Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Does Per Capita GDP Mean Anything?

In Specific Facts on July 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm

There are various ways to measure the level of a country’s development. Choosing the right methodology for quantifying economic status is critical for thinking about the problem of poverty effectively. On a macroeconomic level, the most common indicator is per capita GDP. But I am not sure if per capita GDP is really a good measuring stick for the relative prosperity of a country. The statistic is used as a proxy for development, without taking into consideration the relative concentration of wealth.

The obvious example is with Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country of 600,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country has a GDP of six billion dollars, for a GDP per capita of around ten thousand dollars. Yet, 80% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. Equatorial Guinea is still classified as one of the forty eight LDCs (least developed countries) and is a recipient of donor funding from other governments (though, according to the Istanbul Programme of Action, the product of the latest UN conference on LDC development, Equatorial Guinea, along with its neighbor Angola, is eligible for graduation – hooray!).  

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equitorial Guinea since 1979The majority of the country’s revenues come from raw materials, namely oil. Like many of its fellow oil-producing nations in SSA, Equatorial Guinea is controlled by a dictatorial regime: kleptocrat Brigadier General and his free-wheeling children. Farmer, businessman, cop, marine during Vietnam, and runner-up for Alabama Ag Commissioner (so listen up!) Dale Peterson would refer to them as “thugs and criminals”. Foreign Policy’s Ken Silverstein recently penned an article on the outrageous spending habits of the dictator’s son.

Warning: if you are an optimist and believe the world is a just and equitable place, this article is not for you:

A postage stamp of a country with a population of a mere 650,000 souls, Equatorial Guinea would be of little international consequence if it didn’t have one thing: oil, and plenty of it. The country is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest producer of oil after Nigeria and Angola, pumping around 346,000 barrels per day, and is both a major supplier to and reliable supporter of the United States. Over the past 15 years, ExxonMobil, Hess Corp., and other American firms have collectively invested several billion dollars in Equatorial Guinea, which exports more of its crude to the U.S. market than any other country.

Energy revenues have flowed into the pockets of the country’s elite, but virtually none has trickled down to the poor majority; since the oil boom began, the country has rocketed to one of the world’s highest per capita incomes — and one of its lowest standards of living. Nearly four-fifths of its people live in abject poverty; child mortality has increased to the point that today some 15 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s children die before reaching age 5, making it one of the deadliest places on the planet to be young.

But this is not a post about Equatorial Guinea (though it could be, since it is such a crazy country, but that will come later). The example illustrates a larger point about the relevance of per capita GDP. The statistic belies the tremendous disparity of wealth between the rich and poor. The relative concentration of money in the hands of a few elites makes a country like Equatorial Guinea a very poor nation with a few incredibly rich people; not a moderately wealthy nation.

There exists a tool to quantify the relative income inequality of the countries of the world. The GINI Coefficient, as it is called, measures the disparity of wealth among the population of a country. Unsurprisingly, Equatorial Guinea has one of the highest GINI Coefficients in the world. In fact, many economies dominated by exploitation of natural resources (typically oil), particularly in SSA, have high GINI coefficients.  Only by looking at this key indicator in conjunction with per capita GDP can one really get a sense for the level of economic development in a particular country.


Dueling Conundrums: Existential, Institutional

In Specific Facts on July 25, 2011 at 1:38 pm

“An ‘unemployed’ existence is a worse negation of life than death itself.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, 1930 1

The unemployment rate is 9.2 percent and flat. A few jobs are changing hands, but a paltry number of new jobs is emerging. In the quiet and forgotten arenas of the unemployed there are all kinds of people: n00bz like me, specialists, generalists, the indefatigably loyal, the tirelessly disloyal, careerists, altruists, micromanagers, macromanagers, the fastidiously ethical, petty Eichmanns, the imaginative, the uptight, rule-breakers, innovators, former or future members of the creative class, the incessantly polite, the well-bred and good-mannered, the sociable, the neurotic, rugs that hold the whole room together, natural accounts men, women of substance, the sharply dressed, the sloppy, level-182 wizards, level-6 thieves, bookworms, adrenaline junkies, snooty hipsters, supplicants, heroic entrepreneurs, pot-bellied boomers, the idiosyncratically tattooed, those who are so unobtrusive they might as well not exist from an employer’s perspective, peacemakers and gladiators. Some of these people are waiting to be shuffled into the right job by the invisible Sorting Hat of the market. They believe in the Great American Meritocracy even though this belief strikes against their self-worth.

Belief in meritocracy is part of our culture: it is fundamentally American – that fair, can-do antithesis to the ancien régime we tell ourselves exists in the rest of the world. Belief in meritocracy fosters the hope that we’ll get our just deserts: soon enough we’ll interview and be hired for that perfect job, and finally we’ll have something worthy towards which to direct our worldly efforts. But we think about it a bit, and soon we realize that we’re the ones who lost our jobs to begin with. If the meritocracy exists, we were rejected by it: the bottom 9.2 percent. And so the plight of the unemployed person collapses to either self-loathing or cynicism.

It would have been easy for me to choose cynicism. The self-loathing conundrum passed me over: it was an act of God that rendered me unemployed. Here in America, I am a pilgrim in purgatory, materializing in the middle of things and forced to conclude that luck is often the dominant factor in the success or failure of an individual.  From what I’ve seen, there is little evidence to support the existence of a meritocracy. If the Great American Meritocracy ever existed, it’s long since collapsed under the weight of more than 14,000,000 unemployed Americans.

Contrary to their promise, globalization and information technologies have made coordinating qualified people and suitable jobs even more challenging: as soon as a job anywhere is posted, 1000 resumes from the U.S., 1000 resumes from the Philippines, and 1000 resumes from India are sent in electronically. Much of this is spam or its effective equivalent: generalized kluges of keywords that have little to do with the actual position they’re carpet bombing. These resumes come from the uber-cynics: people who have given up on or spurned the meritocratic procedures of judiciously writing cover letters and diligently customizing resumes to specific positions. They have no idea where the Predator is, so they’re just firing blindly into the jungle.

And so these two conundrums – existential and institutional –  feed off each other: the existential foments the institutional, and the institutional in turn catalyzes the existential. It’s easy to get caught in the current of it all.


One of my real-life friends (as opposed to the fictitious friends of my last entryin this series) emailed me a couple months ago when my job search was in a different phase entirely:

Job applications are an exercise in humility and perseverance. Congrats on getting 17 apps done! It can certainly be depressing. You should set a goal of applying to 100-200 jobs in order to a) get an offer; b) like the offer; and c) get your mind off who happens to not be calling you for an interview. That sounds terrible, but I think it’s realistic these days. Quantity is the ticket. Not only do you have to compete with unemployed advanced degree holders but you also have to compete with annoying people who already have good jobs and spend a little time every Saturday applying to even better ones.

When 2008 happened, human resources was the first sector to get hit with massive layoffs. Once it’s apparent a recession is upon us and there will be no new hiring for some time, (perhaps ironically) people in charge of hiring are let go. HR doesn’t start expanding again until it’s clear the economy as a whole is expanding. So the labor market of 2011 has invented several shortcuts for one hiring manager and two junior assistants to sort through 10,000 resumes. The most common shortcut seems to be to organize resumes in a database by keyword. If the job calls for knowledge of WordPress, only resumes with the word “WordPress” on them will be looked at. The main problem with this strategy is that it tends to reward people who game the system (in all forms a pet peeve of mine). And WordPress can be learned by someone who’s reasonably bright otherwise in ten minutes.

