Statistics for a Sunday Afternoon

Over the past 20 years, the US economy has grown at an annual rate of 1.9%. Goldman Sachs predicts a rate of 7% for 2021 (Washington Post).

The provision in President Biden’s Covid relief bill to send almost all families monthly checks of up to $300 per child would move close to 10 million children above the poverty line, cutting child poverty nearly in half (Los Angeles Times).

Asked to describe what happened during the assault on the Capitol, 58% of [the unindicted co-conspirator’s] voters call it “mostly an Antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few of [his] supporters” (USA Today).

We’ve had almost 500,000 confirmed Covid deaths in the US. To include that many names, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would have to be 87 feet tall (Washington Post).

hith-vietnam-vets-memorial-2 (1)

The number of atoms in your body is roughly 1028 — that’s a 1 followed by 28 zeros (New York Times). There are around 1,000 different species of bacteria living on your skin (Nature).

Ready To Be Led

One of today’s hot topics, in addition to the future of the Republican Party, is why millions of people who live in democracies are willing to be led by a Dear Leader. Below are three contributions to the discussion.

From The New York Review of Books: “Democracy’s Demagogues” 

In 1917, when Europe seemed to lie in ruins, Max Weber wrote an influential essay with the misleadingly dull title “Parliament and Government in a Reconstructed Germany.” In it he drew attention to the outbreak of “Caesarism” in nineteenth-century Europe, taking Otto von Bismarck as the prime example of a modern Caesar for Germany (and indeed for the entire continent). How brilliantly, according to Weber, the old Junker had reduced Parliament to a rubber stamp, what devastating use he had made of emergency legislation and popular appeals, how ruthlessly he had expanded the power of Germany and consolidated his own.

You might think that Weber goes on to tell us what a harmful thing this modern Caesarism is and how Parliament and the rule of law must be strengthened as bulwarks against its perils. And he does, but then he starts off on a new and more disquieting tack. Isn’t it possible, he muses, that demagoguery is actually inherent in modern democratic suffrage, just as it was in Periclean Athens? Apart from demagogos, ancient Greek had a dozen other words to describe “people-flattery” of one sort or another. Surely mass democracy had a tendency to Caesarism:

Every kind of direct popular election of the supreme ruler and, beyond that, every kind of political power that rests on the confidence of the masses and not of parliament…lies on the road to these “pure” forms of Caesarist acclamation. In particular, this is true of the position of the President of the United States, whose superiority over parliament derives from his (formally) democratic nomination and election.

When traveling the United States in the election year of 1904, Weber had been much impressed by Teddy Roosevelt’s boisterous campaigning style.

The miracle ingredient by which the demagogos acquires and retains power is what Weber calls “charisma.” It is Weber who first borrowed from the Epistles of Saint Paul the Greek word for “the gift of God’s grace” and gave it a new, entirely secular twist. But even his use of the term retains a heaven-sent aura. The man with charisma is “meant to be.” He comes to fulfill the destiny of the nation; he is the Man on the White Horse in the Book of Revelation. Hegel wrote, when he caught sight of Napoleon riding through Jena the day before the great battle against the Prussian army in 1806, that he had just seen “this World-Soul riding out of town.” That’s charisma.

Curiously then, Weber, this infinitely thoughtful and skeptical observer of human affairs, had come to agree with the mountebank Napoleon III—who named himself emperor of France in 1852—that “the nature of democracy is to personify itself in a man.” When he was consulted about the writing of the Weimar Constitution in 1918–1919, he proposed the direct election of the German president. Charismatic leadership by a single man, he maintained, was essential to cement the people’s loyalty and persuade them to accept the dull impersonal weight of modern bureaucracy, which was both universal and inescapable. Yes, there must also be vigorous political parties and accountability to Parliament. But a dollop of charisma was indispensable.

