Category Archives: Pretzel Logic

What Genius Looks Like

The last time I wrote here, I suggested that America and its leadership is getting worn out — becoming the Hollow Men that TS Eliot speaks of in his poem. This time I’d like to talk about the other direction that people can go. I’d like to tell you about a man of true genius.

My wife Damaris and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Liberia in the mid-80s. We were there before the long civil war broke out, but during some of the early rebellions that presaged the war. We lived in Zwedru, a provincial town in the back-end of the country. And there we met Africain Always.

Africain Always, Zwedru, Liberia
Africain Always, Zwedru, Liberia


You can get a sense of the man’s gravitas from the fact that everyone called him “Africain.” He lived in the middle of an African nation, and everyone around him (except a handful of American PCVs, two Canadian missionaries and a German priest) was African. But nevertheless, he was known by everyone as “Africain.” (He spelled it the French way, but everyone pronounced it the English way.)

A few other people have pulled off this trick. Charles deGaulle and Kemal Ataturk both had names that declared them the leader of their nation. Sapurmarat Niyazov did too, but Turkmenbashi was his own maniacal creation and not really his name. As I understand it, deGaulle was really the name of the French leader. And in the case of the “Father of the Turks,” nobody had last names until he transformed the Ottoman Empire into modern Turkey.

Anyway, Africain Always, whose real names was Musa something, had no pretensions of leadership. He just wanted to be a friend. As the picture shows, he was something of an artist and he would paint a mural on the side of your house if you wanted it. The rest of the time he spent philosophizing.

The reason I say Africain was a genius, and why I offer him as a hopeful antidote to a more widespread degeneracy, is his revelation about life and art.

Africain worked with wood as well as paint. He told me once that he had formerly made things from butterfly wings and turtle shells. He described to me the way he had formed these creations. And he admitted that people had liked them. But then his voice took on a more serious tone, and he said, “But then I realize the turtle should live. I realize the butterfly is God’s artwork — not mine.”


An example of butterfly wing artwork. Not made by Africain.


If you had an immediate impulse to disapprove of killing butterflies and turtles, then good for you. But you live in a time and place where animal rights is “a thing.” You may just be following the crowd. It may be that the virtues you value most, in yourself and others, might by nothing more than following the crowd and taking the easy road.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


Africain was definitely not taking the easy road or following the norm. He lived in a time and place where animal well-being was not considered. Dogs were tormented by children. Poison was thrown into ponds to kill fish (which the people would then eat). So the realization that the butterfly already existed, already was beautiful — was in fact more beautiful fluttering in the sunlight than pasted down on a canvas — was a moment of true genius.

By offering this example of an African man, I am not saying anything about the relative merits of any nation or race. I’m saying goodness may occur anywhere.

I also want to ask each person who reads this: When have you gained a new understanding that came straight from God? True, we aren’t all called to be prophets. Most right ideas are already out there, and all we need is to learn them and follow them. But as the culture around us become more and more effete, degenerate and “hollow,” it becomes more and more like a thing of genius to stand against the norm.





Of Bangs & Whimpers

This week there were two fatal shootings on college campuses. The one in Oregon was the typical, disgruntled white male with a history of scary posts on social media. The one in Texas doesn’t really count, because it was a personal dispute and not a “mass shooting” as such. Still, somebody died and somebody with a gun killed them.

I’m struck by how vacuous and effete the ongoing conversation has become. Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, had an editorial that can be summed up as, “We’re numbed to this, but can you blame us? Somebody ought to do domething.” And consider this from Peter Weber in The Week:

Today, pretty much anyone can buy armaments that would have given the Framers nightmares, kill a dozen or more strangers, and terrorize a whole nation. As Obama said Thursday, “this is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.” Would James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the other gentlemen who wrote the Constitution have wanted to give such tyrannical powers to lone Americans? I doubt it, but I can’t be sure.


What do you mean, you can’t be sure, Mr. Weber? If the framers of the Constitution had intended to enable the persistent, rampant violence against innocent bystanders that occurs in America, they wouldn’t be gentlemen. They’d be some of the worst monsters in history.  You know good and well they didn’t envision or condone persistent violence.

The problem is, the founding fathers didn’t think of everything. They didn’t mean to. They gave us a good start at justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. But they expected us to do our part as well.

I’ve ranted on this before, but Thomas Jefferson explicitly stated that the constitution ought to be written anew by each generation. Indeed, I’ve told a lot of people wrongly that Jefferson suggested a new constitution every 29 years. In fact, he said rewrites ought to come every 19 years. Here is Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison in 1979:

[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.
The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct.[1]  They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.


[1] Usufruct is a legal word meaning the right to use something, as opposed to the absolute right to own it. Jefferson insists that the living generation has usufruct rights to the land and to civic institutions, but they do not have the right to impose their will on future generations.

Many Americans will tell you that the Constitution mustn’t be tampered with because it is the product of great minds and that no ordinary people could make one as good. If you then point out to them that those great minds expected us to fix their mistakes and take changing circumstances into account, they will tell you that what the founders intended doesn’t matter.

That is terribly inconsistent thinking. But it is an accurate representation of the calcified American system, which in no longer based on the will of the people, but on a moldy ill-fitting old document. Now, you might say it isn’t reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to discourse rationally. You might say we elect congressmen to represent us, and that those congressmen and women do the hard work, freeing us from the need to be well-informed and rational ourselves. But what happens when the elected representatives are no more – or even less – rational than the people?


It may just be the case that guns, and an incompetent, leaderless national government are not our greatest problem. TS Eliot’s 1925 poem, The Hollow Men, is the source of the famous lines: “This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Earlier in the poem Eliot writes:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


A nation of such hollow men, filled with straw and meaningless words, would be about as effective in curbing gun violence (or any other social problem) as the US of A is, wouldn’t it?




