture the vaccine for the trial.

That spike sequence is the basis for the vaccine. Moderna does not need the virus itself to produce its vaccine: The company synthesizes the stretch of RNA required for the vaccine and embeds it in a lipid nanoparticle.

I’m also going to choose to be optimistic on a possible antiviral treatment.  The good news here is that, unlike the vaccine trial, we’ve already had the safety trials (thanks to Ebola) and can focus on the efficacy phase of trials.  Also, pretty cool science behind how this (hopefully!) works:

Remdesivir, in the spotlight as scientists and governments scramble to find a treatment for the disease, took a circuitous route to center stage. Born as a general antiviral candidate, researchers threw it at an array of viruses and saw where it stuck. It bounced along from Gilead’s labs to academic centers, nudged by both federal taxpayer dollars and support from the company. It kept turning up whiffs of potential in cells and animals infected by other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS, but these bugs weren’t causing sustained global crises. For years, Gilead was primarily focused on ushering remdesivir into trials and toward approval for a different kind of infection: Ebola.

But there’s nothing like a pandemic to break the emergency glass on all possible options.

Remdesivir is now being tested in five Covid-19 clinical trials that have been set up at breakneck speed. It’s been delivered through a compassionate use program to some patients, including the first case in the United States. The first trial results are expected next month, though some analysts have already raised concerns about the prospects based on the drips of data emerging from a small number of patients.

Others’ hopes are high for the drug. As of now, there are no approved therapies for any coronavirus infection, and remdesivir is the farthest along in the development process of any candidate.

“There’s only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy,” Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organization said last month. “And that’s remdesivir.”…

But if remdesivir had hopes as an Ebola treatment, how can it also work against coronaviruses? Their viral families are so different, “it’s like saying a giraffe versus an elephant,” said Gene Olinger, a former U.S. Army Ebola researcher, who is now the scientific advisor at MRI Global, a nonprofit research organization.

The trick is that remdesivir does not go after the virus directly. Instead, it targets the system the virus uses to replicate itself, hijacking it like you would your office’s copy machine as part of a company-wide prank.

These viruses have a genome that consists of a strand of RNA. To make copies of themselves, they rely on a molecule called a polymerase to string together the individual building blocks of the viral genome. These are like the “letters” that we think of composing DNA.

Remdesivir is an “analog,” designed to mimic the appearance of one of the RNA letters, adenosine. It looks so similar that the polymerase can unknowingly pick it up instead of the real adenosine and insert it into the strand of viral genome that’s being constructed, like bringing home the wrong twin from summer camp. Once in place, the analog acts as a cap, preventing any additional pieces from being strung on. This leaves the strand short of the full genome. The virus can’t go on to replicate or infect other cells.

“The polymerase grabs it almost accidentally and uses it in place of adenosine,” said Maria Agostini, a postdoctoral researcher in Denison’s Vanderbilt lab. “The polymerase can kind of get it mixed up sometimes.”

The drug can inhibit coronaviruses as well as Ebola because their polymerases are similar enough that its cloak-and-dagger operation fools them all. (Remdesivir does not appear to work on other viruses with more unrelated forms of polymerase.)

Like a bad song clears out a dance floor, remdesivir can clear the viral levels in a person, as long as it can interrupt enough replication. The key, researchers say, is that it has to be delivered somewhat early in an infection, as the virus is still proliferating. In patients who develop severe disease, it’s not the virus that’s always the main problem. The body’s own immune system can react by heading into overdrive and causing secondary complications like organ damage. An antiviral can’t head that off once it’s begun.

So, maybe, a case for mild optimism?  But, clearly, its going to get so, so much worse first.  


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.

GOP ==> Jesus

Really interesting Op-Ed in the NYT by Michele Margolis today describing her research on religion and politics.  I’ve made the case here many times that many Evangelicals clearly put their political beliefs ahead of their supposed Christian beliefs, but Margolis’ research systematically shows that, we really are in the world of PID before everything.  To be fair, this happens for Democrats, too, but moves them in the opposite direction.  Margolis:

Most Americans choose a political party before choosing whether to join a religious community or how often to attend religious services. [emphases mine]

Faith often becomes a peripheral concern in adolescence and young adulthood — precisely the years when we tend to form stable partisan attachments. Religion typically becomes relevant again later, after we have children and start to think about their religious upbringings. By that time, our political views are set, ready to guide our religious values and decisions.

This is precisely the pattern that produced the religiosity gap between Democrats and Republicans. In 1965, M. Kent Jennings and Richard Niemi conducted a survey of over 1,500 American high school seniors, and then followed up with those people when they were in their 20s and 30s, and at 50.

Analyzing these data, I find that twentysomething Democrats and Republicans were equally secular: Most had pulled away from religion after high school, and Democrats and Republicans did so at similar rates. But nine years later, Republicans had become much more likely to attend church than their Democratic counterparts. In contrast, even those who bucked the secular trend and remained religious in their 20s were no more likely than less religious members of their cohort to join the Republican ranks in their 30s…

In one experiment, I showed some people a flyer advertising their political party, while other people saw an apolitical flyer. Relative to Republicans who saw the apolitical flyer, Republicans who saw the partisan flyer reported feeling closer to their religious faith. Democrats who saw a political flyer, in the other hand, had the opposite response.

