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Guest Post - Israel

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.09.14

Nick S writes: I thought both Ezra Klein's article about Israel and Alyssa Rosenberg's response about how she has always identified more with the Jewish diaspora than with Israel were both interesting.


 

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Cooking

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.08.14

Probably near the bottom of the list, but one thing that would be harder as a single parent is to find the motivation to plan and cook healthy-ish meals. It's very, very nice to have at least one other person who thinks the dinner you made tastes good.


 

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Guest Post - Piketty v. Graeber

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.08.14

Nick S. writes: A discussion between Piketty and David Graeber which makes it seem like they may have similar political viewpoints, but they are engaged in very different rhetorical projects:

Piketty: Forgive me, but I am very surprised that you attach so little importance to the question of what tools we should employ, what collective institutions we should create, the better to target those whom we wish to target. Part of our role as intellectuals is to say what collective institutions we want to construct. Taxation is part of this.
Graeber: Progressive taxation seems to me to epitomize the Keynesian era and redistributive mechanisms based on expectations of growth rates that no longer seem valid. This sort of redistributive mechanism relies on projections of the increased productivity, linked to rising wages, which historically accompanied the application of redistributive tax policies. But are such policies workable in the context of weak growth? And with what social impact?

 

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Stay Safe

Posted by Ogged
on 08.08.14

A few years ago, some friends gave me an app idea, which I expounded upon like so.

Chicago...now posts crime data in near-real-time, and doesn't mind if you use it. So you could have a "most dangerous in the last six months" map, but also a "trending dangerous lately" map and integrate those with gps and maps. Your planned route takes you through dangerous neighborhoods; consider an alternate route. Beep beep, you're approaching a dangerous neighborhood. GENIUS.

And I was right, insofar as GENIUS means lots of buzz for your app. I suspect that part of the appeal is the crowdsourcing built into the app. Of course, that's also what makes it so objectionable. I was only going to use published crime data, and it still felt too shitty to actually make.


 

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Heal Thyself

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.08.14

That physicians are burnt out seems believable. I don't have much intersection socially with physicians, but it's easy to believe that being well-compensated is orthogonal to the demands and grind of the the job.

I have an impression that physicians have staked out a sort of libertarian dogma against workplace reforms, though, so I can't imagine anything gaining momentum.

Gross! This jewelry stays in place via needles lodged in your skin! Something about harnessing your energy.


 

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Notes from the decidedly mediocre reading

Posted by Ben
on 08.07.14

1. "Little Birds Have Fast Hearts" was a great name for a Brötzmann album. Nevertheless, the beats per minute hummingbirds achieve is a trope one may do better to omit from one's somewhat flabby poem in prose; the poor dears are overworked enough as it is. Also, if you note that hummingbirds live for two or three years, and then immediately thereafter note that people who move to San Francisco stay for two or three years, you probably do not need, still later, to explicitly liken the two.

2. O you reader whose piece is in large part a presumably fictionalized account of its own composition for "a reading in San Francisco in eight days", with claims that certain bits have been excised by the editor to spare the audience and culminating with one character's advice to the reader-character not to go on too long: you are not clever, and if you were not trying to be clever then what precisely you were up to is a great mystery.

3. It is disheartening when a body reads an essay that is, for some reason, a plea for people to be nicer in goodreads reviews which selects as an exemplary Recent Doubtlessly Excellent Literary Book The Goldfinch, goes on to approvingly repeat Dave Eggers' fatuous plea "do not be critics, you people, I beg you. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one" (introduced, with what I hope was great hyperbole, as "very famous"), and then moves to approvingly reiterate Malcolm Gladwell concerning how many thousands of hours of writing needs must precede proficiency.


 

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Tweeters

Posted by Ogged
on 08.07.14

There are a bunch of new(ish) web publications that I can think of just off the top of my head--vox, 538, all things d, the verge, jacobin, grantland, intercept--all of which I ignore, because that's too much, man, and I have no idea what's good and what's what. I think the solution is a twitter feed that I actually use. Tell me, people of the tweet, who are your three (3) must-follow twitterers, and please (important!) include a word or two of what they're about. Any topics welcome, as long as they're awesome.

For example:

Poet Michael Robbins, solid tweeter.

Juan Cole, Middle-East, straight dope.


