Monthly Archive for February, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

We will continue to go through the budget, line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work.

—President Barack Obama, January 27, 2010

The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities…play a vital role in preserving and enhancing America’s cultural legacy.

—President Barack Obama, February 26, 2010
after requesting increased funding for both agencies

With that out of the way, let me proceed to our traditional weekend roundup. I was extremely pleased this week to have our first guest post from the distinguished philosopher Jamie Whyte. I’ve been a great admirer of Jamie’s writings since I discovered them a few months ago, and I thought his contribution here—on a radical proposal to improve democracy—was fabulous.

We had two other lively discussions this week, one on why Olympians are like Ponzi schemers (with a followup post a few days later) and one on the fiscal stimulus package on the occasion of its one-year anniversary.

Come back Monday for more!


Arsenic and Gold Medals

I stirred up some controversy on Tuesday with my post equating Olympic athletes to Ponzi schemers, so I want to provide a little more explanation.

What do scammers and Olympians have in common? Let’s start with a simpler question: What do sugar and arsenic have in common? Answer: There’s such a thing as having too much of either. With arsenic, any amount is too much; with sugar, some is good but too much is bad. Likewise for scam artists and athletes. Scam artists, like arsenic, are bad in any quantity; athletes, like sugar, are good in moderation and bad in excess.

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Fewer Voters Are Better Voters

A Guest Post


Jamie Whyte

Last year, the British government decided to lift the top rate of income tax from 41 to 52 percent. Last month, Lord Myners, the UK Secretary of State for Financial Services, said that the policy would raise not nearly as much revenue as had been expected. People are apparently making efforts to avoid paying it. A host of politicians and commentators responded that it was always a foolish idea, a purely “political” policy.

But how can a bad policy be good politics? What defect in the electoral system can explain this?

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So How’s That Fiscal Stimulus Working For You?

Harvard’s Robert Barro, who is good at this stuff, estimates (in round numbers) the effects of last year’s stimulus package (numbers represent billions of dollars):

The executive summary is that income (that is, the total income of all Americans) rises in 2009 and 2010 (while the stimulus money is being spent), and continues a bit higher for another year after that, but falls in later years (when the taxes, with their accompanying disincentive effects, come due). (Of course, the day of reckoning can be delayed, but not forever—so the arithmetic still rules). Adding up over five years, income falls by $300 billion, or about $1000 per American.

These numbers confirm my prejudice that the stimulus package is a bad idea, but they still make me uncomfortable. Let me first add a few remarks about what the numbers mean and then I’ll tell you what I don’t quite get about them.

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The Olympics, Bernie Madoff and Me

madoffWhat must it be like, I wonder, to be the parent of an Olympic athlete, watching your kid accomplish magnificent feats of almost no social value? When your kid is a taxi driver or a shoe salesman or a carpenter, you can take pride every day in knowing that he or she has taken someone home, or helped someone walk, or given someone shelter. When your kid is an Olympic gold medalist, mustn’t you feel a little sheepish about all the superhuman effort that went into nothing more than taking a gold medal away from someone else?

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Current Events

Pictured above is the Harvard-educated professor with twin reputations for brilliance and abrasiveness whose destructive rampage has shocked the nation. After a promising early career, the professor’s behavior had recently turned erratic and antisocial, including complicity in the takeover of a major manufacturing firm and conspiracy to take over an entire industry comprising approximately 15% of the economy. The professor is also suspected in the expropriation and squandering of hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars. Old friends and admirers are shocked and saddened.

The other big news story of the week was Tiger Woods’s apology, which merited a full two pages in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. I was going to blog my thoughts on this, but my friend Nathan Mehl has said exactly what I wanted to say, and said it so much more brilliantly than I could possibly have said it myself, that I’m going to send you over there instead.

Click here to comment.

Weekend Roundup

I’ve long wanted to blog about the astonishing mathematics of Alexandre Grothendieck, who was surely the greatest mathematician of the 20th century and arguably the greatest of all time. This week, I had occasion to blog not about the mathematics per se (I’m still figuring out how to do that in a readable way) but about the remarkable letter from Grothendieck that surfaced last month, and the intellectual property issues that it raises.

Having started the week with one remarkable letter, we ended it with another, this one from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the issue of secession.