Conflicting Goals & Common Fate

In the 1958 movie, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are prisoners on a southern chain gang. They escape, but can’t break the chain that holds them together. Two men who hate each other and have conflicting goals suddenly learn they share a common fate.



The two men learn to cooperate, and even to respect each other. And even for those of us who never expect to be running from bloodhounds through a Georgia swamp, there may be a lesson here.

I’m reading Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin. The book argues that the “ruling generation,” meaning the Boomers, is mismanaging America’s resources in a way that diminishes the future to the detriment of the rising generation, meaning the millennials. He says:

The rising generation must question, confront, and civilly resist the real authoritarianism that endangers its future and the quality of life of those not yet born, whether preached in the classroom, popularized through entertainment, or idealized by demagogic politicians.


I completely agree with Levin’s premise.

But like the two escaping prisoners in the movie, I find it hard to move in step with Levin. He’s a hardline conservative and he uses the rhetoric that appeals to today’s wingnuts. Every page — almost every paragraph — pokes, pokes, pokes at government as the cause of every problem.

In a few places, he plays fast and loose with his data and his explanations. In the chapter on education, Levin harps on the rising cost of college, noting correctly that tuition has risen faster than inflation for many years. But he fails to acknowledge that the main reason for this is state governments failing for many of those years to support public universities as well as they did in the past.

(Yes, its true that many universities have lavish residence halls. They are there for the students who want that and can afford it. But those universities — at least Purdue University where I work — also offer cheaper  residences with smaller rooms and no air conditioning. Yes it is true that many universities have built climbing wall in their recreation centers. So what? Climbing walls are cheap and durable. Find something else to fuss about, critics! And yes, it is true that university employment has grown, and that faculty account for a smaller share of all campus jobs than they did decades ago. some of those jobs are genuine fluff and ought to be eliminated. But most of the added higher education workers are serious people working hard a meaningful jobs.)

Levin has a lot of footnotes in his book. But the source that he cites the most is Mark R. Levin and his own earlier books and articles. He cites two other kinds of courses. On one hand, he cites government sources such as the Census Bureau and Congressional Budget Office for detailed facts. On the other, he cites the libertarian Cato Institute and conservative Heritage Foundation for interpretation. From the CBO he gets a dollar amount being spent on something. From  Cato and Heritage, he gets the opinion that the amount spent is too much. This creates an illusion that credible, neutral sources are supporting his claims of out of control government spending.

This is a problem because most Americans have no idea how much we should be spending on anything. Quick: what is the population of the US? what is the Gross Domestic Product? What is our current trade balance with Canada? What share of total private wealth is held by the richest 50 people, and by the poorest 50 percent of the population? What is the poverty rate? Do the people in the state where you live pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits, or the reverse?

How can you even begin to form an opinion on spending when you don’t know these answers? (Yes, I know the answer. Numbers in the billion, or tens of billions, or hundreds of billions always sound scary big, regardless of context.) But many of those scary big numbers are just the right size when you think about the number of people affected. To me, “big” is never going to be a persuasive argument against the federal government. I think the government ought to do big things. There are a lot of things the federal government oughtn’t to meddle with at all. But the things it does, it ought to do well.

I’ve got a few bones to pick with Levin. But my point is that I think he’s an ally. He’s right about his major premise and he’s right about many of his details. I like that he begins his book with a quote from Edmund Burke, the original and true conservative thinker, before going on to quote many lesser, latter-day, erzatz, so-called, soi-disant, bogus conservatives.

I want to learn to be better at finding common ground with everyone who thinks even partly what I think. I want to learn to be better about learning from people who know thinks I don’t know — without giving up my ability to recognize stupid when I hear it.

So carry on, Mr. Levin. I’m with you.






Why is this not a scandal?

Politico reports that the Hillary Clinton campaign has a plan to capture the Democratic Party nomination for president by March 1, 2016.

Eleven states will vote on March 1, including delegate-heavy Texas, Virginia and Colorado. And while her aides say that Clinton can and will compete vigorously in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, her fate will depend on dispatching challengers in March — something she critically failed to do last time around.
If it works, the former secretary of state will have wrapped up the party’s nomination before spring ends — with only 32 states and two territories having voted — thereby avoiding the kind of protracted battle that consumed much of 2008.


This means pretty evidently that, if she had her way, Hillary Clinton would claim  her party’s nomination — a major step in the nation’s electoral process  — without allowing citizens in any of the following states to participate in the decision:

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Washington, DC, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

A politician openly plans to exclude a large part of the national electorate from a major decision. why is this not a scandal?

The point here is not to take a dig at Clinton. The point is to emphasize that America is not governed democratically. Here’s a second bit of evidence supporting the argument. This one comes from Jonathan Chait’s recent column:

[Interviewer John] Harwood: Ronald Reagan . . . had in 1980 an electorate that was 88 percent white, and so did you in Wisconsin. The national electorate is not 88 percent white. If you took Reagan’s percentages with today’s makeup of the electorate, he would lose. Why is Reagan a good model in terms of the winning part?
[Wisconsin Governor Scott ]Walker: The demographics you mentioned, I mean it’s an interesting question. The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president. Twelve states are. Wisconsin’s one of them. I’m sitting in another one right now, New Hampshire. There’s going to be Colorado, where I was born, Iowa, where I lived, Ohio, Florida, a handful of other states. In total, it’s about 11 or 12 states that are going elect the next president.


So on both sides of the political aisle, there are explicit strategies to win the presidency by openly and explicitly ignoring large parts of the electorate.

Some will say that the later-voting states will still be allowed to votes even though Clinton will have obtained the majority of delegate votes before hand. Some will say that that is just how it works. Some will say that the states are free to set their election dates, and it is not Clinton’s fault that some states vote late. Some will say we should look to the other party to offset Clinton.

