Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Trump Is Like a Farting Dog

Trump is like a farting dog.  It's not at all pleasant, but it is inexplicably funny.  You cannot prevent yourself from laughing.  You cannot stop laughing, even in full awareness of how awful it is.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Neutrino Living

Sometimes when I see rich people doing rich people things (not an uncommon sight in New York), I wonder whether it really makes them happy.  But of course this is the wrong question to ask.  We should order our lives so that we take our pleasures where they are minimally costly to society.  This is why it is better to squander your time playing Dwarf Fortress than it is to squander your time sailing on a $50,000,000 yacht.  Both activities are directed at your own pleasure, but Dwarf Fortress is vastly cheaper.  I don't mean the price of the game itself—it's a free download—I mean that society does not have to devote very many resources to produce it.  For its creators, it is a labor of love.  They subsist on donations of between $5,000 and $10,000 a month, which is generous but is hardly extravagant given the amount of fun that has been derived from their labors.

In general, we should look for sources of pleasure that impose minimal costs on other people.  A walk through an urban park is a good example.  I suppose there's a (very) slight amount of wear and tear involved with all that foot traffic, but actually I suspect that parks are safer when they are well-attended, so it's not clear to me that adding an additional park-goer is a social negative.  (Obviously you must clean up after yourself if you bring any food or beverages into the park.)

Library books, listening to music, playing games:  these are sources of pleasure that can be enjoyed at minimal social cost.  Putting to one side the fact that rich-people pursuits are expensive, we can see that even for people who can afford them, they are too socially wasteful to be supportable.  Pleasure can be found many places; not all pleasures require vast resources to support; we must seek out the pleasures that intrude the least on our fellow inhabitants of the planet.

I am reminded that this is my summer of amorality, and so the foregoing should be ignored.

[Edited to add:  I had just published this post when the following appeared in my Twitter feed:

I guess maybe this makes sense if the dog is disabled?  I don't know.]

The Labels We Append to Ourselves

A funny thing about reading history is that I become so accustomed to the names and places in the book that it comes as a shock to remember that I come from a different time and place.  The biography of Pasteur that I have been reading is full of French names and Victorian concepts (though on reflection, I doubt the French use the term "Victorian" to describe that era).  Just a moment ago I had occasion to write my name, and it seemed foreign to me.  "Wow, that's very Irish!" I said to myself, before realizing I was talking about my own name.

It wasn't such a big deal when I was reading about Gladstone, because several of the dramatis personae were Irish, and also British names are not so different from Irish ones.  But France is strikingly different, and I can see why French people sometimes develop a form of nationalism that would seem alien in the English-speaking world.

Past Is Prologue

From Louis Pasteur, by Patrice Debré (translated into English by Elborg Forster) (Adrien Loir is Pasteur's nephew and colleague):

The famous actress never traveled without her dogs.  But Australia was very strict when it came to quarantine.  In order to get around the rules, Loir offered his charming compatriot housing for her two animals in his institute, which was protected and where they would enjoy preferential treatment.  By way of thanking him, Sarah Bernhardt granted the young scientist an unsurpassable privilege, that of playing the silent part of her lover in Victorien Sardou's "Fédora."  At the end of the play, the heroine faints and falls into her lover's arms — which is why this part was coveted by all of Sarah Bernhardt's innumerable suitors, to begin with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
Many Australians did not forgive Adrien Loir for holding Sarah Bernhardt in his arms for a moment, and the most jealous took revenge by bringing up the subject of rabies.  In his defense, Loir pointed out that the length of the voyage, added to the isolation of the dogs in his institute, constituted a sufficient safeguard, for together they extended far beyond the incubation period of the disease.  Yet Pasteur, whom his nephew consulted on this matter, was less categorical:  '"A dog that leaves Europe after having been bitten by a rabid animal will die during the quarantine imposed upon its arrival in Australia in keeping with the incubation period.  However, this rule is not absolute; science knows of incubation periods of one year, even two years and several months for rabies; but these are most unusual exceptions."
In any case, this anecdote shows that the New South Wales government was extremely concerned about the risk of rabies.  It is true that at this point Oceania was still free of this affection [I think he means 'affliction'].  Rabies and other hitherto unknown viruses would eventually be brought to Australia by the means of rapid communication, especially air travel.
My advice to actors traveling to Australia with dogs is to profit from the example set by those who came before you.

A Few Love Songs

Here are a few songs that I, anyway, process as love songs—you may have a different view.

Tarkio was a Colin Meloy band that preceded The Decemberists.  This is a nice, short, sweet, mournful song.

Magnolia Electric Co. was Jason Molina's band.  We don't know exactly what the lover suffers from—depression ("you come out of the blues all them times by yourself")?  Addiction?  But I like the way the song mashes up the naive hope and the inevitable relapse.  You faded on me, darling don't fade on me, you faded on me.  I think that's probably true to life for a lot of people who have been in that situation.

This one is courtesy of Elisa, who emphasizes the subjugation/desperation of the song's lyrics.

"MAPS" allegedly stands for "my Angus please stay," but I actually prefer to think of it as a cartographical type thing.

This is the only new song in the bunch.  I am of the view that Thom Yorke has come to bear some physical resemblance to Willie Nelson.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

PC Run Amok

I've seen a lot of concern trolling about how we're not supposed to call Trump's supporters idiots.  As a political matter, this is a good (though utterly uncontroversial) point—I don't want Clinton to go around saying that Trump only gets support because there are a lot of bigots and stupid people in this country.

