January 2016, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Concealing College Cost Comparisons?  Here's the story from the New York Times:
So since 2011, the federal government has required all schools to provide something called a net price calculator on their websites.  You put in some financial data, and the calculator estimates what your actual cost would be, after any scholarships.  If you aren’t among the very affluent and are applying to a private college, that net price can be tens of thousands of dollars below the list price.

Not long after the calculator became standard, a service called College Abacus emerged, allowing families to compare multiple schools at once.  That spared them the laborious task of plugging the same data into multiple calculators many times over.

And how did many colleges respond?  By blocking College Abacus’s access to their calculators.  Imagine if Expedia or Kayak could not search for tickets on some of the most desirable airlines, and you get the idea.
You can draw your own conclusions as to why the colleges are blocking College Abacus.
- 7:27 PM, 24 January 2016   [link]

Worth Reading, Watching, Or Both:  This 60 Minutes story on how the Chinese are stealing our secrets.

This summary should get your attention:
The Justice Department says that the scale of China's corporate espionage is so vast it constitutes a national security emergency, with China targeting virtually every sector of the U.S. economy, and costing American companies hundreds of billions of dollars in losses -- and more than two million jobs.
Those numbers are, obviously, rough estimates, but they do tell us something about the scale of the problem>

(In May 2013, when Edward Snowden defected, these cyber attacks from China were beginning to draw world wide attention, attention that almost vanished after he flew to Hong Kong.  I have wondered, ever since then, whether the timing of his flight was coincidental.

60 Minutes has a companion piece, "How China's spies can watch you at your desk", that you might want to watch, as well.)
- 2:53 PM, 23 January 2016   [link]

What Do Those Wealthy Chinese Know That We Don't?  (Or, if you prefer, what do they believe that we don't know they believe?)

The lead story in today's Seattle Times is about the surge in "High-end" home sales in this area.  A large proportion of it is coming from wealthy Chinese.

For example:
An eight-bedroom mansion on Mercer Island’s Faben Point fetched last year’s highest price for a home in King County — $13.8 million.

The buyer, whose identity was concealed through a shell company, paid cash, public records show. Brokers say the buyer is from China and will use it as a family home.
Why would this buyer want to move his (or possibly her) family to the United States?

It's hard to think of an answer to that question that doesn't imply a certain lack of faith in China's mid-term prospects.  By someone who, most likely, knows far more about China than most of us do.

(If you are wondering why Seattle, rather than, say, Los Angeles, it may be because — excluding Alaska and Hawaii — Seattle is the closest large American city to China.  It isn't the climate here, though summers are usually pleasant.)
- 2:22 PM, 23 January 2016   [link]

We Don't Like Any Candidate Very Much:  As president, anyway.  Here are some findings from a recent Pew poll.
A year before the next president takes office, voters are skeptical that any of the leading 2016 candidates would make a good president.  Moreover, of nine candidates included in the survey, far more voters say each would make a “terrible” than “great” president.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Jan. 7-14 among 2,009 adults, including 1,525 registered voters, finds that 35% of voters say that Hillary Clinton would make either a good or great president, with 11% saying she would be great.  More voters (44%) say Clinton would be either poor or terrible in the White House; 28% say she would be terrible.  About one-in-five (18%) think Clinton would make an average president.

Nearly a third (31%) say Donald Trump would be either a good or great president; 11% say he would be great.   Roughly half (52%) think Trump would make a poor or terrible president, with 38% saying he would be terrible.   Just 12% think Trump would be an average president.
(Emphasis added.)

If you scroll down to the bar charts showing how members of each party view their candidates, you'll see two striking patterns:  First, very few Democrats are negative about either Clinton or Sanders.  Second — and here I have to say I am speculating — except for Trump, it looks to me as if the negative perceptions are shaped in large part by right-wing talk show hosts, and right-wing blog sites.

You are seeing, in other words, the opinions of folks like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and the Breitbart crew — who, sadly, are not the best sources for unbiased information.

