Archive for September, 2014

How to nudge with statistics

September 23, 2014

… Between 15 and 20 percent of regular smokers, let’s say men sixty years old, who have smoked a pack a day for forty years will die of lung cancer.

But regulators don’t publicize that number, even though it ought to frighten people away from smoking, because they figure that some smokers may irrationally take shelter in the complementary statistic of the 80–85 percent of smokers who will not die of lung cancer.

So instead they say that smoking raises the chances of getting lung cancer.  That will nudge many people toward the right behavior, even though it doesn’t in itself provide an assessment of how dangerous smoking actually is at least not without a baseline percentage of nonsmokers who get cancer.

Or consider the way lawmakers nudge people away from drunk driving. 

There are about 112 million self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving among adults in the US each year. Yet in 2010, the number of people who were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes 10,228 was an order of magnitude lower than that, i.e., almost one ten thousandth of the number of incidents of DWI.

The lawmakers don’t say that 0.009 percent of drunk drivers cause fatal accidents implying, correctly, that 99.991 percent of drunk drivers do not.

They say instead that alcohol is responsible for nearly one third (31 percent) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States—which nudges people in the right direction, even though in itself it tells us next to nothing about how dangerous drunk driving is.

via It’s All for Your Own Good by Jeremy Waldron | The New York Review of Books.

This quote is part of a review of Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism by a law professor named Cass Sunstein.   His argument is that government officials and others in positions of authority should not force people to do what’s good for them, but instead set things up so that the objectively best choice is the path of least resistance.

An example would be a corporation that automatically enrolled employees in a 401(k) savings plan, unless they explicitly refuse.  Or, more controversially, a Department of Motor Vehicles automatically signing up motors as organ donors unless they checked a box opting out.

I don’t like the idea of being manipulated for my own good, but I don’t have a strong objection of Sunstein’s philosophy, in view of all the advertisers and political propagandists that are trying to manipulate me for their good and not my own.

Like it or not, we’re all being nudged in different ways, sometimes to our benefit and more often the reverse.  If we don’t like it, we need to be alert to see how we are being nudged.  It is better to be a nudger than a nudgee.

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An ebbing tide lowers most boats

September 23, 2014

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Most Americans today are poorer than their counterparts 15 years ago, no matter what their race, marital status, educational credentials or region of residence.

LINK

The American Middle Class Hasn’t Gotten a Raise in 15 Years by Ben Casselman for FiveThirtyEight

Am I smart enough to criticize President Obama?

September 22, 2014

Lance Mannion, an astute and interesting long-time blogger, wrote recently that he has no standing to criticize President Barack Obama because Obama is so much smarter than he is.   Therefore he is going to be silent about the President’s policies and restrict his criticism and ridicule to obviously ignorant right-wingers.

Obama.tcWell, I don’t think I’m as smart as Obama, either.  As far as that goes, I think the vast majority of Presidents during my adult lifetime were smarter than me.   President Richard Nixon, in my opinion, was the smartest of all, both in being well-read and in political astuteness, but that doesn’t put him above criticism.

I think the answer to this was given by the philosopher John Dewey in his defense of democracy.   The average voter is not capable of making presidential decisions, but the voter is capable of knowing how those decisions turned out.  In the same way, Dewey said, he himself was not capable of making his own shoes, but he was capable of knowing whether his shoes fit or not.

I don’t have a plan that will guarantee peace and prosperity for all.

But I don’t see that I’m obligated to come up with such a plan in order to have the standing to oppose perpetual war, presidential death warrants, preventive detention, universal surveillance, bank bailouts, impunity for financial fraud, proposals to cut back Social Security and corporate trade agreements that override national sovereignty.

The first step in making things better is to stop doing things that make them worse.  You don’t have to be a genius to understand that.

The Saudi roots of ISIS and the 9/11 attacks

September 22, 2014

It is impossible for the United States armed forces to put an end to Islamic jihadist terrorism.

That is because Al Qaeda, ISIS and their ilk have their roots in a country that is off limits to American military action.

In the same of fighting terrorism, the United States has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, helped overthrow the government of Libya, is working to overthrow the government of Syria and has imposed sanctions on Iran.

