Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio
Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.
Breaking news to watch
Segment 1: (11 min)
BUT FIRST: The opening essay
- The 116th Congress is underway, and as you might have heard, our government is divided again as Nancy Pelosi returns to the Speaker's chair
- Most of the first two days of business went to the ceremonial aspects of the work -- swearing-in sessions and the election of the Speaker of the House
- But of course we couldn't begin without new attention being paid to everyone's favorite youthful lightning rod, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Because she danced when she was in college, not that long ago. Spare me.
Yes, A new Congress is convened and Rep. Thomas Massie, a member of Congress from Kentucky, gets it completely right: "[W]e swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States, not to the government, not to the flag, not to any party, and not to the President."
It's good that he gets that. And it would be terrific if that would rub off on some of his colleagues. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee has proposed a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College.
It's perfectly understandable that people might find incongruity in a process that doesn't award the Presidency to the winner of the popular vote. But that complaint is a superficial one: People who don't understand the Electoral College don't understand Federalism. Right at the center of the Constitution is the idea that the individual states have meaning and importance and stature. The Senate isn't supposed to be proportional to population because the national government isn't supposed to be the end-all, be-all of our public life.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 9, "The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power." The Electoral College is an extension of the disproportionality of the Senate.
There's nothing wrong with considering means for diminishing the disproportionality (for instance, by expanding the House of Representatives, which is an idea with considerable merits of its own), but a form of disproportionality is inevitable. And at the extremes, the numbers are attention-getting: Wyoming has about 578,000 people and three Electoral College votes; California has 39,557,000 people and 55 votes. That's 192,579 Wyomingites versus 719,218 Californians per EC vote.
But that matters a lot if one thinks that the President is the most important person in America, with the power and the responsibility to impose policies on the country at large. But that's not a Constitutional orientation.
The Constitution puts the legislative branch in Article I and the executive branch in Article II, and not by accident. The Constitutional sensibility perceives that anything worthy of national rule-making should begin either with a majority of the population (in the House) or a majority of the states' interests (in the Senate). Things are supposed to start in Congress and be carried out by the White House -- unless they're stupid ideas, in which case the President is supposed to use the veto power to stop them. The sickness in the system isn't the disproportionality of the Electoral College or the supposedly "undemocratic" nature of the Senate. Those exist by design.
No, the sickness in the system is the Imperial Presidency. There are occasional acknowledgments of this problem -- as when Republicans talk about rolling back administrative regulations that never went through Congressional approval, or when Democrats insist that the White House be subject to investigation and other forms of accountability. But in the broadest sense, the notions that we should overhaul the Senate or toss out the Electoral College are tacit displays of fealty to a national government that grows too large for the health of the governments closer to the people.
The states aren't subsidiaries of the government in Washington, DC. They exist before and prior to the national government -- both in the literal sense (recall that we had thirteen states and the Articles of Confederation before we had the Constitution) and in the figurative one (the very name of the country is "United States of America", in which the noun is "states"). The nation obtains its legitimacy from the authority granted to it by the citizens and by the states. It takes both forms of authority to make the country.
Chipping away at the foundations of that relationship makes the country more volatile and makes the states weaker. And weak states cannot forever prop up a functioning Federal government.
The moral of the story: Stop with the Senate-abolition nonsense, the National Popular Vote efforts, and anything else that seeks to upset the model instead of working within it. The Senate, with two seats per state, is a non-negotiable fundamental of the Federal model. We need capable state governments, a strong Senate, and a national government with a little bit of humility about it.
Segment 2: (8 min)
Totally Unnecessary Debate of the Day
"In 2019, Canada is positioned to start down a path towards leading the world"
If they're bringing poutine and Labatt Blue, maybe we can do business. But seriously, there is actually room on the global stage for Canada to take a more prominent role -- particularly as a weathly, productive liberal democracy with an interest in at least some claim to moral authority.
The debate: If you had to pick one country to step up and serve as the "world leader" for a year, and it couldn't be the United States, which country would you pick?
Segment 3: (14 min)
Interview with Marc Goldwein, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
- What are the rules that Congress applies to itself about spending?
- What is the PAYGO approach?
- Does PAYGO actually work?
- What keeps Congress honest about obeying PAYGO?
- What are the serious and not-so-serious objections to PAYGO?
- Who objects to PAYGO?
Clean up after yourself
In a sane world, the rules would be:
1. Decide what you want from government.
2. Limit those wants as much as you can.
3. Pay for it all.
And while it is entirely valid to point out that empathy should play a role in determining what those "wants" should be, the decision has to originate out of principle. Resources are limited. More importantly, government power itself must be limited -- even if it does something that is cost-free. Thus we decide these things in imperfect but representative bodies. For instance: A lot of people think the Mueller investigation should be shut down because it costs money. Others say it should stay open because it has actually turned a profit. The principled answer is that a complete investigation is absolutely necessary, utterly regardless of cost, because government power is inherently dangerous, so it must be controlled by the rule of law. When we have credible suspicions about its use, the principle of limiting that power comes before considerations of cost. Thus, if we want limits on government (including investigations of bad behavior), then we need to be willing to pay for them before we start looking at the tab.
