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I doubt there’s ever been a bridge built without some money being lost to corruption. So accepted a practice it is that hardly a voice is raised provided the bridge gets built and it’s not a bridge to nowhere. But war isn’t business, or at least it shouldn’t be, and what went on in Iraq wasn’t mere malfeasance on the way to a completed project but a massive defrauding of the American people. In a New York Review of Books piece, Charles Simic reminds that as outrageous as some CEOs and bankers are, war contractors are even worse. An excerpt:

“What makes a career in white-collar crime so attractive is that there are so few risks anymore. Everyone knows about Wall Street bankers having their losses from various scams they concocted over the years covered by taxpayers. But now, even when bankers lose billions for their bank by making bad or reckless deals, or have to pay regulatory penalties, as Jamie Dimon, the current chairman, president, and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase did earlier this year, they are more likely to get a 74 percent raise, as he did, than to lose their jobs. As for the federal agencies that are supposed to watch over them and the Justice Department that is supposed to haul these hucksters into court, if they so much as bestir themselves to confront the banks, they simply ask them to pay fines, thereby avoiding a judge or a jury and making sure that the details of their swindles can remain secret from the public.

As dishonest as Wall Street is, it doesn’t compare to the kind of thievery that went on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once upon a time, war profiteers were looked at as the lowest of the low and condemned by presidents. ‘Worse than traitors in arms are the men who pretend loyalty to the flag, feast and fatten on the misfortunes of the Nation while patriotic blood is crimsoning the plains of the South and their countrymen mouldering in the dust,’ warned Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. ‘I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster,’ declared Franklin Roosevelt as the United States entered World War II.

Yet today, according to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, an independent, bipartisan legislative commission established to study wartime contracting, somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion of US government money has been lost through contract waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is now common knowledge that contractors were paid millions of dollars for projects that were never built, that the Defense Department gave more than $400 billion to companies that had previously been sanctioned in cases involving fraud, and that the beneficiaries of such past largesse have not only gotten fabulously wealthy, but continue to be invited to pursue lucrative business opportunities in the new homeland security–industrial complex.”


All good citizens must be on alert for injustices, but I don’t think all good artists need be, at least not in their work. Inspiration is what it is, and a thing of beauty shouldn’t be discounted regardless of its topic. But I still enjoyed A.O. Scott’s New York Times roundtable about the role of creative people addressing race and class and other social issues. In the following excerpt, playwright Lisa D’Amour discusses the extreme difficulty of living in a city like New York as a starving artist. The economist Tyler Cowen has predicted that in the future, poorer Americans will be completely priced out of bustling cities, and while I don’t agree with that, I have to admit that many of the most interesting people I’ve met here have moved elsewhere, refusing the shoebox and the second-class status. 


A.O. Scott:

How do you think economic and other changes — growing inequality, the recession, digital technology — have affected the way artists work? What new obstacles and opportunities do you see?

Justin Torres:

To pretend that a robust middle class is good for everyone is a convenient justification of entrenched inequality; a robust middle class is good for the middle class. And the further you move up into the higher echelons of the middle class, the less you consider those below in real ways, the more remote the dramas of their lives seem.

Patricia Lockwood:

It would be silly to say that artists are poorer than they used to be. It’s been a hazard for us historically, and it’s a hazard now. However, we have entry now to an infinite library and an infinite community. Artists, too, tend to see where the dollar is strong and drift there. They’re capable of taking scrabbling, small advantage of a rich country’s misfortune, because they live in the cracks.

Justin Simien:

Raising the money to tell stories that are designed to do anything besides strictly entertain masses of people has always been difficult. What I have noticed in my industry is that the degree of distribution and promotion is tied to economic formulas used by studios to evaluate the worthiness of one project over the other. These formulas often function like self-fulfilling prophecies. The belief that a certain kind of film won’t make money leads to limits on its budget, distribution and promotion that will reinforce that belief.

David Simon:

The revenue stream for what I do is less and less guaranteed to the entities that fund my productions. The democratization of the digital age offers notable benefits, but nonetheless poses an equally extraordinary threat to the highest end in a variety of media. “Information wants to be free” is the cry of so many new-media mavens. But I’ve scanned my production budgets — which are far from the most costly outlays for HBO and Time Warner — and, hey, information is not free, at least not the information that I create.

Lisa D’Amour:

It is nearly impossible now to live in a city with a part-time “money job” and the rest of your week to discover your art. If you wake up every morning in a panic about money and security, it shuts down a lot of opportunity for creativity. This sentiment, of course, opens up a whole can of worms about privilege and who is allowed to take the risks of art making. I’m white and grew up middle class (academic dad, high school teacher mom). They rarely supported me financially in my art making, but they always supported me emotionally. I always had a stable home to return to, if the whole art making thing fell apart.”•

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In a Financial Times piece critical of both President Obama and his neocon adversaries, Philip Stephens takes a sobering look at a potentially nuclear Iran. An excerpt:

“At West Point, Mr Obama insisted that the US remains the indispensable nation. This is true as far it goes – American military might is unmatched and there are not many serious conflicts one can imagine being settled without US engagement. But if Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria prove anything it is that it is also the insufficient superpower.