President Obama visits Saudi Arabia in March

President Obama visits Saudi Arabia in March

Yet the U.S. government does not touch Saudi Arabia.   Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and so were most of the 9/11 hijackers.  Sections of a Senate report that allegedly implicate elements of the Saudi government in the 9/11 attacks have been blacked out and declared as classified information.

The Saudi government, along with Qatar and other Gulf sheikdoms, provided the funding for ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups now fighting  in Syria and Iraq.  All these groups are adherents of Wahhabism, the most radical and intolerant Islamic sect, which is based in Saudi Arabia and supported by the Saudi government.

Why would the U.S. government, through Republican and Democratic administrations, tolerate such a situation?

The U.S. “deep state”—the permanent part of the government that is untouched by elections—is committed to protecting Saudi Arabia in return for Saudi help in regulating oil prices and oil supply.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s richest countries, and one of its weakest.  The sparse Saudi population is incapable of defending the country against stronger nations such as Iraq or Iran.  But none of those nations dare attack Saudi Arabia so long as the nation is under the protection of the U.S. military.

The problem is that the source of the Saudi monarchy’s power, the force that enabled the House of Saud to conquer the Arabia peninsula in the first place, is the support of the Wahhabi movement, a highly strict Muslim sect which regards all other Muslims as untrue to the faith.

Wahhabi teachings are incompatible with the self-indulgent lives of many rich Arabs, including some of the members of the Saudi royal family, so the Saudis buy them off by subsidizing Wahhabi schools throughout the Muslim world, and supporting Wahhabi jihads, which, conveniently, are usually against nations such as Iran, Syria or the Shiite government of Iraq that are rivals to Saudi power.

The CIA on occasion found them useful tools as, for example, the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and the ongoing fight against the Assad regime in Syria.

Bandar-Rice-Bush-King-Abdullah

President Bush receives a Saudi delegation

The Saudis meanwhile have close ties with American politicians and business executives.  Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, was a leading light on the Washington social scene.  He was so close to the Bush family that his nickname was Bandar Bush.

Matt Stoller wrote an excellent article about this for the Medium news site.  He pointed out that the Saudi monarchy is not a unified government, but consists of different factions with different aims.  The Saudi leaders have to be concerned with keeping a balance of power between the different factions and are not in a position to act decisively against any one of them.

The same is true of the government of Pakistan, which he didn’t mention.  Evidently there are factions in Pakistan’s government that are pro-Taliban, factions that are anti-Taliban and factions that think the Taliban is useful in fighting proxy wars against India.

Such a balance of power cannot be maintained forever.  Sooner or later there will have to be a showdown the Saudi monarchy and radical jihadist fanatics. which the monarchy may not win.

Last week the top Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa condemning ISIS and calling for public executions of its members.  Saudi Arabia has staged public executions of ISIS members.  That’s a welcome change.  I wish I knew enough to judge whether the change is permanent and whether the crackdown applies to top people in the Saudi power structure.

I must confess I don’t know what to do to prevent a jihadist takeover of Saudi Arabia, or what to do when and if it happens.  But if we Americans can bring our covert foreign policy out into the open, and discuss what to do, we at least will not be taken by surprise.

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees free speech to all Americans.   Article One, Section 6, says Senators and Representatives cannot be called to account outside of Congress for anything they say on the floor of Congress.   It is high time they exercise these rights and powers.

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David Graeber on funding scientific research

September 22, 2014

Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something.

But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

The practicality of nonviolent civil resistance

September 21, 2014

Erica Chenoweth in this TED talk says that in the past 50 or so years, nonviolent civil resistance (or, as I prefer to call it, mass defiance) has a better track record of success than violent struggle for overthrowing oppressive governments and resisting conquest.

I am not a pacifist, but in recent years I have gotten out of the mindset that says that war is the baseline answer to oppression and aggression, and it is only the alternatives to war that must justify themselves.

The aim of your oppressor is to compel you to obey him.  The oppressor is defeated when he comes to realize that your obedience cannot be compelled.  The effective way to do that is to join with others in mass defiance.  To me, violence or the lack of violence are not the most important things.  The most important thing is a population that shows it cannot be compelled to submit.

