Africa’s Sahel nations still paying price for Obama’s Libya policy

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; June 3, 2021)

“We have not yet finished our mission. But we do not foresee staying indefinitely. Once the sovereignty of Mali is restored, once MISMA (a UN-backed African military force) can replace our own troops, we will withdraw,” the French President told a news conference in Bamako, Mali.

Those were the words of French President François Hollande in February 2013, days after a French-led military offensive had driven Islamist rebels out of the country’s north, except for the city of Kidal.

Eight years later — French troops remain in Mali.

And in that time since President Hollande’s optimistic appraisal of the situation, Mali has weathered two coup d’états — the last occurring a little over a week ago when the Mali military, without resistance from the French military in Mali, detained the country’s president, prime minister, and defense minister. Though widely condemned in formal communiques by the European Union (EU), U.S., African Union and U.N., the likely result of this latest coup is that Mali (with the help of the French) will remain in a constant state of war.

It isn’t just Mali experiencing political instability. Since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that brought down Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya, six of Africa’s 10 Sahel countries have seen at least one coup or attempted coup (Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea).

“The Sahel is on fire,” journalist Bostjan Videmsek wrote in 2016as he covered an emerging Mali refugee crisis.

But it is not just Africa’s Sahel countries that are in turmoil. Since 2011, 30 coups or attempted coups (hereafter, what I call ‘coup events’) have occurred in 17 countries across the African continent.

In fact, in the post-World War II period, coup events are on the increase in Africa, in contrast to the rest of the world (see Figure 1). Today, on average, Africa witnesses around three coup events per year; whereas, the rest of the world will have about two. Indeed, even if we remove the outlier year of 2013 from the equation, Africa has seen an increasing trend of coup events since 1946.

Figure 1: Trends in Coup/Coup Attempts since 1946

Data source: Wikipedia (supplemented by my own research which is available upon request)

What is going on in Africa that might explain this troubling trend?

We can rule out one of the standard explanations of African political instability in the 1970s and 80s: government debt.

As seen in Figures 2 and 3, the African countries with significant coup events in the past 10 years exist across the entire indebtedness spectrum. While the most indebted country — Sudan, at over 250 percent of GDP — has also been one of the most politically volatile, some of the least indebted countries have likewise seen significant coup events in this period: Burundi, Comoros, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Chad, and the Central African Republic.

Figure 2: Gov’t Debt to GDP Ratio (%) for African countries (2019/2020)

Source: TradingEconomics.com; Red bars indicate countries with a coup/attempted coup in the last 10 years

Figure 3: Change in Gov’t Debt to GDP Ratio (%) for African countries

Source: TradingEconomics.com; Red bars indicate countries with a coup/attempted coup in the last 10 years

Extreme debt financing burdens to foreign creditors can stunt economic growth and compel governments to divert money from critical social services, leading to increased social instability. But that does not seem to be the major driving force today — at least not the debt part of the equation.

Instead, in the past decade, oil-exporting African countries have endured declining petroleum prices — which have been in a general decline since a $139 peak (for West Texas Intermediate crude) in 2008 — while sub-Saharan African countries have seen their spectacular GDP-per-capita growth of the 2000s start to stagnate (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: GDP per capita growth in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1960

Source: World Bank

In his 1970 book, Why Men Rebel, political scientist Ted Gurr introduced the concept of relative deprivation, which he defined as the discrepancy between what people think they deserve, and what they actually think they can get.

“The potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity,” wrote Gurr.

Though Gurr’s thesis since has been significantly modified — with a society’s capacity for political violence being one major addition to the model — it still offers useful insights.

It is well-known that Africa is resource rich (see Figure 5). The African continent accounts for 20 percent of the world’s land mass, 17 percent of its population, and 3 percent of the its GDP — but contains 30 percent of the world’s remaining mineral resources.

While it is inaccurate to assume Africa’s resource wealth is the only reason for the continent’s strong economic growth in the 2000s, it was a major factor in China’s strategic decision to invest heavily there in the past 20 years (see Figure 6).

Figure 5: Mapping Africa’s Natural Resources

Graph by Al Jazeera

Figure 6: U.S. and Chinese Foreign Direct Investment to Africa since 2003

Graph by China-Africa Research Initiative (Johns Hopkins University — SAIS)

Yet, as of late, China’s investment in Africa has waned, which has played a role in Africa’s dampening economic growth.

Taken together, stagnate growth amidst rising expectations caused by the 2000s economic boom period cannot be discounted when explaining Africa’s current political instability.

But such a conclusion neglects the elephant in the room — the negative impact of NATO’s and the Barack Obama administration’s destabilizing of northern Africa — says policy analyst Robert Morris, author of Avoiding The British Empire: What it Was, and How the US can Do Better.

How NATO and the U.S. mucked up Libya (and Syria)

“The destruction of Libya was key to the refugee flows that destabilized the European Union in 2014, and led to the loss of one of its richest countries (United Kingdom) with Brexit in 2016,” contends Morris. “The effects Of Gaddafi’s killing on the Sahel were both immediate, and long lasting. The financial network that had come to underpin the prosperity of much of North Africa disappeared. Gaddafi’s African soldiers dispersed back to their countries and took their weapons with them. Mali was the first to fall.”

It should be reminded also how many of the weapons from the 2011 Libyan revolt found their way to Syria and its civil war. Over 400,000 Syrians have died in Syria’s ongoing civil war and the U.S. remains entrenched in the country’s northeastern sector, presumably to protect Syrian Kurds, but as we know from Trump’s irrepressible candor, the purpose is largely to control much of Syria’s vital oil and gas reserves and thereby control Assad’s ability to rebuild his war-torn nation.

In the final analysis, the West’s weaponizing of the Libyan civil war had a direct and indirect relationship to coup events in Africa’s Sahel, the Syrian civil war, and the refugee crisis in Europe.

Those results alone establish how bad Obama’s Libya policies were during the Arab Spring of 2011.

As unstable as Gaddafi may have been, Libya under his leadership was becoming an economic powerhouse by African standards. Up to 2011, oil money from Libya was spreading throughout Africa.

And then came the Arab Spring of 2011 and, more importantly, the West’s interference in its progress.

“NATO scooped out North Africa’s economic heart and set it on fire,” argues Morris. “After Libya’s destruction, every economy in the Sahel came to a screeching halt.” Before 2011, Libya’s GDP per capita exceeded European Union countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, notes Morris. Today, Libya struggles to reestablish political stability so that it can, once again, become one of Africa’s most prosperous countries.

The “Iraqification” of Africa by Biden and the EU

In the midst of political instability in the Sahel, the European Union (EU) has recently dedicated €8 billion Euros to its European Defense Fund (EDF) that will fund new military weapons and technologies for militaries within the EU and launched the European Peace Facility (EPF) that will authorize the EU for the first time to supply military weapons — along with equipment and training — to non-European military forces around the world.

A reasonable assumption is that significant amounts of these EU-funded weapons will go to military operations in northern Africa, such as in Mali.

The U.S. military, of course, already has a significant presence throughout Africa, including 29 bases and installations (see Figure 7). Ten years ago, that list would have had around 10 bases and installations.

Figure 7: U.S. military bases and operations within Africa (as of 2019)

Source: The Intercept

For the most part, Trump neglected African issues, and by the end of his term was pulling U.S. forces out of countries like Somalia — to the vocal consternation of the Washington, D.C. neoliberal and neoconservative establishment.

Trump’s troop withdrawals are a direct threat to African stability, moaned more than a few media elites and foreign policy analysts, who conveniently ignored the fact that today’s growing instability in Africa correlates to the increased engagement of the U.S. military on the continent. When the U.S. military stood up USAFRICOM at the end of the George W. Bush presidency, one of its first operations under Operation Enduring Freedom (“The Global War on Terror”) was a joint effort by the U.S. and NATO to “stabilize” the Saharan and Sahel regions of Africa at the start of the Libyan civil war in 2011 (U.S. military activities in the Sahel also fall under Operation Juniper Shield).

Instead of stabilizing the region, the U.S. and NATO further weaponized it. There are currently about 40 million guns and light weapons circulating among civilians in Africa, according to one UN report (https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2019-march-2020/silencing-guns-africa-2020). Government entities hold around 11 million guns and light arms, according to that same report.

Since the start of his presidential candidacy, Joe Biden has hinted at a more active U.S. role throughout the world (not just Africa), and if the past is prologue, this will mean deeper U.S. military engagements.

Evidence of his intent came in April when the Biden administration tapped Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior U.S. and United Nations diplomat known for his advocacy of robust U.S. interventionism, to be the U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa — an area where Islamist groups remain a palpable threat to regional stability and where growing tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan threaten to further add volatility to the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted the latter issue when announcing Feltman’s appointment: “Of particular concern are the volatile situation in Ethiopia, including the conflict in Tigray; escalating tension between Ethiopia and Sudan; and the dispute around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”

Where Trump made few promises to African leaders and they responded by not asking for many, Biden has invited the opposite dynamic.

The Biden administration hadn’t moved in yet when former Somali Prime Minister Abdi Yusuf openly pleaded to the Biden administration to recommit to “protecting Somalia” from al-Shabab and other Islamist groups.

Feltman’s appointment and other policy signals from the Biden administration, such as recent State Department allegations of human rights abuses in Ethiopia and designating insurgent groups in Mozambique and the Republic of the Congo as terrorist organizations, shows the U.S. wants once again to be the world’s school hall monitor, or in less snarky terms, “an international voice of conscience.” Consonant with the State Department’s declaration on Mozambique-based terrorist groups, the U.S. military is now actively training Mozambique security forces.

