Tag: Good Writing

Tweet of the Day

While I am generally opposed to bitcoin, I make an exception for South Florida. Miami is the rightful home of everything fraudulent, weird, and sleazy. And I say this with love. https://t.co/7erEwDjSDK

— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) February 12, 2021

This succinctly sums up both the current cryptocurrency craze and south Florida.

As Zathras would say, “But at least there is symmetry.”

Someone Gets It

Only a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for someone at a major political publication, even a liberal one like The Nation, to suggest that IP protections need to be relaxed for the good of society, and now we are seeing this.

IP law is literally for the public interest, in the US at least, as is explicitly stated in Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, “To promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

IP is not property, it is a way to benefit society, not a way to allow rent-seeking to dominate our society:

The explosion of inequality over the past four decades is appropriately a major focus of the political agenda for progressives. Unfortunately, policy prescriptions usually turn to various taxes directed at the wealthy and very wealthy. While making our tax structure more progressive is important, most of the increase in inequality comes from greater inequality in before-tax income, not from reductions in taxes paid by the rich. And, if we’re serious about reversing that trend, it is easier, as a practical matter, to keep people from getting ridiculously rich in the first place than to tax the money after they have it.

While the Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump tax cuts all gave more money to the rich, policy changes in other areas, especially intellectual property have done far more to redistribute income upward. In the past four decades, a wide array of changes—under both Democratic and Republican presidents—made patent and copyright protection both longer and stronger.


The effect of these changes was to transfer money from the bulk of the population to the relatively small group of people in a position to benefit from them, either because of their skills in software, biotechnology, and other areas, or because of their ownership of stock in companies that benefit from these rules.

The upward redistribution of wealth arising from intellectual property (IP) is typically disguised in public debates as being the result of “technology.” But blaming technology attributes it to an impersonal force. When we point out that it is due to intellectual property, we make it clear that inequality is a policy choice.


By my calculations, the amount of money transferred from the rest of us to those in a position to benefit from IP comes to more than $1 trillion annually. This transfer comes in the form of higher prices for prescription drugs, medical equipment, software, and many other products. This amount is almost half the size of all before-tax corporate profits, and roughly one-third larger than the current military budget. In other words, it is real money.

Intellectual property does serve an important economic purpose in providing an incentive for innovation and creative work. But we can make patent and copyright monopolies shorter and weaker while still supporting innovation and creativity, instead of going the route of longer and stronger, as we have actually done over the past four decades.


Most of the public money goes to finance basic research, but sometimes the government supports the actual development process, as was the case with Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine. The government paid Moderna $483 million for its research and Phase 1 and 2 trials. It then coughed up another $472 million to cover the cost of Phase 3 trials. Incredibly, the Trump administration still allowed Moderna to have patent monopolies on its vaccine, even though the government had covered the development costs and taken the investment risk. If the vaccine had proven to be ineffective, the government would have borne the cost, while Moderna still would have been paid.


We need to keep this example in mind as the Biden administration develops its foreign policy agenda, especially its relationship with China. Biden has already complained about China’s stealing “our” intellectual property. This sets the stage for potential conflicts that are not at all in the interest of the vast majority of the American people.


While there may be cases where the failure to honor intellectual property can cost some middle-income jobs (for example, if China uses technology to which Boeing has patent rights), the impact is likely to be comparatively small. Arguing that we should protect Boeing’s IP on this basis would be like arguing that we should not tax Jeff Bezos because reducing his income could lead him to lay off some well-paid servants. The benefits that the relatively affluent and very wealthy get from IP protections are vastly greater than the higher wages that some workers may get as a result of working for Boeing or another company with large IP claims.


The rules on intellectual property are a major part of the story of upward redistribution of the past four decades. Contrary to what is typically claimed, they have likely been a major obstacle to technological progress, especially in the areas of health and climate technologies. It would be tragic if the protection of IP was a major cause of a cold war with China. It would be even more tragic if progressives were leading the charge.

