Saturday, December 31, 2016

In sync

I think it was the summer I turned 11, my parents rented a cabin on Cobboseecontee Lake in Maine, for a week's vacation. Each of us four kids brought a friend or two, so there were about 12 of us stuck in every which where.

The cabin itself was no frills, but it had a dock with a couple of canoes tied up. We passed the time swimming, boating, playing cards and board games when it was raining, eating, and enjoying the summer.

With Dad's Super 8 camera, we made a short silent movie, "Flaws," which aspired to be a parody of "Jaws." My brother Joe was the distressed mother of the shark's first victim. He was also the shark, swimming under water in his flesh-toned bathing suit, carrying a piece of a broken garbage-can lid as the shark's fin breaking through the surface of the water. My friend Ta was the might fisher who eventually captured the fiend, which turned out to be nothing but a small sunfish. I think I was a mighty-hunter-turned-hapless-victim.

One afternoon I decided it would be neat to check out an island that we could see from the dock, so I got in a canoe and paddled out to it. I don't remember if I made it to the island, or if it turned out to be further than I expected and turned back short of it. At any rate, when I got back, my parents were upset with me - and also relieved, though the "upset" part made the sharper impression at the time.

They were of course unhappy that I'd gone off without letting anyone know where I was going. They were also concerned that I could have gotten into real trouble if a contrary wind had come up. An 11-year-old usually doesn't have the strength to handle a canoe in adverse conditions, and on top of that, I didn't know what I was doing. I could paddle in the front when someone else was in charge, but I didn't really know how to control the boat.

Before the week was out, Dad made sure to teach me how to handle a canoe solo.

Friday, December 30, 2016

New domain name for 2017

In response to developments on the ground, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has established a new top-level domain (TLD).

Effective April 1, 2017, new internet addresses will be allowed ending in the TLD .omg.

Applicants are encouraged to reserve the use of the new TLD for subject-matter that you just freakin' would NOT believe.

Examples of the sorts of sites envisioned:



Thursday, December 29, 2016


This is the last part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the seventh part, see here.

As with the sixth part, this piece narrative is headed "September 7" in my notes. That implies that I wrote it up two weeks after the events, whereas all the other days' accounts were written up on the day they happened. But the level of detail suggests I was working from notes of some kind.

I think it was when we were coming home from the victory meeting at the White House, Sasha mentioned that he didn’t like hearing the word “Junta” all over the place. It was embarrassing to hear it applied to his own country, because juntas are something they have in poor, chaotic, third-world countries that are hardly countries at all and can never get their act together. The fact that the term is accurate brings home just how bad things have gotten.

The Arbat, the pedestrian mall made famous in the US by Reagan’s visit, is lined from end to end with young people, mostly men, sitting behind tables laden with matryoshkas [the classic painted nesting Russian dolls], painted wooden bowls, amber jewelry, samovars—all the baubles a tourist is expected to take home with him.

These budding young capitalists sit huddled under plastic drapes against the rain, dressed in ostentatiously western clothing. Here and there a portable radio consoles a lonely, wet merchant with intrusive music. In the way these people address you, you feel you are there to serve them.

And in a way you are.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Not speaking the same language: the prequel

A few weeks ago I narrated an encounter with a fellow whose view of reality was significantly different from mine.

A couple of days later I followed up with a dive into how different people view the relative motion of the sun and the Earth.

The day before the incident in the first post, I was sitting at that same table in the Economics department.

Someone from facilities came by and went to check the documentation on the fire extinguisher to make sure its inspection was current - standard safety protocols, I assume, and it's good to know our facilities crew is diligent in the kinds of things to ensure safety, as best we can.

Trying just to be sociable, I quipped, "So, are we safe?"

"Only in Christ's arms," he answered.

And this is where mutual incomprehension set in, though I didn't yet realize it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

How to steal a house: the wind-up

I just finished David Dayen's Chain of title. If you have any interest in the foreclosure crisis of the previous decade, I recommend it highly.

If you have any interest in learning about double standards in our economy, I recommend it highly.

If you have any interest in pursuing fairness in our economy, I recommend it highly.

The question is, How do you steal a few million houses and get away with it?

The short answer is, You make stuff up.

The slightly longer answer is, You play fast-and-loose with the law, and you prey upon politicians, some combination of their fears of tanking the economy, their willingness to be impressed by people with money, and their sense that the easiest path to re-election is to be nice to people who run the financial sector.

To understand both the shorter answer and the longer one, it's useful to have a condensed, but hopefully comprehensible, orientation in the area of mortgage securitization.

A mortgage is essentially a promise by a borrower (say, you) to make a series of payments to a lender, to pay off the loan you got from the lender - call them Friendly Bank. If it wants to, Friendly Bank can sell your mortgage to another financial institution, perhaps Big Bank. Big Bank pays a lump of money to Friendly Bank, and Friendly Bank transfers the mortgage to Big Bank. Now your monthly payments go to Big Bank, instead of Friendly Bank.

Monday, December 26, 2016

How to know

In fourth grade, Hyde Elementary School offered free lessons on any orchestral instrument. My friend Ta and I thought we wanted to learn trumpet.

This wasn't a well-informed decision - we weren't sure whether it was called "trumpet" or "trombone," but we agreed that we wanted to play the one where your fingers went up and down on some buttons, not the one where your whole arm goes back and forth.

For some reason I was under the impression my parents wouldn't be supportive. Perhaps because I'd taken piano and not kept on with it, and then drum lessons and hadn't played at all during the year we lived in Latin America, despite having brought along sticks and a practice pad.

So I brought it up in an offhand way: we were rolling down the driveway to go on a bike ride, and I said, "We can take instrument lessons for free for a year. Ta and I were thinking we'd like to play trumpet."


Having gotten their assent so easily, I realized I wasn't sure how much I actually wanted to do it, but at that point I felt like I couldn't back out, since I'd said I wanted to do it.

So I started playing trumpet.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

August 24, Saturday

This is the seventh part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the sixth part, see here.

