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Katrina and Solidarity

[ 15 ] September 2, 2015 |


My good friend Jacob Remes has an interesting piece up at the Atlantic. You may remember him from his entry in the This Day in Labor History series on Davis Day in Canada. He is a historian of disasters and working-class solidarity. We read chapters of each other’s book drafts and I can guarantee you his new book is very provocative and you should read it. His Atlantic piece effectively summarizes his major theme–that the state often fails citizens in natural disasters and that in response, a sort of anarchist solidarity naturally appears that provides mutual support and which the state soon seeks to undermine. Again, it’s provocative and we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on every point. But there’s no question that strong community ties make a big difference in post-disaster life and that planning for strong communities is a really underrated strategy for dealing with disasters, something that a world dealing with climate change needs to take a lot more seriously.


Things to Name After William McKinley

[ 89 ] September 2, 2015 |


Many fine suggestions here, but I think this is the best one:

Americans everywhere have “Jedi Fever,” with the beloved space movie franchise finally returning to cinemas later this year. William McKinley, a political “star” who loved “wars,” seems like a natural fit for the series. Just imagine the darkened theater, the eager audience, and, finally, over that famous fanfare, the large yellow words: Star Wars Episode VIII: William McKinley.

Let’s get this done. The movie could be 90 minutes of rare tapes of McKinley reading reports of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which would be considerably less boring than The Phantom Menace.

The Strategy of Engagement

[ 11 ] September 2, 2015 |
Changhe Z-10.jpg

“Changhe Z-10” by Shimin Gu – Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Commons.

Some uncharacteristic Big Thoughts in my latest at the Diplomat:

After 1989, the United States no longer saw an increase in Chinese economic and military power as a useful end in and of itself. Rather, Washington preferred to believe that Chinese economic growth (supported by trade and investment from the United States) would inevitably produce regime liberalization, and potentially the collapse of the CCP. At the very least, integration into the liberal international economic order would “tame” China, and make it a positive contributor within that system.

Whether this amounted to a China “strategy,” or merely a way to rationalize the preferences of American firms which wanted access to China’s markets and labor pools, the engagement of China brought much heavier trade, investment, and integration between the U.S. and Chinese economies. The United States eschewed the tools that states often use to keep potential competitors down, preferring to believe in the possibility of positive sum outcomes.


“State Officials Interposing Themselves Between Individuals and Their Rights is Deep in Our Heritage”

[ 225 ] September 2, 2015 |

Kim Davis, Kentucky county clerk firmly committed to the principle that marriage is between a woman and a man, and then another man, and then another man, and then another man*, continues to defy court orders on behalf of that most sacred of all rights, the right to refuse to do your job while still getting paid. Kentucky’s candidate for governor supports the ability of state officials to deny the rights of the state’s citizens based on their arbitrary whims:

A Kentucky clerk who is refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples is set to become an issue in the state’s gubernatorial race, as the leading Republican and Democratic candidates take opposing views of her actions.

“I absolutely support her willingness to stand on her First Amendment rights,” said GOP Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin on a national conference call, according to The Courier-Journal. “Without any question I support her.”

I’m sure he would feel the same way if state officials started withholding their services to him on the grounds that his economic views were inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount.

Part of me feels some sympathy for Davis, who’s clearly being used by cynical conservative litigators. Then I see the casual contempt with which she treats the citizens whose rights she is denying, and my sympathy pretty much vanishes.

*It may seem like cheap shot to bring up her serial marriages, but I don’t think it is. The tendency to be more rigorous about enforcing biblical principles when they impose burdens on others than when they impose burdens on you is one of the many reasons we don’t want state officials selectively applying the law according to their own “principles.”

Things Bad Organizations Do, Part 1

[ 59 ] September 1, 2015 |

2012 NFL Draft - First Round

The Oakland Raiders have determined that the greatest athletic talent to emerge in American sports since Joba Chamberlain is not one of the 75 best players on their roster:

Out on the field, in uniform this summer, he was just No. 33.

