Sexism and the Double Helix

Rosalind FranklinOne of the greatest American artists ever, Thomas Eakins was born in 1844. A lesser, but still fine painter Alexander Rummler was born in 1867. Neoclassical illustrator Maxfield Parrish was born in 1870. Italian composer Alfredo Casella was born in 1883. Here is his Toccata per Pianoforte:

Character actor Walter Brennan was born in 1894. Mixed media abstract artist Jane Frank was born in 1918. Actor Estelle Getty was born in 1923. And civil rights martyr Emmett Till was born in 1941. He was murdered at the age of 14. He would be 72 today.

Actor Barbara Harris is 78 today. And Christine Quinn is 47. I only bring her up because she is running for mayor against Anthony Weiner right now.

The day, however, belongs to biophysicist Rosalind Franklin who was born on this day in 1920. She did a lot of wide ranging work, but is best know for her contributions to determining the structure of DNA. It is nice to think that had she lived longer—she died of ovarian cancer at 37—she would have at least shared the Nobel Prize with Crick and Watson. But given how they specifically played down her contributions in their own work, it is easy to see her brilliance and hard work never having been fully acknowledged in her life. Here is a nice short video about her from Hank Green:

Happy birthday Rosalind Franklin!

Faith Based Conservatism

Confederate FlagI got a YouTube message from someone at an account named “Green Power.” From the video preview, he looks like a teenager. I don’t know, because I’m not going to give the guy even my one view. Let me explain. He sent what is doubtless a generic message, “I am a born again Republican. Please vote republican in 2014 . We need to take our country back . Here is a video about voting republican that you should watch.” So the issue isn’t so much that he is likely an idiotic conservative. It is that he is basically spamming me and I don’t want to encourage that. So in addition to not viewing the miscreant’s video, I’m not linking to it or him. But I will provide this screen capture:

Green Power

Of course, I could be wrong about this guy. Maybe this is just a clever bit of satire. Maybe even the spam message is part of it. Conservatives are so like that! But in my experience, people can be taken at their word—especially when their word is offensive.

I was going to write to the guy, but I thought better of it. Here is what I wrote before I decided to just create this brief post:

Just a tip: don’t say “born again Republican.” It makes you sound like politics is a religion. Politics is about ideas, not faith. Also, the confederate flag makes you look like a bigot. If I were a Republican, I would be ashamed that you self-identified as I did.

Who exactly do you intend to take “our” country back from? Really, I hear that phrase all the time, but I have no idea what it means. I think the US is screwed up in a whole lot of ways, but just because I don’t get the policies I want, doesn’t mean some foreign agent has taken over my country. I think what you really mean is that those who disagree with you are not “real” Americans. Sorry, but that just isn’t the case.

Finally, your message is distinctly spam like. It is clearly a message that you’ve just pasted in that has no particular relevance to me. As a result, I absolutely will not click on it.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

If this guy is who he appears to be, he is a walking-talking cliche: faith based policy combined with creepy implicit racism is pretty much the definition of the modern Republican Party. It really would be brilliant satire. But Billy Bob Neck, it ain’t.

Rand Paul Imagines There’s No Racism—It Isn’t Hard to Do

Rand PaulThe smart bigot’s argument against affirmative action is that the very idea is racist. As George Will is fond of saying things similar to this, “If you want to stop racism, stop being racist.” It all sounds so great. According to this theory, all we need to do is stop thinking in racial terms and everything will be fine. The problem is that we won’t all stop thinking in racial terms. We might stop talking in racial terms. We might all pretend that many individuals, institution, and system are beyond operating in racial terms. But racist thinking will then simply have free rein to work its pernicious magic. So all we’re really getting from people like Will is an appeal to ignore racism and hope it goes away (not that it matters one way or another to him).

A good example of how racism works can be found in Texas. Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, Texas began working to make their voting system more racist. Of course, there is nothing new about this. According to a federal court ruling from last year, “The [Texas Congressional District 25] mapdrawers consciously replaced many of the district’s active Hispanic voters with low-turnout Hispanic voters in an effort to strengthen the voting power of CD 23’s Anglo citizens.” This is the kind of thing that the Voting Rights Act was designed to protect against. But now the Supreme Court has ruled that they have to be allowed to suppress the vote and only then stopped.

Attorney General Eric Holder has decided that the federal government still can go after this kind of behavior before it directly affects voters. In a transcript of a talk he gave to the National Urban League Annual Conference, he said, “Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder—as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized—we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices.”

This, of course, is great news. But it gets to the heart of this ridiculous idea that if we liberals would just shut up about racism, it would go away. That’s just not true. Institutional racism existed that effectively made it impossible for blacks to vote in the south from the 1870s up through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That’s roughly 90 years of pretending that there was no problem. If it really were going to work itself out, it would have done so in that amount of time. And that is not even counting the de facto Jim Crow that currently exists in the form of the massive over-application of drug laws against African American communities.

