Guns and Race in the U.S.

A few weeks ago I learned about two horrible incidents involving young black motorists being shot to death that really riled me up.  You can read about both here and here.

Now most media outlets are playing up the race angle and there is no denying that neither of these incidents would have occurred if the motorist were white.  In both cases one of the participants claimed that they though the black motorist was a burglar.  This presumption cascades a series of events that led to the death of these young black people.  This presumption was based on the fact, and only on the fact, that they were black.  In both tragedies the black person knocked on the door (cue jokes about polite burglars).  If a white person is knocking on your door most people don’t jump to suspected burglary, but apparently if they are black you do.

However, while a less racist population might have avoided the bloody end of both incidents, the real culprit here is the rampant gun culture in the U.S.A.  Only here would someone answer the door with a gun at the ready.  Only here would a cop’s first reaction be to draw his firearm and unload on an unarmed man, shooting him not once to maybe disable him, but ten times.

I believe the man in Detroit really did accidentally fire upon the young woman as the alternative is that we live in a society where people gun down innocents on their front porch.  That still raises the question why he had it aimed at her, especially since a maxim of firearm safety is to only point them at things you intend to shoot.

I am willing to call the Detroit case a terrible accident.  Far worse is the cop that fired upon a man in a situation where he was barely threatening.  Even our poorly trained police officers should know a number of deterrence strategies other than pumping someone full of lead.  While North Carolina has a habit of letting their cops get away with some dubious killings, at least in this case they are going after the shooter with haste.

This just feeds into a growing resentment I have toward the abuses of power perpetrated by our protectors of law and order.  Between shootings like this happening all over the place (Florida and North Carolina seem the worst), the must read piece on civil forfeiture in the New Yorker, stop and frisk in New York and if you want to go bigger, NSA spying, at time it feels like the biggest threat to an American citizen’s civil liberties is from those charged to protect them.

The crime waves of the 80s and the subsequent decay of violence that took place over the last two decades seem to have allayed a natural suspicion towards the police that had built up during the Civil Rights Era.  I feel as though we have given police forces the credit for this crime drop which seems particularly dubious and still does not excuse the kind of abusive tactics that keep making headlines.  I consider myself a trusting guy, so I don’t want to say this, but the police are never your friend, even if you are a white male.  We inculcate in our police force a paranoia and animosity towards everyone and we have to be sure that we keep our vicious, if useful, dog appropriately leashed.

Before I end this post I want to comment more on the presumption that a black person is a burglar.  A lot of people harbor under this delusion that every black person is a violent criminal and that you should be appropriately wary at all times around black men in particular.  This is a gross misinterpretation of the statistics that say that black men are far more likely to commit a violent crime.  The vast majority of black men are not violent criminals.  In fact the irony is that white people are far more likely to be killed by another white person (4-6 times) and that a white person is more likely to murder a black person than vice versa (3 times).  Because you see, the real scourge here is black men committing violence against other black people.  Inevitably, news and comment boards are full of white people defending their blanket mistrust of black people, when it should be other black people that are deathly afraid of every black man they encounter.

Then of course there is the insanity of living a paranoid existence predicated on events that are far less likely than lets say dying in a traffic accident.  So racists you keep a vigilant eye on every black person while you blithely drive around in your motorized death trap.  I will be here enjoying a life where every glance upon a fellow human being is not followed by an analysis about whether they are going to kill me and take my stuff.


Income Inequality, The Major Problem of Our Time?

There has been a strange conflux of articles this week hovering vaguely around the topic of income inequality:  Krugman’s post on Larry Summer’s Secular Stagnation Hypothesis, Wonkblog on the failure of 401ks for all but the affluent, the unfortunate food drive at Walmart for its own employees, a call for higher minimum wage, more Social Security and probably some I am missing.  Oh and Paul Ryan trying to cure poverty by cutting welfare and rich people’s taxes.  The point is that it is getting coverage and I am seeing a lot of comments that seem completely wrong from an economics perspective.  I say that as someone whose discipline is not economics, but as an avid student nonetheless.

