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Archive for December 10th, 2019

Denmark Raises Antibiotic-Free Pigs. Why Can’t the U.S.?

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Andrew Jacobs reports in the NY Times:

How many rounds of antibiotics does it take to raise a Danish pig?

If it is one of the 35,000 piglets raised each year on Soren Sondergaard’s sprawling farm, odds are the animal will get just a single course before it goes to slaughter.

At times, a quarter or more of his swine arrive at the abattoir without ever having received any antimicrobial drugs at all.

“When I was a boy, we used to pour kilos of antibiotics into their feeding troughs,” said Mr. Sondergaard, 40, whose family has been farming the gently rolling terrain of the Jutland peninsula for generations. “That’s a thing of the past.”

As use of antibiotics in livestock has soared globally, contributing to the rise of drug-resistant germs, Denmark, which ranks among the world’s top pork exporters, has proved that a country can build a thriving industry while sharply cutting back on antibiotic use in pigs.

American pork farmers, too, have been curtailing their use of these medicines, albeit more slowly. Although F.D.A rules bar the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion, some farmers still use them to help fatten pigs and increase profits.

American pork producers use antibiotics at a rate seven times higher than that of Danish farmers, according to a 2018 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The overuse in both humans and livestock is giving dangerous germs more opportunities to evolve and outsmart drugs designed to kill them.

Drug-resistant infections now claim 700,000 lives a year around the world, including 35,000 in the United States. Without bold action, the United Nations has estimated drug-resistant pathogens could claim 10 million lives globally by 2050.

Pork industry officials in the United States argue that antibiotics are essential for keeping animals healthy and food costs low. But Denmark has demonstrated it is possible to create a massive meat-based food supply while preserving the most precious antibiotics for people.

“By changing the way farmers raise their animals, Denmark has shown that you can substantially reduce antimicrobial use in pig production and that it can be done without any long-term impact on productivity,” said Lucie Collineau, a French veterinarian who has studied antimicrobial use in European swine.

The changes in Denmark were achieved through tougher regulations and by removing a financial incentive that had encouraged veterinarians to liberally prescribe antibiotics when farmers requested them.

But much of the about-face occurred voluntarily, as farmers learned to raise animals in ways that kept them healthier. That has included providing pigs with more living space, improving ventilation and hygiene in confinement sheds, and reducing the stress that can make animals more susceptible to infection.

American pork industry officials remain unimpressed. Those who have toured Danish pig farms said in interviews that adopting their practices would markedly increase pork prices.

Some claimed that Denmark’s sparing use of antibiotics has meant that sick pigs go untreated or that farmers must use more antibiotics to cure them — claims disputed by Danish farmers and government officials.

Denmark’s efforts to reduce antibiotic use in pigs hasn’t had any measurable impact on public health, nor has it led to a reduction in disease prevalence among animals, said Dr. Heather Fowler, a veterinarian and the director of producer and public health at the National Pork Board, a trade group financed by pork producers and overseen by the United States government.

Dr. Fowler said the board was instead focused on voluntary antimicrobial stewardship, “which means using the right drug for the right bug for the right amount of time.”

“Our pig farmers are committed to what’s right for pigs, people and the planet,” she said.

Many experts in public health don’t buy it. “The American pork industry’s arguments are spurious and downright embarrassing,” said Dr. Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University.

He said the industry’s critiques of Denmark, Holland and other countries that have slashed antibiotic use are often based on a selective, cynical analysis of the data.

“For the sake of humanity, they need to take some responsibility for their role in this crisis before it’s too late,” he said of American pork producers.

Federal guidelines already discourage the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock, but consumers, it turns out, have proven to be especially powerful change agents. In response to shifting public sentiment, fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Wendy’s no longer buy chicken from growers who use medically important antibiotics. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Industries often seem to operate on bad faith.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 5:56 pm

The Management Myth

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Earlier today I blogged a report of the fecklessness exhibited by McKinsey in their work to “reform Riker’s Island” (code for bilking NYC of millions while making the situation worse). This Atlantic article by Matthew Steward from June 2006 seems apposite:

During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.

The strange thing about my utter lack of education in management was that it didn’t seem to matter. As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration.

After I left the consulting business, in a reversal of the usual order of things, I decided to check out the management literature. Partly, I wanted to “process” my own experience and find out what I had missed in skipping business school. Partly, I had a lot of time on my hands. As I plowed through tomes on competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, and the like, not once did I catch myself thinking, Damn! If only I had known this sooner! Instead, I found myself thinking things I never thought I’d think, like, I’d rather be reading Heidegger! It was a disturbing experience. It thickened the mystery around the question that had nagged me from the start of my business career: Why does management education exist?

Management theory came to life in 1899 with a simple question: “How many tons of pig iron bars can a worker load onto a rail car in the course of a working day?” The man behind this question was Frederick Winslow Taylor, the author of The Principles of Scientific Management and, by most accounts, the founding father of the whole management business.

Taylor was forty-three years old and on contract with the Bethlehem Steel Company when the pig iron question hit him. Staring out over an industrial yard that covered several square miles of the Pennsylvania landscape, he watched as laborers loaded ninety-two-pound bars onto rail cars. There were 80,000 tons’ worth of iron bars, which were to be carted off as fast as possible to meet new demand sparked by the Spanish-American War. Taylor narrowed his eyes: there was waste there, he was certain. After hastily reviewing the books at company headquarters, he estimated that the men were currently loading iron at the rate of twelve and a half tons per man per day.

