Can Google Chromecast do a simple slide show?



We’re hosting a Glastonbury Festival party at our apartment tomorrow evening (music by Kasabian, Dolly Parton, Massive Attack, et al; “hog roast” and Strongbow cider, which the beer expert at the Fresh Pond liquor store said is better than the American brands despite being one third the price). The photos that I want to show are in a Google Plus directory so I thought that it would be simple to show them on a Samsung “Smart TV” (perhaps it is a bad sign when a product includes the word “smart” as part of its name). As soon as I turned the TV on, however, the software updated itself and removed the Picasa app that can grab photos from Google Plus. I thought “no problem; I will use Chromecast from my Android phone.” The Google “Photos” app sort of works except that it doesn’t tie in with the TV remote for going to the next slide and, more distressing, the pictures are terrible quality (low res? oversharpened?). So I’ve reverted to exported JPEGs 1920 pixels wide to a USB stick and plugging that into the back of the TV.

Am I missing something simple? Can it be that Google Chromecast is incapable of doing this with reasonable image quality?

Thanks in advance.

[Update: pork roasting photo gallery; the 14.4 lbs. was all consumed by 9 pm so I think we can declare victory on the roasting front.]

Peter Orszag beats the child support rap


Back in March I wrote a post with some details about former Obama Administration official Peter Orszag, whose ex-wife had hoped to tap him for $264,000 per year in tax-free child support revenue. Backstory: following a brief marriage, about 10 years ago, Cameron Kennedy got a luxurious house and a few million dollars in cash by suing Orszag for divorce and, as part of settling that lawsuit, signed an agreement that they would split the children’s expenses going forward (she may have earned more than he did at the time, though now he is cashing in from our revolving door system between government and finance). The judge has ruled and it seems that Cameron Kennedy will get two free kids, with the father paying for all of their private school tuition, summer camps, medical expenses, and extracurricular activities. But she won’t be able to turn a cash profit on the children. In fact she will have to provide them with at least some meals on at least half of the days of the year, paying for the food out of her $350,000 per year income, mostly from working at McKinsey. (She also has to give them a place to sleep, but I am pretty sure that is in a house that got as part of her divorce lawsuit.) She has to pay her own attorney’s fees, according to the Washington Post. And the judge refused to accept the idea that $350,00/year was right at the poverty line:

“Ms. Kennedy is also a high-earning party, capable of providing a more than comfortable lifestyle and many advantages for her children, even in the absence of any assistance from Mr. Orszag,” the court ruled Thursday.

More: Read the Kennedy Decision (64 pages)

Book review: Bad Pharma


I’ve finished Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients,a well-researched effort presented in overheated language by Ben Goldacre. With all of the trillions of dollars spent on drug development and drugs themselves, have you ever wondered why people don’t seem to feel better than they did back in the 1970s? There have been so many new painkillers, for example, but none seem to work much better than aspirin, a remedy known to Hippocrates (Wikipedia).

Here’s the main thesis of the book:

Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion. In their forty years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works through ad hoc oral traditions, from sales reps, colleagues or journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are even owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all. These are ongoing problems, and although people have claimed to fix many of them, for the most part they have failed; so all these problems persist, but worse than ever, because now people can pretend that everything is fine after all.

We’re nearly 30 years into Prozac Nation. The pills are cheap and published research shows that they work well. Is everyone cheerful?

In 2008 a group of researchers decided to check for publication of every trial that had ever been reported to the US Food and Drug Administration for all the antidepressants that came onto the market between 1987 and 2004. The researchers found seventy-four studies in total, representing 12,500 patients’ worth of data. Thirty-eight of these trials had positive results, and found that the new drug worked; thirty-six were negative. The results were therefore an even split between success and failure for the drugs, in reality. Then the researchers set about looking for these trials in the published academic literature, the material available to doctors and patients. This provided a very different picture. Thirty-seven of the positive trials – all but one – were published in full, often with much fanfare. But the trials with negative results had a very different fate: only three were published. Twenty-two were simply lost to history, never appearing anywhere other than in those dusty, disorganised, thin FDA files.

