1/31/2020

Draining the swamp

"1) A naive or cursory look at the history gives a simplistic account: Medicine reduced disease! Science saves lives!

2) A closer look reveals that disease mortality was dropping long before antibiotics or vaccines. So (some hastily conclude) medicine didn’t really matter after all—so much for better living through science!

3) An even closer look shows that actually, the germ theory led to sanitation and hygiene improvements decades before we had specific treatments. So, as with the steam engine, it turns out science was relevant, just not in the obvious first place one might look.

4) Finally, the galaxy-brain take looks not only at direct influences but indirect/cultural ones: The Scientific Revolution led to new ways of experimenting and collecting/analyzing data that led to practical improvements (in waste disposal and insect control) long before we had a fundamental scientific theory."

Extending the Race between Education and Technology

"Note that for the most recent rise in inequality across 2000-2017, most of it has happened within educational groups. The less polite way of putting that — my words not those of the authors — is that the real marginal product of education is explaining less of the variation in earnings, or in other words the higher earners are drawing upon something they are not getting at school.

Students of the “education as signaling” debate also should note that, due to these results, now a) signaling is more relevant for your early wage offer, and b) signaling is less relevant for your eventual wage profile, which in fact is now more determined by your personal level of skill."

Video: E.B. White’s forgotten story about the tyranny of good intentions

"In “The Family that Dwelt Apart” – published in The New Yorker on July 31, 1937 – White tells the story of the Pruitt family, which led an idyllic life of willful isolation in the sleepy New England cove of Barnetuck Bay. One winter, the bay froze and left the Pruitts to live off their supply of preserves, which they were more than content to do.

“The winter would have passed quietly enough had not someone on the mainland remembered that the Pruitts were out there in the frozen bay,” White writes.

The remainder of the tale describes how state officials, acting on an erroneous rumor, harnessed all the power and wisdom of the government to save the family from a non-existent emergency – and the disastrous chain of tragedies that followed."

Liszt and Lamartine: “Apparitions”

"Classical music speaks to us in a way that lyrical music can often obscure. The nature of speech and language, and the effects they have on our minds, imparts a message or describes an environment to which instrumental music becomes subordinate, or at least supplementary. Music in an age of the “self”—of self-absorption, self-aggrandizement, and self-prioritization—makes the verbal medium more necessary in order to express in words how we relate the world to ourselves and others. One might even say that it is the only possible way that art is conveyed today; that is, through verbal explanation where the audience is told how to feel about a particular piece, and explained why. Art, arguably, should not need such facilitation.

Words are only one level at which we can understand the world. And language is, frankly, an empty medium if not interpreted through an initial, alternate sense. Art, for this reason, we say is felt. Music is no exception to this concept. If what we seek in music, or any other form of expression, is self-validation, then language and explicitness are the only options. If what we seek in music, however, is aesthetic challenge in the form of musical art, then classical music can never be dismissed from our libraries. Classical music requires two things that are, perhaps, uncomfortable for us modern men and women: extended patience and long-spanning attention. Not to mention that classical music (superficially) deprives us of the sense on which we so heavily rely today—the visual—and removes the simplest layer of our auditory sense—language—that directly tells us how to feel or think about a certain topic. Instead, it leaves us without direct visuals and without direct audition. This absence of explicit sense exposure and explanation is, I believe, what creates good art, be it visual, musical, or literary."

Venture capital is important to the American economy. Let’s not ruin it.

"Of course, it’s easy to accept the idea that the Golden Age of VC is over when you doubt whether it was really so golden at all. Which brings us back to that curious claim. Which I am not sure even Heller really believes. As he also notes: “Occasionally, though, there is a wild success [with venture capital], and, since the nineteen-seventies, such successes have transformed American business. Venture capital backed Apple and Intel. It funded Google, Amazon, and Facebook before any of them turned a profit.” 

Keep in mind: Those occasional, spotty successes are five of the most important companies on the planet with a combined market value of roughly $4.2 trillion. So unimportant are they that Europe releases a white paper only about every week lamenting its lack of such tech titans and fretting about the absence of a venture capital sector as vibrant as America’s."

Animated chart of the day: World’s top ten manufacturing nations, 1970 to 2018

"1. The USSR was the world’s second-largest manufacturing nation from 1970 until it was surpassed by Japan in 1983, which rose to the No. 2 position.

2. After overtaking Russia in 1983, Japan quickly rose as a manufacturing powerhouse and almost overtook the USA by the mid-1990s including in 1993 when Japan produced 22.1% of world output vs. 22.9% for the USA and in 1995 when Japan produced 22.0% of the world’s manufacturing vs. USA’s 22.2% share.

3. China’s rise to become one of the world’s top manufacturers started in the mid-1990s after a long period of producing a fairly stable share of only 3-4% of the world’s factory output from 1970 to 1995. By 1996, China was out-producing both Italy and France for the first time and outproduced Germany starting in 2001 before surpassing Japan in 2007 and the USA in 2010.

4. Despite falling to the No. 2 position behind China in 2010, the USA is still a global manufacturing powerhouse and produced more manufacturing output in 2018 ($2.32 trillion) than No. 3 Japan, No. 4 Germany and No. 5 Korea combined ($2.27 trillion) and more than No. 4 Germany, No. 5 Korea, No. 6 India, No. 7 Italy, and No. 8 France combined ($2.26 trillion)."

Churches, tax exemption, and the common good

"What is most disturbing about Matzko’s essay is not the economic reductionism but the impoverished sense of the political and common good it demonstrates. It is a classic example of seeing like a state, reducing the complex interdependencies of our social life to a single state-centered public life. It is only by misunderstanding our life together as the bare relationship between citizen and sovereign, subject and ruler, that our contribution to the common good could be calculated by a tax receipt.

The Christian conception of the common good encompasses, as Lord Acton said best, a society beyond the state with individual souls above it. The common good is the product of both individual persons living out their vocations and institutions exercising their God ordained roles, fulfilling their duties, and sharing their own unique gifts."

