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  1. "The Pomfret's are tiny in the U.S.", is what I thought when I first saw a Pomfret fish in a U.S. shop (the Chinese stores have them). Turns out, they're regular sized Pomfrets and it's just me who'd grown. That's what I figured after asking around. I realized that I had last eaten this fish when I was pretty young (and small). So, my memory of their size was relative to my own size then. Ever met people who spent their younger childhoods in a city where is snows and the piles go up to 3 or 4 feet, and and then they moved when they themselves were about 4 feet tall? Many of them, as 6 foot adults will say it used to snow and pile up about 6 foot high when they were kids! Damn this global warming! I suppose, in this sense, man is the measure of all things.Link to Original
  2. A couple of years ago, I was in a small mid-western resort town on July 4th and thousands of tourists (mostly from elsewhere in the state) had turned out to see the fireworks. Trucks streamed in from all the nearby little towns and farms. The atmosphere was festive. There was benevolence all around. The red-white-and blue was respected, not as a symbol of something above us on an altar, but as a symbol of who we are. Not on a pedestal to be saluted -- though that too -- but, in casual clothing, in funny head-dress, in flashing lights to be worn for the evening. All around was a feeling of family and of sharing a value. Very few cops in sight, and yet the thousands self-organizing in very orderly ways. If you asked those people, in that moment, if freedom was their top value, if the individual is important, if we should recognize the individual's right to his own life and happiness...you'd probably find lots of agreement. It's all good, but it is mostly emotional. As you peel away and understand the intellectual roots, contradictions appear. I won't say the emotions are unfounded, that there is no "there there". When Hollywood makes a movie of a maverick going up against the world and winning, huge audiences love the theme. It is who they are: sometimes, on some topics, and in some emotional states. Nationalism is dangerous when it goes beyond a general benevolent celebration of sharing good values like freedom and individualism. It usually does, and we have a good person like Robert E. Lee rejecting Lincoln's attempt to get him to lead a Union Army, even though he could "anticipate no greater calamity for the country than dissolution" and thought "secession is nothing but revolution". Why? For "honor" -- which really translates to honoring a convention where you are loyal to your home state. Throw in ideas about the role of government in helping people in all sorts of situations. Thrown in ideas about inequality being caused by oppression. And faulty ideas about economics. And suspicions about bankers running the world. Add back the occasional cheering of the maverick who defies authority; but also add back the desire to control other people's behavior: if they're gay, or marrying someone of another race, or smoking pot, or even having a beer when they're 20 years and 11 months! That is the contradiction that is America. Still, you should feel free to choose what emotions you wish to invest in symbols like the flag. You do not have to salute a flag and think you're saluting a tortured contradiction that is eating itself from the inside out :) . You can salute it for the right reasons, or for what you think it once stood for. Here's Frederick Douglas, speaking on the occasion, about a decade before the civil war: "This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." It's worth reading, particularly if your first reaction is to dismiss it. Was he wrong? Was he right for his time and not for ours? Or, does his admonition still stand? "Should we celebrate 4th of July?" I don't think that's the right question. I think that -- right from Day 1 -- there were people who should have been celebrating it. Not just Americans.And, not all Americans. I think the question should not be addressed to a group, but to each individual: "Can you celebrate July 4th without hypocrisy?" I think this is the greal lesson from Douglas's speech. And, each individual may honestly answer "yes", even if the rest of the world cannot. Link to Original
  3. At one level, 451 is about oppressive government keeping books away from people, but the message is deeper than that. Peel back a layer and we find that it is not just about books and not just about government. Bradbury tells us that textured, varied, un-sanitized, life is the good life. The life of purely passive leisure -- the do-nothing life depicted in Mildred watching TV all day -- is bad (she almost kills herself with sleeping pills, and it doesn't really seem to bother her; after all, what is there to live for?). Bradbury fears we are losing touch with reality -- with doing things with our hands, with contact with the earth -- as all our comforts alienate us from nature. In 451, we see TV as a passive medium. Bradbury also criticizes it for being a broadcast medium, though we also see a degree of 'fake" individualization like the device that fills in the viewer's name at certain points. How does it compare to Facebook? Bradbury has the style of a poet. It makes for a brief book. Link to Original
  4. John Masters's novels aren't for everyone, but I enjoy them immensely. Masters tells a good story, and tells it well. His heroes are far from perfect; they are works-in-progress, who develop through the book, occasionally tempted by Dostoyevsky-like inner dialogs. Sometimes, they weaken and succumb to temptation. The books are mostly adventures without deep themes. Indeed, the rare times that Masters tries to step back and find a broader moral theme, he is unconvincing: the narrative does not support his commentary. The books are all based in India, and the protagonists are British. Each book is set at a different time, across the few hundred of years that the British traded with and ruled India. Two of the books are set during very significant events in British-India: the 1857 mutiny (Nightrunners of Bengal) and 1947's independence (Bhowani Junction). The historical interest made me curious, but I stayed for the story, and bought the other books. Two of the books have been made into movies: Bhowani Junction and The Deceivers. The movies are nice enough, but miss much from the books. As a first book, I would recommend "The Deceivers": it is a story about the criminal tribe of "thugs" in India, and how a British officer tries to take them on. (On Amazon-UK, and Abe Books) Link to Original
  5. Why do some gurus endure? Jesus was not the only Jewish preacher, and I bet Mohammad and Buddha had competition too. In modern parlance: why did they "go viral"? Christianity really took off in Rome. Buddhism declined in India, but spread in China. Clearly, early advocates -- Paul in Christianity -- were critical. I listened (thanks to Librivox) to about half of an old book, titled History Of The Christian Church During The First Six Centuries. The book documents Christianities leaders, branches and debates up to around 600 AD. The book documents the growth of the church. It also explains how they changed some practices -- e.g. did not insist on circumcision -- in order to make conversion more palatable to gentiles. However, the author did not explain why those gentiles (or other Jews) would switch to the Christian sect of Judaism. After Constantine moved the Roman empire to Christianity around 300AD, the rise of the religion can be explained by political sponsorship. However, I did not find what I was looking for: i.e., an explanation of the motivation (intellectual or other) of people who adopted Christianity in the first three centuries. Three of the four largest religions -- Christianity, Buddhism and Islam -- spread very widely. I'm curious about how religions spread without political sponsorship. Why did Christianity grow in the first century or so? Why did Buddhism spread in China? (Political sponsorship was the key to its spread in India, and it faded when that sponsorship ended.) Perhaps a lot of Islam's success may be explained by early political sponsorship; but, here too, its spread to Indonesia and to the south-west coast of India seems to have been via evangelism and its message of individualism. Older faiths just "were". Conquerors would convert new kingdoms to their faith, but there seems to have been little evangelism in older religions like Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism or the old Greek or Roman practices. Could a large part of the success be explained by the evangelical