But before assuming only altruistic motives by the U.S., the French oil and gas company Total (TOTF.PA) recently announced it will restart construction of its $20 billion liquefied natural gas project in Mozambique given the improved security situation, having withdrawn its workforce from northern Mozambique in January because of security concerns. Total’s demand for a 25 kilometer secure buffer zone around their project site has been accepted by the Mozambique government, in part due to U.S. security assistance.

These U.S. (and French) policy moves in Mozambique have led some Africa watchers to warn of the “Iraqification” of Africa. In other words, the U.S. is creating an expanding, self-justifying military presence with open-ended mission goals tracked by fuzzy performance metrics.

Africa policy observer Jasmine Opperman says of U.S. and French current policies in Mozambique: “The worst…would be an intervention, direct or not, of the great powers.”

Yet, that is exactly what the Biden and Macron governments are in the process of doing.

There are still reasons for optimism in Africa

But despite the Biden administration’s predictable ramping up of U.S. involvement in Africa’s most intractable military conflicts, many foreign policy analysts, like Morris, remain optimistic for Libya and other African countries.

For starters, after years in which rival groups in Libya asserted their legitimacy as the country’s rightful government, the parliament approved a national unity government on March 10, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dabaiba. The transfer of power was peaceful. Something that can never be taken for granted.

Due to Libya’s oil wealth, when it is stable, it is central to all of the Sahel economies, including Tunisia, which still has a functioning (though fragile) democracy. Prior to the Libyan civil war, money sent home from migrant work in Libya was a big part the economy of all Sahel countries. That source of stability may soon return.

“Libya’s population is rich and educated enough, that it’s easy to imagine Tunisia’s experiment spreading there if stability can be preserved,” asserts Morris. “Algeria and Morocco are both relatively rich, fairly well organized places that are very ready for a new system. With a stable Libya, Tunisia could lead a North African block into democracy. This stability wouldn’t just shut down refugee flows, it would provide a new platform for cooperation and economic development, which would, in turn, lead to stability and prosperity for the whole of the Sahel.”

“The Sahel can be a resource for the world’s diplomats and business people again, instead of just a profit center for the French and U.S. militaries,” says Morris. “This isn’t just possible, it’s the most likely result if Libya manages to stabilize.”

Now if only the U.S. and France don’t find a way to screw up this progress.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Neocons may have tipped the balance in the 2020 presidential election

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

he Electoral College Results for the 2020 Presidential Election

Unknown at the time, President Donald Trump’s prospects for re-election may have ended on June 20, 2019, when he unilaterally decided — against the wishes of his hawkish foreign policy and military advisors — to abort a planned retaliatory strike against Iran.

Revealing a side of Trump few in the news media acknowledged or believed to exist, the president cited his fear that Iranian civilians would be among the victims of an American airstrike against the Iranian military installations suspected to have been used a day earlier to shoot down a U.S. surveillance drone.

Trump told his stunned advisors, some already monitoring the military operation, that the contrast between the loss of one unmanned drone to the potential loss of dozens of Iranian civilians would be a public relations victory for Tehran, whereas the U.S. military gain would be minimal. Some mocked his scrubbing of the Iran attack as proof that the president was getting his foreign policy advice directly from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, a persistent critic of the expected U.S. attack on Iran in the days leading up to Trump’s June 20th decision.

Never mind that Trump’s neocon-friendly Middle East policies —such as the exit from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the re-imposition of severe economic sanctions,— were the proximal causes of the June 2019 tensions between the U.S. and Iran, when the moment came to pull the trigger, the president (to his credit) stepped back.

Most prominent members of the GOP’s neocon-wing muted their public criticisms of Trump’s decision, including Liz Cheney (R-WY), who told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt: “The failure to respond to this kind of direct provocation that we’ve seen now from the Iranians, in particular over the last several weeks, could in fact be a very serious mistake.”

Privately, the failure of Trump to attack Iran was seen by some neocons as further evidence the president was a non-interventionist at heart, some even suggesting, when it comes to using military force, he’s more like Obama than George W. Bush. “There is fear in him (Trump),” scolded New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

It was bad enough neocons had to bite their collective tongues every time Trump mentioned the need for a U.S. military withdrawal from their pet projects in Syria and Afghanistan. Along with refusing to attack the Iranians over a drone, Trump soon followed up that decision with the suggestion that he was open to new negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear program. A backbreaking-no-no in neocon world.

If neocons are consistent on anything, it is their religious-like devotion to the belief that diplomacy doesn’t work with America’s foes.

On that point, September 2019 saw the last straw for Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, who was often more of an advocate for his own policy ideas than a steward for Trump’s. The breaking point for Bolton? A planned (though eventually cancelled) meeting with the Taliban at Camp David. Not only would such talks be “doomed to fail,” according to Bolton, they would be disrespectful to the families of 9/11 victims.

Trump would fire Bolton that same September (or Bolton resigned, depending on who you ask), and barely a week after his exit, Bolton was launching sharp, thinly-veiled attacks on his former boss at a private luncheon at the Gatestone Institute in New York City. The think tank, created in 2008 by Sears Roebuck heiress Nina Rosenwald, focuses on rolling back political Islam and the “Islamization” of non-Muslim societies, and provided the perfect platform for Bolton (who is now on Gatestone’s payroll) to signal to his neocon kinsfolk this one important message: Trump is not one of us and cannot be trusted.

Reinforcing that critique, Trump himself responded to Bolton’s criticisms by reminding everyone that he was not, in fact, a neocon interventionist:

“I was critical of John Bolton for getting us involved with a lot of other people in the Middle East. We’ve spent $7.5 trillion in the Middle East and you ought to ask a lot of people about that. John was not able to work with anybody, and a lot of people disagreed with his ideas. A lot of people were very critical that I brought him on in the first place because of the fact that he was so in favor of going into the Middle East, and he got stuck in quicksand and we became policemen for the Middle East. It’s ridiculous.”

Trump would nonetheless make significant attempts after the Bolton firing to regain support among his neocon constituents.

However, even the impulsive (and arguably counterproductive) assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, on January 3, 2020, was not enough to allay concern among neocons about Trump’s trustworthiness to stand by his previous neocon policies (i.e., an attempted coup in Venezuela, ongoing support for a Saudi-UAE regime change war in Yemen, the marginalization of Palestinians interests in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ratcheting up of Cold War-like rhetoric against China, etc.).

Where the Bolton Revolt offered evidence that neocon intellectuals were bailing on Trump, perhaps more distressing to the Trump re-election effort were early signals from the GOP’s billionaire donor class that their financial support for Trump 2020 was not to be taken for granted — a group that included Rebekah Mercer, a billionaire heiress who has a history of supporting neocon organizations including Gatestone.

Whether he knew it or not, Trump may have sealed his electoral fate when he cancelled the Iran airstrikes on June 20, 2019.

What is a neoconservative, really?

As with so many of the terms and labels commonly thrown around in the political news media, the term neocon (short for neoconservative) is not as well-defined as one might think.

Political historians generally trace the term back to the 1960s and a group of prominent Democrats — such as Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson — who were alarmed by their party’s growing pacifism during the Vietnam War. In that period, neocons were politically liberal (i.e., generally support civil liberties and social justice) but much more interventionist and open to the use of military force when it comes to foreign policy.

In the 1970s, however, the term neocon came to represent post-Vietnam Republicans who wanted to move past the debacle of the Nixon presidency (particularly the culture war issues) and return the party’s focus towards promoting a robust U.S. military and muscular foreign policy.

Over time the neocon label has been increasingly applied to politicians from either party (i.e., Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney) and is generally attached to politicians and foreign policy leaders who believe military force is often a viable option when dealing with our country’s adversaries; and, in some cases, may be the only constructive option.

Neocons are commonly distinguished from foreign policy realists in that the latter typically advocate for the use of military force only when U.S. interests are directly attacked or an important strategic interest is at stake (i.e., fascist control of Europe, threats to world oil supplies); whereas, neocons are more comfortable with the U.S. military being the ‘free world’s police force’ and do not necessarily require a direct threat to U.S. strategic interests (i.e., Syria, Yemen, 2003 Iraq War). Indeed, neocons often justify the use of military force simply to promote regime change within authoritarian nations we don’t like.

These are broad definitions and, as such, can lose their empirical value when they are distilled down to one or two attitudes and encompass a large swath of the American public. Nonetheless, how Americans answered this simple question heading into the 2020 presidential election — How willing should the U.S be to use military force to solve international problems? — may have had a significant relationship to the election outcome.

Are there enough neocon-aligned Americans to change a presidential election outcome?

How many eligible voters in the U.S. are potentially attracted to neocon policy preferences? Are there enough to sway a presidential election? The short answer is: YES.

The 2020 American National Election Study (ANES) conducted by The University of Michigan and Stanford University before and after the 2020 election offers some insight on this question (see Appendix A for a description of this study and Appendix B for a list of key questions from the 2020 ANES). Figure 1 breaks out the number of ANES 2020 respondents according to their “willingness to use force to solve international problems” and the strength of their party identification.

Figure 1: Willingness to Use Force by Party Identification (ANES 2020)

About 15 percent of U.S. eligible voters are “extremely” or “very” willing to use military force to solve international problems (4.7% + 10.6%). That is 36.6 million eligible voters — who I presume are the Americans most open to neocon policy ideas.

Among those 15 percent, 58 percent are strong partisans — which translates to almost 9 percent of the 239 million Americans eligible to vote in 2020 (or about 21.2 million people).

Of those 21.2 million people, 8.7 million are “strong” Democrats and 12.5 million are “strong” Republicans, according to the 2020 ANES.

