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10,000 Hours With Claude Shannon: How A Genius Thinks, Works, and Lives

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Jimmy Soni writes at Medium:

For the last five years, we lived with one of the most brilliant people on the planet.

Sort of.

See, we just published the biography of Dr. Claude Shannon. He’s the most important genius you’ve never heard of, a man whose intellect was on par with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

We spent five years with him. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, during that period, we spent more time with the deceased Claude Shannon than we have with many of our living friends. He became something like the roommate in the spare bedroom of our minds, the guy who was always hanging around and occupying our head space.

Yes, we were the ones telling his story, but in telling it, he affected us, too. Geniuses have a unique way of engaging with the world, and if you spend enough time examining their habits, you discover the behaviors behind their brilliance. Whether or not we intended it to, understanding Claude Shannon’s life gave us lessons on how to better live our own.

That’s what follows in this essay. It’s the good stuff our roommate left behind.

Claude, Who?

His name may not ring a bell. Don’t worry, we didn’t know who he was either when we started.

So who was he?

Within engineering and mathematics circles, Shannon is a revered figure. Claude Shannon’s work in the 1930s and 1940s earned him the title of “father of the information age.” At the age of 21, he published what’s been called the most important master’s thesis of all time, explaining how binary switches could do logic. It laid the foundation for all future digital computers.

He wasn’t done. At the age of 32, he published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which has been called “the Magna Carta of the information age.” Shannon’s masterwork invented the bit, or the objective measurement of information, and explained how digital codes could allow us to compress and send any message with perfect accuracy.

But that’s not all he did.

Claude Shannon wasn’t just a brilliant theoretical mind — he was a remarkably fertile, fun, practical, and inventive one as well. There are plenty of mathematicians and engineers who write great papers. There are fewer of them who, like Shannon, are also jugglers, unicyclists, gadgeteers, first-rate chess players, codebreakers, expert stock-pickers, and amateur poets.

He worked on the top-secret transatlantic phone line connecting FDR and Winston Churchill during World War II and co-built what was arguably the world’s first wearable computer. He learned to fly airplanes and played the jazz clarinet. He rigged up a false wall in his house that could rotate with the press of a button, and he once built a gadget whose only purpose when it was turned on was to open up, release a mechanical hand, and turn itself off. Oh, and he once had a photo spread in Vogue magazine.

Think of him as a cross between Albert Einstein and the Dos Equis guy.

Asking the questions he probably wouldn’t

We aren’t mathematicians or engineers; we write books and speeches, not code. That meant we had a steep learning curve in making sense of his work.

But that was sort of the point: We had to learn everything from scratch and make it sensible on the page. Had we approached this book as experts, we might have been tempted to go deeper and deeper into the details of Shannon’s theorems, diagrams, and proofs.

But because we approached this book as learners, we were particularly interested in a broader, more generalist set of questions: how does a mind like Claude Shannon’s work? What shapes a mind like that? What does a mind like that do for fun? What can we take from it to be just a bit more brilliant in our own pursuits, whatever they happen to be?

Claude Shannon wasn’t especially interested in offering direct answers to questions like those. If he were alive to read this piece, he’d probably laugh at us. His mind was a heat-seeking missile targeting problems. What got him up in the morning was dissecting how things worked, not digressions into creativity and productivity.

No matter how many people came to him for advice, he never felt that he was in the advice-giving business. During his days as a professor, he was particularly nervous about the mentoring aspect of the job. “I can’t be an advisor,” he once protested. “I can’t give advice to anybody. I don’t have the right to advise.”

As usual, though, Shannon was being excessively modest. He can teach us a lot, even if he approached the whole business of teaching reluctantly and indirectly. To that end, we’ve distilled what we’ve learned from him over these last few years into this piece. It isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but it does begin, we hope, to reveal what this unknown genius can teach the rest of us about thinking — and living.

12 Lessons Learned, Over Five Years, Writing One Book

1) Cull your inputs.

We all know how the constant distractions of social media and buzzing smartphones destroy focus and productivity. We also know that the problem is considerably more difficult than it was in mid-20th-century America (and yes, we suppose Claude Shannon bears some inadvertent blame for this).

But distractions are a permanent feature of life, in any era, and Shannon shows us that shutting them out isn’t just a matter of achieving random bursts of focus. It’s about consciously designing one’s life and work habits to minimize them.

For one, Shannon didn’t allow himself to get caught up in clearing out his inbox. Letters he didn’t want to respond to went into a bin labeled “Letters I’ve Procrastinated On For Too Long.” In fact, we pored over Shannon’s correspondence at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, which keeps his papers on file — and we found far more incoming letters than outgoing ones. All of that time saved was more time to plow back into research and tinkering.

Inbox zero, be damned.

Shannon extended the same attitude to his time in the office, where his colleagues regularly expected to find his door closed (a rarity in Bell Labs’ generally open-door culture). None of Shannon’s colleagues, to our knowledge, remembered him as rude or unfriendly; but they do remember him as someone who valued his privacy and quiet time for thinking. One colleague remembered, “You would knock on the door and he would talk to you, but otherwise, he kept to himself.”