Lets start by tackling the minimum wage and Walmart’s pay.  I thought it was fairly common wisdom (whether true or  false) that Henry Ford paid his workers enough to buy his cars as a good business decision not out of generosity.  Corporations in America seem to have forgotten this lesson in their battle to depress the wages of their workers.  Walmart is simultaneously complaining that their sales have slowed because of the recession and yet not paying their workers enough to shop at Walmart.  Which raises the question of where people are shopping if they can’t afford Walmart?  Apparently, dollar stores are growing like crazy.  A very sad commentary on how we have squeezed the poor.

So a natural reaction is to call for raising the minimum wage to a living wage.  People argue that then everything would become more expensive, but things are not so simple.  Such people are engaging in a variant of the Lump of Labor Fallacy where they think the economy is zero-sum so if we give low wage workers more it must come from somebody else’s piece.  Even if that were true corporate profits are at an all-time high and so there is plenty of give there if we want to raise the minimum wage.  However, that is not how the economy works.  There are feedback cycles, especially in a depressed economy, that may cause an increase in the minimum wage to expand the economy (see paradox of toil, paradox of flexibility) and thereby increase everyone’s slice of the pie.  It’s paradoxical, but as Krugman often writes, that’s what you get in a liquidity trap.  It’s also similar to how, contrary to popular belief, immigrants are usually good for the economy.

Now all of this ties into the Secular Stagnation Hypothesis which you should read about elsewhere, but is essentially a theory that the modern economy requires bubbles in order to reach full employment and/or negative interest rates. The usual prescription is then to increase inflation so as to produce lower interest rates.

What are the causes of such an anemic economy?  Well there are theories that we are just so productive that we don’t need everyone to produce all the things we need.  Or maybe the pace of innovation has slowed.  I think both fall into a lumping fallacy.  Unless all consumption needs are met for everyone you can always find something to sell that someone wants to buy and you would need someone to make it.  It’s why we never ascended (or descended) into the leisure paradise that Keynes predicted.  You can never overestimate the human capacity to consume more stuff.

I think both of the above reasons are actually symptoms of an underlying structural problem, namely, the vast income inequality in America today.  If people are too poor to consume then there is no reason to hire people to produce more stuff.  So in a sense we are “too” productive, but it’s not because of a lack of desire to consume more, but one of an inability to consume more.  Walmart is doing disappointing sales, but luxury retailers are doing a booming business.  The problem is that a rich person can only own so many ugly Louis Vuitton bags.  So if our economy is slowly directed toward producing stuff for rich people, of course we are going to run into a situation where we don’t need everyone employed.

Similarly, as we hollow out the middle class we change where innovation is directed.  I saw an article where Proctor and Gamble says they have basically stopped catering to the middle class niche of products, either going bargain quality or high end.  What is the point of coming out with some great new product if the rich can only buy a handful and everyone else is too poor to afford it?  What you really want is something like the 90s when PCs became affordable for the average person and it supercharged the economy.  However, as the gulf between the haves and the have-nots increases the chance of such an event becomes much less probable.

As a a kind of microcosm look at all the buzz around various free social media sites that can’t seem to make any money.  That’s because they have a bunch of poor people as users that would probably flee at the first sign of a fee.  Or look at free-to-play games where all the money is made from rich whales and the vast majority of players never pay a dime.  It works a lot like that Paid Friends article recently on the NYT.  The free players are supported by the rich players who in turn get a bunch of people they can interact with in the game.  This is the future of our economy if we don’t change things, an economy centered around servicing the needs of rich people.  It’s already happening with, once again, the abysmal NYT Sunday Style section containing an article about a service to give the nannies of rich people a proper culinary education.

