Monthly Archive for November, 2009

The Lament of Deirdre

Deirdre McCloskey has changed my life several times, and always for the better. I had my first economics lessons from friends who were so inspired by Deirdre’s lectures that they felt compelled to repeat them to me over dinner; she was one of my most influential teachers long before I’d ever laid eyes on her. Later on, I had the privilege of knowing her personally, counting her as a treasured friend, and being repeatedly re-inspired by her twin passions to understand the world and to make it work better.

When I decided to write a textbook that competed directly with Deirdre’s own, she was my strongest booster. When I decided to follow up with a book for the general public—the book that became The Armchair Economist—Deirdre told me exactly how to sell it to the publishers. Fifteen years later, the Armchair Economist remains one of the bestselling popular economics books in at least six languages, and at multiple levels—intellectual, practical and personal—I owe it all to Deirdre.

So it was with considerable delight that I received Deirdre’s recent email with subject line “Your Splendid Book”. But as I fully expected (having had this conversation with her more than once), her praise was tempered with disapproval of my “adolescent” atheism:

Continue reading ‘The Lament of Deirdre’


The Oracle of Eighth Avenue

Randy Cohen, the house ethicist at the New York Times, frequently strikes me as disappointingly shallow. Take, for example, his latest column, posing this ethical quandary:

You’re redesigning a website and you want to include a photo of a generic customer. The client does not want the generic customer to be African-American, partly because he has never had an African-American customer and thinks it unlikely that he ever will. Is this okay?

My objection is not to Cohen’s answer (which is “no”) but to the way it’s dispensed, as if from an oracle, with no attempt at a derivation from clearly stated principles.

Continue reading ‘The Oracle of Eighth Avenue’

Weekend Roundup

We started the week with the solution to one problem from Part I of my honors exam; I still owe you answers to the remaining four questions, and I still owe you the questions from Part II. Stay tuned.

We revisited the recurring issues of anti-discrimination policy and free trade. Reader comments, particularly from the ever-thoughtful Sierra Black, made me realize something new (to me) and important: When I write about free trade, I tend to focus on “why trade is good for us” (where “us” means the United States) rather than “why trade is good for the other guys” (where “the other guys” often means developing nations). I do this because most of the anti-trade screeds I run across are written by people who think trade is bad for us. But by presenting the arguments in a one-sided context I’ve misled readers like Sierra into wondering whether they also apply to developing nations. The answer is “Yes, only more so”—while trade benefits everyone, it benefits the smallest and poorest countries the most. Sometime soon when we revisit this topic, I’ll have to make a point of elaborating on the theory and evidence behind that.

We had a little math this week, and then some more serious math, including my attempt to squeeze the entire gist of Godel’s argument into one blog post. If you want to understand how we can know that not all true statements in arithmetic can be proven, that’s the post you should read.

We closed the week with posts on the spirit of Thanksgiving and the spirit of the day after Thanksgiving. I’ll be back on Monday.

In the Spirit of the Day

If you’re at work on this post-Thanksgiving morning, it’s probably a slow day around the office (unless you’re in retail, in which case you’re probably not reading this). So to help you while away the hours, here are a few of my favorite logic puzzles from around the net:

Warning: These are majorly addictive. Enjoy, but resolve not to let them take over your life. You have a blog to get back to.

Giving Thanks

After the philosopher Daniel Dennett was rushed to the hospital for lifesaving surgery to replace a damaged aorta, he had an epiphany:

I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

Continue reading ‘Giving Thanks’

Godel in a nutshell

Godel’s theorem (or at least one of Godel’s theorems) says that no matter what axioms you adopt, there will always be true statements in arithmetic that can’t be proven. In Chapter 10 of The Big Questions I give an explicit example of such a statement, involving Hercules’s ability to win a certain game against a very persistent hydra.

There are many popularizations of Godel’s original argument, of which at least one (by Nagel and Newman) is superb. They do a marvelous job of boiling the argument itself and the surrounding issues down to a little over a hundred sparse pages. But I can boil it down further, into a single blog post. I can do this via the magic of one of my favorite expository techniques, a technique I call “lying”. I will lie to you throughout this post, by sweeping important technical details under the rug and (slightly) corrupting some important ideas to make them easier to grasp—but without, I think, sacrificing the flavor and the gist of the argument. At the end, once we’re clear on the big picture, I’ll ‘fess up to some of those lies.

