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Posts Tagged ‘history

“What people these days call ‘Vibes’ is a smell, a taste of the soul”*…

Up? Down? Better? Worse? What’s actually going on in our economy? Noah Smith on the asymmetric warfare going on around that question…

As we gear up for election season, a big debate is whether the U.S. economy is doing well or not. Biden supporters point to extremely low unemployment, falling inflation, and real wages that have started rising again. Biden opponents — including both conservatives and socialists — contend that the inflation of 2021-22 left such a severe scar on Americans’ pocketbooks that low consumer confidence is perfectly justified. Biden supporters counter that since inflation has come down — and was never as severe as in the 1970s — the anger over the economy is just “vibes”.

Basically, the Biden supporters are right; the U.S. economy is truly excellent right now. Inflation looks beat, everyone has a job, incomes and wealth are rising, and so on. But on the other hand, I can’t command people to simply stop being mad about the inflation that reduced their purchasing power back in 2021-22. People care about what they care about.

At the same time, though, I think it’s possible for negative narratives about the economy to take hold among the general populace and distort people’s understanding of what’s actually going on. For example, John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times recently found [gift article] that consumer sentiment closely tracks real economic indicators in other countries, but has diverged in America since 2020:

Now this could be because Americans simply care about different things than Europeans; we might simply have started to really really hate interest rates since 2021, while Europeans didn’t. But a simpler explanation is that Americans’ negative sentiment is due to something other than economic indicators. And it’s possible that that “something” is a negative narrative — i.e., vibes…

“Vibes vs. data”

Indeed, as Burn-Murdoch observes in his analysis…

… It seems US consumer sentiment is becoming the latest victim of expressive responding, where people give incorrect answers to questions to signal wider tribal political or social affiliations. My advice: if you want to know what Americans really think of economic conditions, look at their spending patterns. Unlike cautious Europeans, US consumers are back on the pre-pandemic trendline and buying more stuff than ever…

“Should we believe Americans when they say the economy is bad?” (gift article)

But why? Jonathan Kirshner‘s review of Martin Wolf‘s important book The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, suggest an unsettling answer…

The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism is an essential read for its articulation of the perilous crossroads at which the future of enlightened liberal civilization now stands. Wolf argues persuasively that, for all their visible flaws and imperfections, competitive market capitalism and liberal democracy are the best bad systems available for organizing human societies. And each requires the other to thrive—“[b]ut this marriage between those complementary opposites […] is always fragile.” Capitalism has been allowed to run amok, and it has elicited a backlash that threatens democracy…

Wolf’s central argument is that capitalism and democracy are inherently interdependent, yet also often in tension with one another—and managing the balance of that indispensable relationship is akin to walking a tightrope. In traditional autocracies, the economy has been captured by those that control the state, and that control is the basis of their power (which is why they are so reluctant to let go of the reins of authority). Liberal democracies today face the inverse problem: the capture of the state by those that control the economy. This is plutocracy, and aside from the injustice it visits on societies, it is also profoundly dangerous, because in democratic plutocracies (like the United States today), the simmering frustrations of mass polities will at some point lead to the voluntary election of an autocrat: “[I]nsecurity and fear are gateways to tyranny.” Decades of stagnant incomes, rising inequality, and the erosion of high-quality jobs for the middle class and the less-educated have allowed the relationship between capitalism and democracy to become dangerously unbalanced. The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism argues that the fault lies with the failure of public policy to tame the excesses of capitalism; it warns that those excesses will unleash the forces that destroy democracy.

