Diet soda is a free lunch

OMG did I love this recent column from Washington Post food columnist, Tamar Haspel, “The case for diet soda: It gets a bad rap, but the research tells a different story.”

It’s great stuff, but first it had me searching my archives for my “people hate diet soda because it’s a free lunch” post, only to discover that despite making this argument to many people, I (apparently, unless my blog search totally failed), never actually made that argument here.

So, here’s my theory.  Diet soda is basically a “free lunch.”  That is it almost all benefit, with pretty much no cost.  Tastes almost as good as regular soda and really no downside.  People don’t like that.  They want there to be a clear downside.  It’s amazing the arguments I’ve had with people where every time I tell them that science rebuts their concerns, they, go to, “but what about.”  I swear, so many people are very clearly motivated to believe diet soda just has to be bad for you.  Interestingly, you don’t really come across this with caffeine, which is a great free lunch for most people (terrific stimulant, no real downside for most people if not consumed in the evening).  Anyway, it is amusing to always hear about “chemicals!!”  Maybe I should tell them dihyrodgen monoxide is a chemical.

Anyway, onto Haspel’s excellent column on the matter:

The nutrition community doesn’t like diet soda. Of all the groups that make dietary recommendations, I can’t find one that lends full-throated support. “Limit low-calorie sodas,” says the American Heart Association, and “stick to water.” The Center for Science in the Public Interest says it’s “best to avoid” artificial sweeteners. The Canadian dietary guidelines discourage them. The U.S. dietary guidelines are decidedly meh. Although added sugar is a top public health concern, diet soda is consistently met with something between distrust and hostility.

Dig into the research, though, and you don’t find a lot of substance. The hostility-to-evidence ratio is way out of whack. [emphases mine]What gives?

I’ll try to answer that, but we have to begin with what is arguably the most important thing to know about low-calorie sweeteners: You consume them in teeny tiny quantities…

That doesn’t mean it’s harmless. “There are things where tiny amounts will kill you,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Public Health and co-author of the American Heart Association’s position on low-calorie sweeteners, “but we figure it out pretty quickly.”

Of course, things can hurt you without killing you, and we certainly can’t rule out harm from chronic, low-dose exposure. But one of the things that makes that less likely is the fact that we eat a mix of low-calorie sweeteners (LCSs) with different risks. “Chemically, they’re totally different,” Lichtenstein says, but when we talk about them, “the whole class of compounds get lumped together.”…

The recent literature is filled with laundry lists of hazards that look like this one , from Stanford professor of medicine Christopher Gardner, and also a co-author of the American Heart Association position: “fostering a taste preference for sweet foods and beverages, making naturally sweetened foods less appealing, adversely altering feelings of hunger and fullness, reducing awareness of calorie intake, adversely altering gut microbiota, increasing glucose intolerance, substituting for healthier beverages, contributing to the perception that individuals can consume more calories from other foods, and contributing to the possible intake of other ingredients in LCS beverages that could be of concern such as caffeine and artificial colors.”

Yikes! I asked him about those dangers, and the first thing he said was “none of them are proven.” Then he added, “it’s all plausible.” When I told him my read is that the evidence was practically nonexistent, he nodded vigorously.

Gardner was particularly dismissive of the idea that tiny quantities of anything could mess with your gut microbiome. “We pummel people with fiber to try and move the microbiome, with limited success,” he said. It’s not easy, and the research on probiotics, which are intended to change your gut bacteria, indicates that it’s hard to do even when you’re trying.

Nevertheless, the gut microbiome has become the conspiracy theory of nutrition: It’s where people go to prove something’s dangerous when there’s really no evidence that it is…

Nevertheless, Gardner is in favor of LCSs “only as a gateway drug to water.” But if there’s some evidence that they can help at least a little with weight loss, and evidence for harm is practically nonexistent, why oppose them? “Because they’re only in crap.”

In a nutshell, this explains the hostility. Low-calorie sweeteners represent just about everything that’s wrong with our diet. They’re mostly synthetic. They play to the human preference for sweetness, which manufacturers leverage to sell us more, and then more again. A good chunk of the research is industry-sponsored. And they’re mostly in highly processed foods — or, as Gardner puts it, “crap.”

I still like my theory, but this one is pretty good, too.  I love Haspel’s take on this:

That’s what we’re not supposed to eat. We’re supposed to eat food, not too much, mostly plants. We’re supposed to turn it into home-cooked meals, with which we drink water. I’m on board! I’m squarely in the processed-food-causes-obesity camp. But given how far Americans are from these goals, should we let perfect be the enemy of perfectly okay?

People don’t want to drink water. They want to drink soda. But the attitude in the nutrition community isn’t just that you shouldn’t drink soda — regular or diet — it’s that you shouldn’t even want to drink soda. It’s puritanical, holier-than-thou and breathtakingly condescending…

Take the most recent meta-analysis, published in the British Medical Journal. “There was no compelling evidence” for benefits, the article concludes, but “potential harms . . . could not be excluded.” Why not the other way around? If there’s no compelling evidence for harms, and benefits can’t be excluded, pass the diet root beer.

“It’s like caffeine,” Lichtenstein says. “Everyone wants to find something wrong with it.”

And, how about that, people do want caffeine to be bad, too!  Personally, I never really run into this, but, oh my, the holier than though crap I take over my love of Diet Dr Pepper!

When we look at population research on LCS users, they tend to weigh more and have generally worse health outcomes, so this is no panacea. (The fact that responsible authorities have been discouraging LCS use could also mean that people who are generally health-minded, and have good habits, don’t use them.) But when we look at clinical trials, people tend to consume fewer calories overall when they’re given an LCS instead of sugar, and over time they lose some weight. Not much, but name another obesity intervention that’s even moderately successful. If the nutrition community embraced low-calorie sweeteners, encouraged people who want to lose weight to make the switch, and cautioned against compensating with, say, Chunky Monkey, it’s hard to see the downside.

Diet soda is a tool and it can be properly used or misused, like any other tool (like this internet thing you are on now).  Used properly, to substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages, the evidence is pretty clear it is a good thing.  Used improperly– as an excuse to eat poorly by “saving” calories in the soda, it’s a bad thing.  But, used properly, it really is a good thing.  And a “free lunch.”  So just deal.

One of these days, I really need to find a social-science-minded nutritionist with whom to study the psychology of this issue.

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Do Millennials understand love and marriage better than me?

Ummm, maybe yes, says expert Helen Fisher (in a NYT column from Tara Parker-Pope).  As for me, I got married at the age of 22, three weeks after I graduated from college in 1994.  25 years and four kids later, I’m pretty happy with it.  Even back in 1993 I recall my mom saying I should wait till I was older to get married.  Anyway, here’s the interesting argument that Millennials know better:

Is the secret to lasting love to take it slow? As in really, really slow?

The millennial generation is putting that theory to the test, opting for what the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher calls “slow love.” Studies show that millennials are dating less, having less sex and marrying much later than any generation before them, and a younger generation appears to be following in their footsteps.

These changes have prompted hand-wringing among some experts who speculate that hookup culture, anxiety, screen time, social media and helicopter parents have left us with a generation incapable of intimacy and commitment. (The Atlantic recently declared we are in the midst of a “sex recession.”)

But Dr. Fisher takes a more generous view, and suggests that we could all learn a thing or two from millennials about the benefits of slow love. It’s not that millennials are wrecking marriage, she says. It may be that they value it more.

“It seems everyone is swept up in a very myopic understanding of sex, love and romance,” said Dr. Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “I would like people to understand that while millennials are not marrying yet, and they are not having as much sex as my generation, the reasons for this are good.”…

But what is particularly striking is how quickly the cohort has rewritten the rules for courtship, sex and marriage. In 2018, the median age of first marriage was approaching 30 (29.8 for men and 27.8 for women). That’s more than a five-year delay in marriage compared to 1980, when the median age was 24.7 for men and 22 for women…

Dr. Fisher, author of “Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, has devoted her career to studying love and relationships. Most recently she has collected data on more than 30,000 people related to current courtship and marriage trends. Dr. Fisher believes that instead of criticizing and judging millennials, perhaps we should be paying more attention. It’s possible, she said, that today’s singles are carving a more successful path to lasting love than previous generations…

She notes that people who date three years or more before marrying are 39 percent less likely to divorce than people who rush into marriage. “This is a real extended period of the pre-commitment stage,” said Dr. Fisher. “With slow love, maybe by the time people walk down the aisle they know who they’ve got, and they think they can keep who they’ve got.”…

Dr. Fisher says her research suggests today’s singles seek to learn as much as possible about a potential partner before they spend time, energy and money on courtship. As a result, the path to romance has changed significantly. Whereas a “first date” used to represent the getting-to-know-you phase of a courtship, now going on an official date with someone comes later in the relationship.

