Kevin Drum

Tales From City of Hope #12: I Am Bursting With White Blood Cells

| Mon May 4, 2015 12:12 PM EDT

Yesterday's white blood count was 0.2. Today's is 1.1. That's super duper exponential. Go, little stem cells, go!

Surely this deserves a bit of bonus catblogging. Of course it does.

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America's Big Trade Deals and the Case of the 4 Fishy Phone Calls

| Mon May 4, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from David Dayen, a veteran blogger and currently a regular contributor to Salon and The Fiscal Times, among other publications.

I was planning on commandeering Kevin's site to finally shape this place up and do some dogblogging, but management was, shall we say, unreceptive. So let's use this space to do what all great blogging is known for: pointless speculation!

I did a story for The New Republic looking back at the 1993 CNN debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot, showing how Gore's messages on selling NAFTA mirror Barack Obama's messages on selling the Trans-Pacific Partnership today. Both men claim that their progressive trade agreements differ from the raw deals of the past; that opponents were isolationist Luddites who want to return to some unrealistic pre-globalized world; and that this new deal would create a benchmark for global trade, which some Asian power (Japan or China, depending on the era) would take control of were their plan defeated.

But the debate itself is amazing for several reasons, not the least of which being that a sitting Vice President had to go on Larry King and take phone calls. Everyone remembers Perot saying "Can I finish" incessantly, so much so that it became a Dana Carvey tag line.  And maybe you remember Gore pulling out a picture of Smoot and Hawley and giving it to Perot as a present ("You can put it on your wall"). But come with me through this Internet rabbit hole and look at something else.

Ross Perot gets asked four questions from the phone lines. I have no knowledge about how they were screened. But these don't sound like regular people to me; they sound like plants. You can listen yourself:

43:45 The caller is from "Washington, DC." And he says, and I quote, "How can the US expect to compete on a long-term basis in an increasingly interdependent economic world, while Europe and the PacRim nations unite on their own respective trade alliance?" Who in the world talks like that? It reads like it came out of a Brookings Institution paper.

54:30 A expat caller from Zagreb, Croatia (!) asks Perot for specific answers on what he would do as an alternative to NAFTA. This happens to be a question Gore asked repeatedly throughout the debate.

1:01:35 This call comes from McLean, Virginia, the Washington suburb populated mostly by lobbyists. The caller coincidentally has statistics at the ready on electronic exports to Mexico ("nearly tripled" over the past five years, "worth about $6 billion), and demands that Perot agree that removing tariffs on these products will produce "high-tech, good-paying jobs" in America.

1:06:35 This is perhaps the weirdest call. An American woman "who has been living in Mexico City for many years" calls in, following up on Gore's claim that the Japanese would "take over" a free trade agreement with Mexico if NAFTA is defeated. "There are thousands of Japanese here. They are waiting. They are lurking! What are you people doing? Why-" At this point she gets cut off, but Gore repeats the question and adds a line the caller never said: "Why don't you wake up?"

This is weird. The questions not only sound way too hyper-informed and scripted, they dovetail with every talking point Gore used in the debate, from how passing NAFTA was critical to setting a benchmark for trade with the world, to how NAFTA would create jobs at home through rising exports to Mexico, to how Japan loomed to take advantage of any potential failure, to how Perot was just carping from the sidelines without his own plan.

It's a strong accusation to suggest these questions were planted, and honestly I have no idea. However, I did find an article from 1994 in some left-wing rag called Mother Jones, detailing a host of dirty tricks the Clinton Administration engaged in to blunt the influence of Ross Perot:

Last September 2, the day Perot was to appear on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," a White House adviser got on the horn to L.A. After chatting with a "Tonight Show" writer, he faxed some questions to Leno […]

(Perot co-author) Pat Choate claims the administration sent people to UWS rallies to "take notes" and "heckle" Perot. He also accuses the administration of manipulating the press: "Journalists are getting anti-Perot stuff in the mail," he says. "Most of it has no return address." (Several reporters who cover Perot say they have no knowledge of this, and the White House denies both charges.) […]

Last April 22, Perot appeared before the Senate Banking Committee to testify on NAFTA. The White House didn't like him testifying, and it liked even less the idea of C-Span televising his appearance. So, Choate claims, a White House aide called Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who called Brian Lamb, the chairman of C-Span. Some sort of deal was struck, and Perot's testimony never graced the airwaves.