Economic inequality, on the rise for 50 years, has soared to ever greater extremes in recent decades. As Wolf reports, from 1993 to 2015, the real income of the top 1 percent of the population in the United States nearly doubled; for everybody else, over those same years, aggregate real income grew by 14 percent. More pointedly, as the very rich got much, much richer from 2005 to 2014, 81 percent of US households had flat or falling real income—a weighty reminder that we continue to live in a world defined by the Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath…

… the financialization of the economy, especially after the 1990s, and the fortunes amassed from that process, were part and parcel of a larger shift towards “rigged capitalism”—the emergence of which The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism places at the heart of the matter. In a remarkable (and laudable) intellectual evolution, Wolf, who welcomed and celebrated the Thatcher revolution in Britain, and not so long ago penned the book Why Globalization Works (2004), now attributes the crisis of our time to “what Adam Smith warned us against—the tendency of the powerful to rig the economic and political systems against the rest of society.” Superseding a well-ordered market society, rigged capitalism—a toxic brew of developments and practices including financialization, winner-take-all markets, reduced competition, increased rent-seeking behavior (the use of concentrated economic power to extract monopoly profits), tax avoidance and evasion, and the erosion of ethical standards—has led to a widespread loss of confidence in the legitimacy of democracy…

These pathologies run deep, and well below the headlines. The use of political power to undermine competition—which must thrive at the heart of any capitalist society—is an endemic attribute of rigged capitalism. (And it is why we pay higher prices for most things than a “free market” would levy.) Many if not most giant corporations are now monopolies or near-monopolies, a situation that, as any card-carrying professional economist of even the most conservative stripe would agree, generates inefficiencies, rent-seeking behavior, and outright exploitation. Many markets have become shielded, protections reinforced by access to the corridors of power, with wealth extracted from consumers (and workers) in consequence: consider the atrocity of unskilled workers in fast food restaurants being forced to sign “non-compete” clauses, an act of collusive wage suppression.

Rigged capitalism—which yields massive concentrations of wealth for a sliver of largely-above-the-law plutocrats, combined with stagnation and declining opportunities for the majority—leads to a basic political problem: “How, after all, does a political party dedicated to the material interests of the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution win and hold power in a universal suffrage democracy? The answer is pluto-populism.” This is where race, identity politics, and the culture wars come into play. The century-long political hammerlock held by the Democratic Party on the Old South was based on voter suppression and other devices that guaranteed, for working-class whites, greater economic opportunity, access to the legal system, and higher social status than Blacks, in exchange for their political support. Bob Dylan, at 22 years old, saw through this in his song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964)—and nearly 60 years later, that game hasn’t changed much…

rigged capitalism will nevertheless unleash forces not easily contained—and render liberal democracy unsustainable. As political scientist Rawi Abdelal has argued, “the social fact of unfairness is more important than the material fact of income and wealth distribution.” Endemic corruption, arbitrariness of justice, and fear for future prospects are poisonous to the body politic, undermining shared perceptions of the legitimacy of democratic society. In such settings, past and present, fear, despair, and frustration create the space for charismatic personalist authoritarians peddling promises of deliverance but who, once in power, consolidate their hold on the state by undermining the institutional constraints on their authority. And so, democracy dies from within.

What is bewildering about the American case is not that it has witnessed the rise of a leader who, as Wolf describes, “not only had no idea what a liberal democracy was but despised the idea,” and who was “instinctively authoritarian”—this, after all, is what pluto-populism conjures. What remains bizarre, however, is that, of all the possible choices, a hedonistic, ethically suspect, narcissistic grifter—who for decades was a signature beneficiary of rigged capitalism—would emerge as the people’s choice. Yet Donald Trump, like the gargantuan Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters, has been summoned by a collective subconscious rage to act as a malevolent score-settling agent of destruction…

“Rigged Capitalism and the Rise of Pluto-populism: On Martin Wolf’s ‘The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism’”

All three articles– and Wolf’s book– are eminently worth reading in full.

Saroj Aryal


As we ponder populism, we might that it was on this date in 1865 that the 27th state (Georgia) ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude (except as punishment for a crime). Proclaimed on proclaimed on December 18, it was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the American Civil War.

The Emancipation Proclamation (made in September 1862; effective January 1, 1863) had freed all current slaves in the U.S. (though as a practical matter freedom took years longer). The Thirteenth Amendment assured that it would never be reinstated.