[Note: 81.3 million people voted for Biden and 74.2 million people voted for Trump in 2020 — a difference of 7.1 million votes.]

Since strong partisans are far more likely to vote than weak partisans, getting these potential voters to the polls is a high priority for any presidential campaign.

But was Trump able to keep the vast majority of strong, neocon-aligned Republicans in 2020?

The start of that answer is in Figure 2 which shows a strong relationship between strength of party identification (in this case, ‘Strong’ Republicans versus ‘Weak’ Republicans, Democrats and Independents), attitudes regarding ‘use of force to solve international problems,’ and 2020 presidential vote choice.

Figure 2: Presidential Vote Choice in 2020 by ‘Willingness to Use Force’ and Strength of Party ID

Data source: ANES 2020 (Data weighted; 7,453 post-election survey respondents)

Seventy-nine percent of ‘strong’ Republicans voted for Trump, while only 3 percent of those voters defected to Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Another 17 percent did not vote and one percent voted for a third party candidate. Conversely, 79 percent of ‘strong’ Democrats voted for Biden, while a mere 2 percent voted for Trump (data not shown in Figure 2). Nineteen percent of ‘strong’ Democrats did not vote and one percent voted for a third party candidate.

The striking finding in Figure 2, however, is the drop off in Trump’s support among ‘strong’ Republicans who are ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ willing to use force to solve international problems (henceforth, referred to as Republican neocons). Only 59 percent of Republican neocons voted for Trump, compared to 81 percent of other ‘strong’ Republicans.

This is an astonishing decline in support among what should be loyal Republican partisans. In numbers, this means 883,000 Republican neocons abandoned their party’s incumbent president in the 2020 general election.

Is that enough to change the outcome an election in which Biden beat Trump by 7.1 million votes and 74 electoral votes?

If we add those 883,000 “lost” Trump votes across the states (plus D.C.) in proportion to each state’s vote eligible population (and assume all of them were originally non-voters and, therefore, we do not subtract them from Biden’s state vote totals), Trump would win two states he had originally lost: Arizona and Georgia — which, together, are worth 27 electoral votes.

[The spreadsheet where I conducted this analysis is available on GitHub.]

Trump would have still lost the election by 20 electoral votes had the Republican neocons voted as loyally for Trump as other “strong” Republicans.

For Trump to win, he would still need to close a 45,000 vote gap in Pennsylvania and a 4,600 vote gap in Wisconsin.

But what if there are there other Republican neocon voters we did not consider in the previous analysis? What if someone is ‘moderately’ willing to use force to solve international problems? Could they not also be considered a neocon-aligned voter?

The following statistical analysis attempts to answer that question…

A Vote Model of the 2020 Presidential Election

Using the post-election respondents from the ANES 2020 (a weighted total of 7,453 eligible voters), I estimated a multinomial logistic model for the 2020 presidential vote using a 3-level vote indicator (Trump, Biden, Non-voter/Third party voter) as the dependent variable.

The statistically significant independent variables in the model included:

  • Index of Partisan Policy Preferences (see Appendix C for a list of standardized survey items used to construct the index)
  • Demographics: Household Income, Age, Sex, Education, Race/Ethnicity
  • Party Identification and Strength of Party Identification
  • Ideological Self-Placement (Liberal — Moderate — Conservative)
  • Approval/Disapproval of President Trump’s Handling of COVID-19
  • Perception of Changes in Income Gap
  • Perceived Likelihood of Russian Interference in 2020 Election
  • Perception that Government is Run by a Few Big Interests
  • Willingness to Use Force to Solve International Problems

For the purposes of this essay, I will concentrate on the findings related to a respondent’s willingness to use force to solve international problems — which I consider an indicator of a respondent’s openness to neocon policy ideas.

[The full model estimates and diagnostics are in Appendix D and the dataset used to generate these results are available on GitHub.]

Results

Overall, a respondent’s willingness to use force was a significant predictor of a Trump vote in 2020 (Chi-square = 9.5, p < .002). More specifically, the more willing a respondent said they were to use force to solve international problems, the less likely they were to vote for Trump (see Appendix B for the variable’s coding scheme).

After controlling for a number of important factors commonly associated with a person’s vote choice (e.g., age, education, income, party ID, policy preferences), attitudes on Use of Force was still significant in the margins. But enough to alter the 2020 election outcome?

To estimate the electoral impact of attitudes on Use of Force, I first identified those respondents where the model predicted a Trump voter when, in fact, the respondent voted for Biden. Next, I further filtered down to those respondents who answered “extremely,” “very,” or “moderately” willing to use force to solve international problems — in other words, neocons who we would have expected to vote for Trump, but voted for Biden instead.

In the ANES 2020, they are represented by a scant 45 respondents (or 0.6 percent of the total sample). But that translates to 1.43 million voters in the 2020 election.

Similar to the first analysis, I added those 1.43 million “lost” Trump votes across the states (plus D.C.) in proportion to each state’s vote eligible population (but this time also subtracting them from Biden’s state vote totals). After doing this, the adjusted state-level vote totals end up flipping not just Arizona and Georgia (as in the first analysis), but also Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Those 57 electoral votes would have given Trump 289 electoral votes to Biden’s 249.

If Trump had kept the Republican neocons in his camp, he would have won the 2020 election.

[The details behind this second analysis can also be found on GitHub.]

Final Thoughts

Obviously, this is all very speculative. For example, there are other attitudinal variables (expectations of Russian interference, perceived changes in income inequality, Trump’s handling of COVID-19) that were significant predictors of the 2020 vote choice and could have impacted the election outcome.

I just as easily could have shown evidence that disapproval of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted enough votes to give Biden the victory.

Or expectations of Russian election interference. Or the growing income gap. Or the belief that Washington, D.C. is controlled by a few big money interests.

All were significant factors in the 2020 presidential election, in isolation or considered together.

If anything, this analysis reminds us that the 2020 election was closer than we may remember. Four states. That was the difference.

Trump still could have won, even with an unprecedented level of media hostility and a worldwide pandemic erupting on his watch.

And, so, it does not seem laughable or implausible that the 2020 outcome was changed by a relatively large, motivated group of neocon Republicans — an identifiable faction openly upset about a number of Trump foreign policy decisions (or threatened decisions).

I believe they did.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

APPENDIX A: The American National Election Study (2020)

The American National Election Study 2020

Data collection for the ANES 2020 Time Series Study pre-election interviews began in August 2020 and continued until Election Day, Tuesday (November 3). Post-election interviews began soon after the election and continued through the end of December. This field period began earlier than the traditional ANES field period, which typically starts the day after Labor Day and concludes the day before Election Day.

The ANES 2020 Time Series Study features a fresh cross-sectional sample, with respondents randomly assigned to one of three sequential mode groups: web only, mixed web (i.e., web and phone), and mixed video (i.e., video, web, and phone). The study also features re-interviews with 2016 ANES respondents (conducted by web), and post-election surveys with respondents from the General Social Survey (GSS).

Figure A.1: Summary of ANES 2020 Survey Methodology

Source: ANES 2020 Time Series Study Preliminary Release: March 24, 2021 version. www.electionstudies.org

APPENDIX B: Survey Items Best for Defining Respondent Policy Preferences (Principal Component Analysis)

APPENDIX B: Coding of Key Questions from 2020 ANES

APPENDIX C: Survey Items Best for Defining Respondent Policy Preferences (Principal Component Analysis)

APPENDIX D: Detailed Output for Multinomial Logistic Model for the Presidential Vote in 2020

Freedom of speech is messy, which is why defending it is so important

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

A family member attached this May 13th New York Times article —Activists and Ex-Spy Said to Have Plotted to Discredit Trump ‘Enemies’ in Government — to a spirited email that started: Do you still defend Project Veritas?!

It took me the 15 minutes required to read the article to do just that — defend Project Veritas.

First off, however, I don’t think I’ve ever “defended” Project Veritas in the past. To the contrary, I do not care for the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes-pioneered form of ‘hidden camera’ journalism that Project Veritas has heavily relied upon in its news-gathering activities. While it makes for good television and internet click bait, the technique is easily abused, especially when it captures private comments out of context. And Project Veritas’ use of ‘honey pots’ to entrap their targets is downright unethical.

All the same, I cannot recall a single instance where Project Veritas and its founder, James O’Keefe, have ever had to retract a news story they’ve published. The New York Times only wishes it could say the same.

I must also confess I find it exhilarating when powerful people (particularly in the news media) are forced to reconcile their private statements with their public facade of journalistic objectivity. Project Veritas’ exposure of CNN as the propaganda arm of the Democratic Party is priceless — and entirely accurate.

Still, I take seriously the question as to whether Project Veritas’ professionalization of its ‘gotcha’ news-gathering approach is socially constructive — especially when the organization employs intelligence experts (‘spies’) and their sophisticated spycraft.

We should start that answer with a brief summary of the recent New York Times story (via The Hill):

“A conservative activist group, helped by a former British spy, secretly surveilled government employees during the Trump administration with the goal of discrediting perceived enemies of former President Trump…Project Veritas — with aid from a former British spy and Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater — was part of a campaign that involved surveillance operations against members of the FBI.

The overall effort, the Times wrote, also included a plan for a sting operation against Trump’s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster that involved some Veritas staffers, though Veritas itself has denied any involvement with that plot. Both, the Times alleged, were intended to reveal anti-Trump sentiments.”

If echoes from the Nixon administration using government resources to spy on his enemies come to mind, you are not alone. There is nothing more frightening to people in my age cohort than a sitting U.S. president using his or her immense powers to investigate and discredit enemies.

