New Year, new mailbag
Misinformation, the Alpine advantage, and more
Normally our mailbags are for paid subscribers, but we’re making this first one of 2024 free for everyone to read. If you like it, consider subscribing to read a new one each Friday.
Like parents everywhere, we’re glad to have the kid in school and to be back at the office.
Obviously the most important news of the week is that the first episode of Politix, my new election podcast with Brian Beutler of Off Message, is out. I had a lot of fun recording it, and I’m looking forward to doing more episodes, including some with guests. The first two episodes are free if you want to check it out, but I hope you’ll consider subscribing if you enjoy. I also want to endorse the Beutler take in favor of Democrats and independents in open primary states voting for Nikki Haley, despite her various flaws.
Just in case you weren’t glued to your phone on Christmas Day, I thought I’d reiterate that our Giving Tuesday fundraiser was a huge success — Slow Boring readers delivered over $200,000 to villages in Rwanda! Thanks to everyone who chipped in; we’re hoping to build on this success and do even better this year.
In other news, insulin is getting cheaper (thank the IRA, though the segment does not), it seems like we’ve turned the corner on auto theft, and the quit rate is normalizing while layoffs remain steady at a low level. Strategic Petroleum Reserve refilling is happening. A kid beat Tetris. We got a new tool against antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Last, but not least, in light of my complaint that I want to see more movies with realistic contemporary settings, between writing that post and the end of 2023 I watched “Anatomy of a Fall” and “American Fiction,” and they’re both very good! Tell stories about the contemporary world! They make for interesting viewing, even if you don’t entirely agree with the filmmakers perspective.
Now this week’s questions….
Charles Ryder: I’m sure you've seen quite a bit of discussion in the comments about the efforts to keep Donald Trump off the ballot via the Fourteenth Amendment. Do you have an opinion on this topic? Good idea? Bad? Constitutionally justified, or not?
A bunch of questions about this!
I’ve deliberately chosen not to write a column about this, because my main view is that I’m annoyed we need to talk about it. As best I can tell, nobody thinks this is going to prevail at the Supreme Court, and I think everyone understands that even if it did for some reason prevail at the Supreme Court, that would bring us closer to a moment of constitutional crisis, not prevent one. At the same time, Michael Luttig is a serious legal scholar with impeccable conservative credentials, and I think it’s appropriate to try to make conservative reckon with his arguments on the merits — especially since they’re the ones who are more emotionally and intellectually invested in pretending to adhere to a strict originalist view of constitutional law that’s devoid of pragmatic concerns.
But obviously the moment Colorado made its choice, it was foreseeable that the whole thing would devolve into intra-liberal squabbling while non-liberals — including those who position themselves as critical of Trump — circle the wagons.
It’s important, I think, to try to spend the election year talking about things that are of enormous practical importance, talking about things that are instrumentally useful in dividing the conservative camp and defeating Trump, or talking about things that are interesting or amusing for nonpolitical reasons. Joe Biden should probably address this issue with some crowd-pleasing bravado in which he says “let the voters decide, I want to beat Trump myself!” and everyone claps. But I don’t think this really has any stakes beyond that. There’s no sense in scolding anti-Trump originalists for coming up with an originalist argument they think is sound, but everyone agrees that no one should put their hopes for the future of the country in this boat, so I’d just leave it to the lawyers.
The one interesting point that has been raised in this discourse is that simply saying “well it’s undemocratic” can’t resolve the argument because the clear constitutional law around presidential eligibility has a lot of features that violate the principle of “let the voters decide.”
That’s a sound observation, but I want to emphasize that I think those principles are bad. The limitation of two terms is bad. The age qualification rule is bad. And the natural born citizen rule is particularly bad. I think we genuinely ought to change that stuff. What’s annoying to me is that we always go back and forth between not paying attention to these constitutional defects because they don’t seem concretely relevant, and then scenarios where it’s impossible to change them because it’s too concretely relevant and has a clear partisan implication. But the perfect time to change the natural born citizen rule is right now, when there’s no specific Arnold Schwarzenegger figure who would benefit.
Cameron Parker: Is disinformation becoming a bigger problem on the left than on the right, or are the Palestine and Houthi takes just really bad on Twitter/X?
TJ: Or is there — perhaps perhaps may I dare say so — a reason to be critical of Israel?
I don’t think disinformation is “a bigger problem on the left,” but I do think mainstream Biden Democrats have been noticing recently that the progressive construct of misinformation as by definition on the right is mistaken.
Misinformation spreads in all kinds of ideological circles for roughly the same reasons. If you want journalists to obtain true information and disseminate it in a careful, measured manner that pays scrupulous attention to accuracy, then you as a member of the audience would need to behave in a way that creates financial incentives for people to do that. In practice, though, the audience mostly doesn’t care about the accuracy of the coverage they consume — all the supply side problems are downstream of problems with the audience, and all kinds of audiences have these problems.
Why are people so tolerant of bad content? One reason is the one TJ suggests. Lots of people agree that there are lots of good reasons to take a predominantly critical posture toward Israel, and once you decide that’s the social and political imperative, then nitpicking whether individual critical items are accurate seems like a tedious and annoying distraction. And the same is true of any other hot button issue, whether it’s climate or crime or taxes or immigration or anything else. If you’re convinced the government should be tackling border security or CO2 emissions with more alacrity, you’ll be disinclined to scold people for making overstated or false claims about these issues as long as they align with you directionally.
Steve_in_the_22201: Why do so many takesters want to write a book? You wrote a book, Chris Hayes is writing a book, Nate Silver is writing a book, Derek Thompson and Ezra Klein wrote a book, etc. It seems like a massive amount of painful work for little money. Do these books sell? It mostly seems to provide content for other podcasts, who get to interview the author but sell their own ads.
Book publishing is a field with lots of long tails and very skewed distributions. The vast majority of books published in the United States are put out by small presses, do tiny print runs, sell almost no copies, and have very limited commercial aspirations. I don’t know anything about this field other than to say that a lot of generalizations about the publishing industry are skewed by the reality that this huge sea of small books by small publishers quantitatively outweighs the mainstream publishing industry that the people you are talking about participate in.
But in terms of mainstream publishing, the key thing is that the returns are really skewed.
A book can sell, at minimum, zero copies. But the financial upside of publishing a book is potentially very high. Every once in a while a serious nonfiction book becomes a huge hit the way Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” did — the kind of book that everyone participating in a particular discourse needs to reference and that tons of people buy to put on their shelf, even if they never read it. And then you can have even bigger hits, books like “The Power Broker,” which people continue to buy decades after its initial publication. So what you’re doing as a publishing house in any given year is a lot like what a venture capital company does: You’re investing in projects that you think have a chance of becoming a hit, even though you are aware that the most likely outcome of any given project is that not many people will buy it.
If you’re an author who writes a hit book, you’ll make a ton of money off royalties — a percentage of each book that you sell. But if you’re an author whose project someone believes has promise, you also get paid an “advance.” This is essentially guaranteed money. Portfolio, for example, gave me a pretty generous advance to write “One Billion Americans.”
Because the advance was reasonably large and the sales were just okay, I wound up not seeing any royalties — I didn’t earn back the advance. This is again sort of like a venture capital function. If you found a company, get people to back it, and then run it for several years, you will earn a living even if the company ends up failing. The question then for an author or an entrepreneur becomes did you fail so egregiously that nobody will ever bet on you again, or do people still have the sense that you are someone worth working with. And, of course, if you write quickly and enjoy writing books, you can become the kind of person who regularly publishes modestly successful books for modest advances.
Beyond the pecuniary issues, though, one good reason for writers to write books is that it’s a way of leveling-up in stature.
I sometimes encourage people to pitch books (and they sometimes listen to me) and it’s usually for that reason — I admire their work and I want to see them become a name-brand “expert” on some topic, and putting together a book-length project is the way to accomplish that. Another reason is that it can be a way of branding a signature idea. And, if you’re Chris Hayes, yet another reason is that he’s a guy who started out as a writer and loves writing but ended up with a successful career in television journalism, so writing a book is probably a chance to do something he loves.
