31 July 2020

Kent State and a Half-Century Conflict Between Two Economies and Two Kinds of Labor: Factory Workers and Knowledge Workers

On May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on student protesters at Kent State, killing 4 and wounding 9.

On one side of campus were guardsmen - most of whom had not considered going to college until ordered to go that day - and on the other side were students who were preparing for careers that neither they nor their professors could imagine. A divide that would define the next half century.

Economic change creates new identities which changes politics. Before 1970, white collar and blue collar workers shared the identity of labor and tended to vote similarly. After 1970, a divide began to emerge between the college educated who saw themselves as part of a global, information economy and non-college educated who felt more a part of an American, industrial economy. Labor split into factory workers and knowledge workers and they voted differently.

Between 1933 and 1969, as the party of labor the Democratic Party had the White House and a majority in the House and Senate 72% of the time. They dominated. After 1969, labor identities split between factory workers and knowledge workers and the vote - too - was split. Since 1969, power has been shared between Republicans and Democrats 70% of the time, and each has had control of government only 15% of the time. That could change.

In 1972, the Democratic National Committee set quotas for women, minorities and youth but not union members or factory workers. After that point, feeling ignored by the Democratic Party, factory workers tended to vote Republican and knowledge workers to vote Democratic.
When there were more factory workers than knowledge workers, the Republicans won the popular vote for president. When the number of knowledge workers began to eclipse the number of factory workers, the Democratic Party began winning the popular vote for president.
In the 1970s and 1980s, factory workers outnumbered knowledge workers. In five presidential elections from 1972 to 1988:
- Republicans won 4 by average of 11.2 million votes
- Democrats won once by 1.7 million (and that was after Watergate)

Since 1990, knowledge workers have outnumbered factory workers. In the seven presidential elections since 1992:
- Democrats have won 4 by an average of 7.1 million votes
- Republicans have “won” 3 by an average of -133,444 votes (the one time a Republican presidential candidate actually won the popular vote was after 9-11)

Factory workers as a percentage of the population continues to fall and the percentage of folks with a Bachelors degree continues to rise. While Trump has a shot at winning the electoral college, his odds of winning the popular vote are close to zero. Trump has finalized the Republican Party's identity as the anti-knowledge worker party. Since he has become head of the Party, Republican's trust in universities has dropped and a willingness to defy experts has become key to the identity of Trump's Republicans.
That day at Kent State dramatized a dividing line between two groups with very different identities that considered themselves part of two very different economies. It is a conflict that has continued to define our politics for half a century and is finally waning in importance as the percentage of factory workers falls to the level that knowledge workers were at the beginning of this divide.

30 July 2020

Trump's Last 24 Hours - Catastrophe, Cowardice, Conspiracy, Cain and Economic Collapse

Within the last 24 hours,
  • Trump promoted the health claims of a woman who not only advises against wearing a mask but warns of alien DNA and demon semen,
  • Admitted that he didn't confront Putin about his paying the Taliban to assassinate American soldiers,
  • Proposed indefinitely delaying the election (something neither Lincoln (during the Civil War) nor FDR (during WWII) did).
  • Additionally,
  • The country lost 1,400 people to COVID for the first time since May. That number included Herman Cain, a former GOP presidential candidate who was diagnosed with COVID 2 weeks after attending Trump's Tulsa, OK rally and
  • The Commerce Department announced that GDP fell at an annualized rate of 33% - the worst quarterly contraction in at least 145 years.

One day in the life of Donald.

It's a remarkable thing to have a president so cognitively, emotionally, and morally deficient.

We Are At the Moment of Galileo's Trial, Making the Choice Between Science or Superstition, Progress or Stagnation

The 30 Years' War was still nearly a decade away from resolution in 1642. That was a religious war in Europe between Protestants and Catholics and still other Protestants that left millions of Europeans dead, a war that killed 40% of the population in some regions. At that point you'd do well to explain the Protestant faith as a destructive force in history, a tragedy unleashed a century earlier by Martin Luther. As it turns out, it was more complicated than that.

In 1642, Galileo died and Isaac Newton was born. It's easy to see that now as a year in which power in Europe shifted from the Mediterranean to northern Europe.

Galileo was a genius put under house arrest by the Catholic Church because he argued that the earth orbits the sun, one of the first to use a telescope to look into space at wonders like the moon.

Newton was a genius who explained gravity and the laws of motion. Newton was an Enlightenment philosopher (his one of the minds that defined the Enlightenment) working in a country that had broken away from the Catholic Church. In England, he was free to explain the world without the approval of popes.

