Gongol.com Archives: September 2023

Brian Gongol


September 2023
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September 1, 2023

News A class by herself

The physical extremes of a Simone Biles floor routine are enough to summon words like "superhuman" to the mind. Her performances are truly extraordinary -- and perhaps even more so because she has earned the record for oldest woman to earn a US national title in the sport. She is an athlete in a class of her own. ■ Most elite athletes are endowed with some kind of natural gift or another, but what turns out a truly epic talent like what Biles is able to display is something more: Sustained, persistent effort. Six hours a day in 2016. Then seven hours a day in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. And then whatever it took to shake the "twisties" since then. ■ Could just anyone spend the same amount of time in training and turn out the same? No; that's where natural gifts come in. But even with a gift that would put someone standard deviations outside the mean, it's not enough just to show up in a lucky place and time. ■ That's the root of the common (if not almost-universal) revulsion people feel about the con artists who fake their way into good fortune. When a person has a natural gift but does the hard work to refine it, most of us feel admiration. But unearned success is aggravating to outsiders; fortunately, it seems like it's often aggravating to the undeservedly successful, too. We've even coined the name imposter syndrome to explain the nagging feeling that even an earned success doesn't always feel quite earned enough. ■ Nothing beats sustained, persistent effort. Other things may pull ahead of it from time to time, but nobody stays on top for long (or even close to the top) without it. Really respecting outstanding performers requires seeing them not as superhuman, but as humans who apply super persistence.


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September 4, 2023

Health Executing on the basics before the burn

The grand paradox of the 2023 Burning Man festival is likely to be how an event so libertine in nature is likely to offer an enduring case for good government. The event was derailed by unmanaged desert rainfall, of a scale that rendered most transportation impossible. That alone would be bad, but for an event dependent upon the manual emptying of portable toilets as a primary mode of sanitation, the lack of transportation also means a fundamental breakdown in some of the most basic aspects of civilization. ■ Nobody actually needs to attend Burning Man. But almost everyone needs to live within some kind of structured civilized environment. Cities and towns are the most obvious example, but even family-sized human settlments, at least in the United States, are almost always subject to regulations requiring roads for emergency access (even if they're only covered in gravel) and safe disposal of used water (even if only via a septic leach field). ■ Two imperative points should be taken from the 2023 Burning Man experience, even for those who stayed home. The first is that well-operated municipal services are, in general, vastly underappreciated by the American public. Put simply: Most of the time, we take public works for granted, noticing only when they break down catastrophically. That's a crying shame, and we ought to change our attitudes. Very little of that work is glamorous, but it is indispensable to maintaining anything close to an advanced society. ■ The second lesson is that municipal water and sanitation infrastructures aren't about saving the environment, they're about public health. This may not seem like an immediately obvious matter of importance. But most of the regulation that pertains to the delivery, use, rehabilitation, and reuse of water comes under the supervision of agencies operating under some version of the word "environment". This is no surprise, considering that the leading Federal agency for those purposes is itself the Environmental Protection Agency. ■ But the lesson from Burning Man is that the crux of the matter isn't what humans do to the environment, but how flaws in sanitation have almost immediate effects on the health of human beings. If you don't have clean potable water and a safe means of disposing water that has been used (for any number of purposes, including but by no means limited to, the use of toilets), then you don't have a healthy civilization -- in the most literal sense. Bad water makes people sick. ■ Nature (that is, "the environment") has many ways to heal water that humans have used and made unwell. They may not be swift, but the same processes that handle the waste functions of all the other animals would deal with ours as well. It is for human health and safety -- particularly when we gather in settlements of any size, even if only for a week-long festival -- that water disposal and rehabilitation matter so much. Human society starts to fail quickly if we're deprived of reliable means of sanitation. People can muddle through for a few days at a time, but if it goes on much longer than that, it's not the environment that suffers -- it's us.


