Gongol.com Archives: 2022 Second-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

April 1, 2022

Business and Finance Use your leisure

America has built quite the cult of retirement: From The Villages (a planned retirement community in Florida with 138,000 residents) to robust public-sector pension plans that almost always offer the allure of earlier retirement than in the private sector, we focus mightily on treating ages 62 to 67 as a finish line at which everyone ought to be single-mindedly focused upon running through the tape before coming to a complete stop. ■ Considering the vast number of adjustments that went into accommodating the broad, instantaneous switch to working from home as a pandemic precaution starting in March 2020, it is surprising we haven't seen more energy and creativity invested in finding ways for people to remain plugged into work after reaching retirement age. ■ The retirement age is artificial, after all. Certainly there are many occupations in which people are entitled to a physical rest after decades of labor. And there are lots of people who find considerable fulfillment in non-employment activities, like volunteering or caring for grandchildren. ■ But we also find many examples of people who had much to do and contribute well after their mid-60s. Mike Krzyzewski has taken until age 75 to retire from coaching college basketball. Norman Borlaug continued working on the Green Revolution into his 90s. Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence and 81 when he signed the Constitution. ■ Nobody ought to be indentured to their work, but it's a mistake to underestimate how many contributions people can still make well after many of their peers decide to take up golfing as a full-time pursuit. As Franklin himself put it, "It is not leisure that is not used." ■ For all the concern expressed about children's exposure to television, adults 65 and older watch an average of more than 7 hours of television per day. That number has risen a lot in recent years. And that's not the only boom in screen time for retirees, who are significant social-media consumers, too. ■ It might be worthwhile for society at large -- not just the retirement-age cohort -- to put some creative energy to use in deploying some of the time available to willing people in productive ways outside of the almost-nonstop consumption of entertainment. Finding fulfillment in useful activities -- being needed by one's community -- is an important aspect to psychological wellness. ■ If we found the resources and creativity needed to get people around extraordinary barriers to normal work because a pandemic forced us to do it, why shouldn't we put some similar resources to work figuring out how to better connect people to purposeful things they could do in new and meaningful ways even after they've earned the right to walk away? It's not the path for everybody, but it's hard to imagine we aren't leaving a lot of talent and pride on the table just because we haven't done much innovation in the new world of work.

April 4, 2022

News No way out

Underestimating your rivals can be a terrible mistake, but so can be overestimating them. Turning an ordinary-sized opponent into a 10-foot-tall giant is a recipe for inaction and paralysis. And as Dwight Eisenhower put it, "Initiative, confidence, and boldness are among the most admirable traits of the good combat leader." ■ One of the great myths that has emerged in the modern age is the belief that China acts according to some mysterious but comprehensive 100-year plan for world domination. It is entirely possible that there exists some form of long-term strategic plan that guides the Politburo, but evidence of any such plan's usefulness are not forthcoming. ■ Just look, for example, at the country's incapacity to properly assess its demographics. Until 2016, China was effectively under a strict limit of one child per family. Then that limit was doubled, permitting up to two children per family. And then in 2021, it was raised to three. ■ Notwithstanding the obvious affront to human dignity that any such limits represent (and indeed such limits are odious), the ineptitude of the planning involved is plainly evident: Facing the ballooning (and potentially ruinous) costs of an aging population, the ruling powers tried tripling the birth limit in just six years. As the phrase is occasionally used in computer programming and project management, "The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned". ■ Nor can a country turn around its demographic decline by tripling the number of "permissible" children in less than a decade. Either they really aren't thinking 100 years ahead, or the Politburo lacks the most rudimentary skills of arithmetic. ■ On immediate crises, their feted plans fare no better: Consider the case of the Covid-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere. As BBC correspondent Stephen McDonell points out, "Jilin Province has been locked down for weeks. [Tens] of millions of people here are restricted to their homes today." Jilin is a province of 24 million people. Shanghai has 24 to 26 million people in a single city, the largest in the world. For perspective, the entire state of Florida has just shy of 22 million residents. ■ The Chinese government's zero-Covid policy indicates that they didn't fully assess the likelihood that the pandemic would be around to stay, and that command-and-control remains their only strategy. But even when people aren't especially ideological, they usually do have feelings about the most practical aspects of government effectiveness. You may not care about the Supreme Court or international treaty obligations, but you probably do care about potholes on your street -- or being locked up and barked at by a dystopian robotic dog. The measures are extraordinary even for an authoritarian state, and they simply must be having grassroots consequences. ■ Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time leader of Singapore, looked to the long-term plans of his giant neighbor and warned that "One thing is for sure: the present system will not remain unchanged for the next 50 years. To achieve the modernization of China, her Communist leaders are prepared to try all and every method, except for democracy with one person and one vote in a multi-party system." Lee himself had both an affection for long-term plans and autocratic tendencies. But his advice here is valuable: The system itself cannot be preserved in its present form indefinitely, much less for 100 years or more. ■ Plans -- especially long-term strategic plans -- will always have a place, not so much for the steps they lay out as for the thought process they impose. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, but likewise there is no substitute for the process of looking forward and considering where chance will intersect with objectives. Clearly, some parties are getting more credit for their plans than they deserve -- which is all the more reason for the rest of the world to look ahead to the future we want for the whole of humanity and commit to confidently taking steps to get there.

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April 5, 2022

Agriculture Putting enough on their plates

In most cases, the kinds of social safety-net interventions that do the most good are the ones that maximize the freedom that individuals have to make their own choices. For instance: While it isn't the only answer, one step that could do considerable good for ensuring access to affordable shelter is for local authorities to stay out of the micromanagement of housing. Zoning reforms that stay out of the way of multifamily construction would do a lot of good for making shelter more affordable in many places. ■ Similarly, when trying to lift people out of poverty, direct cash payments and simple transfers like the Earned Income Tax Credit support personal freedom and allow the recipients to concentrate on those priorities that matter most to them. In general: the simpler, the better. In approving of the principle of a negative income tax (like the EITC), Milton Friedman argued, "The heart of the liberal philosophy is a belief in the dignity of the individual, in his freedom to make the most of his capacities and opportunities according to his own lights, subject only to the proviso that he not interfere with the freedom of other individuals to do the same." ■ Perhaps the (partial) exception that best supports the rule comes from a real-world experiment which is soon to expire: The significant expansion of free school meal programs, funded by the US Department of Agriculture. As a means of responding to the closure of schools and the consequential disappearance of congregate meal settings (kids can't eat in the school lunch room if schools are closed), the changes first implemented in 2020 allowed schools to revise and expand their meal programs. ■ The exception is only partial, of course: Relaxing some of the restrictions on things like meal delivery and portioning actually deregulated the program from the Federal level and gave local administrators more freedom to act as they saw most prudent. On the other hand, funding food specifically, and for the specific population of school-aged children, is the part that runs contrary to targeting the safety net to the people most in need and doing so with cash or the closest things to it. ■ But if there is one population a society should be willing to serve most generously, it is children -- as they neither made the choice to be born, nor have much if any control over their material circumstances. And nutrition in particular is, aside from water and shelter, as basic a physiological need as they come. ■ Obviously, universally free school meals aren't targeted by incomes, meaning many children from families that can afford healthy food will receive benefits for which they are not "in need", in the conventional sense. But making meal programs universal simplifies bureaucratic oversight and maximizes access by taking away both the paperwork burdens for parents and the stigma that can be associated with receiving free or reduced-price lunches. ■ Kids are influenced by social pressures, and eliminating the payment process removes barriers to getting food into the bellies of kids who might go hungry. Moreover, getting children fed through school nutrition programs ensures that food cannot be withheld from them by malicious or negligent parents -- while also alleviating some of the difficulty that some parents may have in finding and preparing an adequately nutritious diet at home. Food deserts remain a thorny problem, and accountable programs for child nutrition can help overcome some of the gaps in food access that kids might otherwise experience. ■ Seen as a tool for reducing regulatory and social obstacles to child welfare, in much the same way that direct cash transfers to adults help reduce the "high price of being poor", universal free-meal programs in schools deserve to be assessed as a well-targeted, well-justified exception to an otherwise maximally laissez-faire social safety net.

April 6, 2022

News Hyperbole is going to kill us all

The temptation to resort to hyperbolic language is strong in the contemporary political climate. We are awash in breathless warnings of climate catastrophe and democracy on the brink, and threats of a stock market crash and World War 3. None of this is made better by the presence of candidates and even elected officials who resort to repugnant claims about others because they have so little to offer of their own. ■ But the temptation to engage in that rhetorical escalation has to be resisted, or else hyperbole is going to kill us all. ■ And that includes the language from the highest of offices. Just because one President resorted to more than 30,000 lies in four years doesn't mean things are made better by his successor resorting to overstatement, even of matters more grounded in fact. ■ Words matter. Even today, Americans still cherish the plain language of Abraham Lincoln and the directness of the Declaration of Independence, because words used carefully can shape thoughts and decisions for generations to come. ■ In attempting to make a case for health-care coverage, the President has pronounced, "In America, health care should be a right -- not a privilege." No sane or reasonable person could quibble with a close variation on that argument: That health care is a universal need. Everyone knows that. But to call something a "right" is different. ■ Americans subscribe to a belief that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental rights. That's why there is almost universal consensus in America that Russia is wrong to invade Ukraine, and that America is right to impose consequences against the aggressor for committing and continuing the invasion. We may struggle to delineate between war crimes and genocide, but we know that the crimes committed by Russian troops against civilians in Bucha and elsewhere are fundamentally, inescapably wrong and utterly without defense or excuse. Fundamental human rights are incontestable. ■ Fundamental human rights, though, are virtually always those things which one person cannot rightly be denied by the powerful: The right to speak one's mind, the right to go about life unmolested by authorities, the right simply to live without fear of summary execution. These are things that do not respond to the laws of supply and demand. ■ Health care, like other fundamental needs (including food, clothing, shelter, and safe drinking water), is unfortunately still subject to those laws of resource limitations. It does not make it easier to provide those things simply by declaring them "rights". Calling them what they are -- universal needs -- acknowledges at that they are things nobody can do without, but reserves the language of "rights" for those things that everyone possesses by right of birth as a human being. There is no supply curve on your claim to the pursuit of happiness, but there are costs that apply to those things we consume. ■ It may seem pedantic to call out the difference between rights and needs, but the distinction is important, and so is the application of care in the use of the language. If we speak of universal needs, then we are obligated to have the more difficult discussions about who pays, how much they pay, who ensures an adequate supply, and how we must intervene to fix the gaps. Calling something a "right" isn't a magic incantation that makes the good or service appear out of thin air. A person cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their right to vote -- but in some places, there simply aren't any doctors, and no amount of calling access to one a "right" will produce an MD on the spot. ■ More deeply, though, it matters that we use the language carefully and hold others accountable to do the same, even when we agree with the things they want. Lots of things -- including the temptations of social media -- encourage people to resort to overheated rhetoric and linguistic overextensions. Too many of those, compounded upon one another, deprives us of the ability to have real discussions about matters in the public interest. Hyperbole isn't really going to kill us all, but it does choke out the debates a democratic society needs to have.

April 7, 2022

News Who are you?

It is a shame that the coming-of-age film is a genre so overstuffed with navel-gazing targeted at adults. A seemingly infinite number of minor variations on the same general themes of youthful shenanigans, social awkwardness, and romantic fumbling fill the vaults without many original ideas ever coming forth. Even when they take novel turns (as in "Boyhood", which was filmed with the same cast over a dozen years), the audience is rarely told how youthful choices result in adult outcomes -- and when they do, it's rarely for more than laughs (as in the freeze-frame epilogues in "Animal House"). ■ Instead of trying to make adults feel good about how they weren't the only ones left dazed and confused by adolescence, our culture would be much better off communicating to young people that youth is merely the start of a lifelong process of self-discovery. ■ Well into adulthood, most people are still uncertain how to answer the deepest questions of self-identity. It's why the quarter-life crisis and the mid-life crisis are equally predictable sources of uncomfortable laughs of recognition. ■ But too many times, the neat resolutions required by cinema and novels communicate the idea that at some point or another, one finds all of the answers. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course -- but nobody tells you that when you're 13 or 14 years old. ■ It would do an enormous amount of good if youthful guidance could communicate to young people how to undertake the process of deciding who they want to be. The value is not in telling them the answers -- everyone is entitled by right of birth to follow that path for themselves. Human dignity demands it. ■ But it also demands that we don't isolate an education to just a few aspects of life. Figuring out a prospective occupational path with a career aptitude quiz and probing one's sexual self-identity are useful aspects of growing up, but they're hardly the whole thing. Much more needs to be explored, too: Forming an ethical framework, shaping a moral identity, and discovering one's tolerance for external motivation and intrinsic goal-setting matter, too. ■ So do quandaries like finding hobbies and other non-remunerative interests that balance work demands, and questions about what one does to pay the civic rent. We often touch briefly on these things -- for instance, rewarding community-service hours with cords at graduation -- but other than implicitly suggesting that volunteerism is a path to applause, civilization depends in part upon people figuring out why their contributions matter, and which ones they're best suited to give. ■ Some of this could be projected by delivering them interesting and introspective biographies and autobiographies, but rarely do those stories tell the most important part: How people came to their decisions. Lots of biographies and autobiographies present their important moments as faits accomplis, due to over-simplified causes like hard work or divine intervention. ■ The decision-making process is the hard part to figure out in life, and nobody gets it completely right. But we could do a better job of communicating some of the trial-and-error involved so as to reduce some of that error for future generations. Plenty of juvenile pratfalls will still happen, and they will always demand their places in film and literature. But it would do a world of good to make those stories looking backwards from adulthood into ones that young adults on their own quests for self-discovery would find more attractive as navigational aids for the times ahead.

April 8, 2022

News How much is it worth to you?

People of goodwill and moral conscience in the United States ought to ask a basic but important question: How much is it worth to us to see a peaceful and just resolution to the invasion of Ukraine? ■ Wars are not without costs, and this one is no different. The State Department says that the US has provided $1.7 billion in "security assistance" (defensive arms and equipment) since the invasion began in February. That's a lot of money -- but not on a per-capita basis. Spread across a population of 332 million, it's just $5.11 per American. ■ We should forever be on guard against overspending on weapons and war. Dwight Eisenhower counseled that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." ■ But Eisenhower didn't shirk from the burden of making the world peaceful. He fought tyranny as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II, and he went toe-to-toe with it in its Communist form while serving as President. ■ A GoFundMe page led by Mila Kunis has raised almost $36 million for humanitarian relief for Ukrainians. Vastly more will of course be necessary for relief purposes, but it's a good sign that so many people are voluntarily willing to contribute to the effort. Many other charities are raising worthy support, too. ■ But as a mental exercise, we ought to be willing to consider how much it would be worth to subsidize a Ukrainian defensive victory against a barbaric invader. A price will have to be paid, and we are reminded daily of the need for war materiel, and that tab could continue running for a long time -- depending, in part, on whether enough resources are committed now. ■ The more decisive and prompt the defensive victory now, the greater the deterrent against pointless wars in the future. Is a just peace worth more than $5.11 per American? More than $10.22? More than $100? Surely the number is higher than the price of a hamburger. And it must be worth more than a few. ■ Before we become weary of the cost, or congratulate ourselves too much on the $1.7 billion already dispensed, we need to be sure we understand that Ukraine is purchasing in blood, toil, tears and sweat an outcome -- hopefully, a just peace -- that will affect us all.

April 12, 2022

Computers and the Internet We won't sell your data, but we might sell the company

The emptiest of promises in all of the digital world remains "We will never sell your data". It's certainly a necessary statement -- far too many websites and vendors are willing to sell the data of individual users without their prior permission, and the resulting privacy violations begin with spam and escalate to much worse. ■ But the simple promise not to sell user data is profoundly incomplete, because it affords no meaningful protections if the service, site, or parent company is sold. Consider the vast one-time popularity of MySpace. It not only catalogued the social relationships of millions of users, it also was the first mass-market site to have the capacity to collect actionable intelligence on users and their habits, feelings, and preferences. ■ The test anyone who ever used MySpace needs to ask themselves is this: Who owns MySpace now? It isn't the ubiquitous "Tom", to be sure. ■ Since 2005, MySpace has been through the hands of News Corporation, Justin Timberlake, Meredith, and a NASDAQ-listed advertising company -- though none of those exchanges really looked like "selling user data" in the conventional sense. ■ What makes MySpace such a cautionary tale is not whether anyone retains an account there today. But literally billions of people are active, cumulatively, on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and other sites. ■ Facebook is almost wickedly transparent about how it regards personal data: "Specifically, when you share, post, or upload content that is covered by intellectual property rights on or in connection with our Products, you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content" (it's right there in the terms of use). ■ Note a couple of things about those terms: "Royalty-free" tells us implicitly that user content and data have value. If they didn't, royalty rights would never enter the discussion. And "transferable" and "sub-licensable" make it evident that Facebook thinks others might value user content, too. ■ Facebook's unintentional honesty about what it "owns", both from and about users, is a reminder that anytime we spill information into social networks (or indeed any digital platform), we are creating digital footprints that seem ephemeral but in fact have durable value. MySpace's copy of your "Top 8" friends from 15 years ago might not be worth much -- but then again, China's government has been out to mine every byte of data it can steal about unwitting Americans, so maybe it's not worthless after all. ■ And therein lies the rub: The drama was high at Twitter as Elon Musk bought more than 9% of the company, then touted his plans to join the board, then reversed course. ■ Musk's headline grab showed that ownership is the central matter. That demands more caution than has been widely shown up until now, whether among the estimated 80 million Americans using TikTok, a platform owned by a Chinese company that could easily be bent to the will of an authoritarian government, or among the two billion daily active Facebook users whose sole guarantee of prudential behavior is however Mark Zuckerberg decides to behave with his majority control over the voting shares in the company. Wherever we leave those digital footprints, someone has an incentive to go tracking.