But the remarkable thing about Trump is how transparently manipulative he is, how unprepared and unequipped for office he remains, and how shallow his pretense of caring about anything other than himself.  In the last week he's gratuitously attacked multiple Republican leaders in good standing with the party, in a fit of pique.  This is unacceptably childish from almost any perspective (these aren't ideological attacks, which might be understood as an intra-party struggle about policy—they are the venting of petty personal grievances).

And these things are abundantly obvious to anyone who pays even a modicum of attention to the race.  It is impolite and counterproductive to say so in public, but that doesn't make it any less true.  So let me suggest that the notion that Trump's followers aren't almost entirely idiots and bigots is really just an example of that national scourge, political correctness.

The Dose Makes the Poison

This is an utterly banal observation, but if that's not what you're looking for, may I humbly suggest that a different blog might be more suitable for you?

In Republican rhetoric, tax cuts are pretty much always good.  "I cut taxes" is a universal selling point for a Republican governor who is running for president, and a vote for a tax increase must be denied or explained away.

What is so crazy about this, of course, is that it focuses exclusively on the change in taxes and not on their absolute level.  This would be appropriate if the "right" level of taxation were zero, since all tax cuts would then represent improvements.  And this is effectively the Republican position, even though it is utterly insane and could not possibly be defended if it were scrutinized.  Kansas is on the rocks precisely because its idiotic governor took Republican rhetoric literally.

Anyway as much as I hate the Republican Party, I actually think this is a very common tendency that people have—in their minds, they code policy changes as "good" or "bad" without paying too much attention to the absolute level.  A good example on the other side is the minimum wage.  I think the minimum wage is a good policy, and I think it could probably be usefully increased by a modest amount, but I am very skeptical that a national $15 minimum wage is a good idea.  And even if $15 is a reasonable level, I think it's a big mistake to code "minimum wage increase" as "worker-friendly."  That's only true over some range, and the range really matters.  (By the same token, if you're going to insist on a "living wage" for workers, and you're unwilling to admit any tradeoffs, then why not aim for a "living wage" of $400,000, which would unquestionably eliminate the need for subsidized childcare, housing, nutrition, etc.?  At that level of income, I'm not sure people would even need subsidized healthcare or retirement support.  Even a one-parent household would earn enough to support pretty much any number of children, and a two-parent household could retire after like 10 years of work.)

In particular, this is how I have been thinking about globalization lately.  I have no sympathy for old-fashioned protectionism.  But not all liberalization is good!  We have pushed things so far in one direction that I am basically agnostic about future changes—it seems to me that a "trade deal" is as likely to be harmful as helpful at this point.  This is not because I'm a trade skeptic!  It's because the dose makes the fucking poison, and at this point "liberalization" is largely about domestic policies that arguably affect trade but are also often open to legitimate debate.

There are areas where we are so far from the optimal level that there is no real danger in simplifying the terms of the debate.  Greenhouse gas reductions are not going to turn into a bad idea until we've moved a long way along the spectrum, so it's safe to support reductions without any risk of going too far.  But in general it's lazy and dangerous to adopt rhetoric that simplistically identifies policy changes as "good" or "bad" depending on the direction of the change.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Bathroom Politics

Just a little historical observation.  LBJ had a house in Texas but obviously lived in DC for much of the time.  His servants, many (all?) of whom were black, would drive the car back and forth between the two locations to haul belongings that were too big to be carried on an airplane.  They dreaded this chore, not because the drive itself was particularly unpleasant, but because they were generally not permitted to use bathrooms for large stretches of the trip through the South.  It was unpleasant and humiliating for them.

And this, more than a lot of other things, enraged LBJ.  It is such a fundamental affront to human dignity not to be able to use a bathroom.  Obviously this wasn't the only issue that drove him to push for civil rights, but it was one of the most personal and visceral.

Anyway, against all odds bathrooms have been a flashpoint for social justice in this country.

A Very Tepid Defense of Single-Sex Bathrooms

Probably the best way to design bathrooms is to have separate, single-occupant bathrooms that can be used by either sex/gender.  No one is ever in the bathroom at the same time as anyone else (except a parent changing a child's diaper or whatever), and so there just isn't any issue.

But assuming you have bathrooms with multiple toilets, you then have the following issue:  someone else can follow you into the bathroom.  And at some times, in some places, it might be desirable for a woman to be able to go into a bathroom without a man following her.  A bathroom can function as a kind of ad hoc "safe space."  And I don't just mean safe from violence.  Sometimes a guy is too aggressive, or creepy, or whatever, and while the situation doesn't warrant getting the cops involved or anything, it is really helpful to have somewhere to go where the man can't follow.

I'm not arguing that bathrooms should need to be used this way, or that there shouldn't be better alternatives.  I just think it's a reality that many establishments aren't going to establish a dedicated safe space apart from the restroom.

Now even if you allow transgender people to use the bathroom, that doesn't mean all sex/gender distinctions have to be abandoned.  But it turns a very clear transgression (what is a man doing in the women's bathroom?) into an ambiguous one (maybe it's okay because the "man" identifies as a woman).  And in the absence of a clear, unambiguous ability to tell a man to leave the bathroom, the bathroom loses its status as a safe place to go.

