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How would our language change if the U.S. were to collapse economically?


Not too many literary novelists tackle the big economic questions of our time. John Lanchester did it after the Collapse of 2008 with I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, but he didn’t write a novel. Now Lionel Shriver has actually done it with The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.

I’ll be writing more about this interesting and fun novel, but for starters let’s look at how American English changes after a big economic collapse circa 2029. The country is majority Latino and they are “Lats” while white Americans are “honks.” A couple of decades after the U.S. defaults on its bonds, both principal and interest, where a present-day American might use the words “shit” and “asswipe” the corresponding words are “treasury” and “T-bill.”:

Maybe even Goog, who wouldn’t be such a T-bill if he didn’t work for the Scab. [Two brothers are named, circa 2020, “Goog” and “Bing”; the Scab is short for “Bureau for Social Contribution Assistance,” the rebranded IRS.]

“You’re always reminiscing about how brutal it was at Citadel. If Elysian is splug, why not go back? You took to that farm treasury more than most of us did.

“And you’re assuming that the chip’s self-destruct is treasury. Why would it be? You heard Goog. A whole unit at the Scab, he said. And doesn’t it sound like exactly what they’d program your chip to do, if you had the impertinence to throw down your cotton hoe, and the ingratitude to walk away from the greatest nation on earth? These people are motherfucking T-bills! Seems biggin’ likely to me that instead of allowing you to throw off your chains, they’d rather you be dead.”

Young folks change the way they greet each other:

“Full faith and credit, man,” Bing said, with a biff of solidarity on Willing’s shoulder. “Full faith and credit,” Willing returned, with a light biff back. The ritual greeting went over the heads of their elders.

Americans who reject the various transformations in society and move to the free state of Nevada are referred to as “Forty-Niners”. The transformations include chipping humans the way that dogs are currently chipped and confiscating guns:

Return to the city necessitated a proper job. Packing up at Citadel in ’41, he already suspected that a job meant being chipped. It was routine; everyone said so. Like applying for a Social Security number. A bureaucratic matter, a relatively painless, pro forma protocol of the modern day. Thus Willing had not considered the inevitability of the procedure with sufficient seriousness. He had been lulled by what was regular, by what was expected and customary. No doubt all ages have their usual things, about which no one at the time thinks twice. Their leeches and bloodletting, their homosexual “cures,” their children’s workhouses and debtors’ prisons. When drowning in the is-ness of the widely accepted present, it must be hard to tell the difference—between traditions like burying your dead and having dinner at 8 p.m. and other, just as mesmerizingly normative conventions that later will leap out to posterity as offenses against the whole human race. Maybe he was letting himself off the hook. He’d had misgivings, after all. Yet it is always challenging to choose otherwise when you are informed in no uncertain terms that there is no choice to make. When Willing was small, people made a great brouhaha over pedophilia, and sexual abuse of any kind. Employees at daycare centers were required to get criminal-record checks. All scoutmasters were suspect. No one ever seemed to care if you were a murderer. Murderers were let out of prison and blended right back into the neighborhood. They could live wherever they wanted. Sex criminals were marked for life—shuttled from hostels to underpasses, and required to report their whereabouts, which were posted on the web—the better for local parents to start picketing campaigns to have the filth evicted. The no-go radius around schools and playgrounds widened every year. It was worse to be a rapist than a killer. By inference, rather than be raped, you were better off dead.

The foreign object was the size of a pinhead. A mere poke would be more painful, a squeeze, even. Parents were far better off anguishing over male circumcision, now roundly discouraged. Willing envied the newborns. The real trauma had little to do with physical torment. A baby’s clean slate would preclude any horror over what the “foreign object” was for. Since he was eight years old, Willing had understood that most systems worked badly. It was a surprise to discover in his young adulthood that they could also work too well.

