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A more extreme way of looking at wealth inequality is not within nations but among them. In a Financial Times piece, Tim Harford argues the biggest lottery to win in life isn’t genetics or parentage but a fortunate patch of the map. An excerpt:

“I’ve been a lucky boy. I could start with the ‘boy’ fact. We men enjoy all sorts of privileges, many of them quite subtle these days, but well worth having. I’m white. I’m an Oxford graduate and I am the son of Oxbridge graduates….

Imagine lining up everyone in the world from the poorest to the richest, each standing beside a pile of money that represents his or her annual income. The world is a very unequal place: those in the top 1 per cent have vastly more than those in the bottom 1 per cent – you need about $35,000 after taxes to make that cut-off and be one of the 70 million richest people in the world. If that seems low, it’s $140,000 after taxes for a family of four – and it is also about 100 times more than the world’s poorest people have.

What determines who is at the richer end of that curve is, mostly, living in a rich country. Branko Milanovic, a visiting presidential professor at City University New York and author of The Haves and the Have-Nots, calculates that about 80 per cent of global inequality is the result of inequality between rich nations and poor nations. Only 20 per cent is the result of inequality between rich and poor within nations. The Oxford thing matters, of course. But what matters much more is that I was born in England rather than Bangladesh or Uganda.”


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The prison population in the United States is finally declining, thankfully, and at the Washington Post, Patricia O’Brien has a modest proposal for thinning that crowd even more: Stop incarcerating women, no matter the crime. Her suggestion is extreme, and we’d probably be better off just eliminating sentencing for most drug-possession crimes for both genders, though she does make some good points. An excerpt:

“Could women’s prisons actually be eliminated in the United States, where the rate of women’s incarceration has risen by 646 percent in the past 30 years? The context is different, but many of the arguments are the same.

Essentially, the case for closing women’s prisons is the same as the case for imprisoning fewer men. It is the case against the prison industrial complex and for community-based treatment where it works better than incarceration. But there is evidence that prison harms women more than men, so why not start there?

Any examination of the women who are in U.S. prisons reveals that the majority are nonviolent offenders with poor education, little employment experience and multiple histories of abuse from childhood through adulthood. Women are also more likely than men to have children who rely on them for support — 147,000 American children have mothers in prison.

Prison nation

The United States is a prison nation. More than 1.5 million people are incarcerated in the country. And this obsession with punishment is expensive. Cumulatively, states spend more than $52 billion a year on their prison systems. The federal government also spends tens of billions to police, prosecute and imprison people, though research demonstrates that incarceration harms individual well-being and does not improve public safety.

What purpose is served by subjecting the most disempowered, abused and nonviolent women to the perpetually negative environment of prisons?”


In a New York Times Magazine Q&A conducted by Jim Rutenberg, satirist Garry Trudeau describes his classmate George W. Bush’s undergraduate dalliance not with water(boarding) but fire:


You went to Yale with George W. Bush.

Garry Trudeau:

When I was a sophomore and W. was a senior, I illustrated an article for the newspaper about hazing at Bush’s fraternity — D.K.E. had been branding initiates with a red-hot iron. It became a national story. The Times assigned a reporter, who came up to New Haven and interviewed Bush. And Bush described the branding as no worse than a cigarette burn. His first interview in the national media was in defense of torture.”

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I hope we’re not going to get lectures about how Democrats lost so many states in the midterm elections because they didn’t communicate their message clearly enough, they didn’t find the “magic words.” Nothing presents more clarity than a family desperate for healthcare visiting doctors for the first time in years. You can’t be clearer than life and death. I don’t think those people have been “tricked” if they then choose to elect politicians desperate to take that benefit from them, as they did with Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Sure, it would have been great for the media to explain recently how universal healthcare lifts the threshold for a plague in America, imported or “home-grown,” than to engage in ceaseless fearmongering about Ebola, a virus yet to claim a single U.S. citizen on American soil. But I think the people get the media and government they deserve. If they want to vote their ideology and aspirations rather than their reality, that’s what going to happen. The matter with Kansas, at long last, may be Kansans. From Paul Krugman at the New York Times:

“But the biggest secret of the Republican triumph surely lies in the discovery that obstructionism bordering on sabotage is a winning political strategy. From Day 1 of the Obama administration, Mr. McConnell and his colleagues have done everything they could to undermine effective policy, in particular blocking every effort to do the obvious thing — boost infrastructure spending — in a time of low interest rates and high unemployment.

This was, it turned out, bad for America but good for Republicans. Most voters don’t know much about policy details, nor do they understand the legislative process. So all they saw was that the man in the White House wasn’t delivering prosperity — and they punished his party.

Will things change now that the G.O.P. can’t so easily evade responsibility? I guess we’ll find out.”


The opening of Tuan C. Nguyen’s Washington Post piece about Paralelní Polis, a Czechoslovakian cafe opened by crypto-anarchists in which the coin of the realm is virtual:

“Step inside the newest coffeehouse on Dělnická street in Prague and it doesn’t take long to notice that something’s amiss. There’s no cash register, nor a counter where customers would typically form a line.

Instead, you’ll find a long, wood slab table situated ever so slightly towards the left side of the room, where a wide selection of pastries, along with menus, plates, cups, utensils, jugs of water and an expresso machine can be found neatly laid out in the open.

Oddly enough, there’s something about the arrangement that’s refreshing, and at the same time, a bit disconcerting. Upon passing through the first time, my initial reaction was to quickly scan the room for any apron-wearing employee. And as the confusion intensified, so did the urge to grab a cup and, heck, whip up a latte myself.

