Sunday photoblogging: door

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2017

I was going through my archives looking for black and white photos (for a competition) and this one stood out, despite its dull subject-matter.

Door, Welsh Back

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Quizzical

by John Quiggin on December 17, 2017

With the huge upsurge in the price of Bitcoin recently, I’ve been getting a lot of demand for articles putting forward my point of view: Shorter JQ: It’s an environmentally destructive Ponzi scheme that isn’t usable as a currency even for believers.

My observations on the electricity demand associated with Bitcoin made it into the ABC (Australian equivalent of BBC) News Quiz last week, which is a kind of fame, I guess.

Meanwhile, I had another piece in the Guardian, this time looking at the fact that, despite being called a “cryptocurrency”, Bitcoin is used even less as a currency now than it was several years ago. The core problem is that the system is so overloaded by miners creating new coins that processing transactions is slow, costly or both I mentioned the fact that game company Steam had stopped accepting coins and that the list of merchants accepting Bitcoin is small enough to fit on one page. Checking further I concluded that this list is out of date, but not in a good way. Lots of those included, such as Expedia, no longer accept Bitcoin, if indeed they ever did. Here’s one person’s experience. Bitcoin is now a “crypto asset” which is even more obviously a Ponzi fantasy than the original currency story.

One response I got was that transaction speed would soon be greatly improved by something called Lightning. Checking on this it appears that this is software in an alpha (very early) stage of development, which would allow any two parties to set up a transactions account separate from the main Bitcoin blockchain, and only occasionally update the main account. An analogy, for readers of a certain age, is the era before Bankcard, when, if you wanted to do something other than paying cash, you maintained a separate credit and debit account with every store you dealt with. This does not seem like the dawn of a new era to me.

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Moon of Alabama

by Corey Robin on December 16, 2017

My weekly digest for The Guardian, looking back on Tuesday’s Senate election in Alabama with the help of Brecht and Weill, Sheldon Wolin, Matt Bruenig, and Eddie Glaude.

Some excerpts:

Since Tuesday’s Senate election in Alabama, when the mild centrist Doug Jones defeated the menacing racist Roy Moore, social media has been spinning two tunes. Politicians tweeted Lynyrd Skyrnyrd’s Sweet Home, Alabama. Historians tweeted the 1934 classic Stars Fell on Alabama.

My mind’s been drifting to The Alabama Song. Not the obvious reference from The Doors/Bowie version – “Oh, show us the way to the next little girl” – but two other lines that recur throughout the song: “We now must say goodbye … I tell you we must die.”

It’s a lyric for the left, which can’t seem to let go of its sense of defeat, even when the right loses.

After every defeat of the right, after every poll shows dangerously low approval ratings for Trump or the Republican, I hear the same response from the left, especially on social media: what about the minority of voters who still support the right? How can they do it? What is wrong with them?

Even though Tuesday’s election showed signs of a fairly large switch in the white vote of Alabama, from red to blue, even though 24% of the American people approved of Richard Nixon the day he resigned – eight points lower, incidentally, than Trump’s current approval rating – the left can’t let go of the voters who remain committed to Trumpism. Even when the candidates of those voters lose major statewide elections twice in a row. In southern states.

But the left doesn’t need to convince every last Republican of the error of their ways. It doesn’t need to put all Republican voters in the public square, forcing them to recant their beliefs. It doesn’t need Christian suasion, encouraging rightwingers to apologize and confess their sins.

In an electoral democracy, the way to break your opponents – especially opponents like these – is to demoralize them, to make them feel they are a small and isolated minority, that their cause is a loser.

On election day, the left needs to convince the right – not through voter suppression or intimidation but through rhetoric and speech – that their movement is going nowhere, so they shouldn’t either. That’s exactly what happened in Alabama, where “the biggest reason for the shift” in counties that voted for Trump last November going for Jones this December is that “GOP voters stayed home”, according to MCIMaps.

What black voters, particularly black women, have gotten instead is a lot of thank-yous. From liberals and Democrats, on Twitter and Facebook: thank youblack people, for saving “us” or America or democracy from “ourselves”.

It’s a weird move, with weird overtones. Rather than treating black people as political agents in their own right, acting in their own interest, rather than viewing black people as part of an inclusive movement of the left, the thank-you-note writers treat African Americans as if they were the indispensable helpmates of an addled white upper-middle class, a class that’s too harried, busy, or distracted to deal with the hassle of everyday life, the drudgery of daily upkeep, the housekeeping of democracy.


 Keep reading, there’s a lot more!

