Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The real threat of vote-rigging

October 31, 2016

Donald Trump’s supporters say the integrity of the coming U.S. election is threatened by illegal voting.  Hillary Clinton’s supporters say it is impossible to rig the U.S. election.  They’re both dead wrong.

The real problem is the vulnerability of electronic voting machines to hacking and the lack of transparency in vote counting.

LINKS

We Will Never Know If Electronic Voting Compromises Elections; Democrats Should Worry About This by Mike the Mad Biologist.

DHS Seeks to Protect U.S. Election Infrastructure – But Is That Even Possible? by Brad Friedman for The BRAD BLOG.

How to Hack an Election in Seven Minutes by Ben Wofford for POLITICO

America’s Electronic Voting Machines Are Scarily Easy Targets by Brian Barrett for WIRED.

Democracy’s Gold Standard: Hand-Marked, Hand-Counted Paper Ballots, Publicly Tabulated at Every Polling Place in America by Brad Friedman for The BRAD BLOG.

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Russia accused of war by using weaponized truth

October 18, 2016

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Russian intelligence services are accused of waging cyber-warfare by releasing embarrassing Hillary Clinton e-mails through Wikileaks.

There is no direct evidence of where Wikileaks got the Clinton e-mails, but the Russians have the capability and the motive to hack her system.

Would this be an act of war?  I for one would welcome war by means of weaponized truth.

If revealing accurate information about your geopolitical enemy is a form of warfare, I think escalation of this kind of warfare would be a good thing and not a bad thing.

I think the NSA and the CIA should retaliate by arranging the release of damaging secret information about Vladimir Putin—maybe through Wikileaks as a form of poetic justice.

In fact, there are those who think they already have done so, through the Panama Papers leak

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17 things that come out of a barrel of crude

October 3, 2016

1barrelvisualcapitalist-barryritholtz

Hat tips to Barry Ritholtz, Visual Capitalist and JWN Energy

I think that we the human race have to learn to stop burning oil for fuel because we’re at risk of overheating the planet.  But another reason is that petroleum is such an amazing and versatile substance that it seems a waste to just burn it.

The computer era and productivity statistics

September 28, 2016

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If factory automation, artificial intelligence and data tracking are doing all that much to improve productivity, why don’t we see it in the productivity statistics?

It’s true that productivity is growing, and the continual growth in productivity should not be taken for granted.  Maybe productivity would be less or even fall if not for the computer revolution.

Maybe the computer revolution hasn’t gone far enough as yet.  Maybe, as the linked articles suggest, it is confined to just a few industries—electronics, communications and finance.  Maybe it is offset by disinvestment in American industry, as CEOs spend profits on stock buybacks rather than productivity improvements.

The fact remains that productivity was increasing at a faster rate in the United States before the 1980s, which is when Wired magazine proclaimed a new economy.

LINKS

Technology Isn’t Working by The Economist.

Robots, Growth and Inequality by Andrew Berg, Edward F. Buffie and Luis-Felipe Zanna for the International Monetary Fund.

Kevin Kelly’s technological determinism

September 22, 2016

Kevin Kelly is a smart and influential thinker who has good insight into the potential of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and data tracking.

He has written popular books on technology with titles such as Out of Control, What Technology Wants and his latest, The Inevitable.  I haven’t read them; they’re no doubt worth reading.  I quarrel with the assumptions reflected in the titles of the books.

His mistake, in my opinion, is in treating technology as an autonomous force to which human beings must adapt, whether they like it or not.

Technology is not out of control.  The fact that we the public don’t control it doesn’t mean that nobody does.   Technology didn’t develop itself.  It developed they way it did because it served the needs of corporations, governments and other institutions.

Technology doesn’t want anything because it isn’t sentient.    Only human beings want things.   Technology ought to exist to the wants and needs of people.   People do not exist in order to serve the requirements of technology

There is nothing inevitable about the path of technological change.   Which technologies are developed is a matter of choice—by somebody.   Devices such as the steam engine existed for centuries before they were put into us.

Ned Ludd would not have destroyed weaving machines if the weavers had owned the machines.  As a Marxist would say, it all depends on who owns the means of production.  Technology works to the benefit of those who own it.

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Murray Bookchin: the social matrix of technology

August 21, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).   I’m interested in Bookchin’s work because he provides a way a deeper, broader and longer-range perspective than the false alternatives in current politics.

chapter ten – the social matrix of technology

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin debunked the idea that the level of technology determines the level of social organization.  Rather social organization itself is the most important technology.

Human beings do not have to adapt to the requirements of technology.  The machine was made for man, not man for the machine.

