Odds and Ends Vol 19

Odds and EndsAll day today, I've been seeing articles that I'd like to comment on but don't feel like there is enough to say for a full article. And then I thought, "What about another Odds and Ends?!" This is exactly the situation that I originally started the series for. Just the same, in this case, it may just be that I'm tired. I stayed up very late last night and then didn't sleep well. You would think it would be because I was drinking, but I was actually working. Oh well.

Peak Uber?

Michael Hiltzik brought my attention to something interesting, Has Uber Already Peaked? There is a new study out by some investment types that looked at what's going on in New York. Apparently, at this point, Uber drivers are as likely to cannibalize each other as the regular taxicab drivers. It looks like the reason for this is that Uber has saturated the market with its drivers and they quickly find that they don't make much money. It comes as no surprise that this "new economy" job — despite the fact that all the upfront costs fall on the worker — only pays about minimum wage.

Mathematical Genius

John Nash was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century — a century that had some great minds. You know, he's the guy in A Beautiful Mind. He is known primarily for his work in game theory, and as such, he's had a great influence beyond mathematics — most especially economics. He died earlier this year at the age of 86. He was also mad as a hatter.

In 1948, Nash apparently asked physicist Richard Duffin to write him a letter of recommendation for graduate school. The letter is wonderfully on point:

Richard Duffin Recommendation Letter for John Nash

Trump Got Boring

Matt Yglesias got it exactly right in an article last week, Donald Trump Used to Be the Most Interesting Person in Politics, but His Tax Plan Made Him Boring. As I said many times around here, Trump's actual policies were better than any of the other Republicans running for president. His rhetoric was bad on certain issues, but his policies were no worse than the others. And on economics, he was talking like an actual populist. But then he brought out his tax plan and it was not qualitatively different from Jeb Bush's — it was just worse. And you have to wonder: if this is what a self-funding Republican is for, it must be that the party is not dysfunctional because of its dependence on courting billionaires. They just really believe all their supply side claptrap.

Airbnb Thinks You Should Trust It

I'll end with another Michael Hiltzik article, No surprise: That Airbnb Study of Rentals in LA Isn't What It Seems. Airbnb put out a study claiming that its influence did not incentivize the transfer of long-term rentals into short-term rentals. But the company implied that it had analyzed data with a UCLA professor, when all that he had done was go over their procedures — he's never seen the data and does not vouch for it. Of course, no one has seen the data. Airbnb won't make it available — even to government regulators. So should we trust them? The business community does not have a good record of putting out objective research that just happens to prove that the best thing is for them to do exactly what they want to do.

That's all for now folks. Have a good evening and I'll check in with you in the morning.

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Paul Bibeau's Thorough GOP Vetting Process

Paul BibeauEveryone needs a chance to meet the voting public. I think that's crucial. Whether it's a town hall-style debate where audience members pose questions, a series of formal head to head match-ups among the top contenders, or an iron cage, no-rules bloodbath where the losers are dispatched without mercy... we all want to feel these people went through a real vetting process on the way to the White House.

I'm not saying they have to fight to the death with lead pipes. It's a long process, and we have to be flexible. Maybe they could struggle to outlast each other while being hunted by wild animals in some kind of arena. The point is, we need to find out if these GOP candidates are right for America. There are a number of ways to accomplish this.

Perhaps a shark tank? I wouldn't mind a shark tank at all. I'm just brainstorming here.

With so many political outsiders, I am concerned we're not really testing these people to see how they'd govern. Carly Fiorina is a business leader, but how would she build a legislative coalition to get her policies through Congress? Ben Carson is a brilliant doctor, but what kind of science and technological policies can we expect from a creationist? And Donald Trump is a successful developer, but if he were hooded and chained up in a box slowly filling with water, would he be able to free himself in time? I need to know these things. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Paul Bibeau
For The Third GOP Debate, Will The Candidates Go At Each Other With Lead Pipes?

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Libertarianism Is Based Only on Property Rights

Matt BruenigI've long been a fan of Matt Bruenig's battles with the "serious" libertarians. What he shows is what I know from experience: libertarians don't think very deeply. It is a political ideology that appeals to people on a superficial level, because it has a certain mathematical simplicity to it. The arguments you most hear are that no one has a right to bother you if you aren't infringing on their rights. Thus, libertarians tend to be in favor of the very governmental functions that are most often used by governments to oppress their people: the military and police.

