Archive for April, 2006

Fill in the blanks

Yesterday, I saw (and heard!) a 91-year-old woman go through a glass table. 91. Through it. Since this was a metal-framed table topped with old, untempered glass, it’s a miracle she didn’t break her hip or bleed to death on the spot.

Given that I was standing in line at the post office at the time, waiting to mail in my even-more-painful-than-usual tax return (the three people who know what I’m talking about are grimacing right now) and morbidly trying to figure out what percentage of my taxes would go to pay for more Border Patrol television ads (“The Border Patrol–No mission more important, more challenging, or more rewarding!”)…well, I’ll just let you fill in your own metaphor.

My adventures in la-la land

I’ve been reading a lot lately, along with trying to pass my comps., drinking heavily and generally being gnawed by random anxiety about my future. Here are a few of the things that I’ve read in the last month or so:

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: An astonishing book. In my view it might be the pinnacle of what we somewhat amorphously call “existential literature.” The intellectual framework is not as profound or awe-inspiring as Kafka’s works, but in terms of blending absurdist grotesquery with genuinely funny (yet insane) comedy in the way so prized by existential writiers I would say it easily surpasses them, and infinitely more so than Beckett and the other theater of the aburd writiers, who I am convinced are only regarded as humorous by literature grad. students. Until quite near the end the writing is so dense, with usually at least three inspired non-sequiters leaving off in three different directions per paragraph, that it almost seems to bristle on the page. I think implicit in what I have already said is that that quality of perfectly intricate yet completely arbitrary structure, which is what I mean by an “existentialist” style, goes way beyond simple anti-war satire. One has the impression that each character embodies some particular form of insanity that overlaps with and conflicts with all the others. It’s what I imagine Nietzsche had in mind when he talked about “das Krankenhaus der Welt” (the world is a sick-room). I don’t know why Heller hasn’t had a more prodigious career; it might be becaus of what Gary Shteyngart had in mind when he said something to the effect that the satire in Catch-22 was so thorough that in a sense everything else Heller wrote was redundant.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare: a frustrating reading experience. This is the only nihilistic Shakespeare play that I have ever read (well, maybe Timon of Athens, but it’s been so long that I don’t remember it well). The set-up is a cynical stock scenario, as further evidenced by the generic title, and there is not a single genuinely sympathetic character. They are all casually brutal egotistists thinking only of their own emolument, and the conclusion offers a suitably callous lesson in dominance and submission. And my complaint goes beyond simple feminist issues: the wife who gets subjugated is just as disagreeable as her husband, and the outcome is no more inherently unjust than two dogs fighting over a bone. Feminists who dismiss Shakespeare as a typical 16th century misogynist are overlooking the vast differences between this play and the infinitely more sensitive later works. Shakespeare writing this play is probably somewhere in the nature of Robert De Niro appearing in Rocky and Bullwinkle, and I would guess that they were inspired by similar motives. Shakespeare in fact seems to resort to sabotaging the message of his own play with, for example, the bizarre frame device, which implies that the whole thing is just misleading entertainment for stupid oafs.

I Malavoglia (translated into English, for reasons that entirely escape me, as The House by the Medlar-Tree) by Giovanni Verga: the polar opposite of Catch-22, although equally tragic. As opposed to fantastically elaborate human-made contrivances of misfortune causing the misery, it re-captures all the sense of fatality and inevitability of Greek tragedy, but in a realistic manner, as it tragedy is brought about not by the gods but by elemental nature. Verga was the founder of what is called in Italy verismo, perhaps the most purely realistic of all the 19th century styles of realism. It shows everyday life not for aesthetic effect like Flaubert or in the spirit of pseudo-scientific experimentation like Zola, but simply in the nature of a kind of intimate journalism. The machinations of the scheming, selfish residents of a little village in Sicily flicker away in the foreground while in the background, related in an understated manner that barely mentions more than the facts, unfolds the enormous tragedy of a stoic, saintly family, the Malavoglias, who earn their living by fishing. More than half the family is wiped out one by one: lost at sea, killed by a cholera epidemic, arrested or degraded into prostitution. The family, however, as the title implies, due to gigantic sacrifice functions as a single unit, and thereby Verga conveys the communal nature of primitive human life. This is because he intended the novel to function as the first volume of a sort of symbolic history of humanity (which he never completed), showing its progressive individuation and refinement.