Today was the funeral for the three people who died Tuesday night, one Russian, one Lithuanian, one Jew. Although it feels sick to say it, it may be for the best that a Jew was among the martyrs. Despite the Communists’ bouts of deadly anti-Semitism, there are those among the people who blame the Jews for all the ills Communism has wrought here.

Three years ago, a man who has since emigrated told me, “I have friends who are working for perestroika, which is very noble, but I think they’re stupid. Because it will end the same as all the other reforms in this country, only people will be worse off, and when they look for a scapegoat, who will it be? The Jews! ‘Look!’ they’ll cry, ‘all the early Bolsheviks were Jews!’ [not all, of course, but a lot were]. ‘Look what they did to Russia. They’ll pay!’ And I don’t plan to be here when that happens.”

And it has started. Moscow is still littered with monuments to the heroes of Soviet Communism (although they’ve already started taking them away), and these serve as targets for the people’s anger at their impoverished condition. Yesterday at Sverdlov’s statue there was a poster that said, “Hangman of the Russian People,” and the words were accompanied by a cartoon of a curly-haired man with glasses and a Star of David for a mouth. So to an extent my friend was right.

Sverdlov depicted as an obviously Jewish caricature,
Hangman of the Russian people”,
fake blood dripping down the pedestal of his statue.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

August 22, Thursday

This is the sixth part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the fifth part, see here.

This day's narrative is headed "September 7" in my notes. That implies that I wrote it up more than two weeks after the events, whereas all the other days' accounts were written up on the day they happened. But the level of detail suggests I was working from notes of some kind.

On Thursday Sasha and I went to the White House to see the barricades and to hear the victory speeches. After seeing barricades in other cities on TV, it’s very uncomfortable to see them in real life on familiar streets. The very word suggests noble but failed uprisings from the last century, when citizens tore up their own streets trying to win rights from repressive regimes.

In fact, the White House is in a neighborhood with a revolutionary history: this was where the Moscow workers made their last stand in the 1905 revolution. They blocked off their streets and turned their tenements into a fortress that held off the Czar’s troops for some days. The Bolsheviks of course glorified this, a true workers revolt that only failed because it was dialectically premature—all they lacked was the foresight and disciplined leadership of the Bolshevik party. The nearest subway stops are called “1905 St.” and “Barricade”; in the square next to the White House itself stands a statue in honor of the workers of 1905. So there is yet another irony (they seem to be everywhere these days), that this should be where the Bolsheviks finally fell.

On these new, victorious barricades, young men sit full of importance as they relay commands: “Let the black Volga come through!” Small piles of trash are all around, the grass has been turned to mud by the feet of 50,000 people on two rainy nights. The last of those who kept watch then are drifting home, their faces too tired to show any elation. As the crowd gathers for the noon meeting, a few people appear on the tribune and say a few words, including more than one call for outlawing the Communist Party, which draws from the crowd, “Down with the KPSS!” (the Russian acronym for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). One man got a chuckle with his observation that, “It just worked out that we got the wrong sort of putschists.”

Friday, December 23, 2016

August 21, Wednesday

This is the fifth part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the fourth part, see here.

The coup has brought home the importance of information. I felt already the fog of ignorance on Pushkin Sq., and the manipulation on Vremya. Then today “Ekho Moskvy announced that in the small hours of the morning, while they weren’t broadcasting, “somebody” on a very close frequency had copied their music, their voices, their format, and spread disinformation that there was fighting and panic at the White House. Now (11:50 AM) they’ve turned off “Ekho Moskvy” and the one TV channel is broadcasting songs and dances with a folk troupe. We are cast back into darkness.

Yesterday at the visa office I spoke to a German woman who knew already Monday night that some troops had turned (she herself was in the area of the White House at the time), but she didn’t know the airports had been closed—no one called her host family with that information. The eerie spottiness of information is made more oppressive when they start messing with the telephone. A friend called Natasha at 11:00 last night, and after a couple minutes their conversation was cut off. He called back and they continued their conversation, but most likely not alone.

Now Natasha is preparing to go to the White House, and she’s trying to decide what medicine to take with her from Sasha’s supplies. Sasha called from work, he’s going too. Alyosha has the extra house key, so I can’t go out. In any case, Natasha says I would only get out today “over my dead body.” That’s not funny any more. She told me where her documents are, in case something happens. So I am to sit home alone with no radio and a phony folk dance on TV.

Before being cut off this morning, “Ekho Moskvy” reported the first bloodshed. Near the Arbat there’s an underpass where Kalinin Prospekt crosses the Garden Ring. Tanks were going through the tunnel when one driver got nervous and started turning around in the confined space. After he ran over a woman, an unarmed Afghan vet jumped on the tank and pulled open the hatch. He was shot through the head. People began throwing Molotov cocktails. Russian deputies intervened quickly and prevented a lynching.

So far 10 deaths have been reported around the city, according to “Ekho Moskvy”. (These early reports clearly suffered from the hectic atmosphere. On Saturday, August 24, there was a state burial for only three victims of the coup, and later a fourth man wounded in the coup was reported to have died in the hospital. I don’t know where I came up with the woman run over by the tank. 4.IX)

Throughout the crisis, Afghan vets have rendered great service. They have lent their expertise for the building of barricades that can really stop a tank. Now Parliament is relatively well protected, but the ambulances can’t get out.

Friend of one of the people killed, a veteran of the Soviet Union’s disastrous Afghanistan war.
“There it would have been understandable, but why did they kill him here?!”

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Varieties of faith

This afternoon was the memorial service for my father, who died November 30th.

Kate took this picture this past August at my parents' New Hampshire house.
The service was at Cambridge Friends Meeting. Dad had been a member of Cambridge Friends since moving to the Boston area in 1954. My parents were married there in 1958, and my sister in the same meeting house in 1993.

Following Quaker practice, the meeting was "unscripted." We entered into silence, then people rose and spoke about Dad, as the spirit moved them.

