JFK and drugs

Has there ever been a case where a politician used drugs to improve their performance in a debate? Well, according to a 2013 story in the New York Post:

The night of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, Kennedy met with Jacobson just a few hours before he took the stage. The senator was “complaining in a voice barely above a whisper of extreme fatigue and lethargy,” the authors write. Jacobson plunged a needle “directly into Kennedy’s throat and pumped methamphetamine into his voice box.”

The result was clear within minutes, and an artificially energized Kennedy changed American history that night by upstaging Nixon.

Edward Glaeser on infrastructure

Edward Glaeser questions the idea of massive federal spending on infrastructure.

While infrastructure investment is often needed when cities or regions are already expanding, too often it goes to declining areas that don’t require it and winds up having little long-term economic benefit. As for fighting recessions, which require rapid response, it’s dauntingly hard in today’s regulatory environment to get infrastructure projects under way quickly and wisely. Centralized federal tax funding of these projects makes inefficiencies and waste even likelier, as Washington, driven by political calculations, gives the green light to bridges to nowhere, ill-considered high-speed rail projects, and other boondoggles. America needs an infrastructure renaissance, but we won’t get it by the federal government simply writing big checks. A far better model would be for infrastructure to be managed by independent but focused local public and private entities and funded primarily by user fees, not federal tax dollars.

I get the argument that investing without a plan leads to waste. We don’t really have any real planning at the federal level. I think it would help for the federal government to set a vision and direction for what the smart infrastructure of the future should look like, and not just transportation (public, private and human muscle-powered) but energy, water, communications, freight, manufacturing, housing and even green infrastructure. One of the problems with local authorities and companies doing the planning is that they focus on only one of these things at a time, so they miss out on potential synergies and opportunities for hybrid infrastructure. An example might be highway corridors that serve as rights of way for high speed rail, high-voltage lines, pipelines and movement corridors for wildlife. Another might be a system of parks that move water resources, improve water and air quality, absorb floodwaters, counteract climate change, provide habitat and improve peoples’ health.

He is right though that a lot of planning needs to be at the metropolitan area scale and incorporate hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis. This is already done to a certain extent by designated “metropolitan planning organizations”, but this only applies to transportation. It could be more comprehensive. I also see a middle ground between pure local funding and pure federal funding. Federal funds can be targeted only to projects that are in line with the national vision and the local comprehensive plan. They could be low- or no-interest loans rather than outright grants. They could be grants but require local matching funds and encourage private investment. They could be loans that are partially forgiven if the projects meet performance and cost-effectiveness criteria.

Having both federal and local plans ready to go, along with a federal infrastructure bank able to issue bonds, would also mean the country could really take advantage of periods of unemployment and low interest rates both to stimulate the economy in the short run and boost productivity and prosperity in the long run.

the GOP’s “Growth and Opportunity Project”

After their 2012 election loss, the Republican Party made some surprisingly candid admissions and drew some surprisingly logical conclusions. I could almost begin to support a party that focused on sound, evidenced-based policies to create accelerated economic growth and true equal opportunity, while preserving a minimal but effective safety net for people who need it through no fault of their own.

We are the Party of private-sector economic growth because that is the best way to create jobs and opportunity. That is the best way to help people earn an income, achieve success and take care of their families.

But if we are going to grow as a Party, our policies and actions must take into account that the middle class has struggled mightily and that far too many of our citizens live in poverty. To people who are flat on their back, unemployed or disabled and in need of help, they do not care if the help comes from the private sector or the government — they just want help.

Our job as Republicans is to champion private growth so people will not turn to the government in the first place. But we must make sure that the government works for those truly in need, helping them so they can quickly get back on their feet. We should be driven by reform, eliminating, and fixing what is broken, while making sure the government’s safety net is a trampoline, not a trap.

Too bad their primary voters resoundingly rejected these reasonable ideas in favor of bigotry, science denial, and downright childishness. I doubt I will so much as glance in their direction again, even though I get frustrated with the subserviance to big business, warmongering and relatively narrow range of policies in consideration by the Democrats.

“virgin soil epidemics” in the Americas

This is a seminal 1976 paper by Alfred Crosby on the epidemics that devastated Native Americans after Europeans first came. I’m sure there is plenty of scholarly work since then that may have refined this, but it is horrifying even if some of the details have changed. The most extreme estimates are that as many as 100 million people lived in the Americas pre-Columbus, or one-sixth of all humans alive at the time, and only a few million survived. If true, this is much worse than the Black Death in Europe. This would mean that Native American civilizations might have been equivalent in size and sophistication to European and Asian ones. We just don’t know.

I think this is also a cautionary tale for what a novel disease or combination of novel diseases could do to our current civilization, whether natural or man-made. He does point out though that genetic factors and never having been exposed before were only some of the factors. People at the time did not understand quarantine for example, and some practices for dealing with the dead led to more contagion. People might have been weakened by exotic diseases like smallpox, then finished off by diseases they would have experience with like malaria or pneumonia. They didn’t understand how hydration, nutrition, and keeping warm could keep their strength up to fight off secondary infections, or else people may have been too sick to fetch water and food and keep fires burning. Hopefully we can do much better today if and when some terrible epidemic strikes.

radiation during your flight to Mars

Radiation exposure could be a problem on flights to Mars, according to Nature.