The Pyramids of Egypt and the great temples of Assyria and Babylonia did not depend on a high level of technology, he wrote; they were built with primitive tools.

What the great empires of ancient Egypt and the Fertile Crescent discovered was how to organize and mobilize huge numbers of people against their will, and to squeeze the maximum amount of labor out of them.   So long as they had slaves, they had no need to invent labor-saving machinery.

The same was true of the New World, Bookchin wrote.   The democratic Iroquois and the totalitarian Inca used the same types of tools.  It was their social organization that was different.

Neither did geography determine social organization.  The Inca empire and Greek democracy both arose in mountainous regions.

Rather hierarchy arose, as Bookchin noted in previous chapters, when non-productive old people reinvented themselves as priests and the young men gave their loyalty to warrior bands rather than the village clans.   This happened in many different times and settings.  It set in motion an evolution ending with supposedly sacred despots supported by priests, warriors and tax collectors.

When despotic societies arose, Bookchin wrote, organic matricentric societies had to militarize themselves or else either be conquered or driven from their lands.  What’s remarkable, he wrote, is not the spread of despotism, but how much of the world’s people remained free.

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The coming of the robots

July 8, 2016

This video from Boston Dynamics shows the capability of robots to do human labor—not that they would necessarily be in humanoid form as in the video.

In theory, the use of robots could enable human beings to live lives of voluntary, meaningful, higher-level activity.  In practice, the results probably would be more like Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel, Player Piano, with an elite of engineers and a mass of unemployed or under-employed former workers.

If robots do everything, there will be no high-wage, full-employment economy.  There would be no mass consumer market.  Economic activity would be mainly devoted to serving the needs of the owners of the robots and the engineers and technicians who keep the robots running.

A guaranteed annual income would not be a solution.  Human beings degenerate if they have nothing useful to do.

Maybe a new economy would arise—a robot economy serving the elite and a parallel human economy serving the majority of humanity.

Or maybe—in some way I can’t foresee—robotic technology would come under democratic control, and there would be a public debate as to how robotics could be used to benefit everyone and not just a few.

LINKS

New Rossum’s Universal Robots: Toward a Most Minimal Wage by Fred Reed for Fred on Everything.  Lots of interesting links.

Toyota in talks to acquire Boston Dynamics from Google by Danielle Muoio for Tech Insider.

When the Robots Rise by Lee Drutman and Yascha  Mounk for The National Interest [added 7/11/2016]

If Sir Isaac Newton had a Smartphone

April 21, 2016

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Via Nusaireyat.

A Fukushima on the Hudson?

April 4, 2016

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NY-DN874_NYINDI_16U_20150414182440Ellen Cantarow and Alison Rose Levy wrote an alarming and plausible article for TomDispatch about the likelihood of a Fukushima-type accident at the Indian Point nuclear power plant outside New York City.

The Indian Point plant has a terrible safety record, even by industry standards.  There is an ongoing leak of tritium (radioactive) water, whose source has not been identified, into local groundwater and the Hudson River.  There is a known danger of flooding, which could cause a meltdown of the reactor core, but management of Entergy, the owner of Indian Point, has declined to install a $200,000 flood detector.

Now a high-pressure natural gas pipeline is planned by an energy company called Spectra, would carry fracked gas within 150 feet of Indian Point.  Accidents in gas pipelines are on the rise, according to a study by the National Transportation Safety Board, due to gas companies cutting corners on safety.

How much risk should the nearly 20 million people who live in the vicinity of Indian Point assume?

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Douglas Adams’ rules of technology

March 15, 2016

1.  Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2.  Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3.  Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Source: Stumbling and Mumbling

There’s a line between humanoid and human

January 18, 2016
Hiroshi Ishaguro with Erica, his latest humanoid robot

Hiroshi Ishaguro with Erica, his latest humanoid robot

The following is from The Guardian:

Erica enjoys the theatre and animated films, would like to visit south-east Asia, and believes her ideal partner is a man with whom she can chat easily.

She is less forthcoming, however, when asked her age. “That’s a slightly rude question … I’d rather not say,” comes the answer.

As her embarrassed questioner shifts sideways and struggles to put the conversation on a friendlier footing, Erica turns her head, her eyes following his every move. It is all rather disconcerting, but if Japan’s new generation of intelligent robots are ever going to rival humans as conversation partners, perhaps that is as it should be.

Erica, who, it turns out, is 23, is the most advanced humanoid to have come out of a collaborative effort between Osaka and Kyoto universities, and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).

At its heart is the group’s leader, Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, perhaps best known for creating Geminoid HI-1, an android in his likeness, right down to his trademark black leather jacket and a Beatles mop-top made with his own hair.  [snip]

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A flying car for the 21st century?

