Posted in Quick Hits on April 27th, 2016 by Ed

My anonymous source in the Cruz campaign was kind enough to send me this. Looks like Carly Fiorina, shockingly, was not their first choice!



Posted in Quick Hits on April 26th, 2016 by Ed

You've gotta love Fox News, bless their little hearts. They sure are trying. You can imagine how silly they must feel writing headlines like "Cruz stays in the Republican presidential fight by quietly scoring delegates." They probably drink themselves to sleep in the tradition of Soviet propagandists who just faked another set of economic reports for the 7th Five Year Plan.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 25th, 2016 by Ed

The bar is set pretty low regarding what we expect from CNN at this point, but even by their Wolf Blitzery standards this "Voices from the Rust Belt" thing is delusional. It's little more than a variant on the Hard Working Americans / Salt of the Earth Blue Collar Types (read: white people who live in shitty places) theme that the mainstream media simply can't let go, probably on account of the fact that their average viewer is 65 and thus able to remember a time when Erie, PA mattered.


Having ruminated over the causes and consequences for decades, the present reality is that there is no real economic reason for these places to exist anymore. They once serviced geographically-bound industries that either have ceased to be relevant or have been brutalized by free trade agreements. As I tell every single half-sentient adult I meet in rural Central Illinois, the solution to the problem is to leave. Get out. Move somewhere with jobs and something to do. The good times are never coming back to Buffalo and Flint.

As the CNN piece itself notes, most mobile individuals do leave, and in fact have already left. So, one might ask their producers, what is the point of focusing on these places? Why do we care about the Voices of the people left behind, the vast majority of whom are just too old to let go of the place psychologically. Anything that could be done to "save" these places is never going to be done; the country is too all-in on globalization and the inerrant wisdom of the free market to countenance sentimental arguments about saving some massively polluted shit hole in rural Ohio.

They can call it whatever they want, but we can spot "Let's tell our old, sad, white viewers in Scranton or some other place we wouldn't live on a bet that they're still really important" when we see it.


Posted in Rants on April 25th, 2016 by Ed

Election fatigue is a real thing. In fact it is several things. In political science it most often refers to the inverse relationship between the frequency of elections and voter turnout. American elections are numerous and frequent, and since most citizens are not terribly committed to the act of voting they are highly unlikely to do it repeatedly. That's why we get "high" voter turnout between 55% and 60% for presidential elections but something in the mid-thirties for off-year elections like 2014. For things like primaries and local elections, turnout in the single digits is not at all uncommon.

The more colloquial sense of the term "fatigue" also applies, though. Election fatigue also is a real thing in the sense that we just get sick of hearing about it after a while, even if it is an election in which we intend to participate. With the nomination process and the presidential election "pregame" starting earlier every election cycle, the opportunity to be bored with it before the actual election has even started is ample. I know you find politics interesting; otherwise it's highly unlikely that you would be a visitor here. Now be honest: you're pretty sick of this election already, right? The last dozen or so articles to flit across your field of vision didn't give you the slightest urge to read them, I'm guessing. Blah blah Trump, blah blah brokered convention, blah blah Bernie Something, blah blah Hillary Clinton sucks, and on and on it goes.

It's possible that I'm projecting my own fatigue here. My perception that most people have very little left to say about the election that has not already been beaten to death is backed up by some simple data, though. After peaking early in March, Google Trends for "Trump" and "Bernie" have cratered in April. It stands to reason, as most people with any non-zero amount of interest in politics have almost certainly had all the opportunities to learn about these candidates that they need. What is left to say about any of them? In theory the GOP nomination process, which is as occluded as any recent major party nomination has ever been this late in the primary season, should have our interest peaking. Instead we're not much interested in hearing any more about a "brokered convention."

This would be fine if not for the fact that we have six full months to go, and it isn't clear how a loss of interest this early in the year will affect outcomes if at all. Many scholars of campaign effects argue that voters generally start paying attention to the election six to eight weeks before the November finish line, and perhaps that will happen once again this year. Given the overall distasteful nature of the two likely nominees, that can't be taken for granted. There is no way to test this hypothesis, but I'm confident that we could hold a Trump-Clinton general election tomorrow and achieve a result no different than we will see when it happens in November. The odds that we will learn anything new, or be paying sufficient attention to these ass clowns to notice if anything new comes up, are long.