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My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

by John Holbo on December 16, 2017

‘Tis the season! For that uncanny one on your list who is always hard to shop for I would recommend My Favorite Thing Is Monsters [amazon]. The only bad thing about it is we have to wait a year for vol. 2. The good thing is everything else. The story. The art. The combination of those two. It’s the best graphic novel I’ve read all year. I haven’t really been excited about new comics for a while, sad to say. (I liked Seth’s latest. I always love Seth’s latest.)

As I was saying: Monsters. This one stopped me dead in my tracks, spun me around. I read it late into the night, feeling kind of weird. My cat was looking at me curiously. Then I reread parts of it. Then just stared at some of the pictures. It’s about a 10-year old girl, Karen, living in Chicago in the late 60’s, who wants to be a werewolf (but isn’t.) She’s trying to solve the mystery of the murder of the woman – Anka, a Holocaust survivor – who lived upstairs. Karen has a lot of problems in her life.

The author, Emil Ferris, has an amazing story story as well. From this NPR story:

She was a 40-year-old single mom who supported herself doing illustrations when she was bitten by a mosquito, she contracted West Nile Virus, became paralyzed from the waist down, and lost the use of her drawing hand. Fighting chronic pain, she taught herself to draw again, then reinvented herself as a graphic novelist, spending six long years creating what’s clearly an emotional autobiography.
The detailed crosshatching throughout the book is a wonder to behold. You see that cover? It’s all like that.

‘Tis also the season for me to remind you I myself have a fine, uncanny Christmas work available on Amazon. It makes a fine stocking-stuffer. Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness, A Visitation of Sog-Nug-Hotep: A Truly Awful Christmas Volume.

The book will also test your eyesight – in a good way, I say. All those finicky ligatures I added, just to make your eyes water. [click to continue…]

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The Cat, The Goof and Musical Mose – Some Notes

by John Holbo on December 16, 2017

I’ve been meaning to write something about Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books [amazon]. It’s caused some fuss. But I was already a Nel reader because, as a sometime Seussian myself, I read and enjoyed and learned a lot from his earlier book Dr. Seuss: American Icon.

There is an inherent risk that any degree of analytic subtly and investigative archaeology breeds ethical over-sensitivity, in a case like this. It isn’t scholarship if it doesn’t bring to light something a reasonably intelligent, moderately informed reader might miss. It isn’t dangerous to tender young minds if it sails over their heads. No 5-year old is going to notice the Cat owes a visual debt to minstrelsy, much less that Dr. Seuss apparently took some visual inspiration from a white-gloved African-American elevator operator named Annie Williams. Who knew? If that’s the concern, maybe it’s not much of one. (Not in the same league as giving a slightly older kid an original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the original, racist Oompa-Loompa illustrations. Here is Nel on the subject, some years ago.)

Since conservatives are super-hyper-sensitive to the risk that someone besides their snowflake-y selves might be even slightly over-sensitive, it’s pretty much impossible for Nel to broach his whole topic without ‘triggering’ the fainting couch set, be he ever so mild about minatory whispers in your shell-like.

But fair is fair: let me give an example of analysis and plausible harm wires maybe getting crossed. [click to continue…]

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The Capability Approach: an Open Access TextbookPlus

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 11, 2017

So, folks, here it is, my book on the capability approach that has been in the works for a very long time. I’m very happy that it is finally published, I am happy that you can download the PDF for free at the publisher’s website, and that the paperback version is also about half the price of what a book with a university press would cost (and a fraction of the price it would cost if published by one of the supercommercial academic presses whose names shall not be mentioned here).

I am not going to sell you my book – in a literal sense there is no need to sell you anything since you can download the book (as a PDF) for free from Open Books Publishers’ website (and I have no material interest in selling you hardcopies since I will not receive any royalties). And in a non-literal sense I should not sell this book either, since it is not up to me to judge the quality of the book. So I’ll only make three meta-comments. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Newport transporter bridge

by Chris Bertram on December 10, 2017

Newport Transporter Bridge

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Back in early January, I wrote:

Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but the most likely outcome is that Trump and the GOP will fall back on what Republicans know how to do best: tax cuts and deregulation.

It’s about to come to pass.

Schumpeter famously said that taxes are the “thunder of world history.” So what kind of history are the Republicans about to make?

Here I am in The Guardian, answering that question with four takeaways on the GOP tax bill.

Meanwhile, I just stumbled on this from last year: Paul Ryan, at CPAC, asking us to “take Obamacare—not literally, but figuratively.”

Never underestimate the philosophical impulse of the right.

Next he’ll be incanting, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Read the rest of Ryan’s comments where he criticizes school lunch programs: fills the stomach, empties the soul.

