Thursday, June 30, 2022

Exodus from New York City

How about a little data with that morning coffee? Today, we report from a New York Times article about the decline of New York City’s tax base.

We have expressed some alarm about this in previous posts. So, consider today's post a more extensive discussion of what is happening to New York City now that more and more of the very rich debark for warmer and friendlier climes. 

And, add this information to the cognitive dissonance indicator, given that in a city that is losing population and that has seen office space remaining empty, it has become prohibitively expensive, not to mention nearly impossible, to find a place to live.

Anyway, the pandemic lockdowns produced an exodus of rich New Yorkers. And this will cause a decided reduction in tax revenue. The Times reports:

When roughly 300,000 New York City residents left during the early part of the pandemic, officials described the exodus as a once-in-a-century shock to the city’s population.

Now, new data from the Internal Revenue Service shows that the residents who moved to other states by the time they filed their 2019 taxes collectively reported $21 billion in total income, substantially more than those who departed in any prior year on record. The IRS said the data captured filings received in 2020 and as late as July 2021.

As for the replacement rate, those who have newly moved in make considerably less than those who moved out of the city:

Many new or returning residents have since moved in. But the total income of those who had initially left was double the average amount of those who had departed over the previous decade, a potential loss that could have long-term effects on a city that relies heavily on its wealthiest residents to support schools, law enforcement and other public services.

The sheer number of people who left in such a short period raises uncertainty about New York City’s competitiveness and economic stability. The top 1 percent of earners, who make more than $804,000 a year, contributed 41 percent of the city’s personal income taxes in 2019.

Note well that last sentence. We have noted it on occasion before, but there is no harm in bringing up the fact that 1% of earners contribute over 40% of tax revenue. Do you consider that to be a fair share? It turns out that the more you tax the rich the more they find reasons to leave town.

One remarks that in Chicago, the largest companies are leaving town. Whether Boeing or now the Citadel hedge fund, companies are finding that the Windy City is too violent and crime-laden for most of their employees. And, of course, taxes in Virginia and Florida are considerably lower.

As for New York, new residents did not make up the tax shortfall:

The average income of city residents who moved out of state was 24 percent higher than of those who moved the year prior, according to a New York Times analysis of federal tax returns that were due in 2020. It was the biggest one-year income increase among people who left the city for other states in at least a decade.

The tax data is in line with the most recent Census Bureau estimates, which showed that in the first year of the pandemic, the number of New York City residents who left was more than triple the typical annual outflow before the pandemic. 

International immigration, a key source of growth in New York, plummeted to one-fourth the level prepandemic. And the death rate surged, as approximately 17,000 more residents died than in a typical year.

Note well that last graph. International immigration, the kind the sustains condo prices and that contributes mightily to tax revenues has plummeted. It may be the crime  rate. There may be other factors. And, I suspect this does not factor in the possibility that the American sanctions against Russia, our confiscation of Russian assets and our willingness to weaponize the dollar-- these are not going to entice too many foreigners to come invest in New York City property.

City bureaucrats are trying to paint a rosy scenario. They insist that the city will be coming back.

New York City’s official demographers say that the pandemic was a blip in the city’s long-term population growth and that migration trends have returned to prepandemic levels, pointing to indicators like change-of-address requests and soaring rents that suggest people are flooding back.

But, they said, it is too soon to conclude when the population that was lost will be completely replaced.

And then there is the schooling problem. Recall that the teachers’ unions, in collusion with the de Blasio administration, shut down public schooling, thereby damaging the minds of young children. And the city’s willingness to replace merit based admissions to the best public schools with a lottery told some parents that it was time to leave for the suburbs. (For the record, those places that have tried this, like San Francisco and MIT, have had to reverse course.

Whatever the cause, the effect is clear. And, if school enrollment is down, so too will teacher layoffs be up:

And other indicators suggest flight from the city may be continuing. Public school enrollment this year is down 6.4 percent compared with before the pandemic, according to New York City Department of Education data, and private school enrollment decreased by 3 percent, according to state data, potentially signaling a reduction in the number of families that could hurt the city’s ability to foster a diverse work force.

Where did they go? Those who left New York most often seemed to move to Florida. Of course, you knew that. But, it’s good to have a little data to sustain our opinions:

The exodus to Florida was especially robust, and not just for the retiree crowd. In 2020, New York City had a net loss of nearly 21,000 residents to Florida, IRS data showed, almost double the average annual net loss from before the pandemic.

The pandemic accelerated the relocation of several New York-based financial firms to new offices or headquarters in Florida. Many of them have landed in Palm Beach, Fla., including the hedge fund Elliott Management, whose co-chief executive, Jonathan Pollock, is now a full-time Florida resident, according to records obtained by The New York Times.

The Manhattan residents who moved to Palm Beach County had an average income of $728,351, IRS data showed.

The question now remaining is whether this trend will reverse itself now that the pandemic seems to be waning. My guess is, don’t bet on it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

What Is Art?

