Sunday, September 26, 2021

Goodbye Gene Weingarten

 I am not sure how many readers here know who Gene Weingarten is.  He is a humorist who has authored a column for the last 21 years that has appeared each Sunday at the end of the Sunday Washington Post magazine.  I am not sure where he was outletting before then, although I think he had some fame, but not huge amounts.  Anyway, without warning in today's column he announced "The Short Goodbye," his final column, mostly consisting of him quoting much older other humorists.  He gave no reason for his exit, although he is about 70, so it would not be unreasonable for him to just be retiring.  But I am concerned that there is more to this, that he was at least given a bit of a shove. As someone who has mostly enjoyed him and have read him out loud to my wife, Marina, we shall miss him whatever the circumstances.

His closing two sentences were: "I am grateful for it [writing the column], and the relationship I have had with all of you who read it - from the delightful dorks who thought evderything I siad was hilarious to those who looked in only to get riled over what the rude old coot was spouting this week. I will miss you all."

So, I see more to this line about people getting riled "over what the rude old coot was spouting.." because something very close to that was specifically said just over a month ago by someone not only criticizing him but demanding, yes, demanding that he be fired for being an insensitive old coot who was out of date and worse, microaggresssingly out of touch, old coot who must go.  And now he has.

The column that triggered this demand was about food, in particular, foods he does not like.  It went through vaiorus ones, including snails, with various snarky wisecracks typical of him.  However, he got into trouble with one, where he definitely went over the top, not only exhibiting ignorance that WaPo corrected in a news article some days later, and for which Weingarten himself confessed he was wrong, as well as broadly condemning an entire ethnic cuisine, not just a particular dish.. This was Indian cuisine, with him main remark to declare it all to be just one "spice," curry, which he declared he does not like.

So, the first problem is that curry is properly speaking not a spice.  It is a combination of spices and comes in many varieities, although there is a sort of standard grocery store variety one can readily buy that does not reveal any of that.  And, of course, lots of Indian cuisine, which has wide regional variations, does not use curry.  Weingarten did go to a top Indian restaurant and ate dished not using curry, admitting his goof on that, although in the end still saying he just does not like the cuisine.

But another sometime columnist/reporter at WaPo, the much younger Padma Lakshmi, took full offense at his column and not only did not let him off the hook, but demanded his removal and replacement by someone younger and more sensitive, blah blah blah. She did not accept his followup, and now he is gone without any real explanation or warning.  I fear this matter played a role in his sudden exit, although possibly not.  It may have simply pushed what he was thinking about doing anyway.

But I am going to whine that there is now a full-blown and intolerant cancel culture coming from both political ends (I note that Weingarten has been openly very left-liberal, despite this ethnic blunder). We have certainly been getting it for some time from the left with people demanding others be removed from public discourse for this or that microaggression.  In some cases these demands have probably been warranted, but without going beyond Weingarten, who may not be an example even as I suspect he is, many do not look like it to me.

But it is now also coming from the right.  We are now getting it a bunch at my workplace, James Madison University, although I do not think anybody has actually been fired yet. It started about a month ago with the beginning of the school year. Our administration, led by our provost, has been for some time on a campaign to increase awareness and acceptance of diversity, broadly defined, something I support.  But this fall training video for student ambassadors was put out, made by two students (both female), that unfortunately was a parody of the genre, with each of them identifying themselves by a longer list of possible things to worry about as a possible source of being discriminated against than I even knew about. They also then made it clear that there is an oppressor class, young to middle-aged (rules me out) white straight male Christians.  Anyway, some right winger got this video to Fox News, where it was publicized.  The upshot was a local firestorm with various major donors retracting funding and people withdrawing children and grandchildren.  Nobody got fired, but the training video was wihtdrawn

Now this week there has been another such incident, with the right wingers clearly having their eyes on us.  Some student photographed a slide an instructor had up in an ethics class that discussed an example from Jonathan Haidt questioning the morality or lack of ethics of a brother and sister having sex once in a woods without any consequences and deciding not to tell anybody  This got posted by a right wing politician here in VA, where we have a heated gubernatorial race going on  I have not heard of any consequences of this, with the dean above this faculty member defending academic freedom, while also sending a message along the lines of "please do not put up slides that will drive away yet more donors." Supposedly this faculty member was teaching that incest is virtuous.

