Sobering Thoughts

Comments on politics, the culture, economics, and sports by Paul Tuns. I am editor-in-chief of "The Interim," Canada's life and family newspaper, and author of "Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal" (2004) and "The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau" (2015). I am some combination of conservative/libertarian, standing athwart history yelling "bullshit!" You can follow me on Twitter (@ptuns).

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Sunday, July 22, 2018
 
Trump's record-high support (with caveat, but this is significant)
The Wall Street Journal reports that a new poll shows President Donald Trump has a 45% approval rating. That doesn't sound very good, but this number is significant:
Underpinning Mr. Trump’s job approval was support from 88% of Republican voters. Of the four previous White House occupants, only George W. Bush, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, had a higher approval rating within his own party at the same point in his presidency.
If you read the New York Times, you get a relentless stream of news and analysis about how unpopular the President is. Coverage vacillates among widespread gloating on the part of various Times writers that Trump is historically unpopular, widespread celebration that many Republicans do not support the President (even if they won't speak out against or cross him), and widespread fretting that so many Republicans continue to support the President. My guess is that challenging international institutions and Trump's conservative Supreme Court appointments is keeping him popular with the base, and broad grateful support by GOP voters, along with The Left's anti-Trump overkill, will go a long way to ensuring Trump goes into the 2020 election without a serious primary challenge and the ability to the unite a broad coalition to win re-election that year. A lot can change in the next 18 and 28 months, but right now Donald Trump is sitting quite comfortably.


Saturday, July 21, 2018
 
Are Republicans hypocrites?
The Guardian reports:
The study of 80,000 voters in five US states found that Democrats used the Ashley Madison adultery website substantially less than Republicans, Libertarians, Greens and unaffiliated voters. Libertarians consistently ranked as the site’s most frequent clients.
The results highlight an apparent paradox where those with more conservative views and supposedly stricter attitudes towards sex seem happier to hop into bed with someone outside their relationship than more liberal types.
“Our results are perhaps the strongest evidence yet that people with more sexually conservative values, although they claim to act accordingly, are more sexually deviant in practice than their more sexually liberal peers,” the researchers write in Archives of Sexual Behaviour.
The paper reports on what researchers say may be possible explanations for this apparent hypocrisy:
The study does not shed light on why Republicans might be more likely to have affairs than Democrats, but Arfer has a couple of theories. The first is that, thanks to more restricted sex education and discussion, right-leaning people may be less well-informed about sex and sexuality, and so have poorer sexual self-control. The second is that people who are more interested in taboo activities declare themselves Republicans, and profess to have stricter attitudes, to deflect suspicion.
But another explanation is possible. Political party allegiance may simply be a proxy for wealth, and Republicans tend to be better off than Democrats. “It stands to reason that wealthier people should be more likely to use Ashley Madison, which can be expensive,” Arfer said. “So the party effect we observed could be driven by income instead of, or in addition to, ideology.”
There is always the possibility that some Ashley Madison clients are plunged into turmoil by the realisation that their behaviour is in direct conflict to the standards they hold most dear.
It is possible this is all there is to the story. Perhaps Republicans and Libertarians are the most likely to cheat on their wives. Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart pointed to research that showed Democrats are more likely to live personally socially conservative lives (getting and staying married, having children in wedlock) than are Republicans. But there are other possible explanations.
The study examined voters in just five states: California, Florida, Kansas, New York and Oklahoma. That looks like an interesting cross-section of America -- middle America (Kansas and Oklahoma), two coastal liberal states (NY and California) and a southern swing state (Florida) -- but not necessarily a representative group.
The study is not an exhaustive examination of marital infidelity, but rather Ashley Madison clients. Obviously there is overlap, but perhaps Democrats are more likely to use their own networks to cheat on spouses whereas Republicans prefer to go outside their peer groups (in part because they are not living up to their own moral standards).
There are many types of Republicans. Research shows that in the aggregate, GOP voters are more socially conservative than are Democrats, but there are many socially liberal/libertarian Republicans. It is possible that GOP voters who are Ashley Madison clients are not hypocrites, after all.
There is without doubt some segment of hypocritical Republican voters who are cheating on their spouses despite espousing socially conservative views on sexual morality and marriage. But the researchers are themselves very moralizing in their comments about this supposed hypocrisy and one wonders whether they were that interested in digging for explanations to understand the phenomenon they were describing or whether they were more interested in scoring partisan gotcha points over a party's base of support.
And even if the researchers are correct, we should be careful not to paint all Republican voters as hypocrites. The number of Ashley Madison clients is very small. In California, just one in 560 voters had an account with the infidelity-enabling website; in Oklahoma, it was just one in 943. In Oklahoma, Republicans were twice as likely to be a registered user of Ashley Madison than were Democrats, but it was still just one in 700 GOP voters. So the vast majority of voters (approximately 99.85%) do not use this particular website. You can't really generalize from such a small sample size.