On the other hand, colleagues who came to Shannon with bold new ideas or fascinating engineering puzzles remembered hours of productive conversations. That’s just to say that Shannon, as in so much else, was deliberate about how he invested his time: in stimulating ideas, not in small talk. Even for those of us who are more extraverted than Shannon was (and, to be honest, that’s nearly all of us), there’s something to learn from how deliberately and consistently he turned his work hours into a distraction-free zone.

2) Big picture first. Details later.

In his mathematical work, Shannon had a quality of leaping right to the central insight and leaving the details to be filled in later. As he once explained it, “I think I’m more visual than symbolic. I try to get a feeling of what’s going on. Equations come later.” It was as if he saw solutions before he could explain why they were correct.

As his student Bob Gallager recalled, “He had a weird insight. He could see through things. He would say, ‘Something like this should be true’…and he was usually right…You can’t develop an entire field out of whole cloth if you don’t have superb intuition.”

Occasionally, this got Shannon in trouble — academic mathematicians sometimes accused him of being insufficiently rigorous in his work. Usually, though, their critiques were misguided. “In reality,” said the mathematician Solomon Golomb, “Shannon had almost unfailing instinct for what was actually true.” If the details of the journey needed filling in, the destination was almost always correct.

Most of us, of course, aren’t geniuses, and most of us don’t have Shannon-level intuition. So is there anything to learn from him here? We think there is: even if our intuitions don’t lead us to develop an entirely new field like information theory, they often have a wisdom that we can choose to tune into or to shut up.

Worrying about missing details and intermediate steps is a sure way to shut our intuitions up, and to miss out on some of our best shots at creative breakthroughs. Expecting our big ideas to unfold logically from premise to conclusion is a misunderstanding of the way creativity usually works in practice. As the writer Rita Mae Brown put it, “Intuition is a suspension of logic due to impatience.”

It’s one thing to clean up and fill in the details after the fact. It’s another thing to mistake the neat-and-tidy way we present our ideas to others, and others present their ideas to us — in an article, a slideshow, or a talk — for the messy process of getting to those ideas. Waiting for a neat-and-tidy breakthrough usually means waiting for a train that’s never arriving.

3) Don’t just find a mentor. Allow yourself to be mentored.

A lot of articles like this preach the value of mentorship, and we don’t want to belabor the point. Of course mentors matter. But a lot of writing about mentorship tends to treat a mentor as something you acquire: find the right smart, successful person to back your career, and you’re all set.

It’s not that simple. Making the most of mentorship doesn’t just require the confidence to approach someone whose guidance can make a difference in your development. It requires the humility to take that guidance to heart, even when it’s uncomfortable, challenging, or counterintuitive. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Shannon’s most pivotal mentor was probably his graduate school advisor at MIT, Vannevar Bush, who went on to coordinate the American scientific effort in WWII and became the first presidential science advisor. Bush recognized Shannon’s genius, but he also did what mentors are supposed to do — he pushed Shannon out of his comfort zone in some productive ways.

For instance, after the success of Shannon’s master’s thesis, Bush urged Shannon to write his PhD dissertation on theoretical genetics, a subject Shannon had to pick up from scratch and that was far afield from the engineering and mathematics he had spent years working on. That Bush pushed Shannon to do so testifies to his trust in his protege’s ability to rise to the challenge; that Shannon agrees testifies to his willingness to stretch himself.

There’s a whole set of possible responses Shannon might have had to that moment (“Genetics, huh?”). But Bush knew what he was doing, and Shannon was humble enough to trust his judgment and let himself be mentored.

Accepting real mentorship is, in part, an act of humility: The best of it comes when you’re actually willing to trust that mentor sees something you don’t see. There’s a reason, after all, that you sought them out in the first place. Be humble enough to listen.

4)  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2017 at 6:46 pm

Why Canada Is Able to Do Things Better

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Jonathan Kay writes in the Atlantic:

When I was a young kid growing up in Montreal, our annual family trips to my grandparents’ Florida condo in the 1970s and ‘80s offered glimpses of a better life. Not just Bubbie and Zadie’s miniature, sun-bronzed world of Del Boca Vista, but the whole sprawling infrastructural colossus of Cold War America itself, with its famed interstate highway system and suburban sprawl. Many Canadians then saw themselves as America’s poor cousins, and our inferiority complex asserted itself the moment we got off the plane.

Decades later, the United States presents visitors from the north with a different impression. There hasn’t been a new major airport constructed in the United States since 1995. And the existing stock of terminals is badly in need of upgrades. Much of the surrounding road and rail infrastructure is in even worse shape (the trip from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan being particularly appalling). Washington, D.C.’s semi-functional subway system feels like a World’s Fair exhibit that someone forgot to close down. Detroit’s 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge—which carries close to $200 billion worth of goods across the Canada-U.S. border annually—has been operating beyond its engineering capacity for years. In 2015, the Canadian government announced it would be paying virtually the entire bill for a new bridge (including, amazingly, the U.S. customs plaza on the Detroit side), after Michigan’s government pled poverty. “We are unable to build bridges, we’re unable to build airports, our inner city school kids are not graduating,” is how JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon summarized the state of things during an earnings conference call last week. “It’s almost embarrassing being an American citizen.”Since the election of Donald Trump, there’s been no shortage of theories as to why America’s social contract no longer seems to work—why the United States feels so divided and dysfunctional. Some have focused on how hyper-partisanship has dismantled traditional checks and balances on public decision-making, how Barack Obama’s rise to power exacerbated the racist tendencies of embittered reactionaries, and how former churchgoers have embraced the secular politics of race and nationalism.

