Gongol.com Archives: March 2018

Brian Gongol


March 2018
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March 1, 2018

News Chinese investment in Finnish infrastructure?

China Daily reports on a speculative project to build a giant tunnel under the Baltic, to link Helsinki with Tallinn, with the backing of "unnamed Chinese investors". And they're talking about building a railway between Helsinki and a northern Norwegian port city -- so China can have access through the (warming) Arctic Ocean to European markets, instead of traversing the Suez Canal. This is what happens when the United States dithers while China is flush with cash and ambition.

Threats and Hazards For whom are they working?

The FBI is investigating what went on behind the scenes of a licensing deal that slapped the Trump name on a building in Vancouver just after the President took office. It was a deal that apparently centered on Ivanka Trump's work -- and it is well past time that Americans know whether she's working for the family business or for the government. There's no room for one of the President's closest advisers to have one foot in the Oval Office and another in financial interests that are influenced by that work. There must be an arm's-length separation of the two -- without that separation, there must be an assumption of bad faith on the part of the people who choose not to separate the interests. If Ivanka Trump is not exclusively working for the people of the United States, then she has no business in the ambiguous roles she occupies.

Threats and Hazards Absurdism masquerading as economic policy: Steel and aluminum tariffs

The President appears to have sprung the idea of massive tariffs as a surprise on just about everyone. They're a terrible idea.

Computers and the Internet Facebook wants your kids

Facebook says it had to "nudge" kids in the 8-to-13 age range to use its Facebook Messenger Kids tool. One wonders: What's so good (for the kids) about trying so hard to get them to use their electronics? It's obvious what's in it for Facebook.

Threats and Hazards Run, do not walk, away from state-secession plans

There are vital interests of highly adversarial people that are served when Americans turn on one another

Business and Finance The Wrigley Building is up for sale

If you have a spare $200 million and an interest in prime Chicago real estate, it might be up your alley

Threats and Hazards Sweden has a problem with gangs using hand grenades

Thanks to certain loopholes in the law, they're a weapon of choice for some bad guys

Business and Finance Kearney Archway turns a profit -- at long last

The $60 million monument across Interstate 80 in Kearney, Nebraska, has gone a long, long time without turning a profit. It's actually quite a nice museum and well worth a visit for anyone in the area or passing through, but it's also a cautionary tale in the hazards of feasibility studies. It's easy to cook the numbers when they're purely speculative to come up with something that balances the books.


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March 2, 2018

Threats and Hazards Punching down

The President fires off a rant against Alec Baldwin, for no sensible reason. He makes a choice, every day, to behave this way. To make these his priorities. To pick these fights. This is a choice.

Threats and Hazards A global trade war isn't "easy" to win

"Trade war" isn't even good nomenclature. "War" conveys an impression of an event with a winner and a loser. But, on net, everyone loses in a trade war. It's more like mutually-assured destruction. The President may rant and rave in capital letters about his outdated notions of what makes an economy, but trade protectionism is the helicopter parenting of economics. Moreover, with the economic damage being intentionally done via stupid tariff policies and trade restrictions, worse things may happen even faster. Federal deficits are soon to eclipse the annual GDP, and a hobbled economy produces smaller tax revenues.

Threats and Hazards The cyberwarfare threat is real. Our response isn't.

Asks Senator Ben Sasse: "Why should the American people have any confidence in their government right now in the area of cyberwar?" A good and urgent question, indeed.

Business and Finance "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"

In a computer simulation that closely resembles the distribution of wealth in the real world, "[T]he wealthiest individuals are not the most talented (although they must have a certain level of talent). They are the luckiest." If this is an accurate representation of how talent is rewarded in the real world, then it has really substantial implications for how we choose to remunerate talent (and otherwise compensate it without money, but with things like social esteem). It echoes a comment from Bill Gates: "I am always fascinated by the question of whether the most talented people end up in critical positions -- in politics, business, academia, or the military. It's amazing the way some people develop during their lives." Most likely, there is a great deal of the ultimate outcomes in wealth that is shaped by choices that people make early in their lives -- when pure talent and intelligence don't necessarily determine the quality of decision-making, since they're not informed by wisdom and experience. Getting set in the right direction early on -- often by luck of finding something like an industry on the rise -- might explain much of the outcome. And in that case, it certainly speaks volumes to the impact of family members and other trusted elders who may guide their younger counterparts to the right places at the right times, before they can make informed decisions for themselves.

