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

Economic writing after my own heart

I have just learned of a new book that I believe every AB reader could relate to.

DON’T BUY IT: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy

by: ANAT SHENKER-OSORIO

An excerpt from the book summary:

This concise, entertaining book shows us how wrong-headed metaphors and deceptive language have muddled our economic thinking, and how better word choice alone can win the debate.
 
Today the term “dismal science” seems almost too kind: too many of today’s economic arguments deserve the mantle of mysticism.
 
Below are a few quotes from a an excerpt of the preface of the book.
 
 
Mainline thinking about the U.S. economy is starting to resemble Scientology: beyond a coterie of high-profile, high-income believers, the more those of us outside the fold learn about the teachings, the wackier the whole enterprise sounds.
 
Members who attempt to leave either orthodoxy—in one case a church and in the other a market-worship orientation—are shunned and ostracized.
 
In a nutshell, the overriding message is twofold: it’s your fault that the Economy sucks, but there’s not much you can do to improve it. This storyline must sound achingly familiar to Christians. The blame for damnation to hell lies with you and you alone. Yet though prayer and piety are good ideas, only God determines who merits redemption. Economic salvation is out of your hands, but that’s no excuse to quit your night job or start spending on luxury items like college.
 
 
I find this next statement most inline with my thinking when for years here at AB I have asked: What do we have an economy for?
 
In most domains, policies must be advertised as serving our national interests, but when GDP talk rolls around, this is no longer the case. We’re here to please the economy, not the other way around.
 
I’ll send this one to my daughter to add to my “gift list”. It’s a list of books she can consider when she wants to give me a gift.

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The Economic System of the Apostles

by Mike Kimel

The Economic System of the Apostles

I am not a Christian, but if I was, I suspect the following verses from the Acts of the Apostles would have an impact on my life.

Acts of the Apostles, 2: 44-47

And all that believed were together, and had all things
common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all
[men], as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one
accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat
their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and
having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church
daily such as should be saved.

Acts of the Apostles, 4: 32-35

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart
and of one soul: neither said any [of them] that ought of the things
which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And
with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the
Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any
among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or
houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
And laid [them] down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made
unto every man according as he had need.”

Acts of the Apostles, 5: 1-11

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife,
sold a possession, And kept back [part] of the price, his wife also
being privy [to it], and brought a certain part, and laid [it] at the
apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine
heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back [part] of the price
of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it
was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this
thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And
Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and
great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young
men arose, wound him up, and carried [him] out, and buried [him]. And
it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not
knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me
whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.
Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to
tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have
buried thy husband [are] at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then
fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and
the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying [her] forth,
buried [her] by her husband. And great fear came upon all the
church, and upon as many as heard these things.

How do you interpret these selections?

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Trade and Development

Trade and Development

Run 75411 picked up this recent report over at Economists View where someone (Goldilocksisableachblond?) pointed to a recent UN report TRADE AND DEVELOPMENT REPORT, 2012

Run says: There are some interesting comments within the Overview to the much longer report, which I found germaine to what is happening in the US and which have been addressed before by many of us. I have not had a chance to read the entire report. Bolding within the quotes are my own. I am more interested in your thoughts and comments. This is on developed countries and there is more on developing countries to be added later.

The turning point: financial liberalization and “market-friendly” policy reforms
In order to comprehend the causes of growing inequality, it should be borne in mind that the trend towards greater inequality has coincided with a broad reorientation of economic policy since the 1980s. In many countries, trade liberalization was accompanied by deregulation of the domestic financial system and capital-account liberalization, giving rise to a rapid expansion of international capital flows. International finance gained a life of its own, increasingly moving away from financing for real investment or for the international flow of goods to trading in existing financial assets. Such trading often became a much more lucrative business than creating wealth through new investments.

