Odds and Ends Vol 8

Odds and EndsWell, the tabs are really starting to add up in my little world. Right now I have 56 tabs open in Chrome alone. That can only mean one thing: I need to do another installment of Odds and Ends. There is some very important stuff today. That’s generally the case with these posts. If there is something that hangs around on my tabs for a long time, it usually means it is something interesting. Often I don’t get around to writing about it because I don’t feel I can do justice to it. But here, I just dump it without adding too much. And away we go…

  1. Let’s start with Paul Krugman who wrote a great rant over on his blog, Fighting the Last Macro War? Noah Smith wrote an article claiming that economists are always working on the last crisis, Is Macro Doomed to Always Fight the Last War? Krugman defends the Keynesians very well and you can read the post if you want to know. What I thought was more interesting was how he attacked the freshwater economists. These are basically the University of Chicago gang, with their real business cycle (RBC) models, who think that the government is evil and everything will be great if the government gets out of the way. Krugman thinks Smith is being way too easy on them:
    First there was stagflation—and that did indeed knock Keynesians back for a while, even as it gave freshwater macro some credibility. As I’ve already indicated, the freshwater guys then stopped there. And I mean really, really stopped there: in many ways they seem to be forever living in 1979.

    In particular, they never reacted at all to the second macro war, the disinflation of the 1980s. The point there was that disinflation was very costly, with protracted high unemployment—which shouldn’t have happened if freshwater macro were at all right. This reality, as much as clever new models, drove the Keynesian revival; the RBC guys paid no attention, and learned nothing…

    Now, you might ask why, in that case, we haven’t solved the problem [of our persistent economic slump]. But the answer there has nothing to do with lack of economic understanding; it has to do with ideologues who made up new doctrines on the fly (like expansionary austerity or doom by 90 percent debt) to justify policies that made no sense in the standard models. If politicians turn to climate deniers, that’s not a reflection on climate science; if they turn to crank macroeconomics, that’s not a reflection on Keynesianism.

    Ouch! I’m sure some of the freshwater guys will swat back—impotently, of course.

  2. The Can Kicks BackA bit over a year ago, I wrote, Rich Kids for the Rich. It was about The Can Kicks Back, an astroturf group of young people concerned about government debt. As I wrote then, it was “founded by seniors at Phillips Academy, a $40K per year prep school for the kids of the wealthy. And just like their parents, they are concerned about the debt—and for the same reasons.” Well, Byron Tau at Politico reported that The Can Kicks Back is in debt. In November, their communications director wrote in an email, “Without someone/something else covering staff costs and without fundraising miracles like Stan or near-Stan happening consistently, I don’t know how we both sustain [an] organization and do meaningful things…” The “Stan” mentioned is billionaire hedge fund manager Stan Druckenmiller. He gave them a check for a quarter million dollars last year—roughly 40% of their fundraising for the whole year. Of course, I’m sure that The Can Kicks Back will not go bankrupt. Having a youthful face is important for the billionaires’ campaign to starve granny.
  3. Dylan Scott at Talking Points Memo provided the following graph of Obamacare enrollment by state:
    Obamacare Enrollment

    The redder a state is, the higher the enrollment. The highest is Vermont with 52.4% of eligible people enrolled. The lowest is surprisingly Hawaii with just 3.2%. If you click over, they have a very cool interactive map where you can see what the enrollment is in any given state. But you can see the general shape of things: in conservative states, fewer people are getting enrolled. Part of that is the deep south where it seems they are determined to continue fighting the Civil War by other means. It’s all disgraceful. Poor people are suffering all over the nation because Republicans want to register their disapproval of President Obama. We Democrats weren’t thrilled with Medicare Part D, but we weren’t spiteful about it. There is really something wrong with those people.