In between, I asked readers to enlighten me about some stuff I just don’t get, we saw new evidence that people are less religious than they say they are, and we used a study on beauty and daughters to illustrate how statistics can deceive.

I’ll return on Monday, probably with a few more thoughts on secession. Have a good weekend!

Scalia Against Secession

When screenwriter Daniel Turkewitz was working on a script about astronauts struggling to survive in crisis conditions, he enlisted a veteran astronaut as a consultant. That worked so well that when Turkewitz began his new project, a script about Maine seceding from the Union to join Canada, he decided to enlist an expert on the legal niceties of secession. In other words, he decided to enlist a Supreme Court Justice.

Eight out of nine justices (plus retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) ignored Turkewitz’s inquiry about what would happen if a secession case were to reach the Supreme Court. Rather astonishingly, however, Justice Scalia responded with the following letter, which Turkewitz’s brother Eric posted on his blog this week:

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Beauty’s Daughter

fiskesmallI love evolutionary biology, so I love this argument: Beauty is more valuable to girls than it is to boys, so beautiful parents should have more daughters than sons. You want (or at least your genes want) to pass on your assets to children who can make the best use of them.

So I was delighted by recent news reports that beautiful women do indeed have more daughters. But I was stunned by the reported magnitude of the effect: According to one report, beautiful people are 36 percent more likely to have a daughter than a son!

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In Heaven, There Are No Litter Boxes


There are roughly 30 million self-professed fundamentalist Christians in the United States. How many of them really believe what they say they do? New evidence suggests that the number is somewhere around 100. Either that or fundamentalism breeds exceptional callousness toward ones’ pets:

Many people in the U.S.—perhaps 20 million to 40 million—believe there will be a Second Coming in their lifetimes, followed by the Rapture. In this event, they say, the righteous will be spirited away to a better place while the godless remain on Earth. But what will become of all the pets?

Bart Centre, 61, a retired retail executive in New Hampshire, says many people are troubled by this question, and he wants to help. He started a service called Eternal Earth-Bound Pets that promises to rescue and care for animals left behind by the saved.

Promoted on the Web as “the next best thing to pet salvation in a Post Rapture World,” the service has attracted more than 100 clients, who pay $110 for a 10-year contract ($15 for each additional pet.) If the Rapture happens in that time, the pets left behind will have homes—with atheists. Centre has set up a national network of godless humans to carry out the mission. “If you love your pets, I can’t understand how you could not consider this,” he says.

Here is the full article by Mike Di Paola, writing in Business Week.

Edited to add: I shouldn’t have said 30 million fundamentalist Christians; I should have said (at least according to the Business Week article) 30 million who expect the Second Coming and the Rapture in their lifetimes.

Stuff I Don’t Get

Here are some things I don’t quite get. Maybe someone can explain them to me.

1. All through 2008, then-Senator Obama kept telling me that “America’s reputation in the world is critical, not just to our security but to our prosperity”, and therefore American policies should be set with a decent regard for world opinion. Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, he keeps warning me that it will be disastrous if foreign interests are allowed to express their opinions in our political campaigns. How are we supposed to have a decent regard for foreign opinions if we don’t listen to them?

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Bringing in the Sheaves

grothIn 1958, the 30-year-old Alexandre Grothendieck stunned the International Congress of Mathematicians with his audacious proposal to remake the foundations of algebraic geometry, vastly expanding the scope of the field, subsuming all of commutative algebra and algebraic number theory, and paving the way for the solution of the elusive Weil conjectures, then considered decades or centuries out of reach. No mathematical vision had ever been more radical or more ambitious. Someday I will blog about that vision. Today’s post is about genius, eccentricity and intellectual property.

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Weekend Roundup

This week we had an explanation of why there is magnetism, a discussion on how to teach math, a debate on child labor and a followup thereto, and a half-hearted defense of Abraham Lincoln—the sort of eclectic mix that you’ll find in The Big Questions. Have you bought your copy yet?

More on Monday!

Ten Score and One Year Ago

A month ago, I posted a portrait gallery of my personal heroes and invited readers to identify the faces; a few days later I posted the answer key.

