Should we cancel student debt?

No.

Elizabeth Warren was in the news this week saying not only should we cancel student debt, we should do it by executive fiat.  Hmmmm.

First, as to cancelling student debt.  Not-exactly-the-Heritage-Foundation, but Brookings’ Adam Looney released an analysis on this last year on why this should be  problem for liberals:

Despite her best intentions and her description of the plan as progressive, a quick analysis finds the Warren proposal to be regressive, expensive, and full of uncertainties. As I show below, the top 20 percent of households receive about 27 percent of all annual savings, and the top 40 percent about 66 percent. The bottom 20 percent of borrowers by income get only 4 percent of the savings. Borrowers with advanced degrees represent 27 percent of borrowers, but would claim 37 percent of the annual benefit. [emphases mine]

It’s unclear in the proposal where our education system would go next if this proposal were adopted. While Senator Warren’s proposal offers “free college” at public institutions (another regressive element given 35 percent of public college students are from families in the top 20 percent of the income distribution), millions of students will continue to borrow to attend private institutions, graduate and professional schools, and to cover living expenses while enrolled.[1] How can we sustain a system with open-ended borrowing and broadly available loan forgiveness?

The simple fact is that it’s hard to design a progressive and coherent loan relief policy. In one way, it’s like the subprime crisis: too many borrowers were fooled (or fooled themselves) into taking out speculative loans that were impossible to repay. But the vast majority of prime borrowers were responsible, made conservative choices, and continued to pay their loan obligations. We struggled then to differentiate the deserving from undeserving, responsible from irresponsible, and with the potential costs of widespread write-downs.

Debt relief for student loan borrowers, of course, only benefits those who have gone to college, and those who have gone to college generally fare much better in our economy than those who don’t. So any student-loan debt relief proposal needs first to confront a simple question: Why are those who went to college more deserving of aid than those who didn’t? More than 90 percent of children from the highest-income families have attended college by age 22 versus 35 percent from the lowest-income families.

As for the executive fiat part, Drum:

This is getting out of hand. When President Obama signed the DACA executive order, which defers deportation for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, he did so under the theory that immigration law gave an unusual amount of latitude to the executive branch. That was questionable, and it will eventually be decided by the courts, but at least it was a theory. Conversely, the notion that the executive can simply choose not to collect debt seems no more plausible than Donald Trump’s notion that he can withhold aid to Ukraine just because he feels like it.

For starters, no, this isn’t “just the same thing” as prosecutorial discretion. That’s a longstanding prerogative at all levels of government. Unilaterally canceling debt isn’t.

And while the power to create debt may include the power to cancel it, that’s not at issue here. The question is who gets to cancel it. Congress certainly can, but there’s no reason to think that the president can do it without clear statutory authority.

Finally, how far do we want to take this? Can President Trump eliminate the corporate income tax by simply directing the IRS not to collect it? Could President Sanders hand out loans to renewable energy companies and then turn them into outright grants by deciding not to collect them? Once we go down this road, there’s no telling where it stops.

Congress has the power to delegate broad authority to executive branch agencies, but while that power may be broad, it’s not infinite. It depends largely on the wording of the enabling statute. So the key question is the one at the end of the excerpt above: did Congress intend to give the education secretary power to cancel vast swaths of student debt unilaterally? I think we all know the answer to that.

Ugh.  As you know, I like Warren.  In large part because she is typically so thoughtful about public policy.  In a great Gist segment, I think Mike Pesca got to what really bothered me:

Elizabeth Warren’s brand has been I have a plan for that, but I always took the unstated premise to be I have a researched, considered, possibly tried and tested plan for that. This plan is not any of those things, not even much of a plan. It’s a salvo in a seemingly desperate one at that.

As for what policy steps to actually take?  Adam Looney is on that, too.

What really frustrates me as that I know Elizabeth Warren is too smart to truly think this is a good idea.  Or, if she has somehow motivated reasoned herself into thinking it is, I’ve got to question her judgment.  Now, I still think there’s an excellent case to be made for Warren as president and I would enthusiastically support her in the general election.  But, as for the best choice among the Democratic contenders, I really don’t know.  I want Booker back!

Now this is a trigger warning

Damn this is good.  Duke Political Science professor, noted libertarian, and nonetheless all-around good guy, Mike Munger shared this on FB from his latest Capstone in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics syllabus.

Trigger Warning: The explicit purpose of this class is to consider the best arguments for, and against, some highly controversial claims. The debate portion of the class, in particular, exposes students to the risk of being required to argue points of view they may find personally repugnant. Further, a number of the classroom discussions are likely to transgress boundaries of what students find comfortable, especially if your most cherished views are based more on emotion than on reasons and evidence. If there are issues that make you uncomfortable and you find it difficult to encounter arguments you disagree with but cannot refute, you are not temperamentally suited for the PPE enterprise. That certainly doesn’t make you a bad person, but you should NOT take this class.

As J.S. Mill put it, in On Liberty: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. …if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”
1. So, the warning: All your lives you have been rewarded for twaddle, making arguments that are some version of: “I feel that….”
2. Not here. The course is not about what you feel. PPE requires that you determine what you think, and why. You need reasons, and to express these reasons coherently as arguments in your writing and debate presentations who don’t already think that you are right will be more likely to agree. If all you do is “feel” about the subjects we talk about, you will “feel” unhappy with your grades. What you need to do is to know the best counter-arguments to your own position, and to be able to express them clearly, precisely so that you can refute the best arguments as decisively as possible. You’ll find that understanding the power of counterarguments, but then refuting them, will make actually make you feel better anyway, because you won’t get so upset when someone disagrees with how you feel.
3. On the other hand (and this is another warning), there is no correct answer. If you need final, correct answers, you should probably go to seminary and study sacred texts. Any opinion, no matter how outlandish or offensive, will result in a good grade if you support it well and argue for it persuasively. We care about reasons. It may well be that some arguments are unsupportable, of course. But that is because there are no good reasons for it, not because you feel it is wrong. If your claims are offensive and badly argued, that is the worst possible outcome.

If any of the above is a problem, you should drop this class. It is not for you. That doesn’t make you a bad person; many people have perfectly good lives having memorized a secular ideological catechism and then being offended when anyone disagrees. But if you find disagreement offensive, this class is likely to be uncomfortable for you, and you should probably look elsewhere. Not everyone is interested in knowing the problems with their own positions, especially if some of those problematic counterarguments are unsettlingly close to being persuasive. After all, that would mean you are wrong, and nothing makes you feel more unsafe than realizing that you are wrong.

Quick hits (part II)

1) This is good (thanks JDW), “Togo national football team attack: Survivors remember machine gun ambush, 10 years on”

2) Important analysis of Black voters’ substantial and enduring support for Biden, plus his white support, in the Monkey Cage, “Biden appeals both to black voters — and to white voters suspicious of Black Lives Matter”

3) As a huge podcast fan, I loved this tweet.

4) Pretty much every state requires just one U.S. History class, so I’m okay with NC falling in line with that.  That said, while I think it’s great to teach personal financial literacy to HS kids, a whole class seems like overkill to me. But, I did have to address this one quote in the article that is emblematic of comments that drive me crazy, “State education officials said the change won’t result in students having less knowledge of American history. They said North Carolina students will still learn about U.S. history in elementary and middle school and that the revamped civics class will also include content on U.S. history.”  Really?!  One less history class, but not “less knowledge” of history.  Give me a break!  And just admit that they’ll have less history, but still a sufficient amount.

5) So, a non-vegan, “vegan” relative of mine led to some interesting conversations between my wife and myself about what’s really a vegan.  I had not heard of, and do really like, the idea of “plant-based eating.”

The terms “vegan” and “plant-based” are often used interchangeably, but there’s a growing effort to define just what it means to follow a plant-based lifestyle.

According to Brian Wendel, the founder of the “plant-based living” website Forks Over Knives, going plant-based is often “for people who are very enthusiastic about the health angle” of eating mainly whole plant foods.

Reynolde Jordan, who runs a food blog called Plant-Based Vibe in Memphis, said it’s also a way to distance oneself from the rigid ideology of veganism, which calls for abstaining from animal products of all kinds.

“When you classify yourself as vegan, you’re now being watched,” said Mr. Jordan, who posts vegan recipes for dishes such as Cajun seaweed gumbo and raw beet balls along with photos of the vegetarian meals he orders on trips. “In my DMs, I’d get all these messages from activists for protests. I’m just not that guy — I did this for the purpose of eating better.”

6) Tom Jensen with his 2020 analysis based on PPP recent polling, “Democratic Unity Will Determine Trump’s Fate”

Over the last couple weeks PPP did polls testing the leading Democratic contenders for President against Donald Trump in both Arizona and Iowa.

On the surface the numbers are decent but not amazing for Democrats. Donald Trump won Arizona by 4 points in 2016. Currently he ties Joe Biden, leads Bernie Sanders by 1, leads Elizabeth Warren by 2, and leads Pete Buttigieg by 3. Trump won Iowa by 9 points in 2016. Currently he leads Pete Buttigieg by 1, Joe Biden by 3, and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren by 5.

