Gongol.com Archives: 2021 Fourth-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

October 4, 2021

News Germany's stoplight

Following their recent parliamentary elections, the Germans are trying to come up with a coalition with enough seats to form a government. For Americans who find waiting for results past the end of evening hours of Election Night to be excruciating, it's almost impossible to fathom the notion that it could take weeks to decide who's taking over as Chancellor after Angela Merkel. The concession-then-withdrawal-then-36-day-uncertainty of the Presidential election in 2000 was just about more than we could take. ■ As a multi-party parliamentary democracy, Germany is more accustomed to the required horse-trading and negotiation. What's interesting about this election, though, is not the center-left party that came in first, or the center-right party that came in a close second, but rather the third- and fourth-place finishers: The Green Party and the FDP (a "business-friendly", classical liberal party). ■ The two parties have already entered talks with one another, since they together would have the heft to swing a coalition to either of the first- or second-place parties. (It seems unlikely that #1 and #2 will join forces in a "grand coalition".) The Greens and the FDP have important things in common, though they have obvious differences as well. ■ It seems strange that, so often, the Greens of the world are so eager to distance themselves from the classical liberals. There's actually a great deal of space within classical liberalism to justify a "market green" philosophy -- one where the costs of cleaning up after ourselves are used to help rectify shortcomings in otherwise purely market-based transactions. It's no surprise that a lot of center-right economists, for example, endorse the use of carbon taxes to "internalize the externalities" of greenhouse gas emissions: If your behavior creates pollution, then it makes sense to make you pay to clean it up at the same time. As Ben Franklin put it, "He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolves not to mend now." ■ Of course, the conclusion that there ought to be much in common between classical liberals and Greens assumes that the fundamental drive of any Green Party (and it is an unusually international political movement) is to leave behind better environmental conditions for subsequent generations. That, alas, isn't always the case; Greens regularly make the case for much more public ownership and much higher taxes. If the only goal is to socialize everything, then "Green" is really "red" under a coat of paint. ■ It's too bad that the loneliest quadrant in American politics is the classical-liberal space -- the one that favors both economic rights and social freedoms -- particularly given how it's really derived from a lineage of the philosophy of 1776 and 1787, relying on modesty about what government can and should try to do in place of free people making decisions under ordered liberty. As the German election shows, that group is never a majority all on its own. Parties of that nature never seem to crack more than 10% to 15% of any vote. But they're found everywhere people are free to vote, whether as parties on their own or as interest groups, and their influence ought to be for good. Cleaning up after ourselves is a much larger task than just the natural environment.

October 5, 2021

Business and Finance The last Sears in Illinois will soon close

While there was an entire documentary filmed about "The Last Blockbuster", other retail sunsets have been less photogenic. In particular, the waning of the once-mighty Sears empire is at once too enormous to believe and too unreasonable to make sense. And now, the last Sears department store in Illinois is set to close in November. ■ It's generally unwise for a consumer to become emotionally attached to a retail outlet, but Sears earned a special place in American lore. Not only was it once so vast in its reach that it was the "World's Largest Store", its name was attached to what was the world's tallest building from 1973 until 1998. The Sears Catalog -- which overtook the mail-order empire of rival Chicago firm Montgomery Ward's -- was an enormous commercial success for decades. Sears even sold some 70,000 American kit homes by mail. For a good portion of the 20th Century, Sears was practically synonymous with retail. ■ Now, what's left is barely a shadow of its former self, down to just dozens of stores (at most). It's truly crazy that Sears managed to fail just as hard as it has. Having dominated catalog commerce for generations, e-commerce should have been an obvious pivot -- a next step not unlike an actor moving between television and film. We're talking about two slightly different modes of almost exactly the same thing, and unlike Amazon, Sears started with a nationwide distribution system already in place, not to mention an enviable empire of bricks-and-mortar showrooms, many of which were owned outright by the company. ■ It's not as though the company was either risk-avoidant or reluctant to embrace new markets by nature: Sears launched the Discover Card and backed the Prodigy proto-internet service. The transition to becoming a hybrid digital-and-physical retail colossus seems, in retrospect, to have been the obvious path. ■ For all the attention paid now to the massive reach of Amazon, antitrust lawsuits and regulations tend to be less effective than good old-fashioned competition. Amazon has Amazon Basics; Sears had well-regarded house brands ranging from Kenmore to Craftsman to DieHard. In practically everything that Amazon does at great scale today, Sears once had a head start. ■ Where in the Sears corporate DNA was the memory of how it was once the upstart? How many second chances could one firm drop? Having triumphed over Montgomery Ward's in one era, it slipped in another and showed no signs of durable recovery. Once the beneficiary of creative destruction, now it is the victim. And it is not only the vast number of Sears employees and investors who lost out; so did the consumer public. Healthy competition among sellers is good for the buyer. ■ The decline of a once-great firm like Sears suggests that for all the praise we lavish on "disruptors", our business schools ought to focus harder on training management in practices like preserving institutional memory and making an active discipline out of making both consistent incremental improvement and capturing the advantage in moments of punctuated equilibrium. Maintaining and sustaining what is already good ought to be just as lucrative and status-enhancing as starting something from scratch.

October 6, 2021

Computers and the Internet Between friends, that's not how we operate

One of the legal protections sheltering Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as she testifies to Congress is the regulation that permits a person to come forward to the SEC with proprietary company information if that information covers "conduct that is likely to cause substantial injury to the financial interest or property of the entity or investors". In this case, Facebook's behavior appears to meet that test. ■ But disclosure is a really strange thing in Facebook's world. Most of the time, it's assumed that shareholders in a company also have a vote in how the company is run. But that's not how it works at Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg's voting control over the company is absolute. He is, in effect, an absolute monarch. (This is a long-known bug in Facebook's corporate programming.) ■ Consequently, while information may be of material interest to shareholders in terms of their ability to determine the fair price at which to buy and sell the shares, anyone holding Facebook shares has surrendered the right to have an interest in how the company is being run. To do so is a foolish choice, and the current circumstances illustrate why. ■ The mythology of the founder is strong in American corporate management, especially in high technology. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg -- all founders, and all household names. Few people know the founders of insurance companies, truck-stop empires, and ceramics importers. Certainly, some founders have established great companies and grown them through exceptional vision and understanding of the marketplace. In exchange for their visions, they sometimes insist that everyone else (investors, customers, and employees alike) must go along for the ride. ■ But rare is the person who can adequately anticipate every risk or understand the third- and fourth-order consequences of their own actions. Good decisions generally require robust debate. And Mark Zuckerberg has established boundaries around Facebook to shelter him entirely from that debate (and go sailing instead). ■ It's not far-fetched to imagine Facebook's lawyers arguing that disclosure of the type of information revealed by the whistleblower doesn't doesn't have any material impact on any choice that an individual shareholder could make. As long as Mark Zuckerberg knows everything he deems necessary to know about what's happening inside the company, including unflattering internal research, then shareholders who have effectively surrendered their right to vote must assume that he knows enough to make company decisions for them by proxy. ■ That assessment, of course, is utterly bonkers: No shareholder should surrender that kind of authority to some kind of god-king at the helm of a company. Yet, Facebook shareholders have done effectively that. ■ The consequences have been manifest. Mark Zuckerberg runs Facebook the way he wants, in a way no titan has run any media organization before. The ghosts of Paley, Sarnoff, Hearst, and Pulitzer must be green with envy. Perhaps the financial returns from a Facebook investment have been just too mouth-watering for investors to overlook. But it also means that there is no ethos or soul to the company beyond that of the general partner running the investment. Whether Zuckerberg has ever seen the company as a partnership, though, is an entirely different matter. ■ Warren Buffett has always represented his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, as a conscious partnership between himself and his investors. While, like Facebook, Berkshire has also been largely under the voting control of one individual and his immediate orbit, Buffett has for decades recited as his number-one principle that "Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership." While his execution may have been imperfect, that philosophy -- one of maximum transparency with the founder's co-owners, including family and close friends -- treats even the "limited" partners as intelligent, curious beings. Paradoxical, indeed, that Facebook, which says it is all about friendships, is run as though no one else in the partnership is truly a friend.

October 7, 2021

News Processes before personalities

Every year, enormous sums of money are spent to persuade Americans about what to do and how to spend. Advertising and marketing are estimated to be worth $390 billion annually, or almost $1,200 per person. That's an enormous volume of expenditure -- and it doesn't include the investments required to try to persuade people through other means. Yet surely we devote considerable resources to everything from stemwinding speech-makers at political rallies to religious ministers exhorting people from the pulpit, not to mention bloggers, meme-creators, and podcast hosts -- all generally trying to persuade others to align with a point of view. ■ For all of the time and money devoted to persuasion, it's a shame that there hasn't been more devoted to cracking one of the toughest problems in psychology: Our predisposition to believing and remembering stories far easier than facts and abstract ideas. We have at least some understanding of the neurological and biochemical factors involved -- stories activate emotional stimulation, which in turn motivates us to remember and to act. ■ The problem is that people know this power, sometimes intuitively. Others study the effect and treat it as a way to "hack" the learning process. Done by people with good motives, it can be a useful tool. But it's done as well by people with ill motives who know that a story does not need to be the whole truth in order to work. Thus we are awash in "narratives", some entirely false, some misrepresenting the facts, and some fully true, all of which tend to influence the audience's thinking more than an objective report on reality. This is why "controlling the narrative" is such a powerful tool -- either for good or for evil. ■ Unfortunately, stories tend to be reductionist, especially in their ability to cast individual participants as either heroes or villains. This, in turn, makes it hard to keep fact and fiction in common play, especially when matters are in dispute or take place within gray areas (as most issues are). A more complex, more human James Bond is more interesting to some, but many people prefer simpler hero/villain dichotomies not only in their fiction but in their realities as well. ■ It would be a great public service to find not a new hack that makes storytelling even more powerful, but to find the tools necessary to make facts and abstractions and gray spaces easier to understand and internalize. Our tendency to favor stories makes us susceptible to casting our lots -- politically, socially, even religiously -- with personalities rather than with processes and principles. And that can be dangerous, not only because it leaves us exposed to the malice of charismatic evildoers, but also to mass movements that tend towards cults of personality. Somewhere, deep within our vast economic engine, can we find just a sliver of the $390 billion devoted today to persuasion and point it towards cracking the code on facts and abstract thought instead?

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October 8, 2021

Weather and Disasters Invert -- always invert

Charlie Munger has spent a lot of time thinking about thinking, and he deserves credit for popularizing (at least within financial circles) the notion attributed to the mathematician Carl Jacobi: "Invert, always invert". In other words: When faced with a meaningful problem, rather than facing it directly, ask how to achieve the opposite outcome. Jacobi applied this thinking to math, while Munger applies it more broadly to life. ■ Taking that approach to the widest possible angle raises some fascinating questions. For instance: Instead of asking, "Will America win in a great-power competition with China?", the inversion might look something like, "What would you do if you wanted to undermine America?" ■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might encourage eating the seed corn. That might take the form of spending exorbitantly for the purpose of short-term gratification or for things that will be here today and gone tomorrow, rather than paying as you go for things that are easily consumed. (The United States has a $28 trillion Federal debt, or about $85,000 per person.) ■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might amplify the narcissism of small differences. The more people find themselves squabbling over what are ultimately relatively minor differences, the easier it is to make them skeptical of anything that looks like cooperation. (There are Americans profiting from unhinged calls for "national divorce" and differences like urban vs. rural or red state vs. blue state are often treated as insurmountable divides rather than the relatively small distinctions they really are when compared with much of the rest of the world.) ■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might suggest that the country's problems are too big to overcome. Hopelessness is a powerful poison, and a country sapped of its sense of endurance may be tricked into apathy or fatalism about its decline. (Serious people write opinions in major publications with titles like "Is the United States too big to govern?" and government institutions have made large and visible unforced errors on critical issues.) ■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might try to make it appear flaky about its commitments. If allies and potential allies don't believe that a country has the institutional will to follow through on its commitments, it can be left weakened by isolation instead of empowered by cooperation. (One poll found that majorities of the British, Germans, and French consider American politics "broken", and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan left allies disappointed.) ■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might point its divisions within rather than without. The classic maxim of "divide and conquer" applies as easily to the modern day as it did in the past. (Russian disinformation operations in particular have sought to stoke divisions among Americans, not so much for specific political gain as for their broader capacity to weaken.) ■ People don't have to deliberately intend to undermine America to take actions that have that effect. It isn't just the obvious adversaries and the useful idiots who cause harm. We have to be conscious that even when we think we're on the right side of matters, we might still be contributing to the wrong half of the ledger in the balance of power. ■ As uncomfortable as some of these inversions may be, the good news is that we have no reason to dwell on the mistakes made up until the present. There is no compulsion to continue making the choices that undermine -- and all of the reason in the world to devote our energies to doing the opposite. Calvin Coolidge advised, "So far as each individual is concerned all he can do is to take the abilities he has and make the most of them. His power over the past is gone. His power over the future depends on what he does with himself in the present. If he wishes to live and progress he must work." So it is true as well for a great country that wishes to endure for centuries to come.

October 11, 2021

News Creative people should just feed the beast

Certain creative entertainers -- writers, comedians, musicians, directors, actors -- are such marquee names that every time they generate a new piece of work, it is guaranteed to receive much critical attention. Dave Chappelle is one such performer -- a comedian who has been honored with the Mark Twain Prize, who walked out on a $50 million deal with Comedy Central, and who has just seen the release of the final performance of a six-special agreement with Netflix (for which he is said to have been paid $20 million per installment). Singer/songwriter Adele has a giant contract with Columbia Records and Sony. Director Ridley Scott has a lucrative contract with Apple TV. Writer JK Rowling has considerable liberty to write her own ticket for manuscripts anywhere. ■ Multi-project deals in particular raise an interesting question. Which combination of quality and frequency would an audience rather get from a creative performer: A stunning blockbuster once every five years, or a steadier stream of good-but-perhaps-not-great projects delivered every year? ■ People say they want infrequent blockbusters. But do we really? ■ Jon Stewart, for instance, was paid perhaps $25 million a year to host "The Daily Show". And any daily show is bound to include some clunkers. But he has since then been much harder to find -- now returning with a streaming deal that will be much less frequent than daily -- with new episodes every other week. Will it earn him the same audience reach (and pay) as his "Daily Show" once did? It would be a surprise. ■ It's hard to tell with performers who remain alive, but practically the moment they pass away, their value of their deep catalogs grows enormously. Prince, we are told, left 8,000 unreleased songs in a vault at Paisley Park. Hundreds and hundreds of potential albums, never released, and undoubtedly endlessly desired by his fans. Fans endlessly desire copies of Beatles recording sessions and lost Bob Marley tapes and the previously unpublished works of Douglas Adams. ■ Every great creative performer needs, of course, at least one signature work, if not more. (Harper Lee is notable, of course, for the semi-singularity of "To Kill a Mockingbird".) But once a great, career-defining work has been produced, it seems that what audiences really want is a high volume of output. That isn't what they usually say they want. But if given the chance, the creative individual ought to take every opportunity to put out as much material as possible. As audiences, we're liars: We're too critical of imperfect releases in the moment, but rare is the devoted fan who would turn down the chance to have more of a great creator's work after the artist has died. It only makes sense for the creator to do as much work (and gain as much profit from it) as they can while still living. ■ No work is going to be perfect, and there's no sense in waiting for perfection before release. On this comes the advice of a most unlikely source, James Madison: "[T]he purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good". Besides, you can always remaster your album, publish a revised edition, or edit a director's cut of your movie. Audiences are lying: They say they want creators to hold out for perfection, but they really just want a steady stream to feed the beast.

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October 12, 2021

The United States of America Keep our differences in perspective

The outrage-entertainment industry, a complex that gets far more than its proper share of attention, is thoroughly entranced with the idea of dividing Americans along the most preposterous cleavages possible. A member of Congress casually tweets about "national divorce". An extremist commentator uses his platform to say that an entire political party wants "to see America completely obliterated". Even ice-cream makers now become instruments of political outrage. ■ In reality, though, the differences among Americans -- and the other 95.7% of the world's population, really -- are not all that great. Division sells, but it's neither healthy nor honorable to participate in the transaction. This isn't to say that a veneer of harmony does away with the real differences that do exist, but it is to say that profiting from disharmony is intellectually dishonest grifting. ■ Most people are good at heart -- or, at the very least, neutral. Even the highest estimates of antisocial personality disorder find it occurring to a maximum of 4% of people. That leaves at least 24 out of every 25 people inside the boundaries of normal pro-social behavior, including having a regard for the well-being of others, a sense of responsibility, and normal feelings of remorse when things go wrong. ■ Most people sample from a buffet platter of beliefs and impressions rather than a comprehensive worldview. Not only do social scientists find it hard to reliably sort Americans into political typologies, attitudes on individual issues are subject to complete reversals in public opinion over very short time horizons. Most people are malleable in their civic and political beliefs. ■ Most people want to belong to things bigger than themselves. This manifests in a wide range of ways, from the personal transcendence model of positive psychology to the forms of political activism that emerge when people feel a low sense of belonging, but the evidence points toward a strong intrinsic need to feel needed by something other than oneself. The sense of needing to matter to others can only be fulfilled by belonging to social groups and institutions. ■ Most people are eager to find meaning in the world. The Pew Research Center says 71% of American adults are at least somewhat religious, and religion isn't the only vector for existential meaning. The best-seller lists almost always contain books that explore questions of philosophy either directly or indirectly. ■ Most people just want to be left alone to pursue happiness, live freely, and remain untroubled by others, particularly the authorities. These are neither controversial nor groundbreaking assertions; they are bedrock ideals of the very union itself. ■ There should be no profit -- politically, socially, or financially -- from seeking to convince one's fellow Americans that we are not only more different than alike, but that we need to seek greater distance between us rather than expanding the common ground. The addiction to cantankerous and even violent division is toxic, both personally and culturally. It is not historically unique, but it is contemporary and potent. People of goodwill ought to see how much we have in common with most others and redouble efforts to reinforce a healthy sense of commonality.

October 13, 2021

News Are you sure?

It says something unflattering about speakers of English that we don't have a better taxonomy for uncertainty. We have a language so rich that we can name 120 different colors of crayons. We have words that are abused senselessly, like "literally" and "absolutely" and "fundamentally", which speakers rarely mean...well, literally. ■ And yet, we don't have efficient ways of conveying uncertainty using our language. We don't have economical means of of saying, "I will know more when more information is available", or "I have low confidence in my reasoning because certain aspects are outside my expertise". Donald Rumsfeld's famous rant about "unknown unknowns" illustrates the problem well: It was superficially confusing because he had so few useful words at his disposal. In Rumsfeld's own words, "It sounds like a riddle. It isn't a riddle. It is a very serious, important matter." ■ English doesn't really offer gradations of uncertainty, either. Sure, we can be "pretty sure" or "fairly certain" or "almost positive" about things, but even those are unclear definitions. Given the survey results that say that people have widely ranging mathematical interpretations of words like "likely" and "unlikely", we need something much better than highly-disputed probabilistic words. ■ Vast portions of life are subject to uncertainty -- basically, anything other than "The Sun will rise in the east and set in the west". (And, even then, it's only exactly east or west twice a year. The rest of the time, it's a little north or south of due east or west.) In fact, it is a deep-seated problem if people find it easier to express unwarranted or exaggerated confidence than to explain the degree or source of their uncertainty. ■ People can barely wrap their brains around the basic vocabulary of mostly sunny or partly cloudy or "a mix of clouds and sun", much less use the language to express the same degrees of uncertainty or incomplete certitude about other aspects of life, both ordinary and extraordinary. ■ If it is desirable to achieve compromises or overcome differences of opinion (and it most certainly is), then it would be far more suitable if we could explain which areas are gray zones in our thinking -- and why -- so that we can express to others where we are subject to persuasion, seeking additional information, or withholding our certainly only to buy time to "sleep on it". ■ The depth of our vocabulary for a matter tends to indicate how seriously we take it. A sound, for instance, can be a whine, a whinny, a screech, a scream, a whistle, or a shriek -- all similar, but all clearly different. Yet there is no comparable depth of vocabulary for describing uncertainty. That's a real shame, because it leaves the ground wide open for people to express ever-increasing levels of certitude where none is warranted, when instead good faith would demand better explanations about those areas where we are uncertain. ■ This tendency causes us to surrender ever more of the discourse to those who are increasingly sure of themselves -- even though they often have diminishing reason for so being. This invites a dishonest form of intellectual warfare between opposing sides, which line up more out of tribal loyalty than out of reason, and it squeezes out those who hold unorthodox or heterodox views. ■ People can scarcely be expected to know the difference between instinct (which animals possess from birth), and intuition (which is speedy reasoning developed and honed from experience). Failing to know the difference even between these things, we can hardly expect people to appreciate the nuances of confidence. The closest we come is to offer people percentage odds of certainty, as in being "90% sure" of a thing. That we don't have simple words for expressing any of this better is a true shame. ■ We ought to have a linguistic construction comparable to "mostly cloudy" that expresses, "I don't know enough about this to be certain for the time being, but as soon as I have more detail I will have a reasonable opinion". We need a shorthand way similar to "a chance of showers" for expressing, "My past experience runs contrary but I don't know enough in this particular case to say what I think." Filling those gaps won't make everything perfect, but it might salvage our thinking and our debates from the corruption that comes from misappropriated confidence.

