Nationalize the Irvings

The Irvings are a Canadian family who own the Atlantic provinces. That’s not hyperbole – they’re in the top 5 North American property owners – and they own much of the resource extraction and development, transportation, and English-language media in the Atlantic provinces – especially in New Brunswick.

The Irving empire was founded more than 100 years ago. Kenneth Colin (KC) Irving, born in 1899, took advantage of a decline in traditional colonial businesses in Canada’s Eastern Provinces in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to move into oil, gaining control of its distribution like a smaller-scale John D Rockefeller. He then moved into timber, steel and mass-market retail, proving to be a merciless negotiator and skilful wielder of political influence. Today his three sons follow the same approach. As the biggest employer in the Eastern Provinces and the driving force behind industrial activity, the Irvings have made serfs of the local population. No antitrust legislation can contain their appetites.

And they don’t just own everything that can be nailed down, they’ve effectively bought culture and politics in the region as well.

Their philanthropic pretensions fail to mask their interference in public affairs, both at federal level and in New Brunswick and the other Atlantic provinces, where they act like a second government. Few sports complexes, museums or university research centres (energy, forestry, sustainable development) are not Irving-sponsored.

And they’ve basically been handed the incredible forests of the entire region – and they don’t do a good job with them.

New Brunswick has also entrusted the Irvings, directly or indirectly, with managing its huge public forests, while constantly downgrading its requirements. The latest ‘Forest Management Manual for New Brunswick Crown Lands’ reduces the size of buffer zones between forests and habitable areas, authorises more clear-cutting, increases scheduled production volume and cuts protected areas from 31% to 22%. The legislation has effectively created a free trade zone for the family: the natural resources department requirements cannot be modified without their agreement.

Anyone who acts counter to the Irvings interests can end up losing their careers – including scientists and and civil servants.

The 2015 dismissal of Eilish Cleary, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health, caused a sensation: she was investigating the use of glyphosate by Irving forestry companies. Rod Cumberland, a biologist formerly employed by New Brunswick’s natural resources department, and Tom Beckley, a professor of forestry at the University of New Brunswick, came under pressure when analysing the impact of this weedkiller on local fauna and the lack of transparency in the provincial government’s management of forests.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also avoid taxes and get the laws changed so there’s less of them to pay.

The Atlantic provinces are poor and their services, though subsidized federally, are also often poor. The Irvings exploit these provinces, especially New Brunswick, and have so captured the political apparatus that it’s very difficult to create change internally.

The federal government needs to get serious about taxing wealth. Nobody should be able to gain this much power in a democracy. We need to break up or nationalize monopolies. We need to tax the fuck out of high incomes, estates, and rent-seeking. The Irvings aren’t good for anybody but the Irvings. Let’s break them up and tax them fairly and so they can be contributing members of society instead of parasites.


Desks for short people

I am 5’3″ (160cm) and I was beginning to think that finding a desk the right height for me was impossible.

I’m just half an inch shy of the median height of women in North America. You’d think this would be easy.

But the industry standard for desk height – 29 inches – is bonkers. Median height for women is a little over 5’3″ and for men, a little over 5’9″. The “standard” desk height is too tall for nearly all women and ~85% of men.

Bizarrely, it’s easy to find desks an inch or two taller and nearly impossible to find one shorter. This is fine if you’re 6+ foot tall, less so when you’re 9 inches shorter.

A lot of ergonomic desk stuff is designed to help adapt people who aren’t 6 feet tall to desks designed for people are are. But it’s a kludge and works best for folks who are a little taller or shorter than 6′ (like most men) and works very badly for people who are quite far from 6 foot – like the majority of women (especially Hispanic and Asian women).

Many people use adjustable height desks or workbenches, many intended for standing, to get the right height for them. But almost no adjustable desks go down low enough – many bottom out at 29″ high. After a full day of searching adjustable height desks and workbenches, I’d found just two options –

  •  Uplift’s V2 with the commercial frame, which will set you back at least $1800 CAD (with shipping and duties and taxes – but is “only” around $700-900 in the US) and
  • the ‘Nomic station, which is beautiful and highly customizable and better priced – but still close to $1000 CAD with shipping, duties, and taxes (again, much cheaper in the US!)

I liked the ‘Nomic station a lot – it’s unique and clever and I think quite lovely. I also like their bare bones website and and found emailing with the company to be a very pleasant experience. If I get a fancy job, I’ll probably get one. But right now I’m a grad student and I’m trying to be thrifty.

So I started looking at children’s desks. Most of these are tiny plastic pieces of junk and, horrifyingly, many were still too high. But the options were actually better.