I have myself become aware of the eyes watching on all this.  A few weeks ago in my Regional Economics course in a discussion about path dependence and long-in-place roads I got into the two libraries of Alexandria, both of them burned, the first by Julius Caesar. The second, the Library of Cleopatra, was burned in 391 CE. So I asked the class who burned it. One student said "German barbarians," so I laughed and said no, the Vandals only got as far east as Tunisia.  It was the Christians.  This student looked quite upset.  So I actually spent time in the next class giving them the full historical background of ho it came to Emperor Theodosius ordering its burning as part of the Roman Empire finally ending tolerance of pagan religions and philosophy. I was glad to see that this student seemed to find my discussion both interesting and acceptable, no complaints going to Fox News about me.

Anyway, I am finding this drive to get rid of people for making unfortunate statements way over done from all sides. And whether or not Gene Weingarten was driven out or not, we shall miss him.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bungling The Debt Ceiling

It looks like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is bungling the matter of raising (or suspending) the debt ceiling, coming due in mid-October supposedly. He could have tied it to reconciliation in August, but decided not to, intent on getting GOPster on board with participating in doing it. But Sen. McConnell (R-KY) is having none of it, and even though Schumer thought he had them by tying it to a continuing resolution to keep the government going past Sept. 30, well, McConnell is not going along, nor are any of his colleagues, with maybe one exception, Sen. Kennedy of Louisiana who wants money for dealing with the effects of Hurricane Ida.  Anyway, it looks like McConnell is just fine with some economy-damaging crash, which may help GOP next year.  

I really do not see why Schumer did not see this one coming.  I think he thinks a year from now people will be remembering it was the naughty GOP that crashed the economy rather than the Dems doing so by mismanaging things.  People are not that smart.  He needs to keep the economy going, and we know the voters do not give a phoo about deficits or the debt, unless they see the economy not doing well, which a GOP crashing of the ceiling raise could bring about.  He needs to bite the bullet and get this into the Reconciliation, although apparently now it will take some time for reasons I do not understand, and we may get a short government shutdown before it can be done.  Bungling on this one. GOP now totally irresponsible and nihilistic.

Barkley Rosser

Online Voting

 Yes, a wonderful innovation!!!  No, I had not heard of this before, although maybe somebody reading this had encountered it.  So, where is this fabulous innovation being adopted?  Why Mother Russia!  So polls showed the United Russia Party that supports Vladimir Putin getting only 30% support for the Duma election that just happened.  But while I have not seen specific numbers, it is my understanding that they have been reelected as not only the majority party in the Duma, but with a supermajority over 3/4 that allows them to mess with the Constitution as they please and pretty much do anything else with little fuss that their leader wants!  

Of course, with one serious rival, Nemtsov, dead from being shot on a bridge in Moscow, and another, Navalny, in jail after an attempt to poison him to death, and the voting app his supporters were touting being cut off by Apple and Google at Putin's request, well, this left a rather weak oppostion, with the Yabloko Party a shadow of its never-large self, and with the Communist Party still Number Two, and apparently getting feistier than in the past as about the only serious possible source of opposition.  But neither of them or any others got too far.

But, just to make sure, there have been widespread reports not only of ballot stuffing, the old-fashioned way to do these things, but now this miracle of online voting.  So, at a minimum in one widely publicized contest in Moscow where the main opponent was a Communist, the on-site votes had him well ahead. But then the online votes came in, and, wow, they were overwhelmingly and in large numbers for the United Russia candidate.  Apparently this happened in many districts.  Such a miracle!

A funny thing is that those complaining about this sort of look like Trumpists complaining about mail-in ballots in the US, which has led GOP-led legislatures to move to restrict such voting, as it is widely perceived that Dems use it (or did in 2020 anyway) more than GOPs, for various reasons. It was not always that way everywhere, with Florida in particular having a long tradition of numerous older GOP voters using the mail-in, leaving the GOPsters there a bit less sure about going after it.  So the Putinistas can argue, well, this is just like the US.

Of course there are two problems.  One is that there is no obvious reason in any of these districts why online voters would have such different views than on-site ones, whereas we know of numerous reasons in the US why the mail-in voters were more likely to be Dems.  The other is that there seems to be no record of or way to check up on any of these online voters.  Who are they?  How many times did they vote?  Who was counting them.?  All I can say is that this seems to be quite the innovation for a ruling party that wants to hold an election with at least a nominal opponent participating, while guaranteeing a solidly favorable outcome, even in the face of polls suggesting this was not so likely.