 

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A Thought

Posted by Ogged
on 08.07.14

Reading the latest of the "we're fucked" climate change articles (this time, the paraphrase is literal), part of me--the grumpy, Old Testament part--thought, Good! Let the disaster come and wipe this miserable species off the planet. Now, granted, I'm grumpy this morning, but I do wonder how much of people's resistance and inaction, particularly in the States, isn't plain old human shortsightedness but, at least a little, in their dark heart of hearts, about how awesome some old-fashioned biblical calamity would be. (You also have your preppers who secretly want disaster because then they can be the winners, but they're still fringe, even in America.)


 

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Civil Liberties

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.07.14

Teacher fired because her students found her cell phone in her desk, rifled through the photos, found some nudie pics and posted them to social media. (via Jammies)

From elsewhere,

Many companies are adopting safety programs governing all of their employees' activities. In Utah, the mining company Rio Tinto requires workers to fill out daily safety tracking cards, with workers being advised to "take small bites" while eating. At Nestle, employees must report two safety breaches by their colleagues a month, such as holding open elevator doors.

I will never, ever understand why Americans seem so complacent about having their freedoms taken away by their employers yet so hysterically terrified about having subsidized insurance available to all.


 

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Guest Post - Craft Whiskey

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.07.14

Nick S. writes: On the wide range of "craft" rye whiskeys that are from a single distillery:

The Indiana distillery, by contrast, does sell its best stuff, because MGP Ingredients doesn't have any brands of its own. Originally, the rye that was made there had a particular purpose--as a component to "flavoring whiskey" in the Seagram's Seven Crown blend. But it turns out that the rye in MGP's warehouses, when not used for blending, is very good whiskey all on its own--one more reason why the industrial product is behind so much of the "craft" rye revolution.

Heebie's take: Since starting out, I have not liked any amber liquors at all. I find them too sweet, which other people treat as the wrong adjective to the point of confusion.

It's probably time for me to revisit them, because I'm older and grayer and I like the idea of whiskeys, etc. My current favorite drink is gin, ginger beer, cucumber and mint.


 

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Rot

Posted by Ogged
on 08.06.14

--The banker a billionaire bribed is already in jail. The billionaire was on trial, but paid $100M and the cases was dismissed. This is "unusual."

--Former NSA chief and nutcase Keith Alexander is shopping his cybersecurity services for $1M per month. He claims that his service is based on something he worked on in his spare time, and it only came together just after he retired because an associate provided the key missing piece. Now the NSA is refusing to release Alexander's financial disclosure forms.


 

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Fascia

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.06.14

The dynamics of trying to scientifically study a body part that is firmly located in the land of hocus-pocus:

In October, 2007, more than 100 scientists from around the world convened in Boston, Massachusetts to discuss the latest research on fascia, an enigmatic, gauze-like matrix of connective tissue that envelopes the muscles, surrounds the nerves and swathes the organs in a body-wide-web of fibrous collagen. But the researchers had some unlikely company. Also in attendance, and outnumbering researchers 5:1, was a throng of complementary- and alternative-medicine practitioners with a mutual interest in fascia. United by their fascination with this medically neglected tissue, the two camps comprised the attendees of the first-ever International Fascia Research Congress.

Basically nothing is known about fascia:

And yet, fascia's "major functions" have yet to reveal themselves. To date, there have been no home runs establishing a clear, causal link between fascia's molecular, cellular, or biomechanical properties and the effective treatment of pain, injury, or disease - at least to the satisfaction of the broader scientific community.

And eventually, even the woo-driven admit it:

"We have been teaching for several decades that with the rolfing strokes we are changing a gel-to-sol transition int he ground substance, or that we are also loosening cross-links within the collagen fibers," says Schleip, in reference to common phrases employed by Rolfers to explain their work to their patients. "But, if you meet us teachers late night at the bar, we don't know shit about it and we agree to that."

I just find the collision of worlds entertaining.


 

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Just Words

Posted by Ogged
on 08.05.14

This bizarro tweet from Josh Marshall made me think, which pundit would you like to fight, and how would it go? Althouse would totally go for the eyes, until you uncorked that nice Pinot, and then she might pout and flounce, but probably wouldn't kill you. Krauthammer would roll away, roll away, and just when you got tired of chasing him, would stand up, pull a knife from his boot, and stab you in the throat.


 

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Outsourced Programming Advice

Posted by Ogged
on 08.05.14

Tom Lee, that no-longer-commenting-here dick, has a really good post up with advice for an aspiring programmer. I think most of what he says came out in the threads here, but it's a clear and helpful piece.