Celebration erupts after the Thirteenth Amendment is passed by the House of Representatives in 1864 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 6, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Humanity is actually much more cooperative and empathic than given credit for”*…

We looked earlier at the shrinking away of public companies in the U.S., both as a product of consolidation (of operations and of ownership) and of the (potentially dangerous) growth, in their stead, of private equity. University of Michigan professor Jerry Davis has a more optimistic take…

Public corporations have been dominant institutions in the American economy since the dawn of the 20th century. Whether due to their greater efficiency or power, listed corporations spread across nearly all industries. “Capitalism” in America was synonymous with “corporate capitalism,” and the number of exchange-listed companies grew with the size of the economy.

Yet since the late 1990s, the number of listed corporations has dropped by half in the US, underwritten by new technologies that lower the cost of assembling an enterprise. Meanwhile, neglected alternatives to the public corporation both old (e.g., mutuals, cooperatives) and new (e.g., open source, platform coops) have proven surprisingly durable. Given the manifest pathologies of shareholder capitalism, the combination of these two trends may suggest pathways out of our current dilemma…

[David explains how both consolidation among listed companies and the rise of private equity have contributed to this drop, but then raises a third, more general explanation…]

A more encompassing interpretation is that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have drastically changed the basic economic calculus of what an enterprise looks like and how it might be funded. In the US context, this has meant that companies prefer “buy” to “make,” as transaction cost enthusiasts might describe it. I coined the term Nikefication to describe the process of vertical dis-integration that reconfigured American industry during the 1990s and 2000s and the options it opens for alternative forms of enterprise, described in detail in previous books

The vertical dis-integration of the American economy was driven by Wall Street and enabled by ICTs. Ironically, the result is that the capital requirements to create and scale a business can be much lower, reducing the rationale to go public in the first place. Indeed, IPO prospectuses routinely convey that the point of the IPO is not to raise capital, but to create a market for the company’s shares to enable VCs and employees to cash out – which is not the most persuasive pitch to potential buyers, and perhaps helps account for the disastrous post-IPO performance of most new listings.

The asset-lite model means fewer public companies, but it also suggests new possibilities for non-corporate forms that may be more human-scale and democratic. Nike’s profit-driven, asset- and employee-lite model is not the only option enabled by new technologies.

By “noncorporate” I mean forms of economic organization that are not owned by outside shareholders, although they may be legally organized as a corporation. These include mutuals (where consumers or members are also the owners); cooperatives (where workers, producers, or consumers are the owners); municipal enterprises (where citizens or governments own the enterprise); nonprofits; and open source projects. These forms are far more prevalent than one might expect, and in some cases they dominate their industry (e.g., property insurance, server software).

Noncorporate forms of enterprise have proven surprisingly resilient in the US. The Fortune 500 list for 2022 includes at least a dozen mutual insurance companies, including State Farm (#44), New York Life (#71), and Nationwide (#83). The single largest shareholder of over 350 of the 1000 largest American corporations is Vanguard—also a mutual. Land o’ Lakes (#213) is an agricultural cooperative owned by its producer-members, as are Ocean Spray and Blue Diamond. Ace Hardware is a retail cooperative in which local stores can be attuned to local needs and tastes yet gain the economies of scale of a large-scale brand. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s brilliant book Collective Courage documents that cooperative forms thrived in African-American communities for generations – often overlooked by those who find data about the economy solely through online databases. And the US is home to nearly 5000 credit unions, which by law are not-for-profits, owned by their members.

Stanford Law professor Ron Gilson once quipped that if shareholders didn’t exist, they would have to be invented. That’s not quite true: plenty of American enterprises do quite well without shareholders. Indeed, civilization itself might be better without them. As I have written elsewhere, “nearly every major societal pathology in the West today – certainly in the USA – is caused or exacerbated by profit-oriented corporations,” including the opioid epidemic, the obesity crisis, the return of nicotine addiction among the young, democracy-undermining social media, and a climate catastrophe underwritten by the fossil fuel industry. Shareholder capitalism may be a suicide pact. Conversely, cooperatives are inherently democratic and accountable…

Institutional alternatives to public corporations are well-established in the US, and in some cases they lead their industry, such as mutuals in finance and insurance. But cooperatives have historically been thin on the ground here compared to Europe. According to the Democracy At Work Initiative, there were 612 worker cooperatives in 2021 –a 30% increase over 2019, but still a tiny number.

