Are We Actually More Partisan?

In a piece at The New Republic Walter Shapiro argues that voters are more polarized now that at any other time in American history:

The current level of sustained political balance in Congress is unprecedented.

Since the Civil War, there never have been back-to-back congressional elections in which the margins in both the House and the Senate were this tight. The closest parallel came during the George W. Bush years, when neither party had more than 51 votes in the Senate from 2001 to 2005. But thanks to the Republicans gaining House seats in the 2002 election (largely because of the rally-around-the-flag aftermath of the September 11 attacks), House Speaker Denny Hastert possessed more breathing room than Kevin McCarthy (or whoever arises from the coming GOP chaos) will have in January.

Looking at a map of the United States, Democrats might understandably feel anxious. The small-state bias in the Senate (and, as a result, the Electoral College) prompted Mother Jones’s Ari Berman to calculate that 30 Republican senators hail from 15 states whose population collectively is smaller than California with its two Democratic senators. The 2024 Senate map makes these calculations seem even more daunting with Democrats having to defend such ruby-red states as Montana (Jon Tester), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), and West Virginia (Joe Manchin).

Small wonder that smart political commentators assume that the current status quo will continue ad infinitum. Writing for CNN, Ron Brownstein anticipated that the 2024 presidential race (no matter who is on the ballot) will again come down to Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin. As Brownstein put it, “Each side in an intensely polarized nation of 330 million recognizes that the overall direction of national policy now pivots on the choices of a minuscule number of people living in the tiny patches of contested political ground—white-collar suburbs of Atlanta and Phoenix, working-class Latino neighborhoods in and around Las Vegas and the mid-sized communities of the so-called BOW counties in Wisconsin.”

I don’t think that’s what’s been happening at all. I think that

  1. Information and technology have made gerrymandering more successful than at any other time in American history.
  2. The party leadership in both political parties, largely driven by money, have become more extreme.
  3. Both parties, driven by the extreme politics of their leaderships, are being transformed into programmatic parties—something they’ve never been before.
  4. The stakes as measured by the power and reach of the federal government are higher than ever before.

The net outcome is that voters have largely retained the views they’ve been holding while the parties are decreasingly representative of those views. As evidence for that I’d submit the decreasing party roll for both parties and the increasing number of those who identify themselves as independents.

I’m not very sanguine about fixing that. There are all sorts of things that might help like increasing the size of the House, divvying up some of the states, reducing the power of the Congressional leadership, and cracking down on gerrymandering. Under a system with representation based on geographical-based districts is it really too much to ask that the districts be geographically based? Here’s the 2022 Illinois Congressional district map:

As should be obvious it’s one gerrymander after the other. Grotesquely so. Adopting the measures above might have the effect of moderating both parties as they actually needed to compete for votes.

But the incentives would remain and the incentives point to large, corrupt, autocratic parties so that’s where we’re headed.


The Chinese Protests

At The Conversation David Goldman concludes his analysis of the protests in China with this observation:

The key issues are how to move from the current “dynamic zero COVID” policy towards something else, and indeed what that should be, given the inadequate health coverage in much of the country.

I don’t rejoice in civil disorder in any country including China. I have no idea of how serious a challenge to the regime these protests are—I certainly won’t get that from our news media. IMO the situation is somewhat worse than is being portrayed. A significant component of the problem is the insistence on self-reliance. The Chinese authorities have steadfastly refused any vaccine that wasn’t developed in China and it is my understanding that, however limited in their effectiveness our vaccines may be, the Chinese vaccines are that much more limited. We’ll just need to see what materialized.

As long as China’s “zero COVID” policies remain in force and lockdowns remain a primary strategy, Chinese suppliers cannot be deemed reliable. That underscores what we should be doing anyway—nearshoring and onshoring the production of more of what we consume.


Bill Hayton adds an interesting if dispiriting conclusion:

Anyone who doubts the Communist Party’s determination to remain the country’s sole political force clearly hasn’t been following events in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or anywhere else in China for the past decade. Whenever there has been a choice between control and disorder, the Party has chosen control, even at the expense of reduced economic growth and popular dissatisfaction. That is why, for all the bravery of the weekend’s anti-lockdown demonstrators, they will not succeed. Yes, the Party faces another systemic problem — but it will take more than a few photogenic protests to make them change course.


