Gongol.com Archives: December 2023

Brian Gongol

December 2023
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December 1, 2023

News A possible model for local voting

In November, many American communities held local elections for city councils and school boards. And while some places have succumbed to the temptation to turn those campaigns into referenda on tired national themes, local offices are still often filled on the basis of real community-level issues and individual candidate merit. ■ A simple heuristic for choosing good candidates might look something like this, in descending order of importance: Eliminate radicals from consideration; don't let foxes guard henhouses; favor real stakeholders in outcomes before self-promoters; favor independents over squads; seek balance with some gentle tension; steer clear of single-issue candidates; and, look for those with reputational equity at risk. ■ It should be obvious why radicals of all stripes should be eliminated from contention. And it should also be fairly clear why single-issue candidates are toxic, too: Any office of any importance will face a range of issues over the course of a normal term of office, and if someone runs as the standard-bearer for just one issue, they're depriving voters of the information needed to make an informed judgment about trusting them with many other decisions. ■ The problem of letting foxes guard henhouses is especially acute where labor unions are involved; teachers' unions (and other public-sector unions) often have very strong feelings about which candidates they want seated in office, yet the conflict of interest that creates should be just as obvious as the one that would exist if, say, a landlord leased a district all of its school buildings and wanted a seat on the school board. ■ For similar reasons, those who run independently -- as long as it's done in good faith, rather than "against everybody" -- ought to win a few marks over those who run in squads. As it's often been said: If everyone is thinking alike, then not everyone is thinking. ■ Some people run for local offices as an obvious springboard to higher offices, and while some of them bring high energy and expansive talent, it's better to find real stakeholders who plan to stick around long enough to experience the consequences of their own choices over the long run. Likewise, the person who has earned reputational equity outside of running for office ought to generally be a better bet than the fresh face without a known track record; the person who has already built a name as a pillar of the community has more to lose by going wrong than the person who could just as easily move down the road without losing anything. ■ And, in most group settings, better decisions are reached if there is some gentle tension in place among competing interests or those with different perspectives. Good decision-making often depends more on avoiding knowable errors than on achieving routine consensus. It's more likely that those errors will be rooted out if some natural healthy disagreement is represented at the table as a matter of course.

The United States of America A seat on the bench

The 19th Amendment, securing the right of American women to vote, had not yet been ratified law for a full ten years by the time Sandra Day O'Connor was born in March 1930. The amendment was long overdue, of course; John Adams received a letter from Abigail in 1776, pleading with him that "in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors". ■ When John dismissed her entreaty, Abigail Adams retaliated: "[W]hilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken". Adams has been retroactively assessed as one of our highest-IQ Presidents and he respected the intellect of his own wife, yet even he was shackled to the knuckle-dragging chauvinism prevalent in his day. ■ It should not have taken 131 years to correct the omission of women's suffrage from the Constitution, nor should it have taken 192 years to seat the first woman on the Supreme Court. (About 100 men were seated before Justice O'Connor.) ■ But in the course of striving towards "a more perfect union", someone has to be the first to make a breakthrough -- though many others end up sharing the sense of disenchantment that comes from suffering under the lingering imperfection. On the occasion of Justice O'Connor's passing, it is worth noting how many rights were secured (by amendment, statute, or court ruling) in or near her lifetime. ■ It is even more important to note how public opinion has made colossal strides in a "more perfect" direction during the same window of time. Whether we like it or not, public opinion is the ultimate guarantor of rights in any society. Any gains made in rules written on paper can be torched in practically an instant; just ask any well-known country with a constitution written after O'Connor became a lawyer. It is often good to change the law, but there is no substitute for changing hearts and minds as well.

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December 2, 2023

Broadcasting Jack Welch was wrong

As head of General Electric, Jack Welch famously embraced a policy of purging the giant company of the bottom 10% of employees each year. This policy, which required "forced ranking" of the employees, has some superficial appeal to those who like the language of ruthless competition in business. ■ But while Welch's "vitality curve" concept can trace some of its origins to the well-known and widely-applicable Pareto principle (otherwise known as the 80/20 Rule), turning it into an HR regime is an arbitrary choice. ■ Welch called it "candor", but for the process to be any good, the ranking mechanism has to be right, the assessments need to be accurate, and above all, the lowest-ranked employees would need to be under-performing through their own fault. ■ Anyone who has worked under a bad manager, gone through a sloppy training session, or been the customer-facing representative of a product or process going through a quality-control crisis on the back end, knows that under-performance can easily turn out to be a systemic failure rather than a personal one. ■ The 10% culling value is arbitrary, and it gets in the way of the much more important task: Consciously getting rid of people whose behavior is toxic. A good institution has expectations of behavior that are independent of performance metrics. ■ A person like George Santos should be expelled from Congress not for being a "bottom 10% performer", but for being an obviously malignant presence. He could have passed all the bipartisan laws under the Sun and conducted the world's most flawless constituent service, and still deserved expulsion for being crooked. ■ It takes a lot to get Congress to undertake an expulsion; it's happened only three times since the Civil War. But maybe it should happen more often; voters generally have a right to the representation they choose, but lack of fealty to the Constitution and shameless engagement in bribery ought to be compelling grounds for disqualification from office. ■ Taking action on toxic behavior isn't a matter of performance thresholds, be they 10%, 25%, or 2%. Lots of people can have their skills improved so that early underperformance can be transformed into later success. But too many people are good at getting jobs done but doing good work in a bad spirit. Good managers ought to be on the lookout for ways to purge contemptible behavior without delay.

