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Archive for September 11th, 2017

What the Rich Won’t Tell You

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A very interesting essay by Rachel Sherman in the NY Times makes an unexpected point:

Over lunch in a downtown restaurant, Beatrice, a New Yorker in her late 30s, told me about two decisions she and her husband were considering. They were thinking about where to buy a second home and whether their young children should go to private school. Then she made a confession: She took the price tags off her clothes so that her nanny would not see them. “I take the label off our six-dollar bread,” she said.

She did this, she explained, because she was uncomfortable with the inequality between herself and her nanny, a Latina immigrant. She had a household income of $250,000 and inherited wealth of several million dollars. Relative to the nanny, she told me, “The choices that I have are obscene. Six-dollar bread is obscene.”

An interior designer I spoke with told me his wealthy clients also hid prices, saying that expensive furniture and other items arrive at their houses “with big price tags on them” that “have to be removed, or Sharpied over, so the housekeepers and staff don’t see them.”

These people agreed to meet with me as part of research I conducted on affluent and wealthy people’s consumption. I interviewed 50 parents with children at home, including 18 stay-at-home mothers. Highly educated, they worked or had worked in finance and related industries, or had inherited assets in the millions of dollars. Nearly all were in the top 1 percent or 2 percent in terms of income or wealth or both. They came from a variety of economic backgrounds, and about 80 percent were white. Reflecting their concern with anonymity and my research protocol, I am using pseudonyms throughout this article.

We often imagine that the wealthy are unconflicted about their advantages and in fact eager to display them. Since the economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” more than a century ago, the rich have typically been represented as competing for status by showing off their wealth. Our current president is the conspicuous consumer in chief, the epitome of the rich person who displays his wealth in the glitziest way possible.

Yet we believe that wealthy people seek visibility because those we see are, by definition, visible. In contrast, the people I spoke with expressed a deep ambivalence about identifying as affluent. Rather than brag about their money or show it off, they kept quiet about their advantages. They described themselves as “normal” people who worked hard and spent prudently, distancing themselves from common stereotypes of the wealthy as ostentatious, selfish, snobby and entitled. Ultimately, their accounts illuminate a moral stigma of privilege.

The ways these wealthy New Yorkers identify and avoid stigma matter not because we should feel sorry for uncomfortable rich people, but because they tell us something about how economic inequality is hidden, justified and maintained in American life.

Keeping silent about social class, a norm that goes far beyond the affluent, can make Americans feel that class doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter. And judging wealthy people on the basis of their individual behaviors — do they work hard enough, do they consume reasonably enough, do they give back enough — distracts us from other kinds of questions about the morality of vastly unequal distributions of wealth.

To hide the price tags is not to hide the privilege; the nanny is no doubt aware of the class gap whether or not she knows the price of her employer’s bread. Instead, such moves help wealthy people manage their discomfort with inequality, which in turn makes that inequality impossible to talk honestly about — or to change.

The stigma of wealth showed up in my interviews first in literal silences about money. When I asked one very wealthy stay-at-home mother what her family’s assets were, she was taken aback. “No one’s ever asked me that, honestly,” she said. “No one asks that question. It’s up there with, like, ‘Do you masturbate?’ ”

Another woman, speaking of her wealth of over $50 million, which she and her husband generated through work in finance, and her home value of over $10 million, told me: “There’s nobody who knows how much we spend. You’re the only person I ever said those numbers to out loud.” She was so uncomfortable with having shared this information that she contacted me later the same day to confirm exactly how I was going to maintain her anonymity. Several women I talked with mentioned that they would not tell their husbands that they had spoken to me at all, saying, “He would kill me,” or “He’s more private.”

These conflicts often extended to a deep discomfort with displaying wealth. Scott, who had inherited wealth of more than $50 million, told me he and his wife were ambivalent about the Manhattan apartment they had recently bought for over $4 million. Asked why, he responded: “Do we want to live in such a fancy place? Do we want to deal with the person coming in and being like, ‘Wow!’ That wears on you. We’re just not the type of people who wear it on our sleeve. We don’t want that ‘Wow.’ ” His wife, whom I interviewed separately, was so uneasy with the fact that they lived in a penthouse that she had asked the post office to change their mailing address so that it would include the floor number instead of “PH,” a term she found “elite and snobby.”

