Friday, July 15, 2016

Political thrill-seekers wanted

I was talking with my family today about Trump's VP pick of Mike Pence and relaying something I'd read about how the supposedly "safe" choice of Pence might be a disaster (because he's not quick on his feet in response to tough questions, and as Trump's running mate he will surely be put on the hot seat being asked whether he agrees with this or that crazy / offensiveness / disturbing thing Trump has said.

I mentioned how this was going to be such an entertaining political season.

"Yeah, except that it could actually happen," observed my wife.

"True. It's kinda like the country as a whole is engaged in a giant act of political bungee jumping."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Pain and the body politic

I’m re-reading Antonio Damasio The feeling of what happens, a book about how consciousness works. This morning I happened to read the following passage:
Pain and pleasure are thus part of two different genealogies of life regulation. Pain is aligned with punishment and is associated with behaviors such as withdrawal or freezing. Pleasure, on the other hand, is aligned with reward and is associated with behaviors such as seeking and approaching.
Punishment causes organisms to close themselves in, freezing and withdrawing from their surroundings. Reward causes organisms to open themselves up and out toward their environment, approaching it, searching it, and by so doing increasing both their opportunity of survival and their vulnerability. (p. 78)
If we take seriously the idea of human society as a superorganism, this observation has some interesting implications.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The colonization of mental space (Day 8)

Previous post
The iconic image of Che, but rendered in corn kernels on a black surface.
From the stairway to the roof at the Museum of the Battle of Ideas
(Slogan noticed today: “The fight brought us unity, unity brought us victory.”)

Today’s main event was an outing to Cárdenas, a small city not far from Varadero, and the main thing in Cárdenas was the Museum of the Battle of Ideas.
This bas relief sculpture is mounted on the wall across the street from the entrance to the museum.
The words below the Cuban flag say, "Cuba responds" (to the U.S.'s stance in the Elián González affair).
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
The motivating force of the museum is the Elián González incident, from 1999-2000. González’s parents were divorced, and his mother fled Cuba with him by boat. The boat sank in a storm and the mother died, along with most on board. González was rescued and turned over to the US Coast Guard and eventually to relatives in Miami.

Fining the truth

According to an article in the Czech press, a Russian has been fined 200,000 rubles (a little over $3,000) for information posted on VKontakte, described as the Russian version of Facebook.

The information that got him in trouble was the claim that the Soviet Union attacked Poland in World War II.

One issue here is the free-speech side of fining someone for a thing they wrote. Well, there are libel cases against people making claims that the Holocaust didn't happen, but that's because there's a mountain of evidence that it did.

The problem with this case is that what he wrote is true.

Well, I wasn't there, but the Russians don't have a very good counter-story. The photo published with the story shows a Soviet officer greeting his German counterpart in the fall of 1939. According to the caption, the photo was published in the Soviet Union on the anniversary of the "liberation of western Ukraine and Belarus." A liberation that was accomplished by attacking Poland.

The defendant was charged under a new law criminalizing the "rehabilitation of Nazism."

He was convicted because he had good grades in history, so he should have known that he was spreading false information.

According to the court, Luzgin should have known that his action would have "damaging effects on the public, including children, and that they would spread the surviving notions about negative actions of the Soviet Union during the Second World War."

Monday, July 4, 2016

Public debts, public wealth, public services

This is the first of what I hope will be a few posts on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

My guess is that there are a lot more people who are curious about the book than there are who have read it, so in my writing I won’t assume that you’re one of the ones who’s read it.

I’m also guessing that my modest readership is not majority economists, so I’ll aim to be comprehensible to people not versed in the linguistic conventions of our field.


The state plays a key role in Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

The central fact of the book is the decline in inequality during the first half of the 20th century, the continued relatively low level after World War II, and the renewed increase after about 1980.

Income shares of the top 10%, top 1%, top 0.1%, and top 0.01% in the U.S.
Data from World Wealth and Income Database

Friday, July 1, 2016

How does voting work, anyway?

I was listening to the Roundtable on WAMC this morning as I repaired a window screen, and they read out a remarkable email from a listener.

I've read and heard plenty of "I can't vote for Clinton," and from people with whom I'm more or less in agreement on many questions of policy. I don't agree with the "I can't vote for her" position, but obviously if you think her policy stances are horrid, or if you think she's a liar (presumably in ways that the average politician isn't?), then I understand reluctance or inability to pull the lever.

There's the "lesser of two evils" argument: whether you like it or not, the next president will be either Clinton or Trump, so failing to vote for one of them is in effect voting for the other. I can understand the disgust with that: if you keep accepting the lesser of two evils, you never force the Democrats to put up someone who isn't evil.

Now, I don't agree with that argument, first because I don't think Clinton is "evil," and second because Trump looks far worse to me than anything remotely credible that's been lodged against Clinton.

But there is at least a logic to refusing to choose the lesser of two evils. Not a logic I agree with, but a logic.

Then there's this morning's WAMC listener email.

He couldn't vote for Clinton for the normal reasons that some on the left say they can't vote for her.

Trump was not an option (OK, we agree there).

The Libertarian candidate was going to wipe out entitlements (I don't know if that's an overstatement, but it is at least the direction the Libertarian candidate would go, a good reason not to vote for him if you think our entitlement programs do a reasonable job).

And Jill Stein from the Green Party is great, but she has no chance.

Wait ... what?!

It seems like there are three ways to approach voting: tactically, strategically, or idealistically.

A tactical voter might say, "I hate Clinton, but it's her or Trump, and Trump is worse, so I'm voting for Clinton."

A strategic voter would take the longer view: "The Democratic party keeps offering me horrible choices, because people eventually fall in line behind the lesser of two evils. The only way to teach the party to stop doing that is to stop accepting unacceptable candidates, so I'll vote for a good third-party candidate rather than a bad Democrat, and if that means Trump wins, then that's all the clearer a lesson for the Democrats." (Again, I don't agree with this approach, but it has its logic.)

An idealist is, in effect, like a strategic voter, only without an expectation that the Democrats will learn: "I think Stein is good and Clinton is bad, so I'm voting for Stein."

But ruling out Clinton, Trump, and the Libertarian for policy issues, then ruling out Stein because she can't win?

How does this guy think voting works, anyway?

I've heard people question the intelligence of Americans who support Trump, or of Brits who voted for Brexit. But spare a little of that for this WAMC listener.