COAL COMFORT

Posted in Quick Hits on March 9th, 2017 by Ed

A good, semi-long read from a 30+ year veteran coal miner on why the jobs are disappearing, why they're probably not coming back (hint: it's not Obama, and it's not Stupid Environmentalists), and why people who work in that field have such a strong emotional attachment to the work.

It's a nice, sympathetic way of telling people in coal that they have to deal with the exact same reality that people in every other field are dealing with: in our economic system, we all have to find ways to adjust to the reality that whole industries will disappear when technology or global economic forces replace the need for us to do them. This neatly summarizes how I feel when people in blue collar industries go on and on about the hardship of being in a field where jobs are disappearing: "Really? Join the clu(r)b."

HEALTHCARE IS A LAND OF CONTRASTS

Posted in Rants on March 8th, 2017 by Ed

In teaching one gets used to the fact that no matter how many different ways it is strategized around or how many reminders are given, students are going to do their written work at the last minute. Divide the assignment into sections, give pep talks, urge them to get started before it is Too Late…none of it will matter in the end. Most students will be writing the paper the night before it is due. And very few of them are naturally smart and gifted enough to slap something together on a 5 AM Monster Energy and Ritalin bender that is actually good. They think they can, of course. But here's the thing: they can't.

I've used the analogy a number of times that Trump's unscripted statements sound exactly like an oral presentation given by a college student who forgot that he had to do an oral presentation in class today. The bravado, the confidence in his own bullshitting skills, the superficial knowledge (often consisting of facts that are not actually Facts), the generic and empty language, and the failure to hide disdain for the idea that you people dare judge someone as great as him are well recognized by anyone who has taught before.

Over time, though, two things are becoming clearer. One, this problem is not limited to Trump. The Republican Party that once touted itself as the "Party of Ideas" is officially at a point where it has no ideas whatsoever. Not bad ideas, which is a different issue, but no ideas. They are now designed solely for obstruction and have no ability to govern now that the dominant ethos has gone from "Let's govern this way instead of that way" to "lol governing sux." Should we be surprised that a group of people who claim that the free market can solve any problem in a complex society struggle to come up with concrete proposals for governing? No. But that doesn't make it any less shocking that after seven full years of trying to repeal the ACA, House Republicans had to slap together a half-assed proposal the night before the due date because they had nothing prepared. Not "We had a plan ready but some parts are works in progress" unprepared. Literally unprepared. They had nothing. And regardless of the amount of time – seven years might as well have been seven days or seventy years – that is what they would have had: nothing. They no longer bother with the pedantic and time consuming tasks of coming up with "ideas" or "solutions." This is a party designed to obstruct and nothing more. Hell, some of them were heartbroken Trump won, having become a machine well designed to prevent a Hillary Clinton from doing anything. Working with a president? That, they haven't a clue how to do.

The other thing I realize with time is that the same student who slaps a paper together at the last second is unlikely to produce a paper much better by starting the assignment earlier. The person who cares so little about what he or she writes that the assignment is left until hours before the deadline is not the kind who will devote greater attention to it just because more time is available. In other words, if you're gonna half-ass the paper at the last minute you will probably half-ass it whenever you do it. The problem isn't the time you have available; the underlying problem is that you half-ass things.

This applies to the Republican analogy as well. No matter how much time they do or don't spend trying to create policy, they're such a one trick pony now (Cut taxes + magic = Everything's Super) that they wouldn't have produced a markedly better ACA alternative had Paul Ryan spent seven straight years working on it. The means is the end for Republicans; they propose cutting taxes for the wealthy as a means to solve any and all problems because – ta da! – all they really care about doing is cutting taxes for the wealthy. Does it "work"? Who cares. As long as it gets done on a regular basis it doesn't have to work. Their job is already done.

Democrats lose elections because they propose things that voters don't like or that strike people as unnecessarily convoluted. Republicans avoid that problem by being for nothing and against almost everything. You have to hand it to them, it's a brilliant system. The flaws become apparent when the GOP, like a dog that finally catches a car, ends up with control of all of our political institutions.