Taylor stormed down to the yard with his assistants (“college men,” he called them) and rounded up a group of top-notch lifters (“first-class men”), who in this case happened to be ten “large, powerful Hungarians.” He offered to double the workers’ wages in exchange for their participation in an experiment. The Hungarians, eager to impress their apparent benefactor, put on a spirited show. Huffing up and down the rail car ramps, they loaded sixteen and a half tons in something under fourteen minutes. Taylor did the math: over a ten-hour day, it worked out to seventy-five tons per day per man. Naturally, he had to allow time for bathroom breaks, lunch, and rest periods, so he adjusted the figure approximately 40 percent downward. Henceforth, each laborer in the yard was assigned to load forty-seven and a half pig tons per day, with bonus pay for reaching the target and penalties for failing.

When the Hungarians realized that they were being asked to quadruple their previous daily workload, they howled and refused to work. So Taylor found a “high-priced man,” a lean Pennsylvania Dutchman whose intelligence he compared to that of an ox. Lured by the promise of a 60 percent increase in wages, from $1.15 to a whopping $1.85 a day, Taylor’s high-priced man loaded forty-five and three-quarters tons over the course of a grueling day—close enough, in Taylor’s mind, to count as the first victory for the methods of modern management.

Taylor went on to tackle the noble science of shoveling and a host of other topics of concern to his industrial clients. He declared that his new and unusual approach to solving business problems amounted to a “complete mental revolution.” Eventually, at the urging of his disciples, he called his method “scientific management.” Thus was born the idea that management is a science—a body of knowledge collected and nurtured by experts according to neutral, objective, and universal standards.

At the same moment was born the notion that management is a distinct function best handled by a distinct group of people—people characterized by a particular kind of education, way of speaking, and fashion sensibility. Taylor, who favored a manly kind of prose, expressed it best in passages like this:

… the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

From a metaphysical perspective, one could say that Taylor was a “dualist”: there is brain, there is brawn, and the two, he believed, very rarely meet.

Taylor went around the country repeating his pig iron story and other tales from his days in the yard, and these narratives formed something like a set of scriptures for a new and highly motivated cult of management experts. This vanguard ultimately vaulted into the citadel of the Establishment with the creation of business schools. In the spring of 1908, Taylor met with several Harvard professors, and later that year Harvard opened the first graduate school in the country to offer a master’s degree in business. It based its first-year curriculum on Taylor’s scientific management. From 1909 to 1914, Taylor visited Cambridge every winter to deliver a series of lectures—inspirational discourses marred only by the habit he’d picked up on the shop floor of swearing at inappropriate moments.

Yet even as Taylor’s idea of management began to catch on, a number of flaws in his approach were evident. The first thing many observers noted about scientific management was that there was almost no science to it. The most significant variable in Taylor’s pig iron calculation was the 40 percent “adjustment” he made in extrapolating from a fourteen-minute sample to a full workday. Why time a bunch of Hungarians down to the second if you’re going to daub the results with such a great blob of fudge? When he was grilled before Congress on the matter, Taylor casually mentioned that in other experiments these “adjustments” ranged from 20 percent to 225 percent. He defended these unsightly “wags” (wild-ass guesses, in M.B.A.-speak) as the product of his “judgment” and “experience”—but, of course, the whole point of scientific management was to eliminate the reliance on such inscrutable variables.

One of the distinguishing features of anything that aspires to the name of science is the reproducibility of experimental results. Yet Taylor never published the data on which his pig iron or other conclusions were based. When Carl Barth, one of his devotees, took over the work at Bethlehem Steel, he found Taylor’s data to be unusable. Another, even more fundamental feature of science—here I invoke the ghost of Karl Popper—is that it must produce falsifiable propositions. Insofar as Taylor limited his concern to prosaic activities such as lifting bars onto rail cars, he did produce propositions that were falsifiable—and, indeed, were often falsified. But whenever he raised his sights to management in general, he seemed capable only of soaring platitudes. At the end of the day his “method” amounted to a set of exhortations: Think harder! Work smarter! Buy a stopwatch!

The trouble with such claims isn’t that they are all wrong. It’s that they are too true. When a congressman asked him if his methods were open to misuse, Taylor replied, No. If management has the right state of mind, his methods will always lead to the correct result. Unfortunately, Taylor was right about that. Taylorism, like much of management theory to come, is at its core a collection of quasi-religious dicta on the virtue of being good at what you do, ensconced in a protective bubble of parables (otherwise known as case studies).

Curiously, Taylor and his college men often appeared to float free from the kind of accountability that they demanded from everybody else. Others might have been asked, for example: Did Bethlehem’s profits increase as a result of their work? Taylor, however, rarely addressed the question head-on. With good reason. Bethlehem fired him in 1901 and threw out his various systems. Yet this evident vacuum of concrete results did not stop Taylor from repeating his parables as he preached the doctrine of efficiency to countless audiences across the country.

In the management literature these days, Taylorism is presented, if at all, as a chapter of ancient history, a weird episode about an odd man with a stopwatch who appeared on the scene sometime after Columbus discovered the New World. Over the past century Taylor’s successors have developed a powerful battery of statistical methods and analytical approaches to business problems. And yet the world of management remains deeply Taylorist in its foundations.

At its best, management theory is part of the democratic promise of America. It aims to replace the despotism of the old bosses with the rule of scientific law. It offers economic power to all who have the talent and energy to attain it. The managerial revolution must be counted as part of the great widening of economic opportunity that has contributed so much to our prosperity. But, insofar as it pretends to a kind of esoteric certitude to which it is not entitled, management theory betrays the ideals on which it was founded.