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December 3, 2023


There is a certain art to putting a name on an educational activity. Workshop sessions, non-fiction books, and YouTube how-to videos all get a boost when their creators come up with catchy titles that pique the curiosity of the prospective audience and promise to satisfy. ■ Curiosity becomes currency in those situations where people have the freedom to choose among different experiences. And when a subject is already in circulation as a popular topic, it's a time-honored practice to find a "news hook" and latch an old topic to whatever is new and current. ■ In that sense, college professors -- often in an implicit contest against their peers to get the marginal student to register for a course (or even a major) that demonstrates the lecturer's value to the community -- can't truly be blamed for turning shameless about their class proposals. ■ That notwithstanding, some courses are clearly the academic equivalent of fan service: Not really expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but good for putting some churn through the registrar's office. And Harvard has one of those coming up in the spring: "English 183ts. Taylor Swift and Her World". ■ Swift is a huge cultural influence in 2023. She makes bundles of money -- maybe $4 billion on her "Eras" tour alone. Her music is played endlessly. She is the biggest name in attendance at NFL games. ■ But it costs $54,269 to pay for one year of Harvard undergraduate tuition (implying a value of about $5,000 for a three-semester-hour course), and a Taylor Swift-themed deep dive could be accomplished in an ambitious full-day seminar on a Saturday. Maybe it's all just a ploy, and the heavy hype of the class title is really just a ruse to lure registrations from students who don't realize they're really in for a whole lot of poetry with merely a veneer of Swiftie fandom. But that, too, would be a problem if it were really all that much bait-and-switch. ■ College should be at least some fun, and a good undergraduate course of study ought to include a couple of hours devoted to niche subjects. That makes us well-rounded. But niche doesn't have to drift into full-blown frivolity. Balance matters everywhere, and sometimes a song is just a song. Sober-minded people ought to try to keep it that way.

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December 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet The right to repair your laptop

One of the most impressive displays at the Iowa State Fair each year is the collection of old tractors painstakingly restored by members of the FFA. Even dyed-in-the-wool city kids can appreciate the remarkable transformations performed on rusty old machines that end up looking quite literally as good as new. ■ The idea of working on one's own machinery is so deeply embedded in farming culture that tractor owners went to legal war with John Deere over the "right to repair" their own equipment. No manufacturer has a bigger brand in farming than Deere, but even they couldn't stop owners from securing a legal right to turn their own wrenches. ■ Computers are a different story. In their countless forms, they are ubiquitous in modern life -- and even though there's a lot that can be done on a smartphone, almost every American household has some kind of laptop or desktop computer (92% had at least one in 2018). ■ But computing skills don't extend very far into "right to repair" territory. Most people know how to do their specific tasks, many know how to conduct routine updates, and a few have the skills to dive into sophisticated settings. But almost nobody outside of a Linux users group knows anything about how to build an operating system. ■ This means that computer users are largely at the mercy of their operating system suppliers: Microsoft (with probably two-thirds of the personal computers in use), Apple in a distant second, with Google and various Linux teams far behind. Thus, it ought to be thunderous news that Microsoft has set an end-of-support date for Windows 10 on October 14, 2025. ■ In its own words, just 22 months from now, "Microsoft will no longer provide bug fixes for issues, security fixes for vulnerabilities, time zone updates, or technical support for problems that might occur." While Microsoft is offering updates to Windows 11, a huge number of computers don't meet the minimum hardware requirements to make the leap, and Microsoft's advice that "now is the time to transition to new PCs running Windows 11" is easier said than done. ■ This is bound to result in cybersecurity problems on a massive scale. Devices running operating systems outside of their supported service lives are a major known vulnerability, and the obsolescence of Windows 10 is bound to hit especially hard. That's because the computers that cannot make the leap to Windows 11 because of hardware limitations will tend to be in the hands of users who are less able to afford new machines. ■ The dangers are bound to be plentiful, and there isn't an obvious solution unless Microsoft reneges on its plan and decides to treat ongoing basic security support for Windows 10 as a matter of national cybersecurity infrastructure. But that's not their business model, and unless the Federal government intervenes -- perhaps with a "right to repair" for operating systems -- we're likely headed for some dangerous sailing ahead.

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December 7, 2023

Threats and Hazards There are settled questions

There are times when hair-splitting is appropriate, or even expected. If you're protesting a ticket in traffic court, haggling over the value of a used car, or contesting the property-tax valuation of your home, then a certain amount of cleverness about definitions and distinctions is basically the American Way. ■ But there are some settled questions in the world: Slavery is wrong. Freedom of conscience is good. Intimidation through violence is wrong. Government by the consent of the governed is good. ■ Among those settled matters, it should be easy to denounce genocide. That some prominent university presidents couldn't say so in testimony before Congress is disgraceful. It's not the kind of question that ought to require cleanup statements after the fact. ■ Congressional testimony can be fraught; it's a crime to lie to Congress, but it isn't a crime for members of Congress to grandstand. That sets up an imbalance of both power and incentives, but that imbalance shouldn't become an invitation to skirt the certitude of settled questions. ■ There aren't very many of those, and free-ranging inquiry is (and ought to remain) a hallmark of America's world-best system of higher education. But without at least a handful of boundaries that dare to declare some ideas off-limits, it becomes impossible to harvest the benefits of a liberal education. The mass murder of an entire group of people is quite easily one of those ideas that is indisputably out-of-bounds, and it shouldn't take an uncomfortable do-over to say so.