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September 5, 2023

News Labels aren't always necessary

Most people are generally more heterodox in their opinions than one might expect. Fully-formed, rational, and consistent philosophies of government are few and far between, and the people who have the time and incentive to form them -- think-tank fellows, advocacy journalists, and syndicated columnists, for example -- are the exceptions. The rule, even for career politicians, tends to be a lot messier. ■ It's much more common to find that people have opinions on a small subset of things and then subscribe to what appear to be the prevailing opinions on adjacent things among those who go along with them. This is a fairly natural impulse; most of us care strongly about a handful of things, but in order to get what we want democratically, we need to find coalitions. Thus, some horse-trading invariably takes place, whether in the open or by default. ■ For this reason, we should beware the seductive impulse to label every opinion as belonging to a broad political character. This is especially the case today, when long-established definitions no longer apply even to such commonly-used adjectives as "liberal" and "conservative". ■ When observers take their labels too far, they risk unintentionally creating a negative feedback loop among people who identify more with a tribe than with a philosophy. If someone with a big audience says something remarkably dumb, then it should be enough to treat that dumb idea to a rational, factual response. That's the case even if the person attempts to align themselves with a perceived "side" in politics. ■ Trade protectionism, for instance, is a bad idea, whether it's conducted by people who call themselves "democratic socialists" or by people who call themselves "common-good conservatives". Critiquing individual opinions and policies away from hazy labels (like "conservative" or "progressive") helps to break the feedback loops that can cause people to rise to the defense of bad ideas they really don't believe, but which they think are admission requirements to remain in good standing with their tribes. ■ Using caution with broad labels can help to nudge people away from that instinct to surrender their critical thought to the identity of a team. And that's a good thing, because the world is too complex to be easily satisfied with one-size-fits-all ideologies. ■ When people consider issues on their own, shifts of historic proportions can happen in relatively short order. Using restraint rather than blandly applying broad labels to individuals and specific opinions can help to implicitly encourage people to embrace nuance and complexity in their own views of things.


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September 8, 2023

Threats and Hazards It's not a binary question

If there is one lesson to take away from the social sciences, it is that human behavior can often be predicted in the probabilistic sense, but events are almost never subject to simplistic determinations. In other words: Some patterns are much more likely than others, but rarely does just one set of rules or causes apply. ■ Every honest person knows this from personal experience. The odds are reasonably high that any individual will share a considerable number of important opinions on matters like politics or religion with their parents or with a spouse. But nobody agrees completely with anyone else about everything -- not even with a husband or a wife. Not even dear old Mom. ■ Thus, when the world's richest person, who controls a number of ventures, including the Starlink satellite Internet service, comes under particular scrutiny for using his corporate control of the service to prevent Ukraine from attacking Russian warships with the crucial aid of its technology, then it should be no surprise that he might seek to defend his personal honor. ■ But the defense he offers ought to be held to some standard of logical rigor. It is one thing to say "I was afraid of being labeled as an accomplice in an act of which I did not approve". It is another to say, as Elon Musk has done, "Both sides should agree to a truce. Every day that passes, more Ukrainian and Russian youth die to gain and lose small pieces of land, with borders barely changing. This is not worth their lives." ■ As a matter of decency, the bloodshed in Ukraine ought to end. But it won't be ended by a fantasy. Musk subscribes to an excruciatingly over-simplified understanding of matters when he posits that the solution is "a truce". Russia initiated the war (breaking the "truce" that preceded it), it violated Ukraine's territory to commit the violence, and it is responsible for committing war crimes against the people whose homeland it has invaded. ■ All that is required for hostilities to cease is for Russia to withdraw from where it invaded. Until then, calling for a "truce" is like saying that a homeowner should make peace with a violent squatter, as though the acts of theft and self-defense are moral equals. They aren't. Reducing the question to a binary matter of "fighting" or "not fighting" is foolishness. And ignoring the many reasons why fighting in self-defense today may be necessary to achieve a real state of peace tomorrow requires a willful blindness to the real nature of human affairs.


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September 9, 2023

News The strengths that prevent wars

Thanks to one particularly cantankerous member of the United States Senate, the concept of "poetry on aircraft carriers" has gained some currency as a shorthand way of decrying a perceived condition of softness within the American military. Once an abstraction of this nature takes off, it becomes hard to harness back to reality. Yet it shouldn't be allowed to slip the reins. ■ The story probably originates with a spat in April, when the Chief of Naval Operations defended a junior officer during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing against Sen. Tommy Tuberville's complaints. That junior officer was celebrated by the Navy's own public-affairs outlets for serving in the military under a non-binary gender identity, including a carrier deployment during which the officer had the opportunity to share a poem aboard the ship's PA system. ■ The Senator relies upon a shorthand description of the military as a "killing and fighting machine", holding that purpose as being incompatible with being an institution open to people of varying gender and sexual backgrounds or friendly to cultural events like spoken-word nights. In reality, the American military's openness to service from all kinds of people is a source of strategic strength. Yes, at some level, a military is a "killing and fighting machine", and under those circumstances, it is hard to see any evidence that gender identity has any effect on lethality. ■ But far more importantly, the armed forces of the United States act as a deterrent power, and deterrence comes from both practiced strength and adaptable thinking. It's far easier to deter an adversary when in possession not just of arms, but of ample brainpower. And anything that prevents a country from employing all of its best minds -- regardless of gender -- is a handicap against using all of its best thinking. ■ There should be no doubt that the United States today would be an even stronger country if the Founding Fathers had included an equal number of Founding Mothers in their proceedings; surely there was a woman of equal genius for every man in the room. But at least we know better today, and we should have the wisdom to assume likewise that for every great general like George Washington, there surely might have been an equal prospective leader who would have identified as Georgia Washington -- and, though fewer in number, at least a handful that would have eschewed a gender identity altogether. ■ The more we put to work the people best able to do their jobs, regardless of any other identity, the better we'll be able to fight and win the wars of the present and future. But even more significantly, the better we recognize the wisdom embedded in Dwight Eisenhower's advice from World War II: "[T]he American soldier, in spite of wisecracking, sometimes cynical speech, is an intelligent human being who demands and deserves basic understanding of the reasons why his country took up arms and of the conflicting consequences of victory or defeat." Purpose, intelligence, and creativity help us not just to win but to prevent wars. Those aren't soft spots, they're strengths, and it doesn't matter one bit in what bodies those strengths are contained.


