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My Kinda Sorta Non-Review of Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st Century"

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 10:51 AM PDT

I'm having a hard time finishing Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. Is this because it's a long, dense tome? Not really, though that doesn't help. Is it because he has nothing interesting to say? Not at all. Capital presents a very provocative thesis. Nevertheless, I started it once, put it down, finally picked it up again, and still haven't finished it.

So what's the problem? It's pretty simple: Piketty's provocative thesis is extremely elementary and he makes it right in the introduction. Here it is in a nutshell:

Over the long run, ordinary labor income grows at about the same rate as the broader economy. That's about 2-3 percent per year these days. Capital, however, tends to produce real returns of 4-5 percent. This means that over the course of, say, 50 years, labor income will increase about 3x while capital stocks will increase about 9x. That in turn means that income from capital will also increase 9x. And since rich people have by far the bulk of all capital income, income inequality inevitably grows forever unless something stops it.

The shorthand for this is r > g. That is, r (the return on capital) is historically greater than g (economic growth), which means that rich people with capital will always see their incomes grow faster than ordinary wage slaves. The rest of the book is a lengthy succession of charts and tables demonstrating that, historically, r really is greater than g. Since I was pretty easily persuaded of this, I had a hard time slogging through all the details.

In any case, the historical data isn't really why anyone other than specialists cares about this book. After all, the world has been ticking along for centuries, and somehow the rich have not, in fact, accumulated 99.9 percent of the world's income despite more than a thousand years of r being greater than g. Why? The simple answer, I gather, is war. This is the great leveler. The rich get richer for a while, but then they lose it all during periods of war, and the cycle starts all over. That's what happened in the 20th century: The rich were obscenely wealthy early on, and then came World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. That wiped out lots of wealth, and the postwar rebuilding era was one of those rare eras when g was actually greater than r. (See chart on right.) So labor did relatively well for a few decades. This ended in the 80s, when the old historical pattern reasserted itself.

This brings us to the question we really care about: Now that we've reverted to a more ordinary r > g world, will this continue? I started skipping through the book to find Piketty's answer, and I was disappointed at what I found. After some preliminary throat clearing to get clear on some details (the nature of private savings, what components should be counted in capital accounts, etc.), we get....nothing.

Basically, Piketty says that historically r has been greater than g, and there's no reason to think this won't be true in the future. That's really about it. Oh, he addresses some technical issues, like the fact that a glut of capital should reduce the return on capital, but basically that's his argument. In the past r has almost always been greater than g, and we'd be foolish to think that's likely to change.

Don't get me wrong: Piketty may be right. Hell, he probably is right. But while the details are of keen interest to specialists and practitioners, the gist of his argument is simply that the future will probably look like the past. That's certainly plausible, but I'm frankly having a hard time plowing through a ton of background material in support of such a simple thesis.

I'm not sure why I'm fessing up to all this. I'm really doing nothing except admitting that I'm not sure what everyone else sees that I don't. As a data-gathering exercise, this book is unquestionably a tour de force, and I'm truly not trying to slight Piketty's seminal achievement here. But as a layman's guide to the future (and it's explicitly written for a lay audience), Capital has little to say except that current trends will probably continue. It might be unreasonable to expect more, since obviously no one can predict the future, but I guess I expected more anyway. Is r > g really a monocausal explanation for the evolution of the entire world economy? Is it possible that r might decline for structural reasons in the future? Or that g might increase thanks to automation? Or that other factors might come into play? That seems at least worth addressing in some depth.

In any case, this is Piketty's story. Capital grows faster than labor income. Rich people have most of the capital. Therefore rich people get richer faster than ordinary wage earners and income inequality inexorably rises. If we don't like that, we'll have to do something about it. Piketty thinks the only answer is a global wealth tax, which he admits is a political nonstarter. Dean Baker has some other ideas here. Or maybe war will once again take care of things. Or maybe the rise of smart robots will make things even worse than Piketty ever imagined. I guess we'll all know in another 50 years or so.

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Unless You Can Do It Blindfolded, Please STFU

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 9:31 AM PDT

I've long suspected this, but now we have Scientific Proof™. Professional violinists who insist that there's nothing like a Strad can't even tell them apart from modern instruments:

In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument....On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels.

Wine snobs can barely distinguish red from white when they're blindfolded. Pro violinists can't pick out a Strad from a decent modern violin. Art aficionados are routinely taken in by fakes even when they're allowed to investigate them from inches away. The examples of this kind of thing are endless.