This might be described as the Weber Wobble, and an apparent exception to the general thesis for which he is celebrated: that the modern world is characterized by a turning away from magical ways of thinking, the once-for-all Entzauberung, or disenchantment. He recognized the necessity of charisma, but he remained uneasy and suspicious of it. He died a year later, in 1920, of the Spanish flu during the great pandemic, aged only fifty-six. If he had lived a couple of years longer, to witness Mussolini’s March on Rome, he would have been uneasier still.

In Men on Horseback, David A. Bell, a professor of history at Princeton, takes Weber’s conjecture a stage further. Democracies, he points out, are particularly suspicious of charismatic leaders:

Yet, paradoxically, the longing for such leaders acquired new importance, and a distinct new shape, during the very same period that witnessed the first stirrings of modern democracy: the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It was during that period of extraordinary intellectual ferment and then in the great revolutions that washed across much of the Western world between 1775 and 1820 that the powerful forms of political charisma we are familiar with today emerged. The coming of democracy transformed the relationship between the people and their leaders, and the personal magnetism of the leader electrified that relationship. Far from representing a backsliding toward older forms of government, the new Caesar, adored by the masses and personifying the new nation, was intrinsic to the modern world.

In fact, one might argue, it is only in our own time that we can see most clearly how it all works. The leader’s rallies, his broadcasts, his photo opportunities, his tweets—these do not simply decorate the serious business of governing; they are part and parcel of it. True, in the past and perhaps in the present too, charismatic leaders have often threatened constitutional orders, but they were crucial to the initial creation of those orders, not only by engineering the rupture with the ancien régime but also by bonding the public to this strange new world. The charismatic leader breaks the rules not just because, he claims, the rules are harmful to the people, but because breaking the rules shows that he has charisma; he is beyond good and evil, and beyond a lot of other boring stuff too. . . . 

From Scientific American: “The Shared Psychosis of [a Leader] and His Loyalists”

The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building last week, incited by [the nation’s president], serves as the grimmest moment in one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s history. Yet the rioters’ actions—and [their leader’s] own role in, and response to, them—come as little surprise to many, particularly those who have been studying the president’s mental fitness and the psychology of his most ardent followers since he took office.

One such person is Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and president of the World Mental Health Coalition. . . . Scientific American asked Lee to comment on the psychology behind [the president’s] destructive behavior, what drives some of his followers—and how to free people from his grip . . .

Scientific American: What attracts people to [him]? What is their animus or driving force?

Lee: The reasons are multiple and varied, but in my recent public-service book, Profile of a Nation, I have outlined two major emotional drives: narcissistic symbiosis and shared psychosis. Narcissistic symbiosis refers to the developmental wounds that make the leader-follower relationship magnetically attractive. The leader, hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence—while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure. When such wounded individuals are given positions of power, they arouse similar pathology in the population that creates a “lock and key” relationship.

“Shared psychosis”—which is also called “folie à millions” [“madness for millions”] when occurring at the national level or “induced delusions”—refers to the infectiousness of severe symptoms that goes beyond ordinary group psychology. When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position, the person’s symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence—even in previously healthy individuals. The treatment is removal of exposure. . . . 

From conservative columnist Michael Gerson of The Washington Post: “The Rot Has Reached the Roots”

The dominant note of the day was . . . cowardice. The case presented by the House impeachment managers was so compelling and overwhelming that the extent of Republican cravenness was highlighted in neon. Republicans who knew better tried to hide behind thin technicalities. And most Republican senators did not seem to know better. In the end, we witnessed a historic collapse of moral and political leadership. And it was no less tragic for being expected. . . .

If T___pism were merely a set of proposals, there could be an antithesis. But the movement fully revealed by the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol is united by a belief that the White, Christian America of its imagination is on the verge of destruction, and that it must be preserved by any means necessary. This is less a political philosophy than a warped religious belief. There can be no compromise in a culture war. There can be no splitting of differences at Armageddon.

