Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Critical thinking, lesson the bazzilionth

I keep trying to get through to people with the basic principles of argumentation and logic, and I keep failing. If I propound and argument, it is not an intellectually respectable response to say something like "People who manage businesses know more about economics than people with graduate degrees in social policy who study economics for a living."


This proposition is ridiculous on its face. People who drive cars don't know more about how cars work than automotive engineers. But, even if it were credible* it's not an argument. If you want to refute something I write, you need to engage with it specifically. You must point out what you believe to be specific factual or logical errors, and present your counterargument. Simply asserting that you know more about the subject than I do is a combination of two fundamental errors: these are called ad hominem, and argument by assertion. Just because you have always believed something, and the people you hang out with believe it, does not make it true. 


If you want your comment to be published, it must substantively engage with the content. Just claiming, without evidence, that you are smarter than me, is not an argument.

Update: It is not the case that I only publish comments I agree with, or wish to use as an example of fallacious thinking. I do not publish comments that are offensive or idiotic. Again, please see the point of this post. If you wish to take issue with something I write, you must provide specific counterarguments addressing facts and logic. Simply saying that you make money by ignoring Robert Reich is irrelevant and inane. I have nothing to do with Robert Reich, nor do I make financial market forecasts. 

*This is the rare example of the subjunctive in English. It is grammatically correct.


Sunday Sermonette: Sculpt not!

With Deuteronomy 4, Moses begins a long spell of hectoring. There's a lot of scolding in general about following the law exactly, but there's also a particular emphasis on not making graven images. The New International Version, which I've been using, translates the word as "idols," which would seem to imply that it's only bad if you're planning to worship the thing, but most translations just have "images," including the Revised Standard Version I present here. This is evidently consistent with the Hebrew because over the millennia rabbinical authorities have interpreted the prohibition as restricting any form of sculpture of a living being, regardless of the purpose. Usually they require some sort of incompleteness, such as putting animal heads on human figures, or simply leaving out part of the creature. Most discussions I have found of this are quite confusing, but this seems reasonably lucid. There have been various interpretations, but "Today most traditional rabbinic authorities go by the ruling in the Shulchan Aruch, sanctioning depictions of the human body that are somehow incomplete. For example, a sculpted bust would be acceptable, but not a full human form; a drawing in which part of the body is obstructed by a piece of furniture or another person would also be acceptable."


Seems fairly silly to me. Of course only the most orthodox believers follow this rule. Marc Chagall obviously was not concerned about it. I will also note that Christians, and especially Catholics, completely ignore it. Catholic churches are full of idols, before which people light candles and pray. Some orthodox Jews refrain from entering such places of idolatry.


“And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them; that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, gives you. You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord did at Ba′al-pe′or; for the Lord your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Ba′al of Pe′or; but you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive this day. Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?

“Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children— 10 how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ 11 And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. 12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the ten commandments;[a] and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. 14 And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, that you might do them in the land which you are going over to possess.

15 “Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19 And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and worship them and serve them, things which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But the Lord has taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own possession, as at this day. 21 Furthermore the Lord was angry with me on your account, and he swore that I should not cross the Jordan, and that I should not enter the good land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance. 22 For I must die in this land, I must not go over the Jordan; but you shall go over and take possession of that good land. 23 Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a graven image in the form of anything which the Lord your God has forbidden you. 24 For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.

25 “When you beget children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a graven image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from the land which you are going over the Jordan to possess; you will not live long upon it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27 And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you. 28 And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of men’s hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. 29 

This did not happen, as far as I know. Although the Jews were ultimately dispersed, they never started to worship idols.

But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice, 31 for the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not fail you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers which he swore to them.

32 “For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. 33 Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? 34 Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? 35 To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him. 36 Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you; and on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. 37 And because he loved your fathers and chose their descendants after them, and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, 38 driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as at this day; 39 know therefore this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. 40 Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord your God gives you for ever.”

The material that follows is, obviously, entirely redundant.

Cities of Refuge East of the Jordan

41 Then Moses set apart three cities in the east beyond the Jordan, 42 that the manslayer might flee there, who kills his neighbor unintentionally, without being at enmity with him in time past, and that by fleeing to one of these cities he might save his life: 43 Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland for the Reubenites, and Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manas′sites.

Transition to the Second Address

44 This is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel; 45 these are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which Moses spoke to the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt, 46 beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-pe′or, in the land of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon, whom Moses and the children of Israel defeated when they came out of Egypt. 47 And they took possession of his land and the land of Og the king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, who lived to the east beyond the Jordan; 48 from Aro′er, which is on the edge of the valley of the Arnon, as far as Mount Si′rion[b] (that is, Hermon), 49 together with all the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan as far as the Sea of the Arabah, under the slopes of Pisgah.


  1. Deuteronomy 4:13 Heb words
  2. Deuteronomy 4:48 Syr: Heb Sion


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Opinion about opinions

A very silly taunt I get a lot from the peanut gallery is basically "You think you're right and I'm wrong and that makes you intolerant." Sheesh. A) Everybody thinks they're right, that's what it means to think something. It's tautological. B) I could say exactly the same thing to you.

