Guns, Toilets, and Steel: Different customs regarding humanure explain a lot of the differences in economic development.

The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins, is a pioneering guide for people who want a simple composting toilet system.  I have used toilets that were inspired by the Handbook both in Guatemala and at a community a couple hours drive from Washington DC. It is basically a bucket composting system and it requires minor regular monitoring and management which most people don’t want to do, but it is extremely cheap and simple and effective for those who can get past the ick factor.  The Handbook, which the author kindly offers as a free download, also delves into some history of how differently human manure was dealt with in Asia versus in Europe.  Here is an excerpt:

Asians recycled human excrement for thousands of years. The Chinese have used humanure agriculturally since the Shang Dynasty, three to four thousand years ago. The Chinese, Koreans, the Japanese, and others evolved to understand human excrement as a natural resource rather than a waste material. Where Westerners had “human waste,” they had “night soil.” We produced waste and pollution; they produced soil nutrients and food. Asians have been developing sustainable agriculture for four thousand years. For forty centuries these people worked the same land with little or no chemical fertilizers and, in many cases, had produced greater crop yields than Western farmers, who were quickly destroying the soils of their own countries through depletion and erosion. A fact largely ignored by people in western agriculture is that agricultural land must produce a greater output over time. The human population is constantly increasing; available agricultural land is not. Therefore, our farming practices should leave us with land more fertile with each passing year, not less fertile. Back in 1938 the US Department of Agriculture came to the alarm-

Why didn’t we follow the Asian example of agronutrient recycling? It’s certainly not for a lack of information. Dr. F. H. King wrote an interesting book, published in 1910 titled Farmers of Forty Centuries.2 Dr. King was a former chief of the Division of Soil Management of the US Department of Agriculture who traveled through Japan, Korea, and China in the early 1900s as an agricultural visitor. He was interested in finding out how people could farm the same fields for millennia without destroying their fertility. He wrote:

One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries long and well-nigh universal conservation and utilization of all [humanure] in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food. To understand this evolution, it must be recognized that mineral fertilizers so extensively employed in modern Western agriculture have been a physical impossibility to all people alike until within very recent years. With this fact must be associated the very long unbroken life of these nations and the vast numbers their farmers have been compelled to feed.

When we reflect on the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century’s service, and upon the enormous quantity of mineral [and synthetic] fertilizers which are being applied annually to them in order to secure paying yields, it becomes evident that the time is here when profound consideration should be given to the practices the [Asian] race has maintained through many centuries, which permit it to be said of China that one-sixth of an acre of good land is ample for the maintenance of one person, and which are feeding an average of three people per acre of farm land in the three southernmost islands of Japan.

[Western humanity] is the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has ever endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted; and his besom of destruction in the uncontrolled hands of a generation has swept into the sea soil fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate, and yet this fertility is the substratum of all that is living.

According to King’s research, the average daily excreta of the adult human weighs in at 40 ounces (2.5 pounds)… Multiplied by 330 million, a rough estimate of the US population in the early twenty-first century, Americans each year produce 3.63 billion pounds of valuable agricultural nutrients just by relieving themselves in a toilet. Almost all of itis discarded into the environment as a waste material or a pollutant, or as Dr. King puts it,

poured into the seas, lakes or rivers and into the underground waters…

The International Concession of the city of Shanghai, in 1908, sold to a Chinese contractor the privilege of entering residences and public places early in the morning of each day and removing the night soil, receiving therefore more than $31,000 gold, for 78,000 tons of [humanure]. All of this we not only throw away but expend much larger sums in doing so.”

In case you didn’t catch that, the contractor paid $31,000 gold for the humanure, referred to as “night soil” and incorrectly as “waste” by Dr. King. People don’t pay to buy waste; they pay money for things of value. Furthermore, using Dr. King’s figures, the US population produced over three hundred billion pounds of fecal material annually in the early twenty-first century. That’s a lot of gross national product.