The second way2 for two HR folks to get through 50,000 resumes is to establish some relevant or arbitrary requirement and put it in fine print in the job description (or not). If the requirement is not satisfied, this is indicative of sloppiness or unserious or poor attitude or psychopathy or some other trait that marks the applicant as unfit for employment at Company X. The main problem with this method is that there are lots of legitimate reasons why an applicant may not be aware of the requirement; this strategy also tends to elevate the requirement from mere shibboleth to universal end in itself. This may go a long way towards explaining some of the more ridiculous advice I’ve received:

“Make sure not to put two spaces after periods because all the leading style guides call for only one space, and anyone who sees that there are two spaces after each period will immediately throw out your resume.” / “Don’t use bullet points in your resume. That went out like four years ago. People will think you don’t pay attention to details and don’t care about what your peers are doing, which makes you unattractive.” / “You really need to use the term ‘leader’ three or four times in your resume and twice or more in your cover letter if you want to get a job.” / “Make sure you have a good head-shot of you smiling and keep it with you at all times to give to people you meet along with a copy of your resume.” / “Definitely put two spaces after periods because one space means you consider your manuscript to be fit for publication and this comes off as more than a bit presumptuous.” / “Employers do care about skills and experience, but ‘the culture’ is more important. In Asia, it’s all about maintaining a reputation for professionalism. In Germany they care more about results. In America, landing a job is all about ‘the culture’.”

It’s easy to dismiss such petty pedantry as nothing more than the full expression of the genuinely held beliefs of unwitting idolaters in widespread and perfidious cargo cults of the trivial. Yet, Americans tend to be absolutely certain about things we know nothing about, from driving directions to politics to advice for getting a job – to the point of self-contradiction. To admit to ignorance or fail to stake out a clear position is perhaps to call one’s own seriousness into question. Fear may be the real motivating factor behind the concretions of a long non-existent meritocracy vis-à-vis cover letters, resumes, formatting, formalisms, formalities, et al. which I abstracted in the preceding paragraph, yet some of it has actually turned out to be good advice, particularly the last bit (if I could only figure out what it means).

Despite clear institutional failures, I have no choice but to fight creeping cynicism: I remain convinced that some discernible pattern exists. Perhaps the whole point is that – like hordes of barbarians ravaging decadent Byzantium, Woodstock supplanting the waltz of the Hapsburg Court, the Internet’s meteoric strike against the dinosaurs of print journalism – there are “new”, outside-the-box, and boorish methods which one must employ to master the jobs market.



This quotation is often taken out of context. Here it is in its entirety:

“The whole world – nations and individuals – is demoralized. For a time this demoralization rather amuses people, and even causes a vague illusion. The lower ranks think that a weight has been lifted off them. Decalogues retain from the time they were written on stone or bronze their character of heaviness. The etymology of command conveys the notion of putting a load into someone’s hands. He who commands cannot help being a bore. Lower ranks the world over are tired of being ordered and commanded, and with holiday air take advantage of a period freed from burdensome imperatives. But the holiday does not last long. Without commandments, obliging us to live after a certain fashion, our existence is that of the “unemployed.” This is the terrible spiritual situation in which the best youth of the world finds itself today. By dint of feeling itself free, exempt from restrictions, it feels itself empty. An “unemployed” existence is a worse negation of life than death itself. Because to live means to have something definite to do – a mission to fulfill – and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something, we make it empty. Before long there will be heard throughout the planet a formidable cry, rising like the howling of innumerable dogs to the stars, asking for someone or something to take command, to impose an occupation, a duty. This for those people who, with the thoughtlessness of children, announce to us that Europe is no longer in command.” 

If a hiring manager believes in meritocracy, the third way to cut down applications to a manageable number is to not consider the unemployed. There are other ways as well.

Haboobs in Arizona

In Specific Facts on July 23, 2011 at 2:03 am

Oh serendipity! I may not be able to bear it if this is not the zenith of Islamic attempts to take over Arizona!

Those Arizonians are right to oppose the linguistification of jihadism. From the most humble zero to the highest admiral, we as Americans and English speakers must resist this assassination of our sacred language!

Perhaps we should respond with tariffs on all Arab nations? Or simply bleed them scarlet. I am so distressed that I’m frantically searching for an algorithm to make myself feel better. It may not be enough to relax on my sofa with some candy, coffee, soda, or alcohol with plenty of sugary syrup!

I may have to go full bore and partake of a fine meal with apricots and artichokes, tuna, spinach, oranges, lemons or limes; then huddle in the fetal position beneath my soft mohair and muslin sheets. I may have to surround myself with the sweet scents of camphor or jasmine, or play some guitar music, to send this Islamofacism to its just nadir. I could distract myself from the Muslim takeover by reading a magazine about the safari!

Is there any elixir or gauze that can ease my pain?

(Perhaps there is some hashish in a jar somewhere under my mattress.)


h/t Russell Saunders

Caylee’s Law and the Ratchet Effect

In Specific Facts on July 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Casey Anthony, the young mother accused of killing her two year-old daughter Caylee, was found not guilty of first-degree murder. The world, it seems, is very angry that a young girl has been denied justice. Unfortunately, the reaction will be similar to other injustices involving children or sex (in the United States): a radical, emotionally-driven push to ratchet up the penalties for a broader set of crimes and put in place irrational safeguards to ensure that such injustices never happen again. At times like these, it is best to do what Hemingway did and just put the pencil down, head to the bar for a stiff drink, and don’t think about it again until tomorrow.

This, unfortunately, is not the way the world works. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and the politicians are wasting no time in scoring points by introducing something called Caylee’s Law. The crank of criminal penalties is self-locking, moving forward, but never moving back. It is easy to get a law on the books, particularly when it is named after a victim of highly public and terrible crime. The quickest way out of office for a politician is to be labeled as “soft on crime” (the tagline for Caylee’s Law is “a law to protect children” – are you opposed to protecting children, Mr. Senator?)  In contrast, a very easy way to gain votes is to appeal to people’s insecurities: imagine being victimized or, worse, having your child become the victim of a crime. So laws are passed and put on the books in the heat of the moment and, regardless of whether they do more harm than good, are there to stay.

Sex offender laws are the most vulnerable to irrational expansion. The direction is always toward the most Draconian, as an Economist article from 2009 points out:

Sex-offender registries are popular. Rape and child molestation are terrible crimes that can traumatise their victims for life. All parents want to protect their children from sexual predators, so politicians can nearly always win votes by promising curbs on them. Those who object can be called soft on child-molesters, a label most politicians would rather avoid. This creates a ratchet effect. Every lawmaker who wants to sound tough on sex offenders has to propose a law tougher than the one enacted by the last politician who wanted to sound tough on sex offenders.

So laws get harsher and harsher. But that does not necessarily mean they get better. If there are thousands of offenders on a registry, it is harder to keep track of the most dangerous ones. Budgets are tight. Georgia’s sheriffs complain that they have been given no extra money or manpower to help them keep the huge and swelling sex-offenders’ registry up to date or to police its confusing mass of rules. Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association cites a man who was convicted of statutory rape two decades ago for having consensual sex with his high-school sweetheart, to whom he is now married. “It doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t make him a threat to anybody,” says Mr Norris. “We spend the same amount of time on that guy as on someone who’s done something heinous.”

The cycle continues this way as laws are haphazardly placed on the books in the wake of trials like this one. Four states are now considering something called “Caylee’s Law,” which will make it a felony to fail to report your child missing for more than 24 hours. This is because Casey, the mother of two year-old Caylee, failed to report her missing child for a month and instead participated in a “hard-body contest” at a bar. Here is the description:

Wesselhoft, a Republican, plans to propose a law at the start of Oklahoma’s legislative session in 2012 that would make it a felony for a parent of guardian not to notify authorities within 24 hours of a child’s death. He also plans to propose a requirement for parents to notify runaways under the age of 12 in a timely manner, although he admits having a time table for that is “more difficult because you don’t know when the clock starts,” he said.

“It probably won’t be a deterrent to crime, but at least it’s something the prosecutors can charge someone with who’s violated the law,” he said. “If this law was in Florida, Casey would have some more jail time to stand.”

