30 September 2018

New Tax Bills Pass The House Of Representatives

On Friday, September 28, 2018, three new tax bills passed the Republican controlled Congress. They have significant budget implications and were mostly not notices when all eyes were on the hearings regarding U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. 

All or part of one or more of the bills has a decent shot of passing the U.S. Senate and being made into law before the November 6, 2018 midterm elections take effect (it may be the last shot that Republicans have to control tax reform). Motley Fool, at the link above, explains the bills (emphasis in italics added):
Technically, Tax Reform 2.0 is a collection of three bills, each with its own unique purpose. Here are the highlights of each:
  • The Protecting Family and Small Business Tax Cuts Act of 2018 would make the individual tax changes that were passed in late 2017 permanent. Currently, the lower marginal tax rates, higher Child Tax Credit, and most of the other tax changes that affect individual taxpayers are set to expire after 2025. This bill also would extend the more generous medical deduction threshold of 7.5% of AGI, which is currently set to expire after the 2018 tax year, for another two years.  
  • The Family Savings Act of 2018 would make several changes affecting retirement, education, and general savings in the United States. It would remove the age limit of 70 1/2 for making traditional IRA contributions and also exempt Americans with less than $50,000 in their retirement accounts from required minimum distributions, or RMDs. The bill also would help families by allowing up to $7,500 in penalty-free withdrawals from retirement accounts for expenses related to a new child. Additionally, it would create a new type of savings account, known as a Universal Savings Account, which would have a similar tax structure to a Roth IRA but would allow $2,500 to be set aside on a tax-advantaged basis for any purpose, not just retirement. Finally, the bill would make some small tweaks to allowable expenses for 529 accounts and make it easier for smaller companies to join together to offer 401(k) plans.  
  • Finally, the American Innovation Act is the shortest bill of the three and is designed to encourage Americans to start their own businesses. It would do this by allowing qualified new businesses to deduct as much as $20,000 in start-up costs in the year they are incurred. 
An uphill battle ahead 
While the Tax Reform 2.0 bills have passed the house, they face a challenging road ahead of them in the Senate, to say the least. In fact, the Senate isn't expected to debate this legislation at all. 
Simply put, there are a lot of changes in these bills that aren't popular among Democrats and even some moderate Republicans. Cost is one major issue -- these bills would cost an estimated $627 billion over the next 10 years on top of the $1.5 trillion estimated cost of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It's not likely that any Democrats would go along with such a high cost, especially for legislation that's seen as a tax cut that disproportionally benefits the rich. 
Having said that, some of the retirement-savings changes in the Family Savings Act could end up being considered by the Senate, as they do have some bipartisan appeal. For example, getting rid of the traditional IRA age limit for contributions is quite popular on both sides of the aisle. In fact, there's currently a Senate bill known as the Retirement Enhancement Security Act that contains many of the same provisions that could potentially be voted on later this year. 
The bottom line is that we could see some of the retirement-specific changes proposed by Tax Reform 2.0 ultimately become law. On the other hand, the bills that would make the individual tax cuts permanent and allow for small businesses to deduct expenses immediately are likely to go no further.

In addition to these changes, President Trump is (so far unsuccessfully) attempting to index capital gains for inflation via a Treasury regulation rather a new statute.

29 September 2018

Evil Personality Traits Are Highly Correlated

Egoism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, spitefulness and others are among the traits of the malevolent side of human personality. As results from a recently published German-Danish research project show, these traits share a common "dark core." People with one of these tendencies are also likely to have one or more of the others.
From here.

Religious Affiliations Rated From Good To Evil

This post is an unscientific, only half serious ranking of different kinds of religious affiliations on a scale that I describe as "good to evil." The ranking is from good to evil, in order, so the first listed religious affiliation is the most good, and the last is the most evil.

It is a rating of an average person with a given religious affiliation and recognizes that every category has a range of individuals. Even the most highly rated religious affiliation will have some people whose conduct and actions are particularly evil, and even the lowest rated religious affiliation will have some people who live exemplary lives. Religious affiliation definitely influences how likely it is that someone conducts their lives in a good or evil way, but it is not destiny. 