Republican critics will doubtless step up the charge that Mr Obama is not tough enough against adversaries. Yet those same critics have elevated tax cuts above defence spending in the sequestration process to cut the budget deficit. Bluff posturing comes cheap, but America is not in the mood to fight more wars.

The US approach to Iran’s nuclear programme has measured up to the facts of the new order. The uncomfortable truth, denied by Washington hawks, is that if the regime in Tehran is determined to acquire a nuclear weapon there is not much anyone else, including the indispensable nation, can do about it. The international community can raise the cost of such a programme with sanctions. It could delay it by starting another Middle East war. But if Iran wants the bomb it can get it.

Things may yet come to war, but the only real hope of a nuclear-free Iran lies in persuading its leaders they have more to gain without the bomb.”


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Those dubious domestic missions, the Wars on Drugs and Crime and Terrorism, have preyed on American fears, allowing for the militarization and emboldening of police forces, which, when unloosed in a racially divided society, leads to a body count and heartbreak, as we’ve seen in Ferguson. At such times, when it seems a continued open season on black males, when prosecutors and police officers try to keep their stories straight but end up sounding crooked, when a dunderhead like Don Lemon is allowed to glibly speak his dangerous ignorance into the camera, it’s incumbent upon good people to address the obvious. From “Officer Darren Wilson’s Story Is Unbelievable. Literally.” by Ezra Klein does at Vox:

“There are inconsistencies in Wilson’s story. He estimates that Brown ran 20-30 feet away from the car and then charged another 10 feet back towards Wilson. But we know Brown died 150 feet away from the car.

There are also consistencies. St Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch said that Brown’s DNA was found inside Wilson’s car, suggesting there was a physical altercation inside the vehicle. We know shots were fired from inside the car. We know Brown’s bullet wounds show he was only hit from the front, never from the back.

But the larger question is, in a sense, simpler: Why?

Why did Michael Brown, an 18-year-old kid headed to college, refuse to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk? Why would he curse out a police officer? Why would he attack a police officer? Why would he dare a police officer to shoot him? Why would he charge a police officer holding a gun? Why would he put his hand in his waistband while charging, even though he was unarmed?

None of this fits with what we know of Michael Brown. Brown wasn’t a hardened felon. He didn’t have a death wish. And while he might have been stoned, this isn’t how stoned people act. The toxicology report did not indicate he was on PCP or something that would’ve led to suicidal aggression.

Which doesn’t mean Wilson is a liar. Unbelievable things happen every day. The fact that his story raises more questions than it answers doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

But the point of a trial would have been to try to answer these questions. We would have either found out if everything we thought we knew about Brown was wrong, or if Wilson’s story was flawed in important ways. But now we’re not going to get that chance. We’re just left with Wilson’s unbelievable story.”

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Putin the profligate, who’s led Russia in frittering away two vital decades, when the country could have remade and modernized itself with Soviet Era oil money before the supply dwindled and prices collapsed, is well chronicled. Putin the plunderer, the plutocrat, the Kremlin kleptocrat, has also been profiled, but not nearly as often, as retribution for bringing such trespasses to light is heavy. From Rajan Menon’s New York Times book review of Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha: 

“He may cop to being an authoritarian (he boasts of building a strong state), a nationalist (he wears a cross, preaches patriotism and praises the Orthodox Church) and an empire builder (he brags about retaking Crimea and is unapologetic about seeking a sphere of influence). But the accusation that he’s a common crook, or even an uncommon one, is different — and a charge he doesn’t treat lightly. That’s why Russian reporters avoid it, especially as political controls have tightened, and why Dawisha’s original publisher, Cambridge University Press, declined to print the book on the advice of its lawyers worried about the possibility of legal action.

The true tragedy is that corruption, state-sponsored, energy-driven and totaling hundreds of billions annually, has mortgaged Russia’s future. Freedom has withered. Money for the investments urgently needed to make Russia innovative and prosperous has been diverted to enrich a few.

Alas, that’s what kleptocracies do.”

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Foxconn is investing massively in one million robots, hoping to remove from its factories much of the pesky human element, that thing which has caused it so much consternation, and other corporations which have relied on cheap Asian labor are following suit. What are the ramifications for the individual laborer and the global economy? From Sam Becker at Business Cheat Sheet:

“You can’t really blame companies like Nike or Foxconn for what they’re doing — after all, they’re businesses, and their job is to turn a profit for shareholders and the company’s owners. That’s why they exist. They do not exist to supply jobs. However, the jobs that big companies like these do add to the economy are immensely important to the integrity of society as a whole.

So what happens when they start to disappear? Obviously, these disappearing positions will have a giant economic effect on developing nations, particularly countries that have been used for cheap labor over the past few decades. Many of the world’s struggling nations that depend on large influxes of capital investment and jobs from American and European companies are going to face some tough situations as automation continues to spread, as they have built their economic backbone as popular choices for companies looking to outsource.