But don’t think that George Will and his band sophisticated bigots are an old and dying bread. Steve Benen brought my attention to an interview that Rand Paul did with Yahoo! News in Iowa. Now remember: Paul is one of the more “reasonable” Republicans. And he said, “I don’t think there’s anyone in Congress who has a stronger belief in minority rights than I do.” And he isn’t lying. That’s what he thinks. He thinks that explicit government racism is wrong. He even understands the drug law issue. What he doesn’t understand—and this is key—is how America isn’t otherwise a level playing field.

This is just willful ignorance—the kind of ignorance that is very flattering to a man like Rand Paul. For example, he is a doctor. So is his father Ron Paul. But I’m sure it never occurs to him that that is correlated in any way except that Ron gave him some really great genes. But all the evidence shows it is just the opposite. So Rand Paul can think that he’s the number one proponent of minority rights. But the truth is that just like the bigots who came before him, he just wants everyone to pretend. Unfortunately for him, most of us don’t have the talent for such delusion.

Most College Teaching Is Horrible

Jonathan ReesJonathan Chait wrote an interesting article this afternoon, College Professors Are About to Get Really Mad at President Obama. It involves Obama’s new push to lower the cost of college by using more “massive open online courses” (MOOCs). As a result of this, Jonathan Rees wrote an article arguing that we need to push against this because “information” is not the same as “education.” Although I have major problems with what Rees wrote, Chait’s counterargument is even worse. So let me throw a few thoughts into this debate.

There is a larger issue here that Rees discusses and Chait dumps all over: what is going to happen to the professors? I think the idea that we can automate ourselves to prosperity is ridiculous. It could work if it were the case that productivity increases were widely shared. But that just isn’t the case. As I noted just yesterday, if the minimum wage had been increasing at the rate of productivity growth, it would now be over $17 per hour. Instead, we now live in a nation where $17 per hour is one of the better jobs a person can get. So this whole idea that we can somehow educate kids by the thousands with largely automated tools makes me question what exactly we are educating those kids for. After all, if we can automate education, what can’t we automate?

The main educational issue gets to the heart of what has long been a problem with colleges. Although I could have gone to Berkeley, I specifically did not because I didn’t want to take all of my lower division courses in classes that involved hundreds of students. Even in the Davis chemistry department (known for its personalized treatment of students), they bragged about having as few as 15 students in their upper division courses. And Davis is hardly considered an elite university.

What I think happens with elite universities is that their reputations allow them to draw the very best students. And as a result of having the very best students, the universities really don’t need to do any teaching at all. My experience is that teaching at the college level, across all disciplines, is ghastly. It was only when I began teaching that I saw it was possible to make a course better than just reading the text book. And it started by deciding to not teach the way that I had been “taught.” (For the record, I went to a small school and program and my experience was mostly quite good.)

The sad thing was that once I started looking, I found that there had been a lot of really smart people working on the problem of teaching physics. I’m sure the same thing in true in other fields. So there is a huge amount that colleges could do to improve their generally crummy product. But in general, I don’t think they are even aware of how crummy they are. And that’s how MOOCs have come to be seen as an effective form of education.

Look, the truth is that most people can combine a decent grammar school education and a public library into the best education in the world. But that is much like saying that a child born into poverty in Ethiopia can grow up to be a billionaire: true but hardly the basis for good policy. The truth is that if we want more access to better high education, the way to do it is to reduce student to teacher ratios. The higher this ratio, the more the teacher becomes nothing but an information conduit. And that kind of teacher is no more helpful than just reading the book. The Green brothers make excellent videos in their “Crash Course” series, but as entertaining as they are, they do not educate.

There is a whole other side of higher education, of course. And this is one that I wish I had more access to myself. Colleges are an intellectual community. They are conducive to learning. I don’t see how that is replicated in the disparate make up of an MOOC. I just don’t think knowing that you can instant message a question to a TA really cuts it. Nor does it facilitate the synergistic power of conversation that I found most helpful in college.

Finally, I think we have to figure out just what as a society we want from higher education. Too much of it has become more like job training than education. This focus is shortsighted. As I wrote before, “The point of college, as Professor Kingsfield might have said, is to train your mind.” But we have a business culture that regardless of how trained its workers might be still wants to treat them as though they were mere cogs in the machine. And this is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the focus on MOOCs: we treat students as cogs so they can go on to be adult cogs.

While I am not terribly sympathetic to Professor Rees’ concerns, at least he is trying to hold the fort against the assault from people like Obama who want to “improve” higher education out of existence. And let’s not forget: all the MOOCs are doing is creating a two tier college system. One is for the poor and it will be known as “college”—with the scare quotes. And one is for the rich and it will be know as real college—no scare quotes necessary. And think about that. What it means is that poorer students will still try to do everything they can to go to college instead of just logging into it. The MOOC solution is not a real solution—at least not in the long term.