Threats and Hazards The potential for abuse

According to NBC News: "Some top Qatari government officials believe the White House's position on the blockade may have been a form of retaliation driven by Kushner who was sour about the failed deal" to bail out one of his family's investment properties. If personal financial interests are influencing Federal government policy at the very top, that's an inexcusable threat to the idea of good government.

Computers and the Internet Facebook axes the "Explore Feed"

They had tried to separate institutional and personal news from one another, but users didn't like it or use it. So now everything is back together, but with the supposed emphasis on "family and friends"-type content.

Threats and Hazards No impulse control

The President's plans for massive tariffs on steel and aluminum imports appear to have been a completely impulsive declaration made without any serious forethought or planning. There is much to be disturbed by the fact that he, after more than a year in office, still does not understand the fact he needs to show more discipline than the average adult. That's just basic comprehension of the role.


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March 6, 2018

News China's military ambitions grow

They're looking to build lots of naval bases all over the Indian and Pacific Oceans

Business and Finance Amazon uses lobbying more than ever

One of the reasons why the DC metro area is almost certainly one of the top two contenders for the Amazon HQ2 project: Government matters more than ever to Amazon's future. Proximity to your target matters.

Business and Finance Lego has too many bricks

They had a pretty big sales drop in 2017

Iowa Democracy belongs to those who show up, indeed

The number of voters who cast ballots in one Des Moines suburb on the sales-tax vote could have fit in a single Suburban

Business and Finance What would Louis Rukeyser say?

What we wouldn't give to hear one of his opening monologues to "Wall Street Week" today


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March 7, 2018

Business and Finance What good will tariffs do?

It is possible to do things that put many Americans on pathways to better economic futures that don't involve starting trade wars. Tariffs usually end up as false promises that make lots of things worse while failing to fix what they're supposed to help. "Trade war" sounds a lot more decisive than "updated and reinvigorated trade and technology adjustment assistance", but the latter is really where we ought to be putting a sustained focus. Either we're developing our human capital or we're not. But if we aren't, then we shouldn't expect a rising standard of living. And if we're trying but failing, then we need to urgently reconsider how we're doing it.

Threats and Hazards "We can also do stupid"

The President's utterly preposterous claim that tariffs can be applied "lovingly" is answered by the European counterargument that they, too, can do stupid policy.

Threats and Hazards Holocaust Museum rescinds award to Aung San Suu Kyi

It's for her failure as a civil leader to stop the murders of the Rohingya. Sometimes the only thing we can do is remind people that the judgment of history will be passed on us all, and hope that maybe the desire to be remembered favorably is enough to get someone to do the right thing. It's one of the most important reasons why we have to study history and treat it as important.

Humor and Good News Beautiful art from the dawn of the 20th Century

Gorgeous art, really


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March 8, 2018

Threats and Hazards An obscenely wrongheaded idea

The President takes a potshot at Gary Cohn, his departing director of the National Economic Council: "He may be a globalist but I still like him. He is seriously a globalist, no question. But in some ways he's a nationalist because he loves our country." ■ Straight to the dustbin of history with the idea that a person couldn't love his or her own country and also believe in participating in the global community. Shameful. Ignorant, wrong, and shameful. ■ "No free people can for long cling to any privilege or enjoy any safety in economic solitude. For all our own material might, even we need markets in the world for the surpluses of our farms and our factories." - Dwight D. Eisenhower ■ "If we want [...] a vital, dynamic, innovative economic system, we must accept the need for mobility and adjustment. It may be desirable to ease these adjustments [...] but we should try to achieve that objective without destroying the flexibility of the system." - Milton and Rose Friedman ■ "No nation was ever ruined by trade." - Benjamin Franklin ■ "To cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations having correspondent dispositions" - James Madison ■ "The freedom to buy, sell, and trade is one of the oldest freedoms known to man." - Margaret Thatcher ■ The idea that someone can't be both a good American and also a good citizen of the world is as preposterous as the idea one cannot be both a good Iowan and a good American, or a good Chicagoan and a good American. Most of the virtues to being a good citizen are non-rivalrous -- from the local to the regional to the national to the global. Anyone who can't think of themselves as belonging to more than one community of human beings simply lacks imagination.