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September 10, 2023

Business and Finance You can't plan this

The sentiment that everyone is entitled to have an opinion, but not to make up a unique set of facts, is one to which most sensible people subscribe. But what about those opinions so relentlessly contravened by the facts that they simply cannot survive any kind of real scrutiny? ■ A state senator from New York has taken to a public platform to loudly declare, "Having a plan is better than not having one. Socialism = planned economy[,] Capitalism = unplanned ("free" market)". An opinion, yes. But what of his facts? ■ The only way to reach his conclusion is to willfully reject every relevant lesson of history and adopt a fertile imagination about the omniscience of planners. The originating assumption of the entire claim is that plans themselves are good. But anyone with even the mildest experience in planning recognizes the grain of truth in the words of Dwight Eisenhower: "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." ■ Thus, "Having a plan" is no panacea, particularly if it is finalized, rigid, and codified. And that is exactly what people mean when they call for a "planned" economy. A market economy is "planned", too, but not in the ledgers of government. A market is "planned" through the actions and choices of all its many participants. Their plans, though, are not fixed: Sensible people learn to adapt and change as circumstances change. ■ As people make their own choices, their plans get converted into actions, which then send signals to other people (via prices) that spill over and affect their plans, too. Planning still takes place, but it takes place on individual and firm-level scales, and it takes place flexibly. There is an unimaginable hubris to the notion that any merry band of omniscient geniuses could effectively plan the course of an economy, when not one of us has sufficient information to predict perfectly the circumstances of our own individual lives a year from now. ■ No planner could have predicted negative oil prices a year in advance of April 2020, and that is merely one among literally billions of unpredictable economic events. The faith some people have in government planners may be an opinion to which they are entitled, but it is a faith so profoundly contradicted by the facts that no one should take its adherents seriously.


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September 11, 2023

Weather and Disasters Powering tropical weather

With a forward speed of just 7 miles per hour, the eyewall of Hurricane Lee could be outrun by a pretty average jogger (assuming the jogger could stay on land). But the hurricane itself is powerful. The familiar Saffir-Simpson scale, which categorizes storms by wind speeds, rates Lee (with 115-mph winds) as a Category 3 storm. ■ The real measure of hurricanes ought to be the depth of its central low pressure -- a better measure of strength and of damage potential than wind speeds alone. The public takes its cues on science from the measurements it can understand. Wind speeds are familiar, of course, but they leave out vital information. ■ It has been estimated that the oceans are absorbing most of the excess heat energy that human activities have released into the world around us. And what we need to center in the public awareness is that excess energy is reallocated by weather systems from the water to the atmosphere. ■ The amount of energy involved is staggering -- a single hurricane release energy on a scale comparable to all the electricity generated by human behavior. ■ But even that apparently isn't enough to deplete the excess energy in the oceans right now; not if Hurricane Lee can move so slowly and keep on drawing in new fuel. And that's why tropical cylones ought to be described more by their pressures than by their wind speeds. It all comes down to energy, and there's a great deal of it going around right now.