Let me also draw your attention to just how many Republican voters admit that they don't know who John Kasich is: 27 percent.  Nationally, many voters simply don't know that much about the candidates — which is why large shifts in candidate preferences are possible, perhaps even likely, in the next few weeks.

(Here's Kasich's Wikipedia biography, for the curious.  The usual caveats apply.  You'll probably get a chuckle out of his haircut in that 1985 picture — unless you had one just like it.)
- 3:30 PM, 22 January 2016   [link]

The NYT Is Shocked To Learn That A Former KGB Agent May Have Acted Like A KGB Agent:  You probably heard or saw this story:
The murder of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 in the UK was "probably" approved by President Vladimir Putin, an inquiry has found.

Mr Putin is likely to have signed off the poisoning of Mr Litvinenko with polonium-210 in part due to personal "antagonism" between the pair, it said.
. . .
The long-awaited report into Mr Litvinenko's death found that two Russian men - Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun - deliberately poisoned the 43-year-old in London in 2006 by putting the radioactive substance polonium-210 into his drink at a hotel.

Sir Robert Owen, the public inquiry chairman, said he was "sure" Mr Litvinenko's murder had been carried out by the two men and that they were probably acting under the direction of Moscow's FSB intelligence service, and approved by the organisation's chief, Nikolai Patrushev, as well as the Russian president.
But you may not have seen the reaction from the editorial writers at the New York Times, who found Putin's likely involvement : shocking:
The murder of Alexander Litvinenko via a cup of tea laced with a toxic isotope, polonium 210, has long been suspected by British authorities to have been a state-sponsored operation by two Russian agents.  But a yearlong official inquiry has now shockingly concluded that Mr. Putin very likely played a decisive role.  The accusation immediately unsettled relations between London and Moscow and sparked outraged denials in the Kremlin.

The inquiry’s 328-page report did not provide direct evidence of Mr. Putin’s culpability, but cited “strong circumstantial evidence” of Kremlin responsibility in the death of Mr. Litvinenko, who fled Russia and became a citizen of Britain, where he was a relentless critic of the Kremlin and particularly Mr. Putin.
From the very beginning I thought it nearly certain that this was a Russian assassination.  And, though I didn't say so at the time, thought it likely that Putin had ordered the assassination.

So I wasn't surprised by the report, but I was mildly surprised that the British found enough evidence so that they could accuse Putin.

And I have no idea why our newspaper of record was shocked to find a former KGB agent acting like a KGB agent.

(Technical quibble:  Some news accounts describe the poison as "radioactive polonium".  Actually, there isn't any other kind; all 33(!) known isotopes of polonium are radioactive.

One thing did surprise me at the time; the killers used about ten times as much polonium as they needed to kill him, so this was one of the most expensive assassinations, ever.)
- 10:36 AM, 22 January 2016   [link]

How Does It Feel To Be A Member Of The "Establishment"?  Hadn't thought of yourself as a member of that powerful organization?  Then read Kimberly Strassel's column, where you will learn that all of us — by someone's definition — are members of the "establishment".

Then Ted Cruz came to town, with a new definition. The Establishment became anybody who didn’t do things the way he did.  Not in favor of a government shutdown?  Establishment!  Don’t support a showy filibuster of an antigun bill that was never going to pass anyway?  Establishment!  And presto, those new House reformers, Mr. Rubio, all the governors, the Club for Growth, dozens of conservative advocacy groups, and even James Madison (were he still alive), became, overnight, Establishment Duds.

Only guess what? Ted Cruz is The Establishment!  Donald Trump isn’t using the “E-word” precisely, but he is pointing out that Mr. Cruz took “low-interest” loans from Goldman Sachs to fund his Senate campaign, and since Goldman Sachs is absolutely a foundational member of The Establishment, Mr. Cruz is clearly part of the, well, you know.  Worse, Mr. Trump says, The Establishment “owns” Mr. Cruz. Ouch.
(And if you are not an American?  Then you are, most likely, by similar definitions, a member of an "establishment" in your country.)