December 5, 2015

Hat tip to Bill Elwell

This computer animation by Terrafugia, a Boston start-up company,  shows their plans for the TF-X flying car.   It’s a neat idea, although not available soon nor affordable by anybody I know.   But it seems wrong that money is available for science-fictional dreams and rich peoples’ toys such as self-driving cars or flying cars, but not for affordable and convenient passenger bus and rail service.

China tests using credit scores for social control

October 12, 2015

Chinacredit1433817334738_646Source: China Daily.

Chinese authorities are experimenting with a new method of social control.

It is a credit score generated by Big Data methods that evaluates not only a person’s financial record, but everything that could throw light on their moral character, including associations and lifestyle choices.

A good credit score would give a person not only certain privileges, but prestige.  Conformity would be induced not through threats and punishments, but through positive reinforcement.

Last year the Chinese government announced it is working on something called a “social credit system” to enhance “sincerity discipline” in government, commerce and society in general, which is scheduled to be launched in 2020.

More recently a Chinese credit card company started testing a credit rating system that will use social media to gather information not only on people’s finances, but their hobbies, shopping habits, overall lifestyle and interactions with friends.

Based on that, the person will be given a rating of between 350 to 950 that not only determine their access to credit, but other privileges as well.

Some analysts think the two systems will come together to produce a system of total Orwellian surveillance, a kind of incentive-based totalitarianism.

Every aspect of a Chinese person’s life, including political opinions and friendships, would be fed into the system, which would produce a numerical score based on an algorithm.   That score in turn would be the basis for rewards and punishments that would shape the person’s whole life.

Now this is speculative.   I don’t know that the Chinese government actually has this in mind.

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Notes on our surveillance dystopia

October 9, 2015

The proximate reasons for the culture of total surveillance are clear.

Storage is cheap enough that we can keep everything.

Computers are fast enough to examine this information, both in real time and retrospectively.

Our daily activities are mediated with software that can easily be configured to record and report everything it sees upstream.

But to fix surveillance, we have to address the underlying reasons that it exists.  These are no mystery either.

State surveillance is driven by fear.

And corporate surveillance is driven by money.

Source: Idle Words

The quote above is from a talk given by Maciej Ceglowski to the Fremtidens Internet Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.  I thank my friend Daniel Brandt for the link.  The whole talk is important and highly recommended.

It is about how advertisers destroyed on-line privacy and then found themselves swindled by robots and how Silicon Valley thinks it can change the world without bothering about San Francisco.

Also, six fixes that Ceglowski thinks could restore on-line privacy.

LINK

What Happens Next Will Amaze You by Maciej Ceglowski.

The passing scene – August 19, 2015

August 19, 2015

On the elementary structure of domination: The Bully’s Pulpit by David Graeber for The Baffler.

Schoolyard bullies typically believe they have a right and duty to punish and humiliate those who manifest vulnerability, fear or deviance, and they retroactively justify their actions by the inappropriate ways in which their victims resist, Graeber wrote; this reflects the structure of domination in the larger society.

Algorithms can be a digital star chamber by Frank Pasquale for Aeon.

An algorithm fed into a computer can determine whether you get a job, get credit or get insurance, or what kind.  Probably you don’t know about it.  Probably you can’t appeal the result because arbitrary assumptions processed through a computer are considered “objective.”

Climate Change Threatens Economic Development, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim Says by Julia Glum for International Business Times.   (Hat tip to Hal Bauer)

We’ll see whether he puts the World Bank’s money where his mouth is.

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Software rot, not cyber-terrorism, is the threat

July 12, 2015

The computer systems serving United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange and the Wall Street Journal web page all crashed on the same day.

The cause almost certainly was not cyber-terrorism.  It was software rot.

Software programs of most big institutions are built on modifications of older obsolete programs.  There are so many layers of software that nobody fully understands them.

A writer named Zeynep Tufekci explained—

In the nineties, I paid for parts of my college education by making such old software work on newer machines.  Sometimes, I was handed a database, and some executable (compiled) code that nobody had the source code for.  The mystery code did some things to the database.  Now more things needed to be done.

windows-rotThe sane solution would have been to port the whole system to newer machines, fully, with new source code.  But the company neither had the money nor the time to fix it like that, once and for all.

So I wrote more code that intervened between the old programs and the old database, and added some options that the management wanted.  It was a lousy fix. 

It wouldn’t work for the next thing that needed to be done, either, but they would probably hire one more person to write another layer of connecting code. But it was cheap (for them). And it worked (for the moment).

via Medium.

