What Our Black Neighbors Believe

I found the result of this study from Pew Research distressing:

While many Black Americans view themselves as at least somewhat successful and are optimistic about their financial future, they are also critical of U.S. institutions. Most say several systems in the United States need significant changes to ensure Black people are treated fairly.

Black Americans’ doubts about the fairness of institutions are accompanied by suspicion. Indeed, most Black adults say the prison (74%), political (67%) and economic (65%) systems in the U.S., among others, are designed to hold Black people back, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of Black adults conducted in September 2023.

The survey also finds that most Black Americans are familiar with specific racial conspiracy theories about U.S. institutions and believe they are true.

Rather than wringing our hands about whether these “theories” are true, I would rather reflect on what so many black Americans believe they are true and the implications of those beliefs.

I believe these beliefs are held because, like most Americans, black Americans derive most of their information from television and social media and that’s what television and social media are telling them. Note, too, that most of the black population is urban or suburban—80% or more—and the cities in which black Americans live tend to have governments controlled by Democrats. In other words this is not a complaint about Republicans. It’s either a complaint about the “uniparty” or about Democrats.

It reminds me of what a black friend of mine told me many years ago to the effect that the same things may happen to each of us but we won’t have the same experiences from them. That’s the world in which our black neighbors live.


Why Is President Biden’s Approval Rating So High?

I think that Zachary D. Carter has the wrong end of the stick in his piece at Slate, musing over why President Biden’s approval rating is so low:

In January of 1980, Jimmy Carter had been in office for three years, and the economy was terrible. Cumulatively, consumer prices were up more than 32 percent since he had entered the White House, and they had been rising steadily for more than 18 months. The unemployment rate was on the rise, after averaging 6.3 percent across his time in office. Wages, adjusted for inflation, had been falling for a year, gas prices were surging, and the interest rate on a typical home mortgage was over 15 percent. Things were very bad, and getting worse.

In the most preposterous corners of American economic discourse, Biden’s economy is still being compared to Carter’s, even though by every available metric, the 1970s were in a miserable league of their own, and today’s economy is among the most prosperous on record. Biden isn’t just clearing the low bar set by the Carter administration, he’s besting every other leader in the developed world, with the United States enjoying stronger wages, lower inflation, and better job growth than any nation in the G7, and its best labor market in at least half a century.

It’s interesting that he should characterize Lawrence Summers as “preposterous”. Hasn’t Dr. Summers been consistently and persistently critical of President Biden’s economic policy? To assess the validity of the comparison all you need do is compare the price of gasoline in January 2021 ($2.25/gallon) with the price today ($3.47). You could go through a similar exercise for a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, a pound of hamburger, your automobile insurance, etc.

The reality of being president is that presidents get blamed for what happens during their terms of office (“their watch”) regardless of whether they’re own actions were responsible and far from being the return to normalcy (so to speak) on which Candidate Biden ran, he has presided over the fastest increase in inflation in the last 40 years, the start of two wars in which we are embroiled if not actually at war, more deaths due to COVID-19 than in the previous three and a half years, and more migration across our southern border than during his predecessor’s term.

I could go on. Keep in mind that Mr. Biden ran for president twice before (in 1988 and 2008) and was rejected soundly by Democrats in the primaries. I would submit that he was elected this time around because just enough people in just enough places saw him as better than Trump.

Consequently, I think that rather than asking why President Biden’s approval rating is so low he should be asking why is it so high? His RCP Poll Average is 39.8% Clearly, he has significantly more favorable press coverage than his predecessor experienced. Why else?


What Happened?

I wanted to comment about David Brooks’s most recent New York Times column before it disappeared into the memory hole. Most of the column is devoted to a lament over what has happened to our “educated elite” in recent years:

I went to an elite university and have taught at them. I find them wonderful in most ways and deeply screwed up in a few ways. But over the decades and especially recently, I’ve found the elite, educated-class progressivism a lot less attractive than the working-class progressivism of Frances Perkins that I read about when I was young. Like a lot of people, I’ve looked on with a kind of dismay as elite university dynamics have spread across national life and politics, making America worse in all sorts of ways. Let me try to be more specific about these dynamics.

The first is false consciousness. To be progressive is to be against privilege. But today progressives dominate elite institutions like the exclusive universities, the big foundations and the top cultural institutions. American adults who identify as very progressive skew white, well educated and urban and hail from relatively advantaged backgrounds.

