How Fragile Is Democracy?

At the Guardian Owen Jones recounts what he saw in Turkey. Here’s his summary:

Turkey is a warning: democracy is precious but fragile. It underlines how rights and freedoms are often won at great cost and sacrifice but can be stripped away by regimes exploiting national crises. The danger is that Turkey won’t be an exception, but a template of how to rid countries of democracy. That is reason enough to stand by Turkey. Who knows which country could be next?

I agree that liberal democracy is fragile. It needs to be bolstered by traditions, institutions, and commitment to the rule of law. Without those as in Turkey it can degenerate into authoritarian government faster than we might imagine.

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President Xi’s Remarks

I won’t fisk Chinese President Xi’s remarks at the opening of the 2017 World Economic Forum at Davos. As I see it the Reader’s Digest version is that it was his pitch for greater Chinese influence at the International Monetary Fund.

I want to draw attention to one sentence from his address:

Madame Christine Lagarde recently told me that emerging markets and developing countries already contribute to 80 percent of the growth of the global economy.

They also contribute substantially to total global debt. Here are the IMF comments on Chinese debt as reported by BloombergMarkets:

“Continued reliance on policy stimulus measures, with rapid expansion of credit and slow progress in addressing corporate debt, especially in hardening the budget constraints of state-owned enterprises, raises the risk of a sharper slowdown or a disruptive adjustment,” the IMF warned.

China’s total debt grew 465 percent over the past decade, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Total debt rose to 247 percent of gross domestic product in 2015, from 160 percent in 2005, with corporate debt jumping to 165 percent of GDP from 105 percent.

A significant up-tick in capital outflows in recent months as the yuan weakened against the dollar adds to the worry list given the rapid debt build up. “These risks can be exacerbated by capital outflow pressures, especially in a more unsettled external environment,” the IMF paper said.

As I see it Chinese debt, malinvestment, overcapacity, import controls, and income inequality exacerbate all of the world’s economic problems. Without increased openness and reform in China it’s hard to see how phlegmatic global growth is remedied.

Will increased influence on China’s part in the IMF provide some headroom for making the necessary reforms? Or will it just allow the Chinese authorities to keep filling the punchbowl?

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Mexico, 1940s

I believe this footage to have been shot by my dad in the 1940s. Although it needs some tweaking, I found it interesting so I’m uploading the whole thing as-is, unedited.

I don’t know where in Mexico this is but perhaps someone better informed than I could offer a guess. I suspect that things there have changed enough that this footage is a curiosity if not of some minor historical interest.

About three minutes in there’s a bit of footage of some men thatching a roof, a process I’d never seen before.

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The Morality of Paying Taxes

I wish that Joseph Stieglitz would flesh this idea from his op-ed at CNN out a little more:

Is there anything that the world’s corporations can do about this scourge that threatens the political, social, and economic sustainability of our democratic market economies? The answer is yes.

It begins with a simple idea: pay your taxes. This is the first element of corporate responsibility. Don’t resort to shifting taxes to lower tax jurisdictions. Apple may feel that it has been unfairly singled out on this score; it only did a slightly better job at tax avoidance than others.

Don’t make use of the secrecy and tax havens, onshore or offshore, whether it’s Panama or the Cayman Islands in the Western hemisphere or Ireland or Luxembourg in Europe. Don’t encourage the countries in which you operate to engage in tax competition, a vicious race to the bottom where the real losers are the poor people and ordinary citizens around the world.

It’s shameful when the president-elect of a country appears to boast that he hasn’t paid certain taxes for nearly two decades — suggesting that smart people don’t — or when a company pays .005% of its profits in taxes, as Apple did. It’s not smart: it’s immoral.

Notice that’s he not saying that people shouldn’t evade paying their taxes. I would think that goes without saying and we should all agree that’s immoral. He’s saying that they shouldn’t take advantage of legal ways to minimize their taxes. That tax avoidance is immoral.