At the risk of repeating myself, the public discussion about art and the art world is missing a basic component. That is, the intrinsic aesthetic value of an artwork. See previous post here.

So, if a lot of savvy people think it’s art, does that make it art? If the art market says that it’s art, does that make it art. Is there anything more to the value of the artwork than a consensus opinion? To be precise, when it comes to the art market, the experts decide. Fine art does not yield to the vagaries of the popular mind. Deciding what is and is not art is not a democratic process.

If that’s all there is, then the question for collectors and curators and critics will become-- how best to manipulate the market. At that point, art market dealings become pure speculation, even to the point of enacting the greater fool theory. You do not want to be the last one holding the sculpture when everyone figures out that it’s a pile of trash. 

Obviously, if we have been conditioned to think that a certain kind of work is art, any artist who deviates will at first be overlooked. But then, tastes change; history changes; and something that looked like slop suddenly starts looking like genius. To be clear, the problem is, the process does not mean that the object is really genius. It takes time and effort to discern the difference.

So, Louis Menand gets it precisely wrong in his recent New Yorker essay. He concludes that art is what a lot of experts think is art. This error, basic to contemporary thinking, gets extended to the point where people think that if we can convince enough thought leaders, or philosopher kings, that something is true, then it is necessarily true. So, we can change reality itself by persuading enough people to see it differently. If you are paying attention you will notice that this reasoning can very easily lead to mind control and other totalitarian monstrosities.

Anyway, here is Menand:

The art world isn’t a fixed entity. It’s continually being reconstituted as new artistic styles emerge. Twentieth-century fine art, in Europe and the United States, passed through a series of formally innovative stages, from Cubism and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, and each time art entered a new stage and acquired a new look the art world had to adjust.

At the most basic level, the art world exists to answer the question Is it art? When Cubist paintings were first produced, around 1907, they did not look like art to many people, even people who were interested in and appreciated fine-art painting. The same thing was true of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings (around 1950) and Andy Warhol’s soup cans (1962).

But you don’t know it’s art by looking at it. You know it’s art because galleries want to show it, dealers want to sell it, collectors want to buy it, museums want to exhibit it, and critics can explain it. When the parts are in synch, you have a market. The artist produces, and the various audiences—from billionaire collectors to casual museumgoers and college students buying van Gogh posters—consume. The art world is what gets the image from the studio to the dorm room.

But, if that is the case, why bother to look at any artwork at all? Does this explain why modern collectors fill their homes with junk because they think that other people will thereby think of them as sophisticates, as intelligent people who possess excellent taste. Which is different from buying art because it speaks to you. This latter issue, doubtless the most relevant, has been obscured by the need to show oneself to be a sophisticated collector.

But then, how do we know that these so-called artists are not producing junk, calling it art, finding critics to call it art, having dealers sell it as art, put it in museums as art-- the better to make complete fools out of collectors. As we have noted, when someone shells out $90 million for a blown up chrome plated toy bunny, the joke is probably on him. 

Otherwise, consider this. Perhaps said collector has allowed himself to be the object of contempt, the artist’s contempt for people who have too much money, the dealer’s contempt for people who have no idea what they are buying, the curator’s contempt for those who are paying him to show junk works. So, collectors open themselves up to derision, thanks to the art world.

If you ignore the intrinsic value of art, you arrive at the Menand reduction, mindless as it is:

It was therefore possible to feel that the monetary value of a painting correlated with its art-world value. Pollocks were worth a lot of money because museums displayed them, critics argued about them, art historians assigned Pollock an important place in the story of modern art, and so on. The art world could continue to perform its gatekeeping function in much the way it had in Alfred Barr’s time.

And then, Menand arrives at the ultimate modern swindle, called non-fungible tokens, which are purely digital, and which some collectors believe to be works of art:

But the Internet does not suffer exemptions. Nothing may go undigitized. Today, many collectors do not buy physical works of art. They buy art works (among lots of other stuff) in the form of N.F.T.s, which are purely digital products. They don’t need the physical work, because they’re not assembling collections; they’re speculating.

Absolutely. They are speculating. And they are manipulating the art market, as though it were a casino where the games are rigged. Then again, if the art world decides what is or is not art, if there is no intrinsic aesthetic value, why not speculate?

It’s not that people have never bought art on speculation (although, historically, you’d be better off in a stock-market-index fund). It’s that the art world has started to come apart. Curation and criticism are increasingly detached from the rest of the mechanism. The market today is driven by dealers and collectors, neither group appearing to care whether museums and reviewers have validated the work they are buying and selling.

President Kamala Harris

Your ability to appreciate this Piers Morgan column will depend largely on how warped your sense of humor is. I suspect that if you are reading this blog, your sense of humor is seriously contorted, if not full-on warped.

Anyway, Morgan based his new column on the following scenario. Imagine that in the 2022 elections the Democratic Party is completely wiped out. Demolished, destroyed, erased. Eight months later Joe Biden resigns and repairs to his Delaware beach house to do, God only knows what.