I want to emphasize that I don't regard this as sufficient reason to ban transgender people from bathrooms.  And as I said, probably from an architectural point of view, bathrooms should simply be single-occupant.  I'm just pointing out one potential downside that people should think about when they consider the issue.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


I think probably one of the worst feelings must be the inability to protect someone you love.  Imagine your child is being bullied, and there is nothing you can do—maybe because the bully's parents won't cooperate with you, or maybe because you have no way of reaching them.  Or maybe your child is being mocked, and any efforts on your part to stop it would only make it worse.  Whatever the reason, that feeling of being powerless in the face of an attack on someone you care about...  that must be a terribly sad and helpless feeling, it must tear you up inside.

Trump and Tacit Knowledge

We often know much more than we can prove.  We possess tacit knowledge that is difficult or impossible to communicate.  This can be incredibly frustrating, a sort of Cassandra metaphor.  You are in the grips of an important truth and you have no means to communicate it to others.

So it is with Donald Trump.  It is as plain as the nose on my face that he is a terrible person whose deplorable character and complete disregard for the truth mark him out as one of the most dangerous presidential candidates of all time.  But this knowledge, while not quite tacit, is very hard to capture in simple English.  Trump has many defenders who deploy arguments with superficial plausibility—don't all politicians lie?  Aren't all politicians narcissistic?  Isn't Trump's most distinctive attribute that he wants to put America first?

These arguments are certainly not going to persuade everyone, but they are persuasive to a large number of people, and they are basically impossible to refute concisely.  The essence of tacit knowledge is that it takes arbitrarily large amounts of time and effort to convey it.  Luckily, Trump's awfulness is not purely tacit knowledge.  You just have to find the right way to express the concept.  So the search is on for a way to encapsulate it in simple English.  I offer as an example this passage from a David Brooks column, as quoted by Charles Murray in the National Review:

Donald Trump is epically unprepared to be president. He has no realistic policies, no advisers, no capacity to learn. His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out. He insults the office Abraham Lincoln once occupied by running for it with less preparation than most of us would undertake to buy a sofa. . . . He is a childish man running for a job that requires maturity. He is an insecure boasting little boy whose desires were somehow arrested at age 12.
That last line in particular rings true.  Of course, that just means that it resonates with me, not that it would actually be effective with people who are persuadable.  But I hope the Democrats are directing significant resources to finding and testing these approaches to reveal him for what he is.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Laying Down a Marker

Just putting down a marker to return to later:  our society is becoming increasingly transparent in ways that are having a big effect on politics and perceived inequality.  Once upon a time, you could look around and say, "Republicans are like the people at the country club.  And people at the country club are rich."  Now you can see vastly worse Republicans and vastly richer people, on TV and on the internet.  And people are more aware of what their friends/peers are consuming, so that longstanding injustices are newly being thrust under people's noses.  These factors are exacerbated by self-selected or customized, or otherwise ideologically filtered, "news."  There is no hope for the Republic.

Non-Taxable Stocks: Traditional vs. Roth

Just a quick note on the recently published finding that only about a quarter of U.S. stock is held in taxable accounts.  This is an important fact about the world and in general it's important to pay attention to this sort of thing, so I'm glad this was published.

That said, I just want to observe that the report treats traditional IRAs as non-taxable.  And that's of course true:  when you make an eligible contribution to an IRA, that money is not counted as part of your income and so your income taxes are reduced.  (This is often expressed as contributing "pre-tax dollars" to your IRA.)  Also, when you buy and sell stocks within your IRA, you don't incur capital gains taxes the way you might in a taxable account.

But in another sense, stocks held in traditional IRAs are not really exempt from taxes.  When the taxpayer withdraws money from a traditional IRA (mandatory withdrawals begin around age 70), the withdrawals are taxed as income.  And for many (all?) individuals, the income tax rate is higher than the capital gains tax rate.  The accounts are tax-sheltered, but the government has already taken the hit.  If 100% of U.S. stocks were held in traditional IRAs, the government could anticipate a lot of future revenue from those accounts, and there would not necessarily be reason for concern (at least, on the grounds of future tax revenue).

By contrast, once money is invested in a Roth IRA, it has permanently exited the picture.  Roth IRAs are funded with "after tax dollars"—the taxpayer gets no deduction in the year the funds are contributed.  Instead, the benefit is that the investor pays no capital gains or income tax when withdrawing the money.  There actually aren't any mandatory withdrawals from Roth IRAs, but if there were, they wouldn't generate any tax revenue.

I'm not sure Roth IRAs are any better or worse than traditional IRAs if you are looking at the entire life cycle.  But if you take a snapshot of stocks in taxable vs. non-taxable accounts, as this report has done, then the 25% headline number might be misleading.  A lot of stock is held in "non-taxable" accounts that will be taxed when the stock is sold—and quite often, that tax rate will be higher than the tax that will be paid on accounts that the report codes as "taxable."

Just Another Boring Post, No Reason to Read

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in the introduction to Mother Night, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."  I have found this to be quite insightful.  Our identities are a mélange of elements cobbled together from the primordial murk under the oversight of a fitfully attentive spotlight of consciousness.  We have less control than we like to imagine, but on the other hand, what control we exert tends to shape us whether it is "genuine" or not.  There is no ironic way to impress your thumb into the clay.

Another way to think about it is that Poe's Law has a lot of traction in real life.  Briefly, Poe's Law states that in the absence of an express indication (such as a winking emoji), it is impossible to deploy sarcasm/irony on the internet without being mistaken for an earnest proponent of the view that is expressed.  If you decide to carry yourself a certain way, the wider world generally has neither the time nor the desire to disentangle your "true meaning."