Admittedly, the spreading of raw human excrement on fields, as may be done in Asia, will never become culturally acceptable in the United States, and rightly so. The agricultural use of raw night soil produces an assault on the sense of smell and provides a route of transmission for various human disease organisms. Americans who have traveled abroad and witnessed the use of raw human excrement in agricultural applications have largely been repulsed by the experience.

That repulsion has instilled in many older Americans an intransigent bias against, and even a fear of, the use of humanure for soil enrichment. However, few Americans have witnessed the composting of humanure as a preliminary step in its recycling. Proper composting converts humanure into a pleasant-smelling material devoid of human pathogens.

Although the agricultural use of raw human excrement will never become a common practice in the US, the use of composted human refuse, including humanure, food scraps, and other discarded organic materials can and should become a widespread and culturally encouraged practice.

How is it that Asian peoples developed an understanding of human nutrient recycling centuries ago, and we didn’t? After all, we’re the advanced, developed, scientific nation, aren’t we?

…Strange as it may seem, says King, there are not today [early 1900s] and apparently never have been, even in the largest and oldest cities of Japan, China, or Korea, anything corresponding to the hydraulic systems of sewage disposal used now by Western nations. When I asked my interpreter if it was not the custom of the city during the winter months to discharge its night soil into the sea, as a quicker and cheaper mode of disposal [than recycling], his reply came quick and sharp, “No, that would be waste. We throw nothing away. It is worth too much money.” 7 The Chinaman, says King, wastes nothing while the sacred duty of agriculture is uppermost in his mind.8

While the Asians were practicing sustainable agriculture and recycling their organic resources and doing so over millennia, what were the people of the West doing? Why weren’t our European ancestors returning their manures to the soil, too? After all, it does make sense. The Asians who recycled their manures not only utilized a resource and reduced pollution, but by returning their excrement to the soil, they succeeded in reducing threats to their health. There was no putrid sewage collecting and breeding disease germs and attracting rats. Instead, the humanure was, for the most part, undergoing a natural, non-chemical purification process in the soil. Even the returning of humanure raw to the land succeeds in destroying many human pathogens in the manure and returns nutrients to the soil.

Although it is true that raw sewage naturally purifies in the soil, it takes a while and in the meantime, any food growing in the sewage is likely to be biologically contaminated with bacteria and other pathogens. However, all pathogens are killed by cooking and in Asian cultures that used raw humanure in the fields also developed practices to prevent the pathogens from infecting people. In particular, many Asian cultures such as the Chinese got into the practice of cooking everything that came out of those fields. For example, when I lived in Taiwan, I noticed that the locals ate nothing raw except tree fruits (and fish — sashimi)! I sometimes really craved a raw salad and there were only a very few Western restaurants that served salads. When I ate salad in front of my Chinese friends, they would tell me how revolting it is. Some said they were physically disgusted at the sight of me eating a salad! Now that I know the historic humanure practices in the region, it makes a lot more sense. They were disgusted because historically, eating raw vegetables was akin to eating raw human sewage because the vegetables were grown in humanure. Even though the practice of using raw humanure on fields had probably mostly ended a few decades before I arrived in Taiwan, the cultural taboos lived on. I’m happy to report that I never got sick, so the salads were not grown in raw humanure.

Similarly, when I worked with Greencorps Chicago, an urban gardening organization, I heard that some of the poor immigrants from Southeast Asia were saving their humanure each day instead of using the toilet and bringing it down to fertilize their vegetable plots in some of the community gardens we helped with. It was cheaper than buying compost and better for the soil than synthetic fertilizer. And It is fine to eat the vegetables as long as they used their traditional hygiene practices to cook everything that touches a plate and use good handwashing before touching any cooked food or plates.