He was just a guy in a sea of players, some great ones, many certain to make the 53-man roster, and others just trying to hang on. No. 33 was lumped with that last group.

He looked like a small, ordinary running back. He struggled to show much vision, cutting ability and burst. Those are all things essential for a great running back, and often reserved for those taken very high in the draft.

Trent Richardson just wasn’t that guy in Oakland. He deserved to be cut in the round of 75 as he was Tuesday, because he was just a guy.

The only thing newsworthy in Oakland about his release was the Raiders were silly enough to give him $600,000 in guaranteed money this spring.

There are some valuable lessons here. First of all, in modern football you should not burn a top 3 draft choice on a running back because you think that you can identify the kind of once-in-a-generation talent that could even conceivably justify investing an elite pick on a running back ex ante, because you can’t. You should especially not trade additional picks for the privilege of doing so. You should not trade a first round pick to acquire a running back after 17 replacement-level games, because, I dunno, somebody bet Ryan Grigson that anybody could put up decent numbers running behind the Indianapolis offensive line and he needed the money? And — while this is less damaging, of course — you should not offer $600 grand in guaranteed money for a running back after 3 seasons of sub-sub-replacement level play at a position where it’s not terribly difficult to find perfectly adequate players. You’re welcome!

You’ve just been selected as the new dean of Acme Law School

[ 44 ] September 1, 2015 |

test pattern

This is a test. This is only a test.

Acme Law School is part of the main campus of a state university. State appropriations make up a very small part of the campus budget — less than 5% — and this figure is expected to go to zero within a few years. So for fiscal purposes the university is almost a fully self-funded entity, meaning that any academic unit that spends more than it generates in revenue is to that extent being cross-subsidized by the rest of the university.

ALS currently generates $25 million per year in revenue. Nearly 95% of this revenue comes from a combination of tuition and gift income (gift income is made up of about 80% endowment revenue and 20% annual unrestricted gifts). The rest comes from grants and miscellaneous sources such as building rentals.

Revenue sources appear to be nearly maximized for the time being, although some marginal enhancement may be possible via other degree programs, having law faculty teach summer undergraduate courses, and the like.

ALS currently spends $30 million in direct expenses. About two-thirds of this is made up of payroll, while the rest is comprised of operations and maintenance.

Currently, ALS’s parent university nominally charges about $5 million to the school for its share of indirect university expenses: that is, for university-wide expenses that are not incurred directly by any academic unit (central administration, health and recreation facilities, etc.). This is a nominal charge, because obviously ALS isn’t paying anything close to its direct expenses, so its nominal share of university-wide expenses isn’t being paid by the school.

You have just been named dean. Naturally, when you negotiated your offer, you asked the central administration to guarantee that the school’s current level of subsidization would not be reduced. Naturally, the central administration refused to do so.

You took the job anyway because you like a challenge. What should you do, given that law school applications have declined by 40% over the past five years, although there are some signs of potential stabilization?

(1) Try to convince the faculty that it would be prudent to try to reduce the budget deficit gradually over the next few years, even though, given constraints on revenue increases, this course of action would require quite a bit of somewhat to very painful cost-cutting.

(2) Do whatever you can to protect the status quo. Don’t give anything back until they take it from you. Conduct business as usual as much as possible, i.e., replace departing faculty members with new hires, maintain at least COL increases in regard to law school spending, and so forth.

(3) Who says 2/7 unsuited is a busted hand? Play loose aggressive! Maintaining the status quo is for suckers. Press for a couple or three new lines for maximal synergy in areas of strength and/or to shore up areas of weakness, or both. Start a new center or initiative or three. Build a monorail. The more you have, the more you’ll be able to keep when they start taking things away.

It’s pretty easy to anticipate which of these strategies will be most palatable to the faculty. And it’s far from clear, from a purely self-interested point of view, which makes the most sense for either individual members of the faculty, or the ambitious new dean (The answer will turn in large part on how inattentive/tolerant the central administration will be, which is always hard to predict, on the seniority and tenure status of individual faculty members etc.)