More generally, the previous more interventionist approach of public policy, which strongly focused on reducing high unemployment and income inequality, was abandon. This shift was based on the belief that the earlier approach could not solve the problem of stagflation that had emerged in many developed countries in the second half of the 1970s. It was therefore replaced by a more “market-friendly” approach, which emphasized the removal of presumed market distortions and was grounded in the strong belief in a superior static efficiency of markets.” (Page 18)

The failure of labour market and fiscal reforms
Just ahead of the new jump in unemployment in developed countries − from an average of less than 6 per cent in 2007 to close to 9 per cent in 2011 − the share of wages in GDP had fallen to the lowest level in the post-war era. Due to their negative effect on consumer demand, neither lower average wages nor greater wage differentiation at the sector or firm level can be expected to lead to a substitution of labour for capital and reduce unemployment in the economy as a whole. In addition, greater wage differentiation among firms to overcome the current crisis in developed countries is not a solution either, because it reduces the differentiation of profits among firms. Yet it is precisely the profit differentials which drive the investment and innovation dynamics of a market economy. If less efficient firms cannot compensate for their lower profits by cutting wages, they must increase their productivity and innovate to survive.”
(Page 22)

A reorientation of wage and labour market policies is essential ?????????????????

In addition to employment- and growth-supporting monetary and fiscal policies, an appropriate incomes policy can play an important role in achieving a socially acceptable degree of income inequality while generating employment-creating demand growth. A central feature of any incomes policy should be to ensure that average real wages rise at the same rate as average productivity. Nominal wage adjustment should also take account of an inflation target. When, as a rule, wages in an economy rise in line with average productivity growth plus an inflation target, the share of wages in GDP remains constant and the economy as a whole creates a sufficient amount of demand to fully employ its productive capacities.”

Run here: I think as Spencer and others have so aptly pointed out, productivity gains have been skewed to Capital since the seventies.

Influencing income distribution through taxation

The net demand effect of an increase in taxation and higher government spending is stronger when the distribution of the additional tax burden is more progressive, since part of the additional tax payments is at the expense of the savings of the taxpayers in the higher income groups, where the propensity to save is higher than in the lower income groups.

The experience of the first three post-war decades in developed countries, when marginal and corporate tax rates were higher but investment was also higher, suggests that the willingness of entrepreneurs to invest in new productive capacity does not depend primarily on net profits at a given point in time; rather, it depends on their expectations of future demand for the goods and services they can produce with that additional capacity. These expectations are stabilized or even improve when public expenditures rise, and, through their income effects, boost private demand.

Taxing high incomes, in particular in the top income groups, through greater progressivity of the tax scale does not remove the absolute advantage of the high income earners nor the incentive for others to move up the income ladder. Taxing rentier incomes and incomes from capital gains at a higher rate than profit incomes from entrepreneurial activity – rather than at a lower rate as practiced so far in many countries – appears to be an increasingly justifiable option given the excessive expansion of largely unproductive financial activities.
Page 26

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The Brute Economics of Slavery

Preramble: I posted this on my blog exactly a year ago today, in slightly different form.  Dan linked to it once, from here, just a few weeks before I started writing for Angry Bear.  Recent comments got me thinking about it again. 

 In thinking about the economics of slavery, I’m considering slavery and serfdom to be economic near-equivalents. Of course, I recognize that there are qualitative differences between chattel-slavery and serfdom:

–  In slavery, the master owns the person of the slave; in serfdom the master owns the labor output of the serf, either as a stated labor quantity, a stated output quantity, or some combination.

–  Serfs enjoy some measure of freedom, and can accumulate personal wealth, after the rents are paid; slaves do not and cannot.  (The point, though is to keep rents so high that accumulation is prohibitively unlikely.)

–  It might be easier to gradually and incrementally impose serfdom on an existing population. First generation slaves need to be captured, conquered, or in some other way removed from – and deprived of – their native state. Thus, serfdom is imposed on the indigenous population, slaves are more typically imported.

–  The individual slave is a depreciating asset.  But, as a population, slaves are self-renewing, since, unlike Shakers, they reproduce.   Serfs are factor inputs rather than assets.  (On the other hand, the master also owes the serf protection, and sustenance in times of famine.  In that sense, the serf resembles an asset that requires maintenance.)

