Lunchtime Photo

This photo has been run through a Photoshop filter, and I was sort of taken by the final result. It's certainly very colorful, and sometimes that's all you need to get through the day. Can anyone guess what it was originally a picture of? It was taken a couple of days ago. Answer tomorrow in Friday Catblogging.

I didn't realize that Charles Murray was still talking about his belief that African-Americans are genetically less intelligent than whites. But he is. Over at Vox, Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett report on a two-hour podcast he did recently with Sam Harris:

The consensus, he says, is that IQ exists; that it is extraordinarily important to life outcomes of all sorts; that it is largely heritable; and that we don’t know of any interventions that can improve the part that is not heritable. The consensus also includes the observation that the IQs of black Americans are lower, on average, than that of whites, and — most contentiously — that this and other differences among racial groups is based at least in part in genetics.

I've read The Bell Curve, so I'm not just talking out of my ass about it. And it's a weird book. The vast bulk of it is about the first five bolded items above, which really are part of the scientific consensus. You can argue the details, but it's safe to say that intelligence is real; it's important; it's partly genetically heritable; it's difficult to change; and blacks score lower on IQ tests than whites. The evidence in The Bell Curve on these scores is fine. But then the book gets to a couple of chapters about the genetic basis of the black-white IQ gap, and suddenly the evidence gets very, very fuzzy. In fact, I want to share a brief boxed item included on page 310:

The German Story

One of the intriguing studies arguing against a large genetic component to IQ differences came about thanks to the Allied occupation of Germany following World War II, when about 4,000 illegitimate children of mixed racial origin were born to German women. A German researcher tracked down 264 children of black servicemen and constructed a comparison group of 83 illegitimate offspring of white occupation troops. The results showed no overall difference in average IQ. The actual IQs of the fathers were unknown, and therefore a variety of selection factors cannot be ruled out. The study is inconclusive but certainly consistent with the suggestion the B/W difference is largely environmental.

In one sense, I applaud Murray and his co-author for including this. At the same time, they spend no time engaging with it in the text of the book. But they should: it's only one study, and as they suggest, it has some missing pieces. Still, it's one of the very few studies of African-American and white American children raised in middle-class environments outside of America. The fact that it shows no difference between black and white children is pretty significant—especially since it's highly unlikely that any of these children received any kind of special treatment.

I don't want to pretend that this study is definitive. It's not. But a single disconfirming case is all you need to demonstrate that the black-white IQ gap is entirely non-biological, and this one is pretty close.

It's not impossible that there's a biological difference in intelligence between blacks and whites. That's fundamentally a scientific question, and it hasn't been conclusively proven one way or the other. But the effect of American culture on blacks is so toxic that it's all but impossible to believe that any conclusions drawn in a study of Americans can ever be free of environmental contamination. After all, the Irish used to have low IQs. Jews used to have low IQs. And everyone was quite sure it was due to biology. But when anti-Irish and anti-Semitic animus died out, their IQs increased to normal levels. Amazing, isn't it?

Maybe eventually Murray will find his long-sought gene complexes for cognitive ability, and will be able to show that there really is a genetic difference between blacks and whites. But I doubt it. The evidence just doesn't point in that direction. Maybe in ten or twenty years we'll know for sure.

This is getting a lot of snarky play today:

President Donald Trump has canceled a planned visit and speech at the ancient mountain fortress of Masada in Israel after authorities told him that he could not land his helicopter on top of the UNESCO-listed site....Unlike former presidents who have made the trip, such as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Trump declined to land the helicopter at a base of the historic site and then take the cable car up, preferring to cancel the visit altogether.

Trump's Razor, of course, suggests that Trump is just being an asshole. But it's also possible that he has acrophobia in some form or another, and doesn't like the idea of swinging in the air from a cable for three minutes. I don't suppose Trump would ever admit to such a weakness, so we'll never know unless someone leaks about it. And what are the odds of that in this buttoned-down administration?

Anyway, it's possible there's a benign explanation for this. Just saying.

This would normally be big news, but it's been overshadowed by all things Trump:

WASHINGTON – Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, including his government security forces and several armed individuals, violently charged a group of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence here on Tuesday night in what the police characterized as “a brutal attack.”

