Sunday, December 20, 2015

Straining at gnats, swallowing camels

This Saturday's Kittanning Leader Times published two editorials critical of governmental actions. The tone and focus of both are excellent illustrations of the need for the current editorial writers to either up their game or be fired. The first editorial attacks the EPA for using social media platforms to promote the EPA's own clean water rules that were under threat by Republican members of congress. BTW, those rules have survived so far Republican attempts to kill them. A rider attached to the omnibus budget bill passed by congress this week failed to make it into the final version. The senate passed a separate bill specifically to prevent implementation of the rules. That bill is likely to pass in the house as well and will almost certainly be vetoed by President Obama. Say what you want about Obama's failures to achieve progressive goals; without his administration our country would be in a much worse place in many areas.

What exactly did the EPA do wrong, and who found out about it? The editorial mentions a report by the General Accounting Office which found that the EPA's social media outreach in two cases amounted to "impermissible 'covert propaganda.'" The editorial doesn't go into details on precisely what the GAO report found illegal. I am not so bound by space restrictions here -- nor by any allergies to inconvenient truths -- so I can report the details. The EPA has been using multiple social media platforms to publicize its work. You can get a glimpse of its rather extensive list of social media outreach sites here. Out of all this content the GAO report found two social media posts that violated federal rules restricting federal agencies from advocating for policies via covert grassroots campaigns. One was a blog post by Travis Loop, Communications Director for EPA’s Office of Water. This post includes links to websites of other organizations. The other websites include prominent sections advocating readers to contact members of congress to protect the EPA's clean water rules. The GAO report concludes that these links constitute an attempt by a federal agency to indirectly generate grassroots action influencing congressional action, which would be against a law passed by congress in 2014. The GAO's assessment appears to be correct.

The second was an EPA post to Thunderclap. This site is designed to amplify publication efforts of a social media post by attracting others with a social media presence to join a publicity campaign. The result is supposed to lead to a huge number of people who watch the social media feeds of the other people to see the originator's post. The EPA's Thunderclap post clearly identifies the EPA as the source of the post. Based on Thunderclap's own description of what appears to the end reader when the Thunderclap-formatted message is broadcast, the EPA logo identifying them as the source of the post would not appear to the end readers. That fact, plus the wording of the message makes it appear as if the supporter rather than the EPA is the origin of the message. In that regard the GAO report's criticism of the EPA is correct. The EPA staffer(s) responsible for the post should have worded it to make it clear that the EPA is the source of the message or not used Thunderclap at all.

Of course, since the GAO is a government body, I didn't fully trust its report any more than I fully trust the EPA. I checked the Facebook posts of the organizations that signed on to the campaign myself, just to see what EPA the post looks like when it was carried over. First, I checked to see what happened if I tried to embed the EPA post's Thunderclap link into my own Facebook page. It came up showing the link to the Thunderclap post and the images, including the EPA logo, clearly displayed. Next, I tried finding the EPA post reposted on the Facebook pages of a couple of the groups who signed up as supporters of the EPA post. I checked the Facebook pages of the National Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Cindy Skrukrud. Nothing going back all the way to the beginning of 2013. According to the GAO report, the Thunderclap campaign should have reposted the EPA post to the Facebook pages of all these supporters simultaneously on September 29, 2014. Out of frustration I searched Facebook for 'September 29, 2014 clean water.' I turned up tons of posts dated September 29. 2014, tons of posts containing the phrase 'clean water,' a bunch of posts about Lee Min Ho and only one -- ONE -- f*cking post that had to do with the EPA's Thunderclap campaign. It was posted to the page of the Santa Cruz Water Authority. Based on that post, the GAO report is correct that the message does not clearly identify the EPA as the source of the message. Trouble is, this post is NOT one auto-generated by Thunderclap. Rather, it appears to have been posted by someone at the Santa Cruz Water Authority, urging readers to check out the Thunderclap campaign page. I did the same search on Twitter and turned up squat regarding the EPA's Thunderclap post again. In short, I can't find any evidence to support or disconfirm the GAO's report. WTF? Did all 908 of these supporters delete the EPA post? I find that highly unlikely. So I'm going to ask the obvious question: Did the GAO bother to check whether the EPA campaign ever got carried out? Did they talk to Thunderclap to find out what happened to all these simultaneous posts that have now completely disappeared? How about the owners of the Facebook pages on which these posts were supposed to appear? I'm certainly not going to quiz readers of the various supporters' Facebook pages or Twitter feeds whether they actually saw the EPA post on September 29, 2014. I've already spent too much of my precious time on this issue. The GAO staff does get paid to answer this question. Why didn't they?