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The Fallacy of Unnatural Deceleration?

by John Holbo on December 9, 2017

As a reward for my sins, I read this review of Daniel Dennett’s latest, by David Bentley Hart. (My efficiently causal sin being: reading The Corner.) [click to continue…]

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Libertarian Judges Rule!

by Corey Robin on December 9, 2017

Prominent libertarian jurist Alex Kozinski has been accused of sexual harassment by six women, all of them former clerks or employees. One of the women is Heidi Bond. In a statement, Bond gives a fuller description of Judge Kozinski’s rule, sexual and non-sexual, in the workplace.

One day, my judge found out I had been reading romance novels over my dinner break. He called me (he was in San Francisco for hearings; I had stayed in the office in Pasadena) when one of my co-clerks idly mentioned it to him as an amusing aside. Romance novels, he said, were a terrible addiction, like drugs, and something like porn for women, and he didn’t want me to read them any more. He told me he wanted me to promise to never read them again.

“But it’s on my dinner break,” I protested.

He laid down the law—I was not to read them anymore. “I control what you read,” he said, “what you write, when you eat. You don’t sleep if I say so. You don’t shit unless I say so. Do you understand?”


The demands may seem peculiar, but the tyranny is typical. Employers control what workers read, when workers shit, all the time.

But Judge Kozinski has the added distinction of being one of the leading theoreticians of the First Amendment. And not just any old theorist but a libertarian theorist—he has a cameo in the film Atlas Shrugged: Part II—who claims that the First Amendment affords great protection to “commercial speech.”

Where other jurists and theorists claim that commercial speech—that is, speech that does “no more than propose a commercial transaction”—deserves much less protection than political or artistic speech, Kozinski has been at the forefront of the movement claiming that the First Amendment should afford the same levels of protection to commercial speech as it does to other kinds of speech. Because, as he put it in a pioneering article he co-authored in 1990:

In a free market economy, the ability to give and receive information about commercial matters may be as important, sometimes more important, than expression of a political, artistic, or religious nature.

And there you have it: Watching a commercial about asphalt? Vital to your well-being and sense of self. Deciding what books you read during your dinner break? Not so much.

Government regulations of advertising? Terrible violation of free speech. Telling a worker what she can read? Market freedom.

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Good news from Oz

by John Quiggin on December 7, 2017

The Australian Parliament has just passed legislation establishing equal marriage. This was the outcome of a Byzantine process in which the bigots tried every possible trick to delay the inevitable, culminating in a non-binding postal ballot, which produced a 60 per cent majority for equality, following a nasty and bitter campaign. Having rolled the dice and lost, the religious right tried to negate the result with special protections for bigotry, but got nowhere. As a result, they have suddenly discovered a previously unobserved love for UN conventions on human rights.

At the same time, an election in my home state of Queensland has produced a win for the Labor party, which campaigned in support of public investment in renewable energy and belatedly announced its opposition to funding for a massive coal mine-rail-port project, proposed by the Indian Adani group. The opposition consisted of an alliance between the main conservative party, the LNP ,and the racist/Trumpist One Nation party. The LNP not only supported the Adani proposal but wanted to put public money into a new coal-fired power station. One Nation is hostile to greenies but also opposed Adani on xenophobic grounds. THe outcome supports my view that the right will face bigger problems than the left from the emerging three party system.

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Bitcoin an even bigger waste of energy

by John Quiggin on December 4, 2017

I gave a talk yesterday at a Colloquium organized by a group called Sort, on The Wasteful Economics in Resource Recovery, and I was asked to talk a bit about blockchain technology. That reminded me that I needed to take another look at the issue, and what has changed since 2015 when I wrote that

at most of the market value of a Bitcoin reflects the electricity wasted in the calculations needed to “mine” it, with the obvious disastrous implications for the global climate.
and concluded that the sooner this collective delusion comes to an end, the better.

As far as I can determine, the only thing that has changed is that the Bitcoin bubble has got massively bigger and that the associated waste of energy is now much more widely recognised than when I first wrote about it.

Despite the huge increase in the market value of bitcoins, they seem further than ever from becoming an actual currency. Unsurprisingly, there’s no sign that governments are willing to accept bitcoins as legal tender. Nor is there any sign that they are displacing standard forms of money. On the contrary, bitcoins now seem to be seen as a financial asset, with no real suggestion that they will ever be a general medium of exchange.

As a check on this, here’s a list of firms that accept bitcoin as payment, which fits easily on to a single page. Sydney readers who would like to buy a beer with bitcoin are in luck, or were back in 2014 when the Old Fitzroy got a bit of coverage for saying it would accept bitcoins. There’s another pub listed in London, and that’s about it as far as drinks are concerned. After nearly a decade, Bitcoin acceptance remains the stuff of publicity stunts, not a serious commercial option.

