The point of reviewing these hypocrisies is not to suggest that the rich profit-makers of Silicon Valley are any greedier or more cutthroat than the speculators of Wall Street or the frackers of Texas, but merely that they are judged by quite different standards. Cool — defined by casual dress, hip popular culture, and the loud embrace of green energy, gay marriage, relaxation of drug laws, and other hot-button social issue — means that one can live life as selfishly as he pleases in the concrete by sounding as communitarian as he can in the abstract. Buying jet skis is as crass a self-indulgence as buying an even more expensive all-carbon imported road bike is neat.
If Silicon Valley produced gas and oil, built bulldozers, processed logs, mined bauxite, or grew potatoes, then the administration, academia, Hollywood, and the press would damn its white-male exclusivity, patronization of women, huge material appetites, lack of commitment to racial diversity, concern for ever-greater profits, and seeming indifference to the poor. But they do not, because the denizens of the valley have paid for their indulgences and therefore are free to sin as they please, convinced that their future days in Purgatory can be reduced by a few correct words about Solyndra, Barack Obama, and the war on women.
Practicing cutthroat capitalism while professing cool communitarianism should be a paradox. But in Silicon Valley it is simply smart business. The more money you make, any way you can make it, the more you can find ways of contextualizing it. At first these Silicon Valley contradictions were amusing, then they were grating, and now they are mostly just pathetic.
Victor Davis Hanson, “The Valley of the Shadow: How mansion-dwelling, carbon-spewing cutthroat capitalists can still be politically correct”, National Review, 2014-07-22.
May 21, 2015
May 17, 2015
This report says that one of the richest men in the world is opening new frontiers in philanthropy:
Perennial contender for World’s Richest Man Carlos Slim announced Friday that he had reconsidered selling his Upper East Side home for $80 million, and instead was opening the Beaux Arts mansion to undocumented roomers. “Ever since I became the second largest shareholder in New York Times Inc., I’ve started reading the editorials,” explained the telecom monopolist. “And they’ve convinced me! What’s all this obsession with documents anyway?”
The Mexican oligarch continued, “If you can fool my doorman into letting you in once, or if you have the moxie to throw a brick through my window and crawl in over the broken glass, well, it would be inhumane to evict you. And if you have kids or parents, then they can come too because I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of family reunification. If I find you inside my house, then mi casa es su casa!”
This is clearly too good to check (but I did verify that the story isn’t dated April 1st, so it must be true, right?
May 7, 2015
Reducing the realities of life in a given city to a quick numerical value or data point on a chart requires you to ignore subtleties and local influences. Last month, Mark Collins linked to this article by Terry Glavin on what the “quality of life” numbers for Vancouver actually conceal:
If the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual top 10 world cities rankings are what you’ve been relying on, you probably weren’t surprised last month when the global human resources outfit Mercer tagged Vancouver on its Quality of Living index as the best city in North America. But you might have been surprised this week when Statistics Canada released a study showing that, by a variety of indices, Vancouverites are the unhappiest people in Canada, falling dead last among the residents of 33 cities across the country.
We like to think of Lotusland’s grand metropolis as a place where people ski, sail, ride their bikes, swim, and hike though lush rainforests, all in the same day. But StatsCan’s annual survey of median household income in Canadian cities routinely puts Vancouver close to the bottom of the heap on that same list of 33 cities, and in January the Demographia International research institute ranked Vancouver second to last in a global survey of 378 cities on its Housing Affordability Survey.
Vancouver’s median household income in 2014 was $66,400, while the city’s median home price was 10.6 times higher: $704,800. Only Hong Kong fared worse, and just barely. Hong Kong also tops Vancouver, again only barely, as the property investment bolt-hole most favoured by Mainland China’s loot-laden millionaires. For years, we’ve been instructed to pretend that this is somehow mere coincidence. You can’t get away with talking to Hong Kongers like that, but Vancouverites take it sitting down.
