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October 2014 posts

Quercus Rubra

By Jonathan B. Wight

A year ago I attended a wonderful conference in New Haven.  While wandering the grounds I encountered some of the world’s most marvelous creatures… Quercus Rubra, otherwise known as Red Oaks.


These were stunning and complex organisms, stretching up to the sky and out to embrace the countryside. They were gnarly and persistent and powerful displays of life lived fully. 

Limbs came off of the trunk at bizarre angles, making one wonder what they thought they were doing!  The immense weight of these enormous arms is somehow held up, seemingly defying physics.

Pictured here is a red oak I nominated and just got listed on Connecticut’s Notable Trees. The average spread of the crown was almost 100 feet, making the area underneath about 7,200 sq. feet. These oaks can live up to 500 years. 

It is notable how many humans come to revere these quiet giants as sacred souls, and protect them with ordinances. Just as we ban cruelty to animals, the taking of one of these lives should be done only in exigent circumstances, and only after all alternatives have been explored.

Standing next to this tree I felt I was in the presence of a hallowed saint.

What's a Billion?

By Jonathan B. Wight

Glenn Beck, on his morning show a few days ago, was berating the U.S. for the cost of its embassy in Iraq.

It cost a trillion dollars, he offered up.

When one of his co-hosts gently tried to steer him toward a more reasonable number, like a billion, he snapped back that no, it was a trillion or thereabouts. 

The co-host looked it up and informed Beck that it was, indeed, less than a billion.  We all make mistakes but this time…Beck didn’t care.

Can you spot the billion in the trillion below?


A billion dollars is a huge amount, but it is peanuts compared to the size of the U.S. economy ($17 trillion). 

What is scary is that someone with such a huge audience for potentially educating Americans doesn’t know—and doesn’t care—about the relative size of the U.S. economy and the magnitude of difference between a billion and trillion.

2.7 Percent

By Jonathan B. Wight

2.7 percent – that’s the amount of Neanderthal DNA in my genes, according to the DNA ancestry service 23andMe.

I’m hardly alone.  My DNA share puts me in the 43rd percentile for Neanderthal genes, which is about in the middle.

So!—no more insensitive jokes about Neanderthals, please! We have met the Neander, and he is me.  My bulky shape and big nose fit that profile, but I hate cold weather and N’s were supposedly well equipped to handle the Northern European climate. Neandertal-range-map

I was somewhat disappointed to learn that almost all my DNA comes from Northern Europe, mostly German and English.  I could have told them that! 

I was hoping to find some exotic genes from Persia or the Far East.  What good is a DNA scan if it only tells you what you already know?

We do know that all of our homo sapiens ancient ancestors came out of East Africa: we were a tiny homogenous tribe before we scattered to the winds and grew apart in language, culture, and wealth.

According to the report I received, Meryl Streep is a distant relation on my mother’s German side of things.

I've received 6 emails now from other people in the system seeking to connect with me as a third or fourth cousin.  The DNA project will hopefully bring people together, finding surprising areas of common ancestry and increasing empathy and toleration.  We'll see!

David Brooks on deference for incompetent authority in the wake of Ebola fear

Mark D. White

BrooksDavid Brooks' New York Times column this morning, titled "The Quality of Fear," makes a number of claims regarding the source of the panic surrounding the Ebola virus. As usual, he makes useful and insightful points, but he falls a bit flat when he tries to tie this episode into his persistent theme of deference for authority, especially when this episode—as he describes it—reinforces the very skepticism he laments.

His opening point about Ebola points out this dilemma:

In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.

His point about isolation within social classes is a familiar one (although somewhat redundant, given what social class means), but more troubling is his transition to leadership and authority. Maybe I'm too young, but at what point in our nation's history have people known or felt "one with" those in authority? Aside from the elites in government, business, and the media, I doubt many Americans have ever considered an elected leader or appointed bureaucrat to be "one of us." After all, it is very difficult for people who have no power to connect with people who have power.