I strongly support the view that one should not discriminate based upon religious affiliation in making decisions about particular individuals because the variation within any religious affiliation is so great.

Additional caveats and definitions follow the rankings. Commentary follows some rankings in italics.

The Rankings 

1. Society of Friends (Quakers)

2. Humanists

3. Atheists (not connected to a Maoist or Lenninist Communist ideology)

4. Satanic Temple members

5. Buddhist and/or Shinto and/or Taoist/Daoist (excluding Tibetan Buddhists). This category is "and/or" because any people of Japanese origins simultaneously adhere to Buddhist and Shinto and Taoist religious practices and beliefs in addition to Confucian ethical precepts. Daoist is an alternative transliteration of Taoist into English language spelling.

6. American Ethical Union (a Humanist affiliation mostly made up of people who were historically Jewish)

7. Reformed Jewish

8. Unitarian Universalist (including Unitarian Christians within this otherwise non-Christian denomination).

9. Reconstructionist Jewish (the most "liberal" of the main organized American Jewish "denominations").

10. Secular Jewish

11. Agnostic

12. Episcopalian

13. Confucians (who are not adherents to a religion) 

14. Bahai

15. Metropolitan Churches (a predominantly LGBT Christian denomination)

16. Native American folk religion adherents

17. United Church of Christ and Congregationalist Churches (descendants of the historical established church of New England)

18. Church of the Brethren

19. Orthodox Jews

20. Sikhs

21. Tibetan Buddhists

22. Spiritual but not religious

23. New Age Spiritualists, Neo-Pagans and Wiccans (except White Supremacist Nordic Neo-Pagans)

24. LeVey Satanists

25. Orthodox Church in America

26. Druze

27. Catholic denominations that split from the Roman Catholic Church

28. Eastern Rite Catholics

29. Greek Orthodox

30. Hindu (other than Hare Krishna)

31. Non-Religious

32. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

33. Muslims who emphasize Sufi spiritualism in their lives (whether Shiite or Sunni)

34. Amish

35. African Methodist Episcopal (AME) A predominantly African-American group of denominations

36. Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Christians

37. Nation of Islam

38. Presbyterian (USA)

39. Roman Catholic There is a particularly broad range of diversity within this, the largest Christian denomination in the world.

40. Syrian Orthodox

41. United Methodist

42. Christian Church (Disciples)

43. Parsi (South Asian and Iranian Zoroastrians)

44. Korean Protestant

45. Reformed Church (descendant of European Calvinist cburches)

46. Hare Krishnas

47. Latino Pentecostals

48. Christian Scientist

49. American Baptist Church

50. Latino Mormons

51. Alevi and Alawite Muslims

52. Rastafarian

53. Community of Christ (a smaller Mormon denomination)

54. Shiite Muslim (not elsewhere classified)

55. Mormon (not elsewhere classified)

56. Lutheran, Missouri Synod

57. Anglican (affiliated with African Anglicans but predominantly white in the U.S.)

58. Unification Church (Moonies)

59. African American Baptist Churches

60. Church of God (several predominantly African-American Pentecostal denominations)

61. African immigrant animists

62. Sunni Muslim (not elsewhere classified)

63. Maoist Atheists

64. Jehovah's Witnesses

65. Messianic Jews

66. Lenninist Atheists

67. Russian Orthodox

68. Non-denominational Christian churches and megachurches (this category has broad internal variation)

69. Seventh Day Adventists

70. Polygamous Mormon denominations who live in the larger community

71. African immigrant Protestant churches

72. Lutheran, Wisconsin Synod

73. Presbyterian Church in America

74. Scientologists

75. Assembly of God

76. Southern Baptists

77. Evangelical televangelists and Christian revivalist ministers

78. Various splinter small predominantly white Evangelical denominations

79. Salafist Muslims and adherents of similar Muslim movements (e.g. the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi movement and the Taliban)

80. Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) church

81. Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS (the "God Hates Fags" church)

82. White Supremacist Nordic Neo-Pagans

83. Various restrictive cult of personality churches (e.g. the Branch Dravidians)

Caveats and Definitions

Descriptive

This ranking is a descriptive one. Thus, it is based upon how people with this religious affiliation live their lives individually ad collectively, not upon how the doctrines and beliefs associated with their religious affiliation says that they should act.

