September 25, 2017

Vermont Should be Investigating Itself

Our brand is becoming “non-sustainable”.

Tiny Vermont has the distinction of biggest EB-5 scandal in the country. EB-5 is a program which grants US residency to foreigners who invest in certified job-creating projects. Jay Peak Resort was built out with EB-5 funds. The same group which developed Jay also raised EB-5 funds for a biomanufacturing plant in Newport, VT, which is now a hole in the ground (really!) with no apparent prospects.

The government of the State of Vermont is impeding investigation of its own involvement in this scandal by withholding key documents and asserting immunity from lawsuits. The Vermont Legislature has yet to investigate this massive scandal and the State’s role in it.

According to VTDigger, which has done Vermont a great service by relentless coverage of this scandal:

“In April 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged [Ariel] Quiros [former owner of Jay Peak] and [Bill] Stenger [former President and CEO of Jay Peak] with 52 counts of securities fraud and with misusing $200 million in immigrant investor funds through the EB-5 visa program, which grants permanent residency to foreigners who invest $500,000 or more in U.S. businesses and create at least 10 full-time jobs. In all, 836 investors from 74 countries were allegedly defrauded by the developers…[Stenger has since reached a settlement with the SEC]

“Many of the investors blame the Vermont EB-5 Regional Center, an arm of state government that was charged with monitoring the EB-5 program in Vermont, for not properly overseeing the Jay Peak projects. Top state politicians, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Gov. Jim Douglas all promoted the developments to investors overseas on behalf of Stenger and Quiros.”

Last month the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which oversees the EB-5 program for the feds, wrote to Vermont that it is planning to terminate the State’s authorization to oversee the program saying “the Regional Center’s failure to provide adequate oversight and monitoring of its projects allowed the alleged malfeasance by Quiros and Stenger to occur and jeopardize the Regional Center’s ability to promote economic growth within EB-5 program requirements, as well as the EB-5 investors’ investments.”

Some investors have sued the State and former officials for their lack of oversight and active promotion of the projects. According to VTDigger:

“Megan Shafritz, the lead lawyer for the state, has said Vermont officials have 'absolute immunity' in the case, which protects them 'from the burdens of discovery and litigation generally.'

“Shafritz has urged the court to block the release of documents and the deposition of a key witness in the investors’ case until after the court has ruled on a motion to dismiss, which the attorney general’s office has yet to file.”

The former officials and the State are being defended by the attorney general’s office, which is the State’s internal law firm and usually defends actions against the State; the accused officials are certainly entitled to a defense.  However, if the AG’s office’s role is defense and protecting the State, then who represents the citizens of the State if officials are guilty of wrongdoing? Are we totally dependent on the feds and/or private lawsuits to protect us against state government malfeasance?

In the federal government there is a recognized problem with the Justice Department headed by the attorney general, who is a presidential appointee, investigating the president; that’s why we have special prosecutors. But in Vermont the AG is elected independently. Do we still need a special prosecutor because the AG’s office needs to defend instead of investigate and prosecute state officials? Hard to believe but, if so, we should appoint one to look at the state’s role in this fiasco!

Meanwhile where is the legislature on this? Where’s the investigative committee? Don’t we want to know whether the feds are right in calling us incompetent or worse? Don’t we want to know how our brand got tarnished by the biggest EB-5 scandal in the country? Complacency will lead to disaster.

September 20, 2017

Let’s Not Talk about CyberSecurity

Friends have asked me (since I’m an official nerd), whether I blocked credit agencies from reporting on my credit to potential lenders to assure that new accounts are not opened by imposters pretending to be me. Blocking makes it harder for someone to use your ss# for identity theft; but, since you give part of your ss# to request a block, you give the credit agencies even more information about you which might be exposed in a future breach. I’m not telling what I did.

Following the Equifax breach, Facebook is ablaze with security discussions as are other online forums. Here’s some free advice: Don’t post what you decided to do about your credit! Don’t say online whether or not you’ve stopped credit checks at the rating agencies.