All of this rings true. But during my travels up and down the American East Coast in recent years, I’ve come to focus on a more mundane explanation: The United States is falling apart because—unlike Canada and other wealthy countries—the American public sector simply doesn’t have the funds required to keep the nation stitched together. A country where impoverished citizens rely on crowdfunding to finance medical operations isn’t a country that can protect the health of its citizens. A country that can’t ensure the daily operation of Penn Station isn’t a country that can prevent transportation gridlock. A country that contracts out the operations of prisons to the lowest private bidder isn’t a country that can rehabilitate its criminals.The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), a group of 35 wealthy countries, ranks its members by overall tax burden—that is, total tax revenues at every level of government, added together and then expressed as a percentage of GDP—and in latest year for which data is available, 2014, the United States came in fourth to last. Its tax burden was 25.9 percent—substantially less than the OECD average, 34.2 percent. If the United States followed that mean OECD rate, there would be about an extra $1.5 trillion annually for governments to spend on better schools, safer roads, better-trained police, and more accessible health care. . .

Continue reading.

The GOP does not believe in investing in the US. For example, for the US as a country to be competitive and productive, it’s vital to ensure that its citizens are (a) healthy, and (b) educated. Thus if the country took its own interests to heart, there would be universal healthcare, and well-funded at that, including treatments and hospitals for the mentally ill (rather than simply having the police shoot them, or putting them in prison), nursing homes for the incapacitated and elderly, and investments in seeing that more medical professions (doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, pharmacists) are trained—and not allowing any forced shortages to arise as might happen if some specialty set informal limits the supply of new doctors in the specialty. I don’t think this is happening—some specialties just don’t have that many people in them. So the government should institute programs, subsidies, new medical school, so that the supply of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and so on could be increased to serve the greater demand resulting from a broader national effort to achieve the goal of a healthy citizenry.

And having an educated citizenry requires paying teachers a lot more to increase the talent supply, and funding of most effective teaching practices, with a constant search for better teaching practices, and building a database of documents and on-line videos to make available nationally courses for teachers and would-be teachers on what those best practices are. This might take the form of watching a video recorded live of a master teacher teaching one class session, then that video with commentary, the master teaching stopping the action at certain points to explain what’s happening: why s/he made the choices and said the words s/he did, how it might be done better, and so on, then back to the next teaching moment.

In other words, apply ingenuity and resources to ensure that our nation’s teachers are great at their jobs. That will make those future generations more capable.

And obviously the nation is better for everyone—you might say it would improve the general welfare—if the infrastructure were well-maintained and kept in good shape. And those jobs would be most welcome, but obviously money is required.

What I’m talking about, I suddenly realize, is artificial selection in meme evolution, exactly as we used artificial selection in lifeforms in order to domesticate plants and animals (and ourselves, in the sense that tribes rid themselves of uncooperative members). The goals (healthy citizenry, educated citizenry, good infrastructure) are sufficiently broad that many memes can be selected to drive toward those goals, just a not littering became a thing when Lady Bird Johnson took on the campaign to beautify America. Very quickly, littering was socially unacceptable and by and large people stopped littering. (This was helped by very young children being able to understand what littering is and that it’s bad, so not littering became a basic value adopted in childhood.)

And in fact the GOP will never approve of taxing the public to the point where all these benefits could be delivered to the public, because the goal of the GOP is to enable a select few to become wealthy by looting the country: skimping on healthcare, skimping on education, skipping on infrastructure, and thus being able to keep much of that money for themselves through the eternal demand for more tax cuts.

The US could do it right, but I think it is unlikely at this point. Still, perhaps the public will awaken to the fact that the wealthy are shortchanging them:

The US is not, though Donald Trump continually says it is, the most heavily taxed national on earth. Quite the contrary: U.S. taxes are quite low—and we’re getting what we pay for. Chart above is from this page.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2017 at 9:06 pm

The Rise of the Thought Leader

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David Sessions writes in the New Republic:

Writing in one of Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci jotted down the fragments that would become his theory of intellectuals. New classes, like the European bourgeoisie after the Industrial Revolution, he proposed, brought with them their own set of thinkers, which he called “organic intellectuals”—theorists, technicians, and administrators, who became their “functionaries” in a new society. Unlike “traditional intellectuals” who held positions in the old class structure, organic intellectuals helped the bourgeoisie establish its ideas as the invisible, unquestioned conventional wisdom circulating in social institutions.