This might seem barbaric to modern readers, but traditional Asian humanure practices were less barbaric than what Europeans did because at least they kept it out of the water supply. Because humanure was seen as a waste to get rid of in Europe rather than as a resource to conserve, humanure was sometimes dumped in the streets or often dumped in rivers and streams where it would infect the drinking water. Unlike in many Asian cultures which always boiled all their drinking water, Europeans frequently drank cold sewage tea. The habit of drinking boiled water in Asia was so strong, that many Asians refused to drink water that wasn’t piping hot just to be sure it is clean. For example, the gas stations in Taiwan didn’t have a cold water fountain when I was there. The only water to drink was from a boiling water dispenser. And at Asian hotels, guests always got a thermos of boiling water along with their room key. When the water is boiling hot, you knew that was safe to drink. Even in tropical Indonesia just south of the equator, we got a thermos of boiling water at every hotel for drinking. Ice often wasn’t available and even when there was ice, people were suspicious about whether it was truly purified or not.

What was happening in Europe regarding public hygiene from the 1300s on? Great pestilences swept through Europe throughout recorded history. The Black Death killed more than half the population of England in the fourteenth century. In 1552, sixty-seven thousand patients died of the plague in Paris alone. Fleas from infected rats were the carriers of this disease. Did the rats dine on piles of human waste or festering garbage? Other pestilences included the sweating sickness (attributed to uncleanliness), cholera (spread by food and water contaminated by the excrement of infected persons), “jail fever” (caused by a lack of sanitation in prisons), typhoid fever (spread by water contaminated with infected feces), and numerous others.

Andrew White, cofounder of Cornell University, wrote that …It’s now known that the main cause of such immense sacrifice of life was a lack of proper hygienic practices… “For century after century the idea prevailed that filthiness was akin to holiness.” Living in filth was regarded by holy men as evidence of sanctity, according to White, who lists numerous saints who never bathed parts or all of their bodies, such as St. Abraham, who washed neither his hands nor his feet for fifty years, or St. Sylvia, who never washed any part of her body except her fingers.

… Today, Asians are abandoning the harmonious agricultural techniques that Dr. King observed nearly a century ago. In Kyoto, Japan, for example, “night soil is collected hygienically to the satisfaction of users of the system, only to be diluted at a central collection point for discharge to the sewer system and treatment at a conventional sewage treatment plant.”

…A Humanure Handbook reader wrote an interesting account of Japanese toilets:

My only real [humanure] experience…. comes from living in Japan from 1973-1983. As my experience is dated, things may have changed (probably for the worse as toilets and life were becoming “westernized” even toward the end of my stay in Japan).

My experience comes from living in small, rural towns as well as in metropolitan areas (provincial capitals). Homes and businesses had an “indoor outhouse.” The Vault: Nothing but urine/feces were deposited into the large metal vault under the toilet (squat style, slightly recessed in the floor and made of porcelain). No cover material or carbonaceous stuff was used. It stunk!! Not just the bathroom, but the whole house! There were many flies, even though the windows were screened. Maggots were the main problem. They crawled up the sides of the vault onto the toilet and floor and sometimes even made it outside the bathroom into the hall. People constantly poured some kind of toxic chemical into the vaults to control the smell and maggots. It didn’t help — in fact, the maggots really poured out of the vault to escape the chemicals. Occasionally a slipper (one put on special “bathroom slippers” as opposed to “house slippers” when entering the bathroom) fell into the disgusting maggot-filled vault. You couldn’t even begin to think about getting it out! You couldn’t let little children use the toilet without an adult suspending them over it. They might fall in! Disposal: When the vault was full (about every three months), you called a private vacuum truck which used a large hose placed in an outside opening to suck out the liquid mass. You paid them for their services. I’m not sure exactly what happened to the humanure next but, in the agricultural areas near the fields were large (ten feet in diameter) round, concrete, raised containers, similar in looks to an above ground swimming pool. In the containers, I was told, was the humanure from the “vacuum trucks.” It was a greenish-brown liquid with algae growing on the surface. I was told this was spread onto agricultural fields.

Japan has one of the most fastidious cultures in the world about hygiene and they have probably the most advanced toilet culture in the world.  They spend vast sums of money on computerized toilets that also automatically wash and dry your bottom (if you can figure out how to control them) and yet some Japanese have been using humanure in agriculture right into fairly modern times. 

