The Free Press, and How You Get It

Free Press Image
The right to sit in a cafe, drinking coffee and reading newspapers is wasted unless that press is free! By Impact Photography/Shutterstock

10 July 2019 – ‘Way back in the late 1960s I spent an entire day as a news hawker. That is, I stood on street corners shouting things at passersby intended to induce them to by copies of a newspaper I was selling. The newspaper was something called The L.A. Free Press. It was produced and sold in Los Angeles, and the street corners I stood on had names like “West Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset.”

I’d recently transplanted from Boston, Massachusetts to the Los Angeles, California area and had never heard of The L.A. Free Press before. A small gang I’d been hanging out with that morning heard that I had a driver’s license on me, and knew that we could use it as collateral to get a great whacking stack of those newspapers to sell at a profit.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

I initially thought the newspaper copies were somehow free for the taking (as so many local papers are today). I was quickly disabused of that idea because I got pretty decent money for buying copies of it at a low price, then selling them on street corners for a higher price. It clearly wasn’t that kind of free!

Then, I imagined that was (like so many thin publications of the time) some hippy-dippy propaganda rag full of free-love manifestos and ads for beatnik-poetry venues. Being a veteran hippy-beatnik-biker, that was okay with me. I didn’t care as long as there was coin to be had. I wasn’t one of Donovan Leitch’s “beatniks out to make it rich,” but I was interested in coming up with lunch money!

The main headline on the first page of the copies we got in exchange for a mortgage on my driver’s license sounded like a local-interest story that I was not embarrased to wave at potential newsprint buyers, so it didn’t seem to be some hippy-dippy propaganda rag, either. The papers actually sold pretty well!

I needed the money (being dead broke at the time), so I swallowed my pride and did the job. I kept the last copy from my stack, however, to read when I got back to wherever I was sleeping that night.

By the time I’d finished reading the thing I’d realized why the publication was called The L.A. Free Press. It was an independent newspaper founded by a small group dedicated to investigative journalism with nobody to answer to but their readers. I became proud to be working with them.

If I’d been smart and ambitious I would have tried to get a job with them writing copy. After all, part of my reason for relocating was to find some kind of writing gig. But, as is typical with homeless eighteen-year-olds living on the streets, I was more frightened and depressed than smart and ambitious. The next day I moved on to doing something that turned out to be another stupid career move.

Sometimes depression is not a sign of mental illness, but a rational response to the way your life is going.

What I learned from that episode of my misspent youth (What’s the point of misspending your youth if you’re not going to learn something from it?) was what intellectuals mean when they talk about “the Free Press.” It’s not just some empty slogan you hear once in a while on CNN. It’s how we, as citizens of a free country, keep track of what’s going on outside of our individual hovels.

The difference between we citizens of a free country and downtrodden medieval serfs slaving to feed their “betters,” is that we have some say in what goes on outside our hovels. We can’t affect things in a way that’s good for us and the people we care about unless we find out what’s actually going on out there. For that we hire independent journalists who have at least half a brain and make it their business to find out for us.

We pay them a living wage and (if we’ve got at least half a brain ourselves) listen to what they tell us is happening. The Free Press is not, as some dishonest demagogues try to tell us, “the enemy of the people,” but a necessary part of a free democratic society.

For this reason, the journalistic profession has been called “The Fourth Estate” since the Enlightenment. Originally, the term was meant to indicate that a Free Press was available – in addition to the three original estates of clergy, aristocracy and commoners – whose writ was to frame the debate upon which society made common decisions. Later political systems still had (usually) three competing authorities explicitly charged with governing, along with a Free Press implicitly charged with framing the debate about what to do next.

In the United States, our Constitution explicitly delineates a government made up of three co-equal branches: Legislature, Court System, and Executive. The Founding Fathers (If that’s not a sexist term, I don’t know what is!) realized they’d forgotten the Free Press in the original document when they couldn’t get anybody to ratify (agree to) the thing without immediately amending it to include a Free Press (as well as the rest of the Bill of Rights).

The Free Press was considered so important that it was included in the first amendment.

Before anybody gets the idea that I’m criticizing the Founding Fathers as incompetent, I want to point out that this error just goes to prove that those guys were human, and humans make mistakes. Specifically, they were exceedingly bright guys to whom the need for a vibrant Free Press was so obvious that they forgot to mention it. The first ten Amendments – the Bill of Rights – should be seen as an “Oh, Shit!” moment.

“How could we have left that out?”

Having a Free Press, and making good use of it, is the first thing you have to have to set up a democracy. In a sense, it’s not the “fourth” estate, but the first. All the rest is afterthought. It’s bells and whistles designed to be the mechanical parts of a democracy. They’re of no value whatsoever without a Free Press.

On the other hand, once you have a functioning Free Press and a society that makes good use of it, the rest of the bells and whistles will inevitably follow. In that sense, the Free Press is not an afterthought or a result of democracy. Instead, it’s the essence of democracy. That’s why the first thing would-be authoritarians seek to eliminate is the Free Press.

Authoritarian’s Lament

Davy Crockett stamp
Davy Crockett was an individualistic hero for children growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Circa 1967 post stamp printed in USA shows Davy Crockett with rifle and scrub pines. Oldrich / Shutterstock.com

22 May 2019 – I grew up believing in the myth of the rugged individualist.

As did most boys in the 1950s, I looked up to Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and their ilk. Being fond of developing grand theories, I even worked out an hypothesis that the wisdom of any group’s decisions was inversely proportional to the group’s size (number of members) because in order to develop consensus, the decision had to be acceptable to even the stupidest member of the group.

With this background, I used to think that democracy’s main value was that it protected the rights of individuals – especially those rugged individuals I so respected – so they could scout the path to the future for everyone else to follow.

I’ve since learned better.

There were, of course, a lot of holes in this philosophy, not the least of which was that it matched up so well with the fevered imaginings I saw going on in the minds of authoritarian figures and those who wanted to cozy up to authoritarian figures. Happily, I recognized those philosophical holes and wisely kept on the lookout for better ideas.

First, I realized that no single individual, no matter how accomplished, could do much of anything on their own. Even Albert Einstein, that heroic misfit scientist, was only able to develop his special theory of relativity by abandoning some outdated assumptions that made interpreting results of experiments by other scientists problematic. Without a thorough immersion in the work of his peers, he wouldn’t have even known there was a problem to be solved!

Similarly, that arrogant genius, Sir Isaac Newton  recognized his debt to his peers in a letter to Robert Hooke on 5 February 1676 by saying: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

For all of his hubris, Newton was well known to immerse himself in the society of his fellows.

Of course, my childhood heros, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Captain Blood, only started out as rugged individuals. They then went on to gather followers and ended up as community leaders of one sort or another. As children, we used to forget that!

My original admiration of rugged individualists was surely an elitist view, but it was tempered with the understanding that predicting in advance who was going to be part of that elite was an exercise in futility. I’d already seen too many counterexamples of people who imagined that they, or somebody they felt inferior to, would eventually turn out to be one of the elite. In, for example, high school, I’d run into lots of idiots (in my estimation) who strutted around thinking they were superior to others because of (usually) family background or social position.

We called that “being a legend in their own mind.”

Diversity Rules!

Eventually, I realized what ancient Athenians had at least a glimmer of, and the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution certainly had a clear idea of, and what modern management theorists harp on today: the more diverse a group is, the better its decisions tend to be.

This is, of course, the exact reverse of my earlier rugged-individualist hypothesis.

As one might suspect, diversity is measurable, and there are numerous diversity indices one might choose from to quantify the diversity within a group. Here I’m using the word “group” in the mathematical sense that such a group is a set whose members (elements) are identifiable by sharing specific characteristics.

For example, “boys” forms a group of juvenile male human beings. “Girls” forms another similar, but mutually exclusive group. “Boys” and “girls” are both subsets of multiple larger groups, one of which is “young people.”

“Diversity” seeks to measure the number of separate subgroups one can find within a given group. So, you can (at least) divide “young people” into two subgroups “boys” and “girls.”

The importance of this analysis is that the different characteristics common within subgroups lead to different life experiences, which, the diversity theory posits, provide different points of view and (likely) different suggestions to be considered for solutions to any given problem.

So, the theory goes, the more diverse the group, the more different solutions to the problem can be generated, and the more likely a superior choice will be presented. With more superior choices available and a more diverse set (There’s that word again!) of backgrounds that can be used to compare the choices, the odds are that the more diversity in a group, the better will be the solution it finally chooses.

Yeah, this is a pretty sketchy description of the theory, but Steven Johnson spends 216 pages laying it out in his book Farsighted, and I don’t have 216 pages here. The sketch presented here is the best I can do with the space available. If you want more explanation, buy the book and read it.

Here I’m going to seize on the Gini–Simpson diversity index, which uses the probability that two randomly selected members of a group are members of the same subgroup (λ), then subtracts it from unity. In other words in a group of, say, young people containing equal numbers of boys and girls, the probability that any pair of members selected at random will be either both boys or both girls is 0.5 (50%). The Gini-Simpson index is 1-λ = 1 – 0.5 = 0.5.