Near the end, I rose and spoke.
After high school, I launched myself off to southern Indiana for college, and experienced culture shock in multiple dimensions.
One of those was the religious fervor of many of the people I was around. This was a change for me, sort of Quaker, sort of Jewish, coming from a high school where you knew roughly what church or synagogue people went to, but it wasn't a big deal.
One evening, I was discussing religion with a dorm-mate, who said, "You must have faith in something."

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Letter to a young graduate

A student recently emailed me his final assignment, and sent along with it a nice note thanking me for all I’d taught him.

I took the opportunity to share with him a few additional thoughts.

Hi ____,

Thank you for your note. Of course, our goal as faculty is to teach you, but we’re not always sure we succeed, so it’s good to hear about it when we do. And I’ll take your message as permission to try to have one last set of ideas stick with you before I recede into the haze of your college memories.

As you head off to make a career in finance, I find myself torn, wanting success for you but also nervous about where you might find yourself. My relationship with the workings of finance isn’t exactly love / hate. It's more like fascination-and-wonder / rage.

Let me explain.

I think it was in one of the classes you had with me that I addressed the idea of the “real” economy.

The standard terminology is that there’s the “real” economy, where goods are made and services are provided. And there’s the “financial” economy, where people trade stocks, bonds, derivatives, and whatever else they can think of. It’s not “real” because it’s just paper, it’s just ownership or claims on stuff. If you buy a car, you can touch the car, you can drive it. If you pay to go to the theater, or to college, you have the experience of seeing a play, or building your mind. So goods and services are “real,” and then there’s finance.

I understand what those terms are getting at, but I think the use of the word “real” in that particular way is unfortunate.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

August 20, Tuesday (evening)

This is the fourth part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the third part, see here.

Sasha called from work shortly after 2:00 PM. “Turn on the radio immediately, 1207 AM,” then he hung up. We found “Ekho Moskvy” (Echo of Moscow), that had somehow gotten ahold of a transmitter and was broadcasting news and defiant speeches.

The Ryazansky division has gone over to Yeltsin and left the city, flying Russian flags. (One persistent question after the failure of the coup was why the units that went over to Yeltsin didn’t stay in the city to defend him, since hostile units were still stationed in some parts of town. 5IX)

A man came on explaining what a bunch of clowns the putschists were proving to be. Leningrad, Kiev, Novosibirsk, and several other cities are ready to support the Russian government with a general strike.

Amazing how our mood changes. Yesterday we awoke to a sky black as pitch: in one day we seemed to have gone all the way back to Stalin. There is fear, quick submission to the iron hand. Six years have dissolved like a dream and we are back in the nightmare of Soviet reality. Then with this news from “Ekho Moskvy” the clouds part.

A friend who has dropped by listens for a stretch and leaves with the words, “Our side will win.”

The putschists really are a bunch of clowns. They didn’t get Yeltsin, they didn’t keep the Russian and Moscow governments from meeting. If they’d meant it, there’s a hundred people they should have (and could have?) arrested. (It surfaced later that they had printed up perhaps 300,000 forms with a space for anyone’s name, authorizing “administrative arrest” for an initial term of 30 days. I don’t know why hardly any were used. 5.IX) They also could have shut down the phone lines, although maybe they didn’t want people to think things were that extraordinary. In this mood I set out.

Monday, December 19, 2016

August 20, Tuesday (day)

This is the third part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the second part, see here.

It seems the usurpers had no concrete plans beyond the seizure of power, and now the army has split. This morning Alyosha called: Radio Rossiya is somehow broadcasting, and the division that we saw by the Bolshoi has gone over to Yeltsin. The junta has called in fresh troops. Alyosha is coming over with un-phone news.

This starts to have an unpleasant resemblance to Tiananmen, but Natasha disagrees. She says she’d somehow known there must be a split in the army; how can Russians shoot Russians? This one’s father works on a nearby street, another soldier’s brother goes to school in the neighborhood, and so on. “This is not yet ’17. The very fact that they (the putschists) keep silent in itself speaks of weakness. If they had anything to say they’d gab on all day, relentlessly. Instead they broadcast music [she point to the TV]. My God! a hundred times I’ve seen Swan Lake since yesterday! [she dances a step and sings the famous melody]”

She refers to the Russian saying, “The worse it gets, the better,” the sense here being that the harder the junta squeezes, the more certainly they will bring on a reaction that will sweep them away. The most dangerous element now is that they must certainly understand that they have nothing to lose, and all that awaits them is the prisoners’ dock. “And for what they have done they will be shot. That’s all there is to it.”

Sunday, December 18, 2016

August 19, Monday (evening)

This is the second part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the first part, see here.

Natasha and I left the house just before 1:00 PM to go register my presence in Moscow—not because of the coup, the procedure was required in any case, but with a certain urgency, lest anything be not as it should be. The careless mood of my last visit is a past luxury.

We did the paperwork without unusual hassles, by Soviet standards: there were only three different lines in two different buildings to get through, some of them twice, but nothing extraordinary. On all sides people go about their business without any visible expression that the party’s over. Natasha is sure that people’s faces are longer, duller today, but as I spent the weekend on the dacha circuit out of town I have no way of knowing. (It’s now 11:30 PM and Natasha is calling various people and swapping news—it may all be rumor, but the stuff on TV is certainly wrong.) My passport and visa stay with the registration office and I don’t pick them up until tomorrow afternoon, so in the meantime I have no documents.

After finishing at that office, the next affair is to get me a reservation out of here. I am torn between prudence and a desire to see what will happen. Natasha is pushing for an early exit, although she says it may already be a matter of taking whatever date they have. But first I want to see Red Square.

I think I imagined it would be open, with people milling around as on any other day, but of course at the end of Nikolskaya St. there are steel barriers. At the end of the square that I can see, a line of police and military vehicles is parked along the side of the Historical Museum. And at the barrier, people about three deep, huddled in small groups, talking. One man’s 18-year-old son is serving his two army years. When he realized he’d been sent to Moscow, he called Papa. The boys in the army don’t know what’s going on, they just go where they’re told.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

August 19, Monday (day)

This is the first part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For the background, see here.