In my youth I listened to army veterans talking about their stints in the Korean War. Usually after a beer or two, they’d turn their conversation to the “outhouses” used by the Koreans. They were amazed, even mystified about the fact that the Koreans tried to lure passersby into their latrines by making the toilets especially attractive. The idea of someone wanting someone else’s poop always brought out a hearty laugh from the vets. This opinion sums up the attitude of almost anyone raised with a flush toilet. Humanure is a waste product that we must dispose of and only fools would think otherwise. One of the effects of this attitude is that Americans don’t know and probably don’t care where their “human waste” goes after it emerges from their back ends as long as they don’t have to deal with it.

Another system of human waste disposal was animals. Some toilets in Asia were right over a pig pen. I remember on pig pen toilet I used in the Philippines which was extremely clean. I looked down through the toilet seat to a completely flat surface of soil about 6 feet below where there was no evidence of any humanure. But I did see some eager pigs looking up at me who started squealing and grunting when I opened the outhouse door. The pigs ate all my poop as fast as I dropped it. I tried to avoid eating any pig meat in Asia after that experience and now I understand well why the Old Testament calls them unclean animals that should not be eaten.

The Humanure Handbook has a photo of this kind of outhouse below and it also discusses how humanure has been an important source of dog food in many human societies.

I spent a few months in southern Mexico in the late 1970s in Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula. There, toilets were not available; people simply used the sand dunes along the coast. No problem, though. One of the small, unkempt, and ubiquitous Mexican dogs would wait nearby with watering mouth until you did your thing. Burying your excrement in that situation would have been an act of disrespect to the dog. No one wants sand in their food. A good, healthy, steaming turd at the crack of dawn on the Caribbean coast never lasted more than sixty seconds before it became a hot meal for a human’s best friend. Yum. Today, roughly 892 million people still practice open defecation, down from over 1.2 billion in 2000. Of those who still go outdoors, 90percent live in Central and Southern Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa

Several scientists have studied why most dogs will eat poop and it may be one of the distinguishing behavioral traits that separates dogs from the wolves that they were domesticated from. 

The most extensive treatment of this unsavory topic is a series of papers by James Butler and his colleagues. They studied the diet of free-ranging dogs in Zimbabwe. Fifty-six percent of 1,000 dog scats they sampled included human feces. The dogs would roam from homestead to homestead, searching for garbage and poop. They would locate human feces by smell and dig it up if it was buried. As dog food goes, human feces was surprisingly nutritious. Indeed, Butler found that poop contained twice as much protein as the dogs’ most common food (a porridge called sadza). He concluded human feces was “comparable to the upper range of energy content for mammal tissue, vegetables, and fruit.”

In a 1996 paper, the anthropologist Fredrick Simoons documented many instances of human feces consumption in areas of sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia and the Cameroons, a dog’s waste disposal functions included licking the bottom of infants after they defecated. Simoons noted that the !Kung people of South Africa did not eat dog flesh because dogs eat human excrement.

It is getting less common for dogs to clean up human poop as more places get latrines, but progress with toilets is amazingly slow.  Moneybox reports that progress with mobile phones has been much faster because, “it is now more common to have a mobile phone than a working toilet:”

Surprisingly, the UN reports there are now more people with mobile phones (six billion for world population of seven billion) on earth than there are with access to clean toilets (4.5 billion).

That phenomenon is easily visible in Indonesia, for example, where it is common to see people who live in metal roofed shacks without bathrooms surfing Facebook on their smartphones or feature phones. And it shows how, in the developing world, multinationals are often better at responding to peoples’ needs than governments are.

Open defecation, while not widely discussed, causes illnesses such as diarrhea that kill 4,500 children daily. Poor sanitation also hobbles emerging markets economically. According to the UN, the problem costs India $53.8 billion a year, while Nigeria loses $3 billion annually.

In rich countries we tend to think about technologies in terms of their order of adoption and [from that perspective it would seem] obvious that plumbing is more basic. But from an infrastructure investment standpoint, it’s easier [and more profitable for a private company] to build a mobile phone network than a sewer system. For that same reason, even though there tends not to be all that much competition in wireless telephony it’s a lot less monopolistic than electricity.