(When he writes of the changing perception of authority, perhaps Mr. Brooks is thinking of the increase in distrust in government following Watergate, but this is a separate issue from feeling connected with authority. I would also add that, given what we know how about government operated before Nixon, we would have been wise to be more distrustful back then as well. Trust based on ignorance is hardly a virtue.)

I would have preferred Mr. Brooks to end the piece with his last sentence above: "You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway." In my opinion, that's the core issue: incompetence. I'm sure the American people would love to be able to trust their elected leaders to have a handle on crises and a plan to deal with them—and to tell us when a crisis is not in fact a crisis. But we have seen little such competence from government leaders in a long time. Of course, the people behind the scenes, the (mostly) apolitical researchers and scientists and analysts who toil in anonymity for presidents and Congress, are not incompetent. But when their message is filtered through political interests (especially so nakedly and shamelessly) before they get to the people, they become suspect and unreliable. As a result, many people turn to television and the internet to listen to speakers who seem to talk directly to them, with no apparent agenda, even if what they say is hyperbole or simply utter nonsense.

(Brooks touches on the role of the media later in his piece, stressing how they intensify news and cause disproportionate panic. This is true, of course—but this would not have such an impact if people could rely on the true authorities to give them the information they need without having to doubt their motivations almost by reflex.)

Mr. Brooks makes his best point near the end of the article, but again I read it as giving more reason to be skeptical of authority, not less:

The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear. It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.

In these circumstances, skepticism about authority turns into corrosive cynicism. People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid. Fear, of course, breeds fear. Fear is a fog that alters perception and clouds thought. Fear is, in the novelist Yann Martel’s words, “a wordless darkness.”

Of course people are frightened, and Mr. Brooks is correct to point out that it is an amorphous, "existential" fear. We often make a distinction between risk and uncertainty, in which risk deals with known probabilities (such as the roll of a fair die) while uncertainty deals with unknown probabilities (such as keeping your job). But our current fears reflect another level of uncertainty altogether: not only uncertainty about what is likely to happen, but what can possibly happen at all.

Just think of the things people worry about these days (reasonably or not). Ebola. ISIS. Climate change. Economic inequality. Human trafficking. Civil war. Terrorism. Not as exhaustive list, and obviously skewed by my perspective, but I hope it gets the idea across, which is that these are not risks that can be insured against or "mere" uncertainities that can be planned for. These are perceived threats that, many of them, could not have been imagined before they occurred, have unknown and potentially catastrophic consequences, and have no clear solution. As a result, they all speak to the fragility at the core of human existence—they merit a certain level of fear that is not easily assuaged by political statements from authorities who do not seem to appreciate their gravity or the trepidation they reasonably cause.

As Mr. Brooks wrote, "It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand." In such conditions, I think skepticism about authority is entirely justified, and should not be reversed until authority shows the people it deserves to be trusted. When Mr. Brooks writes that Ebola "exploits the weakness in the fabric of our culture," I think he is spreading the blame too widely. When authority tries to respond to such existential threats but cannot do so outside an explicitly political lens, the message, as valuable as it might be, becomes soiled, and people turn elsewhere for information (and misinformation). But can we blame them?

I fear I will never understand David Brooks' blind appeals to authority and his unshakeable trust in people with power to use that power responsibly. Then again, I was raised to be distrustful of authority (an attitude he would likely attribute to my class upbringing). I have not yet had reason to change my mind, though, and the incompetence he himself identifies this recent episode is hardly going to give me one.

Bill Gates: "Why Inequality Matters"

By Jonathan B. Wight

Love him or hate him, when Bill Gates speaks, people should listen. 

And I’ve both loved and hated him: loved him for his philanthropy, and hated him for his cutthroat business decisions. 

Gates has now entered the fray over Piketty’s Capital in the Bill.gatesTwenty-First Century, largely defending Piketty’s view that inequality is a big social ill that needs fixing, but disagreeing over his prediction based on r > g and Piketty’s policy solution. 