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December 8, 2023

News Pearl Harbor Day still matters for peace

It is believed that only one survivor of the USS Arizona is still alive today, 82 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The passage of time means that only a few years remain until no first-hand memories of that day remain, and yet America continues to mark the dreadful attack and its 2,403 victims, as well we should. ■ Commemorating the events of that day doesn't whitewash the Allied conduct of the war that ensued, which included merciless bombing campaigns against places like Dresden and Tokyo. Nor does it subtract from the deeply productive friendly peace constructed after the war, which made Japan the world's fourth-largest economy and created an alliance regarded now as the "cornerstone of U.S. security interests in Asia". ■ The opposite is more likely to be true: Honest remembrance serves as a reminder why an international friendship built on common values is preferable to destructive hostility. It may also be the case that it helps to illustrate why wars must sometimes be brought to painful but decisive conclusions. ■ Perhaps, in the extreme case, an aggressor must be brought not to a stalemate but to a crushing defeat before rebuilding can begin. What would have happened had Japan (and Germany) been merely contained into a ceasefire, rather than compelled into unconditional surrender? Detente may have prevailed in the subsequent decades, but we cannot be certain that anything like friendship might have resulted. ■ Remembering the past -- including the shortcomings, foibles, and even the atrocities committed by all sides -- is how we remind ourselves that humans and our endeavors are never perfect, but that we have choices about the directions in which we choose to strive. We can drive toward what we know to be good, or we can run away from it. Only when we know that our choices will have consequences, and possess the certainty that those consequences will be remembered, do we begin to hear the necessary voice of conscience that compels us to move in the right direction, however imperfectly.

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December 9, 2023

Business and Finance The flag-waving sales pitch

Americans who watched any amount of mainstream commercial television in the 1980s likely grew familiar with the name of Victor Kiam, who "liked the [Remington] shaver so much, I bought the company". He became a household name strictly by virtue of his salesmanship on behalf of an electric shaver -- not for gossip-page theatrics, nor for having a seat on a game show for entrepreneurship. Television commercials alone did the trick. ■ Kiam may have had a gift for the sales pitch, but there was an earnestness about his style that stands out. "A company must be honest and it must insist that its representatives be honest", he wrote. "Some hyperbole is expected in any pitch, but never promise anything that you can't deliver. If you do, you may get the order this time, but you'll never get another." ■ It's jarring to contrast that flavor of rule-conscious enthusiasm with the words of Elon Musk, 2023's most famous entrepreneur, who goes on vulgar tirades against advertisers and keeps moving the target date for his plans to colonize Mars, while amplifying antisemitic social-media posts from his own giant platform. ■ Victor Kiam's style was shaped by Cold War sensibilities, which above all included the perpetual existential threat of Communist aggression. The shadow of that threat may have created an environment in which Kiam could write, again in self-evident earnest, "If you're a sales clerk who thinks he's wasting away on a mundane job, find your self-esteem. You are a vital cog in the free-enterprise system. You are the public representative of thousands of entrepreneurs whose products are sold in your store." ■ Those words are, in fact, no less true today than they were in 1986. All of them. But today we see a "Target run" as an exercise in "retail therapy", not an act of freedom-loving defiance against the godless Communists in the Kremlin. ■ Only a bona fide lunatic would want to bring back the Cold War. But we ought not to lose sight of the fact that freedom still isn't universal, nor that some of the world's most heavily-armed militaries belong to some of the world's most awful regimes. Having the Soviet Union around back then to define a stark geopolitical contrast may have been convenient to how we organized a certain American worldview, but that only serves to underline why business and entrepreneurship and values need to be consciously stitched together in the public mind today.

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December 10, 2023

News The post-mall America

Visitors to Iceland can scarcely avoid at least one stop in Reykjavik, and one of the most prominent features of the waterfront near the city center is a rather striking concert hall and convention center called Harpa. More ambitious than just an opera house or a concert venue, Harpa integrates conference venues, banquet halls, smaller meeting rooms, shops and restaurants, art displays, and public spaces, all wrapped around a main hall that seats 1,800. ■ It's a bold facility for a metropolis of a quarter-million people. Iceland doesn't have an unlimited resource base upon which to draw; the entire country has just 360,000 residents. Yet Harpa is a busy place, with a virtually non-stop schedule of events. ■ Across the United States, communities have been coming to terms with the widespread collapse of the market for indoor shopping malls. They aren't dead and gone everywhere, but "zombie malls" (and their fully-dead bretheren) are commonplace enough to merit their own fan sites. And while the nostalgia factor is significant, the costs to replace or renew those spaces is enormous: One indoor mall in Grand Island, Nebraska, is being demolished and reinvented for $250 million. ■ The appetite for physical "third places" -- neither home nor work, but someplace else -- is real. That is perhaps the case now more than ever, as terms like "epidemic of loneliness" find their way even into national-level policy-making. ■ Somewhere, somehow, a community looking to euthanize a "zombie mall" and recover something from the tax base sitting under all of that concrete ought to give a serious look at trying their own Harpa experiment. Reykjavik's lively community space is 300,000 square feet -- about half to one-third the common size of a once-prosperous American shopping mall. ■ The required physical conversion really might not be all that stark, considering that anchor stores were often intentionally built to put lots of open space under a single roof with few obstructions (just like a theater). It's really more a question of finding the legal and financial resources to take one of them out of "zombie" ownership, then installing imaginative, energetic management to make it a lively space not just some of the time, but all of the time. (And there's no reason such a space couldn't host plenty of money-making operations as vendors or as contractors.) ■ At least since the post-World War II boom, most of the innovation in public spaces has been left to private-sector ownership, and there will always be a place for money-making enterprises to attract new visitors. But the crash in the retail economy has left real physical scars on many communities, and only a Pollyanna would believe it's going to repair itself. Someplace ought to show itself the first to imaine what a great post-mall public space could become. If tiny, geographically isolated Iceland can do it, surely an American city with a similar population base and a good highway could do the same.

