ask zompist


In your blog you mentioned that “the CEO system for running corporations is a dangerous anachronism.” I was wondering what you would replace it with – in your perfect world, what system would you design for building and running a global business and ensuring its continuity from one generation to the next? What other cultural or economic changes would go along with the new system if it were implemented throughout society? (E.g. would there still be brand-name identification of consumer products?)

—Geoffrey

zorg

Not the ideal

Great question; I’m not sure I have a great answer. But that’s because we need a whole lot more experimentation. Anti-monarchists couldn’t necessarily describe parliamentary democracy in 1700, either.

First, let’s review the problem. In that post, I pointed out Trump as the epitome of the terrible CEO. He’s a lazy, incurious person who’s used to unquestioning obedience for his terrible ideas, and takes every reverse personally. But he’s not much of an outlier. I’ve met plenty of much smaller-level CEOs, who have the same arrogance and inability to understand their own business. The good CEOs I’ve met are generally the ones who know when to get out of the way of their own workers— the people who actually know the work and know what needs to get done.

Many people are in love with the idea of the strong leader of uncompromising vision. We’re not so enamored of the Louis XIV or the Napoléon these days, but Americans, at least, still admire the entrepreneur who builds up a company from nothing: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller.

I don’t necessarily want to touch that.  On the whole, society benefits when these people build something new.  They should obey labor laws and such, but we don’t need to throw out this part of the system. What we should throw out is the notion that their heirs, or some guy with an MBA, deserve the same deference. If you worship wealth and never address inequality, as Piketty demonstrates, what you get very soon is an aristocracy of rentiers, people who never created anything yet sit on all the accumulated wealth, and whose primary incentive is the maintenance of their own comfort.

So, how do we run a company instead? Two basic approaches:

  • Put someone in charge temporarily
  • Put a representative committee in charge

For now, this comes down to your view of human nature. If you think there needs to be a strong leader (even if his power is limited or we can get rid of him), then you pick Option A. If you distrust all single sources of power, you pick Option B.

Perhaps ironically, in theory option B is what we have now, once the founder is dead. Public corporations have a board of directors, and even rules that a good number of these must come from outside the company; and they pick the CEO. In the US, the board represents the stockholders (i.e. the owners), and it is very possible for them to throw out the CEO.

There are two problems with this.

  • One, boards are in practice not very independent-minded. They’re often friends of the executives and only meet for a brief period every few months.  They’re not deeply involved in the business nor inclined to second-guess the CEO.
  • And two, what the stockholders want is basically more money right now.  This may be completely opposed to the interests of employees, customers, the community, and even investors who are thinking beyond the next 12 months.

A minimal reform is to require that some of these other stakeholders get representation. In Germany, up to half of the board represents labor, though stockholders usually get the determining vote. The idea could be expanded by giving other stakeholders representation.

There are many interesting experiments in corporate governance today, such as:

  • Valve, the company behind Half-Life and Portal as well as Steam, is famously run on near-anarchic lines. Employees literally pick which product they want to work on— and if a product doesn’t attract workers it doesn’t get made. (One does wonder if this is why they never seem to get to release 3 with any of their products.)
  • The first company I worked for is now employee-owned.  It works out well for them, and they were able to weather the 2008 recession in part because they didn’t have the huge expense of a CEO’s salary.
  • NFL management is said to be a huge swamp… except for the Green Bay Packers,  owned by a huge mass of individual Wisconsinites. They’re competitive with other teams and the team stays in Wisconsin.
  • The Mondragon Corporation, of Spain, is a remarkable co-operative firm which employs over 75,000 people.
  • We actually have plenty of examples of non-monarchical institutions: churches, universities, co-ops, many arts organizations or activist groups.

We need more experimentation to see what works. The answer to a lot of objections is going to be “Maybe. We don’t know. We need to try things out.”

The obvious worry is that discussion and representation take time, or at worst tie the entity up in knots. Democratic politics is not exactly known for calm, civilized consensus. In response to that—

  • Again, monarchs suck. We put up with the inefficiencies of democracy because one-man rule really is worse. But the inefficiencies are definitely there.
  • People get better at democracy when cultural norms evolve to support it. I’ve been in endless, unfocused meetings— people flounder if they don’t know what they’re doing. That isn’t a condemnation of the system; it just means that the transition is tricky. People who are not used to power do not automatically know how to use it.
  • There are better and worse decision-making techniques. A huge, completely open-ended meeting is one of the worst. People are better at reacting to concrete proposals than they are at coming up with them. If a proposal is rejected, it’s better for a small group to take it offline than for a large meeting to attempt to redesign it. The group needs a way to table arguments, so it is not dominated by a few eristic individuals. And so on. Heuristics will develop to smooth the process considerably.

