Gongol.com Archives: January 2017
January 1, 2017
Kremlin spokesperson underhandedly threatens the Baltic states
One of the most troublesome possible flashpoints to watch today
Technology lightens the load of rote work in hospitals
The less time that is spent by skilled people on low-skill work, the better off we all are. Skilled people should do skilled work.
"[T]wo impromptu, largely fact-free press conferences"
In the brilliant words of a writer for Vanity Fair, the President-elect "offered up a series of misleading, disjointed responses, during which he falsely claimed to have created thousands of new jobs, dismissed alleged Russian interference in the presidential election, whitewashed his sprawling financial conflicts of interest, and offered up word salad in a rambling defense of Israel"
Now it's Hearst in a fight with DirecTV
The carriage disputes between local broadcast stations and the satellite and cable systems are a very strange vestige of the early days of cable television. And now? Now customers just find themselves annoyed by the anachronisms.
Elegant flags of the Japanese prefectures
Compare these magnificent designs with the cluttered and amateurish flags used by so many American states and municipalities
January 2, 2017
Finland is testing a universal basic income
The UBI is worthy of examination -- it possesses novelties that appeal to both the left and the right, which makes it sound a lot like apocryphal $20 bill on the street -- bypassed by the rational economist who assumes that if it were real, someone else would have taken it already.
This is the wrong time for classical liberals (not leftists) to back down. Now is the time to step up.
Does populism have a chilling effect on Congress?
Now is not the time for the Legislative Branch to shrink.
America needs lots of infrastructure investment, but...
Not if it's intended as a labor stimulus (the unemployment rate is already low). Not if it's just the visible stuff like highways and bridges (to the detriment of lots of critical work that is rarely visible to the public and doesn't make for good press coverage). Not if it's pure deficit spending (the Federal debt is already grotesque in size). Not if it's just for playing pork-barrel political games (the needs are independent of political connectedness).
President-elect again ditches his protective press pool
The location of the President and his/her well-being at all times is a matter of national security. The same substantially goes for the President-elect. Ditching the press pool isn't an option for anyone who intends to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.
January 3, 2017
Political risk to the economy is at a high point not seen in a very long time
The President-elect is taking glee in bullying individual companies to suit his own agenda. That is one of the most corrupt forms of crony capitalism -- which is the kind of thing that the truly free market abhors. When companies like Ford then turn to giving credit to the bully-in-chief for their decisions, their flattery is a weak capitulation to the kind of environment that will eventually be their downfall. Good financial advisors tell their clients not to make decisions based on the tax consequences; decisions should be made on the basis of the soundness of the investment itself. It is cowardly and sniveling for a business leader to suck up to a politician in the hope of getting favorable treatment (in taxes or otherwise).
Writer Patrick Tomlinson: "Instead of fighting for conservative solutions to our shared problems, I find myself arguing with 'conservatives' who, despite all the objective, verifiable evidence, can't even admit that our shared problems even exist in the first place."
The Acumen model for putting donations to work in developing economies is a great one -- based on the idea that markets work, even in poor places. They just sometimes require patient investment.
A quick reminder of the trouble Russia has lately wrought
So let's not feign horror at the idea of imposing consequences. Should we seek friendly relations? Always. But friendship requires a foundation of fair play -- that is literally a concept we should learn in children's books.
"The line between political righteousness and party self-righteousness is wavy and easy to cross"
America deserves good political parties involved in sensible contests of ideas with one another -- not self-righteous, inward-looking machines
January 4, 2017
Markets are under-pricing the political risks to the economy ahead
So concludes Larry Summers, and he's quite likely right. The magnitude of political risk to the world economy today is extraordinary. The costs of a correction will be large and painful.
Many high-growth jobs are in occupations dominated by women
Which means that men who are looking for new jobs may need to re-think their attachment to sterotypes about what "women's" jobs are
Indonesia withdraws from military cooperation with Australia
The suspension of cooperation can't be taken as a good sign. Indonesia is the world's 4th-largest country (by population), and Australia is the essential anchor for the protection of values in its corner of the Pacific Rim. If the two countries aren't on the same page, it's a bad turn of events.
Thoughtful column on the subtle sexism of expecting women to smile
Really, nobody goes around telling men how much prettier they would be if only they smiled
Today's asset-light business world means "your" building can go bankrupt without you
OfficeMax used to have a headquarters in suburban Chicago. After merging with Office Depot, OfficeMax no longer needed a headquarters of its own. Now, the building itself is likely to go into default. The choice many (if not most) businesses have made to reduce their direct ownership of real estate leads to some weird circumstances -- like the (former) Sears Tower no longer containing any Sears offices, and "OfficeMax headquarters" going bankrupt after OfficeMax ceased to exist as its own company.