Criteria

It is based primarily upon my personal perception of how ethically and morally people who consider themselves to have this religious affiliation tend to act when faced with a decision or an opportunity to act morally or immorally. 

One of the important subsets of this first criteria is how people with this religious affiliation would be likely to treat a stranger of unknown religious affiliation who faces persecution or simply needs help.

As a secondary consideration given significant less weight than the primary consideration, I consider the extent to which people who share this religious affiliation tend to engage in effective collective action for the benefit of others either within or outside that religious affiliation. The collective action involved may be, but ins't necessarily, itself affiliated with the religious affiliation itself. If people with a religious affiliation often engage in effective ecumenical or secular collective action for the benefit of others, this still counts. On the other hand, if people with a particular religious affiliation often attempt to engage in collective action for the benefit of others, but their attempted tend to be disorganized and ineffective, their collective action is not a plus factor.

Non-Quantitative

No effort is made to quantify the extent to which religious affiliations are good or evil, it is simply a relative rank ordering.

Based Upon U.S. Adherents

All of these rankings are based upon the subset of people with this religious affiliation who live in the United States of America, even though, in the case of many religious affiliation that has primarily non-U.S. adherents, the people who have that religious affiliation in the United States may be highly atypical of the global population of people with that religious affiliation.

For example, Hindus are ranked here based upon the subset of Hindus who live in the United States and not upon Hindus in India.

This said, familiarity with the most distinctive aspects of a religious affiliation with many non-U.S. adherents does inform the rankings to some extent where there is no reason to believe that U.S. adherents of a religious affiliation are typical. 

Categorization and Ethnic Subgrouping

In some cases, people who have the same religious affiliation or identity, strictly speaking, are strongly segregated ethnically and would, for example, rarely worship together. 

For example, even though most Protestant churches in immigrant Korean communities in the United States are affiliated with a larger, predominately white U.S. Protestant denomination, in practice, people affiliated with Korean Protestant churches are very similar to each other, regardless of their particular denominational affiliation in the United States and are relatively speaking more dissimilar for the purposes evaluated in this ranking to white American members of the Protestant denomination with which they are formally affiliated.

So, to the extent possible I have made this distinction in all cases except the Roman Catholic Church, which despite its great internal diversity, does not quite reach the threshold where, for example, one can meaningfully segregate out Latino Roman Catholics from ethically Irish or ethnically Italian or ethnically French Roman Catholics. At any rate, even to the extent that it is possible to do this, I am not knowledgable enough about the inner subcultures of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States to do so.

I also recognize that there are more subgroups within both Shiite and Sunni Islam than I identify, but have not disaggregated them for the purposes of this ranking at this time.

I try to be as comprehensive as possible, but some religious affiliations, for example, Yazidis, I have insufficient knowledge and data to make any kind of evaluation.

28 September 2018

But Why Would You Want One?

The Army is working on a howitzer with a 1150 mile range. But, why would you ever want one instead of aircraft or a missile that can already accomplish the same thing.

Sometimes it is indeed hard to get to the front lines of a battle zone with artillery. 

But, given that long range strike missions are already something that the U.S. does much better than any other country in the world, do we really need a cannon that can hit a target in Chicago from Civic Center Park in Denver? 

Existing Army artillery would struggle to hit a target in Denver's outer ring suburbs from that point of origin.

One thing is sure, however. Any attempt to build this superfluous beast would be wickedly expensive, over budget, incredibly behind schedule, and have capabilities less impressive than those of the initially pitched weapons system.

12 September 2018

Stray Thoughts

Philosophy

* Does philosophy involve a higher level of cognition that almost all other animals and many humans are capable of? Or, it is a wasteful side effect of high cognitive abilities?