That Taylorism and its modern variants are often just a way of putting labor in its place need hardly be stated: from the Hungarians’ point of view, the pig iron experiment was an infuriatingly obtuse way of demanding more work for less pay. That management theory represents a covert assault on capital, however, is equally true. (The Soviet five-year planning process took its inspiration directly from one of Taylor’s more ardent followers, the engineer H. L. Gantt.) Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest—not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class.

I can confirm on the basis of personal experience that management consulting continues to worship at the shrine of numerology where Taylor made his first offering of blobs of fudge. In many of my own projects, I found myself compelled to pacify recalcitrant data with entirely confected numbers. But I cede the place of honor to a certain colleague, a gruff and street-smart Belgian whose hobby was to amass hunting trophies. The huntsman achieved some celebrity for having invented a new mathematical technique dubbed “the Two-Handed Regression.” When the data on the correlation between two variables revealed only a shapeless cloud—even though we knew damn well there had to be a correlation—he would simply place a pair of meaty hands on the offending bits of the cloud and reveal the straight line hiding from conventional mathematics.

The thing that makes modern management theory so painful to read isn’t usually the dearth of reliable empirical data. It’s that maddening papal infallibility. Oh sure, there are a few pearls of insight, and one or two stories about hero-CEOs that can hook you like bad popcorn. But the rest is just inane. Those who looked for the true meaning of “business process re-engineering,” the most overtly Taylorist of recent management fads, were ultimately rewarded with such gems of vacuity as “BPR is taking a blank sheet of paper to your business!” and “BPR means re-thinking everything, everything!”

Each new fad calls attention to one virtue or another—first it’s efficiency, then quality, next it’s customer satisfaction, then supplier satisfaction, then self-satisfaction, and finally, at some point, it’s efficiency all over again. If it’s reminiscent of the kind of toothless wisdom offered in self-help literature, that’s because management theory is mostly a subgenre of self-help. Which isn’t to say it’s completely useless. But just as most people are able to lead fulfilling lives without consulting Deepak Chopra, most managers can probably spare themselves an education in management theory.

The world of management theorists remains exempt from accountability. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 5:32 pm

To Decode the Brain, Scientists Automate the Study of Behavior

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Jordana Cepelewicz has a fascinating article in Quanta:

The quest to understand what’s happening inside the minds and brains of animals has taken neuroscientists down many surprising paths: from peering directly into living brains, to controlling neurons with bursts of light, to building intricate contraptions and virtual reality environments.

In 2013, it took the neurobiologist Bob Datta and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School to a Best Buy down the street from their lab.

At the electronics store, they found what they needed: an Xbox Kinect, a gaming device that senses a player’s motions. The scientists wanted to monitor in exhaustive detail the body movements of the mice they were studying, but none of the usual laboratory techniques seemed up to the task. So Datta’s group turned to the toy, using it to collect three-dimensional motor information from the animals as they explored their environment. The device essentially rendered them as clouds of points in space, and the team then analyzed the rhythmic movement of those points.

Datta’s solution might have been unorthodox at the time, but it’s now emblematic of a wave of automated approaches that are transforming the science of behavior. By studying animals’ behaviors more rigorously and quantitatively, researchers are hoping for deeper insights into the unobservable “drives,” or internal states, responsible for them. “We don’t know the possible states an animal can even be in,” wrote Adam Calhoun, a postdoctoral fellow who studies animal behavior at Princeton University.

Tracing those internal states back to specific activity in the brain’s complex neural circuitry presents a further hurdle. Although sophisticated tools can record from thousands of neurons at once, “we don’t understand the output of the brain,” Datta said. “Making sense of these dense neural codes is going to require access to a richer understanding of behavior.”

That richer understanding may not remain out of reach much longer. Capitalizing on advances in machine learning, scientists are building algorithms that automatically track animals’ movements, down to tiny changes in the angle of a fly’s wing or the arch of a mouse’s back. They’re also creating pattern-finding tools that automatically analyze and classify this data for clues about animals’ internal states.

A key advantage of these methods is that they can pick up on patterns that humans can’t see. In a paper published last month in Nature Neuroscience, Calhoun, with the Princeton neuroscientists Mala Murthy and Jonathan Pillow, built a machine learning model that used behavioral observations alone to identify three internal states underlying the courtship behavior of fruit flies. By manipulating the flies’ brain activity, the researchers were then able to pinpoint a set of neurons that controlled those states.

The work on motion tracking and behavioral analysis that made these findings possible represents a technological revolution in the study of behavior. It also indicates that this success is just one of many to come. Scientists are now applying these methods to tackle questions in neuroscience, genetics, evolution and medicine that seemed unsolvable until now.

Logs and Inventories

Armed with pen, paper and stopwatch, scientists have been quantifying animal behavior in the wild (and in their labs) for decades, watching their subjects sleep and play and forage and mate. They’ve tallied observations and delineated patterns and come up with organizational frameworks to systematize and explain those trends. (The biologists Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for independently performing these kinds of experiments with fish, birds and insects.)

The inventories of behaviors arising from this work could get extremely detailed: A description of a mouse’s grooming in a 1973 Nature article involved a “flurry of forelimbs below face” and “large synchronous but asymmetric strokes of forelimbs over top of head,” with estimates of how likely such gestures might be under different circumstances. Researchers needed to capture all that detail because they couldn’t know which aspects of the observed behaviors might turn out to be important.

