Piketty – #1: inequality comes home

I’m so delighted.  Piketty’s work is just amazing!

Piketty has a nice prologue he uses on many of his talks.  Once, in the 19th century, the distribution of wealth was well inside the Overton window.  Why did it fall out?

He gives us a hypothesis.  The 19th century consensus predictions were apocalyptic (consider Marx) and when these didn’t happen the entire discussion fell out of favor.  Let’s ignore the great depression and the 2nd world war shall we?

Then, early in the 20th century a modicum of research showed a slight decrease in the problem in the US.   That under minded the foundations.  So that the dominate topic: democratic v.s. communist governance could stepped up and toss our hero out the window.  At that point if you raised the topic the discussion immediately became “communism!”

Of course old habits die hard, but I guess the fall of communism allows the question a chance to come back into our discourse.

So three things drove the problem out the window: the failure of the apocalyptic predictions, a small modicum of research/data, and displacement in the discourse by the democracy v.s. communism governance dispute.  It’s fun to flesh this out, but it’s just his prolog.

He uses the prologue to say two things to his audience.  First it given them the license of welcome the discussion back.  And secondly he can promise to behave.  No apocalyptic visions for him!  It’s a nice story arc isn’t it?  It’s the classic: hero cast out of his home later returns having learned a life lesson.  I particularly like the little ploy so common in horror movies of having the dead hand of a monster rise from the grave.

tax day – tax havens

According to this paper it looks like 8% of the world’s wealth resides in tax havens.  If you’re looking to hide your wealth and launder your income in a tax haven the paper provides a nice big picture over view.  For example 60% of the deposits in Swiss bank accounts are held by sham corporations registered in tax havens.  Corporations that exist entirely to shelter wealth from the eyes of their countries tax authorities.

This hidden wealth is large enough to create large anomalies in plant’s economic statistics.  The planet as a whole runs a trade surplus!  Of course maybe we are exporting stuff from another planet.  It has been suggested we could fix the economy via an alien invasion.  I think we may have found our aliens.

The Museum of my Stuff

This morning the New York Times has an article which I presume the editor solicited because it’s tax season.  I wonder what brief he gave the reporter?  I’m guessing: “Find an amusing way the rich avoid paying taxes. Don’t make too many waves.  I don’t want to deal with the backlash.”

So the article describes a niche scheme for avoiding paying sales tax on your out-of-state purchases.   If you move from one state to another the state doesn’t charge you sales tax on your possessions – which seems perfectly reasonable.  On the other hand they want to charge you sales tax on things you buy out-of-state.  So they need rules.  California forgoes the tax after the item is used out-of-state for 30 days.

Rules create games.

The article describes how art buyers avoid the tax by sending their purchases to museums.  I guess that counts as use.

I’m required to mention Leona Hemsley famous statement that “Only the little people pay taxes.” which came out after she was convicted of having her jewelry story ship her purchases to her out of state residence.  But, sadly, she lacked impulse control.  Wanting to enjoy her purchases immediately the store politely arranged to ship empty boxes.

There is a lot of backlash calming and ass covering in the article.  If you thinking: “Yeah!  I should set up a museum that provides more scalable “use tax” laundering service!”  You’ll find some good hints from the one in Portland OR.   You’ll need to set up some good procedures to assure you can manage people shipping random crates to your loading dock.  You might want to require a longer than necessary “exhibition period” so you have some plausible deniability.  But, that said, I can’t see why pretty much any consumer good doesn’t deserve a bit of respectful time on exhibit prior to final delivery.  I’ve noticed that Amazon is good at logistics.

Meanwhile, I wonder if any major news outlet will file a tax season article that actually explains the regressive structure of the tax system?

Upperclass Behavior

Psychologist often study how people behave.  Typically they pick a certain demographic or situation.  There is a guy in Canada who has spent a lot of time trying to tease possible differences between liberals and conservatives.  And more recently there have been efforts to study happy people.

Paul Piff has found himself a very interesting bit of turf, he’s studying the rich.

There is a good Ted talk where he give a quick overview of two of his experiments.  In one of these he has a student stand at a cross walk.  It’s polite and the law that cars must stop for pedestrians.  Expensive cars often don’t stop.   All the really cheap cars stopped.   It affirms one’s believe that people in big expensive cars drive like jerks, doesn’t it?   So many questions – I’d love to know if in Finland, where fines are proportionate to income, this correlation is as strong.

He also found that if he creates a transparently rigged game the winners act like jerks.  And I blame most of that on the way one’s juices flow when your winning a game.   The most disturbing inappropriate behavior was how blind the winners were to their advantage.  In post game debrief they consistently attributed their success to their skills.   If people can’t see how a rigged game gifted them their winnings how can we be surprised that the rich are blind to this in real life?

