It Puts the Skin on the Book

SkinIt rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.

I don’t want to write this article. But I think I have to say something. You may remember the movie The Silence of the Lambs. In it, a serial killer by the name of “Buffalo Bill” is skinning women, trying to make his own suit of skin. The best thing about the movie is that the actor who played Buffalo Bill went on to play Captain Leland Stottlemeyer on Monk. Otherwise, I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t think fiction about serial killers is ever very good. It is always filled with the most unbelievable police work. Real serial killers are much more interesting. But I’m getting side tracked. So this serial killer was sewing himself a skin suit, which is at least totally creepy.

That brings us to yesterday, when Alexis Madrigal informed me that, Science Confirms: Yup, This Book Really Is Bound in Human Skin. Not that I am implying anything about Madrigal, but this is not the first time he’s written on the subject; two months ago, he wrote, It Was Once “Somewhat Common” to Bind Books With Human Skin. He started the article like this:

You think Twitter is weird? Look at early print culture and the practice of what book historians call anthropodermic bibliopegy. That would be binding books in human skin.

Let’s suppose you were a rich man in the middle of the 17th century and you really loved Shakespeare’s sonnets. (You shouldn’t; they’re weak.) And you die. What a great use of your estate to have a copy of the sonnets bound with your skin. It could be propped up on a table in the sitting room and your children could say, “Dad’s looking good today!” According to Heather Cole, a curator at Harvard’s Houghton Library, “The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted.” I’m thinking something like this:

It is a far, far better skin that I give, than I have ever given; it is a far, far better book that I bind than I have ever known. PS: I didn’t do it though. It was just a stupid 19th century plot device that I happen to look like this guy. You would think—really you would—if Dickens could save that jerk Ebenezer Scrooge, he could have saved me. But no. Of course not. Off with my head! Let’s get this thing over with.

Anyway, after testing for just about every form of ape and monkey skin around, Harvard now knows it has an actual book bound in human skin. And what is this book? It is Des Destinees de l’Ame by the French novelist Arsene Houssaye. You would think that any article about this book would mention what it is about. It is, after all, bound with human skin! But no. Even though he wrote well over a hundred works, English Wikipedia isn’t much interested in him. French Wikipedia is more interested, providing a more detailed biography and an actual list of works. But there is no entry on this book, but we do know he wrote it when he was 65 years old and the title in English is, The Destiny of the Soul.

According to an article in The Guardian, it is Houssaye’s “mediations on the spirit.” I assume that it was not published bound with human skin. In fact, an inscription on the last page of this copy reads:

The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma [The Wavuma are believed to be an African tribe from the region currently known as Zimbabwe.] on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace. [Rest in peace.]

That’s 247 years before Des Destinees de l’Ame was published. So someone must have taken the original book, disposed of the pages, and put Houssaye’s book inside it. And why not? I mean, it is a book about the nature of the spirit, it ought to be encased inside human skin. But it’s still creepy as hell.

It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.

“Pro-Growth” Policy Produce Poor States

Red State Blue State Rich State Poor StateThe Tax Foundation has put together a great map that looks at how much of each state’s total operating budget comes from federal government aid. But before we get to it, let me lay out a few things. One is that it is not exactly fair that states are compared in this way, because people move. For example, a man might work his whole life in California and then retire in Arizona. Thus, it looks like California is subsidizing Arizona, but at least in the case of this man, California has gotten credit for paying taxes and now Arizona looks like a “taker” when this man is just getting a return on taxes he paid in California. So a lot of this business about certain states taking more from the feds than they give is about the age of the population.

But that isn’t the only thing that is going on. It is also the case that natural resources matter. The bottom two states in terms of taking money from the feds are fossil fuel states. Hawaii is also at the bottom—tourism, perhaps? But this does highlight the fact that federal dollars flow to states that have a lot of poor people in them. So keep this in mind when you look at this graph, Federal Aid as a Percentage of State General Revenue, Fiscal Year 2012 (click over to get the full graph at much higher resolution):

Federal Aid as Percentage of State Revenue - 2012

The top state in terms of getting federal money is Mississippi, which gets almost half of all its revenue from the federal government. Yet it is one of the youngest states. But let’s face it: it’s poor. I don’t mind my tax dollars going to help those people out. But it is also a bright red state. So how does that affect the way the state government has decided to tax its people? In a word: unfairly. There is a great deal of really useful information in another publication of the Tax Foundation, Facts and Figures 2014. Mississippi gets 27.5% of its state revenue from property taxes. This is even less than California (28.9%), which has a real problem with under-taxing property (primarily by allowing property to stay under assessed). They get only 3.8% from corporate taxes, compared to 5.2% in California. And they get only 15.1% from income taxes, compared to 27.3% in California. The real tell is the sales tax—you know, the tax that really hits the poor. Mississippi gets a whopping 32% of its state revenue from that tax—almost 50% more than California collects, and that’s with temporarily higher sales taxes to get us out of debt.