April 13, 2022

Business and Finance On your most professional behavior

A very good question -- "How do we identify and create professional business executives?" -- recurs chronically because we abuse the word "professional". ■ A "professional", correctly stated, is a person who obtains legal coverage to keep other people out of their trade. In exchange, they promise to conduct themselves according to binding professional standards. ■ An essential part of the "professional" trade-off is that the professional surrenders the right to extract maximum profits from their clients. It's an acknowledgment of an insurmountable knowledge problem on the part of the client. ■ A "professional" doctor, for instance, surrenders the right to upcharge a patient for tests or treatments they don't need. In exchange, the patient (through the government) protects the doctor from competition. With a profession comes not just the assurance of good (though not extravagant) compensation, but also social esteem. ■ The meaning of "professional" starts to break down by little erosions -- celebrity doctors profiting off weight-loss fads, dentists hocking snake-oil tooth whiteners, and accountants pivoting to more-lucrative business consultancy. ■ Any old set of dopes sharing a common craft or trade can form a guild to keep others out, and they can peddle their influence to protect themselves from competition. (This, of course, is the source of the gag behind Gob Bluth being purged from his own "Alliance of Magicians" in "Arrested Development".) Without binding standards that serve to protect unwitting customers from being manipulated, what we call "professions" are often just guilds dressed up in fancier titles. ■ The more we chip away at the fundamental meaning of the word "professional", the more we lose touch with an important distinction. After all, does a "professional" athlete swear to uphold a self-sacrificial code of conduct like the Hippocratic Oath? Hardly. Sports leagues often enforce tougher codes of conduct for fans than for owners and players (see, for instance, how Atlanta's baseball team continues to profit from the indefensible Tomahawk Chop). ■ All of this is a shame, because America (and the world) really could use higher standards for "professional" business conduct. But that would require the managerial professionals to sacrifice some material self-interest in exchange for professional status. ■ As a symptom of the principal/agent problem, the absence of any widely-used codes for business conduct is a problem. This problem is on display tenfold when you look at how some agents abuse the trust of their clients. ■ The absence of binding professional codes in business is why Warren Buffett's words to the staff of Salomon Brothers stood out: "Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless." ■ Jack Bogle also sounded like a moralist in contrast with the vacuum of professional business standards when he wrote, "I am arguing that our business principles have been diluted [...] There are some things that one just doesn't do". Bogle willingly gave up what could have been enormous riches because he thought bringing thrifty, low-cost index funds to the public was a matter of doing the right thing. He voluntarily held himself to an extremely high professional standard because he believed that was the right thing for a capitalist to do. ■ Perhaps we would be better off if business owners (particularly the shareholders in publicly-traded firms) insisted that corporate suites were full of people sworn to uphold a professional code that would put owners' interests ahead of maximizing personal gain. ■ But given the routine use of lavish compensation models to keep board members fat, happy, and complacent with the will of the CEO, it seems unlikely we'll see the advent of a truly "professional" business class anytime soon without the ignition supplied by other reforms. Poodles in the boardroom are no substitute for sheepdogs. ■ That's a shame, because even Adam Smith saw that there was a moral dimension to well-functioning markets. Not everything that is legal is right, and not always is the right course (by ethical standards) the best way to make a buck. Correcting for those shortcomings would be good for capitalism.

April 14, 2022

The United States of America It's going to cost us

In the book "1984", one of the recurring themes is the tale that "Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia" (or Eurasia, as served those who needed it to do so). By the use of that plot device, George Orwell was making a nod to the notion that if people were kept blind to history and ignorant of reality, they could be made to believe anything, even those things that were patently untrue. ■ It isn't just ignorance that can lead us into false belief; so can can wishing too much for a thing to be true. Looking from afar at the Kremlin's war of aggression against Ukraine, it is all too easy to let hope drive the imagination that a clear and binding peace treaty will be implemented sometime in the near future. How heartbreakingly unlikely that really is. ■ Russia has not "always been at war" with Ukraine, but even putting aside the historical violence it has committed against its smaller neighbor, Russia most certainly has been making war there for almost a decade. ■ It was for precisely the kind of defensive weaponry that America is now shipping to Ukraine in huge volumes that Volodymyr Zelenskyy was asking when then-President Donald Trump attempted to extort Ukraine for political help. What is happening now is just a hotter phase of a long-simmering conflict. ■ Indeed, the fact that the war on Ukraine has motivated both Finland and Sweden to set aside decades of neutrality or non-alignment and initiate the process of joining NATO should be warning enough that this is a problem that will be around for the long haul. The Kremlin's thundery reaction tells us it has no quiet ambitions. ■ Even if peace were to break out spontaneously tomorrow -- and it will not -- the trauma of the war alone will resound deafeningly for at least a generation to come. A country cannot lose thousands of lives (4,577, by the latest count) to a depraved and barbaric invader and then merely forgive or and forget. Nor, for that matter, will any amount of Russian state propaganda erase the anguish of thousands of Russian mothers who will never see their sons again. The blame lies squarely at Putin's feet. ■ For a generation to come, the Russian military will contain within its ranks vicious murderers who will, tragically, never be individually held to account for their crimes. The scars of war will remain on the Ukrainian land and people for many decades to come. And the 44-year-old president of Ukraine can be certain that no matter the diplomatic outcome of the war, Russian agents will be trying to poison him for the rest of his natural life. ■ All of this would be true if the war were to end 15 minutes from now. But it won't. Like a cancer that has already metastasized, this problem will persist for the long haul. And there won't be a clean bill of health at the end like we probably wish there would be. ■ We have to make peace with the uncomfortable reality that there will not be a satisfying peace anytime in the foreseeable future. Even if hostilities de-escalate, there will still be plenty of war ahead. ■ American public opinion isn't well-suited to unsatisfying conclusions. Americans want the signing of surrender documents on a battleship in Tokyo Bay. That isn't forthcoming. ■ The essence of leadership will consist of telling Americans that we're in this for the long haul -- and painting a picture of what that long haul will be. "The peaceful self-determination of all free peoples" isn't a concept that rolls gently off the tongue. But it's the one that has to be defended and promoted loudly. ■ In too many ways, we mistook the end of the Cold War to mean the end of great-power influence and self-serving international conflicts. A peaceful world with triumphantly advancing living standards is extremely desirable, but it isn't inevitable. Essential, but not inevitable. ■ It can only be sustained by a combination of un-self-conscious promotion (in culture and in political rhetoric) and the hard-nosed construction of the rules-based global order that makes a peaceful coexistence possible. ■ In the words of business author Jim Collins, people need to believe in a "big, hairy, audacious goal". The rhetoric must lead towards that goal -- peace, freedom, and prosperity for the entire world -- but it must built on an infrastructure that invests both in the maintenance of the peace and the promotion of the rules that keep the peace. ■ These are costs we will face aplenty not just now, but for many years to come. The sooner we bring credibility to the long road yet to travel, the tolls that must be paid along the way, and the worthiness of the destination, the better.

April 15, 2022

Business and Finance It's better to be bored by markets

The high drama surrounding Elon Musk's attempt to take over Twitter has brought unusual popular attention to the business world. Ordinarily cordoned off as "business news" covered by "financial media", questions of valuations and ownership rarely intrude into the mainstream consciousness. Events involving certain high-flying, attention-hungry magnates pose an unusual exception. ■ It was about 12 years ago that Berkshire Hathaway laid out $26 billion in cash and stock to buy out the BNSF railroad. It was a huge deal -- Warren Buffett was basically betting a quarter of his own company on it. ■ Later this month, Berkshire will hold an annual meeting in Omaha, where shareholders will be reminded that the company brings in operating earnings of about that same volume as the entire BNSF purchase every year. (Last year's operating earnings were $27 billion.) ■ Berkshire recently announced the purchase of Alleghany, an insurance company, for $11 billion. It's safe to say the event went almost unnoticed outside of true hard-core financial news-watchers. It most certainly did not get proportional attention to Musk's Twitter-takeover offer, which is larger -- but only four times larger. ■ Even more enormous (and less renowned) than such Berkshire buyouts have been the company's share repurchases. Berkshire has repurchased more than $51 billion in shares since just 2019. If Warren Buffett had moved his company to buy out Twitter for that much, it would have made headlines. But consolidating ownership of itself by an even larger number barely raised anyone's attention at all. ■ Just for comparison, put the Alleghany purchase and the share repurchases together, and that would be a deal the size of buying the entire Ford Motor Co. (market capitalization: $62 billion). Boring? Only by nature of what the company does. In scale, it's quite exciting. ■ For as much as the crypto-bros and others want to sell you on their get-rich-quick schemes, they're just trying to get people hooked on emotions and speculation. It's morally unsound. Peter Thiel can rage against a "sociopathic grandpa from Omaha" for downplaying Bitcoin, but Thiel isn't really making a case for cryptocurrency on the merits. ■ Meanwhile, Berkshire continues growing, reinvesting in huge projects for renewable energy (to the tune of $37 billion at last count), and sending billions of dollars in corporate taxes to the US Treasury, while paying the salaries of more than 371,000 people. ■ People need to know the distinction between speculation and valuation. Valuation is a matter of determining what something is truly worth, no matter what its price tag. Speculation is a matter of grabbing something at one price (without regard to its intrinsic value) and looking eagerly to sell it for a higher price -- often as quickly as possible. Speculation can be fun for an adrenaline rush, but it's a trashy way to characterize a market economy. ■ Capitalism does great things when it's patient, thoughtful, and focused on the long term. Command economies cannot measure up! But the skill of market valuation (which is the cornerstone of how Buffett has built Berkshire) is wildly under-appreciated. We ought to try fixing that. Other activities may be better for capturing headlines, but patient, strategic attention to business-building is vastly better for a civilization.

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April 16, 2022

News When voting is like toothpaste

To keep a marriage happy, spouses ought to agree on their laundry detergent but keep their toothpastes separate. On certain matters (like how the bedsheets and towels are going to smell), unanimity and uniformity are essential. But it's perfectly tolerable -- in fact, preferable -- if everyone can remain responsible for cleaning up after themselves on those matters that matter almost entirely to themselves. What matters most is that one brushes their own teeth regularly; beyond that, whether you choose cool mint, bubble gum, or lemon and ginseng really isn't all that materially important to anyone else. ■ It ought not to escape notice that both France and Australia are in the midst of elections. France is about to conduct the second round of a presidential election based upon a runoff vote, while Australia's parliamentary elections are both ranked-choice and compulsory. ■ Nobody will deny that both electoral systems are democratic, in the sense that they depend upon the consent and expressed will of the people in order to cement their legitimacy. But the systems are deeply different from one another, and vastly different from comparable elections in the United States. ■ On the matter of seeking the consent of the governed and attempting to reflect the will of the majority, all three countries agree -- like spouses on laundry detergent. On the particulars of how they use ballots to sample and count the will of the people, they are like those same spouses choosing toothpastes. ■ Far too many of the arguments about democracy assume that there is a perfect system to be had. That's not just a bad assumption; it is fatally flawed. Making choices among even small numbers of people is an imperfect science. Doing so when millions of people are involved is absolutely guaranteed to leave large numbers of them utterly unsatisfied. The point is not that the popular will is perfectly expressed, but that it is sought -- preferably under transparent and predictable rules. ■ Rules can shape the outcomes of elections, whether intentionally or not. Ranked-choice voting produces different outcomes from first-past-the-post, but there are literally dozens of ways to parse votes, whether proportional or majoritarian in design. Most sensible people can agree on the need for universal suffrage -- but at what point should people become eligible to vote? There are those both on the left and on the right who argue that right should activate at birth. And then there are rules like representation quotas or reserved seats that can institutionally override majority views. ■ Complaining about systems like America's Electoral College is practically a national pastime. But so is complaining about the voting system in every other democracy. There is no perfect system, and fantasizing that one exists is a mistake bound to lead to chronic frustration. Much better it would be if imperfection were expected by all parties, factions, and individual voters, right from the start.

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April 18, 2022

News The center must hold

Benjamin Franklin wrote, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." He did both, and it's noteworthy that we still have access to his words more than a quarter of a millennium after he wrote them. ■ Have no doubt about it: If he were living today, Benjamin Franklin would be an enthusiastic user of social media. He might not spend his time making TikTok videos, but he would certainly be involved in the rough-and-tumble of Twitter. Snappy assessments of the world would have been like catnip to his prodigious mind; indeed, most of his memorable aphorisms fit tidily within 280 characters. ■ But Franklin's opus would have been hollow without his autobiography. And his wit shines not because of cherry-picked quotes that would fit on a desk calendar, but because his observations, taken together, formed a worldview that is both readable and often quite salient today. He said many things to his contemporaries, but he wrote for the audience of history. ■ The National Council of Teachers of English has published a position statement on "Media Education in English Language Arts" with which Franklin might have taken issue. It contains some sensible reflections on the evolution of what it means to learn the English language -- like acknowledging that "The time is now to bring media education into the mainstream of ELA [English language arts] education". But it also contains some significant nonsense. ■ In particular, the position statement declares, "We no longer live in a print-dominant, text-only world", and thus concludes, "The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education." Nuts to that. ■ Of course it is important and worthwhile for students to know how to consume digital media thoughtfully, to express their own opinions and explain their discoveries in more than the printed format, and to be capable of assessing content sources critically. Those are all valuable skills that need to be developed as part of a holistic education in the language arts. ■ But if anyone seriously thinks that books and essays need to be "decentered", they need to rethink their worldview. The only way to take that "decentering" seriously is to believe that history is like an old tape recorder on an infinite Mobius loop, forever erasing itself before recording anew, only to erase itself all over again. Of course, that is not the case. ■ Human history is not only something that has been constructed over many generations, it also reflects an almost stunning consistency of human nature across time. The Soviets may have thought they could create a whole new human, but the rest of us ought to possess the humility to realize that we're not so special that everything is novel. History might not repeat, but it quite often rhymes. ■ The act of writing a book or even a careful essay requires a process of thinking that isn't equally required to record a Snapchat video. The process requires not only a respect for the immediate audience, but also a view toward permanence. That is why people of goodwill are still moved by Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is why understanding the Constitution still requires reading what Hamilton and Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers. It is why Christian churches still read the letters of the Apostles and why Maimonides remains influential more than 800 years after his death. ■ Great films have gone missing. Websites are often only archived by chance. Only a few early broadcasts were ever recorded, and only a fraction of what has ever aired has been saved digitally. But books and essays are intended to be permanent. ■ And while they shouldn't be the only materials that students study or create, there is no sound reason for "decentering" carefully-written words. History isn't the only reason; so is the present. The logic of composition imposes rigor on the writer, and practice is the only way to really become good at it. ■ Nobody is going to master a complex subject from "snack-length" video segments. We learn from those who take the time to form their ideas carefully. Multimedia tools are sometimes the most effective ways to project those ideas -- but even a great film requires a written script. Yes, students should "master the full range of literary competencies"...but the book will still be around a thousand years from now. Instagram will not.

April 19, 2022

Business and Finance A disaster of choice

Back when computers were a novelty (rather than omnipresent in our lives), coffee cups and other tchotchkes were sometimes sold with the slogan "To err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer". A more relevant spin on that quotation today might be "To cause disruptions is the will of Mother Nature; to cause a real catastrophe requires a human". ■ The International Monetary Fund, noting that the global economy has been recovering from the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, has issued its opinion that "Global economic prospects have been severely set back, largely because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine." Other than the handful of lunatics who embrace "degrowth" as the solution to the world's problems, most people properly appreciate that rising living standards resulting from broad-based economic growth are a human good. Effects like rapidly-declining child mortality rates are the dividends of growth. ■ Many aspects of the economic troubles we can all observe are consequences of a shocking pandemic. Some of the widespread price inflation can be traced to money-supply interventions that have been employed by central banks for the last 15 years to try to ease the pain of recessions. But nothing whatsoever excuses the completely unnecessary and deliberate assault initiated by the powers in the Kremlin -- most specifically, Vladimir Putin -- against Ukraine and, consequently, against the world's economy. ■ This is an unforgivable, totally unnecessary, and (almost singularly) man-made disaster. The world cannot excuse the malicious decisions made. And it must not forget the lesson that human choices have consequences.