Improvising for Productivity

"The longer you think about a task without doing it, the less novel it becomes to do. Writing things in your to-do list and coming back to them later helps you focus, but it comes at the cost: you’ve now converted an interesting idea into work. Since you’ve thought about it a little bit, it’s less interesting to work on.
...
my solution is to (somewhat counter-intuitively) not think about the task until I am ready to fully execute it. I do not unwrap the piece of gum until I’m ready to enjoy it in its entirety. I need to save the fun of thinking to pull myself into flow. Practically, this means things like:

  • I try and respond to emails the moment I open them. If it’s something that requires desktop work, I quickly close the email.
  • I don’t write down ideas for posts until I’m ready to write the entire post.
  • I write down a few bullets of what I need out of a meeting, and then refuse to think about it until the actual event.
Etc.

Living in a state of improvisation is more conducive to flow. Unlike Marc’s recommendation, I don’t let myself pursue any idea I have all day (that would be a lot of Wikipedia), but instead I try to make my actual work appear as interesting as a new idea by minimizing the cognitive state buildup I have until I am ready to fully accomplish the task at hand."

The Truth About Income Inequality

"That's important to remember when considering the frequently stated worry that the middle class is disappearing. The middle class is getting smaller—but it's disappearing, for the most part, because it's moving up.

Now, it matters how we define the middle class. If the middle class is defined as the middle three income quintiles, then in 2018 it consisted of households with income between $25,600 and $130,000. In 1967, the middle three quintiles had income ranging from $19,726 to $54,596 (in 2018 dollars). The people in the middle, in other words, are considerably richer than their counterparts a half century ago.

Of course, defining the middle class that way means that exactly 60 percent of households will always qualify. That seems too broad. American Enterprise Institute economist Mark Perry, on his blog Carpe Diem, defines the middle class more narrowly to include any household with an income, in 2018 dollars, of between $35,000 and $100,000. In 1967, he notes, 54 percent of households were in that category; by 2018, that was down to 42 percent. That wasn't because they slipped; it was because they rose. In 1967, only 9.7 percent of U.S. households had income of $100,000 or more (in 2018 dollars). By 2018, that percentage had more than tripled to 30.4 percent."

1/30/2020

Mercatus Scholars' Most Influential Books: Salim Furth

"The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis and Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

A central tension in my philosophy of economics is between the role and limitations of material well-being in promoting human flourishing. In Lewis’ work, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, technology and opulence are more naturally instruments of slavery than freedom. The alternative view is given by Sen, whose book was important in bridging from the utilitarian values implicit in economics to my deeper Christian and classical moral values. What this means for my research is that housing affordability is as much about allowing community to form as it is about maximizing disposal income."

Music and the Transcendental

"I think we have to begin from this idea that we have inherited a listening culture. Listening is not an easy thing itself to define. There is such a thing as hearing. We hear music all the time around us, but most of us do not pay attention to it—partly because most of it is not worth paying attention to. But there is also overhearing and that is a very common experience. Wherever we are—in restaurants or in the Metro or wherever—we are overhearing music coming at us from all angles, and we are learning how to ignore it. Music was not originally designed to be ignored. But we live in a society where, if we do not learn to ignore it, we cannot also learn to listen to it. This puts an enormous strain on us and it is one reason, of course, for the existence of these special places like symphony halls where one can insulate oneself from the surrounding world."

Abuse of Procedure

"Evidence suggests that the Constitution’s framers believed that any offense deserving of impeachment would also violate established law. Article I, for example, provides that officials removed from office after an impeachment trial would also be liable to trial in the courts—a clarification that wouldn’t be necessary unless the impeachable conduct arises from breaking the law. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 65, explained that the Senate, rather than the Supreme Court, was the best venue for impeachment trials because, upon a successful conviction, it was likely that the removed official would then be subject to criminal trial in federal court “in the ordinary course of law.” It wouldn’t be proper, according to Hamilton, for the federal judiciary to preside over two trials of the same officer “for the same offense.”

An early test of the sort of vague charges at issue in the Trump case surfaced in the 1804 impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, which arose from Jeffersonian opposition to the staunch Federalist. The House had voted to impeach Chase, essentially, for the “crime” of misapplying the law while sitting as a circuit court judge. Chase’s defense counsel, Luther Martin, a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, persuasively argued that impeachment must relate to acts “contrary to law.” In the end, six Jeffersonian Republicans crossed the aisle to acquit Chase."

The Universal Ambitions of China’s Illiberal Confucian Scholars

"This revival of Confucianism has become part of the Zeitgeist of contemporary China. What lies at the core of this project is to redefine the relationship between the Communist Party, the Confucian tradition, and Chinese history, as Gan has done in his syncretism. Liu Xiaofeng, a professor of classics at Renmin University, promotes the idea that the CCP, as an elite group, is the modern incarnation of premodern Confucian literati-bureaucrats, whose superior intellectual and moral virtues entitle them to function as the grand tutor of the people. In contemporary China, argues Liu, the task of the CCP is to uphold lofty moral ideals (moral politics or “the Kingly Way”) in order to resist the nihilism and relativism of liberal modernity, exemplified by the way of life and normative political ideals of the United States.

Many Confucians openly express their excitement when the Party speeches and documents employ quasi-Confucian terms. Chen Ming, an advocate of Confucian civil religion, regards Xi Jinping’s slogan of “the China Dream” as an ideological innovation very friendly toward the basic tenets of Confucianism, and defines his academic task as reinterpreting the China Dream through the Confucian lens. Zeng Yi, a professor of philosophy at Tongji University in Shanghai who praises monarchy and traditional gender hierarchy, explicitly claims that Confucians must actively search for political and ideological supports from the extant regime because Confucianism is by nature a doctrine for the ruling authority. A revival of Confucianism is not complete, according to Zeng, without Confucianism restoring its overarching role of organizing the Chinese way of life on the political level."

