Monthly Archive for April, 2010

Missing the Big Picture

Writing in the New York Times, law professor Kris Kobach promises to rebut all the major objections to Arizona’s new anti-immigration law and proceeds to ignore all the major objections. Professor Kobach’s idea of a major objection is “It’s unfair to demand that aliens carry their documents with them”, whereas my idea of a major objection is “It’s idiotic, hateful and destructive to put obstacles in the way of productive activity.”

The number of “unauthorized aliens” in Arizona at any given moment is estimated as just under a half million—about the same as the number of Jews in New Jersey. Over half the text of the Arizona law is devoted to penalizing employers who hire these people. Now suppose for a moment that the New Jersey legislature were to pass a bill penalizing anyone who hires a Jew. Would Professor Kobach defend this law, as he does Arizona’s, by pointing out that it doesn’t require anyone to carry a driver’s license?

The anti-immigration hysterics keep warning us that foreigners want to come over here and exploit our welfare system. The insincerity of that stance is exposed whenever, as in Arizona, its proponents set out to prevent those very same foreigners from coming here and working.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.


The Book With All the Answers

bunnyDo you remember Mister Bunny Rabbit?. He was a friend of Captain Kangaroo. One day long ago, when I still measured my age in single digits, Mister Bunny Rabbit announced that he owned a book containing the answer to every possible question. I was skeptical about that book, and so was the Captain, who scoffed mightily at the notion. By way of a test, he looked up the question “Where is Mister Green Jeans right now?”. The book’s answer was “In the attic”, which the Captain knew (I forget how) could not possibly be right. While the Captain was still gloating, Mister Green Jeans ambled in and mentioned that he’d just come from the attic.

The Captain was amazed, and so was I. Long into adulthood, I pondered how that book could possibly have known where Mister Green Jeans was. The best answer I ever got was from the journalist Chris Suellentrop, who speculated that it was probably one of those quantum mechanical things where the act of asking the question caused both the book and Mister Green Jeans to settle down from a cloud of possibilities into mutually compatible states. Others—not so very long ago—speculated that perhaps the book was controlled by a satellite operating a surveillance camera.

Nowadays, of course, we can all carry that book in our pockets. I wonder if today’s children would find anything particularly magical about a reference work that has the answers to pretty much everything, and updates them on the fly.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

Just the Facts

jackwebbDuring our brief intermission last week, commenters chose to revisit the question of whether arithmetic is invented or discovered—a topic we’d discussed here and here. This reminded me that I’ve been meaning to highlight an elementary error that comes up a lot in this kind of discussion.

It is frequently asserted that the facts of arithmetic are either “tautologous” or “true by definition” or “logical consequences of the axioms”. Those are three different assertions, and all of them are false. (This is not a controversial statement.)

The arguments made to support these assertions are not subtly flawed; they are overtly ludicrous. Almost always, they consist of “proof by example”, as in “1+1=2 is true by definition; therefore all the facts of arithmetic are true by definition”. Of course one expects to stumble across this sort of “reasoning” on the Internet, but it’s always jarring to see it coming from people who profess an interest in mathematical logic. (I will refrain from naming the worst offenders.)

So let’s consider a few facts of arithmetic:

Continue reading ‘Just the Facts’

As Much As Direction

Let us please learn new words that mean as much as direction: wife.

That single cryptic line is the complete text of a poem by Richard Brautigan that I first read almost forty years ago. I still don’t quite get it, but for some reason it’s always struck me as hauntingly beautiful. And, following a momentous weekend, it feels like the right thing to post today.

Edited to add: Apparently this post was as cryptic as the poem. One commenter writes:

You make it sound like you would like to get married but have not taken all necessary steps.

In fact, I took all the necessary steps this weekend. It was a lovely wedding.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.


After six months of blogging nearly every weekday, I’m taking a four day weekend. This will give you a chance to browse through the archives for all the good stuff you might have missed. Or, if you’re looking for a good read to tide you over, I can recommend Chapter Two of my book Fair Play. Some of the examples are dated (Wal-Mart, as far as I know, no longer advertises that “we buy American so you can too”), but it makes a good companion piece to yesterday’s post.

I’ll be back on Tuesday with, I expect, something new to say.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

Why I’d Rather Be Blogging

You guys—with your thoughtful, witty and relevant comments—have made me thankful I took up blogging. My (considerable) experience with the mainstream media suggests that you meet a much lower class of people there. Let me give you an example.

Once upon a time I wrote a Forbes column drawing an analogy between protectionism (which discriminates on the basis of national origin) and racism (which discriminates, of course, on the basis of race). (Of course the analogy isn’t perfect. For example, racism can be a solitary hobby, whereas protectionism by its nature forces other people to discriminate as well.) There were many responses, of which my favorite was Pat Buchanan’s screed containing both some hilariously misguided economics and a paragraph I’ve had posted on my office door ever since:

Now I do not know what parents pay to send their kids to the University of Rochester. But if the philosophical imbecility of Landsburg is representative of the faculty, it is too much.

