Month: December 2014

*Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution*

Throughout the debate, no one (not even Marat or Robespierre) took the truly revolutionary position of suggesting venal offices might be illegitimate privileges that could be cancelled without payment.

This book is interesting throughout for its treatment of fiscal and monetary issues during the time of the French Revolution.  It is not geared toward current macroeconomic debates, but arguably that liberates it to be more interesting on the historical side.  The author is Rebecca L. Spang, of The Invention of the Restaurant fame.

Assorted links

1. How the Chinese mimic foreign brands.

2. Using DNA to catch canine culprits.

3. The David Beckworth criticisms of secular stagnation theories.  Just for review, here is the longest Summers statement of the theory I know of.

4. Are the arts dead in New York City?  I say “no,” but I couldn’t help but notice that those arguing “no” in this piece made the best case for the “yes” point of view.

5. “Fire Sale: How the Asset Buying Binge of the Great Depression Changed America.”

6. Will Magic Leap make a magic leap?

7. Britain to pay off debts from 1720.

Do we self-deceive to better fool others?

Here is the final paragraph from a recent MRI paper by Farrow, Burgess, Wilkinson, and Hunter, “Neural correlates of self-deception and impression-management“:

Taken together, one appealing ‘pop-psychology’  interpretation of these results would be that being excessively honest with ourselves (‘faking bad’ at self-deception) is our least indulged in pursuit while giving out the best possible image of ourselves to other (‘faking good’ at impression-management) is a behaviour with which we are much more familiar and practised.

From the abstract you can read that “Our neuroimaging data suggest that manipulating self-deception and impression-management…engages a common network…”

Robin Hanson has suggested related hypotheses in the past.  Caveat emptor, for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Is the Medicaid access crunch about to explode?

The impact will vary by state, but a study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, estimates that doctors who have been receiving the enhanced payments will see their fees for primary care cut by 43 percent, on average.

Stephen Zuckerman, a health economist at the Urban Institute and co-author of the report, said Medicaid payments for primary care services could drop by 50 percent or more in California, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania, among other states.

That is from Steven Lee Myers and Jo Becker, there is more here.

Pakistan’s burgeoning tech scene

Just two months ago, e-commerce company Markhor, which works with local artisans to produce high-quality men’s leather shoes, became Pakistan’s most successful Kickstarter campaign, raising seven times more than its intended goal, catching the attention of Seth Godin and GOOD Magazine.

There is no greater evidence of this positive change than in Pakistan’s burgeoning technology ecosystem. In a new report released by my company, Invest2Innovate – which was commissioned by the World Bank’s Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) – we mapped the number of startup competitions, incubators, university programs, coworking spaces and forums, and analyzed the gaps and challenges entrepreneurs continue to face in the country.

Three years ago, the ecosystem was relatively nascent, with just a handful of organizations. Today, the space is unrecognizable and brimming with constant energy and activity.

That is from Kalsoom Lakhani, there is more of interest here.  Here is my earlier post on Pakistan as an underrated economy.

Stimulus for Russian oligarchs

This is from Karen Dawisha’s more-important-than-ever Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?:

When the economy almost collapsed in 2008, the Russian government bailed out state-supported banks first, to the tune of 5 trillion rubles (approximately $230 billion), in a move which government ministers who sat on boards (such as Finance Minister Kudrin, who sat on the board of VTB Bank) simply helped themselves to their own private stimulus package.  But instead of using the money to stabilize the Russian ruble (which plummeted from 23RR/US$ to 36RR/US$) or the stock market (which lost 80 percent of its value), it only stimulated capital flight.  Kudrin estimated that between October 2008 and January 2009, $200 billion was taken out of the country — i.e., virtually the entire stimulus.

This book contains a remarkable amount of research.  The point I wish to make today is that the Russian economic collapse is just beginning to unfold.

*What makes this book so great*

That is the title of the new Jo Walton book, and the subtitle is Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It is an extended paean to the pleasures of re-reading, exhibiting a taste which is interesting , useful, and yet uneven (fifteen separate works by Lois McMaster Bujold are covered, each with its own chapter.  I do like her, but…).  Most of the book offers analyses of individual works, here is one broader bit:

In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character.

