Don’t Know Much Biology

Apparently, Republican state legislators in Pennsylvania are attempting to rise to the level of ignorance of biology displayed by their counterparts in Ohio. Specifically, they have introduced House Bill 1890 that requires health care facilities that possess “fetal remains” to cremate or inter the fetal remains.

The proposed statute defines “fetal remains” to mean a “fetus expelled or extracted in the case of a fetal death.” The term “fetus” is not defined. Rather, the proposed statute defines “fetal death” to be the “expulsion or extraction from its mother of a product of conception which shows no evidence of life after the expulsion or extraction.” Thus, the statute ignores the difference between an embryo and a fetus. According to the Merck Manual, an embryo is not considered a fetus until “the end of the 8th week after fertilization (10 weeks of pregnancy).”

At least one study has calculated that “15% of the documented pregnancies ended in first trimester miscarriages per pregnancy.” Further, “current research showing about 50% to 60% of miscarriages are the result of random fetal chromosomal abnormalities incompatible with life.” (Endnotes omitted.) Somewhat different statistics are presented by the National Institutes of Health which finds that “[i]t is estimated that as many as 26% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage and up to 10% of clinically recognized pregnancies. Moreover, 80% of early pregnancy loss occurs in the first trimester.” (Endnotes omitted.)

Pennsylvania House Bill 1890 is nothing more than a ham-handed attempt to impose specific religious beliefs. It simply ignores the biology of human reproduction. As this paper finds:

A synthesis of many large-scale studies from the last 15 years unambiguously confirms the Wood-Boklage-Holman hypothesis that abortion is an intrinsic and overarching component of human reproduction. It is the most common outcome of conception across a woman’s lifetime and the predominant factor controlling age-specific variation in human female fertility. To reproduce, a human female cannot forgo a high risk of abortion, and to have a large family it is virtually impossible to avoid multiple abortions. Modern birth control with access to elective abortions, markedly reduces –rather than increases– the lifetime number of abortions a woman produces.

Note: As used in the paper the term “abortion” refers to any any early termination of a pregnancy whether by miscarriage or by intention.

Oh, yeah, one other thing. The proposed bill is unlikely to raise GOP support among women.

A bad climate chart

Bad in two senses. From a recent post by Kevin Drum with the scare headline “The World Is Giving Up On Climate Change”, a chart from the reliable FT:

Looks terrible! But Kevin truncated the FT chart – the 2019 bar label has the important subscript “H1”. (FT article, paywalled – trust me, I got a sneak view somehow, and it’s definitely there.) The all-year total won’t be great, but it will be fairly close to last year’s ca. $290 bn.

Why would Drum, normally a thoughtful and careful blogger and a chart maestro, make a silly mistake like this? I suggest it’s motivated reasoning. Drum has locked himself into the untenable positions that the energy transition requires large and very unlikely changes in lifestyles, that existing technologies are too expensive, and that the only hope is massive R&D to find something much cheaper. These three positions are nonsense (see for example Jacobson, Blakers, Breyer (pdf), or for the tl:dr capsule, me). To defend an untenable position, you grasp at straws. Look, the FT says renewable investment is collapsing! Only it isn’t.

The chart does tell us a less dramatic, but still real, bad news story. Renewable investment was growing fast until 2011, then the boom stopped and spending has been stuck on a plateau. The effect has been mitigated by the continuing falls in the prices of wind, solar and storage. Lazards give a 10 year decline to 2019 in the costs of wind in the USA as 70%, of utility solar 89% (13th survey of generation costs, pdf, page 8); they don’t supply a trend for storage, as the use cases are so varied, but do note a fall in costs. Price trends are global. So annual renewable installations have been growing in GW terms, only not as fast as they should.

This is not what Econ 101 would lead us to expect. When a technology steadily gets cheaper than its rivals, the rate of adoption should speed up, as investment shifts from higher-cost incumbents to cheaper newcomers enjoying economies of scale and learning. Following the classic logistic curve, the rate of substitution eventually slows as you near saturation, but renewables are only near that today in a few small countries (Norway, Denmark, Costa Rica).

We have to ask: what happened around 2011 that flipped renewable investment from growth to stagnation?

It certainly wasn’t a halt in technical progress or a global recession
– the GFC was essentially over by then. I can see only one
candidate: the victory of austerity policies over Keynesian ones.

This was driven by ideology over good economics, and supported by some very sloppy analysis (as with Rogoff’s debt limit argument). The austeriacs won because their message was congenial to financial elites, and required cuts in public spending and transfers to the working classes. As in the 1930s, the victory was temporary, and a new wave of populist right-wingers (Trump, Johnson, Abbott) rose to power who don’t care at all about financial orthodoxy. But it was for a while complete enough to secure a rollback in the incentives that had enable the rapid growth in renewables of the 2000s. Germany led the way with the EEG “reform” of 2012, and was followed by Spain and the UK. Renewable investment only restarted in Spain last year, with a socialist minority government and a determined environment minister.

