45 Things You Remember If You Went to IHM In The Late 90s And Are Me Specifically

About a year ago I made the post “25 Things You Remember if You Went to GR Catholic Central In The Early 2000s, And Are Me Specifically”. It was a bit of fun, and people seemed to like it. So I’ve decided to keep up in that vein an give the people what they clearly want: content that literally appeals only to me and no one else!

To that end:

45 Things You Remember If You Went To IHM In The Late 90s And Are Me Specifically

  1. Father V and how he’d always do his sermons with puppets, like Espiritu the owl
  2. Hot lunch. Every month or so your school would give you a lunch. It wasn’t anything too elaborate, maybe a hotdog and chips or something, and you had to bring an envelope with $3 or so a week in advance, otherwise you wouldn’t get anything. At the time it seemed like a special treat. Now you wonder if it wasn’t just a woefully inadequate school lunch program.
  3. People used to always say that the church was supposed to look like Noah’s Ark, but you never saw it.
  4. One time the janitor used bolt cutters to cut a penny in half. It was the coolest thing.
  5. One time the janitor told the kids stories from the Star Wars expanded universe. You all just assumed that’s what the Star Wars sequels were going to be about.
  6. There was a period of years where your Spanish teachers kept getting pregnant.
  7. In class you’d always exchange your homework so that the other students could check it. The teacher told you to stop doodling in the margins of other kid’s homework.
  8. After the Oklahoma city bombing all the teachers had us color in maps of Oklahoma rainbow colored, solving the problem of right wing terrorism for all time.
  9. You first grade teacher Ms. S used to be really into Japan. In hind sight, it was the early 90s, so she may have thought she was preparing us for when Japan inevitably bought the US
  10. One time in 2nd grade you gave your teacher a quiz on Treasure Island. She thought it was cute, until you marked her down for think Long John Silver was the fiercest pirate in the Caribbean when the correct answer was Captain Flint (though on the other hand Captain Flint feared Long John Silver… hmmm)
  11. That time that woman came to school with a dulcimer. You begged your parents to let you start learning to play the dulcimer for like a year after that. Thank god they said no.

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    There’s an alternate universe where you’re doing this right now
  12. Your music teacher sang every song like the church couple from SNL.
  13. Red rover, red rover, no one’d ever send you over L
  14. One time in 1st grade your teacher Mrs. S asked everyone if they knew who Beethoven was. You knew, of course, but you pointed out Beethoven was also a dog, and the teacher brusquely shot you down. Two years later, your 3rd grade teacher asked the same question and was politely complemented for that helpful fact. You’re still a little bitter about that.
  15. At one point there was just a big pile of dirt on the soccer field. No one said where it came from or why it was there.
  16. That time you wrote an essay for 8th grade history about the battle of Antietam which was advanced to the point that it used an in-depth account of the battle using military terminology like en echelon. A few days after you turned it in, the teacher got up in front of the room and started saying that one student had obviously plagiarized their report and they should come forward or be failed. You had no idea what she was talking about, but then she pulled you out into the hall and demanded you confess to plagiarizing my report. She asked me to define the term en echelon, which you did, albeit in a somewhat inaccurate way (i.e. you had thought the purpose of an en echelon maneuver the point was to draw in enemy reserves when it’s really more about making sure your units aren’t flanked). Ms. K asked me where I had learned about all this, and I told her it was because I liked to read Civil War books. She ended up giving you half credit. You’re still a little bitter about that.
  17. K really didn’t like you. One time, apropos of nothing, she told your parents you would be a drug addicted vagrant if you didn’t change your ways. And you couldn’t tell the other kids either, because they seemed to love her.

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    Ah, the follies of youth
  18. At the same time, you had a sophomoric sense of superiority over the fact that Ms. K didn’t have the same mastery of historical minutia that you did, so maybe it all balanced out.
  19. In middle school you went to an internet message board where you played historical role playing, which is exactly as lame as it sounds. There was a time in gym class where you just complained to your friend Matt B about how some guy had destroyed your navy for like 20 minutes. And the worst part about the whole thing is that the guy was probably right the whole time, the Swedish navy in the 17th century was a mess.
  20. You ended up going to see Star Wars Episode I like four times. Not because you liked it, you just went once with each parent, once for a birthday party, and once for the baseball team.
  21. That time in 7th grade you were asked to write a short story that was meant to be an excerpt from a movie. Since the teacher used a story about someone getting cancer as an example, by the end of it you had two dozen maudlin stories about people getting terminal illness written with all the subtlety and sensitivity that middle school students are known for. You were one of the few exceptions. You wrote a story about a time your family went on vacation, which was a bit self-indulgent. Good thing you’re more self-aware now.
  22. The other exception to this was a story written by Alex G. The story was about a boy, who was clearly meant to be a thinly veiled parody of a kid from another story, who was a gigantic weenie who cried about literally everything. It was the sort of petty, mean spirited dickishness that adolescent boys are known for. For example, the assignment also entailed making a movie poster, and his was just a picture of that kid crying. And none of the teachers ever seemed to catch any of this, probably because they were too busy piece together theories that you were a drug pusher. And while you hate to admit it, it was the funniest goddamn thing too. You still laugh every time I think about it.
  23. The other kids used to make fun of you for pooping at school… for some reason
  24. One time in that same class you had to write a short story in a paragraph or less which contained a twist. Your story was about an alien invasion that and, surprise, the aliens were us! It was kind of a rip off of the Twilight Zone episode, “The Invaders”, though maybe “we’re the aliens!” is a common enough twist that it should be in the public domain. Your teacher loved it though, and you suspect that’s because it was right after 9/11 and your teacher thought it reflected an ability to see international affairs through the eyes of people from other countries. Again though, you were probably just ripping off the Twilight Zone.
  25. You liked to read encyclopedia’s during break. Everyone thought that was weird.

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    Now that Wiki Walks and TV Tropes are a thing you think more people can understand where you were coming from
  26. You were particularly interested in the Cold War, particularly in the Khrushchev era. You felt vaguely sympathetic to the Soviet Union, which by that point had largely moved past the horrific crimes against humanity and seemed to mostly just want to deliver a decent and equitable standard of living to its people, albeit while jealously guarding ill gotten foreign conquests and never allowing more than the scantest political rights. At one point, while being confronted by your father about something, your brother disavowed you as a Communist. Your father threatened to redistribute all your possession, but since you didn’t really have anything and everything you used was nominally owned by a central authority anyways the point was lost on you.
  27. You went to asthma camp every summer. At one point they combined asthma camp with a camp for inner city kids to go out and see nature every so often. That seems like a horribly idea.
  28. The Redwall books were pretty cool. They were sort of like training wheels into the fantasy genre.
  29. The highlight of your year was the annual asthma fair, because you’d get to sit in the basement of a children’s hospital all night playing “Bronkie the Asthmatic Dinosaur” while your mother set everything up. That’s pretty depressing…

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    Technically he’s a T-Rex. A bronchiasaurus would have a long neck and… oh, now I get it, har har… 
  30. One weekend you woke up at around 5:30 to get an early start on Saturday morning cartoons and stumbled on a broadcast of Dragon Ball Z. All the people getting laser shot blown through their chest and the speed metal theme song blew your 8 year old mind. You watched it religiously for about a year after that, but were disappointed when it was replaced by infomercials and a cartoon about bible robots. Of course, being a child you just assumed you weren’t getting up early enough.
  31. That time you were took a test in 7th grade history and only got one question wrong. You were asked “what did France set up after the French Revolution”, the answer was obviously “a republic” but you wrote “a directory”. That’s technically true, as after the Thermidorian reaction France did indeed set up a directory which ran the country from about 1795 to the coup of 18 Brumaire, but in hindsight you wonder why you would think the answer was an obscure piece of historical minutia which had never been taught in class. Probably because it played into the whole “I’m better than Ms K” thing.
  32. Your family got a Nintendo, but looking back at it, which you now realize is a little strange since that was in 1993, at the earliest. That’s about 10 years or more after the thing was released. I mean, if somebody gave you a desk top computer with Windows XP loaded up on it, you’d probably just think “Huh? Where did you even get that?” Were they even still selling NESes by that point?
  33. That time Andrew R was complaining about how his parents had told he and his brother they would buy them a game console. But since his brother wanted a Super Nintendo and he wanted a Sega Saturn his parents got upset with them and nixed the whole thing. Andrew thought his brother was stupid for wanting an older system. Sometimes you wonder if Andrew realizes history has totally vindicated his brother on the matter.
  34. That time you spent the entire recess pulling up grass and burying your legs in it. You really gave the other kids a lot of ammunition for their whole “you’re an insane person” theory.
  35. That time at the end of 8th grade your class was going around assigning “most likely to” titles for the year book. The other kids suggested “most likely to write an encyclopedia”, but you ended up going with “most likely to seize power in Russia”.

