2013 Week 25: Good Things I Saw On The Internet

I don’t know what a “rising junior” is but I hope it means someone in a post-doc programme because this piece on “vocation” by the Calvin College student Hannah Meijers is so fantastic that you should go now and savour every word.

Disciplines, after all, aren’t mountains for bright young things to master. They are things you submit to. You let them tell you how to form your sentences, and structure your arguments. You read their canons and learn their own unique nuances and contentions. In turn, they allow you to see the world in new and exciting ways. They give you the shoulders of giants to stand on and roots that stretch deep into history.

An exhilirating interview with a US soldier who is discovering that the way of Jesus is the way of non-violence:

“I just can’t picture Jesus picking up a gun and heading over to the middle-east and killing people.”

Out of the blue this statement had come back into my mind and it wouldn’t go away. Over the next several weeks of leave I woke up several times in the night. Every time I woke up that phrase was playing in my mind. I couldn’t get rid of it! It was at this point that I felt I should give a second look to the issue of nonviolence, that perhaps God was saying something to me.

From the peerless Quiet Babylon, “an attempt to understand the geography of a drone strike”:

On October 24, 2012, Bibi Mamana and her grandchildren were gathering firewood or picking okra outside their home. They may have been in a field. Perhaps it was a militant compound with a weapons depot. 2 missiles were fired, killing Mamana and up to 5 other people, injuring 6 to 8 of the children. Some other men, maybe 3, maybe militants, may have been caught in the blast. A house and a car may or may not have been destroyed. Either 3 cows or 1 buffalo and 2 goats were also killed. The drones remained overhead and 5 to 7 minutes after the first strike more missiles fell.

This moment—the drones, the missiles, the people, the livestock—is a node in a vast network. It spans the globe, connecting villages to secret installations to office parks to seats of government. It reaches backwards for millenia and will resonate forwards for untold centuries. To trace it out completely is impossible. We are hampered by its size and by the fact that much of it is hidden behind classified protections and some of the rest is barely recorded at all.

What is it to write well? Marilynne Robinson says:

But it’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.

“Assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation” might be a definition of what it means to live life as a Calvinist.

The first banknote.

If you are Irish, the idea that you are relatively well paid compared to other economies is dependent on the fact that you not poor. In other words, Ireland’s ongoing descent into full scale economic class warfare continues.

Finally, this is the best response to PRISM I have yet encountered.

The first thing I did after I heard about the highly classified NSA PRISM program two years ago was set up a proxy server in Peshawar to email me passages from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A literary flight of fancy. I started sending back excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.

Your Correspondent, Loves maths so much that when he takes a dump, it actually comes out as a 2

7 Replies to “2013 Week 25: Good Things I Saw On The Internet”

  1. Michael Taft’s summary doesn’t account for tax systems (he uses total earnings, not net earnings) or the costs of living (he uses 1999 euros, instead of purchasing power).

    In 2007, the “average” Irish worker earned more than equivalent workers in Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Finland. And almost exactly the same (2 euro difference per year) as a worker in France.

    Don’t expect IBEC to give even-handed accounts of operating a business, and don’t rely on the unions either.

  2. Is there any even-handed account? (Short of Skyping my brother in Michigan?)

    Where do we find similar accounts of comparative income that do account for our tax system (increasingly unjust) and our cost of living (tremendously vague)?

    I take your point. Wholeheartedly. But if our society is subjugated under a hijacking called austerity, it might actually be the wise thing to rely on accounts of economics from people who are biased towards the victim.

    Or am I still simple-headed on this?

  3. I gave you the ranking that use net income and cost of living/purchasing power parity. The net income bit is clear cut. There are problems with getting the cost of living right – so what if cat food is more expensive in Ireland if you don’t have a cat type of thing – but it’s much better than nothing. You can pick the values you like fairly easily yourself from Eurostat.

    I don’t really agree that “society is [being] subjugated under a hijacking called austerity.” Let’s imagine there were no bank debt to be paid at all, and no IMF. Then Ireland would still have an enormous deficit. The State was/is spending more than it receives in tax revenue. And we’re not talking a gap that could be bridged by increasing tax rates by 3% or 4% here or there, it was/is about a third of expenditure. Try spending a third more than your income and see how you get on, etc.

    We could perhaps agree that the subjugation is being caused by austerity, but that the austerity was caused by the enormous increase in public expenditure from c.2004: http://www.finfacts.ie/artman/uploads/3/Ireland-public-spending-Oct282010.jpg.

    Had things been kept under control prior to 2008, the country would be in a much better state. I think it’s misleading (“simple-headed”, maybe?) of you to blame the mess on the Austerity Monster.

