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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Hunger Games phenomenon and its roots in Greek mythology

 by Jamie Lutton.

I have been asked to remark on the Hunger Games phenomenon.

I'll talk about that, but I'd also like to address the mythological roots of the plot line for the book.

I have not read the book, or seen the movie, so I bring the sort of objectivity to the matter that our justice department seeks in jurors.

I own Twice Sold Tales, which is here on Capitol Hill, and have watched the interest in this title and it's sequels explode in the last few months.

I have been selling books since 1983, and have been fascinated when the desire for  a particular book goes viral, and a large part of the adult population is chasing after copies of it.

The first time I saw this was in 1983, when I worked in a bookstore as clerk in Bellingham, and The World According To Garp became incredibly popular. The movie of the book had just come out, and we had a steady stream of people trooping in to ask for it for several months.  They came in at the rate of at sometimes two people an hour.   We had people asking us to save it for them when it came in, and we ended up having to have a 'wait list' for this title.

Garp is an odd little book, pretty literary, and the popularity of the film drove people's interest in it. The film starred Robin Williams, so that people rushed out to buy a book with eccentric, complicated characters that otherwise might not attract interest. We had customers reading it who we knew usually read only science fiction, or romances, or westerns.   This title and others by this author still have a steady fan base, launched by the popularity of this one title.

Many more people go to a given movie than read a given book. So, when a book is turned into a movie, people who only read, say, 2 to 5 books a year will buy the book and see if the characters in the book are like what they saw on the movie screen. Some buy the book so that they can read it before they see the movie.  Some books go viral before the film comes out, like The Da Vinci Code, and the Harry Potter books, but it is usually movie adaptions that drive the frenzies of readers.

This creates a scarcity of used copies for me and other used booksellers. People give their used copies to friends rather than sell them, and many more people than usual are chasing after the few used copies available.  Sometimes, the book becomes the 'must read' of the season, and it seems as if everyone is looking for a copy. That is when a book has gone viral.

I have watched the last three months five or six people a day come in to Twice Sold Tales and ask for The Hunger Games, then march out when I did not have it (which was most of the time).  I finally put up a sign on my door saying "I DON'T HAVE THE HUNGER GAMES!! Go to Eliot Bay Books for it, it is only $8.99. Thank you.

When people want a book that has gone viral like this, they are not interested in any other title. It became sort of a joke, because I watched the intense look on their faces, as they wanted the book so badly, but did not want to pay retail
Sometimes the publishers get wind of this, when the book is still in hardback. When the  The Da Vinci Code went viral - without the help of a movie, like the Harry Potter books did in the beginning - the publishers held back publishing a paperback version for a year, and old nasty beat up copies of The Da Vinci Code were selling for $10 in my shop. Everyone wanted a copy. Even my most cynical and intellectual brother called me up and wanted me to get a cheap copy for him.

No one ever wants to pay retail, if they can help it, for a book.

When The Silence of the Lambs came out as a movie, 15-plus years ago, I was a bookseller with my own store. The book became very popular, but after the movie had been out for a few years, some people refused to read the book because they "knew what happened." I protested with them about this, as Hannibal Lecter is even more interesting (or terrifying, take your pick) in the book. But  a good movie often satisfies most people's curiosity. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, many satisfied viewers felt no need to wade through a thousand page epic; they had their fill of ring-and-sword epic from three long films. This was a pity, because the book really was better than the film, in most parts. It had been voted best novel of the century by the people (not the critics).

A curious thing happened about 16 years ago. The Harry Potter books came out, and were embraced by adults as well as children. And this happened before any movies were made.  And it was the first time I recall that EVERYONE read series of books. Old, young, grumpy, everyone but me, it seems, read these books and clamored for the next one in the series.

My own mother, who was a children's librarian, bought copies for her five adult children.  I was the only one in the family who did not get the bug. I read part of the first book, and could tell who Rowling was stealing from, and lost interest.  It is no fun reading a novel when you can turn the pages, and see the theft clearly.

Selling books for years, and reading constantly,  has spoiled some of the pleasure in reading derivative fiction. 

The same thing happened with the book Twilight and it's many sequels, which is really a gushy girl teen romance series (with vampires). But when "everyone" is reading a book, the word of mouth makes even mediocre books popular. And the films helped push the viral nature of the book, amplified it.  These books heavily stole from Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, even to the point of using some of the same names for the characters. The author's innovation was in placing the movie in Forks, and using the endless rain as a gimmick for the vampire colony in the book.