It looks like the other shoe is about to drop, and they will now experience the same situation many Americans were faced with a decade or two before them. The question is, what will the ultimate fallout from that be? We’re talking about the possibility of tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of workers losing their jobs over the next two decades, if things continue to pick up.

While we have always heard of a future in which robots would be handling most of the labor, it’s hard to think that most people pictured it in the way that things seem to be heading. Sure, automated work forces will be handling many of the world’s tasks in a relatively short amount of time, ushering in a new era of prosperity and leisure for the masses. The problem is that that prosperity hasn’t been shared, and many of the world’s poor and middle classes will end up scrambling to make ends meet as a result.

It’s unclear what the endgame of this dramatic shift from human labor to automation will be, but it’s clear that we are in the early stages of it. What policymakers and economists will need to do is to figure out how the vast majority of the planet’s masses will care for themselves if there is suddenly a huge shortage of work and opportunity.


Vladimir Putin is a twentieth-century figure trapped in the wrong age, a man out of time, seemingly making shit up as he goes along, and now he’s really stepped in it, though because of his absolute rule there have been thus far no consequences for him, just for the country. From the Economist:

“MALINA, a trendy restaurant in a city south of Moscow, was empty on a recent Thursday evening. ‘A crisis,” the manager explained nervously. Some meat and fish dishes were missing. ‘Sanctions,’ he added with a sigh. The signs of a country in the economic doldrums are visible in Moscow, too. Tour operators are going out of business; shops and small businesses are up for sale; LED displays outside bureaux de change send spirits sinking.

Russia’s economy is teetering on the verge of recession. The central bank says it expects the next two years to bring no growth. Inflation is on the rise. The rouble has lost 30% of its value since the start of the year, and with it the faith of the country’s businessmen. Banks have been cut off from Western capital markets, and the price of oil—Russia’s most important export commodity—has fallen hard. Consumption, the main driver of growth in the previous decade, is slumping. Money and people are leaving the country.

This is not the mid-1980s, when a collapse in the oil price paved the way for perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor is it 1998, when the country defaulted on its debts. While the overall mood is clearly depressed, it is a long way from panic. Russia’s total foreign debt is just 35% of GDP; it has a private sector which can be surprisingly agile and adaptable and is contributing some growth by substituting things made at home for imported goods; most importantly, it has a floating exchange rate that mitigates some of the oil-price shock.

But the oil-backed consumption-led economy which has provided nearly 15 years of growth (it took a stumble in 2008-09, during the global financial crisis) has hit the buffers.”


Peggy Noonan, who will tell you how to be an American, you stupid, loves reading the tea leaves or some such bullshit, explaining how the nation feels, based on her own ideology and false narratives. Her latest WSJ opinion piece is a real spectacle, calling for making boys into men by teaching them how to toxify the country, a place which is home, after all, to the skeleton of Ronald Reagan. Having a federal job program for unemployed people that builds or rebuilds infrastructure would be great, humanistically and economically, but it needn’t shouldn’t revolve around a certain pipeline. From Simon Malloy at Salon:

“Noonan also shared her thoughts on the Keystone XL pipeline, which … well, here, just read it:

And there is the Keystone XL pipeline and the administration’s apparent intent to veto a bill that allows it. There the issue is not only the jobs the pipeline would create, and not only the infrastructure element. It is something more. If it is done right, the people who build the pipeline could be pressed to take on young men—skill-less, aimless—and get them learning, as part of a crew, how things are built and what it is to be a man who builds them.

On top of that, the building of the pipeline would show the world that America is capable of coming back, that we’re not only aware of our good fortune and engineering genius, we are pushing it hard into the future. America’s got her hard-hat on again. America is dynamic. ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.; Not just this endless talk of limits, restrictions, fears and ‘Oh, we’re all going to melt in the warm global future!’

I am completely at a loss for why Keystone XL, among the many construction jobs available to young men (but not women, apparently), would be uniquely capable of transforming ‘skill-less, aimless’ young men into real American manly men of manly valor. Apparently the pipeline will carry not just horribly toxic tar-sands oil, but also good old-fashioned American gumption (imported from Canada).

And I’m absolutely baffled at the suggestion that the world will stand up and take notice of American engineering and dynamism because we successfully built a long metal pipe.”

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I’m really going to enjoy the Buckwild Obama of the last two years of his Administration. The President has always been playing the long game, and though some announced his Presidency as “over” even before the Democratic losses in the recent mid-terms, he’s continued moving forward with his policies and now really has no reason to listen to the shouting people on the TV box. With immigration reform, he’s also put his opponents on their heels. From Noam Schrieber at The New Republic:

“Intellectually, of course, conservatives understand the importance of sticking to procedural objections even here. They can read polls as well as the rest of us. And the polls say that while Americans overwhelmingly favor the substance of Obama’s preferred immigration reforms, they also oppose enacting the reform by way of executive fiat.