And for some singles, sex has become the getting-to-know you phase of courtship. In a study conducted for Match.com, Dr. Fisher found that among a representative sample, 34 percent of singles had sex with somebody before the first date. She calls it “the sex interview.”

“In my day you went out on a first date with someone you didn’t know very well, and you went to dinner or mini golf,” she said. “The first date has changed — it’s time consuming and expensive. Now they have a sex interview with a person to see if they want to invest in a first date.”

Hmmm.  Okay, I get it, I’m just an old out-of-tough guy, but the “sex interview” before an actual date?!  Also, though the terms are not mentioned in seems to come back to the capstone versus cornerstone view of marriage:

Ms. Alexander, who lives in Princeton and identifies as bisexual, said she and her partner want to finish their education, start their careers and be on solid financial footing before marriage.“To be successful in a marriage you have to be compatible in a lot of different ways,” she says. “Sex is one for those vectors of compatibility where I feel like millennials want to make sure they’re also compatible.”

For millennials, financial issues also loom large in their decisions about relationships. They talk about the burden of student debt, and their desire to find meaningful work in an increasingly impersonal job market. Many say their lives were deeply affected by the 2008 financial crisis as they watched their parents lose businesses, struggle with debt and even go through divorces.

I’m willing to grant that, maybe, Millennials have figured out something here.  Certainly there’s a lot to be said about being slow and thoughtful with a decision to marry, but I don’t think that’s at all the same thing as waiting till you’ve subjectively “made it” as an adult.  There’s a lot to be said for finding a great person and making it as an adult together.

Quick hits

Sorry this is really late and that I’ve been such a bad blogger, but somebody has got to make sure that the AP American Government test scores reflect college-level learning.

1) Sure I’m a feminist, but I also believe in (appropriately-regulated) markets and markets simply value mediocre male athletes (the US Men’s soccer team) more than amazing female athletes (the US Women’s soccer team).  So, I’m not a big fan of the pay equity campaign (the men’s poor international performance brings in way more dollars to US Soccer than the women’s terrific international performance.  But Sally Jenkins raises some good economic arguments (though I’m not entirely convinced):

I also don’t want to hear another word about the bigger size of revenue in the men’s World Cup. You think American networks and corporations are paying large rights fees and sponsorship deals for a USA men’s team that couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup field and hasn’t won an Olympic medal since 1904? You think Fox and ESPN got into a bidding war for the English language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups all for a men’s squad that gets whipped by Venezuela?…

You think Nike committed $120 million to U.S. Soccer back in 1997 because of a men’s team that finished 10th in the Atlanta Olympics with a 1-1-1 record? Or do you think the company’s interest had something to do, just maybe, with Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and Michelle Akers commanding an audience of 90,000 at the Rose Bowl and 40 million on TV?

2) A lot more research needs to be done, but pretty interesting that the negative health consequences of ultra-processed foods may be through the impact on the microbiome.

3) Really enjoyed Hans Noel’s book review essay on making sense of all the recent, excellent, research on partisanship and ideology.

Recent debates over partisan polarization in the mass public have foundered on differing conceptions not only of ideology but of polarization. There are at least five things that could be thought of as polarization on a variable like ideology. People could be (1) further apart on some continuum or (2) more likely to be at the extremes of that continuum. (3) That continuum might more accurately separate people of different groups, say party identifiers. (4) There might be increased constraint across many items.1 (5) And people on either half of the continuum might be more likely to dislike the people on the other half.

Kinder and Kalmoe test for the first two conceptions in the ideological identity variable. Like with most work on this subject, they do not find much. But it is types 3, 4, and especially 5 that the other three books highlight. This last, affective polarization, or increased tribalism, is really central to the insights of all three arguments.

Once we start to distinguish operational from symbolic ideology, the meanings of these notions of polarization change. On an operational measure, being further apart implies more extreme policy positions, and increased constraint implies a more meaningful ideological measure. But symbolically, increased distance means at most that more people are embracing the terms.

Meanwhile, for the operational measure, it might be interesting to find affective polarization. That would imply an increased intolerance of those who simply disagree with us. But that is not what these books find. They find that it is identity and worldviews and ways of thinking that drive intolerance, not mere disagreement.

4) OMG these incels are nuts.  The really disturbing story of one who shot up a Florida yoga studio.  Of course, only in America do these people have such easy access to guns.

5) There’s lots of good reasons that electric buses have not taken over the world:

If you want to buy an electric bus, you need to buy into an entire electric bus system. The vehicle is just the start.

The number one thing people seem to forget about electric buses is that they need to get charged. “We talk to many different organizations that get so fixated on the vehicles,” says Camron Gorguinpour, the global senior manager for the electric vehicles at the World Resources Institute, a research organization, which last month released twin reports on electric bus adoption. “The actual charging stations get lost in the mix.”

But charging stations are expensive—about $50,000 for your standard depot-based one. On-route charging stations, an appealing option for longer bus routes, can be two or three times that. And that’s not even counting construction costs. Or the cost of new land: In densely packed urban centers, movements inside bus depots can be tightly orchestrated to accommodate parking and fueling. New electric bus infrastructure means rethinking limited space. And it’s a particular pain when agencies are transitioning between diesel and electric buses. “The big issue is just maintaining two sets of fueling infrastructure,” says Hanjiro Ambrose, a doctoral student at UC Davis who studies transportation technology and policy.

6) Always had a particular fascination with pro-life Democratic Congressman Dan Lipinski, as I knew him back when he was a political science graduate student.

Her congressman is Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats in the House. He has voted to defund health clinics that offer abortion services, and to ban abortions at 20 weeks. He opposed the Affordable Care Act and its mandate that employers cover birth control. He speaks at the annual March for Life and attends fundraisers for anti-abortion groups

This will be one of the most competitive Democratic primaries in 2020. And already, Newman is encountering some roadblocks. Though the district leans heavily Democratic, the national party has erected rules to protect incumbents like Lipinski. Newman says she can’t find a pollster who will work for her. Four political consultants have left her campaign because of a policy, made public in April, that the official campaign arm for House Democrats won’t do business with political vendors — like direct mail companies or political consultants — that also work for candidates challenging incumbent Democrats. Party superstars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez oppose the rule; she also managed to topple an incumbent in a primary challenge. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee isn’t budging.

7) Seem crazy that there are still people out there who would argue that IQ is actually tied to melanin levels in skin rather than the dramatic environmental differences in the lives of white and Black people.  But, Drum is on the case.  Here’s his summary:

I hope this makes sense. You can draw your own conclusions, but my take from all this is that (a) the short time since humans migrated to Europe doesn’t allow much scope for big genetic changes between Africans and Europeans, (b) it’s clear that environment can have a very large effect on IQ scores, and (c) anyone who thinks the marginalization of African Americans isn’t a big enough effect to account for 10-15 points of IQ is crazy. There are counterarguments to all my points, and none of this “proves” that there can’t possibly be genetic differences between blacks and whites that express themselves in noticeable differences in cognitive abilities. But I sure think it’s very unlikely.

8) Brendan Nyhan on some new research.  Kind of like that whole “A million dead Russians…”

9) When you look at the big picture of how our world spends our resources while kids are starving and malnourished, it really is unconscionable and indefensible.  Kristof:

Nutrition programs are extremely cheap. often among the most cost-effective ways to fight global poverty.

School feeding programs promote education as well as nutrition, and cost just 25 cents per child per meal. Deworming costs about 50 cents per child per year to improve both nutrition and health, yet pets in the U.S. are more likely to be dewormed than children in many other places.

As Mia noted in a separate article, one nutrition initiative could save up to 800,000 lives a year and requires no electricity, refrigeration or high technology. It’s simply support for breast-feeding.

Fortifying foods with iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A is transformative. Ensuring that children are screened for malnutrition and promptly helped with supplements that are similar to peanut butter is fairly straightforward. Yet malnourished children aren’t a priority, so kids are stunted in ways that will hold back our world for many decades to come.

If some distant planet sends foreign correspondents to Earth, they will be baffled that we allow almost one child in four to be stunted, even as we indulge in gold leaf cupcakes, $1,000 sundaes and half-million-dollar bottles of wine.

10) This was a really interesting article on Achilles Tendon injuries.  And Kevin Durant’s in particular.