So am I skeptical when you claim your $90,000 turntable is really and truly light years better than some mere $2,000 POS? Yes I am. Am I skeptical when you claim you can distinguish Beluga caviar from Sterlet? Yes I am. Hell, I'm not even sure you can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi. If you can do it blindfolded, then I'll believe you. Until then, don't even bother me with this nonsense.

Fox News Confuses NAACP and NCAA 2 Days After SNL Joked About It

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 9:25 AM PDT

On Tuesday morning, Fox & Friends First host Heather Childers referred to the UConn Huskies as "NAACP national champs." This is funny, because what she meant was "NCAA national champs." The NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which, among other things, mounted anti-lynching campaigns in the United States. The NCAA is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which didn't.

So we all had a brief chuckle at Childers' expense, and were ready to move on—until we noticed that her on-air mix-up was predicted by a Saturday Night Live sketch that aired just last weekend.

In SNL's latest lampooning of Fox & Friends, the cohosts start by blasting the Obamacare enrollment numbers. "It's tough to sign up for things, I've tried for years to join the NAACP," Brian Kilmeade (played by Bobby Moynihan) says. "Brian, why would you do that?" Elisabeth Hasselbeck (Vanessa Bayer) responds. "Well, I just loved college basketball," Brian says.

The SNL writers room is full of time travelers. Watch the sketch here:

(H/t Ben Dimiero)

The OC: No Longer Sprawling, Thank You Very Much

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 7:47 AM PDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, the table on the right shows the most compact, least sprawling large metro areas in the United States. New York is number 1, no surprise, and I've read enough about the "myth" of LA sprawl that I wouldn't have been surprised to see Los Angeles on the list. But no. Los Angeles ranks 21st. Oddly enough, though, take a look at what region breaks the top ten: Orange County, aka Santa Ana/Anaheim/Irvine.

How did that happen? Orange Country is practically the dictionary definition of suburb, after all. Well, it turns out that scores are based on four factors, and Orange County does very well on three of them: development density, land use mix, and street connectivity. But I still don't really get this. Sure, Orange County is fully developed, but almost exclusively by low-density housing and low-slung office buildings. Land use mix is probably OK, since Orange County is old enough to have turned into one of Joel Garreau's "edge cities," regions that provide both bedrooms and jobs. As for street accessibility, our high score must be a technicality of some kind. Sure, we have lots of four-way intersections, but outside of a few small downtown centers, no one would really consider any of Orange County walkable in the usual urban sense.

So I still don't get it. But it doesn't matter. The OC is now officially off limits for your mockery of sterile, suburban sprawl. We're more compact and accessible than Chicago, Detroit, or Denver. So there. More details here.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 8, 2014

Tue Apr. 8, 2014 7:11 AM PDT

Sgt. Michael Nygaard, a drill instructor for Platoon 3044, India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, roams the barracks moments before waking his recruits for their first official training day March 25, 2014, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. Recruits spent the morning getting dressed, experiencing their first incentive training session, cleaning their barracks, and, finally, eating a nutritious breakfast. The formal 70-day training schedule begins about one week after recruits arrive. Nygaard, 29, is from Cape Coral, Fla. India Company is scheduled to graduate June 13, 2014. Parris Island has been the site of Marine Corps recruit training since Nov. 1, 1915. Today, approximately 20,000 recruits come to Parris Island annually for the chance to become United States Marines by enduring 13 weeks of rigorous, transformative training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caitlin Brink/Released)

There Are 10 Times More Mentally Ill People Behind Bars Than in State Hospitals

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are brain diseases—biological conditions like heart disease or epilepsy. Yet in this country, the institutions most likely to be treating people with these illnesses are not hospitals, but rather jails and prisons.

According to a new report from the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a nonprofit advocacy organization, the United States has fully returned to the 18th-century model of incarcerating the mentally ill in correctional institutions rather than treating them in health care facilities like any other sick people. In 2012, there were roughly 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses in prisons and jails, while only 35,000 people with the same diseases were in state psychiatric hospitals.

Chart: mentally ill hospitals vs prisons
Brett Brownell

The numbers of incarcerated mentally ill have been growing, and TAC reports that their treatment in the corrections system is nothing less than abominable. Mentally ill inmates are more likely to become the victims of sexual assault and abuse. They're also overrepresented in solitary confinement, and they are much more likely than other prisoners to commit suicide.

