The Golden Age: Keynesian Utopianism

42-20440421-quiggan-keynes-leisureJohn Quiggin in Aeon:

I first became an economist in the early 1970s, at a time when revolutionary change still seemed like an imminent possibility and when utopian ideas were everywhere, exemplified by the Situationist slogan of 1968: ‘Be realistic. Demand the impossible.’ Preferring to think in terms of the possible I was much influenced by an essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,’ written in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes, the great economist whose ideas still dominated economic policymaking at the time.

Like the rest of Keynes’s work, the essay ceased to be discussed very much during the decades of free-market liberalism that led up to the global financial crisis of 2007 and the ensuing depression, through which most of the developed world is still struggling. And, also like the rest of Keynes's work, this essay has enjoyed a revival of interest in recent years, promoted most notably by the Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward.

The Skidelskys have revived Keynes’s case for leisure, in the sense of time free to use as we please, as opposed to idleness. As they point out, their argument draws on a tradition that goes back to the ancients. But Keynes offered something quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not merely for an aristocratic minority.

Writing at a time of deep economic depression, Keynes argued that technological progress offered the path to a bright future. In the long run, he said, humanity could solve the economic problem of scarcity and do away with the need to work in order to live. That in turn implied that we would be free to discard ‘all kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital’.

Poll Averages Have No History of Consistent Partisan Bias

Nate Silver in the NYT's Five Thirty Eight:

The analysis that follows is quite simple. I’ll be taking a simple average of polls conducted each year in the final 21 days of the campaign and comparing it against the actual results. There are just two restrictions.

First, I will be looking only at polls of likely voters. Polls of registered voters, or of all adults, typically will overstate the standing of Democratic candidates, since demographic groups like Hispanics that lean Democratic also tend to be less likely to turn out in most elections. (The FiveThirtyEight forecast model shifts polls of registered voters by 2.5 percentage points toward Mr. Romney for this reason.)

Second, the averages are based on a maximum of one poll per polling firm in each election. Specifically, I use the last poll that each conducted before the election. (Essentially, this replicates the methodology of the Real Clear Politics polling average.)

Let’s begin by looking at the results of national polls for the presidential race.

In the 10 presidential elections since 1972, there have been five years (1976, 1980, 1992, 1996 and 2004) in which the national presidential polls overestimated the standing of the Democratic candidate. However, there were also four years (1972, 1984, 1988 and 2000) in which they overestimated the standing of the Republican. Finally, there was 2008, when the average of likely voter polls showed Mr. Obama winning by 7.3 percentage points, his exact margin of victory over John McCain, to the decimal place.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, 1926-2012

120929044541-arthur-ochs-sulzberger-story-topClyde Haberman in the NYT:

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who guided The New York Times and its parent company through a long, sometimes turbulent period of expansion and change on a scale not seen since the newspaper’s founding in 1851, died early Saturday at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 86.

His death, after a long illness, was announced by his family.

Mr. Sulzberger’s tenure, as publisher of the newspaper and as chairman and chief executive of The New York Times Company, reached across 34 years, from the heyday of postwar America to the twilight of the 20th century, from the era of hot lead and Linotype machines to the birth of the digital world.

The paper he took over as publisher in 1963 was the paper it had been for decades: respected and influential, often setting the national agenda. But it was also in precarious financial condition and somewhat insular, having been a tightly held family operation since 1896, when it was bought by his grandfather Adolph S. Ochs.

By the 1990s, when Mr. Sulzberger passed the reins to his son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., first as publisher in 1992 and then as chairman in 1997, the enterprise had been transformed. The Times was now national in scope, distributed from coast to coast, and it had become the heart of a diversified, multibillion-dollar media operation that came to encompass newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations and online ventures.

The expansion reflected Mr. Sulzberger’s belief that a news organization, above all, had to be profitable if it hoped to maintain a vibrant, independent voice.

I’m Sorry, Steve Jobs: We Could Have Saved You

Siddhartha Mukherjee in Newsweek:

SidWe are failing to treat and prevent cancer—even as the promise of life-saving remedies await us. On the anniversary of Steve Jobs’s death, leading oncologist and the author of The Emperor of All Maladies Siddhartha Mukherjee explains how we failed to save an icon and why we will lose so many more lives if we do not give cancer research the funding it deserves. In Oct. 5, the night that Steve Jobs died, I ascended 30,000 feet into the thin air above New York on a flight to California. On my lap was a stash of scientific papers. I was reading and taking notes—where else?—on an iPad.