Apologia pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman: a perplexing book. Cardinal Newman was probably the most notable convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 19th century Britain, and since previous to that he led the Oxford movement which sought to impose “high Anglicanism,” which was essentially identical to Catholicism except for in loyalty to the pope, on the Church of England, he not entirely unfairly fell under suspicion as the purety of his motives before conversion in trying to bring Anglicanism in line with Catholicism. This book is his attempt to refute the charge and prove his own honesty. I suppose that I was expecting a personal reflection on, as the back cover suggests, “the very nature of Christianity and its place in the modern age.” And it is…but only for the last 35 pages. The first two hundred treats the whole issue of loyalty to the Churches in question as a minor technical point, and goes about laying out the evidence for his changing attitude with the banal thoroughness of a legal brief. Then at the end, when he decides to defend the Catholic Church as a whole on ethical and social grounds, the narrative leaps to another level and becomes quite fascinating. The suppose the problem in the first part is the disquieting feeling one gets from theology in general, that sense of massive disproportion as he implies that his, and everyone else’s, immortal soul depend not (or at least not only) on moral conduct but on a correct opinion regarding some obscure and incomprehensible metaphysical point. But when he steps out away from the interminable and pointless academic debates and starts meditating on the real value of things he gets much more interesting and even his writing style becomes greatly more poetic and compelling.

You can’t kill the middleman

Jeff Jarvis correctly notes that ABC’s decision to offer popular programs for free download is big news, but then goes off the rails a bit in the comments. First, the good stuff:

What this really means: TV is grabbing a share of online advertising by redefining TV as both broadcast and broadband. Advertisers have always been more comfortable spending big money on TV. Now they can continue to spend their money with those familiar players and get broadband, too. And TV is doing this so as not to lose money to other media even as broadcast — and next, cable — shrink; this is how they rescue upfront. And if TV succeeds at holding advertisers’ attention and money, other players — online companies, magazines, newspapers — may not be able to break in. This an effort for both networks and ad agencies to keep ahead.

In the comments, though, Jay Currie speculates:

[E]xactly why do the producers of these shows need the networks if these models work? If I own – to take an old example – Seinfeld why not put the entire thing up on the net with a few different revenue options and see what sticks.

(I’d sell that entertainment conglomerate stock too.)

Jarvis agrees:

Exactly right. At some point, soon, content producers will get rid of all middlemen.

Now, I’m not picking on Jarvis or Currie or anybody else in particular, but on this sentiment, which is pretty widespread, practically to the point of tautology, among the digerati. See, e.g., David Heinemeier Hansson’s self-congratulatory post on publishing. But, as Tim O’Reilly says in the comments to Hansson’s post, it’s really not at all clear that the “middlemen” are going anywhere. Or, more precisely, it’s not at all clear that middlemen, as an integral part of the distribution system, are going anywhere, even if the currently-extant middlemen disappear from the scene.

You see, even aside from the fact that writers tend not to be their own best editors and musicians tend not to be their own best producers, there are potentially billions of people out there who are or will be self-publishing their creations. The internet already comprises (at minimum) hundreds of gigabytes worth of material and, as broadband proliferates, that’s only going to increase exponentially. How am I, as a content consumer with a day job, supposed to unearth the good stuff from the overwhelming sea of crap?

The traditional answer is that publishers/record labels/movie studios find the good books/albums/movies and distribute them, then reviewers sift through the still-gigantic mountain of published material and point you and I towards the best of it. Of course, this system isn’t perfect and never was, but it actually does pretty effectively relegate rather a lot of the crap (which, of necessity, comprises the overwhelming majority of artistic work) to obscurity. And the need for that aspect of traditional middlemen will only increase as more people get hooked up to the internet.

Which, as I hinted above, doesn’t mean that tomorrow’s middlemen will look anything like yesterday’s. Probably the biggest middleman on the internet today is Google; just imagine how hard it would be to find anything interesting or useful online without a search engine. Or what about Slashdot, Digg, and YouTube (to name just four examples I use), which aggregate content based on how popular it is among their users? They’re middlemen, too. So are popular linkblogs like InstaPundit and boingboing. None of these sites looks like Time-Warner or Arista, but, from the consumer standpoint, they perform basically the same essential function of separating the wheat from the chaff.

