This, from Ars Technica, is pretty extraordinary:

In the early 2000s, William “Trip” Hawkins—founder of video game publisher Electronic Arts—was living the good life. … Hawkins had a peculiar way of keeping his cash flow up; he wasn’t paying all the taxes connected to the proceeds of some of his stock sales. Instead, he participated in a tax sheltering setup designed to produce on-paper “monetary losses” to offset the gains. The scheme was all done through accounting firm KPMG, which used convoluted Swiss and Cayman Islands deals that eventually raised the eyebrows of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax auditors. The IRS and the California Franchise Tax Board eventually cried foul. In 2002, the IRS notified Hawkins’ lawyers that the tax shelters, accounting for about $60 million in claimed losses, wouldn’t be allowed for the tax years 1997 to 2000. This meant that Hawkins would be on the hook for millions in back taxes on all those EA stock profits. Still, Hawkins continued living a jet setter’s life until around the time he filed for bankruptcy protection in 2006. For instance, a government legal filing said that Hawkins’ private jet had cost $11.8 million in 2000 and had an “operating” cost of $1 million annually.

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Ebola; send in the army!

by Maria on October 2, 2014

When I was sixteen and seventeen I did my 5th Year of secondary school twice. Amidst grinds, tears and two to three hours of Honours Maths homework each night, I just could not make it past Christmas and still understand what was going on. (The obvious and practical response; take Ordinary Level Maths instead and accept that a career in Medicine was out, just didn’t seem to present itself.) For two years I hungrily repeated the exercises in the small part of the curriculum I understood, and threw myself with increasing desperation and diminishing returns at the rest. The last chapter I remember mastering was called something like ‘Sequences, Series and the Binomial Theorem’.

Happily, understanding – at least a little – the concept of geometric progressions has turned out to be one of the most useful and widely applicable bits of Maths I could have picked up. It crops up everywhere; understanding the spread and gravity of DDOS attacks, why mouse infestations need to be hit early, why skimming stones on water is so hard, and how a young woman settling for less money than a man at the beginning of her career may still be paying for it when she’s middle-aged.

The definition of a geometric series or progression is ‘whenever a term of a sequence is a constant multiple of the preceding term’. When that multiple is greater than one, the numbers will get very big, very fast. If, for example, the multiple is two, you’ll get what we often lazily mislabel ‘exponential growth’. Exponential growth tends to sound less cheery when the term is applied in epidemiology.

At dinner the other night, I learnt that the rate of increase of cases of Ebola in certain African countries has been modeled as a geometric progression for weeks, if not months.* Since at least August, the number of new Ebola infections has started to double every month. Common sense dictates that the more people infected, the more people who will be infected. Mathematics predicts chillingly just how bad it will be. The battle to stop the spread of this disease reaching the threshold where it is now running like wildfire has already been lost. [click to continue…]

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Render unto Caesar

by John Quiggin on October 2, 2014

Of the three Jews described by George Steiner as, in Corey’s summary, having formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, Jesus is to me the most interesting.[^1] That thought struck me while reading Jerry Cohen’s Self-ownership, freedom and equality, a Marxist response to Nozick. As Cohen observes early on, Marxists seem to have a lot more difficulty responding to Nozick than do (US) liberals or social democrats. That’s because the notion of self-ownership central to Nozick’s argument is closely allied to the Marxian idea that capitalism inherently involves exploitation (that is, extraction of surplus value from labor). Nozick’s claim was that the same is true of taxation, or any kind of claim on private property imposed by the state.

I’ll come back to self-ownership in a little while. The more interesting point, to me, is that Nozick’s argument was refuted in advance by Jesus when he was asked by Pharisees (arbiters of the law laid down by Moses) whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Romans. This was, of course, a trap, since he could be arrested for saying No and discredited for saying Yes. Jesus showed them a coin with the emperor’s head on the obverse and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. And “when they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.”

Jesus’ point is just as valid if the coin is replaced by paper currency bearing the picture of a president, or rent from a land title issued by a state, or a dividend coupon from a corporation established under state law. All of these things were initially obtained from states under conditions that (in most cases, explicitly) involved the obligation to pay taxes as determined by the legal processes of those states. Someone who takes Caesar’s coin and then repudiates the associated obligation to pay taxes is, quite simply, a thief (of course, theft implies property, and vice versa).