I think The Hunger Games popularity is driven by an exciting and well made movie being made from it (according to the critics). The movie amplifies the text nicely.

But  the essential plot is nearly 3,000 years old. .

 It is the story of a very old feud between the Greeks and the people of Crete, 3,000 or more years ago, in an ancient Greek Myth. It was probably inspired by Crete's dominance of the Mediterranean about 3000 years ago, and the ancient custom of 'bull dancing' the people of Crete had, when acrobats, men and women, would vault over bulls horns, dancing over and around them. (this may be the origin of bull fighting).

Here is a brief version, I found online, of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The son of Minos, Androgeus, went to Athens to participate to the Panathenaic Games, but he was killed during the games by  the Marathonian Bull. In other versions, he was killed by the Athenians after winning all the prizes.

Minos, the King of Crete, was infuriated and demanded Aegeus, the king of Athens, send seven men and women every year to the Minotaur as a living sacrifice.

The third year, Theseus, son of Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete, in order to kill the Minotaur and end the human sacrifices to the monster. King Aegeus tried to make him change his mind but Theseus was determined to slay the Minotaur.

Theseus promised his father that he would put up white sails coming back from Crete, allowing him to know in advance that he was coming back alive. The boat would return with the black sails if Theseus was killed.

The Minotaur was kept in a huge, dark maze, which the young men were stuffed into as food and sport for him.

This seems to be the basis for the plot of The Hunger Games, in a future time, and with both girls and boys sent, instead of being fed to a half-man, half bull, they are sent to fight each other to the death.  But the there also is a Japanese science fiction novel from a few years back, that seems to be a source, where children had to fight to the death as a major plot element.

So, like the Harry Potter books, the author of The Hunger Games used several sources to put together a new version of the story, and has captured the public's imagination.

The zeitgeist, or spirit of our present time, is very pessimistic about the future.  The world of the  The Hunger Games, there is a fascist government where children fight to the death to amuse the elites,and to punish their parents for rebelling in the past against that government

These books capture our present-day distrust of the government, and our fears for the future and the fate of our nation.
. .
Children's books like The Hunger Games trilogy, the Harry Potter books, and the Twilight novels are popular because they are easy to red, they retell old myths and stories for a new generation, and use familiar archetypes, made new.

Many very popular books are really children's books. Catcher In The Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Oz books, are all collected and read by adults. So this is not a new phenomenon.

I would like it if, after reading The Hunger Games, some people might want to read up on the Greek myths and see where this plot came from. Greek myth collections have many, many excellent stories in them, and there are several good collections available cheaply or in your local library.

I had the same thought when I looked into  the Harry Potter books. They are derived from a 19th century novel called Tom Brown's School Days, and The Sword in the Stone, (published in a different version as The Once and Future King) among other sources. These two source books are quite good, and the Wizard Merlin in the Sword in the Stone is as interesting as Gandalf and Dumbeldore, and and even more witty and melancholy a nature.  Also, the writing is better in The Sword in the Stone; it has stood the test of time for 60+ years now, never going out of print.

So, when you are looking for good children's books, or fantasy, or a Greek mythology, you might stop by. I have been selling books for 28 years now, and I think I know some of the good titles.  I will have to go and read The Hunger Games, and go to the movie, so I can experience this for myself. I will try to suspend my critical eye, and enjoy the spectacle.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

And so, the tsunami of money for negative ads begins

by John MacBeath Watkins

From today's New York Times:
The group Americans for Prosperity just went up with a $6.1 million ad buy in swing states that accuses the Obama administration of squandering American taxpayer dollars on green energy projects, asserting that some of the money actually went to foreign entities. The ad is going up in eight states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia.
In making the general assertion that “billions of taxpayer dollars spent on green energy went to jobs in foreign countries,” the ad cites as evidence $1.2 billion that went “to a solar company that’s building a plant in Mexico.” In fact, the company involved in the plant, SunPower, said that the $1.2 billion federal loan guarantee was for its solar ranch in California, and that while some of the panels for the ranch will be coming from a plant in Mexico, most were coming from its California operations.
AFP is chaired by David H. Koch and played a major role in promoting the Tea Party candidates in the 2010 election.

And so begins the tsunami of money predicted in this post. And so, also, begins the distortion of discourse caused by an imbalance in resources.

Remember, the most expensive campaign in history as a percentage of GDP was the 1896 election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. The reason was that the financial sector saw Bryan as a threat to their profits. And Wall Street, despite President Obama's role in bailing them out, hates the president.