This is not a complete explanation, and does not account for the Chinese  cutbacks, which came as late as 2018. Xi is probably not a fan of Alesina and Rogoff, and Chinese policy firmly supports growth and full employment. However, fears of the unsustainability of renewable subsidies can also arise in a controlled economy. In the USA, the self-blocking design of the Constitution and the spectacular incompetence of the Trump Administration have limited the rollback to largely symbolic changes like the waters regulation.

There is another suspicion, which fully applies to China. The fossil fuel industries are large and effective lobbyists for their businesses, to which the renewable transition is an existential threat. It would be astonishing if their minions did not use the austeriac arguments to hand, with superficial academic credibility, and playing to the prejudices of the policymakers they are dining with. Some fossil fuel tycoons – notably the Kochs – reinforced political lobbying by shoring up congenial academic research, notably the Kochs’ support of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in, importantly, Washington. And is Harvard squeaky clean here, with its massive investments in fossil fuels and a lax policy on donations?

Don’t forget that the fossil people had and have a large direct interest: the subsidy rollback was specific to renewables, and the old subsidies to fossil fuels, buried deeper in the tax code, escaped unscathed. The change was a reverse Pigovian tax, a public policy in favour of pollution.

Someone joked that there are two theories of history – cockup and conspiracy. Cockup is the default, and works for some major events like the French and American Revolutions and the start of the First World War. But conspiracies are sometimes real and effective, as the careers of such luminaries as Lenin, Hitler, the Kochs, and bin Laden attest: all the way back to John of Procida, the likely mastermind of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. I have a pet theory that the seizure of Brill by the Dutch Protestant Sea Beggars in 1572, nominally following the closure of Dover to them by the English to placate Spain, was in reality a deniable black op of Francis Walsingham’s.

I can’t prove the hypothesis that the energy transition was kneecapped by a conspiracy of fossil fuel lobbyists using bogus austerity arguments. But it’s worth investigating.

If that’s so, a suitable sanction for the perps could IMHO be life in a gulag, somewhere like here.

Antarctic icecap. Photo credit

Disproportionate you say? What’s proportionate for the crime of procuring genocide for hire?

The Ohio Anti-Abortion Bill

H.B. 182 introduced into the House of the Ohio General Assembly by Republican members has attracted a good deal of negative press because it outlaws the termination of an ectopic pregnancy unless the procedure “is intended to reimplant the fertilized ovum into the pregnant woman’s uterus.” However, we owe a H/T to Charles Gaba who has pointed out in May that H.B. 182 does far more and is more onerous than just that one provision.

First, H.B. 182 defines the term “abortion” so broadly that it includes the use of IUDs and the use of such drugs as Levonorgestrel (the active drug in the morning-after pill).

Then, the bill would both prohibit both state and local government insurance policies in Ohio and any insurance policy issued in that state from providing coverage for “abortions” as that term is defined in the statute. (Presumably, the use of separate provisions for government provided insurance and all policies of insurance is to make the provisions severable, so that if the blanket prohibition against any insurance coverage is judicially overturned, the government-employee insurance prohibition might still withstand scrutiny.)

Finally, even if an abortion is allowable under the statute, a burdensome reporting requirement is imposed on any physician who performs the procedure before the physician is paid with “state or local funds.”

I have posted a copy of H.B. 182 with markups highlighting the issues noted above.

Query: Does anyone think that this will drive women to vote Republican?

The two-way street

A standard Israeli till receipt:

The text is on the right, as Hebrew is written right-to-left. The numerals are on the left, written left-to-right, as is standard with Arabic numerals.

Wait a minute. Arabic text is also right-to-left. So why do its numbers go the other way?

Because they were not originally Arabic but Indian. The attribution is not incidentally at all controversial. The two eminent mathematicians who popularised the system in the Muslim world around 830 CE, the Persian Al-Khwarizmi (who gave his name to algorithm) and the Arab Al-Kindi, entitled their treatises respectively On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals and On the Use of the Indian Numerals: no concealed attribution there. The decimal point was the work of an earlier Iraqi Jewish scholar, Sind ibn Ali. A full treatment of zero had arrived quite late in India, in the work of Brahmagupta (628 CE).

India used and still uses a lot of different scripts. But the common ancestor of many is the Brahmi script adopted by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, reigned 268 to 232 BCE. Brahmi is left-to-right, and so are its numerals.