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October 14, 2021

News Risen from the ashes 150 years later

Chicago is marking the 150th anniversary of the great fire that leveled the young city. The fire is, of course, one of the most significant parts of Chicago lore, even earning its spot as one of the four stars on the municipal flag. ■ The story of Chicago's recovery from the devastating fire is one of triumph over a series of great adversities. A city that was once ruined is the third largest in the United States, a massive commercial and cultural center. ■ Had you looked at Chicago in 1871, perhaps you would have seen the city's rosy future beyond the rubble. But, for as much as the people of Chicago deserve credit for their resilience, the city's overall success is due more to its fortuitous geography than anything else. The labor force of Chicago at the time of the Great Fire was really nothing all that special. With about 300,000 inhabitants, Chicago was the fifth-largest city in the country (behind New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn [then its own city], and St. Louis). 48% of the city's people were immigrants. The school system was struggling to keep up with growth. Meatpacking and railroading were central to the economy, and they didn't require sophisticated workers. ■ It was a city teeming with immigrants, many of whom arrived with very little financial capital or skill (after all, the wealthy and well-established would have had little reaason to leave their homelands). As much credit as the residents of the burgeoning city at the time should get for persisting through the difficulties of the fire and its aftermath, there's not anything in particular about about what they did or who they were that would have made the place special. They happened to be in a great place at the right time for expansion. Certainly there were instances and specific cases of high-quality foresight, vision, and ability that made the rebuilt Chicago better than before. ■ But, in reality, it would have been hard for Chicago to fail. Its virtually ideal location at the base of Lake Michigan and its resulting position as the obvious intersection of much of the nation's surface transit (by both road and rail) put Chicago in an ideal position -- no matter who was there. At the margins, some differences will matter and add up -- otherwise Evanston, Hammond, or Gary might ultimately have turned out to be the dominant city in the region. ■ Being in the right place at the right time -- whether by choice or by accident -- can make a great deal of difference. People carry their knowledge and their skills with them, but being in the right place to put them to work can have a huge impact on an individual's ultimate productivity. What you do can matter much less than where you are. Even today, it's been noted that simply moving from a different country of origin to the United States raises the productivity of virtually any immigrant by a substantial margin: In the words of the World Bank, Migration is, therefore, the most effective way to reduce poverty and share prosperity". ■ Chicago's revival ought to be taken seriously by anyone who today considers the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers. Great Britain has welcomed around 65,000 people from Hong Kong on relatively short notice, as those people have tried to escape the ever-increasing oppression of China's authoritarian government. The British government expects 300,000 people to ultimately make the move. ■ In moving from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom, those people ought to maintain not only the skills and productivity they had before, but in many cases may become even more productive by being surrounded by a like-minded government and culture. And, just as they produce, they will also consume. The act of simply being in the right place can make all the difference. And those who arrived first ought to note well that their fortunes are often improved by the presence of newcomers.

October 15, 2021

Business and Finance A handshake deal slows inflation

Nobody with any sense would accuse Warren Buffett of being a novice deal-maker. Having transacted scores of buyouts placing existing firms under the Berkshire Hathaway umbrella, Buffett knows what goes into a contract to buy or sell. And even having conducted dozens and dozens of transactions in the years since, Buffett still openly regards his 1983 purchase of the Nebraska Furniture Mart as one of his favorites. It was a $55 million deal conducted in just a page and a quarter of type. ■ Buffett praised the deal when it was new, writing: "I always ask myself in appraising a business is how I would like, assuming I had ample capital and skilled personnel, to compete with it. I'd rather wrestle grizzlies than compete with Mrs. B [Rose Blumkin, the company founder] and her progeny." The year following, he praised the deal again: "Our evaluation of the integrity of Mrs. B and her family was demonstrated when we purchased 90% of the business: NFM had never had an audit and we did not request one; we did not take an inventory nor verify the receivables; we did not check property titles. We gave Mrs. B a check for $55 million and she gave us her word." In his 2013 letter, he returned to the sale, saying "Mrs. B simply told me what was what, and her word was good enough for me". And in his 2020 letter, he returned to extol the simplicity of the deal once again. ■ Not everyone is going to make deals with savvy immigrants who overcome great odds (like arriving in America unable to speak English) with square dealing. But it is wise not to overlook the centrality of mutual trust in the Buffett/Blumkin deal. Hundreds of pages of contract language would have enriched the attorneys writing them, but they would not have altered the basic squareness of the deal. ■ No contract can account for every contingency, nor should it. Unfortunately, disproportionate bargaining power rears its ugly head as "standard" contracts grow longer, larger companies impose payment terms that favor them at the expense of smaller suppliers, and loser-pays arbitration raises the stakes in any dispute (usually to the benefit of the party with the deeper pockets). ■ When people grow anxious about inflation (which is, after all, simply paying a higher nominal price for the same outputs), what almost always goes overlooked is the hidden "inflation" of deadweight in contracts. For a while, parties can grin and bear it through a few new adverse contract terms here and there. But before long, contract inflation -- that is, deals that take more and more pages to document before any real business takes place -- starts to impose real costs. Either someone must spend time, energy, and expertise to review contracts in-house, or they must pay someone on the outside to perform a review. And with each new adverse term, someone within the agreement chain needs to account for new risks by pricing them in somewhere. ■ These problems point to the absolute centrality of having two things. One is a clear, equitable, and understandable legal system for conducting business. If it takes too long to work out disputes in the courts, then people will seek to work out the disputes in contract language instead -- effectively front-loading all of the hassles of a court case into the initial contract negotiation. (This is wildly inefficient.) ■ The other is a widespread agreement to earn, keep, and abide by good reputations. Warren Buffett liked Rose Blumkin's reputation, so he was able to make a $55 million deal in fewer than 1,000 words -- that's $55,000 per word of contract language, anchored almost entirely on a mutual trust resulting from earned reputations on both sides of the deal. ■ So, while people are worrying about headline inflation -- and whether it's structural or transitory -- we really ought not to miss the consequences of contractual inflation, too. Those consequences take a while to trickle down through the economy, but they are quite surely real.

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October 18, 2021

The United States of America Interstate love song

One of the most satisfying exercises of American life is to cross a state line. It's an act we take for granted, almost to an excruciating degree, but we really ought to pause once in a while to consider what a subversive act it really is. ■ It took the European Union ten years to implement the Schengen Agreement to dismantle border controls among most of the EU countries, and even after 35 years, the Schengen Area is neither comprehensive within the EU, nor entirely free. Several member countries have reinstated border controls to deal with Covid-19, just for example. ■ Freedom of movement isn't to be taken for granted elsewhere, either. China's approach to internal travel remains far from free, which is widely (and correctly) regarded from the outside as a restriction on personal freedom. And a significant movement is underway to relax the existing restrictions on travel among the member countries of the African Union, because that freedom is seen (again correctly) as both a meaningful form of freedom and a great tool for economic development. ■ The basic appeal of maximizing the free movement across borders of goods, money, ideas, and people is that freedom of movement reinforces the basic sovereignty of the individual while simultaneously enhancing the efficient distribution of labor, capital, and the intangible resources that make economic activity possible. It is a case where the principles of classical-liberal personal rights and those of market economics are elegantly aligned. ■ Americans tend not to notice these very much as we ride the highways and cross the land and river borders that separate states from one another. Regions belonging to multiple states are usually much more closely identified by their shared identities -- the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois, Kansas City of both Kansas and Missouri, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, and Metropolitan New York -- than by the state-level distinctions that divide them. A sign generally welcomes the traveler to a new state at a high-traffic crossing, while lower-tier crossings may be noticeable only because a street is named "State Line Road". We are free to be peacefully different and seamlessly integrated. ■ But perhaps we should notice these borders more, even if only to nod in cheerful respect for the ease of our crossings. States are bundled together in a patchwork of interstate zones: Federal Reserve Bank districts, National Weather Service regions, FAA regions, EPA regions, districts of the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Federal court circuits, among many others. ■ The idea that we can sustainably divide and categorize ourselves across 330 million people and 50 states without troubling one another to "show your papers" merely to cross a state line is no small factor in the strength of our union as a country. We aren't compelled to think about that freedom all that often, but it would be a wise exercise to bring it to the forefront more often. The benefits of union are vast and enhance our well-being.

October 19, 2021

News After twelve comes thirteen

Is to the great astonishment of persons of sound mind that, in 2021, buildings like hotels and condominium complexes are still being constructed with elevators that do not list a floor numbered 13. How it is possible that we continue to accommodate the preposterous superstition against that beleaguered number in this day and age? ■ Can it really be true that after all of the technological and educational progress of the last century, people still believe that there are numbers that are unlucky or bad? It boggles the mind. There is no reason whatsoever to consider any number any less (in intrinsic worth) than any other. They are merely numbers -- quantifications, neither good nor bad. And the continued accommodation of the anti-13 superstition makes fools of us all. ■ To wit: Anyone of right mind can plainly see that a building that contains 14 floors must have a 13th floor, whether or not it is numbered as such. To try to represent otherwise by renumbering the 13th floor as the 14th (or, indeed, even as "Floor 12.5" only demands of us to imagine that things are not as they plainly are and can be seen to be. This willing suspension of disbelief is a ridiculous accommodation for people who have chosen to believe in things that are not real. ■ Magical thinking can have its place amid the fairies, unicorns, and talking mice of childhood. Children need their imaginations to picture what isn't real so they can someday absorb the difference between fact and fiction. But to accommodate adults who choose not to believe the facts as they plainly are is only to agree that we are going to allow some people to be not only irrational but outright contemptuous of reality. And that's just nonsense. ■ If people want to adhere to a ridiculous secular superstition like "unlucky 13", then let them be the ones to come forth and specifically confess their own nonsense. Let them be the ones to tell reservation call centers or front-desk clerks that they refuse to sleep on a floor with a particular number. Let them face their own absurdity plainly and clearly. Don't make the rest of us pretend as though a number of floor does not exist when plainly it does. ■ If truly one believes that the 13th floor is an unlucky place to put one's head for the night, then one should willingly pay more to sleep on a different floor by making such a request at the time of their reservation or check in. But in the meantime, the rest of us shouldn't be asked to pretend as though facts as basic as counting aren't meaningful in a polite society.

October 20, 2021

News Lessons from the dead

The passing of former Secretary of State Colin Powell has set off the usual round of obituaries from mainstream sources that speak with almost equal weight of Powell's stature as a ground-breaking military officer and Cabinet secretary, and of Powell's role in the fray of politics. CNN wrote that "the damage was already done" to Powell's reputation by his UN address, and the New York Times noted "He left at the end of Mr. Bush's first term under the cloud of the ever-worsening war in Iraq". These efforts to report both the good and the bad are predictable from news outlets striving to be seen as objective. Somewhat less predictable was the scurrilous and ungracious response of one former President. ■ The philosopher Epictetus is credited with saying that a person should react to the death of an enemy "By setting himself to live the noblest life himself." Setting aside whether Secretary Powell was actually anyone's enemy (at least domestically), the advice is sound. ■ Not everyone is naturally gracious, and not every life is filled with an equal measure of good to be emulated. But when a person passes, unless one is doctrinally obligated to talk about "both sides" of the individual's life, it should be quite enough to make a choice between two things: Describing the lessons learned from the deceased, or saying nothing at all. ■ Are there exceptions? Perhaps. A handful of lives are so monstrous as to escape redemption, but too noteworthy to go without comment. But those lives are vanishingly few. ■ For the remainder, it ought to be enough either to acknowledge for the record what good others can take from the story of a life, or to remain quiet. All lives are complicated. Every personality evolves over time. Everyone battles demons, foibles, and shortcomings. A life cannot be lived without mistakes or regrets. But it cannot be worth anyone's time to dance on the grave of another, even if only in something as ephemeral as a tweet. ■ The urge to get in a word about "both sides" about a person's passing ought to yield to noting the lessons of a life -- not merely for social decorum, but because that's the only productive way to live what remains of anyone else's time on Earth. As Maimonides put it, "a man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions, and to keep away from the wicked, who walk in darkness, so that he avoids learning from their actions." If a person passes and leaves behind some of that wisdom, the living ought to amplify and make use of it. If they pass and leave behind nothing of value, then what good comes of airing grudges or grievances? Letting a person die unremarked would seem to be the harsher verdict of history.

October 21, 2021

News Not an invaluable prescription, but a non-valuable one

An opportunistic member of the Senate is looking to score points against the current widely-known difficulties in the economic supply chain by pushing a bill to require the Departments of Commerce and Defense to come up with lists of products to subject to a 50% "local content requirement" for goods deemed "critical for the protection of the industrial base in the United States". ■ There isn't much subtlety to the proposal: On page 2, the draft bill declares that "Excessive globalization has been a disaster for United States workers in the manufacturing sector." That analysis is a stretch: Many American manufacturing jobs are doing just fine. ■ Work that exists to satisfy a capricious mandate or an arbitrary quota is likely to attract more rent-seekers than innovators. Innovators are attracted to markets where their products and services can efficiently fill needs and cultivate new customers. Rent-seekers tend to inhabit those markets where their energies are deployed to higher returns by finding new ways of locking in government protections. The effect of rewarding rent-seekers will not be to advance the economic progress or stability of the country, no matter what claims someone makes about the "industrial base". ■ The problem of product shortages early in the pandemic was less about the supply chains themselves than of a failure to have made adequate preparations for "rainy day" events. Stockpiles of necessary equipment like personal protective gear were insufficient for the demand shock of a viral pandemic. Our attentions need to be focused on making sufficient preparations for low-frequency, high-impact events like the Covid-19 outbreak, not on ham-handed "solutions". ■ The consequences of broad government interventions can be significant. Look at the case of Puerto Rico: Tax breaks (phased out in 2006) turned the island into an important site for pharmaceutical manufacturing -- the source of 25% of total pharmaceutical exports from the US. But that concentration (again, one specifically enhanced by government tax policies) turned severely consequential when Hurricane Maria did massive damage there in 2017, with consequences like shutting down all three of the factories belonging to one of America's largest suppliers of IV fluid bags. That hurricane was a domestic event, and the United States had to urgently turn to Australia and Ireland to make up the resulting shortfalls in products like antibiotics. ■ The efficiency gains from specialization and trade are vast -- even domestically, concentration tends to result from specialization. Just for example, a company like 3M (a major supplier of N95 respirators) has plants in 29 different states, but those facilities are highly specialized, and the risk to the company overall from disruptions at any one of them is specifically noted in their reports to the government. The company may have 64 domestic manufacturing sites in all, but they don't all make the same things. Regional advantages -- like access to raw materials, energy supplies, or graduates of research universities -- all matter. ■ A great deal of American manufacturing involves high-tech design and complex final assembly. It's very good business to be on the far end of a supply chain, where lots of value can be added by well-trained, sophisticated workers. Plenty of "foreign" manufacturers are hiring American workers because those choices are profitable, not because they're being forced to do it. But those supply chains, even for a lot of high-value, American-made products, require importation that isn't subject to bureaucratic definitions of value-added. ■ Sweeping mandates like a 50% value quota -- enforceable on whatever the government arbitrarily deems "critical to the manufacturing base" -- aren't real answers to the root causes of the shortages encountered over the last two years, nor to the long-term health of the economy. Real accountability for the problems we have experienced depends on looking carefully at worst-case scenarios for high-impact events, and developing (and executing) real plans for those, so that we're never stuck scrambling for N95 masks or IV bags ever again. Acting on specific needs is like taking out an insurance policy, and it's prudent for voters to demand that elected officials take those sorts of steps. Smacking the economy more generally with more red tape and greater government intervention in private affairs is a bad prescription.

October 22, 2021

News Straying from the straight and narrow

An idea from psychology that has ascended in the first decades of this century is the "paradox of choice", which suggests that people may find themselves overwhelmed by having too many options and would often be more satisfied with fewer. Some economists have a hard time with this argument, since consumer optimization often requires many alternatives (and because greater customization often leaves people obviously happier). ■ Yet there does seem to be some kind of "paradox of choice" at play when it comes to our belief systems. Despite having greater access via the Internet and a spectacular array of media choices to a more diverse array of opinions than at any time in human history, surveys appear to document a more bimodal political landscape in America than almost anywhere else people live under democratic rule. Do people simply find themselves having too many available options? ■ It's perfectly fine if free people choose not to have strong opinions regarding their self-government. In fact, a calm, generally-satisfied public is probably a signal that things are mostly going well. But if people are attracted to escalatory cycles of increasingly rigid orthodoxies of political economy, then something is going wrong. ■ The problem isn't even (necessarily) with the exact orthodoxies in play. The problem is with adherence to political or ideological orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxies are hazardous because facts change, technologies change, and resources change. And when they change, the responses need to be appropriate to the circumstances. As anyone visiting the Jefferson Memorial can read, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence also wrote that "[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times." ■ The effort never to stray from the "right" opinion (that is, from orthodoxy) too often leads people to reject incremental growth and intermediate measures that go in the right direction. And directions matter, particularly because no human civilization can possibly reach a final destination. There is no Utopia to be had, whether it's a workers' paradise, Galt's Gulch, or a Integralist commonwealth. A destination assumes that human history plods along a singular, linear timeline that will eventually stop. ■ Even on discrete issues, people choose orthodoxies over incremental improvements at their own peril. Orthodox "Greens" reject nuclear power even though it is the only plausible intermediate-term alternative to fossil fuels. Focusing on environmental orthodoxy, California legislators voted to ban gas-powered yard equipment even though the state's electrical grid remains notoriously fragile. Gold bugs adhere to orthodox views of the money supply, even though gold production rises and falls and monetary-supply flexibility repeatedly demonstrates itself to be a vital tool for avoiding economic depressions. ■ Principles are essential, but principles that calcify into unbreakable orthodoxies are hazardous. A principle is a matter of right and wrong, and imposes upon the principled party to do the right thing, even if the consequences are bad. Orthodoxies are built upon assertions of what is right for the orthodox, all other consequences notwithstanding. And while principles may be adjusted or weighed comparatively ("tell the truth" is a great principle, but it should yield to "save a life"), orthodoxies are not so flexible. ■ Orthodoxies usually break down into disputes over purity and adherence -- usually to the words of a long-dead prophet. That's because a fixed orthodoxy usually has to attach itself to something that will not change, and living people can't help but change. (That's why invoking the name of Ronald Reagan held such power in the Republican Party after his death.) An orthodoxy with a living prophet tends to become a cult of personality, which is just as morally hazardous. ■ But community requires consensus -- or at least, a process for building consensus. As Reagan himself is quoted by Haley Barbour as saying, someone "who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally; he's not a 20 percent traitor". Strict orthodoxy, though easy to adopt, leaves no room for adaptation and growth over time. A decent respect for the complexity of our times demands that we bring our decent principles to bear on most public matters, but steer clear of becoming so wedded to orthodoxy that we reject the necessary compromises of life's incremental steps forward.

October 23, 2021

Threats and Hazards Don't call this "Cold War II"

With the news that China has conducted at least one hypersonic missile test and the peculiar response from the White House spokesperson that "We welcome stiff competition, but [...] we do not want that competition to veer into conflict", the punditry game of the hour is to ask "Are we entering a new cold war?". ■ A fixation on framing the problem in the convenient frameworks of the past is no way to seek the answers to the challenges of the present. This is not to say that history is of no use -- it most certainly is. But as Winston Churchill put it, "Past experience carries with its advantages the drawback that things never happen the same way again. Otherwise I suppose life would be too easy." ■ Just as it was a misnomer to classify World War II as a sequel to World War I, it would be a mistake to classify the power conflict between the United States and China as a mere repeat of the Cold War that defined half of the 21st Century. We need a different language altogether for what is already quite evidently underway: A low-grade, long-term, multi-dimensional class of friction between two powerful countries. ■ Dwight Eisenhower once recited what he called an "old truism" (attributed to Carl von Clausewitz) that "war is a mere continuation of political policy in the field of force." The Cold War indeed involved the "field of force" -- almost to the exclusion of any other effects that linger in memory today. The conflicts of the Cold War involved U-2 spyplanes and naval blockades, proxy wars and an Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union was thought to have spent 15% of its GDP on the military in the 1980s. ■ That conflict was big, and it was existential. It's why the mythical "red phone" offered a hotline from capital to capital. But this time, some things are different. ■ There are certainly hard-power, field-of-force aspects to the relationship between the United States and China. That's why freedom of navigation exercises near Taiwan matter, and why calls made by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to China captured so much attention. It would be stupid to discount the potential for any number of discrete conflicts (like the disposition of Taiwan) to lead to a "hot war". ■ But unlike the Cold War, the present conflict involves ordinary users of apps like TikTok, NBA players with opinions on Tibet, and cable TV channels beaming propaganda into 30 million American homes. It extends from hacking millions of US government worker identities to debt financing for infrastructure around the world. ■ Economic supply chains are deeply interdependent, the Internet is global (despite the Great Firewall), biological contagions can achieve pandemic status in days, space junk can rain down anywhere, and climate change is a universally shared risk that no country can solve alone. For all of these reasons, and many others, the tactics of conflict between powerful countries are substantially different than those of the past. ■ That doesn't mean we should abandon a well-informed, historically-literate approach to a grand strategy about how to see it through. Human nature is, after all, pretty much the same as it always was. But it does mean that labeling this as some kind of "Cold War II" is bound to give the public a vastly wrong impression about how it will affect them, what commitments they will be asked to make, and what their expectations ought to be for a tidy outcome. ■ There is no convenient metaphor, and thus it requires a new name altogether. Just as Churchill -- he of "things never happen the same way again" -- was the first to label the Iron Curtain, someone is overdue to name what this is today. A monster with no name is doubly frightening.