Either way you make yourself an easier mark for those who want to steal your identity. If you’ve blocked opening new accounts, they can say that when they pretend to be you and work on getting the unlock pin or convincing someone to give credit without it. If you haven’t stopped new accounts, then they know to go after you directly. Information about you is what hackers need; don’t post it online!

While we’re at it, don’t say online what kind of home security system you use. Don’t helpfully review your home security system on Amazon or your blog. Don’t rate your home security installer any way but anonymously (and how do you know if you’re anonymous?) Why tell hackers or burglars what technology they’re dealing with? I’m not sure the decals like “protected by ADT” are a good idea since they give useful information. Maybe just “Very well-protected. While you were reading this your picture went to the cloud!”. I’m still wrestling with how to blog about my expanded home security system without compromising our security.

For good advice on dealing with the Equifax breach see Wired for Safety: How to deal with the Equifax security breach on VTDigger; it’s part of a weekly column on cybersecurity by the very knowledgeable digital forensics faculty at Champlain College.

September 14, 2017

The Dreamer Dream

It is now squarely up to Congress to assure that Dreamers have a path to stay and work in the United States.  If Congress does its job, some of those who were brought illegally to the US as children will have a much more secure future than they had under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), President Obama’s executive order.

From a Dreamer’s PoV, there are three problems with DACA:

  1. It provides amnesty and the right to work in the US only two years at a time; there is no path to citizenship or permanent residency.
  2. It is (as we’ve now seen) subject to withdrawal by the same kind of executive action which created it.
  3. The fact that it was promulgated as an executive order makes it vulnerable to the Supreme Court finding it unconstitutional. The Court split 4-4 (after the death of Justice Scalia) and allowed an injunction preventing a DACA expansion to stand.

If Congress were to pass a law which did simply what DACA did, issues 2 and 3 go away. I hope Congress can do better than that and provide a path all the way to citizenship for the Dreamers; but the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good. We actually have many more immigration issues to deal with than just the Dreamers; there are a large number of people who entered the country illegally as adults. We’re not going to just deport all of them either. But let’s take one bipartisan step at a time and make sure we do the right thing by the Dreamers.

According to WikiPedia:

To qualify for DACA, applicants must meet the following major requirements, although meeting them does not guarantee approval:[55]

  • Came to the United States before their 16th birthday
  • Have lived continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007
  • Were under age 31 on June 15, 2012 (i.e., born on June 16, 1981 or after)
  • Were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making their request for consideration of deferred action with USCIS
  • Had no lawful status on June 15, 2012
  • Have completed high school or a GED, have been honorably discharged from the armed forces, or are enrolled in school
  • Have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety

(Remember that children born to illegal immigrants IN the US are US citizens already. No one can take their rights away.)

There will be, and should be, debates in Congress over whether these requirements should be made looser or more stringent. A danger will be that the far left and the far right will dig in their heels on some specific issues in hopes of torpedoing a compromise. Trump has already signaled the right that he is willing to do without their votes by saying he will NOT insist that building The Wall be part of the deal. He will want to see some enhancements to border security to be sure that good treatment of the Dreamers doesn’t incent another wave of illegal immigration.

TBD whether the Democratic leadership can or will walk away from their left wing. A bill doesn’t need a majority of Democrats in either house to pass; but it will need a sizable contingent of Democrats to make up for right-wing Republican defections.

The Dreamer issue is now squarely before Congress, where even Obama agreed it should be. This is a time to write your Congressperson and tell her or him to do the job he or she was elected for. Doing that job means compromise.

September 12, 2017

Both Parties Lost the Last Presidential Election

Will that loss put a dent in hyper-partisanship?

The Republican establishment lost during the primaries. Whatever Donald Trump may be, he is not an establishment Republican. Bernie Sanders came damned close to knocking off establishment Hillary Clinton. According to promotional leaks from her book, Sanders was one of the main reasons she lost the general election.

With no proof whatsoever, I think the two most important reasons people voted against the establishment candidates of both parties were disgust with hyper-partisanship and a realization that, despite the surface partisanship, the leaders of both parties are almost identical in their crony-capitalist support for major donors at the expense of the rest of the country. In fact, the PACs which represent Wall Street are careful to be major donors to both parties. Sanders most telling blows against Clinton were for her well-paid speeches to bankers.