What has emerged within the Republican Party is a debate on the value of democracy itself. In the traditional American view, the democratic process has an essential nobility. It does not always produce the results we seek, yet, in the long run, it protects the rights we value. But the T___pian view of democracy is purely instrumental. With the stakes of politics so high — with socialists, multiculturalists and child rapists (as the QAnon fabulists would have it) intent on destroying American society — outcomes are the only things that really matter. Not truth. Not civility. Not electoral procedure. Just the gaining and maintenance of power.

A loss of faith in democratic structures does not lead to anarchy. It leads people to invest their hopes in someone who promises to defend their fragile way of life. In a January 2020 survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than half of Republicans agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” More than 40 percent agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” This is as close as political theory comes to a mathematical principle: Tribalism plus desperation equals authoritarian thinking.

From one perspective, it is absurd that so many Americans have invested their hopes for the preservation of civilization in a fool. But [he] has been effective in promoting the tribalism of White grievance, as well as desperation about the fate of America. And, unlike any other president, he was happy to step into an authoritarian role, attempting to maintain power through intimidation and violence.

Can the [Republican Party] really have a productive debate between people who believe in democracy and those who have lost patience for it? Between those who view politics as a method to secure rough justice in a fallen world, and those who view it as a holy crusade against scheming infidels? Between those who try to serve conservative political ideals and those who engage (in [Senator] Sasse’s immortal words) in “the weird worship of one dude”?

As it stands, I am skeptical. There are scattered outposts of Republican sanity . . . But in most of the [party], the rot has reached the roots.

PS: A quote from economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)

A degree of arrested spiritual and mental development is, in practical effect, no bar against entrance into public office. Indeed, a degree of puerile exuberance coupled with a certain truculent temper and boyish cunning is likely to command something of popular admiration and affection.

China On the Rise

The Atlantic has a typically long article about China’s construction of an enormous radio telescope:

original

Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle [recently destroyed], the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

[It’s] the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter”. After the dish is calibrated, it will start scanning large sections of the sky. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

If that isn’t enough, they’re planning to put a radio observatory on the dark side of the Moon, where there is even less interference from terrestrial radio waves.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Chinese have a “rail-linked urban megastructure” that required the country to pour “more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century” The country “has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea”. The author of the article marvels at “smooth, spaceship-white” trains “whooshing by . . . at almost 200 miles an hour”.

China built the world’s fastest supercomputer, has spent heavily on medical research and planted a “great green wall” of forests in its northwest as a last-ditch effort to halt the Gobi Desert’s spread. Now China is bringing its immense resources to bear on the fundamental sciences. The country plans to build an atom smasher that will conjure thousands of “god particles” out of the ether, in the same time it took CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to strain out a handful. It is also eyeing Mars. In the technopoetic idiom of the 21st century, nothing would symbolize China’s rise like a high-definition shot of a Chinese astronaut setting foot on the red planet. Nothing except, perhaps, first contact.

China’s gross domestic product is still only about 2/3 of America’s, but they’ll probably spend more on research and development than we do in the coming decade.

When we saw the Soviet Union as our competition in the 50s and 60s, we got busy. The Soviet Union no longer exists.

Today, there are more than 100 cities in China with populations over one million. China is making its presence known.

Shanghai-Skyline-Night-Big-Bus-Tours-01-2017

Where We Stand with the Vaccinations

The vaccine is out there. It’s not being administered fast enough. But now there’s a plan. From The New York Times [with commentary included]:

President Biden’s promise to administer 100 million vaccines by his 100th day in office is no longer a lofty goal; it is attainable at the current pace at which shots are going into arms. In fact, some experts have suggested that the president’s ambition is far too modest. [His ambition is to get the whole country vaccinated; his promise was to do 100 million by late April.]

Federal data shows that the United States is already administering about one million doses a day, and even doubling that rate would not cause the country to fall short of distribution capacity or supply. . . . 