The moral of the story: The Federal budget deficit (and the resulting eye-wateringly-huge national debt) indicates that the Federal government isn't very good at self-control -- definitely not as good as your average state.
Segment 4: (5 min)
Mind your business
Trade deficit worsens as tariffs go up
Remember this next time someone offers a ham-fisted proposal as though it's a magic bullet that everyone before them was just too dumb to realize.
The moral of the story: Cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price
Segment 5: (11 min)
21st Century conservatism
When people turn to social media to shout their lack of interest in other people through a megaphone, it whacks civilization in the kneecaps.
The moral of the story: Civilization is a participation sport.
Segment 6: (8 min)
Iowa records first flu-related fatality of 2019
"[A] middle aged (41-60 years of age) Eastern Iowa man, who had underlying conditions or contributing factors" -- which is a reminder why it's useful for healthy people to get flu vaccinations, especially if you come into contact with the very old, very young, or very sick.
- Incredibly hard for me to read this story
- 11-year-old boy from Brooklyn (NY) dies of apparent reaction to fish being cooked
- Had a known food allergy
- Family knew he was asthmatic; had a nebulizer with him; still couldn't save him
- A lot of people get callous about food allergies -- sometimes we hear the "natural selection" trope rolled out
- But the whole point of science and technology and medicine is that we don't have to surrender to natural selection
- We have serious food allergies in my own house, so this really strikes home
- Feels like we aren't putting enough commitment into the science and research on these
- Wait period for an allergist appointment: More than six months
- But there are also fakers who undercut the credibility of people with real, authentic allergies
- A study by a Northwestern University researcher found that about 1 in 10 American adults has a real food allergy, but nearly 1 in 5 thinks they have one
- There's a lot of self-diagnosis going on, as well as confusion between what's a sensitivity and what's a real allergy
The moral of the story: If you don't have a real allergy, please don't cry wolf. But don't underestimate just how serious food allergies can be.
Back-to-back triple-organ transplants
Two 29-year-olds have undergone triple organ transplants at the University of Chicago Medical Center: Heart, liver, and kidney. May we see (soon) the day when bioengineering permits us to generate our own organs in the lab, so we don't have to leave people waiting for donor organs.
Segment 7: (14 min)
"A poor person never gave anyone a job" -- false.
Lots of jobs are created by people who bootstrap their own companies or otherwise start from scratch. Jobs are not gifts that are handed out charitably by the wealthy to the non-wealthy. The perverted defense that Jerry Falwell, Jr., gives to Donald Trump isn't even sound logic.
By the numbers
For-profit college to forgo half a billion dollars in student debt
Virtually all of the nation's attorneys general have reached an agreement with Career Education Corp. to settle a dispute over practices that may have pressured or misled students into enrolling in programs both online and at physical campuses using what the AG offices deemed "unfair and deceptive practices". The company will write off about half a billion dollars in student debts as a result.
Don't forget...this is on the heels of last month's announcement:
The for-profit college chain is closing. Remember that the same thing happened to ITT Tech in 2016. And that Purdue Global used to be Kaplan.
And with a lot of my fellow American Economic Association members meeting in Atlanta (some of whom are grad students looking for jobs):
We're doing graduate-level education wrong
The direct costs are high. The sunk costs are enormous. On one hand, America has a phenomenal system of graduate-level education. But on the other, it's basically closed to anyone who isn't ready to front the enormous up-front risk (in time, money, and foregone opportunities) to attend years of graduate school. That's messed up. In 2018, there's no excuse for still treating graduate-level education (aside from niche programs like "executive MBAs") like something that belongs to a priesthood, chained heavily to a system of perpetuating the priesthood. There are countless people in the private sector (and public and nonprofit sectors, too) who shouldn't drop everything to take a graduate program that will take years to complete with an uncertain outcome. But they should be on long-term tracks to gain lifelong education. There's a mountain of foregone social utility because people who are busy doing things out in the general economy aren't spending a little time in the classroom every week (including virtual classrooms), learning the latest research-based knowledge in their fields. There's also a mountain of foregone social utility because higher education often isn't getting the active feedback of millions of people who see the massive amount of technological and methodological progress being made *outside* the confines of academic research. If only we could revive the mentality that brought us the land-grant colleges and ag extension programs, but apply that thinking to the manufacturing and service economies. So much good would come from thinking more broadly about graduate-level education as a lifetime thing.
Tin Foil Hat Award
China's "social credit" system will permit the government to grade everyone
They say it's because people need to trust one another. And it is absolutely true that a society needs mutual trust among its people in order to function. It is absolutely false to think that government can evaluate, measure, score, or impose that trust from above. If the trust doesn't emerge organically, it doesn't really exist.
The moral of the story: This has to be repeated over and over: Economic growth is a wonderful thing. An indispensable thing. A life-saving thing. But it also must be used in the service of virtuous, honorable living in a society that puts individual dignity and human rights first.