Barkley Rosser

Thursday, September 16, 2021

So, Whatever Happened To The Arizona Fraudit?

 Even though these "audits" are now apparently spreading to other states, notably Pennsylvania and maybe Wisconsin, efforts to somehow find election fraud in the presidential elections in those states in 2020, there is an odd thing that has happened that has basically dropped off the media radar screen. That is what the outcome of the initial one of these is, the "fraudit" in Arizona, authorized and financed partly with taxpayer funds by the AZ Senate.  It has dropped out of sight.

Well, after months of attention to it, with lots of money getting raised by those pushing it, and the similar folks in these other states also raising money off the fools who believe their lies, the question is what has happened?  The results were supposed to be done and available months ago.  The release date kept being put off.  The last we heard was several weeks ago when it was reported that three out of the five members of an oversight board of which we had never previously heard had gotten Covid-19.  OK.  But no new date of release was announced, and while it has been weeks so that those people presumably have either recovered or died, although maybe one is still on a ventilator. 

In any case, it is not obvious to me why any of these people being ill should be holding back a public reporting of the results. But, of course, I think we all know why this report has not been publicly reported: they got nothing.  There had been several recounts and checks on the results in Maricopa County, where the Board of Supervisors is 4-1 GOP to Dem, found that the original reported results were fully confirmed, not a single error.  So it is completely unsurprising that despite all the bizarre things the inexperienced goofballs carrying out this fraudit could find nothing. The last gasp has been people in the AZ state senate calling for the routers to be turned over. But the ballot machines were reportedly never on the internet, so routers make no difference.  We are simply left with just how long it will take for these people to finally publicly admit that their fraudit has been a giant fraud and waste of time and money that has found nothing.  This could take quite some time.

Barkley Rosser

RIP William John McGuire

 Aka "Bill" McGuire.  He started at the same time as I did in Fall 1977 as a tenure track Assistant Professor where I still am, James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, VA. We also started with Robin Grieves.  An odd coincidence was that when we were taken to the first full faculty meeting by our Depaertment Head, Howard Wilhelm, who died in January at age 94 of old age, it somehow came out that al four of us were Eagle Scouts.  I would become a good friend of both Bill's and Robin's.  I note that Bill was a Vietnam War veteran and was a macroeconomist with a PhD from UNC-Chapel Hill.

As it was, both of them would leave the department during the 1980s for different reasons.  Unfortunately, Bill had a major personal conflict with another member of the department (not me) that ended up souring him most of the department, and he had little communication with any of us after he left.  He initially went to Eastern Kentucky U. but some years later would leave academia and move to Arizona with his second wife, a former student of ours at JMU. They ran a reportedly successful private consulting firm.  But while I made some approaches to his wife to renew communication, he expressed no interest.

Anyway, I heard yesterday by email from our mutual friend, Robin, that Bill died over a year ago in July 2020.  While officially it was a heart embolism, Robin informed me that this was brought on by a bout of Covid-19.  This is the first person to have died of the pandemic that I knew personally.  I am still sorry that we did not renew communication prior to his passing.  

So, RIP Bill.

Barkley Rosser

Debt Ceiling Nonsense Yet Again - A Catch 22?

 Of course there should be no debt ceiling.  The US is the only nation to have one for absolute amounts of money (some other nations have ones tied to percents of budgets, and so forth). Even thought it is nonsensical and absurd, it has been around for over a century, a recrudescence of a deal to get funding approved by Congress for WW I in the wake of the passage in 1913 of the new amendment allowing a federal income tax. Somehow nobody in Congress or any White House has the guts to push for the ending of this thing, so it hangs on like some stinking zombie. 

Of course, for most of the time since it was passed, Congresses have been "responsible" and raised the ceiling without too much fuss, although it has been normal when different parties occupy the White House and the Congress for there to be some grumbling by people in Congress before they do the the responsible thing.  But in recent decades, while Dems in Congress have been responsible, raising debt ceiling several times for President Trump, we have on several occasions see GOPs in Congress make big stinks and force temporary government shutdowns while making demands for this or that.

