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Posts Tagged ‘money

“If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you”*…




Everyone always talks about how much money there is in politics. This is the wrong framing. The right framing is Ansolabehere et al’s: why is there so little money in politics? But Ansolabehere focuses on elections, and the mystery is wider than that.

Sure, during the 2018 election, candidates, parties, PACs, and outsiders combined spent about $5 billion – $2.5 billion on Democrats, $2 billion on Republicans, and $0.5 billion on third parties. And although that sounds like a lot of money to you or me, on the national scale, it’s puny. The US almond industry earns $12 billion per year. Americans spent about 2.5x as much on almonds as on candidates last year.

But also, what about lobbying? Open Secrets reports $3.5 billion in lobbying spending in 2018. Again, sounds like a lot. But when we add $3.5 billion in lobbying to the $5 billion in election spending, we only get $8.5 billion – still less than almonds.

What about think tanks? Based on numbers discussed in this post, I estimate that the budget for all US think tanks, liberal and conservative combined, is probably around $500 million per year. Again, an amount of money that I wish I had. But add it to the total, and we’re only at $9 billion. Still less than almonds!

What about political activist organizations? The National Rifle Association, the two-ton gorilla of advocacy groups, has a yearly budget of $400 million. The ACLU is a little smaller, at $234 million. AIPAC is $80 million. The NAACP is $24 million. None of them are anywhere close to the first-person shooter video game “Overwatch”, which made $1 billion last year. And when we add them all to the total, we’re still less than almonds.

Add up all US spending on candidates, PACs, lobbying, think tanks, and advocacy organizations – liberal and conservative combined – and we’re still $2 billion short of what we spend on almonds each year. In fact, we’re still less than Elon Musk’s personal fortune; Musk could personally fund the entire US political ecosystem on both sides for a whole two-year election cycle…

[A consideration of the factors that limit political giving/spending]

I don’t want more money in politics. But the same factors that keep money out of politics keep it out of charity too.

The politics case is interesting because it’s so obvious. Nobody’s going to cynically declare “Oh, people don’t really care who wins the election, they just pretend to.” It’s coordination problems! It has to be!

So when I hear stories like that Americans could end homelessness by redirecting the money they spend on Christmas decorations, I don’t think that’s because they’re evil or hypocritical or don’t really care about the issue. I think they would if they could but the coordination problem gets in the way.

This is one reason I’m so gung ho about people pledging to donate 10% of their income to charity. It mows through these kinds of problems. I may not be a great person. But I spend more each year on the things I consider most important than I do on almonds, and this is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen naturally. It’s the kind of thing where I have to force myself to ignore the feeling of “just a drop in the ocean”, ignore whether I feel like other people are free-riding on me, and just do it. Pledging to donate money (and then figuring out what to do with it later) ensures I will take that effort, and not end up with revealed preferences that seem ridiculous in light of my values.

Scott Alexander with a counter-intuitive– and provocative– take on politics and money: “Too much dark money in almonds.”

[Image above: source]

* Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as well as acting White House Chief of Staff, in 2018, while serving as interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau


As we take the pledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1957 that the words “In God We Trust” first appeared on U.S. paper currency– when the updated one-dollar silver certificate entered circulation that day.

Though it had only been adopted by Congress as the official motto of the U.S. the prior year, the phrase had appeared occasionally (as had variations on the theme) on coinage since Civil War times; regularly– despite Theodore Roosevelt’s conviction that it was sacrilegious– from 1908.

220px-1in_god_we_trust source


Written by LW

October 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore”*…




The instruments of trade and finance are inventions, in the same way that creations of art and discoveries of science are inventions—products of the human imagination. Paper money, backed by the authority of the state, was an astonishing innovation, one that reshaped the world. That’s hard to remember: we grow used to the ways we pay our bills and are paid for our work, to the dance of numbers in our bank balances and credit-card statements. It’s only at moments when the system buckles that we start to wonder why these things are worth what they seem to be worth. The credit crunch in 2008 triggered a panic when people throughout the financial system wondered whether the numbers on balance sheets meant what they were supposed to mean. As a direct response to the crisis, in October, 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever he or she or they might be, published the white paper that outlined the idea of Bitcoin, a new form of money based on nothing but the power of cryptography.