The Bad Economics of Non-economists

"A recent example of such ignorance appears in Daniel McCarthy’s January 22nd Law & Liberty essay adorned with the unintentionally ironic title “Economic Nationalism as Political Realism.” In this essay, McCarthy – an American conservative trained, not in economics, but in the classics – unrealistically asserts that we economists and other “market liberals” who support free trade build our case on the “abstraction” of “a pristine market in which there are no pre-existing distortions arising from political influence (or any other source).”

McCarthy fails to offer a single example of any such oblivious real-world market liberal. This failure is unsurprising, for no such market liberal exists; he or she is purely a figment of McCarthy’s imagination. (In a post at my blog I challenge McCarthy to supply evidence of the reality of his alleged “market liberal.”)

No one familiar enough with the economics of trade to be competent to declaim publicly on this topic would write what McCarthy wrote. Indeed, those of us who possess some knowledge of the economics of trade find this particular assertion by McCarthy to be especially bizarre. The reason is that nearly all of the intellectual energy that has been poured over the past few centuries into defending a policy of free trade has been devoted to explaining why free trade is the best policy despite the distortions introduced into markets both by foreign governments and by the home government."

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vastly overstates the number of 'destitute' Americans

"AOC argues that the federal poverty line for “1 earner & a mother home full-time” should be $38,000 a year, as compared to the current line of about $26,000 for a family of four. She attempts to justify this by saying that the current line “doesn’t include cost of childcare, geographic cost of living, or healthcare.” What she neglects to say is that low-income households typically receive such items and many others for free or at greatly reduced prices.

In contrast, most U.S. households earn the money to pay for their healthcare, housing, food, childcare, phone service, and such items for themselves, while also paying taxes that fund these items for others. As a result, U.S. middle-income households consume only 26 percent more goods and services than the poorest fifth.

The impacts of this wealth redistribution are even more drastic for the richest fifth of U.S. households, who forfeit a large portion of their income to taxes and receive few government benefits. They report 15 times more pre-tax money income than the poorest fifth of households, but they consume only twice as much goods and services as the poorest fifth."

Road to sociology watch

"Woody Allen once worried about what you would get if you combine the head of a crab with the body of a social worker. I worry about what you get if you combine the scientific hubris of an economist with the ideology of a sociologist."

The Unaffordable Candidate

"The $97.5 trillion price tag is made up mostly of the costs of Sanders’s three most ambitious proposals. Sanders concedes that his Medicare For All plan would increase federal spending by “somewhere between $30 and $40 trillion over a 10-year period.” He pledges to spend $16.3 trillion on his climate plan. And his proposal to guarantee all Americans a full-time government job paying $15 an hour, with full benefits, is estimated to cost $30.1 trillion. The final $11.1 trillion includes $3 trillion to forgive all student loans and guarantee free public-college tuition—plus $1.8 trillion to expand Social Security, $2.5 trillion on housing, $1.6 trillion on paid family leave, $1 trillion on infrastructure, $800 billion on general K-12 education spending, and an additional $400 billion on higher public school teacher salaries.

This unprecedented outlay would more than double the size of the federal government. Over the next decade, Washington is already projected to spend $60 trillion, and state and local governments will spend another $29.7 trillion from non-federal sources. Adding Sanders’s $97.5 trillion—and then subtracting the $3 trillion saved by state governments under Medicare For All—would raise the total cost of government to $184 trillion, or 70 percent of the projected GDP over ten years

Such spending would far exceed even that of European social democracies. The 35 OECD countries average 43 percent of GDP in total government spending. Finland’s 57 percent tops the list, edging France and Denmark. Meantime, Sweden and Norway—regularly lauded as models for the U.S.—spend just under 50 percent of GDP. The U.S. government, at all levels, spends between 34 percent and 38 percent of GDP, depending on how one calculates."

The American Dream Is Alive in China

"I grew up in America, but I go to China every year for a few weeks to visit family. In previous trips, I’d been impressed by China’s pace of development. But each year, it was always clear that despite the country’s rapid modernization, China still lagged far behind the U.S.—at least in terms of quality of life.


As of 2018, this had changed. Far from lagging behind the U.S., I felt that the reverse might even be true: as China cashes out years of economic development into discrete improvements to people’s daily lives, in some ways, life in China is starting to seem better than life in the U.S. No longer as characterized by bad pollution and visible poverty, China of the late 2010s feels clean, modern, and nice.

Coverage I’ve read in American discourse focuses on the dystopian side of the Chinese government. Examples abound: from its oppression of Uyghurs, to its outright ban of many religious groups, to its increasingly aggressive influence in American political and social life—like the Blizzard and NBA cases over the last week. But over the last five years, this discourse, though often correct, has felt increasingly disconnected from my personal experiences in China and the more fundamental problems at hand. In particular, it fails to comment on the larger, more important context: how much better life has become for many Chinese people, China’s new self-confidence, and America’s struggle with development, optimism, and sovereignty.

China is changing in a deep and visceral way, and it is changing fast , in a way that is almost incomprehensible without seeing it in person. In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better."


1/29/2020

Paul Elmer More’s Nietzsche

"Only, perhaps, have certain individuals found real dignity in the Nietzschean ideal(s). The “true” philosopher, More argued, attempting to understand Nietzsche, is the “Superman, the Übermensche. He has passed beyond good and evil, and Nietzsche often describes him in language which implies the grossest immorality; but this is merely an iconoclast’s way of emphasizing the contrast between his perfect man and the old ideal of the saint, and it would be unfair to take these ebullitions of temper quite literally,” More claimed. “The image of the Superman is, in fact, left in the hazy uncertainty of the future.”
And this is all Nietzsche could give to mankind by his Will to Power and his Transvalution of Values: the will to endure the vision of endless, purposeless mutation; the courage to stand without shame, naked in a world of chance; the strength to accomplish—absolutely nothing. At times he proclaims his creed with an effrontery of joy over those who sink by the way and cry out for help. Other times pity for so hapless a humanity wells up in his heart despite himself; and more than once he admits that the last temptation of the Superman is sympathy for a race revolving blindly in this cycle of change. . . . The end of it all is the clamour of romantic egotism turned into horror at its own vacuity and of romantic sympathy turned into despair. It is naturalism at war with itself and struggling to escape from its own fatality."