In a mainstream novel, the world is implicitly our world, and the characters are the world.

In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven.

…The difference between a mainstream novel and a SF one is that different things are just scenery.

She is trying to tell me that I should attempt Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren again.  She recommends re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, but can’t bring herself to say it is good.  Overall buying this book caused me to make four additional Amazon purchases, a good sign that is was worth my while.

Basketball average is over?

So in May, the team [Milwaukee Bucks] hired Dan Hill, a facial coding expert who reads the faces of college prospects and N.B.A. players to determine if they have the right emotional attributes to help the Bucks.

The approach may sound to some like palm reading, but the Bucks were so impressed with Hill’s work before the 2014 draft that they have retained him to analyze their players and team chemistry throughout the current season.

There is more here.  How well does this model retrodict various successes and failures, relative to underlying levels of talent?  How about if we apply the model to economists?  Potential graduate students?  Mates?  Where else?  File under speculative.

Feline tax collateral in Russia

Tax collectors in Russia have stumbled across a new way of getting people to pay their debts – by threatening to take away their cats, it’s been reported.

State collectors in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk recently succeeded in getting a resident to pay 12,000 roubles ($198; £127) he owed in unpaid taxes after threatening to seize his expensive pedigree cat, Interfax news agency reports. When bailiffs arrived at the student’s flat, they initially found nothing of value worth seizing – that is until they spied the British Shorthair cat he was holding and three of its kittens running around the place. “Because the animals are pedigree and expensive, the representative of the law decided to place the cat brood under arrest”, Interfax quotes a statement from the region’s court marshal’s service.

In another case, bailiffs in the Siberian region of Tomsk placed four pedigree Scottish Fold kittens “under arrest” after their owner, a former businesswoman, failed to make payments into a company pension fund, Tass news agency reports. She was eventually allowed to keep the cats after managing to get hold of the money. And it seems it’s not just people’s beloved felines that have fallen prey to the latest scheme. In another Siberian region, Krasnoyarsk, a man who owed 20,000 roubles in unpaid utility bills had his “British Shorthair cat named Yasmin and his fluffy pet rabbit” seized, Interfax reports.

The link is here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.  And by the way, via Abigail Tucker, it was not so long ago that “Russian Bank Will Send a Cat to Your House if You Sign.”  Hmm…

Other essential books of 2014

A few weeks ago I listed the best non-fiction books of 2014, here are a few which I either forgot or were late coming to my attention or were published or shipped after the first list.  These are all very, very good:

1. Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of World Order, 1916-1931.  This one also starts slow but after about 13% becomes fascinating, especially about the internal politics in Germany and Russia, circa 1917-1918.

2. Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.  Excellent and informationally dense literary essays, I especially like the ones on the German-language poets and writers, such as Benn and Walser and Bernhard and Grass.

3. Henry Marsh, Do No Harm, a neurosurgeon does behavioral economics as applied to his craft.

4. Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford, Rendez-Vous, a discursive chat while looking at some classics of art

5. Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.  A superb book, one of the very best appreciations of poetry and introductions to poetry of the 20th century.  This book has received raves in the UK, it is not yet out in the U.S.

In fiction, to supplement my earlier list, I recommend:

6. Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq.  Short stories about the conflict in Iraq, by an Iraqi.  I expected to find these widely heralded stories to be disappointing, as the premise is a little too easy for the Western critic to embrace.  But they are excellent and this book is one of the year’s best fiction releases.

7. Andy Weir, The Martian.  Ostensibly science fiction, but more a 21st century Robinson Crusoe story — set on Mars of course — with huge amounts of (ingenious) engineering driving the story.  Lots of fun, many other people have liked it too.

8. Geoffrey Hill, Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012.

By the way, Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower [Der Turm] is now out in English.

Iranian markets in everything

Iran has been hit so hard that its government, looking for ways to fill a widening hole in its budget, is offering young men the option of buying their way out of an obligatory two years of military service. “We are on the eve of a major crisis,” an Iranian economist, Hossein Raghfar, told the Etemaad newspaper on Sunday. “The government needs money badly.”

There is more here, mostly on how falling oil prices have affected other countries.