Putting the mentally ill in jails instead of hospitals isn't saving the government any money. In Washington state, for instance, in 2009, the most seriously mentally ill inmates cost more than $100,000 a year to confine, compared with $30,000 for others. One reason for the disparity: According to the report, mentally ill people tend to stay in jail longer than other prisoners because they aren't likely to get bail and also because they are often chronic rule-breakers. For example, according to the report, in Florida's Orange County jail most inmates stay an average of 26 days, but mentally ill inmates are there for 51 days on average. Even worse is New York's Rikers Island jail, where last month a homeless, mentally ill veteran, who'd been arrested for sleeping on the roof of a public housing project, "basically baked to death" in his cell. The average stay for an inmate at Rikers is 42 days. Mentally ill inmates get stuck there for an average of 215 days.

Map: more mentally ill in prisons
Brett Brownell

The costs of housing mentally ill inmates don't include the eventual lawsuit payouts when prisons and jails fail to treat them, and they get killed, assaulted, or hurt themselves—which seems to be happening more frequently. Last year, Mother Jones chronicled the story of Andre Thomas, a schizophrenic man on Texas's death row who gouged out his eye while in prison, and then later gouged out the other one and ate it. His story, horrific as it is, isn't especially rare.

The TAC report has a laundry list of horror stories of self-mutilation by mentally ill inmates, many of whom were in jail for minor offenses. Take the story of Florida jail inmate, Mark Kuzara, who cut open his abdomen in 2007. After it was stapled back together, Kuzara took out the staples with his mouth and ate them. "Inmates gave Kuzara pen caps, bolts, and paper that he would shove into the open wound. Kuzara also made himself vomit up meals, throwing up into the open wound," the Lakeland Ledger reported.

For the report, researchers surveyed sheriffs, police chiefs, and other corrections officials about the shift of the mentally ill from hospitals to prisons. They describe a horrific and unmanageable job of managing hundreds of mentally ill inmates cycling in and out of jail, taking up space and also getting sicker because of the lack of proper medical care.

One Mississippi deputy at the Hinds County detention center described his facility: "They howl all night long. If you're not used to it, you end up crazy yourself." An inmate in the jail "tore up a damn padded cell that's indestructible, and he ate the cover of the damn padded cell. We took his clothes and gave him a paper suit to wear and he ate that. When they fed him food in a Styrofoam container, he ate that. We had his stomach pumped six times, and he's been operated on twice.”

The failure to treat the mentally ill properly in hospitals is directly related to recent violent crimes. Take the case of Virginia, where the largest mental institution is the largest state prison and the state's jails hold three times more people with serious mental illnesses than the state hospitals do. The problem is so bad that in 2011, a Virginia Beach sheriff offered to transfer part of his jail budget to the mental-health system to try to get some of the sick people out of his institution and into proper care. Last year, the son of Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) stabbed his father before killing himself. Barely 24 hours earlier, he'd seen mental-health professionals under an emergency custody order due to his deteriorating mental state, but he was released because no hospital beds were available.

Charts: mental health spending
Tim Luddy

The obvious solution is to create more hospital beds for treating the mentally ill, but the TAC recognizes that in the current political climate, this isn't going to happen any time soon. So they've offered some sensible interim recommendations. Among them is allowing jails and prison staff to treat mentally ill people with medication against their will. It sounds awful and in the context of a prison, potentially a tool for abuse, and TAC's recommendation is that involuntary medication should be heavily regulated. But many of the sickest mentally ill jail inmates don't recognize that they're sick, and thus, they're unable to seek the help they need to get better. Forcing medication to help people get better seems like a more reasonable alternative to letting them gouge their eyes out.

Another more creative solution is to expand the use of Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), a court-ordered outpatient treatment that keeps people out of jail in the first place. AOT allows the mentally ill to live in the community—so long as they stay on their meds. Violating the court order can result in a participant's being involuntarily committed to a hospital. The results in some states have been promising. A pilot project in Nevada County, California, cut jail time for mentally ill people in the program from 521 days to 17; a North Carolina study of people in AOT found a reduction in arrests from 45 percent to 12 percent. These programs seem a lot more sane, and cost-effective, than putting every homeless person hearing voices in jail.

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Chupacabra Spotted! News at 11! How Local News Created a Monster

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Arlen "Bubba" Parma of Ratcliffe, Texas, was minding his property last weekend when he came upon something he’d never seen before. Four-legged. Hairless. Making an otherworldly noise. Naturally, he brought it home to his wife.

"I said, 'Bubba, that looks like a baby chupacabra,'" his wife, Jackie Stock, told the local ABC affiliate.

Jackie and Bubba believed they'd stumbled upon a Latin American vampire beast that guzzles the blood of livestock. They decided to take it as a pet. The myth of the chupacabra, the ABC station reported, "has been around for decades."

On further examination, there are a lot of Bubba Parmas out there. Although the wildlife experts who invariably weigh in on alleged chupacabra sightings say there is a simple explanation—a skin disease called mange that cause quadrupeds' skin to fall off—dozens of local news outlets have reported sightings over the past three years. But this rash of reporting on chupacabras isn't just entertaining journalism—it's also bad journalism. With just a handful of exceptions, none of these news outlets ever tell it straight: The legend of the chupacabra is barely old enough to buy cigarettes. It's not mysterious. It's not a legend. It's not "decades old"—not even two.

I'm familiar with this problem because, like many Americans, I receive a daily Google News alert for the word "chupacabra." It's a wonder I ever leave the house. If there's a four-legged creature afflicted with a skin condition, chances are an Area Man and a local news crew won't be far behind. In Falfurrias, Texas, a taxidermist nearly broke down in tears when he came upon a still-fresh corpse. In Picayune, Mississippi, residents hid in their cars from a creature whose true identity they discovered after Googling "hairless coyote." A 13-year-old in Inez, Texas, dropped a suspected chupacabra with a .257 Weatherby rifle after spotting it outside his bedroom window.

The beast can apparently swim. It was spotted in Belarus, and in Ukraine, where residents claimed it killed their rabbits. Russian farmers blamed it for the slaughter of 60 sheep, prompting the government to issue a formal notice that "there are no fairytale creatures in the Lukhovitsky district." Last year, it was spotted in the savannahs of Namibia, where villagers reported a "dog-headed pig monster" terrorizing the community.

These stories would be terrific if they weren't so consistently misleading. In local news reports, chupacabra sightings are frequently presented as a handover from previous generations. "Chupacabra sightings have been rumored in North America, Mexico, and Puerto Rico for more than 50 years," an Arizona CBS affiliate explained to its viewers, after a Tucson meteorologist reported spotting one on the way to work. "The legend of 'El Chupacabra' dates back to the 1970s," reported Biloxi, Mississippi's WLOX after the sighting in Picayune. KLTV of Tyler, Texas, identified the chupacabra as "a bloodthirsty predator of Mexican lore." The Associated Press called it "folkloric legend," after another close call in Deer Creek, Oklahoma.

The real story of the chupacabra is decidedly modern. Although myths of vampire creatures are longstanding, the first known reference and eyewitness account came just 19 years ago, from a Puerto Rican woman named Madelyne Tolentino. Researcher Ben Radford laid out the details in his 2011 book, Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore. Radford, who deserves a medal or something, tracked down Tolentino and identified the inspiration for her account—she had just seen the movie Species, which came out in 1995 and features an alien almost identical to the animal Tolentino spotted. Radford offered a $250 reward for any earlier reference to the chupacabra and is still waiting.

Every once in a while, a news outlet demonstrates its ability to procure homespun commentary from locals about hairless vampire demons without sacrificing its journalistic cred. Good Morning America, for instance, cited Radford's work in a story about a retired wildlife biologist in Lake Jackson, Texas, who had whimsically reported a chupacabra sighting to the local press only to find himself the subject of a media frenzy.

But the most common strategy is to teach the controversy. "Some people think it exists, others say it's just a mangy dog," reported KENS of San Antonio, referring to a mangy coyote spotted inside the city limits. A Phoenix ABC affiliate offered that an unidentified creature might be a vampire beast or a badger. "What do you think?" the station asked readers.

In the meantime, the flood of sightings seems to be increasing, no doubt buoyed by people who have seen local news clips about previous encounters. "I actually Google Imaged 'chupacabra' and it looks just like the other images," a San Antonio woman said last June, after spotting what local biologists insisted was a coyote with mange. "They said it was one of them chupacabras or whatever," said Matthew Harrell, the Mississippi man who bagged a creature in a place called Pigtown. "That's what I'd call it because it looks just like it." The chupacabra isn't a Puerto Rican phenomenon anymore; it's a local TV one.

The vampire dog isn't real. We're all just suckers.

Let's Invade Ukraine! (As Soon As We Can Figure Out Where It Is)

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 10:38 PM PDT

A couple of weeks ago, a team of researchers asked Americans to locate Ukraine on a map. You'll be unsurprised to learn that most of them couldn't. But check this out:

Accuracy varies across demographic groups. In general, younger Americans tended to provide more accurate responses than their older counterparts: 27 percent of 18-24 year olds correctly identified Ukraine, compared with 14 percent of 65+ year-olds.