After 1642, Italy lost its dominance (although to this day people visit it to see the wonder it was during Galileo's time - St. Peter's Basilica, among other wonders, created only decades before Galileo was born) and Britain grew in power and influence to become the largest empire in history, eventually ruling over nearly a quarter of the world's population and land.

A community that aligns itself with science can go to the moon. In a community that rejects science, you can get in trouble just for looking at the moon.

Which brings me to the United States today, the country that arguably became the world's most powerful as the British Empire began to wane from its peak before World War I. The US has partly come to power because of its great universities, public schools and corporations and partly because as Europe was devastated by two world wars, many of its best and brightest chose to come to the US to study and work. In the last decade, the US has dominated in Nobel Prize winners and about half of those Nobel Prize winners were born and raised outside the US.

We are now at the moment of Galileo's trial. This week Trump retweeted a video starring a woman arguing that masks don't slow the spread of COVID. She also warns about alien DNA and demon semen. We are literally at a point in history in which membership in the Republican Party requires a belief in conspiracy theories and a rejection of science. The GOP doesn't even offer anything remotely as beautiful as St. Peter's basilica in return for the rejection of science; the Italians of Galileo's time had the David to gaze at in wonder and we have the Donald to gape at in horror.

It is no trivial matter to choose superstition over science. Italy went from home to the Renaissance (the place where the progress of the Greeks and Romans that had been interrupted for centuries by the Dark Ages began again) to an also-ran, a country that to this day suffers from high levels of corruption and incomes that are about 40% lower than those in northern Europe.

Four years ago, I was eating lunch with a robotics engineer from Italy. He said, "I kind of don't want Trump to win but I also kind of want him to win."
Thrown, all I could think to ask was, "Why?"
"Because everyone thinks we Italians were crazy to elect Berlusconi. If you elect Trump, no one remembers how stupid we Italians were. You will make the world forget that."

We don't have popes making the decision about whether or not we are the place where the next Newton is born or the last Galileo worked. Here it is the people making that choice. While the choice we make to trust in science or conspiracy theories won't make the world forget how Italy derailed its wondrous Renaissance progress, it could easily remind the world of that derailment, another golden age derailed by a rejection of science.

29 July 2020

Arrested Development: November as a Choice Between a Patrimonial or Modern State, of Progress or Decay

The worldviews we hold determine what kind of institutions we can create.

Francis Fukuyama argues that government emerged gradually through these stages:
  • A band: small group of hunters and gatherers who were related.
  • A tribe: like a band but they pushed back genetic connection a generation or more and thus were able to get bigger groups than a band.
  • A patrimonial state: the state administration is essentially an extension of the ruler's household (think Louis XIV or Kim Jong un) and relies on family and friends.
  • A modern state: this state is impersonal and power does not consist of the ruler's family or friends; rather, recruitment to administrative positions is based on impersonal criteria such as merit, education, or technical knowledge.
I was talking to a guy from Africa, asking about the government in his country. He said that the political party you join is almost always defined by which tribe you're part of, which often makes politics zero-sum. Most of his countrymen get their identity by tribe and not nationality, he said.

The good news is that we seem to be further along than so many besieged African nations . What's shocking to me, though, is the realization that so many Americans would still prefer the patrimonial state that Trump fights for, a government in which his son-in-law consistently gets the most important assignments, his friends are made immune from law and order, and his decision about whether to send aid or troops to a state are based on which party dominates. And of course when loyalty is the test and not technical expertise, conspiracy theories abound because belief in conspiracy theories that defy critical assessments are a great test of loyalty. As Trump said, "Stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. ... What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."

We create the institutions we believe in. You could probably say that our institutions are simply manifestations of our beliefs. For now, a big portion of the American population believes in a patrimonial rather than modern state. It's simply not possible for African nations ruled by people who think of themselves as tribal to enjoy the peace and prosperity a nation affords. Similarly, it's simply not possible for the US to enjoy the peace and prosperity a modern state affords when so many Americans are committed to a patrimonial state. The regions of the country that hold this view are going to always be less prosperous than the regions that instead believe in a modern state. We will soon see which is the real America and what stage of development we're at.

The Massive Gap Between California's Information and Agricultural Economies Has Grown Even Larger

In June, California's unemployment rate was at 15.1%, up from 4.1% a year earlier. The most vulnerable regions have been hardest hit.