Culture Wars And Cultural Evolution

* Two important cultural alternatives to the emerging culture of the global establishment, at a very high level of generality, are the cultures of white conservatives in the U.S. and Islam. Those macro-cultural families, like all other living cultures are constantly transforming internally. What is going on in each? Where is each one headed? What promising opportunities and threats are associated with these changes?

* A lot of this dependents upon what we can do to change our economy to offer a better deal to people who have less education and less capacity to attain it. Getting men into pink collar jobs could help too.

Education

* Socio-economic and educational attainment are significantly influenced in the U.S. by family wealth (which impacts the rate of college completion and the type of college attended relative to academic ability), not just genetics. Another powerful demonstration of this fact is the huge disparity in college attainment between black men and black women who have extremely similar intelligence related genes - disparities in the way conduct is treated (often discriminatorily) and manifests (men are more violent than women) between men and women are likely a major cause. One seems something similar in people who earn GEDs, most of whom went to prison and/or dropped out of high school for prolonged periods due to conduct or pregnancy issue. GED earners have IQs similar to or in excess of average high school graduates, but the GED is a far less valuable educational credential. 

* Most students who need remedial work before college are deficient in mathematics, which is notable because on one hand, it is hard to fake mathematics competence, but on the other hand, it is a fairly compact body of information which is more amenable to improvement with instruction than reading and writing skills.

* Insufficient mathematics mastery is also a major barrier to people pursuing STEM majors (and in some programs that require calculus for it, such as Miami University of Ohio, economics and business majors). The two most failed course in higher education are Calculus I and Chemistry 101, both of which approach 50% and both of which are highly quantitative subjects where non-mastery of the subject matter can't be faked. In part, this is because high school graduates are ill prepared for these subjects and, in part, this is because these classes are ill taught, often in large sections with teaching assistances who aren't fluent in English, with a sink or swim attitude. There is also some evidence that these courses and quantitative STEM majors generally have a minimum threshold of math ability that many students are simply incapable of surpassing, which suggests that college course advising is also weak and unrealistic in these areas. In some cases, Calculus and/or Chemistry may be an inappropriate tool to weed out students because it is not really relevant to higher subject matter in the field.

* Students who are not sufficiently academically strong have immense college dropout rates, and show less value added in terms of knowledge and competencies gained even in the cases where they manage to graduate. Much of the benefit of "some college" is a pure sorting effect rather than value added from attending college. Society would be better off if the threshold for starting a college education were higher and higher education resources were concentrated on those with a greater likelihood of benefitting from college. We waste a lot of resources in our society providing college instruction to students who aren't ready for it academically (although they might be ready at some future point). This also isn't a terribly costly policy, since on average, lower income students are less academically successful.

* Society would also be better off it education aid were more heavily need based. Too few academically able low income students go to college and their extremely valuable human capital is underutilized. Too many high income students who aren't academically ready for college wastefully attend it and inappropriate receive signaling related economic benefits as a result.

* The K-12 education system wastes the time of a huge share of its students and the system by trying to shoehorn students who will not realistically be academically ready for college into a watered down college preparatory program. Meanwhile, the state of vocational education for "mid-level" occupations that don't require a four year college degree, but require some education or skill development beyond the standard watered down college preparatory program, is overall dismal although there are occasional bright spots that have happy and economically successful students.

* High schools have bad incentives to offer AP/IB/concurrent enrollment college courses to students who aren't ready for those classes, and to encourage students who aren't academically ready to succeed in college to attend college.

* Education programs that are most effective in "value added" involve behavior modification with some buy-in in the form of student/parent choice.

* School choice programs are mostly beneficial, where they work, not because they great more excellent schools, but because they more swiftly shut down more mediocre schools that undermine student performance.

* IQ needs to be nurtured through schooling and some kinds of education, like STEM education, like learning to solve a Rubik's Cube, permit improvements in capabilities that cannot be achieved regularly in any other way. But, IQ and heredity are not very influential with regard to competencies that reside not in the individual, but in group interactions. We can't consistently make kids who are dumb a lot smarter in relative terms, but we can socialize all children much better than we do on average.

Criminal Justice

* We overuse pre-trial incarceration in a way that impairs substantive rights based on wealth.

* We inappropriately use incarceration for debt collection.