Eleven people were injured, including a police officer, and nine were taken to a hospital, the Metropolitan Police chief, Peter Newsham, said at a news conference on Wednesday. Two Secret Service agents were also assaulted in the melee, according to a federal law enforcement official.

The current story from Erdogan is that his folks were acting in "self defense," which is absurd. Eyewitness accounts, along with the testimony of Washington DC's police chief, confirm that the protest was loud but peaceful until Erdogan's goons waded in and attacked.

This was all happening while President Trump was hosting a visit with Erdogan in the White House. Naturally they haven't said anything about this. Hell, Trump probably wishes he had a security force that would do stuff like this.

I don't have anything non-obvious to say about this. The descent of Turkey into a strongman state is discouraging, and there's no sign that it's going to turn around any time soon. I just didn't want to let this pass without at least a mention.

Poor President Trump:

This makes sense. If Trump is going to be the victim of a witch hunt, you just know it has to be the greatest of all time.

And we'd like to help make it even greater! We've already met our goal for matching gifts from the Glaser Progress Foundation, which will kickstart our muckraking fund to investigate the Trump-Russia connection. But we want to keep going. Our overall goal is $500,000, and we're getting close to that. Read more about it here. Or go straight to the donation page here. If Trump wants a witch hunt, let's give it to him.

The New York Times warns us that household debt has made a comeback:

Americans have now borrowed more money than they had at the height of the credit bubble in 2008, just as the global financial system began to collapse. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Wednesday that total household debt in the United States had reached a new peak — $12.7 trillion — in the first three months of the year, another milestone in the long, slow recovery of the nation’s economy.

The growing debt level...suggests a rising optimism about economic growth among banks and other lenders....Yet the borrowing peak also signals the potential for new risks to the economy....debt binge...stifle economic growth...ballooning debt...new wave of defaults...“This is not a marker we should be super excited to get back to,” said Heather Boushey, the executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a liberal think tank.

You know what else has increased over the past decade? That's right: the population of the United States. Also GDP. Also inflation. And you know what's decreased? Interest rates. It's misleading clickbait reporting to write about a dumb, nominal, aggregate number like total debt just because you can get a good news hook out of the fact that it's surpassed its previous peak. In fact, the Federal Reserve explicitly warned against this when it released these figures yesterday. Instead, you should take a look at how much households are actually spending to pay off their debt. Here it is:

Debt service has not only been flat for nearly five years, it's been flat at its lowest level in 40 years. If you want to write about growing student debt, as the Times article does, that's fine. But overall household debt hasn't "made a comeback." It's at historically low levels and, at the moment, doesn't show the slightest sign of increasing.

Another hour, another Trump scandal. I can't keep up. Here's the latest timeline on Mike Flynn. The three items in italics are new:

August 9: Flynn is hired by the Turkey-U.S. Business Council for $600,000 to help repair Turkey's image in the US. However, Flynn chooses not to register as a foreign agent on the pretext that he's just lobbying for a business group that has nothing to do with the Turkish government.

November 18: Trump names Flynn as his National Security Advisor.

November 30: The Justice Department opens an investigation into Flynn's lobbying activities. Flynn keeps this news to himself for over a month.

December: Flynn has repeated contacts with various Russian officials but doesn't tell anybody.

January 4: Flynn tells the incoming White House counsel that he is under investigation. Nothing happens.

January 10: In a meeting with Susan Rice, Flynn puts the kibosh on an Obama plan to use Kurdish help to take the ISIS-occupied town of Raqqa—something that his erstwhile client Turkey is opposed to. McClatchy reports: "Members of Congress, musing about the tangle of legal difficulties Flynn faces, cite that exchange with Rice as perhaps the most serious: acting on behalf of a foreign nation — from which he had received considerable cash — when making a military decision. Some members of Congress, in private conversations, have even used the word “treason” to describe Flynn’s intervention, though experts doubt that his actions qualify." Still nothing happens.

January 26: Acting attorney general Sally Yates warns the White House that Flynn has lied about his contacts with Russian officials, which may have compromised him. Still nothing happens.

February 9: The Washington Post reveals Flynn's lies about his Russian contacts. Everything is now public.

February 13: Finally something happens. Trump fires Flynn.

February 14: Trump meets with FBI director James Comey and asks him to kill the investigation into Flynn.

March-April: Comey continues the investigation.

May 9: Trump fires Comey.

The new news here is that Trump knew about the FBI investigation far earlier than anyone has reported before. By the time Sally Yates alerted the White House to Flynn's lying, they had already been warned off Flynn by President Obama and they'd known about the FBI investigation for three weeks. Nonetheless, they did nothing until it all became public.

UPDATE: If you want to brush up with a more detailed—but still brief—timeline of events in the Trump-Russia affair, the LA Times has one here. It's a nice, quick read.

The Justice Department finally caved in and appointed a special counsel to investigate the Flynn/Manafort/Trump/Comey/Russia/etc. affair. Their choice is Robert Mueller, the FBI director before James Comey. Mueller, like Comey, is one of the heroes of the great Ashcroft hospital bed confrontation, so he's widely viewed as an upright guy. Before he gets too deep into the weeds, however, I'd like to lay out one piece of the case:

February: President Trump meets with James Comey about his future. In notes written right after the meeting, Comey says that Trump explicitly asked him to please drop the whole Russia investigation.

March: Comey declines to drop the investigation. In fact, he makes it clear to Congress and the public that the investigation exists and is serious.

April: Trump admits on national TV that his growing frustration with the Russia investigation led to his decision to fire Comey.

This is what happened. It's pretty simple. Trump asked the FBI director to kill an investigation into his friends, and then fired him when he refused. All the added detail in the world will never change this.

POSTSCRIPT: Just as an aside, one of the bizarre aspects of this case is that I suspect Trump never really thought he was doing anything wrong. Comey worked for him and he was making trouble for his friends, so of course he had to go. What's wrong with that? Trump probably doesn't even know what obstruction of justice is, and if he does he probably figures it doesn't apply to the president.

Last year, after a meeting with the Ukranian prime minister, the #2 Republican in the House turned to Paul Ryan and said, "There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump." That's from Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and it's apparently what he thought back in June after Trump had won the Republican nomination. Ryan quickly shushed him, but the Washington Post found out about it today:

When initially asked to comment on the exchange, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, said: “That never happened,” and Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, said: “The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.”

After being told that The Post would cite a recording of the exchange, Buck, speaking for the GOP House leadership, said: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor. No one believed the majority leader was seriously asserting that Donald Trump or any of our members were being paid by the Russians. What’s more, the speaker and leadership team have repeatedly spoken out against Russia’s interference in our election, and the House continues to investigate that activity.”

Good on Adam Entous of the Post for getting a response from both men before they knew he had a recording. It's good for the public to understand how shamelessly and effortlessly they'll flatly lie about anything they think they can get away with.

Anyway, the current explanation is that this was all just a big joke.1 That's also the latest excuse making the rounds for Trump asking James Comey to kill the Russia investigation.2 There sure are a lot of jokers in the Republican Party these days.

UPDATE: The transcript is here. McCarthy says, "There's...there's two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump...[laughter]...swear to God." Then there's more laughter. So yeah, it sounds like it was just a joke, though probably in a "funny cuz it's true" sort of sense.

1Actually, I can buy this. McCarthy's comment really does sound like dark humor. Still, even if he didn't mean it literally, it shows just what he thought about Trump and the Russians. In humor, veritas.

2This is pretty ridiculous in the case of Trump, since as near as I can tell he has no sense of humor and never laughs about anything. That's probably because he's too busy obsessing about how badly everyone treats him.

Lunchtime Photo

The neighborhood I live in is called Woodbridge, so naturally there has to be a wooden bridge that spans our little artificial lake. It's a fine looking bridge during the day, but I've never taken a picture of it at night—until now. This shot makes it look a lot more ominous than it really is, but it's what the camera captured. I didn't do any color fiddling in Photoshop. I took this photo about an hour after sunset, and to the naked carbon-based eye, there was only the slightest tinge of orange in a dark sky. But with a 4-second exposure, the silicon eye makes it look like Costa Mesa was going up in flames a few miles away. No worries, though: Costa Mesa was fine.