These are significant differences, to be sure, but mostly from a sociological or political perspective.  In terms of the brute economics, they are somewhere between second order and trivial.

The necessary conditions for reducing a population to serfdom are as follows.

– A large wealth and power disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

– Perhaps more significantly, the ownership of virtually all assets by an elite class, with severely limited opportunities for the general population to own or accumulate assets.

– A poorly educated population with limited skill sets.

– Severely impaired individual mobility, due to an impossible debt and/or tax burden and legal restrictions.

– Government of the masters, by the masters, for the masters, with little or no sense of worth or justice for the serfs.  This enforces and reinforces the previous point.

– A social and/or religious system that recognizes the inherent meritocracy of the master class.

– A population that is scared or coerced into ceding their freedom to the masters in exchange for security.

– The political will to deprive people of their fundamental human dignity.

Via Krugman, we find Delong’s repost of a short treatise on slavery and serfdom by Evrey Domar.

Domar points out additional requirements, and a mechanism for serfdom to develop.

– Low population density: Labor scarcity favors slavery/serfdom, since the cost of freeman labor will be high.  I’ll admit I didn’t get this until is was stated the other way around.  Population growth favors freeman labor since the competition for jobs drives wages down.  (Note the implicit denial of the “Lump of labor fallacy” canard.)

– A large class of what Domar calls “servitors” who owe allegiance, taxes, and military support to a higher authority.  They are the equivalent of medieval vassals of a liege lord, who extract from the local peasant population not only their own means of existence, but that of their liege, as well.   This is the beginning of, and most literal sense of “rent-seeking.”  The process is that, starting with a free population, by taxation or other forms of indebtedness, the freedom of the common people is eroded.  Those whom Domar calls “servitors” I call leaches.

– Explicit Government complicity in restricting mobility, via legal structures. Besides limiting the population’s mobility in a gross sense, it also eliminates the possibility of competition among different servitors.

In this way, serfdom developed in depopulated* Western Europe during or after the late Roman Empire, and in Eastern Europe many centuries later – in fact, long after serfdom has disappeared in the West.  In each case, the critical enabling factor was low population density, resulting in a critical shortage of labor.

Basically, it comes down to an economic evaluation of costs and returns.   But these are not easy to determine with any precision in the abstract, and probably not in the actual event, either, unless the increment is quite large.  The slave, and even the serf, needs maintenance in a way that the free laborer does not.  The serf can be compelled to work past his willingness in way that the free man cannot.  On the other hand, the free man might have higher willingness and unit productivity.  The wild card here is what the free man can demand as wages, and that depends on the competition for available jobs.  The bottom line is that serfdom will dominate whenever the profit (revenues less costs) of keeping a serf is greater than that of hiring a free laborer.

Of course, all of this was long ago – pre-industrial revolution in fact, and centered on a low-technology agrarian system.  What message does it have for us today?   Here, Krugman wonders** why, after the the plagues of the mid-14th century, serfdom wasn’t reestablished in Western Europe, since the population was greatly depleted.  Domar has no clear answer, and Delong won’t hazard a guess. I will — but it’s only a guess.  Perhaps society had moved on, and the culture was no longer accepting of serfdom as a social institution.  Serfdom had faded away from lack of interest and due to population growth many decades before the plague epidemics occurred around 1350.  There were sufficient numbers of artisans, craftsmen, guilds, merchants, and bankers, such that tying people back to the soil might not have been easy, or even desirable.   The growth of towns might have played a part.  Another social factor is that in late Eastern European serfdom, the servitor’s status was determined by the number of serfs he controlled.  I don’t think that was ever the case in the West.  Sometimes social factors trump economics.

Also, as Barbara Tuchman points out in A Distant Mirror (Ch 11, frex.), though the population decreased due to the plague, total wealth in coins and material possessions did not, and they were largely in the hands of the elite.  It could be that with this wealth maintained, the brute economic drive for serfdom was absent, or severely attenuated, despite the labor shortage.

