The coronavirus-economic growth trade off may be related to factors outside of politics

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; March 31, 2021)

A Brooklyn, NY theater during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo by Rhododendrites; used under the CCA-Share Alike 4.0 Int’l license.)

If there is one thing politicians like to do, it is to brag about their uncanny foresight and leadership skills. Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of them as far less capable than how they present themselves.

And no politician has been exposed more by this pandemic than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who published a book in October 2020 (“American Crisis” — which is no longer being promoted by its publisher) about his “heroic “efforts to stop COVID-19.

The problem with Cuomo’s self-promotion effort was that the pandemic was far from over in his state when he wrote the book; and, more importantly, he failed to mention one of the titanic policy failures of his COVID-19 containment efforts (i.e., nursing home deaths).

But Cuomo is far from alone in premature braggadociousness. In her Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) speech in February, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem offered this assessment of her state’s coronavirus response:

“South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close. We never instituted a shelter in place order. We never mandated that people wear masks. We never even defined what an essential business is, because I don’t believe that governors have the authority to tell you that your business isn’t essential.”

What Noem left out of her COVID-19 policy analysis is that her small, low population density state has the 8th highest COVID-19 death rate in the country (2,179 per 1 million people) and the highest among states of similar population density and demographics (see Figure 1a).

Figure 1a: States with most COVID-19 deaths (per 1 million people, as of March 25, 2021)

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

Figure 1b: States with fewest COVID-19 deaths (per 1 million people)

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

It is easy to respect Noem’s concern for keeping her state’s economy open during the COVID-19 crisis. As she put it:

“Even in a pandemic, public health policy needs to take into account people’s economic and social well being. Daily needs still need to be met. People need to keep a roof over their heads. They need to feed their families. And they still need purpose. They need their dignity. Now my administration resisted the call for virus control at the expense of everything else. We looked at the science, the data and the facts, and then we took a balanced approach.”

To her credit, South Dakota’s GDP contracted only -1.7 percent in 2020 (a preliminary estimate from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis), compared to a national GDP decline of -3.5 percent and she correctly notes South Dakota’s nation-best unemployment rate. But…

…this economic stability came with a significant human cost.

Could South Dakota have done better against COVID-19 while keeping its economy stable? This question is raised in Figure 2 (below) where all 50 U.S. states (and the District of Columbia) are plotted based on their 2020 GDP growth and COVID-19 death rates (as of March 25, 2021). The chart is divided into four quadrants: (A) states with above average GDP growth and low COVID-19 death rates, (B) states with below average GDP growth and below low COVID-19 death rates, (C) states with above average GDP growth and high COVID-19 death rates, and (D) states with below average GDP growth and high COVID-19 death rates.

South Dakota resides in Quadrant C (above average GDP growth but a high COVID-19 death rate). In comparison, South Dakota’s southern neighbor, Nebraska (in Quadrant A), was able to minimize the economic consequences of COVID-19 while also keeping its COVID-19 death rate relatively low.

Figure 2: GDP Growth and COVID-19 Death Rates

Data sources: BEA and RealClearPolitics.com

Hopefully, we can agree being in Quadrant A is better than being in Quadrant D. To that point, if GDP growth and COVID-19 death rates are our key performance metrics, Utah and Washington did substantially better during the pandemic than New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island or Louisiana.

One interesting outlier is Hawaii, which, so far, has experienced the lowest COVID-19 death rate (324 per 1 million) along with the worst economic performance (a -8.0 percent decline in 2020 GDP). Hawaii’s poor economic performance is easily attributed to its high dependence on tourism for economic growth, which has largely been shutdown since the start of the pandemic; but, it should be noted that another tourism-dependent state, Florida, has had substantially better economic performance than Hawaii (-2.9 percent versus -8.0 percent GDP growth). Granted, it is much easier to drive to Florida than it is to fly or sail to Hawaii.

Also, there appears to be some geographic clustering in Figure 2. For example, the best performing states in Quadrant A are mostly from the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states (Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado), while the worst performing states in Quadrant D are largely from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states (New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania).

Figure 2 begs these questions: To what extent are these differences in economic growth and COVID-19 death rates attributable to specific state-level policies? And to what extent are these differences driven by factors outside the control of the political realm, such as a state’s geographic location?

No party has had a monopoly on wisdom during the pandemic

In order to have a meaningful discussion about COVID-19 and public policy, one must first purge themselves of the biased partisan narratives — oppressive-state versus anti-science-risk-takers — that drive the current political debate and, instead, focus on the facts.

For starters, is there any substance to the common assumption in the national media that Red (Republican-dominated) states have performed worse than Blue (Democrat-dominated)statesor Purple (i.e., battleground) states (see Appendix to see how each state is classified in this analysis)?

Figure 3a shows that a state’s partisan predisposition does relate to its COVID-19 outcomes. Red states have had slightly better GDP growth than Blue states during the pandemic (-3.51 percent versus -3.69 percent, respectively), while Blue states have done significantly better than Red states in controlling the spread of COVID-19 (73,131 cases per 1 million people versus 103,090 cases per 1 million people) and marginally better in mitigating its mortality outcomes (1,439 deaths per 1 million people versus 1,558 deaths per 1 million people).

Figure 3a: COVID-19 outcomes by Blue/Purple/Red state status

Data sources: BEA and RealClearPolitics.com

And are these outcome differences associated with state-level policy differences? Figure 3b shows that the Blue/Purple/Red state distinction does, in fact, relate to COVID-19 policy differences. For example, 87 percent of Red states currently allow restaurants to be open, compared to only 50 percent of Purple states and just 20 percent of Blue states. The most striking policy difference, however, is in whether to allow ‘non-essential’ businesses to be open. Currently, only 5 percent of Blue states allow non-essential businesses to be open, compared to 50 percent of Purple states and 91 percent of Red states.

Figure 3b: Current COVID-19 policiesby Blue/Purple/Red state status

Data source: kff.org (Note: LARGE_GATHERINGS_ALLOWED and BARS_OPEN policy indexes are on a 0 to 2 scale with ‘0’ indicating ‘not open or allowed,’ ‘1’ indicating ‘partially open or allowed.’ and ‘2’ indicating ‘open or allowed.’ All other policy indexes are on a 0 to 1 scale)

Can we attribute these policy differences to the better COVID-19 outcomes and worse economic growth in Blue states? Probably not, considering the COVID-19 outcomes are only marginally better and economic growth rates only slightly worse for the Blue states.

As Figure 2 demonstrates, when economic growth is considered together with COVID-19 outcomes, neither political party has a monopoly on policy wisdom. Almost as many Red states (Idaho, Utah, Nebraska, and Montana) are in Quadrant A as there are Blue states (California, Colorado, D.C., Maryland, Oregon, Washington and Virginia) or Purple states (Florida and North Carolina).

Which state did better? California or Florida

One of the biggest mistakes made in state-level policy analyses is that too much weight is put on small (dare I say, inconsequential) states. Why should the policies and outcomes in a state like South Dakota be put on an equal footing with a state like New York or California? Small population states undoubtedly have advantages in implementing some statewide public policies and perhaps inherent disadvantages in other instances. Small states can make for nice case studies, but are dangerous to generalize from if you are more interested in public policies nationwide.

This is why I find the comparison of COVID policies and outcomes between California and Florida to be informative. Both are large population, coastal states with relatively diverse populations and economies (though Florida is somewhat more dependent than California on tourism — which is an economic sector particularly hard hit by the worldwide pandemic).

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been a hot media item lately as he touts his state’s COVID-19 response, and a number of prominent media outlets have happily climbed on board his PR train. Among them, Politico, heaped this praise on DeSantis’ COVID-19 policies:

“The most controversial policies DeSantis enacted — locking down later and opening up earlier, keeping nursing homes closed to visitation while insisting schools needed to be open to students, resisting intense pressure to issue a mask mandate — have ended up being, on balance, short of or even the opposite of ruinous.”

The AP’s David Lieb recently offered this comparative insight:

“Despite their differing approaches, California and Florida have experienced almost identical outcomes in COVID-19 case rates.”

If true, why is California Governor Gavin Newsom the one facing a serious recall challenge, while DeSantis is being presented as a serious contender to be our next president?

The first answer is: Life, particularly politics, isn’t always fair. But a better answer perhaps lies in the difficulty in comparing one state to another.

On the surface, their COVID-19 and economic numbers are quite similar:

Florida: 94,665 cases per 1M / 1,543 deaths per 1M / -2.9% GDP Growth
California: 92,555 cases per 1M / 1,475 deaths per 1M / -2.8% GDP Growth

As for their COVID-19 policies, their decisions could not have been more different. California shutdown businesses and schools early in the pandemic and has yet to substantially reopen; whereas, Florida locked down late, fully opened schools for the Fall 2020 term, started late-phase business reopening in September 2020, and has never issued a mask requirement.

It would be easy to conclude that COVID-19 policies are ineffective based on Florida and California’s COVID-19 numbers, but don’t be too hasty.

Some thoughtful people are arguing that California has done much better than Florida, despite having similar numbers.

One of my favorite business writers, Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik (who, along with Chuck Philips, wrote a series of Pulitzer Prize winning articles in 1999 exposing the entertainment industry’s deep level of corruption), is one of those people. He recently wrote a column challenging DeSantis, who some consider a front runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, for prematurely and inaccurately praising Florida’s COVID-19 response over California’s.

Writes Hiltzik:

“Florida hasn’t done better than California despite different policies — in the parts of each state that resemble each other demographically, the challenge is similar, and so is the weaponry. And when you put it all together, Florida still does worse overall than California.”

Hiltzik further chides DeSantis for carelessly “exporting” the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID-19):

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Ball State University found that COVID case rates in counties with universities that scheduled breaks early in the spring last year rose within a week of students returning to campus, compared to rates in counties with few college students. Mortality rates began to rise in those locations three to five weeks after students returned, suggesting that students transmitted their infections to higher-risk (that is, older) people.”

But Hiltzik’s saves his best point for last:

“It’s important to recognize that a state’s success or failure in combating COVID-19 depends on a multitude of factors, many of which are outside a governor’s control (my emphasis). Those who claim credit for good-looking statistics may be setting themselves up for a boatload of blame if the numbers turn ugly.”

I am reminded of Hiltzik’s warning as the U.S. sits at the brink of possibly a fourth COVID-19 wave. Beware of any party or politician making grand declarations of success (or failure) against the disease. The final results remain a work-in-progress and the virus itself doesn’t care which party wins the policy debate.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Appendix

Blue States: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington

Purple States: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin

Red States: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming

Freedom of speech is (almost) over in the U.S.

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 23, 2021)

Image by Madelgarius (Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

OK, maybe speech and press freedoms aren’t ‘over,’ but they are damn well in decline. And this is despite the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment being quite clear on the extent the government can limit free speech and the press:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Unlike the Second Amendment where its use of a prefatory clause (“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”) all but guarantees a variety of legal interpretations, the First Amendment appears cut-and-dried — Congress shall make no lawabridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

In practice, a more temperate view on the First Amendment has evolved in the courts that, while acknowledging the government is highly constricted in what it can do to limit speech, allows some government-imposed limits on speech. For one, you can’t put lives in danger by yelling ‘Fire!” in a crowded theater, to loosely paraphrase the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

In Schenck vs. U.S. (1919), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment could be restricted if the words spoken or printed represented to society a “clear and present danger.” In upholding criminal convictions for people who published opinions urging draft-age men to resist induction into the military prior to World War I, the Edward D. White-led Supreme Court determined that speech intended to support crimes — i.e,. resisting the draft — represented a “clear and present danger” to the country and could be punished.

This is no time to forget about Julian Assange

At the behest of the U.S. Justice Department, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange languishes in a U.K. prison under a comparable logic derived from the 1917 Espionage Act, under which Assange was indicted, in part, for his role in obtaining U.S. secret documents. Though, the Justice Department indictment also included charges for publishing U.S. secret documents that put people’s lives at risk.

In fairness, Assange’s lawyers counter those latter charges by noting Wikileaks asked for help from U.S. officials to comply with an Obama White House request to redact the names of informants before publication, but U.S. authorities refused to assist. His lawyers also offered evidence and witness testimony to the U.K. court demonstrating that Wikileaks withheld 15,000 reports to protect informants and that significant redactions occurred within the documents that were released.

Whether or not they agree with the methods used by Assange and Wikileaks to obtain documents exposing questionable activities by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq — and I, for one, have written strong criticisms of Wikileaks’ “cast-a-wide-net” approach to publishing whistleblower information — First Amendment scholars have serious concerns about U.S. press freedoms if Assange is, in the end, convicted of espionage in a U.S. court.

According to Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, if the Justice Department wins its case against Assange, such a precedent could criminalize what are today common activities among investigative journalists.

“The charges rely almost entirely on conduct that investigative journalists engage in every day,” Jaffer told The New York Times. “The indictment should be understood as a frontal attack on press freedom.”

A former Assange colleague and open critic of his methods, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laura Poitras, recently warned in a Times editorial what could happen to U.S. press and speech freedoms should Assange be convicted:

It paves the way for the United States government to indict other international journalists and publishers. And it normalizes other countries’ prosecution of journalists from the United States as spies.

To reverse this dangerous precedent, the Justice Department should immediately drop these charges and the president should pardon Mr. Assange.

Since Sept. 11, this country has witnessed an escalating criminalization of whistle-blowing and journalism. If Mr. Assange’s case is allowed to go forward, he will be the first, but not the last. If President-elect Joe Biden wants to restore the “soul of America,” he should begin with unequivocally safeguarding press freedoms under the First Amendment, and push Congress to overturn the Espionage Act.

Repealing or significantly amending the Espionage Act will never happen in today’s political environment. It would require taking too much power away from the U.S. government and if there is one thing in secret establishment Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it is keeping power firmly in the hands of the government, particularly when under the pretext of national security.

But what could be devalued in pursuing such a dramatic remedy for declining press freedoms are the significant Supreme Court rulings since the Espionage Act that have already set sufficient precedents for protecting journalists (and all Americans) from unconstitutional prosecutions. For example, the Schenk ruling was already partially overturned in 1969, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohiothat the government’s ability to limit speech was limited to speech intended to spark an imminent lawless action. And only a few years after the Brandenburg case, the Supreme Court issued their landmark ruling in New York Times Co. v. U.S. (1971) in which they decided the First Amendment superseded any executive privilege to maintain the information secrecy, even if for national security purposes.

Establishment Democrats applaud Big Tech speech restrictions

What these Supreme Court rulings have in common is that they address the government’s ability to limit the speech of private citizens. They say nothing about the ability of private entities to limit speech under their domain.

Fast forward to the present, we are witnessing — post-Capitol riots — a level of speech suppression heretofore rarely seen in our nation’s history (World War I’s Espionage Act and pre-World War II’s Smith Act exemplify among our government’s most brazen acts in modern times to restrict speech).

The speech being suppressed today is largely (but not entirely) speech related to right wing groups like the Proud Boys, and is being carried out by private entities such as Facebook and Twitter.

The political left gleefully reminds us that the First Amendment does not prevent private companies from limiting speech on their platforms.

Writes Jennifer Huddleston, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum, “Whether you applaud or detest the recent decisions made by online platforms, it is important to remember that these are private actors and not the government.”

On this point, Huddleston and other apologists for Big Tech-sourced censorship are correct.

However, their smug satisfaction may be illusory as some legal scholars persuasively argue there are legitimate legal grounds upon which to constrain the power of social media companies (“Big Tech”) to suppress speech.

A common argument for constraining this power comes from the “company town” perspective which cites the Supreme Court’s ruling in March v. Alabama for support. In that ruling, the Court held that private citizens in a company-owned town were protected by the First Amendment when distributing religious literature within that town, despite company rules to the contrary. In other words, in some circumstances, private actors can be treated as government-like actors and must comply with constitutional requirements when dealing with private citizens.

Other legal scholars offer a broader context in which to advocate for legal restrictions on social media censorship. Prominent among them are Donald L. Hudson, Jr., a Justice Robert H. Jackson Legal Fellow for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who argues the times have changed sufficiently since the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to justify a reassessment of where the freedoms of the First Amendment should extend.

“A society that cares for the protection of free expression needs to recognize that the time has come to extend the reach of the First Amendment to cover these powerful, private entities that have ushered in a revolution in terms of communication capabilities,” writes Hudson. “When a private actor has control over online communications and online forums, these private actors are analogous to a governmental actor.”

Hudson knows his observation is far from new when he cites the writings of renowned legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who in 1985 wrote:

Freedom of speech is defended both instrumentally — it helps people make better decisions — and intrinsically — individuals benefit from being able to express their views…

Any infringement of freedom of speech, be it by public or private entities, sacrifices these values. In other words, the consensus is not just that the government should not punish expression; rather, it is that speech is valuable and, therefore, any unjustified violation is impermissible. If employers can fire employees and landlords can evict tenants because of their speech, then speech will be chilled and expression lost.