In other words, a subtle nudge to think about politics made Republicans feel more religious and Democrats feel more secular.

It may seem counterintuitive, if not downright implausible, that voting Democrat or Republican could change something as personal as our relationship with God. But over the course of our lives, political choices tend to come first, religious choices second…

These same dynamics help explain religious identity in the age of Donald Trump. The familiar narrative that religious beliefs lead white evangelicals to the Republican Party ignores the flip side: how Mr. Trump’s polarizing presidency could be changing evangelicalism in America.

Hearing evangelical leaders praise Mr. Trump and noting his persistent approval among white evangelicals, white Trump supporters may find themselves more and more drawn to the evangelical label and to churches they know will be filled with politically like-minded congregants.

In my case I’ve been an (almost) weekly church-goer my whole life and that never changed.  And the Catholic Church drives me crazy some times, but there’s enough focus on social justice (you know, the stuff Jesus talked about literally all the time), that I’m not going anywhere.  Fair to say, focusing on politics, though, almost surely makes me think in a more secular manner (though, I’m a very secular thinker– whatever that is– for a weekly churchgoer), in part, because “Christianity” in American has become so allied with the GOP.

Our democracy may not be dying, but it’s at least been sent to the hospital

Listened to a terrific interview on Fresh Air last week with Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of a new book, How Democracies Die.  Well worth listening to.  They’ve also got a nice summary of their key points in a TNR piece from December.  Among other things, what’s kind of amazing is that you can to a considerable degree pinpoint the decline of American democracy to Newt Gingrich.  Seriously.  Anyway, lots of good stuff in here:

If constitutional rules alone do not secure democracy, then what does? Much of the answer lies in the development of strong democratic norms. Two norms stand out: mutual toleration, or accepting one’s partisan rivals as legitimate (not treating them as dangerous enemies or traitors); and forbearance, or deploying one’s institutional prerogatives with restraint—in other words, not using the letter of the Constitution to undermine its spirit (what legal scholar Mark Tushnet calls “constitutional hardball”)…

In 1979, newly elected Congressman Newt Gingrich came to Washington with a blunter, more cutthroat vision of politics than Republicans were accustomed to. Backed by a small but growing group of loyalists, Gingrich launched an insurgency aimed at instilling a more “combative” approach in the party. Taking advantage of a new media technology, C-SPAN, Gingrich used hateful language, deliberately employing over-the-top rhetoric. He described Democrats in Congress as corrupt and sick. He questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism. He even compared them to Mussolini and accused them of trying to destroy the country.

Through a new political advocacy group, GOPAC, Gingrich and his allies worked to diffuse these tactics across the party. GOPAC produced more than 2,000 training audiotapes, distributed each month to get the recruits of Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” on the same rhetorical page. Gingrich’s former press secretary Tony Blankley compared this tactic of audiotape distribution to one used by Ayatollah Khomeini on his route to power in Iran.

Though few realized it at the time, Gingrich and his allies were on the cusp of a new wave of polarization rooted in growing public discontent, particularly among the Republican base. Gingrich didn’t create this polarization, but he was one of the first Republicans to sense—and exploit—the shift in popular sentiment. And his leadership helped to establish “politics as warfare” as the GOP’s dominant strategy.

After the Republicans’ landslide 1994 election, the GOP began to seek victory by “any means necessary.” House Republicans refused to compromise, for example, in budget negotiations, leading to a five-day government shutdown in November 1995 and a 21-day shutdown a month later. This was a dangerous turn. As norms of forbearance weakened, checks and balances began to devolve into deadlock and dysfunction.

Hadn’t really heard about the principle of “forbearance” but it’s a really important idea and explored at length in the Fresh Air interview.  And Gingrich, sure as hell, began a path of undermining both mutual toleration and forbearance.  And, now, of course, we’re in Trump’s world:

If, 25 years ago, someone had described to you a country where candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of election fraud, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. It wouldn’t have been the United States of America.

But Democrats and Republicans have become much more than just two competing parties, sorted into liberal and conservative camps. Their voters are now deeply divided by race, religious belief, culture, and geography. Republican politicians from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump learned that in a polarized society, treating rivals as enemies can be useful—and that the pursuit of politics as warfare can mobilize people who fear they have much to lose. War has its price, though. For now, the American political order and its institutions remain intact. But the mounting assault on the norms that sustain them should strike fear in anyone who hopes to see the United States secure a democratic future.

And Kristoff with a nice summary of key points:

It’s true that he [Trump] has tried to undermine institutions and referees of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. But to his great frustration, American institutions have mostly passed the stress test with flying colors.

“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “He made efforts to capture the referees, sideline the key players who might halt him, and tilt the playing field. But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized. … Little actual backsliding occurred in 2017.”

That seems right to me: The system worked.

And yet.

For all my confidence that our institutions will trump Trump, the chipping away at the integrity of our institutions and norms does worry me. Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of the unraveling of democratic norms — norms such as treating the other side as rivals rather than as enemies, condemning violence and bigotry, and so on. This unraveling was underway long before Trump (Newt Gingrich nudged it along in the 1990s), but Trump accelerated it.

It matters when Trump denounces the “deep state Justice Department,” calls Hillary Clinton a “criminal” and urges “jail” for Huma Abedin, denounces journalists as the “enemy of the American people” and promises to pay the legal fees of supporters who “beat the crap” out of protesters. With such bombast, Trump is beating the crap out of American norms.

