Saturday, January 13, 2018

Star Wars, Ep. VIII: The Return of Political Economy

Despite wooden acting and dialog, the prequels shine because they took the visually vivid but one-dimensional narrative of the original trilogy and put it in a galaxy that makes sense economically and politically.  Business and bureaucrats clash while sinecures in the Senate seek little change beyond capturing private rents.  Inequality is high:  the returns to capital are handsome and slavery is common on the fringes.  It really is no wonder that a collection of smaller worlds would vote to leave such a corrupt and stagnant system. 

The Force Awakens rejected socioeconomic world-building.  As has been much hashed, it adhered obnoxiously closely to the formula of A New Hope.  Where political economy surfaced it was nonsensical:  The First Order is a fringe movement that manages to build a superweapon ten times larger than the former Empire's flagship Death Star without being detected by the galactic government?  The pro-Republic military force calls itself "The Resistance"?

In short, the prequels were hard to watch but a lot of fun to think about.  Episode VII was fun to watch and awful if you thought about it.

The Last Jedi at least offers up some ingredients to solve for The Force Awakens' unlikely equilibrium. (Of course none of the below was Disney's conscious intent, but let's have some fun.) Some observations on the new galactic order:

1.  The Resistance and the First Order are both more gang than military

First, the numbers.  When Obi-Wan travels to Kamino in Episode II, he is told the first 200,000 clones are ready for deployment, with a million more soon to follow.  By the beginning of Episode VIII, the entirety of the Resistance can fit on three star cruisers.  By the end, they can fit on a single smugglers' freighter, the equivalent of fitting your Earth army in the back of a long-haul truck.

Second, the scope.  Nobody, nobody in the galaxy cares much what is going on between the Resistance and The First Order.  Sure, some people are aware, the way Americans are aware of, say, the constant fighting between different gangs in Mexico.  But even a Resistance sympathizer like Maz can't be bothered to make some room in her schedule to save the entire Resistance.  Instead, we get, "Sorry, I'm all booked up, but I know a guy.  Give him a ring and he might be able to help.  Good luck, kids."

2.  The galaxy is getting smarter

Particularly, the First Order's understanding of hyperspace appears to have advanced more in a generation than the galaxy's did in the previous thousand years.  (Both Starkiller and the tracking technology on display in TLJ are in part hyperspace technologies.)

3.  The galaxy is getting dumber

In Rogue One we see force shields that can cover entire planets.  In TLJ, we get...big bunker doors.

4.  How to reconcile #2 and #3?

Ask Kevin Drum:
The problem is that the internet does help people who are “sufficiently motivated and clueful,” but that’s never been a big part of the population. And sadly, the internet is probably as bad or worse than Dr. Oz for all the people who don’t know how to do even basic searches and don’t have either the background or the savvy to distinguish between good advice and hogwash. Regular readers will recognize this as a version of my theory that “the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality.” Or in simpler terms, “the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter.”
Some fundamental in the galaxy has changed that benefits the smart and careful (like Snoke) and confounds the reckless (lookin' at you, fly-boy).  Woe to worlds where the former intend ill and the good are the latter.

What is the internet-like change in the Star Wars universe?'s the internet.  We know from Episodes I-VII that there are tremendous stores of knowledge in various archives around the galaxy, but not a lot of off-site access to these databanks.  We also know that the Empire was sinking a lot of cash into R&D to build superstructures.  The need to collaborate and communicate may have led the Empire's scientists to scrap something together that looked a lot like ARPANET.

5.  Business is up!

We get two looks at business in TLJ:  a long side venture to Canto Bight and a quick Skype chat with Maz.

Canto Bight shows us the new wealth in the galaxy in its most concentrated form, and boy-howdy are capitalists raking it in.  Rose dismisses it as a sorry bunch of beings who made it rich selling arms to the First Order, but of course that's what she was going to say.  DJ (Benicio Del Toro's character) quickly abuses Rose's political purism.  While DJ seemed fairly comfortable guessing that the ship he stole belonged to an arm's (and one of flexible loyalties), I can't help but wonder what other industries, if any, were represented at Canto Bight. 