Krugman also wonders: “And an even bigger question: why hasn’t indentured servitude made a comeback in the modern era? Yes, I know, human rights and all that – but if it was profitable to have indentured servants in the modern world, I’m sure that Richard Scaife’s think tanks would have no trouble finding justifications, and assorted Christian groups would explain why it’s God’s will.”  

Well, that was in 2003, when Scaife was well known and the Koch brothers weren’t. This statement also gets a lot of ridicule in comments at Delong’s Domar post. But, there were certainly many Christian apologists for slavery, and you can see today that tea-baggers and the Christian Right do not exactly align themselves on the side of human rights vs the brute force of the elite.

So Krugman’s question remains, hanging over us like the sword of Damocles.  Here is the way I see it. First off, you need to be skeptical about translating a socio-economic phenomenon from a different place and time to the here-and-now.  Our population is not sparse nor badly educated (yet), and we do not have a pre-industrial agrarian economy.  But these differences effect the possibilities and modes of implementation.  They don’t effect the ongoing defects of human nature that Krugman obliquely alludes to.  These are greed, ego, and the lust for power, and you can see them manifesting themselves right here in the U.S. today in the struggle between labor and the minions of the wealthy elite.

When I think about serfdom, I also think about more modern analogs – sharecroppers, coal miners who owed their soul to the company sto’e, child laborers in early industrialized England, indentured servants, the exploitation of illegal immigrants, and the union busting practices that have been highly successful here since 1980.

In evaluating the conditions that favor and disfavor serfdom as such, something is missing from the analysis.  That is that somewhere along whatever spectrum of conditions makes serfdom more or less economically favorable to the elite, there is a point (or region) of indifference.  If working people are reduced to the point where the economics are no less favorable to the elite than serfdom, then actually going through the formality of making them serfs simply isn’t worth the effort, and doesn’t make any economic difference.

What do we have today?

– The largest wealth disparity since before the great depression – at every stratum of society, growing larger every day.

– An all out assault by the moneyed elite on the wealth and status of working people.   Union busting is one of the tools.

– Deliberate undermining of public education.

– Segments of the population tied to the land by under-water mortgages or the inability to unload a property.

– Popular social movements with religious backing that favor the interests of the elite over the interests of the people.

– Constant fear-mongering as a pretext for inducing people to give up their basic rights.

– A moneyed elite that effectively owns government.

Krugman’s apparent underlying assumption, which I share, is that – for the servitors at least, and possibly for the serfs as well – serfdom is a strategy of least resistance, and therefore the default social order, whenever the conditions for it are right.

One of the things that can make conditions not right for serfdom is regulated entrepreneurial capitalism – inventiveness, innovation, industry, and real competition.  Capitalism generates wealth, increases wages, opportunities and the standard of living, and reinforces concepts of freedom, liberty, and fair practices.  Effective regulation assures that fair practices are maintained, keeps the playing field even, and increases the likelihood that reward is in some way proportional to a combination of skill and effort.  Capitalism is expansionist by nature, serfdom is static.

Unfortunately, over time, capitalism transmogrified into Corporatism.

Corporatism, for all its acquisitiveness, is a very different phenomenon.  Ownership is remote.  Assets are used in large part for executive bonuses, dividends, and mergers and acquisitions.  Though the track record of M&A in meeting stated goals is dismal, the real net effect is monopolization – corporatists hate competition.  Corporatism seeks always and everywhere to decrease wages, and is utterly indifferent to the living standards, freedom, and opportunities of anyone outside the elite.  Ethics and fairness are non-existent.  Rewards are in proportion to rapacity.  In other words, Corporatism is the new feudalism.

This is why I say that the goal of the Republican party, as servitors to Scaife, the Koch’s and their ilk, is to take us back to the 12th century – or whatever it’s 21st Century near-equivalent might be.  I’ve stated that trans-national corporations with no loyalty to anyone or anything constitute the real road to serfdom, in contradistinction to what Hayek said.   That is a bit inaccurate, though. Once wage scales are reduced to the par value of slave maintenance, it doesn’t matter what the correct technical description of our condition is, and the elite won’t care.