The current situation is probably not that bad, but absurdity is definitely reigning.  Assuming they can keep all their people in line, especially Sen. Manchin of WV, it can probably be raised by reconciliation. But GOP Sen. McConnell is loudly declaring no GOP will support raising it, and has threatened a filibuster, although reconciliation can get around that, if all Dems agree.  However, even as he is loudly declaring not GOP support for raising the debt ceiling, he is also demanding that it be raised so that government bills get paid.  I really have no comment on this further, aside from noting that this is just further evidence on why this silly thing needs to be done away with once and for all.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, September 10, 2021

Norway’s Climate Dilemma

Carlos Joly, a finance-and-climate consultant, has a piece today on the upcoming election in Norway, one of the world’s major exporters of oil and gas.  To its credit, Norway puts its earnings in a fund to support future generations after its deposits are exhausted, known to economists as the Hartwick Rule.  That’s great for economic sustainability in Norway, but what about the threat its fossil fuel industry poses to the entire world?

Joly notes that the mainstream parties consider only domestic fossil fuel consumption, with the Labor Party proposing to go “carbon neutral” on that front by 2050.  (The neutral qualifier is highly problematic, as I show in my forthcoming book, Alligators in the Arctic and How to Avoid Them: Science, Economics and the Challenge of Catastrophic Climate Change.)  The Greens want to shut down Norway’s North Sea oil and gas operation over the coming 25 years.  Joly wants to go further and have the government instruct its oil revenue fund to divest from fossil fuels globally.

I have a different idea.  First, while the unilateral dismantling of its fossil fuel industry would be a well-intentioned step, I doubt it would have much impact on overall decarbonization.   25 years is too slow, and more importantly, the consumption of oil and gas is demand-driven, not supply constrained.  If Norway takes its fuels off the market, there will be other producers eager to take its place.  Second, simply abstaining from investing in other countries’ fossil fuel industries is unlikely to make a significant difference, largely for the same reason.  If producing oil and gas remains profitable, a shortfall in investment from some quarters will induce more from others.

What I propose instead is that Norway regard its sovereign wealth fund (officially designated as a pension fund) as an endowment whose main purpose is to finance initiatives to forestall a climate disaster.  This means devoting a fixed share to funding activist groups in key countries organizing for emergency laws to quickly reduce carbon consumption, and the rest to R&D in decarbonized energy sources.*  Meanwhile, keep the oil and gas flowing so that as large a share as possible of global fossil fuel supply is generating carbon mitigation finance.  If and when a host of national measures impose decarbonization and fossil fuel demand finally plummets, then it will be time to turn off the North Sea tap for good.

*And no, Norway’s predominate financing of REDD+, the international program for promoting forestation offsets, does neither of these and is little more than a charade—for details, again see Alligators.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Beware of "The Narrative"!

Back in 1979 philosopher Jean-François Lyotard was commissioned to do a report for the province of Quebec that turned into a book, The Postmodern Condition. I remember that book well because I read it during my graduate studies that focused on narrative analysis. A central theme of Lyotard's book was the "death of metanarratives," such as the Idea of Progress or Marx's Class Struggle as the engine of history.

Fast forward to 2021 and "The Narrative" has become a core talking point of right-wing paranoia and propaganda. Whatever they disagree with is framed as a totalitarian Narrative that makes their rebellion against it heroic. Of course a large part of this anti-narrative narrative is projection. The conformity of the GOP/Fox talking points is notorious. But that is precisely what makes their precious melodrama so effective. By first accusing their designated other of foisting a narrative, they disarm any criticism of themselves foisting a narrative.

Dr. Julie Ponesse, Professor of Ethics at University of Western has made herself a lost cause celebrity with her stand against the "narrative" of Covid-19 vaccination. Professor Ponesse builds her case against the presumably monolithic narrative by cherry-picking some research studies (that wouldn't even exist if the narrative was as monolithic as she claims) and by flagrantly misrepresenting VAERS data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Professor Ponesse, she has been put on administrative leave and faces "imminent dismissal" for refusing to comply with the university's vaccine mandate. 

The National Post reports that, "Ponesse has also made questionable claims about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. In a video posted online, she calls the vaccines 'experimental.'" The CBC quotes Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist and assistant professor in the faculty of health sciences at Western and Co-Director of the Health Ethics, Law & Policy (HELP) Lab:

The strength of a position in ethics comes from the support provided via reasons & arguments, not that it's uttered by an ethicist. And her reasons used to support her position are distorted by falsehoods & concern areas about which she has no apparent expertise.

But pay no attention to the opinions of all those authorities, her employer the university, the official guide to interpreting VAERS data, and The Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health who has strongly recommended mandatory vaccinations. They're all part of "The Narrative."

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Portland Not Burned To The Ground

 Over this past weekend I was in Portland visiting for the first time family who gathered for a reunion, with my second daughter, Caitlin, with two of my grandsons, having moved there in January from San Francisco (she is a psychiatrist with the VA system). I had been through a few times in a car, but never stopped.  So curious to check it out.  I generally liked the place and had a good time.

I also decided to check up on some of the hyperbolic claims I have heard over the past year plus or so regularly on Fox News, especially the Hannity show that I keep an eye on.  When for example denying that the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington was anything anybody should be upset about, Hannity has regularly invoked Portland in particular as a place that was "burning to the ground" in supposed antifa and Black Lives Matter riots.  It certainly is true that Portland has seen a lot of violence and plenty of demonstrations over the last year, being in fact one of the few places in the US where there are actually people who ID as being "antifa" and show up to protest, with right-wing opponents of them, such as the frequently violent Proud Boys also showing up to fight them.  On Fox I have seen plenty of burning buildings and boarded up buildings.

So I checked out the downtown.  I did not see any riots or burned down buildings.  I did see some boarded up ones, a whole two blocks worth, one of those just next to the Pioneer Courthouse, indeed a major focus of protests, and one other block a couple of blocks away.  That was pretty much it.  I saw a lot of garbage in a nearby park, and there are quite a few homeless people in Portland.  But the claims being repeated so frequently and vigorously on Fox News look to me to be just wild exaggerations.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, September 6, 2021

Happy Socially Necessary Labor Day!


Sunday, September 5, 2021

Spending and Producing

When a framing becomes ubiquitous you forget it’s a framing.  This is what popped into my head when I read a headline this morning about the infrastructure bills pending in Congress: Democrats Hit the Road to Sell Big Spending Bills as Republicans Attack.

Yes, they are proposals to spend money; that’s one way to look at it.  But they are also proposals to produce infrastructure and social services—the spending is for something.  Opponents have every reason emphasize the spending side, as in the phrase “tax and spend liberals”.  If you were thinking of buying a new car and I wanted to dissuade you, I would probably make a big deal out of how much money you would be putting out.  If I were on the other side and wanted to convince you to do it, however, I would talk about what the car could do for you and what difference it would make in your life.  The negative side of any purchase is the outlay, the positive side what you get for it.

The negative framing of government programs in terms of their monetary cost has become so dominant even a center-left publication like the NY Times routinely adopts it, and I doubt few of their readers take notice.

For a positive framing, referring to them as “infrastructure bills” is a start, but even better would be phrasing that more concretely pictures what people would stand to gain from them.  You could headline them as programs to make America more resilient to climate change, modernize transportation and communication, expand renewable energy and reduce child poverty.  I’m not sure how that can be squeezed into a page layout constraint, although if we’re talking about digital pages the constraint is a lot more flexible.

There are many ways to do it, but the starting point is to recognize the default framing is one that echoes the arguments of opponents of public action.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Analytical Bias

The world is made up of systems.  Our body is a system, or in fact a system of systems.  What we call “society” is another system of systems, as is the natural environment.  And all these meta-systems are themselves elements in even more encompassing systems that interconnect them.  

But these systems are very complex, difficult to explain or predict.  One successful strategy, which has had a revolutionary impact on how we live, is analysis.  This approach segments complex entities into smaller parts in order to study them individually.  Medical researchers don’t study the body as such, but perhaps kidney function or particular blood cells.  Social scientists may specialize in the effect of lobbyists on legislation, labor market patterns among immigrant communities or changing child-rearing norms.  Natural scientists study the viability of artificial wetlands, upwelling cycles in certain coastal zones or changes in the carbon balance of a set of tropical forest plots.  By biting off chewable portions of a much larger world, science makes it possible to achieve progress in our understanding of how things work: testable hypotheses, demonstrable evidence, causal explanation.  Analysis is the art of taking things apart, studying the pieces, and then putting them back together.

But this approach, for all its benefits, fails to capture most of the interactive effects that make a system a system.  It leads us to overstate the separateness of the things we study and observe and to understate their connectedness.  This is not an argument against thinking analytically, but for not being surprised by what this thinking fails to see so we can at least somewhat compensate for its shortcomings.

I’d like to introduce the term “analytical bias” to refer to this tendency to overlook the interconnectedness of things.  Of course, many thinkers, going back centuries, have recognized this problem; it’s the guilty conscience of analysis itself.  I’m just giving it a name.