But Obama is the incumbent. Perhaps the outcome this time will be different.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The economics of truth, and the way we tell each other stories

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the dim, dark past when I was in grad school, I got interested in the way markets and discourse interact, and how this ties in with democratic theory.  At the time, the news media were tending to consolidate, as newspaper chains bought up other chains. Now, newspapers are on life support, if they're lucky enough to still be alive, and the cable and online news options have multiplied.

The result has been a shift in economic incentives which affect the way we arrive at truth in the public sphere.

What was once a problem of free speech with few voices has become a bewildering cacophony in which you can find someone saying just about anything about anything, and sorting out the truth can be a daunting or even impossible task. Where once a few authoritative voices had the resources to hire reporters to cover state, national and international beats, bureaus are closing and most of the voices on the internet are opinionated, but have few facts that everyone else doesn't already have.

But what is truth, anyway? It's a topic that's stumped philosophers for millenia, so instead of answering it in an ontological fashion, I'll simply suggest that truth is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. It is a kind of knowledge that we do not feel tentative about. Whether there is such a thing as a Platonic, ideal truth or not, human knowledge will always be conditional and imperfect, subject to later revision.

In short, we tell each other stories, and the most cogent are believed. If they are demonstrably false, we might be persuaded otherwise. And of course, there are always those who are economical with the truth, leaving out things that might persuade us not to believe what they wish us to believe.

That was always the worry with a press dominated by a few chains and television news dominated by three networks. They had the resources to report well, but what if they chose to conceal the truth, by which I mean, what we would believe if we knew more?

The incentive, when there are few voices, is for the few dominating the press to insist that they are on no one's side, impartial, and, to use a much-abused term, objective.

That master of agnotology, Richard Nixon, understood that this made the press vulnerable, and set out to undermine public faith in the press. It was easy, because a source of information that is attempting to be impartial and truthful will often tell you something that you don't want to hear. And the press of the late 1960s and early 1970s was constantly telling people things that upset them, about racism in America, atrocities in Vietnam, the changing mores of a nation in turmoil.

And of course, the people most disturbed by this would be conservatives, because to be conservative is to wish to conserve things as they were. Eventually, Rupert Murdock realized that there was an opportunity here, so he hired a Republican political operative named Roger Ailes to start a network to tell conservatives what they wanted to hear. The result was a network better trusted by its viewers than any other, because it catered to their world view.

And far and wide across the internet, sites sprang up that catered to the world views of anyone who might wish to view them.

To me, one of the fascinating things here is that each of these tiny news/opinion sites must compete for a small slice of the internet audience, whereas the old city newspapers, usually one to a city toward the end of their reign, and the three network news shows, competed in a much more restricted and sedate fashion. The old media had a strong incentive to protect their oligopolies by attempting not to alienate any large segment of their audience, whereas the scrappy new media are ready to alienate a huge swath of the public if they can connect with enough of the audience to support themselves.

The change in economic incentives produces a completely different sort of discourse. Instead of wondering if we can all trust Dan Rather, we need to decide whether we wish to trust Newsmax, The Drudge Report, or Talking Points Memo.

There's little room in this world of kicking and shouting media for a Walter Cronkite. The new media wears its bias proudly, and gets part of its credibility from being on your side rather than from being objective. As a result, the notion that you can have your own opinion but not your own facts has proven not to be true.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The first anniversary of my father's death

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thanks to all who have visited my father's eulogy on the first anniversary of his death. For those who haven't seen it, it's here.

My father was a lover of poetry, so I've composed some doggerel in his honor:

On the first anniversary of the death
of Lt. Col. John L. Watkins, USAF
practical navigator and loving husband and father

A high brow, a sharp eye, a quick wit, a hooked nose,
we fondly remember those.
You seldom spoke of the horrors you'd seen
or the dangers you chose
to face for your country in three wars
that I know left invisible scars
When you spoke of the places you'd been
or how you had followed the stars
It was adventure, humor, and wonder
you brought back from the blue yonder

Friday, April 20, 2012

Hitler, Keynes, and inequality: Why economists fail

One of the economics blogs I like to follow has, for once, a post I have to take issue with.

Why Do Acemoglu and Robinson Resort to Hitler?

I suppose I should come clean. I sent an email saying:
This is nuts (re: Krugman and Wells):
Hitler was a Keynesian, so it's not true that Republicans hate Keynes? Huh? They really don't make much of a they seem to realize at the end.
The subject of the email was "Why Economists Fail."