The Comey Post

Plenty of good stuff to say.  A non-random sampling heavy on Vox and NYT.

1) I think the most on-point take is Yglesias:

This is part of an ongoing process of Republicans lowering the bar for Trump’s statements and conduct in a way that is both nonsensical and dangerous. The president of the United States is not supposed to interfere in criminal investigations. There’s no “he only did it with a light touch” or “it was to help out a buddy, not himself personally” exemption to that rule. And “he’s too ignorant to know that was the rule” is an absurd excuse to make for a septuagenarian who also happens to be president of the United States.

Either he has the character, intellect, temperament, and disposition to do the job properly or he doesn’t…

Instead, congressional Republicans have chosen to stand on the ground that it’s okay to order an investigation quashed as long as you do it with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge — even if you follow up by firing the guy you winked at. And they’re standing on the ground that it’s okay to quash an investigation as long as the investigation you quashed targeted a friend and close political associate, rather than the president himself.

That’s a standard of conduct that sets the United States up for massive and catastrophic erosion of the rule of law, not only, or even especially, because the president is behaving corruptly, but because Republican Party members of Congress have chosen to allow it…

The question before Congress is whether or not it’s appropriate for a president to fire law enforcement officials in order to protect his friends and associates from legal scrutiny. And the answer congressional Republicans have given is that it’s fine.

The question before the public is now whether or not they will face political consequences for having reached that conclusion.

Yep.  We are in a political crisis and it needs a political solution.  Right now the only solution will happen if A) The Democrats win the House in 2018; or B) Republicans somehow decide that going after Trump will help them preserve the House.

It’s not going to be C)

2) Elizabeth Goiten in a nice NYT conversation with Emily Bazelon:

But let’s take a real step back to the very beginning: Last summer and fall, a hostile foreign power used hackers to try to get a candidate, Donald Trump, elected. The F.B.I. determined there was sufficient evidence that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in this effort to open an investigation, which continues to this day. The president asked Comey, then the F.B.I. director, to pledge his loyalty and to shut down one part of the investigation. When the director didn’t comply, he was fired. And the intelligence committee hearing on all of this proceeded like it was just another partisan fight about tax cuts. The word “surreal” comes to mind.

3) Of course there’s compelling evidence that Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice.  He’s pretty much admitted as much.  NYT:

The crime of obstruction requires an attempt to block an investigation with corrupt intent. Mr. Comey has now given us direct witness testimony of obstruction by the president in the form of the already famous statement “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Mr. Comey repeatedly added in today’s questioning that “I took it as a direction” that “this is what he wants me to do.” In a system governed by the rule of law, shutting down an investigation to benefit a friend — or perhaps, to keep damaging information that friend may know from emerging — is corrupt.

Importantly, Mr. Comey also confirmed the existence of an open investigation at the time of Mr. Trump’s statement — a legal predicate for an obstruction offense. And he added detail to the obstruction pattern that began with President Trump’s demand for “loyalty” and culminated in Mr. Comey’s firing and events immediately thereafter. After the past 24 hours, there can no longer be any doubt that President Trump should be investigated for obstruction. Indeed, Mr. Comey suggested that such an investigation may already have begun: “That’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work toward, to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offense.”

Pretty much any other person in America would be undergoing a criminal prosecution now.  But, since this is the president, it’s a political matter.  Also, Vox sums up the legal case from a variety of experts.

4) Guilty of obstruction or not, nice tweetstorm from Matt Glassman explaining why it is entirely unrealistic to actually expect Republicans to impeach him:

That said, just because they won’t be impeaching, doesn’t mean they have to lower the bar on presidential conduct to absurd depths, as they have.

5) Also, like Dara Lind’s take on The Republican Party as one of the losers from Comey’s testimony:

Loser: the Republican Party

“It doesn’t look like anything to me” is the GOP’s pre-programmed response to any new sign of wrongdoing by President Trump or his administration. And some of them have been using it so readily for so long that it seems they’ve lost any ability to actually see the information amassed in front of them — much less to draw a line at which, should Trump cross it, they’d be forced to stand up to him.

This is forcing them into uncomfortable positions — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan found himself excusing the president as “new to this” as a way of saying he hadn’t knowingly screwed up, which is just not something you want to say about your commander-in-chief. But it also means that they have blinded themselves with loyalty to a man who isn’t loyal to them. [emphasis mine]

Donald Trump puts himself before his party. He puts himself before his own administration — he was willing to see “satellites” brought up on charges in the Russia investigation as long as he was publicly known not to have been within its scope. If there is a way that Trump can get out of this by undermining Republicans, he will do it. But now, while they are the ones with the power to undermine him, they won’t.

6) And Ezra:

In the American system, the presidency is an office bounded by constitutional limits and competing institutions, but it is just as importantly bounded by the morality and personal rectitude of whomever occupies it. The power to use the executive branch to intimidate and to extract vengeance, alongside the power to pardon, means a president of poor moral character could do enormous harm. There was little doubt, before Comey’s presentation, that Trump was of poor moral character, but there is no doubt after it.