But the comparisons of Project Veritas’ activities to Nixon’s diverge quickly with the details offered by the Times story. According to that story, there is no evidence Trump’s White House authorized or coordinated Project Veritas’ efforts to investigate the ‘loyalty’ of key members of Trump’s foreign policy circle.

The Hatch Act makes it illegal for public officials, such as White House staffers, to use their time or government resources to pursue their own private interests or someone else’s (such as a U.S. president’s). That prohibition includes explicitly partisan political activities.

[Admittedly, Donald Trump pushed the envelope on those restrictions on at least one occasion. And, in my opinion, Trump’s personal actions with respect to investigating Hunter Biden’s questionable activities in Ukraine constituted a serious breach of ethical, if not legal, behavior for a president. However, given that the U.S. news media rarely engages in credible, non-partisan investigative journalism anymore, it is hard to judge Trump too harshly.]

And while a U.S. Senate staffer (Barbara Ledeen) was implicated in the Times story about Project Veritas’ alleged activities to “expose the deep state’s disloyalty” to the Trump administration, it is not clear that she had engaged in any activities outside legal bounds. In fact, congressional committees possess exceptional latitude through their oversight powers to investigate executive actions and personnel.

Think about the Times story from this perspective: Is it newsworthy if a senior member of a presidential administration is actively working behind the scenes against the president’s policies?

Of course it is. To suggest otherwise is intellectually dishonest.

In the final analysis, watching the powerful eating their own is the least of my worries, except when such activities potentially compromise the privacy or liberties of all Americans. Targeting the powerful with sophisticated intelligence gathering tools is one thing, but should those capabilities be turned against average citizens, that is worrisome.

In that sense, I am not a fan of Project Veritas’ increasingly sophisticated and deceptive news-gathering methods, even as I will passionately defend their right to do what they do — provided they don’t violate criminal law in their pursuit of such information.

Our Constitution’s First Amendment extends to all citizens — not just journalists — broad and inviolable rights to investigate, report on and judge the activities of the political class. To impose unnecessary limits on those rights is a direct threat to all of our freedoms.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

The inconvenient truth about prejudice and racism in the U.S.

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; May 10, 2021

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” — Peter Drucker

“One can ignore reality, but one cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”— Ayn Rand

Since my days as a young grad assistant in the late 1980s, I have periodically worked in and around the social science debate on the best methods for measuring racist attitudes and behaviors in the U.S.

With respect to racial attitudes, in particular, I have encountered two main schools of thought. The first school believes we can ask people directly about their feelings on race and ethnicity and receive substantively unbiased answers (in the statistical sense of bias). While people are capable of hiding their true feelings on sensitive subjects (i.e., the social desirability bias), if the research study is well-designed and protects anonymity, people will answer questions on socially sensitive issues with surprising honesty, according to this school of thought.

The second school is not as sanguine. In their view, people are captive to their desire to leave a favorable impression with others and will try to avoid being classified as a ‘racist’ or ‘bigot.’ Thus, people will modify their responses on opinion surveys regarding racial attitudes to avoid such pejorative labels. In other words, researchers can’t simply ask people what they think on race, but must employ indirect methods for assessing an individual’s true racial attitudes (such as randomized response techniques).

While I am sensitive to the concerns of the second school, in practice I have found simple, direct questions on race and ethnicity to consistently reveal substantive differences in racial attitudes among U.S. adults. [An excellent research summary on these two school of thoughts can be found here. I also covered this research controversy in a previous Medium.com essay.]

With this caveat in mind, here are results from one of the latest research studies on U.S. attitudes regarding race and ethnicity, collected by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Michigan in the 2020 American National Election Study (ANES).

Racist attitudes are not just a Republican problem

The 2020 ANES administered a series of thermometer scales (0 to 100) to assess respondents’ favorability towards four specific race and ethnic groups (WhitesBlacksHispanics and Asians):

Source: 2020 ANES

How does someone answer a question like this if they consciously refuse to judge anyone based on their race or ethnicity? As it turns out, about 15 percent of all respondents (out of 7,453 respondents to the post-election wave of the 2020 ANES) rated the four racial and ethnic groups as a ‘50.’ Some other respondents rated the four groups as equal at a different point on the scale. For example, nine percent of respondents rated all four groups a ‘100’. [Eight people rated each of the four race and ethnic groups a ‘0’!]

In total, 51 percent of U.S. eligible voters rated their own race/ethnicity as equal (or below) the other three race and ethnic groups (I label these respondents as “Racial Neutralists”). Another 34 percent of eligible voters rate their race or ethnic group higher than at least one other race or ethnic group (I label them “Racial Chauvinists”).

Lastly, an additional 16 percent of respondents either refused to answer the race/ethnicity favorability question for their own race/ethnic group or were from a race/ethnic group (e.g., Native American and multi-race respondents) where favorability ratings for their group were not asked (I label these respondents as “Unclassifiable”).

The number that seems to shock those I’ve shared this data with is the 34 percent of U.S. eligible voters who openly admit they harbor some level of racial or ethnic bias.

My wife’s initial reaction was to say, “They must be Trump Republicans.” — a reaction that was not unique. After analyzing 100 30-second news clips broadcast on CNN and MSNBC between May 1, 2020 and May 1, 2021 (the GDELT-archived clips can be found here), every single one explicitly connected racism to either Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, Republicans or white supremacists within those groups.

Is racism, in fact, mostly a Republican or white conservative problem?

Well, it depends on how you define mostly.

As Figure 1 shows, the percentage of racial chauvinists isbasically identical within the Biden and Trump voter bases (33.1 percent and 33.6 percent, respectively). Likewise, slightly over half of Biden and Trump voters can be categorized as racial neutralists. In contrast, third party voters are significantly less likely to be racial chauvinists (21.6 percent).

Figure 1: Racial/ethnic bias within the 2020 U.S. electorate (by presidential candidate)

Data Source: 2020 Post-Election ANES (Analysis by Kent R. Kroeger); Data are weighted

How can that be true? Did the Trump voters lie on the ANES survey?

Relax my resistance friends. The news isn’t entirely positive for Trump Republicans.

If we examine the 2020 electorate by their race/ethnicity, a more familiar picture of racial bias emerges. Figure 2 indicates that 29.1 percent of Trump voters are white racial chauvinists (i.e., rated Blacks, Hispanics, and/or Asians below Whites on a 100-pt. favorability scale), compared to only 10.5 percent of Biden voters. In other words, Trump voters are three times more likely than Biden voters to be white and a racial chauvinist.

At the same time, Biden and Trump voters are equally likely to be white and a racial neutralist (42.0 percent and 47.5 percent, respectively). That is to say, if you were to randomly draw one Trump voter and one Biden voter from their respective populations, you would have an equal chance in each case of drawing a white person with no (self-reported) racial bias.

Figure 2: Racial/ethnic bias within the 2020 U.S. electorate (by presidential candidate and eligible voter’s race/ethnicity)

Data Source: 2020 Post-Election ANES (Analysis by Kent R. Kroeger); Data are weighted
Data Source: 2020 Post-Election ANES (Analysis by Kent R. Kroeger); Data are weighted
Data Source: 2020 Post-Election ANES (Analysis by Kent R. Kroeger); Data are weighted
Data Source: 2020 Post-Election ANES (Analysis by Kent R. Kroeger); Data are weighted

So, while a Trump voter is significantly more likely to be a white racial chauvinist than a Biden voter, when one adds the Black, Hispanic and Asian voters who are racial chauvinists to the mix, the percentage of Biden voters who are racial chauvinists turns out to be virtually the same as for Trump voters (i.e., about one-third).

Figure 3 reveals the issue. The reality is that over half of Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans hold racially-biased attitudes towards other races and ethnicities (63.3 percent, 54.1 percent, and 57.8 percent are racial chauvinists, respectively). In contrast, only 26.7 percent of whites are racial chauvinists.

Figure 3: Racial/ethnic bias within the 2020 U.S. electorate (by eligible voter’s race/ethnicity)

Data Source: 2020 Post-Election ANES (Analysis by Kent R. Kroeger); Data are weighted

Even if we remove racial biases against whites from the equation, 55.4 percent of Black Americans possess racial biases against Hispanics and/or Asian Americans. Similarly, 41.3 of Hispanics and 50.6 percent of Asians hold racial biases against the other non-white racial and ethnic groups.

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

There is a compelling argument within the racism-focused academic and activist communities that says Black Americans (and racial/ethnic minorities, in general) can’t be racist because racism requires a “power-over” relationship. Writes pastor and anti-racism activist Joseph Barndt:

“Racism goes beyond prejudice. Racism is the power to enforce one’s prejudices. More simply stated, racism is prejudice plus power.” [Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America (Minneapolis, 1991), 28.]

One reason I prefer the label ‘racial chauvinism’ to that of ‘racism’ in this essay is that the 2020 ANES survey items I use here are attitudinal measures, not behaviors. Thus, I use terms like chauvinismprejudice, or bigotry as attitudinal indicators and reserve terms like racist or racism for the active implementation of prejudiced attitudes.

I acknowledge this may be pure semantics, but I have found this distinction useful in the past when analyzing racial bias, particularly in the context of survey-based data.

In the end, I am sympathetic to the argument that a white racial chauvinist generally occupies a different position in our society than a Black, Hispanic or Asian racial chauvinist;and, therefore, should not be treated as a substantive or operational equivalent.

Combined with institutional racism and demographic size disparities, white racial chauvinism is substantively more impactful in the aggregate.

Nevertheless, it is also wrong to ignore racial and ethnic prejudice existing within the non-white communities making up the Democrats’ electoral coalition.

