Later On

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

Archive for March 2nd, 2018

Europe Scopes Out Its Trade Retaliation Options

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Read Kevin Drum’s post. Spot-on.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 6:36 pm

Good questions from Brian Stelter’s newsletter

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He writes:

Just a few of the questions at the end of this wild week:

— Why did John Kelly once again mislead reporters about the Rob Porterscandal timeline on Friday?

Chuck Todd on MSNBC: “Can you believe this White House? Really. Can you
‘believe’ it? Can you believe this president on guns, or on tariffs? Can you believe the White House’s attempts at cleaning up both? How can you?”

— When will Hope Hicks’ resignation take effect? FT’s Courtney Weaver writes:“She leaves a huge void. The question is, who will fill it?”

Jake Tapper: “One friend of President Trump’s told CNN that Hicks’ departure would send the president into a ‘tailspin,’ which of course prompts the question: She hasn’t even left yet. If this isn’t a tailspin, what is it?

Jennifer Rubin’s prediction: “Don’t worry — it’ll get worse. It always does.” What’s next?

Sounds like they’ve had it up to here, and they’re angry, and they’re not going to take it anymore. You recall Network. It’s like that: Mad as hell, and I’m not taking it any more! Life imitates art.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 6:33 pm

The ripple-on effects of the Parkland massacre: Organizing advances

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WBAL’s column by David McFadden explains what’s happening and how it’s happening: for late teens social media is their native tongue: they speak it fluently and understand it easily, and so they are connecting and building a major organization through social media.

Somehow I’m reminded of the opening of The World of Null-A, one of many A.E. van Vogt science-fiction novels that I loved. I don’t quite know what it was, but he was definitely one of my favorites. I think I recall reading that he typed so fast he had single keys for “the”, “she”, and “and”.

At any rate the novel opens with an invasion by hostiles, and the protagonist immediately takes effective action and knows that all others who have mastered the mystic art of Null-A are likewise taking action: not yet coordinated, but all immediate. They knew not what each other thought but instead what turns out to be just about as good, how each other thought, so I suppose it gives them a hive-mind sort of intelligence (as an ant or termite colony is smarter by magnitudes than any individual ant/termite—for example, the colony knows how to do ant farms and build towers optimally oriented wrt the sun), only this hive mind are all those people connected in parallel instead of in series. That society had, in effect, an immune system to isolate society against malignant memes. In fact, exactly this sort of societal immune response is explicitly discussed in Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine.

So we see society’s immune system kick into action. We’ll probably run a fever (or the societal analogue) to help ward off infection. I’m not talking violence: there’s also conversions and ultimately social change in attitudes: thus perhaps the decline in drinking and smoking in public. Neither are gone, but both are greatly diminished, because those became less popular memes.

That seems to be what’s happening with the Parkland event. And I think in part because the language of media has been taught in schools and experience by older practitioners, but those younger immersed in the language and thus learned it deeply, as a language. In linguistics, I believe the new native speakers create a creole.

At any rate, the young communicate effectively by media without having to think about it. They just have the thought and know how to present it as well as you (touch typists) can think the word and let the fingers do their thing with no conscious thought required.

With social media as the distribution channel, the new memes are copied far and wide, and spread rapidly: that’s what “going viral” means: rapid and extensive reproduction of the meme. These new memes are better adapted to modern (today’s… this minute’s) technology, so they are more successful in this environment than memes not so well adapted.

That’s fairly abstract, but it hangs together, I think. And it’s an interesting way to view what we see happening, as exemplified by the account in his column, which begins:

Inspired by the impassioned activism of Florida students who survived last month’s mass shooting, teenagers at one Maryland high school are organizing an effort to provide host families for out-of-town peers attending a late March rally for gun control legislation in the U.S. capital.

The students brainstormed ways to help after a shooting rampage left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They were also stirred to act after a Feb. 21 threat led to the evacuation of their own school in Bethesda, just northwest of Washington, D.C.

“We kind of decided we’re tired of feeling like we can’t do anything,” said 16-year-old Mai Canning, one of the handful of students at Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School behind the effort.

Canning and her friends now have a network of roughly 200 host families — primarily homes with students at Walter Johnson and some other local high schools — in neighborhoods along the Washington-area Metro system. Some have said they will provide free meals or provide Metro cards.

They caution their area peers: “If you are a student, do not indicate your ability to host without asking your parents first.”

