To Live Outside the Law by Leaf Fielding is the autobiography of a member of Britain's largest ever LSD ring. It alternates chapters of his life in prison after being conficted, with flashbacks of how he got into the situation. He seems to have started out as a fairly typical acid-head dropout, who genuinely if naively believed that LSD was going to lead to a great social revolution. There are a few interesting bits of the tradecraft of being part of an LSD ring. He helped assemble the product into microdots, but wasn't close to the chemist who synthesize it in the first place.
Has some interesting bits of tradecraft. Their policy was never to store the product in their homes, leading to lots of trips to the countryside to dig it up or bury it, in which his love of Nature seems to have helped. One of their meeting sites was the Maids of Honour teashop not far from me, now tourist-choked.
Fairly good, but not a classic: some decent anecdotes but not that much insight into the drug business as the author seems to have been a minor cog rather than an organiser.
What I'm Reading 2
Confronting the Classics. Collection of lightly reworked book reviews by Britain's Most Famous Classicist™ Mary Beard. Does manage to give a pretty interesting overview of the field. Beard is fairly skeptical of some of the more confident assertions about the ancient world, and is fond of pointing out weak points in the evidence and arguments given. There seems to be a kind of slightly postmodern movement in the Classics today, which looks at the texts in terms of symbolism and the worldview they're trying to present, rather than trying to extract hard historical facts which are probably unknowable.
One minor point that she makes in an aside is that the ROmans seem to have had no concept of popular culture. In Pompeii for instance, the rich households had the same styles of decoration as the poorest: more of it and better executed, but not different.
The piece about Roman slavery is also worthwhile, pointing out that a large proportion, perhaps even a majority, of the Roman citizenry had freed-slave ancestry,
Overall, interesting but not unmissable.
Mary Beard reckons that the ancient Romans didn't have any concept of "popular culture". In Pompeii, the richest and the poorest house have the same style of decoration, the rich just have more of it and better executed. In Elizabethan/Jacobean England, both rich and ordinary went to the theatre. The poor would go the Globe and stand as groundlings, the King or Queen would have command performances, but they would be watching the same play. That's not because that society was classless, quite the opposite. Everybody had a clearly defined rank, from the aristocracy to the differing grades of peasant. Sumptuary laws dictated what clothing members of a given class could wear. If you passed someone on the street, you had to "give the wall" to someone of higher rank, stepping into the street if necessary. Hypothesis: the distinction between popular and elite culture evolved as a way to identify members of different classes in an era when it can be otherwise difficult to tell. If we had a modern sumptuary law where everyone had to wear a badge with last year's income on it, then the rich would be free to enjoy monster truck rallies and the workers could go to the ballet.
What I'm Reading 3
The Drowned Cities by Paulo Bacigalupi. Third in a loosely linked series of climate change SF novels, with different characters in each but set in different parts of the same world. This one is set in the inland of what used to be the United States, now torn apart by competing warlords and armies including child soldiers years after Chinese peacekeeping troops have abandoned their civilising mission.
It's surprisingly grim for what seems to verge on YA. It's not just that the brutality is realistically drawn, but also the tough choices. Resistance and principle here usually lead straight to death..
Overall though, I really liked this. A plausible, superbly developed world, believable characters, and a tense atmosphere. Worth reading.
What I'm Reading 4
Finally finished the much discussed Capital in the Twenty-First Century Piketty makes a powerful case that inequality generally tends to increase as r > g: the rate of return on capital is greater than growth, which means the rich steadily get richer. In the Twentieth century we saw an inversion of this trend due to various shocks: the world wars, the first bouts of inflation which the rich did not then know how to insulate themselves against, and then a long period of postwar catchup growth in which g temporarily outpaced r. When these shocks petered out in the 1970s, r > g took over again and the rich started to get richer once more, a process which looks set to continue.
He also assembles some data suggesting that the richer you more your capital earns. Small investors usually get 3%-4% per year over inflation, the richer get 6%, the super rich seem to get up to about 10%. 60-70% of the people on very high salaries are "supermanagers" senior executives at large corporations, not necessarily CEOs, less than 5% are athletes/actors/artists etc. Supermanagers do not seem to be correlated with productivity either at a national or international level.
Most of the book is taken up by the history and the numbers. Piketty freely acknowledges the difficulty of getting data in some periods and places, but still makes a convincing case by assembling many different sources of data. He always points out how reliable or unreliable the data is in each case.