January 5, 2017
Assume the worst about Trump's business-related tweets
When he attacks companies like Toyota, it should be assumed that he is short-selling for himself or otherwise tipping off members of his inner circle to do so. Absent legitimate, authentic, and verifiable declarations of his finances or the adoption of a bona fide blind trust, it must be assumed that he is abusing his position. This is not a partisan issue: It is a matter of good government.
Medium struggles to find its sweet spot
Writes the CEO: "[I]t's clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn't serve people." And in the process of seeking a publishing model that will profit, the company is laying off dozens of staff members.
Strength in numbers for publishers?
"Lee" isn't exactly the surname most Americans think it is
A proxy fight for control of the Ohio Republican Party
One into which it would seem very odd indeed for the President-elect to be taking an active role. But that's what he's doing.
January 6, 2017
Of course people on food stamps should be able to order groceries online
If government can cut down on the high cost of being poor, it's making good use of taxpayer money. Proper custodianship should be applauded.
Vice President Joe Biden on the PEOTUS and his fight with the intelligence agencies: "Grow up Donald, grow up, time to be an adult"
Technology's massive impact on the labor market could lead to the rise of a real Luddite
And that ought to be cause for serious concern. It's been bad enough to see the political backlash against the straw-man of foreign trade and immigrant workers. What happens when people turn their hostility against technology at large?
Sears sells the Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker
Reasonable people might begin to wonder whether the "lifetime" warranty that went with the tools will remain in force
New rules! Now small children are supposed to eat peanut butter.
National Institutes of Health decides that the evidence favors exposure to peanuts early in order to resist allergies: "Clinical trial results reported in February 2015 showed that regular peanut consumption begun in infancy and continued until 5 years of age led to an 81 percent reduction in development of peanut allergy in infants deemed at high risk"
January 10, 2017
One-paragraph book review: "Giants of Enterprise" by Richard Tedlow
The conclusion is supported well and the stories are worth reading, but it would have been better as seven short books in a series rather than one exhausting tome.
One-paragraph book review: "The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley
Strongly recommended reading for anyone who appreciates a historical context for foreign policy-making today.
January 22, 2017
Germany's welcome of refugees may pay off substantially in the long run
Long-term, Germany is heading towards a worker shortage. Its humanitarian project to welcome refugees (many of them young) could end up paying off quite handsomely. A chance to do well by doing good, as some like to say.
Upward-mobility machines they can certainly be, even if they don't come with illustrious pedigrees
Stumbles in the race to blanket the world with Internet-delivery drones
Turns out they don't always fly as well as hoped
January 23, 2017
The new President is ordering a withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It wasn't perfect, but our departure is a sign of a nation that thinks itself small. Big, decent trade agreements make the world safer and more prosperous.
An excellent analysis of the world right now
Anne Applebaum: "European security may now depend on Germany, France, Britain and one or two others, and it's better to start planning now for the possibility of European-only cyber-defense, counter-terrorism, and conventional defense too."
Facebook quizzes aren't innocent fun
Marketers are building detailed psychographic profiles of us all
Why are American TV programs set in such drab workplaces?
Sample a few television programs from places like Britain or Australia, and it's hard not to notice that their workplace-themed shows are often set in places with lots and lots of windows. Not so for many American programs. What's the reason for that?
It's amazing the discount rate some people apply to the future value of their own reputations
In a time when practically everything is recordable and storable online, it's not advisable to make up excuses to defend the indefensible
January 24, 2017
A world order must be led by somebody
If the world retreats from what we know as the "liberal order" (not left-wing, but liberty-driven), then something else will come next. Vacating the liberal order would only clear the way for lesser substitutes to emerge: If you clear a field and let nature take its course, weeds will take over, not roses. If the US quits the trade and defense deals that define the world order today, don't expect roses to take our place.
50 states, 50 election systems -- zero cause for undermining democracy
Statement from the National Association of Secretaries of State: "We are not aware of any evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump, but we are open to learning more about the Administration's concerns." The President ought to be ashamed of himself for making unsubstantiated allegations in an effort to undermine faith in the electoral process. He is behaving like a deviant. It is disgraceful.
Nikki Haley confirmed as UN ambassador
She departs service as governor of South Carolina, and she enters a role once held by George H. W. Bush. Haley started as a fiery outsider but has shown herself to be a sober leader in office; if she executes this office well, it may augur well for higher ambitions in her future.
Chicago has major troubles. Big government isn't the solution.
The President's vague and unsubstantiated threat to "send in the Feds" is no solution. He absolutely must not try to declare martial law, nor should he flood the city with agents of the FBI or ATF. Chicago doesn't have a problem of toughness; its problems are much more systematic than that.
