Monthly Archive for March, 2010

Unhappy Reasoning

happyIn a New Yorker essay, Elizabeth Kolbert takes at face value the widely reported statistic that “the average level of self-reported happiness, or subjective well-being, appears to have been flat going all the way back to the nineteen-fifties, when real per-capita income was less than half what it is today”. Proceeding from the assumption that these self-reports tell us something about actual happiness, Kolbert, proceeds to muse on the policy implications, quoting ex-Harvard president Derek Bok with approval:

If rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier over the last fifty years, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?

Wait a minute, now. Self-reported happiness has been flat for fifty years despite rising incomes. Self-reported happiness has also been flat for fifty years despite dramatic increases in leisure and environmental quality. (Since 1965, the average American has gained about six hours a week of leisure—the equivalent of seven vacation weeks a year.) So why aren’t Bok and Kolbert asking why we bother to come home from the office, take vacations, and clean our air and water?

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Books, Books, Books

booksTyler Cowen started a blogospheric whirlwind recently when he posted the list of books that had influenced him the most and called on other econ bloggers to do the same. In short order, we got entries from Peter Suderman, E.D. Kain, Arnold Kling, Michael Martin, Niklas Blanchard, EconJeff, Bryan Caplan, Matt Yglesias, Jenny Davidson, Will Wilkinson, Matt Continetti, Ross Douthat, Mike Konczal, Kieran Healy, Ivar Hagendoorn, Scott Sumner, and no doubt others. [Update: Some of these links were wrong; I think they’re all fixed now.]

I’m late to the party, but here’s my list:

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NOW I Get It!

ctcoverFor some decades now, at more or less random times and in more or less random places, I’ve been asking people “Why would you care if your baby’s name reads the same upside down as rightside up?”. I have never gotten an answer that rang true.

One of the various unsatisfactory answers I keep getting is something like: “Umm. You wouldn’t care.” But I know that’s wrong, because I’ve read Clown Town.

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Weekend Roundup

The Big Questions of the week were:

I’ll let you ponder these further over the weekend and I’ll be back Monday with more.

Tipping Points

tippingMario Rizzo has a post on why he gives small tips to cab drivers and Brad DeLong concludes that Rizzo is a liar, a cheat and a psychopath-in-the-making.

You’d never know it from DeLong’s selective summary, but Rizzo’s post is dense with interesting (if elementary) economics. A key point is that when you think you’re tipping a New York cab driver, you’re really tipping the medallion owner. (A medallion is a license to drive a cab; medallions are in fixed supply and currently trade for a price of about three quarters of a million dollars. Your driver is probably leasing his medallion from its owner.) If we all started tipping, say, an extra $2 per ride, then medallion owners would demand another $2 per ride in rental fares—effectively claiming all the additional tips for themselves. (Click here for a slightly longer explanation.)

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Three Sides to the Story

Today is the ninety-ninth anniversary of the legendary fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which reigned for ninety years as the worst workplace disaster in New York history. A hundred and forty six workers died that day, most of them young women. Escape routes were cut off by doors that were kept locked to prevent employee pilfering. The main exit from the factory floor was designed so that only one person at a time could pass through; departing workers had their handbags inspected by a night watchman. “It comes down to dollars and cents against human life, no matter how you look at it”, in the words of then-Fire Chief Edward Croker.

Well, yes, of course it comes down, at least in part, to dollars and cents against human life (where “dollars and cents” are, of course, stand-ins for “a whole lot of other things we care about”). The interesting question is whether the terms of trade were favorable. In other words: If the workers, in advance of the fire, had been fully informed of all the risks and all the potential consequences, would they have wanted those doors locked or open? Or more generally: When the New York state legislature responded to the fire with over two dozen new occupational health and safety laws, were they compounding the disaster?

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Our Place in the Universe



What are the odds that humankind will survive long enough to colonize the Universe?

Katja Grace argues that the odds are low. Stripped of some nuance, her argument comes down to this:

  1. The fact that we’re around suggests that intelligent life is likely to be common.
  2. No other intelligent life appears to have colonized the Universe.
  3. If they haven’t succeeded, why should we?

By coincidence number one, I discovered Katja’s post (via a ringing endorsement from Robin Hanson) just hours after I’d posted yesterday’s entry here on The Big Questions disputing point 1). Of course, if point 1) fails then so does the entire argument.

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Are We Alone?


This diagram, lifted from a lively paper by the astrobiologist Charles Lineweaver, is the tree of life on earth. The “root” at the center is the last common ancestor of all life. Toward the bottom left, you’ll find the genus “Homo”, to which you and I belong, at the end of a twig representing animals. The two neighboring twigs, ending in Zea (i.e. corn) and Coprimus, represent plants and fungi, our two closest relatives.