Trump’s advocates have retreated to lines of defense that, in normal times, would be considered damning condemnations. Trump, they say, was too naive to know the impropriety of what he was asking, and his presidency must be policed by staffers willing to regularly confront him over his unethical demands — even if that means they lose their jobs and anger a leader who values loyalty above all…

This is day 139 of Donald Trump’s administration, and it is clear that he is dangerously unfit for the role. The question is whether Republicans will admit it to themselves, and if so, what they will do about it. I would ask Republicans reading this piece to imagine the word “Trump” replaced with “Clinton” or “Obama.” How would they feel? How afraid would they be? That is how they should feel now. The country needs more from them right now than excuses for behavior that they know is wrong.

America first

Loved EJ Dionne’s column today on the problem with Trump’s “America First” ideology:

The problem with “America First” is that it describes an attitude, not a purpose. It substitutes selfishness for realism.

It implies that nations can go it alone, that we stand for nothing beyond our immediate self-interest, and that we should give little thought to how the rest of humanity thinks or lives. It suggests that if we are strong enough, we can prosper no matter how much chaos, disorder or injustice surrounds us.

America First leads to the diplomacy of narcissism, to use what has become a loaded word in the Trump era. And narcissism is as unhealthy for nations as it is for people…

A constricted view of identity encourages destructive ways of thinking and, paradoxically, actions that reduce the United States’ long-term influence. Almost as disturbing as the irresponsibility of President Trump’s decision to abdicate U.S. global leadership on the environment by pulling out of the Paris climate accord was the language he used to justify it. He cast the United States — our beloved republic — as stupid and easily duped, not the shaper of its own fate but the victim of invidious foreign leaders whom he cast as far shrewder than we are.

“The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris agreement — they went wild; they were so happy — for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage,” Trump declared. “A cynic would say the obvious reason for economic competitors and their wish to see us remain in the agreement is so that we continue to suffer this self-inflicted major economic wound.”

Really? Our very best friends in the world, starting with Canada, were just trying to scam us? The climate pact was not even a little bit about staving off a catastrophe for the planet we all share? Should we take no pride in helping nudge the environment in a better direction?

And does Trump truly believe that President Barack Obama and the leaders of General Electric, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, IBM, BP, Disney and Shell are naive idiots? One more question: How could what even Trump had to concede is a “nonbinding” agreement bring about all the horrors he described?

Quick hits (part I)

1) Very good Yglesias post on Trump the bullshitter:

Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar.

But that’s not quite right. As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth — and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. He’s a bullshitter who simply doesn’t care…

He’s a man who doesn’t care much about the truth. He’s a man who cares deeply about loyalty. The two qualities merge in the way he wields bullshit. His flagrant lies serve as a loyalty test.

2) Nice blog post on Confirmation bias I came across.  I’m sure it will confirm what you know about confirmation bias ;-).

3) Nice NYT Op-Ed from libertarian Will Wilkinson on the welfare state:

Fortunately, defending a more freewheeling economy implies no hostility to the welfare state. On the contrary, a generous and effective safety net can be embraced as a tool to promote and sustain a culture of freedom, innovation and risk taking. Politically, repairing and improving the slipshod infrastructure of the safety net would liberate Republicans from the bad faith of attacking the welfare state in one breath, halfheartedly promising not to cut entitlements in the next and then breaking that promise once in power.

More important, grasping that government spending is compatible with high levels of freedom and economic vitality would give Republicans space actually to govern. The belief that it is necessary always and forever to reduce spending leads to the embarrassing spectacle of obstruction and paralysis unfolding on Capitol Hill.

A Republican Party that aimed instead to free markets and improve the effectiveness and composition of spending could govern, govern well and win elections doing it.

4) The misguided crackdown on fraud by the Army.  Pretty clearly a case of prosecutors who just can’t accept that there’s really a bunch of small fish when they thought they were going to reel in some giant ones.

5) This Economist/1843 piece on why the Mona Lisa is so popular (and what artworks in general, become popular) was terrific.  Not surprisingly, it has almost nothing to do with the quality of the art:

When Watts looked into the history of “the greatest painting of all time”, he discovered that, for most of its life, the “Mona Lisa” languished in relative obscurity. In the 1850s, Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for giants of Renaissance art like Titian and Raphael, whose works were worth almost ten times as much as the “Mona Lisa”. It was only in the 20th century that Leonardo’s portrait of his patron’s wife rocketed to the number-one spot. What propelled it there wasn’t a scholarly re-evaluation, but a burglary.

In 1911 a maintenance worker at the Louvre walked out of the museum with the “Mona Lisa” hidden under his smock. Parisians were aghast at the theft of a painting to which, until then, they had paid little attention. When the museum reopened, people queued to see the gap where the “Mona Lisa” had once hung in a way they had never done for the painting itself. The police were stumped. At one point, a terrified Pablo Picasso was called in for questioning. But the “Mona Lisa” wasn’t recovered until two years later when the thief, an Italian carpenter called Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The French public was electrified. The Italians hailed Peruggia as a patriot who wanted to return the painting home. Newspapers around the world repro­duced it, making it the first work of art to achieve global fame. From then on, the “Mona Lisa” came to represent Western culture itself.

6) Really compelling story of a former NC State assistant football coach (now deceased) and his struggles with CTE.

7) Very cool interactive graphic on the popularity of various Netflix shows.

8) Oh, man, this Post feature on “butterfly babies” who have a super-rare genetic skin disease was so fascinating and disturbing.  Read it.