This morning I woke up early, got dressed, read a while, then felt tired, so I lay back down. Sasha came in to get some things before going to work. I heard the radio droning, it just sounded like a particularly dull announcer. Half asleep I had trouble making out the words, but they kept talking about the Union treaty and “SSSR” (the Russian acronym for the USSR). I got up. Natasha came in and said, “You don’t know anything. This morning there was a military coup.” The details of who replaced whom you’ve read by now in the paper.

After Sasha left, a friend came over to pick something up, and we sat a while in the kitchen. This Vanya says the coup was to be expected: where there is not power, power goes in. And certainly the government has no power—when occasionally there’s no bread in Moscow. (The alternative explanation of this is that in fact the government had too much power, and the people planning the coup were intentionally squeezing Moscow to make the democrats unpopular, and to put themselves on a white horse when they came to power blessed the city with all the goods they had hoarded. 4.IX)

Vanya also made light of an oversight: channel 3 was still broadcasting at 7:30: cartoons, adds, whatever—then suddenly a test pattern. We had fun imagining the expression of the man in charge of turning off all real TV when he realized he’d forgotten one station. As to whether there will be civil war, Vanya says yes, in a sense it already started this morning with the announcement of the state of emergency. The separatist republics have arms (although very few) and can’t accept this. Gorbachev, the radio says, has taken ill. So what? I, too, happen to have a cold.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Not speaking the same language: the sequel

Following up on my encounter with the young-Earth creationist, I got curious about whether the Bible takes a position on geocentrism (the Sun revolves around the Earth) vs. heliocentrism (the Earth revolves around the Sun).

As it turns out, it's complicated.

According to an article at Apologetics Press, "The medieval Catholic Church maintained that the Bible taught egocentricity." See, what happened was, Ptolemy of Alexandria made some pretty good predictions with his geocentric theory, enshrining that as scientific dogma, then "Somewhere along the line, scientific dogma became enshrined in theological dogma, and passages in the Bible were found to consecrate Ptolemy’s theory."

That article goes on to discuss various passages that have been cited as showing a geocentric view in the Bible, and in each case explains why that's not really what's meant.
In addition to Joshua 10, Calvin used Psalm 93:1 in defense of geocentricity. The verse simply suggests that the Earth is stable, and cannot be moved, but is it trying to say that the Earth is totally motionless in every sense? As the passage is primarily concerned with God’s majesty and power, it is more likely that the psalmist is saying, “Who but God could move the Earth?” Besides, the Earth is set in an unchanging orbit around the Sun, all the while rotating at a steady speed on a fixed axis.
(For reference purposes, the first verse of Psalm 93 is:
The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and armed with strength; indeed, the world is established, firm and secure.)
Overall, the arguments seem reasonable: it's not clear that these statements are meant literally, rather than figuratively.

Of course, that goes down hard with the literalist interpretation of creation and the very short age of the Earth that this implies.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Not speaking the same language

A federal investigator stopped by the Economics department this afternoon, making routine inquiries about an alumnus who had applied for a job that involved some level of clearance.

He talked to two of my colleagues, then me.

An unremarkable process (I was quite direct about how little information I had about the student - basically, I wasn't aware of any negatives, but wasn't really in a position to vouch for much of anything).

As he was packing up, he was describing his day: this place, then over to that place, then back to Pennsylvania.

"You must put a lot of miles on the car."

"It's a diesel, so it's not so bad. I get 55 miles per gallon in the summer; in the winter it's in the low 40's."

And then some engineering talk that was interesting to me, about why diesels run more efficiently in warmer temperatures, which led him to describe how he tweaks some elements of the engine to increase the fuel efficiency. (I think it was the intake and something else, but I don't know enough about car engines to have retained what he said in passing.)

"And I figure, if I'm burning less fuel, I'm polluting less. If I was using a gallon to go 40 miles, and now I'm using a gallon to go 55 miles, that's got to be putting out less pollution."

In the back of my mind I'm wondering if his tweaks may result in more soot or certain other combustion products, but I don't know nearly enough of the details of how diesel engines work to know that - it's just a question that occurs to me. So I stick to what I do know:

"Well, at a minimum, you're emitting less carbon, since the CO2 is pretty much a linear function of fuel burned."

I thought I was building a bridge of common understanding. But it turned out, I had just started pulling the boards off of a bottomless chasm of mutual incomprehension.

"The plants could use the CO2," he responded.

"The plants have more than they can handle," I say - presumably, the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are evidence that the plants can't keep up with what we're putting out.

His response is that, "I read that CO2 levels were higher in the Middle Ages than now."

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A small data point

There's a car on campus that I'd noticed during the fall, sporting a "Make America great again" bumper sticker.

I noticed it partly because I didn't see many bumper stickers around campus for either candidate.

And partly because there were other interesting bumper stickers on the car (and I mean interesting in a neutral sense, not "interesting").

And partly, of course, because I disliked the candidate whose slogan that was.

I saw the car today - I'm sure it's the same car, because of those other interesting bumper stickers.

And the "MAGA" sticker was gone.

The bloom didn't stay on that rose very long.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Grappling with bias

The following was written in response to a student's paragraph on this article. The student allowed as how economists likely knew more than him, but that he didn't agree with their negative assessment of Trump's fiscal proposals, as described in the article.

He also characterized the New York Times as incredibly biased against Trump, like CBS news.

I knew that my response would be longer than it was sensible to write in my red-pen chicken scratch, so I drafted an email. It came out longer than I expected.

You're right to recognize that professional economists may have an edge on you in this discussion.

At the same time, my profession hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in terms of seeing what was coming back in 2006-08, or in analyzing it since then. Paul Krugman recognized this back around 2005, when he took questions from the audience after a talk. The question was something like, "You say that current conditions suggest a devaluation of the U.S. dollar. When do you think that will happen?" And his answer was, "According to my model, about 18 months ago." In other words, our models are imperfect. And as it's impossible to completely separate economics from politics, we economists, of various political persuasions, are vulnerable to the risk of seeing things a certain way because we want them to actually be that way.

It's a matter of balance. On the one hand, recognizing that other people may have more experience and/or expertise than you in a given area. On the other, not giving anyone a pass and accepting what they say on their authority simply because they're an expert.