The students’ social media post about their hosting effort has been shared thousands of times, including by Parkland, Florida, high school students dealing with the intense emotional fallout of the Feb. 14 shooting rampage. So far, some teens who have sought host families are coming from as far away as California.

“We all live in the D.C. area, we have homes, and it would be really nice to connect with students from all over the country that are passionate about this kind of thing while giving them a place to stay,” said main organizer Gabrielle Zwi, a 17-year-old senior at Walter Johnson.

Marcus Messner, an associate professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University, noted in an email that teens today are “digital natives” who grew up with online social media. He said that enables them to organize quickly around an issue, “as the students at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda are demonstrating.”

He added, “The question always is whether the digital activism can be turned into tangible real-life results. In this case, organizing a mass protest in the capital via social media is an important first step for them. In addition, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in Florida have also demonstrated how savvy they are at organizing via social media while at the same time getting their message out to a national audience via traditional news outlets as well.”

Organizers of the March 24 gun control rally dubbed “March For Our Lives” sought a permit for the National Mall in Washington, but that location was already reserved. The Washington Post reported that a redacted permit application revealed that a “student project” for “filming for a talent show” got the Mall site where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In an email to The Associated Press, National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst clarified that the “March For Our Lives” organizers have since informed officials that they will hold their rally on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 3rd and 12th streets. The federal agency will “work with the organizers to issue permits for affected properties under our jurisdiction,” he said.

The application for the March 24 rally says more than 500,000 attendees are expected.

Oprah Winfrey recently matched a $500,000 donation by George and Amal Clooney to support planned marches of the Florida school shooting survivors and their supporters, including the one expected on March 24 in Washington. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 6:26 pm

A brief Trump history of February

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Worth reading: a Twitter stream of 8 tweets.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 5:22 pm

The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized

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Scott Barry Kaufman writes in Scientific American:

What does it take to succeed? What are the secrets of the most successful people? Judging by the popularity of magazines such as SuccessForbesInc., and Entrepreneur, there is no shortage of interest in these questions. There is a deep underlying assumption, however, that we can learn from them because it’s their personal characteristics–such as talent, skill, mental toughness, hard work, tenacity, optimism, growth mindset, and emotional intelligence– that got them where they are today. This assumption doesn’t only underlie success magazines, but also how we distribute resources in society, from work opportunities to fame to government grants to public policy decisions. We tend to give out resources to those who have a past history of success, and tend to ignore those who have been unsuccessful, assuming that the most successful are also the most competent.

But is this assumption correct? I have spent my entire career studying the psychological characteristics that predict achievement and creativity. While I have found that a certain number of traits— including passion, perseverance, imagination, intellectual curiosity, and openness to experience– do significantly explain differences in success, I am often intrigued by just how much of the variance is often left unexplained.

In recent years, a number of studies and books–including those by risk analyst Nassim Taleb, investment strategist Michael Mauboussin, and economist Richard Frank— have suggested that luck and opportunity may play a far greater role than we ever realized, across a number of fields, including financial trading, business, sports, art, music, literature, and science. Their argument is not that luck is everything; of course talent matters. Instead, the data suggests that we miss out on a really importance piece of the success picture if we only focus on personal characteristics in attempting to understand the determinants of success.

Consider some recent findings:

The importance of the hidden dimension of luck raises an intriguing question: Are the most successful people mostly just the luckiest peoplein our society? If this were even a little bit true, then this would have some significant implications for how we distribute limited resources, and for the potential for the rich and successful to actually benefit society (versus benefiting themselves by getting even more rich and successful).

In an attempt to shed light on this heavy issue, the Italian physicists Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Raspisarda teamed up with the Italian economist Alessio Biondo to make the first ever attempt to quantify the role of luck and talent in successful careers. In their prior work, they warned against a “naive meritocracy”, in which people actually fail to give honors and rewards to the most competent people because of their underestimation of the role of randomness among the determinants of success. To formally capture this phenomenon, they proposed a “toy mathematical model” that simulated the evolution of careers of a collective population over a worklife of 40 years (from age 20-60).

The Italian researchers stuck a large number of hypothetical individuals (“agents”) with different degrees of “talent” into a square world and let their lives unfold over the course of their entire worklife. They defined talent as whatever set of personal characteristics allow a person to exploit lucky opportunities (I’ve argued elsewhere that this is a reasonable definition of talent). Talent can include traits such as intelligence, skill, motivation, determination, creative thinking, emotional intelligence, etc. The key is that more talented people are going to be more likely to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ out of a given opportunity (see here for support of this assumption).

