Chris Rock Explains Bias Blindness

When the nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards were announced this past January and for the second year in a row included no minority nominees for any of the major performance categories, my first thought was here we go again. But my second thought was that Chris Rock would be hosting the Oscars’ award ceremony and that there might be fireworks.

I was not disappointed. Rock quickly let it be known that he would not be boycotting the ceremony (as he quipped during his Oscar monologue, “How come there’s only unemployed people that tell you to quit something?”) but also that his opening monologue would be addressing the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in a big way.

He sure did.

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“That’s What They Offered”

trump-and-sandersBernie Sanders and Donald Trump are strange bedfellows to be sure. But they were the big winners last night when the first primary votes of the 2016 presidential campaign are cast and counted in New Hampshire as each won astonishing and overwhelming victories in their respective party contests. Let’s be clear. They didn’t just win. They each won by huge margins. And their successes have badly embarrassed party leaders and pundits.

These very different candidates have some surprising commonality. They have each found a rich vein of popular (and populist) support as insurgents attacking the insidious corruption wrought by big money in politics. They see the political fight they are waging not as an ideological struggle so much as a class war. They want to gain control of the presidential process and the political parties at its heart by hostile takeover. As they see it, since the system is rigged, only someone not beholden to big-money special interests can make things right. Continue reading

Should We Pay the Shakedown Artists or Not?

Before being closed down by the Federal Trade Commission, a revenge porn site called “Is Anyone Up” came up with a creative but disgusting twist on the sleazy genre by including a link to a phony “independent third party team” that would get the offensive pictures taken down for a fee.1 In other words, the site and its proprietor horribly violated peoples’ privacy and then extorted them for money to stop violating them. That sick scheme provides a perfect lead-in to a discussion of the San Diego Chargers and the recently announced joint stadium proposal made by the Chargers and the Oakland Raiders that would involve both teams leaving their current cities and moving to the Los Angeles area.

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“It just feels better and safer to me”

FeelingsThe Sunday edition of The Los Angeles Times included a story about Bob Sears, an Orange County pediatrician who provides comfort to parents who doubt the efficacy of vaccinations for their children. Although he claims not to be an anti-vaxxer himself, about half of his patients forgo them entirely and he offers his own alternative and selective vaccination schedules to the others, which delay or eliminate a variety of immunizations that science strongly supports.

“We eliminated endemic measles in the U.S. in 2000. It’s now 2014 and we’re at 400 cases. Why?” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview in June (the number of cases has risen by another 50 percent since). “Because people listen to Bob Sears. And, frankly, I blame him far more than I do the Jenny McCarthys of this world. Because he’s a doctor. And he should know more.” As the Times reports, Sears and his ilk are having an impact. “California parents are choosing to forgo vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago, a fact public health experts said is contributing to the re-emergence of measles and could lead to outbreaks of other diseases.”

I was struck by the article’s concluding line, which was a quote from a mother anxious about vaccinations for her young children and apparently desperate for someone to tell her that delaying or avoiding them is okay. “It’s not really research-based,” she said. “It just feels better and safer to me.”

In life generally and in the investing world, avoiding the findings of careful research on account of “a feeling” is extremely dangerous business. We all tend to like to follow feelings, ideologies, herds and stories instead of good data. Doing so is in our nature. But if we want to maximize the likelihood of positive outcomes, we need to be data-driven at every level and all the time.

Risky Business

risky-business-porsche-posterThe Risky Business Report, a bipartisan project backed by three former U.S. Treasury Secretaries as well as other political and business leaders that seeks to quantify and publicize the economic risks from the impacts of a changing climate, calls for new policies to “reduce the odds of catastrophic outcomes” from extreme heat and rising sea levels linked to climate change. Such severe impacts will likely cost billions of dollars in annual property loss, threaten human health. lower labor productivity and endanger the nation’s electricity grids, according to the report The findings summarized by the report also show that the most severe risks can still be avoided through early investments in resilience and through immediate action to reduce the pollution that causes global warming.

“I know a lot about financial risks — in fact, I spent nearly my whole career managing risks and dealing with financial crisis,” former treasury secretary (under George W. Bush) Henry M. Paulson Jr. says in the report. “Today I see another type of crisis looming: a climate crisis. And while not financial in nature, it threatens our economy just the same.” Continue reading

An Obvious Threat

The CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board, a leading government-funded military research organization, issued a major report this week finding that the accelerating rate of climate change poses a severe risk to national security and acts as a catalyst for global political conflict. Among its findings, the report predicts that an increase in catastrophic weather events around the world will increase the demand for American troops, even as flooding and extreme weather events at home could damage naval ports and military bases. In the latter category is the extreme weather we’re suffering right now here in San Diego — 100 degrees, 5 percent humidity and winds gusting to 50 miles per hour — that is exacerbating the wildfires that can so plague us and is damaging thousands of acres on one of the U.S. military’s largest bases. The picture below is of the San Marcos Fire (one of nearly a dozen burning in San Diego now) taken from my front yard using my phone.

San Marcos Fire

It’s remarkable to me the way so many denialists are willing and seemingly eager to reject science, even to the extent of putting our national security at risk, but don’t reject the benefits of modern science, such as technology and medicine. Those who want to deny science, if they are going to be consistent, need to throw away their cell phones and their prescriptions.

But they won’t.

Connecting the Dots

Connect the DotsIt’s a consuming question for all Americans:  Should the FBI, the CIA, Homeland Security and related entities have “connected the dots” about the Tsarnaev brothers and thus been able to prevent the Boston Marathon bombings?  Continue reading

The Washington Monument Strategy

Stephen Colbert used the air traffic delays arising out of the budget sequester as his jumping off point to skewer Rogoff and Reinhart (RR).  Watch the fun below. Obviously, the case for aggressive and immediate fiscal austerity is much tougher to make now.  You can also see Colbert interview UMass Armherst graduate student Thomas Herndon, one of the authors of the paper that debunked RR, here.

However, it seems odd to me (and, apparently, The Wall Street Journal) that a relatively modest budget cut would create a huge air traffic pile-up.  Continue reading

Today in Econopolitics

dismal-scienceVictorian historian Thomas Carlyle famously called economics the “dismal science.”  It wasn’t hard to see why this week (even while important economic news was understandably overshadowed by the horrible events surrounding the Boston Marathon), as politics is getting in the way of some of the serious and substantive policy questions raised by some significant new academic findings. 

In research that has been featured prominently in the press and the blogosphere, three economists from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have cast significant doubt on widely cited findings by Reinhart and Rogoff (RR) which seemed to demonstrate that countries which run up big debts (generally in excess of 90 percent of GDP) suffer a major penalty in terms of economic growth.  Continue reading