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Policy is not morality writ large

June 5, 2023

I hold some O&G investments. Does that somehow make me bad? Maybe a bad environmentalist?

PlatformAlmostFinishedNo. First, both energy production and environmental protection are legitimate human concerns. The tension between them has to do with the systemic effects of current technology. Second, even the most rapid phase out of fossil fuels will involve O&G production for years to come. Third, the relevant decisions there are in the context of policy, not in the context of personal consumption, work, and investment. Those who think that consumer or job or investment choices play a substantial role seriously misunderstand how capitalism works.

The photo shows an offshore platform just about finished, that since has been towed out to the gulf.  Those who worked on its construction and who man it are not wrong for doing so. They are doing jobs the current economy needs. (It looks a bit under water, because I snapped the photo from across the bay, a few miles distant.)

Unfortunately, some people enter such discussions with moral playbooks, one which says the fossil fuel industry is good and environmentalism is bad, and one which says the opposite. Such a playbook will paint those who work on oil platforms. Or those who put solar on their house. Or those who drive large SUVs.

It’s all quite stupid. And politically useful. The psychological message is that if you bought an SUV to carry around three kids and a dog and their accessories, then you shouldn’t be thinking about environmental issues or weighing them in your political choices. Policy issues that should be thought about from the viewpoint of science and long-term trends are turned into fodder for the culture wars. Here is Ted Cruz playing that to the hilt:

[Ann] Carlson has signaled that she intends to use her role as administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to further her crusade against fossil fuels, but with her investment in the oil and gas business, her attacks on American energy reek of hypocrisy.

Well, no. It simulataneously can be the case both a) that we need to drastically curtail the burning of fossil fuels, for the environment’s sake, and b) that particular O&G businesses are good investments at the present. Not just can be: these are the case.

The valid criticism — which her interlocutors also made — is that Carlson’s investment is a conflict of interest. She might participate in policy decisions that affect the business. Importantly, it would be an equal conflict of interest were she invested in a company focused on green technologies. The ethical problem isn’t whether a government action hurts rather than helps her investments, but that it might affect them at all, and therefore might alter her thinking and behavior around that action. Because businesses are interconnected, most any singular business investment is likely to create a conflict of interest for public officials who own a stake in it. That is so for employees in the executive branch, and even moreso for congressman and judges, generals and presidents.

Alas, American law and rules on that are quite weak. And the efforts to do better are getting little traction. If Cruz is concerned with conflicts of interest, he should join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in pushing for stronger related laws.


Better drugs through AI

June 1, 2023

Deep neural nets are being exploited by pharmaceutical researchers looking for new drugs. Such as an antibiotic that targets a particular bacteria plaguing hospitals and nursing homes.

ZigZagI expect improved search techniques, bettery delivery mechanisms, borrowings from materials science, and the capture of more human biochemistry to create a boom this next century, in more sophisticated and better targeted drugs. The hard and time consuming part remains human testing. Will there be any breakthroughs there? Don’t know. Even if not, I still predict a bounty of new drugs coming, technologies to deliver them, and — eventually — technologies for personal monitoring of their delivery and effect. To quote BTO: baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The Zig-Zag company has been making rolling papers since 1855. It was around 1970 that posters featuring its iconic zouave festooned American dorm rooms. They still were up when BTO wrote the quoted song.

On your honor

May 31, 2023

A lawyer is in hot water with the US District Court for southern New York, because he used ChatGPT as a research assistant. It produced court filings that contained several bogus legal references. ChatGPT was pretty baldfaced in defending its work:

Schwartz provided an excerpt from ChatGPT queries in which he asked the AI tool whether Varghese is a real case. ChatGPT answered that it “is a real case” and “can be found on legal research databases such as Westlaw and LexisNexis.” When asked if the other cases provided by ChatGPT are fake, it answered, “No, the other cases I provided are real and can be found in reputable legal databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw.”

Needless to say, that doesn’t let the lawyer off the hook.

WashingtonCherryTreeThe human approach to trust is to assume that most people will be fairly honest. We may seek references and keep a wary eye in dealing with someone unknown, on important matters. Most institutional policies are reactive and punitive. An employee who lies may be fired. A lawyer or CPA who lies in their professional capacity may face professional sanctions. Anyone who lies under specific circumstances the law defines may face criminal prosecution. Elizabeth Holmes is now in federal prison, for her lies. Court filings and statements to public officials are circumstances where intentional lies create legal exposure. I expect events this coming summer to highlight that.

That approach clearly does not extend to AI. And it is not clear what approach would. Which means, for the foreseeable future, positions of trust will continue to be filled only by humans. Those in such positions might use AI for research and other kinds of assistance. I have no doubt that the technology will be tuned to be more reliable. Where that is needed. Alas, it will be tuned to be more slickly duplicitous where spammers and scammers find that useful. But it will remain a human who puts their name to court filings, who deposes witnesses, who takes on legal clients, who signs corporate accounting statements, who acts in a fiduciary capacity. In all such cases, who will be held accountable for using AI responsibly. Trust, not intelligence alone, is what we require in many positions. Trust is not a simple thing, and in many roles requires intelligence reflecting on human relationships.

I suspect Schwartz will suffer little more than a reprimand, given that he seems to have acted in good faith, merely blundering in the use of new technology.