Other aspects of the problem are that most software programs are written in a hurry to meet tight deadlines.  Remember the engineers’ proverb?

Price.  Time.  Quality.

Pick any two.

All this is part of a larger societal problem—the refusal of managers of big institutions to spend money on maintenance.

Our dominant operating systems, our way of working, and our common approach to developing, auditing and debugging software, and spending (or not) money on its maintenance, has not yet reached the requirements of the 21st century.  [snip]

From our infrastructure to our privacy, our software suffers from “software sucks” syndrome which doesn’t sound as important as a Big Mean Attack of Cyberterrorists. But it is probably worse in the danger it poses.

Via Why the Great Glitch of July 8 Should Scare You by Zeynep Tufekci for Medium.

Jobs, productivity and inequality

June 30, 2015

destroying.jobs_.chart1x910_0.

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David Rotman, writing in MIT Technology Review, made the case that advances in technology and growth in productivity have not paid off for working Americans.

He considered whether there is something in the nature of technology that rewards highly-trained employees and eliminates the jobs of unskilled employees.

I think the problem is the priorities of the people in charge, not the nature of technology.

It is not technological progress that leads to public libraries having shorter hours, or public utilities have deferred maintenance, or customer service centers keeping people on “hold” for endless minutes.  Rather it is the priorities of the people in charge.

To the extent technology is the cause, I think the reason is that the impetus has been to develop technologies that eliminate jobs rather than technologies that provide better services and improve the quality of life for the majority of Americans.

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How Technology Is Destroying Jobs by David Rotman for MIT Technology Review.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it

June 29, 2015

jobs.5x650I can remember 50 and 60 years ago when people worried about what Americans would do with all the affluence and leisure time that would result from automation.   Today that seems like a cruel joke.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it.  Applied science primarily benefits those who fund it, or at least reflects what the funders are interested in.  There can be spillover effects that benefit everyone, but these don’t necessarily happen of their own accord.

I came across a good article on this topic in Technology Review.  The lesson I draw from it is (1) technology is not a substitute for social and economic reform and (2) there is a need for scientific and technological research outside the domains of for-profit corporations and the military.

LINK

Who Will Own the Robots? in Technology Review.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism}

World empires of the Internet

June 16, 2015
Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Source: Information Geographies

Internet companies are an extension of their nations’ soft power.  This map, based on data compiled in 2013, shows the number of Internet users and the most-visited web site in each country.

What stands out for me is the global reach of U.S.-based Internet companies whose dominance, however, ends at the borders of China and Russia.

Google has been squeezed out of China.  It still has a reported 30 percent market share in Russia, based partly on the popularity of its Android hand-held device, but faces anti-trust charges in that country.

I don’t think Russia, any more than China, is willing to tolerate a strong foreign Internet presence.

Another thing that stands out is the huge Internet penetration in the Southeast Asian nations of Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, compared not only to Burma, Laos and Cambodia, which barely register as dot on the map, but also compared to Australia and New Zealand.

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The real reason robots are replacing human labor

May 12, 2015

The great danger of so-called artificial intelligence is not that computers will become sentient beings, but that decision-makers will treat them as if they are.

Machines are tools.  They are a means to multiply human strength and to duplicate repetitive human tasks.  They are highly useful.  But they are not a substitute for human skill and judgment.

jobretraining21stcenturyThe use of automatic pilots in airplanes is a good example.  An automatic pilot will make fewer errors than a human pilot, especially if airline management has pushed the human pilot to the point of exhaustion.  But excessive use of automatic pilots means that the human pilot’s skills wither, and the human is less able to respond in an emergency that doesn’t fit the computer algorithm.

Another example is the use of the Internet and automatic answering machines for customer service.  I don’t think anybody who has ever had to deal with one of these things thinks that they provide improved customer service.  Their purpose is to create a barrier between the organization and the public in order to save money, but also in order to free the managers from the inconvenience of having to deal with actual human beings.

Machines don’t talk back.  Not even self-directed machines talk back.  Neither do they exercise judgment or think of ways to do the work better.

But from the standpoint of a bureaucrat whose goal is the seamless exercise of power, the latter consideration is unimportant.   It is much more convenient to program machines than to deal with employees or deal with the public.

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How tar sands oil is produced

May 6, 2015

gr-tar-sands-948Source: NPR.

Behemoth machines laying railroad track

April 29, 2015

These Plasser & Theurer machines are awesome.  It is even more awesome to think that the U.S. transcontinental railroads were all laid by laborers with hand tools, without such machines as these.