All agents began the simulation with the same level of success (10 “units”). Every 6 months, individuals were exposed to a certain number of lucky events (in green) and a certain amount of unlucky events (in red). Whenever a person encountered an unlucky event, their success was reduced in half, and whenever a person encountered a lucky event, their success doubled proportional to their talent (to reflect the real-world interaction between talent and opportunity).

What did they find? Well, first they replicated the well known “Pareto Principle“, which predicts that a small number of people will end up achieving the success of most of the population (Richard Koch refers to it as the “80/20 principle“). In the final outcome of the 40-year simulation, while talent was normally distributed, success was not. The 20 most successful individuals held 44% of the total amount of success, while almost half of the population remained under 10 units of success(which was the initial starting condition). This is consistent with real-world data, although there is some suggestion that in the real world, wealth success is even more unevenly distributed, with just eight men owning the same wealth as the poorest half of the world.

Although such an unequal distribution may seem unfair, it might be justifiable if it turned out that the most successful people were indeed the most talented/competent. So what did the simulation find? On the one hand, talent wasn’t irrelevant to success. In general, those with greater talent had a higher probability of increasing their success by exploiting the possibilities offered by luck. Also, the most successful agents were mostly at least average in talent. So talent mattered.

However, talent was definitely not sufficient because the most talented individuals were rarely the most successful. In general, mediocre-but-lucky people were much more successful than more-talented-but-unlucky individuals. The most successful agents tended to be those who were only slightly above average in talent but with a lot of luck in their lives.

Consider the evolution of success for the most successful person and the least successful person in one of their simulations: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 3:17 pm

Qatar Refused to Invest in Kushner’s Firm. Weeks Later, Jared Backed a Blockade of Qatar.

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Jared plays hardball, but this is not an appropriate use of his government position. Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine:

Jared Kushner’s father met with Qatar’s minister of finance last April, to solicit an investment in the family’s distressed asset at 666 Fifth Avenue, according to a new report from the Intercept.

The Qataris shot him down.

Weeks later, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates organized a blockade of Qatar. The Gulf monarchies claimed that this act of aggression was a response to Donald Trump’s call for the Arab worldto crack down on terrorists — after taking in the president’s majestic sermon in Riyadh, the Saudis simply couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t take action to thwart Qatar’s covert financing of Islamist extremism.

In reality, the Saudis’ primary aim was to punish Doha for asserting its independence from Riyadh by, among other things, engaging with Iran and abetting Al Jazeera’s journalism. This was obvious to anyone familiar with the Saudis’ own affinity for (shamelessly) exporting jihadism — which is to say, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Middle East politics.

And it was equally obvious that the United States had nothing to gain from a conflict between its Gulf allies. Qatar hosts one of America’s largest and most strategically important air bases in the Middle East. Any development that pushes Doha away from Riyadh pulls it toward Tehran. Thus, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — and virtually every other arm of the U.S. government — scrambled to nip the blockade in the bud.

But Jared Kushner was (reportedly) an exception. Donald Trump wasmore than happy to endorse the idea that his speech had moved mountains, and commended the Saudis for punishing Qatar — first on Twitter, and then during a press conference in the Rose Garden. According to contemporary reports, his son-in-law was one of the only White House advisers to approve of this stance.

Perhaps, Kushner’s idiosyncratic view of the blockade had nothing to do with Qatar’s rejection of his father. Maybe the senior White House adviser simply wanted to tell Trump what the latter wished to hear.

But the government of Qatar, for one, thinks otherwise. As NBC Newsreports:

Qatari government officials visiting the U.S. in late January and early February considered turning over to Mueller what they believe is evidence of efforts by their country’s Persian Gulf neighbors in coordination with Kushner to hurt their country, four people familiar with the matter said. The Qatari officials decided against cooperating with Mueller for now out of fear it would further strain the country’s relations with the White House, these people said.

It’s worth noting that the project the Qatari foreign minister refused to finance wasn’t just one more item in the Kushner family’s portfolio; it was Jared’s baby — his misbegotten, sickly, drowning baby.