Jobs’s death—like a generational Rorschach test—had provoked complex reactions within each of us. There was grief in abundance, of course, admixed with a sense of loss, with desolation and nostalgia. Outside the Apple store in SoHo, New York, that evening, there were bouquets of white gerberas and red roses. Someone had left a bushel of apples by the doorstep and a sign that read “I-miss …” I missed Jobs, too—but I also felt a personal embarrassment in his death. I am an oncologist and a cancer researcher. I felt as if my profession, my discipline, and my generation had let him down. Steve Jobs had promised—and then delivered—life-altering technologies. Had we, in all honesty, given him any such life-altering technologies back? I ask the question in all earnestness. Jobs’s life ended because of a form of pancreatic cancer called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, or PNET. These tumors are fleetingly rare: about five in every million men and women are diagnosed with PNETs each year. Deciphering the biology of rare cancers is often challenging. But the past five years have revealed extraordinary insights into the biology of some rare cancers—and PNETs, coincidentally enough, have led part of that charge. By comparing several such tumors, scientists are beginning to understand the biology of these peculiar tumors.

More here.

The Art of Stem Cells

From Harvard Magazine:

Jennifer Quick, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of the history of art and architecture, stood before her audience in the main gallery of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Behind her, on a free-standing wall running down the middle of the gallery, hung more than a dozen works by Michael Wang ’03, a visual artist who creates micrograph images of artificially produced stem cells.

But as Quick began to lecture on Wang’s works, another voice could be heard from behind the wall. It belonged to cellular biologist Gabriella Boulting, Ph.D. ’12, who was speaking to her own audience about pieces Wang had created that hung on her side of the wall. Dueling gallery tours? Wang, an artist who aims to bring together art and science in interesting and thought-provoking ways, prefers to think of two lecturers working as one. “I wanted to literally stage an encounter between two disciplines, the artistic community on one hand and the scientific on the other,” Wang says. “I don’t think of artworks as ending with the individual artistic object. There is an expanded field that includes context and discourse around [that object] so I really wanted to make sure that could be an expanded part of the work. I wanted people from within the University to provide two very different insights at the exact same time.” His latest work, Differentiation Series, is a sequence of micrograph images of artificially produced stem cells that have been hand-tinted using a system that matches a unique color to every specific cell type that can potentially be produced from these initially undifferentiated cells.

More here.

The Britishisation of American English

Cordelia Hebblethwaite at the BBC:

ScreenHunter_02 Sep. 30 13.07There is little that irks British defenders of the English language more than Americanisms, which they see creeping insidiously into newspaper columns and everyday conversation. But bit by bit British English is invading America too.

Spot on – it's just ludicrous!” snaps Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.

“You are just impersonating an Englishman when you say spot on.”

Will do – I hear that from Americans. That should be put into quarantine,” he adds.

And don't get him started on the chattering classes – its overtones of a distinctly British class system make him quiver.

But not everyone shares his revulsion at the drip, drip, drip of Britishisms – to use an American term – crossing the Atlantic.

“I enjoy seeing them,” says Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware, and author of the forthcoming book, How to Not Write Bad.

“It's like a birdwatcher. If I find an American saying one, it makes my day!”

Last year Yagoda set up a blog dedicated to spotting the use of British terms in American English.

So far he has found more than 150 – fromcheeky to chat-up via sell-by date, and the long game – an expression which appears to date back to 1856, and comes not from golf or chess, but the card game whist. President Barack Obama has used it in at least one speech.

More here.

Behind the drones debate

Cyril Almeida in Dawn:

Drone2Drones kill civilians. Fewer civilians would probably die if there were less secrecy surrounding drone strikes in Fata. And the US kills people in Fata that it probably wouldn’t get away with killing in less remote parts of the world.

There. Now that that’s out of the way, there’s another obvious truth about drone strikes: they won’t end.

Because drones kill militants. Because there isn’t a good alternative to drones for killing militants in parts of Fata. And because the US security establishment likes them and the Pakistani security establishment doesn’t loathe them.

And, given what 140,000 troops in Fata can and have done, drones are — in terms of casualties and damage caused to civilian populations — on the periphery of the ‘what are we doing to our people’ debate.

If drones are here to stay, why this endless back and forth, sometimes acerbic, at other times restrained, between Pakistan and the US?

More here.