I think this is a distortion of what Acemoglu and Robinson are saying. Remember that they also criticize Krugman for being US centric in his view of the right.

What they are saying is not that Keynesian economics is associated with Fascists, therefore Keynes = Hitler, but that conservatives oppose to Keynesian economic policies not because they are conservative but for other reasons. Remember the Bush stimulus program of 2007, where people got a tax refund? That was Keynesian. Remember how much government expanded under Reagan and Bush II, while Republicans insisted that it must fall under Clinton and Obama? Conservative beliefs turn out to be quite malleable, depending on who gets the benefits. That's because it is not so much a philosophy as a tribe. They oppose Keynesian stimulus and government growth under Democrats because they fear they might work, and make Democrats more popular. To think otherwise is to mistake ad hoc justifications for the actual reasons for their actions.

Remember that what these guys say the driving force in the way economic development occurs is not knowledge or ideology, but inclusive vs extractive institutions. I believe their view is that Republicans are fighting against policies that make the country as a whole more prosperous because Republicans are more concerned with making sure the "right" people get most of the benefits of the economy. They fight against policies that might make the country more prosperous because they want the people who finance the Republican Party to get most of the benefits of the economy.

The entire thesis of Why Nations Fail (which I've started reading) is that they fail because their political institutions serve a small group that benefits from that failure.Looking for the purer motives of ideology distorts the nature of the political struggle we are engaged in, to determine whether our institutions will be inclusive or extractive.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Books: grassy notes, a hint of vanilla, whatever books still are, whatever books still mean

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the dim, dark reaches of The Wasteland, a woman calls:
et cum illi pueri dicerent: "Σίβυλλα, τί θέλεις;" respondebat illa: "ἀποθανεῖν θέλω".

I myself saw the Cumaean Sibyl with my own eyes, hanging in a cruet, and when the boys asked her, "Sibyl, what do you want?", she answered, "I want to die."
Most people who have read the poem don't have a public school education, by which the English mean a private school education, and don't get the joke, if something so unfunny may be regarded as a joke.

T.S. Eliot was restricting the comprehension of his poetry by including this quote. He was young, he was free, he was understood by no one better than that nascent fascist, Ezra Pound.

And yet, politics aside, this passage speaks to me. Ezra was an asshole and a fascist, we all know that. But he understood poetry better than politics. He knew, from reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, that Eliot was a genius.

I've thought of this because the Paul Simon lyric:
I am blinded by the light
Of God and truth and right
And I wander in the night without direction. 
 is an earworm in my head, and I cannot be free of it until I've sent the message on to you. I blame memes, and poetry, and the inescapable now.

Full lyrics here:

I have no absolution, no solution to the devolution of our culture and our devastating now. I'm a creature of the night and the everlasting rights of the corporations' copyrights.

I'm a bookseller, whatever that still means. Whatever books still are, whatever books still mean.

They smell (grassy notes, an acid note with a tang of vanilla.) They exist, independent of electronics -- corporeal objects, physical things with smell and texture and weight, quite unlike their ghostly replacements.

And they exist as ideas, as notions without the corporeal existence we see in the fossils of ancient ferns.

And still I lie in the weeds, not yet a fossil, and wait for the sediments to fall on me. And still I wait for history to bury me in sediment and and the seeds and the tangled weeds that know no tomorrow and know no yesterday and never know today..

And still I dream of tomorrow, better than a thousand yesterdays.

I think I'll go sailing, my other atavistic passion...

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word:

Edward O. Wilson, Pyotr Kropotkin, and the theory that love, rather than hate, is the lager force for evolution

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some years ago, I read a wonderful book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, by that protean anarchist, Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin. It was originally published in serial in a British literary magazine between 1890 and 1896. I'm writing this on a day when an interview with Edward O. Wilson came on in which he was discussing his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. In it he argues (perhaps without knowing about Kropotkin) essentially that Kropotkin was right.

Kropotkin was arguing against social Darwinism as it existed in its two 19th century and early 20th century forms, the individualist justification for social inequity of the Gilded Age that gave it content in its American version, and the nationalist and racist form that gave it content in Germany and to a lesser extent in the rest of Europe.

He argued that a major factor in evolution is cooperation both within and between species. A respected naturalist with  a specialty in spiders, Kropotkin was able to bring forth a great many examples in the natural world of cooperation making survival possible.

Wilson was accused of social Darwinism when he wrote Sociobiology, a book that suggested that patterns of behavior were the result of natural selection. People were willing to believe this about ants, Wilson's specialty, but not about people.