No surprise then that the conservative message machine has gone on at length about the ‘constitutional crisis’ the president is instigating. The right has compared Obama to a monarch (see here and here), a Latin American caudillo, even a conspirator against the Roman Republic. (Ever melodrama much?) The rhetoric gets a little thick. But if you boil it down, the critique is mostly about Obama’s usurpation of power and contempt for democratic norms, not the substance of his policy change. Some Republicans no doubt believe it. 

And yet, try as they might to stick to the script, there’s something about dark-skinned foreigners that sends the conservative id into overdrive. Most famously, there’s Iowa Congressman Steve King’s observation last year that for every child brought into the country illegally ‘who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.’

While King tends to be especially vivid in his lunacy, he’s no outlier.”

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Income inequality may not end up being the primary economic challenge of these automated times, but it certainly is a glaring symptom of a lot of problems. From Suzanne McGee at the Guardian:

“Which would you think would be larger for Ford Motor, a company that last year reported revenues of $139.4b: the taxes it pays the US federal government or the compensation it pays its CEO?

If you picked option B, congratulations – you may be cynical, but you’re right. Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO, pocketed a compensation package that totaled $23.2m while Ford itself got a US federal tax refund of $19m.

And Ford isn’t the only company to pay its CEO more than it forked over to Uncle Sam.

Seven of the country’s 30 largest corporations paid more to their CEOs than they did in taxes last year, according to a just-released study by the Center for Effective Government and the Institute for Policy Studies.

At the same time, Citigroup qualified for a $260m tax refund from the IRS, thanks to a special waiverthat enabled it to capture the full tax benefits of buying unprofitable businesses. This could be a tax gift that keeps on giving, as the bank has been on a tear to keep earning more to take full advantage of the provision.

The rift between tax burden and executive pay for big companies is ‘getting worse,’ says Scott Klinger, director of revenue and spending policies at the Center for Effective Government.”

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A strong central government is often made out to be the enemy in America, but I doubt Mexicans would agree. Our neighboring nation isn’t all bad news–there are some positive economic signs–but an illicit and decrepit system of governance, oftentimes merely a marriage of politicians on the make and men with guns, has allowed for horrors. From Marian Blasberg and Jens Glüsing’s Spiegel article about the disappeared 43 student teachers who were likely killed by gangsters on the orders of a local mayor:

“After more than an hour, they reach a remote village where a roadblock brings the convoy to a halt. A dozen armed men approach and indicate that they should get out of their vehicles.

[Civilian militia leader Cristóforo] García turns off the engine and he and his group suddenly find themselves standing at an intersection surrounded by men with a distrustful look in their eyes. And once again, nobody knows who is behind the masks worn by the others.

“What do you want here?” demands an older man in a sombrero who appears to be their leader.

García explains that they are looking for the disappeared students but the man doesn’t believe him. Just a few minutes ago, the man says, a military convoy rolled through the village and points to a helicopter circling overhead. It looks as though they are carrying out an operation nearby. Perhaps they are once again looking for mass graves.

‘What do you have to do with them?’ the leader demands.

‘With this government?’ García asks. ‘Nothing. We don’t have a government. Do you?’ 

The man in the sombrero shakes his head. His village is called Tianquizolco and is home to a couple hundred indigenous farmers. As in other villages in Guerrero, they have founded their own police force. Someone has to protect us, the man in the sombrero says, adding that people disappear from here all too often as well.

Then, suddenly, the situation changes. The distrust between the two groups vanishes at the moment that the military convoy tries to pass through the village a second time. Together, the two groups block the way and stop the vehicles. The entire village is now in an uproar. The man in the sombrero demands that the military present identification, but they don’t have any documents with them.”

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A little more insight into the online recruitment methods of the Islamic State, which employs both medieval barbarism and new-school social networks, from Britta Sandberg’s Spiegel interview with former FBI agent Ali Soufan:


Do you know how many people are working in the IS propaganda department?

Ali Soufan:

We do know that a whole army of bloggers, writers and people who do nothing else other than to watch social media are working for IS. According to our research, most are based in the Gulf region or North Africa. The program was started by Abu Amr Al-Shami, a Syrian born in Saudi Arabia. And we know that at one point more than 12,000 Twitter accounts were connected to IS. This is one of the unique tactics used by this group: the decentralization of its propaganda work. The Islamic State has maximized control of its message by giving up control of its delivery. This is new.


What does that mean in reality?

Ali Soufan:

They use, for example, these so-called ‘Twitter bombs’ by following the most popular hashtags on the social media service, like the one for the 2014 World Cup. They send out messages using those hashtags so that everybody following the hashtag #worldcup will receive messages from IS, even if they aren’t interested in it.


And this method is successful? They are recruiting among World Cup football fans?

Ali Soufan:

There are millions and millions of people around the world who will get the message. They have amazing reach, but only hope to have an impact on 1 or 2 percent of the targeted population. In June 2014 they had only 12,000 foreign fighters, but today there are 16,000 foreign fighters within IS. They include recruits from China, Indonesia and, of course, Europe as well. They send their messages in many different languages, even Dutch.”