It isn’t just Mississippi. In all the red states, we see the same things: low income taxes, low corporate taxes, low property taxes (although not always), and high sales taxes. These are very Republican supposedly pro-growth policies. But if they really were good for the economy, why is it that these red states are so poor? I mean, other than the fossil fuel states that would be rich regardless of their policies. It seems that the supposed pro-growth policies are really just pro-redistribution of income from the poor to the rich.

So I don’t think we should focus on the fact that Mississippi takes a lot more money from the federal government than it gives. We should focus on the fact that the people of Mississippi keep electing governments that take from the poor and give to the rich—all in the name of improving the economy. But the economy never improves. They just depend more on the federal government. You know, the government they claim to hate.

H/T: EJ Dionne

The Nice Side of All Deserving to Die

Sweeney ToddThere is one criticism of the music in Sweeney Todd—and more generally with everything that Stephen Sondheim has written: the lyrics are so dense that it is very easy to miss them. I was just taking a break and listening to the song “Epiphany.” I quite like the song, the melody is lovely and the refrain goes right along with the cynical side of my soul, “We all deserve to die.”

But as I listened to it today, I heard a lyric I hadn’t caught before, “For the rest of us, death will be a relief.” So it hit me that Sondheim had not, in fact, written a song about a homicidal man who thinks that everyone deserves to die because all of humanity is terrible. It is a song about a homicidal man who thinks that the bad people of the world deserve to die for their crimes and the good of the world deserve to die in the sense that good little girls and boys deserve presents on Christmas.

In it’s way, it is a more political song than “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It is a song about class. Clearly, the movie (and the play) take place in the English dystopia of the middle 19th century. But it is still the same society that we live in today. And as much as we have made improvements on it, there is a large part of the political elite in this country that wants very much to return to 1848 London. Paul Ryan would never admit it, but his “philosophy” would lead us to just such perfect a place where we don’t have to worry about “a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” You sir! How ’bout a shave?

The key lyrics are these:

Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs Lovett
There two kinds of men, and only two:
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face.

It does rather evoke the line from 1984, “A boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But it isn’t some totalitarian government doing it; it’s our mythical “job creators”—not stamping, just applying constant pressure.

There are thus two kinds of people in the world: those who deserve to die and those who deserve to die:

You sir! How ’bout a shave?

The Coal Misdirection

Dean BakerDean Baker wrote a great article yesterday, Why Do the Media Give So Much More Attention to Jobs We Lose Due to Environmental Restrictions Than Jobs We Lose Because of the Trade Deficit? And he actually answers half the question. I answer the rest.

The issue is that in the entire United States, there are less than 80,000 people who work in the coal industry. Is that a lot? Well, there are roughly 138 million jobs in the country. So that’s less than 0.06% of our work force. It would seem that this is not an industry that we should be all that concerned about. What’s more, as I discussed on Tuesday, because of changes in the way the coal industry is managed, coal jobs have been disappearing for decades. Baker noted that during the eight years from 1985 to 1993 (You know: the Reagan and Bush years!) the coal industry cut 80,000 jobs. And that was when there were fewer people in the work force and so the jobs lost was a bigger deal. As Baker noted, “I don’t recall anywhere near the same focus on this far more serious hit to coal country.”

Meanwhile, our country has seen a sharp rise in its trade deficit. This deficit is due to our strong dollar. It is cheaper for us to buy imported products and more expensive for other countries to buy our exported products. The increase in the deficit represents roughly 700,000 jobs, by Baker’s estimate. That’s in one year. Yet what is everyone talking about: the fact that some coal jobs will be lost because of new power plant regulations—regulations that will take effect over the course of 16 years. So even if all the coal jobs were lost (and they won’t be—not even close), that would be a loss of 5,000 jobs per year. This is an amount that likely could be accommodated by attrition alone. Regardless, this is less than one percent of the jobs lost due to our trade deficit.