San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara is the metropolitan area with the lowest unemployment rate: 10.8%.
El Centro is the metro area with the highest unemployment rate: 27.3%.

It gets worse.
El Centro's per capita income is $28,099.
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara is $128,308
A difference of $100k, a ratio of 5 to 1.

50% of the jobs in El Centro are in agriculture. Farming can't be done online.
50% of people in Santa Clara have Bachelor's degrees, a simply proxy for knowledge workers who can work online.

The ability to work online is not just a proxy for higher pay. It is a proxy for safer working conditions.  The ratio of per capita COVID cases and deaths in Imperial County (home to El Centro) to Santa Clara County is 10 to 1.

It is another reminder of the fact that even though we are one state, we live in very different worlds.

Find your metro area unemployment rate here:

26 July 2020

A Belief in an Afterlife as the Beginning of Morality

I post all the time about politics, policy and stats that seem to describe our world because I have to live with the consequence of your vote and you with mine. There is nothing private about the consequences of politics so I love the notion that we can at least better understand what thinking (or instincts) lie behind particular models of the world. Shared stats and perspectives can make those worldviews - and thus our votes - better.

Religion, though, is a private matter and so I stay away from that. Unlike your choice to vote for someone, your choice to be Catholic or atheist or Scientologist doesn't impact me and is none of my business. But I do want to talk about the afterlife.

I have developed this theory that morality is enhanced by a belief in an afterlife.

"A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of non-existence; he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true."
- Arthur Schopenhauer

By afterlife, I don't even mean that if you live a good life you'll be playing harp on a cloud or be reincarnated as someone's spoiled dog. By afterlife I mean something more simple: after your life, the world will go on and the lives in it will be just as important as those of you and the ones around you that you love. Perhaps even more important because there will be so many more lives.

Years ago I read a fascinating thought experiment. Imagine that you knew with great certainty that at the moment you died, life for all humanity would end. Giant meteor, terrible pandemic ... whatever. Everyone gone. How does that change your own life?

I think for a lot us, honestly believing such a thing would tend to gut you. It would make so much of what animates you suddenly seem laughable. "What does anything matter?" you might ask. And that thought experiment seems to me proof that our lives are generally animated by a belief in an afterlife and a sense that it's important.

Morality is certainly about now, about caring how we harm or help others. I think it's also about later, making provision for the future we'll eventually be excluded from. Believing that an afterlife matters allows us to take actions on what has the highest impact: things that take years, decades, or even lifetimes to play out.

I don't even think that a belief in an afterlife is a religious matter; it seems to me a demonstrably moral one based on a simple premise: what matters most in the world is so much bigger than me or my lifetime.

25 July 2020

Schopenhauer on Man's Big Surprise at Existing

Arthur Schopenhauer | German philosopher | Britannica
A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of non-existence; he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.
- Arthur Schopenhauer

24 July 2020

New Many Minds Podcast: The Shaman, the witch, and the folktale

Another really fascinating podcast episode from Dr. Kensy Cooperrider. 

The latest is "The shaman, the witch, and the folktale." His guest Dr. Manvir Singh has explored common - and uncommon - themes across cultures. For instance, people can identify lullabies and dance tunes from across cultures but have more trouble identifying love songs. (There seems to be a larger lesson there about how love is more confusing than sleep or celebration.) Witches, too, are fascinating; they are held responsible for evil done in a community. About 40,000 to 50,000 witches were killed in Europe and the US into the 17th century but to this day tens of thousands of people are killed for practicing witchcraft.

Anyway, a great exploration of how reality is changed by a belief in magic.

23 July 2020

Preferred Pronoun: We, Us

It's not just your imagination. There was a little more traffic out there this morning.

At 5 AM Pacific, the US population hit 330 million.

In the first census, in 1790, the population was 3.9 million.

link to census.gov

22 July 2020

Trump and the GOP Vote for a Return to the 19th Century w/ Fed Official Who Supports the Gold Standard

2 old friends are chatting back in the '90s.
"Sergey," Peter says, "I have to admit that I don't understand the telephone. You, you know so much. Explain it to me."
"Ah, Peter," Sergey says. "It is simple. Imagine a very long dachshund. His tail is on one side of the city and his snout is on the other. You pull his tail on one side of the city and he barks on the other side of the city." Sergey finishes with a smile. "That is how a phone works."
"Ah," Peter says. "This, Sergey, is why I love you. Now I understand."
They sit together in companionable silence for awhile. Then Peter says, "Well what about these new cell phones? How do they work?"
Sergey spreads his hands out over the horizon and says, "Same concept. No dog."