9) Definitely agree with this Wired piece to not use social media about terrorist attacks.  That’s exactly what they want.  In short, I know it’s hard, but we should all pay less attention to terrorist attacks.

10) How to make a rocket with a 2-liter bottle.  Somebody get me some liquid butane!

11) Even the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care about its travel ban any more:

It’s a feedback loop: The media talks about what Trump is thinking about, and Trump thinks about what the media is talking about, and the two quickly converge on a single obsession. In the administration’s first months, the cycle was disrupted frequently enough by outside events — like the first rulings against the travel ban — that it wasn’t as immediately apparent to the naked eye.

But with the Comey/Russia scandal, the story of the Trump administration itself has become far more important than anything the administration can do or that can be done to it.

For all of Donald Trump’s griping about his communications staff, Trump himself appears to be fundamentally unable to direct even his own attention to the things his administration actually wants to do for America, much less the attention of anyone else. His obsession with the way his presidency is covered has deprived him of any chance to change it.

12) Really good National Review (!!) piece on the important implications of the decline of American retail:

And shops and jobs go together: One in ten employed Americans works in retail. Retail salesman is the single most common job in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while much has been made of the decline in old-line industrial jobs that carry a certain nostalgic charge, there are 17 times as many retail jobs as jobs in automobile manufacturing, 100 times as many retail jobs as steel jobs, and 210 times as many Americans working in retail as in coal mining — not just miners, but all coal-mining jobs, from CEO on down. Shop jobs mostly are not especially high-paying (though they sometimes are), and they tend to be held by workers who for various reasons — sometimes lack of skill and education, but also things such as the need for flexible scheduling or physical limitations — often do not have a great many desirable options. People sometimes scoff: “Yeah, creative destruction is great — we’ll just tell all those unemployed steelworkers to become software designers!” But the fact is that steel mills and mines and factories employ a great many highly educated and highly skilled people, from engineers to machinists, and they are a lot more likely to be able to find good new jobs than is the 48-year-old mother of three who works four days a week at the local Sears. That job may not provide enough to support a family of five, but it may very well pay enough to take care of the mortgage and the electricity bill — for two-income families, those modestly paid retail jobs aren’t about pin money.

13) Clearly, schools need to do a better job making sure inappropriate quotes don’t get into the yearbook.  That said, please stop over-reacting like it’s a scourge on the whole school.  And I will admit to laughing out loud upon reading this particularly inappropriate quote:

On Thursday, Dana King, principal of Millbrook High School in Raleigh, apologized for publishing a yearbook quote from a male senior who said “I like my women how I like my milk: white, rich and 2% fat.”

14) Obviously I could not resist this story about trying to hunt down forgotten apple cultivars.

Now, some old varieties have become available again, through small specialty nurseries like the co-op that Mr. Bunker helped start in Maine and through university agricultural programs. Commercial growers, however, said old apples had faded for a reason and were probably not coming back.

“They’re hard to grow,” said Mac Riggan, the director of marketing at Chelan Fresh, which has 26,000 acres of fruit trees, mostly apples, in central Washington.

Old varieties, Mr. Riggan said, either bruise easily, don’t store well or don’t produce enough apples per tree. And economic pressure is relentless. “Land costs money,” he said.

I’m sure there’s some great ones.  But, honestly, it’s hard to beat a good Braeburn and you can get those anywhere.

15) Aaron Carroll on science’s reproducibility problem:

 true success will require a change in the culture of science. As long as the academic environment has incentives for scientists to work in silos and hoard their data, transparency will be impossible. As long as the public demands a constant stream of significant results, researchers will consciously or subconsciously push their experiments to achieve those findings, valid or not. As long as the media hypes new findings instead of approaching them with the proper skepticism, placing them in context with what has come before, everyone will be nudged toward results that are not reproducible.

For years, financial conflicts of interest have been properly identified as biasing research in improper ways. Other conflicts of interest exist, though, and they are just as powerful — if not more so — in influencing the work of scientists across the country and around the globe. We are making progress in making science better, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

16) I don’t follow British politics all that closely, thus I learned a lot in a short piece via the Economist’s endorsement of the Liberal-Democrats for the upcoming UK election.

17) Revisiting the giant flop that was E.T. the video game.


Parenting and risk

This explanation of some new research and interview with the authors is so, so good.  I so love the experiment they did, so I’m going to paste the whole summary:

To get at this question experimentally, Thomas and her collaborators created a series of vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended for some period of time, and participants indicated the risk of harm to the child during that period. For example, in one vignette, a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool, underground parking garage. In another vignette, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a Starbucks, one block away from her parent’s location.

To experimentally manipulate participants’ moral attitude toward the parent, the experimenters varied the reason the child was left unattended across a set of six experiments with over 1,300 online participants. In some cases, the child was left alone unintentionally (for example, in one case, a mother is hit by a car and knocked unconscious after buckling her child into her car seat, thereby leaving the child unattended in the car seat). In other cases, the child was left unattended so the parent could go to work, do some volunteering, relax or meet a lover.

Not surprisingly, the parent’s reason for leaving a child unattended affected participants’ judgments of whether the parent had done something immoral: Ratings were over 3 on a 10-point scale even when the child was left unattended unintentionally, but they skyrocketed to nearly 8 when the parent left to meet a lover. Ratings for the other cases fell in between.