What I have learned from reading the writings of Gene Sharp is that nonviolent struggle requires as much strategy and tactics as violent struggle.  Just going out and letting yourself be hit over the head doesn’t necessarily accomplish anything.  What counts, as he has pointed out, is to find ways to destroy the enemy’s legitimacy and fearsomeness.

Now there are circumstances in which this does not apply.  If the aim of your enemy is not to rule over you, but to destroy you or to drive you off your land, your only choices are to flee or fight.   Nonviolence resistance would not have worked for the Jews or gypsies against the Nazis.   But not every enemy is a Hitler.

I thank Mike Connelly for e-mailing me the link to the video.

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David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

The new normal: Links & comments 7/21/14

September 21, 2014

There Are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends by David Brooks for the New York Times.  (Hat tip to Hal Bauer)

David Brooks argued for the benefits of friendship, especially how good friends bring out the best in each other.  He proposed, tongue in cheek (I think), a program for bringing people together in circumstances in which they would be likely to become friends.  I think it strange to live in a world where the value of friendship is an unfamiliar idea that you have to argue for.

Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress by Jeanne Whalen for The Wall Street Journal.  (Hat tip to David White)

I think this article, too, is strange.  The author cites scientific studies that show the benefits of reading, and specifically of reading from printed books, as if reading were an unfamiliar activity that needs justification.

Eight Things We Can Do Now to Build a Space Colony This Century by Annalee Newitz for io9.

Based on the comments, the most controversial of the eight proposals is to build a sustainable future here on Planet Earth so that the space colonists will have a world to come home to.   Some of the hard-core space enthusiasts think this is a false priority.

 

John Stuart Mill on knowing both sides

September 20, 2014

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Time management tips for writers (and others)

September 20, 2014

Tyler Cowen wrote the following on his Marginal Revolution web log in 2004.

1.  There is always time to do more.  Most people, even the productive, have a day that is at least forty percent slack.

2.  Do the most important things first in the day and don’t let anybody stop you.  Estimate “most important” using a zero discount rate. Don’t make exceptions.  The hours from 7 to 12 are your time to build for the future before the world descends on you.

3.  Some tasks (drawing up outlines?) expand or contract to fill the time you give them.  Shove all these into times when you are pressed to do something else very soon.

4.  Each day stop writing just a bit before you have said everything you want to.  Better to approach your next writing day “hungry” than to feel “written out.”   Your biggest enemy is a day spent not writing, not a day spent writing too little.

5.  Blogging builds up good work habits; the deadline is always “now.”

Cowen was asked recently if he would like to revise the list.  He added these.

6.  Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t take drugs.

7.  At any point in your life, do not be watching more than one television show on a regular basis.

8.  Don’t feel you have to finish a book or movie if you don’t want to.  I cover that point at length in my book Discover Your Inner Economist.

I think I would take back my old #5, since I observe some bloggers who have gone years, ten years in fact, without being so productive.

via Do I wish to revise my time management tips?.

The Hank Funnies by George Dardess

September 19, 2014

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Hank-1.4-789x1024

Mike Connelly called my attention to a series of cartoons whose protagonist is our mutual friend Hank Stone.

Click on the links to see them.

The Hank Funnies, Episode #1

The Hank Funnies, Episode #2

The Hank Funnies, Episode #3

The Hank Funnies, Episode #4

 [Added 10/2/14.]  Click on The Hank Funnies for more episodes.

The United Kingdom is still united

September 18, 2014

The Scots voted against independence by a ratio of roughly 55 to 45 percent.

My old editor, Bill O’Brien, used to tell me that a vote margin of more than 10 percentage points is a landslide.

Click on Scottish independence for coverage of the referendum by The Guardian.

Scotland inspires other European separatists

September 18, 2014
If every European separatist movement got its way

If every European separatist movement got its way.  Click to enlarge.

Scotland votes today on whether Scots wish to be an independent nation.  As the map above shows, theirs is not the only secessionist movement in Europe.

I don’t know how I would weigh the pros and cons of independence if I were a Scot.  I think that, in general, it would be a good thing if there were more and smaller countries, except for the fact it would give international banks and other global corporations more power to play each of them off against the other.

LINK

These eight European separatist groups are totally inspired by Scotland right now by Paul Ames for Global Post.