The Senate has voted for a Federal Reserve candidate who believes in the gold standard. It takes a special lack of understanding of what money is to think that somehow involving a piece of metal makes it safer. 

(And to anyone who thinks gold is preferable to fiat money, do this. Take about $100 in gold to a mall, a store, or an online retailer. I'll take about $100 to the same place. Let's see who is able to buy more.) 

Fiat money may confuse the same people confused about cell phones but it has a ton of advantages over gold.

Preferring the gold standard to fiat money is akin to preferring smoke signals to texting. Sure you can better see the source of the signals with the smoke rather than the texting that just magically appears out of thin air into your hand but what you can do with smoke signals is so much more limited and so much more prone to error, even if it does seem easier to understand.

Every Republican senate committee member voted for the woman who supports the gold standard to join the Fed. In 2020.

Next they'll replace Dr. Fauci with a shaman, which was also considered state of the art centuries ago.

It is as if there is a big swath of the country convinced that they'll be giving out awards for stupidity at the end of the year.

Article on Fed nomination at The Hill.

The Price of Capital Has Never Been Lower - and what that means for policy

Prices are a simple but effective signal that simply say, "This is cheap! Use it abundantly!" or "This is expensive! Use it sparingly!" 

The price of capital is the interest rate and interest rates are at their lowest in the history of the country. The market message is "Use capital abundantly!"

How? Well, with unemployment at its highest levels since the Great Depression, use it for infrastructure projects and developing new technologies like green energy and subsidizing valuable services like childcare and elder care. In the private and public sector, use an abundance of capital to fund entrepreneurship and innovation.

Capital is abundant and cheap, Great jobs, financial independence and better technology are scarce and expensive. If we use capital right - treating it as abundant - we can eventually create an abundance of the things that are currently still scarce and expensive, transforming them just as we have capital over the last century or so. 

That's the stuff of progress.


20 July 2020

The Next Level Moon Landing Conspiracy They Can't Afford to Have You Know

Today is the 51st anniversary of the first moon walk. Or so they want you to believe.

I'd like to point out something. Most of Bezos and Musk's wealth came after they founded their space companies. 

The year before Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin, in 1999, he was worth $6.8 billion. Now he is worth $176 billion, 25X as much or $169 billion more. 

The year Elon Musk founded SpaceX, in 2002, he was worth $180 million. Now he is worth $69.2 billion, $69 billion more than he was then, or 384X as much.

Why mention this? 

Folks in the know will tell you that the moon landing was faked. Once Bezos and Musk announced that they would duplicate NASA's conquest of space, folks in the deep state who had orchestrated the fake moon landing panicked ... and clearly paid off Bezos and Musk to stay silent about this, lest the whole enterprise - and their manipulation of the American public - be exposed. 

A few things to take from this.

If you believe the moon landing actually happened, perhaps in commemoration you could take things more lightly today, with less gravity as befits the lower levels of gravity on the moon.

If you are sophisticated enough to see through this charade orchestrated by folks trying to undermine the credibility of the flat earth society, perhaps you could take away this lesson instead: if you're going to fake it, fake it big. And while you are at it, see if you can't get the government to pay you billions in hush money.

19 July 2020

Social Invention Opportunity: a post-pandemic gesture of greeting to replace the handshake

Here's your chance for a really big, long-lasting invention.
Walking around the neighborhood, I wear my mask dangling around my neck until someone draws near and then I place my mask over my mouth and nose until we have passed each other a safe distance. A lot of people do the same.
After this pandemic, I suspect that handshakes may never return. At a minimum, they will be less common.
So, perhaps we'll have a new gesture for greeting, something that conveys respect and wishes good health. A hand gesture that imitates putting on a mask? A hand across the face as if to guard it? Some modified Namaste gesture over the face? The mask may be gone, but the gesture to put it on as a show of respect for the health of another staying with us.
I'm not sure what such a gesture of greeting or respect might look like but given the persistence of handshakes for centuries, a greeting that replace it could be huge, could last for generations. Now that would be a social invention.

Meaning of Namaste: What Does Namaste Mean - Yoga Journal

18 July 2020

What if Past and Not Character Determine How Well We Invest and Cooperate?