In 2007, Jared Kushner decided that the real-estate market had nowhere to go but up. And so the 26-year-old mogul decided to plow $500 million of his family’s money — and $1.3 billion in borrowed capital — into purchasing 666 Fifth Avenue for twice the price it had previously sold for. Even if we’d somehow avoided a global financial crisis, this would have been a bad bet: Before the crash, when the building was almost fully occupied, it generated only about two-thirds of the revenue the Kushners needed to keep up with their debt payments.

After the crisis, however, things got really hairy. The Kushners were forced to sell off the building’s retail space to pay their non-mortgage debt on the building — and then to hand over nearly half of the office space to Vornado as part of a refinancing agreement with the real-estate giant.

The office space that the Kushners retained is worth less than its $1.2 billion mortgage — which is due early in 2019. If their company can’t find some new scheme for refinancing and redeveloping the property by then, Kushner will have cost his family a fortune.

And Jared really doesn’t want that to happen. In the months between his father-in-law’s election and inauguration, Kushner divided his time between organizing the transition, and seeking capital from (suddenly quite interested) investors aligned with foreign governments: During that period, . ..

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 2:31 pm

SEC dropped inquiry a month after firm aided Kushner company

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This stinks. Stephen Braun, Bernard Condon, and Tami Abdollah report for Associated Press:

The Securities and Exchange Commission late last year dropped its inquiry into a financial company that a month earlier had given White House adviser Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm a $180 million loan.

While there’s no evidence that Kushner or any other Trump administration official had a role in the agency’s decision to drop the inquiry into Apollo Global Management, the timing has once again raised potential conflict-of-interest questions about Kushner’s family business and his role as an adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.

The SEC detail comes a day after The New York Times reported that Apollo’s loan to the Kushner Cos. followed several meetings at the White House with Kushner.

“I suppose the best case for Kushner is that this looks absolutely terrible,” said Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Without presuming that there is any kind of quid pro quo … there are a lot of ways that the fact of Apollo’s engagement with Kushner and the Kushner businesses in a public and private context might cast a shadow over what the SEC is doing and influence consciously or unconsciously how the agency acted.”

Apollo said in its 2018 annual report that the SEC had halted its inquiry into how the firm reported the financial results of its private equity funds and other costs and personnel changes. Apollo had previously reported that the Obama administration SEC had subpoenaed it for information related to the issue.

The SEC, which often makes such inquiries of financial firms, declined Friday to comment on the probe or its decision to halt it.

Apollo said the company founder who met with Jared Kushner did not discuss with him “a loan, investment, or any other business arrangement or regulatory matter involving Apollo.” It added that the Kushner loan to refinance a Chicago skyscraper went through the “standard approval process” and that the founder was not involved in the decision.

Kushner Cos. said in a statement that the implication that Kushner’s position in the White House had affected the company’s relationships with lenders is “without substantiation.”

Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Jared Kushner attorney Abbe Lowell, had no comment on the dropped SEC inquiry or whether it was influenced by Kushner’s contacts with Apollo. He added that Kushner has “had no role in the Kushner Companies since joining the government and has taken no part of any business, loans or projects with or for the Companies after that.”

According to the Times report, Kushner also met with the CEO of Citigroup at the White House early last year. Property records show that Citigroup lent $325 million in March to Kushner Cos. and two partners for a collection of buildings in Brooklyn.

Both lenders had important business before the federal government last year, according to lobbying records and regulatory filings. Both Apollo and Citigroup were pushing for tax breaks in the recently passed overhaul, and Citigroup was lobbying for a rollback of some financial crisis regulation.

Combined, the two companies spent nearly $7 million on lobbying last year. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 2:18 pm

Donald Trump says trade wars are ‘good, and easy to win.’ He’s flat-out wrong

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Henry Farrell, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, writes in the Washington Post:

In a tweet Friday, President Trump said that trade wars were “good, and easy to win.”