But let's try to unpack disagreeing with somebody with disrespecting them. Here's what I think.

1. There is a certain measure of respect and consideration that is due to every human. It gets complicated -- we can argue about exactly what that consists of and how to honor it in the case of people who transgress boundaries. An implication for me is that yes, I should try to understand why people sometimes have beliefs that I am quite sure are wrong. But it doesn't mean that I can't be certain of my own beliefs and consider others to be in error.

2. Again, and I feel like a broken record, there are different kinds of beliefs and they have different kinds of wrongness. If you believe that the earth is flat, that it is 10,000 years old, and that climate change is a hoax, you are wrong in one kind of way. If you believe that people of northern European descent are the master race and that all others should be subservient you are wrong in a different kind of way. There might be some incorrect factual beliefs associated with it, but it is not on the whole a factual belief, it is a moral belief, or really an entire system for organizing your understanding of reality. 

3. While all people are due that basic guarantee of respect and consideration, the amount of tolerance I have for beliefs depends on many factors. There are in fact some beliefs that I consider deplorable, meaning that they are contrary to my moral values. That means that people who express them are ipso facto committing an immoral act. It follows that I will not allow them to be expressed here, because that would make me guilty of collaboration; and it follows that the people who hold them, I hold in low regard.

4. There are some factually wrong beliefs that are also dangerous and damaging to humanity, for example climate change denial or QAnon. The reality of anthropogenic climate change and the unreality of QAnon are not matters for debate. They are facts, with the same status as the sun rising in the east. Some people promote false beliefs for morally repugnant reasons, i.e. the Koch brothers profit from the fossil fuel industry and some people sell QAnon merchandise. Those people are acting deplorably. Other people, however, are mere dupes. I do not condemn them morally, but I do wish we could create an information ecosystem in which such false beliefs could not so readily proliferate.

5. If you are just plain wrong about something, I will tell you so. Respecting you as a person does not mean I have to overlook your errors.

Friday, November 27, 2020

An interesting thought

We see a lot of musing about the reason for the urban/rural divide in U.S. politics. Yes, those depopulous rural states have disproportionate political power thanks to the undemocratic constitution; and within states liberals and Democrats are concentrated in urban centers while exurban and rural areas tend to be Republican, which gives Republicans the ability to win majorities in state legislatures and congressional delegations with a minority of the vote. It's true that people vote, and dirt doesn't, but the way our system is structured, having a lot of dirt does give you an advantage.

The challenging question is why rural areas are more conservative. Will Wilkinson attempts to answer that, and he might just have a good point. People have been heading from the countryside to the city for a while now, but the people who make that move tend to be different from the people who stay behind. 

[U]rbanization is a relentless, glacial social force that transforms entire societies and, in the process, generates cultural and political polarization by segregating populations along the lines of the traits that make individuals more or less responsive to the incentives that draw people to the city. I explore three such traits — ethnicity, ideology-correlated aspects of personality, and level of educational achievement — and their intricate web of relationships. The upshot is that, over the course of millions of moves over many decades, high density areas have become economically thriving multicultural havens while whiter, lower density places are facing stagnation and decline as their populations have become increasingly uniform in terms of socially conservative personality, aversion to diversity, and lower levels of education.

This would also explain the rejection of expertise and the demonization of the university. Education and expertise are markers of a geographically based socio-cultural divide.  Rural people think of the metropolis and its cosmopolitan, educated population as a weird, exotic world with outre values (there I go with the French), that looks down on them. I actually don't think the last item is true -- it's partly a myth propagated by conservative politicians, and partly a projection of shame. People who secretly feel inferior because they lack status enhancing credentials presume that others look down on them. 

Liberals don't look down on people personally because of their rural culture or limited formal education, but they are offended by elements of rural culture, notably racism, the tendency to deny inconvenient facts that are asserted by experts, oppressive gender norms. That's what Hillary meant when she referred to "deplorables," a most unfortunate choice of words and yes, it does indicate a lack of empathy on her part. What she should have said, what I will say, is that some people are committed to ideas and world views that I think are incorrect, and inimical to their own interests in the long run. Sometimes it's not enough to call them incorrect, it's necessary to condemn them in solidarity with the people who are hurt by them. But we need to find better ways of talking with people.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Economics 101

Every year I "do" Columbus Day, and I have often "done" Thanksgiving, but I think I'll skip it this year. I'm not going to burden people with having to think too much about what the occasion really symbolizes, and obscures. Maybe I'll get around to it later.*

Today, however, I want to seize the occasion of coming across this essay by Neil Fligstein and Steven Vogel in Boston Review. They say exactly what I have said, repeatedly, about economics and the economy. They explain, at least as well as I can, that there is no such thing as the Free Market(tm). There never has been, there never will be, there never can be. The concept is nonsensical:

[G]overnments and markets are co-constituted. Government regulation is not an intrusion into the market but rather a prerequisite for a functioning market economy. Critics of neoliberalism often make the case for government “intervention” in the market. But why refer to government action as intervention? The language of intervention implies that government action contaminates a market otherwise free of public action. To the contrary, the alternative to government action is not a perfect market, but rather real-world markets thoroughly sullied with collusion, fraud, imbalances of power, production of substandard or dangerous products, and prone to crises due to excessive risk-taking.

