Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Game over for Hong Kong

The Washington Post reports:
Early Wednesday, under a heavy police presence and before any public announcement about the matter, officials inaugurated the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region at a ceremony that took place behind water-filled barricades. They played the Chinese national anthem and raised the Chinese flag, although local media weren’t invited. When the ceremony was over, reporters were finally able to photograph the building’s front door.

The Metropark Hotel on the edge of the city’s Causeway Bay district will be the initial base for the new agency, staffed by Chinese security officials. It will be tasked with collecting intelligence and implementing a new law that sharply curtails political freedoms as Beijing takes greater control of the territory after anti-government protests last year. 
It’s the first time the Chinese government’s state security apparatus has been permitted to operate in Hong Kong, marking a milestone in officials’ efforts to dismantle the firewall that separated the city from the authoritarian mainland.
This is what the Metropark Hotel's web site looked like this morning:

 Just in case the type is too small to see:

This is what the death of Democracy looks like in the 21st century.  As T.S. Eliot presciently observed, it does not end with a bang, but with an under-construction notice on a web site.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Mark your calendars: I am debating Ken Hoving on July 9

I've recently taken up a new hobby of debating young-earth creationists on YouTube.  (It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.)  I've done two of them so far [1][2], both on a creationist channel called Standing For Truth.  My third debate will be against Kent Hovind, one of the more prominent and, uh, outspoken members of the YEC community.  In case you haven't heard of him, here's a sample.  The debate will be this Thursday at 5:30PM Pacific time.  Come watch the sparks fly.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

I Will Remember Ricky Ray Rector

I've always been very proud of the fact that I came out in support of gay marriage before it was cool.   I have been correspondingly chagrined at my failure to speak out sooner and more vociferously about the shameful and systemic mistreatment of people of color, and black people in particular, in the U.S.  For what it's worth, I hereby confess my sins, acknowledge my white privilege, and announce my advocacy for reparations.  No, I never owned slaves.  None of my ancestors ever owned slaves.  But there is no question that I have received preferential treatment because of the color of my skin.  Cops don't harass me.  Prospective employers don't look at me sideways.  I have shared in an inheritance of wealth that was built in no small measure on the backs of of the forced labor of black people that the descendants of those laborers have not shared.  My undeserved share of that inheritance is in and of itself a wrong that needs to be set right, notwithstanding that I had no direct hand in bringing it about.

There.  I said it.

Now, as the first step in my atonement, I would like to bring to your attention a name that should be remembered alongside that of George Floyd and Breona Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin and the dozens and thousands of other black people who have been killed because they were black.  That name is Ricky Ray Rector.  His name is conspicuously absent from this web site despite the fact that he was killed by a white man because he was black.  The reason his name is almost completely unknown is because the man who killed him was Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, while he was governor of Arkansas and still a candidate for president.  Conservatives don't remember Ricky because they do not mourn his passing, and liberals don't remember him because the Clintons are as sacrosanct to them as Donald Trump is to conservatives.

Ironically, Donny and Billy have an awful lot in common.  Both are narcissists.  Both are rapists.  And, apparently, both are racists, or, at the very least, willing to play to a racist audience for political gain at the cost of innocent lives.  And, I must grudgingly concede, both are political geniuses for being somehow able to get black people to support them despite making a show of courting ant-black racist sentiment.

So as part of my penance I pledge to keep the memory of Ricky Ray Rector alive.  I will remember how he ordered pie for his last meal, and then didn't eat it because he wanted to save some of it for later.  I will remember how I supported Bill Clinton, the man who personally oversaw Ricky's execution despite the fact that Ricky was clearly not mentally competent because no one was gonna Willie-Horton him, God damn it.

I will remember these things.  I don't know if by remembering them I will sleep better or worse.  But I hope that by remembering them I will be able to look at myself in the mirror when the morning comes.

Monday, May 25, 2020

A review of John Sanford's "Genetic Entropy"

1.  Introduction

(Feel free to skip this part.  It's just some context for what comes next.)

As regular readers will already know, I put a fair amount of effort into understanding points of view that I don't agree with.  I think if you're going to argue against a position it is incumbent upon you to understand what you're arguing against so that your arguments are actually on point and you're not just knocking down straw men.  So over the past few years I've taken a fairly deep dive into young-earth creationism.  I've gotten to the point where I'm pretty sure I could pass a YEC Turing-test.

One of the things I've noticed is that YEC arguments evolve (and yes, that is every bit as ironic as it sounds).  Old tropes like crocoducks and "If man evolved from monkeys why are there still monkeys?" have fallen out of favor.  In their place there are now a new crop of stock arguments that are not quite so transparently naive.

There are two arguments making the rounds nowadays that seem to be particularly fashionable: the "historical vs observational science" argument, and the "genetic entropy" argument.  The historical-vs-observational argument holds that there is some kind of fundamental difference when you do science about the way things were in the past vs about how they are in the present.  The argument goes something like this: we cannot time-travel into the past and so we cannot do repeatable experiments with regards to past events.  So the past is necessarily shrouded in a kind of mystery that the present is not.

This argument seems plausible on its face, but it is easily dispensed with: all of our data necessarily comes from the past (since none of it can come from the future -- duh!) so all science is in some sense "historical".  It is true that there are some singular events in the past that are inaccessible to scientific inquiry, and the further back you go the more such events there are.  There is probably no way to ever know, for example, what Julius Caesar had for breakfast the day after he crossed the Rubicon.  But there is a way to know (with very high confidence) that he did not cross the Rubicon by, say, flying across it.  How can we know?  Because we know a fair bit about the technology that was available in ancient Rome, and the constraints those would put on modes of travel.  Likewise, unless the laws of physics were different in the past than they are today, then it is extremely unlikely that biology was fundamentally different then than now.

The genetic entropy argument is not so easily dispensed with.  This is partly because the argument was advanced by John Sanford, a Cornell geneticist, in an eponymous book.  Sanford has credentials and that lends his argument some, well, credence.  Scott Buchanan wrote an extensive critique, to which Sanford responded, and then Buchanan responded to Sanford's response.  The exchange is very long and gets deep into the technical weeds.

This post is my attempt at a more accessible critique of Sanford's book.  It's not necessary to get very far into the details to see that Sanford is wrong.  By way of motivation I want to start with the story of another deep dive I did into a scientific controversy over twenty years ago.

2.  A parable

In 1996 a Berkeley biologist named Peter Duesberg published a book called "Inventing the AIDS Virus" whose thesis was that AIDS was not caused by the HIV virus but was instead caused by the drugs used to treat people who tested positive for HIV.  The book is 700 pages long, and it is dense with data, graphs, references... it is a genuine work of scholarship.  It has a forward written by Nobel laureate Kary Mullis, inventor of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which is a foundation of modern-day biological research.  The book is, by all appearances, a serious critique of the conventional wisdom, one that ought to command some respect.

It is also, of course, absolutely, 100%, catastrophically wrong.  But how can we tell?

Duesberg's work was never taken seriously by the scientific establishment, but it did launch a movement of HIV-denialism which persists to this day.  One of the leaders of this movement was a woman named Christine Maggiore, who founded an organization called Alive and Well.  She also wrote a short popular account of Duesberg's theory entitled, "What if everything you thought you knew about AIDS was wrong?"  Maggiore was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1992.  Her daughter, Eliza Jane, tested positive as well, having most likely contracted HIV through Christine's breast milk.  In accord with her belief in Duesberg's thesis, she refused treatment, both for herself and Eliza Jane.

Eliza Jane died of AIDS in 2005 at age 3.  Christine of course denied this, insisting that the coroner's office had gotten it wrong.  She even went so far as to sue them.  Three years later Christine also died of AIDS.  And that's how we know that Duesberg was wrong, because Christine and Eliza Jane did the crucial experiment, and the result was exactly what the scientific establishment predicted.  They even had a control in the form of Christine's son, Charlie, who tested negative for HIV, and is as of this writing still, as far as I have been able to determine, alive and well.