A more diverse group (one with three subgroups, for example) would have a lower probability of any pair being exactly matched, and a higher Gini-Simpson diversity index (closer to 1.0). Thus, the diversity theory would have it that such a group would have a better chance of making a superior decision.

Authoritarians Don’t Rule!

Assuming I’ve convinced you that diversity makes groups smarter, where does that leave our authoritarian?

Let’s look at the rugged-individualist/authoritarian situation from a diversity-index viewpoint. There, the number of subgroups in the decision-making group is one, ‘cause there’s only one member to begin with. Randomly selecting twice always comes up with identically the same member, so the probability of getting the same one twice is exactly one. That is, it’s guaranteed.

That makes the diversity score of an individualist/authoritarian exactly zero. In other words, according to the diversity decision-making theory, authoritarians are the worst possible decision makers!

And, don’t try to tell me individualist/authoritarians can cheat the system by having wide-ranging experiences and understanding different cultures. I’ve consciously done exactly that for seven decades. What it’s done is to give me an appreciation of different cultures, lifestyles, philosophies, etc.

It did not, however, make me more diverse. I’m still one person with one brain and one viewpoint. It only gave me the wisdom(?) to ask others for their opinions, and listen to what they say. It didn’t give me the wisdom to answer for them because I’m only the one person with the one viewpoint.

So, why do authoritarian regimes even exist?

What folks often imagine as “human nature” provides the answer. I’m qualifying “human nature” because, while this particular phenomenon is natural for humans, it’s also natural for all living things. It’s a corollary that follows from Darwin’s natural-selection hypothesis.

Imagine you’re a scrap of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Your job is to produce copies of yourself. If you’re going to be successful, you’ll have to code for ways to make lots of copies of yourself. The more copies you can make, the more successful you’ll be.

Over the past four billion years that life is estimated to have been infesting the surface of Earth, a gazillion tricks and strategies have been hit upon by various scraps of DNA to promote reproductions of themselves.

While some DNA has found that promoting reproduction of other scraps of DNA is helpful under some circumstances, your success comes down to promoting reproduction of scraps of DNA like you.

For example, human DNA has found that coding for creatures that help each other survive helps them survive. Thus, human beings tend to cluster in groups, or tribes of related individuals – with similar DNA. We’re all tribal, and (necessarily) proud of it!

Anyway, another strategy that DNA uses for better survival is to prefer creatures similar to us. That helps DNA evolve into more successful forms.

In the end, the priority system that necessarily evolves is:

  • Identical copies first (thus, the bond between identical twins is especially strong);

  • Closely related copies next;

  • More distantly related copies have lower priority.

We also pretty much all like pets because pets are unrelated creatures that somehow help us survive to make scads of copies of our own DNA. But, we prefer mammals as pets because mammals’ DNA is very much like our own. More people keep cats and dogs as pets, than snakes or bugs. See the pattern?

We prefer our children to our brothers (and sisters).

We prefer our brothers and sisters to our neighbors.

We prefer our neighbors to our pets. (Here the priority systems is getting pretty weak!)

And, so forth.

In other words, all living things prefer other living things that are like them.

Birds of a feather flock together.

That is the basis of all discrimination phenomena, from racial bias to how we choose our friends.

How Authoritarians Rule, Anyway.

What has that to do with authoritarianism?

Well, it has a lot to do with authoritarianism! Authoritarians only survive if they’re supported by populations who prefer them enough to cede decision-making power to them. Otherwise, they’d just turn and walk away.

So authoritarian societies require populations with low diversity who generally are very much like the leaders they select. If you want to be an authoritarian leader, go find a low-diversity population and convince them you’re just like them. Tell ‘em they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread because they’re so much like you, and that everyone else – those who are not part of your selected population – are inferior scum simply because they’re not like your selected population. The your followers will love you for it, and hate everyone else.

That’s why authoritarian regimes mainly thrive in low-diversity, xenophobic populations.

That despite (or maybe because of) the fact that such populations are likely to make the poorest decisions.

The Empire and the Five Kings

The Empire and the Five KIngs cover
The latest book by Bernard-Henri Levy

15 May 2019 – It’s always nice when you find someone who agrees with you. When it’s somebody with the intellectual chops of Bernard-Henri Levy, it’s especially gratifying.

When I heard Levy’s interview with Fareed Zakaria on the latter’s GPS show carried by CNN, I felt impelled to rush out and obtain a copy of his latest book: The Empire and the Five Kings.

I’m very glad I did.

Beside having a writing style that’s easy to follow and pleasant to read, Levy’s book provides a look at world events from an unusual perspective and lots and lots of details that I could never have known otherwise. Whenever I can learn something new, I count the time well spent. Learning so much in 250 pages (I didn’t read the Index that takes up the last 11 pages) counts as time very well spent!

I do have to say, however, that Levy trots out words even I have to look up! His delight in his massive vocabulary I have to forgive, though. After all, I long ago decided not to coddle my readers with restricted word choices. If they have trouble puzzling out words that I use, they can just bloody well go look ‘em up!

Levy does not make the mistake Henry Miller was so notorious for: delighting so much in his facility with various European languages that he left his readers puzzling over long passages in French or German. If you haven’t traveled extensively in mid-twentieth-century Europe and lived there long enough to be steeped in the languages, you’re left wondering what he’s on about, and whether you’re missing something important to the story.

Levy no doubt is equally fluent in a long list of languages, but mercifully avoids tormenting us with them. The book is very definitely presented in more-or-less standard English.

To quote Levy’s bio on the back flap inside his book’s the dust cover: “Bernard-Henri Levy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than thirty books …. His writing has appeared extensively in publications throughout Europe and the United States. … Levy is cofounder of the antiracist group SOS Racisme and has served on diplomatic missions for the French government.”

Joan Juliet Buck, former editor of French Vogue, writing in Vanity Fair called him “an action-driven intellectual who moves fast, writes fast, and is listened to with respect.”

“What is an ‘action-driven intellectual,’” you ask?

That is an important – arguably dominant – part of Levy’s character. Action-driven intellectuals are, as Levy admiringly describes in his preface, the “type of writer that a great French resistance fighter, Roger Stephane, called ‘the adventurer’ …” Levy lists among his admired adventurers, T.E. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Andre Malraux and writer-mercenaries like Xenophon. He seems proud to count himself among their fellows.

From someone with fewer war stories to tell, that would sound like hubris. From Levy, however, it seems (in the immortal words of Walter Brennan in the first episode of the TV series The Guns of Will Sonnett) “No brag. Just fact.”

So, what does this action-driven intellectual have to say? Especially, what is he indicating by his title, The Empire and the Five Kings?

It is a little difficult to be sure whether his volume is a salutation to the embattled resistance warriors of the world fighting against the rise of autocratic dictators (especially the Kurdish Peshmerga resisting threatened genocide by Turkish President and would-be dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), or a cry of warning about the chaos threatening Western democracy from all sides, or even a shout of hope for democracy’s future. Perhaps it’s best seen as all of the above.

The Empire, of course, is how Levy sees the United States. He sees it, however, as the best kind of empire: a reluctant one dragged to the center of the World’s stage by universal acclaim.

The United States never wanted to be an empire, he opines. Instead, after the double World War of the early twentieth century, the victorious allied western democracies desperately needed a leader; a standard bearer to head their parade into the glorious – and hopefully peaceful – future they were yearning for. And, there was nobody else around that was up to the job. So, the United States put on a sheepish grin and, channeling their inner Fess Parker, said: “Well, shucks, folks. If ya really want me to, I guess I could give it a lash.”

That’s how Levy sees America in the latter half of the twentieth and the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Then something happened.

Levy offers no blame or even critical analysis. I, however, am willing to venture an opinion.

Imagine Fess Parker standing up there with his folksy grin, pushed unwillingly into standing up to do his level best – only to be pelted by tomatoes.

It was bad enough to see angry crowds shouting “Yankee Go Home!” in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They’d all been through Hell, and were, in the immortal words of Arlo Guthrie: “Hung down, brung down, hung up, and all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things.”

They’d been just havin’ a tough time.

It was reasonable that the world’s people would be feeling pretty awful and might take it out on the one who’d come through the whole experience looking like the Champion of the World.

That was the United States, so we could overlook a few over-ripe tomatoes and shouts for us to go home.

But, when a bunch of towel-headed Saudi Arabian expats from Afghanistan flew airliners into a few of our most iconic buildings, killing thousands of our friends and neighbors (not to mention relatives), that proved a bit too much.

Fess Parker decided to do what those ingrates told him to do: “Go Home!”

“You don’t like the way I’m policing the World?” he said. “Well, then, you can just go do it yourselves. I’ll just go home and mow my own grass. You can clean up your own darn messes.”

