The miracle of dentistry

I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again: vaccines and not pooping in our drinking water may account for most of the gains of modern medicine, but dentistry is an interventionist treatment that actually works, and is constantly undervalued.

Over last weekend, one of my rear molars started to hurt. By Sunday night it hurt so much I could barely sleep. Fortunately, my dentist could take me Monday morning. He examined me, found that the molar had cracked, and sent me off to an endodontist that had a slot for me in the next hour.

There the endodontist examined the tooth, determined that it was worth saving, shot lidocaine into my gums and went to work.

This was my first endodontic procedure (root canal). It's extremely anxiety provoking. You're leaned all the way back, your face is covered with the rubbery blue sheet of a dental dam, you can't talk, you can barely breathe, and you see the mist of abrading tooth enamel, as well as hearing and feeling the work of the drill.

But it didn't take long. It's now packed with a temporary filling. She will take a look Monday to determine whether, in fact, it is salveagable. I couldn't tell if she was naturally optimistic, or giving me a real read on the probabilities.

Two things about this.

One: the cost. I'm a freelancer, and don't have dental insurance. The cost was almost a week's earnings, payable in advance. I put it on my credit card. And that's not the end of the expense, because if it is indeed saved, I need to get a crown on it. I have no idea how much that's going to cost.

Bad teeth are one of the real horrors of being poor. Consider this NYT story about a three-day open-air free clinic. It starts with a man grateful to have 18 teeth pulled. He's been in pain from untreated cavities for years. I have some savings, but this one hit me pretty hard. Many people have a lot less flexibility. If I hadn't been able to afford it, would I just have gone home, suffered, had the tooth eventually crack all the way through, and then, finally, gotten it pulled?

In discussions of healthcare, dentistry is very much in the background, as if it was some kind of cosmetic thing, or a "nice to have". Because a bad tooth won't immediately kill you? Most of healthcare is not about preventing imminent death, it's about helping you live without pain, without impairment, without increasing weakness. I'm not even really sure why dental work is not regarded as "healthcare".

Second. I asked my endodontist about something I'd heard: that endodontists get specific calluses from their work. I thought it might be in along the forefinger or something, but she said they did, on the thumb and forefinger, from using their delicate instruments. Then she became very self conscious and remarked that she also overdue for a manicure. This transformation from competent but warm healthcare professional to individual with some personal vanity was quite startling, and more than a bit charming as well.

Then I had to bicycle home a fair distance in the pouring rain (the endodontist was a fair way from my dentist in a direction away from my apartment), take some pain killers, and have a nap. I've been tired all week, whether from this tooth adventure or just general malaise.

Note, apropos of the cost: I don't expend healthcare to be free, and don't think it should be, save for the poor. I went from a person in agony from a cracked tooth to someone without pain, and with the potential of a repaired tooth, in short order, after some work from a skilled professional. Sure, I feel like I spent a lot of money to just not get quite back to the state I was in previously. But guess what: that's pretty great! Pretending it shouldn't cost any money seems to be a mistake, to me.

The passions of Chalcedonians and Monophysites

Every commentator notes how partisan the American public has become. Positions seem continually more extreme, blue is bluer, red is redder, and no one is interested in what the other side has to say.

This may well be true. I live in a genteel blue area, and do know a lot of people with predictable doctrines (and many women I encounter specify adherence to these doctrines as a prerequisite for dating them), but no one seems particularly enraged at their opponents or uncomprehending of their positions.

So that leads to the natural question: what would the period after the Council of Chalcedon have been like if someone in Late Antiquity had invented Twitter?

Chalcedon, in 451, established the Orthodox definition of the nature of Christ, the same definition used by modern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. But some found this an unwelcome compromise. Their position was known (I gather pejoratively) as Monophysitism. Their descendants are Coptic and Oriental Orthodox churches, including the Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syriac churches.

Christological wrangling seems to have fallen out of fashion (I gather it really requires Greek to be clear enough to fight about), and I won't go into the details they were squabbling about here. But they really did take it seriously, and the more heavily Monophysite areas of Egypt and Syria were always in conflict with Chacedonian Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Balkans. They would denounce each other, riot against each other, depose each other's bishops, and write endless screeds against each other.

Periodically, an Emperor would try to do something about it. Zeno came up with the Henoticon, which tried, unsuccessfully to paper over the differences by being unclear about what they were. Anastasius, a pious Monophysite, had no patience with extremists and exiled both overzealous Monophysites and Chalcedonians, finding them both tiresome. Justinian, who knew everything, tried to persuade everyone to an elaborate compromise position involving the Three Chapters (something else probably not worth the effort to understand), but even this late antique Woodrow Wilson was unable to achieve his goal. Justinian's Empress, Theodora, was a fervent Monophysite, and never compromised either.

Anastasius, by the way is one of my favorite Emperors. He took office at age 60, ruled for over a quarter of a century (491-518), and left the Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire by this point) prosperous and with a huge cash surplus, which unfortunately enabled his overactive successor Justinian to finance his endless wars. History tends to overvalue the flashy Justinians and undervalue the "how about we focus on reestablishing coinage with consistent value and stay away from overheated rhetoric" Anastasiuses.

When the Arabs invaded in the early 7th century, they conquered the Monophysite areas, which has been atributed to the inhabitants' hatred of Orthodoxy, but I think this is mostly a matter of geographical chance. It's just that they failed to conquer the Orthodox heartland.