  4. Chris ChristieAlec MacGillis wrote a great long piece over at The New Republic, Chris Christie’s Entire Career Reeks. If you are at all interested in Christie, you should read it. I want to draw your attention, however, to a much less prominent article. Right after the story broke, Joe Patrice over at Above the Law wrote, Governor Chris Christie Did What We All Should Have Expected From an Old Prosecutor. Patrice is a defense attorney and he argues that the way Christie appears to have done business as governor is exactly the way prosecutors do business everywhere in the United States. The whole idea is to apply maximum leverage at all times. This is why your average junkie caught with a bag of dope ends up facing 16 charges instead of just one. If you are at all interested in Christie or our horrible “justice” system, you should really read Patrice’s article.
  5. David Sirota has a great piece over at Pando Daily, The Wolf of Sesame Street: Revealing the Secret Corruption Inside PBS’s News Division. It is mostly about how former Enron trader John Arnold gave $3.5 million to PBS affiliate WNET to produce a series on public pensions called Pension Peril. The problem is that Arnold is simultaneously lobbying to have public pensions slashed. There is nothing surprising about this. As conservatives have painted PBS and NPR as liberal outlets, they have also managed to push them far to the right through funding mechanisms. It is extremely sad. The good news is that Sirota’s article had a big impact. After much jockeying, PBS announced that it would be returning the money to Arnold. Of course, several of the shows have already been made, but hopefully PBS will be more careful in the future. I’m not hopeful, though. For every case like this that gets noticed, there are dozens that don’t. Just look at the ridiculously skewed The McLaughlin Group that has been on PBS for 32 years.
  6. I thought it would be nice to end this Odds and Ends with a performance of one of my very favorite songs, Fields & Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight.” That turned out to be really hard! Maybe it is just because I know the song so well and have lived with it for such a long time that I’ve gotten intolerant of other interpretations. But I don’t think so. For example, I found a version by Eliane Elias that isn’t what I’m looking for right now, but I see completely that it is brilliant. The worst of what I found was Tony Bennett. Now, I’ll admit: I think Bennett is about as overrated as anyone has ever been in any field whatsoever. But his “talk” version is worse than embarrassing; it is the waste of a great song. I did find this nice version by Catherine Brozena. But the only thing that really did it for me was this great version by Carla Cook:

    Wow. I’m gonna have to spend more time listening to her!

That’s it for this digest. I’ll see you around the internet!

Ever Beautiful Tarot Cards

Pamela Colman SmithOn this day in 1884 the great filmmaker Robert J Flaherty was born. He is best known for making the first kinda-sorta first feature length documentary, Nanook of the North. I get kind of tired of people claiming that it isn’t a documentary. It is clearly the film from which grew the rich documentary ecosystem we have today. I also think this attitude reflects a naivete regarding just how real are today’s documentaries. The reality is always at least distorted. The question is whether what is presented is truthful and I think that Nanook is. The full film is available online. It is well worth checking out. Flaherty went on to have an interesting and often controversial work life. Check out anything you come upon.

Anna Mae Hays is 94 today. She was the first female general in the United States military, having served in World War II and the Korean War. From 1967 until her retirement, she was chief of the Army Nurse Corps. She retired shortly after receiving the rank of general. This was also true of Elizabeth Hoisington, the second woman to reach that rank. I don’t doubt that these women deserved the rank. I suspect they deserved the rank ten years earlier. But giving out the rank to woman about to retire was probably the army trying to ease into the modern world. No one would scream too loudly, given they were retiring. And then the army could move on to giving the rank when it was deserved. Anyway, Hays and Hoisington were both trailblazers.

The excellent British film director John Schlesinger was born in 1926. He directed a wide variety of films such as Far From the Madding Crowd, Marathon Man, and the unfairly maligned Honky Tonk Freeway. But he is best remembered for Midnight Cowboy. It is essentially Waiting for Godot in New York. In the following ending to the film, see if you don’t see what I mean with regard to the interdependence of the characters. And when Joe Buck puts his arm around Ratso at the end, it still kills me.

Other birthdays: Japanese painter Kano Eitoku (1543); ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (1903); actor Hugh Beaumont (1909); songwriter Sonny Bono (1935); screenwriter Vincent Ward (58); actor Ice-T (56); tennis player John McEnroe (55); and screenwriter Eric Red (53).

The day, however, belongs to the illustrator Pamela Colman Smith who was born on this day in 1878. She was closely associated with photographer Alfred Stieglitz who felt her work had a synaesthetic (multi-sensory) sensibility. She was also friends with poet William Butler Yeats, for whom she illustrated some books. But she is best know for the Waite-Smith tarot cards. Arthur Edward Waite wrote the booklet that went along with the cards, but the cards themselves are all Smith’s. You have doubtless seen them. Pretty much all tarot cards either use her designs, or are recreations of her designs. I remember them from my childhood. (Because I was raised by Satanists!) They are wonderful. Here are some samples:

Tarot Cards

Happy birthday Pamela Colman Smith!