The history of communities and the study of successful lives suggest that the most powerful route to prosperity involves both delay of gratification and a win-win mindset that lets us cooperate with a bigger group. High-levels of prosperity trace back to high-levels of investment and cooperation. (Cooperation shows up in trade, specialization and knowledge sharing, among other things.)
As it turns out, people's willingness and ability to realize this are less defined by their vision of what is possible than their experience. Experience changes how kids perform in the classic marshmallow test, how people tend to vote, and even cultural norms that may actually trace back to genetic expression (in the form of phenotypic plasticity).

If past is this defining, one of the central questions of leadership is how you not only create a new vision for people but a new experience.
Here are excerpts from three studies about kids, voters and entire species or populations.
And here’s another twist: The inclination to wait depends on one’s experiences. “For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed,” remarked a group of social scientists at the University of Rochester. Last year they conducted an experiment in which children were encouraged to wait for “a brand-new set of exciting art supplies” rather than using the well-worn crayons and dinky little stickers that were already available. After a few minutes, the adult returned. Half the kids received the promised, far superior materials. But the other half got only an apology: “I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all.”
Then it was time for the marshmallow challenge. And how long did the children wait for two to appear before they gave up and ate the one sitting in front of them? Well, it depended on what had happened earlier. Those for whom the adult had proved unreliable (by failing to deliver the promised art supplies) waited only about three minutes. But those who had learned that good things do come to those who wait were willing to hold off, on average, for a remarkable twelve minutes.
Thus, the decision about whether to defer gratification may tell us what the child has already learned about whether waiting is likely to be worth it. If her experience is that it isn’t, then taking whatever is available at the moment is a perfectly reasonable choice. Notice that this finding also challenges the conclusion that the capacity to defer gratification produces various later-life benefits. Self-restraint can be seen as a result of earlier experiences, not an explanation for how well one fares later.

Other research has shown that messaging centered around the potential for cooperation and positive-sum change really appeals to educated people, while messaging that emphasizes zero-sum conflict resonates much more with non-college-educated people. Arguably, this is because college-educated professionals live really blessed lives filled with mutually beneficial exchange, while negative-sum conflicts play a very big part of working-class people’s lives, in ways that richer people are sheltered from. But it manifests in a lot of ways and leads to divergent political attitudes.
3. Phenotypic plasticity. (source: https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27196 )

The study of phenotypic plasticity has long been limited to physical traits (such as skin pigmentation). However, recent research in neuroscience, ecology and psychology has shown that phenotypic plasticity extends to behaviors. For instance, in a harsh and unpredictable environment where the future is dreary, organisms tend to adopt a short-term life strategy: maturing and reproducing earlier, investing less in offspring and in pair-bonding, being more impulsive. On the contrary, in a more favorable and predictable environment, organisms switch to a long-term strategy: maturing and reproducing later, investing in offspring and in pair-bonding, and being more patient. Importantly, these switches between present-oriented and future-oriented behaviors can affect all kind of behaviors: reproduction and growth of course, but also attitudes toward consumption, investment in learning or health, trust in others, political opinions, technological innovation, etc. In fact, every behavior (and neural structure) for which time and risk are relevant dimensions is likely to involve a certain degree of plasticity.


17 July 2020

The Right Not to Wear a Mask

How did we get to the point where we are arguing about whether people have the right to take lives or property?

Arguing that you have the right not to wear a mask is arguing that you have the right to spread COVID, which shuts down businesses, destroys jobs and takes lives. An angry mob may grant its members such a right but no healthy society does.

15 July 2020

Top 10 CEOs (by compensation) and a Better Way for the US To Invest in the Future

Elon Musk was the most richly compensated CEO in 2019. He made nearly $600 million.

In 2010, the Department of Energy gave Tesla a loan of nearly that amount: $465 million. This was the same year and the same program under which Solyndra got a loan of $535 million. (Between them, the two alternative energy companies got exactly a billion.)

It's not a bad idea to invest in companies and any venture capitalist would happily take one Solyndra and one Tesla, one failure and one wild success. What would be a better way to invest in the future than a loan? Take an equity position.

Had the US taken an equity position in Tesla and Solyndra equivalent to the loan amount, the US equity value of Solyndra would be $0 and of Tesla would be $36.5 billion - for an initial investment of one billion in the two companies. Like Musk, we Americans would have been rewarded for the risk we took. It's great to give more reward for more risk: it is weird to make the risk public and the reward private.

Meanwhile, average compensation for the top 10 CEOs was $151 million, and four of the top 10 are immigrants (three from India and Musk from South Africa).

Article on ten highest paid CEOs at Bloomberg.

14 July 2020

Trump's Descent from Reality TV Star to Comic Book Villain and the Capacity for Error Correction

Good people, good ideas, and good communities aren't perfect. They are perfect-able.