Scotland votes on independence: Links 7/18/14

September 18, 2014

_70049016_royal_mile_ivonSomebody once pointed out that the United Kingdom is not a nation, in the way that France, Germany and Italy are unified nations, but a union of three nations (England, Wales and Scotland) and a colony (formerly Ireland, now Northern Ireland).

Today the people of Scotland will vote on a referendum on becoming an independent nation.  If they vote “yes,” Scotland will become an independent nation.

Pro-independence Scots object to the right-wing policies of the UK government.   It is even more interlocked with corrupt City of London financiers than Washington is with Wall Street, and deindustrialization and financialization have gone even further than in the USA.

Scots tend to be pro-labor and supporters of the National Health Service and the welfare state.   They oppose London’s policies of austerity and privatization, and they would like to get control of North Sea oil.  But as a smaller nation, Scots would be a weaker entity in a world of superpower nations and giant corporations.   The rump United Kingdom would also be weaker.

British political leaders have promised Scotland greater autonomy – maximum devolution of authority, or “devo-max” – if they stay in the United Kingdom.  If that happened Wales and Northern Ireland would want greater autonomy, too.  England itself might demand home rule.

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What I learned from being wrong

September 17, 2014

obama.foreignpolicy

A blogger named Lance Mannion issued this challenge to all those critics who think they’re smarter than President Obama.

Arguments [of many Internet doves] seem to me to be based on the assumption that we should get ourselves out of the Middle East no matter what because there’s basically nothing we can do to make things better and just by being in there we make them worse by stirring up suspicions and hatreds.  Those are the smart ones.  But I would think that since I’m inclined to agree.

I’m inclined to agree.  That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree.

There are others, though, who’ve based their case on the bumper sticker-profound idea that War is Never the Answer and plenty of others whose arguments are based on a vague and circular logic: “This reminds me of what George Bush did in some way I can’t put my finger on but it must be wrong because of that or else I wouldn’t be reminded of George Bush.”

17-40f10I’m not bothering with any arguments that are based on the assumption that whatever we do is wrong because we’re the ones doing it.

So I’m asking for help.

Should we do nothing?  Why or why not?  What should we do and how would that work?  And what I want to know, more than that you were right about Iraq in 2002, is if you think Bill Clinton failed morally and geo-politically when he did nothing about Rwanda.

Also what are your thoughts on Kuwait, the Kurds, Kosovo, Tora Bora, killing bin Laden, and Libya?

via Smarter than the President?  Not me.  I’m too smart not to know how dumb I am.

 I’ve been wrong more often than I’ve been right on all the issues Mannion mentions.  My claim is that, while it has taken longer than it should have done, I have learned something from my mistakes.

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Is the progress of science itself winding down?

September 17, 2014

Is progress in science itself winding down?  I don’t know, but I think it is possible.

I don’t know of any new scientific theories or discoveries in my adult lifetime that compare to Newton’s theory of gravitation, Darwin’s theory of natural selection or Einstein’s theory of relativity.  While I don’t have any basis for ruling out a new scientific revolution, I do have some thoughts about the possible limits of scientific discovery.

There have been two periods of scientific advance, one in ancient Greece and Roman and one in modern European times.

pic_7bwThe ancient Greek scientists did some remarkable things.  They figured out that the world was round, and made a good informed guess as to how large it was, based on nothing more than the science of geometry and observations that could be made with the naked eye.

What made the ancient Greeks different from other peoples is that they based their thinking on observation, reasoning from evidence and discussion among peers, rather than arguing from authority and hoarding knowledge.  And with Euclid’s geometry, they had a powerful new tool of thought.

What brought ancient Greek science to an end was partly that they made all the easy discoveries that could be made with geometric reasoning and naked-eye observation, but also, as Prof. Gilbert Murray wrote in Five Stages of Greek Religion, a failure of nerve.

Murray said the Greeks didn’t like where Greek science was taking them—the idea that the sun and moon were not gods, but that the sun was a ball of fire and the moon was a ball of rock.   They turned to the occult and to cults from Asia, much like the New Age philosophies today.