I think that so much of the American population is already excluded from effective participation in the electoral process, by gerrymandering, by voting machine manipulations, by selective enforcement of voter ID requirements, and by other means, that the one person-one vote ideal is no longer taken seriously. Over at The Constitution Project, there is a rhapsodic paean to the one-person, one vote principle and a narrative of how America’s great leaders worked until voting rights were guaranteed for all! But it just isn’t true.

Do you think that your vote counts as much as that of any other American? Do you think voting is an effective way of steering local, state or national affairs in the direction you want them to go?  Would you say that in recent years you’ve cast your votes with a great degree of confidence, and that your expectations have been fulfilled by the performance of the person elected?

Does anyone think those things?


“A mockery of our scientific pretensions”

Here’s a deft bit of hypocrisy. I’ll let you decide who is the hypocrite. The Huffington Post today has a story about Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who opposes using fetal tissue in medical research. HuffPost informs us that Carson himself once did medical research using fetal tissue.


[Ben Carson, screen grab from Huffington Post, 8/13/2015.]
[Ben Carson, screen grab from Huffington Post, 8/13/2015.]

HuffPost continues:

[T]he Republican presidential candidate published a study with three other colleagues in 1992 that described using “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa from two fetuses aborted in the ninth and 17th week of gestation.”


And now Carson says research using fetal tissue isn’t necessary and isn’t needed. HuffPost, being gung-ho for abortion, finds Carson’s duplicity troubling. But it seems to me that there is another possibility. I think it likely that fetal tissue research about “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa” turns out to be not worth it. Back in 1992, Carson did the research because he was a famous doctor being paid to do brainy stuff. But this is 2015 and, last time I checked, babies still have runny noses.

There is a common conviction that what can be done must be done. We have to explore space. We have to invade Iraq. We have to use social media. We have to build money-pit sports venues for millionaires to play games in. We have to conduct medical research on the tissue of aborted babies. But there has always been another way of thinking, that says progress sometimes isn’t progress at all. Henry David Thoreau in 1854:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.


And here are two comments from Wendell Berry’s 2001 book,  Life is a Miracle:

Our daily lives are a mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along a series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply.


We should abandon the idea that this world and our human life in it can be brought by science to some sort of mechanical perfection or predictability. The radii of knowledge have only pushed back – and enlarged – the circumference of mystery. We live in a world famous for its ability both to surprise and to deceive us.


What we need is 100% enthusiastic support for scientific progress, combined with a clear understanding of what progress would be and a firm grip on what is done. Do we want to lose our jobs, and to have a large part of our population unable to earn a living? If not, then robotics might not be progress.  Do we want to increase the rate of cancer and obesity? If not, then a diet based overwhelmingly on processed food might not be progress.

There is no possibility of making good ethical choices today, because there is no shared ethic. Communitarianism presupposes such an ethic, and we are far from having one.

Meanwhile, a co-worker today handed me a small tract called, “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” Stay tuned!

Who’s Soft? We’re Soft!

The United States is often criticized for its brutal policies and actions toward other people and nations – and toward its own citizens. Recently a Rutgers University professor asserted that the US is more brutal than ISIS. Posters on the social media site Quora had a field day with the question, “What are the most tragic or brutal things the US government has done?” (One of these writers slangs the United States for “ignoring the enslavement of 10-12 million Africans from the 15th to the 19th century,” setting aside the fact that the US only came into existence in the late 18th Century.)

This is all at odds with the evidence of American history. It seems to me the US has tended to be pretty soft and half-hearted about war. It has never completed a conquest on its own soil, and has finished enemies overseas only when allies (particularly Russia in WWII) insisted on it.

The US has fought four enemies on its own soil: the British, various Indian nations, Mexico, and the southern Confederacy. I’m not arguing here about which wars were justified. I’m not saying the US was right or wrong about any particular war. My starting point is that the wars happened. I’m arguing that the US pulled up short of a ruthless total victory in each case.

Consider the Confederacy.

By 1865 the economic, diplomatic and military viability of the Confederacy was gone. So the war ended . . . when? The  popular moment – Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 – was decidedly not the end. Nor was Joe Johnston’s surrender in North Carolina on April 26. Other Confederate armies stacked their weapons in Alabama on May 4 and in New Orleans on May 26, 1865. There is a proclamation, dated August 20, 1866 and signed by President Johnson, asserting the war to be over.

The Confederate states were reintegrated into the United States. Henry Wirz, the camp commander of the pestilential prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia was executed. But he was buried with the words “hero” and “martyr” on his gravestone.

The fighting didn’t stop for years. Nicholas Lemann’s 2006 book, Redemption, tells of campaigns of terror and persecution of black people by the defeated rebels in Mississippi through the late 1860s and 1870s. These campaigns of terror were often done by organized, permanent military forces. Elsewhere, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who might have been hanged for the excesses the guerilla troops under his command  perpetrated during the war, remained free. I’ll let a blogger called The War Nerd make the case for what ought to have been done with Forrest:

[B]y the time of Lee’s surrender, Nathan Bedford Forrest was guilty of murder several hundred times over. He was kill-able. He was the most eminently kill-able man who ever lived. He deserved death many times over. But he was allowed to return to civilian life, which for him meant becoming the First Grand Wizard of the KKK. Forrest’s survival after the war was a disaster on any level you want; legal, moral, political. Nathan Bedford Forrest should have graced a gallows in the spring of 1865, and that should have been clear at the time to any resolute Union government.


I’ve had conversations with a lot of people about this topic, and they all say things like, “People were tired of war and just wanted it to be over” or “The mercy that Grant showed to Lee is evidence of the greatness of the US spirit!” But perhaps growing tired of war when the objectives of war are still yet un-achieved, and  showing magnanimity to a still puissant enemy, are both proofs of the softness I’ve posited at the top of this post. Maybe it was a mistake to let Forrest, Bob Lee, and the various southern governors go free.