October 25, 2021

News Straying from the straight and narrow

An idea from psychology that has ascended in the first decades of this century is the "paradox of choice", which suggests that people may find themselves overwhelmed by having too many options and would often be more satisfied with fewer. Some economists have a hard time with this argument, since consumer optimization often requires many alternatives (and because greater customization often leaves people obviously happier). ■ Yet there does seem to be some kind of "paradox of choice" at play when it comes to our belief systems. Despite having greater access via the Internet and a spectacular array of media choices to a more diverse array of opinions than at any time in human history, surveys appear to document a more bimodal political landscape in America than almost anywhere else people live under democratic rule. Do people simply find themselves having too many available options? ■ It's perfectly fine if free people choose not to have strong opinions regarding their self-government. In fact, a calm, generally-satisfied public is probably a signal that things are mostly going well. But if people are attracted to escalatory cycles of increasingly rigid orthodoxies of political economy, then something is going wrong. ■ The problem isn't even (necessarily) with the exact orthodoxies in play. The problem is with adherence to political or ideological orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxies are hazardous because facts change, technologies change, and resources change. And when they change, the responses need to be appropriate to the circumstances. As anyone visiting the Jefferson Memorial can read, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence also wrote that "[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times." ■ The effort never to stray from the "right" opinion (that is, from orthodoxy) too often leads people to reject incremental growth and intermediate measures that go in the right direction. And directions matter, particularly because no human civilization can possibly reach a final destination. There is no Utopia to be had, whether it's a workers' paradise, Galt's Gulch, or a Integralist commonwealth. A destination assumes that human history plods along a singular, linear timeline that will eventually stop. ■ Even on discrete issues, people choose orthodoxies over incremental improvements at their own peril. Orthodox "Greens" reject nuclear power even though it is the only plausible intermediate-term alternative to fossil fuels. Focusing on environmental orthodoxy, California legislators voted to ban gas-powered yard equipment even though the state's electrical grid remains notoriously fragile. Gold bugs adhere to orthodox views of the money supply, even though gold production rises and falls and monetary-supply flexibility repeatedly demonstrates itself to be a vital tool for avoiding economic depressions. ■ Principles are essential, but principles that calcify into unbreakable orthodoxies are hazardous. A principle is a matter of right and wrong, and imposes upon the principled party to do the right thing, even if the consequences are bad. Orthodoxies are built upon assertions of what is right for the orthodox, all other consequences notwithstanding. And while principles may be adjusted or weighed comparatively ("tell the truth" is a great principle, but it should yield to "save a life"), orthodoxies are not so flexible. ■ Orthodoxies usually break down into disputes over purity and adherence -- usually to the words of a long-dead prophet. That's because a fixed orthodoxy usually has to attach itself to something that will not change, and living people can't help but change. (That's why invoking the name of Ronald Reagan held such power in the Republican Party after his death.) An orthodoxy with a living prophet tends to become a cult of personality, which is just as morally hazardous. ■ But community requires consensus -- or at least, a process for building consensus. As Reagan himself is quoted by Haley Barbour as saying, someone "who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally; he's not a 20 percent traitor". Strict orthodoxy, though easy to adopt, leaves no room for adaptation and growth over time. A decent respect for the complexity of our times demands that we bring our decent principles to bear on most public matters, but steer clear of becoming so wedded to orthodoxy that we reject the necessary compromises of life's incremental steps forward.

October 26, 2021

News Have a wonderful day

At the close of a transaction in a store or a restaurant, Americans are accustomed to a courtesy farewell -- something along the lines of "have a nice day". Sometimes it's a trademark phrase, like Chick-fil-A's "My pleasure". While it may be perfunctory, it's still usually nice to hear -- in the way that, for the most part, commerce makes us courteous to other people. ■ From time to time, the alert consumer hears a variation, like "Have a wonderful day." We often use "wonderful" to express a particularly sunny sentiment, but perhaps we ought to take it more often to its roots. ■ "Wonderful" has an obvious etymology: It literally means to be full of wonder. The word has softened a great deal in ordinary use, and "wonderful" now is generally used merely as a synonym for "really good". Still a nice way to greet someone, but the word is underachieving. ■ That underachievement ("semantic bleaching", in the words of Merriam-Webster) is a shame, because life in the 21st Century is filled to the brim with subjects of wonder. Commercial airline flights virtually never crash anymore. Cars can drive themselves. Phones can translate speech into foreign languages in real time. ■ High technology isn't the only source of wonder. The world has leapt from 75% electrification to 90% in just 20 years. Extreme poverty is close to being eradicated, as is polio. The cost to produce renewable energy is collapsing and more of it is being produced than ever. ■ Social wonders continue, too: Women have achieved educational parity with men in the American workforce. Even in a year of extreme social and personal stresses, the notable murder spike in 2020 not only looks like an aberration, even the spike produced a rate almost half of what it was a quarter-century ago. Meaningful majorities in the United States and several other countries approve of increasing diversity and gender equality. ■ And nature would still be full of wonder, even without human help. Marine biodiversity has shown itself remarkably resilient when humans ease the pressure we place on habitats. There have been four dwarf planets discovered just within our own Solar System (in addition to Pluto). And scientists are still struggling to measure the unfathomable size of the Universe. ■ To consider these facts with appropriate wonder is not to excuse or ignore the many ways in which further progress is desirable on all of these fronts and more. But just as practicing gratitude is a psychological technique that yields lots of good results, practicing wonder is a worthwhile way to maintain perspective in a world where things often go wrong from day to day. It may be hard to have a wonder-filled day every day, but reserving time and mental space for small deposits of wonder is good for us.

October 27, 2021

News TAG -- who's it?

The headlines blare that New York City, under the charge of outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, is going to shut down the gifted and talented program in its public schools. Critics of the program, which starts with a screening test in kindergarten, argue that it results in a de facto form of racial segregation. ■ Setting aside the inevitable obstacles to effectively managing a district of 1,094,138 students, the plan appears -- at least from the reporting -- to conflate the need for reform with the need for shutdown. The school district says it plans to "launch 'Brilliant NYC,' a blueprint for accelerated learning for all elementary students in New York City". The way New York is handling talented and gifted education appears to need meaningful change (after all, kindergarten is too early to expect sound selections to be made), but it doesn't have to flatten its approach altogether just to make things better. ■ Why do we have TAG (talented and gifted) programs in the first place? The obvious answer would appear to be that it's for the kids themselves. But it's also true that, if we're doing it right, those programs also ultimately benefit society as a whole. It's easy to make the mistake of thinking of TAG programs as a reward for high-performing students. The world knows how to deal with the person who conscientiously does their work day in and day out and is highly capable of earning straight-A's. TAG programs should be intended for students who fall substantially above the mean -- as in, a standard deviation or two -- in at least some observable way. ■ Having that much cognitive talent is indeed a gift. But it can also complicate a person's ability to adjust along a normal timescale. The familiar awkwardness of coming-of-age stories can be even more complicated for those who are already noticeably different from their own peers as they are growing up. A child whose cognitive development is out of step with their chronological peers needs at least some different attention in order to achieve healthy and well-balanced development. If we define everything on the basis of chronological age, then a gifted child is "advanced" in their cognitive development. But turn that on its head: If we standardize based on the child's apparent cognitive age, then the typical gifted child stands a good chance of pacing behind their cognitive peers in terms of emotional development. A 10-year-old who thinks like a 16-year-old still has 10-year-old hormones and impulses. Targeting certain specific resources to the attention of these children is in their best interest. ■ But there is a social calculus in effect as well. As Lee Kuan Yew put it, "To be successful, society must maintain a balance between nurturing excellence and encouraging the average to improve. There must be both cooperation and competition between people in the same society." The leaders of a conscientious society will look at their most talented individuals and try to optimize the investments it makes in them as students. ■ That doesn't necessarily mean railroading every gifted child through an accelerated curriculum, either. Stimulation is important, and academic acceleration can pay off in some cases, but other factors matter, too: History is full of examples of gifted individuals who needed time to think and dream in order to produce their greatest output. Differentiated educational opportunities that make the most of individuals' existing gifts and talents is a great way to help produce the most from the raw mental materials that individuals are given at birth. ■ But people who are born with tremendous raw talents usually need help and guidance in learning how to refine and put them to good use. The mind of a genius doesn't come with an owner's manual. And, to put it bluntly, society has a significant self-interest in producing well-adjusted geniuses. So it not only makes sense for the individual student, but also for society more broadly, to approach those differences wisely. ■ As the slogan of the UNCF says, a mind truly is a terrible thing to waste. If New York City (or anyplace else) wants to serve its entire student population well, then it shouldn't take TAG education any more lightly than it would its programming for students at the opposite end of the curve. If the TAG program currently in place is yielding obviously faulty results, then the answer isn't to jettison the program entirely, but to figure out where and why the inequities are entering the picture and to reform the process accordingly.

October 28, 2021

Computers and the Internet Move carefully and leave things better than you found them

Facebook long operated according to the motto "Move fast and break things". When Facebook was 10 years younger and still on the scrappy side of things, that motto conveyed a certain attitude about not being afraid to try complicated technical challenges -- a programmer-friendly ethos, rather than a corporate philosophy. But Facebook isn't so small anymore, and the emerging consensus is that it has been very, very naughty. ■ Thus the announcement that Facebook is rebranding its corporate umbrella is not a surprise. "Meta" will be the parent, and the individual products (including Facebook) will keep their names. The name may be a new coat of paint on the existing order, but what Meta/Facebook really needs is an affirmative philosophy: Rules to follow above all else. "Leave things better than you found them" is available for the taking. ■ Imagine the things an affirmative Facebook could offer: Based on what it already knows (algorithmically), what if it served up individualized recommendations for ways to do good? A "Facebook Goodwill" project could give people pre-screened suggestions for charitable organizations, volunteer opportunities, or simple good deeds that would be suitable to the individual's interests. ■ What if Facebook took its vast database of information on users' interests and produced "Meta Enlightenment"? Daily, bite-sized lessons -- again, thoughtfully curated rather than generated by some mysterious backend artificial intelligence -- in subjects that would not only make the user a little smarter, but perhaps also a little happier. People already look for micro-learning opportunities (think Duolingo and its 5-minute language lessons), but Facebook could again use its powerful News Feed platform to put that learning right in front of users. ■ Or, imagine perhaps a Facebook Philosophy entry, not hidden somewhere elusive, but right there in the News Feed, serving up curated thoughts designed to help people think about their place in the world. Facebook's potentate said in 2018 that he was going to concentrate on "making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent". Might not that start with exposing people not to echo chambers but to ideas that might lead to "well-spent" time? ■ Any one of these ideas may sound heavy-handed -- until one realizes that Facebook is already making these choices, with the content it serves up algorithmically. One might even say "unthinkingly". Making the choices behind Facebook Goodwill, Meta Enlightenment, or Facebook Philosophy would expose the company to scrutiny and criticism, as people would (rightly) ask whether virtuous choices were being made. ■ But in deciding not to consciously leave things better than they find them, but merely to serve up ever-increasing "engagement", Meta/Facebook is already making those choices, but shoving the responsibility over to computers, rather than to people. To deflect a choice is still to make a choice. Better to have transparency and accountability for those choices than to let them happen on autopilot. Because that hands-off approach is how you break things.

October 29, 2021

News Pick up the pace

Fast talking gets a bad rap. Look up the synonyms for "fast talker", and you'll encounter words like "phony", "scammer", and "swindler". That's because we associate the phrase with someone achieving their malicious ends through deception, and saying things too quickly for another to comprehend is an obvious means of deceit. ■ And yet, in the literal sense, there's nothing wrong with a high rate of speech. The average pace of American speech is about 150 words per minute. Yet the average reading pace for non-fiction is estimated to be 238 words per minute. The gap between those two values is substantial: Assuming both methods were used to deliver the same content, reading would be 58% faster. ■ Despite this, we often choose to consume new information not by reading, but by attending lectures, seminars, and workshops -- hypothetically subjecting ourselves to a much slower pace of information transfer. Why? Besides the obvious social rewards that come from being together with others, it's often plainly easier to sit and digest information delivered by a live person than to spend the equivalent amount of time reading. ■ At least some of this difference is due to the relative cognitive loads of the two methods of delivery. Processing the written word to store it in memory takes some effort; that's why active reading techniques are recommended for people who are reading to learn. ■ An oral presentation (especially when delivered by a dynamic speaker with the help of visual aids) can substitute for some of the processing required of a lone reader. A speaker can communicate things nonverbally -- through gestures, emphasis, volume, speed, and pitch -- that reader have to infer on their own. ■ But live speakers should still consider consciously picking up the pace. The relative gap between the paces of speech and reading suggests that something is left on the table if a presenter speaks too slowly. An audience giving its undivided attention to a speaker can handle accelerated speech: at least a quarter of podcast listeners voluntarily make use of increased playback speeds. Research has shown that audiences can handle audio content delivered at 1.5x speed without excessive mental strain. ■ If the content has been thoughtfully laid out, there seems to be no good reason for a presenter not to choose a quick pace of delivery -- that is, to be a literal fast-talker. In particular, if attention has been paid to delivering the information in a logical way that scaffolds the new information upon the old, then talking at a lively rate should send the audience a nonverbal signal to pay attention and wall out distractions. ■ In addition to creating a more immersive experience for the audience, a quicker pace can help overcome a seeming paradox. For some complex matters, breaking the idea into smaller pieces and assembling them carefully can add words but decrease the total cognitive load for the learner. Getting rid of jargon and appealing to tools like metaphors can require more words but make the content easier to digest. An energetic presenter taking more words to say things in an audience-friendly way can afford to speak faster than someone droning on through a morass of jargon and excessively complicated language. ■ Some people speak quickly as a symptom of nervousness, and that is clearly counterproductive. But as long as the information is conveyed in a confident, fluid way, a faster-than-normal rate of speech may help the audience to enter a state of flow by engaging their focus. And a well-prepared instructor ought to be able to omit the filler sounds (like "um") that fill time unproductively. In a world where learning more material faster is a matter of some real consequence, perhaps fast talking has been getting less credit than it is due.

November 1, 2021

The United States of America What if Ben Franklin had gotten his religion?

One of the most appealing characteristics of Benjamin Franklin is how such a lofty figure from American history had so many observations about life that, aside from the obvious idiosyncrasies of technology and social mores of the time, sound utterly contemporary to modern ears. Franklin had thoughts about lies spreading through the media, about preachers who strayed from religion, and about the scruples of business partners and rivals. ■ One of the most intriguing ideas Franklin recorded in his autobiography was entered under "Chapter 9: Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection". ■ This plan, which starts as an exercise in his own effort to apply discipline to his own self-improvement, culminates in something that can only be described as a rough outline for a religious organization -- a church, really -- having only the loosest affiliation possible with what usually looks like religion. ■ Franklin's plan for "The Society of the Free and Easy" didn't get very far; he wrote that "I communicated it in part to two young men, who adopted it with some enthusiasm" before he put the idea on the back burner, never to be reanimated. But his purpose in outlining the plan -- "containing, as I thought, the essentials of every known religion, and being free of everything that might shock the professors of any religion" -- was, in a sense, to establish a civic religion in America. ■ Even in admitting its failure to gain traction, Franklin still endorsed it: "I am still of opinion that it was a practicable scheme, and might have been very useful, by forming a great number of good citizens". Considering that about a quarter of Americans are not affiliated with any religion, and that among those who are, many hear overt political exhortations from the pulpit (despite the ban on engaging in campaign activity under the tax code), it's an intriguing theoretical exercise to wonder: What if Franklinism had produced a real church? ■ Would it have survived the last three centuries? Would it have encountered schisms? Would it have produced fundamentalists? Or would it have produced Americans "free from the dominion of vice", as Franklin had hoped?

November 2, 2021

Agriculture Racing the dark to capture the light

In the abstract, Americans are pretty attentive to celebrating harvest season. We celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving with harvest themes, and more than a few distinctly harvest-themed events are put on as well. But in the particular, most people don't have much direct exposure to what harvest season actually means. ■ It's worth noting a peculiarity of the harvest season in places where row crops are collected for energy use -- particularly corn and soybeans in the Upper Midwest. In addition to their uses as food and feed, both of these crops are widely converted into combustible energy sources as ethanol and biodiesel. ■ What makes that conversion particularly interesting is in how much it differs in its production cycle from that of other fuel sources. Oil wells pump oil 365 days a year. Coal is extracted from the ground year-round. Nuclear power knows no seasons. Even renewable sources of power like wind and solar may have seasonal fluctuations, but they operate twelve months out of the year. ■ That's where the row crops collected for fuel are distinctive. Soybeans and corn can really only be harvested in a brief window of time -- after maturity, but ideally before winter sets in. It results in a few weeks of intense work by people who, for the most part, have other things to do. (They have to: The median farm operation isn't a money-maker. This makes the harvest a particularly interesting case of surge labor being put to work. ■ It's not uncommon to venture out into the rural parts of the Upper Midwest and see people harvesting long after the sun has gone down, the giant lights on their combines illuminating the way as a year's work is pulled from the fields before winter comes. Lots of these farmers are showing up after doing a full day's work at something else. Even those who farm full-time generally have a full slate of things to do, especially if they're raising livestock. ■ The harvest represents an intense period of collecting an entire growing season's worth of solar energy and a rush to put it all into a storable format for use later. Elevators fill up and giant mounds are left on the flat ground outside. The scale of it all is so vast that it really can't be compared to anything else. While fields of corn and soybeans lack the magnitude of a cooling tower at a nuclear power plant or the sheer scale of an offshore oil rig, it's an effort on a scale visible from space. Punctuated occasionally by small towns and larger cities, the whole affair is epic as it stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction. ■ And while the work is facilitated by giant machines with labels like John Deere and Fendt, it still has to be conducted by human beings. And so, the rest of us owe them a tip of the cap as they work to complete an entire year's worth of energy collection in a window of time most of us might easily overlook.

November 4, 2021

News Who's driving us down this road?

America's higher educational system is reasonably good at channeling a lot of high-achieving young people into professions where quick thinking is highly valued. Lots of smart students find themselves pointed towards professions like medicine and the law, where professionals like emergency-room physicians and trial lawyers are required to think quickly on their feet. ■ One of the things our system is much poorer at doing is channeling high-performance thinkers into solving long problems -- challenges that aren't solvable on a short timeline, but that require sustained, long-range, expert attention. Find a good student who doesn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer (or some similar profession), and there's a non-trivial chance that their college professors and other advisors are directing them towards a research-type degree. Yet, as has been widely noted, is the job market for tenure-track Ph.D.'s has crumbled to the point where only a small handful of doctoral-level scientists end up in tenure-track academic roles. Many end up in the private sector -- which can be great -- but it isn't immediately obvious that the academic training is really matching the desired occupational outcomes efficiently. ■ Even where job security isn't a problem, the drive to take high-achieving individuals and place them into ever-tightening areas of focus often results in people who are profoundly expert at an extremely narrow field of inquiry come up but who are reluctant to have anything to say outside of their immediate authority. This tends to reflect a general deference to other individuals who may be even more expert in that particular narrow field -- but as much as that can reflect professional courtesy, it can also become a hindrance to having well-informed conversations about important public issues. ■ This can be hazardous if it takes talent and attention away from long-term problems and issues that need multidisciplinary thinking. We have lots of people who are extremely good at laser-like focus on very narrow areas, but in many cases, our big problems need broad-based thinkers who can synthesize imperfect information and remain comfortable with the resulting uncertainty. ■ The field of education has responded to this gap with the development of the educational doctorate, a degree frequently awarded based upon "action research" -- a practice that rewards live experimentation on real-world applications rather than laboratory-style testing. Whether other fields will find themselves open to the same kind of practical doctorates remains to be seen, but one can imagine fields like economics or technology where engaged practitioners may be able to advance the state of the art without a Ph.D.-like focus on theory. ■ Evolution in the way that advanced degrees are granted wouldn't necessarily result in placing more attention on long problems. That requires a reward mechanism -- some way to pay for it. But as problems seem to emerge and grow at relatively faster paces than they did in the past, it's essential to find ways to think even farther ahead. Surprises will always emerge, but if we really do think that the pace of change has accelerated, then thinking about systematic ways of looking farther down the road isn't a luxury; it's a necessity.

November 5, 2021

News So what if a dorm lacks windows?

One of the telltale signs of an unserious thinker is the demonstration that they can't tell the difference between "things I don't like" and "things that are objectively evil". And Charlie Munger's proposed dormitory for the University of California at Santa Barbara has brought lots of unseriousness to light: People are proudly putting their names to assessments like "nightmare", "grotesque", and "a jail". ■ The alarm -- whether serious or not -- is due to the lack of windows in the individual rooms. 94% of the rooms won't have them. Anyone is free to find fault with that design, but only as a matter of personal tastes and preferences. Calling it an "unsupportable" "psychological experiment" is simply too much. ■ People live without exterior windows in a number of environments -- submariners, for instance. And untold numbers of workplaces lack exterior windows, too, from factories to cubicle farms. Objecting to them as a matter of taste is fine, but the real crime isn't whether people are able to have exterior windows in their residences, but whether they are free to do things like learning freely and making choices on their own. The proposed dorm is expected to increase the on-campus housing supply by 50%. Imagine the choice: Live in a private, individual room attached to a shared social space but sacrifice an exterior window, or live in a car. ■ Or, even further, imagine the choice for an international student coming from an unfree country: One might have all the windows they could ever want in an apartment in Xinjiang, but it would be objectively better to have a windowless room at UCSB and the freedom to live away from an oppressive government. One columnist calls the artificial light "dystopian", but the fact is plain: It's perfectly humane to have the freedom to read John Locke or John Stuart Mill by the light of an artificial window. ■ The world isn't perfect, and sensible adults know that trade-offs must be made. It's hard to fathom the thought that the lack of exterior windows would send so many people into apoplexy -- when people willingly pay handsome sums to have interior staterooms aboard cruise ships, and when the point of a collegiate experience is to broaden the mind more than to accommodate a preference to bask in the sun. If a plan like Munger's is what it takes to get more willing minds into a good school, then it's objectively better than the alternative, to deny them the opportunity to grow.