He accepted that the chip performed the functions it was purported to. It registered direct deposits of his salary. It deducted the costs of any products he chose to buy. It debited his utility bills. Though Willing had no experience of either, it recorded investments and received state benefits. It subtracted local, state, and federal taxes, which totaled 77 percent of his pay. It communicated his every purchase to the agency known until 2039 as the Internal Revenue Service—what the item cost, when and where he bought it, and the product’s exact description, down to model, serial number, or sell-by date. It informed the American tax authorities if he bought a packet of crackers. Were the chip to accumulate an excess of fiscal reserves—an amount that surpassed what he required on average to cover his expenses for the month—it would dun the overage at an interest rate of -6 percent. Should the balance cross various thresholds, that interest rate would progress up to -21 percent. (Saving was selfish. Saving was bad for the economy. Negative interest rates also provided Americans a short course in mathematics from which an undereducated public could surely benefit. At -21 percent compounded annually, 100 was worth 30.77 five years later.) Any additional income, including gift coupons for a birthday, revenue from pawned possessions, bake-sale proceeds, and private-party poker winnings, would also register on the chip, and would also be taxed at 77 percent.

If anyone contacted your chipsite whose distinctive heartbeat didn’t synchronize perfectly with the pounding in your chip, your funds went into lockdown. So no one could pretend to be you, and the account that went everywhere you went was safe from predators. (The feds somewhat oversold this feature in the early versions. In a surge of “chipnappings,” individuals were forced to make online transfers at gunpoint. Updates guaranteed that when the chip detected high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, or even heavy doses of tranquilizers that might suppress those hormones, transfers would not go through. The same bio-sensitivity ensured that gamblers could not place rash bets while drunk, which had a distinctly depressive effect on the casino industry.)

Much the same reasoning had led to the complete elimination of the cash dólar nuevo in 2042.

Who completely ignored the weapons amnesty in ’38?” “He didn’t completely ignore it,” Bing said. “When they canceled the Second Amendment—” “No one canceled the Second Amendment, you yunk,” Goog said. “It was clarified. Modern constitutional scholars now believe it was never meant to apply to individuals in the first place. A ‘well-regulated militia’ means the police and the armed forces. Not some lunatic with an AK in a shopping mall.”

The chip stuff interests me because starting about 15 years ago I have been waiting for humans to be chipped. I imagined that it would start with criminals as a condition of parole. Then it would be children because we don’t want them to get lost. Then it would be visitors to the U.S. and immigrants as a condition of getting in. Then finally it would lead to a much safer and more secure society if everyone were chipped. Shriver imagines that we get chipped primarily to facilitate tax collection.

What about when they turn on the tap and no water comes out? That’s a “dryout”. Old people soaking up an ever-greater share of the GDP with Social Security and Medicare? “shrivs”

More: Read The Mandibles.

School schedule and mission in Israel


Back in November I wrote “Touring the Mediocrity Factory” regarding a conversation with an American primary school principal. She dismissed as unworkable the Russian system in which schools are purely academic institutions and have a short school day. It seems that Israel operates schools with a similar schedule and mission, at least for the first six grades. Children go to school from about 8 am to 12:30 pm. They are not served lunch at “school”. They do not have recess. They do not play sports at “school”. Although generally the cost of most things in Israel is higher than in the U.S., Israel spends less than the U.S. on primary schools (just under $6,000 per year says the OECD; compare to about $11,200 per year for the U.S.)

Note that at least some Israelis are unhappy with the current system. I was told that feminists in particular complain that the system is unfair to women because, if a family cannot afford after-school programs, mothers are typically the ones who have to care for children who are dumped onto the street at 12:30 pm.

Traditional gender roles, family norms, and feminism in Israel


One of our guides during a recent trip to Israel described a public debate over the extent to which the society is fair to women. He pointed out that women can retire with the same pension at age 62 versus 67 for men. Women serve 1-1.5 years less in the military (and are exempt from the draft altogether if they get married before age 18). Women who do serve in the military are exempt from reserve duty as soon as they become pregnant for the first time whereas men can be and are called up until the age of 40-50). “Women complain about their status but they never mention these advantages.”