The key for the layperson is to try to understand the argument a given expert is making.

The key for the expert, when talking to the general public rather than to his or her peers, is to communicate in a way that can be understood by an intelligent reader / listener who isn't already initiated into the field's way of thinking and talking.

Then all that we can hope is that the public will be open to hearing different arguments and weighing them with an open mind.

Which brings us to the subject of bias.

There's a risk that the word comes to mean, "Presenting a view I don't agree with."

But if it's going to have any useful meaning, it has to be tied to issues of whether information is true, contextualized, and proportionate.

Monday, November 21, 2016

“We’ll just have to see.”

This past weekend, my parents and I stumbled into a conversation with a Trump supporter.

“The media was so biased against him, they took what he said and presented it out of context to make him look bad. I want to keep an open mind. We’ll see what he’s actually going to do.”

“What about his appointment of Steve Bannon?”

“Well, I’m not a big fan of that, but we’ll just have to see.”

“They’re still talking about a ban on Muslims, and justifying it by saying it’s not as bad as the internment camps where we locked up Japanese-Americans during World War II.”

“It’s not going to come to that.”

“But what will you do if it does?”

“It won’t.”

“A lot of decent Germans didn’t think Hitler would go as far as he did. By the time they realized what he was doing, it was too late.”

“I’ve read lots about German history. Hitler locked up his opponents and shut down press freedom.”

“People at Trump rallies chanted, ‘Lock her up!’ and Trump egged them on.”

“Well that I would agree with.”

“Locking up Hillary?”


“For what crime?”

And from there the conversation pretty much ground down in a pointless circle. But she didn’t have an answer for my Dad’s question, “When will you have seen enough?” She simply was sure that Trump didn’t intend to do anything too bad.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A piece of the puzzle?

How did this happen?

Just in terms of the math, from what I understand, Clinton did pretty well in turn out among demographic groups favorable to her, but Trump simply crushed it with his base. Nate Cohn (cited by Josh Marshall) referred to what he described as the white working class voters, who make up more than 40% of the electorate.

Note: the previous paragraph was based on my impression Wednesday morning when I was writing this. It turns out that turnout was down, and particularly in states that Clinton won. According to 538, it was highest in competitive states, and Trump won most of those, so the underlying point of the first paragraph likely stands: the demographic favorable to Clinton didn't turn out to the extent as did the demographic favorable to Trump.

In county after county that is white rural or white working class, Trump solidly outperformed Mitt Romney's results from 2012, and the turnout in those places was higher than in 2012.

That added up to a series of losses—some small, but still losses—in state after state that Clinton couldn’t afford to lose.

Most people who were pro-Clinton, or at least anti-Trump, will have their own explanation as to why this demographic came out in such numbers and went so strongly for Trump.

In presenting the numbers below, I don’t claim to be discounting other explanations—racial resentment, fear of cultural change, …—I don’t even claim to be right. I’m just putting this out there for reflection.

First, turn to the World Wealth and Income Database, set up by Thomas Piketty and colleagues. The site has compiled data on shares of income going to different slices of the population (e.g., the wealthiest 0.01%, the wealthiest 10%), and average incomes for people in those same slices.

Here’s the story for the shares of income in the U.S. (Note that the orange line for the top 10% is graphed on the right axis, while the other two slices are on the left.)
Starting roughly around 1980, shares for the upper slices of the income stack started rising—slowly at first, then an odd jump in the late 1980s, and continued strong growth after that.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Rhyming history

This afternoon I came across a passage concerning labor conditions in German agriculture in the 1890's, and it struck a chord. Conditions on farms in the eastern part of the country were harsh, and wages were quite low. People emigrated to the western part of Germany, and to America, so the great landowners had trouble getting enough labor to work their holdings.

First there's the familiarity of the complaint and the type of remedy proposed:
For a time, the Agrarian, or Conservative Socialist party, to which the great landowners belonged, was wholly in favor of reactionary measures, such as the limitation of the right of free migration, higher protective duties upon foreign produce, and more stringent legislation against breach of contract on the part of domestic servants and farm laborers.
The blogger Atrios often highlights examples of businesses complaining about the lack of available workers, when what they really mean is that they're having trouble hiring good people at the wages they're willing to pay.

If you can't get people to stay and work on your farm for the wages you're paying, then you need to pay more. If you can't afford to pay more, then someone is doing a better job of producing food than you are. And if you can afford to pay more but just don't want to, perhaps out of a sense that "those people should know their place," then it's not really an economic problem.

The second resonance with the present came a little further down the page:
With regard to the east, on the contrary, Dr. Weber point out ... that unless some means can be adopted for checking the outflow of the German population, there is every reason to fear that their places will be supplied by an inroad of Slavs, and that thus an element of disintegration already existing will be increased.

First you pay crap wages, so that the local population has better things to do than stick around and get a miserable reward for their hard work. Then people come in from the neighboring country, where farm labor is paid so poorly that even the crap wages you offer are an improvement, an opportunity. And you complain about them sullying your population.

It's hardly a new phenomenon for people to want something without having to pay for it - to want people to grow their food while hardly paying them enough to live on.

And racial anxiety about dilution of supposedly superior groups by immigration of "inferiors" is also an old idea.

But it's a bit rich for people to simultaneously complain about the difficulty finding workers willing to work at crap wages and complain about the racial or ethnic unsuitability of the folks who are willing to work for so little.

A bit rich, but sadly, also not new. Welcome to America of the 21st century ... or Germany of the 1890's.

Excerpted passages from Royal Commission on Labor, Foreign Reports: Germany (London, 1893), p. 52, reprinted in Theodore S. Hamerow, The age of Bismarck: documents and interpretations, Harper Torchbooks, 1973, p. 186

Sunday, August 21, 2016

There's refugees, and there's refugees

Today is the 48th anniversary of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. This military action put an end to the Prague Spring, the effort by reformers within the Czechoslovak Communist Party to create "socialism with a human face," i.e., socialism with real respect for human rights and democratic norms.