That, Levy sees in horror, leaves the field open for the Five Kings – the autocrats jostling to beat up everyone else in the schoolyard – to do their worst.

Putin wants to be crime boss in Russia and reconstitute the failed U.S.S.R. as a secular kleptocracy. Ali Khameni and his Revolutionary Guards want to bring back the theocracy that kept the Sultan’s subjects abjectly subjugated in twelfth-century Iran. Erdogan yearns for the glories of the Byzantine Empire. Mohammad Bin Salman wants the wealth and power he sees as his birthright “owning” a Saudi Arabia that dominates the oil wealth of the Middle East. Xi Jinping wants to rule China as a commercial empire dominating the Far East (at least).

They all want autocratic power sans censure, sans limit, and sans end.

Levy rightly surmises that the other seven-and-a-half billion of us living on this planet might object to being told what to do by those five.

At least, he suggests, we should!

I happen to agree.

Where Levy and I disagree is in his diagnosis of what’s going on in America.

Levy gets into minor difficulty when he tries to follow the footsteps of De Toqueville by explaining America to Americans. Like many of today’s observers (and especially rehabilitated Marxists like Levy) he fails to recognize how close rabid love of democracy is to rabid populism, and how short the fall is from there to that most virulent form of authoritarianism – fascism.

Levy is not the first cultural transplant who’s made critical misapprehensions about American character. Alistair Cook, embarrassingly blurted out an opinion to the effect that “Americans yearn for an aristocracy” on national television. He’d mistaken Americans’ yearning for material success (especially among ‘50s-era suburbanites) for an unmet desire to fawn over wealthy aristocrats.

America is not England. We remember suffering the birth pangs of the Revolutionary War to, as Tom Selleck’s “Mathew Quigley” character intoned: “… Run the misfits out of our country. We sent ‘em back to England.”

I especially censured rehabilitated Marxists above because the journey from Marxist to Stalinist is so short that it generally happens in the blink of an eye. It happens so fast that hardly anyone recognizes the change. It’s like a jump cut mid-sentence in a movie to catch a reaction shot. Above all, Marxists never seem to see it coming. But, that’s a rant for another day.

Lacking a view of that slippery slope from democracy to fascism, Levy seems at a loss to understand the Trump phenomenon. While Levy laments America seeming to lose its way on the world stage, what’s actually happened is that we’re in the middle of making the transition from democracy to fascism. While most of us are scratching our heads, trying to figure out why our democracy seems to have stopped working, large swaths of our leadership – led from behind by Donald Trump – are busy reconstructing our democratic government into the Fourth Reich!

I say “led from behind by Donald Trump” because, unlike Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, it seems that Trump does not have a clear idea of what he is doing. Old-time (twentieth-century) fascists were quite sure of what they wanted and how to get it.

Trump does not seem to know that. It is unclear whether he has any coherent ideas at all. It’s like he’s suffering Wernicke’s aphasia: unable to understand or compose coherent language. He seems more like a cat reacting to movement of a laser pointer – all reaction and no thought. Others on the Far Right, however, do have a clear idea what they want and what they’re doing, and they are attempting to herd Trump’s scattered thoughts into their preferred direction.

Of course, when they stop needing him (specifically, his Reality-TV “charm”) as a front man, he’ll be gone in a heartbeat! See what what happened to Leon Trotsky.

Why Target Average Inflation?

Federal Reserve Seal
The FOMC attempts to control economic expansion by managing interest rates. Shutterstock.com

8 May 2019 – There’s been a bit of noise in financial-media circles this week (as of this writing, but it’ll be last week when you get to read it) about Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s talking up shifting the Fed’s focus to targeting something called “average inflation” and using words like “transient” and “symmetric” to describe this thinking. James Macintosh provided a nice layman-centric description of the pros and cons of this concept in his “Streetwise” column in Friday’s (5/3) The Wall Street Journal. (Sorry, folks, but this article is only available to WSJ subscribers, so the link above leads to a teaser that asks you to either sign in as a current subscriber or to become a new subscriber. And, you thought information was supposed to be distributed for free? Think again!)

I’m not going to rehash what Macintosh wrote, but attempt to show why this change makes sense. In fact, it’s not really a change at all, but an acknowledgement of what’s really been going on all the time.

We start with pointing out that what the Federal Reserve System is mandated to do is to control the U.S. economy. The operant word here is “control.” That means that to understand what the Fed does (and what it should do) requires a basic understanding of control theory.

Basic Control Theory

We’ll start with a thermostat.

A lot of people (I hesitate to say “most” because I’ve encountered so many counter examples – otherwise intelligent people who somehow don’t seem to get the point) understand how a thermostat works.

A thermostat is the poster child for basic automated control systems. It’s the “stone knives and bearskins” version of automated controls, and is the easiest for the layman to understand, so that’s where we’ll start. It’s also a good analog for what has passed for economic controls since the Fed was created in 1913.

Okay, the first thing to understand is the concept of a “set point.” That’s a “desired value” of some measurement that represents the thing you want to control. In the case of the thermostat, the measurement is room temperature (as read out from a thermometer) and the thing you’re trying to control is how comfortable the room air feels to you. In the case of the Fed, the thing you want to control is overall economic performance and the measurement folks decided was most useful is the inflation rate.

Currently, the set point for inflation is 2% per annum.

In the case of the thermostat in our condo, my wife and I have settled on 75º F. That’s a choice we’ve made based on the climate where we live (Southwestern Florida), our ages, and what we, through experience, have found to be most comfortable for us right now. When we lived in New England, we chose a different set point. Similarly, when we lived in Northern Arizona it was different as well.

The bottom line is: the set point is a matter of choice based on a whole raft of factors that we think are important to us and it varies from time to time.

The same goes for the Fed’s inflation set point. It’s a choice Fed governors make based on a whole raft of considerations that they think are important to the country right now. One of the reasons they meet every month is to review that target ‘cause they know that things change. What seems like a good idea in July, might not look so good in August.

Now, it’s important to recognize that the set point is a target. Like any target, you’re trying to hit it, but you don’t really expect to hit it exactly. You really expect that the value you get for your performance measurement will differ from your set point by some amount – by some error or what metrologists prefer to call “deviation.” We prefer deviation to the word error because it has less pejorative connotations. It’s a fact of life, not a bad thing.

When we add in the concept of time, we also introduce the concept of feedback. That is what control theorists call it when you take the results of your measurement and feed it back to your decision of what to do next.

What you do next to control whatever you’re trying to control depends, first, on the sign (positive or negative) of the deviation, and, in more sophisticated controls, it’s value or magnitude. In the case of the thermostat, if the deviation is positive (meaning the room is hotter than you want) you want to do something to cool it down. In the case of the economy, if inflation is too high you want to do something to reduce economic activity so you don’t get an economic bubble that’ll soon burst.

What confuses some presidents is the idea that rising economic activity isn’t always good. Presidents like boom times ‘cause they make people feel good – like a sugar high. Populist presidents typically fail to recognize (or care about the fact) that booms are invariably bubbles that burst disastrously. Just ask the people of Venezuela who watched their economy’s inflation rate suddenly shoot up to about a million(!) percent per annum.

Booms turn to busts in a heartbeat!

This is where we want to abandon the analogy with a thermostat and get a little more sophisticated.

A thermostat is a blunt instrument. What the thermostat automatically does next is like using a club. At best, a thermostat has two clubs to choose from: it can either fire up the furnace (to raise the room temperature in the event of a negative deviation) or kick in the air conditioner (in the event that the deviation is positive – too hot). That’s known as a binary digital control. It’s gives you a digital choice: up or down.

We leave the thermostat analogy because the Fed’s main tool for controlling the economy (the Fed-funds interest rate) is a lot more sophisticated. It’s what mathematicians call analog. That is, instead of providing a binary choice (to use the club or not), it lets you choose how much pressure you want to apply up or down.

Quantitative easing similarly provides analog control, so what I’m going to say below also applies to it.

Okay, the Fed’s control lever (Fed funds interest rate) is more like a brake pedal than a club. In a car, the harder you press the brake pedal, the more pressure you apply to make the car slow down. A little pressure makes the car slow down a little. A lot of pressure makes the car slow down a lot.

So, you can see why authoritarians like low interest rates. Autthoritarians generally have high-D personalities. As Personality Insights says: “They tend to know 2 speeds in life – zero and full throttle… mostly full throttle.”

They generally don’t have much use for brakes!

By the way, the thing governments have that corresponds to a gas pedal is deficit spending, but the correspondence isn’t exact and the Fed can’t control it, anyway. Since this article is about the Fed, we aren’t going to talk about it now.

When inflation’s moving too fast (above the set point) by a little, the Fed governors – being the feedback controller – decide to raise the Fed funds rate, which is analogous to pushing the brake pedal, by a little. If that doesn’t work, they push it a little harder. If inflation seems to be out of control, as it did in the 1970s, they push it as hard as they can, boosting interest rates way up and pulling way back on the economy.