The philosophical basis of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle: the idea that one cannot initiate force against another. But what does it mean to initiate force? This is where libertarians get into so much trouble. They believe in private property. Thus, if you think you own a piece of land and I step on it, you think that I am initiating force. But if I don't accept the idea of private property, then I think you are initiating force. So the non-aggression principle is begging the question. The real issue is whether there should be private property or not. But libertarians pretty much never even mention that question — they take it as given.

So all libertarianism is left with is a particularly belligerent approach to property rights — one where a person can initiate all the aggression they like as long as they (or more likely, their ancestors) staked a claim before anyone else got there. To me, there is a real sense in libertarian thought that it works backwards from the result it is looking for. Proponents want absolute rights to their property, and so they work back to the non-aggression principle. But actually what they do is a lot of intellectual busy work that goes nowhere: I must have absolute rights to my property because I must have absolute rights to my property.

Unless we are going to get into Inequality: the Monopoly Analogy, all people born should receive an equal share of the earth's resources. Obviously, that would be pretty hard to do as a practical matter. So as a result, we as a society, have come up with other mechanisms to facilitate this — at least to a small extent. These include things like safety net programs, public education, and so on. Is that really so hard to understand? Apparently it is to libertarians. To them, it is absolutely right and fitting that Donald Trump and someone else born to poor parents on 14 June 1946 get absolutely divergent resources because of the accidents of their births.

Say what you will about aristocrats, at least they had a theory for why one's lot in life was totally random. Libertarians offer no excuse for why Trump deserved to inherit his fortune other than that history itself is a kind of God that must be worshiped. That is ultimately what the non-aggression principle means in practice: no one is to do violence to the way things are. And I fully acknowledge that in such a world, there are some born with great dis-fortune who will do well, and vise versa. But libertarianism stacks the deck heavily — providing the opposite of equality of opportunity.

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Bankruptcy Laws and the Corporate Takeover of the American Government

Robert ReichDuring my lifetime, I've seen the laws change to make personal bankruptcy get harder and harder. At the same time, corporate bankruptcy has gotten easier. It's kind of like how the banks were bailed out in 2008, but not the homeowners. The banks just had to sign a two page document to get billions of dollars in low interest loans. There was a program to help homeowners, of course; but it was incredibly difficult to qualify for. Most people didn't. And those who did spent years doing it.

That's the thing. As far as the government is concerned, there are the right kind of people and the wrong kind of people. The right kind of people are the rich and they are lavished with money because they always land on their feet. Of course, it's a bizarre kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where the government "knows" the rich are good for any help they get because the government makes sure that they get help whenever they get in trouble. Meanwhile, if you are poor, you're screwed. I once thought about applying for food stamps in the relatively liberal state of California, and I was handed a packed of about 50 pages of forms to fill out. If I had done it, I would have received about $20 per week in food.

Robert Reich wrote a very interesting article the other day, Donald Trump Proves What's Wrong with Bankruptcy Laws in America. And he provided a way of looking at corporate bankruptcy and the economy at large that I had never thought about:

People with lots of money can easily avoid the consequences of bad bets and big losses by cashing out at the first sign of trouble. Bankruptcy laws protect them. But workers who move to a place like Atlantic City for a job, invest in a home there, and build their skills have no such protection. Jobs vanish, skills are suddenly irrelevant, and home values plummet. They're stuck with the mess.

Think about about. When an individual goes bankrupt, it doesn't affect the rest of the economy that much. Yes, some creditors end up with less money. But no individual is going to make or break a credit card company. But when corporations are allowed to go bankrupt, they can destroy the lives of thousands of works -- sometimes far more. Yet our government has decided that the far more destabilizing kind of bankruptcy is the one that should be encouraged. Obviously, such policies have little to do with what is best for the nation as a whole.

Most of Reich's article is about how the finance industry has warped the law for its own gain and against the people of the nation. Long ago, there was this idea that what's good for General Motors is good for America. That certainly wasn't true -- even when it provided really good union jobs for tens of thousands of workers. But now we operate as though what is good for Goldman Sachs is good for America. And that's simply a bizarre notion.

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Morning Music: Leo Kottke

6- and 12-String Guitar - Leo KottkeI was going to get back onto my history of classical music, but it's kind of time consuming and I'm working a lot right now. Also, I was listening to Pandora the other day and a song came on that blew me away. The guitar playing was unbelievably great. So I rushed back to the computer and saw that it was Leo Kottke. That didn't surprise me. But it had been a while since I had listened to him. It's easy to forget just how awesome he is.