No, the difference between traditional content distribution and future content distribution is not that there won’t be any middlemen in the future, but that the middlemen will less homogeneous: in composition, process and in scope. The composition part is easy to see: some will be corporate (like ESPN or Wired or Google), some will be collaborative (like Slashdot or Digg), some will be individual (like Glenn Reynolds). The process part is also easy to see: Google is on one end of the automation spectrum, Wired and (presumably) Glenn Reynolds are more or less on the other end and sites like Slashdot and are somewhere in the middle. This is even more muddied by the fact that many of the “middlemen” are themselves content-producers.

The inhomogeneity of scope is also relatively easy to see for anyone who spends a fair amount of time online. A middleman like Google is pretty good at picking out sites and information relevant to both relatively standard queries (like “ABC” or “William Gibson”) and extremely esoteric queries (like “circumcenter activities” or “Helmut Hofer”), but isn’t good at all at finding stuff relevant to vague or only slightly unusual queries. Google’s scope, being global, is just too broad to be effective in those circumstances. For example, if you’re looking for useful (and free) productivity software on the Mac with no foreknowledge of the subject, your best bet is probably to use Google to look for more specialized middlemen like Lifehacker or VersionTracker and then search those sites for links to potentially useful software (or maybe just to even more specialized middlemen). Quicksilver is a fantastic bit of software, but you have to go through at least two or three layers of middlemen to find it, especially since you would probably never guess, ahead of time, that such a thing exists.

Anyway, the point is that middlemen aren’t disappearing; if anything, they’re proliferating. It’s just that people confuse the decline of particular middlemen (such as the perceived decline of publishers or TV networks) with a general decline in the importance of the middleman.

Update Mark Cuban agrees with me. Indirectly, anyway.

Scripting Vienna

I know it’s not exactly the usual fare here, but today I’m throwing some super-geeky stuff your way. Those that don’t care about RSS readers, AppleScript or my crappy programming skills should probably just skip this entry.

For quite a while now, NetNewsWire Lite, the free version of the popular NetNewsWire, has been my RSS reader of choice. Actually, aside from a semi-disastrous and relatively brief fling with BottomFeeder at the very beginning of my RSS consumption, NNW has really been the only RSS reader I’ve tried.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking recently of upgrading to the full version (and paying the currently-discounted price of $19.99), but, for one reason or another (probably cheapness), decided to check out Vienna, an open-source alternative, and test-drive it against the 2.1 beta of the full version of NNW. As it turns out, the two are, from the standpoint of my usage pattern, practically identical. And Vienna actually suits my aesthetic sense better than NNW. The big feature they both have over NNW Lite is a Webkit-derived tabbed browser living inside the app (so you don’t have to open articles in your browser), which is handy. NNW has synching with NewsGator, which I thought might be useful, since I do a lot of browsing on my Nokia 770, but I hate the NewsGator interface, so what’s the point? The other big thing NNW has going for it is that it can integrate posting to, either directly or through Cocoalicious, Postr, Pukka or your browser…which brings me to the point of this post.

Now, as I’ve discussed before, I do post links to, but do so by way of Spurl, which isn’t supported by NNW. So the support doesn’t really help, unless I want to give up on Spurl, which I don’t. But such are minor impediments to the procrastinating powers of a person facing a gigantically important oral exam in less than two weeks. So I decided to try my hand at an AppleScript solution. Caveat: Despite almost 7 years of Mac ownership, I’ve never really done anything with AppleScript, mostly because I seem to have some sort of weird, highly-specific Ludditism towards scripting (and, obviously, because I’m not such a power user that it’s really necessary). So these scripts are probably pretty poorly-written. At first I was scripting NNW, but, as time went by, it became more and more apparent that, in this regard, NNW would really be no better than Vienna and, in fact, the two were virtually identical for my usage, so I then ended up writing more or less the same script for Vienna. And since that worked out so well, and since I’d gotten into the scripting mood by this point, I ended up writing a script to facilitate the Vienna-to-ecto blogging process as well.

Anyway, operating on the perhaps naïve assumption that someone might find them useful, I’m reproducing these three scripts below the jump, along with a short description of each. And if you have any suggestions for improvements, let me know.

Read the rest of this entry »

Pascal’s ethics?