* We overused incarceration in cases of technical violations of parole conditions and "technical" escapes such as walk aways from half way houses.

* Drug crime sentences are inappropriately long relative to their seriousness as are federal child pornography sentences.

* We do a poor job of treating substantive abuse and mental health issues that are very common among incarcerated people.

* The importance of traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a cause of crime and misconduct while incarcerated cannot be exaggerated. It is one of the dominant factors and that should spawn pervasive efforts across society to make more serious attempts to prevent TBI.

* Both minority street gangs and the white supremacy movement are nurtured by existing misadministration of prisons and jails which is the norm in American practice today.

* We do a dismal job of holding bad cops and bad prosecutors accountable and getting them out of the criminal justice system.

* High IQ and college degrees are stunningly protective against incarceration in prison, despite the substance abuse and mental health issues still present in those populations.

* Castration or the equivalent is underused to a recidivism reducing sanction that could greatly reduce incarceration.

* Prison conditions in the U.S. often fail to meet international human rights standards.

* Juvenile secrecy does more harm than good in most cases, so do mandates that employers not ask about criminal records in employment applications.

* Felon disqualification from voting is counterproductive.

* The number of people who ultimately obtain shorter sentences or acquittals through post-conviction appeals, collateral review of judgments in the courts, and the commutation and pardon process is pretty stunningly small compared to naive intuition.

* The trial penalty in the criminal justice system is too high.

* The incentives discouraging criminal defendants from testifying in their criminal proceedings are too great.

Personal and Public Health

* I've lost about 30 pounds since starting a diet in April. It has not been easy and has required prescribed medication assistance. Basically, I have followed a fairly strict low carb diet which the drugs have helped reinforce and have helped me to continue to follow. I've only modestly increased exercise so far. I've also caught up on deferred dental work this summer and fall.

* How long will it take for culture to evolve enough to rebalance diet and exercise to avoid the obesity and related health issues that traditional patterns of diet and exercise prevented until certain aspects of modern culture that made us more sedentary and changed our diets arose? I think that eventually this will happen and the public is responsive to health recommendations for diet albeit on a lagged basis as statistics on how what we eat has changed over the decades.

10 September 2018

Quote of the Day and Book Review

"Guess I won't ask you to borrow one of those condoms." 
"Take them all," I say, plucking the foil wrappers from my purse and tossing them on her binder. "Although I'm sure Mrs. Hill has plenty she would happily give you." 
Faye laughs. A normal person would probably shove them out of sight, but she just leaves them there, prompting some strange looks from our classmates. 
"Oh, and Faye? The correct question would have been to ask me to give one to you. Borrowing implies that you'll give it back. Please don't."
- Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, "Firsts" (2016).

As the United States Center for Disease Control reminded us via Twitter on July 23, 2018:
"We say it because people do it," they wrote. 
"Don't wash or reuse condoms! Use a fresh one for each sex act."

A Short Book Review of "Firsts".

Ms. Flynn's debut novel, by the way, is worthwhile, filling a much needed gap in the literature for teens who are, or are considering being, sexually active.

"Firsts" is necessarily much more explicitly sexual the most teen fiction, in which heroines tend to get laid for the first time, by their one true love, half way through the second volume of a three volume novel, or at the very end of a stand alone novel close to the novel's own climax, double entendre intended. 

But, she does its topic justice by exploring the complex emotional and interpersonal dimensions of being sexually active in a relatively realistic, albeit slightly exaggerated, way. 

Flynn also refrains from sex shaming (something that even horror movies love to do) or obsessing over consequences like STDs and pregnancy that can be largely avoided if one, like her heroine, practices safe sex, while addressing the various serious issues like improper pressure to have sex and very early teen sexuality and exploitation, without being completely overwhelmed by the negatives.

Other resources that are available don't meet that need.

In contrast, webcomics like "Boo! It's Sex" and "Oh Joy Sex Toy!", and a great many "medically" oriented sites, are really little more than illustrated sex education classes or background medical research. But, while reproductive health is important, that isn't all that there is to sex.

Cosmopolitan magazine covers somewhat similar ground in pseudonymous sex articles delivered with a similar attitude, but aimed at an older audience that thinks it is more sophisticated than it really is, of twenty-something single women in the big city looking for an eventual husband. 

And, both pornography (which is ubiquitous on the Internet for free in all of its form), and genre romance fiction, are such unrealistic fantasies that they are misleading. Pornography, of course, also never addresses the emotional and interpersonal dimensions of sexuality at all, even though it illustrates some of the mechanics of having sex in a way that comprehensive sex education classes, despite their description, do not. Romance novels, however, also tend towards either idealized sex, or rape fantasies, and tend to put sex on a pedestal, rather than integrating it into the lives of its characters as just one more part of their lives.

"Firsts", along with some isolated premium cable television network series, in contrast, integrate realistic descriptions of sex into its narrative more holistically, without quite crossing the line over into erotic fiction, which is simply pornography in written form.

09 September 2018

The Best of Times, The Worst Of Times

The Best Of Times

There are things about living today that are the best that they have ever been.

For example, one of the things I dreamed about when I was in high school was being able to experience pop culture from all over the world. Now, with streaming services like Spotify, Netflix and Hulu, with art house theaters (which didn't exist in my small town childhood), and with book stores that have more cosmopolitan offerings, at least to some degree, this is possible.

Likewise, the culinary delights of almost any place in the world is just around the corner, who a huge variety of grocery and restaurant choices.

Moveable goods are cheap. Products like 3D printers, computers, GPS and smart phones make possible things we could barely even have imagined.

Cars are safer and last longer and are more fuel efficient and less polluting, and speed limits are higher, We are on the brink of transitioning from gasoline and diesel powered motor vehicles to self-driving electric vehicles. Active efforts are underway to restore supersonic passenger flight. Renewable energy technologies have crossed key thresholds. High speed trains are an effective mode of transportation in Europe, Japan, China and the Northwestern United States.

Teen pregnancies and crime rates are near long time lows for the United States. The average American is more educated than ever and racial disparities in education are less than they were. Gay rights are near a high water mark. The nation is more non-religious and less Christian than it has been since the Enlightenment. The #MeToo movement has brought accountability to sexual abusers in many positions of power (although not the President yet), and the Roman Catholic church under one of its best Popes in decades is cleaning up its own house.

The mindless march towards higher incarceration rates has finally ebbed. Marijuana legalization has probably crossed a point of no return.

We know everything there is to know about fundamental physics that has engineering applications even if we haven't scraped out every last secret that Nature has to offer and sometimes don't know how to apply what it is that we do know. We remain hot in pursuit of more knowledge on this front.

We haven't had a draft since Vietnam and many other countries in the developed world have followed suit. We aren't exactly at peace, but we are not fighting a major war either. Precision munitions and drones have dramatically changed warfare to the point were knowing where to strike is a bigger problem than being able to do so. The Islamic terrorism threat that was at the forefront in the U.S. after 9-11 has largely failed to materialize in the U.S.

We have developed new vaccines like HPV, are making serious progress on an HIV vaccine, can cure near sightedness with lasers, have made real progress in reducing trauma mortality, and may have discovered a cure for most sepsis cases. Again, efforts towards further medical advances are vigorous.

The Worst Of Times

Not all of the news is good, however, and the United States feels to many on both the left and the right like an empire in decline.

Opioid deaths have been surging. So has cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcohol abuse. We are growing obese as our traditions are not long sufficient to keep us well exercised with a healthy diet to match our lifestyles.

Our President is a delusional idiot and about a third of American voters, disproportionately older, white, male, rural and Southern, back him. We are taking steps backwards as he leads us towards a more racist, more xenophobic, more protectionist, more misogynist, more homophobic, more anti-Semitic, more anti-Muslim, more cruel and more hateful world. Nazi and white supremacist politics are resurgent in Europe and the United States.

His movement has disavowed the legitimate media, higher education, science, and the rule of law. They practice a Bizarro World Christianity that hates the poor and loves the rich, that hates the foreigner and is stripped of compassion and mercy.