So let's start with a track from his first album 6- and 12-String Guitar, "Busted Bicycle." This is from a recent concert, shot on a phone. But the sound is okay and the video doesn't annoy me. What it shows is how much you can do with an open tuning. But if it weren't for his amazing right-hand picking, it just wouldn't work. That's not to say that his left hand isn't great. He makes it look easy. But then, he always does.

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Anniversary Post: SpaceShipOne

SpaceShipOneOn this day in 2004, SpaceShipOne took its last, fastest, and highest flight into space. It was the first commercial aircraft to fly in space. It was designed by Burt Rutan for his company Scaled Composites. He's an amazing guy. But the truth is that I only really know about him because I used to work for a real estate company that did most of its investing in the California desert where the company is located.

I've long wondered why it is that Elon Musk is such a big name in the world of high tech but Rutan isn't. And then I realized: Musk is a billionaire. It's not about tech. I never thought much of Musk. Other than a couple of successful — but hardly innovating — companies, what has the world gotten from him: talk. But this is America and "when you're rich, they think you really know!" It's a shame. And a sham.

But Rutan is the real deal. And he doubtless has a better life. He's been able to do what he loves. Musk shows all the signs of needing the accolades he receives. He's another Steve Jobs. And those who read me often will know that I don't mean that as a compliment.

Update 4 October 2015 7:13 pm

David Nichols mentioned in the comments that "A Satisfied Mind" would would be appropriate here. I quite agree. But we'll go with Porter Wagoner's popular version instead of Cash's:


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Don Quixote and His Sorry Face — Translation Comparison

Don Quixote - RutherfordWhen I was first deciding to read Don Quixote, I wrote a cheeky little article, About to Read Don Quixote. In it, I compared the first sentence of the prologue of the first book. And I compared how six translators had handled it. That article still gets a lot of traffic, and I feel bad about it, because it is so silly. Also: it leaves out my absolute favorite translation. And that is based on having read at least large sections of pretty much all of the translations. (There are two fairly recent ones that I've never even seen.)

At some point in the first book, Sancho coins a name for Don Quixote: "el Caballero de la triste figura." This means "the Knight of the sad figure." But most modern translators take "figure" to mean "face." In the book, Don Quixote likes this moniker very much. It goes along with the silly convention of chivalric romances that knights are love sick and wandering around doing great deeds to impress the objects of their affection. Don Quixote, of course, is an old man. Cervantes was 58 when he wrote the first part, and so I've always assumed the character was meant to be the same age. So it is particularly funny: a love sick 58 year old.

As I was reading my favorite translation by John Rutherford, I was struck that he translated it in a way no one else had: the knight of the sorry face. That goes right along with Rutherford's approach to the novel. Don Quixote was a laugh riot for people of his time, and Rutherford was determined to squeeze every drop of humor out of the book. This is why it's my favorite translation. When I pick up Samuel Putnam's translation, I don't usually laugh. I do with Rutherford. And "sorry face" is just brilliant.

But is it an accurate translation? Well, that I will leave to greater minds than mine. The question is more what exactly we want from a translation. The second book of Don Quixote was published 400 years ago this year. The Spanish in it is archaic. I don't spend much time with it, and yet I commonly find words that simply aren't in a modern Spanish dictionary. But as a reader, do you really want a translation that most accurately conveys the words? I think you want a translation that accurately conveys the experience. I certainly think that if Cervantes were alive today, he would choose Rutherford's translation over all the others.

But still, since I went to the trouble of going through all my English translations of Don Quixote, I figured I would provide a table of how each edition of the book translated Don Quixote's sorry face:

Year Translator "triste figura"
1620 Shelton "rueful countenance"[1]
1700 Motteux "woeful figure"
1742 Jervas "sorrowful figure"
1755 Smollett "rueful countenance"
1885 Ormsby "rueful countenance"
1949 Putnam "mournful countenance"
1950 Cohen "sad countenance"
1957 Starkie "rueful figure"
1996 Raffel "sad face"
2003 Rutherford "sorry face"
2005 Grossman "sorrowful face"

I am required to add at this point, what I tell anyone who asks: the best translation to read is whichever one happens to be around. I used to say, "Except Motteux." But I don't even say that anymore. It's a great book that you should read — not because it will enrich you, but because you will enjoy it.

[1] I'm not certain of this. I don't have a clean copy of Shelton, but rather one of the many revisions of him. I'm skeptical that he would have picked up on the implication of it being his face.