The Risks of Downsizing

There has been quite a bit of pontification about Elon Musk’s activities at Twitter. I won’t remark one way or the other because a) I don’t know anything about Twitter’s internal operations and b) I don’t really care.

It does bring to mind one thing, however, which I thought I’d pass along. There are risks in downsizing. Quite a while ago IBM conducted a study in which they found, possibly counterintuitively, that you may not increase productivity by downsizing.

In tech companies in particular it is a commonplace that a rather small percentage of staff are doing a remarkable amount of the actual work. You might think that lots of money can be saved by getting rid of the relatively unproductive and only holding on to the superproducers. In turned out it doesn’t work that way. There are social aspects to companies; people are not interchangeable parts. Sometimes what happens when you get rid of everybody but the superproducers is that the superproducers stop being so super. For one thing those apparently superfluous staff members may be allowing the superproducers to focus on what they’re good at and what they like to do.


A Step

The blades of wind turbines are presently made from fiberglass and carbon precoated with epoxy resin. They are quite expensive to recycle and most end up in landfills. The development pointed to by this post by Michelle Lewis at Electrek sounds like a step in the right direction to me:

In just two years, Northern European companies have taken wooden wind turbines from prototype to commercialization. Now Finnish renewable product maker Stora Enso, one of the largest private forest owners in the world, is partnering up with German start-up Voodin Blade Technology to make sustainable wooden wind turbine blades.

The two companies are currently producing a 20-meter (66-foot) blade and are planning to make an 80-meter (262-foot) blade. The 20-meter blade will be installed on a 0.5-megawatt turbine near Warburg, Germany, by the end of 2022.

Read the whole thing. There are quite a few advantages to Stora Enso’s approach.

Interesting sidelight: nearly two-thirds of Stora Enso’s employees are either Finnish, Swedish, or Chinese. Note that no two of the languages spoken in those countries are related to each other. The lingua franca of Stora Enso is English despite the fact that very few of its employees are native speakers of English. Welcome to the future.

Most of their product is grown in Finland, Sweden, Russia, and the Baltic countries. Very little is from old growth forests.


What’s the Point?

I was struck by this observation by Eric Boehm in a piece at complaining about the “Buy American” provisions in the President Biden’s infrastructure bill:

And if you can get a ton of steel made somewhere else for a lower price than the same steel produced here, then you can afford to build more things. Which is, you know, the point of Biden’s infrastructure bill.

Is “to build more things” actually the point of the infrastructure bill? Or do building things, employing Americans, bolstering American industries, and achieving political goals all play roles in it? I suspect that if we hired Chinese crews who used Chinese materials and waived all labor, environmental, and construction laws, we’d actually maximize the amount of stuff built. But that’s not the point.

Now my own personal view is that we don’t really need to build more things. I think we’re actually overbuilt already and that building more roads and bridges actually puts money in the pockets of land developers, contributing to sprawl. Most federal highway dollars by design go to building new roads; maintaining those roads is the responsibility of the states. That’s why when you drive from Illinois to Iowa, Wisconsin, or Indiana you can’t help but be struck by how much better the roads quite suddenly become. That’s because our neighboring states do better jobs of maintaining their roads than we do. What we really need to do is decommission some of the infrastructure that’s already built, identify what’s really useful, and maintain that.

Sadly, I doubt that’s what will happen. What I think will happen is the between three and five years will be spent in the planning and litigation phases of infrastructure before they actually get around to doing anything and when the construction phase actually begins the dollars appropriated won’t go nearly as far as had been expected.