The most telling thing about the trip to Canto Bight is the absolute lack of concern that it may be the Resistance's collective last day alive.  If Canto Bight's denizens were really all lackeys of the First Order, you might expect them to have taken a break from the tables to watch the imminent destruction of rebel scum.  If they all made their money exclusively from war-profiteering, you might expect a little nervousness that a one-sided victory by either force would lead to an end of the gold rush.  Neither of these is true; no one cares one way or the either.  This inclines me to believe that the nouveau riches' fortunes are more diversified than Rose and DJ suggest.  (And, as mentioned above, Maz also puts business first, politics second, so it's not just the 1% who are indifferent.)

6.  Down with business!

As far as I can tell, the raison d'etre for the old Republic and its Jedi mercenaries was to maintain peace.  The Senate did not pass sweeping health care reform, debate universal basic incomes, or even do much to reduce the risk of death during childbirth.  What it did do, and (apparently) did well for a thousand years, was keep worlds from going to war with one another.  If you squint, you can see the politics of the Republic resemble the balancing of powers that has characterized much of European diplomacy's history. 

The Resistance, or at least a faction of the Resistance that Rose belongs to, has grander aims.  It wants to help the poor (especially children), and it wants to punish the rich.  It really wants to punish the rich.  Was "not by fighting what we hate" ever less true than Rose and Finn's destructive fathierback romp through Canto Bight?  You don't have to squint to see the Resistance's real-world parallels:  everything but the hashtag is right there in the name.

7.  What to make of it all?

Should the remnants of the First Order emerge victorious against the Resistance in Episode IX, I'm pretty they would not be able to re-institute an empire.  Similarly, should the Resistance win, the galactic fundamentals don't seem ready to support a New New Republic.  A world (or galaxy) where any small group of vagabonds can band together and create new, unimaginable superweapons does not make for an environment conducive to central government.  (There is, I think, some interesting overlap here with The Dark Forest, but that is for another day.)  Maz's dodge and DJ's cynicism seem most apt:  You don't know who will create tomorrow's Starkiller, so the best thing to do is don't take sides, don't create grudges, and mind your business.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Distribution of Federal Taxes Paid

Politico has a good article summarizing the difficulties of passing tax cuts a middle-class friendly policy:
[Republicans] are confronting a tax system where the tax burden is increasingly bunched up at the top of the income spectrum, thanks to huge earnings gains by the rich and the fact that the U.S. has one of the most progressive income tax systems in the world.
The top 0.1 percent of earners projected to pay more to the IRS than the bottom 80 percent combined. This year, official government data show, the top 20 percent will pay 95 percent of all income taxes.
The government data cited is from the Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis.  A more detailed look is graphed below.

The Treasury's figures also show that average tax burdens do indeed increase with income. 

From the archives: Rheta Childe Dorr on labor and hour restrictions

In the Progressive Era, a number of state legislatures passed laws (purporting) to protect women in the workplace, primarily by restricting the time of day, number of hours, and types of jobs women were allowed to work.  In a 1925 copy of Good Housekeeping, Rheta Childe Dorr took aim at this paternalism:
About the time this article is published, women's clubs all over the country will be reassembling, and before long, their committee chairmen will be reporting on legislative measures purporting to protect women wage-earners by limiting and restricting their hours of work...
My first protest is against classing grown women with children under the law. Practically all laws limiting hours of work, prohibiting night work, and providing for a minimum wage are enacted for women and minors. I say "practically" just to be on the safe side. As a matter of fact, it is the routine thing to class woman labor with child labor or adolescent boy and girl labor.
The reason given is that the vast majority of "females in gainful occupations" are girls of tender years, temporary invaders of industry, pathetic filters between the schoolroom and the matrimonial altar; I could if I had space quote statistical tables to prove the untruth of these generalizations. Few would read the statistics, and besides, I should rather have Good Housekeeping readers think of working women as human beings, rather than rows of figures. However, I will state that the last census gave the number of women, eighteen and over, in industry as 7,502,700. Nearly two million of these adult women were married. These wage-earners are not children. Why interfere with their rights to earn the highest possible wage by putting them under the police power of the State? All the arguments in favor of such a policy, boil down to one sentimental aphorism. "Women are women." Different from men. Weaker...
In 1919 the welfare advocate pushed through the Legislature a fifty hour law and a prohibition against night work for the transportation workers. Ninety percent of the nearly 1000 women in New York immediately lost their jobs, only a small number of ticket sellers escaped the general slaughter.
"They told us the fifty-four hour law would put us on Easy Street." I heard one woman say. "Well, it put us on the street all right!"
Excerpts can't give the article justice.  Each paragraph is brilliant, and Dorr's humor is evident despite her frustration.  Read the full thing here

Though I would not dare admit as much around polite society, I owe this find to Rehabilitating Lochner, David E. Bernstein's new revisionist history of the titular case.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

From the Archives: Redneck Minstrelsy, Dan Whitney’s Assumption of the Southern Good Ol’ Boy “Larry the Cable Guy”

Note: The below (eh-hem) "essay" was written for the MUSL 151 course I took in 2012, the spring of my senior year.  I decided to dig it up after reading Kevin Williamson's recent "The White-Minstrel Show."

