Heat and drought expose archaeological treasures in Britain, Ireland, and Switzerland

This summer has been extraordinarily hot and dry in much of Europe, including places where air conditioning is rare. It's been miserable for a lot of residents and tourists, but on the positive side, a side effect has been the discovery of some important historical sites, ranging from traces of very ancient structures in Ireland to a crashed plane that had been frozen in a Swiss glacier since World War 2. The following report originally aired August 31 on PBS Newshour:

Link: https://youtu.be/yV82r4IAjpg

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The decency of John McCain

Senator John McCain has died of the same illness that took the life of my youngest brother just short of two years ago. I disagreed with Senator McCain about a lot of things and like all of us he was a flawed human being. But he also many times showed basic decency I always admired. Here are a couple of very brief memorable examples:

Link: https://youtu.be/JIjenjANqAk

That the current occupant of the White House could not bring himself to show even common basic respect to Senator McCain at the end of his life is unfortunately just another in series of demonstrations of Trump's pathetic lack of character. Even after McCain's death he offered weak condolences to the senator's family but not one word about the man himself.

Here's a succinct summary of John McCain's accomplishments in public service from PBS NewsHour. It's worth seeing even if you're already familiar with the highlights of his career.

Link: https://youtu.be/A9-LhI9He3Q

Finally, veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield recalls McCain's life and his strengths and flaws (and in response to a question briefly contrasts him with Trump):

Link: https://youtu.be/R6okxSbJ6yw

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Refugees: Threat or menace?

Dina Gusovsky is a writer for NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers who came to the United State with her parents in the 1980s. Like many immigrants today the family was escaping a dangerous situation in their home country. She talks about that here, and about more recent refugees as well:

Link: https://youtu.be/UIzn_8V7nHU

The quotation from Ronald Reagan that she mentions came from his Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy" issued July 30, 1981, less that six months into his first term. You can click on the title to read the whole thing, but here are three key paragraphs:

Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands. No free and prosperous nation can by itself accommodate all those who seek a better life or flee persecution. We must share this responsibility with other countries.


• At the same time, we must ensure adequate legal authority to establish control over immigration: to enable us, when sudden influxes of foreigners occur, to decide to whom we grant the status of refugee or asylee; to improve our border control; to expedite (consistent with fair procedures and our Constitution) return of those coming here illegally; to strengthen enforcement of our fair labor standards and laws; and to penalize those who would knowingly encourage violation of our laws. The steps we take to further these objectives, however, must also be consistent with our values of individual privacy and freedom.


• Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status. At the same time, in so doing, we must not encourage illegal immigration.

Lots of people I've listened to about this have very strong opinions that are too often based on major misconceptions. Border security and deportations drastically increased under Obama, for example, but a lot of people think otherwise. The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. is not much different from 20 years ago. It isn't economically feasible to deport everybody who came here against the law. Both the direct costs and the negative practical consequences would be enormous. (Do the math.) So-called "chain migration" doesn't produce a flood of immigrants because only a limited number of immediate family members qualify and even for them the cases generally take years to process. And so on. I agree that we should have secure borders and that some unauthorized immigrants ought to be locked up, but in a lot more cases it makes far more economical and practical sense (not to mention being more just) to use fines (which bring in money) rather than imprisonment (which costs arms and legs).

This is too big a subject for one post, so for now I'll leave it here.

[Updated 2018 August 18 to fix several typos.]

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Economic output per person in the U.S. versus other countries

I just ran across an interesting article published on the conservative American Enterprise Institute's website in 2016. Based on data from 2014, the author, Mark J. Perry, compares gross domestic product per capita of U.S. states and a number of foreign countries. To make the comparison more meaningful, he uses GDP numbers adjusted for price levels in those countries, sometimes called "Purchasing Power Parity," abbreviated "PPP."

A very important point to keep in mind: We're talking here about economic output, not income to individuals. In the middle decades of the 20th century workers took home a significant and reasonably steady fraction of the economic output they produced. That is, incomes rose along with worker productivity, but starting around 1980 their share began to fall and income became more and more concentrated at the top. This is happening all across the developed world, not just in the United States, but our wealth and income are more concentrated than in most developed countries.

The result is quite remarkable. Quoting:

As the chart demonstrates, most European countries (including Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium) if they joined the US, would rank among the poorest one-third of US states on a per-capita GDP basis, and the UK, France, Japan and New Zealand would all rank among America’s very poorest states, below No. 47 West Virginia, and not too far above No. 50 Mississippi. Countries like Italy, S. Korea, Spain, Portugal and Greece would each rank below Mississippi as the poorest states in the country.

Perry points out that this contradicts President Trump's claim that other countries are beating us economically:

When we hear from The Donald about how he wants to “make America great again,” because “we don’t win any more,” and about how “we don’t beat China or Japan in trade” and how those countries “kill us” in trade. When The Donald tells us that Mexico is “beating us economically” and “laughing at us,” maybe we should remind him that Mexico and China, as US states, would both be far below our poorest state — Mississippi — by 51% and 62% respectively for GDP per capita; and Japan would be barely above our poorest state — Mississippi. Using GDP per capita as a measure of both economic output per person and of a country’s standard of living, America is winning quite handsomely.

While Perry makes an interesting point here, it's also worth noting that his analysis has its flaws.

For example, he omits a lot of countries with higher per capita GDP than that of the U.S., including Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and several small Arab states. For a more complete list of countries see this Wikipedia article.

He points out in passing that coal, oil, and natural gas production are big factors in the GDPs of some states, but, as one might expect from someone at the American Enterprise Institute, he ignores their negative impacts, which are not just environmental but economic as well.

Also, as noted above, Perry uses per capita GDP as a measure of how well people are doing. That's potentially very misleading, because wealth and income are distributed differently in different countries. If a multibillionaire happens to move in down the street and your neighborhood isn't already full of them, your neighborhood's average wealth is going to take an impressive jump, even if the rest of you are no better off.

So a more meaningful number might be the median income. By definition, half the population make more than the median and half make less. You can find a comparison on that basis here. This is derived from a survey conducted by Gallop in 2013, which isn't a perfect way to estimate median income. But assuming those numbers are roughly right, the U.S. still looks pretty good: We're in sixth place in both income per household and income per resident. However, the comparison takes into account only gross income and ignores both taxes and public benefits. Here in the United States we pay a lot more per person for medical care, for example, though by measured outcomes our medical care is in keeping with that of other developed countries.

Income in the U.S. is of course also more skewed toward the rich than in a lot of other developed countries, and the concentration is also growing relatively faster here. More on that in a later post.

Here, by the way, is another comparison by Mark Perry showing U.S. states matched with foreign countries with similar GDPs in 2017. California's GDP, for example, is similar to, in fact a little bigger than, the United Kingdom's. That's despite the fact that UK the has about 75 percent more workers.

(Updated 2018 August 7 to more clearly emphasize that GDP reflects economic productivity rather than the income of individual workers.)

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Hanlon's razor

A few months ago I quoted the aphorism “never attribute malice to what can adequately be explained by stupidity,” and was asked for its source. I had to confess that I had no idea, but I've since managed to look it up.

The expression turns out to have a name, “Hanlon’s Razor,” and a Wikipedia article under that title. But who was Hanlon?

In 2001 a blogger named Quentin Stafford-Fraser published the following email he’d received from someone named Joseph E Bigler in response to something on his blog. Here's what Bigler had to say:

I did a search for Hanlon’s Razor on the internet and was surprised that no one seems to know the origin. The author was my late friend Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pa.

A number of years ago, the people that wrote the Murphy’s laws book decided to publish a second book and asked the public to contribute their own ‘laws” as part of a contest. My friend sent this in and it was accepted and printed with his name in the credits. The ‘prize’ for winning was 10 copies of the new book, one of which Bob gave me.

Bob was a very literate man with a wry sense of humor and I believe the razor “Never attribute malice to what can adequately be explained by stupidity” is his. If you would change the wording on your site to reflect this, I would appreciate it. Bob was a great man. He had a keen sense of history, but unfortunately, illness and an untimely death prevented him from being further published. I think it would be fitting and appropriate if he got the recognition he deserved for this.

The quotation, with that wording, does indeed on page 52 Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong by Arthur Bloch.

That isn’t the oldest version of the idea, however. Some sources I checked pointed out the similarity to the line “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity,” from Heinlein’s 1941 short story “Logic of Empire.” Goethe wrote something vaguely along the same lines in 1774. A more recent and quite possibly independent expression by British writer Charles Pigden appeared in 1985: “Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.”

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The Kansas-California experiment

In 2010 Kansas elected extreme conservative Sam Brownback governor and put Tea Party Republicans in charge of the legislature. Together they passed a program of deep tax cuts and spending restrictions that they promised would quickly lead to a massive economic boom and bigger tax receipts.

At the same time, much more liberal California elected Jerry Brown governor and gave Democrats overwhelming control of the legislature.

We should obviously be wary of inferring too much from the results of this experiment, given the small sample size and how different the states are. But it’s still interesting that since then Kansas has done so much worse economically than have similar neighboring states. Plummeting revenues forced the state to slash education and other spending, and the legislature finally had to raise taxes, over Governor Brownback’s vetoes, to prevent bankruptcy.

(Brownback is no longer in office, having resigned in January to become the Trump administration’s ambassador-at-large on international religious freedom, an appointment criticized by religious freedom groups and one that required Vice President Pence’s tie-breaking vote to confirm.)

California, in contrast, is in excellent financial shape, with moderate taxes, an $8.8 billion state budget surplus, and a gross domestic product that has recently passed even that of the significantly more-populous United Kingdom. If California were an independent country, its economy would be the fifth largest in the world. In first place would be the remainder of the U.S., followed by China, Japan, and Germany. (Russia, by the way, is in 12th place, with an economy smaller than Canada's.) For a list of countries by GDP see this link.

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