Mr. Biden made the 100-day pledge in early December, before any vaccine had been authorized for use in the United States. At the time, experts called the goal “optimistic” given their concerns about manufacturing and distribution capacity.

Since then, two vaccines have been approved and the United States has secured contracts for deliveries of doses through July. And while some jurisdictions have said that they are running out of doses, states and U.S. territories are using only about half of the shots that the federal government has shipped to them, on average. . . .

Pfizer and Moderna have pledged to deliver a combined 200 million doses by the end of March, with an additional 200 million doses to be delivered by the end of July.

Under those circumstances, it is feasible that up to two million doses could be given per day, and Mr. Biden’s goal of 100 million shots could be reached by early March.

But ramping up vaccinations will not be easy. And national supply and distribution figures do not reflect the often complicated local realities.

“The complexity of administering vaccines may grow over the coming weeks as we open up a lot of new provider sites,” said Dr. Julie Swann, an industrial and systems engineering professor at North Carolina State University who was an adviser to the C.D.C. during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Getting shots in arms has already been hard, Dr. Swann noted. Providers get little notice of how much vaccine they will receive, making it difficult to plan and set up appointments. Estimating demand can be tricky too, which means that vaccines may be used more quickly in some locations than others, leading to wasted doses.

“The administration needs to be both fighting immediate fires and putting in the infrastructure to make this work better, too,” Dr. Swann said [which is what the president and his staff are doing, three days after the inauguration].

Unquote.

The new administration has issued a “National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness”. This is the summary of the plan to “mount a safe, effective, comprehensive vaccination campaign”:

The United States will spare no effort to ensure Americans can get vaccinated quickly, effectively, and equitably. The federal government will execute an aggressive vaccination strategy, focusing on the immediate actions necessary to convert vaccines into vaccinations, including improving allocation, distribution, administration, and tracking. Central to this effort will be additional support and funding for state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments — and improved line of sight into supply — to ensure that they are best prepared to mount local vaccination programs. At the same time, the federal government will mount an unprecedented public campaign that builds trust around vaccination and communicates the importance of maintaining public health measures such as masking, physical distancing, testing, and contact tracing even as people receive safe and effective vaccinations. To mount a safe, effective, comprehensive vaccination campaign, the United States will:

  1. Ensure the availability of safe, effective vaccines for the American public.
  2. Accelerate getting shots into arms and get vaccines to the communities that need them most.
  3. Create as many venues as needed for people to be vaccinated.
  4. Focus on hard-to-reach and high-risk populations.
  5. Fairly compensate providers, and states and local governments for the cost of administering vaccinations.
  6. Drive equity throughout the vaccination campaign and broader pandemic response. Launch a national vaccinations public education campaign.
  7. Bolster data systems and transparency for vaccinations.
  8. Monitor vaccine safety and efficacy. Surge the health care workforce to support the vaccination effort.

The plan is only 200 pages long.

Yeah, we’re finally getting an administration that’s competent and wants the government to work. Patience is a virtue.

Biden’s Questions for His Top Science Adviser

Joe Biden plans to make the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy a Cabinet-level position for the first time. Last week, he sent a letter to Eric Lander, the geneticist who will hold that position, asking how the United States should address scientific and technological issues in the coming decades. I’m sure the president-elect didn’t write every word, but he put his name on it:

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authored a letter to his science advisor, Dr. Vannevar Bush, posing the question of how science and technology could best be applied to benefit the nation’s health, economic prosperity, and national security in the decades that would follow the Second World War. Dr. Bush’s response came in the form of a report, titled Science—the Endless Frontier, that would form the basis of the National Science Foundation and set the course of scientific discovery in America for the next 75 years.

Those years have brought about some of the most consequential scientific advancements in human history with America leading the way. But three quarters of a century later, the contours of our lives have changed. . . . And the nature of discovery itself has changed by leaps and bounds—reaching celestial heights, and microscopic complexities, that were unimaginable not so long ago.