There's a lot of interest in the details, which he famously illustrates with examples from Jane Austen and Balzac of life in a highly unequal world. In ancient regime France, the aristocracy was 1%-2% of the population. While Bill Gates' fortune grew from 4bn to 40bn, the heiress Lilian Bettancourt saw her fortune increase at the same rate though she has never worked in her life: business skills made him his initial pile, but after that he got richer no faster
In the final section Piketty proposes some solutions. By far his favourite option is an international tax on capital, starting at the EU level. This should gather about 2% of GDP. This does not have to be additional to existing taxes, it could allow others to be lowered. It would tax wealth annually at rates of 0% for fortunes below 1 million Euros, 1% on fortunes between 1 and 5 million Euros, and 2% above 5 million. (The 0% is so that everyone gets assessed and we know reliably what the level of inequality really is). This would not expropriate the rich, who individually would still see their wealth increase at a moderately slower rate. However combined with some other factors that still act against inequality, this should overall stop the endless spiral to huge inequality.
Piketty mentions other alternatives, but prefers this. He's skeptical about the power of inflation to reduce inequality today, though it did in the past: todays rich are wary of fixed-currency bonds and keep their money in stocks and other places where the value grows with the currency.
What I found surprising about the book was how modest its proposals were. From the reaction from the Right you'd think Piketty was a fanatical neo-Lenin wanting to slaughter the kulaks and capitalists en masse. Instead all he wants is that the super-rich invdividuals get richer at a slightly slower rate that might keep society intact.
If you read right-of-centre economics blogs, while it's slightly died down lately there's a constant stream of "what Piketty doesn't take into account" posts which give the impression he hasn't even considered things like "human capital". When you read it though, he's given painstaking attention to most of these things: they're just quibbling over the details.
Overall, definitely worth reading if you have any interest in economics or society.
But while Piketty's suggestions are modest and reasonable, given the intense reaction against them, I think we should probably just storm the mansions of the rich and hang them up from their chandeliers instead.
Couple of extracts:
Notwithstanding the extravagance of some of their characters, these nineteenth-century novelists describe a world in which inequality was to a certain extent necessary: if there had not been a sufficiently wealthy minority, no one would have been able to worry about anything other than survival. This view of inequality deserves credit for not describing itself as meritocratic, if nothing else. In a sense, a minority was chosen to live on behalf of everyone else, but no one tried to pretend that this minority was more meritorious or virtuous than the rest. In this world, it was perfectly obvious, moreover, that without a fortune it was impossible to live a dignified life. Having a diploma or skill might allow a person to produce, and therefore to earn, 5 or 10 times more than the average, but not much more than that. Modern meritocratic society, especially in the United States, is much harder on the losers, because it seeks to justify domination on the grounds of justice, virtue, and merit, to say nothing of the insufficient productivity of those at the bottom..
...we have been accustomed for several decades now to the fact that the United States is more inegalitarian than Europe and even that many Americans are proud of the fact (often arguing that inequality is a prerequisite of entrepreneurial dynamism and decrying Europe as a sanctuary of Soviet-style egalitarianism). A century ago, however, both the perception and the reality were strictly the opposite: it was obvious to everyone that the New World was by nature less inegalitarian than old Europe, and this difference was also a subject of pride. In the late nineteenth century, in the period known as the Gilded Age, when some US industrialists and financiers (for example John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan) accumulated unprecedented wealth, many US observers were alarmed by the thought that the country was losing its pioneering egalitarian spirit. To be sure, that spirit was partly a myth, but it was also partly justified by comparison with the concentration of wealth in Europe. In Part Four we will see that this fear of growing to resemble Europe was part of the reason why the United States in 1910-1920 pioneered a very progressive estate tax on large fortunes, which were deemed to be incompatible with US values, as well as a progressive income tax on incomes thought to be excessive. Perceptions of inequality, redistribution, and national identity changed a great deal over the course of the twentieth century, to put it mildly.
What I'm Watching
Saw This is England, film set in 1983 about a boy getting involved with a gang of skinheads just as they're moving towards involvement with the far right.
Excellent film, emotionally powerful, very involving, that depicts the period with horrifying accuracy.
Sci/Tech. How a blind programmer codes.
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