Roads Not Taken

The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.

– Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities (1904)

This is our last election. It is fascism or communism. We are at the crossroads. I take the road to fascism.

Father Charles Coughlin (1936)

This week’s featured post is “American Democracy has been in trouble before“.

This week everybody was talking about the upcoming elections

Polls seem to be tipping back towards Republicans as inflation continues and the stock market keeps falling. But it’s not too late for them to turn again.

Conventional wisdom says Democrats should hope voters are thinking about abortion or democracy or Trump rather than the economy. But I wonder if perhaps the Democrats’ closing message ought to focus on what Republicans will do to the economy if they win one or both houses of Congress: They’ll sabotage it, like they did when Obama was president.

That seems pretty obvious, but not many Democrats are talking about it.

Republicans are already promising a return to their Obama-era hostage-taking policies. If they get hold of any lever of power, you can count on them to force government shutdowns and to play chicken with the debt ceiling. If the Fed succeeds in starting a recession, they’ll try to make it worse with spending cuts.

When I imagine a debt-ceiling crisis, the worst thing is that the MAGA generation of right-wing radicals is significantly dumber than the Tea Party generation. Ted Cruz may have pretended otherwise, but he always knew what a disaster it would be if the US defaulted on its debt. I don’t think Marjorie Taylor Greene does, and I can’t see Kevin McCarthy standing up to her, especially if Trump thinks a global economic panic will help him in 2024.

and Ukraine

Unable to win on the front lines, Putin seems to have settled on a Battle-of-Britain strategy. He’s raining destruction on Ukrainian cities in hope of breaking the people’s will. It didn’t work for Hitler, but I guess you never know.

and the Trump subpoena

The January 6 Committee held another hearing on Thursday. I didn’t feel like I learned much that was new, but the Committee did bolster what might be its closing argument: January 6 wasn’t a rally that got out of control. Rather, it was the culmination of a plot to steal the 2020 election that Trump was already hatching the summer before.

The conclusion of the hearing was a unanimous vote to subpoena Trump himself. I think it’s extremely unlikely that Trump will ever testify to the Committee, which goes out of business on January 1 and certainly won’t be renewed if Republicans get control of the House. But issuing the subpoena does establish a key point: Trump isn’t telling his side of the story because he doesn’t want to, not because the Committee doesn’t want to hear it.

and other egregious malefactors

A Connecticut jury decided Alex Jones owes the Sandy Hook families nearly $1 billion. That’s on top of the $50 million a Texas jury awarded earlier this year, and it doesn’t count possible punitive damages still to be assessed by the judge.

Most observers believe Jones doesn’t have a billion dollars, though he does have considerably more than he claims. (Somewhere in the hundreds of millions, probably.) Declaring bankruptcy probably won’t save him.

When the last appeal ends, the experts predict Jones will be left owing many millions of dollars to the Sandy Hook families he defamed in his broadcasts, in addition to other creditors chasing him through bankruptcy court.

“Alex Jones probably doesn’t have much of a project in life at this point other than beating these kinds of money judgments,” said UConn law professor Minor Meyers. “By and large, he is going to have a hard time earning money without immediately being forced to hand it over. He may really enjoy being a radio personality, but I can’t imagine he wants to do it pro bono.”

Steve Bannon’s contempt-of-Congress trial has moved to the sentencing phase. The government is asking for a six month prison sentence, rather than the maximum two years.

So Sean Hannity played a recording of a Biden phone message to his son Hunter from October, 2018. (Obtained how, exactly?) It revealed Biden as a compassionate father trying to support a troubled son.

It’s Dad. I called to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world, pal. You gotta get some help. I don’t know what to do. I know you don’t either. I’m here, no matter what you need. No matter what you need, I love you.

For some reason, Hannity appeared to consider this a “gotcha” of some sort, which says more about Hannity than he probably intended to reveal.

I keep seeing tweets from people who made some mistakes in their lives and wish their parents had been more like Joe Biden.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Tucker Carlson’s interview with Kanye West is how Carlson edited out Kanye’s anti-semitism to fit the story he wanted to tell.