Populist dictators, who generally don’t know what they’re doing, try to prevent their central banks (you can’t have an economy without having a central bank, even if you don’t know you have it) from raising interest rates soon enough or high enough to get inflation under control, which is why populist dictatorships generally end up with hyperinflation leading to economic collapse.

Populist Dictators Need Not Apply

This is why we don’t want the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank under political control. Politicians are not elected for their economic savvy, so we want Fed governors, who are supposed to have economic savvy, to make smart decisions based on their understanding of economic causes and effects, rather than dumb decisions based on political expediency.

Economists are mathematically sophisticated people. They may (or may not) be steeped in the theory of automated control systems, but they’re quite capable of understanding these basics and how they apply to controlling an economy.

Economics, of course, has been around as long as civilization. Hesiod (ca. 750 BCE) is sometimes considered “the first economist.” Contemporary economics traces back to the eighteenth century with Adam Smith. Control theory, on the other hand, has only been elucidated since the early 1950s. So, you don’t really need control theory to understand economics. It just makes it easier to see how the controls work.

To a veteran test and measurement maven like myself, the idea of thinking in terms of average inflation, instead of the observed inflation at some point in time – like right now – makes perfect sense. We know that every time you make a measurement of anything, you’re almost guaranteed to get a different value than you got the last time you measured it. That’s why we (scientists and engineers) always measure whatever we care about multiple times and pay attention to the average of the measurements instead of each measurement individually.

So, Fed governors starting to pay attention to average inflation strikes us as a duh! What else would you look at?

Similarly, using words like “transient” and “symmetric” make perfect sense because “transient” expresses the idea that things change faster than you can measure them and “symmetric” expresses the idea that measurement variations can be positive or negative – symmetric each side of the average.

These ideas all come from the mathematics of statistics. You’ve heard of “statistical significance” associated with polling data, or two polling results being within “statistical error.” The variations I’m talking about are the same thing. Variations between two values (like the average inflation and the target inflation) are statistically significant if they’re sufficiently outside the statistical error.

I’m not going to go into how you calculate a value for statistical error because it takes hours of yammering to teach it in statistics classes, and I just don’t have the space here. You wouldn’t want to read it right now, anyway. Suffice it to say that it’s a well-defined concept relating to how much variation you can expect in a given data set.

While the control theory I’ve been talking about applies especially to automated control systems, it applies equally to Federal Reserve System control of economic performance – if you put the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) in place of the control computer that makes decisions for the automated control system.

So,” you ask, “why not put the Fed-funds rate under computer control?”.

The reason it would be unreasonable to fully automate the Fed’s actions is that we can’t duplicate the thinking process of the Fed governors in a computer program. The state of the art of economic models is just not good enough, yet. We still need the gut feelings of seasoned economists to make enough sense out of what goes on in the economy to figure out what to do next.

That, by the way, is why we don’t leave the decisions up to some hyperintelligent pandimensional being (named Trump). We need a panel of economists with diverse backgrounds and experiences – the FOMC – to have some hope of getting it right!

So, You Thought It Was About Climate Change?

Smog over Warsaw
Air pollution over Warsaw center city in winter. Piotr Szczepankiewicz / Shutterstock

Sorry about failing to post to this blog last week. I took sick and just couldn’t manage it. This is the entry I started for 10 April, but couldn’t finish until now.

17 April 2019 – I had a whole raft of things to talk about in this week’s blog posting, some of which I really wanted to cover for various reasons, but I couldn’t resist an excuse to bang this old “environmental pollution” drum once again.

A Zoë Schlanger-authored article published on 2 April 2019 by World Economic Forum in collaboration with Quartz entitled “The average person in Europe loses two years of their life due to air pollution” crossed my desk this morning (8 April 2019). It was important to me because environmental pollution is an issue I’ve been obsessed with since the 1950s.

The Setup

One of my earliest memories is of my father taking delivery of a even-then-ancient 26-foot lifeboat (I think it was from an ocean liner, though I never really knew where it came from), which he planned to convert to a small cabin cruiser. I was amazed when, with no warning to me, this great, whacking flatbed trailer backed over our front lawn, and deposited this thing that looked like a miniature version of Noah’s Ark.

It was double-ended – meaning it had a prow-shape at both ends – and was pretty much empty inside. That is, it had benches for survivors to sit on and fittings for oarlocks (I vaguely remember oarlocks actually being in place, but my memory from over sixty years ago is a bit hazy.) but little else. No decks. No superstructure. Maybe some grates in the bottom to keep people’s feet out of the bilge, but that’s about it.

My father spent year or so installing lower decks, upper decks, a cabin with bunks, head and a small galley, and a straight-six gasoline engine for propulsion. I sorta remember the keel already having been fitted for a propeller shaft and rudder, which would class the boat as a “launch” rather than a simple lifeboat, but I never heard it called that.

Finally, after multiple-years’ reconstruction, the thing was ready to dump into the water to see if it would float. (Wooden boats never float when you first put them in the water. The planks have to absorb water and swell up to tighten the joints. Until then, they leak like sieves.)

The water my father chose to dump this boat into was the Seekonk River in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. It was a momentous day in our family, so my mother shepherded my big sister and me around while my father stressed out about getting the deed done.

We won’t talk about the day(s) the thing spent on the tiny shipway off Gano Street where the last patches of bottom paint were applied over where the boat’s cradle had supported its hull while under construction, and the last little forgotten bits were fitted and checked out before it was launched.

While that was going on, I spent the time playing around the docks and frightening my mother with my antics.

That was when I noticed the beautiful rainbow sheen covering the water.

Somebody told me it was called “iridescence” and was caused by the whole Seekonk River being covered by an oil slick. The oil came from the constant movement of oil-tank ships delivering liquid dreck to the oil refinery and tank farm upstream. The stuff was getting dumped into the water and flowing down to help turn Narragansett Bay, which takes up half the state to the south, into one vast combination open sewer and toxic-waste dump.

That was my introduction to pollution.

It made my socks rot every time I accidentally or reluctantly-on-purpose dipped any part of my body into that cesspool.

It was enough to gag a maggot!

So when, in the late 1960s, folks started yammering on about pollution, my heartfelt reaction was: “About f***ing time!”

I did not join the “Earth Day” protests that started in 1970, though. Previously, I’d observed the bizarre antics surrounding the anti-war protests of the middle-to-late 1960s, and saw the kind of reactions they incited. My friends and I had been a safe distance away leaning on an embankment blowing weed and laughing as less-wise classmates set themselves up as targets for reactionary authoritarians’ ire.

We’d already learned that the best place to be when policemen suit up for riot patrol is someplace a safe distance away.

We also knew the protest organizers – they were, after all, our classmates in college – and smiled indulgently as they worked up their resumes for lucrative careers in activist management. There’s more than one way to make a buck!

Bohemians, beatniks, hippies, or whatever term du jour you wanted to call us just weren’t into the whole money-and-power trip. We had better, mellower things to do than march around carrying signs, shouting slogans, and getting our heads beaten in for our efforts. So, when our former friends, the Earth-Day organizers, wanted us to line up, we didn’t even bother to say “no.” We just turned and walked away.

I, for one, was in the midst of changing tracks from English to science. I’d already tried my hand at writing, but found that, while I was pretty good at putting sentences together in English, then stringing them into paragraphs and stories, I really had nothing worthwhile to write about. I’d just not had enough life experience.

Since physics was basic to all the other stuff I’d been interested in – for decades – I decided to follow that passion and get a good grounding in the hard sciences, starting with physics. By the late seventies, I had learned whereof science was all about, and had developed a feel for how it was done, and what the results looked like. Especially, I was deep into astrophysics in general and solar physics in particular.

As time went on, the public noises I heard about environmental concerns began to sound more like political posturing and less like scientific discourse. Especially as they chose to ignore variability of the Sun that we astronomers knew was what made everything work.

By the turn of the millennium, scholarly reports generally showed no observations that backed up the global-warming rhetoric. Instead, they featured ambiguous results that showed chaotic evolution of climate with no real long-term trends.

Those of us interested in the history of science also realized that warm periods coincided with generally good conditions for humans, while cool periods could be pretty rough. So, what was wrong with a little global warming when you needed it?

A disturbing trend, however, was that these reports began to feature a boilerplate final paragraph saying, roughly: “climate change is a real danger and caused by human activity.” They all featured this paragraph, suspiciously almost word for word, despite there being little or nothing in the research results to support such a conclusion.

Since nothing in the rest of the report provided any basis for that final paragraph, it was clearly non-sequitur and added for non-science reasons. Clearly something was terribly wrong with climate research.

The penny finally dropped in 2006 when emeritus Vice President Albert Gore (already infamous for having attempted to take credit for developing the Internet) produced his hysteria-inducing movie An Inconvenient Truth along with the splashing about of Jerry Mahlman’s laughable “hockey-stick graph.” The graph, in particular, was based on a stitching together of historical data for proxies of global temperature with a speculative projection of a future exponential rise in global temperatures. That is something respectable scientists are specifically trained not to do, although it’s a favorite tactic of psycho-ceramics.

