Gongol.com Archives: March 2022

Brian Gongol


March 2022
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March 1, 2022

Business and Finance The orangutan effect

The finest line in Warren Buffett's annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, released on February 26th, belongs not to Buffett but to his vice-chairman, Charlie Munger. Buffett writes, "Teaching, like writing, has helped me develop and clarify my own thoughts. Charlie calls this phenomenon the orangutan effect: If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly." ■ The "orangutan effect" could stand to get a lot more use in the wider world. Nothing about life in 2022 is less complex than it was in 2012, and certainly not than it was in 1922. It will be more complex in 2032, and much more so in 2122. Within virtually every field of inquiry and endeavor, people will continue to specialize and advance the state of the art. (The rare exception that proves the rule: We probably won't see new innovations in harpsichord performance.) ■ Increasing specialization has wide-ranging and often robust effects: Extremely skilled specialists are what gives a place like the Mayo Clinic a sterling reputation. But general knowledge remains important, too: Being able to synthesize information across conventional subject-matter boundaries matters enormously, particularly as complex new problems emerge with irregular borders. ■ Is Covid-19 a problem for epidemiologists? Public-health experts? Macroeconomists? Child psychologists? Human-resources departments? Politicians? Network security consultants? Yes. Yes, to all of the above, and to many more. And being able to absorb information from all of those fields and convert it into actionable thought requires the ability to understand what's coming in. ■ That's why the orangutan effect matters so much. It's not just enough that each of us in our own fields be capable of explaining the basic outlines of our own most important contributions (though that is surely more important than ever). It's also essential that we obtain the clearest possible thinking about what we know, what we don't, and what will change those boundaries. ■ One of the reasons people have been so attracted to Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is his ability to speak (even through translation) as though to the unwitting orangutan. War is brutal and complex, but "I need ammunition, not a ride" is unambiguous. "We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it's a fair one." cuts cleanly through the fog of war. ■ It's easy to come up with empty-headed or pandering nonsense that sounds good; the history of advertising is enough to prove that. (Why, yes, I sure think I do deserve a break today!) But clear words, delivered authentically about meaningful matters, can only emerge from clear thinking, and clear thinking takes practice. And if civilization is to follow a course that leads in a happy direction, we'll need that clear thinking from every direction. Round up the orangutans: There's work to do.


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March 2, 2022

Threats and Hazards May we have your attention, please?

If you've ever doubted the capacity of human beings to ignore a festering problem, you must stop whatever you're doing and go check out your nearest office breakroom microwave. Once we convince ourselves that a problem isn't imminent, we tend to stop seeing the sensory evidence in front of us and instead reduce the thing we're seeing into an abstraction. ■ This process of switching between the evidence and our abstractions of the evidence can be helpful; when we drive or walk down a familiar path, most of us shift into a mental mode that is a lot more like following a simplified map on a screen than checking for every new block of pavement that comes our way. The unfamiliar situations -- those times when you have to turn down the radio so you can see a street sign better -- are when we need the additional cognitive processing capacity to handle the hard work. ■ The problem emerges when we rely too heavily on the abstractions and fail to recognize that a problem really is new, changing, or growing. Our brains may literally have evolved to recognize threats detected by peripheral vision, but we just aren't very good at stepping back from the world in which we live to see the holistic nature of the real problems we have assigned as abstractions. ■ No matter how smart we are, we still have a finite amount of attention to deploy. There is only so much cognitive load any one of us can bear. ■ But the consequences of compartmentalizing so many problems as "not a threat for now" are certainly coming to bear. Should the world have pressed harder for nuclear disarmament sooner -- before thinly-veiled threats from the dictator holding the world's largest nuclear arsenal? Should we have expanded rather than contracted our pandemic-planning infrastructure -- before Covid-19 hit? Should our energy industry have done more to prepare their infrastructure for cold weather -- before natural gas wells froze and power systems entered cascading failure loops during cold snaps? ■ There is something of an art to raising issues and focusing attention on necessary solutions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has chosen to pull the fire alarm on their issue, its co-chair saying, "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future". But...any further delay? And how brief is the window? And is the alternative a truly unliveable future? The problem of anthropomorphic climate change is indeed real, but it can't be the only problem suitable for high-stakes attention or "concerted global action". ■ In business, people sometimes conduct SWOT analyses: Assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It's a practice best conducted periodically: Often enough that a threat or weakness doesn't boil over, but not so often that it swallows up all the attention that needs to be paid to the day-to-day. ■ At the civilizational level, we need better practices and institutions for conducting SWOT analysis on behalf of us all. Some might have imagined the United Nations to be just such an institution in the past, but the fact that Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution about its invasion of Ukraine (while holding the presidency of the council) is ample evidence that the UN either cannot or will not do the job. (For further evidence, see China's membership on the UN Human Rights Council, as it sends Uighurs to internment camps.) ■ Just as membership in many international organizations is held for cyclical terms and the chair's gavel is passed from one country to another, so ought we to look for organized, thoughtful ways to keep an eye on the world's problems, both imminent and long-run. It's not healthy to light our collective hair on fire every time a new panicked report is issued, nor to wait until a problem has sparked a global meltdown to take it seriously. ■ A bit like a radar scope, we need institutions that can scan the horizon and report back with each "sweep". And if we don't have those institutions now (or if the ones we have are failing us), no amount of waiting will make our problems better.


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March 3, 2022

News A little extra goes a long way

It has never been cheaper nor easier to add a dollop of ornamentation to just about anything. Tired of vinyl siding? Replace it with a faux stone veneer. Want to upgrade the look of a bus or a trailer? Put a vinyl wrap on it. Need a corporate logo? Someone will prepare a design for as little as $5 or $10. ■ Often, we add little more than just crude ornamentation. There's nothing expressly wrong with that; human beings appear to have been painting in caves for 164,000 years. People were putting graffiti on the walls of Pompeii right up until Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. ■ But we're also capable of doing much more than just adding some touches of paint here and there. As societies, we're at our best when we integrate forethought with our designs, so that we build things that will not only stand the test of time, but also prove themselves useful beyond mere ornament. ■ A bridge, for example, is one of the most utilitarian of instruments. And in general, we find it wise to illuminate our bridges so that travelers can see their way safely across. But bridges are often utterly plain (even when they're not in disrepair), and nothing looks good when cast in the sickly yellow of a sodium light. ■ It would have been sufficient to illuminate the bridges of Des Moines with those basic HPS lamps -- or even with plain white light coming from energy-efficient LED bulbs. But instead, someone had the foresight to install three of them with programmable technology, permitting the city to light up three high-profile bridges in the yellow and blue of Ukraine. ■ Undoubtedly, those lighting systems cost more than basic illumination. But probably not by much. Just as today's giant flat-screen television costs less in real terms than yesterday's smaller (and picture-inferior) standard definition TV, so too have many other improvements in materials and methods come with affordability advantages, too. ■ When it becomes cheaper to get something of the same quality, the temptation is often there to pursue the cheapest alternative available. But we shouldn't be too quick to always grasp for cost savings first -- even, and perhaps especially, when it comes to public improvements. Sometimes it's better to anchor our expectations not with what superficially appears to be the lowest cost, but rather with capturing some of the savings that often come from the kinds of quality and price improvements that market forces bring us and committing them to building things just a little bit better. ■ How we treat our public spaces does a lot to shape our perceptions of community, and there is no place where this can pay off better than where local communities, at the neighborhood or municipal level, decide not to default just to the cheapest options but rather to perceive of the entire life-cycle value of what they're getting. Sometimes just lighting up a bridge can be the right thing to do.