Science revived partly because of a revival of interest in Greek science during the Renaissance.  It also was aided by inventions that increased the power of observation.  The microscope and the telescope revealed worlds that no human being had seen before.   Arabic-Hindu algebra provided a powerful new tool of thought, to which was added the calculus and mathematical logic.  The process of testing theories by discussion of evidence became systematized.

It is possible that human powers of observation have, at least for now, reached their limits.  Scientists have discovered the structure of the atom, and of sub-atomic particles.   Aided by billions of dollars worth of equipment, they have confirmed the existence of sub-sub-atomic particles, such as the Higgs boson.  Maybe there are sub-sub-sub atomic particles, but it is hard to see how physicists could learn anything about them.

Astronomers seem to have reached the same limits in knowledge of the cosmos.

Physics is not the only science, of course.  Remarkable discoveries are being made in cognitive science and the study of the human brain, and this science is not so capital-intensive as astronomy or particle physics.

But that comes up against the other limitation—the failure of nerve.   Science reveals a strange world that is alien to human common sense, and in which human beings are not the center.

This has produced a backlash, reflected in the demand for teaching of creationism and its little brother, intelligent design, neither of which is based on discussion of evidence based on observation.

The backlash is covertly supported by vested interests who are threatened by scientific research—fossil fuel companies by climate research, tobacco companies by epidemiology.

Along with that, there has been a decline in support for curiosity-based science.  It does not have an economic benefit that is obvious beforehand.  There is an economic incentive to concentrate on research with a predictable payoff.

So even if scientific discovery has not reached its reality-based limits, the fear of scientific reasoning could bring about a cessation of scientific discovery.

I am not a scientist.  All this is speculation.  Maybe science has reached a natural limit, and all that remains is a filling in of detail.  Maybe science is an open-ended endless process.  Maybe someday there will be a Grand Theory of Everything.  The future progress of science may be represented by the straight line or the upward slope in the chart, and it may be represented by an S-shaped curve or even a bell curve.  This is unknowable, at least by me.

Why then do I write about it?  I think that whatever the future of scientific discovery, the moral values of science are important.  These values are objectivity, curiosity, free discussion and evidence-based reasoning, and they are worth defending against magic, mystery and authority.

§§§

Is there a creativity deficit in science? by Ben McNeil for ArsTechnica.  (Via Mike the Mad Biologist)

Science, Superstars and Stocks by Paul Kedrosky (2011)

 

Is progress in technology winding down?

September 16, 2014
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Double click to enlarge

Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.

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The passing scene: Links & comments 9/16/14

September 16, 2014

Ukraine Offers Amnesty to Rebels by Mike Shedlock on Mish’s Global Trend Analysis (via Naked Capitalism).

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine made a peace offer to separatist rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, consisting of amnesty to helps, help in rebuilding, free local elections Nov. 9, limited self-rule for at least three years and the right to use Russian in official documents.

To me, an outsider ignorant of internal Ukrainian politics, this looks like a reasonable offer.   But it is opposed by Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who came to power with the backing of neo-conservatives in the U.S. State Department.

Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent by Nick Bilton for The New York Times.  (Via Mike the Mad Biologist)

Most CEOs of Silicon Valley companies set strict limits on how much time their children can spend in front of computer screens or use social media.  Instead they encourage their children to read printed books and engage in face-to-face conversation.   Consumers of their products should follow their example.

Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks by Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore for The New York Times. (Via Avedon’s Sideshow)

Non-profit research organizations such as the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council are supposed to provide expert and objective advice.  But how objective can they be if they take money from foreign governments?

John Crawford Shooting: Open Carry for Whites, Open Season on Blacks by Albert L. Butler for The Root.

Doubts cast on witness’s account of black man killed by police in Walmart by Jon Swaine for The Guardian.

Police in Ohio shot and killed a black man in a Walmart store in Ohio because they thought the toy gun he was holding was real.  But Ohio is an “open carry” state.  If he had been carrying a real gun, it would have been perfectly legal under state law.

The sad, sick, poor and dwindling Russian people

September 15, 2014

PG_14.01.29_agingFacts_10_negPop

Update 4/5/2016.   I now think that Mark Adomanis was right, that Russia is recovering and that Nick Eberstadt’s, Masha Gessen’s and my own views were out of date.

Russia is a nation whose population is declining because of a low birth rate and a high death rate.  Its people are poor, sick and unhappy.

