Monthly Archive for December, 2009

The Top Ten

toptenSince everyone else is doing end-of-year retrospectives, I thought I’d chime in with a list of the ten most-commented-upon posts here at The Big Questions blog in the year 2009. Now, this blog is only two months old, but we’ve already had roughly 75 posts, so a top 10 list at this point is perhaps not too presumptuous.

Of course, the number of comments may be a poor predictor of post quality. So after I give you the Top Ten, I’ll point you to a few others that I think equally worthy.

That having been said, the Top Ten are:

Finally, here are a few of my favorites that didn’t make the Top Ten for comments, though that might just mean they were uncontroversial. Or to put this another way—maybe these posts were so perfect that readers thought they had little to add!

I’m taking New Year’s Day off. I’ll see you Saturday.


Rock On

usbpetrockIf you’re my age, you’ll surely remember the great Pet Rock craze of the 1970′s. (If you’re not my age, maybe you’ve heard about it from your grandparents.) In any event, here’s proof—if it were still needed—that the world just keeps on getting better: While the old Pet Rock just sat there not doing anything, today you can get a pet rock with a USB connection! Here’s the product description:

Simply plug the USB cable into a free port and let the fun begin. The USB Pet Rock will instantly begin to work its magic. People will stop by and ask you what your USB Pet Rock does. Each time, you can make up a new story; for no matter what you say, it will be greater than the truth – because these USB Pet Rocks don’t do a dang thing. Except make you smile. And confuse your friends and coworkers, which will make you smile even more. So, get your USB Pet Rock today, and help make us rich tomorrow.

Now there’s something that could never have been produced under socialism!

(A grateful hat tip to my friend Johanna.)

In other news, the year is winding down, and everyone else is doing end-of-year retrospectives, so I shall do the same. Check this space tomorrow for a review of the Top Ten posts of 2009 here on The Big Questions blog. And Happy New Year.

Happy 99th Birthday, Ronald Coase

ronald-coase1In the theory of externalities—that is, costs imposed involuntarily on others—there have been exactly two great ideas. The first, forever associated with the name of Arthur Cecil Pigou (writing about 1920) is that things tend to go badly when people can escape the costs of their own behavior. Factories pollute too much because someone other than the factory owner has to breathe the polluted air. Nineteenth century trains threw off sparks that tended to ignite the crops on neighboring farms, and the railroads ran too many of those trains because the crops belonged to someone else. Farmers keep too many unfenced rabbits when they don’t care about the lettuce farmer next door.

Pigou’s solution—and it’s often a good one—is to make sure that people do feel the costs of their actions, via taxes, fines, or liability rules that allow the victims to sue for damages. Do a dollar’s worth of damage, and you’re charged a dollar.

Pigou endorsed this policy not because it seems fair, though it does seem fair to many, but because it yields, under what he believed to be very general conditions, the optimal amounts of damage. We don’t want too much pollution, but we don’t want too little, either, given that pollution is a necessary by-product of a lot of stuff we enjoy. Pigou offered a proof—now standard fare in all the textbooks—that his policies lead to the perfect compromises, in a sense that can be made precise.

The second great idea about externalities sprang full-blown from the mind of a law professor and subsequent Nobel prize winner named Ronald Coase, who stunned the profession in 1960 by pointing out that Pigou’s argument runs both ways. If you breathe the pollution from my factory, I’m imposing a cost on you—but at the same time, you’re imposing a cost on me. After all, if you lived somewhere else, you wouldn’t be complaining about the smoke and I wouldn’t be getting punished for it.

Continue reading ‘Happy 99th Birthday, Ronald Coase’

Is Health Care a Right?—The Movie

screamA couple of weeks ago, here at the University of Rochester, two fine student organizations—the History Council and the Finance/Economics Council—joined forces to sponsor a debate on the topic “Is Health Care a Right?”. The disputants were myself and history professor Ted Brown, who graciously agreed to speak first at my request.

Over the course of the evening, I proposed a variety of mutually contradictory health care policies; my intent was not to endorse any one of them, but to demonstrate that all of them were preferable to Professor Brown’s pet proposals. I cribbed some important ideas from David Goldhill’s Atlantic Monthly article, and some important ideas and facts from the always insdispensable Bill Easterly. The format did not lend itself to citations or hyperlinks, but I’m glad to make amends here.

Continue reading ‘Is Health Care a Right?—The Movie’

Weekend Roundup

Like most blogs, we slowed down a little for the holidays and had a bit less content than usual—but we still managed to fit in a Christmas story, a cute puzzle, and the long-delayed solutions to my remaining honors problems.

Speaking of puzzles, I seem to have puzzled a substantial fraction of my readership with the subtlety of my sly Santa Claus reference. (I know this from my email.) Given the astute nature of this community, I am forced to infer that the fault is mine.

