Author Archives: James Kwak

The Dysfunctions of Sodor Railways

By James Kwak

The neolithic political ideology of Thomas and Friends is so overbearing and obvious that it’s not worth writing about (except in parody, which I won’t attempt here). Duncan Weldon has taken up the more interesting question of what Thomas, Percy, and their friends can tell us about the economy of Sodor, that strange island trapped somewhere off the coast of Great Britain and in a weird time warp that vaguely resembles the mid-twentieth century.

Like Duncan, I have watched plenty of Thomas videos, in my case in the company of my three-year-old son Henry. One thing that has often struck me about Sodor Railways is the vast amount of excess capacity. The most common plotline goes like this: Some engine has a job to do. However, said engine chooses to do something else out of vanity, unwillingness to go out in bad weather, curiosity, or something similar. Late in the episode, either the engine realizes the error of his ways and does his job, or some other engine does it for him. In either case, the original engine learns his lesson: that it is best to be Really Useful and not to cause Confusion and Delay. (Only, he never really learns the lesson — see the next episode.)

Read more at Medium.

Say It Ain’t So, Ben

By James Kwak

Is it the money?

No.

Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, the man who saved the global economy, is becoming an adviser for Citadel, a hedge fund management company. Bernanke will provide advice to Citadel’s fund managers and will also meet with its clients (that is, the limited partners who invest in those funds).

It’s easy to see why Citadel wants Bernanke. He’s a smart man. He knows the inner workings of the world’s central banks as well as anyone. Although he won’t be a registered lobbyist, he can pick up the phone and get anyone in the world to answer, if he wants to. And, perhaps most importantly for the bottom line, the wow factor of having Bernanke meet with investors will help immeasurably with sales — bringing investments in the door.

The bigger question, as always, is why Bernanke wants Citadel.

Read more at Medium.

It Can Wait. Really.: The Real Solution to Notification Overload

By James Kwak

Beeping iPads! Buzzing phones! Zapping watches! Soon, apparently, we won’t be able to complete a thought without being interrupted by some “intelligent” piece of technology.

The solution, according to Steven Levy, is yet more technology:

a great artificial intelligence effort to comb through our information, assess the urgency and relevance, and use a deep knowledge of who we are and what we think is important to deliver the right notifications at the right time. . . .

the automated intake of our information will allow us to “know by wire,” as super-smart systems learn how to parcel things out in the least annoying and most useful fashion. They will curate better than any human can.

First of all, I’m skeptical. So is Levy, apparently; just a few paragraphs up, he writes, “the idea of One Feed to Rule Them All is ultimately a pipe dream.” The same factors that make it impossible for one company to create a perfectly prioritized feed make it impossible for one company to create a perfectly prioritized stream of notifications.

Read more at Medium …

Good Ideas Are Not Enough

By James Kwak

Dan Davies put together a brilliant roundup of the clever business models that financial technology startups are pitching to their investors — and why most of them are deeply flawed. Some of them apply much more broadly than to just the financial services industry. Number three, for example — “Hoping that a load of people who actively mistrust each other will trust you instead” — is a decent description of the business-to-business marketplaces that Ariba was trying to build when I worked there back at the beginning of the millennium.

I’d like to add two more general principles that apply to technology companies that are trying to serve the financial services industry — mainly learned during my years working at an insurance software company before going to law school.

Read more on Medium …

(I’m going to try switching to a Brad DeLong-style approach in which I put the beginnings of my Medium posts here, and then you can decide if you want to read more or not. I can’t put the whole post here because they have thirty-day exclusivity.)

Vaguely Monthly Roundup

By James Kwak

Did you know that blogging is dead? That’s what I hear, anyway. I plan to say something about it once I figure out if I have anything to say on it.

Anyway, as you have probably noticed, I do most of my sporadic writing over at Medium these days. Since I last checked in here, I wrote stories about:

I also posted an essay by Walt Glazer about inequality.

You can see all of my Medium stories here, or you can read the whole Bull Market publication (now including Brad DeLong!).

“Middle-Class Economics”

By James Kwak

Supposedly President Obama is making “middle-class economics” one of the key themes of his final two years in office. I don’t really know what this is supposed to mean in a country where people making ten times the median household income call themselves “middle class” and there are tens of millions of people in poverty.

For starters, I think it’s important to understand the distribution of wealth in the country as it stands today. That’s the theme of a story I wrote on Medium earlier this week, “The Magnitude of Inequality,” which uses charts and pictures to try to convey just how unequal a society we live in.

Yesterday I published another story on Medium about one of Obama’s “middle-class economics” proposals: the forthcoming Department of Labor rule that will try to protect people’s retirement savings from financial advisers’ conflicts of interest. It’s a complicated topic to understand, and the administration proposal will undoubtedly help—but not very much, given the scope of the retirement security problem.

Tax Breaks (for the Rich) Are Forever

By James Kwak

This week I returned to one of my favorite topics: raising taxes, particularly on the rich. First I wrote an article for Medium about the single most obvious change that should be made to the tax code: eliminating the step-up in basis at death for capital gains taxes. If you’re not sure what step-up in basis means, or why it’s a ridiculous idea, you should read the article.

Then today I wrote an article for the Atlantic about why (a) killing 529 plans was a great idea in President Obama’s latest tax proposals and (b) why 529 plans are impossible to kill. Here’s the crux of the matter:

“If you’re poor, a 529 plan gives you nothing, since you don’t pay income taxes; the American Opportunity Tax Credit gives you $4,000 ($5,000 under Obama’s proposal) because you can take $1,000 of the credit per year even if you pay no taxes. If you’re in the ‘middle class’ (making at least $74,900 and able to save $3,000 per year per child), a 529 plan gives you $5,800; the AOTC gives you $10,000 ($12,500 under Obama’s proposal). If you’re in the upper class, a 529 plan gives you $26,300; the AOTC gives you nothing. Do I even need to write the rest of this article?”

My editor took out that last sentence, but I liked it so much I’m putting it back here. (Those number are based on some basic scenarios I described in the article.)

Every politician likes to say that he is in favor of simplifying the tax code, eliminating tax breaks for people who don’t need them, and helping the middle class. Only it just isn’t true.