Some of the advantages for women are limited to those who get married and/or have children. An Israeli attorney pointed out that a woman could simply marry at 18, have a few children, and then sue for property division, alimony (but maybe only from a rabbinic court? example; also see this one regarding a $90,000 one-time payment), custody, profitable child support (even if the children live with their father), etc. as soon as she was tired of her partner. Women are automatic victors in any custody lawsuit for a child under six (though this may be changing soon; compare to some European countries where women automatically win custody regardless of the age of the child[ren] and to U.S. states where the law is gender-neutral but the statistical probability of a child being with the father at least 50 percent of the time is less than 10 percent).

Israeli law has some built-in bias towards traditional family norms. Currently only a married heterosexual couple can hire a surrogate mother within Israel (that may be changing, however; see “AG: Single women should also be able to use a surrogate” for how single women (but not single men or gay male couples) may gain equal status in this area).

Women cite to the fact that Israel has a larger gender gap in pay than most other countries (OECD). [Note to investors: You can therefore make some staggering profits by setting up a company in Israel and hiring only women!]


What happened at the Republican convention?


I’m in Paris, I don’t think that any Republican can win the U.S. Presidency (previous posting), and my vote in any general election is irrelevant (since I vote in Massachusetts), so I haven’t watched or read about the Republican convention. My Facebook feed is alive with expressions of outrage from Hillary Clinton supporters (did they imagine that the convention was set up for them?), but they don’t describe anything substantive having happened.

Readers: What happened at the convention? Is there any new information?

Buddhist pilgrims to the Holy Land


One area where Jews and Arabs once had a common interest was in growing food on the irrigated desert (guides point out that every tree you see in Israel was planted within the last 100 years or so). Unskilled workers in need of a job would pick fruit. Some of these jobs have been replaced by machines, but Palestinians coming in from the West Bank and Gaza have been substantially replaced, according to our guide, by Thais who fly in to work for 2-3 years (food can be grown and picked more or less year-round in Israel so it wouldn’t make sense for them to come just for one harvest season).

Thus Israeli is now a pilgrimage site for Buddhists!

Why not look to the Middle East for real-world Universal Basic Income effects?


I was chatting with an NYU professor. She recently taught a class at the university’s Abu Dhabi campus. I asked her what the students were like and she said that only four were Emiratis and “they were all girls; Emirati boys can’t be bothered since they know that they will never have to work.” It turned out that young people from all around the world competed for all-expenses paid slots at this college and the vast majority turned out to be foreigners.

As someone who hates to see money poured down the administrative drain I have long been a fan of UBI-style ideas (see my 1996 food-and-shelter idea, for example). But I’m wondering if experience in the Middle East should be studied before we go too far down this road. A lot of oil-rich Arab countries offer the basics of life to all of their citizens. U.S. and European taxpayers have been providing food, shelter, healthcare, and education to Palestinians since 1950 through a UN agency. The result seems to be low participation in employment (but maybe we will match them soon!) and a high birthrate: Qatar has the 6th highest population growth rate on the planet (CIA Factbook); the Gaza Strip is not too far behind at #13 (CIA Factbook).

Tel Aviv cab driver on the subject: “I told my kids that the only place ‘Success’ comes before ‘Hard Work’ is in the dictionary.” (works better in Hebrew, presumably; he had worked at a desk job for 36 years before retiring from that to drive a cab)


Elizabeth Warren helps another politician raise money on a “get money out of politics” platform


A friend of a friend is running for Congress in a district outside of Massachusetts. One big element of her campaign is that rich people and rich corporations should not have a large influence on American politics. She came to Boston to raise money at a private party in a 6,000 square-foot house that Zillow says is worth $3.5 million. Elizabeth Warren spoke in support of this candidate noting that she shared the goal of wanting every citizen to have equal power and not having politicians controlled by distant rich supporters. Neither politician addressed the apparent contradiction of coming to a different state to raise money from rich people whose interests may or may not align with those of the prospective Representative’s actual constituents.