Keep all that in the back of your mind as you read the following.

3.  Genetic Entropy

In stark contrast to Deusberg's book, "Genetic Entropy" is not a scholarly work.  It is a popular book targeted at a lay audience, and as such it must be judged by looser standards than one would otherwise apply.  Unfortunately, even by the standards of popular accounts, "Genetic Entropy" runs off the rails almost immediately, in fact, in the third paragraph of the Prologue:
Modern Darwinism is built upon what I will be calling “The Primary Axiom”. The Primary Axiom is that man is merely the product of random mutations plus natural selection. Within our society’s academia, the Primary Axiom is universally taught, and almost universally accepted.
This is true, except for one salient detail: what Sanford calls the "Primary Axiom" is not an axiom.  An axiom is something that is taken to be true by assumption.  Axioms are, by definition, beyond question.  The idea that "man is merely the product of random mutations plus natural selection" is absolutely not an axiom of Darwinism, it is a conclusion, one that is supported by a mountain of evidence accumulated over 150 years of painstaking research.

But OK, maybe Sanford is applying Humpty-Dumpty's theory of language and is using the word "axiom" loosely?  Well, no.  In chapter 1 he writes:
An axiom is a concept that is not testable but is accepted by faith because it seems obviously true to all reasonable parties.
So Sanford really is attacking a straw man.  And that's really all you need to know about "Genetic Entropy."  Just as we can know that "Inventing the AIDS Virus" is wrong without wading into the details, so too can we know that "Genetic Entropy" is wrong because it starts with a false premise.  Garbage in, garbage out.

Still, Sanford is a Cornell professor, maybe there is something worthwhile in the book even if it's not his principal thesis?  Unfortunately, no.  The book is a hot mess of false premises layered on top of faulty reasoning resting on a foundtion of apparently willful ignorance.  There are far too many mistakes for me to go into them all, but a few stand out as particularly egregious, so I will talk about those in some detail.

First, let me summarize Sanford's argument to save you the trouble of actually having to read the book.

Sanford's thesis is actually pretty simple, and intuitively plausible: evolution happens when genes make copies of themselves.  Those copies are not perfect, but are subject to random mutation.  Because mutations are random, and because the machinery of life is very complicated and finely tuned, an arbitrary random mutation is vastly more likely to be harmful to an organism's reproductive fitness than beneficial.  Those harmful mutations will eventually overwhelm the beneficial ones through sheer force of numbers, and (he claims) he has the math to prove it.

Lest you think I'm being unfair in my paraphrase, here is Sanford's thesis in his own words, found at the end of Chapter 2:
Progressive evolution on the genomic level [is] virtually impossible. Adaptation to a special circumstance can still happen, due to extremely rare high-impact beneficials [sic] – which are isolated anomalies... These rare beneficial mutations almost always involve loss of function and are therefore unproductive in terms of “forward evolution”.
An example of a "high-impact beneficial" is a bacterium evolving a resistance to antibiotics.  Sanford has to carve that out as a special exception because such mutations obviously do occur, as evidenced by the existence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Because harmful mutations are so much more likely than beneficial ones, Sanford goes on to argue, they must accumulate in the genome and eventually cause the species to go extinct.  This is the inevitable fate of all species.  So the fact that life still exists is evidence that it was all created fairly recently.

This is a not-entirely-implausible argument.  It is not even entirely incorrect.  It is true that, for certain kinds of mutations, harmful ones are much more likely than beneficial ones (with one very important caveat which I'll get to in a minute).  It is even true that harmful mutations can accumulate and eventually cause a species to go extinct.  This actually does happen -- in fact, it's not uncommon.  This is what has made is so popular in the YEC community: it's a position with a grain of truth and a veneer of respectability that YEC generally lacks.

Sadly (but not unexpectedly) it's just a veneer.  Underneath is one catastrophic mistake after another.

4. Mistake #1: Sanford does not appear to know what "information" is

Each chapter in "Genetic Entropy" starts with a "news flash", a pithy slogan that is supposed to set the stage for that chapter.  The first one is, "News flash: the genome is an instruction manual."

It is genuinely hard to tell how literally Sanford intends the reader to take this aphorism.  A plain reading of the following text seems to indicate that he means it to be taken quite literally: "A genome is an instruction manual that specifies a particular form of life. The human genome is a manual that instructs human cells how to be human cells and instructs the human body how to be the human body. There is no information system designed by man that can even begin to compare to the sophistication and complexity of the genome."

Sanford makes a big deal about "information".  The "news flash" in chapter 2 is "Random mutations consistently destroy information."  And yet, he never defines information in the body of the book.  He seems to assume that the reader already knows, and I suspect most of Sanford's readers assume the same thing.

The book has a glossary, and this is how it defines "information":
The most useful definition of this word is its plain and ordinary sense – information is “that which is communicated through language”. Biological information takes on many forms, due to the labyrinth of communication networks which enable life.
This definition is hopelessly naive.  It's akin to defining "transportation" as "that which is provided by the Mercedes-Benz E class sedan."  It is true that information can be communicated through language, just as transportation can be provided by a Mercedes-Benz E-class sedan.  But to define these words in such a way is to miss the point rather badly.

This is not hard to see even without getting into technical details.  The focus of Sanford's book is genetic information encoded in DNA.  But that information has nothing to do with language.  DNA was storing and replicating information long before human brains came along and invented language.

There is a whole field of study called "information theory" of which Sanford seems to be completely unaware.  Information theory was invented by Claude Shannon.  No reference to Shannon's work appears in the references, an absolutely stunning omission in a book in which the loss of information is a core theme.

Just in case you're interested, the actual technical definition of "information" is that it is a measure of the degree of correlation in the states of two or more systems.  It's easy to see why Sanford might want to avoid that verbiage in a book directed at a non-technical audience, but it's really not that difficult a concept.  If your car has a warning light that turns on whenever a door is open and turns off when the door is closed then the light contains information about the state of the door.  Genes contain information about the organisms they inhabit because there is are similar correlations between the sequence of DNA nucleotides and physical characteristics of the organism.  It's a very simple concept, and it has absolutely nothing to do with language.

There is, however, one crucially important feature of the correct definition: information is a relative concept.  It is a measure of the correlation between two systems.  There is no sense in which a system can "contain information" in an absolute sense.  Information resident in one system can only be measured relative to another.  Information is always information about something.  A light that turns on and off does not in and of itself contain information.  It only contains information if its flashes are correlated with something else (like the state of your car door).  Saying that a system contains information in an absolute sense is not only wrong, it is non-sensical.

This is important because Sanford speaks as if information is absolute.  He talks about information being "created" and "destroyed", but again, he never defines what this means.  He just assumes that it's obvious.  Well, it's not obvious.  In order to talk about quantifying information at all you have to specify what correlations you are talking about, and Sanford doesn't.

Because he doesn't, we are forced to guess.  There is an obvious candidate: the correlations between an organisms genotype and its phenotype, i.e. the correlations between various genes and various physical characteristics of the biological organisms those genes produce.  OK, fair enough, but even then it is still not clear what it means to "create" and "destroy" this information.  Sanford claims that biology cannot "create" information.  But biology manifestly can create copies of information.  Every time an organism reproduces the result is correlations between systems that weren't there before.  Clearly this cannot be what Sanford means by "creating information".

So what can he mean?  I suspect that what he really means is that biology cannot produce novel information.  It can (obviously) produce copies of information that was already there, but it can't "invent" new things.  Sanford speaks of "new information" frequently, but he never defines what he means by "new".  Presumably, a fresh copy of a genome produced when a cell reproduces is not "new information".  Again we are left to guess that what he means by "new information" is "information that has never existed before" or something like that.