In real life, you see this in "ironic" enjoyment of things, especially personal appearance.  ("I'm not the kind of guy who enjoys wearing a beard!  I'm sending up the kind of guy who enjoys wearing a beard!")  But I think the point goes much deeper:  to a dismayingly large degree, we choose our tastes for reasons that typically do not reflect well on us.  (Often we want to seem sophisticated.  I mean, "mélange"? Really?)  In other words, it's not just the hipsters, it's all of us.  We "lock in" at some point, but before that we are remarkably fluid, and the point of solidification is almost entirely arbitrary.

I'm not going to be able to express very well the merger of style and substance here.  I'll just observe that they tend to merge very quickly.  There's a scene in Catch-22 where the bomber pilots are hoping that a ribbon (representing the line between Allies and Axis) will move up the Italian peninsula past the bombing target, so that the pilots won't have to risk their lives on more bombing missions.  An officer snidely observes that their focus on the ribbon represents magical thinking:  what matters is the actual movement of the battle line, not the ribbon that represents it.  In the night, Yossarian sneaks up to the map and moves the ribbon past the target city.  The next day, seeing that the ribbon has moved past the target, the commanders order the planes to stay on the ground.

And it turns out that in real life too the ribbon matters all the time, even when it "shouldn't."

Anyway blah blah blah.  The point is that "James" is too moralistic and judgmental.  Victorian, is the way I like to think about it.  So to operationalize all the observations I've made above, I am going to try an experiment.  This summer I am casting aside all notions of morality and I am going to pursue my own interests without regard to other people or any notion of decency.  I will obey some rules, of course, but only because it is in my own short-term interest to do so.  I will lie and steal with impunity.  I will assert dominion over all I survey.  I am above morality, and I have made myself as a god among men.

Descriptivism vs. Prescriptivism And Why I'm Ignoring It

Maybe I'm an idiot [No need to hedge here. -ed.], but I've never really understood the whole descriptivist/prescriptivist thing (that is, the debate about whether grammar describes how people use language or prescribes how they ought to use the language).

It would seem crazy to maintain this distinction in other areas.  Surely anatomy can both describe the body and yield prescriptions about how to heal it.  We might choose to use different terms for these different enterprises (anatomy and physiology or whatever, I don't know), but we would regard that as a terminological boundary and we wouldn't get into interminable annoying debates about which side is "right."  In fact, we wouldn't even entertain the idea that there is a "right" side.  (If an emergency room doctor says, "We need to keep his windpipe from collapsing!" we don't think it would be appropriate for a nurse to insist that there is no right or wrong form for the windpipe to take, and that the medical team's proper role is merely to describe the windpipe as it exists in the patient's body.  On the other hand, we wouldn't expect to have strong opinions about detached earlobes or whatever.)

I'm not denying that there is some potential nuance here.  People may lack awareness of the different modes in which grammar can be analyzed, and so they may be annoyingly dogmatic and imperious when this isn't called for, inviting a descriptivist critique.  And there may be a legitimate debate about what people are or ought to be doing when they publish a dictionary, or whatever.  But that seems like an almost laughably small question compared to the stakes that the debate is invested with in the popular imagination.

Anyway until I'm convinced otherwise, I'll regard anyone who takes the debate seriously with considerable skepticism.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

There Is a Special Place in Hell

Just an observation about the Zika virus and the history of the HIV epidemic.

The Reagan administration bears tremendous moral guilt for its failure to respond adequately to the AIDS crisis.  (I use that term because in the early years, HIV had not been identified.  In fact, even "AIDS" is a bit of an anachronism—for a while there was no single name for the disease.)  Officials would come to Reagan asking for money for research, prevention, and treatment, and the administration's answer was, "We're not going to increase your budget, or even reverse the budget cuts we've forced through.  But gee, if the disease is such a big deal, you should cut your other programs to find money to fight it.  The blame is really on you if you if you fail to find the money somewhere in your budget."

The reason this was such an abdication of responsibility is that existing programs (A) probably make a lot of sense on their own terms, since they've gone through rigorous budgeting processes, (B) probably have incurred a lot of fixed costs that will be lost if the projects aren't carried through to completion, (C) probably have induced reliance, by which I mean people have made decisions and allocated resources on the assumption that the budgeted money will be spent as intended, and (D) have constituencies that will resist any effort to reallocate the money.  In other words, when the Reagan administration denied any increase in funding for AIDS work, it was a foregone conclusion that the funding would be grossly inadequate.  Telling the bureaucrats they should reallocate money from other projects was a disgusting attempt to pass the blame.

Now as we face the Zika virus, the roles are somewhat reversed.  The Obama administration is asking for $1.9 billion in funding, and the Senate has voted to provide $1.1 billion.  What has the House done?

House Republicans put forward legislation that would require the Obama administration to reallocate $622 million from existing health programs to fight the mosquito-borne disease, which causes severe birth defects. 
In announcing their proposal, House Republicans said in a statement that they were supporting “critical activities that must begin immediately, such as vaccine development and mosquito control.”
Now in fairness, Zika is not as destructive as HIV, and I think it's legitimate to debate how much should be spent.  (Personally I think the $1.9 billion request is reasonable, but it's not as though I'm some kind of expert.)  But it's telling that the Republicans are resorting to the Reagan administration's AIDS playbook when so much is at stake.  Very few things would make me happier than seeing Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker's office.

