Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Pennsylvania, 8-18-13.
Posting is likely to be light in the near term.

Some political reading

Recommended reading: "We All Need Moderate Republicans." Note the "we all [emphasis added]," which I think is explained by the following paragraph:
In a recent conversation, a rich benefactor of the Democratic Party stopped his usual attack on Republicans to express worry about the survival of their party. Moderates of all political stripes want a choice. Without responsible Republicans, the Democrats can get sloppy, and America's challenges go unmet.
That's a point I think too few Democrats recognize; one party getting dumber or crazier will tend to bring the other one down too. I can think of quite a few progressive types (some of them ex-conservatives) whose political arguments begin and end with pointing out some inane thing stated by someone on the right, chortling at its stupidity or extremism and then ... nothing. Policy analysis isn't much fun anyway.

As an exercise for anyone, left or right, who wants to sharpen his or her policy analysis skills, I suggest reading this Economist piece: "Will Obamacare Destroy Jobs?" Opening:
BEFORE the recession, Richard Clark’s cleaning company in Florida had 200 employees, about half of them working full time. These days it has about 150, with 80% part-time. The downturn explains some of this. But Mr Clark also blames Barack Obama’s health reform. When it comes into effect in January 2015, Obamacare will require firms with 50 or more full-time employees to offer them affordable health insurance or pay a fine of $2,000-3,000 per worker. That is a daunting prospect for firms that do not already offer coverage. But for many, there is a way round the law. 
Mr Clark says he is “very careful with the threshold”. To keep his full-time workforce below the magic number of 50, he is relying more on part-timers. He is not alone. More than one in ten firms surveyed by Mercer, a consultancy—and one in five retail and hospitality companies—say they will cut workers’ hours because of Obamacare. A hundred part-timers can flip as many burgers as 50 full-timers, and the former will soon be much cheaper.
Question: Was this sort of thing not a predictable consequence of the health care law as it was being set up, and why was there not a robust debate within the Democratic Party about how to avoid or limit such effects?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Wall St. women

RIP Muriel Siebert, Wall Street trailblazer. I wrote a sidebar about her in my piece a couple years ago on her flamboyant (and paranormalist) long-ago predecessor, Victoria Claflin Woodhull.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reason and skepticism

Reason magazine has a blog post on Michael Moynihan's recent Newsweek piece on skepticism. I made a few critical comments on Twitter about the Moynihan piece when it came out, noting its lack of engagement with the turmoil over sexual misconduct claims now roiling the skeptics' movement. The comments section at the Reason post gives some glimpses into the frictions between two movements--skepticism and libertarianism--that historically have had some overlap but at present seem mostly at odds. (Note, for instance, the complaints that the skeptics believe in anthropogenic global warming.)

Dinosaur popularity

This looks promising: "First Look: "Walking With Dinosaurs'."

My family and I have become great fans of Dinosaur Train, for its laudable inclusion of real paleontology in a children's show. I even corresponded recently with Dr. Scott Sampson about the correct pronunciation of parasaurolophus. (His answer: most paleontologists prefer para-sore-all-o-fus.)

Space and dinosaurs have long been two key subjects for getting children interested in science. Space doesn't seem to be performing that function nearly as well as it did as recently as the 1990s; I can't think of any recent event that spurred interest comparable to Pathfinder's 1997 exploits on Mars. Maybe that'll change with some asteroid visit or such, but it's a good thing the dinosaurs are very much on the job.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Meanwhile on Russian TV

Kudos to James Kirchick.

Afterwards, the network called the taxi company taking him to the airport and told them to leave him by the highway.

Film note: Emperor

This movie, Emperor, was interesting, in its narrative and visuals, but I wouldn't put much stock in it as a history; and while Tommy Lee Jones is always fun to watch, he didn't show much similarity to MacArthur.

A decade ago, I wrote a piece for what was then called Tech Central Station arguing for MacArthur's relevance to what was then called the War on Terror. My drawing of that connection, in retrospect, looks pretty strained, though the MacArthur speech passage on science that I quoted is worth reading.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bridge over the Delaware River

I thought this was the Roebling Delaware Aqueduct when I took this photo yesterday, but it doesn't look like pictures I find online of the Roebling Delaware Aqueduct. So either it's a trick of vantage point, or I just got the wrong bridge.

In any case, for those visiting the Upper Delaware River area, Sylvania Tree Farm is highly recommended. (And I am sure that's where we stayed.)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Post-divorce struggles in Ohio

Maybe the topic below has made me more attuned than usual to human folly, but here (via Overlawyered) is the grimly absorbing story of an endlessly acrimonious divorced couple in Ohio, followed by a contentious comments section including acerbic defensiveness from the article's writer.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Trial by blog post [updated]

There has been remarkable turmoil sweeping through organized skepticism (and the overlapping movement of organized atheism) in recent days. Attempting to provide an overview of all this is a task beyond my time and patience, though this is worth a look especially for background. Interested readers can trace one strand of this story here, here and here, and another here, here, here and here.