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Why I’m always on the internet…

by Corey Robin on October 1, 2014

I hesitate to post this little item because it involves praise of me (with a term, as you may recall, that I really don’t like), but…John’s complaining that we’re not posting enough, and I think the topic in this item might be of interest to readers.

The context is that my friend, Peter von Ziegesar, who’s a filmmaker and author (of an affecting memoir about his brother that you really should read), was interviewed by PEN America and was asked, “While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose? How about artists? Is it a shared purpose?”

In his response, Peter says in part:

Typically in the past the public intellectual, on the model of Susan Sontag, for example, or Norman Mailer, or Gore Vidal, lived in New York and published in esoteric journals, such as The New York Review of Books, or The Nation, and occasionally appeared on the Tonight Show. A friend of mine, Corey Robin, a professor at Brooklyn College who has written several books and fits the role of public intellectual perfectly, in my opinion, told me recently that he originally moved to New York City hoping to discover just such a vibrant pool of committed intellectuals to join and was disappointed when he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t until he started blogging and created his own website that he found that group of individuals he’d been looking for—on the Internet.


Curious what other people’s experiences are, if they feel the same way…

 

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Since we’re on the topic of appalling and bizarre things said by rightwingers, here’s my entry, from this morning’s inbox, with the headline above. It’s from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida thinktank closely linked to ALEC (it also has some overlap with Cato and the State Policy Network).

The “argument” is that the expansion gives health care to poor people “many of whom (35 percent) with a record of run-ins with the criminal justice system”. This is illustrated with a “light-hearted” YouTube cartoon of convicts (riding in Cadillacs, naturally) pushing old ladies out of the line to get into the luxurious health care club that is Medicaid.

Given the catchy use of percentages (the 35 per cent figure is applicable to any assistance given to the poor), we can expect to see this one resurface in the Repub memepond on a regular basis. Paging Mitt Romney.

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The Personhood Dodge

by John Holbo on October 1, 2014

Crooked Timber seems to be suffering from a deficit of posts. I blame excess of virtue on my part. I was going to post about that Kevin Williamson piece that has set everyone off. I noticed it before it was a thing! And now it’s gone viral. And he’s followed up with a Twitter thing about hanging women who get abortions. Lovely.

Here’s the thing. 1) He’s trolling. 2) On or about Monday afternoon I realized this specific style of trolling bothers me a bit less than it did a couple years back.

Possible explanations: [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Boat, Bristol floating harbour

by Chris Bertram on September 28, 2014

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Occupy Central: Civil disobedience in Hong Kong

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 27, 2014

Important developments in Hong Kong, where students and citizens are protesting to get more democratic reforms. According to various internet reports (various posts at the BBC-website, Hufftington, Bloomberg), college and university students went on strike last Monday to protest Beijing’s decision to not allow open nominations for candidates for the 2017 elections in which the leader of Hong Kong would get elected. Protesters are worried that the closed nominations will mainly draw candidates who follow the Beijing line. From the perspective of an outsider, this seems like a textbook case of elections which will not be democratic if nominations themselves are not democratic.

The civil disobedience movement demanding more democracy is known as Occupy Central: the BBC has a short piece on the movement that helpfully explains their demands and gives some background information. Occupy Central is planning a multiple-day sit-in at Hong-Kong’s financial district starting October 1st.

According to the BBC, “most of China’s state-run media outlets have not commented directly on the student-led protests.” Which makes it all the more urgent and important that people-controled media, such as independent blogs like ours, share the news and talk about it. Consider this an open thread, for sharing views, information, insights and updates.

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Copyrights and Property Wrongs

by Corey Robin on September 27, 2014

Jeffrey Toobin has a fascinating piece in this week’s New Yorker on the effort of individuals to get information about themselves or their loved ones deleted from the internet.

Toobin’s set piece is a chilling story of the family of Nikki Catsouras, who was decapitated in a car accident in California. The images of the accident were so ghastly that the coroner wouldn’t allow Catsouras’s parents to see the body.

Two employees of the California Highway Patrol, however, circulated photographs of the body to friends. Like oil from a spill, the photos spread across the internet. Aided by Google’s powerful search engine—ghoulish voyeurs could type in terms like “decapitated girl,” and up would pop the links—the ooze could not be contained.

Celebrities who take naked selfies, ex-cons hoping to make a clean start, victims of unfounded accusations, the parents of a woman killed in a gruesome accident: all of us have an interest in not having certain information or images about us or our loved ones shared on the internet. Because it provides such a powerful sluice for the spread of that information or those images, Google has become the natural target of those who wish to protect their privacy from the prying or prurient eyes of the public.