Following the invasion, about 200,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled the country.

"In a refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Austria," from
Since the eruption of the refugee crisis in Europe last year, the Czech Republic has been in line with its fellow post-communist neighbors in being very reluctant to accept refugees. The issue hasn't been as dramatic as in Hungary, which found itself part of the refugees' land route from Greece to Austria and Germany, but there have been anti-refugee demonstrations, predictably vile verbiage in newspaper comment sections, and arson committed against a non-profit that serves refugees.

A common refrain in the online discourse is, "Why don't they stay and fight for their country? What a bunch of cowards."

Today, the online news site Britské listy published the following.

Just an impudent observation on August 21st, writes Iva Pekárková on Facebook.

I look at how many people to this day complain that the Americans didn't come to our aid back then - whether by fault of the Yalta agreement, or because they just turned their backs on us. In the course of a few weeks, refugee dorms and encampments in countries to our west began bursting at the seams with the influx of Czechoslovaks and they didn't stop bursting at the seams for at least a year. Just about the whole world, including some fearless Russians, expressed solidarity with us. (A few years ago I met an aging Indian, still to this day proud that back then he wrote in to an Indian newspaper, saying how much he didn't like that occupation.)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Speaking math

I wrote this as part of the writing workshop at Ferry Beach, the Unitarian Universalist family camp in Saco, Maine, our family has been going to for several years.

Kate has done the workshop every year she's been there. I did it this year for the first time.

One of the prompts provided by the workshop leader, Bill Trippe, was to write about something you're good at. Late in the week I helped a high-school student with some summer math homework she had as part of her prep for taking calculus in the fall. Reflecting on that experience led me to this.

Have you ever had to do arithmetic in Roman numerals?

Quick! What’s XXXVIII multiplied by XCIV?

If you take a moment to translate that into familiar terms – 38 times 94 – it’s not so bad. A few people can do it in their heads. Put out pencil and paper, and it’s a skill we expect of our grade-school students.

But what if you didn’t have Arabic numerals and place value, and you had to actually solve the thing using those damn letters?

It’s the rare person who has the ability to work with numbers under a system as clumsy as that. It would be a pretty valuable skill in a society that faced the logistical tasks of conquering and ruling an empire as large as Rome’s. And it must have looked like wizardry to most people.

Our number system makes arithmetic accessible to everyone, but actual math remains in the realm of magic for many people, which is a sad commentary on how poorly we teach math.

How do you know that a3 + a4 can’t be simplified down into a7? If you’re currently in an algebra class, you might be able to call up some rule of exponents to tell you it’s wrong. But if you speak math, you call up the rule after you get the feeling that you can’t combine those terms.

It’s the same way anyone relates to their native language. If you were raised speaking something close to Standard English, you don’t need a conscious memory of a rule to keep you from saying “I saw they.” It just feels wrong.

I like language as a metaphor, because it’s something almost everyone uses, and even at a basic level it’s a surprisingly complex task.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Political thrill-seekers wanted

I was talking with my family today about Trump's VP pick of Mike Pence and relaying something I'd read about how the supposedly "safe" choice of Pence might be a disaster (because he's not quick on his feet in response to tough questions, and as Trump's running mate he will surely be put on the hot seat being asked whether he agrees with this or that crazy / offensiveness / disturbing thing Trump has said.

I mentioned how this was going to be such an entertaining political season.

"Yeah, except that it could actually happen," observed my wife.

"True. It's kinda like the country as a whole is engaged in a giant act of political bungee jumping."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Pain and the body politic

I’m re-reading Antonio Damasio The feeling of what happens, a book about how consciousness works. This morning I happened to read the following passage:
Pain and pleasure are thus part of two different genealogies of life regulation. Pain is aligned with punishment and is associated with behaviors such as withdrawal or freezing. Pleasure, on the other hand, is aligned with reward and is associated with behaviors such as seeking and approaching.
Punishment causes organisms to close themselves in, freezing and withdrawing from their surroundings. Reward causes organisms to open themselves up and out toward their environment, approaching it, searching it, and by so doing increasing both their opportunity of survival and their vulnerability. (p. 78)
If we take seriously the idea of human society as a superorganism, this observation has some interesting implications.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The colonization of mental space (Day 8)

Previous post
The iconic image of Che, but rendered in corn kernels on a black surface.
From the stairway to the roof at the Museum of the Battle of Ideas
(Slogan noticed today: “The fight brought us unity, unity brought us victory.”)

Today’s main event was an outing to Cárdenas, a small city not far from Varadero, and the main thing in Cárdenas was the Museum of the Battle of Ideas.
This bas relief sculpture is mounted on the wall across the street from the entrance to the museum.
The words below the Cuban flag say, "Cuba responds" (to the U.S.'s stance in the Elián González affair).
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
The motivating force of the museum is the Elián González incident, from 1999-2000. González’s parents were divorced, and his mother fled Cuba with him by boat. The boat sank in a storm and the mother died, along with most on board. González was rescued and turned over to the US Coast Guard and eventually to relatives in Miami.

Fining the truth

According to an article in the Czech press, a Russian has been fined 200,000 rubles (a little over $3,000) for information posted on VKontakte, described as the Russian version of Facebook.

The information that got him in trouble was the claim that the Soviet Union attacked Poland in World War II.

One issue here is the free-speech side of fining someone for a thing they wrote. Well, there are libel cases against people making claims that the Holocaust didn't happen, but that's because there's a mountain of evidence that it did.

The problem with this case is that what he wrote is true.

Well, I wasn't there, but the Russians don't have a very good counter-story. The photo published with the story shows a Soviet officer greeting his German counterpart in the fall of 1939. According to the caption, the photo was published in the Soviet Union on the anniversary of the "liberation of western Ukraine and Belarus." A liberation that was accomplished by attacking Poland.

The defendant was charged under a new law criminalizing the "rehabilitation of Nazism."

He was convicted because he had good grades in history, so he should have known that he was spreading false information.

According to the court, Luzgin should have known that his action would have "damaging effects on the public, including children, and that they would spread the surviving notions about negative actions of the Soviet Union during the Second World War."