The more surprising result was that perceptions of risk followed precisely the same pattern. Although the details of the cases were otherwise the same — that is, the age of the child, the duration and location of the unattended period, and so on — participants thought children were in significantly greater danger when the parent left to meet a lover than when the child was left alone unintentionally. The ratings for the other cases, once again, fell in between. In other words, participants’ factual judgments of how much danger the child was in while the parent was away varied according to the extent of their moral outrage concerning the parent’s reason for leaving.  [bold is mine; italics in original]

Additional analyses suggested that it was indeed participants’ judgment of the parent’s immorality that drove up their assessments of risk. The authors sum up their findings like this: “People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.”

Whoa.  Take a second and think about that.  Also, a great interview with the authors:

Barbara: I guess what I would like people to start thinking about is how this new legal standard of paranoid parenting enshrines a kind of class privilege. Besides the fact that it is irrational, the idea that you must watch your child every single second until they turn 18 is deeply classist. It’s not something you can even aim for unless you have a whole lot of money, and probably not a lot of children. For parents who are working, who have more than one child, who need to get something else done during the day — to say nothing of single parents — that model of parenting is absurd. If you think about Debra Harrell’s situation, she’s raising a child while working a minimum-wage job. Suddenly, we as a society have decided (without any rational basis) that she is negligent for allowing her 9-year-old to play in a public park. This is very, very disturbing to me. It is basically criminalizing poverty and single parenthood.

Kyle: I think these findings have clear policy implications. At the moment, we are simply relying on the intuitions of neighbors, police officers, DAs, judges, etc., to decide what constitutes negligence or endangerment, and we’ve shown that those intuitions are systematically influenced by their moral approval or disapproval of the parent’s conduct. Of course we should not allow parents to leave children in situations that are objectively dangerous, but unless there is clear evidence that something poses a significant risk, it should be parents who decide whether and when their child is mature enough to walk to school, wait in the car, to be home alone, etc. Right now, in many situations, if a social worker or police officer thinks the child is in danger, they can intervene and take the child, arrest the parents, etc. But what our data suggest is that when people think they are judging danger to a child, much of what they are actually doing is imposing a moral judgment on the child’s parents. The relevant “danger” should be legally defined in terms of actual, immediate, demonstrable risk, rather than left up to the unexamined intuitions of bystanders, social workers, police officers or other individuals who may think something must be dangerous when it is actually quite safe. For example, eight times more children are killed in parking lots than in parked cars. But when a parent with a child in tow runs into the grocery store for a few minutes, he or she has to choose between allowing the child to wait in the car, which is safer but might get her arrested or jailed and/or her child taken away — and the more dangerous option of bringing the child with her because this is socially approved.

What do you think developmental psychology can contribute to the debate over free-range parenting?

Ashley: I think that developmental psychologists need to start talking about the costsof never allowing children to take a risk. People seem to make this calculation where they say: “Well, even though the chances of anything bad happening are small, there’s no harm in keeping an eye on the kids.” I think what developmental psychologists can say is: That’s mistaken — there is real harm in keeping an eye on the kids, if you’re keeping an eye on them every minute of every day. You know, psychologists study this thing called “self-efficacy” — it refers to a person’s confidence in their own ability to handle whatever comes up and succeed in a variety of situations, and it’s really important. But if kids are never allowed to take any risks or have any independence at all, they can’t develop self-efficacy. They can’t become adults who are ready to deal with problems and navigate the world.

Great stuff!  And lots more about changing cultural norms, the role of legal liability, etc.  And, okay, one like more clip because I expect I’m going to be using this particular analogy for years to come:

Here’s an analogy: Imagine that parents suddenly have a phobia that their children are going to fall down and hit their heads and die while walking, running, climbing or playing sports. When such an injury or death happens anywhere in the country, it is covered 24/7 by the media; shows such as CSI: Head Injury Unit and Law and Order: Running and Falling Down draw big audiences. Some parents decide that just to be on the safe side, they’re going to require their kid to stay in a wheelchair all the time. Gradually this practice becomes so widespread that it becomes standard, and schools and camps start requiring all children to be in wheelchairs at all times for safety reasons. Eventually, it becomes so unusual to see a child not in a wheelchair that people start calling the police when they see a child walking around, and parents are charged with criminal negligence for allowing their child to take such risks.

Reading this, you’re probably thinking that eliminating the risk of these injuries does not justify the sacrifice of kids’ mobility and independence and healthy development. We understand that kids need to walk and run and climb and jump and play in order to grow up healthy and strong, even though all of those activities involve some physical risk. Developmental psychologists need to do a better job of explaining to policymakers and parents that healthy psychological development, just like healthy physical development, involves some amount of risk.

Now, I don’t expect us to go back to how things were during my childhood when my mom let 4-year old me wander around my neighborhood unattended, but it is clear the pendulum has gone to far and hopefully research like this can help us nudge it back– at least a little bit– in the right direction.

Quick hits (part I)

1) I used to be so fascinated by scientific research on the differences between male and female brains.  The latest research as to those differences?  Pretty simple– not so much.

2) Actually finished reading the Bernie Sanders piece I linked a few weeks ago.  I really like this part.  Bernie Sanders is no socialist.