One big caveat: democracy is not a cure-all. I think we’d be happier if we could vote who runs the company, or at least vote the current bums out. But that’s not the same as saying we’d be happy.

On the other hand, looking at modern representative democracy, we have to remember that it’s optimized for the logistics of 1790. I’m sure we could do better. One big problem, for instance, is the bundling of policies. At the federal level, there’s no way to say that you want (say) more health care and less immigration.  You can only pick between the two major bundles that are offered. Maybe we need to vote on policies more than on leaders.

Your question on brands is just part of a much bigger question: the optimum size of corporations.  I’m sure a bunch of readers are eager to tell me that the problem is not how to fix corporations, but how to get rid of them. But leftists have, to my knowledge, only come up with a couple alternatives, and they’re contradictory:

  • Nationalize them. So the organizations become massive.
  • Have workers run enterprises directly.  So the organizations must be tiny.

In general, the first approach makes the problem worse. (Some public goods should be nationalized; but I do not want a government commissar, or even a People’s Soviet, deciding what books can be published or what crops can be grown.) And the second approach is largely untested, and of questionable utility for a planet of 7.5 billion people.

It might be nice if every firm was only the size of a village— 150 to 200 people.  But there is such a thing as economies of scale. Really big firms can grow corn, build computers or airplanes, and make action movies really efficiently.  A world of small firms is also, very likely, a world of high prices for consumers. There’s also the problem of competing standards. These should never be a monopoly, even a government monopoly.  And yet it’s kind of a nightmare if you have a hundred competing standards rather than two or three. And if you’re eager to break up Google, do you also want to break up Mondragon?  (They’re about the same size.)

Plus, there’s the inconvenient fact that large firms are far easier to regulate, and can be far more progressive.  A corporation with 75,000 employees can have a professional HR department, great worker amenities, and a commitment to diversity. They’d also be far easier to democratize.  Smaller firms are often run by the most conservative, cranky old despots.

Ideally we should be able to choose both options. Restaurants, for example: it’s nice to have a one-chef gem of a restaurant.  It can also be convenient to have a known brand where the type and quality of the food are predictable (and prices are cheaper).  In art, it’s great to have quirky one- or two-person projects; also to have behemoths that require hundreds of people working together.

Anyway, the one thing I’m certain about here is that future economics is going to surprise us. The modern corporation emerged only 150 years ago, with the invention of the telegraph.  (Adam Smith thought corporations were of limited utility.)  As late as the 1960s, the ideal of corporate governance was a class of professional, medium-income managers hired by the owners; the cult of rock-star CEOs paid in the megabillions was a (stupid) innovation of the 1980s. Right now things look kind of dystopian, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck here.

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First of all, I recognize completely how ironic it is that I ask you this a few months after I asked you about the risk that the world might be destroyed. That said…

There seems to be an idea among right-wingers that usually doesn’t get stated directly, probably because it is so unattractive, but that seems to play an important role in the attitudes of many of them. It’s the idea that life needs to suck, at least to some extent, in order to motivate people to achieve things. 

Now, what if that idea is true? It won’t help much to point out that those on the Right who hold that idea are often hypocrites who don’t want their own lives to suck – after all, the statement “murder is bad” is true even if it is said by a murderer.

It does seem to be true, after all, that in wealthy countries with halfway functioning social safety nets, the really unpleasant jobs are usually done by recent migrants from poorer countries without functioning social safety nets. You yourself have pointed out that historically many sons of kings were pretty worthless. And on a personal note, I was raised in the late 20th century in one of the world’s wealthier countries, and I could never imagine myself doing the regular work of, for instance, an average present day Chinese factory worker. 

Saying that similar complaints were heard in earlier times won’t help much, either – as the above examples show, arguably those “warnings” have “come true”. So, what would happen if all countries in the world ended up relatively wealthy? Where would the migrants to do the really unpleasant jobs come from, then?

—Raphael

First, you’re not the only one to have believed that conservatives want the world to suck. George Lakoff covers this in depth in Moral Politics. Describing the conservative worldview: “The world is a dangerous place. Survival is a major concern and there are dangers and evils lurking everywhere, especially in the human soul.” Strict moral discipline (he continues) is required to survive, and harsh punishment is valuable. Without struggle, “there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.” (His book was from 1996; here’s his more up-to-date thoughts on the election.)