Trump’s argument is causing turmoil on stock markets. It is also based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how trade works. Here’s what you need to know.
Trade has benefits — even when you are running a trade deficit
Trump’s claims are a reversion to the “mercantilist” thinking that used to characterize arguments about trade centuries ago. Under this logic, trade was a zero-sum game. If I were a ruler, and my country bought more from your country than vice versa, this suggested that my country was losing and yours was winning. As the classical economist David Ricardo pointed out two centuries ago, this argument wasn’t really true. Ricardo’s simple model of “comparative advantage” has been replaced by more sophisticated models, but the basic argument remains straightforward. Different countries are able to produce particular goods more or less efficiently. The more free trade there is, the easier it will be to take advantage of these efficiencies in a kind of international division of labor.
This is what President Trump doesn’t understand. He seems to think that a big deficit means that other countries are winning and America is losing. Hence, he argues that it makes sense for the United States not to trade with countries with which it is running big trade deficits.
However, this would involve America cutting off its nose to spite its face. By withdrawing from trade with those countries, America would no longer be able to reap the benefits of trade’s efficiencies. Consumers would pay higher prices for goods. Furthermore, many American manufacturers would probably be hurt, too. Manufacturing these days often involves global supply chains, in which manufacturers source basic inputs or components from overseas suppliers. Blocking trade with some countries would disrupt these supply chains, causing enormous trouble and possible job losses.
Trade is still political
This does not mean that trade benefits everybody. When trade increases, some domestic industries and some social groups win, while others lose. This point sometimes gets lost in public debate. As Robert Driskill points out, economists have a tendency to gloss over the fact that actual free trade agreements involve winners and losers. Economists often scorn their opponents as Luddites  but the original Luddites had a point. They were weavers working in a free market system whose livelihood was destroyed by economic innovation. The sophisticated case for free trade involves compensation paid by the winners to the losers, as some economists have come to recognize.
For example, the United States used to have a much bigger domestic steel industry, which employed workers with good wages and pensions. As international trade increased, U.S. firms that use steel benefited from cheaper suppliers. However, domestic steel producers found it hard to compete, and many of them went out of business. U.S. steel workers found themselves losing jobs, and many of them saw their pensions evaporate into thin air.
In theory, the winners from increased trade could have compensated the losers. In practice, that didn’t really happen in the United States. The United States has a “trade adjustment assistance” program for workers who have lost their jobs because of trade. However, it is very poorly funded, and its assistance is difficult to get.
This may help explain the backlash against trade
As Jeffry Frieden notes in a new working paper, U.S. voters have become increasingly dubious about international economic integration since the 2000s. This may be partly driven by the unwillingness of the winners from increased trade to compensate the losers, and by the consequences this has had for America’s political geography. This has had consequences for politics. As Frieden summarizes the academic research. . .

Continue reading.

Also at the link: an explanatory 2-minute video.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 12:46 pm

A major new report on gun deaths

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Greg Sargent writes in the Washington Post:

With thousands and thousands of their fellow Americans suffering violent, premature deaths from gun violence each year, many of our elected lawmakers — mostly but not exclusively Republicans — like to say that they would gladly support further regulations on guns if only they would work.

So those lawmakers will surely be pleased to learn that a major new report from the Rand Corp. confirms that there is indeed credible evidence that some of the policy tools already known to us actually do prevent firearm murders and suicides. Even better, the report also illustrates other big steps we could be taking — right now — to directly address those lawmakers’ own stated concerns about the efficacy of further actions.

President Trump and some Republicans have actually endorsed one of those policy tools — background checks. After the Florida massacre, Trump came out for comprehensively expanding the federal background-check system. There has been talk of reviving legislation to close the holes in the system, which failed in 2013 not long after the Sandy Hook shooting, and that bill had a bit of GOP support. Others have endorsed a bipartisan bill to improve the background-check system by facilitating the sharing of data with it, a modest but not meaningless step.

But this morning, we learn that Trump may already be caving to the National Rifle Association and backing off of even entertaining these steps. The NRA’s chief lobbyist tweeted that Trump privately indicated he doesn’t “want gun control.” Trump tweeted that their meeting was “great,” and the White House isn’t elaborating. GOP Senate leaders now say the upper chamber may not act at all anytime soon.

The new report from Rand reveals what a depraved dereliction of responsibility doing nothing yet again will really amount to. The report represents a serious effort to fill huge holes in our empirical knowledge about gun policy — holes that are there by choice, in part because Congress has badly underfunded research and data collection on the topic. The Rand report undertook a comprehensive review of an enormous amount of recent studies on more than a dozen gun policies — then whittled that down to around five dozen that passed its methodological standards, and summarized the conclusions.