Here, then, is (more or less) how Godel proved that arithmetic contains true but unprovable statements:

Continue reading ‘Godel in a nutshell’

Rational Irrationality

On his blog A Blank Slate, Vishal Patel posts a cute little brain teaser (with a hat tip to the Cosmic Variance blog):

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

(a) Yes

(b) No

(c) Can not be determined

This reminded me of one of my favorite little “zinger” math proofs. (If you think about the brain teaser long enough, you’ll see the connection.)

Continue reading ‘Rational Irrationality’

From the Sierra Club

I am a proud member of the Sierra Club. No, not that Sierra Club; what I mean to say is that I am a regular reader of the parenting blog ChildWild, and a fan of its wise and charming proprietor Sierra Black. I am therefore delighted that Sierra seems to have become a regular reader and frequent commenter here on The Big Questions, and glad to see she’s sticking around despite frequent disagreements—much as I do on ChildWild.

Over on another thread, amidst a discussion of the case for free trade, Sierra threw me for a brief loop with an issue I’d never seen raised before, though I’ve since learned that it’s commonplace in certain corners of the Internet. I thought, then, that it might be worth responding in a separate post.

(I’ll admit too that another motive for the separate post was my conviction that I’d be able to slip in a perfect pun around the phrase “Sierra, Madre”—Madre, of course. meaning mother, and what with her running a parenting blog and all and—well, it’s bad enough to have to explain your jokes, but here I am trying to explain a joke I couldn’t even figure out how to make. But by the time I’d realized the pun was stillborn, I was already committed to this post.)

Here’s the relevant part of Sierra’s comment:

Continue reading ‘From the Sierra Club’

Analogize This

Over on Econlog, Bryan Caplan uses an example from The Big Questions to illustrate his intuitionist approach to meta-ethics: Start with concrete, specific cases where your ethical intuition is clear, and reason by analogy from there. If you have multiple intuitions that lead you down conflicting paths, give some thought to which ones you’re most willing to jettison.

Bryan’s example is about discrimination, a subject that has come up before on this blog, but I want to emphasize that the argument Bryan quotes is quite separate from the arguments we got into in that earlier thread, and, for the sake of clarity, I hope we manage to keep them separate.

Bryan (paraphrasing me!) starts with the rather strong intuition that it’s okay for tenants and workers to discriminate. If you don’t want to live in an Albanian-owned building or an work for an Albanian employer, that’s your right (no matter how strongly we might strongly disapprove of your attitude). By analogy, then, it might seem that landlords and employers should have the same right to discriminate.

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Snidely Whiplash

I’m going to dole out the answers to the first half of my honors exam slowly over the next several days. After that I’ll post the second half of the exam.

Let’s start with this one:

Question 3. Snidely Whiplash owns all the grocery stores and all the houses in the Yukon Territory. He charges a competitive price for groceries, and rents the houses at the highest price residents (who are all identical) are willing to pay. (If he charged any more, they’d all leave town). True or False: If Snidely raises the price of groceries, he’ll have to lower the price of housing, so he’ll be no better off than before.

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Weekend Roundup

Lots of economics this week. We celebrated the Dr. Jekyll side of Paul Krugman (after having lamented his Dr. Hyde a week ago), explored the economics of college admissions and of work and play, and ended the week with a pop quiz. I’ll discuss some of the quiz answers in the near future.

Midweek we took a break to celebrate the centenary of the great Johnny Mercer.

To round out the week’s economics theme, here’s some recommended reading from around the web:

Continue reading ‘Weekend Roundup’

The Honors Class, Part I

Each year, the economics department at Oberlin College invites an outside examiner to determine who among its top graduating seniors should receive an honors degree. Last spring, I was that outside examiner. The seven candidates had several hours to complete a written exam (which I wrote), and then a few weeks later, I interviewed each of them face to face.

I thought my readers here might be interested in seeing the written exam. It’s by no means comprehensive; entire areas of economics are omitted. Instead, it’s supposed to test core material and ways of thinking that I believe should mostly be second nature to any top economics graduate.

Where necessary, I’ve translated some of these questions from the original economese to something approximating English. Occasionally, a little has been lost in the translation, but not, I think, too much.

There were ten questions on the exam. I’ll post five today and the remaining five next week.

Here, then, is Part I:

Continue reading ‘The Honors Class, Part I’

Work and Play in Europe and America

My post about Paul Krugman’s loopy proposals on employment policy generated some considerable discussion about why Europeans work so much less than Americans do. Actually, there are two separate questions here:

  • Why do Europeans work less than Americans?
  • Who’s happier?