11) Oh man was this a depressing article. South Korea’s got some work to do.  “An Overloaded Ferry Flipped and Drowned Hundreds of Schoolchildren. Could It Happen Again? South Korea promised to root out a culture that put profit ahead of safety. But cheating and corruption continue to endanger travelers.”

12) Of course Trump has a third-grade level response to flag burning.

President Trump is “all in” for a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the American flag, he said in an early-morning tweet Saturday, backing an effort by two Republican senators.

To commemorate Flag Day — which also happens to be Trump’s birthday — Sens. Steve Daines (Mont.) and Kevin Cramer (N.D.) introduced the amendment Friday.

“All in for Senator Steve Daines as he proposes an Amendment for a strong BAN on burning our American Flag. A no brainer!” Trump tweeted.

This isn’t a new position for the president, who a few weeks after the 2016 election tweeted: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning was protected by the First Amendment after a protester was convicted of burning an American flag outside the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. The following year, the nation’s highest court reaffirmed its ruling when it struck down legislation passed by Congress to make flag burning illegal.

13) I took a little too much pleasure in the fact that I already knew about Chronic Wasting Disease which is a prion disease (like “Mad Cow”) that affects deer.  I take no pleasure in learning about it’s scary spread and really scary potential to infect new species.

14) This was a really, really interesting way of looking at the work of doctors and nurses, “The Business of Health Care Depends on Exploiting Doctors and Nurses: One resource seems infinite and free: the professionalism of caregivers.”

Increasingly, though, I’ve come to the uncomfortable realization that this ethic that I hold so dear is being cynically manipulated. By now, corporate medicine has milked just about all the “efficiency” it can out of the system. With mergers and streamlining, it has pushed the productivity numbers about as far as they can go. But one resource that seems endless — and free — is the professional ethic of medical staff members.

This ethic holds the entire enterprise together. If doctors and nurses clocked out when their paid hours were finished, the effect on patients would be calamitous. Doctors and nurses know this, which is why they don’t shirk. The system knows it, too, and takes advantage.

The demands on medical professionals have escalated relentlessly in the past few decades, without a commensurate expansion of time and resources. For starters, patients are sicker these days. The medical complexity per patient — the number and severity of chronic conditions — has steadily increased, meaning that medical encounters are becoming ever more involved. They typically include more illnesses to treat, more medications to administer, more complications to handle — all in the same-length office or hospital visit.

15) Pretty cool interactive quiz on the most effective steps for reducing carbon emissions.  Some of the answers might really surprise you.

16) Not at all surprising that the world works this way, “Unattractive people are less likely to get into medical school, Duke study says”

The study found that people who were obese or facially unattractive were discriminated against in the application process, according to Duke Health.

Researchers randomly assigned names and demographic information to 76 photos selected to represent different levels of facial attractiveness and obesity.

They then randomized other factors such as test scores, grades and class rank to each photo so that each application reviewer had a different combination of academic factors with every photo, Duke Health said.

They gave the fake residency applications to 74 faculty members at five different radiology departments to score the applicants, according to the study.

The reviewers were unaware they weren’t real applicants, Duke Health said.

Researchers found that applicants who appeared obese or unattractive in the photos were clearly discriminated against, according to the study.

17) Interesting essay on how charter schools have failed to live up their promise (though, obviously, some individual charter schools and networks are amazing).

Finally, charters have not produced the systemic improvement promised by their boosters. Theoretically, the introduction of charters and choice would force all schools to get better to maintain enrollment. But schools can attract students for reasons other than superior quality, and the obsession with securing per-pupil funding has in many cases been a distraction from the work of educating students. As a senior official for the pro-charter Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce recently observed: “We’ve turned education into a commodity — if that kid walks across the street, you’re chasing after him for the money attached to his seat. That’s ridiculous if you think about the long term.”

Meanwhile, as the big promises about charters have remained unfulfilled, real costs have been accruing. According to school finance expert Bruce Baker, the expansion of charters has weakened traditional public schools and created inefficiencies like duplicative administrative costs. Increased competition has led to many schools, charter and otherwise, closing down — an outcome that Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University has called “very damaging to kids.” And in places like New Orleans, where traditional public schools have been almost entirely replaced by charters, residents have expressed frustration with unelected and unrepresentative governing boards that routinely violate state transparency laws.

In light of these shortcomings, the long-running consensus that has sustained the charter movement has begun to unravel. That isn’t because charter schools have suddenly gotten worse. If anything, leaders in the sector have learned something over the past 25 years, and standardized scores have improved over time. Instead, it’s because the promised future has failed to materialize.

18) Of course, if we did more to help people create sustainable lives in Central America, they’d have far less incentive to try and migrate here.  Of course, just try telling Donald Trump we want to spend money to help foreigners.

19) Really quite enjoyed Netflix’s “I am Mother.”

Quick hits (part I)

So, this is from a couple weeks ago, mostly, and I somehow forgot to publish.  And then I added a couple.

1) I swear at this part, it hard to distinguish Mitch McConnell from a Russian pawn.  NYT on election security:

A raft of legislation intended to better secure United States election systems after what the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, called a “sweeping and systematic” Russian attack in 2016 is running into a one-man roadblock in the form of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The bills include a Democratic measure that would send more than $1 billion to state and local governments to tighten election security, but would also demand a national strategy to protect American democratic institutions against cyberattacks and require that states spend federal funds only on federally certified “election infrastructure vendors.” A bipartisan measure in both chambers would require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads.

Another bipartisan Senate proposal would codify cyberinformation-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials, speed up the granting of security clearances to state officials and provide federal incentives for states to adopt paper ballots.

But even bipartisan coalitions have begun to crumble in the face of the majority leader’s blockade. Mr. McConnell, long the Senate’s leading ideological opponent to federal regulation of elections, has told colleagues in recent months that he has no plans to consider stand-alone legislation on the matter this term, despite clamoring from members of his own conference and the growing pressure from Democrats who also sense a political advantage in trying to make the Republican response to Russia’s election attack look anemic.

2) New Yorker’s realistic birth announcements are so good:

Jack and Nikki welcomed little Nathaniel into their family late Friday evening. Nathaniel has his grandfather’s eyes but hopefully none of his racism.

After a difficult forty-eight hours of labor, I am now the proud mama to little Jeremiah. If anyone has seen my husband, Dave, please tell him that I’m so sorry but I can never take those noises back.

Our little bundle of joy arrived last week, and my first experience pumping has successfully done what twelve Netflix documentaries couldn’t: turned me off of the dairy industry.

I am so proud to announce that, early this morning, Jada gave birth to a healthy little boy. And we know that every new parent thinks this, but we honestly believed he would be cuter.

3) A professor gives his students an assignment to read an actual physical book with interesting results.  Scary part is how amazingly addicted so many of his students are to their phones.

4) Who cares about the Supreme Court’s legitimacy?  I do.  I hope the court’s conservatives do too, but other than Roberts… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Linda Greenhouse:

In a rational world, the Supreme Court would hit the pause button on the pending census case to take account of new evidence that the Trump administration’s stated reason for adding a citizenship question was a fiction that masked its flagrantly partisan motive. True, the case is to be decided within weeks, to meet what the Commerce Department says is the deadline for preparing the 2020 census, but the country will live for years with the impact of the census on political redistricting and the allocation of federal money.

Unfortunately, given the presidency of Donald Trump and the partisan polarization that has all but overtaken the Supreme Court, it’s hard these days to argue from rationality. And as I suggested last month in describing how, during oral argument, the conservative justices pretended not to understand the fraud that the administration was trying to perpetrate, it’s also hard to argue from shame. Those justices who seemed unable to accept the experts’ conclusions that a citizenship question would distort the census by undercounting immigrant communities seemed beyond embarrassment. It’s highly likely that with the opinion already assigned and presumably circulating in draft, the justices will plow ahead and do what some of them set out to accomplish…

In a rational world, the Supreme Court would hit the pause button on the pending census case to take account of new evidence that the Trump administration’s stated reason for adding a citizenship question was a fiction that masked its flagrantly partisan motive. True, the case is to be decided within weeks, to meet what the Commerce Department says is the deadline for preparing the 2020 census, but the country will live for years with the impact of the census on political redistricting and the allocation of federal money.

Unfortunately, given the presidency of Donald Trump and the partisan polarization that has all but overtaken the Supreme Court, it’s hard these days to argue from rationality. And as I suggested last month in describing how, during oral argument, the conservative justices pretended not to understand the fraud that the administration was trying to perpetrate, it’s also hard to argue from shame. Those justices who seemed unable to accept the experts’ conclusions that a citizenship question would distort the census by undercounting immigrant communities seemed beyond embarrassment. It’s highly likely that with the opinion already assigned and presumably circulating in draft, the justices will plow ahead and do what some of them set out to accomplish.