A Trans-Atlantic Trip Turns Kafkaesque

Gary Shteyngart in the New York Times:

220px-GaryShteyngartYou, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment. And your employees have clearly lost interest in the endeavor. Like the country whose name graces the hulls of your flying ships, you are exhausted and shorn of purpose. You need to stop.

Flight 121 from Paris to New York began on a clear autumn afternoon. It ended over 30 hours later. For those of us without miles, it is probably still going.

The initial delay was a mere hour or two. Some were told that our aircraft possessed faulty tires and brakes. Others were told that the crew could not find their way in from Paris. Neither scenario was particularly encouraging.

The aircraft was indeed an interesting one. One of the overhead baggage compartments was held together with masking tape. Halfway across the Atlantic you decided to turn Flight 121 back because your altimeter wasn’t working. Some of us were worried for our safety, but your employees mostly shrugged as if to say, Ah, there goes that altimeter again.

More here.

To get the most out of life, you’ve got to live like a bird

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_IC_MEIS_FRANZ_AP_001A novel is a bird. I learned this from Jonathan Franzen. It is the underlying message of his newest collection of essays, Farther Away.

Franzen became a bird watcher many years ago. He is almost apologetic about that fact, realizing that — in the opinion of most normal human beings — the birdwatcher is a slightly pathetic if otherwise harmless individual. In his commencement address at Kenyon College, “Pain Won't Kill You,” Franzen writes:

It's a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it is very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

From his usage of words like “passion,” “obsession,” and “love,” it's obvious Jonathan Franzen thinks birdwatching is neither pathetic, nor, more importantly, is it harmless. For Franzen, birdwatching is a big deal. Paying attention to birds can change you. It can transform your sense of self and the world. Franzen knows this because it happened to him.

Many of the essays in Franzen's book therefore touch on the subject of watching birds. A couple of essays are explicitly about birdwatching, which Franzen has done in Cyprus, on an island in the South Pacific known as Masafuera, and in China, among other places. Franzen has become a defender of the birds. He is appalled by the killing of birds and by the destruction of their natural habitat. He laments with great pathos the lusty shooting of migrant birds that is a favorite pastime of the people of Malta. But what does it mean, this birdwatching, and why does Franzen keep coming back to the theme of birds over and over in his essays?

More here.

Geller’s ‘savage’ ad displays the racism inherent in Israeli colonization

Shireen Tawil in Mondoweiss:

ScreenHunter_01 Sep. 30 10.21In her latest attempt to fan the flames of Islamaphobia, anti-Arab sentiments, and blind allegiance to Israel across America, Pamela Geller launched an ad campaignimploring Americans, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad”. Published in August on buses and subway cars in San Francisco, the ad made its debut in New York City subway stations this week and is due to speckle the nation’s capital in the near future.

Geller’s vulgar and hateful ad campaign has rightfully received much resistance and heat from local populations, as well as the public transportation authorities whose vehicles it smuts. Local anti-hate activists’ creative and artistic responses have branded these ads as racist and hate speech. Her violent and distasteful language has been slammed for reeking of colonial racism and white supremacy. The San Francisco MTA refused to run the ad as it contradicts their stance against defamatory language, until Geller went to court and, winning the case, protected the ad under the First Amendment (much to their credit, in a refreshing reaction to being forced to post the ad, the SFMTA donated its proceeds from the ad to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission).

The language Geller employs in her ad is shocking, hurtful, divisive, violent, hateful, racist, and vulgar. But it is out there, and potentially spreading. The question now remains: what to do with it?

More here.

On Early Warning Signs

Sugiharacrit_HSGeorge Sugihara in Seed:

At a closed meeting held in Boston in October 2009, the room was packed with high-flyers in foreign policy and finance: Henry Kissinger, Paul Volcker, Andy Haldane, and Joseph Stiglitz, among others, as well as representatives of sovereign wealth funds, pensions, and endowments worth more than a trillion dollars—a significant slice of the world’s wealth. The session opened with the following telling question: “Have the last couple of years shown that our traditional finance/risk models are irretrievably broken and that models and approaches from other fields (for example, ecology) may offer a better understanding of the interconnectedness and fragility of complex financial systems?”

Science is a creative human enterprise. Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views, and nothing
produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately.

Examples of catastrophic and systemic changes have been gathering in a variety of fields, typically in specialized contexts with little cross-connection. Only recently have we begun to look for generic patterns in the web of linked causes and effects that puts disparate events into a common framework—a framework that operates on a sufficiently high level to include geologic climate shifts, epileptic seizures, market and fishery crashes, and rapid shifts from healthy ecosystems to biological deserts.