The problem with child care regulations

"Nobody likes to acknowledge that child care providers are overregulated. After all, regulations are needed to ensure the health and safety of children. But overly burdensome regulations that have little to do with child safety or quality of care can drive up costs and drive out potential child care providers from the market, both of which contributes to the current crisis of access and affordability.

This is exactly what has happened in recent years. A 2019 report found that the number of small family child care providers (one person caring for children in his/her own home) declined by 35 percent from 2011 to 2017. The number of large family child care providers (two or more people caring for children in their own home) declined by 8 percent, and the number of child care centers by two percent. Unsurprisingly, during this same time child care licensing requirements increased dramatically."

Commercial silence about China, what is the equilibrium?

"Imagine a world, not so far off, where Indonesia is a business’s fifth-largest customer or a university’s seventh-largest supplier of students. Will it really be so safe to criticize the government of Indonesia, even for employees of those institutions on their social media accounts? U.S. businesses today are quite reluctant to criticize their customers at all, regardless of how much they collectively or individually account for revenue.

The world is evolving into a place where countries and regimes are exempt from all significant public criticism from any entity (or its employees) with substantial interests overseas — whether commercial or academic. That scenario may sound dystopian, but in fact it would not be a major shift from the status quo.

It is also easy to imagine a norm evolving where major customers, say China and India, become offended if a business or its employees criticize a much smaller nation. The theory might be that if any criticism is allowed at all, eventually it will reach the larger (and more controversial) nations. Or perhaps the smaller nation is an ally or friend of the larger, more powerful one. So you had better not criticize Kiribati, either."

The Platform Exceptionalism of YouTube

"Services like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram aren’t really platforms: instead of providing core functionalities on which others can build a diversity of useful applications (the standard definition of a platform), they instead offer closed ecosystems in which they carefully monitor and control user behavior.

These services are also far from fundamental. Nothing about web teleology, for example, implies that Twitter’s arcane mix of short-message formats, ampersands, and retweet ratios is an unavoidable technological advance. If Jack Dorsey shut down his Frankenstein’s monster tomorrow, few would wake up a year from now really missing what it added to the online universe.

Recently, however, I’ve been grappling with the idea that there’s one immensely powerful social service about which my skepticism doesn’t seem to neatly apply. I’m talking about YouTube."

America Unraveled

"As Caldwell sees it, this standard version of American history ignores the disruption caused by the key judicial decisions and legislative actions of the fifties and sixties surrounding desegregation and civil rights. The Deep South under Jim Crow was a cruel “sham democracy” and an embarrassment to American self-regard as the standard-bearer of liberty. Hence a radical adjustment of the legal status of African-Americans was immediately necessary. The unanticipated result of the legislation, however, was a constitutional crisis that we have not only not gotten over, but one which we are not even aware is going on, some 50 or 60 years into it. According to Caldwell, northern whites imagined that the Civil Rights Act would essentially force southern whites to treat black Americans as well as they did—that is, with formal recognition of equality, theoretical protection of the law, and the ostensible right to eat in the same restaurants. Whites in general—and Caldwell cites ample polling data to support this contention—expected civil rights law to be brought into effect gradually, with minimal impact on their lives and communities.

Black Americans had a different conception of the legislation. They viewed it, legitimately, as revolutionary, as a promise of fundamental, material change. Whites, Caldwell argues, “saw themselves as making a grand and magnanimous gesture, cutting a heroic figure,” while many blacks, “and the most zealous among the civil rights activists of all races, saw whites as having entered a guilty plea in the court of history, and thus as repudiating the moral posturing on which the good name and good conscience of their constitutional republic had rested.”"

*Escaping Paternalism*

"The authors are Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman, and the subtitle is Rationality, Behavioral Economics, and Public Policy. This is the most comprehensive, definitive attempt to respond to paternalism and nudge that I have seen, written from a (mostly) libertarian and partially Austrian perspective. Excerpt:

In our discussion of preferences, the overriding theme was that preferences need not conform to rigid models. We should countenance a much wider range of preferences, in both form and content, than economists have been inclined to accept. But does the same permissive attitude apply to beliefs?…we will argue for a more permissive attitude towards beliefs. Much like our position on preferences, our position on beliefs is that economists, and to a lesser extent other social scientists, have become slaves to an exceedingly narrow conception of both the function and operation of beliefs."

Should We All Be Flying Less?

"One fairly odd aspect of Taleb’s profound work is his rejection of efficiency in favor of redundancy. To most economists, this feels intuitively weird. In most economic thinking, “redundancy” sounds like a synonym for inefficient, which is generally considered bad. After all, redundancy means that two or more systems perform a single function when one would have sufficed. Removing that superfluous system would free up resources available for use elsewhere. 

Or would it?

Contrary to your average economist, Taleb sees a greater number of redundant features such as insurance, additional margins of error, or back-up systems as better. This isn’t a mindless mistake on Taleb’s part, of course, but totally consistent with his general story of hidden orders in social life: uncertainty and randomness play larger roles than we commonly accept or understand. Where so-called “fragilizing” economists see inefficient redundancies, we should really see overlapping insurances. The sample from which the world draws its events is not clearly visible, and redundant systems may protect against some not-yet-observed threat."

Happiness Research: Get Used to It

"If and who you blame for bad events matters too. In one study, “[V]ictims of severe accidents who blamed themselves for the accident were coping more successfully eight to twelve months afterward than those who did not, and… victims who blamed other people (as opposed to some nonspecific external cause) displayed especially low coping scores.” This rings so true to me that my head is still spinning. Have I ever felt unhappy for long about something without blaming another person? I’m drawing a blank."