If Rees really wants to push back against this trend, what he needs to do is push for reform of college teaching. The truth is that it would be an easy matter to create intellectual retreats where people who wanted to learn could come and commune with each other and their books. And I’m not sure there would be any less education going on there than there is at most college campuses—especially the elite ones.

No Tea Party Rift

Tea PartyThis morning, Ed Kilgore reflected on the fact that the only real ideological divide in the Republican Party is over national security. That is true, although even Rand Paul has shown himself to be nothing is not malleable when it comes to ideology. But it is true that yesterday, a large bipartisan minority voted for an amendment to the half trillion dollar defense authorization to restrict the NSA’s ability to collect telephone metadata on US calls. The final vote was 205-217, so it only barely lost.

Kilgore speculated that there would have been more Democratic votes for the amendment if a Republican had been in the White House. Of course that’s true. Even still, I’m pretty happy with the party; they voted in favor of the amendment 111-83—that’s 57% of the caucus on a bill where the leadership and the White House were very vocal about how it would mean the end of free society and would effectively mean the terrorists won.

On the Republican side, Kilgore is less certain about how the White House control affected the vote. As it was, while Republicans voted for the amendment in large numbers, they did not have a majority. The vote was 94-134—that’s just 41%. I suspect that had a Republican been in the White House, that number would have gone down to perhaps 30%.

The main question is why some Republicans care about privacy issues while others do not. Kilgore noted, “I certainly haven’t figured out any consistent principle … that makes it possible to predict which fire-eating Tea Party conservative these days is frothing for an immediate war with Iran and perhaps domestic profiling of Muslims, and which is worried about excessive overseas commitments or domestic surveillance.” For example, Michele Bachmann and Steve King both voted against the amendment.

I think what explains this is the same thing I’ve been arguing for years: the tea party is no kind of small-government libertarian movement. It has always been just a branding campaign for the Republican base. But because all of their supposed worship of the founding fathers, “tea party” is a moniker that appeals to libertarian minded politicians. But these people don’t get elected because of their isolationist leanings; they get elected because they are against abortion rights and are no-tax ideologues.

So that is what defines the Tea Party. Beyond that, we can generally say that they are supporters of big military and big surveillance. Some of them (a distinct minority) do have libertarian leanings. But that’s not what the Tea Party movement is all about because that’s not what the Republican Party is all about. And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there might be small disagreements inside, because they are distinctly not what the movement is about.


Note that libertarian minded people would be crazy to vote for libertarian “sounding” members of the Republican Party. If you care about actual libertarian policy, all you will get from such people is lip service to ideals and votes that push the country further toward a big military feudalism. Sad as it may be, the Democratic Party is far more inclined toward libertarian policy than the Republicans.

Conservative Inflation Hysteria

This is a very interesting catch by Dean Baker. He created a Google Trends report that shows that searches for the keyword “hyperinflation” are back down to where they were before the financial crisis. As Baker noted, this is good news. But the whole thing disturbs me. Why would the financial crisis stir concerns about hyperinflation? Recession? Sure. Even famine and political instability make sense. But not hyperinflation.

The reason that people were concerned about hyperinflation was that certain people on the right were pushing it as a scare story. Inflation is a standard obsession among conservatives. People who think about economics with any kind of seriousness know that moderate inflation is a good thing—especially right now when individuals are trying to deleverage. Moderate inflation makes debt more manageable and spurs economic activity. Conservatives hate it because it helps the poor and hurts the rich.

Many years ago, I read a primer of libertarianism. It made the standard case for the gold standard. Specifically, it noted that the government never had to print more money. If money because scarce, it would simply go up in value: problem solved! Unfortunately for the libertarians, it isn’t so simple. First, if one can increase his wealth by holding on to money, there is an active disincentive for business investment. Second, any person who owes money will see that amount go up over time.

As a practical matter, the first issue is most important. Deflation would really put a drag on the macroeconomy. As a philosophical matter, the second issue is critical. Conservatives often argue that inflation is bad because it steals money from people. But they have no such concerns about deflation. So what they are effectively saying is that they care about inflation when it harms lenders but not when it harms borrowers. That’s a critical point.

It is hard to get people riled up about inflation when it has generally been too low the last 25 years. That’s why conservative commentators have latched on to the idea of hyperinflation. And this all happens in the context of a world in which not only hyperinflation but high inflation is becoming a thing of the past. Paul Krugman wrote a good article on the complete absence of triple-digit and the great decline in double-digit inflation, The Death of High Inflation. So it is good that people in general have calmed down about the threat of hyperinflation, but I don’t expect this to last. Soon the conservatives will be back with a new reason why we are turning into, “Zimbabwe! Zimbabwe, I tell you!”