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What We Liberals Want From Economic Policy

Mark ThomaWhat we are opposed to, or what I am opposed to — guess I should speak for myself — is growth where all the benefits are captured by those at the top. Imperfections in economic institutions along with changes in the rules of the game pushed forward by those with political influence have caused those at the top to be rewarded in excess of their contribution to economic output, while those at the bottom have gotten less than their contribution. It's not "taking" to increase taxes at the top and return income to those who actually earned it, to the real makers who toil each day at jobs they'd rather not do to support their families. It's a daily struggle for many, a struggle that would be eased if they simply earned an amount equivalent to their contributions. That's why it's so "politically unattractive," people explicitly or implicitly understand they have been, for lack of a better word, screwed by the system. The blame is sometimes misplaced, but that doesn't change the nature of the problem. They don't want "free stuff," they want what they deserve, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

The other thing I'm opposed to is tax cuts for those at the top that make this problem even worse without delivering any corresponding benefits. These tax cuts redistribute income upward and cause the income received by workers to fall even further below their contribution, and there's no corresponding benefit to economic growth (or if there is, it's very, very small). We keep hearing that putting money in the hands of the "makers" at the top will produce magical growth, but the reality is that these are the true takers, the ones who are receiving far more from the economy than they contribute, while those who actually work their butts off each day to make the things we all need and enjoy struggle to pay their bills.

—Mark Thoma
'Jeb Goes Galt'

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Democrats Pushing Back Against Democratic Corporate Stooges

Elizabeth WarrenOn Tuesday, I saw what might seem like a very boring article over at Reuters, Brookings Fellow Resigns After Senator Warren Accuses Him of Conflicts. Warren has been pushing a "plan by the Labor Department to try and rein in conflicts posed by brokers who offer retirement advice." But Wall Street hates it. So Brooking Fellow Robert Litan hooked up with his colleague Hal Singer at the consulting firm Economists Incorporated. And the two of them put out a paper saying the plan would be very bad. But there was some (understandable) lack of disclosure. Not only had Litan been paid $38,800 by the investment firm Capital Group for the research, the firm also provided "feedback" before the paper was published.

In the old days, Brookings was seen as a middle of the road think tank. These days, I hear it referred to as liberal or "liberal leaning" — as if it is the left's equivalent of the Heritage Foundation. Regardless what you think of Brookings, you would have to admit that Brookings hasn't changed — the political landscape of this country has changed. And that's a question of elite opinion, not what actual American voters think. Thus, it should come as no shock that Brookings would employ what I consider a conservative hack.

What bugs me is that Litan worked in the Clinton White House. But it doesn't surprise me. This is a real divide in the Democratic Party. And how many years have I been ranting that the New Democrats destroyed the party? Again: this isn't about the actual voters. The Democratic establishment has become far more conservative on economic issues than the base voters. This is the same thing that happened to the Labour Party in the UK. And look what happened there. The only reason I haven't turned against Hillary Clinton is that I think she has always been a lot more liberal on economic issues than her husband.

But I do feel that there are rumblings in the party. I don't expect any kind of revolt. But it does seem that the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" is going to start to discipline the party. Because let's face it: the "rush to the right" has not worked out well. In addition to getting us conservative Democratic policy like ending "welfare as we know it," we've ended up with a hard right Republican Party — unwilling to compromise on anything at all.

So I'm glad that Warren is pushing back against this. The truth is that we can't just accept that someone being a Democrat means that they are anywhere near on the right side of economic issues. In fact, the Democratic Party has been — from Clinton right through Obama — in love with neoliberal policy. That seems to be changing now. Of course, it may all be too late. We really have allowed our whole political system to drift too far to the right and I'm not sure how we get back a sane system. But a precondition is for party actors like Elizabeth Warren to stand up to corporate cogs flying under the Democratic banner.


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Abortion, Blood, and Things Girls Know

Carly FiorinaAlthough I believe that I possess a special level of cluelessness on this matter, I think that men are pretty ignorant when it comes to human biology. There is a realization that comes to all us boys around the age of 5 that the girls have some kind of secret knowledge that they are not sharing with us. That never goes away. In fact, it only gets worse. At puberty, we all get very stupid. The men pretend they are tough and the women pretend they are weak, and the mating rituals begin. But still: the women are hiding something from the men — but only because we men can't understand it.

There is something very male about the hysteria over the Planned Parenthood videos and Carly Fiorina's claims about an aborted fetus outside the womb. And I think it explains why the anti-choice folks are using this tactic. Brian Beutler explained what's going on very well, The Anti-Abortion Movement's Weapons: Shock, Lies, and Carly Fiorina. When the videos first came out, the claim was that Planned Parenthood was doing something illegal. But that wasn't true, so there have been various excuses for the "sting" operation. None of them are true, of course.