impulse itself? Could it be as simple as that? I.e. that only a few religions made an organized effort to spread their faith, and that the three major ones are among the few that did? Apart from the desire to evangelize, perhaps these religions owe much of their spread to the fact that they developed some types of methods, institutions and networks that were geared toward evangelism. Looking at the original theology of these three religions, I cannot find anything radically unique to set them apart from other sects of their time. So, though I don't know enough to rule out that they really did fill some intellectual need that was not filled by their successors, I suspect that theology is only a minor factor. One tidbit that I found interesting was that the author identifies two hold-outs against Christianity after the Roman emperors had adopted it officially. The first was rural areas, particularly if they were isolated. No surprise there. The other holdout was the scholars in universities, who continued to dismiss Christian mysticism for a while after others had converted. One negative with this book is that the author hints at mystical explanations for some historical events; but, it is not enough to distract. All in all, it was a mildly interesting book. It helped make the period more real to me, but I'm still left with the questions I began with. Link to Original
  6. "We come from a line of strong Norse and Celtic mix. We take what is our due." This is a line I read from a father, to a daughter, advising her to demand something she considered her right. It is interesting how people look to their history in this way, because -- in fact -- this is myth. There's no biological transfer of philosophy across that time, and yet people invoke the myth, because it stirs emotion. It works like good heroic literature: it shows us what humans can do. We are inspired. If "these people could do so, so could I". The emotional reality is stronger, if we add "my own ancestors could do this,…" which translates to "people just like me could do this… and, so can I". I was always puzzled by Rand's mention of the TV series "Roots". Though she said the author's idea of tracing his biological ancestors was tribalist, she also praised him for producing "a representative image of black people in America, from an aspect that had not been presented before". Wait! Why would it be tribalist to look for one's biological ancestors, but praiseworthy to look more broadly, at "black ancestry"? Rand's answer is that he portrayed black slaves as moral heroes: as people who never relinquished the idea that they were human beings with equal rights, in whose hearts the desire for freedom would never be extinguished. Like the father in the quote above, the father saying "we can be heroes… because, this is who we are", the Roots series was saying "blacks can be heroes… because, this is who we are". Rationally, logically, factually ... we can be heroes because we are human, not because we are Norse/Celtic or Black. Yet, by narrowing down from "human" to "Norse" or "Black" or anything more specific, we make the picture more concrete, closer to reality, more achievable, and thus more inspiring. This is the role of literature in myth: it makes the abstract concrete. This gives it a reality that is more real, and makes it a more effective motivator of emotion. The point, then, is not to look for family merely to know the nitty gritty, but to look for inspiration. It does not need to be all positive either. We look to myth for strength, but we can spin inspiring tales from negatives too. A jailed swindler in the family, can become a cautionary myth of "people like us can be tempted by short term gain". Or, if the swindler's children were regular folk: "people like us, do not simply ape our parents" (Yes, that's a bit ironic.) Link to Original
  7. The FDA has now allowed 23andMe to give their customers some health-related information. This is not everything: it is only the results tat the FDA considers more reliable. On the face, this might look like a good thing, but it is probably the first step to corrupting one more little industry. Already, 23andMe is running ads saying it is the only genetic testing company offering FDA-approved health results. This is really deceptive because the FDA only approved a small sliver of their tests and because competitors can do the same even if the FDA has not approved them yet. Consider the people who run 23andMe. Until recently they were fighting against FDA control. Now, how would they view a competitor who wants to offer a non-approved test? They'll probably insist on a "level playing field". Fast forward a year or two and they'll have a relationship with the FDA and may even sue a competitor who tries to offer something new saying it does not need FDA approval. Fast forward a few more years and they would have employed some ex-government folk, and would have initiated joint sessions where they try to get ahead of the FDA, by laying out what they think the rules and standards ought to be. That's when outsiders will scream "regulatory capture". Two decades ago, Wal*Mart was proud to have a very tiny lobbying office. Microsoft boasted almost no "Washington-man" until the government came after them. Google started that way too. Step-by-step, each of them learnt how to play the game until, finally, they're close enough to government that libertarians can re-write history and say that businessmen are the evil drivers behind "crony capitalism". No, all along it is the idiot citizen buying something at Wal*Mart saying "they should be forced to pay their workers better", or installing Windows and saying "they should be forced to install their competitors' products automatically", or "they should be forced to give me search results for free", or "they should be forced to get approval from government panels before they offer me genetic tests". [url={url}]Link to Original[/url]
  8. "The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould" is a collection of Gould's essays, mostly about evolution. This is not a breezy book; even skipping, it took me months. Nevertheless, it is a rewarding book to anyone who is already past the basic misconceptions about evolution and wants to understand it in a little more detail. If you still have doubts about evolution vs. creationism/"intelligent design", this may not be the book for you. If you think evolution is a process where individual organisms adapt to their changing environments, or if you think things like "since modern society rewards intelligence, humans will continue evolve into more intelligent beings", you will need a more basic book than this one. Here are examples of a few misconceptions this book does tackle, and which resonated with my personal level of ignorance: 1. If a feature exists and has lasted for centuries, it must have some evolutionary advantage. (Perhaps a biologist would think this is a laughable misconception, but I've always thought it was plausible.) 2. Features have to develop very incrementally. So, it is not good enough to explain the advantage of some feature. In order to show that it was produced by evolution, one must also explain the evolutionary advantage of hypothetical features that must have existed and grown into the final feature. 3. Slow changes explain the bulk of evolution, and major cataclysms, warmings, coolings, asteroids, and so on only explain a small part of historical changes. 4. Natural variation is entirely random. Of course this could be true depending on the usage of "random". However, take Gould's example of a few islands where one could classify snails on the islands by two distinct patterns: A and B. One might think that the "A" types on the different islands all had a common ancestor, as did all the "B". However, in fact, they do not. The similar distinguishing factor evolved independently in the different populations. In a similar example, three types of Zebra, evolved their striping independently. [And, on an unrelated note, Zebras are white with black stripes, not black with white stripes.] 5. Evolution favors intelligence, and it is somewhat inevitable that humans would finally rise to become the dominant species. On this last, Gould says that the typical "fish-to-mammals" charts gives us a false picture of evolution as a left-to-right movement. In fact, evolution often proceeds in the opposite direction: toward simpler forms. He suggests a different visual model: something like a sphere formed from strands emanating from the center. There are organisms at all diameters of the sphere and they are all evolving, not just the ones that are furthest from the center. Also, each evolutionary step can go outward toward more complexity or inward toward simplicity. Even if we assume a equal probability of either, over time the sphere will increase in diameter, with complex organisms emerging, but the center of gravity (measured by number of species) will continue to stay fairly near the core. [Caveat: Everything above is my paraphrase, and integration, and not to be taken as "essential Gould.' [url={url}]Link to Original[/url]