November 7, 2021

Broadcasting Keep on rocking in the free world

The lyrics to R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe" don't make any real sense. The chorus, of course, returns to the phrase again and again, but otherwise the band's debut single never really had anything to do with the international broadcasting agency of the same name. It might have been a missed opportunity. ■ The purpose of Radio Free Europe (the broadcaster) "is to promote democratic values and institutions and advance human rights by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established". And in several of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, Cold-War-era Radio Free Europe reached 30% to 60% of adults every week. ■ There is a nobility of purpose to the handful of international broadcasting agencies that have used the capacity of radio signals to cross borders in order to communicate with people whose governments wanted them to remain in the dark. ■ Humans have a powerful urge to know what's going on. If there's a loud noise, heads turn. If a crowd starts moving, others want to know why. If the lights go out or if storm clouds emerge on the horizon, people are compelled by our nature to look for new information. It is the lack of human interaction that makes solitary confinement so psychologically consequential, and even much milder forms of isolation from "what's happening" are painful to the human psyche. ■ Suppose someone were to apply the mission "to promote democratic values and institutions and advance human rights" not to people living under oppressive regimes, but rather among the public at large in the United States. It is undoubtedly a worthwhile goal: Americans perceive a dearth of faith in democratic institutions generally, and surveys of specific principles of democracy reveal that troublingly large minorities aren't firmly committed to the freedoms of civil society, opposition parties, speech, or the press. ■ In other words, it is sensible to ask what a Radio Free Europe for ourselves might sound like. It would be unlikely to sound similar to either most syndicated talk radio (in which openly anti-democratic voices are overrepresented, especially at the top), nor like the traditional model of public radio (which is gradually learning to broaden its appeal beyond older, left-leaning, and affluent white listeners, but still has work to do). ■ It would need to sound not only broad of mind and curiosity, but also relentlessly live. This is one of the appeals of cable news programming: To have the television tuned to CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC is to feel as though the window is open to the world all the time -- even though those networks tend to have the effect of isolating their viewers inside politics-saturated echo chambers. Life is far more vast than just politics, and it's certainly more than the two-dimensional perspective most often served up in "reporting from Capitol Hill". ■ The mission itself is simple, and more important than we likely give it credit for being. It's a common mistake to think that people are attracted to programming on television and radio because of the content, when in fact most of the appeal -- perhaps 80% of it -- is in the delivery. People are not attracted to Tucker Carlson or Lawrence O'Donnell or Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow because they are saying anything new -- they're tuning in for the equivalent of mental comfort food. ■ If civic-minded funders and organizers really got behind it, a truly vital (as in, both lively and important) programming stream could be created to feed that intense public hunger to feel connected to what's happening right now, while promoting democratic values by talking about the many non-partisan aspects of life, from science and health to money and technology to entertainment and even just the weather. It takes thinking about what ought to be said first, then finding the right fit for how and by whom it could be said in an engaging way. (The BBC has found a way to make a popular show about math; Americans are capable of doing the same.) ■ That we lack such a conversation is a shame, and it's one we once had the initiative to address where it was missing abroad. The evidence is mounting that Americans need to think about looking inward with the same eye to promoting worthwhile values.

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November 8, 2021

Threats and Hazards What's the target?

There is a nugget of wisdom that says "If you only study the last battle, you won't win the next war." That doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile to study the past -- indeed, a thorough knowledge of history is essential in almost every worthwhile field of human endeavor. But circumstances change, and consequently so must the ideas brought to bear on present and future problems. ■ Nobody wants to imagine a shooting war with China. Any kinetic exchange of ordnance has the potential to be unfathomably costly, perhaps on a scale we've never seen before. The United States is a wealthy and technologically sophisticated country, but China's government has increasingly devoted both funding and technological resources to its armament, too. ■ And the potential for crossed signals and other instigators of conflict is vast: Territorial ambiguities are many, tests of those differences are primed to occur at jet speed, and at least some portion of America's policy in the region depends upon "strategic ambiguity". ■ Against this backdrop, it is alarming (even if not especially surprising) to see that China's military is building targets modeled on US aircraft carriers and destroyers in an area where ballistic missiles have been tested. ■ Dwight Eisenhower advised in his first inaugural that "[W]e Americans know and we observe the difference between world leadership and imperialism; between firmness and truculence; between a thoughtfully calculated goal and spasmodic reaction to the stimulus of emergencies." That was nearly 70 years ago. The principle, of course, ought to remain valid today. Yet we shouldn't fall prey to the tunnel vision that would tell us we only have physical targets and kinetic weapons to worry about. ■ It has long been a fiction that China's regime has a long-term plan for the future. It certainly has objectives, but it actual behavior all too often reveals a lack of understanding of the difference between international cooperation and a sort of modern incarnation of mercantilism. It's one thing to have end goals; it's another to have principles that can be trusted to lead to the right destination. ■ We may well be several years into a dangerous game in which we have largely sleep-walked. There is no reason to wait any longer to wake up and think both clearly and broadly about the principles of friendly cooperation and strategic creativity that are urgently needed for our own security.

November 9, 2021

News It's not only what you want, but how

One of the most exceptional documentary series of the modern era was "The Commanding Heights", which came out in 2002. The short series laid out the essence of the 20th Century contest between free markets and Communism, and identified the long, consequential path to a largely globalized economy. ■ In particular, one of the most notable moments featured in the documentary is Margaret Thatcher's visit to Gdansk to meet with the leaders of Poland's Solidarity movement. In a moment she had most likely considered in advance, Thatcher implored the Solidarity leaders not only to know what they wanted, but how they expected to get there. ■ Thatcher's words make for unbeatable advice: "How do you see the process from where you are now to where you want to be? [...] It's not only what you want, but how -- the practical way you see it coming about." She trails off into a recommendation phrased as a hypothetical event: "[W]rite down the ten steps from where you are now to where you want to be." ■ What Thatcher understood deeply was the old maxim: "A dream without a plan is just a wish." And she knew that the difference between those mattered, not only for those with power, but for those around whom power hadn't coalesced yet. More than most other things masquerading as aspects of leadership, the essence of leadership is the plan -- whether ten steps or a few more or less -- and the ability to transmit that plan as a vision which others can share. ■ Thatcher may be out of vogue among those who spend their time railing against the purported "neoliberal consensus", but her essential advice really ought to prevail in some of our most vital debates today. ■ As the UN Climate Change Conference proceeds in Glasgow, there will be talk of achieving climate-change goals like "accelerat[ing] the phase-out of coal" and "accelerat[ing] action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society". Those may be fine goals, but the events of "COP26" will remain esoteric and inaccessible to the general public unless translated into those clear, practical "ten steps from where you are to where you want to be". ■ Determining those steps -- and making them sufficiently achievable that people can actually recognize the changes and measure the progress toward them -- is up to individual leaders in particular countries. It's up to national-level leaders to outline a clear set of achievable steps and then relentlessly beat the drum on the march to their achievement. ■ The same goes for problems like Covid-19. Part of the fatigue that has set in -- and some of the bad blood that has developed -- is because we in the United States really haven't coalesced around a well-articulated vision of what it means to achieve incremental victories along the way to making the disease retreat from "life-altering emergency" to "persistent nuisance". It's obvious that eradication isn't likely to occur (hence the talk of shifting from "pandemic" to "endemic"), but we need to have mileposts along the way. ■ Those mileposts -- like achieving a 60% adult vaccination rate or developing an antiviral drug to make the disease survivable under most conditions -- are crucial for telling people that progress is being made, and for rewarding their commitment to sacrifices along the way. Scientists may need to be cautious, but public leaders need to be able to set achievable goals around the science so that issues like "forever masking" don't become flashpoints that sap the initiative to keep moving ahead. ■ Michael Bloomberg once wrote that "Humans need to see results in time frames they can handle." He was talking mainly about business advice, but it turns out the advice applies to other aspects of life, too. We intrinsically need to know not only where we're going, but how we're going to get there. And, especially on a long path, we need to know that we're making progress along the way. Politicians don't have to agree with Margaret Thatcher's political philosophy to take a page from her playbook. Most certainly, they should.

November 10, 2021

Business and Finance Conglomerates aren't dead -- managers just don't know how to run them

Americans don't really fall in love with corporations, but we do adopt some of them -- less like pets, more like barn cats. We accept their utility and don't mind seeing them remain a little hungry, but otherwise fed well enough to keep doing their work. We don't want them close and cuddly, but a sort of friendly symbiosis is welcome. ■ General Electric is one such barn cat. From having its logo on everyday lightbulbs to its once-giant presence in the Manhattan skyline, GE has long been the default "industrial" name in America. ■ News that GE is breaking up seems like dirt on the grave of the conglomerate structure. The three resulting companies will independently focus on health care, energy, and aviation, which seems to be the kind of thing that financial managers reward today. ■ The conglomerate form has been in retreat for some time -- ITT has broken up twice: First in the 1990s, then again in 2011. Gulf + Western spun off and slimmed down in the 1980s. United Technologies is no longer united. ■ And yet, it's not the conglomerate format itself that is fundamentally flawed. If a corporation can be managed by people with a well-tuned skill for capital allocation, then it makes all kinds of sense to capture the profits of individual companies under a broader corporate umbrella and deploy them where they can earn high returns. Matters like the cost of capital and the prevailing tax policies of a country can make big differences in how much incentive exists to spur the formation of conglomerates, but let's not kid ourselves: Conglomerates exist, even if they don't appear as known companies in the stock market. ■ When a money manager claims to be able to set up an actively-managed mutual fund, a private-equity fund, or even a private "wealth management plan", they're promising that they can assemble groups of businesses under a conglomerate-like umbrella in order to maximize returns. It's not that Americans are opposed to conglomeration -- it's that one form is unpopular and another happens right under our noses without so much as a nod of recognition. If you don't think the $130 billion Fidelity Contrafund is a conglomerate, you're just not using your imagination. ■ A handful of skilled capital-allocators will always have a chance to shine in this world -- people like Royal Little, Bob and Larry Tisch, and Jay and Robert Pritzker. Warren Buffett may be the only household name among them living today, but he won't be the last. As Buffett's partner Charlie Munger said in 2014, "We think the conglomerate model works very well when you do it right." ■ GE may have decided to pull the plug on conglomeration, but don't think that the sun has set on that corporate form altogether. In a sense, some of today's high-tech corporations (like Alphabet) are the likeliest candidates to become the next generation of true conglomerates. But new ones will be formed out of old companies, too. And the better we realize that it isn't the fault of the form that GE and others have broken up, but rather the fault of the managers at the helm, then the more likely it is that we'll adopt a few more useful barn cats along the way.

November 11, 2021

Business and Finance What to do with our sages?

The under-appreciated science of psychology has grown quite a lot in its appreciation of meaningful work, particularly in the last decade. Even though there is vastly more work to do in this field, there is considerable evidence to suggest a widespread desire to feel like constructive, contributing members of human society. This knowledge is particularly illuminating -- and potentially alarming -- in light of the accelerating pace of retirements among the Baby Boomer generation. ■ Nobody is really surprised by the retirement wave; it's been obvious from even a cursory glance at a population pyramid. If there was a surprise involved, it was only that the Covid-19 pandemic came along and accelerated the pace of departure. ■ Surprise or not, as a country and as a culture, the United States needs to consider novel ways of helping people to cultivate that sense of having meaningful work to do. "Unretirement" is a real thing, too: Sometimes out of necessity, but also sometimes out of psychological need. A Pew Research Center review of the data found that, on average, Americans over age 60 spend half their waking hours alone. For many, it's even more than that, especially if they live without a spouse in the home. ■ Everyone needs at least some time alone, but too much time without others can lead to social isolation -- and we've witnessed the consequences of people having too much time to sit by themselves, with social media and mass media filling the connection gap with low-quality pseudo-interaction. ■ Age is often nothing more than an artificial barrier to doing productive things, either at work or in a volunteer environment. Norman Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 at 56 years old, and went on to work into his 90s. Betty White has acting credits in her late 90s. Benjamin Franklin was, at 81, the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention -- and no slouch. ■ What we don't do very well is find roles for our sages -- both within our working environment and outside it (where much of life is lived). It's hard for firms and organizations to grow if people cannot see a viable path to senior leadership, which is why companies often have executives step aside in their 60s. But there really must be sensible ways to help people engage in meaningful productive activity even when it's time for the next generation to take the reins. (Prince Charles, about to turn 73, would likely agree.) ■ Senator Ben Sasse has spoken eloquently of the need to address the matching of people to meaningful work, which is a challenge already in an economy that is growing more skill-dependent all the time. We need to be conscious, too, of the generational dimension at play: Not only will people need to find ways to adapt and grow while they are in the conventional workforce, many will seek meaningful work (and work-like) things to do after reaching conventional retirement age. It is a double-sided coin, too: In order to remain a valuable contributor, most people will have to continue learning new skills along the way. Outside of hereditary monarchs, most occupations inevitably evolve with time. (Good news for Charles, but bad for everyone else.) ■ There has to be something better than just tacking the word "emeritus" to a person's last career and having them fade out. This is not something easily resolved by a big bill passed through Congress; it's likely to be more responsive to a bottom-up approach. But finding a place for our sages that doesn't look like a permanent Spring Break trip could well be one of the most useful things American business thinkers could do, not just for the economy, but for the well-being of society.

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November 12, 2021

The United States of America Are you someone's type?

Even decent institutions sometimes cave to the pressure to generate buzz by putting clickbait on the Internet, and there's no surer way to get engagement than by promising that people can discover something about their own identities by taking a quiz. The Pew Research Center -- an honorable outfit -- has offered just such a purported window for self-discovery with their political typology quiz. ■ The quiz itself isn't particularly good nor bad; it is, as all such quizzes are, fairly reductionist. The first question asks nothing more than whether the quiz-taker would rather have a "smaller" or "bigger" government. Vast enlightenment does not follow. In its reporting on the use of this instrument to survey a sample of American adults, Pew says it can identify nine "typologies" of American voters, arranged on a conventional left-right spectrum. ■ The problem with bunching people as "Faith and Flag Conservatives" and "Democratic Mainstays" and "Stressed Sideliners" isn't that people are immune to this kind of bunching; it's obvious that American political parties are as coalitional as their European counterparts, with the difference being merely that Americans form coalitions before our general elections rather than after. ■ No, the real problem is that the typologies aren't very illustrative. A far more interesting taxonomy of American politics would survey who among us are "Wilsonian Activists", "Jacksonian Populists", or "Madisonian Federalists". ■ A joke? Not at all. American politics really don't change as much as we think they do. The individual issues may vary with the times, but people tend to align with certain consistent themes: Whether they want an activist government that tells them all of the ills from which it will offer to free them, or a limited government that leaves them free to make their own decisions. Whether they want to cast their lots with the will of a majority, or to stand up for pluralism as a good in and of itself that sometimes trumps a popular vote. Whether they want an America that looks after itself and its own regardless of the world around it, or one that engages with the international community in the interest of buttressing a favorable order in the long run even when it comes at a short-term cost. ■ Politicians and parties change positions, sometimes on a dime. But finding the deeper instincts, predispositions, and beliefs that animate how a person relates to the very idea of politics would actually tell a lot more than whatever this year's passing flavor of "typology" happens to be. ■ Just for example, a pro-trade, limited-government internationalist would have been on the right up until a hot minute ago, but those views hardly square in a coalition with those the Pew survey calls the "Populist Right" and "Faith and Flag Conservatives". "Right" and "left" are not only relative terms, they're so malleable that we can hardly agree upon what "conservative" and "liberal" even mean. ■ It may be a little too easy to slip into seeing everything that happens in America today through the lenses of Alexis de Tocqueville and the Federalist Papers, but they probably have more resonance in describing the "how" and "why" of what many American voters actually think -- even if the voters themselves are not conscious of the influences -- than anything that seeks to reduce ideas down to a simplified left-right spectrum. ■ Humans, it turns out, are animated by human nature. And human nature changes far less than the winds of technological progress and current events. It wouldn't hurt us to be more conscious of anchoring our understanding of identities in those things that remain steady, if not permanent, about who we are. Not that useful as clickbait, but far more predictive of behavior in the long run.

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November 15, 2021

Health Who's looking after our brains?

If vaccines merely reduced the amount of total human suffering in the world, that would be enough to commend them to widespread use. But they don't do just that: For communicable diseases, they can be exceptionally cost-effective measures. If a Covid-19 vaccine costing less than $50 a dose cuts just one $42,200 hospitalization in a hundred, that's still a huge net return of more than 8:1. ■ But vaccines aren't the only preventative medicines. While we're paying acute attention to one particular public-health event, it's worthwhile to examine whether we ought to be looking to other circumstances where small investments in prevention could have highly-leveraged returns. The fluoridation of public water, for instance, pays off 20:1 in dental-treatment savings. ■ We ought to give serious consideration to the possibility that society could end up with an attractive return on investment if we were to institute a prevention-first approach to mental wellness. ■ The consequences of the pandemic have been far more than just physical. The social and emotional consequences have been such that the American Academy of Pediatrics and other professional organizations published a statement to "declare a National State of Emergency in Children's Mental Health". ■ Because we are social beings, we have a greater interest in one another's mental well-being than in almost any other aspect of health. Another person's broken ankle, root canal, or kidney disease represents a misfortune, but it rarely has broader consequences for other people. The health of our brains, by contrast, can affect others quite a lot. ■ As Americans, we have an utterly terrible track record of approaching mental health with the seriousness and objectivity it deserves. The terrible and nearly universal consequences of the pandemic are such that, at long last, perhaps we are gaining some ground on realizing that mental wellness isn't an on/off switch, in which everything is fine unless diagnosed otherwise. Everyone lives on multiple continua of mental wellness, from conditions that emerge from the chemical structure of the brain through environmental factors, from the permanent to the temporary. And all of them are worthy of respectful attention rather than stigma. ■ The brain is a powerful organ, responsible for 20% to 25% of a normal adult's metabolism and 100% of their consciousness. The proportional physiological demand is even greater in children. And since the overall state of the brain cannot be as easily measured as blood pressure, we ought to be prepared to invest accordingly in seeking out thoughtful ways to ask that most basic of human questions: How are you doing? ■ A stethoscope can't really answer that question, so it's well worth considering what kinds of specialists we ought to be cultivating -- and perhaps even funding -- so that we don't accept as "normal" a serious shortage of necessary professional care. If it's sensible for people to go in for a physical checkup at the doctor's office once a year or to visit the dentist for semiannual cleanings, then wouldn't it also be sensible for everyone to have a therapeutic check of their mental wellness at least once a year, too? Just as we consider the "physical" a routine part of life, so we ought to consider how a "mental" should be just as commonplace, too -- long before we reach a state of "national emergency".

November 16, 2021

Business and Finance The human computers at the economic helm

It seems never to fail that whenever the word "inflation" enters the contemporary conversation, the challenge of the Federal Reserve's "dual mandate" comes to the forefront. This dual mandate is an assignment from Congress to simultaneously seek maximum employment and price stability. ■ Critics find some easy historical references to support them, like Matthew 6:24 ("No one can serve two masters") and the laundry list of two-front wars that exhausted the states fighting them. ■ Yet the world is full of dual mandates (and even multifactor mandates), and nothing about them is necessarily impossible to execute. They do, however, demand some modesty about how we approach them and how much we can expect of the outcomes. ■ Purchasing a vehicle, for instance, isn't something that comes down to just one dimension: The choice is usually a balance of capability (carrying the right number of passengers and the right type of cargo), fuel efficiency, resale value, and comfort, among other values individuals are free to weigh. If a single purchasing decision requires such a dynamic evaluation, surely so does the economy -- the aggregate of all discrete purchasing decisions. ■ Milton Friedman famously hypothesized that the money supply would ideally be set impartially and dispassionately by a computer to respond to obtainable economic data. A stable, predictable rate of increase in the money supply (as envisioned by Friedman) would be ideal. Yet, even a perfectly divined program for calculating the size of that money supply would require constant human intervention: Someone would have had to program it to analyze inputs and outputs in the first place, and then recurring interventions would be necessary to update it to reflect new judgments about how to value those inputs and outputs. The price of leaded gas no longer matters, but the price of a smartphone does. ■ In other words, a dispassionate computer may seem ideal, but it is impossible to remove the humans from the system. We create the data, measure it, and decide how important it is -- even artificial intelligence can't be trusted to do that for us. And what the Federal Reserve is being asked to do right now is a gargantuan task. The money supply grew in extraordinary ways to get past the pandemic shock of 2020, and Americans have been behaving strangely with our money ever since 2008, moving our dollars slower than at any time in modern history. ■ Any change to that velocity of money is going to have a hugely magnified impact. As with most money matters, leverage counts. And in this case, the leverage of a big supply of money moving anywhere close to historical rates (rather than at the extremely abnormal snail's pace of the last 13 years) could make it hard even for a highly-skilled Federal Reserve to pull away the punch bowl just as the party gets warmed up. ■ That's neither an enviable position to be in, nor a condition anyone can be expected to navigate deftly. And it all takes place against that second part of the dual mandate -- maximum employment -- which is tough to measure against a long-term decline in the labor force participation rate (in no small part due to generational turnover) overlapping with a one-time shock adjustment downward, from which it does not appear that a full recovery is going to take place. Some people left the workforce in 2020 and just may not ever come back. ■ Someone will soon be nominated to chair the Federal Reserve for the next term, and it could be the incumbent, Jerome Powell. Whoever it is will likely have to navigate one of the most complex (and highest-stakes) economic experiments of all time, balancing the interests of a big population living on investments and fixed incomes (and thus historically hypersensitive to inflation) with a large wave of early-career workers with high expectations for career opportunities and economic expansion. ■ If the Federal Reserve had only a dual mandate to navigate, it would be a challenge -- but to respond to both in the midst of competing intergenerational interests and unprecedented changes in fundamental data will take a great deal of wisdom and more than a little bit of luck. The closer they can emulate the steadiness of Friedman's computer while making necessary adjustments to the programming along the way, the better for all of us.