Air Pollution

By that time, however, so much rhetoric had been invested in promoting climate-change fear and convincing the media that it was human-induced, that concerns about plain old pollution (which anyone could see) seemed dowdy and uninteresting by comparison.

One of the reasons pollution seemed then (and still does now) old news is that in civilized countries (generally those run as democracies) great strides had already been made beating it down. A case in point is the image at right

East/West Europe Pollution
A snapshot of particulate pollution across Europe on Jan. 27, 2018. (Apologies to Quartz [ https://qz.com/1192348/europe-is-divided-into-safe-and-dangerous-places-to-breathe/ ] from whom this image was shamelessly stolen.)

. This image, which is a political map overlaid by a false-color map with colors indicating air-pollution levels, shows relatively mild pollution in Western Europe and much more severe levels in the more-authoritarian-leaning countries of Eastern Europe.

While this map makes an important point about how poorly communist and other authoritarian-leaning regimes take care of the “soup” in which their citizens have to live, it doesn’t say a lot about the environmental state of the art more generally in Europe. We leave that for Zoë Schlanger’s WEF article, which begins:

“The average person living in Europe loses two years of their life to the health effects of breathing polluted air, according to a report published in the European Heart Journal on March 12.

“The report also estimates about 800,000 people die prematurely in Europe per year due to air pollution, or roughly 17% of the 5 million deaths in Europe annually. Many of those deaths, between 40 and 80% of the total, are due to air pollution effects that have nothing to do with the respiratory system but rather are attributable to heart disease and strokes caused by air pollutants in the bloodstream, the researchers write.

“‘Chronic exposure to enhanced levels of fine particle matter impairs vascular function, which can lead to myocardial infarction, arterial hypertension, stroke, and heart failure,’ the researchers write.”

The point is, while American politicians debate the merits of climate change legislation, and European politicians seem to have knuckled under to IPCC climate-change rhetoric by wholeheartedly endorsing the 2015 Paris Agreement, the bigger and far more salient problem of environmental pollution is largely being ignored. This despite the visible and immediate deleterious affects on human health, and the demonstrated effectiveness of government efforts to ameliorate it.

By the way, in the two decades between the time I first observed iridescence atop the waters of the Seekonk River and when I launched my own first boat in the 1970s, Narragansett Bay went from a potential Superfund site to a beautiful, clean playground for recreational boaters. That was largely due to the efforts of the Save the Bay volunteer organization. While their job is not (and never will be) completely finished, they can serve as a model for effective grassroots activism.

Socialist Mythos

Pegasus
Like the mythical Pegasus, socialism is a beautiful idea beloved of children that cannot be realized in practice. Catmando/Shutterstock

27 February 2019 – Some ideas are just so beautiful that we try to hang on to them even after failure after failure shows them to be unrealizable. Especially for the naive, these ideas hold such fascination that they persist long after cooler inspection consigns them to the dust bin of fantasy. This essay looks at two such ideas that display features in common: the ancient Greek myth of the flying horse, Pegasus, and the modern myth of the socialist state.

Pegasus

The ancient myth of the flying horse Pegasus is an obvious example. There’s no physical reason for such a creature to be impossible. Actual horses are built far too robustly to take to the air on their own power, but a delicately built version of Equus ferus fitted with properly functioning wings could certainly be able to fly.

That’s not the objection. Certainly, other robust land animals have developed flying forms. Birds, of course, developed from what our ancestors believed to be great lumbering theropod dinosaurs. Bats belong to the same mammalian class as horses, and they fly very well, indeed.

The objection to the existence of Pegasus-like creatures comes from evolutionary history. Specifically, the history of land-based vertebrates.

You see, all land-based vertebrates on Earth evolved from a limited number of ray-finned fish species. In fact, the number of fish species contributing DNA to land-vertebrate animals is likely limited to one.

All land vertebrates have exactly the same basic body form – with modifications – that developed from features common to ray-finned fishes. Basically, they have:

  • One spine that extends into a tail,
  • One head appended to the forward (opposite the tail) end of the spine,
  • Two front appendages that developed from the fish’s pectoral fins, and
  • Two rear appendages that developed from the fish’s pelvic fins.

Not all land-based vertebrates have all these features. Some originally extant features (like the human tail and cetacean rear legs) atrophied nearly to non-existence. But, the listed features are the only ones land-based vertebrates have ever had. Of course, I’m also including such creatures as birds and dolphins that developed from land-based critters as they moved on to other habitats or back to the sea.

The reason I suggest that all land vertebrates likely hail from one fish species is that no land vertebrates have ever had anal, caudal or adipose appendages, thus we all seem to have developed from some fish species that lacked these fins.

“Aha!” you say, “cetaceans like dolphins and whales have tail fins!”

“Nope,” I rebut. “Notice that cetacean tail flukes are fleshy appendages extending horizontally from the tip of the animals’ tails, not bony appendages oriented vertically like a fish’s caudal fins.”

They developed independently and have similar shapes because of convergent evolution.

Okay, so we’ve discovered what’s wrong with Pegasus that is not wrong with bats, pterodactyls, and birds. All the real land-based vertebrate forms have four limbs, whereas the fanciful Pegasus has six (four legs and two wings). Six-limbed Pegasus can’t exist because there aren’t any similar prior forms for it to have evolved from.

So, Pegasus is a beautiful idea that simply can’t be existent on Earth.

Well, you could have some sort of flying-horse-like creature that evolved on some other planet, then caught a convenient flying saucer to pop over to Earth, but they wouldn’t be native, and likely wouldn’t look at all earthlike.

Socialist State

So, what has all this got to do with socialism?

Well, as I’ve intimated, both are beautiful ideas that people are pretty fond of. Notwithstanding its popularity, Pegasus is not possible (as a native Earth creature) for a very good reason. Socialism is also a beautiful idea that people (at least great swaths of the population) are pretty fond of. Socialism is, however, also not possible as a stable form of society for a very good reason.

The reason socialism is not possible as a stable form of society goes back to our old friend, the Tragedy of the Commons. If you aren’t intimately familiar with this concept, follow the link to a well-written article by Margaret E. Banyan, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Southwest Florida Center for Public and Social Policy at Florida Gulf Coast University, which explains the Tragedy, its origins, and ways that have been proposed to ameliorate its effects.

Anyway, economist Milton Friedman summarized the Tragedy of the Commons with the phrase: “When everybody owns something, nobody owns it … .”

The Tragedy of the Commons speaks directly to why true socialism is impossible, or at least not tenable as a stable, permanent system. Let’s start with what the word “socialism” actually means. According to Merriam-Webster, socialism is:

any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”

Other dictionaries largely agree, so we’ll work with this definition.

So, you can see where the Tragedy of the Commons connects to socialism. The beautiful idea relates to the word “collective.”

We know that human beings evolved as territorial animals, but we’d like to imagine a utopia where we’ve gotten past this primitive urge. Without territoriality, one could imagine a world where conflict would cease to exist. Folks would just get along because nobody’d say “Hey, that’s mine. Keep your mitts off!”

The problem with such a world is the Tragedy of the Commons as described by Friedman: if everybody owns the means of production, then nobody owns it.

There are two potential outcomes

  • Scenario 1 is the utter destruction of whatever resource is held in common as described at the start of Banyan’s essay.
  • Scenario 2 is what happened to the first recorded experiment with democracy in ancient Athens: somebody steps up to the plate and takes over management of the resource for everybody. For Athens it was a series of dictator kings ending with Alexander the Great. In effect, to save the resource from destruction, some individual moves in to “own” it.

In scenario 1, the resource is destroyed along with the socialist society that collectively owns it.Everyone either starves or leaves. Result: no more socialism.

In scenario 2, the resource is saved by being claimed by some individual. That individual sets up rules for how to apportion use of the resource, which is, in effect, no longer collectively owned. Result: dictatorship and, no more socialism.

Generally, all socialist states eventually degenerate into dictatorships via scenario 2. They invariably keep the designation “socialist,” but their governments are de facto authoritarian, not socialist. This is why I say socialism is a beautiful idea that is, in the long term, impossible. Socialist states can be created, but they very quickly come under authoritarian rule.

The Democracy Option

The Merriam-Webster definition admits of one more scenario, and that’s what we use in democratically governed nations, which are generally not considered socialist states: government ownership of some (but not all) resources.

If we have a democracy, there are all kinds of great things we can have governmentally owned, but not collectively owned. Things that everybody needs and everybody uses and everybody has to share, like roads, airspace, forests, electricity grids, and national parks. These are prime candidates for government ownership.

Things like wives, husbands, houses, and bicycles (note there’s been a big bicycle-sharing SNAFU recently reported in China) have historically been shown best to not be shared!

So, in a democracy, lots of stuff can be owned by the government, rather than by individuals or “everybody.”

