404 (15 January 2020)

Welcome!  The articles below caught my attention this week.  What are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********).  Article titles preceded by [SR] require a subscription.

(9 October 2017)The flaws a Nobel Prize-winning economist wants you to know about yourselfQuartz

********A nice summary of some of the central ideas of behavioral economics, particularly as related to Richard Thaler.  Biased thinking often results in behavior that might in some conceptualizations be regarded as not rational.  Evidently the economics version of “Darwin’s Bulldog” for those critical of behavioral economic is Gerd Gigerenzer, as noted in “Behavioral Economics’ Latest Bias: Seeing Bias Wherever It Looks.”

(8 January 2020)The Surprising History of McDonald’s and the Civil Rights MovementThe New York Times

——–[This is a review of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, by Marcia Chatelain.]  “Say the name McDonald’s, and what comes to mind?  Tasty hamburgers or hardened arteries?  Entry-level jobs or dead-end McJobs?  Responsive community outreach or mercenary corporate power?  In Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,’ Marcia Chatelain has written a smart and capacious history suggesting that McDonald’s should summon all of those thoughts, and then some.”  The book recounts “a somewhat bizarre but incredibly powerful marriage between a fast-food behemoth and the fight for civil rights.”  The partnership between “the civil rights movement and the McDonald’s Corporation bristled with compromises and contradictions from the beginning.”  A story relating Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Ralph Abernathy makes that clear.  “Throughout this impressively judicious book, [Chatelain] . . . is attuned to the circumstances that encourage increasingly intricate ties between McDonald’s and black communities across the country.  This isn’t just a story of exploitation or, conversely, empowerment; it’s a cautionary tale about relying on the private sector to provide what the public needs, and how promises of real economic development come up short.”

********The review concludes noting that Chatelain writes: “History encourages us to be more compassionate toward individuals navigating few choices . . . and history cautions us to be far more critical of the institutions and structures that have the power to take choices away.”  A book worth reading.

(10 January 2020)Ethan Brown went vegan but missed fast food.  So he started a revolutionThe Los Angeles Times

********Ethan Brown is the founder and CEO of Beyond Meat.  This wide-ranging article discusses Beyond Meat’s origin, products, and challenges, as well as providing information about Ethan Brown himself.  The origin story goes back to when Brown was in middle school standing in line at a Roy Rogers to order his favorite, the Double R Bar Burger, which “contains a quarter-pound beef patty, a seared slice of Smithfield ham and American cheese, all stuffed into a buttered Kaiser roll.”  Having a love of animals “fostered by a rural dairy farm his father operated as a side business,” that day the 13-year old began to feel differently about things as it “dawned on him that his cravings were being sated by cows’ milk and butchered steers and pigs.”  Brown’s father Peter G. Brown is a philosopher at McGill University.

Brown’s success thus far—he is reputed as having a net worth of $400 million—has been oriented by a desire to replicate the taste and texture of meat products, rather than simply provide a substitute for them.  In doing so he has sought to produce for a much larger market, holding that “our job here is to enable a mainstream consumer to make healthier choices in their life and do it where they eat.”

(10 January 2020)Economists Have No Idea What Replaces Free TradeBloomberg.com

********Columnist Noah Smith attended the annual meeting of the American Economic Association and reports on a session he attended entitled “Making global markets work for American workers.”  He notes that the participants “laid out the problems with free trade, the shortcoming of U.S. trade policy during the past few decades and some suggestions for improvement.  But although the economists did a great job of critiquing the old free-trade consensus, there was no clear idea of what to replace it with.”  Nonetheless, one thing that “economists almost all agree on . . . is that tariffs are a bad response to the drawbacks of free trade, serving mainly as a tax on domestic consumers.  They also invite retaliation, causing more carnage.  But if not tariffs, then what?  So far, there’s no clear answer.”

(10 January 2020)Chronicling a Community, and a Country, in Economic CrisisThe New York Times

********This is a review of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  Kristof and WuDunn, who are married to one another, received a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for journalism for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests.  Kristof grew up on a small family farm in rural Oregon in the 1960s and 70s, near Yamhill, population 1,105.  Tightrope offers “a litany of stories from across the country, revealing the structural causes of countless so-called personal failures among the working poor. 

Most of these stories come from . . . Yamhill, which thrived with blue-collar industry just a few generations ago, [but now] serves as a microcosm for a nation in which life expectancy has alarmingly declined.”  In contrast to some authors of the plight of the working class who left their rural, working class homes and left them behind, “Kristof remains tied to the strained community through friends and the sheep farm” on which he grew up.  As a result, Yamhill is “conveyed up close by way of detailed reporting on living people—intimate access achieved because the authors, while outliers with respect to their professional status and home on the opposite coast, are also of the place.”  The authors “show over and over how ‘bad choices’ are rooted in problems bigger than the individual: childhood abuse, lack of knowledge, dearth of resources.” 

            Tightrope “catches what many analyses miss about struggling communities across color lines: an undercurrent of self-hatred, in which people blame themselves for bad outcomes and are loath to ask for a ‘handout.’”  They note, “One hazard of our social Darwinism . . . is that it is absorbed even by those who are themselves on the bottom, leading them to stigmatize themselves.”

(11 January 2020)Merchants of ThirstThe New York Times

********This article tells the tale of water supply in Kathmandu, Nepal, where public water supply is problematic and private water tankers now provide substantial amounts of water at prices many times those of public water.  One tanker driver notes about the water he is transporting, “This is like liquid gold . . . Maybe more than gold.”  Such is the situation in a land where water resources are drying up, population is growing and urbanizing, and the public sector has fallen far behind in providing basic human goods like water and services like passable roads. 

(12 January 2020)Ten years on, Citizens United ruling has changed U.S. politics—but not in the way many fearedThe Los Angeles Times

——–“Ten years ago this month, the Supreme Court shocked the American political establishment with the declaration that corporations had the same rights as people in t eyes of the 1st Amendment, and therefore were exempt from restrictions on political spending. . . . A decade later, the ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission has certainly changed the way money influences American politics—but largely in ways that were unforeseen at the time.”  The expected “flood of corporate money into politics in the form of independent expenditures . . . never materialized.  Nor did a cascade of funds from labor unions and other left-oriented groups.  Nevertheless, the ruling Jan. 21, 2010, did unleash a torrent of new money into politics in the form of contributions from wealthy individuals” like Sheldon Adelson, Charles and David Koch, Michael Bloomberg, Tom Stever, and George Soros. 

********Interestingly, “Not one major American corporation spent money independently in support of a candidate in 2014 and 2016 . . . Students of campaign finance believe a major reason for the relatively small corporate contributions . . . is a reluctance to alienate customers.”  As Colby College political scientist Anthony J. Corrado, Jr., who is an expert of campaign finance, notes: “You want to sell soap to everybody, not just to Republicans or just to Democrats.”

            In the process of learning more about the work of Anthony Corrado, I found what  appears to the source of the material used by the Times, namely, the July 2017 Committee for Economic Development publication “The Landscape of Campaign Contributions: Campaign Finance after Citizens United.”  This 24-page publication can be downloaded here.  At the download page, you can also here a 20-minute interview with Corrado in which he discusses some of the surprising things he discovered while studying the 2014 and 2016 elections.

May you have a good week!

Bruce

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