The key findings, for purposes of the current debate, are as follows:

  • There is credible evidence that policies implementing background checks do reduce firearm homicides and suicides, and there is reason to believe expanding these checks would have a similar effect.
  • There is credible evidence that gun prohibitions associated with mental illness reduce firearm violence (though there’s more limited evidence that they reduce firearm suicides).
  • There is more solid evidence that child-safety measures reduce unintentional injuries and deaths.
  • Rand did find that the evidence on the efficacy of other policies — such as bans on assault-style weapons and raising the minimum age for purchases — is inconclusive.
  • But, while that last point will draw a lot of attention and spin, the report actually confirms that this conclusion reflects the lack of quality research on gun violence, which itself bolsters the case for more action, in the form of greater investments in more research and data collection.
  • Indeed, the report importantly concludes that there has been a shocking dearth in funding on those fronts, compared with research funding for other leading causes of deaths in the United States.

“If you look at how much the federal government spends on research related to different causes of mortality that kill about the same number of people,” Andrew Morral, project director of Rand’s gun research effort, told me, “you find the government spends less than two percent as much on gun violence and gun policy.”

The lack of research on gun deaths should be a national scandal

One of Rand’s most important conclusions is summarized in this chart, which is based on a separate 2017 study:

The important point that Rand makes about this conclusion is that it is directly related to the finding that much of the evidence on other policies is inconclusive. Rand notes that the amount of congressional spending on such research previously was much higher, but that in 1996, Congress passed NRA-backed limitations on such funding, on the grounds that it might “advocate” for “gun control,” which has led to dramatically less research ever since. In part because of this, Rand concludes:

With a few exceptions, there is a surprisingly limited base of rigorous scientific evidence concerning the effects of many commonly discussed gun policies. This does not mean that these policies are ineffective; they might well be quite effective.

Rand notes that the evidence is “inadequate” on the efficacy of many policies, due to the “relatively scarce attention that has been focused on better understanding these effects.” The Rand study concludes that right now, Congress should lift limitations on such funding and spend more on gun research.

“The fact that we didn’t find a lot of evidence either for or against many of these policies and their effects doesn’t say anything about whether the policies are effective,” Morral told me. “It’s a comment about how well developed the science is.”

We’re carrying out a searing national debate over a severe problem afflicting thousands of Americans each year — but we’re largely flying blind. One can envision treating the broader gun violence problem the way we’ve treated other public health epidemics, such as smoking and automobile safety — while respecting the uniqueness of the gun debate created by the Constitution’s individual right to gun ownership — but we need good data to make effective and enlightened public policy. That we aren’t funding it adequately is just indefensible, especially given the outsize importance this issue is taking on and the degree to which it tears deeply at the civic and cultural fabric each time there is a massacre.

That is something people who question the efficacy of gun regulations should want, especially since some of them regularly claim those who want action are driven by pure emotion. If not, their position is not just that they don’t support additional regulations because they don’t think they’ll work, but also that they don’t want to know whether they’ll work. If they think gaining this knowledge — which, again, could help mitigate a national problem they say they want to solve — isn’t advisable or worth the spending, they should defend that.

There is evidence that background checks work

After examining multiple studies of state- and federal-level background-check policies, Rand concluded that the existing research provides “moderate evidence” that background-check laws reduce firearm suicides and homicides.

“Moderate evidence” means more than it first appears. In this report’s methodology, “moderate evidence” actually means that “two or more studies” found “significant” such effects, even as “contradictory evidence was not found in other studies with equivalent or stronger methods.” In other words, the evidence is credible — the second-strongest category of evidence RAND employs, after “supportive evidence.”

“The evidence is stronger for those effects than for most other gun policy effects,” Morral told me, adding that the influence of background checks “on homicides and suicides appears to be a significant effect.”

This has direct bearing on the current debate. One oft-discussed reformwould close the holes in the current federal background-check system by subjecting private sales to checks, a hole that prohibited buyers exploit via the Internet and other means. The Rand study concludes that the evidence is “limited” on the impact of applying background checks to private sellers in particular. But Rand notes that, again, this may reflect our lack of good research on the question.

This represents a statement “about how much evidence there is,” Morral told me. “It could well be that with the right data, you could find that homicides are largely conducted by people who manage to evade a background check. We can’t answer that question right now.”

Indeed, the Rand report flatly states that the evidence that background checks generally work suggests that “it seems likely that extending those same background checks to private sales of firearms could further reduce firearm suicides and homicides.”

Morral told me this conclusion can also reasonably be applied to more modest proposals to facilitate data-sharing with the federal background-check system, such as the “Fix NICS Act,” which some Republicans (and even the NRA) support. And by the way, the Rand findings suggest good grounds for pushing for improved background-check policies on the level of the states as well, where needed.