Unfortunately, too few people remember Prince Kropotkin for Wilson to be accused of being an anarchist with the publication of his new book. But it does show how far ahead of his time Kropotkin was.

Group selection, the theory behind Wilson's new book, is still controversial in biology. It seems quite likely to me that it will, over time, prove out. After all, individuals invariably die, at least those that reproduce sexually rather than dividing like bacteria. Only the group survives, so only the group can carry on the genetic bequest of the individual.

In fact, we are learning that many bacteria in our system help us digest our food, and they may well help us in other ways. There's even a theory that the purpose of the appendix is to act as a reservoir of friendly bacteria in case they die out in the digestive tract, as they do when we contract certain diseases. People whose appendix has not been removed recover more quickly, for example, from cholera than those who have had it removed.

These bacteria don't help us out because we are nice, they do so because we are good hosts, and we are not good hosts because we are nice, we are good hosts because the bacteria help us. Niceness is an accidental byproduct of this arrangement, and in fact, niceness may well seem nice because it helps us survive.

After all, we respond to sweet things because our calorie-constrained ancestors needed to be able to identify good sources of calories. Our social selves need to be able to identify sources of mutual aid, so we respond well to niceness.

This relates back to our discussion of warfare and sex in the post A story of slutty snakes and warfare, where we saw that the reason when rattlesnakes fight, they don't bite, is related to the chances of passing on their genes.

William Jennings Bryan warned in a 1905 speech that "the Darwinian theory represents man reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate, the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn backward to the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love. I choose to believe that love rather than hatred is the law of development."

The problem is that he objected to the theory because he didn't like its conclusions, so he sought to keep people from being taught the theory in the Scopes trial. Kropotkin engaged social Darwinists on their own ground, showing that  "love rather than hatred is the law of development" based on science, rather than wishful thinking.

Now Wilson seems to be upsetting his fellow scientists by saying the same thing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

If we trained dogs using the corrections system we have for humans

by John MacBeath Watkins

If we used our corrections system to train dogs, what would be the result?

Consider Jane Doe. She discovers a "gift" from one of her dogs on the bathroom rug. The prime suspects are Spot and Rover.

Spot was a marked dog.
She dials 911. Since no life is immediately at risk, it takes a couple hours before Officer McGruff arrives. He Mirandizes the dogs, and both put their tails between their legs and dummy up.

McGruff processes the physical evidence and sends a sample off for DNA testing. This takes three weeks, and implicates Spot.

Spot is arrested, booked, and makes bail. Two days later, another "gift" appears on the bathroom rug. Jane, by now fed up with the system, doesn't call this one in, but cleans up the mess and takes Spot and Rover for a walk.

The public defender assigned to Spot has 50 other dogs to represent, so he puts in for a continuance. It's three months before the trial, and the evidence is damning, which hardly matters, because Spot's lawyer falls asleep during the proceedings.

The judge, who has a great deal of experience in this sort of thing, believes that the best outcome would be if Jane had scolded Spot and, more importantly, got off her butt and took him for a walk before he became desperate. But a public that has lost its patience with Bad Dogs has passed a ballot initiative prescribing a mandatory sentence of six months at the pound. The pound is run by a private dog pound company, which hired signature gatherers to put the Bad Dog initiative on the ballot, and the dog pound employees union ran advertisements in support of the ballot initiative, helping pass it. Both have an interest in imprisoning as many dogs as possible.

So Spot gets six months, which is 42 months in dog years. His new cell mate, Bowser, has been in and out of the pound all his life. . Bowser tends to pee wherever he's standing when he gets excited, hump anything available, and gets in dog fights on a regular basis. He does, however, teach Spot what he needs to know to survive inside -- join a pack and learn your place in it, bark without moving your jaw, be ready to fight dogs from other packs at any time.

After two months (14 months in dog years) Spot is eligible for parole. The pound gives him back his collar, sets him outside and tells him he must find a family and must stay in touch with his parole officer.

Not many families want a dog with a history in the pound, nicks in his ears, and a prison tattoo the pack made him get before they'd protect him from other packs. He doesn't find a family, and falls into company with some dogs Bowser told him to look up if he needs help. They run feral, chase cats, raid chicken coops and poop wherever they please.

Spot's parole officer knows he hasn't checked in, but he's got 128 clients to keep track of and he can't devote much time to tracking down the ones that don't check in. The system doesn't do anything about Spot until he's caught acting as a lookout for a dog who is stealing liver from a butcher shop.