How about the efforts at reform? Goldacre shows that they’ve failed on both sides of the Atlantic.

The 1997 FDA Modernization Act created, a register run by the US government National Institutes of Health. This legislation required that trials should be registered, but only if they related to an application to put a new drug on the market, and even then, only if it was for a serious or life-threatening disease. The register opened in 1998, and the website went online in 2000. The entry criteria were widened in 2004. But soon it all began to fall apart. … But the first problem for the US register, which could have been used universally, was that people simply chose not to use it. The regulations required only a very narrow range of trials to be posted, and nobody else was in a hurry to post their trials if they didn’t have to.

In 2007 the FDA Amendment Act was passed. This is much tighter: it requires registration of all trials of any drug or device, at any stage of development other than ‘first-in-man’ tests, if they have any site in the US, or involve any kind of application to bring a new drug onto the market. It also imposes a startling new requirement: all results of all trials must be posted to, in abbreviated summary tables, within one year of completion, for any trial on any marketed drug that completes after 2007. Once again, to great fanfare, everyone believed that the problem had been fixed. But it hasn’t been, for two very important reasons. First, unfortunately, despite the undoubted goodwill, requiring the publication of all trials starting from ‘now’ does absolutely nothing for medicine today.  … But there is a second, more disturbing reason why these regulations should be taken with a pinch of salt: they have been widely ignored. A study published in January 2012 looked at the first slice of trials subject to mandatory reporting, and found that only one in five had met its obligation to post results.62 Perhaps this is not surprising: the fine for non-compliance is $10,000 a day, which sounds spectacular, until you realise that it’s only $3.5 million a year, which is chickenfeed for a drug bringing in $4 billion a year. And what’s more, no such fine has ever been levied, throughout the entire history of the legislation.

The search functions on the FDA website are essentially broken, while the content is haphazard and badly organised, with lots missing, and too little information to enable you to work out if a trial was prone to bias by design. Once again – partly, here, through casual thoughtlessness and incompetence – it is impossible to get access to the basic information that we need.

So: let’s say we want to find the results from all the trials the FDA has, on a drug called pregabalin, in which the drug is used to treat pain for diabetics whose nerves have been affected by their disease (a condition called ‘diabetic peripheral neuropathy’). You want the FDA review on this specific use, which is the PDF document containing all the trials in one big bundle. But if you search for ‘pregabalin review’, say, on the FDA website, you get over a hundred documents: none of them is clearly named, and not one of them is the FDA review document on pregabalin. If you type in the FDA application number – the unique identifier for the FDA document you’re looking for – the FDA website comes up with nothing at all. If you’re lucky, or wise, you’ll get dropped at the Drugs@FDA page: typing ‘pregabalin’ there brings up three ‘FDA applications’. Why three? Because there are three different documents, each on a different condition that pregabalin can be used to treat. The FDA site doesn’t tell you which condition each of these three documents is for, so you have to use trial and error to try to find out. That’s not as easy as it sounds. I have the correct document for pregabalin and diabetic peripheral neuropathy right here in front of me: it’s almost four hundred pages long, but it doesn’t tell you that it’s about diabetic peripheral neuropathy until you get to page 19. There’s no executive summary at the beginning – in fact, there’s no title page, no contents page, no hint of what the document is even about, and it skips randomly from one sub-document to another, all scanned and bundled up in the same gigantic file. …  unlike almost any other serious government document in the world, the PDFs from the FDA are a series of photographs of pages of text, rather than the text itself. This means you cannot search for a phrase. Instead, you have to go through it, searching for that phrase, laboriously, by eye.

Clinical research trials is increasingly outsourced to private companies and increasingly done on patients outside the U.S. and EU. How much money is involved when a trial is done in the U.S.? And what’s the cost savings for going offshore?

In the US, meanwhile, the use of private community doctors to conduct trials has expanded enormously, with incentives approaching $1 million a year for the most enterprising medics.

As the former chief executive of GSK explained in a recent interview, running a trial in the US costs $30,000 per patient, while a CRO can do it in Romania for $3,000.