PRESIDENT SNOWFLAKE

Posted in Rants on March 6th, 2017 by Ed

Every generation succumbs to the urge to criticize those that follow. No generation in history has taken more crap than The Millennials, some deserved and some illogical. Gen X probably had more words spilled on its behalf in the 1990s, but not all of it was negative. The sheer volume of analysis directed at The Boomers has as much to do with the fact that America has been talking about them for six decades at this point. Millennial bashing, though, appears to rank somewhere above college football and below drinking cheap beer in the hierarchy of American likes and dislikes these days.

As is customary, the most complaining comes from the oldest generation, as these people are separated from adolescents and young adults by the greatest amount of time and cultural dissimilarity. Yet the criticism today has taken on an increasingly ironic tone; for all its complaints about the specific faults of Millennials, it is more apparent by the day that the 70 year old they elected acts more like a stereotypical Millennial child-man than any 22 year old Brooklynite with a Journalism degree we could put in the same position.

Narcissistic? Yes. Addicted to social media? Check. Constant self-aggrandizement? Obviously. Vain? Almost pathologically. Short attention span? Inattention to substance and detail? Superficial knowledge paired with lots of buzzwords and image bolstering? Avoids or is incapable of doing hard work? Unable to handle any kind of criticism without going berserk? Believes garbage repeated on the internet? This only scratches the surface. Take any caricature in the media of Americans between high school age and thirty and you will find every last stereotype embodied in the grandfather that a generation of grandparents embraces as its hero. While wagging its finger at The Kids These Days, Americans at or near retirement age today elected a man with the exact personality and behavioral profile of a 17 year old girl who describes herself as an "Instagram Model." The only difference between that kid and Trump is that the kid probably isn't as racist.

The point is not what is or is not true about Millennials as a generation, but that it takes a rich sense of irony to appreciate how older Americans have embraced everything bad that they insist is true about Millennials in a geriatric package. Perhaps the lesson to take from this is that generations are not that different fundamentally, and given enough time to acclimate themselves to the new technology an aging Boomer can use social media to prove how vapid, self centered, and dumb they are just as successfully as any teenager.

NPF: FALCONS vs. PROBABILITY

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 5th, 2017 by Ed

I'm about to get to the segment of my research methods course covering probability, and I have a new favorite example of the cumulative probability of independent events. Too bad I can't use it in class, given that football is a rather culturally biased source for anecdotes.

Super Bowl viewers may recall that despite a furious New England comeback, the Atlanta Falcons were leading 28-20 with four minutes remaining and in a dominant position – first down at New England's 22 yard line. From here, literally all the Falcons had to do was fall down three times (which would either force New England to spend their timeouts or run 2 precious minutes off the clock), kick a simple 40-yard field goal, and return the ball to New England down 11 points with little time left. In other words, a Falcon victory was virtually guaranteed.

How guaranteed? Well, consider if Atlanta ran the simplest of plays on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down: a run straight up the middle by very excellent running back Devonta Freeman. It didn't matter if he gained yards or not. Running the clock and, crucially, NOT fumbling the ball away were all that mattered. Fortunately for Atlanta, Freeman carried the ball 227 times and caught 54 passes this season with all of one fumble, so we can calculate his odds of running the play without fumbling as 1 – 1/(227+54), or 99.64%. To calculate the odds of running the play three times (independent events) without fumbling, we cube that figure, (0.9964)3 = 98.92%. Assuming that Freeman would actually be trying much harder than usual to avoid fumbling at the expense of trying to gain yards, this is probably a serious underestimate to the likelihood of success. But let's stick with it.