Posted in Rants on April 20th, 2016 by Ed

Occasionally I'll use this space to offer book suggestions in case you find yourself in need of reading material. This is less a suggestion than an assignment. This will be on the test.

Mike Konczal gave me a heads-up on Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a non-fiction tale of people in Milwaukee living on the bottom rung of the housing market: black families in the north side ghetto and white families in a trailer park that sits literally atop a biohazard. For a casual reader this book is a Rorschach Test, a study in confirmation bias; whatever your existing beliefs about the root causes of poverty and the underclass, you will find ample evidence to support it here. The most remarkable achievement is the ability of these stories to make the reader sympathize with everyone involved. You feel for the poor single parent living in a house with no refrigerator; then you feel for the landlord who stopped putting in refrigerators after six of them were destroyed or sold for beer money. You feel for the people who have to clean up foreclosed, abandoned, or evicted houses that resemble landfills. For a few pages I even felt bad for the cops – Milwaukee cops.

I've never read anything that had me teetering back and forth quite like this. You understand why people feel less than human living in an apartment with no appliances and no front door; a paragraph later, you understand the frustration of replacing the front door 17 times in 5 years for tenants who pay rent a few times annually at best and will end up destroying anything you put in the apartment. The tenants give up. The landlords give up. The agencies intended to deal with these social problems give up. And eviction, which used to be about as common as a solar eclipse fifty years ago, becomes so common and frequent as to be routine. If you believe the system is the problem, this book will reinforce that. If you believe individual responsibility is the problem, this book will do the same for you.

The obvious poverty red flags are well represented: joblessness, the paltry income afforded by what jobs are found (either fast food, nursing home cleanup, or cash-in-hand day labor are about it), the drugs – alcohol – cigarettes troika that eats up so much money, bad personal decisions, and lack of education. Rather than beat those dead horses, there are two things that have been on my mind since reading this.

One, and there's no way to say this without sounding like a judgmental asshole, is the role of family planning in exacerbating the already dire situations in which these people find themselves. You practically want to scream at the pages, please stop having more kids. There are numerous tales of people living on something like $650/month in total income…and they have three kids, and they have more kids as the story unfolds. There are a lot of issues balled up here: lack of effective sex education (in or out of school), lack of sufficient access to methods of birth control, and using children to fill an emotional void or try to hold onto a relationship partner. I can't put myself in the position of anyone in this book, and I have no idea what I'd do if I were. But if there's one thing the people described here are good at, it's figuring out how to survive. In many ways they are highly rational and they make decisions that eliminate anything that isn't absolutely essential. In that light, it's confusing to try to understand why "I shouldn't pay this month's rent because I'm about to be evicted anyway" makes sense (and it does) but "I shouldn't have a fifth child" does not.

The second is another foreign concept to me because I have an extremely small family. I have one sibling, no living grandparents, one aunt, and no cousins. In many of these (often enormous) poor families, there is a moral dilemma facing the one or two people who become financially stable. I can see how compassion fatigue would set in. How many times do you pay the past-due rent for your brother, knowing that in three months he'll be back asking for it again? You'd either become a hard-hearted bastard, telling your own immediate family members to piss off, or you'd help out until inevitably your relatives pulled you right back down into poverty with them. You can only hand over $500 for emergencies so many times before you have your own emergencies and find yourself without a safety net. These stories made me very thankful to never be put in that situation, and even more empathetic toward friends who regularly are in it. How many times can you hand over what ends up being beer money? And how do you sleep at night after you stop doing it?

It's not a fun read, but it's an excellent one. Most people do not realize – and here I do have a tiny bit of insight, having spent three years working in debt collection – that there is an entire Poverty Industry built up around extracting money from people in desperate situations. You need $100 in the next hour to keep your house? Payday loan at 25%. You've been evicted? Your stuff will be taken to storage and it'll run you $500 to get it back. You're at the end of your rope? Don't worry, there's a liquor store on every corner; sometimes two. You finally have some work? Well since you live in squalor and around constant violence, here are some expensive medical problems.

It is a machine, and nobody who gets caught in the gears ever gets out. You might be fooling yourself if you think you have any idea how to begin fixing this.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 18th, 2016 by Ed

Sometimes I start writing a post and it begins to sound vaguely familiar, so I double-check if I've done it before. In this case I've basically done it annually for 15 years. I'll give myself a pass since the news itself never changes and it seems like people are actually beginning to notice.