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    Be patient, he’ll die at some point… you hope…
  36. After 9/11 you were walking home with your friend Matt B. Matt made a joke about you going home, pulling off a mask to reveal that you were Osama Bin Laden the whole time, and making demands on the government. You guess it was in poor taste, though to be fair both of you had been in school all day so you had no way of knowing the full scale of the attack. Mostly you’re just surprised both of you, 12 at the time, were sufficiently tuned in to geopolitics that you correctly anticipated who the perpetrators of the attack were long before most people even knew who Osama Bin Laden was.
  37. This one is from high school, but one time in Latin class you drew a picture of a big fat 19th century plutocrat on one of the locker doors. You named it “Bossley Von Fats” and wrote “this man is your future” next to it. I wasn’t writing it in relation to anything, but everyone assumed it was meant as a put down to the one girl in Latin class at the time. The teacher got up in front of everyone and lectured us about how mean it was and everything.
  38. There was always a theory floating around that Ms. K had to leave the convent after coming out as a lesbian and her oft mentioned roommate was really her lover. Good for her if true, though you’re pretty sure that started because, well, that’s what middle school children would assume given the information “former nun has roommate”. And no, I did not start or repeat this rumor, so it has nothing to do with our mutual antagonism.
  39. Every year you’d have an award ceremony. Everyone would get a reward, so by the end of it kids would be getting rewards like “the always has pencils award”. This is something that always bothered you when people complain about participation trophies: kids can recognize empty praise.
  40. You also used to read stories from the Old Testament. You particularly liked the Samuel I, however you were a bit put off by the discovery that the reason God turned against King Saul is because he wasn’t sufficiently genocidal. It was one of those bibles that had notes in the margins, so there were these comments that’d try to explain everything away. It’d be like “it wasn’t really about the genocide…”, and you’d be like “yeah, it probably was…”
  41. Once around Thanksgiving time your computer teacher had everyone in class draw turkeys in MS paint. All the other kids try to do put their hands on the screen of the computer so they could navigate the cursor around their hands, and you were just like “pfft, idiots”
  42. The other kids thought your enthusiasm for Wishbone was strange, which was always weird to you. To your mind, the appeal of a show about a dog who dresses up in costumes and acts out stories is pretty self-evident, you don’t see why so many people would want to dump on it.

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    Why is this so difficult for them?
  43. Ms. G had a lazy eye that kind of freaked you out
  44. Tamagochi’s. You never really bothered with them. One time you borrowed one of your sister’s though. It was the one which grew up to be a floating chicken head with tentacles growing out of it (hey kids, here’s your Lovecraftian monster!). It didn’t engage you.
  45. In Spanish class sometimes they’d show you the first 30 minutes of Muzzie. They’d never show you the rest of it though.

5 Things I Wish People Would Notice More Often

Been awhile since I’ve made a blog post, so I think I’ll keep it light. Here’s a list of 5 things that I’ve noticed which I feel a bit surprised more people haven’t seemed to have picked up on.

 

That Which Did Not Kill Friedrich Nietzsche Actually Just Left Him Insane And Helpless

Most people have heard some variation of the quote “From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger”. Most probably also know that the line originates from Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically from his 1888 book The Twilight of the Idols. It’s a line that gets quoted for inspiration whenever someone wants to make a point about personal resilience in the face of adversity.

Far be it from me to undercut something people find meaningful, and I can appreciate the appeal and relevance of Nietzsche’s philosophy, even if I don’t share it. However, I feel it’s appropriate to point out that immediately that almost immediately after he coined the phrase, Nietzsche became incapacitated with severe dementia and spent his remaining years progressively losing his mind and becoming paralyzed.

Scholars disagree on what exactly caused this depressing decline in his condition. Most today reject the initial prognosis, which was played up by US propaganda during and after WWII, that it was due to syphilis. Theories range from brain tumors, to Mercury poisoning. Regardless of the exact cause, few would disagree with two things: first, none of these were immediately responsible for his death, and second being insane and paralyzed probably didn’t make Nietzsche any stronger.

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Syphilis: It won’t kill you, but it won’t make you stronger either…

There’s a valuable life lesson there: not every bad thing that happens is meant to be some kind of test of character. Some of it is just awful shit that will irreparably damage you.

And personally, I can’t help but find a bit of sardonic amusement in the whole thing. It’s like after he made the ballsy claim that “that which does not kill me can only make me stronger”, cancer decided to take him up on the challenge and predictably beat the shit out of him. If I had my way, any time someone uses the quote, someone else would immediately chime in with “yeah, but Nietzsche ended up bat shit insane and unable to feed himself, so maybe it’s not that simple”

friedrich-nietzsche
Alright, I guess at least one other person got it…

 

Crime And Punishment Predicted Freidrich Nietzcshe’s Mental Breakdown With Startling Accuracy

Crime and Punishment is often read as an indictment of Nietzsche’s philosophy, as it concerns a character who, like Nietzsche, develops a philosophy which places himself as an enlightened person above the strictures of conventional morality. Dostoevsky then takes apart the philosophy as his character commits murder to prove his superiority, only to have a breakdown as his conscience eventually gets the better of him and he finds peace and enlightenment in religious tradition.

The interesting about all this there is that Crime and Punishment was written about 20 years before Nietzsche’s hey-day. It was written a good 60 years before Leopold and Loeb committed a similar murder, ostensibly inspired by Nietzsche or at least a similar line of thinking. This is a similarity people note frequently.

aadf3-raskolnikov
Also, like the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, Nietzsche had no idea how to use an axe

Yet, to me at least, people seem to miss the weirdest coincidence of all: Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental breakdown is pretty closely mirrored by a passage in Crime and Punishment. Specifically, I’m referring to a passage where the protagonist has a dream in which he, as a young boy, witnesses some people beating a horse. Feeling great compassion for the horse, he rushes over, throws his arms around the horse, and kisses it. The dream is feverish and schizophrenic, reflecting the protagonist’s guilt over his planned murder and represents how and how he’s split over the act, being both the people beating the horse and the boy who feels pity on it.

Flash forward to 1889 with Friedrich Nietzsche walking around Turin. At one point, he saw a man flogging a horse and, in a feverish rush of emotion, ran over and flung his arms around the horse to protect it. The story is somewhat apocryphal, however the similarities are striking. They essentially describe the same scene which occurs because of someone’s unsound mental state. The difference is that in the case of Crime and Punishment it was one of the protagonist’s first steps towards enlightenment, while in Nietzsche’s case it was just the first step debilitating psychosis (as we’ve covered).

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Of course there are caveats to this. The fact that Dostoevsky seemed to anticipate Nietzsche may not have been so surprising, since similar ideas predate Nietzsche. Specifically, Dostoevsky was probably reacting to contemporary Russian nihilists like Mikhail Bakunin. Likewise, the apparent relationship between the episode in crime and punishment and the popular account of Nietzsche’s mental breakdown may be backwards. That is to say, I suspect some people noting who noted the similarity between Nietzsche and Crime and Punishment came up with the anecdote because it went along nicely with things. All that aside, it’s still an interesting episode of life imitating art, and it’s strange more people don’t point it out.

Speaking of Russian novels…

 

A Lot Of Doctor Zhivago Is Just Boris Pasternak Shamelessly Praising Himself/Complaining That Everyone Else Is Stupid

doctor-zhivago

I like Doctor Zhivago, it’s a wonderfully heartbreaking portrait of the Russian Revolution and ensuing civil war. But one of the things that always stuck out like a sore thumb in the book is Yuri Zhivago’s poetry. The fact that Zhivago finds satisfaction in his poetry in the chaos of the Russian Civil War is good characterization, sure, but it seems a bit strange that the book will just stop in parts so Yuri can recite a poem he wrote. Furthermore, the fact that there’s this whole thing going on in the background where Zhivago’s poetry is circulating in the background, gaining disciples who find it to be the best, most inspirational thing they’ve ever heard is really extraneous to the story.

Of course, it’s not hard to imagine what was going on there. Boris Pasternak was a poet, himself, and it seems likely that he wanted to take the opportunity to work his own pieces into the larger novel. It may have even been good cover from the censors. Pasternak had largely gotten by during the Stalin regime by appearing too frivolous to be any harm, and he may have had reason to put in poetry into a book that was otherwise a harsh criticism of Soviet history in order to create the impression that it was really all just about the poetry (if that’s the case, it obviously didn’t work).

Personally, though, I like to imagine that Pasternak was just taking the opportunity to engage in a bit of shameless self-promotion, by having Zhivago, i.e. himself, be this wonderfully soulful and insightful person who was just above it all.

I think this theory is supported by the fact that Pasternak spends much of the book making swipes at pseudo-intellectuals which were, I suspect, thinly veiled caricatures of people he knew. For example, Zhivago’s friend, Gordon Misha, periodically shows up to spout long winded diatribes about whatever issue of the day is affecting Russia. These views aren’t consistent, one minute he’s wondering “what is to be done about the Jews” and the next he’s pontificating on the new Soviet man, and for the most part it just comes across like he just wants to sound smart by parroting popular opinion. Even worse is Liberius, an Old Bolshevik who started out as a narcissistic thug whose long diatribes about the righteousness of the Communist cause are more or less just a pretext for him to be even more of a narcissistic thug. Even Zhivago’s own navel gazing comes across as vacuous, such as when his dying friend is trying to speak to him and Zhivago keeps trying to go on a long rambling existentialist tangent that has nothing to do with anything.

