Sunday, April 19, 2015

Viral Gyro Spiral

"We need campaign finance reform. We do not need 'heroes' who take meaningless flights of fancy." -- Marsha Mercer, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Have you ever wondered what politicians do with all that campaign finance money? They don't keep it (or at least not most of it). They spend it. On campaigning. A lot of it on advertising. Which means buying time and space in the media. Including the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

That media is not going to bite the hand that feeds it, is it? So, it's a bit rich when a columnist scolds a citizen for taking a "meaningless flight of fancy." What would Marsha Mercer do?

Labelling Doug Hughes's gyrocopter flight "meaningless" is what Mercer did. So we don't really need to ask what she "would" do. The job of the media is to spin and frame dissent as either trivial or terroristic. In an oligarchy, all dissent is either trivial or it is terror. Thus, by definition, no dissent can be "meaningful" in the sense of being both effectual and legitimate.

This is precisely the eye of the needle that Hughes threaded with his marvelous stunt. Superficially, it is about oligarchy and corruption of democracy by big money. But more profoundly -- and metaphorically -- it is about the hermetically-sealed "closed air space" over Washington. D.C. In his letter to all 535 members of Congress, Hughes quoted John Kerry on the corrosion of money in politics and it's contribution to "the justifiable anger of the American people. They know it. They know we know it. And yet nothing happens."

Kerry went on to point out how the corruption of money in politics "muzzles more Americans than it empowers." How does it do this? Well, for one, those same media outlets that profit from the spending of that corrupting money to buy advertising space also get to pass judgment on the wisdom or folly of dissenting speech: "Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down! Sit down, you're rocking the boat!"

We need a lot more than campaign finance reform. We do not need minders and muzzlers from the media to tell us what is "meaningful" and what is not.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Never Mind the Bollocks. Here's the Gyro.

Hughes on First?

Have to admit, the spectre of mailman flying a gyrocopter onto the lawn of the Capitol building appeals to the Sandwichman's weakness for eccentric idealists.

From the Tampa Bay Times, here is the letter that Doug Hughes was delivering to 535 members of both houses of Congress.
Dear ___________,
Consider the following statement by John Kerry in his farewell speech to the Senate —
"The unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself. They know it. They know we know it. And yet, Nothing Happens!" — John Kerry, 2-13
In a July 2012 Gallup poll, 87% tagged corruption in the federal government as extremely important or very important, placing this issue just barely behind job creation. According to Gallup, public faith in Congress is at a 41-year record low, 7%. (June 2014) Kerry is correct. The popular perception outside the DC beltway is that the federal government is corrupt and the US Congress is the major problem. As a voter, I'm a member of the only political body with authority over Congress. I'm demanding reform and declaring a voter's rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson's description of rights in the Declaration of Independence. As a member of Congress, you have three options.
  1. You may pretend corruption does not exist.
  2. You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform.
  3. You may actively participate in real reform.
If you're considering option 1, you may wonder if voters really know what the 'chase for money' is. Your dismal and declining popularity documented by Gallup suggests we know, but allow a few examples, by no means a complete list. That these practices are legal does not make them right! Obviously, it is Congress who writes the laws that make corruption legal.
1. Dozens of major and very profitable corporations pay nothing in taxes. Voters know how this is done. Corporations pay millions to lobbyists for special legislation. Many companies on the list of freeloaders are household names — GE, Boeing, Exxon Mobil, Verizon, Citigroup, Dow … 
2. Almost half of the retiring members of Congress from 1998 to 2004 got jobs as lobbyists earning on average fourteen times their Congressional salary. (50% of the Senate, 42% of the House) 
3. The new democratic freshmen to the US House in 2012 were 'advised' by the party to schedule 4 hours per day on the phones fund raising at party headquarters (because fund raising is illegal from gov't offices.) It is the donors with deep pockets who get the calls, but seldom do the priorities of the rich donor help the average citizen. 
4. The relevant (rich) donors who command the attention of Congress are only .05% of the public (5 people in a thousand) but these aristocrats of both parties are who Congress really works for. As a member of the US Congress, you should work only for The People. 
1. Not yourself.
2. Not your political party.
3. Not the richest donors to your campaign.
4. Not the lobbyist company who will hire you after your leave Congress. 
There are several credible groups working to reform Congress. Their evaluations of the problem are remarkably in agreement though the leadership (and membership) may lean conservative or liberal. They see the corrupting effect of money — how the current rules empower special interests through lobbyists and PACs — robbing the average American of any representation on any issue where the connected have a stake. This is not democracy even if the ritual of elections is maintained. 
The various mechanisms which funnel money to candidates and congress-persons are complex. It happens before they are elected, while they are in office and after they leave Congress. Fortunately, a solution to corruption is not complicated. All the proposals are built around either reform legislation or a Constitutional Amendment. Actually, we need both — a constitutional amendment and legislation. 
There will be discussion about the structure and details of reform. As I see it, campaign finance reform is the cornerstone of building an honest Congress. Erect a wall of separation between our elected officials and big money. This you must do — or your replacement will do. A corporation is not 'people' and no individual should be allowed to spend hundreds of millions to 'influence' an election. That much money is a megaphone which drowns out the voices of 'We the People.' Next, a retired member of Congress has a lifelong obligation to avoid the appearance of impropriety. That almost half the retired members of Congress work as lobbyists and make millions of dollars per year smells like bribery, however legal. It must end. Pass real campaign finance reform and prohibit even the appearance of payola after retirement and you will be part of a Congress I can respect. 
The states have the power to pass a Constitutional Amendment without Congress — and we will. You in Congress will likely embrace the change just to survive, because liberals and conservatives won't settle for less than democracy. The leadership and organization to coordinate a voters revolution exist now! New groups will add their voices because the vast majority of Americans believe in the real democracy we once had, which Congress over time has eroded to the corrupt, dysfunctional plutocracy we have.
The question is where YOU individually stand. You have three options and you must choose. 
Douglas M. Hughes