Source: Nike Eberstadt

Source: Nike Eberstadt

Its future is bleak.  Its manufacturing industry is falling behind even what it was in Soviet days.  Despite a high level of average education, its economic productivity is low.  Russia in the coming decade can look forward to a decline in its working-age population and its military-age population.

Such is the conclusion of a study published in 2010 by a demographer named Nick Eberstadt.  Its conclusions were highlighted in an article in the New York Review of Books by Masha Gessen.

The weakness of Russia isn’t necessarily good news for the United States, even from the standpoint of geo-politics.   The fewer troops that Russia can muster, the more its government will fall back on use of nuclear weapons.

Russia isn’t the only country whose population is declining.  The same is true of Germany, Japan and other countries.  But these are rich nations with a low death rates, and with the potential to support an aging population.

Nick Eberstadt wrote that this not not the first time the Russian population has declined.   Millions of Russians died in the famine and Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.  Even more millions died in the Second World War.  But what has happened during the past 20 or s0 years, he wrote, is almost as devastating to the Russian population as in the 1930s and 1940s.

Based on the death rates in 2006, a Russian man aged 20 had less than one chance in two of living to age 65.

Eberstadt devotes a chapter to figuring out why Russia has such a high death rate for all age groups.   Russia has a serious alcohol problem.  Vodka is cheaper per liter than milk.  Russian men, although not Russian women, are heavy cigarette smokers.  Russia suffers from serious environmental problems.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

But none of these, according to Eberstadt, explain its high death rate.  The main killers of Russians are cardiovascular disease and death by injury.

Eberstadt pointed out that Russia lacks “social capital”.  By this, he means that surveys indicate that Russians, compared to other peoples, feel distrustful, feel they don’t control their lives, and feel unhappy.  Russians don’t belong to clubs, associations or sports teams.

There is a book, Bowling Alone, about how Americans don’t join associations, such as bowling teams, as much as they once did.  By Eberstadt’s account, Russia is the extreme of a “bowling alone” nation.

The relevance is that mental health and physical health are connected.  I remember reading once about a town in Pennsylvania where the people had poor health habits, but were extremely long-lived.  People who studied the town thought that it was because the people had such warm family and neighborly relationships, and didn’t make themselves unhappy through stress and anxiety.

Eberstadt’s idea is that the reverse may be true of Russia.  They have high rates of cardiovascular disease because they literally have broken hearts.

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The Eurasian scene: Links & comments 9/15/14

September 15, 2014

Russia fears the eastward spread of the ‘jihadist cancer’ by Vitaly Naumkin for Al-Monitor.

The Islamic State (ISIS) has, according to this writer, established a stable government in the area it controls.  ISIS successfuly operates oil wells, sells oil in international black markets, provides jobs and keeps order, at least for those willing to submit to its rules.  Its horrible atrocities frighten poorly-disciplined and poorly-motivated troops of its enemies.

The Russian government is worried about the growing power of ISIS, especially in Syria.  Unlike the United States, Russia supports the Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian regime.  Moscow hopes for success of all-Syria peace talks, but is prepared to support Syria’s government by any means short of sending Russian troops.

Uzbekistan: Rattled by Russian Expansionism, Tashkent Looks East by Joanna Lillis for Eurasia.net.

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s tyrannical ruler, worried that the Maidan protests in Ukraine would encourage would-be protesters in his country.  But now he’s more worried about the precedent set by Russian incursions in Ukraine.

Too offset Russia, Karimov is strengthening Ukraine’s ties in China, other east Asian countries and the Persian Gulf states.  This is a blow to Vladimir Putin’s hopes of creating a Eurasian Union, a Russian-dominated economic union of former Soviet nations to offset the European Union.

China’s Island Factory by Rupert Wingfield-Hayes for BBC News.

China is building artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea in territorial waters that also are claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.  These islands will become offshore Chinese air bases and naval bases.

Afghans unaware U.S. invasion sparked by 9/11

September 15, 2014

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, I thought that at least the invasion would be an object lesson to any government who thought of harboring terrorists who attacked the United States.

