Defining Prosperity Down

OP-ED by Paul Krugman in the NYT:

I’m starting to have a sick feeling about prospects for American workers — but not, or not entirely, for the reasons you might think.

Yes, growth is slowing, and the odds are that unemployment will rise, not fall, in the months ahead. That’s bad. But what’s worse is the growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn’t care — that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal.

And I worry that those in power, rather than taking responsibility for job creation, will soon declare that high unemployment is “structural,” a permanent part of the economic landscape — and that by condemning large numbers of Americans to long-term joblessness, they’ll turn that excuse into dismal reality.

Not long ago, anyone predicting that one in six American workers would soon be unemployed or underemployed, and that the average unemployed worker would have been jobless for 35 weeks, would have been dismissed as outlandishly pessimistic — in part because if anything like that happened, policy makers would surely be pulling out all the stops on behalf of job creation.

But now it has happened, and what do we see?

First, we see Congress sitting on its hands, with Republicans and conservative Democrats refusing to spend anything to create jobs, and unwilling even to mitigate the suffering of the jobless.

We’re told that we can’t afford to help the unemployed — that we must get budget deficits down immediately or the “bond vigilantes” will send U.S. borrowing costs sky-high. Some of us have tried to point out that those bond vigilantes are, as far as anyone can tell, figments of the deficit hawks’ imagination — far from fleeing U.S. debt, investors have been buying it eagerly, driving interest rates to historic lows. But the fearmongers are unmoved: fighting deficits, they insist, must take priority over everything else — everything else, that is, except tax cuts for the rich, which must be extended, no matter how much red ink they create.

More here

Raise My Taxes, Mr. President!

Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek:

For the last few months, we have heard powerful, passionate arguments about the need to cut America’s massive budget deficit. Republican senators have claimed that we are in danger of permanently crippling the economy. Conservative economists and pundits warn of a Greece-like crisis, when America can borrow only at exorbitant interest rates. So when an opportunity presents itself to cut those deficits by about a third—more than $300 billion!—permanently and relatively easily, you would think that these very people would be in the lead. Far from it.

The Bush tax cuts remain the single largest cause of America’s structural deficit—that is, the deficit not caused by the collapse in tax revenues when the economy goes into recession. The Bush administration inherited budget surpluses from the Clinton administration. What turned these into deficits, even before the recession? There were three fundamental new costs—the tax cuts, the prescription-drug bill, and post-9/11 security spending (including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars). Of these the tax cuts were by far the largest, adding up to $2.3 trillion over 10 years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly half the cost of all legislation enacted from 2001 to 2007 can be attributed to the tax cuts.

More here

Hey, Wait a Minute! – Biological roots of today’s anger

David P. Barash in The Chronicle Review:

No fair! No fair!

“No fair” must rank among the loudest and most readily evoked complaints. Nor is the din of inequity limited to children. Consider the widespread anger generated by the Wall Street and AIG bailouts: Regardless of whether they were justified as national policy, those and other departures from perceived evenhandedness have a long history of rousing departures from citizen complacency, and even from civility. Ditto for outrage over executives getting outsized bonuses and golden parachutes while the rest of us are left to soldier on as best we can.

In evolutionary terms, what’s going on here?

Another way of asking that question is to turn it around. Why do we feel so violated? Lixing Sun, a professor of biology at Central Washington University, thinks we have a “fairness instinct.” And he may be right. He maintains that high on the roster of human propensities is a “Robin Hood mentality” that characterizes our species and qualifies as one of those “mental modules” that evolutionary psychologists consider part of our likely biological inheritance. If so, our fairness instinct goes far beyond the pleasure we take in romantic tales of medieval Merry Men adventuring in Sherwood Forest. Sun believes that despite the fact of our specieswide social and economic disparities—perhaps in part because of them—human beings are endowed (or burdened) with an acute sensitivity to “who is getting how much,” in particular a deft attunement to whether anyone else is getting more or less than one’s self.

Read on

Beware those Black Swans

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in New Statesman:

The bestselling economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we can’t make the world financial system immune to shocks –– but we can make sure it’s much more robust by building randomness into our planning.

After completing my book The Black Swan, I spent some time meditating on the fragility of systems with the illusion of stability. This convinced me that the banking system was the mother of all accidents waiting to happen. I explained in the book that the best teachers of wisdom are the eldest, because they may have picked up invisible tricks that are absent from our epistemic routines and which help them survive in a world more complex than the one we think we understand. So being old implies a higher degree of resistance to “Black Swans” (events with the following three attributes: they lie outside the realm of regular expectations; they carry an extreme impact; and human nature makes us concoct explanations for their occurrence after the fact).