But this is also clearly wrong.  Every human -- indeed every organism that has ever lived (with the exception of identical twins and organisms that reproduce asexually) -- has had a unique genome.  (This, BTW, is a big clue as to why sexual reproduction evolved!)  You are unlike any human who has ever lived and (almost certainly) unlike any who will ever live.  Your genome may not have been "invented", but at some point in time you were conceived and the information that specifies how to make you (i.e. the sequence of DNA that would eventually correlated with the physical characteristics of the person you are now) came into being for the first time.  I think it's fair to say that this information was "created" at that point.

I suspect Sanford would readily concede this.  The kind of information-creation he is talking about is not at the level of an entire genome, it is at the level of an individual gene.  Yes, he would concede, individual genes can be mixed-and-matched through sexual reproduction, and he might concede that this "creates information" (I don't know).  But that is not what he's talking about.  What he's talking about is creating individual genes.  And here he makes an unambiguous claim.  The "news flash" that introduces chapter 9 is: "Mutation/selection cannot even create a single gene."

This claim should already be a little bit suspect because, as we've just seen, sexual reproduction can "produce new information" (whatever that might actually mean).  And note that the mixing-and-matching that goes on during sexual reproduction is random, so the mere presence of randomness is clearly not a show-stopper.

But even this last bastion of Sanford's position falls to a second critical mistake.

5.  Mistake #2: the benefit of a mutation is not absolute

Sanford's argument that natural selection cannot produce new genes goes something like this: biological systems are incredibly complicated.  Even the simplest bacterium is more complex than the most complex computer man has ever invented.  All of the components have to work together in perfect harmony in order to sustain life.

A random mutation is vastly more likely to disturb this delicate balance than to enhance it.  In fact, the odds of a random mutation being beneficial is so small that it never actually happens in reality.  Therefore, it must be the case that all of the genes that are required to sustain life must already be in existence.  Moreover, the process of random mutation necessarily depletes this store of beneficial genes.  Eventually, we will run out.  Life is on an inevitable path of deterioration and decay that will lead to its eventual extinction.  And, more to the point, the only way that our current stock of beneficial genes could have come about is through a process of intelligent design which bestowed on us an initial endowment of beneficial genes that we are now in the process of frittering away.

Sanford's mistake here is similar to the one he made when defining information.  Just as information is inherently a relative concept, so are "beneficial" and "harmful".  A gene cannot be "beneficial" in an absolute sense.  Genes are only beneficial (or harmful) with respect to an environment.  A gene that is beneficial in one environment will always be harmful in some other environment.

And that is exactly how evolution works.  There are random changes.  Some of those changes are beneficial with respect to the environment in which the organism finds itself, and some are harmful.  Some are so harmful that they stop the reproduction process altogether and those are immediately self-correcting: a mutation that cannot copy itself will obviously leave no copies of itself to further contaminate the gene pool.  Of the ones that remain, the ones that are beneficial will make more copies of themselves because that is how evolution measures benefit.  Evolutionary benefit is not just relative to an environment, it is relative to reproductive fitness in that environment.

And the relativity of benefit doesn't stop there.  Not only is evolutionary benefit measured relative to reproductive fitness in an environment, it is measured relative to its competitors in that environment.  It's like the old joke about the two hikers who encounter a bear.  They start to run.  One hiker says, "This is silly, we can't outrun a bear."  The other says, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."

Consider this example from chapter 2:
[In] mutations that lead to antibiotic resistance in bacteria[,] cell functions are routinely lost. The resistant bacterium has not evolved. In fact it has digressed genetically and is defective."
Defective by whose standard?  Certainly not by the standards of a bacterium living in the presence of antibiotics.  Whatever it is that leads a bacterium to be resistant to antibiotics -- whether it is a "loss of function" or otherwise -- it is manifestly beneficial to a bacterium living in the presence of antibiotics.

But, one might counter, it is a loss of function.  If you take a strain of bacteria that has evolved antibiotic resistance and put them back in an environment without antibiotics, those bacteria will be less fit than those that never evolved resistance.  That's true, but it in no way refutes the point because benefit can only be assessed relative to an environment.  Antibiotic resistance is beneficial (to a bacterium) in the presence of antibiotics, and harmful otherwise.

Another example: chihuahuas are descended from wolves.  The evolutionary changes that led from wolves to chihuahuas could arguably be considered "loss of function".  Wolves are stronger, faster, better able to defend themselves.  And yet chihuahuas vastly outnumber wolves in today's world.  Why?  Because wolves are a threat to humans and chihuahuas are not, so we kill wolves but feed and shelter chihuahuas.  In an environment that includes humans, the functional loss of features that are a threat to humans is a net reproductive advantage.  If humans were ever to disappear from the face of the earth, wolves would very quickly regain the upper hand.

And yet, to paraphrase an old creationist trope, if chihuahuas are so much better at survival then wolves, why are there still wolves?  And the answer, of course, is that chihuahuas are better at survival than wolves in the presence of humans.  So chihuahuas thrive where humans are plentiful and wolves thrive where they are scarce.

This "relativity of benefit" is ubiquitous.  At the risk of beating a dead horse, there is no such thing as a beneficial mutation in an absolute sense.  A gene that produces sharp claws and teeth is beneficial to a lion living in the Serengeti, not so much to a human living in on the upper East side.  A gene that produces resistance to malaria and a concomitant risk of sickle-cell disease can be a net win if you live somewhere where malaria is prevalent, otherwise not so much.

There is one exception to this: a mutation that kills the organism before it is able to reproduce is unambiguously harmful.  Such mutations do happen.  But think about it: such mutations immediately eliminate themselves from the gene pool!  And that is the key insight into how evolution works.  Sanford is actually correct when he says that most mutations are harmful (with respect to the environment in which they occur).  But evolution is not just random mutation, it also crucially includes non-random selection which acts to amplify the prevalence of beneficial mutations and dampen the effects of harmful ones.  The more harmful a mutation is (relative to its environment of course), the quicker it gets eliminated from the gene pool (in that environment), never to be seen again (unless it should happen to arise again through random chance, which is, of course, extremely unlikely, and even if it does it will just get snuffed out again).

I've pointed this out to a few YECs and their response has been: but this is a tautology.  You are just defining benefit and harm in terms of reproductive fitness, so of course beneficial mutations are going to increase reproductive fitness.  And they're right, it is a tautology.  But here's the thing about tautologies: they are actually true.  The fact that random mutation + selection for reproductive fitness results in improved reproductive fitness is a tautology is in no way a refutation of evolutionary theory.  To the contrary, it is just the observation that evolutionary theory is obviously true because it is a logical consequence of two processes (random mutation and natural selection) that we know actually do occur.

The question is not whether evolution occurs.  Even Sanford concedes that it does:
Yet we all know that micro-evolution (adaptive selection) does happen. How can this be? Most adaptation is due to fine-tuning, not creation of new information.
The question is whether evolution can account for all of the variety of life on earth.

6.  Mistake #3: Evolution optimizes for the reproductive fitness of genes, not species or individuals

The reproduction of the human genome, like many (but not all) multicellular sexually-reproducing species, is an all-or-nothing affair: a fertilized egg either produces a baby which grows up to reproduce itself, or it doesn't.  There is no middle ground.

Because of this it seems intuitively plausible that evolution optimizes for the reproductive fitness of individuals, or maybe of species.  Indeed, this was the conventional wisdom for over 100 years, but it is wrong.  It was shown to be wrong by Richard Dawkins in his book "The Selfish Gene" and the associated scientific papers that back it up.  (This is actually the work that made him famous, not his activism as an atheist.)  Evolution optimizes for the reproductive fitness of genes.  The existence of things like species and individuals is a side-effect of the fact that cooperation among genes turns out to be an extremely effective reproductive strategy.