Just as I began mulling over that very notion, a gentlemen with a tightly-trimmed beard and who looked to be in his 20’s, got up from a nearby table, where he had been seated with a couple of young women, and walked over to greet me.

‘I know the set-up can be sort of disorientating, but that’s the whole point,’ Michal Navrátil, operations manager and part-time barista, assured me. ‘The idea is that by not having uniforms, we also get rid of the imposed separation between patrons and workers.’

Paralelní Polis, which in Czech means ‘Parallel World,’ is known mostly for being perhaps the world’s first bitcoin-only cafe. All transactions — from wages to point of sale — are processed virtually, using one of the most well-recognized cryptocurrencies. More broadly though, the recently-renovated space, which includes a co-working room and hacker space, was conceived as way to demonstrate on a micro level how an entirely decentralized society might function.”

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Young people, their minds not yet made up, have always been the easiest to recruit, but there’s something different about ISIS poaching the impressionable for extremism, and it’s social networks being repurposed for anti-social behavior. France has been hardest hit, with nearly 1,000 teens and twentysomethings joining the Mideast madness. Two factors overlap many of the cases: The children were headed for careers which could have genuinely helped the world, and they’ve been drawn into the circle of hatred online. We’re all connected now, for better and worse. From Julia Amalia Heyer at Spiegel:

“The number of young people who have become radicalized and have disappeared is rising rapidly. More than 140 families have contacted Bouzar since January 2014.

Radicalization used to be limited to the poor and the uneducated, says Bouzar. Immigrants from Muslim backgrounds were usually the ones who joined jihadist groups. But the situation has changed today, she explains. ‘Now three-quarters of them come from atheist families.’ They include Christians and Jews, and almost all are from the middle class, with some coming from upper-class families, the children of teachers, civil servants and doctors. Bouzar is even familiar with a case involving an elite female university student. It also appears that more and more girls and young women are fantasizing about jihad.


The Internet and social networks make it easy to indoctrinate young people. In her research, Bouzar discovered that the French-speaking unit of the Al-Nusra Front actually employs headhunters to recruit young women and men.

The process of brainwashing usually follows the same principles, not unlike the approach taken by sects. First the victim, be it a boy or a girl, is isolated from his or her surroundings. The young people are pressured to sever all ties to family and friends. Then the indoctrination begins, through videos about genetically engineered food or alleged conspiracies. The goal is to make the victims believe that the world is evil and that only they have been chosen to make it a better place.

As a result of this brainwashing, the young women and men gradually lose their connection to everyday life and their old identities. Once a new identity has been created, they often see themselves as members of a chosen group of fighters for a better world.

Bouzar has found that the radicalized young women have a common trait: They are all interested in careers in social work or humanitarian aid.”


Two things about the midterm elections: It’s bizarre that a state with the population of Rhode Island has as many national senators as California. More representative of state demarcations than the people. Also: Many Americans still vote against their best interests, guided by their ideology rather than their reality. From Margot Sanger-Katz in the New York Times:

“In places where the uninsured rate plummeted this year, Republicans still scored big electoral victories.

Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia — states that saw substantial drops in the proportion of their residents without insurance all elected Republican Senate candidates who oppose the Affordable Care Act. Control of the West Virginia state House of Delegates flipped from Democrats to Republicans. And Arkansas elected Republican supermajorities to both houses of its legislature along with a Republican governor, a situation that could imperil the Medicaid expansion that helped more than 200,000 of its poorest residents get health insurance.”


From the February 12, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“After the death of the President, his body was carted about the nation in the world’s largest funeral march. A man was detailed daily to brush the dust from his face after he had lain in state in various cities.

His body was moved 19 times between the time of his burial and 1900.”


The Internet of Things is wonderful–and terrible. How valuable will be the aggregated information when all objects report back to the cloud and the network effect takes hold, and how impossible it will be to opt out, how unfortunately that information will sometimes be used. If we go from the ten million sensors currently connected to the Internet to 100 trillion by 2030 as theorist Jeremy Rifkin predicts, the next digital revolution will have taken place, with all the good and bad that entails. The opening of Sue Halpern’s New York Review of Books analysis of a slew of new titles about how tomorrow may find us all tethered:

“Every day a piece of computer code is sent to me by e-mail from a website to which I subscribe called IFTTT. Those letters stand for the phrase ‘if this then that,’ and the code is in the form of a ‘recipe’ that has the power to animate it. Recently, for instance, I chose to enable an IFTTT recipe that read, ‘if the temperature in my house falls below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, then send me a text message.’ It’s a simple command that heralds a significant change in how we will be living our lives when much of the material world is connected—like my thermostat—to the Internet.

It is already possible to buy Internet-enabled light bulbs that turn on when your car signals your home that you are a certain distance away and coffeemakers that sync to the alarm on your phone, as well as WiFi washer-dryers that know you are away and periodically fluff your clothes until you return, and Internet-connected slow cookers, vacuums, and refrigerators. ‘Check the morning weather, browse the web for recipes, explore your social networks or leave notes for your family—all from the refrigerator door,’ reads the ad for one.

Welcome to the beginning of what is being touted as the Internet’s next wave by technologists, investment bankers, research organizations, and the companies that stand to rake in some of an estimated $14.4 trillion by 2022—what they call the Internet of Things (IoT). Cisco Systems, which is one of those companies, and whose CEO came up with that multitrillion-dollar figure, takes it a step further and calls this wave ‘the Internet of Everything,’ which is both aspirational and telling. The writer and social thinker Jeremy Rifkin, whose consulting firm is working with businesses and governments to hurry this new wave along, describes it like this:

The Internet of Things will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform, continually feeding Big Data to every node—businesses, homes, vehicles—moment to moment, in real time. Big Data, in turn, will be processed with advanced analytics, transformed into predictive algorithms, and programmed into automated systems to improve thermodynamic efficiencies, dramatically increase productivity, and reduce the marginal cost of producing and delivering a full range of goods and services to near zero across the entire economy.