  4. Enda, would you be willing to comment on the controversial austerity paper?


    I know very little about the machinations of economic systems, but I was under the impression that, while everyone agrees that Ireland needed to cut spending, the debate is over whether or not a recession is the time to start cutting.

  5. Hi Mobert,


    1. The Reinhart-Rogoff paper contains data errors. They used an Excel sheet (yeah, I know!) and put in the formula wrong. So the paper, to be fair, is garbage.

    2. Over and above the coding errors, the paper overstates the importance of a 90% debt/GDP “threshold” where growth falls considerably. No such threshold is really there. The 90% threshold looks more like an arbitrary point on the line.

    3. This point is a little pedantic, but somewhat important. This paper was published in the May edition of the American Economic Review (AER). The May edition of the AER is a collection of somebody’s favourite presentations at a big economics conference. (Granted, that conference is the annual conference of the American Economics Association, and that person is the President of said association; but you get my point.) It is not peer reviewed. It’s a little bit like a magazine aimed at academics rather than a serious journal. Every economist knows this, and not mentioning that your AER publication was in the May edition is considered dubious and dishonest. In this light, the coding errors in R-R become more understandable. There wasn’t a big fuss by most economists, and nobody really cared. It was just another paper in a non-peer reviewed journal, that mostly looked at interesting correlations in countries rather than delving deep into the mechanisms at play. Both Rogoff and Reinhart have spent a lifetime producing excellent scholarly work; they screwed up the coding for a presentation; and now they’re eaten alive for it.

    4. It is very unfortunate that the subtlety of the May edition of the AER is not known by journalists and politicians. This paper, not peer reviewed, and basically just a first draft, became very prominent in political circles. People have suggested the May edition be renamed to prevent this type of thing happening again.

    5. There’s a paradox in the hubbub about all of this. One researcher checked another’s work and found it to be false. Isn’t that the basis of the scientific process? Doesn’t this happen all the time in all fields of academic inquiry that can be objectively falsified? (The answer is yes, by the way!)

    6. Part of this policy question relies on how big the fiscal multiplier is. The fiscal multiplier is “how much does GDP increase by when the government spends $100 more?” The only honest answer to that is “We’re not sure, but we reckon it’s probably around $60-$120.”

    7. The other half of this policy question is “what happens to GDP when national debt gets really high?” The only honest answer to that is “We’re not sure, we haven’t really seen it before.”

    8. R-R’s corrected data do show a negative correlation between debt and GDP growth. That is, more debt means lower growth. There is no threshold at 90%, but it’s a downward sloping line. Thus it’s reasonable to conjecture that larger debts will be associated with low or negative growth. Note: I phrased that sentence carefully. We’re not sure which way the causation runs; it could be that low growth tends to increase debt. Nonetheless, R-R’s overall message that increasing debt beyond 90% of GDP carries risks is uncontroversial. The appropriate conclusion to draw from Herndon et al’s refutation is that “Well, we’re less sure that debt is a bad idea than we were previously.” It is not that “Spending is clearly the best option here.” The more recent evidence (see e.g. http://blog.supplysideliberal.com/post/51701725280/after-crunching-reinhart-and-rogoffs-data-we-found-no) points more against R-R’s conclusion. That said, take all of the recent evidence with a pinch of salt, just because it’s impossible to have had this stuff rigorously checked in the few months since this emerged.

    9. In Ireland’s specific case, completely overlooking the horrible bank debt, there really is no question but that govt expenditure had to fall and taxes had to rise. I won’t really listen to anyone say any different. Even aside from the simple fiscal arithmetic, I think the primary reason for supporting “austerity” is nationalism. This isn’t driven by GDP growth number or whatever. The country lost its sovereignty. In purely economic terms, that makes little or no difference. Might even be a good thing, if the IMF can do good things that politicians couldn’t. But if you put a big value on national independence, and you accept that the quickest way to restore that was getting close to balancing the budget, then stuff like the property tax becomes easier to swallow. The country has nastier things for its independence in the past. And no, when you think of the consequences of other options (like raising corporate taxation or default) I don’t think there was an easier way to restore sovereignty than roughly what was undertaken. There were a few things that would have helped (burning bondholders, maybe increasing taxes on eur100k by a few extra percent, etc) but I think the scale of the challenge (in 2009 the deficit was 19bn, and the entire budget for the gardai was 1.6bn) was such that the path taken was pretty reasonable.

    10. Sorry for the rant! Let me know if you have any more questions.

  6. Cheers for the info. Most of my info usually comes from “The Economist” so it’s refreshing to see a glimpse of the more technical arguments.

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