Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Midlife crisis economics?

Like Paul Krugman, I find myself in deep disagreement with this pessimistic column by David Brooks. Brooks compares our own time unfavorably with the era of the Great Depression, when, he alleges, the economy was in its "adolescence" and its underlying potential to create mass prosperity was far greater than it is today. Krugman makes the simple but important observation that a similar attitude of defeatism was widespread during the 1930s, only to be rapidly turned around with the wartime recovery and subsequent postwar expansion. In Krugman's view, a substantial boost to aggregate demand is all the anti-depressant our depressed economy needs (presumably something other than World War III would be the best prescription).

There are other serious problems with Brooks's diagnosis. One claim is that the structure of the global economy today is much more prone to generating severe inequality in advanced countries than it was in the 1930s. Perhaps, but the data suggest otherwise to me: Top income shares were just as high in the 1930s as they are today. The following diagram, downloaded from the fantastic World Top Incomes Database page, tracks the top 1 and 10 percent shares in the United States:

Judging from this chart, as of the late 1930s you might have concluded that a profoundly unequal distribution of income was built into the very DNA of the U.S. economy. The ensuing four decades would prove you wrong, obviously.

The regulations that Brooks decries as creating a "lack of institutional effectiveness" have made the United States a much cleaner, healthier, and safer place to live. These improvements are not counted in conventional GDP or income measures, but they are every bit as real as a hamburger, haircut, or iPhone. Of course regulation could be smarter and more efficient. But do we really want less of it?

There are undoubtedly very real challenges facing that U.S. economy that did not exist in the 1930s. Health care costs are indeed outrageous and rising without any clear plan for controlling them. Advances in educational attainment have stagnated. Inequality has returned to Depression-era levels. Climate change is coming on faster than anticipated. Some of these problems we know how to fix and have chosen not to; others we are not so sure. Personally I have little doubt that the richest and most technologically advanced country in the history of humanity could get it all done, with a mix of can-do political will and technocratic competence. What most depresses me is how many people seem to mistake the current mix of political dysfunction and malignity for a genuine crisis of possibilities.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Some good news for fish

Not all the environmental news is gloom and doom. Nice to see Yao Ming sticking up for the sharks.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Oh no!

Far be it from me to suppose that a couple of dudes who can't get it together sufficiently to file a few signatures by a well-known deadline may not be the best choice to be elected the leader of the free world.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Ron Paul has some political views that I find attractive, such as his (relative) anti-militarism, and his opposition to drug prohibition. On the majority of issues, however, he is a crackpot, or worse. And he is too cowardly or slimy to own the truly ugly statements that have been made in his name; whether he agreed with them or just didn't care enough to do anything about them, they are equally as damning and disqualifying.

Mittens is looking better every day.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 6

Louis Armstrong is the one jazz musician who had an indisputable claim to being first-rank in two distinct instruments: trumpet and vocals. He is also the most important American musician (period). So why not treat yourself to an album on which both of his instrumental gifts are amply displayed, and the music is altogether irresistible?

Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (Columbia Jazz).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kim Jong-il + Vaclav Havel = 0

In my more optimistic moments, I'd probably say > 0.

Harakiri (1962)

Masaki Kobayashi's very fine film Harakiri is not subtle in its critique of authoritarianism, nor in the stark contrast it draws between individual moral virtue and a corrupted code of honor. The basic plot, in which a single good man stands up to abusive power, is well-worn, and a staple of action movies from Shane to Bourne. But Harakiri messes with genre expectations and is rich in sub-themes; it also resonates in various ways with the politics of our own time.

At one level this is a simple tale of vengeance, but there are ironic and unexpected twists. Our avenging impoverished ronin hero, Tsugumo, turns the tables on his enemies, the Iyi clan, not primarily by drawing their blood but by using their own code to disgrace and humiliate them.

As in many classic westerns, the manly public sphere of action, honor, and violence is contrasted with the feminine sphere of family and domesticity. Yet in another poignant reversal, the widower Tsugumo finds himself filling the role not only of father but of mother as well, as he cares for his weakening, consumptive daughter and her sickly young son.