My attempt at a solution is pretty simple.  Rather than increasing Social Security (why are we only OK with old people welfare?) or the minimum wage we just provide a guaranteed basic income (GBI) and universal healthcare.  We are a rich country that could afford this for our citizens.  I would then abolish almost all other forms of welfare.  This significantly reduces the complexity of our welfare system since we at worst are just mailing out checks to people.  No more donut holes in benefits or high effective marginal tax rates on the poor or onerous means-testing.  You get a deposit in your government bank account every month (did you know that most poor people don’t have bank accounts and have to pay for check cashing services?) and off you go to spend the money on whatever you think you need.  Conservatives should get behind the freedom-enhancing effects of GBI over other forms of welfare, but of course they wont.

A GBI has a number of benefits.  You get a macroeconomic stabilizer as there is a floor of demand set by the GBI.  Furthermore you drastically increase job quality as now the choice is between working for a bit more consumption compared to before when it was working because you don’t want to die.  Lets see how corporations like it when labor actually has options.  I suspect they wont be able to squeeze them quite as hard as they have the last few decades.

Of course, this amounts to a massive redistribution of income, but that is I think our best tool for combating income inequality.  The cause of income inequality are many and hard to pin down.  I could name a few culprits that could probably be mitigated by good legislation, but I suspect it is mostly a consequence of an increasingly globalized economy.  So we just have to treat the symptoms and the GBI is the way to do it.

Malazan Book of the Fallen: Gardens of the Moon and Author Hubris

Not really going to write a full review, but more express a bit of resentment towards the author.

Gardens of the Moon is a notoriously difficult book to get into.  Both my wife and I have started it and given up before.  The internet abounds with similar stories.  Now some of the more ardent fans will call such people simpletons with short attention spans.  What I didn’t expect is that the author would be one of these people.

My copy of Gardens of the Moon has a preface by the author.  In it he is unapologetic regarding its inaccessibility.  In his words, it’s so ambitious that it has to start off nearly incomprehensible and even throws in a snide remark that a lot of fantasy authors talk down to their readers in order to garner success.  However, overweening pride only covers up mediocre writing so much, which is to say not at all.

The beginning of this book is just an incoherent mess filled with a bunch of crap that is bewildering and ends up being largely superficial to the plot.  For instance at the beginning you might puzzle out a young women is inhabited by a god of Shadowthrone.  Does anything come of this?  No.  The god is pushed out before anything interesting happens.  In fact the beginning of the book makes you think the gods are meddling everywhere, inhabiting any mortal they set their eye upon,  yet by the end it is not clear that they accomplished anything.  Mostly you just feel annoyed that all that confusion you suffered through has absolutely no payoff.  Maybe this was intentional, but I think it’s just the author’s inability to focus.

Once you get about 150 pages in things become more grounded in a plot you can follow and characters that you understand.  In fact the middle of the book is quite good.  Then he decides to once again smash your face with a dizzying number of plot twists, failed plots and magical happenings.  He wants so much cool shit to happen that he is rushing between things and never doing any of it right.  The ending is just overflowing with plot.  There is an ancient mage (supposedly extremely powerful) reawakened but he is taken out by an Elder God and something called an Azzat.  Neither of these are adequately set up.  The Coinbearer that everyone talks about for the entire book and seems to be a pawn of the god of luck does nothing interesting.  Just one among a number of aborted plot points.  There is a demon lord just so the bad ass elf dude can kill something.  Speaking of which everyone loves Anomander Rake, the bad ass elf dude, but he is basically a Mary Sue type created to play out the author’s power fantasies.  Pretty boring so far.

Then there is stuff that doesn’t make a lick of sense.  One group mines the city and then one of the saboteurs near the end suddenly realizes that they put them near gas lines and it will blow up the entire city.  Why the fuck didn’t you think of that earlier?  So  he has to stop his allies from blowing them, but there is no tension here and his allies turn out to be fleeing instead.  Also, I challenge anyone to explain the sequence of events involving Paran when the Jaghut attacks.  He seems to flit between three worlds including death’s door and none of it makes a lick of sense.

The irony is that the book was written years before the others and even the author can’t keep track of everything.  Most notably the gender of a certain character changes between books.  Furthermore, his prose could use some work.  He flits from terseness to sentences full of grandiloquence and meaning nothing.