Threats and Hazards Whose South China Sea?

China's foreign minister drops passive-aggressive commentary about "external powers" and complaining that "there are certain external powers who are unwilling to accept the stability in the South China Sea and always want to stir up trouble". He is, of course, talking about the United States. And he's talking about a place where his own country is building artificial islands to create artificial claims to territory. Singapore's long-time leader Lee Kuan Yew said it pretty clearly: "As China's development nears the point when it will have enough weight to elbow its way into the region, it will make a fateful decision -- whether to be a hegemon, using its economic and military weight to create a sphere of influence...or to continue as a good international citizen...It is in everyone's interest that before that moment of choice arrives, China should be given every incentive to choose international cooperation which will absorb its energies constructively for another 50 to 100 years."

Computers and the Internet What if everyone had to complete an exit interview to unfollow someone on social media?

Would any of us learn?

Humor and Good News Is it too soon for an Irish potato famine joke?

One might wonder

Business and Finance The choice to impose tariffs is a terrible one

A 25% tax on imported steel and 10% on imported aluminum. Arbitrary, capricious, untargeted tariffs on basic raw materials used disproportionately in heavy construction? That's a pretty stupid way to address the need for infrastructure investment (that we badly need). It's also a terrible way to behave when we have a massive Federal budget deficit. It's a very simple fact that net imports don't actually hurt GDP -- we produce the same amount with or without the imports, we just don't want to count them as things we create.

Humor and Good News A hot take on hot takes

Very, very funny: "I'm an incredibly verbose piece of journalism that your boss, your coworkers, and your most Twitter-annoying friend have already spread all over social media with the comment 'This.'"


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March 9, 2018

Business and Finance What men ought to do to promote women in the workplace

Worth consideration: "Integrity is not only knowing and acting on what is right but also, as Yale Law's Stephen Carterimplores, publicly explaining why you are doing so."

News What creates a journalist? Sometimes the comics.

The cartoon pages are the gateway by which kids become newspaper readers. Every successful medium needs a route by which the next generation of audience members is recruited.

Threats and Hazards An impossibly stupid interpretation of the job

Peter Navarro to Bloomberg: "My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his [the President's] intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters." Trying to backfill evidence to rationalize instincts is a far cry from encouraging one's best intuitions. Intuition is the product of experience, study, and self-criticism. President Trump doesn't celebrate any of those; he has instincts. And any animal can have instincts. To have people in such influential positions that do nothing but encourage instinctive behavior is a complete dereliction of duty.


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March 15, 2018

Threats and Hazards Sounding the alarm

There is a tension in having the President act both as head of government and head of state. Senator Jeff Flake is right to sound the alarm that the part about being head of state isn't being taken seriously. Preserving the dignity of the office as a tool of moral suasion is one of the reasons why so many people were interested in punishing President Bill Clinton for his bad behavior in office -- it wasn't a matter of policy, it was a matter of behavior. President Barack Obama conducted himself generally quite well as a head of state, but made a lot of errors as head of government. Today, it's entirely incomplete for people to approve of President Donald Trump's policies in government when his words and behavior as head of state are reprehensible. It's time for a pro-civic wing of the Republican Party to speak up and demand accountability for the duties of a head of state.

Business and Finance The US only has a trade deficit with Canada if you exclude services

And excluding services is a ridiculous way to count economic output. Can we all just take a minute to reflect on the anachronism of thinking that goods are somehow better outputs than services? Any parent who has ever encouraged their kid to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer has revealed a preference for providing services. Goods and services need one another -- you can't build a bridge without designing it, too. Someone makes a pair of shoes, and someone else sells them. Boeing can build an airplane, but Delta has to fly it.

Business and Finance Where do traded dollars go when we are a net importer?