November 17, 2021

Weather and Disasters Check the radar

If it is indeed true that a changing climate is likely to cause a greater frequency of extreme or severe weather events, then we ought not only to take steps to try to reduce the causes but also to mitigate the effects. (Besides, unless China's output of carbon dioxide is set to be radically curtailed, even if the United States achieves net-zero emissions, the situation will still get worse.) ■ One (relatively) small investment that could help is to increase the number of National Weather Service radar installations, particularly in the Midwest and in other locations prone to the most extreme events, like tornadoes. It's perhaps surprising but true that large portions of Tornado Alley (and adjacent regions) remain far outside the effective low-elevation reach of modern Doppler radar installations. ■ The problem isn't one that can be overcome with technology, because its cause is the curvature of the planet. Earth is round, which means that any straight line projected laterally from anywhere close to the surface in one location will ultimately end up elevated well above points far away. This is a particular problem when it comes to severe weather, because we care less about what's happening way up high than we care about what's happening close to the ground. ■ And while it's possible to infer some things about what's happening close to the ground from the signals bouncing back from high up in the clouds, it's better to get the data than to "read between the lines". There's good reason why some of the most sophisticated tornado researchers have portable radar units they can deploy right up close to the action. But while this research is fascinating and has great potential, it's not practical to hope that a portable Doppler will be in the right place at the right time to capture an emerging storm. They're tools for research, not for 24/7 surveillance. ■ Much is said about the consequences of climate change on communities that are, for one reason or another, regarded as disadvantaged. At present, your chances of having good coverage from a radar system are pretty good if you live in a big population center, and your chances of being left with lesser coverage tend to be stronger if you're in a more remote location. Improving the radar coverage for those outlying areas would be one way to offer a form of equity that may be growing in importance if we truly are on the verge of seeing a more extreme weather environment. ■ It wouldn't seem to cost all that much in the grand scheme of things -- certainly not against the backdrop of a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. In Iowa, the gaps in near-surface radar coverage could probably be filled just by adding installations at Storm Lake, Mason City, and Vinton (midway between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo) -- places each about 100 miles away from the nearest installations, and located where they could serve populations suitably large to make the coverage helpful. Similar sites could be named for other states with high severe-weather potential. ■ Plenty of other technological advances are either here or on the way that will help to make forecasting and real-time weather surveillance better. But filling some of the gaps in our coverage -- and getting all of the most tornado-prone parts of the country covered down to the 3,000-foot elevation -- seems like the kind of investment to begin taking seriously now, before the worst of the long-range forecasts may come to bear.

November 18, 2021

Computers and the Internet For our own good, we'll have to become less judgmental

The atmosphere of the Internet Age means that it's almost impossible to go through a week (or even a day) without leaving behind some kind of digital footprint. Text messages, Facebook comments, Tweets, Instagram captions, emails, Reddit comments, blog posts, and seemingly countless other vectors make it possible to put a comment on the record, even unintentionally. Even those who aren't trying to leave behind a digital record can easily and inadvertently do so by making an announcement in a church bulletin, responding to a public official in a format subject to FOIA, or speaking up at a PTA meeting where minutes are taken. What happens in the analog world still ends up being digitized at a high rate. ■ It wouldn't matter quite so much if it weren't for the compounding factors of persistence and searchability. That offhand blog post from Y2K could easily have been archived by the Wayback Machine or cached by Google, and if you don't know how to ask, it may never be removed. Searching through the past may have been daunting before, but decades-old newspapers are available from any smartphone or laptop, and can be searched en masse in an instant. No longer is the past lost to old file drawers full of microfiche. ■ So not only is it easier to unintentionally (or unthinkingly) create new content in this age than at any time in the past, that content can be replicated and stored forever and searched with increasing ease. Artificial intelligence will soon swallow the world's massive archives of audio and video recordings, translate them into text, and make them infinitely searchable, as well. ■ As a result, we need to become, by default, more forgiving of the things that people say and write. One ill-considered or malformed comment on Twitter could easily be seen by more people (and, even if deleted, live indefinitely as a screenshot) than a letter to the editor in the New York Times a mere generation ago. It's so easy to stumble into 15 minutes of fame that there is a stock response to the experience of going viral: "Check out my SoundCloud", itself a reference to even further grasping at celebrity. But the strange alchemy of this chronic drive to "create content" and the strange way that content sticks around practically forever is leading to a whole cottage industry in the weaponization of words. The internecine warfare of the College Democrats of America, fueled by text messages and tweets from its combatants' childhood days, is merely a taste of the emerging status quo. ■ Put simply: If you expect anyone to grow up now or in the future without having left anything regrettable on the record in their past, you're bound to be disappointed. Either they will have been carefully groomed by their parents from birth (think modern-day versions of Joseph Kennedy's clan), or they will have been so milquetoast and unremarkable as youths that no one will have paid them any attention (and thus would have been unlikely to find their way into interesting roles). If we intend not to become a nation led by weirdos, we're going to have to make a cultural habit of turning a blind eye to more of the indiscretions of youth. It's unlikely that the rising generations will actually do more stupid things than their predecessors -- they'll just be documented digitally. ■ None of this means we should give a free pass to anything a person says under the cover of youth, but it does mean we ought to recognize that the entire point of isolating juveniles from some of the consequences of the adult world is to help them learn to navigate choices and ideas. Not only are youthful brains not fully developed, but they simply haven't had the time to cultivate wisdom. An idea may seem appealing merely because it's the first one to which the young person has gotten exposure -- whether it's from Karl Marx or Ayn Rand. It takes time to seek out, digest, and draw conclusions from competing points of view. If we didn't intrinsically believe that, then we'd repeal the portions of the Constitution that set increasing age thresholds for serving in the House, Senate, and Presidency. If we want well-developed leadership in the future (and even right now), then easing our expectations of the words of others would be a decent start.

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November 19, 2021

Health Nobody likes a latrine

It's easier to joke about uncomfortable topics than to address them directly. Watching "Weekend at Bernie's" or "Six Feet Under" is preferable to most people than having a frank conversation about death. Using scatological words to express frustration or as a punchline is far more common than speaking directly about the value of sanitation. As a result, it's hard for a message like World Toilet Day to break through. The natural defense mechanism against discomfort gets right in the way of the gravity of the matter. ■ Yet still: Out of a global population of 7.8 billion, a full 3.6 billion people live without safe sanitation facilities. ■ Sometimes it helps to reframe a problem to give it proper perspective. If instead of it being a chronic problem for some of the world and almost never a problem for the rest, what if the entire world had sanitation facilities, but they failed to work 46% of the time? Any air traveler knows that you wouldn't want to take even a 10% chance of being stuck next to a malfunctioning lavatory, much less a 46% chance. The very notion would be intolerable. ■ One of the main obstacles to taking the problem seriously, at least in the United States, is that we usually punt the issue of water quality to authorities whose mission falls under the banner of "the environment". Water quality is supervised at the Federal level by the EPA -- the Environmental Protection Agency. And in many states, the regulatory authority for those services is named a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). But the plain fact is that Americans don't really care about the environment. We pay it considerable lip service, but we don't treat it as a priority because it falls into the tragedy of the commons. ■ What we do care about is our health. And the simple proof is to look at virtually any household budget. The amount spent on health (whether for health insurance, doctor's visits, gym memberships, fitness equipment, diet foods, nutritional supplements, or any other related goods and services) is virtually certain to outstrip the amount spent on the environment. This gap is why the safe supply and disposal of water must be addressed as a matter of public health, not the environment, if it is ever to be taken seriously. ■ Rare American encounters with malfunctioning sanitation systems often become the fodder for jokes in late-night monologues and radio morning shows, like the 2013 Carnival Triumph debacle. But well-functioning sanitary systems protect people from dreadful diseases like cholera and dysentery, not to mention making it possible to wash our hands and clean our dishes. The World Health Organization estimates that the death toll is over 800,000 a year from the diseases left behind when waste isn't safely conveyed away. ■ Progress is being made on a global basis, but not very quickly. Surely not as quickly as one might expect for the cause of more than 800,000 deaths per year. The enormous, double-decker Airbus A380 carries as many as 575 passengers. If one of those jumbo jets were crashing every six hours and killing everyone aboard, the world would take action immediately. Yet that same toll is being taken by the world gap in sanitation, and the best we can seem to muster is to label it "World Toilet Day". ■ Safe, reliable sanitation is clearly a poverty-linked problem, but taking it seriously demands that the wealthy countries of the world see it as it is: A matter of health, not of the environment -- and a matter of real consequence, rather than one to avoid with the help of punchlines. Words matter. Awareness of the problem is clearly necessary -- but a health-centered, pro-sanitation mindset is the only path ahead, and that change must begin at home.

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November 22, 2021

Computers and the Internet What does "meta" mean?

When people use the phrase "Orwellian", they often intend for it to suggest a surveillance state -- one in which "Big Brother is watching you". While there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the creeping surveillance state -- especially as it is imposed both at home and abroad by authoritarian regimes like the one with power in China -- that isn't the only way in which circumstances can be Orwellian. ■ The surveillance state is indeed an instrument of terror, but so is the other aspect of the Orwellian condition: One in which the language itself is bent so as to destroy meaning and vex understanding. It is in this latter sense -- perhaps even more than the former one -- that we should be alarmed by the "Metaverse". ■ While the corporate name change at Facebook to "Meta" is largely interpreted as a matter of smoke and mirrors, the name itself is Orwellian in the latter sense. Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his announcement of the name change that "I used to study Classics, and the word 'meta' comes from the Greek word meaning 'beyond'." ■ The notion is that this "metaverse" (in which Facebook/Meta wants to be a major stakeholder) will be a sort of one-stop shop "to do almost anything you can imagine", a virtual enhancement -- or perhaps a surrogate -- for the world we currently recognize as reality. ■ But in the sense it is being pitched, the "metaverse" is less the removal of arbitrary limitations and more of a constraint around an experience of reality. It's really a "microverse" -- like a snow globe, or a ship in a bottle. ■ The distinction is important. Like a ship in a bottle, an online environment can be crafted with precision. It can be made nearly perfect. It can even represent an entirely mythical or fantastical place. But it cannot be the reality a person inhabits completely. It is not "beyond" -- it can only be "in addition to", and only then, within constraints. ■ Some connections facilitated by the Internet have a wonderful place in our world. The ability to share interests, to overcome artificial barriers (whether of geography, physical abilities, or of brain differences), or to maintain contact with acquaintances is all quite good. ■ But no "metaverse" can take the place of meaningful human connections that are untethered to whatever some computer programmers in Menlo Park are willing to hack. It is generally good to have more people who will celebrate your triumphs and commiserate in your sorrows. But there is no number of acquaintances that can fully substitute for having people who would be willing to donate a kidney if you needed one. No metaverse is required to sustain those relationships -- nor can it create them at scale (the aid and influence of dating apps notwithstanding). ■ So, while we should be cautious about the surveillance risks of our online interactions, we ought as well to be skeptical of the other kind of Orwellianism, too: The one that says technology can substitute for reality by going beyond it. Like a ship in a bottle, a digital microverse may be a thing of beauty -- but it is inevitably smaller than the real thing.

November 23, 2021

News You can't be too tired to argue

No matter how left-wing a person's politics might be, one of the most illiberal things they can do is refuse others the right to be wrong. This distinction is important, especially because Americans far too often substitute the word "liberal" when we actually mean "left". Real liberalism -- that is, open-mindedness and willingness to tolerate the opinions of others -- is not a mindset that fits tidily into a left-right spectrum. There are illiberal right-wingers and illiberal left-wingers. And, unfortunately for our times, there are many of both. ■ Lots of people change their minds over the course of time and it's important to give them room to have been wrong in the past so that they can correct themselves going into the future. Regrettably for our times, there is an entire genre of online commentary devoted to haranguing people over past choices and taking the time to insist that they are too tired to argue. ■ The failure to give others the room to be wrong -- and, more importantly, to correct themselves and acknowledge that their minds minds have changed -- is a matter of mental fixity. If we aren't capable of changing our minds, then what is the point of individual liberty? People have to be ready, willing, and able to persuade one another and be persuaded. The notion that all it should take to convince our fellow Americans is a 280-character tweet or one Facebook meme shared with the "praise hands" emoji is utterly insufficient to the notion of self-government. ■ The essence of the American experiment is just that: It is an experiment. Because we have no certainty about the way things will turn out, we have to be able to make changes over time. Those revisions, changes, and improvements are exactly what have marked most of our most important national milestones. America was born with errors -- including grave ones, like slavery. Yet the country was also born with the capacity to self-correct: The inclusion of the amendment process to the Constitution was a statement of humility by its authors. They knew some things would turn out to be wrong, so they included a process for institutionally changing our minds. And while the power of the pen alone wasn't sufficient to overcome some of those original obstacles, it was most certainly necessary. ■ America owes important steps in its growth and improvement to epic acts of persuasion. The Federalist Papers, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the "Cross of Gold"; speeches made by the likes of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; Presidential addresses, from Washington's legendary farewell address, to FDR's fireside chats, from John F. Kennedy's exhortation for America to go to the Moon to Reagan's demand that Gorbachev "tear down this wall". ■ Every speech, essay, pamphlet, and editorial in this vein is itself a declaration of understanding that others are rational individuals, capable of being persuaded when they see the error of their ways or when exposed to persuasive new facts and arguments, and that they are capable of coming around to the truth. ■ If people don't give others the room to be wrong, in the past and even in the present, then what do they actually believe? Most minds are not fixed in amber: They are malleable, as they should be. We can anchor ourselves to bedrock principles while remaining open to the power of new ideas and perspectives. As much as any of us believes it for ourselves, so must we insist on believing it of others, too.

November 24, 2021

Business and Finance Is the petroleum reserve strategic anymore?

One of the strange practices of the United States Congress is the naming of bills with contorted titles that can be compressed into snappy acronyms: The CARES Act ("Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security") or the USA PATRIOT Act ("Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism"). The practice has an obvious origin, but it still results in linguistic contortions. In general, though, even the titles derived from backronyms at least seek to remain moderately faithful to the bill's intent. Words matter, and so does the accurate representation of what government does. ■ The Energy Department has been ordered to release 50 million barrels of the nation's 605 million barrels held in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The amount would exceed any of the notable previous sales by a large margin. The intention of the sale is to put some weight behind a coordinated effort to put pressure on OPEC and check some of the substantial growth in energy costs affecting the economy. (Energy prices have risen by 30% in the last 12 months, and gas prices have risen by 50%.) ■ Putting 50 million barrels into global circulation may not seem like much in contrast with 90 million barrels of global production each day. But marginal economics are funny things, of course: Depending on how the supply and demand curves are intersecting (and at what slopes), a release can have a disproportionate effect on average prices. That could be pleasing for consumers. ■ But if price stabilization is the new de facto purpose of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, then perhaps a name change is in order. One would expect from the word "strategic" that the reserve is meant for use against major global events that would disrupt the flow of oil, like the 1991 Gulf War. ■ Being straight with our language is important, especially in the context of major government policies. The Defense Department still uses something like 85 million barrels of fuel a year, and has been working on a plan to make biofuels a dependable source. Until we reach that point, how much reserve is enough? Now that the United States is a net petroleum exporter, for how long should we continue to view a reserve as necessary in case of a global supply shock? ■ These are all questions that deserve clear thinking -- particularly because there is already so much ambiguity involved in considering them. There doesn't have to be any malice involved in a name that outlives its usefulness. But if we're going to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for something other than a strategic purpose, then we ought to revise its name to reflect reality. ■ Strategic thinking is valuable and indeed necessary for a superpower. Tactical steps are considered on a much smaller basis (thus, the distinction between strategy and tactics). Having a ready supply of fuel stored to make a country immune to being disastrously cut-off from energy supplies is a decidedly strategic choice. Trying to nudge prices by releasing stored oil into the market is a tactic. That doesn't mean it's the right decision or the wrong one -- but it does call us to use the language carefully. If everything is strategic, then nothing is.

November 25, 2021

The United States of America Active gratitude

He didn't intend it as a Thanksgiving prayer, but Dwight Eisenhower offered a humble benediction at his first inaugural, entirely fitting for a gathering of Americans on Thanksgiving 2021: "Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling. May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory. Amen." ■ Gratitude, we are told, is good for the brain: Expressing thanks makes grateful people happier. Thus, literally giving thanks may be its own reward -- as surely many Americans feel rewarded after enjoying the traditional holiday feast. ■ Those who approach the Thanksgiving holiday as a minefield of potential conflicts with family members, especially over politics, may well need to heed not only Eisenhower's words about finding cooperation, but to look all the way back to George Washington's proclamation of the very first Thanksgiving holiday. ■ In addition to commending Americans to give thanks to "that great and glorious Being" for "his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation", Washington added a prayer "To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them [other nations] and us". Washington heralded "the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge" and asked God "to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually". ■ Both Washington and Eisenhower asked Americans to petition the supreme being -- not for wealth or power, but for practical wisdom and better judgment. Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation similarly asked for prayer "to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom", and John Adams petitioned God to "enlighten them [officeholders] to a just discernment of the public interest, and save them from mistake, division, and discord". Calvin Coolidge implored Americans "to render thanks for the good that has come to us, and show by our actions that we have become stronger, wiser, and truer". ■ That is, perhaps, the highest form of prayer: Not just to thank the Creator for past prosperity, nor to plead for greater abundance, but to ask for the capacity to do more good, be more just, and act more wisely. Articles like "How to talk to your Republican uncle at Thanksgiving" or "How to fact-check your family at the Thanksgiving dinner table" are parts of a familiar genre, but they are outside the traditional spirit of the holiday. The real wisdom is with those who use a gathering of family to aspire to learn more and serve better.

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November 28, 2021

News Live each day as if it's your 39,999th

Certain pieces of advice, through repetition and familiarity, gain a veneer of respectability they don't deserve. "Live each day as if it were your last" has been said so often it is treated like a profundity. And it has a certain pedigree, through Horace's "Carpe diem" and Seneca's "The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time." ■ But it is flawed advice, both on its literal surface and deeper down. If a person were literally to live each day as if it were the last, then no plans would be needed for tomorrow: Forget paying the mortgage or flossing your teeth. Living each day like that would be its own brand of insanity. ■ Deeper down, it remains faulty advice. A dying grudge is nothing but deadweight, but there are plenty of disagreements and frustrations that deserve time and healing. To tell someone to forgive and forget prematurely (merely because this day could be their last) may well be to deprive them of a healthy and reasonable process of healing without being hurried. Achieving emotional and psychological balance in life -- under the assumption that you probably won't die tomorrow -- is more likely to pay off in total life satisfaction than rushing to balance the metaphorical books on life before going to bed each night. ■ It's all too easy to put too much weight on how things end, rather than on the whole of the experience. It's a temptation within everything from vacations to relationships, and most certainly with how we treat life itself: The focus on how a person died ("peacefully in her sleep" or "after his brave fight with cancer") often takes up far too much of the obituary or the eulogy in relation to how they lived. ■ Rather than over-valuing the end, perhaps the better advice would be to "Leave nothing to the custody of your last day". It's true that everyone will have a last day, and that most of us won't actually know when that day will be. It could come as a surprise tomorrow, or it could take 111 years. But if it's the latter, that means living through more than 40,000 days -- meaning that 39,999 of them were lived as part of a continuum, each of which was an opportunity to do something good, even if it wasn't fully "seized". ■ Every person is a work in progress, as is every relationship and most every worthwhile project. The best advice isn't to attack each day with the spontaneity of the very last, but to see each one as a step towards doing the things that shouldn't be entrusted only to the end. We already endure too many temptations to put too much weight on the finish.

November 29, 2021

Business and Finance It takes more than a tax credit

In passing the Build Back Better Act, the United States House of Representatives has made an unusual turn: It is offering a "payroll credit for [the] compensation of local news journalists". The proposal still requires Senate approval and a Presidential signature before it can become law, but the provision is worthy of attention. ■ There's really no escaping some hard truths about the state of local news outlets. For instance, the National Association of Broadcasters said in a comment to the FCC that "Local radio stations' OTA [over-the-air] ad revenues fell 44.9 percent in nominal terms ($17.6 billion to $9.7 billion) from 2005-2020". And the estimated total newspaper circulation in the country is well below half of what it was in 1990. Everyone is aware that alternatives like social media and streaming platforms are tough competitors for mass media to face. The story is even worse for ad revenues than for circulation, if that can be believed. ■ If the Build Back Better plan were to become law, it would deliver a subsidy of almost $1.7 billion to those local news outlets over the course of ten years. While not a "Brewster's Millions" type of windfall, it certainly would be met with approval among some media owners, both large and small. ■ In the long term, though, neither a few years' worth of subsidies -- nor any other intervention the government could likely imagine -- is going to be sufficient to change the grander dynamics of news. Some outlets (like terrestrial radio and television broadcasters) have always subsisted on advertising revenues rather than subscriptions, and their emergence had an effect on traditional publishing. Digital publishing has an effect on everything that came before it, as well. ■ There are still bitter fights ahead over ownership of legacy media companies, including the immediate contest over Alden's attempt to take over Lee Enterprises. And those have the potential to vastly out-scale anything that happens around marginal tax bills. But in the end, American citizens will get the kind of news coverage we choose to value. ■ Whether that takes on the form of conventional media under benevolent ownership (that is, rich owners who don't insist on turning a significant profit), startup outlets that seek to crowd-fund or otherwise support local journalistic coverage, or even local news cooperatives (the reporting equivalent of credit unions or mutual insurance companies), imaginative new forms have the potential to steer into the future. But it's also entirely possible that if interested citizens don't see the value and pay up, the only local media left standing will be increasingly partisan outlets that serve mainly to pick fights rather than to document reality. Which chosen path lies ahead remains to be seen.

