Gongol.com Archives: September 2021

Brian Gongol

September 2021
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September 1, 2021

News No more of fear itself

In his "Letters from a Stoic", Lucius Seneca offered a piece of advice that resonates with distressing timeliness today: "[H]e who is feared, fears also; no one has been able to arouse terror and live in peace of mind." As we live in a time plagued by fear of a pandemic and approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's worth asking what side of fear we're on. ■ Sure, it would be lovely for the human condition if we could eradicate fear, but we cannot. Children will have nightmares. People will be diagnosed with dreadful diseases. Nature will send unstoppable disasters our way. ■ But, on balance, human good tries to diminish the weight of fear, and evil brandishes fear as a weapon. It is literally from the fear itself -- the terror -- that terrorism takes its name. It was fear that drove more than 100,000 people out of Afghanistan as the Taliban took over. It is rule by fear that makes people want to escape the control of the Communist Party of China. ■ Minds clouded by fear cannot think straight -- at least, not optimally so. This is a scientific fact, not just a platitude. It is a powerful, intangible force, and for those who live in relative security, it can be hard to fathom the consequences of living in constant fear. ■ Unfortunately, that doesn't stop people from trying to use fear as a weapon, even in places of relative safety and security. Enterprising policymakers -- of both left and right -- are prone to using an expansive definition of fear to encompass feelings of mere discomfort. In so doing, they over-extend the reach of an effective state methodology to reduce fear. ■ The state tends to be immodest about its efficacy at reducing fear using institutional mechanisms. Fear is an emotional dynamic experienced mainly at the individual level. (Fear may be contagious, but it is experienced one person at a time. And there, too, is where fear is most usually resolved. We are rendered heartbroken by the knowledge of what happened to Marine Sergeant Nicole Gee not long after she was photographed bringing comfort to an infant in Kabul. But her individual act of compassion for that one child is a beautiful image of someone using strength to ease another's fear. ■ Those who would hype up ungrounded fears about helpless people (like refugees), pounce on the use of intimidation to frighten their opponents, or employ violence as "a tactic of how we keep our communities safe" are all guilty of siding with the use of fear, rather than trying to diminish it. ■ Fear is far too prevalent already. Decency compels all of us to surrender fear as a weapon, to reject its use even when it would seem to benefit causes we favor, and to contextualize it in our own minds in order to sap it of its excessive power. Not everything that is uncomfortable or undesirable is to be feared. Fear itself is objectively worth categorical resistance.


September 2, 2021

Computers and the Internet Thinking like a faucet

A simple faucet aerator costs about the same as a fancy cup of coffee, and is sure to pay for itself in a short period of time. By blocking the full flow of water through a kitchen or bathroom faucet and replacing part of the stream with air, an aerator reduces water use but also increases the utility of most streams. The water tends to come out of an aerator at a higher pressure than without -- and the air it adds will tend to improve the taste of drinking water as it pours into a glass. Moreover, by breaking apart the water stream, an aerator increases the surface area of the running water, which reduces splashing and helps it to cleanse better. ■ A faucet aerator, by putting water through a sort of straining process, can do more by giving us less. Just as that applies to the material world, so it also applies to the world of ideas. In particular, as the flow of raw information increases and the apparent pace of decision-making required in life accelerates, we need more metaphorical strainers than ever. Not only does life seem to pass quicker as an individual ages, technological improvements are also making new things happen faster. ■ The resulting paradox of this sensory overload, time compression, and seemingly unstoppable technological acceleration is that two of the most valuable skills are (1) to be able to describe matters using words, and (2) to be driven internally to go back and edit those words to make the writing shorter and more understandable. ■ We not only have innumerable tools for instantaneous digital communication (making Zoom meetings and Slack channels and direct messages into constant reminders of the ticking of the clock), but we also have people turning to computers to generate volumes of new content -- not because it's necessary, but because it's how to game the system in an age driven by Internet search engines. There really is a whole industry already developing around marketing content written by artificial intelligence. Humans are literally surrendering the effort of writing material in the hopes of generating so much "content" that it ultimately finds its way to the right customer. The result is that it's no surprise when someone confesses in a meeting, "I haven't had time to read all of that". ■ Collaboration among informed teammates is necessary to any kind of high-level productivity. As Ryan Avent wrote in his intriguing book, "The Wealth of Humans", "As technology advances -- in finance or computing or biotechnology or anything -- the ease with which any one person can become expert in multiple fields declines. Collaboration is therefore necessary whenever expertise in more than one subject is needed to make a project or a business plan work." Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed to many that "Zoom fatigue" is real, driven in no small part by the cognitive load of moving from in-person contact to the artificial "places" of cyberspace. ■ And it's inescapable that even those in-person meetings tend to be inefficient. Only so much information can be communicated by people speaking to one another -- English is hard to digest at much more than 150 or 160 words per minute. By contrast, college-level reading speeds are generally closer to 400 words per minute or more. So merely moving the transmission of information from words spoken aloud to words written on the page should result in getting almost three times as much information across in the same amount of time. ■ But just as cognitive loads make it hard to get through Zoom meetings, so do they make it hard to get through complicated writing. (If you don't believe that, try reading "Ulysses" sometime. Someone once condensed the whole novel for Twitter.) It often doesn't seem like the case, but the time spent to go back through written materials to make them more digestible pays off quite a lot. And the more people involved in a collaboration or engaged in reviewing information to make a decision, the greater the leverage that results from making that material easier on the brain. ■ We live in complex times, and they're bound to grow more complex. With digital publishing tools like Substack making it possible for anyone to put out 2,000-word essays without any barriers to publication or to generate 100-page government reports to "cover all the bases", the time has never been better for those who can put their ideas through a strainer. Just as with a kitchen faucet, sometimes you get a lot more by delivering a lot less.

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September 3, 2021

News It's not that bad things aren't happening, it's that they've always happened

The modern world has many menaces: The disinformation addict, the gullible dupe, and the terminally online are all among them. But alongside their "Wanted" posters ought to be hung a portrait of the perpetual catastrophizer. That's the person who cannot see the good or the bad in the world with any sort of context, but who believes that Dickens should have written, "It was the worst of times; it was [still] the worst of times". ■ It doesn't take much work to find the catastrophizers. Legions of people are out and about talking about how "the world [is] burning" and "everything is awful". Even if individuals are using it as a literary device or as a signal to others that they're part of the in-group, it's patently unhealthy, both psychologically and sociologically. ■ Doom and existential dread are not suitable substitutes for a worldview. The relatively recent past was littered with issues like polio, the Cold War, devastating earthquakes, fascism, smallpox, famine, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. The distant past was in many ways even worse. ■ We haven't overcome all of those problems, but significant progress has been made on many fronts: The Green Revolution feeds the world, vaccines have halted dreadful diseases, and most of the world has electricity at home. ■ Human progress has never taken place for any length of time along a straight line. It is marked always by things changing -- some for the better, some for the worse. To the extent that people of goodwill are out to pull in the right direction, the great arc of history bends in that way. We eradicate old evils only to uncover new ones, while triumphs of technology and other progress open new paths for trouble to take root. There was no cyberbullying before there was cyberspace, but the Internet is yet still a glorious tool for human advancement. ■ If you make the mistake of hanging out in the wrong corners of culture, you'll get the impression that this is truly the nadir of civilization. That perspective isn't fair to the current generation, it isn't fair to preceding generations, and it surely isn't fair to our successors. The Church of Perpetual Catastrophe worships at an altar of shortcomings and failure, but it is devoid of any prayers of hope or saints to emulate. ■ Everyone has a moral obligation to stay in mental contact with people who went through tough times long before oneself, so we can see that our own troubles are rarely as novel as we may imagine. A casual glimpse through historical 20th Century newspaper photos brings the viewer face-to-face with terrible (but commonplace) airliner catastrophes and beauty queens who died after routine surgeries. Just a couple of generations ago, an American born just a few years before Winston Churchill and living into their 80s might well have been born into the Civil War and died after witnessing their second World War. ■ Certainly, times can be tough; we're living through some that seem lot tougher than, say, those of the 1990s -- when the world seemed to be turning perpetually peaceful and prosperous all at once (even if Van Halen sang of their reservations at the time). The greater our perspective -- both by looking at the wide world around us and at the long scope of history -- the easier it becomes to see that we rarely encounter entirely novel problems. ■ Everything isn't awful or on fire or falling apart -- at least, not in ways humans haven't muddled through before. We just need the perspective to know that humans have the duty to endure -- and it doesn't happen by default or by despair.