Because Mother Jones is a responsible publication, the author added that the rumor about C-SPAN could be false, but that it showed how the Clinton White House seized on Perot's natural paranoia to undermine him in the trade debate. Throwing in suspicious-sounding questions on CNN could serve the same purpose.

We're 22 years on from this event, and investigating the provenance of these fishy phone calls would be somewhat irrelevant. Four phone calls were not the reason NAFTA passed; there's no "NAFTA-ghazi" conspiracy theory to be had. But I nevertheless find it fascinating. Has anyone ever studied this? Does it just sound odd to my modern ears, or is there more there? When Kevin Drum ends blog posts with a series of questions, is it a clever device or does he genuinely want to ask his audience for answers?

Tales From City of Hope #11: We Have Liftoff

| Sun May 3, 2015 1:53 PM EDT

Yesterday's white blood count went from just under 0.1 to just over 0.1. Let's call it 0.05 growth. Today's count is 0.2. That's growth of 0.1.

And that, my friends, is exponential growth. Sure, we could use another data point or three. And some more significant digits. And if we're being picky, a coefficient or two. But screw that. To this Caltech1 dropout, it looks like exponential growth has kicked in. Booyah!

In more visually exciting news, I know you all want to see my shiner, don't you? I can feel the bloodlust all the way from my hospital bed. So here it is, you ghouls. As usual with these things, it looks a lot worse than it feels. In fact, I can barely feel it all. But it's clear evidence that, yes, the bathroom really is the most dangerous room in the house.

1Did you know that the proper short form for California Institute of Technology is Caltech, not CalTech? They've been trying for decades to get the rest of the world to go along, but with sadly limited success.

Tales From City of Hope #10: Rebound Is Here!

| Sat May 2, 2015 1:19 PM EDT

Yesterday my white blood count was <0.1. How much less? No telling, but my doctor called it an "honorary" 0.1.

But! Today my count is 0.1. Not much difference, you say, but it doesn't matter. It's higher than yesterday, and that means my transplanted stem cells are busily engrafting themselves and morphing into various blood products. Progress will be slow at first, but Friday was officially my bottom. Within a few days, my counts should start taking off much more rapidly. Huzzah.

In less good news, I slipped in the bathroom last night and got a pulled neck muscle and a black eye for my trouble. All I need now is a swastika tattoo and I'll have the whole skinhead look down cold.

How Humans Can Keep Superintelligent Robots From Murdering Us All

| Sat May 2, 2015 6:30 AM EDT
Ultron, an artificially intelligent robot

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today, we're honored to present a post from Bill Gardner, a health services researcher in Ottawa, Ontario, and a blogger at The Incidental Economist.

This weekend, you, I, and about 100 million other people will see Avengers: Age of Ultron. The story is that Tony Stark builds Ultron, an artificially intelligent robot, to protect Earth. But Ultron decides that the best way to fulfill his mission is to exterminate humanity. Violence ensues.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that sometime in the future a machine will achieve "general intelligence," that is, the ability to solve problems in virtually all domains of interest—including artificial intelligence.

You will likely dismiss the premise of the story. But in a book I highly recommend, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that sometime in the future a machine will achieve "general intelligence," that is, the ability to solve problems in virtually all domains of interest. Because one such domain is research in artificial intelligence, the machine would be able to rapidly improve itself.

The abilities of such a machine would quickly transcend our abilities. The difference, Bostrom believes, would not be like that between Einstein and a cognitively disabled person. The difference would be like that between Einstein and a beetle. When this happens, machines can and likely would displace humans as the dominant life form. Humans may be trapped in a dystopia, if they survive at all.

Competent people—Elon Musk, Bill Gates—take this risk seriously. Stephen Hawking and physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek worry that we are not thinking hard enough about the future of artificial intelligence.

So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilization sent us a text message saying, "We'll arrive in a few decades," would we just reply, "OK, call us when you get here—we'll leave the lights on"? Probably not—but this is more or less what is happening with AI…little serious research is devoted to these issues…All of us…should ask ourselves what can we do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.