The easiest way to see that evolution does not optimize for the reproduction of individuals is to consider hive insects like ants, bees and termites.  The vast majority of ants are sterile.  They never reproduce as individuals.  And yet somehow ants have manifestly not gone extinct.

This is because evolution does not optimize for the reproduction of individual ants, it optimizes for the reproduction of ant genes.  A sterile ant is useless for its own reproduction as an individual, but it can be extremely helpful for the reproduction of its genes.  The same genes that reside in one individual ant also reside in countless other individual ants, and if any of those reproduce then it's a win for that ant's genes.  Indeed, an ant is more accurately seen as an organ rather than organism.  The organism is not the ant, it's the whole ant colony, which consists of parts that just happen not to be physically connected to one another.

This is even true for humans.  A single human individual cannot reproduce.  At the very least it requires a mating pair.  More realistically, it takes a village: a single mating pair of humans cut off from all civilization will almost certainly not be able to survive and reproduce.  The minimum viable unit of human reproduction is a tribe of at least a few dozen individuals.

This is no accident.  Diversity is a clear reproductive advantage.  The wider the range of available traits within a population, the wider the range of environmental challenges that population will be able to respond to without going extinct.

This is in fact the reason that evolution invented sexual reproduction, because it is a much more efficient way of producing diversity than asexual reproduction and waiting for cosmic rays to produce mutations.  Most of the variation that occurs in sexually reproducing organisms does not come from the creation of genes de novo (Sanford is actually right about that).  It comes from the mixing-and-matching of existing genes during sexual reproduction.  No sexually-reproducing organism ever replicates itself exactly.  But its genes are replicated (more or less) exactly (or at least half of them are) on every iteration.

Sanford is actually correct when he points out that the invention of new proteins is a very inefficient process.  But in the presence of sexual reproduction, it is also completely unnecessary in order for evolution to proceed as long as there is a sufficient pool of biodiversity to draw on.  It is analogous to the manner in which new information is created in natural language.  It is rare for new words to be created.  Most of the information communicated by natural language is created simply by putting existing words and phrases together in new combinations.

Sanford actually comes tantalizing close to realizing this in chapter 5:
The fact that most mutations are recessive dramatically masks their negative fitness effects, and greatly hinders selection against them. Likewise, all interactions between genes (“epistasis”) will interfere with selective elimination of minor mutations. In smaller populations, the randomness of sexual recombination (chromosome-segregations and gamete-unions are both random and thus fluctuate randomly) can routinely override selection. These effects cause the fundamental phenomenon of genetic drift. Genetic drift has been extensively studied, and it is well known that it can override selection against all but the most severe mutations in small populations.
Notice how the assumption that all mutations can be determined to be either "good" or "bad" in an absolute sense is baked into his rhetoric here.  Remember, diversity is a reproductive advantage.  A gene's reproductive fitness can only be assessed relative to its environment, and a big part of the environment for a gene is the various collections of other genes that it has "teamed up" with in order to build organisms.  The wider the range of organisms a gene has been able to get itself into, the greater its odds of survival against external environmental variations.  The reason recessive genes exist is so that genes that are deleterious in one environment can be held "in reserve", simply as a store of diversity to be used in the future when environmental changes cause it to become beneficial again.

Sanford simply ignores all of this.  He barely refers to Dawkins at all, and not at all to the selfish gene theory that is his main contribution to the field.  Because of this, he's attacking a straw-man.  Like all straw-man arguments, it is actually correct as far as it goes: an evolutionary process such as the one that Sanford describes would indeed not work.  But real evolution simply doesn't work the way Sanford describes.

7.  Mistake #4: complexity does not require intelligence

Apart from ignoring elementary facts like how evolution actually works and what information actually is, Sanford's entire argument really boils down to a logical fallacy called the argument-from-incredulity.  Life is fantastically complex (true) and so it cannot possibly have come about without intelligence.  The reason for this is essentially that Sanford cannot imagine how it could have happened, and because Sanford cannot imagine it, it must be impossible.  After all, Sanford is not just any old shmoe, he is a well-read and learned man, a professor at a prestigious university.  If he can't figure it out, maybe it's because it actually cannot be figured out.

Again, this is not entirely-implausible.  At the beginning of the book Sanford says that "the genome is an instruction manual", which is not a horrible analogy, and it does serve to illustrate one important point: the instruction manual is not enough.  If I gave you an instruction manual for how to build a 747 you still probably would not be able to build a 747.  Building a 747 requires, in addition to the instruction manual, a whole slew of specialized equipment, jigs, material, skills and knowledge that is not in the manual.

Likewise, if I gave you a printout of the DNA sequence of the human genome and said, "Here, go make a human", you wouldn't be able to do it.  The information in DNA is rendered into organisms through an incredibly complex process which we are only beginning to understand.  We don't even fully understand the first step in this process, the construction of proteins.  We know how the sequences of nucleotides in DNA get translated into sequences of amino acids by ribosomes, but how those amino acids then fold themselves into the particular shapes that allow them to perform various biological functions is still entirely beyond our ability to predict.  And what happens after that has all the appearance of true magic.

But just because something looks like magic doesn't mean that it is.  There are a host of natural phenomena that we once thought were the work of deities: Earthquakes. Lightning.  Floods.  All of these are still beyond our ability to predict or reproduce but no one seriously argues that this entails that they are the product of anything other than natural processes.

Creationists argue that life is different because of its complexity.  Earthquakes and lightning and floods might be mysterious, but they are simple phenomena.  Life isn't simple.  It is, as I have just noted, unfathomably complex, and it is that unfathomable complexity that reveals it to be the work of some kind of intelligent designer.

But there are many examples of simple processes that produce vast complexity.  In fact, simple processes can be computationally complete.  It just doesn't take a lot of hardware to build a universal Turing machine -- it can be done with a few thousand transistors or a pile of wood.  These machines can compute any computable function.

Of course, this leaves open the question of how complicated of a program you need in order to accurately model biology.   Creationists, notably Michael Behe, claim that biological processes are "irreducibly complex".  There is no merit in this argument, and to show this it is not even necessary to examine the argument.  Just as it is not necessary to dig into the details of Peter Duesberg's book to know that it is wrong, nor is it necessary to dig into the details of the design of a perpetual motion machine to know that it is wrong, we can formally prove that irreducible complexity cannot possibly be demonstrated.

How?  There is a formal result from the theory of computational complexity called Chaitin's theorem.  To describe it in detail would require getting deep into some technical weeds, but the upshot is that once a system gets beyond a certain threshold of complexity (and that threshold is quite low, vastly lower than the complexity of biological systems) you can never prove that it is irreducibly complex.

Here is a sketch of some of the technical details just in case you're interested: Chaitin's theorem refers to a mathematical quantity called Kolmogorov complexity (KC) of a system S which is defined (roughly) as the size of the smallest formal description that can reproduce the behavior of S.  To claim that a system is irreducibly complex is essentially the same as claiming that its KC is large.  Chatin's theorem shows that it is impossible to prove that a system has a large KC.  It's a remarkable result, but the proof is actually pretty elementary.

In the face of Chaitin's theorem, any claim to a proof of irreducible complexity has the same status as a claim of perpetual motion: such a proof, if it were valid, would quite literally violate the known laws of physics.  It might be true that biological systems are irreducibly complex, but we can prove that we can never know this for certain.  We can know therefore without even looking that Behe's argument must be an argument-from-incredulity.  It cannot be a proof because such a proof cannot exist.

It might be the case that biological systems are irreducibly complex.  There is some evidence that this is the case in the form of our current inability to fully understand it.  But I'll give long odds against this lack of understanding persisting for very long (where "very long" is a few hundred years or so).  Betting against the continuation of scientific progress has never been a winning strategy and I see no reason to believe that is going to change.