Back to the pound, more education in Bad Dog culture. By this time, Spot has learned that he's a loser, a Bad Dog, that his enemy is The Man, and he knows he'll go feral as soon as he gets out. It's become the life he knows.

Which raises an interesting point. Would our corrections system work better if it was run by dog trainers?

More here:

Friday, April 13, 2012

Apple, Amazon, and the Amazing Agency Model: Publishing in the twilight of the printed word

by John MacBeath Watkins

In keeping with our concern with writing about publishing in the twilight of the printed word, I must comment on the kerfuffle about Apple, Amazon, and the Amazing Agency Model, which is supposed to make the iPad into the white knight that rescues the publishing industry.

First, full disclosure. I have family and friends working for Amazon, and I both buy and sell books through Amazon. I like Amazon. It is also a local company, with offices not far from the Center for Wooden Boats, where I do a lot of my sailing.

This does not obligate me to approve of everything they do.

Amazon reportedly controls about 55% of the e-book market. We are assured by the experts at the Justice Department that this is not a problem, they won't have anything like monopoly control of the e-book market until they control 70% of it.

Which they could, given current trends. And as a bookseller, a human being and a mammal, I have to say, anyone who controls 55% of the money I need to eat does not merely have me by the short hairs, they have me by the family jewels.

Anyway, how could they get to 70%? Gee, that seems impossible, unless they engaged in predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing is selling goods at a loss to drive the competition out of business. It can also be used to grab enough market share to make it possible to drive the competition out of business.

That's the problem with this analysis, which claims that the goal of the Justice Department should not be to protect small companies, but to protect consumers. A company does not sell a product at a loss without a clear idea of why they must do this.

For example, if Amazon's warehouse was bulging at the seams with e-books, and they were starting to smell like last week's fish offal, they might be selling the e-books at a loss because the choice was to do that, or see the things become overripe, turn black, and spoil, leading them to be worth nothing.

But wait, it costs next to nothing to store e-books, you can produce a copy almost instantly, and they can be stored almost indefinitely on the right media. So that can't be it.

Or, they could be trying to sell as many of their very expensive, highly profitable Kindle readers. Except that those seem to be falling rapidly in price, as the company tries to get as many people as possible to adopt their technology instead of the competition's.

So it seems quite possible that Amazon is willing to sell some of its e-books at a loss because they wish to gain market power, which would give them pricing power. That power would apply not only to buyers, it would apply to sellers, as well.

The publishing industry has already seen what happens when one company dominates sales of their products. Barnes & Noble was able in its heyday to negotiate far more favorable terms than its competitors, because they sold so many more books. The result was that many of their competitors failed, leaving them with something like monopsony power over the publishers, leading to better deals, leading to more independent bookstores failing.

So outfits like MacMillan have seen this movie before. Having seen the loss of power relative to those who controlled their sales channels for dead-tree books, they are inclined to take the same view of matters as Barry Lynn did in his Slate piece on the topic, so instead of settling, they are preparing to fight the Justice Department on this.

Having seen what happens when one large vendor controls the sales channel for their product is why they want to treat their vendors as agents, setting the price and having all vendors charge the same amount for it. The desired result would be that no vendor could have monopsony power over the publishers, and in theory, they would have equal difficulty establishing monopoly power over the buyers of books.

One would think this would be a desirable result, but I am not a lawyer, and the lawyers at the Justice Department disagree with me. It strikes me that this case is different from the paper companies that compete in most ways with each other to produce a commodity product they wholesale to a variety of vendors, but too often are caught colluding on prices.

Books are not commodities. Each story is hand-crafted by a writer, written with the genius or awkwardness each writer possesses. An economic regime which treats books like toilet paper (as many an outhouse once did, at least with perishable books like the almanac) will eventually produce a literature of about that quality. We need to prevent too much consolidation in the publishing industry, because it would mean too much consolidation in what we may learn from books. Free speech would mean nothing if there are too few voices, which is why small publishers are not like small toilet paper makers.

We can't know how the publishing industry will adapt to the changes in technology we're seeing. Perhaps Matthew Yglesias is right, the world of e-publishing is too unpredictable for the efforts of Amazon or MacMillan to control it to matter. But we shape our future, however imperfectly, and it matters how we perceive our options and which ones we pursue.