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March 4, 2022

The United States of America The inadequacy of nationalism

Few words have gotten an unexpected revival in American popular discourse quite like the word "nationalism". It's been debated, heralded, excoriated, and even made into the centerpiece of a series of (paradoxically) international conferences featuring United States Senators as keynote speakers. ■ But ambiguous words and sloppy definitions lead to faulty understandings of the world, and it's hard to get a good consensus around a word as charged as "nationalism". First of all, nationalism needs to be distinguished from a basic sense of patriotism. ■ Basic patriotism is simply the call for the individual to do his or her duty to the country to which they belong. That's good and healthy, as long as it centers on the duty rather than the symbols. Duty is a matter of a person's relationship to others, and every good philosophy of the world, starting with the Golden Rule, puts emphasis on just such a thing. Patriotism fits best in a moderate zone -- not too much, and not too little. As Maimonides put it, "[M]oderation is one of the good actions, and the state of the soul that produces moderation is a moral virtue." ■ The problem with nationalism is that we hardly know how to define what a nation is. Its root emerges from the Latin "natio", or "birth" -- which suggests a relationship based more on blood than on choice. That alone makes it tricky to look at the United States, especially, in a "national" way. America really is an idea, and being an American is an aspirational choice made by millions. ■ Plenty of people pound the table to say that nations are defined by things like languages, borders, and culture -- but we all too often forget that there are a great number of nations who are without a state. An American whose ancestors came here in the 1800s may identify as "German" in ethnic origin, but does that mean that they are Bavarian, Prussian, Saxon, or perhaps even Pomeranian? Each of those formed a distinct nation unto itself (as did many others), even though none of them forms a distinct nation-state today. ■ In fact, a published catalog of "stateless nations" includes more than 300 entries -- all describing cultural groups with reasonable claims to nationhood, but which don't have what we recognize as a national government. Dozens of groups are members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, reflecting just this condition. ■ What Americans (and others) have to realize is that everyone is a member of multiple "nations". We have intersecting, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting identities. And not just at the purely artificial level of sports fandom -- though it's telling that people have no problem identifying as voluntary members of groups like "Packers Nation" and realizing that it's not inherently in conflict with lots of other identities. Fans of a professional sports team really do tend to adopt a particular culture, a unique in-group language, and lots of other senses of identity that make them look like a "nation", even if membership is not a matter of birth. And nobody should ever be willing to bear arms on behalf of one. ■ Recognizing not only the ambiguity of "nationhood", but also the inevitability of membership in many defined "nations" -- of sports, religion, birthplace, ethnic origin, legal citizenship, and countless other layers of identity -- ought to give every reasonable person some humility about what those things mean, and some reticence about clinging too tightly to nationalism as a source of personal identity. ■ Tension among the sources of one's identity isn't necessarily bad, particularly given how likely any one of us is to encounter it once we realize how layered life inevitably must be. And well-examined tension in life can be a source of much good, especially if it helps us to realize that we're really bound -- by duty -- to so many other people who may in countless ways be unlike ourselves.


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March 6, 2022

Threats and Hazards Scams beg for Bitcoin for Ukraine

There is little punishment that would be too harsh for the people behind a fake-Red-Cross scam begging for Bitcoin for Ukraine.

Weather and Disasters Don't count on hearing tornado sirens

A timely seasonal reminder, made sadder by yesterday's terrible loss of life due to severe weather in Iowa.

News "Winter on Fire"

The documentary "Winter on Fire" (streaming on Netflix) really drives home a lot of thoughts about how motivated the Ukrainian people are to secure their just freedoms. The self-organization on display when they protested against their own government in 2013 and 2014 was exceptional. Those skills were not simply forgotten.

News Terms of offense

Winston Churchill: "Our first line of defence against invasion must be as ever the enemy's ports."


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March 7, 2022

News A place to rest one's weary head

With its notoriously high population density (more than 12,000 people per square mile) and extremely high standard of living (its economy is bigger than Canada's), Tokyo is bound to be the source of imaginative solutions to problems that deserve a second look elsewhere in the world. ■ Among those clever solutions is the capsule hotel: A space big enough for a bed and little else, apparently often stacked in double-decker style. It may not be much (nor even feature individual bathroom facilities), but as a method of achieving a high density of accommodation at comparatively low cost with at least a modicum of privacy, it's a smart idea. ■ For the most part, space really isn't at a premium in the United States. Vast reaches of the country are virtually uninhabited, and for the most part, our hospitality industry is more than happy to find ways to build more hotel space (and travelers seem willing to shell out for preposterous nightly charges). ■ But the idea at the core of the capsule hotel needs a second look for other reasons. The essence of it is that an individual space can be safely and cleanly demarcated, turned private (with walls on all sides), and densified by stacking. The individual sleeping capsules should be easy to standardize and mass-produce, especially if all any of them really require is a main electrical connection (since toilet and bath facilities can be supplied in congregate fashion). ■ From time to time, we need to be able to accommodate substantial demand for housing on short notice. The most dramatic domestic case, of course, is that of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina -- which initiated a diaspora that numbered at least 400,000, if not more. Large-scale destruction of urban habitat happens periodically: Think of the fire in Boulder, Colorado that destroyed 1,000 homes in 2021, or the Camp Fire in California that displaced 50,000 people and destroyed 11,000 houses in the town of Paradise. ■ But from time to time, social situations create nearly-instantaneous demand shocks for housing. The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine right now is estimated at 1.5 million people, and it's far from the only refugee situation underway in the world right now; millions are still displaced from Syria. ■ It would be a worthy pursuit to find a way to emulate the Japanese capsule hotel at a high-volume, mass-production, economy-producing scale, so that when the occasion calls for it, a substantial amount of safe, serviceable, and private shelter could be installed on extremely short notice -- especially if a modular design would permit such facilities to be built close to where the people affected by a disaster like a hurricane or wildfire had been chased away. Losing a home is certainly bad enough; having to deal with the repercussions from far away, isolated from social networks of home and community, only make it worse. ■ Americans are a generous people, and we tend to have great sympathy for those who need help through no fault of their own. States offering to take in refugees would benefit from having access to resources and standardized mechanisms for creating short-term living space. We regard food, clothing, and shelter as the most basic human needs. It would be prudent to look at how we could mimic practices already well-established elsewhere (like Tokyo) to help make it more efficient to deliver one of those needed resources quickly and practically.

Computers and the Internet Dystopian Frogger

Techno-utopians are dreaming of a world in which self-driving cars no longer need stoplights to control intersections. But anyone who occasionaly doubles as a pedestrian probably ought to be skeptical of this imagined game of Dystopian Frogger.


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March 8, 2022

Weather and Disasters A dash of salt

Every spring, people in northern states watch as the snow melts from fields, streets, lawns, and parking lots. It's often a process that cascades on itself, as ground and pavement become exposed to solar energy and thaw out, accelerating the warming trend for the snow that remains unmelted. From time to time a blast of fresh snow is dropped in the midst of the spring melting season (think of the extraordinary 2019 "bomb cyclone"), but most of the time it all rather quickly ends up flowing downstream. ■ This annual process represents a massive missed opportunity for the water sector. Americans generally take public drinking water supplies almost entirely for granted -- where it isn't entirely unmetered (and thus "free" in the eyes of the consumer), it's almost always incredibly cheap: Virtually nobody is charged even one cent per gallon for fresh potable water. ■ The missed opportunity is in failing to illustrate and remind the public that water is, in fact, cyclical. What melts now and percolates into the ground or (as is more often the case when the ground remains frozen) flows downstream ultimately becomes source water for somebody. Since gravity takes water to lower elevations until it either enters an aquifer or runs to the sea, most people see their water depart to lower elevations -- yet another one of the many ways having the "high ground" tends to be advantageous. ■ But whatever enters the water at those upper elevations tends to stay there. Every spring, water-industry authorities ought to thump the table over and over: Look at what's moving downstream as the snow melts! Look at the salt marks! Look at the trash and the litter that are carried along in the storm sewers! ■ Sometimes it's inevitable that we'll do incidental damage to the waters we share in pursuit of other worthwhile goals -- like putting salt on the roads so that it's safer to drive in the winter. Good for drivers; bad for streams and rivers, and most importantly, bad for the people who will ultimately drink from them. ■ We have to recognize that there are consequences to what we do, even when it's done out of necessity, and we have to clean up after ourselves. Ben Franklin once put it that "He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolves not to mend now." ■ It's better to refrain from contaminating communal resources in the first place wherever we can, but it's a close second to take accountability for "mending now" what traces we leave behind. And there is no time like spring -- the season of "spring cleaning" -- to remind the public at large that virtually everyone is living and drinking downstream of someone else.