Since the President isn’t a Republican or a Democrat in the traditional sense, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he can abandon partisanship when he thinks either the country’s or his own interests require bipartisanship. IMO he was right not to follow the Republican inclination to derive the most possible partisan advantage from the need to fund hurricane relief. Debt ceiling and budget debates can be put off until after the hurricane season and should not be put off longer. A Republican-majority congress has not passed a budget so, obnoxious as it is, a short continuing resolution is in order.

More importantly Trump signaled the fiscal-extreme wing of Republicans that they’ve lost their veto. As much as my own residual partisanship hated seeing the cat-that-got-the-cream smiles of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, I know that the polarizing right had to be defanged. However, so does the polarizing left; this shoe is yet to drop. But I’m an optimist; one shoe always comes off before the other.

A wonderful outcome would be bills that are routinely passed with some votes from the minority party. These bills will not be as far-reaching as bills which only Democrats or Republicans can support like ObamaCare or ObamaCare repeal, but they can be incremental steps towards solving the country’s problems.

Now for real wishful thinking: if a new middle forms, it should retain enough of the populism of the tea party and occupiers to abandon crony capitalism.

August 30, 2017

Unpardonable Pardons

Pardons are for guilty people. According to the US Supreme Court in Burdick v. United States, accepting a presidential pardon "carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it." If you disagree, as I do, with President Trump’s decision to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, it is probably only small consolation to know that, by accepting his pardon, Arpaio technically acknowledged he was guilty. Some people, including newspaper editor George Burdick, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, have refused to accept a pardon.

The presidential pardon power was controversial even as it was written into the US Constitution. Anti-federalists recalled pardon’s abuse by the British Crown and royal governors. Alexander Hamilton argued that the pardon power might be needed to end rebellions. He was prescient; George Washington pardoned the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion on his last day in office.

President Andrew Johnson pardoned many Confederate leaders after the Civil War. Apparently some of their statues have been unpardoned.

I was outraged when Ford pardoned Nixon (outrage was less common way back then). With hindsight I’m not so sure. That pardon let the country move forward. It may well have cost Ford any chance he had for reelection.

President George H. W. Bush pardoned six participants in the Iran Contra affair including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Independent prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh was outraged and said Bush might have been covering up his own complicity in the events that happened when Bush was Reagan’s Vice President. But the pardon ended the investigation.

As described in Wikipeida:

“…[President Bill]  Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of FALN, which is a Puerto Rican paramilitary organization that set off 120 bombs in the United States, mostly in New York City and Chicago.… The 16 were convicted of conspiracy and sedition and sentenced with terms ranging from 35 to 105 years in prison… Clinton offered clemency on the condition that the prisoners renounce violence, seeing as none of the 16 had been convicted of harming anyone and they had already served 19 years in prison. … The commutation was opposed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was criticized by many, including former victims of FALN terrorist activities and the Fraternal Order of Police.[7] Hillary Clinton, then campaigning for her first term in the Senate, initially supported the commutation,[8] but later withdrew her support.[9]

“Congress condemned this action by President Clinton, with votes of 95–2 in the Senate and 311–41 in the House.[10][11] The U.S. House Committee on Government Reform held an investigation on the matter, but the Justice Department prevented FBI officials from testifying.[12] President Clinton cited executive privilege for his refusal to turn over some documents to Congress related to his decision to offer clemency to members of the FALN terrorist group.”

The power to commute sentences derives from the pardon power in the Constitution. Other Clinton pardons and commutations appear merely venal. They include:

  1. Fugitive financier Marc Rich whose ex-wife donated generously to both the Clinton Library and Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Again from Wikipedia:

“According to Paul Volcker's independent investigation of Iraqi Oil-for-Food kickback schemes, Marc Rich was a middleman for several suspect Iraqi oil deals involving over 4 million barrels (640,000 m3) of oil.[26] Longtime Clinton supporters and Democratic leaders such as former President Jimmy Carter, James Carville and Terry McAuliffe, were all critical of the Clinton pardon. Carter said the pardons were "disgraceful."[27]

  1. Susan McDougal who had loyally served eighteen months in prison for refusing to testify about Clinton’s role in the Whitewater affair.
  2. Roger Clinton, the President’s brother, on drug charges.