It is more dangerous to be LGBTQ. It is more dangerous to be black or a foreigner.

We have the most corrupt Presidential administration since Andrew Jackson, and senior staff positions full of people who want to undermine their agencies.

Mass shootings have sprung up at an unprecedented rate. Right wing terrorism is resurgent. Unjustified police violence that goes unsanctioned remains all too common and is encouraged by the President.

The United States has health care less universal than anywhere else in the world, at by far the highest cost in the world, with results that aren't the best by far. Huge tragedies like lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan and the failure to provide adequate relief to Puerto Rico after its most recent losing fight with a Hurricane remain without a remedy.

Since the 1970s, the working class has seen economic stagnation, has found it harder and harder to make marriages work, and has struggled to get by with more work, while education and health care costs, for example soaring. There has been economic growth, but only confined to the upper middle class and far more than that to the 1%.

U.S. international goodwill is gone and so is our commitment to human rights, and we have failed to intervene constructively in miserable wars in places like Yemen and Syria.

Our K-12 education has declined even as our universities remain national leaders.

Despite progress on renewables and green technologies, the administration is working hard to undermine environmental standards, to encourage more pollution, to deny that man made climate change is real, against the entire world.

The democratic institutions of the United States are deeply troubled. Republicans are actively working on voter suppression. The electoral college and gerrymandering are systemically biased against urban and liberal voters. Russians interfered with out most recent election and many Republicans think it was good thing. Lobbies for anti-social big business interests and the NRA remain absurdly powerful. Third-parties voters hurt their friends and are manipulated nefariously. Republicans have abused legislative norms in Congress while Democrats have not responded in kind and have been taken advantage of in the process. The U.S. Supreme Court is shifting left as a result of a variety of dirty tricks. We have no way to swiftly remove a madman like Trump. Media giants like major urban newspapers are in decline, and more than a third of voters ignore them anyway drawn in by misleading partisan journalism and fake news from Fox and less reputable less well known sources. Social media is vulnerable to demagogues. Political party elites couldn't contain a baser rank and file.

It is infuriating that we know what the problems are, we know who in the administration is dirty, we know the President's deep, deep faults and yet, nothing seems to happen.

The left has mobilized and might get things on the right track again in the mid-term elections in two months, or they could have another stunning and unexpected failure like 2016. All hope is not lost, but right now the future looks like a dark one. We need an unprecedented Blue Tsunami, and that may or may not happen.

There is no vision for a way forward.

07 September 2018

Pro-Basketball Players Are Not Mutants

Do very tall people like pro-basketball players have special genetics mutations that make them really tall?

Or, do they just have a nearly complete collection of the common genetic variants that tend to make people taller as a matter of more or less random chance?

The answer is the latter. 

All of the height of a very tall pro-basketball player whose genome was examined (citing this study) can be explained by having an above average (at the 4.2 standard deviation level, which is 198 more than the average) proportion of the 2,910 known common height related genes that favor greater height (technically speaking, this is actually 198 more than the average proportion of 2,910 "single nucleotide polymorphisms" a.k.a. SNPs, rather than "genes" in the narrow technical sense of that word).

These individuals just happen to be at the extreme end of the bell curve for height.

06 September 2018

Delayed Gratification Is A Powerful Predictor Of Future Income

Traditional methods used by psychologists (such as correlations and regression) haven't allowed for a simultaneous comparison of different factors relating to an individual's affluence. This study collected a large amount of data -- from more than 2,500 diverse participants -- and split them into a training set and a test set. The test set was put aside while the training set produced model results. The researchers then went back to the test set to test the accuracy of their findings. 
Unsurprisingly, the models indicated that occupation and education were the best predictors of high income, followed by location (as determined by zip code) and gender -- with males earning more than females. Delay discounting was the next most-important factor, being more predictive than age, race, ethnicity or height.
From here citing:

William H. Hampton, Nima Asadi, and Ingrid R. Olson, "Good Things for Those Who Wait: Predictive Modeling Highlights Importance of Delay Discounting for Income Attainment." Frontiers in Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01545

