Blockbuster Michael Lewis on DOE
In Vanity Fair:
"The C.F.O. of the [Energy] department at the end of the Obama administration was a mild-mannered civil-servant type named Joe Hezir. He had no particular political identity and was widely thought to have done a good job—and so he half-expected a call from the Trump people asking him to stay on, just to keep the money side of things running smoothly. The call never came. No one even let him know his services were no longer required. Not knowing what else to do, but without anyone to replace him, the C.F.O. of a $30 billion operation just up and left.
This was a loss. A lunch or two with the chief financial officer might have alerted the new administration to some of the terrifying risks they were leaving essentially unmanaged. Roughly half of the D.O.E.’s annual budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal, for instance. Two billion of that goes to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. In just the past eight years the D.O.E.’s National Nuclear Security Administration has collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs. The department trains every international atomic-energy inspector; if nuclear power plants around the world are not producing weapons-grade material on the sly by reprocessing spent fuel rods and recovering plutonium, it’s because of these people. The D.O.E. also supplies radiation-detection equipment to enable other countries to detect bomb material making its way across national borders. To maintain the nuclear arsenal, it conducts endless, wildly expensive experiments on tiny amounts of nuclear material to try to understand what is actually happening to plutonium when it fissions, which, amazingly, no one really does. To study the process, it is funding what promises to be the next generation of supercomputers, which will in turn lead God knows where."
Much more at the link. Worrying.
Zero-sum activities grow in importance as we approach satiation in basic goods and services
Adair Turner at INET:
"it's striking how much high-talent manpower is devoted to activities that cannot possibly increase human welfare, but entail competition for the available economic pie. Such activities have become ubiquitous: legal services, policing, and prisons; cybercrime and the army of experts defending organizations against it; financial regulators trying to stop mis-selling and the growing ranks of compliance officers employed in response; the huge resources devoted to US election campaigns; real-estate services that facilitate the exchange of already-existing assets; and much financial trading. Much design, branding, and advertising activity is also essentially zero-sum. …
"Such zero-sum activities have always been significant. But they grow in importance as we approach satiation in many basic goods and services. …
"The impact on measured GDP and productivity reflects national accounting conventions. … more and better-paid divorce lawyers increase GDP, because end consumers pay them. But more and better-paid commercial lawyers don't raise output, because companies' legal expenditures are an intermediate cost. ...
"measured GDP and gains in human welfare eventually may become entirely divorced. Imagine in 2100 a world in which solar-powered robots, manufactured by robots and controlled by artificial intelligence systems, deliver most of the goods and services that support human welfare. All that activity would account for a trivial proportion of measured GDP, simply because it would be so cheap. Conversely, almost all measured GDP would reflect zero-sum and/or impossible-to-automate activities – housing rents, sports prizes, artistic performance fees, brand royalties, and administrative, legal, and political system costs. Measured productivity growth would be close to nil, but also irrelevant to improvement in human welfare."
John Quiggin at Crooked Timber:
“the world is likely to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations around 450 parts per million by 2050, and reduce that to 350 ppm by 2100. …
"Should this have been a surprise? It has been for me. As an economist, I'd have thought an outcome like this would have required a global commitment to an emissions trading scheme with a carbon price on a rising trajectory to $US100/tonne or so. In fact, we've seen nothing of the kind. There has been no real global co-ordination, and where carbon prices have been imposed, they have been low and limited in scope."
“Instead, we've had a series of favorable technological surprises of which the most striking have been the plummeting cost of solar photovoltaics, and advances in battery technology allowing both low-cost electricity storage and affordable electric vehicles. … But maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. There were a lot of potential technological options out there, and we only needed a couple to work. … On the other hand, there's no obvious technical reason why we couldn't have developed most of these technologies decades ago. ...
"A question I haven't yet been able to find a good answer on is: how much warming would a trajectory peaking at 450 ppm and declining to 350 ppm ultimately produce?"
Dehumanizing the Other
Scott Alexander writes:
"Look for the non-racist motives in actually racist things. …
What about, I don’t know, rural Republicans in South Carolina who wave the Confederate flag all the time and think blacks and immigrants are ruining the country.
... this is pretty much the demographic that elected Nikki Haley (birth name, Nimrata Randhawa; daughter of two Punjabi immigrants) as governor, and that supports her so fervently that she remains one of the most popular elected officials in the country. Also the demographic that loved Ben Carson, making him the only candidate to briefly displace Trump for first place in the 2016 Republican primary polls. One plausible explanation is that the South Carolinians don’t like blacks and immigrants because they view them as having foreign values – specifically, Blue Tribe values (it may be relevant here that 90%+ of blacks usually vote Democrat). If someone like Nikki Haley or Ben Carson proves that they share Red beliefs, they become part of the tribe and will be fiercely defended. Maybe this is ... people using race as a proxy for something they care about, until they get direct information. ...