Stop me if you've heard this before: Job growth is robust, unemployment is low, and yet the job market is still poor. That's because for thirty years we've been hemorrhaging jobs that pay people enough to live half-decently and replacing them in the balance sheet sense with menial service industry jobs. Of the fastest growing sectors in the job market over the next decade, half of the top ten pay less than $25,000 annually. If you like wiping up puddles of body fluids in a nursing home for $10/hr or working at Burger King, these are going to be salad days for you. The world will be your oyster.

It's not relevant, despite that attempt at humor, that these jobs are shitty (pun intended, in the case of home health care). What is relevant is that they don't pay. They pay about two-thirds of the median annual wage, and that isn't exactly high; it's around $35k. A person with dependents could live on a $20,000/year job, if barely and as long as absolutely nothing unexpected goes wrong. It's a paycheck-to-paycheck existence at best. In reality it's more likely to be part of a two-job routine for an individual or one of multiple jobs held in a household. Because that job isn't going to allow anyone to do much more than scrape by. With some luck.

This may be the only thing that Trump supporters and the rest of us who read books and live in reality can agree upon: our problem isn't job loss as much as it is the loss of good jobs. There are, and will be for the foreseeable future, more than enough jobs making the lives of the top 10% easier. We can serve them food, clean their houses, drive them around, make their appointments, and take care of the dying parents they don't want to see. And we'll have no problem getting the chance to do it for little money and without any job security beyond day-to-day.

If you have a few minutes to spare and academic journal access, check out "Inequality and the Growth of Bad Jobs." Despite the fact that low-skill jobs have shrunk in number since 1960, low-wage work makes up most of job growth over that time period. The problems with our economy aren't hard to figure out in light of that information.


Posted in Rants on April 17th, 2016 by Ed

Of all the hypocrisies commonly associated with American conservatives the best contender for the worst is the tendency to deny the existence of systemic problems but flip-flop when they are affected personally. My go-to example is Randy Cunningham (who ended up in prison himself in short order) temporarily setting aside his cheerleading for the War on Drugs to beg a judge to be lenient on his son, who was repeatedly busted for selling cocaine and heroin. "He's a good kid, he just made mistakes," said the former Congressman, applying logic he was unable to understand in any situation not involving himself or his kids in a courtroom. As a bonus, his own experience in prison caused him suddenly to recant his previous statements about the value and fairness about the War on Drugs. If only there were some way to reach the conclusion that the entire justice system is being undermined without actually going to prison oneself.

Another classic example is Senator Rob Portman's 180 on gay marriage when he found out his son is gay. It's almost as if – almost! – these people are unable to feel empathy, or that they don't really care about anyone except themselves. They don't bat an eye when the people affected by their ideology are nameless strangers. The inability to exercise enough forethought to consider something basic like, "What if this decision affected my family?" before legislating their ideology is baffling to the point of incredulity. Isn't that one of the most fundamental ways that the human mind creates a framework for understanding the rest of the world? It's as strange as if they couldn't do something as simple as, for example, learn from previous experience.


Despite the repeated insistence that voting is as easy as pie and that the law imposes no barrier to participation, we've recently learned that registration procedures are "onerous" when a member of the Trump family finds out that they can't vote in their state's primary. Anybody else who fails to register properly is stupid, lazy, and responsible for their own disenfranchisement. However, since they are unable to accept responsibility for their own actions – Isn't that a key trait of sociopathy? I'm sure it's unrelated. – a failure on their part is an indictment of the system.

But I don't suppose it matters much that one half of our political system is composed of and supported by people who are entirely devoid of a key component of a healthy adult's psychological makeup.


Posted in No Politics Friday on April 15th, 2016 by Ed

I really like cars. Sorry if this makes me Dumb and destroys your perception of me. As a regular consumer of things related to car types of which I am especially fond and more general Car Guy Stuff like Regular Car Reviews, Autoblog, and Jalopnik, I am well aware that no one is allowed to be a Car Bro without having a borderline obsession with manual transmissions. Shift gate tattooed on your forearm or GTFO, brah! Three pedals or it doesn't even count as a car, brah! Automatics are so gay, brah! Despite the cogency and persuasiveness of such arguments, stick shifts are fast disappearing in the United States. They now account for almost no new truck sales and something like 1% of new car sales. More tellingly, they are no longer available on many performance models aimed explicitly at Car Enthusiasts.