Likewise, critics of neoliberalism often adopt the fictional “free market” as a reference point even as they make the case for deviation from it. For example, they follow the standard practice of economists by identifying market failures and proposing solutions to those failures. To be fair, this can be a useful way to see how government action can remedy specific problems, and to assess when action may be helpful or not. But this approach also risks obscuring the fact that market failure is the rule and not the exception. More fundamentally, the government is not a repair technician for a market economy that functions reasonably well, but rather the master craftsperson of market infrastructure.

Proponents of the "free market" are actually just using the rhetoric to object to specific regulations that they don't like, ordinarily because they think they can make more money if the regulations go away. But someone else, in many cases just about everybody else, will be harmed in that case. But we can't see it because of the blinders of free market ideology. Markets are not forces of nature, they are socio-political constructions. The question is not whether they are regulated, or whether government intervenes, but rather how they are regulated and how government intervenes,  at whose behest and to whose benefit. I recommend that you do read the whole thing.

*For now, I will just tell you that since 1970, the remnants of the Wampanoag have gathered in Plymouth on the same day as Thanksgiving to observe a day of mourning.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Demarcation Problem

"Demarcation" is the fancy term used by philosophers of science for making the distinction between science and basically every other kind of belief or kind of statement. Since science claims to be about distinguishing what is true, it also comes down to what is basically another word for epistemology, the branch of philosophy which deals with how we decide what is true. But by reframing epistemology as the effort to define science, philosophers have essentially made the word "science" a synonym for epistemological validity.


I'm going to be very careful not to get too deep into the weeds here. Philosophers pulp whole forests to inscribe their multi-page wranglings with the smallest of points. What matters is that people with scientific training in accredited universities have come to a very strong consensus about a vast body of knowledge in innumerable categories, and also agree on a very large body of methods for determining truth. They are also very well aware of their vast areas of ignorance and uncertainty. After all, it is their job to do research and generate new knowledge and understanding, so it is what we don't know that fuels science, not what we do know. 

However, "science," as a profession practiced by people with fancy degrees, mostly in universities, is obviously not the only example of people seeking truth. Journalists are supposed to do that also, so the demarcation problem is analogous, or even equivalent, to the problem of distinguishing real from fake news. And of course each one of us has to decide what to believe.*

 I don't need to tell you that something like half of Americans (I haven't checked the latest polling) do not believe that the earth is 4 1/2 billion years old and that life evolved over billions of years from ancient simple forms to produce the diversity we see today. They do not believe that we, Homo sapiens, are descended from earlier kinds of creatures from which chimpanzees and gorillas are also descended, and that if you go back far enough we're descended from fish. And there are people who have doctorates in biology who don't believe that either, although they are exceedingly rare and 99.99% of biologists think the are nuts. 


Except for the very specific problem of what we ought to be teaching schoolchildren, the preceding case doesn't have much direct political relevance. But of course climate change denial does, as did denial that smoking tobacco and eating too much sugar are bad for your health. These were disinformation campaigns funded by multi-billion dollar industries, so we have an explanation for why false beliefs prevailed for a time. Climate change denial is still pretty strong though fading as the reality becomes inescapably obvious. But the fake news problem is worse than ever.

 I know that Joe Biden won the election and that there was no significant voter fraud. (Actually such fraud as there was favored the Resident.) How do I know that? If I had to, I would rely on what I consider to be credible journalistic sources, such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many others. In this case I don't have to because I can observe that the responsible Republican officials in Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona agree and the plausibility of the claim that they've all been somehow corrupted by the late Hugo Chavez just doesn't rise to the level of laughable. 

However, tens of millions of people don't believe that, and the sole reason for their disbelief is that they surrender all authority to a lunatic who lies every time his lips move. Many of them also believe that a global conspiracy of prominent Democratic political figures and Hollywood actors worships Satan, kidnaps and rapes children en masse and then murders them and extracts a hormone from them that gives them extended longevity. Also their adored lunatic was put in office to arrest them all and put them on trial, although for some mysterious reason he hasn't gotten around to it. 

So this is a problem. Tens of millions of Americans live in a different universe than I do. I can't respect their beliefs or try to reason with them, because they are insane. And nobody seems to know what to do about it.

 *Please note that the word "belief" has multiple meanings that sometimes cause semantic confusion. Moral beliefs are not the same as factual beliefs, and neither scientists nor journalists have any particular authority to tell anybody else what is morally right. Nevertheless we use the words "right" or "wrong" to apply to both moral beliefs and to factual assertions. It would be desirable if we had more precise vocabulary, but that's how English works. So keep it straight. Also, there are cases of uncertainty, of probability. We can disagree about whether we "believe" that the Patriots will win the game, but we don't know who's right until it's over. I'm not talking about any of that, I'm talking about facts.