"James Scott, as channeled by Lou Keep, ... says that the process of development, especially state-building and the switch from traditional to market economies, creates a pressure for “legible” language that renders entire classes of problems very difficult to talk about. This creates an asymmetry between an elite plugged into the global market structure whose concerns make perfect sense (“If we do this, GDP will go up 3% and we can build more roads!”) and the masses left behind whose concerns seem pointless and vague (“I feel like something important disappeared when we turned everything into a commodity”). Keep then proposes a very loose mapping onto cosmopolitan neoliberal Clintonites versus undereducated “I’m angry about losing my traditional culture” Trumpists. ...
"cross-cultural communication is really hard, and so a lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense. And most of them say that our demographic – well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason – are at especially high risk of just dismissing everyone else as too dumb to matter. ...
"Racism-as-murderism is ... a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them. ...
"And I guess it sounds like I’m upset that we’re not very good at solving difficult cross-cultural communication problems which require deep and genuine effort to understand the other person’s subtly different value system. I’m not upset that we can’t solve those. Those are hard. I’m upset because we’re not even at the point where someone can say “I’m worried about terrorism,” without being forced to go through an interminable and ultimately-impossible process of proving to a random assortment of trolls and gatekeepers that they actually worry about terrorism and it’s not just all a ruse to cover up that they secretly hate everyone with brown skin. I’m saying that when an area of the country suffers an epidemic of suicides and overdoses, increasing mortality, increasing unemployment, social decay, and general hopelessness, and then they say they’re angry, we counter with “Are you really angry? Is ‘angry’ just a code word for ‘racist’?” …
"People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.
"And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”
"You say we must protect freedom of speech. But would you protect the free speech of racists?" ...
I don’t want civil war. I want this country to survive long enough to be killed by something awesome, like AI or some kind of genetically engineered superplague. Right now I think going out in a neat way, being killed by a product of our own genius and intellectual progress – rather than a product of our pettiness and mutual hatreds – is the best we can hope for. And I think this is attainable!"
Migration, Finance, Demian
Hein de Haas at U of Amsterdam, writing for Der Spiegel on the myths of migration:
"The magnitude of migration is far too low to offset the effects of population aging. A United Nations study has shown that, to achieve such a result, levels of migration would have to reach levels that are both undesirable and unrealistic. In order to counter its aging population, this study found that Germany, for example, would require net immigration of 3.5 million people per year - 12 times higher than the annual average of 280,000 from the years 1991 to 2015. …
Currently, about 0.4 percent of the total EU population is a refugee. That figure hovered around 0.5 percent between 1992 and 1995.”
"The market had changed from one in which the process was primarily one of mutualisation of risks to one in which risks were being transferred from people understood a lot about them to people who knew little. ...
both investment and risk transfer are unavoidably heterogeneous, idiosyncratic transactions. In consequence, algorithmic scoring can never replace, although it may be able to assist, a qualitative and quantitative assessment of an experienced loan officer or shrewd investor ... the future of peer-to-peer lending is that the institutions which survive fraud, losses and increased regulatory scrutiny will increasingly resemble the organisations which we used to call banks."
Colin Marshall at LARB, on Hermann Hesse's Demian in Korea:
"Any story of “old Europe struggling with modernity” will resonate with a Korea doing plenty of modernity-grappling of its own. Demian in particular, Sellar writes, also taps inadvertently into the particular Korean storytelling sensibility: “They are much more enamored of sad endings, and they tend to be much more patient with stories that unfold in such a way that the protagonists never had a real hope of changing the outcome.” This has introduced certain difficulties into the marketing of Korean literature to Westerners, who “have little patience for stories that feature characters who can’t take some hand in their fate” and “tend to be less patient with melodramatically sad turns of plot,” but it means certain strains of anguish-oriented German fiction, best exemplified by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (from the object of whose unrequited passion one of Korea’s biggest conglomerates took its name), have grown popular indeed here.”
What We Can Learn From Bourdieu
David Brooks discovers the French sociologist:
"Every minute or hour, in ways we’re not even conscious of, we as individuals and members of our class are competing for dominance and respect. We seek to topple those who have higher standing than us and we seek to wall off those who are down below. Or, we seek to take one form of capital, say linguistic ability, and convert it into another kind of capital, a good job. Most groups conceal their naked power grabs under a veil of intellectual or aesthetic purity. Bourdieu used the phrase “symbolic violence” to suggest how vicious this competition can get ...