The conflict between Chalcedonian and Monophysite wasn't all in good fun, but it wasn't a civilizational fissure either. Both inhabited a unified empire, honored the same Emperor. and got on with things. If they had spent their days tweeting about consubstantiality, they might have ended up hating each other enough to break up the Empire long before it finally fell to overwhelming force.

So, yeah. I'm with Anastasius. Sure, think those people are clueless idiots, and their doctrines are abhorrent. But we have a nation to run, jobs to do, food to cook, and beaches to lie on with our dates or our families.  Dammit, did that seagull just steal my sandwich? That's what I really need to worry about.

 

A hissy fit is not a strategy

I never used to write about politics. I didn't feel that I had anything particularly useful to say about it--no more useful than most people, anyway. But things seem...odd. Almost science fictional! So maybe my profession does give me some specific skills in viewing our current situation.

Which, no matter how things work out, people in the future will study earnestly. If nothing else, my statements here will get fed into some gigantic opinion parser. "What were the people of what was then known as the United States think on the first day of February, 2017?"

Well, here are two articles and one blog post full of useful observations and good advice for those who find themselves in this era, don't quite know how they got here, and wonder what best to do to get through it.

Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable

We live life day to day. All of us. We go to the store, we read stories to our children, we have dinner with friends, we rest our heads on someone else's shoulder, we get irritated with our clueless boss. That's what we do. Normal tyranny becomes...normal. As Tom Pepinsky says

The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus.

Oppressors in movies and books wear snappy uniforms with ominous symbols on the collar. They are easy to spot.

Don't get used to things. I think that's probably the most important lesson. Remember what life in this country is supposed to be like, and hold to it.

In Venezuela, we couldn’t stop Chávez. Don’t make the same mistakes we did.

Venezuela? Seriously? The lessons, sadly, are pointed.

Andrés Miguel Rondón describes here the many mistakes the sensible middle class made when trying to combat Hugo Chávez. Our befuddled and self-regarding left is already making the same ones with Trump.

Don't give up on democracy, because a lack of democracy will never be your friend, even if the voters seem crazy. Don't become hysterical and tell people all sorts of terrifying things that are not really the things anyone really worries about:

But a hissy fit is not a strategy.

The people on the other side — and crucially, independents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy.

And, finally

make every question a strategic question

Know why you're doing what you're doing, and what you hope to accomplish by doing it, both near-term and long-term. Are you just expressing your rage, despair, and befuddlement? Stay home, breathe deeply, unplug, and don't go back online until you know what the hell you are trying to get done. Have solid goals you can communicate to others? Move toward those goals, step by explicit step.

Leftists are actually arguing for political violence. Aside from the fact that is just wrong, it's also futile: do leftists think they have some kind of advantage when it comes to the use of violence? Do they own guns? Have they served in the military? Do they have a ballistic nylon bugout bag in the back of their 4x4? Do they even deadlift?

Fredrik de Boer has lost patience with these people, and he's an ardent leftist who has put in the time and paid serious dues. I never had any patience with them to begin with, because I'm a hardshell centrist. Don't Tread On Me, Vibram sole or not.

We will always be the country that elected Donald Trump as President

I every much dislike someone identifying a moment as the one where "America lost its innocence". The United State is a real country, with real people in it, real people with real needs, fears, prejudices, and false beliefs. Its citizens have done many terrible things, to each other and to others. They have also done great things. That is why there is less excuse for us.

My headline comes from Jonathan Kirschner's excellent article America, America, in the LA Review of Books, where he also says "there is no happy ending to this story". (I found Kirschner's piece via Daniel Drezner's Why President Obama is the Jon Snow of American foreign policy)

I do think Trump is the human O-ring, and that we are running a real risk of permanent damage to our political system. Kirschner runs down many of the real issues that led to the rise of Trump, and the refusal of responsible people to deal with these issues. We really do have things we need to do. Serious, hard, unrewarding things that no one will really thank us for, because, despite the fact that we have become rich and free through hard, incremental work, no one seems to find hard, incremental work credible as a solution to anything.

One thing I think everyone with anxiety about what Trump will do to our future needs to do is consider the practical consequences of their actions. They should have a plan, something they are aiming at, and then ask themselves, when tempted to do something emotionally satisfying that will get some clicks and likes from people who agree with them, "is this helping us get to where we should be?"

Does claiming Trump is not a legitimate President get you a step toward where you want to be? Or does it, in fact, make the future where a coalition successfully addresses the issues less likely, because a President they campaign for is then also considered illegitimate?

I tend to support Obama in fighting cleanly and fairly. Others think any weapon in this conflict is welcome. But, again, the question: will fighting dirty help you win? And if you do "win" with such methods, can you govern, help the weak, increase freedom, increase wealth, and do a minimum of harm? Can you pass a working system down to future generations?

But, of course, we know that the important issues revolve around arguments about how many people attended various past public events.

After such an election, what forgiveness?

 

 

Did you ever notice...?

At the risk of chanToo European for you?nelling the late Andy Rooney: did you ever notice that the small, double basket carts at the grocery store are always gone?

People don't actually fight over the things, at least not here in Cambridge, where people are really well behaved, but sometimes it seems like they should. While there are dozens of the big, traditional shopping carts, large enough to hold an entire side of beef, case of PBR, and a gross of Lean Cuisines, all of which require diving into the depths of the cart to retrieve, the nimble, post-divorce carts are in scarce supply.

