September 2015, Part 3
Jim Miller on Politics
Today Is National Punctuation Day? I hadn't realized that!
Here's an example of the difference punctuation can make:
In written English, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. For example: "woman, without her man, is nothing" (emphasizing the importance of men), and "woman: without her, man is nothing" (emphasizing the importance of women) have very different meanings; . . .(I'd prefer the second meaning, if forced to choose between the two.)
By way of Joanne Jacobs.
(This is a good time to remind you that I mostly use the British, or logical, style of punctuaton rather than the American style — because I find it more, well, logical. I would like it even better, if it accepted interrobangs, which I mimic from time to time.
And a good time to mention that I found that history of punctuation more than a little interesting.
- 3:09 PM, 24 September 2015 [link]
Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object: Well, not quite, but the collision of Uber with the French bureaucracy may remind you of that old conundrum.
I haven't paid a lot of attention to Uber, but enough so that I was impressed by their ability to escape from the regulators. But, as the Wall Street Journal says, they may have met their match.
Days after taxi drivers burned tires and snarled traffic across France in late June to protest Uber Technologies Inc., two lobbyists for the car-hailing firm walked into the offices of France’s top cop.So far, the immovable object is winning.
- 2:23 PM, 24 September 2015 [link]
Sympathy For VW: Right now, that may sound uncomfortably close to sympathy for the devil, what with the emissions cheating scandal.
But I do have a little sympathy for the company, or its engineers, anyway. Car companies are now being asked to improve fuel economy, provide good or even excellent performance, lower emissions, and keep costs under control. It is hard to do all four, simultaneously.
Most likely, VW engineers tried to create diesel engine designs that could provide satisfaction on all four, but weren't able to do so, in the time they had. They may even have been asked by management to do something impossible.
And so they cheated. Which they shouldn't have. But we should recognize that they weren't being asked to do something easy.
(It would be interesting to know whether VW's competitors were able to create diesel engines that achieved all the things VW claimed they were achieving. If not, that's evidence that VW's management was asking more of its engineers than it should have.)
- 3:02 PM, 23 September 2015 [link]
Stay Home, If You Can: That's the official advice being given to Seattle-area commuters, thanks to the visit of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping.
This morning he will be traveling north from Seattle to the big Boeing plant in Everett; around noon he'll be traveling to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, east of Seattle; at about 5 PM he will be visiting a public high school in Tacoma, south of Seattle; and some time later he will return to his Seattle hotel.
Roads will be closed for all four trips — but we don't know exactly when, for security reasons. (For those familiar with the area, his trips will probably close these roads, in order: I-5 north from Seattle, I-405 south from Everett, I-405 and I-5 south to Tacoma, and I-5 north to Seattle.
At a rough guess, I'd say that at least a million commuters will have their regular schedules seriously disrupted today.
(For the curious, here's Xi's schedule.
Out of an abundance of caution, I decided to go grocery shopping near the Microsoft headquarters tomorrow rather than today. That almost certainly isn't necessary, but the two days are equal, otherwise, so it was easy to decide to put off the trip for a day.)
- 7:52 AM, 23 September 2015 [link]
Great News On Judges: Though Catherine Rampell doesn't see it that way.
With little fanfare, the United States’ federal judiciary has started coming apart at the seams, particularly in judicial districts represented by at least one Republican senator. That’s no coincidence. Motivated by a desire both to make President Obama look bad and to delay any judicial appointments until there’s (possibly) a Republican in the White House, GOP senators have thrown obstruction after obstruction in front of the judicial appointment process. As a result, the Republican-controlled Senate has confirmed only six federal judges in 2015.Did Democrats in the Senate use similar tactics during George W. Bush's second term? Sure. Especially after they gained the majority in the 2006 election.
- 7:54 PM, 22 September 2015 [link]
How Far Is The Greek Island Of Lesbos From Turkey? That question popped into my mind this evening while I was watching BBC America showing us exhausted and crying migrants coming on shore in Lesbos.
Watching that story you would have thought they had made a long sea journey.
Checking the Wikipedia entry, I learned that they had traveled at least 3.4 miles.
Lesbos lies in the far east of the Aegean sea, facing the Turkish coast (Gulf of Edremit) from the north and east; at the narrowest point, the strait is about 5.5 km (3.4 mi) wide.But they might not have traveled between the two closest points, so the trip distance may have been as much as 5 miles, or even more. Maybe even 10 miles.
Even in the rubber life raft they showed us, I would not expect those trips to last much more than an hour or two.
There was one startling claim: that an average of 6 people were dying from drowning in the attempts to cross, each day.