For those times when you're escorting a really classy load
Not every pilot car is a Cadillac
January 25, 2017
Dropping out of the TPP only shrinks the stature of the United States
Big multilateral trade deals are never perfect, but they're generally preferable. Think of the United States as a giant trading bloc among 50 independent countries: We have just one trade agreement that serves us all, rather than the 1,225 bilateral agreements that would be required if each state went its own way with each of the other 49 states. Remember: One person's "tariff" is another person's use of import taxation to force the entire public to play favorites and subsidize a small share of the population.
A wall, no matter how concrete, is nothing more than an empty symbol
Can physical barriers obstruct the passage of people and goods? Obviously, yes. But anywhere you look in the world, where there are two neighboring countries with different standards of living, there is always and everywhere pressure on that border by migrants seeking a better life. Indonesians die trying to get into Malaysia. The border between Belarus and Poland is stretched thin. And, yes, many Latin Americans try to enter the United States in search of work. Putting up walls isn't a durable answer. The real systemic solutions come from enhancing the economies of the poorer countries in these relationships, and from normalizing relationships so that migration issues can be handled in a sober way. An expensive, 2,000-mile long wall between the United States and Mexico has all the characteristics of a gigantic boondoggle that will waste taxpayer resources and disappoint its proponents.
What evidence of massive fraud at the polls does the President possess?
None has been revealed. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence -- but they do not require extraordinary refutation. If someone claims that the sky has turned teal with purple polka dots, the burden of proof is not on the rest of us to prove that it has not. Unfortunately, there have always been people who are submissive to the claims of those in positions of authority, no matter what the evidence. That is why the President's claims should be clearly denounced as deviant.
Separation of powers: It matters, no matter the party
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa tweets a series of messages to the President, advising that he intends to stand his ground regarding expectations of transparency and reporting as the Senate reviews nominees to serve in the new administration. Grassley has credibility as an advocate for good-government transparency, so this message ought to stick.
A modest proposal for television news
If the President or the press secretary is demonstrably lying or propagating false information, just switch the feed to black and white instead of color. This is a massively image-sensitive administration; diminishing that image when it is being tarnished by lies is a signal that would serve the public.
January 26, 2017
Mexican president cancels planned US visit
This is not the way to start relations between two countries sharing a large border, many common interests, and a great deal of economic interconnectivity. The United States has a giant vested interest in a politically stable, economically prosperous Mexico -- even if the President of the United States is willfully blind to that fact.
He's taking on the worst behavior of the Trump Administration in a clever and public way, and that's a good thing. The Trumpian notion of imposing high tariffs on imported goods is ridiculous and punitive -- not a smart way to fund anything (including a wall on the border with Mexico). Tariffs are funny things -- they look like a way to target "foreigners", but the fact is that their incidence depends on the relative slopes of the supply and demand curves. Cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price. Tariffs offer concentrated benefits to the workers they "protect", with costs shared among all consumers. That kind of recipe is really good for turning badly-formed political wants into reality.
To understand Russia's behavior, look at the price of oil
The Russian government depends heavily upon income from the oil business. With that income in retreat, it should come as no surprise that the government there is looking to asymmetric power plays (like trying to interfere with Western elections) and headline-grabbing displays of power. Economic strength speaks for itself; weakness begets the kind of behavior we see in wounded animals.
Marketing company sets up deal to put temporary advertising wraps on personal vehicles. Why not? Commercialism is the American way.
Cash flows in China tilt the world's property markets
As the Chinese government has sought to keep its subjects from taking their money overseas, it's going to starve some of the world's hot property markets of interested buyers (and their money)
January 27, 2017
If the left wing cultivates its own "Herbal Tea Party", they need to hold back
The Economist carries a column with a strong insight about the need for opponents of the Trump Administration to make sure that they don't attack the voters themselves who put him in office. There's going to be a lot of need for reconciliation and unusual alliances in the time to come. There are already a lot of strong voices on the center-right who are as opposed to the direction and misbehavior of this administration as anyone on the left -- because offenses against truth and basic civility have no party. But it does nothing good to scold people who are late converts.
The future of unionized manufacturing jobs isn't rosy
Manufacturing productivity is rising. Non-union manufacturing employment is steady. But unionized manufacturing jobs are on a downward trajectory that hasn't reversed course in more than a generation. It's not because of labor laws. Meanwhile, the President can convene all the "manufacturing jobs councils" he wants, but if government policy is to be used to favor one kind of employment over others, that will require sound reasoning and justification. The bar should be set extremely high for favoritism to be justified.
"Fake news" could be a whole lot worse by the next Presidential election cycle
Technology already exists that permits real-time manipulation of audio and video. Technology itself is neutral; whether it is used for good or bad purposes is in the hands of the users. But this technology could easily be used for a great deal of evil. Audiences shouldn't fall for it.