Now, this is essentially a millennia-old response to the problem of evil. I discussed it in the context of the Incatena here, stating it as a problem for the social planner and for God. To put it as convincingly as possible: people who get all what they want and more get spoiled. They may be vaguely benevolent, but have little empathy and no idea of sacrifice or heroism. Those who have overcome suffering are not only stronger but have a better moral character. We might well worry if everyone could live like the children of the super-rich, they would be either weak nothings (Wells’s Eloi) or hedonistic simpletons (Huxley’s Brave New World).

There is, by the way, a left-wing version of this view. The communists, especially the ones who actually organized factory labor or peasants, liked to paint the socialists and democrats as soft and weak, and turned “bourgeois” into  slur. This was taken to an extreme by Maoism, which was forged in the ordeal of the Long March, and cheerfully sent millions of students to labor in the fields. (There’s also a much weaker, but much more widespread,  view that people should live in rural communes or something.)

You’re right that it’s not a complete answer to say that those who advocate this worldview don’t want it for themselves or their children. But it is a partial answer. This worldview is congenial to the powerful— it justifies permanent injustice and absolves them of any need to ameliorate it. That’s a strong reason to distrust it.

Not coincidentally, the suffering-is-good view primarily targets the poor, women, and religious or sexual minorities.  If suffering is good, shouldn’t its advocates want it to be equally distributed? And if suffering produces good moral character, isn’t it curious that the advocates believe that they, the non-suffering, are the moral ones? Shouldn’t those who suffer the most be the most moral?

But we can also attack the claim directly. Suffering doesn’t build character.  Suffering just makes people miserable. When we don’t have an ideology that makes us sympathize with the oppressors, we see this clearly: Mao, for instance, twice destroyed the prosperity of his own revolution, killed millions of people, and wasted the lives of an entire generation.

Plus, though it’s an old moral lesson that hedonism is bad for you, it’s an even older and more basic moral lesson that participating in injustice is wrong. Even if it’s morally uplifting to get robbed, that hardly means that a moral person should be a robber. The world is a dangerous place, but a policy of adding to its dangers doesn’t make someone a moral paragon, but a sociopath.

It’s hard to deny that life for most people, not just in the global North, is better than it was a thousand years ago. Premodern agricultural kingdoms really did suck for 90% of the population. Even the strictest conservative doesn’t exactly want to bring back slavery, trial by ordeal, the Black Plague, nomad invasions, foot-binding, and the constant warfare and cruelty favored by kings. (If you’re dealing with a Christian conservative, ask them if they think Jesus should have left the world in paganism.)

But if you’ve conceded that some suffering should be eliminated, you can hardly object to removing more suffering, except by offering a further and better argument. If ending slavery was good, why not eliminate racism too? In practical terms the argument is really not “all suffering is good”, but “the suffering that generally existed in my childhood is the right amount of suffering”.  That could be the case, but such amazing temporal coincidences are not very convincing.

Also, whether or not suffering has good moral effects, we’re not really not on the verge of a great suffering shortage. There’s still plenty to go around. The 21st century is going to be challenging, not least because there is, oh, the prospect of total ecological collapse. So there is really no need to increase local suffering by, say, removing everyone’s health insurance.

But there is a conworlding exercise here, and I’ll take the bait and consider it. If we could solve our ecological problems and the right wing totally imploded, we could create a world that is both prosperous and egalitarian. Should we worry about people becoming spoiled?

As Lakoff would say, this is in part a framing problem. If we’re creating an ideal society, of course we don’t want “spoiled” people. As progressives, we want people to be nurturing and empathetic instead. If they’re not, we didn’t design very well. But it begs the question to suggest that the design solution is “more suffering”. Suffering isn’t the best way of producing empathy anyway; better to model it and teach it directly.

A deeper answer: as people move up Maslow’s hierarchy of need, they develop new and different concerns and disputes. Are Germans of 2016 “more spoiled” than those of 1016? They’re far richer, but surely we couldn’t say that they’re all spoiled like rich children. If anything, a certain level of material ease facilitates spirituality: you can read, meditate, study, give to the poor. In most religious traditions, a simple lifestyle is a virtue— but being born to it is generally not enough. Being a wandering monk is a choice and meritorious; being a wandering beggar is generally neither.

We can call the average German of 2016 “rich” compared to the one from 1016, but that hardly means that she thinks or acts like a rich man of 1016. If our civilization survives until 3016 and attains a general prosperity, the people of 3016 will be “rich” by our standards, but not by their own, and there’s no particular reason to assume that they will act like today’s rich people (or their spoiled children).