Business and Finance Proper names

Economic terms deserve popular names that make sense. "Autarky" should be "antisocial economy disorder". "Monopsony" should be the "Solo Buyer's Club".


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March 9, 2022

News Churchill with an iPhone

It would be no crude exaggeration to say that Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, has a Churchillian streak. In one of his most recent videos, he starts with a view of Kyiv at night, then points his phone's camera at himself to narrate a walk down a hallway. Within less than a minute, without breaking stride, he takes a seat at his desk and commences a formal speech to his country. The video cuts to a customary camera view in mid-sentence, so the viewer watches a seamless transition from selfie to state address. ■ If Winston Churchill had lived in the era of the iPhone, he would certainly have tipped his cap in admiration. Churchill knew the power of broadcasting a message to the country. In the BBC's words, "It is hard to quantify the significance of Churchill's wartime speeches in bolstering national morale during the long years of the war. But more than half the adult population tuned in to them". ■ It is self-evident that Zelenskyy knows the power of communication. With credits as a writer, director, and producer, as well as an actor, he's aware that there is more to reaching people than just looking good on camera. His use of a clever quick-cut in mid-sentence from the authenticity of a selfie to the authority of the presidential desk isn't just good television work: It's a powerful proof of life, and it's a dramatic way to say, "These are my own words; I am nobody's puppet". ■ But his use of words matters, too. He praises the armed forces, but he shows respect to others, too: "The servicemen are in positions. Our heroes! Doctors, rescuers, transporters, diplomats, journalists." And, further, "Everywhere people defended themselves, although they do not have weapons there. But these are our people, and that's why they have weapons. They have courage. Dignity. And hence the ability to go out and say: I'm here, it's mine, and I won't give it away." Even if the translation to English is choppy, the meaning runs deep. ■ Try to imagine Vladimir Putin praising journalists or lauding the "dignity" of unarmed protest. One cannot. Nor can one imagine the same from other authoritarians around the world -- not Assad, nor Xi, nor Lukashenko. Zelenskyy doesn't have to be perfect to have clearly aligned himself with the interests of human freedom and against repressive power. ■ There is clearly a long road ahead, and much could go wrong along the way. And what Zelenskyy wants, he may not get: He wants membership in the EU and a no-fly zone overhead. Those may not be deliverable. Churchill spent a long time pleading for American arms and even opened himself to the prospect of an Anglo-Franco civil union as a way to stop Nazi Germany. He eventually got the weapons, but the Lend-Lease Act took a lot longer than hoped. ■ But, for now, Zelenskyy keeps marshalling his words (and his Twitter account) to the cause of a peace won through victory. He is using media better amid a crisis than any political leader in at least a generation, and probably better than any head of government since Churchill himself. ■ Whether he's familiar with the words or not, he has tapped into a sense once expressed by Dwight Eisenhower: "We believe that men, given free expression of their will, prefer freedom and self-dependence to dictatorship and collectivism. From the evidence, it would appear that the Communist leaders also believe this; else why do they attack and attempt to destroy the practice of these concepts?" Eisenhower was right then; Zelenskyy is in the right today.

Threats and Hazards Despicable choices

Someone in a Russian tank convoy fired on a civilian car evacuating Kyiv, killing three innocent people. For a tank gunner to fire upon a civilian vehicle in the manner described is so depraved as to defy any explanation. Someone either gave a command or defied one. Someone pulled a trigger. A person made this despicable choice.

Broadcasting How things change

A 1967 ad for WMAQ-TV in Chicago carries the enthusiastic tagline, "All in color, too!". In 1987, it might have said "Now in stereo!". In 2007, "See it in HD!". In 2027 (or indeed, even today), it might well say, "This episode was filmed entirely on an iPhone".


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March 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet Disconnections

The virtual battlefield has become a more challenging place lately, with cyberattacks increasing by 25% in the course of just two weeks. That's a painfully large increase -- and it's hard to imagine that cyber-defense spending has also increased by 25% in the same time, though it undoubtedly will need to do so. ■ It has been noted in some places that full-scale cyberwarfare seems not to have broken out (perhaps only "not yet") between Russia and Ukraine, despite the open warfare taking place on the ground. But there's nothing necessarily paradoxical about a war of kinetic arms heating up at a different pace than that of a cyberwar. Nor is it necessarily inconsistent that the global pace of cyberattacks would rise during a time of real-world fighting on the ground in one particular country. ■ What both observations taken together ought to teach us is a twofold lesson: First, we need to take engagements in the digital arena quite seriously, and moreso than we have been forced to do in the past. ■ Second, we need to face seriously the need to marshal at least some of our cyber defenses under a distinct branch of our Department of Defense. Cyber-defense clearly behaves differently than a land war between a pair of belligerent powers. Non-combatant countries, their citizens, and their public and private sectors alike can all become targets or collateral damage, even if no war is declared and they scrupulously avoid being drawn into a legal definition of participation in battle. ■ The separation of the US Air Force from the Army was essential not just to its identity but to its ability to develop a distinctive doctrine, culture, and array of resources. The ghost of Billy Mitchell ought to whisper in our ears about cybersecurity, too. It is a distinctive form of hostilities, involving a different scope of consequences, a different field of battle, and sometimes vastly different combatants than conventional warfare. ■ The evidence of the decoupling of cyber warfare from kinetic warfare is overwhelming. The logical step to take is to acknowledge that break: If we have room to create a Space Force, we ought to be well past the time for a Cyber Force.

News If you aren't skeptical of power, you aren't paying enough attention

The law of unintended consequences is exactly what ought to make most thoughtful people into chronic skeptics of concentrated power in general and of government interventions in particular. It's easy to find wants. It's much harder to carefully use the levers of authority to get them without causing collateral damage.


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March 11, 2022

The United States of America The disproportion is the point

From time to time, someone points to a pie chart of discretionary spending by the Federal government and imagines they're making a brilliant argument with a pithy statement like "The United States government is an army with a country attached." It's not an original thought; many have restated it many times before (including when it was said about Prussia nearly 250 years ago). ■ But it's not only unoriginal; it is deeply misleading, and it is misleading on two levels. The first is the obvious omission of the two biggest accounts at the Federal level: Entitlement spending under Social Security and Medicare. We budget more for Medicare than for defense, and with a faster growth rate. Social Security is much larger still. ■ Even setting aside that perspective, there is another glaring error in placing a single-minded focus on Federal discretionary spending: States and local governments in the United States are supposed to do a great deal of the work of government for themselves. That is the Constitutional order of business: Washington, DC, does what it must, and the states are to do the rest. ■ Unanimity of opinion is impossible to achieve among 332 million people, and the Constitution was brilliantly structured so as not to need uniformity. In fact, we are better off without it. Denmark, for example, has about 5.8 million people. That places it between Colorado and Wisconsin in size. 5.8 million people is clearly large enough to have a distinctive culture, a unique political climate, and a self-sustaining economy. What we would expect in those terms from a country like Denmark we should equally expect from mid-sized states like Colorado and Wisconsin. ■ That isn't a flaw of the Constitutional system; it is the genius of it. Any one of the states of the Union is free to do for itself most of the things that we would expect many countries to do -- so long as the state maintains a republican form of government (Article IV, Section 4) and offers the equal protection of the law to all people (Amendment XIV). ■ Should a state decide to offer free post-secondary education to its citizens, or to experiment with single-payer health care, or to build a high-speed rail network, it is free to do so -- by itself or in cooperation with others. And it is especially free to do so because the Federal government is there to take care of big-picture, unanimity-requiring issues, like defense and international diplomacy. ■ To the extent those matters basically don't have to be addressed at the state level, the states are in fact more free than most countries to experiment and innovate -- and they should act on that freedom. Go ahead: Cater to corporations, subsidize TV production, or open a sovereign-wealth fund. ■ So, no, the United States isn't just an "army with a country attached". It's a rich union of diverse states with different interests but a common agreement to share a vast economy, a common set of fundamental rules, and an approach to the defense of all that has generally ensured domestic safety in a manner uncommon in the world. That's what it is supposed to do. But by concentrating one form of spending at one level of government and much of the rest of the spending on another, the resulting peculiarities of a pie chart really make no fundamental point at all. The disproportion in spending is, in fact, the point.