Perceived Scarcity Drives Conservatism

A new study shows that "in the 2016 presidential election, with Republicans making gains in counties that had 2.5 times more deaths from suicide, alcohol, and overdose."
Counties with a net gain in the percentage of individuals who voted for the Republican candidate had a 15 percent higher 2015 age-adjusted death rate than counties with a net gain in Democratic voters. The increase in death rates due to alcohol, drugs, and suicide was also 2.5 times higher in counties where Republicans made gains compared with counties where Democrats made gains. 
"It's commonly argued that President Trump won by receiving more votes from people who have been left behind economically -- especially older, less-educated, and less-urban, white voters," said Dr. Goldman. "Based on our data, we can also say that changes in life expectancy were an independent factor in voting choices. Reduced health prospects are an important marker of dissatisfaction, discouragement, hopelessness, and fear -- sentiments that may have resonated with voters who sided with President Trump. Although correlation does not imply causality, our findings also suggest that plausible improvements in life expectancy in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin might have shifted their electoral votes to Secretary Clinton.
This isn't a great surprise and corroborates previous data.

General, but less widely disseminated political theory explains why this is so.

Basically, conservatism (and religiosity) is associated with economic hardship and uncertainty, while liberalism and secularism are associate with economic prosperity and security.

If personal survival is the key, you focus on looking out for yourself and perhaps your family, at the expense of empathy for others specifically, or in the abstract in the sense of the larger community and environment.

Suicide, alcohol related and overdose related deaths are symptoms of psychological stress and despair that tend to be associated with economic hardship and uncertainty. So, survival oriented thinking, which tends to be conservative, prevails.

The paper is:

Lee Goldman, et al., "Independent Relationship of Changes in Death Rates with Changes in US Presidential Voting." Journal of General Internal Medicine (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s11606-018-4568-6

05 September 2018

Quote of the Day

Unless you are like Saudi Arabia sitting on the bulk of the world reserve of ‘spice’, you cannot really afford being crazy asshole and still remain in long durable alliances.
From a comment posted by Shafiq R at September 5, 2018 at 3:21 am (the literary reference is to Frank Herbert's "Dune" series).

04 September 2018

The Challenges Of Reforming Traditional Lifestyles

People do lots of things out of custom and tradition that are the product of cultural evolution and are adaptive. 

But often, conventional wisdom regarding why those customs and traditions are adaptive completely wrong

For example, many superstitious divination techniques are functional not because they are accurate, but because they randomize decisions that would otherwise be sub-optimal due to dysfunctional cognitive biases if made consciously.

If you are like most people and have inaccurate understandings of the reasons that the status quo works, then your reforms of the status quo is likely to have unexpected and unintended consequences. This isn't a problem, of course, if you actually do know what it is about the customs and traditions that has a functional purpose. But, it is very hard to both gain the nuanced knowledge of how the customs and traditions work in intimate detail so that you can discern the critical details about them, and to also have enough of an outsider's perspective to ignore conventional wisdom in order to discern the true reasons that these cultural practices are functional.

Reformers like Turkish founding figure Ataturk who insisted that his people wear Western style clothing in a climatologically inappropriate place as part of a general scheme of reforms, was aware at some level of his own incapacity to discern what was and wasn't an important cause of the outcomes he desired, so he adopted foreign cultures he saw as successful wholesale to avoid the risk of missing a non-obvious but critical component of what made those cultures work.

But, in a rapidly changing world, refusing to change is also perilous.

Ideally, change that occurs in a manner sensitive to the hidden functionality of existing customs and traditions (as well as an understanding of how they become dysfunctional in a changing world), can allow that change to be less disruptive and more adaptive. Probably the best historical example of thoughtful and selective adoption of outside innovation into a culture in a manner that brings benefit without being unduly disruptive is early modern Japan.

But, since striking the right balance between preserving customs and traditions with hidden mechanisms and functions that have value, and making necessary changes and reforms to adapt to modern society, is a highly challenging task, copying successful models from elsewhere in a wholesale fashion is one popular method of reform that often works reasonably well, even though many of the changes made will not have value to the adopting society and even though this may trample useful contributions that the adopting society could have made from its own traditions.