In Rifkin’s estimation, all this connectivity will bring on the ‘Third Industrial Revolution,’ poised as he believes it is to not merely redefine our relationship to machines and their relationship to one another, but to overtake and overthrow capitalism once the efficiencies of the Internet of Things undermine the market system, dropping the cost of producing goods to, basically, nothing. His recent book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, is a paean to this coming epoch.

It is also deeply wishful, as many prospective arguments are, even when they start from fact.”

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One thing that drove me crazy during the 2012 Presidential debates was Mitt Romney myopically (and incorrectly) stating that the government’s loan to Tesla Motors was a boondoggle. Not only are such investments wise for business, they’re also matters of national security. Whatever country wins the race to alternative energy and robotics and AI will be the most secure. In a blog post at the Financial Times, Andrew McAfee handicaps the potential leaders of, as he calls it, the Second Machine Age. The opening:

“How much should it worry Germany that the world’s coolest car company no longer hails from that country?

This question occurred to me as I sat in a meeting a short time ago with a senior figure responsible for Germany’s economic growth and future trajectory. He was confident that his country’s many strengths would allow it to continue to prosper, and to lead in what it has labelled ‘Industry 4.0.’ This is the anticipated fourth industrial revolution (after the ones powered by steam; electricity and the internal combustion engine; and the computer) during which the real and virtual worlds will merge.

I believe this merger is coming, and coming fast. But who’s going to lead it? Which country’s companies will grow by creating new markets and disrupting existing ones? These questions matter not just because national pride is at stake, but also because national prosperity is.

Consumers around the world will benefit no matter where the next set of profound innovations originates. To some extent the same is true for investors, who can now invest in markets and companies far from home. Citizens and workers, however, do best when their countries are the ones doing the most to create the future. These countries tend to grow more quickly, expanding the tax base, job opportunities, and overall affluence.

Because it was the birthplace of the first industrial revolution, Britain pulled away from the rest of Europe during the 19th century. America then took over, becoming the world’s largest and most productive economy at the start of the 20th century as it developed many of the breakthroughs of the second and third. Will the lead change hands again as we head into Industry 4.0, the Second Machine Age, or whatever you want to call it?”


You hear that Iran has sentenced a female activist to a year in prison for attending a men’s volleyball game, and it seems like the same old, a country trapped in oppressive patriarchy and backwardness. But there are some hopeful signs, both with negotiations over nukes at the top and in life below the surface. It’s hard to trust but equally difficult to completely turn away. From “The Revolution Is Over” in the Economist:

“For now, Iran is disliked and mistrusted across much of the democratic world. Terrible things have been done in the name of its revolution. Some of its leaders have denied the Holocaust. They have locked up and tortured citizens who dared to challenge them openly. The country really could be set on having a bomb. But while the world has been cut off from Iran, it has failed to notice how much Iranians have changed. No longer is the country seething with hatred and bent on destruction. Instead, the revolution has sunk into the disillusion and distractions of middle age. This is not always a nice place, perhaps, but not a Satanic one, either.

To be sure, Iran is hard to fathom. It often makes visitors feel unwelcome. Journalists who have been able to obtain a precious visa still leave with a sense of uncertainty as few Iranians feel free to speak their mind. For years the government even refused to share information with the World Bank. John Limbert, an American diplomat held hostage in Tehran in 1979 who served his country until 2010, points out that ‘almost nobody in Washington has been to Iran in decades.’

Yet the country has unmistakably changed. The regime may remain suspicious of the West, and drone on about seeding revolutions in oppressor countries, but the revolutionary fervour and drab conformism have gone. Iran is desperate to trade with whomever will buy its oil. Globalisation trumps puritanism even here.


Iran just 35 years ago:


Another Facebook “social experiment,” one which took place in 2012, saw the social-media company quietly manipulate users’ feeds, inserting more hard news, which apparently spurred more of the “subjects” to vote. The results are interesting, the methods dubious. From Micah L. Sifry at Mother Jones:

“Facebook has studied how changes in the news feed seen by its users—the constant drip-drip-drip of information shared by friends that is heart of their Facebook experience—can affect their level of interest in politics and their likelihood of voting. For one such experiment, conducted in the three months prior to Election Day in 2012, Facebook increased the amount of hard news stories at the top of the feeds of 1.9 million users. According to one Facebook data scientist, that change—which users were not alerted to—measurably increased civic engagement and voter turnout. 

Facebook officials insist there’s nothing untoward going on. But for several years, the company has been reluctant to answer questions about its voter promotion efforts and these research experiments. It was only as I was putting the finishing touches on this article that Facebook started to provide some useful new details on its election work and research.

So what has Facebook been doing to boost voter participation, and why should anyone worry about it?”


It was the strangest thing. In 1984, stories began to escape the San Diego Padres clubhouse about a trio of pitchers, Eric Show, Dave Dravecky and Mark Thurmond, who’d become devout members of the John Birch Society. A racist incident that postseason in the team’s clubhouse against Claire Smith, an African-American female sportswriter, brought more attention to the extreme politics of the Birchers.

It all began with Show, a sort of baseball Bobby Fischer, a troubled nonconformist and deep thinker who couldn’t fit into wider society let alone the claustrophobic confines of a bullpen or dugout. He was a self-taught jazz musician ravenous for philosophy, physics, economics and history, a seeker of truth who wandered into an Arizona bookstore and picked up a volume about the John Birch Society and became obsessed (though he always denied any racist leanings). Two stories follow about his odd life and lonely death.