The study did find that the evidence is “limited” on the impact of assault-style weapons bans. Liberals, too, should acknowledge that this debate is riddled with big unknowns about the efficacy of such policies, or they risk lending support to the conservative argument that they merely want to “do something” with little regard for what will work. Indeed, there’s an argument for focusing mainly on improving and expanding background checks — rather than on assault-style restrictions, which suffer from definitional problems and are inherently more controversial — and on boosting funding for research.

We’re flying blind

But ultimately, all of this leads back to the problem that in this national debate, we’re crippling ourselves with a lack of good science. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 12:01 pm

Why Is California Rebuilding in Fire Country? Because You’re Paying for It

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California officials efuse to learn from experience. Christopher Flavelle writes in Bloomberg:

At the rugged eastern edge of Sonoma County, where new homes have been creeping into the wilderness for decades, Derek Webb barely managed to save his ranch-style resort from the raging fire that swept through the area last October. He spent all night fighting the flames, using shovels and rakes to push the fire back from his property. He was even ready to dive into his pool and breathe through a garden hose if he had to. His neighbors weren’t so daring—or lucky.

On a recent Sunday, Webb wandered through the burnt remains of the ranch next to his. He’s trying to buy the land to build another resort. This doesn’t mean he thinks the area won’t burn again. In fact, he’s sure it will. But he doubts that will deter anyone from rebuilding, least of all him. “Everybody knows that people want to live here,” he says. “Five years from now, you probably won’t even know there was a fire.”

As climate change creates warmer, drier conditions, which increase the risk of fire, California has a chance to rethink how it deals with the problem. Instead, after the state’s worst fire season on record, policymakers appear set to make the same decisions that put homeowners at risk in the first place. Driven by the demands of displaced residents, a housing shortage, and a thriving economy, local officials are issuing permits to rebuild without updating building codes. They’re even exempting residents from zoning rules so they can build bigger homes.

State officials have proposed shielding people in fire-prone areas from increased insurance premiums—potentially at the expense of homeowners elsewhere in California—in an effort to encourage them to remain in areas certain to burn again. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spent a record $700 million on fire suppression from July to January, yet last year Governor Jerry Brown suspended the fee that people in fire-prone areas once paid to help offset those costs.

Critics warn that those decisions, however well-intentioned, create perverse incentives that favor the short-term interests of homeowners at the edge of the wilderness—leaving them vulnerable to the next fire while pushing the full cost of risky building decisions onto state and federal taxpayers, firefighters, and insurance companies. “The moral hazard being created is absolutely enormous,” says Ian Adams, a policy analyst at the R Street Institute, which advocates using market signals to address climate risk. “If you want to rebuild in an area where there’s a good chance your home is going to burn down again, go for it. But I don’t want to be subsidizing you.”

The building boom has vastly increased the potential damages from fire. In 1964 the Hanly Fire in Sonoma County destroyed fewer than 100 homes. Last fall the Tubbs Fire, which covered almost the same ground, destroyed more than 5,000 homes and killed 22 people. And though it was the most destructive, the Tubbs Fire was just one of 131 across California in October. By the end of the year, more than 1 million acres had been burned and 10,000 buildings destroyed.

The next fire may be worse. Sonoma has begun issuing building permits for houses to go back up. Rather than strengthening building codes, the county has weakened rules—passing temporary ordinances that let people expand their homes beyond their previous size and waiving development fees for new units. Other areas hit by fires in 2017, including Anaheim and Ventura, have similarly exempted homeowners from some ­zoning rules.

Susan Gorin, one of Sonoma’s five elected county supervisors, represents some of the areas hardest hit by the fires. While acknowledging the dangers, Gorin, who lost her own home, says the county has made clear that residents will be allowed to rebuild. “One could make the argument that people were not meant to live in those environments,” she says. But she doesn’t feel it’s her place to make that call. “From my perspective, it is very difficult for governments or anyone to tell another person, another property owner, that they could not, should not, rebuild.”

One of the issues, in Gorin’s view, is fairness: Why should the people whose homes burned be penalized and not those whose homes were spared? “It’s pretty hard to say what is defensible and what is not defensible,” she says. “Are we telling the fire victims that they can’t rebuild, but we’re going to let the other folks remain in place?”