The new president, Kamala Harris begins by naming Megan Rapinoe to be vice president. She follows up by naming Meghan Markle Secretary of Education and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Secretary of Homeland Security. And then she appoints Jussie Smollett her chief of Staff.

I will not outline all the pratfalls and assorted calamities the new Harris administration visits on America and the world.

All I can say is, happy reading.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Sorry State of New York City

How about a little cognitive dissonance for today? At least, some cognitive dissonance about New York City. Nothing is quite as self-contradictory as the Big Apple.

On the one side we have the residential real estate market. In New York City, while office buildings are languishing at around 40% occupancy, it is nearly impossible to find an apartment to rent. People line up in the street to take a quick look at a pathetically small apartment, and then they get into bidding wars over it. 

In the meantime, people are not going to work in their offices, leaving a massive amount of space unoccupied. Somewhere something is going to  have to give. Why does it happen that so many people are so avid to move to the city while they are refusing to go into work? Dare we mention, as we already have, that many stores and restaurants have shut down, for lack of business. Who would have been frequenting these places? Why, the people who work in the big buildings in midtown.

For the record, JP Morgan Chase has started laying off mortgage bankers-- around a thousand, at last report. True enough, it is going to reassign half of them, but the coming collapse of the real estate market will surely affect hiring practices in the big banks and the large financial institutions that occupy so much New York real estate.

And let’s not forget the bear market in stocks. Surely, that will hurt the rest of the financial services industry. And, the loss of value in the stocks of tech giants-- the NASDAQ bear market-- might well impact their plans to gobble up massive quantities of city real estate.

So, New York has a new mayor. He seems to be doing the right thing, but cleaning up the mess left by Comrade Bill de Blasio is not an overnight job. It’s more like Hercules confronting the Augean stables. And he cannot even do what Hercules did, because it would be environmentally unfriendly.

So, Mayor Adams admits that before becoming mayor he did not grasp how bad, how dysfunctional the city had become. The New York Post reports an interview it did with Adams while he was riding the subways at night last week:

Mayor Eric Adams had no idea how rotten the Big Apple was at its core before taking office — telling The Post he was “shocked” to learn just “how bad this place is.”

During an exclusive interview conducted as Adams rode the subways overnight for more than three hours last week, the former NYPD transit cop said he was astounded by the botched “deployment of resources” that has New Yorkers on edge amid a nearly 40 percent surge in major crimes this year.

“Let me tell you something: When I started looking into this, I was shocked at how bad this place is,” he said of the city.

It is an honest assessment:

Adams — who campaigned on a promise to restore order to an increasingly lawless Gotham — said the scales fell from his eyes when he began reviewing internal city operations following his swearing in moments after midnight on New Year’s Day.

“It was probably, the third — third or fourth week in January. I spent a lot of time in the office,” he said.

Under Comrade de Blasio New York City had seen a spike in crime. For the record the same Comrade is now running to be a Congressperson:

In 2021, the final year of de Blasio’s tenure, the city saw nearly every category of major crime increase to levels that hadn’t been seen in years, with felony assaults exceeding 22,000 for the first time since 2001.

The number of murders also reached 486, the most since the 515 committed in 2011.

Of course, for those who do not read the Post or follow the stories as they usually make their way to the Daily Mail, here are some incidents. You might say that these criminals are all mentally ill, but that seems to be a dodge. One should not use mental illness as an excuse. Someone gave these people the idea that they could get away with random acts of horrific violence. 

Last year’s headline-grabbing incidents included a shocking, unprovoked hatchet attack inside an ATM lobby in Manhattan’s Financial District, a series of shootings in Times Square and the trampling of a 10-year-old girl and her five-year-old brother when a masked gunman opened fire on a Bronx sidewalk.

There has been some improvement in shootings and homicide, but robbery, burglary and grand larceny are up substantially:

This year, shooting incidents have declined nearly 12% compared to the same period last year and murders are down 13%.

But grand larcenies and auto thefts have skyrocketed 50% and 48%, respectively, while robberies are up nearly 40%.

And as the city struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, crimes in the transit system are up a staggering 54%.

The story does not say so, but another major problem is the new district attorney, one Alvin Bragg, who fancies himself a pro-criminal DA. He has been doing everything in his power to stop prosecuting criminals, by keeping them out of jail and on the streets. 

Here again, the Post has the story:

The number of prosecutors fleeing the city’s district attorneys offices has spiraled in the wake of criminal justice reforms that have created what one ex-top prosecutor called “insanity.”

Sixty five assistant district attorneys, or about 12 percent of the staff, have resigned so far this year from Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s office, up from about 44 through the end of March. During all of 2021, 97 ADAs quit.

The situation is nearly the same in the office of Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, where 67 of some 500 prosecutors, or about 13 percent, have also called it quits as of June 17. Another three resigned on Thursday, according to a source. That is compared to 84 who left in all of 2020 and 94 last year.