 
7 million Britons are on anti-depressants
The (London) Times reports:
NHS data obtained by The Times reveals for the first time that one in six adults in England used antidepressants last year — an increase of almost half a million since 2015.
The figures include more than 70,000 people under 18 and almost 2,000 children of primary school age. Experts think that such pills rarely work in children, with one saying that doctors were “medicalising adolescence”.
Seems like rather a lot. It begs the question: why so many? The Times reports: "The scale of Britain’s reliance on antidepressants has fuelled concerns about overuse of the drugs as a first resort and a reluctance by some doctors to take people off pills despite side-effects." The extensive use of drugs as a first resort is a serious problem. The UK already has a highly successful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy program (CBT is described by Canadian doctors David Goldbloom and David Gratzer as "a brief therapy that focuses on how thoughts affect mood and behaviour"), the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies initiative, that assists about 900,000 people a year. Obviously the target of 1.5 million adults being treated with CBT by 2020 is not enough. The program needs funding to grow. More importantly, the psychiatric profession needs to change so that pills are not the first resort. The headline of 7 million Brits on antidepressants should scare the government into action. It won't, but it should.


Friday, July 20, 2018
 
50 years of Humanae Vitae
I have a longish cover story in the July/August Interim on the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical reasserting Christian teaching on contraception. Here's an excerpt about the costs (to society) of ignoring Humanae Vitae:
By almost any measure, the signs of unfettered sexual license tell a disturbing tale. For most of the last three decades, Canada has killed about 100,000 preborn children annually; in the United States, the number is about a million annually. While the number of surgical abortions have decreased in recent years, there is an unknowable and dramatically rising number of chemical abortions.
According to the U.S. National Health Statistics Report, 99 per cent of American women aged 15-44 have used at least one contraceptive method in their lifetime, and 62 per cent of all women of reproductive age are currently using some contraceptive method; that number jumps to 77 per cent of married women. Even if those numbers are inaccurate, they paint a picture in which contraception is commonplace. In Canada, there are more than one million prescriptions for oral contraceptives dispensed every year. According to the market research firm Reportbuyer.com, the global condom market is expected to reach US$11 billion by 2022.
Sexually transmitted infections have increased precipitously in recent years. In Canada in 1998, there were 39,372 new cases of chlamydia; in 2015, there were 116,499 new cases. Likewise, the number of gonorrhea infections increased from 5,076 to 19,845 over the same time frame. New cases of syphilis, thought to be on the verge of being eradicated in North America a decade ago, rose from 501 in 1998 to 4,551 in 2015. American numbers tell a similar story.
While generally trend lines show decreases in teenage pregnancy rates and divorce in recent years, that followed a boom in both phenomena in the 1970s.
Humanae Vitae was prophetic. Many of its critics were not. Proponents of contraception, even within the Christian churches, have promoted the idea that it prevents abortion; some went so far as to predict contraception would render abortion obsolete and some critics of the pro-life movement advise that it accept contraception as the lesser of two evils (with the prevention of children presumably less evil than the killing of them). But as Mary Eberstadt, a senior researcher at the Faith and Reason Institute, wrote in First Things in April, the “empirical reality” is that the easy availability of contraception led to more abortion. Eberstadt observed that, “rates of contraception usage, abortion, and out-of-wedlock births all exploded simultaneously.” Contraception leads to more pregnancy because it theoretically lowers the cost of having sex – the social and economic costs – through the perception that it will prevent pregnancy (and in the case of condoms, sexually transmitted diseases). The perception of lower risk of pregnancy and the responsibilities that come with it, researcher Scott Lloyd has pointed out in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, incentivizes sexual relationships that might not otherwise occur. Furthermore, as economists George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Michael Katz, wrote in a 1996 Quarterly Journal of Economics article, “by making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother,” due to abortion, “the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.” That is, the expectation of women to forego children because of the possibility of abortion and contraception, has altered the expectations of men. Contraception and abortion are two sides of the same coin.
Furthermore, as Eberstadt writes, far from making women happier, the age of free love has gone hand-in-hand with higher rates of dissatisfaction with their intimate relationships (both those they have and those they cannot find), making special note of the degradation of women through pornography and popular entertainment. The #MeToo movement has shone a light on the problem of sexual harassment, and even if the phenomenon is exaggerated, very clearly the “sexual revolution licensed predation” in Eberstadt’s judgment.
Paradoxically, the freedom to engage in premarital sex with seemingly no consequences, may have made the choice to abstain from sex before marriage difficult. Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote in Crisis magazine in 2001, that “the possibilities seemingly open to young women in their ability to control their fertility have made deciding not to have sex before marriage look like an eccentric choice to most.” As the sociologist James Q. Wilson has observed, when many men can find sex outside of marriage with great ease, some girls feel it necessary to “put out” just to find or maintain a boyfriend. Contraception has therefore changed not only behaviour, but attitudes and expectations, and with a terrible toll. All of this was predicted by Pope Paul VI.
I quote Janet Smith saying that the Holy Father did not intend to write a prophetic document, but rather a clarifying one. It is, in fact, both. The article briefly examines the context in which the encylical was was created (the '60s), how it was divisive within the Church (too bad) and that many Protestants have eventually come on board. There is a lot of ground covered. I hope you will read it.