There are also competent people who dismiss these concerns. University of California-Berkeley philosopher John Searle argues that intelligence requires qualities that computers lack, including consciousness and motivation. This doesn't mean that we are safe from artificially intelligent machines. Perhaps in the future killer drones will hunt all humans, not just Al Qaeda. But Searle claims that if this happens, it won't be because the drones reflected on their goals and decided that they needed to kill us. It will be because human beings have programmed drones to kill us.

Searle has made this argument for years, but has never offered a reason why it will always be impossible to engineer machines with autonomy and general intelligence. If it's not impossible, we need to look for possible paths of human evolution in which we safely benefit from the enormous potential of artificial intelligence.

What can we do? I'm a wild optimist. In my lifetime I have seen an extraordinary expansion of human capabilities for creation and community. Perhaps there is a future in which individual and collective human intelligence can grow rapidly enough that we keep our place as free beings. Perhaps humans can acquire cognitive superpowers.

But the greatest challenge of the future will not be the engineering of this commonwealth, but rather its governance. So we have to think big, think long-term, and live in hope. We need to cooperate as a species and steer our technological development so that we do not create machines that displace us. At the same time, we need to protect ourselves from the expanding surveillance of our current governments (such as China's Great Firewall or the NSA). I doubt we can achieve this enhanced community unless we also find a way to make sure the superpowers of enhanced cognition are available to everyone. Maybe the only alternative to dystopia will be utopia.

If Black People Lived As Long As White People, Election Results Would Be Very Different

| Fri May 1, 2015 6:15 PM EDT
Protesters near Boston Police headquarters on April 29.

With the mortality rate for black Americans about 18 percent higher than it is for white Americans, premature black deaths have affected the results of US elections, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Oxford.

The study, published in Social Science & Medicine and highlighted on Friday by the UK-based New Scientist, shows how the outcomes of elections between 1970 and 2004—including the presidential race between John Kerry and George W. Bush—might have been affected if there hadn't been such a disparity in the death rate. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8.5 million black people died during that 35-year period. But if the mortality rates had been comparable, an additional 2.7 million black people would have been alive, and of those, an estimated 1 million would have cast votes in the 2004 election. Bush likely still would have won that race. But some state-level races might have turned out differently: The results would have been reversed in an estimated seven US Senate elections and 11 gubernatorial elections during the 35-year period, the researchers found, assuming that the hypothetical additional voters had cast their ballots in line with actual black voters, who tend to overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.

And that's before even getting to incarceration. Additional elections potentially would have turned out differently if voting-age black Americans who were previously convicted of felonies had been able to cast a ballot. As New Scientist explains:

Accounting for people disenfranchised by felony convictions would have likely reversed three other senate seats. In at least one state, Missouri, accounting for just excess deaths or felony disenfranchisement would not have been sufficient to reverse the senate election – but both sources of lost votes taken together would have.

While everyone's attention right now is on racial injustice in the context of policing, one of the study's authors, Arline Geronimus, noted that most premature black deaths were linked to chronic health conditions that afflict black people more than white people. "If you're losing a voting population, you're losing the support for the policies that would help that population," she told New Scientist. "As long as there's this huge inequality in health and mortality, there's a diminished voice to speak out against the problem."

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Friday Cat Blogging - May 1 2015

| Fri May 1, 2015 3:35 PM EDT

With Kevin concentrating on his cancer treatment, we've rounded up some big writers to keep things rolling on the blog by contributing posts in his honor. But let's be honest: nothing's bigger on the internet than cats. So in addition to appearances from Hopper and Hilbert, we're taking this chance to introduce you to some other cats behind the people at Mother Jones.

Today, that's Olga, who lives in Oakland with Lynnea Wool, our senior staff accountant. Among many other things, Lynnea is responsible for (full disclosure) making sure I get my paycheck. So I'd better blog carefully.

Olga was the runt of a litter of Himalayan Persians when Lynnea adopted her one fine day seven years ago. Since then, they've had many happy moments. She just loves to have her armpits scratched:

For a special treat, her cat-mom will put a small piece of cheese—the stinkier the better—straight on her tongue.