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November 30, 2021

News By the people, of the people

Americans of a nit-picky sort sometimes engage in disputes over whether the United States is a "democracy" or a "republic". Of course, the national business is not conducted via direct democracy, but the literal definition of "democracy" is simply government by the people. And despite its antiquarian association in the mind with the Roman Republic, the definition of a "republic" is virtually the same: One in which supreme power lies with the citizens. A monarchy could be democratic, and a republic could be undemocratic, but at least for the case of the United States, sovereignty lies with the people, and the people choose the government. ■ Let it be noted, though, that a new republic has come into the world: Barbados has declared itself a republic, removing Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and replacing her with a president. Interestingly, one of the complaints regarding the transition is that it was declared without conducting a democratic referendum. (Barbados is already governed by a democratically-elected legislature.) ■ It is a bizarre artifact of history (and institutional inertia) that dozens of countries still acknowledge hereditary monarchies -- including Canada and Australia, which still bow to the Queen. While there may be no urgent need to depose the House of Windsor (or any of its cousins), the act of declaring a republic really shouldn't seem objectively shocking in 2021. Most of the remaining monarchies are constitutional or parliamentary in form anyway, and the fact they retain hereditary heads of state is often only because those heads of state behave well enough to retain the consent of the people. (Not to mention the interest of the heirs in the line of succession -- Japan's Princess Mako and Britain's Prince Harry have decided it's more interesting to move to America.) ■ But the fundamental symbolism of declaring a republic is this: It says that supreme authority is organic, and that governments are only legitimate when they are "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" -- not because anyone can make a claim to the bloodline of some long-ago warlord. To the extent that a head of state is generally a person tasked with embodying the symbolism of a country, then it's not really much of a step to take that duty away from a hereditary monarch and to place it in the hands of someone elected to do the job -- in fact, Barbados simply re-titled the governor-general (the designated representative of the Queen) and swore her in as president. But symbols matter, and to label the state as the people's thing is a healthy decision. ■ If there is one lesson America should learn from newer republics, perhaps it is that we ought to be open to separating the roles of "head of state" and "head of government". The President, inasmuch as he or she is functioning according to Article II of the Constitution, is the head of government (though in a shared role with the leadership of both the Congress [Article I] and the Supreme Court [Article III]). But those who function most effectively as heads of government may well be poorly-suited to the more symbolic role of the head of state. We might find ourselves better-served by electing a mainly ceremonial head of state who could symbolize the national zeitgeist, perhaps for just one year at a time and just one term in a lifetime. It might give the country an outlet to express popular feelings in a way that would contain them away from the processes required of a deliberative government limited by checks and balances. ■ An elected, ceremonial head of state -- call it the "Citizen of the Year" -- could offer us a focal point for those many feelings that don't really need to pump greater animal energy into politics. Sometimes we might feel like Betty White, and sometimes we might feel like Lewis Black. But giving someone the de facto title of "national id" might be good for us, especially if it were to divert status-seeking celebrities away from politics and maybe even let some culture wars be fought away from where laws are made. ■ Demanding that celebrities take popular political positions and converting ex-politicians into celebrities are both bad habits, and giving them all a path to a role of an oversized profile with an undersized level of responsibility might just clear the field a bit for the more serious and duty-driven among us to be selected for the work of governing the country. Choosing people as official symbols -- like the decision to name Rihanna as a "National Hero" of Barbados -- might well be a task best performed with the help of a gentle firewall from governing politics. (But we could still let the people decide.)

December 1, 2021

Business and Finance Freely associating to do some business

People like to see themselves as part of larger stories, and Giving Tuesday creates a narrative into which we can insert ourselves. Whether the event actually instigates additional giving that people may not have performed otherwise or just time-shifts already-planned giving so that it takes place around a specific date, charitable fundraisers say it's a $2.5 billion day for donations. ■ The American tradition of charitable giving is strong and remains distinctively so in the world. While a charitable spirit deserves to be a source of pride, we too often skip a step between "for-profit" and "charity" -- the self-helping sector, populated with organizations like cooperatives and mutual companies. ■ Alexis de Tocqueville made note of how those were a distinctive characteristic of America nearly 200 years ago, writing: "The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools [...] Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association." ■ But these sorts of organizations take motivation, leadership, and stewardship. And times have been tough: For example, there were 7,239 Federally-insured credit unions in the United States in June 2011, but as of June 2021, the number had fallen to 5,029. Membership and assets both grew in that time, but the significant decline in total organizations suggests a high degree of consolidation -- a symptom, typically, of a maturing industry rather than a growing one. In agriculture, the USDA counted 3,346 farmer co-ops in 2000, and 1,871 in 2017. (For historical context, that figure was estimated at 14,000 around 1920.) ■ Cooperative forms of ownership are not entirely without risk -- some evidence suggests that it's tough to make governance work inside democratically-organized firms, perhaps because some aspects of reward are diminished for individual initiative. (Others have observed that they may be just as good at growing as for-profit competitors, but that they do so differently.) ■ Yet it's entirely possible for cooperative firms to succeed: REI (the outdoor retailer) is a co-op, and Best Western Hotels is a member-owned nonprofit whose member-owners shot down a plan to convert into a for-profit company in 2019. ■ There are reasons to think we should commit more effort, discussion, and (when appropriate) occasional tacit support through government policy to these business forms, particularly if they demonstrate a capacity to correct certain market failures. They may be especially sensible in settings where macroeconomic factors have squeezed out proprietor-owners, employee-owned firms, and other forms where pride of ownership plays a role in governance. It may especially make sense to look at how cooperative forms may fill the gaps in markets where conventional owners have departed and "vulture capitalists" have worked their way in -- a common symptom of decline. ■ Perhaps as much as anything, working for a cooperative-type firm needs to represent a combination of both financial reward and social esteem for prospective employees, especially senior leadership. People make trade-offs all the time between social status and pure financial remuneration, but in order to attract bright, innovative, and capable leadership, cooperative organizations have to be able to pay somewhat competitively with the high-performance parts of the private sector, while holding some of the status that attracts others to the charitable nonprofit sector. ■ That may be a significant hurdle to overcome, since it belongs strictly to neither and sits instead on a sort of middle ground of the production possibilities curve between the two. But it's well worth considering, especially since we know ourselves to be living through a particularly disruptive economic period, and we also know the same model was seen in another disruptive era as a means to preserve a market economy while democratizing some of its benefits. Something of a revival may be due, but it's hard to see that happening without breathing some life into the narrative.

December 2, 2021

Broadcasting Are you even listening to yourself?

It was in December 2019 that the first cluster of Covid-19 patients were identified in Wuhan, China. But it wasn't really until the very abrupt escalation of circumstances in March 2020 that the massive adjustment to a work-from-home economy took hold in the United States. At one point in 2020, 54% of Americans were working exclusively from home. That number has fallen to about a quarter, but about half of the American workforce is still working from home at least some of the time, according to Gallup data. ■ Working from home has shown itself to be both easy and hard. Aside from the initial learning curve required to implement technologies like videoconferencing, Americans found the basic functional transition easy, but discovered it was harder to do things like maintain focus and motivation. The "soft" parts of working from home (like drawing boundaries around personal time and keeping up on water-cooler talk without a water cooler) have turned out to be much more difficult than adapting to the "hard" skills required. ■ The economic downturn that resulted from the pandemic was terrible for productivity in sectors like arts and entertainment (which have an obvious sensitivity to whether people can gather), but appears to have left work-from-home-friendly sectors like IT, finance, and professional services largely unscathed. It should surprise nobody at all if working remotely (from home or elsewhere) remains not only an option but a robust and permanent feature of a lot of white-collar work. It's terrible for downtown stores, restaurants, and landlords, but it's an adjustment that is almost undoubtedly here to stay. ■ In addition to how working from home has vaporized a lot of conventional office chatter, it's also reshaped a lot of media habits -- there's no point in listening to drive-time radio for traffic reports if you're only commuting to the kitchen. This adjustment makes it seem strange that nobody seems to have developed a "Working from Home" radio format. Human beings like to feel as though we have a sense of what's happening around us -- either that we can see it for ourselves (it's one reason why we love having windows), or that someone will tell us right away if something is noteworthy (which serves to explain at least some part of the endemic of social-media addiction). ■ This deep into a social and cultural shift, it's odd that something bigger hasn't caught on in response. People have obvious attachments to their Spotify playlists and their Pandora streams, but a giant rotating library of music is insufficient if part of the reason for listening to something during the day is to gather a sense of being aware and connected to what is happening. The idea that an audio programming service could provide satisfying background sounds with occasional live updates on the relevant "here and now" is nothing new. It was the cornerstone of full-service radio decades ago, though that particular format has gone almost extinct today. ■ But no matter whether delivered by terrestrial transmitters or by an Internet stream, it seems like a tremendous missed opportunity for programmers to have ignored how a modern revival of a full-service format could be just what a lot of people working from home didn't know they wanted. And with the technological capabilities in place to address the musical tastes and preferences of lots of listener demographics, it seems even more obvious that enterprising programmers could arrange lots of carefully-targeted musical formats around a shared "clock" of useful, live, and local updates from amiable hosts. ■ The BBC World Service had its origins in the "Empire Service" -- when radio was used to offer a sense of companionship to the "remote workers" of a far-flung empire. It seems obvious that a similar companionship approach would find a market in the digital "empire" of working from home.

December 3, 2021

The United States of America Move along now

If you were to build a house in the Northern Hemisphere with a wide expanse of windows on the south face, you might well expect that the rooms on the south end of the home would turn out to be warm and comfortable in the winter, but hard to keep cool in the summer. You might also expect that the rooms on the north side of the home would offer relief from the summer heat, but be left relatively chilly in the wintertime. ■ You could enhance the circulation of air between the rooms simply by leaving the interior doors open. By closing them off, you would only serve to compound the effects of different rooms being too warm or too cold. ■ Beyond the mostly passive act of leaving doors open or closed, you could take an active step by installing a circulating fan, moving the air from warmer rooms to colder rooms in the winter and vice-versa in the summer. The fan wouldn't actually create more heat, but would merely move the existing heat around to spread it more evenly. Better distribution of that passively collected solar heat would enhance the comfort over a broader footprint of the home for a larger portion of the year than without. ■ What seems like an obvious "best practice" for energy efficiency offers lessons for the marketplace, too. In principle, the principles of classical liberalism we inherited from the Enlightenment era would tend to endorse the freest possible movement of people, money, goods, and ideas. But it's a practical approach, too: The United States functions as a giant free-trade zone, much to the cumulative benefit of the country as a whole (not to mention its constituent states). The freedom of interstate commerce has a big part to play in explaining why West Virginia is richer than Shanghai. ■ But economic growth and development is not evenly spread across the country, which is why it's wise to consider when steps beyond leaving people free to move around (the equivalent of leaving the doors open) could benefit from gentle interventions to enhance circulation (the equivalent of adding a circulating fan). People don't always migrate to places where opportunities are abundant, and it's the job of policy-makers to examine why. ■ Some experiments have been conducted to offer active interventions -- like vouchers to help families "move to opportunity". Such experiments have offered intriguing experimental results. But there are other interventions that matter, too: For instance, the structure of our tax policy affects how families accrue wealth. How we tax property (and how we treat deductions for things like mortgage interest) have a big effect on whether people treat their primary homes as a primary source of household wealth -- and that effect is magnified among lower-income households. If people are hesitant to move because doing so could erase their biggest stock of wealth, then that's a problem worthy of attention. ■ Wherever we find obstacles to that free circulation of people, it would be prudent to look at ways to remove them. And to the extent that people are reluctant to migrate from one state to another, it would be sensible to dive into the underlying causes: Americans still move a lot, but also move a lot less than we used to. If there are light-touch interventions that would help people "circulate" to places where their economic and social outcomes might be improved -- or if there are artificial barriers that could be removed by fixing bad policies -- that could be a laudable and efficient way to make Americans better off, on average and on the whole.

December 6, 2021

News A change would do you good

Human misjudgments come in all sorts of flavors. Charlie Munger's famous speech and extended essay on the subject documents 25 such tendencies that lead us to faulty conclusions. Similar tendencies of the mind cause us to make common mistakes about the future. One of those might be termed the "5/15 Rule". ■ Forecasts of change are often too optimistic (that is, they assume too much will change) on a five-year horizon. But they are often too pessimistic on a fifteen-year horizon (that is, they assume things will remain too much the same). Hence, 5/15. Optimism and pessimism are relative things, of course; one person's progress might be another person's regress. But in general, things tend to get better in a free and open society: Material well-being improves, technology moves forward, and freedoms are newly enshrined into law. For most purposes, then, we look forward to change since on balance it brings about a better quality of life. ■ Consider progress in space flight: Between 2006 and 2011, there were 21 launches of NASA's Space Shuttle, culminating with the retirement of the program in July 2011. Nothing technologically substantial was different between the first of those flights and the last. But between 2006 and 2021, an entire industry of private space flight emerged, with reusable rockets that land vertically and tourists like a 90-year-old William Shatner going to space. ■ In consumer technology, Facebook opened to universal access in 2006, and the iPhone was introduced in 2007. By the end of 2011, Facebook claimed a large number of users -- some 845 million, but the experience and impact of the site remained largely unchanged. In early 2012, The Guardian could unironically submit that "Digital analysts predict this will be the first election cycle in which Facebook could become a dominant political force." But 15 years after 2006, Facebook's impact on electoral activity was so great that Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress for a joint hearing on "Social Media's Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation" -- a session precipitated by the January 6th riot at the Capitol. ■ Over the five years from 2006 to 2011, America's per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide fell by about 12%. But over 15 years, they fell by 30%, in no small part because of developments like an increase in wind-power generation from 11,575 megawatts to 122,465 megawatts. As technologies improve incrementally and industries grow to scale, factors like price can change by orders of magnitude -- like the 70% to 80% decline in the cost of photovoltaic solar power generation in just one decade. ■ Within a five-year window, political change tends to move like molasses. A seat in the U.S. Senate isn't even up for re-election before six years are over, and even in the House of Representatives, the mean tenure was 8.9 years as of January 2021. Over any given five-year period, very little changes about the makeup of Congress. But on a 15-year basis, the national government can change quite radically: In 2006, Barack Obama had been in the Senate for just a year. Fifteen years later, not only had he left the Senate and broken the color barrier in the Article II branch of government, but so had Kamala Harris (who in 2006 was a district attorney). ■ Margaret Thatcher once said, "I do not believe that history is writ clear and unchallengeable. It doesn't just happen. History is made by people: its movement depends on small currents as well as great tides, on ideas, perceptions, will and courage, the ability to sense a trend, the will to act on understanding and intuition." (Note that nine years before she won the job, Thatcher said "There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime".) It may be counterintuitive to recalibrate our expectations so that we can accept how slowly things might change in five years and how dramatically in fifteen. But given how quickly a snail's pace can accelerate to supersonic speed, a 5/15 Rule is well worth keeping in mind.

December 7, 2021

The United States of America Home(land security) for the holidays

The holiday season puts a spotlight on a range of unusual national and cultural traditions -- like an annual Christmas-tree formation flight by the Swedish air force. Certain places loom large in the American imagination -- Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are great examples. We buy products from Ikea and Saab, read books about hygge and lykke, and cover lefse bakes on the evening news (at least in the Nordic-influenced parts of the Midwest). ■ In practice (and with no disrespect intended), the Nordic countries are like medium-sized states. Norway has 5.5 million people, Finland has 5.6 million, and Denmark has 5.9 million. (This makes each of them comparable to, if not a little smaller than, Wisconsin.) Sweden is a little larger, with 10.2 million. But that still doesn't make it as large as North Carolina. ■ Obviously, historical patterns of migration have a lot to do with the effect. But it's also somewhat distortionary: Nigeria has almost 220 million people and Bangladesh has 164 million, but it's a safe bet that the vast preponderance of Americans have heard more recently in the news about any one of the Nordic countries than about Nigeria or Bangladesh, which combined are home to almost 50 million more people than live in the US. ■ This disproportionate share of the common imagination has two peculiar effects that skew our thinking: For one, it leaves us under- or un-informed about the condition of many of our fellow Earthlings, which is a real shame considering how much shared interest we have in resolving trans-national issues. From the Covid-19 pandemic to rising sea levels to the need to protect 82 million refugees, in very few cases does any large problem remain isolated within a single country's borders. The better our sense of scale and proportion, the better our ability to address important questions of cooperation, competition, and resource allocation. ■ The other peculiar effect is that it diminishes our ability to see what might be within our own power. Holding distorted perceptions of other places leaves us with constrained imaginations about what we can do. Being one among many states (that is, E Pluribus Unum), individual states don't have to waste energy on shared issues like defense or foreign policy, like comparable standalone countries of the same size might have to do. Certainly, a state might send a friendship delegation abroad, establish a sister-state relationship, or participate in a trade-boosting mission. But we can do those things at leisure, while Norway has to maintain embassies and Denmark has to keep up its own Army, Navy, and Air Force. ■ Yet, even though our states can share the load of those national-level issues, the public and our pundits often think smaller about those things which we could do much more boldly and imaginatively. Calling the states "laboratories of democracy" is almost trite: There is in fact no reason we shouldn't be willing to think of most countries as our states' peer groups, because they are. So much emphasis is placed on duking out high-conflict debates on the national stage (in forums like the Supreme Court), when we could well see how our peers can reach different conclusions across borders while remaining friendly and cooperative with one another. ■ Americans need to trust ourselves to work many matters out at what we call the "state" level, but what would be the "national" level anywhere else. Escalating too many things to debate in Washington, DC, only leaves us artificially alarmed by one another. In Federalist Paper 16, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "The government of the Union, like that of each State, must be able to address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals; and to attract to its support those passions which have the strongest influence upon the human heart." ■ Even in binding the states together, the Constitution was modeled on responsiveness, imagination, and uniqueness at the level closest to the people. At least half of the states today have as many people as did the entire country when the Constitution was enacted. We naturally homogenize ourselves from state to state a great deal, simply by sharing a common currency, language, and mass media. There's no reason we should endanger our trust in the Union by expecting it to make us more alike than we have to be. The more we trust ourselves (at the state level) to be as capable as our peers, the more we can relieve our continental government of expectations that are too high and risks that are too precarious.

December 8, 2021

Business and Finance Just be average

"Beating the market" is the kind of act that makes an investment professional "legendary". To out-perform the stock-market averages (and to do so with consistency) is an uphill climb, but Peter Lynch can credibly claim to have done it during his time as a mutual-fund manager at Fidelity. Lynch's success at managing funds even turned him into an author -- of books that unabashedly crow about "Beating the Street" and putting the investor "One Up on Wall Street". ■ Given his credentials, it should come as no surprise that Lynch remains a proponent of active investing -- that is, of paying money managers to make decisions about specific investments and the specific timing of those investments, as opposed to "passive" investing, which consists of buying and holding stocks and other investments, often through tools like index funds. ■ In an interview, Lynch argued that three managers at Fidelity "have beat the market for 10, 20, 30 years, and I think they'll keep on doing it." Lynch further used the word "mistake" to typify passive investing strategies. ■ It is absolutely possible for an active money manager to beat the market. The laws of large numbers and averages ensure that -- some people will be above average. But if the ordinary retail investor is smart enough to pick the right managers, then he or she is also smart enough to simply do the investing themselves, directly. That's the paradox: Being sufficiently knowledgeable to thoughtfully select an active investor is the same level and type of skill as being able to perform the investment for oneself. People may still choose not to do it for a variety of reasons -- lack of time and lack of interest, chiefly -- but evaluating a mutual fund's performance requires precisely the same skill set as evaluating an individual company's stock. ■ The wisdom of passive investing (generally through stock index funds) isn't that it will produce special returns, but that it will produce average returns while keeping the overhead costs to a bare minimum. Unless your active money manager is one of the Little Sisters of the Poor, they're charging significant overhead fees. ■ To pay for an annual money management fee of 1%, 2%, or more, and still achieve a total return for the investor that is equal to the market average, the manager needs to consistently produce returns that exceed the market average by the amount of the overhead. And they can be very good at giving investors lots of glossy pictures that keep them from seeing whether that outperformance occurs. ■ The most efficient way to tell whether a money manager is serious about producing consistent, super-sized returns is to look at the fee structure. If you, the investor, only pay a commission or fee for returns which are in excess of the market average, then they're serious. That was how Warren Buffett structured his early investment partnerships -- and Buffett today is a steadfast proponent of passive, index-fund investing. ■ But practically nobody has a Buffett-style, pay-only-for-above-average-performance fee structure, because money management all too often counts on investor naivete -- or innumeracy. After all, "1% of assets" sounds like a small charge -- until a year of 5% real returns, in which case that 1% is actually a 20% commission on total performance. (And activity itself is costly -- someone's making money every time a stock changes hands.) Moreover, the only thing worth paying for is performance that's better than what could have been achieved on investing autopilot -- simply going along with the market average. ■ Nobody likes to be "average". Human nature wants to be better than average. But "average" is generally really, really good in America: That upward-charging line of the S&P 500 graph is "average", and it costs virtually nothing to be a free-rider on that average. Vanguard charges 0.04% to passively follow along with that hard-charging S&P 500 index. Even if you compounded that 0.04% cost annually, it would take 23 years to reach the same 1% as an ordinary active-management fee for one year. ■ If you're not equipped to examine actual SEC 10-K filings or strategically read the part of a prospectus that's printed on lightweight paper in black and white in the back (and not the colorful parts on heavy glossy stock in the front), then you don't really have the right tools to pick an active money manager. And if you do have the ability and interest to read a 10-K or to evaluate a balance sheet, then you probably are sophisticated enough to pick a bundle of 10 to 20 stocks and be your own active money manager (minus the annual fees). ■ Peter Lynch has a legendary track record on Wall Street. But that doesn't make him an oracle of fiduciary wisdom for the household investor. It's not that some managers won't be well above average -- even Warren Buffett is happy to name a few. But predicting with confidence who they will be takes the same type of skill (and much the same degree) that it takes to do the same task. Buffett remains right on this matter: For most people, most of the time, being average (and paying very little overhead for the privilege of being average) is actually very rewarding indeed.