Minstrelsy was the most popular and influential form of 19th century American entertainment; it was the progenitor of popular music, vaudeville, musicals, and stand-up comedy. Overtly racist, actors (originally white but later black as well) in blackface relied upon and perpetuated stereotypes of Southern slaves to coerce laughs from their well-to-do white audience members. The minstrelsy tradition eventually extended its reach overseas and troupes toured in Europe and South Africa. With roots so strong, the offshoots of minstrelsy have survived to affect how America markets and consumes entertainment today. Flavor of Love with Flava Flav, The Simple Life with heiresses Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, and the Jersey Shore each bring aspects of the minstrelsy tradition to modern culture. This paper will focus on the act of a Nebraskan who moved to Florida as a teenager and, with a trove of fart jokes and an intuitive sense of Southern white indignation with political correctness, became America’s favorite redneck.

Larry the Cable Guy’s meteoric rise from floundering radio host in the Florida panhandle to comedy super star hit critical mass seven years ago when he featured as the fourth act among Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Ron White on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. The movie born of the tour flopped in theaters but was resurrected on Wal-mart shelves, selling over four million, and cable TV, becoming one of the highest rated programs in Comedy Central’s history. The success spurred two additional movies and a television show. Though each of the comedians did extremely well by the franchise, the unsophisticated humor of Larry the Cable Guy, which stood in sharp contrast to the more satirical humor of Foxworthy, Engvall, and White, carried his voice the furthest. Larry went on to star in three films, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector (2006), Delta Farce (2007), and Witless Protection (2008), as well as lend his distinct accent and grammar to the extremely popular character Mater the tow-truck in Pixar's Cars series. In addition to touring, Larry now produces and hosts the television show Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy. In its second season, episodes have included “Naked Cowboys & Reptile Wrangling,” “Larry & the Superpig,” and “Larry Breeds Mules.” After earning $20 million dollars in the previous tax year, Forbes named Larry to its list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Celebrities” in May 2011.

Larry’s humor largely consists of one-liners and offers a simplistic commentary on culture as seen through Larry’s slightly twisted and unfiltered middle-American lenses. On stage and television, he appears in boots, blue jeans, baseball cap, and signature plaid shirts cut off at the shoulder that show a distinct farmer’s tan (which, how he maintains given his aversion to sleeves, is a question best not asked). The Official Larry the Cable Guy Website offers a great encapsulation of the comedian. Upon loading, a digitized Larry manning -- the gas grill on a lawn littered with garden gnomes and air darts --welcomes you to his website, and, to be sure,
“it’s a good un ... chock full of fart jokes and titty jokes and stuff that makes the world go ‘round. And if you don’t like that, then you’re probably just one of those uptight, white, politically correct dickweeds, and we don’t want to deal with you anyways.”
Not surprisingly, the website’s primary theme is a glorification of the redneck culture for which Larry has humbly become the unofficial ambassador, including a flash game to whack Larry’s sister’s dermatological moles.

That a fictional character, essentially the classic “country bumpkin” with a few more dirty jokes, could become one of today’s most influential celebrities says as much about the audience’s view of the world as it does the ability of Daniel Lawrence Whitney, the creator, voice, and face of Larry the Cable Guy, to so thoroughly adopt it. Parts of Whitney’s biography closely identify with those of Larry; Whitney is from a rural state and grew up on a pig farm. However, it might surprise his fans to learn that despite Larry’s thick Southern accent and rejection of proper subject-verb agreement, Whitney’s home state is Nebraska, he is the son of a preacher (farming was not the family’s main source of income), and he received a private high school education. At age 16 the Whitney’s moved to Florida, and Whitney made a conscious effort to hone his Southern accent, the first development in the creation of Larry the Cable Guy, based on the speech of his college roommates in Georgia.