Bourdieu helps you understand what Donald Trump is all about. Trump is not much of a policy maven, but he’s a genius at the symbolic warfare Bourdieu described. He’s a genius at upending the social rules and hierarchies that the establishment classes (of both right and left) have used to maintain dominance.
Bourdieu didn’t argue that cultural inequality creates economic inequality, but that it widens and it legitimizes it. That’s true, but as the information economy has become more enveloping, cultural capital and economic capital have become ever more intertwined. Individuals and classes that are good at winning the cultural competitions Bourdieu described tend to dominate the places where economic opportunity is richest; they tend to harmonize with affluent networks and do well financially. ...
Bourdieu radicalizes, widens and deepens one’s view of inequality.”
Things I Liked, Saturday
New Science paper on costs of climate change, via Tyler Cowen:
"The combined value of market and nonmarket damage across analyzed sectors—agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor—increases quadratically in global mean temperature, costing roughly 1.2% of gross domestic product per +1°C on average. Importantly, risk is distributed unequally across locations, generating a large transfer of value northward and westward [in the US] that increases economic inequality. By the late 21st century, the poorest third of counties are projected to experience damages between 2 and 20% of county income (90% chance) under business-as-usual emissions"
Mike Konzcal, writing for Vox, has an excellent paragraph:
"First, Democrats need to reevaluate their idea of themselves as disinterested stewards of the economy — as a party that accepts the current economic arrangements largely as a given. Second, they need to understand what their coalition looks like if they can’t peel off moderate Republicans, as they predicted they would throughout 2016. Third, they also need to decide if the economy requires structural changes, or merely some tinkering around the edges. And finally, they must decide whether social programs should target narrow populations or lean towards universalism."
Bill McKibben, New Yorker, writes about off-grid solar providers in Sub-Saharan Africa:
"There are as many people living without electricity today as when there were when Thomas Edison lit his first light bulb. ...
The push for quick returns could lead some companies to try to "squeeze more out of poor households" .. "the gush of money may be too much, too fast for a sector that still has not fully solved core business model issues and may struggle under the high growth expectations and misaligned incentives of many venture capitalists."
The Guardian, on Brexit:
“It is odd, if we want a deep and special relationship with the EU, not to have proposed one. A year after the referendum, we have still put forward no plan, suggestion, outline or proposal for how one might in future organise cooperation.”
The odds of a reversal on Brexit are slightly higher (though still low).
Cardiff Garcia interviews Heidi Williams on health care innovation:
E.g., on "the economic incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in late-stage cancer treatments versus preventive and early-stage treatments. A particular problem is the design of patents, whose protections in some industries begin at the time of discovery rather than at the time of the first commercial sale. But early-stage treatments for cancer can take a while to arrive at the market, in part because clinical trials required by the Food & Drug Administration naturally take longer than they would for late-stage cancers, especially given that the traditional qualification for success is lower mortality. Thus the period of exclusivity for early-stage treatments is shorter, potentially incentivising pharma companies to focus more on later-stage treatments."
99% Invisible on that day in the 60s Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. They'd held a referendum, 83% voted against switching, and the government did it anyway!
Things I Liked, Saturday
Dan Hirschman on Peter Berger’s death: “Peter Berger was deeply involved with pro-tobacco social science. … What do we do with the fact that one of the most prominent figures associated with the term “social construction” also worked as a “merchant of doubt”?”
The Associated Press reports of secret prisons in Yemen: “Senior American defense officials acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses.” Of course there aren't human rights abuses in secret Yemeni prisons... If the Pentagon trolled any harder, they'd pull a muscle.
F. Gregory Gause III, at the Monkey Cage: “The real underlying conflict is not about Iran but about very different understandings of how political Islam should relate to the state among the Sunni powers of the Middle East.” Recommended.
Masha Gessen, in Harpers:
"When we talk about the Reichstag fire, we talk about the consequences of a catastrophic event. But in our case, these consequences - a legal state of emergency, a sense of living under siege, popular mobilization, and an epidemic of conspiratorial thinking - are already in place. Indeed, they are preconditions of our current predicament. …
To be worthy of the lofty name “resistance,” the opposition to Trump must aim to break the country’s post-9/11 trajectory. It must question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency, and confront not only the Trump presidency but the legacy of the Bush and Obama Administrations."
This is my notepad.