My interviewees never talked about themselves as “rich” or “upper class,” often preferring terms like “comfortable” or “fortunate.” Some even identified as “middle class” or “in the middle,” typically comparing themselves with the super-wealthy, who are especially prominent in New York City, rather than to those with less.

When I used the word “affluent” in an email to a stay-at-home mom with a $2.5 million household income, a house in the Hamptons and a child in private school, she almost canceled the interview, she told me later. Real affluence, she said, belonged to her friends who traveled on a private plane.

Others said that affluence meant never having to worry about money, which many of them, especially those in single-earner families dependent on work in finance, said they did, because earnings fluctuate and jobs are impermanent.

American culture has long been marked by questions about the moral caliber of wealthy people. Capitalist entrepreneurs are often celebrated, but they are also represented as greedy and ruthless. Inheritors of fortunes, especially women, are portrayed as glamorous, but also as self-indulgent.

The negative side of this portrayal may be more prominent in times of high inequality (think of the robber barons of the Gilded Age or the Gordon Gekko figures of the 1980s). In recent years, the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street, which were in the background when I conducted these interviews, brought extreme income inequality onto the national stage again. The top 10 percent of earners now garner over 50 percent of income nationally, and the top 1 percent over 20 percent.

It is not surprising, then, that the people I talked with wanted to distance themselves from the increasingly vilified category of the 1 percent. But their unease with acknowledging their privilege also grows out of a decades-long shift in the composition of the wealthy. During most of the 20th century, the upper class was a homogeneous community. Nearly all white and Protestant, the top families belonged to the same exclusive clubs, were listed in the Social Register, educated their children at the same elite institutions.

This class has diversified, thanks largely to the opening of elite education to people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds starting after World War II, and to the more recent rise of astronomical compensation in finance. At the same time, the rise of finance and related fields means that many of the wealthiest are the “working rich,” not the “leisure class” Veblen described. The quasi-aristocracy of the WASP upper class has been replaced by a “meritocracy” of a more varied elite. Wealthy people must appear to be worthy of their privilege for that privilege to be seen as legitimate.

Being worthy means working hard, as we might expect. But being worthy also means spending money wisely. In both these ways, my interviewees strove to be “normal.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 8:06 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

A week of the heroin epidemic in Cincinnati

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Good God. Read it if you can.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 4:44 pm

What Happens When War Is Outlawed

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Louis Menand has a very interesting essay and book review in the New Yorker:

On August 27, 1928, in Paris, with due pomp and circumstance, representatives of fifteen nations signed an agreement outlawing war. The agreement was the unanticipated fruit of an attempt by the French Foreign Minister, Aristide Briand, to negotiate a bilateral treaty with the United States in which each nation would renounce the use of war as an instrument of policy toward the other. The American Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, had been unenthusiastic about Briand’s idea. He saw no prospect of going to war with France and therefore no point in promising not to, and he suspected that the proposal was a gimmick designed to commit the United States to intervening on France’s behalf if Germany attacked it (as Germany did in 1914). After some delay and in response to public pressure, Kellogg told Briand that his idea sounded great. Who wouldn’t want to renounce war? But why not make the treaty multilateral, and have it signed by “all the principal powers of the world”? Everyone would renounce the use of war as an instrument of policy.
Kellogg figured that he had Briand outfoxed. France had mutual defense treaties with many European states, and it could hardly honor those treaties if it agreed to renounce war altogether. But the agreement was eventually worded in a way that left sufficient interpretive latitude for Briand and other statesmen to see their way clear to signing it, and the result was the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War, also known as the Paris Peace Pact or the Kellogg-Briand Pact. By 1934, sixty-three countries had joined the Pact—virtually every established nation on earth at the time.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, gets bad press. It imposed punitive conditions on Germany after the First World War and is often blamed for the rise of Hitler. The Kellogg-Briand Pact does not get bad press. It gets no press. That’s because the treaty went into effect on July 24, 1929, after which the following occurred: Japan invaded Manchuria (1931); Italy invaded Ethiopia (1935); Japan invaded China (1937); Germany invaded Poland (1939); the Soviet Union invaded Finland (1939); Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France and attacked Great Britain (1940); and Japan attacked the United States (1941), culminating in a global war that produced the atomic bomb and more than sixty million deaths. A piece of paper signed in Paris does not seem to have presented an obstacle to citizens of one country engaging in the organized slaughter of the citizens of other countries.
In modern political history, therefore, the Paris Peace Pact, if it is mentioned at all, usually gets a condescending tip of the hat or is dutifully registered in footnote. Even in books on the law of war, little is made of it. There is not a single reference to it in the political philosopher Michael Walzer’s “Just and Unjust Wars,” a classic work published in 1977. The summary on the U.S. State Department’s Web site is typical: “In the end, the Kellogg-Briand Pact did little to prevent World War II or any of the conflicts that followed. Its legacy remains as a statement of the idealism expressed by advocates for peace in the interwar period.”
The key term in that sentence is “idealism.” In international relations, an idealist is someone who believes that foreign policy should be based on universal principles, and that nations will agree to things like the outlawry of war because they perceive themselves as sharing a harmony of interests. War is bad for every nation; therefore, it is in the interests of all nations to renounce it.
An alternative theory is (no surprise) realism. A realist thinks that a nation’s foreign policy should be guided by a cold consideration of its own interests. To a realist, the essential condition of international politics is anarchy. There is no supreme law governing relations among sovereign states. When Germany invades France, France cannot take Germany to court. There are just a lot of nations out there, each trying to secure and, if possible, extend its own power. We don’t need to judge the morality of other nations’ behavior. We only need to ask whether the interests of our nation are affected by it. We should be concerned not with some platonic harmony of interests but with the very real balance of power.
A standard way to write the history of twentieth-century international relations is to cast as idealists figures like Woodrow Wilson, who, in 1917, entered the United States into a European war to make the world “safe for democracy,” and the other liberal internationalists who came up with the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The Second World War proved these people spectacularly wrong about how nations behave, and they were superseded by the realists.
To the realists, such Wilsonian ideas as world government and the outlawry of war were quixotic. Nations should recognize that conflict is endemic to the international arena, and they should not expend blood and treasure in the name of an abstraction. Containment, the American Cold War policy of preventing the Soviet Union from expanding without otherwise intervening in its affairs, was a realist policy. Communists could run their own territories however they liked as long as they stayed inside their boxes. If our system was better, theirs would eventually implode; if theirs was better, ours would. The author of that policy, the diplomat George Kennan, called the Kellogg-Briand Pact “childish, just childish.”
And yet since 1945 nations have gone to war against other nations very few times. When they have, most of the rest of the world has regarded the war as illegitimate and, frequently, has organized to sanction or otherwise punish the aggressor. In only a handful of mostly minor cases since 1945—the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014 being a flagrant exception—has a nation been able to hold on to territory it acquired by conquest.