But Ted Rall, a writer and cartoonist who has visited and toured Afghanistan twice without protection of the U.S. military, said no such lesson was ever learned.   In an interview with Salon about his new book, After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan, Rall said this:

I’ve never met a single Afghan who had any understanding of the relationship between 9/11 and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. 

In fact, I’ve never met a single Afghan who even understood what happened on 9/11, understood the scale of it.

SONY DSCI was repeatedly having to explain it to people, having to explain these buildings and how big they were and how many people were in them and how it affected the American psyche and so on.

Whenever you asked [Afghans], regardless of their age or their politics or their tribal affiliation, they’d all say the same thing: The only reason the U.S. was in Afghanistan was because the U.S. was the dominant superpower in the world; and from their point of view, whoever is the dominant superpower in the world at any given time invades Afghanistan.

So we’re just there because we could — they all think that.

If Americans think Afghans understand that whatever suffering they’re going through is somehow tied to 9/11, no; they should be disabused of that, because Afghans just don’t think that.  That’s just universally true.

They think we’re there because we hate Islam or because we want to steal Afghanistan’s natural resources or because it’s strategically important or “I don’t know, but they’re here, and I just have to deal with them!”

… … They always call us “the foreigners,” which just refers to the inevitable foreign presence that’s always there, whether it’s Soviet advisers in the 1960s and ’70s or the Red Army in the ’80s or whatever it is.

“There’s always foreigners here. We’re a weak country. We can’t defend our borders.  The foreigners come and go; we shoot a lot of them, and then they leave.”

Black humor is absolutely a huge survival tool for people who live in stressful circumstances — and Afghans are very, very funny people.

via Ted Rall’s “uncomfortable truths” – Salon.com.

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Forgetful mutual fund investors perform best

September 15, 2014

c-75Proponents of Social Security privatization say that the average investor will do better investing the money that goes to Social Security taxes in the stock market.  The chart above, which is from Business Insider, shows the problem with this.

It is true enough that, over a long period of time, stock market averages, such as the Russell 2000 or the Standard & Poor’s 500, do better than Treasury bonds.  But most of us don’t do that.

We get overoptimistic when stock prices are going up and panic when stock prices are going down.  So we buy high and sell low—the opposite of what a smart investor should do.

The following is from an exchange between Barry Rithotz, a financial adviser and blogger, and James O’Shaughessy, of O’Shaughessy Asset Management, on Bloomberg Radio.

O’Shaughnessy: “Fidelity had done a study as to which accounts had done the best at Fidelity.  And what they found was…”

Ritholtz: “They were dead.”

O’Shaughnessy: “…No, that’s close though! They were the accounts of people who forgot they had an account at Fidelity.”

via Business Insider.

Ritholtz told about some of his experiences in estate planning, where a family fought over inherited assets for 10 or 20 years, didn’t touch them in the meantime and found those 10 or 20 years were the best period of performance.

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‘…the days dwindle down to a precious few’

September 14, 2014

Hat tip to Don Montana for this version of September Song performed by Willie Nelson.

Good advice

September 14, 2014

A simple exercise to improve your writing by Dan Wang of the University of Rochester.

Type out passages by your favorite writer.  You’ll gain an appreciation of their word choices, their structuring of sentences and paragraphs and all the other characteristics that make their writing good.  Or if you can’t do that, I myself lip-read the works of my favorite writers or read them aloud

A simple rule for making every restaurant meal better by Tyler Cowen for Marginal Revolution.

Have your restaurant dinner at 5 or 5:30 p.m., before the crowds, when the food is fresh off the stove and the wait staff can concentrate on serving you.

Draw up your task list the evening before, not in the morning by Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist.  (via Marginal Revolution)

If you plan your chores before (but not too long before) you have to do them, you’ll be less likely to put off what needs to be done.

Five Things Every Local Bookstore Should Do by Gracy Olmstead for The American Conservative.

A successful bookstore owner will embrace smallness, cultivate quirks and personality, join the localists, sell old and rare books and foster “browsability.”

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An Amish barn raising in Ohio

September 13, 2014

This time lapse video shows more than 100 Amish men erecting a whole barn in just under eight hours.

It is an example not only of neighborliness, but of teamwork, precision and know-how.

Every volunteer seems to know precisely what he is doing, and to do it without getting in the way of anybody else.