Wednesday Bible Study: Mister big stuff

Deuteronomy 3 retells the story of the defeat of Og told earlier in Numbers, but with more detailed and specific slaughter. Also, the obsession with giants continues, Og apparently having been the biggest of them all. I repeat myself, but I would ask you again to reflect on the concept of "Biblical morality" and what it means to be "pro-life."

Next we turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan with his whole army marched out to meet us in battle at Edrei. The Lord said to me, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.”

So the Lord our God also gave into our hands Og king of Bashan and all his army. We struck them down, leaving no survivors. At that time we took all his cities. There was not one of the sixty cities that we did not take from them—the whole region of Argob, Og’s kingdom in Bashan. All these cities were fortified with high walls and with gates and bars, and there were also a great many unwalled villages. We completely destroyed[a] them, as we had done with Sihon king of Heshbon, destroying[b] every city—men, women and children. But all the livestock and the plunder from their cities we carried off for ourselves.

So just four verses to describe murdering all of the inhabitants of 60 cities, including the children, while grabbing all the livestock and all the desirable crap. That's got to be at least, I dunno, 60,000 people? God could have killed them all himself but he made the Israelites do it. Maybe it was more fun that way.

So at that time we took from these two kings of the Amorites the territory east of the Jordan, from the Arnon Gorge as far as Mount Hermon. (Hermon is called Sirion by the Sidonians; the Amorites call it Senir.) 10 We took all the towns on the plateau, and all Gilead, and all Bashan as far as Salekah and Edrei, towns of Og’s kingdom in Bashan. 11 (Og king of Bashan was the last of the Rephaites. His bed was decorated with iron and was more than nine cubits long and four cubits wide.[c] It is still in Rabbah of the Ammonites.)

Yeah, the guy's bed was 14 feet long. This is obviously of deep theological importance. The rest of this chapter is basically repetition of material in Numbers.

Division of the Land

12 Of the land that we took over at that time, I gave the Reubenites and the Gadites the territory north of Aroer by the Arnon Gorge, including half the hill country of Gilead, together with its towns. 13 The rest of Gilead and also all of Bashan, the kingdom of Og, I gave to the half-tribe of Manasseh. (The whole region of Argob in Bashan used to be known as a land of the Rephaites. 14 Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob as far as the border of the Geshurites and the Maakathites; it was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.[d]) 15 And I gave Gilead to Makir. 16 But to the Reubenites and the Gadites I gave the territory extending from Gilead down to the Arnon Gorge (the middle of the gorge being the border) and out to the Jabbok River, which is the border of the Ammonites. 17 Its western border was the Jordan in the Arabah, from Kinnereth to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea), below the slopes of Pisgah.

18 I commanded you at that time: “The Lord your God has given you this land to take possession of it. But all your able-bodied men, armed for battle, must cross over ahead of the other Israelites. 19 However, your wives, your children and your livestock (I know you have much livestock) may stay in the towns I have given you, 20 until the Lord gives rest to your fellow Israelites as he has to you, and they too have taken over the land that the Lord your God is giving them across the Jordan. After that, each of you may go back to the possession I have given you.”

Moses Forbidden to Cross the Jordan

21 At that time I commanded Joshua: “You have seen with your own eyes all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings. The Lord will do the same to all the kingdoms over there where you are going. 22 Do not be afraid of them; the Lord your God himself will fight for you.”

23 At that time I pleaded with the Lord: 24 “Sovereign Lord, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? 25 Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon.”

26 But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. “That is enough,” the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. 27 Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan. 28 But commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead this people across and will cause them to inherit the land that you will see.” 29 So we stayed in the valley near Beth Peor.


  1. Deuteronomy 3:6 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.
  2. Deuteronomy 3:6 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.
  3. Deuteronomy 3:11 That is, about 14 feet long and 6 feet wide or about 4 meters long and 1.8 meters wide
  4. Deuteronomy 3:14 Or called the settlements of Jair

Monday, November 23, 2020

President Biden's biggest challenge?

He'll have plenty, to be sure. He'll need to rebuild the hollowed-out cabinet departments; reverse the gutting of environmental, workplace safety, and consumer protection regulations; repair relations with allies around the world; fix immigration policy; and get the vaccine distributed quickly and fairly. The latter will happen eventually, and most of those items can be accomplished by executive order. However, the biggest challenges facing the country are the interconnected, if not essentially contiguous problems of repairing, rebuilding, and modernizing the nation's infrastructure and eliminating carbon emissions, and achieving full employment while elevating the living standards of working people. These are all one thing.

This will require an immense investment, but there is no reason not to make it. With interest rates at essentially zero, and high unemployment, there is no cost to government borrowing. We know exactly what will happen as soon as Biden takes office: Republicans in congress who had no problem whatsoever with blowing the deficit wide open during the past four years will suddenly get religion, discover that the federal deficit is the most critical problem facing the country, and demand austerity. 


