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If like me you rely on Nordic noir mystery novels to sustain an honest pessimism with respect to the world today, you mourned the end of the Kurt Wallander series written by Henning Mankell in 2011. Now, the author himself is gone.

Henning Mankell, who has died aged 67, after being diagnosed with cancer last year, established almost single-handedly the global picture of Sweden as a crime writer’s ideal dystopia. He took the existing Swedish tradition of crime writing as a form of leftwing social criticism and gave it international recognition, capturing in his melancholy, drunken, bullish detective Kurt Wallander a sense of struggle in bewildered defeat that echoed round the world.

For the uninitiated, here’s an introduction to the entire Wallander series.

The masters of the genre (at least my favorites) remain Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Other authors whose work I continue to enjoy are Norwegians Anne Holt, Karin Fossum, and Jo Nesbø and, from Denmark, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Larsen, Leif Davidsen, and Peter Høeg.


With tomorrow’s publication of his memoir, self-flatteringly titled The Courage to Act, Ben Bernanke is currently in the midst of his book tour.

Now, in this interview with USA Today, Bernanke is willing to admit that some things went wrong:

For one thing, he says that more corporate executives should have gone to jail for their misdeeds. The Justice Department and other law-enforcement agencies focused on indicting or threatening to indict financial firms, he notes, “but it would have been my preference to have more investigation of individual action, since obviously everything what went wrong or was illegal was done by some individual, not by an abstract firm.”

Bernanke didn’t say anything (at least publicly) at the time. And now, of course, it’s too late.

Also, in his own op-ed piece, Bernanke defends his conduct of monetary policy “to ensure that the economy makes full use of its resources” and “by keeping inflation low and stable, the Fed can help the market-based system function better and make it easier for people to plan for the future.”

Toward the end of that piece, Bernanke does confess that not all is well:

The benefits of growth aren’t shared equally, and as a result many Americans have seen little improvement in living standards.

But then he resorts to the usual defense of the limited nature of Fed policy: “These, unfortunately, aren’t problems that the Fed has the power to alleviate.”

On one hand, Bernanke wants to claim the Fed under his direction saved the U.S. and world economies from a downturn that would have been worse than the First Great Depression. But he is unwilling to admit that the way he (and others in power at the time) enacted monetary policy restored the unequalizing pattern of U.S. economic growth and left most working people falling further and further behind.

What we are witnessing, then, is nothing more than a magical mystery book tour.

*With apologies to the Beatles. For those too young to remember:

Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up (We’ve got everything you need), roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up (Satisfaction guaranteed), roll up for the mystery tour
The magical mystery tour is hoping to take you away
Hoping to take you away


It’s mostly flown under the radar, at least in the United States. But, in Portugal, the ruling austerity coalition, Portugal Ahead, lost its parliamentary majority in yesterday’s election.

Meanwhile, the Left Bloc, the sister party of Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza, looks to be on course for its best-ever result of 10.2 percent of the vote and 19 seats, up from its previous score of eight.

In the name of science

Posted: 5 October 2015 in Uncategorized
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There’s no doubt Kimberly G. Noble and her team of neuroscientists are genuinely concerned about the effects of poverty on children’s brains—and not for nefarious purposes.

Not surprisingly, our findings made many people uncomfortable. Some feared the study would be used to reinforce the notion that people remain in poverty because they are less capable than those with higher incomes.

As neuroscientists, we interpret the results very differently. We know that the brain is most malleable in the early years of life and that experiences during that time have lifelong effects on the mind. Work by social scientists such as Sendhil Mullainathan at Harvard University and Eldar Shafir at Princeton University has shown that poverty depletes parents’ cognitive resources, leaving less capacity for making everyday decisions about parenting. These parents are also at far greater risk for depression and anxiety — poverty’s “mental tax.” All of this has important implications for children.

When parents are distracted or depressed, family life is likely to be characterized by conflict and emotional withdrawal rather than nurturing and supportive relationships with children. Parents don’t talk and read to their kids as often and make less eye contact with them. This accumulation of stress in children’s lives has cascading effects on brain systems critical to learning, remembering and reasoning.

As a society we cannot stand by when millions of children are at risk for not reaching their full cognitive and academic potential.

But then, in the name of science (in particular, in the name of randomized trials), here’s what they propose:

That’s why I am part of a team of social scientists and neuroscientists planning a large clinical trial in which 1,000 low-income mothers will be randomly assigned to receive either a large ($333) or small ($20) monthly income supplement for the first three years of their children’s lives. Periodic assessments of the children and their mothers will enable us to estimate the impact of these cash supplements on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning. . .