8.  Mistake #N

I could go on and on.  I could talk about how fuzzing proves that random processes can produce information.  I could give examples of known beneficial mutations in biological systems.  I could talk about how some biological innovations are indeed hard to produce, and so are correspondingly rare (but others that you would think are rare actually happened multiple times!)  I could talk about how Sanford completely ignores the existence of error-correcting codes, and the fact that biological systems use them, when he dedicates an entire chapter to talking about noise.

But I won't because life is too short.  It's too short for me to spend the time writing about it, and it's too short for you to spend the time reading about it (unless you're a YEC, in which case you should definitely go educate yourself).

I will, however, close with one more anecdote: one of the examples of beneficial mutations in biological systems is the evolution of lactase persistence, or the ability to digest milk into adulthood.  This evolved in humans when we moved north out of Africa and into colder climates where our normal diet of plants and animals was not available year-round.  In an environment like that, the ability to digest milk from domesticated animals is a clear win.

Sanford does not talk about this at all, but Answers in Genesis does:
Mutations responsible for lactase persistence actually represent a loss of genetic information, a shut-down of normal regulation. If anything, the prevalence of lactase persistence is a testimony to the fact an all-knowing Creator designed the human genome with the ability to change.
This actually made me laugh because it fully exposes how vacuous this argument is.  The only reason that the shut-down of lactase production is considered "normal" is because of the order of events.  If humans had originated in cold climates and migrated to warmer ones, the argument on AIG would surely have been the exact opposite: "The mutations responsible for the loss of lactose tolerance in adulthood are a perfect example of a loss of function leading to the further degradation of the human genome."

And that is the core problem with Sanford's thesis: biological systems are complicated.  For any incremental change (which is the only kind there is) it is always possible to tell a just-so story that casts that change as some kind of loss or deficiency.  All you have to do is cherry-pick your environment so that it is the one relative to which the change is in fact harmful.

The opposite is, of course, also true: you can (almost) always tell the same kind of just-so story that casts any change as a benefit.  But here's the difference: cherry-picking those environments is exactly what evolution does!  It's not that beneficial mutations survive, it's that mutations that are beneficial relative to some environments survive in those environments and not in others.  In this way evolution gradually, in the fullness of time, fills all the available niches and, in so doing, creates new environments, new niches, in which new kinds of genes, like those that make chihuahuas, can begin to thrive.  That's how life works.  It's complicated.  It's messy.  And it has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of design.

Monday, May 11, 2020

William Barr's debasement of the Justice Department

The Independent has an excellent and detailed deconstruction of the idea that William Barr was justified in dropping the charges against Michael Flynn:

Lying to the FBI is a crime. There is a materiality requirement; if you tell the FBI that you had cornflakes for breakfast when you had raisin bran, they can’t indict you. But as a lawyer who has argued materiality in a number of cases, I can tell you that beyond what kind of cereal you have, there is very little that is not material. A lie is material not only if it is relevant to the investigation but if the FBI says the lie caused the FBI to affect the course or focus of its investigation or fail to pursue certain lines of inquiry.
Barr asserted that the government already had the transcript of the conversation so there was no reason to interview him. They knew he had talked to the Russian Ambassador and what was said — basically, don’t worry about responding to Obama’s throwing out of Russian diplomats (or spies undercover) because when we come into office, we’ll fix it all up.
But the FBI had been investigating Russian interference in the Trump campaign. And here is the incoming National Security Advisor telling the Russian Ambassador that good times are gonna roll for Russia when the Trump team arrives. On whose behalf was Flynn offering the goodies? Was he acting on his own? Unlikely. Was he instructed by President-elect  Trump to let the Russian ambassador know? And if so, why? Was there, to use a phrase, a quid pro quo? Pretty good questions.
For Barr to claim there was no need to ask whether there was contact because the government already knew, is to limit the purpose of the interview to a single question. Not only does the FBI ask questions it knows the answer to all the time, such a question would be a logical entry point to the questions of why this was occurring when there was still a president in the Oval Office whose policies were entitled not to be undermined by the incoming administration.
[W]hat Barr did was the worst harm that could be done to the republic: politicizing prosecution so that the friends of the Dear Leader get off and the enemies of the Dear Leader get prosecuted.
In other news, it turns out that the earth is not flat.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Week-end Republican hypocrisy round-up

I've been collecting headlines that I thought would be worth writing about, but the sheer volume of insanity coming in on my news feed just seems overwhelming because I read it all against a backdrop of the fact that Donald Trump's approval ratings remain in the mid-40s.  The Senate might be in play, but just barely.  Biden holds a small lead over Trump, but only a small one.  A few months ago one might have been able to rationalize all this by pointing to the strong economy and low unemployment, but that excuse is now long gone.
The American economy plunged deeper into crisis last month, losing 20.5 million jobs as the unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent, the worst devastation since the Great Depression.
The Labor Department’s monthly report on Friday provided the clearest picture yet of the breadth and depth of the economic damage — and how swiftly it spread — as the coronavirus pandemic swept the country.
Job losses have encompassed the entire economy, affecting every major industry. Areas like leisure and hospitality had the biggest losses in April, but even health care shed more than a million jobs. Low-wage workers, including many women and members of racial and ethnic minorities, have been hit especially hard.
“It’s literally off the charts,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America. “What would typically take months or quarters to play out in a recession happened in a matter of weeks this time.”
Of course, this is not all Trump's fault.  He didn't create the corona virus.  But he certainly hasn't helped the situation:
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, new details continue to emerge about the way President Donald Trump mishandled the United States’ response.
An investigation by the New York Times has revealed that experts and administration officials tried to warn Trump of the serious nature of the coronavirus pandemic early on. Alerts from high-ranking government experts began as far back as January, six weeks before his administration finally sprang into action on March 16, when he issued concrete guidelines for the public.
The report exhaustively outlines numerous ways in which Trump avoided listening to government authorities as they proposed strategies for dealing with the pandemic. It also details an administration mired in political bickering, which hamstrung officials at every phase of their response. The report prompted epidemiologist Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to respond that “obviously” lives could have been saved if the government had taken the warnings seriously.
In fact, Trump seems to be actively trying to make things worse:
President Trump said Wednesday he will continue trying to toss out all of the Affordable Care Act, even as some in his administration, including Attorney General William P. Barr, have privately argued parts of the law should be preserved amid a pandemic.

We want to terminate health care under Obamacare,” Trump told reporters Wednesday, the last day for his administration to change its position in a Supreme Court case challenging the law...
That's definitely what you want during a pandemic: to terminate health care.

(On a related note, can we finally dispense with this idea that the Republican party is pro-life?  They say they are pro-life, but as a wise man once said, by their fruits ye shall know them.  The Republican's fruits have dollar signs on them.  They're not pro-life, they're pro-money and pro-enforced-birth.)

Sometimes I really have to wonder what it will take -- how much hypocrisy, how many lies, how big of an economic catastrophe, how much pain, how much death,  -- before Trump supporters start to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump is not the savior that he presented himself as.  And of course it's not just Trump, it's the whole festering boil that is today's Republican party, because Trump could not remain in power without their unified sniveling support.  How anyone who is paying attention could continue to support any Republican (with the possible exception of, God help me, Mitt Romney) is just beyond me.

Maybe no one is paying attention?  On that off chance, and because I have this pile of links laying around with still no idea of how to weave them into a coherent narrative, I'm just going to throw them all into this post, partly to vent, and partly in the hopes that someone will see them and go, "Hm, I didn't know about that.  Maybe I need to rethink my support of Republicans."