December 9, 2021

Broadcasting Popularity contests

Never in history has it been easier to find out what's popular. Want to know what music is at the top? No more suspenseful wait for Casey Kasem to bring you the American Top 40: Spotify Charts has city-level listening to share. Netflix reports how many hours of its shows have been viewed. The New York Times serves up the most popular news stories, while Amazon is happy to refresh its best-seller charts by the hour. Twitter happily packages the most popular discussions of the hour, and YouTube is delighted to rank and amplify videos into the millions of views. ■ Even political opinion tracking has moved into a mad rush: FiveThirtyEight, YouGov, and Morning Consult are among those who can't wait to convert the intense hunger for popularity contests into clicks. ■ But superabundance isn't the same thing as necessity. Popularity is relatively easy to measure: Amazon can count sales, Netflix can count gigabytes of data, and pollsters can survey sample populations who are eager to be heard. Much harder to do is to evaluate and judge for quality. But it is quality that really matters. Pet rocks, slap bracelets, and "Mambo No. 5" have all been popular at one time or another, but their popularity is hardly a reflection of quality. And in the limited time people have in this life, measures of popularity alone are mostly a problem of misdirection. ■ Most people instinctively don't want to be left out of popular trends, even when they turn into manias. But if too many things become driven first by popularity rather than by considered evaluation of what is of the optimal quality, the result can be a morass of mediocrity. ■ A great public service would be done, for example, if the people -- from streaming-service executives to film editors -- who knew how to attract millions of viewers to "Tiger King" were to direct the same energies to telling stories that a smart, engaged public should know. Ken Burns can't be the only filmmaker with the skills and the backing to produce shows that turn worthy subjects like the Civil War or jazz music into popular entertainment. ■ Of course there will always be a demand for light and even low-brow entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it's a strange kind of madness that keeps us from channeling the skills that we know can turn things popular into subjects that deserve to be popular because they are important. If creators can make a blockbuster out of "Stranger Things", then they could also make the Federalist Papers or the Reconstruction Era or the complexities of modern gray war into subjects people could not only understand, but would want to talk about with friends and family. ■ Measuring popularity is easy, but measuring quality is not. Yet we often know it when we see it -- and we certainly have a fair understanding of the skills required to produce quality outputs (not just in media, but especially there). If indeed we want to avoid entertaining ourselves to death, then the people who hold the levers that corral mass popularity owe it to the rest of us to point some of those skills in the right direction.

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December 10, 2021

The United States of America Govern yourself accordingly

When Theodore Roosevelt said, "School is an invaluable adjunct to the home, but it is a wretched substitute for it", he certainly didn't know in what place America would be nearly 125 years later. He couldn't have foreseen World War II, the Cold War, or the Internet, nor the complexities of China's authoritarian-market hybrid, the profundity of mRNA vaccines, or school via Zoom call. ■ But Roosevelt was living at a time of rapid technological and cultural change, and he knew a few things about the American character. And among those things he recognized was the enduring influence of how people make up their minds. For as much as reformers for generations have looked to the tools of education as a means of turning out a different kind of adult, it remains as true as ever that people decide what they think about the most important issues within the quiet of their own minds. ■ Some are more conscious about it than others, really engaging in deep introspection and an examination of conscience. Others give it less thought. But everyone lives with a voice in their own head. That voice might echo or even repeat what it hears from others, but it's always fundamentally a matter of individual choice which of those words we allow to prevail. ■ That's the fundamental assumption of a system rooted in individual dignity and human liberty -- that certain matters are self-evident to the person who thinks about them. "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is more than just lofty prose: It is a statement that some matters are certain, no matter what any government or other power might wish to say about them. And those things are not made more or less true by indoctrination; at most, they are only made easier or harder to see. ■ Of course, schools and other institutions can help students learn to see things more clearly and can obviously help habituate them to how some of the nuts and bolts are practiced. Student government may be easy to lampoon, but low-stakes elections and small budgets can be good practice for full-strength self-government later on. ■ But the democracy we ultimately get is largely the product of the people who practice it, and the character of people is formed in a multitude of ways, but it certainly starts well before schooling begins. Roosevelt's words are emphatic on this account: "No leader in church or state, in science or art or industry, however great his achievement, does work which compares in importance with that of the father and mother". But long before Roosevelt, Maimonides wrote that "Man's governance of himself consists in making his soul acquire the virtuous moral habits and cease to have the vicious moral habits, if any have been formed." And, similarly, the belief that people cannot be denied their own liberty forever is buttressed by this very same belief -- that no matter what the authorities say, people have to decide their lives in the quiet of their own minds.

December 14, 2021

Weather and Disasters "Their own priorities, not ours"

The pace of scientific and technological progress does a great deal to define every age, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution to the contemporary Internet. We even defined an entire block of centuries as the "Dark Ages" for their apparent lack of progress (even if that name is seen as insensitive today). No era of progress can compare with the accelerated pace of the one in which we live -- though it seems abundantly likely that future eras will be defined by even quicker acceleration. More people will have access to more tools, from a more advanced (and wealthier) base than any time before. ■ The dividends of this progress will often be unevenly distributed: Some people will have Teslas before others have reliable household electricity. But other forms of will affect almost everyone at once. The previously unimaginable speed with which mRNA vaccines were developed to combat the Covid-19 epidemic confers a not just on a few (even if they have been distributed first and most widely in the most fortunate countries). In terms of efficacy and speed to deployment, the mRNA vaccines applied against the Covid-19 pandemic are probably the vanguard not only of bringing this pandemic to a halt, but to slamming the brakes on the next viral calamity, whatever it might be. ■ The story of those vaccines also tells of the extraordinary importance of understanding human behavior, especially in relation to technological change. The spread of misinformation, disinformation, and malevolent propaganda regarding both the disease and its prevention have made what would objectively seem to be a battle of pure science into something vastly more social. ■ Meteorology deserves a lot of respect for diving head-first into an unapologetic integration of its "hard" science with social psychology. The National Weather Service, example, has aggressively revised its warning systems to shrink the frequency of warning the public against events that never occur. Not only have they improved own ability to forecast serious events, they have revised their warning system so that as few people can be alerted as possible. The more reliable and closely-targeted their warnings, the less the "boy who cried wolf" effect. Fewer false alarms result in higher confidence in future alarms as they are issued. Yet the job is far from finished. ■ The disastrous tornado outbreak that crossed multiple states and killed dozens of people is a reminder that even though the scientists see a disaster coming, what matters most is whether the people in its path knew what to do and when to take action. It is clear that the loss of life in Illinois and Kentucky brings many meteorologists to grief. As Ohio-based meteorologist Justin Gehrts noted, "When your vocation is weather, of course you know about everything way beforehand. When your vocation isn't weather, why *would* you know about everything beforehand? People aren't ignorant or stupid. They are living their own lives with their own priorities, not ours." ■ That sort of modesty about the limits of hard science ought to be taken to heart more broadly -- it's not just the field of meteorology that needs to meet the public wherever the public happens to be. So do public health and microbiology, climatology and astronomy, chemistry and cryptology. Scientific and technological progress are invariably human enterprises, and the science of helping humans to understand and relate to those changes both thoughtfully and proactively has never been more important.

December 16, 2021

Health Sometimes, you're just in a hole

The old adage says that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. But sometimes, when you find yourself in a hole, you're just in a hole. One of the most thoughtful people in American medicine is Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer whose books (like "The Checklist Manifesto") reveal a mind at work on medicine that could easily have been put to vital use in many other fields. ■ Dr. Gawande was recruited to head up a nonprofit organization with a mission to find a better way to manage the cost of health care. He was recruited to the effort in 2018 by Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon, and JP Morgan Chase -- big firms with big incentives to find solutions. But the joint venture (called "Haven") never made it very far and shut down in early 2021. ■ America is notorious for the cost of our health care: We spend more than $11,000 per person on the industry each year. That is, for the record, the same as global GDP per person. Put another way: America consumes as much in health care per person as the average Earthling produces in total each year. ■ But money isn't everything. Time, too, is money. For comparison, Canada spends less of its money on health care than does the United States (roughly 11% of GDP versus 17%) -- but Canadians also expend a lot of time in waiting for care. The Fraser Institute tracks wait times for care in Canada and finds that, on average, it takes 11 weeks to be referred from a general practitioner to a specialist and another 14 weeks from referral to actual treatment. The numbers vary by location and by specialty, but that average represents a median total wait of half a year between the first doctor saying "You need some follow-up" and the specialist actually getting treatment underway. ■ The Fraser Institute has a pro-market orientation, but criticisms of Canadian health-care waiting times aren't exclusive to people of a center-right political orientation. Nor is waiting just a Canadian problem: Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, long waiting times dogged Britain's legendary NHS, too. ■ Health care is a wicked problem in part because it requires some inputs that cannot be reduced: There is only so much that can be done to speed up an annual physical exam or to recover faster from surgery. And because health means virtually everything to the patient, everyone wants the best treatment from the smartest and most skilled people they can find: Nobody wants a "C" student performing their brain surgery. ■ The case of Haven reminds us of something else, too: A highly gifted person like Dr. Gawande is in demand elsewhere, too -- both within health care and outside it. And to both attract and retain talented people to the sector requires delivering both pay and conditions that are good enough to compete with the other things those individuals could be doing instead. Anyone good enough to be a valuable contributor to health care is probably good enough to be an attractive worker elsewhere, too. ■ The people burning out and leaving health care have other options, and unless breakthroughs are found that either substantially reduce the demand for care or radically increase the productivity of the people delivering it, there really isn't a systemic solution to be found. Just to keep enough care providers around, either costs will rise or there won't be enough people to provide the care in the volume (and at the speed) people want it. Perhaps sometimes both. ■ Maybe we'll get those breakthroughs with microrobots in our bloodstreams, android nurses, precision robotic surgery, and pills that prevent hospitalization. But certain limitations are hard to overcome (open-heart surgery will always take time), and the problems aren't getting smaller (Covid-19 won't be the last novel pandemic). ■ An ounce of prevention may indeed be worth much more than just a pound of cure, so we ought to act like it. But once people are in need of care, finding solutions may be more vexing than those who try to sell "silver bullet" solutions would want us to think. That doesn't make the situation hopeless, but it does mean we need to be clear-eyed about where to find the answers: Sometimes, you can stop digging -- but sometimes, you're just in a hole.

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December 17, 2021

News Peace to the people

To celebrate his 85th birthday, Pope Francis hosted a group of migrants at the Vatican. The Pope is using his authority and resources to provide support to the migrants while they enter a program to be integrated into Italian society. ■ In his encyclical "Fratelli Tutti", Francis wrote that "Migrants are not seen as entitled like others to participate in the life of society, and it is forgotten that they possess the same intrinsic dignity as any person. Hence they ought to be 'agents in their own redemption.'" ■ A fair number of the world's problems stem from mistaking the many tiny but illustrious differences among individuals for big differences that ought to separate people, both as individuals and as cultures. We're different from one another in countless ways -- even happy spouses and identical twins have differences of opinion with one another, whether over small things like cuisine or large ones like religious faith. But in the end, there is nothing more essential to our survival as a giant world full of billions of people than seeing every human as a person possessing the same dignity as ourselves. ■ The abolitionist Sojourner Truth recorded this very sentiment about the dignity of people who had been enslaved in America: "[T]hough ignorant, helpless, crushed in spirit, and weighed down with hardship and cruel bereavement, they were still human, and their human hearts beat within them with as true an affection as ever caused a human heart to beat." Chattel slavery could not survive as an institution without explicitly denying the humanity of its victims. The same category of thinking was behind the atrocities committed under German law as the Nazis defined Jewish people and others out of legal protection. ■ It seems like an obvious thing to believe that all lives are intrinsically of equal value, but there's a difference between believing it in the abstract and committing it to real practice. It doesn't help when propagandists resort to explicitly discounting the lives of "others". But it also doesn't help when we fall for the representations that others make of their ability to speak for "their" people. The powerful individuals who take control of mass movements like to represent "the people" as monoliths -- the Communist Party in China refers to the National People's Congress for its legitimacy; Cuba has the National Assembly of People's Power; North Korea calls itself a "People's Republic" and calls its parliament the Supreme People's Assembly. ■ Humans are social animals, so we often have to work in groups. But it's perilous to make big decisions based upon thinking only of masses, rather than of the many individuals that make up any such mass. The National People's Congress may be belligerent, but China itself must be regarded as a place of 1.4 billion individuals, each of whom has equal claim to intrinsic dignity -- just as do the 24 million individuals of Taiwan (just for example). ■ No mass has a right to subjugate any or all of those individual dignities. And as we consider the very serious hazards to peace that mass powers introduce to satisfy the selfish interests of the powerful, the response of free countries must be guided by the principle that achieving protection for individual dignity is inextricable from what will ultimately secure a durable peace for people.

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December 18, 2021

Business and Finance Slow down, even if you're on top

In a throwaway remark during his "Person of the Year" interview with Time Magazine, Elon Musk remarked "I'm not Warren Buffett's biggest fan, frankly, but -- he sits there, and he reads all these annual reports, which are super-boring -- does anybody want that job? It think most people do not. I don't want that job." While the words directly taken are dismissive, Musk defends Buffett's work: "Sure, he's got a high net worth, but he's doing a useful job for the economy and he's very skilled at it, and should probably keep doing it." ■ Musk's point was actually about Buffett's aggregation of a tremendous net worth, and how a large net worth on paper isn't the same as being a conspicuous consumer. And it's a fair point, even if Musk himself (with an estimated net worth of a quarter-trillion dollars) has a vested interest in making it. ■ But it is the "super-boring" part that deserves a second look. Buffett has offered variations on the same advice for decades: "I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think." In his 2013 letter to shareholders, Buffett noted that "Those people who can sit quietly for decades when they own a farm or apartment house too often become frenetic when they are exposed to a stream of stock quotations and accompanying commentators delivering an implied message of 'Don't just sit there, do something.'" ■ "Frenetic" may be a loaded word, but Musk makes it clear he doesn't like to sit still. He's come around to seeing the value of getting six hours of sleep a night, but he's at least sometimes claimed to work 120 hours a week in the midst of a titanic project. That much work seems indicative of a management system with too little delegation: Musk doesn't seem like he's adopted the Eisenhower Matrix, adapted from Dwight Eisenhower's adage, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." ■ Americans notoriously work a lot more hours than many of our peers in other wealthy countries. We're also inconsistent about reading: 23% of American adults said in a 2021 Pew survey that they hadn't "read a book in whole or in part in the past year". It's a suboptimal combination. ■ If we were taking Buffett's advice to heart, average daily reading time would be high especially for people of ordinary working age, instead of taking a dramatic upward spike after retirement (as it does now). We'd see it not just as recreation, but as a vital part of work productivity, too. ■ The real thrust of Buffett's case isn't that sitting idly is itself especially productive, but rather that a person who sits and thinks can avoid big mistakes. In that sense, he channels Benjamin Franklin's advice that "Well done, is twice done." Twitter feeds, listicles, and the choppy syntax of "smart brevity" give the impression of making us smarter, but an endless torrent of information unaccompanied by at least some periodic deep thinking is like a decision-making placebo. ■ Elon Musk can afford to make pretty big mistakes because he's starting from a net worth that is second to one (and, depending on the day, not even that). He's obviously smart, but he also has some obvious problems with impulsiveness whose resulting errors are easier to fix with a giant net worth. For everyone else, perhaps it's better to envy Warren Buffett's job and working style after all.

December 19, 2021

Business and Finance From takeover bid to lawsuit

Alden is suing Lee Enterprises over Lee's rejection of a takeover proposal. Lee also adopted a poison pill.

Agriculture Iowa farmland values hit new nominal high

$9,751 per acre, on average. It's not a record-high in real terms (due to inflation), but it's getting close.

Threats and Hazards A political rally inside a church

"[W]hen religion is joined to [political] authority, piety disappears" - Maimonides

Broadcasting What if the King's speech were Cockneyed?

King George V was the first British monarch to go on the radio, but what if his influence had made a Cockney accent the go-to way of speaking instead of Received Pronunciation?

December 20, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work Those aren't elections

In an apparent lapse of judgment, the BBC tweeted a headline: "Pro-China candidates sweep Hong Kong election". The BBC's practice of putting quotation marks around single words in headlines can venture into downright ridiculous territory, but if ever there were a word calling for that treatment, "election" here would be it. The website headline is a little longer and a little more accurate ("Hong Kong: Pro-Beijing candidates sweep controversial LegCo election"), but it still misses a substantial point: It's not just that the "winners" are pro-Beijing, it's that they were pre-approved by the Communist Party. ■ And it's not merely that they "won", but that their would-be competitors were disqualified and in many cases imprisoned. Such a situation isn't an election in any sense of a free and fair contest among rivals who must win the approval of the public. ■ Calling a thing that merely goes through the motions of an election by the name does a disservice to democracy. It's not neutral to call them "controversial", either -- it's pulling a punch in a way that is fundamentally illiberal. The values of classical liberalism (like freedom, democratic self-government, and personal liberty) contend that these things are not just good, but that they are universal human rights. Denying them is, in fact, a violation of human rights. And calling their denial merely "controversial" is an act of surrender to the side that does the violating. ■ An institution doesn't have to intentionally participate in any kind of oppression to still contribute to lamentable processes like democratic backsliding: Merely surrendering ground on language can be enough to offer authoritarians the kind of cover they desire to grasp at a thread of legitimacy. ■ Naturally, democracy isn't a binary thing -- it is a continuum, marked by extremes. But just as there is a continuum from the tip of one's nose to the bronchia of one's lungs that moves from the obvious exterior of the body to the obvious interior, so there is a continuum on which some systems are obviously democratic and others are obviously undemocratic. It is clear that the central government in Beijing doesn't even intend for Hong Kong to be democratic -- it just doesn't want anyone to believe democracy ever existed there. ■ Respecting the language and calling things by their rightful names is essential to holding up freedom. It simply is. One of the hottest fundamental debates in America is over how to interpret the words of our laws, whether by original intent, strict textualism, purposivism, or another approach altogether. That we debate these things is a sign of health: We know that the words themselves matter, but we have to contend with how exactly to keep them in continuity as the language itself (as part of society) naturally evolves around them. ■ Anti-democratic powers have no such compunctions. Words mean what the powerful want or need them to mean at any given moment. China's government calls itself a "people's republic", but out of 1.4 billion people, only one out of the 25 members of the Politburo is a woman. And, of course, there's only one party from which to "choose". ■ And when cavalier hijacking of words alone isn't enough, they'll change the numbers, too -- from inflating GDP figures right down to manipulating the number of stars on Amazon book ratings. ■ Honest reporting doesn't have to accommodate blatantly dishonest practices in order to be fair. Neutrality of factual reporting still requires fidelity to the facts themselves, no matter how the actors involved represent the facts. And an "election" that is neither free nor fair deserves skeptical quotation marks, at best. In reality, even that gesture likely offers the event too much legitimacy, and legitimacy is what the power-hungry crave.

Threats and Hazards Sterling name, garbage behavior

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was born into a family that could have given him a head start on doing great things for his fellow human beings. Instead, he's chosen to profiteer off vaccine disinformation. It's disgraceful behavior.

Business and Finance Sears to sell off suburban Chicago headquarters

An everything-must-go sale for the ages. Having once downsized from the Sears Tower to a suburban office complex, now they're getting rid of the place in the 'burbs, too.

Iowa Quit taking our people, Minnesota

LinkedIn data suggests that Des Moines is the #3 contributing metro area to in-migration in the Twin Cities. Iowa City/Cedar Rapids and Waterloo/Cedar Falls are contributors, too -- which isn't surprising, given that they're college towns.

Health State of the art

It wasn't that many decades ago that the Casio calculator watch was the height of nerdwear. Today, for $29.99, a single device can not only tell the time, but also monitor the wearer's pulse, step count, sleep cycles, and blood oxygen levels.

Humor and Good News McDonald's employee climbs through window to save choking drive-thru customer

"Going above and beyond" may need to be amended here to include "through"

December 21, 2021

News It's wrong to compound victims' suffering for clicks

In a creepy and irresponsible attempt to get clicks on its website, Fox News posted an article link on social media with the headline "Missing Utah college student [name redacted], 19, found naked and alive in man's basement, reports say". Except, they didn't redact the victim's name. ■ Times are notoriously tough in the news business right now. Giants like Gannett use words like "transformation" to address the situation as they fight multi-million-dollar losses. The desire to "pivot to digital" is all around. ■ Digital advertising depends upon clickthrough. And salacious headlines have virtually always played a part in drumming up attention -- the "yellow journalism" of the 1800s wasn't even the first era of sensationalism. For-profit enterprises in the business of selling news (and adjacent things that look like news) have never been universally high-minded. Even the Founders weren't above hot-button debates. ■ But that doesn't mean decency and civic responsibility should go out the window. It is precisely because of digital media that even greater care should be taken to attend to the full consequences of coverage: Anything published today goes farther, faster, than just about any news in history. ■ Putting a victim's name, the age "19", and the word "naked" all in the headline guarantees that the victim's name will be tied to unflattering search results, probably forever. And all over something she didn't do: She was the victim, after all. ■ It's not only shameful but also reckless to compound a victim's suffering like that merely to get clicks. It is wrong to celebrate and celebritize perpetrators -- and it's also wrong to make a victim's worst experience the one that defines them digitally.

News Nothing beats capacity

Debates in American public life often center on the delivery of things -- $1.2 trillion in "infrastructure" or $2 billion in student-loan relief. We often seem to neglect discussions about capacity -- things that can be done to enable people to take care of matters for themselves. For some reason, we seem hamstrung by discussions of capacity -- and that does things like tying up review processes that could have made cheap, at-home testing for Covid-19 widely available.

Threats and Hazards We must hang together

...or surely we will hang separately, in the words of Benjamin Franklin. China's escalation of diplomatic and economic hostilities with Lithuania (over the offense of Lithuania's choice to engage with Taiwan) is the kind of matter on which the world's authentically democratic states need to stand strong, argues Hal Brands: "China's strategy for dividing its rivals involves singling out the more vulnerable states and using its vast market power -- or simply its diplomatic ruthlessness -- to coerce them." And that self-defense needs to include an economic component, too.

News "The enemy also gets a vote"

Sage advice

Humor and Good News These little piggies didn't get to market

Truck overturns while carrying hogs. Police on the scene capture a great photo.

Humor and Good News "That EAS alert wasn't us"

The Omaha office of the National Weather Service is quick to let everyone know they weren't the ones who tripped an emergency alert on every phone in the area at 11 o'clock at night

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December 22, 2021

Threats and Hazards Why should we care?

Reporters from Reuters say they observed first-hand as security guards and workers dismantled a statue at the University of Hong Kong. But not just any statue: A piece of art called the "Pillar of Shame", erected to commemorate the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It's not a matter of changing aesthetic tastes; it's an exercise of power by the increasingly controlling authority of the Communist Party 1,200 miles away in Beijing. ■ Russia has around 100,000 troops menacing Ukraine -- including some in places that Russia took from Ukraine in 2014. Ukrainians are practicing for guerrilla warfare to protect their homeland and turning to the US for help as they anticipate being attacked with the tools of cyberwarfare. ■ The 2.7 million people of Lithuania are weathering diplomatic and economic aggressions from the government of China, which is retaliating for Lithuania's decision to treat Taiwan as more than a subsidiary state. ■ One might wonder why Americans should care about any of these developments, as none of them affect any large number of Americans directly. We have our own political fights, our own domestic worries, and our own health to worry about. ■ We ought to care, at the most high-minded level, because the ills that befall our fellow human beings are a part of the state of humanity. For every American, there are another 23 people on Earth. Stuck in a lifeboat with room for 24, one ought to have concern for the welfare of all the rest -- and Earth is a pretty tiny lifeboat in the vast sea of space. ■ But we also ought to care because we have leverage. Like a county sheriff or the captain of a football team, we're capable of rallying others toward worthy goals -- and others expect us, as a country, to be more aware than most. Vast diplomatic and intelligence networks are supposed to be useful that way, and it is no small thing that America possesses the overwhelming first class in tools like aircraft carriers. ■ If all that mattered were what happened within the walls of a tiny city-state, that might be one thing. But we value the freedoms to think and speak, to come and go, to trade and invest, all of which combine to have made America a vast intellectual and economic powerhouse. But like a potluck dinner, things get better when more people show up and bring more to the table. ■ Deep down, most Americans know we're extraordinarily fortunate -- it's an incredible prize to have won the Rawlsian lottery and have made it to America, whether by birth or by choice. But a small cost of that good fortune is that we have a higher duty than that of the average Earthling to be aware of the injustices of the world and the trampling of freedoms. And while we shouldn't always step in with guns blazing, we can't risk our silence becoming thunderous. Our choice to engage with the world doesn't always require our weapons -- but it does demand that we see the plight of others, and for them to know we are watching.

Weather and Disasters Extra tornadoes found from December 15th

The National Weather Service counted a total of 42 tornadoes in Iowa on December 15th, which didn't just set the record for a single day in December, but the record for any single day in Iowa history. The storms themselves were moving fast, so it didn't take much rotational velocity to push the winds past EF-2 criteria in many cases as the squall line zipped through. Thanks to improving technology and training, forecasters could see the situation coming.

Computers and the Internet Test your own products, computer programmers

Tools like two-factor authentication are a wonderful improvement upon the plague of passwords. "2FA" makes it harder for malicious actors to break into the accounts upon which most people rely. But the people who program those experiences into devices, applications, and websites really have to make sure that the tighter security experience integrates seamlessly and doesn't wreck the user experience. For instance, it takes six clicks to get to the 2FA code generator inside the Twitter app. And the same kind of security speed bumps interfere with the basic desktop operation of the chat function that Google has tried to integrate directly into Gmail. Anything that expands the perimeter of greater user security ought to be appealing to the user to actually put into ordinary use. That means those tools need to be easy to use and non-disruptive.

News Widen the gate and open the doors

The United States has missed out on a whole lot of immigration over the last half-decade, and there's no good reason to let that persist

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December 23, 2021

Health Testing freely

The Federal government is going to "purchase a half-billion at-home, rapid tests this winter to be distributed for free to Americans who want them", according to the White House. It looks like those tests won't be available until January, which is late but better than never. ■ Testing capacity seems to have been a problem for the entirety of the pandemic. The failure to get massive testing capacity rolled out hampered the initial response in spring 2020, regulatory obstacles to testing were still obvious a full year later, and supply constraints (as well as costs) are still seen as a strangely American problem. ■ Of war, James Mattis once noted that "Speed equals success". In a war against an evolving virus, speed is equally important as on the battlefield. The earlier in the process the chain of viral transmission can be broken, the better for minimizing its spread: That means, in order, avoiding exposure, mitigating the exposure that does occur, preventing the advancement from exposure to infection, limiting the exposure of others if infection occurs, and limiting the demand on resources required to promote a quick and maximum recovery. ■ There's only so much that can be done (and for so long) to prevent the first step in that chain -- humans are social animals and we could not have remained locked down indefinitely. Two years after the virus emerged in Wuhan, China's government is still ordering people into lockdowns, millions at a time. To freer souls, that approach seems unbearable. ■ Vaccines are clearly the best tool for mitigating the consequences of exposure; the difference in case rates for the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated is stark -- the unvaccinated are at much greater risk (by maybe six or seven times) of catching the virus and vastly greater risk (by probably ten times) of hospitalization. ■ The news of not just one but two effective antiviral drugs in pill form is terrific, too. The more we can keep the virus from sending people to the hospital, the better. That much seems far beyond dispute. ■ But it still doesn't make sense not to have vastly expanded the country's testing capacity -- and certainly not if the hangup is an antiquated regulatory framework that prioritized box-checking perfection over deployment speed. ■ Even a testing system that produced some errors -- either false negatives or false positives -- would be useful if it were deployed so widely and cheaply that people could economically justify frequent testing. We don't count on seat belts to save every motorist in a crash, but their marginal effectiveness is so great that they save lots and lots of lives at scale. The same kind of math would apply to cheap, virtually unlimited rapid testing; individuals might still get faulty results, but the protection afforded at scale would be useful to public health. ■ Speed often beats perfection, especially in the environment of an evolving enemy like a virus. A virus doesn't "learn" like a battle planner, but it does mutate and adapt to continue the fight. As Dwight Eisenhower said of World War II, "[S]peed must be redoubled -- relentless and speedy pursuit is the most profitable action in war." ■ In a war against a biological outbreak, a Federal regulatory morass shouldn't keep us from trying to fight back. And we should fix whatever has been holding us back, lest some mutant strain of this (or a future virus) find us continuing to fiddle unproductively at the margins.

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December 24, 2021

Humor and Good News Ode to the humble Christmas light

A quest taken too far can become an obsession, and there are certainly those who take their Christmas light displays a few steps beyond healthy boundaries. Like Clark Griswold, they find no limit unworthy of exceedance. Yet for most, a few modest strings of lights are enough to demonstrate holiday cheer. And of the many outward ways a household can express itself, the humble Christmas light may be one of the finest. ■ How anyone decorates the interior of their home -- whether to change themed hand towels by the month or to leave everything museum-like 365 days a year -- is almost entirely a matter for the household itself. It doesn't show, except to visitors. But putting up Christmas lights is a particularly social activity: For the most part, the lights are experienced by others, rather than by the occupants themselves. ■ The history of illumination in American cities goes all the way back to the pre-Revolutionary Era. Benjamin Franklin makes reference to it in his autobiography, pointing to a development in the mid-1750s: "It was by a private person, the late Mr. John Clifton, his giving a sample of the utility of lamps, by placing one at his door, that the people were first impress'd with the idea of enlighting all the city. The honour of this public benefit has also been ascrib'd to me, but it belongs truly to that gentleman." ■ Some light displays draw on an explicitly religious theme, but most are merely bright and colorful at what is literally the darkest time of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere, where the Winter Solstice happens on December 21st or 22nd). Thus, while some people really are out to bring attention to themselves or win contests, displaying lights at Christmastime is mainly an act of goodwill toward others. ■ Few people actually blind their neighbors and strain the local power grid. Most are satisfied with putting out a few watts and calling it a day. But it is that modest display -- the one that says "Light for all, even if we don't know each other" -- that ought to be celebrated, for it means we're still able, selflessly, to wish others well.

December 25, 2021

Humor and Good News A 1901 complaint about kids and their then-contemporary technologies

Literally every complaint you've ever heard about "kids these days" has an analogue from the past. Every one of them.

Broadcasting How BBC journalists report from the field

Their tools for television and radio alike consist mostly of smartphones and a small kit of accessories, like stands, lights, and wind-screened microphones. Literally none of this would have seemed plausible when broadcasters were still recording to tape.

December 27, 2021

News A defeat to celebrate

Boxing Day doesn't have any traction in the United States, but it does seem like a missed opportunity that we don't celebrate December 26th. December 26th of 1991 was the first day in 69 years without the Soviet Union. ■ It is well-nigh impossible to explain to someone who didn't live through it just what a relief the dissolution of the USSR really was. Had there been social media at the time, the Internet would have been flooded with astonished-face emojis: The end of the Soviet Union meant the evaporation of literally decades of existential dread -- in the relative blink of an eye. ■ The end of the Cold War was a major contributing factor to why the 1990s felt so good. Talk of a "peace dividend" to the economy from the decline in military spending was certainly a factor, but so was the apparent elimination of the threat of devastating nuclear warfare. ■ Rather like a cancer patient ringing a bell at the end of a long course of treatment, American pop culture celebrated the effective defeat of our dreaded global rival. Concerts took over Red Square. Terrorists displaced Communists as the villains in action films. Mikhail Gorbachev starred in a Pizza Hut commercial. ■ There aren't many wars successfully terminated with one party simply voluntarily deciding to no longer exist. Yet that's what happened in 1991. An opponent that only seven years earlier could have been portrayed as a prospective invader simply vanished as a formal entity. ■ Boxing Day might linger as a holiday in the British Commonwealth, but the rest of the world might want to co-opt the holiday in celebration of the termination of Soviet-style Communism. There is altogether too much nostalgia for the USSR, both in Russia and abroad, and far too much sympathy worldwide for authoritarian systems of power. Celebrating the defeat of one of the mightiest such regimes would be a healthy reminder that the work of holding back authoritarianism is never really over.

December 28, 2021

News No tolerance for under-reporting

Practically every news organization maintains some version of an "evergreen file" -- a collection of stories that have been prepared in advance for distribution or publication on a slow news day. The evergreen file is especially useful during summer holidays (like Independence Day) and at the end of the year, when there are still column-inches or minutes of airtime to fill, but not a great deal of newsworthy activity happening in the world. ■ One standard entry in the evergreen file is a roundtable discussion of "the most under-reported stories of this year". It's a perfect way to fill time, since it permits the participants to expound on subjects that interest them most -- and to editorialize freely under the cover of offering analytical media criticism. These discussions certainly can be enlightening, and in many cases those who choose to name a story as the "most under-reported" are being authentically thoughtful about the shortcomings of coverage. ■ But the practice also highlights the fact that coverage is an editorial decision. To devote minutes or column-inches to coverage to a subject is to decide it is worth the attention of the reader, listener, or viewer. To deprive a story of that coverage is a choice, as well. ■ It's hard to say this in a time of atrocious news-media economics, but editors and news directors need to apply the Eisenhower Matrix to their coverage: Not just covering what's urgent, but also what's important. Urgency is the easiest way to rank-order newsworthiness (that's how we get "If it bleeds, it leads"), but that doesn't mean it's a good way to produce quality journalism. ■ If a subject is important but not obviously urgent, it needs the help of compelling writing. The quality of writing -- both for print and for the ear -- makes an enormous difference to the audience's level of interest in a story. Paul Harvey has been gone for more than a decade, but some broadcasters still place enough value on his storytelling ability to air segments recorded decades ago. (It helps that many, if not most, of his "Rest of the Story" episodes were themselves "evergreens".) ■ Writing compelling stories around important-but-not-urgent topics is both a skill and a talent. As with any other storytelling style, some people have abundant natural talent that can't be duplicated. Yet some of the skill can be taught, and much of it can be practiced. Upton Sinclair and Nelly Bly made their names by dragging important stories into the public view -- and journalists like Scott Pelley and editors like Anne McElvoy are masters of the craft today. But many, many more of them are needed. ■ Even if it weren't the catalyst for a convenient evergreen piece, there would still be cause for discussion of the most under-reported stories. Important stories often lack the convenient touchpoints that make them easy to fit into a news budget that depends upon timeliness. News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo, and much of what passes for "news" is really just reporting on events (things that happen without materially changing our understanding of anything) or information (which is often material worth knowing, but which tends to lack either urgency or importance). ■ The significance of news is that it often doesn't appear to us fully-formed nor served up on a platter in a press release. Aside from the obvious banner-headline stories, news is a matter of judgment about what's important. That's why editorial judgment means so much -- news usually must be dug up, and that digging has to be directed from somewhere. But once the digging yields results, the presentation matters, too. A few bones found in a bluff might not mean much to the ordinary person, but a dinosaur named Sue tells a story worth reading. ■ Such is the dynamic of telling the world's news: The really important subjects may be neither obvious nor seemingly urgent, which is precisely why the skill of editorial judgment and the craft of high-engagement storytelling matter so much. If important stories are going under-reported, then energy and resources need to go into increasing the skills required to keep them from being overlooked.

December 29, 2021

News The toxicity of tribal insincerity

It seems impossible to dive too far into the news or social media without finding someone who turns to some form of humor in order to get a rise out of someone else. Keith Olbermann makes fun of Sen. Mitt Romney's growing family. A self-proclaimed "politically incorrect cartoonist" mocks a former President for encouraging people to get Covid-19 booster shots. A highly-rated left-leaning podcast responds to a Democratic senator with vomiting emojis and demands to move to a new "simulation". ■ Satire has a grand and storied history in America. Puck was satirizing politics in the 1870s. John Adams wrote satirical letters. Benjamin Franklin was publishing editorial cartoons before the Revolutionary War. ■ But what's too often missing, particularly from the instant-gratification society cultivated by the Internet, is the elevation. Satire isn't the same as mockery. And what is too often present and accounted-for is nothing better than mere mockery. ■ On the surface, satire appears to hold seriousness in contempt. It pokes fun, and we are trained by history and social programming to think that "serious" is always higher than "fun". But satire is really a powerful tool of norm reinforcement. To satirize is to call out a behavior as deviant from what is best for the society at large, and to label it as worthy of derision. ■ Satire holds some things to be sacred, and lampoons those who commit sacrilege against those ideals. Whether it's an editorial cartoon lambasting corruption in politics or a stand-up comedian criticizing government regulation of speech, satire works when it holds something to be truthfully self-evident -- like the need for honest government or the centrality of freedom of speech -- and assails the use of power to undermine that good. ■ Those who don't get that essential quality all too often confuse satire for idle mockery. Mockery is a display of insincerity -- holding the target in preemptive contempt, assuming that they cannot bring good faith to a debate. But that often ends up being an act of projection: The person doing the mocking hasn't entered the arena with good faith. They've merely identified a target and taken a swing. ■ This practice is at its worst when it becomes tribalized -- when the targets are obvious (and the jokes are too), and laughter is a sign of groupthink and tribal membership. Predictable shows with predictable jokes targeting predictable foils fill the cable television schedules from (purported) left to (purported) right, and the same dynamic can be found on the airwaves and online. ■ The insincerity of it all -- the rejection of good-faith debates, which indeed can be conducted satirically -- is a shame, considering how much we have to gain from robust debates. And it's especially toxic when it becomes a matter of identity.

Health What if all preventative care were free?

The whole Covid-19 affair -- including testing and vaccinations -- provokes an interesting question: What if basically all preventative care and testing (for everything) were free to Americans? Nothing else in health care -- just those two things. Would behavior change? How many people would use it? Would it save on net health-related spending? It's already obvious that some people reject treatment a priori, with no regard for the evidence or the price anyway. The question is whether others would behave differently if the rules were different. The answers are not at all obvious.

Threats and Hazards Obscenity in Hong Kong

There is no other word for it: Police there have raided a media company and arrested six senior staff members

Broadcasting The spinoff the world needs

Now that "Veep" is over, the world needs a spinoff, featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Sally Phillips reprising their roles as Selina Meyer and Minna Hakkinen, doing a sort of buddy-cop routine as UN special representatives. Joshua Malina could be their beleaguered bureaucrat back in New York.

Business and Finance Be our guest

Hilton is opening its 400th hotel in China. On one hand, applause is due for the reach of soft diplomacy. On the other hand, what uncomfortable compromises have they made to get to that number?

December 30, 2021

The United States of America "Strengthened the institutions"

In some circles, the phrase "my NGO" (a non-governmental organization) is used without hesitation or irony -- it is an in-group signal that the user belongs (or aspires to belong) to a high-minded global elite. Founding an NGO also happens to be one of the ways in which young people try to gain admission to elite colleges. ■ The instinct to jump in and solve problems is laudable. Society benefits from having sharp people who want to get their hands dirty and resolve the problems they see in the world. To channel Theodore Roosevelt, "It is not the critic who counts [...] The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood [...] who spends himself in a worthy cause". ■ But if we do too much to praise and reward only the "founders", we run the risk of under-investing in our institutions. The world needs people who sustain and maintain the institutions that already exist, whether we call them trustees or stewards, custodians or caretakers. Trustees are essential -- just as much as founders. And they are essential both high and low -- at the heights of power as well as at the most pedestrian of community levels. ■ In a reflection on one of the prominent lives lost in 2021, Dr. Kori Schake eulogized Secretary Colin Powell with the praise that he "strengthened the institutions he led". Those words ought to be read as extraordinarily high praise. ■ Institutions need to be revitalized and given purpose if they are to remain healthy. The place of cancer in medicine is far distant from where it was when the American Cancer Society was founded in 1913. America has fought a World War and a Cold War (not to mention other wars, both declared and undeclared) since the American Legion was formed in 1919. And among the many evolutionary changes that have reached the Boy Scouts of America since 1910, a thousand girls have earned the Eagle Scout Award. Merely cruising with inertia is a sure way for an institution to decline and die. ■ With all due respect to the newborn NGOs that solve new and novel problems, it should not be more praiseworthy to start up an NGO than to direct the forces of an existing organization into solving the same problems. The world is surely better-off because the Rotary Club (established in 1905) took on the challenge to eradicate polio in 1979, or because Kiwanis (founded in 1915) pivoted to a mission to fighting tetanus in 2010. The heritage service organizations across America's landscape are trying to reboot themselves, and they have a lot of good work left to do. ■ Achieving a giant mission requires organization and structure. And, invariably, starting institutions and getting their momentum underway requires founders to pour energy and time into the goal. That investment might not always be best spent on startup activities, especially if the organization isn't going to stick around for long. There are lots of institutions already crying out for new blood and innovative missions. ■ It isn't wrong for people to want to put the words "Founder and CEO" on their resumes -- but a smart society would seek to lavish at least as much reward on the effective "vice president of community service" or the devoted project chairperson who kept the fire burning for their time within a local chapter of a bigger organization. ■ Correcting that mindset is a mission not only for college admissions counselors, but for parents and teachers, employers and counselors, grandparents and neighbors. Sometimes new is necessary -- but the fact viewers have rewarded literally dozens of home-renovation shows in the television market shows that we already know that sometimes good things already exist and merely need some new hands to invigorate and strengthen them.

Weather and Disasters Awful fire sweeps into Boulder metro area

According to the Boulder Camera: "A large wind-driven fire moving through eastern Boulder County has damaged or destroyed almost 600 homes and burned about 1,600 acres". The smoke is showing up on radar, and it looks like a bad situation is growing worse.

Broadcasting Bring back wood-paneled electronics!

Back when a TV looked like furniture

Broadcasting Send Tom Skilling to community college

The dean of television weather forecasting is a legend -- but boy could he ever use a course in graphic design

Weather and Disasters Nothing's finer than a good rime

"Graupel" may be the best weather word (just for pure pleasure of saying it), but rime is the coolest phenomenon

December 31, 2021

News A farewell to Betty White

It's unclear who are the 4% of Americans who disliked Betty White, but every society contains some ne'er-do-wells. For the rest of us, she was fittingly rated the most popular celebrity in America -- edging out even Denzel Washington and Sandra Bullock. And now we are left to mourn her passing on the final day of 2021, not even three weeks shy of her 100th birthday. ■ She was both exceptionally popular and highly respected, even if her persona was disarming and cheerful. She was a volunteer servicemember in WWII, an ally to the civil rights movement in 1954 (who may have paid a career price for her choices), and a spokesperson for anti-bullying campaigns into her 90s. ■ Benjamin Franklin wrote, "'Tis a shame that your family is an honor to you! You ought to be an honor to your family." Not everyone will have the kind of fame or the consequent platforms of a performer like Betty White. She was gifted with enormous talent (even if acting was runner-up to her dream job of being a forest ranger), and she worked hard for her success over a long and full lifetime. So while she was an only child and had no children of her own, she was undoubtedly an honor to her family. ■ Was she exceptional? Certainly. Trailblazing, even, both on-camera and as a producer. And along the way, she managed to win over the public in a way literally no other American did. Everyone chooses some kind of path through life, and all of us are free to choose our role models. We could do a lot worse than for lots of Americans to cast Betty White in the part.

Humor and Good News Queen Elizabeth's annual New Year's greeting to Eisenhower

Affectionate, really. He earned it.

Humor and Good News Why do people keep going to Renaissance fairs?

Living in the past always looks more appealing if you can still retreat to someplace with indoor plumbing.

News Who doesn't talk with their hands?

The new German Chancellor, apparently. But how does he do it? The cognitive load required to keep those arms from moving must be huge.