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
See also, Souter dissent:
"This century-long tradition of legislation and judicial precedent rests on facing undeniable facts and testifies to an equally undeniable value. Campaign finance reform has been a series of reactions to documented threats to electoral integrity obvious to any voter, posed by large sums of money from corporate or union treasuries, with no redolence of 'grassroots' about them. Neither Congress’s decisions nor our own have understood the corrupting influence of money in politics as being limited to outright bribery or discrete quid pro quo; campaign finance reform has instead consistently focused on the more pervasive distortion of electoral institutions by concentrated wealth, on the special access and guaranteed favor that sap the representative integrity of American government and defy public confidence in its institutions. From early in the 20th century through the decision in McConnell, we have acknowledged that the value of democratic integrity justifies a realistic response when corporations and labor organizations commit the concentrated moneys in their treasuries to electioneering."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Hillary's campaign logo has come in for quite a bit of criticism.
The logo's designer, Michael Bierut, is a graphic design superstar. Maybe he knows what he is doing? Here's what he wrote a few years back on the Occupy Wall Street "communications arsenal":
Consider, on the other hand, the genius of that simple #occupywallstreet hashtag. Three little words, with a call to action built right in. And, also right there was the potential for an articulated brand architecture that any corporate identity expert could envy. "Occupy" sits in the master brand position. Fill in the blanks for a potentially infinite number of user-generated subbrands, from Occupy Amarillo to Occupy Zurich. Elsewhere in the OWS communications arsenal, we find other slogans ("We Are The 99%") and some visual tropes (the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by Anonymous, now an emerging public "face" for the protest). But no typeface guidelines, no color standards, no official logos.
Could it be, as Bierut writes in his final paragraph that "Sometimes, the key to political change isn't designing a logo or poster"? He makes the same point several times in his post: "I suspect that many of its supporters would insist that the last thing OWS needs is something as simple and reductive as a logo." "conventional graphic design seems like an inefficient way to make a point, never mind to create or fuel a political movement"

I suspect there may be a method to the Hillary logo's banality. It is extremely simple to repurpose. Initially, even the Sandwichman had a few yucks:

All of which only serves to commit the blasted thing to memory! But if conventional graphic design is an inefficient way to make a point, what about the conventional political candidate?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Of Bathtubs, Bombshells and Boilerplate

The bathtub in question is the analogy Linda Booth Sweeney and John Sterman use to illustrate a dynamic stock-flow system, such as the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions (a flow) and the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (a stock). Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman stress the importance of the bathtub analogy in their new book, Climate Shock.

What's fascinating about the bathtub analogy is how consistently people get the dynamics of accumulation wrong. Or at least how often business school graduate students with backgrounds in science, technology, math and economics get it wrong. Sterman has pioneered a cottage industry publishing articles about the inability of large numbers of students to correctly identify the effects of flow variations on stock levels. A frequent source of error is something Booth Sweeney and Sterman call "correlation heuristic": students often expect that changes in stock will have the same shape as changes in flow. 
This common error has implications for people's attitudes about the action and policy needed to mitigate climate change, Booth Sweeney and Sterman point out. According to the correlation heuristic logic, many people would assume that a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would directly translate into less greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. It doesn't.

A bombshell dud

A few weeks ago, Scientific American called the International Energy Agency's announcement a week earlier that global GHG emissions for the generation of energy were unchanged in 2014 from 2013 a "bombshell" that "flew in the face of established economic wisdom." The article went on to point out that scientists had "mixed opinions" about the long term significance of this momentary and sector-limited decoupling of emissions from GDP growth. Some thought it was a hopeful sign that decoupling is already happening. Others warned that emissions were likely to resume their upward trend in 2015.