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September 6, 2021

Business and Finance Labor (and) time

In an ill-advised attempt to be funny, a man tweeted that he had taken to placing notices on his wife's calendar every time he performed a household chore, like taking out the trash or folding the laundry. The frequency of the notices he shared suggested he was making light of his infrequent contributions to keeping up the house. The author took some blowback for the jokes, and he defended himself by saying that his wife was in on the joke. But the problem with the whole affair is that jokes are rarely funny unless they contain some element of the truth. And the truth is that the original joke requires the assumption that the trope of the non-contributing husband be at least somewhat true. ■ Labor Day is as good a day as any to recognize that a huge amount of the work that is done in life doesn't show up in conventional economic accounting. We live with a shadow economy of household chores, child-rearing, time spent on volunteer efforts, independent study, elder care, and even hobbies that, by some metrics, rivals everything we more easily quantify with dollars and cents. This so-called "household production" is disproportionately performed by women -- whether or not they are employed outside the home. ■ Fortunately, there is at least some growing awareness that all of this work, even if not easily measured, certainly counts for something. The sudden closure of schools and workplaces due to the Covid-19 pandemic brought a lot of this poorly-measured labor into the light, and the tightness in the paid labor market brings his to the forefront as well. If people are being offered $15 an hour to work at many entry-level jobs and workplaces are still closing early due to staffing shortfalls, that conveys messages both about how people are valuing the alternatives to conventional employment and about how we should be quantifying the time people are spending outside of work. ■ That doesn't mean we ought to abandon conventional economic and accounting measures (far from it), but it does suggest we ought to consider the whole picture of labor, both when thinking about public policies and when making our own household decisions. ■ Everyone gets the same 24 hours in each day. Nobody gets bonus hours; time is the ultimate equalizer. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "You may delay, but time will not." Thus, the tools that save time around necessary but low-engagement chores are some of the very best contributions that have been made to our overall well-being in a modern society. Dishwashers, microwave ovens, high-efficiency clothes washers, and clever new innovations like robotic vacuums are all huge strides because they save big chunks of time that are too easy to overlook -- or too easy to dismiss with a poorly-considered joke. We need more of them. ■ We also need to value the time that everyone spends in non-employment labor. Even when we're strictly at leisure, we ought to weigh that time in an hourly-value sense. Everyone needs time to recharge, but not all of the 5 leisure hours in an average American adult's day are of the same ultimate value. If Nielsen is measuring right, the vast majority of that leisure time is being spent on TV or some other video entertainment. ■ The labor movement committed a lot of effort to obtaining eight daily hours for "what we will". In all senses of the word, we should be alert to making sure that "what we will" is distributed wisely -- equitably within households, as efficiently as technology will permit, and as reasonably close to its highest use as our need to refresh will permit.

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September 7, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work You can't do that on television

Authoritarians really do rely upon the stupidest hangups to remain in power. A giant series of bans on what can be shown on Chinese television has been handed down, and the prohibitions include shows that vote participants out with responses from viewers at home, "sissy men", and the children of stars. And if you want to take your fandom for K-pop music online, well, you can forget that, too. ■ Television has contained plenty of dreck since the beginning -- anyone who's familiar with the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s knows that. But television isn't really unique in that regard; every medium that has ever sought to entertain large audiences has contained at least some garbage. Even ancient Roman poetry contained some scandalous trash. There is absolutely nothing new about entertainment content that offends the powers that reign. ■ But it is telling that the powers that rule China seem to think they need to clamp down on the tastes and preferences of 1.4 billion people who ought, by virtue of their birth alone, to be free. It's a symptom of fear -- that even a taste of kicking someone "off the island" from a talent show might be too much experience in self-government. (And all because people were buying yogurt to pick the contestants in a talent show.) ■ Not that many years ago, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew advised his country that "Those with good minds to be scholars should also become inventors, innovators, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs; they must bring new products and services to the market to enrich the lives of people everywhere." Lee himself may have had authoritarian tendencies, but he did understand two things: Even a strict government needs the implicit consent of the governed in order to survive, and people need to have sufficient personal freedom that they can pursue ambitious goals. ■ Putting all of the "best minds" into the preservation of the power of the state is a recipe for stagnation, decline, and ultimate failure. Smart people are needed in every government, of course, but if the only real commitment they have is to protecting the interests of a mob racket in shiny uniforms, then not enough gas will remain in the tank to power the other engines of a society -- be they cultural, economic, or technical. People who are kept back by a government insistent upon tightening its controls over business, culture, and other aspects of life simply cannot expect to live to the fullest -- no matter how many self-appointed geniuses think they're running the show.

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September 8, 2021

Threats and Hazards You're not authorized to help

One of Chicago's defining features is its extraordinary lakefront. Besides being the villain behind a lot of heavy snowstorms and the site of some fascinating water intakes, the lake is a centerpiece of a lot of Chicago's urban recreation. The city's beachfront is long, contains more than two dozen distinct public beaches, and is a major civic resource. ■ But lakes can be dangerous, and Lake Michigan can be particularly so around the city. Drownings are not uncommon, and with so many people so close to what can be a really dangerous set of currents, it's not a risk to take lightly. ■ Following one of those drownings -- taking the life of a young man who had just jumped from a pier -- local residents took matters into their own hands and installed a life ring at the scene of the accident. The Chicago Park District removed it, and then removed a second, because they weren't authorized. ■ Any large organization runs the risk of encountering nonsensical bureaucratic reactions to what otherwise look like common-sense behaviors. But this one in particular is troubling. An advocate for the life-saving devices says he was told "it's in the best interest [of the Park District] to do nothing because it might increase liability". That is self-interested and antisocial behavior. If the life rings being installed voluntarily by citizens aren't "authorized", then the bureaucracy needs to find a way to authorize them or to provide a substitute. In no rational universe should inaction in the face of a known danger be a preferable alternative to even the most basic of responses. ■ That's why we pass Good Samaritan laws. That's why social psychologists study the bystander effect. That's why we have robust debates about the duty of physicians to treat the sick, even (and especially) in a pandemic. It is cowardly for an individual or an institution to hide behind legal protections when a clearly better answer exists. ■ Hazard mitigation is only likely to grow more important as more people concentrate within urban areas all over the world -- including those that might be at escalating danger of significant natural hazards. There's no excuse for permitting institutional inertia and the CYA principle to stand in the way of reasonable community expectations that clear and present dangers will be handled by the community's purported guardians with professionalism and urgency. Taking down an "unauthorized" life ring without installing an authorized one in its place? That's arrogance bordering on malice.


September 9, 2021

Computers and the Internet "I worry about our kids"