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“This is you!” – Boris Pasternak

So essentially Pasternak spends a large part of 600 pages shitting on people who bored him at dinner parties, because, like, no one gets it like he does maaaaaaan.

 

Chief O’Brien, The Guy Who Runs Deep Space 9’s Computers, Couldn’t Figure Out A Simple Search Algorithm

A few months back I talked a bit about an episode of Deep Space 9 I had recently watched where Captain Sisko and his team get sent back in time to a homeless apocalypse in 2024 San Francisco (gird your loins, Silicon Valley). Anyways Miles O’Brien and others realize they’ve been sent to the past, inadvertently destroyed the future in the process, and set about trying to get them back. They figure out that they could have only gone to one of 24 points in the past, but they can only go back in time 13 times. How will they ever find everyone?

Go ahead and think about it…

Have you got it?

Okay, you should have been able to figure out that your best strategy would be to go to the median date in the 24 points on your timeline. If Captain Sisko is not there, you’d then see if the timeline has been visibly altered. If it has, then you know he’s in the past and could go to the median point in the earlier points in time. If it hasn’t he must be in the future, so you go to the median point in all the later points in time. Repeat this like 3 or 4 times and you would have invariably found Captain Sisko and still had enough time travel left over to go back and punch Hitler in the face or something.

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This isn’t exceptionally complex. In fact, this is like a day one problem you might have in a computer science class. I mean, literally, I’ve taught classes where this was something covered on day one. I know small children who were able to figure this one out after thinking about it for maybe a minute or two.

But it took Chief O’Brien all thirteen times before he’s able to find Sisko, and the last time was apparently just good luck. This is the man who manages Deep Space 9’s computers, who effortlessly spouts off technobabble in theoretical physics like it’s nothing. The fact that he couldn’t do this is just weird.

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They also found some hippies, but quite frankly the less said about portrayals of hippies in the 90s the better

I know why they did it. They needed tension, or at least a reason to write Colm Meaney into the episode. But couldn’t the writers contrive a problem that didn’t make O’Brien look incompetent?

Well, I guess Chief O’Brien really can’t ever win…

 

The Hecatoncheires Are A Pretty Obvious Metaphor For The Revolting Masses

So if your familiar with Greek mythology, you’ve likely heard of the Hecatoncheires. They’re monsters with 50 heads and 100 arms and legs. They feature prominently in Hesiods account of the Titanomachy, in which Zeus freed them Tartarus and in exchange they helped him overthrow Chronus and the other titans by pelting them with stones, one hundred at a time.

Now, you may have a bit of a hard time conceptualizing a monster with 50 heads and 100 limbs, going around pelting things with rocks as part of some sort of political conflagration. Unless, of course, you’ve seen a mob of 50 people or so, then you realize it would quite literally just look like that. It’s not difficult to imagine that Hesiod was using the Zeus’s alliance with the Hecatoncheires as a symbolic representation of people tapping into mass popular discontent in their bid to achieve political power. It’s an incredibly straight forward metaphor, and I’m really surprised I’ve never seen anyone draw the connection.

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This certainly wouldn’t have been an anachronistic reference for Hesiod to make. Hesiod was writing in about 7th Century BC, a period of pretty intense political struggle in the Greek city. It was a transitionary period in which the authority of the wealthy nobility was increasingly being challenged by the large class of middling farmers and urban people who were traditionally shut out from political power. Hesiod would have been witnessing the early stages of this process, but it eventually led to series of political revolutions throughout the Greek peninsula in which people would capitalize on popular discontent in a police to seize political power and install themselves as Tyrants, who were in turn overthrown and the mechanisms for popular governance they had established became the basis of democratic government.

Specifically, this process was brought on by what’s often called “The Hoplite Revolution”, a series of innovations in weaponry and tactics which allowed infantry to fight en masse in highly effect phalanx formations. As common footmen became the basis of military power, political power naturally flowed to them. There’s some contention as to whether this was a dramatic shift or a gradual one, but it was a process that was noted by both Ancient Greek observers, like Aristotle, and modern historians like Victor Hansen.

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Another thing with 50 heads and 100 hands…

So again, we’re back at the Hecatoncheires being conceived at a time when the masses were affecting political change. It seems like a reasonable theory that Hesiod was just writing about things he was seeing going on around him, at least on some level.

As mass politics saw something of a Renaissance in the 18th-19th century, you’d think more people would have used the Hecatoncheires as a metaphor for proletariat power. But aside from maybe one socialist newspaper and a political cartoon, I haven’t seen it. It just seems like a missed opportunity to me.

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Why Did People In The 90s Think We Were On The Verge Of A Homeless Apocalypse? Why Don’t People Today?

Recently I’ve been binge watching Star Trek Deep Space 9, and I got to the episode Past Tense. The episode, which aired in 1995, is set in a future version 2024 where the US is plagued with mass poverty. The homelessness are all forced to live in cordoned off ghettoes until a great big riot/rebellion broke out.

This sort of amused me. I always like seeing how people at different times imagine society collapsing 20 minutes in the future. It can be a wonderful window into the anxieties and mindset of people at the time. Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, for example, imagines a world where the social unrest of the 60s and 70s never ended, where the country has devolved into a police state and college campuses are literally besieged. The 70s and early 80s had a lot of films where the crime wave and urban blight turned cities into uninhabitable ganglands.

And in the late 80s and early 90s, movies were filled to the brim with visions of a homeless apocalypse. It was sort of similar to the earlier visions of urban decay from the 70s and 80s, but the focus tended to be less on unrestrained social decay and more on the poor as victims. They’re sort of worlds where there’s endemic poverty and there are masses of people live in homeless camps everywhere. Often, there’s some plot element involving the poor/homeless being forced underground by some heavy handed urban renewal project, and then taking up arms in some kind of resistance group.

If you think about all the well known movies in the late 80s/early 90s set 20 minutes in the future, a lot of them fit this structure to the T. They Live definitely does.

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Demolition Man definitely does.

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Robocop 1 and 2 sort of do, and Robocop 3 definitely does

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Robocop 3 really is an awful movie, though

You can sort of see it in Back to the Future Part II and the beginning of The Running Man, and countless other movies.

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And, of course, there’s the above referenced Star Trek episode.

Much like Ned Flander’s haircut, it’s not something you think of as a product of the late 80s/early 90s until someone points it out.

 

The fact this is a product of is time is even more apparent when you realize that nobody really does this today. Aside from the movies of Niell Blomkamp, who’s really just making movies about South Africa, I can’t think of any major science fiction movie that features mass homeless camps or a gentrified future. Even the Robocop reboot seemed to go out of its way to avoid doing anything like that. Which is weird because, by most objective standards, the economy and inequality have been much worse in the last 10 years or so than at any time since perhaps the Great Depression. So what gives?

 

The 80s/90s really punched above their weight in poverty, and it really hit the less fortunate hard

By most standards, the late 80s and early 90s weren’t a particularly bad time, economically. There was a recession, but it was pretty moderate and short. The unemployment rate only reached about 7.8% and the long term unemployment rate only reached about 4.4%. By contrast, unemployment peaked at 10.8% in the 1982 recession and 10.1% in the Great Recession. The long term unemployment rate hit 2.6%. In the early 80s and 4.4% in the Great Recession. When you look at cyclical unemployment, which offsets demographics, the rate barely reached 2% in the early 90s, while it went well over 4% in the early 80s and the Great Recession.

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All this is to say that even at its worst the economy in the late 80s and early 90s wasn’t that bad. And yet, you still had a bunch of people losing their heads expecting the homeless apocalypse. By contrast, while we recently experienced the worst recession In 70 years, but somehow media isn’t being inundated with images of masses of vagrants and shanty towns. What gives?

You could probably write a lot of this down to a bunch of Gen Xers being over dramatic about the state of the world, but I think a lot of that comes down to the way the way poverty and economic inequality were experienced at the time. The late 80s and early 90s weren’t particularly bad economically, however the era punched well above its weight in terms of poverty. The poverty rate in the early 90s recession matched that of the early 80s and even the great recession at a little over 15%. Just as important was who was in poverty. The late 80s and early 90s represented a high water mark in racial inequality in the post-civil rights era. On the one hand, black families faced considerable reversals to their fortunes. On the other hand the poverty rate skyrocketed among Hispanics. Meanwhile, countless people with mental health issues were being turned out into the streets as community mental institutions were closed across the country, making mass homelessness a visible problem for the first time in 50 years.

A lot of this was the result of long term social breakdowns which had been occurring through the 70s and 80s, with white flight leaving cities as blighted husks plagued by crime and drug epidemics. This, of course, had a lot to do with the impact of Reaganomics, which favored scaling back welfare spending, shuttering mental health institutions, stripping economic protections from the lower class and just generally turning a blind eye to gross economic iniquities. Federal funding to cities collapsed, leaving beleaguered local governments overwhelmed by inner city poverty. And when attempts were made to deal with inner city poverty, it came largely through a sort of blunt gentrification and tough on crime measures which stoke seething racial sentiments and led to rioting.

