Gongol.com Archives: July 2017
July 3, 2017
"Russia's stealth public relations war"
Public diplomacy works wonders when done effectively, and Russia's government has clearly been aggressive about using it
"Rebuilding" the Democratic Party with Obama's help?
As put by one commenter: "Iceberg plays behind-the-scenes role in rebuilding Titanic". President Obama's campaign for the White House largely sought to transcend the Democratic Party -- and while in office, the President didn't merge his campaign with the party of which he was the titular head (he kept "OFA" running as a parallel operation to the DNC), nor did he appear to do things to groom a farm team of Democratic party leadership (most voters would be hard-pressed to name more than one or two Obama Cabinet officials, no doubt due in part to Obama's penchant for micromanagement). In other words, much of the damage was done by the individual now being asked to help do the rebuilding.
West Des Moines moves south of Highway 5 in 2018
In support of the Microsoft data center being built near the Maffitt Reservoir, the city is going to extend Veterans Parkway and build a bridge over I-35 -- serving traffic by 2018
Why a statesman's words matter
Laura Rosenberger: "Deterrence is based on credibility and capability. And credibility requires clear signaling of intentions."
What does it mean to say that "all roads lead to Rome"?
In much of Europe, it's literally true
July 4, 2017
The Declaration of Independence
"To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"
Russian propaganda broadcasts arrive on the DC radio dial
Public diplomacy has never been more important than it is right now. Facebook acknowledged in April that it was used as a tool of disinformation by foreign actors (read: Russia) to influence the US elections.
Cholera outbreak in Yemen affects a population the size of the City of Des Moines
Cholera spreads where there is no clean water, and the war in Yemen is enough to disrupt what access many once had
Illinois flirts with junk-bond status
The state almost certainly needs to raise taxes, but who wants the blame for doing that?
July 5, 2017
Or at least that's what the evidence suggests. And an ICBM in the hands of an unaccountable, irrational authoritarian government is a gigantic problem.
8th straight year of population decline in Japan
And most of the nation's prefectures are also shrinking. The population is, on net, both shrinking and gravitating to Tokyo.
"101 people shot between late Friday afternoon and early Wednesday" in Chicago
Victims aged from 13 to 60
Airbus claims 140 airplanes sold to China
That's a massive order
Freight trains are growing longer
Good news for shippers, but not so great for ambulance drivers
July 6, 2017
We can manage a gap of one or maybe two percentage points between government revenues and government spending (as a share of GDP) -- if the economy grows faster than the gap. But not what's on tap: 23.6% in spending and 18.4% in revenues (ten years from now). Deficits aren't free.
Nebraska election officials put up resistance to Federal snooping
The states are in charge of elections for good reason -- unless they show a specific inability to conduct them freely and fairly, it should remain that way
Why is rural broadband access a fight?
Many serious policy issues are treated inconsistently because we haven't decided whether Internet access has the status of a public utility.
Why do American companies make aluminum in Iceland?
Per the New York Times: "Electricity in Iceland costs about 30 percent less than what Alcoa might pay in the United States." Iceland got into the smelting business because it needed to find something to replace fisheries. That's the effect of specialization in action.
A police chase -- of a suspect on a tractor
These things do occasionally happen in the Midwest
July 7, 2017
Two Presidents, zero serious strategy for cybersecurity
Both Presidents Obama and Trump deserve blame for failing to take seriously the threat of cyberwarfare (in all its forms, from attempts to steal voter lists to efforts to interfere with voting machines to influence campaigns and microtargeting). It's a high-leverage problem: Bad actors can get their hands on powerful cyberweapons with little investment and can do asymmetrical damage.
CNN says Russia has 150 spies in the United States
That's a significant non-zero number, and certainly doesn't count the number working on things like "signals intelligence" back home
"[T]he White House hasn't submitted nominations"
Of 564 high-level appointive positions being tracked by the Washington Post, 68% have no nominee. That's after 168 days in office.
Russia's government is overcompensating for a bad economy
To understand why the Putin regime would want to meddle with foreign elections, look at the state of the Russian economy. A bad economy raises the proportional returns to investment on creating chaos elsewhere. People perceive relative status -- so efforts to make everywhere else look "just as bad" may be a more effective strategy than fixing what's falling short domestically.