5) For some reason, I was recently reminded of (and telling the story of) the time Princess Diana and Prince Charles came to my hometown shopping mall.  And thanks to the internet, I could find the story.

6) This was really interesting (and sad to think of all the unnecessary cesareans), “One Hospital’s Plan to Reduce C-sections: Communicate: There might be fewer unneeded cesarean sections if doctors learned to keep mothers informed at every stage of labor.”

Cesarean technology is lifesaving for rare conditions, and for some high-risk women. For most births, the decision whether to perform a cesarean is up to doctors and hospitals. So they are rightly to blame for the crisis of over-operating. But that also explains why doctors and hospitals are now spearheading promising solutions. Dr. Neel Shah, an obstetrician and leader of one C-section reduction effort, said: “Women have goals in labor other than coming out unscathed. Survival, and not being cut open, should be the floor.”

Also, what’s really disturbing/amazing is how many cesareans have been needlessly performed due to very-flawed 1950’s research.

7) Oh my.  Texas teacher, “A teacher asked Trump to round up ‘illegal students’ — in tweets she says she thought were private.”

8) Farhad Manjoo, “I Want to Live in Elizabeth Warren’s America: The Massachusetts senator is proposing something radical: a country in which adults discuss serious ideas seriously”

There’s a good chance you’ll disagree with some or all of these ideas. Three months ago, when Warren outlined her plan for cleaving the economic dominance of large technology companies, I spent a few days quizzing her staff on what I considered to be flaws in her approach. I planned to write about them, but I was beaten by a wave of other tech pundits with similar reservations.

But then, in the discussion that followed, I realized what a service Warren had done, even if I disagreed with her precise approach. For months, commentators had been debating the generalities of policing tech. Now a politician had put forward a detailed plan for how to do so, sparking an intense policy discussion that was breaking new analytical ground. For a moment, it almost felt like I was living in a country where adults discuss important issues seriously. Wouldn’t that be a nice country to live in?

9) I have sympathy for over-worked adjunct faculty.  Really, I do.  I know some good ones.  But I’m really tired of hearing the “how could I have known…” variety of complaints.  Everybody knows.  It’s willful denial of reality to follow a dream.  It’s a great dream, but the numbers are against you.  This in the New Yorker got me going:

People usually try to become professors because they are passionately curious about a particular subject, and the academic system encourages them to believe that this is all that matters. Prospective graduate students are rarely told by department heads or other administrators that they are entering a system that relies on contingent labor to survive. “I went into higher ed because I was selfish, because I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, because those things mattered to me,” Childress writes. The subsequent realization that academia preys on these dreams devastates him. A string of adjunct positions gets him no closer to joining the tenure track; it is “morally indefensible,” he writes, to lure adjuncts to work by dangling a “vague hope” that they may one day be welcome as a permanent faculty member. For people stuck in this permanent holding pattern, that hope of being selected is the contemporary academic version of the larger American dream, and it feels, at this point, no less dubious.

Also, never have I seen dangling vague hope of the tenure track to adjuncts.  The reality is we wouldn’t pay $4000 to teach an NC State class if there weren’t more than enough qualified people out there willing to teach a class for $4000.  And people want to do that, obviously, because teaching a college class is also it’s own non-monetary reward.  But, my entire adult life in academia has never given me the idea that you can adjunct your way onto the tenure track.

10) How the slaughter of America’s wolves paved the way for coyotes to take over the whole country.  Ecosystems are complex.

Like every state east of the Mississippi, Illinois is worried about its growing population of city-slicker coyotes. The animals surged from their original habitat in the West after what many now consider a colossal mistake — government-sanctioned predator removal programs that virtually wiped out red and gray wolves.

Coyotes have been taking over the territory of wolves, their mortal enemies, ever since. It is a textbook example of what the recent United Nations biodiversity report said: Humans are creating chaos for wildlife, placing a million species in danger of extinction.

The report warned that mismanaging nature would come back to haunt humans in a variety of ways, including food and water shortages, and disruptions by invasive species.

As the Trump administration seeks to strip away legal protections for the last remaining wolves, state officials are contending with the consequences of a massacre carried out without regard to science.

11) This is kind of amazing— researcher totally confuses meaning of pretty straightforward variable and gets major conclusions of whole book wrong as a result.  The fact that this came from a purported social scientist is kind of mind-boggling.  This strikes me as the kind of mistake an undergraduate would make.

12) Personally, I’m loving the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing.  Jill Lepore on some new books on the subject.  Very much enjoying the “13 Minutes to the Moon” podcast.  And a nice Wired feature, “The Beauty and Madness of Sending a Man to the Moon.

13) I had no idea there was a particular variant of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy designed specifically for insomnia.  And it works!  I’ve got a couple of kids I need to investigate this further with.  Personally, I have always been grateful for the ease with which I fall asleep 95% of the time.

14) This was really, really interesting, ” A Breakthrough in the Mystery of Why Women Get So Many Autoimmune Diseases: Evolution might have played a trick on women’s immune systems.”  Still an unproven theory, but very intriguing.

Though bearing so many babies might sound grueling, women’s bodies evolved to cope. When the placenta grows during pregnancy, the organ sends signals to the mother’s immune system to change its activity so that the mother’s body doesn’t eject the placenta and the fetus. This might even mean turning down the immune system in some ways, or for some periods of time. Turning down the immune system too much, though, risks leaving women sensitive to pathogens, which would also be bad for the fetus. So instead the mother’s immune system ramps up in other ways throughout adulthood, Wilson and her colleagues think, so as to remain vigilant against germs even when some of its parts become dormant during pregnancies.

Things get complicated, however, when those pregnancies don’t actually occur. Women today tend to have far fewer children—fewer than two on average in the United States, according to the CDC. Wilson reasons that without a more or less constant pushback from placentas during pregnancies—the pushback that women’s immune systems have evolved to anticipate—the immune system can get too aggressive, too ramped up. It starts looking for things to attack that aren’t dangerous, which is how autoimmune diseases set in.

For millions of years, minus the past 100, “the immune system was expecting to have exposure to a placenta,” Wilson says. Imagine if you’re pulling on something heavy, and then the rope snaps. “If you suddenly don’t have that heavy thing anymore,” she says, “you’re gonna go off the moon.”

15) This will be fun to discuss when I teach Gender & Politics in the fall, “Gender Stereotypes Banned in British Advertising: No more commercials showing men struggling to do a load of laundry, or asking women if they are “beach body ready.””

Quick hits (part I)

1) Just another day in American-style corporate health care:

Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals announced today that the company expects to pay $15.4 million in a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department after allegations that Questcor Pharmaceuticals, which Mallinckrodt acquired in 2014, had bribed doctors and their staff to prescribe an incredibly expensive drug.

Two whistleblowers came forward in April to accuse Questcor of trying to boost profits for Acthar, a medication primarily for infants with seizures. Questcor raised the price of the medication by almost 100,000 percent (not a typo) from just $40 in 2000 to $38,892 today, despite the fact that Acthar has been on the market since 1952. Mallinckrodt currently rakes in about $1 billion per year from Acthar, according to CNN. [emphases mine]

“Mallinckrodt denies any wrongdoing on the part of Questcor during the relevant period, and intends to vigorously defend the company in this matter,” the company said in a press release.

Mallinckrodt has previously pointed out that the drug price of Acthar was raised by Questcor before Mallinckrodt bought it. But that doesn’t change the fact that Questcor appears to have been purchased by Mallinckrodt precisely because it was making money hand over fist.

Nor does it change the fact that about $8,000 of the price hikes on Athcar have reportedly occurred since Mallinckrodt bought Questcor. And the $15.4 million fine, which has yet to be finalized with the DOJ, pales in comparison to how much money the company is currently taking in on the drug.

While the company denies wrongdoing, the whistleblower lawsuit alleges that the “illegal practices that Questcor had been engaging in since 2007 have knowingly been continued since the merger and acquisition of Questcor by Mallinckrodt.”

Acthar is used for infantile spasms, which afflict roughly 2,000 babies in the U.S. each year, but Mallinckrodt has expanded the use of Acthar for other ailments like rheumatoid arthritis. A 60 Minutes report from May of 2018 raised serious questions about how well the drug actually works for arthritis in seniors, and an expert who spoke with 60 Minutes said that there’s “no evidence” Acthar works for rheumatoid arthritis despite the fact that Mallinckrodt reportedly makes about $500,000 each year for prescriptions treating the condition.