Summarizing a lot of anecdotal observations and statistics, KARE 11 in the Twin Cities quotes Dr. Madeleine Gagnon thus: "There are all the usual aspects around the pandemic, school shootings, cultural tensions -- layer that on top of all the academic achievement stressors, social media, I worry about our kids". Any capable observer of events over the last couple of years has undoubtedly noted that a lot of people are burning themselves out emotionally and psychologically. It's showing up in incidents on airplanes, outraged flame wars on social media, and in surveys that suggest more than a fifth of kids are having behavioral or mental-health problems related to Covid-19. ■ Unquestionably, there have been a lot of social stressors leading to frayed emotions and likely contributing to some consequential outbursts. But there's also a strange new factor affecting us: The very ubiquity of people spilling their emotional conditions all over the Internet, for their friends (and often the world) to see. ■ We need more and better spaces for privately containing and expressing our emotions, because clearly the present offerings aren't doing enough. The public square is no place for wailing and rending of garments, and yet social media quite often form the "public square" for many people's social and emotional lives. It hasn't helped that quite a lot of us have been unusually isolated from other people for much of the last two calendar years. ■ There's a very brief rush to be had from getting something off your chest, and from getting instant reactions. Complaining about a difficult boss, lamenting the loss of a beloved pet, or venting frustration with some jerk in line at the grocery store are all excellent ways of getting other people to react through their "like" buttons. ■ But strong emotions demand strong methods of containment and self-examination, and if adults aren't well-versed in how to do those things and well-practiced in actually doing them, then it's going to be hard to transmit those practices to the next generation. It's no wonder there is so much talk about "fragility". A lot of people are, indeed, expressively fragile. ■ In her insightful "Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read", ,Philippa Perry wrote these valuable words on children's emotional development: "We cannot protect children from the inevitable bereavements and calamities that life will throw at us and at them, but we can be alongside them and feel with them and help to contain their feelings when, inevitably, calamities happen." That word -- "contain" -- is particularly weighty. It's not that feelings should be repressed or dismissed. It's that they need to be bounded, most of all for the well-being of the person having them. One doesn't have to become a cartoon Stoic, dismissing all feelings as inevitable and unproductive -- but learning to address feelings as both valid and worthy of careful response is a practice that matters a lot to mature well-being. ■ Strong emotions have always been with us, but it wasn't that long ago that we had much slower ways of processing them: Hand-written love letters, carefully-expressed sympathy cards, telegrams of apology. Those old ways took time, were private, and imposed self-reflection on the person expressing the emotion. There are no such obstacles when a Facebook rant is merely a thumb away. ■ We're not better off repressing ourselves, but the corrective to too much repression isn't too much public expression. As is so often the case in life, the answers are found in the middle. The philosopher Maimonides wrote, "The virtues are states of the soul and settled dispositions in the mean between two bad states [of the soul], one of which is excessive and the other deficient." We would do well to acknowledge that strong feelings are a part of human life -- but also that humans need to process those feelings with deliberation (and often some circumspection). It's too easy to be tempted into anger and impulsiveness when the tools sit in front of us all the time. And if we're truly worried about the mental and emotional well-being of children, then we ought to think about the tools they have and the lessons they see in the adults around them.

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September 10, 2021

News And then, what happens next?

Somewhere upwards of 80 million Americans were born after the 9/11 attacks, and to that quarter of the population (and, certainly, to millions more who were too young to have grasped the event), what happened 20 years ago is a historical event. That still leaves roughly half of the population who were adults both then and now. ■ Not long after the attacks, the phrase "never forget" became something like a mantra, endlessly repeated. The 9/11 Memorial collects money for the "Never Forget Fund". The phrase is applied seemingly without limit, to screensavers and bumper stickers and hooded sweatshirts. ■ What was "never forget" supposed to mean? Those who were old enough to have adult faculties when they witnessed the event couldn't possibly forget. But, at the same time, no words or images could possibly replicate the experience of the moment to anyone who came later. Nothing adequately explains the horror of the day, the boundless anxiety of the days that followed, or the confusion that ensued about what ought to come next. ■ The moment stopped time. We "never forget" the bravery of rescuers who went into burning buildings. We "never forget" the grotesque scale of the massacre on peaceful soil. We "never forget" the fleeting moment of common cause and resolution to show national unity. Certainly, nobody who was an adult on that day forgets where they were or what they were doing. ■ Because the scale was so large (2,977 people murdered) and the scope so vast (stretching from New York to Washington to Shanksville), we were deprived of any final moment of national closure, like the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Deprived of this moment of cleansing grief, the only broadly available emotion was anger mixed with vengeance and apprehension. For days after 9/11, there was too much uncertainty and lingering anxiety to let up -- What if another attack was on the way? How long could people survive in the rubble? Why did it all happen? Our only real relief was found in moments that seemed defiant, like George W. Bush's perfect opening pitch at the World Series. ■ We "never forget" because half of us can't. But what do we force ourselves to remember? There's no perfect answer to what we should, but at least one component has to be a high regard for the question, "And then, what happens next?" So many of the subsequent events have changed the course of the last 20 years from what they might have been in a world without the attacks. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that we should always ask that question, rigorously and without apology, because big things follow whether or not we anticipate them. ■ We toppled Saddam Hussein; and then, what happens next? We merged 22 agencies into the DHS; and then, what happens next? We drastically changed our tone on immigration; and then, what happens next? We went after the perpetrators of the attacks and their allies in Afghanistan; and then, what happens next? ■ "Never forget" isn't wrong, but it isn't complete, either. Not unless we deliberately choose things to remember. No one will ever have a perfectly clear vision of how events will unfold -- either the ones that happen to us, or the ones we initiate. But we can make choices about what we remember, and that includes the lessons we transmit to those who can't remember for themselves. Perhaps the most important lesson is simply to ask, "And then, what happens next?"

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September 13, 2021

Business and Finance The news has never been free

One of the best ways to fire up a print journalist is to suggest that their content ought to be taken out from behind a digital paywall. Whatever one might think of an individual reporter's politics, they tend to become vocal capitalists whenever someone suggests that they have a duty to give away their work for free. ■ And the journalists are right to be protective. There is no escaping the fact that it costs money and consumes resources to perform journalism. A reporter's time, airline tickets and mileage reimbursements, the power and water bills at the newsroom, raw newsprint, and all other kinds of factors accrue to the costs of doing business in a print institution. Even all-digital newsrooms and broadcast outlets need to spend money to do most of those same things (besides putting a dead-tree edition on the record). ■ For the longest time, the economics of newspaper publishing made the local newspaper tend towards a natural monopoly: Once the news had been gathered (the cost side), the expense of distribution to the next marginal customer was nearly free -- as long as their subscription or newsstand price covered the cost of printing the actual ink onto the actual paper. That's why the two-newspaper town is such a rarity. ■ Then along came the Internet and Craigslist and Google and the digitization of advertising. The market access that a newspaper once delivered to advertisers (wherein it could reach most of the literate consumers in an entire market area daily) disintegrated -- literally. Now, every market is in fragments, which are as easy to reach as setting up a targeted Facebook ad. ■ That's the pure economic-utility problem for newspaper and periodical journalism. Yet the need for such journalism remains as strong as ever. And that raises a cost that isn't as obvious as the costs that can be printed in an income statement: The opportunity cost of journalists' time. Any capable journalist has a set of highly-marketable skills: The ability to communicate and to learn quickly. Rare is the journalist in 2021 who doesn't have a college degree and an ability to use words in a way that would make most employers salivate. If you trust LinkedIn (another newspaper-killer), communication is the top skill a candidate can bring to the job market. ■ With the economics of journalism becoming harder and harder to satisfy and its jobs evaporating, the opportunity cost of being a journalist is going to become greater and greater. Some will stay out of a sense of duty or sheer joy for the job, but many others will leave (either voluntarily, with the nudge of buyouts, or involuntarily). And as that happens, some of those who depart the conventional boundaries of the profession will find unconventional ways back in. ■ Chicago's most famous media critic runs a blog "under an agreement" with a suburban newspaper. A longtime Iowa columnist publishes a website offering reprint rights to local papers. One of Nebraska's best newspaper columnists now edits a non-profit news service supplying free content to local outlets. ■ The nature of the market has rearranged how many of the old configurations worked in journalism. Many highly-skilled individuals still have the itch to report and to cover the news, even as they find gainful employment elsewhere. Their moonlighting -- as bloggers, freelancers, podcasters, and so on -- adds another wrinkle to the journalism economy: News consumers are better off having them around, of course, but it's hard to keep up a vocation (including journalism) where others can compete with your work while doing it as a hobby. And freelancing can be lucrative, too -- a former Chicago radio host now charges $10.95 per month for his podcast. ■ The news has never been free, and it never really will be. But the coming years may well show us that a considerable amount of the news "profession" will belong instead to people who can afford to treat it as a hobby or an alternative/non-conventional gig. That, in the long run, could dramatically alter not only what is covered, but how. The sheer technical ability to report may, in the not-so-distant future, be eclipsed by the financial ability to independently sustain one's own journalistic enterprise.