Today, Gramsci’s theory has been largely overlooked in the ongoing debate over the supposed decline of the “public intellectual” in America. Great minds, we are told, no longer captivate the public as they once did, because the university is too insular and academic thinking is too narrow. Such laments frequently cite Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987), which complained about the post-1960s professionalization of academia and waxed nostalgic for the bohemian, “independent” intellectuals of the earlier twentieth century. Writers like the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof attribute this sorry state of affairs to the culture of Ph.D. programs, which, Kristof claims, have glorified “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” If academics cannot bring their ideas to a wider readership, these familiar critiques imply, it is because of the academic mindset itself.

In his book The Ideas Industry, the political scientist and foreign policy blogger Daniel W. Drezner broadens the focus to include the conditions in which ideas are formed, funded, and expressed. Describing the public sphere in the language of markets, he argues that three major factors have altered the fortunes of today’s intellectuals: the evaporation of public trust in institutions, the polarization of American society, and growing economic inequality. He correctly identifies the last of these as the most important: the extraordinary rise of the American superrich, a class interested in supporting a particular genre of “ideas.”

The rich have, Drezner writes, empowered a new kind of thinker—the “thought leader”—at the expense of the much-fretted-over “public intellectual.” Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg “develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.” While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to “change the world.” Many readers, Drezner observes, prefer the “big ideas” of the latter to the complexity of the former. In a marketplace of ideas awash in plutocrat cash, it has become “increasingly profitable for thought leaders to hawk their wares to both billionaires and a broader public,” to become “superstars with their own brands, sharing a space previously reserved for moguls, celebrities, and athletes.”

Drezner does his best to take an objective view of the thought leader as a new kind of intellectual who fulfills a function different from that of the public intellectual, though an equally legitimate one. “It is surely noteworthy,” he writes, optimistically, “that a strong demand has emerged for new ideas and vibrant ways of thinking about the world.” But he seems to portray this thirst for new ideas as a positive development even while conceding that the ideas currently thirsted for are at best shallow and banal, at worst deeply anti-democratic, and at times outright fraudulent.

The case against thought leaders, The Ideas Industry shows, is damning. As Drezner notes, some of the marquee names in thought leadership are distinguished by their facile thinking and transparent servility to the wealthy. The biggest idea in Thomas Friedman’s best-known book, The World Is Flat, is, Drezner summarizes, that “to thrive in the global economy, one needs to be ‘special,’ a unique brand like Michael Jordan.” It is more of a marketing principle than a philosophical insight. But “businessmen adore Friedman’s writings on how technology and globalization transform the global economy,” Drezner explains, because his message reinforces their worldview.

Like Friedman, thought leaders Parag and Ayesha Khanna proclaim the world-historical power of technological innovation, preaching that technology with a capital “T” is replacing economics and geopolitics as the engine of global change. As Evgeny Morozov has observed, Parag Khanna believes that “democracy might be incompatible with globalization and capitalism,” arguing that we should thus embrace authoritarian, Chinese-style capitalism. In his own review of Khanna’s Connectography, Drezner characterized his thinking as “globaloney” and likened his prose style to “a TED talk on a recursive loop.”

Drezner traces how the pursuit of money in the new corporate ideas industry—through television shows, high-dollar speeches, and lavish book advances—pushes thought leaders to bloat their expertise and hustle in so many markets that they end up selling fakes. The most notorious example is Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host and columnist who has been caught lifting passages from other writers to feed his multiplatform output. Similarly, the historian Niall Ferguson leapt headlong into brand-building: crafting books intended as scripts for TV series, giving lucrative speeches, and writing for a dizzying array of publications. Like other overstretched thought leaders, Ferguson landed in trouble when his Newsweek cover story on President Obama in 2012 turned out to be riddled with errors and misleading claims. Interviewed for The Ideas Industry, Ferguson is frank about his transformation from Oxford don to thought leader: “I did it all for the money.”

Despite Drezner’s impatience with the delusions of thought leaders, he shrinks from the darker implications of his evidence. When it comes time to render a verdict on whether the Ideas Industry is “working,” he conjures an economic metaphor: “For good and ill, the modern marketplace of ideas strongly resembles modern financial markets. Usually, the system works. On occasion, however, there can be asset bubbles.”

Nowhere is the inadequacy of this metaphor more evident than in his case study of the rise and fall of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” Christensen proposed that “disrupters”—companies that upend their industries with new technologies and business models—gain a competitive advantage over companies that grow by gradually improving their product. Airbnb might be considered a disrupter in the hotel industry, for instance, since it has grown rapidly by attracting a large base of users who rent their homes to guests, instead of acquiring and operating hotels. The idea of “disruptive innovation” caught fire in Silicon Valley, Drezner argues, because it “conformed to a plutocratic worldview in which success favors the bold, risk-taking entrepreneur.” Atop this enthusiasm, Christensen built a lucrative brand, producing eight books and founding the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard, his own consulting company, and a boutique investment firm.