The Four Pillars of Economic Understanding

"As Lionel Robbins persuasively argued to my mind in The Theory of Economic Policy, the great British Classical Political Economists developed their theories in a manner that co-evolved with the development of British institutions of liberalism — private property, freedom of contract, rule of law. What must not be forgotten in all of this is that these liberal political economists, again reflected strongly in Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty as well as in various writings of James Buchanan, sought a system of government that exhibited neither discrimination nor domination. It is a system designed to eliminate privileges, and to recognize the rights of all as dignified equals before the law.

I honestly think that this message of economics — truth and light; beauty and awe; hope; and compassion — can excite the imagination of every generation to explore the intricacies of economic theory, and study in detail both the history of this fascinating discipline and the practical history of economies throughout the world."

1/28/2020

Greta Gerwig and the Art of Return

"“You can do nothing if you go back.”

So says Aunt March to her niece Amy in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. The two are in Paris, and Amy has just received word from home of her sister Beth’s declining health. Amy feels she should go back, but Aunt March insists nothing good will come of a homecoming—nothing for Beth (who is sick, not lonely), and nothing for Amy, for whom a return might preempt an advantageous marriage proposal.

Aunt March’s words might also challenge screenwriter and director Gerwig herself. After five film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, can anything come from going back? A remake risks rehashing the March sisters’ tale simply to invoke nostalgia or, worse, to impose themes foreign to Alcott’s classic. Impressively, Gerwig avoids both pitfalls, instead making the timeless tale her own with an emphasis on the importance of return."

The Drama of Love in Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen”

"No treatment of Wagner would be complete without some basic background to the intellectual and theological, as well as mythological, culture that he swam in. It suffices to say that Ludwig Feuerbach, Georg W.F. Hegel, and socialistic nationalism were the main influences on the young Wagner when he began composing Das Rheingold. Thus we have, in the early sketches made real by Wagner’s composition, the attempt to artistically combine Feuerbach’s assertion that the gods are representations of human imagination and desire, Hegel’s story of consciousness realizing itself in free acts of sacrificial love, and the hopeful aspirations of a unified and egalitarian Germany throwing off the shackles of the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire while retaining its ancient roots and growing them forward into the new dawn. Wagner may have eventually abandoned his earlier Feuerbachianism and socialism for a more orthodox Lutheranism and conservatism, but this inheritance remains and plays itself out through to the end of the opera with Götterdämmerung."

What's Your Number?

"Consider, first, large numbers, starting with an example that has no political overtones. In his excellent book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, John Allen Paulos, a mathematics professor at Temple University, tells the following true story. A blurb on the box containing a Rubik cube states that there are more than three billion possible combinations. Paulos notes that the actual number is about 4.3 times 1019. Is 4.3 times 1019 greater than 3 billion? Yes; the blurb is correct. But it’s so much greater than 3 billion, which has only 9 zeroes after it rather than 19, that the blurb is uninformative. As Paulos writes, it’s like having a sign at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel stating “New York, population more than 6.”

The Rubik cube blurb is just a “toy” example, right? Well, sure, but think about similar confusions about big numbers in the real world of government budgets. Many congressional Republicans say they’re worried about annual federal budget deficits that range between $500 billion and $1 trillion, and that they want to cut spending. Then look at some of their talking points and it’s rare for them to advocate cutting any particular program by at least $1 billion. Instead, they will castigate this or that federal agency for much smaller expenditures. Former Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, for example, criticized the National Science Foundation for “spending millions of dollars to determine why yawning is contagious, if drunk birds slur when they sing, and if cocaine makes honey bees dance.” He was probably right to make that criticism. Those grants do seem wasteful. But they are rounding errors on $1 billion, let alone $1 trillion.

By contrast, consider what would happen if instead of increasing Social Security benefits by 1.6 percent for 2020, the federal government had increased them by “only” 1.5 percent. Social Security expenditures for Fiscal Year 2020 are expected to be $1.102 trillion. Cutting that $1.102 trillion by 0.1 percent would yield budget savings of $1.102 billion. That’s still a small number in a $4.747 trillion budget. But it swamps the effect of cutting expenditures on studying yawns, drunk birds, and waltzing bees."

Labor’s Love Lost

"Government-union membership fell again in 2019, continuing a decade-long decline. Workers in public-sector unions now number 7.066 million, representing a drop of nearly 100,000 in one year and the smallest government-organized labor membership in 20 years. Since 2009, when the ranks of government-union members peaked at 7.896 million, public-labor groups have lost more than 10 percent of their membership. The percentage of government workers belonging to unions has dropped to 33.6, the smallest proportion of the government workforce since 1978. The most recent numbers illustrate how government unions continue to suffer from the hangover of the recession of 2008-2009, in part because of a slow rebound in government employment during the economic expansion that began in 2010. The numbers may also reflect some losses that unions have suffered in the wake of the 2018 Supreme Court Janus decision, which gave public-sector workers the right to opt out of joining a union or paying fees."

Global wealth inequality has been falling: Report

"Oxfam’s annual report “gives a misleading picture of wealth,” CEPOS states. “Global wealth [inequality] has actually reduced over the past 20 years.”

Part of the problem rests in Oxfam’s flawed measures, CEPOS holds. For instance, the 2019 Oxfam report stated that 26 people owned as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population.

However, “The wealth of the 26 richest [people] is 0.4 percent of total global wealth,” the CEPOS report states – and it’s falling.

“The richest 10 percent’s share of global wealth has been reduced from 88.5 percent in 2000 to 81.7 percent. in 2019,” said CEPOS chief consultant Jørgen Sloth. “Looking at other measures of global wealth inequality, such as the Gini [coefficient], and the share of the [global] wealth held by the top one percent and the top five percent, inequality in global wealth has also declined since 2000.”"

