Gongol.com Archives: November 2018

Brian Gongol

November 2018
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November 19, 2018

The United States of America "No one nests in a hotel room"

An observation from Ben Sasse that dovetails with the rule from economics that nobody washes a rented car. Ownership matters not just in the material sense, but in the civic one, too.

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November 21, 2018

Threats and Hazards When the President challenges the Chief Justice

As long as everyone remembers that the branches of government are co-equal, the Republic should survive. But we've had better moments as a country than one in which the head of the Supreme Court has to defend the independent judiciary. If nothing else, perhaps, we have the opportunity to be reminded of the central importance of the tripartite Constitutional order.

The United States of America How Ronald Reagan laughed off his assassination attempt

Not because it wasn't serious (it assuredly was), but because a sense of humor put Reagan in control of the situation

News A better way to navigate hospitals

Being in a hospital is usually stressful enough; making one's way wherever they're going shouldn't add needless stress to the experience

News What's the news?

News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo

News The real heroes of education

The educators who think their first job is to get a lesson across to students, no exceptions

Weather and Disasters The incredibly destructive Camp Fire

It's destroyed more structures than the next six most-destructive California wildfires combined

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November 22, 2018

Science and Technology "Innovation is the real driver of progress"

We are fortunate to live materially better lives which are far beyond the wildest dreams of our predecessors, largely thanks to their hard work. We ought to be dedicated to doing the same for our own descendants.

Humor and Good News Everyone has heroes, and it's hard to know when you might be one of them

A personal and important story about being decent and humane

Recent radio podcasts

November 23, 2018

News Moral imagination

A definition from Jacqueline Novogratz: "[T]he willingness to respond to the plight of others. To envision how to address suffering and injustice."

The United States of America Book review: "MacArthur at War"

A demanding, definitive, and enormous examination of the legend of Douglas MacArthur

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November 24, 2018

Business and Finance What's behind the plunge in oil prices?

A whole bunch of factors, but a surge in US shale oil production, growing stockpiles, and high production levels from many suppliers (some of whom are intent on cutbacks) have all contributed to shifting prices lower.

Threats and Hazards British academic sentenced to life in prison for "spying" on UAE

Matthew Hedges says he was researching his Ph.D. in security. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, one wonders whether anyone who might be out to study the critical topic of security could do so if they had to fear for their own security from the states where they need to do their research.

Iowa Varsity Theater in Des Moines to close at year-end

The owner announced that the one-screen theater on the edge of the Drake University campus is shutting down on December 30th.

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November 25, 2018

The United States of America Enlarge the House of Representatives

The New York Times editorial board joins the chorus: The House of Representatives is too small, and by enlarging it we can do a lot to improve our governance. They back a modest increase in size -- growing from 435 members to 593. But we could easily split every district in two and still not reach an unwieldly stage. Smaller districts would make elections more competitive and diminish the effects of gerrymandering (in those places where it happens, which isn't everywhere). It could breathe some needed life into the intellectual capital of Congress by diversifying the backgrounds of the membership (not just by conventional demographics, but also by occupational background). It would make members of Congress easier to know -- and thus, one would hope, more responsive. And the actual budgetary cost would be trivial compared to the full budget of the United States. Supposing each Congressional office operates on a budget (including salaries) of around $2 million a year, even doubling the size of the House (and keeping every member's staff at its original size) would cost $870 million, or about $2.67 per American. The current limit is arbitrarily small, and it isn't consistent with the Founders' intent: In Federalist Paper No. 77, it was noted of the House that "in half a century it may consist of three or four hundred persons." They knew it would need to grow over time. It hasn't grown in a century. With too many people embracing ideas for changing the Senate in ways that would thoroughly corrupt the basic premises of the Federal system, enlarging the House is a sound plan with meaningful benefits.

Business and Finance Oh, the offers made (to, not by) Amazon!

What Amazon is getting out of New York and Arlington, VA, is a lot. A whole lot. And they also know how much hundreds of other cities would have been willing to give them.

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November 26, 2018

Threats and Hazards Why does Russia keep transgressing international norms?

Security consultant Molly McKew suggests it's because "[S]tates they target, in rising to their own defense, find themselves condemned and isolated for how they do so, despite doing it alone." Russia's behavior doesn't take place in a vacuum: A structure of relations has been built up that creates the incentives on which they are acting. And one of those incentive structures is that the United States under the Trump Administration shows little to no regard for the importance of peaceful self-determination, and demonstrates open hostility to the idea of doing anything within a framework of international rulemaking and multilateral cooperation. This, unfortunately, is the successor to another deeply flawed view -- that of the Obama Administration's learned helplessness. The current President's reckless enthusiasm for breaking alliances and doing all things bilaterally will have lasting bad consequences. As Dwight Eisenhower put it: "No nation's security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only in effective cooperation with fellow nations."