The plot unfolds slowly through storytelling and flashbacks, steadily building tension and suspense. The acting is strikingly naturalistic, especially in comparison with what one has grown to expect from the classic Kurosawa samurai films of the same period. Tatsuya Nakadai, as Tsugumo, is a commanding presence. The wide-screen black-and-white cinematography is exceptionally beautiful, sequences of carefully framed stills of courtyards and interiors juxtaposed with dramatic facial close-ups, wind-whipped grass, and swordplay. The music, by the great composer Toru Takemitsu, evokes both ancient and modern.

I think I'll watch it again.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

More rat nests

Some very fine work (by the rats, not necessarily the photographer). See the other highlights of today's hike here.

From Woodrat project, vol. 2

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

I eagerly read his column in The Nation back before he and the magazine parted ways over his enthusiasm for the disastrous Bush-Cheney war in Iraq. I have never been a fan of his proselytizing brand of atheism, despite my sympathies for the cause. One suspects he was, in sum, an asshole. We were fortunate to have him around, and will miss him now he's gone.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good news for chimps

It won't satisfy everyone, but this is good news. That chimps deserve "special consideration and respect" seems obviously correct to me, and not because they share most of their genes with us, but because they have moral standing. How do I know that? I know it when I see it. You do too. Or if not, let Peter Singer convince you.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 5

I lived in Cincinnati for about a year when I was 6-ish. I have very fond memories. And now it's home to the best rock band in the world. Who knew?!

The studio albums have a fantastic sound, but the songs stand on their own, even when performed in an RV...

Monday, December 12, 2011


There are many great animal builders on our planet, but very few of them are mammals, with the notable exception of our own species. Beyond humans, beavers are certainly the best known. But pound for pound our local dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes) gives the beaver a run for its money. Woodrats build conical dens from sticks and twigs that can be a meter or more in height, and just as big across... not bad for a critter that is, well, rat-size.

The woodrat is alleged to be a solitary creature, which makes the relative scale of the den all the more impressive. How do they do it, and why? Solitary notwithstanding, the dens are often found in groups not far from one another, stick huts in a woodsy village. One can't help thinking there is some kind of secret nocturnal social life going on here after all.

As engineers, woodrats are opportunists, taking advantage of brush piles, fallen trees, and thickets to provide support for their structures. As a consequence, getting a clear line for a photo can be a challenge. On the other hand, there is a kind of busy, chaotic beauty to the setting of most woodrat dens. My first attempt to capture this beauty, including the following, can be found here. I expect it won't be my last.

From Woodrat project, vol. 1

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My favorite radio DJ

Saturday afternoons had just not been the same since Trinity stopped doing her regular show on KFJC... until I found something even better: New World Disorder, with Sadie O., on KZSU. Frankly, Sadie herself has an obnoxious voice, and talks a little too much. But Sadie, take no offense, because you make up for it by having the best damn taste in music out there. Eclecticism in the best possible sense. Unfortunately, this being the Stanford station, Sadie is sometimes preempted by a sporting event. Too bad. Give it a listen (they stream): you'll surely hear something fantastic you've never heard before...

Friday, December 9, 2011

David Montgomery, 1927-2011

There's little question that Montgomery's influential studies painted a vivid picture of the complex political culture and shopfloor experiences of American workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet what exactly was there in the new labor history that an aspiring young economic historian interested in labor markets could use? Deep description, yes, but tainted by a certain willful ignorance of the overall record of market capitalism in (eventually) raising living standards and opportunities. To me, the contrast between the approach taken by the mainstream of my discipline and that taken by the historians (and some radical economists) remains an unbridged divide, one that raises an unanswered and profound question: What is the relative importance of power vs. opportunity in shaping the lives and prospects of ordinary people?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Strange bedfellows

The Complete Tony Bennett/ Bill Evans Recordings captures the famous collaboration of these two giants of American music in 1975 and 1976. Tony Bennett is a great pop vocalist, but as much cabaret as jazz, while Bill Evans is the most understated and intellectual of jazz pianists. Does it work? More often than you'd expect. "Waltz for Debbie," originally an Evans instrumental masterpiece, becomes something of an embarrassment when put to words. But then, "We'll Be Together Again" is divine, sending a chill. To my ear, it's a piano album. Four years later, Evans would be dead, of "the longest suicide in history." On the other hand, Tony B, it seems, is immortal.