Tackling Our Retirement-Savings Crisis

"The law also acknowledges the high cost of starting a family, which often takes precedence over retirement savings for younger people. Generally, anyone who withdraws money from a retirement account before he or she has reached the age of 59½ must not only pay all income taxes due but also a 10 percent penalty, unless he or she is withdrawing the money for a specific purpose such as a first-time home purchase, onerous medical expenses, or a list of “hardships.” The SECURE Act removes the penalty for taking $5,000 out for a new child and $10,000 to repay an adult child’s student loans. At the same time, the law makes it harder for workers to withdraw money from an employer-sponsored retirement fund for frivolous purposes, prohibiting plans from offering withdrawal loans via credit cards and other convenient means. Finally, the law nods to many people’s desire to convert their savings into a guaranteed annual income, or “annuity,” once they’ve retired. To encourage employers to offer annuity options, Congress will now protect them from lawsuits should the insurance company become unable to meet its guarantee. Overall, these changes are good, too, but marginal."

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s crass Marxist materialism

"Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s account of billionaires “taking” instead of “making” assumes away the risk, uncertainty, and time accounted for in the current subjective understanding of value to engage in nineteenth-century communist sloganeering. This sort of antiquarian argument, while ridiculous, can be a catalyst to learning more about the history and development of economics. Of no value is the crass materialism involved in excusing the alleged immorality of those whom she describes as “takers” being merely the product of “this system that we live in.”

It is precisely this crass materialism – Marx’s unique contribution that the anatomy of civil society is to be found in political economy – which is most disturbing. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez paints a picture of a world of degradation and exploitation for which no one is responsible."

Drucker on Christianity and the ‘roots of freedom’

"In his 1942 book, The Future of Industrial Man, Peter Drucker pointed to the Christian anthropology of man as a promising building block for society.

He credited Christianity with the idea that men are more alike in their moral character than in their race, nationality, and color. Though we are imperfect and sinful, we are simultaneously made in God’s image and are responsible for our choices. We cannot claim to have fully comprehended the good, but neither can we deny our responsibility to seek it. Freedom, according to Drucker, is based upon faith."

We’re From the Government—and We’re Here to Help the Workers!

"Is schadenfreude, the phenomenon of happiness felt at others’ misery, ok? How can one have happy thoughts at another’s misery? And yet I am made in the image of God. You know, the God who, concerning nations, peoples, and kings who plot against him and his anointed, doesn’t suppress what seems to be more than a chuckle. “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). He’s likely not laughing about their winning hand.

Today’s rules supposedly hold that, with regard to laughs, we are always supposed to “punch up” and not “down.” Considering that God, who is omnipotent and above all, can only punch down, and that the people who announce these rules never really follow them anyway, I’ve concluded that a bit of schadenfreude directed at those who act in evil ways is not so bad. The same would go for those who act foolishly out of pride at their pretended knowledge of what’s good for everybody else."

1/27/2020

If the Only Way You Can Get Your Great Idea Implemented...

"Economics textbooks are full of clever-and-appealing policy proposals. Proposals like: “Let’s redistribute money to the desperately poor” and “Let’s tax goods with negative externalities.” They’re so clever and so appealing that it’s hard to understand how any smart, well-meaning person could demur. When critics appeal to “public choice problems,” it’s tempting to tell the critics that they’re the problem. The political system isn’t that dysfunctional, is it? In any case, reflexively whining, “The political system will muck up your clever, appealing policy proposal,” hardly makes that system work better. The naysayers should become part of the solution: Endorse the clever-and-appealing policy proposals – and strive to bring them to life.

When you look at the real world, though, you see something strange: Almost no one actually pushes for the textbooks’ clever-and-appealing policy proposals. Instead, the people inspired by the textbooks routinely attach themselves to trendy-but-awful policy proposals. If you point out the discrepancy, they’re often too annoyed to respond. When they do, reformers shrug and say: “The clever-and-appealing policy never has – and probably never will – have much political support. So we have to do this instead.”"

Revolt, Populism, and Reaction

"For the first time in human experience, the decisive struggle was over information rather than power—and for good reason. Government institutions, established on the top-down principles of the industrial age, required control over the flow of information for their legitimacy. But a tsunami of digital content has swept away that control and that legitimacy, and the institutions that depended on these conditions have lapsed into crisis. This holds true for all government institutions, from the White House to the local police.

The elites in charge once spoke from on high with the voice of authority, certain that the masses would never talk back. But today the public, riding that tsunami of content, is aware of every government failure, error, and falsehood, and it aims an endless roar of frustration and condemnation at the mighty of the earth. The disaffected find one another on encrypted applications like WhatsApp and Telegram, then materialize in vast numbers to disrupt a shopping district or an airport. This digital dispensation has brought rulers and ruled into unbearable proximity. The elites have responded by fleeing ever higher into the top of the pyramid. The public, in turn, has been driven by a loathing of the existing system that borders on nihilism. Meanwhile, the structures of power, adapted to a simpler, slower era, have begun to crack apart at the seams."

Thiel calls for improving research grant, regulatory processes to enhance scientific innovation

"“There's a story we can tell about what happened historically in how processes became bureaucratized. Early science funding was very informal – DARPA's a little bit different – but in the 1950s and 1960s, it was very generative,” said Thiel. “You just had one person [who] knew the 20 top scientists and gave them grants – there was no up-front application process. Then gradually, as things scaled, they became formalized.

“One question is always how things scale,” he continued. “There are certain types of businesses where they work better and better at bigger and bigger scales,” he said, pointing to big tech.. “And, if big tech is an ambiguous term, I wonder whether big science is simply an oxymoron.”

He then cited the success of major scientific programs – such as the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project, the Apollo space program and Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA – that hinged on having “preexisting, idiosyncratic, quirky, decentralized scientific culture[s]” and were accelerated rapidly by a major infusion of cash."

Trust problems

"Can entrepreneurs, especially using artificial intelligence, create a more efficient solution to trust problems than Reid Hoffman’s reliance on his personal network, or hiring organizations’ reliance on college diplomas? There is a lot of money to be made if you can solve trust problems more efficiently. That is the way that financial technology firms make their money."