In the Bronx, 59 prosecutors have walked from January through May. Reps from the Queens and Staten Island DA offices did not respond to requests for data.

When Bragg took the helm of the Manhattan office in January, at least nine lawyers quit in the first two weeks, The Post revealed.

Some were spurred to leave, sources said, by Bragg’s soft-on-crime approach which he outlined in a “Day One” memo directing ADAs to not seek prison sentences for many criminals and to downgrade some felonies to misdemeanors.

And then, state mandated criminal justice reform has turned prosecutors into clerks. The new discovery requirements oblige them to provide defense attorneys more information in a shorter period of time, to the point where they no longer have any time to prosecute. 

Protecting the rights of criminals, whether through bail reform, through refusing to prosecute felonies, through discovery reform, has produced chaos on the streets.

And yet, residential real estate is still going strong. How long can this dissonance last before it resolves itself one way or another.

Rescuing Trans Children

It’s only two proposed pieces of federal legislation. But it is well past time that some Congresspeople get serious about the current rage about mutilating children. Some states have already passed similar pieces of legislation-- e.g. Alabama-- but it is good to see our members of Congress get off the sidelines and get into the game.

Three Congresspeople just introduced a new bill that would hold physicians liable for the damage they inflict on trans children. 

Just the News reports:

The Protect Minors from Medical Malpractice Act, sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Doug LaMalfa of California, would make medical practitioners liable for "any physical, psychological, emotional, or physiological harms" that result from gender-transition procedures on minors.

These include prescribing or administering puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones, or performing surgeries such as mastectomies and vaginoplasties.


The legislation gives minors and legal guardians the right to sue medical practitioners for transitions up to 30 years after the minors turn 18. They could seek declaratory or injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney's fees.

The bills would apply to all transition procedures with an element of "interstate or foreign commerce," including digital communications, payments and the instruments used in surgery.

That’s not all. Considering that schools and school counselors and school administrators are now able to collude in facilitating a child’s transition, without even informing parents of what they are doing, the Congresspeople have proposed another piece of legislation:

The three lawmakers also introduced a related bill, the Empower Parents to Protect Their Kids Act, to withhold federal funding from K-12 schools that facilitate gender transitions, "affirm" a student's gender identity, hide that identity from the student's parents or encourage them to transition their child.

Of course, we all know well that these proposals are merely gestures-- for now. They are not going to be taken up in Democratic controlled legislative bodies. And yet, they are a first step, one that will hopefully lead to further steps to get America out of the business of mutilating children.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Abortion Debate

Procreation is the order of the day. By all appearances, if you listen to the agonized and agonizing public debate about abortion rights, the only sex that counts involves a man and a woman. Not a trans male and a trans woman, but a biological male and a biological female, where procreation is either risked or desired.

It was not too long ago that we had supposedly overcome, not only the gender binary, but the notion that sex and procreation were intimately intertwined. 

You might imagine that all of those young people who were hooking up were engaging in coitus, but, in truth, they had discovered, for having taken sex education in kindergarten, that life offered up a panoply of sexual activities that, we will say, offer foolproof contraception. No one ever got pregnant from having oral sex. The same is incontestably true of gay sex. And dare we mention, no one ever got pregnant or impregnated anyone by watching porn. 

For some reason, as we have reported, people today, for all of their sexual sophistication, are effectively having less sex. So says the science, and we are not going to argue with the science.

Besides, haven’t we all been told that privileging heternormative procreative sex is totally and completely homophobic. It is so obvious that it does not merit mention. Didn’t we all learn in college that the only reason cultures privilege heteronormative coitus is that they are severely bigoted against homosexuality?

And then there is the trans movement. Yes, one understands that a trans male whose female sexual organs have not been neutralized can get pregnant. And that a trans female whose male sexual apparatus still functions can still impregnate a human female. 

But still, if we offer children puberty blocking hormones in elementary school and if we subject them to what is gingerly called gender affirming care, pregnancy will no longer be a major concern. Genital mutilation makes procreation impossible. Moreover, those who have undergone it, and who poison their bodies with opposite sex hormones do not even want to perform any sex act whatever.

Among the more compelling sidelights to this debate is the assumption that men are burning up with desire to commit acts of carnal intercourse with all or most women. The abortion debate is underwritten by the notion that women are irresistible to men. This might not feel like an affirmation, but it certainly counts.

Dare we mention that the debate over abortion mostly, but not always, involves extramarital sexual relations. Of course, it does happen that a married woman will choose to end a pregnancy, but still, her being in a committed and publicly recognized relationship must count for something. 

And yes, rape and incest do matter here, but, the Mississippi law that was just overturned does allow for abortions during the first fifteen weeks of pregnancy.

So, we as a culture have, in the space of a couple of months gone from a condition where a candidate for the Supreme Court could not define the word “woman” to a condition where being a woman seems fundamentally to be based on procreative risk. 