John Howard Brown: Since you are content creator, I'd be interested in your take on the New York Times lawsuit against the Large Language Model artificial intelligence companies. I believe there maybe another suit brewing on behalf of authors of fiction and non-fiction books. I'm someone who has read an immense number of books and periodical articles. As a consequence, I often quote or paraphrase, consciously or unconsciously, from material which I have read. How is this different from what LLMs do? Am I going to get sued? I remember reading somewhere that the best method for learning to write is to read broadly.
The boring deflationary answer here is actually relevant — you are definitely not going to get sued for unconsciously quoting or paraphrasing material you have read in the past because nobody is going to bother to find out that you did this and pay lawyers to sue you because it’s not in anyone’s interest to try. There’s no upside to winning a lawsuit against you and also no real downside to you occasionally copying things you’ve read.
In that view, the difference between that and what LLMs do is that OpenAI is a very valuable company that has received large investments from Microsoft, which is one of the largest companies in the world.
Another relevant difference is that lots of other gigantic companies are investing in rival LLMs that, while different from ChatGPT, seem broadly similar in this specific way. Because there is a lot of money at stake, there is a potentially large upside to winning the case. The New York Times and other human content creators also reasonably fear that they (we) will be put out of business by LLM development, so there is significant downside to allowing LLMs to be created using our work as inputs.
Now, those considerations don’t mean the NYT will win its case. But that’s an important difference between this situation and the one you describe.
OpenAI and Microsoft intend to make a ton of money off of ChatGPT and potentially put a ton of other companies out of business, so the question of whether they are infringing other people’s copyrights along the way is of interest to a lot of people. Will the NYT win? I have no idea.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had to sit through a lot of media law trainings, which generally have a libel half and a fair use half. And the thing the lawyers tell you in both cases is that these are zones of fuzzy common law. For libel purposes, for example, it matters whether the person suing you is a public figure. But there is no statutory definition of public figure. There is no regulatory agency that classifies which people are public figures. If you’re worried about whether you’re dealing with a public figure, you can’t look up the answer in the federal register. If you get sued, it’s a point both parties may end up litigating. But until the case arises, there’s no definitive answer.
By the same token, “fair use” is a crucially important topic in intellectual property law but there isn’t an unequivocal answer to which uses are the fair ones.
I like the “60 Songs That Explain The Nineties” podcast but often get frustrated by how short the music clips Rob Harvilla uses are. My guess is that he keeps them super-short because the standard view of the landscape is that shorter clips (whether of music or videos) are more likely to be viewed as fair uses than long ones. But there’s no specific cut point at which a clip goes from fair use to infringing. By the same token, everyone agrees that I’m allowed to quote other people’s articles and books on my blog. Everyone also agrees that if I said “here’s an interesting piece” and then quoted an entire op-ed from a newspaper and then said “I agree,” that would be infringing. But where’s the line? There isn’t a specific answer to that question. These issues around quotation depend on one’s judgment of the totality of the situation.
And what makes the ChatGPT case hard is that the totality of the situation is novel. OpenAI and Microsoft will argue that it’s just like various precedents, but there’s no getting around the fact that this a novel technology — in any other context they’d be the first to emphasize that — so any analogy to past situations will be imprecise.
This is a long answer, the bottom line of which is I’m not really sure what the right outcome is, but I’m going to be interested to learn more about the case.
Grigori Avramidi: Why are many of Europe's richer regions concentrated around the Alps (Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, southern Germany)?
The last two have car manufacturing, but---if anything---that should have made them into the Detroits of Europe which... doesn't seem to have happened. (Turin did go through a crisis and depopulation in the 80's but seems very much alive now.)
My guess is that this Alpine Effect is mostly an illusion. If you look at the map of GDP per capita in Europe, you see that the alpine area is, in fact, rich. But the rich zone extends well south of the mountains into Italy, as well as up into northwestern Germany and into Belgium and the Netherlands. Those latter two are known as “the Low Countries,” so whatever is causing this belt of prosperity — I’ve seen it referred to as “the Blue Banana” because it’s curved sort of like a banana — has nothing to do with the Alpine terrain per se, since the Low Countries terrain is totally different.
The richest part of pre-industrial Europe was northern Italy — all that Renaissance stuff, maritime trade across the Mediterranean Sea, early innovations in banking, etc. — and the first part of Continental Europe to industrialize was in the Low Countries. The Blue Banana is essentially the overland trade route linking these two sectors of early prosperity. Does that observation actually “explain” why this area is richer than the rest of Europe, or is it just a description with no real causal bite? I’m not sure. I’ve written in more detail before about Switzerland’s extraordinary overperformance, and I think I can offer some insights about that, but to an extent I find it a bit mysterious.
I do think that just staring at this map tends to debunk the assertion that modern prosperity is caused by past colonial empire-building. The whole world economy was bound up in colonial trade and enslavement, so you can certainly draw links between these great historical crimes and the early Swiss textile manufacturing industry. But it’s just not the case that the places that invested most deeply in empire-building are the places that are richest today. Empire-building was a poor use of public resources relative to Switzerland’s investments in railroad infrastructure.
Jeffrey Mihalik: You were optimistic about Pete Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary because of his ambition and foreign languages. How would you assess his performance? I think he's been a big disappointment. Buttigieg has touted Brightline West, for example, but this system could be a lot faster and more useful, and therefore better for the environment if the lack of permitting reform didn't force it to run exclusively in highway medians. And our local dems in CA continue to push hydrogen trains instead of international standard overhead catenary because they're worried about aesthetic impacts of wires and the white house hasn't established a clear party line.
Those two criticisms don’t really make sense to me since they are outside his control.
Relatively to my expectations, the main thing I would say is that things have gone very differently from how I thought they would go. His tenure has been marked by a lot of public interest in freight supply chains and by a lot of potential strike activity in sectors the DOT has regulatory authority over. It seems to me that he’s handled this portfolio well, within the parameters of the assignment that he’s been given. That’s great, but it’s really undermined my theory of the case, which was that a person who clearly has loftier ambitions than becoming a lobbyist would find the Transportation portfolio too bowing and low-profile and out of boredom might decide to take a big swing at addressing long-stuck problems. But he’s had plenty to do, over and above becoming a father.
The passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act brought us further from my vision of how this might go.
I did not anticipate a bipartisan bill on this scale passing, but since it did pass, Buttigieg gets to be the main public face of tons of giant new grant programs. That, combined with the increased public focus on ports, labor issues, etc means this has been an unusually eventful run at DOT and I think has made “make Yglesias happy by picking a huge fight with MTA Capital Construction about how mass transit projects are executed” look like an unattractive option.
So I’m a little bit disappointed that we haven’t gotten as much reform as I would have liked. That said, we have seen some heartening efforts to build more technical capacity at the Federal Railroad Administration and to start making some smarter choices there. The Long Bridge project over the Potomac River, for example, is a great example of the kind of thing politicians traditionally neglect. It doesn’t add any new lines on a map. But by expanding capacity on one small choke point, it greatly enhances the value of a whole bunch of other infrastructure that already exists on either side of the river. That’s the kind of high-leverage investment we need to be making, and there is some federal comprehension of how to identify and value those projects. The Amtrak Cascades project is also good on its own merits, but more importantly, an output of a new initiative to get state agencies to think harder about the operational aspects of service planning. The point, again, is that we should make hard infrastructure investments that unlock a lot of useful service, not just ones that look cool.
Another interesting undertaking, which does not involve much federal money, is the Texas Central project that’s looking at a high-speed link from Dallas to Houston.
This is being done with Japanese partners, which is really the right way for Americans to think about rail transportation. Our country leads the world in many areas, but everyone knows that trains are not one of those areas. The smart thing for us to do with regard to trains is to import expertise from places like Japan, France, Korea, and Italy, which are closer to the train frontier and where the use of trains is more central to national life. The Japanese in particular are very interested in partnerships that involve technology transfer as a way to build export markets for Shinkansen rolling stock. This is actually a big problem in India, which is trying to build turnkey Japanese rail projects in a country with a completely different wage structure and economic situation. But copying Japanese technology and methods in the United States is smart.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture here — we are still pouring good money after bad on California High-Speed Rail, and New York continues to build genuinely valuable transit projects at a glacial pace due to astronomical costs. But I do see some good stuff occurring at the agency level, just mostly in a context where money is flowing freely and nobody really wants to pick nasty political fights.