For those of you who think you understand economics because you have an accounting certificate, let me explain about the discount rate. If you are considering whether to borrow money to invest, you need to consider the payback period of your investment. Basically you want to get more return on your investment than what it would cost to borrow the money. (Or alternatively, if you're investing savings, what you could get in interest from an alternative.) If you're paying 10%, then you need to get the value of your investment in 7 years to make it worth your while. But what if the interest rate is zero, or close to it? Then you can take as long as you want. If you're payback is in ten years, you're doing great!


Well, investment in a smart energy grid, solar and wind power, mass transit (powered by clean electricity of course), energy efficient construction, and the manufacturing technology and capacity to accomplish all this will pay off quickly; and it costs the government nothing to borrow the money. 

However, that won't be possible if Republicans control the Senate. So it is critical, not only for you and your friends and children, but for the future of humanity, that the Democrats win both senatorial elections in Georgia. That is all.

How many times do I have to say it, I have a Ph.D. in social policy from Brandeis University, which required me to pass qualifying examinations in economics. I also studied economics as part of my master's degree in environmental policy from Tufts, and I previously did graduate work in economics at American University. I don't take lessons from accountants. If you think there is something incorrect in what I have written, please specify. Otherwise, kindly fuck off.


Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sunday Sermonette: Mo rattles on

In Deuteronomy 2 Moses continues his review of the events of the desert exile, but he adds a number of events that were not mentioned previously, and also some decidedly mythic ancient history about the race of giants, and their various names. These are apparently identical with the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6:4: "The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown." Who the "sons of God" are is never explained. This seems to be a remnant of an ancient myth that didn't get fully explicated in the Torah. 

This chapter also adds a couple of new massacres and describes the Israelites buying food from people as they pass by, which was not mentioned in Numbers. As we have noted many times before, where this band of runaway slaves got so much money and weaponry and stuff in general is never explained. And yes, the Israelites commit more than one genocide in this chapter alone. Make of it what you will.

Then we turned back and set out toward the wilderness along the route to the Red Sea,[a] as the Lord had directed me. For a long time we made our way around the hill country of Seir.

Then the Lord said to me, “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north. Give the people these orders: ‘You are about to pass through the territory of your relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.’”

The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.

So we went on past our relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. We turned from the Arabah road, which comes up from Elath and Ezion Geber, and traveled along the desert road of Moab.

Then the Lord said to me, “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.”

So the Moabites get special protection because they are descended from Lot's drunken incest with his daughters. Note that later, in Jeremiah, the Israelites massacre the Moabites after all. 

10 (The Emites used to live there—a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. 11 Like the Anakites, they too were considered Rephaites, but the Moabites called them Emites. 12 Horites used to live in Seir, but the descendants of Esau drove them out. They destroyed the Horites from before them and settled in their place, just as Israel did in the land the Lord gave them as their possession.)

Again, these are various names for Nephilim.

13 And the Lord said, “Now get up and cross the Zered Valley.” So we crossed the valley.

14 Thirty-eight years passed from the time we left Kadesh Barnea until we crossed the Zered Valley. By then, that entire generation of fighting men had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn to them. 15 The Lord’s hand was against them until he had completely eliminated them from the camp.

God appears to take credit for killing off the generation, but of course given the life expectancy in those days nearly all adult men would die within 40 years under ordinary circumstances.

16 Now when the last of these fighting men among the people had died, 17 the Lord said to me, 18 “Today you are to pass by the region of Moab at Ar. 19 When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”

20 (That too was considered a land of the Rephaites, who used to live there; but the Ammonites called them Zamzummites. 21 They were a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. The Lord destroyed them from before the Ammonites, who drove them out and settled in their place. 22 The Lord had done the same for the descendants of Esau, who lived in Seir, when he destroyed the Horites from before them. They drove them out and have lived in their place to this day. 23 And as for the Avvites who lived in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorites coming out from Caphtor[b] destroyed them and settled in their place.)

More names and misfortune for the Nephilim. Note that they evidently somehow survived the flood.

24 “Set out now and cross the Arnon Gorge. See, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his country. Begin to take possession of it and engage him in battle. 25 This very day I will begin to put the terror and fear of you on all the nations under heaven. They will hear reports of you and will tremble and be in anguish because of you.”

26 From the Desert of Kedemoth I sent messengers to Sihon king of Heshbon offering peace and saying, 27 “Let us pass through your country. We will stay on the main road; we will not turn aside to the right or to the left. 28 Sell us food to eat and water to drink for their price in silver. Only let us pass through on foot— 29 as the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, and the Moabites, who live in Ar, did for us—until we cross the Jordan into the land the Lord our God is giving us.” 30 But Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let us pass through. For the Lord your God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands, as he has now done.

Same as the deal with Pharaoh -- God hardened his heart intentionally so that he could screw the guy and all his people. This is a brand new genocide, BTW, not previously recorded.