A prime example is airspace. I don’t mean the air itself. I mean airspace! That is the space in the air over anyplace in the United States, or virtually the entire world. One might think it’s owned by everybody, but that just ain’t so.

You just try floating off at over 500 feet above ground level (AGL) in any type of aircraft and see where it gets you. Ya just can’t do it legally. You have to get permission from the Federal Government (in the form of a pilot’s license), which involves a great whacking pile of training, examinations, and even background checks. That’s because everybody does NOT own airspace above 500 feet AGL (and great, whacking swaths of the stuff lower down, too), the government does. You, personally, individually or collectively, don’t own a bit of it and have no rights to even be there without permission from its real owner, the Federal Government.

Another one is the Interstate Highway System. Try walking down Interstate 75 in, say, Florida. Assuming you survive long enough without getting punted off the roadway by a passing Chevy, you’ll soon find yourself explaining what the heck you think you’re doing to the nearest representative (spelled C-O-P) of whatever division of government takes ownership of that particular stretch of roadway. Unless you’ve got a really good excuse (e.g., “I gotta pee real bad!”) they’ll immediately escort you off the premises via the nearest exit ramp.

Ultimately, the only viable model of socialism is a limited one that combines individual ownership of some resources that are not shared, with government ownership of other resources that are shared. Democracy provides a mechanism for determining which is what.

Nationalism and Diversity

Flags of many countries
Nationalism can promote diversity – or not! Brillenstimmer/shutterstock

16 January 2019 – The poster child for rampant nationalism is Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party, commonly called the Nazi Party. I say “is” rather than “was” because, while resoundingly defeated by Allies of WW2 in 1945, the Nazi Party still has widespread appeal in Germany, and throughout the world.

These folks give nationalism a bad name, leading to the Oxford Living Dictionary, giving primacy to the following definition of nationalism: “Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” [Emphasis added.]

The Oxford Dictionary also offers a second definition of nationalism: “Advocacy of or support for the political independence of a particular nation or people.”

This second definition is a lot more benign, and one that I wish were more often used. I certainly prefer it!

Nationalism under the first definition has been used since time immemorial as an excuse to create closed, homogeneous societies. That was probably the biggest flaw of the Nazi state(s). Death camps, ethnic cleansing, slave labor, and most of the other evils of those regimes flowed directly from their attempts to build closed, homogeneous societies.

Under the second definition, however, nationalism can, and should, be used to create a more diverse society.

That’s a good thing, as the example of United States history clearly demonstrates. Most of U.S. success can be traced directly to the country’s ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. The fact that the U.S., with a paltry 5% of the world’s population, now has by far the largest economy; that it dominates the fields of science, technology and the humanities; that its common language (American English) is fast becoming the “lingua franca” of the entire world; and that it effectively leads the world by so many measures is directly attributed to the continual renewal of its population diversity by immigration. In any of these areas, it’s easy to point out major contributions from recent immigrants or other minorities.

This harkens back to a theory of cultural development I worked out in the 1970s. It starts with the observation that all human populations – no matter how large or how small – consist of individuals whose characteristics vary somewhat. When visualized on a multidimensional scatter plot, populations generally consist of a cluster with a dense center and fewer individuals farther out.

Globular cluster image
The Great Hercules Star Cluster.. Albert Barr/Shutterstock

This pattern is similar to the image of a typical globular star cluster in the photo at right. Globular star clusters exhibit this pattern in three dimensions, while human populations exist and can be mapped on a great many dimensions representing different characteristics. Everything from physical characteristics like height, weight and skin color, to non-physical characteristics like ethnicity and political ideology – essentially anything that can be measured – can be plotted as a separate dimension.

The dense center of the pattern consists of individuals whose characteristics don’t stray too far from the norm. Everyone, of course, is a little off average. For example, the average white American female is five-feet, four-inches tall. Nearly everyone in that population, however, is a little taller or shorter than exactly average. Very few are considerably taller or shorter, with more individuals closer to the average than farther out.

The population’s diversity shows up as a widening of the pattern. That is, diversity is a measure of how often individuals appear farther out from the center.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection posits that where the population center is depends on where is most appropriate for it to be depending on conditions. What is average height, for example, depends on a complex interplay of conditions, including nutrition, attractiveness to the opposite sex, and so forth.

Observing that conditions change with time, one expects the ideal center of the population should move about in the multidimensional characteristics space. Better childhood nutrition, for example, should push the population toward increased tallness. And, it does!

One hopes that these changes happen slowly with time, giving the population a chance to follow in response. If the changes happen too fast, however, the population is unable to respond fast enough and it goes extinct. So, wooly mammoths were unable to respond fast enough to a combination of environmental changes and increased predation by humans emigrating into North America after the last Ice Age, so they died out. No more wooly mammoths!

Assuming whatever changes occur happen slowly enough, those individuals in the part of the distribution better adapted to the new conditions do better than those on the opposite side. So, the whole population shifts with time toward characteristics that are better adapted.

Where diversity comes into this dynamic is by providing more individuals in the better-adapted part of the distribution. The faster conditions change, the more individuals you need at the edges of the population to help with the response. For example, if the climate gets warmer, it’s folks who like to wear skimpy outfits who thrive. Folks who insist on covering themselves up in heavy clothing, don’t do so well. That was amply demonstrated when Englishmen tried to wear their heavy Elizabethan outfits in the warmer North American weather conditions. Styles changed practically overnight!

Closed, homogeneous societies of the type the Nazis tried to create have low diversity. They try to suppress folks who differ from the norm. When conditions change, such societies have less of the diversity needed to respond, so they wither and die.

That’s why cultures need diversity, and the more diversity, the better.

We live in a chaotic universe. The most salient characteristic of chaotic systems is constant change. Without diversity, we can’t respond to that change.

That’s why when technological change sped up in the early Twentieth Century, it was the bohemians of the twenties developing into the beatniks of the fifties and the hippies of the sixties that defined the cultures of the seventies and beyond.

Jerry Garcia stamp image
spatuletail/shutterstock

Long live Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream!

Don’t Tell Me What to Think!

Your Karma ran over My Dogma
A woman holds up a sign while participating in the annual King Mango Strut parade in Miami, FL on 28 December 2014. BluIz60/Shutterstock

2 January 2019 – Now that the year-end holidays are over, it’s time to get back on my little electronic soapbox to talk about an issue that scientists have had to fight with authorities over for centuries. It’s an issue that has been around for millennia, but before a few centuries ago there weren’t scientists around to fight over it. The issue rears its ugly head under many guises. Most commonly today it’s discussed as academic freedom, or freedom of expression. You might think it was definitively won for all Americans in 1791 with the ratification of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution and for folks in other democracies soon after, but you’d be wrong.

The issue is wrapped up in one single word: dogma.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dogma is defined as:

“A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

In 1600 CE, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for insisting that the stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets, raising the possibility that these planets might foster life of their own, and that the universe is infinite and could have no “center.” These ideas directly controverted the dogma laid down as incontrovertibly true by both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian churches of the time.

Galileo Galilei, typically thought as the poster child for resistance to dogma, was only placed under house arrest (for the rest of his life) for advocating the less radical Copernican vision of the solar system.

Nicholas Copernicus, himself, managed to fly under the Catholic Church’s radar for nearly a century and a quarter by the simple tactic of not publishing his heliocentric model. Starting in 1510, he privately communicated it to his friends, who then passed it to some of their friends, etc. His signature work, Dē revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), in which he laid it out for all to see, wasn’t published until his death in 1643, when he’d already escaped beyond the reach of earthly authorities.

If this makes it seem that astrophysicists have been on the front lines of the war against dogma since there was dogma to fight against, that’s almost certainly true. Astrophysicists study stuff relating to things beyond the Earth, and that traditionally has been a realm claimed by religious authorities.

That claim largely started with Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic Church. Ancient religions, which didn’t have delusions that they could dominate all of human thought, didn’t much care what cockamamie ideas astrophysicists (then just called “philosophers”) came up with. Thus, Aristarchus of Samos suffered no ill consequences (well, maybe a little, but nothing life – or even career – threatening) from proposing the same ideas that Galileo was arrested for championing some eighteen centuries later.

Fast forward to today and we have a dogma espoused by political progressives called “climate change.” It used to be called “global warming,” but that term was laughed down decades ago, though the dogma’s still the same.

The United-Nations-funded Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has become “the Authority” laying down the principles that Earth’s climate is changing and that change constitutes a rapid warming caused by human activity. The dogma also posits that this change will continue uninterrupted unless national governments promulgate drastic laws to curtail human activity.

Sure sounds like dogma to me!

Once again, astrophysicists are on the front lines of the fight against dogma. The problem is that the IPCC dogma treats the Sun (which is what powers Earth’s climate in the first place) as, to all intents and purposes, a fixed star. That is, it assumes climate change arises solely from changes in Earthly conditions, then assumes we control those conditions.

Astrophysicists know that just ain’t so.