From “Baseball’s Thinking Man,” by Bill Plaschke, in the 1988 Los Angeles Times:

YUMA, Ariz. — Let’s play a game. What if some real smart people with a sense of humor–people who know nothing about baseball–one day decided to invent a very good baseball pitcher.

But after giving him an elbow and shoulder and all the usual stuff, what if they decided to get tricky?

What if they gave him a love for physics? A love for studying philosophers, historians and theorists? A love for writing classical jazz?

What if on road trips, while his friends are shopping and watching movies, he is in the basement of musty libraries trying to figure out why the Earth is round?

What if at home, while many players are at the ballpark several hours ahead of the required reporting time, he is still in his home, in his second-floor office, under a bright light, studying the effect of a new foreign government or ancient civilization?

What if, before he wins 20 games, he records and produces his own record album, and co-stars in a movie? Finally, just to throw everybody off, what if they made him an open, verbal member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society? What if . . .

Forget the what ifs. Such a pitcher exists. His name is Eric Show.

His six seasons have established him as one of the National League’s best pitchers and most unusual people.

Yet, after six seasons, another question is probably more applicable.


Why has he no close clubhouse friends? Why does everybody in there look at him so funny? Why do some think he’s selfish and arrogant? Why did some even take to calling him ‘Erica’? And why do things always seem to happen to him?

In 1984, his John Birch affiliation is uncovered when he is spotted passing out pamphlets at a fair, and black players think he doesn’t like them.

In 1985, he gives up Pete Rose’s record 4,192nd hit, but during the 10-minute celebration he sits on the mound, and now nobody likes him.

Last season, he hits the Chicago Cubs’ Andre Dawson in the head and must flee Wrigley Field fearing for his life. When he returns to that city this season, he has only half-jokingly claimed it will be in disguise.

Show, 31, enters the 1988 season in the final year of a $725,000 contract and at the crossroads of his baseball career.

Can he find enough peace to once again become the pitcher that won 15 games to help lead the Padres to the 1984 World Series?

Or will he continue twisting in the winds of discontent, like last season, when he went 8-16 despite a 3.84 earned-run average?

Either way, the Padres say he’s trying.

‘There has been change in Eric just since the middle of last season,’ Padre Manager Larry Bowa said. ‘In the clubhouse, away from the stadium. He’s really working at understanding and being understood.’

Show says he’s trying.

‘As strange at it may seem, I have tried to be more a part of my baseball environment,’ Show said carefully. ‘If I’m still off, it’s because I started way off.’

And whatever happens, only one thing is ever certain with Eric Show.

Something will get lost in the translation.”


From “Eric Show’s Solitary Life, and Death,” by Ira Berkow in the 1994 New York Times:

“An autopsy released soon after by the coroner’s office said the cause of death was inconclusive, that is, there was no observable trauma or wounds to the body. A toxicology report would be coming in about two weeks. But in statements to the center’s staff, Show said that he was under the influence of cocaine, heroin and alcohol. He said he used four $10 bags of cocaine at about 7 that night, Tuesday night. ‘Didn’t like how I felt,’ he said, adding that he then ingested eight $10 bags of heroin and a six-pack of beer.

The questions about Eric Show’s death are no less difficult to answer than the ones about his life. Why was he so hard on himself, such an apparently driven individual? Why was he so compulsive, or at least passionate, about almost everything he undertook?

Show (the name rhymes with cow) was known as a highly intelligent, articulate man with broad interests that ranged from physics — his major in college — to politics to economics to music. ‘Eric didn’t fit the mold of the typical ballplayer,’ said Tim Flannery, a former Padre teammate of Show’s. ‘Most ballplayers were like me then; we had tunnel vision. We weren’t interested in those other things.’

Show was a born-again Christian who regularly attended Sunday chapel services as a player and sometimes signed his autograph with an added Acts 4:12, which discusses salvation as coming only from belief in Jesus Christ.

He was an accomplished jazz guitarist. Sometimes after games on the road, he would beat the team back to the hotel and play lead guitar with the band in the lounge.

He was a member of the right-wing John Birch Society, a fact the baseball world was surprised to learn in August 1984 as the Padres moved toward their first and only division title.

And he was a successful businessman with real estate holdings, a marketing company and a music store, all of which kept him in expensive clothes, with a navy-blue Mercedes and a house in an affluent San Diego neighborhood.

But other elements seemed to intrude. And ultimately, the contradictions of the best and worst in American life became a disastrous mixture that defeated him.

Beyond Statistics, Just Who Was He?

For most baseball fans, Eric Show was a decent pitcher who had once been lucky enough to make it to the World Series. But to the people who were close to him, he was, in the end, someone they did not fully know.

‘He led several lives, apparently,’ said Arn Tellem, his agent at the time of his death.

To Joe Elizondo, his financial consultant, and Mark Augustin, his partner in a music store, and Steve Tyler, a boyhood friend from Riverside, Calif., where both were born and raised, Show was a charming, devoted friend and a caring man. ‘He would give you the shirt off his back,” Elizondo said. ‘And he did. I once told him how much I liked a shirt he was wearing, and he said, ‘Here, it’s yours.’ He’d stop a beggar on the street and learn he was hungry and run to a diner and bring back a hot meal for him.’

To others, though, Show could seem selfish or arrogant.

And there were the drugs. Some said Show’s drug problems began when he took injections to relieve pain in his back after surgery, and he sought more and more relief. Others wondered if he had been taking drugs before he reached the major leagues.

He may also have begun taking drugs simply because he liked the challenge of being able to handle the dreaded substance. …

His death evoked memories of two strange scenes in Show’s life, one in 1992 and the other last year.

In the spring of 1992, Show was in training camp in Arizona with the A’s. He had signed a two-year contract with them in late 1990, and managed only a 1-2 record with them in 1991. Following several mornings in which he had reported late for workouts, he showed up with both hands heavily bandaged.

He explained that he had been chased by a group of youths and had to climb a fence, and had cut himself. But what was not reported was that the police later told club officials that Show had been behaving erratically in front of an adult book store, and fled when officers approached. They finally caught him trying to climb a barbed-wire fence.

Last July, he was caught by the police when running across an intersection in San Diego and screaming that people were out to kill him, and then begged the police to kill him. He was handcuffed, and while in the back seat of the police car, he kicked out the rear window. He was taken to the county mental hospital for three days of testing. Show had admitted ‘doing quite a bit of crystal methamphetamine.’

It was one more startling development, one more contradiction for an athlete who, in reference to his John Birch membership, once said: ‘I have a fundamental philosophy of less government, more reason, and with God’s help, a better world. And that’s it.’

Always Looking For Answers

Actually, it wasn’t it. Show, as a John Birch member, also denied that he was a Nazi or a racist. In fact, he had a Hispanic financial adviser, a Jewish lawyer and agent, and black friends in baseball and his music world. People from his first agent, Steve Greenberg, to Tony Gwynn, a black teammate, agreed that he was no bigot. ‘He joined the Birch Society because he thought it would provide answers to how the world works,’ Tellem said. ‘He was always looking for answers.’

Show once said, ‘I’ve devoted my life to learning.’ Asked what he was learning, he replied, ‘Learning everything.'”

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Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, a first-rate look at the technological revolution’s complicated short- and mid-term implications for economics, is one of the best books I’ve read in 2014. The authors make a compelling case that the Industrial Revolution bent time more substantially than anything humans had previously done, and that we’re living through a similarly dramatic departure right now, one that may prove more profound than the first, for both good and bad reasons. In a post at his new Financial Times blog, McAfee takes on Peter Thiel’s contention that monopolies are an overall win for society. An excerpt:

“His provocation in Zero to One is that tech monopolies are generally good news since they spend heavily to keep innovating (and sometimes do cool things unrelated to their main businesses such as building driverless cars) and these innovations benefit all of us. If they stop investing and innovating, or if they miss something big, they quickly become irrelevant.

For example, Microsoft’s dominance of the PC industry was once so worrying the US government went after it in an antitrust battle that lasted two decades. Microsoft still controls more than 75 per cent of the market for desktop operating systems today, but nobody is now worried about the company’s ability to stifle tech innovation. Thiel paraphrases Leo Tolstoy’s most famous sentence: ‘All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.’

I like Thiel’s attempt to calm the worries about today’s tech giants. Big does not always mean bad and, in the high-tech industries, big today certainly does not guarantee big tomorrow. But I’m not as blithe about monopolies as Thiel. The US cable company Comcast qualifies as a tech monopoly (it’s my only choice for a fast internet service provider) and I struggle mightily to perceive any benefit to consumers and society from its power. And there are other legitimate concerns about monopsonists (monopoly buyers), media ownership concentration and so on.

I once heard the Yale law professor Stephen Carter lay down a general rule: we should be vigilant about all great concentrations of power. We won’t need to take action against all of them but nor should we assume that they’ll always operate to our benefit.”

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If one thing can destabilize China’s authoritarian form of capitalism, it might be the extreme pollution that’s attended the febrile pace of urbanization. A quick bit from a Fast Company post by Adele Peters about architect Alexander Balchin’s conceptual Clean Air Tower, a “portable” skyscraper inspired by China’s poor air quality which sucks pollutants from the atmosphere:

“Beijing is notorious for its record-breaking air pollution, but 12 other cities in China have even dirtier air. Dozens more fail to meet minimum standards for air that’s safe to breathe. While the Chinese government has committed billions to cleaning up pollution, those changes are happening slowly, especially in cities with little political clout. In the meantime, here’s another approach: Modular skyscrapers that suck up dirty air.

The Clean Air Tower, from China-based architect Alexander Balchin, is a conceptual design envisioned for the city of Binhai. ‘It’s one of China’s many ‘overnight cities’ where an entire city of skyscrapers is built simultaneously, all in a matter of years,’ Balchin explains. The air-cleaning building is designed to be easy to take apart and reconstruct, so if air quality improves in Binhai, the skyscraper can move to another city.”

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From Richard Hollingham’s BBC piece “Five Steps to Colonizing Mars,” a section about the development of government in space should we inhabit our neighboring planet and create a self-sustaining civilization:

“I have written before of the challenges of governing an extraterrestrial colony. The early missions – particularly those involving space agencies – will almost certainly be run with a hierarchical command system. The past 50 years of human spaceflight have taught us that, in the extreme environment of space, this is the safest way. However, there is a fine line between a Star Trek-type command structure and a brutal military dictatorship, and as the settlement matures, some sort of democracy is going to be favoured.

‘A space colony is a tyranny-prone environment,’ says Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist from the University of Edinburgh who is also leading research on developing a constitution for space habitats. ‘If somebody gets control of oxygen, they could very well have control over the whole population and threaten dire consequences in return for extraordinary levels of power.’

As a commander of a space colony on Earth, Tarvin is one of the few people to have any experience of overseeing a Mars base. ‘It’s certainly not a Star Trek-style military environment,’ he says. ‘It’s a small group of highly motivated people and it really doesn’t take much effort to manage them.’

A government also needs all the structures that go with it. Any new society needs an economy as well as systems to maintain the habitat, provide employment, health, childcare, social care and education. In short: Mars needs bureaucrats.”


All these new technologies and the ones to come will create great wealth, but it will be up to us to figure out how to deal with rising inequality and technological unemployment. We’re likely looking at a long, hard slog getting from here to there. A few exchanges follow from an excellent Reddit AMA on the topic conducted by Ryan Avent, economics correspondent for the Economist.



The industrial revolution destroyed a lot of jobs but also created a lot of new ones. What makes this new changes different? Won’t new opportunities replace the obsolete jobs?

Ryan Avent:

Maybe! We certainly shouldn’t rule it out.

But one thing I’ve tried to bring out in my writing on these subjects is that the industrial revolution was a huge mess for a lot of people. We can look back today and note that there’s tons of employment at high wages and so obviously everything worked out. But there were whole generations at a time during the IR that really never saw much benefit at all from industrialisation. Old ways of life were torn up, people found themselves in horrible, deadly cities, and wages were awful for long stretches of time. There was a reason people thought maybe communism wasn’t such a terrible idea.

Quite possibly this revolution won’t be as unpleasant or transformative. But it still might make for very hard times for workers for several decades (we’re well on our way, actually).

Then one has to think forward and say, ok, where will technology be in 20 years? Is there a point at which things will slow down enough for workers to catch up? I’m not sure. In the meantime, I think there is a strong argument for more action to cushion workers against economic troubles.



What do you think is the nascent technology that will most greatly exacerbate inequality, both within nations and between them? Which one will do the most to decrease inequality?

Ryan Avent:

Over the longer term, and looking within nations, I think AI is likely to contribute most to inequality. It’s possible that AI will be a skill leveller, but I suspect it will not be. Those with more cognitive skills will be better at managing the intelligence at their disposal, asking the right question, etc.

Across nations, we’re talking advanced manufacturing and robotics. The huge advantage that emerging markets have relative to the developed world is a large stock of cheap labour. If technology means that firms no longer need to tap into those labour pools to make things cheaply, then it will be very difficult for developing economies to find a foothold in the global economy and raise their incomes.

In the short term, more mundane stuff will probably raise inequality. Mobile technology that allows really good teachers to reach many more students will reduce the need for mediocre teachers, for instance.

In the short term, peer-to-peer platforms could help reduce inequality by making it easier to match underemployed workers with people who are looking for particular skillsets. Over the long term, I’m not sure. Bionic implants? A drug that made it easy for any worker to be disciplined and conscientious might actually go a long way.



Things seem pretty bad for low-to-mid-skill workers in developed nations: stagnant wages, increased disability enrollment, and lower workforce participation. The explanations I’m most familiar with include race-to-the-bottom globalization, technology, and now this gloomy-but-vague secular stagnation hypothesis.

So, two questions. First, do you agree & how do you break down attribution between causes these days? Second, if this trend continues do you expect to see larger shares of the population supported exclusively by transfers, and does this worry you (for practical reasons or otherwise)?

Ryan Avent:

I don’t know whether I’d consider secular stagnation a cause or just a way of describing a bunch of symptoms that may or may not be related to one particularly malady.

The big factors at work here seem to me to be technology and globalisation (which is related and dependent in some ways on technology). Interestingly, it’s not just workers in developed nations that are being affected. Wages have risen rapidly for workers in China, for instance, but in many parts of the emerging world inequality has been rising just as in the rich world, as has the share of national income going to owners of capital rather than workers.

The actual break-down depends on when and where you’re talking about. For service-sector workers now or manufacturing workers in the 1980s, technology was the biggest deal. For manufacturing workers in the 2000s it was almost all China.

Unless there is a big change in the way technology affects labour markets, there will be no getting around much greater transfers. That doesn’t worry me that much in and of itself. What does worry me is how we get there (or fail to). Political conflict over redistribution is often nasty, and politicians often seek to defuse it by redirecting anger to foreigners. Could be a very messy few decades, politically speaking. Messier.•


Legislation isn’t going to curb government surveillance nor will prosecutions put a halt to individuals hacking and leaking such information. The tools have become greater than the law–and they will grow even greater still. The other reason we won’t stop snooping is because most of us like it, not just the feeling of protection it gives us in these supposedly scary times, but also the acknowledgement that attends being monitored. We like to watch, and we like being watched. How important we must be. From a David Cole post at The New York Review of Books about Laura Poitras’ Snowden Affair documentary, Citizenfour:

“Snowden’s effort to tame his unruly hair also reveals the self-consciousness that seems to have pervaded every step of his decision to disclose the NSA files. He knows, of course, that he is being videotaped; he invited Poitras in, after all. (In addition to recording his every waking hour in the hotel room, she produced on the spot a twelve-minute film that was released the same week as the first disclosures, which introduced Snowden to the world as the NSA leaker.) Poitras does her best to conceal her presence as the filmmaker, but everyone involved knows they are being filmed, and that someday this will be shown on movie screens around the world. As a result, there are relatively few instances of real candor.

In this respect, Citizenfour unwittingly reflects the tenor of the digital age not just in its subject matter, but in its style. The film’s content concerns the ability of the government in the twenty-first century to monitor all of us at all times. The goal of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs is to ‘collect it all,’ as the agency itself declared in a PowerPoint slide leaked by Snowden. Technology has made that goal possible in ways that could hardly be imagined a decade ago. Snowden’s disclosures have put the world on notice that these are not abstract or speculative dangers.

But as Poitras’s real-time filmmaking itself reminds us, it’s not just the NSA and its sophisticated computers that make dragnet data collection possible. It’s also a defining feature of a world in which we are personally and collectively complicit in the recording of virtually everything we do.”