  9. "There was a time when the reader of an unexciting newspaper would remark, 'How dull is the world today!' Nowadays he says, 'What a dull newspaper!' " Daniel Boorstin's in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. This book is Boorstin's diatribe against the promotion of "image" over reality. Even with his refusal to see the other side of the argument, and even 50 years after it was published, this is a must-read for the questions is raises, even if though it does not attempt any answers. In 2014 a Malaysian airliner disappeared with almost no trace. When little is known, people want to know more: someone will pretend to provide. Someone will take arbitrary speculation and make it "newsworthy": if we assume this is true, what would it mean; and if not true, what would that mean? "Experts" jump up to discuss pros and cons. At one stage a CNN anchor even asked if a black hole could have caused the disappearance; and, what about the supernatural, can we really rule it out? In Boorstin's terminology, so little was known about the event that so much time was spent analyzing "pseudo-events". When there's not enough to report, reporters entertain.When Jim Cramer literally blows a horn and prances during his investment-advice program, the line between entertainment and reality is blurred.Entertainment is great, comedy shows are fine, excitement is fun. It is the blurring that causes a problem, because instead of the emotion that might flow from the facts, we have the hyped up emotion from the entertainment "buy! buy! buy!", he shouts. Yet, at least Cramer is blatantly over-the-top. When news-anchors adopt an urgent tone, the message is more insidious: under all the excitement about the employment report coming in 0.2% above the "consensus estimate" they ignore that it is an extremely rough estimate: +/- 0.3%. That way, if it reverts to the mean, it will excuse excitement in the opposite direction! At the end of this path of non-objectivity, we end up in a world where ignorant people get their news from Jon Stewart: insidiousness on steroids. However, there is a second theme in this book: a curmudgeonly Luddite broadside against various aspects of modern life: Boorstin criticizes what might be termed "faux experiences". For instance, the American who travels to a third-world country, but stays in a luxury hotel, commutes in air-conditioned taxis, and steps out occasionally to get taste of local life. I mostly disagree with this theme, but I'm fine to have him perch on my shoulders as conscience, asking me to think twice about modernity. Amused, I wonder how much more appalled he would be in a world of Tweets and snapchat. In an ultimate irony, I ought to condense his book into a Tweet. I recommend this book as a "must-read" even if you have to plow through the negatives. Boorstin's denunciation of image over reality, is even more relevant today, 50 years after it was published. [url={url}]Link to Original[/url]
  10. Grapes of Wrath follows a family leaving Oklahoma to look for (elusive) work in California. While the family seems stoic about their suffering and oppression, the book's title warns of a revolution to come. The protagonists are honest, but ignorant, folk unable to cope with changing society. No heroes, just ordinary people, trying to make sense of their world, and to make the best of a situation they do not understand. The rich are the villains, with "the big bank" as the fountainhead of villainy. Steinbeck paints with a realistic lyricism reminiscent of good country lyrics, but more delicately. Unfortunately, like country-lyrics, the troubles become repetitive and the author provides few explanations -- let alone possible solutions! We're never really told exactly how the big bank is guilty. The guilty: The problem, we're told, is that "property accumulates in too few hands" while "a majority of the people are hungry and cold". The author's sympathies are with the poor. He focuses on their virtues, as he sees them, but his descriptions are shallow. ["Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor."] ["If you’re in trouble or hurt or need— go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help— the only ones."] In times of trouble, says Steinbeck, the poor hang together, helping strangers beyond family. In the closing scene, Steinbeck shows us an example of this sharing, in a concrete example that is both poignant and poetic. We are told that the rich ignored history and refused to change the system, choosing repression instead; but the author never substantiates his claim. If we ignore the commentary and look at the facts the author presents, we see a different picture. Innovation and industrialization is making older ways uneconomical. While the author's accusing finger points to the rich when he engages in commentary, the only guilt we're really shown as concrete facts is that the poor have remained ignorant of the changes and have not kept up. Clearly, some poor adapted: they probably left their uneconomical farms and went to work for a Henry Ford. The one's we are shown are those who are hanging on, in the face of change that will finally sweep away such stragglers. Objectively, the Okies are not innocents. They share some culpability. With hindsight, they admit their land could not sustain them. ["I know this land ain’t much good. Never was much good ’cept for grazin’."] We cringe when Californians use "Okies" as a pejorative, but again the victim is not without guilt: the Okies look at "niggers" with their own -- far less justified -- prejudice. And, don't forget, Grampa took up the land and killed Indians and drove them away. We see an admission that Californian orchards cannot sustain so many Okies either. ["... peach orchard I worked in. Takes nine men all the year roun’.’’ He paused impressively. “Takes three thousan’ men for two weeks when them peaches is ripe."] Solutions and Utopias: The closest that Steinbeck comes to portraying a happy community is in a government-run camp for migrants: where the inhabitants are mostly living off welfare. The camp disallows private charity with its pity and obligation. "We don’t allow nobody to give nothing to another person. They can give it to the camp, an’ the camp can pass it out. We won’t have no charity!’’ Her voice was fierce and hoarse. “I hate ’em,’’ she said. “I ain’t never seen my man beat before, but them— them Salvation Army done it to ’im.’’ Yet, what is this camp if not government-enforced "charity"? Are we really to believe that taking welfare from others by force is superior to taking from condescending but willing donors? And, what are these poor supposed to do other than live off welfare? The author does not even attempt to show us how things ought to be different, other than wanting the poor to have more somehow... but how? No answer. Instead, he threatens the rich with revolution. "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." Concretely, the author shows that attempts at revolution fail (like the dead preacher, Casey). Yet, via the book's title, Steinbeck is warning his middle-class readers. One day... revolution will come. It is the trite warning from advocates of redistribution: give "willingly" or much more will be taken from you. Modernity and Industrialization - the truly guilty: The author condemns the alienation that comes from industrialization, romanticizing an older time, with a simpler economy. "We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours— being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it." Now, life is different, with the evil tractor symbolizing modernity. ["So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation."] The convenience of packaged foods is described as "...a piece of pie branded like an engine part... " The author thinks that the multi-tiered economy makes cogs out of men. ["“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look— suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.’’ “That’s so,’’ the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.’’ “You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.’ "] And, he wants to change it. ["“We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.’’]