Freakonomics is losing its luster 

I remember reading the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner when I had to fly to Nebraska for work.   I thought it was an interesting, occasionally fascinating read.  The most controversial aspect of the book is that it postulates that perhaps the reason why violent crime plummeted in the early 1990s, was because of legal abortion starting in the 1970s.   

While I can think of easily a hundred reasons why a woman’s right to choose abortion should be kept legal, I like this argument only because it gives conniptions to those who oppose abortion.   But regardless of that point, I thought it was a fascinating study in looking for real connections that might not be immediately obvious.  

Dubner has been the host of a weekly podcast based upon the book (and its less compelling follow-up, Super Freakonomics) for nearly seven years.  I’ve been listening to the podcast almost since its inception.   And it has had some fun moments in these past seven years: the story of a fake restaurant that exposed the fact that wine “experts” probably don’t know what they’re talking about, extreme foodies who make bizarre meals like turning a whole T-bone steak dinner into something the size of a bean, even getting ahead of some trends, like the service oriented economy and streaming music services.   

A couple of weeks ago, I had a blog entry inspired by an episode of the podcast.  But that episode is a part of a disturbing trend right now.   Four of the last five episodes were not really up to the standards I’ve come to expect of the show.  

It started with the kid gloves with which Dubner interviewed former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.   Whatever else Ballmer is or is not, he’s not a great steward of the companies he has run.   The culture he created at the software behemoth almost ruined the company, and it’s still struggling to get out of that.  The interview completely glossed over his tenure at Microsoft other than to needle Ballmer over his prediction that Apple’s iPhone wouldn’t sell.   

Then came the interview with Steve Hilton.  (Maybe Steve Dubner just likes people who shares his first name…)  I don’t need to rehash my comments from my earlier blog entry but the kid gloves were on again, not just for not calling Hilton on his myopia, but also for not criticizing him for leaving his country in the aftermath of the vote he orchestrated to the results he sought.

I’ll give a pass to the next episode, which was dedicated to the CRISPR gene editing tool.  Insightful and neither overly optimistic nor filled with scare tactics.  We need more science communication like this.  

The next two episodes were both released this past week, and by the end of the second part, I was ready to throw something at Dubner, when he interviewed Charles Koch.  While this interview did grant some insight into why I agree with him and his brother on some issues (most notably immigration) and even why he occasionally pursues tax policies that would cost him more money than he pays now, I can’t accept some of the places where Koch should be held more accountable, despite Dubner’s mysterious silence.  

The first and most glaring part of Koch’s position is how often progress is stymied by “special interests”, both from the left and from the right.   Given the lack of detail he provided in terms of what qualifies as a special interest, I have to assume he meant anyone who doesn’t want what he wants.  We all have interests and we all think we’re special.   I’d like to think my interests (fortification of the wall between church and state, being good stewards of the environment, not allowing the free market to run roughshod over those most in need) aren’t really all that special and, to be blunt, in the best interests not only of me and my family, but also in the best interests of the country.   

The second part is his pride in being opposed to legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley.   This law was passed after the accounting scandals in companies like Enron and WorldCom.   Indeed, all financial regulations that are codified in the law — be they the laws passed in the 1930s under the New Deal, or the regulations on Wall Street in the 1980s, or more recent laws like Sarbanes-Oxley — are there because the people we trusted with our money, were doing things that were, at best, untoward with that money.  

You can argue that that’s true of all laws: they’re generally passed because someone did something they shouldn’t have done even though it was technically (up to that point) legal.    In the state of Delaware, it’s illegal to go fishing on horseback.   You can almost see how that law came about: someone (probably a male-type person) did just that, but the horse got spooked when he caught a fish.   He got injured, possibly losing his fishing pole in the process, and sued for damages and/or a new fishing pole.   The law almost writes itself after that.  

Koch also pointed to HillaryCare as a reason why he first became politically active in the 1990s. While I’m not trying to argue that Hillary’s proposals back then were perfect, I don’t quite understand why health care should be treated as a commodity to the extent that it is.  But that’s the stuff of another blog entry, especially given the current debates on capitol hill.  

Next week’s Freakonomics episode will be a repeat of an episode first aired a couple of years ago.  I hope Dubner turns the ship around on this podcast, since the quality of the shows has not been good of late.  I don’t mind listening to people I disagree with.  I do mind when they’re not challenged on such obvious topics as what we’ve seen with Ballmer, Hilton, and Koch in the past month.   