More holidays next week, and hence more days off, but I won’t disappear completely. Check back on Monday!

Merry Christmas

I’ve landed a consulting gig doing real-time optimal path computations for a gentleman who is planning to tour a graph with several hundred million nodes this evening, so I’m taking tomorrow morning off. To tide you over, I leave you with this literary composition, which can be read multiple times for added enjoyment.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
Eeepps jksaagj effauyp dsajfjkd eepdoos

—Three quarters of an infinite number of monkeys

Do have the best of all possible Christmases.

The Big Answers, Part II

Merry Christmas. As my gift to you, I present the long overdue answers to the remaining problems from my Oberlin honors exam. The original questions are here and here; the first round of answers is here.

Continue reading ‘The Big Answers, Part II’

The Self-Referential Test

This quiz amused the hell out of me. I hope it does the same for you.

Edited to add: In comments, Mike H points me (and you) to this even better quiz, which seems to have been the model for the one I linked to. Enjoy your day.

A Christmas Post

In the spirit of the season, I offer you one of the most popular of my old Slate columns. Merry Christmas.

What I Like About Scrooge

Here’s what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him.

Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that’s a bum rap. What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat? Who is a more benevolent neighbor than the man who employs no servants, freeing them to wait on someone else?

Continue reading ‘A Christmas Post’


I don’t normally blog on Sundays, but I’m starting to think of you guys as friends, so I want to share my delight at these valued words from Greg Mankiw, an economist I have long held in the highest esteem. From his blog:

Looking for a Christmas gift for that special econonerd in your life? Try Steven Landsburg’s new book, The Big Questions.

I recently finished it, and it is much fun. Reading it is like having dinner and sharing a bottle of claret with a smart, creative, iconoclastic friend. The conversation jumps from topic to topic in math, physics, philosophy, economics, public policy, etc., in a seemingly random fashion, and your friend does not always convince you of his point of view. But throughout you are entertained, and in the end you are even edified.

I’m of course delighted by the sales push, but even more so by hearing these words from someone I respect as much as Greg.

Weekend Roundup

In a week when we took on the issues of health care and immigration, our most contentious issue turned out to be the complexity of arithmetic. We also touched on some odd Christmas gifts and the solutions to some old puzzles.

I’ll be back, of course, on Monday. But to tide you over the weekend, you might want to check out the interview with John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T, which is part of the “What Went Wrong” series over at BigThink. Needless to say, I can find parts to disagree with, but overall I think it’s one of the most insightful interviews yet in this series. A choice quote:

If you want to really think about what happened in the housing crises, it was a government policy, through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and affordable housing policies, what they call the community reinvestment act, etc., that created a massive misallocation of credit. If the government gets into allocating credit over time it will make sure we aren’t as productive as we should be. So the government regulations usually in the end look like credit allocations usually to those that are politically favored at the expense of making sure credit is allocated to the most productive segments in the economy. So I think government regulation in the long term is almost always destructive.

Of Jerks and Bullies

Over at National Review Online, John Derbyshire starts off with some kind words about The Big Questions, and then goes off on an ill-considered screed about immigration. First, by all means let’s quote the kind words:

Steven’s new book, The Big Questions, has a lot of good things in it, as one would expect from an author who proudly declares himself a math geek. His explanation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (pages 135–141) is a model of clarity in the popularization of science. His geometrical illustration of a Talmudic rule on the division of an estate (pages 205–213) shows the mathematical imagination at its best.

Landsburg is an economist by profession — a professor of economics, in fact — and has the economist’s insight that many matters commonly discussed in terms of morality can be reduced to cold arithmetic: “When things are priced correctly, there’s no need to moralize about them.” He gives some illuminating examples.

But then things take a darker turn:

Continue reading ‘Of Jerks and Bullies’

Non-Simple Arithmetic

complexThe Intelligent Design folk tell you that complexity requires a designer.

The Richard Dawkins crowd tell you that complexity must evolve from simplicity.

I claim they’re both wrong, because the natural numbers, together with the operations of arithmetic, are fantastically complex, but were neither created nor evolved.

I’ve made this argument multiple times, in The Big Questions, on this blog, and elsewhere. Today, I aim to explain a little more deeply why I say that the natural numbers are fantastically complex.

Continue reading ‘Non-Simple Arithmetic’

Health Care Postscript

Over at Econlog, Arnold Kling chides me for the way I concluded yesterday’s post on health care and Harvard Professor David Cutler:

My gut instincts point me in a different direction that Professor Cutler’s do, but I think we agree on what the big problems are and on what would count as solutions. I think almost all economists would agree on that much, and that’s a lot.