When you dig further into the numbers though a clear picture emerges- Trump’s position would be much, much worse if voters who don’t like him- or even just those voters who voted against him in 2016- end up unifying around the eventual Democratic nominee…

He appears to have very little room to grow among undecideds. These numbers suggest that the fate of the 2020 election really stands in the hands of the voters who don’t like Trump. Trump does not have enough people who like him to get reelected- the only way he does is if the voters who don’t like him refuse to get on the same page after the Democratic primary is over. Right now we see a lot of people saying they will vote for Biden but not Bernie or will vote for Bernie but not Biden- if those people get on the same page once the nominee is chosen, Trump will lose. If they don’t, it will be close.

7) I think it was Ezra Klein who shared this link on the “selection bias” of how we think about kids before we actually have them:

For example, there was a huge amount of selection bias in my observations of parents and children. Some parents may have noticed that I wrote “Whenever I’d noticed parents with kids.” Of course the times I noticed kids were when things were going wrong. I only noticed them when they made noise. And where was I when I noticed them? Ordinarily I never went to places with kids, so the only times I encountered them were in shared bottlenecks like airplanes. Which is not exactly a representative sample. Flying with a toddler is something very few parents enjoy.

What I didn’t notice, because they tend to be much quieter, were all the great moments parents had with kids. People don’t talk about these much — the magic is hard to put into words, and all other parents know about them anyway — but one of the great things about having kids is that there are so many times when you feel there is nowhere else you’d rather be, and nothing else you’d rather be doing. You don’t have to be doing anything special. You could just be going somewhere together, or putting them to bed, or pushing them on the swings at the park. But you wouldn’t trade these moments for anything. One doesn’t tend to associate kids with peace, but that’s what you feel. You don’t need to look any further than where you are right now.

Before I had kids, I had moments of this kind of peace, but they were rarer. With kids it can happen several times a day.

My other source of data about kids was my own childhood, and that was similarly misleading. I was pretty bad, and was always in trouble for something or other. So it seemed to me that parenthood was essentially law enforcement. I didn’t realize there were good times too.

8) And this was really interesting on marriage.  The key to long-term success may largely be avoiding negativity:

We have some answers, thanks to psychologists who have been tracking couples’ happiness. They’ve found, based on the couples’ ratings of their own satisfaction, that marriages usually don’t get better. The ratings typically go downhill over time. The successful marriages are defined not by improvement, but by avoiding decline. That doesn’t mean marriage is a misery. The thrill of infatuation fades, so the euphoria that initially bonded a couple cannot sustain them over the decades, but most couples find other sources of contentment and remain satisfied overall (just not as satisfied as at the beginning). Sometimes, though, the decline in satisfaction is so steep that it dooms a marriage. By monitoring couples’ interactions and tracking them over time, researchers have developed a surprising theory for the breakdown of relationships.

What mattered was the bad stuff, as the psychologists concluded: “It is not so much the good, constructive things that partners do or do not do for one another that determines whether a relationship ‘works’ as it is the destructive things that they do or do not do in reaction to the problems.” When you quietly hang in there for your partner, your loyalty often isn’t even noticed. But when you silently withdraw from your partner or issue angry threats, you can start a disastrous spiral of retaliation.

“The reason long‑term relationships are so difficult,” says Caryl Rusbult, who led the couples study, “is that sooner or later one person is liable to be negative for so long that the other one starts to respond negatively too. When that happens, it’s hard to save the relationship.” Negativity is a tough disease to shake—and it’s highly contagious. Other researchers have found that when partners are separately asked to ponder aspects of their relationship, they spend much more time contemplating the bad than the good. To get through the bad stuff, you need to stop the negative spiral before it begins.

9) Love this on the need for higher middle-class taxes:

But on the question of raising taxes, and for whom, most Democratic candidates have hedged toward an all-too-familiar position. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012, they’ve asserted their opposition to tax increases on anyone but the very rich — even if those tax hikes are offset by household savings on priorities like child care, health care and college education…

A no-new-middle-class-taxes pledge may help fend off misleading questions from reporters and disingenuous attacks from primary opponents, but it is seriously misguided. Middle-class taxes are a necessary and desirable part of a comprehensive, progressive policy framework that benefits low- and middle-income people most. [emphases mine] When redistributed through universal programs like Medicare-for-all (or free child care, free college, paid family leave, etc.), broad taxes provide stable funding and a sizable return on investment. Democratic presidential candidates should make the case for middle-class taxes, not run from them.

Here is a basic fact: The United States is a low-tax country. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the United States ranked fourth-lowest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (a consortium of 36 economically developed countries) in terms of tax revenue collected as a percentage of the economy — behind nations like Germany, Israel, Latvia and Canada. The gap between U.S. and average OECD revenue has widened over time, from 1.3 percentage points of gross domestic product in 1965 to 10 percentage points more recently. That’s nearly $2 trillion per year in forgone revenue from lower tax rates.

10) I just really love advanced hockey stats.  So much so that I actually check in on them here during the game while watching Carolina Hurricanes games.  Thus, I really appreciate this analysis here which basically concludes it makes sense to focus most on scoring chances over Corsi, and definitely more so than high-danger chances.

11) Love this NYT feature from Dana Goldstein on how otherwise identical HS History textbooks have minor re-writes for partisan state review boards.  Most egregrious, of course, Texas.  Especially when it comes to race:

Pearson, the publisher whose Texas textbook raises questions about the quality of Harlem Renaissance literature, said such language “adds more depth and nuance.”

Critical language about nonwhite cultural movements also appears in a Texas book from McGraw-Hill. It is partly a result of debates, in 2010, between conservative and liberal members of the Texas Board of Education over whether state standards should mention cultural movements like hip-hop and country music. Their compromise was to ask teachers and textbook publishers to address “both the positive and negative impacts” of artistic movements.

Texas struck that requirement in 2018, but its most recent textbooks, published in 2016, will reflect it for years to come.

12) Basically, it’s hell to own a convenience store in Japan, and one owner is fighting back.

13) Honestly, I think it makes us feel better to make claims along the lines that those who commit suicide are cowards.  Ken White, with some great pushback on this:

Every time there’s a suicide in the news, the Courage Experts appear, explaining that taking your own life—especially if you have a family—is cowardly.  The deaths of Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and many others all inspired such judgments from people lacking either insight or human empathy. These people have something in common: They haven’t experienced major depression, and don’t care to make the effort to grasp what it’s like.  Like Ziegler, they see suicide as “selfish,” a decision reached through a self-interested calculus of pleasure and pain, with no consideration given to loved ones left behind.

But that’s not what depression is like at all.  Wallace understood it, even though his understanding wasn’t enough to save him.  In the novel Infinite Jest, he wrote this remarkably evocative and accurate description:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

Depression lies. It lies relentlessly and seductively and convincingly. The lies, like the fire of Wallace’s parable, separate you from hope, from faith, from your loved ones.  Imagine the worst day of your life. Maybe someone you loved died, or betrayed you. Maybe you lost a job you loved or were publicly humiliated or failed some essential obligation. Remember how it felt? Imagine, for a moment, feeling that way almost all of the time. Imagine it’s always there, a hard angry fist in the pit of your stomach, from when you wake to when you sleep. Imagine that the few moments when you forget and don’t feel that way offer little solace, because suddenly you remember, and the pain and hopelessness surge back like a tsunami. Imagine hearing inexorable lies in your own voice, telling you that you’ll never feel better, that you deserve no better, that if there are people who love you, it’s only because they don’t see how worthless you are, and that they would all be better off without you. Imagine that you can’t conceive of any way that the pain can end unless you die. It’s not cowardly to fall prey to that. It’s human. Resisting that, persevering, excelling, creating art when you feel that way, like Wallace did? That’s goddamned epic. Wallace isn’t a coward for falling; he’s a hero for standing as long as he did.

14) Just got back from “1917.”  Damn was that good.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Love this on Trump’s GOP “takeover” from Eric Levitz:

Yet McConnell is “staying put.” His caucus’s principled conservatives believe that when the state intervenes in the pharmaceutical market to raise prices and juice profits (by awarding patent monopolies that restrict competition), that is free-market economics — but when “big government” intervenes to aid consumers at the expense of Merck’s shareholders, it’s socialist tyranny. And, at the end of the day, the GOP’s long-standing principles (a.k.a. the GOP donor class’s long-standing demands) ostensibly count for more than one president’s whims.

What, then, do we mean when we say that Trump has “taken over” the GOP? If a president cannot convince his congressional allies to buck their party’s established orthodoxy on his “next major priority” — even when his position is popular, and the orthodoxy is not — in what sense has he attained the “complete fealty” of his party’s lawmakers? The discrepancy of Trump’s supposedly historic power over his party — and his demonstrable inability to rally congressional Republicans behind his legislative goals — reflects a fact that’s too often elided in discussions of Trump’s “hostile takeover of the GOP”: The mogul’s conquest of the American right owed as much to strategic surrenders as it did to tweeted blitzkriegs.

Trump began accommodating the GOP Establishment from the moment he secured the nomination. In the early weeks of his primary campaign, Trump endorsed universal health-caretax hikes on hedge-fund managers, and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. After Trump won the Republican primary — and, thus, the hearts and minds of many previously adversarial GOP donors — he either abandoned or de-emphasized such heresies. Once in power, he outsourced his agenda to Paul Ryan. Trump could have devoted his “honeymoon” to his (broadly popular) ambitions for improving U.S. infrastructure. Instead, he let the Randian speaker try and fail to take health-care from poor people, before successfully delivering (deeply unpopular) tax cuts to wealthy ones.