__________________________________________________
* Antonine Plague of 165-180, Cyprian Plague of 250-270, Justinian Plague of 541-2
** The link to the Surowiecki article that Krugman mentions is broken.  It can be found here.

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The 2012 Version of a Very Old Joke

With apologies to Stan Collender’s Beautiful and Talented Wife (not to mention mine):

James had gathered a mix of friends, acquaintances, and random strangers at his Rent Party, but no one was talking to anyone else. So he decided to get people to talk to each other, using the easiest non-visible variable available:

“Don, what’s your IQ?”
“171.”
“Sharon, what’s your IQ”
“169.”
“Maybe you should take with Don”

James watched as Sharon and Don began a discussion of elementary particle theory, astrophysics, and Ken Rogoff’s chess games.

Encouraged, James continued his efforts.

“Lynn, what’s your IQ?” “151”
“Jorge, what’s your IQ?”
“149.”
“You should talk with Lynn.”

And they were soon discussing the biophysics of bacteriorhodopsin and Hilbert Space.

Thrilled this was working so well, James tried again.

“Steve, what’s your IQ?”
“51.”
“Lucy, what’s your IQ?” “49.”
“You two should probably talk,” James said.

Lucy turned to Steve, “So where do you teach Real Business Cycle Theory?” (h/t Mark Thoma)

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Wealth vs Income

Usually my articles present facts and data and try to drive down to a conclusion. This time, I’m going to drive down to a couple of questions.

Recently, Noah Smith had a post on the subject of economic models titled Filling a hole or priming the pump?  It did quite a bit to restore my lack of faith in the pseudoscience of Economics, but that is more or less beside the point.  Roger Farmer, cited in the post, left a long comment that Noah hoisted up the main page.  Farmer concludes:

My reading of the evidence is that consumption depends primarily on wealth rather than income. That was the lesson of work by Ando and Modigliani, Modigliani, and Friedman in the 1950s. It is for that reason that I support interventions in the asset markets that try to jump-start the economy and reduce unemployment by boosting private wealth. That, in my view, is what quantitative easing has done.

Ok – I’m taking on decades of economic research here, but my first question relates to: “My reading of the evidence is that consumption depends primarily on wealth rather than income.”

First, let’s remember that wealth distribution is on the order of the top 1% owning 40% of the wealth, and the bottom 80% owning 7% of the wealth. And that 7% is not evenly distributed.  There are significant fractions of the population who have a) no wealth at all, or b) negative net worth. Either way, they are living hand to mouth.  This suggests that 1) they have unmet needs, and 2) will spend the next available dollar trying to satisfy one of them. 

So far, this is just a thought experiment.  Let’s take a look at how personal consumption expenditures track disposable income.  Here is percent change from previous year:

Both in the grand sweep and in the year-to-year detail, the curves are pretty much in lock-step.

 Here is the data on a Log Scale:

That’s coordination about as close as you could ever hope to see in real world data.

And if wealth – or it’s perception – were the determinant, wouldn’t you expect some sort of a consumption bump during the housing bubble, when people felt wealthier than their incomes justified?  Let’s look at consumption expenditures per capita.

Here, there is a slope increase, mid last decade, but it’s not great, and it’s no greater than the slope of the late 90’s.  I suppose the tech boom must have had some people feeling wealthy then, as well.  But they weren’t that bottom 80%.  Note that the first graph indicates the personal disposable income was up in those periods as well.  In fact, they were the only up periods since about 1980.

There was also relatively low unemployment in those times, and thus more people with incomes.

Also, it just seems counter-intuitive in a world where, if real people think about money at all, it’s in a personal cash flow context, not in terms of wealth aggregates.  Consuption decision reasoning, to the the extent that it even occurs, is along the lines of: “If I buy this thing, can I still afford to feed my cat?”

So, here is question number 1:

Since to most people “wealth” is miniscule, non-existant, or worse, and given empirical data that closely links consumption to income, how can consumption depend “primarily on wealth rather than income?”

Now let’s look at Excess Reserves of Depository Institutions.

There’s 1.6 trillion QE dollars.  Any left-overs have gone to leveraged speculation causing commodity inflation.