Iowa City/Cedar Rapids hospitals agree: Fireworks injured a lot more Iowans this year
Lifting the ban on the sale of fireworks may have seemed like striking a blow for freedom, but dozens of people were injured in the process
July 10, 2017
The President's affections for Vladimir Putin are unjustified
Sen. Lindsey Graham: Cybersecurity cooperation with Russia is incredibly dumb
We need to take cyberwarfare seriously. To do so with the "help" of one of our major cyber-adversaries would be preposterous.
Sen. Bernie Sanders resumes campaigning for President
He's going to keynote a left-wing convention in Iowa on July 15th.
Couple has been to every county in 49 states
Alaska, alas, is too much work
Dalian Wanda Group sells off controlling stake in hotels and tourism projects
It's a substantial retreat from the investments they had been making in Chinese real estate, supposedly to reduce debt and free up cash. That could also be an early warning signal of trouble ahead for Chinese financial markets.
July 12, 2017
How brain drain hits small countries
In this case, it's Finland. But similar circumstances apply not only to small nations, but to small states as well. As the global urbanization trend continues, so will the concentration of population in some of the world's largest urbanized areas -- and some of that will suck human capital out of lesser-urbanized places. Not everyone wants to live in London or Tokyo or New York City, but it will take a concerted effort by the Helsinkis (metro population: 1.3 million), Winnipegs (800,000), and Des Moineses (600,000) of the world to make sure they retain and develop their share of highly skilled civic, educational, and business leaders in the face of high returns to urban agglomeration economies.
Is a trade deficit a symptom of living beyond our means?
On the surface, yes. A net trade deficit with the rest of the world is often a symptom of a country that consumes more than it produces. But...there's also the question of capital flows. If a country has lots of valuable capital stock (factories, intellectual property, real estate, and so on), then it's possible to exchange things we have for things we want. It's not perfect -- it's like living off a trust fund -- but it's not necessarily living beyond our means. And, importantly, if we create new capital stock (for instance, by building expensive new real estate projects like the new second-tallest skyscraper in San Francisco), then it may be possible to buy things, send cash overseas, then get some of the cash reinvested back in the country. And depending on factors like property bubbles and the impact of agglomeration economies, it may be possible for foreign direct investment to come back to buy overpriced capital, reducing the relative cost of the net imports.
"Does starting a band called ThugHammer count as a plan?"
The Onion spoofs the new requirement imposed on students in the Chicago Public Schools -- requiring them to have some kind of documented plan in order to graduate from high school. The plan goes into effect for the Class of 2020, and while it is completely understandable why something beyond a high-school diploma really is the de facto standard for a comfortable socio-economic future, that's a far cry from making it into a de jure standard. The advocates for a "Grade 14" policy (like former Education Secretary Arne Duncan) appear to be well-intentioned and get the problem generally right -- as the economy has grown more sophisticated, so have the expectations for people to be prepared for work -- but the prescription runs the very real risk of being, well, too prescriptivist. Creating true "lifelong learners" is a much bigger challenge than simply moving the goalposts for what it means to "finish school".
Microsoft to push for rural broadband access
They're proposing to conduct twelve experimental installations of broadband-over-TV-spectrum. Using the "white spaces" in the spectrum is supposed to be a cost-effective way of reaching people in places with population densities between 2 and 200 people per square mile. That basically describes all but about half a dozen counties in Iowa, though the state is not on Microsoft's list for the test runs. Nobody should choose not to recognize the economic, educational, and cultural impairment that is imposed today by a lack of access to high-speed Internet. We haven't chosen yet to give it the same kind of legal status as other near-universal utilities like electricity and water, but it's not far from being just as essential, at least in economic terms.
Why we should all worry more about North Korea
One scholar of arms control worries that we may already be down a path of no return towards open conflict with North Korea -- and no matter what we do to put up defenses here in the United States or abroad (as in South Korea), there may be targets that are vulnerable to attack in ways we cannot defend effectively -- and one of those is Seoul.
July 13, 2017
Dallas Federal Reserve president has some reasonable observations and concerns about the economy
Robert Kaplan: "[W]e are in the midst of a fragile equilibrium regarding global oil supply and demand"; "[W]e are moving very close to full employment in the U.S."; and "Our economists at the Dallas Fed believe that the skills gap in the US is substantial." And one other thing: "[T]here are likely limits to the ability of countries, including the US, to further increase debt to GDP in order to generate higher levels of economic growth...raising questions regarding fiscal sustainability which, if not addressed, could negatively impact longer-run economic growth."