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On Monday, 13 October 2014, at 11.45 am, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics will be announced (yes, we know it is officially the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel but that’s not the focus of this post). Some have said that the prize should go to Thomas Piketty, for his best-selling, important and highly influential book Capital in the twenty-first century. I, too, think this is a great book, for a variety of reasons.

But there is another inequality economist who is at least equally, and arguably much more deserving of the Nobel prize, and that is Anthony B. (Tony) Atkinson. For close readers of Piketty’s work, this claim shouldn’t be surprising, since Piketty credits Atkinson with “being a model for me during my graduate school days, [and Atkinson] was the first reader of my historical work on inequality in France and immediately took up the British case as well as a number of other countries” (Capital, vii). In a recent interview with Nick Pearce and Martin O’Neill which was published in Juncture, Thomas Piketty calls Tony Atkinson “the Godfather of historical studies on income and wealth” (p. 8). So my hunch is that Piketty would endorse the claim that if the Nobel Prize were awarded to welfare economics/inequality measurement, that Atkinson should get the Nobel Prize.
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George Steiner writes somewhere that the deepest source of anti-Semitism may lie in three Jews: Moses, Jesus, and Marx. Three Jews who formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, an almost unforgiving and humanly unbearable ethics/politics, that the rest of the world, whatever their formal embrace of institutionalized Christianity or communism, has repeatedly bridled at and hated. And never forgiven the Jews for. Setting aside the bit of self-congratulation that lies at the heart of that formulation—ah, we Jews, we’re so ethical and righteous—I wonder if some part of what Steiner says may not lie at the heart of the rage and reaction that Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem has elicited over the years. I mean, regardless of what you think of Eichmann’s arguments, you have to admit: the book does get under people’s skin. And not just for a moment, but for more than a half-century now, with no signs of abating. And that may be, taking my cues from Steiner, that there is something unforgiving at the heart of that book. It is a relentless indictment—not just, pace what Arendt herself said later of the book, of one man, but of many men, and women—an indictment, despite Arendt’s best and professed intentions, in which ordinary readers (ordinary men) can’t help but see themselves. And an indictment in the name of (or at least implicitly and distantly in the name of) a difficult and demanding ethics and politics. An indictment that seems to stir the same kind of reaction to Arendt that historically was stirred up against the Jews. Oh, that Hannah Arendt: she sets herself apart; she thinks she’s smarter than the rest of us; she belongs to no one, not even the Jews. Only this time it’s not the reaction of just non-Jews to Jews, but also of Jews to a Jew. Shana Tova.

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Milgram and Kitty Genovese

by Harry on September 24, 2014

In my class today someone made reference to the Kitty Genovese case (it was relevant) and I commented, casually, that I thought that the claim that 30 something people had looked on while Genovese had been discredited. Another student said “oh no, I am revising for a test later today about this” and proceeded to give us the standard account of the case. Here’s Nick Lemann’s New Yorker review of the books that seemingly discredit it.

I sent the students the link, and a different student wrote back that she had thought I was joking in class (they know I do that sometimes) and that as a psychology major she hears about the case in every class she takes. That got me to thinking about the Milgram experiment (which philosophers make much more of than they do of the Genovese case) which, again, seems to me (I say “seems” because I read part of Gina Perry’s book, and have heard her interviewed in depth) also discredited. And made me wonder i) whether anyone has a refutation of Perry’s book but, more, ii) how quickly professors adjust their teaching when findings they have taught as gospel are thoroughly discredited. I was a bit shocked, frankly, that the Genovese case is still being taught as something to be regurgitated in a test, but I am also quite struck by the number of times I have heard philosopher’s call on the Milgram experiment as evidence for some philosophical view, and wondered how long it will take before it is removed from the philosopher’s armoury (and the psychologist’s lectures)

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… an Alinskyite!

Unless I’m missing something, Kurtz’ actual argument that Hillary has consistently remained an Alinskyite radical is that, for decades, she has consistently done absolutely nothing whatsoever to suggest this is true – as one would expect! She is, to all appearances, moderate, incrementalist and pragmatic. Just like Barack Obama, who is such a model Alinskyite radical that he is on track to govern for eight years and retire to private life without once doing anything to suggest he’s got a radical bone in his body.