You might ask, isn’t the country better off now than it would be if it had held vindictive and drawn out war crimes trials? The War Nerd has the answer to that:

it’s clear that the policy the Union actually pursued—not hanging any Southern officers except the miserable wretch who commanded Andersonville POW camp—failed miserably. A decade after we defeated the Confederacy at the cost of 300,000 loyal Union soldiers’ lives, the same planter oligarchy was running the South again, terrorizing the Freedmen and women who were our only loyal allies during the war, making sure black people never got a chance to vote, running them off their farms, doing their best to recreate slavery without the name. And it might have been possible to prevent that disaster by hanging key ex-Confederate officers in the spring of 1865. All the leaders of the post-war terrorist fascist gangs that disenfranchised African-Americans in the South were former Confederate officers. If we’d thinned their ranks in an intelligent way, Reconstruction might have been something other than a grotesque and bloody farce.


The Confederate flag remains ubiquitous throughout the US today. It continues to be an inspiration to the likes of Dylann Roof.  Is this not the same kind of grotesque and bloody farce, extended a century longer?


US war with the British and Mexicans can be dealt with quickly. The US never finished off the British because England was vastly more powerful.  and America was lucky to get away with negotiated peace treaties after the Revolution and the War of 1812, and lucky to have France on our side both times. I think the half-heartedness of the Mexican War was due to the immoral nature of that episode. I think the Mexican War was trumped up by President Polk to acquire new land. Abraham Lincoln, then a member of Congress, was firmly against war against Mexico. The link is to a resolution Lincoln introduced. He also gave a long speech on the subject, which is one of his best.


Now, to the Indians. There are many distinct nations of indigenous American people, and it’s best to speak about them distinctly. (I think the term “native American” is bogus, but to call an Iroquois an Iroquois does him honor.) Let’s take the case of the Cherokee.

University of Delaware professor Marvin Whitaker, in a paper called, A Despotically ‘Benevolent’ Policy: The Cherokee Indian Genocide, insists that the US perpetrated genocide on the Cherokee:

The very fact that the U.S. Government and some scholars continue to deny any “genocide” has taken place against the Cherokee Indians or the American Indians in general leads credence to the fact that we are in the final stage of the Cherokee Indian Genocide: Denial.


Of Andrew Jackson, president during the period in question, Daily Beast writer Arthur Chu says,

The deservedly single biggest issue that gets brought up regarding [Jackson’s] term is the minor matter of masterminding a genocide. The Trail of Tears is one of the largest-scale acts of ethnic cleansing in history, with its explicit end the eventual annihilation of the Five Civilized Tribes as peoples in the name of “progress.”


Whitaker’s article “proves” that the removal of the Cherokee was a genocide by bending the meaning of genocide to include what happened to the Cherokee. Arthur Chu is a liar and a lightweight. Calling the Trail of Tears “one of the largest-scale acts of ethnic cleansing in history” is ignorant.


[Source:] (This looks more like New Mexico than North Carolina.)

Andrew Jackson doesn’t belong on any honest list of brutal leaders. Joseph Stalin personally gave orders that resulted in 43 million dead. Mao Tse-tung killed 38 million. Adolf Hitler ranks third with 21 million. Then comes Chiang Kai-shek (10 million), Vladimir Lenin (4 million), Tojo Hideki (4 million), Pol Pot (2.4 million), Yahya Khan of Pakistan (1.5 million) and Josip Broz Tito (1.2 million). This list is based on a compilation that was made in 1987. If it were up to date, Saddam Hussein would be on it, too.

There are plenty of people who were responsible for more than a million deaths. The above list is just from the 20th Century. Hannibal killed 50,000 Romans in a single day (Wikipedia says 75,000!) at Cannae. The Aztec sacrifices were an orgy of blood that killed hundreds a day and went on for years.

The Trail of Tears was a badly administered government effort that intended to relocate the Cherokee (and other Southern tribes) where they could live without conflict with White men. It was undertaken at government expense as the best hope for preserving the Indian cultures. It wasn’t meant to kill the Cherokee at all, let alone to extirpate them. Anyway, here is what the Cherokee Nation says about itself today:

The Cherokee Nation is the federally-recognized government of the Cherokee people and has inherent sovereign status recognized by treaty and law. The seat of tribal government is the W.W. Keeler Complex near Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
With more than 317,000 citizens, over 8,000 employees and a variety of tribal enterprises ranging from aerospace and defense contracts to entertainment venues, Cherokee Nation’s economic impact in Oklahoma and surrounding areas is more than $1.5 billion annually. We are one of the largest employers in northeastern Oklahoma. We are the largest tribal nation in the United States.


Note that the official Cherokee Nation is not all Cherokees in America. It is only those who live in Oklahoma within that political organization. The most recent US Census finds more than 875-thousand people of Cherokee heritage throughout the country.  So, today, nearly 200 years after the genocide, the Cherokee are an autonomous, industrialized, federally sponsored nation with a membership nearly 300 times larger than the number who died — and almost 60 times the size of the nation as it stood at the time. Is that consistent with “genocide?”


Need another example? Consider the Pequod tribe of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Here’s a bit from the on-line SparkNotes for Moby Dick:

[The ship was named Pequod] after a Native American tribe in Massachusetts that did not long survive the arrival of white men and thus memorializing an extinction, the Pequod is a symbol of doom. It is painted a gloomy black and covered in whale teeth and bones, literally bristling with the mementos of violent death. It is, in fact, marked for death. Adorned like a primitive coffin, the Pequod becomes one.


SparkNotes, which unsuspecting students read and believe, asserts that the Pequod tribe went extinct. But here’s what we know about the Pequod nation in 2015:

Today the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation owns one of the largest resort casinos in the world, Foxwoods Resort Casino, along with several other economic ventures including the Lake of Isles Golf Course, The Fox Tower, The Spa at Norwich Inn and Foxwoods Development Company dedicated to world-class resort development throughout the United States and Caribbean. Altogether, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation remains one of the State of Connecticut’s highest tax payers and largest employers.