Media Matters’ Matt Gertz has the details, along with this summary of Tucker’s overall message and mission.

Tucker Carlson Tonight revolves around an antisemitic conspiracy theory. The host posits that a cabal of global elites controls the heights of U.S. politics, media, culture, and business, and is using its power to corrupt American children, destroy western civilization, and replace its population with immigrants.

Carlson’s innovation is that he generally deracinates these familiar antisemitic tropes. While open white supremacists might argue, for example, that Jews are using immigration to replace the white population with a black and brown one, Carlson tells his viewers that elites like the financier George Soros (who is Jewish) are replacing “legacy Americans” with people from “far-away countries” in the “third world.”

Carlson’s stated worldview is close enough that neo-Nazis regularly praise his show for mainstreaming their blood-soaked positions. But Carlson’s careful use of language, and his furious denials that he is a racist, give the Fox brass just enough plausible deniability that they can continue to defend and support his program. 

but maybe we should be talking about nuclear power

This week, the stock broker I inherited from my father tossed out a speculative idea: NuScale Power. He said he couldn’t recommend it, because he wasn’t sure exactly what the company does. But one of his other clients had done the research and was very hot on it. So it might be something to look into, given that my portfolio has been light on energy stocks ever since I purged my fossil-fuel holdings.

The symbol for the stock is SMR, which turns out to stand for “small modular reactor”, a new generation of nuclear power plants that promise to be smaller, safer, easier to build, and less one-of-a-kind than current nuclear power plants. The environmental news site Grist had a mostly favorable article about SMRs in 2020.

While it’s true that renewable energy is cheap now, most energy wonks think it will get expensive when renewables are powering the entire grid, which will require building lots of batteries to deal with fluctuations in the sun and wind. Sure, there are studies suggesting it wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive to power the country purely on renewables, but the most accurate ones — which model the nitty-gritty details of how electrical systems work — tend to show that the best way to keep renewable power cheap is by having a source of clean energy that can be turned up when wind dies and the sun is hiding behind the clouds, said Matt Bowen, a research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, at Columbia University.

“In the energy world, there are really two camps: The all-renewables camp and everyone else,” he said. “I’m with everyone else.”

The negative case was outlined by Farhad Manjoo last month in the NYT: At best, nuclear power is the expensive kind of power you throw into a low-CO2-emission system when its renewables-and-batteries component is failing to keep up with demand. Manjoo recognizes the potential of SMRs, but if you have to do research to make a power-generation system work, why not spend your research dollars on better renewables and batteries? (And I’ll add this: There’s still no long-term storage plan for the radioactive waste.)

In the end, I decided SMR is not for me (which is one reason I feel no ethical qualms about discussing it here; I’m not touting a stock I own). Even if nuclear does have a role to play in the transition to a low-carbon-emission future, that role looks purely transitional to me. So a nuclear power-plant construction company doesn’t seem like a good long-term investment. If I bought into the industry now, I’d also have to figure out when to sell.

and you also might be interested in …

One of the most important topics in political research is just how social media contributes to political polarization. A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has a surprising answer. (The study itself is behind a paywall, but an article about it is here.)

Most people think social media is polarizing because it isolates you inside an echo chamber. You are constantly hearing people agree with you that Trump or Biden is a villain, so there’s no reason you should change your mind.

The study says it doesn’t work quite that way. What establishes and hardens a political identity is that social media also exposes you to opposition. You solidify as this or that when you argue with people on the other side.

We shouldn’t think of the internet as an “echo chamber” in which our arguments are repeated back to us until we get more and more convinced. I think it’s more like the island in the Lord of the Flies: it creates a social space that affords the emergence of separate social groups, it strengthens collective identities, and pushes opposing groups into conflict. This leads to a form of politics that is based on cycles of conflict between two warring tribes.

Slate examines just how hard it is for a transman to get breast-reduction surgery. Anti-trans mythology imagines doctors all too eager to prey on impressionable people, especially minors, by pushing irreversible gender-affirming treatments. The article claims exactly the opposite is true.

