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Weekend Economists Seek Psychic Healing May 29-31, 2015

I ask, and nobody offered, so....

Psychic healing...two words that cover a multitude of sins....

While the common definition involves chakras, and imaging, and whatnot, I prefer to focus on the kind of healing that will take a borderline-personality nation like ours, looking for trouble in all the wrong places (and finding it) and spreading it around to afflict other nations and peoples.

What will it take to heal the American psyche? What broke it in the first place?

Finding Healing When You’re Broken


As her mom, I felt helpless. I couldn’t make her pain go away. I couldn’t fix her broken arm. So I simply put my head next to hers, and told her that I was here, and I wouldn’t leave her. That was the mantra I repeated over and over. And it was enough.

We humans break easily.

And I’m not talking simply about bones. Our feelings get hurt. Our self-esteem is fragile. We hurt each other with words and actions. We bully each other, steal from one another, gossip, verbally abuse, and assault those around us. We hurt ourselves by what we do. We cut or burn ourselves, neglect our health, abuse food and drugs, and engage in reckless behavior.

Others abuse us and neglect us. People who should love us hurt us. Sometimes simply getting through one day to the next takes an incredible amount of courage and strength.

When people come to therapy, they often see themselves as hurting and broken. People don’t come for counseling when they’re feeling great and on top of the world. They come when they’re in pain. When I entered graduate school, I wanted to become a therapist so I could help people who were hurting. I wanted to solve problems, give answers, and make things better, to take away pain. It didn’t take me long to realize that this wasn’t possible. My job was not about fixing, but about guiding, supporting, and listening.

Everyone — everyone — is broken. There is not a human on this earth who has not hurt, who is not damaged, or is not in pain. We don’t hurt in the same way, of course. And some people have suffered traumas that are hard to fathom...

One has to wonder what kind of trauma has broken the spirit of a nation--and especially the rich and powerful of that nation--that the nation would tolerate, nay, cheer on: wars of conquest and pillage and destruction; universal surveillance; slavery and starvation and oppression to the point of having to produce ID to vote!

Or a Nation. Or a World. Or the Human Race.

In order to be fair to other religions, let's add a few more:

The Texas Floods Are So Big They Ended the State’s Drought

Source: Wired

Texas really can’t seem to catch a break. A month ago, the Lone Star state was in the middle of a dry emergency: Its reservoirs were draining, its depleted aquifers were sucking in the earth above. As of Wednesday, though, the state is saturated. Four weeks of dousing storms have swept away property, roads, lives, and prompted governor Greg Abbott to declare 37 counties as disaster areas.

The devastation caused by these floods is heart-wrenching. But you could consider Texas’ weather whiplash to be a good thing: These dousing storms, which seem more and more like the consequence of a strengthening El Niño, have brought an end to a four-year water shortage. Just how much of a silver lining these floods are creating, though, depends on the particular geography of Texas’ different regions—it is a gigantic place, y’all. And the land’s composition also plays a crucial role in just how bad the flooding has gotten.

“Texas is a big state, and there is a big contrast in what happens when rain falls,” says Ronald Kaiser, a water expert at Texas A&M in College Station. There’s no perfect way to slice up the state’s water resources, but broadly, you can think of it in four parts.

East of highway I-35 to the Gulf Coast—crowned by Houston—is low and flat, with dense soils and a shallow clay layer that makes it easy to flood. This is where rain falls hardest, rivers run thickest, and most of the state’s reservoirs are located. “There’s a joke that if it’s overcast in Houston you’ll get flooding,” says Kaiser. Which is why things got so bad so quickly when 10 inches fell on the city Monday night. Talk about a punchline.

From a water supply standpoint, the storms were great for this part of the state. As you can see in the graphic on the left, every reservoir in the eastern part of the state is above 90 percent full (the graphic was updated May 28). But the area also set itself up for more devastating consequences from the rainfall, because during the drought east Texas water districts were pumping groundwater. This leads to so-called subsidence: The ground literally loses elevation as the water is sucked out from under it. Because it’s so low and flat there, even a foot of shrinkage can lead to a lot more standing water. Though subsidence has mostly stabilized in recent years, in the past parts the Houston area were sinking at rates up to three inches a year. Add that to .08 inches of sea level rise a year, and Houston was primed for flood...MORE

Read more: http://www.wired.com/2015/05/texas-floods-big-ended-states-drought/

Five hundred new fairytales discovered in Germany


A whole new world of magic animals, brave young princes and evil witches has come to light with the discovery of 500 new fairytales, which were locked away in an archive in Regensburg, Germany for over 150 years. The tales are part of a collection of myths, legends and fairytales, gathered by the local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886) in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz at about the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting the fairytales that have since charmed adults and children around the world.