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Ames Grawert: What’s the story behind Long Island’s turn rightward? People blame bail reform but I don’t think that’s right — I was an ADA in Nassau in the 2010s and it’s always had conservative sensibilities (including a huge NIMBY streak); they’ve just become more pronounced. Why?
If you look at it naively, Long Island (and especially Nassau County) is exactly the kind of place that has mostly broken sharply to the left during the Trump era. All around the country in richer, denser suburbs of bigger cities you see a strong blueing trend. So the suburbs of Dallas have broken left more strongly than the suburbs of Grand Rapids. And the denser, inner-ring suburbs of Dallas has have broken left in a way that the low-density exurbs haven’t. Well, New York is a lot bigger than Dallas, and Nassau County is very dense for a suburb. But instead of breaking strongly left, it’s broken to the right.
The answer, I think, is that you need to think of density as relative.
If you go out to where my in-laws live in the Texas Hill Country, it’s deep red precincts everywhere you look. The exception is the precinct that covers “downtown” Kerrville, Texas. This is, objectively, a precinct with extremely low population density. But it is much denser than any other precinct in Kerr County. It contains a big library and a theater and a museum and a hipster coffee shop and a microbrewery and a yoga studio and a live music venue. It has city-style lifestyle amenities and a bit of city-style politics to match. You see something similar in Bangor, Maine, which on the map is a very standard blue urban island in a red rural sea. Except how “urban” is Bangor, really? If you put it into a spreadsheet, it’s an objectively tiny city that’s just full of detached single-family homes. But it serves the social and economic functions of “the city” for a huge swathe of northern and eastern Maine; it has the arts and retail amenities to match and the politics, too.
Long Island is basically the inverse of Bangor. Statistically, these are high-density inner-ring suburbs. But it’s surrounded by water — there is no “further out” suburb you can sprawl to once your family has committed to leaving the city in that particular direction. So it has the politics of a far-flung exurb because that’s the sociological role that it plays.
So back to bail reform. Is this “about” bail reform? Not in any literal sense. But if you go back to 2008, the big national police union endorsed Barack Obama, while by 2020 they were obviously enthusiastically endorsing Donald Trump. That’s part of a big transformation in how Democrats are positioned on criminal justice issues, and on what the partisan coalitions think is important. Bail reform is more a symbolic token of that larger transformation than “the reason” that it happened.
Kc77: Do politically engaged centrist educated professionals overestimate how much the policies and attitudes of highly progressive educated professionals alienate working class Americans, mistaking their personal annoyance for public opinion and overestimating how engaged in the news cycle most people are?
To use myself as an example, when I read about, say, Robin DeAngelo or whatever I get annoyed and think “oh god Democrats must hate winning.” And yet, I know that I’m kind of a weirdo for even knowing who DeAngelo even is and the working class people I know personally are mostly women furious about the end of Roe v Wade.
Here’s the version of this that I agree with:
If you look around at write-y/think-y types who live in big cities and college towns and tend to dominate the discourse, most of these people are very left-wing. A minority of them are conservative. And then there’s a centrist bloc that hates Trump and votes for Biden, but is very fired-up about stuff like Tema Okun or Bill Ackman’s critique of Harvard. These are things that high-SES centrist intellectuals care about because they influence institutions that we participate in. I rely on academic studies to inform my work, for example, so I worry a lot about bullying behavior compromising the quality of academic publishing. But part of being a high-SES centrist intellectual is that you’re supposed to not be selfish, so saying “I am writing about this because it bothers me personally” seems less high-minded than projecting your (our) concern onto Obama-Trump swing voters.
But I think that if you talk to those actual voters, you’ll see that the big drivers of the change are climate and immigration policy, where centrist intellectuals tend to be pretty sympathetic to the left.
There’s a lot more I could say about that and I should probably do a full article at some point, but I think those are the key issues. Not only because most voters don’t know who Robin DeAngelo is, but because it’s genuinely true that Democrats have brought an ambitious climate agenda much closer to the heart of the party and that Trump has opened up a big partisan disagreement about immigration. Conversely, as you say, most non-religious people are really angry at Republicans over Roe vs Wade — which is another big picture policy controversy with real political stakes.