Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 26th, 2012

The Righteous Mind: Why “they” won’t listen

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The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, is reviewed in the NY Times by William Saletan:

You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong.

This isn’t an accusation from the right. It’s a friendly warning from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal. In “The ­Righteous Mind,” Haidt seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature. Like other psychologists who have ventured into political coaching, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments. But Haidt is looking for more than victory. He’s looking for wisdom. That’s what makes “The Righteous Mind” well worth reading. Politics isn’t just about ­manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them.

Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason. In Haidt’s retelling, all the fools, foils and villains of intellectual history are recast as heroes. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who notoriously said reason was fit only to be “the slave of the passions,” was largely correct. E. O. Wilson, the ecologist who was branded a fascist for stressing the biological origins of human behavior, has been vindicated by the study of moral emotions. Even Glaucon, the cynic in Plato’s “Republic” who told Socrates that people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched, was “the guy who got it right.”

To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.

To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: . . .

Continue reading. I’m skeptical. If reasoning from evidence doesn’t work, then how does he explain the success of science?

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2012 at 10:05 am

Regulate airlines again

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When airlines were regulated, they could not compete on price, so they competed on service: not only fighting to have more comfortable seating, better meals, better service, etc. on each flight, but also tried to have more flights and more frequent direct flights. Once airlines were deregulated, they started competing on price instead of service, and since service costs money, there went service and in came the cattle-car treatment of passengers.

Basically, I think the experiment did not work. And James Fallows has an interesting column in which he discusses the guy (Alfred Kahn, whom Fallows knew) who pushed the idea and who went to his grave thinking that it worked out fine. Fallows points out “Terminal Sickness” by Phillip Longman and Lina Kahn in the Washington Monthly. They write about “How a thirty-year-old policy of deregulation is slowly killing America’s airline system—and taking down Cincinnati, Memphis, and St. Louis with it.” Their article begins:

It was certainly one of the hardest choices that I’ve ever made,” explained Fernando Aguirre. He’d raised his family and built his career in Cincinnati, Ohio, rising through the ranks of the city’s business elite, first as an executive at Procter & Gamble’s headquarters and later as CEO and chairman of Chiquita Brands International. Along the way, he became a fanatical fan and part owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, as well as a proud sponsor of the Chiquita Classic golf tournament, the proceeds from which he poured into local philanthropies.

But last fall, Aguirre confirmed Cincinnati’s worst fears by announcing that he and his company were—very reluctantly—skipping town, and for a reason that cast an even deeper shadow over the city’s economic future. Cincinnati has long been (and for now remains) a major business center, the headquarters of six Fortune 500 companies and fifteen Fortune 1000 companies, including not just household-name producers like Procter & Gamble and Chiquita but also retail giants like Macy’s and the Kroger grocery chain. With a population of 2.1 million, it’s the twenty-seventh-largest metro area in the United States. But running a national, much less international, business out of Cincinnati is becoming more and more problematic for a simple reason: inadequate air service.

As recently as 2004, the Cincinnati/North Kentucky Airport (CVG) was a major hub for Delta, and offered nonstop flights to 129 major cities, including Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London, and Paris. Today, the number of flights through CVG has fallen by two-thirds, and an entire concourse stands eerily empty. At the same time, flights out of the airport have the highest fares in the country. This means that if you live or do business in Cincinnati, it’s hard to fly anywhere without paying a fortune and having to cool your heels for hours while waiting to change planes in a city like Atlanta or Charlotte. And if you’re a global business like Chiquita, which operates in seventy countries and needs to be able to attract global talent, the situation is untenable.

So Aguirre is moving Chiquita’s headquarters to the NASCAR Plaza in uptown Charlotte, just a thirteen-minute drive from that city’s busy international airport. The move will be a boon to Charlotte, creating more than 400 jobs with an average wage of over $100,000. But it will be gut-wrenching for existing employees, as well as for Aguirre personally. He recently had to explain to Charlotte’s local press that he is no fan of NASCAR (“I have never gone to a NASCAR race. I’m sure I will end up going to a few from now on”), and that he still pines for his beloved Reds. But at least he and his employees have had time to prepare themselves mentally. “We’ve been dealing with the logistics of our business and the airport for so long now,” says Aguirre, “that everyone knew that the likelihood of moving was very high. It was just a matter of where and when.”

A generation ago, Aguirre and his employees at Chiquita would not have had to face such a difficult choice. Until 1978, the United States viewed airline service as a “public convenience and necessity,” and used a government agency—the Civil Aeronautics Board, or CAB—to assign routes and set fares. This regulation was designed to ensure that citizens in cities like Cincinnati received service roughly equal, in quality and price, to that provided to other comparably sized communities like Charlotte. The government also made sure that smaller cities maintained vital links to the national air network.

In 1978, however, a group of liberals including Ralph Nader, Ted Kennedy, Kennedy’s then Senate aide Stephen Breyer, and an economist named Alfred Kahn, whom President Jimmy Carter chose to run the CAB, conjured up a plan to drive down the cost of airline fares by fostering more price competition among airlines. Though they called it “deregulation,” the practical effect of eliminating the CAB, especially after subsequent administrations abandoned antitrust enforcement as well, was to shift control of the airline industry from experts answerable to the public to corporate boardrooms and Wall Street.

Over the years, most Americans have adopted a pretty standard line about the results. On the one hand, complaining about the indignities of flying—overbooked, late, or canceled flights; surly flight attendants; and, more recently, terrible in-flight food service and high fees for checked baggage— has become a staple of American life, much like complaining about Internet providers or health insurance companies. On the other hand, we’ve told ourselves, at least the increased competition has made air travel cheaper. And at least most of us can still get where we need to go by air.

But now we find ourselves at a moment when nearly all the promises of the airline deregulators have clearly proved false. If you’re a member of the creative class who rarely does business in the nation’s industrial heartland or visits relatives there, you might not notice the magnitude of economic disruption being caused by lost airline service and skyrocketing fares. But if you are in the business of making and trading stuff beyond derivatives and concepts, you probably have to go to places like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Memphis, St. Louis, or Minneapolis, and you know firsthand how hard it has become to do business these days in such major heartland cities, which are increasingly cut off from each other and from the global economy.

And it’s about to get worse. . .

Continue reading. Ed Kilgore, in the Political Animal blog, blogs  about that very article.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2012 at 9:06 am

Psychopaths in action at a Brooklyn hospital

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Given the immediately preceding posts, this story reported by Anemona Hartocollis in the NY Times makes more sense:

In recent years, Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn has often gone hat in hand to the city and state, lamenting cuts in government assistance and questioning whether officials truly understood the burden of running a nonprofit hospital in Bushwick, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

For much of that time, Wyckoff’s chief executive was driving to work in a Bentley Continental GT, a $160,000 automobile, and at one point, the hospital paid thousands of dollars to insure the vehicle, according to hospital records and interviews. When the chief executive lost his license after an accident, hospital security guards chauffeured him and his wife around the clock in a Cadillac Escalade or a Lincoln Town Car.

The chief executive, Rajiv Garg, was not the only one who benefited from his ties with Wyckoff. One member of the hospital’s board obtained for the pharmacy that he owned the exclusive right to market prescription drugs to hospital patients. Another board member lent $2.4 million to the ailing Wyckoff at 12 percent interest, with the hospital required to put up several of its buildings as security.

Local politicians also joined in. Allies of United States Representative Edolphus Towns, Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez and Councilman Erik Martin Dilan have landed high-level positions at the hospital, despite questionable qualifications, further weakening its management. Mr. Dilan’s wife became the hospital’s director of public relations.

Many hospitals in downtrodden areas of New York City and across the state are faltering, raising concerns that a wave of closings will deprive poor people of badly needed care.

A three-month investigation by The New York Times into Wyckoff, based on dozens of interviews and an examination of internal documents, offers a sobering portrait of how one such hospital has been undermined by the very people entrusted to run it.

The hospital all but defaulted on its $109 million in state-secured bonds, forcing the taxpayers to cover $10 million due to bondholders before the state agreed in May to defer the hospital’s overdue payments.

Wyckoff no longer even carries malpractice insurance. Consumer Reports recently ranked Wyckoff among the worst hospitals in the New York region.

After years of decline, the hospital is also attracting the notice of the authorities. The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, has begun examining its management and has presented evidence to a grand jury, according to legal documents.

Under pressure, the hospital’s board recently ousted the president, Mr. Garg, who was being paid $700,000 a year. But some entrenched members of the hospital’s board remain, and the hospital’s doctors recently mounted an insurrection against Mr. Garg’s replacement, Ramon Rodriguez. They circulated a letter saying that Mr. Rodriguez was not capable of running Wyckoff because of his “battles with depression.”

Mr. Rodriguez called the letter “character assassination,” saying that the doctors felt threatened by his reforms.

Wyckoff has been so troubled for so long that even the most accomplished leadership might have been unable to turn it around. But its recent difficulties have clearly been deepened by the management turmoil. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2012 at 8:51 am

Lobbyists, Guns, and Money

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Paul Krugman has a very good column today in NY Times:

Florida’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law, which lets you shoot someone you consider threatening without facing arrest, let alone prosecution, sounds crazy — and it is. And it’s tempting to dismiss this law as the work of ignorant yahoos. But similar laws have been pushed across the nation, not by ignorant yahoos but by big corporations.

Specifically, language virtually identical to Florida’s law is featured in a template supplied to legislators in other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that has managed to keep a low profile even as it exerts vast influence (only recently, thanks to yeoman work by the Center for Media and Democracy, has a clear picture of ALEC’s activities emerged). And if there is any silver lining to Trayvon Martin’s killing, it is that it might finally place a spotlight on what ALEC is doing to our society — and our democracy.

What is ALEC? Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.

Many ALEC-drafted bills pursue standard conservative goals: union-busting, undermining environmental protection, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. ALEC seems, however, to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations. And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.

What this tells us, in turn, is that ALEC’s claim to stand for limited government and free markets is deeply misleading. To a large extent the organization seeks not limited government but privatized government, in which corporations get their profits from taxpayer dollars, dollars steered their way by friendly politicians. In short, ALEC isn’t so much about promoting free markets as it is about expanding crony capitalism.

And in case you were wondering, no, the kind of privatization ALEC promotes isn’t in the public interest; instead of success stories, what we’re getting is a series of scandals. Private charter schools, for example, appear to deliver a lot of profits but little in the way of educational achievement.

But where does the encouragement of vigilante (in)justice fit into this picture? In part it’s the same old story — the long-standing exploitation of public fears, especially those associated with racial tension, to promote a pro-corporate, pro-wealthy agenda. It’s neither an accident nor a surprise that the National Rifle Association and ALEC have been close allies all along.

And ALEC, even more than other movement-conservative organizations, is clearly playing a long game. Its legislative templates aren’t just about generating immediate benefits to the organization’s corporate sponsors; they’re about creating a political climate that will favor even more corporation-friendly legislation in the future.

Did I mention that ALEC has played a key role in promoting bills that make it hard for the poor and ethnic minorities to vote?

Yet that’s not all; . . .

Continue reading. I highly recommend that after you finish the column you spend some time reading comments. Some quite good ones.

This of course follows directly from the previous post.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2012 at 8:45 am

Corporations are psychopaths because they’re run by psychopaths

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Though I think the term nowadays is sociopath: someone who lacks all empathy and is self-aggrandizing, charming, and shallow. Here’s a review of The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson, that appeared inBloomberg BusinessWeek.The review is accompanied by this test:

If corporations are in fact psychopaths (in terms of their social functioning), then the country’s decline as corporations gain more power over the country is easier to understand.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2012 at 8:40 am

Income gap in US increases

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Take a look at this graphic from Steve Rattner’s op-ed in today NY Times:

The op-ed:

NEW statistics show an ever-more-startling divergence between the fortunes of the wealthy and everybody else — and the desperate need to address this wrenching problem. Even in a country that sometimes seems inured to income inequality, these takeaways are truly stunning.

In 2010, as the nation continued to recover from the recession, a dizzying 93 percent of the additional income created in the country that year, compared to 2009 — $288 billion — went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, those with at least $352,000 in income. That delivered an average single-year pay increase of 11.6 percent to each of these households.

Still more astonishing was the extent to which the super rich got rich faster than the merely rich. In 2010, 37 percent of these additional earnings went to just the top 0.01 percent, a teaspoon-size collection of about 15,000 households with average incomes of $23.8 million. These fortunate few saw their incomes rise by 21.5 percent.

The bottom 99 percent received a microscopic $80 increase in pay per person in 2010, after adjusting for inflation. The top 1 percent, whose average income is $1,019,089, had an 11.6 percent increase in income.

This new data, derived by the French economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez from American tax returns, also suggests that those at the top were more likely to earn than inherit their riches. That’s not completely surprising: the rapid growth of new American industries — from technology to financial services — has increased the need for highly educated and skilled workers. At the same time, old industries like manufacturing are employing fewer blue-collar workers.

The result? Pay for college graduates has risen by 15.7 percent over the past 32 years (after adjustment for inflation) while the income of a worker without a high school diploma has plummeted by 25.7 percent over the same period.

Government has also played a role, particularly the George W. Bush tax cuts, which, among other things, gave the wealthy a 15 percent tax on capital gains and dividends. That’s the provision that caused Warren E. Buffett’s secretary to have a higher tax rate than he does. . .

Continue reading.

UPDATE: Dean Baker of CEPR has a very interesting critique of this column, which I received via email:

Steve Rattner seems to have found a new career in getting things wrong in the NYT. He was last seen ranting against those who say that “debt doesn’t matter.” Today the topic is inequality.

While Rattner is right to call attention to the growth of inequality, he is way off on the facts. Starting with a small one, he tells readers that:

“Pay for college graduates has risen by 15.7 percent over the past 32 years (after adjustment for inflation) while the income of a worker without a high school diploma has plummeted by 25.7 percent over the same period.”

A source on that one would have been great. The data sources I know generally have wages for workers without high school degrees as being roughly stagnant over this period. A decline of 5 percent or even 10 percent would be plausible, but 25.7 percent?

However the more important issue is a substantive one. He tells readers:

“Government has also played a role, particularly the George W. Bush tax cuts, which, among other things, gave the wealthy a 15 percent tax on capital gains and dividends. That’s the provision that caused Warren E. Buffett’s secretary to have a higher tax rate than he does.

“As a result, the top 1 percent has done progressively better in each economic recovery of the past two decades.”

Yes, government has played a role, but the tax cuts for the wealthy has been the less important part of the story. Most of the increase in inequality has been in before-tax income. The government has affected income distribution by changing the rules of the game in ways that allowed the wealthy to benefit at the expense of everyone else.

For example, maintaining government guarantees for the banking system (remember the bailouts?) while relaxing Glass-Steagall and other restrictions amounted to a massive subsidy to the financial sector. Many of the top 1 percent get their money here.

There has also been a tightening and extending of patent monopolies. One result of this has been to hugely increase the amount of money being paid in patent rents, much of which goes to the 1 percent. We currently spend close to $300 billion a year for prescription drugs. We would spend close to $30 billion a year if drugs were sold in a free market without patent protection.

The difference of $270 billion annually is roughly 5 times as much money as is at stake with the Bush tax cuts. We would need alternative methods of financing drug research, but the 1 percent so completely dominate debate that alternatives to patent monopolies are not even considered in policy circles even though they would almost certainly be far more efficient and lead to better health outcomes.

The government has also taken steps to directly drive down the wages of less educated workers. Trade policy has deliberately placed U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low paid workers in the developing world. By contrast, the barriers that make it difficult for foreign professionals, like doctors and lawyers, from working in the United States have largely been maintained or even increased.

The predicted and actual result of this policy is to depress the wages of less educated workers relative to the most highly educated workers. This effect is amplified by the high dollar policy that the United States began pursuing under Robert Rubin and used the muscle of the IMF to advance following the East Asian financial crisis.

There are many other ways in which government policy has redistributed income upward over the last three decades. Rattner misdirects attention when he focuses on tax policy as a major cause of inequality.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2012 at 8:30 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Sophie Tucker belts one out

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This is from 1930: “Sophie Tucker accompanied by Ted Shapiro on piano with “No One But The Right Man Can Do Me Wrong”; filmed in London.” (from the YouTube caption)

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2012 at 8:25 am

Posted in Jazz, Video

Palermo and Floris

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Extremely nice shave today. The Vie-Long horse+badger brush made a fine lather, and I really like the fragrance of Palermo. The iKon, using a Personna 74 Tungsten Plus blade, delivered a fine shave with three very smooth passes, and then a good splash of Floris No. 89 was a good way to set me up for the day.

Background is a book on the Korean style of playing Baduk (the Korean name for the game commonly called Go). Korean style is quite aggressive: the fights start at once. (I encourage everyone to learn and play Go, as you know.)

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2012 at 8:21 am

Posted in Shaving

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