Shortly afterward, I was scheduled to appear on John Gibson’s program on Fox News, where the following exchange took place:

This, in turn, led to a flurry of email. To give you the full flavor, and so as not to bias the sample, I am appending every single email I received on this subject, excepting only one relatively positive note from my mother.

Continue reading ‘Why I’d Rather Be Blogging’

Partly Unclear

In the course of planning a rather significant event for the coming weekend, I was forced, for the first time in my life, to confront the following conundrum:

  • Which is sunnier — “partly sunny” or “partly cloudy”?

My faith in the power of pure reason was severely shaken when I realized I could construct equally plausible arguments in either direction. So, with reluctance, I abandoned theory and turned to evidence, in the form of the logos employed by two of the more popular weather forecasting sites:

Weather Underground
Partly Sunny
Partly Cloudy

Weather Underground takes an unambiguous stand: partly cloudy is definitely sunnier than partly sunny. Accuweather is a little, umm, hazier on the issue; apparently at Accuweather, partly cloudy means something like “somewhat wispier clouds, covering more of the central portion of the sun but a bit less of the edges, than partly sunny”. Overall, though, it appears that at Accuweather, partly sunny is sunnier than partly cloudy.

Continue reading ‘Partly Unclear’

The English Patient

whiteheadA friend living in England (the philosopher Jamie Whyte, actually, whose writing has graced this very blog) sends along a little vignette for the benefit of my American readers who see European health care systems through rose colored glasses.

A 64 year old breast cancer survivor suffering severe back pain is told she’ll have to wait five months for an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon through the National Health Service (NHS). She therefore (and perfectly legally) chooses to pay 250 pounds (about 385 dollars) for a private appointment. He puts her on a waiting list for surgery to remove a cyst from her spine, surgery which is routinely covered by the NHS. But the NHS decides that since she can afford 250 pounds for a private appointment, she can also afford 10,000 pounds (over 15,000 dollars) for private surgery. They therefore deny to provide her the surgery for which she’s been paying taxes her whole life.

This was not an isolated incident; until recently, cancer patients were routinely denied further NHS treatement after privately purchasing lifesaving drugs that are not available through the NHS.

More details here. It’s worth reading the comments, where readers excoriate the patient for “queue jumping” because she used the price system to signal her high demand for medical services. Note that nobody complains about “queue jumping” in the market for, say, oranges, because oranges are not rationed by government bureaucrats and therefore do not generate queues.

The lesson, I think, is that once an inefficient bureaucracy becomes entrenched, a certain fraction of the electorate becomes incapable of imagining anything better. In this case, that fraction seems to have forgotten first that some people need medical care more desperately than others, so that “queue jumping” can be desirable, second that private payments to doctors actually call forth more medical care and therefore shorten queues, and third that maybe it would be better to have a system that didn’t require queuing in the first place.


deanmartinOver at Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson blogs about a science fiction novel that posits a world where people routinely sell shares in their future income. (I have not read the novel, which is called The Unincorporated Man.) Robin laments that while many reviewers have taken it for granted that we wouldn’t want to allow such contracts, none seem to have seriously engaged the idea.

I’m not sure if this counts as serious engagement, but I am reminded of the apparently little-known fact that the singer/actor/TV phenomenon Dean Martin did exactly this. In fact, he overdid exactly this. By the time he was 27 years old, Martin had sold 10% of himself to MCA Records, 20% to his manager DIck Richards, 35% to his other manager Lou Perry, and 25% to the mobster Frank Costello. That left him with 5% of himself—”$50 for every grand he made” in the words of writer Nick Tosches. A year later, he hired yet another manager and sold him another 10%. Having now sold 105% of himself, it became imprudent to earn money. Therefore, in need of something to live on, Martin sold yet another 10% of himself to nighclub owner Angel Lopez.

Continue reading ‘Overselling’

Weekend Roundup

The bulk of the week was devoted to Krugman on green economics, with posts here, here, and here.

Although I agreed with Krugman on some points and disagreed on others, there were two places where I not only disagreed but thought he had the economics wrong. First, he is wrong when he suggests that if we’re more risk averse, it follows that we should spend more on climate control. The reason is that risk averse people don’t like income inequality (because it boosts the risk of being born poor), and spending more on climate control exacerbates income inequality across generations. Therefore risk aversion cuts both ways on this issue. Second, Krugman is wrong when he gives (some) credence to James Hansen’s economically illiterate belief that altruism is somehow less effective under a cap-and-trade regime than under an emissions tax.

To round out the week, we had two posts about shameless hucksters trying to gull the public. Those posts are here and here.

As always, I’ll be back on Monday.

Tax Relief, Obama Style

What a relief. Now that April 15 is out of the way, my tax rate is back to zero for another year.

At least that’s the way the President of the United States seems to have it figured—your tax burden, according to him, is measured by what you’re paying right this moment as opposed to what you’re obligated to pay in the future.

taxburdenThat’s the only possible interpretation of his statement last night that Tea Partiers (and others) should be thanking him for cutting taxes. The reality is that President Obama, like President Bush before him, has rather dramatically raised government spending and therefore has raised your taxes. To say otherwise is like saying you got your new swimming pool for free because you put it on your credit card.

Once the money is spent, the bill must eventually come due—and there’s nobody around to foot that bill except the taxpayers. We are locked into higher current spending and therefore locked into higher future taxes. The president hasn’t lowered taxes; he’s raised and then deferred them. To say otherwise is—let’s be blunt—a flat-out lie.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

More Triumphs of Capitalism

Do me a favor. Listen to this 30 second audio clip and let me know if you feel like you can speak a little Gaelic.


The clip is from the Subliminal Learn Gaelic Irish/Scottish CD available from Brainwave Mind Voyages. According to their website, listening to this CD while you sleep will train you not just to speak Gaelic but to read it as well. (If the clip above didn’t work for you, please try it again while sleeping.) If you really want to go high-tech, they also offer an ultrasonic track that teaches you Gaelic in complete silence.

In case Gaelic is not your thing, the same company offers subliminal CDs that will teach you to dance, trade stocks, or stop pulling your eyelashes. Or on the racier side, there are CDs for subliminal breast enhancement, “natural male enhancement”, and combating both impotence and the gag reflex.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have developed a technology that will teach you to keep squirrels in your pocket while you sleep. For the time being, only the traditional methods are available. But who knows what the future might bring?

Krugman on Climate—Some Final Words

Having blogged twice this week (here and here) on Paul Krugman’s green economics essay, I want to add a couple of quick comments on what it takes to contribute usefully to this discussion.

Continue reading ‘Krugman on Climate—Some Final Words’

Krugman on Climate

Yesterday I blogged about Paul Krugman’s recent piece on climate control policy. The bottom line: After recovering from a shaky start, Krugman does a good job of laying out the issues and posing many (though not quite all) of the right questions. But I’m not sure he gets the answers right.

A few years ago, writing in Slate, I listed the key questions that the Al Gores of the world mostly fail to address or even acknowledge. (See also the discussion on pages 186-190 of The Big Questions.) Krugman (thankfully) is no Al Gore, and he does address most of these questions. Let’s see how he does with them.

Continue reading ‘Krugman on Climate’

A Tale of Three Economists

Halfway through reading Paul Krugman’s New York Times piece on green economics, I had my snarky retort all ready to go. Then in the second half he went and got all reasonable on me. I still don’t buy his conclusions, but (sadly for readers who like fireworks), he’s not (at least in this instance) nuts.

Continue reading ‘A Tale of Three Economists’

Weekend Roundup

We had lots of new readers this week after several posts got considerable attention around the blogosphere: One on the difference between what the economist says and what the non-economist hears, one on blogging and the future of math (with its companion piece on four-dimensional tic-tac-toe), and two posts from the preceding week: My most influential books list and a post on what’s wrong with happiness research.

Bookending the week were my discovery of myself as a character in a novel and an extraordinary triumph of capitalism.

I look forward to seeing our new and old readers again on Monday.

Triumphs of Capitalism

The secret of invisibility and the secret of keeping a squirrel in your pocket—all for one low price of $24.95. Now there’s something you’d never see under socialism.

Blogging, Tic Tac Toe and the Future of Math

Blogging, as you might have heard, is changing the face of the media. It may also be changing the face of mathematical research. For the first time ever, a substantial mathematical problem has been solved via an accumulation of blog comments, all building on each other. Could this be the future of mathematical research?

Before I explain the problem, let’s talk a little about tic-tac-toe. As you probably figured out long ago, intelligent players of ordinary tic-tac-toe (on a 3 by 3 board) will invariably battle to a draw. But, as you probably also figured out, not every game ends in a draw, because not every player is intelligent.

On the other hand, if we blacken out the three squares on the main diagonal and don’t allow anyone to play there (so the game ends when the remaining six squares are filled, then every game is sure to end in a draw. There’s simply no way to get three in a row when you’re not allowed to play on the diagonal:

Continue reading ‘Blogging, Tic Tac Toe and the Future of Math’

Tic Tac Toe in Four Dimensions

In high school, we used to play four-dimensional tic-tac-toe. The board looks like this:

Here each four-by-four subsquare is an ordinary tic-tac-toe board (except that it’s four-by-four instead of the traditional three-by-three). You should think of the four subsquares in the first column (or any other column) as stacked above each other in the third dimension. The red x’s form a vertical line in that direction, so if you manage to place four x’s in those positions, you’re a winner.