The quest for new forms of money hasn’t gone away. In June of this year, Facebook unveiled Libra, global currency that draws on the architecture of Bitcoin. The idea is that the value of the new money is derived not from the imprimatur of any state but from a combination of mathematics, global connectedness, and the trust that resides in the world’s biggest social network. That’s the plan, anyway. How safe is it? How do we know what libras or bitcoins are worth, or whether they’re worth anything? Satoshi Nakamoto’s acolytes would immediately turn those questions around and ask, How do you know what the cash in your pocket is worth?

The present moment in financial invention therefore has some similarities with the period when money in the form we currently understand it—a paper currency backed by state guarantees—was first created. The hero of that origin story is the nation-state. In all good stories, the hero wants something but faces an obstacle. In the case of the nation-state, what it wants to do is wage war, and the obstacle it faces is how to pay for it…

The ever-illuminating John Lanchester explains how, over three centuries, the heresies of two bankers became the basis of our modern economy: “The Invention of Money.”

[Lanchester’s latest novel, The Wall, was just long-listed for the Booker.]

* Yogi Berra


As we learn from the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1861 that the U.S. government, in anticipation of the expense of the looming Civil War, levied its first income tax as part of the Revenue Act of 1861.  It assessed 3% of all incomes over $800, but included no enforcement mechanism, and so generated very little revenue.  It was revised in 1862 in a more effective form, then rescinded in 1872.

The first peace-time income tax was established in 1894, but was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (the 10th amendment forbade any powers not expressed in the US Constitution, and the Constitution provided no power to impose any other than a direct tax by apportionment).  It was in 1913, with the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that income tax became a permanent fixture in the U.S. tax system.

HR54_Revenue_Act source


Written by LW

August 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“O Gold! I still prefer thee unto paper”*…




The once-fringe fantasy of a return to the gold standard is creeping back into the mainstream.

It has long been dismissed as a fool’s errand, on par with abandoning the Federal Reserve and other trappings of the modern economy. Mainstream economists deride it almost without exception. Reintroducing the gold standard would “be a disaster for any large advanced economy,” says the University of Chicago’s Anil Kashyap, who connects enthusiasm for it with “macroeconomic illiteracy.” His colleague, Nobel laureate Richard Thaler, struggles with its very underlying principle: “Why tie to gold? Why not 1982 Bordeaux?”

Yet the idea that every US dollar should be backed by a small amount of actual gold is more popular than economists’ opinions might suggest. Advocates include members of Congress and president Donald Trump. Enthusiasm for a return to the gold standard has become more prominent since Trump’s most recent nominees to fill the vacant Federal Reserve governorship have endorsed a return. The first two—Herman Cain and Stephen Moore—both dropped out of consideration, but the third, economist Judy Shelton, announced… in a Trump tweet, may be the most ardent in her support

What exactly is the gold standard, and what would it mean if it were re-established? Timely questions: “The quiet campaign to reinstate the gold standard is getting louder.”

* Lord Byron


As we ponder the pecuniary, we might recall that it was on this date in 1795 that James Swan (who had financed privateers during the Revolutionary War, and used some of his proceeds to support the Continental Army) refinanced the national debt of the United States– $2,024,899 in obligations to the French government– by assuming them personally, at a higher interest rate; he then sold them off to private investors in the U.S. and Europe.


Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Swan, 1795



Written by LW

July 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can’t decipher.”*…


A “commonplace” book from the 17th century

On any given day, from her home on the Isle of Man, Linda Watson might be reading a handwritten letter from one Confederate soldier to another, or a list of convicts transported to Australia. Or perhaps she is reading a will, a brief from a long-forgotten legal case, an original Jane Austen manuscript. Whatever is in them, these documents made their way to her because they have one thing in common: They’re close to impossible to read.