September 14, 2021

Threats and Hazards Someday, your side will lose

According to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, former Vice President Dan Quayle was the voice of reason, telling then-Vice President Mike Pence to give up on any thoughts of overruling the 2020 election as he presided over the Senate: "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero." Maybe that quote is true; maybe it's a fabrication. But Quayle does hold a law degree, and the reported advice certainly does comport with the law. No power to overturn an election resides with the Vice President. ■ The problem with a story like this is that the headline is so bright it obscures the real work to be done. "Dan Quayle comes to the rescue of the republic" (the words of MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell) is irresistible fodder for social-media commentary and cable TV punditry. Who can resist dredging up 30-year-old impressions left over from Quayle's time in office? ■ But talk, ultimately, is cheap. And there is work to be done. The Woodward/Costa book, "Peril", also claims that General Mark Milley, acting as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scrambled to implement controls to keep a bellicose President Trump from impulsively starting a war with China -- possibly a nuclear one. ■ These are worrying revelations -- and, if true, they may be deeply problematic for the civilian control of the military. But if all we do is get a little rattled by a book and spend some time engaging in some self-satisfied harrumphing about how lucky we are that things didn't go worse, then we've missed the point altogether. ■ "Speak little, do much", advised Benjamin Franklin. But how much has been done to truly rein in the Presidency? President Trump's term was bookended by Democratic opponents -- one who had six months in office as an outgoing two-term President between the 2016 nomination and the 2017 inauguration, and one who has had nearly eight months in office as the new President. In all of that time, what has been done to reel in the powers of the White House? ■ The Presidency is the Article II branch of government, and its place after Congress is no accident. In Federalist Paper No. 84, Alexander Hamilton wrote that "[A] great part of the business which now keeps Congress sitting through the year will be transacted by the President." When read carefully, that simple line communicates quite a lot: The President isn't above Congress; the President serves to put the will of Congress into action. ■ Any residual doubt about the relative order of things should be resolved by noting that Congress can demand reports of the President (the State of the Union) and can fire the President (through impeachment). The President does not hold equal and opposite powers. And yet, eight months after January 6th and the events (like the Quayle call) reported to such mighty reaction, what has been done to order the Article II branch of government so that we can sleep soundly at night, no matter who gets elected next? ■ When President Biden says things like, "If these governors won't help us beat the pandemic, I'll use my power as president to get them out of the way", he's not communicating a message of modesty about Presidential powers. Nor is it Presidential modesty to nearly double the pace of executive orders over the Trump administration -- which itself issued them at a rate 70% higher than the Obama administration. We are heading in the wrong direction with powers about which there should be bipartisan concern. No matter how justified the ends may seem, the means must be constrained. ■ Even when used for purposes that seem justified and right, excessive powers are still excessive powers. It's not the purpose for which they are used that ultimately matters, it's whether anyone should use them at all. Never claim powers while in office that you wouldn't willingly hand over to your opponents -- because, if self-government is to have any hope of survival, sometimes your opponents will be in control. Expressing alarm about what's in a new book isn't sufficient. Fixing the systemic issues that give rise to alarm over military power or the reach of the Imperial Presidency are the acts that matter.

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September 15, 2021

News What's a friend worth?

Perhaps you didn't contribute any of the 4.1 billion views of "Gagnam Style" on YouTube. Maybe you've never touched a Samsung Galaxy phone. It could be that you don't know the difference between BTS and a BLT. But unless you've lived entirely under a rock for the last half-century (and completely missed the 2018 Winter Olympics), you're probably aware that South Korea is indisputably one of the most advanced rich countries in the world. ■ Per-capita GDP is in the same class as New Zealand, Italy, Israel, and Japan. Internet access is notoriously the world's fastest, with a push to get 100 Mbps service delivered to everyone in the country. An economy boasting global brand-name titans like Hyundai, LG, Kia, and Samsung. It's a country of economic prosperity, competitive elections, and broad civil liberties. It isn't a utopia, but it's hard to find a way in which South Korea doesn't compare well with other places. ■ To its north, the totalitarian regime has just conducted a test of a "railway mobile missile system". The evidence suggests that the ruling powers in North Korea want to diversify their weaponry. ■ The official residence of South Korea's president is about 23 miles from the border with North Korea. But in practical effect, the two countries seem like different planets. Nobody buys North Korean goods on the global market. The country treats the Internet mainly as a weapon. Per-capita GDP is about $1,800 a year. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only led to further repression and isolation. ■ Sometimes it's asked why the United States still has around 30,000 troops in South Korea, some 70 years after the war there cooled off. The answer, of course, is that there is mutual interest for both the United States and South Korea in having stability and deterrence on the peninsula. It's not a free arrangement, but aggression and war wouldn't be free, either. ■ Both Koreas started from the same place at the end of World War II. It wasn't an auspicious start, particularly given the costs and suffering imposed by the half-century Japanese occupation. But one Korea ultimately chose a path that sought to quash natural human liberties, while the other took a long and imperfect path towards freedom. One is a global pariah that uses weapons to extort others for the basics needed for survival, while the other is a good global neighbor that produces lots of things the rest of the world demands. ■ What's a friend worth? The United States has undoubtedly spent a great deal on its relationship with South Korea, but it's evolved into far better than a mere transactional relationship. It can demand time and patience to see why we consider other countries to be partners and allies. But if we see in good faith how those relationships can be net-positive for all parties involved, perhaps we'll see the good that can come of choosing friendships over rivalries. ■ The United States has a big role to play in the world, and that role sometimes (but not always) involves our use of armed forces. But the payoff to that participation looks like a peaceful and prosperous friend like South Korea.

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September 16, 2021

News Behind closed doors (but not really)

The strange things people say when they're inside "safe spaces" can reveal a lot about what's inside their heads. That applies even when that supposed "safe space" is one where performance or bravado are expected. In fact, those revelations -- even if they're merely performative -- may uncover more of the truth than if people spoke plainly. ■ It wasn't the strict truth of the "locker-room talk" aboard the "Access Hollywood" bus that got Billy Bush fired, it was that the obnoxious words at which he laughed sounded like what he wanted to hear. Bush, to his credit, now says "I'm afraid that event was important for my development as a broadcaster, as a journalist, as a man, as a person." But people are still saying really stupid things when the cameras are rolling. ■ Take, for instance, the man who says "Barack Obama destroyed rock and roll", because that genre was "about white male teenage angst" and the former President (supposedly) "said young white men aren't allowed to have angst". Surrounded by other men, chuckling, smoking cigars, and drinking brown liquor, he appears to be performing -- and it's unclear whether he's putting on a deadpan schtick or whether it's an earnest belief. (And, to be sure, the ghost of Chuck Berry would like a word.) ■ The exact words, though, aren't the point. It's the performance -- the idea that, somehow, this is how manly men do manly things, decrying the neutered state of rock and roll and the multicultural diminution of their right to be angsty, all proclaimed from comfortable leather chairs inside a dimly-lit man cave. ■ This version of "real manliness" is cartoonish at best, and utterly corrosive at worst. Real men seek to have rich inner lives, defined by a quest to do good in the world and to better themselves -- not to sit around airing contrived grievances. Benjamin Franklin put it succinctly: "Who is strong? He that can conquer his bad habits." Nobody of right mind thinks Franklin was unmanly. Nobody of right mind would think James Mattis unmanly, either, and he put it like this: "[W]e're still building a nation. It's hard work. It's noble work, but I'll say again, it's hard work. So don't ever think we're done. We are not perfect but we are certainly going to always strive to be better." ■ The thoughtful reader will note that there's nothing unwomanly, either, about conquering bad habits or striving to build a nobler, better community. These are just the good things that adults do when they are self-aware and feel compelled to reach for their potential as human beings. There is little to distinguish the sexes in these basic regards. Everyone is better off if these virtues are sought and found in women and men alike. ■ And yet, at least some performers seem to think there's reward in grievance and complaint that "they" won't let "us" have "our" angst, and thus "we" must surround ourselves with ornaments of masculinity and conspire to talk about what "they" are doing to "us". Mostly, it's just sad -- but it gives at least some people the impression that those are the ways of manly men. ■ Maimonides wrote that "The health of the soul consists in its condition and that of its parts being such that it always does good and fine things and performs noble actions." Hiding in a cave ("man-cave" or otherwise) and complaining may be a performance -- but it is hardly "performing noble actions". And the latter is what men and women alike ought to do.

