Monday assorted links

1. Detroit still has higher levels of lead poisoning than does Flint.

2. Whale dialects and whale tribes and whale culture.

3. “The elfin Ms. Kondo, perhaps the world’s only decluttering celebrity…Now 31, KonMari, as she’s known, exhorts you to ask yourself, “Do your things spark joy?” If not, you must thank them for their service, and send them packing.” NYT link here.  Here is a behavioral economics analysis of Kondo.  I liked this NYT sentence: “It’s a liberating manifesto, though in practice it can take months.”

4. “I, ball point pen [China]”  And Michael Pettis is right about China: “Repaying debt simply means allocating debt-servicing costs, either directly or indirectly, to specific sectors within the economy.”

5. The changing economics of heavy metal.

6. Paul Krugman reviews Robert Gordon.


4. I'm reminded of a major reason given by President Bush's team of cracker-jack economists for supporting the budget busting and debt as far as the eyes can see creating tax cuts: to avoid paying down the public debt.

His last deficit was 168 Billion. When we going to see that again?

The Iraq War was off budget.

If you add the emergency appropriations to the budget deficit, it doesn't fundamentally change the point. The highest deficit under Obama is 1 trillion more than the highest deficit under Bush, while the maximum emergency appropriations for Iraq in a given year were less than 200 billion. Also various similar emergency appropriations happened under Obama, which would need to be accounted for to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

Personally I agree with rayward that Bush didn't care enough about the deficit. But the problem increased to a whole new level under Obama.

Who knew Krugman was such a fan of the gilded age?

Ok, that's funny.


4. "The ball [...] is so tiny [...] that it requires state-of-the-art machinery and cutting-edge computerized measurement equipment with pinpoint precision to produce."

Except that the modern pen originated in 1940s Argentina, which had none of that.

3. When did economics and psychology become completely interchangeable?

Around the time that game theory was developed.

#6: I feel like what's missing from the broader Gordon discussion is diminishing marginal utility from innovations. If we had robots to wipe our behinds in the year 2016, would Gordon still say that growth has slowed? Except... that's kind of irrelevant, isn't it? There is simply no (or almost no) amount of toilet innovation that will transform my life the way the basic indoor toilet with toilet paper has. Gordon is taking this as evidence that growth is slowing down, when really it just shows that the low-hanging fruit of human needs were met first.

To use another example, the improvement of a flying car over a regular car is peanuts compared to the improvement of a regular car over a horse and buggy. So even if we literally had flying cars, it wouldn't change Gordon's thesis. That seems like an enormous problem to me. He's asking one question but then answering a totally different one.

Some discoveries could potentially totally change our lives but they're not available or blocked by physical laws: for example say we discovered: antigravity, teleportation, immortality, nanomachines that build everything at lightning speed from atoms, it would change things dramatically, but his point is that the game changers discoveries have already been made, and the rest (to him) is more like slow engineering improvement. Game changer discoveries generate big growth, slow mundane innovations generate small growth.

But that's exactly the point, isn't it? Because of diminishing marginal utility, the threshold for what constitutes a "game changer" keeps accelerating. Think of how many quality-adjusted life-years penicillin has saved over the years. Now realize that it was discovered by some guy noticing that a fungus excretes it. Compare that to what a monumentally complex and difficult task it would be to cure all forms of cancer, and then consider that even that would be a drop in the bucket compared to penicillin.

So I would say, curing all forms of cancer would be a much bigger...achievement, I guess is the word, than discovering penicillin, even though with penicillin you're talking about orders of magnitude higher QALYs for your research dollar.

This is my problem with the way Gordon's thesis is framed. He's making a claim that innovation is slowing but backing it up with examples of diminishing marginal utility. That's a thesis that is consistent with almost any level of innovation and so it doesn't tell us anything. Gordon's thesis would be just as applicable to an alternate universe where I had a self-driving flying car, a cure for cancer, and a robot maid.

I think you underestimate how much can be improved, and how far things have improved.

Google Target Canada and read about the extraordinarily complex difficulties they faced with technology. Anyone reading that can see room for innovation that would change retail as much as it has been transformed in the last couple decades. How? Don't know, and people are working on it.