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At his Financial Times blog, Andrew McAfee talks about the plunging “red line” of Labor’s portion of earnings, accelerating in the wrong direction as automation permeates the workplace. Robotics, algorithms and AI will make companies more profitable and shareholders richer, but job seekers (and holders) will suffer. And going Luddite will help no one in the long run. An excerpt:

“I expect the red line to continue to fall as robots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and the many other technologies that until recently were the stuff of science fiction, permeate industry after industry. Policies intended to keep these advances out of a country might halt the decline of the labour share for a while, but they’d also halt competitiveness pretty quickly, thus leaving both capital and labour worse off.

I think the continued decline of the labour share, brought on by tech progress, will be a central dynamic, if not the central dynamic, of the world’s economies and societies in the 21st century. It’s a story much more about what will happen to the livelihood of the 50th percentile worker than to the wealth of the 1 per cent. And a much more important story.”


As beautiful as the plans are, it’s concerning that a billionaire like Barry Diller can decide to build by fiat (and with $40 million in public funds) a lavish park off Manhattan at the pier where Titanic survivors came to shore, and for that reason it’s dubious. Just as interesting: Dial back just a little over two years ago to another waterlogged disaster, when Hurricane Sandy struck the city, and imagine such an island scheme even being suggested then. The wonder at that point was whether Manhattan was long for this world. I guess, in some ways, it’s good we can forget tragedy, but we don’t want to forget entirely. From Oliver Wainwright at the Guardian:

“There’s a combination, it seems, of trees and water and fairytale stories told by a charming inventor, that persuades people to part with many millions – and allows conventional urban planning to be gleefully suspended.

No sooner has the cloud of fairydust surrounding London’s garden bridge proposal begun to settle – after Lambeth council granted half of it planning permission last week (Westminster, across the river, has yet to decide) – than Thomas Heatherwick has sown the seeds for a second magical park to sprout from a river, this time in New York.

It is another vision that could come straight from the set of Avatar – fecund flowerbeds erupting from mushroom-shaped columns, their canopies joining to support parkland above the water. But instead of two toadstools spanning the Thames, there will be a thicket of 300 fungi rising from five to 20 metres above the Hudson River to form an undulating platform of parks and performance spaces.

Replacing the crumbling ruin of Pier 54, where survivors of the Titanic landed, Heatherwick’s Pier 55 park promises to be a ‘place of discovery, where visitors can wander and wonder,’ with ‘places to lounge, eat lunch, or just lie in the grass,’ building on the appetite for al fresco lazing proven by the success of the nearby High Line park.”

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Michael Lewis has a different kind of take on wealth disparity in the U.S. In a New Republic review of Darrell M. West’s book Billionaires, Lewis remains circumspect that ridiculously prosperous Americans can win elections or influence issues, even in a nation defined by Citizens United and growing income inequality. (I don’t know that we’ve yet arrived at the endgame on that issue.) But he still thinks superwealth may make people assholes, or at the very least, uncaring and unhappy–that apart from money, they aren’t very rich. It’s a generalization, sure, though it’s difficult to imagine that being cosseted by a fortune wouldn’t alter a person’s worldview, wouldn’t allow them to arrange their reality as they wish, minus that helpful friction the rest of us encounter when we want our own way regardless of how it effects others. At any rate, Lewis comes armed with a trove of research by social scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists. An excerpt:

“What is clear about rich people and their moneyand becoming ever cleareris how it changes them. A body of quirky but persuasive research has sought to understand the effects of wealth and privilege on human behaviorand any future book about the nature of billionaires would do well to consult it. One especially fertile source is the University of California, Berkeley, psychology department lab overseen by a professor named Dacher Keltner. In one study, Keltner and his colleague Paul Piff installed note-takers and cameras at city street intersections with four-way stop signs. The people driving expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers than drivers of cheap cars. The researchers then followed the drivers to the city’s cross walks and positioned themselves as pedestrians, waiting to cross the street. The drivers in the cheap cars all respected the pedestrians’ right of way. The drivers in the expensive cars ignored the pedestrians 46.2 percent of the timea finding that was replicated in spirit by another team of researchers in Manhattan, who found drivers of expensive cars were far more likely to double park. In yet another study, the Berkeley researchers invited a cross section of the population into their lab and marched them through a series of tasks. Upon leaving the laboratory testing room the subjects passed a big jar of candy. The richer the person, the more likely he was to reach in and take candy from the jarand ignore the big sign on the jar that said the candy was for the children who passed through the department.

Maybe my favorite study done by the Berkeley team rigged a game with cash prizes in favor of one of the players, and then showed how that person, as he grows richer, becomes more likely to cheat. In his forthcoming book on power, Keltner contemplates his findings: 

If I have $100,000 in my bank account, winning $50 alters my personal wealth in trivial fashion. It just isn’t that big of a deal. If I have $84 in my bank account, winning $50 not only changes my personal wealth significantly, it matters in terms of the quality of my lifethe extra $50 changes what bill I might be able to pay, what I might put in my refrigerator at the end of the month, the kind of date I would go out on, or whether or not I could buy a beer for a friend. The value of winning $50 is greater for the poor, and, by implication, the incentive for lying in our study greater. Yet it was our wealthy participants who were far more likely to lie for the chance of winning fifty bucks.