Curiously, there’s a drug called Synacthen that’s identical to Acthar and sells for just $33 in Canada. So why isn’t Synacthen available in the U.S.? Because Mallinckrodt bought the U.S. rights to Synacthen and simply doesn’t make it available to American consumers.

Ugh.  Also, Infantile Spasms are a particularly serious type of seizure.  So wrong.

2) Roxanne Gay says freak out.  Drum says, maybe not so much:

And there’s more. The headline unemployment rate is at its lowest rate in half a century and the long-term unemployment rate is lower than it was at the height of the housing bubble. Household earnings are up about $8,000 over the past five years. Blue-collar wages have increased by more than $1 per hour. The poverty rate has dropped for three straight years and is now lower than at any time aside from the peak of the dotcom boom. Despite the best efforts of Republicans, Obamacare continues to provide health coverage for nearly 20 million additional people compared to a decade ago. Among teens, cigarette smoking is down; alcohol use is down; other drug use is down; teen pregnancy is down; and arrests are down. The US economy is the most robust in the world. About 700,000 new citizens are naturalized every year, up from 100,000 in 1980. Same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. And on a personal note, there’s been a huge surge in new treatments for multiple myeloma, which means that I will probably be blathering on your computer for many years to come.

My message here is simple. If you cherry pick all the bad stuff that’s happened in the past few years, you can make a case for being pretty discouraged. If you cherry pick all the good stuff, you can make a case that everything is fine. The real reality is somewhere in-between. So if you feel like being discouraged, don’t let me get in your way. But there’s always good and bad in the world, and there’s no reason to insist otherwise.

Except for climate change, where we’re still on track to commit planetary suicide and no one is truly taking it seriously. That’s just a pure nightmare.

Oh, yeah, except climate change.

3) My colleague, Andrew Taylor, makes a pretty interesting argument about liberal bias among political science professors using social science.  Though, this liberal is no big fan of implicit bias (heck, among other things, we’ve got enough explicit bias these days):

Yet, although academic political scientists consider themselves experts who have built robust models validated by all sorts of empirical studies, they seem to believe the kinds of misinformed and prejudicial attitudes and anti-social and harmful behavior they attribute to just about everyone else have somehow evaded them.

That is odd. The last time I checked, political science professors were human beings. They are surely not immune from theories of human behavior they hold and have validated under scientific conditions.

One such in-vogue theory is unconscious or implicit bias. This is the idea that individuals are inherently prejudiced against others from certain groups. Social scientists use the theory to explain pervasive racism and prejudice against out or minority groups in all walks of life. The idea is that although a person may feel they judge others neutrally or on merits unrelated to group membership, they hold biases, admittedly often small, that they are incapable of correcting.

These attitudes adversely affect the individuals who constitute their object. Compounded, they can have material effects on public policy and social outcomes.

Although the theory has vocal critics and some proponents recognize its limited capacity to predict the behavior of individuals, the academy has produced a great deal of confirmatory published experimental and survey research.

Academics consider bias particularly pervasive in homogenous populations. Political science is certainly homogenous. A number of studies show the discipline’s professors are overwhelmingly liberal and largely identify as Democrats—by about 10 to 1 according to a study of North Carolina and Florida faculty I recently co-authored and that is forthcoming in a flagship journalof the American Political Science Association.

Actually, I’m not sure of the research on this (and, sorry, not going to check right now), but in my experience (okay, with myself and other informed PS professors) being aware of various cognitive biases actually really does make us less susceptible to them.  How many other people discuss the “sunk cost trap” while in line with friends at lunch?

4) Dana Milbank on how for Trump, D-Day was all about… Donald Trump.

5) It’s bad enough to have really bad people among Catholic priests.  Even worse when they are Catholic bishops:

During his 13 years as bishop in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, Bransfield spent $2.4 million in church money on travel, much of it personal, which included flying in chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels, according to the report. Bransfield and several subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol, it says. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate Bransfield’s church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom. When Bransfield was in the chancery, an administrative building, fresh flowers were delivered daily, at a cost of about $100 a day — almost $182,000 in all.

Bransfield, 75, drew on a source of revenue that many parishioners knew little about, oil-rich land in Texas donated to the diocese more than a century ago. He spoke of church money as if it were his to spend without restriction, according to the report.

“I own this,” he is quoted as saying on many occasions.

6) I read $2 a Day about poverty in America as NC State incoming Freshman reading a couple years ago.  It was really good.  And I assign this summary to my Public Policy class.  Turns out, new research strongly suggests that it significantly overstates extreme poverty in America.  That said, there still is too much extreme poverty in America.

7) Really excited to see the updated Hall of Fossils next time I visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  I also like that they reference the last major renovation in the early 1980’s.  I still have very fond memories of my dad taking me to a members only reception for the re-opening featuring dinosaur cookies.

8) Dara Lind with a terrific article on how the border crisis really is a crisis now.  And why.  A must-read.  I added this to my Public Policy syllabus for next semester.

9) Meanwhile a harrowing Politico article on life for poor women in Honduras:

What do you do when you fear for your life and the state won’t protect you? Or if the state might make your already tenuous situation worse? The fraught calculations that face Sofia and her mom are endemic across Honduras, a country that remains in the grip of a rash of violence against women and girls. For some, the answer is simple and disruptive: They have to leave. When exhausted families, mothers toting babies and young women traveling alone arrive at the southern border of the United States, it’s not just gang violence or criminality in general that they’re fleeing. It’s also what Sofia whispers about to her bunny: men who beat, assault, rape and sometimes kill women and girls; law enforcement that does little to curtail them; and laws that deny many women who do survive the chance to retake control and steer their own lives.

As of 2015, Honduras ranked among a tiny group of nations, including war-racked Syria and Afghanistan, with the highest rates of violent deaths of women. Although Honduras’ overall murder rate has decreased in recent years, it remains one of the deadliest countries in the world, and the murder rate has been declining more slowly for female victims. Murder remains the second-leading cause of death for women of childbearing age.

10) Terrific interview with the creator of HBO’s “Chernobyl” on the nature of truth and stories and the show.

11) This Reason satirical campaign video meets used car ads is really, really good:

12) Seth Masket on the potential costs of not impeaching:

But even if we assume there would be a political price for impeachment, that does not mean that declining to impeach would be without consequence. For one thing, if there are voters who would be bothered by impeachment, there are quite a few others who would be bothered by the lack of it. The idea that Trump has clearly committed impeachable acts but Democrats in the House of Representatives won’t punish him because they think it will hurt them in the next election is not a particularly inspiring message, especially for a party that keeps urging people to put country before party.

On top of that calculus, it’s entirely possible Trump wins re-election whether Democrats pursue impeachment or not. He’s won before, incumbents usually win re-election, and they almost always do during a growing economy. What’s the lesson coming out of that election? “We might have removed him but failed to so here he is for another four years”?

It’s important to consider just what the lessons of this presidency will be for subsequent administrations and congressional parties. If Democrats decide that, despite widespread lawbreaking, impeachment just isn’t on the table because conviction is unlikely and there may be political costs, then it would effectively remove impeachment as a serious constraint on presidential actions. And given that the Department of Justice has also removed itself from control of the president, that would basically mean that presidents truly are above the law as long as they serve…

But fairly or not, Democrats have been placed in the position of determining whether to prosecute presidential lawbreaking. Either choice may have negative consequences, but the decision should be evaluated not just in terms of what will happen this year or next, but for the decades to come.

12) I’m sorry, but I’m so not impressed by arbitrary feats such as climbing Everest and returning home all within 14 days.  The key is living in a hypoxia chamber rather than actually acclimating at the mountain.

13) Endorse: Students should stop treating faculty as expendable.  That said, as a middle-aged white male, I hardly ever run into this anymore.

14) Damn, the willful ignorance of Republicans on climate is just breathtaking.  And, I’m not going to just blame Trump– he’s, symptom, not cause here:

Fifty or 100 years from now, we may well say that President Trump’s concerted effort to exacerbate climate change — and that’s precisely what it is — was the single worst thing he did in a presidency full of horrors. A new report from the New York Times gives new details about just how diabolical his administration’s actions have been:

In the next few months, the White House will complete the rollback of the most significant federal effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, initiated during the Obama administration. It will expand its efforts to impose Mr. Trump’s hard-line views on other nations, building on his retreat from the Paris accord and his recent refusal to sign a communiqué to protect the rapidly melting Arctic region unless it was stripped of any references to climate change.

