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Misleading with Numbers: It's Worse When the Government Does It

January 30, 2018 in Economics

By Gary Galles


By: Gary Galles

Major international comparisons have long concluded that Americans’ ability to effectively utilize mathematics is inadequate. Such conclusions divide students, parents, teachers and administrators into camps that share little more than blaming others for the problems. However, it is unclear whether all the finger-pointing indicates a real desire to overcome our innumeracy. In fact, we systematically misuse numbers to distort reality because we want to fool ourselves, making our ineptitude no surprise.

One of today’s most obvious misleading number games is grade inflation. Teachers have accommodated student desires for higher grades to the point that the median GPA of graduating college seniors has risen around a full grade point since it was about 2.2 in 1965. At some schools, almost everyone now gets As and Bs, and who is valedictorian has become a question of how many “perfect” students will share that title. Students have also pushed to allow A+ grades that count more.

High schools have gone even further. Many make advanced placement or community college courses worth an extra grade point. This has created a competition among students to take as many such GPA-padding courses as possible, especially ones they discover are actually easier than the corresponding high school courses. These and other policies (e.g., statewide comparisons crafted to show that, as in Lake Woebegone, all children are above average) have, however, thrown away much of the useful information such evaluations once contained.

Price inflation is another form of ego-building by manipulating comparison numbers. For most of us, if we want to brag that, say, we make more than our parents did, enough years of inflation can make it so. On the other hand, older Americans use it to “prove” how much better things used to be (e.g., “I remember when bread was a nickel” or “I only paid $22,000 for my house”).

Statistics and percentages are subject to the same abuse. Statistics are routinely manipulated, as with attempts to make insignificant changes appear significant. Instead of saying some drug increases the probability of some form of cancer from 0.00001 to 0.00003, reports scream that it triples your risk (from almost zero to almost zero). And “giving it 100%” was once going all out, but that has now frequently been eclipsed by claims of giving it 110%, 150%, 200%, or even 1000%. I’m 1000000% sure such inflated hyperbole is misleading.

We manipulate clothing sizes. Adults want to feel thinner, so …read more


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It’s Time for Broadcasters to Start Confronting Their Anti-Right Bias

January 30, 2018 in Economics

By Ryan Bourne

Ryan Bourne

The psychologist professor Jordan Peterson is being heralded as
one of the world’s most foremost public intellectuals.

But his influence now stems from much more than his own Youtube
lectures or published works.

Upwards of 4.6m people have watched his recent half-hour
interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, in which Peterson expertly
dissects a range of trendy conventional wisdoms in an extensive

But aside from Peterson’s actual arguments about the
gender pay gap or equality of outcome, the interview seems to have
been consequential on another level — it is forcing broadcast
journalists to reconsider their interview techniques and inherent

Newman consistently asserted viewpoints onto Peterson that he
did not hold, oversimplified his arguments, sought to put words
into his mouth, and bluntly restated some of his conclusions absent
context or nuance.

When you have to decide
what stories to choose, which interviewees to select, and how to
interview them, it’s inevitable that your own priors slip

This became obvious not because it was unusual behaviour for
interviewers, but because Peterson himself is so articulate,
careful with words, and quick-on-his-feet. His calm responses
exposed an attitude among broadcasters that is sadly common.

Newman has since become the unlucky fall-guy for a type of bias
you see a lot, when interviewers seem to have some caricatured
preconceived notion of what their guest really believes.

Conservatives and libertarians who regularly appear on TV will
recognise this. It manifests itself in small, subtle biases during
interviews — everything from alluding to ulterior reasons for
your viewpoints, through to differences in how you are presented as
a person.

Let me give you some examples.

First, there’s the use of “health warnings”.
People who believe that the government should be spending less
money, or that economic equality should not be a collective aim, or
a host of other opinions not shared by the majority of broadcast
journalists are labelled before they even get a chance to

In many cases, these introductory labels may even be accurate,
but they are certainly not applied symmetrically.