Thanksgiving 2022 After Action Report

Yesterday we had our goddaughter, her husband, and their 21 month old daughter as guests. My goddaughter is, in the old fashioned phrase, great with child. The baby is due any day now and she’s, well, enormous. It was a pleasant evening. I was the cook, as usual. I have cooked Thanksgiving dinners, as I reminisced yesterday evening, for just about 60 years. That’s a lot of Thanksgiving dinners. We had our usual menu: smoked turkey (I smoke it for about 9 hours), dressing (an adaptation of my wife’s family recipe, mashed potatoes, gravy, braised brussels sprouts and chestnuts, cranberry mold (my wife makes this), my tart and spicy cranberry sauce, and pumpkin chiffon pie (homemade crust), homemade dinner rolls. Just about everything is from scratch. The turkey, dinner rolls, and pie crust turned out the best ever. There’s something to that experience stuff after all.

There’s a quote which is appropriate. I haven’t been able to track down the original source but it goes something like this: “Since the beginning of time old ladies have always claimed that the strawberries were sweeter when they were girls”. There’s actually a kernel of truth in that. Things really aren’t the same as they used to be. Some things are better; some are worse; some are much worse.

You may not be aware of it but the stuff that’s sold as whipping cream in general is not whipping cream. Short version: if it says “Ultra-Pasteurized” on the container, it’s not whipping cream. When I began my Thanksgiving shopping I was shocked to learn that one of the ingredients on which I depended was no longer made. Dean’s Whipping Cream. That was actually whipping cream. If you look at the list of ingredients, there was only one: cream.

But Dean’s went out of business last year, it was acquired by Prairie Farms, and Prairie Farms does not produce real whipping cream. Like most products on the market they produce an ultra-pasteurized product made from cream with a gelling agent added, probably carrageenan (from seaweed). The gelling agent makes it appear to whip but it’s not actually whipping—it’s gelling.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why an old recipe doesn’t come out the way you expect it to, check you ingredients. The producer may have changed them on you. Or the ingredient may not be available at all.

In the case of whipping cream, after checking Jewel, Mariano’s (Kroger), Aldi, and several other grocery chains to no avail I checked Whole Foods and, sure enough, they carry a product, Kalona Super Natural Whipping Cream, that is actually whipping cream. Oddly, Jewel does carry a cream cheese product that is actually cream cheese. Yes, cream cheese ain’t what it used to be, either.

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What Is It About the Internet?

What is it about the Internet that seems to produce and/or attract flimflammers? Low barriers to entry? Something else? I have always thought that both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk were flimflammers and recent news provides additional support for that view. Tremendously rich and successful flimflammers but flimflammers nonetheless.

It also says something about the global economy that two of the richest people in the world are flimflammers.


Echo Silver

I hear that Alexa is losing money. Not surprising—Echo was always a loss leader. You cannot turn money losing lines of business into profitable ones with loss leaders or, at least, it’s darned hard.

There’s at least one thing we can thank Alexa for, the funniest Saturday Night Live sketch in years, “Echo Silver”.


Improving Mental Health Care

I found Stephen Eide and Carolyn D. Gorman’s report at Manhattan Contrarian simultaneously encouraging and frustrating. Here’s the nub:

The concept of a Continuum of Care system can guide discussions of accountability in mental health policy. In recent years, mental health has been a leading focus of news coverage, with policymakers at all levels of government regularly questioned as to their plans for reform, though the direction of mental health policy reform is often vague, if defined at all.

To function as a tool for accountability, Continuum of Care must be a term of distinction. Not all public mental health programs serve the seriously mentally ill, and not all programs that provide some benefit to the seriously mentally ill should be considered part of the Continuum of Care.

A significant number of major problems facing us could be ameliorated with better mental health care including homelessnesss, crime, mass killings, and drug abuse. I’m afraid it would require more than Continuum of Care but a sea change in how we think about mental health.

We’ve got to remove the stigma and take it more seriously at the same time. Families and those troubled themselves are reluctant to seek care. And the cases in which care is not a choice should be considered more critically than at present.


An Alternative to Foreign Aid

I think that Joe Chialo has hit upon something at Worldcrunch. France and Germany should stop sending aid to African countries and start investing more capital there. We should be doing the same in Central and South America.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I know why they and we don’t do that. It’s too risky. The money would just disappear without doing much to boost the economies of those countries. Just as foreign aid does and for the same reasons.

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