And, in what could be Mr. Trump’s most consequential action yet, his administration will seek to undermine the very science on which climate change policy rests.

The goal appears to be to keep the government from ever confirming that climate change exists and, failing that, to do everything it can to make it look less serious than it is. The administration also plans to create a new panel to downplay climate change and discredit legitimate science on the topic, led by National Security Council senior director William Happer, who once said, “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”

15) And you can very much appreciate Tom Nichols’ take on “Chernobyl” without watching the show.

16) Catherine Rampell with a good take (and I’m disappointed in Warren here), “Everyone’s got a climate plan. So where’s the carbon tax?”

To be clear, the candidates’ proposals include many other good ideas. They all say we should eliminate subsidies for fossil-fuel companies. They all boost federal investment in and incentives for R&D in clean technology. This is critically necessary, especially for basic research, which private companies might not be sufficiently incentivized to undertake on their own.

But then things go off the rails.

The plans devote a lot of verbiage to talking about the magical properties of government procurement — that is, using the deep pockets of the government to purchase more energy-efficient products. Warren, for instance, analogizes her own plan, which includes a $1.5 trillion federal procurement commitment, to the industrial policy America previously undertook for the space race and our mobilization against Nazi aggression.

But in both of those historical comparisons, “The goal wasn’t to create a commercial product,” points out David Popp, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in environmental economics. “The government was the consumer.”

Just because the public sector buys more energy-efficient lightbulbs, electric cars or solar panels doesn’t mean the (much larger) private sector will, absent price incentives. Especially if we add conditions to the production of those green goods that actually increase their costs to consumers, as some of these plans do.

17) Greg Sargent:

Amazingly, after all we’ve seen, there’s still a tendency in some quarters to treat the falsehoods regularly told by President Trump, and echoed by his media allies, as a somewhat exaggerated but basically conventional form of political dishonesty.

But Trump and certain of his media partisans have long been engaged in something altogether different — something that can only be described as concerted and deliberate disinformation…

It’s the disinformation, stupid

It should be impossible to watch these diatribes in full without quickly realizing that this isn’t ordinary political dishonesty — some level of artifice is an inevitable feature of politics — but rather is something much more insidious. What’s notable is the sheer comprehensiveness of the effort to create an alternate set of realities whose departure from the known facts seemingly aims to be absolute and unbridgeable…

Disinformation and ‘constitutional rot’

Don’t take my word for it. With Trump’s lies and distortions now numbering over 10,000, serious political theorists have noted this aspect of Trumpian disinformation. See this Jacob Levy essay, which argues that Trump’s autocratic reshaping of reality on multiple fronts depends on the delegitimization of other institutional authority.

Or see this Jack Balkin essay on “constitutional rot.” One key sign of our breakdown, Balkin argues, is the fact that Trump has the backing of what can only be understood as “domestic propaganda machines.”

Such propaganda, Balkin notes, “undermines the crucial role of deliberation and the search for truth in a democracy. Propaganda attempts to put everything in dispute, so that nothing can be established as true.” It “undermines shared criteria of reasoning, good faith attempts at deliberation, and mutual accommodation between political opponents in democracies.”

17) Smoking gun evidence that NC Republicans lied to the courts for political gain.  I’m sure Democratically-appointed judges will care.  Would be nice if Republican-appointed ones would, too.  You know, rule of law and all that.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Yes, we do need to see more bloody images from mass shootings.

Yet there is something undeniably startling about the photo that Andrews took. For all the images that have been broadcast from mass shootings—scenes of children scurrying from their schools in single file, with their hands in the air, of heavily armored police with assault weapons stalking buildings, of long trains of ambulances queuing up to take victims away—it is unusual to actually see blood. We are more accustomed to seeing these kinds of images from war zones, where news photographers are often able to witness the carnage of combat up close. By contrast, the setting of Andrews’s photograph is visibly suburban. A sidewalk stretches behind the injured man. On the car next to the officer is a barely legible sticker of a ball, with the word “Fastpitch.” A no-parking sign is prominent on the right. It makes for a jarring composition…

There is a case to be made, however, that the country needs to be exposed to these kinds of images, if we have any hope of being jolted from our collective inurement to the ravages of gun violence. I am guessing the details of Virginia Beach will soon blur in my memory, alongside the litany of other mass shootings that have dominated cable news and quickly receded. But my memory of the man in the green shirt will endure.

2) Are surgeons really worse today because kids develop less fine motor skill?  Some medical school faculty think so:

Could you tie a series of square knots around the neck of a teaspoon without, even slightly, moving the teaspoon? How about using tweezers to extract a grape from inside a roll of toilet paper, without piercing the grape’s skin or touching the sides of the roll? Aspiring surgeons should have the dexterity to accomplish such tasks. But increasingly, they don’t.

Faculty members at medical schools in the United States and Britain have noticed a marked decline in the manual dexterity of students and residents. Some say it’s because of fewer hands-on courses in primary and secondary schools — shop class, home economics, drawing, painting and music. Others blame too much time spent tapping and swiping screens rather than doing things that develop fine motor control like woodworking, model building and needlework. While clumsiness is a growing concern in medical schools, the extent and permanence of the problem are unclear.

“There is a language of touch that is easy to overlook or ignore,” said Dr. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College London. “You know if someone has learned French or Chinese because it’s very obvious, but the language of touch is harder to recognize.” And just like verbal language, he thinks it’s easier to acquire when you’re young: “It’s much more difficult to get it when you’re 24, 25 or 26 than when you’re 4, 5 or 6.”

Dr. Robert Spetzler, former president and chief executive of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, agreed. “Think about the difference between someone who has learned to ski when they were a little kid and someone who spent a long time, perhaps even the same amount of time, skiing as an adult,” he said. “That elegance that you learn when very young, doing that sport, can never be equaled by an adult learning how to ski.”

3) NYT with brief vignettes from college students around the world on students in various countries pay for college (the big takeaway– mostly a lot less of their own money than in the U.S.).

4) The more we learn about the Boeing 737 Max the more we learn Boeing really screwed up:

The fatal flaws with Boeing’s 737 Max can be traced to a breakdown late in the plane’s development, when test pilots, engineers and regulators were left in the dark about a fundamental overhaul to an automated system that would ultimately play a role in two crashes.

A year before the plane was finished, Boeing made the system more aggressive and riskier. While the original version relied on data from at least two types of sensors, the ultimate used just one, leaving the system without a critical safeguard. In both doomed flights, pilots struggled as a single damaged sensor sent the planes into irrecoverable nose-dives within minutes, killing 346 people and prompting regulators around the world to ground the Max.

But many people involved in building, testing and approving the system, known as MCAS, said they hadn’t fully understood the changes. Current and former employees at Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration who spoke with The New York Times said they had assumed the system relied on more sensors and would rarely, if ever, activate. Based on those misguided assumptions, many made critical decisions, affecting design, certification and training.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said a former test pilot who worked on the Max. “I wish I had the full story.”

While prosecutors and lawmakers try to piece together what went wrong, the current and former employees point to the single, fateful decision to change the system, which led to a series of design mistakes and regulatory oversights. As Boeing rushed to get the plane done, many of the employees say, they didn’t recognize the importance of the decision. They described a compartmentalized approach, each of them focusing on a small part of the plane. The process left them without a complete view of a critical and ultimately dangerous system.

The company also played down the scope of the system to regulators. Boeing never disclosed the revamp of MCAS to Federal Aviation Administration officials involved in determining pilot training needs, according to three agency officials. When Boeing asked to remove the description of the system from the pilot’s manual, the F.A.A. agreed. As a result, most Max pilots did not know about the software until after the first crash, in October.

5) Seth Masket on what’s behind Democrats’ 2020 debate rules:

Based on research and interviews I’ve been conducting, these debate rules appear to signal a party adapting to what are generally seen as three main lessons from the 2016 election. Those lessons are:

  1. Anyone is electable: Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 general election, despite his association with many damning scandals and his determination to alienate huge segments of the electorate, suggested to candidates and donors that pretty much anyone with a major party’s label next to his or her name can win. This has been a huge motivator for Democratic candidates, encouraging quite a few to run who might have otherwise sat the race out or focused on more winnable races like Senate seats. This is a major contributor to the fact that roughly two dozen people have now declared for president.
  2. Large fields of candidates are unpredictable and dangerous: Donald Trump received the 2016 GOP nomination even while many Republican leaders were clearly uncomfortable with or even hostile to him. He did so in part because the field of candidates was so large; this made it harder for party elites to coordinate their support on an alternative to Trump. Democratic leaders are probably less concerned that a failure to coordinate will result in someone like Trump as their nominee (there’s not really anyone quite like that in the running this year), but they do wish to maintain some control.
  3. Party preference for some candidates over others is perceived as illegitimate: The DNC was widely derided for appearing to be biased in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and suspicion of insiders influencing the party demobilized supporters of Bernie Sanders in the general election. While the DNC actually did little of any real substance to enable Clinton’s nomination, it has gone out of its way to appear neutral in the 2020 nomination contest. This was what motivated the reforms last summer that reduced the power of “superdelegates” in the Democratic National Convention by stripping them of their first ballot vote.