There is plenty more like this to be found, if you look for it. A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: if you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people’s.”

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Sure, it’s nice that Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg and the like are philanthropic, but you have to pause and wonder why there’s such a desperate demand for CEO largesse. How much do corporate tax loopholes lead to the need? From Suzanne McGee at the Guardian:

“How liberal, really, are these boardroom liberals?

Mind you, these are the same people who squawk, very loudly, at any suggestion that the fees they collect for managing their funds should be taxed as ordinary income, instead of as capital gains.

They’ve been fighting for years any suggestion that their primary source of income should be taxed at the same higher rates as those people whom their philanthropy helps.

If the tax rate changes, those millionaires and billionaires would be paying an effective rate of 39%, rather than 20%. With that kind of tax revenue, perhaps the government wouldn’t be slashing away at social programs that now have to come, cap in hand, to the Robin Hood Foundation to ask for some of those refrigerator-sized checks. Then the philanthropists can make their decisions based on whatever personal criteria they find most compelling.

That’s not to take away from what the Robin Hood Foundation’s do-gooders accomplish. Without them, life would be a lot tougher for New York’s poorest citizens. Being a boardroom liberal may very well be better than being a boardroom tyrant, terrorizing your staff from the chief financial officer down to the guy in the mailroom.

But the reason boardroom liberals need to exist at all is the fact that the social safety net that once existed has collapsed, and while some of that can probably be traced to waste and mismanagement, another giant chunk is simply due to lack of resources.

Consider: US tax revenues are at their lowest rate since 1950, which means less money to fund government programs. At the same time, US income inequality is at its highest point since the Great Depression, meaning the rich are richer than they were even a few years go.”


Despite the best efforts of the Industrial Immortality Complex, I think it very likely that you and I and Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec and Michio Kaku and Marshall Brain and Aubrey de Grey will pass away this century, without the opportunity to choose forever. But that doesn’t mean that an everlasting arrangement of some sort–of many different sorts?–won’t be possible in the future. That might get interesting. From John G. Messerly at Salon:

“Now more than ever, the topic of death is marked by no shortage of diverging opinions. 

On the one hand, there are serious thinkers — Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Michio Kaku, Marshall Brain, Aubrey de Grey and others — who foresee that technology may enable humans to defeat death. There are also dissenters who argue that this is exceedingly unlikely. And there are those like Bill Joy who think that such technologies are technologically feasible but morally reprehensible.

As a non-scientist I am not qualified to evaluate scientific claims about what science can and cannot do. What I can say is that plausible scenarios for overcoming death have now appeared. This leads to the following questions: If individuals could choose immortality, should they? Should societies fund and promote research to defeat death?

The question regarding individuals has a straightforward answer: We should respect the right of autonomous individuals to choose for themselves. If an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy, then you should be free to use it. (My guess is that such a pill would be wildly popular! Consider what people spend on vitamins and other elixirs on the basis of little or no evidence of their efficacy.) Or if, as you approach death, you are offered the opportunity to have your consciousness transferred to a younger, cloned body, a genetically engineered body, a robotic body, or into a virtual reality, you should be free to do so.

I believe that nearly everyone will use such technologies once they are demonstrated as effective. But if individuals prefer to die in the hope that the gods will revive them in a paradise, thereby granting them reprieve from everlasting torment, then we should respect that too. Individuals should be free to end their lives even after death has become optional for them.

However, the argument about whether a society should fund and promote the research relevant to eliminating death is more complex.”


In writing disapprovingly in the New York Review of Books of Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Elizabeth Kolbert points out that the truth about climate change isn’t only inconvenient, it’s considered a deal-breaker, even by the supposedly green. An excerpt follows.


What would it take to radically reduce global carbon emissions and to do so in a way that would alleviate inequality and poverty? Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change, a group of Swiss scientists decided to tackle precisely this question. The plan they came up with became known as the 2,000-Watt Society.

The idea behind the plan is that everyone on the planet is entitled to generate (more or less) the same emissions, meaning everyone should use (more or less) the same amount of energy. Most of us don’t think about our energy consumption—to the extent we think about it at all—in terms of watts or watt-hours. All you really need to know to understand the plan is that, if you’re American, you currently live in a 12,000-watt society; if you’re Dutch, you live in an 8,000-watt society; if you’re Swiss, you live in a 5,000-watt society; and if you’re Bangladeshi you live in a 300-watt society. Thus, for Americans, living on 2,000 watts would mean cutting consumption by more than four fifths; for Bangladeshis it would mean increasing it almost by a factor of seven.

To investigate what a 2,000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person. Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.

The need to reduce carbon emissions is, ostensibly, what This Changes Everything is all about. Yet apart from applauding the solar installations of the Northern Cheyenne, Klein avoids looking at all closely at what this would entail. She vaguely tells us that we’ll have to consume less, but not how much less, or what we’ll have to give up. At various points, she calls for a carbon tax. This is certainly a good idea, and one that’s advocated by many economists, but it hardly seems to challenge the basic logic of capitalism. Near the start of the book, Klein floats the “managed degrowth” concept, which might also be called economic contraction, but once again, how this might play out she leaves unexplored. Even more confoundingly, by end of the book she seems to have rejected the idea. “Shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint,’” she writes, is “simply not an option today.”

In place of “degrowth” she offers “regeneration,” a concept so cheerfully fuzzy I won’t even attempt to explain it. Regeneration, Klein writes, “is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.”

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.•

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The most coveted international free agent in baseball right now is 19-year-old Yoan Moncada of Cuba, who seemingly didn’t defect, didn’t flee via flotilla, but was allowed to leave freely through the nation’s “front door” and can come and go as he pleases in the future. What does it all mean? Is it a political shift or a singular occurrence or is the story some sort of ruse? From Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs:

“I was told by Moncada’s agent last week that he was allowed by the Cuban government to leave the country, that Moncada has a Cuban passport and can fly back to the country whenever he wants to. I haven’t been able to formally confirm this, but there’s no reason for the agent to lie about it, and multiple high ranking club executives told me this is how they understand the situation at this point as well.

Take a moment and let that sink in. Countless dozens of ballplayers and hundreds of normal citizens have risked their lives to leave the island on makeshift boats and under the cover of darkness. The government apparently just let one of their best ballplayers in a long time just leave on a flight to Central America. There’s been plenty of unfounded speculation about how and why this happened, with some prominent executives still unclear on how it was even possible.

There are no indications what this could mean for the next wave of players that want to defect. Players were defecting in the old style just months ago, so it’s not like people knew this shift was happening. It could also not be a shift at all, as the story could be much more complicated than we know right now. Or it could just be a one-time deal. We don’t know. I didn’t want to report this until I had something concrete, but teams are debating how many tens of millions of dollars they want to spend on this phenom and they still don’t know how this happened or what it means, so it seems reasonable to report the confusion.”

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave Vladimir Putin his blessing for engagement in Ukraine twenty years in advance, and while Henry Kissinger doesn’t go that far, he is seriously sympathetic to the embattled Russian leader, who seems a twentieth-century figure unfortunately cast into the future, a man out of time. From a Q&A with the former Secretary of State conducted by Juliane von Mittelstaedt and Erich Follath of Spiegel:


So let’s talk about a concrete example: How should the West react to the Russian annexation of Crimea? Do you fear this might mean that borders in the future are no longer incontrovertible?

Henry Kissinger: 

Crimea is a symptom, not a cause. Furthermore, Crimea is a special case. Ukraine was part of Russia for a long time. You can’t accept the principle that any country can just change the borders and take a province of another country. But if the West is honest with itself, it has to admit that there were mistakes on its side. The annexation of Crimea was not a move toward global conquest. It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia.


What was it then?

Henry Kissinger:

One has to ask one’s self this question: Putin spent tens of billions of dollars on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The theme of the Olympics was that Russia is a progressive state tied to the West through its culture and, therefore, it presumably wants to be part of it. So it doesn’t make any sense that a week after the close of the Olympics, Putin would take Crimea and start a war over Ukraine. So one has to ask one’s self why did it happen?


What you’re saying is that the West has at least a kind of responsibility for the escalation?

Henry Kissinger:

Yes, I am saying that. Europe and America did not understand the impact of these events, starting with the negotiations about Ukraine’s economic relations with the European Union and culminating in the demonstrations in Kiev. All these, and their impact, should have been the subject of a dialogue with Russia. This does not mean the Russian response was appropriate.


It seems you have a lot of understanding for Putin. But isn’t he doing exactly what you are warning of — creating chaos in eastern Ukraine and threatening sovereignty?

Henry Kissinger:

Certainly. But Ukraine has always had a special significance for Russia. It was a mistake not to realize that.”


At the 15:40 mark of this episode of The Baseball of World of Joe Garagiola, we see Kissinger, who could only seem competent when standing alongside that block of wood Bowie Kuhn, being honored at Fenway Park before the second game of the sensational 1975 World Series.

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Staying the same is surest prescription for falling behind. Nations that didn’t enter the Industrial Age largely did not turn out well and still are playing catch-up. (To be fair, they also didn’t contribute to environmental devastation like the rest of us.) The countries that master the Digital Age will ensure themselves of wealth in the aggregate, though disparity may continue, technological unemployment and wage suppression might accelerate. At the far end of the dream is a better world, but how do we get there?

In his 1964 “Automation Song,” Phil Ochs, a singing journalist of sorts, greeted the roboticized future with alarm. At first blush, he seems to be communicating nostalgia for the past, but he’s also subtly calling for political solutions for tomorrow.


In a Spiegel interview conducted by Christoph Scheuermann, novelist Hilary Mantel discusses the state of contemporary Britain, which opted for austerity in the wake of the world economic crisis, a move which seems to have been penny wise and pound foolish, costing the country some political sanity. An excerpt:


How is the Britain of today different from the country you grew up in?