Instrumentally, the “marketplace of ideas” is constricted while, intrinsically, individuals are denied the ability to express themselves. Therefore, courts should uphold the social consensus by stopping all impermissible infringements of speech, not just those resulting from state action. (Erwin Chemerinsky, Rethinking State Action, 80 N.W. U. L. Rev. 503, 533–34 (1985))

[Reading Chemerinsky’s full essay — found here — is well worth the effort to read.]

When the interests of the government and the acts of a private interest are so closely aligned and can have such a chilling effect on free speech, does the public-private distinction eclipse the importance of the freedoms guaranteed by our constitution?

Since this question has barely been asked in the public discourse, much less decided, some free speech advocates have turned to the states for the redress of their concerns.

Possible state-level actions to defend free speech

As we are a federal Republic, there are state-level actions that could be taken to reinforce free speech rights in the U.S.

For starters, states can legislatively declare ‘political affiliation or activities’ a protected status in order to empower state to restrict the power of private entities to limit speech based on content associated with political beliefs.

California, Colorado, District of Colombia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Wisconsin already have laws on the books preventing private entities from taking unfavorable job actions (i.e., termination, demotion) based on political affiliation or activity. Whether these protections extend to speech on private platforms is, at minimum, a contestable point.

Whether this end-around approach is the best way to rebuild our speech and press freedoms is debatable. What is not debatable is that more and more voices — from the left and right on the political spectrum — are seeing barriers erected with the expressed intent of marginalizing their opinions.

In my opinion, the arc of history trends towards governments taking away freedoms previously held as the basis for their legitimacy

Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — which was a rephrasing of a similar thought expressed in an 1853 sermon delivered by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker where he said:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

I prefer King’s rewrite, but both sentiments are inspiring…and way too optimistic.

Increasingly, I am convinced King and Parker were, most regrettably, premature. We are not trending towards justice or its bed partner, freedom. In the midst of the Information Ageand growing worldwide prosperity, at best, our freedoms are treading water, and, at worst, in a sharp decline.

And nowhere is that more apparent in how both public and private actors, worldwide, are using the broad reach and power of new technologies to limit the ability of large segments in society to access information and express their opinions.

[Did the entire country of Australia get censored by Facebook?!]

Most distressing is how the corporate media and the entrenched political class have lined up to support this ominous trend.

Nonetheless, I believe freedom of speech will someday win the day as the following maxim becomes widely understood:

Unfree people need their government and private actors (i.e., Facebook) to tell them what is legitimate speech and what is illegitimate speech. Free people, by comparison, rely on themselves to make such decisions.

In the U.S. today, our social elites have collectively decided the American people cannot be trusted with the obligations of a free peopleTheybelieve the American people need to be treated like children as demonstrated by their open defense of sweeping censorship decisions by social media companies.

Despite this reality, I continue to dream there is hope for genuine freedom of speech (and press) in this country some day.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Cable news coverage of Cruz and Cuomo shows significant bias

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 26, 2021)

This Media Bias Chart places news sources in a two-dimensional taxonomy of reliability and political bias. This is the 4.0 version, created in 2018 by Ad Fontes Media founder Vanessa Otero. It was created in 2018.

It is reasonable to think some news stories should be considered more important than others. And though one person might have a different ranking than another person, when those subjective rankings are combined across an entire society, the average ranking should reflect the relative importance of news stories within that society.

In reality, however, editors and journalists through their training and position possess disproportionate power in developing those rankings and, subsequently, are the ones who decide what news stories are ‘fit to print’ and make the nightly TV news. Nonetheless, if news organizations — which are mostly for-profit enterprises in the U.S. — want to be economically viable, a common assumption is that they will publish and broadcast the stories most important to the news-consuming public.

The above news-production model, of course, is a middle school civics class load of crap.

American news organizations long ago learned that it is more profitable to create compelling (i.e., commercially attractive) news narratives and to wedge daily events, when possible, into those narratives, not because news organizations aim to deceive the news-consuming public, but because they aim to make money. And, as we’ve all been taught since grade school, it is not a crime in this country to make money.

Politicians, understanding this dynamic, also learned how to exploit those narratives through the timing and targeted content of press conferences, news releases, interviews, and anonymous leaks. In the modern era, there has also been a loose confederation that has formed between senior U.S. government officials and the news media where individuals are allowed (perhaps enticed?) to move freely between them for employment opportunities.

To complete this iron triangle over the forces driving our daily news cycle are corporate lobbyists who, themselves, are often drawn from the news media and government sectors (and vice versa).

No crime is being committed in this process. It requires no conspiracy theory to explain what constitutes news on our nightly newscasts or makes headlines in our daily papers. It is merely the system we have all — passively or actively — accepted as an appropriate mechanism for what determines our news and information.

Joylessly, among the many problems inherent in our mainstream media system, is the fact that non-news — including straight up falsehoods and misinformation— is often commingled with genuine news, making one almost indistinguishable from the other.

This news-production system has been standardized across the news industry, independent of a news organization’s presumed objectivity, be it left-leaning, right-leaning, or “neutral.”

Here is but a recent example of that phenomenon…

Senator Ted Cruz versus New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

I must preface what I’m about to write with this comment: Texas Senator Ted Cruz ditching his constituents during a tragic natural disaster represented “extremely bad optics,” as some of his most ardent supporters have acknowledged. In the context of D.C. politics, it was legitimate news and, in my opinion, speaks volumes about his personal judgment.

[According to prediction markets, Cruz is running in 6th place for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, behind former President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, and former Vice President Mike Pence. IMHO, you can replace Donald Trump’s name with that of his son, Don Jr., who I believe will be the 2024 Republican nominee — but never count out Haley or my dark horse bet, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst.]

But did Cruz’ optic failure deserve being the top news story in the national news media for a good two to three days after the February 13–17 storm hit Texas and other parts of the American Midwest and South?

It is not like there lacked important stories to cover during this period:

(1) The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the push to roll out the vaccines could have justifiably topped every newscast in February…

(2) … if not for the Democrats’ attempt to impeach and convict Trump for inciting the January 6th riots,

(3) And when the Congress wasn’t obsessing over Trump’s trial, both chambers spent February haggling over whether to provide additional relief to Americans — beyond the $2,000 some received last year — to mitigate the financial stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

[Compare that to Canada where its citizens have been provided $500 per week for up to 26 weeks in cases where people have stopped working or had their income reduced by at least 50 percent due to COVID-19.]

(4) Also deserving top news consideration in February was a Biden administration announcement on February 5th to reverse a Trump administration decision that put Yemen’s Houthi military forces on our nation’s terrorist organization list,

(5) And then came the devastating mid-February ice storm that paralyzed Texas and killed at least 70 people.

If Figure 1 is any indication, the cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News) did their job fairly well in picking the most prominent stories in February. Trump’s Senate trial dominated cable news airtime in February, particularly on CNN and MSNBC, where each dedicated, on average, around 11 percent of daily airtime to the topic.

[Trump was acquitted by the Senate on February 13th.]

Figure 1: Cable News Airtime Volume for Selected Topics in February 2021

Combined, the three cable networks spent approximately 30 percent of February airtime on the Trump trial, with Fox News contributing just 7 percent to that total. President Joe Biden, likewise, earned a mere 17 percent of cable news airtime for the month.

Whether it was the best use of Congress’ time is debatable, but there is no denying the historical significance of the second Trump impeachment trial. However, by mid-February, the failure of the Senate to convict Trump faded as a story and was replaced by events related to the Texas ice storm (Feb. 13–17) and the ongoing difficulties getting the COVID-19 vaccine administered across the nation.

But it is Cruz’ ill-advised trip to Cancun during the Texas storm — the news of which broke on February 18th — that is most fascinating from a news-bias perspective.

And the Cruz story cannot be understood without reference to another political story that broke on February 11th: An aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, privately admitted the Cuomo administration delayed the release of data on COVID-19 deaths of long-term care facility residents because of fears of a federal investigation.

A quick summary:

In an understandable effort to relieve stresses on hospitals caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, New York (and other states) decided to move elderly patients hospitalized due to the coronavirus to nursing homes. In the earliest months of this pandemic, that decision was a policy debacle as nursing homes became killing fields for the virus. To this day, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are still in the Top 10 among U.S. states for the number of COVID-19 deaths per capita[Will we ever know the names of the “experts” that thought this policy was a good idea? If the objectivity and integrity of our national news media is a factor, don’t count on it.]

If solar sail-traveling aliens from Proxima Centauri had observed and then been asked to judge what story deserved the most media attention in February — Senator Cruz going with his daughters to Cancun during an ice storm versus Governor Cuomo hiding the damage in human lives caused by one of his policies — I can’t imagine an intelligence species that wouldn’t believe the Cuomo story was the most important.

Consider these facts..

At most, hundreds died in Texas due to policy failures almost entirely unrelated to any specific decision made by Senator Cruz, whose policy jurisdiction does not include executive powers in the state of Texas. In the moment, there was little Cruz could do to stave off the impact of the ice storm in Texas, other than making phone calls to energy executives and state bureaucrats and lighting a few fires under their butts, none of whom are accountable to him. But beyond that, there wasn’t much else for him to do.

In contrast, most likely thousands of elderly New Yorkers died because of an ill-considered policy to move elderly COVID patients from hospitals into nursing homes. My statistical estimate for New York puts the policy-related death toll around 9,400. Good intentions considered, the policy was a disaster and there is now evidence New York’s governor tried to minimize his possible accountability for that failure.

So which story do you think the cable news networks covered the most in February?

Combined, all three U.S. cable news networks gave both stories about the same amount of attention (see Figure 2) — 19 percent of daily airtime to the Cuomo story and 16 percent to the Cruz/Cancun story. [The burst of Cruz coverage around February 12th was related to the Trump Senate trial, not his Cancun trip.]

Figure 2: Cable News Daily Airtime on Cruz and Cuomo Stories

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In comparison, online news stories seemed to focus more on Cruz’ Cancun trip than Cuomo’s deadly policy faux pas (see Figure 3). [Is it possible the political bias of high tech is influencing this result? Stop it! What are you? A Capitol-rampaging conspiracy theorist?]

Figure 3: Online News Coverage for Cruz and Cuomo Stories

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But the most interesting feature of cable news coverage emerges when focusing on CNN and MSNBC’s coverage of the two stories. Their partisan bias is irrefutable. Both networks all but ignored the Cuomo story through February 22nd (and this has continued through February 26th, according to data from The GDELT Project), but as for Cruz’ Father-Daughters trip? A national scandal!

Figure 4: CNN and MSNBC Daily Airtime on Cruz and Cuomo Stories

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How disconnected from reality must a news organization be to think Cruz’ poorly thought out indiscretion compares to Cuomo’s failure as governor to protect his state’s most vulnerable citizens?

Final Thoughts

Perhaps it is a mistake to consider the cable news networks separately. Maybe the Republican-bias inherent in Fox News coverage serves as a necessary balance to the other major cable news networks?

I would be happy with that fact if it weren’t clear from audience data that most people watching CNN or MSNBC are not also watching Fox News (and vice versa). In my opinion, if people are not honestly and consistently exposed to multiple points of view, how can they possibly develop independent opinions of their own?

But could that independent information function be provided by “neutral” news sources, as implied to exist according to this essay’s headline graphic (developed by Ad Fontes Media founder Vanessa Ortero)? Could the Bloomberg, AP and Reuters news services be that critical component to building a well-informed public?

Unfortunately, my preliminary analysis of AP, Reuters and Bloomberg content suggests they aren’t that much different from CNN and MSNBC in their story selection.

If I were doing the labeling for Otero’s media bias graphic, the label “neutral” would be replaced by the word “status quo.”

Our profit-motivated mainstream media does little more than trump up (pardon the pun) superficial controversies that do nothing to challenge the status quo.

Hence, the phony Cruz/Cancun outrage.

In the process, the American people — apart from the political and economic elite who benefit from a hopelessly divided populace — are getting screwed.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

An inferior U.S. health care system made the COVID-19 pandemic worse

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 19, 2021)

A computer generated representation of COVID-19 virions (SARS-CoV-2) under electron microscope (Image by Felipe Esquivel Reed; Used under the CCA-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

The U.S. may have experienced 7.7 million additional COVID-19 cases and 155 thousand additional COVID-19 deaths due to its subpar health care system.

This finding is based on a cross-national statistical analysis of 20 West European and West European-heritage countries using aggregate, country-level data provided by Johns Hopkins University (COVID-19 cases and deaths per 1 million people), OurWorldInData.org (Policy Stringency Index) and HealthSystemFacts.org (Health Access and Quality Index). The analysis covers the period from January 1, 2020 to February 5, 2021.

Figure 1 (below) shows the bivariate relationship between the number of COVID-19 cases (per 1 million people) and the quality of a country’s health care system as measured by the Health care Access and Quality Index (HAQ Index ) that was compiled during the 2016 Global Burden of Disease Study.

In countries where health care access is universal and of high quality, the performance on the number of COVID-19 cases per capita is much better. New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Finland and Norway are positive exemplars in this regard. Israel, Portugal, U.S., and the U.K., in comparison, are not.

Figure 1: Health care access/quality (HAQ) and its relationship to COVID-19 cases per 1 million people

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More interestingly, if over the study period we control for the average level of COVID-19 policy actions (as measured by Oxford University’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT)) and whether or not a country is an island, the significance of the quality of a country’s health care system remains significant.

As seen in this simple linear regression model, three variables — the HAQ Index, COVID-19 Policy Stringency, and whether or not the country is an island — account for about 60 percent of the variance in COVID-19 cases per capita for these 20 countries.

Image for post

Using this model, we can estimate the number of COVID-19 cases (per 1 million people) the U.S. would have experienced if its health care system was as good as the countries rated as having the best health care systems in the world (Iceland and Norway — HAQ Index = 97).

(-2946.23 * 8)*330 = 7,778,000 additional COVID-19 cases

[Note: U.S. has approximately 330 million people and its HAQ Index = 89]

Additionally, as there is a strong relationship between the number of COVID-19 cases per capita and the number of COVID-19 deaths per capita (i.e., roughly 0.2 deaths per case — see Appendix), we can estimate that the U.S. has experienced 155,560 additional deaths as a result of inadequacies with its health care system.

The U.S. does not have the best health care system in the world

Remarkably little discussion within the national news media has been about the systemic problems within the U.S. health care system and how those problems contributed to the tragic COVID-19 numbers witnessed by this country during the pandemic. Where most of the media attention has been focused on political failures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic — and most of that has been directed at the Trump administration — the hard evidence continues to suggest systemic factors, such as racial disparities in socioeconomics and health, are driving U.S. COVID-19 case and death rates above other developed countries.

“Socioeconomically and racially segregated neighborhoods are more vulnerable and are more likely to be disproportionately impacted by the adverse effects of COVID-19,” conclude health analysts Ahmad Khanijahani and Larisa Tomassoni. As for why this is the case, Khanijahani and Tomassoni offer this explanation:

“Black and low-SES individuals in the US are more likely to be employed as essential workers in occupations such as food distribution, truckers, and janitors. Most of these jobs cannot be fulfilled remotely and usually do not offer adequate sick leaves. Additionally, individuals of low-SES and Black minority are disproportionately impacted by homelessness or reside in housing units with limited space that makes the practice of isolating infected family members challenging or impossible. Moreover, limited or no child/elderly care and higher uninsurance rates impose an additional financial burden on low-SES families (emphasis mine) making it challenging to stop working.”

The racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 death figures (in Figure 2) are shockingly apparent in the following graphic produced by the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Figure 2: Racial/ethnic disparities in COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. (Source: CDC)

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The gray bars in Figure 2 show how non-Hispanic Whites across all age categories have experienced fewer deaths than expected relative to their prevalence in the total U.S. population. In stark contrast, across all age groups, Hispanic and non-Hispanic Blacks account for a significantly higher percentage of COVID-19 deaths than expected based on their population numbers.

Figure 2 is what a broken health care system interacting with systemic racial and ethnic inequalities looks like in a chart.

Final thoughts

Citing the negative role of the U.S. health care system on COVID-19 outcomes is not an indictment of U.S. health care workers. To the contrary, because Americans live in a country where health care is significantly rationed by market forces — e.g., a relatively high rate of uninsured, people delaying preventative care, diagnoses and treatments due to financial concerns, etc. — our health care workers are forced to work harder as a high number of COVID-19 patients enter the health care system only after their symptoms have already become severe.

The awful impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Americans is less a political failure than it is a systemic failure —though we cannot dismiss the ineptitude of politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who, presumably at the behest of his health policy experts, authorized sending critically ill seniors from hospitals to nursing homes in order to free up hospital beds. New York’s elderly paid a steep price so Governor Cuomo could learn that nursing homes are not hospitals.

More broadly, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed a broken and inadequate U.S. health care system that is better designed to protect high profit margins for insurance and pharmaceutical companies and the billing rates of physicians than it is to ensure the health of the American people.