Injustice is upsetting. But creating a law so that people who are found not guilty of crimes for which we wish they had been convicted can “have some more jail time to stand” strikes me as counterproductive at best and damaging to society at worst. The purpose of penalties is to deter criminals. The reason a person cannot get the death penalty for rape (despite attempts to change the laws after sensational trials – i.e. “Jessica’s Law”) is that it creates an incentive for murder: if the penalty for rape and murder are the same, it makes perfect sense to then kill the person and hide the evidence, since the penalty will be no different. The penalty is supposed to deter the action – that’s what penalties do. So, ten years from now, when everyone has forgotten who Caylee Anthony was, her name will live on as part of a law that may well see another young mother who let her child attend a sleepover and failed to call the police when she didn’t return go to jail on felony charges.

This is a hypothetical. But too often in the heat of the moment we are collectively irrational, exposing the legal system designed to protect our liberties to radical change at the hands of opportunistic politicians. It is important to consider the ramifications, lest we put a sodomy law on the books (wait, we already did that).

Anyways, 142 million people watched the Casey Anthony verdict or listened to it on the radio.  Meanwhile, 200 migrants from Sudan died in the Gulf of Aden this week when their boat caught fire on the way to Yemen, and the latest news from North Korea is that starving people are forced eat grass (again). These, of course, are just two of the many terrible injustices happening in the world right now. There are others, to be sure, though these two were at the top of my Google Reader.

Recently, I wrote about the need for marketing of injustice in the developing world. I talked about the short attention-span of the average consumer of news in the United States and explained why I thought the critics of Nicholas Kristof who accuse him of patronizing his readers with white protagonists and “bridge characters” were wrong.  Until people start caring about the issues Kristof writes about or “Blood Diamond” dramatizes in the same way that they care about the Casey Anthony verdict, I will hold my ground.

Punctuated Equilibrium

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2011 at 12:00 pm



4/11/2011 – Christopher Carr to William, Robert, Becca, Kevin, Kevin, Adam, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

Hey guys,

Wondering what you thought about this cover letter:


Here’s the job description:

Title: Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II
Location(s): Cambridge MA
Full Time
Pos. Number:
Dept.: Center for Biomedical Science Journalism
Payroll Category: T
Work Shift Code: S09-0401

JUNIOR DIGITAL VIDEO PRODUCTION ASSISTANT II, Center for Biomedical Science Journalism, to assist director, multimedia leader, and web architect with a wide range of tasks related to CBSJ’s web presence and overall goals.  Responsibilities include designing content; creating content; maintaining content; directing content; managing video content; overseeing user databases and internal documentation protocols; assisting web and video production managers in marketing web materials using P2P and web 2.0 technology, social media, and other outreach methodologies to gather more professional and lay public users; assisting with special projects such as live video conferencing or implementation of online training content and facilitation of transference of deliverables; uploading video, audio, and print content to website and other venues; liaisoning with end-user content manager and user experience designers/architects; and monitor server connections, data backup, etc.  Film CBSJ seminars and other press conferences and then download, edit, and upload video using Final Cut Pro or Premier; maintain digital media archives; handle other administrative duties such as equipment inventories, camera maintenance, assisting with administrative data entry; assisting with CBSJ social media presence; placement of audio wave reception devices during production phase; duplication and distribution of internal documents; facilitation of delivery of caffeinated potables; and perform other duties as needed.

REQUIREMENTS: three(3)+ years of professional experience; proven track record of broad technical proficiency and aptitude; technical orientation towards work environment; experience with one or more post-production tool; i.e., Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premier or Audition, or Avid Pro Tools; and a “can-do” attitude.  Experience maintaining content on websites or (web) databases strongly desired; Joomla experience; experience with Adobe Photoshop or Bridge or WordPress.  Social media, search engine optimization (SEO), SEM, and online marketing experience a plus.  Proficiency with PowerPoint, Mastery of Word, Excel, and Notepad (html); and an interest in science, biology, medicine, and/or journalism are also strongly desired.  S7658763b37bh-S7

Occasional early morning, evening, or weekend work may be required.  Travel 15% of the time.  Remote work possible 13.5% of the time.

Two-year appointment with the possibility of renewal.  This is a full-time position.



And here’s my cover letter:


Dear :

I am very interested in the Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II position at the Center for Biomedical Science Journalism.  The CBSJ is an institution for which I hold the utmost respect and which must play an increasingly important role in the future of our technological civilization.  I would like to participate in the efforts undertaken by the Center for Biomedical Science Journalism to more effectively communicate the immensely important discoveries of modern science to the public.  The position of Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II is an uncanny match for my experience, acquired skills, and personal interests.

The Center for Biomedical Science Journalism is at the forefront of a necessary sea change in how the public perceives science and technology.  I am particularly interested in continuing some of the work the center has done on the neurodiversity movement and punctuated equilibrium.  Compared to other kinds of journalism, science journalism is often lazy, reductionist, off-putting, poorly written, and even dangerous.  The other edge of this sword is the fact that at no other time in human history has the effective communication of scientific concepts to the general public been more important, as crucial technologies – thanks largely to technological evangelism originating at the Center for Biomedical Science Journalism – assume bottom-up and decentralized (as opposed to top-down and corporate-controlled) structures.

I have extensive experience that makes me the ideal candidate for your position.  First, as a refuge from the confusing and panic-inducing nuclear meltdown in Fukushima Japan, I know how lay scientific knowledge and science journalism must be improved in kind if humanity is to progress.  I am currently working on a book about my experience with my wife and children fleeing the leaking Fukushima Daiichi reactor with only iPhone Internet access to inform my decisions.  In addition to this formative experience, I am unusually qualified to work at the intersection of education, science, technology, digital video production, and journalism.  The wide range of tasks under the Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II job description suits the broad knowledge I have acquired as a self-employed provider of a wide range of services in English and technical writer in Japan over the last four years.  I have extensive experience explaining difficult technical concepts to a lay or linguistically-challenged audience.  I also have extensive experience with both Adobe Premier and Final Cut Pro (hundreds of hours as a film/video/digital/documentary studies student) in addition to web design and marketing in a variety of media.

Attached is a copy of my resume, which more fully details my qualifications for the position.  I look forward to talking with you regarding the Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II position at the Center for Biomedical Science Journalism.  Thank you very kindly for your consideration.



Christopher Carr







4/11/2011 – Robert David to me, William, Becca, Kevin, Kevin, Adam, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri


I am line editing this write now.  Seems like a cool position.  In short, this is way to long and doesn’t focus enough on the specific skills that make you a fit for this particular position.  Tailor the cover letter to the specific job responsibilities.  I will send a longer email later, but wanted to give initial thoughts.

Also – kill the part about the book.  No one wants to hire someone who is also working on writing a book, since it makes it seem like you won’t devote your full attention.

Robert David
Calcutta, India






4/11/2011 – Adam Miller to me, William, Robert, Becca, Kevin, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

Seconding Bobby’s points.

– Short and sweet on cover letters is key!

– Book is interesting to note since it is journalistic… but, can you make shorter?  Or only hint at?


Adam Miller


Magnum Opus lets you create your own,
Super-professional looking photo books for
no more than chump change!






4/11/2011 – Robert David to me, William, Becca, Kevin, Kevin, Adam, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

Yeah bra.  This is a social media position and we live in a world of 160 characters or less.  Get wtih the Twitter times.






4/11/2011 – Adam Miller to me, William, Robert, Becca, Kevin, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri




Adam Miller

Magnum Opus lets you create your own,
Super-professional looking photo books for
no more than chump change.






4/11/2011 – Christopher Carr to William, Robert, Becca, Kevin, Kevin, Adam, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

It’s not like I’m writing in a way that comes naturally here.  This is the first cover letter I’ve ever written.  I think it’s a stupid tradition.  Self-promotion is not my strong suit.  I’m the man at so many other things that it doesn’t have to be.  Jokes aside, with the exceptions of the ass-kissing at the beginning and corresponding words so glib and vague that they look like lines of dialogue from a sardonic comedy screenplay (which came right out of a plethora of “how to” write cover letter resources incidentally) everything in there is a direct response to skills and experiences specifically demanded in the job description.

Furthermore, why is including the fact that I’m working on a book of science journalism for a cover letter for a job in science journalism a bad thing?  When I worked at a big aerospace engineering company, all the engineers there built model airplanes in their free time.  It was impressive that these guys loved planes so much that outside of their jobs building planes they built planes.  So, maybe if they know that outside of my job in science journalism I write science journalism, they’ll think I’m a savant and circle jerk each other at the prospect of hiring me.






4/12/2011 – Becca Higgins to me, Adam, Robert, William, Kevin, Kevin, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

Only problem is some retarded HR girl is the filter between you and someone that would find that impressive.  I’d follow the D-man’s advice.  I haven’t had a chance to look yet but will tomorrow.  Dude, so fun to see you this weekend.






4/12/2011 – Adam Miller to me, Robert

Alright –

Re-read your cover letter.  I think you have the basis of a baller letter here – just needs to be simplified.

The content is solid; for me, the voice sounds wrong.

It comes off as a bit over-the-top.  Can’t put my finger on it exactly, but some of it is word choice.

For example,


“The Center for Biomedical Science Journalism is an institution for which I hold the utmost respect and which must play an increasingly important role in the future of our technological civilization.”

You probably shouldn’t use  ’which’ twice in one sentence.


“The position of Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II is an uncanny match for my experience, acquired skills, and personal interests.

Almost surely, a postion cannot be ‘uncanny’.


Compared to other kinds of journalism, science journalism is often lazy, reductionist, off-putting, poorly written, and even dangerous. ”

Negatives are not a great thing to bring into a cover letter.  Better would be “I want to bring the same level of critical journalism to science as X brings to X.”   You could even make X someone who works for them.


The other edge of this sword is the fact that at no other time in human history has the effective communication of scientific concepts to the general public been more important, as crucial technologies – thanks largely to technological evangelism originating at the Center for Biomedical Science Journalism – assume bottom-up and decentralized (as opposed to top-down and corporate-controlled) structures.

I would just take this out.


Of course cover letters suck!  What makes them worse is that no one reads them — I promise.  So, keep it short, make it easy to digest, and then blow them away with your resume.  Just get to the interview, then you will have the job.  Better yet, send them a fricking video! It’s a digital media assistant job, right?  So F*** the cover letter and let your work speak for itself!


Hope this garbled stream of thoughts contains something helpful!


– AM






4/12/2011 – Adam Miller to me, Robert


” Maybe they’ll think I’m a savant and circle jerk each other at the prospect of hiring me.”


Boooomskis.  Write as freely and brilliantly as this and the job is yours…


But really, you should just go knock down their door and start typing next to them.


Adam Miller

Magnum Opus lets you create your own,
Super-professional looking photo books for
no more than chump change.






4/12/2011 – Caitlin DeVito to me, Adam, Robert, Becca, William, Kevin, Kevin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

“Technological evangelism” means when there are a bunch of competing technologies for something and one side tries to go around and get all the other technologies to interface with theirs, like Microsoft in the 90s or like Netflix trying to strike all these deals with Nintendo or pretty much anything cell phone companies do.

I don’t know if there is a word for what you’re talking about.






4/11/2011 – Christopher Carr to Robert, Adam


Really?  I should just bang down their door and refuse to leave?  What about restraint and manners and no-nonsense approaches and such?






4/12/2011 – Kevin Robitaille to Becca, me, Adam, Robert, William, Kevin, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

What about the requirements they explicitly list?  If I’m the HR douche, I’m left wondering how you are qualified for the job, aside from being the man. I’d doucheily want to know about your:


experience with at least one postproduction tool, i.e., Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premier or Audition, or Avid Pro Tools


experience with Adobe Photoshop or Bridge and WordPress


etc.  They’re serving up the content you need to deliver against.  Also, I’d much rather hear about something they just did (and why it is powerful, using a specific example) rather than a sweeping and ultimately subjective analysis of the industry.


Or, keep it real.






4/12/2011 – Robert David to me, William, Becca, Kevin, Kevin, Adam, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

Hey man – I think these are all god suggestions.  Tailor it to the
specific job.  Then, you will experience the greatest joy in life, to
crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the
lamentation of their women:






4/13/2011 – William Cotter to me, Becca, Adam, Robert, Kevin, Kevin, Caitlin, Joseph, Julie, Dmitri

I edited the cover letter.  Here are my thoughts:

I took out all of your specific thoughts about the future of journalism and your experience with the earthquake in Japan.  I think they might be relevant during an interview, but absolutely should not be included on a cover letter.  I think these are things that will make you an intriguing candidate during a conversation, but might come off as slightly crazy in a cover letter.  Cover letters are generally really vanilla.

I moved the paragraphs around so you have the intro, then work experience, “skills”, why PB&J is so great, and conclusion.  I think this is the general shape of all cover letters and improves the flow.

I left a sentence missing where you explain why science journalism is particularly important now. I think you should think about why they think science journalism is important and say something very easy to understand, but insightful.  I cut out your top-down, bottom-up thing because I had no clue what it meant.  But if you believe that is a crucial insight, then rewrite it in a way where it is clearer and more meaningful.

I think you have lots of relevant experiences and should be strong candidate for the job, but you need to make sure that you are putting your best foot forward, something I know you struggle at.

Good luck.  I’m really excited for you.


P.S.: I have written about 15-20 cover letters recently because of my search for an internship.  We have professional career advisers in my J.D. program who I asked to go over your letter, and they made lots of helpful suggestions as well, which I’ve incorporated into my edit.  One thing I would definitely do is include the address in proper format and the correct number of spaces and stuff.  Cover letters are letters after all!


Here is my edit:



Dear Sir or Madam:

I am very interested in the Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II position at the Center for Biomedical Science Journalism.  I would like to participate in the efforts undertaken by CBSJ to more effectively communicate the immensely important discoveries of modern science to the public.  I am particularly interested in continuing some of the work the center has done on the neurodiversity movement and punctuated equilibrium, and I am looking forward to working with [X on X}.  The position of Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II is an excellent match for my experience, acquired skills, and personal interests.

I have relevant experience that makes me the ideal candidate for your position. I am uniquely qualified to work at the intersection of education, science, technology, digital video production, and journalism.  The wide range of tasks under the Junior Digital Video Production Assistant II job description suits the broad knowledge I have acquired as a self-employed technical writer in Japan over the last four years.  I have extensive experience explaining difficult technical concepts to a lay or linguistically-challenged audience.  In addition to my professional experience, I have acquired a strong proficiency in the necessary skills for the position.  I also have professional experience and curricular training with Adobe Premier, Final Cut Pro, Bridge, and WordPress.

I am very interested in the position because I believe the Center for Biomedical Science Journalism is at the forefront of a necessary sea change in how the public perceives science and technology.  At no other time in human history has the effective communication of scientific concepts to the general public been more important. [Insert why it is important]  The CBSJ is an institution for which I hold the utmost respect and I believe will play an increasingly important role in the future of our technological civilization.

Attached is a copy of my resume, which more fully details my qualifications for the position.  I look forward to talking with you regarding position.  Thank you for your consideration.



Christopher Carr


I know you feel like that’s not a thorough synopsis of your skills, but that’s what your resume is for.  A cover letter should make them want to read your resume.  So, you should try to set up some “cliff-hangers”, but also avoid setting off anyone’s bullshit detector.






4/17/2011 – Kevin Williams to me

Hey, sorry I just got back from vacation. What are you doing this for?



On August 2nd

In Specific Facts on July 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

You don’t want this baby seal to be clubbed to death, do you?The brouhaha over August 2nd as a firm deadline to raise the nation’s debt ceiling has at least some element of Washington Monument Syndrome.  From Wikipedia:

Washington Monument Syndrome, also called the “Mount Rushmore Syndrome”, is the name of a political tactic allegedly used by government agencies when faced with reductions in the rate of projected increases in budget or actual budget cuts. The most visible and most appreciated service that is provided by that entity is the first to be put on the chopping block.  The name derives from the National Park Service‘s alleged habit of saying that any cuts would lead to an immediate closure of the wildly popular Washington Monument.  The Washington Monument Syndrome emerged as a euphemism for cutting the most visible services after George Hartzog, the seventh National Parks Director, closed popular national parks like the Washington Monument and the Grand Canyon for two days a week in 1969. The intent of the closures may not have been to get people to complain to Congress, but the effect was that Congress received complaints, Hartzog was fired, and the funding was restored.