Perhaps the digital revolution has finally created the conditions for cooperatives to thrive. Research from the pre-digital era suggests that one of the factors limiting cooperatives is, for want of a better term, the transaction costs of democracy. A lot of workers’ time spent in meetings to engage in dialogue, debate, and polling is a price that corporate dictatorships don’t have to bear. But newer tools have dramatically reduced the transaction costs of democracy: the same smartphones that enable pervasive corporate surveillance also allow worker voice at scale on a continuous basis.

It is not just transaction costs that have declined: the required assets to start a business are also much cheaper now to own or rent. Capital equipment such as Computer Numerical Control tools, powered by software, gets better and cheaper much the same way other software-powered tools do. (Compare the price of a color laser printer in 1990 to one today.) This is also true of the software required to run an enterprise. It is possible to buy a knockoff version of the enterprise software underlying the Uber app for under $10,000 – and the Drivers Coop in New York is creating a version to “franchise” the locavore driver-owned coop alternative to Uber. The ICTs that dis-integrated the corporate economy have opened space for noncorporate alternatives that might be more democratic and human-scaled.

There are reasons for optimism here. Platform cooperatives merge the benefits of coops with accessible technology, and have been especially effective in industries in which the required new capital investment is low (home cleaning, home health aides, transit). Trebor Scholz’s new book Own This! provides details on the opportunities here. Municipally- or cooperative-owned fabrication facilities can enable enterprises with limited capital to launch and thrive. If the required investment to start a business is low, then the range of alternative institutions, including coops, is correspondingly larger.

The technologies exist to create low-cost alternatives to public corporations. Maybe we are not stuck with the legacy of 20th century corporate capitalism after all…

An optimistic (and aspirational) take on what might follow the economic reign of the public company: “Is This the End of Corporate Capitalism?” from @vanishingcorp via @iftf.

Frans de Waal


As we ponder proprietorship, we might recall that, on this date in 1933 the hospitality industry got a boost as Congress ratified the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution– repealing the 18th Amendment, which had prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol. Prohibition had gone into effect in 1920 in an effort to reduce crime and improve public health, but it had backfired: despite massive public investment in enforcement, there was a sharp rise in organized crime (c.f.: bootleggers like Al Capone stepping in to supply black market booze) and the emergence of a “scofflaw” attitude on the part of a public that wanted its alcohol.


“We’ve co-evolved with our microbes”*…

Allergies seem more prevalent and more severe these days because they are. Theresa MacPhail explains…

… Although allergy researchers may disagree on definitions, symptoms and methodology, all agree on one thing: Allergies have grown worse over the last few decades, and the staggering numbers of allergy sufferers worldwide is likely to continue growing. An estimated 235 million people worldwide have asthma, and anywhere from 240 to 550 million people globally may suffer from food allergies. Drug allergy may affect up to 10% of the world’s population.

There’s a consensus, looking at the last century’s data, that U.S. hay fever rates increased in the mid-20th century. Data suggests that the incidence of asthma increased beginning in the 1960s, peaking sometime in the 1990s. Since then, asthma rates have remained fairly constant. Respiratory allergic diseases and atopic sensitization (or skin allergy) have likely increased over the last few decades. But the most dramatic and visible increase has been the rise in global incidence rates for food allergies, which began in earnest in the 1990s and has grown steadily ever since.

There are, unsurprisingly, multiple theories about the cause. The hygiene hypothesis is one front-runner, positing that people who are “too clean” develop allergies. Many others think it’s our diet, that changes in the way we grow and prepare food have altered our gut microbiome, fueling allergies. Still others argue that manmade chemicals and plastics we encounter daily are making our immune systems more irritable.