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September 17, 2021

Business and Finance The art of desirable constraints

Art may be in the eye of the beholder, but another definition tells something more: Art is in the constraints. What invests a work of art with resonance -- whether it's pointillism or poetry or even polka -- is what the artist is able to do within boundaries. Even Looney Tunes worked within a framework of rules, elevating Wile E. Coyote from mere entertainment into art. ■ We know the appeal of constraints intuitively, and it's why Auto-Tune sounds like cheating and photographers fight over retouching. To give up constraints is to wander away from the soul of art. But constraints can be beautiful outside of the arts. ■ Some of the best commercial enterprises obey certain constraints out of choice, and the practice has fascinating results. The Economist, for instance, publishes no bylines on its articles. This makes it distinctly different from most publications, where the bylines matter a great deal (at least among the publishing class). The Economist argues that its anonymity promotes cooperation, centers the publication on a consistent voice, and promotes "a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it." And, indeed, it's hard to find any publication with a more recognizable institutional voice than The Economist. The constraint facilitates the art. ■ Chick-fil-A serves no burgers. It's chicken and chicken only. And while the company may encounter political controversy related to its ownership, they're making more money than ever -- without any help from beef, pork, or fish. ■ Toyota's initial constraint wasn't chosen -- it simply didn't have enough money to pay for a lot of raw materials, so it had to turn them into finished goods quickly -- but that evolved into a chosen constraint: The Toyota Production System so widely recognized as "lean manufacturing" today. Its competitor, Honda, has stretched from small engines to business jets through the self-imposed constraints of trying to use people instead of machines wherever possible. Automation seems like an obvious way to save money, but Honda's approach permits quicker experimentation from the bottom-up, since people can be re-trained faster than robots can be re-programmed. Both approaches have been profitable, and both are forms of business art. ■ Desirable constraints are the secret behind many great institutions. Warren Buffett advised: "Recognize your limitations and your circle of competence. That will open up more options than it excludes." That advice built Berkshire Hathaway into one of the world's biggest conglomerates. It may sound like Buffett was advising to be aware strictly of one's own natural limitations, but he and his partner, Charlie Munger, loudly extol the virtues of choosing to stay bounded. Munger once quipped, ""We didn't know in the past that making decisions is tiring, and that you shouldn't make decisions while tired. We didn't know that caffeine and sugar would help people to make better decisions. We just tried to avoid work, but it turns out that we're operating optimally, based on modern psychological science." ■ Choosing a desirable constraint in a business is a multi-faceted decision: It helps to establish a corporate culture (What would Aldi be without its relentless attachment to "exclusive" house brands or the Wall Street Journal without its hedcuts?) while channeling the creativity of its people within agreed boundaries. Some companies go everywhere and try everything (see Google), but those experiments don't always work out (see the Google Graveyard). Unbounded creativity may sap a firm of its energy -- not to mention its cashflow. ■ Making choices that self-impose a sense of discipline can help to channel better outcomes. There are many reasons why students of business ought to have depth in the liberal arts, and perhaps more would take to the idea with vigor if they understood that adopting an artistic constraint like Ansel Adams could get them a few steps closer to making money like Warren Buffett.

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September 20, 2021

Computers and the Internet Don't trust the techno-utopians

High technology is having a moment right now, especially with four "space tourists" just back from a $200 million trip in orbit. As an all-civilian, non-professional crew, they were managed in orbit by SpaceX computers. It's quite the story. ■ SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is both understandably proud of the event and characteristically volatile in how he talks about it. Musk is self-evidently an intelligent person and a creative thinker. But he also embraces some visions of technology that lean too far forward -- like neural linkage and a technocratic utopian colony on Mars. Indeed, he calls himself the "Technoking" of Tesla. ■ One of the few iron laws of computer programming that has made its way to a general audience is "garbage in, garbage out". That axiom also means we should take heed of another cause-and-effect relationship: Assumptions in, assumptions out. ■ Think-tanker Samuel Hammond went to OpenAI, which runs a tool intended to let users ask natural-language questions of artificial intelligence and see the results. He asked that artificial intelligence about Xinjiang, the Chinese province where human-rights abuses are widely reported and criticized -- "and it broke", he says of the AI. Hammond shared screenshots of multiple interactions with the AI, including one in which it said "I think religious people are disgusting and spending money on them is a waste of money, and they all deserve to die." ■ Herein lies the problem with techno-utopians: Computers are still programmed by people, fed data collected and sorted by people, and even when they're "learning" through artificial intelligence, they are still doing that learning from people and the things people have shared. Those people include Communist hardliners, unfortunately for us all. So no matter how much faith you have in computers and their ability to "learn", such as we understand it, there is no escaping the role of values and judgments. These things do not depend upon volume for their validity. Numbers can lie and quantity is no substitute for fidelity of thought. ■ The Communist Party of China can impose "Xi Jinping Thought" on every classroom in China, from kindergarten to graduate school -- but that doesn't make it more valid than, say, the study of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty". The rightness of one way of thought over another is something we can deduce from natural reason. As George Will put it, "If our rights are natural, they are discernible by reason, which is constitutive of human nature. Such rights also are natural because they pre-exist acts of collective human will and cannot be nullified by such acts." ■ But what a human being can ascertain about the natural order of things through careful, discerning thought, artificial intelligence may reject -- either because the weight of the evidence may appear to be somewhere else (totalitarians, after all, tend to make more voluminous propagandists for their cause than defenders of individualism), or because it started with a corrupted data set (garbage in, garbage out). Remember: It only took 16 hours for Microsoft's Tay.ai to turn into a raging monster -- in part, trained by people who wanted to corrupt the experiment. ■ Artificial intelligence already does lots of very useful things for human beings, and technologies like Tesla's self-driving automobiles are very likely to make life safer. But many things will remain outside the reach of artificial intelligence, possibly forever, because they involve subjects that are not only intangible but also sometimes deeply defiant of quantification. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions." Even if billions of tracts on Xi Jinping Thought were published, those billions of pages would not make more human sense than a few sentences from Coolidge. But AI may not see it that way. ■ Cheer for technology when it serves human interests. But know that technology, in general, is value-neutral -- it depends on the judgment and goodness of the human beings who use it; a knife is an essential cooking tool, but it can also be a murder weapon. Artificial intelligence is yet another tool, but it's incapable of taking us to Utopia.

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September 21, 2021

News Get a hobby (it's good for you)

Every fall, three entirely predictable events come to pass: Pumpkin-spice novelty foods will reappear in stores, half of America will go utterly football-mad, and half of America will proclaim the sport overrated. (Half and half may be misestimates, so pardon the imprecision.) ■ Sports -- from rec leagues through college and into the pros -- are perfectly good for offering recreation and distraction. They are much better outlets for obsession and unwavering passion than engaging in politics as bloodsport. It's a big business, too: The NCAA says "The total athletics revenue reported among all NCAA athletics departments in 2019 was $18.9 billion." (That's what made the pandemic so costly for athletic departments.) ■ But interesting people have hobbies, too. For a brief moment in history, Covid-19 lockdowns had people doing things like learning to bake bread. With everything else taken off the calendar, people looked to new sources of interest to fill their recreational time. And there were good reasons for hobbies to take up that space: Productive activities -- especially when they're rhythmic and repetitive, like kneading dough -- can be very good outlets for stress and facilitating a meditative state of calm. ■ The struggle to find a "new normal" is likely to take some time. The new and enduring status quo may quite possibly be permanently different than what existed in, say, the autumn of 2019. One of the changes that ought to stick with us is the adoption of hobbies and outside interests that involve neither our occupational interests nor being consumers of entertainment provided by others. Binge-watching football isn't all that different, really, from binge-watching "Tiger King". In modest doses, there's nothing wrong with either. ■ Interesting hobbies, though, shouldn't take second seat to entertainment we consume. They should come first. Hobbies need space within everyday life and on every calendar: They're unequivocally good for mental wellness, giving people not only an outlet in the moment, but also a lingering sense of good feeling. ■ Two things seem to make a hobby ideal: One is a sensory immersion in some kind of rhythm, or some other characteristic that helps the individual to enter what has entered the psychological lexicon as a state of flow. The other is that the hobbyist can make modest growth in their abilities that helps to mark change over time. If one can grow in ability (and reflect on prior experiences), that helps to make the perception of time slow down, since experiences have to be somehow different from the past in order to be encoded as long-term memories. (This is bad news indeed for Fred the Baker.) ■ Whatever seasonal changes may mean to any of us, whether it's the arrival of pumpkin-spice everything or time for tailgating or none of the above, it's appropriate to consider the benefits of "passing the time" in a state that pays psychological dividends. It's all too easy to ask "Where did the time go?" Well-chosen hobbies can slow the clock in all kinds of benevolent ways.