I have so many questions. For example if this correlation is strong then being a jerk would tend to signal that one is rich. This signal would be easy to fake. Presume that you can benefit from association with the rich, so then the jerk signal is attractive.  I wonder if there is some perfectly balanced highly attractive signal that mixes generous with jerk.

Lots of questions. It sure looks like you can easily raise self-esteem with rigged games. You don’t need to keep it a secret.   Do people often construct rigged games they can then play to affirm how awesome they are?

Lots of questions.


Cl-xmpp has, sadly, fallen into disrepair. It can’t connect to anything I tried to connect oo. It’s hard to find it’s development list archives.   Common-lisp.net is working thru some troubles. FYI – you can subscribe to common-lisp.net mailing lists by adding +subscribe to the list’s name, as in cl-xmpp-devel+subscribe I built my own index to the archives as so:

cl-user> (loop for y from 2008 to 2014 do (loop for m in '("January" "February" "March" "April" "May" "June" "July" "August" "September" "October" "November" "December") as u = (format nil "http://lists.common-lisp.net/pipermail/cl-xmpp-devel/~A-~A/thread.html" y m) do (multiple-value-bind (a b) (drakma:http-request u :method :head) (declare (ignore a)) (when (= 200 b) (print u)))))


Some random patches mentioned there … I’ll have to try those.

And all I wanted to do was send an IM when ever the bouy outside of Boston harbor is forecast to have big waves.


I bought an AeroPress, a gadget for making coffee.  It’s as good as people say.

I’ve never really been a coffee nutter, so I’m peeved to discover that I now have to accept harboring opinions about grinders, beans freshness, and brew temperature.  Who is this person in my kitchen?  He’s practicing some sort of esoteric ritual first thing in the morning!

As the ritual takes more time and focus compared to my previous technique.  I recommend a cup of coffee first.  But, I’m getting better so I’d say it’s not more than twice as much work.

One thing makes a huge difference: having a tea kettle that targets the right temperature.   We just happened to have a very cheap electric kettle (acquired at a thrift store).  That guy in my kitchen wants something more exact, but I think it’s perfect.

I got the AeroPress on sale for $20, but it’s usually $25, the kettle can be had for $14, a good cheap grinder is like $20.

Or, you can go to the local high end kitchen supply store and pick up the Press for $30, an attractive pushbutton kettle for $100, and a really good grinder for $200.  The guy in my kitchen would like you to get two, and to send one of them along.  He says that store will ship.

Flash Boys

I just finished reading Flash Boys and I highly recommend it.  Well, assuming your interested in WTF is going on in the financial markets.  Phrases like Liquidity, HTF, Dark Pools function have a high thought stopping power and it’s nice to read a book that helps temper that.  The book has a nice narrative arc.  It’s got a nice hero, who struggles with a problem, had a band of magical helpers, he even goes to visit the king(s) and vies for the hand of their – ah – portfolios.   The book is short, and it’s even shorter if you already read his older magazine piece about the horrible injustice done to the Russian programmer by Goldman Sacks and/or the excerpt that appeared recently in the Times.

For me the books answered some questions I’d puzzled over.  For example a huge question for me has been why are there so many stock exchanges.  Starting in the late 19th century you would rarely go wrong predicting that an industry would consolidate into a few huge players.   That pattern has drivers on all three sides: supply, demand, technology, and to a lesser degree regulation.

Electricity has played a huge role.  It allowed industries to move way from the power source, first moving away from the falling water sites, and then away from the harbors where coal might be delivered.  It allowed management to function at a greater distance from operations.  Walmart’s managers don’t need to be in the stores.   It is less and less necessary for buyers and sellers to rendezvous in a place.   And so we end up with only a few players in many industries; one auction house – eBay, one retailer – amazon, one search tool – google, one operating system – windows, three broadcast networks, one phone company,  two and half credit card networks, .  Any yes these dominate players have competition, and yes they can stumble etc. etc.  Winner take all is both an exaggeration and a real possibility.

So why hasn’t this happened in the domain of stock markets.  In fact, the opposite has happened – more stock markets.  It’s bizarre.

Industry consolidation is rarely pretty because lots of people are displaced as it unfolds.  Watching Sears (the Amazon of a earlier generation) die is a painful example of that.  The firm(s) that drive the displacement can take many approaches to the problem.  Silicon valley firms typically try to route around the existing players, creating a new industry from scratch while leaving the old one to wither and die.

There are books that talk about what makes an industry resistant to consolidation.  Advertising is said to be hard to roll up into a single huge firm because the artistic talent is hard to roll up.  Garden centers are said to hard to roll up because they demand a lot of managerial talent mostly around agile hiring  (as usual that’s a euphemism).