On fourth down, Falcons kicker Matt Bryant would appear to kick a field goal of just under or over 40 yards. This season he made 95% (19/20) of kicks under 40 yards, and 97% (28/29) under 50. The 41 year old veteran has made 300 field goals in the NFL over 15 years, so presumably nerves wouldn't have drastically altered his performance. But for the sake of being conservative, let's say his odds were 92% (his total season average). 98.92% x 92% = 91%. In other words, by doing nothing but what was obvious, the Falcons had at least a 91% chance of taking an 11 point lead and essentially guaranteeing victory.

Instead, Atlanta got too cute. On 1st down Freeman carried the ball for a short loss. On second down, Atlanta passed for baffling reasons. QB Matt Ryan was sacked, losing 12 yards and making a potential field goal very long. Then they passed again, this time drawing a very obvious holding penalty and losing 10 more yards. Now, no field goal attempt was possible. The rest is history.

Consider what they did there. Leave aside for a moment the 30% chance of a pass being incomplete and stopping the clock, which would be bad (helping New England) but not fatal. QB Ryan had 1.3% of his passes intercepted, was sacked 6.5% of the time he attempted to pass, and the Falcons performed near the NFL average of an offensive penalty on 1 of every 10 plays (10%). The sum of those (17.8%) is the probability that something really, really bad could happen on a pass attempt. That leaves an 82.2% chance that things will be alright on a pass attempt. Counting Freeman's first down run (0.9964), we then multiply by (0.822) x (0.822) for the second and third down passes, giving us 67.3% probability of these three plays being run without "something bad" happening. Multiply that by Bryant's 92% chance of making a field goal, and we see that the plays Atlanta actually ran gave them only a 61.94% chance of getting that crucial 11-point lead.

NFL coaches may not be rocket scientists but most could tell you that 91% is greater than about 62%. And remember, 91% is an extremely low, conservative estimate.

We see this all the time in football; coaches get too fancy trying to "outsmart" the odds. When it works, they're praised for being Bold. But math is going to win more regularly than Guts or Boldness or anything else.

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU'RE FOOLING

Posted in Rants on March 1st, 2017 by Ed

Look. I have nothing against Steve Beshear. I have a lot of Louisvillian friends who vouch for him as Not Bad. He's about what one can hope for in the category of Democratic Governor in Red State. Additionally, the Democratic response to Tuesday evening's presidential address won't amount to a pile of dust in the long run. Content-wise it likely left an impression on exactly no one. It was, in that sense, Fine.

It was also a good example of everything wrong with the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Leave aside the terrible message it sends to have a 72 year old ex-elected official in effective retirement in a spot of high, albeit temporary, visibility. Leave aside how awful an impression it creates to include the phrase "I am a Republican" in the first 15 seconds. Consider the setup, conceptually, for what the people responsible for this were trying to do here and you'll see directly to the heart of the problem with Democrats.

With a party at low ebb after losing a presidential election to a joke candidate using a nominee nobody seemed to like all that much and a running mate whose name the country forgot even before the election, you might expect strategists to focus on the most obvious problem: If you can't fire up your base, you're not going to win elections. Republicans are forever hurling red meat at their base – 50 Obamacare repeals that had no chance of passing, 35 Benghazi hearings, etc. – even though they know those measures are futile. They do it because they recognize that if all else fails, they will at least get their core group of voters behind them solidly.

The Beshear thing is evidence of how deeply cynical and unmoored the Democratic Party is right now. The visual of a 72 year old white guy in a creepy diner surrounded by other old white people is exactly, precisely, to the last detail, what some Beltway or New York-San Francisco based consultant would think is going to appeal to the revered White Working Class. This is what someone who has no contact with Normal People thinks Normal People are like. This is cringe-inducing in the same way as the dialogue for black characters in TV shows aimed at (and written by) white people often is. It is at its core a caricature. It is a thing people look at and think, This is some asshole from Harvard's impression of what those dirty people he flies over will like. I'm stunned they didn't have Beshear wear a NASCAR hat and pound a Bud Light.