Both electricity and sewage service require constructing an expensive network to physically connect every home whereas cellular phones just require a few relatively cheap cellphone towers. 

As of 2015 (the most recent data available), there are many countries in the world where more than 80% of the population has no access to a toilet.

Posted in Development

Crime is down. Police brutality is down. Racist policing is down. Why do most Americans believe the opposite?

Crime has been dropping for three decades straight now, but about 60-70% of Americans have been misled into thinking that crime is increasing this whole time. I feel a lot safer nowadays partly because I pay attention to statistics and perhaps partly because I live in a very low crime area now. But I lived in Chicago during the peak of the crime wave in the 1990s and when I go back to Chicago, the whole city seems more tranquil and I don’t know if I just think of it that way because I know the statistics or because I can really see the visible signs of the radical transformation of the city that I think I can see.

But another reason I feel safer than the median American is that I never watch TV news. TV news is a waste of time because it focuses on drama and neglects information. With the rise of ubiquitous video cameras, TV stations have more and more access to dramatic images of crime than ever before even though the crime rate is half of what it used to be, so TV stations are showing more and more dramatic videos of crime scenes even as the crime rate falls just because someone is always present with a cellphone or a security camera to provide the news stations with exciting videos.

Similarly the perception that police brutality is on the rise has no basis in statistics. Ironically, the black lives matter movement has probably arisen at the time when police violence against African-Americans is lower than ever before in American history. This movement is also partly a product of ubiquitous cellphone videos with the additional power that social media has brought to marginalized people because it allows anyone to broadcast videos. Social media algorithms then push the most dramatic and emotionally engaging content (much like TV news) which includes crimes like police brutality. Given what little we know about police brutality (and it is a terrible shame that the police have neglected to collect statistics about it) the evidence suggests that it too is much less of a problem today than it used to be. It is still a problem and it needs to be fixed, but I have no doubt that it was worse near the peak of the crime wave in the 1990s when there were more arrests and more stressful interactions between the police and civilians and police brutality towards African-Americans was undoubtedly still much worse yet in the 1960s (and earlier) when American police officers were more likely to be active members of white supremacist organizations and police departments tried to squash protests in favor of basic civil rights. Most evidence suggests that racism has been declining in America since at least the 1960s and the police force is no doubt changing along with the rest of American society.

Weihua Lee did some excellent reporting about the media and perceptions of crime in America:

Fox News has spent more time covering violent crime than CNN and MSNBC combined, according to an analysis of data compiled by the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer.

Since the police killing of George Floyd, Fox News has leaned into a narrative of looting and property destruction, filling its segments with headlines like “Portland Plagued by Violent Clashes, Riots” and “Businesses Experience Worst Looting in Decades.”

While CNN and MSNBC’s coverage of violence and crime also spiked after the Floyd protests took off in May, it has dropped significantly since then.

In the 2000s, cable and local TV news became more popular, contributing to a shift in public opinion on crime. Before the early 2000s, more and more people believed there were fewer crimes in the United States, according to Gallup polling data, which matched the truth — that crime rates were decreasing. However, that trend was completely reversed in 2001, and not much has changed since: As crime continues to decrease, more people believe the opposite is true — that crime is up.

Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the rise of police television shows, like NCIS and CSI, and how much airtime local TV news gives to violent crime has fed the discrepancy.

Romer… said producers at local TV news stations face daily pressure to fill the evening report with different beats, like sports, local government, …and crime — and the idea is to capture viewers’ attention.

“No matter what is going on, there’s going to be a crime in the news region of the news station,” Romer said. “It can be hit-and-run, it can be shooting — the crime news hole stays consistent over time. Stations get that’s an attention-getter. The crime rates could be changing dramatically, but they wouldn’t know it.”

Bias in reporting and story selection can also plague how crime is portrayed in local TV news, Romer said. For example, there has historically been emphasis on stories where the suspect is Black and the victim is white, even though Black men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes. This sways public opinion, too.

Posted in Violence & Peace

2019 was the best year for median income on record in America. Too bad the pandemic has probably knocked it back down for 2020.