The author, Dean Baker, has been saying this for years, and now he is getting a real hearing on this in the court of public opinion.  Huzzah.

Tweet of the Day

Here’s how this is gonna go, Klan of Green Gables.
Your little stunt is going to get you all sorts of praise from the stupid, racist cult zombie horde folks who attacked the Capitol two weeks ago.
It’s also going to get you laughed out of Congress, because you’re a joke.
So stop.

— Jo (@JoJoFromJerz) January 21, 2021

The QAnon Congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene, submitted articles of impeachment against Joe Biden, because ……… OK, I have no desire to figure out what is going on in that head, thank you very much. 

In response, Jo from Jersey, who has been, “Blocked by Chachi,” tagged her as “Klan of Green Gables.”

I wish that I had thought of that slam.

This May be the Worst Idea in Economics

There is a lot not to like about Economics.

It seems that most streams of economics appear to be a means for justifying the existing power structure, with the benefit being that economists are given (relatively) high positions within that power structures.

Political economist Blair Fix makes a good argument that modern Human Capital Theory, which resembles a toxic mix of Social Darwinism, and emerged largely from the University of Chicago.

The short version, to use Ayn Rand pulp fiction (and pulpier philosophy) as an example, the investor who pays scientists to create “Reardon Metal” is responsible for all the value derived from this wondrous material.

The scientist who creates this material adds no value, neither does the army of workers who labor to manufacture this material and forge it into shape.

If this sounds non-sensical, note how this is identical to the justification for paying obscene remuneration to founders and CEOs.

The little people just don’t mater:

If there was an award for the most pernicious scientific idea ever, what theory should get first prize? I would vote for eugenics, a theory that claims we can ‘improve’ humanity through selective breeding.

If there was a second prize, I’d give it to human capital theory. I think of human capital theory as ‘eugenics light’. It purges the idea that abilities are innate (and that we should selectively breed the ‘fit’). But human capital theory keeps the Nietzschean idea that humanity’s success can be attributed mostly to gifted übermensch.

Among us, human capital theory claims, walk individuals who are unfathomably productive. These übermensch produce more in an hour than most of us do in a week. Take just 1% of these top individuals, and you’ll find that they outproduce the bottom half of society!1 According to human capital theory, then, we could do away with half of society with no great loss to economic output. Of course, few human-capital theorists advocate such atrocities. But my point is that their theory contains the seeds of eugenics … even Nazism.

The ethical problems with eugenics and human capital theory are easy to spot. But what about the scientific problems? These are more difficult to tease out. Eugenics is based on the hard truth that many traits are heritable. Similarly, human capital theory is based on the reality that some people earn hundreds of times more income than others. Where both theories go wrong, however, is that they misunderstand humanity’s social nature.

Yes, many individual traits are heritable. But it is a fallacy that traits that are good for individuals are also good for society. That’s the core scientific flaw in eugenics. And yes, it’s true that some people earn far more than others. But it’s a fallacy that this income is caused by traits of the individual. In reality, income is a social trait.

My goal in this post is not to rigorously debunk human capital theory. (I’ve done that here.) Instead, I’m going to chart its rise and speculate about its eventual fall. I’ll do so by looking at the rise and fall of eugenics. What’s ominous is that the theory that debunks eugenics is today still more obscure than eugenics itself. In a century, will something similar hold for the theory that debunks the idea of human capital?

He then compares this to experiments in animal and human eugenics:

In the 1990s, geneticist William Muir conducted experiments on chickens to see what would improve egg-laying productivity. In one trial, he did exactly what the eugenicists recommend — he let only the most productive hens reproduce. The results were disastrous. Egg-laying productivity didn’t increase. It plummeted. Why? Because the resulting breed of hens was psychopathic. Instead of producing eggs, these ‘uber-hens’ fought amongst themselves, sometimes to the death.