I wont let the fact that Steven Erikson is another pompous author that attacks his critics deter me from reading the rest of the series.  I just hope he overcomes his lack of focus on what is important.




Fated Blades Books 1 and 2 Review

Here we have another new author.  I am not sure if we live in a golden age of fiction or if standards have gotten laxer and everyone can get published.  So far I am leaning toward the latter as most of these new authors are either one-hit wonders or decidedly mediocre right out of the gates.

Fated Blades tells the stories of the blades forged by the forgotten Japanese swordsmith Inazuma.  How he became forgotten is unbelievable because in the books up until at least WW2 his work was well-known and respected.  It is even mentioned that he invented techniques of forging usually attributed to Muramasa and Masamune, two heralded swordsmiths only a hundred years younger than him.  You would think such a legend would not pass into history unremarked.  Nevertheless these are magic swords with magic properties, the finest blades ever crafted.

The plot of the first book revolves around a psycho, Fuchida, wielding an Inazuma blade  said to be cursed by a scorned female lover.  Thus, Beautiful Singer, the blade, drives men mad with lust for the blade.  Fuchida even sleeps with it.  However, one is not enough for him as he wants to sell another one to start a coke dealing operation.

Mariko, our female protagonist, gets involved when in her position as the only true female police officer in Tokyo she investigates a series of random murders.  She eventually runs into Fuchida’s mentor, Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid, and owner of an Inazuma blade that Fuchida wants.  Ok he has another name, Yamada, but that is his role in the story.  He even teaches Mariko some swordplay along with aphorisms useful in both life and swordfighting.

Anyways, I think you can see how this plot would unfold.  The problem is that it is not really that interesting.  Dude wants to steal magic sword to buy drugs is not exactly lighting up the fires of my imagination.  Also Fuchida initiates almost all events rather than Mariko using actual detective work to find him.  Yamada as Miyagi is pretty trite and the author kills him off far too quickly to actually get that attached to him.

Where the book succeeds is in the flashback sequences that tell little vignettes about the three Inazuma blades.  In one, Beautiful Singer seduces and brings down two samurai in quick succession.  Strangely I found the samurai’s wife to be the most interesting part.  She has a lot of power but must always be attendant to her husband’s needs.  The longest details the tribulations of a semi-crippled samurai.  His father bequeathed an Inazuma blade to him and this causes tensions with his brother.  Finally we see Yamada when he was young in WW2 and learn that Japan losing and the Bataan Death March were all down to him not intervening at the right time.

All of them are more interesting than the main plot.  I get the feeling that the author’s interest in Japanese history compels him more than the idea of telling a story in modern day Japan.  For a first time author it wasn’t bad and we can hope he gets better.

Except he doesn’t.

The second book has all the same faults as the first.  The storylines in the past are far and away more interesting than Mariko.  They have ninjas flipping out and killing people and magic swords and crazed demon masks.  The modern plot is dull and makes no sense.  It revolves around some terrorist cult that sells drugs to distract the police from the bombs they are planning to detonate.  Except that their distraction just leads Mariko to their terrorist plot when it is abundantly clear they could have kept the whole thing secret from the police until after the fact.  I have some faith that things will be made clear in the last book, but I doubt that you can really close the gaping hole in logic the author has rent.

The other problem is just how boring Mariko is.  At least in the last book she is fighting against a patriarchy that wants nothing to do with her.  While the author beat us over the head with it in the first book, it defined Mariko well.  Here she has a supporting partner and an enthusiastic lieutenant.  In fact the final scene between the three is as overtly sappy as I haven’t seen since The Lives of Tao.  But without the adversity within the police department their is really nothing else about Mariko to grab onto.  Contrast this with Daigoro from one of the past storylines who is constantly grappling with bushido, morality and the absurdly evil Shichio who believes in neither.  It’s just so much better.

So yeah, it wouldn’t get my recommendation over tens of other books, but if you are an avid reader you could do worse.