What I'm Reading (Dec. 23)

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Is it tax avoidance or tax cheating, robot dogs from Electro to Spot, synthetic meatspace, and synthetic meat and the coming bio-economy

“In November 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in a landslide.

No longer did the country view Mellon as Cousin Andrew guarding the gates of gold. By then, more than 3,500 banks had failed. The unemployment rate would soon reach 25%. People who lost their homes moved to “Hoovervilles,” shacks made from scrap wood and metal. The Great Depression had swallowed the country.

Mellonism — and its central tenet of slashing taxes on the wealthy and business to spur growth — was in retreat. Before Hoover left office, he and Congress reinstated the gift tax and hiked estate and income taxes. At one point, the House even tried to impeach Mellon, though that was dropped after Hoover named him ambassador to Great Britain.

Roosevelt’s New Deal turned Mellon’s tax policies upside down. Under Roosevelt, whom one biographer hailed as a “traitor to his class,” the top income tax rates shot as high as 94% to raise funds for World War II. And the tax on the largest estates went up to 77%.

In 1937 Roosevelt’s desk-thumping anger prompted Congress to shame members of the Mars, Scripps and Mellon families, as well as many others. The chairman of the Joint Committee on Tax Evasion and Avoidance vowed “to unearth the various devices and subterfuges employed by tax dodgers.”

ProPublica offers a great history of the dance between taxes and tax avoidance. The game appears to be rigged. The Great Inheritors: How Three Families Shielded Their Fortunes From Taxes for Generations

“George Jetson did not want his family to adopt a dog. For the patriarch of the futuristic family in the 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, apartment living in the age of flying cars and cities in the sky was incompatible with an animal in need of regular walking and grooming, so he instead purchased an electronic dog called ‘Lectronimo, which required no feeding and even attacked burglars. In a contest between Astro—basically future Scooby-Doo—and the robot dog, ‘Lectronimo performed all classic dog tasks better, but with zero personality. The machine ended up a farcical hunk of equipment, a laugh line for both the Jetsons and the audience. Robots aren’t menaces, they’re silly.”

From Sparko to CyberDog (a sort of Roomba), robot dogs are a pale version of our companions and have taken on a very different life. From Wired, Who Killed the Robot Dog?

Finally, two on synthetic biology

“Depending on where you stand, our coming synthetic realities land somewhere between “really exciting” and “gravely concerning.” The Matrix movies urged us to wake up and resist authoritarian rule. In our quest to break free of constraints, to rewrite life as we see fit, we may find ourselves grappling with an inverse problem: a total lack of control. Within the next decades, we will need to make decisions, like how to rethink our global supply of food and whether a commercial entity should be given the keys to evolution. If we're not careful, we might cleave society in harmful new ways. What if the digital divide that so worries people today is followed by a synthetic divide, in which only the wealthy enjoy the benefits of enhanced medicine and improved bodies? With powerful biotechnology systems in place, to whom will we grant the authority to program life, or to create new life-forms? As individuals, we have free will and a responsibility to make good choices about the coming bioeconomy, which we will need to survive on this planet and beyond. The code for our futures is being written today. It is where humanity's new origin story begins.”

From Wired, Welcome to the (Synthetic) Meatspace

And then a more practical application and actual synthetic meat, again from Wired.

Meat substitutes were central to Hoover's plan. In 1918, the US Secretary of Agriculture issued a recipe book touting soybean "mush croquettes" and "meat loaf" as protein-rich substitutes. The USDA developed "victory bread," a "high-powered" soy and wheat bread which had "the same food value as a beefsteak sandwich." The government even re-branded whale as “sea beef” and staged a public dinner "to urge the use of whale meat as a substitute for lamb, beef, pork."

The Government's Role in the Rise of Lab-Grown Meat