For years I have been arguing that "establishment" was not a useful concept in American politics, but I never expected the word to be used as absurdly as it is, now.

(Two quibbles:  It is, I suspect, more accurate to say that Bob Dole dislikes Donal Trump less than he dislikes Ted Cruz; he probably doesn't like either of them.

The term "establishment" was once more common on the left in the United States, than the right.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the left often depicted the "establishment" as a sort of bipartisan conspiracy.  Sound familiar?)
- 7:26 AM, 22 January 2016   [link]

Can Small Rewards Remove Bias?  These findings are interesting enough to report:
In other words, when you ask people about the economy, the answers are less a statement of objectivity and more like what they’d say if you’d asked which pro football team was the best.  That has important implications for democracy. How can people judge whether a party is effective if there is no sense of objective truth?  And it could even have implications for the economy itself if, for example, conservative-leaning business executives freeze hiring or investment when the president doesn’t share their politics.

But new research from two teams of political scientists adds a wrinkle to these findings.  It turns out that the partisan bias in how people answer factual questions about the economy is diminished by this one weird trick:   Pay people.
. . .
When survey respondents were offered a small cash reward — a dollar or two — for producing a correct answer about the unemployment rate and other economic conditions, they were more likely to be accurate and less likely to produce an answer that fit their partisan biases.
There's more, including the interesting finding that offering even smaller rewards — 33 cents — for "don't know" answers eliminated the remaining bias.

I am reporting these findings, without necessarily endorsing them.

The findings are surprising enough so that we should really want to see the studies replicated, with variations.

(It occurred to me, after reading the article, that this might be another example of Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow".

Ordinarily, when we are being asked a survey question, we think "fast"; we give an almost automated answer that may just show our partisan biases.  But, as soon as there is something in it for us, we have a reason to spend a little energy and think slow about the question, perhaps taking a little time to "look up" the correct answers in our memory.

Here's my brief discussion of "System 1" (fast) and "System 2" (slow) thinking.)
- 9:53 AM, 21 January 2016   [link]

NYT Versus The WSJ On Climate Change:  Yesterday, the climate folks at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held a joint teleconference to announce that 2015 was the warmest year on record.

This morning, I read accounts of the teleconference in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The article in the Journal, by Robert Lee Hotz, is better than the article in the Times, by Justin Gillis.

The Journal article is better for two reasons.  First, it is a better presentation of the basic facts.  It has way more numbers, including one most Americans will think is the most important.
By their scientific reckoning, Earth is inexorably warming in response to rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and soot, as well as deforestation and other land-use changes.

During 2015, the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.90° Celsius) above the 20th-century average, NOAA officials said.  This was the highest among all 136 years in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record set last year by 0.29°F (0.16°C) and marking the fourth time a global temperature record has been set this century, they said.
. . .
For the 48 contiguous U.S. states, though, 2015 was the second-warmest year on record, with an average temperature of 54.4° F, about 2.4° above the 20th-century average.
(If the weather guy or gal on TV tells you that yesterday was the hottest January 20th on record in your area, wouldn't you want to know what the high was yesterday?  But that basic number is often omitted from these discussions.)

Second, Hotz wrote it the way a neutral journalist would write the story.  After reading it, I wasn't sure what his position on this issue is — or even if he has one.

In contrast, Gillis wrote as a advocate, pitting scientists (yay!) against politicians (boo!), and he does not mention, anywhere in the article, that some scientists, including a few famous scientists, disagree with the climate alarmism put out by NASA and NOAA.

On the other hand — credit where due — Gillis did include this fact: "Most satellite measurements of the lower and middle layers of the atmosphere show 2015 to have been the third- or fourth-warmest year in a 37-year record, . . .".  (I have long thought that the satellite measurements were more likely to be accurate than the much-massaged ground data.)