Monday, July 4, 2016

Public debts, public wealth, public services

This is the first of what I hope will be a few posts on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

My guess is that there are a lot more people who are curious about the book than there are who have read it, so in my writing I won’t assume that you’re one of the ones who’s read it.

I’m also guessing that my modest readership is not majority economists, so I’ll aim to be comprehensible to people not versed in the linguistic conventions of our field.


The state plays a key role in Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

The central fact of the book is the decline in inequality during the first half of the 20th century, the continued relatively low level after World War II, and the renewed increase after about 1980.

Income shares of the top 10%, top 1%, top 0.1%, and top 0.01% in the U.S.
Data from World Wealth and Income Database

Friday, July 1, 2016

How does voting work, anyway?

I was listening to the Roundtable on WAMC this morning as I repaired a window screen, and they read out a remarkable email from a listener.

I've read and heard plenty of "I can't vote for Clinton," and from people with whom I'm more or less in agreement on many questions of policy. I don't agree with the "I can't vote for her" position, but obviously if you think her policy stances are horrid, or if you think she's a liar (presumably in ways that the average politician isn't?), then I understand reluctance or inability to pull the lever.

There's the "lesser of two evils" argument: whether you like it or not, the next president will be either Clinton or Trump, so failing to vote for one of them is in effect voting for the other. I can understand the disgust with that: if you keep accepting the lesser of two evils, you never force the Democrats to put up someone who isn't evil.

Now, I don't agree with that argument, first because I don't think Clinton is "evil," and second because Trump looks far worse to me than anything remotely credible that's been lodged against Clinton.

But there is at least a logic to refusing to choose the lesser of two evils. Not a logic I agree with, but a logic.

Then there's this morning's WAMC listener email.

He couldn't vote for Clinton for the normal reasons that some on the left say they can't vote for her.

Trump was not an option (OK, we agree there).

The Libertarian candidate was going to wipe out entitlements (I don't know if that's an overstatement, but it is at least the direction the Libertarian candidate would go, a good reason not to vote for him if you think our entitlement programs do a reasonable job).

And Jill Stein from the Green Party is great, but she has no chance.

Wait ... what?!

It seems like there are three ways to approach voting: tactically, strategically, or idealistically.

A tactical voter might say, "I hate Clinton, but it's her or Trump, and Trump is worse, so I'm voting for Clinton."

A strategic voter would take the longer view: "The Democratic party keeps offering me horrible choices, because people eventually fall in line behind the lesser of two evils. The only way to teach the party to stop doing that is to stop accepting unacceptable candidates, so I'll vote for a good third-party candidate rather than a bad Democrat, and if that means Trump wins, then that's all the clearer a lesson for the Democrats." (Again, I don't agree with this approach, but it has its logic.)

An idealist is, in effect, like a strategic voter, only without an expectation that the Democrats will learn: "I think Stein is good and Clinton is bad, so I'm voting for Stein."

But ruling out Clinton, Trump, and the Libertarian for policy issues, then ruling out Stein because she can't win?

How does this guy think voting works, anyway?

I've heard people question the intelligence of Americans who support Trump, or of Brits who voted for Brexit. But spare a little of that for this WAMC listener.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A package deal (Day 7)

Previous post

Early morning from the balcony of my hotel room
This morning we boarded our bus and rode to Matanzas, a small city a little ways in the direction of Havana. Our itinerary was the Pharmacy Museum, and Ediciones Vigía, an outfit that creates hand-made books.

Slogans found today:

“Socialism is the only way to continue being free and independent.”

“The victorious revolution continues forward.”

On the way, Jesús gave a condensed version of how the embargo developed over a few months, involving an Esso refinery that was nationalized because it wouldn’t refine Soviet oil.

In Matanzas, the Pharmacy Museum turned out to be closed, so we headed off toward Ediciones Vigía, but en route we stumbled upon an art gallery / workshop the Jesús hadn’t known about, a joint venture of several artists.
This peculiar fellow greets you just inside the door.
Artists seem to have “themes” that they work in multiple variations. In Trinidad there was a woman who crafted coffee pots that were women. In this gallery in Matanzas, there’s someone who does heads in clamps.
There are many variations on this theme.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Welcome, imperialist pigs! (Day 6)

Previous post

Today we made our way from Cayo Santa Maria and its fabulous beach via Caibarién, where we visited a former sugar mill turned into a museum, then Remedios, where we learned about their festival of Las Parrandas, and finally on to Varadero, where we will spend three nights.
We traveled the red line from east to west.
Before leaving the resort at Cayo Santa Maria, I took a stroll around the grounds. It’s a nice place, fancier than the “all inclusive” place we stayed outside Cienfuegos, but probably not the top of the line. It has characteristic bits of not quite getting it right: the sloppy grouting in the bathtub, the light fixture along a path, just left off of its base, as if a repair was begun and then just never quite finished, the dry pools around the restaurants.
A nice place, just a little rough in some spots
There’s a “Ciber Café.” Or at least, that’s what it says above the door.
This is not a cyber café

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Electoral fraud?

Some supporters of Bernie Sanders are circulating this paper from two Stanford students as proof that the Clinton camp committed electoral fraud. It's an interesting piece of work, but a weak reed for the claims surrounding it.
One of the key arguments is that states differ in whether they have a paper trail for their electronic voting or not, and that Sanders did much better in the states that have the trail, where fraud is presumably harder to commit.
The basic issue is whether there are other explanations for the discrepancy they found, and whether they adequately investigated them.
The initial numbers look undeniably bad. Sanders won only 35% in states without a paper trail, but 51% in states with a trail. If the 51% is the more accurate number, because it’s insulated from fraud, then the implication is that Sanders would have won in a fair election.
The first obvious question is whether states differed in some other way besides paper or no-paper. The authors are aware of that, and after presenting the raw 51% vs. 35% figure, they do a regression where they can at least in part control for those other factors.