Racial scholar Lawrence Blum, Professor of Liberal Arts and Education at the University of Massachusetts, concludes:

“Contemporary use of the vocabulary of racism no longer confines it to whites; Chinese, blacks, Japanese, Latinos, and other people of color are recognized to include in their ranks racially bigoted persons and, more broadly, to be subject to racial prejudices. These attitudes can be directed toward other groups of color, toward whites, or toward members of one’s own group. People of color are also capable of developing belief systems based on racial superiority, in which some groups of color are superior and whites or other groups of color are inferior…In my view, these attitudes and beliefs are all racist, and current usage generally so refers to them.”

Highlighting some sources of racial bias and prejudice while ignoring others is most likely not helpful in the long run and, frankly, paints a distorted picture of reality.

As such, media-driven tropes about the alleged tolerance within Republican ranks for ‘white supremacists’ are not just inaccurate, they are counterproductive if our goal is to achieve lasting progress in U.S. racial relations.

Given that 10 percent of Biden’s voter support in 2020 came from white chauvinists, it is time for Democrats to stop pretending the racial bias problem is isolated to Donald Trump supporters.

It is not.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

All data and SPSS computer programs used in writing this essay are available on GITHUB ==> HERE.

The science of creativity and the forever effervescent Syd Barrett

By Kent R. Kroeger (May 4, 2021)

Pink Floyd Co-Founder Roger “Syd” Barrett (Courtesy of SydBarrett.com)

“There is no great genius without a touch of madness.” — Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC)

“You are only given a little spot of madness, and if you lose that, you are nothing.” — Robin Williams (1951–2014)

“I know a mouse, and he hasn’t got a house. I don’t know why, I call him Gerald.” — Syd Barrett (1946–2006)

_________________

Just suppose clouds had strings attached to them which hang down to earth. What would happen?

How you answer this question may not only indicate your level of creativity, but also the likelihood you suffer from mental illness.

That was the discovery of neuroscientist Szabolcs Kéri of Semmelweis University in Hungary in a 2009 study that found a link between the presence of neuregulin 1, a gene commonly associated with psychosis and depression, and a person’s level of creativity.

“Molecular factors that are loosely associated with severe mental disorders but are present in many healthy people may have an advantage enabling us to think more creatively,” says Szabolcs.

In Szabolcs’ study, volunteers were asked a number of nonsensical questions like the ‘cloud’ question above. Szabolcs and his research team then assigned a creativity score to each study participant based on the originality and flexibility of their answers. Along with this assessment, the participants listed their lifetime creative achievements and provided blood samples.

“The results show a clear link between neuregulin 1 and creativity. Volunteers with the specific variant of this gene were more likely to have higher scores on the creativity assessment and also greater lifetime creative achievements than volunteers with a different form of the gene,” concluded Szabolcs and his research team.

There is also a 2010 study that tracked 700,000 Swedish 16-year-olds over ten years, which found that people who were high academic achievers at 16 years of age were four times as likely to be diagnosed with a bipolar disorder later in life.

In a 2012 science symposium that included a panel on the mental illness-creativity link, James Fallon, a neurobiologist at the University of California-Irvine, suggested that bipolar disorder and creativity share a common brain pattern:

When people are being creative, activity in the lower part of their frontal lobe decreases but rises in its higher regions — this is exactly what happens as well with bipolar patients when they come out of a deep depression.

Also on that panel, Elyn Saks, a mental health law professor at the University of Southern California, noted that people with psychosis have difficulty filtering out stimuli and therefore are more likely to hold contradictory or unrelated ideas simultaneously. While this result may make them appear ‘scatter brained,’ it may also unlock a degree of intellectual freedom necessary for producing something unique and profound.

As Aristotle’s quote indicates, observations of a link between genius and madness is as old as civilization itself.

Roger “Syd” Barrett with a chimp at the Whipsnade Zoo in 1951 (Courtesy of SydBarrett.com)

Weep for the fragile poets who were overtaken by the monster

Rock-n-Roll history is strewn with creative talents also known for their intermittent madness. John Lennon. Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison. Amy Winehouse. Janis Joplin. Michael Jackson. Phil Spector. Prince. Brian Wilson. Peter Green. Bjork.

But none is more fascinating than Syd Barrett, who gained rapid fame as the creative leader of Pink Floyd during 1967’s Summer of Love. Sadly, he would be out of the band by early January 1968, and died of pancreatic cancer in 2006 in near anonymity, save for a few die-hard Floyd fans who remembered his short but explosively innovative tenure with the band and as a solo artist.

The original Floyd line-up in 1965 consisted of Roger Waters (bass guitar), Richard Wright (keyboards), Nick Mason (drums) and Barrett (lead guitar), with Barrett as the primary songwriter on the band’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawnand first two hit singles(Arnold Layne and See Emily Play).

(From L to R) Richard Wright, Roger Waters, Roger “Syd” Barrett, and Nick Mason (Courtesy of SydBarrett.com)

Given the competitive, ruthless nature of the music industry, it is not that unusual to get kicked out of a band, even one you helped start. Think Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Steven Adler (Guns-n-Roses), Mick Jones (The Clash), Glen Matlock (The Sex Pistols), or Dave Mustaine (Metallica).

[Matlock’s involuntary exit from The Sex Pistols is particularly amusing given the band’s hardcore punk reputation: He talked too much about how he admired The Beatles, especially Paul McCartney.]

With all due respect to Brian Jones, who drowned only a month after getting booted from The Stones, no rock band departure is more tragic or iconic than Barrett’s.

Roger “Syd” Barret in 1965 with one of his paintings (Courtesy of SydBarrett.com)

The superficial facts alone surrounding Barrett’s dismissal from Floyd would be enough for legend. For starters, Barrett was replaced by his close friend, guitarist David Gilmour, who he met during their school days. Even more grimacing is how Barrett learned of his removal: The band stopped picking him up in the van they were taking to gigs. In a 1995 interview for Guitar World, Gilmour told of how the decision was finally made to kick Barrett out of the band: “One person in the car said, ‘Shall we pick Syd up?’ and another person said, ‘Let’s not bother.’”

That is as artless as it is cold.

Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky

But Barrett’s termination in early 1968 was not without cause. During live performances shortly after Floyd’s first UK hit, Arnold Layne, Barrett would occasionally stop playing mid-concert — in some instances, turning his back to the audience as the band continued to play.

Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley, who worked on Barrett’s first solo album (The Madcap Laughs), found Barrett “unnerving,” according to Barrett biographer Mike Watkinson,

“You could have a perfectly normal conversation with him for half-an-hour then he would suddenly switch off and his mind would go off somewhere else,” Shirley told Watkinson.

Shirley noticed another quirk in Barrett’s personality — his laugh: “Syd had a terrible habit of looking at you and laughing in a way that made you feel really stupid. He gave the impression he knew something you didn’t. He had this manic sort of giggle which made The Madcap Laughs such an appropriate name for his album — he really did laugh at you.”

Syd around the time of his exit from Pink Floyd in 1968 (Courtesy of SydBarrett.com)

In a 1978 interview with journalist Kris DiLorenzo, Shirley shared his observations about Barrett’s last days in Floyd:

“It was getting absolutely impossible for the band…Onstage he would either not play or he’d hit his guitar and just turn it out of tune, or do nothing. They were pulling their hair out, they decided to bring in another guitarist to complement, so Syd wouldn’t have to play guitar and maybe he’d just do the singing. Dave (Gilmour) came in and they were a five-piece for about four or five weeks…Then the ultimate decision came down that if they were going to survive as a band, Syd would have to go. Now I don’t know whether Syd felt it and left, or whether he was asked to. But he left. Dave went through some real heavy stuff for the first few months. Syd would turn up at London gigs and stand in front of the stage looking up at Dave; ‘That’s my band.’”

Job loss in rock-n-roll doesn’t get more awkward, and had Barrett just been an unpleasant dick, he would be little more than a footnote in rock history.

But Barrett was supremely creative and his dickish behavior seemed, at least to those who knew him best, to be correlated with his increased use of acid just as the band was becoming an international phenomenon.

Among those who knew him before the Floyd fame, he was an engaging, likable young man. “He was always laughing, and always had a huge sparkle in his eyes as a child,” remembered Syd’s sister, Rosemary Breen, in an interview with the BBC’s John Harris shortly after Syd’s death in 2006. “He was exceptionally gifted and always had loads and loads of friends.”

One of his first girlfriends, Jenny Spires, met Barrett at 15 years old when he was 18, and said about him: “He was a lovely person, and my parents liked him too. My dad knew of his dad, and he and my mum just hit it off, so they felt very safe with me going around with him.”

Barrett’s bandmate and close friend, Richard Wright, briefly lived with him in 1967–8 as part of the band’s attempt to nudge him back into normalcy, and observed his descent firsthand. In a BBC interview, Wright recalled:

“There were two Syds. There was the pre-acid and the post-acid, and the pre-acid Syd was just this wonderful, open and flamboyant guy. And, clearly, we were all hoping he’d get better and all desperately trying as hard as possible to keep him in the band — we all loved him.”

“He was a great talent, but he was also bloody difficult,” was the inelaborate description of Barrett offered by Floyd’s drummer, Nick Mason.

The once charismatic and outgoing art student from Cambridge vanished, and in the span of a year, Barrett would withdraw into a mental lockbox that no one knew how to unlock. In 1968, at the cusp of Beatlesque-like stardom, something had caused seemingly irreversible changes to Barrett’s captivating, though quirky, personality. But what?

His excessive use of LSD has become the accepted myth.

“Roger (Waters) had a theory he was schizophrenic. I don’t think he was. But I’m still convinced he took a huge overdose of acid and destroyed his brain cells,” said Wright, who died in 2008 of lung cancer.