Gates writes:

"I very much agree with Piketty that:

  • High levels of inequality are a problem—messing up economic incentives, tilting democracies in favor of powerful interests, and undercutting the ideal that all people are created equal.
  • Capitalism does not self-correct toward greater equality—that is, excess wealth concentration can have a snowball effect if left unchecked.
  • Governments can play a constructive role in offsetting the snowballing tendencies if and when they choose to do so."

Overall, Gates offers a pragmatic set of solutions that are far better than Piketty’s global tax on capital.

Posner Rethinks Voter I.D. Laws

By Jonathan B. Wight

We all want fair elections, and the potential for trouble-makers to vote in more than one location, or to vote while dead (as allegedly happened in JFK’s Presidential race in Chicago), is cause for concern.

But the allegations of such fraud don’t add up, according to Judge Richard Posner, perhaps one of the most outspoken intellectuals on the right. Posner issued a stunning dissent in the recent Court of Appeals case for Wisconsin’s voter I.D. law.  Posner wrote:

The author of this dissenting opinion has never seen his birth certificate and does not know how he would go about “scrounging” it up. Nor does he enjoy waiting in line at motor vehicle bureaus. There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.

The Appendix for the dissent shows just how daunting it is to try to prove your ability to vote without having the paperwork of a birth certificate that about 7 % of Americans do not have.  This is particularly true for women and for poor people, who move a lot and may not have kept good records.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the NY School of Law did a survey in 2006 that found that:

  • About 13 million Americans lack documentation of their citizenship.
  • People earning less than $25,000/year are twice as likely to lack documentation.
  • Only half of women who have proof of their births have birth certificates with their current legal names.

This is clearly a mess, and a lot of innocent people may be disenfranchised.  About 12% of American families move every year.  How many frazzled parents have good paperwork on births to hand to their children on their 18th birthday? 

I feel blessed that my place of birth was a hospital, and that the hospital has stayed in continuous operation for the last 60 years, and that I was recently able to get a pretty good photostat of my birth certificate.  Not everyone is this lucky.

An Excess of Virtue?

By Jonathan B. Wight

Krugman’s column today discusses the fallacy of composition in virtue.

Basically, it goes like this: if I am virtuous and save to try and pay off my debt, and you and everyone else are also virtuous and save to try to pay off your debts at the same time, the net result is that no one of us will be able to pay off our debts! 

As the economy shrinks from lack of demand, the ratio of debt to income actually grows larger even though people are trying to save more. Hence, it is self-defeating to think that everyone can be virtuous simultaneously, starting from the current position.

It’s a familiar argument to anyone steeped in Keynesian economics.  Adam Smith entirely missed this macroeconomic possibility when he wrote:

“What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom” (Wealth of Nations, 1981, 456-7).

One of Krugman’s familiar solutions to the problem is to have government dissave during recessions.  Another is to have the Federal Reserve inflate prices to reduce the real value of the overhanging debt.

A more interesting approach that he endorses today is to simply write-off the bad debt, wiping the balance sheet clean and enabling former debtors to buy again. 

This radical, communistic idea has been endorsed by … the Bible:

"At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts.  And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the LORD's release" (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).

Islam and Zealotry

By Jonathan B. Wight

Reza Aslan argues correctly about context, context, context:

No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.

Well said.

Supreme Court Allows Same-Sex Marriages to Proceed

By Jonathan B. Wight

A decade ago Virginia’s tourism marketing campaign was “Virginia is for Lovers.” 

Today that may finally be coming true.  The Supreme Court let stand appeal court rulings in various states (including Virginia) that would allow for same-sex marriages to proceed. Va for lovers

There are few things in life that I felt sure about predicting—but uprooting bans on same sex marriage was one of the big, obvious issues that could not last.