31 The Lord said to me, “See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his country over to you. Now begin to conquer and possess his land.”

32 When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, 33 the Lord our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. 34 At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed[c] them—men, women and children. We left no survivors. 35 But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves. 36 

Well, at least they didn't rape the young women this time, they just murdered them.

From Aroer on the rim of the Arnon Gorge, and from the town in the gorge, even as far as Gilead, not one town was too strong for us. The Lord our God gave us all of them. 37 But in accordance with the command of the Lord our God, you did not encroach on any of the land of the Ammonites, neither the land along the course of the Jabbok nor that around the towns in the hills.


  1. Deuteronomy 2:1 Or the Sea of Reeds
  2. Deuteronomy 2:23 That is, Crete
  3. Deuteronomy 2:34 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

History lesson

For complicated reasons that I will nod at here, but may go into more deeply in days ahead, the 1970s represented the high water mark for American workers. The inequality between the richest countries, of which the U.S. was the largest and pretty much the richest, and the poorest, was at its height; but inequality in the U.S. was at its lowest. The working class as we understood it then was actually a fairly recent historical phenomenon, that emerged in the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and developed further in the early 20th Century. For all that time, workers were immiserated. They typically worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week, and barely got by. Women and children worked as well as men. Work was dangerous, unhealthy, soul destroying. 

The trajectory of development was interrupted by two World Wars and the Great Depression, so it's not an entirely coherent story, but by the 1950s two major developments had begun to transform the status of the working class. The first was that technological development and the increase in fixed capital had greatly increased the productivity associated with each worker. (Economists speak of the "productivity of labor," but many people are misled by this term into imagining that it is a function of workers' industry and skill. Actually it's a function of the power of the machinery owned by their employers to magnify their hourly output.) The second was that workers had organized to demand an end to the system that had oppressed them. Notably during the Great Depression, this so threatened capitalists that many of them agreed with making reforms that would improve workers' status and defuse the threat of revolution.

So we got the New Deal, effective labor unions, progressive taxation, support for education and home buying -- particularly for WWII veterans. We got the massive infrastructure investments of the Eisenhower era. By the 1970s it was considered pretty much the norm that industrial workers would own their homes, that their children would have the opportunity for higher education, that they could afford to eat in restaurants and take vacations and everyone assumed their children would be better off than they were. Well okay, I'm talking about white people. 

But all that started to change. Since the 1970s, the incomes of the lowest 50% or workers have barely risen; in fact most men earn less than they did in 1980, but the decline was covered for a time by increased labor force participation and higher earnings for women. But incomes of the top 10% have risen by almost 40% and the richest people have gotten richer at an astonishing and accelerating rate. We're back to levels of inequality that last occurred before WWI. And the pain is obviously not evenly distributed. It's hit some less populous areas and parts of the Midwest the hardest, among others. And yes, people have been dying young from opioid addiction and alcoholism and suicide.

Why did this happen? Well, yes, globalization has something to do with it. American workers aren't going to be paid $40 and hour to screw TVs together when Chinese workers will do it for a tenth as much. Containerization, trade treaties, just in time inventory management, all contributed. But there are fewer low and semi-skilled jobs to be had anyway, because a) robots do much of the factory floor work and b) less of the economy consists of making stuff anyway. Companies like Facebook and Google have very little capital and their only low-skilled employees are office cleaners. In fact they have comparatively few employees at all, compared to their revenue, and the money all flows to stock owners. 

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans did anything about this. The result is that a malignant clown who at least acknowledged it, but blamed immigrants, Black people, lesbian and gay and transgendered people, college professors, environmentalists, China, amorphous "elites," and basically everybody and anybody that some segment of the people resented or disliked, could suck up the votes of low and middle income white people; and meanwhile wealthy Republican donors knew that he wasn't really going to do anything to threaten their privilege. And he hasn't actually done a damn thing for his voters, in fact they are worse off now than they were in 2016, but that's nothing new for them. The performance blaming other powerless people is enough.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Recapitulation, replication, duplication, redundancy, and repetitiveness

Deuteronomy means "second law," or may be read as "repetition of the law." It consists mostly of a review of events from the exodus to the encampment on the plains of Moab, and the law that was given along the way, some of it presented in the form of two long-winded speeches by Moses, framing the beginning and the end. There is also some new law thrown in, most of it morally depraved; and some new events, equally repulsive.

The previous books were cobbled together from older sources, but Deuteronomy was evidently composed anew, and scholars have ascribed it to a unique author, imaginatively called the Deuteronomist, or D. I would think it is a team effort, however. I also would guess that the authors overlap with P, and interpolated some material into Leviticus and Numbers.


The reason for its creation seems to be to serve as a single document to promulgate the so-called Deuteronomistic reforms of King Josiah, i.e. to restore -- or more likely establish for the first time -- a religious and legal orthodoxy in the new kingdom following the Babylonian captivity and the restoration of the Temple. In other words it's what we would call an executive summary of the preceding books. At the end, Moses dies and the scepter passes to Joshua.