The insistence that they can "win back" the White Working Class is delusional to begin with, but they extra-certainly will never win them back with transparent cornball shit like this. This isn't outreach; this is pandering. And the most offensive part is that it isn't even good pandering. It's as convincing as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan. This was embarrassing to watch in the same way that is true of messages aimed at kids and written by adults according to their incomplete and outdated sense of what The Kids These Days are into.

I'm not saying the Democratic Party's path to success lies with some sort of hard lurch to the far left, embracing communism and waving a hammer and sickle. What seems very obvious to everyone except the holdover New Democrat people from the 90s who are still in charge is that whatever success the party will achieve will come from reaching out to and motivating the voters who find the GOP terrifying. Women. Young people. Gays and Lesbians. African-Americans. Hispanics. The highly educated. People in big cities. Non-Evangelicals. But for some insane reason they insist that the winning strategy is to find some way to peel away the same voters who clearly and strongly prefer Republicans – and worse, to do it by play-acting a six-figure strategist's impression of economically depressed white people, as though speaking with a little drawl and sitting in a folksy diner is going to convince some pissed off ex-coal miner that he loves the Democrats after all.

It is time to come to grips with the fact that the appeal Democrats had to rural whites is something that died many decades ago. It was already running out of steam by the time Reagan came around, and that was nearly 40 goddamn years ago. Let it go. Low-income rural whites are a rapidly shrinking part of the population. Trump may be their last gasp before they start dying in droves because Republicans rely so heavily on the elderly. Move on. Do something, anything, to communicate the message to the actual, real Democratic base, "You are our priority. We care about you. We need you." Not the base as they might like it to be, full of hard-workin' blue collar white caricatures, but as it is.

The DNC keeps telling us that the future of the party will not be served by a lurch to the far left. Perhaps, perhaps not. We could hear arguments on either side of that. What is absolutely and undeniably certain, though, is that the future of the party is not old white men playing at Rustic Everyman and all but conceding defeat to the mighty forces of conservatism. For those who warn that trying to fire up a progressive base will create a McGovern scenario, I have news: that has already happened. Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House for what may be an eternity, and 38 state legislatures (!!!). It is difficult to conceive of how much worse things could go if they tried something a little different. But instead they will comfort themselves with what they know and then wonder loudly why old white centrists failed to excite their most important voters.

DENTAL PLAN! LISA NEEDS BRACES. DENTAL PLAN!

Posted in Quick Hits on March 1st, 2017 by Ed

Don't get anyone who likes The Simpsons talking "best episodes" unless you have a couple hours to kill and sufficient devotion to the show to argue fine points like Frank Grimes vs. Hank Scorpio for best one-show cameo. Depending on the context and the definition of "best," there are probably 20 episodes that could plausibly hold the title. For its commentary on organized labor in the United States, though, "Last Exit to Springfield" has to be near the top of the list.

Over the past two weeks the automotive press has been full of stories about Elon Musk's (he of Tesla and PayPal fame) efforts to stave off unionization at his Fremont, California factory. His strategy is to treat his employees like toddlers, apparently, and convince them to forgo unionization in exchange for toys and treats and a trip to Six Flags. If you think that's a metaphor, it isn't: he has offered quite literally to give the factory a frozen yogurt bar and a roller coaster in exchange for a union-free contract. I would like to point out that the year is 2017, and this exact scenario was in the aforementioned Simpsons episode in 1993.

Carl: But seriously, we have to vote on Mr. Burns' new contract. It's basically the same deal, except we get a free keg of beer for our meetings. (crowd cheers) In exchange for that, we have to give up our dental plan. (everyone cheers and rushes over to the beer keg)

Lenny: (pours beer) So long dental plan!

You can't make these things up.

There are arguments to be made (albeit not necessarily equally persuasive ones) for and against unionization. You have to love the cynicism of the ruling class when it doesn't even bother making them and instead jiggles its car keys and a squeaky toy in front of labor, expecting that to convince them to give up rights and long term economic benefits.

And you know what? It'll probably work.