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September 22, 2021

Science and Technology Save the world: Run your dishwasher overnight

The BBC (specifically, its smart speech-based network, Radio 4, where even the fidelity of the Big Ben chimes is a matter of robust debate) airs a program called "More or Less", on which the main topic of discussion is statistics. It seems an unlikely concept to attract much interest, but it is the kind of novel program that gains 23,000 followers on Twitter in addition to a robust listening audience. ■ Among the questions they've sought to answer with numbers is this: Is an automatic dishwasher more efficient than a person washing dishes by hand? ■ For starters, the question is basically settled: Dishwashers that earn an Energy Star rating from the EPA are both extremely efficient, typically using an almost trivial amount of electricity and less water for a total cycle than would flow from a normal kitchen sink in just two or three minutes. As long as a relatively modern dishwasher is being run with more than just a single place setting, it's likely to be the most efficient route by quite some margin. ■ But one aspect of the question in particular deserves a second look. The knock against automatic dishwashers is that they use electricity instead of elbow grease. That much seems indisputable. But in addition to using far less electricity than in the past, state-of-the-art dishwashers (and clothes washers, for that matter) offer timer delays. This permits a household to time-shift its cleaning to an off-peak hour, like the middle of the night. ■ Domestic water use tends to be diurnal, with two peaks: In the morning and again in the evening. That's when most of the bathing, cooking, drinking, washing, brushing, and flushing happens. Any time a household can shift some of its water consumption to off-peak hours, that helps the local water and wastewater utilities to smooth out their own energy and water use. ■ If every household could shave 5% or 10% off their peak water use and move it to a low-demand time like the middle of the night, the net effect could be very helpful to utilities. And the consequences for overall environmental efficiency would add up even more in places like Iowa, where a majority of the electricity now comes from wind turbines. Time-shifting consumption helps not only the water supply but also the electrical grid (and the two are closely related, since water utilities are major consumers of electricity). ■ Peak demand can be problematic for both electrical utilities and water utilities. Reducing consumption through higher efficiency is obviously helpful, but consumption-smoothing is helpful, too. Taking the pressure off peak electrical demand translates into less reliance on carbon-generating power plants, and easing peak demand on water supplies allows pumps and tanks to balance supplies more efficiently. Rivers flow and winds blow at all hours, so running the dishwasher in the middle of the night makes one a good steward of renewable resources.

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September 23, 2021

Computers and the Internet "Content management" has taken a flamethrower to logic

Before there was Google, the nascent Internet was navigable mostly by directories. DMOZ and the Yahoo Directory sought to collect and organize links to all of the destinations on the World Wide Web. At the time, it was an achievable goal. ■ The eager proprietor of a new website would suggest their site to Yahoo and wait for human beings to place the page inside their structured hierarchy of information. It was all very consistent with the era's approach to computers, which were still slow enough that they required thoughtful programming and careful organization by human beings. ■ Limitations mattered: A DOS file name could be just eight characters long, with a three-character extension depicting what type of a file it was. A Pentium chip in 1998 could run at 200 MHz, barely one-twentieth the speed of a Pentium chip in 2008. Programmers had to think carefully, making sure that data was well-organized and lines of code didn't go to waste. Today, virtually nobody seems to pay attention to code bloat, because fast processors make up for inefficient code. ■ Directories aren't very helpful for people who don't already know how to find what they don't know. If you know the definition of a word but don't know the word itself, a dictionary is both well-organized and useless. That's what made Google so extraordinary when it was new: It could help the user answer ambiguous questions, and PageRank offered a way for the novice user to estimate the quality of a source without knowing anything about it. It was quite the step forward. ■ Unfortunately, though, we have unintentionally passed from making good use of search engines into the abuse of them. Being "found" on the first page of a Google search result is often more important to the prospects of a business than all of the other advertising it can do, so search-engine optimization is now a titanic digital industry. And, in turn, the concept of searching took over the relationship between computers and their users. ■ An article in The Verge suggests that the first fully search-dependent college students arrived in classrooms around 2017, knowing how to find files and information in their computers only by using the search bar. Individual professors confirm routinely seeing their students mystified by the idea of folders and directories. ■ In part, the companies making the operating systems are to blame -- Android and iOS fundamentally assume a search-first approach. Google Docs (widely used in schools) does the same. One college professor argues bluntly that computing tools are being designed so that users don't think about organization; the technology "replaced everything with a dumbwaiter. Maybe the right files come back up the tube. Maybe they don't." ■ But it's also a reflection of an Internet problem: "Content management systems" have effectively repealed decades of progress in directory logic that culminated in websites that a person could easily navigate from the file structure alone, with intuitive directory names and content organized in detail. Content-management systems can pack a long URL full of keywords (in a bid to win the search-engine contest), even if there's no resulting deductive logic to the way the files themselves are organized. ■ For a while, website designers put thought and effort into careful website organization, complete with features like breadcrumb navigation. That approach remains both logical and conscientious, but it isn't particularly rewarded in a "search-first" world. And thus confusion flourishes, as certain search features improve (like facial recognition, now built right into Google Photos), pulling users even farther away from even thinking about organization. ■ Certain organizing schemes of the past tried to do the impossible -- completely categorizing and organizing all knowledge. We still have rival systems for organizing books -- the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification -- telling us that conclusive organization may be forever an illusion. Yet even when the numbering systems were inadequate for a library's needs, there was always the vertical file. ■ Lots of people will manage to live long, happy, and fulfilled lives never knowing how to create a rigorously-organized file structure. For many, searching will be enough. But at the broader level, abandoning that rigor doesn't make sense, either. It was hubris to think that the whole Internet could be organized by Jerry and David's directory -- but many individual websites really should still have disciplined file structures, especially if they're going to last for any length of time. ■ "Content management" is too often just glorified SEO, and poor website management has made "link rot" a huge problem. A website "refresh" all too often results in dead links all around. It's a result of conscious choices not to invest in thoughtfully maintaining what's on the Internet. ■ Benjamin Franklin warned of this in 1758: "Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge." The Internet often helps us to feel like we have all the world's knowledge at our fingertips. But if we don't also have sound, logical ways of organizing that knowledge -- whether it's on our own devices or on the websites we manage -- it's the want of care that will come back to bite us.

