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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Eloquence of Frank Rich

I have long been a fan of the writing of Frank Rich.  Including his book on the media circus that was 2000-2007, The Greatest Story Ever Sold.  Anyway, I liked this quote from his column this past Sunday.

"Romney, on the other hand, is the closest thing the G.O.P. has to a front-runner, and he is even more hollow than Santorum. Indeed, his appearance at CPAC on the morning of Friday, Feb. 11, was entirely consistent with his public image as an otherworldly visitor from an Aqua Velva commercial circa 1985."

Its true.  My gf is worried about a Romney candidacy, but I think his hopelessness in 2008 is indicative of his chances this time around.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Freakonomics Radio January 19

So, you might remember I used to listen to a podcast called Econtalk.  I didn't stop listening because I didn't enjoy it, I changed computers and my iTunes subscriptions were lost.  However, I also found that I got very behind in the podcasts.  This was in large part because they were incredibly dense discussions that required a large amount of attention.  AND.  Because I object so heavily to so many of the things its host and guests would say, that each riposte would take two hours to write--without time to edit.  Many of these opinions had nothing to do with facts and figures, but were opinions neatly dovetailed into intellectual discussions to prove their point.  I spent a lot of time debunking those claims.

I started listening to Freakonomics radio in large part because the New York Times started to carry it.  I'd been hoping for an economics podcast that was a little more mainstream and less steeped in Hayekian economics.  I was also lead to believe by the Freakonomics books ad campaign that there was something oddball about the project.  That the topics they discussed were off the wall, or not discussed often.  I was wrong on both counts.  I listen with mild distaste.  Recently they started airing this introduction where the hosts banter about whether or not they should have to say thank you to their listeners on public radio.  Not only is it insulting, its nonsensical.  The idea of course is that they're offering their wit and wisdom for free, and that we should be thanking them.  This of course disregards the very obvious gains they make in repute, free advertisement, book sales, and lets face it, the opportunity to opine to millions of listeners.  I'd love that opportunity, and you can be damn well sure that I'd be thanking the hell out of my listeners.

Ok, so they did a FAQ broadcast in late January.  And one of the questions was "Are voters deceiving themselves that their vote counts?"  To which the hosts emphatically replied with no citation that yes, we the voters deceive ourselves everytime we go to the polls.  And that even close elections are usually decided in court.  Not only is this malarky, its irresponsible.  I download these things from the net, but the NYTimes ought to reprimand them for even saying this on air.

I've vamped on this often, so I'll condense this into a set of points.
1)  Close elections are decided in the courts.  Sometimes, and the courts authorize recounts.  Of votes.
2)  If your investment strategy was that single dollar bills didn't matter, you'd be lined up and shot.
3)  Votes matter in bulk.  1+1+1....= 280 million.  Based on this asshat's advice, no one would vote.
4)  What does it mean, does your vote matter?  The whole principal is about equality, if it were your vote that was the tie breaker, then your vote would have a hell of a lot more power than someone else's.  How is that fair?  How is that equal?
5)  I think people who talk this way don't belong in a democracy.  They seem to feel that their entitled to rule by fiat, and if they can't have their way, the hell with everyone else.
6)  It's selfish, childish, and educated adults shouldn't be speaking this way in public.
7)  So there.

They also gave some dating advice in this FAQ,  Levitt said, get successful first because its much easier to get dates when you are.  While this, I think is somewhat true, based on my experience as a NYC bartender, I think a far more obvious, and far more successful tactic is simply to lower your standards.  This doesn't mean that your standards always have to remain low, in fact, standards change based on experience.  You should start your teenager on shitty wine, so that he learns upward.  This, across the boards, would work with my single friends.  Every single one of them refuses to yield the supposed moral highground that their potential mates must be good looking, fit, young, and smart.  If you're getting at least one of those four, you're on the green.  Many companies hire starting positions, but for all the industries I've worked in--you needed the resume just to get in the door.  So if you're not getting dates, it probably means your resume is pretty skimpy too (not jobs--partners) so get out.  So says the Ravingleftatic.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Thoughts on Capitalism--and Medieval Spain

I'm reading a very difficult book right now as research for a fantasy story I'm writing.  It is not an easy book to read.  It's not written like Michael Lewis, Big Short, or Too Big to Fail, or even Krugman's Depression Economics, all books of which I have read some, or all of in the last year.  Those three all have a talky, jokey manner, exactly what you'd expect from a blog.  I'm told that Malcom Gladwell writes like that too.

That's fine. Silver, Trade, and War, is written like a textbook, and so it is.  The book isn't too hefty, but every sentence is packed and nearly incomprehensible.  Not to mention that every other word is in Spanish, and is a reference to a medieval Spain.  In brief, the book describes the Spanish economy in the late middle ages.  Hence--the fantasy book.