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In other words, it was milieu where poverty was seen as something that happened to the mentally ill and minorities in sealed of ghettos, regarded with either indifference or open hostility by those in authority. So, even though the US was hardly on the cusp of economic collapse, it made sense to science fiction writers and speculative futurists to take things a step further and imagine a future where the plight of the American poor became something analogous to Palestine: refugees in their own country, shunted into tighter and tighter walls, lashing out in rebellion.

Now all this is, I’m sure, old hat for a lot of people. But that begets an interesting question: if economic conditions and inequality are worse today, why isn’t media today filled with images of some kind of homeless apocalypse?

 

By contrast, economic hardships today is typified more by the bottom falling out under the middle class

And yes, things are objectively worse than they were during the early 90s, and probably any time since the Great Depression. Unemployment, and particularly long term unemployment, were far worse and more persistent during the great recession than even the late 70s/early 80s. Incomes have stagnated for large swathes of the work force, and more people live in intense poverty than at any other time since they starting keeping records on poverty. Heavy handed gentrification and discriminatory “tough on crime” laws definitely haven’t gone away. And this is all widely acknowledged.

I suspect there are a number of reasons. First, if the late 80s and early 90s was typified by an indifference which magnified poverty in the public imagination, more recently we’ve been somewhat better at ameliorating the worst excesses of poverty. Efforts to deal with childhood poverty, care for the elderly, and curbing homelessness could enjoy relative bipartisan support in the 2000s. For example, the Bush Administration was particularly successful in dealing with homelessness (one of the few positive accomplishments of the Bush Administration). As a result, childhood/elderly poverty rates have been restrained. Meanwhile, Obama was fairly successful in mitigating the impact of the great recession.

All this coincided with a number of other positive trends. The crime wave subsided, as did the crack epidemic. At the same time poverty became something less strictly associated with the inner city and racial minorities. Of course, black and Hispanic people living in inner cities are still far more likely to live in poverty than anyone else, but the ratio isn’t quite as stark. Today, poverty is only about 50% higher in the inner cities than in the suburbs, while it was more than twice as high in the early 90s. Meanwhile, the poverty rate among the Black and Hispanic population has shown some improvement. The typical African American child is only 2.8x more likely to live in poverty than a white child today, compared to about 4x in the early 90s.

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The flip side of this, the erosion of wages and job security made the working poor increasingly common. The poverty rate among 18-64 year old workers has increased from a low of 8.3% in 1975, to 13.8% in 2011. The suburban poverty rate has also been steadily ticking upward. At the same time, unemployment among the highly educated also rose, as peak unemployment among college graduates was roughly 60% higher than it was in early 90s recessions, compared to about 30% for those with less than a high school diploma. Meanwhile, poverty among white non-Hispanic children rose to match rates in the late 80s/early 90s, while poverty rates among working age whites was about 20% higher.

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In the face of this, more middle class people were finding themselves becoming financially tied down. Many became increasingly reliant on consumer debt to maintain their standard of living, and beyond this the increasing cost of education and healthcare meant people were entering the workforce under a substantial financial burden which could suddenly explode in the event of an illness. Social problems were also seeping in, as alcoholism and the opioide epidemic hit predominantly middle aged whites.

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None of this is meant to imply to imply that poverty and economic hardship weren’t still significantly worse among minorities, inner city residents or other vulnerable groups, but it does highlight the fact that it was becoming less of a phenomenon associated strictly with a walled off subaltern, as more people were finding being able bodied, educated, or white was less no longer a sure fire ticket to economic security. More people were finding the bottom fall out from under them, as they were thrown into a fight for survival.

And I’d argue that media has changed to reflect this. For example The Purge movies are set in a world where the poor are periodically put into mortal combat with one another, all while security companies, insurers, and the rich exploit the situation. In Time and Repo Men, while not well remembered movies, fit the mold, with people literally only being allowed to live as long as they can pay their bills. Numerous, episodes of Black Mirror, particularly Be Right Back, feature people struggling to stay ahead of the curve. Same thing with the Sci-fi anthology series FutureStates, particularly the episode turned movie Advantageous, which featured a relatively affluent mother effectively committing suicide to get her daughter into a private school. Essentially, all these have a common theme of previously comfortable people trying their hardest to keep their head above water and failing.

 

Conclusions

So aside from my own esoteric in this as a pop culture phenomenon, It’s worthwhile to focus on this reflect on the changing face of poverty, and how people perceive it. Poverty and Economic Inequality aren’t monolithic phenomena, and how society experiences can vary significantly over time. Likewise, the way the political culture reacts to it is going to vary as well. While the late 80s/early 90s were filled with apocalyptic visions of future poverty, economic inequality was a relatively niche issue at the time most people were happy to overlook. By contrast, the picture of inequality today is much more subtle, but since it’s impacting a wider aspect of the population it’s decidedly become a bigger part of present day political attitudes.

Trump And The Republicans Seem Poised To Wreck The FDA

The Trump Administration has been devolving into chaos with surprising rapidity in the last week, with it’s travel ban suspended, it’s labor nominee going down in flames, Michael Flynn resigning in a scandal that may yet snowball to Watergate proportions, and Trump giving a press conference while apparently in a fugue state.

But it’s equally important to note all the ways the Trump Administration is screwing things up that don’t make their way into the news cycle. And one story which hasn’t gotten too much attention, but which potentially has significant and long term ramifications, is the Trump Administration’s desire to shake up the FDA by slashing the agencies regulations by 75%-80%, presumably with the end goal of ending speeding up the drug approval process.

More than that, though, he wants to fundamentally change the nature of the FDA. Currently, the FDA’s drug approval process essentially has two functions: first ensuring drugs are not safe, and second ensuring that drugs actually work. By contrast, Trump, the Republicans, and various silicon valley moguls that Trump has reportedly been considering to head the FDA, want to eliminate that second function by junking the FDA’s efficacy requirements and instead having the FDA focus strictly on safety while having markets, or some type of rating system from doctors and patients, sort out whether a drug works or not. Putting a veneer of Silicon Valley libertarianism on the idea, one of Trump’s prospective (though later withdrawn) nominees, Balaji Srinivasan, had said that he wanted to turn the FDA into “the Yelp for drugs”, and repeatedly said he would like to make the agency more like tech companies like Uber and Airbnb.

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Now, I spent several years recently in China, studying the numerous problems afflicting it’s drug approval process under the CFDA, so suffice it to say that I take a personal interest in the ins and outs of effectively the entry of drugs into the market. And yes, all else equal, speedy approval time is a good metric of a successful drug approval process. Conversely, backlogs and long approval times betray ineffective government, stifles domestic innovation, and can potentially kill thousands by denying them access to life saving drugs.

That said, though, Trump’s proposed shake up of the agency is not only wrongheaded, it’s downright alarming.

 

First off, they’re trying to “fix” something that isn’t broken

It’s important to note that they’re addressing a non-existent problem. By international standards The United States already has a drug approval process which is already a model of efficiency. Drugs can get more than a month faster in the US than in other industrialized countries, with a full review by the FDA taking on average 322 days compared with 366 days in Europe. Compare and contrast that with the genuinely defective drug approval process in China, where it usually takes between 3-5 years for a drug to gain approval. And generally speaking, backlogs and long approval times have less to do with bureaucratic hurdles and more to do with staffing shortages.

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Some even put the FDA’s advantage in time to market at as much as 6 months

 

Second, user rating systems are a horribly inappropriate template for drug review

Now, you may be tempted to write the idea of turning the FDA into “Yelp for drugs” as vacuous Silicon Valley technophilia, but it’s actually much worse.

It’s important to note that tech companies are a really bad template for producing quality standards for anything. More often than not, their ratings systems are highly defective. The ones that do work relatively well, like Yelp, deal mainly with consumer facing industries where customers are working off straight forward subjective personal tastes, like restaurants. In that context, a sort of crowd sourced rating system kind of makes sense. But it’s horribly unsuitable for the pharmaceutical industry, which is more or less the exact opposite of that.

The main difference is that there’s nothing subjective about whether or not a drug works. Doctor are able to empirically prove that a drug works through clinical trials, and generally patients are willing to volunteer that information by not dying. All you need, then, is an extensive knowledge of medicine and enough test cases to gain sufficient empirical evidence.

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On the other hand, individual patients don’t actually know whether or not a given drug is effective or not because, for the most part, they don’t have the in-depth medical knowledge required to understand the mechanisms of a drug or monitor their own health to that degree. Likewise, individual doctors aren’t in a position to say either. Their only insights into the matter are based on limited numbers of patients who they’re treating in an uncontrolled environment. They don’t have the perspective necessary to make that call. You need long term research based on hundreds or thousands of patients to do that, and you need sometime like the FDA to organize such long term studies.