To my mild surprise, the face that generated the most controvery—in both comments and email—was that of Abraham Lincoln, who was born 201 years ago on this day. Readers pulled no punches. ScottN wrote: “Lincoln is on a different list I have: People Who Caused the Most Unnecessary Deaths.” Peter wrote: “[Lincoln] was a tyrant and a racist to boot.” And the consistently provocative and thoughtful Bob Murphy wrote:

I would love to hear your reasons for including Lincoln. I have the same misgivings as the other commenter above, though I was going to introduce them with levity. (E.g. “I know you like math, Steve, so is that why you included the guy who maximized the wartime deaths of Americans?”)

I replied to Bob (and others) by email, with some sketchy thoughts and a promise to blog about Lincoln sometime on or before his birthday. With the deadline looming, I realize that I have little to add to those sketchy thoughts. So here, with only some minor editing, is the email I sent to Bob Murphy:

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Working Overtime

Yesterday’s post on child labor generated some great comments, and I’d like to respond briefly to a few of them here.

Jambaramba asked whether low wages for children are a result of their poor bargaining position. I responded that you can’t raise wages nationwide through bargaining. (You might raise them in one sector, but only at the cost of lowering them in other sectors, and overall you’ll make people poorer, not richer.) The only way to raise wages is to make people more productive. This means providing them with more and better capital and giving them opportunities to trade. Manfred followed up with a super comment elaborating on this point. I promise to blog about the supporting theory and evidence sometime soon.

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Worked Up

bangladeshBack in 1992, a ten year old Bangladeshi girl named Moyna was one of 50,000 children who lost their jobs in the wake of protectionist legislation sponsored by the execrable union-backed Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. How does Moyna feel about Americans now? “They loathe us, don’t they?”, she says. “We are poor and not well educated, so they simply despise us. That is why they shut the factories down.” (The quote is from this report by the Bangladeshi activist Shahidul Alam.)

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Lockhart’s Lament

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory…Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music”. It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music…are considered very advanced topics and generally put off till college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language—to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key…One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”

Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this sort of nightmare.

So begins Paul Lockhart’s scathing critique of how mathematics is taught in this country, A Mathematician’s Lament. The book is an expansion of Lockhart’s essay of the same title. I encourage you to read the essay, buy the book, and share your thoughts in comments.

Physical Attraction

sticksThis will be old news to the physics geeks, but I still remember what a revelation it was, back in grad school, when the physicist Gary Horowitz told me why an electric current exerts a magnetic force on a moving charged particle. (This is the source of all magnetism; those magnets on your refrigerator have little electric currents flowing through them all the time.)

So imagine a wire, made of protons that stay still and electrons that drift rightward; that drift is what we call a current. And imagine a nearby charged particle—call it Fred—also traveling rightward.

Now relativity tells us that Fred is allowed to think of himself as stationary, and the protons (along with you and me) as drifting off to the left. Relativity also tells us that if passengers on a moving train say the cars are 100 feet apart, then an observer at the station will say they’re closer than that. In this case (according to Fred) you and I are the passengers moving with the train of protons, and if we say they’re an angstrom apart, then Fred says they’re closer. That means Fred sees more positive charge per inch of wire than we do. If Fred himself happens to be negatively charged, he’ll be drawn toward the wire.

As far as Fred is concerned, that’s a purely electrical force, but it’s a force that you and I can’t account for on electrical grounds. So you and I call it magnetism.

At the same time, Fred sees the electrons in the wire as slower-moving, and therefore farther apart, than you and I do, so he sees less negative charge per inch of wire than you and I do. According to Fred, then, the gap between positive and negative charge in the wire is even greater, which means he’s pulled in even harder, which you and I call even more magnetism.

If you’re geeky enough to care, it’s a nice exercise in relativity theory to show that the magnetic force is proportional both to the current (that is, the number of electrons per inch, times the speed of the electrons, as measured by you and me) and to Fred’s velocity. It just now took me three tries to get this right, but it’s very nice when it finally works.

Weekend Roundup

It was a week of madness. We started with a post on hysteria about debt and deficits, visited Michael Pacanowsky’s classic investigation of whether the utterance “Please Pass the Salt” can cause salt to travel, and dredged up an old proposal to reduce carbon emissions by making everyone wear a device that plugs up one nostril—segueing from the latter into an even crazier proposal from this week’s Washington Post. We rounded out the week with some educational madness, which gave me a chance to plug the brilliant writing of Caitlin Flanagan.