Can we please do away with referenda?

Last week on the Freakonomics podcast, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Steve Hilton, one of the architects of last year’s Brexit vote.  One of the tidbits of that interview was Hilton’s disillusionment not at the result of the vote (which is what he wanted: for Britain to leave the EU) but instead at the reasons why people voted to leave the EU (anti-immigrant sentiment and a misplaced nationalism, which he didn’t want).

I’m willing to look away from his myopia for the purposes of this blog entry.   (If this essay were more focused on the Brexit vote itself, he wouldn’t be so lucky.)

But he made an interesting and important point that I’m not completely unsympathetic to: his quarrel with the EU was a direct result of the fact that the centralized government was appointed and not elected.  He used the analogy of the United States: each individual state is autonomous, but we still vote for the president and the congress.  That doesn’t happen with the EU.  

I suspect that particular bit of resentment isn’t unique to Britain.  But is the solution to that problem a complete withdrawal from the union?  Why couldn’t he lobby to change the way the EU’s leadership is chosen?   If he is being intellectually honest, then, I have to assume he feels the same way about the UN and NATO.   He didn’t say.  

But Brexit is emblematic of a greater problem that democracies have to face: the fact that allowing the voting public to make serious policy decisions via referenda is, more often than not, counterproductive.  (If I’m being my most polite.)

At its surface, it feels like it should be the opposite.   After all, if you put questions of the future of the community directly into the hands of the people, that seems like the ideal future state of a democracy.   (Even the word “democracy” comes from the Greek, meaning leadership or government by the people…)

But that’s the real failing of a referendum: a democracy depends upon an informed electorate and even the most informed of us, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know before we step into the voting booth.  And a referendum has two pain points to it: the wording of the question and the limitations of it being a yes/no question.   

Think of the hypothetical referendum that asks the question “would you support a tax increase in order to turn the community into a Paradise by every sense of the word?”  There are three kinds of people who would vote “no” on this question: the curmudgeons who want everything to get worse, the people who already think it’s perfect, and the people who stopped reading after the word “increase”.

Think of all of the votes around the US prior to the Obergefell v Hodges ruling in 2015 that legalized same sex marriage.   Almost all of the referenda in the various states, went against allowing same sex couples to get married.   Why?  If you aren’t gay, allowing gay couples to marry is something that you should be, at worst, ambivalent to.   I’m sure there are some gay people who don’t want to be allowed to marry, but there’s no way they could be enough to swing the results of the referendum away from that privilege when you look at the size of the greater electorate.  

Now magnify that to something at a much larger scale, like Brexit or a vote to secede from a greater union/nation-state (I’m looking at you, Scotland, Quebec, and even Basque).   With all of the moving pieces that need to go into the implications of such a dramatic change, is it ever truly fair to expect such a dramatic policy initiative to be driven by asking literally everyone a yes/no question?   Especially when there could be other options that haven’t been put to a vote at all.   A hundred people voting “yes” could offer a hundred different reasons for their vote.  

The very fact that so many aspects of the US Constitution are still being litigated and in need of interpretation — nearly 230 years after it was first ratified — is proof that no one can truly know all of the implications of a vote.  (Although the Third Amendment isn’t litigated very much.   I guess we got that one right…)

I have no problem with any time the leaders of a democracy want to know if they are steering the country in the right direction and opening questions up to a general vote.   But the voters are under no duty or obligation to uphold the foundational documents and intents of the community or nation, the way the leaders are.  For that reason alone, referenda should never be binding.  

And if you’re just polling the people to know how they’re feeling, why not use the professional pollsters rather than going through the timing and expense of an election?

A message for future generations 

I’m sorry.  

On behalf of my generation and on behalf of those generations that came before me, I profoundly apologize to you, my children, their children and generations of children yet unborn.  

About two years ago, almost every country on the planet came together and agreed to make the changes necessary to confront what could be the single greatest threat ever faced by mankind: the changes in the global climate that are a direct result of human activity.

Today, Thursday, June 1, 2017, US President Donald Trump abrogated his responsibility as the leader of the country that, in raw numbers, is the second worst polluter in the world.   When those numbers are rejiggered to the per-capita pollution, the USA is the worst.  He announced his intent to withdraw from this agreement.  

I can’t honestly say this is a surprise.   He promised he would do it on the campaign trail.  And that promise alone should have been reason for any sane person not to vote for him.  