Here are some more examples of the phenomenon in ascending order of ridiculousness:

The Zakim Bridge from Cambridge to Boston is one of the Boston’s most popular landmarks.  In April 2009, the MBTA faced budget cuts and billions in debt still lingering from the Big Dig and decided to turn off the bridge’s famous lights, which would save a whopping 1/30,000 of the organization’s debt.  The ignorant public responded to this stunt by demanding that the MBTA’s budget be raised so the lights could be turned back on.  

Lifeguards and public library services for children are often the first thing to go when budgets get tight.  Why do you think that is?

The Save Toby project is not related to government at all, but it is an example of a similar phenomenon in the private sphere.  In 2005, the proprietors of posted pictures of a cute rabbit that they claimed to have found injured outside their home.  Then they said that if they didn’t receive 50,000 dollars to take care of it, they would be forced to eat Toby.  The website included a variety of recipes for rabbit and regular updates and messages that the proprietors didn’t want to eat Toby but would be forced to if they couldn’t raise $50,000.  The project managed to raise $24,000 from animal rights activists and other concerned netizens (which then went towards beer, solo cups, and ping pong balls). 

On August 2nd, the government will default on its debt unless the debt ceiling is raised or some benefit goes unpaid; i.e. there are no accounting tricks left.  Some Democrats have been calling for more debt in order to save government jobs at a time when unemployment threatens to enter the realm of double-digits.  Some Republicans have been calling for no more debt since enough is enough already and such.  At some point in time, this debate transcends basic economics and comes down to values.  Do we value the United States as an economic wasteland where the government is no longer able to borrow money due to its Aa1 credit rating (I guess banks will lend to other countries’s governments instead?) Or do we value the United States as an economic wasteland where our debt takes another five years to pay down and burdens our children?  (Is now suddenly the time to stand on principle?)  Polls show Republicans will be blamed no matter what happens.

August 2nd in itself is not a big deal.  The United States will remain the default economic power despite its err… ummm… default.  Neither the Euro nor the Yen will become the main currency in which debt is issued.  The government will probably just print more money to fix the problem because it can and there’s nothing much else to do that doesn’t necessarily entail making unprecedented progress to resolve intractable political problems.  Speaking of intractable political problems, here’s my multifaceted solution: (1) reform the tax code – have a consumption-based tax with a large standard deduction for individuals and eliminate the advantages of being able to afford an excellent team of tax lawyers; (2) don’t cut any more low-paying government jobs now but maybe set a trigger of say when unemployment hits 6% and announce this so workers can start looking now; (3) end farm subsidies – they get abused, and big food causes health problems; (4) end the drug war; (5) let companies that contribute nothing to society slowly wither away and die despite their size and in accordance with the whims of the market; and (6) end the fucking wars.

The Banality of Good: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

In Empires of the Mind on July 10, 2011 at 3:20 am

David Foster Wallace’s last work, the unfinished novel The Pale King, is fractured, disjointed, and incomplete; and so too will this review be fractured, disjointed, and incomplete.  As with many incomplete works, roughness adds to the novel’s mystique, and unfinished plot lines stimulate the reader’s imaginative faculties in ways polished and completed works of fiction cannot.  It is a rare chance that we readers get to invade the mind of a master so fully as to behold his thoughts frozen in progress.  [NOTE: For totally anal readers, the passages below may contain spoilers, but I don’t think knowing some of this stuff really takes anything away.]

David Foster Wallace is a relatively new discovery for me.  When Infinite Jest was published in 1997, I was thirteen years old.  When Wallace’s groundbreaking essay on television, e unibus pluram, was published in 1993, I was nine.  Wallace’s work was beyond me and still remains beyond me more often than sometimes.  Since becoming an adult and a writer, I had been vaguely following Wallace’s work throughout the years, often stumbling across a piece in the New Yorker or Harpers, always making mental notes that I’d have to get around to checking out his catalogue someday.  

Since Wallace’s suicide in 2008, I have paid much closer attention to his posthumous publications.  The Pale King is the first full-length work of Wallace’s that I have read.  He is, for me, the first writer since Victor Hugo whose works I have immediately wanted to consume in their entirety after reading just one.  (The others are Jorge Luis Borges from my adult life; nothing from college since reading for pleasure is anathema to university curricula; Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka from high school; and from my childhood: the writers of wild fantasy C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Brian Jacques, Dr. Seuss, and Michael Crichton.) 

The premise of The Pale King as unfinished novel (or what may have been the intended premise – Wallace’s last work reads like 500 pages of exposition.) is that it’s 1985 and there is a WAR going on within the IRS.  On one side are idealists who believe in enforcement of the tax code as patriotic duty: the IRS is a moral entity, and IRS examiners are the modern equivalent of heroes.  (There is something about the 1980s in particular that elevates the banal to heroic.)  On the other side are pragmatists who believe the IRS should be run like a business: its sole job is to generate revenue as efficiently as possible.  The pragmatists want to replace human examiners with a computer, and they are preparing for a demonstration – a la Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue or Ken Jennings vs. Watson – where they pit the most productive human tax examiners (some of whom possess superpowers, such as the ability to maintain total concentration in the face of pure boredom or the ability to keep one’s eyes open and unblinking for several minutes) against the computer A/NADA.  (From my reading, I interpret the idealists as protagonists – or, the team we are supposed to root for, but this may just be projection; the pragmatists are, of course, “correct” in the sense that they win and necessarily so, which would make The Pale King a tragedy in the classical sense, albeit without a catharsis.  Although I can perceive the irony of having tax-payers forfeit a percentage of their earnings to a machine vis-a-vis the pragmatist position.)

As I mentioned before in parenthesis, The Pale King reads like 500 pages of exposition (I was reminded of Winesburg, Ohio at several points.), so this theme of humans vs. machines is not the only one – and perhaps not even the main theme – that Wallace develops.  Notes from the appendix and elsewhere suggest paying attention, boredom, loneliness, being an individual vs. being part of larger things, and the nature of altruism and selfishness were to have been explored in depth.  To this I would add the tension between complete concentration and complete self-awareness.  Appropriately, the text contains sections of utterly boring, jargon-laden, and ambiguous prose puntuated by passages of manic and penetrative staccato.  From §9, the (fictional) author’s forward (chapters are signified by the signum sectionis of legalese):

…(C)onsider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex.  The IRS was one of the first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy.  For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it is interesting.  People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it…  (M)uch of the high-level policy debate played out for two years in full public view, e.g., in open hearings of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Senate Treasury Procedures and Statutes Subcommittee, and the IRS’s Deputy and Assistant Commissioner’s Council.  These hearings were collections of anaerobic men in drab suits who spoke a verbless bureaucratese – terms like ‘strategic utilization template’ and ‘revenue vector’ in place of ‘plan’ and ‘tax’ – and took days just to reach consensus on the order of items for discussion.  Even in the financial press, there was hardly any coverage; can you guess why?  If not, consider the fact that just about every last transcript, record, study, white paper, code amendment, revenue-ruling, and procedural memo has been available for public perusal since date of issue.  No FOIA filing even required.  But not one journalist seems ever to have checked them out, and with good reason.  This stuff is solid rock.  The eyes roll up white by the third or fourth ¶.  You just have no idea. [to footnote] I’m reasonably sure that I’m the only living American who’s actually read all these archives all the way through.  I’m not sure I can express how I did it.  Mr. Chris Acquistipace, one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exams group, and a man of no small intuition or sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddhas that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer.  These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value – they were too huge and heavy to move.  Something about this sustained me…  

The Pale King is driven by these themes, but it is also character-driven, as some of the greatest works in the canon are.  Particularly interesting are descriptions of certain characters couched within a variety of creative and unpredictable narrative devices – these segments sort of come upon the reader, and suddenly we are confronted with profiles of characters like Leonard Stecyk, Chris Fogle, Shane Drinion, and Meredith Rand.  Stecyk is a character who is generous for selfish reasons: we meet him as a young child who wants to please everybody and is universally hated for it, again as a high school nerd and recipient of “Stecyk specials”, where all the hard boys who regularly partake of hard drugs and take beatings from hard step-fathers urinate on Stecyk’s person; we find him again as a senior-level administrator at the IRS REC in Peoria, Illinois, where he shows compasison towards a fictionalized David Foster Wallace ravaged by unsightly facial lesions.  