If that's correct, then the people smugglers are incompetent and indifferent to the loss of human life, because it is not difficult to make that short a trip safely in those waters, even in a small boat.
Was the BBC looking for the most dramatic pictures to show viewers? Of course.
(So far, I haven't seen any explanation for why neither the Greeks nor the Turks are doing much to stop this flow. The Greeks did put up a fence on the land border between the two countries, not that long ago.)
- 6:51 PM, 22 September 2015 [link]
0 Deaths From Radiation, 1,600 Deaths From The Stress Of Evacuation: Those are the estimates experts have come to about the Fukushima nuclear accident.
No one has been killed or sickened by the radiation — a point confirmed last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even among Fukushima workers, the number of additional cancer cases in coming years is expected to be so low as to be undetectable, a blip impossible to discern against the statistical background noise."Don't Panic" is almost always good advice. (I'll have to think a bit before I decide whether I agree with Arthur C. Clarke, who said that it's "perhaps the best advice that could be given to humanity".)
I'll make a fearless prediction: These important findings (which seem quite solid to me) will not appear in many newspapers, and will appear on exactly 0 network news programs. (Please let me know, preferably with a link, if I am wrong about that.)
(Here's the IAEA site.)
- 1:11 PM, 22 September 2015 [link]
Here's Another Great Correction from the New York Times.
An editorial on Sunday about the prison at Guantánamo Bay incorrectly described the status of a prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He has not been cleared for release.The editorial is terrible, as you probably have already guessed. The Times is simply unwilling to accept the idea that prisoners of war are ordinarily held for the duration of the war, and unwilling, in their editorials, to even mention that a significant proportion of those released are known to have returned to the battle against us.
(How large a proportion? At least one sixth, and probably many more, which is why I said "known". These two articles in the Weekly Standard and the Daily Signal will give you a rough idea of what we know — and don't know — about the rate of "recidivism", as it usually called. Note that a man who is released and goes into full-time propaganda against the United States is not counted as a "recidivist", even though he is as much a terrorist as a suicide bomber.
Fans of novelist Jackie Collins may be distressed by the errors just above this one. Obituaries of prominent people are usually prepared long in advance, so the Times can't blame those two mistakes on deadline pressure.)
- 9:55 AM, 22 September 2015 [link]
Bret Stephens Welcomes "President" Xi to America.
Maybe you’re even thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice to be America for one day?Much of the world thinks that America shouldn't work, in theory — and are baffled and sometimes annoyed when America works as well as it does, in practice.
(I put President in quotation marks, because, though that may be the official translation of Xi's title, he isn't a president in the way we think of presidents. It is significant, I'm sure, that he also has the same title that Stalin used for decades; Xi is "General Secretary of the Communist Party" (and "Chairman of the Central Military Commission").
If, like me, you are only vaguely familiar with Jonathan Franzen, this Wikipedia biography may help. I assume that you are familiar with the other three even if, like me, you wish you weren't)
- 8:23 AM, 22 September 2015 [link]
This Latest Obama Excuse Isn't An Intentional Joke, But It's a pretty good joke, anyway.
By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.(Links omitted.)
If, that is, you aren't a Syrian, or have some sympathy for the citizens of that country.
Admittedly, even for most Americans, it's a grim joke, but grim jokes are often instructive.
We are left with two possibilities: Either President Obama was too weak-willed to withstand the pressure of a few congressional Republicans, or for temporary political advantage he signed up for a small war that he expected our side would lose.
Neither possibility is flattering.
Given his indifference to Republican opinions generally, the second seems far more likely.
(Credit where due: Peter Baker has not always been this skeptical about what the Obama administration says in the past, so it was nice to see this article.
As any competent tactician can tell you, in most situations, you should either commit enough forces to win, or stay out entirely.)
- 3:00 PM, 21 September 2015 [link]
Welfare States Can Work Reasonably Well, If Their Citizens Are High-Trust, And Homogeneous: If every citizen in a welfare state sees himself as part of a large, trustworthy family, he is more likely to accept higher taxes for welfare benefits, and less likely to cheat on taxes or benefits. (And less likely to tolerate those who do.)
And that explains, partly, why Greece got into the mess it's in. Although Greece is certainly homogeneous, with few ethnic or religious minorities, it is a very low-trust society and so, as the state expanded there after World War II, so did the opportunities for cheating — and the cheating. Programs that might have worked reasonably well in Norway and Denmark, two high-trust nations, failed in Greece.