This is the contradiction of the educated class. Virtue is defined by being anti-elite. But today’s educated class constitutes the elite, or at least a big part of it. Many of the curiosities of our culture flow as highly educated people try to resolve the contradiction between their identity as an enemy of privilege, and the fact that, at least educationally and culturally, and often economically, they are privileged.

But the one passage to which I wanted to draw attention was this:

I really can’t tell what al-Gharbi’s politics are — some mixture of positions from across the spectrum maybe. He does note that he is writing from the tradition of Black thinkers — stretching back to W.E.B. Du Bois — who argue that white liberals use social justice issues to build status and make themselves feel good while ultimately offering up “little more than symbolic gestures and platitudes to redress the material harms they decry (and often exacerbate).”

He observes that today’s educated-class activists are conveniently content to restrict their political action to the realm of symbols. In his telling, land acknowledgments — when people open public events by naming the Indigenous peoples who had their land stolen from them — are the quintessential progressive gesture.

It’s often non-Indigenous people signaling their virtue to other non-Indigenous people while doing little or nothing for the descendants of those who were actually displaced. Educated elites rename this or that school to erase the names of disfavored historical figures, but they don’t improve the education that goes on within them. Student activists stage messy protests on campus but don’t even see the custodial staff who will clean up afterward.

Al-Gharbi notes that Black people made most of their progress between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, before the rise of the educated class in the late 1960s, and that the educated class may have derailed that progress. He notes that gaps in wealth and homeownership between white and Black Americans have grown larger since 1968.

The emphasis is mine.

The question that passage raised for me is why? Some of the potential explanations that occurred to me were:

  1. It’s not true.
  2. On a percentage basis you make greater gains when you start from a lower basis. It’s that last gap that’s hard to fill (according to the Census Bureau the median income for black Americans is about 80% of the median income of white Americans).
  3. Whatever its intentions the Great Society program was a flop. It had an adverse effect if any.
  4. Black nationalism. When race became more important than making progress progress stopped.
  5. The mass immigration from Latin American that began with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended black economic progress, reversed it even.
  6. De-industrialization. Good paying jobs making things have been vanishing for 50 years. The low end service jobs we have been creating don’t produce economic progress (at least not in the United States).

It could be all of the above but I think the most important factors are the last two.

BTW the “elite overproduction” Mr. Brooks mentions is something I’ve been writing about here for the last 20 years. Example: according to the BLS there 58,500 jobs in journalism in the United States. Every year nearly 14,000 journalism majors are produced by our institutions of higher learning.


A Mary Astor Kick

While I’m thinking about Hollywood, I wanted to mention that my wife has been on a Mary Astor kick lately. If you’re not a film buff and you’ve heard of Mary Astor at all you probably associate her with Bridget O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon or Judy Garland’s mother in Meet Me in St. Louis but she’s a much more notable figure than that. Her Hollywood career began in 1921, playing adult female leads at age 14, and her last credit was in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte in 1964. She had more than 150 movie and television credits and played on Broadway as well.

What do I mean by “a Mary Astor kick”? She just finished reading Mary Astor’s two autobiographies side-by-side concurrently. Then she read one of her novels (we’re looking for others). Now she’s watching as many of her films as she can.

That’s one thing I’ll say about the Internet. If you dig around enough you can find quite a bit of stuff.


Eight Lessons

At The Strategist Joseph Nye proposes eight lessons that could be learned from the Ukraine war so far. It’s an expansion of his post of two years ago. Here’s his conclusion:

The most important lesson from the Ukraine war remains one of the oldest. Two years ago many expected a quick Russian victory, and just one year ago there were great expectations of a triumphant Ukrainian summer offensive. But as Shakespeare wrote more than four centuries ago, it is dangerous for a leader to ‘cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war.’

The promise of a short war is seductive. Putin certainly never expected to be bogged down indefinitely. He has managed to sell his war of attrition to the Russian people as a great patriotic struggle against the West. But the dogs he has unleashed could still turn around and bite him.

I wish I were as sanguine as he about nuclear deterrence:

Second, nuclear deterrence works, but it depends on relative stakes more than capabilities. The West has been deterred, but only up to a point. Putin’s nuclear threat has kept NATO governments from sending troops (though not equipment) to Ukraine. But the reason is not that Russia has superior nuclear capabilities; rather, it is that Putin has designated Ukraine a vital national interest for Russia, whereas Western governments have not. Meanwhile, Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling has not prevented the West from extending the range of the weapons it provides to Ukraine; and the West, so far, has deterred Putin from attacking any NATO countries.