People screw up. Forgiveness is us saying, "I'm not going to define you by your worst moment." Repentance is saying, "I'm not going to define myself by my worst moment." Screwing up doesn't make us awful people. Refusing to change afterwards does.

One of the differences between real science and pseudoscience is not error. Both have them. Real science has the capacity for error correction. Understanding evolves. Pseudoscience is not defined by a testable hypothesis but instead by a core belief, a reliance on the words of an authority, or a conspiracy theory that depends on the absence of data that would either affirm, tweak or disprove it.

Asked about going to church Trump said, "I don't ask for forgiveness. For what?" Trump has no capacity for error correction. That would require a degree of humility and / or intellectual curiosity and / or ability to admit to being wrong and / or a conscience. He's 0 for 4 on those traits and because of this has descended from reality TV star to comic book villain, presiding over the worst domestic tragedy since the Civil War, all while downplaying and denying the risk, from the early days of COVID when he promised that it would magically go away to this week when he insisted that schools have to re-open in spite of the failure of his policies to make this country safe. Even in the midst of a catastrophe, it's hard to make improvements when everything is great.

12 July 2020

COVID-19 as an Intelligence Test

COVID is a weird kind of intelligence test. Probabilities and lags obscure cause and effect.

There are some folks who regularly rush out to buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot hits $100 million who are dismissing the need for a mask. The odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 100 million; the odds of dying from COVID once you've contracted it are 1 in 100. (And if you are over 70, those odds are more like 1 in 10.) There is an old quip that the lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math. Bad at math might also describe one of the high-risk groups for COVID.

Here's an interesting and important article for anyone living in a pandemic. Derek Thompson explores various explanations for why we're currently seeing a spike in cases but not in deaths.

1. Deaths lag cases. There is about a month between when someone contracts the coronavirus and dies of COVID. 
Image may contain: text
2. Expanded testing is finding more cases, milder cases, and earlier cases.
3. The typical COVID-19 patient is getting younger.
4. Hospitalized patients are dying less frequently, even without a home-run treatment. (This falls into the category of, We're getting better at treating COVID as we learn more. One more reason to - at a minimum - procrastinate on getting COVID.)
5. Summer might be helping—but probably only a little bit.

One of the reasons that COVID is an intelligence test is that cause and effect are separated by time as well as probability. Of 1,000 people engaging in the exact same activity, only 100 might get it and only 1 might die. These probabilities obscure cause and effect. On top of that, it might take weeks for certain policies or behaviors to result in illness and another month to result in death. That lag, too, further obscures cause and effect. When New York was suffering the worst of hospitalizations and deaths, the behavior of its residents might have been the best. (People were incredibly cautious.) Before that, when there were very, very few cases or deaths, New Yorkers were behaving most dangerously. If you look around now to see what is going on, you won't see any clear cause and effect. If you could collapse cause and effect at the peak of the outbreak in New York, you would see that New York was the safest place and Arizona the most dangerous, even if the data at the time screamed a message exactly opposite of that. Cause whispers. Effect screams.

One of the the reasons that levels of education rises with levels of income is this: people who learn only from personal experience don't learn much. There is far more to learn from studying millions of people than from "just living your own life." A life is too high a price to pay for information and insight, no matter how quotable are your last words.

Derek Thompson's article in the Atlantic is here.

09 July 2020

Winston Churchill's Last Words

Last night I finished Gretchen Rubin's Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill.

His mother was to eventually marry a man three years younger than him. As a young man Churchill’s father wrote him a letter in which he said, "I am certain that if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle useless unprofitable life you have had during your schooldays & later months, you will become a mere social wastrel .... and you will degenerate into a shabby unhappy & futile existence."

Whether because of or in spite of this fine bit of parental coaching, Churchill’s life was remarkable. He did, said, and wrote dozens – hundreds – of things, any one of which would define a lesser life.