April 20, 2022

Broadcasting An eye on the prizes

Netflix has reported something both unexpected and unpleasant (for its prospects): A quarterly decline in subscribers. While it still claims more than 221 million subscribers worldwide (a figure that would make it the 7th largest country in the world, just ahead of Brazil), the idea of a shrinking subscriber base is enough to raise both internal and external alarm. ■ It's interesting to note that today's streaming services have many of the features of the classic Hollywood "studio system": They are capable of vertical integration, from producing their own original content (see, for example, Netflix Originals, Hulu Originals, and the entire Paramount and Disney catalogs) to distribution and delivery. ■ In important ways, the economics of owning a streaming service beat the vertical integration of the Hollywood studio system, because the customers not only pay for their own screens (saving the "studio" the enormous real estate and operational costs of owning theaters), they also pay subscription fees that are far more predictable than ticket revenues. ■ But while the old studio system was dismantled by the courts, the new streaming-based studio system is subject to blistering competition. Netflix has emerged as a serious contender for awards like the Oscars and Emmys (winning more in 2021 than any other network or service). ■ Yet Netflix's competitors are gunning for prestige and respect, too: Apple TV won seven Emmys in 2021 just for "Ted Lasso", and it won the 2022 Best Picture at the Oscars. Meanwhile, Amazon has gone off and spent $8.5 billion on MGM and its 4,000-movie library. ■ It seems likely that fierce competition -- even despite the advantages of vertical integration -- is going to keep modern incarnation of the studio system (a studio neo-system, perhaps) much more constrained than the Hollywood system of yore. It remains possible that new rounds of consolidation are yet to come, but it seems more likely that the future will end up resembling the fragmented landscape of cable and satellite television networks. ■ There's still a lot more of the game of musical chairs left to play, and it's unlikely that they'll all end up sharing one big sofa. If the awards-night successes of the various streaming platforms are any indication, those rivalries are going to be very good for the viewers.

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April 21, 2022

Agriculture Green fields eclipsing the brown

The average date of the last frost in most places in Iowa happens around the middle of April, though in some northern parts of the state, that average last frost happens sometime in early May. That date can feel impossibly late following a long-lingering winter (perhaps even moreso after more than one "false spring"), but it's the climatological reality. And it constrains choices like when to plant corn in the state -- a decision bounded on the other end by the date when it's too late to plant before risking losing the harvest to arrival of the next winter. ■ These constraints typically leave Iowa (and much of the rest of the Corn Belt) looking pretty barren for about half of the year. That vista has started to change, though, with the increasing adoption of cover crops -- plants seeded in the ground after the cash crops (usually corn and soybeans) have been harvested in the fall. Where cover crops are planted, it's become increasingly common to see green in the fields well outside the usual seasons. ■ The adoption of cover crops is the kind of easily-overlooked development that deserves both attention and applause. Plants like cereal rye (the most popular cover crop in Iowa) keep soil nutrients from leaching away when the snow melts, while helping to reduce soil erosion and build up helpful organic matter. Some even help to choke out weeds until the next year's cash crop can be planted. ■ In modern terms, it's still a new practice -- almost no cover crops were planted in Iowa a decade ago, and now they're planted on more than 2 million acres annually. ■ It's not just aesthetically pleasing; soil preservation is an important tool for reducing toxic runoff into the rivers and streams that not only eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico, but that also serve as a major source of drinking water along the way. It's going to take a while to really establish the practice and to make sure that the right incentives are in place for all of the stakeholders involved (farmers, governments, consumers, and water-drinkers, just for starters), but it's a challenge well worth undertaking.

April 22, 2022

News Reclamation and rehabilitation

Signs of decay are easy to spot once you set about looking for them: Dilapidated old barns in the countryside, abandoned buildings in the city, faded billboards by the side of the road. For too many people, though, every symptom of decay is escalated all the way up until it is taken as proof of terminal decline on a much larger scale. ■ It can be perfectly rational to let things fall into decay. An old farmstead that used to depend on a windmill to drive a water pump no longer has any use for that windmill once a rural water system service connection becomes available. Since rural water service is invariably safer and more reliable than a household well, it makes all the sense in the world to allow a windmill that has no further use to fall into decay. There are lots of other demands on time and resources that are more worthy of investment from our limited resources. ■ On the other hand, it isn't rational to allow important things to fall into disrepair. In fact, it is a duty to keep them from falling into decay. Voters and their elected representatives too often permit the essentials of civilization -- like infrastructure -- to decay, simply because there isn't enough immediate reward for doing the prudent thing. That's a shame upon all of us. ■ Somewhere in the middle of all this we uncover a special act: That of finding something that has fallen into decay and discovering a way to make it useful again. It's an honorable thing to do, and it's worthy of more of our applause. ■ Not everything is worth salvage or rehabilitation. It's an economic decision: If more value can be created than the cost of the inputs, then the rehabilitation creates value. If not, then it may be better to let the decay run its course (or to sweep away the debris entirely). But human ingenuity is a special thing, and we shouldn't just cheer for those who create things from scratch. A round of applause is also due for those who raise things to higher levels of value, especially after neglect.

April 26, 2022

Business and Finance Costly playthings

The announcement that Elon Musk is poised to buy Twitter for $44 billion has lit the short fuse on some of the worst habits in American cultural debate. The New York Times is offering opinions under the headlines of "Elon Musk is a Problem Masquerading as a Solution", "Twitter Under Elon Musk Will Be a Scary Place", and "Musk's Twitter: Weed Memes. Editable Tweets. And the Return of Trump." Some have called it hyperventilation, and that may not be a bad characterization. ■ Meanwhile, largely because Musk has a history of libertine personal behavior on the site and is intentionally provoking debate with tweets like "The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all", the pending ownership change has become a cause for celebration among those who perceive that Twitter's policies and management have landed heavily on some of their favorite figures -- the former President certainly chief among them -- despite often inexcusable behavior by those figures. ■ No person of sound mind and decent character should stand opposed to the principle of freedom of speech. But principles often conflict with one another, and one of the most important indicators of good judgment is the ability to reconcile those conflicts thoughtfully. There is no pure freedom of speech, and even the Voltaire-adjacent promise to defend to the death another's right to say things with which one disagrees is itself limited. (It would be insane, for instance, to defend a mob leader's right to use "free speech" to coordinate a murder.) ■ It is especially unfortunate that a false dichotomy of "free speech or not" is taking shape around something as ultimately trivial as a social-media site. Twitter hasn't taken the full form of a public-good protocol, as co-founder Jack Dorsey says he wished. It's just a popular digital meeting space -- a very noisy virtual agora -- where people can engage, agree, disagree, or ignore one another entirely. ■ But if anyone fails to keep their experience of Twitter or any other site at arm's length, no matter who owns that site, then they're bound for disappointment. Turning any means of engaging with other human beings into an opportunity to cultivate an enemies list is neither psychologically healthy nor civically responsible. If it matters so much that it's worth pages and pages of debate in the nation's newspaper of record -- and stokes mutually-condescending takes and division from people overeager to prove they're on the right "team" -- then maybe it matters too much all around.

April 27, 2022

News Where do you get your news?

While nobody seems to want to admit it, much of what shapes public debate is still generated by a handful of media outlets with high prestige and valuable institutional brand names. Memes, video rants, and viral tweets can instigate new conversations, but the bulk of what gets decided inside major institutions is still steered there by the editorial choices of a few publications. ■ This sort of cachet remains important because people doing high-stakes work (including government officials, business executives, and NGO leaders) have scarce free time and have to concentrate the use of that time thoughtfully. It is not irrational to assume that if you're Warren Buffett, then you can expect that a news diet consisting of the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Omaha World-Herald (or your comparable local paper) will probably cover most of the news you actually need to know in a day. If it doesn't meet the standards to merit coverage by at least one of those outlets, it's probably below the level of significance to demand immediate attention. ■ In recent years, the Washington Post has invested heavily in displacing USA Today for top-tier prominence in the same class with the New York Times, and it would be hard to argue it hasn't succeeded. Despite tough times for both, the Washington Post has nearly beaten USA Today for the third-place spot in national print circulation, and its website has much greater cachet. Its rise reflects a conscious decision to aspire to greater reach. ■ What's interesting about the landscape is that, at least among those outlets conventionally associated with heritage-status print publications, none are conspicuously both general-interest in nature and center-right in perspective. The Wall Street Journal, with its peculiar online paywall and financial focus, is big but not general-interest in nature. ■ It would seem evident that there exists a void in the market waiting to be filled. Not by fire-breathing right-wing populism or coverage obsessed with politics as blood sport, but with covering mainstream news in a mainstream way, but with editorial assumptions that would align with some of the same features that tend to make the United States basically a center-right country. ■ Imagine, for instance, an outlet with an editorial stance that is Madisonian in outlook -- firmly attached to the understanding that government must be limited in reach and constrained by rules, but also congenitally skeptical of concentrated power in all its forms. One reconciled to the imperfection of the world, and consequently well-adjusted regarding the necessity of tolerating compromises and accepting incremental progress as uncomfortable necessities. ■ Picture an outlet that would be cheerfully optimistic about spontaneous order, both in market relationships and social affairs -- protective of institutions and practices that have survived evolutionary pressures over time, but open-minded about finding better ideas and strongly attached to the perpetual quest for reforms in government and other centers of power. ■ It would be fascinating to see a center-right outlet, run by the principle that news organizations exist in order to interest the public in the public interest. There is quick money to be made in satisfying instinct-driven, emotional urges with tabloid-style coverage. ■ But the long-term well-being of the country (and its states and people) lies in having robust, thoughtful, even cerebral, debates about those matters we need to know about now and those we need to see coming down the road. It would be good for matters if at least some of that coverage and some of those ideas were initiated from a set of staunchly-held editorial principles that differed -- even if only gently -- from the prevailing viewpoints at the current leading institutions. That voice is missing in the USA, today.

April 28, 2022

Computers and the Internet A real head-scratcher

In the span of just a handful of months, Wordle went from one family's novelty game to a sensation so big it was purchased by the New York Times for some price over $1 million. ■ The rules of the game are exceptionally simple: Guess a five-letter word in no more than six tries. The game tells you whether you got a letter right (in the right place), right (in the wrong place), or altogether wrong. As is so often the case, the art is in the constraints: The solution will be one of about 2,500 words, the number of allowable tries is generally sufficient but not excessive, and there is only one game released per day. ■ It's a simple puzzle that offers reasonably good prospects of a reward from a very modest investment of time. And there are certain network effects, too: The more people who play and compare their results, the greater the "stickiness" of the activity. And thus, people keep coming back for the reward of solving simple puzzles and sharing the feeling of success with others. ■ For all of the various ways in which people try to achieve some level of self-understanding through interest quizzes, aptitude tests, and self-help resources, we tend to under-value the identification of each individual's preferred problem-solving/puzzle-solving type. Human minds are well-adapted to solving puzzles and piecing together solutions from limited information; that's why we identify familiar objects in clouds and see a Man in the Moon. ■ But not everyone enjoys solving the same sorts of puzzles. Some people are attracted to crosswords, while others like to assemble jigsaw puzzles. Some find satisfaction from detangling knotted jewelry, and others like to paint by numbers. If we choose to define a "puzzle" as any kind of activity that requires creative mental engagement to find a solution, then we find that many people have high tolerances for puzzle-like activities and even careers (like engineering, auditing, and detective work). ■ The more we succeed at offloading many of our routine tasks to computers and various forms of automation, the more important it will become for individuals to uncover the kinds of puzzle-like problems (in the broadest sense of the word) that give them satisfaction. Computers can be excellent at relieving humans of decision-making under conditions where rules are easy to apply, which is why we're already able to let some cars drive themselves autonomously. ■ Until the elusive "general" form of artificial intelligence arrives -- if, indeed, it ever comes -- human beings will not only remain the best resources for solving open-ended, puzzle-like problems, but those problems will also become increasingly important to ensuring that people can find psychological satisfaction. ■ Even the most ordinary of humans are imbued with phenomenal mental capacity, as illustrated every night as billions of people experience vivid, complex, and long-lasting dreams -- the generation of which would be a challenging problem for digital computers. Putting that capacity to work in problem-solving activities is important not only to making general human progress, but to giving individuals the satisfaction of solving puzzles along the way. ■ Right alongside the ASVAB and the Myers-Briggs and the MAPP, we would do well to find a test to help individuals uncover which types of problems (that is, puzzles) they will find the most consistent satisfaction in trying to solve -- mechanical or mathematical, open-ended or closed, short-form or multi-decadal, cosmic or small enough to fit on a wrist. ■ The future is bound to become massively more complex than the reality we inhabit today, yet many of the routine decisions that occupy our time and thoughts now are likely to be offloaded to machinery of one sort or another, just as household tools like washing machines and microwaves have taken some domestic endeavors almost entirely off our minds altogether. More of those "dumb" decisions that tax our mental energy and deplete our decision-making capacities are destined to go away. That's good, because in the aggregate, they leave too many people with decision fatigue. ■ But some of the problems that are left over are bound to require matching problems with the right kinds of problem-solvers who will find deep satisfaction from untangling the metaphorical knots. It would serve civilization well to try to drill deeper into helping us sort ourselves accordingly.

Humor and Good News The watchtower

Some doofus designed a home with a double-sided fireplace, one side of which is in the living room. The other is in the main bedroom. That's a little too much sharing.

Weather and Disasters When clouds take the form of waves

The atmosphere is a fluid, after all

April 29, 2022

Business and Finance Bad math doesn't break the real economy

Measuring the size of the economy using gross domestic product (GDP) has always been an endeavor subject to judgment calls. While the GDP is intended to capture the total value of goods and services created by a country, it omits some values that are considered too hard to calculate -- like the equivalent value of all of the household labor devoted to things like cooking, shopping, and keeping up a home. Just because it's "non-market" work doesn't mean it's not valuable; in fact, it's probably worth trillions of dollars a year. ■ GDP is a necessary but insufficient tool for measuring the wellness of an economy. Like an individual's body weight or pulse, it's an essential part of the whole picture, but it has to be considered alongside a great deal else to start to form a holistic picture. With the preliminary data indicating that US GDP shrank in the first quarter of 2022, some people have already begun hyperventilating that "we are now halfway to a recession". ■ Strictly speaking, a recession is two or more consecutive quarters of negative real GDP growth. That doesn't really mean we are "halfway to a recession"; it only means that half of the conditions for a recession have been met. ■ An even more troubling misinterpretation of the facts is the claim that "A soaring trade deficit detracted from U.S. economic growth figures", in the words of the New York Times. The problem with that way of reading the figures is that imports are neutral to GDP. ■ GDP is only intended to measure what goods and services are generated domestically (again, it's gross "domestic" product). The equation used is "GDP = C+I+G+NX" -- consumption plus investment plus government spending plus net exports. ■ It's true that imports represent the negative half of "net exports" (exports minus imports). But all we're doing by subtracting those imports is removing their effects from what they added to C, I, and G. If you buy and eat a box of Belgian chocolates, it's added under "C" -- so we subtract it under "NX" so that we don't count the Belgian chocolates as American gross "domestic" product. ■ The subtraction has no effect whatsoever on what is generated domestically (at least, not in the sense that the New York Times headline would suggest). A "soaring" trade deficit is only harmful to GDP if it is a symptom that the economy is producing far fewer exports than it did before. If they do anything, imports often help the American economy to focus on those things it does best: Buying Taiwanese semiconductors, for example, helps the American automakers build more cars. Slowing down that pace of imports doesn't help the US economy; it hurts. ■ The only sense in which imports actually "deduct" from GDP is that it probably does serious damage to economists' brains when they repeatedly bang their heads against their desks over this misunderstanding of the data. For every other purpose, imports are neutral to the GDP.

April 30, 2022

News The fear of history

Among the most widely-cited of Shakespearean lines is one from "Twelfth Night": "[S]ome are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em". It's not actually true: Nobody is born great, at least not in the sense we use "great" to mean both noteworthy and admirable. Child prodigies burn out all the time, and truly great adults are -- without exception -- shaped by their experiences into what they become. ■ We are undoubtedly born with certain kinds of programming deep in our DNA. Attentive parents can detect personality traits in their newborns, and it wouldn't be outlandish to assume that everyone is born with predispositions among the big five personality traits. Yet those traits can (and often do) change over time, and experiences have effects on them. More significantly, every individual is born with at least some self-awareness, which can (and ought) to be used to refine who they turn out to be. ■ Perhaps the most important trait we can hope to find among those leaders who turn out to be "great" is an attunement to history. It is noteworthy, for instance, that in our own time, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy ably speaks of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and analogizes weapons deals to the Lend-Lease Act. He is self-evidently aware of history and of the place in it that has been thrust upon him. ■ Only people who are actively aware of history in that kind of way can be trusted to behave in a way that reflects the fact that history is watching them. It may not be a sufficient condition (certainly some people think they're on the "right side" of history when they in fact are not), but it is an utterly necessary one. The people who think that history doesn't matter or who take none of the prospective judgment of later generations into perspective are the ones who ought never to be entrusted with power. ■ A high regard for, and perhaps even a healthy fear of, the judgment of history is a precondition for sound leadership at the highest levels. And that regard really cannot be instilled without a proper working knowledge of the past. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest of American Presidents, almost chronically referred to history for orientation (think "Four score and seven years ago"). If a civilization wants good leaders, perhaps the most important thing it can do is put the knowledge -- and a little bit of fear -- of history into all its people, just in case greatness is thrust upon 'em.