Sadly, with the physician, health insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists firmly entrenched in the policymaking machinery of the Biden administration, don’t expect any time soon the types of health care system reforms needed to fix our systemic problems.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Methodological Note:

The decision to analyze just 20 West European and West European-heritage countries (i.e., U.S., Israel, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) was prompted by a desire to control for two factors that are significantly related to country-level COVID-19 outcomes: (1) cultural norms, and (2) economic development.

Controlling for cultural norms, particularly the differences between countries with individualistic cultures (i.e., Western European nations) and those with collectivist cultures (i.e., East Asian nations), facilitated a clearer look at the impact health care systems on COVID-19 outcomes.

As for the exclusion of lesser-developed countries from this analysis, I simply don’t trust the accuracy or completeness of their COVID-19 data.

APPENDIX — A Linear Model of COVID-19 Deaths (Per 1 Million People)

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Were proactive COVID-19 policies the key to success?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 11, 2021)

There is no weenier way of copping out in data journalism (and social science more broadly) than posing a question in an article’s headline.

This intellectual timidity probably stems from the fact that most peer-reviewed, published social science research findings are irreproducible. In other words, social science research findings are more likely a function of bias and methodology than a function of reality itself.

As my father, a mechanical engineer, would often say: “Social science is not science.”

The consequence is that social science findings are too often artifacts of their methods and temporal context — so much so that a field like psychology has become a graveyard for old, discredited theories: Physiognomy (i.e., assessing personality traits through facial characteristics), graphology (i.e., assessing personality traits through handwriting), primal therapy (i.e., psychotherapy method where patients re-experience childhood pains), and neuro-linguistic programming (i.e., reprogramming behavioral patterns through language) are just a few embarrassing examples.

Indeed, established psychological theories such as cognitive dissonancehave proven to be such an over-simplification of behavioral reality that their practical and academic utility is debatable.

And what does this have to do with COVID-19? Not much. I’m just venting.

Well, not exactly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a torrent of speculation and research about what COVID-19 policies work and don’t work.

For example, how effective are masks and mandatory mask policies?

Masks work, conclude most studies.

Another cross-national study, however, found that it is cultural norms that drive the effectiveness of mandatory mask policies.

And there are credible scientific studies that show the effectiveness of masks can be seriously compromised without other factors in place (namely, social distancing).

In part, the variation in findings on mask-wearing is a product of a healthy application of the scientific method. No single study can address every aspect of mask effectiveness.

Research is like a gestalt painting where a single study represents but a tiny part of the total picture. One must step back from the specific research findings of one study in order to understand the essence of all the research together.

In other words, masks work, but with some important caveats.

Some countries have done a better job than others at containing COVID-19

Among the largest, most developed economies, it is increasingly apparent which countries have been most effective at minimizing the impact of COVID-19.

According to the cumulative tally reported at RealClearPolitics.com, these 10 developed countries have the lowest COVID-19 deaths rates (per 1 million people) as of February 10, 2021:

Taiwan — 0 (deaths per 1 million)
China — 3
Singapore — 5
New Zealand — 5
Iceland — 6
South Korea — 29
Australia — 36
Japan — 52
UAE — 99
Norway — 111

On the other end of the scale, these 10 developed countries have the highest COVID-19 deaths rates (per 1 million people) as of February 10, 2021:

Belgium — 1,880 (deaths per 1 million)
UK — 1,712
Italy — 1,522
U.S. — 1,467
Portugal — 1,431
Spain — 1,350
Mexico — 1,335
Sweden — 1,210
France — 1,196
Switzerland — 1,139

If there are complaints about the validity of the data from China or Taiwan, I am all ears. However, regardless of their inclusion, an informal review of the other advanced countries suggests some patterns in their COVID-19 outcomes over time.

First, in fighting COVID-19, it helps to be on an island (Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, Iceland, Australia, and Japan). And for all practical purposes, I consider South Korea to have near-island status as few people enter that country by way of a land border.

Second, it appears European romance language countries such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, France (tourism perhaps?) and countries with subpar health care systems (such as the U.S. and Switzerland which rely disproportionately on insurance-based health care access) have not fared well in fighting COVID-19.

On an anecdotal level, at least, I’ve explained most of the high- and low-performing countries with respect to COVID-19 without even referencing their COVID-19 policies.

So what impact have COVID-19 policies had on containing this pandemic?

Though lacking a definitive answer that question on a specific policy level, in the aggregate, there are strong indications that changes in national COVID-19 policies have had, for a small subset of countries, at least one of two discernible relationships with weekly variation in new COVID-19 cases: A small number of countries have been proactive in their COVID-19 policies and the result has been relatively few COVID-19 deaths per capita. Another small set of countries have been reactive in their COVID-19 policies and their COVID-19 deaths per capita have been relatively higher in comparison to the proactive countries. As for most countries, they fall somewhere in the middle, as they are both proactive and reactive.

Before we look at the data, here is a conceptual perspective.

Figure 1 visualizes a theoretical framework for how national policies may relate to the spread of COVID-19 (see Figure 1). There are two axes: (1) The vertical axis represents the correlation between changes in COVID-19 policies and changes in weekly new cases of COVID-19, while the (2) second axis represents that relationship at various time lags.

In this construct, consider the weekly number of new COVID-19 cases to be our outcome variable (Y) and the stringency of national COVID-19 policies to be our input variable (X).

The intersection of the two axes represents the contemporaneous relationship between COVID-19 policies (X) and new COVID-19 cases (Y). As one proceeds to the left of center on the vertical axis, this represents the relationship between prior values of COVID-19 policy with future numbers of new COVID-19 cases (i.e., X causes Y). As one proceeds to the right of center on the vertical axis, this represents the relationship between prior numbers of new COVID-19 cases with future values of COVID-19 policy (Y causes X).

Figure 1: A Theoretical Framework for Understanding COVID-19 Policies

Figure 2 shows the practical implication of Figure 1: COVID-19 policies in some countries will generally follow the red line over time (reactive), while others the green line (proactive), and still others — probably the majority of countries — will follow the black line (a combination of reactive and proactive policy changes).

Figure 2: Proactive Policies versus Reactive Policies

In fact, these patterns did emerge across the 30 countries I analyzed when I plotted the cross correlations over time between changes in their COVID-19 policies and changes in the weekly number of new COVID-19 cases.

Country-level patterns in COVID-19 policy effectiveness

As demonstrably important as COVID-19 policies such as mask mandates or business lockdowns are to containing COVID-19, my curiosity is with an aggregate measure of those policies, as any single policy will not be enough to address something as pervasive as COVID-19.

As a result, I used country-level COVID-19 policy data from the Coronavirus Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) compiled by researchers at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford who aggregate 17 policy measures, ranging from containment and closure policies (such as such as school closures and restrictions in movement); economic policies; and health system policies (such as testing regimes), to create one summary measure: The COVID-19 Policy Stringency Index (PSI). Details on how OxCGRT collects and summarizes their policy data can be found in a working paper.

The outcome measure used here is the number of new COVID-19 cases reported by Johns Hopkins University every week from January 20, 2020 to February 5, 2021 for each of the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, and US.

It should be noted that the raw data from OxCGRT and Johns Hopkins were at the daily level, but was aggregated to the weekly level for data smoothing purposes.

In total, there were 50 data points for each of the 30 countries, and to address the relevance of the theoretical framework in Figure 2 a bivariate Granger causality test is employed for each country (an example of the R code used to generate this analysis is in the appendix).

The Results

Of the 30 countries in this analysis, bivariate Granger causality tests found only three in which prior increases in the stringency of COVID-19 policies (PSI) were significantly associated with decreases in the weekly numbers of new COVID-19 cases (Iceland, New Zealand, and Norway). Figures 3 through 5 show the cross correlation functions (CCF) for those countries in which their COVID-19 policies shaped events, instead of merely reacting to them. Hence, I label their COVID-19 policies as proactive.

In another six countries it was found that increases in the stringency of COVID-19 policies tended to follow increases in the weekly numbers of new COVID-19 cases (see Figures 6 through 9). In other words, their COVID-19 policies tended to follow events instead of shaping them. The policies in these countries are therefore labeled as reactive.

For the remaining 21 countries, the Granger causality tests revealed no significant relationships in either causal direction, though their CCF patterns tended to follow the S-curve shape posited in Figures 1 and 2. The lack of statistical significance in those cases could be a function of the limited samples sizes which was a product of aggregating the data to the weekly-level.

PROACTIVE COUNTRIES:

Figure 3: Cross Correlation Function — Iceland

Figure 4: Cross Correlation Function — New Zealand

Figure 5: Cross Correlation Function — Norway

REACTIVE COUNTRIES:

Figure 6: Cross Correlation Function — Germany

Figure 7: Cross Correlation Function — Israel

Figure 8: Cross Correlation Function — Switzerland

Figure 9: Cross Correlation Function — Austria

Proactive countries have had better COVID-19 outcomes

Figure 10 and 11 reveal how the COVID-19 outcomes in the proactive countries were significantly better than in the other countries. Countries that kept ahead of the health crisis did a better job of controlling the health crisis.

Figure 10: Confirmed COVID-19 Cases (per 1 million) by Policy Group

Figure 11: Confirmed COVID-19 Deaths (per 1 million) by Policy Group

Not coincidentally, many of the qualitative and quantitative analyses of worldwide COVID-19 policies have found Iceland, New Zealand, and Norway among the highest performers according to their metrics (examples are here, here and here).

Final Thoughts

In no way does my analysis suggest that COVID-19 policies in only three countries (Iceland, New Zealand, and Norway) were effective and the policies in the remaining countries were mere reactions to an ongoing health crisis they could not control.

Undoubtedly, there are well-documented examples of policy impotence across this worldwide pandemic. The lack of a consistent mask mandates in U.S. states like Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota may help explain why those states have among the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country. Sweden’s initial decision to keep their economy open during the early stages of the pandemic most likely explains their relatively high case and fatality rates relative to their Scandinavian neighbors.

But, in fairness, not every policy (or lack thereof) is going to work for a pathogen that has proven to be so pernicious. At the same time, as this pandemic winds down with the roll out of vaccinations, we are now seeing evidence in retrospect that a relatively small number of countries did do a better job than others in managing this pandemic. For the majority of countries, however, their policy leaders may have had frighteningly little impact on the ultimate course of this virus. Their citizens would have been better off moving to an island.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Appendix

R code used to generate the bivariate Granger causality test for Iceland:

y <- c(49.00,106.00,317.00,490.00,454.00,272.00,71.00,30.00,8.00,3.00,1.00,2.00,2.00,.00,2.00,7.00,5.00,10.00,3.00,5.00,5.00,50.00,62.00,44.00,59.00,42.00,36.00,26.00,145.00,294.00,271.00,588.00,538.00,396.00,471.00,198.00,123.00,83.00,102.00,105.00,76.00,69.00,62.00,71.00,126.00,76.00,25.00,21.00)
x <- c(16.67,16.67,48.02,53.70,53.70,53.70,53.70,53.70,53.70,50.53,50.00,50.00,41.27,39.81,39.81,39.81,39.81,39.81,39.81,39.81,39.81,41.66,46.30,46.30,46.30,46.30,46.30,39.15,37.96,37.96,37.96,40.34,39.15,42.99,46.43,52.78,52.78,52.78,52.78,52.78,52.78,52.78,52.78,52.78,50.40,46.82,44.44,44.44)
par8 = '4'
par7 = '0'
par6 = '1'
par5 = '1'
par4 = '1'
par3 = '0'
par2 = '1'
par1 = '1'
ylab = 'y'
xlab = 'x'
par8 <- '4'
par7 <- '0'
par6 <- '1'
par5 <- '1'
par4 <- '1'
par3 <- '0'
par2 <- '1'
par1 <- '1'

library(lmtest)
par1 <- as.numeric(par1)
par2 <- as.numeric(par2)
par3 <- as.numeric(par3)
par4 <- as.numeric(par4)
par5 <- as.numeric(par5)
par6 <- as.numeric(par6)
par7 <- as.numeric(par7)
par8 <- as.numeric(par8)
ox <- x
oy <- y
if (par1 == 0) {
x <- log(x)
} else {
x <- (x ^ par1 - 1) / par1
}
if (par5 == 0) {
y <- log(y)
} else {
y <- (y ^ par5 - 1) / par5
}
if (par2 > 0) x <- diff(x,lag=1,difference=par2)
if (par6 > 0) y <- diff(y,lag=1,difference=par6)
if (par3 > 0) x <- diff(x,lag=par4,difference=par3)
if (par7 > 0) y <- diff(y,lag=par4,difference=par7)
print(x)
print(y)
(gyx <- grangertest(y ~ x, order=par8))
(gxy <- grangertest(x ~ y, order=par8))
postscript(file="/home/tmp/1auwb1612990002.ps",horizontal=F,onefile=F,pagecentre=F,paper="special",width=8.3333333333333,height=5.5555555555556)
op <- par(mfrow=c(2,1))
(r <- ccf(ox,oy,main='Cross Correlation Function (raw data)',ylab='CCF',xlab='Lag (k)'))
(r <- ccf(x,y,main='Cross Correlation Function (transformed and differenced)',ylab='CCF',xlab='Lag (k)'))
par(op)
dev.off()
postscript(file="/home/tmp/2xjfo1612990002.ps",horizontal=F,onefile=F,pagecentre=F,paper="special",width=8.3333333333333,height=5.5555555555556)
op <- par(mfrow=c(2,1))
acf(ox,lag.max=round(length(x)/2),main='ACF of x (raw)')
acf(x,lag.max=round(length(x)/2),main='ACF of x (transformed and differenced)')
par(op)
dev.off()
postscript(file="/home/tmp/3zoqj1612990002.ps",horizontal=F,onefile=F,pagecentre=F,paper="special",width=8.3333333333333,height=5.5555555555556)
op <- par(mfrow=c(2,1))
acf(oy,lag.max=round(length(y)/2),main='ACF of y (raw)')
acf(y,lag.max=round(length(y)/2),main='ACF of y (transformed and differenced)')
par(op)
dev.off()

a<-table.start()
a<-table.row.start(a)
a<-table.element(a,'Granger Causality Test: Y = f(X)',5,TRUE)
a<-table.row.end(a)
a<-table.row.start(a)
a<-table.element(a,'Model',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,'Res.DF',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,'Diff. DF',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,'F',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,'p-value',header=TRUE)
a<-table.row.end(a)
a<-table.row.start(a)
a<-table.element(a,'Complete model',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,gyx$Res.Df[1])
a<-table.element(a,'')
a<-table.element(a,'')
a<-table.element(a,'')
a<-table.row.end(a)
a<-table.row.start(a)
a<-table.element(a,'Reduced model',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,gyx$Res.Df[2])
a<-table.element(a,gyx$Df[2])
a<-table.element(a,gyx$F[2])
a<-table.element(a,gyx$Pr[2])
a<-table.row.end(a)
a<-table.end(a)
table.save(a,file="/home/tmp/4l57f1612990002.tab")
a<-table.start()
a<-table.row.start(a)
a<-table.element(a,'Granger Causality Test: X = f(Y)',5,TRUE)
a<-table.row.end(a)
a<-table.row.start(a)
a<-table.element(a,'Model',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,'Res.DF',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,'Diff. DF',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,'F',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,'p-value',header=TRUE)
a<-table.row.end(a)
a<-table.row.start(a)
a<-table.element(a,'Complete model',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,gxy$Res.Df[1])
a<-table.element(a,'')
a<-table.element(a,'')
a<-table.element(a,'')
a<-table.row.end(a)
a<-table.row.start(a)
a<-table.element(a,'Reduced model',header=TRUE)
a<-table.element(a,gxy$Res.Df[2])
a<-table.element(a,gxy$Df[2])
a<-table.element(a,gxy$F[2])
a<-table.element(a,gxy$Pr[2])
a<-table.row.end(a)
a<-table.end(a)
table.save(a,file="/home/tmp/5drvm1612990002.tab")

try(system("convert /home/tmp/1auwb1612990002.ps /home/tmp/1auwb1612990002.png",intern=TRUE))
try(system("convert /home/tmp/2xjfo1612990002.ps /home/tmp/2xjfo1612990002.png",intern=TRUE))
try(system("convert /home/tmp/3zoqj1612990002.ps /home/tmp/3zoqj1612990002.png",intern=TRUE))

Why is Hollywood failing with its re-branded science fiction and superhero franchises?

Photo by Tomas Castelazo — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 4, 2021)]

In April 1985, the Coca-Cola Company, the largest beverage company in the world, replaced their flagship beverage, Coca-Cola, with New Coke — a soda drink designed to match the sugary sweetness of Coca-Cola’s biggest competitor, Pepsi.

At the time, Pepsi was riding a surge in sales, fueled by two marketing campaigns: The first campaign was a clever use of blind taste tests, called the “Pepsi Challenge,” and through which Pepsi claimed most consumers preferred the taste of Pepsi over Coca-Cola. The second, called the “The Pepsi Generation” campaign, featured the most popular show business personality at the time, Michael Jackson. Pepsi’s message to consumers was clear: Pepsi is young and cool and Coca-Cola isn’t.