Historians have suggested several reasons for this drop in the incidence of interstate war. The twenty years after the Second World War was a Pax Americana. By virtue of the tremendous damage suffered in the war by all the other powers, the United States became a global hegemon. America kept the peace (on American terms, of course) because no other country had the military or economic capacity to challenge it. This is the “great” America that some seventy-five million American voters in the last Presidential election were born in, and that many of them have been convinced can be resurrected by shutting the rest of the world out—which would be a complete reversal of the policy mind-set that made the United States a dominant power back when those voters were children.
By the nineteen-seventies, the rest of the world had caught up, and students of international affairs began to predict that, in the absence of a credible global policeman, there would be a surge in the number of armed conflicts around the world. When this didn’t happen, various explanations were ventured. One was that the existence of nuclear weapons had changed the calculus that nations used to judge their chances in a war. Nuclear weapons now operated as a general deterrence to aggression.
Other scholars proposed that the spread of democracy—including, in the nineteen-eighties, the Velvet Revolution in Eastern Europe and the dismembering of the Soviet Union—made the world a more peaceable place. Historically, democracies have not gone to war with other democracies. It was also argued that globalization, the interconnectedness of international trade, had rendered war less attractive. When goods are the end products of a worldwide chain of manufacture and distribution, a nation that goes to war risks cutting itself off from vital resources.
In “The Internationalists” (Simon & Schuster), two professors at Yale Law School, Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, present another explanation for the decline in interstate wars since 1945. They think that nations rarely go to war anymore because war is illegal, and has been since 1928. In their view, the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact was not a Dr. Seuss parable with funny characters in striped trousers and top hats. The treaty did what its framers intended it to do: it effectively ended the use of war as an instrument of national policy.
Then what about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and so on, down to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor? Those actions were carried out by nations that were among the Pact’s original signatories, and they clearly violated its terms. According to Hathaway and Shapiro, the invasions actually turned out to be proof of the Pact’s effectiveness, because the Second World War was fought to punish aggression. The Allied victory was the triumph of Kellogg-Briand.
O.K., so what about the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons? The spread of democracy? Free trade and globalization? Isn’t the Kellogg-Briand Pact just a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc—an exercise in feel-good diplomacy that happened to find confirmation many years later in a state of global affairs made possible by other means? On the contrary, Hathaway and Shapiro argue. If war had not been outlawed, none of those other things—deterrence, democracy, trade—would have been possible. The Kellogg-Briand Pact is the explanation that explains all other explanations.
Genuine originality is unusual in political history. “The Internationalists” is an original book. There is something sweet about the fact that it is also a book written by two law professors in which most of the heroes are law professors. Sweet but significant, because one of the points of “The Internationalists” is that ideas matter.
This is something that can be under-recognized in political histories, where the emphasis tends to be on material conditions and relations of power. Hathaway and Shapiro further believe that ideas are produced by human beings, something that can be under-recognized in intellectual histories, which often take the form of books talking to books. “The Internationalists” is a story about individuals who used ideas to change the world.
The cast is appropriately international. Many of the characters are barely known outside scholarly circles, and they are all sketched in as personalities, beginning with the seventeenth-century Dutch polymath Hugo Grotius, who is said to have been the most insufferable pedant of his day. They include the nineteenth-century Japanese philosopher and government official Nishi Amane; the brilliant academic rivals Hans Kelsen, an Austrian Jew, and Carl Schmitt, a book-burning Nazi; the American lawyer Salmon Levinson, who began the outlawry movement in the nineteen-twenties and then got written out of its history by men with bigger egos; and the Czech émigré Bohuslav Ečer and the Galician émigré Hersch Lauterpacht, who helped formulate the arguments that made possible the prosecution of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg and laid the groundwork for the United Nations.
The book covers an enormous stretch of historical ground, from 1603, when a Dutch trader attacked and looted a Portuguese ship in the waters outside Singapore, to the emergence of the Islamic State. The general argument is that it made sense to outlaw war in 1928 because war had previously been deemed a legitimate instrument of national policy.
The key figure in the early part of the story is Grotius, who, in contriving a legal justification for an obviously brigandly Dutch seizure of Portuguese goods off Singapore, eventually produced a volume, “On the Laws of War and Peace,” published in 1625, that Hathaway and Shapiro say became “the textbook on the laws of war.” Grotius argued that wars of aggression are legal as long as states provide justification for them, but that even when the justifications prove to be shams the winners have a right to keep whatever they have managed to seize. In Grotius’s system, to use Hathaway and Shapiro’s formulations, might makes right and possession is ten-tenths of the law.
That doesn’t sound like much of a legal order, but it placed some constraints on what nations could do. For one thing, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 3:32 pm