(Here's the first reaction to the teleconference, with links to much of the data, from Bob Tisdale at What's Up With That?.)
- 7:37 AM, 21 January 2016   [link]

Today's New Yorker Cartoon made me think for a few seconds.

But I liked it, once I figured it out.
- 6:03 AM, 21 January 2016   [link]

Here's A Sign Too Funny Not To Pass On:  Unless you happen to be a Trump supporter.

For the record:  Actually only two of the three wives are immigrants.   Ivana Trump immigrated from Czechoslovakia, from a town that is now in the Czech Republic, and Melania Knauss-Trump immigrated from Slovenia, but Marla Maples was born in the United States, to American parents>

I see two patterns in that sequence of wives, one obvious and one not so obvious.  You can see the obvious one in this sequence, where I follow the four with their years of birth:

Donald Trump 1946
Ivana Trump 1949
Marla Maples 1963
Melania Knauss-Trump 1970

And the less obvious pattern?  Though I haven't seen IQ scores, it's my impression that Marla Maples is less intelligent than Ivana Trump, and that Melanie Knauss-Trump is less intelligent than Marla Maples.

Sign by way of Mike Smithson.

(I glanced at his Wikipedia biography and learned that Donald Trump made quite a nuisance of himself for a time, pursuing Princess Diana.)
- 1:27 PM, 20 January 2016   [link]

How Is Jeremy Corbyn Doing In Britain?  The Labour leader is doing poorly, in fact very poorly.
Jeremy Corbyn has made no progress with the wider public since his landslide victory in the race to be Labour leader, new polling research has revealed.

The numbers are so bad for the Labour leader it proved impossible to identify a worse performing opposition figurehead for the party in the history of routine polling - which began in the late 1940s - this far from the last general election.
(Routine links omitted.)

The decline in his ratings has been steady; the more the British public learns about him, the less they like him — as a potential prime minister.

There may be lessons here for Bernie Sanders and his supporters — and for Ted Cruz and his supporters.
- 12:39 PM, 20 January 2016   [link]

Andrew Malcolm's Weekly Collection of jokes.

Here's his favorite:
Fallon: The Obama White House has joined Snapchat. It's a great platform for this White House, because moments after the president makes a promise, it magically disappears.
It's mine, too.

(If that puzzles you, look here, and, possibly, here.)
- 9:43 PM, 20 January 2016   [link]

Some Surprising Debt Numbers From China:  Surprising to me, anyway; I am nearly certain experts on China have known about this debt for years.  (This morning, on BBC GMT, I saw an expert who was not at all surprised by China's debt problems, an expert who seemed rather pleased by them, perhaps because he had been predicting problems for China for a few years.)
Debt, which economists said has continued to rise even as the economy slows, is limiting Beijing’s room to maneuver.  State-owned enterprises saw profits fall 9.5% year over year during the first 11 months of 2015, while their debt increased 18.2%, BMI Research Corp. said.

Total debt equals almost 260% of annual economic output, UBS Group AG estimates, up from less than 160% in 2007.  While the official ratio of nonperforming loans in China’s banks remained low at 1.6% by the end of the third quarter, analysts and economists said the pace is picking up and many debts are hidden in the books of nonbank lenders while banks roll over many loans.
. . .
Increasingly, new lending is being used to service debt rather than fund new ventures and energy-saving technologies.  Households and companies now spend the equivalent of 20% of GDP on interest payments, more than the U.S., Japan or the U.K. and equal to Korea, said research firm Gavekal Dragonomics, citing figures from the Bank for International Settlements.
(Emphasis added.)

20 percent for debt service?!  If that is even close to accurate, it's impressive.

(How good are the numbers?  I don't know, and I suspect even the experts would, if you asked, give you wide "error bounds" on them.)
- 2:45 PM, 19 January 2016   [link]

Zinnia Grown In Space:  Looking much like other zinnias.  Which is the result astronaut Scott Kelley was trying to achieve.