My own research found that, on the BBC between 2010 and 2015,
the four main think tanks that advocate for free-market policies
were often given ideological warning labels, including
“free-market”, “centre-right”, and
“right-wing” (the Institute of Economic Affairs 22.1
per cent of the time, the Centre for Policy Studies 30.3 per cent,
Policy Exchange 41.7 per cent, and the Adam Smith Institute 59.5
per cent).

In contrast, the New Economics Foundation, probably the most
left-leaning policy think tank in the country, was only once
described as a “sustainability” think tank. Others such
as Demos and the IPPR see labels attached far less frequently.

Then there’s bias …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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Why States Don't Require Blood Tests for Marriages Anymore

January 30, 2018 in Economics

By Ryan McMaken


By: Ryan McMaken

In one of her more incoherent columns in 2011, Ann Coulter attacked then-presidential candidate Ron Paul for his laissez-faire position on marriage. Coulter praised government regulations imposed on marriage, stating that Paul’s position is “chicken-s**t” and “[t]here are reasons we have laws governing important institutions, such as marriage. As in landscaping, it’s never a good idea to remove a wall until you know why it was put there.”

Specifically, Coulter praised government mandated blood tests for marrying couples, stating “Under Paul’s plan, siblings could marry one another.” 

This statement was apparently intended as some sort of great “gotcha” comment. “Why, if it weren’t for government, we’d all marry our sisters!” is the implied sentiment. 

Coulter’s comment may seem like ancient history at this point, but her statement’s publication in major media outlets illustrates that even in recent years, many Americans still seem to be under the impression that mandatory blood tests are relatively common in the United States. 

They aren’t. At least, they aren’t anymore. 

Like so many invasive procedures mandated by governments, mandatory blood tests for couples seeking marriage licenses were a product of the age of eugenics and Progressive politics — two things that often go together. 

As Ruth C. Engs notes in The Progressive Era’s Health Reform Movement: “‘Racial improvement’ through positive eugenics, such as marriage to a healthy individual, [and] blood tests for syphilis prior to marriage … were promoted for improving the ‘race,’ thus leading to a healthier nation.”

The rights of individuals to marry whom they wished was thus swept aside in the name of “hygiene” and public health. Blood tests took their place along with prohibitions on interracial marriage as a means of “racial improvement.” 

Today, though, only one state — Montana — continues to require blood tests. Between 1980 and 2008, the remaining requirement for blood tests were abolished as certain elements of the Progressive public health philosophy lost influence, and as the perceived benefits of mandated blood tests were clearly far less than thought. 

Kasey S. Buckles, Melanie Guldi, and Joseph Price provide a concise summary of the movement: 

Historically, many states have required applicants for a marriage license to obtain a blood test. These tests were for venereal diseases (most commonly syphilis), for genetic disorders (such as sickle-cell anemia), or for rubella. The tests for syphilis were part of a broad public health campaign enacted in the late 1930s by U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran. Parran argued that premarital testing was necessary to inform …read more


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Trump Shows Us Why Its So Hard to "Drain the Swamp"

January 30, 2018 in Economics

By Paul-Martin Foss


By: Paul-Martin Foss

A year after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, analysts and commentators are assessing both his performance in the first year of his presidency as well as the outlook for the remainder of his first term. Entering office as a surprise winner and a political neophyte, many people didn’t know just what to expect from Trump. Would he do what he pledged to do as a candidate, or was his campaign rhetoric just a lot of hot air to bamboozle enough people into voting for him? One of Trump’s most popular promises was to “drain the swamp” and, while the president has tried to make some strides in that respect over the past year, there are concerning signs that any swamp draining may be coming to an end.