This is great news from the Census Bureau in a time when there isn’t a lot of other great news. The different saturation of the lines in the 2000s represent changes in the methodology for calculating median income, which makes it a bit harder to compare the amount today with the data for 1967-2012 because the new methodology inflates the growth in median income more than the old methodology did. So we don’t really know if we just had the fastest growth in median income since 1967 because we used to calculate median income growth in a different way.

Posted in Medianism

Why did the stock market rise to record highs during the Covid-19 pandemic? Is it a bubble?

The timing of stock market gyrations are often hard to explain, and although the stock market crash at the beginning of the Covid pandemic is easy to understand, the dramatic rise later in the pandemic is harder to understand. Why would the stock market have risen much higher in September than it was a few months ago just before the pandemic started?

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Most of the recovery in stock prices is a rational realization that the pandemic isn’t likely to be nearly as bad as the 1918 pandemic, but our current situation is still very bad and the market now seems to think the are no worries at all.  Why are investors ignoring the current economic fundamentals and uncertainty about the future?

One reason may be the dramatic rise in retail trading. Retail traders are individuals who are trading their own savings as a hobby. Many of them are ‘day traders’ who make such short-term trades that they often buy and then sell the same stock within a few hours the same day. Several news outlets have reported on this surge. One report suggested that retail trading has more than doubled compared with a year ago.

Why has retail trading surged? Because of the pandemic, most Americans suddenly found themselves with a lot more time as their entertainment options were curtailed and work was furloughed and they are turning to online entertainment like online gambling which has surged.  Surprisingly, the data also shows that Americans had a lot more savings than usual.  Here is the historic spike in the savings rate:

That is the highest the savings rate ever was since the government began collecting statistics in the 1950s. And why did the savings rate spike in the middle of the biggest 6-month contraction of GDP in recorded history? Because of the biggest 6-month monetary stimulus and fiscal stimulus in recorded history, much of which was funneled to households, some of which probably felt like it was ‘free money’ that people could gamble with and with Las Vegas essentially shut down by the virus, they put it in to retail brokerages instead.

Here is the size of the monetary stimulus:

That was more than double and close to triple the size of the monetary expansion during the financial crisis in 2008 depending on how you measure it. The Fed created new money out of thin air and lent it to the banks and to businesses and to the federal government.  The government then used the newly printed money to send out checks to all Americans, many of whom used the money to open retail brokerage accounts. Here is the size of the fiscal stimulus. It is absolutely enormous compared with the relatively minuscule stimulus bills that George W. Bush and Obama initiated during the Great Recession.

(Note that the vertical axis doesn’t start at zero, but it is still a dramatic increase in federal spending, nearly doubling the usual amount.)

A huge increase in the money supply should create inflation in theory if it is not hoarded. In this recession, there has been enough hoarding of the monetary expansion that there is no general inflation, but there has been some asset price inflation because some of the new money has poured into  stocks and bonds and bid up stock prices.

Most American households haven’t had the luxury to massively increase savings, so you might not know anyone who is doing this, but our high-income households are saving/hoarding a lot more than usual.  It is the well-off who are causing the spike in savings according to data gathered by a Harvard team and they are the most likely to also put money into stocks. High-income workers are also the most likely to have been working from home where the distractions of day trading are easier to succumb to than in the office.

Furthermore a lot of them are extremely optimistic about the economy.  Polls show that 67-70% of Republicans think that the economy is excellent now and indeed that it is better than it was four years ago. Republicans say they are extremely optimistic about the future, and if they are putting their money where their polls are at, perhaps that optimism helps explain why the stock market is also extremely optimistic about the economy.

There has been a growing partisan divide in how members of both political parties view reality and that includes how optimistic Americans are about the economy depending on which party controls the White House. Generally speaking, Democrats tend to be irrationally pessimistic about the economy when a Republican is president as is currently the case and Republicans tend to be irrationally optimistic. When a Democrat is in the White House, we see the reverse.

