estate taxes and inequality

November 18th, 2019

Brookings Senior Fellow Henry J. Aaron (born 1936) last month published an op-ed in the New York Times that is now freely available online at Brookings:

If you play by the rules, working to earn a living and saving to provide for the future, taxes take a piece of your earnings. If you win a state lottery, you owe tax. But if you get lucky in the lottery of life and land an inheritance, you owe no federal tax. That isn’t fair, is it? Extending the federal income tax to include inheritances would end that inequity.
Read the rest of this entry »

Canada’s path to basic income

October 7th, 2019

Montreal writer Pierre Madden has written a very interesting article in which he argues that Canada already provides a basic income for parents of children aged 0 to 17 and to legal residents 65 years of age or older, so why not extend this to all ages?. Here are the main take-aways from his article: Read the rest of this entry »

producing explosives from thin air

July 31st, 2019

I have finished this book and will post two additional passages that interested me, because they taught me something I was previously unaware of. Here is the first passage. A second will follow shortly. I highly recommend reading the entire book, as I was tempted to post more excerpts from it. Read the rest of this entry »

our need for cognitive dissonance

July 28th, 2019

Here is a passage from Harari’s remarkable bestseller to illustrate how each page provides a generous helping of food for thought:

Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.
[…]
[One of many examples] is the modern political order. Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
[…]
Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
[…]
…. [Contradiction is] such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), pp. 164-165.

dozen as a unit of measure

July 21st, 2019

Here are my promised findings! According to Wikipedia,

The dozen may be one of the earliest primitive groupings, perhaps … because it has the most divisors of any number under 18. The use of twelve as a base number, known as the duodecimal system (also as dozenal), originated in Mesopotamia.

This makes sense to me, since units of 12 rather than 10 allows even division into halves, thirds and quarters. Read the rest of this entry »

weights and measures

July 21st, 2019

The United States is the only industrialized country that has not yet completely converted to the Metric System. The British system (no longer in legal use in the UK, its colonies or the Commonwealth) is particularly confusing. It is impossible to summarize, but Wikipedia explains the history of UK measurement in detail. Read the rest of this entry »

the invention of Arabic numerals

July 20th, 2019

Did you know that Arabic numerals were not invented by the Arabs? I didn’t, until I read about their history in a bestselling book of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Here is the relevant passage from his “Brief History of Humankind”: Read the rest of this entry »

equality and inequality

July 2nd, 2019

I finished reading Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book some time ago, and would like to pass on to readers of Thought du Jour a few passages that I found of particular interest.

I especially liked chapter 4, titled “Equality”, though it discusses inequality more than equality. Here are some brief passages from the chapter. Read the rest of this entry »

my path to pension reform

June 19th, 2019

My interest in pension reform began 19 years ago, in April of the year 2000. I was at an OECD conference in Prague, listening to presentations of two World Bank economists (Estelle James and Dimitri Vittas). At that moment, it suddenly dawned on me that an ideal pension system should provide basic pensions for everyone, funded pay-as-you-go from general government revenue, allowing citizens who desire more than basic income in retirement to save in any way they please, without subsidies, tax breaks or coercion from government. This was my ‘Eureka’ moment.

When it was my turn to speak, the very next day, I spoke with excitement and enthusiasm. The conference was on private pensions, so the audience did not react warmly to my talk. Nonetheless, I presented my core ideas orally, and drafted a discussion paper (“Three Pillars of Pensions?”) immediately after the conference. Read the rest of this entry »

artificial intelligence and human stupidity

June 12th, 2019

I am continuing to slowly read this wonderful book, and will occasionally point out parts that particularly interest me. Here is one such part.

The danger is that if we invest too much in developing AI and too little in developing human consciousness, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might only serve to empower the natural stupidity of humans. We are unlikely to face a robot rebellion in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots that know how to press our emotional buttons …, and use this uncanny ability to try to sell us something–be it a car, a politician, or an entire ideology. …. We have already been given a foretaste of this in recent elections and referendums across the world, when hackers learned how to manipulate individual voters by analyzing data about them and exploiting their existing prejudices.

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), pp. 70-71.