I am agnostic on a number of important issues involved, not least the validity of the accusations and whether they represent widespread problems in organized skepticism. But I do have one strong opinion on the conflict between P.Z. Myers and Michael Shermer, which is that Myers did an extremely reckless and malign thing by posting the accusation against Shermer on his blog. If Myers thought the woman's claims credible and had wanted to do something responsible, he would have helped her find a lawyer (and possibly private investigator) in order to ascertain whether her assertions could be substantiated in any way and whether she had any recourse in criminal or civil law (the idea that it was too late to do anything merited a professional opinion before being accepted at face value).

That instead Myers chose to plaster the accusation onto the Internet indicates a distinct and appalling lack of that thing ... what's it called?... critical thinking. Also lacking was any sense of fairness or foresight. And left totally unclear, of course, is whether the accusation has any validity at all. Trial by blog post is a 21st century innovation that one hopes will be abandoned by a more enlightened future.

Note: I have had tenuous connections to the people mentioned. I fact checked Shermer's column at Scientific American for several years around 2005-10 (in which capacity I communicated with him mostly through email and never met him in person) and I have also reviewed one of his books. As for Myers, I had lunch with him and two other people while attending a Seed magazine conference in around 2006, though I can't recall anything particularly noteworthy being discussed.

UPDATE 10/6/14: I've belatedly noticed that there's now more out about this story. See this piece at Buzzfeed and Shermer's statement (PDF). It's still not clear to me what happened in this matter, but at least now there's a name to the accuser and some details to be argued about. As for the wider picture, this has become (more clearly than it initially was) about organized atheism as such more than about the (overlapping but largely distinct) movement of organized skepticism. Being an Episcopalian (however liberal theologically), I have little interest in what happens to organized atheism.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Paterson's waterfall

Here's where Alexander Hamilton sought to jump-start industrial development in America. I stopped by early yesterday evening.

Great Falls of the Passaic River, 8/7/13
Some Hamilton links: "A Tale of Origins"; "Founding Father of Finance"; "Debt Debate: What Would Hamilton Do?"; "At Hamilton's Tomb."

A different (and bigger) waterfall: "Canal research: Cohoes."

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The GOP does not need fewer debates

First, let me admit a bias: I love debates--including participating in them, watching them, and writing about them. So, I must acknowledge that my aversion to a recent push in the GOP for fewer primary debates next time around arises partly from concern about my personal entertainment in 2016. Still, there is more to be said about this than that. I bring up the topic in response to this Salon piece "Republicans' desperate plan to hide its clowns," by Alex Pareene. Opening:
Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, has told NBC and CNN that they will not be allowed to have any Republican presidential debates in 2016 if they go ahead and air planned films about Hillary Clinton, who will likely be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. That is the reason he gave them, at least, but it is not really the actual reason Priebus wants to not have any debates on those two channels. The real reason, everyone knows and sort of acknowledges, is that debates were a disaster for the party in 2012, an endless circus made up entirely of clowns on a national tour of shame.
These debates were on TV, people watched (and mocked) them, and the real candidates, the ones the money people were counting on to win the stupid race, were forced to say unacceptable things to appeal to raging loons. Furthermore, the serious candidates looked less serious simply by sharing a stage with Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. So: Fewer debates, next time, is the plan, and these Hillary movies are a convenient reason to cancel on two of the big networks. (Do you know how I know that the Hillary Clinton movies aren’t the real reason? Media Matters’ David Brock would also like the networks to cancel these movies, because let’s be honest they probably won’t be entirely flattering.)
Me: It seems quite plausible that Priebus's motive here is indeed to reduce the numbers of debates, and that this stems from a perception that the events are damaging to the party's electoral chances. In my opinion, that perception is wrong. Consider two points:

1. Whatever effect the debates had in foregrounding "non-serious" candidates, the events also had a winnowing effect in helping remove from the race candidates whose views, rhetoric and preparation could not hold up under scrutiny. The obvious example here is Rick Perry, who showed himself in debate to be a low-information candidate (a conclusion not exclusively dependent on his "oops" moment). Whatever benefits Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann got from the attention high of the debates (future speaking fees? talk radio gigs?) were more than counterbalanced by their inability to appear as serious candidates on a stage. (By the way, Pareene is unfair in lumping Newt Gingrich in with the fringe candidates. I have shown that I'm no Gingrich fan, but a former speaker of the House who once led the party to vast political gains ought not to be dismissed with an empty snort.)