Ray Rasker has been thinking about this issue for years. As a consultant in Montana, he advises governments on how to reduce the damage from wildfires while allowing for development. He says officials’ motive for allowing rebuilding has less to do with fairness than it does with money. “The economics of the West have changed,” he says. Twenty years ago, local budgets came largely from resource extraction, including lumber, oil and gas, and mining. “The new cash cow is homebuilding,” Rasker says. “When they look at a new subdivision, they’re thinking tax revenues. And that clouds their judgment.”

Rasker says part of the problem is perverse incentives: Local officials know that most of the cost of fire suppression and disaster recovery will be paid by state and federal taxpayers. But he warns that putting homes at the forest’s edge costs communities more than they realize. “The suppression cost is about 10 percent of the total,” he says. The rest is harder to see: reduced home values, lost tax revenue, higher insurance costs, closed businesses, even higher medical bills. He estimates half the cost of a wildfire is ultimately borne by the community affected.

onetheless, local officials almost always decide that rebuilding makes sense despite the risk that the houses will burn again. Anu Kramer, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, looked at what happened to 3,000 buildings destroyed by wildfires in California from 1970 to 1999. She found that 94 percent were rebuilt. The result is that fires consistently—and predictably—destroy homes in the same place. . .

Continue reading.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 11:15 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Destroying Jared Kushner (a play in five acts)

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Jim Vanderhei writes at Axios:

It’s no secret a lot of people inside and outside the White House want Jared Kushner gone. They think he’s too inexperienced, too compromised by conflicts of interest and the Russia probe, and too ineffective.

The big picture: Their revenge against him this week has been brutal, sustained, at times brilliant, and potentially lethal. What has unfolded is not the work of coincidence: it is the slit-by-slit slow bleed of a top adviser and son-in-law to the president.

(Worth noting: Jared and Ivanka have outlasted many before — Corey Lewandowski, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, among them. And there’s been a rule to not cross the family. But that rule is cracking and they now face their greatest test of survival yet.)

Act I: The knee-capping

The public humiliation of losing his top security clearance was telegraphed and then executed by Chief of Staff John Kelly. It was promptly leaked. Kushner, who fancied himself a de facto Secretary of State and peacemaker, lost access to the power of information.

  • White House staff instantly turned unafraid to leak against Jared to reporters. He’s no longer seen as untouchable. Actually now seen as almost frail. They say he’s naive and has dim political insights.
  • At the same time, he lost his top image-shaper Josh Raffel, just when he needs him most. (Kushner has known for a while Raffel is leaving, but that doesn’t make the blow any easier.)

Act II: The humiliation

Nothing’s worse for ego and perception than to be seen as easy prey.  Cue the leak to the Washington Post: Foreign governments reportedly discussed ways to manipulate Kushner, “current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter” told the paper. They said his business dealings left him vulnerable.

Act III: The Godfather turns

Rupert Murdoch, the master of Fox and the Wall Street Journal, has advised Kushner for years. They are allies, friends, mentor and mentee. There was nothing friendly about the lead editorial in Murdoch’s paper politely suggesting the “knives are out” and it’s time for Jared to skip town. “Giving up their White House positions would be a bitter remedy, but Mr. Kushner and first daughter Ivanka could still offer advice as outsiders.”

Act IV: The plot

You can’t execute family without cause. The whispers, which turned into constant conversation, which turned into screaming headlines, is that Kushner mixed too much personal business with official governmental work.

  • Kushner, the New York Times revealed on its front page, took White House meetings with private equity billionaires and his family business benefited from their loans afterward. There is “little precedent for a top White House official meeting with executives of companies as they contemplate sizable loans to his business.”

Act V: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 10:42 am

A French shave to say “Au revoir” to The Wife as she sets out for Paris

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An all-French shave this morning. The Plisson HMW 12 with horn handle made a very nice lather from the organic asses’ milk shaving soap. Steve of Quebec found that this is a soap that requires the lid to be replaced after shaving or it loses its mojo (in contrast to Martin de Candre shaving soap, for which it’s advised to leave the lid off once the soap is being used).

The Eros slant delivered a fine shave, close and smooth, and a splash of l’Occitane finished the job. So for the next few weeks it will be just Molly and me. (She’s resting her head on my pillow. Fortunately, I am not allergic to cats.)

Written by LeisureGuy

2 March 2018 at 10:08 am

Posted in Shaving

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