 

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Guest Post - Technique

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 08.04.14

A presidential commenter writes: A story combining sex, race, and religion with a legal question about liability. Also, for me, a warning not to read twitter before you start "work" because then an interest in Swedish politics will end up here. WE start in the middle of the interview:

"I eventually branched out of the promiscuity. I got God in my life and I turned my love of sex - especially positive, empowered sex - into something I use to help other people ...
"There's so many different places that you can have a great sexual relationship. I also have a technique called the Death Technique. And, to be honest, I have had women who have given their men my blowjobs and the men have passed away.
...mid-blowjob?
"Yes. Massive heart attacks. So I do tell women, I am not responsible for the death of your mate. You suck at your own risk!

Heebie's take: Amarillo or bust!


 

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Piketty Reading Group: Chapter 12

Posted by LizardBreath
on 08.04.14

Thorn is taking Chapter 13, and Parenthetical Chapter 14. Did I miss any volunteers for the last two chapters?

Chris Y summarizes Chapter 12 below, explaining that the rich are different from you and me; they get higher returns on their investments.

Prior reading group posts:

Piketty Reading Group Setup
Initial Scheduling Post
Introduction and Chapter One -- Robert Halford
Chapter Two -- Minivet
Chapter Three -- Essear
Chapter Four -- Unimaginative
Chapter Five -- X. Trapnel
Chapter Six -- Conflated
Chapter Seven -- LizardBreath
Chapter Eight -- Lw
Chapter Nine -- Bave D
Chapter Ten -- Rob Helpy-chalk
Chapter Eleven -- LizardBreath

Measuring Global Inequality, or, I wanna be a HNWI so fuckin' bad.

Piketty introduces the final chapter in his expository section by saying, "... I now turn to the dynamics of wealth inequality at the global level and to the principal forces at work today." (A murmur of applause ripples through the grandstand, where they've been waiting for this through eleven long chapters.) He divided his topic into the international dynamics of inequality between private fortunes and between countries themselves. And, as usual, he approaches it sideways by beginning with a discourse on the inequality of returns on capital.

His point here is that, contrary to common assumptions, a large fortune can garner higher returns than a smaller one (For 'large' and 'smaller' here, read 'unimaginable' and 'humungous'). He points out that a billionaire can afford more and better portfolio management than a mere multi-millionaire, and can also better afford to take risks which pay well if they come off. If the average return is 4%, he suggests, then the return for the very rich may be 6 or 7% while the rest of us merely see 2 or 3%. This is in itself a powerful mechanism for inequality and Piketty suggests that the only economic, as opposed to political, thing that can slow it down is rapid growth: this can reduce r-g, although it would not eliminate the advantages of large fortunes entirely. To this observation he appends the fact that current growth is largely demographic, and that new wealth is coming increasingly from emerging economies; but though this may ultimately affect the geographical distribution of the largest fortunes, it will not affect inequality within nations.

[Conflated discussed this already in the previous thread, but let's briefly recapitulate.] Following his practice in this book, Piketty proceeds to demonstrate his point about differential returns to capital by example rather than by formal proof. He examines in turn returns on the fortunes of individual gazillionaires; of the endowments of US universities*; and finally on the sovereign wealth funds of various states, whence he segues into his discussion of inequality between countries.

He is scathing about his sources of information on the behaviour of top individual fortunes. He identifies two: magazines such as Forbes, for the very wealthiest fraction and the Global Wealth Reports issued by various banks for the merely rich. In both cases he regards the data quality as poor. Raw information is hard to come by and such official statistics as exist are partial and out of touch with the contemporary reality of globalisation. So journalists investigating the capital of the world's richest individuals have to piece together hat partial information they can dig up[1]. Piketty pleads for better public records, but at the same time insists (rightly in my view) that the sources that exist must be used in their absence.

Forbes recorded about 140 billionaires in its first list in 1987, and now identifies about ten times that number. But taking into account inflation and population growth, a more helpful way to look at it is that in 1987 there were 5 billionaires per 100 million adults as against 30 in 2013. They owned 0.4% of private wealth in 1987 and 1.5% in 2013, which looks rather less remarkable. The rate of increase in wealth for the richest twenty millionth over the relevant period was 6.4% above inflation, and for the richest hundred millionth, 6.8%. These rates are way above the average, increasing by a factor of three in thirty years. (Graphs here**). But they represent too small a section of global capital (1.5%) to prove Piketty's thesis, wherefore he turns to the Global Wealth Reports produced by major financial institutions. These are also based on poor data, because reliable data from outside the first world barely exists, but to the extent that they show anything, they show that the richest 0.1% own 20% of global wealth. If these fortunes grow at a rate significantly above the average, then the possibility of rapid and exponential redistribution of wealth upwards is very real, and very dangerous to the social fabric. Piketty suggests that this may be avoidable only through concerted tax policy.