Still, this action, which will take four years to complete, makes me ashamed to be an American.   I just want to underscore that Donald Trump does not speak for me on this issue.  

I have been making a concerted effort, at my own level, to combat additional damage to the environment, as both my electric car and the solar panels on my roof will attest.  Not quite as visible are the water-saving measures on every faucet, hose, and spigot in my house.  

I have said it before: even if the climate weren’t changing (which it is) and even if we weren’t responsible (which we are), I don’t see how cleaning up the planet — this beautiful, lush planet — and reducing or eliminating pollution can be perceived as a bad thing.  

If there is criticism of the agreement that we are backing out of, it’s that it’s not aggressive enough in combating harm to the environment.  

I still hope that the US can still take responsibility before the withdrawal is complete.  To abide by the terms of the agreement, if not improve upon them.  To restore sanity to the nation and to the world.  

But today, I can only say I’m sorry.  

Appalling Dishonesty

I hate the term “pro-life” as it is used in the ongoing political debate about abortion.  Even though I don’t share this belief, there may be legitimate reasons to disapprove of abortion as a practice.   That’s fine, just like there are legitimate reasons to think taxes might be too high, or that efforts to curtail gun violence come too close to impeding our right to bear arms.   

But to shroud an opposition to abortion under the moniker “pro-life” or “right to life” is, if I’m being overly generous, an outrageous oversimplification that none should take seriously.  Yes, a clump of cells might technically be alive, but then again, so is your hair before you cut it.   So is your grass before you mow the lawn.  So are the limbs of the trees you prune.   So are the diseases you fight.  

While this is far from universal, a large percentage of people who claim to be pro-life also support the death penalty and are opposed to allowing the elderly and infirm to die with dignity.   They clearly regard death as a punishment and little else.  “Right to life?” They mean their right to decide who gets to live and who gets to die.  (Thank you George Carlin for that line…)

And that’s not even getting into the implication that those on the other side of the debate might somehow be anti-life.   Those who support the legality of abortion call themselves “pro-choice”. Pro-choice does not mean “anti-life”, but pro-life certainly means “anti-choice”.

For the reasons I stated above, I have for years thought that pro-life was the single most intellectually dishonest term in all of politics.   

I think I might need to walk that claim back, though.  There’s a relatively new political issue that, on its surface, has little in common with abortion, although many of the people who proudly bear the label “pro-life” are also adopting this label.  

Before I reveal more details, I should add that the majority of opinion with regard to opposing abortion is not based upon evidence but rather upon adherence to religious scripture, or at least the cherry-picked parts of scripture they use to justify their positions.  The same thing is true for this issue, even if there isn’t much overlap between the passages of the Bible.  

The issue is about the rights of transgender people.   In recent years, there has been a lot of press about the needs of transgender men and women, how being transgender isn’t a mental illness, how difficult it is to be trapped in a body that’s not really you, and about how, despite a binary with regard to the plumbing, there really are more — a LOT more — than just two genders.  (And I’m not even convinced that the plumbing is that binary…). 

The most visible backlash to transgender rights is in the “bathroom bills” that require a person to use the gendered bathroom that corresponds to his or her birth certificate.  (Think about the stupidity of enforcement.   You either carry a birth certificate or allow people to peek into the stall where you’re peeing.)

The Obama administration rightly saw that transgender issues are huge in schools (because adolescence is when people first come to realize if they’re transgender) and so issued guidelines on how to manage it.  And of course there’s been biblically-based opposition to this as well.   

And that’s where the dishonesty in labels comes in.  The people opposed to it — at least some of them — actually have the gall, the nerve, the chutzpah, to call themselves Pro-Privacy.    That link is to just one example of this but it takes either massive guts or massive dissonance to support positions that are an extreme violation of privacy and call it “Pro-Privacy”.  

Sorry, pro-lifers.    You’re no longer the most dishonest.   

American Pride

When I was a junior in high school, I took Advanced Placement US History as my social studies elective.   This is a university-level course, and a passing grade on the end-of-year exam counts as college credit.   

While the exam is a comprehensive overview of the history of the United States, beginning with European exploration to the “new world” up to the present time (which, for me at the time, was the end of the presidency of Ronald Reagan), it focused most heavily on the three decades in American history that were of greatest actual consequence.   I hesitate to say that more “stuff” happened in these three decades but you’d be hard pressed — if given the challenge of distilling American history to three non-consecutive decades — to find any decades more important than these three.  