In happier places like Saguenay, Sudbury and Thunder Bay, there’s manufacturing, dairy farming, forestry and mining, and there’s a high degree of neighborliness and civility. But Vancouverites make most of their money from increases in the real estate value of whatever property they might be lucky to own. This tends to skew any real sense of hometown belonging, and nothing quite so rattles the cages as loose talk about the elaborate, federally-sanctioned swindle that has been keeping the bubble inflated all these years.
April 3, 2015
March 30, 2015
Megan McArdle on the reactions to a recent book dealing with traditional and non-traditional families:
Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis has touched off a wave of print and digital commentary. The book chronicles a growing divide between the way affluent kids are raised, in two-parent homes whose parents invest heavily in educating their kids, and the very different, very unstable homes in which poorer kids generally grow up.
Naturally, social conservatives are delighted with this lengthy examination of the problems created by unstable families, even if they are not equally delighted with Putnam’s recommendations (more government programs). Equally naturally, there is pushback from those who see the problem as primarily one of economics and insufficient government spending, as well as from those who argue that there are lots of good ways to raise kids outside the straitjacket of mid-century, middle-class mores.
I have been trying to find a more delicate way to phrase this, but I can’t: This is nonsense. The advantages that two people raising their own biological or jointly adopted children have over “nontraditional” family arrangements are too obvious to need enumeration, but apparently mere obviousness is not enough to forestall contrary arguments, so let me enumerate them anyway.
Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are — in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents — is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent. Children will spend less time with their noncustodial parent, especially if that parent has other offspring. Add in conflict between the parents over money and time, and it can infect relationships with the children. As one researcher told me when I wrote an article on the state of modern marriage, you frequently see fathers investing time and money with the kids whose mother they get along with the best, while the other children struggle along on crumbs.
People often argue that extended families can substitute, but of course, two-parent families also have extended families — two of them — so single-parent families remain at a disadvantage, especially because other members of the extended family are often themselves struggling with the challenges of single parenthood. Extended families just can’t substitute for the benefits of a two-parent family. Government can’t, either; universal preschool is not going to make up for an uninvolved parent, or one stretched too thin to give their kids enough time. Government can sand the rough edges off the economic hardship, of course, but even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home.
March 11, 2015
March 3, 2015
With US university tuition on its never-ending rise, some students are taking a rather different approach to funding their education … but everyone assures us that it isn’t actually prostitution:
The average student-loan debt is approaching $30,000. That is to say, of the 70 percent of college students who borrow to pay all or some of their college expenses, the average student left college about $28,400 in the hole in 2013, according to USNews.
This alarming number has triggered a spate of news stories about female college students who are so panicked, so morally freewheeling, or both, that they are seeking the services of “sugar daddies”: older, well-fixed men who yearn to sponsor the academic careers of young college-age women in return for the sheer pleasure of spending time in the company of one of those youthful but impecunious “sugar babies.” (No, it’s not prostitution, everyone involved insists!)
Nonetheless, would-be Holly Golightlys ought to be wary of claims that the sugar-baby lifestyle will make pursuing that B.A. in art history entirely cost-free. For one thing, the entity that seems to the biggest promoter of the sugaring-one’s-way-through-college phenomenon is none other than SeekingArrangement itself, apparently the world’s largest sugar broker, with a claimed 3.6 million members. A promotional video uploaded onto YouTube by Seeking Arrangements in January 2015 touts “Sugar Baby University” with images of gorgeous young ladies who seem to be majoring in mascara, one of whom is being handed a sheaf of C-notes as she sits at her laptop. “Take out loans and eat ramen,” says the voice-over, “or get a sugar daddy and live the life you’ve always wanted. Sugar Baby U. is the place “where beautiful, ambitious people graduate debt-free,” the voice continues.
SeekingArrangement’s motives in seeking maximum numbers of enrollees in Sugar Baby U. who are also enrollees at real universities are blindingly clear: College-age women — almost always in their early twenties — are the most desirable age group for men seeking less-than-serious liaisons. (Google “coed porn,” and you’ll see what I mean.)