Beware, you suburbanites. A Cambridge grocery store will terrify you. The aisles are just wide enough for naked mole rats to squirm over each other. You'll get claustrophobia, and the package sizes will make you feel that you've woken up in Lilliput.

Maybe thisAnything to keep them from scooping food from the shelves sport-model carts have no place in the rest of the country (though there must be plenty of divorced and single people everywhere), but here they are a wonderful invention. I see parents maneuvering those giant carts with the driving simulator on the back (two steering wheels--fortunately, self-driving cars will probably be mandatory before these deluded toddlers get old enough to apply for a license), but then, these people drive Escalades and probably have sectional sofas the size of aircraft carriers at home. For the rest of us, the sport model cart is just what we want.

Particularly for me, since I put my bike panniers in the bottom basket and fill the top.

So why do these grocery stores run out of them so much? There are any number of possible reasons:

  • They are expensive, despite their small size
  • They are easily stolen, damaged, or otherwise require frequent replacement
  • The manufacturers are having trouble filling orders
  • They require their own line, which reduces the available inventory of the tradtional carts prohibitively

You can come up with your own reasons. If I was an actual journalist, I'd do some research and learn what the supply and use contstraints really are, but really I just want to complain. If anyone does figure out an explanation, let me know.

Addendum, 2/1/17: I asked a clerk at the store, and he said that those smaller carts are stolen way more frequently than the big ones. They only have half of their initial purchase of 36 small carts left, and really have to think if it's worth the cost. At least everyone seems to like them!

 

'Twas ever thus

Sometimes the world seems totally different, when it is actually completely the same.

I was reading Sean Davis Cashman's America in the Gilded Age (research for a possible book), when I came across an account of a conflict the urban reformer and founder of Chicago's Hull House, Jane Addams, had with a corrupt local boss, Johnny "DePow" Powers.  She wanted to clean the streets of trash, and so launched two campaigns, in 1896 and 1898, to unseat him. She failed both times. As Cashman puts it:

She discovered she could not compete with his reputation for generosity. He boasted that 2,600 ward residents owed their city jobs to him. He distributed railroad passes, Christmas dinners, and free coal. Ordinary people could appreciate such minuscule largess without realizing that they usually paid for it in the extortionate street railway fares Powers secured for his allies, the railway companies. Ironically, they prefered his top hat and opulent life-style to the cloth caps and austere behavior of Addams's candidates.

That "irony", if such it is, will always be with us. The popular politician who lives large and crushes more virtuous opponents is a staple of democratic politics, from Alcibiades's day to this.

Our political Morton Thiokol O-ring

On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger took off from Kennedy Space Center, in unusually cold temperatures. Morton Thiokol had built the boosters out of four segments each. Field joints containing rubber O-rings seals connected the segments. That morning, the cold rubber of the joints, operating in temperatures far lower than ever tested, became stiff.

A jet of exhaust came through one of the cold-stiff seals and played on an external tank containing oxygen and hydrogen, until the tank exploded. At 73 seconds after liftoff, Challenger came apart. I'd like to say "killing all aboard", but it seems that the crew survived, as the crew compartment continued to climb before free falling into the ocean, finally killing everyone aboard.

This was the result of "normal deviance": things seemed fine on every other day, so poor practices continued, shrinking safety margins. Because safety margins are a pain in the ass.

Increasing bank capital requirements can lower the risk of catastrophic 2008-type failures and bailouts, as Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Fed has proposed, but at the cost of higher interest rates and lower growth (the most recent episode of the Planet Money podcast has that story). Repairing infrastructure before it actually falls down costs money taxpayers always bitch about. Computer security slows things down, and makes interactions more difficult. Security precautions are always annoying, and no one can tell which ones are effective. Earthquake-proofing buildings in tectonically active areas is expensive, time-consuming, and can affect how buildings look.

If nothing bad happens for awhile (and that "awhile" doesn't have to be very long) people start cutting corners. They get irritated at inspectors, security drills, perfectly good money spent for no visibly good reason. They get to think that you should only worry about problems that happen visibly and regularly. Even trained engineers and technicians, like those that day at KSC can fall prey to it. It's not obvious. And, until something goes really wrong, the problem is invisible, because failure is sudden and dramatic, rather than slow and visible.

Our economic and political system seems robust, flexible, and responsive. And I'm sure it is. Still, both democracy and capitalism are essentially unnatural. Both insist on valuing strangers as much as personal contacts, tell you that costs in the short term lead to benefits in the long term, and are complex and opaque. Maintenance and upgrades have to be continuous, and that work can be quite tiresome and unrewarding.

We have elected a Morton Thiokol O-ring as President.  Assume nothing, and keep your eye on the thermometer.

 

 

The saving remnant

Before the election I worried that Clinton's victory would enable the Left to continue to ignore the consequences of its intellectual bankruptcy, failure to engage with the real problems facing our civilization, and insular self-satisfaction.

Well, Clinton didn't win, but that didn't make any difference to my prediction. The Left really does seem intent on ignoring these things, focusing, instead, on our new President's (many and real) personal failings, a total nonstarter as either a political move or a coherent philosophical position.

I continue to find the fate of Washington's Initiative 732, where social justice activists helped defeat a sensible-seeming carbon tax proposal because it didn't provide enough direct payoffs to their constituencies, instructive. Sometimes, the real question we ask about a big problem should be "how can we solve it?" and not "how can we use it to bludgeon our cultural enemies?" Self-righteousness always seems to triumph over incremental problem solving.

I'm worried that, seemingly envying Putin's Russia its vibrant cultural life, booming economy, and inclusive politics, the Trump administration will settle us with a crony capitalist system that looks superficially like the wealth-and-freedom-creating system we are used to, but is actually something quite different.

Instead I see essays on cultural appropriation, an issue that shows how far past its sell-by date American progressivism has gotten. But I certainly can't do any better on that topic than Fredrik deBoer's no one has the slightest idea what is and isn’t cultural appropriation, and deBoer is far leftier than I.

Fortunately, I am reading a lot of really sensible people, from the usual Marginal Revolution to a couple of recent discoveries that seem to be in my weird little political segment, Bleeding Heart Libertarians and The Niskanen Center.

Real thought is out there. We need to cling together, while keeping in mind how easily the sensible middle gets ground between the upper and nether millstones of two ferociously competitive teams. Being sensible has not usually been a particularly successful political movement.

 

T. S. Eliot explains fake news

"Fake news" is all the rage. This isn't about the various news outlets getting gamed about the motivations for the Iraq War, or any of the other way reporters get misled. This really does seem a type of precisely machine product intended for a specific use.

But what is that use? One of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money, recently had a segment about fake news. They tracked down and interviewed a guy who seems to make his living generating fake news, employing a number of freelancers. He invents plausible sources, and makes stories up out of whole cloth.

But the stories clearly fit a narrative, and create a vision of the world. Some people are absolutely convinced these are true, but "true" in what sense? I've always been puzzled by this need to believe the patently untrue to justify why you don't like something. Why can't you just dislike it on the merits?

There were plenty of reasons to find fault with Obamacare, for example, but "death panels" wasn't one of them. There are perfectly sensible reasons to oppose Obama's programs in general, but that he is a Kenyan Muslim is not one of them either.

People are feeling an odd disjuncture between their reasons and their emotions. They hate Hillary Clinton. Hate, hate, HATE her. Again, there were fine reasons to oppose her and her policies. But that she commits murder and participates in a pedophile ring operating out of a pizza parlor are not among them.

Clinton, now history, is a normal politician. She has her unpleasant personality traits, cuts corners, dislikes it when people try to ask her questions, likes getting paid a lot to deliver anodyne speeches, scratches backs and has her scratched in turn, whatever. There is really nothing much unusual about her as a politician, except that she is a woman (and that's not relevant to the point I am making here).

So people need to explain to themselves why they hate her so much. Her position on daycare? Her policy toward Brazil? Her tax policy? No one even knows what any of those are.

In his essay Hamlet and His Problems, T. S. Eliot popularized the concept of the "objective correlative", much loved by writing teachers. An objective correlative is something that is physically present in the story, but represents certain otherwise inexpressible ideas or emotions that otherwise could not manifest themselves.

As Eliot said

 The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion...Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.

These fake stories of murder, sexual deviancy, assumed identities, and dark conspiracies that are nevertheless openly signaled as a form of arrogant contempt, these stories are the objective correlative of these people's hatred. Their emotions are expressed through these stories, through reading them, liking them, linking to them, commenting on them.

Don't ask me why they hate Clinton this way in the first place, rather than just resolutely opposing her and her policies. I don't follow sports team, don't go to church, don't join fan clubs. I'm not a team player--I lack the joy of partisanship. There's a lot I don't really get about my fellow humans. But these people's emotions are in excess of the facts as they appear, and it makes them uncomfortable.

So a market has developed, to provide them with the objective correlatives that make the invisible visible, and the senseless make sense--it provides the chain of events that is the formula of their emotion.

Now, I have no idea of what to do about this politically or practically. But I think it's worth trying to understand what problem this type of "news" is solving (we're going to have to travel through this upcoming era armored in ironic quotes).

One possible conclusion is that fake news does not create people who hate Clinton, or Obama, or whoever is going to come next, but just provides them with fact-free stories to support what they already feel, but I suspect that is too optimistic.

 

 

In praise of slow media

After the election, I decided to take some time off from up-to-the-minute news. I paused my New York Times delivery (yes, sonny, I do still read ink on paper, want to make something of it?), cut down on blog reading, and stuck to the Economist, The New York Review of Books, and a few other journals. And books. Remember those?

And, after a few weeks, there are a couple of weekly podcasts I have resumed.

So what's been going on? I know there have been tweets. One of the TVs by the squat racks at the gym is tuned to CNN when I go. The high-cheekboned Brooke Baldwin is always looking startled or appalled by something, but the sound is off, so I am never quite sure what it is. But it seems to often involve a tweet by the President Elect.

(The other TV, by the benches and dumbbell racks, is tuned to one of those sports shows where everyone does stylized commentary kabuki about what some sportsball player has just done or might soon do or should do and why everyone else on the show is utterly wrong about what this person did or might do or should do--they all seem to have an extraordinarily good time doing this, but I can't hear them either).

If someone had had the sense to choose the term burp rather than tweet, our lives would be much the better.

My vacation from the Gray Lady will end soon. I've finished Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, and will take a break before attacking the second volume, about political order since the French Revolution. One big topic is the inevitable decay of political institutions, and how they often continue long after circumstances  have changed and they are no longer useful, but are propped up from the groups that continue to benefit from them. Until there is a crisis and they fall over like a stage set.

Somber thoughts. But that is my topic for this winter: functional institutions, the nature of political legitimacy, and how we, as feeble individuals, should act in the long term to make this world a better rather than a worse place.

 

Hiding out, educating myself about the (possible) apocalypse

As I mentioned in my last post, I am busy trying to learn about political theory, something that has not exercised my mind much previously. But I suddenly see all that is solid melting into air (and, yes, I am quoting the Communist Manifesto, why do you ask?) and realize that my default assumption that the system that made us all rich, secure, and long-lived will continue for the forseeable future, is completely unwarranted.

I've not become a prepper, or anything like that. In fact, I suspect that preppers are part of the group seeking to throw their shoes into the machinery, because what's the point of prepping if everyone else is living a happy, secure life?

But part of my spiritual preparation is a bit of a media diet. I got too interested in the minutiae of polls, who said what ridiculous thing, what possible consequences there could be to that thing that might happen if something else happened first...it's ridiculous. The ratio of information to packing peanuts has gotten too small for me to even bother opening the box. For the next while, I'm sticking to The Economist, and some historical grounding from whatever thoughtful observers I can find.

 

Getting into political theory

I've never been taken any classes in political theory. Or political practice, for that matter. How polities are best structured, what institutions help make you rich, what other ones lead to stagnation or eternal conflict, how even originally good institutions decay over time, what makes people accept a government as legitimate, how people can take the stability of their society for granted until it all dissoves around them....

Well, for some reason, I am thinking about those things now. My current reading is Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, the first of two volumes, this one covering the history of state building up to the French Revolution.

Thick, dense, and tremendous fun, so far. He spends a great deal of time on China, and a lot on India as well, and lets the Roman Empire kind of take care of itself.

One big theme is the negative effects what he calls patrimonialism has on state building and strength. Loyalty to your relatives is natural. Successful states are, by that token, deeply unnatural. They break the link between family and political authority. He posits that feudalism in the West, essentially a contractual relationship, formed a stable base on which more complex polities could be built. There is certainly a lot of the personal in feudalism, as there is in any relationship between people. But it started the West down a road where the important thing was office and not person.

I don't want to oversimplify. Fukuyama gives a good deal of attention to what characterized each type of government, how it grew out of its circumstances and history, what expectations people had of the systems under which they lived, and how, inevitably, changing expectations weren't met by the existing system.

How the Mamelukes and Ottomans built successful systems based on giving political power to high-status slaves (to eliminate the risk of patrimonialism), only to have these systems eventually fracture as these successful slaves found ways to pass their wealth and power on to their descendants, may seem to have little to do with our current troubles, but seeing how many different ways there are to deal with a recurrent problem is definitely enlightening. It's easy to be distracted by the immediate details. What are people really after? How different is that, really, from one age to another? What mechanisms slow people down from destroying the system that benefits them so much? I won't say prevents--nothing has ever prevented societal collapse.

I'm not done yet, and need to think it through once I am, but there is a lot to like about this book.

One unsurprising election result: Washington rejects carbon tax

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Washington state's proposed carbon tax. Short summary: an attempt at trying a revenue-neutral carbon tax was strenuously opposed by most environmental groups because it didn't pay enough attention to social justice issues.

This was in addition to the Koch Brothers and various energy-intensive industries. The initiative went down to defeat, with only 42 percent voting in support.

Needless to say, I am disappointed. The measure seemed reasonable, well-thought-out, and moderate, the first step on a road to reducing carbon emissions without having some government agency or pressure group take the money to give to favored causes, rather than allowing individuals and corporations make their own most efficient choices.

If these groups genuinely believe that climate change is major threat, they are essentially using this threat as leverage on social justice issues. They are making absolutely certain that they get no cooperation from anyone on the right, or in business, or elsewhere, who does not share their position on those issues.

Any moderate or classical liberal who is concerned with climate change, or with a host of other issues having to do with economic growth, free speech, and freedom of conscience and religion, will have to reasses their position in a Democratic Party that has lost the ability to govern, either locally or nationally, aside from a few enclaves like the one I happen to live in.

Members of the Washington Chapter of the Sierra Club resigned over this issue. Audubon supported 732. So it's not as if all liberals have allowed themselves to be so trapped by social justice issues that they can't have an open discussion about anything.

And to be clear: I believe that social justice issues are important. It's just that while they used to be an important thing for everyone to work on, they are now a weapon, and an excuse, and a litmus test, turning the entire Left into a weird kind of self-hostage situation. Unless someone finds a way to reopen discussion, this will tear the Left apart over the next couple of years.

And climate change? It sems that it's important if it's a club to beat the Right with, but really not that important if there is a party line to toe.  This is all very disheartening.

 

Washington state's Initiative 732: global warming mitigation and social justice come into conflict

Here’s a question for anyone who skews left in the early 21st century: if you could moderate or eliminate global warming without paying the slightest attention to “social justice” issues, would you do it?

From the looks of the passionate responses to Washington state's Initiative 732, on the ballot in a week, for many on the left, that answer would be a resounding NO.

But not all leftists agree, leading to a lot of interesting discussion. No matter what happens on Election Day, I think this split between left pragmatists and social justice activists will become more visible. It’s really worth debating.

I-732

I-732 is a ballot initiative in Washington that would impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels, and then return that money against sales tax, corporate taxes, and tax credits to ensure that poor people who would be disproportionately affected by a tax that increases their heating and transportation costs get their money back.

It’s clear, simple, and would allow for a straightforward proof of concept (a similar law has been in effect in British Columbia for a few years): does it lower carbon emissions efficiently without causing harm?

What’s not to like, then?

And a pony

The Sightline Institute recently wrote several articles covering the issues involved in the I-732 debate. In the initial article, Weighing CarbonWA’s Tax Swap Ballot Initiative, they encapsulated the issue for all of us:

At Sightline we believe that climate policy must be effective and fair, not only cutting climate-warming pollution and putting us on track toward clean air and clean energy, but also building a more just and equitable society.

In other words, a climate policy agenda is held hostage to a completely separate agenda. I happen to think that both agendas are important. I just don’t think they should be linked together.  You should be able to do something about global warming without being responsible for other societal issues, unless your global warming solution negatively affects someone specific, in which case you should ameliorate that disparate impact.

That said, I think the Sightline series is thoughtful and thorough, and they were totally upfront about their position and goals.  They are to be commended—even though I think they’re wrong in linking these two important issues.

The problems with telling the truth

Yoram Bauman, the creator of 732, was quoted by Greg Mankiw in the NY Times as saying,

I am increasingly convinced that the path to climate action is through the Republican Party. Yes, there are challenges on the right -- skepticism about climate science and about tax reform -- but those are surmountable with time and effort. The same cannot be said of the challenges on the left: an unyielding desire to tie everything to bigger government, and a willingness to use race and class as political weapons in order to pursue that desire.

Needless to say, this raised a firestorm—mostly from people desperate to prove him right.

But one sure way to minimize support from the conservative side of the aisle for a climate change initiative is to tie it explicitly to a social justice agenda. From the point of view of leftist activists, is that a bug, or a feature?

A real plan versus vague hopes

The main issue with those who oppose 732 is that they have no concrete plan of their own. They just don’t like this one, which is too simple, too self-organizing, and maybe too nerdy for their taste.  

From the Sierra Club’s explanation of why they can’t support I-732:

Communities of color and low-income people are almost always the ones most impacted by pollution and climate change, and as a result they need to be at the front and center of discussions for how to address the problem and mitigate the impacts of both climate change and environmental policy. That wasn't the approach taken by I-732. As a result, the initiative fails to affirmatively address any of the stated needs of those communities: more investment in green jobs, energy efficiency, transit, housing, and renewable energy infrastructure.

I think that is a good statement of the opposing argument, and to me reveals how intellectually weak it is.  It has two parts, worth looking at separately: 1) poor communities will be more affected by climate change than others, and 2) someone needs to provide specific green benefits to specific poor people for a climate change proposal to be acceptable.

Poor communities and pollution

Poor and minority communities do often live in areas with more pollutants of various sorts. Rents in those areas tend to be lower because they are less pleasant places to live. And such communities tend to have less political power when it comes to placing new environmental risks.

But the reasoning seems to be: pollution causes global warming, poor communities have more pollution; therefore poor communities will suffer more from global warming. Maybe, though it does not follow from the previous facts.  Global warming is universal and widespread, not focused in certain locations. If they really will be more affected, I wouldn't mind a more explicit statement of why.

Allowing individuals to decide what a “benefit” is

A well-designed revenue-neutral carbon tax would encourage people to make choices that minimize their own carbon use. If those choices involve the creation of “green jobs” (whatever those might be), great. The other things, energy efficiency, transit, etc., will emerge from the choices people make, based on what they conclude is best for them.

The main thing is that some people want to be able to control that potential tax revenue and disburse it in a way that increases their political power.  The initiative is written in such a way that this targeting is impossible. This is its political weakness: it does not pay off anyone specific, while being a visible new tax. Diffuse benefits and specific costs always cause political trouble.

I happen to think that poor communities would benefit from a well-designed carbon tax, along with everyone else.

Among arguments from 732 opponents, I particularly liked this one from Fuse, where, after a passionate discussion of how communities of color have been under-represented in environmental discussions (which is completely true) the authors have to glumly admit that they, too, are white, and presumably middle class.  I do appreciate their honesty.

To its credit, Audubon Washington has come out in favor of I-732.

Massachusetts has no really interesting initiatives this year (except maybe for legalizing marijuana), so I’m sad I can’t be in Washington to pull the lever for this one.

Here’s a question for anyone who skews left in the early 21st century: if you could moderate or eliminate global warming without paying the slightest attention to “social justice” issues, would you do it?

From the looks of the passionate responses to Washington’s Initiative 732, on the ballot in a week, for many on the left, that answer would be a resounding NO.

But not all leftists agree, and, no matter what happens on Election Day, I think this split between left pragmatists and social justice activists will become more visible. It’s really worth debating.

I-732

I-732 is a ballot initiative in Washington that would impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels, and then return that money against sales tax, corporate taxes, and tax credits to ensure that poor people who would be disproportionately affected by a tax that increases their heating and transportation costs get their money back.

It’s clear, simple, and would allow for a straightforward proof of concept (a similar law has been in effect in British Columbia for a few years): does it lower carbon emissions efficiently without causing harm?

What’s not to like, then?

And a pony

The Sightline Institute recently wrote several articles covering the issues involved in the I-732 debate. In the initial article, Weighing CarbonWA’s Tax Swap Ballot Initiative, they encapsulated the issue for all of us:

“At Sightline we believe that climate policy must be effective and fair, not only cutting climate-warming pollution and putting us on track toward clean air and clean energy, but also building a more just and equitable society.”

In other words, a climate policy agenda is held hostage to a completely separate agenda. I happen to think that both agendas are important. I just don’t think they should be linked together.  You should be able to do something about global warming without being responsible for other societal issues, unless your global warming solution negatively affects someone specific.

That said, I think the Sightline series is thoughtful and thorough, and they were totally upfront about their position and goals.  And they didn’t get all self-important, a stylistic deformation of professional leftists. Believe me, I live in Cambridge, I’ve been a liberal all my life, I know these people.  Sightline is to be commended—even though I think they’re wrong in linking these issues.

The problems with telling the truth

Yoram Bauman, the creator of 732, was quoted by Greg Mankiw in the NY Times as saying,

"I am increasingly convinced that the path to climate action is through the Republican Party. Yes, there are challenges on the right -- skepticism about climate science and about tax reform -- but those are surmountable with time and effort. The same cannot be said of the challenges on the left: an unyielding desire to tie everything to bigger government, and a willingness to use race and class as political weapons in order to pursue that desire."

Needless to say, this has raised a firestorm—from people desperate to prove him right.

One sure way to minimize support from the conservative side of the aisle for a climate change initiative is to tie it explicitly to a social justice agenda. From the point of view of leftist activists, is that a bug, or a feature?

A real plan versus vague hopes

The main issue with those who oppose 732 is that they have no concrete plan of their own. They just don’t like this one, which is too simple, too self-organizing, and maybe too nerdy for their taste.  

From the Sierra Club’s explanation of why they can’t support I-732:

“Communities of color and low-income people are almost always the ones most impacted by pollution and climate change, and as a result they need to be at the front and center of discussions for how to address the problem and mitigate the impacts of both climate change and environmental policy. That wasn't the approach taken by I-732. As a result, the initiative fails to affirmatively address any of the stated needs of those communities: more investment in green jobs, energy efficiency, transit, housing, and renewable energy infrastructure.”

I think that is a good statement of the opposing argument, and to me reveals how intellectually weak it is.  It has two parts, worth looking at separately: 1) poor communities will be more affected by climate change than others, and 2) someone needs to provide specific green benefits to specific people.

Poor communities and pollution

Poor and minority communities do often live in areas with more pollutants of various sorts. Rents in those areas tend to be lower because they are less pleasant places to live. And such communities tend to have less political power when it comes to placing new environmental risks.

But the reasoning seems to be: pollution causes global warming, poor communities have more pollution; therefore poor communities will suffer more from global warming. Maybe, though it does not follow from the previous facts.  Global warming is universal and widespread, not focused in certain locations.

Allowing individuals to decide what a “benefit” is

A well-designed revenue-neutral carbon tax would encourage people to make choices that minimize their own carbon use. If those choices involve the creation of “green jobs” (whatever those might be), great. The other things, energy efficiency, transit, etc., will emerge from the choices people make, based on what they conclude is best for them.

The main thing is the some people want to be able to control that potential tax revenue and disburse it in a way that increases their political power.  The initiative is written in such a way that this targeting is impossible. This is its political weakness: it does not pay off anyone specific, while being a visible new tax. Diffuse benefits and specific costs always cause political trouble.

I happen to think that poor communities would benefit from a well-designed carbon tax, along with everyone else.

Among arguments from opponents, I particularly liked this one from Fuse, where, after a passionate discussion of who communities of color have been under-represented in environmental discussions (which is completely true—I’m not arguing with any of those points) the authors have to glumly admit that they, too, are white, and presumably middle class.  I do appreciate their honesty.

To its credit, Audubon Washington has come out in favor of I-732.

Massachusetts has no really interesting initiatives this year (except maybe for the marijuana one), so I’m sad I can’t be in Washington to pull the lever for this one.

Trouble in the Eighteenth Dynasty

There has recently been serious trouble between two public figures with exaggerated facial features.

Are you really sure this is the last time?Of course, this picture is from 2013, the last time Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin had some technology-enabled marital trouble, not this most recent (and seemingly final) time.

But what's really interesting is discovering who they are the reincarnations of:

Instead of playing with monotheism, why don't you run for mayor?That's right, back in the fourteenth century BCE, Akhenaten and Nefertiti ruled Egypt, causing all sorts of trouble. And, odd bit of headgear aside, it looks like they have been reborn roughly 3,450 years later. The resemblance is actually startling.

Makes you wonder what life really was like back in old Amarna. Maybe more exciting than we have been permitted to remember. Finding that Akhenaten had been uncontrollably sending obelisk pics incised on slabs of basalt to some Hittite princess would really make that era more relatable.

Just call it semitasking

I've never been good at multitasking. It does take me a long time to get back to a task once interrupted. Now, of course, part of that is that I interrupt myself, and I interrupt myself when I don't really feel like doing what I'm doing.

Still, multitasking is part of our world, and no matter what strictures there are against it, everyone somehow feels like a warrior defeating three different opponents wielding different weapons when they deal with multiple tasks at once.

In reality, of course, one of those warriors would inevitably kill you, even if you were individually stronger and more adept than any one of them. So it is with the tasks we face. We'd be well advised to knock them off one at a time, and avoid challenging any other opponents until the blood of each earlier one is soaking the ground.

This was brought to mind via Kevin Drum, referring to a recent NYT story, Monotasking Gets a Makeover. Its message is simple: task switching is mentally expensive. It takes time and energy to do it.

We all know this, really. We know we should stop. Yet we still do it.

