Thursday, July 23, 2015

"The Great Divide" (Joseph Stiglitz) How inequality makes the economy unstable

Author: Joseph E. Stiglitz

Title: “The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them
Publication: New York: W. W. Norton, 2015; ISNB 978-0-393-24857-9, 428 pages, hardcover (also e-books); Prelude, Afterword and 8 Parts; about 66 short essays, as unnumbered chapters; concluding interview with Cullen Murphy; no index is provided.

Amazon link
The book follows “The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our Future”.  The author is an economics professor at Columbia University.

It should not be confused with a similarly titled book by William D. Gairdner, reviewed here May 15.  But perhaps it has more in common with that book than I first thought, although Gairdner takes the divide in thinking down to some personal moral levels.

The book also seems to be largely an anthology of similar essays, many published in other places (like Vanity Fair). The Prelude seems to have been written before Obama took office in 2009, and the others fill in the history since then. But the essays tend to make the same points repeatedly, without a gradual buildup of argument, because of the organization of the book.

In many essays he mentions Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” (July 20, 2014).  I don’t see a lot of difference between Stiglitz’s ideas and Piketty’s.  Stiglitz places great emphasis on the observation that unregulated markets don’t work very well when there is exaggerated economic inequality.
And like Piketty, he is “critical” (to say the least) of “rent seeking” behavior in our culture.  The preferential tax treatment for income based on capital rather than on labor tends to depress wages and eventually weakens demand.
He does introduce some interesting terms, such as the Palma Ratio (p. 291) and the “Gini Coefficient” (p. 336). Good test questions.

Most of his prescriptions are at the abstract policy level, mostly tax policy.  He would tax incomes and wealth much more as is done in much of Europe. He aptly calls the 2008 bailout "socialism for banks". 

However, sometimes he dives into the issue of personal morality.  He notes that the burdens of the past military draft weren’t shared equitably, and he points out (in an essay about Mitt Romney) that, really, no one is completely self-made.  He says we all depend on infrastructure that is in large part publicly financed.  I certainly agree with that.  If the Metro doesn’t run, or the power or telecommunications grid is unreliable, then I cannot be personally productive, and ultimately it comes back upon me in my situation.

He talks about some foreign economies, and has some praise for the somewhat authoritarian city-state of Singapore, which mixes personal responsibility with government support in what he sees as constructive. However, authoritarianism often assumes it can ensure stability by regulating and “right-sizing” the individual. While the Right has wanted to regulate sexual and social mores, the Left wants to see everybody "pay his dues" and really work for a living, and experience solidarity emotionally. I would add that gross inequality (especially "inequality of opportunity") tends to undermine the incentives of many people to abide by the rule of law and creates eventual threats to security. 
He also is critical of the way the Eurozone is managed.  But his book was written before the current crisis in Greece came to a head.  But his comparison of the U.S. and Europe is appropriate.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Time-Life encapsulates Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Go Set a Watchman"

Life Books has a legal-sized heavily illustrated paperback (96 pages) “The Enduring Power of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird”, an anthology about the hugely popular novel by Nelle Harper Lee. The authors of the anthology appear to be Daniel S. Levy and Amy Lennard Goehner, as employees of Time-Life.  It made good reading on the plane.
I recall showing the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird” at least once (from VHS) to a ninth grade English class when working as a substitute teacher in the middle 2000s.

It’s quite an honor to have one’s novel so dissected that detailed study notes are written about them, and students have to write final exam (or SAT free response) answers on the novel.

In fact, on page 10, the booklet gives some sample essay questions, and they’re pretty specific.  You have to know what is “Maycomb’s usual disease” (racism, with qualifications).  One question asks the student to write newspaper stories about characters or events in the novel. You can be asked to explain “why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird”.  In fact, around 1992, I was befriended by a wild male mockingbird that followed me to and from my car at work every day, and would chase starlings and fly back to me to impress me. Since then, a crow has actually befriended me, warning me by chasing me inside the day of Hurricane Sandy.

A lot has been said lately about Harper Lee’s pseudo-sequel “Go Set a Watchman”, which follows Scout’s life and her relationship with her father years later.  There was an outcry over the fact that Atticus was revealed himself to be capable of racism, as Alexandra Altar reported July 11 in the New York Times here. More interesting is the fact that it was an editor who encouraged Lee to change the focus of her book (as “Watchman” had been sketched first), resulting in what we know today as the modern Mockingbird novel.  Also interesting is the story over the publication of this sequel, and Lee’s own feelings about publishing it.

