The Wanted

[Amazon Link]

Robert Crais isn't prolific enough for me; it's been two years since his previous novel, The Promise. He's no James Patterson!

Hm, maybe that's for the best.

Anyway: this is billed as "An Elvis Cole and Joe Pike Novel", and that's good enough for me. The concentration is on Elvis, also fine. He is the World's Greatest Detective, after all.

A troubled high school student has suddenly come into possession of a Rolex and lots of cash; his mom asks Elvis to investigate, and the answer comes out quickly enough: he's partnered with two other kids to burgle wealthy peoples' homes all over the LA area.

Apparently, burglary is so easy in Southern California, even amateur high school students can manage to do it without getting caught.

Major complication: the gang apparently stole something that one of their victims wants to get back very badly. So a couple of amoral investigators are also in the mix, trying to track down the burglars with only a grainy security-camera feed to work from.

Oh, and also: they don't want anyone to know they're looking for the burglars, because that could be traced back to their employer; their solution is simple: after they extract whatever information they need from people they interview, they, um, ensure their further silence. Ruthlessly.

I said they were amoral. Fortunately, Elvis figures this out too. But it gets kind of dicey at the end.

Crais remains a master storyteller, and I hope I don't have to wait another two years for the next one.

Joy

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A very good movie, directed and written by David O. Russell, starring Jennifer Lawrence in the eponymous role.

Joy is struggling with her mostly dysfunctional family, and a life that was derailed early by her assumed family obligations, and an unwise marriage choice. Her husband still hangs around, living in her basement, though. Also living with her are her Mom (Virginia Madsen), a voluntarily bed-ridden soap opera addict; Dad (Robert De Niro), a cantankerous oldster; Grandma (Diane Ladd), who plays kind of an encouraging mentor. Throw into the mix Dad's new love, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who's financially well-off, but …

A happenstance accident gives Joy her big idea: a self-wringing mop with a washable head. She proceeds with single-minded determination to bring it to market. This involves overcoming many obstacles, not the least of which is her financial situation, a disastrous start to a QVC marketing opportunity, shady suppliers. And above all, most of her family and acquaintences are only semi-supportive.

It is intelligent and watchable throughout, and (Hallelujah!) blissfully free of anti-business claptrap. Joy's quest is presented as an honorable manifestation of the American Dream. That's pretty rare these days.

Locke

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Another movie stuck pretty far down in the Netflix DVD queue for a few years, I decided to bump it up to the top. Eh. I could have done better.

Locke is a guy in a Beemer, hurtling through the English night from Birmingham toward London. During the ride, his life is threatening to fall apart. An assignation from seven months previous is about to deliver a new (but unfortunately premature) bundle of joy into his life. Unfortunately, his wife found out, and she's pissed. He's also fired, due to his absence for a critical part of a construction project, but he keeps in touch with an underling so that things will (hopefully) go smoothly.

The gimmick is that nearly the entire movie is shot in the car, with Locke the only on-screen character, everybody else just voices on the phone. Or in his head.

Tom Hardy, who plays Locke, is a fine actor. But the movie gimmick did not work for me. It didn't make the character particularly sympathetic or his situation interesting. As Mrs. Salad observed: it could have been a radio play.

The Captured Economy

How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality

[Amazon Link]

Looks like this will be my last "serious" book read this year. (I have one on request from UNH Interlibrary Loan, but they won't be back in business until January.) But it's a pretty good one, recommended.

One would think that this book is a big hunk of red meat tossed to the tribal acolytes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Just look at the subtitle: "How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality". The freakin' system is rigged, I tell ya! Buy our book for the deets!

Indeed, it's easy to speculate that the marketing wizards at Oxford University Press may have slyly titled this book to appeal to that crowd. Maybe the authors (Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles) had a hand in that too.

But there's very little left-wing nourishment here. It is self-dubbed (near the end) advocacy of a "liberaltarian" approach to public policy. And the libertarian part of that unholy word means that the book is basically on target when it describes current problems.

Overall: in a number of areas, public policy, laws, and regulations are formulated to work to the advantage of the already well-off, and thereby make them more well-off. In a (hyphenated) word: rent-seeking. I (personally) don't consider to be "increasing inequality" per se to be an important issue; but, yes, this does increase inequality. Even given that apathy, I consider it to be an outrage when there's an overall wealth transfer from the less-well-off upwards, when it's due to the governmental thumb (and an occasional fist) on the scale.

And there's an added factor: Such government efforts also tend to make the overall economy less competitive and less efficient. Which makes us all poorer.

Lindsay and Teles concentrate their fire on four broad areas that demonstrate their thesis: (1) financial regulations; (2) intellectual property (copyrights and patents); (3) occupational licensing (not just the "easy" targets, like cosmetologists, but also the sacred cows: doctors, dentists, lawyers); (4) land use regulation (mainly zoning). The coverage is detailed and you might want to stock up on your blood pressure meds before reading.