Some scientists have taken the opposite tack, reducing animals’ behavioral variability to its bare bones by putting them in controlled laboratory settings and allowing them to make only simple binary decisions, like whether to turn left or right in a maze. Such simplifications have sometimes been useful and informative, but artificial restrictions also compromise researchers’ understanding of natural behaviors and can cause them to overlook important signals. “Having a good grasp on the behavior is really the limiting factor for this research,” said Ann Kennedy, a postdoctoral researcher in theoretical neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology.

That’s why scientists have set out to modernize the field by “thinking about behavior more quantitatively,” according to Talmo Pereira, a graduate student in the labs of Murthy and Joshua Shaevitz at Princeton. And a change that has been instrumental in that makeover has been the automation of both data collection and data analysis.

Tracking Snouts, Spines and Tails

Image-capture technology has always been crucial for tracking the poses of animals in motion. In the 1800s, Eadweard Muybridge used stop-motion photography to tease apart the mechanics of horses running and people dancing. The photos made it easier and more accurate to mark, say, where an animal’s legs were frame by frame, or how its head was oriented. When video technology arrived, researchers were able to take more precise measurements — but these still tended to be based on coarse quantities, such an animal’s speed or its average position. Tracking every movement through three dimensions was impossible. And all the video annotations still had to be laboriously logged into a computer by hand, a process that wasn’t much of an improvement on the older method of drawing in notebooks.

In the 1980s, researchers started adapting computer vision algorithms, which were already being used to find edges and contours in images, for animal behavior problems like tracing the outlines of flies on a surface. Over the next few decades, systems were developed to label the location of an animal in each frame of a video, to differentiate among multiple organisms, and even to start identifying certain body parts and orientations.

Still, these programs weren’t nearly as efficient as scientists needed them to be. “There were a few glimmers of what the future was to hold,” said Iain Couzin, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany. “But nothing really sophisticated could happen until very, very recently, until the advent of deep learning.”

With deep learning, researchers have started to train neural networks to track the joints and major body parts of almost any animal — insects, mice, bats, fish — in every frame of a video. All that’s needed is a handful of labeled frames (for some algorithms, as few as 10 will do). The output appears as colored points transposed over the animal’s body, identifying its nose, tail, ears, legs, feet, wings, spine and so on.

The number of programs that do this has exploded in the past couple of years, fueled not only by progress in machine learning, but by parallel work on mapping human motion by moviemakers, animators and the gaming industry. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including cool illustrations, GIFs, and video.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 4:53 pm

Posted in Science

“Take Five”

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From a column in Open Culture worth reading:

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Jazz, Video

On the Tragedy of Paul Volcker

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Matt Stoller writes at Big:

Today I’m going to do a quick recap of Paul Volcker’s life. Volcker, who died yesterday, was one of the most important men in finance in the last fifty years.

Volcker was an honest man, in many ways a great man, but one whose actions nonetheless helped shatter the American middle class. This wasn’t his intent, but it was what he accidentally wrought. Volcker’s life is a tragedy, not for him, but for the rest of us.

The Volcker Rule

In 2009, when the world was falling apart, a lot of people were asking new President Barack Obama to turn to Paul Volcker, the tall and prestigious former central banker whose reputation was of near God-like stature. Obama did, asking Volcker for advice. But Larry Summers, key advisor to Obama, sabotaged the relationship. Volcker encouraged Obama to stop banks from gambling with internal hedge funds, but Summers wanted banks to keep gambling with internal hedge funds. Summers won the bureaucratic fight.

Volcker’s titanic reputation was by then decades old. But so too was Volcker pursuing honesty in finance, and getting pushed out because of it. In 1986, Ronald Reagan essentially fired Volcker from his position as the head of the Federal Reserve because Paul Volcker was trying to crack down on the junk-bond fueled mergers craze that was clearly corrupting America’s savings and loan banks. Felix Rohatyn, a Democratic fixer and Lazard investment banker, pleaded with the Republicans, “if we sacrifice Paul Volcker for the junk-bond mania, we will clearly show the world that we’ve lost any sense of financial responsibility.”

Here’s a story from 1986, at the height of the frenzy.

Volcker lost the battle at the Fed, and ultimately Alan Greenspan, who was on the payroll of one of the largest corrupt savings and loan banks, took over. Volcker, in pursuing financial rectitude, had no allies except the ‘respect’ of the financial world, which, as it turns out, isn’t worth much at all. And the reason, ironically, is because Volcker killed his greatest would-be allies.

I first ran into Volcker’s career while researching Penn Central, the train system that went bankrupt in 1970 in the greatest then-collapse in American history. It was like the Enron of its time. The Nixon administration tasked the conservative Volcker with overseeing the fiasco, and he was a fairly honest broker. He tried, not very hard, to get a bailout, but when Congressman Wright Patman said no, that was that.

In 1979 Jimmy Carter nominated Volcker to be the head of the Fed. Carter’s advisor warned him that Volcker was the “candidate of Wall Street.” In an era of red-hot inflation, Volcker’s goal was to cut the growth of prices, with the ultimate end of keeping the dollar strong globally. He had popular backing, Americans saw inflation as the most pressing economic problem. Volcker went straight at the auto sector, the unionized pace setting industry which set the informal wage growth patterns of the entire country since the 1950s.

