12/30/14

Some Obvious Thoughts about Race, Drugs and Incarceration

What I Thought I Knew About Prison


In my sophomore year of college I started attending meetings of one of my university’s many environmental student organizations. After a semester of yea-saying other people’s ideas and occasionally working shifts at bottled vs. tap water tasting table, I was looking for a way to get more  involved. One day a girl I didn’t know announced that she had put forth a proposal and obtained funding for an environmental lecture series at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC) and needed someone to continue her program while she studied abroad in Brazil. 

As it turned out, she hadn’t really obtained funding or done much work on the idea at all, but by that point I had already committed, and I wasn’t a quitter. So, with the help of another student already running a similar, non-environmental program at RIDOC, I met with the Director of Rehabilitation and the Deputy Warden of men’s minimum to get approval for the lecture series, solicited eight Brown University professors to give one hour, pro-bono lectures to a classroom of 15-20 inmates, and borrowed a car twice a week to escort professors, distribute readings, and sit in on environmental lectures in prison.

11/29/14

Why I'll Always Have a Soft Spot for John Stuart Mill

Warning: this post is mushy 

A few weeks ago I was looking through some old documents and came across a few quotes from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, Chapter II: On the Liberty of Thought & Discussion, that I had tracked down and copied from Wikiquote. On a whim, I took a screenshot and tweeted them:


Although I'm not ashamed of my follower count (*cough* 533) I'm not exactly a twitter celebrity, and 17 retweets made this my best performing tweet by far. 

10/20/14

Top 3 Piketty Takeaways You Won't Find Elsewhere

I was traveling for a few months over the summer and I decided that I would use the time to read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. All 700 pages of it, no excuses. At the time I didn’t know that it was The Most Unread Book of the Summer, or that I could have gleaned most of the same insights by reading a few reviews. Here are three:  

1) Justin Fox: Always very well written 
2) Justin Wolfers: Very good wonky criticism 
3) Matt Yglesias: In four bullet points! 

Now you have my Top 3 Piketty Review Recommendations. Here are my top 3 Piketty takeaways that you (probably) won't find elsewhere: 


1) War is Great for Equality 


Piketty is a definitely a data guy; probably more important than the book are the datasets he assembled on wealth using tax records, extending back to the 19th century in Britain, Germany, and Sweden, and all the way to the French Revolution in France. Capital is full of graphs, but most of them tell the same simple story:

10/2/14

Why Monetary Policy is Really One Big Conspiracy


On Tuesday I attended a lecture by David Miles, a member of the British Monetary Policy Committee, the UK equivalent of the US Federal Open Markets Committee, aka, the Fed, on “Giving Guidance On Future Monetary Policy In A Very Uncertain World.” 

I realize that all sounds absolutely fascinating to most people, so perhaps it’s better to rephrase as “On Tuesday I attended a lecture about how to make what is arguably the most important decision in the world by one of the people who makes it.”  

The Lecture, in a Nutshell 


Miles spent most of the lecture demonstrating that, because of economic uncertainty, it’s more or less impossible to make accurate macroeconomic forecasts and therefore to predict the optimal course of interest rates, and concluded that to avoid flip-flopping central bank pronouncements should be as substantive as possible while leaving room for uncertainty. In other words, they should be vague, which is, more or less, exactly where we are today. 

7/3/14

The Glorious Reurbanization of America



The Beat coffeehouse in Downtown Las Vegas


ReViva Las Vegas 


In April I traveled to Las Vegas with many of my fellow Venture for America fellows to attend a small conference called “City as a Startup.” The conference was generally about the potential for startups to revitalize the many American cities that have failed to recover fully from the desolation of suburbanization, deindustrialization, and white flight in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and more specifically about the Downtown Project, veteran entrepreneur and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s ambitious attempt to bring back sin city’s original center with $350 million of his own money. 

4/13/14

Social Media: Past, Present, Future

The original writing on the wall. For a great imagining see the intro to HBO's Rome.

The Inspiration


I just finished "Writing on Wall: Social Media, The First 2000 Years" by Tom Standage, a rare example of a book both ambitious in scope and intended for a popular audience that didn't turn out completely horrible. 

Standage superbly stitches together a string of anecdotes to summarize the history of "social media," which he wisely doesn't define precisely but that I will define as: 
Social Media (n): Written or spoken commentary intended for a general audience, distinct from storytelling and from peer-to-peer communication including letters, phone calls, and snapchats.

3/23/14

Bitcoin is Two Things: Payments and Money

There is an enormous amount being said about Bitcoin these days. Marc Andresson thinks it's worth $50 million. Paul Krugman thinks it's evil. Ben Bernanke thinks it holds long-term promise (or maybe he doesn't). But let's face it, No One Understands Bitcoins:




That said, I think that a lot of confusion could be cleared up if people started differentiating between Bitcoin as a Payments System and Bitcoin as Money. Speaking separately about the two is hard because in the system Satoshi Nakamoto designed, the two aspects of Bitcoin are indivisible—you could even say they are two sides of the same coin—but to fully evaluate the merits of Bitcoin, a bit of coin-bifurcation is essential.  (Some shall be pardon'd, and some pun-ished).

3/8/14

Why Economics Doesn’t Understand Inequality

Note: This post is far from perfect, and in places probably flat-out wrong. This is a blog for BHAGs and controversial opinions, not for being careful. Also: this post is about within-country inequality, not cross-country inequality, and will unabashedly feature large block quotations created with mac default fonts and colors. Prepare to be visually assaulted.

Growing up I was your typical well-off wannabe do-gooder. I was sensible to the appeals of charity, into the idea of "social justice," and thought that wanting to make money when you grew up was terribly gauche. I knew there was something wrong about a society where the top 1% have nearly 40% and the bottom 40% have less than 1%. I decided that in college I would study economics to figure out the structural reasons why some people became rich and other people became poor, and from there choose a typical do-gooder career that would help make the system as a whole more fair.

Of course I knew that some economists claimed that the "invisible hand" essentially meant that the poor deserved to be poor, but I had always assumed that those people were either idiots or bigots, just as I had decided those who cried "exploitation" were missing the point.

1/26/14

The Death Battle of Howard Zinn and Doris Kearns Goodwin

How Should History Be Told? 


Note: The title of the piece may be a bit much considering that Zinn is dead and Goodwin is not, but hopefully you'll get the point and forgive me. 

Today I finished Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," an incredible book written, in Zinn's words, "…to tell the story of the discovery of America from the point of view of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the NEw York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills…" etc, etc, you get the idea.  "A People's History" came highly recommended by friends, acquaintances, and the internet, and the book is so well-regarded that some progressive high school history teachers use it as an alternative history text. I'm also pretty sure that Zinn's concluding chapter, "The Coming Revolt of the Guards" is responsible for the Occupy epithet, "The 99%."