What’s the threshold for that? And what’s the moral argument for declaring one? At what level of inequality does income inequality become immoral? Is perfect equality the only defensible moral stance? How is that to be accomplished?

Does Dr. Stieglitz deduct home mortgage interest from his 1040? Is it immoral for him to do so?

Everyone except the genuinely poor in the United States is in the global top 1% of income earners. A family income of $32,400 per year is enough for that.

If income inequality within the United States among its residents is a grave moral ill, isn’t the income inequality between Americans and Chinese or Indians that much worse?

I think there are economic, political, and social reasons we should want incomes within the U. S. to be more equal. How we can accomplish that while admitting large numbers of immigrants without skills wanted by employers is unclear to me. That trade-off alone suggests to me that there may not be a moral issue at stake.

But I also think that Dr. Stieglitz’s tacit assumption, that without other reforms that can be accomplished simply by the top income earners paying more taxes, is suspect.

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Police and Crime

At the New Yorker Benjamin Wallace-Wells remarks on Chicago’s spike in crime:

For at least three years, two stories about crime and police in Chicago have been unspooling, each only intermittently acknowledging the other. The primary one has been about escalating gun violence, which has spread across the city’s West and South Sides. Though the city has added hundreds of cops, launched intensive programs to improve the enforcement of gun laws, and experimented with predictive algorithms to identify who is most likely to commit acts of violence, the crime wave has proved alarmingly resistant to efforts to control it. Last year, seven hundred and sixty-two people were killed in Chicago—three hundred more than the previous year, representing the largest one-year increase in any of America’s biggest cities in the past quarter-century.

The second story has been about police excess in dealing with suspects and passivity in dealing with civilian reports of crime. In 2015, the Guardian revealed the existence of Chicago Police Department “black sites,” where suspects were routinely denied civil liberties. The police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teen-ager, and the release of dashboard-camera video showing that the officer’s claim that he acted in self-defense was obviously false, elevated concerns about accountability in the department. Meanwhile, Chicago homicide investigators have identified suspects in only twenty-nine per cent of cases, a rate that is less than half the national average. In October, 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that his officers, who feared becoming the next face of police violence, had taken a “fetal” position. Apparently, that fear has persisted. “The major thing you hear from Chicago cops,” Eugene O’Donnell, a former N.Y.P.D. officer and prosecutor for the Brooklyn and Queens District Attorneys, who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said this week, “is to stay fetal—go fetal, stay fetal.” Arrests were down twenty-eight per cent this past year.

On Friday, in what may be the last major act of the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice issued a hundred-and-sixty-eight-page report into the failures of the Chicago Police Department. One measure of the authors’ alarm is that they used the word “unconstitutional” twenty-two times, often to describe the department’s patterns of using force. The D.O.J.’s investigation began in December, 2015, shortly after the video of McDonald’s death was released. Much of the report it produced shows how the department’s internal investigations following complaints of police misconduct are systemically biased toward cops. But the report also connected departmental abuses like McDonald’s shooting to a breakdown in trust between police and the community, and linked the collapse in trust to the increase in violent crime. “The City and CPD acknowledge that this trust has been broken,” the report said, by “systems that have allowed CPD officers who violate the law to escape accountability. This breach in trust has in turn eroded CPD’s ability to effectively prevent crime; in other words, trust and effectiveness in combating violent crime are inextricably intertwined.”

What is the relation between the number of police officers and the crime rate? Virtually the entirety of Mayor Emanuel’s policy with respect to crime in Chicago has been predicated on the belief that more police officers result in less crime.

Does more crime occur despite more police officers on the streets, because of more police officers are on the streets, or are the two irrelevant to one another? Chicago has one of the highest ratios of police to population of any major city in the United States. We might start considering that what police do when they’re on the streets is at least as important as how many of them there are. Could it be that a high enough police presence changes how police officers do their job, possibly not in a good way?