The article neglected to mention that even if total global emissions were to remain flat for years to come, the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere would continue to increase relentlessly. Annual emissions would need to be cut to around half their current levels just to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at current levels. That's the difference between stocks and flows.

Happy talk about decoupling GDP growth from resource consumption and waste generation to achieve "green growth" ignores this crucial distinction. Even the more sober "prosperity without growth" critique that highlights the huge disparity between relative decoupling and absolute decoupling ignores this distinction. Accumulation is the bottom line. No mitigation without disaccumulation.

From shocks to stocks and flows... to lumps

The boilerplate is not Paul Guinan's imaginary steampunk contraption -- shown at left -- but the proverbial "fixed amount of work to be done" which has performed oh-so-much work for lazy journalists and economists assuaging those unfounded fears about unemployment that emanate from the economic illiterati. Come to think of it, though, a make-believe robot makes a good mascot for an oft-told tale about a make-believe fallacy. 

Do the erring graduate students in Sterman's and Booth Sweeney's experiments assume there is a fixed amount of water in the bathtub? No, they don't. They realize that the change in flow of water into the tub affects the accumulation of stock in some way. But they systematically mis-specify the timing and magnitude of the effects.

What happens if we dial back the preposterous "fixed amount of work" assertion of the lump-of-labor fallacy claim to a more plausible "correlation heuristic"? Instead of assuming that there is only so much work to go 'round, the benighted Luddites, trade unionists and other economic populists might be suspected merely of committing the more common error of assuming that job losses in the economy as a whole are homologous to losses in a particular trade as the result of labor-saving technology. From a distance the two fallacies may appear indistinguishable. But there is a difference -- several differences, actually.

For starters, the correlation heuristic has been experimentally documented, not just asserted. Evidence trumps mere allegation. Secondly, the heuristic is not as obviously preposterous as the belief in a fixed amount of work. It seems more likely that people -- even Luddites -- would make a plausible error than an implausible one. But perhaps most importantly, the correlation heuristic error may pertain equally to those who allege the fallacy as to those who are alleged to commit it.

How so? Economists making the lump-of-labor fallacy claim insist that the price mechanism automatically adjusts the demand for labor to accommodate changes in the supply of labor. In terms of the bathtub analogy, this is the same as saying that the outflow of the drain self-adjusts to correlate with the inflow from the faucet. One can indeed imagine a device that could accomplish this feat -- a bulb, floating on the surface of the water, attached by a chain of a given length to a plug in an auxiliary drain, such that when the water rises above a certain level, the floating bulb pulls the plug out of the auxiliary drain.

It could work...

Unfortunately, as Mr. Keynes explained long ago, the propensity to consume doesn't float like a bulb on the surface of income. The economists' cherished notion of equilibrium remains a heuristic and nothing more. The pot has been calling the kettle black.

Out of the bathtub and into the frying pan

Why does the Sandwichman keep harping on this arcane specimen of journalistic and economic boilerplate? Because heuristics aside, there are statistical series that seriously, relentlessly correlate: energy consumption and hours of paid employment. Energy intensity per dollar of industrial production has declined for nearly a century. That's relative decoupling. Energy intensity per hour of paid employment does not decline. Greenhouse gas emissions per hour of paid employment does not decline. There is no relative decoupling, let alone absolute decoupling or -- sustainable pie in the sky -- disaccumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere.

To cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, we must cut hours of paid employment at least in half. What would John Sterman say to that?
With a few important exceptions (the work of Herman Daly and colleagues, e.g., Daly and Townsend 1993 ; see also Princen et al. 2002 ; Meadows et al. 2004 ; DeGraaf et al. 2005 ; Whybrow 2005 ; Victor 2008 ; Schor 2010 ), most of the research, teaching, and popular discourse on sustainability continues to focus on technological solutions—more energy, more resources, more efficient eco-friendly growth—while the actual leverage point—voluntarily limiting our consumption—remains largely undiscussable, particularly among our business and political leaders.
DeGraaf 2005, Victor 2008 and Schor 2010, by the way, all prescribe reductions of working time as key to reducing emissions. Wagner and Weitzman on Sterman's bathtub analogy: "climate scientists -- and the rest of us -- would be well advised to remind ourselves daily of its significance." Paul Krugman on Martin Weitzman's fat tail analysis: "So what I end up with is basically Martin Weitzman’s argument: it’s the non-negligible probability of utter disaster that should dominate our policy analysis. And that argues for aggressive moves to curb emissions, soon "

  1. the possibility of disaster...
  2. the significance of the bathtub analogy...
  3. the actual leverage point... 
  4. measured rather than heuristic correlations