. Steinbeck is right that the changes are man-made, but he can never find a solution as long as he romanticizes primitive ways as being more real, and criticizes modernity. Psychological insight: Though the book's ethical and political message is boring and bankrupt, Steinbeck writes well. Like most good authors, we see snippets that feel real for their psychological truth. Here's are some snippets of dialog from various characters in the book. Some of it is close to poetry. "The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained." "Seems like he’s ’shamed, so he gets mad." Said by a car-dealer, about his customers: "Get ’em under obligation. Make ’em take up your time. Don’t let ’em forget they’re takin’ your time." "...muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need— this is man." "...the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand." "...one person with their mind made up can shove a lot of folks" "Don’t even wash potatoes ’fore we boil ’em. I wonder why? Seems like the heart’s took out of us." “Take a man, he can get worried an’ worried, an’ it eats out his liver, an’ purty soon he’ll jus’ lay down and die with his heart et out. But if you can take an’ make ’im mad, why, he’ll be awright. Pa, he didn’ say nothin’, but he’s mad now. He’ll show me now. He’s awright.’’ Style: And then there is the lyricism in the author's voice too... "When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards." "And the people listened, and their quiet eyes reflected the dying fire." Anti-Establishment thinking: Woven into the rest are some valid anti-establishment, anti-conservative ideas "Got a lot of sinful idears— but they seem kinda sensible.’’ Joad said, “You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff." "when a bunch of men take an’ lock you up four years, it ought to have some meaning. Men is supposed to think things out. Here they put me in, an’ keep me an’ feed me four years. That ought to either make me so I won’t do her again or else punish me so I’ll be afraid to do her again’’— he paused—“ but if Herb or anybody else come for me, I’d do her again. Do her before I could figure her out. Specially if I was drunk. That sort of senselessness kind a worries a man.’’ In summary: The book is an example of good writing from a viewpoint that I disagree with: lots of pluses for aesthetics, but thumbs down for its philosophy. Link to Original
  11. When oil was first discovered in Pennsylvania, it was transported to the nearest rail head by horse. It was poured into liquor barrels, put on a cart and pulled by a team of horses. In 1865, Samuel Van Syckel procured a right of way and built a 5 mile pipeline. He faced a lot of technical challenges. The oil had to be pumped, and the pipeline's joints would need to withstand high pressure. Van Syckel was working with 15 foot sections of 2-inch wrought pipe. After sabotage by unhappy teamsters, he hired guards to protect the line, and it was successful enough (he charged $1 per barrel) that he built a second line soon after. Today, pipeline builders don't just have to get a right of way from farmers. They have to petition the government. And, they do not face desperate teamsters wielding pickaxes in a futile attempt to hold back competition. Instead, the government does the job more effectively. If the people's government, duly elected, says "no", their refusal trumps private property rights. And, it cannot be challenged by a measly force of private guards. Behind the "no" from the voters' representatives is the ultimate power of force. Not just pickaxes: try to defy it and bulldozers will raze your line; resist that and police with guns will haul you away and throw you in jail. Who needs teamsters with pickaxes when we have SWAT teams to enforce the people's will. Link to Original
  12. Overview: Like last year, 2014 gave us a slowly improving economy, and a rocketing stock market! Since the 2007-08 downturn, most measures of the economy have stabilized and have started to improve from their bottom. Even total-employment got back, though the more important number (Employment-to-population) is still low. The broadest GDP measure has been increasing very slowly. House-prices came well off their bottom, someway half-way to the old peak, but have recently flattened for a few months. Meanwhile, the stock market is at an all-time high. Corporate profits are high since GDP is growing slowly while firms have kept a reign on costs. Companies have kept buying back stock at above-average levels. This is different from the type of excitement that drove the dot.com boom, because it does not cascade into higher salaries and expenditures: quite the opposite. In the short/medium term, this is "blah" for employment numbers and wages. Here are some of the details: Employment: After seeming to flatten last year, the Employment-to-population ratio jumped up by a percentage point. If we define recessions by level rather than by direction, and if we use this single measure, then we are still in a recession. This measure is closely related to why people still don't think things are fine. Real GDP per Capita: Real GDP per-capita picked up after seeming to flatten last year. 2014 was a bit better than 2013 and what looked like a flattening now looks like a resumed (though slower) trend. Home prices: The Case-Schiller index has been rising for two years now. Price-rise: The 10-year CPI expectation (using TIPS spreads) dropped under 2% almost to 1.5% [Which means that anyone who thinks the official CPI will actually rise much more than this over 10 years should buy TIPS.] This probably reflects the generally low interest rates on US government debt as the dollar has been one of the strongest relative to other currencies. Stock market: The stock-market is on a "what me worry?" tear. Rumors of its death appear to have been discredited. But that's how stock markets are: up, until they aren't. In terms of months and level, it is looking long in the tooth, but history also says it is probably pointless to jump out. Summary: There is a bit more enthusiasm about the economy, but not much. Lower gas prices will lower the GDP metric directly, but Christmas-related buying will probably improve to compensate. No great improvement is expected and, consequently, companies are unlikely to raise hiring or wages much more than they've been doing. Government entities aren't likely to go gang-busters either, but here too voters are a little more willing to approve funding for roads and schools. A "new normal" seems like a good guess: growth, but slow. Even though the stock-market is booming, it is without excitement: more like "there's no other game in town, while the FED keeps rates low; and, profits are high through cost-control". The divergence cannot go on forever, but it can resolve itself in various ways. Much of the market-sentiment is driven by what John Hussman calls "superstition" about the Fed's ability to keep this playing out for a many more years. The FED continued to say that the turning point is far away, so the game could go on. The biggest "anticipated wildcards" for 2015 will how the market reacts to the FED, and how the drop in oil-prices filters through (given that a lot of capital investment and employment growth came from the U.S. oil sector). A new downturn -- particularly in the stock market, if not the economy -- is likely before Obama's term ends, but he might squeeze through... and Democrats will have something to brag about. Link to Original
  13. Private debt is often a bigger problem than government debt, in a mixed economy. Governments encourage private borrowing, and force some citizens to underwrite the losses of others. The great recession is essentially a tale of private debt gone wild. Greenspan's folly: After the dot.com bust, Americans did not tighten their belts for long. Look at the first chart. After dropping slightly for two years (2003-04), debt payments rose as a percent of disposable income. This was Alan Greenspan's "clever plan" ™ to get out of the recession: "borrow against your house". A different (private) response: Then came the housing bust of the "great recession". Bernanke would have liked to repeat the Greenspan "solution", but this time, Americans were more scared. They have been repairing their balance sheets (see 2008 and beyond). Flat levels of liability: Meanwhile, the total level (nominal) of household liabilities has flattened out (2nd chart) for the first time since the 1950's. On a log-scale (3rd chart), and compared to household net worth, one can see the flattening is less dramatic, but still real. This is not just about people borrowing less; large amounts of debt were written off: foreclosures, bankruptcy, etc. Not enough: Households have not done enough. The Fed's response to the great recession has caused a financial asset boom that has introduced complacency. The rise in household net-worth (chart below) might even convince households to start borrowing again. Household ought to have cut back more drastically, but lets take what we can get. Gross figures: One problem with the numbers above is that they are across the whole economy. The stock-market boom could implies that much of the increase in net-worth has been seen by the upper half of the population, with the lower half still in bad shape. Going forward: A pause in borrowing usually precedes a turn toward confidence, and a credit-boom. That's a danger today: that people will forget the lessons of the recession and go back to splurging. Time will tell. Link to Original