Chris Fogle narrates his transformation from nihilist to mystic in the hundred-page §22, one of what I would say are four character-driven highlights in the whole text (I assume §36, published in the New Yorker as “Backbone“, is about Shane Drinion’s childhood).  Here is Chris Fogle’s road-to-Damascus moment:

Admittedly, though, however alert and aware I felt, I was probably more aware of the effects the lecture seemed to be having on me than of the lecture itself, much of which was over my head – understandably, as I hadn’t even finished Intro Accounting yet – and yet was almost impossible to look away from or not feel stirred by. This was partly due to the substitute’s presentation, which was rapid, organized, undramatic, and dry in the way of people who know that what they are saying is too valuable in its own right to cheapen with concern about delivery or ‘connecting’ with the students.  In other words, the presentation had a kind of zealous integrity that manifested not as style but as the lack of it.  I felt that I suddenly, for the first time, understood the meaning of my father’s term ‘no-nonsense’, and why it was a term of approval.

Chris Fogle is apparently one of the “savants” being groomed by pragmatist Big Man Merrill Errol Lehrl to lose to A/NADA.  Wallace reveals in the notes published in the appendix that he intended Chris Fogle to be in possession of a magic number that when recited gives the reciter the power of perfect concentration.  

Another obvious savant is Shane Drinion, who levitates when he acheives perfect concentration (but of course doesn’t know this because it would necessitate diverting concentration towards self-awareness); Drinion’s character is revealed along with that of Meredith Rand, who is remarkably self-aware and empathetic because of her excessive prettiness.  These two characters engage in a sixty-five page tête-à-tête in §49, which is interesting throughout since the two characters are binary opposites in many senses but somehow have a fairly natural dialogue.  (I kept imagining the same dialogue taking place between Data and Counselor Troi).  I read §49 in one sitting at the beach and got a terrible sunburn.  Regarding Meredith Rand’s teenage propensity for “cutting”:

‘Does it hurt?’ Shane Drinion asks.

Meredith Rand exhales sharply and looks right at him.  ‘What do you mean does it?  I don’t do it anymore.  I never have, since I met him.  Because he more or less told me all this and told me the truth, that it doesn’t ultimately matter why I do it or what it, like, represents or what it’s about.’  Her gaze is very level and matter-of-fact.  ‘All that matters is that I was doing it and to stop doing it.  That was it.  Unlike the doctors and small groups that were all about your feelings and why, as though if you knew why you did it you’d magically be able to stop.  Which he said was the big lie they all bought that made doctors and standard therapy such a waste of time for people like us – they thought that diagnosis was the same as cure.  That if you knew why, it would stop.  Which is bullshit,’ Meredith Rand says.  ‘You only stop if you stop.  Not if you wait for somebody to explain it in some magic way that will presto change-o make you stop.’  She makes a sardonic flourish with her cigarette hand as she says presto change-o…

…Rand shakes her head as she extinguishes the Benson and Hedges cigarette. ‘They weren’t therapy sessions.  He hated that term, all that terminology.  They were just  tête-à-têtes, talking.’  Again she uses the same number of stabs and partial rolls to extinguish it, although with less force than when she’s appeared impatient or angry with Shane Drinion.  She says: “That was all he said it seemed like I needed, just to talk to somebody with no bullshit, which is what the Zeller Center doctors didn’t realize, or like they couldn’t realize it because then the whole structure would come down, that here the doctors had spent four million years in medical school and residency and the insurance companies were paying all this money for diagnosis and OT and therapy protocols, and it was all an institutionalized structure, and once things became institutionalized then it all became this artificial, like, organism and started trying to survive and serve its own needs just like a person, because there was nothing inside it except the will to survive and grow as an institution – he said just look at Christianity and the whole Christian Church.

§19 remains the most compelling simple description of our polity’s fundamental battle of ideas that I’ve ever read (maybe with the exception of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; Tocqueville gets extra credit because he wrote about it before it happened.)  Wallace’s version is a dialogue between several characters holding wildly divergent opinions and an attempt to sublimate what we’ll call Porcherism with existentialism:

…Here’s something worth throwing out there.  It was in the 1830s and ’40s that states started granting charters of incorporation to larger and regulated companies.  And it was 1840 or ’41 that de Tocqueville published his book about Americans, and he says somewhere that one thing about democracies and their individualism is that they by their very nature corrode the citizen’s sense of true community, of having no real fellow citizens whose interests and concerns were the same as his.  This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers.

De Toqueville is also talking about capitalism and markets, which pretty much go hand in hand with democracy.

I just don’t think this is what I was trying to talk about.  It’s easy to blame corporations.  DeWitt’s saying if you think the corporations are evil and it’s the government’s job to make them moral, you’re deflecting your own responsibility to civics.  You’re making the government your big brother and the corporation the evil bully your big brother’s supposed to keep off you at recess.

De Toqueville’s thrust is that it’s in the democratic citizen’s nature to be like the leaf that doesn’t believe in the tree it’s part of… 

Emergent properties of institutions and the symbolism thereof is one of the text’s more cerebral motifs (although I’ll admit that my assertion here treads dangerously close to bullshit).  For instance, ghosts appear to more than one character and one of Wallace’s notes suggests that Stecyk eventually makes the discovery that human examiners’s efficiency increases when the ghost called Blumquist visits and sits beside them while they work.  Around page 400, I began feeling angry at Wallace for taking his own life.  Here is where the reader feels like exposition is just finishing up and we’re about to get on to the big showdown between man and machine and the rest of what will inevitably be the War and Peace of our generation; but that showdown never comes, there is none of the intrigue that Wallace suggests there will be, none of the political manuevering, and so the reader must stretch his withered and atrophied imagination.

In short, The Pale King is more an experience than a simple book.  In true existentialist fashion, Wallace’s soul lives on in the text.  The book has its dull parts, appropriately; and editor Michael Pietsch manages to space out the particularly riveting episodes, flooding the reader with oceans of sensuousness just when the detailed descriptions of IRS intra-institutional structure become too much.  In one of the very last notes on the text, the author mentions that the character Shane Drinion has found a way to sheer bliss:

Drinion is happy…  It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.  Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you.  Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color.  Like water after days in the desert.  Constant bliss in every atom.  

Slipping a Slurpee While the Economy is in a Ditch

In Specific Facts on July 8, 2011 at 3:49 pm

No need to help me out the ditch, doing just fine on my own – by Michael PereckasThe U.S. economic recovery seems likely to stall yet again as it attempts to finally get out of the ditch.  In an economy at full employment 18,000 jobs added would be a bad jobs report (over 100,000 new jobs a month are necessary just to keep up with population growth), with 9%+ unemployment 18,000 new jobs is a disaster. 

Our best hope for a new recovery is in just how bad things are.  The U.S. housing market has been terrible for so long that very little new construction has taken place, and we don’t have enough housing.  Eventually people will get tired of living with their parents and construction will have to pick up.  Right?

Yet, there is nothing mysterious about why household creation has been so slow.  Labor force participation and employment-population-ratio have both dropped sharply, so basically a bunch of people aren’t working or even looking for a job.  Without an income you can’t move out of your parents/sister/aunt/best friend’s house.  On top of that, the housing market is a mess (huge amount of unsold inventory, lots of new houses coming onto the market through foreclosure, and many more properties that will eventually enter foreclosure) and credit doesn’t seem likely to flow into new construction any time soon.  I think that once (if?) the recovery gets going, new construction might provide a bounce back, but I doubt construction will come before job growth.