What everyone agrees on is that the environment’s influence on our genes, or epigenetics, has played a large role in the rise of allergies, as does the makeup of our nose, gut and skin microbiomes. In the end, it appears, we are at least partially doing this to ourselves. Modern living is likely at the root of the recent rise in allergies…

Our very old immune systems can’t keep up with modern lifestyles and diets, leading to increases in all sorts of chronic health problems like allergies and obesity: “How Modernity Made Us Allergic,” from @TheresaMacphail in @NoemaMag. Eminently worth reading in full.

Dr. Cathryn R. Nagler


As we stifle a sneeze, we might send infectious birthday greetings to Alfred Hershey; he was born on this date in 1908. A bacteriologist and geneticist, investigate bacteriophages, or phagesviruses that infect and replicate inside bacteria. In 1952, he and Martha Chase conducted the famous Hershey–Chase, or “Waring Blender” experiment. Their work confirmed that DNA, not protein, was the genetic material of life.

Hershey’s work with bacteriophage earned him a share of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria, “for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses.”


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 4, 2023 at 1:00 am

“As people who deal with the ocean you must see the irony. We are facing a shortage on a planet whose surface is covered two-thirds with water.”*…

The Panama Canal has become a vital link in the web of global trade, especially that trade that connects Asia and the U.S. U.S. commodity export and import containers account for 73% of Panama Canal traffic, representing about $270 billion in cargo. That trade is now constrained, as water shortage has reduced the Canal’s throughput…

For months, the global shipping community has been closely watching the Panama Canal, as a severe drought has threatened water levels and forced the Panama Canal Authority to enact restrictions on the maximum weight and size of vessels that can transit its waters. The impact of the Panama Canal Authority’s restrictions has been negligible, as lower shipping demand offset any vessel weight restrictions–until now…

It takes almost 200 million gallons of water for every ship to transit the Panama Canal. And, in a drought, that’s become a problem. The Panama Canal operates with a lock system that is fed via freshwater drawn from Lake Gatun. The water flows from the lake, the high point of the canal, down through the lock system and is then discharged to sea. While the canal’s newer locks can recycle about 60% of its water, it still requires a tremendous amount of water for every ship to pass through.

At this time of year, the lake’s average water level should be around 87 feet, but the lake currently sits at 81.8 feet and is forecasted to remain at or near that level through January. To make matters worse, the lake is only receiving 70% of the intake it needs (largely from rain) to satisfy the canal’s water usage.

To combat this, about a year ago the Panama Canal Authority began limiting the draft of vessels (the distance between the waterline and the deepest point of the boat) that are using the canal. The current draft limit is 44 feet (from a normal 50 feet). A lot of factors influence the draft of a vessel but the number one factor which can be controlled most readily is the vessel’s weight. For every one foot of draft reduction, a container ship has to reduce its weight by the equivalent of 300-400 TEU (at 14 tonnes of cargo). Therefore a six-foot reduction in draft equates to 1800-2400 TEU of reduction in vessel capacity.

As the reduction in vessel draft proved to not be enough to manage Lake Gatun water levels, the Canal Authority began to limit the daily transits of vessels. The canal normally sees 34 planned transits per day. This has been reduced to 24 transits and is forecast to reduce to 18 by February 1, 2024…

“What You Need To Know About the Impact of the Panama Canal on Global Logistics”

Consequently, shipping companies are faced with a thorny choice: They can risk waiting for days, pay a big fee to jump the line (currently running at $4-4.5 million per passage), or avoid the canal entirely by taking a longer route… any of which increase the cost of transit– a cost that likely to show up in prices…

… Shipping companies are set to incur heavy losses due to the bottleneck. Maersk, which is the second-largest shipping company in the world, said it was working to ensure the backlog did not disrupt its deliveries. “We follow the guidance from the Panama Canal and adapt our intake on relevant services in advance of the departure at origin. Maersk remains committed to minimizing disruptions to our operations,” it said in a press release. The Danish company moves more than four million TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit) vessels every year. In 2021, it saw its revenues reach $62 billion. Maersk added that the low water levels in the Panama Canal were a stark reminder of the climate crisis, and its ripple effect on global supply chains.