Notably, subordinating his own political interests to the GOP Establishment’s fiscal agenda did not earn Trump any “fealty” on his campaign’s defining issue: When the White House’s official immigration plan (which included full funding for a border wall, and cuts to legal admissions) came before the Senate in February 2018, 14 Republicans voted against it.  (Mitch McConnell held votes on three other immigration bills that same day; all won more support than Donald Trump’s.)

To be sure, the president has occasionally flouted his party’s orthodoxy on trade and foreign policy. But even in those realms, Trump’s heresies are often overstated. Every modern Republican president has dabbled in protectionism at the behest of his favorite industries. And Trump did not ultimately tear up NAFTA, but merely negotiated a nearly-identical replacement. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal affections for Vladimir Putin notwithstanding, his administration has pursued the hawkish anti-Russian foreign policy that Mitt Romney once demanded. The president’s betrayal of Syria’s Kurds may have ruffled some neoconservative feathers. But then, betraying the Kurds has long been a pastime of Republican presidents – and for all of Trump’s vows to withdraw U.S. troops from the region, “large-scale operations” in Syria are ongoing. 

Put simply, it isn’t that hard to complete a “hostile takeover” of a party when your hostility does not extend to anything that that party truly values. The GOP Establishment did not wage holy war on Trump in early 2016 because it found his incivility or xenophobia unconscionable; it did so because it doubted Trump’s ability to defeat Hillary Clinton, and his willingness to implement the conservative agenda. By delivering the White House to Republicans, the regulatory state to the Chamber of Commerce, the tax code to plutocrats, and the judiciary to the Federalist Society, Trump has dispelled those fears.

The mainstream press exaggerates Trump’s power over congressional Republicans because it refuses to recognize the gulf between the GOP’s stated values and its actual ones. The modern Republican Party has never been a stickler for balanced budgetsunfettered trade, or constitutional restraints on executive authority (when the executive is a Republican). It has always been happy to abet presidential lawlessness when doing so advanced the conservative movement’s ideological goals. Thus, the fact that House Republicans are willing to forgive Trump’s illicit efforts to sabotage the Democratic front-runner is much less significant than the Times suggests.

2) Jesse Singal on “toxic wokeness” with an analogy to human sacrifice and I kind of love it:

It sounds like you’re describing life in a toxic online social-justice community. Toxic SJ communities are, of course, no less toxic because they center around fundamentally worthy causes. One thing I’ve noticed about them is no one seems to be happy. When happiness does appear to manifest, it’s a strained, performative type of happiness.

Allow me my first of what are going to be several digressions. Earlier this week I got started on the latest “Fall of Civilizations” podcast, which is about the Aztecs. One of the many things the host, Paul M.M. Cooper, does masterfully is pick the right spots to zoom in a bit, to encourage listeners to really think, if only for a few minutes along what is an hours-long journey inside a particular civilization’s downfall, about some issue or moment.

One such moment in this podcast involves the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Cooper treats the subject with sufficient care, given that, as he points out, human sacrifice was one of the rationales the Spaniards used to justify their plunder of the New World (the colonizing Spaniards were, of course, deeply concerned with human rights — real humanists, that lot). But human sacrifice did occur. A priest would stab someone to death with an obsidian dagger at the top of a pyramid and pull out their still-beating heart. Their blood would run down the steps of the pyramid and their body would be tossed down it, its parts fed to animals. Many people would watch; it was a big social and religious ritual.

Cooper invites us to imagine would it would be like to be in the crowd. What did the average member of this (in other ways) incredibly successful, astoundingly impressive civilization think of the practice? In all likelihood, he points out, there was a range of opinions, just as the Europeans of the era likely had a range of opinions on the very public executions that would take place thousands of miles from Tenochtitlan, in starkly different cultural settings.

It’s hard not to imagine some half-hearted cheers. At root, these grisly sacrifices, often perpetrated upon prisoners of war, were demonstrations of state power. This was, at the time, a powerful civilization that believed, as so many powerful civilizations do, that it had the power of the gods themselves on its side, and that it was important to stay in their good graces. So maybe you cheer a bit louder than you feel like cheering, because what are you going to do, not cheer? Deny the self-evident wonder and righteousness of what you’re witnessing? When the consequences of being a hated and defeated outgroup member are presently tumbling down those endless holy stairs, right toward you?

There is this stock response when people do what I’m doing now, when they put dysfunctional online social dynamics in the context of the really bad stuff from our human past — sacrifices or witch burnings or the Red Scare and so on. The response is incredulous outrage: How could you compare one to the other??? Then the indignant person shuts down and refuses to discuss the matter at hand. My theory is that when they chant the mantra You can’t compare them! loud and fast enough, it drowns out their own doubts; it allows them to avoid interrogating their own role in making the world a meaner and crueler place than it needs to be.

So, for the record:

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

The whole point is that there are certain aspects of human nature that pop up again and again and again, in different forms at different times. One of them is in-group insecurity. Are you a member in good standing? Is someone else poised to overtake you in the local hierarchy? What can you do — must you do — to hang on? A huge amount of human social life is oriented toward determining and broadcasting people’s status — whether they’re in or out and just how in or out they are.

Toxic online social-justice communities are miserable places largely because they are fueled by stilted, superficial outrage, and because there is an accurate sense that if you say the wrong thing, all your friends will instantly throw you under the bus. Since so many members of these communities don’t know each other in real life, and in fact have no firm connection to one another other than explicitly stated political values, people naturally develop a rather insecure sense of in-group attachment — one premised almost entirely on avoiding wrongthink and on reciting the right parts of the liturgy at the right times.

3) Really like this Wired list of 24 best movies of the 2010’s as I’ve actually seen most of these and agree with many of the picks.  Since this is Wired, it is a sci-fi heavy list.  I love “Looper” and am very pleased to see “Edge of Tomorrow” get some much-deserved love.  Also a huge fan of Arrival.

4) Shockingly, none of the Trump administration’s justifications for the Solemani killing actually hold up.  Paul Waldman takes them all down.

5) Frank Bruni lets loose on Nikki Haley and false notions of patriotism in his weekly newsletter:

Shame on Nikki Haley.

In the aftermath of the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, she didn’t merely praise President Trump — a show of support that may well reflect her own, like-minded assessment of events and is absolutely her right.

She denigrated Americans who took a different view by disingenuously describing their reaction. “The only ones that are mourning the loss of Suleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates,” she told Sean Hannity during an interview on Fox News. Of course he thrilled to that characterization.

Which is an utterly bogus one. Democrats aren’t mourning the Iranian military commander’s death. They agree that he was a dangerous actor, with blood on his hands. But they are asking why Trump ordered his killing now, whether the administration has a fully fleshed strategy beyond this extraordinary strike and whether Iran will be less or more bellicose as a consequence of it. These are important, necessary questions. Republicans should be asking them, too. The answers could determine whether we wind up at war.

There’s this popular, recurring notion — you’re going to hear more and more of it from Trump’s loyalists in coming days and weeks — that when America is threatened by an adversary, Americans must exhibit unity. Some readers will surely admonish me for failing to do that in my midweek column, about the mismatch of Trump and this moment.

“Partisan politics should stop when it comes to foreign policy,” said Haley, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, telling Hannity that “we need to be completely behind the president” and that “every one of those countries are watching our news media right now.” Forget a free press and skeptical public. She wants a cheering section.

And that’s not patriotic. It’s the opposite. And it’s foolish.

I agree that we should tamp down pettiness and check reflexive, press-a-button partisanship when the country is imperiled and American lives are on the line. Hell, we should do that all of the time.

And in matters of state we should be especially careful, which is why there was a long if imperfectly followed tradition of presidents not using their trips overseas to continue or start political spats back home.

You know who flouted that? Trump. I can still see the backdrop of white crosses in a Normandy graveyard as he trashed Nancy Pelosi in a television interview. He has repeatedly mocked Joe Biden while abroad — and of course tried to use his presidential sway to get a foreign country to do its own besmirching of Biden.

So please, Ambassador Haley, don’t lecture me on how foreign policy should be a partisan no-fly zone, certainly not on behalf of this president, whose ingrained habit of lying intensifies the imperative of not blindly accepting what our leaders tell us as troops are activated and storm clouds gather.

Too little skepticism toward what turned out to be misinformation mired us in Vietnam and, much later, Afghanistan and also got us into Iraq. Again and again we trust too quickly or too much, and the country pays a terrible price.

Doesn’t patriotism demand that we learn from those mistakes?

6) Thanks to NC State’s new gender guide, I actually learned several new terms.  Sure, I’m familiar with genderqueer and non-binary, but who knew agender was a thing.  Now that’s one hell of a rejection of the gender binary.

Agender – a term used to describe the experience of one being without gender, outside the gender binary, rejecting the social construct of gender
Gender Fluid – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender as moving along the continuum between and among genders
Genderqueer – a term used to describe the experience of being outside the gender binary, which may include having two or more genders (bigender, pangender, etc.), being third-gendered or other-gendered, or being without gender
Man – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being male, masculine
Non-binary – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being outside the binary or otherwise not identifying with binary male or female gender categories
Self-Entered – please enter the term most appropriate to describe your gender
Two-spirit – a culturally-specific term used to describe some individuals in some Native American cultures whose gender orientation includes both a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit
Woman – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being female, feminine

7) Can classroom air filters improve student performance?  Looks like it.  Then again, Drum is pretty skeptical.