Monday, May 16, 2016

For Which Life Is a Burden

I make it a practice to share amusing and colorful passages from the books I'm reading.  (Previously.)  To that end, from Louis Pasteur, by Patrice Debré (translated into English by Elborg Forster):

For all the shortcomings of this reductionist approach, one must recognize that pathological anatomy and cytology did have the merit of bringing the laboratory into the hospital.  Yet the very concept of the medical experiment was still far from rigorously defined; thus one can read in one textbook of the period that experiments on rabbits cannot be considered conclusive, for "the rabbit is a neurasthenic animal for which life is a burden, and which is only too glad to get rid of it."

The Mysteries of Corruption

So here's a response from Sarang in the comments to my post on bad public policy in Venezuela etc.:

I see James's point as having two parts: 1. stickiness of unsustainable legacy policies, 2. ex ante awfulness of legacy policies -- e.g. an effective retirement age of 45. I want to shelve (1) b'se it is not actually a puzzle. My claim is just that group conflict is a contributor to 2, because norms forcing people to pretend that policies are universally good can act as a (weak) curb on the worst kinds of explicit plunder. (So can people feeling uncomfortable about stealing from others, which is likelier when group conflict is weak.)
I agree with this framing.  (1) is not a puzzle, the puzzle is (2).  I also agree with Dave's comment that a great deal of suboptimal policy can be tolerated when there is a large (or rapidly growing) surplus to share.  There's a big measurement problem here that I doubt will ever be satisfactorily resolved.

I also think Sarang's point about ideological cleavages vs. group-based cleavages probably explains a lot.  But the question still seems mysterious to me.  Sometimes bad policy is simply rejected outright by the vast majority of people—a good example is Santorum's effort to prevent the National Weather Service from providing daily forecasts to the public (the point being to channel money to the for-profit "forecasters" who free-ride on the NWS's data).  Santorum's shitty bill went nowhere and was subjected to widespread scorn.  It's a great outcome, but it's mysterious to me why we are so much better at resisting garbage like that than we are at preventing, say, the "synthetic fuel" scam, another Santorum special.  (Santorum would have to be ranked as one of the worst public servants of all time if he hadn't been drummed out of office by a double-digit margin, cutting short his shit-stained career.  By the way, isn't it odd that a man whose only selling point is his squeaky-clean moral code was such a venal piece of shit when he was in office?  Maybe get a few blowjobs on the side and don't fuck the taxpayers so hard next time.)

Anyway I will think more about it, and maybe read some of the literature (though I bet it is very annoying).  Many of these problems seem eminently solvable if we were to bring resources to bear on them, but I'm well aware that hasn't gone so well in the past.

This Is Just To Say

Quinoa is disgusting.  There may be a way to prepare it so that it is tasty, but I haven't encountered one yet.  However healthy it may be, I can get my nutrients elsewhere.  Our society appears to be undergoing an episode of mass delusion on this issue.

Safe Drinking Water: Its Benefits Should Not Be Overlooked

Having spoken up for anesthesia and sterile surgical techniques, I now want to put in a word for clean drinking water.  My guess (and it is just a guess) is that clean drinking water has saved at least an order of magnitude more lives than proper surgery has.  The basic concept is simple:  water should be obtained from a source that is not polluted with feces and other impurities.  Sewage should be treated before it is discharged into waterways.  (Actually, this second step is not that important as long as the first step is strictly observed, and assuming people don't, like, swim or fish in the polluted water.  Many cities, including New York, regularly discharge untreated sewage into the environment, and while I'm sure this isn't totally harmless, it's also not a public health crisis.)

People have always sought good drinking water, and the Romans famously built huge public works to supply it.  But it wasn't until the mid-19th century that people recognized the scientific principles involved, and then rich societies started to spend significant amounts of money ensuring that tapwater is safe to drink.  I think the egalitarian aspects of this should not be overlooked:  rich people can get clean water anywhere in the world, but in the U.S. really excellent drinking water is available at extremely affordable rates to everyone in New York City.  (Other cities don't have quite the excellent water that New York enjoys, but almost all cities in the United States have tolerably clean and pure tapwater.)  As a result, deaths from diarrhea are far rarer in the United States than they are in developing countries.  Partly this is because of our modern medical system, but the truth is that most cases of diarrhea simply don't arise in the first place because of our excellent, publicly available drinking water.

I'm aware that there are big exceptions to what I've said.  Most notably, Flint, Michigan provided terrible drinking water to its residents, in what has to be regarded as a shocking failure of public policy.  There have also been reports of elevated lead levels in drinking fountains in Newark public schools.  To be honest, here is what I would do if I had to drink out of a drinking fountain (anywhere, not just in Newark):  I would run the fountain for at least 30 seconds before drinking the water.  That way, the water that was sitting in the drinking fountain should be flushed out.  (I don't know if 30 seconds is long enough, but it's better than nothing, and there are limits on what you can do.  I wouldn't bother if the drinking fountain is used frequently enough, as in a busy airport terminal, because in essence it has already been flushed out.)

Anyway we should be angry about the failure in Flint (which by the way was bound up with inequality and poverty, as with most policy failures in the U.S.), but what happened there was noteworthy precisely because it is so rare.  Almost always, almost everywhere (in the U.S.) tapwater is by far the healthiest thing you can be drinking (except maybe black coffee).

All right, so you knew this was coming.  What man stands at the intersection of these two massive advances for humankind?  That would be John Snow, who developed techniques for safely administering anesthesia and who demonstrated the connection between unsafe water and the SoHo cholera epidemic in 1854.  A weird man, for many years he was a teetotaler and a vegetarian.  After demonstrating that cholera was waterborne, he drank boiled water for the rest of his life.  (I would have too.)  Sadly, he died at the age of 45, but his legacy lives on.  He is rightly remembered as one of the greatest benefactors of mankind.