Note: Wednesday’s blogpost currently links to just the first page of Pacanowsky’s article; in the next few days I hope to have permission from the copyright owner to link to the entire thing.

On a less mad note, there’s an economic principle that says it’s best for everything to be taxed equally; paradoxically (until you understand it) this means that capital income should be taxed not at all. Last week, we saw that this is because a tax on capital income implicitly taxes current and future consumption at different rates; on Tuesday of this week, we saw that it’s also because a tax on capital income implicitly taxes current and future labor at different rates.

Next week: More madness, more sanity, more economics, and probably some math and some physics as well. See you then.

Cultivating Failure

Caitlin Flanagan is such a smashingly good writer that I normally devour anything she’s written. But when I saw her latest piece in the Atlantic—roughly 5000 words in opposition to public school gardens, where students learn horticulture instead of long division—it seemed well, too petty a subject for Flanagan’s vast talents—so I put it aside without reading it.

Today I read it. Wow, was I wrong. This is Caitlin Flanagan at her blistering best. I’ll offer you a few choice quotes, but my real recommendation is to leave now and go read the entire piece.

With the Edible Schoolyard..the idea of a school as a venue in which to advance a social agenda has reached rock bottom. This kind of misuse of instructional time…has been employed to cheat kids out of thousands of crucial learning hours over the years, so that they might be indoctrinated in whatever the fashionable idea of the moment or the school district might be. One year it’s hygiene and the another it’s anti-Communism; in one city it’s safe-sex “outercourse” and in another it’s abstinence-only education.

Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it?…If this patronizing agenda were promulgated in the Jim Crow South by a white man who was espousing a sharecropping curriculum for African American students, we would see it for what it is: A way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education.

Until our kids have a decent chance at mastering the essential skills and knowledge that they will need to graduate from high school, we should devote every resource and every moment of their academic day to helping them realize that life-changing goal. Otherwise we become complicit—through our best intentions—in an act of theft that will not only contribute to the creation of a permanent, undereducated underclass, but will rob that group of the very force necessary to change its state.

There’s much more where that came from. Why are you still here?

Getting Serious

leswaasCongressman Donald Schwerbitz, who represented South Dakota back in the 1960s and 70s, was a visionary environmentalist who sponsored the first legislation designed to reduce our national carbon footprint. It was Congressman Schwerbitz who recognized that carbon emissions are caused primarily by breathing, and he proposed to cut those emissions in half by requiring every American to wear a device that plugs up one nostril.

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Movers and Shakers

shakerI once told the late Nobel prize winner George Stigler that I was teaching a course on the relationship between economics and the other social sciences. “Ah”, he nodded. “That would be haughty superciliousness, I suppose”.

I was reminded of this when a comment on a recent blogpost asked for my further thoughts on the economics of superstition. This, after all, might be one area where economics lags behind its sister sciences. And this in turn reminded me of a true social science classic—anthropologist Michael Pacanowsky’s investigation into the origins of the folk belief that the utterance “Please pass the salt” is causally linked to the passage of salt from one end of a table to another.


Fairy Tales Can Come True

Back in March, 2001, I wrote a little fable about taxation for the op-ed piece of the Wall Street Journal. Several readers have asked me to post that fable here on the blog. Your wish is my command. At the bottom of this post, I’ll say a few words relating the fable to another recent blog post.


Once upon a time, a man went to work and earned a dollar. He used the dollar to buy a share of stock. The stock paid a dividend of 10 cents a year, 10% being the going rate of return in the land.

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Debt and Taxes

When I teach economics, I try to drive home the lesson that words are supposed to mean something coherent. If you want to be rewarded for stringing together a bunch of empty phrases, you should go take an English class.

I was therefore maximally sympathetic to the poor XM radio host (I think it was Pete Dominick but I’m not sure) who was stuck interviewing a man named John Sakowicz last Friday. Sakowicz, who hosts his own radio show in northern California, was there to warn about the dangers inherent in our growing national debt. He was very clear about this much: the debt and its associated dangers are massive, explosive, perhaps even apocalyptic. He was entire unclear, however, about exactly what those dangers are.

Continue reading ‘Debt and Taxes’