Threats and Hazards Utter madness

A Reuters correspondent credits a "senior US defense official" with the news that "Russia has launched about 810 missiles at Ukrainian targets since the invasion started". Imagine the perversity of launching 810 missiles, some (or even many) of which have hit homes and hospitals, and claiming to do it for the purpose of fostering greater unity with ethnic kin living in the crosshairs. The lie that the invasion has anything to do with ties of historical affection is just gobsmackingly transparent. This is a cruel attack of Russia's choosing against peaceful neighbors.


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March 12, 2022

News Compounding Russia's struggles

Russia can point to a higher per-capita GDP than Ukraine, but it would be foolhardy to underestimate the value of real self-determination. It doesn't show up in the national accounts, but it's far from trivial that the Ukrainian people have a sense for what it means to taste freedom and to govern themselves. Freedom House rates Ukraine "partly free" with an index of 61 out of 100, versus Russia's "unfree" at just 19 out of 100.

The United States of America Happy 250th

The United States is just four years away from our 250th birthday. Who's in charge of the planning? This isn't just a class reunion, you know.

Computers and the Internet Just because you're in public view doesn't negate your privacy

The right to go unbothered by people hunting through rabbit holes for information on someone doesn't just apply to those who go looking for that private information. It also applies to passive consumers of it. If something would seem intrusive if it were published about your own life, it's not suddenly OK to read just because it's about a "celebrity".


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March 14, 2022

Computers and the Internet Taking the STEAM out of STEM

The STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- form a tidy little bundle that tend to advance the same general set of technical interests, require similar forms of investment, and face common problems with recruitment from historically under-represented populations. That they can be agglomerated under a convenient acronym is convenient, but not necessary. ■ What is not only unnecessary but downright counterproductive is the effort to shoehorn an "A" in there, converting STEM to STEAM by adding "arts" to the cluster. It may sound clever, but the effect is dilutive. ■ This isn't to say that STEM subjects should be divorced from the arts. To the contrary: An element of the humanities is absolutely, positively essential to the successful promotion of the STEM fields. Without integrating humanistic thinking into the process, technically skilled individuals run the grave risk of doing things that are negligent, harmful, or even hazardous to their fellow human beings. But recognizing that STEM topics are different from the arts is critical to bridging the gap. ■ Take, for instance, the case of the "chatbot companion" promoted in online advertising. One such bot is being promoted with a headline that literally says "The AI companion who cares". But a chatbot is not a "who" and has literally zero capacity to "care". Advertising otherwise is an act distressingly disconnected from the human impact of technology. ■ It's entirely understandable that some people have a hard time making friends and cultivating relationships. But the humane thing to do isn't to offer a completely false promise of a synthetic "companion who cares". A humane thing to do would be to program an app to guide lonely people through the process of making real friends -- with human beings. ■ But just as people who are attracted to the STEM fields need to be trained in the humanities in order to become well-rounded practitioners, so must people who are attracted to the humanities be trained in technology and the sciences. Recognizing that these fields are fundamentally different from one another highlights the contrasts, which should serve to place emphasis on what's missing. Once we recognize that something is not necessarily an obvious fit, we can make conscious choices to try to make up for the void. ■ Cramming "arts" into a conjoined appellation with STEM makes it appear as if they are the same, and that is misleading. They are different, and historically have been; the rarity of a case like Leonardo da Vinci, both an extraordinary scientist and an extraordinary artist, is the exception that proves the rule. A polymath like Leonardo stands out because the fullness of the STEAM subjects integrated themselves seamlessly in his very special mind. ■ For the rest of us, the different fields do not fit quite so intuitively together, and there is a need for conscious effort to make sure that the scientists don't overlook the humanities, and that the artists don't fail to learn math. This conscious integration takes work. It doesn't happen because of a cute acronym, and it certainly won't happen unless we realize there are differences to integrate.


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March 16, 2022

Threats and Hazards The feedback loop of barbarity

A woman who was injured in the Russian bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital has died while undergoing a Caesarean section in which her baby died as well. Their deaths are added to those of at least three others at the same hospital. Behind the cruelty and heartbreak of her individual tragedy, there is a much larger cause for alarm. ■ In 1983, a Soviet air-defense officer may have single-handedly prevented a nuclear war. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel, was warned of an incoming missile attack from the United States. He concluded it was a false alarm using a combination of quick judgment and gut instinct, and in so doing likely prevented a catastrophe. The warning was a false alarm, and his decision to act as a circuit-breaker may well have saved millions of lives. ■ Petrov's story didn't make it out until the late 1990s. But it's rightly regarded as a case where good human judgment prevented a faulty system from creating an artificial disaster. Imagine if the world had fallen into nuclear winter just because some Soviet satellites were glitchy. ■ The Petrov story was a reminder that no matter how evil the Evil Empire might have been, there were still people involved who would make decisions to avoid the worst. These people were needed not just at the top, but elsewhere in the system. Mikhail Gorbachev was an anomaly in power: He was relatively young (so young that "Gorby" is still alive), and was notably less hawkish than leaders who had been in power before him -- a peaceful orientation he still promotes today. Level heads were needed up and down the line. ■ When we see a Russian military today that has been bombing hospitals and launching airstrikes against apartment buildings in Ukraine, it's sensible to worry that we may lack some of the guardrails that tempered behavior even back in the Cold War. The prospect is terrifying, and the world knows it's happening. ■ Russian forces used indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Syria, too. International law, of course, says that targeting civilians is a war crime, and expressly declares that "medical workers, medical vehicles and hospitals dedicated to humanitarian work can not be attacked". But even without the rules of war to prevent that behavior, basic human decency ought to deter it first. ■ In just one of too many examples, it is an act of utter indecency to bomb a theater clearly labeled with the word "Children" in letters large enough to be seen from the air. Yet that's what Russian forces have done. A choice was made to drop those explosive devices on an obviously civilian target. It was a choice that didn't require sophisticated intelligence to avert, either: Google Maps or OpenStreetMap could have offered the same information. ■ In effect, some of the people involved in Russia's invasion of Ukraine have been practicing making choices directly contrary to the most basic of moral principles. And that should be profoundly alarming. ■ When Norwegian television produced the series "Occupied", the Kremlin protested the representation because it depicted "a non-existing threat from the East". Yet the show told the story of a "velvet glove" invasion of Norway by Russia, in which bloodshed was rare. ■ Far from the sophisticated invasion of fiction, the very real invasion of Ukraine is marked by brutality and barbarity. It's not an inevitable consequence of conflict. Most people are good at heart, but a small number have a lot of evil in them. Others can learn to behave in evil ways, especially when trained by a system that encourages or rewards evil behavior. ■ It's hard not to be alarmed by what we're seeing from the system cultivated by and around Vladimir Putin. Whatever the prospects of peace talks might be, evidence of despicable cruelty is mounting. Just as good behavior is generally the result of good habits, viciousness and cruelty -- especially on a systemic scale -- also takes practice. There is too much practice underway by the invading forces in Ukraine, and the poisoned fruits of that practice aren't going to disappear easily.