There are practical reasons for the decline. Most drivers see cars simply as appliances and they want whatever is most convenient and whatever makes driving easiest. Americans also sit in a lot of stop-and-go traffic, which is the environment in which driving stick is most annoying. But I think that the biggest problem – Unpopular Message Board Car Bro Opinion warning – is that modern no-clutch-pedal transmissions are just so goddamn good.

Automatic transmissions suffered until the last 10-15 yearrs from two drawbacks. One was poorer fuel economy; prior to 2000 most cars gave up two or three mpg on their automatic version when compared to the manual one. Most automatics were 4 speeds, which made it difficult to gear for fuel economy without sacrificing performance. And on that note, the second drawback was performance. They were slower and the rudimentary transmissions basically had three gears plus an overdrive, and most cars aimed at the mass car buying public didn't have the horsepower to pull them effectively. They didn't shift particularly crisply either. GM's ubiquitous 4L60-E, which I experienced in numerous vehicles, shifted as though it was filled with pudding. I remain unconvinced that it wasn't.

So, for years manual transmissions had two big bragging points: better mpg, better acceleration. Combine those with lower price – automatics tend to be a $1000 option even today – and you had an airtight argument. The problem is that now 6-plus speed automatics and dual clutch (DCT) boxes have better fuel economy, provide quicker acceleration, and shift more quickly. The only remaining practical argument is based on style.

I had a BMW that I truly loved driving, and it had a DCT/automatic. Like most DCTs, it had "paddle shifters" on the steering wheel for manual shifting. When I sold the car, the young man who bought it asked about the paddle functions. I told him that they worked just fine but that I determined fairly quickly that I could not shift better than the software controlling it. And that's the thing: nobody can. It might make you feel better to shift your own gears, but the days of manual shifting outperforming sluggish 80s style automatics (the true "slushbox" automatics that are no longer used) are gone. Long gone. Performance cars like Corvettes, Porsches, BMWs, and Italian exotics now have dual-clutch automatic or robotic manual (BMW's SMG or the Porsche PDK) boxes that can execute shifts in milliseconds. Literally milliseconds. They are designed and programmed to outperform the human clutch foot and right arm (left in the UK and Japan, I guess) and they do exactly that.

Getting a manual transmission on a new 2016 vehicle strikes me more as a badge one wears to establish Car Guy cred than something that makes sense. Manuals no longer outperform their self-shifting counterparts in any area. The historical advantage they had in fuel economy is gone along with any performance advantages. If you think manual transmissions are more fun, by all means go for it. Do what you enjoy. But they are in no way empirically "better," and in fact by any performance or economy measure they are now worse than modern self-shifting units. Manual gearboxes are now to cars what Amtrak is to long distance travel. You can take Amtrak from Chicago to LA if you like being on trains, but in practical terms it makes no sense at all. Flights are cheaper and infinitely faster. Your choice, then, is one based solely on personal preference at the expense of logic, which is your prerogative. The attitude of superiority is pretty tiresome, though, especially when attached to a technology that is demonstrably inferior now.


Posted in Rants on April 12th, 2016 by Ed

It's OK if you've never heard of Fritz Zwicky. He was an astronomer and physicist, a contemporary and colleague of people like Robert Oppenheimer. Zwicky was unquestionably brilliant; he was the first person to conceptualize and explain supernovas. He theorized dark matter decades before anyone else. He discovered neutron stars. He invented some of the earliest practical jet engines. Despite all this is little known and not well respected today. The problem with Fritz Zwicky is that he was an asshole. An asshole of generational talent, a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy laying claim to the coveted title of Worst Person on Earth. Nobody could stand this guy. The only person who did, his gentle co-author Walter Baade, refused to be alone with Zwicky because he was so violent, aggressive, and unpredictable. Oh, and he regularly made death threats to Baade. And that guy was his friend.

Oppenheimer hated him so much that despite having an office just down the hall, he cited Zwicky's undeniably groundbreaking neutron star work when he published his own papers on that subject. Zwicky insulted, irritated, and generally made himself loathsome to everyone he encountered throughout his career. Yet universities and, no matter how much they complained, other scientists grudgingly tolerated, even demanded, his presence. This was so because Zwicky was brilliant. In academia, and particularly in science, and even more particularly (it seems) in physics, where some concepts are so bizarre that only a lunatic could devise them, if you are sufficiently brilliant people will put up with the fact that you are insufferable. You will be suffered.