But the competition for those well-heeled older men willing to foot the bill for a lovely young thing to “live the lifestyle” she’s “always wanted” turns out to be quite stiff. SeekingArrangement’s home page advertises that there are “8 sugar babies per sugar daddy” — not a hopeful-sounding ratio.
February 9, 2015
Convening to ring the alarm about global warming, our putative betters and would-be rulers gathered in Davos, Switzerland, filling the local general-aviation hangars with some 1,700 private jets. Taking an international commercial flight is one of the most carbon-intensive things the typical person does in his life, but if you’re comparing carbon footprints between your average traveler squeezed into coach on American and Davos Man quaffing Pol Roger in his cashmere-carpeted intercontinental air limousine, you’re talking Smurfette vs. Sasquatch. The Bombardier’s Global 6000 may be a technical marvel, but it still runs on antique plankton juice. The emissions from heating all those sprawling hotel suites in the Alps in winter surely makes baby polar bears weep bitter and copious baby-polar-bear tears.
The stories add up: Jeff Greene brings multiple nannies on his private jet to Davos, and the rest of the guys gathered to talk past each other about the plight of the working man scarf down couture hot-dogs that cost forty bucks. Bill Clinton makes the case for wealth-redistribution while sporting a $60,000 platinum Rolex.
The hypocrisy of our literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!) high-flying crusaders against fossil fuels — who overlap considerably with our high-living crusaders against economic inequality — is endlessly annoying if frequently entertaining. And there is something unseemly about enduring puritanical little homilies on how we need to learn to live with less from guys wearing shoes that cost more than the typical American family earns in a quarter. When that obnoxious Alec Baldwin character from Glengarry Glen Ross informs that sad-sack real-estate salesman that his watch costs more than that guy’s car, he was trying to provoke him into getting richer, to the tune of a Cadillac Eldorado or, if not that, at least the second-prize set of steak knives. But our modern progressive versions of that guy are even more obnoxious: They demand that we lower our expectations while they live lives of opulence that would have embarrassed the Count of Monte Cristo.
Out-obnoxious-ing a guy with Alec Baldwin’s smirking mug takes a lot of brass.
Kevin Williamson, “Davos’s Destructive Elites: ‘None of us is as dumb as all of us'”, National Review, 2015-01-25.
January 28, 2015
And Monty calls ’em exactly what they are:
Luckily, all is not lost. Our moral and ethical betters have gathered in Davos to light their cigars with hundred-dollar bills while mocking the tubercular bootblack who’s been pressed into service to keep their shoes looking spiffy while they chat and laugh and eat lobster canapes. Oh, wait, I read that wrong, sorry. They’re in Davos to discuss the pressing problem of Global Warming(tm). Because they’re so concerned about Global Warming(tm) that they felt compelled to fly their private jets to an upscale enclave in the Swiss Alps to talk about it. While making fun of the tubercular bootblack who’s spit-shining their wingtips.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big believer in ostentatious displays of wealth. If I had the money, I’d build a hundred-foot-high statue of myself made out of pure platinum and then hire homeless people to worship at it for no fewer than eight hours per day. (I’d pay them a fair wage, though. What’s the going rate for abject obeisance to a living God? I’ll have to look it up.) But this Davos thing is just…rank. It’s a collection of rich fart-sniffers who want to congratulate each other on how socially conscious they are, and how much they care about the Little People. (Except the tubercular bootblack, whom they often kick with their rich-guy shoes.)
January 26, 2015
[W]hat exactly is the HDI? The one-line explanation is that it gives “equal weights” to GDP per capita, life expectancy, and education. But it’s more complicated than that, because scores on each of the three measures are bounded between 0 and 1. This effectively means that a country of immortals with infinite per-capita GDP would get a score of .666 (lower than South Africa and Tajikistan) if its population were illiterate and never went to school.
So what are the main problems with the HDI?