The two women agreed on a range of issues. The state politician that they hate the most is some guy who “voted against equal pay” multiple times (this was in the state where the Congressional race is happening, not in Massachusetts). Free trade agreements are bad. President Obama is a godlike figure in most respects, but his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is misguided. Previous trade agreements should be reevaluated and potentially repudiated. (Nobody explained how this was different from Donald Trump’s campaign promises.) One thing that was especially bad about the TPP is that some aspects of U.S. sovereignty would be compromised and handed over to a transnational bureaucracy (“offshoring of power”). (Nobody explained how opposing this was consistent with telling the Brits to stay in the EU.) In the opinion of these female politicians, what is key to their support is that voters care passionately about women’s rights, especially the right to an on-demand abortion without any conditions.

The audience applauded loudest for the following propositions: (1) breaking up big banks, and (2) protectionism.

There were a lot of lawyers present and they got Elizabeth Warren on the subject of approving Obama’s federal judge nominations. Warren riffed on the subject of how federal courts are super friendly to big corporations (this will come as news to Fortune 500 companies facing patent infringement lawsuits in Texas).

The candidates and the audience agreed that Black Lives Matter though as it happened the gathering did not include any black people.

Stylistically it was possible to see how a novice politician becomes a professional. Elizabeth Warren used the word “fight” in nearly every sentence; her young protégé used the word “fight” only about one third as much.

Private audience reaction to the talk was less enthusiastic than the public reaction. An attorney specializing in Asian-U.S. deals noted that the TPP would have little effect due to existing bilateral agreements already incorporating most of its provisions. He said that Senator Warren greatly overestimated American economic power. “It’s not 1945 anymore,” he said. “Singapore and Hong Kong are richer than we are; Taiwan and Korea will surpass us soon.”

Real-life electric car ownership experience


What if you own (or lease) an electric car and can’t charge it at home? This Technology Review article describes what it is like.

I charge my car in public parks and mall parking structures around Los Angeles, using a diversity of charging networks run by startups such as Chargepoint and Blink. I typically pay $5 to $10 to charge up. Every single station has been, for years, mediocre to terrible. The stations are often broken due to software or hardware problems, and remain out of service for weeks. Competition among electric car drivers for these public charging stations is fierce and intensifying. It’s practically impossible for me to find an open charging station during the day.

Even so, I see Teslas parked alongside Nissan Leafs, Chevy Volts, electric Ford Fusions, and electric Fiats like mine every time I visit my local public charge stations in Los Angeles (about every other day). I’ll often end up helping a confused and harried Tesla driver operate the charger. If I mention the free supercharger stations available only to them, they usually seem vaguely aware of them, but either don’t have enough charge left to reach one or can’t be bothered to drive out of their way.


Most successful manager in Silicon Valley on Trump v. Clinton


Top executives in Silicon Valley often have a huge cushion due to a monopoly position and high costs to customers to switch. John Chambers, who built modern-day Cisco, is an exception. While Cisco has a great brand name it has to fight for every sale given that, by definition, its boxes must be able to communicate with all of the rest of the world’s routers and switches.

What does someone like this think of our upcoming presidential election? The MIT alumni magazine, Technology Review, asked him:

Between Trump and Clinton, who has the better technology policies?

If you’re asking, “How do you give middle-class America a pay raise? How do you create opportunities? How do you make the country more competitive on a global basis in a way that allows everybody to benefit? How do you change health care and education?”—well, those questions are all about a digital agenda, and yet I’ve not heard a single candidate articulate a vision on that.

Get together in Paris, Helsinki, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, north Germany, or Denmark?



I leave today for Paris. Would any French readers like to get together on Saturday morning, July 23? Or perhaps on Thursday or Friday of this week? If so, please email me ( philg at mit.edu). Happy to chat about any of the subjects that I’ve written about, e.g., technology, travel, photography, and economics.

Mom and I are going to be on a Royal Caribbean cruise. I should be available to meet up at the following times:

  • July 26, 4 pm: Helsinki
  • July 30, 1 pm: Talinn
  • July 31: 3 pm: Riga
  • August 1: any time 11-6, Klaipeda (Lithuania)
  • August 3, morning or evening: Rostock (Germany)
  • August 4: 10a-4p, Fredericia (Denmark)
  • August 5-6, flexible: Copenhagen

Thanks in advance for making the effort!

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