The Times Reveals Its Priorities

"The Times’ editorial board shows that it is unconcerned with economic growth or paying for government programs. But it is obsessed with the markers of identity politics, like a candidate’s stance on reparations and the number of people of various ethnicities employed by campaigns. It is suspicious of anyone who has even briefly been associated with for-profit companies, and it particularly dislikes Facebook, the great competitor of the old media. In short, the New York Times’ vetting process projects the society its preferred policies would create: a static, zero-sum economy with divisive jockeying for position and power between identity groups. High rhetoric on behalf of the public good masks the ideological preferences, self-interest, and envy of journalists."

Roger Scruton, Sentinel of the West

"Scruton was that he was very much a man of order. By that, I don’t mean that Scruton was inclined to authoritarianism or totalitarianism. His dogged and very direct help for dissidents laboring under Communist tyranny in Eastern Europe is ample proof of his opposition to such systems. That said, Scruton was convinced that there was no liberty without order. Nor did he think all order was spontaneous. Sometimes it had to be chosen and backed up with authority.

As illustrated in perhaps his most political of books, The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Scruton regarded order and authority as central to the agenda of modern conservatism. That order included objective morality, a strong attachment to private property, a rich and independent civil society, tradition in the best sense of that word, broadly orthodox religion, the conviction that some choices are always good and others are always evil, and that the state and law do have some responsibilities in this area. It’s hard to imagine a better list of positions to which most of today’s left would strenuously object.

The same belief in order also lead Scruton to express reservations about an economics-first approach to conservative thinking and policy. He was always anti-socialist, anti-Keynesian and, maybe above all, anti-technocratic. In his later years, Scruton spoke eloquently about the importance of private enterprise. He maintained, however, that markets needed to exist within the cultural, moral and legal setting bequeathed and adapted from the past. This was one reason why Scruton admired the writings of the economist and social philosopher Wilhelm Röpke and the ways in which Röpke showed how the dynamism of markets could be reconciled with the type of institutions and habits typically favored by conservatives."

Oh, Death, Where is Thy. . .

"Finally, there is the loss of Neil Peart (1952-2020), drummer for the Canadian rock band, Rush. Over at The American Conservative, I had the chance to write an obituary of him, labeling him “Homeric.” One commentator there (and, believe me, I rarely, if ever, read comments on internet sites) mocked me for the label. He’s just a drummer, the commenter claimed. Yet, Neil Peart was so much more than just a drummer. Yes, it’s true, he was a drummer, but he was also one of the best-read men of modern times in Canada, having read everything from Mark Twain to John Dos Passos to Camille Paglia. He also wrote and published several highly acclaimed books, usually dealing—in one way or another—with his vast and fascinating travels.

Additionally, Peart went through hell after the loss of his 19-year old daughter (due to a car wreck) in 1997 and the loss of his wife (from cancer and heart break) a year later. The two most important persons in his life gone, he rode his motorcycle throughout North America for well over a year, trying to re-find himself. His Penelope long gone, Peart, amazingly enough, found himself on these travels as well as finding his true love, Carrie Nuttall.

I first encountered the drumming as well as the lyrics of Peart back in the spring of 1981, my seventh-grade year, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Given all the hell that was home and school in 1981, I can state with absolute honesty that I would not be here, now, without the inspiration, words, and witness of Peart. Yes, simply put, I would not be here."

Worried about climate issues and poverty rates? Andrew McAfee has good news

"Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, exponential economic growth globally has meant that we were increasingly hard on our planet. As economies grew, we used a lot more ‘stuff’ — more energy, more raw materials, more pollution. But in the past 50 years this has changed dramatically. Today, in the United States, economic growth has been decoupled in many ways from resource use. As our economy continues to expand, we are using far less “stuff.”"

A Catholic Debate over Liberalism

"Yet there are limits, for now, to how mainstream integralism can become. For about a year, in 2017–18, First Things sustained a flirtation with integralist ideas. It published a book review by Pater Edmund and several essays by Vermeule and Smith. In October 2017, First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz called for a “humane integralism” to “supplant integral humanism.” Then, in January 2018, the magazine published an essay by theologian Romanus Cessario, a defense of the Church’s decision, in 1858, to kidnap Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy living in the Papal States who had been secretly baptized by his family’s Catholic maid. Cessario defended Pius IX’s conclusion that the boy’s baptism, though conducted without his parents’ consent, had transformed him irrevocably into a Christian. The Church was thus obligated to ensure that he received a Christian education by removing him from his Jewish household.

The essay proved controversial, to put it mildly. First Things editor R. R. Reno partly walked it back, defending his decision to publish it but calling the Mortara affair a “stain on the church.” His semi-apology, in turn, angered the integralists. Smith, who dismissed the backlash as “comfortable bourgeois moralism” on his blog, published his last article for First Things in March 2018; Vermeule’s last byline was in November 2017. First Things has since embraced a sort of religiously inflected nationalism, and Schmitz has become a vocal critic of the integralists. Reno told me that he now considers the Mortara essay a “grotesque miscalculation.” Yet part of him was still clearly drawn to Cessario’s argument. “The Mortara essay, in my mind, was purely a provocation to Catholics—as in, the logic of this is pretty powerful. Dignitatis Humanae, liberalism, and Catholicism go together perfectly. Now what do you have to say about this?”"

1/25/2020

Yes, the system is rigged. But how?

"It’s not just health care. Consumers buying cars are ripped off by a car dealer cartel, which prevents direct sales from manufacturers. The fireman industry is a huge rip-off, with America having roughly twice as many fire stations as needed, as a huge cost to taxpayers. Young homebuyers are ripped off by older homeowners who prevent new construction in towns like Reston, Virginia. There are similar examples in dozens of other industries, perhaps hundreds of others.

Politicians often complain that middle-class Americans are lagging behind because the system is rigged against them. They are right. But the politicians don’t tell the entire story. Only a modest portion of the rigging is done by big corporations like Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. The biggest problem is various interest groups comprised of middle class people, who rip off the general public."