My concern has a number of facets. First, as he notes, nuclear deterrence has not prevented the West from “extending the range of the weapons it provides”. Is NATO deterrable? I don’t know. It should also be noted that “Putin has designated Ukraine a vital national interest for Russia” is an understatement. It has been a vital national interest of Russia’s for centuries. George Kennan pointed that out decades ago:


The Six-Foot Social Distancing Rule

I think that Cory Franklin is being a bit hard on Dr. Anthony Fauci in his piece at sp!ked rehashing the six-foot social distancing recommendation:

It speaks volumes that no one from either the CDC or the WHO has come forward to refute Fauci’s claim that the six-foot separation recommendation arose out of thin air. The scientific papers from the start of the pandemic include references to those older studies and are in plain sight.

This is all too typical of the Covid-19 response. The ‘science’ that was presented to us was nothing of the sort. It was simply the consensus view of certain experts, given a rubber stamp of authority by key scientific institutions. All too often, that narrow view was wrong. This unscientific approach resulted in economically destructive lockdowns, disastrous school closures and a lethal inattention to the dangers of inadequate indoor ventilation.

Fauci and his collaborators at CDC and WHO certainly bear significant responsibility for each of those debacles. We can’t let him get away with trying to whitewash his legacy.

or, more specifically, singling Dr. Fauci out for criticism doesn’t cast a wide enough net. Why was the Centers for Disease Controls test for COVID-19 so badly flawed? Why didn’t they use the German test? Why did it take the FDA so long to approve tests made by private companies? Why was our pandemic response so politicized so quickly? The list of questions is legion.

In my view a dispassionate consideration of the U. S. pandemic response would call into question the entire structure of the federal public health apparatus, how they are managed and by whom, how physicians are selected and educated, and the very concept of technocracy.

Let’s start with the last matter first. In theory technocracy means that experts rule. In practice it means that, if you have expertise or even credentials in one area it makes you an authority on areas that are only tangentially related or even completely unrelated to your area of expertise. Adding increasing specialization aggravates the matter to impracticality if not outright impossibility. It is possible to be an expert in medicine, epidemiology, public policy, public health management, and being a political apparatchik in a federal agency but it is vanishingly unlikely. In practice a genuine expert in epidemiology is unlikely to be a good manager or good bureaucrat, etc. but highly likely that the expertise will be parlayed into some general expertise but that’s not technocracy.

Furthermore, having the highest grades as an undergraduate pre-med, the highest scores on your MCATs, and graduating from medical school does not mean that you automatically possess the personal skills to be a good manager or good politician. I would also point out that the qualities that some are complaining about in Dr. Fauci, e.g. overstating his own knowledge and “arrogance” are precisely the qualities inculcated into physicians 60 years ago which is when Dr. Fauci attended medical school. So I think he should be cut some slack.

I have no opinion on the six-foot social distancing rule. In the final analysis I think that most of the measures put in place, particularly early on, in reaction to COVID-19 fit the “politician’s syllogism” pretty well:

  1. We must do something.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore we must do this.

I would also point out that the decision to lock down schools unfolded precisely as I predicted. It wasn’t made scientifically, maybe not even logically, and it certainly didn’t put the good of the students as the highest priority.


Unusual Cancers

In an article in the Washington Post Ariana Eunjung Cha reports on an unexpected phenomenon—a spate of “unusual cancers”:

ROCK HILL, S.C. — Kashyap Patel looked forward to his team’s Friday lunches. All the doctors from his oncology practice would gather in the open-air courtyard under the shadow of a tall magnolia tree and catch up. The atmosphere tended to the lighthearted and optimistic. But that week, he was distressed.

It was 2021, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, and as he slid into a chair, Patel shared that he’d just seen a patient in his 40s with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and lethal cancer of the bile ducts that typically strikes people in their 70s and 80s. Initially, there was silence, and then one colleague after another said they’d recently treated patients who had similar diagnoses. Within a year of that meeting, the office had recorded seven such cases.

“I’ve been in practice 23 years and have never seen anything like this,” Patel, CEO of Carolina Blood and Cancer Care Associates, later recalled. Asutosh Gor, another oncologist, agreed: “We were all shaken.”

This observation is, apparently, not limited to this single oncologist’s practice but is being reported commonly. The typical explanations are a) delay of care during the pandemic or b) COVID-19 itself promotes the development of cancer. There’s actually some small evidence for the latter:

David Tuveson, director of the Cancer Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and former president of the American Association for Cancer Research, said there’s no evidence the coronavirus directly transforms cells to make them cancerous. But that may not be the full story.

Tuveson said a number of small and early studies — many of which have been published within the past nine months — suggests that coronavirus infection can induce an inflammatory cascade and other responses that, in theory, could exacerbate the growth of cancer cells.