  • The 1790s.  We had just won our hard-fought independence from the British empire, with the biggest complaint being the tyranny of the British government.   How do we maintain a semblance of order, especially with regard to commerce and defense, without being equally tyrannical?   The constitution, bill of rights, and the actions of the three branches of government were a start.  
  • The 1850s.   Pretty much from the start, the issue of slavery was one of the biggest thorns in the side of the government.  After decades of compromise on the expansion of slavery in new American territories, it was inevitable that civil discourse would break down.  I’ve repeatedly said that we should be ashamed that it took a war to end slavery, but if you look critically at the decade leading up to the war, the question shouldn’t be “is it necessary?” but instead “why did it take so long?”
  • The 1930s.   Black Friday.   October 29, 1929.   Okay.  That’s a little over two months before the 1930s actually began, but looking at the start of the Great Depression, its impact on the country, and FDRs efforts to get us out of it, there’s no question that this decade, for all of its complexity, mixes of successes and failures, and America’s role in the world, needs to be examined closely.   

I’m not trying to argue that other decades in American history aren’t important.   Take the 1890s, as America truly started coming into its own in its global reach (for good and for bad).   Or the 1960s, a decade of real turbulence in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Or even the 2000s, as America came to grips with a terrorist threat that it at least partially fostered.   

One thing that’s noticeably missing from everything I’ve said above, is a jingosim that pervades American politics today.   The notion that the good ol’ US of A somehow stands above the rest of the world.   Indeed, a couple of years ago, the Oklahoma legislature passed a resolution condemning the course for being insufficiently praiseworthy of the country and its history.   

But that’s the thing: if you need to teach children specifically to believe something without letting the facts speak for themselves, there’s something wrong with the belief itself.  Don’t teach children to be proud of their country!  Give them the facts and let them decide if pride is justified.   

In February, 2008, Michelle Obama made an interesting comment that still earns her criticism today from those on the right.   At the time, her husband, then-Senator Barack Obama started to look like he had a legitimate shot at securing his party’s nomination for the presidency.   Couple this with a deeply unpopular sitting president and that gave her hope that, in her husband, maybe the country could start to move away from the more shameful aspects of its history (both distant and recent).  

Yeah, I liked it when she said that.   That was legitimately something to be proud of.   

Donald Trump has just returned from his first trip abroad as president of the US.   Where he was treated like a king — Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Israel — he seemed to be in his glory.   At the Vatican, he was received politely although Pope Francis seemed to struggle with withholding his disdain.   

Now THAT’S saying something.  The leader of the Catholic Church, who has dedicated his life to preaching love and forgiveness, has trouble loving and forgiving Donald Trump.   Just let that sink in for a minute even before you get to the whole Papal Infallibility doctrine.   

But the real problems came when he went to meet with our allies in NATO and the G7 summit.   His ego was not stroked the way it was elsewhere, and he demonstrated how little he really knew about America, its role in the world, and the world as a whole.   This has nothing to do with any specific policy: the man is an embarrassment, exemplified first and foremost by the image of him pushing Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro aside.   

Donald Trump really is a walking stereotype: pick any negative image(s) foreigners might have about America and he more or less exemplifies it.   Boorish, arrogant, wanting to be the center of attention, claiming to know it all despite being out of his league, trigger happy…  The list goes on and on…

There are things in American history and in American culture to be proud of.   Donald Trump isn’t one of them.   

Unfair media treatment 

A few minutes ago I got this bit of breaking news on my phone:


I’m not trying to argue that you’re not being treated unfairly by the media, but I figured I should list the US presidents who probably could make a similar claim that the press and/or their political enemies treated them unfairly:

  1. George Washington
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
  7. Andrew Jackson
  8. Martin Van Buren
  9. William Henry Harrison
  10. John Tyler
  11. James Polk
  12. Zachary Taylor
  13. Millard Fillmore
  14. Franklin Pierce
  15. James Buchanan
  16. Abraham Lincoln
  17. Andrew Johnson
  18. Ulysses Grant
  19. Rutherford B Hayes
  20. James Garfield
  21. Chester Arthur
  22. Grover Cleveland 
  23. Benjamin Harrison
  24. Grover Cleveland, again
  25. William McKinley
  26. Theodore Roosevelt 
  27. William Howard Taft
  28. Woodrow Wilson
  29. Warren Harding
  30. Calvin Coolidge
  31. Herbert Hoover
  32. Franklin D Roosevelt 
  33. Harry Truman
  34. Dwight D Eisenhower 
  35. John F Kennedy
  36. Lyndon B Johnson
  37. Richard Nixon
  38. Gerald Ford
  39. Jimmy Carter
  40. Ronald Reagan
  41. George H W Bush
  42. Bill Clinton
  43. George W Bush
  44. Barack Obama

I’m pretty sure this is an exhaustive list as of the present point in history and I neither left anyone out nor included someone who doesn’t belong.  