Last year, the Oberpfalz cultural curator Erika Eichenseer published a selection of fairytales from Von Schönwerth's collection, calling the book Prinz Roßzwifl. This is local dialect for "scarab beetle". The scarab, also known as the "dung beetle", buries its most valuable possession, its eggs, in dung, which it then rolls into a ball using its back legs. Eichenseer sees this as symbolic for fairytales, which she says hold the most valuable treasure known to man: ancient knowledge and wisdom to do with human development, testing our limits and salvation.

Von Schönwerth spent decades asking country folk, labourers and servants about local habits, traditions, customs and history, and putting down on paper what had only been passed on by word of mouth. In 1885, Jacob Grimm said this about him: "Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear." Grimm went so far as to tell King Maximilian II of Bavaria that the only person who could replace him in his and his brother's work was Von Schönwerth.

Von Schönwerth compiled his research into a book called Aus der Oberpfalz – Sitten und Sagen, which came out in three volumes in 1857, 1858 and 1859. The book never gained prominence and faded into obscurity...


Why So Many Jobs Are Crappy


I’ve been thinking about it. Work, being a core part of life, is meant to be interesting, engaging, and meaningful. Otherwise, why are we wasting our time on this planet? Yet, for many, work is not living up to its name. Work of the good kind is less and less on offer in the jobs being created. I’ve been reflecting on possible reasons why, and decided it’s really simple. The problem is not the jobs. It’s us. Most humans are simply not the kind of people a boss would want to hire. Take yourselves as a case in point. I’m guessing you’re the kind of people who’d prefer to feel needed rather than expendable. Well, that kind of attitude won’t do. Bosses want to keep your wages down, and that would be harder to do if you were given opportunities to make yourselves invaluable and near on irreplaceable. Bosses need to keep their options open in case some of you get ideas about better pay and conditions, or just generally become ‘difficult’ or, dare I say, ‘bolshie’. You know it’s true. A boss needs to be able to dump you at the drop of a hat. Maybe it’s to boost profits. Maybe it’s to cut costs. Or maybe it’s just because it feels good.

And a boss needs to be able to dump you without it having detrimental effects. There must be ready replacements, eager to crank it up, the moment you’re out the door. And if morale suffers, because the buddies you left behind miss you, the boss will want to send them packing too, and bring in a fresh batch of wage-slaves.

Quite simply, there is little place for satisfying roles, the kind where you get to learn more and more interesting stuff over time. The only good on-the-job learning is no learning at all. Or, if you must learn, thirty minutes tops to master a dead-end role. Although the point seems obvious, I don’t believe it has been treated with the kind of gravity that only the economics blogosphere is fully equipped to deliver. It’s high time the situation was spelled out in painstaking – okay, not painstaking – analytical terms. Then we can all lower our expectations and knuckle down to a lifetime of short-lived McJobs and frequent sackings. If we’re lucky.

One way to characterize a job is by the learning that occurs in it. This can be described by a learning curve:

In the diagram, u(t) stands for the unit labor cost that a worker – let’s say you – achieves at a given point in time, after you have built up an amount, t, of experience. It is how much you cost the employer per unit of output produced, at a given moment in time. We can call this the ‘instantaneous unit labor cost’, or sometimes just ‘efficiency’ for short. If learning occurs on the job, you get more and more efficient, and your unit labor cost falls over time. The curve is drawn assuming a particular wage level. If the wage increases, the curve will shift up.

On first being hired, you were green, and cost the bosses m + c per unit of output. Eventually, through learning on the job, you will get this down almost to m, which is your ‘potential efficiency’, given current pay and conditions. Some jobs will allow more learning than others, which will be reflected in the amount c, which is the ‘scope for learning’.

Here is one possible algebraic representation of the learning curve:

The second term is the one that captures the learning process. When you just start the job, t = 0, and the second term equals c. Just as shown in the diagram, you cost the bosses m + c per unit of output. The longer you stay in the job, the larger t gets, and the closer the second term gets to zero, which it approaches asymptotically. Your unit labor cost converges on m, as indicated in the diagram.

The rate at which you reduce your unit labor cost from m + c down to m depends on how fast learning can take place on the job. The ‘rate of learning’ is represented by λ. When λ is large, the learning curve will be very steep initially, and almost all the learning will occur just after being hired. When λ takes intermediate values, the learning process is steadier and longer lasting, reflected in a more gradual curvature in u(t).

McJobs are those where learning is either nonexistent or extremely rapid but short-lived. If there is no learning, c = λ = 0 and the learning curve would just be a horizontal straight line showing a constant unit labor cost of m. Rapid but short-lived learning would mean the learning curve slopes down almost vertically until m is nearly reached, then stays almost flat after that. It would probably take most of us a half shift to master flipping burgers, but after that we’d have it down pat. Bosses love McJobs. They make us readily replaceable.

Satisfying jobs – let’s call them ‘good jobs’ – will generally be ones where learning occurs at a steady pace more or less indefinitely, probably as part of a defined career path. Bosses would prefer not to offer these, and will always be looking for ways to deskill roles that, for now at least, need to allow workers greater autonomy, ingenuity, and scope for on-the-job learning.
Once you gain experience in a good job, you will soon become much more efficient in the role than an inexperienced replacement would be. This might remain true even if you happen to win a pay rise, work less hours, or start operating at a more leisurely – let’s say human – pace. Any of these things would shift your learning curve up, because you would now have a higher unit labor cost at any given level of experience. Even so, you might still be more efficient than a prospective replacement.


A Final Pet Peeve: The Right to Consumer Financial Industry Data


...Why does the government have to rely on commercially-collected financial industry data sets or voluntary surveys of financial firms to discover the effects of policies the government has put in place? This is just embarrassing. The U.S. government has so little power over the financial industry – an industry that only exists by virtue of the full faith and credit, payments systems, FDIC insurance, etc. provided by the U.S. government – that it cannot demand data from banks and financial firms, but instead must ask politely for voluntary survey answers or search the data market and pay for information like a commoner?

The CFPB fancies itself a “data-driven agency” but is subject to budgetary constraints in obtaining that data. Worse, it can only obtain the data the market chooses to provide, which is often a bunch of incomplete data sets that cover performance of only a sample of any particular financial product or that consist of voluntary unverified survey responses of industry members. Even more galling, some of those data purchases come with use restrictions. For example, it appears that the CFPB's recent report on student loans was based on data provided voluntarily by lenders, data which was stripped of identifying information before it was shared with the government not merely to protect individual borrowers but to prevent identification of any particular lender within the data. Other government agencies are often in the same position. The Government Accountability Office, for example, often relies on data in whatever form industry chooses to sell or voluntarily share it (see, e.g., GAO’s report to Congress on the potential impacts of Dodd-Frank’s mortgage provisions, which forecasts the effects of Dodd-Frank's loan structure and underwriting provisions discussed in one of my prior posts by applying them to mortgages originations between 2001 and 2010, relying on loan-level data purchased on the private data market, data that covers only part of the mortgage market and only some of the pertinent loan structure and underwriting details).

I remember back in 2003 when the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency suggested that the subprime mortgage loan market was price competitive and therefore not "predatory." The OCC based this conclusion in part on loan pricing and loss rate data from a single subprime lender. That lender had provided researchers with its claimed loss rate data from 2002 and with the interest rate sheets for 30-year fixed rate loans offered by that lender during a single week in 2002 for two subprime loan programs the lender ran in Colorado and Utah only. There was no evidence that any of this data was representative of subprime lending generally, or even of this particular lender's national portfolio or outside of the single week in which the rates were in effect.

How convenient for industry to be able to feed regulators the “data” it selects and restrict the use of that data as it sees fit. And if that data turns out less favorable than industry might have expected, it can then argue that any criticism of industry is based on “incomplete data.”

Each and every time the government issues, changes, or removes a regulation, industry should be required to report back with follow-up data, anonymized to protect individual consumer privacy, about which consumers have been affected by the change and how they have been affected. To the extent that trade secrets can be removed from the data, that data should be made available to the research community as well. No one can ever foresee all consequences of any regulatory change, or all the ways in which potentially affected parties might avoid the intended consequences. Particularly when a host of regulatory changes are made all at once, as in the Dodd-Frank regulations, vigilant monitoring of the effects is necessary to address the inevitable problems that will arise. Data alone will not yield all the answers; value-laden judgments are required because costs and benefits are rarely in commensurate currency. But exchanging data is no longer an expensive and time consuming proposition. Financial firms compile reams of data for their internal purposes, and the additional cost of sharing it with the government is almost certainly negligible. There is no need to deny the government the resources industry has. There is no need to regulate in complete dark when some light is available.

March 24, 2013



Dutch elm disease: Toronto DNA-mapping team gets closer to a cure for tree-killing fungus



Decades after Dutch elm disease spread to Canada, killing many of Toronto’s elm trees, researchers have mapped the genome of a fungus that causes it. Understanding the make-up of Ophiostoma ulmi could be a step toward halting future destruction, said Dr. Dinesh Christendat. The University of Toronto associate professor and molecular biologist is part of a team that spent two years mapping the 30-million-letter DNA chain.

“It opens up a multitude of opportunities for research around the world . . . now they can start understanding how it’s infecting these trees,” said Christendat, one of the authors of an article outlining the findings published last week in the journal BMC Genomics.

About 4.4 per cent of Toronto’s 10.2 million trees are elms, said Beth McEwen, the city’s manager of urban forest renewal. She estimated that, before the disease hit the city, elms were closer to 12 per cent of Toronto’s trees. The fungus, which often kills trees two years after infection, is thought to have originated in the Himalayas, hitting the Netherlands shortly after the First World War. In Canada, it was first detected in Quebec in 1945, after spreading from the United States. Eventually it would kill 80 per cent of Toronto’s 35,000 elms in a single year, according to federal research...elms in Toronto include the American, Slippery and Siberian varieties. The latter is resistant to the fungus, which interrupts nutrient distribution by blocking the flow of sap....Christendat said the idea of using the university’s sequencer to map the fungus genome was sparked over coffee with a colleague who focuses on forestry.

“Instead of trying to control the spread of the organism by restricting the movement of firewood and (infected) beetles, we could try to get rid of the fungus itself,” Christendat said, adding that research in Quebec is looking at a second variation of the Dutch elm disease fungus.

“It’s very important to protect (the elms) remaining.”

Weekend Economists Volvemos a Puerto Rico May 22-25, 2015

As promised, the survey of La Isla del Encanto continues...

Christopher Columbus put Puerto Rico on the map, so to speak. He brought disease, slavery, Catholicism and Capitalism to the tribes that had lived forever without them.

But in 1898, Republican President William McKinley declared war on Spain (the Spanish-American War) and Puerto Rico, long desired by the Navy as a fueling station, was one of the plums of that victorious conquest....

The Spanish–American War (Spanish: Guerra hispano-estadounidense) was a conflict in 1898 between Spain and the United States, the result of U.S. intervention in the Cuban War of Independence. U.S. attacks on Spain's Pacific possessions led to involvement in the Philippine Revolution and ultimately to the Philippine–American War.

Revolts against Spanish rule had occurred for some years in Cuba. There had been war scares before, as in the Virginius Affair in 1873. In the late 1890s, US public opinion was agitated by anti-Spanish propaganda led by journalists such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst which used yellow journalism to criticize Spanish administration of Cuba. After the mysterious sinking of the US Navy battleship Maine in Havana harbor, political pressures from the Democratic Party and certain industrialists pushed the administration of Republican President William McKinley into a war he had wished to avoid. Compromise was sought by Spain, but rejected by the United States which sent an ultimatum to Spain demanding it surrender control of Cuba. First Madrid, then Washington, formally declared war.

Although the main issue was Cuban independence, the ten-week war was fought in both the Caribbean and the Pacific. US naval power proved decisive, allowing expeditionary forces to disembark in Cuba against a Spanish garrison already brought to its knees by nationwide Cuban insurgent attacks and further wasted by yellow fever. Numerically superior Cuban, Philippine, and US forces obtained the surrender of Santiago de Cuba and Manila despite the good performance of some Spanish infantry units and fierce fighting for positions such as San Juan Hill. With two obsolete Spanish squadrons sunk in Santiago de Cuba and Manila Bay and a third, more modern fleet recalled home to protect the Spanish coasts, Madrid sued for peace.

The result was the 1898 Treaty of Paris, negotiated on terms favorable to the US, which allowed it temporary control of Cuba, and ceded indefinite colonial authority over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine islands from Spain. The defeat and collapse of the Spanish Empire was a profound shock to Spain's national psyche, and provoked a thorough philosophical and artistic revaluation of Spanish society known as the Generation of '98. The United States gained several island possessions spanning the globe and a rancorous new debate over the wisdom of expansionism.

The war began exactly fifty-two years after the Mexican–American War began, and was one of only five US wars to have been formally declared by Congress.

And things have been downhill ever since....our Instant Empire!

Scientists Resurrect Bonkers Extinct Frog That Gives Birth Through Its Mouth


In 1983, the world lost one of its weirdest frogs. The gastric-brooding frog, native to tiny portions of Queensland, Australia, gave birth through its mouth, the only frog to do so (in fact, very few other animals in the entire animal kingdom do this--it's mostly this frog and a few fish). It succumbed to extinction due to mostly non-human-related causes--parasites, loss of habitat, invasive weeds, a particular kind of fungus. There were two subspecies, the northern and souther gastric-brooding frog, and they both became extinct in the mid-80s sometime.

Except--what if they didn't?

Taking place at the University of Newcastle, the quest to revive the gastric-brooding frog became known as the Lazarus Project. Using somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), a method for cloning, the project has achieved the major step forward of creating an early embryo of the extinct frog. Essentially, they found a related frog--the great barred frog, which also lives in Queensland and has cool eye markings, like it's wearing sunglasses--deactivated its eggs, and replaced them with eggs taken from the extinct frog.

Even though the gastric-brooding frog has been extinct for decades, it's possible to do this because individual specimens were kept preserved in, believe it or not, everyday deep freezers. When going through somatic-cell nuclear transfer, the eggs began to divide and form into the early embryo stage.

The embryos didn't survive much longer than that, but it was confirmed that these embryos contain genetic information from the gastric-brooding frog--that yes, in fact, they have brought it back to life. The researchers are confident that this is a "technical, not biological" problem at this stage to breed gastric-brooding frogs to adulthood. This is a big step forward for the worldwide attempts to revive extinct animals--the Lazarus Project researchers will soon meet with those working to revive the woolly mammoth, dodo, and other extinct beasties to share what they've learned.


Oh, and in case you were wondering: the gastric-brooding frog lays eggs, which are coated in a substance called prostaglandin. This substance causes the frog to stop producing gastric acid in its stomach, thus making the frog's stomach a very nice place for eggs to be. So the frog swallows the eggs, incubates them in her gut, and when they hatch, the baby frogs crawl out her mouth. How delightfully weird!

Beau Biden, U.S. vice president's son, hospitalized


Beau Biden, a son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, has been hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington, the vice president's office said on Tuesday. Biden, 46, a former Delaware attorney general, is undergoing treatment at the facility. No further details were available.

After eight years as attorney general, Biden joined the investor law firm Grant & Eisenhofer in 2015.

He served a yearlong tour in Iraq as a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard and underwent surgery at a cancer center in Texas last year. He suffered a mild stroke in 2010.

In a message to voters posted on his website in April 2014, Biden, a Democrat like his father, said he planned to run for governor of the mid-Atlantic state.

Obama's new rules for police actually ban just one new piece of equipment — the bayonet


Yesterday, President Obama made headlines announcing new rules to limit the federal government's sale of military equipment to local police departments. As The Week's Peter Weber reported, the ban prohibited the Pentagon selling "tracked armored vehicles, weapons or ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, camouflage uniforms, grenade launchers, or bayonets" to police.

Unfortunately, an investigation by The Washington Examiner found that only one of the items on Obama's ban list (the bayonet) is actually affected by the rule change — the rest were already banned, some for more than two decades.

Meanwhile, Obama's rules do not ban the sale of other military equipment, notably mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles — the armored vehicles that became a defining image of police militarization in Ferguson, Missouri — to local police. And though the Obama Administration says it will consider having police departments return some of the equipment they've already received, it's worth noting that some departments have already tried to do this, only to have their returns refused by the Pentagon.

Finally, it is potentially significant that Obama's prohibition targeted the "sale" of military equipment to local police, but past equipment transfers have typically been loans or gifts provided free of charge without a sales transaction.
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