8) Really enjoyed this NYT Magazine piece on gene drive (first time I read how it came to be– which was really cool) and genetically-modified mosquitos.  I actually found this part about Monsanto, though, particularly interesting:

“With genetically engineered foods, in the earliest years, Monsanto really set the context,” Charo says. “And it was a mess. Their financial interest in the intellectual property and their regulatory interest in making sure these products were able to come to market got conflated with the science, so nobody was willing to trust the kind of research they were doing. The end result was that all G.M.O. research got tainted.”

Todd Kuiken, a researcher at the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, says that “it was basically a lesson in how not to do things.” But, he pointed out, the “Monsanto Mistake” also alerted researchers to the need for a more transparent and collaborative approach. With gene drives, groups like Target Malaria, a nonprofit research consortium administered by Imperial College, London, and funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have stressed that the deployment of modified mosquitoes in Africa should be “an African decision.” Local and national governments would work with regulatory organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization, which have proposed frameworks for testing and releasing genetically modified mosquitoes. In the United States, recent developments in genetics, including gene drives, have created a boom market for ethicists, as well as for so-called engagement specialists, who have the unenviable problem of figuring out how to get people to be genuinely thoughtful about a confusing and highly technical area of research.

9) I didn’t even know “muscle confusion” workouts are a thing.  During my workouts, my muscles are pretty much never confused.  But that’s okay, because a new study suggests its about your brain, not your muscles:

What these findings suggest is that muscles are not deterred or bored by unvarying routines, says Brad Schoenfeld, an associate professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York and a co-author of the study. “They adapt to load,” he says, whether that load arrives through the same exercise or a different one each time.

But minds are not muscles and could be influenced by novelty, he says. “The differences in motivation scores at the end were substantial,” he says, suggesting that “from a purely motivational standpoint, variety matters.”

10) Derek Thompson on how this decade will probably be “peak meat.”  That would be great.  As I might have mentioned, I’ve been very impressed with the newest plant-based meats I’ve had.  And I’m super-excited about Impossible Pork.  Anyway, Thompson:

If these trends continue, per-capita meat consumption in the United States is all but certain to peak this decade. “Peak meat” won’t happen because tens of millions of carnivores suddenly got religion on animal rights, but rather because they were motivated by the opposite of a collective sacrifice: the magic of a longer menu.

Factory farming may be the epitome of capitalist excess, an inferno of needless suffering and environmental degradation for the pursuit of profit. But the plant-based revolution, too, is driven by a set of highly capitalist forces: technology, choice, and transnational corporate power. In the past decade, total venture-capital investment in plant-based meat has exceeded $2 billion, led by Impossible Foods, with $700 million in venture funds, and Beyond Meat, which went public in 2019.

These companies have partnered with some of the largest fast-food chains in the world to serve plant-based alternatives for each of the three most popular meats in the West—chicken, beef, and pork. This week, KFC announced that it would test a new vegan chicken sandwich at nearly 1,000 locations, starting in the U.K. In the past year, plant-based options have grown more than 250 percent at all burger-serving restaurants in the U.S., according to the food-research company Datassential. Burger King’s meatless “Impossible Whopper” powered the company to its strongest sales growth in four years. McDonald’s has responded by partnering with Beyond Meat to test its own version of plant-based burgers in the U.S. Beyond Meat also provides plant-based sausages for breakfast sandwiches at Dunkin’ and Tim Horton’s, while Burger King is testing imitation ground pork on its breakfast menu with something called the “Impossible Croissan’wich.”

What’s immediately obvious from this long list of meatish items is that investors, corporate executives, and consumers—including, crucially, those who say they would never become vegetarian—are excited about meat produced from plants. But these developments have a more radical implication: Plants are becoming the fourth meat.

That sentence will register as absurd to many people—and for carnivorous gourmands, it will smack of outright heresy. But it’s not an extravagant prediction, once you shake off the obvious paradox. Within the next decade or two, if the typical American eats 10 pounds of plant-based meat each year (essentially, the weight of one Impossible Whopper every week) plant-based meat will replace seafood as the fourth-most-popular “meat.”

11) Good stuff from John Sides, “Incumbent presidents usually get more popular when they run for reelection. Will Trump?”

The third pattern is the one Trump needs: increasing approval numbers throughout the election year. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton are the clearest examples. Nixon’s average monthly approval increased from 49 percent to 61 percent between January and October 1972. Clinton’s increased from 47 percent to 56 percent over the same period in 1996.

Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama experienced more modest increases, but increases nonetheless. Reagan’s approval had already increased significantly in 1983 as the country recovered from the punishing 1982 recession. But it increased about three more points in 1984 before he was easily reelected…

As the graph shows, Trump’s approval rating is lower than any incumbent president’s at this point in their first term. And even though Trump won in 2016 despite being viewed unfavorably, it’s a different proposition when you’re the incumbent president. The political scientist Jonathan Bernstein put it nicely:

It’s one thing to vote for someone you dislike, it’s another to vote for someone you think is a bad president. In other words, asking people whether they approve or disapprove of how the president is handling his job is going to be a better predictor of their vote than asking them whether they have a favorable opinion of a candidate.

Of course, Trump’s reelection can’t be ruled out — hence the even odds he has in the betting markets. Nevertheless, his position is unusually weak for an incumbent presiding over a good economy. The simplest strategy for improving his chances is reaching that thin slice of persuadable voters with a message about the good economy.

The question is whether Trump has fully committed to this message.

12) I loved this mini stories episode of 99% Invisible.  But I had a truly wonderful moment listening to this segment on the history of Los Alamos when they started interviewing the Los Alamos historian, Alan Carr, who was a graduate student/friend of mine at Texas Tech way back when.

13) I was a little disappointed with the de-aging in the Irishman.  Looked too much like an older person with bad plastic surgery.  But, this is kind of amazing… somebody with video skills made a way better version (seriously, do watch this) with free software in seven days:

It’s impossible to argue with the star-power of a mob movie that contains the following names: Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci. On paper, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. The problem is, though, that Robert De Niro is a 76-year-old man, Al Pacino is a 79-year-old man, and Joe Pesci is a 76-year-old-man. And in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, these three mid-to-late-’70s actors are playing real-life mobsters throughout the span of half a century. That means, at times, we’re seeing De Niro’s Frank Sheeran as a twenty-and-thirtysomething-year-old man.

To pull this off, Martin Scorsese spent millions of Netflix’s money to digitally de-age De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci so they could portray these men throughout different parts of their lives. It’s safe to say it doesn’t entirely work. The result is some hellish uncanny valley, where their faces on screen perpetually look like they could be anywhere from 40 to 60 years old. We see De Niro’s Sheeran, supposedly in his 30s, beating the shit out of mobsters, moving like a 70-year-old man with the face of a 50-year-old man. It’s confusing, and often distracting. But many critics and awards show voters were able to look past the clunky CGI to enjoy yet another Scorsese mob movie featuring his old pals.

I was not one of them. And neither was this deepfake YouTuber who says he used free software to make The Irishman de-aging look better. And, according to the YouTuber, it only took him seven days.

14) I just upgraded my old router with the Wirecutter’s “budget” recommendation and damn was that about the best $50 I’ve spent.

Quick hits

1) Obviously, I’m out of my depth on Iran, but I think Yglesias is exactly right about how far you should trust the Trump administration on this.  Or anything.

When someone has proven over and over again that they are not trustworthy, you can, and in important situations should, stop trusting them.

Unfortunately, in the escalating crisis with Iran, many people seem to have forgotten this basic principle.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on CNN Friday morning to explain that the Trump administration killed a top Iranian general to forestall an “imminent threat” and that the decision to do so “saved American lives.” Those remarks are simply echoed uncritically in the Washington Post’s main write-up of the story, along with the observation that Pompeo “stressed that Washington is committed to de-escalation” — a fairly dubious assertion given the current cycle of escalating hostilities dates to Trump’s unprovoked decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. An ABC News write-up stresses the risks of Iranian retaliation, but simply takes Pompeo’s claim of an imminent threat at face value.

It’s obviously possible that this claim is true. But it’s somewhat at odds with the Department of Defense’s statement Thursday night saying merely that Suleimani was “actively developing plans” for attacks and that the American bombing was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” rather than disrupting an ongoing one. And indeed, David Sanger’s news analysis in the New York Times takes the Pentagon’s deterrence account at face value without noting that the secretary of state actually claims the attack was about something else.

Beyond the contradictions, telling the truth about something would be a strange, new departure for the Trump administration, and it seems unwise to assume that’s something they would do…

Part of Trump lying about everything is that he frequently says things specifically about Iran that are not true…

rump, from time to time, even lies about his own past statements on Iran, spending one day in September complaining that the media reported he’d said he was willing to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions when he clearly said in both an interview with Chuck Todd and a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he was willing to meet without preconditions.

The point is that the probative value of a Trump statement about Iran is, to be generous, roughly zero. And Pompeo is no better. [emphasis mine]

So, what to make of all this with Iran?  Complicated.  What I do know for sure is that there is literally no reason to believe that Trump or his minions will be telling you the truth about what’s going on.

2) And Slate’s Fred Kaplan on just how dumb this is.  (Great discussion with Pesca on the Gist).

The United States is now at war with Iran.