 

Third, the proposed system would create all kinds of perverse incentives

The pharmaceutical market place doesn’t operate in a typical market, where you have one firm developing a product and then selling it directly to customers. On the contrary, it’s a multilayered process. On the supply side, you typically start with basic research conducted by one or more public institutions, which then gets taken up by a biotech startup and developed into an product, which is then bought by a larger pharmaceutical company which has the resources to see it through the final stages of testing and then distribute it broadly enough to make a profit. On the consumer side, you have patients who rely heavily on the opinions of doctors when deciding which drugs to take, and insurance companies who reimburse them for the majority of the costs. In this system of six or more players, nobody is in a position to see the complete consequences of their actions, and there are a lot of opportunities for dysfunction.

On the front end, you have biotech startups who are expected to invest hundreds of millions, and potentially even billions, into research and development knowing there’s something like a 97% chance any given project will fail, and even in the best case scenario they won’t be seeing a profit for years. As Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano pointed out, this is only tenable because, first, biotech startups can rely heavily on public research and resources provided by larger pharmaceuticals, and second because they can raise large amounts of money in IPOs and sales of equity. Now, individual investors don’t actually expect to hold their stake in a biotech startup for the several years it will take for the firm to become profit, nor do they necessarily expect it to succeed. But that’s okay, from their perspective, because as long as they can resell their shares in the biotech startup, they can still turn a profit. Future potential buyers largely work on the same logic, and people can keep buying and reselling that stake in the biotech company until they either bring their product to market (or, more likely, get bought by a large pharmaceutical) or goes bust.

Now, this may sound familiar to anyone who’s studied the subprime mortgage crisis, because it’s essentially the greater fool theory. This isn’t to malign the biotech industry, it’s just a quark of the system that happily tends to work out. However, it does make the system prone to all kinds of fraud it you’re not careful. Founders of biotech companies are under heavy pressure to sell every product they develop as some phenomenal breakthrough, and they have a strong incentive to keep doing so even after they realize they’re ineffective. On the other hand, potential investors aren’t particularly inclined to analyze their investments critically, in fact they have a vested interest in keeping the delusion alive. That’s how the Theranos was able to carry on for years despite having a product they knew didn’t work, at a cost of billions of dollars to all involved. It would have carried on a lot longer had the FDA not been there to point out that the emperor had no clothes.

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Meanwhile, on the consumer side, doctors still largely get paid basis of services rendered, and thus have an incentive to prescribe drugs. Even if they’re not acting out of self-interest, they’re not liable for the cost of drugs, literal or physical, so they’ll tend to be very liberal with prescriptions. This is a major defect in the healthcare system which is driving up costs, contributing to the opioid epidemic, and leading to antibiotic strains of bacteria. Beyond this, though, the drug market such that doctors and hospitals do need to maintain a relationship with pharmaceutical companies and wholesalers to maintain access to treatments Hence, they may be loathe to give products bad reviews, lest they be blacklisted in the future. This is to say, there are a lot of reasons individual doctors might not be particularly critical when it comes to drug efficacy.

On the other hand, insurers would have a vested interest in labeling drugs ineffective, but their interest isn’t so much improving treatment as it is finding an excuse to limit coverage. And, if there’s no commonly accepted standard for drug efficacy, there’s no reason insurers couldn’t do this. This is why even major pharmaceutical companies are against the idea of removing efficacy requirements. Whatever inconveniences drug companies face due to the approval process, having a universally accepted for efficacy means they don’t need to argue with insurance companies all the time as to whether or not they’ll reimburse patients who use their products.

Again, this is why you need an impartial actor, like the FDA, to lend a critical eye. Removing efficacy standards would likely just lead to the worst of both worlds, with dubious products flooding the market and insurers limiting coverage.

 

Fourth, however much you cut down regulations, you can’t reduce approval times if the FDA is a mess

Of course, it’s not just the deliberate ways that Trump and the Republicans are liable to screw up the FDA that are relevant. Whatever your end age may be, you can speed up approval times is you’ve turned the FDA into a mess, and as Vox pointed out last week, that’s exactly what the Trump administration is doing. As I mentioned before, the main reason for backlogs and holdups in the approval process more often than not comes down to staffing shortages. And the Trump administration, with it’s Federal hiring freeze, is already threatening to preempt new hiring that was supposed to take place under the 21st century cures act.

Likewise, the second biggest contributor to a dysfunctional approval process is administrative confusion owing to unclear policies. Again, the Trump Administration seems set to sow all sorts of confusion with broad, impractical policy directives, like his call to eliminate 75-80% of FDA regulations and his mandate to eliminate 2 regulations for every new one created. And of course, the administration’s antagonism towards the civil service, and it’s haphazard attempts to impinge upon their autonomy, is sure to have a demoralizing effect on the professionals who work at the FDA.

 

Finally, taking the hatchet to the FDA may have broader implications for the world at large

The impact of stripping down the FDA may even go beyond screwing up the American drug market. FDA approval doesn’t just mean access to US markets, it’s also one of the few ways drugs can gain expedited approval in countries with less effective drug regimes. What does it mean for companies who have been able to gain access to Chinese markets largely by virtue of gaining FDA approval when suddenly they find that approval has become meaningless?

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This man is making the ingredients to drugs you use. He should probably be regulated, shouldn’t he?

More than that, the FDA is also taking an increasingly active role in quality control of drugs coming from abroad. Since 2010, the number of FDA inspections conducted in China and India, the source of the vast majority of active ingredients for pharmaceuticals, has roughly tripled. And for good reason, there’s a counterfeit drug epidemic. Will these functions be cut as a frivolous expenditure under Trump.

 

Conclusion

Some may imagine that Trump and the Republicans are intentionally trying to break the FDA out of free market dogma. The FDA may not be perfect, and maybe it can be improved upon. But it’s prevented quackery effectively for more than 100 years while not only allowing, but enabling the US to become a leader in the field of pharmaceutical R&D. It really is a key stone in the drug market, and in an era of counterfeit drugs and bacteria which are resistant to anything we can throw at them, it’s more important than ever. Even pharmaceuticals companies agree that removing the reshaping the system in the way Trump is proposing would almost certainly be a disaster.

FDA efficacy requirements may not be the sexiest issue, but it is a vitally important one, and we should be ready to hold the line.

The Easily Resistible Populism Of Donald Trump

Here’s an issue I’ve been working on for a while, but always kept getting pushed back.

As Democrats respond to the first actions of the Trump Administration, there’s been a pretty strong call to act in lock step opposition to Trump and the Republicans, and deny them any substantial victories. However, as is often the case, there’s been a lot of anxiety that a number of Democratic politicians and organizations are failing to hold the line.

Naturally, a lot of this is directed at centrist Democrats whose reliability on certain issue has always been in doubt. But with Trump mixing up the political battleground, there’s been a strange new phenomenon where some fear betrayals from the left wing of the party. Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Tulsi Gabbard, and even Bernie Sanders have made statements saying they could work with Trump on certain issues. Leaving aside whether or not Schumer or Gabbard are actually all that left wing to begin with, the issues they were alluding, fair trade, reining in wall street, infrastructure spending, etc., are generally the talking points of the populist left. Likewise, there’s some fear that much of organized labor may be falling into Trump’s orbit, with builders unions, in particular, praising Trump.

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On a surface level, this makes sense. Trump spent much of his campaign criticizing the incestuous relationship between Wall Street and the political elite. He made a lot of fair trade rhetoric and denounced the harmful impact of unfettered globalization on low income workers. He promised an infrastructure bill that would provide jobs to working class Americans. These are things that Progressives have pushed for change on, for a long time, a point Trump was quick to emphasize. Surely they might jump at the opportunity to achieve these goals, even if it meant making a metaphorical deal with the devil.

I myself am not so worried about this prospect. Truth be told, I always sort of figured this was more political rhetoric, at least as far as Schumer and other Democratic politicians are concerned. Whether or not they actually expect to be able to work with the other party, it’s standard practice to make overtures towards cooperation in order to avoid looking to partisan.

More important, though, it’s completely reading the situation. First off, because left wing populists basically see Trump as little more than a con man who was always just trying to capitalize on popular outrage for political gain. Second, when you look past the superficial similarities, the goals of left wing populists and Trumpism are simply too different. Hence, as the full dimensions of Trump’s policies become apparent any potential cooperation will fall apart. Meanwhile his blue collar support will largely dry up as it becomes apparent his policies are actually rigging the system against them and/or a recession shatters the idea that he can deliver them good paying jobs.

For the most part, I’ve been proven mostly correct, as Sanders and the Democratic Party in general have found the actual policies enacted by Trump, even in trade or infrastructure spending, to be awful. Still, it’s worth getting into why this

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First off…

 

Left Wing Populists won’t compromise because they see Trump as disingenuous

Whatever hopes there might have been for Trump to deliver even moderately good policies on trade, wall street, or blue collar jobs have been more or less dashed every time they’ve tried to translate their promises into action. To go down the list:

Trade and Globalization

Even before office, it was pretty clear that the administration was going to start reneging on any sort of effort to enact fair trade in the interest of working class people. He shut workers out of negotiations on the Carrier deal, then he went out of his way to antagonize their union representatives. The end deal in which the company agreed to keep jobs in the US in exchange for millions of dollars worth of tax breaks and giveaways set a precedence for either private companies to black mail the government for preferential treatment, or crony capitalism.