These two examples don’t justify American policies toward all Indians, or toward any particular tribe. Certainly there was inhumane action and vicious episodes. But my point is that the rhetoric of “genocide” and “extermination” are inapt. In the case of the Confederacy, I’m prepared to argue that presidents Johnson and Grant, and the Congress they served with, were too soft and that the legacy of their softness remains a problem in America today.

Can’t we agree that the US is not, and has never been, especially ruthless? We don’t push wars to their bitter end. I think that is because Americans, for the most part, don’t like war. Yet we are in wars constantly because corporate profits and political careers depend on it.



An Old Solution to a Modern Problem

Two articles this week in news magazines explain problems in our American, global-market economy and society. Neither suggests a solution to those problems. So I’ll do that here.



The first article was in Slate and was titled, This is the Perfect Tomato. It describes the efforts of researchers to develop a variety of tomato that is both shelf-stable and tasty. In general, tomatoes that taste good are too soft to be handled from the grower to the grocery, while tomatoes firm enough for shipping are tasteless. But a scientist named Harry Klee managed to develop a tomato with all the desirable qualities.

He was aiming for a compromise—a tomato that grew well and tasted good. What he got shocked him. Like its commercial parent, Klee’s new tomato boasted excellent shelf life, disease resistance, and productivity. But by some miracle, it tasted so good that its flavor scores were statistically identical to its heirloom parent. Klee dubbed his miracle fruit the Garden Gem.


But the next chapter of the story is that no major grocery chain will buy the delicious Garden Gem tomato because it is smaller than other varieties. Here’s a second write-up about the Garden Gem, from Genetic Literacy  Project.  It says, “Big Tomato doesn’t care about flavor. Tomato farmers don’t care. Tomato packers don’t care. And supermarkets don’t care. When it comes to flavor, the tomato industry is broken.”

Smaller means having to handle more fruits to make a given quantity, and that adds to cost. And the grocery chains are not willing to bear more costs. They know Americans who get their food from grocery stores will eat what they are given. So they simply insist on providing only those varieties that ensure their profit. There is no real market where supply meets demand. People willing to pay extra for better quality can not do so. There is only profit maximization by the company. It is very much the same situation as was described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle in 1906.

What they wanted from a hog was all the profit that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the working man, and also that was what they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of meat.


The second issue comes from Huffington Post, which usually just clips reports from other publications but occasionally does its own reporting. The article is titled, The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. And it argues that the global garment industry is so utterly dominated by unregulated sweatshop labor than no amount of conscientious comparison shopping can make a difference for the workers. It doesn’t matter which company is rated as a fair trade source or what the CEO says. The industry is segmented and too flexible to be regulated. Target can have as benevolent a policy as you’d wish, and Target can ask the clothing labels is sells to abide by those policies. But the clothing will still be made by contractors in distant places where the rules don’t apply:

In Delhi’s garment cluster, “children start learning the job at the age of 8,” writes the University of London’s Alessandra Mezzadri. “They master it by the age of 12.” She calls the area a “composite sweatshop”: For every tailor working in a factory, there are several employed in homes, workshops or backyards. Around 80 percent of the workers are informal — mostly migrants, some of them trafficked, hired and fired as orders are commissioned and completed, divvied out by brokers, paid a few cents for each piece of clothing they deliver. The children get paid half as much as the adults. During her fieldwork, she found kids sitting on apartment floors, sewing and cutting, often under the supervision of their parents.


At this point I hear people say that most people just want cheap goods and don’t really care who suffered to make it. But that may not be true: at least not for younger adults shown in this recent social experiment filmed in Germany:


Just as the Slate article suggest there’s no hope for a tasty tomato, the HuffPost article says consumers have no power to prefer ethically made clothing.

I promised a solution at the top of this article, and that solution is a shift to products made by local guilds. Guilds dominated manufacturing during the Middle Ages, and were replaced by industrialized mass manufacturing. Big industry was a step forward in the 18th century. It ended the problem of the scarcity.  But today in the US few are troubled by not enough clothing to wear or not enough food to eat. Our problems are too few well-paying jobs, inferioir quality products and the depletion of fossil fuels.


The case for guilds is made here in The Distributist Review.

The overall result of monopolistic capitalism has been less competition, less variety, lower quality, the loss of local jobs and less power for the people to do anything about it. When big business leaders lead an economy to the brink of economic disaster, the government deems them “too big to fail” and bails them out at the expense of the general public. Monopolistic capitalism has resulted in the shift of economic power and influence away from the average citizen and big businesses use that power to gain advantages not available to citizens or smaller businesses. How exactly has this protected the consumer? . . . The guilds envisioned by distributists consist of small local businesses. Distributist guilds would provide more competition, more variety, better quality, and more true economic power for the people.


I asked my family how many merchants and vendors we have a real human relationship with. And we came up with a handful. We buy eggs from a neighbor. We get hardware from Charlie Riggle at Roachdale Hardware. We buy an occasional cup of coffee from Jack at the Parthenon in Crawfordsville. Moody Meats in Ladoga. My wife listed several other regular contacts she has for soap, yarn, honey – people she sees once or twice a year at festivals. All of these people know what we like, and see us as return customers. And, we see them as people who need to make a buck doing what they do. Do they charge more that the chain stores? The egg neighbor doesn’t, but most of the others do. But we don’t mind because we are close enough to these merchants that we see how they work. We’ve had conversations about ingredients and processes – we know what we are buying.

You might be saying, “But none of those small local sellers are guilds!” And that’s right. They have some of the characteristics of a guild — probably the most important ones. Forming real guilds would retain those advantages and add more.