  14. In a previous post I predicted Social Security will be around for a long while. Briefly, if you are between 30 and 50 you will likely receive social security, but you will receive less than promised if you're in the upper-middle income range. (If you're 20 or so, I have no prediction to make. I wouldn't rely on it. Still, by the time you're 30, you you can re-evaluate the situation.) The math of Social Security does not add up, but each time it has faced a crisis, the tax-rate has been raised. The Wiki has a table showing how it crept up, along with a list of changes, showing how "benefits" were cut, particularly at the higher end. Even among "conservatives", only about 10% think social security should be phased out. Therefore, the program will stay. About 30% of voters, across the political spectrum, think benefits should be reduced, while the majority (60%) want the program kept as is. This means raising taxes is the most viable political solution. Voters show a similar reluctance to changing Medicare (and Medicaid). c Link to Original
  15. Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt" is a middle-aged, middle-class, real-estate broker, who votes Republican, goes to church, and belongs to the right club. Babbitt is not a fountainhead of evil; he is not particularly zealous about his values; he is even open to toying "in theory" with alternatives in morality and politics. We sense the author's sympathy -- perhaps pity -- for his protagonist. Here is a man who has chosen values which are about average for his background, not quite happy with his choices, theoretically open to alternatives, practically going to stay put in his comfort zone. But, why not? The alternatives presented by the author are hardly inspiring. Should Babbitt move to the backwoods and get in touch with nature, or should he mingle with the bohemians in the city, or should he aspire to move into the upper classes? The author gives us a brief look into each of these, and what we see is not inspiring. Each of these is simply another type of life, not better, but just as routine in its own way The message seems to be that we have some choice, but -- in essence -- it does not make much difference. The differences are only cosmetic; we are born into a social class, or we work our way into it, and then we adopt its customs, which are no better or worse than the others. Lewis's book is naturalism at its best. The actors introspect, and make choices, and direct their lives... and yet, in the end this agency and action is essentially futile... we still end up "choosing" some type of routine, boring conformity. The characters are not inexorably carried along with the average trend; but, not do they battle against it either. The actors are not born with some inherent flaw that they cannot will away; yet, we find them constrained by their own values and choices, unable to radically change the choices they have made. Clearly not inspiring fiction, but it is worth reading a few such books. I think this type of naturalism has didactic (and "cautionary tale") value. While the naturalism will leave the reader uninspired, the plot carries one along as if one were watching a real reality show. It could serve a purpose, in small doses. Link to Original
  16. Rand says that ideas are not innate. Even the broad axioms like "existence exists" that everyone takes for granted have to be gleaned from experience. This is contrary to epistemology that says that certain fundamental axioms are known a priori (e.g. see Ludwig von Mises). However, Rand was not unique in rejecting innate ideas. John Locke (Book 1 of "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding") argues against the notion of innate propositions. His opponents consider notions like "What is is" (similar to "existence exists") as being innate in the human mind. Locke sets out to refute this view. Broad "speculative propositions" about existence, non-contradiction and identity are not innate, but must be discovered by man, through the use of reason. Moreover, other knowledge is not derived are a deductive conclusion from these broad propositions. Reason is the faculty to discover all knowledge: Having addressed "speculative" propositions, Locke then turns to moral and practical propositions. Ideas like justice, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", worship and even the idea of God ... ... none of these are innate to man. While he agrees that many of these concepts and propositions are valid, true and useful, one cannot simply take these on trust or faith. One look purely within oneself for knowledge. Instead, man has to use reason. Reject faith, and base the concept of God on reason: Locke explains that many men learn these broad principles at a very young age, and think of them as innate because they are so ingrained, and because all their neighbors seem to agree. Yet, says Locke, principles held like this stand on the shaky foundations that also include the superstitions of childrens' nurses and the fear of being different from one's neighbors. By his nature, man needs principles; therefore, a man who cannot or will not use reason to find true principles, will accept principles by default (e.g. from his culture). Link to Original
  17. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" - from the poem on a Statue of Liberty. Sound altruistic? That is not the intent. No, the message is not "America wants to help the poor; so, immigrate here". The message is: "America has freedom, so you can start poor and yet thrive here" The poem is a challenge and a boast. In an earlier line, the poet addresses the old countries of the world saying: "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" America does not need your aristocrats with their hereditary pomp. Though freedom, we can take your "refuse", your "homeless" and "tempest-tost" and let them thrive. This was the original American dream. May it come true somewhere, anywhere; some day, any day. Link to Original
  18. *** Merged with an existing topic. *** A survey of "Mind drives History" ideas “...You cannot resist an idea whose time has come.”(Victor Hugo). Actions flow from ideas. That's why tyrants imprison intellectuals.That's why the Stasi monitored and controlled the spread of ideas. (Movie to see: "The Lives of Others") Religious view of History: The ancients thought God was the prime-mover of history. It was the unfolding of His plan. For polytheists, history might be a story played out between different Gods. Man could have a role: a King or a people could make God happy or angry, driving historical reward or punishment. God might give you a promised land, or send a plague. Religious guru Pat Robertson still thinks God rewards and punishes America from time to time! Deterministic views: Secular historians are split. Some people see little pattern and lots of accidents, while others try to integrate history more broadly, seeing either nature or man as the driver. Jared Diamond argues that geography and the availability of domesticable animals lead to certain ways of working, and to certain human institutions. Then, as way leads on to way, one society ends up rich and industrial while the other stays primitive. Marxists speak of material forces and productive relations molding and driving ideas. In this view history is driven by man, but not quite consciously -- much determinism remains. Ideas as the conscious driver: Finally, there are historians who say ideas drive history. At the level of a particular ruler, and one generation, Emperor Ashoka might massacre many thousands, but then he turns to Buddhism and becomes an entirely different ruler. A yarn says that, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln greeted her by saying, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." While