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December 11, 2023

The United States of America It's nearly time to vote

The first votes of the 2024 Presidential election are about a month away, and as usual, the effect of the first event is to heighten the attention paid to the race. The early caucuses and primaries are also a good reminder about where voting fits within the structure of a healthy society. ■ Liberties are like the bricks or stones that make up a wall, and democracy is like the mortar. It's possible to stack bricks or stones without any mortar, but to do so takes extraordinary care, and the right push can cause them all to topple. Similarly, liberties are the big, important things that underpin human dignity. ■ Conversely, one can build a wall out of mortar alone, but it isn't very strong on its own -- it cannot go as high and it is easily cracked. Democracy is the same; it can gain traction quickly but end up backsliding if the necessary framework is missing. ■ The quest for civilization depends on building with both elements. Human liberties really are the big things to be secured: Freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of association, and the like. It's plausible that these things could be guaranteed under something other than a democratic system of government, but they would be incredibly unstable. Democracy is what binds the guarantee of popular opinion to the security of the most valuable liberties. ■ That's why we should always take threats to democracy seriously, not lightly -- but also not hyperbolically. The language of "the most important election of your lifetime" is almost invariably a mistake, because democracy is a chain that is tested most where it is weakest, not where it seems to be "most important". ■ Democratic weakness usually comes not from being wrong, but from being indifferent, complacent, or cynical. If every error or difference is amplified out of proportion, then people can become exhausted with the process and lose sight that their small, mathematically insignificant contributions at the ballot box are the mortar holding together the bricks of their liberties.

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December 14, 2023

News Only evil can think lives are so cheap

No sensible history of the last two years includes any reasonable allegation that Ukraine provoked a war with Russia. There is evidence only that conventional wisdom was too skeptical of the Kremlin's aggressive intentions at the dawn of 2022. ■ Now, 315,000 Russian casualties and fewer, but far too many, Ukraininan deaths and injuries later, the war continues with some signals indicating that it could persist for years to come. Russia's initial invasion had many hallmarks of a gamble for resurrection by a regime with no real legitimacy. Now, having torched so many lives and resources on the invasion, that same regime seems even more desperate. ■ Ukraine's tactical creativity, its strategic fortitude, and its evident avoidance of waste in conducting its own defense all ought to reflect well upon its requests for further assistance from the United States and other Western countries. War isn't cheap, but the cost of allowing Ukraine to go without necessary arms because of myopic stinginess in the United States is really very high. ■ Bad things don't go away just because we choose not to see them. The Kremlin could stop the bloodshed overnight by ceasing fire on its own and withdrawing to its own borders. That it has not done so, despite having wasted 90% of its pre-conflict military, tells us that it will continue to choose death and violence until it faces real defeat. For how comparatively little it has actually cost the United States to support Ukraine's defense thus far, it would be lunacy to cut back now.

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December 15, 2023

News Don't defame election workers

If Rudy Giuliani had always been an obvious crook, a jury's decision to award $148 million in damages to two election workers as compensation for his defamatory words would still be a huge sum, but it wouldn't also be a tragedy. Giuliani, though, was a man who once obviously knew better. ■ For as clownish as the former New York mayor's behavior has become, it's easy to forget that he forged his place in the public eye as a crusading prosecutor who ruthlessly went after the mob and innovated the legal means of taking down organized crime. It was a record of which he could be proud, even before he took his place in the spotlight as a steady leader during the crisis of 9/11. ■ That he now behaves in such a way that his own defense attorneys plead that he "shouldn't be defined by what's happened in recent times" forces thoughtful people to reflect on a difficult question: Was he always the kind of person who would lie about decent ordinary people just to win a temporary political advantage? Or did something about him change? ■ If it was the former, why didn't the public see it before? If it was the latter, are the rest of us susceptible to the same kinds of changes? One calls into question the quality of long-standing public opinion. The other forces us to ask how much we control and determine the quality of our own character. Both are uncomfortable challenges. ■ The philosopher Maimonides counseled that "Man is created in such a way that his character traits and actions are influenced by his neighbors and friends, and he follows the custom of the people in his country. Therefore a man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions, and to keep away from the wicked, who walk in darkness, so that he avoids learning from their actions." ■ While it's possible that the world could have been very wrong about Giuliani for a very long time, he certainly put himself at considerable personal risk in going after the mafia (and corrupt cops, upon whom he set his sights as well). It's hard to imagine that he could have accepted that kind of risk without being driven, at least in part, by some moral sensibility; thus, we ought to take seriously the problem of a change in character. ■ It's no mystery in whose orbit Giuliani has been traveling in recent years. Anyone who considers joining the same circles ought to beware that their character is unlikely to hold up any better than his.

Computers and the Internet The cloud is a real place

The notion of "cloud" computing tends to anchor a perception that computing is ethereal -- that it doesn't exist in physical space. But while the metaphor is appropriate in the sense that computing by accessing data centers over the Internet permits users to get big work done on small devices that are "as light as a cloud", it breaks down when we are forced to acknowledge that cloud computing requires real physical resources. Energy is the most obvious of those resources, and it's needed not just for the computer processing, but also for the storage. And we may well be creating a feedback loop thanks to cloud computing: The easier it is to process cheaply and quickly, the more likely we are to create outputs we don't necessarily need. But then they get stored -- perhaps indefinitely. That, in turn, ends up demanding yet more energy. (Though it's worth noting that data centers also take up physical space, often in spaces on the periphery of urban areas.)

Agriculture Who harvests the most oats?

North Dakota narrowly edges out Iowa for the state with the largest number of acres of oats harvested in 2023: 105,000 to 95,000. The competition would have been fiercer back before the age of tractors. The two states together account for a quarter of all such harvested acres in the country.

News "Friendly fire" kills three Israelis being held hostage in Gaza

A cruel reminder that 137 people are still being held hostage by Hamas.

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December 16, 2023

Health Nothing automatically makes early risers into saints

One of the silliest exercises in modern life is the attempt to incant one's personal circadian rhythms as a character judgment. Some are morning people, some are night owls, some are in-between, some change over time. We're all over the map, biologically, and the average natural "day" cycle for a human might actually be 25 hours, which doesn't fit any model usefully at all. ■ People ought to work with the patterns and practices that suit them best, not what someone arbitrarily suggests as a rule. If going to bed early makes a person feel good, then there's nothing wrong with that. But for others, late night is prime time to get things done. ■ It doesn't do any good for the productivity-obsessed to amplify capricious guidelines like "nothing good happens after 8 on a weeknight". That's utter nonsense; feel free to check in with the Pope at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and see how much trouble he's getting into. ■ What difference is 3:10 in the morning, when experienced as the waking hour of a Benedictine monk or when it's just after a forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center has issued the regularly-scheduled Day 3 Convective Outlook? There's no moral dimension to the time on the clock, and it seems particularly arbitrary to get picky about who's up at what times when everyone's a little bit of a night owl on December 21st, purely out of necessity. ■ People ought to be awake when it feels natural and right, and be asleep when they're tired. Winston Churchill took naps while in pursuit of victory during World War II, then worked until midnight. It's neither good nor bad to be active at any particular hour -- as long as the pursuit is good, the time is immaterial.

The United States of America No quitters allowed

Congress has passed legislation inside the National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting any President from unilaterally withdrawing the United States from NATO. It was a joint effort, led by Senators Tim Kaine and Marco Rubio. ■ The Constitution gives the President broad latitude to negotiate international agreements, but only out of necessity: In Federalist Paper No. 64, it is explained like this: "Thus we see that the Constitution provides that our negotiations for treaties shall have every advantage which can be derived from talents, information, integrity, and deliberate investigations, on the one hand, and from secrecy and despatch on the other." ■ But that same Federalist Paper contemplated the possibility of things turning bad: "As to corruption, the case is not supposable. He must either have been very unfortunate in his intercourse with the world, or possess a heart very susceptible of such impressions, who can think it probable that the President and two thirds of the Senate will ever be capable of such unworthy conduct." Note that "Publius" (in this case, John Jay) implicitly acknowledges the possibility of a President being corrupted -- which is why the very high bar of Senate supermajority approval is required. ■ Lots of people find ways to hyperventilate about their opponents coming to power, but the seriousness of their concerns is revealed by the actual steps they take. In this case, there are real and non-trivial concerns about the potential for NATO opponents to engage in dirty tactics to undermine the alliance and its interests. Influence operations are everywhere. ■ This re-assertion of Senate authority -- legitimate since the adoption of the Constitution -- is a timely act of national self-interest. Rules that make our own behavior steadier and more predictable reinforce the conditions that make good alliances possible.

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December 20, 2023

News A hot ballot

The decision by the Colorado Supreme Court to find that Donald Trump is ineligible to appear on the state's primary election ballot is an extraordinary one, in the most literal sense of the word, as the court itself acknowledged: "We are also cognizant that we travel in uncharted territory". ■ The novelty of the situation is, naturally, a consequence of the former President's uniquely malignant behavior. Even the notorious Presidential failure James Buchanan left office without stirring violence. And though we've been using Oliver Wendell Holmes's phrase "hard cases make bad law" since 1904, even hard cases must be decided when the circumstances present themselves. ■ The Colorado decision makes an emphatic case in favor of preserving an institution that comes under almost perpetual criticism: The Electoral College. The Electoral College made sense at the time of the Founding in part because the logistics of coordinating an election prior to electronic communications or high-speed travel favored a system that made votes easier to manage piecemeal. ■ We may have the benefits of instantaneous communications today, but the merits of a compartmentalized election -- one that takes place state-by-state, largely under state-specific rules, before being reassembled at a known time and place -- are at least as valuable today as they were in 1787, if not even more so. A national popular vote, in which Presidential elections would be decided strictly by the total number of votes cast nationwide, would inevitably cause unintended and unpopular consequences. ■ First, it would turn every case like Colorado's into a matter of bitter national contention: Under the Electoral College approach, whichever side loses the present Colorado case still lives to "fight another day" in 49 other states, plus DC. But if a national popular vote were to be the standard, then it's virtually impossible to see how any decision about eligibility wouldn't instantly become a case for the United States Supreme Court, with the decision binding on every ballot in every voter's hands, nationwide. ■ Second, and probably more consequentially, a national popular vote could only be administered by a very powerful national bureaucracy: Imagine the power of the Federal Election Commission, but on steroids. It would need to have not only the reach to conduct an electoral count in every state, but also the power to enforce compliance with its decisions everywhere. The only way to achieve a water-tight national count would be to conduct a vote beyond the reach of any state-level supreme court decision binding upon state-level elected officials. ■ Of course, such a bureaucracy would have to be staffed, and leadership would have to be appointed. The current FEC governance structure depends far upon goodwill and bipartisan cooperation to achieve its already difficult work. Any bureaucracy big enough to set and enforce the rules for a national election would become a prize too valuable not to become nearly as hotly contested as the election itself, since who controls the rules becomes who controls the outcomes. ■ Compartmentalizing our elections through the mechanism of the Electoral College may be an imperfect approach; there is certainly a case to be made for expanding the House of Representatives not just for its own sake, but to make the Electoral College a better approximation of the popular vote. But if the Colorado case is hot (which indeed it is), then abandoning the Electoral College would only make it fifty times more explosive.