When I started working in my industry pagers were high tech, and brick size cell phones were available. To suggest that what I have now is just a phone misses the immensity of the improvement. Was Henry Ford innovative? Cars had been around for a couple decades. He along with others made them ubiquitous.

For about $1k a year I use a system with mobile, tracking and dispatch that wealthy regulated monopolies were rolling out two decades ago at the cost of millions of dollars.

Innovation isn't about an automated butt wiper, but an order of magnitude less expensive sewage treatment technology. That would transform the world, and isn't invented yet.

You make a good point Rock Lobster. Too much of Gordon's stagnation thesis is vulnerable to the "no true scotsman" objection. Really saying that say the telephone is a more fundemental or more important innovation than say Facebook is simply a matter of taste and not the result of any dispassionate analysis. Revealed preference, for instance, in the third world is that smart phones are a more important innovation than kitchens, washing machines, cars, indoor plumbing etc. Smart phones are a less than 10 year old technology. Gordon is trapped in the Baby Boomer view of technology, essentially they see progress only in terms of extrapolation of 1960's technology - so lots of focus on aerospace and little on the amazing technologies of the internet/computing.

Right. I don't deny that the telephone beats out Facebook as far as adding utility is concerned. But would I conclude that technological progress is slowing down? No, because that's a different question.

And I realize that talking about "the rate of technological progress" in a way that's divorced from the satisfaction of human needs is possibly incoherent, but I'm putting that aside for the moment.

#6 This leapt out at me:

"Meanwhile, backbreaking toil both in the workplace and in the home was for the most part replaced by far less onerous employment. This is a point all too often missed by economists, who tend to think only about how much purchasing power people have, not about what they have to do to get it, and Gordon does an important service by reminding us that the conditions under which men and women labor are as important as the amount they get paid..."

A very good point on the subject of stagnation

5. "The Slow Death of Heavy Metal". Anything I can do to help that along?

Metal is not dying....

Yes, but only if you're comfortable with Death Metal.

This interview that I only just heard after Bowie's death seems to explain why Metal is dying...and rock. What I think Bowie said was essentially the internet democratized being rebellious to the point that bands can no longer claim the territory of rebellion that is central to rock (and metal).


"Once metal became mainstream in the ’80s, and the glam bands co-opted its imagery for poppier sounds, the genre started losing its edge. And while thrash metal railed against Cold War fears, those became moot by the early ’90s, a time when Nirvana and grunge drove the genre back into the American underground, and rap overtook metal’s firm embrace on rebellion, which prompted the maligned, hybridized nü metal movement of the late ’90s and early ’00s."

That's not an accurate history, even as a cursory summary. That's a Rolling Stone history of metal, and one I might add that fails to account for the revival of the old school metal artists that are the centerpiece of the article.

He groups many completely unrelated genres under "heavy metal", which makes no sense. Grunge is not heavy metal; it's a form of alternative rock. He'd probably consider punk rock as a form of heavy metal too. Why didn't he just say rock music? He didn't bother making any attempt to tie these genres together. It's just a lazy, poorly researched article.

Wow, 5 manages to miss the point badly while actually containing the most important point in a paragraph. Metal has never been more diverse than today but almost by definition that means there will be fewer mega acts. Not a big problem though, I never thought them to be particularly good either way, with the exception of Metallica, perhaps. And smaller concerts are usually a lot more fun, anyway (best concert I ever attended was badly marketed and so had only like 50 people present but boy, the band still did their best).

The metal scene is diverse indeed. Death metal, black metal, doom metal, nu metal, etc. You can't really group black metal's atmospheric sounds and themes of despair and mysticism with death metal's brutality and anger. It's a completely different sound.
Furthermore, each genre has its fan base, scene, and culture. I find it hard to imagine technical death metal geeks who appreciate virtuoso guitar playing uniting with fans of crappy nu metal bands like Slipknot (no offense). So I'm not so sure that a mainstream band could emerge, even if it somehow struck a chord with the disenfranchised. They really are different genres with different fans.

Too many words to say, heavy metal has gone from filling 30k people arenas to 1K people venues. Perhaps too many rich kids tried to make a band some years ago and now there's a saturated market of metal bands. However, old guys are dying thus metal fans will have to switch to concerts of younger bands........which a non-existent problem: there are younger and edgier bands.