Brahmi script on Ashoka Pillar (circa 250 BCE), Wikipedia

The first widely used alphabet was the Phoenician, around 1200 BCE. It was right to-left. You have to ask: why would anybody have chosen this unhandy scheme? Unless you are left-handed: a small minority (around 10%) of most populations, but sometimes they get to be kings, high priests, merchant tycoons or tennis champions, in a position to get their way. But both the main earlier non-alphabetic scripts, Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, run left-to-right, so it’s an odd choice. The Archaic Greeks switched direction back at the same time as they democratised writing, including for bawdy inscriptions on winecups.

It’s controversial whether Indian alphabets had a Phoenician ancestry – some Indian scholars argue for a purely subcontinental origin – but it’s likely. At all events, early Indian scribes followed or paralleled the majoritarian Greek choice of left-to-right, and Ashoka set it in stone.

For numbers, there is no particular advantage in one direction over the other. To evaluate a positional decimal number, you have to count outwards from the decimal point in both directions. Right-to-left and left-to-right are mirror equivalents. The direction was determined by the non-numerical script it was embedded in.

Resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer

I have uploaded the resignation letter of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. All one needs to know to understand why Donald Trump should not be president is set forth in two paragraphs of that letter as follows:

The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and again, from Captain Lawrence’s famous order “Don’t Give up the Ship”, to the discipline and determination that propelled our flag to the highest point on Iwo Jima. The Constitution, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, are the shields that set us apart, and the beacons that protect us all. Through my Title Ten Authority, I have strived to ensure our proceedings are fair, transparent and consistent, from the newest recruit to the Flag and General Officer level.

Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect. I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me. in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline. I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Emphasis added.

Yad Vashem and plastic plates

We are back from Israel, where I visited Yad Vashem for the first time. Being me, I have written to the curators with a few thoughts and suggestions. An extract follows.

Dear curators of Yad Vashem:

I was recently privileged to spend a morning at Yad Vashem during a holiday in Israel. Among the many strong emotions aroused by this experience is admiration for the work of the designers and curators of this great memorial. The comments and suggestions below are in no way intended to detract from this admiration. In addition, it is I think psychologically impossible to take in everything during a single short visit; if I have got anything materially wrong in my recollections, I apologise but claim force majeure.

[two pages on other stuff]

Disposable plates

As in the Israel Museum, the cafeteria serves cakes on disposable polystyrene plates. The observation may seem trivial and in the context of Yad Vashem ridiculous. Bear with me: I think it’s important.

First, these two museums are world-class institutions, presenting crucial aspects of Israel’s identity to the rest of humanity. At this level, visitors expect exemplary standards of professionalism, and nearly uniformly get it. Polystyrene plates are a retrograde failure to meet the benchmark. The EU will ban single-use plastic plates and cutlery by 2021, and public opinion in Europe is ahead of it.

Second, the mission of Yad Vashem in particular is memory. You seek to fight off the oblivion of time1 and ensure the Holocaust is no more forgotten than the Exodus or the destruction of the Temples. The architecture of the museum well reflects this aim of permanence in its solidity. The same should, I suggest, hold for minor details like plates. In my visits to the Struthof concentration camp in Alsace, I was struck by the shoddiness and meanness of the Nazi construction, and the unexceptional, but dignified and solid, stone memorials to the camps put up postwar by the French were a welcome contrast.

A final thought flowing from the above. As I understand it, the inmates in slave labour camps, Jews and others, were issued metal plates and cups for their starvation rations. I assume these remained the property of the camp, and were passed on to from one disposable slave to the next. I imagine that they played an important and ambiguous part in the mental world of the inmates: at the same time part of the machinery of destruction, but also a concession by the oppressors to the necessity of maintaining life among their slaves and a twisted recognition of their humanity. The tin plates were not evil things in themselves.

You might consider a small display cabinet in the cafeteria, with relevant testimonies from survivors. An additional possibility would be a comparison of the daily rations in a typical labour camp with those of a Geneva-convention Stalag for Western Allied POWs and of an American GI in Normandy.

Respectfully, Shalom

1Julian Barnes’ short story “Evermore”, in his collection Crossing the Channel, is a good exploration of this topic, set in the Western Front after WWI.

[/end letter]

Note: I have chosen this part of the letter as the most likely to spark a useful and focussed discussion – a general one on the Holocaust would be shapeless. Commenters are free to call me names, but I’d be grateful if you could avoid using the argument “so that’s the one thing you could find to write about?” because, you know, it wasn’t.

Lessons Learned In Hebrew School

At the outset, let me make it clear that I was not the best student in Hebrew school. In fact, it was well established that my best friend in that school and I were in a race to the bottom of the class. However, I did retain some of the knowledge my teachers attempted to impart.

One Biblical passage came back to me today when I commented that the Republican Party was the ignorant and stupid party. One of the listeners objected that I was painting with too broad a brush and that there were some Republicans who weren’t all that bad. At that point, a portion of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah set forth in Genesis, Chapter 18, came back to me. Here’s that portion, lightly edited and brought up to date.