Anesthesia and Sterile Surgical Techniques

It's hard to see the development of anesthesia and sterile surgical techniques as anything but a step forward for humanity.  Before, surgery was akin to torture, and patients very often succumbed to infection afterward.  With anesthesia, recovery from surgery can still be painful, but the patient is unconscious during the procedure itself, and won't thrash around in pain.  (Of course, local anesthesia can also be used in the right circumstances.  In that case, it is often important to block the patient's view of the surgery with a screen, because the sight of the blood can cause the patient to faint.  The pain itself is nonexistent.)  Also, there is little reason to fear routine surgery, whereas even a minor surgery was a terrible risk before sterile techniques were used.

The result is that we have much more control over our lives than we did previously.  People with debilitating conditions, or who have experienced traumatic injury, can sometimes return to normal life with relatively little disruption or pain.  And, as mentioned, we can use surgery to address less debilitating problems as well.  I wouldn't regard surgery as a totally riskless activity, and so I wouldn't go under the knife for trivial benefit, but I've had a few surgeries and they went well.  Probably millions of people around the world have benefited from what amounts to a technological revolution that played out in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.  (Of course progress continues to be made, but the big leaps forward were the ones I've mentioned:  anesthesia and sterile techniques.  With the addition of antibiotics in the mid-20th century, most of the progress was complete.  Relatively non-invasive techniques, which emerged in the late 20th century, should not be discounted, though.)

None of this is to say that surgery can't go wrong, that it's always prudent to use surgery, or that surgeons never make mistakes.  If you want a full accounting of surgery's role in society, you will have to consider the many ways in which it can go wrong, or in which it can be over-used.  Still, I would say that if anything humanity still suffers from too little access to safe, painless surgery, not too much.  To conclude where I started:  it's hard to see the development of anesthesia and sterile surgical techniques as anything but a step forward for humanity.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

What We Should Fear

In general, conservative fears of "creeping socialism" are overblown.  They are also often hypocritical, since conservatives opportunistically argue that liberal policies threaten Medicare, etc.  I'm just laying down a marker to observe that the phantom that conservatives attack in the United States is a reality elsewhere.  Generally, though, it's not a reality in the most redistributive countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the Netherlands.  Instead, what you might call left-wing overreach is at its worst in much more dysfunctional, less developed countries.  For instance, today there is a story in the New York Times that highlights what a basket case Venezuela has become.  I might add India's system of affirmative action to the list.  Or Brazil's pension system.  Or Zimbabwe's well-known economic train wreck.

Since the left wing in the United States generally doesn't take Venezuela, India, Brazil, or Zimbabwe as its model, these examples have limited relevance for us.  We can (somewhat) safely move toward Dutch levels of taxation and social spending without taking a detour through a Venezuelan hellhole.  But it's worth bearing in mind that things can go down a very bad path, and so leftists should have a basic understanding of the toxic dynamics that can develop and an explanation for why their plans won't be subject to those dynamics.  (This is not to say that the burden of proof is on leftists.  Given that the U.S. is much more similar to northern Europe than to Venezuela, I would say the burden of proof is on conservatives if they want to make the comparison.  My point is simply that leftists shouldn't hide behind the burden of proof, they should actively consider the issue.)

To some extent, the countries I've listed all simply faced challenges that social-democratic northern Europeans didn't.  (Then again, ex ante, our legacy of chattel slavery would seem to make us vulnerable to the same pathologies.  These sorts of historical explanations are clearly right but they don't necessarily give us much guidance going forward.)  But I think the northern Europeans also benefited from strong social/political norms that kept them on the straight and narrow.  I don't imagine that Dutch workers are permitted to retire in their mid-40s with a full pension (see the story on Brazilian pensions that I linked to above), because that would be crazy.  If the left-wing Dutch parties demanded it, they would be pilloried as irresponsible and unreasonable.  By contrast, you can see how Brazil, having adopted an overly-generous pension system, doesn't have the political wherewithal to end it:  it has created a huge constituency of pension recipients (or people who anticipate becoming pension recipients soon) who are understandably reluctant to give up their rights.  To adopt a rational pension system in Brazil would require making a lot of people poorer than they are in the status quo.  The Netherlands doesn't have that problem (or at least, not on remotely the same scale relative to its GDP) because it never went down that road in the first place.  But why didn't it?  Why are the Dutch so much more responsible (despite having, by the way, a very generous social safety net)?  That is the question.

There is a...  field?  sub-field?  of academic thought called public choice theory that essentially amounts to a cynical "we're all Brazil" way of thinking about things.  In other words, the theory highlights the danger of majoritarianism + redistribution, precisely because you can come up with models where everything goes to shit very quickly in such a system, in more or less the way Brazil's pension system has turned into a sick joke.  It's clear, though, that this approach misses something important, because it can't explain the highly successful redistributive democracies that we observe in the world.  But so my point is, the challenge is to figure out where public choice theory (or at least, the cynical, anti-redistribution thread of it) has traction and where it doesn't.  Over what domain should we apply it, and over what domain should we disregard it (or heavily qualify it)?