Nonetheless, there are some interesting thoughts on the modern economy which it brings to mind.  The first is as Niall Ferguson would have it, the bond markets have largely determined history for at least ten centuries of recorded time.  Why?  Bonds are how countries borrow money.  Why do countries borrow money?  Generally--to finance wars.  Hence the prices of bonds are incredibly relevant to the entirety of modern history.

But what I wanted to talk about today was this idea, espoused by some libertarians, that the free market offers some panacea and saving grace for the world's economy.  Often, in discussion, they go back hundreds of years, before the welfare state hit its stride to prove their point.  That's where Stein's work comes in.  Simple lessons of Microeconomics teach us that all things being equal, prices rise with production along the standard curve.  You've seen it.  Where the demand curve hits the supply curve is equilibrium, or the actual price of goods.  The argument goes, that any time the government interferes with the economy, it creates artificial price hikes or drops.  Equibilrium can only be found in a governmental vacuum.  So economists spend a lot of time trying to find markets that actually look like this.  And it can be quite difficult, even with something that has become fairly standard, say the price of aluminium.  At this point in time, there may only be ten or twelve companies that produce aluminum though.  They've eliminated the competition, either naturally through acquisition, or through trade restrictions and embargoes.  And let's face it, its not exactly difficult to coordinate prices between twelve companies.  I confronted my Micro teacher with that argument.  He couldn't give me an adequate answer save to say, its fine for some markets to have a small number of participants.  (In fairness to my professor, in a 90 person class, you've got a lot of material to get through, and very little time to do it.)

And that's exactly the point of what I've taken over three hundred words to get to.  Free markets are unnatural and unlikely.  This doesn't make the above curve useless, but it ought to limit its application, particularly among people like myself, and other arm chair economists who don't really know what they're talking about, i.e. the GOP caucus.

Spain at this time is an interesting nation.  In fact, it's not really one nation, but the remnants of the Roman Empire, elements of the Hapsburg Empire, the Emirate of Cordova, and their inheritors, the nations of Castille and Leon.  Add to that mix, are two important trading cities, Burgos and Sevilla, two important ports, and two important products, Silver and Wool, and you get a very interesting mix.  Medieval Spain was incredibly diverse, and this diversity was not uncommon in Europe where the remnants of invading armies had left bastards, new patriarchs, and new lines all over the map.  So looking back on this era as a time of free capitalism just isn't accurate.  In Spain, the wool merchants vied for supremacy, and in some respect it was their avarice that disabled competition and lead to vast monopolies of trade, which ultimately would destroy the very instruments that a modern economy needed to survive. 

Medieval trade was all about monopolies.  And it worked well initially.  The government needed a secure tax base.  How to accomplish?  Having various guilds and agencies of the state which faciliated and eliminated the competition for a few commercial interests insured a stable tax base for the state.  However, the state became enslaved to that tax base since it was the merchants who collected the tax.  So when the government started taking out loans to pay for supplies to the colonies and to protect them from privateers, the were kept in good behavior by the same commercial interests they had built up in the first place.  How could they not?  To actually regulate would have caused a certain amount of instability, but to keep things as they were was stable only in so far as at least you could see the cliff you were about to dive off.

And so we are now, in a similar position.  Frank Rich's Sunday Op-Ed pointed this out about our current fiscal crisis.  Two years later, and the only financial industry type to swing, was Bernie Madoff, who had nothing to do with the crisis whatsoever, and was merely a symptom of the shortsightedness and greed of the financiers who have largely escaped unscathed, and certainly, unapologetic.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Scientology and Other Idiot Talk

I'm not too interested in Scientology other than in the cult aspect of it.  But I'm reading that article from The New Yorker and I saw a quote I just had to share.  Paul Haggis recently dropped Scientology because of its conflicting messages regarding homosexuality.  Paul Haggis is a smart guy, and I've liked many of his movies.  But that an intelligent man could say something as inane as this...

“There was a feeling of camaraderie that was something I’d never experienced—all these atheists looking for something to believe in, and all these loners looking for a club to join.”

Huh?  An atheist looking for something to believe in is a contradiction in terms.  Loners looking for a club to join...come on.  I'm both.  I'm an atheist because I could give. a. shit. And I'm a loner, whose joined clubs because I liked what the club did, not the people, or the comraderie.  In fact, I sit by myself and specifically tried to talk to as few people as possible.  Most of the clubs I've belonged to have served alcohol.  That's a draw too.

Haggis was a disturbed young man, dropping out of school, having limited social success, Scientology helped him.  Bully for him. 

Religion prays on people who need people.  I need only one person.  And I have her.