This detail sounds especially weird:

It is, after all, much easier for cis people to get plastic surgery than for trans people to get gender-affirming care. In 2020, there were 15.6 million cosmetic procedures performed in the U.S., according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Breast augmentations were one of the most popular surgeries, with 3,223 of these procedures performed on people aged 13 to 19.

If that sounds OK to you, but you still object to a similarly aged person with a female birth certificate getting their breasts reduced, you might want to think some more about that.

Apropos of nothing, Dan Kois’ retrospective on Rod McKuen is fascinating. Kois is too young to remember when McKuen sold poetry books by the millions and was the kind of celebrity poets never get to be.

But by the time I was a teenager, he had completely vanished from the cultural landscape. I only know of him because I spent the entire 1990s in thrift stores and used bookshops, and everywhere I went, I saw Rod McKuen’s name.

Eventually, Kois’ article turns into a meditation on cultural memory.

One of the weird contradictions of living in the future is that every artist is at the tip of your fingers, but you can only find who your fingers know to search for. In the not-so-distant past, artists could avoid slipping away thanks to only the physical evidence: a record in a thrift store, a used book with a man in a white turtleneck on its cover, murmuring to the bewildered shopper, “Who am I? To whom did I matter? To whom did I stop mattering?”

The Spotify algorithm, Amazon’s recommendations, they’ll never, ever show you Rod McKuen. Those are designed to direct you towards things that other people like right now. But thrift stores, used bookshops, and Goodwills are, accidentally, perfectly designed to show you things that people liked decades ago, then stopped liking.

I love surprising science results. The WaPo’s Well Being column offers this:

“Healthy fat is not about the amount of fat” someone carries, said Jeffrey Horowitz, a professor at the University of Michigan, who studies exercise and metabolism. It is about how well that fat functions, he said. “A person who has healthier fat is much better off than someone with the same body fat percentage whose fat is unhealthy.”

Apparently, what you want are small fat cells that can expand or contract as the body’s supply-and-demand of calories requires. What you don’t want are big inefficient fat cells leaking fatty acids that can build up inside vital organs.

This is why physical activity can make you healthier, even if you don’t lose weight or even lose fat. Exercise can “remake” your fat.

and let’s close with something batty

It turns out that bats aren’t just screeching for no reason, or even necessarily echolocating. A lot of the time they’re arguing with each other.

Yossi Yovel and his colleagues recorded a group of 22 Egyptian fruit bats, Rousettus aegyptiacus, for 75 days. Using a modified machine learning algorithm originally designed for recognizing human voices, they fed 15,000 calls into the software. They then analyzed the corresponding video to see if they could match the calls to certain activities.

They found that the bat noises are not just random, as previously thought, reports Skibba. They were able to classify 60 percent of the calls into four categories. One of the call types indicates the bats are arguing about food. Another indicates a dispute about their positions within the sleeping cluster. A third call is reserved for males making unwanted mating advances and the fourth happens when a bat argues with another bat sitting too close. In fact, the bats make slightly different versions of the calls when speaking to different individuals within the group, similar to a human using a different tone of voice when talking to different people.

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  • Thomas Paine  On October 19, 2022 at 11:28 pm

    “I keep seeing tweets from people who made some mistakes in their lives and wish their parents had been more like Joe Biden.”

    This can’t be repeated enough. All Sean Hannity has accomplished, beside confirming what an awful person he really is, is how geniunely humane and compassionate Joe Biden, as a person, really is. We should have had a father like Joe Biden.

    • Thomas Paine  On October 19, 2022 at 11:30 pm

      Edit – We *all* should have had a father like Joe Biden.

  • Linda Jewell  On October 23, 2022 at 8:50 pm

    Thank you for your blog, Doug. I have been a weekly reader for many years now, and I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful and thorough analysis. I notice in this post that you refer to “transmen,” and I would like to respectfully ask you to please use “trans men” in the future – a trans man is a type of man, like a Chinese man is a man who is Chinese, but the conjoined version of the term is a slur. The same is true of trans women as opposed to transwomen – it’s a descriptor, not a category that implies something other.

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