In­deed, when asked by Steph­en Col­bert this past Septem­ber about be­ing a so­cial­ist, Sanders replied, “I prefer the term, ac­tu­ally, to be a ‘pro­gress­ive.’ ” This puts him very much in a tra­di­tion that has coursed through Amer­ic­an polit­ics for more than a cen­tury—from Teddy Roosevelt to the New Deal to Ral­ph Nader. Pro­gress­ives want to sub­or­din­ate the im­per­at­ives of the mar­ket and of private busi­ness to the pub­lic in­terest, and to re­move the spe­cial in­flu­ence of busi­ness from the polit­ic­al arena. They want to achieve liberty and equal­ity. They do not seek to elim­in­ate cap­it­al­ism but, through reg­u­la­tion and very se­lect­ive na­tion­al­iz­a­tion, to re­duce the in­equit­ies of wealth and power that a mar­ket sys­tem cre­ates.

3) David Frum on what Europe should do to combat terrorism (and it starts in Europe, not the Middle East).

4) Remember the Mark Foley scandal?  The story of the Congressional page who made it happen.

5) Think you know the 2nd Amendment?  Jeffrey Toobin says otherwise.

6) College Bowl games are more meaningless than ever.  There’s so many that now even teams with losing records will be in bowl games.

7) Not sure this is actually the solution to our gun problem.  But damn straight we should expect more out of the owners of devices designed to kill people.

8) I had no idea what a racist Woodrow Wilson was.  And not just because of when he lived.  Even for then.

9) Love Mike Pesca’s take on guns.  Still waiting to disagree more than mildly with him on anything.

Guns. A lot of people have a lot of terrible ideas: Sometimes it’s getting revenge on an ideology, sometimes it’s getting revenge on the police, sometimes it’s getting revenge on people you personally know. But without guns, the death toll would be much lower. I’m not saying that all the hateful rhetoric around Planned Parenthood didn’t unfairly nudge them closer to the crosshairs. But it’s not just bad ideas and angry men that lead to these obscene death tolls. It’s that the ill heads with these twisted ideas can so easily access a means of lethality uncommon in the civilized world. We are an aggrieved, worked up, angry people. But an American who is aggrieved or enraged or unmoored is more deadly that an Englishman or an Australian not because of the extremes of our discourse, or the extent of our aggrievement. The bad idea that people are most dying from is not an anti-abortion idea or an anti-cop idea or anti-Western, anti-Christian.  It’s anti–gun control. That’s the deadliest and most ignorant idea of all.

10) Pretty much everyone who has ever actually known Ted Cruz hates him.

11) Epigenetics is crazy stuff.  How a man’s weight changes can alter his sperm.

12) Seth Masket on how Americans always fear refugees.

The thing is, basically every ethnic or racial group that has sought to come to the U.S. has been, at some point, singled out for being too different. Nineteenth-century journalists like Thomas Nast warned of the evils of Catholicism and thedegeneracy of the Irish. Indeed, the Irish were widely caricatured as sub-humanswho were incapable of understanding or participating in democracy and preferred the dictatorship of the Papacy…

The general point is that attitudes toward Syrian refugees are pretty much exactly the same as they have been toward any group seeking refuge within the U.S. (with the notable exception of those requesting asylum from America’s adversaries like Cuba and the Soviet Union). The attitude is generally, “Look, we’re a generous and open nation, but this new group is just too different and thus presents a danger.” Admission of refugees, more often than not, has occurred in spite of public opinion, rather than because of it. It is notable that one of the country’s proudest traits—its willingness to accept new people into the “melting pot”—has often developed against the wishes of most of its citizens.

13) So tired of law enforcement and social services freaking out when kids are actually safe.  Like playing in a community playground in sight of the mother’s front door.

14) Great Linda Greenhouse on sex (i.e., abortion, birth control, etc.) and the Supreme Court.

15) Actually enjoyed these 5 takes on 2016 from Politico.

16) John Cassidy on Rubio and Cruz’s government-bashing nihilism.

Now Cruz and Rubio are locked in a battle against each other as they court the Republican primary electorate in their runs for President. Each is seizing on the other’s legislative accomplishment as evidence that his opponent is a dangerous sellout to the conservative cause…

It now appears that we are entering a period of the campaign in which the two Republican senators who may have the best shot at unseating the front-runner, Donald Trump, and winning their party’s nomination are veering into a potential murder-suicide pact over who was more complicit in actually trying to get something accomplished in Washington. The lesson for any senator who aspires to higher office is clear, and depressing: it’s safer to do nothing at all than it is to try to solve a big problem.

17) I used to be sure it was a horrible idea to work doctors so long without sleep.  Turns out, it’s not.  Apparently even dangerous than a tired care is the discontinuity in care that comes from more frequently changing doctors during a hospitalization.

18) Transforming Illinois politics through gobs of rich peoples’ money:

The families remaking Illinois are among a small group around the country who have channeled their extraordinary wealth into political power, taking advantage of regulatory, legal and cultural shifts that have carved new paths for infusing money into campaigns. Economic winners in an age of rising inequality, operating largely out of public view, they are reshaping government with fortunes so large as to defy the ordinary financial scale of politics. In the 2016 presidential race, a New York Times analysis found last month, just 158 families had provided nearly half of the early campaign money…

Most of them lean Republican; some are Democrats. But to a remarkable degree, their philosophies are becoming part of a widely adopted blueprint for public officials around the country: Critical of the power of unions, many are also determined to reduce spending and taxation, and are skeptical of government-led efforts to mitigate the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.