Personnel Is Policy

One of the primary rules in politics is “personnel is policy.” What a politician says he’ll do is less important than who he hires to implement his policies. In many cases, the people he hires may not agree with his policies and may work to surreptitiously (or not so surreptitiously) undermine and co-opt him. We certainly see this on Capitol Hill all the time, where class after class of freshman Congressmen enters Congress pledging to fix the way Congress works. Yet time after time they get corrupted by the system in Washington. Why is that? It’s because of the people they hire.

Coming into office often with no experience of how things operate in DC, they rely on their respective party apparatuses to staff their offices. They’ll hire Hill veterans as their chiefs of staff and legislative directors, staffers who are more concerned with the future of their careers and who consequently do everything they can not to upset party leadership so that they can maintain their ability to work on the Hill and work the government/lobbying revolving door. We’re seeing much the same thing happening in the White House today too, as Trump continues to hire establishment Republicans who wouldn’t be out of place in a Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or John McCain White House.

A prime example of that was Reince Priebus, President Trump’s first White House chief of staff. Trump’s initial appointment of Priebus as chief of staff was a confusing one, as Priebus’s establishment credentials all but guaranteed that he would try to bring as many establishment operatives to the White House as possible. By all accounts …read more


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The Uncomfortable Truth About Whole Foods and Amazon's Grocery Monopoly

January 29, 2018 in Blogs

By Jacob Bacharach, AlterNet

Late capitalism resembles Soviet logic, especially when it comes to consumer options.

Of all the derangements of contemporary American political culture—and there are many—the gormless liberal pursuit of a shapeless Russia conspiracy has got to be the dumbest. Anyone can see the actual outlines of contacts between the Trump family, business organization and campaign (as if there was any meaningful distinction separating the three): the perennially under-capitalized Trump long ago burned most of his bridges to the major organs of American finance and has, for most of the last couple of decades, depended on foreign cash from people and institutions even less concerned with due diligence than our own Wall Street casinos.

I have no doubt that some within the Russian state saw in Trump’s desperate need for cash a potential avenue to modest influence, but really, would these savage oligarchs be so foolish as to imagine that a man so mercurial, so petulant, so uninformed, and frankly so stupid would be the path to an actual realignment of Russo-American foreign policy? Did these evil geniuses, any more than any of the rest of us, actually imagine he would win?

Try telling that to the internet’s dedicated sleuths. A collection of speed-sniffers, hack novelists and extremely minor Clinton hangers-on, they have spun out an elaborate fantasia on a Russian theme. It is, I admit, almost majestic in its baroque intensity. Among other charmingly silly errors of basic fact, many seem convinced that Russia remains a communist state, that the hammer and sickle still fly over the Kremlin (which they frequently mix up with St. Basil’s Cathedral), that the KGB still exists.

It’s a weird conceit. Russia may be one of the least communist states in the world, and whatever its former spies and commissars may have once believed, they were perfectly pleased to rush in and make money once Western shock therapy broke the country and its economy like an egg. If any state is a successor to the latter days of the Soviet Union—gerontocratic, sclerotic, limping toward a crackup it can’t yet see coming—I’d argue it ain’t Russia at all. …read more


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Undercover Ink: How Spies Use Tattoos

January 29, 2018 in History

By Anna Felicity Friedman

 Richard Speck, accused slayer of eight student nurses. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Tattoos are more common in the workplace than ever before, but they can still be an occupational hazard. Particularly when your profession happens to be spy.

Spycraft often involves moving between legal and criminal worlds—and few things are as risky as being discovered while gathering intelligence. Common sense dictates that for spies, ink would serve as a means of easy recognition. Tattoos, after all, have long been used to determine identity, from verifying allegiances to specific gangs to providing clues in forensic investigations.

The identification of criminals has often hinged on distinguishing marks, from mundane burglars to famous perps like the Chicago mass murderer Richard Speck. When Speck was rushed to Cook County Hospital after a suicide attempt on July 17, 1966, he was recognized by a doctor who had seen his “Born to Raise Hell” tattoo publicized in the newspaper.

Richard Speck, accused slayer of eight student nurses. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Criminals have even been outed by the absence of crucial tattoos. In a famous 19th-century legal case, Australian national Arthur Orton reinvented himself as shipwreck victim Roger Tichborne, heir to a family fortune. Orton was revealed as an imposter, in part, due to his lack of certain tattoos that Tichborne was known to have worn.

A gruesome account of the consequences of being a tattooed spy comes from the 17th-century travel account of Scotsman William Lithgow. In his memoir, Lithgow tells the tale of being captured in Málaga, Spain, in 1620, where the governor  “swearing, cursed and said, ‘thou leyest like a Villane, thou art a spy and a traytor,’” and accused Lithgow of providing intelligence learned in Spain to a visiting English ship.  (The memoir wisely does not confirm if Lithgow was indeed spying). He was imprisoned and tortured at the hands of Spanish inquisitors, who tried to force a confession.

Part of Lithgow’s torture involved having a tattoo flayed from his skin. He had received this tattoo—a royal crown commemorating King James I of England—while traveling in the Holy Land. His cringe-worthy account begins: “The Corrigidor…gave direction, to teare a sunder, the name, and Crowne (as hee sayd) of that Hereticke King, and arch-enemy to the Holy Catholicke Church.”

Lithgow then proceeded to relate a method by which taut cords were used to excise a chunk of flesh out of his arm to remove the offensive mark “cutting the Crowne, sinewes and flesh to the bare bones.” Lithgow’s arm would …read more


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After Aziz Ansari, Here’s How We Can Make Sex Fun Again

January 29, 2018 in Blogs

By Liz Posner, AlterNet

Consent should be fun, not a politically correct topic delegated to liberal campuses.

Talking about sex can be hard. If the Aziz Ansari debate has taught us anything, it’s that many men and women lack the language to comfortably communicate what they want and don’t want from a sexual encounter. Until now, conversations around consent have been largely delegated to liberal college campuses, in the domain of young activists, and have been a subject of much mockery among those on the right. Aziz Ansari’s case gives us a chance to change that. There really is a way to make consent something ordinary men and women actually want to practice in their own lives. No one wants to be responsible for the worst night of somebody's life, after all. 

People are understandably uneasy about discussing consent alongside the current wave of allegations of sexual misconduct and assault. For years, conservatives have mocked consent advocates and rolled their collective eyes at “yes mean yes” laws. Many people who agree that Harvey Weinstein is a villain are skeptical about Ansari (and the two cases are admittedly very different). Even left-leaning mainstream media has gotten in the game now: the New York Times published an op-ed calling the Aziz Ansari episode “bad sex,” and the Washington Post has written that the #MeToo movement “should give one pause.” 

Putting aside the important conversations about what kinds of allegations will hold up in a court of law, it’s a good time to remember that talking about sex shouldn’t be so bleak. Asking for consent isn't supposed to feel weird or unnatural. Activists promoting consent frequently claim it can make sex better. Nicole Mazzeo, founder of Pleasure Pie, a Boston-based activist group that promotes sex positivity, agrees that being asked “Do you want to do this?” during sex is a turn-on. “Sometimes I forget to ask myself what I want, so that increases my enjoyment,” she says. 

Sex, according to Mazzeo, “needs to be mutual, enthusiastic. When you’re being sexual with someone, everyone should be excited about it …read more


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Marriage Licenses: Alabama Legislature Moves Toward Less Government Meddling

January 29, 2018 in Economics

By Ryan McMaken


By: Ryan McMaken

According to a variety of sources, Alabama's state legislature may “end marriage licenses” if a bill now being heard in the legislature goes forward.

On it's surface, this would certainly appear to be a step in the right direction. The idea that the state should be in a position to decide who can be married — and who cannot be — requires a high degree of trust in the state and its ability to regulate and control societal institutions that ought to be regarded as far beyond the state's level of competence.