His goal was to crush wages, straight out. To give you a sense of how strongly he felt about this goal, consider that during this period, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, Volcker walked around with a card of union wages in his pocket to remind himself that his goal was to crush the middle class. Volcker even angered Reagan officials by keeping interest rates too high for too long. When they complained, he would pull “out his card on union wages” and note that inflation would not come down permanently until labor “got the message and surrendered.” Volcker said that the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was a “hall of mirrors” and that the “standard of living of the average American must decline.”

Volcker was a deeply conservative, but not corrupt, official. I think the speech that best exemplifies how he thought was one he gave in 1981 before the Economic Club of New York, lauding the bankruptcy and turnaround of the city.

Five years ago, when I last addressed the Economic Club, the preoccupation of the day was the acute financial distress of this great City and State. That big black headline in the Daily News—”Ford to New York: Drop Dead”—was not quite accurate. But in its bold and brazen way, it did carry an essential message. Any lasting solution to our economic problems would have to begin, and end at home.

A month or so ago, I was struck by another headline, this time in a Wall Street Journal editorial: “The Supply Side Saves New York.” Somehow, in five years, New York had become an example for the rest of the country to follow.”

Volcker, in other words, was an ardent fan of austerity. And in his speech, he explicitly noted that New York City had no printing press to get out of the fiscal jam it had been in. That was, as Volcker put it, “fortunate.” Instead, the city had to slash expenditures, particularly on the poor. Volcker hoped that the America would take this lesson to heart nationally, and since he ran the printing press, that’s what he made sure happened. He also believed strongly in slashing taxes, government spending, and in deregulation, as he said to businessmen in Kansas City that year.

Volcker raised interest rates radically, crushing small businesses, farms, banks, and credit unions. To many of his fans, and even his opponents, this was simply what had to be done to get inflation out of the system. But there was a brief experiment, if forgotten, experiment in trying a different path, In the spring of 1980, Jimmy Carter encouraged Volcker not to raise interest rates, but to place “credit controls” onto consumer borrowing. Credit controls are direct public rules on specific lending institutions that make it more or less expensive to lend or borrow, and were a major mechanism to keep inflation out of the system during World War Two and the Korean War. And the Fed had the authority to make it more expensive for banks and financial institutions to issue credit cards and lend money to consumers.

Volcker used these tools incredibly poorly, clumsily even, with some suspecting he was intending to sabotage the use of regulatory tools he didn’t like. Inflation collapsed, as did interest rates and the economy slid rapidly. Within a few months, Volcker and the bankers got rid of credit controls. Inflation and interest rates jumped right back up, and Volcker was able to discredit credit controls. He then inflicted massive pain on the middle class instead of the banking system by using interest rates and monetary policy, instead of explicitly telling big banks to stop lending.

At the same time as Volcker was destroying unions, small banks, small farms, and small businesses, he was structuring the Too Big to Fail model of finance. In 1980, Nelson and Bunker Hunt, two oil billionaire heirs, tried to corner the silver market in league with Arab interests. Volcker organized a bailout. By 1980, Wall Street had gotten the message. Economist Albert Wojnilower explained, “It is now everywhere taken for granted that no monetary authority will allow any key financial actor to fail.”

In the middle of the 1980s, Volcker’s strategy looked like a success. Inflation was gone, the economy was growing, technology seemed to be restructuring society, and the workforce had largely been de-unionized. But there was a something of a mirage, as a bubble in financial leverage through savings and loan banks and junk bonds emerged. Volcker tried to crack down on this bubble, to block the use of junk bonds for certain kinds of seedy transactions. He knew a scumbag when he saw one, and the junk bond peddlers and M&A artists were scum. But by then, his allies against financial corruption, notably the small banks, small business, and unions, were dead or dying. So it was Paul Volcker and all his vaunted respect, versus an army on Wall Street.

There was no contest. The predatory bankers won, as they did again in 2009.

Towards the end of his life, Volcker railed against the corruption he saw everywhere. But he never connected the dots between . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 1:23 pm

New York City Paid McKinsey Millions to Stem Jail Violence. Instead, Violence Soared.

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So of course McKinsey returned the money because they failed to deliver the contracted benefit. (Just joking — of course McKinsey kept the money and, I’ll wager, try to extend the contract to deal with the upsurge in violence.) Ian MacDougall reports in ProPublica:

In April 2017, partners from McKinsey & Company sent a confidential final report to the New York City corrections commissioner. They had spent almost three years leading an unusual project for a white-shoe corporate consulting firm like McKinsey: Attempting to stem the tide of inmate brawls, gang slashings and assaults by guards that threatened to overwhelm the jail complex on Rikers Island.

The report recounted that McKinsey had tested its new anti-violence strategy in what the firm called “Restart” housing units at Rikers. The results were striking. Violence had dropped more than 50% in the Restart facilities, the McKinsey partners wrote.

The number was bogus. Jail officials and McKinsey consultants had jointly rigged the Restart program in its earliest phase to all but guarantee there would be few violent episodes, according to documents and interviews. They stacked the units with inmates they believed to be compliant and unlikely to get into fights or to attack staff.

Publicly, McKinsey and top corrections officials touted the drop in violence in these units as an early sign of their project’s success — without disclosing that they had tilted the scale in favor of that result. After McKinsey handed off the inmate selection process, about a year into the firm’s work at Rikers, jail officials continued to manipulate the population of the Restart units to keep their violence numbers low.

In October of this year, the New York City Council voted to approve Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to close Rikers. The vote occurred during the same month that a federal monitor, appointed by a court to oversee reform at Rikers, revealed that violence by jail guards there continues to worsen. Overall, using the metrics employed by McKinsey, jailhouse violence has risen nearly 50% since the firm began its assignment.