In the past, only 15 per cent of clinical trials were conducted outside the USA. Now it’s more than half. The average rate of growth in the number of trials in India is 20 per cent a year, in China 47 per cent, in Argentina 27 per cent, and so on, simply because they are better at attracting CRO business, at lower cost. At the same time, trials in the US are falling by 6 per cent a year (and in the UK by 10 per cent a year).

One problem with these trial is that they generally use patients who have only one condition and who may not be getting any treatment for it. Goldacre asks “Are those findings really transferable, and relevant, to American patients, on all their tablets?”

What does it take to get a drug approved by the FDA?

In general, however, a company would expect to have to provide two or three trials, with a thousand or more participants, showing that its drug works. This is where the smoke and mirrors begin. Although the notion of a simple randomised trial should be straightforward, in reality there are all kinds of distortions and perversions that can come into play, in the comparisons that are made, and the outcomes that are measured for success. For me, ‘What works?’ is the most basic practical question that every patient faces, and the answer isn’t complicated. Patients want to know: what’s the best treatment for my disease? The only way to answer this question when a new drug comes along is by comparing it against the best currently available treatment. But that is not what drug regulators require of a treatment for it to get onto the market. Often, even when there are effective treatments around already, regulators are happy for a company simply to show that its treatment is better than nothing – or rather, better than a dummy placebo pill with no medicine in it – and the industry is happy to clear that low bar.

A paper from 2011 looked at the evidence supporting every single one of the 197 new drugs approved by the FDA between 2000 and 2010, at the time they were approved.15 Only 70 per cent had data to show they were better than other treatments (and that’s after you ignore drugs for conditions for which there was no current treatment). A full third had no evidence comparing them with the best currently available treatment, even though that’s the only question that matters to patients.

This same perverse problem of inadequate comparators also exists in the EU.17 To get a licence to market your drug, the EMA does not require you to show that it is better than the best currently available treatment, even if that treatment is universally used: you simply have to show that it is better than nothing. A study from 2007 found that only half the drugs approved between 1999 and 2005 had been studied in comparison with other treatments at the time they were allowed onto the market (and, shamefully, only one third of those trials were published and publicly accessible to doctors and patients).

Goldacre identifies some subtler problems with drug trials, e.g., the cancer drug Bevacizumab being tested in 1000 trials on different kinds of cancer. Some of those trials showed a statistically significant benefit, but by running so many trials it was of course statistically likely that at least some would show a benefit just due to pure random variation.

Goldacre suggests using massive health care systems with computerized records, such as the UK’s, to run experiments on different drugs where currently physicians have no reason to prefer one versus the other and he has built some software toward this end.

What about all of those drug ads? They’re illegal in most countries.

When ads were first made legal again in the US, they could only appear in print, because of a requirement to include all the side-effect information from the drug label. Since 1997 the rules have been relaxed, and now the side effects can be abbreviated (they are read out at jabbering speed over the end of the TV ads). After this change the pharmaceutical industry’s annual advertising budget rose from $200 million to $3 billion in the space of just a few years.

One study observed patients visiting their doctors in Canada, where direct-to-consumer drug advertising is still banned, and the US. It found that those in the US were more likely to believe they needed medication, more likely to request specific drugs that were advertised on television, and more likely to receive a prescription for that drug.

Trained actors, posing as depressed patients, were sent to visit doctors in three American cities (three hundred visits in all).5 They all gave the same background story, about the problems they were having with low mood, and then were randomly assigned to act in one of three ways at the end of the consultation: to ask for a specific named drug; to ask for ‘medicine that might help’; or to make no specific request. Those who did what ads drive patients to do – ask for a specific drug, or ‘medicine’ – were twice as likely to receive a prescription for an antidepressant pill.

If we relaxed the rules forbidding UK- and European-trained doctors to practice here, would they find the salaries attractive enough to make it worth the trip? (A Massachusetts woman recently called her primary care doc to get an appointment for an annual physical. She was offered one in 2015, about 18 months from the time of her phone call.)

The UK [pay] scales are all publicly accessible: junior doctors are paid between £25,000 and £40,000 per annum for the first five or ten years, and then consultants go on to around £70,000. [That's $43,000 to $68,500 per year for the junior docs.]