One option that I think would work for a lot of people are the adjustable height tables sold as “activity tables.” They’re most often found in classrooms and are very sturdy. They usually sell for around $200-$400 – and because they’re for children, they often come in some exciting colours.

But what I ended up going with was the Ikea Påhl desk. The Påhl has 3 heights ~23″, 26″,  & ~28″. The lowest height works best for me, but you can adjust it in further fine grained increments with furniture risers (or by drilling more holes through the metal legs?).

Ikea Pahl

Ikea Pahl

The desk comes in 2 lengths: 37inches and 50inches. The legs come in all white, but also a cheerful green or pink. And best of all it’s dirt cheap – just $80 CAD.

It felt so bizarre and wonderful to sit at a desk that is the correct height in a chair that fits too. I hadn’t realized how much having to use a footstool or stack of books affected me – it’s so much more stable to have my feet on the ground and I can shift and move around so much more!

It also feels amazing to actually just put my keyboard on the desktop instead of using a keyboard tray. I do like a slightly higher surface for writing by hand, so I stick a big textbook down as a writing surface when I need it.

It’s not quite as nice as the fancy adjustable height desks – I can’t change the height at the push of a button or by turning a handle. It would be nice to be able to do that for specific tasks and to get the height right to the exact millimeter. Or even to be able to shift to working while standing sometimes.

I also wish it was a little big longer – 60 inches instead of 50. But if I really want the desk to be that long I can get a desktop that long and just screw the legs into it. And I may end up doing that eventually because I can’t see the surface of this desk lasting that long. One of the corners was dented and one was cracked when we bought it (New! But we were too lazy to take it back.) The coating isn’t sprayed on evenly either and it’s rather light feeling. But it’s the right height and it holds my stuff up and it didn’t cost a fortune and I am so happy to have a desk that fits.

But I’m furious that I had to buy a children’s desk as an adult with a completely normal height. I’m furious that going to work instead of working from home causes me incredible pain because everything is designed for a tall man. I’m furious that when I asked for a keyboard tray at work, I was told that grad students didn’t get funding for ergonomics. I’m furious that almost all women and many men with desk jobs have to use shitty equipment that doesn’t fit their bodies and injures them.


Forgetting about death is the entire point of food culture.

Changing our eating habits is so fraught because eating is about far more than food.

Ancient humans must have decided, once their bellies were full, that there was more to life than mere survival and staring mortality in the face. They went on to build things in which they could find distraction, comfort, recreation, and meaning. They built cultures in which death became another rite of passage, not the end of everything. They made structures to live in, wrote songs to sing to each other, and added spices to their food, which they cooked in different styles. Humans are supported by a self-created system of meanings, symbols, rituals, and etiquette. Food and eating are part of this.

The act of ingestion is embroidered with so much cultural meaning that, for most people, its roots in spare, brutal survival are entirely hidden. Even for people in extreme poverty, for whom survival is a more immediate concern, the cultural meanings of food remain critical. Wealthy or poor, we eat to celebrate, we eat to mourn, we eat because it’s mealtime, we eat as a way to bond with others, we eat for entertainment and pleasure. It is not a coincidence that the survival function of food is buried beneath all of this—who wants to think about staving off death each time they tuck into a bowl of cereal? Forgetting about death is the entire point of food culture.

via Diet Culture Exists to Fight Off the Fear of Death – The Atlantic

Your model is wrong – and it kills people

A common response to a homeless person asking for money is “get a job.”

When people say this they reveal some assumptions about the way they believe the world works. Some of the assumptions revealed by “get a job” are

  1. there are enough jobs for everyone
  2. everyone is physically and mentally capable of the available waged labor
  3. available waged labor pays enough to maintain housing

These assumptions are easy to disprove. Telling someone to “get a job” is a moral judgement based on false beliefs.

Jacobin had a great article several years ago on the moral philosophy of economics that I’ve been thinking about lately.

When the findings, predictions, and prescriptions of economists are in the news, they’re often presented as if they’re natural facts about the word. Maybe someone has made a calculation error somewhere, but there are rules and equations and pretty much anyone would have come up with the answer they did.

But economics has more in common with the “get a job” example than a calculation of soil-water moisture or how far you can drive on a tank of gas.

Economists are making moral judgements based on a model of how the world works that may or may not be true. The very models used to come up with those numbers, even to ask the questions, represent philosophies and moral judgements that you may disagree with – or even be able to disprove.