The full story of how New York City came to pay McKinsey $27.5 million only to abandon many of the firm’s recommendations and decide to shut Rikers has never been told. A ProPublica investigation, based on interviews with 36 people, half of whom worked directly on the project, as well as more than 10,000 pages of project documents, internal emails and other records, reveals that problems dogged the project at every stage.

Among the issues that plagued the project: McKinsey, which had never before advised a jail or prison system, made data errors that further undercut the results it reported from Restart units. The firm also persuaded the Department of Correction to spend millions on the sorts of advanced data analytics favored by McKinsey’s corporate clients. The department never ended up using many of the those data products, some of which simply did not work very well.

What happened at Rikers is a cautionary tale of a public-sector consulting boom that has emerged over the past decade. In recent years, government agencies across the United States have entrusted management consultants with more and more facets of public administration, from designing school systems to shaping Medicaid policy. Public-sector consulting in North America is a more than $9 billion industry, with an average yearly growth rate of about half a billion dollars, according to ALM Intelligence, which monitors the consulting business. McKinsey was anxious to expand into a potentially lucrative branch of public-sector work, corrections consulting, according to a former McKinsey consultant who worked on the project.

A McKinsey spokesman defended the firm’s work. “The Restart program had a significantly positive impact in the housing areas of the jails in which the program was piloted,” he said. “These units experienced substantial reductions in violence as measured against comparably classified inmate populations.” He added that morale among corrections staff assigned to the Restart units improved.

The spokesman denied that McKinsey’s consultants were involved in or aware of efforts to “improperly skew or reduce the reported levels of violence in the Restarts.” He added, “We stand behind our team’s professionalism and integrity, and the results of their work.”

The Department of Correction referred a request for comment to the mayor’s office. A spokeswoman there, Avery Cohen, maintained that the decision to hire McKinsey was sound and denied that city officials were involved in manipulating Restart units. “We sought the help of an outside firm for a singular purpose: to reduce the level of violence against staff and inmates and improve the safety of our overall facilities,” Cohen wrote in a statement. “We stand by the reduced rates of violence we saw in our Restart Units.”

But the gaming of the Restart units was confirmed by Joseph Ponte, who was the corrections commissioner from 2014 to 2017 and trumpeted the Restart results in public hearings. In a deposition last year, Ponte was asked whether he had been told that the teams running the Restart units “were cherry-picking docile inmates” to ensure that rates of violence would fall.

“We did that, so that wasn’t news,” Ponte testified. “I was well aware of how we were selecting inmates in the Restarts — very carefully. It was a new process for us, and we wanted it to be successful.”


McKinsey was hired in the wake of media reports in early 2014 that revealed an alarming rise in violence at Rikers. In just two years, the most serious inmate violence and use of force by guards had both jumped more than 50%. The United States attorney’s office in Manhattan began threatening to take legal action to force reforms.

De Blasio, then just a few months into his first term as mayor, faced a groundswell of outrage. His top deputy, Anthony Shorris, and other aides decided to hire a consulting firm. They solicited proposals from firms on a pre-approved list from the previous administration. Despite its lack of corrections experience, McKinsey won the contract.

The mayor’s aides saw hiring a firm like McKinsey as a way to stave off the need for a federal jail monitor, three current and former corrections officials recall from meetings with them. Hiring McKinsey also offered political cover, those sources said, and the imprimatur of having a respected firm tackle the problem.

McKinsey was selected because of its reputation for “dealing with complex organizations” and its history of working with New York City government, according to Shorris, who left the de Blasio administration in late 2017. McKinsey, for example, had previously prepared a report on 9/11 emergency preparedness and, during the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had consulted for the New York Police Department on a reorganization and modernization.

The mayor’s office denied that McKinsey was hired partly to provide political or legal cover, as did Shorris, who is now a senior adviser to McKinsey and teaches at Princeton University.

Early on, the consultants took steps to avoid transparency. At McKinsey’s behest, a few top consultants and corrections officials communicated using Wickr, an encrypted messaging app that automatically deletes messages within hours or days. Ponte and his chief of staff, Jeff Thamkittikasem, downloaded Wickr, a spokeswoman for the mayor said, but neither could recall using it “in any significant way.”

But one person with direct knowledge of the practice said corrections officials and McKinsey consultants exchanged project documents over Wickr. That shielded portions of McKinsey’s work from government oversight bodies and public records requests. “It seems like there’s an intentional act to evade that system of accountability,” said Douglas Cox, an expert on public records law at the City University of New York School of Law. (A spokesman for McKinsey did not dispute that Wickr was used, adding, “our policies require colleagues to adhere to all relevant laws and regulations.”)

McKinsey’s work began in September 2014 with a $1.8 million contract and an ambitious mission: to determine the causes of violence at Rikers and propose solutions.

Almost immediately, signs emerged that McKinsey’s corporate orientation made for an awkward fit. When the consultants pitched Ponte on a proprietary workplace survey, they spotlighted how it helped lift output at a strip mine. “Productivity increased by 50%,” McKinsey’s pitch deck crowed. “~$180MM in annual run rate savings.”

As they formulated a reform plan, the consultants did not solicit the views of inmates, clinic staff or others with direct insights into drivers of violence. The closest the consultants came to interacting with the inmates during this stage was to watch them through Plexiglas from inside guard booths.