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Remember My Friends, Listen to Me, Because I Pass This Way But Once

We should attend to the warnings in Lawrence Summers’s op-ed in the Washington Post:

The new U.S. president will be operating on a weak political foundation, is unlikely to be able to deliver the results he has promised to key constituencies and seems likely to take dangerous gambles in the international arena. This makes it probable that a cycle of growing disillusion, disappointment and disapproval will set in within a year.

We are conducting an enormous, real-life experiment in the importance of what John Maynard Keynes called “animal spirits”:

Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits—a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.

(from The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) pp. 161-162)

Will Trump’s attitude continue to be perceived as “pro-business”? Will the policies of the next four years be materially pro-business? Will those factors result in a persistent improvement in the economy in the U. S.? Will that actually help ordinary people? Will we be able to distinguish between the material effects and the important but irrational psychological effects? Just how important are the latter? We’re about to find out.

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Investigate Meddling By the Russian Government

I want to endorse much of what Ruth Marcus had to say in her recent column in the Washington Post. I agree that Donald Trump will be the legitimate president of the United States and that John Lewis erred in saying otherwise:

So for all of John Lewis’s heroic service to his country, the Georgia congressman’s assertion that Donald Trump is not a “legitimate” president was not appropriate or helpful. Indeed, it is not even the right way to think about the question. Trump is a legitimate president because our system demands finality and acceptance even in the presence of uncertainty. Posting an asterisk next to an election result is not healthy for democracy.

and there should be a thorough investigation of Russian governmental interference in the election:

And that is the flip side of accepting Trump’s legitimacy: to insist on investigation and accountability. Feinstein put it in appropriately apocalyptic terms. “We cannot ignore what has happened. To ignore it is really to commit ourselves to a very bad future,” she said. “This is the future of America. It’s the future of democracy. And if we can’t carry out an election without disinformation being pumped into it by another country, we’ve got a huge destruction of our system going on.”

A searching inquiry into what happened and how to prevent it from recurring is essential. That should not be a matter for partisan debate, as hard as it may be for Trump, especially, to accept. Whether that happens will not determine the legitimacy of Trump’s election. It will shape history’s judgment of his presidency.

The inquiry should be as complete and impartial as is possible and its results must be made public and publicized widely.

Sadly, she exemplifies why such an inquiry must be made when she asserts:

That was the difficult lesson of the 2000 campaign. But for a flawed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County that diverted confused voters to Pat Buchanan, Al Gore would likely have been declared the winner in Florida and thus the 43rd president.

She is perpetuating a myth. Every independent study of the Florida election in 2000 found that every remedy sought by Gore/Lieberman would have failed to make Al Gore president. I didn’t vote for George W. Bush in 2000 and would have preferred that he not have been elected president but Ms. Marcus is engaging in irresponsible speculation. Based on what we know the only course of action that would have led to a victory by Gore/Lieberman would have been allowing the Florida Supreme Court’s overturning the results of the election to stand.

That’s why it’s vitally important for a thorough investigation of the Russian government’s actions be undertaken, as open and impartial as these things can be. It will enable us to identify the material and efficient causes of the outcome of the presidential election of 2016.

If there is conclusive proof that the Russian government intervened in the election and produced the outcome, say that. If it is reasonable to believe that the Russian government intervened in the election and produced the outcome, say that. If there is suspicion and inference, say that.

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Blue Monday

It has just come to my attention that today is Blue Monday. A British boffin has calculated that today is the gloomiest day of the year. From the Telegraph:

In 2005 Dr Cliff Arnall, formerly of Cardiff University, came up with a light-hearted formula for predicting the gloomiest day of the year based on factors including weather, debts, time since Christmas and motivation.

His equation suggested that the third Monday in January – this year on Jan 16 – was when unhappiness peaked as Christmas bills roll in and the post-holiday buzz wears off.

But Dr Arnall said that this year could be even more depressing than usual because of Trump and Brexit anxiety, and sadness following the recent deaths of childhood heroes such as George Michael and Carrie Fisher which reminded people of their own mortality.