Now you are saying, “Sure, I’ll just trot down down to my local smithy and have him hammer me out a new car on his anvil.”  And it is true that machinery would have to stay capital intensive. Perishable goods (food, clothing, and furniture) would be better candidates for local guilds.

Guilds need not be Luddite. A local tailor would use the best available sewing machines. A local community-supported vegetable producer would plan the best cultivars. They just wouldn’t be motivated by greed.


One post about sports

I don’t pay much attention to sports. At other times in my life I’ve been pretty fervent. But not lately. This one post about sports may be the only one I ever do.

I’ve accumulated what seems to me a sufficient batch of sports related memories and “I was there” moments. I was watching when the Heidi game happened. I saw the helmet catch.  I saw the Immaculate Reception.


Steelers’ Franco Harris after making the Immaculate Reception


I saw Indiana Pacer’s Reggie Miller’s playoff heroics against the Knicks. Probably the most amazing thing about Miller’s accomplishment is that it goes down in memory as “eight points in nine seconds.” But it wasn’t. It was nine seconds of game clock, maybe. But the announcer on the spot describes it as “eight points in the final 32 seconds.” And if you run your own stopwatch you’ll see that no less than two minutes and 24 seconds of actual earth time passes from his first 3-pointer to the last free throw.

I’m not saying I was in attendance at these events. I saw them on TV. Probably the greatest thing I every saw in person was  Rickey Henderson of the As breaking the all-time career record for stolen bases at Camden Yards in Baltimore in the summer of 1991. Experts will say Henderson passed Lou Brock’s record in Oakland in May of 1991. But he set another new all-time record every time he stole another, including the game I saw. Also, in person, I saw Willie Mays get a base hit, and Tom Seaver notch a career win.  I saw Indy 500 wins by Al Unser and Bobby Rahal. I attended the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. And I saw Indiana Pacers stretch forward Troy Murphy hit something like seven 3-point shots in a row, and get booed for it.

My favorite sports memory is from Bush Stadium where the minor league Indianapolis Indians played. It was a Sunday afternoon game sometime in the early ‘80s.I don’t remember anything about the score or the opponent. What I remember is noticing, somewhere off in the crowd, an unusual shout rising up over the usual chatter. Studying the crowd, I eventually pinpointed the sound coming from the vicinity of a particular Cracker Jack vendor. He worked his way around to the third base side where I was sitting, and I saw more clearly that the vender (who was black) was surrounded by a pack of 6 or 7 white kids who were making all the noise. I thought they were harassing him.

Picture from a Yankees game — not the game I attended. [Source:]

But then I realized the kids were acting as a back-up choir for the vendor’s sales banter. The kids had worked up responses to each of his calls, including, “Aaow eat ‘em Uup!” each time he said, “Cracker Jack!” The vender thought it was hilarious. And profitable. The kids let off a rousing cheer each time someone bought a box. It was heartwarming. To this day, when my wife asks if I’d like beef curry or ragout or grilled pork chops for dinner, instead of saying, “Yes, that sounds great,” I say, “Aaow eat ‘em Uup!”

Why am I “off sports?” Partly it is frustration with the design of the games. Few things in life are perfect and it isn’t reasonable to expect sports to be perfect. But all three of America’s great sports are entirely a function of specific details that cannot be regulated accurately and consistently. What am I talking about?

Every baseball game is shaped primarily by the home plate umpire’s balls-and-strikes calls. And are those calls accurate and consistent? No. Every basketball game is shaped primarily by the referee’s decisions to call fouls and other violations. Are those calls accurate and consistent? No. Every football game is shaped primarily by the placement of the ball after tackles and by referee’s decisions to call offensive holding sometimes. Are those calls accurate and consistent? No.

Let me be clear about this point. Imagine how unsatisfactory and ridiculous geometry would be if the number of degrees in a circle was not precisely 360 in all cases, but was decided on the fly depending on the teacher, and the student, and the situation. Imagine how unsatisfactory and ridiculous the Indy 500 car race would be if the number of laps was not fixed precisely at 200 but was left to the judgement of the man with the checkered flag in his hand. As long as American sports depend on impossible-to-call rules, I maintain they are that ridiculous, too.

And then there’s this:


Randall Munroe’s webcomic, xkcd, is brilliant. Sports talk, whether on ESPN or around the office water cooler, is mostly nonsense with little relationship to what has happened.

Exhibit A: There has been a decades-long debate as to whether basketball players get “hot.” This debate occurs at all levels, from the bleery remembrances of fans who were drinking beer and checking out women all game long to sober-minded geeks studying databases of tens of thousands of shots.


How about a little love for Orphan Black’s Scott?


Thomas Gilovitch and colleagues at Cornell University did the first serious analysis of the “hot hand” question in 1985, and concluded, “[T]he frequency of streaks in players’ records did not exceed the frequency predicted by a binomial model that assumes a constant hit rate.”

According to Bleacher Report, “[H]otness and coldness are determined randomly and balance out over the course of the season, especially when shot distance is taken into account.”

But there are also many reports that conclude hot streaks are real. The best, I think, is from  Andrew Bocskocsky, et al, of Harvard. Here’s what they have to say:

For thirty years, the empirical consensus that the “Hot Hand” in basketball is a fallacy of the human mind has been confirmed time and again. In the same way that evolutionary biologists might regard creationists as completely misguided, economists, psychologists and statisticians have viewed the persistent belief in the Hot Hand as entirely fallacious. Amos Tversky, co-author of the canonical paper on the subject, typifies this view when he says, “I’ve been in a thousand arguments over this topic, won them all, but convinced no one” (Bar-Eli, Avugos and Raab, 2006).
In this paper, thanks to SportVU’s optical tracking data, we are able to show that the key shot selection independence assumption is not a good one. Players who have either simply made more of their last few shots, or done better than expected on those shots, tend to take more difficult shots. Additionally, hot players are much more likely to take the team’s next shot and thus are not choosing shots independently.
We then extend our analysis to ask if the Hot Hand exists once we control for this dependent shot selection using a regression framework that controls for past expectation and finds a small, positive, and significant Hot Hand effect. This conception of the Hot Hand as exceeding expectations is different from the popular conception of absolute outperformance.