How much more sinister would The Manchurian Candidate have been if the trigger word were never spoken. The sleeper never wakes! (A lone hero tries to warn the world but, because there is literally nothing to warn people about, he is ignored.)

Back to Kurtz. [click to continue…]

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From derp to denial

by John Quiggin on September 23, 2014

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen four major reports (details over the fold) from very different sources, all making the same point: decarbonizing the world economy will involve economic costs that are
(a) small; and
(b) far outweighed by the benefits
And, the empirical evidence so far is strong. The EU and US have both reduced CO2 emissions significantly, at negligible or even negative economic cost. The measures announced by Obama, including vehicle emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power stations appear set to achieve further substantial reductions, again while yielding net economic benefits.

Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries. Again, the costs have been trivially small: in Australia’s case, made up almost entirely of the reduction in asset value imposed on existing generators.

There is as far as I am aware, no credible analysis to support the opposite claim (call it the economic armageddon hypothesis) that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world. (Again, more detailed argument over the fold.

Nevertheless, past experience suggests that lots of people are sufficiently wedded to the economic armageddon hypothesis that neither this, nor any other evidence will change their minds. I have previously analyzed this unwillingness to respond to evidence in terms of Noah Smith’s Bayesian definition of “derp“: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”.

But I no longer think this is sufficient. A central concept of Bayesian decision theory is the separation of preferences from beliefs. That is, your subjective belief about the probability that a proposition is true should be independent of whether (because you have bet on it, or for some other reason) you want it to be true. This is the opposite of what is often called “motivated reasoning” or, less politely, “wishful thinking”.

This, I think, is the central distinction between “derp” and “denial”. Both involve the rejection of factual evidence that would (to a person without strong preconceptions) be overwhelmingly strong. This must involve strong prior beliefs. Denial differs from derp in that these factual beliefs derive from preferences, and are unlikely to undergo any updating. If anything, denial may be strengthened by evidence of the proposition being denied.

This in turn suggests different possible cures. Derp may eventually, if very slowly, be overcome by an accumulation of evidence. By contrast, denial can only be addressed by changing the source of wishful thinking; for example, by convincing rightwingers to stop being rightwingers.

That brings us to the question of why, if the case is so overwhelming, the political resistance to action on climate change has been so strong, and whether it can be overcome. I have a go at this in another post on my blog, where this one was already posted. It might be worth reading the comments threads to these posts before jumping in here.

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Every single IT guy, every single manager …

by Daniel on September 23, 2014

I’m sure that this point has been made somewhere or other in the general debate on email spying and the NSA/Snowden revelations, but in my opinion not often enough or forcefully enough. People who want to dismiss the whole thing as “no big deal” are, in my view, totally underestimating the scale of the blind trust that’s required of them. In other words, even opponents of ubiquitous surveillance (like Kieran in this worked example) tend to assume that the institution which has access to your information is the institution which collected it. But that’s not necessarily the case at all.

The Leveson Inquiry in the UK demonstrated that the Police National Computer could be accessed by more or less any tabloid journalist with a phone and an account with a crooked detective agency (which served as the conduit to crooked insiders). The Manning and Snowden revelations, whatever else they’ve shown us about the world, have made it clear that mid-level employees can get access to huge amounts of top secret data as long as they’ve got the wit to smuggle it out on a thumb drive.

So the question is not so much “do you trust the CIA/NSA/MI6/etc?”. It’s “Do you trust every single sysadmin working for these organisations? Every single analyst? Every single middle manager?”. The CIA might not be interested at all in my dull mobile phone conversation metadata, but someone else might – the Leveson inquiry was told how the UK’s PNC was used by one copper to check out his daughter’s new boyfriend. In terms of our personal data, the kind of uses which the agencies want to be allowed to make, while worrying enough in themselves, are the tip of the iceberg. And all the policies which might prevent it from being accessed by blackmailers, tabloid journalists, nosey neighbours and basically anyone else, are themselves top secret and not subject to any sort of legal oversight.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory, as you can see; it’s based on the fact that big and complicated systems are set up to malfunction, particularly if they are able to declare themselves above any regulation at all. And the way in which this particular system is set up to malfunction is easily predictable and potentially very damaging to innocent people. I am personally not at the stage where I trust every single person who might be hired for a low level IT job in a security agency, and I’m not sure that I trust an entirely opaque set of safeguards with no accountability either.

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