A hypothesis: Agglomerative network effects could neutralize the ordinarily negative effects of trade deficits. Suppose we run a trade deficit with country "B", buying things that help increase our growth rate. Country "B" returns some of the resulting cash surplus here, buying property or firms (maybe at inflated prices) that only exist because of the high growth rate in the first place. In a framework where certain imports of goods or services end up contributing to the creation of capital (of which some is sold to the exporting parties), the trade deficit might be more of a catalyst than a cost. In the short run, we show a current-accounts deficit; in the long term, the resulting capital creation (and thus future productive potential) is much greater than the proportion of the capital stock that is sold off to repatriate the dollars exchanged in trade early on. This would depend, though, on the US market having certain characteristics making it a uniquely high-return locaion for investment.

Threats and Hazards Russian cyberattacks compromise power and water plants in the US and Europe

A Symantec executive says "They have the ability to shut the power off. All that's missing is some political motivation". One particular piece of the New York Times report puts the problem in stark terms: "[A]t least three separate Russian cyberoperations were underway simultaneously. One focused on stealing documents from the Democratic National Committee and other political groups. Another, by a St. Petersburg 'troll farm' known as the Internet Research Agency, used social media to sow discord and division. A third effort sought to burrow into the infrastructure of American and European nations." That doesn't preclude the possibility of yet other operations, as well. That's what makes the use of cyberwarfare so unnerving: It involves asymmetries between the inputs required and the outputs it can create. Thus it is highly attractive to those parties that calculate a low cost (in terms of retaliation) for high potential gain. This might be a good time for private and public parties in places like the United States to consider having a backup plan, like secondary operating systems.

News Queen Elizabeth "consents" to her grandson's marriage

Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952. Imagine if we were talking today about Harry Truman (POTUS in 1952) "giving consent" to permit his grandson to marry an actress from the UK. The institution itself is such a peculiar artifact of past civilizational habits that it's interesting to superimpose their order on our facts and see how it would look. All monarchies (even parliamentary ones) are a bit silly -- but if their political gravity didn't matter, they would be republics by now. There's an implicit public consent to the status quo which itself is a form of political power.

News Putting "savings" into Daylight Saving Time

Give us back the hour -- with interest!


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March 16, 2018

The United States of America Why you should read "Safe Passage"

The shape of our world today is no accident. Its shape tomorrow ought not to be an accident, either.

News Embedded diamonds instead of engagement rings?

Just because a reporter can find a half-dozen people who do something doesn't make that thing a trend. And while picking on Millennials for sport is a joy of being in Generation X, this really isn't a generational thing. It's just some isolated instances of people being dumb.

Business and Finance A US Senator who gets the big picture

Sen. Ben Sasse demonstrates again (this time in an address to the Heritage Foundation) that the economy isn't served by going back to the 1950s

Threats and Hazards So much stupidity concentrated into one interview

Everyone trying to remain in the public eye has a choice: Whether to be thought-provoking...or mindlessly provocative. The nonsense captured in the Spectator interview with Steve Bannon is definitively of the latter type.

News Justice Department fires former acting FBI director just before he retires with pension

Whether or not there was true merit to the dismissal of Andrew McCabe, openly taunting some of the nation's highest-ranking law-enforcement officers after you fire them probably isn't the most effective way to demonstrate innocence.


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March 17, 2018

Threats and Hazards "50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach"

The Guardian reveals a stunning whistleblower claim that Cambridge Analytica used data on 50 million Facebook users -- data that was obtained in contravention of Facebook policies, using "personality test" apps that collected data not only on the user, but on the user's friends as well. And then Facebook was slow to fix the problem: They claim to have acted in 2015, but didn't go on to suspend the parties involved until this week. The New York Times reports that "Cambridge not only relied on the private Facebook data but still possesses most or all of the trove." This is a huge warning on lots of levels: To resist the urge to share too much online; to hold Facebook and other social media tools at arm's length (they're not your friends); to resist the urge to fall for the lure of "personality tests" tied to tools like Facebook; to know that third parties might collect information on you even if you didn't engage with them; to suspect anyone who claims to be collecting information online for "academic research"; and for a hundred other reasons. Data is being weaponized, and regardless of this particular case, that is only bound to accelerate.

