Ask Zompist: Mankiw vs Piketty

What’s your opinion of [Gregory Mankiw’s] response to Piketty?


It’s very weak; it seems like he hasn’t read the book. Even skimming the diagrams would have helped.

First, he says “r < g could be [a problem]. If the rate of return is less than the growth rate, the economy has accumulated an excessive amount of capital. In this dynamically inefficient situation, all generations can be made better off by reducing the economy’s saving rate…we should be reassured that we live in a world in which r > g…” Yet Piketty shows that r < g was true in our world, in the postwar period— precisely the period when there was not an excess of capital; capital was at a historical low. And they were golden years, precisely because r (growth) was so high and so widely shared. (Sadly, one of Piketty’s lessons is that they were also a fluke, not easily repeated.)

Mankiw notes in passing that “the average growth rate of the U.S. economy has been about 3 percent”. Ugh, no. Krugman recently provided a chart of the last 57 years:


The average growth is more like 2%— and it’s plummeted in the last few years. Rates over 2% are generally due to high population growth or developmental catching-up; developed nations will be lucky to get 1 to 1.5% in the next century.

Next, he says that a rich person faces three obstacles to passing on his wealth:

  1. he consumes a good deal of his income
  2. his wealth is divided among his descendants
  3. governments tax estates

I don’t have Piketty at hand, but I’m pretty sure he covers all three points.

  1. He shows that capital is dramatically increasing, going back to 19th century levels and showing no signs of stopping.  So consumption does not reduce the accumulation of capital.
  2. Mankiw actually assumes that “the number of descendants doubles every generation”. Seriously, does he not remember that in developed nations population growth is negative?  Or that to have a family you have to have a couple, and thus 2 children do not double the number of wealth-holders but only maintain it? To make an error this gross is a sign of flailing desperately to avoid unwanted truths.
  3. Is Mankiw really unaware that his party is in favor of reducing or eliminating the estate tax?

He proceeds to argue against Piketty’s capital tax, again ignoring that we already have capital taxes (we call them property taxes), as well as Piketty’s argument that an enormous virtue of a tax on wealth would be making wealth visible. Mankiw is pretty sure that great capital is fine, but we can hardly know for sure since capital is so easy to hide.  Before Piketty’s research people mostly focused on income because we actually have data there. Without Piketty would it have been widely realized that there is no country where capital, as opposed to income, is widely distributed in society?  The Nordic countries come close to a fair distribution of income, but they are still highly unequal in the distribution of capital.

Finally he moves on to some moral arguments.  He says “Piketty writes about such inequality as if we all innately share his personal distaste for it.” And at least Mankiw is up front about being in favor of inequality!  He certainly doesn’t have to share Piketty’s morals. But the same can be said for the rest of us about Mankiw’s morals!  Mankiw writes about inequality as if we all innately share his personal enjoyment of it.

He doesn’t see anything wrong with the present state of plutocracy, but, well, he’s certainly in the 10% who gains enormously from it. For the 90% of Americans who don’t, we’ve been watching for 35 years as the gains of productivity no longer lift us up, but go only to the 10%.  Morally, he’s just wrong: it’s immoral to make the lives of the majority of the population crappier.  And intellectually, he’s ignoring Piketty’s carefully accumulated evidence that the situation is getting worse.  Is there really never a point where the rich have accumulated so much that it’s slightly bothersome to Mankiw?

And pragmatically, he’s a shortsighted fool.  Short-changing 90% of the population works only so long as the 10% have a really good story to fool the majority with. Maybe in 2014, when he wrote the paper, he could be satisfied that the Republican con was working.  Surely it’s a little harder to think so in 2016. A huge swath of Republican and Democratic voters are rejecting establishment answers— Trump and Sanders both speak to the people who feel they’ve been left behind by the 10%.  Is Mankiw happy with either a populist-nationalist or a socialist reformation?  And if inequality continues to rise, does he think the popular response won’t get far worse?




Upcoming Books

The Five Year Plan has come in from the Marketing Commissar here at the Zompist Fortressplex. That is, I thought I’d talk about the next books I’m working on.