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March 17, 2022

Weather and Disasters Rise and shine

It has always been a misnomer to call it "Daylight Saving Time". Indeed, nothing is "saved" in either a real sense, nor in a metaphorical one. When money is saved in a bank, the saver is usually entitled to expect some form of interest on the deposit -- but no such interest payment has ever been forthcoming from DST. Nor could it be. It has always been a classic case of cost-shifting rather than actual savings; what we place on deposit when we "spring forward", we merely retrieve later in the year when we "fall back". ■ This shifting, though, is neither interest-bearing nor cost-free. Changing clocks twice a year is more than a mere nuisance; it sets off nearly everyone's routines twice a year. Dogs and babies especially have no regard for the abritrary time that adults place on a clock. This makes the time shifting annoying and troublesome for more than a few American households. ■ But there are better and worse ways to resolve the problem. The "Sunshine Protection Act of 2021", approved by the United States Senate on March 15th and referred to the House, is the worse way. Standardizing time year-round so that we stop with the charade of "springing forward" and "falling back" is helpful. Choosing the advanced hour of Daylight Saving Time as our new permanent time is silly. ■ In northern states, the effect will be to make sunlight arrive much too late in the winter. In Des Moines, the sun rises at 7:22 am on December 1st...on standard time. That would be 8:22 am under the new law. (It's even a little later if you head 120 miles west to Omaha, or a few additional miles north to Minneapolis.) ■ And it's not just a problem in December. Even most of February would have a post-8:00 sunrise. It's not that 8:00 is particularly special, but if we take the idea of a "9-to-5" work schedule even halfway seriously, we ought to expect that people will generally be up at least an hour before the job. ■ And it's simply not good for our well-being to expect people to rise before the sun. Early birds might choose to do it, but we already get kids up too early for school, and making it so that they wake up in the dark for months on end surely can't be in their best interests, no matter how much adults might want more time to golf in the summertime. ■ Later winter sunrises aren’t merely an aesthetic or even a psychological complaint. They mean more eastbound commuters driving with the Sun in their eyes, more children crossing streets and school parking lots in the dark, and more cold experienced virtually every morning. ■ Everything good done by Daylight Saving Time could also be done by shifting work to "summer hours", as many workplaces already do. The damage DST does in northern places can't be as easily remedied. ■ Eliminating the time shift is the right way to go. Doing it in a way that makes waking up in the wintertime even darker and drearier than it already is -- for months and months at a time, even for people who aren't early risers? That idea should remain in the dark.


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March 18, 2022

Computers and the Internet Wit and wisdom over clickbait

History has given the world lots of angry polemicists, but the nature of memory does us a favor by forgetting most of them. People may know who Father Charles Coughlin was, just for example, but virtually nobody is turning to transcripts of his rantings for guidance today. ■ Instead, history tends to give us a helpful sorting mechanism: Those stories and biographies worth retelling tend to be shared and retold, and the purely transitory ones generally fade away for lack of relevance. Historians, both academic and amateur, have a responsibility to try to sort facts from fiction and to try to elevate the really worthwhile stories while promoting corrections that counter misleading narratives. But they have little incentive to do anything to boost the work of people who were merely ranting in their own times. ■ Regrettably for us, it's harder to tamp down the lesser narratives in our own time. The right to free speech applies equally to people with good ideas and with lousy ones. As John Stuart Mill put it, "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still." ■ But amplification is a different story. The emergent economy of social-media influence has produced a class of self-righteous fire-breathers who depend upon contrarian narratives to gather their power. These people seek to make hay out of displaying oppositional-defiant disorder in restaurants, giving cover to tyrants, and misappropriating the language to try to shake the money tree for campaign donations. ■ The problem with this behavior is in its willful cultivation of followership among people who haven't chosen other role models. If more people had a decent sense of self-respect, the audience for boneheads would dry up. Not altogether, of course, but it would certainly be smaller than it presently appears to be. ■ Many worthwhile role models are alive today (though they're rarely as inclined to insert themselves into the culture as aggressively as the fire-breathing dopes), and many can be found in the biography section of any decent library. We might do ourselves a favor as Americans if we were to more deliberately prod our young people to explore those historical biographies and autobiographies, so that they could see how many useful role models have already stood the test of time. ■ Rare is the social-media "influencer" today who could hold a candle to the introspection and wit of Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography is a journey through what was not only a legendary life, but also through a great deal of self-awareness about how he related to others. Many others are available, too: One can learn a great deal from Epictetus, Booker T. Washington, or Calvin Coolidge, just to name a few. ■ And while lots of people have gone under-represented in our libraries, historians are working on improving that, too -- and much to our benefit. We probably ought to read Abigail Adams equally with John. ■ But it's not inevitable that people will find these better role models in their lives without a nudge to do so. With people cultivating followings on tools like TikTok and YouTube with nary an impediment beyond convincing others to "Click 'like' and subscribe", the thoughtful adults in the room (metaphorically) need to try to promote the good through conscious effort. The bozos have found their platforms, and they have a monetary interest in promoting them. Someone has to help young people find alternatives to the clowns.


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March 20, 2022

Agriculture Did Ireland stand a chance against the famine?

In the years of the great potato famine, it is estimated that Ireland lost one million lives to starvation and lost another one million in population to emigration. At least another five million left in the remainder of the 19th Century, meaning that the country had more total expatriates by the end of that century than its total population when the century had begun. ■ That so many of them ended up in the United States has of course borne enormous influence on what we perceive as "Irish" today. The concentration of migration then is no small contributing feature to why Chicago dyes its river green for St. Patrick's Day and small towns in Iowa put Gaelic greetings on their websites. ■ But the circumstances that exacerbated the famine are worth a second look. The reason the potato famine took such a toll was that so many Irish farmers were living at subsistence levels; half the country was effectively living on what meager products they could grow. When nature took aim at the potato and blight ravaged the crops in 1845 and 1846 with incredible speed, the result was mass hunger in practically no time at all. ■ The mismanagement of Ireland by the imperial British government did the Irish considerable harm in the immediate sense, as the response to hunger was slow and in some cases completely contrary to sound reasoning. But on a long-term basis, it appears that the British domination of the island (and the favoritism shown to British manufacturing) actually de-industrialized Ireland in the period leading up to the famine. ■ Had the country been free to pursue the kind of industrial development that was occurring across the Irish Sea in England and across the Atlantic Ocean in America, perhaps Ireland wouldn't have had such a large share of its population at risk of starvation. As in so many cases even in the modern day, famine is often far more a problem of social aspects of economics than of basic problems of nature. The economic experience of Irish emigrants once they reached the United States suggests that the poverty that led to the famine wasn't written in the stars -- it was bad policy-making.


