Monday, June 29, 2015

"Why Is the American Dream Dead in the South?"

According to an article by Sasha Kimel in The Atlantic:
We like to tell ourselves that America is the land of opportunity, but the reality doesn't match the rhetoric—and hasn't for awhile. We actually have less social mobility than countries like Denmark. And that's more of a problem the more inequality there is. Think about it like this: Moving up matters more when there's a bigger gap between the rich and poor. So even though mobility hasn't gotten worse lately, it has worse consequences today because inequality is worse.

This map from the article
shows where kids have the best and worst chances of moving up from the bottom to the top quintile—and that the South looks more like a banana republic. (Note: darker colors mean there is less mobility, and lighter colors mean that there's more).
Not surprisingly the article goes on to discuss race, segregation, social capital and inequality.

The lesson of the map is unfortunately clear. For kids in far too much of America, the dream of anyone being able to rise to the top is mythical, and not at all realistic. 

The Future is Now, and Watson is its Name

Tina Cascone demonstrates Watson, officially the Oncology Expert Advisor,
at MD Anderson’s leukemia treatment center in Houston. 

There was an interesting article in The Washington Post yesterday about the extension of the Watson computer system of IBM to the field of Cancer diagnosis.
IBM is now training Watson to be a cancer specialist. The idea is to use Watson’s increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence to find personalized treatments for every cancer patient by comparing disease and treatment histories, genetic data, scans and symptoms against the vast universe of medical knowledge. 
Such precision targeting is possible to a limited extent, but it can take weeks of dedicated sleuthing by a team of researchers. Watson would be able to make this type of treatment recommendation in mere minutes.

The IBM program is one of several new aggressive health-care projects that aim to sift through the huge pools of data created by people’s records and daily routines and then identify patterns and connections to predict needs. It is a revolutionary approach to medicine and health care that is likely to have significant social, economic and political consequences. 
Lynda Chin, a physician-scientist and associate vice chancellor for the University of Texas system who is overseeing the Watson project at MD Anderson Cancer Center, said these types of programs are key to “democratizing” medical treatment and eliminating the disparity that exists between those with access to the best doctors and those without.
Originally made up of a cluster of supercomputers that took up as much space at IBM as a master bedroom, Watson is now trimmer — the size of three stacked pizza boxes — and versions of it live in the server rooms of IBM’s various partners.
Among the most ambitious (of the Watson Cancer related) projects is a partnership with 14 cancer centers to use Watson to help choose therapies based on a tumor’s genetic fingerprints. Doctors have known for years that some treatments work miraculously on some patients but not at all on others due to genetics. But the expense and complexity in identifying genetic mutations and matching them up with potential therapies has made it difficult for more than a handful of patients to benefit from this new approach. The service is scheduled to launch later this year. 
Meanwhile, Watson is continuing its on-the-ground training with cancer specialists. 
In 2011, IBM announced that Watson had learned as much as a second-year medical student. Since then it’s graduated and has been doing residencies at some of the nation’s top cancer centers, including Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and the Cleveland Clinic. In late September, Watson achieved another training milestone: It began its first fellowship in a specialty — leukemia — at MD Anderson.
When Watson beat the best humans at a television quiz show, the capability of the approach was demonstrated. Now we see this advanced computer processing approach applied to problems of real importance. With its natural language capabilities, Watson can "read" and organize vast quantities of textual information, such as that from medical journals. With its very high speed (as compared with human thought) Watson can search its data base for information relevant to a specific issue/question -- in this case, "what is the appropriate treatment for this cancer in this patient".

This looks like an important amplification of human intelligence. I wonder where it will be used next -- foreign policy, intelligence analysis, where?

Intelligence, Leadership, Knowledge and Belief

I watched a talk on TV by H.W. Brands on his book, Reagan: The Life. One point that he made was that intelligence as measured by the IQ test is not necessarily the best predictor of success in the office of president. Brands suggested that a president had to be reasonably smart, but that it was important that he surround himself with smart people who have more detailed knowledge than he has himself, and that he know when to defer to the right person to draw on that detailed knowledge. When I worked in the White House, there were about 1,000 people there, and of course the president could draw not only on the Office of the President, but on the millions of people who worked in the departments of the Executive Branch and indeed on the entire population of the USA (a former professor of mine told me he agreed to work for President Nixon because when the president asks you to do something on the telephone, it is almost impossible to say no!).

Let me suggest that there is a "Leadership Quotient" (LQ) that ought to be considered for presidential candidates (and indeed for anyone seeking to run a large organization). It measures not the ability to do well in school, but the ability to successfully lead an organization. Brands seems to suggest that someone with a high LQ probably has a pretty good IQ, but also has strong ability to set targets, choose subordinates, and delegate. In a democracy, the LQ should also probably include the ability to communicate with the public and to be liked and trusted by the public.

Knowledge vs. Belief

Brands discussed the Iran-Contra affair. He read Reagan's hand written notes in Reagan's diary (notes made day by day while he was in office) and saw Reagan write that weapons were to be delivered (sold) to Iran and that then prisoners would be released from Lebanon. Brands had no doubt that Reagan understood the quid pro quo nature of the exchange -- arms for hostages. Yet Brands also thought that Reagan could be sincere saying that he did not authorize the payment of blackmail to get the hostages released; Reagan simply did not believe that the U.S. government paid blackmail to kidnappers. Therefore, in Reagan's belief system, there must be some other explanation for the arrangement with Iran for the release of hostages held in Lebanon. (Brands also suggested that Reagan's lack of attention to details led him to fail to find out what was happening to the money Iran paid for the weapons, that he simply did not know it was being used to fund the Contras in Nicaragua.)

I think something similar happens in some people's minds with regard to knowledge of evolution and belief in Genesis. I suspect that there are people who could do very well on a college exam that required the answer to four questions:

  • What is Darwin's Theory of evolution?
  • What is the nature of the evidence in support of that theory?
  • Explain the Modern Synthesis of Darwin's Theory and Genetics.
  • What is the nature of the evidence supporting the genetic basis of evolution.

And yet among those people able to answer the questions, there are some who would say that they don't believe in evolution. Rather they would say that they believe that man was created in God's image, and that they believe in the account of creation in the Book of Genesis. Such a person might know about evolution but believe in the bible.

More on the Social Factors Relating to the Elvis Phenomenon and the Rise of Rock and Roll Music

I recently read Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll by Allen J. Wiener. I previously posted on the technological infrastructure that was in place by 1958 that was involved in the Elvis phenomenon. I also posted on the culture that allowed the Elvis phenomenon to occur. Finally, I posted ideas about why Elvis lead the Rock and Roll revolution, and what there was about America at the time that allowed Elvis to do that. I had intended those to be my only posts on the book, but I find I have another, so here goes.

Yesterday I watched a TV discussion by Marilyn Irvin Holt on "Politics and Childhood During the Cold War". One of her points was that after World War II, Americans invested heavily in the new generation of children. She noted that they had similarly invested in children after World War I and the Civil War -- that such an investment in children may be a natural way for a country to follow a war. I think it was young people in the late 1950s who formed the first audience for Elvis and Rock and Roll. Maybe there was some relationship between the heavy investment these young people had had made in them which made them ready for a new music.

