Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Review of Stuff Matters

by David Zetland (One handed economist)

Mark Miodownik’s 2014 book is another in the most-welcome genre of “pop science” — a genre of books that explains scientific ideas in clear and comprehensible prose.

Miodownik’s insights into the abundant materials surrounding us (glass, steel, plastic, etc.) really help you grasp the miracles that scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and geeks have brought to our lives. The paradox is that “stuff” costs us so little that we often forget its tremendous value. (One of Miodownik’s funnier lines guesses at what would happen if we thought more deeply about the value of concrete: We’d be “treated as lunatics if we spent the whole time running our fingers down a concrete wall and sighing.”) This book highlights those values while explaining how we got access to the stuff and the ways in which various stuff has transformed human existence.

Indeed, humans trace their own history in terms of access to stuff. From the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, we have moved into the Hydrocarbon Age, which may be — if the negative impacts of fossil fuels arrive as predicted — the last age of positive improvements before the cycle reverses, and we put our energies into defending and withdrawing rather than building and expanding.

Each chapter in the book covers a different material, so I will (as usual) transcribe and expand on the notes I made as I was reading.

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Standing on the shoulders of cranks

Standing on the shoulders of cranks

I use the term “crank” affectionately. The figure below is a valiant effort by Arthur O. Dahlberg to depict the “socio-economic process” as a network of troughs, pipes and valves. Even this elaborate contraption is confined to “the movement of the major social variables.”
Dahlberg believed that his chart technique communicated his analysis more effectively than words could. What the chart communicates to me, besides Dahlberg’s intense commitment is “it’s complicated” and “everything is connected to everything else.” That’s not nothing.

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The West “Weeps” for What It Has Sowed

At the Munich Security Conference the U.S. and its allies had no idea of how to handle China, a problem of their greed and stupidity. The West is divided, confused. What to do about Huawei? Really, what to do with China?

So when Mike Pompeo…proclaimed…”we are winning,” the largely European audience was silent and worried in what sense “we” existed longer.
In the meantime, Europe, including the U.K, finds itself in a mincer between the U.S. and China

Unfortunately for us. China has followed the U.S. playbook and has outplayed the West, especially the U.S.

Walter Rostow of the Johnson administration, an avid anti-communist, wrote the playbook: How can an undeveloped nation take its place among the leaders of the world.

The answer: Industrialize as rapidly as possible. Do whatever it takes.  China did just that.

In its five year plans, China acknowledged its debt to Rostow and started to industrialize. While I have described this process many years ago, I again outline it briefly here.

First: China entered the W.T.O. Bill Clinton and Congress were accommodating and instrumental:

Last fall, as all of you know, the United States signed an agreement to bring China into the W.T.O, on terms that will open its markets to American products and investments.
Bill Clinton speaking before Congress, March 9, 1998

Second: China offered dirt cheap labor, labor that had no effective right to bargain
Third: China did not require a company to obey any environmental regulations.
Fourth: China often offered a ten-year grace period without any taxation. If there were taxes they were less than those on its own indigenous firms.
Fifth: China manipulated its currency, making products cheaper to make but getting higher profits in the West.

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Real retail sales continue flat in January; production sector still in recession  

Real retail sales continue flat in January; production sector still in recession

Retail sales increased nominally by +0.3% in January, while December was revised downward by -0.1%, for a net gain of +0.2%. Since consumer inflation increased by +0.4% during those two months, real retail sales were unchanged.  On a per capita basis, they declined less than -0.1%.

This means that neither real retail sales, and real retail sales per capita have made new highs since last August. The former is off -0.4% and the latter -0.6%. Here are both measures, normed to 100 as of then:

As I’ve noted several times recently, We’ve had similar periods of flatness previously during this expansion, for example late 2018 as shown in the above graph. It would still take one more month of a reading below the August peak for me to flip this to neutral. For now it remains a very weak positive.

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Engel Criticizes Trump On Soleimani Assassination

Engel Criticizes Trump On Soleimani Assassination

Juan Cole reports that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Eliot Engel (D-NY) has criticized the administration for its assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in response to a report fresh out of the DOD that said the attack was for past activities by Iran in attacking tankers and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia without any mention of a threat against US personnel in Iraq, the ostensible reason and the only legal reason for doing this.

Cole also reminds that Soleimani had been in Baghdad to negotiate peace with Saudi Arabia at the  invitation of the Iraqi prime minister.  He also reminds us that the Iraqis are denying that the original attack that killed the American contractor and initiated the escalation by the US before the Soleimani attack almost certainly did not come from Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia the US claimed was respoinsible because that Shia militia has not been anywhere near the base in Kirkuk that was attacked for 18 months, with the attack almost surely having come from ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.  This puts the US attack that also killed the Iraqi general who commanded Kata’ib Hezbollah to be utterly illegal and essentially just murder and a war crime.

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Live-blogging the Fifteenth Amendment: February 9, 1869 (2) The Senate votes to reform the Electoral College

Live-blogging the Fifteenth Amendment: February 9, 1869 (2) The Senate votes to reform the Electoral College

As I mentioned several days ago, the Senate endured a pair of marathon sessions on February 8 and 9, 1869, and considered a variety of subjects. Perhaps most breathtakingly, they discussed further amending the Constitution to ensure that the winner of the popular vote was elected President.

Sen. Morton [Republican, Indiana]: I desire to renew the amendment I offered in regard to electing electors directly by the people…. It is very important. It will popularize the whole thing …:

Article XVI
“[As to the Electoral College,] each State shall appoint, by the vote of the people thereof qualified to vote for Representatives in Congress, a number of electors equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled to in the  Congress; but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States shall be appointed an elector; and the Congress shall have power to prescribe the manner in which such electors shall be chosen by the people.”


Sen. Cameron [Republican, Pennsylvania]: I do not see how I can vote for that amendment. If he will allow the people to vote directly for President and Vice President, I will agree to any amendment he will offer for that purpose; but I cannot see what we shall gain by this proposed amendment. If the people are allowed to vote at once for President and Vice President and you count the votes all over the United States, that will come up to the notion which I have held for a long time on the subject, for I think the people ought to be brought directly in contact with the candidates for whom they vote.

Sen. Morton:… It is now left to the legislature. The legislature may elect the electors themselves…. This amendment requires these electors be appointed directly by the people, and leaves to Congress the mode of regulating that appointment….

Sen. Harlan [Republican, Iowa]: … [is it] contemplated by the honorable Senator that an elector may be elected from each Congressional district, or by districts to be arranged by Congress in each State?

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The Gods of Davos Have Spoken

Despite protestations to the contrary, the Gods are not interested in any of its proclaimed stakeholders, be it labor, the environment, or climate change.

As they did in 2007, they still sing the same old tired tunes, blindly pursuing profits at the expense of the health of the globe and of its citizens.

In the World Economic Forum of 2007, Professor Klaus Schwab, proudly announced:

“In today’s increasingly interconnected and complex world….Climate change…all require a coordinated approach, one in which different stakeholders collaborate across geographical boundaries, geographical, industrial…boundaries

“…the need of business not only to serve its shareholders but also its stakeholders–all whose future depends directly or indirectly on business decisions….I have defined this new dimension for responsible business–or “creative capitalism” as our member Bill Gates called it in Davos this year–as Corporate Global Citizenship.”
[italics mine] WEF Annual Report 2007-2008

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Andrew McCabe is not a Ham Sandwich

I am not a lawyer, but I think lawyers agree that grand juries are a pointless relic of the middle ages. There’s nothing to be done, because they are mentioned in the 5th amendment, but they are silly. Over here east of the English Channel they don’t exist. Decisions about possible indictments are made by judges.

One problem with grand juries is that the prosecutor is the only lawyer allowed in the room (unless a witness happens to be a lawyer). Also, since there isn’t yet a defendant, targets or possible future targets can’t present their case. So, the cliche is that a commpetent prosecutor could convince a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. There is, it seemed, no limit to the feebleness of a case sufficient to enable a prosecutor to convince jurors to indict. Note the past tense of “seemed”.

Thus my interest in the extremely boring case of former sometimes acting FBI director Andrew McCabe (they guy who was fired 2 days before his pension vested). He is accused of being other than frank when discussing the possibility of misconduct which harmed Hillary Clinton. This makes him a minor player in Trump’s deep state fantasy in which everyone who has anything to do with any investigation of Trump is alleged to be an anti Trump criminal based on any alleged misconduct (which is usually misconduct harmful to Hillary Clinton because there was a whole lot of that).

The DOJ has just announced that the investigation is closed and that no charges will be sought (note the difference from the Comey press conference about how no charges against Clinton would be sought even though she dd not meet James Comey’s exalted ethical standards and respect for rules [other than the one he was breaking by calling a press conference]).

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Doctor Surprise Billing

This doctor is a bit much; but, he gets a point across which I have been making also. The issue(s) Dr. ZDogg  is describing about what commercial healthcare insurance, Medicare Advantage plans, hospitals, and now doctors are doing needs to be told over and over again. Schumer and the Senate have to release the portion of the House Budget bill that dealt with Surprise billing.

ZDoggMD reacts to ridiculous medical bills, MedPage Today, February 6, 2020


Going to her PCP located in Manhattan, a woman complains of a sore throat. Forget the Manhattan part of this as various versions (surprise billing)  of this situation are happening everywhere. The doctor swabbed the throat, sent it off to the lab, ordered some tests, and then gave her a prescription for antibiotics. She took her meds and went on vacation feeling better.

The tests came back negative. She later received a bill for ~$26,000.

The  lab was out of network which usually results with insurance only paying a portion of the bill and the patient the balance unless the insurance negotiates a lesser charge (hospital 3rd party employees) which they will pay. This is another version of Surprise Billing, not in a hospital setting, which we have heard so much about, and the patient gets screwed with the balance of the Surprise Billing.

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