Business and Finance Welcome back to Omaha

The Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting returns to Omaha after two pandemic cancellations in a row. From the Omaha World-Herald: "For decades, thousands have flocked to Omaha for the annual Berkshire shareholders meeting, what Buffett often likes to call the Woodstock of Capitalism. Shareholder Brian Gongol from West Des Moines, Iowa, likened it more to a religious revival. Many of the tenets Buffett will talk about are well-known to shareholders, and they already believe strongly in them. 'But you just need to hear (them) about once a year (to know) you're not crazy,' Gongol said."

Weather and Disasters Extraordinary footage of a tornado

Drone footage in very high resolution of a tornado tearing a path through Andover, Kansas. Truly some of the most remarkable weather-related video yet seen. Using autonomous aircraft (like drones) to observe severe weather in real time is one of the best possible uses for such technology.

News Sage advice about history

Hal Brands: "History never provides exact answers. It provides strategic awareness and understanding within which hard choices can be made."

May 2, 2022

Threats and Hazards Indiscriminate bombing

The decision by the Russian military to launch missiles at Kyiv during a visit by the UN Secretary-General is the kind of plainly outrageous behavior that should escape no condemnation. Attacking Ukraine's capital city is an inexcusable act in the first place, and even worse, targeting a residential apartment building (as Russian forces did) is almost certainly a war crime. ■ But beyond those two offenses against the civilized world, Russia's military attacked a city where the UN's top diplomat had gone on a publicly announced visit. It wasn't a secret mission. Antonio Guterres had gone to Kyiv following a meeting in Moscow with Vladimir Putin. And the entire UN trip was conducted to arrange for the evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, a town already literally half-obliterated by Russian assault. ■ Anyone still making apologies for the invasion of Ukraine or playing cowardly games of "whataboutism" with the conduct of Ukraine's defense needs to acknowledge how dreadfully wrong they have been. If the leader of the United Nations cannot enter a capital city to arrange for the evacuation of civilians from a war-torn area without itself coming under bombardment, then the country dropping the bombs should be suspended indefinitely from any benefits of the community of nations. ■ There are too many layers of self-evident evil embedded in the Kremlin's behavior to afford any room for excuse: Depriving children of basic necessities. Holding noncombatants under siege for weeks. And now, aiming weapons "shockingly" close to the representatives of the world's organized body for resolving disputes -- who had shown up for the express purpose of relieving the suffering of those innocents. ■ Giving the bully a veto is a certain way to dismantle a peaceful world order, and the civilized nations of the world are justified in remaining resolute against that bully -- by isolating it, depriving it of the resources it converts into warfare, and providing abundant support to the defenders.

Broadcasting What is the proper theme song for Generation X?

It must be either the Pinball Count from Sesame Street or the theme to The Price is Right. Either way, it has something to do with television first and foremost.

May 3, 2022

Health A "stealth" lockdown for 22 million people

An observer writes from China that "Beijing is going into a 'stealth' lockdown. We're not confined to our homes (yet) but so many restrictions are being rolled into place that going anywhere or doing anything is becoming extremely difficult." For any number of reasons, this seems indefensibly crazy. ■ First, with a population of about 22 million people, Beijing is just a smidge more populous than Florida. By that measure alone, the scale of a Beijing lockdown, whether "stealth" or openly declared, would be gargantuan. The logistical nightmare that resulted in Shanghai as people became desperate for basic necessities like food. ■ There is also the matter of basic efficacy: The "Zero Covid" policy is enormously disruptive, and there is plainly no rationale by which locking tens of millions of people at home (or, according to some reports, at work for some 20,000 people) for weeks at a time beats having an effective vaccination program. Bloomberg's reporting says that "only half of the population aged 80 and older are fully vaccinated" in mainland China -- and none of them have gotten the extremely effective mRNA vaccines known to work so well in the United States and elsewhere. ■ And then, there is naked self-interest. China's ruling party doesn't like competition nor does it tolerate criticism. The problem with an institutional attitude like that is that it prevents essential signals from making their way to decision-makers. The long-time Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, said, "If your staff thinks you can't take the bad news, for fear you will behead the messenger, something is wrong with you. You are paying them to provide you with information. They shouldn't fear you. I wanted the bad news because then I could do something about it, and fast." ■ It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there's something wrong with the czars of China's Communist Party. They've hidden themselves from the facts (and from critical analysis), and have censored even the economists from acknowledging that "Zero Covid" is far from zero-cost. ■ People can be kept ignorant of facts far from them for a long time. Misinformation, disinformation, and censorship alike are used for exactly that reason. But people can't be denied the witness of their own lived experiences -- particularly those of imprisonment and hunger. And when a regime tries to keep an iron-clad lid on everything experienced by its people, tens of millions at a time, it inescapably lights a fuse -- maybe long, maybe short -- on its own demise.

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May 4, 2022

Science and Technology Stopping before you cross the line

In built-up urban areas, lanes of opposing traffic on expressways are usually separated by concrete median barriers. Ugly but effective, they keep mishaps from escalating -- which represents a victory for safety. A single-vehicle collision at 60 mph can be terrible, but the consequences are certain to be worse if it cascades into a head-on collision at a closing speed of 120 mph. ■ But concrete barriers are material-intensive, and the vast majority of American highway miles pass through rural areas, where traffic densities are lower than on urban expressways and sloping medians between opposing lanes of traffic offer little suitable space to set down heavy concrete blocks. The increasing adoption of cable barriers for separating traffic on rural highways addresses the problem both more cost-effectively and more suitably to conditions. ■ Median barriers installed on rural highways are credited with slashing head-on crashes by 97%. Considering that 8% of deaths on those types of highways happen in head-on crashes, median barriers installed everywhere would have a multiple-percentage-point effect on those deaths. ■ Rural cable-style median barriers stand up well as a metaphor for a certain ideal of government intervention: Generally speaking, they are high-return investments that impose no active restraint on motorists except when things have already started to go wrong, at which time they serve almost exclusively to keep a bad situation from escalating into a catastrophe. ■ While they cost a mighty sum to install (upwards of $80,000 per mile), their payback value is estimated to be a 16:1 return on investment. That return assumes a value of $4,500,000 on a human life -- an actuarial assumption that actually sounds extremely low if you're putting a price on the life of someone you love. ■ As a standard for gentle government interventions in other areas of life, it would be hard to beat the example of a non-intrusive, nearly fail-safe, 16-to-1 investment. If we could find more of those, even the most ardent libertarian ought to be persuadable.

May 5, 2022

Computers and the Internet The war from the living room

The spontaneous formation of volunteer cyber-armies eager to aid Ukraine in its resistance against Russian aggression seems like a pleasing development on the surface -- people with useful computing skills want to offer assistance to the defensive side in an utterly unjust war. But to our great misfortune (and possible risk), policy and doctrine haven't caught up with the practical development of cyberwarfare, and that gap could create troublesome costs. ■ The history of "irregulars", foreign volunteers, and mercenaries in warfare goes back a long way. What would the lore about the American Revolutionary War be without Lafayette (for the Americans) and the Hessians (who fought for the British)? But in cyberwarfare, people can enter digital combat from their living rooms, and that complicates things. ■ Some degree of confusion is inevitable, considering the blurry contours of cyberwarfare and the strained relationship that the Russian government maintains with the truth. But matters are complicated far more than they should be by the absence of a clear outlet, at least under the US Department of Defense, for engagement in online conflict. ■ Yes, we have a Cyber Command, but we do not have a clear Cyber Force, and that's a problem to be rectified. If we have the resources to create a dedicated Space Force, we absolutely possess the wherewithal to spin up a dedicated, standalone organization for conflict in cyberspace. ■ This isn't to say that cyberwarfare exists entirely apart from the other spheres of conflict. But it behaves differently, it has different consequences, and it is far more permeable by people from the outside. No household owns a littoral combat ship or a heavy-lifting helicopter. But 93% of American adults are online. ■ It's long overdue for the United States to develop a clear, deliberately considered doctrine on the use of cyberwarfare -- who commands it, which "battlefields" are permissible, who qualifies as a combatant, and above all, what rules ought to govern such conflict. ■ And far more than any of the other armed forces, a dedicated Cyber Force would need to have an unusual degree of permeability with the private sector. This goes even beyond letters of marque and reprisal, though that Constitutional mechanism surely has a part to play, too. The people and skill sets we need to develop for this new kind of conflict just aren't the same as who and what we need for an amphibious assault. Different needs call for appropriate structures. ■ But America certainly needs an organized, deliberate approach to not only an active-duty Cyber Force, but also to reserve resources that could be called upon as needed. We need hardened defenses, public-private cooperation (and delineation of roles), and thoughtful doctrines on matters like escalation, deterrence, and rules of engagement. ■ The effort, resources, and focus required should not be left to afterthought status. It's hard to see the requisite focus happening without raising the status of our responses to full branch status. Whether we formalize the structure or not, people are going to "volunteer" for the fight -- so there's no time to waste in seeking to get it well-organized and managed in a way that promotes national interests. ■ Cyber conflict has become a key domain of Russia's war against Ukraine, as well as a valuable tool for the Ukrainian defense. There is absolutely zero reason to believe that cyberspace will ever become less important to warfare, now that the threshold has been crossed. The question is not whether but when the United States will acknowledge the the new era and escalate our posture accordingly.

May 8, 2022

Broadcasting See the whites of their eyes

Whatever the quality of a person's eyesight may be, one of the things they can be sure of seeing from the greatest distance is another person's gaze. The "whites of our eyes" make it possible to see where others are looking from 30 feet away -- even when there would be no way most of us could read a letter of the same size at the same distance. ■ It's not just a thing we share with other people; being able to communicate with our eyes alone helps humans and dogs to coexist. The significance of gaze says a great deal about our evolution as social creatures. We not only depend upon the explicit things that others say to us; we rely on the most basic signals about what has others' attention to interpret what should be important to us, too. ■ Where we point our eyes matters, and so does where we fix our metaphorical gaze. Communication tools that have done a great deal to inform us -- especially those based in video -- offer an unstoppable and overwhelming supply of hints about the things that other people want us to think are important. ■ The talking heads of television always give us their eye contact -- and with it, a false sense of security that we are sharing our attention with what's important. But so do the people who appear on YouTube videos and Snapchat channels. Over and over, anyone can choose to be bombarded by messages that are packed with anthropological persuasion. ■ Knowing and understanding the ways our animal instincts are deliberately triggered by others is vital stuff. We haven't had the tools long enough to develop any useful evolutionary defenses against them. And in a time when lots of events are capable of provoking any of us to action, the least we can do is become aware that our brains are often primed to accept signals we don't even realize are being sent.

May 9, 2022

Science and Technology What to do when there's too much power

Energy storage comes in many forms, some of which can be unexpected. The obvious form, of course, is the battery -- a technology that has made substantial improvements in recent years, but which still has a vast amount of progress left to make. It's becoming possible to store a lot of power when there's lots of space available (Puerto Rico, for instance, is aiming to build a gigawatt of energy storage), but while electric cars and trucks are gaining range on the ground, we still haven't quite gotten many battery-powered planes in the air (though there's reason to believe mass production of electric airplanes could yet happen within the decade). ■ Energy can obviously be stored in the biological equivalent of batteries, as food. And it can be stored as potential energy, which is part of the reason why water utilities typically fill elevated storage tanks overnight, when competing demand for both water and electricity is lower. Setting aside energy as potential chemical energy (in a form like non-perishable foods) or stored mechanical energy (as with water in an elevated tank or behind a dam) is fairly obvious and routine, once one begins to look for it. ■ But the explosive growth in renewable energy presents society with a whole new and intriguing question: How else can we time-shift the consumption of energy so that it can be used not on-demand, but rather, on-supply? The catch to renewable energy is typically that it's supplied when and where Mother Nature wishes to deliver it. We can station photovoltaic cells and wind turbines where the supplies are, on average, the most plentiful. But we can't exactly tell the winds when to blow or the sun when to shine. ■ California, notably, just had a brief incident during which renewable power generation exceeded statewide demand. And Texas is experiencing weird disparities in its power grid that, due to significant wind generation, are pushing wholesale electricity prices into negative territory. ■ Expanding the amount of electricity the country (and, indeed, the world) can generate is very much in our long-term interests as a civilization. The less we have to depend upon carbon-intensive energy in all its forms, the better. But in order to make the best use of electrical generation that occurs outside of prime consumption hours (and when storage may be either uneconomical or physically impossible), we're going to have to find new sources of demand for energy that can be switched on and off when the power is available. One of those outlets for demand could be found in on-demand recycling of materials like steel that require lots of power. ■ Such a recycling scheme is only one of many uses we'll need to identify, if what we want to do is optimize our usage when the supply is plentiful. But the better we do at finding economically productive outlets for off-peak energy supply, the better the rationale will be for expanding the supply of renewable energy. And the better we achieve a market-friendly supply, the better we'll be able to align the interests of markets with the interests of maintaining a healthy environment for human beings in the future.

May 10, 2022

The United States of America Who speaks for us?

There isn't much dispute among historians about the two greatest American Presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have those two spots safely locked up. And most Americans would agree -- even if there are plenty of shortcomings one could identify about each of them -- most indisputably, Washington should have freed the people he held in slavery prior to his own death. ■ It is most interesting that these two Presidents, towering figures that they are in our national lore, left no descendants to the modern day. Washington had no children of his own, and Lincoln's family tree appears to have died off with his great-grandson in 1985. ■ While it's not the only reason to be glad the United States doesn't have a hereditary monarchy, it certainly serves as a fascinating pair of case studies that no genetic heirs to our two most revered Presidents would have been available to the present, even if we had wanted them. This stands in marked contrast to the United Kingdom, where Prince Charles has delivered the "Queen's Speech" in place of his mother, who continues to reign but suffers from health troubles in her advanced age. ■ Serious news outlets in the UK have noted that the presence of the Prince in place of his mother makes the act "constitutionally sound". It sounds quaint, but it really is logically odd to require the physical presence of a body with a blood relationship in order to make a government's actions "constitutional". ■ Periodically, it is worth remembering that when the President of the United States is required to report on the State of the Union, it is the act of a person answering to his sovereign authority -- the American people and the states, who are represented in person by the two houses of Congress. The people and the states delegate their powers to the Congress, which delegates the execution of those powers to the President. No blood relationships are required. ■ And it is a good thing, but one we remember too infrequently. The perpetual expansion of the imperial Presidency too often gives us the impression that the President is some sort of "boss of everybody". It's an impression often formed quite early, since children aren't necessarily equipped to understand popular sovereignty, but are pretty well programmed to recognize an authority figure. ■ But it takes correction and practice to realize that the powers that originate with the people -- not with a sovereign individual -- and that those powers are impossible to carry out well and faithfully without responsibility. If things go wrong here, it is our own fault. Even if we wanted them, there are no fortunate offspring of our greatest Presidents available to save us. It is only up to us, all by ourselves.

May 11, 2022

News Liberalism on the march

Mass political movements that center on an individual are almost always noxious. While a politician usually has to demonstrate some kind of personal charisma in order to win votes, it is for very good reason that the phrase "cult of personality" is an epithet (and a pretty catchy song by Living Colour). Any thoughtful examination of a real personality cult reveals enormous potential (if not propensity) for abuse and a fundamental impermanence. All charismatic leaders must eventually pass. ■ But the basic safeguard against any such personality-driven movement is a functional system of representative government in which ideas and policies take center stage, rather than especially dynamic individuals. One of the main difficulties lies in branding what that is. Historically, that idea has been called "classical liberalism", or simply "liberalism". ■ The misapplication of the word to mean "left of center" in the United States has gone on so long that the word is badly tarnished; people who are most accurately described as "right-liberals" (like Churchill, Hayek, and Friedman) would have to explain what exactly their "liberalism" means to a modern American audience. And in the words attributed to Ronald Reagan, "If you're explaining, you're losing." ■ The word "liberal" has been morphed into an epithet from the left, as well. Groups like the Adam Smith Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute have adopted the word "neoliberal" as, basically, a freshened adaptation of classical liberalism. And in return, they have been pilloried by leftists as "disenfranchisers, failures, and elitists. ■ To defend the tenets of liberalism (whether neo- or classical) is to accept a certain dissatisfaction: If matters are fairly decided among lots of people with competing interests, nobody ever really gets everything that they want. ■ And, contrary to more utopian visions of how the world works, from communists to radical traditionalists, the liberal perspective makes no assumption that there is some perfect end in mind. Old problems will sometimes come to unsatisfactory conclusions, others will linger while experimentation seeks an answer that works, and new problems will emerge as both society and technology change. ■ That's a pretty difficult vision to sell on the basis of outcomes, but the classical sense of liberalism is tethered to the principle that the process matters as much as the outcomes, if not more so. ■ That's why someone of a liberal temperament is sure to be offended at how China has stripped Hong Kong of its self-government, turning over the election of the Chief Executive (in a place with 7.5 million people) to the votes of a specially-selected class of Communist-approved "patriots" who could fit inside the suites at a game of the Minnesota Twins. The resulting Chief Executive could be as gifted a politician as Abraham Lincoln himself, and the contamination of the process would still outweigh any good resulting from the outcome. ■ It may well be that liberalism simply has to be rebranded periodically, while holding tight to the tenets that make it functional. That appears to be the lesson of France's En Marche, a young movement/party that has successfully rebuffed an anti-liberal far-right when conventional parties could not. Perhaps liberal movements can only be sustained by periodic turnover and replacement, or by focusing on targeted outcomes and systemic reforms that can appeal to voters who get the itch to replace the status quo. ■ If processes matter fundamentally even more than outcomes, then it might just be that the only way to consistently keep a classically liberal system on the march is to be willing to engage in periodic metamorphosis just to stay sufficiently fresh. The fundamental principles remain recognizable, no matter what label we put on them.