Hilary Mantel:

I was born into a working class family in a village near Manchester. My grandmother worked as a weaver in a mill when she was 12, my mother at 14. That was what you did: As soon as you left school, you had to work in the mill. By the time I was a child, the mills were closing and I was lucky to get a government grant for university. In the years after the war, both big parties, Labour and the Conservatives, were becoming ever-more centrist, drawing together on a social democratic path — a period known as the postwar consensus. Maybe it couldn’t have lasted, but we perceive Ms. Thatcher as the person who knocked it down. Going to university is a seriously expensive business now.


It seems as though Britain today wants to retreat from the world, as though it has become war-weary, disinterested in global affairs and obsessed with immigration. Where does this come from?

Hilary Mantel:

It’s a retreat into insularity, into a mood of harshness. When people feel they’re being mistreated, they lash out against people who are weaker than themselves, immigrants for example. What’s happening here at the moment is really ugly. The government portrays poor and unfortunate people as being morally defective. This is a return to the thinking of the Victorians. Even in the 16th century, Thomas Cromwell was trying to tell people that a thriving economy has casualties and that something must be done by the state for people out of work. Even back then, you saw the tide turning against this idea that poverty was a moral weakness. Who could have predicted that it would come back into style? It’s myth making on a grand scale, and it’s poisonous.


Is there a new form of nationalism emerging?

Hilary Mantel:

I’m not sure it’s nationalism pure and simple. But there is certainly a big turn to the right in government. The populist party UKIP (eds. Note: UKIP is demanding that Britain secede from the European Union.) is on the rise; it’s the party at the moment for people who are angry. They may not know what they’re angry about, but they’re going around declaring their intention to vote for UKIP as if that’s going to make everyone terrified. It’s like, I’m holding a hand grenade, can you see it?


Where does this anger come from?

Hilary Mantel:

Many people are poorer than they were five or six years ago. The last few years of austerity after the banking crisis have opened up a wider gap between rich and poor. It has taken quite a while for people to see that it wasn’t just a matter of a year or two. Transport, gas, electricity, housing: All those things that one must have are significantly more expensive. Wages remain low while the government is freezing and cutting benefits. Traditionally, working class voters would have turned to the Labour Party for remedy. But at the moment, they don’t feel that they can do that. There’s a mood of disaffection.”

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Following up on my argument that Kansans are what’s the matter with Kansas, and perhaps the awfulness of the state’s economy should be laid at their feet rather than those of Democratic or Republican politicians, here’s the opening of Luke Brinker’s Salon piece about state finances at the dawn of Brownback 2.0:

“Less than one week after Kansas voters narrowly reelected Gov. Sam Brownback despite the disastrous budgetary consequences of his massive tax cuts for the wealthy, state analysts announced Monday that the state’s fiscal outlook is even more dire than initially realized.

We’ve known for some time that Brownback’s supply-side experiment has been a big budget-buster. Thanks to the governor’s tax cuts, Kansas collected $330 million less revenue than expected for fiscal year 2014 — $700 million below revenue for fiscal 2013. Despite the Brownback administration’s assurances that the state’s fiscal picture would improve — any day now! — the state’s revenue from July to September came up an astonishing 10 percent short of expectations.

The numbers released yesterday are even worse.”

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President Lincoln was an early adopter of technology, but so unconnected were we in 1865, it took a dozen days for the news of his assassination to reach London. Reuters–then spelled “Reuter’s”–got the scoop, but there was no byline. What a byline that would have been to have.

From the Reuters site:

“After 12 days crossing the Atlantic, a Reuters report of the assassination of President Lincoln reaches London first, throwing European financial markets into turmoil. Reuter intercepted the mail boat off Ireland and telegraphed the news to London.”



Timothy Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term “net neutrality,” spoke on the topic with Nancy Scola of the Washington Post on the day President Obama strongly urged the FCC to treat the Internet as a public utility. An excerpt:


Even if you accept that Title II reclassification has the clearest legal runway, the politics of it have always seemed especially tricky for the FCC.

Timothy Wu:

Oh yeah. The law’s not hard. The politics are hard.


So what does Obama’s statement do to the politics?

Timothy Wu:

The FCC was leaning toward a slightly more compromised approach, and I suppose having the White House do this could leave them feeling like they have no allies and are unwilling to act for a while. I imagine they’re not very happy over there.


Chairman Wheeler’s statement on Obama’s move actually, seemed, well, pretty sassy. It emphasized how the FCC is an independent agency…

Timothy Wu:

I think the FCC had settled, and may still be settled, on a different way of using Title II. And without the White House on its side and with Congress against it, they’re kind of in that middle of the road area where you get run over. Politically, they’re stranded right now, and I’m not sure what that means from them. Wheeler seems to be indicating that they’re going to push the hold button on net neutrality, which could be a disappointing outcome if that hold button stays there for a very long time.


Their argument seems to be that they haven’t developed the record to be able to defend a Title II-based approach in court. But Title II has been around for 80 years.

Timothy Wu:

‘We don’t have the record yet’ is agency-speak for, ‘we gotta figure out what to do next.’ They can act without the White House and without Congress, but no one one in Washington likes to go it alone. It’s very precarious.”

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