This is the inescapable result of President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, arguably the most powerful military leader in the Middle East, and the most important person in Iran,except for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

You don’t deliberately kill someone like Soleimani unless you’re at war with his country, and even then, you want to think long and hard before you do, given the near-certainty of blowback. The blowback may soon be coming. Friday morning, Khamenei called for three days of national mourning and a “forceful revenge.” It would be shocking if he didn’t follow through.

To convey a sense of Soleimani’s significance, it would be as if, during the Iraq war, the ayatollah had ordered the assassination of Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Jim Mattis, the head of Special Operations Command, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.* Soleimani’s responsibilities corresponded with all four of these roles. Even then, the analogy falls short because, among Shi’ite Muslims across the region, Soleimani also exuded the charisma of a religious icon, a holy warrior…

Trump’s actions on Thursday had no strategic purpose, and this means that, at a moment when he needs allies more than ever, he is less likely than ever to recruit them.

Did Trump have an endgame in mind when he ordered the attack, or was his action, like so many of his words and actions, simply impulsive? Did any of his advisers warn him of the legal implications and the potential political, military, and economic consequences? We now know that Congress wasn’t notified, much less consulted. Did the National Security Council even meet to weigh the pros and cons or to discuss alternative responses? Give Trump’s track record on deliberations, it’s unlikely.

In any case, whether Trump means to provoke a war or wants to pursue a diplomatic course at some point, there is no one around him very capable of doing either.

3) When looking for readings for my upcoming Political Parties seminar, I came across this great Yashca Mounk piece from 2018 (that I somehow had missed) that summarizes the excellent work on partisanship from both Daniel Hopkins and Lily Mason.  You should read it.

4) Great stuff from NeverTrumper Stuart Stevens, “Wake up, Republicans. Your party stands for all the wrong things now.”

Here’s a question: Does anybody have any idea what the Republican Party stands for in 2020?

One way to find out: As you are out and about marking the new year, it is likely you will come across a Republican to whom you can pose the question, preferably after a drink or two, as that tends to work as truth serum: “Look, I was just wondering: What’s the Republican Party all about these days? What does it, well, stand for?”

I’m betting the answer is going to involve a noun, a verb and either “socialism” or “Democrats.” Republicans now partly define their party simply as an alternative to that other party, as in “I’m a Republican because I’m not a Democrat.”…

Republicans are now officially the character-doesn’t-count party, the personal-responsibility-just-proves-you-have-failed-to-blame-the-other-guy party, the deficit-doesn’t-matter party, the Russia-is-our-ally party, and the I’m-right-and-you-are-human-scum party. Yes, it’s President Trump’s party now, but it stands only for what he has just tweeted.

A party without a governing theory, a higher purpose or a clear moral direction is nothing more than a cartel, a syndicate that exists only to advance itself. There is no organized, coherent purpose other than the acquisition and maintenance of power…

Trump didn’t hijack the GOP and bend it to his will. He did something far easier: He looked at the party, saw its fault lines and then offered himself as a pure distillation of accumulated white grievance and anger. He bet that Republican voters didn’t really care about free trade or mutual security, or about the environment or Europe, much less deficits. He rebranded kindness and compassion as “PC” and elevated division and bigotry as the admirable goals of just being politically incorrect. Trump didn’t make Americans more racist; he just normalized the resentments that were simmering in many households. In short, he let a lot of long-suppressed demons out of the box.

5) Yes, J.K. Rowling stood up to cancel culture, and that’s awesome, but I doubt this will necessarily work as well for those that lack Rowling’s stature.  Megan McArdle:

Not that we care about the people next door to us. Rather, we fret about the opinions of officious strangers, possibly thousands of miles away, who swarm social media like deranged starlings over and over again, in the same pattern: A few thousand souls, left or right, decide that some opinion or behavior, tolerated as recently as last week, is now anathema. Then they descend upon unwitting heretics en masse — as when author J.K. Rowling attracted the mob’s ire in mid-December for tweeting in support of Maya Forstater, who was fired from a British think tank for expressing her belief that biological sex is immutable and binary. “Dress however you please,” Rowling wrote. “Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

Institutions reward the mob by firing employees, yanking advertising or inflicting other punishments. Those in the mob-ridden middle quietly think this insane but also quietly think the better of saying so out loud. Which is how the Terrible Tens became the decade of the online mob.

Even the most strait-laced small town probably rolled its collective eyes at those delicate souls who supposedly used chintz ruffles to hide piano legs from the imagined stares of lascivious men. We moderns haven’t yet developed any such filters. Today’s vaporing maiden aunts fell for an adolescent prank that gulled them into believing that the thumb-and-forefinger “okay” sign was a secret white-supremacist symbol . . . and rather than ever admit they were fooled, or that it’s a bad idea to voluntarily cede harmless gestures to racist lunatics, things escalated until the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point were investigating whether midshipmen and cadets were making an “okay” sign at this year’s Army-Navy football game.

It would be too neat a bit of plotting if the decade ended with the discovery of the antidote to this proscription plague. Yet I wonder if that isn’t what happened when the mob decided to cancel J.K. Rowling, and she demurred.

Rowling’s tweet earned her all the denunciations and anguished think pieces that a good mobbing entails. The usual script for what would follow: Rowling vanishes the tweet, apologizes and goes on a listening tour until she had been sufficiently reeducated to explain how wrong she’d been. But Rowling didn’t recite her lines.

There was no apology (though Rowling, who for several years apologized each May 2 for a beloved “Harry Potter” character she had killed off, clearly knows how to offer one). GLAAD contacted Rowling’s PR people to arrange a meeting; she declined it. Almost two weeks later, the tweet remains up despite suggestions that Rowling had irreparably tainted her legacy.

Whatever you think of Rowling’s views, you have to acknowledge that until recently, hers was considered a highly progressive opinion. That view was deemed wrongthink not because reasoned debate proved it incorrect, but because activists proved they could shout louder than anyone who voiced it. Can we also agree that virtual name-calling is a bad way to decide important questions? Quite possibly we’ll decide that Rowling’s beliefs are wrong — but that should be a decision, not something we conceded to save our eardrums a beating.

If you’d prefer reasoned debate, it will start with a collective realization that mobs can’t do much except make noise.

(Also, I purposely kept the part about the cadets as I meant to post on that and did not.  I had recently had a non-white student accused of being racist for this and he explained to me it was just a stupid game he did with his friends.  Occam’s razor).

6) Great interactive video feature in the Washington Post on the Australian wildfires.

7) I haven’t quite finished watching “The Irishman” yet (it’s too long!).  I’m enjoying it, but it ultimately strikes me as pretty derivative of, and less entertaining than, Scorsese’s earlier works. Certainly not worth the universal acclaim it has largely received.  I liked Leah Greenblatt’s review:

As Scorsese hopscotches across cities and decades, often in the service of a dizzyingly large number of plot turns, characters, and narrative cul de sacs, it’s hard not to wonder whether the movie — underwritten entirely by Netflix in the anything-goes age of streaming — would have made more sense as a limited series. (The real-life story would certainly support it, and surely there must be reams left over on the cutting-room floor; though it also feels a little like sacrilege to question his famously discerning editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.)

There’s a sense too, that The Irishman is a kind of caps-lock Scorsese — the greatest hits of his career revisited once more, with feeling. The movie’s passing parade of gangsters and goodfellas don’t have the electric specificity of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street or the still, hymn-like beauty of 2016’s Silence. Babies are born; deals are forged; doubles are crossed. Men go to prison (though they call it “school”), women smoke cigarettes (and don’t speak much), and kids (played in adulthood by, among others, Anna Paquin and Jesse Plemons) serve mostly as bystanders, looking on in vague confusion or with the harder squint of those who’ve seen more than they really want to know.

It all becomes a bit of muddle for a while midway through; one that’s not nearly as compelling as the acting itself, which is largely phenomenal, frequently surprising, and often more than a little heartbreaking. As Bufalino, Pesci — who’s hardly been on screen for over a decade — abandons his hair-trigger intensity for a sort of gentle, contained menace, his eyes slow-blinking behind enormous glasses and his mouth pursed in a thoughtful moue. He doesn’t want to do bad things, but sometimes bad things are necessary for the order of things, you know?

8) Speaking of movies, I watched Alien with my 9-year old daughter.  She was a little bored as pretty much any 9-year old would be with the pacing of the movie, but she liked it and stuck it out for the whole thing.  And then the whole family watched Aliens.  Damn do those movies hold up.  Sarah wants to watch all the Alien movies now, although I’ve told her it’s all downhill.

9) Good stuff from earlier this year in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the poor job colleges do in getting students to graduate, “Forty percent of students don’t graduate. No one is held accountable. No one is fired. That must change.”

10) Also into the Political Parties syllabus, Lee Drutman’s excellent new piece in the Atlantic, “America Is Now the Divided Republic the Framers Feared: John Adams worried that “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.” And that’s exactly what has come to pass.”

Though America’s two-party system goes back centuries, the threat today is new and different because the two parties are now truly distinct, a development that I date to the 2010 midterms. Until then, the two parties contained enough overlapping multitudes within them that the sort of bargaining and coalition-building natural to multiparty democracy could work inside the two-party system. No more. America now has just two parties, and that’s it.

The theory that guided Washington and Adams was simple, and widespread at the time. If a consistent partisan majority ever united to take control of the government, it would use its power to oppress the minority. The fragile consent of the governed would break down, and violence and authoritarianism would follow. This was how previous republics had fallen into civil wars, and the Framers were intent on learning from history, not repeating its mistakes.