His life spanned the presidencies of US Grant and LBJ. He was born before the use of electricity, the telephone, the radio or the automobile. In 1898, he fought in the last British cavalry charge to use lances as weapons. He pioneered the concept and development of the tank and the British Air Force and wrote “Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure or taught to be sure was impossible, has happened.” He was given to excess. After spending an evening with him, someone wrote, “We had two lovely films after dinner … Winston managed to cry through all of them, including the comedy.” He once traveled on holiday with 800 pounds of luggage. He escaped from prison as a soldier, escaped death half a dozen times, was prime minister twice, was a brave warrior who defeated Hitler, and a casual racist who insulted Gandhi, never attended university and yet won a Nobel Prize for literature (he was impossibly prolific: his papers weighed 15 tons and he created nearly 500 paintings), was given to excess (FDR said of him, “Winston has fifty ideas a day and three or four are good” and after being ousted from office after WWII, in the space of two weeks he drank 96 bottles of champagne while quaffing six or seven whiskies and soda and three brandies a day), was a polo champion, a fencing champion, on a book tour in the US was introduced by Mark Twain, and during his life met fellow luminaires like Charlie Chaplin and Prince Charles (Diana was a distant cousin), Haile Selassie, Keynes, JFK, Nixon, Einstein and HG Wells.

He died at 90 on the same date that his father had died. I don’t know if after such a grand life it was inevitable or incredible that his last words were, "I'm so bored with it all."

06 July 2020

Life as a Shut-In

Occasionally I forget that we've living through a pandemic and find myself suddenly questioning the poor life choices I must have made to be living as a shut-in decades ahead of schedule.

Job Transition Programs To Facilitate Progress

Economic progress means disruption and that creates pain. We could reduce that pain which would not only be a huge kindness but help to facilitate more progress. Some countries spend 2% of GDP on job transition programs. We spend 0.1%

Many European countries invest much more in their job transition programs than the United States. For the 2 percent of GDP Denmark spends on active labor market policies (training, job finding assistance, etc.), it gets high job-to-job mobility (going straight from one job to another) as well as lots of transitions in and out of employment. The rate of involuntary displacement is similar to that in other OECD countries, but the rate at which displaced workers find a job is much more rapid: three in four displaced workers find a new job within one year. Importantly, the Danish model survived the 2008 crisis and recession, with no large increase in involuntary unemployment at that time. Germany spends 1.45 percent of its GDP on active labor market policies, and this went up to 2.45 percent during the crisis, when unemployment was much higher than usual. In France, on the other hand, notwithstanding claims about how it wants to do more for the unemployed, expenditure on active labor market policies has been stuck at 1 percent of GDP for more than a decade. The corresponding measure for the United States is just 0.11 percent.
Banerjee, Abhijit V and Duflo, Esther. Good Economics for Hard Times (p. 314). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

How a Series of Seemingly Random Events Might Shape a Generation: Millennials, 9-11, the Great Recession & a Pandemic

I had an exchange with Jackie and conversation with my son Blake, two millennials born in the late 1980s.

9-11 and its aftermath in the form of the war on terror hit when they were about 10. The Great Recession hit when they were about 20. Now COVID and its aftermath has hit when they were about 30. Every decade, some cataclysmic event that seems to send the future in a new direction.

As context for these events, there is another, bigger shift. 100 years ago, three really big, really important things in life were essentially just given to you, defined for you as defaults that many simply accepted: where you would live, what you would do, and your religion. You lived where you were born. For work, you did what your parent did. And you continued in the religion you were raised in. Now, all three of those are things most wrestle with, have to question, and are often forced to define. (My daughter’s Bachelor’s degree was in a major that did not exist when I went to university.)

Erich Fromm wrote this fascinating book, Escape from Freedom, trying to make sense of Hitler in the wake of WWII and he said that true freedom, true responsibility to define one's own life, is an overwhelming task and one that people might easily flee from - even into the arms of authoritarian leaders who dictate all that. Freedom of choice can be terrifying – or at least stressful. Rather than contemplate our freedom, we might actually turn to authoritarian leaders who will dictate to us what we find too overwhelming to choose or even create.

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were also exploring many of their big ideas in the wake of World War 2. This choice we have to define ourselves on so many dimensions is the stuff of the freedom and angst that they explored in their existential philosophy. Sartre argued that it was on the other side of existential angst that one created a life that wasn’t merely a continuation of what came before. Like Fromm, he believed that freedom was really stressful.

Millennials have more freedom – and thus more burden – of choice than any previous generation. (Not that this is a bad thing. I would argue that one measure of progress is exactly this: more choice about how to live one’s life, what to buy, where to live, how to live …) Couple that with the fact that the first decade of their careers is now bookended by two of the most cataclysmic recessions in the last 80 years. They are keenly aware of how contingent life is and how much can be changed by random, big events or even small, individual choices. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll expect any sense of permanence in the midst of this.