In 2014, however, nearly two decades after Christensen debuted disruptive innovation in the Harvard Business Review, historian Jill Lepore eviscerated the theory in a widely read essay in The New Yorker. Lepore found that Christensen’s case studies were ambiguous and overblown: Seagate Technology, a company that was supposed to have been “felled by disruption,” had in fact thrived, doubling its sales the year after Christensen ended his study. Disruptive companies whose successes he heralded had meanwhile gone out of business. Lepore’s essay prompted an even more damning critique of Christensen in MIT Sloan Management Review, and sparked a backlash in Silicon Valley. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 July 2017 at 11:15 am

Kansas, Sam Brownback, and the Trickle-Down Implosion

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Justin Miller writes in The American Prospect:

ear midnight on Tuesday, June 6, a number of Republicans in the Kansas legislature did something that few other elected Republicans had done in years: They acted responsibly. Joining with Democrats, they voted to roll back the huge tax cuts that Republican Governor Sam Brownback had inflicted on the state, which had devastated schools and other essential services while also depressing the state’s economy. But after five years of this exercise in trickle-down, the damage had been done.

THE ROBERT B. DOCKING State Office Building looms large amid the sparse downtown Topeka landscape. Built along modernist lines in the 1950s, when government bureaucracy began to expand across the country, the simple concrete and glass structure provides a stark contrast with the Greco-Roman-style Kansas state capitol that has stood across the street since the late 19th century.

The Docking building was at one time home to most of the state government’s agencies, such as the Department of Revenue, the Department of Children and Families, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control. Today, the 12-story, 500,000-square-foot building sits nearly vacant—a laminated white sheet of paper on the door reads: “No More Public Services In This Building.” One by one, the alphabet soup of state agencies that once occupied the building moved out, most relocating to rented space in private office buildings.

The decaying, hollowed-out building stands as a grim testament to the blunt-force trauma that Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts visited on his state, and to the ensuing budgetary crises that led lawmakers to cut government services to the bone.

For years, Brownback has called for Docking to be demolished rather than renovated. It’s an apt metaphor for his approach to government.

The state’s health-care system teeters on the verge of catastrophe, as Brownback’s privatization of state Medicaid services and further refusal to expand Medicaid has squeezed low-income Kansans and health-care providers alike. Dozens of struggling hospitals across the state are on the verge of closing. “We have to make decisions every day, on which bills to pay. I mean that literally,” one small-town hospital CEO says. Brownback’s decision to cut taxes rather than restore K–12 public education funding has strained both urban and rural school districts, compelling two districts to end the school year early. Meanwhile, he’s ushered in drastic cuts to social services and placed strict work requirements and other limits on welfare programs.

By last year, even Republicans in this heavily Republican state (which Donald Trump carried last November by 21.5 percentage points) had had it with their governor’s insistence on turning the Sunflower State into a Petri dish for radical conservative economics. A number of Republican candidates ousted Brownback supporters in legislative primaries, and this year they teamed up with the minority Democrats in the legislature (whose numbers increased after last year’s elections) to begin rolling back the Brownback catastrophe. Overturning the governor’s vetoes, which required a two-thirds majority in each house, legislators this June voted to repeal the tax cuts enacted by Brownback and a Tea Party–dominated legislature in 2012.

But the devastation has been profound.

IN 2010, SAM BROWNBACK rode the Tea Party wave into the Kansas governorship, pledging to turn the state into a bulwark against President Barack Obama’s big-government liberalism. By 2012, through aggressive backroom politicking, he pressured hesitant moderate Republicans in the legislature to join conservatives in passing a radical tax plan that eliminated the state’s top income tax bracket, drastically slashed rates, and instituted an outright income tax exemption for limited liability companies—a huge tax break for a tiny segment of the population. Conversely, in a nod to “fiscal responsibility,” the plan did away with a number of tax credits that benefited low- and middle-income Kansans. Moderate Republicans in the Senate had thought they’d be able to engineer a less-extreme version of the cuts while in a conference committee with the House. They didn’t, and days later, Brownback signed into law perhaps the most radical version of trickle-down economics any state had ever embraced.

As part of the plan, Brownback instituted a “March to Zero” provision that would incrementally whittle the income and corporate tax rates down to nothing, while placing a 2.5 percent annual cap on state spending growth.

“Today’s legislation will create tens of thousands of new jobs and help make Kansas the best place in America to start and grow a small business,” Brownback pronounced when he signed the tax cuts into law on May 22, 2012.

But the governor’s push to create voodoo-economic bliss in Middle America never sparked that economic growth. To the contrary, Brownback’s Kansas has produced one of the worst-performing state economies in the country. While the nation has seen 7.6 percent job growth since 2013, Kansas has lagged far behind, with an anemic rate of 3.5 percent. Brownback has blamed the failure to achieve economic growth—and the resulting revenue underperformance—on downturns in the state’s agriculture and oil sectors, which, to be sure, have worsened the crisis on the margins but are not the driving force. Meanwhile, Kansans are fleeing the state in search of greener pastures: A 2015 survey found Kansas to be among the top ten states in the percentage of people packing up and moving away.

Brownback’s promise that the cuts—particularly the LLC exemption—would be “a shot of adrenaline” for the Kansas economy will be written on his political headstone.

The LLC exemption, the crown jewel of the governor’s tax policy, has allowed some 330,000 independent business owners—almost double the original estimates—to avoid state tax on most, if not all, their income, costing the state roughly $500 million in revenue in 2015 alone. A recent report from a team of researchers who scoured Kansans’ income tax returns concludes that the exemption has fueled more tax evasion than job creation.