Given the massive size of the industry, the huge quantity of tax dollars that are spent on pills (many of which are useless or harmful), and the fact that intense regulation doesn’t seem to have accomplished anything, the book is worthwhile reading for any citizen.

More: read Bad Pharma.

Sample bias in Thomas Piketty’s book is worse than I thought


In this blog posting from May 23, I pointed out an obvious flaw in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, i.e., that he calculates investment returns for the uber-rich by looking at different people who happened to make the Forbes list at different times. It turns out that a careful analysis by Stan Veuger in U.S. News and World Report was published a week earlier. Veuger follows the top 10 folks (a.k.a. “rich bastards”) from 1987 and finds out that they earned only about a 0.5-percent real return on their investments, i.e., less than what a consumer who bought and held an S&P 500 index fund would have earned. Piketty’s call to action is premised on the idea that rich people and/or rich organizations can get exceptionally good investment returns, but he has not put forth any good data to support that idea. (And even if he were right, he would have to adjust for the fact that a lot of middle class people have their money in pension funds and other professionally managed aggregations that should, in theory, have the same access to investments as the wealthiest individuals.)

[One of the largest investors in the U.S. is CalPERS, with more than $250 billion in assets and 2600 employees. Their year-end 2013 report shows that they achieved a 7.91% annual return over a 20-year period. What about a regular Joe who parked his money in a Vanguard S&P 500 fund? This calculator shows an investment held from January 1, 1994 through December 31, 2013 would have grown at 9.22%.]

Separately, Martin Feldstein published an article in the Wall Street Journal about how changes in the tax code led people to tear down Schedule C corporations and build S corps and LLCs instead. The real economy and real income/wealth distribution didn’t change that much, but individual tax returns changed dramatically in response to dramatic Reagan-era changes in the tax code.

More bad news for American schools: social skills taught aren’t useful in adulthood


This Business Insider piece covers a longitudinal study by Joseph P. Allen from the University of Virginia. As noted in The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way (see my review of the book in these postings: Finland; Poland; American Public; American Private; What can a Parent do?; Korea), Americans like to comfort themselves that though our schools perform poorly on things that are easy to measure, such as educational attainment, they perform well on things that are hard to measure, such as socialization and sports team building: “Instead of the apprenticeship/mentoring environments that prevailed throughout most of human history, we decided to put hundreds of teenagers together all day every day. What could go wrong?” Allen’s study, however, found that teenagers who were experts at impressing other teenagers did not have superior skills for impressing adults. As adults have most of the power in this country, the “cool kids” from high school struggled upon reaching their 20s.

My personal experience in this area comes from following the most popular kid from my 5th grade class. He had long blond hair, was good at sports, and got invited to every birthday party. My parents lived in the same house for more than 45 years so I thought that perhaps they might know how he was doing as an adult. My mom said “I know exactly what he is doing. He’s living in his parents’ basement, smoking dope, drinking beer, and watching TV all day.”

Separately, to celebrate the World Cup, here’s a story from 10 years ago: I was walking past a youth soccer game with a friend from Massachusetts. She said “This is wonderful. By playing on a team these kids are learning everything that they will need to succeed in business.” I replied “Yes, I’m sure that you’re right. That’s why Nigeria, Argentina, and Cameroon have the strongest economies.”

American Green Engineering


Next time someone asks you to invest in an American “green tech” company, carefully review the Wikipedia page for the Norwottuck Rail Trail here in Massachusetts:

The trail has degraded over time. One aspect of the problem is that the original pavement was an attempt at being “green”, and incorporated crushed used glass bottles as part of its aggregate. This material has been slowly emerging over time, causing flat tires and other issues.

It will cost the taxpayers $4 million to fix…

Glastonbury Festival for Old People



I drafted a travel guide for those who don’t think that they are too old to rock and roll: “Glastonbury Festival for Old People”. Comments/corrections would be appreciated. Also note that the photos and a video that I took there are available only as hyperlinks (much easier to push everything to Google+ than to my own server, sadly).