false, the fable reveals the thesis. Across generations, the spread of Confucian ideas can mold the culture, with historians tracing elements down to the way Chinese rulers run their country today. Gibbons ("History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire") blamed the adoption of Christianity by Roman elites as a major factor in undermining a previously worldly culture and thus weakening the Empire. He speaks of the Christian belief in the importance of an after-life as undermining a focus on this real life. Consider Max Weber's thesis: praising the Protestant work-ethic and the ascendancy of individualism created by the idea that the priest and church (the social hierarchy) is not the ultimate arbiter of truth, and crediting this with thriving Capitalism in Northern Europe and the British Isles (which we can extrapolate to America). Thomas Macaulay sees a deeper ideological trend, where successive generations threw off their superstitions and adopted a more secular and worldly epistemology. The Italian Renaissance is usually traced to a similar epistemological evolution, driven by the rediscovery of Roman and Greek philosophy. Thomas Carlyle thought that hopes, aspirations and ideas of the people at large formed into ideologies, and created competing forces. Then, certain men came along and took charge of those ideologies, or helped mediate between competing ideologies, becoming leaders and shaping the political system. John Locke: The ideology of the American Revolution can be traced to Thomas Paine's best-selling "Common Sense". While aimed at common folk and even illiterate listeners, its ideas can be traced back to John Locke. In turn, one can trace his political ideas to his epistemology ("An Essay Concerning Human Understanding") which put reason front and center as the practical fountainhead of knowledge. Gustave Le Bon (The Psychology of Crowds - 1895) said this: "The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisations such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples." (emphasis added) Keynes said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”, but what he left unsaid was that economists like him would not weigh the individual versus society the way they do, except that they are slaves of some "defunct" philosopher. Keynes can channel Plato without being too conscious of the ideas that have come to him via cultural osmosis. Summary: Regardless of what theory you support, one thing is clear: many historians draw a link from philosophical ideas, to major historical events. Many of these theories are fleshed out in great detail in their works, examining other factors that help take an idea to fruition. In this post, I do not want to praise the "mind-driven" theories over theories like Jared Diamonds. My purpose here was merely to survey some of the popular advocates of the ":mind drives history" genre. Bonus: Enjoy this theme in the poem "We are the music makers..." We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers, And sitting by desolate streams. World-losers and world-forsakers, Upon whom the pale moon gleams; Yet we are the movers and shakers, Of the world forever, it seems. With wonderful deathless ditties We build up the world's great cities, And out of a fabulous story We fashion an empire's glory: One man with a dream, at pleasure, Shall go forth and conquer a crown; And three with a new song's measure Can trample an empire down. We, in the ages lying In the buried past of the earth, Built Nineveh with our sighing, And Babel itself with our mirth; And o'erthrew them with prophesying To the old of the new world's worth; For each age is a dream that is dying, Or one that is coming to birth. Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy
  19. Two laws that disagree: The U.S. government budget has a deficit. This deficit adds to the debt. By approving the budget, Congress implicitly approves an increase in debt. However, the U.S. also has a debt-ceiling. Debt cannot go beyond this without Congressional approval, even if Congress has already approved a budget that pushes the debt higher. Why have two laws that can conflict? Secretary Lew says this does not make sense; but, he's wrong. The budget is only an approximate forecast, and that's all it can be. A budget might set some tax at 33% of income, but how much taxable income will people have? If it is less than forecast, the tax inflows will be less than forecast, and the deficit will be higher. Personal budget ceilings: Analogously, I might plan on buying ice-cream for the kids once a month, but the number of kids at practice varies. Across all sorts of expenditures, in some months I might blow my budget. So, I might have a second control: e.g. I will not let my bank account go below $X , or I won't let my credit card balance go above $Y. If I suddenly have an expensive car-repair, ice-cream may take a hit: the budget bows to the ceiling. The ceiling rules because it is the simpler rule about net-impact. I budget all these things, but will not break my ceiling. If I am likely to, I must start to cut. Ideally, the government would not run deficits and government debt would be ZERO. We should cut government expenses, including social-security, student-loan subsidies, and so on. Meanwhile, from where we are now, we should start by strengthening the debt ceiling. A stronger debt-ceiling: For instance, we could have a law that says this: when CBO scores a budget, the projected debt should end up at least 5% below the debt-ceiling. If it does not, the budget needs to be re-worked. If Congress cannot agree to re-work, all government expenditures, including expenditures on "entitlements" like Social security should be reduced by x%, in order that the projection comes back to 95%. Then, each quarter, the CBO should be asked for a revised estimate, and if the debt is projected to be over 95%, the same thing should take place. Today, the debt ceiling is a stumbling block that forces congressional negotiation. That can be a good thing, but I'd rather see it strengthened, have it work to reduce the budget automatically, and also -- most importantly -- impact "entitlements". That could be a debt-ceiling worth fighting for. Link to Original
  20. Overview: Slow economy, rocketing stock market! Since the 2007-08 downturn, most measures of the economy have stabilized. Despite this, total-employment is still lower. The broadest GDP measure has been increasing very slowly. Meanwhile, house-prices have turned up for the last two years, and the stock market is at an all-time high. Corporate profits are high since GDP is growing slowly while firms have kept a reign on costs. In addition, companies have been buying back stock at above-average levels. This is different from the type of excitement that drove the dot.com boom, because it does not cascade into higher salaries and expenditures: quite the opposite. In the short/medium term, this does not bode well for employment numbers and wages. Here are some of the details: Employment: Though the unemployment rate has been falling, it is mainly because so many people (particularly younger folk) have given up looking for jobs. For the core age-range 25-54 years, employment % is flat. (BLS has latest data) Real GDP: Real GDP picked up after pausing for about a year. It is growing slower than before, with people like Bill Gross of PIMCO saying we're in a "new normal". The graph is from the FRED database. The Y axis uses a log-scale, to make it easier to see growth rates. I have added hand-drawn, rough (by eye) "trend lines". Real GDP has grown steadily after each recession, but the rate has slowed a few times. With that said, the current trend is not long enough to tell; see how it was similarly slow in the late 1970s. Here is a per capita version: The flattening is clear. Retail Sales: Have resumed their pre-recession pace. A flat first half of 2012 now looks like an inconspicuous blip. Home prices: The Case-Schiller index has been rising for two years now. Price-rise: The CPI has stayed relatively low -- under 2% for the last year. Using the TIPS to calculate the market's "expected inflation" shows it is under 2% going out 10 years, reaching 2% only 30 years from now! Summary: There is no enthusiasm about the economy. The Christmas season might improve on last year, but it is unlikely to be great. Consequently, companies are unlikely to raise hiring or wages much more than they've been doing. Government entities aren't likely to go gang-busters either. At the Federal level, even without another debt-limit stand-off, we will probably not see a new fiscal splurge. So, "new normal" seems appropriate. Even though the stock-market is booming, it is without excitement: more like "there's no other game in town, while the FED keeps rates low; and, profits are high through cost-control". The divergence cannot go on forever, but it can resolve itself in various ways. Much of the market-sentiment is driven by what John Hussman calls "superstition" about the Fed's ability to keep this playing out for a many more years. I still think a new downturn is very likely before Obama's term ends. Let's see. Link to Original