19) Remember all that stuff about middle-aged white people and mortality a few weeks ago.  Turns out, this was actually super mis-leading.  Drum is on the case.

20) I used to be so afraid of being naked in locker rooms.  The (in grad school) I got over it.  According to Mark Joseph Stern, that makes me an adult.  Apparently, another way in which Millenials are not so adult-like (I did get a kick out of seeing an NCSU student head over to a stall to change the other day).

21) Peter Beinart on how other GOP contenders are afraid of Trump supporters.

22) Recently listened to the This American Life version of this story.  Here’s a great Pro Publica report on how not current racism, but past racism– resulting in the wealth gap– makes life so much harder for many Black families.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Great NPR story on how old women are so often the face of evil in fairy tales.

2) An essay from a teacher on quitting teaching:

The solitary reason that I chose to leave teaching has to do with the politicized environment of education. People may wonder what politics have to do with teaching, and the answer is everything. When policies are made, the impacts come into our lives and change them drastically. Over the past few years, there has been widespread “educational reform.”  These reforms have increased the importance of spreadsheets, columns of data, evaluations by inexperienced observers, and the accounting of data in every teacher’s life. The focus has gone away from people; students, parents, teachers, staff, volunteers, and onto data. The most important elements of teaching cannot be quantified onto a spreadsheet and put into a power point. When data is given importance above all else, time and resources are directed as such.

It has been years, YEARS, since I was in a building inservice that was about connecting with kids, communicating with parents, designing meaningful anti-bullying lessons, incorporating literature into math lessons or any topic other than data collection, data presentation, data comparison, state testing and teacher evaluations.


3) I don’t care much about the New England Patriots in any way, but I did find this analysis as to the secret of their ongoing success to be quite interesting.

4) Dahlia Lithwick on  a Louisiana prosecutor who really likes killing people.  One of her commenters put it best, “I’m starting to get the feeling this guy is a serial killer who found a legal route to kill people.”

5) Sure politicians of all parties use appeals based on fear, but it sure seems to be a very central element of the GOP these days.

6) Had a little bit of a light bulb moment while listening the most recent Freakonomics podcast (on boredom, actually)

DUBNER: I want your secret view of success in life, definitely.

DUCKWORTH: Alright, so I’m just gonna go out on limb here and say it. You know it’s not that I have like all the, a mountain of evidence and so forth. But I think it really comes down to this. Every successful person that I’ve ever interviewed — and I do a lot of interviewing of successful gold medalists and CEOs of Fortune 100 companies and so forth — every single one is extraordinarily meta-cognitive. By that I mean that they are able to reflect on their own emotions, their own thoughts and their own behaviors. They’re sort of able to step outside themselves and say, “Hmm, what am I doing? What just happened there? Is that something that I liked? Did I not like it? What can I do to kind of go back into the situation and do it differently next time?”  To a one, I would say that is characteristic of successful people.  [emphasis mine]

Though, I’m not like those people, I am pretty damn metacognitive, but the light bulb was about my son who really struggles despite having good cognitive skills– it’s the damn metacognition he’s lacking.

7) Vox explains why China is changing their one child policy.

8) On Kansas‘ failed supply-side experiment.  Of course, there was plenty of evidence this was never going to work.

9) Jordan Weissman with a nice reminder that if a Republican president is elected, he very well could enact crazy Republican economic plans.  And then we get Kansas times 50.

10) Josh Vorhees on the self-fulfilling nature of the Jeb is toast narrative:

But. But! The Jeb is toast narrative will only make that more unlikely. Jeb began the year as the favorite for his party’s nomination—and, until recently, remained a favorite—exactly because the political and media establishments saw him as one. But while he benefited from that self-fulfilling prophecy, he’s now in danger of falling victim to a new one. If the establishment no longer sees him as a man who can bring order to a chaotic nominating contest, voters won’t either. The media used to present him as the smarter Bush, the more capable Bush, the Bush who should have been president. Now that’s all gone. And as Nate Silver points out, the conventional wisdom matters for Bush more than most “because Bush is running a conventional campaign.”

11) Some nudges are good (e.g., nudging for more retirement savings).  When private companies try to nudge you so they can profit more– not so good.

12) Kristof on “justice” in Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia’s medieval criminal justice system also executes “witches,” and flogs and imprisons gay people.

It’s time for a frank discussion about our ally Saudi Arabia and its role legitimizing fundamentalism and intolerance in the Islamic world. Western governments have tended to bite their tongues because they see Saudi Arabia as a pillar of stability in a turbulent region — but I’m not sure that’s right.

Saudi Arabia has supported Wahhabi madrasas in poor countries in Africa and Asia, exporting extremism and intolerance. Saudi Arabia also exports instability with its brutal war in Yemen, intended to check what it sees as Iranian influence. Saudi airstrikes have killed thousands, and theblockading of ports has been even more devastating. Some Yemeni children are starving, and 80 percent of Yemenis now need assistance.

There’s also an underlying hypocrisy in Saudi behavior. This is a country that sentenced a 74-year-old British man to 350 lashes for possessing alcohol (some British reports say he may be allowed to leave Saudi Arabia following international outrage), yet I’ve rarely seen as much hard liquor as at Riyadh parties attended by government officials.

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