Edited to add:

The problem is not that Amazon is evil. The problem is that when one channel controls too much of what we read, it becomes a target that people try to control. When the fatwa came out against The Satanic Verses, Barnes & Noble stopped carrying the book. This was not because Barnes & Noble was evil, it was because they were a big target. It's just harder to intimidate 1,000 independent book sellers than it is to intimidate one company.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

For those who think the social contract is void, the government is an alien hand

by John MacBeath Watkins

Dēmos, a New York think tank, has published a study by John Quinterno about the continuing disinvestment in American higher education. One result of this disinvestment has been that tuition has doubled since 1990 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The study, aptly titled The Great Cost Shift, notes a dramatic change in priorities:
After controlling for inflation, states collectively invested $6.12 per $1,000 in personal income in
2010-2011, down from $8.75 in 1990-1991, despite the fact that personal income increased by
66.2 percent over that period.
And, via Matthew Yglesias,  we have this evidence of how important this is to the well-being of the nation.

The chart shows a box, generally at the bottom of the arrow, which represents the percentage of college educated people in the 55-64 age group. The triangle at the top represents the percentage of college-educated people in the 25-34 year age group. The longer arrows indicate the countries that have dramatically increased the number of college-educated people in their society over the last 30 years. (The data is from 2006, so the older cohort is people born between 1942 and 1951, the younger cohort is 30 years later.)

As you can see, the American arrow is about the shortest on the chart. That's because we've been standing still. In fact, in order to stand still, we've forced students and their families to go deeply into debt. If you follow the link above, and go to page 28 of the study, you'll see that between 2001 and 2011, student debt more than quadrupled in constant (2010) dollars, and went from 1.71% of household debt to 4.8%.

And a college degree seems to be the ticket that must be punched by most people to enter the middle class. Yglesias focuses on the fact the American middle class was strongest, relative to the rest of the world, when Americans were better educated than the rest of the world.

But there is more than one way to think about wealth. We can think about enriching our nation as a whole relative to the rest of the world, or we can think about enriching ourselves in relation to our fellow Americans.

Dwight Eisenhower set about to do the former. He was, of course, the general who managed what was arguably the greatest military enterprise of the 20th century, the allied victory over Nazi Germany. He understood how to organize a great enterprise and see it through.

It is said that amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. Eisenhower was a master of the latter. He did, of course, study tactics and strategy and master them, but in the management of the invasion of Europe, he left much of that to generals like Montgomery and Patton. His work was mainly involved in making their victories possible -- determining what personnel and materiel  were needed for the war effort and making sure that the right people with the right training were in place, with the right equipment and the right transportation.

So when he wanted to strengthen the country, he pushed through the National Defense Education Act, to raise the level of education in our country by providing fellowships and student loans. He also pushed through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, to solve a major logistical problem he'd first seen when he participated in the 1919 Motor Transport Corps convoy from Washington D.C. to San Francisco, a journey which took 62 days at an average speed of less than 6 mph. They had to repair 88 bridges, many of which they broke while traveling over them.

Of course, these were the Sputnik days. The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958. Eisenhower wasn't just trying to strengthen the middle class, he was trying to strengthen or nation as a whole. He was investing public funds in roads and education to fight the threat of socialism.

But of course, today, his efforts would themselves be viewed as socialism. Which in fact strikes me as very odd.

Eisenhower considered a nation a people who banded together for their mutual good. That's pretty much the view of the great liberal thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. But, of course, now we have people who fancy themselves conservatives, yet push the radical notion that Ayn Rand was fond of, that:
Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
That's from the website of the Ayn Rand Institute. I've never been quite clear on why Rand thought this was the case; certainly the doctrine would have been foreign to most of this nation's heroes, such as Nathan Hale, who on being hanged by the British said, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country."

Certainly it would have been foreign to my father, who devoted his life to the service of his country as an Air Force officer, and I expect it would have been foreign to Eisenhower as well.

But over the years, an increasingly large segment of the population seems to feel alienated from the social contract and the government that it produced. They seem to view it as an alien hand,  a part of themselves that acts independently of their will and often against their wishes.

But without the hand of the state, are we not condemned to the state Thomas Hobbes spoke of?
 Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
What could make that risk worth while?

Well, there's another way of viewing wealth. We can look at it in terms of positional status. This is compatible with Rand's doctrine of the virtue of selfishness.

Even if the nation is poorer, some people will be richer than others. And being richer is what's important to some people. When we hear Republican presidential candidates such as Herman Cain and Mitt Romney speaking of people who object to the inequity in our society as acting on "envy," we hear the voice of someone who understands wealth in terms of positional status. The notion that people might think the country as a whole would be better off if all its people had access to a good education and adequate health care is foreign to such people, because what they care about is their status in relation to others. What they are saying is that if they were not wealthy, they would be envious.

Which makes it strange that they wish to take the office of the presidency, the person who most embodies the actions of that alien hand, the government. Why would they seek such an office?

Presumably, they seek it for purposes more familiar to Ayn Rand than Dwight Eisenhower.  I presume that each seeks the office for "his own rational self-interest" rather than to be of service to others.

But of course, Eisenhower sought, and won, the presidency at a time when there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, and although he was regarded as a good Republican, he was never regarded as particularly conservative, whatever E.J. Dionne, Jr., might think. He held the presidency at a time when the nation was less divided, and a man with impeccable military credentials and the backing of the business community could invest in the nation.

A Republican I know told me a few months ago that this will be a national greatness election. If that is the case, let's talk about what it takes to really make the nation strong -- not just investments in weapons and soldiers, but investments that will make the nation our military represents stronger. Let's have a real discussion of what makes this country great, not just more chest pounding and sabre rattling.

What made the allies' victory possible was American productivity. The "arsenal of democracy" was not the product of selfish acts, it was the product of a social contract that, as our constitution says, looked after the "general welfare." We now seem to have too many people who think the social contract is void, the general welfare is a parasite, and the government is an alien hand. How foreign it must seem to read in Article 1, Section 8 of the constitution that...
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to
pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United
 ...when you are only ready to admit to the legitimacy of the common defense.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Easter poem (blasphemous)

I know I've posted this before, but it's Easter, and Jesus has come out of his cave, seen his shadow, and forecast six more weeks of sin, so I suppose in posting the following blasphemy I'm doing my part.

Easter Poem, with transubstantiation

by John MacBeath Watkins

The apostles' cold collation
turns, through transubstantiation,
from bread and wine vegans could toast
to chowing down the party's Host.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More on forfieture abuses, the corruption of the drug war, and the cute dogs who are used to justify the forfeitures

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Huffington Post has published a must-read article on how drug-sniffing dogs are used to justify searches. I was particularly taken with this information:
A Nashville TV station recently reported on a stretch in Tennessee where the vast majority of police stops were of suspected drug runners leaving the city, meaning the police apparently preferred to let the drugs come into the city so they could seize the cash on the way out.
Few things could make clearer the symbiotic relationship between the illicit drug dealing and law enforcement industries when it comes to the drug wars. Enforcement increases the risk premium drug dealers get (I'm sure they won't be able to compete with Phillip Morris if pot is ever legal) and the industry contributes directly to the budgets and salaries of the police enforcing the laws.

And meanwhile, the notion that the police are there to protect honest citizens is undermined by the seizure of innocent citizens' property. It strikes me that this is a form of corruption that gets too little attention. From the Huffpo story:
The Edwardsville Intelligencer reported in 2010 that the Madison County State's Attorney's Office has reaped a half-million dollars from the policy over eight years, which at the prosecutor's take of 10-12 percent suggests a total bounty of $4.5 million to $5 million. Madison County Assistant State's Attorney Stephanie Robbins, who handles forfeiture cases for the office, told local paper the Telegraph in 2010, "Law-abiding citizens have nothing to worry about."
But maybe they do. Jerome Chennault, a Nevada resident had the misfortune of driving through Madison County on his way home after visiting his son in Philadelphia.
Chennault said he had withdrawn $22,870 in cash to take with him before leaving Nevada, which he had intended to use for a downpayment on a home. After he was pulled over for following another car too closely, Chennault gave police permission to use a drug dog to sweep his car. The dog then "alerted" to the bag containing Chennault's cash.
Police found no actual drugs on Chennault or in his car. He was never charged with a crime. But the dog alert itself was enough to allow police to seize Chennault's cash. Over the next several months, Chennault had to travel to Edwardsville, Ill., at his own expense to fight in court for the return of his property. He had to put up a bond equal to 10 percent of the value of the property taken from him in order to secure it.
Cheannault won in court. His money was returned. But he won't be reimbursed for his travel or his legal expenses.
We all lose when these things happen, not just people like Cheannault, but all of those who hope to have honest police who take the presumption of innocence seriously. Departments that benefit financially from incidents like this pay a price in credibility, and those they stop pay a more obvious price.

Follow the link in the first paragraph of this post and read Huffpo's full article, it's well worth your time. Of course, regular readers of this blog will be familiar with much of the information in it (except the brilliant part about the eager-to-please dogs, which is really the heart of their story.)

More on this topic here:

and here:

and here:

and here: