Movie – In Order of Disappearance

A Norwegian Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Fargo Revenge Flick

In Order of Disappearance, available on Netflix and Amazon, stars Stellan Skarsgard as Nils, a droll snow plow driver who seeks to revenge the murder of his son at the hands of a bunch of drug dealers in some snow plagued town somewhere in Norway. What follows is a part Rashomon, part Fargoesque tale of murderous revenge bundled up with comedic moments and lots of snow.

I give it a Mr. Wonderful’s maximum thumbs up.

 

BTW – you probably will recognize Skarsgard. He was in Good Will Hunting, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo among many.

More info on the movie here on IMDB.

 

NYTimes Book Review Misses Major Points About US Healthcare

Jacob S. Hacker, Yale professor and author of many books and article critiquing the American political system, economy, and the fate of the poor and middle classes, reviewed a new book, AN AMERICAN SICKNESS: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal (NY: Penguin Press, 2017). Most of the review takes up the question of why healthcare is not like other commodities and does not fit into the “let the market solve the problem” ideology of the last 40 years. If you are unpersuaded now, this is useful territory. towards the end of the review Hacker turns to our developed country competitors’ approaches to healthcare.

“The difference between the United States and other countries isn’t the role of insurance; it’s the role of government. More specifically, it’s the way in which those who benefit from America’s dysfunctional market have mobilized to use government to protect their earnings and profits. ….. But in every other rich country, the government not only provides coverage to all citizens; it also provides strong counterpressure to those who seek to use their inherent market power to raise prices or deliver lucrative but unnecessary services — typically in the form of hard limits on how much health care providers can charge.”

This is a great summary statement. Using a variety of tools and institutional arrangements every other government controls prices and healthcare budgets. They do not allow a one-sided market to focus on delivering as many procedures and prescriptions as possible without any systematic focus on health. My criticism is that Hacker should have provided two further data points to put the outrage of American healthcare in its true global setting: US healthcare spending compared to other developed countries and health outcomes relative to other developed countries. As the chart below demonstrates, the US spends more than 25% more than our closest competitor, Switzerland, and twice as much as most including japan, France, Australia and Canada. The health outcomes are woeful. We rank 42 in the world for longevity and 56th for infant mortality.  ((see https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/)) These facts need to be front and center in our thinking about healthcare. The developed world is filled with universal healthcare systems with many different structures and approaches, all with several decades of experience at delivering better healthcare at much less expense. The only question is how will poor and middle class people in the united states gain enough political power to end this great rip-off??

https://ourworldindata.org/financing-healthcare/

Building the New American Economy – Not

The title of this short book, only 130 pages, Building the New American Economy: smart, fair, & sustainable by Jeffrey D. Sachs with a foreword by Bernie Sanders (Columbia University Press, 2017) is unfortunately misleading. There is much here about the new economy. The misleading part is that there is very little about its construction, the building of the new economy.

Sachs covers many important issues in a thorough, efficient fashion. If you need a primer or a tune up about the economy this is a good place to start. These include: investment in our society, infrastructure, Federal budget, income inequality, healthcare, energy, military and the empire (not his phrase), and innovation. If you have been reading my postings over the last 5 or so years much of this will seem a bit deja vu. Continue reading

BEHEMOTH (BEI XI MO SHOU) at TSL Hudson

This 2015 movie by Chinese director Liang Zhao is filled with great cinematography and sounds. It trades back and forth between scenes of enormous horizon gulping coal mines, under ground mines, iron making, and ends with scenes of a ghost city filled with enormous apartment blocks in a newly developed but vacant city West of Beijing. But, the most arresting part of the movie is its focus on the workers, men and women, in this relentlessly grim, polluted environment. The only narration is text read over scenes with a nude figure huddled on the ground in front of this devastation. It alludes to Dante’s Inferno.

Behemoth is a refresher course on why capitalism, whether in its American or Chinese variant, needs government regulation, strong regulation to prevent this egregious exploitation of the earth and mankind. Of course this presumes the government is in the hands of the people and nota tool of the rich and corporations. Therein lies the crisis.

The movie runs at TSL over this weekend and the two following. Here is TSL’s calendar.

Also playing at TSL is I Am Not Your Negro, the wonderful, challenging movie about James Baldwin.

Park Avenue and How We Got There

“There” is our current situation in which our government has been bought by the rich and corporations, over 80% of the population has not had a pay raise in 40 years and the public sphere, schools, parks, our infrastructure, really anything not behind the gated walls of private wealth, is being starved in the name of free market ideology. The American promise that hard work, pluck and a bit of luck can bring success to anyone, regardless of their rank at birth, is an empty myth. If you are born poor you will die poor. Even if you are middle-class, there is a significant chance that you will sink and at any rate you will always struggle just to keep that middle-class status.