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March 21, 2022

Threats and Hazards Depriving the bully of his veto

No rational person considering the big picture of life on this Earth wants to see an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine. The escalation has been distinctly one-sided: The thinly-veiled threats of nuclear warfare, the forced deportation of civilians into Russia, and the repeated commissioning of war crimes have all come from the Russian side of the conflict. ■ While the Ukrainian government has pleaded directly for additional resources from the UK, the European Union, Canada, and the United States, the NATO countries have been reluctant to engage in ways that could be interpreted as crossing a line of direct conflict with Russia. Indirect efforts, like supplying defensive weaponry to Ukraine, have been the extent of our commitment. ■ The free nations of the world need to bring our fullest imagination to the scope of the situation. Many of the possible outcomes of this conflict are unpleasant and distressing -- whether or not we ourselves engage directly in the conflict. We need, though, to imagine ways in which to protect and preserve a world ordered by rules without artificially offering an exemption to that order just because a country with access to extreme arms (like nuclear weapons) decides to walk away from those rules. Our self-discipline needs to be our strength, not our Achilles' heel. ■ In permitting the aggressor to set the terms of engagement, we effectively submit to what deserves to be called the bully's veto. The cousin to the bully's veto, the heckler's veto, is widely understood as one of the dangers to freedom of speech. It is not enough to say that we believe in freedoms only to the extent that a malicious actor agrees to let them go on: A heckler does not have the inherent right to shut down free speech by threatening to react badly to it. ■ Since the birth of the United Nations following World War II, the world has submitted to a quasi-legal system in which a handful of nations (the permanent members of the Security Council) have quite literally possessed a veto over the rest of the world's reaction to their behavior. It seems almost daft to acknowledge this, but the Putin regime appears to have contaminated the Security Council with a dose of bad faith even greater than the worst of his Communist predecessors. ■ Does that mean the rules of international law should go out the window? Absolutely not. More than anything, the reckless disregard for the world order that has been put on display should be a reminder that a rules-based order for international engagement is essential and needs to be revivified. ■ It does mean, though, that we need to urgently rethink whether the UN order is enough -- and whether a parallel organization for nations committed to acting in good faith needs to come into being. There needs to be a step between the mutual-defense pact of the NATO alliance and the free-for-all membership of the United Nations. It does not need to involve commitments of arms, but it does require a commitment to rules. And it needs to be both global and aspirational -- countries should want the esteem of membership. ■ The disregard Russia's government has displayed for international rules also means we need to expedite every possible reinterpretation and reimagination of what constraints can be imposed in the face of barbarism. The world has largely been reacting to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and though that reaction has taken the form of a surprisingly united front, it is evident that circumstances may well turn much worse if more is not done to actively shape the course ahead. ■ It is too foreboding that we must actively contemplate the obliteration of peaceful cities (a war crime already underway), the deployment of chemical weapons (a risk now openly feared), or even the prospect of a retreat that sows devastation by "tactical" nuclear weapons in its wake. If we have to even face these issues, then the constraints are already falling short -- all because the regime at fault for starting the war has exempted itself from rules. ■ We are in a dangerous place. Ukraine cannot be asked to turn itself into the state equivalent of a poison pill, making its takeover fatal to both itself and its aggressor. Other aggressors are watching. It is likely to lead to a more dangerous future -- chronically more dangerous -- if we don't see a prompt reassessment of how to put a stop to the bully's veto.


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March 23, 2022

News It's OK to have a moderate opinion

The ongoing decline of the newspaper editorial page may not be any great human tragedy, but it is a sad symptom of civic decay. The Des Moines Register, a newspaper with a storied editorial history (including past Pulitzer Prizes for both editorial writing and editorial cartooning, has announced that it is reducing its opinion pages to just two issues per week, on Thursdays and Sundays. ■ The Register is far from the only publication in this boat, but its particular reasoning stands out in an odd way that is irreconcilable with the facts of the world today. The newspaper excused its retrenchment by arguing that syndicated columnists are widely available elsewhere, and that it saw a little value in opinion pieces submitted by the community -- saying, "[W]e'll accept far fewer unsolicited columns and instead invite writers with specific subject expertise or personal experience to submit essays". ■ They are certainly right on one level: It is easy to find opinions everywhere online, everyday, in volumes that are impossible to read. Medium counts on that as a business model. But the ease of discovery does not mean that those opinions are organized in any way to recognize quality. ■ The lamentable fact is that an entire industry has grown up around the promotion and supply of opinions that are mindlessly provocative. People are rewarded for these opinions with growing audience figures, oftentimes including people who join the audience for the express purpose of providing criticism. But in lining up to point and stare at the car crash in the opposite lane, we may well miss the curves in the road ahead of ourselves. ■ The fragmentation of media means that it is more important than ever for a publication to be clear about its editorial philosophy. Nobody should pretend like there is a true neutrality of viewpoints from any publication or outlet. Even being pro-democracy or pro-freedom-of-speech is a viewpoint. ■ Any choice to devote resources, whether in the form of people, pages, time, or money, is an editorial decision. A decision to cover or not to cover is an editorial choice by its nature. In a world of scarce resources for news coverage, editorial judgments ought to be made clear. ■ That doesn't mean the opinions need to be stronger, nor that they need to be more polemical. But the people allocating news resources do need to explain themselves. Other professionals, like triage doctors, make choices amid scarce resources, and serious thought is put into how they make decisions because the process is important. Self-government is less bloody, but the process of reflecting on it is important, too. ■ Thoughtful editorial statements ought to reflect the considered judgment of the people who ought to have the best available public access to the information on matters of public interest. If an editorial board thoughtfully concludes that it is neutral about a public issue, that is worth noting -- just as in science, a finding of no effect is still an important result, often worth publishing. But if an editorial board reaches a position of neutrality simply by not examining an issue, then it may be failing its community. ■ On most issues, people will form opinions. And they will form those opinions whether informed by facts or not. If a vacuum is left behind on matters of public interest, then that vacuum will tend to be filled by interest groups armed with the tactics of persuasion (and motivated to use them). Those interest groups indisputably have a right to have their say, but a vibrant civic community doesn't stand alone on the opinions of the extreme. ■ Moderation more often stems not from having an initial opinion and holding it tight, but from having the broad-mindedness to consider all of the available opinions, and giving them due examination. As John Stuart Mill put it, "Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it." ■ The allocation of resources is a reflection of an institution's values. And you really won't see local newspapers cutting back faster on their local sports pages than on their local opinion pages. That is a statement of values that calls for recalibration. The trivial may be good for entertainment, but there is no community in America that doesn't have the room for at least one decent, well-considered opinion on the matters of public interest every day. ■ If a local newspaper cannot or will not fulfill the role of the community's conscience and its institutional memory, something else must. Civic life depends upon people being bound together by mutual tolerance and common interest. Those values are hard to generate in a vacuum. ■ Too many recent events have illustrated the consequences of individuals failing to do the right thing and of institutions falling into decay. Far from being a time for retreat, this ought to be the prime time for thoughtful, community-based consideration of the world. And far more often than just twice a week.


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March 24, 2022

News Good in the world

When we see pictures of border guards preparing to welcome Ukrainian children with stuffed animals as they flee the war imposed on their homeland, or encounter stories of people volunteering to offer shelter to refugees, the natural reaction is to feel a sort of heartwarming reassurance about the good found in other people. That is a good sensation to have. But we should have at least one more. ■ Most human beings share certain unchanging characteristics found throughout history: We care for our families (especially our own offspring), we hope to be loved, we are averse to pain and death, and we want to have choices -- the freedom to choose our own destiny. ■ Periodically, some individuals have a different characteristic: A lust for power over others. It's the root cause of a vast amount of the human suffering throughout history: The desire of a few to exercise control over many. Fortunately, the fact that this lust goes against the human nature of most people is self-evident. ■ It was bold of the Founders to have written that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were "self-evident". It should go without saying that the flaws in how some of the authors of the text, including its main author, failed (through enslavement) to live up to the fullness of the self-evident truth of liberty for all. ■ But part of believing that those rights really are self-evident is to believe that even people living under the power of tyrants can know those rights for themselves, even when cut off from the rest of the world. ■ It also means that we can, without hesitation, criticize and seek to hold people accountable when they actively choose to bring harm to those freedoms -- whether by deliberately bombing civilian shelters, stalking critics, or wasting scarce resources on offensive weapons while starving civilians at home. ■ The mirror to our natural heartwarming response to the vast amounts of good in the world needs to be an unapologetic and righteous condemnation of those who seek to abuse that natural good for their own power and bloodlust. ■ It may be expensive sometimes to stare down that evil, and free people of goodwill ought to be reluctant to put resources to use investing in swords when we know there are peaceful plowshares yet to be built. But it's ultimately costly to do nothing when rogues still walk the Earth, as they regrettably always will. We need to take heart from the near-universality of human good and believe in the self-evidence of the rights to life, liberty, and happiness.