Here is Arnold:

My disagreement with Cutler is more than mere gut instinct. Cutler and I might agree that there is overuse of medical procedures with high costs and low benefits. We might agree that incentives affect this. However, Cutler is confident that central planning represents the solution, not the problem. He believes that remote bureaucrats can measure health care quality well enough and implement compensation schemes that are fine-grained enough to achieve significant improvement.

For the record, Arnold and I are saying the same thing, though I tried to say it a little more politely. David Cutler, Arnold Kling and I all agree that incentives matter and that it’s important to get them right. Arnold Kling and I agree that David Cutler probably doesn’t know how to do that.

Continue reading ‘Health Care Postscript’

Making Health Care Work

Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting David Cutler—Harvard health economist, advisor to President Obama, and co-author of much of the health reform legislation currently moving through Congress. While I am very skeptical of some of Professor Cutler’s policy goals, I was reminded once again that, for all our bickering around the edges, nearly all economists of all political stripes have a shared and useful way of thinking about the world.

I took the opportunity to ask Professor Cutler about a question that arose on this blog last week. I had posted about my fear that a public health insurance option would be manipulated by politicians intervening to get better coverage for their contributors and constituents, while passing the costs off to less well-connected groups. Some of the commenters—notably Cos and Sierra Black—asked whether this has been a problem in other countries. I had to admit that I had no idea, so I put the question to Professor Cutler. Here is what he said:

Continue reading ‘Making Health Care Work’

On the Amazon: Christmas Edition

Some gift ideas for the more unusual people on your Christmas list:

First, with a hat tip to my sister, three from

  • For your ex’s divorce lawyer: A laptop desk to attach to your steering wheel! Proceed as follows (you’ll thank me, really): First cursor over the customer images on the left side of the page. Then read the customer reviews.
  • For the political activist on your list: Uranium ore!. Again, read the customer reviews. Again, you’ll thank me.
  • For your oddball cousin: Wolf urine!. Not a common taste, but for those who indulge, there simply is no substitute. And of course: Read the reviews.

And speaking of Amazon customer reviews, I was more than pleased to stumble on this quote in a review of The Big Questions:

Also, if you are a parent and are blessed with a math/science inclined child, please, please, please buy them a copy!

It’s not too late!

Finally, as a Christmas gift to my readers—or at least to that vocal subset of my readers who have been clamoring for answers to the honors questions I posted a couple of weeks ago: Your wish is my command.

The Big Answers, Part I

A little while back, I posted the first half and then the second half of the honors exam in economics that I administered at Oberlin College. Since then, I’ve slowly doled out a few answers, but I’m getting more and more requests for the complete set. Here, then, are the questions and answers for the first half; I warn you that some of these are pretty technical. I’ll post the second half soon.

Continue reading ‘The Big Answers, Part I’

Weekend Roundup

What Else Went Wrong

The people at Big Think have posted their latest videos in the “What Went Wrong” series about the financial crisis; I am one of a consortium of bloggers who have been invited to submit questions the interviewees and to blog about their answers.

The most interesting of the current interviews is with hedge fund manager Peter Thiel. A few choice quotes:

Continue reading ‘What Else Went Wrong’

Postman’s Nightmare


Courtesy of our frequent commenter Cos, I bring you a map of Silver Springs Shores, Florida, the place you most don’t want to be when you’re looking for an address. Go ahead. Click on the map to bring up the full sized version. Start reading the street names. I promise you, the longer you look the more hilarious it gets.

[Click here to comment.]

Economists Calendar

aeaCalendarIf you were choosing 18 economists to highlight in a calendar, who would they be?

The American Economics Association has chosen, among others, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Friedrich von Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, Adam Smith and Joan Robinson. (Can you identify the rest?) I haven’t yet held the Economists Calendar in my hands, but the reliable Mark Skousen has, and his verdict (via private email) is “Bravo!”

The calendar includes, according to Skousen, “an amazingly complete listing of top economists through the ages”, along with the featured 18. There’s still time to order before Christmas.

[Click here to comment.]


Red CloudOne hundred years ago today, Red Cloud, the last of the great Sioux warrior chiefs, died in peace on the Pine Ridge reservation at the age of 89. He was preceded in death by the way of life he fought so valiantly to preserve.

If there is such a thing as a just war, Red Cloud’s War of 1866 was more just than most. Black Kettle‘s village of peaceful Cheyenne had been recently and wantonly slaughtered by the Colorado militia under Colonel John Chivington at Sand Creek. (The survivors of this unhappy band would meet their deaths a few years later at Washita Creek, at the equally murderous hands of General George Armstrong Custer.) Against this background, the chiefs had been betrayed at Fort Laramie, where the government had summoned them to negotiate for the right to build roads through Indian territory. With the conference still in session and no agreement in sight, Colonel Henry Carrington and a force of 700 men arrived to build the Bozeman Trail.