Professor Lineweaver offers this diagram as an antidote to the superstition that evolution has some tendency to converge on intelligence; his criterion is that we ought not say that evolution “converges” toward some feature unless we observe that feature arising independently in at least two or more twigs. By that same criterion, evolution has no tendency even to converge on heads, which (says Dr. Lineweaver) are likely to be prerequisite for anything like human intelligence.

If human-like intelligence is a fluke, then presumably the ability to build radio telescopes is also a fluke, which stands as a cautionary note for those who expect to communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations.

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For the Children


In a post last week, I asked:

How can it be okay to remain childless but not okay to have children and treat them badly—given that the children themselves would presumably prefer being treated badly to not being born at all?

There are a lot of comments there worth reading, including one from Ryan Yin that rephrased the problem so clearly that I want to highlight it here.

First, though, some answers that I think don’t work. Cos asked:

Why is it so puzzling that we value the preferences of people who exist over the hypothetical preferences of people who might’ve existed but don’t?

Sierra Black drew the same distinction between people who exist and those who don’t, though she phrased it in terms of rights:

Children aren’t possessions or art projects, they’re people. Before you have a child, you’re a person with a certain right to control what happens to your body. After the child is born, that child has some of the same rights you do, including the right not to be mistreated.

Ryan Yin (after agreeing with Sierra!) put his finger on exactly why I find her answer (and others like it) so unsatifying— though I’m not sure he intended his observation to be used in exactly this way:

Suppose you were thinking of having a child. Suppose that once the child is born, the child would wish he’d never been born (and prefer that to killing himself), and further that this is entirely predictable. By the logic given above, you aren’t allowed to care about this fact until after the child is born (at which point there’s nothing to be done). This seems like a very odd way of valuing the preferences of others.

Exactly! If (as Cos says) it’s perfectly reasonable not to value a person’s preferences until after s/he’s born, or (as Sierra says) people don’t acquire rights until after they’re born, then there can be no objection to creating a miserable life. I might be dooming my child to a life of misery, but that’s okay because s/he hasn’t been born yet and therefore has no rights and no preferences I choose to care about.

Surely this can’t be right. And if it’s not, then the Cos/Sierra story can’t be exactly right.

Weekend Roundup

A sudden and mysterious fever left me unable to post my usual weekend roundup on time today. Now that I’m feeling human again, here it is, a few hours late:

We started the week with my best attempt to explain the intuition underlying the spectacular formula e = -1, frequently described as the most beautiful and astonishing equation in all of mathematics. Gauss reportedly once said that if this formula is not immediately obvious to you, you have no hope of being a mathematician—but I’ve heard more than one Fields Medalist say he’d been dumbstruck when he first encountered it.

We reviewed Yale professor Gary Gorton‘s account of the financial crisis; he says it was a bank run, and if you’re going to have banks, bank runs go with the territory.

On the lighter side, we talked about web comics; on the less-light side we talked about the advantages of genocide over other forms of mass murder, and about moral paradoxes.

Barring a relapse, I’ll see you Monday.

Moral Education

tower-of-babelWhen I was a child, my parents spoke to me frequently about the evils of racism. Some people, they said, judge others by the color of their skin, but we don’t do that, and you mustn’t either. And when you meet the people who make those judgments—and you will, they told me—you must never ever ever give them an ounce of credence because we’re right and they’re wrong. There were many discussions of this topic, but in my memory they all ended with the same refrain. We’re right and they’re wrong.

I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but I must have been very young because I already knew the refrain by heart when my father first told me about foreign languages. In other countries, people use different words than we do. We say “cat”, but in Spain they say “gato” and in Russia they say “koschka”.

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In Praise of Genocide

headscratchWell, “praise” might not be exactly the right word, but I do want to argue that by and large, genocide is the least objectionable form of mass murder—for the simple reason that, when successful, it leaves no mourners. Other things being equal, meaningless deaths are best clustered among people who care about each other. I’m pretty sure I prefer the home invader who wipes out a family of five over the serial killer who takes four lives at random, leaving four devastated spouses and twelve grieving children. And likewise I prefer the mass murderer who wipes out an extended “family” of five million to the one who kills, say, four and a half million at random. Taking the death and destruction as given, sowing less misery earns you a little slack.

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What Really Went Wrong


Banks, by their nature, are susceptible to bank runs. Depositors panic and demand their money back, the bank doesn’t have enough cash on hand to meet all the demands, this generates even greater panic and even more demands, and pretty soon the bank is selling off assets at fire sale prices in a desperate attempt to placate the depositors. Back before Federal deposit insurance, this used to happen from time to time. According to Yale’s Professor Gary Gorton, author of Slapped By the Invisible Hand: The Panic of 2007, it happened again recently. The great crisis of the past few years was just another bank run, pure and simple.