Though Brownback argued that exempting owner-operated businesses from taxes would increase investment and jobs in the state, the report found no such results. “We can’t, to the best of our ability, find support for real responses in terms of economic activity because of the tax cuts,” report co-author and University of South Carolina economics professor Jason DeBacker says. Instead, the policy drove more people to simply reclassify their income as a pass-through to avoid taxation.

The small-business owners who were the intended beneficiaries suddenly had no tax liabilities each year. But with average savings of about $1,000 a month, according to one estimate, it was hardly enough to hire more workers or expand operations. One lawyer in suburban Johnson County told a Kansas City Star columnist in 2014 that he was saving as much as $10,000 a year—as were the 15 other partners in his practice—while the paralegals and other staffers with no ownership stake were still stuck paying income tax. He told the columnist that he planned to use his tax savings for a family vacation to Cancún. “I’m making out like a bandit, and it’s completely unfair,” he said.

Perhaps the most enlightening example of how the exemption worked came when a public radio station discovered in May 2016 that Bill Self, the head coach of the storied University of Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team, was not paying taxes on about 90 percent of his annual $3 million compensation.

While Self pays taxes on the $230,000 annual salary he earns as an employee of the university, he claims himself as an independent contractor for the additional $2.75 million for “professional services rendered,” as radio station KCUR reported. Kansas Athletics, Inc., which operates the university’s college sports, writes a $2.75 million check out to BCLT II, LLC, an entity owned by Self. Thanks to the exemption, Self, the highest-paid state employee, avoids taxation on that income, which would come to about $126,500 each year under the state’s current tax brackets. Other well-compensated university coaches in the state utilize LLCs as tax shelters as well. Not even Brownback’s staunchest supporters have argued that Self owns the team or that he has used his tax savings to expand its roster.

WHAT BROWNBACK’S TAX CUTS have accomplished is to have created a crisis of catastrophic proportions for state residents. The tax cuts blew an immediate hole in the $6 billion state budget, as revenue levels fell an astounding $713 million from fiscal years 2013 to 2014. Those revenue shortfalls have not abated in the years since. To help plug the hole, Brownback has run through all the state’s reserve funds and has increased borrowing, adding $1.3 billion to the state’s debt. “We are essentially the poorest state by now, with no rainy day fund—nothing in the bank,” says Duane Goossen, the former Kansas budget director for both Democratic and Republican governors.

The severely imbalanced budget led Moody’s to downgrade Kansas’s bond rating; three months later, Standard & Poor’s followed suit. The hit to the credit rating, though, was an inadequate measure of the damage to Kansans’ lives.

Like a number of Republican governors, Brownback refused to expand Medicaid in the state with federal dollars allotted by the Affordable Care Act, blocking 150,000 low-income Kansans from access to medical care and forcing dozens of struggling hospitals to operate in the red, many on the cusp of closure. Four years ago, Brownback privatized the state’s Medicaid program, arguing that Kansas should get out of the business of providing health-care services, and allow the private sector to provide less-expensive, higher-quality, and more-efficient care. However, the move has largely led to a crisis among beneficiaries and service providers alike, as access to care has become limited and state payouts to providers have been cut time and time again.

But Brownback’s budget cuts greatly compounded the problems created by his failure to expand Medicaid. They compelled the state to neglect the duties it is still in charge of—like enrollment, eligibility, contracts, and performance oversight. “They basically stopped doing all those things,” says Sheldon Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project, which educates and assists with the implementation of health reform and ACA services in Kansas. “The functions left to the state can’t get done anymore because the state government has been so hollowed out.”

While federal law requires that states process Medicaid applications within 45 days, it can often take between six and eight months in Kansas. Last summer, the governor’s office claimed there was a backlog of more than 3,000 people waiting to get on Medicaid. That number was eventually found to be closer to 15,000 people. While the state quickly processes low-cost applicants like children and young adults, Weisgrau says, older people who need more care are on the waiting list far longer.

“What we’re seeing is they can’t get declared for Medicaid and thus can’t get into a nursing home; or people get into a nursing home but don’t get approved and the nursing home doesn’t get paid,” Weisgrau says. “People have died while on the backlog.”

Because Brownback slashed the number of state workers who determine Medicaid eligibility, those working on re-certifying recipients were shifted to certifying new applicants. Now, Weisgrau says, nobody is working on redetermination. “Typically if you don’t get redetermined, you get dropped out of the program. We hear reports from the field from providers who are no longer getting paid for those people,” Weisgrau explains.

Last year, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services charged Kansas with violating federal compliance laws, stating that its administration of Medicaid was putting people’s health and safety at risk. Brownback’s office dismissed the report as a politically motivated potshot from the Obama administration as it was leaving the White House.

Many of the state’s rural hospitals, which are more likely to rely on Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements rather than private insurance payments, are struggling to stay open. All told, 34 Kansas hospitals are vulnerable to closing. One of those hospitals is Sumner Regional Medical Center in Wellington, 20 miles south of Wichita near the Oklahoma border. Voters in Sumner County have on multiple occasions voted to tax themselves to help keep the hospital open, most recently in 2016 when they approved a 1 percent sales tax increase.