James Madison, the preeminent theorist of the bunch and rightly called the father of the Constitution, supported the idea of an “extended republic” (a strong national government, as opposed to 13 loosely confederated states) for precisely this reason. In a small republic, he reasoned, factions could more easily unite into consistent governing majorities. But in a large republic, with more factions and more distance, a permanent majority with a permanent minority was less likely.

The Framers thought they were using the most advanced political theory of the time to prevent parties from forming. By separating powers across competing institutions, they thought a majority party would never form. Combine the two insights—a large, diverse republic with a separation of powers—and the hyper-partisanship that felled earlier republics would be averted. Or so they believed.

However, political parties formed almost immediately because modern mass democracy requires them, and partisanship became a strong identity, jumping across institutions and eventually collapsing the republic’s diversity into just two camps.

Yet separation of powers and federalism did work sort of as intended for a long while…

Over the past three decades, both parties have had roughly equal electoral strength nationally, making control of Washington constantly up for grabs. Since 1992, the country has cycled through two swings of the pendulum, from united Democratic government to divided government to united Republican government and back again, with both sides seeking that elusive permanent majority, and attempting to sharpen the distinctions between the parties in order to win it. This also intensified partisanship.

These triple developments—the nationalization of politics, the geographical-cultural partisan split, and consistently close elections—have reinforced one another, pushing both parties into top-down leadership, enforcing party discipline, and destroying cross-partisan deal making. Voters now vote the party, not the candidate. Candidates depend on the party brand. Everything is team loyalty. The stakes are too high for it to be otherwise.

The consequence is that today, America has a genuine two-party system with no overlap, the development the Framers feared most. And it shows no signs of resolving. The two parties are fully sorted by geography and cultural values, and absent a major realignment, neither side has a chance of becoming the dominant party in the near future. But the elusive permanent majority promises so much power, neither side is willing to give up on it.

This fundamentally breaks the system of separation of powers and checks and balances that the Framers created. Under unified government, congressional co-partisans have no incentive to check the president; their electoral success is tied to his success and popularity. Under divided government, congressional opposition partisans have no incentive to work with the president; their electoral success is tied to his failure and unpopularity. This is not a system of bargaining and compromise, but one of capitulation and stonewalling.

 

 

2020 Quick hits

Happy New Year.

1) Peggy Orenstein’s Atlantic cover story on toxic masculinity was really good.  Enjoyed very much discussing this with my boys.  And, once again, made me super-grateful for my dad who was always a great role model of how to be a man without being a jerk.

2) As I like to say, capitalism is great… where it works.  Alas, increasingly an area where it does not work is in creating next-generation antibiotic drugs.  Time for governments to step in.

3) Adam Serwer with, naturally, a thoughtful take on the 1619 project controversy.  Though, in response to this:

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.

Does not the answer just have to be an emphatic, “both!”?

4) John McWhorter on why Latinx is not catching on:

Latino was enthusiastically taken up as an alternative to Hispanic around the same time African American came into use; the newer term solved the problem created by the fact that Hispanic, which centers language, refers to Spanish-speakers and thus excludes people of Brazilian descent. Latinx, too, purports to solve a problem: that of implied gender. True, gender marking in language can affect thought. But that issue is largely discussed among the intelligentsia. If you ask the proverbial person on the street, you’ll find no gnawing concern about the bias encoded in gendered word endings.

To black people, African American felt like a response to discrimination from outsiders, something black people needed as an alternative to the loaded word black. The term serves as a proud statement to a racist society. To Latinos, Latinx may feel like an imposition by activists. It’s also too clever by half for Romance-language speakers accustomed to gendered nouns…

The difference between African American and Latinx represents a pattern demonstrated endlessly in the past. Blackboard-grammar rules—fewer books rather than less books, when to use that instead of which, etc.—are imposed from on high.

5) I found this on hearing loss disturbing and fascinating:

While under normal circumstances, cognitive losses occur gradually as people age, the wisest course may well be to minimize and delay them as long as possible and in doing so, reduce the risk of dementia. Hearing loss is now known to be the largest modifiable risk factor for developing dementia, exceeding that of smoking, high blood pressure, lack of exercise and social isolation, according to an international analysis published in The Lancet in 2017.

The analysis indicated that preventing or treating hearing loss in midlife has the potential to diminish the incidence of dementia by 9 percent.

Difficulty hearing can impair brain function by keeping people socially isolated and inadequately stimulated by aural input. The harder it is for the brain to process sound, the more it has to work to understand what it hears, depleting its ability to perform other cognitive tasks. Memory is adversely affected as well. Information that is not heard clearly impairs the brain’s ability to remember it. An inadequately stimulated brain tends to atrophy.

6) I had no idea rare-earth magnets are a thing.  Now, I do– and they’re cool!  But, as very powerful magnets they are potentially dangerous.  Like if kids swallow them.  The latest, “Number of children swallowing dangerous magnets surges as industry largely polices itself.”  But, sorry, lots of products are potentially dangerous (drain cleaner, anyone?) but we don’t think the government should entirely eliminate them from the marketplace (as, apparently, was once done with these magnets).

7) Even back when I was into cars (yes, yours truly had a subscription to “Road & Track” many, many years ago), I had an irrational bias against the Corvette.  But, damn, this new Corvette is really cool and hello of a deal.

8) Why is it so hard to get things right?  Apparently, cruise ships idling in port spew a ton of pollution needlessly, but even where they’ve added an electric power hook-up in Brooklyn, it hardly gets used.

9) The Navy Seal that Trump pardoned was a truly evil man by the accounts of the members of his own unit

They offer the first opportunity outside the courtroom to hear directly from the men of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7, whose blistering testimony about their platoon chief was dismissed by President Trump when he upended the military code of justice to protect Chief Gallagher from the punishment.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators.

10) It’s crazy to me that Anna Maria College has revitalized itself behind an awful football team. Meanwhile, Northeastern has thrived after dropping its team.  Really interesting contrast.  NYT, “Adding Football Saved One College. Dumping It Boosted Another.Officials at tiny Anna Maria College say starting a football program was one of their best decisions. At Northeastern, it has been good riddance.”

11) Loved this Wired video on the science of color perception.  Of course there’s not even any red pixels in this image, but your brain just assumes that it’s red strawberries in blue light.

strawberries

PHOTOGRAPH: AKIYOSHI KITAOKA

Much more coolness at the link.

12) It’s great that some good guys with guns stopped a shooter in a church in Texas.  Sometimes, the good guy with a gun really does make a difference.  But it is absurdly clear that, on balance, a society awash in guns, as ours is, is simply much, much, much more dangerous.  Also, I read elsewhere that the good guy was a highly-trained, former FBI agent.  Not your usual concealed carry permit holder.

13) Yeah, so this is wrong:

Robert Alexander has been away from home for more than a decade. His days and nights are spent locked up behind walls topped with barbed wire.

“Prison kind of gives you that feeling that you’re like on an island,” says Alexander, 39, who is studying for a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies while serving his third prison sentence.

Clad in an oversized gray sweatshirt under the fluorescent lights inside the visiting room of Wisconsin’s oldest state prison, he is more than 70 miles from his last address in Milwaukee.

“You don’t feel like a resident of anything,” he adds.

But if Alexander and his more than 1,200 fellow prisoners are still incarcerated at Waupun Correctional Institution next Census Day — April 1 — the Census Bureau will officially consider them residents of Waupun, Wis., for the 2020 national head count.

That’s because, since the first U.S. census in 1790, the federal government has included incarcerated people in the population counts of where they’re imprisoned. This technical detail of a little-known policy can have an outsized impact on prison towns across the U.S. for the next decade.

While serving time at Waupun Correctional Institution, Robert Alexander is working on a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies. Since the first U.S. census in 1790, the federal government has included incarcerated people in the population counts of where they’re imprisoned.

In many cases, rural, predominantly white towns see their population numbers boosted by population counts from prisons disproportionately made up of black and Latinx people.

In turn, states, which control how voting districts are drawn, and local governments can use those numbers to form districts filled predominantly with people who are locked behind bars and cannot vote in almost all states. Maine and Vermont are the exceptions.

Officials in some prison towns have come up with creative ways to avoid forming voting districts made up primarily of prisoners. But in many others, political lines are drawn around prisons in a way that critics deride as “prison gerrymandering.”

14) I did not know there was a worldwide “rule of law index” but discovered it when learning about Singapore on Wikipedia (my little sister just finished visiting there). Followed some links, and I love this report from the World Justice Project.  US ranks #20.  And, damn, Northern Europe kicks butt once again.  I like the comparisons controlling for income, like this one:

15) Great post from Jay Rosen on what Chuck Todd’s utter failure at MTP says about the broader failures of the media in the age of Trump:

A key premise for Meet the Press is symmetry between the two major political parties. The whole show is built on that. But in the information sphere — the subject of Chuck Todd’s confessions — asymmetry has taken command. The right wing ecosystem for news does not operate like the rest of the country’s news system. And increasingly conservative politics is getting sucked into conservative media. It makes more sense to see Fox News and the Trump White House as two parts of the same organism. As these trends grind on they put stress on Meet the Press practices. But it takes imagination to see how the show might be affected— or changed. In place of that we have Chuck Todd pleading naiveté.

