Saturday, April 15, 2017

Weekend Reading 4/15/17: White House Easter Egg Roll, Trump as Horsefly And Other Topics

1.  The White House Easter Egg Roll event is really complicated.  Who knew it could be that complicated?

I disagree, however, on the person to be viewed as responsible for the success or failure of the event: the president's wife.  The "job" of the First Lady is a sticky relic from the traditional unequal marriage where the wife is expected to be her husband's employee, without any formal payment scheme, but still full responsibility for stuff like organizing an Easter Egg Roll.  Because it is for the children and children are the women's job?

It's Donald Trump's job.  If he can't do it, he can hire someone else to do it for him.

2.  An interesting take on the metamorphosis of one Donald Trump from a chubby pupa to something with wings.  Presidential wings now that he has dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever!  So presidential.  Though I suspect he is a horsefly. 

Anyway, Jonathan Chait argues that Trump has managed to shed everything that distinguished him from your usual Republican politician, except for his "ethnonationalist themes."*  That's courtesy-speech for white male supremacy, my friends, but with the adjustments it's that only for the top white guys.

3.  A few articles remind us of the relative dearth of women in literature and the cinema.  Worth pointing out when the usual conservative argument about women and the STEM fields is that women's interests and talents lie elsewhere.  In literature and the arts, for example.

The reasons for the under-representation of women are complicated and deserve a separate post**.

But the metaphor I think might apply here is that for some the trip to the top involves elevators all the way through the 200 floors, for others it means having to take the stairs between the fiftieth and the ninetieth floor, and yet for others it means having to use ladders on the outside of the building.  People learn about those differences in the relevant industries, so whether some are just not interested in making the climb to begin with is a moot point, because the climb is not the same for all equally talented folks.

4.  Our Dear Leader has privately signed

a bill on Thursday that allows states to withhold federal money from organizations that provide abortion services, including Planned Parenthood, a group frequently targeted by Republicans. 

Why a private signing?  President Trump adores public hullabaloo, after all.  Perhaps making it possible for red states to deprive poor women of reproductive health care isn't something that he wants to be remembered for.  But the Republicans-in-power love the idea of killing Planned Parenthood dead.  Dead as a doornail, even though Planned Parenthood says that only three percent of its services are abortion-related.  Still, who cares about poor women and their needs.


*  Rick Perlstein makes a somewhat different argument which is also worth reading.

**  A very long post, actually, but I'd like to say a few words here about the second link in part 3 which asks why women so rarely seem to have written the "big books" of popular history.

Clears throat.

You cannot write a famous book if your book doesn't become famous.  You cannot be a path-breaker if nobody follows your path.  So the first problem here is the fact that audiences and reviewers do not regard women writing some gloriously simple and thought-provoking book about, say,  wars as inherently equally credible as a man writing such a book.

Still, there are women who have succeeded in that task of making big books, and even more can be found if we acknowledge the fact that readers have certain pre-existing biases about which topics are important.  Deaths?  Very important, especially if violent.  Births?  Women's stuff, not terribly important.

I may have exaggerated a little there.  But not much.

Then there's the expected reactions.  Mary Beard found out about them when she joined the online conversations and when all the woman-hating trolls found her.  Because sweeping and simplifying arguments are much easier to attack than detailed and carefully documented and nuanced arguments, women, who by now expect harsher criticism, are probably more likely to settle with the latter ones.  But, alas, that's not what "big books" are all about.

Friday, April 14, 2017


Because they are an Internet tradition.  But before that, here's a message from Franz Kafka:

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.

His books are a useful lecture series about how to live in a world which doesn't make sense, such as Trumpomania-land.

Drat.  This is supposed to be a cheerful post, so here are the two gentlemen who truly are not bothered:

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What Does Trump Know? And Other Rants.

Our Dear Leader knows nothing, and he is utterly unaware of his own ignorance, thinking that such ignorance is widespread among the powers that be. 

Vox gives us one example:

President Donald Trump recounted an absolutely astounding detail about one of his conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping in comments published by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday afternoon. Apparently, Trump came into his first meeting with the Chinese leader, in early April, convinced that China could simply eliminate the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. Xi then patiently explained Chinese-Korean history to Trump — who then promptly changed his mind.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president told the Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. ... But it’s not what you would think.”

You may have missed Trump's earlier sudden realization that the US health care and insurance systems are exceedingly complex and intertwined:

If there’s one thing almost everybody across the political spectrum knows about health-care reform, it’s that it’s really hard. People who study the issue closely know it. People who don’t follow the issue know. (That’s why lots of smart people don’t follow the issue closely — it’s really hard!) But there is apparently a category of people who did not realize until very recently that the issue is hard, and that category consists of Donald J. Trump, who told reporters today, “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

Can I say the Dunning-Kruger effect, at last? 