1. I can see giving equal weights to GDP per capita and life expectancy. But education? As a professor and a snob, I understand the appeal (though a measure of opera consumption would be even better). But in terms of the actual if not professed values of normal human beings, televisions and cars are a lot more important than books.
2. When you take a closer look at the HDI’s education measure, it’s especially bogus. 2/3rds of the weight comes from the literacy rate. At least that’s not ridiculous. But the other 1/3 comes from the Gross Enrollment Index — the fraction of the population enrolled in primary, secondary, or tertiary education. OK, I feel a reductio ad absurdum coming on. To max out your education score, you have to turn 100% of your population into students!
3. The HDI purportedly gives equal weights to three different outcomes, but bounding the results between 0 and 1 builds in a massive bias against GDP. GDP per capita has grown fantastically during the last two centuries, and will continue to do so. In reality, there’s plenty of room left for further improvement even in rich countries. But the HDI doesn’t allow this. Since rich countries are already close to the upper bound, the HDI effectively defines their future progress on this dimension out of existence.
To a lesser extent, the same goes for life expectancy: While it’s roughly doubled over the last two centuries, dying at 85 is not, contrary to the HDI, approximately equal in value to immortality.
The clear winners from this weighting scheme, of course, are the literacy and enrollment measures, both of which have upper bounds that are imposed by logic rather than fiat.
4. The ultimate problem with the HDI, though, is lack of ambition. It effectively proclaims an “end of history” where Scandinavia is the pinnacle of human achievement. […] Scandinavia comes out on top according to the HDI because the HDI is basically a measure of how Scandinavian your country is.
Bryan Caplan, “Against the Human Development Index”, Econlog, 2009-05-22.
January 10, 2015
Charles Stross in full “beat up the optimists” mode over a common SF notion about sub-orbital travel for the masses:
Let’s start with a simple normative assumption; that sub-orbital spaceplanes are going to obey the laws of physics. One consequence of this is that the amount of energy it takes to get from A to B via hypersonic airliner is going to exceed the energy input it takes to cover the same distance using a subsonic jet, by quite a margin. Yes, we can save some fuel by travelling above the atmosphere and cutting air resistance, but it’s not a free lunch: you expend energy getting up to altitude and speed, and the fuel burn for going faster rises nonlinearly with speed. Concorde, flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 2.0, burned about the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 of similar vintage flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 0.85 … while carrying less than a quarter as many passengers.
Rockets aren’t a magic technology. Neither are hybrid hypersonic air-breathing gadgets like Reaction Engines‘ Sabre engine. It’s going to be a wee bit expensive. But let’s suppose we can get the price down far enough that a seat in a Mach 5 to Mach 10 hypersonic or sub-orbital passenger aircraft is cost-competitive with a high-end first class seat on a subsonic jet. Surely the super-rich will all switch to hypersonic services in a shot, just as they used Concorde to commute between New York and London back before Airbus killed it off by cancelling support after the 30-year operational milestone?
Firstly, this is the post-9/11 age. Obviously security is a consideration for all civil aviation, right? Well, no: business jets are largely exempt, thanks to lobbying by their operators, backed up by their billionaire owners. But those of us who travel by civil airliners open to the general ticket-buying public are all suspects. If something goes wrong with a scheduled service, fighters are scrambled to intercept it, lest some fruitcake tries to fly it into a skyscraper.
So not only are we not going to get our promised flying cars, we’re not going to get fast, cheap, intercontinental travel options. But what about those hyper-rich folks who spend money like water?
First class air travel by civil aviation is a dying niche today. If you are wealthy enough to afford the £15,000-30,000 ticket cost of a first-class-plus intercontinental seat (or, rather, bedroom with en-suite toilet and shower if we’re talking about the very top end), you can also afford to pay for a seat on a business jet instead. A number of companies operate profitably on the basis that they lease seats on bizjets by the hour: you may end up sharing a jet with someone else who’s paying to fly the same route, but the operating principle is that when you call for it a jet will turn up and take you where you want to go, whenever you want. There’s no security theatre, no fuss, and it takes off when you want it to, not when the daily schedule says it has to. It will probably have internet connectivity via satellite—by the time hypersonic competition turns up, this is not a losing bet—and for extra money, the sky is the limit on comfort.