Iowa's 28th baby surrendered under "safe haven"
It's hard to fathom what kind of emotions go into a decision like this, but we should be very glad we have a way to protect these little lives. Also interesting: Looking at how other countries handle this agonizing decision. Germany has a two-track approach, which includes not just a safe-haven option, but also the option for "confidential birth" to protect those mothers who may be at risk of domestic violence or other hazards.
Vatican goes after "evangelical fundamentalism"
It's a pretty spicy editorial, with a reference to the effort to "submit the state to the Bible with a logic that is no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism". It also argues that "[Pope] Francis radically rejects the idea of activating a Kingdom of God on earth as was at the basis of the Holy Roman Empire and similar political and institutional forms, including at the level of a 'party.'" Especially interesting: The piece condemns the use of "an ecumenism of conflict" -- alliances of political convenience between Catholics and non-Catholics who have short-term political objectives that would serve mainly to cement larger, long-term theological separation. Quite interesting.
Florida state attorney pulled over for...what, exactly?
Dubious traffic stops should not put anyone at undue risk (or even inconvenience) due to the color of their skin
Texas grew from a population of 23.9 million in 2007 to 27.8 million in 2016. That increase (just shy of 4 million) is greater than the entire population of Iowa (3.1 million). We should really see lots more maps that use tilegrams to illustrate elections, since geographic size is so disjointed from population.
July 14, 2017
Representative from Connecticut wants mandatory on-camera White House press briefings
Representative Jim Himes wants the on-camera press briefings to become mandatory. In theory, sure -- the manner in which the present administration has run away from legitimate scrutiny from the press, including their ridiculous approach to on-camera/off-camera press briefings, is an abomination. But is this a legitimate use of Congressional authority? It's hard to say that it is. Just consider applying the same test to the third branch: Could Congress order the Supreme Court to allow cameras? One would think not. It's important not to over-reach in the course of trying to execute legitimate inter-governmental oversight. This has close parallels to the illegitimacy of the White House project to demand voter data from all 50 states: To the extent that existing standards are in place to permit retrieval and requests for voter documentation, it may be hard for states find the legal authority to reject the Federal request for that data. But it's still a substantial overstepping of norms for the Federal government to make such a request (especially when there is no evidence to indicate that the states have somehow become incapable of conducting legitimate, free, and fair elections on their own). Moreover, it is a clear violation of the intent of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, which in no uncertain terms reserve all unenumerated rights to the people and all unenumerated powers to the states and the people. If the Federal government isn't acting to prevent a state from encroaching on the rights of citizens, then it really has no standing to tell anyone what to do with their elections.
If you contact government officials, watch out for your own privacy
The Federal commission that claims (dubiously) to be examining the integrity of elections took public comments -- then, apparently, revealed the personal contact information of at least some of the people who submitted public comments. If you're going to contact officials in a way that will go on the record, make sure you're using a PO Box, a public-facing email account, and a telephone number that masks your own (like, for instance, a Google Voice number). Put no faith in the people who take your comments to redact your private information for you.
Alexa device didn't call 911 for a domestic-violence victim
But that's how the sheriff's office wrote up the story. Though the device can't initiate a 911 call, there's a lot that can legitimately be done to make our smartphones and other gadgets into better tools for putting technology in service of human needs. It's not much to ask that artificial intelligence tools like Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Google Assistant should be programmed to take notice of situations, searches, and queries that might indicate that the user is at risk of an imminent health problem (mental or physical) or is in some form of danger.
Florida school district prohibits routine homework for elementary-school kids
Instead of busy work, the superintendent wants parents to spend 20 minutes a day reading with their kids. This is an utterly laudable plan.
Kid Rock claims he's a real Senate candidate
If the Senate is supposed to be composed of two people from each state, representing the best discernment and judgment that can be found in each of those states, then a recording artist like Kid Rock is a real test of those standards. Shouldn't the bar be higher for entry into either house of the national legislature than fame alone?
Omaha Public Power District to get 40% of electricity from wind by 2019
The better we can get at energy storage and recovery, the higher those figures could potentially go
July 15, 2017
Social Security trust fund will go broke before today's newborn is out of high school
How can this be made more plain and clear? We've gone along with a giant national lie that the problem would resolve itself. It hasn't. It won't. When the trust fund is gone, payments will drop as Social Security becomes fully pay-as-you-go. Yes, 2034 seems a long way away, but if you can remember Y2K, then you should be able to project ahead to 2034 with equal ease.