Thursday, July 19, 2018
 
You can't milk a nut
Yesterday, Twitchy reports, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that the administration will crack down on calling nondairy products like soy and almond drinks "milk." Gottlieb said: "An almond doesn’t lactate."


 
2020 watch (HRC edition)
A Morning Consult/Politico poll of nearly 2000 register voters found that while most people, including Democrats, don't think that Hillary Clinton should run for the Democratic presidential nomination, nearly half of Democratic women say she should. It found that 63% of all voters say HRC should run again, while just 25% said she should. Nearly half of Democrats say she should forego running again (46%), while about four in ten (41%) say she should give it another go. Democratic men goose the anti numbers: 55% of them say she shouldn't run. But among Democratic women, 45% say Hillary Clinton should run, while 39% say she shouldn't. HRC looks like a candidate; last weekend, she was the American Federation of Teachers National Convention and she has recently been a vocal critic of Trump's immigration policy and relationship with Vladimir Putin. Lanny Davis, a long-time Clinton-family supporter, said earlier this month, he would advise her against running. Michael Graham of Inside Sources said last week that in a crowded Democratic field HRC has the name-recognition, fundraising ability, and campaign infrastructure to be a credible candidate. According a Vox Populi Poll last month, 52% of Democrats would consider voting for Clinton in 2020 while 35% say they would not consider voting for her, twice any other potential Democrat contender listed. It is difficult to give up one's dream to be president, especially when one wins the popular vote and one believes she lost the presidency to someone as undeserving as Donald Trump. I have no doubt that HRC wants to run again. I'm not convinced she will. She remains relevant as long as she signals she might run for president but is less so if she eschews running again. There might be more of a chance that the Clinton family is putting their considerable election machine to work for Chelsea Clinton, who could seamlessly step into the role if her mother decides not to go for it again in 2020.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018
 
2020 watch (The Audacity of Hope II)
The New York Times reports:
Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, has not officially entered the presidential race for 2020, but a new piece of publishing news strongly suggests she might.
Penguin Press has announced it will publish Ms. Harris’s “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” in January 2019. The memoir and current-events primer, in a mixture well-known to campaign books, will include sketches of both Ms. Harris’s upbringing and her governing principles.
If Harris is not running for the Democratic presidential nomination, or at least flirting with the idea, there is no reason for anyone to care about her autobiography/blueprint-for-America, no matter how "authentic" her voice might be or how compelling her mother's backstory is. This type of book is as much a part of the ritual of running for president as visiting New Hampshire is.