The rich and corporations have waged a 40 year class war. At this point they have won all of the battles and continue to take home the spoils. Continue reading

E-Books Flatline; Books (Paper) Return Like Zombies

As the Web was becoming ubiquitous in the early haze of the 21st century the wonders of Google search displaced Altavista and other engines in the search wars. Web wags declared that the age of books, actually all paper-based media, to be over. The Web would quickly provide universal access to all of human knowledge on your computer. This even before the iPhone and Android brought the Internet to our hand and thumbs. Amazon and Apple launched their tablet reading devices, Kindle and iPad. Others followed. The numbers are truly amazing. Over 2 billion tablet computers were sold between 2010 and today. The sale of e-books rose enormously.

On the way to the funeral books proved to be the zombies of the paper media world. Newspapers and magazines have continued to decline. Continue reading

Book Review – The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Rise and Fall of American Growth-bookcoverThe Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US standard of living since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon1 is a weighty book in every regard. At 762 pages it is a heavy lift – not beach reading or even bed-time either. But I found it almost a page turner. It is very well structured and written. None of the fussiness or obscurantist language one often finds in academic works. The central point of the book is that during the period from 1870 to 1970 the US economy grew at an extraordinary and we will not see a return to that rate for some pretty fundamental reasons. Continue reading

  1. Princeton U. Press. 2016 []

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald – book review

Joe, My friend got back to me. Her contact left the Review five years ago. Sorry.  MarkWe are within days of the anniversary of the first revelations from Edward Snowden’s archive of NSA documents. The drum beat of new stories emerging from this trove continues even to this moment.1 So, Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State might be greeted with a yawn, what could be new? 

In fact, there is much that is new about how these stories have come to light and a very good overview of what we have learned about what Greenwald calls the US Surveillance State. This is a book in two parts. The first 89 pages read like a cross between a detective thriller and a spy story. There are hand offs of thumb drives at airport boarding gates, virgin computers, cell phones sealed off from the reach of the NSA by removing batteries or stuffed in freezers, meetings with a yet to be identified Snowden by an unsolved Rubik’s cube in hand. Continue reading

  1. NSA Collecting Millions of Faces from Web Images http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/us/nsa-collecting-millions-of-faces-from-web-images.html accessed 06012014 []

Flash Boys Doesn’t Ask the Important Question

Flash Boys cover by Michael Lewis

photo by Patricia Wall/ NYTs

The new book, Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis has reignited the discussion of how our financial markets are rigged by high frequency trading.1 From my 2012 note: 

To turn back to HFTs, why do we need this kind of transaction? How do they contribute to economic growth? These activities are by definition a zero sum game. They are like every other form of gambling a zero sum game. There are winners and losers, but no incremental gain for the economy. Other than enriching the HFTs at cost to others with smaller computers and fewer PhDs on staff what do we get for allowing these activities? Potentially catastrophic destabilization of financial markets? Where is the upside for society as a whole? Isn’t  a primary purpose of any economy to increase the size of the pie, not just to redistribute existing wealth?

We should demand that our financial markets serve their fundamental purposes – connect investors with those who can deploy those resources to create new products and services and enable the flow of these goods and services. To call holding financial instruments whether stocks, bonds, or other assets for mere seconds investments is to beggar the mind. Government needs to step in to penalize economic activity that looks like gambling and certainly does not “grow the pie”. A sliding scale of transaction costs (aka a tax) could bring this to a screeching halt.2 There are sure to be complexities in how to implement such a strategy. But, if at every step we ask how a financial transaction contributes to economic growth at a systemic level, solutions will appear. Right now we have financial markets that are not only rigged but so complex and non-transparent that we are certainly setting ourselves up for future calamities like that which struck us in 2008.

  1. I have written about these issues earlier:  “High Frequency Trading and Deeper Questions about Capitalism” and “Wall St – not about investing but fixing the game” earlier []
  2. We would have to face the international crisis of how to employ all those PhDs currently engaged in the HFT wars []

Book Review – The Whisperers – private life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes

Whisperes- family life in Stalin's Russia by FigesThis book by Orlando Figes is exciting, terribly depressing, and cautionary. Based on hundreds of in-depth interviews and thousands of letters, diaries, and government documents, Whisperers1 puts real people in place of the faceless numbers that constitute our usual image of the human costs of Stalinist Russia – the 10 million lost during collectivization, the same or larger number disappeared during the various Terrors and the 20 million or more dead during the Great Patriotic War (aka WWII). For those who do not have much background in Russian and Soviet history Figes provides concise sketches of key political and economic developments covering the entire span of Soviet Russia. You will not feel at a loss during the NEP period nor the ensuing collectivization and the round ups of “kulaks”. This allows you to understand the private lives with a reasonable understanding of the context.

But the real contribution of this book is its discussion of the truly radical efforts by the Communist Party to crush the family as a basic unit of society and replace it with other institutions. The goal is to shape the new Soviet man. The coercive intrusion by the state into every aspect of daily life is comprehensive – it adds new depth to understanding the machinery of a totalitarian state.

  1. more here on Figes’ website []