The 1920s been called the Jazz Age. A new music came out of Louisiana and its black communities and swept young people in the USA, and indeed in much of the world. Is there as parallel with Rock and Roll which also came from the south, from roots in the black community, and followed a World War? Rock and Roll came a little later after the war than did Jazz, the Charleston, and similar music, but then after World War II, in quick succession followed the beginning of the Cold War and the Korean War; they may have delayed a youthful demand for new music.

UNESCO was created after World War II, with the purpose of building the defenses of peace in the minds of men (because it is in the minds of men that wars start). The Allies who won the war had noted that the Nazis and the Fascists had worked hard to indoctrinate children into their ideologies, including introducing their propaganda into schools and text books. One of the first projects undertaken by UNESCO in Europe was to scrub the text books of that propaganda. I suspect that many teachers after the war sought to help kids learn how to think for themselves and avoid being excessively influenced by such propaganda. Indeed, Historian Holt suggests that there was an effort during the Cold War to help children think for themselves; the generation that went out on the streets to protest racial segregation and the Vietnam War (that of the 1960s) certainly seemed to me to think for themselves, rejecting many (bad) ideas of their elders.

The Growth of the Suburbs

As these two graphs show, there was a long term population shift in the United States away from the rural areas toward urban areas and suburban communities. By 1960 something like 30% of Americans lived in suburbs, notably manufactured new communities of the Levittown type. These were relatively affluent communities. They also tended to be segregated, open only to whites. They were places where teenagers often had some disposable income, rooms of their own, and considerable freedom of action. Were the suburbs the hotbed of Rock and Roll as performed by Elvis Presley, who was most certainly White, and whose whiteness was very visible on the TV shows and the movies in which he appeared.

Other Factors Dismissed

There was concern among politicians at that time that there was a wave of "juvenile delinquency". Was there such a crime wave? The following graph suggests that there was not. Thus it seems improbable that serious juvenile crime was in any way related to the Elvis phenomenon.


So too, the rise of Elvis and Rock and Roll seems to have preceded the rise of the use of illegal drugs in the USA. While the graph below is about numbers of people in prison and jail, it is suggestive. After the announcement of the "War on Drugs" the numbers shot up, and especially after the "Sentencing Reform Act" was passed, but there was no similar increase from 1940 to 1970. If there had been a big increase in drug use in the late 1950s and early 1960s one might have expected there to have been an increase in arrests, convictions, and people in jail.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Deep Cultural Roots of the Regions of the USA

I quote at length from an article by Colin Woodward in the Tufts Magazine (Fall 2013)
I should underscore that my observations refer to the dominant culture, not the individual inhabitants, of each region. In every town, city, and state you’ll likely find a full range of political opinions and social preferences. Even in the reddest of red counties and bluest of blue ones, twenty to forty percent of voters cast ballots for the “wrong” team. It isn’t that residents of one or another nation all think the same, but rather that they are all embedded within a cultural framework of deep-seated preferences and attitudes—each of which a person may like or hate, but has to deal with nonetheless. Because of slavery, the African American experience has been different from that of other settlers and immigrants, but it too has varied by nation, as black people confronted the dominant cultural and institutional norms of each. 
YANKEEDOM. Founded on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by radical Calvinists as a new Zion, Yankeedom has, since the outset, put great emphasis on perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders. It has prized education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment, and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public’s shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats and other would-be tyrants. Since the early Puritans, it has been more comfortable with government regulation and public-sector social projects than many of the other nations, who regard the Yankee utopian streak with trepidation. 
NEW NETHERLAND. Established by the Dutch at a time when the Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world, New Netherland has always been a global commercial culture—materialistic, with a profound tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience. Like seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it emerged as a center of publishing, trade, and finance, a magnet for immigrants, and a refuge for those persecuted by other regional cultures, from Sephardim in the seventeenth century to gays, feminists, and bohemians in the early twentieth. Unconcerned with great moral questions, it nonetheless has found itself in alliance with Yankeedom to defend public institutions and reject evangelical prescriptions for individual behavior. 
THE MIDLANDS. America’s great swing region was founded by English Quakers, who believed in humans’ inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies like Pennsylvania on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate. An ethnic mosaic from the start—it had a German, rather than British, majority at the time of the Revolution—it shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, though it rejects top-down government intervention. 
TIDEWATER. Built by the younger sons of southern English gentry in the Chesapeake country and neighboring sections of Delaware and North Carolina, Tidewater was meant to reproduce the semifeudal society of the countryside they’d left behind. Standing in for the peasantry were indentured servants and, later, slaves. Tidewater places a high value on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics. It was the most powerful of the American nations in the eighteenth century, but today it is in decline, partly because it was cut off from westward expansion by its boisterous Appalachian neighbors and, more recently, because it has been eaten away by the expanding federal halos around D.C. and Norfolk. 
GREATER APPALACHIA. Founded in the early eighteenth century by wave upon wave of settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands, Appalachia has been lampooned by writers and screenwriters as the home of hillbillies and rednecks. It transplanted a culture formed in a state of near constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty. Intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike, Greater Appalachia has shifted alliances depending on who appeared to be the greatest threat to their freedom. It was with the Union in the Civil War. Since Reconstruction, and especially since the upheavals of the 1960s, it has joined with Deep South to counter federal overrides of local preference. 
DEEP SOUTH. Established by English slave lords from Barbados, Deep South was meant as a West Indies–style slave society. This nation offered a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many. Its caste systems smashed by outside intervention, it continues to fight against expanded federal powers, taxes on capital and the wealthy, and environmental, labor, and consumer regulations. 
EL NORTE. The oldest of the American nations, El Norte consists of the borderlands of the Spanish American empire, which were so far from the seats of power in Mexico City and Madrid that they evolved their own characteristics. Most Americans are aware of El Norte as a place apart, where Hispanic language, culture, and societal norms dominate. But few realize that among Mexicans, norteños have a reputation for being exceptionally independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work. Long a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary settlement, the region encompasses parts of Mexico that have tried to secede in order to form independent buffer states between their mother country and the United States. 
THE LEFT COAST. A Chile-shaped nation wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Coast mountains, the Left Coast was originally colonized by two groups: New Englanders (merchants, missionaries, and woodsmen who arrived by sea and dominated the towns) and Appalachian midwesterners (farmers, prospectors, and fur traders who generally arrived by wagon and controlled the countryside). Yankee missionaries tried to make it a “New England on the Pacific,” but were only partially successful. Left Coast culture is a hybrid of Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression and exploration—traits recognizable in its cultural production, from the Summer of Love to the iPad. The staunchest ally of Yankeedom, it clashes with Far Western sections in the interior of its home states. 
THE FAR WEST. The other “second-generation” nation, the Far West occupies the one part of the continent shaped more by environmental factors than ethnographic ones. High, dry, and remote, the Far West stopped migrating easterners in their tracks, and most of it could be made habitable only with the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams, and irrigation systems. As a result, settlement was largely directed by corporations headquartered in distant New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, or by the federal government, which controlled much of the land. The Far West’s people are often resentful of their dependent status, feeling that they have been exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations. Their senators led the fight against trusts in the mid-twentieth century. Of late, Far Westerners have focused their anger on the federal government, rather than their corporate masters. 
NEW FRANCE. Occupying the New Orleans area and southeastern Canada, New France blends the folkways of ancien régime northern French peasantry with the traditions and values of the aboriginal people they encountered in northeastern North America. After a long history of imperial oppression, its people have emerged as down-to-earth, egalitarian, and consensus driven, among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy. The New French influence is manifest in Canada, where multiculturalism and negotiated consensus are treasured. 
FIRST NATION. First Nation is populated by native American groups that generally never gave up their land by treaty and have largely retained cultural practices and knowledge that allow them to survive in this hostile region on their own terms. The nation is now reclaiming its sovereignty, having won considerable autonomy in Alaska and Nunavut and a self-governing nation state in Greenland that stands on the threshold of full independence. Its territory is huge—far larger than the continental United States—but its population is less than 300,000, most of whom live in Canada.
I think there is something to this. I belong to a History Book Club which is located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC (part of what Woodward calls the Tidewater.) This is an area in which slavery held on rather late in U.S. history. The Club has tended to read widely, but to focus in U.S. history on history up to the Civil War, and thus on eastern United States history. At my suggestion the group is now reading about Texas history (early 19th century, when what was called Texas fell entirely in El Norte) and California history in the Spanish Colonial period. Earlier we had read about the Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish colonizers of what is now New Mexico. I believe that there is a heritage in El Norte that is different than that in Maryland. I suspect it will be useful for the club to explore histories of the other regions on the map above.