Take Mother Nature, which is clearly a complex system, with webs of interdependence, non-linearities and a robust ecology (otherwise it would have blown up a long time ago). It is a very old person with an impeccable memory. Mother Nature does not develop Alz heimer’s – and there is evidence that even humans would not easily lose brain functions with age if they took long walks, avoided sugar, bread, white rice and stock-market investments, and refrained from taking economics classes or reading the New York Times.

Let me summarise my ideas of how Mother Nature deals with the Black Swan. First, she likes redundancies. Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains (with the possible exception of company executives) – and each has more capacity than is needed ordinarily. So redundan cy equals insurance, and the apparent inefficiencies are associated with the costs of maintain ing these spare parts and the energy needed to keep them around in spite of their idleness.

Read on

In 6 days, Buddhist monks create insane sand mandala sculpture…and then destroy it

Bowls of Fingers, Baby Victims, More Found in Maya Tomb

John Roach in National Geographic:

Reeking of decay and packed with bowls of human fingers, a partly burned baby, and gem-studded teeth—among other artifacts—a newfound Maya king’s tomb sounds like an overripe episode of Tales From the Crypt.

But the tightly sealed, 1,600-year-old burial chamber, found under a jungle-covered Guatemalan pyramid, is as rich with archaeological gold as it is with oddities, say researchers who announced the discovery Friday.

“This thing was like Fort Knox,” said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who led the excavation in the ancient, overgrown Maya town of El Zotz.

Alternating layers of flat stones and mud preserved human bones, wood carvings, textiles, and other organic material to a surprising degree—offering a rare opportunity to advance Maya archaeology, experts say.

“Since [the artifacts] appear in a royal tomb, they may provide direct insights in the political economy of the divine kings that likely involved tribute and gifts,” Vanderbilt University anthropologist Markus Eberl, who was not involved in the project, said via email.

Excavation leader Houston added, “we’re looking at a glimpse of lost art forms.”

(Pictures: what the Maya Empire looked like.)

Fingers, Teeth, and a Taste of Things to Come

The researchers found grisly deposits even before they reached the Maya tomb.

Almost every layer of mud above the tomb contained blood-red pottery filled with human fingers and teeth wrapped in decayed organic material—perhaps leaves.

The fingers and teeth were “perhaps a kind of food or symbolic meal offering,” Houston speculated. “Sacred breads in [Mexico‘s] Yucatán are wrapped in such materials today.”

In another bowl above the circa A.D. 350 to 400 tomb, the team found a partly burned baby. The bowls closest to the burial chamber were arranged like the Maya cosmos—the four cardinal compass points plus the center of world.

Read on

He impersonated a human

Gideon Levy in Haaretz:

Sabbar Kashur wanted to be a person, a person like everybody else. But as luck would have it, he was born Palestinian. It happens. His chances of being accepted as a human being in Israel are nil. Married and a father of two, he wanted to work in Jerusalem, his city, and maybe also have an affair or a quickie on the side. That happens too.

He knew that he had no chance with the Jews, so he adopted another name for himself, Dudu. He didn’t have curly hair, but he went by Dudu just the same. That’s how everyone knew him. That’s how you know a few other Arabs too: the car-wash guy you call Rafi, the stairwell cleaner who goes by Yossi, the supermarket deliveryman you know as Moshe.

What’s wrong? Is it only fearsome Shin Bet interrogators like “Capt. George” and “Abu Faraj” who are allowed to adopt names from other peoples? Are only Israelis who emigrate allowed to invent new identities? Only the Yossi from Hadera who became Joe in Miami, the Avraham from Bat Yam who became Abe in Los Angeles?

No longer a youth, Sabbar/Dudu worked as a deliveryman for a lawyer’s office, rode his scooter around Jerusalem and delivered documents, affidavits and sworn testimonies, swearing to everyone that he was Dudu. Two years ago he met a woman by chance. Nice to meet you, my name is Dudu. He claims that she came on to him, but let’s leave the details aside. Soon enough they went where they went and what happened happened, all by consent of the parties concerned. One fine day, a month and a half after an afternoon quickie, he was summoned to the police on suspicion of rape.

Read on