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December 21, 2023

It's hard to think of a human problem that isn't responsive, in at least some way, to the patient application of sustained effort. While revolutionary events do come and go, it's a fool's errand to count on being able to strike at just the right moment to ride the perfect wave to success. For most of us, most of the time, a rule identified by Michael Bloomberg tends to prevail: "Every significant advance I or my company has ever made has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary: small earned steps -- not big lucky hits." ■ The trouble for most of us is that there is such emphasis placed on the bold, sweeping gesture: It's why people commit to aggressive New Year's resolutions, signing up en masse to quit bad habits or pick up good ones, particularly by making big public commitments in front of an audience on social media. ■ Results are often (though not always) inversely proportional to the size of the steps taken. It's often better to make a very small but very sustainable change of habit than to try to chart a bold new course on January 1st. ■ Someone who commits to walking a mile every other day for their health and sticks to the plan will have stepped the equivalent of seven marathons by the end of a year. That's hardly as bold as promising to train for and run a single marathon as a resolution -- but the sustainability is the key. Most resoutions are simply too big. ■ Maybe it's the effect of an educational system that often depends upon big events like final exams that sets so many of us up for that kind of behavior. High-stakes tests that invite last-minute cramming routines might just train impressionable young minds to believe that an outcome doesn't count if it doesn't hinge on one big consequence. ■ We ought to look for ways to break that impression and give us a path to de-program ourselves, as individuals and as a culture, so that we can appreciate the leverage that comes from keeping on with small acts that don't seem as worthy of attention. Like the power of compounding interest, the results of modest but relentlessly sustained effort often don't look like much until they've reached a point where an enormous outcome looks practically inevitable in retrospect.

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December 23, 2023

News Fairness and balance

In an enormous essay that weighs in at more than 17,000 words, the sitting "Lexington" columnist at The Economist has offered a highly personal perspective on "When the New York Times lost its way". The author, James Bennet, was not that long ago the opinion editor at the Times, and he expresses considerable alarm over the deterioration of classical liberalism at the most influential newspaper in America. ■ Bennet has a personal grievance on the matter, having been pushed out of his position at the Times over a controversial op-ed piece published on his watch in 2020. But he sees his own experience as a reflection of a bigger cultural concern: "The Times's problem has metastasised from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favour one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether." ■ Even more telling is his observation that, among the paper's contributors, "Even conservatives are liberals' idea of a conservative." We do ourselves no favors at having wrecked the definition of "liberal" early in the 20th Century. The word ought to label those individuals, groups, and ideas that adhere to the classical liberal principles that gave the world concepts like individual liberties and limited government. ■ The convolution of that word into a lazy substitute for "left-of-center" has made it almost impossible to articulate a vital point: A (classical) liberal society can only be sustained through the work of some actors who come from a little to the left, and some who come from a little to the right. ■ It's fairly easy to see how people who crusade for free-speech rights or maximizing practical access to the right to vote are seen as preserving the necessary order of the liberty-based society. But they need corresponding peers who make common cause on the very big picture by promoting a benign sense of patriotism or by building institutions to teach concepts like duty and honor to youth. These "conservative liberals" are essential to the mix. ■ To the alert reader, it's often clear when the Times (and other publications) are engaged in a sort of box-checking behavior -- putting a spotlight on those "liberals' idea of a conservative" in order to appear balanced. What is far less evident is a real commitment to seeing that the project to build and maintain a free and open society takes some dynamic tension between people who arrive at the classically liberal position from a "progressive" starting point and those who come from "conservative" origins. ■ Between those identities, disagreements on policies (which can be frequent) all too often mask a strong consensus about the fundamental rules of debate and behavior, not to mention a basic commitment to maximizing outcomes that are good for the individual most generally. The good-faith nature of their disagreements over policy choices makes the bigger consensus hard to recognize sometimes, but the Times and others need to be alert that it is real.

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December 24, 2023

News Never forget Christmas 1991

Christmas is of course among the most important religious holidays in the world. But those who have no interest in its theological meanings and its most devout adherents alike ought to take just a moment every Christmas to celebrate the events of Christmas 1991. ■ It was on that holiday that Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, who lived until just last year, was indisputably a complicated man: Nobody could rise to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party without having a dark side. ■ But Gorbachev is an excellent case study in the necessity of judging historical figures not only in uncompromising absolute terms, but in directional terms as well. A look at Russia today ought to yield a mountain of shame. The last 32 years have been a parade of truly evil acts of aggression and missed opportunities to become a better country. ■ Gorbachev wasn't trying to steer in that direction, though. He was, in his imperfect way, trying to leave malignant Soviet patterns in the dustbin of history. And, in fairness, he didn't have the time he needed to map out a worthy transition to something better. Events overtook his intentions. ■ He was trying to steer in the right direction, though. There's little good that can be said about the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev turned against it before external events foreclosed on his other options. And by his hand, a brutal, murderous, repressive experiment was ended. The people who try to push history in the right direction deserve to be remembered, not just out of gratitude, but as a practice in urging ourselves to be better, too.