He has wondered whether it could be more akin to an environmental stressor — like tobacco, alcohol, asbestos or microplastics.

“Covid wrecks the body, and that’s where cancers can start,” Tuveson said, explaining how autopsy studies of people who died of covid-19 showed prematurely aged tissue.

I suspect that we will learn that the second explanation is correct but there are other possibilities as well. For example, perhaps going out of doors less frequently and the concomitant reduction in Vitamin D might have something to do with it. I’m sure there are other possibilities.

Read the whole thing. It’s an interesting article.


Stopping Russia

In a piece at The National Interest Anne Pierce argues that it is an urgent priority for NATO to “stop Russia”:

Why is swift, pathbreaking action imperative? For moral reasons. Will NATO really allow Russia’s genocidal campaign to continue on in the heart of Europe? Does “never again” mean anything? For existential reasons. Russia threatens not just Ukraine, but democracies across Europe and beyond. Are NATO countries willing to risk their security and way of life for a temporary reprieve? For peace and stability. Russia brings war, mayhem and trauma everywhere it goes. Would NATO gamble on an elusive compromise with Russia when Putin always uses purported “peace processes” to buy time and cover for more war and aggression? To save what is left of the post-World War II world order. The emboldened Russia-China-Iran axis seeks a new world order dominated by authoritarians. Will NATO miss the chance to send the axis an unambiguous signal and setback by acting decisively against Russia?

Most of the article is devoted to arguing why it should be an urgent necessity and in doing so she quotes the Latvian president, Estonian prime minister, and Lithuanian foreign minister.

I wish she had devoted more of her article to explaining how NATO would accomplish that. The Baltic countries spend between 2 and 3% of their GDPs on defense, a sharp increase since 2022. That’s less than we spend (as a proportion of GDP) and considerably less than the Russians spend. Furthermore, Germany’s, Poland’s, and even the U. S.’s imports from Kyrgyzstan have spiked since 2022. That looks tremendously like using Kyrgyzstan as a pass-through for Russian imports.

Adding insult to injury NATO is pretty tapped out on munitions—it’s sending as much as it can to Ukraine and is unable to keep up with Ukrainian demand. Short of a nuclear strike against Russia I see little way of NATO’s “stopping Russia”.


Janis Paige, 1922-1924

Janis Paige, star of film, the Broadway stage, and television, has died at 101. Her Hollywood career began when she was spotted by a Warner’s exec while she was working at the Hollywood Canteen. Her first movie role was in 1944. She played notable roles in Hollywood Canteen, Romance on the High Seas, and Silk Stockings, playing other roles in several more forgettable movie. The studio really didn’t know what to do with her—they said as much. When she lost her studio contract in 1951 it was just the start of her career. She originated the role of Babe in Pajama Game on Broadway, playing in more than 1,000 performances. She also originated the female lead in Here’s Love and replaced Angela Lansbury in Mame, playing the role for two years. She had her own television series, It’s Always Jan. An incredibly talented performer.

With Ms. Paige’s passing the living history of the golden age of the Hollywood studios comes even closer to coming to a close.


Putting on the Ritz

I wonder if you’ll find Jake Klein’s history of the Ritz cracker at the Foundation for Economic Education as entertaining as I did? Here’s a sample:

When you last visited the supermarket, you likely walked past a box you’ve seen many times before. The Ritz Cracker has been a staple on American store shelves for 90 years, yet today the snack is often looked down upon; its mass-produced, corporate, and carb-heavy nature has fallen out of favor in an era preferring craft-made, local, and gluten-free foods.

But the Ritz Cracker is worth taking a second look at. There’s more to this simple snack than you might think.

If you look at the Ritz Cracker, you’ll see its round shape with a scalloped edge and seven tiny, evenly distributed holes. The golden-brown color achieved during baking is akin to a light toast. The taste is buttery with a hint of salt, and its thin flaky layers allow it to pleasantly crumble on your tongue with little effort. Despite its buttery flavor, the Ritz Cracker is actually vegan, featuring a simple ingredient list of flour, vegetable oil, sugar, salt, and leavening. The Ritz Cracker’s design and flavor are so classic it’s now taken for granted as the almost platonic ideal of a cracker. But to truly understand the Ritz, you have to look deeper than what you can see or taste.

Where did this simple yet classic cracker come from? It was a product of the Great Depression.

I would go farther than Mr. Klein in analogizing that story to capitalism itself. In a command economy the Ritz cracker would not have been developed at all.