So both parties are guilty of irrationality about the economy, and whoever has their guy in the White House are more likely to irrationally say they are bullish.  That happens to be Republicans right now, but politics shouldn’t cloud our economic judgements. 

Personally, I’m guessing that stocks are in a bubble and I’m reducing my financial risks right now by pulling money out of stocks for a while because of the tremendous uncertainties I see in the next six months. I hope I am wrong and I miss out on a tremendous stock rally because that will mean that the economy is doing great, but if the economy staggers, at least I won’t lose a lot of money in the stock market. I think of selling off stocks as a way of buying a little bit of insurance against potential economic problems in the coming months.

I doubt there will be a repeat of the dramatic fiscal and monetary stimulus that surged into the stock market a few months ago and some of those retail investors might need to take some of that money back out of stocks to pay for living expenses at some point. That’s why I’m not optimistic about stocks in the next six months. 

Posted in Macro

When the police union fundraisers call, politely ask them what they think they should do about bad apples among the police. They will hang up as if you called them the N-word. Defund the police UNIONS.

I got two calls from police unions this week around supper time. Both times, the guy jabbered along on his script without listening as I asked repeatedly if I could say something. When I got to interrupt his pitch, I asked what he thought about bad apples in the police force and the first guy immediately hung up.

The same thing happened with the second caller, but instead of immediately hanging up, he replied that he couldn’t talk about that. So I asked why not and persisted in asking if he thought it was a problem. Instead of answering, he asked if he could send me a pledge form in the mail to commit to contributing money to the police. I told him that is fine if he also sent me the organization’s policy statement about addressing systemic racism among the police. He hung up without saying another word.

As a matter of household policy, we never give any money to telemarketers like the police unions even if we support the cause because we don’t want to support any telemarketing ever. I’ve repeatedly asked the police unions to take us off their calling lists, but they never do and we keep getting called every year. Although I highly value the important roles of police in society, I find the fundraising tactics of the police unions to be a bit corrupt. And some of their political actions, like defending really bad cops, are downright harmful.

One of their corrupt tactics is to give window stickers to donors for display on their car windshields. This amounts to a shakedown because the clear insinuation is that if you donate ahead of time, you won’t get a big ticket when the police pull you over and see the union sticker on your car. That is why corrupt police sell PBA Shields on Ebay for mounting in your car for between about $90 and $300. It is like a get out of jail free card. A Google search shows that there is a brisk economy in these things and lots of people have stories about how they work.

This is kind of corruption is probably worst in bad-apple jurisdictions like Ferguson Missouri where ticketing practices also amount to a corrupt shakedown rather than having any public safety justification. Truckers know about these perverse police districts.

I’m skeptical of some of the “defund the police” voices because we need better police, not necessarily less police. What we really need is more people calling to “defund the police unions”. Don’t give these corrupt organizations any of your money. End for-profit policing.

Posted in Public Finance

Argument from authority is necessary for scientific progress.

Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Every scientific advance is based on the work of others and so we need to know what scientific work is accurate so we can stand on a solid foundation rather than on a pack of lies and errors. The usual way to judge the work of others is to judge how much authority they have.

But awarding absolute trust to any authority is a logical fallacy called an appeal to authority and the line between the fallacy and good judgement of authority can be confusing.   Some amount of deference to authority is necessary for science because everyone cannot double-check every fact and experiment that others have done previously.  We are forced to appeal to authority most of the time in deciding what facts are accurate because of our very limited resources.

Wikipedia illustrates the appeal-to-authority fallacy with the example of Theophilus Painter who thought he determined that humans had 24 pairs of chromosomes.  There are actually 23 chromosomes, but for 36 years scientists said there were 24 and numerous scientists miscounted the number because they gave too much authority to Painter.  But we cannot all independently verify how many chromosomes exist in human cells because we don’t all have the equipment the time. Everyone has to decide when to trust the authority of others to be able to gain from the specialization and exchange that makes scientific progress possible.

The only way to make scientific exchange possible is to appeal to authority in deciding who is most likely to be honest and accurate and who is not. The real problem with the so-called “logical fallacy” of appeals to authority are when authorities are deemed to be infallible or when someone’s claim is given too much weight (such as Painter’s claim).