The two variables that they add, besides paper vs. no-paper, are:
  1. Percent of non-Hispanic whites in a given state
  2. The “blueness” of the state (its history of voting for Democrats rather than Republicans in presidential elections since 1992).
These are both reasonable first efforts. Much was made of Clinton’s “firewall” among people of color, and Sanders’ better performance among whites, so the first control variable is getting at something real. The two candidates also differed in their appeal to long-time party regulars vs. people who don’t necessarily identify as Democrats. I don’t know how much the exit polling bears this out, but commentary suggested that Sanders appealed both to people who were critical of Clinton from the left, and to some whose sense of the system being rigged left them open either to Sanders or to Trump. So it makes sense to have some sort of variable for the party identification of a given state.
But there are problems with both of the variables they chose, and the clearer problem is with the race variable.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Appropriately modest desires

On Friday we arrived in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, where will be through early afternoon Wednesday.

That first evening we ate at a restaurant that serves really traditional Moldovan food, with musicians playing in the background (a mix of traditional tunes plus Hollywood or other familiar music repackaged in a more Balkan style). We were joined by students from the local university who shared their experiences and impressions.

Yesterday we had an outing to the countryside north of the capital, Chisinau. Our first stop was at Brăneşti winery, located in a limestone area with lots of tunnels carved into the earth.

The owner meets us at the gate
The proprietor told us that in a radius of 8 km, there are 1,000 km of tunnels. Some of the limestone pulled out in the tunneling process is used as a construction material.

Gouges in the wall from the tunneling machinery
Apparently there are foreigners - such as the former Chinese ambassador to Moldova - who rent space in the tunnels to cellar their wine.

Don't lean back: that's some sort of mold on the walls (and on the chandeliers), and it'll get on your clothes:

From the winery we went to a monastery carved into a rock outcropping nestled in the bend of a river (see the location marked "Monastirea Orheiul Vechi" on this map).
The view from the icy ledge outside the monk's cell.
Noticing good-luck coins wedged into crevices in the limestone
Atop the outcrop there's a stone cross with an ornamental figure in the center. The local custom is that if you make a wish while resting your hand on that figure, your wish will come true.
The wishing cross
After visiting the monastery and the cross and the church at the top of the ridge, we negotiated our way back down the icy hillside to the village at the bottom where we had another traditional Moldovan meal, this one in an "eco" restaurant where the family grows or raises many of the ingredients themselves. It was in a fixed-up traditional house, with the staff in sheep-skin vests and a kitty up in the rafters that later came down to walk among the legs of our chairs.

The students have been great about willingness to go with whatever's thrown their way, in terms of both experiences and food, sampling unfamiliar things and even liking several of them. But we thought it might be a good idea to give them a break from the cultural novelty and go for dinner at a pizza place that had been recommended to us.

"Yes!" said one of the students. "That's what I wished for at the cross! Pizza!"

I guess if you're going to go making wishes, there's something to be said for keeping it realistic. You're less likely to be disappointed asking for comfort food than pinning your hopes on, say, winning a Grammy.

On the other hand, you have to wonder if the cross wasn't a little put out by the whole thing. "Really? Pizza? People climb this icy slope to ask me to cure their crippled limbs or to make their child healthy, and you want pizza? OK, whatever - here's your pizza."

Still, keep it practical, and you just might get your wish.

FOX News Chisinau

The restaurant here at Chisinau Hotel in the capital of Moldova has a remarkable service, FOX News Live.

It takes the form of an American guest, aged about 60, from Colorado.

He and I were the only guests in the restaurant at breakfast this morning - I was just finishing mine, he had ordered his.

He got on his phone and I heard him ask the other party if they had laundry soap. We're looking for where to wash some clothes, so I thought I'd ask if he knew about a laundromat.

When his food came, I wished him bon appetit, and we exchanged pleasantries - where are you from, etc. Hearing I was from New York, he talked about growing up on Long Island, he couldn't remember if it was Valley Stream, or maybe it was Kew Gardens, and driving up to Canada.

"In those days all you needed was a driver's license, we didn't have all these problems."

And he was off:

We have a real lack of leadership (though he said the last two administrations).

Things went off the rails in the second Clinton administration, and from there a long disquisition on Lewinsky.

"And Cohen, the secretary of the Treasury ..."

"Wasn't Cohen the defense secretary?"

"Oh, that's right. Who was at Treasury?"

"Was it Summers?" I asked, uncertainly.

"No, not him."

"Wait, it was Rubin."

"That's right, Rubin." (Rubin/Cohen. Because who can tell one of them Jews from another, amirite?)

Over those 10 minutes I spoke little more than my part in the preceding exchange.

I learned that we the people didn't do adequate background work on Clinton before electing him. I learned that Clinton's taste in the women that he allegedly had brought to him was very poor, though in this man's view that also helped explain how he chose Hillary, with her big legs, "not to be disparaging." (Oh, no, not disparaging at all.)

I learned that Obama is incredibly weak and that (by implication from what this man thinks Obama should have done), we should now be at war with Russia over Crimea and China over some pissant islands a few miles off their coast.

I excused myself by explaining that I had some reading to do (which is true, so I should wrap this up now) but I had a question, which is whether he knew of a laundromat, since I'd heard him on the phone ask about laundry soap.

Unfortunately, he was talking to a friend who's letting him use his machine in his apartment.

And in parting I said I thought Bush had weakened us incredibly by getting us into a war we shouldn't have been in, and that Obama had been doing a reasonable job of trying to clean up that mess. (I'd already showed my hand earlier when he'd referred to "the occupant of the White House," and I'd interjected, "You mean, the President?")

He parted friendly enough, we're each entitled to our opinions, etc. etc.

But maybe I'll just stay here in Moldova. A little change of insanity does a person good.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

How much are we spending, really?

A colleague linked to a New York Times article on the high cost of higher education.

Particularly in the case of public colleges and universities, people have blamed at least part of the rise on a decrease in government support.

The article's main contention is that there has been no such drop in support. "It is a fairy tale in the worst sense, in that it is not merely false, but rather almost the inverse of the truth."

"In fact, public investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s. Such spending has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher. 

"In other words, far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000."

There are a few things wrong here.