In the interests of completeness, he looks at whether inherited fortunes grow at a different rate from those made in business, comparing a couple of archetypal entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, with an archetyal heiress, Lilliane Bettencourt who owns l'Oréal. He finds no evidence that they do [2]; but he includes a caveat that inherited wealth may be harder to trace because iit tends to be more diversified, and so is likely underestimated. How much of the largest fortunes is inherited? Impossible to say, but Piketty's wet finger estimate is 60-70%.

(At this point, Piketty inserts a digression which introduces his concept of progressive taxation to limit the divergence of large fortunes. This is interesting, but disrupts the flow of his primary argument, so it should probably have been placed elsewhere. I shall return to it later.)

Having extracted what information he can from the sources about the rate of return on the fortunes of individuals, he now turns to the endowments of American universities. This seems odd at first sight, but what he is doing is checking his instincts against a series which is thoroughly well documented. The endowments range from $30bn (Harvard) to $11.5m (North Iowa CC)†. The net rate of return on investment over a long enough timescale is proportionate to the size of the endowment, from 6.2% at the bottom to 10.2% at the top. Since the information is available in this case, it is clear that Harvard, Yale and Princeton do adopt a more adventurous investment strategy than the universities with less to spare: Harvard spends $100m a year on endowment management; NICC for obvious reasons can't do that, nor can the people in the middle, all of which tends to confirm Piketty's analysis of the behaviour of private fortunes. Median individuals, of course, can afford less advice even than poor colleges[3].

(Further digression about tax policy in the context of inflation.)

Piketty now comes to Sovereign Wealth Funds, particularly OPEC. Again he runs into a shortage of data, with only Norway publishing properly detailed financial reports. As far as can be seen, different OPEC states grow their funds at different rates depending on their political priorities: for example, Abu Dhabi claims a rate of 8% from 1980-2010, whereas Saudi Arabia has a very low rate because its fund is mostly in US Treasury bonds for entirely political reasons. Sovereign Wealth Funds are not about to take over the world any time soon, contrary to popular belief they total only 1.5% of global wealth, about the same as private fortunes. However, Piketty allows that OPEC might end up with 10-20% of the world in a few generations, depending on what happens to the price of oil. This would not go well, and Piketty believes that the recent tendency of the Gulf States to turn to inward investment reflects an appreciation of that.

There is even less danger, he continues, of everybody being owned by China. Firstly, the likelihood is that when or if they do catch up the growth rates and savings rates of the emergent nations will fall back to more familiar values; secondly, the cumulative wealth of Europe alone is over twenty times all the tea in China, a point that few Europeans appreciate. He suggests that the sense that western countries are being taken over arises mostly from the concentration of wealth in those countries: most of us never see much of it, so that the economic activity of the home grown super-rich appears alien. In the end, we are more likely to be owned by global billionaires, including our own but owing loyalty to no country, than by any foreign power, although the growth of Asian and Latin American economies will lead to there being a greater proportion of the world's wealth in those regions.

But we won't know anyway! In his parting shot for this chapter, Piketty points out that the total known assets in the world economy are less than the total known debt. This is obviously logically impossible, but his colleague Gabriel Zucman has calculated that about 10% of global GDP is held undeclared in tax havens; this in spite of the fact that banks in such countries are supposed to report their accounts to international authorities. The secession (Piketty's word) of the super-rich is apparently already becoming a reality[4].

A Progressive Tax on Capital?

At two points in the chapter, Piketty diverges from his main line of reasoning to argue for the institution of an international progressive tax on capital. He will presumably return to this idea in the final section of the book to elaborate how he sees it working, but for the time being he argues for it as a benefit in principle. This is primarily a political argument. He proposes that it is not possible to differentiate realistically between "deserved" and "undeserved" wealth: most plutocrats own both. The best way of controlling it therefore is by a mechanism which does not differentiate them. Going further, he argues that attempting to identify "good" and "bad" fortunes often slides over into racism among a general population who are unaware of the level of serious money in their own populations, as well as institutionally. He gives an example of an Equatorial Guinean zillionaire whose (dubiously acquired) fortune was expropriated by a French court and wonders whether he would have been investigated so rigorously had he been white[5]. The acquisition of wealth by entrepreneurship is not necessarily any more ethical than by inheritance, he argues, citing a completely different(!) novelist in support‡. They should be taxed alike.