Meanwhile, the Fed is basically just washing its hands of doing anything (What? We prevented the last dip, you mean we have to keep promoting economic recovery?) and the politicians are fighting over how much to cut off the deficit in the next 10 years (or we’ll really wreck the global economy).  It’s just a bit rich to see this now or never approach to debt from the same people who spent $860 billion extending the Bush tax cuts in December.  If Mark Zandi is right, this budget deal will cost the U.S. 700,000 jobs.  I wonder if that is included in the calculation for the budget impact of this deal?

I know the liberal party line is to defend the original stimulus, but let’s face the facts: it was poorly designed, poorly sold, and poorly executed.  It distracted from what was important immediately (the necessity of monetary expansion) and created a massive blowback that derailed the president’s policy agenda (pour out a little liquor for cap and trade).  It clearly did not get the job done – note, things would have been worse without it, but that’s not the same thing as actually getting us to a sustainable recovery – and made it impossible to follow it up with anything else once it became apparent that it wasn’t enough. 

Imagine that instead of rushing the stimulus through, the new Obama administration had focused on monetary policy while it carefully designed a economic package of state and local stabilization, unemployment and food stamp expansion, and comprehensive infrastructure strategy.  If things had actually had gotten really bad (CBO estimates unemployment would have been 11%+ without the stimulus) then the huge stimulus Krugman says was necessary would have been politically possible.  If things hadn’t gotten so bad (I’m imagining massive monetary stimulus, rather than the anemic stuff we got), then the package could have been an opportunity for good policy making, rather than a hodge-podge of whatever was lying around.

Instead, US infrastructure still is in bad shape, we’ve lost 500,000 public sector jobs since Obama took office, and the very concept of stimulus is discredited. 

The fact is whatever you think of stimulus and whether or not you believe in Keynesian economics where there is a multiplier on fiscal expansion (meaning that you get more than a dollar of new GDP for a dollar of spending) during a recession this much isn’t in dispute: borrowing moves consumption from the future into the present.  If you think the U.S. will be better off in the future than it is now (and good god, I hope so), then it makes sense to borrow to increase employment now.  Interest rates are low, there is lots of work to do, so let’s do it. 

Or we could just wait and see.  It has only been three years, surely any minute now the economy is gonna bounce back all by itself…


Stint at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on July 5, 2011 at 5:32 am

I have a rather bizarre series of creative non-fiction which will be going up in installments at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.  This will serve as one of two bookends to my adventure in Japan, forever closing this chapter of my life and ushering in a new one.  Check it out at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen or below the fold:

Greetings, fellow ordinaries.  Many of you know me as a frequent guest poster and relatively neutral member of the commentariat.  Here is my back story: I was born in 1984, grew up outside Boston, attended Boston College High School, then Duke University, where I studied economics and English and obtained a certificate in film/video/digital studies.  Sometime during my senior year I decided I wanted to be an academic economist, so I applied for a Fulbright fellowship (and nothing else): in my junior year I had completed a long paper on space tourism which had been well received, and I wanted to extend and expand my methodology and analysis from this paper to the similar market of East African adventure tourism.  When I was rejected, I took some time to reconsider what I wanted to do.  Looking (back) at the social froth of college, I decided I should spend some time alone: skiing, mountain climbing, reading, writing, and drinking large quantities of decent coffee in cafes where my language was not spoken.  I was still interested in adventure tourism, so I adventured and toured, eventually winding up as an English teacher in Japan in October 20061.

I had intended to stay in Japan briefly before continuing on to the wild wild east of greater China and the Central Asian steppes, the temples of Angkor and Indonesia, the jungles of New Guinea and Kakadu, the Australian Outback and the islands of Micronesia; but three years later I found myself in the Japanese countryside at the base of a smoking volcano with a charming wife, two well-behaved kids, and a moderately successful proprietorship teaching, translating, and writing.  On good days I could call this business a “highly specialized vehicle for information design”.  On bad days it was more like pernicious clownery – or if kids were involved, glorified babysitting2.  This business gradually evolved into an entity for servicing a wide range of Japanese professionals or institutions who wanted something presented in English, and it turned out to be an excellent way to gain experience in a wide variety of industries, discover my own limitations, and develop broad sets of skills and a deep knowledge base.

On a typical day, I’d wake up around eight or nine, play with my kids at the house or go somewhere with my family, ride my bicycle into the city after lunch, engage with a variety of professionals and institutions on a wide range of projects, patronize shops trafficking in delicious local produce, go home and eat dinner and maybe watch a movie with my wife, work on my computer at night until one or two (often punctuating periods of intense productivity with participation in League threads).  I’d hike or ski or visit notable cultural or historical sites on a rare day off or particularly free morning.  (Throughout my travels, I cataloged a vast library of digital photographs which I’m planning on publishing someday.)  While this lifestyle was both comfortable and interesting, there was little of what could be called “challenge” or “advancement” 3.  Occasional thoughts of me doing the same thing at age sixty struck a chord of primal dread and had me searching frantically for an exit strategy.

One day I had an epiphany: I would return to the United States, where I would complete a postbac premed course, attend medical school, become a neurologist, and study the brain as a complex puzzle to forever consume my professional energies.  My wife supported this impulsive decision, and I found everyone else around me inexplicably did too: immediate family members, friends, relatives, students, and clients – everyone seemed to think it was a super idea that I suddenly give up on my success in Japan to invest ten years and massive amounts of money I didn’t have in something which I am still completely unqualified to do and therefore cannot know whether or not I will find satisfaction doing it4.  We decided to give ourselves a year to reconsider before making plans to come to the United States.

The paperwork required was overwhelming, itself a complex and life-consuming puzzle: after a year and a half consulting various attorneys, fighting our way through the gauntlets of third-party extortion and fraud that necessarily accompany any overly-complicated and drawn-out legal process, and dropping metaphorical bread crumbs through the Teutoburg Forest of real post 9-11 immigration law (during which year and a half we actually had another child, further complicating our legal situation and effectively resetting the whole process), a funny thing happened5: the local nuclear power plant exploded and began emitting radioactive particles in all directions (which emission continues to this day).  We were ordered by the U.S. State Department to evacuate6, and my wife and stepson were granted special refugee status in the United States7.  More pressing is that getting out of Japan on such short notice, forfeiting income due (and future income obviously) plus a massive tax rebate due in March, paying various legal fees, and supporting my wife and three children since March eleventh8 has finally emptied my bank account9.  Luckily, my parents have been financially supporting my family of five for the past few months while I10 continue to lurch about chest deep in the stagnant quagmires of the American job market.  This (i.e. the stagnant quagmires of the American job market) is what I plan on writing about in this space in the weeks ahead.

When I pitched this series to (League of Ordinary Gentlemen Editor-in-Chief) Erik, I wrote, “(It) would not concern my personal journey so much (although that would be the main narrative superstructure) as it would concern the general shape of the labor market … (As a work of creative non-fiction, this series) would run more like a Dickens serial than any typical political blog.”  To this I would add that ensuing columns will run like Dickens serials minus the melodrama plus no small degree of sexed-up dullness11.  It is my aim to show that we are at the event horizon of a paradigm shift in how the American labor market fundamentally operates.  Given conflicting trends in how jobs, jobbers, and jobbees12 coordinate, what emerges from that frenetic black hole13 could take any of several forms and carry with it the very fate of our anointed nation and even the League itself.




This meta-narrative is of course assembled from later reflection and oversimplified as all overarching narratives are.