Threats and Hazards A gross diplomatic insult

In the words of New York Times reporter Edward Wong: "China is holding two young Americans to try to catch their fugitive father, a former bank official." In addition to being an indefensible domestic practice, this seems to be a gross diplomatic insult as well.

News Blue-collar jobs

The President tells a reporter from the Wall Street Journal: "I happen to be a tariff person because I'm a smart person, OK?" -- which is a statement of utter nonsense. If an economist is required to wear a hard hat at work, has President Trump "created" a new blue-collar job?

News Special counsel's office says Paul Manafort lied and broke his plea deal

Ask yourself this: If you somehow got entangled in a criminal enterprise that became the subject of the most-watched investigation of the decade, what on Earth would convince you it would be a good idea to lie to the Feds? What could possibly be worth doing that?

Humor and Good News The one good thing about winter

From a purely physiological standpoint, air conditioning and heating satisfy basically the same purpose. But for as much as A/C is wonderful on a hot and humid day, it simply doesn't deliver the same psychological satisfaction as a fireplace or a radiator on a cold day.

Weather and Disasters The difference between no accumulation and a foot of snow was barely 45 miles

Iowa's winter storm was...unevenly distributed, to say the least

Agriculture 96% of Iowa's corn has been harvested

Southwest and south-central Iowa still have 10% or so left in the fields

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November 27, 2018

Threats and Hazards Justice is blind, but the President's assets aren't

The President tweeted threats at General Motors, and the stock plunged. This kind of behavior would be a problem, even if the President held all of his assets in a blind trust...but we don't even have that much reassurance. How do we know this kind of stock-moving behavior isn't being exploited by people in the President's orbit? It has been clear since before he became President: (1) He likes to attack individual companies in public; (2) He knows his behavior moves markets; (3) His assets are not held in a blind trust and there is little or no transparency about Trump family finances.

Threats and Hazards China's ambassador threatens US over Uighurs

If the US imposes sanctions on China for its apparent imprisonment of a million ethnic minorities, China will "have to retaliate", says their ambassador to the US.

Business and Finance United Technologies completes acquisition of Rockwell Collins, then immediately announces a three-way breakup plan

Not so "united" for long. The company owning the old Rockwell and continuing to own Pratt and Whitney will keep the UTC name. Carrier will become a separate company, as will Otis.

Agriculture Ted Turner is still buying ranches in Nebraska

He's up to more than 506,000 acres of ranch land in the state, and about two million acres nationwide. That's a giant landholding.

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November 28, 2018

Computers and the Internet Drama in the UK over Facebook

A Parliamentary hearing -- with a total of nine countries participating -- is putting Facebook's privacy-related behavior in the spotlight

Aviation News Lion Air crash resulted from a pilot-vs-computer fight

Airplanes are going to continue flying by wire, so there should be a whole lot of soul-searching about what led pilots to do the wrong thing in response to a computer controller that was also doing the wrong thing -- all of which led to a crash with much loss of life

Business and Finance "Debt owed by businesses is at historically high levels"

In a major "Financial Stability Report", the Federal Reserve notes that "After growing faster than GDP through most of the current expansion, total business-sector debt relative to GDP stands at a historically high level." They're worried, too, about the quality of much of that debt and about the standards being used to evaluate credit. And leverage "remains near its highest level in 20 years." Altogether, these seem like important warning signals that are being taken seriously by almost nobody.

Business and Finance Is the sugar high wearing off?

The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated 2nd quarter GDP growth at a 4.2% annualized rate, and 3rd quarter growth at 3.5%. Many things are possible, but the decline would be consistent with a wearing-off of the "sugar high" effects of tax cuts from the start of the year. Sustainable high growth rates are preferable to spikes that depend on government intervention.

Humor and Good News What New Orleans eats that the rest of us should adopt

"Gumbo and grilled cheese" is a meal apparently served quite routinely in New Orleans schools. Why this hasn't taken the rest of the country by storm is a mystery, as it sounds truly amazing.

Computers and the Internet Vox populi, vox nauseam

One of the worst things about the rise of social media (other than the Russian trolls and the profligate hate speech, of course) is how it has generated a whole new universe of stories predicated on nothing more substantial than "people on social media are talking about...". It's not great for journalism.