Cosmic radiation exposure and persistent cognitive dysfunction

The Mars mission will result in an inevitable exposure to cosmic radiation that has been shown to cause cognitive impairments in rodent models, and possibly in astronauts engaged in deep space travel. Of particular concern is the potential for cosmic radiation exposure to compromise critical decision making during normal operations or under emergency conditions in deep space. Rodents exposed to cosmic radiation exhibit persistent hippocampal and cortical based performance decrements using six independent behavioral tasks administered between separate cohorts 12 and 24 weeks after irradiation. Radiation-induced impairments in spatial, episodic and recognition memory were temporally coincident with deficits in executive function and reduced rates of fear extinction and elevated anxiety. Irradiation caused significant reductions in dendritic complexity, spine density and altered spine morphology along medial prefrontal cortical neurons known to mediate neurotransmission interrogated by our behavioral tasks. Cosmic radiation also disrupted synaptic integrity and increased neuroinflammation that persisted more than 6 months after exposure. Behavioral deficits for individual animals correlated significantly with reduced spine density and increased synaptic puncta, providing quantitative measures of risk for developing cognitive impairment. Our data provide additional evidence that deep space travel poses a real and unique threat to the integrity of neural circuits in the brain.

Elon Musk’s new spaceship

Here’s a video from Space X on their vision for a ship that can go to Mars and back as soon as 2025:

According to KurzweilAI:

In a talk on Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk laid out engineering details to establish a permanent, self-sustaining civilization of a million people on Mars, with an initial flight as soon as 2024.

SpaceX is designing a massive reusable Interplanetary Transport System spacecraft with cabins. The trip would initially cost $500,000 per person, with a long-term goal of 100 passengers per trip.

Musk plans to make humanity a “multiplanetary species” to ensure survival in case of a calamity like an asteroid strike. “This is really about minimizing existential risk and having a tremendous sense of adventure,” he said.

Obama on housing

The Obama administration has come out with a “housing development toolkit“. I think they have this about right. Of course, the federal government has very little control over local land use. Maybe some local politicians will take the trouble to try to understand this stuff and support policies that help people and the economy rather than policies that just kind of sound good but are ultimately counterproductive.

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers – including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes – has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

Locally-constructed barriers to new housing development include beneficial environmental protections, but also laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing. Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.

This toolkit highlights actions that states and local jurisdictions have taken to promote healthy, responsive, affordable, high-opportunity housing markets, including:

  • Establishing by-right development
  • Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
  • Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
  • Eliminate off-street parking requirements
  • Allowing accessory dwelling units
  • Establishing density bonuses
  • Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
  • Employing inclusionary zoning
  • Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
  • Using property tax abatements

cool live weather sites

This week I discovered several websites that show you cool snapshots of current weather. My colleagues are laughing at me because apparently I am the last to know. I think this is one example of how a complex visualization can sometimes be much better than a simpler one. Compared to the typical “synoptic” maps of warm and cold fronts, which are confusing to most people, this is something I think even an elementary school student could begin to grasp.




Weather Forecast MapsPrecipitation 3 hours, 2016/10/14 11:00 PM (UTC−04:00), © VentuSky.com

ending welfare as we knew it

Washington Monthly has an interesting post on Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. I admit, even though I lived through it I didn’t know much more than the sound bite version. The fuller version is that while he did allow Congress to drastically scale back welfare as it was known at the time, which was cash assistance to poor families with relatively few strings attached, he drastically scaled up the earned income tax credit, which ended up helping more people. The article ends by making an interesting case that the debate has actually shifted somewhat to the left since the 1990s, and there is actually somewhat of a bipartisan consensus that more is needed to fight poverty and help the poor develop job skills. At the same time, the poverty rate among children and minority children in particular is still shameful.


What did happen is that Clinton seized on one element of the conservative welfare reform agenda – work – and used it as leverage to create the broadest expansion of federal spending on poverty reduction since the New Deal. Welfare recipients should work, Clinton agreed, and the 1996 legislation set both a five-year time limit on benefits and imposed, for the first time ever, a requirement that recipients work to receive aid.

But Clinton also argued government’s obligation to “make work pay.” “No one who works full time and has children in the home should live in poverty,” said Clinton in 1996. It was a bargain that would win over the public, which soon shed its appetite for punishing the poor that conservatives had done their best to encourage. It also enabled Clinton to push through his ambitious agenda of new programs aimed at helping the working poor.

Clinton’s biggest win was the expansion of the EITC, which was framed as a precondition to passing welfare reform and which Congress passed in 1993. Today, the EITC is the federal government’s largest anti-poverty program, delivering $63 billion in benefits a year to nearly 28 million families. This makes it nearly four times the size of the federal block grants under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) – the successor to AFDC. Researchers credit the EITC for dramatically increasing workforce participation for lower-income women (more so than the reform of AFDC). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the EITC lifted 9.4 million people in working households out of poverty in 2013.