And we have seen the airwaves filled with discussions about the horrors of pregnancy, the horrors of giving birth, the ultimate horrors of having to raise a child. Biology may not be destiny, but it is hardly irrelevant. All of our sanctimonious blather has not repealed reality.

Of course, those who are pro abortion rights seem mostly to be motivated by a sense that a female should be able to walk away from the consequences of an act of coitus just as easily as a man can. To many minds this proves, beyond any doubt, that God is sexist. But still, even if abortion becomes the order of the day, it remains a far more radical solution than what a man can do to avoid responsibility for his actions.

As many women have pointed out, this feels totally and completely and utterly unjust. And yet, it is also built into the biology. And when you fiddle with biology you might find yourself facing some unexpected outcomes.

You might believe that a woman cannot disembarrass herself of the consequences of coitus because of the vagaries of the anatomical difference between the sexes. And yet, didn't they tell us that anatomy merely a social construction, designed by the patriarchy to keep women out of the workplace and off the battlefield?

Anyway, now the states will decide. In my home state, New York, precisely nothing will change. Abortion will still be available, basically on demand. The Mississippi law articulates the standard that is available during the first fifteen weeks of pregnancy. Which happens to be the standard in most civilized countries-- though if you listen to the ravings of the brain dead celebrities who seem always to lead such debates, you would not know it.

Surely, in Mississippi and elsewhere the pro life faction has compromised by allowing abortions in the first fifteen weeks. And yet, the pro choice contingent undermines its case when it insists on abortion up to and including the moment of birth.

In any event, contraception is still available. And those sex acts which count as foolproof contraception will still be on the menu.

At a time when we have supposedly overcome the gender binary and have found a myriad of ways to avoid conception, the sole and defining issue in this intellectual maelstrom involves plain old copulation, the old fashioned kind, with a man and a woman, genitally, without any contraception. Go figure.

The debate over the difference between the sexes, and how much of it can be attributed to biology, will continue to rage.

Heck, some women, short on little gray cells, have suggested that women go on a sex strike, by withholding sex. This means, obviously, withholding a certain kind of sex. Strangely, they are acting as thought one and only sex act that counts and that men are extremely desirous of committing it with them. Is this what the national conversation about sex has become?

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Forget about It!

For those who inhabit the psycho metaverse, the following information will be welcome. For those who are unfamiliar with the history of psycho therapy, it will be illuminating, and perhaps even enlightening.

It all began with Freud. I am sure you know that Freud’s first theory of hysteria had it that hysterics were trauma victims, sexual abuse victims, who had forgotten what had happened to them. He proposed that such forgetting constituted a repression. In truth, this was his first use of the term. Anyway, if such was the case, the way to cure the problem was for the patient to recall the trauma, and then to process it-- that meant, to reconstruct a life narrative that included it.

One understands that Freud eventually shifted his focus, away from the abuse that had occurred toward the patient’s wish that it had occurred. That there was something deranged about the notion that patients were suffering because they could not accept that they had wanted to be molested did not cross very many minds at the time.

Still and all, the profession did not entirely dispose of the notion that people were suffering mental illness because they had forgotten what had happened to them. The treatment modality morphed into a search for repressed thoughts, feelings, fantasies and the like-- the ones that would show how much the patient really, really wanted to be abused. So, from forgotten events to forgotten desires.

As for the larger trope, filmmakers were perfectly happy to work with the repressed memory theory, and made some important films in which patients were cured once they recalled what had happened in their past. Think of Suddenly, Last Summer and Spellbound. 

And, of course, the offshoot called recovered memory therapy set about trying to induce patients to recall memories that had presumably been forgotten. You know-- your father had murdered your best friend and buried her body in the garden.

As you know, this therapy is dubious, at best, but still it keeps alive the notion that remembering is therapeutic and that forgetting produces neurosis-- or anxiety and depression

I will add, but do not recall with any precision, that some research has suggested that we do not retain memories of everything that has ever happened. Memory cells seem to have an overwrite feature, whereby new memories write over old memories. The last memories cannot then be recovered.

Anyway, the new research suggests that the human mind-- I trust that you have one-- has both remembering and forgetting functions. Presumably, if you remember too much you get mired in the past. If you forget too much you will continue to make mistakes. It is good to learn from the past, but only when it becomes part of planning for the future.

Neurologist Scott Small reports the research findings:

Memory and forgetting work in unison. We depend on our memory to record, to learn and to recall, and we depend on forgetting to countervail, to sculpt and to squelch our memories. This balancing act is, as it turns out, vital for our cognitive functioning, creativity and mental health.

Rather than think that forgetting constitutes repression, or that it shows how much we want to deny the truth, we should understand that normal forgetting is a good thing:

New insights into neurology, computer science, psychology and even philosophy illustrate how normal forgetting is indeed beneficial. What clearly emerges is that memory needs to be counterbalanced by forgetting in order to successfully live in a world that is not only blooming and buzzing with information, but also with information that occasionally stings. By freeing our minds, forgetting liberates us from the drag of memories that moors us in unnecessary details, that imprisons us in pain and in looping obsessions. Forgetting, therefore, is not a nuisance, not a failure, but rather is nature’s gift that allows us to be smarter, better, and happier people.