Traveling with children to sites of historical significance in the iPad age


A friend posted the following question on Facebook: “Are you or do you know of a family who likes to travel with their 6-14 year-old children and likes to show them various landmarks and/or places of historical significance? I’d love to ask you a few questions about your experiences and challenges of traveling with kids.”

I thought that my answer might be useful to readers so I’m posting it here:

About 1.5 years ago I helped take a group of kids age 7-12 around Israel and Jordan. One mother would nag at her 11-year-old to pay attention. “This trip was expensive. You have to appreciate every minute.” She would get upset if a group of three kids would want to play an iPad game while on a 1.5-hour car ride through boring boringly-lit (mid-day sun) desert. I thought it was more reasonable to let the kids do whatever they wanted in transit and save their attention for the actual sights. I think it helps to have a larger group with more kids so that they can have fun with each other at night and in transit.

Income and Wealth Inequality in England


I’ve just returned from a trip to England and spent a little time looking at the society as Thomas Piketty might (see my review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

England’s economic performance has been mediocre during many of the post-World War II decades, leaving it with a per-capita GDP of $37,300 compared to $52,800 in the U.S. and $62,400 in England’s former trading post of Singapore (source: CIA Factbook, purchasing power adjusted). Mancur Olson used Britain as an example of how a rich stable society can stagnate due to politically powerful groups steadily skimming off wealth (see my March 2009 posting on Mancur Olson):

“Great Britain, the major nation with the longest immunity from dictatorship, invasion, and revolution, has had in this century a lower rate of growth than other large, developed democracies. … Britain has [a] powerful network of special-interest organizations.  The number and power of its trade unions need no description. [Olson wrote this book just as Margaret Thatcher was coming to power.]  The venerability and power of its professional associations is also striking.  … Britain also has a strong farmer’s organization and a great many trade associations.”

“[Britain's interest groups] are narrow rather than encompassing.  For example, in a single factory there are often many different trade unions, each with a monopoly over a different craft or category of workers…”

Olson notes that slow growth can’t be due to something inherent in the British character, because the country was the world’s fastest growing from 1750 until 1850.

The United Kingdom’s Gini coefficient is lower than that of the U.S.’s, so in theory it should be closer to Piketty’s ideal society. How does it feel on the ground, though?

First of all, there are some advantages to living in the U.K. that people at all income levels share. One can be outside in the summer time without getting eaten alive by mosquitoes (but bring an umbrella!). Restrictions on architecture and building mean that a lot of towns are beautiful and/or charming. Consider the value of a stroll around Paris compared to a stroll around a typical U.S. city. Due to a more or less free market in air travel and short distances, flights to interesting locations in Europe are affordable to everyone.

On the other hand, the restrictions on architecture and building mean that a single-family house with windows on four sides and a little yard is out of reach for most Britons. In a lot of places, if you can’t afford to build a beautiful house out of stone then you can’t build a house. Slapping up a McMansion for $300,000 and luxuriating in 4000 square feet is certainly out of the question. The bottom half of the income distribution seems to live mostly in apartments or attached houses (townhouses; sharing walls with neighbors so that there might be windows only in the front and back). This is advantageous because the higher density means it is more likely that a person can walk or use public transport, also a good thing because non-rich Britons seem to have pretty basic automobiles or don’t own a car at all. The road network is absurdly brittle and clogged with traffic. A “highway” between two cities might have no shoulder and lanes that are just barely wide enough for two trucks to pass. If a car breaks down or any repairs are needed, the “yummy mummy” in her $100,000 Range Rover will be stuck in a one-hour traffic jam. Internet for the home and mobile voice and data services are cheaper than here in the U.S. However, mobile data rates are absurdly slow, coverage is poor, and 4G is a theoretical concept outside of London. It hurts me to admit this, but my friend Mark might right when he says “Verizon is like democracy: the worst cellular service, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” Hotels, restaurants, and shops try to compensate by offering free WiFi but upload speeds are too slow (e.g., 100 kbps) to make it practical to, for example, email a photo to someone.