For this reason, I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world. This effort will require us to bring together our brightest minds across academia, medicine, industry, and government—breaking down the barriers that too often limit our vision and our progress, and prioritizing the needs, interests, fears, and aspirations of the American people.

President Roosevelt asked Dr. Bush to consider four specific questions. Today, I am tasking you and your colleagues with five. My hope is that you, working broadly and transparently with the diverse scientific leadership of American society and engaging the broader American public, will make recommendations to our administration on the general strategies, specific actions, and new structures that the federal government should adopt to ensure that our nation can continue to harness the full power of science and technology on behalf of the American people.

1. What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible— to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?

Even as we work urgently to overcome the coronavirus pandemic, we must learn from this moment by grappling with the challenges, inequities, and opportunities we’ve seen in order to better prepare for the future. How can we dramatically improve our ability to rapidly address threats from pathogens, including emerging pandemics, potential bioweapons, and antibiotic resistance? How can we dramatically speed our ability to develop and conduct clinical trials of therapies for other types of diseases like cancer? How can we enable the rapid sharing, with patient consent, of health information to build a smarter and more effective healthcare system? . . .

2. How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful new solutions to address climate change . . .?

Climate change represents an existential threat that requires bold and urgent action. But at the same time, the necessity of solving it also presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to make groundbreaking investments in our infrastructure, enhance America’s resilience, promote environmental justice, and create new cutting-edge industries and millions of good-paying jobs that will advance American leadership for generations to come.

Achieving our commitment of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require deploying existing, cost-effective clean energy technologies manufactured in America; drawing on innovative solutions to capture and store carbon; and spurring American technological ingenuity to develop new zerocarbon technologies that can reshape the marketplace. . . .

The United States has a long, successful, and bipartisan history of using federal research, purchasing, and policies to help jumpstart critical industries—including, for example, when we pioneered and led the semiconductor industry. How can we refresh that model to deliver a healthier, safer, more prosperous, and sustainable future for our children, while preserving our natural environment for future generations?

3. How can the United States ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?

. . . New technologies are emerging in increasingly rapid cycles that promise to transform our lives. Each arrives with a distinct set of promises and challenges—and each carries the capacity to dramatically impact job creation, equity, and national security. Other countries—especially China—are making unprecedented investments and doing everything in their power to promote the growth of new industries and eclipse America’s scientific and technological leadership. . . .

What is the right level of national investment, and what are the pillars of a national strategy that will rapidly propel both research and development of critical technologies? What structures, infrastructures, and policies are needed to accelerate the path from research laboratories to development projects to the marketplace? How can we strengthen and expand the connections between academia, industry, and government . . .? And, importantly, how do we ensure that technological advances create rather than diminish high-quality jobs?

4. How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?

The benefits of science and technology remain unevenly distributed across racial, gender, economic, and geographic lines. How can we ensure that Americans of all backgrounds are drawn into both the creation and the rewards of science and technology? How can we ensure that science and technology hubs flourish in every part of the country, driving economic development in every American hometown? How can we ensure that advances in medical science benefit the health of all Americans, including substantially reducing racial and socioeconomic health disparities?

5. How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?

Science and technology have flourished in the United States because of a rich ecosystem of people, policies, and institutions. This ecosystem must be nurtured and refreshed . . . How can we protect scientific integrity within government—and make government a premier destination for scientists and technologists to work? . . . How can we ensure the United States will remain a magnet for the best and brightest minds throughout the world?

I believe that the answers to these questions will be instrumental in helping our nation embark on a new path in the years ahead—a path of dignity and respect, of prosperity and security, of progress and common purpose. They are big questions, to be sure, but not as big as America’s capacity to address them. I look forward to receiving your recommendations—and to working with you, your team, and the broader scientific community to turn them into solutions that ease everyday burdens for the American people, spark new jobs and opportunities, and restore American leadership on the world stage.