  21. If you use Twitter as your main article/link "feed", use the button below to get a tweet whenever a new post is added to this blog. Follow @PracGoodTheory Link to Original
  22. What do socialite Lois Pope and lawyer Tim Broas have in common? Someone is paying for Google-searches of their names. "Reputation" firms offer a few cents for each search. Some paid-search is legit (e.g. keeping tabs on where one ranks), but most is an attempt to "game" widely-used search-engines.. Fake everything: Other than search, "workers" will post fake reviews for books, and even for photo-portfolios put up by models. They will plagiarize articles and post them to a site that is pretending to be informative. Recently, a businessman was convicted for posting negative Yelp reviews about his competitor's business. Another businessman claims that Yelp offered to bury negative reviews for a fee. The New York attorney recently went after people posting fake reviews to Yelp, and other such sites. Even the Israeli government is paying students for positive reviews. Physical world: Back in the physical world, the author of "Leapfrogging" figured out how to make the WSJ Best seller list: by selling 3000 copies rapidly. This is achieved by having 3,000 orders being placed on Amazon prior to publication, so that they're all triggered when the book hits the street. Via Amazon Mechanical Turk, you can have 3,000 separate people place orders for your book, and even have them delivered to (say) 3,000 CEOs. [Perhaps WSJ should shift to a monthly-model, and also publish a list of books where sales suddenly plummeted.] Detection and Control: Yelp says they suppress 25% of reviews as suspicious. Google tries to counter fake searches. That's why "reputation" firms limit how much they pay per 'worker' per day (so that Google does not get suspicious?) They often disallow workers from India, Pakistan, Philippines, etc., Ideas: Google should sign up as "workers" and do some "fake search" assignments. Except, instead of adding to real search results, they should collect details of who is paying for search, and then bury them. Another counter-intuitive possibility is to make a tool that makes fake-search easier for the "workers". If they could offer workers a tool that makes fake search easier (e.g. by doing multiple at a time, and by being tailored to the types of things "reputation" firms ask for) they could allow workers to earn, while the "clients" wonder why their page-rank falls. Google should have true stories to tell, about people who tried all sorts of techniques, but got buried as a result. Another counter-measure would be for Google to pretend to be a "reputation" firm, hire workers, collect their IPs, and stop recording their searches for ranking. Not new: Fake reviews are not new, as anyone with an Amway or Herbalife "friend" can tell you. Yet, those two companies have great sales and profits, so pretence can work on some, and to some extent. I think it will always be that way: people will use "signals" that are flawed. It is similar to people who use the Nobel Prize or the New York Times as a signal, to conclude that Paul Krugman's spin is more accurate than (say) Tyler Cowen's balanced approach. Caveat Emptor: People will always try to game a system: i.e. to achieve the "letter" of the metrics, without fulfilling the spirit. Advertising is useful, but comes packaged with spin. For the Oscars, panelists get "background" presentations, trying to influence them in favor of the pitchman's movie. You cannot be immune from being fooled by smoke and mirrors, but I'm confident that rational folk can adjust to the new fakeness like they did to the old. While Google and Yelp help by counter-measures, everyone else can keep the impact low by healthy scepticism. Let your cousin buy the network-marketed mattress with magnets -- it ain't for you. Link to Original
  23. In "The Great Degeneration", Niall Ferguson argues that the west is stagnating because of broken "institutions". The cause of Ascendancy: Ferguson rejects Max Weber's "cultural" explanation of a Protestant-driven industrial revolution. After all, the same root "culture" ended up in a very different East and West Germany or North and South Korea. While Jared Diamond's "geography" might explain why Eurasia was wealthier than the Americas, it does not quite explain the ascendancy of Western Europe. Finally, iIf genes are crucial, how to account for the gap between East and West German IQ scores, and how to explain why Eastern genes did relatively well until the last few centuries? The crucial factor, says Ferguson, is the socio-political institutions adopted in some countries: property rights, rule of law, and private voluntary organizations. The role of Philosophy: He is right, but this explanation is incomplete: why did certain institutions develop in certain countries? Did human experimentation just happen to hit the right mix in England, or is there more? Even if the concretes of "the Protestant ethic" cannot get all the praise, there were important abstract ideas behind it. The key was the growing element of individualism. The preceding Renaissance gives credence to this more abstract version of Weber's thesis playing out in Catholic countries. Undercutting the role of church and monarch, and promoting the efficacy (and then the rights) of individual men, was a key movement that changed everything. Critical Institutions: Ferguson thinks the British turning point came with the 1688 "Glorious Revolution" when the "rent-seeking", "extractive" elites -- the nobles -- began relinquishing power to newer elites. These new, non-hereditary elites were more inclusive; they needed and built institutions based on property rights. (Aside: Echoes of Rand's notion of an "Aristocracy of Money", replacing the old nobility. In George Bernard Shaw's play "Widower's House" we see denunciation of a slum-landlord, but the socialist author also shows regret at the way the nouveau riche can marry their way into the old aristocratic families.) Not surprising, though, that an aristocracy of money should engineer the creation of wealth. Even Whig wars, says the author, were waged less for glory than for profit. Ferguson praises the work of Hernando de Soto , arguing the importance of formal property rights. There is growing recognition that in some African countries, tribal-land, not yet allocated as individual property deeds, has held back development, invites corruption of tribal chiefs, and raises the importance of family and social ties relative to the ability to create wealth. The East rises: Ming & Qing China did not experience the types of changes happening in the West, and Islamic law held back certain types of institutions. Meanwhile, the modern era began with colonialism replacing monarchical rent-seeking through extractive policies of its own. Post-independence elites imposed their own corrupt regimes, often breaking down even the good institutions of the colonists. Recently, non-European countries have recently been moving toward a rule of law. The process (from Paul Collier) is: reduced violence, property rights between citizens, checks on government, lower corruption. The West stagnates: Meanwhile, says Ferguson, institutions in the west have weakened. The law (including regulation and licensing) has become overly intrusive and complicated -- law for lawyers -- ending up being a negative force. In addition, it pushes a uniformity of method that undermines variation and adaptive evolution. (Even in the private sphere, bureaucracy like ISO-9000 driven QA always results in lowered productivity. Add in "Sarbanes Oxley", Dodd Frank, environmental regulations, and the costs mount. We see Germany abandoning nuclear energy and the U.S. preventing the Keystone pipeline; just two examples of the purposeful retardation of wealth-creation that has become routine.) Entitlements: Ferguson sees the high government debt-levels as an indication that the system is broken: with inter-generation inequity being a key problem. He muses on the irony of the younger generation supporting politicians who want to ignore the issue, rather than people like Paul Ryan (who at least talks about social security). Young people rose up in the "Arab Spring", and Ferguson wonders if young people will rise up in the West some day. (Actually, we have seen some of this in Greece, and perhaps a little taste in the U.S. "Occupy Wallstreet" movement and in the enthusiasm for Rand Paul.) The way out: Can the west stop this process without first going through a big shock? Ferguson thinks the only alternative is if "civil society" institutions can once again increase their role in education, safety-nets, local projects. He thinks government involvement has lessened the support for such organizations and has made the system more fragile. This short book is an easy read, and Ferguson seems to have the history right. Unfortunately, he does not really offer much in terms of predictions or solutions. Link to Original