A few observations:

Continue reading ‘Work and Play in Europe and America’

Too Marvelous for Words

The greatest financial mistake of my life occurred on the day my father offered to bet his entire net worth against mine that the great Johnny Mercer had written the song Don’t Fence Me In. Now “Don’t Fence Me In” is a marvelous song, and Johnny Mercer could have been justifiably proud to write it—if only Cole Porter had not written it first. I happened to know this about Cole Porter; I knew it as surely as I know the authors of Romeo and Juliet and The Wealth of Nations. But for some reason I’ve never understood, I refused the bet, thereby condemning myself to a life of poverty. Still I console myself with the knowledge that you don’t have to be rich to be touched by the grace of Johnny Mercer, who was born one hundred years ago today.

The guy was a phenomenon. He wrote the lyrics for over 1500 songs, and the music for at least a few hundred. And he was a singer-songwriter decades before the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell allegedly invented the genre. God, he was smooth. By and large, I’d rather hear Johnny Mercer sing his own songs than any of the myriad covers that have become American classics—and that’s saying something for a guy who was covered repeatedly by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

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Krugman: The Flip Side

Having recently bashed Paul Krugman, and in the full expectation that I’ll have occasion to bash him again, let me interject that Krugman is not just a first rate economist; he is also, when he wants to be, a superb economic communicator, with a long paper trail to prove it.

Take, for example his essay on the widespread failure of intellectuals to grasp Ricardo‘s theory of comparative advantage (the basis of the case for free trade). Instead of simply bemoaning the problem like the rest of us, Krugman makes a valiant and useful attempt to identify its root causes.

He starts with an analogy I’m also fond of (I’m not sure which of us has been using it longer): The theory of comparative advantage is like the theory of evolution by natural selection—to those who understand it, it is simple and compelling; yet non-experts can find it remarkably difficult to grasp.

In The Big Questions, I argue that this analogy ultimately breaks down: The theory of evolution is compelling largely because of the evidence that supports it, while Ricardo’s theory is compelling largely because of the logic that supports it. It’s not too surprising that a first-rate physicst or literary critic could be unfamiliar with a body of evidence, but it’s a little more unsettling when that same physicist or literary critic can’t follow a simple chain of logic.

Continue reading ‘Krugman: The Flip Side’

The Economics of College Admissions

The final chapter of The Big Questions is called “What to Study”. This post is about where to study it.

Stanford professor Carolyn Hoxby reports that in the college admissions market, the big change over the past 40 years is students’ increased willingness to travel far from home—not surprising since the costs of long distance travel and communication have fallen dramatically over that time. The main effects are these:

  • The top colleges (meaning the top 10%) have gotten far more selective, because they’re now drawing from a far broader base of applicants.
  • Most other colleges (well over half) have gotten far less selective, because the pool of local applicants is shopping elsewhere.
  • This change in students’ willingness to travel provides a complete explanation for the increased selectivity of top colleges; in fact, without it, they’d have become slightly less selective.
  • As a result of these trends, the student bodies at the best colleges have gotten much stronger and the student bodies at the weaker colleges have gotten much weaker.
  • Continue reading ‘The Economics of College Admissions’

Weekend Roundup

Lots of good discussion on the blog this week. We began with a lively debate about the moral basis for antidiscrimination laws, which inspired some thoughtful commentary from the anonymous Rust Belt Philosopher, leading to an extended dialogue over on his blog. That dialogue has pretty much wound down, but I think that much of it is well worth reading even if it’s a little late to jump in.

Our thread on free trade was equally provocative. I’m sure I’ll soon return to some of the issues that came up near the end of the thread.

I offered a brain teaser to illustrate a key point from The Big Questions, namely that honest truthseekers can’t agree to disagree. I threw in a comparison to a related brain teaser about blue-eyed islanders, and my own brain teaser was quickly forgotten as the blue-eyed islanders became the focus of discussion. That was never my intention, but I’m thrilled that people found something interesting to discuss. Those who insist on controlling their threads’ directions should take up sewing, not blogging.

We also met the Ass Meat Research Group, and I said a few words about Paul Krugman. In entirely separate threads, of course.

See you all on Monday!

A Call for Help

It seems to be well known that supermarkets charge cereal companies for prime display space. It seems to be less well known that bookstores do the same thing. They do, though. For example, the publisher of The Big Questions is paying for prominent front-of-the-store display space at all Barnes and Noble and Borders stores—except for those located in Manhattan—through the month of November. (At least the B&N contract runs through the end of November; I’m unclear on whether the Borders contract runs as long.)