I don’t get to fly first class, but I’ve watched this happen over the past two decades. Business class is holding its own, and premium economy is growing on intercontinental flights (a cut-down version of Business with more leg-room than regular economy), but the number of first class seats you’ll find on an Air France or British Airways 747 is dwindling. The VIPs are leaving the carriers, driven away by the security annoyances and drawn by the convenience of much smaller jets that come when they call.
For rich people, time is the only thing money can’t buy. A HST flying between fixed hubs along pre-timed flight paths under conditions of high security is not convenient. A bizjet that flies at their beck and call is actually speedier across most intercontinental routes, unless the hypersonic route is serviced by multiple daily flights—which isn’t going to happen unless the operating costs are comparable to a subsonic craft.
December 16, 2014
It seems almost self-evident today that religion is on the side of spiritual and moral concerns, but that was not always so, Baumard explains. In hunter-gatherer societies and early chiefdoms, for instance, religious tradition focused on rituals, sacrificial offerings, and taboos designed to ward off misfortune and evil.
That changed between 500 BCE and 300 BCE — a time known as the “Axial Age” — when new doctrines appeared in three places in Eurasia. “These doctrines all emphasized the value of ‘personal transcendence,'” the researchers write, “the notion that human existence has a purpose, distinct from material success, that lies in a moral existence and the control of one’s own material desires, through moderation (in food, sex, ambition, etc.), asceticism (fasting, abstinence, detachment), and compassion (helping, suffering with others).”
While many scholars have argued that large-scale societies are possible and function better because of moralizing religion, Baumard and his colleagues weren’t so sure. After all, he says, some of “the most successful ancient empires all had strikingly non-moral high gods.” Think of Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Mayans.
In the new study, the researchers tested various theories to explain the history in a new way by combining statistical modeling on very long-term quantitative series with psychological theories based on experimental approaches. They found that affluence — which they refer to as “energy capture” — best explains what is known of the religious history, not political complexity or population size. Their Energy Capture model shows a sharp transition toward moralizing religions when individuals were provided with 20,000 kcal/day, a level of affluence suggesting that people were generally safe, with roofs over their heads and plenty of food to eat, both in the present time and into the foreseeable future.
December 10, 2014
Measured by practically any physical metric, from the quality of the food we eat to the health care we receive to the cars we drive and the houses we live in, Americans are not only wildly rich, but radically richer than we were 30 years ago, to say nothing of 50 or 75 years ago. And so is much of the rest of the world. That such progress is largely invisible to us is part of the genius of capitalism — and it is intricately bound up with why, under the system based on selfishness, avarice, and greed, we do such a remarkably good job taking care of one another, while systems based on sharing and common property turn into miserable, hungry prison camps.