Silicon Valley Wage Theft Proves Free Market Rhetoric Is False

Steve Jobs: Not an entrepreneur; A bully and thiefAs you may have heard, employees of high tech companies in Silicon Valley have filed a class action lawsuit claiming that big firms colluded to keep wages low by not competing with each other. These companies are Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe, Intuit, and Pixar. How very “free market” of them! You will find all the nasty details in Mark Ames’ excellent Pando Daily article, The Techtopus: How Silicon Valley’s Most Celebrated CEOs Conspired to Drive Down 100,000 Tech Engineers’ Wages.

What’s especially wonderful about this case is that the primary villain is everyone’s favorite example of the kind of “entrepreneur” we must encourage with low taxes and no aid to the poor: Steve Jobs. Of course, as I note all the time: Apple has got to where it is not by innovating but by packaging. In addition, they use the legal system to attack competition. And now we know that Steve Jobs himself was directly intimidating other companies into making this deal that cost 100,000 employees an estimated $9 billion over five years at the end of the 2000s. Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen wrote at the time, “[I]f I tell Steve [Jobs] it’s open season (other than senior managers), he will deliberately poach Adobe just to prove a point. Knowing Steve, he will go after some of our top Mac talent…”

Because I have worked a lot in the high tech world, I know what a crock most of this “innovator” fawning is. The real innovators tend to get swallowed or crushed by the big companies. The big companies are not innovators—ever. Again: look at Apple. All they’ve ever done is package other people’s technology well. They are above all good at branding. But people on the outside really think they are great. Yesterday, Thomas Friedman wrote a hilarious column that shows just how thoroughly he has metabolized the globalized, libertarian Silicon Valley Kool-Aid, Start-Up America: Our Best Hope. He starts by talking about some banal ideas that he calls “creative” coming from large companies that he calls “start-ups.” And what links all these companies together?

What they all have in common is they wake up every day and ask: “What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/reinvent my business to thrive from them?” They’re fixated on creating abundance, not redividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination. No idea here is “off the table.”

This is not creativity or innovation; this is trend chasing; this is what people who don’t have any new ideas do. But of course, Friedman doesn’t understand this. Rich men in nice suits told him it’s the future. And Friedman so wants to believe—he’s written books saying it is the way things are. We learned the lesson of The Lexus and the Olive Tree where he told us that to unleash the free market, each country must put itself in a “golden straitjacket.” And The World Is Flat taught us that globalization is super-keen but even if it ain’t we have to live with it because he and the rest of his class are gonna cram it down our throats.

All of this is about the great libertarian idea of free markets and free minds. The problem is that the markets are anything but free. And even more important, the minds are closed. Friedman is the poster-child for this. He believes in the new global world order and no amount of fact will change his mind. Of course, he’s just the front for the New Gilded Age tycoons who spew out this free-market claptrap while working behind the scenes to do everything they can to distort the market to their advantage.

Dean Baker as always has a extremely insightful take on this whole wage-theft situation. In one sense, it is no big deal: companies are doing illegal and immoral things to increase profits is not surprising. What is interesting, however, is what it says about all of the libertarian rhetoric that comes out of Silicon Valley. They always claim that no government intervention is necessary because in a free market everything takes care of itself. But their actions indicate that they do not think this is true in our current “free” market:

If they really believed the market had a deep sea of competitors in which no individual actor could count for much, then their non-compete agreements would serve no purpose. If Google, Apple, Intel and the other biggies agreed not to hire each others’ workers, it really wouldn’t affect their pay since there would always be new upstarts ready to jump in and hire away underpaid engineers.

The fact the Silicon Valley honchos took the time to negotiate and presumably enforce these non-compete agreements was because they did not think that there were enough competitors to hire away their workers. They believed that they had enough weight on the buy-side of the market for software engineers that if they agreed to not compete for workers, they could keep their wages down.

So the issue is that businesses will continue to abuse workers and the system generally. We should do everything we can to stop it. But what we should not do is believe the free market claptrap that comes from these people. Because when it comes down to it, it is clear that even they don’t believe it.