How much would you pay to seem like just a regular guy?

How’s about $18 million? That’s what John J. Noffo Kahn, of Palm Beach, Florida, paid for a farm in Barnard, Vermont, to be used as a vacation home, and in the process shattering the previous record price for the sale of a residential property in the state (a mere $8 million).

Reports the Valley News (full article not online*):

The buyer […] said in an email that privacy and security were two reasons he purchased the property through [a limited liability company].

“One of the attractions, for me, to the area was that I thought (naively!) that I would be coming to a place where MONEY is not of the foremost importance to the members of the community. I was looking forward to a low-profile existence in which my wealth would not be what defined me to my neighbors,” wrote […] Noffo Kahn, who said he was not interested in having a story written about his new vacation home.

“Thanks for bursting my bubble on Vermont!” he added.

I hate to break it to you, John, but the traditional route to a low-profile existence is to spend less than $18 million for your vacation home.

There are a few things worth noting. First, in support of the friendly rivalry we Vermonters have going with our Granite State neighbors, Noffo Kahn’s complaint about his bubble being burst regarding his conception of Vermont, the Valley News is located in Lebanon, New Hampshire, so there’s some chance that his bubble might still be intact. Noffo Kahn’s new neighbors in Barnard probably will treat him with neighborly respect, though they have good reason to distrust multi-millionaire vacationers. That’s because the sellers of the farm, whose main domicile is in Texas, sued 14 fellow Barnard residents who were opposing the fact that they (the Texan owners) had closed off a trail through the property that had long been open to the community. Now, that wasn’t Noffo Kahn, and maybe he’s the kind of swell guy who doesn’t let his wealth define him, and instead defines himself as a good neighbor who respects something more in his fellow men and women than their own lack of wealth.

As for Noffo Kahn’s preference that the Valley News not write a story on the property sale:

After a reporter e-mailed back, making clear that the record-setting sale was a news-worthy event and asking for a chance to discuss the matter, Noffo Kahn, who had already expressed his “already dismal appraisal of today’s media,” wrote back.

“So typical!” he wrote. “You haven’t even the sensitivity to realize that writing a story about an $18 million property–when so many are suffering this Christmas–is a salt on their wounds!”

Let’s debate the question of news-worthiness for a moment. Con: Noffo Kahn is a person who buys things, just like everyone buys things, so why should he be made into a celebrity of sorts against his will when none of the rest of us have newspaper articles written about our purchases? I mean, would I want the whole world to know that I recently purchased not one but three copies of the amazingly cool book The Human-Powered Home, so that I can give the extras away as gifts to as-yet-unidentified friends? Oh the embarrassment! When will that darned media stop noticing that extreme economic inequality is damaging to the individual well-being of the vast majority of people, community and social cohesion, democratic governance, and the future habitability of the biosphere? (Ditto.) (Or more like, when will the media actually start noticing it and taking it seriously on a more than one-off basis?)

Pro: The habit of really, really rich people to pay extraordinary sums for the things they buy has a real effect on the lives of others, and just like it is news worthy to report on a leaking manure lagoon that threatens the health of downstream neighbors, it is news worthy to report on events that impact the economic lives of of “downstream” neighbors as well. Given the timing of the sale, this particular transaction probably won’t have the same effect on property values of neighbors as it would have if it had taken place a couple of years ago, but the principle remains the same. When you throw money around, it matters; there are unintended consequences, and while the Valley News story doesn’t attempt to perform a systems analysis on what all those consequences might be, at least they have alerted readers to the fact that something with reasonable potential to have broader consequences has happened.

And as for that “salt on their wounds” that Noffo Kahn is so worried about, perhaps at this Christmas time a better use of Noffo Kahn’s time would be turn that sensitivity question around and first remove the plank from his own eye.

[* Come on, Valley News, get with the program!]

Who will raising FDIC limits help?

UPDATE, below

The part of the new bailout bill that’s supposed to bring along the most formerly reluctant House members is to raise the coverage limit for Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insured personal deposits (which includes savings and checking accounts, cds and money market accounts) from the current level of $100,000 to $250,000. Obama, McCain and the FDIC all approve. See this story, for instance. But who does this really affect? Using data from the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances (the 2007 numbers aren’t yet available) and adding all covered accounts within households (note that this overstates coverage, since the insurance covers accounts not households) produces this table:

Number of Households Percentage of all Households
Less than $100,000 106,433,692 94.9%
Between $100,000 and $250,000 3,976,714 3.5%
More than $250,000 1,698,530 1.5%

That’s right, this plan will help to insure that 3.5% of households with deposits over $100,000, but not the 1.5% with deposits over $250,000. I guess they’re on their own. Actually, most people in both of these categories already keep multiple accounts, to stay under the insured limit, so it will help not that much. However, it does make it look like a “compromise was reached on an improved bill,” allowing representatives to say that they held out for their constituents while they’re campaigning over the next month.

You don’t suppose that’s the point, do you?

UPDATE:

meanwhile, FDIC is doing a fine job slowing down lending.

Kuttner: rising wages, rising employment vs. falling wages, falling employment

Robert Kuttner notes an interesting tidbit from, wouldn’t you know it, the Wall Street Journal: since 2001, wages in Europe have been keeping up with inflation and the employment rate has also been rising. Yet in the US, wages have been falling behind the inflation rate and the employment rate has also been sagging. This flies in the face of the conventional economic “wisdom,” which assumes that businesses will hire more workers when the (real, i.e., adjusted-for-inflation) wage is lower. Oh that wacky reality!

[Conflict of interest alert: Kuttner’s post is on his blog promoting his new book, Obama’s Challenge. I work for the publisher of the book.]

The free-market myth that wouldn’t die

[First posted to Chelseagreen.com. Go to that version for links.]

Proponents of the “free market” have a tendency to ignore one inconvenient fact: there is no such thing as a free market in reality. Never has been one. Never will be one. The “free market” is a myth, a fairy tale told over and over by newspaper columnists and TV pundits and quite a few professional economists. I’ve come across a few declarations of this myth lately that irked me (for example this infuriatingly ignorant and ignorizing dreck), and so I’d like to rant for a moment.

This is not to say that markets, as a system for organizing economic activity, are no good. There are some good things about markets, flawed as they always are. There are also bad things about them. Sometimes, the flaws are their saving grace! That’s because some “flaws” in what might otherwise be a fully “free” market (theoretically, that is, but only in theory since it simply cannot exist in reality) make the results of the market activity more socially beneficial. The opposite is also true: some flaws lead to worse social results, relative to what might happen if the markets were to be fully “free.” But again, that’s all pie-in-the-sky philosophizing, because markets are never, ever fully free.

Here’s photographic proof!

One result of a free market, proven beyond any doubt in multitudes of Econ 101 courses for the past century, is the so-called “law of one price.” As Wikipedia states,

The law of one price is an economic law stated as: “In an efficient market all identical goods must have only one price.”

(Where “efficient” is econo-speak for what laymen call “free.”)

Now even in the Econ 101 courses, the professors will mention some nuances to this blanket statement, for example to account for the difference in shipping costs to deliver an otherwise identical product from different locations. Similarly, as Wikipedia notes

The law also need not apply if buyers have less than perfect information about where to find the lowest price.

Yet here we are in the brave new 21st century, equipped with the world’s greatest information tools in history, and even still, prices for identical products differ by enormous magnitudes. An example: this Samsung 32-inch flat-panel TV, as shown through Google shopping.

prices-tv.jpg

Check it out”¦ the lowest price shown is $382 and the highest price shown is 149% higher at $950. The screenshot doesn’t capture all the offers that the Google search unearthed, but obviously prices vary widely within those two outliers.

How can this be? How can there be so much difference in prices for an identical product? Well, economists and business analysts can probably offer quite a few explanations, but they all boil down to this: the market is not free. It is not efficient.

So keep that in mind next time someone says that all we need to do to solve some problem is to “set the market free,” “get rid of government interference,” or “blah blah blah.” As I implied above, sometimes it will make sense to reduce the government’s influence on a particular aspect of some particular market, but too many people have adopted a blindered ideology that the “free/efficient/unfettered” market represents an ideal that we should be always and everywhere be pursuing. Not only is that doubtful that the ideal is actually ideal, but it simply cannot be achieved, nunca. And as the “theory of the second best” teaches us, that means there is no good reason whatsoever to think that the best alternative is to move as close as possible to this unachievable so-called ideal.

Class dismissed!

McCain v. Obama on taxes

As discouraging as votes on things like FISA and telecom immunity have been, there are still some enormous differences between the two major party candidates. For example, there’s the distributional impacts of their tax policy proposals, as well-illustrated in the figure below from the Tax Policy Center’s newly updated analysis (click on image to enlarge).

 

Figure 2 from Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates

(Tip of the Econ-Atrocity chapeau to Paul Krugman)

Good News! Drilling ANWR would save $0.02 per gallon, 10 years from now!

Just when you thought there would never be any good news about the economy, oil, or anything along comes this. McClatchey reports that a new report commissioned by Ted (“the internet is a series of tubes“) Stevens (R, Alaska) finds that drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska would, in ten years, bring the price of a barrel of oil down by $0.75. Wow. At today’s prices ($135 per barrel and $4 per gallon) that gives us a 2-cent reduction in prices at the pump. In ten years. Seems well worth it to me (in opposite-world; for fans of Superman, that’s Bizarro World [thanks Bob!]).

What’s the economy for, anyway? (An online course on the topic)

If you have ever asked yourself…

What’s the Economy For, Anyway?
What should a well-functioning economy do?
What’s behind lower wages and longer working hours?
Should we, ordinary folk have any say in running our own economy?
How do we build a more just and sustainable economy?

…then this course is for you!

What’s The Economy For, Anyway? The Case for a Solidarity Economy and Social Wealth
An Online Course offered by the Center for Popular Economics
Summer Session I (June 2 – July 10, 2008)
Course Fee: $900 for THREE Univ. of Massachusetts Credits or $400 for non-credit students.
40-60 Professional Development Points (in MA) or 3.6 Continuing Education Credits (outside MA) available.
Limited scholarships available for non-credit students.

The Center for Popular Economics, in collaboration with the Forum on Social Wealth and the Political Economy Research Institute at Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst is offering a special topics 3-credit online course (Econ 197) this Summer. The course runs from Monday, June 2nd till Thursday July 10th. No background in Economics is required. The course is suited for students as well as activists and community members who want to learn more about the economy. An overview of the course is presented below. For more details contact Amit Basole or Emily Kawano.

Overview: “The Economy” is often portrayed in the media and by politicians as a force of nature that we must adapt to or perish. But we, the ordinary people make our economy tick. Shouldn’t we have a say in how it is run and to what purpose? This online course raises the questions: what purpose do we want our economy to fulfill? Is it fulfilling this purpose today? If not, what can we do about it? What resources do we have available in order to effect our changes?

The course is comprised of three main parts. Part One takes a look at the performance of the current economic model, known to economists as “Neoliberalism.” Although our economic model has allowed unprecedented accumulation of wealth by a few, for the majority of us it has meant falling or stagnant wages, longer work hours, rising healthcare costs, and deterioration of our natural and social environment. We start with a look at the historical roots of neoliberalism and then try to understand the economics behind it.

In Part Two, we start talking about how some of the things that we saw going wrong in Part One can be set right. In the midst of growing inequality and corporate power, many grassroots economic alternatives have been springing up throughout the U.S. as well as the rest of the world. This is the new “Solidarity Economy.” Grounded in principles of economic democracy, social solidarity, cooperation, egalitarianism, and sustainability, this is an alternative to the Neoliberal vision of the economy. In this part of the course we will look at some examples of such alternatives as well as understand the economics behind them.

Building alternatives requires resources. But part of the neoliberal agenda is the diverting of economic resources into fewer and fewer hands. Where will the resources for alternatives come from? In Part Three we talk about a vast store of assets that communities everywhere possess and on which they can draw for constructing alternatives. This store, which we call “social wealth” consists of our cultural and ecological commons and our capacity to work for those we care about. We will also look at how the economics of the care economy or the cultural commons differs from the economics of corporations.

Is the Energy Bill Not-Insane?

J.S. at Environmental Economics seems to think so. Maybe. According to a NY Times piece the bill

would revoke $17 billion in tax breaks extended to big oil companies like Exxon Mobil Corp and slap a 25 percent windfall profits tax on firms that don’t invest in new energy sources.

My question is: will the Democrats grow a spine in time to pass such a bill, even in the face of some opposition?

More unions saving the world

The unions in South Africa seem to have successfully turned back Chinese weapons headed for the Zimbabwe powder keg, and now U.S. longshoremen are taking what may well be the strongest protest action against the Iraq war since it was started five long years ago. Thanks to the always well-informed Juan Cole for the tip. I dare say this is cause for celebration–to be followed by nose-to-the-grindstone protests until the war is over… and then to be followed by more nose-to-the-grindstone efforts to achieve universal, single-payer healthcare coverage, simultaneous with nose-to-the-grindstone action to ratchet down global warming pollution for real. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty to agitate about once those are dealt with.

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