Profiles in … something

The popular TV show The Twilight Zone has seen multiple reboots since it first went off the air in 1964.   I’ve been thinking a good deal about one particular tale from the mid-1980s reboot.  “Profile in Silver” envisions a world where time travel is possible, and a “field historian” named Joseph Fitzgerald from about 200 years in the future is observing the events of the presidency of his ancestor, President John F Kennedy.  

The episode begins with Dr. Fitzgerald giving a lecture at Harvard on November 21, 1963 and he gets a visit from one of his colleagues from the future.   He expresses the great existential crisis of every field journalist: why must he only be observer and not participant?  She tries to talk him out of going to Dallas the following day but he’ll have none of it.   

In what appears to be an unplanned moment, he trains his camera on the open window in the book repository, sees Lee Harvey Oswald leaning out with his rifle, and panics.  He calls out to the president to duck, and effectively saves the president’s life.   How Gov. Connally didn’t get hurt, isn’t answered.  

This seriously damages the fabric of time.   As history tries to restore the original trends, first a tornado touches down in Dallas but when that doesn’t work, Nikita Khrushchev is assassinated, and his successor seizes West Berlin.  As the history computer analyzes all possible outcomes from this turn of events, the world would be completely annihilated within a century.  The only solution is for the Kennedy presidency to end as history originally intended.  Of course, this is The Twilight Zone, so there’s a twist at the end.  I won’t reveal the twist but you can watch the episode below.  

There’s a scene in this show where JFK and Dr. Fitzgerald are aboard Air Force One, and Kennedy talks about how maybe his father might have been wrong about the importance of power.   “No one man should have that kind of power.   No man should have to have it.”

There is no question that Donald Trump has long had a love affair with power, and this goes back to long before he announced his candidacy for president in June, 2015.   Recall that this isn’t the first time he sought the presidency: back in 2000, he sought the nomination on the Reform Party ticket.  (Side note: I admit to being surprised that the party still actively maintains its website…)

They say that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.   There’s a truth to that, but part of the problem is that once people get a taste of power, they tend to want more and more.  Someone with such blatantly narcissistic tendencies like Donald Trump would fall into this trap more quickly than the average person.  (Note that I’m not holding myself to a higher standard here.  If I were given more power than I could handle, I doubt I’d be any less vulnerable to its appeal…)

During one of the Republican debates last year, Trump all but admitted his corruption, albeit from a different angle than where he currently resides.  As his opponents, most notably Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, tried to illustrate that he’s not a true republican, they pointed out that he had invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to his wedding.   He shrugged off the charges, pointing out that he would do things like that to gain favors.  Nothing necessarily illegal about it but telling all the same.  

Which brings me to the recent firing of FBI director James Comey.   Let me make it clear that the president has the right to fire the FBI director at any time and for any reason.   Based upon that fact alone, this is neither an abuse of power nor a constitutional crisis.  

Or at least it ought not be either of those things.  After all, Bill Clinton fired director William Sessions a few months into his first term and nobody batted an eye over it.  

But it’s clear that this is a function of all of the negative trappings of power.   Comey had just requested more funds and personnel to investigate reports of collusion between the Trump campaign and a foreign power, Russia.   I suppose it’s possible that these facts are unrelated and that the real reason for Comey’s dismissal is as the White House said: the way he mishandled the reporting of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.   Then again, it’s also possible that Gary Larson got it right in his old Far Side cartoon when he explained how the dinosaurs became extinct.

The congressional investigation into the Trump-Russia affair doesn’t seem to have much in the way of force.  With the status of the FBI investigation up in the air now that Comey’s gone, we should really consider an independent investigation.  

Oh, and it needs a flashy name, too.  May I suggest Russi-a-Lago?
Profile In Silver