The characterization of Whitney’s act as minstrelsy is not perfect. Whitney does do a deadpan job of imitating the worst stereotypes of the Southern redneck. However, his media is marketed as much to the audience he imitates as it is to anybody outside of it. Nineteenth century blackface minstrelsy was a way for whites to dehumanize and to distance themselves from blacks and the tortures they suffered under slavery. There is no real reason to believe that Southern blacks, Northern whites, or Southwestern Hispanics watch Larry’s comedy for any more value than the slapstick jokes. If there is a cultural identification that occurs, it is by Southern, conservative, blue-collar whites whose median incomes have soared in recent decades towards parity with the traditionally richer Northern and Western for the first time since Reconstruction. The new wealth brought with it a search for a means of asserting an independent, tough-minded culture that could succeed without surrendering to political correctness or losing touch with its rural, unpolished roots. A native Mississippian, I worry what it means for the region’s educational aspirations when every other Southern high school male student’s 4x4 pick-up sports a “git-r-dun” bumper sticker. Long the home of the country’s most important and original contributions to music and literature, I believe Southerners can find a more authentic Southern figure to rally around than a Nebraskan with a learned accent.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Corporate Tax Rate Reading List

  1. White House CEA Report: "Corporate Tax Reform and Wages – Theory and Evidence
  2. Larry Summers: "Hassett’s flawed analysis of Trump tax plan"
  3. Greg Mankiw provides a simplified modelCasey Mulligan and John Cochrane provide additional algebra.
  4. Paul Krugman opts for a more graphical exploration, but the substance of the math is much the same.  Elsewhere, Krugman takes a more polemic approach.
  5. Larry Summers responds.  Might as well check out Vox (no, not that Vox) and Angry Bear, too.
  6. For longer primary source reading, try Summers (1981) and Gravelle (2011), both referenced throughout the above.
The key dispute here is (a) left-leaning economists believe tax reform is just tax cuts for the wealthy and (b) right-leaning economists think tax reform will boost wages.  If you read that and said, "But those are not really directly opposing views; how can you call that a dispute?," welcome to the blogosphere!  It's good to have it back.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Lunch atop the Amalfi Coast

The hike from Positano's ferry was a bother and a half: 4.5 miles, 2,500 ft change in elevation, and blaring sunshine.  But the restaurant at La Ginestra was worth it.

Pushing through the dusty and exposed final few hundred yards uphill is rewarded with a stop at Chiesa Santa Maria del Castello, an earthy pungence from unseen cattle, and, more importantly, a water spigot.  Mind the bees, though.  An iron spiral stairwell provides access to the church roof.  I'm not sure if you should climb it, but I do know no one will stop you.

The air here feels about 20 degrees cooler than the base of the mountain.  Cool off a bit, and walk the last stretch of blessedly gentle asphalt to La Ginestra.  Unlike in Positano's twisting alleys and stairwells, Google can find you and point the way here.

La Ginestra may appear empty.  Is this yet another establishment closed for the tipico August vacation?  No.  Simply wander a bit, calling "Ciao" and "Hello" until a short sexagenarian woman appears.  She only speaks Italian, but has a good ear for Spanglish.  Ask for a seat outside (pointing suffices) to enjoy the breeze and the view of Naples bay.

Like any Michelin rated restaurant, there is no menu.  You will enjoy what the chef prepares.  I had an antipasto of mozzarella, soft white bread, eggplant, fried green beans, prosciutto, and a lovely fried dumpling whose name I never caught.  Next course was a sumptuous eggplant pasta in alfredo, sprinkled with basil and Parmesan.

Google translates the style "contadina" as "peasant," yet it is the epitome of pleasant.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Whose Impeachment Is It Anyway?

Some of you might think the country is in an impeachin' mood.  Some of you might think the lyin' media is out to sully your president by any means possible.  Add to the ever-growing mound of evidence of partisanship the popularity of googling "impeachment" by Trump's margin of victory in each state.

Time may be the final judge, but the House of Representatives is the more immediate authority.  Not to dwell on the obvious, but it is worth recalling that the Democrats controlled the House during the Watergate investigation, and the GOP during Bill Clinton's impeachment hearing.  Last week, Justin Amash (R-MI) became the first Republican Congressman to endorse an independent investigation between the administration's ties to Russia (WaPo).  Michigan also happens to be the state where Trump's victory was narrowest, and among those where "impeachment" searches are most popular of states Trump won.  Democrats would do well to pressure Representatives in similarly placed states like Arizona and Pennsylvania.