As for unpleasant jobs, I don’t see that as an unsolvable problem. In general, tedious jobs are also the ripest for automation. In advanced countries 99% of people don’t work in the fields. But those who really like that kind of lifestyle can take it.

An alert Twitter user asked me to explain Trump and Hillary. Yes, both of them. I already covered the Republican primaries, but it’s time to update the story and add the Democratic side.

Trump

burns-trumpAs I said in the earlier piece, Trump is not some weird, crazy outlier in the Republican field. Almost all of his rivals were worse. The real extremists in the party hate Trump because he’s not extreme enough.

An old, old piece of GOP strategy, attributed to Richard Nixon, is that to win the GOP primaries you move as far right as possible, and to win the general you move as far left as possible. This is The Pivot.

The summer was filled with predictions that Trump, now exalted as a canny manipulator of press and public, would perfectly execute The Pivot.

It turns out Trump doesn’t pivot.

In the last month Trump attacked a US war hero’s parents, suggested that Hillary should be assassinated by gun nuts, invited a foreign power to hack his opponent, proposed to abandon NATO, picked a petty fight with John McCain and Paul Ryan, and prematurely declared the election fraudulent. Oh, and his just-fired campaign manager Paul Manafort used to work for the pro-Russian party in Ukraine, and the one intervention the Trump people insisted on in the official GOP platform was to soften support for Ukraine against Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, as Clinton is opening campaign offices across the country and spending millions on TV ads, Trump’s campaign staff is less than a hundred people nationwide, and he bought his first TV ad just four days ago. Oh, and he insists on holding rallies in safe Democratic states like Connecticut and California, while key battleground states are starting to lean Democratic.

There’s still over two months to go, and we haven’t seen the debates. But he’s trailing in the polls, he still hasn’t won over all of the party, and he may well not only lose, but make the GOP lose the Senate as well. (Probably not the House: more people will vote for a Democratic Congressman, but thanks to gerrymandering they’ll get a Republican House anyway.)

What went wrong? What happened to the canny manipulator of press and public?

There shouldn’t be any real surprise. Trump didn’t change; he’s always been Trump, acting on the assumption that all press is good press. The thing is, the general election is not the GOP primaries. A strategy of name-calling, provocations, feuds, lies, and general aggression worked to get attention in a large dull candidate field during the primaries; it only turns off the much larger presidential electorate. Plus, a year spent alienating his allies means, well, that he has few allies and even fewer enthusiastic ones.

He’s still going to get a lot of votes and win a lot of states, because of the polarization of American politics. All recent presidential elections have been very close; at least 80% of the electorate will never budge from their parties. And to be fair, a good quarter of the electorate really likes him! And people like Paul Ryan, though pretending to be fair by occasionally criticizing him, will vote for him because he is not apostate on the #1 key element of Republican politics: he will lower taxes on the super-rich.

If he does win, the best we can do is call it Fallout 5 and stockpile bottle caps. If he loses, the interesting question is, what does the GOP do next?

Despite his fascist tendencies, I can’t see him leading an insurrection. If he can’t run a damn election campaign, there’s no way he can run a military operation. It’d be too much work, and too much risk. More likely: TrumpTV.

The campaign has revealed two things: there is a large appetite in the GOP electorate for white populism; and there is nothing the GOP establishment can do to stop it. Of course this is a monster of their own creation— Mitt Romney, the epitome of the establishment, also did his best in 2012 to alienate everyone who wasn’t a well-off, Christian, heterosexual white man. But demographics make this an ever-more difficult strategy— not only are there more and more non-whites, but young whites are turned off by the GOP message. Some of the desperation of current GOP politics is due to their fearful sense that it’s their last chance to get back to the 1950s. Or the 1850s.

But they’re still powerful at the state level, and they’ve got the House. But who are they now? Will there be an organized Trumpist faction, as there is an organized Tea Party far right, and a much less organized establishment? My guess: without Trump, possibly the most heretical Trumpisms will be quietly forgotten, and candidates will simply pander more to the most popular one: anti-immigrant fervor.

(If they’re smart, the establishment will come up with something to discourage Trumps for 2020— but I’m not sure what that is. More superdelegates? Some sort of clever loyalty test? When the whole GOP ecosystem is designed to encourage extremism, it’s not easy to  prepare for The Pivot.)