I find Eugene McCarraher, the Christian socialist professor at Villanova, an intriguing writer, since his intellectually rigorous left-wing theism isn’t too common these days, so I was interested what he had to say about Hannah Arendt. He makes a somewhat predictable charge, that her mostly suitable (to him) soft-socialist morality is not tenable without being grounded in doctrinal theology. Leaving aside the question as to whether the criticism is applicable to Arendt, the pertinent question in my mind is as to whether religious belief can ever really arise on the basis that is implicitly suggested here. Granted, what McCarraher proposes is less nakedly self-interested than Pascal’s wager, but it is still essentially predicated on a similar idea. Pascal held that it is better to believe in God than not in terms of self-interest, and McCarraher seems to be saying that it is necessary to believe in God in the interest of abiding by an adequate ethical system. But in both cases the question is, can anyone really hold a belief in God for instrumental purposes? I’ve certainly never met anyone who did, although my Russian TA was baptized on explicitly Pascalian grounds. To be fair, I misrepresent somewhat, in that McCarraher never actually holds that religious beliefs should be founded on ethical considerations. But a criticism of Arendt for divorcing ethics from religious belief is only relevant if she could freely adopt an adherance to religion to buttress her ethics.

As I say, I am dubious that it can be done, and I am rather dubious as to the validity of the premise as well. In my mind it is a historical fact that the increasing prosperity of Western societies and attention to alleviating misfortune in this life correspond almost exactly to the recession of dogmatic religion from public life. From what I know of modern Christianity theological dogma has evaporated whole-sale from even the fundamentalist Churches, and it seems to me that this is both a creation of modern liberal society (i.e. the end of enforced conformity to ecclesiastical thought) and the very thing which allows people like McCarraher to equate religion itself with a metaphysical rationalization of ethics. I certainly would not claim that religious belief cannot be beneficial in enforcing moral conduct when people are impressed with the gravity of their actions, by consequences for themselves that transcend death. But it can equally make some people conclude that the world is corrupt and worthless and should be destroyed for their unrighteousness. I agree that Arendt seems to conceive of totalitarianism as too unitary of a phenomenon, paying insufficient attention to the particular features of the particular systems that exemplify it (she thought that anti-Semitism, for example, was a fundamental postulate of totalitarianism, which would probably be news to the Chinese or Cambodians). But it would be equally simplistic to ascribe such unity to the effects of religion, or even Christianity, on ethics and the public sphere. And besides, people believe what they think to be true, and even if this is often a rationalization of that which is in their pereceived interest, I have yet to see an instance in which this can be consciously done, when someone can really take on a belief not because they really believe it to be true but because it will have positive secondary effects. In other words, even if you believed that belief in God would make you better off or more virtuous if God exists, what difference would that make if you don’t believe that it exists?

Of exploitable domains

Chalk up the Indian Health Service branch of the federal government as another example of exploitable government domains. In culling out comment spam yesterday, I noticed that a number of comments had links to URLs starting with “”. Now, say what you will about the government, but at least it doesn’t usually spam this blog, so it’s a little odd to see .gov links among the spam. A closer look, though, revealed that this links were of the following form:

where I’ve replaced an actual spam URL with “”. As it turns out, the first part of the above points to a little script on the IHS website that will display any URL you like in a frame wrapped by an IHS banner (try it out by replacing the fake URL with anything you like). Which, of course, allows spam URLs to slip by blacklists by masquerading as something more innocuous. As, perhaps, a side benefit, it makes it look like the site is endorsed or at least condoned by a governmental agency.

It hardly even needs to be mentioned that having such a script readily available on one’s website is, at the least, highly irresponsible, and possibly actionable if someone were dumb enough to interpret the frame wrapper was an endorsement (and, as history teaches us, there’s always someone dumb enough). → …and illustrates yet again why frames suck. But that’s another story. Even more so if you keep in mind that, since it’s on a government website, you’re paying for the privilege of allowing spammers to cloak their URLs. And it should be pointed out that the IHS isn’t the only example; until recently the comment spammers around here were using a virtually identical script on the state of Mississippi website.

That’s not to say that governments are the only culprits. Plenty of corporations and other private organizations have similarly exploitable websites, but (a) none, that I can recall, have made their way into my comment box and (b) if one did, I could (and would) refuse to do business with the offending organization. Not so with the government; since I have to pay them anyway, the only thing I can do is bitch about them on the Internet.

(And yes, before anyone asks, I did send an email to the IHS webmaster pointing out the vulnerability and suggesting that it makes his organization look bad to facilitate spammers like this)

Everything’s relative

Yesterday Arts & Letters Daily linked to a New Yorker article suggesting that poverty is a relative, not absolute, condition. Which is to say, an attempted rebuttal of the “How poor can you really be if you own a car, a color TV and a microwave?” argument. While I think there’s some merit to this position, I have issues with several aspects of the article.