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March 25, 2022

News The long march

Putting aside the sheer inhumanity of mass-scale violence against civilians, the seemingly indiscriminate destruction of a state that Russia claims it intends to occupy seems extraordinarily perverse even from an abstract strategic perspective. Someone will have to rebuild Ukraine, and the Kremlin's violent strategy maximizes the cost of that reconstruction. ■ But indeed we cannot put aside the sheer inhumanity of it. As the retired Australian general Mick Ryan puts it, "This is code for expending large amounts of cheap artillery & rockets to terrorise Ukrainian civilians & force a political accommodation." ■ It is the rightful conviction that most people are good at heart that makes it impossible to stomach the cruelty we sometimes see committed. If we were mere wild animals, brutality would be just ordinary. But we know humans are capable of better, because we see it. That's what makes brutality so excruciating to witness in Ukraine, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in South Sudan, and in too many other places. ■ Destruction is easy enough; even a losing aggressor can destroy. Building (and rebuilding) takes time, patience, and lots of money. None of the humanitarian relief required for victims of war would be necessary if belligerents didn't start those wars in the first place. ■ Writing of his experience as hostilities were underway early in World War II, Winston Churchill noted that, "Our first line of defence against invasion must be as ever the enemy's ports." But he certainly would have preferred never to have been drawn into war in the first place, and his experience has parallels today. As Gennady Rudkevich of Georgia College has remarked, "Now do people see why Central Europeans were so desperate to join NATO?" ■ Observing the defiance exhibited by free people in the face of attack, whether in Ukraine today or the United Kingdom some 80 years ago, we have to remember that hope alone isn't enough. We have to be willing to invest not only in the expense of reconstruction after the violence we cannot deny, but also in the preemption of violence. ■ It is awe-inspiring to hear of a high-ranking police officer willing to surrender himself in exchange for the freedom of children. But we have to convert that awe into the slower, less dramatic, and often unrewarding tasks of conducting defense at the enemy's (metaphorical) ports, by staring down illiberalism wherever it emerges and patiently investing both in the infrastructures of peace and in the necessaries of deterrence. ■ As Edward Luce notes regarding the successful UN resolution against Russia's invasion of Ukraine: "141 of 193 member states condemned Vladimir Putin's blatant violation of international law. But the 35 that abstained account for almost half the world's population." A world of mutualistic peace and freedom is not assured, even if we responsibly invest in it. But it definitely will not happen without.


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March 26, 2022

Health Extending the gap

For the individual seeking to live an emotionally balanced life, one of the most salutary habits is to enlarge the stimulus-response gap. In general, finding ways to increase the time between an event taking place and offering a reaction to it leads to better outcomes, especially when events are disappointing, angering, or sad. ■ As it has been said before, you can always wait to tell someone to go to hell tomorrow. A variety of great thinkers, including Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, practiced extending their stimulus-response gaps by writing angry letters but leaving them unsent. ■ The practice seems foreign when we're immersed in a world of instant gratification. Reply wars and comment threads are basically the opposite of putting an angry letter in a drawer. We can't always avoid a negative stimulus, but we can do something to manage the response. ■ The legal system is effectively civilization's stimulus-response gap. By observing a system of equal justice before the law, we increase the distance between the harm occurring and the punishment following. And on important matters, we expect thoughtful written rulings from the bench, not a snap decision from Judge Judy. A speedy trial need not be a hasty one. ■ The need to pause for deliberation is why we ought to be reluctant to place cameras in any courtroom, though most especially that of the United States Supreme Court. Perhaps the best argument against cameras in the Supreme Court is the presence of cameras in the hearing rooms where where nominees to the court are quizzed by members of Congress. ■ The empty-headed performative appeals so frequently on display in the Senate diminish the faith we might have that Supreme Court arguments wouldn't devolve in similar fashion. Virtually nothing is served by the presence of those live cameras in the hearing rooms that wouldn't be equally or better served by the release of thorough written transcripts after the fact. It's much harder to grandstand for a stenographer than for a C-SPAN camera. ■ Maintaining that arm's length between the Supreme Court and the public by keeping the cameras out is one of the rare ways in which we can hope to preserve at least a little bit of dignity not just for the jurists but for ourselves. And maybe, while we're at it, we should rethink whether cameras really need to be broadcasting live from the halls of Congress, where chart mania is driven not by the need to persuade other elected officials, but to score points with viewers at home. ■ Transparency can be achieved in many ways, and it's foolish to think that the only method is to film everything. To the extent that clever individuals learn to manipulate their presence in front of the cameras to achieve performative aims rather than to sincerely deliberate weighty questions, that form of transparency may well obscure more than it reveals. Public access and thoughtful news coverage are essential to the workings of all three branches of government, but so is maintaining a stimulus-response gap such that some things can actually be conducted with due consideration rather than strictly as performance. A trial shouldn't merely be for show.


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March 28, 2022

News Hard limits on growth

Global circumstances -- including China's unwillingness to break with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine -- have reinvigorated interest in some of the broader strategic themes of geopolitics. There is ample reason to believe that China watches the conflict with an eye towards Taiwan, and of course there is the omnipresent concern that the size of China's economy is catching up to that of the United States. ■ These anxieties are good for stoking lots of analysis, and sometimes that takes the form of worry -- like columnist Noah Smith's observation that "Without China, the contest between Putin-style autocracy and industrialized democracy would be incredibly lopsided -- atavistic macho bullies who didn't know how to build things vs. the keepers of technology. The bullies wouldn't stand a chance. China has made the competition far more equal, because they figured out how to combine bully-style rule with competent functioning business and bureaucratic institutions capable of accumulating knowledge and executing complex tasks on a grand scale." ■ On one hand, yes: There is considerable reason to be wary of what the Communist Party has assembled in China. But on the other hand: The thing about dragons is that they aren't real. ■ It's easy to highlight certain prominent feats of the Chinese state-controlled economy. The country has built skyscrapers and aircraft carriers, complex tasks that shouldn't be taken for granted. But flagship projects don't always reveal the true state of affairs. ■ For example: China has eye-catching bullet trains, but a 200-mph train serves (at enormous expense) a specific kind of passenger: People living in dense urban areas with the affluence to pay for the ride. ■ When the United States first got a transcontinental rail network, much of the benefit accrued to farmers living in far-flung homesteads, since it gave them access to the nation's biggest markets. It certainly benefitted urban dwellers, but the rail system did much more to level out economic and cultural connections across the continental nation. China's high-speed rail network is unlikely to have any such leveling effect, since it is bound to bypass the countryside. ■ There were, of course, dire consequences for Native Americans when the railroads were built, and the United States is still reconciling with the damage done. But China's government is still actively detaining minorities in camps (on the scale of a million prisoners) and dismantling democratic institutions in Hong Kong rather than face political competition. ■ China isn't really a "genuinely alternative model of human organization" so much as it is a chimera. Economic growth begetting economic liberty ultimately results in people realizing that wealth is an illusion if you don't own your thoughts. The basic liberal virtue of freedom of thought is ultimately incompatible with a system that fears popular sovereignty. ■ Just as was the case for Marxist-Leninist Communism in Russia, a lot can be materially achieved in the leap from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. And have no doubt that China's economy is developing an astonishing number of technicians, including almost twice as many STEM Ph.D. graduates as the United States. But the system itself is fundamentally unsound. ■ It would be impossible to keep 330 million people under a command-and-control model, much less 1.4 billion. Even people intentionally kept in the dark through surveillance and censorship know enough about themselves to realize when they're being lied to and held down. (It's impossible to keep a lid on putting millions of people under lockdown.) ■ Imagine Thomas Edison trying to build Menlo Park while constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure he hadn't offended the political authorities with a misplaced remark. There is only so much mental bandwidth a person can devote to great ideas and achievements when secret police will might chase you anywhere on the globe and even billionaires can just go missing without warning. ■ People who are free to see, speak, hear, and seek out the truth have inherent advantages over those who don't -- among others, they get to learn from their own mistakes and from those committed elsewhere. No unitary state can eclipse that advantage. ■ There may be further growth ahead for the Chinese economy -- and, in the interest of total human happiness, we ought to cheer for those who are lifted out of poverty -- but there is also a ceiling on just how much can be achieved, both economically and socially, when people are deprived of their natural right to personal liberty. No shiny baubles should make us think otherwise. There is no property more valuable than the expanse of one's own mind.