And the Lord said, “Since the cry of the GOP has become great, and since their sin has become very grave,

I will descend now and see, whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done; [I will wreak] destruction [upon them]; and if not, I will know.”

And the men turned from there and went to the White House, and Abraham was still standing before the Lord.

And Abraham approached and said, “Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?

Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the GOP; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?

Far be it from You to do a thing such as this, to put to death the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should be like the wicked. Far be it from You! Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?”

And the Lord said, “If I find in the GOP fifty righteous men within the party, I will forgive the entire party for their sake.”

And Abraham answered and said, “Behold now I have commenced to speak to the Lord, although I am dust and ashes.

Perhaps the fifty righteous men will be missing five. Will You destroy the entire party because of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy if I find there forty-five.”

And he continued further to speak to Him, and he said, “Perhaps forty will be found there.” And He said, “I will not do it for the sake of the forty.”

And he said, “Please, let the Lord’s wrath not be kindled, and I will speak. Perhaps thirty will be found there.” And He said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

And he said, “Behold now I have desired to speak to the Lord, perhaps twenty will be found there.” And He said, “I will not destroy for the sake of the twenty.”

And he said, “Please, let the Lord’s wrath not be kindled, and I will speak yet this time, perhaps ten will be found there.” And He said, “I will not destroy for the sake of the ten.”

And the Lord departed when He finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

I take from this that the days of the Republican Party are numbered.

Trump Tax Return Subpoena Update

A little over a month ago, I suggested that Trump’s opposition to the subpoenas issued for his tax returns would shortly become moot. Trump’s opposition was rooted primarily in the distinction between a congressional subpoena for legislative purposes and one pursuant to an impeachment proceeding. I therefore predicted that, because the investigations would shortly ripen into impeachment investigations, the alleged distinction between Congressional legislative power and its impeachment power would no longer be pertinent. At the time, I noted that:

Judge Rao’s dissent is premised solely on what she believes is a limitation on Congress’ legislative power. She makes a distinction between the legislative power of Congress and what she terms its judicial power. Among the areas in which she believes that the judicial power can be exercised is that of impeachment. 

Today, the D.C. Court of appeals, in a per curiam opinion, declined to block the subpoena. Judge Rao, in one of the two dissents, realized that the facts that underlay her original opinion had basically disappeared. However, she fought on:

The Committee’s suggestion that the current impeachment inquiry somehow alters this case depends on whether House Resolution 660 ratifies this subpoena. This Circuit has not determined whether a defective subpoena can be revived by after-the-fact approval. But we need not confront that question here, because even assuming the subpoena could be issued under the impeachment power, the Committee has not reissued the subpoena pursuant to that power and House Resolution 660 does not purport to sweep previously issued subpoenas into the ambit of the impeachment inquiry.

Slip op. at 6-7 (Rao, J. dissent at 2-3). citation and internal quote omitted.

Judge Rao’s dissent would open up nothing more than a path to further delay. As the case stands now, the previous objections to the tax return subpoenas are, as a practical matter, moot. It’s always difficult to make predictions about the actions that the Supreme Court might take, but I don’t think that the Court will take this case up in its present posture.

Tobacco, nicotine, illicit markets

Massachusetts flavor ban will feed illegal tobacco sales, stores say. Hundreds of Massachusetts convenience stores close in protest of proposed tobacco regulation. New York lawmakers propose statewide ban on menthol and other flavored cigarettes.

Big Tobacco could fill the void if vaping goes up in smoke. As Trump tackles vapes, African Americans feel stung by inaction on menthol cigarettes.

California and New York sue USPS for shipping of foreign cigarettes. Federal court slashes UPS fine for untaxed cigarettes to $97.6 million.

EU illegal tobacco trade halted after international operation. Slovakia busts biggest illegal cigarettes racket in Central Europe. Thousands of smuggled cigarettes discovered at Bosnia and HerzegovinaAustria border crossing. Cigarette smuggling in the UAE an EU headache. Cigarettes top 2018 list of EU counterfeit seizures.

Tenfold rise in Iran tobacco exports. An end in sight for Pakistan fight against illicit cigarettes?

Tobacco-smuggling family used train sets to import 2.5 million dodgy cigarettes from China and Hong Kong. Philippines to ask China, ASEAN neighbors to stop smuggling cigarettes. Plain packaging in Philippines.

Thailand temple turns smuggled cigarettes, liquor into pesticides for farmland.

Sri Lanka illegal cigarettes, beedi switching claims likely exaggerated. Illicit tobacco in Papua New Guinea. Explosion of Australia tobacco black market.

Tobacco sellers, industry push back against Alberta tax hikes.