Conclusion? The GAO, a federal government body, reports correctly on the illegal activities of staff in another government body, the EPA. Those in charge at the EPA need to take steps to ensure that this type of activity stops. But there are larger lessons here: 1. Government -- in this case EPA staff -- can do wrong. 2. Government -- in this case the GAO staff responsible for their report -- can work. 3. Government -- in this case the same GAO staff responsible for their report -- can make mistakes. Not very profound, I know. That's the point. The fundamental problem with government is that it is made up of people. Want to fix government? Fix people. Of course, the editorial board is so worked up about this particular case because they agree with critics of the clean water rules that they are regulatory overreach. If a government agency guilty of illegal advocacy happened to be influencing legislation in a way that conforms to the board's own views and was caught by the GAO, do you think we would be reading an editorial criticizing the agency? ROFL

Now, about that people problem. Never fear, the editorial board has a fix for that. Just look at their second editorial, in which they criticize the outcome of the UN climate conference. Of Ban Ki-moon's claim that the agreement to reduce carbon emissions is a "monumental success for the planet and its people" the board had this to say:

Such delusions. Such a pig in a poke.

The Paris accord will do little to "save" the planet and much to hurt its people

How does the editorial board support this assessment? With a quote from a Heartland Institute "scholar" named James Taylor? Seriously? This "scholar" complains that the agreement ignores sound science in favor of political corectness and international wealth transfers. He's a f*cking lawyer. Don't worry, though, the board has more than "expert" opinion on its side; it has facts. Like, "human civilization developed and excelled at temperatures warmer than what the U.N. brokered deal calls for." Where do they get this factoid from? Not from NOAA. Maybe from here. If so, the source they are using is just wrong. But no, this factoid actually comes from an article by the same scholarly James Taylor. Taylor's article includes no citations to justify his factual claims. The other "facts" asserted by the editorial are pulled from the same source and likewise no references justify these claims either. I won't bother repeating them in detail.

What inspired this phony piece of right-wing B.S. masquerading as a piece of serious editorial craft? It could be that the editors buy into the misguided arguments floating around the web that an increase in global temperatures of the magnitude and rapidity suggested by mainstream climate models is neither unique to human history nor particularly threatening. I'm not even going to bother arguing this point. The editorial board is not a group of ignorant teenagers who could benefit from some patient, detailed explanation. Maybe they are premillenialist Christians and think that Jesus will return sometime in the very near future. In that case we don't need to worry about what would otherwise happen in 75-100 years. Ha, ha, ha! Maybe they aren't premillenials but still hold the misguided idea that God has somehow placed limitations on humans' ability to influence global climate, limitations enough that modern industrial society could not change the climate. Anybody who believes this -- yes, I'm talking to you, Senator Inhofe -- is an idiot. Maybe the board realizes that, like me, they will all be dead by the time the worst effects of rising global temperatures appear. Putting off expensive and disruptive solutions to this problem will allow them and their corporate sponsors to hang on to their money. Anything bad that happens afterwards will no longer matter to them. So, who cares? This is the most cynical interpretation of their persistent stupidity. Whatever motivates these psychopaths, you can be sure of this: If we fail to invest significant resources in reducing and counteracting the effects of AGW, hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of human lives will be lost to starvation, disease, and violence. With so many fewer people, we won't need so much government. See how the editorial board fixed the EPA problem? Brilliant!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nuts and Nutsier

I'm a week late with this post. Today I will be commenting on the editorials posted in the Kittanning Leader Times on Saturday, December 5, 2015. By now anyone who reads this post has probably forgotten the details of the editorials in question. The first editorial in praise of Oklahoma Wesleyan University president Everett Piper for his blog post chastising self-absorbed and narcisstic students I just can't find online anymore. Therefore, I will forego comments on that editorial. The second editorial, entitled "A 'climate' for nuts" in the Leader Times, can be found here.

The basic thrust of the editorial is that the world leaders meeting at the UN-sponsored Paris climate conference are nuts. Rather than concentrating their efforts on combatting the evils already afflicting a large segment of the world's population -- disease, poverty, political oppression, etc. -- they are trying to figure out a way to reduce global warming and mitigate its effects. According to the board, scientific predictions of global warming are way off. We may be headed for a period of global cooling instead. Furthermore, the plans likely to be hatched at the conference will not only misdirect billions of dollars needed to solve real the real problems listed above to expensive, inefficient, and ineffective alternative energy-generation projects, they will also sink capitalism and cripple the global economy.

Here is my summary of their argument:

  1. There is good scientific evidence that the global climate will cool in the coming decades.
  2. Any solutions to anticipated global warming likely to be adopted at the Paris climate conference will cripple the global economy.
  3. Any solutions to anticipated global warming likely to be adopted at the Paris climate conference will end capitalism.
  4. Therefore, the world leaders who are likely to adopt these solutions are nuts

Of the three premisses in this argument the editorial only presents supporting evidence for premiss one:

Not only has there been significant pause in Earth's warming, there's credible scientific research — based on solar activity — suggesting a significant cooling decade beginning in 2030.
Apparently, they assume the evidence in favor of premisses two and three is common knowledge. Ha, not only is it not common, it's not even knowledge! More on that later in the post.

It is not helpful to the board's wafer-thin argument that the "significant pause in Earth's warming" is a myth. What about "a significant cooling decade beginning in 2030?" The board is referring to a recent study that predicted solar activity will drop to a level not seen since the 1640s, a 50-year period of reduced sunspot activity called the Maunder minimum that occurred during the "Little Ice Age," a period of relatively cooler global temperatures that extended from about 1300 - 1850 AD. Many media reports about this study extrapolated from the study's conclusions about solar activity that global cooling will result. The study's authors did not draw this conclusion in their paper but two of them have subsequently offered their opinions on the consequences of the predicted "solar minimum" on earth's climate, namely that we can expect global temperatures to drop. Both have also stated that they believe changes in the level of solar irradiation make a larger contribution to changes in earth's climate than current human activity. Here is Dr. Helen Popova's statement. Dr. Valentina Zharkova, the study's lead author, comments about it here and here.

Neither of these researchers is a climate scientist. If you already believe that climate scientists as a whole are already too invested in the theory of man-made climate change to accept the idea that reduced solar activity could interrupt or cancel out the climatic effects of greenhouse gases, then the fact that Popova is a physicist and Kharkova a mathematician might lead you to trust their opinions more. If, on the other hand, you already believe that climate scientists as a whole have it basically correct, then you are likely to discount Zharkova and Popova's opinions on the relative climatic effects of reduced solar activity. It's worth pointing out that solar activity has already been on the decline while global temperatures have been increasing. There are other studies that argue changes in the levels of greenhouse gases and other resulting atmospheric changes have contributed more to changes in global climate than changes in solar activity/output. See here and here.


Bottom line. The debates over AGW remind me of the debates over evolution vs. creationism. On the one hand, you have a body of scientists that claim they have extensive, multiple lines of independent evidence supporting a dominant theory. On the other hand you have outliers who question the theory, most of whom have a prior commitment to another explanation for the evidence that comes, not from careful investigation of evidence but from a take-no-prisoners commitment to "revealed religion." Many climate science deniers come from the same group of religious zealots. Others are not so religiously precommitted. Nevertheless, when I read detailed debates about the specifics conducted on various blog sites and in academic articles, I get the same overall impression I got when following creation/evolution debates on The outliers critique a mainstream position and mainstream responders reply with a detailed explanation of the position that shows 1.) the critique misunderstood the position; 2.) the critique uses evidence incorrectly; 3.) the critique makes fundamental logical errors, and/or 4.) the critique, if correct, would undermine the critiquer's own position.

Readers will get their own mileage out of reading these climate debates. I can only speak for myself. IMHO this editorial is a poorly-argued piece of right-wing propaganda. I can't wait until the Leader Times passes out of the control of the nuts at the Tribune Review!

Monday, November 30, 2015


This week's Saturday Kittanning Leader Times presented an editorial so shamelessly crafted to place blame in favor of the editorialists' own prejudices that it scalds. The editorial comments on recent reports that many non-profit co-ops offering a low-cost alternative to traditional medical insurance plans, initially funded by loans provided by the ACA (Obamacare), have shut down or have plans to do so in the near future. The editorial labels this outcome a "fiasco" that provides further evidence the ACA was a poorly-designed law that should be repealed. Trouble is, the editorialist failed to mention the role Rethug legislative extortion played in the debacle. Turns out that in order to negotiate its way out of threatened or real government shutdowns the Obama administration bargained away (or was forced to surrender) much of the funding originally set aside to assist co-ops through the first three years of operation, when they would be expected to operate in the red. As a result, many of the co-ops experiencing funding shortfalls were provided far lower compensation for unfunded payouts than the law originally promised.

Don't expect to find a clear explanation of the problem in very many places though. The conservative media have been all over this story, but hardly a one mentions the role reductions in the "risk corridor" played in the co-op failures. You can find a detailed explanation of what is really going on here.

Analogies can be dangerous, but this one seems to fit. Imagine you were starting a new business, calculated your expected starting and ongoing costs and expected income for the first three years of your new business. Your calculations showed that you could expect to spend about $100,000.00 more than you would realize in revenues over the first three years of operation After that, you expect revenues to increasingly exceed expenses. With that expectation in mind, you go to the bank seeking a business loan. The bank promises you a line of credit up to $100,000.00 for the first three years of your business. You walk out happy. Then, after your first or second year of operation and about $50,000.00 into your credit line you get a call from the bank's lending officer. "Sorry," he says, "but as an austerity measure we will have to cut your line of credit. Basically, we are limiting the amount of credit we can extend to you this year to the amount of loan payments we receive from your competitors who have loans with us. You can expect something in the range of about $7500.00 to be available this year." Yikes! Unless you can cut expenses and raise tons of revenue in a hurry, your business is going down the tubes.

Of course, banks can't get away with such shenanigans (I know; I work for one). On the other hand, since when did House and Senate Rethugs ever think they should be constrained by such silly fantasies as keeping promises? It has been their strategy ever since the ACA passed to undermine it any chance they get and when their efforts succeed in hamstringing the law to yell loudly, "See, we told you it wouldn't work!" These co-op failures are likely to cost taxpayers some 2.5 billion dollars in unrecovered loan losses. Managers of many of the folding co-ops have claimed that if they had received enough of the promised subsidies to remain in operation, next year they would have raised enough revenue to meet expenses. I don't know how much trust to put in such claims, but if even only some of them are right, it seems that cutting down the "risk corridor" payments actually cost the government more in the long run than it would have cost to pay at the originally-promised rates. One more example of Rethugs, in the name of protecting the taxpayers, actually costing us more to get less.

But to focus on the Leader Times editorialists again, it is worth pointing out that their supposed advocacy for the American taxpayer is hypocritical. In a quick Google search for editorials on the ACA by the Tribune-Review (parent paper of the Kittanning Leader Times) editorial staff I turned up five editorials in the last couple of years, all bemoaning the folly and expense of the ACA. Oddly enough, their criticism of the federal government's excessive and wasteful spending habits managed to overlook the F-35 debacle. I won't take much time to rehearse this, but the military has spent almost 15 years on a plan to modernize the branches' fighter aircraft using the Lockheed-Martin F-35. So far, the Pentagon has invested nearly 400 billion dollars on this plane and has yet to get a single one into active military service. No need to go into details on the history here. It's easy enough to find. What isn't so easy to find is evidence of the Tribune-Review's self-vaunted watchdog service on taxpayers' behalf. I turned up exactly one editorial on the F-35, published in August of this year. The editorial recommended that the military consider finding alternatives to the F-35 for at least some of its planned uses. That's nice.

What's really going on here is simple. The ACA is a law designed to help the poor. It is a social welfare program. Therefore, in the doctrine of the Randian psychopaths who lead the Trib's editorial boards, the government spending money on it is bad. In fact, it is so bad that government leaders who spend large sums of taxpayer dollars to sabotage the program are heroes. On the other hand, the F-35 is a military program. Not only that, it is largely contracted out to the patriotic heroes that oversee or work in large private enterprises. Therefore, the government spending money on it is good. It is so good we should overlook the faults of government leaders who waste large sums of taxpayer dollars mismanaging the program.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

All we want you to know

This week's Saturday Leader Times had two editorials, one of which was ignorant and the other positively evil. The first editorial criticized PA governor Tom Wolfe and Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto for announcing that they would not change their positions on welcoming Syrian refugees after the terrorist attacks in Paris sponsored by ISIS. There are plenty of published articles and blog posts refuting the first editorial, so I will let it pass.

The second editorial was a thinly-disguised hit piece against Bernie Sanders' proposal to make education at a public college free. The ostensible focus of the editorial was Neil Cavuto's interview of Keely Mullen, an organizer of the Million Student March held on November 12. The editorial is largely made up of select quotes from the interview meant to highlight Mullen's inability to describe a realistic plan to pay for the march's three demands: free education at public colleges, student debt forgiveness and a $15.00/hour minimum wage for student employees at colleges and universities. The editorial opens like so:
 All one needs to know [italics added] about the ignorance of the "free college" crowd can be found in the words of Keely Mullen, the national organizer of last week's Million Student March ....
 After a selection of quotes from the interview the editorial concludes,
Ms. Mullen and Co. plant lots of "gimme" seeds.  They then expect others to water, weed, harvest and hand over the fruits of their labors.  Thinking Americans should find grotesque this ignorant, if not narcissistic, sense of entitlement.
 Let's dispose of Ms. Mullen before we get to the problems of this editorial.  She was a poor choice as a spokesperson for this group.  First, she comes from an upper-middle class family.  Second, she attended an expensive private high school and attends Northeastern University, an expensive private college.  Third, she is personally indebted to the tune of $150,000.00 in college loans.   For these reasons she does not represent the bulk of the young people who would most benefit from free public college education.  This background would not make her an inappropriate choice for the group's leadership.  History is full of people from upperclass backgrounds who were able to advocate effectively for the less fortunate.  The problem is that the group's goal of student loan forgiveness puts her in a compromised position.  It is not just that she would personally benefit from forgiveness of her college debt, but also that her deep indebtedness is a consequence of  very avoidable choices.   This makes her advocacy for that cause is transparently self-serving.  What's worse, in the interview she lied about her background, claiming that her family is working-class and dependent on government assistance.    The conservative blogosphere has since understandably erupted in outrage and contempt over her comments.

I have no idea how the national leadership of the Million Student March is organized but it clearly lacks in accountability and common sense.  There is no way Ms. Mullen should have accepted this interview.  A more articulate, better-prepared and more representative spokesperson should have been selected.   There is no doubt such a person could have been found.  If the Leader Times editorial board doubts this, they are still mired in the same immaturity that led Ms. Mullen to accept the Cavuto interview.

And that's the point.  Mullen is a college kid.  A narcissistic sense of entitlement is just one of many serious character/personality issues that people in their late teens and early twenties can struggle with.  Among the others: overly-legalistic idealism, self-doping, the Dunning-Krueger effect, depression, sexual manias, etc.  This is just a short list from memories of my own college experience.  Do I have to remind the editorial board of how many student leaders of conservative campus organizations have been guilty of ignorant behavior and/or statements?  

Of the organization's three key positions, the call for cancellation of college debts is the most controversial, for reasons that Cavuto and this editorial either state or imply.  But the editorial, while clearly taking shots at the entire movement because they regard Ms. Mullen's heavily leveraged investment in an expensive private institution as typical, explicitly mentions only the first position:  free tuition.  Furthermore, the editorial does so without qualifying the organization's position:  free tuition at public institutions.

Since the editorial takes specific aim at the position that public college education should be tuition-free, why not take on a seriously-considered proposal by someone with some governmental experience, e.g., Bernie Sanders' position papers on financing higher education?  A competent editorialist would have taken aim at the best version of an opposing viewpoint and would have made an argument against it and in favor of a better proposal, rather than indulging in guilt by association and related sleaze. I'm sure you'll claim the "liberal" media started it by reporting on the Million Student March and giving the students a public forum to express their views. Then you can point to the fact that Fox broadcast the Cavuto interview. If you want to stoop to Cavuto's level, go get a job with Fox. Cavuto is no college kid, but in the interview he managed to peddle the ridiculous claim that people with incomes over $250,000.00 are now paying nearly 50% of their income in taxes. Forget what Cavuto thinks of his audience; the man is an idiot. So, Leader Times Editorial board, what's your excuse? This sleazy piece of contemptuous redirection you've attempted to pawn off as an editorial is the kind of writing I'd expect from an entitled, snotty and rather stupid undergraduate propagandist. Except that you are not undergraduates; you think you're too clever for that. Instead, you are hoping that your audience will associate Sanders' proposals with "entitled brats" like Mullen and reject it as hopelessly unrealistic and unfair without bothering to learn anything further about the issue. After all, you've already given your readers all they need to know, right?

Clearly, you assessed your readership as largely older and already resentful of young people who go to expensive private colleges, e.g., the kind of kids that most of the older readers in Armstrong county don't have.   Many of them don't have any college-age kids at all anymore, which means that their knowledge of the financial challenges facing families tyring to get their kids through college right now is outdated and unrealistic.   Rather than challenging your readers to get updated on the facts and think strategically about the educational needs of a modern society, you indulge their resentments, saying in effect, "Nothing more to see here, move on sheeple."    Whoever is responsible for putting this editorial in the paper ought to lose his/her job.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Against working people

I'm back after a week off.  In the interim Trib Total Media has announced that it has agreed to sell the Kittanning Leader Times to Sample Media, Inc.   I don't know what this will mean for the future of the Leader Times or its editorial policies, but we can hope.  One hopeful sign is the editorial stance of the Ocean City Sentinel, a Sample Media, Inc. newspaper covering Ocean City, NJ.  Their editorials tend to focus more on local issues.  Their editor, David Nahan, is absolutely not a conservative Republican.  How promising this may be depends on whether the Ocean City Sentinel's editorial board is executing the parent company's editorial policies or is simply allowed to use its own discretion.  If the latter, the future direction of the Leader Times will depend on the composition of its editorial board.  Based on what we have been told, the current Leader Times editorial board may very well remain in place.  Unless they have been champing under the leadership of their Tribune-Review superiors, we can expect the current policy to continue, perhaps with minor modifications.  If that's the case, expect this blog to heat up.

In the meantime, the two editorials that appeared in the Leader Times on October 24 were as predictable as they were disappointing.  In the first editorial the board praises PA Senate for passing the "paycheck protection" bill.  This bill is a watered-down version of a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it illegal for PA state or local governments to collect union dues or fees for any purpose from state or local government employees.  The bill approved by the Senate is more narrowly focused.  It only prohibits collection of political contributions from employees.   The political motivation behind this bill is obvious.  The proposed amendment, even if it eventually passes, will not take effect until after the 2016 election.  Clearly, the Republicans in the state senate want to do something to reduce the influence of PA state employee unions on political races in the interim.  The language in this bill was originally much closer to the proposed amendment, but has subsequently been amended to allow for the continued collection of "fair share" union dues.  The amendments to the bill were probably the result of concessions to more moderate Republicans, such as Dominic Pileggi, who otherwise would not have supported it.

The editorial doesn't discuss any of this; whether the board likes the amended version better than the original is uncertain, but there is good reason to doubt it, in the form of an editorial column by Colin McNickle, the libertarian zealot in charge of the editorial staff at the parent Tribune Review.  In that column, written in reaction to this bill's amendments, McNickle makes it clear that governments should not be collecting any money from their employees on behalf of unions.    Given McNickle's role at Trib Total Media, we have reason to suspect that the Leader Timed editorial board would lean in the same direction.  As it is, they'll take what they can get.

Oddly enough, the editorial apparently has no objections to other deductions governments perform on behalf of their employees, such as retirement and insurance payments. I guess that means no insurance companies use any of the money collected from government employees to lobby the government. Hahahahahahaaaaah! Seriously, if the bill's sponsors were genuinely interested in keeping any taxpayer funds from being funneled to political causes, they should either require all private entities that receive funds deducted from the paychecks of government employees to report on amounts contributed to political campaigns or superPACs and refuse to deduct that percentage from the employees' paychecks or simply refuse to collect any monies on behalf of any third party from employees' paychecks. As it is, this law in all its forms is a naked attempt to influence elections in favor of Republicans. That the editorial board supports it speaks volumes.

The other editorial is a lament that Canada elected Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. What is their problem with Trudeau? That he's an intellectual lightweight? A fashion plate? Inexperienced? Son of Pierre Trudeau, and so resembling too closely the American candidates who are riding the coattails of previous family members who attained high office? I can find plenty of Canadian commentaries that agree with these accusations. Nope. He's a liberal.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Signs of the Times

This week the Leader Times published an editorial criticiing the PA Turnpike Commission for dragging its feet on implementing fully-automated toll collection and another editorial criticizing the defense attorney for Michael Cinefra, the Plum School District substitute teacher indicted for having sex with a 15 year-old student.  Both editorials make good points based on what we know so far about the situations.  The board deserves kudos for the second editorial.  Not so much for the first.  It is a bit misleading on the facts and leaves unanswered larger questions about our society that the toll collection program raises.

The first editorial supposes that at least one of the reasons the Turnpike Commission has decided to initiate a study of full automation rather than implementing it system-wide is the desire to preserve the jobs of as many toll-takers as possible as long as possible.  Under the assumption that full automation will save the state large sums of money in the form of toll-collector salaries and benefits and the costs of upgrading toll booths, the editorial board complains that the Turnpike Commission is just wasting taxpayer money, money that could be better spent on ... oh wait, the editorial board didn't say anything about that at all!    So, what is the point of the editorial besides taking shots at state government spending money?

Of course the editorial mentions that the toll-collectors are unionized, (i.e., lazy, overpaid beneficiaries of bloated government make-work).  Because, according to the free-market orthodoxy of conservative/libertarian religion, the costliest single resource that just about every organization must account for in pricing its products and services is its employees, and therefore, the proper target of our anger, resentment, and downright hatred about the costliness of the products and services we pay (too much) for is other people.  The editors of the paper would never say this, of course, because that would make them sound like sociopaths. 

The editorial also implies that Democratic (you know, the party that always wants to spend more taxpayer money, especially when it can be spent generating government-dependent voters, securing permanent electoral majorities for Democrats) Commission Chairman Sean Logan is dragging his feet in the implementation of automated toll collection.  But the actual timetable for the study was established during the Corbett administration, years before Logan became chairman or Tom Wolfe became governor.  Not only that, but the plan to automate the toll collection system was already on the drawing board in 2012.  In short, the foot-dragging accusation is bullshit.  Logan has expressed some scepticism about the long-term cost savings of a fully-automated system.  You could attribute that to a pro-union bias, but an article in the Tribune-Review -- which I suppose is the factual basis for the editorial -- points out that Colorado's experience with automated tolling has not realized the cost savings they anticipated.

None of this is to say that fully automating toll collection on the Turnpike is a bad idea.  There are plenty of good reasons to do so, as pointed out here and here, for example.  Converting to a fully-automated system will most likely reduce toll-collection costs eventually, if done correctly.   The commission anticipates upfront conversion costs of about $320 million.  One article estimates that about $70 million in annual costs will be saved by eliminating the jobs of toll collectors.  Taxpayers further benefit in several ways.  They avoid slowdowns at toll booths, auto emissions are reduced, engineering connections to other roadways are simplified, some physical maintenance costs are reduced.  These savings are offset by the higher ongoing cost of the toll collection technologies and higher enforcement costs.  I could not find a detailed estimate of how these costs balance out over the long term, but it will probably result in the savings of millions of dollars annually.

Now for the larger question that this brief editorial leaves unanswered.  Or, to be quite frank, trivializes.  I've seen different numbers, but it appears that an estimated 600-800 toll booth collector positions will be eliminated.  The Turnpike Commission has been talking about this project with their employees to prepare them for the eventual job reductions.  The commission hopes to transfer some of these employees to the enforcement positions that will need to be filled as part of the conversion.  Other jobs simply won't be filled as current employees retire.  For the rest the commission is likely to offer other incentives to find work elsewhere.

This relatively small workforce reduction is one example of a larger trend that has been going on for a long time and will likely accelerate in the coming decades.   Automation has been replacing human labor for a long time now.  In most cases, economies that invested in labor-saving devices eventually expanded enough to create new forms of employment that absorbed the excess labor displaced by automation.  Unfortunately, this did not always happen in the right magnitude, with the right speed, or with compensating jobs that matched the abilities and skills of displaced workers.  As a result, there were large numbers of losers, people whose livelihoods were ruined and as a result were plunged into poverty or at least a much lower income level.  This was especially the case before national governments adjusted better to the problems caused by worker displacement.  Modern, post-industrial societies tend to do a better job helping displaced workers transition to new opportunities.  But better is just better, not good in many cases.  

Many leaders view improved educational and training programs as the key to helping displaced workers quickly transition to new employment in a high-tech economy.  This approach assumes that automation mostly replaces rather low-skill workers while opening up new opportunities for more highly-trained workers.  In general this is true, although the number of highly-skilled workers needed to maintain a more highly-automated process is usually far less than the number of low-skill workers replaced by the automation.  Many economists argue that the difference is made up indirectly, by future investments of the money saved via automation in other economic activities from which displaced workers obtain new employment.  Whatever its merits, this arrangement only works when automation replaces low-skilled workers.  When automation is able to replace highly-trained, highly-skilled, or experienced workers, improved and training and education will not by themselves enable many displaced workers to find new employment.  First, some of these workers may simply lack the native talents needed to succeed at a higher level of intellectual effort.  Second, as the level of skills and knowledge needed to outcompete machines rises, so does the time and money needed for a displaced worker to obtain the needed retraining.