But Farmer says: “I support interventions in the asset markets that try to jump-start the economy and reduce unemployment by boosting private wealth. That, in my view, is what quantitative easing has done.”

If any wealth has been boosted here, it is in the upper reaches of the already wealthy, not among the working stiffs who are highly inclined to spend the next dollar rather than hide it away in Luxombourg or the Cayman Islands.

So, here is question number 2:

How can QE money help the economy when it is either sitting idle or inflating commodity prices?

I have nothing in particular against Roger Farmer, about whom I know nothing, but I am also prompted to ask economists in general:

What in the hell is the matter with you?

So maybe my lack of faith in Economics is the point, after all.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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A Finger Exercise for Dr. Black

The good doctor quotes the Paper of Record:

Garages near Yankee Stadium, built over the objections of Bronx neighbors appalled at losing parkland for yet more parking lots, turn out never to be more than 60 percent full, even on game days. The city has lost public space, the developers have lost a fortune.

and gets distracted a bit:

With something like a stadium the issue is a bit trickier, though it’s clear that they’ve stupidly erred on the side of way too much parking.

Let’s make this easy. We’ll ignore that it was never difficult to park at Yankee Stadium before. (Driving there is another issue.) Let’s just look at expectations of parking needs by Stadium Seating Capacity:

2008 – 56,936

Now – 50,291 (52,325 SRO)

Looks to me as if Seating Capacity is down more than 10% in the new ballpark. Now there are other changes—ticket prices raised, for instance, and I believe more corporate tax deductions “luxury boxes”—that might have affected the number of people who drive to Yankee Stadium positively.

But there were no other major infrastructure improvements: the 155th Street bridge that I used to walk to games over hasn’t been widened, the FDR and the Harlem River Drive are still the same, the bridges all have the same capacity (though the tolls went up on several of those, which might shift people from driving).

Given that, what would you expect to happen if you added parking capacity?

Corollary question: If you were a member of the neighborhood, and knew all of the above in advance, what would your reaction be to losing park space for commercial parking lots?

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OWS and economics

Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Her post in the NYT Economix begins:

The Occupy Wall Street movement, displaced from some key geographic locations, now enjoys a small but significant encampment among economists.

Concerns about the impact of growing economic inequality fit neatly into a larger critique of mainstream economic theory and its deep faith in the efficiency of markets.

Many unbelievers (including me) insist that we inhabit a global capitalist system rather than an efficient market. Willingness to use the C-word (capitalism) often signals concerns about a concentration of economic power that unfairly limits individual choices, undermines political democracy, generates financial and ecological crises and limits access to alternative economic ideas.

We can’t address these concerns effectively without a wider discussion of them.

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Dave Dayen Is Wrong

And not in a good way, when he says:

I understand that Republicans are just playing the culture war game here, trying to link Warren and the loony left. I don’t know how that will play in, er, Massachusetts. And the world has moved on from the Hard Hat riots and the 1972 campaign. The hard hats have been brutalized just as much as the rest of us in this economy.

No, no, no.

The “hard hats” have been brutalized much more than “the rest of us” in this economy. And the economy before that. And, basically, every one since 1986,* Bruce Bartlett’s protestations notwithstanding.

Note especially that having all those English Literature and Anthropology majors with degrees hasn’t hurt.

*The data only breaks down from 1992 onward, so you’ll have to wait for my tribute to the 1986 “tax reform” act.

cross-posted from Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo

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Presimetrics Review

Noted for the record: author Piaw Na reviews Mike Kimel‘s Presimetrics at Piaw’s Blog:

This is a great book to read if you’ve got a statistical bent and are willing to follow the data rather than your pre-conceived notions….Many people like to say that they’re data-driven, but most people actually have prejudices that lead them to believe what they believe, as opposed to actually looking into data and correlations. This book goes a long way towards providing those who want data the actual data with which to base their beliefs on….This is the kind of book that deserves to sell better than it does. Highly Recommended.

I left out all the good parts, so Go Read the Whole Thing.

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