A useful point, especially since the old theories about memory and forgetting tended to focus on events and ideas that made for good narrative. Many memories, Small suggests, are trivialities, unworthy of very much reflection, likely to save us from wasting time on unimportant details.

Some people, of course, can never give up the past. They insist on defining themselves in terms of past grievances, even grievances that have gone back centuries. They can solve their problem by learning to forget-- and to forgive:

If you know someone whose personality is embittered with pain, who lives a lonely life of fear and trembling, who is vindictive or vengeful, or even ruthless with rage, you know someone who’s memory-forgetting balance of emotional memories is off kilter with too little forgetting. Intuitively, it makes sense that we sometimes need to “let go” of hurt and resentment to preserve close friendships and that we need to forget in order to forgive. 

“Letting go” is just one of the many colloquialisms that implicitly nod in recognition and gratitude toward our brain’s forgetting mechanisms.

Again, a very salient point. If we want to overcome our past, we do not just need to learn how to forget, but we need to learn how to forgive. Of course, you can't forgive if you can't forget. For those who prefer a Biblical text, see the book of Ezekiel, Chapter 18.

Interestingly, Small suggests that creative people are capable of exceptional forgetting. This might mean that they do not get mired in the past, in past failures or even past successes:

If you know someone who is very creative, that person is endowed with exceptional forgetting.  Testimonials of creative people in all walks of life, and tests of creativity, shows that creativity requires that we first form lots of memory associations in our minds. But critically, for creativity to happen these memories need remain loose and playful for those eureka moments, a looseness that requires forgetting.  Emerson has a quote that captures this when he says that “Imagination is the morning of the mind, memory its evening”. And in fact, we now know that one main purpose of sleep is, what has been described in the sleep literature, to “smart forget”.

And then there are those who cannot forget, who are cut off from normal social activities because they are mired in the past, inhabiting a fictional world where they are constantly rehashing past sins and failings:

If you know someone who is xenophobic, who tends to obsess about their social circle, whether a clan or even a country, you know someone whose communal memory-forgetting balance is off kilter with too little forgetting. “On Nostalgia’ was a medical thesis written in 1688 by a young Swiss doctor named Johanus Hofer. Hofer invented the term Nostalgia to describe what he proposed was a new medical condition which is a brain disordered with too much memory, too little forgetting, about our beloved homelands, were we become so obsessed with these wistful memories that it becomes a mania. To quote from this thesis, patients afflicted with this condition are simply unable to “forget their mother’s milk”, and that “mediation over the fatherland” results in “a stupidity of the mind”.

It is always encouraging to learn of a seventeenth century physician, named Johannes Hofer, who exposed the value of forgetting over three centuries ago. I will say, even if I am only speaking for myself, that I had not previously heard the name. 

In any case, Small suggests that we can cure our tendency to remember too much by socializing with others. It gets us out of our minds and into the world. Surely, belaboring your past grievances will not help you to get along with other people. Or else, the positive experience of getting along with other people will make past memories feel less compelling and a less attractive habitation:

From the new science of forgetting I have come to appreciate a simpler and more elegant way to enhance our innate capabilities to emotionally forget: socialize, engage life with humor, and always, always try to live a life glittered with the palliative glow of love.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Is Germany Running out of Gas?

Given that yesterday was a slow news day, we turn our attention to Europe’s energy crisis. As you understand well, now that the Ukraine war is disappearing from public view, we are within our rights to unearth the deep meaning of the news blackout. For now the Ukrainian forces are not doing well. They are losing. The Biden administration management of the war is going down as yet another appalling failure. But, you suspected as much, didn't you?

Free and democratic Europe is showing itself to be something of a paper tiger. Without the backup of the American military, it would just be paper.

Speaking of paper, weaponizing the American dollar might go down as one of the worst decisions in American history. At present, the nations of the East, the nations that are allied with Russia, are working to supplant the dollar as a vehicle for international commerce. We will keep an eye on the situation, but it is certainly dangerous, perhaps even more dangerous than overturning Roe v. Wade.

For the record, see Pepe Escobar's analysis of the decline and fall of the America-centric world. It's yet another story that has been completely ignored-- not only because it makes the Biden administration look bad, but because it is a lot more difficult to understand than female reproductive anatomy.

Anyway, there is little that Europe can do to counter Russian aggression, beyond a sanctions regime that seems to be hurting Europe more than it is hurting Russia. How’s that for irony.

Germany, in particular, led by the enlightened Angela Merkel, made itself dependent on Russian energy supplies. Now that Russia is turning off the spigots, Germany is in trouble. See also the analysis by David Goldman.

Better yet, that nation is led by leftists, even by Green Party members. How are they adapting to the situation? Not very well, as you can imagine.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about it all two days ago:

In Germany even the energy emergencies are well-organized. So it is that Berlin Thursday moved into the second of three phases in what is meant to be an orderly procedure for managing fuel shortages this winter. They hope.

Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck raised the alert level amid a reduction in natural gas shipments from Russia. Moscow says a mechanical part is stranded in Canada due to Western sanctions imposed after Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion, but everyone else knows better.

Germany is vulnerable because for years it pursued energy policies that left the economy dependent on Russia for 55% of its natural-gas imports, 34% of its oil, and 26% of its coal before the Ukraine war. These three fuels combined account for more than 75% of Germany’s energy consumption, and Russian natural gas is by far the hardest to replace.

Running out of energy is not good for your political future. As we have remarked, Germany is trying to recommission its coal burning power plants-- the environment be damned. It is not the least irony that the Minister in charge, Robert Habeck hails from the environmentally friendly Green Party.

And yet, it is not as easy as you might imagine to convert natural gas burning systems to coal burning systems. Who knew?

Coal works for electricity generation, but Germany uses most of its natural gas for other things. Gas-fired community heating systems can’t easily be converted to coal. Manufacturers in industries such as steel and chemicals worry their equipment will be destroyed if they lose gas supply even for a short period. Gas rationing is part of Berlin’s emergency plan, but prioritizing among competing users is proving to be an imponderable.

As for nuclear, would you believe that the enlightened Angela Merkel chose to shut down nuclear reactors, in a spasm of environmentalism. She should not have done it, but she did it anyway. This made it easier for Russia to hold Germany hostage over Ukraine. The Journal calls Merkel’s decision a catastrophic error. It was:

Nuclear supplies 6% of Germany’s electricity. That proportion is down from 12% last year because in late 2021 Berlin shut down another three reactors, leaving only three online. The nuclear phase-out imposed by former Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011 counts as one of the worst energy-security mistakes of all time. But for now, keeping the three remaining reactors running past their planned closure at the end of this year could reduce the power gap that needs to be filled by imported coal.

Yet Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Mr. Habeck are resisting. Nuclear power is politically controversial in Germany, especially among the granola-niks in the Green Party. Some politicians are brave enough to call for an extension of nuclear power, notably Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the Free Democratic Party and state premier of Bavaria Markus Söder of the conservative CSU.

In short, in the war between Russia and Ukraine, Ukraine is not going to be the only loser. Germany is now losing bigly. Nothing like a little leftist politics to undermine your economy:

Mr. Habeck still seems to believe he can burn only a little more coal and Germany will arrive at a renewable nirvana when wind and solar meet the country’s power needs. The same Mr. Habeck declared immediately after the Ukraine invasion that there would be “no taboos” in Germany’s debate about energy security. Apparently there still is one, however, and it could prove costly for Europe’s largest economy.

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Biggest Educational Disruption

The Atlantic has the story. Or, at least, it has some of the story. Daniel Markovits and Meira Levinson have now shown that the American policy of shutting down schools for months on end was a complete calamity. They remark that no other civilized nation adopted the same policy.

And yet, they fall completely silent when the question arises-- in our mind, but not in theirs-- about who is responsible for what they call the biggest disruption. It’s a moment that reminds us of the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze” where the most important clue was the dog that didn’t bark.

In short, let’s assume that the Atlantic is running cover for those responsible for the great educational disruption. So, we can conclude from its silence that a band of government bureaucrats, Democratic politicians and teachers’ unions got together and conspired to destroy the social, emotional and intellectual well-being of millions of children. And that left thinking thinkers will never hold them responsible.

If Republicans had in any way been involved, the hue and cry would be deafening. Considering that the victims of this policy were most often minority children, if there had been any way to pin this on Republicans, it would be portrayed as a racist genocide.

Since Democrats, the people who are supposedly fighting for equity and inclusion, conspired to deprive minority children of their intellectual development, the authors have absolutely nothing to say about who might be responsible.

Nevertheless, they analyze in depth the damage produced. One remarks, in the interest of fairness, that I have been following this story from the beginning and have denounced it from the beginning. If you are a long time reader of this blog, you will not be surprised:

No other high-income country in the world relied to such a great extent on remote instruction. The coronavirus caused by far the biggest disruption in the history of American education. Neither the Great Depression nor even the two World Wars imposed anything close to as drastic a change in how America’s schoolchildren spent their days.

How important is the experience of going to school? Very important, indeed. Children do not just learn to think, they do not just acquire intellectual skills, but they receive medical care through the schools and learn to socialize and to function in organized groups-- outside of the family.

Shutting down schools caused what the authors call “lost growth:”

Some of the lost growth was academic and social, as school closures cut children off from teachers and friends. These losses were compounded by children’s exclusion from an array of other goods and services. In the United States, almost all public services for school-age children in some way run through schools. Schools provide nutrition; dental care; nursing services; mental-health care; physical, occupational, and speech therapy; child care for teen parents; referrals to social workers and child-welfare agencies; and laundry facilities and clothing for homeless students. Even in an era of mass shootings and COVID outbreaks, schools are the safest place for children. Moreover, schools don’t just serve the children who attend them. They also provide child care for parents and create social, cultural, and political hubs for communities.