First, there’s the evidence provided to support this claim: the article cites a British study which found that mid-level civil servants die sooner than their bosses, research by Amartya Sen which found that Indians live longer than African-Americans despite being absolutely poorer, and animal studies suggesting that low-status monkeys are more stressed than their high-status counterparts.

Of course, you can’t directly compare the health or mortality of rich/high-status to that of poor/low-status people and animals; the rich and powerful typically eat better, smoke less, etc. In the case of the British study, the New Yorker article claims that a follow-up study demonstrated that “less than a third of the difference in patterns of disease and mortality can be ascribed to behavior associated with coronary risk, such as smoking or lack of exercise”, which would be a relatively easy thing to check with some regression. Straightforward as that sounds, though, it’s misleading. The one third only applies (assuming the paraphrase is accurate) to coronary risk, but what about other health risks that might correspond to poverty? For example, does the coronary risk associated with smoking also take into account the increased lung cancer risk? What about non-coronary nutritional issues? What about the increased environmental toxicity (and thus cancer risk) of low-income neighborhoods relative to their high income counterparts? What about the (presumable: I know virtually nothing about British health care other than that a lot of people I know say it sucks) lower access to preventative and emergency health care that poor people have? If volitional coronary risks account for one-third of the difference, mightn’t these other factors explain a good chunk of the remainder?

The above isn’t relevant in the case of African-Americans versus Indians, since in that case the richer group dies sooner. The article suggests that African-Americans are dying younger because, although they’re absolutely richer than the Indians they’re compared to, they’re poorer relative to the society that they live in. But the direct comparison is misleading here as well. Being richer in an absolute sense, African-Americans are more able to indulge in a number of activities that are bad for you but (in a global sense) quite expensive: Yes, I’m aware of the disjunction in simultaneously claiming that poor British people engage in more health-antagonistic activities than rich British people and that poor Indians might have healthier lifestyles than the (absolutely) richer African-Americans. But this is at least plausible if not definitively true: vice is, coarsely speaking, a luxury good and both the poor British and African-Americans are, on an absolute scale, quite wealthy and so likely to consume more vice than Indians who are poorer. So why don’t rich Brits consume even more vice? Because, as with many luxury goods, income inelasticity of demand isn’t constant; for the super-rich, vice (maybe) takes on more of the qualities of a normal or even inferior good. Plus, it has to compete with the whole health food/healthy lifestyle thing, which seems to follow a complementary trajectory. drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and eating high-lipid foods, among others (only one such, recreational homicide, is addressed in the article). Dietary issues are of special interest, since the majority of people in Kerala (the region of India used for the comparison) are Hindus, meaning that vegetarianism was probably much more prevalent among the Indians in the study (especially since vegetarianism is particularly prevalent among South Indian Hindus) than among the Americans.

That’s not to say the argument that relative status is an important component of wealth (in the broad sense of that word) is completely dead: the animal studies cited are (presumably; I haven’t read them) compelling counter-evidence, as is the argument that you need more than color TV and microwaves to be able to navigate the modern job market. That being said, I also take issue with the statistic cited to cap this section of the article:

Research by Tom Hertz, an economist at American University, shows that a child whose parents are in the bottom fifth of the income distribution has only a six-per-cent chance of attaining an average yearly income in the top fifth. Most people who start out relatively poor stay relatively poor.

This is one of those statistics that sounds impressive but is, absent significant context, almost worthless. First, note the misdirection in the statement: by using “fifth” rather than percentages to describe the income levels, the above encourages a subconscious comparison of 6% to 100% rather than the 20% one would expect in a perfectly meritocratic society in which everyone had completely equal access to education and the job market (a.k.a. fantasyland). Also, counting the numbers of poor who make it to the top fifth is misleading in and of itself, since comparing top and bottom is guaranteed to give the least encouraging picture of income mobility; another measure might test what percentage of the children of the poor end up in poverty themselves: is it 20% (the utopian ideal)? 30%? 50%?