So why does this get so little attention? Simple: the strong dollar is great for the rich. If you already have money, it is best that the money be worth as much as possible. But if you aren’t rich and don’t have a job, a strong dollar is bad. But it is worse than that. Baker pointed out that certain businesses you’ve heard of depend upon a strong dollar so they can continue to sell cheap imported goods to the working poor:

Walmart has spent decades building up low-cost supply chains throughout the world. It is not anxious to see the price of the goods it is importing increase by 15 to 20 percent due to a lower valued dollar. Similarly General Electric and other major manufacturers have set up operations in Mexico, China, and other low-wage countries. They don’t want to lose the advantage they get from cheap labor by seeing the dollar fall in value relative to the currencies of these countries.

Of course, this alone doesn’t explain why journalists aren’t interested in the subject. To understand that, you have to look to Chris Hedges in Death of the Liberal Class. The upper middle class who are our journalists and economists are supposed to be the ones who make the democracy work. They are supposed stop the excesses at the top. They are supposed to keep inequality in check, for example. Chris HedgesAs a class, that’s what they’re paid for. But over the last four decades, they’ve fallen down on the job and allowed our country to become effectively a plutocracy. That’s why our mainstream journalists focus on tiny issues, getting the people worried about an issue (eg coal) that is really all about how much money owners will make in profit. And that’s why the mainstream journalists ignore huge issues, letting the people stay ignorant of an issue (eg the trade deficit) that is hurting the people themselves.

I am not saying, however, that the journalists know they are doing this. It is just that over the years, the culture of journalism has lost its way. Fundamentally, it is about laziness. The “liberal class” thinks it deserves its decent lifestyle. It has forgotten that those lifestyles were provided for doing real work. And that work was not to be the apologists of the rule elites.


Just to be clear, Dean Baker is doing great work as an economist and Chris Hedges is doing great work as a journalist. But the vast majority of the economists and journalists are nothing but lazy apologists for the power elite.

John Maynard Keynes—Again

John Maynard KeynesOn this day in 1883, the great economist John Maynard Keynes was born. Last year, I spent most of the time complaining about how this depression we are still in was in no fundamental sense different from the Great Depression, yet policy makers were determined to ignore everything we learned from Keynes. I noted that things weren’t nearly as bad because we had automatic policy like Social Security and unemployment. But I have little doubt that if we didn’t have those stabilizers, the economic conservatives still would have decided to do nothing to help the people. As it was, conservatives have done everything they could to undermine the social safety net at exactly the time when we need it most.

It would have been one thing if in 1999, when the economy was booming and anyone who wanted a job could have a job, Paul Ryan had made his comment about the social safety net lulling able body people into life of complacency. But we have been getting this rhetoric (And worse!) during a period when our employment to population ratio is five percentage points less than it was during most of the Bush the Younger years.

I have begun to think that maybe Keynes wasn’t such an original thinker. Sure, he was brilliant and all. But economics has pretty much always been a handmaiden of policy makers and so economists have always tended to tell the power elite what they wanted to hear. That’s one of the reasons that Marx is so vilified. And Keynes isn’t far behind him in vilification, despite the fact that economically speaking they are on opposite poles. But just like Marx, Keynes told the power elite things they didn’t and still don’t want to hear.

Where Keynes’ brilliance laid (and that of most geniuses) was in seeing things clearly rather than through a veil of established wisdom. His important work all seems to be based upon the paradox of thrift. That was an idea that was very old. Adam Smith wrote, “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great Kingdom.” But it was Keynes who grabbed onto it and showed how it explained depressions.

But even after the Great Depression and the clearest demonstration that Keynes was right, we find ourselves in the same situation. The same disproved theories that were used during the Great Depression to justify the government doing little or nothing were brought out during this depression for the same purpose. Of course, they were given need clothes. There was Reinhart-Rogoff with their 90% debt cutoff that was bogus. There was Alesina-Ardagna with their expansionary austerity that was bogus. And now, we are left with Keynes and only Keynes.

And what do we do? Nothing. Because doing nothing was always the plan of the policy makers—the power elite. They don’t see economics as a science that can make the running of the economy better. They see it as a form of apologetics to be used to justify whatever policy they prefer. So when R-R and A-A went down in flames, it didn’t matter. They were just objects to be held up to the masses to justify policies that enrich the rich and impoverish the poor. Those policies were given, it was just nice to have their little stable of kept economists who will twist their data and models to justify those policies. When they can’t do it, the kept economists are sent away like court jesters who have begun being tiresome.

Meanwhile, Keynes was right. And that matters in the intellectual history of humanity. But it doesn’t matter at all when it comes to the policies that economic conservatives put forward.

Happy birthday John Maynard Keynes!