An addendum to the earlier post on Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”:
As was originally pointed out yesterday by Alisa, the Financial Times attempted to verify the data presented by Piketty in his book, and failed to be able to reproduce it.
They found that the data, as presented, contained (to say the least) substantial inaccuracies. More bluntly, if the correct figures from the sources he cites are used, and the calculations are performed correctly, the effects he claims to describe vanish entirely.
The Financial Times has now published two articles on the subject, but I would prefer to draw people’s attention to the blog post by Chris Giles that discusses the matter in full detail. It is absolutely worth reading, especially as Piketty’s reply to the FT on the matter is breezy and entirely non-substantive, addressing none of the points brought up by Giles.
There were hints of data problems even before my own earlier blog post on this matter. I will continue to assert that even were the data correct, it would make no real difference, as Piketty’s conclusions are absurd. However, it is of significant interest to know that his objective claims about the data are untrue as well.
One wonders why Professor Piketty chose to first publish his ideas in a popular account rather than in academic journals, where peer review might have caught these problems earlier. Perhaps then, however, we would not have experienced the treat of Paul Krugman explaining to us that no real counterargument exists to Piketty’s claims. Quoting Professor Krugman only a month ago:
The really striking thing about the debate so far is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack to Mr. Piketty’s thesis
Note that Professor Krugman wrote this mere days after the book even became available to most readers, long before it could be expected that anyone could have double-checked the data or formulated a coherent response, and long before any but the swiftest of readers could have been expected to digest the contents.
I recommend that connoisseurs of schadenfreude read all of Professor Krugman’s writings in The New York Times on the subject of Piketty. They are, especially in the light of the emerging news, a rare treat.
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as “bad luck”.
– Robert A. Heinlein
(As brought to my attention in a comment by “Plamus”.)
In Douglas Adams famous non-fiction series on galactic economic history, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, we are presented with a description of the tragedy of the planet Frogstar B.
On Frogstar B, for a time shoe production increased faster than the rate of overall economic growth. As a result, with time, shoe production became a larger and larger fraction of the economy, until finally the Shoe Event Horizon was hit, at which point nothing but shoes could be manufactured, and lacking any other goods or services, their civilization collapsed.
Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” describes a similar tragedy that lies inevitably in our future, the point at which the only economic activity left is investment, all money is held by a tiny minority of wealthy people, and our civilization permanently ends.
Will we be wise enough to learn from the people of Frogstar B, and place a heavy tax on capital before our doom is reached?
I hope not, because of course Douglas Adams was writing comedy, not an economic history. Sadly, Piketty appears not to be a parodist, and presents the claim, in all seriousness, that something like a Shoe Event Horizon, in this case the Investment Event Horizon, could actually happen.
Normally, I would ignore such a book, but numerous commentators (all of whom, by strange coincidence, were already enthralled by the idea of expansions state power) have responded to Piketty’s call for heavy wealth and income taxation with rapturous reviews, driving Piketty’s work to the center of much of our current political discussion.
It is therefore, sadly, our duty to seriously to consider his arguments and the effects of his proposed remedies…
→ Continue reading: Piketty and the Shoe Event Horizon
The United States Government, feeling that it does not have a sufficient worldwide reputation for completely lacking self awareness, has decided to indict members of the Chinese PLA for conducting computer based espionage against US commercial targets.
Note that the Snowden releases have revealed that the US has engaged in precisely the same behavior, including numerous attacks against Chinese equipment maker Huawei.
Indeed, we currently lack evidence that the Chinese state has conducted wholesale interception of calls from entire countries, but the NSA has done precisely that. We have no evidence that the Chinese have intercepted US equipment shipments and sabotaged them, but the NSA has done precisely that. We have no evidence that the Chinese have systematically undermined internet standards or bribed security companies to sabotage their own software to make communications less secure, but the NSA had done precisely that. Indeed, I could reiterate dozens of Snowden revelations here, but I won’t waste everyone’s time by doing so. (Note that I do not claim the Chinese government has not done such things, only that we do not have evidence of it, while we know for certain that the US government has done such things.)
Today’s rhetorical question is therefore this: if foreign countries begin indicting and arresting US officials for espionage and industrial sabotage, will the US government protest?
It is the First of May, a date traditionally associated with Marxism. Let us therefore pause today to remember that at least 100 million people were killed by Marxist governments in the 20th century, a number that dwarfs the predations of every other organized movement in human history.
What are the odds that the NSA, GCHQ, etc. do not spy on the elected officials that oversee them?
What prevents subsequent blackmail of said officials by said agencies, other than policies that would be utterly trivial for agency officials to violate at whim?
“You think minimum height restrictions make children taller?”
– Luke McCormick, who I think has finally found the minimal summary of minimum wage laws.