In some examples consolidation happens in spite of deeply entrenched players by negotiating a deal with them.  The consolidator captures some part of the existing players but leaves the existing player in place.  Banking if full of examples of that kind.  Few banks run their own back office anymore; the website, the books, the bill pay, etc. etc. are outsourced.  Almost no banks actually sell credit cards or merchant services anymore.

At this point most banks, and there are thousands of banks in this country, look more like instances of a franchise.  I’ve no doubt that there are vendors out there who will happily sell you a package to setup a bank just as there are vendors who will sell you a package for a hamburg stand.  And, as an aside I assume there are also vendors who will sell you kit to start your own microbrewery.


What has happened with the proliferation of stock markets is as if in the book industry the arrival of the Internet had triggered, instead of Amazon, a huge increase in the number of book stores.

It looks to me as if what happened here is that the electronic trading industry dealt with the entrenched players by offering them a deal.  The book suggests that a key part of that deal was for those players to sell early access to their customer’s order flow.  I suspect, and the book hints, that there are numerous other elements to these deals.

I guess it’s possible that originally the proliferation of markets was driven by a Silicon Valley like attempt to route around the existing players.   BATS, a market, might have been that originally, but like Paypal they no doubt quickly discovered how entrenched the existing players are.  And so the plan changed into one where they made messier deals.

All the above is terribly rough, but yeah … you get what you pay for.




Long time ago I drew this little picture to illustrate the difference between complementary products v.s. competing products.

You can’t complete the phone call without both the phone and the phone network.   They complement each other. You can’t pay the bill without both the check and the check clearing network, so they complement each other.    There competing means that of paying or communication.

The customer pays the cost to cross the entire cascade of complements. So, a trick of the capitalist’s trade is to strive to have the cost for any of the complementary products minimized. That leaves more money on the table for him.  The Telco tries to reduce the cost (or at least the apparent cost) of the phone. The Biller’s advocate for low postal rates and state subsidies for the check clearing network.  It looks to me like Google and Amazon work very hard to cut the cost of Internet access.

Since learning about all this I have joked that the grapefruit growers should give away the grapefruit spoons. And, I am delighted to report they do.

Well sort of.  Like the phone company you need to subscribe – in this case to a bag of fruit.

Complements, like suppliers and customers, are another member of the “can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” relations.   Personally I suspect that competitive relationships account for a tiny percentage of what the firm’s managers need to manage.

tidy up the output of lisp macros

For some reason it makes my teeth hurt to have my macros generate code that I wouldn’t have written by hand.  For example it’s not hard to get code like this out of a macro expansion.

(let ()
    (if (fp x)
         (f1 x)
         (f2 x)))))

v.s. what I might like:

(when (fp x)
   (f1 x)
   (f2 x))

I probably ought to just relax and ignore it, but instead I often revise macros so the code they generate is nicer to look at.   So that:

`(let ,vars ,@body)


(if vars
    `(let ,vars ,@body)
    `(progn ,@body))

This is silly!   Now I have ugly macros instead of ugly output.   I’m just moving the ugly bits around.

So I’ve started doing this:

(tidy-expression `(let ,vars ,@body))

where tidy-expression is something like this:

(defun tidy-expression (x)
  (match x
    (`(or ,a (or ,@b)) `(or ,a ,@b))
    (`(progn ,a (progn ,@b)) `(progn ,a ,@b))
    (`(progn ,x) x)
    (`(and ,a (and ,@b)) `(and ,a ,@b))
    (`(if ,a (progn ,@b)) `(when ,a ,@b))
    (`(if ,a (progn ,@b) (progn ,@c)) `(cond (,a ,@b) (t ,@c)))
    (`(if ,a (progn ,@b) ,c) `(cond (,a ,@b) (t ,c)))
    (`(if ,a ,b (progn ,@c)) `(cond (,a ,b) (t ,@c)))
    (`(let ,vs (progn ,@body)) (tidy-expression `(let ,vs ,@body)))
    (`(let nil ,@body) (tidy-expression `(progn ,@body)))
    (_ x)))

It’s another chapter in my crush on optima.

I write these tidy up functions as necessary.

That example only chews on the top of the form.   If you wanted something to clean up the first example you’d need to write tidy-expression-all.

   (if (fp x)
         (f1 x)
         (f2 x)))))
(when (fp x) (f1 x) (f2 x))

This all reminds me of Warren Teitelman’s programmer’s assistant in Interlisp.  It reminds me of some of the things that flycheck in Emacs does for other programming languages.   It reminds me that I’ve been wondering what would a lint for Common Lisp would look like.

I bet somebody already wrote a generalized tidy expression and I just don’t know were to look.