First: a book on Quechua. Long ago I actually wrote, for myself, a reference grammar and dictionary. That was a good start, but they need a lot of refinement. Plus I need to work through my best sources to absorb more of the language myself.


One reason I wanted to visit the Seminary Co-op bookstore last weekend was to check if they had anything on Quechua… if there was a really good book on it in English I might have just recommended that.  But they didn’t (indeed, their stock of language and linguistics books is, sadly, less than a quarter of what it once was). The best materials on Quechua are all in Spanish; I think there should be a good introductory textbook/dictionary in English, and so that’s what I’m aiming to produce.

After that I’d like to write about India, parallel to my book on China. I’ve already started the research on this, and the books I did pick up at the Co-op were grammars of Hindi and Sanskrit. I’m already excited about the material: India has an incredibly rich history, and it’s even less known in the West than China’s. But I want to spread out the research and reading a lot more, partly because I’m starting much more from scratch, and partly because I can already see that finding the narrative through line is going to be more difficult.

Chinese history is a story— you can tell it well or badly, but it’s hard for it not to be coherent, because it’s the story of one ethnicity, one language family, and for the most part one empire, which collapses and suffers invasions but always returns to itself.

India is not like that. India is unavoidably miscellaneous, and Indian history has no coherence at all. Empires rise and fall, but they’re not the same empires. You can list the major kingdoms of a particular time and it tells you nothing about other periods. (Plus there’s a lot we just don’t know. One of my books mentions that a particular king probably lived in the first century, but we can’t pin him down for sure anywhere within a 200-year period.)

Now, this is pretty much true of Europe and the Middle East too, but there we have the advantage of familiarity, and traditional identifications… Americans are not 99.6% not Greeks, and yet we read about the ancient Greeks as if there were the direct ancestors of our civilization.

One fascinating bit about India, which I get from Alain Daniélou, is that whenever some group started a kingdom or a religion in India, they’re still there. Ancient hunter-gatherers, Dravidians, Indic peoples, Persians, Muslims, Mongols, Portuguese, Brits, all came to India and you can still find them and their religions today.

It also strikes me that Westerns don’t know much about India in part because our maps stop too soon. A map of Europe + India stretches out too far; to make it fit nicely on the page, we cut it off somewhere east of Palestine. So one of the neat bits in reading Indian history is discovering the eastern half of many stories. Most of the big conquerors in the West— the Greeks, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Arabs— showed up in India too. The Greeks set up kingdoms in the Indus valley; the Romans traded with South India; the Mughals claimed descent from Genghis Khan.

Finally, for the few but anxious people who wonder if there will be another Incatena book: yes, though being able to pay rent and buy groceries is the higher priority, which is why the non-fiction books go first.  I have a few chapters written. Though honestly, this year has been discouraging for satirists. How do you top the absurdity that the daily news has been piling on us?




Blue is the Warmest Color

Which is of course Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, by Julie Maroh. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, and the library had it (unfortunately only in English).


It’s the story of Clem (for Clémentine), a high school student who, to her surprise, falls head over heels for another girl, an art student with blue hair named Emma.

Clem is also dead. This isn’t a spoiler, as we find out on page 1. The framing device has Emma coming to Clem’s house and reading her diaries for the first time— learning all the bits of Clem’s life and mind that, she says, she was unable to tell Emma while she was alive.

The power of the book is that it’s all emotion. Everything hits Clem hard: confusion over her first feelings of love (and why she doesn’t feel anything for her first boyfriend); shame and loneliness; the joys of her immediate infatuation with Emma and her frustration that Emma has a girlfriend, Sabine; the anger and bitterness of her best friend turning out to be a raging homophobe; withdrawal and depression; the ecstasy of her first time in bed with Emma.

Emma is centered and solid, at peace with her sexuality; Clem is all teenage all the time, a storm of hormones, completely given to her passion for Emma, yet perfectly capable of punishing her for a month for not paying enough attention to her. It doesn’t help that not only her schoolmates but her family is homophobic. (She does have one steadfast friend, her gay pal Valentin.)