July 21, 2017
Minneapolis police chief resigns over civilian shooting death
Justine Damond and Jamar Clark were both unarmed civilians killed by Minneapolis police officers during the outgoing chief's tenure.
"Nothing compelled them to be Good Samaritans"
A group of teenagers apparently watched, mocked, and recorded as a man drowned in a Florida pond on July 9th. They might be free of legal culpability for choosing not to render aid, but they might face prosecution for failing to report a death.
The state of the First Amendment isn't uniformly good
The Newseum Institute finds that only 49% of people ages 18 to 29 believe in universal freedom of religion
360,000 people with cholera in Yemen
That's just in the last three months. An appalling figure.
21% of American adults are online but don't use social media
For as much as Facebook and Twitter and their cousins are discussed every single day in the news, one in five of us don't use them (but aren't holding out on the rest of the Internet). Another one in 10 doesn't use the Internet at all.
July 23, 2017
Federal Reserve chair Yellen: "Congress should be taking into account" the impact of debt
Higher interest rates are likely if not inevitable, and with productivity growing only very slowly, there's a serious collision course ahead between Federal borrowing and private-sector growth
The President does not have the support of former intelligence leadership
The big question is whether the views of emeritus spy chiefs reflects the attitudes of current spies. It seems like more than a case of sour grapes.
Major flooding in northeastern Iowa
Sumner and Fredericksburg both saw colossal rainfalls
Univision is looking for a sale
The company owns about 60 radio and 60 television stations, and they're trying to find a way to either go public through an IPO (which appears to be their distant second preference) or sell out to another media company. It's actually a bit surprising that anyone would want to give up control of such a premier property in a specialty media market (one which shows no signs of shrinking).
A move of interest to the Midwestern hospitality market, involving about 200 hotels
July 24, 2017
"Now that the west is conscious, again, of Russian active measures, where else could Russia use its cyber capabilities, and to what end?"
We've already seen what the agents of cyberwarfare can do to a political system. What about their impact on economic ones?
Iowa State Patrol to go undercover to enforce laws against texting-while-driving
Discouraging the practice of distracted driving is a fine idea in theory -- but it's also worth asking just how comfortable we are with sting-type operations that are specifically intended to surprise ordinary people with police enforcement
Political peril on the road ahead
The administration's erratic behavior means there may be no road ahead. Al Hunt suggests that "...it's not crazy conjecture that a president who doesn't think the rules and laws apply to him would try to replace the attorney general with somebody not recused from the Russia probe."
OECD looks at state-owned enterprises and foreign investment
Key: "As bearers of state as well as commercial interests, SOEs may place their emphasis on strategic acquisitions, such as advanced technologies for example, on non-market terms." This means state-owned enterprises looking to invest in other countries might behave in ways that would wildly distort market outcomes. Suppose, for instance, that it's considered in the national interest to gain some form of security or military technology by any means necessary; in that case, a supplier company (like Lockheed Martin or Northrup Grumman, in theory -- or even Microsoft or Kaspersky) might find itself the subject of a takeover attempt that may not reflect market realities. This distortion may be one of the strongest cases for domestic political intervention in the case of foreign asset purchases.
New York Times expects apology from "Fox and Friends"
The newspaper submits a demand that the broadcaster retract and apologize for a segment that accused the paper of foiling a government plot to kill a terrorist. Given the program's strange and disproportionate power to influence the President of the United States, this is more than a mere dispute among rivals.
July 30, 2017
Former Secretary of Defense is on high alert for nuclear war
Bill Perry: "I believe that today the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War"
Official NYPD response to the President on police brutality
"...sends the wrong message to law enforcement as well as the public"
A plan with an "improvised device" and no clear tie to an organized group
Nebraska small towns pitch eclipse as tourism opportunity
Some of the best eclipse-viewing will happen in some of the most sparsely-populated territory in the country
"Friend from College" could do better
The cast is fantastic. The soundtrack is spectacular. The script falls short.
July 31, 2017
When the President damages the dollar
Political risk has a real cost, even if people don't realize it
Remembering the I-35W disaster
The 10-year anniversary should serve as a reminder of just how badly we tend to neglect our infrastructure: How much did people all over the country care about dangerous neglect in the immediate aftermath, then cease to care later even though nothing really had been done?
Children traumatized by life under ISIS
They deserve a better world than what they've been given
How Alphabet wants to try storing energy
The Google parent company has obvious reasons to want to capture and store energy on the cheap
The Tesla Model 3 is almost here
And it goes farther on a single charge than people might have expected