“We’re in true survival mode, constantly,” the hospital’s CEO told the Kansas City Star. “If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging.”

If the Sumner hospital were to close, it could spell disaster for poor and elderly residents who might have a hard time making the trip up to Wichita, even more so for those who face a medical emergency. “Right now, if we lose [Sumner], we have people who live south of that along the Oklahoma border who, by the time an ambulance would get to them and back to a hospital, would have [a trip of] an hour or more,” says Anita Judd-Jenkins, a state representative whose district has three hospitals, two of which, including Sumner, are at risk of closure. “If that were your car wreck or your heart attack, would you not be concerned?”

BY PRIORITIZING HIS trickle-down tax cuts over all else, Brownback has also allowed a long-standing public school funding shortage to metastasize into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Kansas’s public school system is more reliant on state funding than those of most states. More than half the state’s general fund is dedicated to funding K–12 public education. For decades, the state and local school districts have battled over funding levels and allocation.

In 2006, Kansas settled a lawsuit with school districts and committed to significant increases in funding over a three-year period. The state did increase funding, but when the Great Recession hit, then-Governor Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, made deep cuts to the education budget. The cuts were supposed to be temporary, but upon taking office in 2011, Brownback opted for his tax cuts rather than restoring the schools’ funding. Between 2008 and 2013, state school funding fell by 16.5 percent when adjusted for inflation. In 2015, Brownback cut $28 million more from the state K–12 education budget. A month later, he signed legislation that scrapped the state’s long-held school-financing formula, substituting a block-grant system that essentially locked in those cuts for the following two years. Two school districts were forced to end their school year early because they ran out of money.

Continue reading.  There’s a lot more and it’s a sorry record of abysmal failure.

This article is one of a series on “Trickle-Downers.” A note appended to the article explains the term:

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

Other articles in the series:

Kansas Redux: Illinois Legislature Overrides Governor’s Austerity Politics

Republicans Want to Make Deficit-Busting Tax Cuts Permanent
Real tax reform is hard. So a growing bloc of tax-cut enthusiasts wants to rewrite the rules of the game to secure rate reductions for the rich.

Kansas, Sam Brownback, and the Trickle-Down Implosion
The Kansas governor’s attempt to create supply-side nirvana in Middle America not only failed to grow the economy—it created a crippling crisis of government that led to a statewide rejection of his politics.

Senate Health-Care Bill: Tax Cuts for Rich, Skimpy Coverage for Everyone Else
Instead of moderating the GOP House’s version, the Senate health-care bill doubles down on cuts in coverage and tax cuts for the rich.

Paul ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’ Ryan Should Heed Brownback’s Trickle-Down Failures
The Republican House speaker is trying to nationalize the failed tax experiment of his former boss, the Kansas governor.


Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2017 at 6:18 am

I Am Learning Inglés: A Dual-Language Comic

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A very interesting comic and a very interesting program.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2017 at 8:19 am

Betsy DeVos Is Discarding College Policies That New Evidence Shows Are Effective—And She’s Gutting Civil Rights Enforcement As Well

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Betsy DeVos is a walking disaster area. Kevin Carey reports in the NY Times:

This month, the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, announced plans to dismantle a set of Obama-era policies devised to protect students and taxpayers from predatory for-profit colleges.

Yet data released in the final days of the previous administration shows that the existing rules have proved more effective at shutting down bad college programs than even the most optimistic backers could have hoped.

The rules that Ms. DeVos wants to repeal are called the gainful employment regulations. For all for-profit programs, and any nondegree employment certificate programs at public or nonprofit colleges, the education department compares how much the typical student borrows versus how much they earn after graduation.

If the ratio is too high — if students borrow lots of money and can’t get well-paying jobs — the program is deemed “failing.” A program that fails in two out of three years becomes ineligible for federal financial aid. Since many for-profit programs get up to 90 percent of their revenue through the Department of Education, the penalty will almost surely shut them down.

No program has reached this point yet. Before it could complete the rules, the Obama administration had to spend years fighting through a thicket of lawsuits filed by the for-profit college industry. Eleven days before President Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Education released the first list of failing programs. Ms. DeVos has extended the original deadline for appealing the findings, and recently announced plans to rewrite the rules.

But a close analysis of the more than 500 failing programs that haven’t appealed their status reveals something interesting: A substantial majority of them, 300 or so, have already been shut down — even though colleges are not yet required to do so. The gainful employment test turns out to be an accurate way of identifying programs that for-profit colleges themselves don’t think are worth saving, as well as identifying programs run by colleges that are on the brink of bankruptcy and dissolution.

Some of the failing programs were run by ITT Tech, a publicly traded chain of technical schools that collapsed under a wave of consumer lawsuits and government investigations in 2016. Dozens of other for-profits have failed in recent years, from mom-and-pop hairdressing academies to business schools with dozens of programs in multiple states.

The gainful employment results suggest why. Students who earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion design at Sanford-Brown College’s now-defunct Chicago campus left school with over $45,000 in federal and institutional loans. But they earned less than $21,000 per year, before taxes, food and rent. That’s barely above the minimum wage for a family of three. Only 29 percent of students who started the program graduated on time.