It is a crucial skill in science to learn how to evaluate authority using Bayesian thinking. Evidence from authorities with stronger reputations for accuracy must be given more weight than contradictory evidence from authorities with weaker accuracy, but no authority can ever be so strong that it permanently outweighs all possible counter evidence. People who complain about the so-called “logical fallacy of appeals to authority” are really complaining about excessive Bayesian weights for the accuracy of authorities who should be doubted more.

Evaluating Authorities

To be good thinkers we need good judgement about the authorities we will choose to stand upon. Here are some ways to judge sources and determine how authoritative they are:

  1. Is it peer-reviewed?
  2. Is it published by an institution with a reputation for accuracy?

    A) The websites of democratic governments (.gov) are generally accurate.
    B) Official university publications are usually accurate, but sometimes university websites also host work by students that lacks quality, so look for other signs of quality too.
    C) Books published by university presses or professional associations (e.g. National Academies Press) are more credible than books published by popular presses (Random House) which are generally more credible than books that are self-published, but not always.

  3. Does the author have credentials in the subject? (Such as a PhD in the area or a body of authoritative publications.)
  4. Does the paper cite solid sources?

If in doubt, you can get help from experts like college librarians who are good at finding reputable sources. Textbooks and peer-reviewed articles cite quality sources so you can find more sources by looking up who they cite.  Wikipedia often cites quality sources, but it is very uneven and you will have to use your own judgement.

As for non-scholarly sources, it is harder to judge quality, but again look for how much depth the author has in the topic by how many sources (and the quality of the sources) the author has cited and how much the author has written on the topic.  The publisher is also an important source of quality control.  News organizations vary in their reputations, but generally speaking news organizations with broader audiences (particularly if they have international readership) that write long, in-depth, investigative reporting are more credible than smaller organizations that write short pieces for people with short attention spans.

You also have to pay attention to the difference between news articles which are fact-checked by editors and editorial or opinion articles which typically have much lower standards of accuracy. For example, The Wall Street Journal publishes internationally-respected news pages with high accuracy and that also in the same publication includes a highly-partisan opinion page with low standards of accuracy. As the opinion page itself says about their different missions: “While our news pages are committed to informing our readers, our editorial pages are dedicated to advocating a consistent [political] philosophy…” The errors in the opinion page got so bad that hundreds of journalists on the news side of the paper have signed letters complaining about factual inaccuracies in the opinion pages including errors that callously endangered the life of one of their journalists.

Other popular publications with international reputations for accuracy include The Economist, The Atlantic, The BBC, The Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, wire services (The Associated Press, Reuters, & Bloomberg News which provide articles for other news organizations), The New York Times, and The Washington Post, although as with the Wall Street Journal, the opinion pages of the latter are more biased than their straight news articles. Some publications like the Economist (on the center right) and The Atlantic (on the center left) tend to mix editorial and news without labeling which is which, so readers have to separate the two. Fox News also mixes editorial and news, but unlike Fox News, the Economist and the Atlantic fact check everything for accuracy. TV news tends to be worse at fact-checking than printed news because video productions simply tend to be more rushed and sloppier than written work. In particular, the live broadcasts interviews that FOX and CNN specialize in are impossible to factcheck before publication and are particularly prone to misinformation.

This photo shows windows from Chartres Cathedral where the four New Testament authors of the gospels are sitting on the shoulders of the four major prophets of the Old Testament who are depicted as giants. The sentiment was to show that even if the apostles had been smaller, they would have seen more than their giant forebears because of relying upon them.

Posted in Culture, Philosophy and ethics

Racial progress: compare the riots of 1967 with the riots today. We’ve come a long way baby.

Read this classic Esquire essay from 1968. Police brutality was way worse back then. They just massacred people in some cases. White supremacist militias were more dangerous and shot more people. Entire neighborhoods burned for days. It was close to a civil war in American cities. This year has actually been relatively peaceful and much less scary by comparison.

Posted in Discrimination, Violence & Peace

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