This longhair needs regular trims, and I was very impressed to hear about Lynnea's method. While Olga's sleeping on her side, Lynnea will cut one half. Olga wakes up looking something like Two-Face, and roams around like that until Lynnea happens to catch her sleeping on her other side. Wish we had a picture of that! But you'll have to agree this one's a pretty good consolation prize:

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 1 May 2014

| Fri May 1, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

For humans, May Day is a time to celebrate worker solidarity. For Hilbert, it's time to show how jealous he is that Hopper fits under the desk and he doesn't. As you can guess, however, he got bored quickly and headed over to the sofa for a snooze. Hopper, ever victorious, slithered out with no resistance and licked her paws in triumph.

The GOP Is Trying to Give the 25 Richest Americans a $334 Billion Tax Break

| Fri May 1, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

In mid April, the Republican-controlled House voted to repeal the estate tax, which, despite the GOP's "death tax" messaging, affects only the superrich: Of the nearly 2.6 million Americans who died in 2013, just 4,687 had estates flush enough to trigger the tax. That's because the bar to qualify for the estate tax is quite generous: The first $5.43 million of an individual's wealth is exempt from the tax, and that amount goes up to $10.86 million for married couples. After that point, the tax rate is 40 percent.

The Center for Effective Government (CEG) calculated how much the 25 richest Americans would save if this repeal on the estate tax were to become law. The final tab: $334 billion.

Center for Effective Government

That's a lot of cash! CEG calculated that $334 billion in taxes would be enough to:

  1. Cut the nation's student debt by one-third: The total could be distributed by giving $25,000 in debt relief to each of the 13 million Americans trying to pay off student loans.
  2. Repair or replace every single deficient school AND bridge in America: Give kids more resources for a better education, and get the country's structurally deficient bridges up to snuff.
  3. Give every new US baby a chunk of change: $1,000 at birth, and then $500 a year until their 18th birthday, making a $10,000 nest egg to put toward education, a home, or other opportunities.
  4. Repair all leaking wastewater systems, sewage plumbing, and dams: Thus improving the health of lakes, rivers, and oceans nationwide.

Of course, it's unlikely the tax will actually get repealed. Even if the bill makes it past the Senate, President Obama has promised to veto it. But as the election season heats up with economic inequality at its forefront, the repercussions of the bill are likely to be more political than financial. As Robert J. Samuelson writes at the Washington Post, the GOP has "handed Democrats a priceless campaign gift: a made-for-TV (and Internet) video depicting Republicans as lackeys of the rich."

Freddie Gray and the Real Lesson of Urban Policing

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 11:58 AM EDT

The Washington Post features a simple headline today that encompasses decades of personal tragedy and public policy disaster:

Freddie Gray’s life a study in the sad effects of lead paint on poor blacks

When Freddie Gray was 22 months old, he had a tested blood lead level of 37 micrograms per deciliter. This is an absolutely astronomical amount. Freddie never even had the slightest chance of growing up normally. Lead poisoning doomed him from the start to a life of heightened aggression, poor learning abilities, and weak impulse control. His life was a tragedy set in motion the day he was born.

But even from the midst of my chemo haze, I want to make a short, sharp point about this that goes far beyond just Gray's personal tragedy. It's this: thanks both to lead paint and leaded gasoline, there were lots of teenagers like Freddie Gray in the 90s. This created a huge and genuinely scary wave of violent crime, and in response we turned many of our urban police forces into occupying armies. This may have been wrong even then, but it was hardly inexplicable. Decades of lead poisoning really had created huge numbers of scarily violent teenagers, and a massive, militaristic response may have seemed like the only way to even begin to hold the line.

But here's the thing: that era is over. Individual tragedies like Freddie Gray are still too common, but overall lead poisoning has plummeted. As a result, our cities are safer because our kids are fundamentally less dangerous. To a large extent, they are now normal teenagers, not lead-poisoned predators.

This is important, because even if you're a hard-ass law-and-order type, you should understand that we no longer need urban police departments to act like occupying armies. The 90s are gone, and today's teenagers are just ordinary teenagers. They still act stupid and some of them are still violent, but they can be dealt with using ordinary urban policing tactics. We don't need to constantly harass and bully them; we don't need to haul them in for every petty infraction; we don't need to beat them senseless; and we don't need to incarcerate them by the millions.

We just don't. We live in a different, safer era, and it's time for all of us—voters, politicians, cops, parents—to get this through our collective heads. Generation Lead is over, thank God. Let's stop pretending it's always and forever 1993. Reform is way overdue.