London is like a separate country in terms of wealth but it is hard to know whether it is fair to roll that into British wealth/income inequality. England taxes foreign residents on their English income, not on their worldwide income, so a lot of high-income/high-wealth people, e.g., from Russia or the Arab world, establish residency in London for convenience and stability. This puts tremendous demand on London real estate but if the Four Seasons built a resort in your town and a lot of rich foreigners came there to stay would you then say that your town had become less equal?

Even if we exclude the foreign billionaires, the lifestyle gap between rich and poor in England seems pretty stark. The rich Briton will have a London flat, a beautiful country house in the Cotswolds (see these photos), a couple of fancy new cars, and maybe a vacation house in France, Spain, or Italy. The lower middle class Briton will live in a dark attached house or apartment, commute via bus or train (without air conditioning!), and go on packaged holidays.

How did the rich get their money? Did they get it the honest Piketty-approved way (i.e., by getting PhDs and then working at a university)? Via marriage as Piketty describes? Or via inheritance as Piketty decries?

British Airways was kind enough to give me a free copy of the June 30, 2014 Daily Mail newspaper. The 76 pages contain the following stories that are explicitly about how people got money:

  • one story about a woman who started life in public housing (“a council semi”) and after a series of divorces from wealthy men, now has at least $100 million in assets.
  • a story, “Benefit grabbing extremist who hates Britain”, about a 35-year-old man who lives in public housing and collects unemployment and disability.
  • a story about a mother who looted her son’s $85,000 trust fund to buy “luxury clothes” and to redecorate her home
  • a story about the salary to be earned by the incoming president of the European Union

Other stories hint at the value of inheritances, e.g., an article on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge ripping out a new $85,000 kitchen to install one with a different design. But most of the stories concern people who have risen to prominence and/or wealth via hard work. Dolly Parton is on the front page for “dazzling” the Glastonbury Festival‘s crowd at age 68 (I was part of the crowd and would agree with the Daily Mail’s editors); as Parton is childless she will not be offending Piketty by creating a dynasty with her wealth. The interior pages are studded with pictures of tennis stars at Wimbledon and soccer stars in Brazil. It doesn’t seem as though these people were born wealthy, e.g., Andy Murray attended a government-run school, the Wikipedia page on James Rodriguez doesn’t say anything about his parents being rich.

Prior to going to Glastonbury I went on a four-day cycling trip around Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. The guides pointed out some fancy houses that were owned by people who had been successful in business or entertainment. Piketty’s theories about people resorting to what the Victorians called “fortune hunting” (a term that may have originated in the 17th century) were not directly confirmed by the guides, who did not talk about anyone having gotten rich by marrying and staying married (though they did point out some spectacular houses that had been won in litigation by divorce plaintiffs).

After the bike tour, I stayed in a luxury camp adjacent to the Glastonbury festival proper. A restaurant owner in his 50s explained how his ex-wife had made her fortune. “We were married for about 18 months. She insisted that I get her a new BMW, the most luxurious vacations possible, designer clothes. I did it to keep her happy, but then after she sued me my solicitor explained that this established a baseline lifestyle that I would have to keep her in for at least 10 years.” He chose to pay his plaintiff a lump sum rather than monthly alimony. What does a Briton stuffed full of enough cash never to work again do? “She moved to Spain and took our young daughter with her. So I bought a house in Spain to make it convenient to visit the child. Then she moved to France and I was left with this house. I tried using lawyers to stop her from moving about but wasn’t successful.” What about child support? “Roughly the first 100,000 pounds [$170,000] that I earn every year goes to pay my ex-wife and for my costs in traveling to see my daughter.” What’s the interaction with the now-15-year-old like? “She is busy with her friends and her life so sometimes when I visit there is only about 15 minutes per day of real interaction. If she wants me to buy her something, like a replacement mobile [phone], then she pays attention.”

[There was apparently an emotional toll to be paid by the defendant and child in addition to the wealth extracted by the plaintiff. "I probably have spent at least 30 percent of my energy being angry with the woman who sued me, about 25 percent of my energy working to pay all of her expenses, and another 20 percent of my energy traveling to visit my daughter. There isn't a lot left for giving to [his current partner]” How about forgiving and forgetting? “She is always pulling some new stunt to make it difficult for me to see our daughter, which makes me angry all over again, not to mention the monthly payments to someone with whom I was barely acquainted.” He was there with a long-term girlfriend, blessed with a kind disposition. Perhaps she would be a moderating influence? “We can never get married,” she explained, “because then [the daughter's mom] would be able to collect half of my income. Sod her.”]