Segment 8: (5 min)
Stop the deliberate ignorance
The Federal government shutdown is now entering its third week. It started on December 22nd.
And now the President is floating trial balloons about declaring some kind of artificial "national emergency" to give himself the authority to confiscate private property and build a wall on the southern border. He says ""I can do it if I want", which isn't true. The problem is that some Americans will says "Sure he can!", not because they have well-considered opinions about the use of emergency powers, but because they want the border wall. That's putting the ends before the means, and it's a road to disaster. Because once you open that can of worms, you invite a future President Elizabeth Warren to use the same means of "emergency powers" to do whatever she wants -- like imposing a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Game theory and the Oval Office
The President frames everything like a Manhattan real-estate transaction (two parties, one round). In reality, the world is vastly more complex than that -- most importantly, almost nothing is excluded to two parties, and almost every interaction is part of a long chain of events (and people have memories). Deep down, it's less an ideological problem and more a game-theory problem.
Federal Reserve independence: Planting the flag
At the American Economic Association conference, Jerome Powell said he wouldn't resign if the President asked. An insufficient number of people understand just how important central-bank independence is. If you want to trace most inflationary disasters back to their source, you'll find they start when politicians take direct control of the money supply.
My personal concerns with the President's behavior and decision-making have only grown since he was sworn in two years ago this month. And while I was skeptical of Federal power and the Imperial Presidency before, my anxiety grows almost daily because I see many of his opponents only wishing that they could have the kind of sweeping influence he claims. They don't see that the problem is the degree of power itself, and that the problems with who wields the power are only secondary.
The moral of the story: Sen. Elizabeth Warren showed up in Council Bluffs yesterday. I've already seen yard signs for John Delaney. John Kasich has all but announced his own exploratory committee (just wait until the day his term as governor of Ohio is over later this month). In other words: The 2020 race is now underway. A lot of promises will be made between now and then, but the most important one I'll be waiting to hear is the promise to breathe new life into Federalism -- knowing when DC is necessary and when it's not.
"Tyranny has perhaps oftener grown out of the assumptions of power, called for, on pressing exigencies, by a defective constitution, than out of the full exercise of the largest constitutional authorities."— James Madison (@wordsofmadison) January 4, 2019
Unsorted and leftovers:
Nothing grows faster than bamboo
Which seems to account for its reputation as an eco-friendly building material. Use the thing that grows fast and captures carbon quickly.
John Dickerson shares photos of a gorgeous personal library setup
One of the best phrases that has crossed over from Judaism into secular popular culture. Now, if only "mitzvah" (in the sense of doing a good deed, not the coming-of-age ritual) would make the same leap. It's a great word.
The President dismisses Syria as "sand and death"
But that definition is superficial and unfair. We don't have to know all the answers to all of the world's problems. But we have to at least try to frame the problems like decent human beings.
On the European Union, the United Kingdom isn't so unified
Scotland voted 62% to remain in the EU. Northern Ireland voted 55.8% to remain. Such a strange consequence of history that they're being dragged out of the EU effectively against their national wills.
Evidence mounts that China's campaign against the Uighurs is as bad as can be imagined
If a state puts all of the writers, artists, and intellectuals of a minority group in prison, you can be sure they are seeking to grind their culture right out of existence. This is a much, much bigger deal than whether the US sold China a few million more or fewer iPhones. How China's government not only aggregates but executes its power is massively important.
Substantially shorter than the average non-fiction book of the present day, that's for sure. But it turns out that data about our reading (and reviewing) habits now collected via the Internet gives some useful feedback on the relationship between length and quality. Or, at least, it suggests that people tend to over-rate long books...probably to make ourselves feel better about finishing books with too many pages.
A story worth reading about Saudi dissidents
Freedom isn't protected everywhere
What happened to Sen. Rand Paul?
Reagan was in many ways a great President, but the hagiography has gotten out of control. Once you surrender critical thinking to one cult of personality, you pave the way for later cults of personality -- as Senator Paul is doing now with his inexplicable embrace of Trumpism.
High minimum wages don't necessarily have the intended consequences
Note to the $15-an-hour crowd: It's not that we disagree with your objectives. It's that the means you propose to use just aren't as effective as they need to be.
If you're surprised that Joe Biden commands $100,000 a speech, take a look at who else gets that princely sum
The game theory embedded in submarine-chase films
They invariably focus on extended engagements between two actors with limited information, making them excellent examples to use when teaching game theory.
Quote of the Week
"Any reward that is worth having only comes to the industrious." - Calvin Coolidge
The week in technology
Your role in cyberwar
Contrary to popular opinion
Hyperbole is going to kill us all
Curiosity, competence, and humility
Have a little empathy
Yay Capitalism Prize
Capitalist solution of the week
A vegan challenge from Beyonce and Jay-Z
Guess they won't be headliners at the Iowa State Fair this year.
Maybe it's just me, but hotboxing at a drugstore seems just a bit too literal.— Brian Gongol (@briangongol) January 4, 2019
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