Toward the end of the book, Clem grows up— in two pages.  But we only see a few images from a 13-year relationship. Admittedly this fits the conceit of the book— Emma is reading Clem’s words, filling in what she didn’t know about her; plus perhaps a transition to a very different kind of story— something that recorded 13 years of togetherness— would have been jarring.  Instead of that, tragedy strikes, and then a few pages later, tragedy strikes again. This is perhaps the one flaw in the book: to maintain the emotional roller coaster, the book becomes melodrama.

On the other hand, at least based on the book, France is not as evolved on LGBT issues as one might imagine. Same-sex marriage didn’t come until 2013, three years after the book was published; one of the worst cruelties depicted in the book is that the hospital where Emma takes Clem when she falls sick won’t tell her what happened, because she’s not “family”. Julie Maroh has written that she was not writing for lesbians or even for allies; she was writing for those who “have no doubts, who have false ideas without knowing anything, who detest us/me”.  So an extra dose of pathos may have been what was needed to get through to people’s hard hearts.

Maroh’s art fits the book: melancholy, evocative, almost all of it in sepia tones with blue highlights. It’s mostly realistic, but there’s a manga-like willingness to stretch the drawing to communicate more emotion.

There are extra hurdles for Clem because her great love is lesbian; but Maroh easily reaches the universal as well. We don’t actually learn that much about Emma— what kind of art she makes, what she thinks about Sarkozy, why she has blue hair, what exactly she sees in “the little brunette from the main square”, as she calls Clem. But in a sense it doesn’t matter; all that matters is that the coup de foudre hit Clem, she’s in love for the first time, she is miserable when she’s apart from Emma, she feels she would do anything for her. First love makes us feel like angels and act like crazy people and goes a long way to making us lovable (and sometimes the opposite).

I haven’t seen the  movie, but from what I’ve read it’s been substantially changed— starting with Clémentine herself, who’s been morphed into Adèle, after the name of the actress who plays her.  Maroh (from the above link) isn’t bothered by the adaptation, but she was bothered by the inauthenticity of the sex scene, which she called “a brutal and surgical display”. Ouch!  Maybe it would have helped if at least one of the actresses was lesbian, as in Room in Rome.

Linguistic note: The French title is the subtler Blue is a warm color. In Russian it became СИНИЙ – САМЫЙ ТЕПЛЫЙ ЦВЕТ; as Russian famously has two words for blue, it has to specify that Emma’s hair is dark blue. And the Japanese title is ブルーは熱い色 Burū wa atsui iro. I’d love to know why they used the French/English word… what’s wrong with aoi?


Ask Zompist: European-ish conworlds

I notice that Verduria feels a bit European, which I like. What are some ways that I can replicate that Euro feel in my own stuff?


This was asked on Twitter, but it’s hard to answer in 140 characters.

282 72 Fiesole.jpg

For Westerners creating fantasy worlds, it’s hard not to make it European. The Standard Fantasy Kingdom is mostly European (from medieval to steampunk). The more of these elements you have the more European it’ll feel:

  • A large temperate agricultural zone, sometimes threatened by nomads
  • Kingdoms (with a smattering of republics)
  • Parliaments (especially as a counter-power to the king)
  • A division into multiple ethnic states
  • Powerful nobles who ride horses and live in rural castles
  • Towns, dense in population, without city planning, with a high degree of autonomy
  • At least some maritime nations, with a lot of ship-borne trade
  • Advanced in technology compared to other nations, or at least not dominated by larger civilizations
  • Large forests where you can hide the trolls or nymphs
  • Lots of pretty stone buildings
  • A single religion that crosses national boundaries
  • Monogamy
  • Clothing runs to shirt + pants for men, dresses for women

Visually, you would expect to see gothic cathedrals, big stone castles, Renaissance palaces, pleasant hobbitish villages. Buildings are rectilinear; roofs are either flat or A-framed. Animals, plants, and food are all recognizable to Westerners. Armies consist of horse cavalry, sailing ships, infantrymen wielding swords, bow and arrow, or pikes, with catapults as artillery; the upgrade path is to steamships, muskets, and cannons.