Let's start with this blatant example of corruption from the William Barr's "justice" department:
The Justice Department’s decision to drop the criminal case against Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, even though he had twice pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, was extraordinary and had no obvious precedent, a range of criminal law specialists said on Thursday. 
“I’ve been practicing for more time than I care to admit and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Julie O’Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches criminal law at Georgetown University.
I was wondering how the Flynn case was going to play out.  I was expecting Trump to pardon Flynn the day after the November election (because doing so earlier might have been a bridge too far even for the bootlicking brown-nosers that are the current crop of Republican senators) but why bother spending political capital on a pardon when you can just get your attorney general to do your dirty work for you?

The message could not be clearer: cover up for the president and you will be rewarded.  Say anything against the president, and you will be punished:
A senior US government doctor who worked on the search for a coronavirus vaccine has claimed he was fired after resisting Donald Trump’s push to use the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

Rick Bright was this week ousted as director of the US health department’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or Barda, and as the deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

In a stunningly candid statement, Bright highlighted his refusal to embrace hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug relentlessly promoted by the president and Fox News despite a lack of scientific studies.

“Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit,” Bright said.
Likewise if your job entails making sure that federal money doesn't go to line the Trump family coffers:
President Trump has removed the chairman of the federal panel Congress created to oversee his administration’s management of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package — the latest action by the president to undermine the system of independent oversight of the executive established after Watergate.

In just the past four days, Trump has ousted two inspectors general and expressed displeasure with a third, a pattern that critics say is a direct assault on one of the pillars of good governance.
Lest you think that I'm being hyperbolic here, read this:
When Congress enacted an emergency plan to send $1,200 checks to every American adult, Republicans joked that President Trump would want to sign his name on the checks. A few weeks later, after the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump was exploring this outlandish desire, a reporter asked, “Is that right? Do you want to sign those checks?” Trump denied it: “No. Me sign? No.”
Last night, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s name will be displayed on every check. A measure passed by both parties to alleviate an economic emergency has been expropriated by his reelection campaign. Trump’s presidency has largely consisted of outrageously corrupt notions proceeding from fearful accusation to accepted reality. Within a few days, this one will also probably be forgotten.
Trump has never respected any meaningful distinction between the federal government and the Trump Organization. He expects every federal employee, especially its law-enforcement agents, to advance his personal political agenda. He has functionally mixed its budget with his own by having the government pour money into his properties, and he has treated its official powers as if they are his own personal chits. The authority he has gained through the emergency response to the coronavirus has vastly expanded the potential for corruption, and every sign indicates that Trump is already engaging in systemic abuse.
Some of the corruption is lingering just below the surface. Trump is speaking constantly with corporate leaders, who can position themselves at the front of the line for federal contracts or relief payments. He supports bailouts for industries with a shaky claim to the public purse, like cruise lines, and has staunchly opposed any rescue for the United States Postal Service, which handles essential government communication. Trump of course has been trying to force the post office to raise rates on Amazon, in retaliation for Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post. The economic crisis has put the post office on life support, giving Trump the leverage he wants to make it punish a detested rival.
And, as I noted earlier, it's not just Trump, it really is the whole Republican party.  Consider this from today's news, which would normally be a major scandal, but which no one has even heard of because it's buried under a torrent of even more scandalous that nowadays flows day-in and day-out:
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who is also the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, was captured ordering a local party official to report false election results in a primary race for a state Senate seat in a leaked audio recording released earlier this week.
Eli Bremer, the Republican chairman for state Senate District 10, alleged to The Denver Post that Buck had tried to "bully" him into violating the law.
"You've got a sitting congressman — a sitting state party chair — who is trying to bully a volunteer — I'm a volunteer; I don't get paid for this — into committing a crime," he said. "To say it's damning is an understatement."
None of these things are anomalies.  Republican administrations have been massively more corrupt than Democratic ones going back decades (remember Richard Nixon?):
Republican administrations have vastly more corruption than Democratic administrations. We provide new research on the numbers to make the case.
We compared 28 years each of Democratic and Republican administrations, 1961-2016, five Presidents from each party. During that period Republicans scored eighteen times more individuals and entities indicted, thirty-eight times more convictions, and thirty-nine times more individuals who had prison time.
I take some comfort by indulging in a bit of schadenfreude: Trump seems to be unhappy about the fact that he is not constantly being praised from all corners for the fantastic job he is doing:
President Trump arrives in the Oval Office these days as late as noon, when he is usually in a sour mood after his morning marathon of television.
He has been up in the White House master bedroom as early as 5 a.m. watching Fox News, then CNN, with a dollop of MSNBC thrown in for rage viewing. He makes calls with the TV on in the background, his routine since he first arrived at the White House.
But now there are differences.
The president sees few allies no matter which channel he clicks. He is angry even with Fox, an old security blanket, for not portraying him as he would like to be seen. And he makes time to watch Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s briefings from New York, closely monitoring for a sporadic compliment or snipe.
Confined to the White House, the president is isolated from the supporters, visitors, travel and golf that once entertained him, according to more than a dozen administration officials and close advisers who spoke about Mr. Trump’s strange new life.
[T]he president’s primary focus, advisers said, is assessing how his performance on the virus is measured in the news media, and the extent to which history will blame him.
But history will not just judge Trump, it will also judge those who enabled him.  It will judge the Republican senators who passed on the opportunity to remove him from office when they had the chance.  It will judge the voters who voted for Trump and for those senators.  It will judge the state party officials who imposed minority rule on the nation through massive voter suppression in the name of eliminating voter fraud (which is nearly non-existent, except, of course, when perpetrated by Republicans).

And if you vote for a Republican this November -- any Republican -- it will judge you.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Fox news is not conservative enough for Donald Trump

It came as news to me, but apparently Fox News is not a right-wing propaganda factory, but is in fact a shill for Democrats.  Donald Trump said it, so it must be true:
President Donald Trump demanded an "alternative" to Fox News over the weekend as he accused the right-leaning network of disseminating Democratic talking points "without hesitation or research."
Oh, and don't forget to get your drink your Lysol to fend of the corona virus.

Friday, April 17, 2020

No, Fox News, the First Amendment does not protect false speech

Salon reports:
Fox News has moved to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Washington state group accusing the network of "deceptive" coronavirus coverage by arguing that the First Amendment protects "false" and "outrageous" speech.
Fox News is, as usual, wrong.  It is well established that the First Amendment does not confer an unlimited right to say whatever you want whenever you want to.  Libel, for example, is still a thing, the First Amendment notwithstanding.

The most canonical example of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment is shouting fire in a crowded theater.  And yet, you obviously do have the right to shout fire in a crowded theater in at least one circumstance, namely, if the theater is in fact on fire.  You are allowed to shout fire in a crowded theater.  What you are not allowed to do is deliberately lie about it.

Which is exactly what Fox News is doing.

Actually, what Fox News is doing is more akin to shouting, "There is no fire, everyone stay in your seats" in a theater that is actually burning, but the principle here is the same: they are spreading information that they know to be false for the express purpose of coercing people into dangerous, potentially fatal behavior.  The First Amendment should not protect them from liability when people die as a result.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Trump advisor Peter Navarro gets owned by 60 Minutes's Bill Whittaker

Trump's gaslighting is getting more egregious, easier to debunk, but sadly also more plentiful.  In fact, it's one of the few things that isn't in short supply.  Here's a lesser-known example from 60 Minutes Overtime:
Navarro scolded 60 Minutes host Bill Whitaker, saying, “I challenge you. Show me the 60 Minutes episode a year ago, two years ago, or during the Obama administration, during the Bush administration that said, ‘Hey, global pandemic’s coming, you gotta do X, Y and Z, and, by the way, we gotta shut down the economy to fight it.’ Show me that episode. Then you’ll have some credence in terms of attacking the Trump administration for not being prepared.”
And so he did.  It's fun to watch.

Not so much fun is reading about how Trump is cutting funding for the World Health Organization.  Yeah.  Cutting WHO funding is definitely what you want to be doing in the middle of a deadly global pandemic.