Final chapters detail the politics involved in putting these "rigged" policies into place, and some mild pointers for reform.

The book's examples aren't complete (as the authors admit). One of my bêtes noires, the Export-Import Bank, is only mentioned as an aside. Other areas are absent: higher-ed, energy, trade protectionism (other than the intellectual-property regime imposed by "trade agreements"). But perhaps the book concentrates on the areas where the authors could agree completely. (Teles is, I take it, a liberal; Lindsay is more toward the libertarian side.)

A weakness for me was the "what to do about all this" bits. The conservative/libertarian remedy, which can be summarized briefly as "shrink the scope of government regulation" is belittled as a political non-starter. OK, but the Lindsay/Teles proposed fixes seem (to me) to be vague, hand-waving, and not particularly convincing. See what you think.

URLs du Jour

2017-12-29

■ It's time to start looking for (or imagining) Proverbial advice for the upcoming new year. So let's check out Proverbs 17:19:

19 Whoever loves a quarrel loves sin;
    whoever builds a high gate invites destruction.

… so that would be a "no". Good all-weather advice for Donald Trump though.

Oh, wait. Do I love a quarrel? Probably more than I should. Mea Culpa, Proverbialist!


@kevinNR looks at discrimination laws, an upcoming Supreme Court decision, and makes the call: Masterpiece Cakeshop: The Slope Is, in Fact, Slippery. It's a good history of how Government at all levels has slipped its regulatory tentacles into our privates the private sphere.

It is not the case that discrimination is discrimination is discrimination. Telling a black man that he may not work in your bank because he is black is in reality a very different thing from telling a gay couple that you’d be happy to sell them cupcakes or cookies or pecan pies but you do not bake cakes for same-sex weddings — however much the principle of the thing may seem superficially similar. If the public sphere is infinite, then the private sphere does not exist, and neither does private life. Having a bakery with doors open to the public does not make your business, contra Justice Harlan, an agent of the state. A bakery is not the Commerce Department or the local public high school.

Sure, bakery customers may travel there on public roads. But tell me: Isn’t that EPA-regulated air you’re breathing?

The "Justice Harlan" reference is to an 1883 Supreme Court decision striking down the 1876 Civil Rights Act, Harlan dissenting.


■ Pun Salad fave Mitch Daniels writes in the WaPo: Avoiding GMOs isn’t just anti-science. It’s immoral.

Of the several claims of “anti-science” that clutter our national debates these days, none can be more flagrantly clear than the campaign against modern agricultural technology, most specifically the use of molecular techniques to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Here, there are no credibly conflicting studies, no arguments about the validity of computer models, no disruption of an ecosystem nor any adverse human health or even digestive problems, after 5 billion acres have been cultivated cumulatively and trillions of meals consumed.

And yet a concerted, deep-pockets campaign, as relentless as it is baseless, has persuaded a high percentage of Americans and Europeans to avoid GMO products, and to pay premium prices for “non-GMO” or “organic” foods that may in some cases be less safe and less nutritious. Thank goodness the toothpaste makers of the past weren’t cowed so easily; the tubes would have said “No fluoride inside!” and we’d all have many more cavities.


■ The link to Mitch's op-ed via Ron Bailey at Reason who recalls his proposed journal-essay debate with anti-GMO statistician Nassim Taleb. Bailey submitted his initial effort to the the journal, but…

After reading my essay Taleb withdrew from the debate and, for good measure, called me an "idiot."

Ouch. Well, you can read the essay, and Taleb's response, for yourself. For my part: I read a book by Taleb back in 2005. But I wasn't motivated to read anything else, and given what I judge to be dishonesty, bullying, and fundamental cowardice, I won't be reading anything by him in the future.


■ I nearly always restrict myself to quoting only a few paragraphs of linked articles, but I'm quoting the entirety of Greg Mankiw's Quick Quiz:

According to the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, before the recent change in the tax law, taxpayers earning more than $1 million a year were scheduled to pay 19.3 percent of all federal taxes in 2019. What impact does the new tax law have on this percentage?

(a) It falls to 17.8 percent.
(b) It falls to 18.7 percent.
(c) It stays the same.
(d) It rises to 19.8 percent.

Find the answer here

The answer may shock you! Or not.


■ Bryan Caplan deals with arguments that contain the phrase "Only the Rich":

The government gives an excludable good away for free: roads, parks, education, medicine, whatever.  Then some economist advocates privatization of one of these freebies.  Technocrats may offer some technical objections to privatization.  Normal people, however, will respond with a disgusted rhetorical question: "So only the rich should have roads/parks/education/medicine/whatever."

Caplan notes the honest counterargument involves details of costs, benefits, probability, and the like. Are such sober arguments effective against demagoguery? Not as often as we'd like.


Last Modified 2017-12-29 8:20 AM EST