The homogeneous part of my argument may require a little more explanation, since what I am about to say is so politically incorrect. I can't think of a single government program that doesn't have differential effects, that doesn't help, or hurt, some groups more than others. Consider, for example, public schools. In principle, they are now open to everyone in the United States, and everyone has an equal chance to benefit from them, but in practice kids from some groups, for instance Jews and Japanese-Americans, are likely to benefit more from them than kids from other groups.
Or take social security. It is no secret that different groups have different longevities — and that the groups with greater longevities will receive greater benefits.
It is also no secret that politicians will appeal to different groups, in order to win power. So nations divided by ethnicity, race, and religion, will have some leaders who will use those differential benefits from social programs to appeal to voters in their own groups. Sometimes they will even set up programs limited to certain groups.
(Here's one of my favorite examples of that kind of program, which I like because of the neat way Ron Sims, who was then county executive, tried to appeal to Green interests and foreign-born taxi drivers at the same time.)
And, over time, that kind of political competition will divide society and degrade the performance of government.
(For more, you might want to look at this column, "Trust and the welfare state: The twin-peaked curve", which has some interesting comparative data on the subject, and an interesting general conclusion.)
- 1:48 PM, 21 September 2015 [link]
What If The Greeks Gave An Election And Almost Nothing Changed? That is a pretty good description of what happened Sunday; the net changes in support for the five largest parties there were trivial: -0.88, 0.29, 0.71, 1.12, and 0.08 percent. (And the largest of those five, 1.12, is not a real gain, but reflects an alliance between two parties (Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and Democratic Left (DIMAR), an alliance that formed since the election in January.)
It wasn't as if the Greeks didn't have other choices; there were 19 parties on the ballot and 8 of them won seats in parliament by passing the 3 percent threshold. (There were also a few independent candidates.)
In some ways this is extraordinary. The winning party, Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), ran on the promise that they would get a better deal from the European Union, sponsored a referendum in which about 60 percent of Greek voters supported them, and then got a worse deal than they might have had before all the drama.
But voters rewarded them, anyway:
The election resulted in an unexpectedly-large victory for Alexis Tsipras' Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), which fell 6 seats short of an absolute majority and was able to reedit its coalition government with the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL). Opposition center-right New Democracy (ND) remained stagnant at 28% and 75 seats, despite pre-election opinion polls predicting a tie with SYRIZA or even opening the possibility of a ND government.(Links omitted, and typo corrected.)
Why did Greek voters reward failure?
Partly, of course, because none of the plausible alternatives looked much better.
But also because Greek voters, like voters everywhere, are slow to give up their illusions. Alexis Tsipras's promises enticed them in January, and they are not ready to give up the loyalty they gave him, then. (Those who think this strange may want to think back on friends they have known who stayed in unsuitable relationships, even when it is obvious that they shouldn't.)
But, over time, voters do tend to give up their illusions, and so I expect that support for Tsipras and his party will decline in the next two or three years, as those illusions meet up with reality. For example, to please their creditors the Greek governemnt can cut the amount they are spending on government employees, by reducing their pay and benefits or dismissing them, or they can raise taxes. Neither will be popular. (Megan McArdle says they will raise taxes, which will make economic growth even harder to achieve.)
There was one big change in the vote that deserves mention: Turnout declined from from 63.6 percent to 56.6 percent, "the lowest ever recorded in a Greek legislative election". Total votes declined from 6,330,356 to 5,566,223. Incidentally, voting in Greece is mandatory, but there appear to be no penalties for those who choose to defy that law.
(Yesterday's predictions? I'd score them 1 and 1. SYRIZA did win, but they will probably not have to form a weak coalition government.
I probably should have added that a plausible argument can be made that losing this election may be good for a party in the long run, since whoever won was going to have to impose even more pain on Greek voters in the next few years.)
- 10:53 AM, 21 September 2015 [link]
Or Perhaps We Should Describe Pope Francis As An Uninformed And Misinformed Leftist? That's the tentative conclusion I would draw from this Jonathan Last post.
Pope Francis seems prone to misunderstanding on many subjects, but perhaps none so much as the field of economics. As Andrew Ferguson noted in reviewing Evangelii Gaudium, this pope tends to insist on notions that are factually untrue. For instance, “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake.” Or that the benefits of free-market growth have “never been confirmed by the facts.” Note—the Holy Father is not saying that the free market has excesses, or that consumerism can debase the human person, or that the ruthlessness of markets can, left unchecked, lead to real evils. No. He is insisting that there is no factual evidence to support claims that free-market growth can be socially beneficial. It’s as if he does not know what the letters “GDP” stand for.There's more, much more, including some statements that would be amusing if they came from a humble monk, rather than the leader of the largest religious organization in the world.