Weather and Disasters Parts of Des Moines metro got 8" of snow overnight

Other places, not 20 miles away, got less than half an inch

Threats and Hazards Former acting FBI director is fired just before retirement

And then the President turned to Twitter to openly taunt him. It doesn't seem wise for a President under investigation to mock people like Andrew McCabe and James Comey, but perhaps his lawyers have a creative defense strategy up their sleeves.

Humor and Good News A new album is out from Stone Temple Pilots

And Generation X rejoiced


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March 21, 2018

Threats and Hazards Stop naming and celebritizing the killers

News outlets are naming the Austin package bomber -- a person who has been terrorizing his local community through murder. Would there be any real harm done if news outlets said "As a matter of civic responsibility, we are voluntarily withholding the name of the perpetrator"? A voluntary choice to consign people like this to the black hole of history might help discourage copycats.

Threats and Hazards Man shoots himself after falling asleep with new gun in his hands

This story ends with the public laughing at the expense of the individual who shot himself. But what if this carelessness had ended with him unintentionally shooting a family member who walked in and startled him awake?


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March 22, 2018

Threats and Hazards Nero fiddles while Rome burns

The President of the United States is engaged in a juvenile taunting match with a former Vice President, while Congress is about to pile another $1.3 trillion onto the Federal debt. If the Federal government were sitting on a surplus of $64,000 per person, voters would be losing their minds demanding rebate checks. Instead, we owe $64,000 per person in Federal debt...and rising.

News National Security Adviser fired

General HR McMaster is out, and John Bolton is incoming

Humor and Good News The sisters rebuilding a university library in Mosul

With ISIS out, they have a chance to rebuild. We could digitize every book ever written and give every child a Kindle as their birthright, and yet we should still consider libraries to be sacred spaces worthy of support and protection. Only barbarians destroy libraries.

Humor and Good News The only thing missing is the exaggeration

Teenager puts a car through the front window on her driving test. The problem is that the story misses a kicker element -- something for the comedians to embellish in search of a life.


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March 23, 2018

Threats and Hazards China plans a 25% tariff on US pork

Soybeans could be next. This is exactly the kind of reciprocal trade retaliation that Americans should worry about.

Threats and Hazards Denmark and Ireland might sanction Russia over attack on British soil

Can it be? Are the free countries of the world starting to get the picture that shows of unity are among our best tools to push back against adversarial efforts to sow discord here?

Business and Finance Where do your tax dollars go?

The Federal budget represented as a $100 restaurant bill

Health Nebraska doctors turn to state intervention to get 15-year-old into chemotherapy

Even that Original Libertarian, John Stuart Mill, would say that sometimes the state has to step in to protect kids: "Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury."

Iowa Snowstorm forecast comes with tight gradients

Parts of Minnesota and Iowa are going to get about a foot of snow, and neighbors 90 minutes away won't get anything


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March 29, 2018

Threats and Hazards Reckless economic interventionism

The President has once again turned to Twitter to lash out at an American business; this time, Amazon. Says he: "I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election. Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!" This screed is so brimming with nonsense that it is almost impossible to parse reasonably: Amazon pays taxes. Amazon uses the US Postal Service (which is a net gain, not a loss, to the carrier). And Amazon is just an efficient conduit on the Internet, but it is by no means exclusive as an online retailer and the troubles inflicted on "thousands of retailers" would be real even if Amazon itself did not exist. Most Americans in any kind of retail or wholesale sector are likely to be both users of, and competitors with, Amazon. As many business leaders have noted (among them, Satya Nadella of Microsoft), increasingly complex business needs have lots of us operating outside of traditional business rivalries. Most of us now have reason sometimes to cooperate with our natural competitors. That's just the evolution of business and a natural result of specialization. All of us, though, should stridently object to the President continuing to call out individual American businesses for scorn like this, and we should object if he were to offer praise, too. It's bad behavior in principle, and it's reckless economic interventionism in practice. But there is a third layer in the case of this particular President, and it is the result of his near-complete unwillingness to follow the well-established norms of the office, like putting his assets into a true blind trust. As was worth notice even before he took office, we have no assurances that he and/or his inner circle aren't profiting from his social-media outbursts -- for instance, by shorting a stock before a rant. To assume the best (that he and his circle are refraining from such behavior) is inexcusably naive. The norms exist for a reason, and his conscious, willful rejection of those norms should not be taken at face value. In the absence of evidence of innocence, the person who deliberately tries to change the rules in such a way as would benefit himself at the expense of others should be assumed to be a cheater.