Posted in Books, Government, Law, Military

Naomi Oreskes on the Politics of Climate Change

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A Five Books interview with Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University:

The risks of climate change are increasingly clear and urgent. And yet, in the United States and some other countries, policies to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions do not seem to be working. The US President has called climate change a hoax and pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. And about 6.5 percent of global GDP — about 5 trillion dollars a year — goes to subsidising fossil fuels. How did we get into this situation in the first place?

Scientists have known for a long time that an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases—produced by burning fossil fuel—could change the climate. By the late 1970s, it was clear that greenhouse gases were accumulating in the atmosphere, and scientists concluded that this would cause effects, probably by the end of the century. However, the observable effects came sooner than they expected: in 1988, scientists at NASA led by James Hansen, concluded that anthropogenic climate change was underway.

Hansen’s work got a good deal of attention. He testified in Congress. It was reported in the New York Times. And that same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created, in anticipation that the world would need good scientific information to inform policy decisions on the issue. Most scientists involved at the time thought that there would soon be a political response. And there was, but it was not the one they expected.

Until that time, there was no political resistance to climate science. Many climate scientists were Republicans, and throughout most of the post-war period, Republican political and business leaders had supported scientific research as strongly, if not more strongly, than Democratic leaders did. But, in the 1980s—just as the reality of climate change was being established scientifically—some people began to realise that if anthropogenic climate change was as dangerous as scientists thought, it would require government action to deal with it. In particular it would require government intervention in the marketplace, such as regulation or taxation to reduce or even eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

In this sense, it was similar to acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion, as well as to the problem of tobacco use. If you were a liberal Democrat, and you didn’t have any particular objection to government intervention in the marketplace, that wasn’t a problem for you, and there was no particular reason to object to the scientific findings. But if you were a conservative Republican who objected to those interventions, then it was a problem for you.

Some conservatives — particularly a group of Cold War scientists with links to the Reagan administration, who feared that government intervention in the marketplace was the slippery slope to socialism — began to question the science around all these issues. In our work, we discovered that they had also worked with the tobacco industry, on the grounds that controlling tobacco would lead to an increase government control of our lives in general. Today that argument is often referred to as the problem of the “nanny state,” but they thought it was much more nefarious than that. They equated government control of the marketplace with Soviet-style totalitarianism. In this, they took inspiration from the neo-liberal economist, Milton Friedman, and his mentor, Frederick von Hayek.

Working with the tobacco industry, they developed a set of strategies and tactics to intended to undermine the scientific evidence of the harms of smoking and prevent the government from controlling tobacco or even trying to discourage its use. They now applied those strategies and tactics to climate change.

At first, their arguments were taken up by conservative and libertarian think tanks in Washington, DC, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the CATO Institute, and the George C Marshall institute, who started to promote doubt and uncertainty about climate science. But soon, the fossil fuel industry was funding them. An alliance developed between powerful fossil fuel companies, such as Exxon Mobil and Peabody Coal, and think tanks such as CATO, to promote doubt about climate science and prevent government action. In the mid 1990s, it became their goal to prevent the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Although the UNFCCC had been signed in 1992 by a Republican President — George H.W. Bush — by the late 1990s nearly all Republicans had aligned against it. And things went downhill from there. As the scientific evidence of climate change became stronger, and Democrats accepted it and started to propose legislation to deal with it, Republicans became more and more entrenched in rejecting it. Things went from bad to worse, as, at first, only extremists in the Republican party went into fully-fledged denial, but by the late 2000s, climate change denial had become routine. If you look at the candidates who ran in the Republican primary in 2016, only John Kasich had a position consistent with the findings of the scientific community. Donald Trump, of course, infamously claims climate change is a hoax, but Ted Cruz propagated the canard that warming had stopped in the 2000s. So in various ways, most Republicans in recent years have taken positions that refuse to accept the scientific evidence. And here we are. There are other elements to the story too, like the various advertising campaigns that fossil fuel companies ran to cast doubt upon climate science, but that is the core of the matter. In short, a confluence of economic interest and political ideology, which came to dominate conservative thinking in the USA, has led to the wholesale rejection of the findings of climate scientists by American conservatives as individuals and by the Republican party as an institution.

You’ve recently published a paper about ExxonMobil’s communications strategy from 1977 to 2014. What do your findings tell us about the state of the politics of climate change?

It tells us that things are bad for a reason. Many people want to say that we’re in this mess because people don’t think straight, are irrational, or aren’t clear-headed about dangers that they think are far in the future. And, of course, there’s an element of that in this story, but there’s also a very big elephant in the room, which is the long history of organised systematic climate change denial. My paper co-written with Geoffrey Supran speaks to that. Other people have already written about some of the activities that ExxonMobil was involved with in the past, such as the Global Climate Coalition, a group that in the 1990s worked to prevent the United States from signing on to Kyoto by trying to challenge the scientific basis for it. We tried to do something a little more systematic than what had been done before. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Timesand Inside Climate News published a series of investigative journalism pieces in which they looked at archival documents that reflected the work that ExxonMobil had done on the issue of climate change going back to the 1970s. They showed that the company was well aware as long ago as 1979 of climate change as a risk that would affect their business and had some interesting and serious climate science research going on even within the company. They also found that company employees were collaborating with academics at New York University and in government laboratories to try and better understand the potential threat and what it might mean for the petroleum industry.

When the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News published their articles ExxonMobil claimed they were false and wrong, and that the reporters had cherry-picked the documents. On its website, the corporation issued a challenge. They posted a set of documents that they claimed supported their claims, and refuted the ICN and LA Times. And they challenged the public, saying “read the documents” and make up your own mind.

Geoffrey Supran and I took up the challenge. We read all the documents that Inside Climate News published, we read all the documents that ExxonMobil claimed refuted the Inside Climate News findings, and we also read a set of advertorials – paid advertisements – that ExxonMobil had taken out mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s. And we compared these different communications. What our comprehensive comparison shows beyond any reasonable doubt is that inside ExxonMobil there was a conversation going on that was fully consistent with the evolving science that climate change was real, that it was a serious threat, and that it could lead to oil and gas assets being stranded, but in public ExxonMobil made a decision to run a series of advertisements aimed at the American people in which the message was a message of uncertainty and doubt. Since we published our paper, ExxonMobil has continued to mislead the public about its history of misleading the public.

Your first book choice is The Great Derangement by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh. Those who know him as a novelist may wonder what he has to say about the politics of climate change.

Quite a lot, as anyone who reads the book will see. It’s absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. First, we have a famous, articulate and politically astute novelist taking up the issue of climate change. I think that’s extremely important because one of the arguments that Amitav makes in this book, which I agree with one hundred percent, is that for too long this problem has been discussed as scientific question; it’s mostly been covered by science journalists and written up in the science pages of the newspapers. But it’s fundamentally no longer a scientificquestion. The science — the key scientific issues — have been resolved now for a long time, but it’s a political question because we have to do something about it. It’s an economic question because it has to do with how we run our economies based on fossil fuels, and it’s also a deeply historical question.

Amitav looks at the long history of fossil fuel exploitation and the way it’s linked to colonialism and post-colonialism, and to make the argument that if we’re going to fix this problem, we have to understand the larger historical, economic, and social context as well. The book is also an explicit call for humanists — writers and authors and novelists and others — to become engaged and think through: How did we get into this situation? And how do we get out of it? And as Amitav says, it’s a kind of derangement. We’re on a path that is going to lead to tremendous destruction — what has just happened this week in Houston and Mumbai and Barbuda is exhibit A — and yet most of us are going about our lives as if nothing particularly special is happening. And, as we know, American politicians are going about their lives still in many cases in denial about the basic framework of this problem.

You called Houston exhibit A, but if more and more extreme weather events are part of climate change one could say it’s exhibit F.

You’re right, I only said exhibit A in the sense that it’s the most obvious and immediate right in this moment in American life. But, of course, you’re absolutely right. We’ve had Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Russian fires of a few years ago, and the European heat waves of 2003, not to mention the recent floods in South Asia. There have been all kinds of incidents where we have seen what I call the human face of global warming. We’ve seen how climate change is already impacting people – causing damage and causing death – but somehow we don’t assimilate that. This is the point that Amitav Ghosh is calling ‘the great derangement’, that there is something frankly deranged about having all these things happening in front of our faces that are terrifically costly – both in terms of monetary damages and impacts on people’s lives – and yet somehow we don’t connect the dots. As you say, we could call this exhibit F and we have not connected the dots from A to B to C to D to E to F and also, I would say, to ExxonMobil and all of the fossil fuels companies that even today are continuing to explore for still more oil and gas reserves. That is a kind of craziness.

Roy Scranton, the author of your second choice, Learning to Die in the Anthropocenewrites “civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today”. He also says that “The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, whether we should put up sea walls to protect [Manhattan], or when we should abandon Miami. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, or signing a treaty…The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead.” It seems a very negative place to start.

It is a very dark book and, by recommending it, I’m not suggesting I necessarily agree with everything in it or even necessarily agree with his ultimately bleak assessment, but I do think it’s an extremely important book. I say that for two reasons. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 2:05 pm

The Only Problem in American Politics Is the Republican Party

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine:

Political scientist Lee Drutman argues in a Vox essay that American politics is descending into what he calls “doom-loop partisanship.” Drutman notes that Americans have been “retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with their own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises,” each heavily racialized, in which “[t]here’s no possibility for rational debate or middle-ground compromise. Just two sorted teams, with no overlap, no cross-cutting identities, and with everyone’s personal sense of status constantly on the line.”

Drutman attributes this to winner-take-all elections, the expanding power of the presidency, and the growing influence of money in politics. I think, despite all the very real design flaws in American politics, the problems he describe stem mainly from the pathologies of the Republican Party.

It is certainly true that the psychological relationship between the parties has a certain symmetry. Both fear each other will cheat to win and use their power to stack the voting deck. “If Republicans win in close elections, Democrats say it’s only because they cheated by making it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote; if Democrats win in close elections, Republicans say it’s only because they voted illegally.” But while it is nottrue that Democrats have allowed illegal voting in nontrivial levels, it isextremely true that Republicans have deliberately made voting inconvenient for Democratic-leaning constituencies. The psychology is parallel, but the underlying facts are not.

Likewise, there is a superficial similarity to the terror with which partisans now greet governments controlled by the opposing party. Obama’s presidency made Republicans terrified of rampant socialism and vengeful minority rule. (Rush Limbaugh in 2009 instructed his audience, “In Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’ Of course everybody said the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white.”) Trump’s presidency has inspired a similar terror among liberals terrified that Trump would take their insurance and deport immigrants.

Liberal fears have had a much closer relationship to reality. The reason is that the Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike. Whatever terrors of rampant Jacobinism may have gripped the economic elite, there are limits to the fiscal and regulatory pain Democrats can impose on a constituency that has a seat at the table (many seats, actually).

There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites. Advocates for labor or the poor have no voice whatsoever in the Republican elite. It took a massive national mobilization to narrowly dissuade the party from snatching health insurance away from millions of people too poor or sick to afford it.

Then of course there are the competing tribal epistemologies. There is nothing on the left with the reach and scope of the conservative media universe defined by talk radio, Fox News, and other outlets that have functioned as state media. Certainly pockets of epistemological closure exist, especially in the way social media has allowed curated media streams that exclusively cater to one’s prejudices. But the fact is that the Democratic Party is fundamentally accountable to the mainstream news media. And that media play try to follow rules of objectivity that the right-wing alternative media does not bother with.

The most striking revelation in Devil’s Bargain, Josh Green’s account of the rise of Steve Bannon, is that Bannon understood both the importance and the permeability of the mainstream news media to his ideas and messaging. Bannon knew that the right kind of research could influence the New York Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton, and thereby deeply shape the views of Democratic voters.

Whether or not the Times was correct to use this research, and whether or not it treated Clinton fairly overall, is not the point. What matters is that Democratic politicians need to please a news media that is open to contrary facts and willing — and arguably eager — to hold them accountable. The mainstream media have have its liberal biases, but it also misses the other way — see the Times’ disastrously wrong report, a week before the election, that the FBI saw no links between the Trump campaign and Russia and no intention by Russia to help Trump. One cannot imagine Fox News publishing an equivalently wrong story against the Republican Party’s interests — its errors all run in the same direction. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 1:33 pm

Why Math Is the Best Way to Make Sense of the World

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Ariel Bleicher interviews Rebecca Goldin in Quanta:

When Rebecca Goldin spoke to a recent class of incoming freshmen at George Mason University, she relayed a disheartening statistic: According to a recent study, 36 percent of college students don’t significantly improve in critical thinking during their four-year tenure. “These students had trouble distinguishing fact from opinion, and cause from correlation,” Goldin explained.

She went on to offer some advice: “Take more math and science than is required. And take it seriously.” Why? Because “I can think of no better tool than quantitative thinking to process the information that is thrown at me.” Take, for example, the study she had cited. A first glance, it might seem to suggest that a third of college graduates are lazy or ignorant, or that higher education is a waste. But if you look closer, Goldin told her bright-eyed audience, you’ll find a different message: “Turns out, this third of students isn’t taking any science.”

Goldin, a professor of mathematical sciences at George Mason, has made it her life’s work to improve quantitative literacy. In addition to her research and teaching duties, she volunteers as a coach at math clubs for elementary- and middle-school students. In 2004, she became the research director of George Mason’s Statistical Assessment Service, which aimed “to correct scientific misunderstanding in the media resulting from bad science, politics or a simple lack of information or knowledge.” The project has since morphed into STATS (run by the nonprofit Sense About Science USA and the American Statistical Association), with Goldin as its director. Its mission has evolved too: It is now less of a media watchdog and focuses more on education. Goldin and her team run statistics workshops for journalists and have advised reporters at publications including FiveThirtyEight, ProPublica and The Wall Street Journal.

When Quanta first reached out to Goldin, she worried that her dual “hats” — those of a mathematician and a public servant — were too “radically different” to reconcile in one interview. In conversation, however, it quickly became apparent that the bridge between these two selves is Goldin’s conviction that mathematical reasoning and study is not only widely useful, but also pleasurable. Her enthusiasm for logic — whether she’s discussing the manipulation of manifolds in high-dimensional spaces or the meaning of statistical significance — is infectious. “I love, love, love what I do,” she said. It’s easy to believe her — and to want some of that delight for oneself.

Quanta Magazine spoke with Goldin about finding beauty in abstract thought, how STATS is arming journalists with statistical savvy, and why mathematical literacy is empowering. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

Where does your passion for mathematics and quantitative thought come from?

As a young person I never thought I liked math. I absolutely loved number sequences and other curious things that, in retrospect, were very mathematical. At the dinner table, my dad, who is a physicist, would pull out some weird puzzle or riddle that sometimes only took a minute to solve, and other times I’d be like, “Huh, I have no idea how that one works!” But there was an overall framework of joy around solving it.

When did you recognize you could apply that excitement about puzzles to pursuing math professionally?

Actually very late in the game. I was always very strong in math, and I did a lot of math in high school. This gave me the false sense that I knew what math was about: I felt like every next step was a little bit more of the same, just more advanced. It was very clear in my mind that I didn’t want to be a mathematician.

But when I went to college at Harvard, I took a course in topology, which is the study of spaces. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. It wasn’t calculus; it wasn’t complex calculations. The questions were really complicated and different and interesting in a way I had never expected. And it was just kind of like I fell in love.

You study primarily symplectic and algebraic geometry. How do you describe what you do to people who aren’t mathematicians? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 11:29 am

Posted in Education, Math

A small-footprint shave: Wee Scot, D.R. Harris shave stick, iKon 102, and Alt-Innsbruck

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I decided to try a travel possibility. Using a shave stick with a boar brush is guts ball—boar brushes may well require more soap to load than your stubble scrapes off the shave stick—but I felt comfortable with this set-up. My Wee Scot (from the pre-Vulfix Simpson) has amazing capacity and D.R. Harris makes a great lather. And you can always load the brush directly from the shave stick, treating it as an extremely thick puck of narrow diameter.

Shave sticks are, IMO, fun to use and good for travel. Not everyone can use them: men who are just starting to shave have fine, downy stubble that will not scrape off enough soap for a good loading. And men with thick, coarse, tough, dense, cheese-grater beards find that if they rub the shave stick against the grain all over their beard (as I do), they will have poor lather because it’s just too much soap. Such men generally rub the stick against the grain only in the Van Dyke area—moustache and chin—and work up the lather there initially, then work it into the rest of the beard.

If you’ve not tried a shave stick, give it a go sometime. The D.R. Harris format, with the screw-off top and the extendible stick, is particularly good since the soap is protected. Some artisans also use the same general type of container for their shave sticks, but those are substantially larger than the D.R. Harris shave stick.

A really fine lather quickly arose as I brushed my face with the damp brush, and the 102 made easy work of the shave: very smooth and comfortable and my face almost totally BBS at the end of the second pass. A final pass left my face BBS, and the splash of Alt-Innsbruck was a very pleasant finish.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 9:24 am

Posted in Shaving

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