When all the videos — released over time so as to maximize media attention — didn't do much, the same group releases a video that shows a pre-viable fetus outside the womb with some degree of life left in it. The footage was not taken by the group. It was taken from another source. According to Jen Gunter, it must be at least 15 years old. What's more, it is almost certainly not from an abortion procedure, but from a miscarriage. But it is nonetheless shocking and disturbing, especially to men who really don't have a clue what goes on inside women's bodies.

Of course, women do. Beutler quoted Rebecca Traister on this subject:

Women already know what abortion is. We know more about blood, innards, fetuses, and the babies they may become — in short, about life in reproductive bodies — than anti-abortion activists seem to understand.

And that's why I say that it is all about men — or at least a male take on the subject. And this may be why the anti-choice movement so easily transitioned to anti-birth-control, and why it is so aligned with patriarchy. There may be a lot of women in the movement, but they are mostly the ones who do not believe in doing it for themselves.

Ultimately, the whole thing — the years of undercover work, the videos, the outrage — was just to get to show that image. As Beutler said, "It's an Operation Rescue protest in the guise of advocacy, investigative journalism, committee hearings, and New York Times columns." It is really just the same old argument: if only we pro-choice people understood what late term abortions were really like, then we'd change our minds!

Most of the women I've known in my life have either liked or had no problem watching those shows that present open heart surgery and so on. I can't take them. They are deeply disturbing. But no one makes the case that we shouldn't do heart surgeries because they are disgusting. And it's equally true that childbirth itself is disgusting. Life is disgusting! But women already know that and they have since puberty at the latest. So this is mostly just a show for us men.


For the women, I guess it is a slightly different narrative: "Look! Bloody fetus! Looks like a baby!" But Traister had a response for that too:

Women know about blood. We know about discharge. We know about babies, and many of us also love them, their little feet and hands and eyelashes. And, yes, we know that those bitty features develop while the fetus is inside us. We also know the physical, economic, and emotional costs of raising those children outside our wombs.

But this is not about babies. If it were, then these same conservatives wouldn't be so intent on making poor mothers work outside the home. It is about controlling women. And so we have to see the tactics of "noisy protestors who hold startling fetus posters aloft outside of abortion clinics." Because that is all they've got.


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Morning Music: The Stalin

Trash - The StalinWe will end this week of Japanese punk with a very early band, The Stalin. They formed in 1979, and put out their first EP in 1981, Stalinism. It was the brainchild of Michiro Endo — who was already in his thirties by the time the band was recording. He reminds me of Lee Ving of Fear when he was at his most unhinged. But I don't think he ever was as unhinged as Endo.

Here is a song off their first LP, Trash. The song is called "Kaibōshitsu," which apparently means, "Autopsy Room." And that's, well, very hardcore punk.

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Anniversary Post: OJ Simpson Acquittal

OJ SimpsonOn this day in 1995, OJ Simpson was acquitted for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. It was not something that I followed, but I remember people were very excited about it. I think the interest in it really made Court TV. Some years after that, I lived with his older brother, Melvin Simpson. Melvin absolutely believed that Simpson didn't commit these crimes. I'm personally agnostic on the matter. It certainly seems like he did, but I have no problem believing the police set him up.

Melvin most certainly killed someone. He used to be a bus driver. In 2005, he was on cold medicine and fell asleep while driving — crashing his bus. An older woman went flying through the front windshield and died. This made national news because of OJ's past. But I remember Melvin telling me that OJ had complained that the incident was embarrassing him. The point of the story was, "I'm embarrassing you?!" That always made me wonder if Melvin didn't secretly think OJ had done it.

My overall takeaway from the OJ Simpson trial was that regardless of his guilt or innocence, if OJ Simpson had not been wealthy, he would have been found guilty. But unlike most people who note this, I don't think that OJ should have gotten worse representation; I think everyone else should get the great defense that he did. The prosecution has effectively unlimited resources. How is it fair to not allow poor defendants the same thing?

Regardless, OJ is back in jail. He got arrested in Las Vegas when I was living with Melvin. Melvin had been invited to go to Vegas, but backed out for one reason or another. He considered that he had lucked out. I assume so. Clearly, OJ was the alpha. Melvin was actually a very nice guy — even if he was a Golden Gloves boxer.


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