Hence, the launch of New Coke — which, to this day, is considered one of the great marketing and re-branding failures of all time. Within weeks of New Coke’s launch it was clear to Coca-Cola’s senior management that their loyal customer base — raised on the original Coca-Cola formula — was not going to accept the New Coke formula. Hastily, the company would re-brand their original Coca-Cola formula as Coca-Cola Classic.

Coca-Cola’s public relations managers tried to retcon the whole New Coke-Classic Coke story to make it appear the company planned to launch Coca-Cola Classic all along — but most business historians continue to describe New Coke as an epic re-branding failureNew Coke was discontinued in July 2002.

What did Coca-Cola do wrong? First, it never looks for good for a leader to appear too reactive to a rising competitor. On a practical level, for brands to lead over long periods they must adapt to changing consumer tastes — but there is a difference between ‘adapting’ and ‘panicking.’ Coca-Cola panicked.

But, in what may have been Coca-Cola’s biggest mistake, they failed to understand the emotional importance to their loyal customers of the original Coca-Cola formula.

“New Coke left a bitter taste in the mouths of the company’s loyal customers,” according to the History Channel’s Christopher Klein. “Within weeks of the announcement, the company was fielding 5,000 angry phone calls a day. By June, that number grew to 8,000 calls a day, a volume that forced the company to hire extra operators. ‘I don’t think I’d be more upset if you were to burn the flag in our front yard,’ one disgruntled drinker wrote to company headquarters.”

Prior to New Coke’s roll out, Coca-Cola did the taste-test research (which showed New Coke was favored over Pepsi), but they didn’t understand the psychology of Coca-Cola’s most loyal customers.

“The company had underestimated loyal drinkers’ emotional attachments to the brand. Never did its market research testers ask subjects how they would feel if the new formula replaced the old one,” according to Klein.

Is Hollywood Making the Same Mistake as Coca-Cola?

Another term for ‘loyal customer’ is ‘fan.’ In the entertainment industry, fans represent a franchise’s core audience. They are the first to line up at a movie premiere or stream a TV show when it becomes available. They’ll forgive an occasional plot convenience or questionable acting performance, as long as they can still recognize the characters, mood and narratives that make up the franchise they love.

Star Trek fans showed up in command and science officer-colored swarms for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, an extremely boring, almost unwatchable film, according to many Trek fans. Yet, they still showed up for 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (a far better film) even when the casual Trek audience didn’t — helping make the Star Trek “trilogy” films (The Wrath of Khan, The Search for SpockThe Voyage Home) among the franchise’s most successful.

No superhero franchise has endured as many peaks and valleys in quality as Batman, a campy TV show in my youth, but a significant box office event with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Unfortunately, the franchise descended into numbing mediocrity after Burton, reaching a creative depth with 1997’s Batman & Robin, only to exceed the critical acclaim of the Burton-era films with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy movies in the 2000s. Through all of this, Batman movies make money…most of the time.

This phenomenon is common to a lot of science fiction and superhero franchises: Star Wars, Superman, Spider-Man, Doctor Who, Alien, and The Terminator. among others. They are not consistently great, but they almost always bring out a faithful fan base.

That is, until they don’t.

Three major science fiction franchises have undergone significant re-branding efforts in the past five years, in the understandable hope of building a new, younger, and more diverse fan base for these long-time, successful franchises — not too dissimilar from what Coca-Cola was trying to do in the mid-1980s:

Star Wars

Now owned by Disney, Star Wars had its canon significantly altered in the three Disney trilogy movies from the original George Lucas-led Star Wars movies when the heroic stature of its two most iconic male characters — Luke Skywalker and Han Solo — was unceremoniously diminished in favor of new characters (Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron). If Disney had a customer complaint line, it would have been overwhelmed after the first trilogy movie, The Force Awakens, and shutdown after The Last Jedi.

Result: Disney made billions in box office receipts from the trilogy movies, but it is hard to declare these movies an unqualified success. Yes, the movies made money, but Disney designs movies as devices for generating stable (and profitable) revenue streams across a variety of platforms (amusement park attendance, spin-off videos, toy sales, etc.). The Disney trilogy has generated little apparent interest in sequel films. At the Walt Disney Company’s most recent Investor Daylast Decemberwhichfeatured announcements for future Star Wars TV and movie projects, not one of the new projects involved characters or story lines emanating from the trilogy movies. More telling, pre-pandemic attendance at the new Star Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge parks at Disney World and Disneyland have seen smaller-than-expected crowds — and to make matters worse, Star Wars merchandise sales have been soft since the trilogy roll out. Be assured, these outcomes are not part of Disney’s Star Wars strategy.

Star Trek

The Star Trek franchise has launched two new TV shows through Paramount/CBS in the past three years: Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard. Through three seasons of Discovery and one for Picard, the re-branded Star Trek has turned the inherent optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek vision into a depressing, dystopian future. Starfleet, once an intergalactic beacon for inclusiveness, integrity and justice, is now a bureaucratic leviathan filled with corruption and incompetence. To further distance the new Star Trek from the original Star Trek series (TOS), Discovery’s writers concocted an incomprehensible plot twist — the Seven Red Signals — in order to send the Discovery’s crew 900 years into the future, past the TOS and Star Trek: The Next Generation timelines, thereby freeing the new series from the shackles of previous Star Trek canon.

Result: As Picard has had only one season, I will focus on Discovery, which has hadthree seasons on CBS’s All Access streaming platform (though only one on the broadcast network). In its 2017 series premiere, Discovery reportedly attracted 9.6 million viewers on the CBS broadcast network before the show was transitioned to the streaming service. Parrot Analytics subsequently reported Discovery was the second most streamed TV show in Summer 2017 (after Netflix’ Ozark), with 12.6 million average demand expressions, and was first for the week of October 5 through 11, with over 53 million average demand expressions.

Not a bad start, but by moving Discovery to the broadcast side this past year, CBS apparently signaled the show wasn’t building enough audience interest on the streaming service to offset the ad revenue losses from not putting it on the broadcast network — or, at least, that is how some TV insiders are interpreting the move. But, given Discovery’s broadcast ratings for the first season, it is unlikely the show is inundating the network in increased ad revenues either. It’s “linear” premiere broadcast on September 24, 2020 attracted 1.7 million viewers, placing it 8th out of the 12 broadcast network shows on that night — a bad start which has not improved over the next 13 episodes. [The most recent episode, broadcast on January 28, 2021, brought in 1.8 million viewers.]

Nonetheless, perhaps Discovery is at least attracting a new, younger audience for Star Trek? Uh, nope. Consistently, the show has achieved around a 0.2 rating within the 18–49 demo, which translates to about 280,000 people out of the 139 million Americans in that age group. That means the remaining 1.4 million Discovery viewers are aged 50 or older — in other words, old Star Trek nerds like me. How ironic would it be if it were the franchise’s original series fans that saved Discovery from cancellation, despite the show’s apparent attempts to distance itself from those same fans?

Doctor Who

No re-branding effort has broken my heart more than the decline of the BBC’s Doctor Who under showrunner Chris Chibnall’s leadership. The oldest science fiction series still on television feels irreparably damaged with its underdeveloped companion characters, generally poor scripts, and grade school level political sermons. The net result? The last two seasons featuring the 13th Doctor, played gamely by Jodi Whittaker, are more often boring than entertaining or thought-provoking.

But most regrettably, to lifelong fans who have loved the show since its first Doctor (played by William Hartnell), the BBC and Chibnall have taken the show’s long established canon, stuffed it in a British Army duffel bag, and thrown it in the River Thames to drown. And how did they do that? By rewriting the Doctor’s origin story — a Time Lord exiled from his home world of Gallifrey — in the fifth (“Fugitive of the Judoonand twelfth (“The Timeless Children”) episodes in the 13th Doctor’s second season, to where now the first Doctor is actually a previously unknown woman named Ruth Clayton and the ability of Doctors (Time Lords) to regenerate is now initially derived from a sadistic experiment on a small child who was the first living being found to have regenerate powers. If this story wasn’t so stupid, it would be sick.

Chibnall’s re-telling of the Doctor’s origin story was a WTF! moment for a lot of Whovians (the name often given to Doctor Who fans). But not a WTF! moment in the entertaining sense (like when half of The Avengers dissolved at the end of Infinity War), but in the bad sense.

Chibnall would have inspired no more controversy if he had gone back and rewritten Genesis 1:1 to read: “In the beginning Hillary Clinton created the heaven and the earth.” Such rewrites have only one purpose: to piss off people emotionally attached to the original story.

And that is exactly what the BBC and Chibnall have done — and many Doctor Who fans (though, as yet, not me) have responded by abandoning the franchise.

Result: The TV ratings history for the 13th Doctor’s two seasons reveals the damage done, though there was hope at the beginning. The 13th Doctor’s first episode on October 7, 2018, pulled in 10.96 million viewers — a significant improvement over the previous Doctor’s final season ratings which never exceeded 7.3 million viewers for an individual episode. However, in a near monotonic decline, the 13th Doctor’s latest episode (and last of the 2020 season) could only generate 4.69 million viewers, an all-time low since the series reboot in 2005.

And why did Doctor Who lose 6.3 million viewers? Because the BBC (through Chibnall) wanted Doctor Who to be more tuned to the times. They wanted a younger, more diverse, more socially enlightened audience for their show. Doctor Who was never cool enough. In fact, the original Doctor Who series was always kind of silly and escapist — a condition completely unacceptable in today’s political climate, according to the big heads at the BBC. Doctor Who needed to be relevant, so it became the BBC’s version of New Coke.

Except the BBC’s new Doctor Who is New Coke only if New Coke had tasted like windshield wiper fluid. From Chibnall’s pointed pen, the show has aggressively (and I would add, vindictively) alienated fans by marginalizing its original story.

Perhaps the Chibnall narrative is a objectively a better one. Who am I to say it isn’t? But the answer to that question doesn’t matter to Whovians who are deeply connected to the pre-Chibnall series. Whovians have left the franchise in the millions and unless the BBC has already concocted a Coca-Cola Classic-like response, I don’t see why they will come back.

Have TV and Movie Studios Forgotten How to Do Market Research?

The lesson from Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who is NOT that brands shouldn’t change over time or that canon is sacrosanct and any deviations are unacceptable. Brands must adapt to survive.

All three of these franchises need a more diverse fan base to stay relevant and that starts with attracting more women and minorities into the fold. But how these franchises tried to evolve has been a textbook example on how not to do it.

In my opinion, it starts with solid writing and good storytelling, which requires better developed characters and more compelling narratives. Harry Potter is the contemporary gold standard. My personal favorite, however, is Guardians of the Galaxy — a comic book series I ignored as a kid, but in cinema form I love. Director/Writer James Gunn has offered us a master class at creating memorable characters, such as Nebula, Gamora, Drax, Peter Quill, Mantis, Rocket, and Groot. So much so, that a few plot holes now and then are quickly forgiven — not so with the re-branded Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who.

Along with better writing, these three franchises have been poorly managed at the business level — and that starts with market research. Disney, Paramount and the BBC have demonstrated through their actions that they do not know their existing customers, much less how to attract new ones.

As a 2020 American Marketing Association study warns businesses:

“Any standout customer experience starts with figuring out the ‘what’ and working backwards to design, develop and deliver products and services that customers use and recommend to others. But how effective are marketing organizations at understanding “what” customers are looking for and ‘why’?”

The AMA’s answer to that last question was that most businesses — 80 percent by their estimate — do not understand the ‘what’ and ‘whys’ behind their current and potential customers’ motivations.

Does that mean these franchises would have been better off just engaging in slavish fan service? Absolutely not.

Fans are good at spending their money to watch their favorite movies and TV shows. They are not creative writers. Few people in contemporary marketing reference anymore the old trope of the “customer always being right,” as experience has taught companies and organizations that customers don’t always know what they want, much less know what they need. As Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses” [thoughit is not clear that he ever said that or would have believed it].

Instead, modern marketers tend to focus on understanding the customer experience and mindset in an effort to strategically differentiate their brands. Central to that process, the best organizations depend heavily on sound, objective research to answer key questions about their current and prospective customers.

There was a time when the entertainment industry was no different in its reliance on consumer data and feedback to shape product and distribution. The power of one particular market research firm, National Research Group (NRG), to determine movie release dates or whether a movie even gets released in theaters is legend in Hollywood. Though now a part of Nielsen Global Media (another research behemoth that has probably done as much to shape what we watch as NBC or CBS ever have), early in its existence the NRG was able to get the six major movie studios to sign exclusivity agreements granting NRG an effective monopoly on consumer-level information regarding upcoming movies. If you can control information, you can control people (including studio executives).

But something has happened in Hollywood in the past few years with respect to science fiction and superhero audiences (i.e., customers) who are perceived by many in Hollywood — wrongfully, I might add — as being predominately white males.

While men have long been over-represented among science fiction and fantasy writers — and that is a problem — the audience for these genres are more evenly divided demographically than commonly assumed.

For certain, the research says science fiction moviegoers skew young and male, but that is a crude understanding of science fiction fandom. Go to a Comicon conference and one will see crowds almost evenly divided between men and women and drawn from most races, ethnicities and age groups — though my experience has been that African-Americans are noticeably underrepresented (see photo below).

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Comic-Con 2010 — the Hall H crowd (Photo by The Conmunity — Pop Culture Geek; used under CCA 2.0 Generic license.)

Similarly, a 2018 online survey of U.S. adults found that, while roughly three-quarters of men like science fiction and fantasy movies (76% and 71%, respectively), roughly two-thirds of women also like those movie genres (62% and 70%, respectively). The same survey also found that white Americans are no more likely to prefer these movie genres than Hispanic, African-American or other race/ethnicities.

Methodological Note:

Total sample size for this survey of U.S. moviegoers was 2,200 and the favorite genre results are based on the percentage of respondents who had a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat favorable’ impression of the movie genre.

The ‘white-male’ stereotyping of science fiction fans, so common within entertainment news stories about ‘toxic’ fans, also permeates descriptions of the gaming community, an entertainment subculture that shares many of the same franchises (Star Wars, The Avengers, The Witcher, Halo, etc.) popular within the science fiction and fantasy communities. Despite knowing better, when I think of a ‘gamer,’ I, too, think of people like my teenage son and his male cohorts.

Yet, in a 2008 study, Pew Research found that self-described “gamers” were 65 percent male and 35 percent female, and in 2013 Nintendo reported that its game-system users were evenly divided between men and women.

Conflating “white male” stereotypes of science fiction fans with “toxic” fans serves a dark purpose within Hollywood: The industry believes it can’t re-brand some of its most successful franchises without first destroying the foundations upon which those franchises were built.

In the process of doing that, Hollywood has ignited a war with some of its most loyal customers who have been

labeled within the industry as “toxic fans.”

A Cold War between Science Fiction Fans and Hollywood Continues

The digital cesspool — otherwise known as social media — can’t stop filling my inbox with stories about how “woke” Hollywood is vandalizing our most cherished science fiction and superhero franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman and Doctor Who, etc.) or how supposedly malevolent slash racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic fans are bullying those who enjoy the recent “re-imaginings” of these franchises. All sides are producing more noise than insight.

In the midst of these unproductive, online shouting matches, there is real data to suggest much of the criticism of Disney’s Star Wars trilogy (The Force AwakensThe Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker), CBS’ new Star Trek shows and theBBC’s 13th iteration of Doctor Who isrooted in genuine popularity declines within those franchises.

I produced the following chart in a previous post about the impact of The Force Awakens on interest in the Star Wars franchise:

Figure 1: Worldwide Google searches on ‘Star Wars’ from January 2004 to May 2020

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Source: Google Trends

The finding was that the The Force Awakens failed to maintain the interest in Star Wars it had initially generated, as evidence by the declining “trend in peaks” with subsequent Disney Star Wars films.

A similar story can be told for some of TV’s most prominent science fiction and superhero franchises.

The broadcast TV audience numbers are well-summarized at these links: Star Trek: DiscoveryDoctor WhoBatwoman (Season 1 & Season 2).

Bottom line: Our most enshrined science fiction and superhero franchises are losing audiences fast.

‘The Mandalorian’ Offers Hope on How To Re-Brand a Franchise

Whether these audience problems are due to bad writing, bad marketing, negative publicity caused by a small core of “toxic” fans, or just unsatisfied fan bases are an open dispute. What can be said with some certitude is that these franchises have underwhelmed audiences in their latest incarnations, with one exception…Disney’s Star Wars streaming series: The Mandalorian.

Methodological Note:

In a previous post I’ve shown that Google search trends strongly correlate with TV streaming viewership: TV shows that generate large numbers of Google searches tend to be TV shows people watch. A similar relationship has been shown to exist between movie box office figures and Google search trends.