Monday, July 16, 2018
 
In the ebb and flow of sports popularity, kids losing interest in soccer
The New York Times reports:
Over the past three years, the percentage of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer regularly has dropped nearly 14 percent, to 2.3 million players, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which has analyzed youth athletic trends for 40 years. The number of children who touched a soccer ball even once during the year, in organized play or otherwise, also has fallen significantly.
In general, participation in youth sports nationwide has declined in the past decade, as children gravitate to electronic diversions and other distractions.
Yet in recent years, while soccer continued declining, baseball and basketball experienced upticks, buoyed by developmental programs begun by Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.
“It’s lost more child participants than any other sport — about 600,000 of them,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. As he pointed out, that’s enough to fill every stadium on any given match day during the 2026 World Cup, which the United States will host with Mexico and Canada.
The decline has been felt everywhere: recreational leagues in longtime soccer hotbeds here; high-profile traveling teams from Maryland to California; programs targeted at Latino and immigrant populations in South Texas. High burnout rates from pushing children into travel soccer too young as well as the high costs of programs have also contributed to the lower numbers.
Amateur sociologists among the pundit and political class might look at declining soccer participation rates among youth and wring their collective hands over the 2018 equivalent of Bowling Alone or dangers of technology ("kids and their video games" or "kids and social media") that is a threat to the fabric of society. But the growing popularity of baseball and basketball suggests that placing most of the blame on something outside soccer is probably misplaced. Just as television ratings and live audience numbers rise and fall for professional sports, usually not in unison (right now NFL and NASCAR are down, NBA is up), reflecting momentary upticks in interest for one sport or another (and momentary decline in interest for others), it is natural that the level for youth participation is likely to ebb and flow. No need to worry about the kids, at least due to declining soccer league enrollment.


 
Remainers just as much a threat to May as Brexiteers. Can May survive 'til Thursday?
From the Daily Telegraph's Front Bench newsletter:
It’s become quite clear this morning that the Chequers deal has enemies on all sides. That’s no surprise when it comes to the Brexiteers, who are ramping up their efforts to fight it – more on that in a moment – but now prominent Remainers are making their feelings clear.
Justine Greening, the former education secretary, has written in The Times to call for a second referendum that offers May’s deal, no deal, and staying in the EU to voters. She reportedly has the backing of former Cabinet colleagues Amber Rudd and Damian Green.
That will worry Downing Street, because, while the Prime Minister's deal was always going to create some rather angry Brexiteers, the more dangerous Remainer rebellion looked to have been killed off, and even the likes of Anna Soubry were embracing the Chequers plan ...
However much either side coordinates their campaigning, only one thing remains clear – there is no majority in Parliament for a hard Brexit, but as May looks set to discover, there is no majority for any other kind of Brexit, either.
Still, at least there’s one thing to reassure the PM. This week is her last PMQs before recess, followed by an end-of-parliamentary-term speech to the backbench 1922 Committee. The Guardian reports that Thursday’s meeting is the informal deadline for triggering a vote of confidence in May.
Only four sleeps until (temporary) survival.
The Conservative majority is in peril. There are rumours that Boris Johnson could resign as MP, making it more difficult for the Tories to hold onto their parliamentary majority (with DUP) if he begins an exodus. He probably won't, but the numbers game doesn't look in May's favour any way you look at it.


Sunday, July 15, 2018
 
Better information in baseball has produced more boring baseball, but it is hardly reason to impose new rules
George Will has a column that perfectly represents my view on what's happening in baseball and the reaction against it:
What baseball people call “analytics,” and less-scientific people call information, has produced all this: Particular hitters have particular tendencies; defenses adjust accordingly. Now, let us, as the lawyers say, stipulate that more information is always better than less. But for the moment, information is making offense anemic. So, there is a proposal afoot — this is fascism — to ban shifts, to say that there must be two infielders on either side of second base, or even that as the pitch is delivered all infielders must be on the infield dirt. This would leave some, but much less, ability to manage defenses. It would, however, short-circuit market-like adjustments.
Incessant radical shifting will persist until it is moderated by demand summoning a supply of some Rod Carew-like hitters. A Hall of Famer, Carew was a magician who wielded a bat like a wand, spraying hits hither and yon, like Wee Willie (“Hit ’em where they ain’t”) Keeler. The market is severely meritocratic, so some hitters who cannot modify their tendencies and learn to discourage shifts by hitting away from them might need to consider different careers.
Baseball — the game on the field, not just the business side — resembles a market system because constantly evolving strategies create demands for different tactics, and thus different skills, which are then supplied by people and teams eager to excel in the new forms of competition. Before restricting managers’ and players’ interesting choices by limiting shifts (and certainly before softening the ball; or moving the pitcher more than 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate), give the market — freedom for fan-pleasing ingenuity and adaptation — a chance.
There is plenty of interest among the sports punditocracy and Official Baseball to tinker to "improve" baseball. Modern man cannot see a problem without wanting to fix it. Sometimes, the fix makes problems worse, so (sometimes), as Will says, if it is broken, don't fix it; sometimes, the problem will fix itself over time. More information about what happens on the field led to new strategies, which incentivized players to adapt. It makes sense to let the "market" fix this by having smart coaches and players react to the changes that are supposedly ruining the game today by taking advantage of inefficiencies in the game. The next adaptations will make baseball more fun again.