And this has largely been how the administration has treated issues of trade since coming into office, alternately threatening companies and promising rewards of tax breaks and lax regulations for businesses that play along, crony capitalism that leaves workers more exposed overall. Trade talks, which have so far largely consisted of threats of trade talks and accusations of currency manipulation, seem more gears towards antagonizing foreign governments than advancing the interests of American workers. At the same time, the suspension of the “Extraction Payment Disclosure” rule, which required oil, gas, and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, says plenty about just how clean this new system of international trade is going to be.

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Reining in Wall Street

Despite campaigning extensively against Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street connections, and pledges to drain the swamp, by now Trump has made it clear that he’s about as serious about draining the swamp as malaria. His cabinet is largely packed with Wall Street alumni, his “lobbyist ban” is far weaker than the Obama administration’s, and his gestures to deal with his own conflicts of interest have either been paper thin or counterproductive. Almost as soon as he entered into office, Trump and his team started dismantling financial regulations.

Job Creation and supporting the Working Class

It’s been extensively pointed out by this point that Trump’s proposed infrastructure bill largely amounts to billions of dollars in tax giveaways that are largely going to be ineffective in terms of job creation and repairing America’s decaying infrastructure. Even if this does promise some jobs to blue collar workers, Trump and Republicans in Congress have gone out of their way to ensure those jobs are lousy. He froze the overtime pay rule while the Republican congress has already repealed the Obama administration’s “blacklisting rule” which required firms receiving federal contracts from revealing labor abuses. The Trump administration seems poised to try to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act which mandates federal contracts pay prevailing wages. And beyond all that, there’s still the prospect of national right to work laws and other neutering of labor protections.

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And none of this gets into the all the ways Trump and the Republicans were always transparently awful. They immediately froze a reduction in mortgage rates, blocked a move to provide the poor with affordable internet, are poised to strip millions of health insurance, are threatening to shred the social safety net and gut public education, have already eradicated environmental regulations, are outright encouraging police abuses, and so on and so forth.

But it’s not just that Trump is going back on what otherwise might have been encouraging pledges. On the contrary, a lot of what those pledges were genuine, but they were based on an ideology which always ensured they were going to be awful.

 

Left Wing Populists won’t compromise because Trumpism is ideologically incompatible with their goals

It’s easy to imagine that much of this stems from Trump and his crew simply being disingenuous populists. This is probably largely true, they are largely opportunist who were always more interested in rigging the system to their advantage and playing voters for electoral advantages. But there’s no reason to think that, as cynical as they are, Trump et. al. are on some level motivated by ideology. It’s important to elaborate on why they are anathema to the goals of progressives, and why even the superficially appealing aspects of Trump’s politics are almost inevitably awful when you get under the surface. It’s also important to understanding the appeal of Trump’s politics, and how to counteract it.

The most obvious answer to this is that Trump subscribes to the same sort of right wing populism of Libertarians and free market Republicans. This view allows for criticizing the incestuous relationship between business and political elites, but unlike Progressives this view tends to believe that the government is the source, or at least enabler, of corruption. From this vantage point, there’s no contradiction in pledging to “drain the swamp” while simultaneously packing the government with corrupt Wall Street financiers and business magnates. It’s hard to tell where the free market dogma ends and cynical self-interest begins, but since the two go hand in hand under the framework that’s somewhat irrelevant.

That goes a long way towards explaining why any apparent common ground left wing populists might have with the Trump Administration is sure to be false. But Trumpism also prescribes to be less lasseiz faire, and more economic nationalism.

Now, this is a harder issue to deal with, because there’s a lot more overlap between economic populism and economic nationalism. As many including Andrew Weber Cohen have noted, in the 19th century it was widely accepted that the American System needed to be protected if it was to survive. This was, in large part, motivated by the self-interest of domestic industries and a desire for mercantile policies. But the appeal of protectionism was actually much broader than that. The industrial working class saw it as one of the main ways to improve their economic well being, especially to native workers when paired with measures restricting immigration. But the issue was also broadly cultural. American Republicanism needed barriers to protect itself from European aristocracy and pauperism. Free trade wasn’t just bad in economic terms, it was vaguely treasonous, with many associating the idea with smugglers and indolent oligarchs cum pseudo-aristocrats surrounding themselves with European luxuries.

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This meant that for much of the 19th century the industrial working class largely sided with the Republicans. By contrast, the Democratic Party, whose base was farmers and immigrants, was more inclined towards free trade and immigration.

Eventually, though, the Democratic party managed to win over the industrial working class during the Wilson administration. As Cohen described it, they did so through a tacit compromise: labor unions would accept free trade and, in exchange, this free trade legislation would be paired with labor regulations, social insurance, and other progressive measures that would ensure that the economic system would profit the working class. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Underwood Act paired dramatic tariff reductions with a progressive income tax, as well as a raft of other progressive legislation. This also had the effect of pairing the interests of the industrial working class with the other Wilsonian goal of active government carried out by a clean/professional civil service.

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Horrible racism notwithstanding, Wilson was incredibly important in shaping the modern Democratic Party

This was a pragmatic alliance, but it was also one that gelled with the broader progressive vision of expanding economic and political enfranchisement and perfecting institutions. It also had the effect of defusing protectionism as an economic issue for the working class, as trade was no longer seen as a problem so long as it was paired with social democracy. In the process, working class populism was separated from crass nationalism and selfish nativism, like gasoline from crude oil, and used to fuel the construction of the New Deal and postwar economic order. It also enabled broader social change. It could be argued that the white working class didn’t need to worry about competition from African Americans or immigrants so long as the underlying system of labor protections, regulations and social programs remained intact. Indeed, the line from labor organizations increasingly came to be that barriers undermined solidarity, and the only sustainable solution was an egalitarian system that could be extended to everybody.

If anything, populist overtures from the left essentially come down to the idea that Democrats, and the government in general, is reneging on its side of the bargain. Trade deals like the TPP to are mainly criticized because they backdoor bad policies. The problem isn’t with the concept of trade itself, and even less so with the idea of multilateral globalization, but rather that the way it’s being conducted is corrosive to social democratic institutions. The end goal, then, isn’t to stop trade, but conduct it in a way that preserves America’s egalitarian system, or even spreads good practices internationally.

Trumpism, by contrast, is not concerned with this. If Progressive populism is a sort of gasoline aimed at empowering people and perfecting institutions, Trumpism is the sludgy waste product of crass nationalism and tribal nativism. Trade deals are bad because they don’t sufficiently strong arm America into an advantage. Importers and outsourcers aren’t just selfishly hurting the working class, they’re borderline traitors. Immigrants are invaders and spies, undermining American values. Any benefits to the working class are incidental. Indeed, under this framework, the working class is partly to blame, as their demands for better pay and working conditions are blamed for undermining national industry.

From this perspective, the idea of preserving a system of fair play and social equity doesn’t enter into the equation. On the contrary, it explicitly advocates playing favorites, whether that means crony capitalism to selectively reward and punish those who fall in line, or barring entire swathes of humanity from immigrating. Ultimately, this vision makes Trump the center of a sort of patronage network akin to that surrounding Vladamir Putin or third world despots. And if all this isn’t enough to turn off would be left wing populists, then Trump’s total hostility towards other progressive goals like environmentalism would be enough to seal the deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) sha

 

Conclusions

With all this in mind, it’s pretty clear that Trump is probably going to end up poisoning any potential common ground he might share with left wing populists long before it becomes an issue. Still, all this needs to come with a hefty dose of caveats.

First, it’s important to point out that motives are often a little more diverse than I’m letting on, especially when it comes to the broad category blue collar voters that these different types of populism are being directed at. Some working class voters are likely to be willing to look the other way on the abuses of the Trump administration in exchange for the promise of preferential treatment. To workers in places like the south who have been told to credit their jobs to efforts poach industries through lower wages and labor regulations, Trump’s race to the bottom will seem like the natural order of things. Some unions were always a bit more inclined to Republicans to begin with. It’s actually not that surprising Trump was able to get a good word out of the Builders Unions, for example. Construction unions are typically more populated by family centered contractors, and thus have always prioritized broad solidarity less than industrial unions. Republicans can turn working class people against social programs on the basis of racial animus, though to some extent I think people overstate this.

Second, even if the Progressive vision is incompatible with Trumpism, and it’s not sustainable for blue collar workers to act in a coalition with people who serially abuse them, this still requires that Democrats clearly state why they’re a better option for the working class. Unless Democrats recommit themselves to championing their progressive goals, working class voters are likely to revert towards the sort of crass nationalism and tribalism Trump preys on.

Finally, It’s also important to note that Trump’s appeals to nationalism can be potent in and of itself. Progressives would do well to find a counter argument. This is entirely doable. As much as Trump talks about protecting America, he almost never talks about American values. It would be a good time time remind the voting public that the drive to make America a shining beacon on a hill is, at its core, a progressive one. Indeed, what makes America exceptional if not our commitment to empowering the little guy, continuously perfecting our institutions, and ensuring fair play? From that perspective, Trumpism is a bigger threat to America than any foreign invader.