Blake opined that this is one of the big reasons the millennials are far more likely to support stronger social safety nets, from universal healthcare to welfare. That sounds right to me. It also makes me wonder the extent to which millennials will be more likely to press into situations that let them maximize freedom or create stability. Whether all this will make them more or less tolerant of uncertainty.

And of course, maybe this is just life. We’re always shocked at falling in love or how adorable a baby is even though every generation before has felt the same wonder at these things. Each generation has its defining struggles, whether it be a civil war or world war or civil rights. But I think the shape of these events in turn help to shape a generation. It’s not clear to me how these events will shape this generation of millennials who I love. The good news is that no generation has been more educated, more aware, and less tolerant of injustice. They seem well prepared. he good news is that no generation has been more educated, more aware, and less tolerant of injustice. They seem well prepared but of course preparation seems like an elusive concept when your life has been impacted by so many seemingly random events.

04 July 2020

Follow Walt Whitman's Advice and "Your Very Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem"

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is 165 years old today. It's fitting that it debuted on the 4th of July as it is such a distinctly American creation. This preface appeared only in the initial edition and I love the bit about re-examining all you have been told but this whole preface is quite the advice, boldly given.

Excerpts from here:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. ..... the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors—the fluency of their speech their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul . . . their good temper and openhandedness— the terrible significance of their elections—the President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.
The old red blood and stainless gentility of great poets will be proved by their unconstraint. A heroic person walks at his ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits him not. Of the traits of the brotherhood of writers savants musicians inventors and artists nothing is finer than silent defiance advancing from new free forms. In the need of poems philosophy politics mechanism science behaviour, the craft of art, an appropriate native grand-opera, shipcraft, or any craft, he is greatest forever and forever who contributes the greatest original practical example. The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one.

Great genius and the people of these states must never be demeaned to romances. As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances.

Only the soul is of itself. . . . all else has reference to what ensues. All that a person does or thinks is of consequence. Not a move can a man or woman make that affects him or her in a day or a month or any part of the direct lifetime or the hour of death but the same affects him or her onward afterward through the indirect lifetime. The indirect is always as great and real as the direct. .... Did you guess any of them lived only its moment? The world does not so exist . . . no parts palpable or impalpable so exist . . . no result exists now without being from its long antecedent result, and that from its antecedent, and so backward without the farthest mentionable spot coming a bit nearer the beginning than any other spot.

America prepares with composure and goodwill for the visitors that have sent word. It is not intellect that is to be their warrant and welcome. The talented, the artist, the ingenious, the editor, the statesman, the erudite . . . they are not unappreciated . . . they fall in their place and do their work. The soul of the nation also does its work.


03 July 2020

1776 and the founding of modern democracy and capitalism

1776 was a good year for world changing documents.

The founding fathers gave us the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith gave us The Wealth of Nations. Oh, and across campus from Adam Smith in Glasgow, James Watt was perfecting the steam engine.

The combination of markets and democracy since has transformed lives. The two enable each other. Usually, what is wrong with democracy can be solved with more democracy, and what is wrong with markets can be solved with more markets.

It's funny how nobody tells a runner that they should make one leg weaker and yet in my lifetime I've seen lots of folks argue that we would make progress more rapidly if only we made one leg weaker, weakening government or markets. (For instance, the Republican Party was hijacked by Grover Norquist who famously quipped, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." His weird worldview has become gospel for many. Of course now that we're witnessing the literally fatal consequences of a weak government in handling a pandemic, perhaps more people will abandon this odd theology.)

We're looking back to 1776 this weekend. It's worth remembering that the gains we have made since are less product of markets or democracy than what is created in the interaction between the two.

I would like to think that Adam Smith and James Watt were walking on this very spot on campus one day and Adam said, "Imagine someday that a person will be able to capture this image with a device."
"Oh sure," said James. "And then they'll be able to send that image to a friend on the American continent."
And then they laughed and laughed and said, "Ha! We could tell that to our peers, but really, who would believe us?"

Glasgow University. Adam Smith taught here and James Watt worked on campus, tinkering away with the steam engine. When I visited a few years ago, I was giddy.

02 July 2020

Wealth of Nation's Poorest 165 Million is 10X Bezos' Wealth (so there's that)

Jeff Bezos net worth is now $171.6 billion. (It would be nearly a quarter of a trillion if not for his divorce settlement.)

The bottom 50% of Americans hold 1.4% of the country's wealth.
Bezos holds 0.15% of the country's wealth.
So, Bezo's wealth is 10% of the total held by the poorest 50% of (or 165 million) Americans.

So that's kind of interesting.