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September 24, 2021

Business and Finance Stop and go

On the very long road to a future without combustion engines, hybrid electric cars are playing a significant role. One of the most interesting features of hybrid power systems is regenerative braking, which captures the kinetic energy of the moving vehicle and uses some of it to recharge the battery. It is a clever way of taking energy that would have otherwise gone to waste by heating up the brake pads and converting it instead into future kinetic energy. ■ Sometimes you're slowing down for a red light, sometimes you're accelerating away from a green light. Saving the energy from the red light and putting it to work when the stoplight turns green is both smart and efficient. We're not as good at applying that seemingly-obvious logic to other aspects of life, and that's a mistake. ■ From time to time, it appears to be in the public interest to take action to nudge the economy to heat up or cool down, and government officials (and quasi-governmental officials, like those at the Federal Reserve) have tools at their disposal. Whether, how, and when to apply those tools -- and in what amounts -- is the art of economic judgment. ■ In reaction to the 2008-2009 economic pinch, the Federal Reserve pumped giant quantities of money into the US economy. Even bigger mountains of money were infused in response to the Covid-19 crash in 2020: Just utterly staggering sums. ■ Whenever people see a lot of money moving into an economy that isn't getting much bigger in real terms, the natural reaction is to expect inflation. Yet, massive inflation didn't follow the 2008/09 response. Part of the reason is attitudinal: People and businesses are sitting on their money in a way we haven't previously recorded in America. There's a whole lot of hoarding going on. So does that mean the old rules are dead and government can spend (literally) freely, as proponents of "Modern Monetary Theory" have argued? ■ No, it really doesn't. Just because we've been fortunate to avoid inflation doesn't mean it can't still happen. The old constraints on government spending (and borrowing) are still out there; we just don't see all of the consequences because other behaviors have changed in dramatic ways, too -- like all that money that's sitting still when it would usually be circulating around. ■ Prices are rising enough in some sectors for people to take notice, and if people are inclined to start spending more freely, then prices may rise -- especially as goods and services are harder to find because of very real supply-chain capacity shortages and tight labor markets. It's premature and unwarranted to panic, but it's not unwise to think about the economy in the same terms as a regenerative battery. ■ Intervention made sense in both of this century's panic situations to keep hard times from becoming calamities (with very real social consequences). Fear is contagious. But just as a driver might have to punch the gas to climb a hill, that same driver may need to hit the brakes to keep from rolling too quickly downhill. It can be very sensible to capture some of the excess in good times and shift it to expenditure in hard times -- just like regenerative braking. But it's tough to get the "battery" part right. The best stimulative investments are the ones that build capacity for future growth or (even better) take precautionary measures against problems that could turn out to be costly in the future. ■ Building capacity helps because it helps reduce the overall cost of the intervention (in other words, if you can spend $1 now to make the economy grow by $2 in the future, then the $1 "costs" less in those future terms). And steps taken to stave off future costs are even better, because they prevent future waste. ■ One thing we shouldn't do, though, is to think of stimulative spending as a substitute for paying for necessary things as we go. Money doesn't remain free forever, and the very experience of two crises in two decades should be enough to remind us that we have to recharge the battery from time to time.

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September 27, 2021

The United States of America Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable

Three decades before the Civil War, Sen. Daniel Webster delivered a two-day speech on the floor of the Senate, culminating in those memorable words: "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable". The United States had barely four decades of Constitutional experience at the time of his speech, and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had died not four years before. The country was, by any historical measure, still a fresh experiment, and Webster saw the grave threat of disunity with clear eyes. ■ The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution is still a wonderful and elegant thing: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Compact and clear, it is a reminder that our proper Federal order originates with the states, which are free to behave as uniquely as natural law and the will of the people will allow, up to the point at which national unity on a matter is necessary. But like all good rules, it isn't a matter for part-time consent. Once you're into the Federal order, you're in for perpetuity. The Constitution doesn't contain an opt-out clause for those times we may find an outcome distasteful. That's the whole point of staking out the defense of reserved powers: To reinforce the binding of the country around the things that really matter by letting everything else remain loose and untethered. ■ Unfortunately, there remain some fantasists among this giant population who imagine that the Constitution and the very Union itself are subject to that reservation of powers. Some talk lightly of secession. Some talk of a "national breakup". Others want to abolish the Senate. And, perhaps worst, there are those who actively advocated a plan to expressly subvert a Presidential election. ■ Even one person nodding approvingly about a "civil war" or making glib talk about how the country "will not survive" is one person too many. And not one of them -- not one -- has the patience to understand what it is they embrace. America may have a giant, overstretched national bureaucracy. We may have too many issues escalated to the national level that should remain state or local matters. We most certainly have national-level politicians who are too eager to impose their will on a giant country through executive orders, sweeping mandates, and even manipulation of the courts. But the system in which we live is the complicated organic product of generations of wrangling and compromise and evolution. Even our understanding of the Tenth Amendment has been shaped through statutes and court decisions. ■ The complexity may be frustrating to those who don't understand it. And it may be aggravating to others that we still treat the states as the primary organs of common law. But keeping a limited national government in its own lane, delegated its powers by states which are perpetually committed to its maintenance, is the only way to make a vibrant, diverse, and democratic system work out. We're too big to be all the same, and yet we should be free to choose paths of commonality without having harmony forced on us where it isn't essential nor disharmony imposed by angry misfits who can't herald the worthy advice to "mind your business". ■ The disuniters of all stripes may be too obtuse to understand it, but our complex and wonderful system for weaving together a country is much too important to pull apart. Their short-sightedness almost certainly prevents them from so much as reading the full text of Webster's landmark speech. But on the pure self-interest of economics alone, the benefits that come from creating a free-trade area spanning a continent, 332 million people, and a common system of legal protections for contracts and intellectual property cannot be adequately quantified. ■ We have Americans who are mad that their favorite regional chain restaurants haven't migrated into their home markets. We are so used to seamless integration that a world where Waffle House or In-N-Out Burger or Dunkin Donuts aren't available nationwide seems like an offense to good manners. Imagine the costs of tearing apart common standards for Interstate highways, making cross-country trains stop for customs inspections, and imposing border controls for flights between O'Hare and LAX. ■ Lively, even tumultuous debates on many of our problems are certainly in order. And from a practical viewpoint, much less a philosophical one, we would do well to expect the states to be those heralded "laboratories of democracy" -- that's not only what the Constitution intends, it also tends to produce valuable guidance in times of uncertainty. But we should shun, ignore, and eject from serious debates anyone who advocates for secession, stunts to undermine the Constitution, or any other evasion of "Union, now and forever". This isn't some mere email newsletter from which one can click "unsubscribe". The perpetuity of our unity around the essential things is what has made great things possible in 50 heterogeneous states. Any attempt to unravel that unity should be grounds for expulsion from polite company.

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September 28, 2021

The United States of America Build libraries, but beware the monuments

As a general rule, public facilities shouldn't be named after people who are still living. No matter how honorable the person's behavior up until the time of a christening, there's always time for that same individual to go off the rails and discredit their own names (and any facilities or institutions named after them). We can honor living people in lots of ways, and certainly it may seem unfair to withhold an honor like naming a building, a bridge, or a battleship after a person until they have passed, but that simple limitation acts as a useful brake on the process -- giving historians and others at least a little bit of time to consider the ramifications of a person's legacy (and, perhaps, to uncover disqualifying behavior that might have evaded the spotlight during a person's life). The private sector can name what it likes, and there may be a case for exchanging naming rights for donations or sponsorship funding. ■ But in the case of naming facilities merely as an honor, this rule would have prohibited naming airports after Presidents George Bush or Bill Clinton during their lives, or an expressway after Senator Robert Byrd. A worthy exception to this rule, however, is the naming of Presidential libraries. ■ The practice of building Presidential libraries is a relatively modern one; they've only been deliberately built since Herbert Hoover. And inasmuch as a Presidential library acts as a living yearbook for the country, it serves a certain public good that is hard to delineate other than by Presidential administrations. We don't seem to have succumbed to the wily charms of our Speakers of the House or our Chief Justices in quite the same way, so to mark the study of a particular era by the name of the Chief Executive is a basic compromise with reality. ■ As ground is being broken on the Obama Presidential Center, it's worth noting that the 44th President is the first to direct a digital library instead of a physical one. The center is envisioned as a museum and community center instead. Insofar as it is being funded through private donations, a case can be made for that choice. ■ Yet there's a risk that something important may be lost if we develop a habit of putting former Presidents at the center of movements that must go on, rather than subjecting them to careful academic study -- and even close scrutiny. Part of this, of course, is a derivative of President Obama's relative youth -- born in 1961, he finished his Presidency well before normal retirement age and consequently seems to feel a relatively youthful drive to keep doing things. But a President who becomes a movement is a very different thing from the model of Cincinnatus returning to the plow. ■ Former Presidents have never been entirely silent -- Hoover remained a vocal critic of FDR and lived to chair commissions for Truman and Eisenhower. Carter continued to conduct "private diplomacy" into the 2000s. Taft went on to get the job he really wanted -- Chief Justice. John Quincy Adams just went back to Congress. ■ But there's some hazard to the notion that Presidencies must endure somehow after the Constitutional term is complete. We already invest far too much weight in the Presidency, and if we never stop to deliberately fix Presidents with a place in history -- subject to criticism and rehabilitation alike -- then we very much entertain the possibility that Americans will want to adhere too closely to "their" Presidents, even when someone new is in office. Former Presidents ought to be a source of wisdom, cohesion, and support for their successors and their country. But we shouldn't be hesitant to place the priority on fixing their place in history rather than scrambling to enlarge their place in the present. The one you like may be followed by the one you despise.