Dear friends, may we raise a toast in its honor?  After all, there are few other options for knowing-yet-surviving a reality in which the ship of state is steered by someone who both knows nothing and doesn't care that he knows nothing.  Indeed, he doesn't know that he doesn't know.  Hence the arrogance...

Yet sixty million voters chose a know-nothing-and-proud-of-it president.  At least we didn't get a bitch steering that ship of state!  At least all we have to worry about now are possible Russian spies in the administration and the possible start of WWIII.  No email scandals!

What caused this rant?  I talked to a fervent Sanders-fan yesterday, and he argued that Hillary Clinton would have been every bit as evil and bad as Donald Trump has shown himself to be.

Only three possible theories can explain such opinions at this time, given the fact that Hillary Clinton was certainly extremely qualified for the job, intelligent and hard-working; all qualities Donald Trump lacks. 

The first of those theories is spelled misogyny, meaning the fear of any woman in a powerful position.  It may not be the explanation in this particular case, but I do regard the visceral hatred of Hillary-that-bitch-from-hell as fairly good evidence that the lizard brain has a role to play in that anger.

The second theory applies to those voters who are never going to need an abortion, who are never going to be discriminated against in the labor market because of their sex and/or race, who are never going to be delayed at the border or denied entry to the US, who are unlikely to ever need food stamps or public transportation. 

For them there's not that much of a difference between a somewhat centrist Democratic candidate who gave speeches to Wall Street people for money and a candidate whose administration consist of billionaires, alt right (white male supremacist) prophets and possibly even one real Nazi.  It doesn't matter that much to them if the Supreme Court changes its robes into the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

Until the date when Trump either starts a major war or Mother Nature calls it quits on us, the fleas in her fur-coat, and calls in the Exterminator.

But until that time certain voter groups have the privilege of ignoring the very real and awful differences between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The third and final theory, and the one I believe to be the correct in several cases, is that for some psychological reason I don't quite understand many Democrats or lefties are still re-living the primary battles, existing in 2016, unable to move on and accept what is happening today.  

That inability to move forward is not the same as wanting to change the Democratic Party from the inside.  The latter work is valuable, the former is harmful, and it's pretty easy to spot the difference.  Fighting the primary battles over and over again is pointless.  Trying to get better Democratic politicians is not.

Still, we must not stop trying to douse the fire in Washington, DC, while also planning how to build more fire-proof governments.  And we must NOT start to accept the behavior of this administration as the New Normal.  Remember Bannon's promise to dismantle the administrative government?

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Deaths of Despair. An Analysis of the Case-Deaton Conference Paper on the Mortality Rates of Middle-Aged Whites.


Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton are two economists of high standing (both are professors at Princeton and Deaton won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015).  They also happen to be married to each other.  They have recently been famous for statistical analyses of the stopped decline or even increase in the mortality rates for middle-age (and perhaps younger)  non-Hispanic white Americans when those rates are still declining for both non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics in the United States and for whites in European countries and Canada.  Their first article on the topic came out in 2015, and a Brookings Institute conference paper (or a conference draft) was released only a few weeks ago, in March of 2017.

The latter paper concludes that the increased mortality of middle-aged non-Hispanic whites applies to both men and women and that it is completely attributable to rising mortality among those non-Hispanic whites whose highest education level is a high school degree or less.

It's that 2017 working paper I want to talk about here, and especially the parts of it which cause me to ask questions.  Thus, this post is one of criticisms.(1)

Before I launch into it I want to stress that I admire the contribution Case and Deaton have made by both having the ability to get their message heard in the public conversations and by what they have contributed to the wider epidemiological and statistical literature on the topic of mortality rates and how they change over time.

On that count I have nothing but admiration for their work.  Still, presenting a working paper to the world at large is a little like Coco Chanel presenting a half-finished dress, cut, pasted and pinned together, to the woman who ordered it as the finished couture creation.  Working papers are not subjected to rigorous peer review, and that means that they rather resemble the pieces of the dress basted or pinned together at the first fitting, not the final dress.  In other words, there's work still to be done on the Case-Deaton conference paper and its presentation.

My questions or criticisms fall into three groups.  The first is about general methodological and presentation concerns, the second about the racial and ethnic comparisons as they appear in the Case-Deaton working paper, and the third about the way differences between male and female mortality rates are sometimes ignored, sometimes brought forward in inconsistent ways.