Sanford-Brown operated for years with results like this, until the education department stepped in. Announcing that the entire chain would shutter, Ron McCray, C.E.O. of Sanford-Brown’s parent corporation, cited a “challenging regulatory environment” and “the gainful employment regulations issued last year.” In other words, rather than invest the time and money necessary to offer affordable programs that lead to well-paying jobs, they simply closed up shop. . .

Continue reading.

And as if that were not enough, Annie Waldman reports in ProPublica:

In a letter sent today, more than 30 Democratic senators rebuked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for scaling back civil rights enforcement at the Department of Education.

“You claim to support civil rights and oppose discrimination, but your actions belie your assurances,” wrote the senators, who said that the secretary’s recent moves to curtail civil rights efforts heightened their longstanding concerns about her commitment to protecting students from discrimination and harassment.

As ProPublica has reported, the Department of Education quietly laid out plans to scale back investigations into civil rights complaints in an internal staff memo earlier this month.

Under the Obama administration, the department’s civil rights investigators applied a broad approach to investigating complaints, often widening probes to look for patterns of harassment or discrimination in schools or districts. Investigators were frequently required to obtain multiple years of data to assess whether civil rights violations were systemic in nature.

In the recent memo, acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson instructed her staff to narrow this approach. Under the new directive, civil rights staffers will only look for systemic violations if the original complaint raises such concerns or the investigative team suggests it.

“Limiting use of the systematic approach may cause investigators to miss issues of pervasive discrimination or civil rights abuses,” wrote the senators in their letter.

The Education Department did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.

While the department has contended that the new approach will speed up the office’s investigations into complaints, DeVos’ recent budget proposal sets out plans to cut over 40 staffers from the office for civil rights, which could limit investigations. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2017 at 5:37 pm

A leading Silicon Valley engineer explains why every tech worker needs a humanities education

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Tracy Chou writes in Quartz:

In 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace delivered a now-famous commencement address. It starts with the story of the fish in water, who spend their lives not even knowing what water is. They are naively unaware of the ocean that permits their existence, and the currents that carry them.

The most important education we can receive, Wallace goes on to explain, “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” He talks about finding appreciation for the richness of humanity and society. But it is the core concept of meta-cognition, of examining and editing what it is that we choose to contemplate, that has fixated me as someone who works in the tech industry.

As much as code and computation and data can feel as if they are mechanistically neutral, they are not. Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree. It’s arguable, for example, that online media’s reliance on clickbait journalism, and Facebook’s role in spreading “fake news” or otherwise sensationalized stories influenced the results of the 2016 US presidential election. This criticism is far from outward-facing; it comes from a place of self-reflection.

I studied engineering at Stanford University, and at the time I thought that was all I needed to study. I focused on problem-solving in the technical domain, and learned to see the world through the lens of equations, axioms, and lines of code. I found beauty and elegance in well-formulated optimization problems, tidy mathematical proofs, clever time- and space-efficient algorithms. Humanities classes, by contrast, I felt to be dreary, overwrought exercises in finding meaning where there was none. I dutifully completed my general education requirements in ethical reasoning and global community. But I was dismissive of the idea that there was any real value to be gleaned from the coursework.

Upon graduation, I went off to work as a software engineer at a small startup, Quora, then composed of only four people. Partly as a function of it being my first full-time job, and partly because the company and our product—a question and answer site—was so nascent, I found myself for the first time deeply considering what it was that I was working on, and to what end, and why.

I was no longer operating in a world circumscribed by lesson plans, problem sets and programming assignments, and intended course outcomes. I also wasn’t coding to specs, because there were no specs. As my teammates and I were building the product, we were also simultaneously defining what it should be, whom it would serve, what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users, what kind of community it would become, and what kind of value we hoped to create in the world.

]I still loved immersing myself in code and falling into a state of flow—those hours-long intensive coding sessions where I could put everything else aside and focus solely on the engineering tasks at hand. But I also came to realize that such disengagement from reality and societal context could only be temporary.

The first feature I built when I worked at Quora was the block button. Even when the community numbered only in the thousands, there were already people who seemed to delight in being obnoxious and offensive. I was eager to work on the feature because I personally felt antagonized and abused on the site (gender isn’t an unlikely reason as to why). As such, I had an immediate desire to make use of a blocking function. But if I hadn’t had that personal perspective, it’s possible that the Quora team wouldn’t have prioritized building a block button so early in its existence.

Our thinking around anti-harassment design also intersected a great deal with our thinking on free speech and moderation. We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. If people were mostly good, then we would design the product around the idea that we could trust users, with controls for rolling back the actions of bad actors in the exceptional cases. If they were by default bad, it would be better to put all user contributions and edits through approvals queues for moderator review.

We debated the implications for open discourse: If we trusted users by default, and then we had an influx of “low quality” users (and how appropriate was it, even, to be labeling users in such a way?), what kind of deteriorative effect might that have on the community? But if we didn’t trust Quora members, and instead always gave preference to existing users that were known to be “high quality,” would we end up with an opinionated, ossified, old-guard, niche community that rejected newcomers and new thoughts?

In the end, we chose to bias ourselves toward . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2017 at 2:56 pm

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