2. The debates gave Mitt Romney practice, helping him be a better debater. This was glaringly obvious in his first debate with Barack Obama, who was clearly badly out of practice himself. Was it enough? Obviously, no. Obama regained his stride in subsequent debates, and of course debates were not the only factors shaping the Election Day outcome. But woe betide the Republican Party if it concludes that sheltering its candidates from debates is the key to future electoral success.

What can we learn from 19th century canals?

Here's one reason I find the Erie Canal interesting: the 19th century history of canal building contains elements that can unsettle both the left and right of the current day. On one hand, the private sector conspicuously failed to connect the Great Lakes to the Hudson River. On the other hand, the federal government declined to do it, so it was a state project. On a third hand, New York State built most of the Erie Canal by hiring private contractors to do the building. On one hand, this state project was a huge success. On the other hand, other states that imitated it encountered a great deal of failure.

It's a complex history that doesn't lend itself to easy slogans about government or the free market. Still, people try to employ it for their political ends. Here's a piece in the WSJ by Larry Schweikart and Burton Folsom on "Obama's False History of Public Investment." The piece has this subhead: "Entrepreneurs built our roads, rails and canals far better than government did." Then when you read the article, it contains a very brief overview of canal history:
America's 19th-century canal-building mania is now largely forgotten, but it is the granddaddy of misguided infrastructure-spending tales. Steamboats, first perfected by Robert Fulton in 1807, chugged along on all major rivers before states began using funds to build canals and harbors. Congress tried to get the federal government involved by passing a massive canal and road-building bill in 1817, but President James Madison vetoed it. New York responded by building the Erie Canal—a relatively rare success story. Most state-supported canals lost money, and Pennsylvania in 1857 and Ohio in 1861 finally sold their canal systems to private owners.
In Ohio, when the canals were privatized, one newspaper editor wrote: "Everyone who observes must have learned that private enterprise will execute a work with profit, when a government would sink dollars by the thousand." 
Me: The above is accurate as far as it goes, but it doesn't amount to "Entrepreneurs built our ... canals far better than government did." Canal building was mostly done by government, for better and worse. The financial troubles faced by many canals other than Erie, manifested in the Panic of 1837, spurred a turning away from government infrastructure for the rest of the 19th century, such that the railroads were built by the private sector (although government helped in various ways to make this happen). In the 20th century, the pendulum swung back toward government infrastructure projects, albeit with plenty of wobbling back and forth over the decades. It's also worth pointing out that what worked well in, say, 1825 may or may not be the best model for what should be done in 2013.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Fact checking a novel: Brad Thor's Hidden Order

I noticed recently an uptick in traffic on searches such as "Is the Fed private?" Further research suggests this has to do with the publication of Brad Thor's novel Hidden Order: A Thriller, which my impromptu investigation reveals to be aimed at cramming every lurid, anti-Federal Reserve conspiracy theory into an easy-read format. I can't speak to whether this novel is thrilling, but I can tell you it's not a reliable information source. Excerpt:

A lot of staples of anti-Fed literature are in the above passage, making it rife with error and exaggeration. The notion that the Fed is "private" reflects a confusion that stems from the fact that the Fed's regional banks are nominally privately owned. Banks own shares in the regional Fed banks, but these shares are not tradable, and the profits mainly go to the U.S. Treasury. Essentially, what this means is banks are required to park some money with the Fed, rather than "owning" the Fed in any sense that gives effective control. Moreover, it is the Fed's Board of Governors, not the regional banks, that has the last word on policy; and the Board of Governors, the members of which are appointed by the president with the consent of Congress, is clearly a federal agency.

As for audits, the word "thorough" does a lot of work in Thor's passage. The Fed is subject to various audits but I guess none "thorough" enough for the purpose of abolishing it. The Fed does not operate in "total secrecy" but rather publishes minutes of its meetings after the fact. The Fed is designed to have "independence," which is to say a degree of insulation from short-term political pressures. The goal is that Fed policymakers should be focused on the longer term and the national interest, not what monetary policies are most conducive to getting incumbent politicians reelected.

The supposed 96% decline in the dollar's purchasing power is a misleading abstraction, as I discussed here. The alleged stability of the 19th century economy when there was no central bank overlooks the many severe crises during that time. The elimination of America's first central banks had various negative consequences; what stemmed from abolishing the First Bank of the United States I discussed here, and elimination of the Second Bank is in many ways an even grimmer story.

Now, of course, it's only a novel. Sadly, though, it will reinforce much misguided thinking. Consider, for instance, this breathless account in Glenn Beck's The Blaze. Excerpt:
On Glenn Beck’s radio program Tuesday, coinciding with the book’s release date, Thor revealed the agency behind “Hidden Order”: the Federal Reserve.
Wow. Thanks for the revelation, Thor. For further reading, besides the links above, I recommend my piece "The Fed and Its Enemies."