Perhaps youth unemployment is hitting metal music. Fans must have an income to pay for music & concerts. Also, bands have to compete today with other expenses such as video-games or smartphones. Only 20 years ago if you lived in small town all you could have was money for a car, some albums and beers. How many heavy metal albums is worth an X-Box?

3. My toilet plunger definitely does not bring me joy, although it helps lessen my misery. I'm not getting rid of it.

#6. Paul Krugman:

"Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional."

The 1940 American census reported 45% of households were rural. 30% of all households didn't have running water, 40% didn't have a flush toilet, 20% didn't have electrical lighting, 85% didn't have mechanical refrigerators, 45% didn't have electric or gas stoves, 60% did not have central heating, 50% didn't have power washing machines.

He doesn't care about such people. They don't count.

That's why he's talking about URBAN life.

If you were living in downtown San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston or Detroit you lived in a fairly recognizable place to the modern eye.

If you were living in rural Alabama, you were very far behind the modern world.

Now rural Alabama has caught up.

"Urban life in America on the eve of World War II"

"Now, in 1940 many Americans were already living in what was recognizably the modern world, but many others weren’t. What happened over the next 30 years was that the further maturing of the Great Inventions led to rapidly rising incomes and a spread of that modern lifestyle to the nation as a whole."

Yes, I get that Krugman is talking about urban life. But 85% of Americans didn't have a refrigerator that he claims you'd find in a typical urban dwelling. The 60% without central heating sure weren't all in rural households either.

It would make sense if he wrote "If you wen't to my friends' urban apartments who earned well above the median income, you would find, electricity, running water, a gas stove. Oh, but they were unlikely to have a refrigerator until 1945 or 1950 "

I was surprised that Robert Gordon made this type of error two or three times in his short TED talk a couple of years ago. I'd have to watch and look up the stats again, but he claimed some percentage of America had electricity in some year when it was actually many years later.

And I don't think he would disagree at all. The point of this comparison is to show that the difference between the 1940s and today has very little to do with new life-changing technology. It is instead due to economic growth (admittedly due to technology and innovation but just not the same sort of radical, pathbreaking stuff that came out in prior eras) combined with redistribution policies that ensure almost everyone can afford these things today.

If you compared middle class urban dwellers in the 1940s to middle class urban dwellers in the 1870s, you would see an entirely different pattern. The period 1870-1930 saw an unprecedented wave of innovation that touched almost every aspect of life for that part of the world's population who lived in or near cities. In 1870, there were no skyscrapers, no cars, no airplanes, no telephones, no electric lights, etc.
Farmers also saw innovation in the form of mass-produced chemical fertilizer and (for the wealthier farmers) mechanized farm equipment.

Interesting so many care about Metal while none care about Whale songs or Detroit.

Therefore Trump will win the Presidency?

Surprised social changes don't signify to Gordon. Sexual and racial equality, the decline in reproductive rate below replacement, the disappearance of religion are all fundamental discontinuities with the entirety of human history until the present. Our social engineering has never been more radical or revolutionary.

#3. Having moved around a lot, I'm a big fan of purging myself.
Every item you own costs you money either to move, or simply the square footage needed to store it. It's probably a significant factor in the trend towards huge, and thus costly, houses. How many people do you know who have at least one "bedroom" that is being used mostly as storage space? A lot, I will guess. If not a bedroom, then a garage or basement. I'm know a single 20-something male who rents a two bedroom townhouse because he needs the space to store all his crap. That crap is costing him at least $500 a month. All that extra stuff also costs a lot to move, and in many cases, isn't worth the money it will take. The less unnecessary crap you own, the easier it is to move around. Owning a lot of crap literally sucks the freedom out of your life.

After moving overseas, we lived on the contents of four suitcases while waiting several months for our stuff to be shipped. It was amazing how little we missed all that stuff.

And we're not even talking about how a mortgage and car loan tie you down yet.

I completely understand the analogy of poverty to freedom. A person with no job and no possessions can literally go whever they want at any moment. Ideal state would be no job, no possesions, and a very large bank account with a universal credit card.

Gotta have no kids though as well, which in all seriousness I think helps explain plunging birthrates worldwide.

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