So anyway that's the thing we should try to figure out.  I don't have any suggestions, though.  Or rather, I have very vague suggestions.  One, which I pretty earnestly believe, is that in general it's better to tax and spend than to impose more direct controls on the economy (for instance price controls).  But that's a general observation that doesn't necessarily translate to specific policies without a lot more work.  I think a minimum wage is not a terrible idea, for instance, even though I question whether a national $15 minimum wage would be a good idea.  And I think public ownership of parks is good.  Maybe I just have strong status quo bias in this area.

We should also try to maintain our standards of open political discourse, which are an important bulwark against idiocy.  For instance, we probably shouldn't use securities laws to silence our political opponents.  (I think Levine's breakdown is basically right.  Citing contradictory statements to shame your opponents is good.  Using securities laws to silence them is bad.)

More broadly, I think it's important to maintain the integrity of our political process, even if it means foregoing political advantage in the short term.  In other words, I think it's better to behave well and bash your opponents when they don't than to behave poorly and cite your opponent's behavior to justify it.  Standards must be maintained.

But I admit, these prescriptions, besides being really vague, are mostly just speculation on my part.  I can't cite any reason, beyond basic intuition, that they will help us avoid a Venezuelan fate.  I might just be expressing my own taste for (mostly) above-board politics.  (And there are few things I admire more than the hardball politics that LBJ used to cram the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress.  So where does that leave me?)  The same goes for my belief that Trump would set us off down a very bad path in this as in so many other areas.  Maybe I'm just expressing my distaste for Trump.

Anyway blah blah blah, I hate myself, the world is terrible.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Falling in Love 4: A Sudden Flame

You tell me a cloud is not a thing but a phenomenon like a fire.
A place where the parameters are such that the air becomes opaque,
Instead of luminescent.
A smear of diagnostic dye
'To trouble the living stream.'

The air up there is permanently cold.
But the coldness is forever out of reach:
Bring the air close and it heats up
Like fluid in a compressor,
Leaving us sticky and itchy with sweat.
We are on the wrong side of nature's air conditioner.
We can only watch longingly
While the clouds multiply and the heat shimmers.

And I believe you,
But inside I am screaming
And longing
To get away from you.

I wish I could find the poetry in your ramblings,
I wish I could find pleasure in your touch.
You deserve someone who does.
I deserve someone who can turn me on
With a look
Or a sudden hand on my back,
Drawing me in to something that I want.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, you slobbery ox,
But I can't love you
And I don't want to.

You tell me breaking up is a political decision.
I tell you to get the fuck out of my apartment.

Falling in Love 3: Closer

Let's not get our ideas out of children's books.
When we catch each other when we stumble
When we paw each other late at night
And hold each other in the morning
Let's call it love.

Let's call it love when I make you coffee.
When you wait outside my hospital room,
And then make yourself busy
Opening windows and fluffing pillows
And ignoring the elephant in the room.

When you order me what you think is my favorite beer,
When I kiss you the way I think you like.

Turning our scarred backs to the world,
Or clasped together in amplexus,
Maybe this thing we have made
Deserves the name.

Falling in Love 2: A Pane of Glass

Are we criminals staring at each other through one-way mirrors?
(I know they don't work that way.
Don't make me say:
I know they don't work that way.)
Are we ready for this interrogation?

Are we falling in love with Oregon in the summer?
Are we propelled by orgasms like fish darting through the water?
Will any of this still be here when the tide is out
And the wind is cold.

Are we mimic octopi
(I know, I know.)
Contorting ourselves into hazy notions of each other's desire?

Yes, this is it:
Gesturing at each other grotesquely
Through mirrored aquarium walls.
Gawked at by strangers,
Separated by glass,
And ignoring the first cold currents
Of the oncoming storm.

Falling in Love 1: A Laboratory of Democracy

You only like me when you're drunk, and
You like me better when I'm drunk...

'Can any union so conceived and so dedicated long endure?
It is rather for us, the living... for us there is only the trying.'
I can drink every night.
And you can drink
Every night.
And we can...

We can start early on the weekend:
Pain perdu and Irish coffee.
Float through the weekend on a boozy haze, and
When we crash a little, we will go to separate rooms.
Or one of us can go out walking in the rain, and
Come back cold and soaked and
Ready to be loved.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Budweiser will temporarily be called "America," starting this month and ending with the election.

This is obviously a gimmick, and at first I found it annoying, but I'm starting to come around to the possibilities.  I want to walk into a bar and tell the bartender to pour me a "cultured hell that tests my youth."  I want a beer that will "flow like tides into my blood, giving me strength erect against her hate."

I want to ignore happiness & victory.  I want to undo myself with music.

And then, when all is said and done, I will say, "It never was America to me."

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Donald Trump Is a Pathetic Piece of Shit

Folks, I despise Donald Trump.  I hope he gets blown out in the general election by unprecedented margins.  I deplore everything he stands for, from his racism, to his sexism, to his homophobia, to his Islamophobia, to his idiotic, self-contradictory statements on basic policy issues.

That said, I hope you appreciate Donald Trump on an aesthetic level the way I do.  He is, after all, perhaps the greatest performance artist of all time.  To that end, let's share some links.

Here's maybe the most insightful piece on Donald Trump.  It captures him at his most basic level.  I urge you to read the whole thing.

The Onion has been the steadiest source of Donald Trump insight.  I almost don't know where to begin.  Here we go:

From the birther shitstorm.

Donald Trump is sad and so is his penis.

He won't be around much longer.  (Sad!)

He is fundamentally a ridiculous person.

His misogyny is remarkable.  Really.  No, really.

He is alienating and polarizing.

It is laughable to consider him as a symbol of peace.

His campaign is pretty clearly a call for help.