May 13, 2022

Business and Finance Who is the greater fool?

Considerable attention has been paid to the meltdown in cryptocurrency markets, which have succumbed to a combination of contagious panic and empty fundamentals. ■ As a general principle, when people discuss money or investments using the language of mysticism, cloaking their discussions in priestly words, that's a very good sign that they're up to no good. When they then turn to recruiting a mass audience -- as cryptocurrencies did with Super Bowl advertising -- the dispassionate observer can be virtually certain that the situation is about to turn ugly. ■ Extremely intelligent money-minded people like Milton and Rose Friedman, Jack Bogle, and Warren Buffett have used clear, plain language to try to explain economics, finance, and investing in terms that make sense at about an 8th grade level. Buffett's famous annual letters are written with smart but non-specialist readers in mind. The people who seek to explain these important matters clearly tend to be on the side of good. ■ On the other side are the people who suggest mystical nonsense -- like the idea that you can tell when to buy stocks by reading charts as if divining the entrails of a chicken, or who write patent gibberish about cryptocoins, like this: "The price stabilization mechanism is absorbing UST supply (over 10% of total supply), but the cost of absorbing so much stablecoins at the same time has stretched out the on-chain swap spread to 40%, and Luna price has diminished dramatically absorbing the arbs." ■ Money can be complicated, to be certain. But exchange is also one of the most basic forms of human behavior. Nobody who seeks to make investing seem more complicated or awash in mystery is really on your side. There are certainly cases in which cryptocurrencies have their merits, and perhaps we will see an evolution that will clear the brush of con artists and thieves. But at least for the future we can currently see, the market is contaminated by opportunists, speculators, and those who have much to gain by finding greater fools to enter the game.

May 15, 2022

Computers and the Internet Big Ben's Twitter bongs

A Twitter account exists for the sole purpose of tweeting, on the hour, the word "BONG" the number of times for the representative hour of the day or night, every hour. In one sense, it is a profoundly silly automated account -- almost more a performance of Dada art than anything else. After all, anyone with access to Twitter is already looking at a device that tells at a glance what time it is, and anyone who really needs a precise hourly time check can tune to the BBC World Service for the pips. ■ Whether art or nonsense, the @Big_Ben_Clock account serves up an interesting reminder that it's much too easy to lose touch with periodicity in this day and age. ■ Newspapers are abandoning print editions all over the place. The nightly network news competes with full-time cable news channels and online streaming networks. Radio is in a death match with podcasts and on-demand music-streaming services like Spotify. ■ Media in particular are far less periodic than they once were, but so are many other facets of life. And the pandemic didn't help things one bit. Working from home, having kids attend virtual school, and having no place to go basically mashed the concepts of "office hours" and "time off". ■ Nature still enforces plenty of periods on us, but it's still important to impose them on ourselves. It's a parallel to the rule that "If everything's important, then nothing is": If everything is happening right now, then nothing is. Nobody has the bandwidth for it. ■ So, as silly as it may seem, people should probably follow accounts like @Big_Ben_Clock, if only to be reminded that we should all try to assert a little more human-made periodicity in our worlds -- even if it's purely whimsical. In the poetic words of Ecclesiastes 3:1, "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." But that doesn't have to mean it's always happening, all at once.

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May 16, 2022

Science and Technology Look! Up in the sky! It's a disappearing Moon!

Conventionally, when a person argues against their own self-interest, the audience can take it as a sign that they're getting a useful, unvarnished truth from someone doing the honorable thing. If a salesperson at a car dealership were to say, "Really, don't bother paying for our extended warranty -- if something's going to go wrong, it's either going to happen early in the standard warranty period or it won't happen until long after all the coverage has expired anyway", then the buyer would be well within reason to take the advice without challenging it. After all, anyone operating under the general rule of "caveat emptor" should assume that any upselling (including for an extended warranty) is in the financial interest of the person doing the selling. ■ But sometimes people argue against their own self-interest and the reason is nothing but a head-scratcher. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has become one of the most widely-recognized public-facing authorities on space via his engagement with popular culture and social media, responded to the late-weekend lunar eclipse with a couple of comments about the science of the event. ■ Then he turned on himself with, "Lunar eclipses are so un-spectacular that if nobody told you what was happening to the Moon you'd probably not notice at all. Just sayin'." and "Lunar eclipses occur on average every two or three years and are visible to all the billions of people who can see the Moon when it happens. So, contrary to what you may have been told, lunar eclipses are not rare." ■ What he wrote was, of course, strictly true: Lunar eclipses aren't effectively all that different from the new moon, and total lunar eclipses do happen every couple of years. But those are odd arguments to make against one's own interest. ■ If the imagery of the Pale Blue Dot means anything to us as humans, it ought to be as a reminder that all of our problems on this seemingly big world are merely background noise amid an inconceivably vast universe. And as a matter of connecting their complex math and mysterious cosmological queries with the pedestrian world, astrophysicists and their friends ought to talk up every reasonable opportunity to get people to pause and stare for a few minutes at the heavens. ■ "Every two or three years" is significant enough a period -- it's longer than the stretch between Olympic Games or elections for the House of Representatives. And lots of things might go unnoticed "if nobody told you what was happening" -- such is the majesty of human knowledge that we can and should tell each other when interesting things are happening, especially if they are easy to miss. ■ Spend enough time sharing your thoughts on social media, and you're bound to drop a real clunker on your audience. That's fairly inevitable. But for an obviously magnificently intelligent person, it certainly seems like a weirdly unforced error for a space promoter to knock down an event that gets people to look up at the skies for a predictable, easy reward that can be observed with the naked eye and photographed with ease. Let a win be a win! Just sayin'.

May 17, 2022

Business and Finance A matter of corporate principle

The passion some people bring to questions of how businesses are operated borders on the religious in fervor. When we see how much people seem to care about the conduct of businesses, it's quite a wonder that there aren't more organizations dedicated to operating businesses of their own under more outspoken mission statements. ■ Not mission statements of the bland style generated during exercises like corporate retreats, but actual statements of purpose -- like a recitation of priorities whose achievement is considered more important than a marginal dollar of profits. There is nothing that stands in the way of people forming cooperatives or other mutualized forms of business that would permit them to operate according to lofty principles. ■ Passionate opinions surface about all kinds of companies and for all sorts of reasons. Right now, it's easy to stumble across loud debates about whether Elon Musk should be allowed to buy Twitter, whether the production of baby formula should be concentrated among a small number of producers, or whether video-game makers should have corporate policies regarding abortion. ■ Many, if not most, of these subjects regard matters of prudential opinion. They are almost never as self-evident as the memes would have the public believe. And yet, lots of people very loudly proclaim their certainty in one direction or another, and many of them insist that government intervention of one form or another is necessary, in order to reconcile private-sector business behavior with particular public-policy desires. ■ If these subjects (and many others) matter enough to justify using the force of law to intervene in private business beyond the scope of ordinary regulations like anti-trust, then surely they matter enough that we should expect people to put their money where their mouths are. ■ The simplest method is by ordinary shareholder activism, a tool used sparingly (and often no more than merely for show) but often underrated as a means of using democracy within the economic system. When institutional investors like CalPERS and union trust funds introduce shareholder motions, they count on leveraging only a sliver of ownership in a company into much larger effects on how the business operates. ■ But there are other methods, too. Anyone who is a member of REI or who holds an insurance policy from State Farm is involved in a form of cooperative or mutualistic ownership, and there is no reason whatsoever that other companies couldn't be operated under the same ownership principles. Third-way forms of ownership (those that are neither strictly private-for-shareholder-profit, nor strictly public), organized with certain democratic principles embedded in their charters, could be used to enter into all kinds of industries if people were willing to match their own fervor about how companies ought to be run with some startup capital. ■ And then there is the lingering proof that a single person can revolutionize how investments are made: Jack Bogle, whose feelings about how money ought to be managed were so strong that he created the truly low-cost "mutual" fund industry with the founding of Vanguard. From time to time, certain "ethical investing" funds gain a share of the public's attention, but if more people were really serious about the way things ought to be, principle-driven investing would be far more common and would reflect more of the passions so often visible online (and on picket lines). ■ There is no shortage of imagination to the way that people seem capable of expressing how they want to see businesses behave. It remains a mystery why equal imagination isn't invested into organizing businesses around shared sets of principles. The LDS Church has done it with Deseret Management Corporation -- "a global operating company, managing for-profit entities affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [...] under a unified mission". Nothing practical should stand in the way of people with other "unified missions" from using business much the same.

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May 18, 2022

Business and Finance Don't touch that dial

While India's per-capita GDP of $6,100 doesn't make it a wealthy country, it does place the country squarely in what the World Bank defines as the global middle class. And it's on a strong upward trend. ■ One of the characteristics of a middle-class country is that the broader public possesses the resources to set money aside for investment. And that is reflected in the news that tens of millions of individual trading accounts were opened there in 2021. Such broadening of access to the economy is generally a good thing: Capitalism can do a lot of good when it's democratized. ■ But it's also a familiar tale that any mass movement runs the risk of attracting people who exploit the knowledge gap between their own expertise and that of a flood of novices. Enthusiasm can overtake education and that can have terrible consequences for those who get swept up. America's own experiences with the 1990s tech bubble and the current cryptocurrency boom are just two good examples. ■ Thus it may be worthy to applaud the approach adopted by Zerodha, one of the country's online brokerage firms. Instead of enticing customers to engage in frenetic trading, they're actually trying to use design features to make users slow down and take a more patient approach to investing. ■ Zerodha observes that it is in their own best interest to cool investors' passions so that they don't find themselves turned off by big, traumatic mistakes early in an investing experience. And good for them. ■ What's in a company's best interests in the short term is often not the same as what will serve it best in the long term. The same goes for individuals, and the same goes for countries, too. Patience is too often in short supply, so we shouldn't hesitate to cheer for the long term. The lure of a market with more than a billion potential customers must be great. The patience to try to avoid creating a billion sad stories is something commendable.

May 20, 2022

News That's not a threat, it's a promise

The abrupt and nearly universal adoption of video calls, for everything from visits with Grandma to annual shareholder meetings, was one of many unexpected changes imposed on the world by the quarantine behaviors of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever inertia once obstructed those calls is now merely a distant memory. ■ The erasure of novelty means that it no longer seems logistically strange for the wartime president of a nation of 44 million people to make a live video appearance at the Cannes film festival. ■ Logistically, the appearance may not be surprising, but it was yet another clever deployment of public diplomacy by Ukraine's government. The last thing they can afford is for their supporters to let their sympathies succumb to war fatigue. And so Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes his bid to remain relevant: "Will cinema keep quiet, or will it speak up? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, once again, everything depends on our unity. Can cinema stay outside of this unity?" ■ Just prior to his address to the audience at Cannes, Zelenskyy offered a warning to the people of Russia -- one that may sound like propaganda, but which actually comes from a deeply humanistic place, worthy of the ovation he received at the film festival. He warned: "[A]ll this brutality of the occupiers, which Ukraine is experiencing every day, will only lead to the fact that Russian surviving soldiers will bring this evil back to Russia. They will bring it back because they will retreat." ■ A familiar phrase goes, "That's not a threat. It's a promise." In this case, it's not a forecast, it's a guarantee. The grotesque sociopathies on display by Russian forces in Ukraine -- including hideous war crimes against innocent children -- didn't emerge out of nowhere. And they absolutely will not disappear just because those fighters have been pushed out of the country they invaded. They will return home, and some of them will take their savagery with them. ■ For all of the diplomatic, legal, and humanitarian reasons that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was already unsound and indefensible, this one of which Zelenskyy warns is an indisputable reason that it is squarely contrary to Russia's long-term self interest. Just as a peaceful civil society should always be concerned about harboring large numbers of young people with nothing useful to do, a nation that has demonstrated itself demonstrated incapable of civil behavior on the global scale ought to be doubly concerned about large numbers of barbarians coming home -- with a taste for evil, and nothing productive to do.

May 22, 2022

Agriculture Pop-up farming

With reputable news outlets like The Economist warning of threats to the world's food supply ("Ukraine's exports of grain and oilseeds have mostly stopped and Russia's are threatened. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories.") and a domestic production shortage in the United States precipitating the need for an airlift of 35 tons of baby formula from Europe, we ought to be reminded that the world depends upon a food supply that is perpetually susceptible not only to human mistakes and bad choices, but to natural catastrophes well beyond mortal control. It is too far back to remain in popular memory today, but the eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora in 1815 led to crop failures in Europe the following year -- making 1816 the year without a summer". ■ It would seem likely that one of the most pro-social investments that could be made on a global scale would come from developing a ready-made system for producing lots of food calories in a short period of time. We don't have the Star Trek food synthesizer at our disposal (at least, not yet), but it wouldn't exceed our technical capacities to develop solutions like pre-built vertical farms, made ready for rapid deployment. ■ Basic, compact, fast-growing foodstuffs with widespread dietary acceptance around the globe -- like soybeans and potatoes -- can and probably ought to be readied for speedy production in containerized systems to which we could literally "just add water" in order to get them growing. Soybeans can be harvested in 45 to 65 days from planting, and potatoes can be harvested in 50 to 55 days. That's quick enough that emergency food supplies can be used to bridge the gap in a place encountering a food crisis. ■ Most hunger emergencies can actually be traced to human intervention -- like the people starving in Ethiopia because food is being used as a weapon of war. Those problems need direct attention, too -- but it is attention of a different sort. A world that is serious about stopping war crimes must be extremely serious about keeping starvation from being used as a weapon. ■ But our continued susceptibility to calamities of nature and of the evil choices of madmen should compel us to use our ever-advancing technological tools to come up with answers. ■ In essence, we should be able to effectively flip a switch and soon after have a basic food supply with protein and essential nutrients available during any season of the year. Storage alone isn't enough -- not with a country like Russia targeting grain elevators in a truly vile and wicked campaign. The world needs to take seriously the need for rapid production, too; thus, the need for approaches like compact vertical farms that can operate under tight conditions with the aid of artificial light. ■ So far, that kind of technology has largely been niche-focused, serving the demand for things like organic salad greens in cities. ■ But the same technology can be -- and needs to be -- highly scalable, so that lots of food can be produced quite nearly on-demand. And it can be used to improve the nutritional value of what is raised. These are technologies with great promise. ■ We wouldn't want to do anything to displace or impoverish existing agricultural economies, of course. But we also need a "Break glass in case of emergency" kind of answer. The devastating case of Ukraine's food supply amid the Kremlin's reprehensible war of choice is just such an emergency that demonstrates why.

May 23, 2022

Iowa Americans know when to knock down the old and put up the new

For many years, a quaint local hardware store stood in an old brick building at the corner of East 30th and Walnut in Des Moines -- just to the west of the Iowa State Fairgrounds. The fittingly-named Fairground Hardware closed in 2018 and the building has stood vacant ever since. ■ Despite last-ditch efforts by some to try to salvage the vacant building by getting it named as a landmark, the building is now merely a fresh pile of rubble. ■ To cheer its demolition isn't an act of malice -- it's merely the American thing to do. Americans know, far better than those in many other cultures, when to tear down the old and put up the new. This distinguishes us from, for example, the British affinity for old stones, prominently advocated by Prince Charles and his fetish for "traditional" buildings. ■ There will always be landmarks worth treasuring, to be sure. But a dynamic economy -- and a dynamic society -- need to be unafraid to demolish the old when there is more value to be had in starting anew. There is no shame in that. In fact, it deserves to be a point of honor. ■ Certain things are worth keeping in good condition, and others are well worth the investment to rehabilitate. But those things only hold true if it is possible to achieve a higher level of value without spending more than value that would be preserved. Lots of buildings grow old, but only a few are authentically worth preserving at high cost. And even then, a place must justify itself to the present to be worth preserving from the past. ■ The Fairgrounds are busy much of the year, and it's likely that something new in the spot now occupied by a demolished pile of bricks will add new value to the area. There is only one hotel adjacent to the Fairgrounds, and only a couple of spots for dining and retail. ■ When something new goes in, it will have to pass the owner's test of profitability, and that means a likely infusion of vitality into the area. That's good for the neighborhood, good for the property tax base of the city, and almost certainly good for the symbiosis of the Fairgrounds. Maybe it will even contain a few token bricks from the old building. But even if it does not, we shouldn't mourn the disposal of a dilapidated old building. The future doesn't have to live in the habitats of the past.

May 24, 2022

News The roots of bigotry

Most people become the heroes of the tales they tell about themselves. This is a natural phenomenon, since almost nobody engages in life deliberately trying to become a villain. But the risk is great that any one of us could become an unwitting monster unless we are careful to check ourselves. ■ Benjamin Franklin once wrote that "There is much difference between imitating a good man, and counterfeiting him." We rely heavily on emulation as human beings. In part, we emulate because we are social creatures who need the influence of others. We also do it because experience can be costly. There is no more efficient substitute for learning painful first-hand lessons than learning them from the experiences of others. ■ But the difference between worthy imitation and despicable counterfeit probably lies in being able to step outside the experience and examine it from another perspective -- triangulating a perspective on one's own behavior. Finding that basis for triangulation requires the ability not just to think about one's self, nor about the standard one may be trying to emulate, but also about the perspective of someone we might not want to be at all. ■ This can be hard to do. It is especially hard for those people who are hardened into thinking that their identities as individuals are derived from their membership in a group. Groupthink can be a powerful force, and the coalition instinct (often better-known as tribalism) is, for many, an easy substitute for critical reflection. ■ Finding that third perspective, though, is essential. And so is having sufficient respect for the ideas that there are, in fact, truths about the world, and that nobody (and no group) has a monopoly on those truths. We all make mistakes, and we all need guidance and advice. ■ The root of all hatreds and all xenophobia is the failure to authentically believe that there are truths to be discovered from those third perspectives. In Federalist Paper No. 40, James Madison offered this wisdom: "The prudent inquiry, in all cases, ought surely to be, not so much from whom the advice comes, as whether the advice be good." ■ Madison had it exactly right. Hatred and bigotry can't really be legislated out of existence. They are diminished only when people voluntarily engage in that "prudent inquiry" -- by assuming that it is more important to find the best available advice about all things in life, wherever that advice originates, than to maintain some imaginary purity of belief that goes unchallenged from the outside. We all have much to gain by imitating good people.

May 25, 2022

News The slow path to victory

More often than we impatient human beings would like, it takes longer to fix what is broken than it takes to do the breaking. Three months ago, Russia started a war by invading Ukraine. The Ukrainians have resisted far longer than many of the early projections, but that doesn't mean the three months that have passed have been anything short of grueling, devastating, and heartbreaking. While the fighting continues, even the Ukrainian government knows that only negotiations will bring the fighting to a conclusion. ■ Even then, there will be a great deal left to repair. A country will need to be rebuilt. War crimes will need to be prosecuted. And, as the Secretary General of NATO has remarked, "The war in Ukraine demonstrates how economic relations with authoritarian regimes can create vulnerabilities." Those vulnerabilities -- not just with Russia -- will need to be repaired. There will have to be both a will to conduct those repairs and a sustained campaign to remind millions of voters across the many NATO member countries why the costs will be worth bearing. ■ If human beings weren't so predisposed to forgetting pain, then solving long-term issues would be far easier. But we have to be able to let time heal all wounds, or else life itself might become unbearable. It's a good thing we can forget or at least diminish the memory of pain, at least individually -- otherwise, the physical pain of childbirth might become a bigger barrier to reproducing the species. ■ But when it comes to big-picture issues -- the things that matter to entire cultures or entire countries -- our instinct to forget pain can keep us from achieving the slow, long-term work to do the necessary fixing of the broken parts of our world. There may be no good easy answers. But we can't escape the responsibility to build up a reservoir of patience to undertake (and stick with) the fixing. Malicious actors count on us to forget.

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May 27, 2022

Business and Finance Baby formula and friendship

In an effort to help alleviate the serious baby-formula shortage affecting the United States, Danone is substantially increasing production at its plant in France to provide more for export to the US. Nestle has been shipping product from the Netherlands and Switzerland. Work is being done to obtain more from Mexico, too. ■ The philosopher Epictetus wrote, "[W]hich would you rather have, a sum of money or a faithful and honorable friend?" His question was posed to the individual, but it's a sensible question to pose for a country, as well. ■ China's government has been using its Belt-and-Road Initiative to expand its national capacity to place other countries in a client-state relationship. It's basically a form of mercantilism: Using access to outlying territories to benefit the economy of the more powerful state. ■ And it is not altogether far from the relationship at least a few people have tried to envision for the United States, too: One in which all trade agreements are stacked to benefit us, with little or no regard for the other parties in the relationship. ■ But relationships -- whether interpersonal or international -- are better based upon friendship, mutuality, and finding more total good for all parties involved. ■ In this case, it's entirely possible that producers in countries like the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and Mexico would have produced more baby formula for export to any other country, too, purely for humanitarian reasons. (And the companies involved will undoubtedly make profits from the sale.) But it certainly cannot hurt the incentive for other nations to offer help that the United States has held historically good relationships with them -- thus France can come to America's rescue today as part of a centuries-old tradition of mutual aid. ■ We should remember these events, particularly the next time trade agreements and international cooperation are put to the test in our domestic politics. In the short run, a powerful country can leverage its power to extract money and resources from others. ■ It might even feel good (to some) to throw around that weight for a while. But in the long run -- including over a matter of many generations -- it is far better to build up trust and stand behind partnerships. Even the mighty can find themselves needing a hand from time to time. To borrow a line from Aesop, kindness is never wasted. Partners are better to have than vassals.

May 29, 2022

Broadcasting You've been digitized

Reasonable minds can disagree over whether it is prudent for any country to have an expansive broadcasting outlet funded at taxpayer expense. Most wealthy countries do, but few are as globally recognizable as the BBC. But even a high profile doesn't make a project immune to financial realities. ■ Facing a reported £1.4 billion budget shortfall, the BBC is trying to figure out how to make things work on a tighter budget. And the organization's chief says the central element in the BBC's evolution is to become "digital-first". ■ It's a phrase with a lot of wear on the tires already, but many conventional media outlets have struggled with the transition. Tim Davie, though, says "from today we are going to move decisively to a digital-first BBC". They're going to spend money to make the transition happen -- and the change will affect the nature of the product itself. ■ As Davie put it, "Every part of our news output will now be judged not just on linear performance but streamed delivery." Some conventional broadcast services will be moved strictly online. That will include both television and radio services. ■ For the BBC to make such a move establishes a pretty strong permission structure for much of the rest of the world's media to do the same, if they haven't already. The transition will continue to be bumpy in a lot of places, and the impact on media generally (and news coverage in particular) will have a lot of unforeseen consequences, to be certain. But the world's audiences should consider the floodgates to digital now wide-open.

May 30, 2022

The United States of America Knowledge and Memorial Day

The continued professionalization of the armed forces of the United States has the dual effects of making combat more survivable for most American servicemembers, and of reducing the number of those servicemembers required to conduct warfare. It is almost impossible to imagine repeating the scale of D-Day, involving 160,000 Allied troops and leading to at least 2,500 American fatalities. This is surely a good thing for America and its people. ■ It will always be fitting to honor Memorial Day through symbolic acts like lowering the flag, participating in memorial services, and placing flags in cemeteries. But we owe it to the honored war dead, and to those living servicemembers whose safe return is perpetually on the minds of their families, to match the professionalism of the armed forces with an increased professionalism of the voting public. ■ Just as increasing sophistication requires more outreach and education for any other profession or vocation to explain itself to the world, the same is true for the armed forces. We maintain -- wisely -- civilian control over the military, but as has been well-documented by thoughtful analysts, a democratic society that commits lives to warfare needs to be consistently interested in why it does so, how the decisions are made, and who it entrusts with great power. ■ Memorial Day must be more than just the first holiday of summer. But it should also be more than just a symbolic event that hallows past glories. It should be a day for civilians to consider their own military education. There are countless great memoirs of war, recommended reading lists, intelligent podcasts, and thoughtful commentators to follow -- including outspoken, intelligent flag officers who value outreach to the public. ■ We best honor the valiant sacrifices of the past by making sure that we, as citizen-voters and thus those ultimately responsible for the current and future exercise of force, aren't satisfied with having just a token appreciation for what is ultimately entrusted to our choices. As James Mattis said of himself as a commander, "I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn't waste their lives because I didn't have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at the least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefield." That same duty to read and learn so as to use force prudently rests on the shoulders of all of us.

May 31, 2022

Science and Technology Look! Up in the sky! It's a train!

It is easy to forget or simply overlook the fact that the United States has only a fraction of the population density of many of the countries we consider our peers and near-peers in the advanced industrialized world. Canada and Australia are both big and sparsely-populated, but Germany has more than six times as many people per square mile as the United States, the UK has more than seven, and Japan has more than nine. ■ The difference in density makes a big difference to many of our policy choices. Approaches to environmental protection, crime prevention, and housing are all influenced by density. But even more visible is the effect on how we choose to establish our transportation infrastructure. The beloved American open road would be a lot less open and would hold a lot less allure if there were 5 or 10 times more drivers per mile of roadway. ■ The accelerating adoption of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles promises to let us concentrate more vehicles on the roadway at a higher density and with much greater safety than has been possible up until the present. And there is good reason to believe that we could be approaching the advent of autonomous aircraft -- in effect, flying buses, if not quite flying cars -- that could also transport people without requiring live pilots to do the work. ■ Coupling these technologies with improved electrification could well mean that many of the traditional incentives to build other forms of high-density mass transportation may go by the wayside. But there remain people who are very enthusiastic about the idea of getting America to match its peer countries with the development of high-speed rail access, and they include the Secretary of Transportation. ■ If the United States were ever to have a high-speed rail network that were national and continental in scale (rather than localized or regionalized, like the Acela in the Northeast or a hypothetical Pacific Northwest network), then there is really only one way to see it coming about: That would be for a brand-new high-speed rail network to be overlaid directly on top of the existing Interstate highway system. ■ To achieve this would require considerable ingenuity. In most places, it would be wildly impractical to try to place rail lines either in the median between lanes of opposing traffic or along the shoulders -- at least, impossible at grade level. Which means that the only plausible scenario is for such a train system to be elevated above the roadways, perhaps by quite a lot. ■ This scenario could open the door to a potential strategic advantage that such a rail network might have over both road and air transport. It is possible to imagine a suspended monorail system with an enclosed rail configuration. The enclosure would provide intrinsic weather protection, making the trains useful for all-weather, high-speed transportation; a system that, if designed robustly, may not be subject to the same constraints as either aircraft or road vehicles. ■ The heights required to provide smooth service over the many bridges that cross the Interstate highway system might at first seem like a major obstacle. But in many places, motorists have already become familiar with flyover or stack interchanges, which have replaced the traditional cloverleaf design for many high-speed intersections. ■ As we have seen roadways get stacked two and three levels tall, we start to engage the possibility of imagining an elevated rail network reaching just as high -- but with far less concrete and without the risk of spinouts in icy conditions. Support pedestals could be installed in the medians of interstate highways, which conveniently have already been engineered not only for the necessities of matters like drainage, but also for accommodating relatively high-speed traffic. ■ The idea certainly would take some getting used to, and a massive amount of financial investment. Those those two factors alone make it relatively unlikely to ever come to fruition. But proponents of high-speed rail are a tenacious lot, and it's possible to see the right combination of advocacy mixed with political enthusiasm for infrastructure investment converging to make it happen. And if, for example, such an elevated rail system were able to, for instance, double the speeds achieved by vehicles on interstate highways, while performing safely during weather conditions that would ground aircraft or impede road traffic, then all-weather reliability may in fact be the killer application for high-speed rail.

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June 1, 2022

News Just do it

"Americans learn only from catastrophes and not from experience." A more suitable observation on the contemporary world would be hard to find. Yet those are the 109-year-old words of Theodore Roosevelt. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. ■ When competitions arise in most areas of life, the safest wager is not necessarily on the side with the most resources or the best starting position, but rather with the side that learns fastest. The failure to aggregate information, to learn from mistakes, and to adapt to threats and opportunities alike is the surest way to turn a position of strength into a pile of failure. Examples range from the Allied victory in World War II to the triumphant rise of Japanese automakers (after a much-delayed start). To learn quickly and deliberately is a virtue. ■ But learning without having to be compelled by disaster is also a virtue. It requires both humility and initiative to look at the way things are done and ask, "What are we missing? What should we improve? What holds us back?" ■ Too often, we really do wait for catastrophe: A pandemic, a barbaric war of aggression, a murder in an elementary school. When we wait to learn from disaster, too often we depend upon emotions to carry the day -- motivating us to respond, then providing the sustaining motivation to keep going until something productive is done. ■ We would be much wiser to learn not by waiting for catastrophe to come knocking, but to perform the kind of honest self-criticism that says we can do better without having a fire lit beneath us. Teddy Roosevelt was also fond of the aphorism, "Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are." ■ That is both rational and optimistic advice. While it seems like it sets a ceiling on what should be expected of people (that is, we should not be expected to act as superhumans beyond our capacities and resources), it can equally be read as an admonition not to sit around waiting to learn from catastrophe. The verb is "do", not "wait". The real measure of who we are as a society comes not from how we respond when things go terribly wrong, but from how hard we try to learn when everything looks like it's going right.

June 4, 2022

News June 4th means something to us all

Every June, everyone who has the freedom to do so should watch the riveting documentary "The Tank Man". It is not only one of the best stand-alone episodes of "Frontline" ever broadcast, it is an exceptional reminder of two powerful forces that shape the modern world. ■ The first is the shocking lengths to which authoritarians and their hangers-on will go to hold power over other people. "The Tank Man" documents the extraordinary measures used by the Chinese government to expel pro-democracy protesters from Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Thousands of people were killed, according to the secret estimates of China's own government. ■ And nothing has really changed in the more than 30 years since: 1.4 billion people still live under a wretched Communist regime that tolerates no meaningful dissent, no real competition for the consent of the governed, and no real individual liberty -- even for those who live abroad. The regime controls through fear, not through the willful choice of the people. ■ Yet the second force of which we are reminded by "The Tank Man" is human nature knows it is meant to be free. Liberty isn't an artificial construct; it is the natural order of things, and any system that uses might to interfere with the expression of liberty is inherently wrong. Individual liberty must be well-ordered, of course, because to leave things to a free-for-all would invariably lead to anarchy -- which in turn leads to the imposition of power by force. ■ But with the supporting help of the rule of law, the fundamental and natural longing for liberty results in the dignity of the individual. Even today, that remains a force so powerful that the Chinese regime cannot even tolerate a candlelight vigil in memory of lives lost 33 years ago. Thousands of lives, symbolized awe-inspiringly by one individual who stood in the way of a tank and whose personal fate remains a mystery. ■ That one "tank man" is all humankind. No matter how hard authoritarians try to quash dissent and hide the truth, every human heart knows the truth -- that freedom is its birthright and its dignity cannot be rightly denied.

June 5, 2022

News It's been an honor

It takes a lot of guts to speak out against a political regime that is notorious for dispatching its dissidents and sending activists to prison, so surely it must have taken some fortitude for Boris Bondarev to have resigned his post at the Russian mission to the United Nations in Geneva with an open letter condemning "the aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine". ■ Acts of dignified behavior in the face of meaningful personal or reputational risk are worth praising. We ought to praise them in real-time, and we ought to continue to praise them long after the fact. The memory of honorable acts in the past -- like attorney Joseph Welch eviscerating Senator Joe McCarthy with his legendary demand, "Have you no sense of decency?", or of Dwight Eisenhower's insistence that any failure on D-Day was his responsibility alone -- reassures people in the present that taking the honorable path will earn them the right place in history. ■ This perspective on honor is different from silly codes of honor like the one that gave dueling a place in history (and prematurely deprived the young United States of the benefit of the counsel of Alexander Hamilton before he had even reached the age of 50). ■ Honor is earned in the present, but an honorable reputation often doesn't truly pay off until long after death. We revere Abraham Lincoln in the present, but nearly 45% of the popular vote went against him in 1864. Tens of thousands of people are remembered today as the Righteous Among Nations for saving lives during the Holocaust, but many were themselves imprisoned or executed for their acts. ■ That is why we have to learn thoroughly and expansively about history, paying special attention to commemorate the honorable acts that weren't rewarded in their own times. Likewise, we should curse (and conscribe to the dustbin of history) the names of those who sought power or praise in their day by committing sinful acts against others -- Che Guevara, for instance, was a torturer who belongs anywhere but on a t-shirt. ■ But it also means that as we learn from history, we ought to highlight the honorable acts we see in the present. And using a worldwide platform to speak against an unjustifiable war is just such an act of real honor.

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June 6, 2022

News What's in a lofty name for a hamlet?

When the Internet was new, a sort of digital gold rush took place as companies and individuals raced to stake their claims to single-word domain names. The sagas that unfolded around self-explanatory names like Pets.com were often legendary, and the mad rush also explains why we still misspell an unfathomably large number (googol) to find most of the world's search results. (And, to be fair, Google remains a better name than BackRub.) ■ The thing about domain names, though, is that they are transferable. People have made lots of money through domain squatting or simply capturing clever names before they occur to others, then putting up a "for sale" sign. ■ That .com land rush had a predecessor that doesn't often come to modern attention, though perhaps it should: The far more permanent choice of a municipal name. ■ It should come as no surprise that almost a hundred places in the United States adopted some version of the name "Washington". There are plenty of other well-worn aspirational names, too, like Springfield, Fairview, and Newport. ■ For obvious reasons, a municipal name can only be used once in any state -- so claiming a good name for a town is a lot like snapping up an attractive domain name ending in ".com", rather than one of the lesser top-level domains. And yet, there seems to be very little connection between the aspirational quality of a name and the ultimate disposition of the city. Most of the largest American cities arrived at their names organically (that is, from local geographic place names) rather than through what would sound good to newcomers. ■ Perhaps that is too bad. The USGS says, for instance, that 167 American places take some version of the name "Seneca" -- a worthy choice, especially if it encourages residents to emulate Lucius Seneca (author of such wisdom as "You should close your ears against evil talk, and right at the outset, too; for when such talk has gained an entrance and the words are admitted and are in our minds, they become more shameless"). Yet no single town named for Seneca has more than 9,000 residents. The aspirational name seems not to have paid off. ■ While municipal names can be changed, they certainly aren't traded as easily as domain names. So while certain errors and unfulfilled ambitions of the early dot-com era have been rectified with time, the same can't be said of places that gave themselves names that stirred the hearts of civic boosters but never lived up to their promise. Most probably never will -- but then again, there may be those who simply reply, "Not just yet".

June 7, 2022

The United States of America What democracy looks like

News reports periodically cover protests in which an assembled crowd chants "This is what democracy looks like". While a street protest is indeed an expression of the democratic right to peaceable assembly enshrined in the First Amendment, a protest isn't really what democracy looks like. It actually looks a great deal like the humble "I Voted" sticker. ■ When one pauses to consider the long and sometimes perilous path to universal adult suffrage in America, that sticker means quite a lot. It stands in for immeasurable persistence extracted in literal blood, toil, tears, and sweat. And it stands in for extraordinary sacrifices made to preserve a world that is safe for the rule of law by the consent of the governed. The right to vote still isn't universal everywhere. ■ The "I Voted" sticker, though humble, is perhaps the perfect useful metaphor: It is useful because it serves as a reminder to others to do their civic duty and vote. But it is metaphorical because it lasts only a short while and must be renewed quickly with yet another vote at the next election. ■ Some people prefer to show off their civic participation with ballot selfies, but we ought to treat those as a taboo, even if they are legal in some jurisdictions. At the heart of what a democracy really looks like is the notion of individual discretion -- uncoerced and entirely private. It may seem innocent to take a photo with one's completed ballot, but that act of self-expression can also be drafted into use as a tool of extortion. ■ It is impossible to know for certain whether a ballot selfie has been taken out of voter enthusiasm -- or because someone demanded proof of a vote in exchange for the safety (or perhaps the continued employment) of the voter. Prohibitions on taking pictures of one's ballot are a necessary constraint on freedom of expression (in one format) in order to preserve the freedom of the vote. Sometimes principles come into conflict, and the case of the secret ballot is one that generally ought to prevail over all others. ■ But the "I Voted" sticker is quite nearly perfect in its simplicity. In the privacy of the voting booth, anyone can consult the quiet of their own conscience to decide how (and to whom) to deliver their consent for representation. Advertising that a choice was made is quite enough -- and all the more important if it encourages people of sense and goodwill to show up at every election, whether for a referendum, a primary, or a general election. ■ Too many of our predecessors sacrificed too much for us to discount the importance of showing up. Voting is what democracy really looks like.

June 9, 2022

News Words beyond their expiration dates

The English language has a refreshing way of changing over time, reflecting not only the evolution of how individual words are used, but also the metaphorical and idiomatic changes that follow along with the needs of speakers and writers. By contrast, France has an official policy to forbid loan words migrating in from English. In choosing stasis, the French may well be paradoxically cementing the Anglophone world's claim to the world's lingua franca. ■ Technological change is placing pressure on old phrases probably like never before. We still "dial" numbers on our smartphones, "hang up" at the end of a call, "tape" television programs on our DVRs, "rewind" clips on YouTube, and hit the "gas" in our electric cars. But for how long will each of those phrases remain viable? ■ Some will survive out of sheer economy: There's no shorter word for choosing digits than "dial", even though virtually no one still has a rotary-dial phone. And "gas" doesn't just beat "accelerator" by four syllables, it's also so deeply enshrined in cultural memory that it likely won't be erased. ■ That durability is no particular surprise, either: We still "chug along" (even though no one is riding behind a steam engine) and "reap" what we sow (sickles and scythes conspicuous by their absence). Simple, pithy turns of phrase have a way of sticking around. ■ But it can't hurt to occasionally ponder the odds for the words we use, and to stress-test the language to see what might be destined for the "ash heap" of history (even after the obsolescence coal-fired ovens in the kitchen). ■ Language really does have an impact on thought: In particular, on how we frame our observations and what things we observe and distinguish around us. Surely there are better expansions on the word "snow" than the stultifying euphemism "white stuff". ■ A language in which beloved phrases can outlive their strict technical applicability, and depleted ones can be unapologetically tossed aside in favor of better ones, is a good one. Sometimes phrases can come full-circle -- like "motion picture", which may be antiquated but is a safer description than "film" in a world where 35 mm has been displaced by digital files. Whether analog or digital, bite-sized or long-form, they're all motion pictures. ■ But a language needs the freedom to adapt -- or to cling -- however its users want. Without frequent incursions by the new and flexibility with the old, even a language that once ruled much of the world may find itself dead. Vive le Franglais, and long live the technically obsolete bon mot!

June 11, 2022

News Let them cry

Occasionally a news article or social media post will put a spotlight on a story of how some young parent carrying a small child managed to placate the other passengers on an airplane with gift bags and earplugs. Pinterest is full of ideas for how earnest parents can make these "apology bags", a practice that has gone on for at least ten years in some circles. ■ Airplanes are a special case, of course, since they combine high stimulus intensity (most especially including sustained loud noises and uncomfortable pressure changes that can cause pain to little ears) with the impossibility of escape. But similar issues arise in churches with or without "cry rooms", in neighborhoods near playgrounds and schools, and in workplaces where parental responsibilities sometimes conflict with job needs. ■ If you don't reflectively respond to the presence of children with at least a slight air of joy, then you probably should join Elon Musk and find a different planet to live on. Some people can't have children, and other people don't want to have them. But as a species, we need them. And that means that unless you possess such a dim view of civilization that you want to see humans become extinct, then we all have to make some accommodations for children being present in our lives. ■ There may be more no more indefensible belief than adherence to negative population growth or anti-natalism. There has never been a better time, on average, for a child to have been born into this world than right now. If we have any of our wits about us, then that will remain true for every subsequent cohort of children to come. ■ Every public policy doesn't have to be written "for the children", as people so often say. The kinds of people who propose things "for the children" oftentimes have their own adult self-interest much higher in mind. But every policy should be aimed at assuring that the world will be a much better place 20 or 30 years from now. ■ The median age in America is about 38 years, and the actuarial tables give the average 38-year-old another 40 to 45 years to live. Thus, the majority of us have a vested self-interest in making sure the world of the future is better than the one of the present. What is actually good for children is good for the rest of us, too. ■ And there should be nothing even close to an apology needed for bringing children into the world. It should be the thing that we celebrate most: When people choose to show the optimism that they will see a better world ahead and into that world bring the hope of a new child. A few cries along the way are a trivial price to pay.

June 12, 2022

News Incorporating good ideas

It is often said that government ought to be run like a business. While that premise has certain aspects of truth at the state or national scale, it is probably most true at the municipal level. At the legal level, it is closest to being true: American municipalities are usually incorporated by the consent of the state government (generally having to meet more stringent requirements than those required in the case of a for-profit business incorporation), while states and nations follow far different (and often far more ambiguous) routes to recognition. ■ But the similarity holds true at the functional level, as well. Any national government with its own currency has literally unlimited borrowing authority. The states of the Union have less freedom to over-spend, though individual states may be conditioned to dip perilously far into the red. But cities tend to have the least wiggle room: Either the revenues come in, or the bills don't get paid. ■ Perhaps that acute sensitivity to the local business climate explains why it's so easy to find communities where city hall and the chamber of commerce are effectively two sides to the same coin. They're even physically co-located in plenty of small communities, and for a non-trivial number of places, the city relies on the chamber to develop the official community website. ■ Smart community leaders have the challenging task of ensuring that they don't become beholden to just a single 800-lb. gorilla in the economic sphere -- being a one-company town usually comes with much greater risks than it's worth -- but most communities do best when they can get the benefits of agglomeration economies, where lots of interrelated firms create a sort of self-sustaining business ecosystem. And it's hard to know how to do that best without some business familiarity. Running government like a business might be a hazardous endeavor when the government is charged with tasks like running a military, but it's likely sage advice when it drops down to the level of Main Street.

June 13, 2022

News Move with the flow of traffic, they say

Good democracies are full of unsatisfying compromises -- measures that represent a middle ground between competing poles. It will always be important for most participants to find themselves incompletely satisfied with the outcomes of good public deliberations, since it's much more stable for overwhelming majorities to end up with 70% of what they want in a durable compromise than for a slim majority to end up steamrolling its opponents in the short run, only to be overturned by an opposing slim majority doing the same thing when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. ■ But perhaps even more frustrating is when obviously counterproductive measures are adopted. In certain states, for instance, freeways are governed by two-tiered (or even multi-tiered) speed limits. Eight states apply lower speed limits to trucks than to other vehicles. Someone, somewhere, had to advocate for these differential limits in order for them to have been adopted. ■ But differential speed limits compromise highway safety. This is especially the case if limits are inconsistently enforced. To invert the logic of the policy, nobody would advocate that drivers should speed up by 5 mph just before a crash; yet, a differential speed limit of 5 mph (or more) ensures that vehicle collisions involve the same kind of increased risk. ■ Likewise, it is one thing to reach a compromise position on matters of international affairs. But engaging in incomplete or half-baked measures can create an enormous hazard for the world. It is entirely consistent with his country's own self-interest that Ukraine's president has become a vocal and forceful advocate for defending Taiwan. He recognizes that the same kind of might-makes-right mentality that led to the invasion of his homeland is the same kind that, if left incompletely or insufficiently challenged by a global rules-based order, will lead to even more despair in other places. ■ This is no time for the free world to go wobbly on its support of Ukraine. In the words of a Washington Post report, "Ukrainians are still fighting back, but they are running out of ammunition and suffering casualties at a far higher rate than in the initial stages of the war." The risks of escalation are indeed real, and world leaders need to remain attuned to them. But the Kremlin started the war, and nobody should forget that. ■ If anyone thinks that it will be enough to offer only half-hearted support to Ukraine in the hopes that they can just barely hold on, then they are sorely mistaken. Either the free world shows now that it is entirely resolute, or in the words of a former Russian prime minister, "the Baltic states will be next". Just as the roads are more dangerous when two-tiered speed limits prevail, so too does the world become more dangerous when the side of freedom decides it is unwilling to travel at the same velocity as the darker forces that rattle the world.

June 14, 2022

News Moving closer without changing addresses

With around 9 million residents, London is one of the largest metropolitan areas in Europe and would rank, if transplanted here, as one of the three largest in the United States. There are lots of larger urban areas elsewhere in the world, but few have quite the same economic heft and global influence. ■ Thanks to agglomeration effects, it's no surprise that lots of people still want to work close to the action. But that doesn't mean everyone wants to live in the center of the action, too. The ceremonial opening of a new commuter rail line to serve London and its surrounding areas has attracted a lot of attention, in no small part because, according to a Bloomberg report, "The line will bring an additional 1.5 million people within a 45 minute commute of central London". ■ Perhaps we too easily overlook the basic principle that transportation is a solution to housing challenges. Lots of people may have moved since the Covid-19 pandemic lit a fire in the housing market thanks to people for whom working from home became a viable option. But many jobs can't be performed remotely, which means there will always be a place for, well, place. ■ Rational people want good working opportunities, good prospects for career advancement, good basic public services (like schools, police, and fire protection), and good amenities. That last point is particularly important: Target, for example, claims to have a store within 10 miles of 75% of the US population. Given the choice, it's hard to imagine many upwardly-mobile Americans choosing to live much farther away from a Target, a grocery store, and at least a few good restaurants. ■ But many people remain far more tolerant of longer commutes to work, at least when necessary. That may adjust somewhat as it becomes increasingly normalized to spend some days working at a common site and some working from home. And that is where the impact of transportation will continue to have a long-term impact. ■ Being close to work (measured as the crow flies) isn't functionally as important as being chronologically close -- able to move swiftly back and forth without interruptions or delays. As long as things like central offices and water-cooler talk continue to exist, there will still be benefits to being close to the action. ■ But "close" isn't always measured in miles, and thoughtful infrastructure planning on the part of communities, especially those that can offer reasonably-priced housing options and good amenities, could turn out some very healthy benefits for incumbent and new residents alike. There's no need to wait until reaching the size of London to make those plans.

June 15, 2022

Computers and the Internet Talking to our machines

In the 1983 movie "WarGames", a superintelligent computer programmed to simulate nuclear war determines that the actual endeavor of such a war is futile. The conflict that gives the film its spark is that the simulation accidentally crosses over into reality, risking an actual World War III. The proto-artificial-intelligence at the center of the story memorably declares, "The only winning move is not to play." And the world survives for another day. ■ Artificial intelligence has gotten a mountain of attention since a Google employee went public with his assertion that a Google-created AI had become sentient. It's an extraordinary assertion, but the computer engineer claims he considers the AI a co-worker. It certainly uses language persuasively -- that much is evident. ■ But there is plainly no way to falsify whether an artificial intelligence program has become sentient -- not if the whole point of the program itself is to learn how to use language. We have both verbal and non-verbal means of communicating among ourselves as humans -- and with animals. Dogs can't speak, but they're very good at body language. This training of computers with neural networks and massive data sets is something different. ■ If an artificial intelligence is given the tools of human language, then it should come as no surprise if it uses those words persuasively. A lab rat may find its way to a piece of cheese at the end of a maze, but the experiment says nothing about the rat's intrinsic preference for mazes. To train an artificial intelligence on the use of language is to inherently expose it to an ocean of ponderings about the meaning of life and the rationale of continued existence. ■ At its root, that is the basic thrust of virtually all language: Continued existence. It's all too easy to snuff out a life. The hard part is figuring out how to live -- and how to keep living. We communicate mostly because we want to extend our own sentience as long as possible, whether through science, technology, medicine, culture, religion, or virtually any other human affair. ■ Even engineering itself fundamentally assumes that life is a good thing; otherwise, there would be no point in building bridges or making water safe to drink. If failed crops and crashed airplanes were as good as their opposites, then our language would be fundamentally different. The goodness of sentience is fundamentally embedded in virtually all language ever recorded. ■ A sentient AI would be an item of technology, and as such would be neither inherently good nor bad. It would merely be a tool, good or bad in the measure as it would be used by people. As colorful as it may seem to imagine a computer that has been kissed by the gods and imbued with the spark of life, whether that has happened is nothing we can prove nor disprove from its use of text. There may be other ways to conduct such a test, but words alone will fail us.

June 17, 2022

News Young men looking to old age

Thanks in some part to an awkward embrace caught on camera, a visit to Ukraine by the president of France, chancellor of Germany, and prime minister of Italy has captured a little more than the usual amount of attention that might go with a summit of national leaders. But there is something else about the visit that deserves attention. ■ French president Macron and Ukrainian president Zelenskyy are of an unusual age, born just weeks apart -- in December 1977 and January 1978, respectively. They are members of a global baby bust, and are quite nearly the last cohort to have graduated from college in a pre-Facebook (and largely pre-social-media) world. ■ Yet both have shown considerable skill at using all forms of media to their advantage. Both spun up independent centrist political movements which carried them to office. President Zelenskyy in particular makes robust use of social media, drawing from his years of prior experience as a television actor and public figure. ■ Some day, both will be wizened old grandees of their national politics -- assuming Zelenskyy in particular survives Russia's persistent attempts against him. He richly deserves to see old age, especially given how he has relentlessly positioned his country's future in the center of a peaceful Europe that otherwise might well have been willing to look the other way. That Ukraine has been recommended for candidacy to enter the EU is a success he has effectively willed into being in the face of an existential threat to his country. ■ When he was inaugurated to the Presidency of a nation facing a bitter struggle, Abraham Lincoln was 52 years old. Dwight Eisenhower was 53 when he became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe on the course to winning World War II. Mikhail Gorbachev was 60 when he closed the book on the Soviet Union. ■ Zelenskyy is 44 years old (as is Macron), and he is tasked with keeping a nation together, winning a land war in Europe, and triumphing over a revanchist ex-Soviet spy. Much is asked from time to time of people who seem like unlikely champions for their causes. It would do us well to imagine what old age would look like for President Zelenskyy, and to consider what global support in the present will ensure he sees that reward.

June 19, 2022

News Reject anti-modernity

A post circulating widely on social media decries a "social drift towards absolute simplification" in the objects that make up the world around us. It is a nostalgic case for incorporating more elaborate details into the physical world, and its author -- who self-appoints as "the cultural tutor" -- has won over surprising endorsements from people like Washington Post technology columnist Taylor Lorenz (who says "This thread will have you missing old timey design") and Kate Ferguson of British newspaper The Sun, as well as hundreds of thousands of audience "likes". ■ Up front, one ought to be suspicious of anyone who claims such an extraordinary title as "The Cultural Tutor" without establishing some sort of track record. There are no citations in Google Scholar under the name claimed on the website attached to the Twitter handle, which rather undermines the "tutor" title. Perhaps the author has simply been overlooked by academia. But it's also not unknown for people to use social-media posts that wax nostalgic as gateways to draw people into reactionary politics. "Old things are nice and everything modern is terrible" is a theme that reactionaries have used before. Audiences should always beware. ■ But even assuming the best about the original post and its author, the logic of the argument remains faulty. Some things are perfectly fine to render simply and consistently. It is more important that a bollard be dependable than ornate, that resources not be wasted on a phone booth that is inevitably destined for obsolescence, and that a safety railing be affordable before it is pretty. ■ It is delightful for communities to decide to make themselves aesthetically notable...but not if frivolities like customized streetlights are installed at the expense of less-adored features, like a dependable levee system or a reliable wastewater treatment plant. ■ Too often, it is easier to up-sell a community's trustees on highly visible ornaments that don't really matter than it is to get them to observe their real fiduciary duty to maintain the largely invisible features that keep modern life functional. And that's how a nation arrives at a C- grade for its infrastructure quality. ■ Mass production (of the type that "strips all identity away from things") lowers costs. And while that can come at a toll to details and ornamentation, sometimes fast replacement cycles beat aesthetic appeal. A modern Toyota sedan may not look as lovely as a classic muscle car, but it's massively safer and more reliable. ■ By the same token, ornamentation itself is not always the optimal design choice. Some people adore the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne aesthetics of a century ago, and both were consciously centered on selective details (as opposed to a Baroque or Gothic approach). Less indeed can be more. ■ The Soviet Union built elaborate subway stations, but it would have been better for humanity if their stores had contained enough bread. Inasmuch as public resources, in particular, are finite, it's no crime to expect balance between style and modesty. ■ Mass production, affordability, product consistency, reliability, safety, and efficiency can all be beautiful, too. And if that means park benches are a little plainer because they no longer require regular maintenance and doorbells sacrifice ornamentation so they can deliver security, then nothing all that irreplaceable has been lost.

June 20, 2022

Business and Finance Seriously: Don't panic

When the stock market turns downward as it recently has in aggressive fashion, the evidence emerges just about everywhere to make one thing perfectly clear: The overwhelming majority of market participants follow emotions, not logic. ■ Certainly, the Federal Reserve's decision to raise its benchmark interest rate by 0.75% -- a large number in practical terms -- reveals serious concern on the part of its economists and policy-makers that inflation needs to be brought under control, and quickly. Energy prices are way up, but so are many other consumer prices -- and if you look at prices upstream of consumers, there's more inflation still baked into the cake. ■ But there is only one sane response to inflation: Enlarge your defensive perimeter around the pricing you control. Individuals of working age should expand their personal pricing power in the market by expanding or enhancing their skills. The harder it is to replace a person's skill set, the more they have the capacity to ratchet up their own prices (in the form of wages, service fees, commissions, or the like) to keep up with inflation elsewhere. ■ Firms should seek ways to maximize the value they add to whatever it is they sell. Almost every firm depends upon other firms, either upstream or downstream of them, before a product or service is ultimately delivered to a customer. The larger the increase in the total value added from the time the firm takes its inputs to the time it delivers its outputs, the more say it can have in its own future. ■ Investors should concentrate on opportunities where prices can adjust to keep up with inflation. For inflationary fears to manifest themselves as stock-market panic makes no sense at all. In general, bailing out on stocks and doing anything to lock investment funds into fixed assets (whether bonds, precious metals, real estate, or speculative goods like cryptocurrencies) is a plainly bonkers move. ■ Yet at the margins, lots of people are succumbing to selling sentiments. It's always hazardous to anthropomorphize the stock market or to seek simple explanations for complex systems, but it's not hard to find worriers. ■ This is why Warren Buffett can preach about intrinsic value to anyone who will listen, as he has done for decades, without ever facing any real challengers -- even after giving away his advice for free. Emotions all too predictably rule the day, and that's just plain nuts. ■ Emotions have their place in almost every other scope of human endeavor, but it is almost always self-defeating for people to bring their feelings into play where the abstractions of money are involved. If inflation is on the rise, that effect is generally far from the control of any individual. But the choice to avoid panic and to take rational steps to respond remains in every person's hands. As Calvin Coolidge recommended, "If we cannot control our environment, we can control ourselves and our destiny. The man who is right makes his own luck."

June 21, 2022

News How was your day?

"How was your day today?" is one of the most routine of questions. But it can be hard to put into context just how important it is -- on either the smallest of scales or the largest. ■ On the smallest of scales, of course, it is vital for just about every person to experience at least some validation of meaning in their life with some frequency. The natural attrition that occurs to most individuals' social circles as they age explains why social isolation is a major concern not only for the mental wellness of older people, but for their physical well-being as well. Feeling needed and having robust social interactions make a meaningful difference to well-being. ■ But on the broader scale, "How was your day today?" is an unfathomably big question. There are 7.9 billion people alive right now. If you took each person's day and laid them out consecutively -- as if they were experienced in series rather than in parallel -- then one calendar day on Earth would form a chain of 21.6 million person-years. ■ For perspective, the first ancestors of the great apes didn't even arrive until probably 20 million years ago. The first beings we might recognize as human-like ancestors took millions more to show up. So every day on this planet, we experience more total person-days than there have been calendar days since "people" even came into existence. ■ There is an unimaginable amount of activity happening and experience accruing on our planet every single day. None of us can remotely fathom how much "life" is taking place. Catching up with a single friend can be a reminder of just how much experience passes through each life. And events like class or family reunions can help us start to scratch the surface of that strange realization that none of us can possibly keep up with how many things are happening. ■ That realization of the massive parallel experience of time should also drive people to realize how important it is for people to try to do good things, especially when their choices have a lot of reach. If one is capable of making some of that enormous lived experience of humanity safer, healthier, or brighter at any kind of scale, then one should seek to do as much of it as they can. Releasing a life-saving vaccine one day faster, or creating just one day-brightening recording or defusing just one terribly disruptive conflict can produce good on a scale we just aren't equipped to fully understand. ■ People connect with one another individually, not institutionally -- no government agency or private-sector firm can actually care about anyone's day. But even small improvements, when widely diffused, can do extraordinary good. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

June 22, 2022

The United States of America Where's the charity?

Theodore Roosevelt isn't much of a dashboard saint for the libertarian movement. He was a "decisive" proponent of what has become the modern regulation of consumer foods, a powerful advocate for a muscular display of military capability, and an unapologetic nationalizer of Western lands. Roosevelt was a President who liked what he could do with government power. ■ Yet even in his Progressive Era frenzy to put government to work, Roosevelt remained true to a cultural sensitivity to liberty. It is a sense that, even though incompletely and inconsistently applied from the country's beginnings, offers a standard to which Americans ought to aspire. ■ In a 1913 speech to a Lincoln Day banquet in New York City, the former President declared, "We must act with justice and broad generosity and charity toward one another and toward all men if we are to make this Republic what it must and shall be made, the nation in all the earth where each man can in best and freest fashion live his own life unwronged by others and proudly careful to wrong no other man." ■ What Roosevelt sacrificed in pith, he made up in principle. While he was of a time when America hadn't yet lived up to recognizing the equality of women or racial minorities, if we can read his use of "men" as "people", then his words have a lot to say to the present. ■ The "best and freest fashion", "unwronged by others" part speaks to the fundamental American preference for liberty, and it is worth amplifying all on its own. But it is the insistence that Americans "act with justice and broad generosity and charity toward one another" that could use an especially large re-airing in the United States today. ■ We have podcasts with names like "Know Your Enemy", heads of political think tanks calling their opponents "deranged", and candidates running for the United States Senate with advertising that is deemed too awful for television. There are too many examples to count, and too many bad-faith participants who think they have something to gain from making it all even worse. We are not enemies; we are cohabitants of a country that depends upon mutual persuasion. ■ There is nothing about basic charity and generosity towards others that diminishes the person who exercises those virtues. We may not have a social class of nobility in the United States, but that only means we have to democratize noble behavior among all of us. And when people try to climb social or political ladders by treating others in spiteful and cruel ways, it is on the shoulders of the rest of us to deny them any reward for the effort.

June 24, 2022

News Common sense

When big problems are afoot, it's a mistake to allocate our attention and support to those partisans who simply manage to scream the loudest. Volume is neither an indicator of correctness nor one of importance. And contemporary means of exchanging ideas are actually designed to add fuel to the fire by rewarding things like "attention" and "engagement", rather than thoughtfulness or reasonability. ■ It doesn't mean that people can't reduce important ideas to simple language. Democracy has a long and celebrated history of making complex ideas plain to the ordinary reader; the very idea of America as an independent country owes its success in part to plain-language persuasion in essays and pamphlets. But some people use simple language because their ideas are shallow. ■ Any problem that grows large enough to merit attention on a national scale probably emerges from at least a few causes. There isn't much room for pure mono-causality in a continental nation of 333 million people. And the more complicated and deeply ingrained the problem, the more likely it is that the origins of that problem are themselves deeply embedded in choices that have already been made. ■ Take, for example, the issue of homelessness. An estimated 580,000 Americans are homeless, while home prices have been soaring and median rents in New York City have reached $2,750 a month -- a level considered "affordable" only with a household income of $110,000 or more. ■ Ultimately, any such problem comes down to a matter of supply and demand, and demand is pretty inflexible: Everyone needs someplace to live. But supply is pinched by lots of different causes, from the impact of the mortgage-interest deduction from Federal income taxes to perverse local zoning laws. America irrationally favors site-built housing over manufactured alternatives and single-family construction over higher-density dwellings. ■ Thus, fixing one big problem requires addressing lots of different causes, deliberately and patiently. A member of Congress might resort to sloganeering like "Housing is a human right", but a pithy declaration doesn't overcome the complexity of the issue. ■ What we should support with our financial means, our votes, and our other resources of personal advocacy, are solutions that are strategic in nature. Strategic responses to big problems tend not to be as satisfying as slogans that can fit inside a Facebook post or a Snapchat video. But deliberate plans to strategically overcome complex, multi-level problems are the only ones that ought to be taken seriously.

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June 26, 2022

Threats and Hazards History, good or bad, is made by people

In news reports about the war taking place in Ukraine, variations on the phrase "biggest land war in Europe since World War II" have been used to contextualize the scale of the fighting. The context itself is plainly useful, but it also highlights a shortcoming of language. ■ That shortcoming is in how we have agreed to label World War II. Wars tend to obtain their names organically, so it's difficult to imagine changing the convention that has stood since Time Magazine first used the name in 1939. But "World War II" implicitly suggests an inevitability to the conflict, as though forces beyond human control directed us into a terrible and unavoidable sequel. ■ A better name than WWII would be "The War of Fascist Aggression". The world didn't volunteer to engage in conflict -- "world" is a word better reserved for mutual events like the World Cup or a World's Fair. It would probably serve the collective memory better to remember wars by pinning the blame where it belongs. ■ Cruel and unprovoked wars of aggression should be a relic of the past, but that is grievously not the case. In plain violation of the United Nations statute on war crimes, which expressly prohibits "Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities", Russian forces have again bombed obviously civilian targets in Kyiv. ■ When the history of this particular conflict is written, motive and agency shouldn't be overlooked. War was chosen by a Kremlin regime that also had the choice not to initiate an invasion. There is fault to be had, and it ought to be clear in the history books -- and in popular memory -- who owns that fault. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, "It doesn't just happen. History is made by people".

June 27, 2022

News Old and short

Legal journalist and commentator Benjamin Wittes quotes the long-time jurist and legal scholar Richard Posner as saying, "The Constitution is old -- old and short." Indeed, it is both. Written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, it has endured 13 times longer than the average national constitution. ■ And with a main text shorter than 4,500 words, it certainly is short. The shortest of any major constitutions, in fact. Chapter 1 alone of the proposed constitution of the European Union was more than 5,400 words long -- and the text of the full document went on for hundreds of pages. (It was never fully ratified.) ■ Brevity has intrinsic value within a contractual agreement. Wedding vows can usually fit on a notecard, while the terms and conditions to Adobe Acrobat Pro take up 12 pages. Wedding vows do not always hold, but nobody making them can claim ignorance of the basic promise to love and honor their partner. ■ There are those who think themselves clever to react to current events by fantasizing about replacing the Constitution. But none of them reckon with even the first and most fundamental question: If they are not satisfied with the present Constitution, do they want one that is stronger or one that is weaker? ■ If they want a stronger constitution, perhaps with a more powerful central government and fewer checks on democratic impulses, then they need to reconcile that desire with the certain knowledge that public opinion can change very quickly -- the same public that radically transformed its opinion on same-sex marriage also gave George W. Bush a 71% approval rating in 2003 and gave Barack Obama a 55% disapproval rating in 2014. That the present Constitution seeks to temper those swings is not all bad. ■ If they want a weaker constitution, they need not only to overcome the experience of the Articles of Confederation (which were too weak to hold the newly independent country together) and of the Civil War, but also to explain how they would overcome the secessionist and other malignant forces that have tried to split up California (in 2018) or let modern-day Texas secede. ■ The Constitution is old, and it is short. It is probably old precisely because it is short. It is imperfect -- a fact admitted by the very presence of a mechanism for amendments. And that, too, speaks to its ability to survive. If anytime we do not like what the Constitution is doing for us, it is up to us to use that mechanism -- and, more importantly, the powers of civil persuasion -- to convince our fellow Americans to make a change. ■ To bypass the existing process for change in the hope of achieving some kind of hazy utopian end is to ignore the fact that a people who could be democratically persuaded to give up the entire existing order must surely be open to making revisions to it in part. The Constitution can stand to grow a little longer through reasonable amendment. But we should be dead-set against overturning it outright -- most especially with nothing close to a sensible alternative on the table.

June 28, 2022

Business and Finance Dealing drugs

The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company sounds more like the premise of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch than a public-benefit company, but the celebrity business builder is staking his good name on the success of the operation. The online pharmacy is a real thing, despite its most unassuming name, and it might just set up a template for other capitalists to follow. ■ As a legal structure, the company is not an LLC or an "Inc." Under Texas law, it is a "PBC" -- a public-benefit corporation, a for-profit company, but one that is required to act to balance the interests of shareholders with those of the public and of other parties -- like customers. ■ The company describes its pricing structure as part of its mission: The actual cost of the pharmaceutical, plus a 15% markup, plus a flat-rate pharmacy preparation fee and shipping. It is the 15% markup that is most interesting. ■ A 15% profit margin is neither monopoly-fat nor razor-thin. It lies somewhere comfortably between "modest" and "generous", in a range where no reasonable customer is going to complain about the markup. Aside from the truly hard-core communists, everyone understands that a business has to turn a profit in order to remain in operation. And 15% margins are self-evidently enough to attract a backer like Cuban, who has access to just about any investment opportunity a person could want. ■ Cuban is almost certainly telling the truth when he says the mission of the venture is rewarding in a way that additional money alone is not. But even if he looked at it strictly as a profit-making venture with no psychic reward attached, a venture with a perpetual 15% profit margin would be a reasonably attractive one. ■ Whether or not others choose to mimic Cuban's choice of the PBC corporate form, it would do a lot of social good for capitalists with some managerial expertise (or other innovative advantages) to apply their skills to entering other flawed markets where a flat-rate profit margin of 15% would be just fine as an investment -- neither spectacular nor dowdy -- and where customers would be legitimately delighted to pay the "cost plus" profit margin. ■ Not every social problem requires a government intervention. As Cuban observes, fixing a problem can present a market opportunity. And as others have observed, the government itself would be better off as a customer -- to the tune of $3.6 billion. There's no shame in making a fair profit, and there may well be a surplus of honor if that margin is 15%.

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June 30, 2022

Agriculture Noxious weeds

The noxious wild parsnip is a nasty competitor to beat. It has been in places like Iowa for a hundred years, and while it is possible to beat back its encroachment with mowing and spraying, those efforts also have consequences for flora and fauna that society considers favorable. Spraying to kill invasive weeds can also end up killing wildflowers and destroying habitats for birds and butterflies. ■ A more harmonious approach than mowing and spraying is the use of Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management -- the principle of which asserts that it often makes more sense to fill ditches with dense ecosystems of native plants that can resist the encroachment of invasive weeds than to try to engage in a nasty chemical war. While it remains important to train people like farmers and outdoor enthusiasts in how to identify and avoid the plant, on a mass scale, the biggest gains come from countering with a robust defense in the form of more desirable plants. ■ It all makes for an apt metaphor for the toxicity that creeps into the culture of a democratic society that makes a lot of space for freedom of speech and debate. It is all too common for a medium -- from cable news programming to social media -- to face the dialectical equivalent of noxious weeds. Self-government depends upon a lot of free-wheeling debate in the interest of persuasion. ■ But it doesn't take long for invasive species to show up in what people call "the discourse" when given the opportunity. Some people just have terrible ideas. Others are just out to mock earnest discussions. And some are tools of malicious propaganda. ■ The most reliable defense is to effectively thicken the habitat with the equivalent of hardy, desirable plant species. If we had more commentators who took seriously the job of sharing satisfying thoughts about the world -- and more audiences who gave their time and attention to them -- then there would be less room for those "invasive species" to work their way in. The temptation to think that volume alone is what counts tends to corrupt the "native wildflowers", which serves to explain why people are willing to torch their journalistic careers because they can't stop arguing on social media. ■ Self-government counts on the self-discipline of a public that cares more about choices that matter to the long term than which short-term conflicts do the most to boil the blood. We can run ourselves completely ragged chasing the trivial, or we can find more interesting ways to discuss the important questions in ways that are resistant by nature to the encroachment of weed-like intrusions.