Part of recovering from this would be to rename the process. Multitasking does sound admirable, calling to mind busy parents also running a small business and keeping the house fabulous. That's dumb. It's not a place you want to be.

So I suggest a more accurate, but duller sounding term for it: call it semitasking. Try boasting to someone, "I'm really good at semitasking". You're really saying "I never use more than one cheek on any job!" The less pleased you feel with yourself for doing it, the more likely you are to avoid it.

Now, I should get back to what I was working on....

Politics and personality

Personality Traits and the Dimensions of Political Ideology is a paper from a few years ago, where the authors analyze political tendencies in relation to the Five Factors Model of personality. It's nice to think that we take our political positions based on reason, or something, but we are reliant on our core personality traits to relate to the world, and our political traits are strongly affected by those.

I like the Five Factors Model better than other personality typing methodologies, such as MBTI, which I find mostly a way for businesses to have some consultants come in and waste staff time for a week.

If you're not familiar, the Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (this last makes some people nervous, so they flip the numbers and call it Emotional Stability...only a neurotic would worry about that).

I'll go over their findings, then reveal just a bit about how much my own Five Factor results agree with their theory.

The authors say:

The strength of the association between ideology and the personality traits Openness and Conscientiousness suggests that personality is a powerful factor shaping political attitudes. In fact, these traits can affect outcomes such as political ideology as much or more than canonical predictors such as education and religiosity....Openness is negatively related to political conservatism, while Conscientiousness is positively related to political conservatism...

This has been known for some time.  But the authors found it odd that the other three traits seemed to have nothing to do with political attitudes. Then they decomposed issues into two domains: social and economic. They say:

...we focus on how personality traits affect attitudes in two important issue domains: (1) attitudes about economic policies such as health care and taxes and (2) attitudes about social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Although the issues in these two domains may be constrained by an overarching ideological disposition, we see little reason to expect the traits that affect attitudes about tax policy will necessarily also affect attitudes about gay marriage. Indeed it is curious that we expect people who support less government involvement in the economic system to support more government involvement in other areas.

That, in fact, has always been my issue with putting myself on a political spectrum: I favor both personal freedom and economic freedom. Which means that disagreement with others is almost inevitable at some point. "Gay marriage and free markets? What kind of a jerk are you?" I also like nuclear power! But I'm aready giving away too much.

They found that in social attitudes, the general relationship held, with Openness being associated with liberalism and Conscientiousness with conservatism.

As for economics:

However, when we examined the relationships between personality traits and economic attitudes we found evidence of other important relationships. Specifically, we found substantial evidence that Emotional Stability is associated with conservative economic attitudes and Agreeableness is associated with liberal economic attitudes.

Or that Neuroticism is associated with liberal (ie., given our weird political lingo, anti-free-market) atttitudes, since the authors use the friendlier, more recent term.

Extraversion had a much smaller correlation to either stance.

Now, the natural thing to do is to use these findings to explain why "those other people" believe what they do, so Arnold Kling, whom I got the pointer from, says:

People who dislike markets tend to score higher on agreeableness, meaning that they like to be seen as pleasing to others. They tend to score low on emotional stability, meaning that they are prone to worry and fear.

I'm a big fan of Kling's. He does tends to dislike liberals, though he does his best to deal with it (his theories are interesting and enlightening, and I would like to get to those at some point). According to a source I will get to below

Agreeable individuals value getting along with others...Agreeable people also have an optimistic view of human nature...agreeableness is not useful in situations that require tough or absolute objective decisions.

I've left a lot of that definition out. Still, you can see that it much more complicated than Kling seems willing to admit. Although that attitude seems like it would be tied to a willingness to make mutually beneficial financial agreements. Why is it tied to trying to intervene to suppress markets instead?

As for Neuroticism, neurotics

...respond emotionally to events that would not affect most people, and their reactions tend to be more intense than normal. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult.

That is pretty much as Kling observes.

Maybe you need both Agreeableness and Neuroticism to make a liberal suspicious of free markets, Agreeableness to trust other people, Neuroticism to worry that others don't trust people as much as you do.

So how about me?  I took a test here, and this is where those definitions above come from as well. You can take the full 300 question inventory here, and I highly recommmend it.

Why? Because that many questions let the test break down each of the traits into subtraits.  And those subtraits are where the action is.

For example, for Extraversion, I come out as average, a not very helpful result. But broken down, a couple of things pop out.  I rate high on Friendliness, which means I have lots of friends and like hanging around with them, but low on Gregariousness and Excitement-Seeking, which means I dislike crowds and loud parties.  All of these things are true, but somewhat cancel themselves out in the overall measure.

For the politically significant traits, if you must know, I am above average on Openness, and average for the other three. So I guess that explains my political amphibiousness....or namby-pambiness, if you want to see it that way. For me, the key subtrait in Openness is Psychological Liberalism, which means a readiness to challenge authority and tradition. No surprise, mine is high, and I suspect that is a big one for making a political liberal as well.

Except that most liberals nowadays seem no more willing to challenge authority and tradition than conservatives.  They just have different authorities and traditions.

This is all extremely interesting. But anyone dealing with it should resist what I see as a universal tendency in the current political climate:  the urge to weaponize what is meant to be an analytical tool. It's a bit like a fight in a decaying marriage, which uses previous trusted confidences as weapons in the conflict: "You always told me you were worried about your sanity!"

And you snore. I know I always said you didn't. I lied.

Ah, politics.