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Free Will versus Determinism: The Web Comic


Like everyone else I know, I am of course a longtime fan of the webcomic XKCD. But somehow it took me until last week to become aware of the frequently brilliant competitor Luke Surl, of which the above is a delectable example. What else out there am I missing?

Hat tip to Harry Brighouse of Crooked Timber.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

Financial Imagineering

Wall Street quants are always trying to dream up new financial products that nobody’s figured out how to regulate. Sooner or later, I suppose, one of them will come up with a bank account that pays imaginary interest. You deposit a dollar and a year later you get an interest payment of i. That’s not “i for interest”; it’s the square root of minus one. I have no idea what that means for economics, but thinking about it is a good way to understand Euler‘s (or, the historical record being unclear, perhaps Johann Bernoulli‘s) breathtakingly beautiful formula

e = -1

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Weekend Roundup

Here at The Big Questions, we try to stand up for clear thinking and shame its enemies. This week, the enemies included Paul Krugman (writing on unemployment), the President of the United States (expounding on rising insurance premiums), a Washington Post columnist who seemed to forget that political reforms are supposed to serve a purpose, and that perpetual offender, the Conventional Wisdom, in its judgments about anti-gay agendas and fiscal responsibility.

Unless Krugman or someone like him offers an irresistible target tomorrow, I’ll see you next on Monday. Thanks for visiting.

This is the Way the World Ends

Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice. Paleontologist Peter Ward says the seas could turn to sulfur; physicist Michio Kakutani expects the world (along with the rest of the Universe) to end in a deep freeze—though he holds out hope that we could stay warm by escaping to a parallel Universe. Environmental scientist Stewart Brand foresees a climate catastrophe, astronomer Edward Sion worries about supernovas and asteroid impacts, physicst Melissa Franklin contemplates being swallowed quickly and painlessly by a black hole—which wouldn’t be so bad, she says. Astronomer Robert Kirshner imagines a lonely future back here in the Milky Way after the expansion of the Universe transports the other galaxies beyond our observable horizon. Political scientist Graham Allison imagines destruction by nuclear terrorists, and pretty much everyone agrees that sooner or later the earth will be swallowed by a dying sun.

You can watch the video interviews at BigThink, where, as always, I wish they would post transcripts; reading is faster than viewing and skimming is faster still. But if you’ve got the patience, some of these are fun.

What’s your (realistic or fanciful) scenario for the end of days?

How to Be Fiscally Responsible


Suppose that year after year, you spend more than you earn. You are worried that you’ve become fiscally irresponsible. Which of the following is not a path back to fiscal sanity for your household?

  1. Spend less.
  2. Earn more.
  3. Stop at the ATM more often so you’ll have more cash in your pocket.

Do we all understand why the answer is C? Good. Now let’s try another one.

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Out of the Closet and Into the News

In this week’s news, an allegedly “anti-gay” state senator was outed after being arrested on a DUI after leaving a gay bar in California. I hope we can all agree that driving drunk is objectionable and that frequenting gay bars, if that’s your thing, is not. One might be tempted, then, to conclude that people should care about the DUI and not the venue. But I suppose there’s no point in trying to wish away human nature.

What interests me in all this is the promiscuous use of the adjectives “anti-gay” and “hypocritical”. The senator seems to be charged with three counts of anti-gayness, with hypocrisy as an aggravating circumstance. First, he opposes anti-discrimination laws. Second, he opposes gay marriage. Third, he opposes an official day of recognition for gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

Now let’s take these one at a time.

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Fixing Elections

boothIn a curiously unmotivated piece at the Washington Post, Anne Lowrey asks: “What if senators represented people by income or race, not by state?”.

I can’t figure out her point. I am all for identifying problems and brainstorming about radical solutions, but I have no idea what problem Lowrey thinks she’s addressing.

The primary problem with representative democracy is that our representatives are captured by special interests. My senators plot to steal from you and your senators plot to steal from me, with a lot of collateral damage along the way. (And yes, you and your neighbors do constitute a special interest, as do I and mine.) The problem is exacerbated by the fact that my neighbors and I have a lot of interests in common, making it easier to steal on all our behalves at the same time. The solution is to make each senator’s constituency more diverse, not, as Lowrey proposes, less.

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Premium Prices


The Obama administration has its knickers all in a twist over rising health insurance premiums. As you wade through the rhetoric, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Greed does not cause rate hikes. I’m not sure why some premiums have shot up lately, but I’m quite sure that “greed” is not the answer. That’s because I’m quite sure that the insurance companies are no greedier today than they were a year ago. To explain a change in prices, you’ve got to point to something that’s changed. Greed is pretty much a constant.