Linguistically, the languages could be directly influenced by Europe (as Verdurian is), and don’t stray too far from European languages.  Thus, mostly—

  • Standard Fantasy Phonology (English plus kh)
  • SVO
  • nominative-accusative
  • Verbs marked by tense, and possibly number + person
  • Articles
  • No gender, or masculine/feminine
  • Prepositions
  • Decimal number system
  • Adjectives may be like nouns, definitely aren’t like verbs

Perhaps more subtly, Europe is old. Everywhere has at least two thousand years of history, and things were probably very different 500 or 1000 years ago— different nations, different languages or religions. (By contrast, China is even more ancient, but as far back as you go, it’s still ethnic Chinese. With India,  whenever anyone invaded or started a new religion, the old peoples and religions are in general still there. And of course the US is by European standards young and low-density).

Now, in all of the above, I’ve not only downplayed differences between European nations (it makes a difference if you’re aiming at England, Italy, or Poland), but also I haven’t been too concerned with actual medieval history, which often differs from the tropes that we get from fantasy and even from medieval literature. If you really want a European flair to your conworld, my usual suggestion is to read less fantasy and more history. Reality is always far weirder than imagination.

Now, Verduria started as a Standard Fantasy Kingdom, and is certainly affected by my own affection for Europe and European languages. Plus I’ve more or less tried to make Almea stranger the farther you go from Verduria, which means Verduria itself is supposed to seem familiar to Western readers.  Still, it’s not designed as a mask of Europe— e.g. particular nations of Eretald are not simply caricatures of particular European nations. It does have some elements that aren’t European at all, and hopefully its history is coherent on its own level— things happen because of their internal logic.

It may be relevant that I aimed at something like 1750s Europe, and if anything pushed that toward 1800 in later work. So one thing you may be noticing is that Verduria is a little more like modern Europe than many fantasy kingdoms— it has steam power, colonies, cannons, universities, joint-stock companies, printing, religious conflicts, and parliamentary politics.

For Americans, Europe has a certain attractive quaintness, fading at the edges into eccentricity or annoyance. We see ourselves as straightforward, pragmatic, and business-oriented, Europeans as alternately charming, hidebound, and arrogant. We imagine that a duchess is somehow much more interesting than a billionaire. Harry Potter’s crumbly old castle of a school is as fantastic an element for us as his magic; Samwise’s forelock-tugging deference to Frodo as alien as the elves. These things would all read very differently to actual Europeans.

I hope that helps— I don’t know exactly what you’ve read about Verduria, and perhaps I haven’t captured what you notice about it at all!

(The picture, by the way, is of Fiesole, Italy, and was taken by my father in 1972.)


Euro Truck Simulator 2

Yes, I know they just released American Truck Simulator. That’s very exciting news for Europeans, for Jean Baudrillard, and for Nevadans who would like to see their state represented in a pre-apocalyptic condition. I’ve driven through California and don’t care to simulate it.  But driving through Europe sounds interesting.

So, what’s Euro Truck Simulator 2?  It’s a sim about driving.  Driving a truck.  In Europe.


Do you remember those missions in Saints Row 3 where you’re under cover, so you have to get somewhere while obeying all the stoplights and not killing anyone?  It’s not absolutely totally unlike that. You take a shipment of stuff from one city to another and get paid in euros. You do not get to shoot anyone, though you can beep the horn at them.

Thankfully, you do not have to drive with WASD as in almost every other stupid PC game with driving.  You can use the mouse to steer, which works great.  The roads are pretty curvy, so you will be making adjustments all the time.  If you have a wheel controller, which I don’t, it will work with that too.

Besides the traffic laws, you have to watch out for your trailer (make wide turns!), avoid other cars and trucks (they are almost but not entirely much better drivers than you), and watch your speed.  It’s embarrassing to barrel too fast down a mountain road and end up upending your truck.

When you’re actually underway, what reminds you you’re in a truck is mostly the sound effects.  You get all these deep bass sounds from the engine, and the distinctive sounds of the air brakes.