Figure 2 shows the Google search trends since September 2019 for Disney’s The Mandalorian. Over the two seasons the show has been available on Disney+ (Season 1: Nov. 12 — Dec. 27, 2019; Season 2: Oct. 30 — Dec. 18, 2020), intraseasonal interest in the show has generally gone up with each successive episode, with the most interest occurring for the season’s final episode. This “rising peaks” phenomenon — indicative of a well-received and successful TV or movie series — was particularly evident in The Mandalorian’s second season where characters very popular among long-time fans periodically emerged over the course of the season: Boba Fett, Bo-Katan, Ashoka Tano, and (of course) Luke Skywalker.

Figure 2: Google search trends for Disney’s The Mandalorian (Sept. 2019 to Feb. 2021)

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Source: Google Trends

It has only been two seasons, but The Mandalorian’s creative leaders — Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni — have been able to maintain steady audience interest, though they run the risk of eating their seed corn with the frequent fan-favorite character roll outs. It will not take long for them to run out of cherished and widely-known Star Wars characters. [Jon/Dave, I love Shaak Ti, but what are the chances she will ever come back?]

Nonetheless, The Mandalorian stands in stark contrast to some other science fiction and superhero franchises who have struggled to build their audiences in the past five years.

Figure 3 shows four TV shows with declining intraseasonal and/or interseasonal peaks. We’ve discussed Discovery and Doctor Who’s audience problems above, but Supergirl deserves some particular attention as my son and I watched the show faithfully through the first four seasons.

Figure 3: Google search trends for Star Trek: Discovery, Doctor Who, Batwoman, and Supergirl (Feb. 2016 to Feb. 2021)

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Source: Google Trends

Supergirl, whose title character is played bya mostcharmingMelissa Benoist, debuted on October 26, 2015 on CBS and averaged 9.8 million viewers per episode in its freshman season, making it the 8th most watched TV show for the year — a solid start.

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Melissa Benoist speaking at the 2019 San Diego Comic Con International (Photo by Gage Skidmore; Used under CCA-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

Regrettably, CBS moved the show to its sister network, The CW, where it experienced an immediate drop of 6.5 million viewers in its first season there and another 1.5 million viewers over the next three seasons. [Supergirl has since been cancelled.]

How did this happen?

Before blaming the show’s overt ‘wokeness’ — women were always competent, while white men were either evil (Jon Cryer’s Lex Luther was magnificent though) or lovesick puppies — the spotlight must be turned on the CBS executives who decided to anchor the show to The CW’s other superhero shows (The Flash and Arrow) in an effort to help the flagging sister network. Their attempt failed and Supergirl paid the price.

At the same time, Supergirl didn’t build on its smaller CW audience and that problem rests on the shoulders of the show’s creative minds, particularly Jessica Queller and Robert Rovner, who were the showrunners after the second season.

First, what happened to Superman? Supergirl’s cousin, Kal-El, was prominent in the second season, but then disappeared in Season 3 (apparently, he had a problem to solve in Madagascar caused by Reign, an existential threat to our planet who Supergirl happened to be fighting at the time). Superman couldn’t break away to help his cousin?

I watched the Supergirl TV show because I was a fan of her DC comics in childhood and few realize that Supergirl comics, at least among boys, were more popular than Wonder Woman’s in the 1960s, according to comics historian Peter Sanderson. And central to her story was always her cousin, Superman. But for reasons seemingly unrelated to the sentiments of the show’s fans, Superman’s appearances after Season 2 were largely limited to the annual Arrowverse crossover episodes.

Fine, Supergirl’s showrunners wanted the show to live or die based on the Supergirl character, not Superman’s. I get it. But a waste of one of the franchise’s greatest assets.

Second, the script writing on Supergirl changed noticeably after Season 2, with story lines mired in overly convenient plot twists (M’ymn, the Green Martian, gives up his life and merges with the earth to stop Reign’s terraforming the planet? How does that work? We’ll never know.), and clunky teaching moments on topics ranging from gun control to homosexuality. Instead of being a lighthearted diversion from the real world, as it mostly was in its first two seasons, the show’s writers thought it necessary to repurpose MSNBC content. Supergirl stopped being fun.

What Lessons are Learned?

The most important lesson from Coca-Cola’s New Coke blunder was that mistakes can be rectified, if dealt with promptly and earnestly. It is OK to make mistakes. You don’t even have to admit them. But you do have to address them.

In 1985, the year of New Coke’s introduction, Coca-Cola’s beverage lines owned 32.3 percent of the U.S. market to Pepsi’s 24.8 percent. Today, Coca-Cola owns 43.7 percent of the non-alcoholic beverage market in the U.S., compared to Pepsi’s 24.1 percent.

With The Mandalorian’s success, Hollywood may still realize that burning down decades of brand equity earned by franchises such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who is not a sound business plan. The good news is, it is not too late to make amends with the millions of ardent fans who have supported these franchises through the good, the bad and the Jar Jar Binks. That Star Wars fans can now laugh about Jar Jar is proof of that.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

The most important moment in human history may have passed without much notice

Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia which detected possible extraterrestrial signals from Proxima Centauri last year (Photo by Maksym Kozlenko; Used under CCA-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; January 25, 2021)

Some background music while you read ==> Undiscovered Moon (by Miguel Johnson)

Shane Smith, an intern in the University of California at Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, was the first to see the anomaly buried in petabytes of Parkes Radio Observatory data.

It was sometime in October of last year, the start of Australia’s spring. when Smith found a strange, unmodulated narrowband emission at 982.002 megahertz seemingly from Proxima Centauri, our Sun’s closest star neighbor.

While there have been other intriguing radio emissions — 1977’s “Wow” signal being the most famous — none have offered conclusive evidence of alien civilizations. Similarly, the odds are in favor of the Parkes signal being explained by something less dramatic than extraterrestrial life; but, as of now, that has not happened.

“It has some particular properties that caused it to pass many of our checks, and we cannot yet explain it,” Dr. Andrew Siemion. director of the University of California, Berkeley’s SETI Research Center, told Scientific American recently. “We don’t know of any natural way to compress electromagnetic energy into a single bin in frequency,” Siemion says. “For the moment, the only source that we know of is technological.”

Proof of an extraterrestrial intelligence? No, but initial evidence offering the intriguing possibility? Why not. And if another radio telescope were to also detect this tone at 982.002 megahertz coming from Proxima Centauri, a cattle stampede of conjecture would likely erupt.

As yet, however, the scientists behind the Parkes Radio Telescope observations have not published the details of their potentially momentous discovery, as they still contend, publicly, that the most likely explanation for their data is human-sourced.

“The chances against this being an artificial signal from Proxima Centauri seem staggering,” says Dr. Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist and professor of science communication at the University of Westminster (UK).

Is there room for “wild speculation” in science?

We live in a time when being called a “conspiracy theorist” is among the worst smears possible, not matter how dishonest or unproductive the charge. How dare you not agree with consensus opinion!

However science, presumably, operates above the daily machinations of us peons. How could any scientist make a revolutionary discovery if not by tearing down consensus opinion? Do you think when Albert Einstein published his relativity papers he was universally embraced by the scientific community? Of course not.

“Sometimes scientists have too much invested in the status quo to accept a new way of looking at things,” says writer Matthew Wills, who studied how the scientific establishment in Einstein’s time reacted to his relativity theories.

But just because scientists cannot yet explain the Parkes signal doesn’t mean the most logical conclusion should be “aliens.” There are many less dramatic explanations that also remain under consideration.

At the same time, we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility the Parkes signal cannot be explained as a human-created or natural phenomenon.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” — Astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s rewording of Laplace’s principle, which says that “the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness”

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stated by Sherlock Holmes.

The late Carl Sagan was a scientist but became famous as the host of the PBS show “Cosmos” in the 1980s. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is a fictional character conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It should surprise few then that Sagan’s quote about ‘extraordinary claims’ aligns comfortably with mainstream scientific thinking, while the Holmes quote is referred to among logicians and scientific philosophers as the process of elimination fallacy — when an explanation is asserted as true on the belief that all alternate explanations have been eliminated when, in truth, not all alternate explanations have been considered.

If you are a scientist wanting tenure at a major research university, you hold the Sagan (Laplace) quote in high regard, not the Holmesian one.

The two quotes encourage very different scientific outcomes: Sagan’s biases science towards status quo thinking (not always a bad thing), while Holmes’ aggressively pushes outward the envelope of the possible (not always a good thing).

Both serve an important role in scientific inquiry.

Oumuamua’s 2017 pass-by

Harvard astronomer Dr. Abraham (“Avi”) Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, consciously uses both quotes when discussing his upcoming book, “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,” as he recently did on the YouTube podcast “Event Horizon,” hosted by John Michael Godier.

His book details why he believes that the first observed interstellar object in our solar system, first sighted in 2017 and nicknamed Oumuamua (the Hawaiian term for ‘scout’), might have been created by an alien civilization and could be either some of their space junk or a space probe designed to observe our solar system, particularly the third planet from the Sun. For his assertion about Oumuamua, Dr. Loeb has faced significant resistance (even ridicule) from many in the scientific community.

Canadian astronomer Dr. Robert Weryk calls Dr. Loeb’s alien conclusion “wild speculation.” But even if Dr. Wertk is correct, what is wrong some analytic provocation now and then? Can heretical scientific discoveries advance without it?

Dr. Loeb, in turn, chides his critics right back for their lack of intellectual flexibility: “Suppose you took a cell phone and showed it to a cave person. The cave person would say it was a nice rock. The cave person is used to rocks.”

Hyperbolic trajectory of ʻOumuamua through the inner Solar System, with the planet positions fixed at the perihelion on September 9, 2017 (Image by nagualdesign — Tomruen; Used under under the CCA-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

Dr. Loeb’s controversial conclusion about Oumuamuaformed soonafter it became apparent that Oumuamua’s original home was from outside our solar system and that its physical characteristics are unlike anything we’ve observed prior. Two characteristics specifically encourage speculation about Oumuamua’s possible artificial origins: First, it is highly elongated, perhaps a 10-to-1 aspect ratio. If confirmed, it is unlike any asteroid or comet ever observed, according to NASA. And, second, it was observed accelerating as it started to exit our solar system without showing large amounts of dust and gas being ejected as it passed near our Sun, as is the case with comets.

In stark contrast to comets and other natural objects in our solar system, Oumuamua is very dry and unusually shiny (for an asteroid). Furthermore, according to Dr. Loeb, the current data on its shape cannot rule out the possibility that it is flat — like a sail — though the consensus view remains that Oumuamua is long, rounded (not flat) and possibly the remnants of a planet that was shredded by a distant star.

I should point out that other scientists have responded in detail to Dr. Loeb’s reasons for suggesting Oumuamua might be alien technology and an excellent summary of those responses can be found here.

Place your bets on whether the Parkes signal and/or Oumuamua are signs of alien intelligence

What are the chances Oumuamua or the Parkes signal are evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life?

If one asks mainstream scientists, the answers would cluster near ‘zero.’ Even the scientists involved in discovering the Parkes signal will say that. “The most likely thing is that it’s some human cause,” says Pete Worden, executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives, the project responsible for detecting the Parkes signal. “And when I say most likely, it’s like 99.9 [percent].”

In 2011, radiation from a microwave oven in the lunchroom at Parkes Observatory was, at first, mistakenly confused with an interstellar radio signal. These things happen when you put radiation sources near radio telescopes looking for radiation.

Possibly the most discouraging news for those of us who believe advanced extraterrestrial intelligence commonly exists in our galaxy is a recent statistical analysis published in May 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Dr. David Kipping, an assistant professor in Columbia University’s Department of Astronomy.

In his paper, Dr. Kipping employs an objective Bayesian analysis to estimate the odds ratios for the early emergence of life on an alien planet and for the subsequent development of intelligent life. Since he only had a sample size of 1 — Earth — he used Earth’s timeline for the emergence of early life (which occurred about 500 million years after Earth’s formation) and intelligent life (which took another 4 billion years) to run a Monte Carlo simulation. In other words, he estimated how often elementary life forms and then intelligent life would emerge if we repeated Earth’s history many times over.

Dr. Kipping’s answer? “Our results find betting odds of >3:1 that abiogenesis (the first emergence of life) is indeed a rapid process versus a slow and rare scenario, but 3:2 odds that intelligence may be rare,” concludes Dr. Kipping.

Put differently, there is a 75 percent change our galaxy is full of low-level life forms that formed early in a planet’s history, but a 60 percent chance that human-like intelligence is quite rare.

Dr. Kipping is not suggesting humans are alone in the galaxy, but his results suggest we are rare enough that to have a similarly intelligent life form living in our nearest neighboring solar system, Proxima Centauri, is unlikely.

What a killjoy.

My POOMA-estimate of Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life

I want to believe aliens living in the Proxima Centauri system are broadcasting a beacon towards Earth saying, in effect, “We are over here!” I also want to believe Oumuamua is an alien probe (akin to our Voyager probes now leaving the confines of our solar system).

If either is true (and we may never know), it would be the biggest event in human history…at least until the alien invasion that will follow happens.

Both events leave me with questions: If Oumuamua is a reconnaissance probe, shouldn’t we have detected electromagnetic signatures suggesting such a mission? [It could be a dead probe.] And in the case of the Parkes signal, if a civilization is going to go to the trouble of creating a beacon signal (which requires a lot of energy directed at a specific target in order to be detectable at great distances), why not throw some information into the signal? Something like, “We are Vulcans. What is your name?” or “When is a good time for us to visit?” And why do these signals never reappear? [At this writing, there have been no additional narrowband signals detected from Proxima Centauri subsequent to the ones found last year.]

Given the partisan insanity that grips our nation and the fear-mongering meat heads that overpopulate our two political parties, we would be well-served by a genuine planetary menace. We would all gain some perspective. And I’ll say it now, in case they are listening: I, for one, welcome our new intergalactic overlords (Yes, I stole that line from “The Simpsons).

In the face of an intergalactic invasion force, we may look back and realize that a lot of the circumstantial evidence of extraterrestrial life we had previously dismissed as foil-hat-level speculation was, in reality, part of a bread crumb trail to a clearer understanding of our place in the galactic expanse.

So, are Oumuamua and the possible radio signal from the Proxima Centauri system evidence of advanced extraterrestrial life? In isolation, probably not. But I wonder what evidence we have overlooked because our best scientific minds are too career conscious to risk their professional reputations.

I don’t have a professional reputation to protect, so here is my guess as to whether Oumuamua and/or the possible Proxima Centauri radio signal are actual evidence of advanced extraterrestrial life: A solid 5 percent probability.

The chance that we’ve overlooked other confirmatory evidence already captured by our scientists? A much higher chance…say, a plucky 20 percent probability.

Turning the question around, given our time on Earth, our technology, and the amount of time we’ve been broadcasting towards the stars, what are the chances an alien civilization living nearby would detect our civilization? Probably a rather good chance, but not in the way they did in the 1997 movie Contact. There is no way the 1936 Berlin Olympics broadcast would be detectable and recoverable even a few light-years away from Earth. Instead, aliens are more likely to see evidence of life in the composition of our atmosphere.

And what is my estimated probability that advanced extraterrestrial life (of the space-traveling kind) lives in our tiny corner of the Milky Way — say, within 50 light years of our sun? Given there are at least 133 Sun-like stars within this distance (many with planets in the organic life-friendly Goldilocks- zone) and probably 1,000 more planetary systems orbiting red dwarf stars, I give it an optimistic 90 percent chance that intelligent life lives nearby.

We are not likely to be alone. In fact, we probably don’t have the biggest house or the smartest kids in our own cul-de-sac. We are probably average.

I am even more convinced that we live in a galaxy densely-populated with life on every point of the advancement scale, a galactic menagerie of life that has more in common with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek than Dr. Kippling’s 3:2 odds estimate against such intelligent life abundance.

So, it won’t surprise me if someday we learn that aliens in the Proxima Centauri system were trying to contact us or that Oumuamua was a reconnaissance mission of our solar system by aliens looking for a hospitable place to explore (and perhaps spend holidays if the climate permits). I’m not saying that is what happened, I’m just saying I would not be surprised.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Be part of the solution, not the problem

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; January 16, 2021)

Could Donald Trump’s presidency have ended any other way?

What happened at — and, more importantly, in — the U.S. Capitol on January 6th was tragic. People died because an uncontrollable mob formed outside the U.S. Capitol to support a president who, at best, was recklessly naive about what a mass rally like that could turn into; and, at worst, deliberately ignited those flames.

If only Trump instead of me had gotten this fortune cookie and taken it to heart:

“If you win, act like you are used to it. If you lose, act like you love it.” — A fortune cookie

To my Biden-supporting readers, concerned that I am going to defend Trump’s actions leading up to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, rest easy. I am not.

Now is not the time to discover the mental gymnastics necessary to excuse a political act — Trump’s rally to “Stop the Steal” — that a child would have realized had the potential to provoke significant violence.

To my Trump-supporting readers, already practicing levels of emotional isolation and self-censorship that can’t possibly be good for your long-term health, you will be spared any self-important, virtue-signaling lecture about the moral righteousness of Republicans “brave” enough to disown Trump or how the GOP’s many latent malignancies were exposed (and exploited) by the Trump presidency.