A bystander at a gym saved the life of a man in cardiac arrest when the staff fell short. Everyone should get trained in CPR because none of us knows in advance how well we'll respond in an emergency. Some people freeze; that's inescapable. So the more people who are trained, the better the chances of survival for anyone who falls in need.
One-paragraph book review: "The Wright Brothers"
A vibrant portrait of one of the great technological successes that is far more engrossing in detail than in its usual abbreviated portrayal in the history books.
Don't deify the Founding Fathers
David McCullough in 2001: "If they were marble gods, what they did wouldn't be so admirable. The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them."
January 28, 2017
One-paragraph book review: "Good Profit", by Charles Koch
A bit dry, but definitely worthwhile reading for the conscientious student of business management
January 29, 2017
What it's like to come to the United States because you're unsafe in the land of your birth. We should be proud to be a refuge to the world's oppressed. That's the behavior of humane, civilized people.
Gallup says that 50% of the country already disapproves of Donald Trump as President. He started at an even split (or a remarkably low net approval of zero), and is now almost incomprehensibly far behind his predecessors of recent memory. He is starting with the same approval rate as Richard Nixon in May 1973 -- which, for historical reference, was the the opening of the televised Senate Watergate hearings. Imagine.
A long, long reading list on public infrastructure
It's not just about "roads and bridges". Infrastructure is much broader than that, and it's not a single thing at which we should blindly throw a lot of money and expect great returns.
Trends in Des Moines-area home values
Prices in some neighborhoods are declining -- and they're already the lower-valued neighborhoods. That keeps residents from building equity to get into higher-value neighborhoods, if they want. It should be considered a serious local socioeconomic problem, and one that local leaders have an interest in examining thoughtfully. Are there public goods that can be used to make those neighborhoods more valuable?
France bans unlimited free refills of pop
Yeah, yeah: It's in the name of public health. But it still sounds a little nanny-state-ish.
January 30, 2017
Why you should worry about inflation
When former Fed chair Ben Bernanke writes that, "to increase output without unduly increasing inflation the focus should be on improving productivity and aggregate supply", he's saying something totally different from what's coming out of the White House. In fact, it's almost 180 degrees the opposite. So if you don't expect them to satisfy the second part of the statement (focusing on productivity), then you'd better prepare for an inflationary situation.
Astute analysis of the new order of the world
A sobering thought: "Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him."
Anyone who tells you the parties are OK is ignoring the data
The Republican and Democratic parties are separately, and together, in basically their worst condition ever. More Millennials and Gen Xers identify as independents than as either Republicans or Democrats. Our one-person, one-vote/first-past-the-post voting system makes a two-party duopoly basically inevitable, but the current arrangement isn't stable.
On the sad, sad extinction of the Blue Dog
Democrats with conservative fiscal views and moderate social ones are a rare breed now -- when they're needed more than ever
An all-women's spin on "Ocean's Eleven" is coming
Anything with Sandra Bullock and Mindy Kaling has to be worth the price of a ticket
January 31, 2017
Warning: The President wants an inflationary currency
President Trump to the press corps today: "Other countries take advantage of us with their money and their money supply and devaluation. Our country has been run so badly, we know nothing about devaluation." This ought to put anyone who believes in a growing real economy and a sound dollar on full alert. The President doesn't set the money supply -- but he does nominate the Chair of the Federal Reserve, and although Janet Yellen has a term on the Board of Governors that lasts through 2024, her current term as Fed Chair expires in 2018. There are plenty of institutional safeguards in place to protect the Fed from political pressure, but there's also a lot of damage a President can do via appointments, from the bully pulpit, and via regulatory and tax tools. The mere fact that a sitting President of the United States would bark openly about "devaluation" of a currency as if it's a tool that we have under-utilized is a dangerous thing. Fiat currency depends upon the faith of the people who use it. The bigger problem may be that President Trump doesn't understand the actual state of the economy, and he's aggressively promoting the use of tools that are inappropriate to its current condition.
There is only one Syrian orphan living with a US family
It's good and bad news: The good part is that observers seem to think the children who get separated from their families in the troubles plaguing Syria are able to be reunited quickly with extended family as necessary. But the bad news, more glaringly, is that there are lots of entire families who still need help -- and who won't get it from the United States, if the Trump Administration has its way.
(Video) Danish television system produces a 3-minute video that probably speaks more to the value of common humanity than we readily acknowledge
Boy Scouts of America opens door to transgender Scouts
The BSA is a fine institution with a great deal of good it can do for young people. Getting rid of arbitrary obstacles to participation is a laudable step for the organization to take.
Someone just bought 19% of a Russian oil company