I don't understand Vatican politics, but I still find it odd that an organization that chose John Paul II as its leader not that long ago should now have turned to this man.
(Peronistas have always shared some ideas with the left, and have always been opposed to classical liberal ideas, so this post, and the one just below, are not necessarily in conflict.)
- 9:26 AM, 21 September 2015 [link]
How Should We Describe Pope Francis's Political/Economic Beliefs? Judging by his 1998 book, and what he has said before and since, he's something of a Peronista, a follower of the doctirnes of Juan Perón. (Like many, perhaps most, Argentines.)
In his hard-to-find book “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro,” then Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, outlined his views about Cuba and expressed hope for political and social changes that have yet to materialize.A Peronist tilt, without, of course, Perón's anti-clericalism.
Political scientists are still arguing over what to call Perón's ideology. If you want to be charitable, you could describe it as authoritarian paternalism; if you don't, you might call it a version of fascism. (If you look at both Wikipedia articles, you'll notice that they disagree on what to call it, with the biography rejecting fascist, and the article on the movement pointing out that many serious scholars think that label appropriate.)
That paternailsm is natural to some parts of modern Catholic doctrine, and that, as I understand it, is mainly what Pope Francis has taken from Peronism. So he is critical of both Cuba and the United States, but for different reasons. He is not a fan of repression, especially when directed against his church — and he sees free markets as having many troublesome aspects.
(For more on this subject, read this essay by Maureen Mullarkey.)
- 3:46 PM, 20 September 2015 [link]
Greece Is Holding An Election Today: Again.
Voting is under way in Greece's general election, with opinion polls indicating a tight race between the left-wing incumbent Syriza party and the conservative New Democracy.(By American standards, New Democracy would be better described as moderate, or moderate conservative.)
In the election in January, Tsipras made promises he couldn't keep, but enough Greek voters were mad as hell and not going to take it any more, so his party came in first. When he couldn't get the terms he wanted from the European Union, he called a snap referendum in order to impress the EU. They weren't impressed, and shortly after he caved and signed the deal he could have had all along. (Which can be summarized as follows: Greece gets short-term cash, and promises to make more of an effort to pay back its enormous debts.)
After a revolt in his own party, he lost his majority in parliament. No coalition formed to replace him, and so Greece is having another election.
I haven't the faintest idea of who will win this election, even after spending some time studying the poll results, here. There are three main reasons I can't make even a tentative prediction; the two main parties are close together in the polls, Greek polls have not been very accurate in the past, and opinion in Greece has been changing rapidly.
But I can say that the most likely outcome is a weak coalition government. That's because of the bonus 50 seats the top vote-getting party receives in Greek elections. Suppose the voters give 32 percent to one of the major parties — Syriza or New Democracy — and 31 percent of the vote to the other. Then the second party would receive, roughly 77 or 78 seats (31 percent of 250), and the first party would receive, roughly, 130 seats (32 percent of 250 + 50). Whichever party received the 32 percent should be able to find enough support among the minor parties to put together a 151 seat majority.
(One interesting bit of data: The election in January was said to be the most important in many years, but turnout was just 63.6 percent, up a mere 1.1 percent from the previous election>
Troubling: The third party in the last election and in current polls is Golden Dawn, with about 6-7 percent of the vote.
I'll admit that I have a feeling about the election outcome; I feel that Syriza will win a narrow popular vote victory. I feel that most supporters of the party are not quite ready to give up on it, though they may be, in a year or two. I hope my feelings are wrong.)
- 9:29 AM, 20 September 2015 [link]
Maybe Fish And Fish Oil Aren't Panaceas After All: In spite of what researchers have been telling us since the 1970s.
In the 1970s, Danish researchers studying Inuit metabolism proposed that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish were protective. Those conclusions eventually led to the recommendation that Westerners eat more fish to help prevent heart disease and sent tens of millions scrambling for fish oil pills.So, instead of being good for you, large amounts of fish may be bad for you — unless you happen to have those Inuit genes.
If you are like me, after reading that you will probably wish those nutritionists would make up their minds — and, if you like fish, go on eating it.
(So some of the same people who have a low tolerance for alcohol have a high tolerance for fats, at least the kinds of fats they have been eating for millennia.
Here's the Wikipedia article on the Inuit. I hadn't realized they were so imperialistic.)
- 2:17 PM, 19 September 2015 [link]
"Australia: Coup Capital Of The Democratic World" This BBC article is a brief, and entertaining, description of Australia's many "spills", the many times a prime minister, or leader of the opposition, has been thrown out of office by a vote of his own party in the Australian House of Representatives.