As Andrew Syrios has noted, the government takeover of the institution — in the West, at least — is largely a modern invention1:

The institution of marriage has been a bedrock of civilization, but that had nothing to do with government. In fact, it’s important to note that governments didn’t become involved in the institution until relatively recently. And once involved, their role has been far from benevolent. Stephanie Coontz describes the history as follows:

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

In the American colonies, marriages were required to be registered, but that was about it. Then came a combination of Jim Crow and the Eugenics movement and wise bureaucrats decided they needed to direct the decisions of their benighted citizenry.

In practice, though, what would a “legislative fix” abolishing government marriage really look like?

That remains unclear, although it seems that the Alabama legislature is taking a crack at it.

According to The Montgomery Advertiser: a new process of registering marriages would replace marriage licenses …read more


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The President’s Annual State of the Union Address, Explained

January 29, 2018 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

President Franklin Delano delivers his 1941 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. (Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

These days, the State of the Union—the yearly speech by the U.S. president in front of the two houses of Congress, giving his view on the state of the nation and his legislative goals for the year—is as familiar a late January tradition as failing New Year’s resolutions and playoff football. But though its roots go all the way back to the nation’s founding, the State of the Union as we know it is a thoroughly modern tradition.

As President Donald Trump prepares to address Congress for his 2018 State of the Union address, take a look back at the history of this high-profile presidential tradition.


Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

According to the National Archives, George Washington first fulfilled this particular presidential duty on January 8, 1870, when he addressed the new Congress in the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall in New York City (then the U.S. capital). But Thomas Jefferson, the third president, chose to give his annual message to Congress in writing rather than make the trek to the Capitol—kicking off a tradition that would last nearly a century.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson decided to buck that tradition. Shortly after his inauguration, Wilson went to Capitol Hill to make a speech about tariffs, becoming the first president since John Adams to presume to address Congress directly, on its own turf. That December, Wilson returned before Congress to give the first modern State of the Union address (though it wouldn’t officially be called that until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency).

President Franklin Delano delivers his 1941 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. (Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)


The Constitution put into place a deliberate separation of powers between the three branches of the federal government, tasking the legislative branch with making the nation’s laws, the executive branch with enforcing them and the judicial branch with interpreting and applying them.

But Wilson, a Progressive Democrat, believed the nation would benefit from a more active, visible president working alongside Congress in the lawmaking process. By choosing to deliver his annual message directly …read more


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Donald Trump Is Even More Clueless About Climate Change Than You Think

January 29, 2018 in Blogs

By Lorraine Chow, EcoWatch

A new interview with Piers Morgan exposes the president in all his ignorance.

President Trump, notorious for his views on climate change, again said something about the topic that's the opposite of what's actually happening.

“The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they're setting records,” POTUS told host Piers Morgan during an interview on UK television network ITV broadcast Sunday.

Well, the polar ice caps are indeed setting records—for melting. Here's a GIF showing the extent of the frightening sea ice loss in the Arctic from 1979-2016.

And here's a graph that NASA released last year showing how sea ice extent has sunk to record lows at both poles.

These line graphs plot monthly deviations and overall trends in polar sea ice from 1979 to 2017 as measured by satellites. The top line shows the Arctic; the middle shows Antarctica; and the third shows the global, combined total. The graphs depict how much the sea ice concentration moved above or below the long-term average. (They do not plot total sea ice concentration.) Arctic and global sea ice totals have moved consistently downward over 38 years. Antarctic trends are more muddled, but they do not offset the great losses in the Arctic.Joshua Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory

After the ITV interview, ten different climate scientists contacted by the Associated Press said Trump was wrong about climate change.

“Clearly President Trump is relying on alternative facts to inform his views on climate change. Ice on the ocean and on land are both disappearing rapidly, and we know why: increasing greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels that trap more heat and melt the ice,” Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis explained.

Trump's comment was similar to one he tweeted in 2014: “the POLAR ICE CAPS are at an all-time high, the …read more