At least by repute, bitcoins are used more extensively in covert transactions such as those involving drug trading, tax evasion and money laundering. But that’s scarcely a good reason to bet on them being around for a long while. If the scale of the problem gets large enough to cause real problems, governments will act to shut the whole system down or regulate it to the point where the compliance costs make the whole idea unattractive.

At any rate, the durability and magnitude of the Bitcoin phenomenon, running for nearly 10 years and with a putative value of nearly $US 100 billion, provides us with a very sharp test of the Efficient (financial) Markets Hypothesis. If Bitcoin eventually becomes a currency, the EMH and its supporters will be vindicated, and I (along with quite a few other economists) will have a lot of egg on my face. If the bubble bursts, the roles will be reversed.

Finally, I should give a plug to Gridcoin. This is a project that aims to avoid the massive waste involved in Bitcoin by making calculations that are actually useful to science. This is a worthwhile idea. But with a current market capitalization of $21 million, it’s obviously got a long way to go.

There are also alternatives to the “proof of work” method of validating changes to the blockchain, such as “proof of importance”, which is analogous to Google’s page ranking systems. I’m still trying to find out more about these.

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Dream Hoarders

by Harry on December 4, 2017

If you’re looking for a passive-aggressive Christmas gift for your upper middle class friends, whatever their politics, you could do worse than Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. I have to admit that, despite the fact that my poverty-researcher friends have been recommending Richard Reeves to me for a long while, I read it sooner than I might have otherwise because of this Observer piece, drawn from the book, which discusses one of the arguments in my and Swift’s book Family Values. I’ll be giving it to my recalcitrant (and definitely not liberal) father-in-law, along with The Color of Law.

Reeves isn’t interested in the 1%, but in the 20%. The starting point is Obama’s aborted plan in January 2015 to abolish 529 plans. For those of you who don’t use them, 529s are tax sheltered college funds. The funds grow tax free. They are a complicated enough instrument that (almost) no one outside the top 20% uses them and, like all tax-shelters and deductions, are more valuable the higher your tax rate. Ted Cruz inserted a provision to the Senate bill which expands 529s so that rich people can pay for elite private k-12 schools with tax-exempt savings. A particularly wicked feature is that anyone – grandparents, uncles and aunts, family friends, etc – can contribute. So the more relatives with large amounts of disposable income you have, the more your college fund will grow, and the greater the cost to the taxpayer. In 2009 23% of households in the top quartile of the income distribution hold 529s, with an average balance of $32,000; just 2% of households in the bottom quartile had 529s, with an average balance of less than $1k. 529s are estimated to cost the federal government only about 5.8 billion in the next 5 years, but almost all of that will benefit families in the top quartile of the distribution (and those estimates do not account for the possibility that 529s will be useable for private k-12). And its not just that 529s effectively reduce the cost of college for affluent families but not for lower-income families: by increasing the higher education spending power of the affluent they, presumably, raise the price at the more selective end of higher education; thus rendering it less accessible to less affluent families.

Obama’s plan to abolish 529s, and replace them with a stronger and broader version of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit for educational spending which is unavailable to families earning over $180k, was defeated not by Republicans, but by Democrats.
[click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: St David’s Cathedral

by Chris Bertram on December 3, 2017

St David's Cathedral

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Books, books, books

by Maria on December 2, 2017

Around November, I declare a ban on any new/borrowed books and try and finish all the books I’ve started that year. Slow-going, this year, as I was for some reason unable to read for much of October and November, and lots of the unread pile is non-fiction. Anyway, some highlights of the year, below. Another post to follow on what’s on the Christmas list.

A book that lingered in mind long after I’d finished it was Laline Paull’s fascinating The Ice (The Bees is still one of my favourite books of the last decade, and I pressed copies of it into two more people’s hands this year.) The Ice is set in the very near future, about the friendship between two men who each want to save the last bit of the Arctic. The chapters begin with excerpts from the memoirs and letters of others who have been obsessed with Arctic exploration, drawing out the historic roots of our drive both to explore and exploit.

Recently I listened to a LRB Cafe event podcast with China Mieville from about 2014. He mentioned something about “…extruded-literary fiction product which is about the calm, chapter by chapter decoding of a never very mysterious metaphor to clarify what life is a bit like, and the book ends with a ‘yes, that’s so true’, that is very wise’.” We all pretty much know what that is, when we see it. I can’t be the only one hungry for novels about politics, money, the environment, the movement of people and surveillance capitalism. Laline Paull’s The Ice grapples with several of these, and the world of work, which is quite rarely found in fiction, and the deals individuals make with themselves and the world they find themselves in, and whether we have any business holding onto hope. [click to continue…]

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