Never forget: the corona virus is a democratic hoax.  And the press was in "hysteria mode" about it. 
“So far we have lost nobody to coronavirus," Trump said [on February 28], suggesting the growing global panic was due to the press being in a "hysteria mode."
Then, a month after complaining about the press's hysterical predictions Trump complained that "no one could have predicted it".  Except that, of course, they did -- again and again and again and again.

And of course Trump has "absolute authority" but takes "no responsibility".  But that didn't stop him from having his name printed on the disaster relief checks as if he personally issued them.  That is some serious banana-republic dictator shit right there, folks.  He's taking your tax money and putting his name on it.

Oh, and he also sent 18 tons of personal protective equipment to China in February 2020.  Now that's putting America first!

Once again I have to ask: can you imagine how Republicans would have reacted if Barack Obama did all these things?

Things must really be getting desperate

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The "very stable genius" is no match for the corona virus

Apparently, Donald Trump has not yet fully plumbed the depths of moronic idiocy (and yes, I know that's repetitive and redundant, but I really think it needs to be emphasized and highlighted).
Asked by a journalist about the level of testing for the coronavirus across the US, the president answered: “This is a very brilliant enemy. You know, it’s a brilliant enemy. They develop drugs like the antibiotics. You see it. Antibiotics used to solve every problem. Now one of the biggest problems the world has is the germ has gotten so brilliant that the antibiotic can’t keep up with it.
Wow.  If the very stable genius of Donald Trump is no match for the corona virus's brilliance, what hope do we mere mortals have to stand against it?

The staggering irony of the situation is that Trump once bragged about being able to kill someone without losing any votes.  We are now quite literally putting that prediction to the test (make no mistake, Trump's "policies" -- or, more to the point, the lack thereof -- are and will continue to be directly responsible for many thousands of deaths).  So far, Trump's boast seems to be holding up pretty well, though some Trump supporters are starting to see through the charade.  I just wonder how high the body count is going to have to get before his prophecy actually fails.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Don't take too much comfort from the stock market rally

The Washington Post reports that 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployed benefits last week, bringing the coronavirus total to over 17 million.  Here is a sobering quote from that article:
“It looks like the unemployment rate is headed to 15 percent,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Bank, in a note to clients. “This isn’t a recession, it’s the Great Depression II.”
And yet you may have noticed a sustained rally in the stock market over the past two weeks.  If you had bought at the bottom on March 23 you would have made a 30% return by now.

All this might lead you to experience some cognitive dissonance.  If we're headed for another Great Depression, why is the stock market rallying?  Wasn't the great crash of October 1929 and subsequent bear market one of the hallmarks of the original Great Depression?  Might it be that this time the market knows something that Chris Rupkey and the Washington Post don't?  Well, it's possible, but I doubt it.

There is one enormous difference between what is happening today and what happened in 1929, namely, that in 1929 the Fed didn't intervene to try to fix the problem and today it is staging the biggest intervention by a central bank ever in human history.  In a nutshell, it is offering essentially free money in the hopes that people will take it and use it to keep the economy from collapsing during the pandemic.  As the same time, Congress is also pumping vast amounts of cash into the economy through what appears likely to become a series of stimulus programs.  At the moment all this appears to be working.  Supermarket shelves are still reasonably well stocked (except for toilet paper).  There is no widespread civil unrest.  The churches and the gun stores are still open, at least they are if you lucky enough to live in a red state (and yes, that was intended to be ironic).

So maybe it's working this time.  It is certainly working as a temporary stop-gap.  Things would certainly be much worse right now if not for these measures.  But there is a very, very big danger for the medium-to-long term.

The problem is that the stock market is being propped up by cheap credit which is exactly what led to the crash of 1929.  Banks are borrowing money from the Fed and using that money to buy stocks, which are cheap by historical standards.  If the economy were functioning normally they would be a bargain, having dropped 37% from their peak.  (And note that percentage drops don't combine intuitively with percentage gains.  A 37% drop followed by a 30% gain is not the same as a 7% drop, it's a net 18% drop.)  But the economy is not functioning normally.  Vast sectors of it -- travel, entertainment, restaurants, pretty much the entire hospitality industry -- have been completely shut down overnight, with ripple effects into other sectors that supply the hospitality sector.  So the actual value of the U.S. economy is dropping like a stone at the same time that cheap credit is pumping up the price of stocks.

This is not the same as October of 1929.  This is much, much worse.  In 1929 the U.S. economy was basically sound.  There was just as much productive capacity after the October crash as before.  What amplified the crash into the Great Depression was the Fed's failure to relax credit which in turn led to a cascade of bank failures.  A similar thing happened in 2008, except that lessons were apparently learned and we kinda sorta dodged a bullet.

Today there is not as much productive capacity as there was a month ago.  There is a lot less.  So there are only three ways that this can play itself out:

1.  We find a way to end the lockdowns and return to work before too much time goes by.  The only way this could be done safely is through the discovery of an effective treatment for covid-19, or more widespread testing so we can be more selective about who we isolate.  The other possibility is to just throw in the towel and let a million people die.

2.  The Fed continues to prop up the market for as long as the crisis continues.

3.  The banks who borrowed the money realize that they now hold overpriced stocks and begin to sell in order to lock in their profits.  Once prices start to drop, panic selling sets in.

At the moment the Fed has indicated a willingness to do #2 but whether they are really willing to stick with this in the long run is unclear.  Artificially propping up prices by pumping money into the economy is no panacea.  Germany tried that during the Great Depression and it did not end well.

We dodged Great Depression 2 in 2008 by the skin of our teeth.  We did that in an era when the crisis was driven entirely by policy and not by any underlying physical factors, and when the people in charge were mostly competent and honest.  Today none of those things are the case.  We have an actual significant drag on the economy, and the country's leadership is both corrupt (really really corrupt) and incompetent (really really incompetent).

We Americans are a resilient and resourceful people and maybe we'll figure out a way to make this all work out somehow despite the headwinds.  But I wouldn't bet my life savings on it.

[UPDATE] If you were pinning your hopes on the prospect that the Trump administration is not rampantly incompetent but rather perhaps just a little slow on the uptake, and that now that reality has set in they will finally do the Right Thing and deal effectively with the crisis, well, I wouldn't count on that either.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

When the going gets tough, the Trumps go golfing

We may not have enough masks, personal protective equipment, or ventilators, but at least the Secret Service has been able to complete an emergency procurement of 30 golf carts at one of Donald Trump's resorts in order to "protect a dignitary."  At least the Trump administration has its priorities straight.

(Can you imagine the outcry from Republicans if Obama or Hillary had done this?)

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

A Modest Proposal

With the dawning of a new month and the as-yet-not-entirely-fulfilled promise of Spring I have decided to combat the melancholy of sheltering in place with some out-of-the-box thinking.  Towards that end, I have resolved to re-examine my core beliefs and embrace the Great Wisdom embodied in the Very Stable Genius (VSG) of Donald Trump and those who were wise enough to recognize from the beginning that he was sent by God to deliver us from liberals.  I am abandoning the principle that one of the jobs of government is to ensure that people have access to certain basic necessities like safe food and clean drinking water, and adopting instead the ethos of the conservatives: if someone is making money, everything else will take care of itself.  And more to the point, if *I* am making money then I must be doing everything right and fuck you.  If you're not making money, well, maybe you should have signed up for Trump University.

The best way to make money, of course, is to create a product that meets someone's needs.  But that by itself is old-fashioned thinking.  Even liberals can get on board with that boring old idea.  In order to really win in today's world you have to go big.  In particular, it's important to recognize the following truths, which should be self-evident to any thinking person:

1.  Donald Trump, VSG has never made a mistake in his entire life.  Everything Donald Trump has ever done, is doing now, and will do in the future, is Perfect.

2.  Everything good that has ever happened to you or anyone you know is a direct result of the wise and bold leadership of Donald Trump and the Republican Party.  If you are not falling on your knees daily to praise their names then you are the most ungrateful and undeserving person who has ever lived.

3.  Everything bad that has ever happened is the fault of liberals.  If they had not advanced their bogus impeachment of Donald Trump, VSG, the Very Bad Chinese Wuhan Chink-chink Virus would never have escaped from that shithole country where it originated and invaded our homeland.

4.  Where are the emails?  Where is the server?  Lock her up!

Looking forward now it seems clear that the thing to do is to boldly embrace the power of free enterprise.  Accordingly, I am here to let you in on the ground floor of my next venture.  Like I said, the best way to make money is to make a product that meets a need.  But casting about for people's actual needs is too much work.  The real way to make money is to create demand by anticipating a need that people didn't even know they had.

So what is the thing people need most right now?  A vaccine for the corona virus!  It's probably too late to catch that particular wave.  Lots of people more capable than me are working on that already so there's going to be too much competition.  They key is to create the vaccine for the next killer virus before it arrives, and the best way to do that is, obviously, to create the Next Big Virus.

So here's my business plan: we're going to take the Covid-19 virus and genetically engineer it to make it even bigger and badder than it already is.  We're going to keep this new virus, tentatively dubbed Covid-21, under tight wraps as a corporate trade secret.  At the same time, we're going to develop a vaccine for it.

Now, mind you, we are never going to actually release Covid-21.  That would be highly unethical.  But you never know when an unfortunate accident might happen and people will want to be prepared this time.

How much is advance immunity to Covid-21 worth to you?  How much would you pay to not have to shelter-in-place next time?  $100?  $1000?  If you are one of the people with the foresight to protect themselves, then you could be one of the privileged few who gets to go out while everyone else has to stay home.  You'll get to keep your job, go to the beach, take that cruise (probably at a substantial discount).  If you buy a gift vaccination for your grandparents you might even extend their lives, and all life is precious (unless of course it stands in the way of making a profit.)

But I'm no asshole like Martin Shkreli.  I'm not going to squeeze people for every penny they can pay (although I probably could).  I want everyone to have my product, so I'm going to price it very modestly: just $10 a month, or $100 a year if you renew annually (you never know when the virus might mutate!)  That's still a pretty lucrative business model.  Even with only 10% market penetration world-wide that's still over $50B a year in revenue, almost all of which will be pure profit.  Such are the rewards of altruistic free enterprise.   All hail The Donald who hath showed us The Way!

I am offering you a very exclusive very limited opportunity for readers of this blog to buy an advance subscription to the Covid-21 vaccine.  Supplies may be limited at first so you'll want to reserve your priority slot now!  Don't wait, leave your contact information (or your credit card number) in the comments below, and we will contact you within 24 hours!  And, for the truly visionary and deep-pocketed among you, I am also raising a friends-and-family-and-soon-to-be-immune-people investment round, terms to be disclosed upon execution of an NDA.  But trust me, if you don't get in on this, you'll regret it for the rest of your possibly-soon-to-be-abbreviated life.

Who's in?

Friday, March 27, 2020

We're number one

Today the U.S. overtook China as the country with the most confirmed corona virus cases in the world.  Italy is still the world leader in deaths, but that will almost certainly change before too long because we have six times as many people and we have not yet battened down the hatches.  I can just see president Trump getting on TV and crowing about the fact that once again the U.S. is leading the world.  Never mind that it is leading the world into an unprecedented catastrophe.

The U.S. has had it so good for so long that it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that we really are chosen by God or something like that, that we are somehow cosmically entitled to be the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and so all we have to do is carry on as usual and everything will turn out all right.  Unfortunately, everything is not going to be all right this time.

It has now been over three months since the Covid-19 epidemic began, and the U.S. still doesn't have widespread testing in place.  Lockdowns are still sporadic and widely ignored.  Hospitals are already starting to be overwhelmed.  The President is talking about getting everything back to normal by Easter.

It ain't gonna happen.  We have only to look at Italy to see what our future looks like.  Italy has been on lockdown since March 9 -- more than two weeks ago -- and their numbers, both confirmed cases and deaths, are still going up every day.  Wuhan was on lockdown for two months before the situation began to improve.

So even in a best case scenario, where we lock down the entire country tomorrow, we're looking at the beginning of June before we have a realistic prospect of getting back to normal.  But of course that is not going to happen.  It's not going to happen because Donald Trump and his Republican enablers have their heads buried in the sand.  They still believe that American exceptionalism knows no bounds, that we are the chosen of God and are therefore exempt from the laws of physics and biology and economics.

I have bad news for them, and for you: we are not exempt.  But because we are proceeding on the assumption that we are, a lot of people are going to go bankrupt, and a lot of people are going to die.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has (in)famously suggested that all these deaths are perfectly fine.  Here's the quote:
No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ ... If that is the exchange, I’m all in.  That doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country, like me, I have six grandchildren, that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children. And I want to live smart and see through this, but I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed…I’ve talked to hundreds of people, Tucker, and just in the last week, making calls all the time, and everyone says pretty much the same thing. That we can’t lose our whole country, we’re having an economic collapse. I’m also a small businessman, I understand it. And I talk with business people all the time, Tucker. My heart is lifted tonight by what I heard the president say because we can do more than one thing at a time, we can do two things. So my message is let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country, don’t do that, don’t ruin this great America.
I have to admire the man's skill at taking what would normally be an unspeakable suggestion, that we intentionally condemn hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people to die slow and painful deaths suffocating on their own bodily fluids, in order to preserve the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and making it sound not-entirely-unreasonable, even noble (notwithstanding his humblebraggy insistence to the contrary).  But this is the way of demagoguery.  It never sounds overtly unreasonable.  You have to actually think in order to see it for what it is, and apparently there are vast numbers of Americans who are no longer capable of this.

(At the risk of stating the obvious, it's not just people who step up to the plate and volunteer who are going to die.  The virus does not discriminate on the basis of patriotism.)

Funny how no Republican ever suggested that the victims of 9-11 should be written off in the name of preserving freedom and economic prosperity.  The conservative devotion to the sanctity of human life has some very peculiar Ts&Cs.

I can't help but wonder just how deep this conservative capacity for denying obvious truths runs, but we're about to find out.  You think things are bad now?  You ain't seen nuthin' yet.  In the next few days, the death toll from the virus in the U.S. is going to exceed that of 9/11 (2977).  A few weeks after that it will exceed the direct U.S. military casualties of the Iraq war (4,491).  Very likely, unless we radically change direction in the next week or two (and I don't see that happening) we will very likely exceed the total number of civilian casualties in the Iraq war (hundreds of thousands, but no one ever actually counted them all).  A final tally in the millions is not out of the question.

I wonder if there will ever come a point where Donald Trump's supporters will realize that much of the pain to come could have been avoided if the pandemic had been taken seriously early on rather than being dismissed as a Democratic hoax.  We spent a trillion dollars attacking Iraq because we thought they might have WMDs.  Now that we are actually under attack by the operational equivalent of a biological weapon, Donald Trump is still dithering about what to do about it, indeed, whether anything needs to be done at all.

Remember this in the coming weeks and months.  Things are about to get worse than you have ever imagined they could.  People you care about will probably die.  You could die.  This is not all Donald Trump's fault; he didn't start the pandemic.  But he actively fanned its flames long after it was apparent that it was burning badly out of control, and long after people sounded the alarm.

I'm writing this not because I think it can have much of an impact on what is to come, but in the hope that once this blows over and the conservatives cry, "But we couldn't have known" (which I am sure they will) I will be able to point to this post and say: no.  We were warned.  We were warned about the pandemic, and we were warned about Trump long before the pandemic started.  It's too late to avoid catastrophe this time.  But maybe, just maybe, next time we will listen.