The reason this experiment didn’t work is that egg-laying productivity is not an isolated property of the individual hen. It is a joint property of the hen and her social environment. In Muir’s experiment, the most productive hens laid more eggs not because they were innately more productive, but because they suppressed the productivity of less dominant chickens. By selecting for individual productivity, Muir had inadvertently bred for social dominance. The result was a breed of bully chicken that couldn’t tolerate others.

The lesson here is that in social animals, traits that can be measured among individuals (like productivity) may not actually be traits of the individual. Instead, they are joint traits of both the individual and their social environment. Here’s evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson reflecting on this fact:

Muir’s experiments … challenge what it means for a trait to be regarded as an individual trait. If by “individual trait” we mean a trait that can be measured in an individual, then egg productivity in hens qualifies. You just count the number of eggs that emerge from the hind end of a hen. If by “individual trait” we mean the process that resulted in the trait, then egg productivity in hens does not qualify. Instead, it is a social trait that depends not only on the properties of the individual hen but also on the properties of the hen’s social environment.

—(David Sloan Wilson in When the Strong Outbreed the Weak)

A key problem with eugenics is that it neglects the social nature of human traits. It assumes that productivity is an innate trait of the individual, and that breeding for this trait would lead to a better society. It’s a seductive idea that is deeply flawed. In all likelihood, selectively breeding people for productivity would, like chickens, lead to a psychopathic strain of human.

This sounds a lot like the sociopaths who are in the top 1% of the 1%, doesn’t it? 

Jamie Dimon seems to be the apotheosis of such a process. doesn’t he?

The ground work for human capital theory was laid just as eugenics fell out of favor. In the 1950s, economists at the University of Chicago tackled the question of individual income. Why do some people earn more than others? The explanation that these economists settled on was that income resulted from productivity. So a CEO who earns hundreds of times more than a janitor does so for a simple reason: the CEO contributes far more to society.

The claim that income stems from productivity was not new. It dated back to the 19th-century work of John Bates Clark and Philip Wicksteed, founders of the neoclassical theory of marginal productivity.3 Clark and Wicksteed, though, were concerned only with the income of social classes. What the Chicago-school economists did was expand productivist theory to individuals.

  Doing so required inventing a new form of capital. The idea was that individuals’ skills and abilities actually constituted a stock of capital — human capital. This stock made individuals more productive, and hence, earn more income. Figure 3 shows key papers that initiated human capital theory.


The idea that skills constituted ‘human capital’ was initially greeted with skepticism. For one thing, the term itself smacked of slavery. (Capital is property, so ‘human capital’ implies human property.) For another, human capital theory overtly justified inequality. It implied that no matter how fat their incomes, the rich always earned what they produced. Any attempt (by the government) to redistribute income would therefore ‘distort’ the natural order. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was little tolerance for such views. It was the era of welfare-state expansion, driven by Keynesian-style thinking. Yes, big government may have been ‘distorting’ the free market — but society seemed all the better for it.


We can see the scientific flaws by returning to William Muir’s chicken experiment. I’ve already told you about his psychopathic chickens, created by breeding the most productive hens. But I haven’t told you about his alternative trial. In it, he bred the most productive group of chickens. The result was an astonishing increase in egg-laying productivity.

The reason this group selection worked is that chickens are social animals. That means productivity is influenced by the social environment. By selecting productive groups, Muir selected for egg-laying ability, but also for sociality. The resulting social hens flourished together.

Something similar holds true for humans. The abilities of individuals cannot be separated from the social environment in which they occur. For this reason, any selective breeding based on individual traits is likely to have unintended consequences. If Muir’s chicken experiment is any indication, breeding übermensch wouldn’t create an uber-productive society. It would create a psychopathic one.

The reason comes down to the unit of selection. As social animals, humans have been strongly shaped by the selection of groups. This group selection has tended to suppress selfish tendencies that are otherwise beneficial for individuals.

