News Analysis

I’m Excited for the launch of Vox, but this op-ed by Malcolm Harris reminds me that we need to be careful with news sources that claim to offer comprehensive explanations and analyses of so many different topics. With so many complex issues in the world, we’d be fools to think that just because we have lots of data we can now cut to the core of those issues. Data helps but it must be interpreted, and that interpretation is done by a human being who has biases and blind spots in their reasoning.

This is not an argument that “we can’t really know anything.” We can learn a great deal about the world from reading news sources, but when we inform ourselves about the world by reading short articles we have to keep in mind that we are reading a simplification of events. Personally, I think the author asks too much by arguing that authors need to spend time in every post explaining how their personal identity or perspective may bias their reporting, as he seems to suggest in the example of Nate Silver covering the sexual assault charges against Julian Assange. It would be great if we could have this information in every news article, but that seems too high of a standard to set for humans. Rather, we should try to read the news critically, fully aware that it’s written by other people who have their own biases.


Heavy Metal Drummer – Wilco

This album is such a joy on your ears. Very mellow with a collection of songs that have their own distinctive sound yet add up to a unified whole. This song in particular always reminds me of the outdoor shows in Milwaukee and Chicago that Sarah and I would go to so we could soak up the sun and music. The song summons up those carefree summer days with friends, but also a tinge of melancholy that those simple days are gone seemingly for good.

A writer maximized her authority by choosing a subject she knew intimately and that made her feel helpless. “The best writers are those who put themselves at risk—first destabilize yourself, then restore yourself,” Lish said. How did they restore themselves? By dramatizing their confessions in a way that commanded attention: that was tense, taut, and confident, that had the feeling of an emotional striptease about it. “Mystery is at the very center of what engages the fictional transaction,” Callis recalls Lish saying. “Writing is not about telling; it is about showing, and not showing everything.”

– “Seduce the Whole World: Gordon Lish’s Workshop,” via The New Yorker

The world of creative writing and fiction seems so distant to me now; the work of writing research briefs zaps all of my writing energies these days. This fascinating essay immerses you in eroticism, great writing advice, and gives you a front row seat to a cult of personality. A great read.

A Case for Optimism on the Health of American Society

This post, from The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova, provides some hopeful news for those who feel constantly stressed by all of life’s distractions and challenges. It shares the results of a study undertaken by the University of Miami that show with only three 20-minute meditation sessions per week, students became much less stressed and did better on memory and focus tests that were administered throughout the semester. Getting less stressed as a semester of college progresses and professors unload mounds of homework on you seems impossible – yet apparently a bit of meditation does the trick. It gets better too: not only does practicing meditation affect these improvements, but it also prevents your levels of stress and memory from worsening. While the group who undertook the mindfulness sessions showed less stress, and a greater ability to focus and use working memory, the control group who did not receive any mindfulness instruction worsened on the tests as the semester progressed.

Finally, you come to the last sentence of the article – “It’s a cultural shift.” This sentence refers to the growing recognition that, just as exercise does wonderful things for your physical health, mental exercise improves your mental health. I love this sentence because it gives hope to people (like me) who worry that the prosperity we enjoy in modern societies have made dulled our senses and left us stagnant, both individually and culturally. It shows that while our lifestyles in wealthy democracies may have unleashed a torrent of perils on our health, our societies, and our world, we still have the power to listen to the evidence, and shift our behavior and opinions for the better.

This might seem like a lot to takeaway from one research study on the mental health benefits of regular meditation, but I feel my conviction strengthened by another hopeful trend: the shift of public opinion towards marijuana legalization, and the accompanying debate around the merits or flaws of this approach. I personally think the legalization of marijuana would lead to a more just society, by funneling money away from cartels and ending racially biased penalties for using a comparatively harmless drug. Yet just because more people are starting to agree with my opinion doesn’t automatically mean that society is progressing – my ego isn’t that big. No, what makes me optimistic is that people are looking at the evidence on how successful the war on drugs has been, and they’re looking at their own experience with drugs, and deciding that we need to start considering different approaches. This new willingness to discuss issues about drugs isn’t just about legalization though, it’s also opening up important debates about addiction and drug abuse, not only for weed but for alcohol and other drugs as well. The opening of this national debate is epitomized by the President’s recent assertion that pot is less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes, and then re-affirming that message in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. In the interview, he also signaled his willingness for decriminalization of marijuana, and called on legalization advocates to ask themselves tough questions about the unintended consequences legalization could have (e.g., the potential for more drug abuse). It’s refreshing to have our president finally speak to us like reasonable adults – even if in other areas, he seems to think public opinion is just misguided and needs a good ole’ government public relations campaign to change their minds (read: NSA leaks). If we really can have a national debate around these issues, it would show a maturity and honesty that would make me more hopeful about the health of our body public.

Put simply, the message these trends deliver is powerful: progress towards a better society is never certain, but we can make it happen if we strive towards it in our personal lives, and in our participation in self-governance. 

The Seward Neighborhood

So it turns out that Seward neighborhood in Minneapolis (my neighborhood!) was named after William H. Seward. Seward was widely expected to win the Republican nomination for the 1860 presidential election before a dark horse candidate named Abraham Lincoln snatched it from him at the last moment.