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December 25, 2023

News A free conscience

The carol "We Three Kings" finds its way into circulation with ease every Christmas season, but it is based upon the truly dismaying account in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew's version of events says that King Herod ordered the murder of every boy in Bethlehem under two years of age. ■ Whether it was a credible historical event or just an allegorical device, the tale ought to be distressing. And every time the story of the magi is told, whether in religious celebration or just in the singing of Christmas carols, it ought to serve as a reminder that the world we occupy today remains one in which governments clash with freedom of conscience. Sometimes it's out of jealousy, sometimes it's out of other sinister motives. ■ The Pew Research Center conducts an ongoing assessment of religious restrictions in the world, and the chronic problem since the start of their reporting has been that the majority of the world's population lives under high levels of government restrictions on the exercise of religious faith. ■ China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan are all included in that bracket, making for four of the five largest countries in the world by population. That quite obviously tilts the balance, but it also illustrates the gravity of the problem. ■ Freedom of conscience is supposed to be a component of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but we're clearly a long way away from putting that declaration into universal practice. Coming around to a fundamental belief in the goodness of that freedom takes something of a conversion in its own right -- sometimes people like to see all religions restricted (see: the Communist Party of China), while others want all religions restricted except their own (see: any number of theocratic states today). ■ But for that freedom to be any good and for it to have any real meaning, it has to apply to all -- so long as their exercise of that freedom doesn't infringe on the well-being of others, whether they do or do not share the belief being exercised. Two millennia have passed since the events told by Matthew. It's a shame on humanity that state power, violence, and religion remain so awfully intertwined in so much of the world today.

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December 27, 2023

News Investments we'd rather not need to make, but should anyway

75 cents won't even buy an order of hash browns at McDonald's. But it's the per-capita amount that Americans are spending on the final authorized drawdown of weapons aid going to Ukraine. $250 million, 335 million Americans, 75¢ per person. ■ At every turn, the choices made by the Kremlin in the war it plainly started have been wasteful and indefensible. 315,000 of its own soldiers have been killed or wounded, not to mention the military and civilian casualties it has inflicted on Ukraine. The human toll is appalling, and the budgetary consequences are huge, too. ■ In the Cold War, the United States was willing to spend, at times, nearly three times as much of our national income on the military as we do today -- all in the hope of choking out the Soviet Union in a giant cycle of mutually-reinforcing behavior. Ultimately, our adversary tapped out. ■ Today's Russia isn't yesterday's Soviet Union, but it has at least some designs on trying to get back there. Even if our contributions to Ukraine's defense weren't justified by the moral case for helping a young democracy secure its freedom from a revanchist neighbor, it would still make fiscal sense for the United States to invest in neutralizing an adversarial military force at such an incredibly low cost. Supposing that we have spent as much as $46 billion on military aid over the last two years, that's still less than $150 per person to set back a major threat by 18 years from when it began a war. ■ Nobody should doubt that in an ideal world, no such spending would be necessary at all. But we don't live in that world, and we're stuck with facing certain costs to make the world more secure for ourselves and our allies, either now or later. The more conclusively we demonstrate the conviction to see things through in backing the right side in the current conflict, the less likely we are to have to spend vastly more later on.

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December 29, 2023

Threats and Hazards Russia targets Ukrainian shopping malls and homes in bombing and missile campaign

At least 16 people were killed in what was probably the biggest air assault on Ukrainian cities since the full-scale invasion began. Ukraine isn't hiding its armed forces, yet Russia attacks civilian sites. There cannot be undue hesitation about supporting Ukraine's self-defense with all reasonable materials that can be supplied. ■ If this is how the Kremlin acts after nearly two years of trying to wear down Ukraine, can anyone in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Moldova sleep soundly at night? Each borders Russia or Ukraine. If Ukraine isn't supported energetically in its own defense, what's to stop the next border from falling?

Broadcasting Phonies and the phonies who copy their acts

(Video) Tucker Carlson in 2003 with a pretty incisive opinion on Bill O'Reilly's shtick, which sounds a great deal like Tucker Carlson's act in 2023.

Computers and the Internet The problem of digital rentership

For any number of goods delivered digitally -- television shows, computer programs, e-books, music -- sellers are increasingly insisting that they own the rights and you, the customer, are only renting access. That's a pendulum that has swung a very long way from where it began (when the customer owned the rights and the medium, like a cassette tape, was largely just a delivery mechanism), but one can be sure it will end up swinging somewhat back in the other direction. ■ It won't swing all the way back, of course. But the current scheme begs for abuse and workarounds, which are a sure sign that some alert seller will recognize the market being cultivated by bad service experiences. Customers will get cagey and find ways around control, they'll shift their purchases to sellers who aren't so fickle, or they'll demand to own rights free and clear on those things they really value, even if it costs a premium. ■ In theory, the concept of content as a service offers a lot of choices for both fresh production and ongoing support: Software-as-a-service (SaaS) and its relatives are big business, and for good reason in that they can take a lot of work off the hands of busy corporations. But other things move much more slowly: An enthusiastic reader might purchase a book with the intention of reading it "sooner or later", and the "later" might well be 20 years from now. ■ On the printed page, that's nothing. Plenty of libraries still check out books much older than that. But entire e-reader platforms can come and go in the same window of time. ■ Lots of platforms for media delivery have proven to be all too ethereal, from Yahoo Music to Google Reader to the Palm Desktop to Stitcher. The frustration of enduring a service "sunset" could drive the committed user mad. It's fairly clear that the environment is ripening for at least some moderation back in favor of letting consumers buy their content, rather than often unwittingly renting it.