November 29, 2018

Threats and Hazards The unpardonable pardon

A deeper analysis of the nature of exchanges between lawyers for Paul Manafort and Donald Trump indicates that the President may be winding up to start fastballing pardons for anyone who might be helpful to protecting him from legal trouble. The problem with that, of course, is that the power of the pardon isn't supposed to be used like that, and to do so would be such a brazen violation of the rule of law that even the hint that he might do it ought normally to be enough to merit serious talk of removing the President from office. The whole situation is likely to precipitate panicked and reckless behavior on the part of the President's inner circle -- a group that has demonstrated a particularly upsetting habit of dismissing the law -- not to mention the truth -- as a nuisance. As noted by the team at Lawfare, the news that Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress in order to protect the President reveals something interesting: "Mueller almost certainly knows a great deal more about what Donald Trump did and said than is included in this document. And that means that Mueller knows what Trump did and what role he played in this matter -- and Trump and his lawyers know that Mueller knows this." For the record, the Founders made it clear (in Federalist Paper No. 74) for what use the pardon was intended: "[T]he principal argument for reposing the power of pardoning in this case to the Chief Magistrate is this: in seasons of insurrection or rebellion, there are often critical moments, when a welltimed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquillity of the commonwealth; and which, if suffered to pass unimproved, it may never be possible afterwards to recall. The dilatory process of convening the legislature, or one of its branches, for the purpose of obtaining its sanction to the measure, would frequently be the occasion of letting slip the golden opportunity. The loss of a week, a day, an hour, may sometimes be fatal." Thus, by a definition left behind by the very creators of the Constitutional order, either the people the President is hinting he'll pardon were guilty of insurrection or rebellion...or the power is being abused by the one who wields it. In this case, the power doesn't even need to be used for the abuse to take place -- merely the hint that it might be used is enough to create the conflict.

Threats and Hazards A suite for Putin at the Trump Tower in Moscow?

BuzzFeed reports that "a $50 million penthouse at Trump Tower Moscow" -- a freebie to Putin -- was on offer as Donald Trump's representatives sought to nail down the deal to build a 100-story building. This took place, says BuzzFeed, when the primary campaign was nearly over. To call this a massive conflict of interest would be to understate the case by several orders of magnitude.

Threats and Hazards "If...America's ability to lead is corroding, the question of whether a power transition will occur peacefully is hugely consequential"

These are the kinds of questions that should rattle all of us. If you have kids when in your 30s, and if those kids will live into their 80s, then you ought to have at least a century-long time horizon for big-picture public policy issues. And there isn't a bigger picture than this. We are too short-sighted about too many things, and the future of a world order based on rules and peaceful interaction is the kind of thing we can't be short-sighted about.

Business and Finance If you don't buy more new cars, don't demand new car factory jobs

Autos are generally better than they used to be, which means they often last longer. Total US automobile sales are about the same as they were from 1999 until 2007, before they took a nose-dive in 2008 and 2009. But the total number of sales isn't growing. So why should the number of related jobs grow? As Margaret Thatcher once said, "We still live under the continuing and undoubted influence of the first industrial revolution. In negative terms concern with tradition has led to great efforts to preserve, regardless of cost, some of the industries created in the past." She was referring to other jobs in another place and another time -- but the principle is precisely the same today. Romanticizing the past is no way to drive industrial policy in the present. Do people have strong feelings about General Motors and its plants? Yes. Should plant closures be addressed with empathy and intelligence? Definitely. But don't forget that there was a time when lots of US farmland was devoted to growing oats -- for horse feed. The rise of cars and tractors hurt that particular farming sector, but it wouldn't have been wise to prop it up artificially. It's better for the human condition to have moved on to the better way of doing things, even if some people had trouble making the adjustment. And there is ample reason to believe that changes like autonomous vehicles could shake up demand for automobiles even further. The President's approach of trying to threaten and coerce General Motors into doing his political bidding is no way forward.

Iowa A likely tragedy averted

A Des Moines police officer showed restraint in a bad situation caught on camera in September -- when a juvenile pointed a replica gun at him. Imagine having to speak these words: "What were you thinking, you pointed the gun at me? You could have been shot."

Iowa "Canadian woman stranded on Iowa mud road for 3 days survived on kombucha and marzipan cake"

That's one whopper of a headline for a story that could have turned out much worse than it did

The United States of America You guys really ought to read this

The "you guys" vs. "y'all" divide is very much a north-south one. Why isn't it an east-west divide? In fact, why are most American linguistic divides more about different latitudes than about different longitudes? Per some research summarized in the MIT Technology Review, "[B]etter east-west transportation links are analogous to shrinking the width of the US in that direction."

Computers and the Internet Is it really living if you're only existing to create an artificial persona online?

The article itself from 1843 Magazine is exhausting to read -- frankly, too much for a sane person to read about a 20-something aspiring "influencer" who needs to spend some serious time contemplating what really matters to her. But embedded in the article is a fascinating chart detailing some major differences -- online and offline -- separating Baby Boomers from Gen Xers from Millennials. There are several areas where prevailing opinions differ from one age cohort to another by 20 to 30 percentage points.