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Krugman versus Krugman

I don’t usually post on Sundays, but this letter to the New York Times from the indispensable Don Boudreaux is too priceless to pass up.

Edited to add: I don’t always read Krugman’s column, but since Don’s link sent me there today, I can’t resist noting one more outrage: Krugman thinks that extending estate tax relief to the top .25% of estates is a policy “on behalf of” that .25% of the population, as opposed to a policy on behalf of everyone who benefits from capital accumulation, higher wages and economic growth.

Or more precisesly, he doesn’t think that. But he says it.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

Weekend Roundup

We started the week with a pointer to a hilarious recipe for salted water. If you didn’t follow the link then, you should follow it now. Click on the “reviews” tab and don’t be drinking anything when you read through these.

On Tuesday I made some snarky and cynical comments about the effects of health care reform on government spending. Fortunately, nobody at the Congressional Budget Office sued me for libel. Professor Joseph Weiler was not so lucky; when he posted a negative book review on a web site he edits, he was charged with criminal libel in France. Thursday’s post reviewed the astonishing story and Friday’s followed up with an account of the most devastating book review I know of (though commenters offered some good alternatives).

We paused midweek to acknowledge the birthday of Georg Cantor, and to summarize how he taught the world to think about infinity.

Next week: Commentary on health insurance premium hikes and much much more. Come back on Monday!

The Hunting of the Snark

miniweilProfessor Joseph Weiler, who is facing criminal charges in France for posting a mildly negative book review on a web site he edits, has asked supporters to search out and email him copies of even more negative reviews (presumably of academic writing), to submit to the court as evidence that this sort of thing happens all the time.

The review I’ll be emailing is a classic of the genre. It was written by Andre Weil, one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and possibly the most erudite person who ever lived. Here’s how I described Weil shortly after his death:

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Criminal Law

cagedOn June 25, 2010, Professor Joseph Weiler, editor of the European Journal of International Law, will stand trial in a French criminal court for running a mildly negative book review on a journal-associated website.

The book in question is The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court by the Israeli law professor Dr. Karin N. Calvo-Goller. According to the reviewer the main part of the book “simply restates the…relevant parts of the ICC Statute.” This rehashing, he adds, is particularly unproductive since a large part of the volume consists of a reprint of the Statute itself.

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Split Infinities

cantorToday is the 165th birthday of Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor, the mathematician who indirectly inspired me to major in math. In my first few semesters of college, I was at best an indifferent student, finding little inspiration in the humanities majors I was bouncing around among, playing a prodigious amount of pinball, and attaining (according to rumor) history’s first-ever grade of C in Peter Regenstrief‘s Poltical Science 101. Then one day, my friend Bob Hyman happened to mention that some infinities are larger than others, and set my life on track. This—the vision of Georg Cantor—was something I had to know more about. Before long I was immersed in math.

What does it mean for some infinities to be larger than others? Well, for starters, some infinite sets can be listed, while others are too big to list. The natural numbers, for example, are already packaged as a list:

The integers, by contrast (that is, the natural numbers plus their negatives) aren’t automatically listed because a list, by definition, has a starting point, whereas the integers stretch infinitely far in both directions. But we can fix that by rearranging them:

So the integers can also be listed.

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Taking the Cake

cakeYesterday my lunch companion announced his new weight loss strategy—he’s eating more cake. He’s got it figured that if he eats enough cake now, it will motivate him to take up running someday (even though he’s never run before). So he ordered a slice of chocolate cake and announced that he’d just lost two pounds.

Of course, my friend wasn’t entirely serious; he was just gearing up for a possible future at the Congressional Budget Office, which says we can reduce government spending by enacting the president’s health reform proposal. They’ve got it figured that if we pass this proposal now, it will motivate future cuts in Medicare (even though nobody’s ever had the stomach for those cuts before). If I understand the numbers right, they’re counting that as a “saving” of several hundred billion dollars. Well, pass me that cake.


An unexpectedly full weekend leaves me caught short without a full fledged blog post for today. I’ll make up for it tomorrow. In the meantime, here are two tidbits to hold you over:

  • A useful recipe for salted water. Do not fail to read the reviews.
  • A puzzle I got from the mathematician Alexander Merkurjev. If I recall right, he told me that it had appeared on a college entrance exam in the old Soviet Union:

    A regular 400-gon is tiled by parallelograms. Prove that at least 100 of those parallelograms must be rectangles.

    (A regular 400-gon is a 400-sided figure with all sides equal and all angles equal. The parallelograms can all be of different sizes and shapes—or not. “Tiled” means that the interior of the 400-gon is entirely covered, with no overlaps.)