“No matter how much the government controls the economic system, any problem will be blamed on whatever small zone of freedom that remains.”
– Sheldon Richman
After the My Lai massacre, only one person, William Calley, was charged, and then only after enormous public outcry. He ultimately served 3.5 years in house arrest for ordering and participating in the murder of at least 347 and possibly as many as 504 Vietnamese civilians, presuming he had no knowledge of the gang rapes and mutilations of bodies, which seems unlikely given eyewitness accounts.
The events of My Lai were initially covered up, itself a crime, but no one was ever charged for participating in the coverup.
During the massacre, Hugh Thompson, Jr. saved countless lives by ordering his helicopter crew to protect innocent civilians from execution. For his trouble, he was initially given a medal for a non-existent event in an attempt to shut him up, then condemned in public once the true events were revealed. The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Mendel Rivers, went so far as to say that Thompson was the only person in the incident worthy of punishment.
Has the world changed much?
Today, it was announced that Bradley Manning, whose chief de facto offense was providing the US public with evidence of multiple war crimes, will be serving ten times the length of William Calley’s punishment, 35 years, and in a real prison rather than house arrest. The people who committed the war crimes he revealed evidence of will never be charged.
(On the latter, if you have any doubts that he revealed criminal activity, compare, as just one example, the video of the helicopter machine gunning of two Reuters reporters in Baghdad with the official DoD investigation report of the incident, which had full access to said video. Even if one can bring oneself to believe that the incident itself was not a crime (although it almost certainly was), the subsequent investigation was a fabricated tissue of lies. The events in the video and those described in the investigation report are manifestly not the same. Presumably those engaging in this coverup believed they could never be caught because the video was improperly classified to aid in the coverup, itself a crime. The coverup itself was a felony — but no one was charged but the messenger.)
The State protects its own. It cannot be trusted to police itself.
Recently, I’ve seen much hubbub to the effect that the US Republican Party must adopt libertarian views to retain its popularity. For example, see this article which, in spite of its title, mostly discusses why the Republicans will fail if they don’t abandon “conservatism” for libertarianism.
As other examples, NPR had an extended segment on the news with a very similar topic about a day ago, and I’ve seen friends posting on similar themes.
I should like to take a radically orthogonal view.
I honestly don’t care what will or will not “save” either the Republican Party, or any other party for that matter. Political parties generally disgust me, being organized for much the same purpose as a gang of looters or a crime syndicate, and if only they could all go out of business and their members be sent to prison where they belong I would be pleased beyond measure.
What I do know is this, though: just as the Democrats keep talking about things like “civil liberties” while running Guantanamo and a surveillance state, and talk about “peace” while growing the military and intervening around the world, your odds will be excellent if you bet that a GOP that adopts “libertarianism” so it can win elections will give the ideas lip service while implementing entirely non-libertarian policies to serve their real goals: power and money for themselves and their cronies.
Many people will not understand this distinction between rhetoric and action. After all, few seem to notice it right now. If the rebranding is successful and the Republicans start winning elections, I fear that the public will start blaming “libertarianism” for increased government spending, foreign intervention, business regulation, torture, and whatever else they implement under the pretense of spending cuts, non-intervention, deregulation, civil liberties, and the like.
I suppose that is not really something I can help, though. The underlying problem is that people do not yet widely understand that the higher the political office, the more likely it is that the electoral contest is between two sociopathic con men.
Indeed, the US Presidential election is a sort of quadrennial Olympics for con men. The odds of of a randomly selected untrained amateur winning the Olympic 500m race are poor when hundreds or thousands of professionals train for years for the event. The probability of a decent human being winning the White House when competing against hordes of amoral grifters whose skills are honed to a razors edge by years of competition are even lower.
Worse, people do not understand that even if a decent human being by some astounding accident wins high political office, they are almost inevitably both thwarted and corrupted. The system is built to derail reform, not to enable it, and it holds temptations that few normal people can resist. One is faced with (to name but a few things) the powerful financial interests of the Military-Industrial Complex, blackmail by the intelligence community, lobbyists more numerous than locusts, fellow politicians who do not want their sustenance to end, a press almost as interested in preserving the status quo as the pigs at the trough, Sir Humphrey Appleby‘s spiritual kin, constant luxuries from banquets to private jets to soften one’s moral resistance, and an endless series of instances where one might bend the rules just this once, for the common good.
I would not even trust myself with the power of the Presidency — it should be no surprise that I trust no one else with it either.
I have been asked by some, “then what do you propose we should do, if electoral politics will not work? Surely you must work within the system you have, not the one you wish you had.” This viewpoint reminds me of a political cartoon featuring a pair of Aztec priests removing the heart from a victim. One says to the other, “it isn’t the best possible system, but it’s the one we’ve got.”