Yet, there remains significant doubts within the medical community as to whether LSD actually kills brain cells and creates life-disabling psychoses.

“So far, there’s not much evidence to suggest that LSD has long-term effects on the brain,” according to Zara Risoldi Cochrane, Pharm.D., M.S., FASCP and Adrienne Santos-Longhurst. “A large survey published in 2015 found no link between psychedelics and psychosis. This further suggests there are other elements at play in this connection, including existing mental health conditions and risk factors.”

Though the cause of Barrett’s mental decline is disputed, the result is not.

After his dismissal from Floyd, Barrett would in 1970 record two solo albums (The Madcap Laughs and Barrett), but never achieved anything close to the commercial success Floyd would enjoy in the 1970s.

Soon after Barrett’s last live performance on June 6, 1970 at Olympia Exhibition Hall in London, with Gilmour joining him onstage on bass guitar, he left the music business and eventually moved in with his mother and sister in Cambridge.

Syd Barrett’s last live performance, with David Gilmour on bass guitar — June 6, 1970, Olympia Exhibition Hall, London, England (Courtesy of Abraham M.)

Apart from an unannounced visit to Abbey Road studios in 1975 — where his former band, ironically, was mixing the song Shine on You Crazy Diamond whichthey had written about their former bandmate — Barrett disappeared from public life.

And so began the growing myth of Syd Barrett.

An effervescing elephant with tiny eyes and great big trunk

As is usually the case, myth typically exaggerates reality, especially as time passes. As an example, try as I do to appreciate the comedic brilliance of late comedian Lenny Bruce, I just don’t find him funny — not even a little. [Here is one of his more accessible appearances: The Steve Allen Show — April, 5, 1959.]

And I could see a hundred more Jackson Pollack paintings and still think my dog with paint brushes tied to his paws could create something just as thoughtful.

Similarly, not every music critic appreciates Syd Barrett’s songs or musicianship. His lead guitar playing could range from powerful to hellishly inventive to sloppy to ‘What the hell is he doing?!’ — sometimes all within the same song. As for his songs, some would include unusual chord changes or chords that don’t even exist (such as at the 0:43 mark in Dark Globe), while others could change time signatures multiple times, making them difficult for other bands to cover (e.g., Bike from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn).

Rock critic Bill Wyman (not to be confused with The Rolling Stone’s bassist) wrote of Barrett’s songs:

“The argument against Syd Barrett is that, to use a turn of phrase he might have heard in his Cambridge days, even his best songs are curate’s eggs — parts, that is to say, are excellent. But that’s as far as it goes with all but a few of the songs he’s left behind. I respect the Barrett amen corner; but the plain truth is that it’s hard to come up with one Barrett song that’s as good as, say, (The Kink’s) Waterloo Sunset or even (Status Quo’s) Pictures of Matchstick Men.”

Matched against Waterloo Sunset, a pop music masterpiece, few popular music songs survive the comparison. And the brevity of Barrett’s productive songwriting years (1966–1970) must also be considered before making connections to the Ray Davies, Leiber-Stoller, Lennon-McCartney, or Jagger-Richards song catalogs.

Furthermore, Barrett’s experimentalism observed no restrictions when he and his bandmates took rock music down a path that sometimes, to my Beatle-nurtured ears, created sounds similar to that of a gang of feral cats attacking a bad teenage garage band. The last two-and-a-half minutes ofPow R. Toc H.co-written by Barrett with Waters, Wright and Mason, is representative of that modal apocalypse. It’s basically nails-on-chalkboard screeching noise.

However, Barrett’s best songs, while often unpolished and in need of a George Martin-like influence in the studio and editing phases, still stand the test of time and cover a stylistic and lyrical range as broad as the best popular artists of his time, including Ray Davies and Lennon-McCartney.

On Barrett’s death in 2006, David Bowie said “Syd was a startlingly original songwriter.”

Nonetheless, Wyman insists Barrett’s music revealed his “promise,” not evidence of his genius. From the perspective of musicality, I can accept his conclusion, but I would add that ‘genius’ and ‘creativity’ are not synonyms. Barrett was a creative savant who may well have lacked the comprehensive knowledge and discipline to earn the additional label of ‘genius.’ [I like to point out during discussions like this that Albert Einstein, who fundamentally reshaped the field of physics and our understanding of the universe, also lacked the discipline necessary to finish his PhD.]

If I had to make a comparison, Barrett’s songs are reminiscent of John Lennon’s ability to blend free-associative lyrics with strident rock guitar melodies, à la I Am The Walrus or And Your Bird Can Sing. And Barrett, like Lennon, had a preternatural knack for writing memorable and hummable pop ditties.

The Barrett song that best exemplifies that for me is one he wrote as a teenager — Effervescing Elephant, recorded for the 1970 album “Barrett.” On a first listen, it sounds like little more than a catchy children’s song, like a tune out of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. But with subsequent listens a listener starts to recognize its unpretentiously clever and dark lyrics are quite remarkable — a lyrical revelation that stands with Lennon’s best:

An Effervescing Elephant
With tiny eyes and great big trunk
Once whispered to the tiny ear
The ear of one inferior
That by next June he’d die, oh yeah!
Because the tiger would roam
The little one said, “Oh my goodness I must stay at home”

And every time I hear a growl
I’ll know the tiger’s on the prowl
And I’ll be really safe, you know
The elephant he told me so
Everyone was nervy, oh yeah!
And the message was spread
To zebra, mongoose, and the dirty hippopotamus

Who wallowed in the mud and chewed
His spicy hippo-plankton food
And tended to ignore the word
Preferring to survey a herd
Of stupid water bison, oh yeah
And all the jungle took fright
And ran around for all the day and the night

But all in vain, because, you see
The tiger came and said “Who me?
You know I wouldn’t hurt not one of you
I’d much prefer something to chew
And your all to scant.” Oh yeah!
He ate the elephant

Why I am teaching Barrett songs to my son

Whether or not Syd Barrett ‘fried’ is brain on LSD is immaterial at this point. And I don’t believe ‘madness’ is a necessary companion to creativity. I’ve met some very creative people who are also very sane.

Indisputable, however, is that for a brief moment in rock history some wonderful music and words flowed from Barrett’s mind that were so creative — so celestially inspired — that they sound as insurgent today as they must have seemed fifty years ago.

Barrett’s sister, Rosemary (L), Roger “Syd” Barrett (M), and his mum (R) in 1981 (Courtesy of SydBarrett.com)

Today, as I sat with my son in our home’s music room, guitars in hand and Fender amps in the ready, we started to master fingering and strumming a A7 — C — Dm chord progression in the hope that we can perform, with passable merit, my favorite Barrett song, Dominoes.

At the time of his death in 2006, I only knew Barrett as ‘the guy who left Pink Floyd before they became really famous.’ Since then, it has taken my own personal struggles, along with helping my teenage son prepare for life’s inevitable challenges, to fully appreciate Barrett’s creative purpose. I feel at peace when I play his songs.

Roger “Syd” Barrett, we are grateful for what you’ve left us.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to nuqum@protonmail.com

The 15 Essential Syd Barrett Songs

[Click on song name to hear]

15. Maisie (from Barrett, 1970) — Syd loved the Blues (along with Jazz); accordingly, this song is musical swamp water.

14. Effervescing Elephant (from Barrett, 1970) — Closing Syd’s second solo album, this song probably deserves to be higher on the list; it is clever, snappy and would be a cherished chestnut in any other songwriter’s catalog.

13. Jugband Blues (from A Saucerful of Secrets, 1968) — Syd’s goodbye letter to his bandmates; in the song’s promotional video, at the song’s end, Syd turns to Roger Waters after he sings, “And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?” — it is heartbreaking.

12. Lucifer Sam (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967) — A combination of James Bond and Lewis Carroll; it is apparently a song about Syd’s cat.

11. Octopus (from The Madcap Laughs, 1970) — I love the Bo Diddley tribute in the middle.

10. Love You (from The Madcap Laughs, 1970) — I heard this song at a wedding once; a fun, bouncy tune that changes time signatures more times than Lady Gaga changes costumes in concert.

9. Terrapin (from The Madcap Laughs, 1970) — An “easy” song to learn but, strangely, hard to play.

8. Bob Dylan Blues (released in 2001) — Recorded in 1969 (or thereabouts), this song both mocks and honors Bob Dylan.

7. See Emily Play (Pink Floyd’s second single; released in Nov. 1967) — This song proves Pink Floyd was a different band with Syd as the front man.

6. Arnold Layne (Pink Floyd’s first single; released in March 1967) — The song’s video is lifted straight out of A Hard Day’s Night; andthe song’s A to F# chord changes still give me chills.

5. Here I Go (from The Madcap Laughs, 1970) — Syd’s best self-referential song that also highlights his great voice when singing in a low register.

4. Baby Lemonade (from Barrett, 1970) — The opening song on his second solo album; the oft-repeated chorus may only be five seconds long, but it is guaranteed to raise the hair on your neck.

3. Bike (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967) — Probably Syd’s most recognized song; for good reason, it’s deceptively childlike, quirky lyrics ride on top of a Beatlesque melody that is impossible to get out of your head once heard.

2. Interstellar Overdrive (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967) — a psychedelic rock masterpiece with an opening lead guitar that stands up to anything heavy metal would produce in subsequent years; if I were starting a rock band, we’d open every concert with the first 50 seconds of this song.

1. Dominoes (from Barrett, 1970) — One of those simple Syd songs that shows his “promise” as some prefer to call it; in truth, the song is haunting and brilliant — I wouldn’t change a note. [David Gilmour’s live version is worth a listen too.]