So what will they do now? My answer: they have no earthly idea. This is what I mean by an epistemological crisis. Chuck Todd has essentially said that on the right there is an incentive structure that compels Republican office holders to use their time on Meet the Press for the spread of disinformation. So do you keep inviting them on air to do just that? If so, then you break faith with the audience and create a massive problem in real time fact-checking. If not, then you just broke the show in half.

There is simply nothing in the playbook at Meet the Press that tells the producers what to do in this situation. As I have tried to show, they didn’t arrive here through acts of naiveté, but by willful blindness, malpractice among the experts in charge, an insider’s mentality, a listening breakdown, a failure of imagination, and sheer disbelief that the world could have changed so much upon people paid so well to understand it.

16) I just came across this from a few years ago. Anyway, kind of amazing to me that there were people with an academic background actually arguing that the Southern realignment was predominantly about matters other than race.  Uhhh, no. Anyway, this paper uses copious data to make clear– it’s race:

After generations of loyalty, Southern whites left the Democratic party en masse in the second half of the twentieth century. To what extent did Democrats’ 1960s Civil Rights initiatives trigger this exodus, versus Southern economic development, rising political polarization or other trends that made the party unattractive to Southern whites? The lack of data on racial attitudes and political preferences spanning the 1960s Civil Rights era has hampered research on this central question of American political economy. We uncover and employ such data, drawn from Gallup surveys dating back to 1958. From 1958 to 1961, conservative racial views strongly predict Democratic identification among Southern whites, a correlation that disappears after President Kennedy introduces sweeping Civil Rights legislation in 1963. We find that defection among racially conservative whites explains all (three-fourths) of the decline in relative white Southern Democratic identification between 1958 and 1980 (2000). We offer corroborating quantitative analysis—drawn from sources such as Gallup questions on presidential approval and hypothetical presidential match-ups as well as textual analysis of newspapers—for the central role of racial views in explaining white Southern dealignment from the Democrats as far back as the 1940s.

17) Interesting article on just how hard it is to balance being a mom with being a surgeon.  Left almost entirely unaddressed in the article is that either A) there’s a lot of suffering dads as well, or B) a lot of surgeon dads just don’t really care that much about being a good dad.  Also, clearly, some changes need to happen so that this specialty is more compatible with a reasonable family life.

18) Unsurprisingly, the Ganges is brimming with dangerous bacteria.  Surprisingly, this is even the case near the headwaters:

High in the Himalayas, it’s easy to see why the Ganges River is considered sacred.

According to Hindu legend, the Milky Way became this earthly body of water to wash away humanity’s sins. As it drains out of a glacier here, rock silt dyes the ice-cold torrent an opaque gray, but biologically, the river is pristine — free of bacteria.

Then, long before it flows past any big cities, hospitals, factories or farms, its purity degrades. It becomes filled with a virulent type of bacteria, resistant to common antibiotics.

The Ganges is living proof that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are almost everywhere. The river offers powerful insight into the prevalence and spread of drug-resistant infections, one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. Its waters provide clues to how these pathogens find their way into our ecosystem.

Winding over 1,500 miles to the Bay of Bengal, Ma Ganga — “Mother Ganges”— eventually becomes one of the planet’s most polluted rivers, a mélange of urban sewage, animal waste, pesticides, fertilizers, industrial metals and rivulets of ashes from cremated bodies.

But annual tests by scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology show that antibiotic-resistant bacteria appear while the river is still flowing through the narrow gorges of the Himalayan foothills, hundreds of miles before it encounters any of the usual suspects that would pollute its waters with resistant germs.

The bacterial levels are “astronomically high,” said Shaikh Ziauddin Ahammad, a professor of biochemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology. The only possible source is humans, specifically the throngs of ritual bathers who come to wash away their sins and immerse themselves in the waters…

But where exactly do these armies of drug-resistant germs come from? Are they already everywhere — in the soil beneath our feet, for example? Do they emerge in hospitals, where antibiotics are heavily used?

Are they bred in the intestines of livestock on factory farms? Do they arise in the fish, plants or plankton living in lakes downstream from pharmaceutical factories?

Or are the germs just sitting inside the patients themselves, waiting for their hosts to weaken enough for them to take over?

Research now being done in India and elsewhere suggests an answer to these questions: Yes, all of the above.

19) Good stuff in NYT about the lack of women’s coaches in college athletics:

Title IX, passed in 1972, transformed American sports — it decided girls deserved the same opportunities as boys to play sports. From then on, men and women in college had to receive equal treatment on the playing l.field and equal funding for their athletic programs. Now the United States produces many of the best female athletes in the world.

But that equality stops at graduation.

Before Title IX, women were head coaches of more than 90 percent of women’s college teams. Passage of the law flooded women’s sports with money and created many more jobs, many of which went to men. Now about 40 percent of women’s college teams are coached by women. Only about 3 percent of men’s college teams are coached by women.

That means that men have roughly double the number of opportunities to coach. It only gets worse higher up the administrative ladder: 89 percent of Division I college athletic directors are men.

Without equal opportunities to lead, women don’t…

By not diversifying, college teams are quite literally leaving points on the field.

Adding women to leadership roles improves the overall performance of a team, across fields. According to a Harvard study, gender-balanced teams perform better than male-dominated teams. A 2019 Harvard Business Review study found that “women outscored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones.” Another analysis of gender studies shows that when it comes to leadership skills, men excel at confidence, whereas women stand out for competence.

20) I had actually forgotten that at the beginning of this decade, 3D television was supposed to be a big thing.

The technology had existed before; Samsung got there first, in 2007. But January 2010 presented a clear inflection point. In addition to the Cell TV there were 3D Blu-ray players, sets that could automatically give depth to flat images, and the promise of DirecTV networks that broadcast exclusively in three dimensions. The industry had lined up behind a vision of the future, marketing executives and product managers insisting that the more they had created was also better. How could it not be? It was more.

Five years later, 3D TV was dead. You probably haven’t thought about it since then, if you even did before. But there’s maybe no better totem for the last decade of consumer technology. (The iPhone was more transformative, but is also singular, and besides that was born in the late aughts.) It’s what happens when smart people run out of ideas, the last gasp before aspiration gives way to commoditization. It was the dawn of all-internet everything, and all the privacy violations inherent in that. And it steadfastly ignored how human beings actually use technology, because doing so meant companies could charge more for it.

What I remember most from those press conferences in 2010 was the assuredness that millions of people somehow actively wanted to have to put glasses on their faces in order to watch television. Even then, it made no sense.

Quick hits (part II)

1) I’ll be honest, I’m pretty much shamefully ignorant of politics in India.  But I’m so glad that I read this terrific New Yorker piece on the rise of Hindu nationalism, Modi, and the backslide of democracy.  Powerful stuff.

A feeling of despair has settled in among many Indians who remain committed to the secular, inclusive vision of the country’s founders. “Gandhi and Nehru were great, historic figures, but I think they were an aberration,” Prasad, the former Outlook editor, told me. “It’s very different now. The institutions have crumbled—universities, investigative agencies, the courts, the media, the administrative agencies, public services. And I think there is no rational answer for what has happened, except that we pretended to be what we were for fifty, sixty years. But we are now reverting to what we always wanted to be, which is to pummel minorities, to push them into a corner, to show them their places, to conquer Kashmir, to ruin the media, and to make corporations servants of the state. And all of this under a heavy resurgence of Hinduism. India is becoming the country it has always wanted to be.”

2) Good stuff in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the decline of reading.  As I was at it, I kicked my kids off the computer to tell them to read.  I need to do that more.

3) Finland has got this capitalism with robust social welfare protections thing very well figured out.  Nice Op-Ed in the NYT:

We’ve now been living in Finland for more than a year. The difference between our lives here and in the States has been tremendous, but perhaps not in the way many Americans might imagine. What we’ve experienced is an increase in personal freedom. Our lives are just much more manageable. To be sure, our days are still full of challenges — raising a child, helping elderly parents, juggling the demands of daily logistics and work.

But in Finland, we are automatically covered, no matter what, by taxpayer-funded universal health care that equals the United States’ in quality (despite the misleading claims you hear to the contrary), all without piles of confusing paperwork or haggling over huge bills. Our child attends a fabulous, highly professional and ethnically diverse public day-care center that amazes us with its enrichment activities and professionalism.The price? About $300 a month — the maximum for public day care, because in Finland day-care fees are subsidized for all families.

And if we stay here, our daughter will be able to attend one of the world’s best K-12 education systems at no cost to us, regardless of the neighborhood we live in. College would also be tuition free. If we have another child, we will automatically get paid parental leave, funded largely through taxes, for nearly a year, which can be shared between parents. Annual paid vacations here of four, five or even six weeks are also the norm.

Compared with our life in the United States, this is fantastic. Nevertheless, to many people in America, the Finnish system may still conjure impressions of dysfunction and authoritarianism. Yet Finnish citizens report extraordinarily high levels of life satisfaction; the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked them highest in the world, followed by Norwegians, Danes, Swiss and Icelanders. This year, the World Happiness Report also announced Finland to be the happiest country on earth, for the second year in a row.

But surely, many in the United States will conclude, Finnish citizens and businesses must be paying a steep price in lost freedoms, opportunity and wealth. Yes, Finland faces its own economic challenges, and Finns are notorious complainers whenever anything goes wrong. But under its current system, Finland has become one of the world’s wealthiest societies, and like the other Nordic countries, it is home to many hugely successful global companies…

In fact, a recent report by the chairman of market and investment strategy for J.P. Morgan Asset Management came to a surprising conclusion: The Nordic region is not only “just as business-friendly as the U.S.” but also better on key free-market indexes, including greater protection of private property, less impact on competition from government controls and more openness to trade and capital flows. According to the World Bank, doing business in Denmark and Norway is actually easier overall than it is in the United States.