Of course you could really complicate this picture by considering things like what would be best for the students and staff, but let’s not go crazy. Things are complicated enough as it is.

Drones as Workplace Monitors

[ 100 ] September 1, 2015 |


Who else is excited to have your workplace performance monitored by drones? I know I am shocked to see technological advancement embraced by employers to control workers!

How long will people born in 2015 actually live?

[ 25 ] September 1, 2015 |


The answer to this question depends on being able to determine the probable life expectancy of a birth cohort, rather than the cohort’s life expectancy at birth. The difference between these two numbers is that life expectancy at birth (LEB) isn’t a prediction: it’s a statistical fact, that is, it’s a statement of the mean number of years that will be lived by members of the cohort if the current age-specific mortality rates in the population as a whole remain steady over the cohort’s entire lifespan. Of course to the extent that age-specific mortality rates change over that time, life expectancy at birth won’t reflect the actual life expectancy of the cohort.

To give a concrete example, LEB in the US was 47 in 1900, but it’s certain that the actual average life span of people born in the US in 1900 ended up being quite a bit higher, because age specific mortality rates have dropped pretty much continually since then (they are currently dropping most sharply among the oldest members of the population). But how much higher?

If one is trying to predict how long the average American born today will live — which, for practical purposes, is a much more important number than LEB — how would one do it? Did people in 1900 end up living 10% longer than their LEB? 15%? More? And whatever the spread between LEB and actual life expectancy was, how likely is it to be replicated for people born in 2015? (In the developed world, the increase in LEB has been remarkably steady, with exceptions for a world war or two, for nearly two centuries now).

Anyway, a 15% increase between LEB and actual life expectancy would mean the average American born today will live to be 91, which probably means that in a few decades Zombie Robert Samuelson will be arguing that the social security retirement age should be raised to 83.

Tianjin, Texas

[ 11 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: The 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion

There’s been a lot of media discussion over the past week about Chinese workplace safety conditions because of the Tianjin explosion that killed more than 150 people and spewed toxic material into the air. The problem is a lack of regulatory control, corruption, and a culture of indifference to the general public. And this is a major problem in China, with another blast in another city yesterday killing someone.

But it would be nice if these reporters noted that a mere 2 years ago in Texas, a very similar incident happened in the town of West, where a fertilizer plant exploded and killed 15 people. Governor Rick Perry’s response was to declare Texas open for business, ensuring that nothing would change. And with OSHA so understaffed that it would take 129 years for the agency’s inspectors to visit every workplace in the United States, very little has improved. Moreover, Tianjin and West is the America libertarians want to embrace. The freedom of factory owners to site factories where they want, store chemicals how they want, and not be responsible for the forthcoming disaster is central to conservative philosophy. So while we should be talking about Tianjin and these problems in China, casting an eye on the United States is also important for journalists, for the comparisons are not as far-fetched as one might hope.

Hugos/Sad Puppies Guest Post by Jameson Quinn

[ 161 ] September 1, 2015 |

Hi folks! Please enjoy this guest post on the Hugos!:

Hi, I’m Jameson Quinn, the guy who came up with the basic idea for the E Pluribus Hugo proposal to fix the Hugo Award voting so that minorities like this year’s Sad and Rabid Puppy slates can’t take over the nominations. I’m also a board member of (the Center for Election Science) and doctoral candidate in statistics at Harvard. Regular readers of this site will probably recognize me from the comment threads here, where I post using a Kafka/Martin inspired nym. I’m using my real name for this post, and ask that you refrain from using my nym in comments please. I also have to say that the political views expressed below are my own. I speak for only when it comes to the voting theory.