Continue reading ‘Centennial’


Some recent reviews of
The Big Questions:

Here and here.

Playing Politics

If you want to understand why a public health insurance option is such a bad idea, just imagine a world where we’ve passed the Coburn Amendment, requiring all members of Congress to subscribe to that public option. In that world, a powerful Senator who develops a hankering for a nose job can make a few phone calls and nudge the public insurance commissioner toward a new appreciation for the moral imperative of covering cosmetic surgery.

And if the Senator is successful, where do the funds come from? Either higher premiums, paid for mostly by subscribers who never wanted this kind of coverage, or by dipping into general revenues. After all, the funds have to come from somewhere.

With or without the Coburn Amendment, and however unlikely you might find this particular scenario, the public option is nakedly vulnerable to exactly this type of corruption. A Senator who would never dream of intervening quite so blatantly on his own behalf might think nothing of intervening on behalf of a big campaign contributor, and will certainly think nothing of intervening on behalf of politically potent interest groups—that, after all, is what politicians do for a living.

Continue reading ‘Playing Politics’

Playing Games

Here are solutions to the two game theory problems from my honors exam:

Continue reading ‘Playing Games’

The Big Answers

To the many people who have recently requested answers to my Honors Exam, Part I and Part II:

I’ve already posted answers to the Snidely Whiplash and “Rank the Taxes” problems. I’ll post solutions to the “Jack and Jill” and “Dukes of Earl” problems in the next day or two, and the remainder soon thereafter. Thanks for your patience.

It’s Not Rocket Science

James Hansen heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. If you have a question about radiative transfer in planetary atmospheres, he’s your go-to guy. But if you have a question about economics—say, about the merits of cap-and-trade programs—you might want to consult a different sort of specialist. Hansen’s recent New York Times piece provides ample confirmation of that.

The column oozes nonsense throughout, but it will be instructive to hone in on one exceptionally silly paragraph. Here is Hansen trying to explain why cap-and-trade is inferior to a carbon tax:

Consider the perverse effect cap and trade has on altruistic actions. Say you decide to buy a small, high-efficiency car. That reduces your emissions, but not your country’s. Instead, it allows somebody else to buy a bigger S.U.V.—because the total emissions are set by the cap.

Continue reading ‘It’s Not Rocket Science’

Ethics by Pronouncement

14ethicist_190In this week’s insult to his readers’ intelligence, Randy Cohen, the designated “Ethicist” at the New York Times, responds to two reader inquiries: May I refuse to hire someone because I don’t like his politics? (Answer: “No you may not”.) And: May I, as a doctor, refuse to treat someone because I don’t like his occupation? (Answer, in essence: “Yes you may”.)

More striking even than Cohen’s characteristic “ethics by pronouncement”, refusing to acknowledge, let alone address, the underlying issues, is that he doesn’t even seem to notice that these questions have something in common. He treats them as two separate reader inquiries, from two separate and non-overlapping universes. Thus it’s okay for the doctor to turn away a patient because “You cannot be forced to practice medicine” and because the patient can always find another doctor. One might wonder, then, in the case of the employer, why it’s not true/relevant/dispositive that “You cannot be forced to provide employment” and/or that the candidate can always find another job.

Continue reading ‘Ethics by Pronouncement’

Between the Folds

0501_1Between The Folds is a striking documentary about the art and science of origami. I’ve watched an advance copy, provided by the producers, and it’s really quite mesmerizing. Roughly half the program is devoted to artists like Satoshi Kamiya, who folded this extraordinary dragon, according to the rules of origami, from a single piece of paper with no cuts. In the second half, we meet mathematicians and scientists like Robert Lang,
eyeglasspictured here in front of the folding lens he designed for the Hubbell Space Telescope—folded, it fits inside a small rocket ship for delivery to its destination in space, where it unfolds automatically—and Erik Demaine, the paperfolding enthusiast and Macarthur “genius” award winner who is applying origami to the design of synthetic proteins that fold reliably into the proper configurations.

“Between the Folds” has its national television debut tomorrow night (Tuesday, December 8 on PBS; check your local listings for the time). Or check here for additional showings.

Weekend Roundup

This was a week of economics, religion and miscellanea.

Two weeks ago, I’d posted the first half of my honors exam in economics. This week I posted the second half, and continued my practice of slowly doling out the answers with a post on the best and worst ways to be taxed.

A complimentary note from my old friend Deirdre McCloskey triggered a thread about religion and inspired my mini-review of John Polkingohorne’s, theology.

An offhand remark from a mobster inspired a thread about remarkable coincidences, and the most recent shallow pontification from the self-proclaimed “Ethicist” inspired me to complain.

I’ll be back on Monday with more deep thoughts and light diversions, along with some holiday gift ideas.