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Jeffrey Goldberg’s devastating Atlantic essay plumbs the depth of distrust between the Obama White House and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems more and more like a one-man Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, desultory and self-preserving to the nth degree. The “chickenshit” quote refers to his lack of will, which has good and bad ramifications: He won’t order a major military strike, such as one against Iran, but nor will he move forward the peace process with the Palestinians. The opening:

‘The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. ‘The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,’ this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.

This comment is representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors, and is yet another sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations— dual guarantors of the putatively ‘unbreakable’ bond between the U.S. and Israel—is now the worst it’s ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.

The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has ‘written off’ the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a ‘red-hot anger’ at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and ‘Aspergery.’ (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.)  But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a ‘chickenshit.’ I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding. From time to time, current and former administration officials have described Netanyahu as a national leader who acts as though he is mayor of Jerusalem, which is to say, a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency.”

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An Islamic State recruiter calling himself Abu Sattar, who brings potential warriors into the fold to smite the infidels or some such bullshit, sat for an interview with Hasnain Kazim of Spiegel. Why? Was it a part of recruitment? Was it a different need? An excerpt:


Do you believe that those who behead others are good Muslims?

Abu Sattar:

Let me ask you this: Do you believe that those who launch air strikes on Afghan weddings or who march into a country like Iraq on specious grounds are good Christians? Are those responsible for Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib good Christians?


You are dodging the question. The events you speak of were not undertaken in the name of a religion and were heavily criticized in the West. Once again: What is a good Muslim for you? What kinds of people are you recruiting?

Abu Sattar:

A Muslim is a person who follows Allah’s laws without question. Sharia is our law. No interpretation is needed, nor are laws made by men. Allah is the only lawmaker. We have determined that there are plenty of people, in Germany too, who perceive the emptiness of the modern world and who yearn for values of the kind embodied by Islam. Those who are opposed to Sharia are not Muslims. We talk to the people who come to us and evaluate on the basis of dialogue how deep their faith is.”

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Zero Americans have died so far on U.S. soil from the Ebola virus, but the media, politicians and the public have all acted like wackjobs about the non-epidemic. Sure, we should be providing as much aid as possible to Liberia and other effected states, but we shouldn’t live in fear in America, something we seem to have done almost constantly since 9/11, which has led only to bad policy. Those concerned about Ebola or some other potential plague taking hold stateside should push for the Affordable Care Act to be truly universal and demand that congress allow President Obama to name a Surgeon General, something Republicans have refused to do as a way of hampering Obamacare. From Edward Luce in the Financial Times:

“Based on the death rate so far, Americans have a higher chance of marrying Kim Kardashian than dying of Ebola – or so the tweet goes. But the uneven tug of war between the federal government, which is sticking to scientific talking points, and politicians on the stump, who are falling one by one to an epidemic of panic, is no joke. More than 45 per cent of Americans believe that either they, or close friends and relatives, will contract Ebola, according to the Kaiser family foundation. More than three-quarters support imposing a US travel ban on flights to and from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Though led by Republicans, the panic is becoming bipartisan. In the past few days, three US states – New York, Illinois and New Jersey – have imposed a 21-day quarantine on anyone who has had contact with an Ebola patient. Two have Democratic governors, both of whom are facing re-election next week. In the midterm congressional elections, Democratic candidates are scrambling to repudiate President Barack Obama’s opposition to a travel ban. Among these are Kay Hagan, the embattled Democratic senator from North Carolina, and Jeanne Shaheen, who faces a tough fight in New Hampshire.”


While WWIII, plague or other large-scale disasters would result in a humanitarian crisis, none of those calamities would do much to slow down the growth of global population, which is currently headed toward 10 billion by 2100. From Mark Tran at The Guardian:

“The pace of population growth is so quick that even draconian restrictions of childbirth, pandemics or a third world war would still leave the world with too many people for the planet to sustain, according to a study.

Rather than reducing the number of people, cutting the consumption of natural resources and enhanced recycling would have a better chance of achieving effective sustainability gains in the next 85 years, said thereport published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

‘We were surprised that a five-year WW3 scenario, mimicking the same proportion of people killed in the first and second world wars combined, barely registered a blip on the human population trajectory this century,’ said Prof Barry Brook, who co-led the study at the University of Adelaide, in Australia. …

Brook, now at the University of Tasmania, said policymakers needed to discuss population growth more, but warned that the inexorable momentum of the global human population ruled out any demographic quick fixes to our sustainability problems.

‘Our work reveals that effective family planning and reproduction education worldwide have great potential to constrain the size of the human population and alleviate pressure on resource availability over the longer term,’ he said. ‘Our great-great-great-great grandchildren might ultimately benefit from such planning, but people alive today will not.'”

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Just because Julian Assange is a megalomaniacal creepbag doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything. He’s most certainly not. In a Newsweek excerpt from his book When Google Met Wikileaks, Assange recounts his 2011 meeting with that company’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Ideas Director Jared Cohen, and his subsequent realization that the search giant enjoys a cozy relationship with the inner sanctums of D.C.’s biggest power brokers, even the White House. I don’t doubt that Google, the de facto Bell Labs of our time and likely in possession of more information than any other entity in the history of Earth, is indeed ensconced in politics (and vice versa), though I would caution against thinking the Silicon Valley behemoth is some sort of shadow government. In his black-and-white way of viewing the world, Assange needs his foes to be as massive as his ego, and he wants to see Google as an indomitable force shaping our world. While it has some influence–and I wish corporations didn’t have any entrée into such quarters–I think Assange is overestimating the company’s importance as a world-maker to inflate his own. In fact, if Google is mainly a search company a decade or two from now, it won’t have much sway at all–it’ll probably be in a lot of trouble. A passage about Assange’s research into Cohen’s role in geopolitics:

“Looking for something more concrete, I began to search in WikiLeaks’ archive for information on Cohen. State Department cables released as part of Cablegate reveal that Cohen had been in Afghanistan in 2009, trying to convince the four major Afghan mobile phone companies to move their antennas onto U.S. military bases. In Lebanon, he quietly worked to establish an intellectual and clerical rival to Hezbollah, the ‘Higher Shia League.’ And in London he offered Bollywood movie executives funds to insert anti-extremist content into their films, and promised to connect them to related networks in Hollywood.