I’ve been reading about William Seward and his many admirers for awhile now in Team of Rivals, a biography of Lincoln and his political rivals. I kept wondering if this person who came so close to serving as President during the Civil War was the inspiration for the name of my Minneapolis neighborhood. Turns out, it is! I liked my area before, but I’ve got even more pride now that I know it was named after such a tireless and brilliant public servant and abolitionist. His whole life had been building towards the presidency, and his defeat in 1860 crushed and humiliated him. Yet he picked up the pieces and continued serving as Secretary of State during the most turbulent periods of US History. Go Seward!

Reflections while Driving Home

Auras of orange creamsicle and soft baby blue 
Drift lazily into each other;
Edging closer, twirling and blending together
Yet still shy, still hesitant:
Would-be middle school sweathearts, when the slow song comes on.

A billowing cloud imposes itself
Huffing with authority
Unready to cede the world to tenderness
Floating up, diffuse now in the air
Eyes full of silent loathing, it hangs there.

And all of this, to eyes gazing home
Appears as but a dream.
A vision full of unknown meaning
Another ripple in the stream.

‘Buzzkill’ – The unexpectedly complex challenge of marijuana legalization

‘Buzzkill’ – The unexpectedly complex challenge of marijuana legalization

Please read this great article by Patrick Radden Keefe. It delves deep into the question of, “so, exactly how do you set up a legal market for marijuana?” This turns out to be a complex and little-understood policy problem that requires foresight, novel thinking, and a willingness to experiment. It’s a long read, but it’s worth it to understand this unique new frontier in public policy, and the eclectic characters and interests it’s attracting.

To give you a taste of some of the complex issues and policy wonkery involved, take a look at this passage:

For years, Kleiman’s resistance to outright legalization was based, in part, on a fear that commercialization of the drug could triple its use. But when he arrived in Washington State he proposed an audacious solution. In order to curb problematic consumption, you could introduce a license for using cannabis. We issue licenses to drive a car or to own a gun—why not a license for consuming recreational drugs? Any adult could obtain such a license, and the license could stipulate a quota for personal monthly use. This quota would be set by the user, and could be large or small. But, once the consumer had set a quota, it could be changed only in writing—with a month’s notice. Such an innovation could counteract the dangers of excessive, impulsive use by encouraging individuals to set their own limits. Users could set very high quotas for themselves, of course, but the provision would nudge at least some citizens into being more responsible. To work properly, a personal-quota system would need a central database of marijuana users, which would allow I-502 stores to determine if customers were trying to exceed their monthly allotments.

When I initially read this, I felt immediate disdain for the idea of pot consumers needing a license to purchase marijuana. This would just be another way of enforcing the stigma around weed and would add needless regulatory costs. Indeed, I still feel a bit uneasy with the idea. But as I read the idea about the one personal-quota system, I realized how useful this system could be in keeping down consumption while still allowing total legalization: it would be like setting a New Years resolution to workout more or drink less, but only being able to break your resolution by walking to a counter, looking another person in the eye, and telling them that you just didn’t have the motivation or willpower to stick by your resolution. How often have you thought that you could really do something – eat right, wake up early, socialize more – if there were someone holding you to it. Of course, this idea shouldn’t be applied to all those areas of life, and the freedom to make our own decisions shouldn’t be given up lightly. Yet, though I detest encroachments on liberty, I understand that humans don’t always make the most rational decisions and sometimes could use a little nudge (as Richard Thaler puts it). I find myself irresistibly curious over what effects such a policy could have on reducing some of the problems of dependency, while still giving us total freedom to make our own decisions. Yet, alas, this seems to be a personal quirk that I share with the proposer of this idea, and not many others, as the article informs us:

Kleiman’s solution was ingeniously eclectic—a hybrid that balanced individual liberty and state control. Nobody liked it.

Ah well, another innovative policy experiment foiled. Consequently, this story raises a much larger question about the effectiveness of public policy in general. This is a question that we should all ask ourselves at the 50th anniversary of the Great Society reforms, and it is: “is the amount of resources we spend designing and implementing these policies worth the costs they impose?” While I firmly believe in the need for public policy in building a fairer and better society, I can’t help but be struck by a pattern in all policies that the article’s author observes:

It appears that I-502, like so many government programs, will be flawed from the start, and will demand patchwork modification in the coming years. One imperative of political life is that, at a certain point, you have to stop formulating a policy and start selling it

All new large-scale policies will require lots of tweaking, simply because the world is complicated – that’s true in any case. Yet sometimes you get the feeling that as interests become increasingly entrenched, professionalized, and territorial, it is becoming harder to formulate public policy that is truly innovative, inspiring, or even sometimes effective. I’m no pessimist or libertarian though, and I think government will always need to help us do things that are done better together. Is the ACA rollout flawed? Yes, but just look at all the lives it will save from disease or financial ruin. Should the NSA be pounded back to its place behind the line of the Fourth Amendment? You bet, but that doesn’t mean that the government shouldn’t try to alleviate social problems through policy.

In any case, I’ll stop rambling now, and let you enjoy some great reporting that manages to tell a compelling story while providing in-depth analysis of policy issues that will provoke you to examine where you stand on the issue – truly, a rare and valuable combination.