There have been several reports of individual stores failing to honor this commitment. My publisher will be having a chat about this with the Barnes and Noble folks in a couple of days, and prior to that discussion it would be useful to know just how widespread the problem is.

So—if you happen to be going past a Barnes and Noble (or a Borders) in the next couple of days, I’ll be most grateful to know whether you found The Big Questions out on the front table where it ought to be. You can comment here or email me at “questions at landsburg dot com”. Please include the address of the store, or the street it’s on, or the town it’s in —whatever you’ve got. Thanks for your help!

Krugman to the Rescue

It’s always impressive to see one person excel in two widely disparate activities: a first-rate mathematician who’s also a world class mountaineer, or a titan of industry who conducts symphony orchestras on the side. But sometimes I think Paul Krugman is out to top them all, by excelling in two activities that are not just disparate but diametrically opposed: economics (for which he was awarded a well-deserved Nobel Prize) and obliviousness to the lessons of economics (for which he’s been awarded a column at the New York Times).

Continue reading ‘Krugman to the Rescue’

A Little Arithmetic

The mathematician John Baez has been dazzling science lovers on the web for over 15 years with his weekly Finds in Mathematical Physics. (He was a blogger long before there were blogs). Baez recently gave a lovely series of talks on his favorite numbers (they are 5, 8 and 24) in which he mentions Euler’s observation that if you sum up all the positive integers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + …) you get -1/12. (I promise, this is not a joke.)

Baez’s “proof” uses a little calculus, but I’ve reworked it into a form you can share with your middle schoolers—and better yet, have them share with their teachers.

Continue reading ‘A Little Arithmetic’

Ass Meat Research Group, RIP

I suppose I should be gratified to learn that this blog is so influential, but I can feel nothing but sadness at Amazon’s response to my post about Ass Meat Research Group and his co-authors Frozen Horse and Chilled and Frozen Hors the Fresh (formerly Chilled the Fresh). These authors’ names have been removed from all Amazon listings. I am so very glad that I saved the screenshot.

Brain Teaser

Here’s a brain teaser I wish I’d invented in time to include it in The Big Questions:

John and Mary live in an isolated village where they have no access to reference materials, no contact with the outside world, and nobody to talk to except each other. One day an anthropologist arrives in this village, sits down for coffee with John and Mary, and quizzes them about their knowledge of the world. John says he’s sure that men have walked on the moon; Mary says she’s sure they haven’t. Never having discussed this issue before, each of them is astonished and flabbergasted by the others’ apparent ignorance. Rather than risk losing all respect for each other, John and Mary agree never to speak of the subject again. But the anthropologist mentions that she’ll be stopping by once a day from now on, and will be glad to know if either of them ever has a change of mind on this topic. If so, the anthropologist will inform the other. Otherwise, the anthropologist will never bring it up either.

The next day (a Monday) nobody’s mind has changed, and therefore the subject is not discussed. The same thing happens on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Can this go on forever?

Continue reading ‘Brain Teaser’

Trading Up

A reader has just emailed me a link to a Washington Post story about North Carolina workers losing their jobs to foreign competition. Presumably he believes there’s a larger moral here, because his subject line is “Wrong again, Steve”. Here is a slightly edited version of my emailed response:

It would be dishonest for me or anyone else to defend free trade by pointing to its advantages while ignoring its disadvantages.

It is equally dishonest to oppose free trade by pointing to its disadvantages while ignoring its advantages.

What you need is a framework that accounts for all the advantages and disadvantages, together with enough of a logical structure to instill confidence that nothing imporant has been overlooked. Thats what economic theory supplies. You can find that theory in the economics textbooks. You can also find (I think) a pretty good summary of it in The Big Questions.

My correspondent wrote back with a pointer to a website with fifty years of what he calls “extrapolatable stats” that he thinks supply the necessary framework. This misses the point entirely. There is no way a hodgepodge of numbers can settle the question of whether something’s been left out. For that you need a theory.

Continue reading ‘Trading Up’

On the Amazon

Suppose you’d written a book. And suppose, for some odd reason, that your middle name happened to be “And”. Suppose, for example, that mother had named you “Cary And Grant”.

Then the software at, not unreasonably, would assume that you were two people, and would list the book’s authors as (1) Cary and (2) Grant.

Now suppose, even more oddly, that your name contained a comma. Not the word “comma”, but the actual punctuation mark. Suppose, for example, that your mother had named you “Cary, Grant”. Then Amazon’s software, again not unreasonably, would assume that your name was being presented in the format “Last, First” and would reverse the order, listing the author as Grant Cary.