Watson’s company, Transcription Services, has a rare specialty—transcribing historical documents that stump average readers. Once, while talking to a client, she found the perfect way to sum up her skills. “We are good at reading the unreadable,” she said. That’s now the company’s slogan.

For hundreds of years, history was handwritten. The problem is not only that our ancestors’ handwriting was sometimes very bad, but also that they used abbreviations, old conventions, and styles of lettering that have fallen out of use. Understanding them takes both patience and skill…

A transcriber on the Isle of Man can decipher almost anything: “Where Old, Unreadable Documents Go to Be Understood.”

* Chuck Palahniuk


As we puzzle it out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1659 that the first known check of the modern era was written.  Early Indians of the Mauryan period (from 321 to 185 BC) employed a commercial instrument called adesha; Romans used praescriptiones; Muslim traders used the saqq; and Venetian traders used bills of exchange— but these were effectively either a form of currency or letters of credit.  The 1659 draft– made out for £400, signed by Nicholas Vanacker, made payable to a Mr Delboe, and drawn on Messrs Morris and Clayton, scriveners and bankers of the City of London–  was the first “check” as we came to know them.  It’s on display at Westminster Abbey.  (The world “check” likely also originated in England later in the 1700s when serial numbers were placed on these pieces of paper as a way to keep track of, or “check” on, them.)



Written by LW

February 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money”*…


The beginning of a MUCH longer infographic

This infographic was initially created to show how much money exists in its different forms. For example, to highlight how much physical cash there is in comparison to broader measures of money which include saving and checking account deposits.

Interestingly, what is considered “money” depends on who you are asking.

Are the abstractions created by Central Banks really money? What about gold, bitcoins, or other hard assets?

Since we first released this infographic in 2015, “All the World’s Money and Markets” has taken on a different meaning to us and many others. It’s a way of simplifying a complex universe of currencies, assets, and other financial instruments in a way that people can understand.

Numbers represented in the data visualization range from the size of the above-ground silver market ($17 billion) to the notional value of all derivatives ($1.2 quadrillion as a high-end estimate). In between those two extremes, we’ve added many other familiar measures, such as the GDP of California, the value of equities, the real estate market, along with different money supply metrics to give perspective…

See the infographic in its entirety– and ponder such take-aways as that the total of all derivatives outstanding today exceeds the total before the crash of 2008 the led to the Great Recession— at “All of the World’s Money and Markets in One Visualization.”

* Sophocles, Antigone


As we batten down the hatches, we might send careful-calculated birthday greetings to Amartya Kumar Sen; he was born on this date in 1933.  A polymathic economist and philosopher, he has made material contributions to welfare economics, social choice theory, thinking on economic and social justice, economic theories of famines, and indices of the measure of well-being of citizens of developing countries.

Sen’s revolutionary contribution to development economics and social indicators is the concept of “capability” developed in his article “Equality of What”.  He argues that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens. This is because top-down development will always trump human rights as long as the definition of terms remains in doubt (is a “right” something that must be provided or something that simply cannot be taken away?). For instance, in the United States citizens have a hypothetical “right” to vote. To Sen, this concept is fairly empty. In order for citizens to have a capacity to vote, they first must have “functionings”. These “functionings” can range from the very broad, such as the availability of education, to the very specific, such as transportation to the polls. Only when such barriers are removed can the citizen truly be said to act out of personal choice. It is up to the individual society to make the list of minimum capabilities guaranteed by that society. For an example of the “capabilities approach” in practice, see Martha Nussbaum‘s Women and Human Development. [source]

Called the “conscience of his profession,” Sen was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998; India’s Bharat Ratna in 1999 for his work in welfare economics; and in 2017, the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science.



Written by LW

November 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

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