We are fast approaching a new phase in workplace automation in which the machines are becoming capable of replacing knowledge workers.  This is already happening in information technology, although only to a very limited degree.  Information security anomaly detection and incident response, automated legal discovery, algorithmic optimization are just a few of the areas that have become increasingly automated, reducing the number of human beings needed to fulfill such roles.  Examples like this could be repeated for any number of other fields usually classified as knowledge-focused or knowledge-intensive.   It is true that up until now, no large numbers of knowledge workers are losing their jobs to machines.  Instead, what is happening is that as AI and related technologies make incremental progress, human knowledge workers have been gaining in productivity.  The machines have served as very sophisticated tools.  What has changed is that many entry-level or low-level positions are now filled by machines.  The result is a net loss of job opportunities for new workers

Artificial Intelligence researchers may not be able to produce machines capable of human-level intelligence for decades, or more.  But incremental progress along these lines is likely to continue, and as it does it should eat up more and more of the upper-level employment opportunities that white-collar workers assumed would be safe from automation.  When machines do attain human-level intelligence, they are bound to quickly surpass it as well.  From a purely market-based perspective, at that point most highly-valuable work will be altogether beyond human capabilities, and the occupations humans are capable of will be accomplished more effectively and cheaply by machines.  In short, we become virtually unemployable, no matter how smart and well-educated we are. 

What to do about this?  You can always make the argument that it's not our problem.  Some future generation will have to deal with it when the time arrives.  Really, that is precisely the attitude taken by the editorial board in this case.  Toll collectors losing their jobs?  Not my problem.   Trouble is, if it isn't the editorial board's problem now, it will be sooner or later.

So, to the editorial board of the Leader Times: There are already automated systems that have become capable of writing basic financial news articles  that to an unsuspecting reader appear to be written by a human reporter.  Research and development along these lines will not stop in order to save the jobs of free-market zealots.  Those zealots may hope that the fawning they have done at the knees of the 1%'ers who pay their salaries will save them from the unemployment line, but I doubt it.  The machines are coming for your jobs and mine, editors. 

We can act now to prepare for this eventuality.  This is not a natural disaster; it can be averted or remedied by economic policy changes.  One change, hinted at by this open letter, involves changing the rules of capital ownership (Gasp!).   If current trends continue those who own the machines or the businesses using machines will see their wealth grow, while the rest of society slips into poverty.    (Well, it would continue that way until the machines surpass human intelligence.  At that point they may decide to thrust their owners into poverty or worse along with the rest of us.)   Clearly, only the most immoral, committed Randian would find this outcome appealing.   Would the editorial board be willing to engage in examining economic policy alternatives that would reverse our current slide?

 None of this has ever perturbed the editorial board of the Leader Times enough to broach the subject before ... why should it?  "Who gives a f*ck about union members, most of them probably Democrats, losing their jobs?  Why don't they all just move to Sweden and suck from the government teet over there?"  Like I said, sociopaths.  Editors, are you listening?  Do you realize that your excessive admiration for free-market principles not only makes you sound like sociopaths, it makes you act like them?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The editors get it right this time ... for the wrong reasons

This week's Leader Times' editorials get it right.   The first editorial is based on a set of NY Times reports that the US military has been instructing soldiers to look the other way when US-trained Afghan military and police commit sexual abuse of children.  You have to read the Times articles to get a sense of the evidence for the claims.  IMHO it's quite good, which means that the editorial's conclusion is entirely correct:  "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved painfully that the US. cannot change engrained cultures.  But enabling their worst elements, or simply ignoring them, is an abomination."

The second editorial decries recent questions raised by government officials about pay-to-play fantasy football companies such as FanDuel and DraftKings.   The officials are questioning whether this is gambling and/or should be subject to the same laws and tax policies as gambling.  It seems to me that ultimately the editors are right that fantasy football is a relatively-harmless diversion and that charging people money to play and paying the winners part of the proceeds is not gambling.  Well, maybe not so harmless, if you assume that players would find something more constructive to do with the time they spend on fantasy football.  In any event, they may be right that the government officials raising these questions are eyeing FanDuel and DraftKings as an additional revenue source.    Both the companies and the money winners are already subject to taxes. 

My problem is not with these editorials.  My problem is with the larger goals of the editorial board.  They are not raising these particular issues for the same reasons I would.  They raise the issues  because 1.) they object to taxes generally and 2.) the government actors in each case are Democrats, and they are inherently against Democrats because of the policies they represent.  Anything that makes Democrats look bad should be highlighted so that Democratic policies are less likely to get enacted.   We already know that the editorial board has had a long history of Randian libertarianism when it comes to economics and militarism when it comes to foreign policy.  These editorials are simply subtle ways of achieving these skeevy goals.