We treat the physical results of capitalism as though they were an inevitability. In 1955, no captain of industry, prince, or potentate could buy a car as good as a Toyota Camry, to say nothing of a 2014 Mustang, the quintessential American Everyman’s car. But who notices the marvel that is a Toyota Camry? In the 1980s, no chairman of the board, president, or prime minister could buy a computer as good as the cheapest one for sale today at Best Buy. In the 1950s, American millionaires did not have access to the quality and variety of food consumed by Americans of relatively modest means today, and the average middle-class household spent a much larger share of its income buying far inferior groceries. Between 1973 and 2008, the average size of an American house increased by more than 50 percent, even as the average number of people living in it declined. Things like swimming pools and air conditioning went from being extravagances for tycoons and movie stars to being common or near-universal. In his heyday, Howard Hughes didn’t have as good a television as you do, and the children of millionaires for generations died from diseases that for your children are at most an inconvenience. As the first 199,746 or so years of human history show, there is no force of nature ensuring that radical material progress happens as it has for the past 250 years. Technological progress does not drive capitalism; capitalism drives technological progress — and most other kinds of progress, too.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Welcome to the Paradise of the Real: How to refute progressive fantasies — or, a red-pill economics”, National Review, 2014-04-24
November 20, 2014
At Forbes, Tim Worstall explains why — despite the headlines — Piketty didn’t actually change economics:
That optimal taxation theory really rests on two things that we’re pretty sure are true. The first being that Laffer Curve thing. No, this doesn’t mean that all tax cuts pay for themselves. Rather, that it’s possible for tax rates to be so high that they actually reduce the amount of tax revenue being collected. A nice example of this is the latest rise in New York’s cigarette tax: less money in total is now being raised even though the tax rate has risen. Given that our primary purpose in taxing is to get the money we need to run the government that we must have (as ever, my opinion being that we might want to have less government, and thus lower taxes, than we currently do but that’s another matter) having a tax over the revenue maximising rate just isn’t sensible.
The second pillar is that we know that different taxes destroy different amounts of economic activity for the same revenue collected. As above, we want to gain revenue but obviously we also want it at the least cost. That means getting as much of it as we can from the low deadweight costs taxes and as little of it as we can manage from the high cost ones. We also know how the spectrum looks. At the lowest deadweight costs we have repeated taxes on real property (say, a land value tax), then taxes upon consumption (VAT or sales taxes) then on incomes and highest of all, upon corporates and capital. There’s one off the spectrum, transactions taxes like the financial transactions tax, but that’s so silly that no one serious is suggesting it.
So, standard and general theory insists that we shouldn’t be taxing corporates and capital at all if we can manage it and also that we don’t want to have very high taxes rates on anything.
So, if for political (or even emotional) reasons you think that we really should be gouging the rich then you’re going to have to go find yourself some new economic theories. And that, I think, is really what is going on here with Piketty and the gang (slightly catchy that, isn’t it? The Piketty Gang ride in, a hollerin’ an’ a whoopin’ and take all the money from Scrooge McDuck?). They want to find a reason to tax wealth, something conventionally contraindicated, and they want to have very high income tax rates, something also contraindicated by conventional theory. So, rather than try to overturn that conventional theory they’re bypassing it. Ignoring it even and just bringing up the idea of inequality instead to see if that will convince people.
November 13, 2014
Tim Harford — white, male Oxford grad and child of Oxbridge-educated parents — checks his privilege:
All these accidents of birth are important. But there’s a more important one: citizenship. Gillian, Simon and I are all British citizens. Financially speaking, this is a greater privilege than all the others combined.
Imagine lining up everyone in the world from the poorest to the richest, each standing beside a pile of money that represents his or her annual income. The world is a very unequal place: those in the top 1 per cent have vastly more than those in the bottom 1 per cent – you need about $35,000 after taxes to make that cut-off and be one of the 70 million richest people in the world. If that seems low, it’s $140,000 after taxes for a family of four – and it is also about 100 times more than the world’s poorest people have.
What determines who is at the richer end of that curve is, mostly, living in a rich country. Branko Milanovic, a visiting presidential professor at City University New York and author of The Haves and the Have-Nots, calculates that about 80 per cent of global inequality is the result of inequality between rich nations and poor nations. Only 20 per cent is the result of inequality between rich and poor within nations. […]
That might seem obvious but it’s often ignored in the conversations we have about inequality. And things used to be very different. In 1820, the UK had about three times the per capita income of countries such as China and India, and perhaps four times that of the poorest countries. The gap between rich countries and the rest has since grown. Today the US has about five times the per capita income of China, 10 times that of India and 50 times that of the poorest countries. (These gaps could be made to look even bigger by not adjusting for lower prices in China and India.) Being a citizen of the US, the EU or Japan is an extraordinary economic privilege, one of a dramatically different scale than in the 19th century.