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September 12, 2023

Threats and Hazards Let the conspiracy theories die

Another September 11th anniversary has passed, and a small but noisy crowd of conspiracy theorists remains committed to promoting narratives about the events of that day that have no foundation in evidence. Even a declared Presidential candidate remains among them. ■ Conspiracy theories usually exist to satisfy a longing to have insider knowledge. People see patterns where none exist and are gratified by a sense of belonging among a special elite of those who are "in the know". ■ But the bigger question that applies to many conspiracy theories -- but in particular to those about the 9/11 attacks -- is this: Why are some people so committed to inventing new evils in which to believe, rather than the self-evident evil which already demonstrably exists? ■ Al-Qaeda openly claimed responsibility for the attacks. It isn't necessary to go searching elsewhere for more convoluted explanations, particularly for explanations that would indict the decency of ordinary Americans. ■ What happened was complex enough, and there is real and continuing reason to examine how the government missed the fragments of information that could have thwarted the attacks. When people contaminate the public mind with feverish nonsense, they detract from the hard and important work of learning how better to apply defense-in-depth against future attacks, from whatever sources they may come.


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September 13, 2023

Broadcasting The all-consuming tube

The most recent American Time Use Survey, using data collected in 2022, reveals that Americans have a particular addiction that intensifies with age: Watching television. The average adult aged 25 to 34 years old watches just a little bit less than two hours of television per day -- but the average person aged 75 or older is in front of the tube for nearly five hours a day (and rising above five hours on weekends). ■ We devote a great deal of attention to the prospects for new technologies like artificial intelligence to affect both individuals and the culture at large. That's likely a prudent concern. There are a great number of ways in which emerging tools have been either under-examined or whose effects defy easy forecasting. ■ But it's not always the new that poses the most substantial hazards, nor should we overlook old risks just because we've become numb to their effects. Television (and other video products, regardless of how they are delivered) remains a profoundly powerful medium -- one that has been used for great edifying purposes (see "Sesame Street") as well as for purposes that are so plainly stupid that their hosts and producers deserve to be sent into exile. ■ One of our biggest failures as a society is that spammers, phonies, crooks, cranks, and extremists have invested so much effort in learning the secrets of getting people hooked on their content, with almost nobody applying the same lessons on the side of good. It's the ne'er-do-wells who have figured out how to exploit psychological tools like "curiosity gap" marketing to get viewers to click on crude web ads and annoying pre-roll videos. And the murky bottoms they occupy are adjacent to the ones where we find snake-oil "influencers", political and psychological cults, and full-fledged malicious psyops. ■ There isn't enough counterbalancing motive for people with good motivations to learn and apply the same techniques. Quick riches can await the clever influencer running elaborate stunts on YouTube, but nobody's getting wealthy by convincing people to read the Federalist Papers. ■ That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, though; in fact, the gap is really much as it has always been: Certain virtues, like duty, persistence, self-improvement, and integrity, have always been slow to pay off, and often not in remunerative ways at all. But even if the techniques are being pioneered most aggressively by people taking advantage of the passivity of others, those same techniques can (and ought to be) studied and reappropriated by people of goodwill.


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September 15, 2023

News Ambition rises through every system

An Australian real-estate developer has attempted to apologize and walk back comments he made to an investing summit, during which he said that "we need to see pain in the economy" and "employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around...we've got to kill that attitude". ■ The backlash is understandable: The words were condescending and inhumane. But there are all too many people responding to those words by blaming capitalism and "neoliberals" for one person's bad attitude. They are the usual suspects, of course, who profess perpetual faith in socialism -- including its harshest variants. ■ The mystery in the overreaction is why socialists assume that under their system, a person like this developer would turn out to be a harmless potato farmer instead of a party apparatchik with the very same attitude problem. Ambition is a human trait, and it fits into whatever socioeconomic system surrounds it. ■ The people who tend to dehumanize others to serve their own interests under capitalism would do the same in a Marxist-Leninist state, too. The question is what power we grant them to do it. Within a market economy, public outcry and backlash carry weight. People can choose to snub the developer and his company -- as employees, customers, or suppliers. ■ It is noteworthy that he released an apology and took down his LinkedIn account over the backlash. People who are free to take their business elsewhere are a material factor in a market economy. ■ The same cannot be done in the command economies of the world. An ambitious person raised in a market economy would likely be an ambitious person in a Marxist-Leninist economy, too. Instead of accumulating wealth, the ambitious tend to accumulate privileges and proximity to power. ■ The property developer with a bad attitude under capitalism might become a factory manager instead -- with greater power to abuse and berate his underlings (who, in a command economy, have fewer alternatives and less freedom to fight back), and a much more severe set of consequences to face if his performance failed to impress those above him in the power structure. And the politically powerful can make those who fall out of favor simply "disappear". ■ Ambition can be exercised with goodwill, or it can be carried out by rotten souls. And some bad apples will find their way into powerful positions, no matter what socioeconomic system they occupy. What we should care about most is how much power they have to compel others to go along when they go wrong.