Shorter version: There seems to be proof of a small “hot hand” effect for basketball players. You can find this effect if you use statistics to control for the player’s choice of shots and for changes in the opponents’ defense. But even after you’ve done all this, the “hot hand” effect is very small.

I’m happy to acknowledge that players sometimes make several shots in a row. Even pretty ordinary players (the aforementioned Troy Murphy) sometimes do that. And that either proves or doesn’t prove that an individual player got “hot”, or that the “hot hand” exists at all, depending on what a “hot hand” is.

But there’s another point to make, and it is very much more black and white that the nuanced statistical analyses. And that is that the fans and sports analysts are never justified in the rhetoric they use. A player might score more points in a game than usual. He may make several shots in a row. But he never, ever “single-handedly wills his team to victory.” He never, ever “carries the whole team on his back.” He never is “red-hot, on fire, unconscious or automatic.” He never shoots “lights out” and he never “rains threes.”

Much as I hate to acknowledge the existence of soccer or to mention it in the same post as real sports, I’ll leave you with this:




Trade Hurts Indiana; Rokita Favors Trade

“Free and fair trade is good for all Hoosiers and I believe Indiana is a state that works and does best when our businesses have great economic opportunity.  In 2013, Indiana exported $34.2 billion in goods and $8.7 billion in services.  More than 50 percent of these goods went to countries where the United States has Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). “


Congressman Rokita

This and much more appeared last week on the official website of Indiana Congressman  Todd Rokita.

Rokita supported the Trade Promotion Authority bill that President Obama wanted and that was beaten down by a wide margin in the House of Representatives. Rokita has not had much good to say about the President in a long time, but he sided with him on this losing effort because . . . trade!

Let’s consider: Is that $34.2 billion in goods and $8.7 billion in services Rokita mentions a lot? What share of Indiana’s total output is that? Most readers wouldn’t know, and Rokita’s website doesn’t tell.

In fact, it amounts to about 14% of the state’s 2013 gross domestic product of $294 billion. (There’s some wiggle in these numbers because some sources consider goods and services, and other only goods.) But there is a bigger problem with the congressman’s information. Rokita’s analysis leaves out the whole other side of the trade balance: how much does Indiana lose through trade because foreign sellers take jobs away from Indiana workers?

Looking only at the benefits is an easy way to sell an idea. But honest assessment means looking at the costs as well as the benefits. Consider the following cost-only analysis of my job: Working at Purdue is a tremendous drain on my finances. Fuel is the single largest regular non-household expense in my family’s budget. Each week, I spend over $60 on gasoline and use most of it to commute to work. I believe my household works best when large expenses are trimmed and therefore I ‘d be much better off if I stopped driving to work five times every week.

That is clearly a bogus way of considering the benefits and costs of driving to work. If I quit my job to save gas money, I’d lose my whole income and be much worse off. But Rokita’s message about trade is equally flawed, because he considers only the benefits and not the costs.

Let’s correct the congressman’s oversight, and find out what free trade actually means to Indiana. There aren’t many resources for a true benefit/cost analysis, especially not from a pro-business perspective. Free-trade proponents never consider the costs. They believe (or pretend to believe) that trade is always advantageous, so they don’t bother totting up the pluses and minuses.

This tract from the National Association of Manufacturers  is a remarkable example of what you get from the free trade, pro business side. There’s not a word anywhere about the costs of jobs lost from trade; just the upside.

One more balanced resource I found was a 2007 report from the Economic Policy Institute about the effect of trade with China on each American state. It says Indiana gained some jobs through trade with China — but it lost over 45,000 more jobs than it gained. And that’s just during one five-year period. EPI says:

Growing trade deficits with China have clearly reduced domestic employment in traded goods industries, especially in the manufacturing sector, which has been hard hit by plant closings and job losses.


This resource is partial and outdated. I wouldn’t recommend drawing any conclusions from one report that focuses on one country. To really know if Rokita’s enthusiasm for trade is justified, we’d need to see more up to date figures of  Indiana’s total imports and exports. And since some sources are more reliable than others, let’s use the same source Rokita appears to use in his announcement, which is the US Census Bureau. Here’s the link to the Census data on Indiana exports. It shows the same $34.2 billion figure that Rokita’s website mentions. Now here are the Census figures for imports into Indiana, showing the state spent $45.7 billion on foreign goods in the same year.

Indiana loses quite heavily from trade. The state lost $11.5 billion in 2013, and $13.3 billion in 2014. Year in and year out, despite growth in the amount exported, Indiana loses more than it gains from trade. Most other states are the same, as you can see for yourself by browsing the Census Bureau trade data here.

[Source: US Census Bureau]
[Source: US Census Bureau]

Why would Congressman Rokita defend free trade when Indiana (and most other states) are clear losers? I think there are three  possible answers. First is the “true believer” explanation. There are plenty of economists, politicians, educators, business people and media voices who have never doubted that trade is always beneficial and protectionism always harmful.

David Ricardo [Source:
Their thinking is founded on the work of David Ricardo (1772-1823), who justified free trade at a time when many countries had high tariffs and import quotas. Ricardo published a treatise with a very simple example of advantageous trade. He posited only two countries (England and Portugal) and only two products (wine and cloth). In Ricardo’s example both countries ended with more of both after trading than when each made both commodities for itself. Despite the fact that the example is extremely simple, the idea of comparative advantage has been used to justify free trade for nearly two centuries. His proof that trade can sometimes be beneficial has been used to insist that trade must always be beneficial.