President George W. Bush was blamed both for commuting the sentence of Scooter Libby, former chief of staff for VP Dick Cheney, and for not granting him a full pardon.

FALN leader Oscar López Rivera refused to renounce violence so was not included in Clinton’s commutation. However, President Barack Obama commuted his sentence without conditions. The Washington Post editorialized:

“FBI agents discovered dynamite, detonators and firearms at two residences occupied by Lopez Rivera. At trial, a cooperating witness from the FALN testified that Lopez Rivera personally trained him in bomb-making.

“So Lopez Rivera is neither a low-level offender nor a nonviolent one. Nor, crucially, is he repentant…

“Obama's offer this week came with no such requirement [renouncing violence]— in puzzling contrast not only to Clinton's policy in 1999, but also to White House statements that Chelsea Manning deserved clemency because she accepted responsibility and showed remorse.”

Some of us, including me, also disagreed with Manning’s commutation. You’ll remember that she made her publisher, WikiLeaks, famous - before they became infamous when they publishing purloined documents from the Democratic National Committee.

One bad pardon doesn’t excuse another. I still think Trump was wrong to pardon the sheriff because he is condoning vigilantism by law enforcement. The pardon of Manning condones unilateral declassification of secret material by anyone through whose hands it passes. Washington was probably right to pardon the Whiskey rebels and I think Andrew Johnson was right to pardon Confederates. Since pardons are for the guilty, a President walks a fine line between healing and promoting bad behavior when he or she exercises the pardon power.

August 24, 2017

Don’t Believe Caller ID

Or the From address on an email.

Got a phone call from 802 760 xxxx the other day. My number is 802 760 yyyy. “A neighbor,” I thought, even though I didn’t recognize the specific number and it had no name associated with it. I answered. It was a scam. Didn’t stay on long enough to know precisely which scam and wasn’t close to revealing any identifying information or sending money in order to free my lottery winnings.

It’s unlikely this call originated in Stowe even though that’s where 802 760 xxxx numbers are. With voice over IP services like Vonage, you can actually buy a number anywhere; we used to have one in the UK so our daughter,who lived there, could call us cheaply. But this wasn’t a number designed to be called. This was a SPOOFED number, a number inserted into the data stream by the computer that was making the call.

In the old days of the hard-wired phone network, the phone company’s switch figured out what number a call came from because it knew which pair of wires the call came in on. That was then; this is now. All bulk calls including legit ones are placed by computers which tell the phone company computer the caller’s phone number. It’s no surprise that computers can be programmed to lie. The new thing is to have the fake phone number have the same area code and even the same exchange as the called number in hope that you’ll pick up and let yourself be scammed.

Similarly it’s easy to create an email which looks like it came from you. Scammers get hold of millions of emails with carelessly many people on the “to:” and “cc:” lists, usually from failure to use “bcc:” properly to hide email addresses.  The scammers create new email, which usually pretend to be from the sender of an innocent email the scammers have possession of to each of the listed recipients of the innocent email.  The subject is something generic like “Hey, look at this” or “wow, made me think of you.” The email either has a toxic attachment or an evil link. Open either at your peril. You can’t believe an email is from a friend just because it says it is. Sometimes these “spearing” emails are sent from an infected computer whose address book is being used; but usually they are just created from carelessly long address lists not put in the BCC field.

I don’t open attachments or follow links in emails unless I know that I know whom the email is coming from. If the email is from my friend, for example, and it has text that says the picture reminds me of you falling out of the sailboat on our last trip and I did fall out of a sailboat, then I assume it’s safe (if maybe not pleasant) to look at the picture. If I’m not sure, I write to the alleged sender FORWARDING the suspicious email and typing the address or entering it from my address book, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER by replying because a fake email will have the reply go back to the scammer, who will then reply “Yes, it’s real,” pretending still to be your friend.

We live in a dangerous cyberworld. Be skeptical and careful.

See CC’ing Will Get Your Friends Speared for how to properly use BCC.

August 22, 2017

Is Medicaid Helping Fuel the Opioid Crisis?

Probably.

According to Express Scripts, which is a large manager of pharmacy benefit plans including Medicaid, “Medicaid members are 10 times more likely to suffer from addiction and substance abuse than the general population.” Unfortunately Express Scripts doesn’t give a source for this statistic and it doesn’t appear in the full text of their report. This sentence may refer to both drug and alcohol abuse and it doesn’t help us untangle cause and effect.

Some people qualify for Medicaid because substance abuse restricts their income.  Almost 25% of 3.1 million Medicaid subscribers whose records were scrutinized in the Express Scripts study had opioid prescriptions in 2015.   Having Medicaid available to pay for pain killers relieves pain which people might otherwise have suffered. But does having Medicaid available encourage opioid abuse?

In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal  says: “Evidence suggests the program may contribute to the epidemic… Overdose deaths per million residents rose twice as fast in the 29 Medicaid expansion states—those that increased eligibility to 138% from 100% of the poverty line—than in the 21 non-expansion states between 2013 and 2015.”  Their argument comes from a statement Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) made, which doesn’t appear on his website and for which I can’t find a link.

In the statement Johnson quotes a letter he sent to the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, which I also can’t find online: “it appears that the program has created a perverse incentive for people to use opioids, sell them for large profits and stay hooked.”

If Johnson is right, this is a huge problem. The incentives are easy to understand. If an addict has anything of value, he’ll sell it to feed his habit (except possibly pills which he can take himself). The copay on legally prescribed opiates is far, far less than their street value. If there were no abuse, it would be truly extraordinary. What matters is whether the abuse is significant and is helping fuel the crisis

The WSJ’s only source for this statistic is “a federal Health and Human Services analysis requested by the Senator”. No link to any such study. No study I can find on Google. Because I think the subject is crucially important, I did some research. Age-adjusted opioid deaths by state for 2013 and 2015 can be found in a report from the Centers for Disease Control. I found a list of states which expanded their Medicaid programs here. Note that my source lists 19 states which didn’t expand eligibility while WSJ says 21. Since they didn’t give their list, I can’t reconcile the difference.

Using these sources, I get the same results as the WSJ. The statistical method is somewhat suspect, however, since it averages results from states with different populations. Population adjusted, deaths from opioids increased “only” 59% faster in expansion states.  Statistically, the fact that this correlation exists both state by state and in the aggregate increases the likelihood that it is more than a coincidence  , and so this is not good news.

Another possible reason to discount the statistic as being evidence of cause and effect is that there are demographic differences between the mostly red states which rejected Medicaid expansion and the mostly blue states which implemented it. WSJ tries to address this by comparing states with similar demographics: “Deaths increased twice as much in New Hampshire (108%) and Maryland (44%)—expansion states—than in Maine (55%) and Virginia (22%). Drug fatalities shot up by 41% in Ohio while climbing 3% in non-expansion Wisconsin.”

Here WSJ is cherry-picking to some extent. Vermont is more like Maine than New Hampshire is and Vermont is an expansion state. There was “only” a 6% increase in opioid-related deaths in Vermont from 2013 to 2015; but I can’t find many such exceptions among similar states. There are states like Vermont which did support Medicaid expansion and had relatively low increases: California (5%), Oregon (11%), Arizona (4%); but these are exceptions. Maine is the “no” state with the highest increase; most of the rest of the “no”s had relatively low increases or, in a few cases, decreases.

It looks like there is a statistical correlation between expanding Medicaid eligibility and increases in opioid related death rates. A statistical correlation does NOT prove cause and effect. There is also a possible explanation for cause and effect: the huge difference between the copay on opioids and their street value coupled with the need of addicts for money.

Only 4.1% of Medicaid’s costs are the direct fulfillment of opioid prescriptions according to The Express Scripts study. However, the indirect costs of addiction to Medicaid must be much higher both since addiction itself needs treatment which must be paid for and because addiction leads to diseases and accidents which must be treated. If Medicaid is fueling addiction, then its costs will keep spiraling up.

The cost of addiction to society is huge and growing. Addiction is devastating both to addicts and to their families.

If expanding Medicaid caused drug-abuse to increase significantly, then base Medicaid is also likely fueling the problem, which is actually a crisis. Although nothing above proves that expanded Medicaid causes increased drug abuse, there is clearly enough reason for urgent study. Since Medicaid administration is a state responsibility (with many federal rules), states – including Vermont – ought to both examine the safeguards against over-prescription and resale and do actual forensic investigation of possible abuse including, of course, doctors and pharmacies. Of course, the feds should be looking as well.

Making sure everybody has access to affordable basic health care is a laudable goal. Avoiding the unintended consequence of damaging public health and safety with misspent healthcare dollars is a necessity.

August 17, 2017

American Tears

My nephew Luke’s maternal grandparents are holocaust survivors. On his paternal side we’re descended from refugees fleeing Eastern European pogroms. Luke’s wife, Sokchea, survived the Cambodian genocide. The events in Charlottesville led Sokchea to write this sad and beautiful letter to their baby daughter.

My innocent girl, in a few years, you will learn humanity's saddest lesson. No matter who you are or what you do, there are people who will hate you. They will say it's because of the color of your skin or where your ancestors came from. But it's just because you are different than them.

On that sad day, your dad and I will hold you and we will explain to you that nothing is wrong with you. You are a little girl who is loved by two very different people who found love by embracing their own differences. You don’t look like mommy, because you are unique. You don’t look like daddy, because you are unique.

You will have people ask you "what are you?" You will even have people call you names just because you look different. You’ll be faced with the gawking pupils of white men who may look at you in disgust. Or worse. And then you'll wonder why there are white women who are doing the same.

I write you this today because I saw something that struck me. Today I saw a sign calling out Jews and condemning immigrants to hell. They’re talking about you. They want to burn your Jewish side and desecrate your Cambodian soul. And I kept wondering, “how can they think that about you?” If only they can see your smile. Feel the gentle snuggle of your hugs in the mornings. Laugh at your baby babbles. Or maybe if they saw how you've learned to fake laugh or cry to get your way, would they still carry those signs and chant hatred? I wish more than anything that I can explain to them that you are not evil. You cry, laugh, and bleed just like them and their children.

But in the end - what I really want for you to know is that you are different. And that that difference is what makes this world worth exploring. Worth enjoying. Worth loving. Because if we were all alike - then we might as well live in front of a mirror. When you finally lose your innocence and begin to learn what makes you different - please remember that difference is what created you.

Stay safe, my love.

August 16, 2017

Whataboutism

Trump, Obama, and Naming Evil

Nothing excuses Donald Trump’s failure to immediately denounce Nazis, KKK members, and white separatists in Charlottesville immediately and by name. Even this slime has a right to march and speak; but they have no right to violence.  Moreover, he should have disowned their claim of allegiance to him even before their march turned violent.

While it is probably true that there were also counter-demonstrators spoiling for a fight, blaming them equally for the death that resulted is like excusing 9/11 because some victims may have been anti-Muslim.

Trump is not excused by his predecessor’s inability to say “radical Islam”; Trump correctly criticized Obama for that so presumably understands the consequence of not being able to say evil’s name. Trump is not excused by those on the left who remain deplorably silent in the wake of violent campus protests against free speech.

Nor is Obama’s failure to lay blame for much terrorism on radical Islamists retroactively excused by Trump’s latest offence. Those who won’t defend free speech are moral cowards or would-be censors no matter what Trump does or doesn’t do. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

According to an article by Jeremy Peters in The New York Times:

“There is also a new political term to describe the circular firing squad in which right and left have blamed the other for the country’s degenerating political debate — ‘whataboutism.’”

“What about” excuses nothing.

As a civil (I wish more civil) society, we suffer from both too little and too much name calling. Nazis, fascists on campus, the current government of Venezuela, racists, and radical Islam need to be called out for what they are. Leaders have a responsibility to speak frankly; they also have a responsibility to let us know how they see the world.

However, not everyone who thinks that immigration cost him his job is xenophobic. Some very good people want to see more gun control; some very good people believe that abortion is murder. All proponents of gay marriage are not agents of the devil; all opponents of gay marriage are not deplorables (HRC was against gay marriage before she was for it). Not everyone who marches with a “Black Lives Matters” banner is a would-be cop killer nor is every policeman who shoots someone of a different race a racist murderer.

David Brooks writes (also in the NYTimes):

“…I’m beginning to think the whole depressing spectacle of this moment — the Trump presidency and beyond — is caused by a breakdown of intellectual virtue, a breakdown in America’s ability to face evidence objectively, to pay due respect to reality, to deal with complex and unpleasant truths. The intellectual virtues may seem elitist, but once a country tolerates dishonesty, incuriosity and intellectual laziness, then everything else falls apart.

“The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, the Trumpkins and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hate-filled. And some of that is necessary. The boundaries of common decency have to be defined.

“But throughout history the wiser minds have understood that anger and moral posturing are not a good antidote to rage and fanaticism. Competing vitriols only build on each other.”

There is no question these are hard and scary times. We make them worse both when we refuse to name evil AND when we label everyone we disagree with as being evil. Whataboutism excuses nothing.

August 14, 2017

If We’re All the Same, Who Needs Diversity?

“Diversity in schools and workplaces is crucial,” I remember being told, “because people from different ethnicities, places, economic situations and men and women have different points of view, different ways of looking at a problem.” My experience has been that diversity does bring all these benefits and more. Problems and opportunities are best attacked from diverse points of view.

But I have a question: If we’re all the same, then what does diversity mean? Why would it have any benefits?

An engineer at Google named James Damore wrote a memo on a company forum listing some statistical differences between men and women and giving reasonable although not conclusive sources for the differences he cites. He was supporting his argument that part of the reason there are more male programmers at Google than female is that women statistically may not want this job as often as men do. He’s been fired “for perpetuating stereotypes” even though he conscientiously pointed out that statistical differences between groups cannot and should not be used for judging individuals. It has become impermissible to talk about the differences which are one of the main benefits of diversity!

The Orwellian reality is that “diversity” has become a code word for uniformity of results. Somehow every subset of every profession should have a proportion of men and women, different ethnic groups, and different gender identities which exactly matches the population. I think we Jews are under-represented in the NBA just because statistically we are not very tall and don’t jump as well as certain other ethnic groups.

Like James Damore, I have to acknowledge that stereotypes which arise from some combination of statistical differences and prejudice do often prevent individuals from getting the consideration they deserve for jobs (and country club memberships). Like Damore I think this discrimination is wrong. Even more specifically I know that stereotypes and social pressure discourage some girls from pursuing “scientific” subjects and that these girls and society as a whole both lose by this stereotyping. One of my great pleasures as a grandfather is talking science and math with my granddaughters, both of whom have aptitudes for these subjects.

Even more important, though. I have tried to teach my children and grandchildren that nothing is unthinkable. What if less women than men want to be programmers? What if that’s the truth? We could look at the job and ask why it’s unattractive to many women. If the answer is that there’s a men’s club of programmers who make women uncomfortable, that culture should change.

But if the answer, or part of the answer, is that more (remember, we’re talking statistics) men than women are willing to (or want to) work in a job with minimal social interaction, why shouldn’t that choice be honored for those who make it? I’ve been programming for 57 years. Many of the great programmers I know have borderline Aspergers Syndrome. Many more males are diagnosed with Aspergers (and other autisms) than females. My point, and Damore’s, is that there is a spectrum of statistical differences between genders and so expecting all genders be equally represented in each profession is a dumb goal and leads to reverse discrimination and other dumb decisions.

 Individual choice as well as individual aptitude should determine choice of profession.  Opportunity, of course, must be equal; real results will vary.

Before judging Damore one way or the other, please read his paper. It’s interesting and well written.

Also please see an excellent op-ed in the NYTimes by David Brooks: Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O.

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