The map may be too clearly divided into regions. Texas, south of the Balcones Escarpment was importantly settled by slaveholding immigrants from the Deep South before the Texas revolution against Mexico. Thus this region has cultural roots that are both Hispanic and Deep Southern -- perhaps it should be rose grey on the map?

Here is an earlier map with similar pretensions:

Source: "Nine Nations of North America, 30 Years Later" by Joel Garreau in The New York Times

Friday, June 26, 2015

On the Factors Behind the Texas Revolution Against Mexico

I just finished Chapter 5 of Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic by William C. Davis. This complements earlier chapters that discuss the European context for the creation of the Texas Republic (see my previous post). In this chapter, author Davis addresses the Mexican context.

The Criollo leadership in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, long dissatisfied by the lack of influence and respect that they perceived that they received from their Spanish administrators, took advantage of Spain's weakness to begin an insurrection in 1811. Davis suggests that this was in part due to the revolutionary examples before them (United States, France) and part of a larger Hispanic American movement that involved parallel revolutions led by Bolivar (in northern Sourth America), San Martin (Argentina) and O'Higgins (Chile).

The revolution succeeded in that Mexico was created as a nation 1821, and a new Constitution was written in 1824. (Spain was not content with the loss of its huge colony, and continued it attempts to reconquer Mexico. Starting in the Caribbean, Spain eventually landed an expeditionary force at Tampico in 1829, but that force was repulsed. New Spain was huge, as the map below shows, spanning an area from Oregon to Panama, from Louisana to the Pacific Coast of California.

Unfortunately for Mexico and its people, there was little basis to establish a new nation. Various forces preferred a centralized or a federal government. Caudillos supported by army factions competed for national power (the army was perhaps the strongest national institution in the country). The Central American states separated from Mexico, and several of the states of what is now Mexico were in revolt against the government in Mexico City. The northern territories (shown as Alta California, New Mexico and New Philippines) were very sparsely populated -- often more Indian than Mexican.

The various governments in Mexico City had little time nor interest in the aspirations of those in the far north, and perhaps especially not for the Anglos who were moving into Texas (and also California) The Mexicans had outlawed slavery, and this was especially repugnant to the Anglo settlers of Texas -- southerners who had brought their slaves with them as necessary to the operation of the plantations (for King Cotton) that they were developing on their large land grants. This situation led to the Texas revolt in 1836 which created the Texas Republic (which was annexed by the USA in 1845.) The weakness of the Mexican government, also led to a revolt in California in 1846, the Bear Flag Republic, and (after the California gold rush of 1848) annexation of California and California statehood in 1850.)


A Modest Proposal

Following the example set by Jonathan Swift, I wish to make a modest proposal. Substitute a Shoot Out for the Republican Presidential Primaries. Given that Republican candidates must favor open carry, must seek NRA endorsement, and are apparently very concerned with illegal voting in elections, this seems a natural.

Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr showed the way; Andy Jackson would have approved. Shoot Outs would be a series of duels using OK Coral Rules: 8 duels the first round, 4 the second round a month or two later, and 2 in the third round after another couple of months. The survivors would be the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, with the less seriously wounded Republican heading the ticket.

The number of candidates should be increased from the current 13 to 16 (Fox News -- that clearly would be the choice to televise the Shoot Out -- could select the three additions). In the first round of duels, 8 candidates would be eliminated. (I am sure many foreign leaders would volunteer to provide the Coups de Grace for the losers.) The 4 survivors of the second round would compete in the third round.

Some advantages of this process are clear:

  • The winners would walk the walk, not just talk the talk;
  • Democrats would like the process;
  • This would be quick and entertaining, rather than the current interminable mind-deadening process used today;
  • It would be much less expensive;
  • There would be fewer Republican candidates in future presidential elections.
Use the Comments to add advantages or to suggest improvements on this modest proposal.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Modest Proposal for A New Legislation to Support Students in Colleges and Universities

The Economist has an article this week on the rising burden of college debt in the USA:
NEARLY three-quarters of the graduates now leaving America’s colleges are saddled with debt. On average, they owe $35,051. By comparison, roughly half of all graduates carried debt in 1995 and it averaged less than a third as much, says Edvisors, which tracks student aid (see chart).
We need a U.S. Defense-During-Globalization Education Act that subsidizes the higher education needed for this country to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy, as well as to help those who have been displaced from their previous jobs by competition from abroad to qualify for new jobs in sectors emerging in the USA.

Not only should people not be discouraged from getting the education and training that they need by high costs (incurring debts that will hang on the former students for years), but much of the benefit from such education will accrue to the general society in the form of increased GDP (not to mention, increased tax income for federal, state and local governments).

Of course, there are families that don't need or want help from the government to pay for higher educational services; don't provide it to them, and I wish them the best! Nor should the government subsidize students to attend inefficient schools or schools with sub-standard educational offerings. Students who wish to study fields that have little benefit to society beyond the edification and delight of the individual student should not benefit from subsidies from the legislation I propose, but best of luck to them.

America Must Reform its Legal System and Its Penal System!

The Economist leads with an article titled "American prisons: The right choices".
No country in the world imprisons as many people as America does, or for so long. Across the array of state and federal prisons, local jails and immigration detention centres, some 2.3m people are locked up at any one time. America, with less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for around 25% of the world’s prisoners. The system is particularly punishing towards black people and Hispanics, who are imprisoned at six times and twice the rates of whites respectively. A third of young black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. The system is riddled with drugs, abuse and violence. Its cost to the American taxpayer is about $34,000 per inmate per year; the total bill is around $80 billion.
That $80 billion is of course only the cost of running the prisons payed by taxes. It does not include the an estimate of the human cost of the pain and suffering of the prisoners in the U.S. who would not be in prison had they lived in another country, nor the cost to the economy of the lost productivity from the folk who are in jail but should not be, nor of the loss of productivity from the folk who have been released but can not work due to their "criminal record".