McKinsey began adopting the mindset of the correction officers, according to one of its consultants. The firm’s initiatives included facilitating the expanded use of Tasers, shotguns and K9 patrol dogs (“aggressive dogs,” in the words of one McKinsey presentation) at Rikers, a stance that seemed at odds with de Blasio’s claims of wanting to foster a more humane jail system. A McKinsey spokesman said these tactics were intended for use only in extreme situations and were designed to minimize injury while protecting inmate and staff safety.

At a 2015 meeting, a group of McKinsey consultants grew heated reviewing video of a jailhouse assault. There was talk of wanting to beat inmates to get the situation under control, according to a former McKinsey consultant with direct knowledge of the meeting.

Finally, Anish Melwani, a senior McKinsey partner, grew exasperated by the tough-guy posturing. “Guys, you’ve gone native,” the former consultant recalls him saying. “I think you’ve been spending too much time with the correctional officers.” A McKinsey spokesman said its team had no recollection of such a conversation. Melwani, who has since become CEO of luxury retailer LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s North American operations, said he did not recall the specific meeting or comment but “reviewing footage of incidents was a routine part of the work while I was involved, so such a meeting would not have been unique.”


By March 2015, McKinsey and corrections officials had settled on a strategy to curb jail violence, which they called the “14-Point Plan.”

The provisions were straightforward. They ranged from adding educational opportunities for inmates to improving staff training to revamping the internal affairs division.

Some observers thought the recommendations were obvious. “A lot of the points were things the department was saying before they had McKinsey say it,” said Elizabeth Crowley, who at the time chaired the City Council committee that oversaw the Department of Correction.

McKinsey “contributed” to the development of the 14-Point Plan, a spokeswoman for the mayor said, but corrections officials primarily drove its creation and its tenets pre-dated McKinsey.

Top city officials, pleased to have a reform strategy to present to the public, were untroubled. In the spring of 2015, the city extended McKinsey’s engagement, assigning the consultants a long-term task: to help Ponte implement the 14-Point Plan. The firm’s original $1.8 million contract had now grown to more than $6 million.


The Restart units were conceived in early 2015. Outside pressure to fix the city’s jails had increased. The United States attorney’s office had joined a lawsuit over civil rights abuses at Rikers, and city officials were embroiled in often contentious settlement negotiations. The mayor’s top deputy, Shorris, was impatient for signs of improvement.

A series of tense meetings with Shorris in February and March created a sense of urgency for Ponte and his staff. After one particularly stressful meeting, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. Emphases added.

McKinsey seems very like a criminal organization dealing in fraud and coverups.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 12:30 pm

Trump’s Impeachment Is Partisan Because Republicans Changed Their Minds

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

Donald Trump has been committing impeachable offenses since he took office. The president’s high-crimes spree has ranged from accepting undisclosed payments from interested parties to obstructing justice, undermining the law, and sundry abuses of power. Precisely why Democrats have decided to impeach him over these latest offenses is a matter of some controversy on two flanks. Progressive Democrats are agitating for a wider impeachment encompassing a broader, if far from complete, list of Trump abuses. Republicans insist Democrats are only launching impeachment now because the Mueller investigation ended anticlimactically, leaving the opposition panicked at a prospective Trump reelection.

The truth, however, is more anodyne. Democrats are impeaching Trump over the Ukraine scandal in large part because Republicans invited them to do just that.

When the Ukraine scandal burst into the news, a widespread consensus agreed that the allegations were deeply improper, and quite likely impeachable. “I think it would be wildly inappropriate for an American president to invite a foreign country’s leader to get engaged in an American presidential election. That strikes me as entirely inappropriate,” pronounced Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. “If there is evidence of a quid pro quo, many think the dam will start to break on our side,” one Republican told the Washington Examiner in September. “Maybe if he withheld aid and there was a direct quid pro quo,” add another. Even a sycophant like Lindsey Graham conceded at the time that he might support impeachment “if you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.”

Even as the White House has withheld most documentary evidence and testimony from central figures like Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, Rudy Giuliani, and Trump himself, the case has been proved beyond any sliver of a doubt. Trump and his agents communicated to Ukraine through a variety of channels that they intended to trade a presidential meeting and military aid for the announcement of investigations into Trump’s domestic rivals. The terms of the deal are so obvious that even a fraction of the evidence was sufficient to establish it.

The primary effect of the proliferation of evidence upon the Republicans has been to persuade them to change their standards as to what is acceptable presidential conduct. Oklahoma representative Tom Cole said in September that the whistle-blower complaint is “a serious matter, and I will continue to thoughtfully consider information as it becomes available.” But Cole quickly decided that he was tired of considering information thoughtfully. “It doesn’t matter much anymore,” he said last month.

Many members of the mainstream media have defined this response as “partisanship.” A New York Times analysis noted that the parties in Monday’s hearings “presented radically competing versions of reality. CNN’s Chris Cillizza called the hearings “a bunch of adults yelling at one another over matters that almost no one watching understood or cares about.”

The reality is that the parties have, if anything, converged on a shared set of facts, at least as it pertains to the Ukraine scandal. Whereas Republicans previously refused to connect the dots that showed Trump’s Ukraine extortion, they have increasingly accepted reality. They have simply redefined the unacceptable as acceptable.

Ted Cruz, appearing on Meet the Press Sunday, denied that Trump had engaged in a high crime or misdemeanor, without denying the underlying conduct. “I believe any president, any Justice Department,” he insisted, “has the authority to investigate corruption.”