The political battles for major expansion of these types of programs are unlikely to be won until we can provide hard scientific proof of their effectiveness. Until then, we need to do all we can to support policies that offer our most vulnerable children the best chance of reaching their full potential.

I understand the desire to want to be able to produce and use “hard” numbers to intervene in public debate. I do it all the time on this blog.

However, we need to be concerned about attempts to use poor people—first in Third World countries, and now in the United States—as guinea pigs “to estimate the impact of these cash supplements on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning.”

We can well imagine what the reaction would be if, in the name of science, we devised a large clinical trial in which 1,000 high-income mothers were randomly assigned to a large (say, $10,000) or small (say, $1,000) monthly income deduction in order to estimate the impact of these cash deductions on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning.


We see it on a daily basis. Contemporary capitalism is out of control.

The latest example is Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, which buys up existing drugs and raises prices aggressively, and does nothing to develop new drugs.

Valeant defended itself, saying in a statement that it “prices its treatments based on a range of factors, including clinical benefits and the value they bring to patients, physicians, payers and society.” It says patients are largely shielded from price increases by insurance and financial assistance programs the company offers, so that virtually no one is denied a drug they need. . .

If “products are sort of mispriced and there’s an opportunity, we will act appropriately in terms of doing what I assume our shareholders would like us to do,” he told analysts in a conference call in April.

What’s happening? Clearly Valeant’s strategy is undermining the usual rationale of the American pharmaceutical industry, that it “needs” its exorbitant profits to fund research and development.

It spends an amount equivalent to only 3 percent of its sales on research and development, which it views as risky and inefficient compared to buying existing drugs.

It also pays very low taxes, “because it is officially based in Canada, although Mr. Pearson operates from New Jersey.”

And it makes its profits not just by raising prices, but by laying off workers in the companies it purchases and by accumulating a mountain of debt to finance those purchases.

Everyone, of course, knows the counterargument: that Valeant is just one bad apple in the barrel. But it’s operating according to the rules of a system that every other major corporation follows in the United States: individual decisions that maximize the private gain of a few at the expense of everyone else, both consumers and workers.

The problem is, J. Michael Pearson is giving a bad name to the pharmaceutical industry and to capitalism as a whole. Surely, other heads of corporations should want to rein him in, because he’s generating bad publicity for their system (and, in addition, he’s forcing them to give up some of their profits to pay for inflated drug prices for their employees).

On the other hand, they don’t want to touch him, out of fear that their own profitable operations—on both Main Street and Wall Street—will be subject to public scrutiny and regulation.

So, the tiny group at the top, who make decisions that affect the rest of us, are caught in a bind.

Meanwhile, capitalism continues out of control.


As if to confirm what I wrote last night, here’s James Surowiecki on what the tiny group at the top could do, out of self-interest, to rein in rent-seeking profiteers like Valeant:

In place of closed distribution, the F.D.A. can require companies to make samples of their drugs available to competitors. The F.T.C., as Anderson argues, should be more aggressive in limiting mergers among generic-drug makers. And the U.S. and other developed countries should also adopt an arrangement known as regulatory reciprocity: if a drug maker has approval to sell a drug abroad, it should be able to sell that drug here, and vice versa. Safety concerns may rule out importing drugs from just anywhere, but there is no good reason for a company selling a drug in, say, Germany to have to spend time and money to get the right to sell it here. Foreign competition has played a central role in holding down retail prices in industries ranging from automobiles to consumer electronics. It’s time drug prices were subject to the same rules. Shkreli has said, since the backlash, that Turing will roll back the Daraprim price increase. But the fate of toxoplasmosis sufferers shouldn’t depend on the egomaniacal whims of a “pharma bro.”

Of course, these kinds of measures would make drug companies anxious, but they should be doing all they can to encourage competition, if only out of self-interest. If market forces and smarter regulations can’t limit price gouging, then drug makers could be subject to more drastic measures, like price controls or compulsory licensing—a system that compels companies to license drugs to other manufacturers. The Turing scandal has shown just how vulnerable drug pricing is to exploitative, rent-seeking behavior. It’s fair enough to excoriate Martin Shkreli for greed and indifference. The real problem, however, is not the man but the system that has let him thrive.


Special mention

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