The main themes of this framework are twofold: First, they are all complex systems of interconnected and interdependent parts. Second, they are nonlinear, non-equilibrium systems that can undergo rapid and drastic state changes.

Quick Intuitive Decisions Foster More Charity and Cooperation than Slow Calculated Ones

ThinkerEd Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Our lives are governed by both fast and slow – by quick, intuitive decisions based on our gut feelings; and by deliberate, ponderous ones based on careful reflection. How do these varying speeds affect our choices? Consider the many situations when we must put our own self-interest against the public good, from giving to charity to paying out taxes. Are we naturally prone to selfishness, behaving altruistically only through slow acts of self-control? Or do we intuitively reveal our better angels, giving way to self-interest as we take time to think?

According to David Rand from Harvard University, it’s the latter. Through a series of experiments, he has found that, on average, people behave more selflessly if they make decisions quickly and intuitively. If they take time to weigh things up, cooperation gives way to selfishness. The title of his paper – “Spontaneous giving and calculated greed” – says it all.

Working with Joshua Greene and Martin Nowak, Rand asked volunteers to play the sort of games that economists have used for years. They have to decide how to divvy, steal, invest or monopolise a pot of money, sometimes with the option to reward or punish other players. These games are useful research tools, but there’s an unspoken simplicity to them. Sure, the size of the payoffs or the number of rounds may vary, but experiments assume that people play consistently depending on their personal preferences. We know from personal experience that this is unlikely to be true, and Rand’s experiments confirm as much. They show that speed matters.

Rand started with a simple public goods game, where players decide how much money to put into a pot. The pot is then doubled and split evenly among them. The group gets the best returns if everyone goes all-in, but each individual does best if they withhold their money and reap the rewards nonetheless.



When Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina died in 2003 at the age of 100, he seemed to embody the term “political survivor.” Think of someone who began his career as a Roose­velt Democrat and finished it as a Reagan Republican, who campaigned for president as a white supremacist and ended up supporting a national holiday for Martin Luther King. Decades passed, one generation replaced another, but Thurmond soldiered on, swapping causes, even political parties, with a juggler’s eye. Where many politicians become objects of contempt or indifference over time, with Thurmond the reverse was true: the longer he lasted, the more revered he became. He hailed from Edgefield County in the hardscrabble Carolina Piedmont, home to several governors and a host of Lost Cause Southern heroes like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the race-baiting demagogue who notoriously advocated lynching to protect white women from black “lust.” Edgefield had a tradition of enforcing its Jim Crow laws with a heavy hand — a necessity, whites believed, in a county where two-thirds of the residents were black.

more from David Oshinsky at the NY Times here.

the zoo problem


Of course, zoos have both passionate supporters and outright opponents. But most people, like me, occupy a middle ground: delighting at the squirrel monkeys chasing each other’s tails, but shamed by the bored and contemptuous glance of the gorilla. Zoos embody the dilemmas of our relationship to a nature that we strive to control, for good and frequently for ill. These dilemmas provide the common thread to four fascinating books on the lives of animals in captivity. The central dilemma is of course whether to keep animals removed from their natural habitats at all: to do so allows us to come closer to them, but only in an environment that seems unnatural and impoverished. In Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, the investigative journalist David Kirby poses this question in the context of a very particular kind of zoo: the oceanariums and marine mammal parks in which some of the most sophisticated and spectacular of animals can be seen.

more from Stephen Cave at the FT here.

A Review of The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing


Anjuli Raza Kolb in The LA Review of Books:

IN HER MEMOIR Deep Blue Home, Julia Whitty describes a near collision with a young sperm whale as she swims, helpless among human companions, in the depths off the Galapagos Islands. She wonders if she will die. Calm and curious about her fate, she watches as he approaches full speed ahead, “with all the energy and incaution of adolescence.” Instead of ramming her, “he jackknifes his huge head downward,” she writes, “and I can see the sheets of cellophane-thin gray skin peeling off his body — the constant striptease one of the means by which cetaceans reduce their drag in the water.” This image captivates me: an empty whale skin, perfectly formed, floating gently up as its former contents shoot down in the water, all strength and purpose. The ghost whale unfurling itself and pouring outward on the surface of the water. I have since learned that whale skin releases in prosaic strips.