A Neighborhood Grows in Brooklyn

"In North Brooklyn, for example, the waterfront—once a site of heavily polluting industry—has added new parkland, schools, and more than 12,000 homes since 2007. As a result of the 2005 rezoning, developers have built denser, mixed-use developments along 175 blocks adjacent to the East River, in addition to 2,000 affordable units and the preservation of another 1,000 units. By contrast, New York City collectively developed fewer housing units in the 2010s than it did during the Great Depression. In Williamsburg and Greenpoint, however, plans are underway to construct 4,900 units along the waterfront, plus another 2,600 in an adjacent, recently rezoned area.

Williamsburg and Greenpoint built, and the people came. Between 2007 and 2017, when the number of New Yorkers grew by 6 percent, the population of Williamsburg’s rezoned waterfront ballooned by 41 percent to more than 45,000. These new entrants were generally younger, and many started families. Approximately 160,000 people, kids and all, now live in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. So much for “grimy authenticity,” lamented the New York Times.

The waterfront grew while maintaining its diversity, too. Some 30,000 more white residents called Williamsburg and Greenpoint home from 2000 to 2015. But the denser, up-zoned parts of the borough’s waterfront saw an increase in nonwhite residents as well. In fact, the area reversed its more than 15-year-long decline in Hispanic residents."

Cottage Grove church to usher out gray-haired members in effort to attract more young parishioners

"“I pray for this church, getting through this age-discrimination thing,” said William Gackstetter, as the gray-haired heads around him nodded in agreement.


Gackstetter and other members of the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove are upset enough that their church is closing in June. What makes it worse is that their church is reopening in November — pretty much without them.

The church wants to attract more young families. The present members, most of them over 60 years old, will be invited to worship somewhere else. A memo recommends that they stay away for two years, then consult the pastor about reapplying."


Lunch lady equality: The fruits of Sweden’s ‘good socialism’

"At a local school in Falun, head cook Annica Eriksson was recently ordered by city officials to pursue a bit more mediocrity in her cuisine. Her food was good—too good.

Eriksson had become popular among students, offering freshly baked breads and varied lunch buffets that were known to include up to 15 different fresh vegetables and a range of high-quality proteins. Yet now she must diverge from her hand-crafted approach, told that it’s both “unfair” and out of compliance, given the lack of such offerings at nearby schools."

A Story of Economic Contrasts

"Neil Monnery’s A Tale of Two Economies is in some sense a polemic against historical determinism, at least insofar as promoting economic reforms is concerned. It stresses the importance of two single individuals, one a great man for many, one an obscure official and political unknown to the most, in shaping the destiny of their respective countries. What they read, how they understood life, their passions and characters had an impact on the lives of millions. Monnery’s narrative is powerful because it concerns, together with two men, two countries which both “sit at a latitude of around 22 or 23 degree north, just south of the Tropic of Cancer,” that, in spite of geography, each came to represent the beacon of a peculiar political theory in the 1960s and after: Hong Kong, what Milton Friedman and many others called an experiment in “free enterprise and free markets”; and Cuba, the last bastion of socialism after the Soviet Union faltered and China reformed.

Each of these two countries came to embody a different political idea (whatever their deviations from the blueprint, as the real world is rather obstinate in not mirroring political treatises), and it was largely thanks to two men: Ernesto “Che” Guevara and John Cowperthwaite. To the latter, Monnery devoted a biography, entitled Architect of Prosperity , which remains the only book available on the subject. On the other hand, a search on Amazon reveals some 2,000 books somehow related to Guevara, beginning with his Motorcycle Diaries.

A revolution is “not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall,” wrote Guevara. Monnery shows how these two men shook the tree."

Fewer Restrictions on Lending Can Make Housing More Affordable




"There are certainly many areas where regulatory barriers to building need to be eliminated in order to keep housing affordable throughout the United States. That should certainly be the priority of government at all levels. Yet today there are many areas in this country where those barriers aren’t the binding constraint that is blocking supply and pushing up rents. Those cities do lack adequate supply today, but it is because they lack suppliers. They lack potential home buyers. Potential home buyers frequently need mortgages. The most direct and immediate boost to housing supply that HUD could create today would be to increase suppliers, to broaden the availability of mortgages to households that have been locked out in one way or another from today’s market. Trends in prices, building, and borrowing suggest that many of those potential buyers would buy more affordable and more modest homes than the homes that are bought by buyers who can qualify today. The most important task for HUD today is to figure out what is preventing the construction of homes that would sell for less than $200,000. The answer to that puzzle is surely a bit counterintuitive, because it is clear that more broad-based lending and more residential investment will be required for that to happen. The families that would use that funding, for the most part, aren’t living under a bridge or in a car today. They are stacked into the existing housing stock, where they frequently spend much more on rent than they would need to spend on a mortgage to buy that very same house. Spending less on rent must begin with spending more on residential investment."


Taiwan president appeals to Pope Francis over China’s 'abuse of power'

"Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has written to Pope Francis describing China’s aggression and persecution of religion as “obstacles to peace,” and detailing the Communist regime’s “abuses of power.”

“The crux of the issue is that China refuses to relinquish its desire to dominate Taiwan. It continues to undermine Taiwan's democracy, freedom, and human rights with threats of military force and the implementation of disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and diplomatic maneuvers,” Tsai wrote in a letter to the pope published by her office Jan. 21.

Tsai sent the letter in response to Pope Francis’ message for the 2020 World Day of Peace, the pope’s annual letter sent to all foreign ministers around the world to mark the new year."

Bitcoin Is Quantitatively Tightening

"What’s noteworthy about this point is that, upon this particular halving, bitcoin “inflating” at a roughly 1.8 percent rate annually will nominally — and by then, quite possibly in real terms — be “inflating” at a rate lower than both the Federal Reserve target of 2 percent per year and current, CPI-based estimates of real U.S. inflation of 1.9 percent annually."