First, stars generally aren’t fixed. Most stars are variable stars. In fact, all stars are variable on some time scale. They all evolve over time scales of millions or billions of years, but that’s not the kind of variability we’re talking about here.

The Sun is in the evolutionary phase called “main sequence,” where stars evolve relatively slowly. That’s the source of much “invariability” confusion. Main sequence stars, however, go through periods where they vary in brightness more or less violently on much shorter time scales. In fact, most main sequence stars exhibit this kind of behavior to a greater or lesser extent at any given time – like now.

So, a modern (as in post-nineteenth-century) astrophysicist would never make the bald assumption that the Sun’s output was constant. Statistically, the odds are against it. Most stars are variables; the Sun is like most stars; so the Sun is probably a variable. In fact, it’s well known to vary with a fairly stable period of roughly 22 years (the 11-year “sunspot cycle” is actually only a half cycle).

A couple of centuries ago, astronomers assumed (with no evidence) that the Sun’s output was constant, so they started trying to measure this assumed “solar constant.” Charles Greeley Abbot, who served as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute from 1928 to 1944, oversaw the first long-term study of solar output.

His observations were necessarily ground based and the variations observed (amounting to 3-5 percent) have been dismissed as “due to changing weather conditions and incomplete analysis of his data.” That despite the monumental efforts he went through to control such effects.

On the 1970s I did an independent analysis of his data and realized that part of the problem he had stemmed from a misunderstanding of the relationship between sunspots and solar irradiance. At the time, it was assumed that sunspots were akin to atmospheric clouds. That is, scientists assumed they affected overall solar output by blocking light, thus reducing the total power reaching Earth.

Thus, when Abbott’s observations showed the opposite correlation, they were assumed to be erroneous. His purported correlations with terrestrial weather observations were similarly confused, and thus dismissed.

Since then, astrophysicists have realized that sunspots are more like a symptom of increased internal solar activity. That is, increases in sunspot activity positively correlate with increases in the internal dynamism that generates the Sun’s power output. Seen in this light, Abbott’s observations and analysis make a whole lot more sense.

We have ample evidence, from historical observations of climate changes correlating with observed variations in sunspot activity, that there is a strong connection between climate and solar variability. Most notably the fact that the Sporer and Maunder anomalies (which were times when sunspot activity all but disappeared for extended periods) in sunspot records correlated with historically cold periods in Earth’s history. There was a similar period from about 1790 to 1830 of low solar activity (as measured by sunspot numbers) called the “Dalton Minimum” that similarly depressed global temperatures and gave an anomalously low baseline for the run up to the Modern Maximum.

For astrophysicists, the phenomenon of solar variability is not in doubt. The questions that remain involve by how much, how closely they correlate with climate change, and are they predictable?

Studies of solar variability, however, run afoul of the IPCC dogma. For example, in May of 2017 an international team of solar dynamicists led by Valentina V. Zharkova at Northumbria University in the U.K. published a paper entitled “On a role of quadruple component of magnetic field in defining solar activity in grand cycles” in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics. Their research indicates that the Sun, while it’s activity has been on the upswing for an extended period, should be heading into a quiescent period starting with the next maximum of the 11-year sunspot cycle in around five years.

That would indicate that the IPCC prediction of exponentially increasing global temperatures due to human-caused increasing carbon-dioxide levels may be dead wrong. I say “may be dead wrong” because this is science, not dogma. In science, nothing is incontrovertible.

I was clued in to this research by my friend Dan Romanchik, who writes a blog for amateur radio enthusiasts. Amateur radio enthusiasts care about solar activity because sunspots are, in fact, caused by magnetic fields at the Sun’s surface. Those magnetic fields affect Earth by deflecting cosmic rays away from the inner solar system, which is where we live. Those cosmic rays are responsible for the Kennelly–Heaviside layer of ionized gas in Earth’s upper atmosphere (roughly 90–150 km, or 56–93 mi, above the ground).

Radio amateurs bounce signals off this layer to reach distant stations beyond line of sight. When solar activity is weak this layer drops to lower altitudes, reducing the effectiveness of this technique (often called “DXing”).

In his post of 16 December 2018, Dan complained: “If you operate HF [the high-frequency radio band], it’s no secret that band conditions have not been great. The reason, of course, is that we’re at the bottom of the sunspot cycle. If we’re at the bottom of the sunspot cycle, then there’s no way to go but up, right? Maybe not.

“Recent data from the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center seems to suggest that solar activity isn’t going to get better any time soon.”

After discussing the NOAA prediction, he went on to further complain: “And, if that wasn’t depressing enough, I recently came across an article reporting on the research of Prof. Valentina Zharkova, who is predicting a grand minimum of 30 years!”

He included a link to a presentation Dr. Zharkova made at the Global Warming Policy Foundation last October in which she outlined her research and pointedly warned that the IPCC dogma was totally wrong.

I followed the link, viewed her presentation, and concluded two things:

  1. The research methods she used are some that I’m quite familiar with, having used them on numerous occasions; and

  2. She used those techniques correctly, reaching convincing conclusions.

Her results seems well aligned with meta-analysis published by the Cato Institute in 2015, which I mentioned in my posting of 10 October 2018 to this blog. The Cato meta-analysis of observational data indicated a much reduced rate of global warming compared to that predicted by IPCC models.

The Zharkova-model data covers a much wider period (millennia-long time scale rather than decades-long time scale) than the Cato data. It’s long enough to show the Medieval Warm Period as well as the Little Ice Age (Maunder minimum) and the recent warming trend that so fascinates climate-change activists. Instead of a continuation of the modern warm period, however, Zharkova’s model shows an abrupt end starting in about five years with the next maximum of the 11-year sunspot cycle.

Don’t expect a stampede of media coverage disputing the IPCC dogma, however. A host of politicians (especially among those in the U.S. Democratic Party) have hung their hats on that dogma as well as an array of governments who’ve sold policy decisions based on it. The political left has made an industry of vilifying anyone who doesn’t toe the “climate change” line, calling them “climate deniers” with suspect intellectual capabilities and moral characters.

Again, this sounds a lot like dogma. It’s the same tactic that the Inquisition used against Bruno and Galileo before escalating to more brutal methods.

Supporters of Zharkova’s research labor under a number of disadvantages. Of course, there’s the obvious disadvantage that Zharkova’s thick Ukrainian accent limits her ability to explain her work to those who don’t want to listen. She would not come off well on the evening news.

A more important disadvantage is the abstruse nature of the applied mathematics techniques used in the research. How many political reporters and, especially, commentators are familiar enough with the mathematical technique of principal component analysis to understand what Zharkova’s talking about? This stuff makes macroeconomics modeling look like kiddie play!

But, the situation’s even worse because to really understand the research, you also need an appreciation of stellar dynamics, which is based on magnetohydrodynamics. How many CNN commentators even know how to spell that?

Of course, these are all tools of the trade for astrophysicists. They’re as familiar to them as a hammer or a saw is to a carpenter.

For those in the media, on the other hand, it’s a lot easier to take the “most scientists agree” mantra at face value than to embark on the nearly hopeless task of re-educating themselves to understand Zharkova’s research. That goes double for politicians.

It’s entirely possible that “most” scientists might agree with the IPCC dogma, but those in a position to understand what’s driving Earth’s climate do not agree.

Robots Revisited

Engineer with SCARA robots
Engineer using monitoring system software to check and control SCARA welding robots in a digital manufacturing operation. PopTika/Shutterstock

12 December 2018 – I was wondering what to talk about in this week’s blog posting, when an article bearing an interesting-sounding headline crossed my desk. The article, written by Simone Stolzoff of Quartz Media was published last Monday (12/3/2018) by the World Economic Forum (WEF) under the title “Here are the countries most likely to replace you with a robot.”

I generally look askance at organizations with grandiose names that include the word “World,” figuring that they likely are long on megalomania and short on substance. Further, this one lists the inimitable (thank God there’s only one!) Al Gore on its Board of Trustees.

On the other hand, David Rubenstein is also on the WEF board. Rubenstein usually seems to have his head screwed on straight, so that’s a positive sign for the organization. Therefore, I figured the article might be worth reading and should be judged on its own merits.

The main content is summarized in two bar graphs. The first lists the ratio of robots to thousands of manufacturing workers in various countries. The highest scores go to South Korea and Singapore. In fact, three of the top four are Far Eastern countries. The United States comes in around number seven.Figure 1

The second applies a correction to the graphed data to reorder the list by taking into account the countries’ relative wealth. There, the United States comes in dead last among the sixteen countries listed. East Asian countries account for all of the top five.

Figure 2The take-home-lesson from the article is conveniently stated in its final paragraph:

The upshot of all of this is relatively straightforward. When taking wages into account, Asian countries far outpace their western counterparts. If robots are the future of manufacturing, American and European countries have some catching up to do to stay competitive.

This article, of course, got me started thinking about automation and how manufacturers choose to adopt it. It’s a subject that was a major theme throughout my tenure as Chief Editor of Test & Measurement World and constituted the bulk of my work at Control Engineering.