The U.S. government has procedures in place to ascertain whether recipients of foreign aid have taken adequate steps to police corruption, and Ukraine passed the test. Indeed, Ukraine’s government is in the midst of a sweeping reform era, which is precisely why Trump — whose allies are working to recorrupt it — greeted the new regime so suspiciously. The “authority” Cruz is defending is ad hoc power to call any political opponent “corrupt” and demand an investigation. If Trump wants to ask Cuba to investigate Rafael Cruz for taking payments to help cover up the murder of John F. Kennedy Jr., by Ted Cruz’s reckoning, he has every right to do so.

Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has just completed another trip to Ukraine where he is continuing to promote a series of crooked and Russophillic characters and is openly telling the government it needs to give him his favored investigations if it wants Trump’s favor. Trump supported Giuliani’s . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 10:17 am

The Balkans’ Surreal War Memorials

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And that’s just one of the amazing war memorials scattered over the former Yugoslavia. This is one in Croatia. More here.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 9:54 am

Posted in Daily life

Greenland’s ice losses have septupled and are now in line with its highest sea-level scenario, scientists say

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Chris Mooney reports in the Washington Post on a phenomenon whose existence conservatives continue to deny, even though denying reality is a bad survival strategy. He writes:

The Greenland ice sheet’s losses have accelerated so fast since the 1990s it is now shedding more than seven times as much ice each year, according to 89 scientists who use satellites to study the area.

The sheet’s total losses nearly doubled each decade, from 33 billion tons per year in the 1990s to an average now of 254 billion tons annually. Since 1992, nearly 4 trillion tons of Greenland ice have entered the ocean, the new analysis found, equivalent to roughly a centimeter of global sea-level rise.

While a centimeter may not sound like much, that uptick is already affecting millions.

“Around the planet, just 1 centimeter of sea-level rise brings another 6 million people into seasonal, annual floods,” said Andrew Shepherd, a University of Leeds professor who co-led the massive collaboration with NASA researcher Erik Ivins.

The results, from a scientific group called the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE), were published Tuesday in the journal Nature.

The research suggests an alarming pace of change for the Earth’s second-largest body of ice, which could theoretically drive over 20 feet of sea-level rise over a millennium.

[Quiz: How much do you know about ice sheets, and climate change?]

The recent Greenland losses, the experts suggest, match a more dire sea-level projection outlined by the United Nations’ chief climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Under that high-end scenario, Greenland could contribute about 16 centimeters, or around half a foot, to ocean levels by 2100.

“What that means is that really, the midrange scenario becomes what was previously the upper scenario, and they will have to invent a new upper scenario, because one currently doesn’t exist,” Shepherd said.

Much more sea-level rise would then come from melting in Antarctica and smaller glaciers around the world, along with the expansion of ocean water that stems from warmer temperatures. It is not yet clear whether these other components of the sea-level equation are also following the high end, or worst-case, path, however, and the current study was focused only on Greenland. (While Greenland is the biggest contributor to sea-level rise at the present moment, Antarctica ultimately has a larger long-term potential to raise seas.)

Sea-level rise would only continue — and, perhaps, accelerate further — after 2100.

Greenland is the world’s largest island, covered with a continuous sheet of ice produced by many thousands of years of snowfall. The ice sheet’s size rivals that of Alaska, and its center is well over a mile thick.

The ice flows outward under its own weight toward the ocean, but because of Greenland’s mountainous and rocky coastline, it usually reaches the sea in fingerlike glaciers that extend outward through fjords. These fjords are partially submerged valleys, which were themselves excavated over vast stretches of geological time by the glaciers’ movement.

Several large glaciers account for the biggest ice losses — with Jakobshavn Glacier, in central Greenland, leading the way. But there are hundreds of glaciers overall, and now more are losing ice as warming seas come in contact with them through the fjords.

The ice sheet itself is also being exposed to warming air temperatures. Most of Greenland has warmed by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) already, compared with the late 19th century, according to a Washington Post analysis of the globe’s fastest-warming regions. That is double the global average rate of warming.

[Dangerous hot zones are spreading all over the world]

In summer these higher temperatures produce more and more meltwater atop the ice sheet, which also runs into the ocean. A little more than half of the Greenland losses have arisen through this process, the study found, which is now happening too quickly to be offset by annual snowfall.

p class=”font–body font-copy color-gray-darkest ma-0 pad-bottom-md undefined”>The remaining losses are driven by the faster flow of the glaciers out into the extremely deep waters of Greenland’s fjords, where they break off into the ocean in pieces.

This faster flow may account for the fact that the ice sheet is losing more mass than previously expected. More and more glaciers are losing ice, said study co-author Beata Csatho, a Greenland expert at the University at Buffalo. This includes several very large glaciers in Greenland’s far north, she said, which lie closest to the Arctic Ocean and had previously been slow to change.

The new research is based on 26 separate satellite analyses, all individually published as separate studies. These employ a variety of methods to measure the recent change in the Greenland ice sheet.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 8:15 am

The Maggard Razors V3A is a terrific razor, but I would call it the V3E

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First, of course, the lather. My Rooney Style 1 Size 1 worked for an excellent lather from Antica Barbieria Colla’s fine shaving soap. This is a wonderful little brush. The three passes with the Maggard Razors V3A (here mounted on a UFO handle) left my face totally smooth. It is an extremely efficient razor head, but not at all “aggressive” in feel — just in performance.

A splash of Floïd (whose warm fragrance is comforting on a late-fall morning and even the touch of menthol seems not out of place) finished the job. The day is well begun — and tomorrow I finish the series of using my natural-bristle brushes. Just one left (and I bet you know which it is).

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2019 at 8:09 am

Posted in Shaving

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