What did we see on the ground about Piketty’s main point of irritation, i.e., the establishment of family dynasties? During the bike tour we visited Blenheim Palace, a spectacular example of wealth via inheritance, though the property taxes and inheritance taxes have made it tough to hang onto. We saw a lot of farms that were probably inherited. Death/inheritance taxes on these farms are probably pretty painful but on the other hand the farmers didn’t look as though they were hurting and they are presumably benefiting from EU agricultural subsidies. The folks in the luxury camp at Glastonbury all seemed to have earned their money rather than inheriting it, though among the musicians themselves (list with video links) there seemed to be a tremendous value in inheriting fame and connections from one’s parents. For example, Seun Kuti appeared on stage with his father’s old band, and Toumani and Sidiki, a father-son team from Mali, appeared on the main stage and announced that they were the 72nd continuous generation of father-son musicians in their family.

In some ways England should be a cautionary example for fans of Piketty’s proposed tax policies. In the 1960s and 70s, the country experimented with very high tax rates on its most successful citizens. Facing up to 98% tax rates, the Rolling Stones for example, effectively emigrated for business purposes (see this 2007 New York Times article on the Stones and U2 and also Life by Keith Richards). It seems as though the country has never truly recovered from this experiment and the resulting lost growth.

Piketty is a fan of bigger government and heaps scorn on the U.S. health care system (admittedly the dumbest conceivable way to run anything). But the National Health Service in Britain may be beginning to fray. People are waiting a long time for visits with primary care docs (of whom there are fewer per capita than in France, for example) and Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patientsgives examples of at least $1 billion per year in wasteful drug spending (e.g., on brand name drugs instead of generics). Complaints about the NHS occupy a lot of space in newspapers (though the people I talked to seemed reasonably satisfied with the care they were receiving).

The British are very proud of their victories on World War I and World War II and there are constant reminders of these eras throughout the country. The country has the will to spend insane amounts of money to make a military point, e.g., buying a fleet of Lockheed L-1011 aerial tankers so that fighter planes could be ferried to the Falkland Islands in the event of another war with Argentina  (recently replaced with shiny new Airbus A330 tankers). But a Glastonbury attendee pointed out “Given the decline of our manufacturing I don’t think we’d want to go up against the Germans right now. Fortunately they seem to have lost their passion for war.”

Perhaps Piketty is right that a world government, a global tax on wealth, and a dramatic increase in government efficiency could result in improved growth and human happiness. But my take-away from England is that it doesn’t work if a country tries to do this on its own. Maybe inequality by the numbers will fall a little bit, but the overall level of prosperity will slip compared to successful countries such that essentially everyone is worse off than they would have been under a system that is less antagonistic towards the economically successful.

China shuts the revolving door for government officials


One of the problems identified in Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patientsis the revolving door between drug regulators, such as the FDA and their European equivalent, and the pharma industry:

The EMA regulates the pharmaceutical industry throughout the whole of Europe, and has taken over the responsibilities of the regulators in individual member countries. In December 2010 Thomas Lonngren stepped down as its executive director. On the 28th of that month he sent a letter telling the EMA management board that he was going to start working as a private consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, starting in just four days’ time, on 1 January 2011.

In the USA, for example, you have to wait a year after leaving the Defense Department before you can work for a defence contractor. After ten days the chairman of the EMA wrote back to Lonngren saying that his plans were fine. He didn’t impose any further restrictions, and nor, remarkably, did he ask for any information on what kind of work Lonngren planned to do. Lonngren had said in his letter that there would be no conflict of interest, and that was enough for everyone concerned.

Coincidentally I had breakfast this morning with a Chinese-American entrepreneur. She explained that her father back in Mainland China was currently unemployed and coming for a long visit. He had worked for the government but, due to a new rule requiring a five-year waiting period, had to quit his industry job.

Log in