So the party is attempting to satisfy several (contradictory!) goals at once. It seeks to cull an oversized field but in a way that does not appear systematically biased against any particular set of candidates. Well, it’s apparently okay to be biased against one set of candidates — the unpopular. Those who have been less successful in introducing themselves to primary voters have also been less successful in raising money.

6) A former mayor of Tehran has apparently murdered his wife with impunity, “Everything that’s wrong with Iran in one grotesque televised scandal.”

7) There are so many worse ways kids can be spending their time and exercising their brains than endlessly memorizing how to spell words.  And, yet, I’m still with the critics.  There’s so many better ways.  If you are going to devote all that time and energy to something, I feel like memorizing words is a pretty poor choice.  Mastering an athletic activity brings exercise, coordination, (usually) teamwork and camaraderie, etc.  And mastering a different mental challenge likely brings far more real-world rewards.

8) Well, this is interesting, “Tech giant brings software to a gun fight: Business-software giant Salesforce instituted a new policy barring retail customers from using its technology to sell semiautomatic weapons and some other firearms.”

9) The built-in biases of dating algorithms are hugely problematic, as exposed through a game.

10) I love the original “Aladdin” movie.  I do get how it’s portrayal of a fantasatical Middle-East if problematic, but I also still believe that blithely throwing around “racist” about everything the movie does wrong is exactly the sort of over-wokeness that hurts liberals.

11) Shockingly, a CRS analysis shows that Trump’s tax cuts had very little benefit to the economy:

You may remember all the glowing predictions made for the December 2017 tax cuts by congressional Republicans and the Trump administration: Wages would soar for the rank-and-file, corporate investments would surge, and the cuts would pay for themselves.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has just published a deep dive into the economic impact of the cuts in their first year, and emerges from the water with a different picture. The CRS finds that the cuts have had virtually no effect on wages, haven’t contributed to a surge in investment, and haven’t come close to paying for themselves. Nor have they delivered a cut to the average taxpayer. [emphasis mine]

12) Sad, but true, “The Most Unrealistic Proposal in the Democratic Presidential Primary: Michael Bennet and Elizabeth Warren want members of Congress to ban themselves from ever lobbying after they leave office. Here’s why it’ll never happen.”

The unlikeliest 2020 promise isn’t a big-spending plan like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or Andrew Yang’s universal basic income—it’s an anti-corruption proposal that would apply to just 535 Americans and cost taxpayers nothing.

This pipe dream is coming from the decidedly unflashy Senator Michael Bennet, a self-proclaimed pragmatist who has chided his rivals for their unrealistic visions of a progressive future. Bennet has pooh-poohed the idea of “free college” and actively opposes Medicare for All as too costly and too disruptive to the U.S. health-care system. “You can’t fix a broken Washington if you don’t level with the American people,” the Colorado Democrat told potential voters in a video announcing his candidacy earlier this month.

Yet one of Bennet’s signature proposals for repairing American democracy might, in its own way, be the most radical of all: a lifetime ban on members of Congress from becoming lobbyists after they leave office.

Good luck with that…

But she and Bennet may find that convincing Congress to appropriate trillions of dollars for new social programs is an easier lift than persuading lawmakers to permanently cut off a lucrative source of their own retirement income. That idea goes too far even for the purest good-government advocates, who say it’s not only wildly unrealistic but possibly unconstitutional.

13) We absolutely have too much choice at major retailers and it, indeed, very frustrating.  When I can decide on a product about which I have no priors on Amazon in less than 5-10 minutes, I’m pretty happy about it.

In theory, Amazon is a site meant to serve the needs of humans. The mega-retailer’s boundless inventory gives people easy access to household supplies and other everyday products that are rarely fun to shop for. Most people probably aren’t eager to buy clothes hangers, for instance. They just want to have hangers when they need them.

But when you type hangers into Amazon’s search box, the mega-retailer delivers “over 200,000” options. On the first page of results, half are nearly identical velvet hangers, and most of the rest are nearly identical plastic. They don’t vary much by price, and almost all of the listings in the first few pages of results have hundreds or thousands of reviews that average out to ratings between four and five stars. Even if you have very specific hanger needs and preferences, there’s no obvious choice. There are just choices.

The phenomenon repeats for almost all of the everyday objects Amazon carries: phone chargers, water bottles, flat-panel televisions. And it’s not just Amazon. The global-manufacturing apparatus now has the capacity to churn out near-endless stuff. The industry’s output has ballooned 75 percent since 2007 to $35 trillion, according to one analysis, and millions of livelihoods depend on its continued growth…

But in the arms race to sell as many sandwich bags or beach towels as possible, a problem has become clear: Variety isn’t infinitely valuable.

Contemporary internet shopping conjures a perfect storm of choice anxiety. Research has consistently held that people who are presented with a few options make better, easier decisions than those presented with many. It has also shown that having many options is particularly confounding when the information available on them is limited or confusing—as with an endless list of virtually identical hangers. To be fair, it’s not entirely clear what information would even be helpful for efficiently evaluating dozens of similar hangers. The 32 velvet options on the first page of results probably aren’t distinct from one another in any significant way, except for color and how many hangers come in a package…

Those infinite, meaningless options can result in something like a consumer fugue state. After shopping online, I often don’t remember days later whether I actually made a decision, and I regularly pause at the mountain of Amazon boxes next to my apartment building’s elevators to glance at the names on the labels, just to see if I forgot to expect something. Often, one of my neighbors is there doing it with me. Usually, both of us get on the elevator without boxes.

14) Randomly came across this video on youtube, “The TRUTH Why Modern Music Is Awful” and it makes me feel like a middle-aged curmudgeon.  But I also have the sneaking suspicion that it’s right.

15) I meant it about Fleabag.  You need to watch this show.

Quick hits

1) Finished season 2 of Fleabag last night.  So, so good.  Phoebe Waller-Bridge is, quite simply, absurdly talented as a writer and performer.

2) Great Sargent:

President Trump repeats the claim that the Russia investigation was a treasonous attack on his campaign so frequently that we rarely pause to note how riddled with monumental lies and absurdities it really is. We’re supposed to believe that the FBI should not have opened an investigation into a foreign attack on our political system, and that it did so only to derail Trump’s candidacy, even though it kept the conspiracy probe secret from voters.

In a new Post op-ed, former FBI director James B. Comey seeks to set the record straight by recounting what actually happened, while reminding us — with no apology — that the FBI did make its reopened investigation into Trump’s opponent known just before the election. As Comey says, Trump’s narrative is built on “dumb lies.”

But it’s what Comey did not say that should command the attention of Democrats right now. Comey concludes with this prediction, concerning Attorney General William P. Barr’s internal review of the Russia investigation’s genesis:

Go ahead, investigate the investigators, if you must. When those investigations are over, you will find the work was done appropriately and focused only on discerning the truth of very serious allegations. There was no corruption. There was no treason. There was no attempted coup. … There were just good people trying to figure out what was true, under unprecedented circumstances.

This confidence that Barr’s internal review will conclude that the investigation was legitimate seems deeply misplaced. Barr has already telegraphed that he will likely find a way to fault the handling of the probe, regardless of the facts.

Yet Democrats appear to share Comey’s confidence that this process will unfold in good faith. They don’t appear prepared for the contrary possibility — or how bad that could get for them.

2) William Barr is a very, very bad man.  Chait:

After the legal Establishment had granted him the benefit of the doubt, Attorney General William Barr has shocked his erstwhile supporters with his aggressive and frequently dishonest interventions on behalf of President Trump. The spectacle of an esteemed lawyer abetting his would-be strongman boss’s every authoritarian instinct has left Barr’s critics grasping for explanations. Some have seized on the darker threads of his history in the Reagan and Bush administrations, when he misled the public about a secret Department of Justice memo and helped cover up the Iran-Contra scandal.

But Barr’s long, detailed interview with Jan Crawford suggests the rot goes much deeper than a simple mania for untrammeled Executive power. Barr has drunk deep from the Fox News worldview of Trumpian paranoia.