He returns to this question in discussing inflation. He specifically argues against the idea that inflation reduces the return on capital and holds the rentier in check. As he points out, this is only true if the capital is not managed, as the price of financial products will rise with inflation as much as anything else. You can hedge against inflation by buying a house, always assuming you can afford a house in the first place. (he doesn't mention that a significant number of small savers are seniors who have used their meagre savings to buy annuities, which are completely exposed to inflation.) But the individual equivalent of Harvard is much better placed to deal with inflation than the individual equivalent of NICC, or you or me. He therefore dismisses inflation as a weapon against inequality and restates his preference for progressive taxation.

It must be hoped that in later chapters Piketty gives some clue how this might be made to work. At this stage it is merely a stated preference, given that the only medium term alternatives he can foresee are vicious repression or pitchforks or both. Many people would agree with him that progressive taxation is preferable to those, but that doesn't necessarily make it more realistic.

Quaere:
[1] How deliberate is this obscurity on the part of the billionaires or their money people? Later in the chapter Piketty discusses the concealment of wealth in tax havens, and gives reason to suppose that as much as 4% of global wealth may actually be invisible to normal investigation. This would seem to be of a piece with the data problems he identifies here. Is it as suspicious as it looks, and how far are governments involved?
[2] How helpful is it to generalise from the cases of Gates and Jobs while ignoring Allen and Wozniak? Allen's fortune is estimated at around $14bn, or about 20% of Gates', while Wozniak is estimated to be worth about £100m, which I wouldn't turn down myself, but is about 1% of the amount at which Jobs cashed out. Presumably these differentials are due to decisions or agreements made early in the history of their companies, but it does imply that if your start-up catches the brass ring, you need to do more than just sit there and count the dollar bills stacking up.
[3] I would have supposed that median individuals, rather than relying on their own instincts, as Piketty suggests, would be more likely to give and substantial sum to somebody like Edward Jones to manage. Such companies have a ton of customers and therefore should be able to avail themselves of the economies of scale that he discusses above. Do they not?
[4] Is this fact, if it is a fact, not a major argument against the practicality of Piketty's idea of an international tax on capital. If they are already hiding a significant proportion of their assets (illegally?), how are they going to react to the prospect of further taxation?
[5] Whereas I am more inclined to wonder if he would have been treated more generously if he had come from a French "former" colony rather than a Spanish one. Former dictators and their buddies from francophone Africa have often had a very easy ride in Paris. I know Equatorial Guinea has joined the Franc CFA and all, but still.

Footnotes
* I will have a small bet that this topic will dominate the discussion in comments.
** http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/capital21c/en/pdf/F12.2.pdf; http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/capital21c/en/pdf/F12.1.pdf; http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/capital21c/en/pdf/T12.2.pdf
http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/capital21c/en/pdf/supp/TS12.2.pdf
‡ Alexei Tolstoy, Ibiscus (Hibiscus?), 1926. Has anybody ever heard of the author or the book, and if so should we read it?


 

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Mouthpiece

Posted by Ogged
on 08.03.14

TPM, along with Atrios and Drum, are the only blogs I've read consistently since I started blogging, lo, over ten years ago. But every now and again, Marshall, more than the other two, surprises me with something I find deeply alien. He did it recently on Snowden, and then again today.

...I find it very hard to point to any one person and say: Yes, this person says what I would say. I agree with that. But for me here's that person: Amos Oz, speaking here in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Cool, let's go to that interview.

Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusal way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?

Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

This, of all the written things, is what speaks to/for him? "Neighbor?" Please. Maybe the first thing you'd do would be to wonder why the fuck your neighbor was doing that. Or maybe not, because there's a very good chance that you would know exactly why. Even for an analogy, it's idiotic. And Oz is a '67 lines guy, which establishes some presumption of reasonableness, and yet....

Anyway, feel free to discuss being surprised by someone's judgment rather than being unsurprised that people with the upper hand tend to think "what boot? whose neck?"


 

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Truth

Posted by Ogged
on 08.03.14

I miss Anthony Shadid.


 

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