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The First Few Days Of The Trump Administration Has Been A Master’s Class In How Not To Run The Civil Service

Since taking office, there’s been a flurry of many (many many) awful policies coming out of the Trump administration. But it’s not just what the Trump Administration is doing, it’s how incompetently they’re doing it. By trying to ram through a number of arbitrary and poorly thought out directives and running roughshod over the civil service, the Trump administration has sown all kinds of dysfunction and alienated large swathes of its own government

In a few short days, the Trump Administration has already managed to wrack up an impressive number of snafus. Whether it was caused by a conscious effort to impose control or a simply an unintended consequence of the broadly written and ambiguous regulator freeze, the gag order on the EPA and other agencies was a mess that caused a substantial backlash and damaged public access to government science. The roll out of the Muslim ban was chaotic, and may have caused a constitutional crisis. And this is likely only the beginning. The administration’s mandate that for every one regulation, two must be eliminated has been called arbitrary and unworkable. And if history is any guide, the federal hiring freeze will probably end up costing more money than it saves, and seriously compromise government functionality in the process. And so on, and so forth.

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Senior State Department officials removed since Trump took over

 

For its part, the civil service is­­ bristling under the new administration. Senior officials in the State Department have either been either purged or resigned en masse, and while its not unusual for new administrations to replace senior administrators, the speed with which it’s happened under Trump has caused a severe lack of human capital. More than 900 employees in the State Department have protested the Muslim ban, and the acting Attorney General was fired after she refused to defend it. Twitter accounts started by civil servants sprung up after the EPA gag. And so on, and so forth.

In short, by trying to ram through a number of arbitrary and poorly though out directives and running roughshod over the civil service, the Trump administration has sown all kinds of dysfunction and alienated large swathes of its own government. It’s been a Master’s class in how not to run the civil service.

As a person who has taken a number of Master’s classes in public administration, I’d like to take the opportunity to try to explain just what Trump is doing wrong in somewhat more academic terms. Hopefully this can provide the sort of cool, rationale arguments and “back of the cocktail napkin” illustrations that can be useful in winning over people who wouldn’t be opposed to Trump on ideological grounds, but who may still be mortified by how badly he’s mismanaging everything.

 

What happens when you try to smash a square peg into a round hole

So there’s a lot of precedence for bold reform agendas devolving into chaos and mismanagement, on every end of the ideological spectrum. Whether you’re talking about the Great Leap Forward in China causing famine or the Shock Therapy in Russia exacerbating the collapse of the Russian economy and enabling deep corruption, there are numerous examples to choose from.

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Economist Simeon Djankov offers a good framework for understanding this sort of mismanagement. Djankov treats the issue using the sort of multi-objective optimization function one tends to see a lot in public welfare economics and operations research. Using the two ideals of total lasseiz faire against total government administration, he reasons that there are costs associated with both set ups, and the objective of policy makers is to minimize the cost subject to the constraint of what’s possible given institutions. This is illustrated by the graph below, with the blue line representing what is possible given institutions and the red line representing the objective of lowest total costs.

Generally speaking, you could probably apply this framework to pretty much any sort of reform. When you shift from one institutional framework to the next, there are bound to be tradeoffs involved.

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Anyways, Djankov tends to attribute failures of reform agendas to over correcting. Leaders tried to push the dial too far in one direction, and they suffered accordingly. This is certainly something that one could say about Trump’s agenda, particularly in terms of its long term costs. But I think it only tells half the story. Mainly, you also need to think about the disorder you get when you try to rush things through.

Shifting from one institutional arrangement to another inevitably entails certain costs. Institutions and the people who work in them have spent years adapting themselves to work according to certain rules and trouble shooting all the little practical problems one tends to run into when trying to implement anything. When you suddenly change the rules you make all that previous experience irrelevant, and you force them to work out all sorts of other practical problems in order to figure out how things are supposed to work at the ground level. Over time people will work those issues out, but in the meantime a lot of ineffectiveness and mismanagement is to be expected. This is especially true given that some reforms must be implemented in a specific order.

How much depends on the how large the changes being made are, and how quickly they’re implemented. A more gradual change would allow people to work things out with relatively little confusion, but a more dramatic change is inevitably going to result in a fair amount of chaos. And again, this is all especially true if these changes are implemented simultaneously, with no regard for sequencing.

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To explain this, imagine you have a government that wants to shift from one institutional arrangement at point P0 to one at point P3. If they shift gradually over 3 years, they go through P1 to P2 to P3. If they try to rush everything through in one year, the trade offs become harsher, and you go from P0 to PB. The minor reductions in on type of costs, dB, are offset by a large increase in other types, dA

The Great Leap Forward and Shock Therapy implemented in Russia failed for largely the same reason despite being almost diametrically opposed. It wasn’t just that Mao or the IMF were introducing a vision that was itself naïve and impractical, it was that they were implementing it so in such a rushed and confused manner that nobody had time to work out how that vision was supposed to work.

This isn’t mean to mean that gradualism is always the best approach. On the contrary, you can use this same analytical framework can be used to argue that dramatic changes can justify the costs. But it does illustrate that how you administrate is often just as important as what you’re trying to administrate, and you can end up with the worst of both worlds.

So, think about that in the context of the Trump Administration, which in its first days in office has implemented a hiring freeze, reshaped the national security council, is replacing almost the entire leadership of the state department, has mandated that for every 1 new regulation 2 must be eliminated, and so on. Also think about this in the context of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, with no practical plan for replacement. Trump’s style of making broad, sweeping dictates first and then figuring it out later seems doomed to be an administrative nightmare.

 

“A policy without professionals is by definition an amateur policy”

A few days ago, after he was purged from the Department of State, Tom Countryman took a veiled swipe at the Trump Administration’s habit of ignoring its own staff. As he put it, “A policy without professionals is by definition an amateur policy”.

Managing an organization will always go better if you have the willing support of those working for you. People at the grassroots have all sorts of specialized knowledge and practical experience that’s crucial for carrying out an organization’s mission. It would be impossible for any manager, no matter how diligent, to possess even a fraction of this knowledge and experience, hence they rely on their staff to voluntarily make their best effort. If that staff feels that management is antagonizing them, or that they’re not being adequately rewarded for their effort, they won’t do that, and the organization will suffer. To this end, it makes sense to delegate a lot of decision making power to those people working at the ground level, reward them adequately, and treat them with some level of respect.

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Of course, there are tradeoffs. Management can be in a better position to formulate strategies that are in the long term interest of the organization, and sometimes workers on the ground need to acquiesce to those strategies. Of course differences in perspective and raw self-interest mean that management and staff will always disagree about just how much decision making authority should be delegated to people working at the ground level, and a deal of compromise is necessary, often with the a number of legal protections empowering people at the grassroots level.

Economists Freeman and Lazaer outlined all this in a 1995 paper. They also offered a handy graphic illustrating the concept, which I’ve placed below. The graph illustrates the relationship between decision making authority delegated to staff at the grass roots and the payoffs of the arrangement. The area under the red curve, F(x), represents the benefit realized by management, while the area under the blue curve, G(x) represents the total benefits to society, with the shaded blue area representing the benefit to society and staff.

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As you can see, the best outcome for management is far below what’s ideal. If they had their way, they’d maintain tight control at the expense of everyone else. To that end, it’s important that management has to compromise for the greater good. It may be necessary to force them to do so.

Freeman and Lazaer were originally making an argument for industrial democracy, and they were explaining one of the reasons why works councils give German manufacturers a number of competitive advantages. But the principle that bottom up management and some degree of deference to staff is practical applies to all organizations, public as well as private. It can also be applied to broader concepts of democratic participation, and can provide a rationale for why democratic systems are not only desirable, but also functionally superior.

So again, let’s apply all this to the Trump administration, which has already made clear its intent to remove work place protections from the civil service, purging leadership staff, while subjecting them to stifling gag orders and stifling administrative policies. He’s also demonstrated a preference for crafting policy with his inner circle while avoiding consultation with the professional civil service where he can. His Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is hostile to the idea of deferring to government agency’s interpretation of laws. His actions have already antagonized the civil service to a point where many of its employees are in open revolt.

 

Conclusion

It’s interesting to ponder why exactly the Trump Administration is mismanaging the civil service so profoundly.

One obvious answer is that it’s just the Republican’s own rhetoric over taking them. For years, Republicans have been running on a crass cynicism directed at government regulations and employees. Complaints about the page length of the tax code, or the raw number of regulations on pillows, or the nominal value of the national debt, were presented as self-evident demonstrations that the government was out of control. The idea that government required specialized experience was dismissed in the interest of popular, but dubious, policies like term limits, which treated government as though it’s something that should be a part time job. The civil service was something that should be tamed, or bullied if necessary. And while Republicans probably were true believers in small government by and large, the leadership at least had a more nuanced understanding of how that was best achieved. They recognized that it was the content of regulations, rather than the sheer length, that was the important thing, and that it paid to be effective operators. But people like Trump and the Tea Party still took the rhetoric at face value. They measure success in terms of arbitrary limits on government and how much they harass the civil service, and if this throws sands in the gears of government all the better.