His "movement" is irrational but could be channeled toward a good outcome.

I'm not going to get into his many hilarious tweets...  that is a post for another day.  But here is maybe my favorite anti-Trump tweet:

Folks, we have never faced a greater threat to our welfare and our status in the world.  We must commit ourselves to crushing this misogynist, racist, xenophobic piece of shit by margins that would make Kim Jong-un blush.  He doesn't represent us and he never will.  Not in our name!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

We Don't Have Victories Anymore

The Republican presidential primary is now a two-man race.  Donald Trump is squaring off against John Kasich for the party's nod.  Let's take a moment to note how impressive it is that John Kasich, who was written off by so many pundits, is going to either be the nominee, or is going to come in second.  Who could have predicted it?

I hope my sarcasm is obvious.  John Kasich is #2 solely because he is divorced from reality and any shred of responsibility, not because of any political accomplishment.  His actual performance has been pathetic and his insistence on staying in the race is insanely self-indulgent.  (He is also probably still behind Rubio in total vote count, although I am far too lazy to confirm this.)

But this is the thing about the world we live in...  it seems as though no one ever has to concede defeat.  Should Scotland secede from the United Kingdom?  The Scottish people voted to stay in by a large margin (over 10%).  But the Scottish National Party stuck around and looks very likely (to my eyes) both to destroy the Labour Party and to achieve its goal of independence for Scotland.  Votes don't count for anything, it would seem.

Issues on which the evidence is overwhelming are still "up for debate"—Trump insists that global warming is a hoax.  Trump is Trump, but I'm pretty sure he's quoting Republican doctrine.  Obamacare has survived ferocious attacks, but unless the Democrats retake Congress, even uncontroversial tweaks to improve it are off the table because Republicans insist that it must be repealed.

Nothing is ever settled anymore.

Maybe it has always been this way.  But it doesn't feel that way...  Quebec had a vote on whether to secede, and it was far closer than the Scottish vote (the margin for remaining in Canada was barely 1%)...  and then everyone went home and treated the issue as settled.  (Not literally everyone, but I'm not asking for literal unanimity, just a workable consensus.)  The hole in the ozone layer was debated, then widely acknowledged as a real problem, and then we took significant steps to address it.

Now I realize a lot of this is just politics.  But I feel there are norms that require people to acknowledge when they have lost.  This is sometimes a formal rule, but often it's a norm of decency, and it's one that seems to be slipping away.  This doesn't apply to certain issues, obviously—no one should pretend the law on transgender rights in North Carolina is "settled" just because of a temporary legislative victory.  But on the other hand, there has to be some acknowledgement when someone has lost, or when some theory has received overwhelming empirical support...

I don't know, I'm writing this out in stunned terror as I contemplate the possibility of a Trump presidency.  I'll be spending the months between now and November doing what I can to make sure that doesn't happen.  That vote, at least, is final by the force of law.

Monday, May 02, 2016

History is Complicated

A little historical irony.  According to The House of Morgan by Ron Chernow, many American Jewish financiers (including Henry Goldman of Goldman Sachs) were openly sympathetic to the Germans during World War I, partly because many of them were of German ancestry, partly because they were appalled by the Czar's pogroms.  (According to his Wikipedia page, Henry Goldman remained friendly to Germany until 1933, after which he began helping Jews flee the country.)

History is complicated.

The Annihilation of Moral Sentiments

Some childish part of me reacts very badly when people push me too hard to do something.  For a while I went in to the blood donation center pretty much whenever I was eligible to give blood.  Now they've started to call me all the time to try to get me to schedule appointments.  (I don't think this is because of the scheduling aspect, I think they just want to increase donations.  There was always an available station whenever I would walk in.)  I accommodate them by setting up appointments at times I think will work, but often those times don't end up working, and so I just don't go in.  Then I feel guilty about missing my appointment, so I avoid donating for a while.  It's all very stressful and counter-productive.  I used to give a lot of blood!  Now I don't give very much.  Donating blood has become a psychological burden for me, making me feel like a bad person, where it used to make me feel like a good person.

I also resent it when politicians try to get me to "log in and commit to vote!" or shit like that.  Unlike with the blood situation, I'm not going to stop voting just because people are treating me like an infant, but it does make me kind of angry.  I guess there must be some psychological research that shows that people who have promised to vote are more likely to go out and vote.  And ultimately, I guess I'm okay with it, but it detracts from what ordinarily is a great experience for me (I love voting).

Of course the best example is probably donating to causes I believe in, whether charitable or political.  Thanks to my (very modest) generosity at previous points in my life, I have long been inundated with emails, physical mail, and phone calls.  One time I tried to save a guy some time by explaining that I never give money in response to phone solicitations, and he got really angry and told me to let him do his job.  So I listened to his spiel and then told him I never give money in response to phone solicitations.  The whole thing was very uncomfortable and guilt-inducing, and it sort of feels like a "no good deed goes unpunished" kind of thing.  (Also, if I give $50 to some cause, and over the years they send me 50 mailings asking for more money, it feels as though they are substantially squandering the resources I've given them.)

Anyway I freely admit that this is all childish and narcissistic, and if I were a better person I would keep my appointments and acknowledge the constraints that blood centers, charities, and political campaigns are operating under.  They've got to get their blood and/or money from somewhere, and a lot of people probably increase their giving thanks to these kinds of solicitations.  But since charity and political activism were sources of pride for me, and now I feel shameful and guilty about them instead, it's pretty unfortunate.