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March 29, 2022

News Confident kindness

The unpardonable slander against George Herbert Walker Bush was the claim that he was a wimp. Objectively, this claim was patently untrue: Not only did he serve honorably as the President of the United States, he also had served as the director of the CIA and as a World War II fighter pilot (with 58 combat missions and a Distinguished Flying Cross to his name). None of those count as jobs for wimps. ■ But sometimes the slander stuck, thanks in no small part to its appearance the cover of Newsweek. And it undoubtedly lingered in part because Bush didn't spend his Presidency thundering about his enemies, but instead called for a kinder, gentler nation. ■ In his inaugural address, Bush made an earnest plea: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world. My friends, we have work to do." He coupled that kindness to strength: "For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people." ■ The cultural decoupling of the virtues of strength and kindness is one of the gravest errors a society can make. There is nothing inherently unkind about strength, nor is there anything inherently weak about kindness. In fact, it can well be argued that many virtues require temperance and moderation. For example: Mercy is the privilege of the strong. Nobody pleads for mercy from a position of dominance, and nobody can grant it from a place of submission. ■ It is hard for self-confident people to understand the magnetism of the unkind "strong man" act put on by authoritarians and their admirers. It just doesn't make sense: Why would any member of the public with a decent sense of self-respect be attracted to displays of faux strength put on by clearly indecent people? ■ President Bush wasn't wrong in his desires for kindness and gentility. But our models for those virtues may occasionally show up in unexpected ways. Televised awards programs are generally unremarkable affairs, but at the 2022 Oscar awards, marred otherwise by a literal slap in the face, Lady Gaga put on a display of confident kindness that was truly a master class for anyone watching. ■ Escorting a diminished but still exuberant Liza Minnelli onto the stage, the contemporary artist with a flair for the dramatic demonstrated a laudable capacity to show authentic human kindness, gracefully helping her stage partner to overcome a moment of becoming flustered -- while retaining the confidence that nothing was being taken away from herself by the act. ■ More than just being a satisfying emotional display (which indeed it was), it also showed how a person with self-confidence and grace could bring out the best in someone else through the leverage of their own kindness. Lady Gaga could have carried the scene entirely on her own, but she gave the audience more by centering on Liza Minnelli instead. (She's done much the same alongside Tony Bennett.) ■ It may seem unexpected to see George H.W. Bush and Lady Gaga as fellow-travelers, but in this sense, at least, they offer parallel models: Strength isn't diminished by kindness. One is enhanced by the other. And we ought to admire -- and emulate -- when we see them operating hand-in-hand.


@briangongol on Twitter


March 30, 2022

Iowa "Nonprofit" doesn't mean someone shouldn't be paid

The cooperative institutional structure is one of the best inventions to emerge from the 1800s. As an alternative to purely public ownership of an institution, cooperatives are a more market-oriented solution to supplying goods and services that are in demand, especially when the private sector shows insufficient interest in those markets. That can often be the case when the potential market is limited in size or exists under constraints that inhibit the potential for future growth. ■ That's why they have played an outsized role in serving rural areas: Member-ownership helps people to organize their demands and address them at an economic scale that can make them worth satisfying -- even if a profit-making entity would pass on the opportunity. As more industries achieve maturity and reach the limits of their potential growth, it may well make sense for cooperatives and other mutual forms of business to do more. ■ But it's going to be hard for that to work if we don't heed the words of one of the original cooperative founders. Benjamin Franklin, who organized the Philadelphia Contributionship as a mutual insurance company, was so fond of a phrase that he put it to use on one of the country's earliest coins: "Mind Your Business". ■ Franklin wasn't shy about his attitude that good citizens would tend to their affairs: "Neglect mending a small fault, and 'twill soon be a great one", he declared; and also, "Have you somewhat to do tomorrow; do it to-day." ■ In a story shining a well-deserved spotlight on the two smallest electrical co-ops in Iowa, the Des Moines Register notes that the people operating those systems "have to find people to replace them in jobs that are more community service than paying gigs". One of them is an 87-year-old volunteer. ■ The people who do that kind of work really are the salt of the earth. They're not alone; lots of communities depend heavily on volunteers or wildly underpaid employees to keep the lights on -- literally, in the cases of electrical co-ops. But hoping that someone will do valuable or even essential work for free when it requires skill and time is an exploitative mindset. ■ If people aren't competitively compensated to do difficult, skillful, sometimes unpleasant work, then the model providing that work is fundamentally broken -- even if it's in the form of a cooperative institution. It is a magnificent thing if someone chooses to donate their time and energy to their neighbors. But depending upon someone to do it without market-clearing pay -- at the age of 27, much less 87 -- borders upon insanity. ■ A lot of people adhere to wild forms of magical thinking: Some think (contrary to evidence) that everything gets cheaper if only it is run by the government. Others think (again contrary to evidence) that the for-profit sector can provide everything, right down to police departments and roads. ■ A healthy economy in a democratically-governed society is going to include elements of public ownership, vast amounts of private ownership, and lots of forms that take a third way, like mutual or cooperative ownership structures that don't seek to generate a profit. But if that third way is to be taken seriously, it cannot depend upon the goodwill of volunteers to do the essential. Even if some exemplary individuals are willing to give their labor away for the benefit of the public, the public interest isn't really served in the long term if it declines to pay them fairly.


mail@gongol.com


March 31, 2022

Threats and Hazards Sympathetic impressions

A poll conducted for The Economist produced some results bound to create some consternation: Among American respondents ages 18 to 29, only 56% said they sympathized with Ukraine over Russia in the midst of the latter's unprovoked invasion of the former. Large numbers responded "neither" and "not sure", with a non-trivial set responding that they sympathized more with Russia than with its victim. ■ The same polling found similarly distressing results among the same age cohort in both Britain and France; perhaps not quite as offputting as those in the US, but far from where they ought to be. These results indeed ought to be troubling, since the Kremlin is not only the undisputed aggressor, but also the perpetrator of self-evident war crimes, like bombing maternity hospitals and shelters full of children. ■ There is a good chance that people who are not well-informed about current events assume that there must be a "both sides" nature to the conflict -- hence, the large numbers of "neither" and "unsure" respondents. ■ But it is also nothing new for the Kremlin to be the force behind real atrocities: See what Russian forces did in Chechnya, in Syria, and in Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. It doesn't require full-time attention to the news to recognize that one of the sides in the conflict has a history of malevolent behavior. ■ Worth noting, of course, is that anyone under the age of 31 was born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That event was one to celebrate. But in the subsequent years, it is possible that the absence of a clearly defined moral opponent (like the "Evil Empire") made the proponents of human liberty and freedom a little too lax for our own good. ■ In the days before the Cold War had vanished from memory and the Internet had made all things seem like they were forever happening right now, lots of cultural touchstones served to subtly remind the people of what we called the "free world" that things were plainly better under our systems of self-government, democracy, and the rule of law. ■ It wasn't just something we noticed when the first McDonald's opened in Moscow. An uninhibited, unapologetic, and unironic enthusiasm for free markets and free people was embedded in a lot more of what we experienced. Practically everyone was a booster for capitalism, because the alternative was obviously dreary, soul-crushing, and repressive. ■ Without the giant Communist counterweight (and with China, the USSR's likeliest successor as Communism's redoubt, deciding that getting rich was glorious), criticism in countries like the United States tended to turn inward, against the institutions of democracy and markets -- hence the growth of the Democratic Socialists. ■ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is 44 years old, and graduated from college in the year 2000. His age cohort is just about the last to have meaningful memories of the Cold War, whether they lived behind the Iron Curtain or outside it. That age group is now well above the global median age. Perhaps that is why, despite his youth compared with many other world leaders, Zelenskyy seems to have an unusually capable grasp of both the tools of contemporary communication and the historic language of unambiguous moral clarity. ■ If we are to revive the default assumption that totalitarian government is one of the primary evils to be avoided in all of human society, the clock may be ticking for those who remember the Cold War to speak up without reservation -- not to condemn Russia as a state, but to condemn authoritarianism in all its forms for the indisputably repugnant corruption that it is.


@briangongol on Twitter