Regular readers here are probably also already familiar with the basic outlines of the Hugo/Puppy affair. Here are the basics:

    • The Hugo Awards are important awards in science fiction, which for over 60 years have been both nominated and given by fans attending or supporting the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon). This year’s WorldCon was last week/weekend in Spokane, Washington.
    • For the past 3 years, conservative authors have been promoting slate voting in Hugo nominations. They coyly called their slate the Sad Puppy “List” and denied it was more than “recommendations”, but still explicitly pitched it as a counterweight to fan votes that “skew toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) … [and] skew ideological” based on a “popularity contest”.
    • This year, the nominally-within-the-lines Sad Puppies were joined by the outright-trolling Rabid Puppies, led by troll incarnate Vox Day. Day expanded the list to ensure it had 5 things in most categories (so that it would push out all non-puppy works), adding himself and works he published in many cases. He explicitly called for slate voting from his followers, and asked them to vote whether or not they were science fiction fans at all.
    • The puppies were successful in taking over most of the nominations, including all finalists in 7 categories, though this later dropped to 5 when some of their unwitting nominees withdrew upon realizing how they’d won.
    • However, it was always clear that the puppies were a minority. Indeed, when winners were announced, the only winner on the Puppy slate was Guardians of the Galaxy (which had received more than enough non-puppy nominations that it would have easily been a finalist even without any puppy support). In order to deny the puppies any wins, voters gave “No Award” in 5 categories, using that option as many times in one year as they had in over half a century of history.
    • Fans rallied against such minority takeover tactics. A group including yours truly developed a proportional voting system proposal called E Pluribus Hugo over the course of over four thousand comments on Making Light (and let me say that SF nerds rock; it may have been my idea but it would have gone nowhere without the sophistication, skills, and energy of the community at that blog). At WorldCon, after a grueling business meeting stretching 11 hours over 4 days, the proposal passed by a 3:1 margin; if it passes again next year in Kansas City, the system will be first used for the Helsinki 2017 Worldcon. Also, the controversy meant that there were more Hugo voters than ever; almost 6000 of them. The flagship Best Novel award went to a translated work for the first time: The Three Body Problem.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of these events (aside from getting to meet some of my favorite writers, fictional characters, and even a Dalek) was the dynamics of the Puppies; specifically, the love-hate symbiosis between the halfheartedly-trolling Sads and the fullthroated Rabids.

In order to understand this, it’s important to see that the Sads actually did have the germ of a valid grievance: in past years, many Hugo nominators have been from a pretty small and insular group of authors, editors, and hardcore fans, who often know each other personally and whose vote is probably influenced to some extent by factors extraneous to the work itself. Writings from authors who are personally well-liked, or whose overall body of work is stronger than the individual writing, probably have had a bit of an unfair advantage in getting nominated.

Of course, that’s not to endorse the Sad Puppy point of view. Of their three complaints — that the Hugos have been too artsy-fartsy, that they have been too political, and that they have involved logrolling — the first two are sour grapes, the second two are hypocritical, and the relationship between the three exists only in their heads. Only the third could be even slightly legitimate as cause for organized action; but certainly not for the action they took, which was basically to vandalize the awards as a whole, without any hope of actually accomplishing their objectives.

Still, next to the Rabids, the Sads look positively reasonable. And that set up exactly the kind of environment where trolls thrive: one where they could shift at will from “debaters” to provocateurs to hate-hydrants. So, even though there were initially more Sads than Rabids — my analsis of the numbers suggests that in the nominations there were about 100 party-line Sad Puppies and only about 40 party-line Rabid Puppies, with those numbers inflated 30%-100% by partial sympathizers depending on the candidate — the Rabids quickly managed to spread their poison over that entire side of the debate, and probably picked up to over 500-strong by the time of the second round voting.

The obvious analogy, of course, is with the Republican presidential candidates, with Trump making his rabid pronouncements, and the rest of them watching sadly.

And that brings me to what you knew was coming: voting systems. Because with both the Hugos and the Republican primaries, flawed voting systems end up feeding the trolls. The non-proportional Hugo nomination system enabled a minority with less than 15% in certain categories to take over those categories entirely. And similarly, the vote-for-one primaries enable Trump to be a clear and enduring frontrunner with just 30% of the Republican voters on his side, and higher negatives than any other candidate.

Better voting systems are, of course, available. In the case of the Hugos, it was E Pluribus Hugo. This system gives 1 point to each nominator, so if you nominated 5 works, they would each get 1/5 of a point from you. The points are totalled, and the two works with the lowest points go up for elimination. Of those two, the one nominated by the fewest people is eliminated. This means that in comparing the two, your nominations count at full strength, and a “bullet voting” strategy of nominating only your favorite work could not help it at that point. Then, points are redistributed (so that if one of your 5 nominations had been eliminated, the remaining 4 would now be getting 1/4 of a point each from you), and the process is repeated until only 5 works remain. The result is that slate works end up eliminating each other until just 1 or 2 remain, while non-slate nominators points naturally concentrate onto the strongest works.

At the convention, I was handing out “E Pluribus Hugo” ribbons every time I made that spiel, so I can say with certainty that I made it to over 250 people. When I initially offered the ribbons, the biggest source of skepticism was that the proposal was too complicated. But once I’d explained, people shifted to merely worrying that it might be too complicated for other people. As you can imagine, it felt pretty good to see that when the chips were down, those “other people” turned out to make up less than 25% of the people who cared to vote on the proposal.

Under a voting system like EPH which doesn’t give an outsized voice to minorities, I don’t think that the rabids’ outright trolling would have gotten the same traction. And I’m not the only one who feels that way; in the final debate over E Pluribus Hugo in the Worldcon business meeting, one of the speakers in support was a Sad Puppy who liked how EPH would have prevented the Rabid Puppy takeover. Remember, according to my best analysis, there were about 100 committed Sads and about 40 committed Rabids, yet because the sad slate had fewer than 5 candidates in many categories, there were a number of rabid-but-not-sad finalists, giving an exaggerated impression of Rabid strength. Under EPH, the Rabid ballots would have spent their strength nominating cross-listed candidates, and probably no Rabid-only candidates would have made the cut. Furthermore, when it came to the vote on whether to adopt EPH itself, the rabid puppies’ trollishness was actually the best ally of proposal supporters like me. In such a simple up-or-down vote, any voting system is fair and majoritarian, the depth of bile that their hateful rhetoric inspired was clearly no match for the breadth of the backlash.

In the case of presidential primaries, too, there is a way of voting that wouldn’t “feed the trolls”, and where outright hate would tend to backfire. I’m talking about approval voting, where each voter could approve as many candidates as they wanted. Instead of throwing away ballots voting for more than one, we could just count them normally. Anti-Trump voters could approve the candidates they consider more serious, and Trump, with majority disapproval, would probably be well down the list of frontrunners. While he would still have made a splash, his racist rhetoric would lack some of its triumphant appeal. Any way of avoiding fanning those flames is a good thing.

Epilogue: I wrote some of this on the train home. It turns out that about a dozen fans decided to extend the convention onto the train, calling it “TrainCon”; though I missed it on the way in, I was with them on the way back. One night, they had a sing-along in the snack car, and they invited me to give a quick lecture on E Pluribus Hugo beforehand. At the beginning of the sing-along, two singers from the group Sassafrass sang several songs, including one beautiful piece that expressed their patient, clear-eyed optimism about the long term prospects for space flight. To me, the prospect of better democracy through reforms such as E Pluribus Hugo fills me with that same kind of optimism; though I know that the way forward is not short or easy, it gives me a reason to believe tomorrow can be better. Listening to their beautiful singing, and remembering the inspiring success of the proposal, is an experience I will always remember with pride and hope.


[ 287 ] September 1, 2015 |


Ruth Marcus has an exciting HOT TAKE on the prospect of a white guy with Hillary Clinton’s views making a late, half-assed challenge to Hillary Clinton. The exciting twist: Joe Biden could run as a one-termer, and therefore ignore those pesky “voters” and cut deals with the Republicans! I find this prospect less than exciting:

The most serious problem with Marcus’ analysis is the idea that if Biden preemptively declared himself a lame duck he “wouldn’t have to worry about satisfying constituencies.” A president always has to worry about this, at least to the extent that he wants to accomplish anything. Contemporary presidents, by definition, lead national coalitions and all presidents need collaboration with Congress to get legislation passed, to staff the legislative and executive branches, etc.

For that matter, it’s not true that Biden wouldn’t have to worry about re-election; presumably he would care who wins the White House in 2020, and the popularity of the incumbent is certainly pertinent to this result. If Biden genuinely didn’t care about the next election, this would in itself be a disqualifying factor.

One suspects that what Marcus really has in mind is the possibility that a one-term Biden would be in a better position to fight the one constituency she opposes: the strong majority of the public that is against Social Security cuts. I have no idea if a one-term Biden would be more likely to reach a substantively and politically disastrous “Grand Bargain” to cut Social Security, but if so that’s another reason to oppose his candidacy.

…see also Traister.

McKinley Hot Takes

[ 132 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: Conservative hero of the New Gilded Age

Proving there is literally nothing President Obama can do that won’t threaten their whiteness and send them into spasms of uncontrolled fury, conservatives are going ballistic over the official name of change of Mt. McKinley to Denali. There’s no reason to spend any real time explaining this because it’s nothing more than pure, unadulterated wingnuttery. David Graham actually does usefully explain it however, noting that this is another battle in the culture wars for people who see everything they love about this nation destroyed by the Kenyan usurper.

For non-Rovians, what makes Obama’s “Denali” decision sting is the symbolism. One of the key stories of the Obama presidency is the sense among white, conservative Americans that their country is disappearing. Though seldom couched in directly racial terms, the issue of racial identity always lurks beneath the surface. The sense that white America is fading is not irrational, and it’s not just about the black president in the White House. Census projections have Caucasians becoming not a majority, but merely a plurality, of the population within a couple decades.

The reaction to Dylann Roof’s massacre in Charleston is an example of how this plays out. Even some people who were horrified by the shooting and supported South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state-capitol grounds felt uncomfortable with the sudden rise of demands to erase other symbols of the Confederacy or of white-supremacist leaders of yore—statues of Jefferson Davis, college buildings named for racists, and the like. These changes are just and overdue, but they’re also understandably disorienting, and for people who already feel their heritage and way of life are under siege, they seem a step (or several) too far. Conservatives complain, using a phrase Obama himself employed in October 2008, that the president is in the process of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

As for the Rovians reference at the beginning, again, Karl Rove loves William McKinley because that’s the America he wants in this nation, so he has a new hagiography coming out about the Gilded Age imperialist.

We could play a game and find the most ridiculous take. But why bother when you have Ben Shapiro in the house?

Assassinated in 1901, McKinley, who presided over an economic boom and massive growth in American power, once stated, “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” Regarding the Spanish-American War, McKinley explained that Cuba “ought to be free and independent.” Obama would have opposed both moves.

As Obama stated in Dreams From My Father, he spent his college years discussing “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism.” And President Obama has obviously attempted to undo many of McKinley’s accomplishments. In kowtowing to the Castros in Cuba, Obama has ensured that America’s Spanish-American War victory ends with perpetual communism in a country America once granted its freedom; in 2014, the Obama Department of the Interior sought to give Hawaiians the same status as Native Americans, forcing separate governance for them based on ethnicity.

The only question now: when will President Obama change the name of the American Southwest to Aztlan?

So much to love here. Fanon fears! Rewriting the history of Cuba to make it look like the U.S. is its long-time friend! Good old fashioned redbaiting! “Forcing separate governance” on native Hawaiians! Why that’s far more oppressive than overthrowing the native Hawaiian government in the name of sugar companies and American naval interests!!! But really it’s the Atzlan reference that wins. Because this is right at the heart of the conservative fears. It’s the reconquista caused by hordes of Mexicans crossing the border and facilitated by those fifth columnist liberals and their illegitimate president from the colonies.

I dare you to find a better Denali hot take! Although anyone with the bravery to dive into the waters of the conservative blogosphere just might be able to do it…

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