Zinnia grown at the International Space Sttion

Here's the story:
To boldly grow where no man has grown before.

That has been the mission of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for nearly two years, where they have tried to cultivate edible plants in microgravity.

But now, after a few failed growth cycles, it seems the team's efforts are finally blossoming, with their first ever bunch of zinnia flowers blooming in space.
If you are wondering why they chose zinnias, after growing lettuce, it's because zinnias are harder to grow than lettuce, but not a lot harder, and, I assume, because zinnia flowers are edible (though not especially tasty).

Anyone who knows anything about farms, or even gardens, will sympathize with the problems Kelley had controlling the humidity.

(You can find background on the experiments here and here. Apparently, growing the plants "aeroponically" solves some of the problems of getting the roots to grow where you want them to, without the help of gravity.)
- 1:34 PM, 19 January 2016   [link]

No, Bernie Sanders Is Not a Communist, or even a communist.

As I said last October, and as he says, Sanders is a democratic socialist.

But there is no doubt that, early in his political career, he was far more sympathetic to communist governments than any democrat, anyone who believes in choosing leaders through elections, ought to be.

If he has changed his mind since then — and he may have — he ought to say so, now.
- 2:54 PM, 18 January 2016   [link]

Jeremy Corbyn's Trident Compromise:  The Labour leader favors unilateral nuclear disarmament, which, in Britain's case, mostly means getting rid of their Trident submarines.

However, that would cause the loss of thousands of jobs, which the unions object to.  So Corbyn floated this idea, in a BBC interview:
Jeremy Corbyn has suggested the UK could keep its Trident submarine fleet but without carrying nuclear warheads.

The Labour leader told the Andrew Marr Show there were "options" for maintaining defence jobs while showing the UK was willing to take a lead in nuclear "de-escalation".
As the Times of London says, that would be "a strategy which preserves all the cost of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, without preserving the benefits".  (Except, of course, to those union members.)

(The issue divides the Labour Party — and unites Conservatives.  At least a few Conservatives joined the Labour Party in order to vote to make Corbyn the Labour leader, and you should be able, by now, to see why.)
- 9:53 AM, 18 January 2016   [link]

Steven Hayward's Weekly Collection of pictures.

My favorites were the first Bernie Sanders cartoon, and the Ramirez "bear" cartoon.

(So far, I haven't seen any pictures of a certain candidate with his pants on fire, though I have been half expecting to see one.  Maybe American children no longer chant, "Liar, liar, . . . ", so the idea is not obvious to folks younger than I am.)
- 7:55 AM, 18 January 2016   [link]

Donald Trump Denies He Said What He Said:  Even though the New York Times has the recording.

There is much of interest in this Frank Bruni column — including its central argument, about which I am undecided — but what I found most striking was this:
And did you know that he has “the world’s greatest memory,” by his own estimation?

“It’s one thing everyone agrees on,” he added, which is wrong, because many of us at The Times don’t agree at all, especially not after the most recent Republican debate, on Thursday night.  He was asked then about his proposal, made during a recent meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board, for a 45 percent tax on Chinese goods brought into this country. And his magic powers of recollection eluded him.

“That’s wrong,” he said. “They were wrong. It’s The New York Times. They are always wrong.”

Except we weren’t, not about this.  A transcript and an audio recording of the meeting unequivocally demonstrate as much.
Politicians have many ways of recovering after they have said something foolish, but they rarely flatly deny having said it — when there is a recoding available to the public.

(I would guess that Trump didn't realize when he was speaking to the editorial board that he was proposing to start a trade war, a trade war that might bring on a world-wide depression.  If he had consulted any economists, they would have told him about the damage done by the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff.)
- 3:30 PM, 17 January 2016   [link]

The Daily Mail has pictures from the Pentagon of that ISIS bank being converted to confetti by American bombs.

It looks like a good start.
- 7:26 AM, 17 January 2016   [link]