Now take this one step further and suppose your name contained both the word “And” and a comma. Perhaps more than once. Suppose, for example, that your name happened to be The Fresh, Chilled and Frozen Horse and Ass Meat Research Group. Then, in accordance with its not unreasonable rules, Amazon’s software would conclude that there are three separate authors, namely:

  • Chilled the Fresh
  • Frozen Horse
  • Ass Meat Research Group

Continue reading ‘On the Amazon’

Blind Justice

Partially blind gamer Alexander Stern wants Sony to make its games more accessible to him and others like him—and he’s gone to court to force the issue. This raises the question: Exactly what does Sony owe to Alexander Stern (and others like him)?

A similar issue comes up in Chapter 20 of The Big Questions, where Mary the landlord won’t rent to, say, Albanians. Ought we force her to?

Continue reading ‘Blind Justice’

Another Great Week

It’s been a great week on the blog with thoughtful and thought-provoking comments cropping up everywhere. Several threads have touched on the question phrased most succinctly by Al. V. on the Unreasonable Effectiveness of Physics thread:

Are the laws of mathematics inherent in our universe, and therefore really a product of physics (and not the other way around), or are they supra-universal?

This question, of course, plays a starring role in The Big Questions , where I’ve explained why I believe that the supra-universality of mathematics (thanks for that word, Al!) gives the most coherent explanation of why anything exists at all.

Continue reading ‘Another Great Week’

Jenkin Off

It is well known (to the sort of people to whom such things are well known) that the Scottish engineer Fleeming Jenkin was the first to formalize a toy model of Darwin’s evolutionary theory—with results that were most unfavorable to Darwin: The model predicts that random improvements, even when they confer survival advantages, still tend to disappear over the course of a few generations. This was in 1867.

It seems to be far less well known that Jenkin’s model also predicts that all life on earth dies out after a few generations, which would seem to cast doubt on its assumptions. Jenkin was apparently unaware of this, and so, presumably, was Darwin, who gave considerable credence to the Jenkin model in the final edition of The Origin of Species. This was in 1872.

It seems to be even less well known that the inadequacy of Jenkin’s model was identified in a little-noticed letter to the editor of Nature by the mathematician Arthur Sladen Davis. In that letter, Davis corrected Jenkin’s error and supplied an alternative model that he believed was favorable to Darwin. This was in 1871, but apparently Darwin never heard about it.

And it seems to be known only to me (and now, to the readers of this blog!) that Davis’s model is also flawed, in the opposite direction from Jenkin’s, in that it predicts that any species population must grow without bound following the appearance of a beneficial mutation. And as a result of this, the Davis model undercuts Darwin more than it supports him.

I’ve adjusted Davis’s model much as Davis adjusted Jenkin’s, and gotten a result that could be considered favorable to Darwin. In fact, it’s more or less the result that Davis thought he’d gotten, but hadn’t.

Here comes the more technical part. If this is not your cup of tea, stop reading now. Do come back tomorrow though. I’m not always like this.

Continue reading ‘Jenkin Off’

Public Service Announcement

The “Look Inside” text for The Big Questions should be up on Amazon’s website in a few days. Meanwhile, Snorri Godhi suggested in comments that I should post the index for your perusal. Good idea, Snorri. Just click on “Index” at the top of this page.

Some Big (and small) Questions

A while back, the BBC sent me a questionnaire that I had some fun with, and I was disappointed when they published only excerpts. But now that I have a blog, I get to post anything I want in its entirety! So here’s the whole thing. Do use the comments to suggest better answers.
Continue reading ‘Some Big (and small) Questions’

The Times, They’ve Been a Changin’

I have recently finished reading Hunters and Gatherers, a (quite good) novel written and set in 1991, which includes the following plot elements:

1) A door-to-door saleswoman pitches (hardcopy) encyclopedias to customers who eagerly seek easy access to vast quantities of information.

2) A man is eager to read an obscure novel he’s heard about, so he scours used book stores, hoping to find a copy. In the meantime, he’s not sure what the novel is about, and has no way to find out.

3) A comedian stores his collection of jokes on notecards, filling two rooms worth of file cabinets.

4) A collector of sound effects stores her collection on cassette tapes, and has no cost-effective way to create backups.

5) A man is unable to stay in close contact with his (adult) children, because long distance calling rates are prohibitively high.

Continue reading ‘The Times, They’ve Been a Changin’’