Short version: a way better/happier capitalism is not at all at odds with the social welfare spending that makes life better.  It is just at odds with a Republican ideology of tax cuts for rich people as the sine qua non.

4) Really interesting Columbia Journalism Review feature on how to think about political information.  It is far more like pollution that we need to address pervasively and systematically than by a just replying with facts and truth.

5) Great twitter thread from Michael Herriot in response to Nikki Haley’s absurd defense of the Confederate flag.

6) Really enjoyed this Vox interview with former GOP Congressman David Jolly about impeachment.  Very thoughtful guy– enjoyed meeting him at an NCSU event last year.

Sean Illing

It seems like the only way to flourish in a party defined by Trump, and propped up by conservative media, is to do what Jordan or Nunes or Stefanik are doing. And because of conservative media and what Trumpism has unleashed in the base, the dynamics won’t change that much after Trump leaves office.

David Jolly

I think this is what the party is. I don’t think we will see a reversal the day Trump leaves office. I’m curious who follows Trump because the politics aren’t going to change so dramatically. I don’t think it’s Mike Pence’s party when Trump’s gone. Anyone who wants to win in this party will have to appease the Trumpist base one way or the other.

And this whole impeachment saga is showing us that it’s not just Trump and Trumpism, it’s also Congress. I mean, Republicans in Congress right now are tearing at the fabric of the Constitution every bit as much as Donald Trump’s actions, because this is now their responsibility. It’s not their responsibility to defend Trump, but that’s what they’re prioritizing. And they’re undermining the institution of Congress every bit as much as Trump.

7) I was really intrigued to learn about how electric cars are much less efficient in cold weather.  Physics!

8) This was really cool (and fun to watch), “The ant-bite video that changed my approach to science communication.”

9) Been hearing multiple really good interviews with the Fusion GPS guys.  Good column from Michele Goldberg on how all roads lead to Russia, “Collusion wasn’t a hoax and Trump wasn’t exonerated.”

The second big lie is that Russia didn’t help elect Trump, and that the president has been absolved of collusion. It’s true that the report by Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, did not find enough evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russian state actors. But the Mueller report found abundant evidence that the campaign sought Russian help, benefited from that help and obstructed the F.B.I. investigation into Russian actions. His investigation resulted in felony convictions for Trump’s former campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, personal lawyer, first national security adviser, and longtime political adviser, among others.

Had public life in America not been completely deformed by blizzards of official lies, right-wing propaganda and the immovable wall of Republican bad faith, the Mueller report would have ended Trump’s minoritarian presidency. Instead, something utterly perverse happened. Democrats, deflated by the Mueller report’s anticlimactic rollout, decided to move on rather than keep the focus on Trump’s world-historic treachery. Republicans, meanwhile, started screaming about a “Russia hoax” ostensibly perpetrated on their dear leader. Among them was the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, who in 2016 was surreptitiously recorded telling his congressional colleagues that he thinks President Vladimir Putin of Russia pays Trump. “Swear to God,” he said at the time…

Because Republicans have been so successful in shrouding the origins of the Russia investigation in a miasma of misinformation, I hope some talented filmmaker makes a movie out of the new book by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, “Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump.” Simpson and Fritsch are the co-founders of Fusion GPS, the research firm that investigated Trump during the 2016 campaign, first for the conservative Washington Free Beacon, and then for a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign. It was Fusion GPS that hired the British ex-spy Christopher Steele to look into Trump’s Russia connections, and it sits at the center of countless pro-Trump conspiracy theories. When Republicans controlled the House, Fritsch told me on Monday, “The only bank records that were subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee were ours.”

“Crime in Progress” is the best procedural yet written about the discovery of Trump’s Russia ties. It demolishes a number of right-wing talking points, including the claim that the Steele dossier formed the basis of the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence inquiry into Trump. (The Justice Department inspector general’s report on the origins of the Russia investigation will reportedly disprove this canard once and for all.) But it also makes plain what many Republicans knew before the 2016 election, even if they’ve now pretended to forget it. For years, Trump was financially entangled with organized crime as well as with Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, and by keeping those entanglements secret, he gave Putin leverage over him from the moment he took office.

Write Simpson and Fritsch, “In the end, the Mueller probe sidestepped the question that so unnerved Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele in the summer of 2016: Was the president of the United States under the influence of a foreign adversary?” Republicans have used all the power at their command to defame people who’ve asked this question. Perhaps that’s because otherwise they’d have to take seriously all the evidence that the answer is yes.

10) Our criminal “justice” system is so corrupted.  “Prison Guards Forced an 8-Year-Old Girl To Strip Before She Could Visit Her Father.”  Seriously, just how bad is the institutional rot for anybody to think this is okay.

11) And in depressing education news, the latest PISA scores,  “‘It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts: An international exam shows that American 15-year-olds are stagnant in reading and math even though the country has spent billions to close gaps with the rest of the world.”

12) Pain, it’s all in your head.  Kind of.  “If ‘Pain Is an Opinion,’ There Are Ways to Change Your Mind
All pain is real, but it’s also true that it’s “made by the brain” and that we can exert some control over it.”  Austin Frakt:

One thing we tend to believe about pain, but is wrong, is that it always stems from a single, fixable source. Another is that pain is communicated from that source to our brains by “pain nerves.” That’s so wrong it’s called “the naïve view” by neuroscientists.

In truth, pain is in our brain. Or as the author and University of California, San Diego, neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran put it, “Pain is an opinion.” We feel it because of how our brain interprets input transmitted to it from all our senses, not necessarily because of the inherent properties of the input itself. There are no nerves dedicated to sensing and transmitting pain…

ccording to his work and that of others, the degree of pain is not a reliable indicator of the severity of injury. And sometimes there is pain without any tissue damage at all.

An extreme example came from a 1995 report in the British Medical Journal. A builder jumped onto a nearly six-inch nail, which penetrated his boot’s sole, the tip visibly protruding from its top. To relieve his excruciating pain, doctors administered fentanyl and a sedative. But, when they removed the boot, the doctors discovered that the nail had passed between his toes, leaving his foot unharmed. There are many studies that find that the fear or catastrophizing of pain contributes to a greater feeling of pain.

13) I am totally for comprehensive sex education for teens that teaches extensively about contraception, consent, healthy sexual behaviors, etc., but I do think the California program may go too far.

14) You know I am fascinated by all things apple (the fruit, that is).  Lots of good stuff here about how changing farming practices and global warming are affecting apple harvests, but I was most intrigued about how apples are actually grown now:

Many modern commercial apple trees are planted in what’s called a high density trellis system. They top out at about six to eight feet and are narrow, like a sapling. Yet, fertilizers can push this waifish modern tree to grow about 50 full-size apples, compared to as many as 300 or so on the old-style trees. But instead of some 300 trees to an acre spaced about 10 feet apart, trees are planted 18 to 24 inches apart and there are 1,500 or so trees to an acre.

The trellis-style orchard increases product and profit. Many more premium apples are produced in the new-style orchard, some experts say. A few decades ago, apple growers harvested 200 to 300 bushels of apples to the acre and about 25 bushels were the highest grade. The goal now is 2,000 bushels an acre of premium apples, Dr. Cox said.

15) I did not know that about 700 million years ago, earth was basically a giant snowball.

An artist’s concept of the Earth frozen in snow, during one of the planet’s most severe ice ages.

Credit…Chris Butler/Science Source

16) Good work from Sides and Vavreck on the lack of ideological lanes among the primary electorate:

To many observers, the Democratic presidential primary has highlighted the “profound ideological divides between the Democratic Party’s moderate and progressive wings,” as an Associated Press article put it — two wings locked in a bitter fight for control. The division supposedly shapes the race in profound ways. The New York Times has written that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg “are running in different ideological lanes,” for instance, and suggested that if voters sour on former vice president Joe Biden, they would mostly turn to Buttigieg, a fellow moderate.

Perhaps that’s how Democratic leaders and activists see the primary. But there’s just one problem: Someone forgot to tell Democratic voters.

In a large-scale project called Nationscape that we’re conducting with our colleague Chris Tausanovitch at the University of California at Los Angeles, we have queried more than 6,000 voters weekly since July. Using these data, we find a surprising amount of agreement among Democrats on major policy issues. Contradicting the conventional wisdom, clearly defined ideological “lanes” don’t seem to exist in the minds of most voters…

In general, voters appear to be focused not on “lanes” but on the candidates who are getting news coverage and who thus appear viable contenders for the nomination. So when asked their second choice, supporters of each front-runner — Biden, Warren or Sanders — default to other front-runners, ideology aside…

The tendency to overstate the ideological differences among supporters of Democratic candidates is not new. It happened in the 2016 Democratic primary — as we showed in our book “Identity Crisis.” Although Sanders supporters were more likely than Clinton supporters to describe themselves as liberal, the two groups didn’t differ that much on key issues, including raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the wealthy and whether the government should do more to provide health care and child care.

17) Police in Miami shoot a hostage and innocent bystander while using civilian automobiles for cover.  Some people shoot end up in prison for this.

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