Honorable mentions:

Vegetable Man (recorded by Pink Floyd in 1967, but unreleased until 2016) — This is the song Syd came up with for Pink Floyd’s third single and now marks what was probably the end of Syd’s relevance to the band; it was uncategorically rejected by the record company and would go unreleased for five decades; yet, if you heard it today, you would be forgiven if you thought it was a punk rock classic. Syd was ahead of his time.

Astronomy Domine (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967) — Another group effort by Pink Floyd, but Syd’s guitar dominates; and while I prefer Interstellar Overdrive, this song remains firmly in the pantheon of psychedelic rock’s greatest songs.

Milky Way (from Opel, 1988, a collection of unreleased Syd solo compositions recorded around 1970) — The world is a pretty lonely and scary place when your reality is not the same as others’ around you; this song puts that sentiment to music.

Clowns and Jugglers (from Opel, 1988) — This may just be a remixing of Octopus, from The Madcap Laughs, but more than a few Syd fans prefer this version; Lennon was doing musical cacophonies like this in the late 1960s (take a listen to What’s the New Mary Jane), but Syd’s scattered madness was more than its musical match.

Re-imagining law enforcement (Part 1)

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, April 21, 2021)

“We need to re-imagine policing and public safety in this country”

— Barack Obama, April 12, 2021

Today, as many people are expressing a sigh of relief at the conviction of Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin in the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, I was reminded of an essay I wrote a year ago about the too common use of excessive force by police in the enforcement of minor civil violations.

Many journalists and commentators have emphasized that the reason Minneapolis police engaged with George Floyd on May 25,2020 in the first place was over Floyd allegedly passing of a counterfeit $20 bill at a local convenience store — the presumption being that had this happened in an affluent community, the police never would have been called or, if they were called, would not have acted as they did towards Floyd.

“This man lost his life over a $20 bill?” singer-songwriter Tom Prasada-Rao lamented to a local Portsmouth, Virginia reporter.

But it is not just the Floyd incident. Here are other cases where the police used excessive (and sometimes deadly) force in the course of investigating a minor crime:

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was killed after a New York City police officer used a prohibited chokehold during his arrest on suspicion of selling individual cigarette without the legally required tax stamps on the packs. (Video)

On April 4, 2015, a South Carolina police officer shot Walter Scott in the back as he fled from the officer. Why was Scott initially stopped? A broken brake light on his car. (Video)

On Dec. 5, 2020, Windsor, Virginia police officers pulled over U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who was returning home from his duty station, for not having a rear license plate on his newly purchased Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. In the course of questioning Nazario, who initially refused to step out of his vehicle out of fear, the officers pulled their guns and sprayed him with a substance meant to subdue him. (Video)

More recently, on April 12, 2021, Daunte Wright, who had been pulled over for an expired registration tag on his car, was killed by a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer who says she accidentally pulled her gun instead of her taser in the process of subduing Wright. (Video)

As Irish poet Brendan Behan once said: “I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.”

Behan’s observation is not entirely balanced, however, as seen in the incidents I have referenced above: Suspects often demonstrate their own special knack for making their situation worse.

Still, the nature of an alleged crime must be considered when judging whether law enforcement is justified in its use of force. Blaming the victim for their emotional, sometimes counterproductive reaction to an engagement with law enforcement does not feel constructive.

It is, in my opinion, the duty of law enforcement professionals to deescalate, when at all possible, any interactions with civilians — particularly when that interaction is concerning a relatively minor offense.

And that includes situations (such as this one) where police arrest citizens who refuse to wear masks in private establishments that require masks. I understand the importance of wearing masks during a pandemic, but I don’t understand why elderly women need to be taken to the ground and handcuffed for such non-compliance. There are better (safer) ways to handle these situations.

Therefore, in the shadow of the Derek Chauvin verdict, I offer my original essay on police enforcement of minor law violations and our need to re-imagine how law enforcement engages with the citizens they take an oath to protect:

Our law enforcement officers need new rules of engagement for minor crimes (May 26, 2020)

By Kent R. Kroeger (NuQum.com)

As a society we’ve become accustomed to seeing awkwardly shot cellphone videos of police officers using excessive force against African-American males.

Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. We know the names even if we don’t remember the details.

And with each new incident, the predictable responses on social media emerge: “If you’re smart, you do what the officer tells you to do,” “The police have to protect themselves” or “Why was he resisting arrest?”

Such reactions are understandable, though not particularly helpful or insightful.

However, an apparent excessive force incident from about nine months ago in Oklahoma put a slight twist on things. In the following video — shot by the police officer’s body cam — the subject who was taken aggressively to the ground and subsequently tased is a 65-year-old woman:https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2F7CvErhrFwuo%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D7CvErhrFwuo&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2F7CvErhrFwuo%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

Don’t assume social media was sympathetic to her case just because she was an older woman and the purpose for the traffic stop was a defective tail light.

“You can tell this lady has been getting her way for years. Well not anymore.” (Benji)

“Turns an $80 ticket in to a felony pursuit. Brilliant.” (Anonymous)

“Result of when you’re used to getting everything you want for the past 70 years.” (Stephanie)

“I don’t feel any sympathy for this lady. She got what she deserved.” (Janae)

“I don’t know what level of entitlement she thinks she is due, but MAN was I satisfied when she got tased.” (Kimberly)

Nobody enjoys the snarkiness of social media more than I do, but my reaction to this video was somewhat different.

Here is where I agree with the majority of comments:

First, the woman’s reaction to the traffic stop was entirely inappropriate. She had been driving for six months with a broken tail light (presumably she was previously stopped for this violation) and she expects she can talk her way out of a ticket?

Um…no. Not going to happen.

Second, of all the things not to do during a routine traffic stop, the woman decides to drive off. Sweet Jesus, what did she expect would happen next?

The bottom line here: she’s at fault and the Cashion, Oklahoma police chief would have no reason to discipline this police officer.

Even within police departments with strict rules of engagement — where use of force is highly circumscribed — a police officer in this situation would be trained to draw his firearm and subdue the woman, including the use of a taser if necessary. A woman willing to drive away from a traffic stop, no matter how old, may be armed and dangerous.

But the fact that this is allowable police behavior is part of a much bigger problem within law enforcement: The basic theory guiding law enforcement’s rules of engagement must fit the crime.

The Context

The current social and political context makes reforming rules of engagement more important than ever for police departments. Some Americans (Blacks and Hispanics, in particular) have understandably grown more distrustful of the police.

Since 1993, according to the Gallup Poll, the average American citizen’s confidence in the police has narrowly ranged between 52 percent and 64 percent having “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: U.S. Confidence in the Military, Police and Small Business over time

Source: The Gallup Poll

However, for Black Americans, their trust in the police fell from 35 percent in 2012–14 to 30 percent in 2015–17. Over the same period, those numbers dropped from even farther for Hispanics from 59 percent to 45 percent. Other research has also shown that whites living in high-crime areas also display lower levels of trust in police comparable to Black and Hispanic’s living under similar circumstances.

From the perspective of police, there is evidence that hostile media portrayals of police actions have increased officers’ belief that civilian attitudes and behaviors toward police have worsened over time.

This possible downward spiral of trust and legitimacy between some communities and law enforcement could be toxic and whether those intertwined forces were at play with the woman and police officer in Oklahoma is uncertain, but definitely plausible.

Which is why I believe, now more than ever, the police need to rethink their rules of engagement in routine situations like the one in Oklahoma.

What happened didn’t need to happen and the burden to make sure it doesn’t happen must rest with the police.

Let us re-examine what happened in Cashion, Oklahoma to see how this situation could have been resolved much more peacefully. And, keep in mind, the highest priority for police departments when their police officers justifiably use force is the safety of those officers.

Early in the traffic stop, both the officer and woman are actually cordial with one another, though clearly the woman is annoyed. On the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center’s Use of Force Model, the interaction between citizen and officer is still in Level 1 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Federal Law Enforcement Training Center’s Use of Force Model

A use-of-force continuous scale developed by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

At 0:29 in the video, however, the officer ceases to entertain the woman’s passive plea that she should not be fined for a safety equipment violation and asks her to leave her truck so he can arrest her.

Stop right there.

By the officer saying he was going to arrest the woman, his range of options for deescalating the conflict significantly narrowed. On the Use of Force scale, he’s on already Level 3, even as the woman is merely complaining that she doesn’t deserve an $80 ticket.

At 0:47, the officer says again, “You’re under arrest,” to which she replies, “No, I’m not.”

At this point, this incident isn’t going to end with anything but the woman being handcuffed and taken to the police station…over an $80 safety violation on her truck.

Also not helping the situation, the officer’s ego is now threatened if she does not immediately submit.

Arrests are emotionally violent acts, if not physically violent. The natural human reaction at being arrested therefore is often fight or flight.

At 1:04, the woman makes the unfortunate decision of choosing flight and drives off in her truck.

At 1:13, the officer has caught up to her and has his gun drawn as he approaches the woman’s truck. The incident is somewhere between Levels 3 and 4 on the Use of Force scale at this point.

All of this drama over an $80 safety equipment violation.

At 1:32 in the video, she is pulled out of the car and taken to the ground, at which point the officer tries to get her hands behind her back so he can cuff her.

When he fails to get the cuffs on, he pulls out his taser gun and uses it on the woman.

All because of an $80 safety equipment violation.

After he’s cuffed the woman, the officer asks her if she realizes she’s “gotten herself in a whole lot more trouble” for running off in her truck.