No, instead, I will use the January 6th debacle to share what I am telling myself so I can help make sure something like that sh*t-carnival never happens again.

For starters…

Now is NOT the time to say, ‘They started it.

For partisan purposes, I will not compare or equate last year’s George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests in which at least 19 people died and caused approximately $1.5 billion in property damage to the Capitol riot.

Protests turning deadly are not that uncommon in U.S. history, and they’ve been instigated from both the left and right. We’ve before even seen gun violence directed at U.S. House members within the Capitol building itself (1954 Capitol shooting).

But to use the 2021 Capitol riot tragedy to propel the narrative that violence is primarily the domain of the political right is to willfully ignore instances such as the 12 people who died of lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan when a Democrat mayor, a Republican governor, and an oddly passive Environmental Protection Agency under Barack Obama carelessly switched Flint’s water supply in order to save money.

One might say that Flint is a different kind of violence and they’d be right. I think its worse. Its silent. Hard to identify its perpetrator. And even harder to secure justice and restitution.

Or how about the hundreds of mostly brown people U.S. drones and airstrikes kill every year? These military and intelligence actions, uniformly funded by bipartisan votes since the 9/11 attacks, have arguably accomplished little except make the U.S. the world’s most prolific killer of pine nut farmers in Afghanistan.

Whether we acknowledge it, deadly violence is central part of our culture and no political party, ideology, race or ethnicity is immune from being complicit in it.

Now is NOT the time to call other people conspiracy theorists — especially since we are all inclined to be one now and then.

While I emphatically oppose the overuse of mail-in voting (particularly when third parties are allowed to collect and deliver large numbers of completed ballots) on the grounds that it compromises two core principles of sound election system design — timeliness and integrity — it is regrettable that Trump and his subordinates have encouraged his voters to believe the three-headed chimera that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The evidence simply isn’t there, as hard as they try to find it.

That said, for Democrats or anyone else to call Trump voters “conspiracy theorists” is to turn a blind eye to a four-year Democratic Party and news media project called Russiagate that, in the brutal end, found no evidence of a conspiracy between the 2016 Trump campaign and the Russians to influence the 2016 election. At this point my Democrat friends usually lean in and say something like, “The Mueller investigation found insufficient evidence to indict Trump and his associates on conspiracy charges — read the Mueller report!” At which time I lean in and say, “Read the Mueller report!” There was no evidence of a conspiracy, a term with a distinct legal definitionAn agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act, along with an intent to achieve the agreement’s goal.

What the Mueller report did do was document: (1) the Trump campaign’s clumsy quest to find Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails (George Papadopoulos and Roger Stone), (2) the incoming Trump administration’s opening of a dialogue with a Russian diplomat (Sergey Kislyak) using an Trump administration representative (General Michael Flynn) and (3) the Trump organization’s effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. All of those actions were legal — as they should be.

And, yes, I am skeptical that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone — even as I believe he was the lone gunman. If that makes me a conspiracy theorist, so be it.

Now is NOT the time to shame people for believing that most of our political elites work more for the political donor class than the average American (whoever that is).

I do not believe the data supports the thesis that economic grievances are the primary factor behind Trump’s popularity within the Republican Party. Instead, the evidence says something deeper drives Trump support, more rooted in race, social status, and culture than economics.

Still, the stark realization that our political system is broken binds many Democrat progressives and Trump supporters and has been continually buried over the past four-plus years of anti-Trump media coverage: This country has a political-economic system primarily designed to fulfill the interests of a relatively small number of Americans.

In Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It (University of Chicago Press, 2017), perhaps themost important political science book in the past thirty years, political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens offer compelling evidence that public policy in the U.S. is best explained by understanding the interests of elites and not those of the average American. In fact, this disconnect is so bad in their view, it is fair to ask if Americans even live in a democracy.

“Our analysis of some 2,000 federal government policy decisions indicates that when you take account of what affluent Americans, corporations and organized interest groups want, ordinary citizens have little or no independent influence at all,” Page and Gilens said in a Washington Post interview while promoting their book. “The wealthy, corporations and organized interest groups have substantial influence. But the estimated influence of the public is statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

“This has real consequences. Millions of Americans are denied government help with jobs, incomes, health care or retirement pensions. They do not get action against climate change or stricter regulation of the financial sector or a tax system that asks the wealthy to pay a fair share. On all these issues, wealthy Americans tend to want very different things than average Americans do. And the wealthy usually win.”

And while Page and Gilen’s research rightfully has methodological detractors, the most direct statistical indicator of its validity — wealth inequality —has been growing steadily in the U.S. since 1990, with a few temporary pauses during the Clinton administration, the 2008 worldwide financial crisis, and the Trump administration (yes, you read that right).

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Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Only the disproportionate amount of the coronavirus pandemic relief money going to corporate bank accounts has put the wealthiest 1-percent back near their Obama administration highs.

So while Trump supporters don’t always marshal the best evidence-based critiques of the American political system, with a little more effort and the help of better leaders it wouldn’t be hard for them to do so.

Now is NOT the time to reduce three-fifths of our population down to words like ‘fascist’ and ‘racist.’

Are there racist Republicans? Of course there are — around 45 percent among white Republican voters, according to my analysis of the 2018 American National Election Study (Pilot). That same analysis, which used a measure of racial bias common in social science literature, found 20 percent of white Democrat voters have a more favorable view of their race relative to African-Americans and/or Hispanics. Any assumption that racism is unique or in a more toxic form among Trump supporters is challenged by the evidence.

Now IS the time for cooler heads to prevail, which eliminates almost anyone appearing on the major cable news networks in the past two weeks.

The national news media profits from the use of exaggeration and hyperbole. That can never be discounted when talking about events such as what happened January 6th.

Here is how Google searches on the term ‘coup d’état’ was affected by the Capitol riot:

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Source: Google Trends

I confess I was not horrified watching live on social media as Trump supporters forced their way into the Capitol. I was shocked, but not horrified. A small semantic difference, but an important one. At no point did I think I was watching an ongoing coup d’état.

But for my family and friends that watched the mob unfold on the major cable news networks, they thought an actual coup d’état was in motion — that this mob was viably attempting to stop the electoral college vote, overturn the 2020 election, and keep Trump in the presidency.

Where the news media has an obligation to discern fact from fantasy, they did the exact opposite on January 16th. They, in fact, helped fan the spread of disinformation coming out of news reports from inside the Capitol.

As disconcerting as the scene was on January 6th, there is a chasm-sized difference between Facebook chuckle heads causing a deadly riot and a credible attempt to take over the U.S. government.

This is how journalist Michael Tracey described the Capitol riot and the media’s predilection for hyperbole while reporting on it:

“Is it unusual for a mob to breach the Capitol Building — ransacking offices, taking goofy selfies, and disrupting the proceedings of Congress for a few hours? Yes, that’s unusual. But the idea that this was a real attempt at a “coup” — meaning an attempt to seize by force the reins of the most powerful state in world history — is so preposterous that you really have to be a special kind of deluded in order to believe it. Or if not deluded, you have to believe that using such terminology serves some other political purpose. Such as, perhaps, imposing even more stringent censorship on social media, where the “coup” is reported to have been organized. Or inflicting punishment on the man who is accused of “inciting” the coup, which you’ve spent four years desperately craving to do anyway.

Journalists and pundits, glorying in their natural state — which is to peddle as much free-flowing hysteria as possible — eagerly invoke all the same rhetoric that they’d abhor in other circumstances on civil libertarian grounds. “Domestic terrorism,” “insurrection,” and other such terms now being promoted by the corporate media will nicely advance the upcoming project of “making sure something like this never happens again.” Use your imagination as to what kind of remedial measures that will entail.

Trump’s promotion of election fraud fantasies has been a disaster not just for him, but for his “movement” — such as it exists — and it’s obvious that a large segment of the population actively wants to be deceived about such matters. But the notion that Trump has “incited” a violent insurrection is laughable. His speech Monday afternoon that preceded the march to the Capitol was another standard-fare Trump grievance fest, except without the humor that used to make them kind of entertaining.”

This is not a semantic debate. What happened on January 6th was not a credible coup attempt, despite verbal goading from a large number of the mob suggesting as much and notwithstanding Senator Ted Cruz’ poorly-timed fundraising tweet that some construed (falsely) as his attempt to lead the nascent rebellion.

Still, do not confuse my words with an exoneration of Trump’s role in the Capitol riot. To the contrary, time and contemplation has led to me to conclude Trump is wholly responsible for the deadly acts conducted (literally) under banner’s displaying his name, regardless of the fact his speech on that morning did not directly call for a violent insurrection. In truth, he explicitly said the opposite: “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”

Nonetheless, he had to know the potential was there and it was his job to lead at that moment. He didn’t.

Now IS the time to encourage more dialogue, not less — and that means fewer “Hitler” and “Communist” references (my subsequent references notwithstanding).

Along with Page and Gilen’s book on our democracy’s policy dysfunction, another influential book for me has been Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017). In it he uses historical examples to explain how governments use tragedies and crises to increase their control over society (and not usually for the common good).

For example, weeks after Adolf Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany, he used the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933, to issue The Reichstag Fire Decree which suspended most civil liberties in Germany, including freedom of the press and the right of public assembly.

“A week later, the Nazi party, having claimed that the fire was the beginning of a major terror campaign by the Left, won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections,” says Snyder. “The Reichstag fire shows how quickly a modern republic can be transformed into an authoritarian regime. There is nothing new, to be sure, in the politics of exception.”

It would be reductio ad absurdum to use Hitler’s shutting down of Communist newspapers as the forewarning to a future U.S. dictatorship caused by Twitter banning Trump. Our democracy can survive Trump’s Twitter ban. At the same time, our democracy isn’t stronger for it.

Conservative voices are now systematically targeted for censorship, as described in journalist Glenn Greenwald’s (not a conservative) recent Twitter salvo:

Final Thoughts

Today, because of what happened on January 6th, the U.S. is not as free as it was even a month ago, and it is fruitless to blame one person, a group of people, the news media or a political party for this outcome. We have all contributed in a tiny way by isolating ourselves in self-selected information bubbles that keep us as far away as humanly possible from challenging and unpleasant thoughts. [For example, I spend 99 percent of my social media time watching Nerdrotic and Doomcock torch Disney, CBS and the BBC for destroying my favorite science fiction franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who.]

A few days ago I chatted with a neighbor who continues to keep his badly dog-eared, F-150-sized Trump sign in his front yard. He talked weather, sports, and movies. Not a word on politics. I wanted to, but knew not to push it. If he had mentioned the current political situation, I would have offered this observation:

Political parties on the rise always overplay their hand. How else can you explain how the Democrats, facing an historically unpopular incumbent president — during a deep, pandemic-caused recession— could still lose seats in U.S. House elections? Republicans are one midterm election away from regaining the House of Representatives and the two years until the next congressional election is a political eternity.

The Republicans will learn from the 2021 Capitol riot.

As for the Democrats, I would just suggest this fortune cookie wisdom:

Image for post

Actually, that is wisdom for all of us.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

The status quo is back — expect them to cry about the budget deficit

By Kent R. Kroeger (January 21, 2021)

Political scientist Harold Lasswell (1902–1978) said politics is about ‘who gets what, when and how.’

He wrote it in 1936, but his words are more relevant than ever.

In the U.S., his definition is actualized in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.

In short, the U.S. Congress has the authority to create money — which they’ve done in ex cathedra abundance in the post-World War II era.

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the U.S. total public debt is 127 percent of gross domestic product (or roughly $27 trillion) — a level unseen in U.S. history (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Total U.S. public debt as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP)

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Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

And who owns most of the U.S. debt? Not China. Not Germany. Not Japan. Not the U.K. It is Americans who own roughly 70 percent of the U.S. federal debt.

Its like owing money to your family — and if you’ve ever had that weight hanging over your head, you might prefer owing the money to the Chinese.

When it comes to dishing out goodies, the U.S. Congress makes Santa Claus look like a hack.

But, unlike Saint Nick, Congress doesn’t print and give money to just anyone who’s been good— Congress plays favorites. About 70 percent goes to mandatory spending, composed of interest payments on the debt (10%), Social Security (23%), Medicare/Medicaid (23%), and other social programs (14%). As for the other 30 percent of government spending, called discretionary spending, 51 percent goes to the Department of Defense.

That leaves about three trillion dollars annually to allocate for the remaining discretionary expenditures. To that end, the Congress could just hand each of us (including children) $9,000, but that is crazy talk. Instead, we have federal spending targeted towards education, training, transportation, veteran benefits, health, income security, and the basic maintenance of government.

There was a time when three trillion dollars was a lot of money — and maybe it still is — but it is amazing how quickly that amount of money can be spent with the drop of a House gavel and a presidential signature.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Actpassed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, costed out at $2.2 trillion, with about $560 billion going to individual Americans and the remainder to businesses and state or local governments.

That is a lot of money…all of it debt-financed. And the largest share of it went directly to the bank accounts of corporate America.

And what do traditional economists tell us about the potential impact of this new (and old) federal debt? Their collective warning goes something like this:

U.S. deficits are partially financed through the sale of government securities (such as T-bonds) to individuals, businesses and other governments. The practical impact is that this money is drawn from financial reserves that could have been used for business investment, thereby reducing the potential capital stock in the economy.

Furthermore, due to their reputation as safe investments, the sale of government securities can impact interest rates when they force other types of financial assets to pay interest rates high enough to attract investors away from government securities.

Finally, the Federal Reserve can inject money into the economy either by directly printing money or through central bank purchases of government bonds, such as the quantitative easing (QE) policies implemented in response to the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. The economic danger in these cases, according to economists, is inflation (i.e., too much money chasing too few goods).

How does reality match with economic theory?

I am not an economist and don’t pretend to have mastered all of the quantitative literature surrounding the relationship between federal debt, inflation and interest rates, but here is what the raw data tells me: If there is a relationship, it is far from obvious (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Relationship between Federal Debt, Inflation and Interest Rates

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Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Despite a growing federal debt, which has gone from just 35 percent of GDP in the mid-1970s to over 100 percent of GDP following the 2008 worldwide financial crisis (blue line), interest rates and annual inflation rates have fallen over that same period. Unless there is a 30-year lag, there is no clear long-term relationship between federal deficits and interest rates or inflation. If anything, the post-World War II relationship has been negative.

Given mainstream economic theory, how is that possible?

The possible explanations are varied and complex, but among the reasons for continued low inflation and interest rates, despite large and ongoing federal deficits, is an abundant labor supply, premature monetary tightening by the Federal Reserve (keeping the U.S. below full employment), globalization, and technological (productivity) advances.

Nonetheless, the longer interest rates and inflation stay subdued amidst a fast growing federal debt, it becomes increasingly likely heterodox macroeconomic theories — such as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) — will grow in popularity among economists. At some point, consensus economic theory must catch up to the facts on the ground.

What is MMT?

Investopedia’s Deborah D’Souza offers a concise explanation:

Modern Monetary Theory says monetarily sovereign countries like the U.S., U.K., Japan, and Canada, which spend, tax, and borrow in a fiat currency they fully control, are not operationally constrained by revenues when it comes to federal government spending.

Put simply, such governments do not rely on taxes or borrowing for spending since they can print as much as they need and are the monopoly issuers of the currency. Since their budgets aren’t like a regular household’s, their policies should not be shaped by fears of rising national debt.

MMT challenges conventional beliefs about the way the government interacts with the economy, the nature of money, the use of taxes, and the significance of budget deficits. These beliefs, MMT advocates say, are a hangover from the gold standard era and are no longer accurate, useful, or necessary.

More importantly, these old Keynesian arguments — empirically tenuous, in my opinion — needlessly restrict the range of policy ideas considered to address national problems such as universal access to health care, growing student debt and climate change. [Thank God we didn’t get overly worried about the federal debt when we were fighting the Axis in World War II!]

Progressive New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has consistently shown an understanding of MMT’s key tenets. When asked by CNN’s Chris Cuomo how she would pay for the social programs she wants to pass, her answer was simple (and I paraphrase): The federal government can pay for Medicare-for-All, student debt forgiveness, and the Green New Deal the same way it pays for a nearly trillion dollar annual defense budgetjust print the money.

In fact, that is essentially what this country has done since President Lyndon Johnson decided to prosecute a war in Southeast Asia at the same time he launched the largest set of new social programs since the New Deal.

Such assertions, however, generate scorn from status quo-anchored political and media elites, who are now telling the incoming Biden administration that the money isn’t there to offer Americans the $2,000 coronavirus relief checks promised by Joe Biden as recently as January 14th. [I’ll bet the farm I don’t own that these $2,000 relief checks will never happen.]

Cue the journalistic beacon of the economic status quo — The Wall Street Journal — which plastered this headline above the front page fold in its January 19th edition: Janet Yellen’s Debt Burden: $21.6 Trillion and Growing

WSJ writers Kate Davidson and Jon Hilsenrath correctly point out that the incoming U.S. Treasury secretary, Yellen, was the Chairwoman of the Clinton administration’s White House Council of Economic Advisers and among its most prominent budget deficit hawks, and offer this warning: “The Biden administration will now contend with progressives who want even more spending, and conservatives who say the government is tempting fate by adding to its swollen balance sheet.”