The black states in the map shown above are mostly in states that once were Confederates in revolt against the Union. So you see a relationship between high state incarceration rates and high rates of incarceration of black and Hispanic people?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Beginning to Read about the Revolutionary Birth of Texas

I have started reading Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic by William C. Davis. Author Davis begins the book early in the 19th century, putting the scramble for Texas in the context of the Napoleonic Wars which weakened Spain and thus Spain's hold on its colonies in the Americas, and resulted in the sale of the Louisiana territory by France to the United States. He also puts it in the context of the revolutionary fever that swept from the creation of the United States (and the French and Haitian revolutions) through the Spanish colonies in South America, and finally to Mexico.

Texas then was a region quite different than the State of Texas now. It was the agriculturally rich coastal plane that ended at the Balcones Escarpment (see map below). Far from Mexico City, this was a region under Spain with only a few thousand inhabitants owing allegiance to Spain, who were threatened by Comanches; that population actually decreased in the first decades of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, the region was attractive to filibusters, but none in the early part of the century managed to displace the Spanish rulers. With the success of the Mexican revolution, American settlers were invited into the region under conditions such as their accepting Mexican governance and the Catholic religion. Large amounts of land, cheap were a powerful attraction.

On page 13, Author Davis mentions José Gabriel Condorcanqui as starting the last major Indian uprising against the Spanish in 1781, an uprising that besieged Cusco. I think of Condorcanqui under the name he assumed, Túpac Amaru II. I also associate that uprising with Túpac Katari from Ayo Ayo, a village in Bolivia that I once visited.

The picture I get from the earliest part of the book is of adventurers with little capacity to achieve their wild ends failing again and again as they tried to steal a large and valuable piece of land from Spain. The Mexican government, in the years after the successful separation from Spain, was very weak and unable to exercise power over the very distant land of Texas. In this respect, Davis's book on Texas history also sheds some light on California history which was the subject of a recent meeting of the History Book Club to which I belong.

Texas Cities (Source)
Note that Galveston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and El Paso -- all Spanish city names -- are in the south of the state. Houston and Austin, named after the heroes of the Texian Revolution against Mexico, are in the small Texas described in the first paragraph above.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

TV as a Factor in Elvis Presley's Career.

I just finished reading Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll by Allen J. Wiener. I would not normally have chosen to read this, but it is a selection by the book club to which I belong and is written by a friend. I actually learned quite a bit from the book.

Elvis is of course a phenomenon, hugely popular in the late 1950s and early 60s, his popularity decreased. He went on a downward slide of use of (perhaps prescription) drugs, weight gain and crash diets, until his death at age 42 in 1977.

The book is very good at explaining how a certain kind of television show comes about and how it is made. For the early Elvis Presley television programs, he simply fit into a slot in a continuing variety show. His later shows were built around him (and in one case another established star -- Frank Sinatra). These were negotiated by his manager (Colonel Tom Parker), sometimes with the participation of his record company or a firm of agents.

Then one or two people were chosen to pull together the show. They would come up with a theme. Elvis would usually bring his own small band and backup singers. The producers/directors might add a network orchestra and dancers. There would be set design and construction. There would be a plan for the camera work, and the cameras and camera operators would be chosen. The book makes mention of the people working the sound system and the lights. There would be costume design, fittings, etc. as well as makeup. Sometimes new music would be selected or written for a TV show (coordinated with the record company, that would be thinking about issuing singles and albums to take advantage of the public interest that the TV special would generate). Colonel Parker would be looking at commercial tie-ins which might include sale of programs to live shows, sales of pictures and posters, fees to hotels or other businesses to be mentioned in the show, to food served in the venue. Since Elvis was such a gifted audience favorite, shows tended to have a live audience, and that would also involve arrangements, up to the selection of the lucky audience members. Finally, there would be an editing job to make a great show out of an abundance of film material. Moreover, network executives and representatives of the sponsors had to be consulted and their views taken into account (even if not accepted). The hour of light entertainment for the viewer was the result of a lot of work by a very gifted and skilled group of people.

I found myself looking into the technological changes that made the Elvis phenomenon possible:

I also thought about the more general cultural changes that were occurring during the 1950s and 60s:

What Was There About Society That Made the Elvis Phenomenon Possible?

After World War II, the American economy tooled up to meet the pent up consumer demand; people had money in their pockets and were willing to spend it on more comfortable housing, cars, and notably in terms of Elvis, electronics. Factories that had produced guns and ammo now used mass production techniques to meet the market demand with new and more affordable radios, cars with radios, record players, records, and starting in the 1950s, televisions. By 1956, a family might of an evening be found with the father in the living room watching the news and sports on TV, the mother in another room listening to top 40 music while doing chores, and the kids in still another room listening to records on the family record player.

The family still went to the movies, albeit less often, but might see one of Elvis' 27 movies (in the 60s), Mom and dad, or the teenage kids, or the whole family together might go out to a restaurant where they would hear music on the jukebox,

While by 1956 most families had a black and white TV (and would get color TVs in the 60s) the best entertainment was on one of the three networks. Thus, a program like The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights would draw a huge audience, especially if there had been a lot of buzz about an act such as would occur when Elvis appeared in 1956.

Record stores were to be found conveniently to where most people lived, stocked with the latest 45 rpm hit singles and with hit albums. Even kids could now afford their products, and the top hits of the day sold like hot cakes.

The music audience had somewhat fragmented by the late 1950s and early 1960s, but there were indications that it was ready for something new. Elvis could draw a youth audience, some of the audience for country music, some of the black audience, and the audience for something new.

Then there was synergy. As more people bought his records, they were more interesting to radio disk jockeys and TV shows were more interested in featuring him. The jukeboxes brought in more money if they had his top hits, and so they did. People talked about his appearances on TV, and then went out to buy his records.

By the time Elvis arrived on the scene, the record industry was multinational, and he quickly got an audience abroad. For his 1968 television special, satellite broadcasting was possible, and in fact that special was the first to go world wide.

What Was It About Elvis That Allowed Him to Grow Rock and Roll So Big So Fast?

Allen Weiner, after his extensive interviews, seems to feel that Presley had a good voice and a good understanding of the music he performed (often based on the gospel music he heard as a child in church or the music of the black communities in which he lived as a young man). His overt sexuality worked at the moment in time that he was discovered and most popular. He was very good with audiences, and seemed to learn and repeat what worked with an audience.

I think that we also have to give credit to "Team Elvis". This fairly simple young man lucked out when he met the folk at Sun Records who recognized a talent in him, put him together with the right group, and made some good records. He was lucky to get on Louisiana Hayride, a well established show with a regional audience where he learned a lot about performing for the media.

He was exceedingly lucky when he signed on Colonel Tom Parker as his manager -- a man who had already developed a couple of music stars and who was full of ideas for getting Elvis' music before the public and able to negotiate the contracts to implement those ideas. The Team Elvis also included back up musicians and singers who fitted his music and stayed with him for years at a time.

When RCA Records signed him up, Team Elvis got their staff of people who got his records into the record shops, who got the radio disk jockeys to play his new releases, who helped get him good TV appearances, and who got his music onto the country's jukeboxes.

When Elvis got on a major TV show, others joined Team Elvis on a short term basis to build the audience for that show. When he did a TV special, the network PR staffs went all out. When he made a movie, the studio joined the team to publicize the film and to increase the buzz about Elvis.

And of course, fans by the million joined Team Elvis, buying his pictures and posters, playing his records for their friends, and adding to the buzz~

Final Comments

The book turns out to be very sad, telling a history of a nice young man with talent who becomes too famous and too rich too fast, loses his career and his health and dies young.

This book may not be for the died in the wool Elvis hater, nor the Elvis fan who knows all that it contains already, but I found it interesting and readable.

About the Culture in Which the Elvis Phenomenon Occurred"

I am reading Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll by Allen Wiener. It occurs to me that I need to put this in a historical context, and others might find it useful as well. It is worth reading the Wikipedia entry on Elvis Presley.

The 1950s (The Silent Generation Comes of Age)

U.S. Population: 132.2 million in 1940, 151.3 million in 1950
U.S. Real GDP: $1.27 trillion in 1940, $2.27 trillion in 1950

Elvis Presley was raised in poverty, and had had only a relatively short career in the South before exploding into the national consciousness in the late 1959s,. Elvis began his TV career appearing multiple times on popular national TV programs in 1956 when he was 21 years old. He performed early in the years in six shows of Stage Show, hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, a show that shared an hour time slot with Jimmy Gleason's very popular Honeymooners show. Then Presley appeared twice on The Milton Berle Show, again very popular, and The Allen Moore Show. There was an interview with Hy Gardner on a New York City station, and finally three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show (the third in January 1957); the Sullivan Show appearances not only provided a large audience, but were a sort of "seal of approval" that Elvis Presley was a really big star! Elvis had four albums that topped the charts in the USA in the 1950s and 12 #1 singles plus two more that were in the top ten.

Consider a 16 year old girl in 1956 who was therefore born in 1940. Her parents had just lived through the Depression when she was born, the war was on in Europe, and Americans would fight World War II from 1941 through 1945. The Cold War would soon follow. The Korean War was fought from 1950 to 1953; President Eisenhower fulfilled a campaign promise and ended it. For a few years there was peace, and 1956 was for an American teenager a relatively peaceful time. That was the life experience of the girls in the audiences that screamed and made Elvis "the King".

I think there was a lot of interest in rebellious young people at the time. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.was published in 1951.  Marlon Brando starred in The Wild One in 1953. James Dean starred in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. Jack Kerouac published On the Road in 1957.

As I look back on the run up to the birth of Rock and Roll and the sudden stardom of Elvis, my first thought is of the "moon-June" music that I associate with the network radio that dominated home entertainment prior to television invading every living room in America. But that is not a full picture:
  • "The Third Man Theme," redolent of Austrian cafes and featuring a zither solo, spent 11 weeks at number one on Billboard's U.S. Best Sellers in Stores chart in the 1950.
  • "Goodnight Irene," written by Leadbelly (a black man who was in and out of jail) as sung by the Weavers was named by Billboard as the number one song of 1950.
  • "The Tennessee Waltz, originally a country song, became a multimillion seller via a 1950 recording  by Patti Page.
  • "On Top of Old Smokey" -- a fok song -- was made hugely popular by The Weavers in 1951;
  • 'Auf Wiederseh'n, Sweetheart" was ranked #5 for 1952 on Billboard, and was the first song recorded by a foreign artist to make number one on the U.S. weekly Billboard chart.
  • 1953 saw "Vaya con Dios," "Eh, Cumpari!" and "C'est si bon" among Billboard's top 30 songs for the year.
  • "Shake, Rattle and Roll" by Bill Haley and His Comets made the top 30 in 1954.
  • Haley's "Rock Around The Clock' made number 2 in 1955.
  • Elvis Presley had 5 of the top 30 Bilboard songs in 1956, but Carl Perkins version of "Blue Suede Shoes," Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" and Fats Domino's "I'm In Love Again" also made the top 30.
Maybe the American audience was looking around for some new music (or at least some of its now fragmented portions) and Rock and Roll was successful in the mid 50s in reaching a portion of that audience. Wikipedia says:
Accompanying Presley's rise to fame, a cultural shift was taking place that he both helped inspire and came to symbolize. Igniting the "biggest pop craze since Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra ... Presley brought rock'n'roll into the mainstream of popular culture", writes historian Marty Jezer. "As Presley set the artistic pace, other artists followed. ... Presley, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation—the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture."

In November 1956, Presley made his film debut in Love Me Tender. In 1958, he was drafted into military service. He resumed his recording career in 1960, although recordings made before his military service and on leave were actually released during the time Elvis was in Germany.

Colonel Parker, Presley's manager broke new ground as television, top-40 radio, jukeboxes, record sales, movies, in-person concerts, and commercial tie-ins (posters, photos, concert programs, and even food) were combined in a synergy to increase Elvis' fame, increase his record sales, and make money!

The 1960s (Early Baby Boomers Become Adults)

U.S. Population: 179.3 million in 1960
U.S. Real GDP: $3.08 trillion trillion in 1960

I remember the 1960s as hard years. There was the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis at the beginning of President Kennedy's term in office. The Cold War turned hot in Vietnam -- brought into American living rooms by TV -- and American involvement escalated through the decade. The Anti-War movement grew, and people took to the streets to protest the war. Johnson decided not to run again for President in 1968, and Nixon won, in part on his promise to end the war -- but the war went on. Bombing of North Vietnam did not sap the will of the enemy. A massacre in My Lai by American troops badly shook American public opinion. So too did the Tet Offensive of 1968. President Nixon began secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, a bombing that continued into 1970.  The U.S. public was shocked when college students were killed in 1970 by militia at Kent State University.

Foreign policy remained complex, demanding attention from government leaders if not from most of the American public. President Kennedy began the Alliance for Progress (in the Americas) and the Peace Corps. The Middle East demanded attention, as there was an Israeli-Egyptian War in 1967. As Cuba moved into the Soviet camp, Washington became concerned with Communist intrusion into other Latin American countries. Decolonization took hold after World War II, new nations in Africa and Asia took seats in international organizations, and often became surrogate battlegrounds for the Cold War principals; the political, economic and social development of Africa, Latina America and Asia became a concern. The former imperial European powers sought to adjust to their new, more-limited international role.

President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968, and Bobby Kennedy in June of 1968. The Civil Rights Movement which had started in the 1950 continued and grew through the 60s. The movement contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but also saw freedom riders killed and unforgettable televised police brutality against peaceful demonstrators in the South. A wave of inner city riots in black communities wracked the country from 1964 through 1970. President Johnson began a War on Poverty, assuring the country that it could afford guns and butter.

The Hippie movement, centered in San Francisco, captured the attention of the nation for a bit. While U.C. Berkeley got a lot of attention for the Free Speech Movement, university campuses across the nation became involved in counter culture activities. The Pill made more impact, and sexual mores were liberalized. Marijuana and other drugs were more in the news and more widely used.

The 16 year old girl Elvis fan of 1956 would be 26 in 1966. She might well be married and have children of her own, but she might also continue to be his fan. A new generation of young fans also had arrived, some having first heard Elvis on TV, radio or records at their mother's knee. Older fans were also recruited to the mix, including older folk. For that young mother, the world was perhaps a more threatening place than it had been  a decade earlier.

As to the music scene, I quote from Wikipedia:
During the early 1960s, Britain's new wave of musicians gained popularity and fame in the United States. Artists such as the Beatles paved the way for their compatriots to enter the US market. The Beatles themselves were influenced by many artists, among them American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, who was a lyrical inspiration as well as their introduction to marijuana. Dylan's early career as a protest singer had been inspired by artists like Pete Seeger and his hero Woody Guthrie. Other folksingers, like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, took the songs of the era to new audiences and public recognition. 
The music of the 1960s moved towards an electric, psychedelic version of rock, thanks largely to Bob Dylan's decision to play an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The newly popularized electric sound of rock was then built upon and molded into psychedelic rock by artists like The 13th Floor Elevators and British bands Pink Floyd and the Beatles. The Beach Boys' 1966 album Pet Sounds also paved the way for later hippie acts, with Brian Wilson's writing interpreted as a "plea for love and understanding." Pet Sounds served as a major source of inspiration for other contemporary acts, most notably directly inspiring the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The single "Good Vibrations" soared to number one globally, completely changing the perception of what a record could be. It was during this period that the highly anticipated album Smile was to be released. However, the project collapsed and The Beach Boys released a downgraded version called Smiley Smile, which failed to make a big commercial impact but was also highly influential, most notably on The Who's Pete Townshend.......... 
The 1960s was also an era of rock festivals, which played an important role in spreading the counterculture across the US. The Monterey Pop Festival, which launched Jimi Hendrix's career in the US, was one of the first of these festivals. Britain's 1968–1970 Isle of Wight Festivals drew big names such as The Who, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, Dylan, and others. The 1969 Woodstock Festival in New York state became a symbol of the movement, although the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival drew a larger crowd. Some believe the era came to an abrupt end with the infamous Altamont Free Concert held by The Rolling Stones, in which heavy-handed security from the Hells Angels resulted in the stabbing of an audience member, apparently in self-defense, as the show descended into chaos.
The Beatles broke up at the end of the decade, but other British bands soldiered on,

Elvis Presley began the 1960s with a TV special costarring with Frank Senatra. It was very well received, and effectively restarted his career with a bang after his two years of army service. Elvis turned out 27 movies in the 60s, commercializing on his reputation. They were virtually all profitable for Elvis, Parker and the movie studio, but had little serious value as film or to Elvis' career as a musician. In 1968, having missed out on much of the musical excitement of the decade, he made another TV special, Elvis. Author Wiener sees this show as marking a comeback for Elvis due to the show's very large TV audience (even if it failed to garner great critical success). The following years were devoted to touring for concerts. Those in Las Vegas and Tahoe were lucrative and important as the locale for the creation of his stage performance, but he toured the country extensively, packing in the audiences and making himself and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker a lot of money. However, this was for Elvis the early stage of a downward slide, marked by addiction to pills, weight gain, family problems (he was married in 1967 and his only daughter was born a year later), and loss of motivation for his career.

Elvis recorded music during the period; it continued to sell, making money for Elvis and Parker. He had four number one albums and two more in the top ten in the USA from 1960 through 1964. and then not another until 1969.  Similarly, he had five #1 singles and five more that were in the top 10 from 1960 to 63, but only one #1 and two that hit #3 in the rest of the decade.

Elvis' home, and now visitors attraction

The 1970s (More Baby Boomers Become Adults/The Hippies)

U.S. Population: 203.2 million in 1970, 248.7 million in 1980
U.S. Real GDP: $4.71 trillion trillion in 1970, $6.50 trillion in 1980

The Vietnam War ground on. The release of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times and The Washington Post in  1971 undermined trust in the government statements and in its Vietnam policy. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 but were not accepted. President Nixon ordered U.S. ground troops to cross the Cambodian border in 1970, seeking to interdict Vietcong supply routes. A "Vietnamization" policy was initiated strengthening the armament of Vietnamese forces, but withdrawing U.S. forces. By the beginning of 1972, over 400,000 U.S. personnel had been withdrawn, virtually all combat troops. With public opinion in the U.S, against the war, and Democrats controlling the Congress and against the war, the South Vietnamese were increasingly left to fight the Vietcong on their own. The final invasion and surrender of Saigon came in 1975, again playing on TV in American living rooms. The majority of Americans were happy to see American losses in Vietnam put to an end.

Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office in 1973 having been charged with bribery, conspiracy and tax fraud. A break in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate in June of 1972 unraveled into the Watergate scandal that would end the Nixon Administration and result in the first resignation of an American president. Day after day, newspapers screamed stories of illegal acts planned and carried out by White House operatives, a massive cover up, slush funds, and involvement reaching up to the president himself. A special prosecutor was appointed, key leaders in the Department of Justice resigned rather than carry out the president's orders, and President Nixon finally resigned from office on August 9, 1974.

1973 was the first of the oil shocks as the Oil Exporting Countries exercised their monopoly power by reducing exports and thus raising oil prices. Not only did this result in long lines at gas stations in the USA, but in a global financial crisis (the financing of needed oil imports) and in crucial fuel shortages for the South Vietnamese government that helped bring on its military collapse. There would be another energy crisis in 1979.

The 70s were a time in which women's issues came more to the fore -- women's rights and feminism. More women entered the workforce, Rowe vs. Wade in 1973 established a woman's right to abortion, and other changes advanced the lives of women. It was also a time when the environmental movement gained momentum. In 1970, the United States celebrated its first Earth Day in which over two thousand colleges and universities and roughly ten thousand primary and secondary schools participated.

That 16 year old girl of 1956 was 36 in 1976 -- possibly still an Elvis fan. The Presley fan base added men as well as women, and many younger than his now maturing original fans, but also older people, some of whom were drawn by his gospel music or his country tracks. But that 36 year old woman was now more mature, with more concerns in her personal life, and much more distrusting of government. Depending on her political ideology, she might be happy or disconcerted by the social changes in the country; she would have more political and cultural power, were she to choose to use it.

I quote from Wikipedia again on the music scene:
The early 1970s saw the rise of many diverse forms of popular and rock musical styles, including jazz rock (aka "fusion"), southern rock, folk rock, and soft rock, with the latter including recording artists such as The Carpenters, Carole King, and James Taylor. It also included the rise of such popular, influential rhythm and blues (R&B) and Motown artists as Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and The Jackson 5. 
Funk, an offshoot of Soul music with a greater emphasis on beats, influences from rhythm and blues, jazz, and psychedelic rock, was also very popular. The mid-1970s also saw the rise of disco music, which dominated during the last half of the decade with bands like the Bee Gees, ABBA, Village People, Boney M, Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band, etc. In response to this, rock music became increasingly hard-edged with British early metal artists like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Minimalism also emerged, led by composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Michael Nyman. This was a break from the intellectual serial music of the tradition of Schoenberg which lasted from the early 1900s to 1960s. 
Experimental classical music influenced both art rock and progressive rock genres with bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Rush, Genesis, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues and Soft Machine. Hard rock and Heavy metal also emerged among British bands Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Who, Black Sabbath, UFO, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and Judas Priest. Australian band AC/DC also found its hard rock origins in the early 1970s and its breakthrough in 1979's Highway to Hell, while popular American rock bands included Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and "shocksters" metalists Alice Cooper, Blue Öyster Cult, and Kiss, and guitar-oriented Ted Nugent and Van Halen. In Europe, there was a surge of popularity in the early decade for glam rock. The mid-'70s saw the rise of punk rock from its protopunk/garage band roots in the 1960s and early 1970s. Major acts include the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash, while seminal band The Runaways would produce 1980s solo recording artists Joan Jett and Lita Ford. The highest-selling album was Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). It remained on the Billboard 200 albums chart for 741 weeks.
The Wikipedia discussion goes on to mention  art rock and progressive rock genres,  jazz-rock fusion and the beginning of Hip Hop music in the late 70s. John Lennon was assassinated in 1980.

Presley from Hawaii in 1973
Elvis continued his slide in the 1970s, with occasional partial recoveries. He toured a great deal but appeared less in the high prestige venues of Las Vegas and Tahoe and more in the rest of the country. He made one television special, Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii in 1973 -- the first television show shown to a worldwide audience (albeit by delayed transmission in the USA to avoid conflicting with the Super Bowl). The related album was his only #1 album in the 1970s. Elvis in Concert, a TV special focusing on the crowd responses to his concerts, was filmed in 1977 just before his death at age 42. It was shown after his death, and served as a sort of memorial. Two albums reached the top ten in 1977. Three other albums released in the 70s made it into the top 50. Only three of his singles made the top 50 in the USA in the 1970s, and only one of those was in the top 10.

Wikipedia sums up his career in these paragraphs:
Presley is one of the most celebrated and influential musicians of the 20th century. Commercially successful in many genres, including pop, blues and gospel, he is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music, with estimated record sales of around 600 million units worldwide. He won three Grammys, also receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36, and has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame. Forbes named Elvis Presley as the 2nd top earning dead celebrity with $55 million as of 2011........ 
As the catalyst for the cultural revolution that was rock and roll, he was central not only to defining it as a musical genre but in making it a touchstone of youth culture and rebellious attitude. With its racially mixed origins—repeatedly affirmed by Presley—rock and roll's occupation of a central position in mainstream American culture facilitated a new acceptance and appreciation of black culture.
Many videos of Elvis are now available for viewing online.

Elvis circa 1977

Monday, June 15, 2015

The World Is Not Ready for Another Economic Crisis

There is an interesting column in The Economist magazine this week, dealing with the ability of countries to deal with another financial crisis if one should arise in the near future.

An article last week in the same magazine pointed out that economic growth had been pretty good in China, the United States and India in the past few years, but remains quite low in the rest of the world. While these three countries together represent a considerable portion of the world's people and GDP, the lack of growth in other economies troubles me.
The euro area’s slow recovery has continued; the 19-country bloc experienced 1.1% year-on-year growth in the first quarter of 2015 compared with 0.9% in the previous quarter. Leaving aside China and India, emerging markets struggled in the first quarter. They contributed less than 13% of global growth, the smallest proportion since late 2009.

Governments seek to support the economy in crises by various methods.

  • Central banks lower interest rates but: "Central banks’ benchmark interest rates hover above zero......they will probably remain close to that level for some time to come. Futures prices suggest that the Fed’s main rate will be around 2% in early 2018. Traders expect the Bank of England’s to be about 1.5%, and those in Europe and Japan to remain stuck near zero."
  • In this Great Recession, central banks printed money to buy bonds in an effort to provide additional stimulus—a policy known as quantitative easing; we still have to see the effect of liquidating the bonds bought with created money, and it may be ugly. "(In Japan) the central bank now owns almost 30% of the public debt."
  • Governments seek to increase spending to stimulate the economy; since tax income goes down in recessions, governments borrow to do so. But many governments are already running budget deficits that are a significant fraction of the GDP. Some governments have already borrowed so much (relative to their country's GDP) that they will not easily borrow more. "The mountain of public debt accumulated since 2007 adds a further constraint. Debt as a share of GDP is, on average, 50% higher than it was before the crisis."
I assume that a vigorous recovery would have helped. Had the GDP increased rapidly, the debt to GDP ratios would have correspondingly decreased. Central banks would have increased interest rates, and would have reduced the rate of quantitative easing. Tax revenues would have improved, There would have been more "wiggle room". But many governments chose austerity policies designed to reduce debt (while accepting relatively lower rates of economic growth).

We will no doubt see what we will see! 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How Accurate Are DNA Identifications/

As I understand it, courts sometimes use DNA identification to incriminate or clear suspects. Material found at the scene of a crime is found to contain human cells, the DNA is identified, and then compared with the DNA of a suspect.

Popular sources seem to suggest that it is very, very unlikely that two people have identical DNA, or that the wrong person will be identified from a DNA test.

Lets say that the laboratory reports back that the suspect's DNA matches that of the sample from the scene. What does that actually mean?

According to Wikipedia:
Monozygotic twinning occurs in birthing at a rate of about three in every 1000 deliveries worldwide.
So, as I understand it, 0.3 percent of individuals in the population share identical DNA with an identical twin. Unless the existence of such an identical twin can be ruled out, the most one can say is that there in not more than one chance in 333 that someone else left that specific DNA trace at the scene of the crime.

Say that investigators try to rule out the possible existence of a monozygotic sibling. We know that mistakes happen in hospitals and that there are other ways that twins are separated at birth without their ever later learning of that occurrence. So, even if efforts have been made to assure that the individual in question does not have an identical sibling somewhere, that investigation should not be considered absolutely conclusive.

Add in the possibility of error in the lab -- mixing up the crime scene sample with that from another crime scene, mixing up the suspect's sample with that from another person, mistakes in reading the DNA test results, deliberate falsification of the findings. The confidence provided by DNA testimony goes down further.

How about the possibility that the DNA sample taken from the crime scene is not that of the person who committed the crime, but that of some other person? Is it not possible that that does occur? How would you estimate its probability?

How many judges or jurors would be able to really understand the testimony of a DNA witness, properly estimate the probability of a suspect being responsible for the crime from the DNA evidence alone, or able to combine the probabilities arising from the DNA evidence with that from other sources (eye witness testimony, circumstantial evidence, exculpatory evidence offered by the defendant, etc.?

I am not comfortable with the accuracy that the judicial process might achieve in cases involving DNA evidence. Still, such evidence obviously should influence verdicts if available. The question is how to be sure that it appropriately influences verdicts.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Correlation Between Corruption and Ease of Doing Business

Source: The Economist
I am posting this not because of the data highlighted by the original authors on Asian countries, but rather on the strong correlation shown between the perception of corruption and the ease of doing business. Correlation is not causality, and I assume that there is some deeper cultural cause of both corruption and difficulty of doing business in a country,

It would be interesting to do a Gapminder on this and see how the position of countries changes on these two dimensions in recent history, and relate that change to economic development.

Two Graphs Tell a Lot About the Conservative Revolution in America

These two graphs are from a review in the current edition of The Economist of Anthony Atkinson's new book, Inequality: What Can Be Done? .

The top graph shows that the top one percent of Americans get something like 17 or 18 percent of all the income in the country. Of course, the one percent control a greater portion of the wealth.

The second graph is the real reason I wanted to create this post. In the United States the top tax rate has almost been cut in half in the past 45 years, more than in any of the other developed nations shown. In the same period the share of income appropriated by the top one percent has increased by more than nine percent of the total. The very rich have used their wealth to achieve the political power to increase their wealth still more! The rest, not so much!

Friday, June 05, 2015

What Douglass Didn't Say About Great Britain

Frederick Douglass
circa 1847-1852

I have been reading My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass. It was first published in 1855. Chapter 24, titled "Twenty-One Months in Great Britain", describes Douglass' stay in Ireland, England and Scotland from late 1845 to the Spring or 1847. Douglas wrote early in his trip (when he was in Ireland):
My opportunities for learning the character and condition of the people of this land have been very great. I have traveled almost from the Hill of Howth to the Giant's Causeway, and from the Giant's Causway, to Cape Clear. During these travels, I have met with much in the character and condition of the people to approve, and much to condemn; much that thrilled me with pleasure, and very much that has filled me with pain. I can not, in this letter, attempt to give any description of those scenes which have given me pain. This I will do hereafter. I have enough, and more than your subscribers will be disposed to read at one time, of the bright side of the picture. I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life. The warm and generous cooperation extended to me by the friends of my despised race; the prompt and liberal manner with which the press has rendered me its aid; the glorious enthusiasm with which thousands have flocked to hear the cruel wrongs of my down-trodden and long-enslaved fellow-countrymen portrayed; the deep sympathy for the slave, and the strong abhorrence of the slaveholder, everywhere evinced; the cordiality with which members and ministers of various religious bodies, and of various shades of religious opinion, have embraced me, and lent me their aid; the kind of hospitality constantly proffered to me by persons of the highest rank in society; the spirit of freedom that seems to animate all with whom I come in contact, and the entire absence of everything that looked like prejudice against me, on account of the color of my skin—contrasted so strongly with my long and bitter experience in the United States, that I look with wonder and amazement on the transition. In the southern part of the United States, I was a slave, thought of and spoken of as property; in the language of the LAW, "held, taken, reputed, and adjudged to be a chattel in the hands of my owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever." (Brev. Digest, 224). In the northern states, a fugitive slave, liable to be hunted at any moment, like a felon, and to be hurled into the terrible jaws of slavery—doomed by an inveterate prejudice against color to insult and outrage on every hand (Massachusetts out of the question)—denied the privileges and courtesies common to others in the use of the most humble means of conveyance—shut out from the cabins on steamboats—refused admission to respectable hotels—caricatured, scorned, scoffed, mocked, and maltreated with impunity by any one (no matter how black his heart), so he has a white skin. But now behold the change! Eleven days and a half gone, and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlor—I dine at the same table and no one is offended. No delicate nose grows deformed in my presence. I find no difficulty here in obtaining admission into any place of worship, instruction, or amusement, on equal terms with people as white as any I ever saw in the United States. I meet nothing to remind me of my complexion. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, "We don't allow niggers in here!"
I would note however, that things were not so great in Ireland around the time he visited. There was a history of anti-Catholic prejudice and legislation in Ireland. The potato famine began with the destruction of potato crops in 1845 and was in full swing in 1847. A million or more Irish died as a result, while food was being exported from Ireland to England. Millions of desperate people emigrated, many to America, and some on plague ships. The poor, non-English speaking Irish immigrants were the lowest of the low; in the South they were given jobs judged too dangerous for slaves (if a slave died or was incapacitated, his owner lost the value of his investment). Certainly by 1855 when this book was published, the extent of the tragedy should have been visible in the United States.

Douglass continued to be well received in peoples homes in England and Scotland, and he is not discriminated against in public transportation or public facilities as he would be in the United States. Indeed, as a result of publicity he receives he is able to address large groups, and appears to be very much encouraged by a public outcry against the Church of Scotland receiving funds from related churches that supported slavery in their countries. He apparently felt that he was not the subject of racial discrimination there.

Again, let me comment on some of the less pleasant aspects of life in Great Britain. Life expectancy in Great Britain hovered around 40 years until 1850. I quote from a paper on daily life in Britain in the 19th century:
In the 1840s many people came from Ireland, fleeing a terrible potato famine......In Victorian Britain at least 80% of the population was working class........The first effective (child labor) law was passed in 1833. It was effective because for the first time factory inspectors were appointed to make sure the law was being obeyed. The new law banned children under 9 from working in textile factories. It said that children aged 9 to 13 must not work for more than 12 hours a day or 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week. Furthermore nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am). Children aged 9 to 13 were to be given 2 hours education a day.......(Early in the century) Conditions in coalmines were often terrible. Children as young as 5 worked underground. However in 1842 a law banned women and boys under 10 from working underground. In 1844 a law banned all children under 8 from working.........Living conditions in early 19th British century cities were often dreadful......early 19th century cities were dirty, unsanitary and overcrowded. In them streets were very often unpaved and they were not cleaned. Rubbish was not collected and it was allowed to accumulate in piles in the streets. Since most of it was organic when it turned black and sticky it was used as fertilizer.........At the end of the 19th century more than 25% of the population of Britain was living at or below subsistence level. Surveys indicated that around 10% were very poor and could not afford even basic necessities such as enough nourishing food. Between 15% and 20% had just enough money to live on (provided they did not lose their job or have to take time off work through illness). If you had no income at all you had to enter the workhouse. The workhouses were feared and hated by the poor. They were meant to be as unpleasant as possible to deter poor people from asking the state for help. However during the late 19th century workhouses gradually became more humane........In the early 19th century housing for the poor was often dreadful. Often they lived in 'back-to-backs'. These were houses of three (or sometimes only two) rooms, one of top of the other. The houses were literally back-to-back. The back of one house joined onto the back of another and they only had windows on one side. The bottom room was used as a living room cum kitchen. The two rooms upstairs were used as bedrooms. The worst homes were cellar dwellings. These were one-room cellars. They were damp and poorly ventilated. The poorest people slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds. However housing conditions gradually improved. In the 1840s local councils passed by-laws banning cellar dwellings. They also banned any new back to backs. The old ones were gradually demolished and replaced over the following decades.......In the early 19th century most of the working class lived on plain food bread, butter, potatoes and bacon. Butcher's meat was a luxury. 
Great Britain did have a strong, early abolition movement. An act of parliament abolished slavery throughout the British empire in 1833 "(with the exceptions 'of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company,' the 'Island of Ceylon,' and 'the Island of Saint Helena'; the exceptions were eliminated in 1843)." While I accept that Frederick Douglass was well received by his hosts and many in the general public, The Scramble for Africa  seems to suggest that racial prejudice against Africans was alive and well in at least a portion of the British population and government.

I would also point out that American produced cotton was very important to the English economy. I quote from an article by Henry Louis Gates Jr.:
What did cotton production and slavery have to do with Great Britain? The figures are astonishing. As Dattel explains: “Britain, the most powerful nation in the world, relied on slave-produced American cotton for over 80 per cent of its essential industrial raw material. English textile mills accounted for 40 percent of Britain’s exports. One-fifth of Britain’s twenty-two million people were directly or indirectly involved with cotton textiles.”
The Civil War resulted in a blockade of the South, and England began to import cotton from other sources, notably Egypt. However, Gates also points out:
(C)otton productivity, no doubt due to the sharecropping system that replaced slavery, remained central to the American economy for a very long time: “Cotton was the leading American export from 1803 to 1937.”
The political elites in England could not have been unaware of the role that their industry was playing in the economic support of the slavery system and later Jim Crow system that produced cotton in the United States.

While the purpose of Douglass' 1855 autobiography was clearly to support the fight against slavery and racism in the United States, and while he admits he is not writing about the darker aspects of life in Great Britain at the time of his visit, there was such a darker aspect. Indeed, I wonder if his lack of formal education and the warm reception he received from the British abolitionists may have reduced his ability to understand and appreciate the problems of the nations he was visiting,

I suspect that Douglas, in his talks in Great Britain against slavery, helped raise public opposition to the Arab slave trade in Africa. This in turn was part of the public support for British imperial participation in the scramble for Africa that came after 1876. Of course, the British imperial masters, having wrested control of a huge swath of Africa, often and for a very long time treated the native Africans badly.