It is hard to convey how far over the edge Barr has gone without reading the entire interview, which lasted an hour. But a few key comments illustrate the depth of his investment in Trump’s perspective.

Barr, as he has done repeatedly, provides a deeply misleading account of what Robert Mueller found. “He did not reach a conclusion,” he says. “He provided both sides of the issue, and … his conclusion was he wasn’t exonerating the president, but he wasn’t finding a crime either.”

As Mueller stated in the report and again at his press conference, he felt bound by a policy preventing him from charging the president with a crime, or even saying the president had committed a crime. Mueller’s view is that his job vis-à-vis presidential misconduct is to describe the behavior and leave it up to Congress to decide if it’s a crime. Several hundred former federal prosecutors have stated, and Mueller clearly signaled, the actions he described in the Mueller report are crimes, or would be if the president could be charged with a crime.

3) OMG this whole Freedom Gas things is beyond insane.  Seriously, every single Republican should just be embarrassed to be a Republican.  Only satire (Alexandra Petri) could do this justice:

Do you smell that? That aroma, like many spoiled eggs congregating in a hot locker room? That is the wonderful, pleasing scent of American freedom!

statement from the Energy Department, which I am not making up because satire has been overfished and is now extinct, described natural gas as “molecules of freedom.” In the statement, Undersecretary of Energy Mark Menezes noted that “increasing export capacity . . . is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy.”

The statement also included the profound remark from Steven Winberg, the assistant secretary for fossil energy, that he was happy “the Department of Energy is doing what it can to promote an efficient regulatory system that allows for molecules of U.S. freedom to be exported to the world.”

So inhale fearlessly! Feel free, too, to light some of that freedom on fire, if you want. Nothing says freedom like setting something dangerously ablaze. Four cheers for CH4! Whenever methane gas is released, that smell, that aroma, is — freedom. Specifically, American freedom, the best kind that there is. That is why people love to sit with me in enclosed spaces that I swiftly perfume with nothing short of Truth, Justice and the American Way, especially if my lunch has been rich in beans. It has never been so critical, as Benjamin Franklin entreated, to “fart proudly.”

4) My nuclear security friend sent me this great source on all-things Chernobyl after we were discussing the terrific HBO miniseries.

5) Good stuff from Catherine Rampell: “Trump’s narrative is nonsense. So why is the media buying it?”

Yes, Democrats can walk and chew gum at the same time. The problem right now is that all anyone ever asks about is the gum-chewing.

President Trump is steadily advancing a narrative that Democrats are unable to focus on a substantive policy agenda because they’re too fixated on investigating, subpoenaing and, eventually, impeaching the president.

Or, as our victim in chief tweeted on Monday: “The Dems are getting NOTHING done in Congress! They only want a Do-Over on Mueller!”

This sort of nonsense is something we’ve come to expect from Trump. But more troubling, perhaps, is that many of us in the media have also been amplifying his false narrative…

But another plausible explanation for why so many Democrats are now talking about impeachment is that’s what we in the media, primed by Trump, ask them to talk about — often to the exclusion of other substantive issues that those Democrats are working on and that voters care about…

But, in fairness, there have been a lot of other issues — kitchen table issues, you might even say — that Democrats have also been pursuing, and to which pundits like me haven’t given sufficient time or attention. Many of the proposals are good, some are bad; but, in any case, it’s hard to argue that Democrats have been underinvesting in policy because they’re overinvesting in oversight.

6) Richard Hasen, “Robert Mueller Was Telling Nancy Pelosi to Begin Impeachment Proceedings”

Put it all together and Mueller was saying: Russia interfered in our election. Trump obstructed that investigation. Mueller’s office could have said Trump didn’t commit a crime, but did not reach that conclusion. The ball is in Congress’ court. This is as close to a call for Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings as we are likely to hear from someone as circumspect as Mueller, and it makes Pelosi’s foot-dragging not just untenable but a dereliction of her constitutional duty.

Initially, I could see reason to go along with Pelosi’s implicit argument that an impeachment inquiry against the president would be pointless if the Senate would not consider impeaching, and if public opinion was strongly against it. But the Mueller report offers substantial evidence Trump obstructed justice, and this is an impeachable offense. Members of Congress take an oath to uphold the Constitution and it is their constitutional duty to determine if Trump’s conduct merits impeachment, regardless of the political consequences. Mueller’s emphasis that this is the only way our system currently has for holding an allegedly criminal president accountable while in office points to why fulfilling that duty is more than just empty idealism. Without consequences and a full accounting of potentially criminal actions, what is to stop a criminal president from more and greater abuses of power and ultimately a breakdown of our entire legal regime?

7) Just read this article on the amazing levels of lies and bad faith regarding the Census citizenship question.  Truly, horribly appalling.  If the Supreme Court upholds this… I can’t even.

8) Well, just learned yesterday that my references to “marijuana” are “racist.”  I’m well aware of the racist origins of much of the war on drugs, including against marijuana.  But to call the word “racist”?  Enough with the over-wokeness already.

9) Michael Wear, “The Abortion Debate Is No Longer About Policy”

Abortion politics in 2019 is a morality play about what happens when one side has all the political power, yet feels culturally embattled. In this atmosphere, victories are not satisfying if they leave the other side with a foothold, a vestige of respectability. Cataclysmic discord lies ahead.

Abortion politics is no longer about policy wins, but about establishing dominance. This is why Governor Andrew Cuomo could not be satisfied with the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, which eliminated several restrictions on the procedure, but instead had to light up the Empire State Building pink, to declare that abortion rights were now creedal in New York. It was not just the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, but specifically the display of cultural force, that made pro-lifers feel so embattled and isolated.

This dynamic was also evident in Alabama, where the people in power hold the opposite position on abortion as their counterparts in New York and recently passed H.B. 314, a bill that virtually outlaws the procedure.

One scene from the Alabama Senate debate furnishes a quintessential example of the decline of our democracy, of the diminishment of any capacity our political process might have had to help us work through difficult issues together. During the committee markup of the bill, lawmakers passed an amendment to provide an exception for rape or incest. On May 9, as H.B. 314 was headed toward a final vote, Alabama’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth broke protocol by stripping out the amendment without making a motion or acknowledging his Democratic colleagues’ requests for a roll-call vote. Democratic State Senator Bobby Singleton shouted, “There was no motion. You didn’t even make a motion!” Ainsworth simply ignored his colleague’s interjections.

9) I so love Chris Molanphy’s Hit Parade podcast.  Inspired by his latest, I’m listening to a Phil Collins mix on youtube as I type.  Take me Home!

10) I liked Yglesias on why Mueller should testify before Congress:

But having punted the issue to the House, Mueller should now cooperate with House leaders’ desire to hear him speak live and in person.

In some kind of hyper-idealized world, that might not be necessary. The report is there in its entire 400-plus-page glory, and every American — and every member of Congress — can read at least a redacted version of it for themselves. The real world, however, is not like that, as evidenced by the fact that today’s Mueller statement was itself big news…

But the fact that Mueller said it live on camera made a difference. He publicly challenged the administration’s interpretation of events and challenged Congress to face the fact that he did not have limitless powers… [emphases mine]

It’s difficult, of course, not to sympathize with Mueller’s view that having written this all down clearly in a report and then said it should mean he shouldn’t have to say it again before Congress.

But even though Mueller is not a very political person, he’s also not a total naif. He’s held multiple Senate-confirmed positions and served as FBI director for a decade. He knows that media coverage matters to politics and that the presence or absence of video and live drama makes a difference to media coverage.

11) I loved the documentary Free Solo.  And I love this Economist blogging about it to talk about Knowledge Externalities.

12) This is so cool, “A 13,235-Mile Road Trip for 70-Degree Weather Every Day”

13) Has UNC Children’s Hospital been doing children’s heart surgery when it should not have been.  Maybe.  I found this aspect particularly interesting:

The best outcomes for patients with complex heart problems correlate with hospitals that perform a high volume of surgeries — several hundred a year — studies show. But a proliferation of the surgery programs has made it difficult for many institutions, including UNC, to reach those numbers: The North Carolina hospital does about 100 to 150 a year. Lower numbers can leave surgeons and staff at some hospitals with insufficient experience and resources to achieve better results, researchers have found.

“We can do better. And it’s not that hard to do better,” said Dr. Carl Backer, former president of the Congenital Heart Surgeons’ Society, who practices at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “We don’t have to build new hospitals. We don’t have to build new ICUs. We just need to move patients to more appropriate centers.”

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