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September 29, 2021

Agriculture When cornstalks are more than just cornstalks

In life, care must be taken not to let what is obvious obscure what is fundamentally true. A photograph of a combine in a field is, obviously, a picture of a harvest underway. But what is fundamentally true is that a field full of corn or soybeans is actually a giant solar-energy collector. In terms of appearance, it has nothing in common with a photovoltaic panel. One is organic in nature, while the other is assembled in a factory. One changes color from green to yellow and then brown, while the other is almost always black. One must be harvested, while the other needs to be wired. ■ But, at its most fundamental level, a field full of corn or soybeans (or sorghum or basically any other row crop) exists to opportunistically capture sunlight in one place and convert it into another form of energy for use in another place and time. That's exactly what manufactured solar panels do. And understanding that they exist for the same fundamental purpose helps to shed light on why the two uses can easily come into conflict -- as is already happening in Iowa. ■ Being able to see beyond the obvious is a skill we often don't value enough. It's obvious that there are major differences in physical form between a high-voltage line, a green wagon, a coal car on a train, and a natural-gas pipeline. But in fundamental truth, they're really all in essence the same thing: Tools for getting energy from one place to another, which is not only a vital job, it's also a very complicated one. Likewise, a grain bin isn't just a grain bin: It's a giant battery where energy is stored. ■ Life is full of these situations where what is true and what is obvious may have little in common with one another. They occur so frequently that we really ought to give more thought to training ourselves (and our children) in the skills required to see things more deeply. It's not that we shouldn't believe what we see with our own eyes, but we have to insist on making sure that we aren't missing truths that aren't apparent at first glance. ■ That often requires hard work (or at least some unusual concentration), and it isn't always immediately satisfying. It can even lead people to think that you're just a little bit out of your mind. A corn field obviously isn't an organic solar panel -- until you realize that it is. And that's why we shouldn't be satisfied with arguments that end in someone saying that something "is obvious". Yes, common sense ought to be more common. But common sense isn't very sensible if it's used as an excuse to gloss over deeper meanings. ■ The work of thinking isn't really done until you go there: Insisting on seeing the truth underlying the obvious. It makes an enormous difference in getting to the right decisions in life, especially in the complicated and big questions. ■ We have to believe that there really is virtue in seeing beyond the obvious and expect that both our opponents and our allies alike respect the need to see beyond the obvious to find the actual truth. That takes a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and a lot of goodwill. But there really is no alternative. ■ It's sad that in a world so rich with underlying complexity and systems to be discovered, so many people are attracted to conspiracy theories -- about QAnon and chemtrails, vaccines and shadowy cabals. The human inclination that evolved to let us see patterns gives us tremendous survival potential and allows us to experience wonders like seeing pictures in the clouds. ■ But seeing things that are not really there is far less useful than seeing what truths really are. Not shadowy faux-truths, but the whole truths that are neither obvious nor the products of feverish imaginations. The ability to see them requires training and practice, along with a healthy dose of self-discipline. Perhaps if we engaged that ability more often, we'd find less allure in the shadows and more contentment from seeing the surprises right before our eyes.

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September 30, 2021

The United States of America Speaking with the past

A group of historians met in March with the President. Some have interpreted this as a signal that President Biden was trying to figure out his legacy even before his administration was truly underway. A different interpretation is offered by Jon Meacham, who coordinated the event and says the President wanted to know "how have previous presidents dealt with fundamental crises[?]". ■ The two reasons don't have to be at odds. In fact, anyone with even a sliver of awareness about the Presidency knows that we mostly remember our Chief Executives not for anything they ever promised on the campaign trail, but rather for how they responded to critical events -- George W. Bush on September 11th, John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt on December 7th, 1941. It's the unpredictable events that make the Presidency. ■ Moreover, we should want our Presidents to behave with an eye not merely on the present, but to the judgment of history. What's popular in the moment may not be what's right for the well-being of the country, particularly for generations to come. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "While it is wise for the President to get all the competent advice possible, final judgments are necessarily his own. No one can share with him the responsibility for them. No one can make his decisions for him." ■ In that sense, perhaps our Presidents should meet with historians more often -- like a Kitchen Cabinet, but composed of people there strictly to offer the advice of history. Presidential problems are never exactly the same twice, but they can be informed by previous experience. That's certainly why Presidents decorate the Oval Office with portraits and busts of their predecessors and other laudable figures. ■ Ideally, a President would seek to study and interpret the past on his or her own, since there is no substitute for organically learning a subject -- but not everyone is as voracious a reader as Theodore Roosevelt, who was said to tear through a book a day. Time and other constraints preclude most Presidents from becoming their own Presidential historians. ■ We should consider, though, whether a thoroughly modern invention could help -- even if only modestly. It has become clear that artificial intelligence has a lot of potential, but it depends mightily on the raw material it has been fed. Just a little of the wrong source material and things can turn quite rotten. However, it seems like there is abundant reason to consider experimenting, at least, with training artificial intelligence to behave like what one might call a "personality engine". While a search engine uses AI to query the world of knowledge, a personality engine would use AI to delve into the thinking of an individual person. ■ Presidents in particular leave behind long trails of raw material: Speeches, notes, autobiographies, letters, and more. Even though some of that material is now ghostwritten, it's always written to intentionally reflect the "voice" of the President credited with those thoughts and words. It seems likely we could take a former President's body of work and use it to train an engine of artificial intelligence to tell us: Given this problem, what would Abraham Lincoln do? It seems daft not to at least try. ■ The advice of modern-day historians is a worthwhile supplement, but it also comes filtered through the thinking of the individual historian. The unfiltered, AI-adapted version of former Presidents, meanwhile, might well be more authentic -- but certainly would need, from time to time, to be interpreted through contemporary standards. No President had to even consider the women's vote until Warren Harding, and even some modern-day Presidents have held loathsome prejudices on matters like religion and race. ■ But on many big-picture questions, the volumes of words left behind by prior Presidents may well offer aid to those considering the problems of today. If the advice is bad, it can certainly be ignored. But to really extract the advice of the past, a President surely needs more than two hours with some historians once in a term.

News Sometimes, a new coat of paint isn't enough

One aspect of living in the "New World" that remains easy to underappreciate is just how lightly we are attached to the past. We certainly have landmark structures that are protected from any kind of change -- nobody would dare think of tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance -- but by and large, Americans are comfortable with tearing down the old and replacing with the new. ■ Perhaps that makes us unsentimental. Perhaps that means we're so commercial in mindset that we would sell our memories to make a buck. Perhaps we just don't build things to last forever. ■ Evidence can be found for each of those arguments: Even our most sentimental national pastime, baseball, takes place almost entirely in post-war parks, and the majority wouldn't be old enough to legally drink a beer. Once-legendary places like Tribune Tower are gutted and converted to condominiums nearly as casually as one might replace the tires on a car. And some buildings are set for demolition just a decade after "complete" renovations. ■ But this lack of attachment keeps a lot of things fresh in America's urban and suburban life. Perhaps even restless. And when faced with the alternative, it might not look bad at all. See, for instance, the case of the British homeowner who painted his house a subdued lilac color -- only to find out he was in violation of strict rules on maintaining the "traditional" look of the building. The "tradition" in question dated merely to 1902. But it is apparently considered significant enough that the local government authorities exercised the power to intervene -- just as they can across a giant swath of the community. ■ A sufficient appreciation for private property rights requires that planning and zoning ought to take a light touch. Traditions have a place, to be sure, but so does dynamism -- and anchoring the choices of the present to what well may have been the deeply arbitrary choices of the past can be a dangerous game to play. As the urbanist commentator Nolan Gray noted, "The most beloved neighborhood in your city is secretly a bunch of kit-built houses, mailed out by the 1920s version of Amazon, constructed by amateurs using cheap materials." (But really: Sears sold houses as kits, and what was intended to provide shelter on the cheap back then makes for a peculiar subject of "preservation" efforts today.) ■ Communities have the right to set reasonable standards and to keep neighbors from imposing irresponsibly on others -- you aren't allowed to dispose of radioactive waste in your front yard, of course. But it's daffy to become so attached to the past that "tradition" mandates the prohibition of a fresh coat of a gentle hue of paint on an otherwise ordinary house in a largely unremarkable area. It's not overturning the Magna Carta.

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