This misrepresentation of the federal debt’s true nature is precisely what MMT advocates are trying to fight, who note that when Congress spends money, the U.S. Treasury creates a debit from its operating account (through the Federal Reserve) and deposits this Congress-sanctioned new money into private bank accounts and the commercial banking sector. In other words, the federal debt boosts private savings — which, according to MMT advocates, is a good thing when the “debt” addresses any slack (i.e., unused economic resources) in the economy.

Regardless of MMT’s validity, this heterodox theory reminds us of how poorly mainstream economic thinking describes the relationship between federal spending and the economy. From what I’ve seen after 40 years of watching politicians warn about the impending ‘economic meltdown’ caused by our growing national debt, consensus economic theory seems more a tool for politicians to scold each other (and their constituents) about the importance of the government paying its bills than it is a genuine way to understand how the U.S. economy works.

Yet, I think everyone can agree on this: Money doesn’t grow on trees, it grows on Capitol Hill. And as the U.S. total public debt has grown, so have the U.S. economy and wealth inequality — which are intricately interconnected through, as Lasswell described 85 years ago, a Congress (and president) who decide ‘who gets what, when and how.’

  • K.R.K.

Send comments and your economic theories to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Beadle (the Data Crunching Robot) Predicts the NFL Playoffs

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; January 15, 2021)

Beadle (the Data Crunching Robot); Photo by Hello Robotics (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Since we are a mere 24 hours away from the start of the NFL Divisional Round playoffs, I will dispense with any long-winded explanation of how my data loving robot (Beadle) came up with her predictions for those games.

Suffice it to say, despite her Bayesian roots, Beadle is rather lazy statistician who typically eschews the rigors and challenges associated with building statistical models from scratch for the convenience of cribbing off the work of others.

Why do all that work when you can have others do it for you?

There is no better arena to award Beadle’s sluggardness than predicting NFL football games, as there are literally hundreds of statisticians, data modelers and highly-motivated gamblers who publicly share their methodologies and resultant game predictions for all to see.

Why reinvent the wheel?

With this frame-of-mind, Beadle has all season long been scanning the Web for these game predictions and quietly noting those data analysts with the best prediction track records. Oh, heck, who am I kidding? Beadle stopped doing that about four weeks into the season.

What was the point? It was obvious from the beginning that all, not most, but ALL of these prediction models use mostly the same variables and statistical modeling techniques and, voilà, come up with mostly the same predictions.

FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model predicted back in September that the Kansas City Chiefs would win this year’s Super Bowl over the New Orleans Saints. And so did about 538 other prediction models.

Why? Because they are all using the same data inputs and whatever variation in methods they employ to crunch that data (e.g., Bayesians versus Frequentists) is not different enough to substantively change model predictions.

But what if the Chiefs are that good? Shouldn’t the models reflect that reality?

And it can never be forgotten that these NFL prediction models face a highly dynamic environment where quarterbacks and other key players can get injured over the course of a season, fundamentally changing a team prospects — a fact FiveThirtyEight’s model accounts for with respect to QBs — and the reason for which preseason model predictions (and Vegas betting lines) need to be updated from week-to-week.

Beadle and I are not negative towards statistical prediction models. To the contrary, given the infinitely complex contexts in which they are asked to make judgments, we couldn’t be more in awe of the fact that many of them are very predictive.

Before I share Beadle’s predictions for the NFL Divisional Round, I should extend thanks to these eight analytic websites that shared their data and methodologies: teamrankings.com, ESPN’s Football Power Index, sagarin.com, masseyratings.com, thepowerrank.com, ff-winners.com, powerrankingsguru.com, and simmonsratings.com.

It is from these prediction models that Beadle aggregated their NFL team scores to generate her own game predictions.

Beadle’s Predictions for the NFL Divisional Playoffs

Without any further adieu, here is how Beadle ranks the remaining NFL playoff teams on her Average Power Index (API), which is merely each team’s standardized (z-score) after averaging the index scores for the eight prediction models:

Analysis by Kent R. Kroeger (NuQum.com)

And from those API values, Beadle makes the following game predictions (including point spreads and scores) through the Super Bowl:

No surprise: Beadle predicts the Kansas City Chiefs will win the Super Bowl in a close game with the New Orleans Saints.

But you didn’t need Beadle to tell you that. FiveThirtyEight.com made that similar prediction five months ago.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

The data do not support the Miami Dolphins bailing on Tua Tagovailoa

[Headline photo: Two cheerleaders for the Miami Dolphins football team (Photo by Jonathan Skaines; Used under the CCA-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)]

First, an apology to my wife. The above photo was the one of the few Miami Dolphin-related public copyright photos I could find on short notice. It should not be regarded, however, as an endorsement of fake smiles.

Now, to the issue at hand…

Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa was the fifth overall pick and second quarterback taken in the 2020 National Football League (NFL) draft.

Drafted by the Miami Dolphins, Tagovailoa was drafted behind Heisman winner Joe Burrow (QB — Cincinnati Bengals) and Ohio State’s Chase Young (DE — Washington Sea Dogs) and was one of four quarterbacks selected in the first round. San Diego took the third quarterback, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, as the sixth overall pick and Green Bay— mysteriously — thought Utah State’s Jordan Love, the 26th overall pick and fourth quarterback taken, was that final piece needed for the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers to win another Super Bowl (…and, even more mysteriously, Love’s clipboard-holding skills seem to be what the Cheeseheads needed this season).

Normally when an NFL team drafts a quarterback as high as fifth, they give him at least a few years to earn his first round contract. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave first overall pick Jameis Winston five years, as did the Tennessee Titans with second overall pick Marcus Mariota. Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez were offered four years to prove their value to their respective teams, the St. Louis Rams and New York Jets. The oft-injured Robert Griffin III — the Washington Federals’ second pick in the 2012 draft —had three years. Even purple drank jugging rumors didn’t stop JaMarcus Russell from getting two solid years of opportunity from the Oakland Raiders.

And, keep in mind, the Dolphins’ 2012 first round pick — and current Titans quarterback — Ryan Tannehill gave the team six mediocre seasons before they jettisoned him in 2019. The Dolphins were patient with Tannehill — who has turned into a high-quality quarterback — so why not with Tagovailoa?

While being impatient with his head coaches, having had six since buying the team in 2008, Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross, who famously said “there’s a lot of good and I believe there’s a lot of bad” regarding his friend President Donald Trump, has a low-profile personality and is not known for creating drama.

Yet, if he allows his football team’s brain trust to draft another quarterback in the first round, he will get more than drama, he will completely undercut the already fragile confidence of his current starter in Tagovailoa.

So why are a significant number of NFL draft experts seriously recommending the Dolphins use their third pick in the 2021 draft on another quarterback? Writing for ESPN, three out of seven experts said the Dolphins should use their pick on another quarterback:

Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Quarterback. Key word is “address.” Miami needs to thoroughly evaluate the top quarterbacks in the draft, then weigh the pros and cons of not taking one and sticking with Tagovailoa as the unquestioned starter. Miami owes it to its fans and organization to at least do that. This is the one position where a surplus isn’t a bad thing. Keep drafting passers high if necessary. Tua might be the guy regardless. And if the Dolphins decide he’s better than Zach Wilson or Justin Fields or Trey Lance, then grab the offensive tackle or playmaking receiver Miami needs around him.

Mike Clay, fantasy football writer:: Quarterback. You don’t have to agree with me on this, but I’ve always been in the camp of “If you’re not sure you have a franchise quarterback, you don’t have a franchise quarterback.” From my perspective, we don’t know whether Tua Tagovailoa is the answer, as he didn’t look the part and was benched multiple times as a rookie. Miami’s future looks bright after a 10-win season in Brian Flores’ second campaign, so it’s unlikely this franchise will be picking in the top five again anytime soon. If they aren’t convinced Tua is the franchise quarterback, they need to avoid sunk-cost fallacy and a trip to long-term quarterback purgatory.

Seth Walder: Quarterback. Tagovailoa still might pan out, but quarterback is too important for Miami to put all of its eggs in that basket, especially after he finished 26th in QBR and clearly did not earn complete trust from the coaching staff. Take a shot at whichever of the top three quarterbacks is left on the board while keeping Tagovailoa, at least for now. That way, Miami can maximize its chances of finding its franchise QB.

And the question must be asked, why? Has Tagovailoa grossly under-performed? If Miami drafts another quarterback just a year after getting Tagovailoa, the only conclusion one can make is that the Dolphins consider him a bust, but with only a year under his belt is that even possible to know?

Before assessing Tagovailoa’s performance in his rookie season, we should consider the possible comparisons. The first comparison is the most obvious: compare Tagovailoa to other quarterback’s first significant playing year (which I define as a quarterback’s first year with at least three starts and 50 or more pass attempts — admittedly, this is a low threshold).

Also, for comparability sake, I’ve decided here to only compare quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2005, the year in which www.pro-football-reference.com starts computing ESPN’s Total QBR Index (QBR) for quarterbacks. While other quarterback metrics have been posited as better measures of quarterback quality — passer rating, adjusted net yards per pass attempt — none are perfect as they don’t directly account for the style of a team’s offense, the quality of a team’s personnel, and the quality of the defense, all of which play a significant role in how a quarterback plays. In the end, I went with the statistic that best predicts wins: ESPN’S QBR.

[I should add that while the QBR does not consider the strength-of-schedule (SoS) faced by a quarterback, it is easily computed and nicely demonstrated in a past analysis by Chase Stuart on footballperspective.com. In a follow-up to this essay, I will incorporate SoS information into player performance metrics for the 2020 season.]

The second comparison is Tagovailoa’s from game-to-game. Did he improve? And the final comparison is the value of the QBR itself. By design, ESPN’s QBR is an approximate objective standard by which to judge quarterbacks: QBR’s exceeding 50 represent above-average quarterbacks when compared to all quarterbacks since 2006.

I will dispense with the last comparison first: Tagovailoa’s rookie year QBR, based on nine starts, 290 pass attempts, a 64.1 percent completion rate and 11 touchdown passes against five interceptions is an above-average 52.9 (which puts him at 26th out of 35 quarterbacks for whom the QBR was computed).

Well, on this comparison at least, Tagovailoa does not stand out in a positive way. But perhaps his performance improved over the season? Hard to say. His first start in Week 8 against the Los Angeles Rams — the NFL’s best passing defense — led to a 29.3 QBR, and over his next eight starts he achieved QBRs over 60 against the Arizona Cardinals (Week 9, QBR 87.3), the Los Angeles Chargers (Week 10, QBR 66.5), the Cincinnati Bengals (Week 13, QBR 74.5) and the Las Vegas Raiders (Week 16, QBR 64.4). Conversely, he struggled against the Denver Broncos (Week 11, QBR 22.9), the Kansas City Chiefs (Week 14, QBR 30.2). and the Buffalo Bills (Week 17, QBR 23.3) — all good passing defenses.

After these first two comparisons, it is hard to decide if Tagovailoa is going to be Miami’s franchise quarterback for the future. As with almost any rookie quarterback, there are positives and negatives, and neither overwhelms the other in Tagovailoa’s case.

However, in our final comparison, I believe Tagovailoa has more than proven it is far too soon for the Dolphins to spend a Top 3 draft choice on another quarterback.

First, we should look at the season-to-season QBRs of quarterbacks who are arguably “franchise” quarterbacks and who were picked in the first round (see Figure 1 below). And if you don’t consider Kyler Murray, Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield or Jared Goff franchise quarterbacks, check in with me in a couple of years. All four are currently in a good, mid-career trajectory by historical standards.

Figure 1: Season-to-Season QBRs for NFL “franchise” Quarterbacks Selected in the 1st Round since 2005

Image for post
Data Source: www.pro-football-reference.com

Three things jump out to me from Figure 1: (1) Franchise quarterbacks rarely have seasons with dismal overall QBRs (<40), (2) Aaron Rodgers really is that great, and (3) Patrick Mahomes, still early in his career, is already in the QBR stratosphere (…and he almost has nowhere to go but down).

How does Tagovailoa compare to my selection of franchise quarterbacks and non-franchise quarterbacks, as well as the other quarterbacks in the 2020 first round draft class (Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert)? As it turns out, pretty good (see Figure 2).

As for the non-franchise quarterbacks, my most controversial assignments are Cam Newton and Joe Flacco. I’m welcome to counter-arguments, but their inclusion in either group does not change the basic conclusion from Figure 2 with respect to Tagovailoa.

Figure 2: Season-to-Season QBRs for NFL “franchise” & “non-franchise” Quarterbacks Selected in the 1st Round since 2005

Image for post
Data Source: www.pro-football-reference.com

In comparison to the other quarterbacks and their first substantive year in the NFL, Tagovailoa’s 2020 QBR is slightly below the average for franchise quarterbacks (52.9 versus 54.6, respectively), and is significantly higher than for non-franchise quarterbacks (52.9 versus 46.1, respectively).

Among his 2020 draft peers, Tagovailoa’s QBR is comparable to Burrow’s (who missed six games due to a season-ending injury), but a far cry from Herbert’s (QBR = 69.7), who is already showing clear signs of super stardom ahead.

Experts are happy to debate whether Tagovailoa has the ability to “throw guys open,” or whether the level of receiver talent he had at Alabama masked his deficiencies. He may well never be a franchise quarterback by any common understanding of the category.

But given his performance in his rookie campaign and how it compares to other quarterbacks, it is unfathomable to me that the Dolphins could entertain even the slightest thought of drafting a quarterback in the 2021 draft. I hope they are not and it is merely some ESPN talking heads with that wild hair up their asses.

  • K.R.K.

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Why opinion journalists are sometimes bad at their job (including myself)

[Headline graphic by Dan Murrell; Data source: RottenTomatoes.com]

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; January 4, 2020)

Opinion journalists, such as movie critics, bring biases to every opinion they hold and complete objectivity is an ideal few, if any, attain.

The scientific literature on this trait common to all humans, not just opinion journalists, is vast and well-established. The lenses through which we interact with the world are multilayered and varied, each of us with our own unique configuration.

The science tells us we tend to overestimate our own knowledge while underestimating the knowledge of others (“Lake Wobegon effect“); we tend to believe an idea that has been repeated to us multiple times or is easy to understand, regardless of its actual veracity (“illusory truth effect“); we overestimate the importance recent information over historic information (“recency effect“); we offer our opinions to others that will be viewed more favorably by them and often suppress our unpopular opinions (“social desirability bias“); and perhaps the most dangerous bias of all: confirmation bias — our inclination to search for, process and remember information that confirms our preconceptions to the exclusion of information that might challenge them.

But nowhere are  human biases more socially destructive than when opinion journalists project onto others the motivations for their personal opinions and actions. It is often called the illusion of transparency and it occurs when we overestimate our own ability to understand what drives someone else’s opinions and behaviors. [The other side of that same bias occurs when we overestimate the ability of others to know our own motivations.]

The illusion of transparency often leads to fundamental attribution errors in which the explanations for the opinions and behaviors of others is falsely reduced to psychological and personality-based factors (“racist,” “sexist,” “lazy,” “stupid,” etc.).

In combination with intergroup bias — which takes the illusion of transparency to the group level and causes members of a group to give preferential treatment to their own group, often leading to a group’s intellectual atrophy as they make it difficult for new ideas to be introduced into the group — this tendency to falsely infer the motives of others can create systematic, group-level misunderstandings, leading potentially to violent social conflicts.

Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matthew 7:1-3 KJV)

I know something of these biases as I engage in when I write, including in my last opinion essay about the unusual proportion of male movie critics that gave Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) a positive review (“Are movie critics journalists?“). Though having never met one of these male movie critics, I still felt comfortable attributing their positive reviews to WW84 as a product of being handpicked by WW84’s movie studio (Warner Bros.) for early access to the movie, along with their desire to “please their editors and audience” (a presumed manifestation of the social desirability bias) and other career motives.

Was I right? I offered little evidence beyond mere conjecture as to why the few early negative reviews for WW84 came almost entirely from female movie critics (I basically said liberal men are “useless cowards“). For that I am regretful. I can do better.

Yet, I still believe there was a clear bias among some movie critics in favor of WW84 for reasons unrelated to the actual quality of the movie. How is it possible that, out of the 19 male movie critics in Rotten Tomatoes’ “Top Critics” list who reviewed WW84 in the first two days of its Dec. 15th pre-release, not one gave WW84 a bad review. Not one.

If we assume the reviews were independent of one another and that the actual quality of WW84 warranted 80 percent positive reviews (an assumption purely for argument’s sake), then the probability that we’d get 19 consecutive positive reviews from the top male movie critics is a mere 1.4 percent ( = 0.8^19). If we use WW84’s current Rotten Tomatoes score among all critics of 60 percent as our assumption, that probability goes to near zero.