We owe a lot to those old-time railroad laborers, like John Henry in the song.  But we also owe a lot to the inventors and industrialists who made it possible to do the work without back-breaking labor.  Notice, though, that there are workers all around the track-laying machine.  The machines don’t run themselves.  Human beings are not obsolete.

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John Michael Greer on the burden of denial

April 9, 2015

Allegedly smart phones don’t do anything to fix the rising spiral of problems besetting industrial civilization, but they make it easier for people to distract themselves from those problems for a little while longer.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

That, I’d like to suggest, is also what’s driving the metastasis of television screens in the places that people used to go to enjoy a meal, a beer, or a cup of coffee and each other’s company.

These days, that latter’s too risky; somebody might mention a friend who lost his job and can’t get another one, a spouse who gets sicker with each overpriced prescription the medical industry pushes on her, a kid who didn’t come back from Afghanistan, or the like, and then it’s right back to the reality that everyone’s trying to avoid.

It’s much easier to sit there in silence staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen, from which all such troubles have been excluded.  [snip]

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‘Why spy? It’s cheaper than playing fair’

March 13, 2015

The French economist Thomas Piketty believes that if the gap between rich people and the majority becomes as wide as it was before the French Revolution, there could be another such revolution.

But Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, says the financial elites are aware of the danger of revolution and their response is to press governments to spend money on the police, the military and government surveillance, rather than on measures that would allow a more broadly shared prosperity.

technology police statePiketty is trying to convince global elites (or at least the policymakers beholden to them) that it’s cheaper to submit to a redistributive 1% annual global wealth tax than it is to buy the guards to sustain our present wealth disparity.

There’s an implied max/min problem here: the intersection of a curve representing the amount of wealth you need to spend on guards to maintain stability in the presence of a widening rich/poor gap and the amount you can save on guards by creating social mobility through education, health, and social welfare is the point at which you should stop paying for cops and start paying for hospitals and schools.

This implies that productivity gains in guard labor will make wider wealth gaps sustainable.

Improvements in military and surveillance technology tilt the balance against economic reform.

Why spy? Because it’s cheaper than playing fair.

I think Doctorow is right.  I think the reason so many known suspicious characters are able to commit acts of terrorism is that the U.S. government and other governments are more concerned about putting down social unrest.

LINKS

Technology should be used to create social mobility – not to spy on citizens by Cory Doctorow in The Guardian.

Why salaries don’t rise by Harold Meyerson for the Washington Post.

 

Why doesn’t technology make us all better off?

March 11, 2015

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We Americans long enjoyed the world’s highest material standard of living, and we were told that was because of the superior productivity of American industry.  That sounds like common sense.  If you want more, you need to produce more.  Obviously.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

But about 30 or so years ago, this changed.  Our productivity continued to increase, but our wages and salaries didn’t increase along with it.

Why?

Some say that the problem is technology.   Automation means that fewer wage-earners are needed, and our work had less value.   So naturally there are fewer jobs, and employers generally don’t have to pay as much to find people to take these jobs.

Fewer wage earners are needed.  Needed by whom?  Our work has less value.  Value to whom?

They are less needed, and of less value, to the corporate boards and wealthy stockholders who own the technology.  Or, to put it another way:  Capitalists, not workers, own the means of production.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

It’s true that the average factory worker or retail clerk did not personally create the technological innovations that made it possible for them to do more with the same amount of work.  But neither did the average corporate executive or corporate stockholder.

If technology is owned and controlled by a small financial elite, then the applications of technology will be such to benefit that elite.

It is possible that, in acting in their own interest, the elite will do things that are good for society as a whole.  It also is possible that they will do things that are bad for society as a whole.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

When that happens, we the people need to understand that their power and ownership is not based on divine right or impersonal economic laws.   It is the result of corporate structures and legal rights established by law, and laws can be changed.

Some radical thinkers, such as Stanley Aronowitz, David Graeber, Richard D. Wolff and Gar Alperovitz, are reviving the idea of worker ownership and public ownership of the means of production, which is not the same thing as government ownership.

More moderate reformers think it is just necessary to change the balance of power within society.

The important thing, as I see it, is to stop letting priorities be determined by the “job creators,” the ones who own the machinery, the research laboratories and the so-called intellectual property.   The question is not whether they need us.  The question is whether we need them.

LINKS

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit by David Graeber for The Baffler.

Why Wages Won’t Rise by Robert Reich.

The Great Decoupling of the U.S. Economy by Andrew McAfee on his blog.

Global lessons on inclusive growth by Jason Furman for Policy Network.

The Most Important Economic Chart by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi for House of Debt.

The wedges between productivity and median compensation growth by Lawrence Mishel for the Economic Policy Institute.