Adam Smith’s moral sentiments theory helps us understand the evolution of moral norms on this and other issues.  In this approach it isn’t the logical and rational arguments that sway public opinion as to right and wrong, it is the change in heart-felt feelings that allow people to consider the arguments.  This happens when a friend discovers that his roommate is gay, and tries to reach emotional equilibrium with him in that circumstance. Peoples’ feelings about right and wrong have to change before their minds become open to the arguments. 

This approach may not make some people happy—particularly those concerned with the logic of costs and benefits or those adopting certain principles of duty to rationality.  And this approach also can lead to horrible injustices when mob violence is one of the results or if government uses a monopoly media to propagandize. 

In a competitive political world, with free flow of information, and a market economy that promotes rising moral sympathy with others, it is okay sometimes to have faith that the right thing will be done: as I think it was here.

History Agendas

By Jonathan B. Wight

TPM tracks a story about a Colorado school board member who thinks the new AP exam presents American history and its story of exceptionalism in a negative light.

I sort of agree (but only partly). I grew up and came of age in countries with truly despicable institutional structures: first in South Africa (apartheid), then in Mozambique (colonialism), then in Libya (monarchy), and then in Brazil (military dictatorship). 

It’s easy to celebrate America’s history compared to the trials and tribulations in some of these countries.  It’s important to know that in some crucial respects America is different: that we have the world’s oldest operating legislature (Virginia—starting in 1619), and with great pain created a culture of seeking to correct our past errors (not always perfectly). Hear-no-evil_see-no-evil_speak-no-evil1

But to really know our history, we have to examine our warts as well as our victories.  It’s counterproductive to make all our historical heroes one-dimensional saints.  They were not in real life, and it denigrates the truth and what they stood for to paper over their imperfections.

Recently I finished a biography of George Washington and am reading one now on Benjamin Franklin.  Both were fascinating, flawed patriots.  Washington is a hero and a great role model: but he was, on the issue of slavery, deceitful. It is his Achilles’ heel.  I am willing to grant Washington (and other founders like Jefferson) some slack because slavery is “the” big issue at America’s founding, and no good solution existed that was practical—meaning that it would be acceptable to the South at that time.

The Colorado school board member apparently lamented that, “Yes, we practiced slavery. But we also ended it voluntarily, at great sacrifice, while the practice continues in many countries still today!”

I guess it all depends on what the meaning of “voluntarily” is.  A political conflagration to emancipate slaves that cost of lives of more than 600,000 citizens during a civil war does not seem terribly “voluntary” to me.

I am reminded that some people likewise want to paint the brilliant virtues of the market without considering any of its warts.  I think that is counterproductive.  It is only by celebrating the virtues of a market in the full light of its warts—that we can genuinely embrace it.

There are good people, for example, who want to claim that the marketplace is virtuous because it would never support racism. The argument is that there’s money to be made by selling to all races, for example, and a merchant who profit maximizes will seize that opportunity.  So the market is color-blind in this “see-no-evil” kind of world.

But I don’t buy such a simplistic view.  If the majority of consumers in a town are racist, and do not want to shop alongside people of other races, then shops will find it profitable to hire only the dominant race and will cater to that dominant race.  Persons of different races will be excluded from rest rooms, and Jim Crow laws will appear because of the power of the dominant race.  Public policy reflects, to this extent, the makeup of the power base in both the market and the voting booth. 

However, the marketplace, by providing the opportunity for exchange, and providing the occasion for greater travel due to rising incomes, can lead to a change in the moral imagination that can eventually lead to a new and more inclusive consciousness.  Hence, I do think markets—over the long run—can be a powerful force for improving the moral climate.  At the same time, let’s not sugarcoat all market outcomes as being ideal.

Neither our history nor our market institutions are perfect.  And a lot of people had to die to help improve our institutions. It would be a tragedy if American history and its economy were written about as a clean slate, rather than the tortured convolutions they really were.

(Image: http://georginabeaufoy.blog.com/files/2013/04/hear-no-evil_see-no-evil_speak-no-evil1.jpg)