They continue:

When schools closed, all the goods that they provide became suddenly scarcer, and children and families who relied most on public provision of these goods suffered a cascade of harms that touched virtually every aspect of their lives. The disruption the coronavirus has caused to schoolchildren will ripple through the future of the COVID generation. Unfinished learning may turn out to be the easiest of these losses to cure.

I take exception to the notion that “unfinished learning” may turn out to be the easiest to cure. I would suggest that it is going to be very hard to overcome. Teachers are seeing children regress intellectually, and this, as we predicted, is very difficult to overcome.

In any event, remote learning, through Zoom, meant that minority children did not go to school at all:

Rather, physical school closures meant no school—literally none at all, for days and even weeks on end.

National surveys of teachers by the EdWeek Research Center, for example, reported that nearly a quarter of students ended the 2020 spring semester “essentially truant.” In Los Angeles, the situation was even more dire: Four in 10 students simply failed to participate regularly in remote-learning programs during the first pandemic spring.

The distinction between rich and poor played itself out here, because wealthy parents could overcome the shutdowns far better than could poor parents:

 Richer kids got more in-person schooling than poorer kids. And even when they were physically locked out of buildings, richer kids got more, and more effective, Zoom schooling than poorer kids. In public schools, students with household incomes below $25,000 experienced about 76 days, or nearly half a school year, without schooling at all. Students with household incomes above $200,000, in contrast, lost about 54 days—still considerable, but roughly a month less lost schooling than their lower-income peers….

Even when they closed their buildings, elite private schools had an easier time facilitating remote instruction, thanks to low student-teacher ratios and access (for both students and teachers) to technology.

How much lost learning was there?

Lost schooling shows up as “unfinished” academic learning, measured according to standardized test scores. Even in schools that closed only in spring 2020 and reopened more or less on time the following fall, students a full year later were about two months behind academically where they would have normally been. And when schools stayed closed longer, students fell even further behind, with the poorest students losing out the most. 

The authors also report on a subject that has been widely discussed. And many teachers report that children lost more than a couple of months of learning. Be that as it may, the children who were shut out of schooling suffered severe mental health problems:

School guidance counselors also noticed a pronounced shift in students’ mental health. In a survey conducted by The New York Times, 94 percent reported increased signs of anxiety and depression, 88 percent reported observing increased difficulties with emotional self-regulation, and 73 percent reported that students had greater difficulties in solving conflicts with friends. 

One survey participant from a high school in Portland, Oregon, summed up the situation: “I’ve seen more physical fights this year than in my 15 years combined.” These impressions are bolstered by district data; in Denver public schools, for instance, fights were up 21 percent in the fall of 2021 over pre-pandemic levels. Strikingly, high schoolers who felt connected to somebody at their school—whether a peer or an adult such as a teacher or a guidance counselor—reported much lower rates of mental distress and suicidal thoughts. School closures, however, broke these protective connections and left the most vulnerable children most isolated.

What lessons do the authors draw from this? Allow them their word:

One lesson of the pandemic is that, for all their inadequacies, schools do work, and for all their inequities, they provide a more equal setting than the worlds they draw children out of. Kids need to be in school—for their academic learning and for their health and safety. Parents need kids to be in school to do their jobs and keep their sanity. And communities need kids to be in school to sustain their solidarity.

Again, the authors denounce the biggest disruption, but without saying who is responsible. Evidently, they will propose at some point that the solution is to spend more money on public education and to dumb down meritocratic admissions. For the record, they say nothing about charter schools, those that have been most successful teaching minority children:

The pandemic has amounted to a comprehensive assault on the American public school. It strained the ties—not just physical but also social and even psychological—that connect American families and children to the schools that are essential for delivering almost every support our welfare state provides. Kids missed out on all of it while schools were closed: not just academic learning but also nutrition, and exercise, and friendship networks, and stable relationships with caring adults, and health care, and access to social workers, and even the attention, at home, of parents unburdened by the need to provide child care during school hours.

The disruption that the pandemic caused to American children’s lives has no historical precedent; the harms that this disruption has imposed on them, taken all together, are similarly large. Our response needs to be on a scale sufficient to meet the harms that students have already endured—and to create a more resilient system to meet future challenges, whether new variants of concern, climate-change-driven displacement, or other threats. 

We have barely begun.

One reason we have barely begun is that the authors refuse to hold anyone accountable for the damage inflicted. Like most of those who comment on the problems, they remain optimistic about the possibility of repairing the damage, but still, they do not propose to solve the problem by opening more charter schools and by breaking the hold that the teachers’ unions and Democratic politicians have on the education of minority children.

They seem brimming full of empathy, because that is the default position prescribed by our mental health establishment. And yet, as happens in most cases, a strong dose of empathy will do nothing more than blind you to the real problems.