Dr Arnall, 51, from Brecon, Wales, who now runs happiness and confidence sessions for organisations including the Department for Work and Pensions and the NHS, said: “Seasonal depression factors are coming together on Blue Monday – and additional concerns make 2017’s Blue Monday even more depressing than other years.

Despite the icce storm and heavy fog here in Chicago, I’m actually feeling fairly chipper.

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Advice for Family Photographers

As I go through the 50 some-odd of my parents’ home movies and the roughly 500 slides, there’s one bit of advice I have for family photographers. For goodness sake leave some sort of annotations or journal of what your videos and still images represent. It’s darned hard for your heirs to figure out 70 years later.

And I’ve scarcely begun capturing and cataloguing the still photographs. Some of those go back 140 years. I some cases I can’t figure out whether a portrait is of a family friend or a silent era matinee idol. How many of you can recognize the movie stars or vaudeville stars of the nineteen teens?

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Readin’, Ritin’, ‘Rithmetic

At the American Council on Science and Health Alex Berezow is dissatisfied with the state of American K-12 education. I’m in general agreement that there should be a re-emphasis on the tradition definitions of literacy as reading, comprehension, expressing your comprehension in writing, and basic arithmetic. But he lost me in his very first paragraph:

Literacy is typically defined as the ability to read and write and do basic math. However, in the 21st Century, that is simply insufficient. To be a truly literate member of society — and to have a government capable of enacting competent policies — one must have a fundamental grasp of science, technology, and economics.

The devil is in the details. All of those goals—reading, writing, basic math, grasp of civics, science, technology, and economics—are defined arbitrarily not just in the United States but everywhere. In some places and for some people reading means the ability to read Plato’s Republic in the original. In others it means the ability to recognize passages of the Qur’an that you’ve memorized based on the shapes of the letters. In still others it means being able to read street signs.

If by “technology” is meant vendor-specific knowledge, it’s futile. Change is too rapid. Here are some of this definitions:

Civics. Americans do not have a sufficient grasp of how our republic works. One statistic poignantly depicts this truth: Only one in three Americans can name the three branches of government. Given that profound ignorance, is it any wonder that Americans also don’t understand what the President can and cannot do, the role of Congress, or how elections work? Really, these are lessons of which any grade school child should be familiar.

I continue to be astonished at how few adult, educated Americans understand how our system works. Not how it works in theory but how it works in practice. Except among a rarified few the level of knowledge is about at the level of Schoolhouse Rock. That’s better than nothing but not nearly enough.

Economics. There is no avoiding the economic laws of supply and demand. Policies that decrease supply and/or increase demand will cause prices to rise. Policies that increase supply and/or decrease demand will cause prices to fall. These “laws” apply as much to apples and oranges as they do to healthcare, the labor force, and currency exchange rates. The fact that economics is not required for all students to graduate high school is a national travesty.

I will tell you with confidence that it is not possible to teach even a basic understanding of economics without venturing into some level of indoctrination. When I was taking Economics 101, the indoctrination was strongly Keynesian. I have no idea what it is now but I’m confident that it’s there.

In its best form economics should be a science of human behavior and, yes, I think that everyone should have some understanding of human behavior. How you do that without getting into indoctrination is beyond me.

Technology. It goes without saying that comfort with technology is vital to being a productive citizen in the 21st Century. As globalization increases competition and digital technology takes over the economy, high schools should require all students to take computer science. A basic understanding of computer programming could help create a more literate and competitive workforce.

What does elementary school computer science consist of? High school? I really don’t know. I suspect it’s vendor-specific knowledge but it’s beyond my ken.

I think that people would be better off learning how to organize themselves into groups to accomplish specific projects as a team than they would learning “technology” as Dr. Berezow seems to think of it. But that’s my point. The requirements of reading can be well-defined. The requirements of basic math can be well-defined. Just about everything else is a matter of opinion.

And how does he plan to accomplish those goals in environments in which half of the students don’t even complete their senior year in high school under our system as it is?

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