Say what? The idiot youngsters, the ones who are forever being mocked for not being able to locate France on a map, did better than their older, obviously better educated peers? How about that. Keep this in mind the next time you see one of those endless surveys bemoaning what geographic numbskulls the kids today are.

But that wasn't really the point of the survey. This was:

The further our respondents thought that Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily. Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level. Our results are clear, but also somewhat disconcerting: The less people know about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they want the U.S. to intervene militarily.

Yep: folks who thought Ukraine was somewhere near Chad were more convinced that Russia's actions posed a threat to US interests. Chew on that for a while. Let's toss out some possible reasons for this:

  1. Ignorant folks are more likely to be jingoistic supporters of military action.
  2. If you think Ukraine is farther away from Russia than it is, it makes sense to assume that Russia is trying to project military power over a great distance and therefore poses a greater threat than a mere border incursion would.
  3. Low-information respondents are more easily manipulated by rabble-rousers.
  4. Ignorance of geography is a proxy for ignorance of both the capabilities of the US military and the costs and likely success of intervention.
  5. This is just some weird statistical artifact and means nothing.

Or maybe there's something I haven't thought of.

The New York Times Fails to Explain Why "Super Predators" Turned Out to Be a Myth

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 6:37 PM PDT

Sorry for the radio silence. I went in to see my pulmonary specialist today, and he was very distressed at my lack of progress on the breathing front. So he immediately sent me downstairs for a new battery of tests, including a stat review of the echocardiogram I did last week. Verdict: I am in the bloom of health. I have the lungs of a sperm whale and the heart of an ox. As a last-ditch diagnostic effort—and since they already had an IV tube in my arm anyway—the ER doctor pumped me full of an anti-anxiety drug just to see if my attacks were brought on by stress. Apparently not, which isn't surprising since I lead an enviably stress-free life.

Unfortunately, once they had done that I wasn't allowed to drive myself home, so I had to wait for Marian to get off work and come pick me up. In the meantime, I kept up on the latest news with my iPhone. Or tried to, anyway. Kaiser brags about its Wi-Fi network, but it didn't work at all, and the nurses confirmed that everyone complains about this. So I switched to the cell, but despite the fact that there was a cell tower about 200 yards away, Verizon was unable to provide me with even 3G service most of the time. Bastards.

Still, while I was crawling through the news at 300 baud speeds, I did come across a New York Times story about the mid-90s fear of "super predators," teenage criminals with no conscience and no impulse control, who would soon be rampaging across the city destroying everything in their wake. In fact, just the opposite happened. Teen crime has declined dramatically since the mid-90s, and New York City is safer now than it's been since the 60s. What happened?

But how to explain the decline in youth violence?

Various ideas have been advanced, like an improved economy in the late ‘90s (never mind that it later went south), better policing and the fading of a crack cocaine epidemic. A less conventional — not to mention amply disputed — theory was put forth by some social scientists who argued that the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling on abortion in Roe v. Wade had an impact. With abortions more readily available, this theory went, unwanted children who could be prone to serious antisocial behavior were never born.

That's really disappointing. The burnout of the crack epidemic is at least plausible as a partial explanation, but the rest is nonsense. Nobody still thinks the economy had anything to do with the drop in crime. Better policing might have had a minor impact, but crime dropped even in cities that didn't change their police tactics. And the abortion theory hasn't really weathered the test of time well.

I swear, I think the New York Times has some kind of editorial policy about never mentioning the most obvious link of them all: the decline in gasoline lead between 1975 and 1995. It's not as if I think the lead-crime theory is a slam dunk or anything, but surely the evidence is strong enough that it belongs in any short summary of the most likely causes of crime decline? It sure as hell has more evidence in its favor than economics, better policing, or legal abortion.

And yet the New York Times stubbornly refuses to so much as mention it in passing. I found one short piece on the subject from 2007, and then nothing. During the past seven years, even as the evidence linking lead to declining crime rates has become more and more solid, they don't seem to have mentioned it even once. Are they afraid of pissing off the police commissioner or something? What's the deal?

Watch David Corn Discuss the Beef Between Rand Paul and Dick Cheney

Mon Apr. 7, 2014 5:49 PM PDT

David Corn joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss his latest scoop documenting Rand Paul's accusation that Dick Cheney pushed for the Iraq War so that Halliburton would profit.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.