The second argument for free trade is that well managed trade can be beneficial. The US trades with most countries in the world, and some have a deficit and other have a surplus. Indiana in 2014 had a trade surplus of $4 billion with Canada, and a trade deficit with China of nearly $8 billion. It seems sensible to suggest that we just need more of the kind of trade we have with Canada, and less of the kind of trade we have with China. Congressman Rokita concurs:

 One of the best tools that Congress has available to promote free trade is Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). . . . If the U.S. does not act, we will allow countries like China to set the rules of global trade. 

A careful reader will see a problem here. Setting rules is not the same as free trade. The argument for free trade is not made stronger by suggesting that trade should be negotiated and managed. Free trade is sometimes just an empty word. Many of the people who talk about free trade are really urging trade deals with conditions and quotas and rules and restrictions. And winners and losers.

Which brings us to the third reason why someone would be eager to sign up for more trade despite evidence that the US loses more than it gains. And it is simply that the same deal that might be a mixed blessing for the US, or a clear loss for the US, might well bring a big gain for multinational corporations. To the extent that an elected official, or an academic, or anyone else conflates the interests of companies located in a district with the district itself and the people living there, free trade has appeal. In Washington, those corporations make their wishes known far more aggressively and effectively than voters do.

The trade deal we’re looking at now, called the Trans Pacific Partnership, certainly has winners and losers.  According to some sources it isn’t a trade deal at all, but a new framework for stronger intellectual property rights. One important element allows corporations to sue countries more easily in the event those countries passed laws that might curtail profits.

According to the government’s website, TPP promises more jobs, expanded markets for US exports, and more. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren responded to this by issuing a report  (Broken Promises) showing that the US doesn’t (and can’t) enforce the terms of trade deals in other countries: Obama’s promises are empty. Vox offers a detailed explainer with more about the TPP. According to Resilience, the TPP sacrifices national sovereignty in favor of corporate profits.

Free trade can and does hurt people and communities. Only the corporation is really free. It can shift production to where labor is cheapest and sell where the price is highest. People have to live where they live, take the jobs that are available, and buy what they can afford.

Oops. All I’m doing here is repeating someone else’s idea. I hate to quote the guy. But he’s right:

What is free trade under the present condition of society? It is freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given capital complete freedom of action.  – Karl Marx, 1848


The liberal writer Michael Tomasky wrote back in 2012, “Marx would be completely dead if we didn’t have the Republicans around to prove him right every so often.” Congressman Rokita seems determined to keep Marx alive a while longer.






The big round room with the crooked floor

In my job I wrestle constantly to make data sing to people. I am good at managing large volumes of data and analyzing the data with statistics. But that alone accomplishes little. More than once, I’ve found myself  living out the scene from the first X-Men movie, where Dr. Xavier escorts Logan/Wolverine into his magnificent, domed, high-tech, mutant-monitoring station.

“Welcome to Cerebro!,” cries Dr. Xavier.

To which Logan, who has no idea what he’s looking at, replies, “It certainly is a big, round room.”


And so it is thrilling to see a really clear graphic depiction of data: a chart that, as I said, sings the message. Below is a chart from Jonathan Chait’s latest NYMag column. He’s writing about the social inequity and the limitation of the “Work Hard and Make Something of Yourself!” argument. Chait refers back to a 2012 report by the Pew Charitable Trust called Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations.  It is very good, and well worth looking at even three years after its release.

Let me talk you through it. What the chart describes is the extent to which personal effort to improve oneself (measured by college graduation), leads to success.

The five pairs of vertical bars represents the income of the families that the people grew up in. Going from left to right corresponds to poorer and richer people. The left-most pair of red-and-blue bars is the bottom 20% of American households. Most of these people grew up in poverty. The next pair represents people in the second quintile (21st to 40th percent) of households. And so on, up to the furthest-right pair representing the top 20 percent (richest) of all households.


[Source: Jonathan Chait / NYMag / Pew Charitable Trust]

The next thing to understand is that red means people who did not graduate from college and blue means people who did graduate from college. College graduation is not a perfect measure of “effort to improve oneself.” There are other ways to succeed. But it is a pretty basic path, and few would argue that college graduation is meaningless.

So we would expect to see more college graduates earning higher incomes as adults. And that is what the chart shows. Look at the red and blue vertical bars in the middle pair. These are all people who grew up in middle quintile families. The US median income was between $30- and $50-thousand a year during the relevant years.

The chart shows that 31% of the people in this group who went to college made it into the top income-earners bracket, while only 12% of the non-college graduates did. At the bottom, only 7% of middle-quintile college graduates dropped down into the lowest bracket, while 17% of the non-graduates fell to there. That seems like proof that efforts to better oneself pays off. And comparing each pair of red and blue bars confirms the message. In each pair, the blue bar (graduates) has more high earners and fewer low earners than the red bar (non-graduates).

But the chart has more to tell. Look first at the two bits that are highlighted in yellow. They contrast college graduates from poor families to non-graduates from affluent families. And the chart shows that starting out rich provides a greater boost than going to college does. The piece of the chart highlighted in red indicates 25% of people from wealthy families remain in the top income category even despite not finishing college. (Think Paris Hilton.) The blue highlighted bit shows that of the poorest who finished college, only 10% rose to the top. Ben Carson was one of them. But there aren’t many.

People who start out rich are two-and-a-half times more likely to stay rich than even the brightest who started without advantage. And that is before race is taken into account. The Pew report linked above shows that the odds are stacked even steeper against a black man. Only 15% of college educated black men from middle-income families make it to the top, compared to 31% of all Americans. They made the same effort. Less than half of them got the same payoff.

Effort is essential, of course. Almost everyone agrees that it should. I certainly do. But anyone who suggests that hard work is all anyone needs to succeed, or that in America anyone can succeed if they work hard enough ought to have a rat stuffed down their shirt.