Anyway, these statistical quibbles aside, my more serious objections are to the “solutions” section of the article. The author suggests calculating poverty on a relative basis (set the poverty line at half the median income) rather than–as currently calculated–absolutely (the purported minimum necessary to afford food, clothing, housing, etc.). I don’t necessarily have a problem with that (other than to the extent that setting a poverty line is only relevant if you’re going to give tax-funded benefits to the poor), but his refutation of objections is weak. For example:

Many Americans are skeptical about government anti-poverty programs, because they believe that the impoverished bear some responsibility for their plight by dropping out of high school, taking drugs, or committing crimes. Raising public awareness about relative deprivation could help to change attitudes toward the poor, by showing how those at the bottom of the social hierarchy continue to face obstacles even as they, along with the rest of the society, become more prosperous. The Times recently reported that more than half of black men in inner cities fail to finish high school, and that, nationwide, almost three-quarters of black male high-school dropouts in their twenties are unemployed. “It doesn’t do a poor person any good to say ‘You are better off than you would have been thirty years ago,’ ” Fuchs said. “The pathologies we associate with poverty—crime, drug use, family disintegration—we haven’t eliminated them at all.”

It may just be me, but responding to the notion that many of the poor bear responsibility for their plight by saying that half of inner-city blacks drop out of high school and that three-quarters of those end up unemployed seems pretty non-sensical. I mean, if you drop out of high school despite the fact that three-quarters of the guys in your neighborhood who did the same are unemployed, then it seems to me that your probable future unemployment is, in large measure, your own fault. That’s not to say that a high school diploma (especially from an inner-city high school, where, based on my own limited experience, it seems like you only need a pulse and a willingness to get out of bed every morning to get a diploma) is a guarantee of employment, but neglecting to expend even that minimal amount of effort to make yourself employable seems to almost perfectly embody the responsibility argument that the author so casually dismisses.

Next paragraph:

The conservative case against a relative-poverty line asserts that since some people will always earn less than others the relative-poverty rate will never go down. Fortunately, this isn’t necessarily true. If incomes were distributed more equally, fewer families would earn less than half the median income. Therefore, the way to reduce relative poverty is to reduce income inequality—perhaps by increasing the minimum wage and raising taxes on the rich. Between 1979 and 2000, the inflation-adjusted earnings of the poorest fifth of Americans increased just nine per cent; the earnings of the middle fifth rose fifteen per cent; and the earnings of the top fifth climbed sixty-eight per cent.

The third sentence in the above is only partially true; really, only incomes below the median are relevant to the argument being advanced here. It’s easy to visualize a hypothetical income distribution with vast wealth differentials between the richest and the median, but with nobody earning below half the median: simply cluster the bottom half near the median.

With this picture in mind, it’s immediately apparent that raising taxes on the rich has absolutely no effect on poverty as defined in the article (other than insofar as those tax revenues on the one hand fund welfare programs and, on the other hand, reduce the ability of the rich to employ the poor). In fact, this definition of poverty makes an entirely different tax strategy orders of magnitude more effective: repeal all taxes on everybody who makes more than the median (since their income is irrelevant to what the median actually is) while aggressively taxing those who make between 50 and 100% of the median. Implement this tax regime and pretty soon there will be no poverty under the given definition (of course, as typically happens in such scenarios, the definition would be changed). Sound ludicrous? I guarantee that, if this new definition of poverty becomes the governmental standard, you’ll see more subtle implementations of similar strategies within five years.

But that’s not even the dumbest part of the sentence in which it’s suggested: that honor goes to the suggestion that raising the minimum wage would reduce relative poverty. It’s unbelievable to me that there still people who think raising the minimum wage helps the poor. Of course, some people still believe the earth is flat; what’s really unbelievable is that the belief that minimum wages are negatively correlated to poverty is a common, probably majority view. As pointed out by Matt MacIntosh on Wednesday, it’s common knowledge among economists that raising the minimum wage is bad for poor people. As with many economic truths, this is self-evident if you just think about it. If raising the minimum wage really helps the poor, why not just raise the minimum wage to, oh, $500/hour? In fact, mandating a “living wage” of, say, 50% of the median would, most likely, increase the number of households below that threshold.

Finally, a more general objection: while I do think there’s some merit to the idea that poverty is a relative (as opposed to purely absolute) phenomenon, the argument (especially in context of the dodginess of much of the supporting evidence and, especially, of the purported solutions) strikes me as superfluous (or, perhaps, self-aggrandizing) in much the way that modern Western feminists have made themselves largely superfluous. In both cases, a lesser domestic evil is being subjected to the minutest scrutiny while a greater global evil is largely ignored. After all, no matter how bad relative poverty is, absolute poverty still exists in the world and is unquestionably worse.