We have seen most of this content before, and as there is a good deal of redundancy in the preceding books we are seeing some of it for the third or fourth time. Many of these chapters are very long, so I won't repeat most of my comments made on the material the first time it appeared unless I am strongly moved to do so. There is some embellishment and mostly minor discrepancies, however, which I will point out. The first chapter is part one of Moses's first speech, and it recounts events in the Book of Numbers. Not really worth reading.

These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan—that is, in the Arabah—opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab. (It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.)

In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had commanded him concerning them. This was after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, and at Edrei had defeated Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth.

East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying:

The Lord our God said to us at Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.”

The Appointment of Leaders

At that time I said to you, “You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone. 10 The Lord your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky. 11 May the Lord, the God of your ancestors, increase you a thousand times and bless you as he has promised! 12 But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? 13 Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.”

14 You answered me, “What you propose to do is good.”

15 So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you—as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, “Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you. 17 Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it.” 18 And at that time I told you everything you were to do.

Spies Sent Out

19 Then, as the Lord our God commanded us, we set out from Horeb and went toward the hill country of the Amorites through all that vast and dreadful wilderness that you have seen, and so we reached Kadesh Barnea. 20 Then I said to you, “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. 21 See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

22 Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to.”

23 The idea seemed good to me; so I selected twelve of you, one man from each tribe. 24 They left and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshkol and explored it. 25 Taking with them some of the fruit of the land, they brought it down to us and reported, “It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.”

Rebellion Against the Lord

26 But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. 27 You grumbled in your tents and said, “The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us. 28 Where can we go? Our brothers have made our hearts melt in fear. They say, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.’”

29 Then I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. 30 The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, 31 and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.”

32 In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God, 33 who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.

34 When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: 35 “No one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors, 36 except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He will see it, and I will give him and his descendants the land he set his feet on, because he followed the Lord wholeheartedly.”

37 Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and said, “You shall not enter it, either. 38 But your assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will enter it. Encourage him, because he will lead Israel to inherit it. 39 And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it. 40 But as for you, turn around and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea.[a]

41 Then you replied, “We have sinned against the Lord. We will go up and fight, as the Lord our God commanded us.” So every one of you put on his weapons, thinking it easy to go up into the hill country.

42 But the Lord said to me, “Tell them, ‘Do not go up and fight, because I will not be with you. You will be defeated by your enemies.’”

43 So I told you, but you would not listen. You rebelled against the Lord’s command and in your arrogance you marched up into the hill country. 44 The Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you; they chased you like a swarm of bees and beat you down from Seir all the way to Hormah. 45 You came back and wept before the Lord, but he paid no attention to your weeping and turned a deaf ear to you. 46 And so you stayed in Kadesh many days—all the time you spent there.


  1. Deuteronomy 1:40 Or the Sea of Reeds


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The giant, insane baby

Tom Sullivan is shrill about the ignorance and incompetence of not just the Idiot in Chief, but the people he has surrounded himself with and appointed to important offices, with the eager cooperation of the Republican senators. In my view, a basic reason why the Cult of Orange Julius is difficult for many of us to understand is precisely because ignorance and stupidity are a feature, not a bug.

The continual torrent of lies and nonsense from Dear Leader and his flunkies is a permit to his followers. You don't have to know anything, you don't have to do the work of learning and thinking and understanding, you don't need to process inconvenient truths or open your mind to the possibility of ever being wrong about anything. You can just believe whatever you want to believe. Sure, you're also getting a permit for racism, vulgarity, bullying, mocking people with disabilities, threatening violence, hating whoever you want to hate. But the permission to be an ignorant idiot is the broader freedom. That's what people like about him. 

I don't have the answer, I really don't.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Brain rot

 This tweet from an ICU nurse in South Dakota:


I have a night off from the hospital. As I’m on my couch with my dog I can’t help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is Going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that “stuff” because they don’t have COViD because it’s not real. Yes. This really happens. And I can’t stop thinking about it. These people really think this isn’t going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It’s like a fucking horror movie that never ends. There’s no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again.

The Cult of Orange Julius is truly inexplicable. I get the racism and the permission to be vulgar and stupid, but I don't get the denial of objective reality. This is literally murder. The man is a mass murderer.

Sunday Sermonette: Patriarchy works in mysterious ways

With Chapter 36, we come to the end of the seemingly interminable Book of Numbers. It ends anticlimactically, straightening out a problem -- or a problem at least within the constrained world of patriarchal inheritance -- created in Numbers 27, when the daughters of Zelophehad were allowed to inherit because he had no male heirs. It occurs to some of Zelophehad's male relatives that if the heiresses marry outside the tribe, the inheritance will pass to the tribe of their husbands, and we can't have that, now can we? So God orders them to marry within the tribe. That's it.