The graphs certainly support the conclusions expressed in the cited paragraph’s first two sentences. The third sentence, however, is problematical.

That ultimate conclusion is based on accepting that “robots are the future of manufacturing.” Absolute assertions like that are always dangerous. Seldom is anything so all-or-nothing.

Predicting the future is epistemological suicide. Whenever I hear such bald-faced statements I recall Jim Morrison’s prescient statement: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

The line was prescient because a little over a year after the song’s release, Morrison was dead at age twenty seven, thereby fulfilling the slogan expressed by John Derek’s “Nick Romano” character in Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

Anyway, predictions like “robots are the future of manufacturing” are generally suspect because, in the chaotic Universe in which we live, the future is inherently unpredictable.

If you want to say something practically guaranteed to be wrong, predict the future!

I’d like to offer an alternate explanation for the data presented in the WEF graphs. It’s based on my belief that American Culture usually gets things right in the long run.

Yes, that’s the long run in which economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out that we’re all dead.

My belief in the ultimate vindication of American trends is based, not on national pride or jingoism, but on historical precedents. Countries that have bucked American trends often start out strong, but ultimately fade.

An obvious example is trendy Japanese management techniques based on Druckerian principles that were so much in vogue during the last half of the twentieth century. Folks imagined such techniques were going to drive the Japanese economy to pre-eminence in the world. Management consultants touted such principles as the future for corporate governance without noticing that while they were great for middle management, they were useless for strategic planning.

Japanese manufacturers beat the crap out of U.S. industry for a while, but eventually their economy fell into a prolonged recession characterized by economic stagnation and disinflation so severe that even negative interest rates couldn’t restart it.

Similar examples abound, which is why our little country with its relatively minuscule population (4.3% of the world’s) has by far the biggest GDP in the world. China, with more than four times the population, grosses less than a third of what we do.

So, if robotic adoption is the future of manufacturing, why are we so far behind? Assuming we actually do know what we’re doing, as past performance would suggest, the answer must be that the others are getting it wrong. Their faith in robotics as a driver of manufacturing productivity may be misplaced.

How could that be? What could be wrong with relying on technological advancement as the driver of productivity?

Manufacturing productivity is calculated on the basis of stuff produced (as measured by its total value in dollars) divided by the number of worker-hours needed to produce it. That should tell you something about what it takes to produce stuff. It’s all about human worker involvement.

Folks who think robots automatically increase productivity are fixating on the denominator in the productivity calculation. Making even the same amount of stuff while reducing the worker-hours needed to produce it should drive productivity up fast. That’s basic number theory. Yet, while manufacturing has been rapidly introducing all kinds of automation over the last few decades, productivity has stagnated.

We need to look for a different explanation.

It just might be that robotic adoption is another example of too much of a good thing. It might be that reliance on technology could prove to be less effective than something about the people making up the work force.

I’m suggesting that because I’ve been led to believe that work forces in the Far Eastern developing economies are less skillful, may have lower expectations, and are more tolerant of authoritarian governments.

Why would those traits make a difference? I’ll take them one at a time to suggest how they might.

The impression that Far Eastern populations are less skillful is not easy to demonstrate. Nobody who’s dealt with people of Asian extraction in either an educational or work-force setting would ever imagine they are at all deficient in either intelligence or motivation. On the other hand, as emerging or developing economies those countries are likely more dependent on workers newly recruited from rural, agrarian settings, who are likely less acclimated to manufacturing and industrial environments. On this basis, one may posit that the available workers may prove less skillful in a manufacturing setting.

It’s a weak argument, but it exists.

The idea that people making up Far-Eastern work forces have lower expectations than those in more developed economies is on firmer footing. Workers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have very high expectations for how they should be treated. Wages are higher. Benefits are more generous. Upward mobility perceptions are ingrained in the cultures.

For developing economies, not so much.

Then, we come to tolerance of authoritarian regimes. Tolerance of authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with tolerance for the usual authoritarian vices of graft, lack of personal freedom and social immobility. Only those believing populist political propaganda think differently (which is the danger of populism).

What’s all this got to do with manufacturing productivity?

Lack of skill, low expectations and patience under authority are not conducive to high productivity. People are productive when they work hard. People work hard when they are incentivized. They are incentivized to work when they believe that working harder will make their lives better. It’s not hard to grasp!

Installing robots in a plant won’t by itself lead human workers to believe that working harder will make their lives better. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. They’ll start worrying that their lives are about to take a turn for the worse.

Maybe that has something to do with why increased automation has failed to increase productivity.

Radicalism and the Death of Discourse

Gaussian political spectrum
Most Americans prefer to be in the middle of the political spectrum, but most of the noise comes from the far right and far left.

7 November 2018 – During the week of 22 October 2018 two events dominated the news: Cesar Sayoc mailed fourteen pipe bombs to prominent individuals critical of Donald Trump, and Robert Bowers shot up a synagogue because he didn’t like Jews. Both of these individuals identified themselves with far-right ideology, so the media has been full of rhetoric condemning far-right activists.

To be legally correct, I have to note that, while I’ve written the above paragraph as if those individuals’ culpability for those crimes is established fact, they (as of this writing) haven’t been convicted. It’s entirely possible that some deus ex machina will appear out of the blue and exonerate one or both of them.

Clearly, things have gotten out of hand with Red Team activists when they start “throwing” pipe bombs and bullets. But, I’m here to say “naughty, naughty” to both sides.

Both sides are culpable.

I don’t want you to interpret that last sentence as agreement with Donald Trump’s idiotic statement after last year’s Charlottesville incident that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

There aren’t “very fine people” on both sides. Extremists are “bad” people no matter what side they’re on.

For example, not long ago social media sites (specifically Linkedin and, especially, Facebook) were lit up with vitriol about the Justice Kavanaugh hearings by pundits from both the Red Team and the Blue Team. It got so hot that I was embarrassed!

Some have pointed out that, statistically, most of the actual violence has been perpetrated by the Red Team.

Does that mean the Red Team is more culpable than the Blue Team?

No. It means they’re using different weapons.

The Blue Team, which I believe consists mainly of extremists from the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party, has traditionally chosen written and spoken words as their main weapon. Recall some of the political correctness verbiage used to attack free expression in the late 20th Century, and demonstrations against conservative speakers on college campuses in our own.

The Red Team, which today consists of the Trumpian remnants of the Republican Party, has traditionally chosen to throw hard things, like rocks, bullets and pipe bombs.

Both sides also attempt to disarm the other side. The Blue Team wisely attempts to disarm the Red Team by taking away their guns. The Red Team, which eschews anything that smacks of wisdom, tries to disarm the Blue Team by (figuratively, so far) burning their books.

Recognize that calling the Free Press “the enemy of the people” is morally equivalent to throwing books on a bonfire. They’re both attempts to promote ignorance.

What’s actually happening is that the fringes of society are making all of the noise, and the mass of moderate-thinking citizens can’t get a word in edgewise.

George Schultz pointed out: “He who walks in the middle of the roads gets hit from both sides.”

I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that fanatics get to run things because they care enough to put in the effort. Moderates don’t because they don’t.

Both of these pundits point out the sad fact that Nature favors extremes. The most successful companies are those with the highest growth rates. Most drivers exceed the speed limit. The squeaky wheel gets the most grease. And, those who express the most extreme views get the most media attention.

Our Constitution specifies in no uncertain terms that the nation is founded on (small “d”) democratic principles. Democratic principles insist that policy matters be debated and resolved by consensus of the voting population. That can only be done when people meet together in the middle.

Extremists on both the Red Team and Blue Team don’t want that. They treat politics as a sporting event.

In a baseball game, for example, nobody roots for a tie. They root for a win by one team or the other.

Government is not a sporting event.

When one team or the other wins, all Americans lose.

The enemy we are facing now, which is the same enemy democracies face around the world, is not the right or left. It is extremism in general. Always has been. Always will be.

Authoritarians always go for one extreme or the other. Hitler went for the right. Stalin went for the left.

The reason authoritarians pick an extreme is that’s where there are people who are passionate enough about their ideas to shoot anyone who doesn’t agree with them. That, authoritarians realize, is the only way they can become “Dictator for Life.” Since that is their goal, they have to pick an extreme.

We love democracy because it’s the best way for “We the People” to ensure nobody gets to be “Dictator for Life.” When everyone meets in the middle (which is the only place everyone can meet), authoritarians get nowhere.

Ergo, authoritarians love extremes and everyone else needs the middle.

Vilifying “nationalism” as a Red Team vice misses the point. In the U.S. (or any similar democracy), nationalism requires more-or-less moderate political views. There’s lots of room in the middle for healthy (and ultimately entertaining) debate, but very little room at the extremes.

Try going for the middle.

To quote Victor “Animal” Palotti in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film Godzilla: “C’mon. It’ll be fun! It’ll be fun! It’ll be fun!”