The most challenging bit is a little unexpected: the last 120 seconds of every job. You have to back your truck up to the dock, you see.  For the most part driving the simulated truck feels like driving a car… except when you’re backing up.  Then the trailer seems to develop a mind of its own and never go where you expect it to.  I had to look up guides and videos on this… the secret is to go really slowly, watch your trailer in the rear view mirrors, and turn opposite the way you want the trailer to go.  That is, to move it right, you turn the wheel left.  Also, you can’t just shove the wheel left and keep it there, like you’re driving a Borderlands buggy; you have to turn left, straighten out, go back for a bit, turn right.

Look, if you need to know, watch this video.  The overhead view (press 3) is also really useful for truck n00bs like me.

Now, overall the game is definitely oriented toward people who start to slowly rub their crotches when they see things like this:


There is a wide range of trucks you can buy and upgrades you can apply. You can cam around your truck and the interior of the cab.  You can buy DLC that adds new paint jobs or dashboard ornaments.  You can spend some time moving your seat up and down or left and right.  (This changes your view of the road.)  You can switch to manual transmission so you have to properly handle your 12 gears, and then test your skills by driving through the Alps. I don’t grok most of this, but I respect the game for taking its truck nerdery seriously.

Almost as lovingly detailed are the roads themselves. The road numbers are all correct. They’ve carefully created roads of various speeds and sizes, highway interchanges, bridges and tunnels, ferry crossings. The pavement doesn’t always look the same– there are different colors and degrees of wear.  Here and there you will have to slow down for road construction or a train crossing. The signs all look authentic and are in the right languages.

What’s less well rendered are the cities.  They’re basically a few blocks of industrial park. Admittedly this is exactly where you would expect to go to pick up cargo, get gas, buy trucks, and so on.  Still, this is my one area of disappointment.  The game does feel like you’re in Europe; but there’s very little sense of place within Europe.  The buildings, roads, trees, and houses all look the same whether you’re in Scotland or France or Germany or Italy. (There’s a little local color, but not much. About the only geographical thing that gives a sense of place is the mountains: you know when you’re crossing Austria or Switzerland.)

Edit: The day after I wrote this, the developers announced that they’re doing an expansion of the French part of the map, and showed off some screenshots that actually look French. So I suspect they’re aware of this problem.

There’s a day-night cycle to add some variety to your experience.  It can rain.  There are little things to see– a hot air balloon here, flocks of birds there, a working airport over there.  And if you mess up, interesting things can happen. For instance, reaching a toll plaza, something happened, I couldn’t at first tell what.  I couldn’t move forward or backward, yet everything looked OK.  Finally I used the roaming camera (2, then right mouse), and found the culprit:


Yeah, there’s not supposed to be a car underneath your trailer. (I didn’t get a crash violation notice, so this might be a glitch.  I had to exit the game and restart to get rid of the car.)

You start the game driving other people’s trucks; eventually you can buy your own truck. And later on, you can buy more trucks and hire drivers. Still, the focus remains on the driving. You also have to watch your gas level, your own fatigue, and the condition of your truck.

I kind of wish there were more goofy things to do. You can stop the truck but you can’t get out for a walk.  You actually have an avatar (you can see mine, in her stylish pink shirt, in the second picture above).  I think it’d be fun to be able to walk around your garage, pose by your truck, or stop somewhere to eat.

Is it fun?  As a game, it’s sufficiently challenging for a surprisingly long time. I’ve been going through a phase where I try out games and don’t go back to them, so it’s significant that I’ve put 21 hours into it so far. Many reviews describe it as “relaxing”.  That’s on the right track.  Though you have to pay attention, it’s certainly not a high tension game.  Mostly you steer, check for hazards, and watch the pretty scenery going by. It’s strangely motivating to try to get to all the cities, or see your balance in euros grow.

And then there’s the radio! You can stream a wide variety of European radio stations as you drive. That goes a long way to making the driving fun once you’ve mastered the basics.  Plus, you can improve your French, German, Dutch, Czech, and so on!  Or add new radio streams of your own.




Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?

If you’re under, oh, 40 or 50, Roz Chast’s graphic novel will seem like a story from an alternative dimension… like a love story looks when you’re nine.  But this will all happen to you, pal.

It’s about the last years of Chast’s parents, and having lost both of mine in the last three years, I recognized everything.


There’s kind of a secret fraternity of those who have taken care of elderly parents. You watch them tootling through their 80s, a little less vigorous, a little hard of hearing, but still happy and active. Then something happens.  They can do less and less.  They don’t take care of their home as well as they used to. They start getting weak and then positively fragile.  There are emergencies with falls and sudden hospital stays.

Step by step the old relationship reverses, till you are taking care of them. And making decisions nothing has prepared you for: are they insisting on driving when they can’t, do they need help in their home, do they need to move out, is anyone making sure they bathe, what if scammers call them on the phone…

Oh, scammers. One day my sister came to Dad’s house and he wasn’t there. This was extremely disconcerting as he used a walker and simply walking to the kitchen was a big thing for him. He had written a phone number on a piece of paper in the den; I Googled it and found it was a taxi company. We called the company and he had taken a taxi to Walgreens.

Well, he showed up back at the house soon enough, and my sister got the whole story. Someone had called and told him he’d won hundreds of thousands of dollars.  To get it, he just had to send a money card (available at Walgreens) to an address in Nevada, because reasons. They told him not to tell his kids— it should be a surprise!

Fortunately, the clerk at Walgreens was on the ball; he told my Dad it was a scam, and he came home. He was a little embarrassed, though not as much as when he dropped his cranberry juice and one of us had to clean it up.

Point is, you take care of them out of affection and need, yes, and death is horrible and tragic and pathetic, but they’re also exasperating, weird, and sometimes hilarious.

This is all in Chast. I don’t know what you might expect in a memoir about death— it’s occasionally sad or gruesome— but there’s plenty of humor and personal eccentricity. You get to know Chast’s parents, and learn exactly how they drive Roz bats.

When Chast’s cartoons started appearing in the New Yorker, I didn’t like them. They seemed weird and humorless. Eventually I came around. It might have been this cartoon that did it:



Chast has a very dry sense of humor, with an occasional dash of surrealism. Her characters are typically urban, quotidian and a little neurotic, sitting around small living rooms on couches with antimacassars on top… after reading her memoir, I can see her parents and their Brooklyn apartment in her cartoons.

In form, her book is a mixture of comics, text, and a few photos. She’s managed something that many have tried with far less success: moving easily between cartoons and text. The key may be that the text is handwritten, and never too long. Blocks of typesetting are jarring in a comic. At the same time, many comics artists try to keep everything in comics, and that doesn’t work, because six or twenty panels of the same thing are boring.

If you’re young, with no elderly relatives around, I have no idea what the book will be like for you. So check it out to learn what this alternative dimension is like, or come back in ten years…

Arkham’s Gotham map

This has probably been done before, but here’s a consolidated map of Gotham City as depicted in the Arkham series.


(WordPress used to automatically make a link to a bigger version, but now it doesn’t, so click that link to get there.)

Weirdly, Arkham Knight (which we have to assume is Rocksteady’s last word on the subject) tilts the Arkham City portion of the map by 45°. If you don’t believe me, check the in-game map! You can identify the courthouse, the Peabody Institute, Wonder Tower, and the steel mill, and clearly see that the street grid is tilted relative to Miagani Island.

Arkham Origins gives the location of Wayne Manor and Blackgate.  The Origins portion of the map may be oversized here.

Seagate is from the Matter of Family DLC for Knight; its location relative to the city is not given.

The inset (bottom left) gives the Arkham City map; it has a little peninsula that doesn’t appear in Origins, and also makes downtown Gotham much closer than in Knight.

As a bonus, here’s a comparison of the same view in Arkham City and Arkham Origins.


Not everything matches up, but a lot does. What you chiefly notice, I think, is that even with the snow effects, City was much clearer. Origins has way too much fog.