The allocation of land and property among the tribes has been a major concern of the Book of Numbers. Indeed, that seems to be the main point of the (fictional) censuses that give the book its name, since the land of Israel is to be apportioned according to numbers. So that is a basic rationale for the entire book, to justify the structure of society in Josiah's kingdom. But with the Roman conquest and the diaspora all of this ceased to be relevant. As far as I know even among the most fundamentalist orthodox Jews there is no movement to restore the tribal structure of the nationality. I would also just note the haphazard construction of the book. The separation of chapters 27 and 36 is typical. There is a broad underlying chronology, but the structure is otherwise random, with no effort too keep related material together.

I will provide an introduction to Deuteronomy, along with the first chapter, on Wednesday. 

36 The family heads of the clan of Gilead son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, who were from the clans of the descendants of Joseph, came and spoke before Moses and the leaders, the heads of the Israelite families. They said, “When the Lord commanded my lord to give the land as an inheritance to the Israelites by lot, he ordered you to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. Now suppose they marry men from other Israelite tribes; then their inheritance will be taken from our ancestral inheritance and added to that of the tribe they marry into. And so part of the inheritance allotted to us will be taken away. When the Year of Jubilee for the Israelites comes, their inheritance will be added to that of the tribe into which they marry, and their property will be taken from the tribal inheritance of our ancestors.”

Then at the Lord’s command Moses gave this order to the Israelites: “What the tribe of the descendants of Joseph is saying is right. This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan. No inheritance in Israel is to pass from one tribe to another, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal inheritance of their ancestors. Every daughter who inherits land in any Israelite tribe must marry someone in her father’s tribal clan, so that every Israelite will possess the inheritance of their ancestors. No inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits.”

10 So Zelophehad’s daughters did as the Lord commanded Moses. 11 Zelophehad’s daughters—Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah and Noah—married their cousins on their father’s side. 12 They married within the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in their father’s tribe and clan.

13 These are the commands and regulations the Lord gave through Moses to the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Why we're in this mess

Ezra Klein spells it out, an important reminder that our undemocratic constitution is becoming disastrous. To put it succinctly, Democrats need to win by margins of 5 to 8% to win the presidency, the senate, or the house, because of the structural concessions made to the slave states in 1789, and the concentration of Democratic voters in cities. As Klein concludes:

A party that adapts to anti-democratic rules will quickly become a party that fears democracy. A party that knows it can’t win a majority of the vote will try to make it difficult for majorities to vote, and have those votes count. A party that isn’t punished for betraying the public trust will keep betraying it.

If Republicans were more worried about winning back some of Biden’s voters rather than placating Trump’s base, they wouldn’t be indulging his post-election tantrum. It would be offensive to the voters they’re losing, and whom they’ll need in the future. But they’re not, and so they have aligned themselves with Trump’s claims of theft — with profoundly dangerous consequences for America.

Trump is not in the White House, refusing to accept the results of the election, because America is polarized. He is there because of the Electoral College. Mitch McConnell is not favored to remain Senate majority leader because America is polarized. He is favored to remain Senate majority leader because the Senate is the most undemocratic legislative chamber in the Western world, and the only way Republicans seem to lose control is to lose successive landslide elections, as happened in 2006 and 2008.

And that's why the Republican party caters to an extremist, racist, anti-rational cult. Because they can. 

If you really don't know what Joe Biden's policy positions are (ha ha) you can find them all, in detail, right here. It's not a secret.

Thursday, November 12, 2020


Despite trying to overturn 222 years of the constitutional regime and have himself declared President for Life, the Great Orange Turdblossom has evidently vacated the actual office of the presidency. Other than firing the top Pentagon leadership and replacing them with racist lunatics, he has taken no official action and hidden from the public for the past week. 

 Meanwhile, mysteriously, Hunter Biden's laptop has disappeared. What has not disappeared, however, is the viral epidemic which is currently infecting most of the top White House staff, not to mention most of the Midwest. 

There has been a weird complacency while he hit daily records for new infections, apparently because some people think that it's just because of all that testing and anyway it's all college kids and pro athletes getting it and they're invulnerable. Sadly, no. Actually there is not more testing, there is a higher test positivity rate, which is why the hospitals are filling up. As you may recall from our lessons back in the spring, deaths are a lagging indicator. First you get infected, then in a week or two you get symptoms, then in another week or two you die. So here's what's been happening to daily reported deaths:


Weirdly, nobody ever seems to mention this. It's a little hard to eyeball it because of the scale, but right now we're back where we were in early August, at a bit more than 1,000 deaths a day on average (the number reported yesterday was 1,431) and the shape of the cure is exponentially up. Which is to be expected. Whatever happens with vaccines, it will be many months before they can possibly have any discernible impact. Which means, whatever the governor of South Dakota may say, we'll be looking at 2,000 deaths a day very soon. Which means we will not be experiencing an economic recovery. It also means, if we don't do something about this very soon, there could be another 100,000 dead and untold numbers of people disabled -- best guess, at least as many -- by the time Joe Biden is sworn in. 

If did not vote for Joe Biden, this is evidently what you wanted. Enjoy it.