The bottom line is this:

Human capital theory supposes that income stems from productivity, and that this productivity is an isolated trait of the individual. This thinking, when taken to the extreme, is ludicrous. It implies that an Egyptian Pharaoh was thousands of times more productive than his slaves. Moreover, because this productivity was embodied in the Pharaoh, he could do away with his slaves and still retain his wealth. It gets worse. According to the logic of human capital theory, the Pharaoh’s slaves were actually a burden on the kingdom’s per capita productivity. If the Pharaoh exterminated them, per capita productivity would skyrocket.


We are run by a bunch of psychopathic hens.

Well, psycho chickens makes a fuck-load more sense than that whole QAnon lizard people thing.

Tweet of the Day

'Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, this year the United States were forced to organise the coup d'état at home.'

[This is from @fdecollibus and r/t by the Italian extraordinaire satirical collective @spinozait, translated into English by yours truly] https://t.co/bB5hfdnWMW

— Paolo Sandro (@PaoloSandro2) January 6, 2021

This tweet is so grim, and so cynical, and so funny, that I initially thought it was Russian.

Tweet of the Day

I may be wrong but I think there’s room at the Four Seasons.

— The Palaeoanthropologist (@HamishAlexande6) December 29, 2020

The favorite hotel of the Proud Boys is shutting down for 3 days rather than deal with them, and their violent protests, and virus spreading behavior at the inauguration.

This is glorious, as is the Four Seasons Landscaping snark.

A Theory of Economics That I Can Approve Of

What we need to is end once and for all the 40 year failure that is trickle down economics. We can replace that with Piñata economics instead. pic.twitter.com/NmZ6zqckqC

— Al (@davison_al) December 20, 2020

Piñata Economics makes more sense than my original though, eat the rich, because if you eat the rich, you dine for a day, but if you beat the rich with blunt instruments until the gold flows, you dine for a lifetime.

Who Knew that Minnesota Nice Meant, “Choking on Passive Aggressive Rage?”

Congratulations @PeteButtigieg! From roads to rail, there is so much to be done and I’m looking forward to working with you! I know you will bring both your big ideas & your local government experience to the job. John & I look forward to welcoming you & Chasten to Washington.

— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) December 15, 2020

Now this is an award worthy sub-tweet. 

I am amused.  It’s both a well deserved take-down, deeply nasty, and does not involve chucking office supplies at subordinates.

As I dislike both the author of the tweet and its subject intensely, I am simply amused.

Quote of the Day

The Point of Economics as a Discipline Is to Create a Language and Methodology for Governing That Hides Political Assumptions from the Public.

Matt Stoller

Mainstream economics, whether Freshwater or Saltwater, as Paul Krugman divides the discipline,* is constructed primarily to provide an intellectual gloss to the oligarchy.

Read the whole article.

*And I am using the term “discipline” VERY loosely.

Quote of the Day

While I’m thinking about the psychology of people, it has occurred to me that there is a generation of people in DC (politics, media, associated) who were youngish and had their peak formative moment when they helped to kill a million people in Iraq. What a high that must have been (those of us who paid a lot of attention then know just how high out of their gourds they all were on their righteous crusade).

Imagine being 25 and convincing yourself that you saved the world by helping to blow the shit out of so many people. Habit forming high.

Those chemicals start hitting their brains again every time the opportunity to blow up some other country presents itself.

Every “humanitarian intervention” is just another big line of coke.


This is the most coherent explanation of what drives the “Liberal Interventionist“.

They do this, despite always failing, because it gets their rocks off.

It’s a twisted juxtaposition of a psychotic need for a dopamine rush, and careerism.

World Class Snark

Loretta Donelan explains that it’s unfair to forgive student loan debt, because if it is, “How Will I Have An Automatic Advantage Over My Peers?”

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of politicians talking about cancelling everyone’s student loan debt. Some people are for it, some people are against it, some people already paid off their loans and don’t want others to have better lives than them, but there’s one thing that no one is talking about: if all my peers’ student loan debt is cancelled, how will I personally have an automatic advantage over them?

It’s maybe a 5 minute read, and it is hysterical.