It almost sounds like a parent speaking to a child. And before you hoot and howl at how some adults aren’t much more emotionally developed than children, it is not the job of our police to raise us to be good adults. Their job is to protect and enforce. To the extent education is part of their job, it is not as a parent-to-a-child — and that is exactly how this interaction in Oklahoma comes across.

What possibly could have changed this outcome and still convey to the woman that, in the future, she must comply with vehicular safety equipment laws?

How do we get to the desired final outcome without the violence?

The problem starts with the law which requires ticketing officers to get a signature from the accused acknowledging the accused will appear in court. The signature, of course, does not imply guilt. It merely allows the accused to avoid getting arrested.

That seems like a good thing: I don’t have to get arrested for a broken tail light!

This legal requirement however makes the first direct, verbal interaction between the ticketing officer and the citizen a necessity. It cannot be avoided.

But why is that? We can get speeding tickets and traffic signal violations based merely on traffic cam evidence, why can’t the same be true for other plainly visible violations?

According to FindLaw.com, the issue is that localities using traffic cameras for enforcement must provide a warning sign, such as a green-yellow-red traffic light, a stop sign, or a speed limit sign. I’ve never seen a “Are your tail lights working?” sign.

“But I didn’t know my tail light was broken, officer!”

Not an excuse, drivers are supposed to know their vehicle is road safe every time they get in it and drive.

So, no, passive traffic cam enforcement isn’t going to work in the Oklahoma lady’s case. She had a broken tail light.

But there is a key moment in the Oklahoma incident where the need for a signature is OBE (overtaken-by-events).

When she drives off, she’s fleeing the scene of an alleged crime where she is the suspect.

At that point, why should the officer go after her? Unless he suspects a more serious crime is taking place and the traffic violation is merely a pretense to get the driver and truck stopped, why can’t the officer let her drive off?

I can already share the answers I’ve received to that question.

“It sets a bad example.”

“Some people will think they never need to obey the police.”

“Police can’t do their jobs if people can drive away.”

“If we don’t enforce minor laws, people will think they can commit more serious crimes.”

Those answers may all contain truths, but don’t forget, she drove off (a felony) after refusing to accept an $80 ticket for a broken tail light. This is not a high crime, even with the felony aspect. And, no, thinking I can drive away from a vehicle safety ticket doesn’t necessarily make me more likely to rob a bank.

More importantly, our law enforcement establishment and other legal authorities have many tools proportionate to the crime to penalize this woman and ensure her compliance with the law in the future.

If at 0:47 in the video, instead of telling the woman she was going to be arrested, the officer could have said, “If you refuse to sign this ticket, I have your license plate number, this car will be impounded and you will face additional fines, possibly even jail time.”

If she decides to drive off, from that point forward, the municipal authority can levy fines that, if ignored, can be increased appropriately. The authorities can prevent her from receiving local licenses and approvals (business, hunting, home improvement, etc.), as well as other punishments, which can be applied without arresting her and putting her in jail.

But do not misunderstand my proposal. Once a police officer says, “You are under arrest,” driving off or fleeing is a serious crime. What I am proposing is a rule of engagement that avoids an officer needing to say, “You are under arrest.”

Of course, people cannot flout the law, no matter how minor the offense. But the scale of the punishment and how it is enforced is equally important.

In my opinion, throwing a 65-year-old woman resisting arrest to the ground and using a taser on her is not appropriate given her crime is refusing to accept a ticket for a vehicle safety violation and driving off.

Vehicle Safety Laws Are Important

One last comment I received to the first draft of this essay deserves some attention.

You diminish the seriousness of vehicle safety laws which can, when violated, lead to accidents and deaths.” (My wife)

That comment resonates with me and I do not consider such laws as unimportant. They are, in fact, critical to community safety.

But show me the evidence that arrests like that of the woman in Cashion, Oklahoma lead to better overall outcomes for a community than my solution (let her drive off, impound the vehicle, impose additional fines).

One cannot assume arresting people makes them more compliant in these types of crimes.

I suspect they do not, and may even cause the exact opposite outcomes.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments, traffic fines and arrest warrants to: kroeger98@yahoo.com Or tweet to: @KRobertKroeger1

Facts out of context can be as treacherous as lies

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, April 12, 2021)

As more and more people across the world are getting vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, daily headlines continue emphasize how this virus and its variants remain an imminent threat.

There are currently 23.9 million active COVID-19 cases in the world. That is the most at any given time during this pandemic.

Accordingly, the current number of COVID-19 related news articles are so numerous it is understandable if people are numb to them.

However, for me, one recent news story stood out from the clutter:

Four deaths after taking Russian Sputnik V vaccine (EUobserver.com, by Andrew Rettman, April 9, 2021)

“Four people recently died in Russia shortly after taking the Sputnik V anti-corona jab in previously unreported cases, which are being taken ‘seriously’ by the EU regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Amsterdam.

Six other Russians also had medical complications after taking the vaccine, according to internal case files from RosPotrebNadzor, a Russian body responsible for administering vaccinations, seen by EUobserver.

Three of the deceased were women aged 51, 69, and 74. The fourth one was not identified in the leaked files.”

[Story downloaded on April 11, 2021]

In a world where many people already distrust their governments and medical experts, the possibility that any COVID-19 vaccine is potentially harmful or deadly only increases the likelihood that large numbers of people may never get vaccinated — for example, among U.S. Marines offered a vaccination shot, nearly 40 percent have declined to receive it.

That is why headlines like the one about the Russian vaccine (Sputnik V) demand scrutiny. Is it significant that four deaths have coincided with receiving the Sputnik V vaccine?

The short answer is probably not. As I will show below, random chance alone most likely accounts for a small number of deaths occurring soon after receiving the Sputnik V vaccine (or any safe vaccine). In particular with vaccines administered to a large percentage of a population, a certain number of negative events (e.g., death) should be expected with even the safest vaccines.

That said, this answer does not suggest any death temporally related to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine should be ignored. The fact that two of the four dead were relatively young is particularly troubling.

The purpose of the following analysis aims to show that when observing rare events in large populations, it is easy to make premature causal inferences, and the potential for this mistake is heightened when news organizations report ‘factual’ data without proper context. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, news organizations potentially do significant harm by sowing unsubstantiated levels of distrust in the vaccines currently available.

[I might even argue that the misapplication of objective ‘facts’ to support a false narrative is more dangerous than lies, as the latter can be often dismissed with a modicum of inquiry, while the former offers prima facie validity to a core narrative that becomes harder to disprove.]

Should those receiving the Sputnik V vaccine be worried? Here is a back-of-the-envelope look at this question…

The following analysis comes with this caveat: The Russian research organization which developed Sputnik V, Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, has not been as transparent as their U.S. and European counterparts in sharing case-specific data on potential adverse reactions to the vaccine. Still, the core research supporting the regulatory approval and mass distribution of Sputnik V has been peer-reviewed and published.

The first number to consider is that from mid-January to mid-March, 3.5 million Russians have received both doses of the Sputnik V vaccine (e.g., 7 million shots). That number translates to 116,600 shots per day over the approximately 60 days the vaccine has been available to the Russian public (mid-January to mid-March).

The next important number is Russia’s overall mortality rate, estimated to be about 13,000 deaths per 1 million people annually over the 10 years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. [For simplification reasons, I did not use age-adjusted mortality rates to account for the fact that older Russian citizens were more likely to receive the Sputnik V vaccine during the analysis period. Furthermore, given that life expectancy in Russia is around 72.7 years, it is notable that two of the women who died were significantly younger than that age. An unusually high number of deaths among people otherwise young and healthy should always raise red flags regarding the safety of a vaccine.]

This mortality rate translates to a probability of a Russian dying on any given day to be around 0.00003562 (the ratio 13,000/1,000,000 divided by 365) or a 1.3% chance over the entire year.

Applying Russia’s mortality rate to the 3.5 million Russians already vaccinated, we should expect 134 of them to die on any given day this year (or about 8,040 deaths every two months (60 days x 134 per day)).

If we multiply the 116,600 individual Sputnik V vaccinations between mid-January to mid-March by the daily probability of the vaccine recipient dying from a non-COVID-19 related cause, we get 4.2 deaths per day. In other words, on any given day between mid-January to mid-March for the 3.5 million Russians receiving the vaccine, we should have expected 4.2 Russians to die on the day they received a shot of causes unrelated to the vaccine.

Apart from one sentence buried deep in the article, the EUobserver news story offers no practical context with which to properly understand the story’s headline. If a reader were to give only a cursory amount of attention to this story, they can be forgiven if they become skeptical of Sputnik V’s safety after reading the EUobserver story.

The problem with that outcome is that it feeds an potentially irrational fear of the Sputnik V vaccine. Without systematic evidence on how Russians have reacted to the Sputnik V vaccine — not just the four leaked cases cited in the EUobserver story — it is impossible for any EUobserver reader to judge the safeness of the vaccine.

Final Thoughts

Complicating this story further is the ongoing willingness of U.S. and European news outlets to feed anti-Russian narratives at every opportunity. It is also difficult to rule out the possibility that U.S.-European pharmaceutical companies and governments, out of economic and geopolitical self-interest, are helping propagate negative and potentially false narratives about the Russian vaccine.

Which is only more reason to aggressively scrutinize news stories like the one from the EUobserver. It is unfortunate, however, that this burden rests so completely with the reader and not the news organization itself.

Should the EUobserver not have reported the Sputnik V story? Of course it should have. With the recent news of dangerous blood clots possibly associated with other COVID-19 vaccines, transparency into the numerous vaccines now on the market is critical. But when a headline reads — Four deaths after taking Russian Sputnik V vaccine — it implies a level of causation that is simply not supported by the story’s facts.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

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.

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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