It’s really hard to explain what I actually did in Japan to people who haven’t also done it. (There were a handful of us in my city, including Kevin Kato, contributor at the online magazine I edit and talented novelist and translator.)  When I started working in Japan, it was with an “English teacher farm” notorious for high levels of both employee turnover and general misconduct.  Before my one-year contract was even up, this company went bankrupt in spectacularly scandalous fashion (i.e.: the CEO had a sex dungeon hidden in the walls on the top floor of a Tokyo skyscraper where he would abuse underage girls of Southeast Asian and Filipino descent; the CFO escaped to Vanuatu and was found six months later living off coconuts and spider crabs; the COO had himself cloned and tried to force his clone to stand trial in his place but of course this doppelganger thought he himself was actually the COO and turned the original party over to the police in a singularity of irony which created all sorts of interesting philosophical, ethical, and legal Gordian Knots that persist in affecting the hearts and minds of both professional and amateur members of the human race from all walks of life to this day; etc.).  After this first company collapsed I hated my boss at another company for a year and a half (which itself is a ridiculously long and complex story) before deciding to just take on contracts as a freelancer for any and all comers: to say no to no one and to do my best at whatever task came my way and to see what emerged.

3 This isn’t actually true.  The market for services in English is booming in Japan, but I had reached a point where in order to make more money I would have to advertise beyond word of mouth and compete with friends and acquaintances in cutthroat fashion, backstabbing some of the people who’d helped me find clients in the first place and more or less “selling out” in the sense of being forced to cultivate an image that can best be described as the white foreigner in Japan’s equivalent of an “Uncle Tom”: this would mean expending vast amounts of energy pretending to be stupid and non-threatening, and I was unwilling to do this (part of the reason my boss at job #2 hated me).

I’ve examined this epiphany many times after the fact and continue to fail to understand it logically.  I’m looking forward to the medical school interview where I cannot rationally explain the root cause of my very presence there.

not actually funny.

An evacuation wasn’t actually ordered, technically; but it was “strongly suggested” for non-Japanese citizens on a country by country basis (the French panicked; Americans sent their own spies in to make an independent assessment and then panicked; the British waited until the last possible moment to calmly panic; etc.), plus our group of eight was already outside of the city at the time the evacuation was announced and couldn’t get back in even if we had wanted to because of closed roads and limited gas supplies.  A friend of mine (also an American citizen) asked a State Department representative over the phone what we were supposed to do once we were outside the city since there like wasn’t any transportation and stuff to which the State Department representative basically replied “figure it out yourself, but don’t go back in for any reason at all”.

What happened to us appears to verify what I might describe as a uniquely American motif if only because I don’t know any better, which is that in Ordinary Time, accomplishing even the simplest of legal tasks faces a shitstorm of opposition, red tape, and bureaucratic impasse; but when things get truly out of control, rule of law defers to sensible compassion: only after the relevant parties are safe are convoluted legal justifications attempted.  I might someday get down to the business of fleshing out a causal chain stretching all the way from this aforementioned idea to the perpetual “crisis mode” that America seems to be in.  As I’ve mentioned (perhaps cryptically) in threads before, there is lots to be said about this whole process that is of widespread civic importance; but the information I must sort through and systematize ranges from hirsute to bum fluff.  Therefore, how to effectively normalize and present my satori is a project I’m still working on: expect a 500-page, uninteresting tome written for an audience of six people sometime in the near or far distant future.

i.e. the day of the big earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown (which nuclear meltdown is still deeply mysterious due to a fugue of obfuscation and avoided responsibility).  Like “September eleventh” in the United States, “March eleventh” in Japan has come to denote not only the eleventh day of the third month in a given calendar year but also the terrible events which occurred on that particular eleventh day of the third month in the year 2011.

Most of the people I know are alive even if they lost their homes, but there are a lot of people I cannot get in touch with.  Most of the disappearance of my source of income can be traced to the fact that no one professional or institution cares about presenting materials in English right now, and, if they did, I’d be compelled to service them pro bono, since I got out and they didn’t, and no one has any money in Fukushima City, and all sorts of crazy or not so crazy rumors that the whole city may be evacuated fly about, so people are more concerned with that right now than having some J-pop song translated into English or promoting tourism to English-speaking travelers or making sure foreigners know the proper procedure for procuring an alien registration card at the City Hall.

10 a twenty-seven year old with no experience working in the U.S who is unable to describe basically what he did for the last five years to anyone who does not already know.

11 This footnote is subdivided: (a) The series will also be minus the character Fagin depending on how far out there we’re willing to project symbolism; (b) “sexed-up dullness” may be an appropriate model to present my information on what happened in Fukushima; (c) here the fastidious reader may object that “melodrama” and “sexed-up dullness” are the same thing.  This is not so.

12 Apparently this word is British English for “turd”.

13 Pun intended (see note 12); although it’s difficult to pick up with so much metaphor floating around.

Against the Ceiling

In Specific Facts on July 1, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Debt crisis does look like Mad Max! – from the NY TimesThe parallels between the debt problems U.S. and Greece are generally overstated, in large part because  the workings of sovereign debt are not intuitive (here’s a hint: it is not like your credit card).  There are many differences between us and them, but fundamentally they have an actual debt crisis, while our crisis only political.  They can’t pay their debts, we are just blustering about refusing to pay ours.

The U.S. does not have a debt crisis, it has a debt problem.  Here is an example of the distinction. I have a weight problem: I would like to lose 10 pounds, so I should eat less and go to the gym. It would be insane to treat that like a crisis and insist that I need immediate liposuction, or perhaps to cut off one of my limbs to get to my target weight.  The U.S. has a debt problem, it should spend less and collect more revenue. Nothing to see here, no need to panic.

It is easy to tell when a country has a debt crisis because countries that can no longer service their debts all have one thing in common: high interest rates.  Because they are a high risk of default, lenders demand a premium.  Look at Greece’s interest rates over the past three years:

from Bloomberg

Their interest rates have tripled in a year in a half, that’s a debt crisis!

As a comparison, let’s imagine what it would be like if the U.S. was dealing with Greek interest rates.  The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that the U.S. has to roll over 467.4 billion in debt in August, if the U.S. ten year interest rates (currently 3.18%) rose to Greek levels (currently 16.26%) it would add over $61 billion to the deficit, every month.  That back of the envelope estimate is pretty sloppy – not all debt matures in ten years, for example – but that rough estimate is more than the estimated defense budget for 2012. 

So that’s why Greek politicians are raising taxes and cutting spending, even though the Greeks are rioting in the streets, they have to!  When you can no longer afford to roll over your debt on the market, you can either take your medicine in the form of fiscal reform (to gain access to international agency lines of credit), or you can default.  In the long run Greece is probably gonna have to do some of both because its hard to dig out of hole (it just keeps getting bigger the more you take out…).

The U.S. on the other hand, has some of the lowest borrowing rates in the world.  In the long run, we have to balance our budgets because it is immoral to steal from future generations. However, thanks to historically low tax rates, historically high rates of spending (driven by cyclical safety net spending), and GDP knocked several trillion dollars below trend we aren’t gonna balance the budget anytime soon anyway. Not to mention that 9% unemployment is our most pressing moral issue at the moment anyway.

So why is there a non-zero chance that the U.S. – considered the benchmark risk free borrower that all other financial actors are compared to – will default in a month?  Because our political system was designed not to work (we call it checks and balances), and right now Republicans are making sure it does not even function at its usual pathetic level.  

To turn a good idea into a law in the U.S. requires running the gauntlet of two houses of Congress incapable of doing anything, a President who can veto whatever squeaks out of the legislature, and a Supreme Court who can invalidate whatever is left.  Throw a hostage opportunity like the debt ceiling into the mix and suddenly we find that we can’t accomplish the obvious.

If the U.S. defaults it will directly add billions to the deficit (every 1 percentage point increase in our borrowing costs adds $4-5 billion a month to the deficit), even before it wrecks the global economy, decreasing tax revenue and increasing spending on food stamps and unemployment insurance. Fighting over the debt while threatening to do something that will make it explode is insane.

So when I read that the Treasury Secretary is threatening to just ignore the debt ceiling by pretending it isn’t Constitutional – well – I just don’t care too much about the details.  No one mourns when the terrorist gets the gun knocked out of their hands before they can kill the hostage.