Business and Finance Getting smarter for 99 years

(Audio) Charlie Munger's final CNBC interview -- recorded shortly before he would have turned 100 years old

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December 30, 2023

Threats and Hazards Fast fashion at the expense of freedom

An enormous share of the economic history of the United States could be told through the story of textile manufacturing. It's a story that reaches the nation's experiences with international trade, unionization, the merchant marine, rural electrification, and of course the abhorrent practice of slavery (and the Civil War). Few, if any, rival industries can tell quite so thorough a tale. ■ The story continues today, even though textile manufacturing has generally disappeared from the domestic economy. The Special Yarns Corporation of Massachusetts which later evolved into Textron now builds advanced helicopters. Likewise for Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates: Nobody would call Berkshire Hathaway a domestic textile manufacturer any longer. ■ The industry remains relevant because Americans still buy lots of clothing, and its origins matter quite a lot. Producers from overseas -- particularly Chinese manufacturers Temu and Shein -- have pressed quite a lot into the American marketplace, with advertising that can be hard to avoid on streaming video platforms and a business model that takes advantage of a shipping-law loophole to sell directly to American buyers. ■ But the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party warns that these discount suppliers are most likely cheating basic protections for the human rights of their workers, saying, "American consumers should know that there is an extremely high risk that Temu's supply chains are contaminated with forced labor". ■ When goods come extraordinarily cheap, it's essential to know why. And if they're coming at the expense of people like the Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang province of China -- where government detention camps and widespread government persecution are known to exist -- then Americans ought to know about it. It's a troubling chapter in one of the longest-running stories touching our national economy.

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December 31, 2023

Business and Finance Paper money turns 1,000

It took several thousand years of organizing before human civilization came up with coined money around 1,000 BC. It's hard to do anything that looks like exchange without some medium for counting, and coins are a reliable solution. But coins, in order to be durable, have historically been made from the ranks of materials with some intrinsic value. Durability itself is a valuable characteristic -- which is at least part of the reason it costs 11 cents to mint a quarter and 2.7 cents to mint a penny. ■ But even after coinage came out, it still took another two millennia before paper currency came into being. Paper currency has advantages over coinage, to be sure, starting with production costs: It costs 2.8 cents to print a dollar, or almost exactly the same as it costs to mint a penny. ■ It is believed that China's Song Dynasty was the first government to introduce a paper currency and make it the only legal tender. Paper money invites two high-risk forms of abuse, from two different sources: Counterfeiting and inflation. The authorities have every reason to use the long arm of the law to discourage counterfeiting (which is how we originally got the U.S. Secret Service). ■ Inflation, on the other hand, is prevented by discipline, market forces, and improved knowledge. The United States abandoned (rightly) the use of an asset-backed currency a long time ago, so the discipline has to come from a combination of political independence and public-mindedness on the part of the Federal Reserve. Market forces weigh in on a minute-by-minute basis (just search the news for "Market reaction to the Fed"). ■ But on this millennial anniversary of paper currency, we ought to celebrate the considerable progress that has been made in the study of macroeconomics -- and the huge impact that improved knowledge has on overall human well-being. Make no mistake about it (and the Federal Reserve doesn't): Poor management of the money supply made the Great Depression far more painful than it should have been. ■ We've had multiple enormous challenges to the world economy in the last 25 years, and there has definitely been economic pain along the way. What hasn't been celebrated (quite as much as it should have) is just how much the improved knowledge of economics has reduced the pain that could have been. A lot more remains to be learned before the 2,000th anniversary of paper currency rolls around.

News Re-humanization one day at a time

The one New Year's resolution that would leverage more good than any other would be simple to describe, but require a great deal of conscious effort to implement. It asks (only, but also all) this: That every day for the entire year, each of us would choose to pause for just a moment -- ten or fifteen seconds -- to thoughtfully consider the complexity and richness of the inner life of just one other person. ■ We face significant challenges in the year ahead: Artificial intelligence is able to mimic human behavior like nothing we've ever seen before, raising thorny issues about how it should be treated and about how our habits of using AI might change how we treat other human beings. We see wars continuing with staggering death tolls. We see government oppression and food insecurity and unreliable and unsafe water supplies affecting millions, and it's hard to avoid reducing other people to numerals. ■ But if Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-wrote a book on interfaith dialogue with Pope Francis (before he became Pope), is right, then the only really durable way to break down conflict is by humanizing the others around us. ■ If everyone stopped everything every day to ponder the inner life of everyone around them, the world would grind to a halt. The gas station cashier cannot stop everything to "dialogue" with every person stopping in for a Mountain Dew and a candy bar. ■ But if one person tried to ponder the richness of the existence of just one other person encountered in their own life every day, that would be more than the capacity of a 737 after a full year. And if everyone did the same thing, it would be a profoundly different world. ■ De-humanization is the root cause of almost every one of our most sinister troubles. No one commits a war crimewithout first reducing the victim below human status. Most atrocities are the same. Even crimes and lesser injuries often require objectifying the other person. That's a habit that can only be broken by replacing it with something better. The vastness of the universe is too much to behold at all times, but it's worth considering from time to time. The same goes for the richness of the human universe.

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