Three days after he visited me at Ellingham Hall, Jared Cohen flew to Ireland to direct the ‘Save Summit,’ an event co-sponsored by Google Ideas and the Council on Foreign Relations. Gathering former inner-city gang members, right-wing militants, violent nationalists and ‘religious extremists’ from all over the world together in one place, the event aimed to workshop technological solutions to the problem of ‘violent extremism.’ What could go wrong?

Cohen’s world seems to be one event like this after another: endless soirees for the cross-fertilization of influence between elites and their vassals, under the pious rubric of ‘civil society.’ The received wisdom in advanced capitalist societies is that there still exists an organic ‘civil society sector’ in which institutions form autonomously and come together to manifest the interests and will of citizens. The fable has it that the boundaries of this sector are respected by actors from government and the ‘private sector,’ leaving a safe space for NGOs and nonprofits to advocate for things like human rights, free speech and accountable government.

This sounds like a great idea. But if it was ever true, it has not been for decades. Since at least the 1970s, authentic actors like unions and churches have folded under a sustained assault by free-market statism, transforming ‘civil society’ into a buyer’s market for political factions and corporate interests looking to exert influence at arm’s length. The last forty years have seen a huge proliferation of think tanks and political NGOs whose purpose, beneath all the verbiage, is to execute political agendas by proxy.”

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Much of American space exploration is being handed over to private enterprise, which I have some qualms about, but even some of the more prosaic elements of our lives have been offloaded from the public sector to technological “innovators.” Certainly that’s not one-hundred percent the case in the U.S., with healthcare, a huge concern, headed in the opposite direction, and the budget, while having grown slower under Obama than under Dubya or Reagan, still formidable. In a new Guardian piece, Evgeny Morozov, that self-designated mourner, looks at the dark side of capitalism and technocracy’s impact on democracy. The opening:

“For seven years, we’ve been held hostage to two kinds of disruption. One courtesy of Wall Street; the other from Silicon Valley. They make for an excellent good cop/bad cop routine: the former preaches scarcity and austerity while the other celebrates abundance and innovation. They might appear distinct, but each feeds off the other.

On the one hand, the global financial crisis – and the ensuing push to bail out the banks – desiccated whatever was left of the welfare state. This has mutilated – occasionally to the point of liquidation – the public sector, the only remaining buffer against the encroachment of the neoliberal ideology, with its unrelenting efforts to create markets out of everything.

The few public services to survive the cuts have either become prohibitively expensive or have been forced to experiment with new and occasionally populist survival mechanisms. The ascent of crowdfunding whereby, instead of relying on lavish and unconditional government funding, cultural institutions were forced to raise money directly from citizens is a case in point: in the absence of other alternatives, the choice has been between market populism – the crowd knows best! – or extinction.

By contrast, the second kind of disruption has been hailed as a mostly positive development. Everything is simply getting digitised and connected – a most natural phenomenon, if venture capitalists are to be believed – and institutions could either innovate or die. Having wired up the world, Silicon Valley assured us that the magic of technology would naturally pervade every corner of our lives. On this logic, to oppose technological innovation is tantamount to defaulting on the ideals of the Enlightenment: Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are simply the new Diderot and Voltaire – reborn as nerdy entrepreneurs.

And then, a rather strange thing happened: somehow we have come to believe that the second kind of disruption had nothing to do with the first.”


Astrology is complete bullshit, and the leader of the free world being governed by it, as President Reagan was, is a scary thing, though, luckily, those dice rolled well for international relations. The opening of Douglas Martin’s New York Times obituary of Joan Quigley, stargazer to the Reagan White House:

“In his 1988 memoir, Donald T. Regan, a former chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan, revealed what he called the administration’s ‘most closely guarded secret.’

He said an astrologer had set the time for summit meetings, presidential debates, Reagan’s 1985 cancer surgery, State of the Union addresses and much more. Without an O.K. from the astrologer, he said, Air Force One did not take off.

The astrologer, whose name Mr. Regan did not know when he wrote the book, was Joan Quigley. She died on Tuesday at 87 at her home in San Francisco, her sister and only immediate survivor, Ruth Quigley, said.

Mr. Regan said that Miss Quigley — a Vassar-educated socialite who preferred the honorific Miss to Ms. (she never married) — had made her celestial recommendations through phone calls to the first lady, Nancy Reagan, often two or three a day. Mrs. Reagan, he said, set up private lines for her at the White House and at the presidential retreat at Camp David.

Further, Mrs. Reagan paid the astrologer a retainer of $3,000 a month, wrote Mr. Regan, who had also been a Treasury secretary under Reagan and the chief executive of Merrill Lynch.

‘Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise,’ he wrote in the memoir, For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington.

In an interview with CBS Evening News in 1989, after Reagan left office, Miss Quigley said that after reading the horoscope of the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, she concluded that he was intelligent and open to new ideas and persuaded Mrs. Reagan to press her husband to abandon his view of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire.’ Arms control treaties followed.”

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