Presidential Candidate Rand Paul Campaigns In Las Vegas

It’s also interesting to think about what Trump’s own personal background may have had a role in this as well. Construction is a capital intensive industry that largely whose skill requirements are relatively generic. That is to say, it’s a field where workers are by and large seen as expendable. It’s also an industry where, historically, strong arming and intimidation gets you a lot farther in disputes than long term relationship building. And, as far as government’s role in the industry is concerned, developers are going to see it primarily as a source of zoning laws and environmental regulations which appear to serve no other purpose than to hold up a predetermined goal for years on end.

Maybe it’s one, maybe it’s the other, maybe it’s both, who knows. Either way, he’s running face first into the realities of government and doing long term damage to our institutions. And there’s no sign that he’s going to slow down. It’s going to.

Whether “Conspiracy” or “Cockup”, We Can’t Take The EPA Gag Order Lightly, Public Access To Government Science Is Essential

Crossposted on Dailykos
In last few days, the news began to report that the Trump Administration has put a gag order on the EPA, and restricted communications across numerous other federal agencies, including the USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other agencies. Under the order, press releases and other releases of materials to the public have been put on hold and media releases are screened for approval by administration officials. This includes a halt on the publication of scientific research papers conducted by government scientists (at least through the government). Additionally, various materials on climate change have been removed from the EPA website, and various tweets on climate change issued by the National Parks Service have been retroactively deleted. This gag follows a freeze implemented on EPA grants, halting new business activity conducted by the agency.
The move, which fits in with a larger pattern of hostility to climate science and prickly attempts at message control on the Trump Administration’s part, was roundly criticized. Environmentalists, progressives, and the scientific community reacted strongly to the news. The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences warned against “censorship and intimidation”. Similarly, websites and Facebook groups calling for a “Scientists March On Washington” have garnered significant attention.

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Some of this may have been an overreaction. Many of these are gags are likely to be temporary, and not a far reaching as many suspect. While the moves against the EPA seem to have been largely intentional, many of the gags were internal measures responding to a broader regulator freeze. This begets the question of why such occurrences did not occur in previous administrations, but it still takes the onus off the Trump administration and implies much of this may be more “cockup” than “conspiracy”.

Still, the reaction to the whole issue is justified. Whether the whole thing was a deliberate attempt at controlling government science or simply an unintended consequence of clumsily implemented policy, it represents a bad precedence. And while the issue may seem abstract, with little impact outside narrow issues like climate change, it is in fact a very serious issue. In the US, public access to government science has been built into a vitally important part of our economic system, both in terms of practical day to day uses and the strategic long term well-being of the country. We do need to jealously guard the openness and transparency of government science, because if it were undermined, the damage would be both long lasting and potentially irreversible.

 

How The American Research System Works

Before we go further, it’s worth stepping back to talk about how national research is conducted, and how research in the US has historically worked.

A good rubric for assessing the nature of the national research system is one developed by Koen Jonkers, which uses 7 dimensions on which to judge the orientation of a research system: being locus of control on the direction of research, local diffusion of knowledge, diffusion of knowledge to other research systems, international orientation, mode funding, organizational structure, and mechanisms for evaluation. There are two extreme types. On the one hand, you have a centrally planned ideal type, which is hierarchical, had research direction set by high ranking officials, has little interaction between agencies and the broader public, and works through direct funding. On the other hand, market ideal types devolve more decision making power to agencies, it’s more open to the public, allows for greater diffusion and cooperation across agency and sector, and conducts funding largely through competitive grants to the broader public. The “Market” label implies a certain focus on private industry, which is a large part of it, but it’s also largely based on autonomous public agencies and institutions, and voluntary action. For that reason, I’d actually argue that it’s better thought of as a “civil society ideal type”.

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Not surprisingly, the US tends to be more on the “Market” end of the spectrum, though this has varied over. When the structures of government science were constructed in the 40s-60s largely as a response to WWII, The Cold War, and the Space Race the system was generally more centralized. Since the 1970s, there’s been more of a shift towards making the system more civil society oriented system. Intramural research has fallen as a share of federally funded R&D projects from about 35% in the mid-70s to around 18% today. As more emphasis was put on outside research, Federal funded R&D has also fallen from 1.25% of GDP in 1976 to 0.75% today. Meanwhile, the Bayh-Dole Act clarifying the rules for using for government research to become more accessible to the public and a general shift away from government owned and operated programs.

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To be sure, this has been a good and bad thing. On the plus side, we’ve managed to create a fairly a community a broader community for scientific research that’s notable for its flexibility and transparency. The fact that we can conduct as much research in such an organic way is a credit to the fact that our country is exceptionally well off and well educated. Furthermore, the fact that we’ve spent decades creating an environment in which cooperative research projects can form organically means that there are now countless channels for knowledge to be shared across various institutions and breakthroughs can be broadly disseminated quickly and at little cost.

On the other hand, the centrally planned ideal type has strengths that people, including Jonkers, tend to overlook. Ideally they can direct research and provide access to technology in a way that benefits society at large, rather than the narrow interests of specific industries. They also do a better job coordinating resources, which is crucial in the sort of large scale, long term projects that tend to typify much of modern science. That’s why the US research system still relies heavily on a core of government science, particularly for the hard sciences and especially at the level of basic research. The neglect of that core government research often suffers as a consequence of the drive to outsource research can be counterproductive. The declining rateof start-up formation and major breakthroughs indicate we may have been better off back in the days when NASA when getting more than 4% of the national budget and DARPA was creating the internet than we are in our current model of relying on silicon valley tech moguls to deliver spaceflight technology through their personal hobbies, or viral social media campaigns to determine which diseases get research funding.

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In any event, we get a picture of American R&D as a system in which a core of government science and autonomous research institution in the broader public has established extensive links over the course of decades, and now rely one another in a symbiotic relationship that has proven to be highly productive.

 

The Worst of Both Worlds

So let’es get back to the gag order, and what it may portend.

Trump was never promising a massive reinvestment into core government science institutions. By most indications, he intends to cut funding for many of the core government science institutions. He also, decidedly, seems to want to direct government science’s efforts towards servicing favored industries. This isn’t necessarily new, either for him, Republicans, or political discourse in general, and this can be seen as continuing a long term trend. But the recent gags on the EPA, USDA, and others indicates that he’s also he’s threatening to move government research towards a more closed model, creating barriers between them and the broader public while at the same time subjecting them to arbitrary dictates from above.

And this is pretty unambiguously deleterious, since the US has become so invested in a system that makes government and public mutually dependent on one another. Broad public access to government science provides the public with access to basic research findings crucial to future innovations. It allows government agencies and public research institutions to act as a focal point around which clusters of innovative industries can form. Government science determines which strain of flu gets used for vaccinations, and helps to increase crop yields. Government science isn’t just important at the macro level either, it also provides a number of daily conveniences to the public, like access to up to the minute weather reports and air quality readings. While weather alerts may not sound like a big deal, in fact they can have a significant economic impact.

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To my friends still in China, remember that this is the US Embassy that puts these out…

And the benefits go both ways. Voluntary involvement in large public projects, so called Citizen Science, can generate millions, if not billions, of dollars worth of economic benefits per year. To cite one example, Planet Hunters, a project that allows people to use NASA’s Kepler Space Mission, has analyzed more than 12 million observations and has identified numerous planets

The advantages of this sort of government-public interaction on science is even more obvious when you look at places where its absent. The Soviet Union, for example, spent a much greater share of its resources on research and development, but 3/4ths of the R&D budget went to the military and was thus inaccessible to the public. But even in civilian research, there was little room for dissemination. The large research facilities far removed from major population centers, preventing natural diffusion of technology. Arbitrary shifts in policy by high ranking officials who neither knew of nor understood new technologies could suddenly shut down otherwise fruitful projects, while also shifting resources to worthless but ideologically more convenient research. All in all, countless discoveries went to waste because they could not be disseminated to the broader public and adapted.

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Similarly, the insularity of Chinese research institutions, which is something I’ve had a bit of personal experience with, is one of the biggest hurdles to China’s continued development

The point is that shutting off public access to government research and subjecting it to the arbitrary changes in policy can have a serious impact, whether they’re implemented by octogenarians holding to an ideological line or thin skinned pseudo-populists who just don’t like what their scientists are saying. In the past, American government science wasn’t always invested in as it should have been, but at the very least it was relatively free of this kind of interference. Now that’s no longer certain.

 

Conclusion

What the Trump Administration seems to be moving government science in a direction that’s the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, he’s ready to gut core scientific research institutions, which have already been neglected as is, and subject them to a higher degree of favoritism towards certain industries. On the other hand, he’s also threatening to make the system more closed, erecting barriers between government science and the broader public and limiting support for research in the civil society. In the US, where we’ve spent so much time and effort building an ecosystem based on mutual cooperation between government and grassroots research, it would be especially unfortunate, and potentially a serious threat to our long term well being. We can hope that the moves are temporary and limited, but they still set a bad precedence, and if they continue the consequences are sure to be severe.