News "I don't know what that means, a community college"

The President seems to think it's better to call them vocational/technical schools than to call them community colleges. Which might be fine, if that were actually how they operated. But it's an inaccurate representation. Nobody should underestimate the power of community colleges to have a huge effect on adult education in lots of ways -- including, but not limited to, voc-tech.

Aviation News New York Times article actually suggests that men wear track suits in flight

"Thank you for flying Sopranos Airways. Have a cannoli."

Humor and Good News Omaha school administrator donates hair to Locks of Love and raises $6,000

A great example of someone choosing to create value in the world -- not only will someone benefit from the hair donation, but another $6,000 got raised in the process.

Humor and Good News Opening Day is here

In a world that routinely seems positively mad, welcome back to the relentless rationality of baseball.


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March 30, 2018

Threats and Hazards Russia tests new ICBM

Video of the missile (NATO-codenamed "Satan Two") has been released. As Dwight Eisenhower said, "A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations." This test, in tandem with the Russian expulsion of 60 American diplomats in retaliation for Western retaliation in response to the attempted murder of two people on British soil, suggests that a reminder is in order: "Proportional response" does not include the aggressor retaliating in equal measure to retaliations. This is an entirely unsatisfactory way for the world to work in 2018.

Business and Finance Amazon rearranges lobbying efforts in Washington

The very large, very national impact of government on Amazon's future business remains one of the reasons the DC metro almost certainly must be in the lead to get Amazon's HQ2. Nothing like being located next to your biggest "customer".

Iowa Dutch painting from 1600 resurfaces in Des Moines

It's a bit of a cheeky image, so it probably got hidden away when it strained the sensibilities of the early 1920s

Computers and the Internet French President Macron proposes "IPCC for AI"

Similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he suggests a group to put real expertise into looking at the ethical consequences of artificial intelligence. It's part of an ambitious set of goals Macron suggests for turning France into a major center for AI, but the ethical component is well worth examining closely. The speed of technological change is ultimately a challenge to our ability to use it well.


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March 31, 2018

Threats and Hazards Independent autopsy says Sacramento man was shot repeatedly in the back by police

They appear to have concluded that they were being threatened with a gun, when it was only a cell phone. Which leads to the savage satire from The Onion under the headline, "Police repeatedly shoot Tim Cook after mistaking iPhone for gun". America really does need an NTSB for police-involved killings.

Threats and Hazards The President, the interventionist

He cannot restrain himself against the impulse to create enemies, whether real or imagined. While it's only circumstantial evidence, the weight of the evidence is overwhelming that his antipathy towards the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos) is translating into a reckless campaign against Amazon.com (which was started by Jeff Bezos, but exists as a publicly-traded company). Bezos owns about 79 million of Amazon's 484 million shares outstanding, for about 16% of the total. Thus the President's ire is not only un-American, anti-market, and factually dishonest, it is also poorly targeted. At this pace of pointless, patronizing interventionism, he is on track to make FDR look like Milton Friedman. The President's enthusiasm for government intervention in the economy produces lots of wicked outcomes and should be roundly denounced by anyone who considers themselves pro-markets and pro-freedom.

News Immigration, categorically, does not create net new crime

To the contrary, immigrants of all means of entry (legal or otherwise) tend to be less criminally inclined than the public at large. But there is an unfortunate tendency for confirmation bias to creep in, causing people who may have been inclined to have a dim view of immigrants to "see" immigrant crime more than other crime.

The United States of America The 19th Amendment is only two generations old

An indication of just how insufficient America's concept of rights was just 100 years ago, a reminder of just how much progress has been made since that time, and an instigation to remember that much good or much harm can be created in a very short time. It's always a choice.


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