A bunch of pundits have been worried that Trump has a special appeal to down-and-out white voters allegedly ignored by everyone else. Some responses to that:

  • Most Trump supporters are not working class; their median income is higher than the national figure.
  • Republicans have never ignored poor whites; the whole basis of the Southern Strategy is to forge cultural connections with poor whites in order to advance the interests of the rich.
  • And because the key constituency of the GOP is the 1%, you will never get GOP policies that actually help the working class.

Hillary

As for Hillary, I don’t think there’s much to explain, once you get past thirty years’ worth of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) thrown up by her opponents.

The best article I’ve read on her is this one by Ezra Klein. In brief: there’s a huge perception gap between the general public, who distrust Hillary (though not as much as Trump), and people who have worked with Hillary, who often like her very much.

As a public figure, Hillary has many positives— she’s calm, cautious, hard-working, pragmatic, well informed— but not exactly charismatic. When she’s working with people— and that includes political opponents, or activists she’s only just met— her chief quality is that she’s an excellent listener. She wants to know what you think and what you advise, and she’s likely to turn it into a policy proposal later on. As a Senator, she did surprisingly well with Republican Senators— she didn’t hold grudges from the ’90s and she worked hard to find proposals, however small, that they could both support.

This is a rare quality— Obama doesn’t have it, he comes off to his opponents as what he once was, a professor. And arguably it’s one of the best qualities a president can have. Presidents need to make alliances and motivate people to get a lot done. It’s nothing like being a CEO, where you can just bluster people into submission— yet another reason Trump is spectacularly unsuited for the job.

As for her policies, I’d call her a pragmatic liberal. Despite the animosities of the primary season, she doesn’t have many political differences from Bernie Sanders. (She basically adopted his two biggest policy proposals— free university tuition and a higher minimum wage.) They both come from the more liberal side of the Democratic Party. The big difference is the “pragmatic” part. Sanders seems to have little knowledge about or interest in why big liberal ideas don’t get passed. Hillary has a laserlike focus on what can be done— and she’s willing to take that rather than wait forever for what progressives would prefer. (It also means she doesn’t show much patience with people who want to complain but don’t have any specific proposals for their pet issues.)

In practical terms, she will almost certainly face the same obstacle as Obama— a House in opposition. On the other hand, the Dems will probably get the Senate back, which means a more Democratic judiciary and a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. She might do better than Obama working with the House… but until House GOP members start losing seats because of their obstructionism, they are going to be far more afraid of Tea Party challengers than they are of the President.

(On the meager plus side… though there’s going to be drama, I think both sides have discovered the advantages of kicking the can down the road. So we won’t actually be getting that free tuition, or cap-and-trade, but at least we probably won’t get the Paul Ryan Plutocracy Budget.)

Here too the interesting question is: where does the party go next? Two years ago no one would have predicted that a self-declared “socialist” could almost get the nomination. We’re finally seeing, I think, the long-awaited surge of progressivism after the reactionary turn of the 1980s.

The fervor is there; what’s lacking is organization. The conservatives learned this long ago: you become an influence in your party not by voting for a presidential candidate, but by running candidates locally, wearing down your shoe leather to drum up support, ferrying voters to the polls on election day, and running your own media outlets.  And above all, voting even in midterms.

 

The recent wave of terrorist attacks has made me worry if technology will ever, or during this century, advance to the point where regular terrorists are able to destroy the world. Humanity has, so far, survived 71 years when it was possible to blow up the world if you had the resources of a superpower. But what if technology advances further to the point where destroying the world gets within the means of your average, run-of-the-mill doomsday cult? Or even a deranged individual like Ted Kaczynski?

Related to this, I think if we would really live in a world like that of James Bond movies or superhero comics, with supervillains regularly trying to destroy the world, the world wouldn’t survive for long: in order for the world to survive, the James Bonds/superheroes would have to win every single time, while in order for the world to be destroyed, the villains would only have to win once. And eventually that one time would come- if you keep rolling the dice, sooner or later they will come up six.

–Raphael

Man, with Britain voting to screw itself, Turkey going full dictatorship, and Trump promoting fascism here, to say nothing of humans slowly roasting the ecosphere, you don’t have enough to worry about?

For what it’s worth, if the world gets blown up, it’s still more likely to be a superpower that does it. Or at least a medium-sized state. This isn’t meant as a reassurance; it’s a reminder that we’ve escaped from nuclear holocaust by the skin of our teeth several times.  Here’s a Mefi page on near misses.