I think that until one thinks beyond the current system and its failures, one cannot get away from those failures. You cannot become celibate by increasing your frequency of sexual intercourse, shoot your way to nonviolence, gorge your way to weight loss, or vote your way to a system that respects inalienable rights not subject to the whims of the electorate.
The US’s founding fathers conducted an interesting experiment in whether a strong constitution could restrain the worst defects of democracy. (That was literally their intent, as the Federalist Papers reveal.) We would be fools to ignore the result of that experiment. To be sure, it was a partial success for a time, but it did not last. The rot began almost immediately.
(I have acquaintances who are attorneys who believe in a “living constitution.” They laugh at me when I say things like “but the plain intent of the words `Congress shall make no law[…] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’ is that Congress isn’t allowed to make laws on that topic.” Apparently a belief that words can have plain meanings is the height of naïveté and shows exactly how stupid I am.)
The only rational way forward I see is to try to build the world I want directly, and to leave the political mechanism, which I wish to see eliminated anyway, behind.
My message, and sadly the best path I have to offer (for it is not an easy one) is this: work on ways to achieve the world you want that do not involve politics, and work on letting others know that this is the only long term path to make the world a better place.
In other words, if you want to see people fed, work on ways to feed them — one Norman Borlaug beats a million “food security activists” begging for stolen money. If you want to see people better able to communicate in privacy or avoid censorship when they wish to speak in public, build computer protocols and software to help them do that regardless of the desires of bureaucrats. (The people who built Tor, PGP and the like did not wait to be given “permission” to do so, they simply built what they felt the world needed. You can, too.) If you want to help people live longer and healthier lives, do medical research or open a clinic.
So, if you want to be free, live as freely as you can right now, and help others to be free as well. Build the institutions and technologies you wish existed to support freedom today, not someday after “they” have given you permission to be free. “They” will never grant their permission, so you will be waiting forever. Besides, waiting for “them” to throw you crumbs of freedom is servile. Not only will the things you build improve your own life here and now, those things will also undermine the power of those who would enslave you. (“They” would prefer that you believe yourself to be powerless and dependent on what “they” choose to do. Ignore “them”.)
Most of all, do not believe the con men, do not join them, and do not aid them. (Try to help other people understand that they should not believe or aid them either.) The con men are not your friends. The last several millennia of experience with elections are not a fluke to be dismissed as mere experimental error. The next politician and the next election will not be different than all their predecessors. The next politician will not usher in “change”, or “hope”. The next politician will, if experience is any guide, care mostly about self-maximization. It doesn’t matter how hard they pander to your prejudices, they don’t care about what you want, they’re in it for what they want. If you want a better world to live in, build it yourself instead.
It has been less than 42 years since a US President ordered his minions to break in to the opposition party’s headquarters in an effort to conduct espionage directed at undermining them.
Now, thanks to the NSA, no one would need to physically break in to anything — a few calls would be sufficient.
People keep talking about the current NSA scandal as though privacy was something intended to keep your neighbors from finding out you listen to embarrassing music — an understandable desire but ultimately of no great importance. To believe that is why people need privacy is to completely misunderstand what is at stake here.
Richard Nixon really existed, and was really elected to office. The problem is not a hypothetical one.
Consider just for a moment what an unscrupulous President, like Richard Nixon, equipped with the information already available from the NSA could do to his political opponents, to reporters trying to find out the truth about his activities, to anyone he thought of as being “in the way”. Consider how much easier it would be for such a President to find his enemies given what the NSA has already built.
Total Surveillance Means Absolute Power.
The surveillance systems that have been developed by the NSA are too dangerous for us to permit to exist.
(39 years ago almost to the day.)
A new story from The Guardian, barely twelve hours after the last set of revelations: “NSA loophole allows warrantless search for US citizens’ emails and phone calls”.
Yes, this one is indeed far worse than the previous ones, unbelievable as that might seem.
Explaining why to those not following in detail is almost not worth it any longer, however.
A friend of mine long ago coined the term “Outrage Fatigue”, the condition in which so many awful actions by a set of State actors have been revealed that one can no longer hope to track the entire list of their offenses and crimes in one’s head.
I have long since passed that point for the Obama administration in general. Imprisonment without charge, war crimes, coverups, the silencing of whistleblowers and dozens of other acts have become so numerous that I cannot hope to remember them all.
However, I have now passed the point where, even as a putative subject matter expert, I could hope to remember even everything that has been revealed about just this one scandal.
It is painfully clear that the contempt of the Obama Administration and its minions for the rule of law is near total, that their contempt for the truth is near total, and that one’s confidence in anything they say in public whatsoever should be precisely zero.