It is now over a decade since an Australian prime minister managed to serve out his or her first term.That writing may be a little much for some people's taste, but Nick Bryant goes on to describe five successful "spills" — just since 1983.
Two interesting details: Twice the winner had to try twice to overthrow the leader, and twice (Rudd-Gillard and Abbott-Turnbull) the parties have reversed themselves.
The Australian practices — I'm not sure whether they are laws or customs — make it relatively easy to depose a leader. Which got me wondering what would happen if the United States had similar rules, if American presidents could be deposed by a vote of their party members in the House and Senate.
In a sense, that's what happened to Richard Nixon, although there were no formal votes. And, it seems likely to me that President Truman might have lost such a vote — before the 1948 election — and that it is possible that President Carter might have lost one before the 1980 election.
I think both speculations are reasonable because we do have "coups" (or, if you prefer, "spills") in both the House and Senate, from time to time, for example when Gerald Ford replaced Charlie Halleck. We don't think of them as coups because they almost always occur at regularly scheduled elections. But they might not, if our leaders' terms were longer than two years.
(The Australian Senate has far more power than the British House of Lords, but is not a co-equal house, like the American Senate. As far as I can tell, the members of the Australian senate have no direct say in these "spills".)
- 10:14 AM, 18 September 2015
Update: I had forgotten about the recent change in Labor Party rules in Australia.
In contrast, the leaders of Australian political parties have historically been chosen and removed by the party’s elected members of parliament. This is still the case for three major parties in Australia — the Liberal, National and Green parties. It was – until 2012 — the only method of selection in the Australian Labor Party. (Under reforms introduced by former prime minister Kevin Rudd that were designed to ‘shore up’ his leadership, the Labor parliamentary party group can now elect to give ordinary party members a 50 percent share in the vote for party leader).So it has been party rules, not custom or law, that has made it so easy to change party leaders in Australia.
There is some data in the post on how most democratic countries choose party leaders. Our main method, primaries, is unusual.
- 12:20 PM, 22 September 2015 [link]
What Do Israelis Think Of President Obama? Not much.
Seeking to sell his nuclear deal with Iran to a skeptical Israeli public, President Barack Obama has repeatedly declared his deep affection for the Jewish state. But the feelings do not appear to be mutual.If this Israeli historian is right, it's not personal.
"The average Israeli probably thinks that he is a nice guy, but he is naive," said Alexander Yakobson, a historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In Israeli eyes, "he doesn't get the Middle East, doesn't understand how the Mideast functions, and he doesn't therefore understand what dangers Israel has to face," he added.I'd disagree with that average Israeli; President Obama is many things, but not a "nice guy". (Though he is good at posing as one, when he wants to.)
- 8:16 AM, 18 September 2015 [link]
Donald Trump Thinks Vaccines Cause Autism?!? Last night, I followed my usual practtce and didn't watch or listen to the Republican "debate", and so I was a bit startled this morning when I learned that Donald Trump is as misinformeed about vaccines as a former Playmate, Jenny McCarthy.
At the Washington Post, Michael Miller (no relation, as far as I know) is most disturbed that the two medical professionals in the field, Ben Carson and Rand Paul, didn't hit Trump hard enough on this issue.
The CNN moderator laid out the question for Ben Carson like a baseball on a tee, just waiting to be crushed.Which is correct, though not forceful.
Whether you liked that answer or not (or Rand Paul's equivocal answer), you should recognize that Trump and McCarthy are wrong, wrong, wrong, and that lives have been lost because people believed a fraudulent study, long discredited.
Someone who regularly reads a decent newspaper — and understands science even a little bit — would know the facts about vaccines and autism. That Trump and McCarthy don't know them tells us something about both of them — but she isn't running for president.
- 12:16 PM, 17 September 2015 [link]
"How Does Paris Stay Chic?" The Wall Street Journal answers that question in the second half of their headline: "It Imports Brooklyn".
PARIS—Top clients of Le Bon Marché, the luxury department store, strode past velvet ropes in well-cut suits and cocktail dresses to attend a soiree with a special musical guest.Judging by the rest of the article, Le Bon Marché is not trying to set a trend, but racing to catch up to one that's is already years old. There are far more imitations of Brooklyn in Paris, than I ever would have guessed.
(Naturally, some picky Americans say that Parisians aren't getting some of the details right, just as some French complain when Americans try to imitate them, and don't do it perfectly.
There may now be a little irony in the store's name; Le Bon Marché means "the good buy".)
- 9:54 AM, 17 September 2015 [link]