For non-state actors, a weak consolation is that though they are careless about human life, they are rarely self-genocidal. That is, there’s a rough rationality to extremism: atrocities are cheap and get attention, but the extremists do not actually want their enemies to destroy them all, because of course then their cause is dead. Of course, like any other politicians, extremists can misjudge likely results. Osama bin Laden probably didn’t plan on getting killed in a raid.

It’s always worthwhile to get some historical perspective. Here’s a chart of terrorist deaths over 40 years:

Terrorism_fatalities_1970-2010

That is, outside of three countries (two of which are basically in civil war), terrorism is down worldwide. (Also, for comparison, the annual number of road traffic deaths is 1.25 million.)  Nothing to be complacent about, but we can too easily get the impression from the news that everything is terrible and always getting worse.

If you’re thinking of futuristic threats, it’s also worth remembering that people will have a strong motivation to develop futuristic counters. It’s not great worldbuilding (or prediction) to suppose that some agents get doomsday-in-a-box weapons and the motivation to use them, while their enemies have no clue about this, no similar weapons, and no conceivable responses.

Not that doom is impossible! But terrorists generally have their own enemies, they don’t want to destroy the world, and their abilities are limited. But feel free to be terrified of Trump with the nuclear football.

In your review of Overwatch, you said that you appreciate the fact that characters speak appropriately in Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French. However, I have read some complaints that the French accent of Widowmaker sounds fake. Since I have heard similar complaints about Leliana of the Dragon Age series, and since both are voiced by French people, I would like to know if this perception comes from actors deliberately exaggerating their pronunciation, or if Hollywood or something similar have misled people into what constitute a true foreign accent.
Cordially,
Antonin BRAULT

Standards are changing, so I think this issue is in flux.

I can tell you what isn’t acceptable any more: mangling foreigners’ accents as in this book.

That is, it would be completely offensive if instead of having a Korean-Japanese-American woman (Charlet Chung) voice D.Va, they’d had a white American attempt a Korean accent.

So far as I can judge, Chloé Hollings, the voice of Widowmaker, pronounces the French perfectly— as she should; she’s French.

Is her French accent exaggerated? Yes, of course; Hollings is bilingual and speaks excellent English. I don’t have any inside knowledge of Blizzard’s production, but one can imagine for many of these voices a scene something like this:

Voice actor: (pronounces a line perfectly)

Director: Great! Only… can you make it sound more French?

And the director does have a point! If they’ve gone to the trouble of hiring bilingual voice actors, they kind of don’t want perfectly unaccented English. The characters are supposed to be cartoony, so they want to reach the sweet spot where the accents communicate the character but remain attractive. (Americans, at least, react negatively to a heavy foreign accent, but find a light accent enchanting.)

With Dragon Age, I saw a page that noted that Corinne Kempa (voice of Leliana) simply didn’t have the type of French accent Americans expect to hear. Again, American viewers aren’t very sophisticated here; few could even identify different varieties of French. (I liked Leliana— it was nice to have a fantasy game that didn’t over-rely on British accents.)

It’s hard to make everybody happy, but I think Blizzard took a pretty good approach. I also like the fact that, except for the two ninjas, the characters aren’t defined by their nationalities. E.g. Mei is a climatologist, who just happens to be Chinese. Zarya is much more defined as “butch power-lifting soldier” than as Russian. They do paint with a broad brush, but they’re nodding much more to media images than to ethnic stereotypes— e.g. McCree is a version of Clint Eastwood; Junkrat refers to Mad Max.  One character they could have done better with, in my opinion, is Pharah, who should speak some Arabic.

Edit: The new character, Ana, does speak some Arabic.

Is there any advice which you used to give to conlangers but now
consider misguided? What was it, why did you think it was good advice,
and how has your attitude changed to make it not-good?

—Thomas

This is going to be pretty boring, but: nah, not really. My stuff is mostly not advice per se; it’s just introducing linguistics to people. When I do have regrets, it’s usually that I haven’t covered somnething, and the solution is usually to write another book. 🙂  So a lot of things that didn’t get into the LCK got into ALC instead.

I did take the opportunity to revise the LCK to give a better introduction to aspect, though.

I always wanted to give a better overview of transformations and how they revolutionized syntax. I studied that a lot in college and found it fascinating.  On the other hand… well, I can’t really say a conlanger has to know that stuff.  Plus the field never reached a consensus on the best way to handle syntax.  (My Axunašin grammar attempts to do justice to transformations, though I think it’d have to be three times as long, and include lots of cumbersome trees, to really explain the concept.)

 

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

—Owen

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:

us-historical-growth

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?

 

 

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