When I run the numbers on my budget, I’m building a model of sorts and that model makes declarations about the world – small ones like “I have a job,” “I buy a lot of cheese,” “I get paid on the 15th,” and big ones like “wage labor exists,” “people can charge me rent,” “I can exchange my paycheck for goods.” All of these things are true right now in the world, but all of them can be changed.

At some point in recorded human history, all of those statements weren’t just not true, but they didn’t even make sense. The world where a household budget makes sense is one that is real, but it is also one that we constructed. And we could, collectively, change it if we wanted to.

There’s a aphorism that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” In evolutionary biology, the Hardy-Weinberg principle states that “if nothing changes, nothing changes”, or more formally:

allele and genotype frequencies in a population will remain constant from generation to generation in the absence of other evolutionary influences. These influences include genetic drift, mate choice, assortative mating, natural selection, sexual selection, mutation, gene flow, meiotic drive, genetic hitchhiking, population bottleneck, founder effect and inbreeding.

We can approximate the conditions under which Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium occurs, but it’s mostly useful as a baseline – something to measure against. When an allele isn’t in HW equilibrium, we know that some evolutionary force is acting on the population. It’s simple and very fruitful, occurs in the real world, and is based on assumptions that are physically possible (or at least approximately physically possible – e.g. infinite populations are impossible, but populations so large that they behave like infinite populations are very possible).

At first blush, HW equilibrium sounds kind of like the economist’s “ideal competitive benchmark” model. But the ideal competitive benchmark is presented as a goal, can’t ever be produced, and if it were it would be terrible.

All models in social science are unrealistic. But the “ideal competitive benchmark” (the Arrow-Debreu world and its family of general equilibrium models) is not just unrealistic. It depicts a world that is neither possible nor imaginable— and yet it is also undesirable. Here are some of its assumptions: All markets must be perfectly competitive (whereas most of ours are not); if such a world existed, the requirement of perfect competition would rule out any division of labor or long-run economic growth.

There must be an infinite number of futures markets— one for every good in existence, delivered at every future date, for the rest of time. And yet, in the model, time doesn’t really exist: all economic decisions for all of human history were made in an auction at the beginning of the world.

Moreover, far from being harmonious, this theoretical world has been discovered to be chaotic— perpetually in random motion, never actually arriving at any of its “optimal” configurations except by accident. This finding alone nullifies the very meaning of the theory.

For a model to be useful, it has to tell us something about the world. The ideal competitive model doesn’t seem very useful, yet it’s been used to make policy decisions that affect us all.

But economics is a big field, with lots of models and assumptions underlying different schools of thought that overlap and conflict. Consider economists discussing full employment instead of an arrogant businessperson telling a poor person to get a job –

On the surface, Keynes’ critique of neoclassical economics (which he called “classical”) was much more limited in scope than Marx’s. His fundamental innovation was the theory of effective demand: the idea that employment is set by total spending, so that the market system has no automatic tendency to settle on full employment. Keynes himself was keen to stress that the General Theory was radical only on that particular point, and that once the state intervened to assure full employment, “the [neo]classical theory comes into its own again.”

Yet in order to reach that conclusion, Keynes had to challenge conventional economic theory on fundamental points, which lent themselves to more radical readings— and brought them into contact with Marx. Neoclassicals had held that full employment was ensured by the workings of the market, that the wage functioned like any other price, rising and falling to align the supply and demand for labor (at least eventually, or once wage rigidities and other imperfections were swept away).

If you’re a neoclassical economist, you think that full employment can be achieved and the way to do that is to get rid of things like collective bargaining and minimum wages. Full employment doesn’t mean to an economist what it does to you and I – and our official policy for decades was to increase unemployment because some economists believed it would keep inflation low.

But Keynes established that the wage was not like any other price— it constituted not just the employer’s cost but the bulk of society’s income, out of which spending and demand for goods was generated, so there was nothing preventing a persistent equilibrium of substantial unemployment.

Rather than depending on the wage, the level of employment depended on effective demand. This, in turn, danced to the tune of investment, so that employment today depends on firms’ expectations of profitability in the future— expectations held more or less confidently, but always fallible. Keynes saw human beings as coping with fundamental uncertainty about the future. This could leave market outcomes wild and unpredictable, so that free-market price flexibility might lead not to harmonious equilibrium but to chaotic results.

And then the article starts talking about income distribution and puts it smack dab at the heart of economic theory – despite it being ignored or treated as just an outcome, not an input.

By the same logic, [Keynes] rejected the neoclassical notion that workers bargain over their real wage— that is, over units of consumption. Lacking knowledge of how much goods will cost in the future, workers can evaluate only their relative wage; and that brings the question of income distribution into the heart of economic theory.

All of this opened the way to what neoclassical economists resist most militantly: indeterminacy, with all its radical implications.

Unlike the neoclassical vision, in which income distribution is fated by existing technologies, preferences, and endowments, in this vision it is a process of active conflict. The incomes of different groups, rather than smoothly adjusting to shifts in supply and demand, tend to be the baseline around which the rest of the economic system adjusts. The income distribution is treated as an evolutionary process, shaped by norms and institutions inherited from the past, which change as a result of extra-economic events— that is, history, politics, institutions, and struggle.

The neoclassical vision of income distribution rests on two very shaky assumptions. First, unlike Ricardo and the other classicals, it simply assumes that firms are able to respond to changes in the prices of different factors— the different kinds of labor and capital— by freely adjusting the various proportions in which they’re used. Without that assumption, labor may literally have no marginal product, and the same would go for any other factor, or any particular type of labor. In that case, the Marxian or Ricardian conclusion would hold: the wage would be whatever workers could wrest for themselves, and profit would be whatever was left over.

Of course, it’s fine to build a simplified model with unrealistic assumptions and then see what happens when the assumptions are varied. But at some point, it seems, mainstream economists largely forgot that this assumption of “differentiable production functions” was a simplification— let alone one of questionable realism. [emphasis mine] As a result, in today’s economics literature it’s almost never questioned, and textbooks don’t even alert students to the issue. Yet as a general supposition about how production works, it is, of course, unrealistic: What are you supposed to do if your labor consists of ditch-diggers and your capital consists of shovels? How exactly do you vary your proportions of labor and capital?

In a series of works over the past two decades, Michael Mandler, a University of London general-equilibrium theorist with impeccable neoclassical credentials, has shown that once economic decisions are pictured as being made sequentially, as in real life, ownership patterns turn out to evolve through time in highly specific ways— and they systematically gravitate toward precisely the kinds of patterns that generate indeterminacy of factor prices.

As a result, the central problem with marginal productivity theory that John Hicks recognized in the 1930s has never gone away: without the arbitrary assumption of freely differentiable production functions, wages and profits are not fixed by technologies and tastes. They are set by “something else”— something outside the competitive model.

In my field, we’re often encouraged to write our ideas and hypothesis as equations. We don’t do this to claim they’re natural laws or anything, but because they’re tools for investigating those ideas and the assumptions that go into them. We emphasize that just because something is true in the small world of our model doesn’t mean it’s true in the real, big world, that just because something in our model does hold in the real, big world doesn’t mean it always holds.

Our assumptions and simplifications matter. My budget is a good model of my household spending and how much I can save, but that model becomes a bad model if the government introduces a Universal Basic Income, or my sister gets sick and I have to fly across the country regularly to take care of her, or we have a socialist revolution, or climate change causes food prices to spike.

Economists seem to have confused the small world of their models with reality and it’s hurt us all. Models are tools that help us understand and interact with the world. They are never perfect representations. If we don’t acknowledge their limitations when we use them, models aren’t just wrong – they’re dangerous.


Forcing millennials into shitty southern suburbs isn’t a solution to our political problems

All over the world, liberal, college-educated voters pack into cities, where they dilute their own voting power through excessive concentration

[via American Migration Patterns Should Terrify the GOP – CityLab]

Liberal voters aren’t diluting their own voting power. We prioritize land over population at basically all levels of voting and then heavily subsidize rural and suburban lives and incentivize people to live at low density through fucked up property taxes and car-based development and such while pushing poor people out of cities.

So just imagine what would happen to the American political picture if more Democrats moved out of their excessively liberal enclaves to redistribute themselves more evenly across the vast expanse of Red America?

I’d rather imagine what would happen if we stopped giving people with more land more voting rights than people without. I’d rather imagine what would happen if we stopped letting rentiers and cars destroy cities and stopped subsidizing rural and suburban lifestyles so heavily.

Or don’t imagine. Just … wait.

[Young, left-leaning people] are U-Hauling to ruddier states in the South and West. The five fastest-growing metros of the past few years—Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta, and Orlando, Florida—are in states won by Trump. The other metro areas with a population of at least 1 million that grew by at least 1.5 percent last year were Las Vegas; Austin, Texas; Orlando, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; San Antonio; Tampa, Florida; and Nashville, Tennessee. All of those metros are in red or purple states.

And almost all of them are cities that are going to get absolutely crushed by climate change and gerrymandering means it doesn’t matter so much which way they vote.