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September 16, 2023

News To cook a better dinner

It isn't hard to understand the impulse that some people have to make fun of a situation like the one depicting Sen. Mitt Romney putting ketchup on a salmon fillet in order to make it palatable. To those who like it prepared well, the thought of drowning a piece of fine Alaskan salmon in ketchup is a crime. ■ But there is something deeper to the tale: Romney isn't ordering his salmon at a fine restaurant; he's cooking it for himself. While it's entirely possible he simply doesn't like the taste of the fish and wouldn't under any circumstances (not everyone has a taste for seafood), suppose that he might enjoy it if prepared differently. ■ Learning how to prepare foods well makes as much difference as the raw materials themselves. It would be easy to make a bad meal out of a great salmon fillet, if the person cooking it didn't know how to do it well. Mistakes can be made in the thawing, the seasoning, the temperature, the finish, and even in how the meat is flaked away from the skin. ■ Food has a funny place in American popular culture. We don't have a real national cuisine like lots of other countries; perhaps the closest we come is a national consensus on how to put hamburgers on a grill. Lacking a common traditional method of preparation, we have evolved toward a consensus that thrives on meals like chicken nuggets and French fries: The cooking centers on frying oil and the seasoning centers on salt. ■ The ire directed at Romney's approach to salmon is a lot like the condescension often directed towards the eating habits associated with poverty. Sometimes the problem is one of bad choices. Sometimes it's limited access. But sometimes people eat poorly because they haven't acquired the capacity to make pleasing, quick meals from affordable basic ingredients. It's a capacity issue, or perhaps more precisely, a problem of people needing to build capacity and not knowing how to do it. ■ Lots of healthy foods need to be transformed by good preparation in order to become really appetizing. It isn't obvious how that capacity should be built, either. Should everyone have to master a few Julia Child recipes before being conferred a high school diploma? Should everyone receive a voucher for a refresher course in cooking once a decade? Should the government subsidize certain time-saving devices like air fryers for households that qualify for nutrition assistance? ■ Sometimes solving a bigger issue means drilling around for answers to root causes. But it's important to look carefully, because it's not just a problem of poverty. Plenty of Americans with lots of financial means could use some guidance, too.


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September 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards The membership we deserve

It is a question worth asking, as it already has been and will undoubtedly be asked again during the 78th General Assembly of the United Nations: Why does Russia retain a prominent seat at the table while it shamelessly pursues an unprovoked war against its neighbor? ■ The answer lies, in part, within an identity crisis for the UN. It is neither a purely neutral forum for the adjudication of international disputes, nor a truly values-driven institution. If it were a neutral forum with the sole purpose of stabilizing world affairs, then it would be small, disciplined, and entirely mission-focused. But the secretariat claims to employ "tens of thousands of UN staff members", reflecting the sort of mission creep that is extremely difficult to avoid within any organization prone to recruiting ambitious people. ■ If the UN were a truly values-driven institution, though, then Saudi Arabia would have to work harder to earn a seat at the Commission on the Status of Women and Russia would be suspended from the Security Council for invading a neighbor and gravely threatening the security of an entire continent (to choose just two significant examples). ■ A forum with a mission of offering a vital forum for discussions pointing towards peace and stability would focus single-mindedly on that objective. A club with principles wouldn't hesitate to eject members for violating the rules. In its incumbent form, the United Nations really ought to consider retrenching to that single-minded focus on acting as the world's irreplaceable forum. That would allow it to spin off its many values-driven subsidiary missions to their own standalone institutions, not because they are unimportant, but because they are too important to be diluted by their association with an organization that feels compelled to accept all comers. ■ A principle stripped of consequences is just a set of empty words. For the UN to tout a slogan of "Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet" on its masthead at the same time as one of its most powerful members mines its neighbor, kidnaps 200,000 children (or more), and extorts the people whose land it occupies, is to undermine the actual gravity of those values.


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September 19, 2023

News Known for all the wrong reasons

Plenty of United States Senators are famous: Lots of people know which one has been in physical fights with his neighbors, which one routinely dresses like he's taking out the garbage, and which one is obsessed with podcast popularity. Ask ordinary voters to name three who are long overdue to retire or three more who will say anything to get a TV hit, and you probably won't have trouble collecting names. ■ But in Federalist Paper No. 62, James Madison made a case for the Senate that had nothing to do with popularity or notoriety. In fact, quite the opposite: He envisioned the Senate as a center of knowledge. ■ "A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained", wrote Madison. "Some governments are deficient in both these qualities; most governments are deficient in the first. I scruple not to assert, that in American governments too little attention has been paid to the last." ■ Who is the Senate's expert on education reform? Or cybersecurity? Or blue-water naval strategy? Or renewable energy? Who is there to do the work to apply real knowledge to the big, long-term, national-scale issues that will trouble us 6 or 9 months from now, not to mention 15 or 20 years from today? ■ That it's much easier to name Senators for all the wrong reasons than to identify which ones are really beacons of wisdom ought to be a shame on American voters. We're the ones who choose them, after all. ■ And it's a further shame that we gobble up so much horse-race coverage about elections to the Senate without demanding more journalism that highlights independent judgment and creativity of thought among those actually in office. The good news, of course, is that voters have the option to completely clean house every six years, should we so choose. But it requires initiative to do so.


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September 22, 2023

News When to keep a tradition

College football season is a time when the word "tradition" gets a lot of exercise. The astute observer could pick from hundreds, from ringing a bell to banging a drum to waving to hospitalized kids. ■ But it is healthy to recognize a difference between traditions that are worth keeping and traditions that ought to be jettisoned. The stakes are low when it comes to college football, but traditions affect all kinds of other life experiences, including some of the most important choices about how people live their lives. ■ A tradition that hasn't been tested is really nothing more than a good rumor. If people like to tell one another a story because it makes them feel good, that may be harmless -- who cares whether you rub Knute Rockne's nose for good luck? But a "traditional" way of doing things can also mean taking chances with people's health or obstructing an entire gender from participating in government. ■ When they are used to remind us of good practices, traditions are among the most useful tools that human civilizations have. Not everything can be written down as a rule, and even written rules can be broken. Elections are usually conducted according to rules, but the peaceful transfer of power is enforceable more by tradition than by anything enshrined on paper. ■ For the good of society, individuals need to feel an intrinsic and inescapable pull to defend tested traditions rather than to go with their momentary passions that might suggest otherwise. People of goodwill ought to appreciate the testing of traditions because they bear out whether one is worth keeping. ■ A tradition shouldn't be tested arbitrarily or unnecessarily, but it ought to demonstrate some merit of its own. If a tradition fails a test -- if it turns out to be useless, antiquated, or counterproductive -- then we shouldn't hestitate to jettison it. But nothing is more obnoxious to the present than to worship artifacts of the past that don't build constructively towards the future.


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September 23, 2023

The Federal Trade Commission is going after a Texas chain of anesthesia providers and a private-equity investment firm that has a big ownership stake in it. The government alleges that the company "engaged in a three-part strategy to consolidate and monopolize the anesthesiology market in Texas". The case ought to be prosecuted in court, but the allegations sound like far less than what society ought to expect from its physicians. ■ We really have to reconcile ourselves with the definition of "professional". To really be a profession, a line of work needs to recognize that it holds a special kind of power (usually vital knowledge or expertise) over its clients, and that the asymmetry of the relationship requires a binding code of conduct to keep bad actors out. ■ In some (though not all) professions, there's an additional legal step -- certification or licensure that specifically excludes others from representing themselves as being comparable professionals. Of course, those licenses themselves require a lot of self-policing, which is why a state board of medicine is usually filled by doctors. (Likewise for engineers, attorneys, and accountants.) ■ Regulatory licensure inevitably excludes people who wish to perform the work, which constrains supply. This, in turn, raises the amount that the professionals can charge. This market force has to be counteracted by a certain moral expectation: If you're in a line of work that we reserve by law only for some people, then you must not use that power to exploit others for your own enrichment. ■ If your work contains some kind of code of conduct, that's a pretty good step towards being a profession. The code implies that you're going to make choices that may not benefit you personally, because they're right thing to do for the client. The idea of making "professional" choices on behalf of a client is an acknowledgment that there's a principal-agent problem in place: Only one of you has sufficient knowledge about what's best, and it's not the person paying for the services. ■ The designation of "professional" comes with a certain amount of social standing: We, the public, owe you, the professional, some gratitude. You're sacrificing some potential income that you could squeeze out of us, in exchange for the authority to make important decisions for others. Respect goes with that. ■ That definition of professionalism seems patently incompatible with arm's-length ownership. If you're not the professional delivering the service (or immediately adjacent to them), then you probably shouldn't be pulling home the profits from the work. A professional needs to be able to resist some temptation to make a marginal dollar of income from an unwitting client. ■ Professionalism is an extremely important concept to preserve within a market economy. A small but meaningful step towards that preservation might be to stop slapping the word "professional" on work that isn't a code-bound profession. If you play sports for money, you're not really a "professional" -- you're an elite athlete. If you make beautiful art, you may be an eminent artist -- but it's not a profession. And there are many ways to be a good and honorable person in sales, but "sales professional" is a paradoxical title. ■ If your job doesn't require you to profess a code of honorable and self-sacrificial behavior, then you're not really a "professional". You can still be good and decent, and you should be! But for the sake of society, if you're out to optimize your own profits, then you shouldn't demand to be respected as a professional. And if you insist on being respected as a professional, then you shouldn't demand to optimize your own profits. ■ Good people can do either thing, but the act of maximizing returns (which is the kind of thing private equity investors do, almost by definition) isn't consistent with what medical professionals are expected (and generally bound by law) to do. The FTC may or may not be right about the facts and the law in this case; that's why it should go through a judicial process. But the spirit of the case highlights why words matter, and why "professional" shouldn't be the kind of title we just give away.


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September 24, 2023

News Slow down

Perhaps a week remains until the Federal government risks entering a shutdown. It is uncomfortably familiar territory. ■ There are those who consider these shutdowns a unique failure of America's governmental system. It is true that separating powers over spending, as Article I and Article II of the Constitution force, makes the process of collecting tax revenues and spending them complicated. It's more complicated than in a process executed by a parliament. ■ But the slowdowns in the process, if not a feature themselves, are symptomatic of a feature rather than a bug in the system. We have some troublesome participants with extreme views involved in the process. But the problems they create are not reasons to take friction out of the system. ■ Every system has problematic or bad actors. Sometimes they even get elected to the Presidency. Fixing the problem of ensuring the election of quality candidates is a big one, but it's not one that is solved by greasing the skids so that legislation (and budgets) move faster.


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September 27, 2023

The United States of America The unforgivable call for violence

General Mark Milley, the outgoing Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been forced to seek personal security protection after a former President implied that Milley should be executed. Only one former President would say such a thing; his long-standing enthusiastic embrace of the language of violence being so far outside the norm that it is a personal signature. ■ Everyone makes mistakes, and politicians are no exception. Their mistakes are often made for much bigger audiences than most. But so are their choices, whether to do right or wrong. Many questions they face fall within the boundaries of judgment -- a policy decision may turn out well or badly, but an honest advocate could at least make a defensible case for or against. ■ That isn't the case when someone resorts to the language of violence. There is no defense or excuse for it, and the indisputable proof is this: Were Gen. Milley to have said the very same thing about the ex-President that the ex-President wrote about him, then the consequences wouldn't stop at swift and immediate censure, but would likely extend to criminal investigation and possible prosecution. ■ Forgiveness is a vital personal virtue. Life itself would be difficult to endure without interpersonal forgiveness. But forgiveness exists within a broader concept of reconciliation: People reclaiming a hostile space that develops between them by reaching out to make things better again. ■ There is no obligation, though, for a society at large to forgive its worst trespassers, most especially when they make no effort to reconcile. The system depends upon civilized practices like the peaceful transfer of power and the non-incendiary use of rhetoric to settle our differences. Without them, there is no policy choice that is safe for debate.


@briangongol on Twitter


September 28, 2023

News Who needs a wise old king, anyhow?

If someone with a modest fortune at their disposal really wanted to change the world on a generational basis, they could do worse than to subsidize the reimagining of classic children's stories and fairy tales to strip away the kingdoms and castles, the princesses and princes, and replace them with small-"r" republican back-stories. This may, at first, seem like a strange hangup, but the open-minded observer should see that it isn't an anachronistic plea. ■ Certainly, many of the canonical fairy tales that occupy the childhood imagination come from times when monarchs were the rule, rather than the exception: The first collection of the Grimms' Fairy Tales was published in 1812, when even notoriously democratic Switzerland was struggling to reassert rule by the people. ■ But the reliance upon monarchy as a central theme in so many familiar stories -- with wise kings dispensing justice and valiant princes sweeping young damsels off their feet -- undoubtedly conditions children to think of vast concentrated power as a good thing, so long as it is held by someone (almost always a man) with good intentions. Maybe the effect is small, and maybe open minds ultimately come around to seeing things in a more classically-liberal sense. ■ Yet it is hard not to note that, even in the world's oldest uninterrupted democracy, the "American royalty" brand name of the Kennedy clan can still launch a wildly unqualified conspiracy theorist into Presidential contention and millions of voters can remain enthralled by a man whose overriding theory of government amounted to no more than l'etat, c'est moi. ■ Would those proclivities stick with us quite so much if more of the stories that fill childhood involved messy democratic votes and contentious elections with peaceful transfers of power? Maybe not. ■ It's really never too early to begin inculcating children with the idea that all of us are equals, and that cooperation, tolerance, and consent are far better than merely accepting that someone wields divine right over the rest of us. Children can start to understand these concepts early in life, and maybe adults are obligated to do a better job of making sure they hear tales that reinforce them. Someone ought to get writing.


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September 29, 2023

News When should you stop applying sunscreen?

"Wear sunscreen" is advice so enduring and useful that Baz Luhrmann was able to convert it from a Chicago Tribune opinion column into a hit song. "Trust me on the sunscreen", wrote Mary Schmich, and she was right: It's a low-cost way to reduce the odds of cancers like melanoma. ■ Sunscreen isn't free, though, and it takes effort (even if not all that much) to apply it. And it isn't always apparent to the one applying it why it matters. The consequences are usually in the future, sometimes even decades away, but the costs are immediate. Even at the beach on a bright summer day, it can seem tedious and tiresome to keep applying more protection. ■ Skin performs a unique function for the body: It provides the barrier between the outside world and everything inside. T-cells in the bloodstream may go on the offensive, but skin is defensive in nature. When punctured, scorched, or gouged, it can heal itself -- given enough relief from new damage. ■ Those who ask seemingly open-ended questions like "When does US aid to Ukraine end?" deserve an honest answer in the form of a different question: "When do you stop applying sunscreen?" ■ Ukraine is performing a geopolitical role for American allies across Europe that is analogous to skin: It is holding back external damage, and doing a remarkable job. It isn't overstatement to worry about the Baltic countries, Poland, Slovakia, and others that are close to the source of the aggression. ■ But as long as the source of the damage remains intense, it would be premature to declare an arbitrary end to the protection. One doesn't plan to stop applying sunscreen at precisely 1:15 in the afternoon; as long as the UV rays keep coming, the protection must keep going on. Nor does one say "I shall use sunscreen until I am 27, and no more after that." ■ The danger sets the agenda. The enemy gets a vote, as military leaders are often fond of saying. And bad things may still happen, even with the most generous protective barriers in place. The costs of that protection can be immediate and real, and the benefits may be far away and difficult to envision. But prudent protections are often like that.


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September 30, 2023

Business and Finance Will the FTC get to Amazon before the market?

It isn't hard to stipulate a few things about Amazon: Its rise from online bookstore to "everything store" has been epic, its economic impact has been transformative, and its competitive position in what the Federal Trade Commission calls the "online superstore market" is truly titanic. ■ Whether the company engages in illegal monopolistic practices, as the FTC and 17 state attorneys general allege, is not so easy to stipulate. It's entirely possible, and the facts of the case should be weighed by the scales of Lady Justice. ■ But just as we shouldn't jump to conclusions about the merits of the case, we shouldn't jump to conclusions about the appropriate remedies for those conditions, either. Naturally, people's minds drift towards breakup and heavy regulation as possible "solutions" to monopolistic behavior. Those are the tools with which the general public tends to be most familiar. ■ What Amazon does is complex, though. Phenomenally so. And in a time when physical retailers are closing down for many reasons, the very presence of a reliable "online superstore" may ultimately do more social good than any cost it imposes. Having the full inventory of an Amazon warehouse accessible from any smartphone -- even in a retail desert -- is a powerful force for economic equality. ■ There's no obvious regulatory scheme for what Amazon does that would be guaranteed to do more good than harm. And breakups often work out in massively unanticipated ways (just look at what happened to AT&T). The government could split Amazon in half, and there's no small risk that the resulting companies might not evolve into new monopolists, each in a different market. ■ Someone will ultimately come along to challenge the Amazon model in a sustainably powerful way. The best route would almost certainly be to focus not on offering everything from every seller, but to offer a guaranteed high-quality, modestly-priced private-label product for a large spectrum of goods. ■ Search costs can be very real, and consumers may well lack the patience to conduct two separate searches (say, one on Amazon-I, and one on Amazon-II) for every purchase. But they might well be ready to comparison shop with a rival online superstore that offers a good private label for everything -- think Costco's Kirkland brand, or the entire business model of the Aldi grocery chain. ■ If history is any guide, the market will probably usurp Amazon long before the FTC will. Just ask Nokia or the development team for Microsoft Internet Explorer. Or, from the superstore world, the teams at Sears and Montgomery Ward. It's hard to stay on top of any mountain forever.


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