CNN has a lot of stories about Lee's writing, saying she may have up to two other unpublished novels. (How many do I have?)  The biggest story is by Jay Parini on July 13 "Harper Lee's bombshell of a book", here, noting that the Watchman sequel is in third person, and that Atticus really has become bigoted.   Some commentators note Scout's tomboy personality, which stays within bounds when "Mockingbird" is taught in school.  
I worked with a literary agent on my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1996 a lot, and that did result in its current (1997) format;  there had been two other radically different organizations (one like an “Op. 111”). 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Independent stores, traditional authors want DOJ to look at Amazon for possible anti-trust activity

Once again, Amazon is in the middle of legal controversy, as the New York Times Business Day reports that groups representing authors (like the Authors Guild) and independent booksellers want the US Department of Justice to look at anti-trust action against Amazon, story by David Streitfeld here.
The story suggests that Amazon hinders placement of some authors or subject matter, or seriously undercuts regular booksellers.  The story also discusses concerns over Amazon’s command over the e-book market. 
It is not apparent, however, that these complaints seem to affect self-published books.  In rare cases, Amazon has withdrawn books when there is large public outcry over content (such as pedophilia).  Amazon doesn’t seem concerned about sales performance as far as being interested or willing to keep “indie” or POD books listed. 
In practice, some independent booksellers probably fear that the popularity of inexpensive e-books (even give-aways) undercuts the interest of some consumers to visit their stores.  It is certainly easier to order a book from Amazon on line and go to a store to get it.  But you do have to pay for prime membership to get the free shipping.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

"Mars": a simple pocket space guide has more pictures than anything

The pocket space guide “Mars” by Robert Godwin (2005) contains some of the most numerous and best actual photos of the actual landscapes from Mars from many probes.

The booklet (ISBN 978-1-894959-26-1, Apogee, from Burlington, Ontario) has about 50 pages of text history, going back to the 19th Century. Much of this goes back to speculations about the “Canals”. 

The Viking lander in 1976 performed several experiments which were supposed to support to possibility of organic chemistry and life on Mars.  They were at best unconvincing, although Dan Fry (of Understanding, an organization near Phoenix with which I interacted a lot in the 1970s) thought that the results could be interpreted positively.  In 1996, a meteorite found in Antarctica with signs of fossil life raised controversy.

More recent interests have concerned whether methane found on Mars could have come from other than organic processes. And the evidence increases that Mars once had large oceans.

Update: September 28, 2015

NASA has said it is convinced it can prove that some salt water still flows in some valleys or channels on Mars today, press release

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Book publishers start fact-checking; could this affect self-publishers?

Slate (and Vulture) has an interesting article by Boris Kachka, “Will book publishers ever start fact-checking? They’re already starting”, link here.

One imprint, Duggan (belonging to Crown) will offer a fact-checking service that it pays for to authors whom it publishes. 
In practice, book publishers haven’t considered fact checking their business, the way magazines do.  (This blog has reviewed a few magazine issues, like NatGeo, as if they were “books” because of important subject matter and depth of substance.)  The downfall of NBC news anchor Brian Williams illustrates the ease of fabrication and the seriousness of it. 
Ironically, Salon (David Zweig) has reported a serious inaccuracy in David Brooks’s “The Road to Character” (reviewed here June 16).  Random House will correct it in future editions.
The concern from publishers goes against a grain, where authors indemnify publishers for liability claims, although these clauses are rarely enforced in practice (there have been a few egregious incidents however, some of them author fraud). 
The issue also reminds one of the possibility of a tort of “negligent publication”.  Because of low-cost self-publishing and because of the Internet and searchable WWW, we have come to value the ability to self-publish without gatekeepers, which would mean there would naturally be less opportunity for third-party fact checking.  Will this come to the self-publishing world?  Since my own books are largely personal narrative, it would seem less relevant to me than to some others, but there is still considerable research material in my books (like the legal cases around DADT or free speech).  

Take a look at this piece from the Guardian, "The Crisis in Non-Fiction Publishing", by Sam Leith, link