You should also think of the four subsquares in the first row as stacked above each other in yet another dimension. The red o’s form a diagonal line passing from the bottom left to the top right (using “bottom” and “top” to refer to directions in this fourth dimension). And the black x’s form another kind of diagonal line, passing from one corner to another through all four dimensions. So there are a lot of ways to win this game.

Continue reading ‘Tic Tac Toe in Four Dimensions’

Hearing Problems

hearingFirst, kudos to both Bennett Haselton and Xan, each of whom nailed yesterday’s puzzle in comments. Bennett’s answer has the advantage of requiring no knowledge of algebra; Xan’s has the advantage of giving a (much) more precise bound on how long it takes for history to repeat itself.

Now on to something completely different:

During a belated conversation about health care policy, a colleague remarked that “of course, nobody would want to live in a world where rich people and poor people got the same kind of health care”. The economists around the table all nodded in agreement and moved on to matters that were actually controversial.

It occurs to me that had there been a few non-economists at the table, someone might have objected to my colleague’s matter-of-fact (and surely accurate) observation. And it occurs to me also that maybe there’s a general lesson here about how economists communicate—or fail to communicate—with the world at large.

Continue reading ‘Hearing Problems’

The Yukiad, Perpetual Motion and Me

yukiadIt’s a bit of an odd feeling to be reading a novel and stumble upon yourself as a character. Well, at least a well-disguised version of yourself. The novel is Victor Snaith’s The Yukiad, and the character is a large Scotsman named Pans who tugs at his earrings when he becomes agitated. I am neither Scottish, nor earringed, nor particularly large, but I suspect that Pans, viewed through the haze of poetic license, is I.

When we meet Pans, he is hovering over a glass contraption—a perpetual motion machine, really—consisting of a circular tube containing several colored beads, which travel around the tube, some clockwise, some counterclockwise, all at the same speed, bouncing off each other in perfectly elastic collisions whenever they collide. Pans is currently tugging at his earrings so hard as to cause some concern for the integrity of his earlobes, as he ponders the following question:

But wull tha’ aver gut bark to weer tha’s started, at a’, at a’?

Well, okay, maybe I’m not Pans. Maybe I’m the character Sherloch Humes, a “trim but rather wrinkled gentleman in worsteds”, who calculates for Pans’s benefit that “the configuration of beads is guaranteed to have exactly replicated itself by the year two thousand and nineteen”. I believe that I am the inspiration for one of these characters and that the mathematician Leonid Vaserstein (who is neither Scottish nor wrinkled) is the inspiration for the other, and here is why:

Continue reading ‘The Yukiad, Perpetual Motion and Me’

Weekend Roundup

This week’s highlights:

The Tragedy of the Chametz

matzahIt is the season of both Lent and Passover, which means that for Christians and Jews it is the season of making small but pointless sacrifices. This always strikes me as mildly tragic. If you’re going to sacrifice your pleasures in order to feel virtuous, why not at least do it in a way that helps someone? Instead of giving up meat or leavened bread, donate a few hundred dollars to a worthy cause.

[Before you tell me that giving up meat is socially beneficial because it holds the price of meat down, remember that low prices are good for buyers only to exactly the same extent that they’re bad for sellers. Changing a price does no net good. The rigorous proof of this is part of the theory of pecuniary externalities, on which the Wikipedia entry is uncharacteristically useless.]

Observing Lent or Passover has much in common with things like running around a track: You push yourself to do something hard, you feel good about it, and you leave the world pretty much the way you found it. What a shame that you didn’t push yourself to do something useful instead. I bet you could have learned to feel almost as good about that.

Continue reading ‘The Tragedy of the Chametz’

When Is It Okay to Counterfeit?

counterfeitsWhen I spoke at George Mason University last week, grad student Eli Dourado brought me up short with a question I wasn’t prepared for. He was riffing off the following passage from The Big Questions:

Is it okay to steal? Certainly not, and I’ve already told you why: The time and effort you spend stealing things is time and effort you could spend producing things instead. Theft leaves the world poorer than it could have been.

Is it okay to counterfeit? Certainly not, because counterfeiting is stealing. The time and effort you spend producing a phony dollar bill entitles you to a Hostess cupcake or a bus ride or a Blockbuster video rental without adding anything to the world’s stock of food, transportation, or entertainment. The cupcake you eat is made of flour and sugar that someone else could have eaten.

With that as background, Eli asked me this:

Is it okay for me to counterfeit if the central bank is not being sufficiently expansionary?

Continue reading ‘When Is It Okay to Counterfeit?’