There is still no estimate of how much the Panama Canal jam will cost shipping companies, but the situation is a reminder of the 2021 crisis in the Suez Canal in Egypt. In that case, shipping companies suffered multi-billion dollar losses when the Ever Given container ship got stuck and blocked access to the canal…

The economic impact of the Panama Canal jam: Inflation and shipping losses

Capacity is down; time-to-market is up; and costs are rising: The Panama Canal is under environmental pressure.

See also: “Drought Saps the Panama Canal, Disrupting Global Trade” (gift article).

* Clive Cussler, Blue Gold


As we deal with drought, we might recall that it was on this date in 1982 that a soil sample taken in Times Beach, Missouri, was found to contain 300 times the safe level of dioxin (c.f. Agent Orange). A byproduct of the manufacture of hexachlorophene (banned in 1972) by NEPACCO (the North Eastern Pharmaceuticals and Chemicals Company), the dioxin was meant to be stored securely onsite, but was eventually improperly disposed of in a trench in the facility, and by a local waste handler.

Times Beach– well over 2,000 residents– was completely evacuated and relocated early in 1983. The land that was once Times Beach is now Route 66 State Park. One building from the town still exists: the park’s visitor center was once a roadhouse from Times Beach’s glory days and was the EPA’s headquarters for the area.


“What we need is the celestial fire to change the flint into the transparent crystal, bright and clear”*…

… or so it used to be. Scientists at Google DeepMind and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have applied AI to the task– with encouraging results…

Modern technologies from computer chips and batteries to solar panels rely on inorganic crystals. To enable new technologies, crystals must be stable otherwise they can decompose, and behind each new, stable crystal can be months of painstaking experimentation.

… in a paper published in Nature, we share the discovery of 2.2 million new crystals – equivalent to nearly 800 years’ worth of knowledge. We introduce Graph Networks for Materials Exploration (GNoME), our new deep learning tool that dramatically increases the speed and efficiency of discovery by predicting the stability of new materials.

With GNoME, we’ve multiplied the number of technologically viable materials known to humanity. Of its 2.2 million predictions, 380,000 are the most stable, making them promising candidates for experimental synthesis. Among these candidates are materials that have the potential to develop future transformative technologies ranging from superconductors, powering supercomputers, and next-generation batteries to boost the efficiency of electric vehicles.

GNoME shows the potential of using AI to discover and develop new materials at scale. External researchers in labs around the world have independently created 736 of these new structures experimentally in concurrent work. In partnership with Google DeepMind, a team of researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has also published a second paper in Nature that shows how our AI predictions can be leveraged for autonomous material synthesis.

We’ve made GNoME’s predictions available to the research community. We will be contributing 380,000 materials that we predict to be stable to the Materials Project, which is now processing the compounds and adding them into its online database. We hope these resources will drive forward research into inorganic crystals, and unlock the promise of machine learning tools as guides for experimentation…

GNoME suggests that materials science may be the next frontier to be turbocharged by artificial intelligence (see this earlier example from biotech): “Millions of new materials discovered with deep learning.”

* Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


As we drive discovery, we might recall that it was on this date in 1942 that a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi, working inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, achieved the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction… laying the foundation for the atomic bomb and later, nuclear power generation– that’s to say, inaugurating the Atomic Age.

“…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…”
– Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.

Illustration depicting the scene on Dec. 2, 1942 (Photo copyright of Chicago Historical Society) source

Indeed, exactly 15 years later, on this date in 1957, the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, reached criticality; the first power was produced 16 days later, after engineers integrated the generator into the distribution grid of Duquesne Light Company.