Zwicky is far from the only example of this phenomenon. No less a figure than Isaac Newton could be maddeningly difficult to interact with, and the legendary Hungarian mathematician Paul ErdÅ‘s seemed to do little else besides publish prolifically, cram amphetamines into his body in legitimately alarming quantities, and devise new ways to be weird. The problem this image – the "mad scientist" or the brilliant eccentric – has created in academia is clear to most of us who are in it. Too many people associate brilliance with eccentricity, being a total asshole, or both. And they make a crucial but basic logical error; they assume "if A then B, so, if B then A." If being brilliant means that a horrible personality will be tolerated, they figure that acting like a dick will somehow affirm and provide evidence of their brilliance.

Tenure is not what most non-academics think it is, but it is indeed part of the problem in this specific case. You can be fired for cause, but being so annoying or rude that people scramble into bathrooms to avoid you in the hallway is not cause. Unfortunately in this line of work and many others, you have the right to be extremely irritating if you don't mind the high probability that everyone is going to hate you. And it's truly remarkable how many academics do not seem to mind this at all.

The decent, friendly people in my field outnumber the assholes and the weirdos considerably. At a recent professional conference, nearly every person I met – friends, old colleagues, acquaintances, new faces I'd never previously met – left me feeling better than I had felt before getting to share their company. "How can I help?" was the most common response when I explained professional difficulties and obstacles that worry me at present. That said, there are still some remarkably awful people in the field. Many of them are tolerated because they have or had strokes of brilliance, or because they have been commendably productive in our perilous publication process (being prolific is a suitable substitute for being a genius). I, like everyone else, put up with some people because it is worth knowing them and their success gives them extra leeway for personality shortcomings. But the people who skip the success / brilliance / productivity parts and go straight to being dicks…they are quite another story. Like actors who demand "star treatment" in the hope that this will make them a star somehow, people who think that being a dick will somehow confer upon themselves the insight of a Fritz Zwicky is one of the more powerfully annoying realities of this profession.

Oh, and for god's sake buy some new clothes once every 10 years. Dressing like a 1940s used book merchant doesn't make you any smarter either.


Posted in Rants on April 11th, 2016 by Ed

In the annals of American presidential elections there have been some truly harebrained schemes, candidates, and movements. And on occasion some legitimately improbable things have happened, like Ross Perot winning almost 20% of the popular vote as an independent candidate in 1992 or the election of Richard Mentor Johnson as vice-president in 1836. Most seemingly implausible ideas end up where they belong: relegated to the fringes of the process and amounting to little more than the occasional amusing but nonviable independent campaign like that of John Anderson (1980). Most daydreamed proposals – "unity tickets" and surprise candidates chosen by brokered conventions – are little more than interesting barroom hypotheticals at best.

It has to count as the strangest story of 2016, an election hardly lacking in the absurd, that on Sunday major online media outlets were suddenly reporting the (obviously, transparently planted) "story" of a supposed effort by "conservative billionaires" to draft retired Marine Corps general James Mattis for an independent presidential run.
I'll pause while you try to figure out who in the hell James Mattis is. Other than Mrs. Mattis and possibly some of their children, no one has ever heard of James Mattis. This story could not be any more ridiculous had a name been chosen from the phone book at random. There might as well be a secret campaign to draft Leon Smerczynski, a Paterson, NJ carpet layer, for an independent run.

Not to go full House of Cards here, but clearly someone who is very good pals with Tim Mak (the Daily Beast correspondent who was the first, and for a while only, "real" media outlet to give this the time of day, although we certainly could debate the description of Tina Brown's Puke Funnel as a "real" media outlet) asked Timmy to do them a solid and plant the seed to give legitimacy to an idea so astronomically stupid that it strains credulity to believe that it isn't an elaborate prank. An absolute nobody with no political experience, openly backed by shadowy, probably-Koch "conservative billionaires" is going to put together an independent presidential campaign less than 8 weeks before the deadline for ballot access in several important states? To whom exactly is this cipher going to appeal, even in theory? The most optimistic view of such a scheme is that it would fail miserably; in reality it is unlikely even to get off the ground if it is tried.

If any part of this is true, it is damning evidence of how completely conservatives are giving in to panic, irrationality, and magical thinking. Most likely it is yet another trial balloon being floated in a desperate attempt to derail the Trump Train before it can destroy the entire GOP, possibly with the intention of making whatever lunatic move they are planning next look sane in comparison.