Anatomy of a scam

May 30, 2023

The New York Times has a deep dive into a trio of spammers who raise money, using pro-police, pro-firefighter, and pro-veteran messaging. More than 99% of what they raise goes to their own organizations to raise more money. And to their own pockets.

The spammers are Republican operatives who learned early in life that there is no need to spend funds raised on the purpose promised. Their fellow conservatives are an easily exploited target group.

  • They are suckers for affiliate marketing. They will buy everything from coffee to vitamin supplements if they think it comes from their “own people.” Or boosts favored groups (veterans, police). Or damns hated groups (liberals, gays, the woke). Or even if it just is festooned in American flags, guns, and Christian symbols.
  • They have poor economic understanding. They misunderstand the kinds of problems that charity can solve, and the incentives on the organizations involved.
  • They misplace their trust. They trust those who tell them what they want to hear. They don’t understand actual research. They have a shallow view of expertise.
  • Those failings are amplified by their media and churches. Many of the large evangelical churches are better understood as marketing organizations than as religious ones, taking advantage of the very flaws above to relieve their flocks of cash. Outlets such as Fox News consciously peddle lies to keep their audience.

I imagine these spammers asking why anyone should care, if they want to shear their own sheep? They might defend themselves by arguing if they didn’t relieve their targets of their money, those targets likely would spend it on something equally stupid. If one imagines those dollars instead going to an evangelical preacher, it’s tough to gainsay that point. But, if one sees those preachers and spammers as playing similar roles, working to make their dupes poorer and even dumber, it is straightforward to damn them both.

Some of those who acted criminally in the January 6th storming of the Capitol are trying to get in on the take. The path from dupe to grifter is short and easy. Prosecutors are tapping the brakes on their ability to raise money from their crimes.

I’ll take the bourbon

May 25, 2023

Hals_Dirck_Merry_Party_in_a_Tavern_-_1628Molly Shah writes a bit about Kentucky, including more than you ever wanted to know about Colonel Sanders.

Of Lake and courts and whistle blowers

May 23, 2023

Those caught up in MAGA see some equivalency between themselves and those outside. They have their own narratives. Other people have theirs. They have their own whistle blowers. They have their own evidence. They have their own media. If someone reads superficially, MAGA might seem not much different from other political viewpoints. Especially on social media. “See? We’re not a cult.”

Hiram_EdsonThat pretend equivalency doesn’t play well in the American legal system. Courts ask specific questions. They have rules of evidence. Narrative argument must be built on evidence presented, and evidence must be relevant to the question at issue. Witnesses and evidence are examined by both sides.

All of which is kryptonite to MAGA bullshit. When actually examined on the stand, Kari Lake’s own whistle blowers and own expert witness undermined her remaining claim about Arizona’s gubernatorial election being stolen. So it comes as no surprise that she has lost at trial.


MAGA actors generally lose in the courts. Again. And again. And again.

Yes, I have every expectation that I will write future versions of this post, as more MAGA leaders face their own day in court. Photo shows Hiram Edson, who gave the Millerites a way to keep believing, after the Great Disappointment. Which serves as one of many examples that group stupidity was a problem long before social media.

America’s housing problem

May 22, 2023

Vincent_van_Gogh_The_yellow_houseAmericans want cheaper housing. When they buy, not when they sell. And they don’t want it built in their current neighborhood. The incentives that drive local housing policies work across the political spectrum. Which is why the problem we associate with California actually is an American problem.

Durham’s fizzle

May 17, 2023

Given what was known about the origin and the route, there seems little surprise in the result.

American life expectancy

May 16, 2023

AverageAgeDeathByCountyThere is a glaring difference in life expectancy across the different regions of the US. The map right is cleverly colored blue and red, aligning with the correlated politics. The blue counties are where people live longer.

The cause of that gap is not just deaths of despair, from drugs and alcohol and suicide. It’s not just diabetes. It’s not just those in red counties avoiding vaccines, and the other pernicious health influences that come from being “red pilled.” It’s not just gun deaths. It’s all of those, and more combined.

Monica Potts writes about how she left Clinton, Arkansas, while many of her girlhood friends did not.

They want a bully

May 15, 2023

Paul Waldman pegs how Trump enthralls his MAGA following. I urge everyone to think on that.

David Rothkopf writes similarly:

The MAGA-ized GOP has only gotten more outrageous… which is to say more committed to the politics of outrage, to obliterating norms of decency, as the signature activities to which they devote themselves. They do it because their base is angry. They do it because it drives social media wild. They do it because they have no ideas and their leaders are profoundly immoral, disgusting people.

The MAGA crowd is invigorated by the same behavior that repulses anyone honest. The same behavior. The rest of us need to keep in mind what game they are playing and to call it out. Don’t let them side step.

Zelenskyy is not fooled by Trump’s bluster.

Parroting the master of lies, George Santos goes on the offensive in response to his own federal indictments, labeling the investigation a “witch hunt” and using it as opportunity to attack his political opponents. Unlike Trump, Santos hasn’t yet won the devotion of MAGA. He clearly is paying attention to the techniques, eager to learn.

Both master and student may discover that however much those tactics are useful in currying a cultic following, they don’t serve well in court.