There is a quickening in this scene, a flush of longing, envy, and terror not just from the Melvillian symbolism of the whale, or the arresting account of a near-death experience, but, too, from the proximity to a living creature so other and so enormous. Whitty’s description is unmistakably erotic: the young whale’s shedding is a “striptease,” the “sculpted angle of his cheek and jaw,” his “tensile strength,” and his “arching upright” tail towering above her before he slides down into the dark waters. She writes of touching him, and it’s thrilling.

It is the trace, however, that struck me most. The oxytocin to the dopamine rush of first encounter, the strip of skin is like a lover’s token: prophetic, ontic, memorial, foretelling life lived together and the ways in which it ends. For those of us who love it and observe it closely, we are locked on a fast collision course with our natural world, tempting its wrath, waiting for it to fall apart or duck us, reaching for an acknowledgement of our presence in it, and, above all, enamored of its tokens and talismans.

Cradles of jewels, spun in an hour

From New Statesman:

SpiderThe spider and the cleaner work in the same building, not far from each other but solitary in their worlds. The spider spins quietly, tapping and rubbing herself. When the Hoover starts up, she can hear it through her hairs, feeling the sound waves like a wind on her body. She has eight eyes. She may not see in colour but she’s sensitive to tiny movements. There’s something stately about her panic: no noise, no head movement, simply her legs carry her suddenly into hiding. The cleaner on the other hand shouts and steps backwards: “Weird isn’t it, all those legs, very fragile and quite soft. A spider might measure an inch and a half but the mind sees something huge. I must admit, I’m a little bit unnerved by big spiders. Someone told me they bite. I might just pick them up very quickly – you know, grab them with my hand very softly and fling them out the window. I’d never kill one.”

The cleaner has only two eyes. When he’s not cleaning, he paints detailed pictures of invisible worlds. When he cleans, he keeps his eyes tuned to the task. He sees dust, mud, smears, nail clippings, spillages, hairs in plugholes, unpaid bills, kicked-off shoes, all the secret debris of a human. At a certain point he glances at the ceiling and sees cobwebs: “Ah yes, what should you do about webs? Old webs I’ll get rid of, they’re just big balls or twists of dust; and kitchen webs, the more you leave them (and I’m talking years here) the more the whole place becomes a congealment of grease. But fresh webs – I tend to take one and leave another. I make a balancing decision. I try not to get anxious about the ethics of it. There’s the issue of flies, of course. Not hygienic but I have saved flies on occasion. But those webs, when you see them outdoors they’re like cradles of jewels between the gorse – it seems so sad to damage them.”

More here.

Saturday Poem

To Marina (excerpt)

Let's take a walk
Into the world
Where if our shoes get white
With snow, is it snow, Marina,
Is it snow or light?
Let's take a walk

Every detail is everything in its place (Aristotle). Literature is a cup
And we are the malted. The time is a glass. A June bug comes
And a carpenter spits on a plane, the flowers ruffle ear rings.
I am so dumb-looking. And you are so beautiful.

by Kenneth Koch
from The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

The Great Disconnect

Mark Lilla in The New York Times:

Lilla-articleLargeOnce upon a time there was a radical president who tried to remake American society through government action. In his first term he created a vast network of federal grants to state and local governments for social programs that cost billions. He set up an imposing agency to regulate air and water emissions, and another to regulate workers’ health and safety. Had Congress not stood in his way he would have gone much further. He tried to establish a guaranteed minimum income for all working families and, to top it off, proposed a national health plan that would have provided government insurance for low-income families, required employers to cover all their workers and set standards for private insurance. Thankfully for the country, his second term was cut short and his collectivist dreams were never realized.

His name was Richard Nixon.

Whenever conservatives talk to me about Barack Obama, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. But what exactly? The anger, the suspicion, the freestyle fantasizing have no perceptible object in the space-time continuum that centrist Democrats like me inhabit. What are we missing? Seen from our perspective, the country elected a moderate and cautious straight shooter committed to getting things right and giving the United States its self-­respect back after the Bush-Cheney years. Unlike the crybabies at MSNBC and Harper’s Magazine, we never bought into the campaign’s hollow “hope and change” rhetoric, so aren’t crushed that, well, life got in the way. At most we hoped for a sensible health care program to end the scandal of America’s uninsured, and were relieved that Obama proposed no other grand schemes of Nixonian scale. We liked him for his political liberalism and instinctual conservatism. And we still like him.

But more than a few of our fellow citizens are loathing themselves blind over Barack Obama. Why?

More here.