  24. If you follow economic news, you know that the "participation rate" (the % of people who say they are actually looking for a job) has been falling in the U.S. [see the blue line in the chart.] [source: the great Calculated Risk blog.] The overall participation rate was expected to drop as the "baby boom" generation retires. That's not the cause though. As this chart shows, the participation rate within the 25-54 year group began to fall after the dot.com bust, flattened out, and then began to fall again after the housing bust. This age group does not go back to college in huge numbers. Some of them were probably part of the huge increase in "disability" rolls. Others probably stay home with a spouse to support them, having decided to wait things out until the economy improves. Changes, by Age and Sex: How has the housing bust impacted participation rates across age and sex? For example, people around 65 years old have a lower participation rate than those around 45. However, which one changed most? If the participation rate in 1990 was the baseline, what was the change to 2000, and then to 2010? This might point to behavioral changes. Here's my chart of the numbers. Scan down the right-hand side to get a feel of the distribution. (Source: BLS Table 3.3) Late to work / Late to retire: The most striking thing about the chart is that the participation rate is increasing among older folk and falling among the young. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, as more kids opt for college and as older people are in better health, these two are trends to be expected. However, look at the line for Men 16-19: it was already dropping into 2000, but it has plummeted after that: clearly, the housing bust has made a difference. Or, take Women or Men 62-64 and notice that more of them were already staying in the workforce, but the housing bust has made this shoot up much more. The impact shows up more in the 20-24 group: men's participation was already falling, but plummeted; women's participation was rising slightly, but turned down. Men 35-54: Also note the lines for Men 35-44 and 45-54. The housing bust did not impact the trend since 2000, but why has the trend has been negative since 2000? I wish there were more statistics on the reasons behind the fall in their participation. Focus on the post-2000 change: What if the 1990-2000 trend had stayed steady for each age/sex group? How does the 2010 data differ from such a steady-change assumption. I end up with a new chart. Once again, the most stark change is by age. There was a trend for older people to work more, but the housing bust has clearly forced more of them to postpone retirement. The youngest have clearly put off getting jobs much more than we could have predicted from the trend. Of these, the more troubling are younger people who are staying at home, or using some very general and basic college to pass time. Structural changes: The most negative structural change is probably not at the extremes. The fall-off in participation rates among both men and women aged 35-54 is probably here to stay. It is around 2%, but it does add the the drag on wealth-creation and points to a "new normal" of lowered GDP. Geeky footnote on the calculations: The charts are drawn by subtracting one rate from another (say the rate in 2000 from the one in 1990). It would have been more accurate to express the change in the rate as a percentage of the original rate. However, doing so does not change the conclusions, so it was not worth it. Also, the dates are chosen because they are census years, the actual inflection point were different. Once again, the most Link to Original
  25. The Five Great Philosophies of Life" by William de Witt Hyde begins with a description of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Here is how the author describes them. The Epicurean seeks simple, attainable pleasures. Not excessive consumption, but enjoying day to day living, even while taking it slow, not "over-working", but spending time with friends and simple pleasures, and -- using the author's updated example -- hanging around one's club, socializing, and not doing much more. Even though its advocates were advised not to seek out ambitious material and political goals, the philosophy is essentially materialistic: since happiness comes not from any abstract sense of purpose, nor from aiding a divine end, but from achievable, material goals. In contrast, Stoicism looks beyond man, seeing him as part of a universal mechanism. Instead of seeking small pleasures, stoicism critiques the nature of emotions by saying that even when we do not control what happens around us, we can completely control how we feel. External states do not necessitate particular mental states [we hear this echo in Christian Science]. Like Epicureans, Stoics too sought human happiness, but they thought it came less from material things than from our selves: our evaluations and our ability to be untroubled by travails. After these two summaries, the author goes back in time to Plato and Aristotle. This anti-chronological treatment is a bit confusing, but it allows the author to lay down a basis before showing that Plato and Aristotle had a better approach than the Stoics or Epicureans. He praises Plato for advocating reason, and for pointing out that concrete things are not good or evil outside of a context. One has to look to the larger purpose. Means serve ends, but those ends are usually the means to other ends. We have to trace this chain to know if the original means serves the good. When tracing thus, Plato does not stop at the individual human, but sees the individual as a part of society, who ought to serve that society as a body part ought to serve the individual. Though Plato does not criticize appetite, he does give it short shrift because he is so focused on ever remote ends (hence "Platonic love' is well-named). Aristotle turns back the view toward the individual. He sees pleasure as a sign of good function, but his view would not fit with Epicureans who put much more focus on material pleasure. Aristotle might have viewed their approach as an attempt to reverse cause and effect. He would be even less compatible with the Stoic subordination of the individual to the universal, and he rejected asceticism. His was fundamentally an individualistic and practical outlook ("We acquire virtues by doing the acts"). Like Plato, he agreed that values were contextual: i.e. with things being good, depending on the context. From this comes the "Aristotelian mean" which is not meant to be an average, but a "right amount". The author is a modernized christian. He has led up to Aristotle as being the best of the four, and then goes on to add Christianity as the fifth, and the final perfect addition to Aristotle. The author's version of Christianity rejects the asceticism of some early denominations, and rejects most church-created procedures. We must not even do things that Jesus might have done, he says, if those are concretes or just customs of the time. Even being our brother's keeper might require sternness and "teaching a man to fish" rather than in giving hand-outs. What, then, does Christianity add to Aristotle? In de Witt's view, it adds: love (as in "love they neighbor"). So, we do not have Plato's outright communism where every man lives primarily for the community, but instead we have each man living for himself, but with love for his neighbors, thus forming a community. Summary: A well-written overview of the four ancient philosophies. In each section, the author first presents the philosophy with quotes to support his views, and attempts to argue for the positives. Then, he presents his critique. The fifth section (on Christianity) can be skipped with little loss. Link to Original
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