Archive for the ‘book’ Category

Book Extract: The Pale King

image credit: Martin Heigan (cc) via flickr

Pale King (credit: Martin Heigan (cc) via flickr)

I am in no way qualified to review works of acknowledged fiction, as I read very few.  But I have been intrigued by David Foster Wallace since a Radio National commentator observed that Wallace had, in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, anticipated the effect of the Internet. When later I learned that his final, unfinished work, which had been assembled by his longtime editor, was about the administration of the U S Federal income tax, I couldn’t resist taking a look at it.   I thought it might give some insight into how the IRS staff manage to actually patch together the mess of U S tax law and regulations to maintain something which provides the rulers with pretty good control as well as huge revenue, without causing any effective revolt by taxpayers.

No success there, I’m afraid, which is all the more disappointing because, in Chapter 9 Wallace breaks into whatever narrative structure the book has to say that, hey, here I am, a real person, and this book portrays real people and events modified only slightly.  Then he points out that on the copyright page is the statement that “The characters and events in this book are fictitious.  Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author,” which assertion necessarily applies to his statement that the book is not fiction.

Beyond that, the work is set in the 1980s, when the tax rules were simpler, with documentation and computerization far less than today. Which meant that a lot of people spent their days manually comparing  sets of figures, on return after return, hour after hour, day after day.  I suspect that in today’s IRS much of this work has been computerized, with the human staff devoting their time to other things perhaps too horrible to contemplate.

CTA railcar image by Menace of Privilege

CTA railcar image by Menace of Privilege

Too, a lot of the book is just contrary to fact.  The description of the Chicago public transportation system, to take one aspect of interest, is simply wrong.  CTA do not operate any high-speed commuter trains, nor did they ever have a station named “Washington Square.”  And it would be virtually impossible today for a passenger, with his arm stuck in the door of a crowded train, to be dragged along the platform to his death, because every railcar has long had a red handle, at every door, which any passenger could pull to open the door and stop the train (here’s why).

That said, there are some helpful insights about how the regime makes use of dullness:

[T]he whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull.  Massively, spectacularly dull.  It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature.  Consider, from the [Internal Revenue] 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’s interesting (from page 83 in chapter 9)

And the key to success in a bureaucracy:

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom.  To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.  To be, in a word, unborable…

It is the key to modern life.  If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (pp 437-438 in chapter 44)

Words, including a new one, about money

bitcoin

Image of a tangible bitcoin by Steve Jurvetson (cc) via flickr

Having heard two tremendously amusing interviews with John Lanchester (I think one was on Bloomberg and one on the BBC, tho maybe it was ABC and somebody else; in any case there seem to be lots of interviews with him floating around.) I was looking forward to reading his new How to Speak Money. I’ve long agreed with his basic point, that people talking about financial issues use a shorthand which can confuse civilians, and it would be helpful to have a glossary handy.  What he has written gets part of the way there.

The first part of the book is an introductory, making the important point that economics isn’t a science, really can’t be in the way that physical or biological sciences are.  For one thing, chemists don’t have to worry that the molecules they’re studying will read the results of prior research and decide that behaving differently would be to their advantage.  He also notes that most of the main questions of economics remain open, but at least if we are going to discuss them we need to understand what we’re talking about.  He brings up the concept of “reversification,” whereby things come to mean the opposite of the word used to describe them.”Securitization” doesn’t mean making things more secure, but more likely less so. The “Chinese wall,” which is supposed to divide functions within financial firms to prevent conflicts of interest, is in fact neither a physical wall nor an impenetrable barrier.  And it’s reversification when the “credit” is defined as the amount of debt. (more…)

Mismeasuring, or at least misreporting, America

image credit: wstera2 via flickr (cc)

Another Andro Linklater book, Measuring America, certainly worth the read especially if you’ve not read John C. Weaver’s The Great Land Rush.  Not only some history of America’s Public Land Survey System and how it facilitated prosperity (at least for a while), but also some discussion of how the new nation almost adopted the metric system. But, as with Owning the Earth, Linklater commits a big error which makes me wonder how sound the rest of the book is.

In 1830 James Thompson, a surveyor and engineer, was commissioned to lay out a town in Illinois, in the square mile of Section 9, Township 39, Range 14, Second Principal Meridian…[page 181]

No! Not the Second Principal Meridian, and even if it was, there would have to be an “east” or “west” specified (as there should be a “north” after the “39.”)  This is not an obscure fact and is referenced commercially as well as by surveyors, assessors, real estate attorneys etc. As this is wrong, how much else in the book might be incorrect?

It matters how we own what nobody produced

Tenant farmers paid rent here

Tenant farmers paid rent here

[I]n Bill Clinton’s encapsulation of political strategy, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But the success of an economy can only be measured by its growth.  Since growth requires the accelerated consumption of limited natural resources, it is not a sustainable model in the long run.

If you concentrate on how a place is owned, however, the perspective changes.  As this book demonstrates, matters of laws, of rights and of politics become crucial, taking precedence over economics.  From that point of view… “It’s the neighborhood, stupid.”

…Around the world and throughout history, neighborhoods have succeeded in a million different ways.  It all depends on how the earth is owned.

That, the conclusion of Andro Linklater’s Owning the Earth, illustrates what is right and what is wrong with the book.  Our quality of life does does depend on how the earth is owned, and Georgists are aware of the importance and practicality of recognizing each individual’s right to what no one produced. But must a sound economy necessarily use more of the earth’s limited resources? Is there no practical way to use resources more efficiently? And is there no possibility that economic improvement could be measured by anything other than economic growth?

The book is wide-ranging and (mostly) well-written, making connections in place after place between how the right to use nature is recognized, and how well the community developed. It draws some connections that I hadn’t seen before, such as how the growth in mortgages on American farms followed logically from the end of homesteading.

And Linklater does devote a couple of pages to Henry George, but seriously misunderstands why George’s proposals weren’t widely adopted, saying  “[I]t is notoriously difficult to arrive at a valuation system that can clearly separate earned from unearned capital appreciation.” Here he means “separate improvement value from land value,” and he is wrong.  Practical methods of doing so on a mass basis were described back in 1970 in TRED #5  (outline), which is not posted on line to my knowledge, and in this more recent paper by Ted Gwartney, MAI.   And, of course, land values are routinely estimated by appraisers and are a component of almost every U S income tax return that involves commercial or investment real estate.

It is true that, with limited exceptions, George’s proposals weren’t adopted, but for a different reason.  Mason Gaffney has provided a compelling and well-sourced explanation (also available in a book), and it is unfortunate that Linklater seems to have been unaware of it. One wonders what else he did not know.

March 1 2015 update: I just discovered that Ed Dodson has produced a more thoughtful and detailed review of Linklater’s book.