I can only draw one conclusion: Early reviews by the top male critics were excessively positive for WW84.

As to why this happened, be my guest with your own theories and hypotheses. Do I think Warner Bros. paid for good WW84 reviews? That is the typical straw man argument Hollywood journalists like to use to discredit critics of entertainment journalism. I have no evidence of money changing hands between Warner Bros. and selected movie critics and  I have never suggested as much.

Do I think editors, peer pressure, and even the general public mood weigh heavily on movie critic reviews? Absolutely, yes, and scientific evidence in other social contexts suggest this is likely the case.

Which is why when I read other journalists and movie critics suggest that negative WW84 reviews are motivated by deep-rooted sexism, I cry, “Foul!”

No, critics of “Wonder Woman 1984” are not sexist

In a recent article for Forbes, movie critics and screenwriter Mark Hughes concludes that much of the criticism of WW84, especially from male critics, is motivated by nothing less than sexism. He writes:

Questions of the film’s tone and action sequences are frankly of little interest to me, since most of the same folks offering up those complaints were eager to praise the silliness of many other superhero films. One day it’s “these films take themselves too seriously,” and the next it’s “this film is silly and should take itself more seriously.” Wash, rinse, repeat as necessary (or as clicks and payday necessitate).

Likewise, when men helm films we see far more willingness to weigh “that which works” as more important than “that which doesn’t work,” and allow them room to come back later and impress us. A woman, though? Not so much, as Patty Jenkins has been personally insulted and condemned by voices declaring Wonder Woman 1984 an inexcusable offense to humanity. If you think I’m being hyperbolic about the accusations hurled against the film and its defenders, go look around social media and press coverage for 30 seconds, and then come back to finish this article…

In other words, according to Hughes, we don’t have to be conscious of our deeply ingrained, latent sexism to be subject to its power. Merely disliking a movie directed by a woman proves its existence.

Let me start by noting that many of the male (and female) movie critics that did not like WW84, gave glowing reviews for director Patty Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman movie in 2017.  Chris Stuckmann is as good an example as any in the flaw of Hughes’ sexism charge: Stuckmann’s 2017 Wonder Woman review. His WW84 review.

Did Stuckmann’s latent sexism only kick-in after 2017? Of course not. The more likely explanation is that Stuckmann realizes Wonder Woman (2017) is a very good movie and WW84 is not.

But since Hughes is carelessly willing to suggest critics like Stuckmann are driven by subconscious sexist tendencies when they review movies by female directors, let me conjecture that Hughes had a much more powerful motivation for giving WW84 a good review.

Hughes is a screenwriter (as well as being a movie critic) and one of the well-known attributes of Hollywood culture is that directors, writers, and actors do not publicly like to piss on someone else’s work. It can be career suicide, particularly when that person directed one of the best movies of 2017 (Wonder Woman) and is widely admired within the industry. Even if sexism is alive and well in Hollywood (and I have no doubt that it is), by virtue alone of having helmed two great movies in her young career — Monster (2003) and Wonder Woman (2017) — Jenkins possesses real power by any Hollywood standard.

That Hughes liked WW84 is not surprising. I would have been stunned if Hughes hadn’t.

My complaint about Hughes’ recent Forbes article chastising the “harsher” critics of WW84 is not that Hughes thought WW84 was a good film. That Hughes appreciated the positive themes in WW84 enough to overlook the movie’s obvious flaws is truly OK. [My family, myself notwithstanding, loved the movie.] I’ve loved many movies that, objectively, were rather bad (Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man comes to mind).

My problem with Hughes (and, unfortunately, far too many writers and journalists at present) is that he throws around psychological theories and personal accusations without a shred of empirical evidence.

Hughes doesn’t know the motivations for why someone writes a critical review any more than I do.

But Hughes takes it one step farther. He implies there’s a dark, antisocial aspect to someone who doesn’t like WW84. He asks: “Do you look at the world around you and decide we need LESS storytelling that appeals to our idealism and posits a world in which grace and mercy are transformative, in which people can look at the truth and make a choice in that moment to try to be better?”

No, Mr. Hughes, I do not think we need LESS storytelling that appeals to our idealism and better angels. But I believe we need MORE GOOD storytelling that does that. Unfortunately,  in my opinion, WW84  does not meet that standard. Furthermore, when Hollywood and our entertainment industry does it poorly, I fear it risks generating higher levels of cynicism towards the very ideals you (and I) endorse.

As one of my government bosses once said as he scolded me, “Kent, good intentions don’t matter. I want results.”

I think that dictum applies to Hollywood movies too.

  • K.R.K.

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Are movie critics journalists? Reviews for “Wonder Woman 1984” suggest many are not.

[Headline photo: Gal Gadot speaking at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con International, in San Diego, California (Photo by Gage Skidmore; used under CCA-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.]

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 31, 2020)

A friend of mine from graduate school — whose opinions I trusted, particularly when it came to movies and popular culture (for example, he introduced me to South Park)— shocked me one day when he told me he hated The Godfather.

How can someone who loves movies hate The Godfather?! How could someone so well-informed — he is today a recognized expert in the role and social importance of myth-making —be so utterly wrong?

The answer is quite simple: Danny prided himself on being a critic and he had a genuine problem with The Godfather, particularly the acting and dramatic pacing. [A similarly harsh critique of The Godfather was written in 1972 by Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic.]

The reality is, thoughtful people can have dramatic differences in opinion, especially when it comes to things as subjective as movies and entertainment. [I love Monty Python and my Stanford PhD wife thinks they are moronic. Both opinions can be correct.]

Still, I’m convinced if you put 100 well-educated movie critics in a room to discuss The Godfather, 95 of them would say the movie is an American classic, and most would probably put one or both of the first two Godfather movies in the Top 20 of all time. The ‘wisdom of the crowd’ represents something real and cannot be ignored.

At the same time, those five Godfather-dismissing critics are no less real and their opinions are no less meritorious — assuming they aren’t pursuing an agenda unrelated to judging the quality of The Godfather.

But that is the problem I fear contaminates too many movie reviews today. Movie critics, by training and platform, are ‘opinion journalists.’ As such, they filter their opinions through a desire to please (impress) an immediate social circle (and bosses), as well as an influence from the mood of the times. We all do that, as it is only human.

But good journalists, including movie critics, fight that tendency — or, at least, I believe they should make the attempt.

In the case of movie criticism, to not do so risks compromising the value of the critiques. At best, it renders the criticism worthless, and at worst, malevolent.

It is fair to ask at this point, what the hell am I talking about?

I am not going to review Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) here. I enjoy reading movie criticisms, but I don’t enjoy writing them. However, if I did review WW84, it might sound something like this review by Alteori:

As much as I thought Gal Gadot raised her game in WW84, I didn’t think anybody else did. But my overall reaction to WW84 was driven, in part, by what I did before I even saw the movie.

My first mistake (besides grudgingly subscribing to HBOMax — whose horrible, wretched parent company I once worked at for a short time) was to read one of the embargo-period reviews. Those are reviews from movie critics pre-selected by Warner Bros. to see the film prior to a wider release.

Normally, for movies I am excited to see, I avoid the corporate hype and eschew the early reviews. I want my opinion to be uncorrupted by other opinions. WW84 was one of those movies because, as this blog can attest, I am a huge fan of the first Wonder Woman movie (2017), particularly Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the superhero and the way director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg avoided turning the film into a platform for some watered-down, partisan political agenda. Wonder Woman (2017) was a film made for everyone.

[By the way, as a complete digression, I don’t care when people mispronounce names, especially when it is a name outside the someone’s native language. But I don’t understand why still 9-out-of-10 movie reviewers pronounce Gal Gadot’s name wrong. It couldn’t be simpler. It is Gal (as in guys and gals) and Guh-dote (as in, ‘my grandmother dotes on me’). Here is Gal to help you with the pronunciation.]

But, for reasons unknown, I decided to read one “Top Critic” review of WW84 before seeing the film myself. I will not reveal the reviewer’s name; yet, after seeing WW84, I have no idea what movie that person saw because it wasn’t the WW84 I saw.

This is the gist of that early review (for which I paraphrase in order to protect the identity and reputation of that clearly conflicted reviewer):

Wonder Woman 1984 is the movie we’ve all been waiting for!

If I had only read the review more closely, I would have seen the red flags. Words and phrases like “largely empty spectacle,” “narratively unwieldy,” “overwrought,” “overdrawn,” and “self-indulgent” were sprinkled throughout, if only I had been open to those hints.

In fact, after reading nearly one hundred WW84 reviews in the last two weeks, I see now that movie critics will often leave a series of breadcrumb clues indicating what they really thought of the movie. At the office they may be shills for the powerful movie industry, but similar to Galen Erso’s design of the Death Star, they will plant the seed of destruction for even the most hyped Hollywood movie. In other words, they may sell their souls to keep their jobs, but they still know a crappy movie when they see one.

Maybe ‘crappy’ is too strong, but WW84 was not a good movie — not by any objective measure that I can imagine. Don’t take my word for it. Read just a few of the reviews on RottenTomatoes.com by movie critics that still put their professional integrity ahead of their party schedule: Hannah WoodheadFionnuala HalliganAngelica Jade Bastién, and Stephanie Zacharek,

It’s not a coincidence that these movie critics are all women. It is clear to me that they have been gifted a special superpower which allows them to see through Hollywood’s faux-wokeness sh*t factory. That male movie critics are too afraid to see it, much less call it out, is further proof that one of the byproducts of the #MeToo movement is that liberal men are increasingly useless in our society. They can’t even review a goddamn movie with any credibility. Why are we keeping them around? What role do they serve?

Alright. Now I’ve gone too far. The vodka martinis are kicking in. I’m going to stop before I type something that generates the FBI’s attention.

I’ll end with this: I still love Gal Gadot and if WW84 had more of her and less of everyone else in the movie, I would have enjoyed the movie more. Hell, if they filmed Gal Gadot eating a Cobb salad for two-and-a-half-hours I would have given the movie two stars out of four.

To conclude, if you get one thing from this essay, it is this: Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote. Gal Guh-dote…

  • K.R.K.

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Why the Season 2 finale of ‘The Mandalorian’ matters to so many of us

[Headline graphic: The Mandalorian (Graphic by Gambo7; used under the CCA-Share Alike 4.0 Int’l license]

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; December 27, 2020)

________________________________

“As in the case of many great films, maybe all of them, we don’t keep going back for the plot.” – Martin Scorsese

“I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.” – Alfred Hitchcock

________________________________

After over 55-plus years, I can count on two hands and a couple of toes the number of times I’ve cried watching a movie or TV program.

I cried when Mary Tyler Moore turned off that lights at WJM-TV.

I cried when Radar O’Reilly announced Colonel Henry Blake’s death.

I cried when the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Soviets in 1980.

I cried when Howard Cosell told us that John Lennon had been killed.

I cried when ET said goodbye to Elliot.

I cried when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

I cried when baby Jessica was pulled from a 22-foot well.

I cried when Mandy Moore’s character dies at the end of “A Walk to Remember.”

I cried when Harry Potter and his wife sent their son off to Hogwarts.

I cried when Barack Obama became our 44th president.

I cried when the 33 Chilean miners were rescued.

I cried when the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series.

But I can’t remember crying harder than while watching this season’s final episode of Disney’s “The Mandalorian,” when Luke Skywalker rescues Grogu (more popularly known as ‘Baby Yoda’) from the Empire’s indefatigable, post-Return of the Jedi remnants.

Since its December 18th release on Disney+, YouTube has been flooded with “reaction” videos of Star Wars fans as they watched a CGI-version of a young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) remove his hood before Grogu’s caretaker, Din Djarin (a.k.a., The Mandalorian), and offers to train Grogu in the ways of The Force.

The “reaction” videos range from the highly-staged to the very charming and personal — all are illustrative of the deep affection so many people have for the original Star Wars characters, particularly Luke Skywalker.

For me, however, it is hard to detach from this emotional, collective experience the knowledge that it never would have happened if Lucasfilm (i.e., Disney), under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, hadn’t completely botched the Disney sequel movies, starting with “The Force Awakens,” director J. J. Abrams’ visually stunning but soulless attempt at creating a new Star Wars myth, followed by “The Last Jedi,” director Rian Johnson’s inexplicable platform for pissing on the original Star Wars mythos, and ending with “The Rise of Skywalker,” J.J. Abrams’ failed attempt to undo Johnson’s irreparable damage (along with the desecration Abrams himself laid upon the Star Wars brand with “The Force Awakens”).

Though opinions vary among Star Wars fans as to the extent Disney has alienated its core Star Wars audience, almost all agree that Disney’s most unforgivable sin was disrespecting the character of Luke Skywalker, who had been defined during  George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy as an incurable optimist with an unbreakable loyalty to his family and friends (Princess Leia Organa and Han Solo).

We cried at Season 2’s end of the “The Mandalorian,” not just for the beauty of the moment, but also because of the depth of Disney and Lucasfilm’s betrayal.

Actor Mark Hamill, himself, as he promoted (!) “The Last Jedi,” perfectly described the cultural vandalism perpetrated by Kennedy, Abrams and Johnson on Luke Skywalker:

“I said to Rian (Johnson), Jedis don’t give up. I mean, even if he had a problem he would maybe take a year to try and regroup, but if he made a mistake he would try and right that wrong. So, right there we had a fundamental difference, but it’s not my story anymore, it’s somebody else’s story and Rian needed me to be a certain way to make the ending effective…This is the next generation of Star Wars, so I almost had to think of Luke as another character — maybe he’s ‘Jake Skywalker.’ He’s not my Luke Skywalker.”

That is not exactly what Johnson wanted to hear from one of his “Last Jedi” actors just as the movie was being released. But Hamill’s words spoke for many long time Star Wars fans.
In fact, many of us believe Disney and Lucasfilm’s Kennedy, with ruthless premeditation, intended to use the Disney sequel movies to malign Lucas’ Star Wars characters (with the exception of Princess Leia) in favor of the Disney-ordained Star Wars cast: Rey Palpatine, Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), Poe Dameron, and Finn.
I’m fairly confident in this prediction: Nobody 10, 20 or 30 years from now is going to care about Rey, Kylo, Poe and Finn. But I’m 99 percent sure we’ll still be talking about Luke Skywalker, if only in recalling how Disney f**ked up one of the most iconic heroes in movies history. Rey inspires no one — including young girls, who apparently were Lucasfilm’s targeted demo with the Disney sequel movies.
Had Disney trusted their own market research, they would have known the only reliable target was the tens of millions of original Star Wars fans (and their children and grandchildren), whose loyalty to Star Wars was proven when they still showed up at theaters for Disney’s three sequel movies, even after their devotion was insulted with the unnecessary diminution of the once dashing and heroic Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and, of course, Luke.
Had Disney treated their core audience with respect, Star Wars fans now might be anticipating Rey’s next cinematic adventure, instead of drowning themselves in the bittersweet giddiness of Luke’s triumphant return on “The Mandalorian.”
To be sure, a lot of Star Wars fans want to put Luke’s return in its proper perspective. We still have to accept that — under the Disney story line — Luke is destined to slump off to a remote island, drinking titty-milk from the teet of a giant alien sea cow while whining that he couldn’t stop his nephew from killing off Luke’s young Jedi pupils (including presumably Grogu).
Despite the joyousness of Luke on “The Mandalorian,” the dark cloud of Abrams and Johnson’s bad storytelling skills still looms large.
But even the biggest Disney critics are allowing themselves to enjoy what Jon Favreau and David Filoni — the creative team behind “The Mandalorian” — are doing for the fans.
One such person is Nerdrotic (Gary Buechler), the bearded crown prince of the amorphous  Fandom Menace — a term used to describe a social-media-powered subculture of disgruntled Star Wars fans who particularly aggrieved at how Lucasfilm has dismantled Star Wars canon, allegedly using the Star Wars brand to pursue a “woke” political agenda at the expense of good storytelling.
“For the first time in a long time, the majority of the fans were happy, and the question you have to ask upfront is, ‘Disney, was it really that hard to show respect to the hero of generations, Luke Skywalker?'” says Buechler. “It must have been, because it took them 8 or 9 years to do it, but when they did do it, it sent a clear message that people still want this type of storytelling, and in this specific case, they want Luke Skywalker because he is Star Wars.”
For me, Luke’s return in “The Mandalorian” is a reminder that great moments are what make movies (and TV shows) memorable, not plot or story lines. People love and remember moments.
As someone who camped out in a dirty theater alleyway in Waterloo, Iowa in the Summer of 1977 to see a movie that was then just called “Star Wars,” I am going to enjoy what Favreau and Filoni gave us on “The Mandalorian” — the moment where the Luke Skywalker we love and remember from childhood returned to Star Wars.
– K.R.K.
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Postscript: In recent days, Lucasfilm and Disney social media operatives have been posting messages reminding us that Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, is a “fan” of the Disney sequel movies, including Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi.”

Perhaps that is true. But I also believe Hamill has made it clear in the past couple of days where his heart resides — with the George Lucas’ Luke Skywalker: