Monthly Archive for May, 2012

Hypocrites and Half-Wits

hhwThe letter to the editor is a literary genre unique unto itself. Unlike the editorial or the op-ed, the letter typically allows its author only a couple of short paragraphs to make a single compelling point. A good blog post might ramble from one loosely connected idea to another, but a good letter proceeds directly to its target.

Don Boudreaux is, beyond any doubt, the modern master — no, the all-time master — of this underrated branch of literature. When a radio station interviews a Galveston resident who’s just topped off her gas tank in anticipation of Hurricane Ike — and who is furious to learn that gas prices have jumped 50 cents a gallon overnight even though “Ike hadn’t hit yet” — a blogger (or an Armchair Economist) might respond with a long-winded explanation of why it’s a good thing that supply, demand, and therefore prices respond quickly to a change in expectations. Boudreaux, instead, skips right to the heart of the matter:

Your reporter should have immediatedly asked this woman: “Well, why were you topping off your tank? Ike hadn’t hit yet.”

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Fighting Back

notredameA consortium of Catholic institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, is suing to overturn the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. I hope they lose. I think.

The birth control mandate strikes me as a very hard policy to defend, though I’ve done my part to put together the best possible arguments in its favor. For the record, I do think there’s a quite reasonable case to be made for some insurance mandates — primarily with regards to pre-existing conditions and catastrophic illnesses. (There’s also a very good case against those mandates, so don’t take this as an endorsement!). Those mandates at least address plausible market failures. A contraception mandate pretty clearly fails that test (though see the discussion at the linked post for some reasoned argument to the contrary).

So I believe the mandate is bad policy, both in its specifics and in its general presumption in favor of government power. If this isn’t unconstitutional, we need a better constitution. But that’s not the basis of Notre Dame’s lawsuit. Notre Dame’s position, as I understand it, is that Catholic institutions (as opposed to, say, General Electric) should be exempt from the mandate because religious objections (as opposed to, say, financial objections) have some kind of special exalted status. That strikes this non-lawyer as straying perilously close to a law respecting the establishment of religion. And if that’s not unconstitutional, then we really need a better constitution.

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Tuesday Puzzle

This has been making the rounds lately; I’m not sure where it first came from.

You’re in a rectangular room. Elsewhere in the room is a man with a gun, who shoots a bullet in a random direction. The bullet careens around the room, bouncing off walls, until it hits either you or one of the various punching bags you’ve placed around the room for purposes of absorbing the bullet. The punching bags must be positioned before you know the random direction of the bullet (though you do know both your own location and the bad guy’s location, neither of which you can change). How many punching bags do you need to guarantee your survival?

This being a math problem, you should treat the room as two dimensional, and yourself, the bullet and the punching bags as points.

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Song of Bernadette

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When I screw up, I try to confess and atone for my errors.

Just about exactly a year ago, I posted a list of the 25 most beautiful folk songs ever recorded. How on earth did I manage to overlook Judy Collins’s stunning cover of Leonard Cohen/Jennifer Warnes’s heart-wrenching “Song of Bernadette”?

I’m afraid this egregious oversight has deprived you all of a year of sublime listening pleasure. My apologies to Miss Collins and to all of my readers.

Though YouTube says this is from a 1991 Collins concert in California, she performed a nearly identical rendition at Wolf Trap in 2000. The Live at Wolf Trap CD is well worth its exorbitant price; every track is stunning.

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When the Saints Go Marching In

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(Click here to watch on YouTube.)

Sixteen years ago, Slate Magazine was launched, with Paul Krugman and me as the alternating economics columnists. At the time, Paul was fond of observing (with considerable dismay) that most of the time, highly educated and intelligent non-economists appear to be completely incapable of distinguishing between compelling arguments and utter nonsense in the field of economics. His essay on “Pop Internationalism” is a brilliant series of riffs on this theme — a guided tour of sheer balderdash that gets a respectable hearing even though no economist could possibly take it seriously. “Pop Internationalism” (the lead essay in the book of the same name) is high on my recommended reading list.

The lesson I took from this observation was that we (Krugman, I, and economic commentators in general) had a responsibility to explain not just what economists believe, but why we believe it — to help readers understand that there’s a rigorous underlying logic to the discipline, and that there are good reasons for insisting that people adhere to that logic. Nowadays, when he’s at his most obstreperous, I sometimes suspect Krugman of having drawn a very different lesson — that because nobody understands the real logic of economics, we can get away with saying any damned thing we want to. It’s a frustrating thing to watch, because when he’s good, he’s very very good. But when he is bad he is horrid. I won’t list examples here, but you can find quite a few by browsing my Paul Krugman archive.

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The Economics of Teenage Pregnancy

Teenage motherhood is well correlated with poor economic outcomes. This of course need not mean that teenage motherhood causes poor economic outcomes; in fact, Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine (of U. Maryland and Wellesley College) argue precisely the opposite: Being on a low economic trajectory causes teenage motherhood, and conditional on that original trajectory, teenage motherhood does little economic harm:

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News of the Day

obamaThe President of the United States thinks that gay marriage should be legal. So do I. But I have two coments:

First, I am dismayed by the notion that anyone’s vote might be swayed by this issue, in either direction.

As I said earlier in the week, I do understand why this is an issue of major importance in some people’s lives. But the number of people affected, and the magnitude of the effects, are still meager compared to the effects of, say, trade or immigration policy. What ever happened to perspective?

Of course, Bryan Caplan will tell you that voters are systematically irrational in any event, so it might be just as well that they’re basing their votes on things that don’t matter very much, as opposed to basing their votes on things that really matter and getting them wrong. But it’s still disheartening to think about.

Second, I am dismayed by the President’s suggestion that he came to this viewpoint through observation of “incredibly committed monogamous” same-sex relationships among his staffers — suggesting (though not outright asserting) that monogamy ought to be somehow relevant to the legal status of one’s marriage. And here I’d thought the whole point of this gay marriage thing was that the way people have sex is not properly a concern of the legal authorities. If he’s continuing to deny this principle, then the President remains philosophically on the same side of this divide as Family Research Council.

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Today’s the Day

The new revised edition of The Armchair Economist is now on sale in paperback and electronic versions. Last week’s glitch (where the electronic versions were of the wrong edition) is fixed.

For almost twenty years, Armchair has been widely recognized among economists as the book to give your mother when she wants to understand what you think about all day. In this new version, fully updated for the 21st century, I’ve completely rewritten several chapters to make them even clearer, livelier and more contemporary.

I (and you if you buy the book) am deeply indebted to Lisa Talpey who read every chapter multiple times, insisting that I keep rewriting until everything met her meticulous standards of clarity. Chapters I’d thought were pretty good are vastly improved thanks to Lisa; these include:

  • Why Popcorn Costs More at the Movies (and Why the Obvious Answer is Wrong)
  • Was Einstein Credible? (The Economics of Scientific Method)
  • The Indifference Principle (Who Cares if the Air is Clean?)
  • and

  • Why Taxes Are Bad (The Logic of Efficiency)

Others are almost completely rewritten to focus on issues that are in the news today; these include

  • The Mythology of Deficits
  • and

  • Unsound and Furious: Spurious Wisdom from the Media

By way of general housecleaning, I’ve excised all references to cassette tapes, Polaroid film, and Walter Mondale.

You can read the preface here. You can buy the book here. Here are direct links to the updated Kindle and Nook editions. (These editions are advertised as “published November 2007″, but don’t panic; that’s just the lingering shadow of last week’s glitch. They’re actually the brand-new 2012 edition.)

Dan Seligman at Fortune called the first edition of The Armchair Economist “enormous fun from its opening page”; Alfred Malabre of the Wall Street Journal called it “the most enjoyable and sensible book by an economist about economics that I’ve read in donkey’s years”; Milton Friedman called it “an ingenious and highly original presentation of some central principles of economics for the proverbial Everyman”; George Gilder called it “a crisp, lively, pungent display of the economist’s art”. This second edition is, I believe, all that and more.

The Armchair Economist is indeed the perfect gift for your mother, or for your father, or for the new college grad in your life, or even for yourself. Enjoy it, and come join the discussion right here.

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In the News

As long as we have anything like traditional marriage, I believe that restricting it to heterosexual couples is an exceptionally bad and stupid policy, laced with unnecessary cruelty. It is not, however, an issue that is likely ever to affect my vote, because so much else dwarfs its importance. Legalizing gay marriage would make life substantially better for a few million people of the wealthiest people in the world (i.e. Americans) and is therefore a good thing, but if I’m going to pick my battles, I’ll cast my lot with, say, the tens or hundreds of millions of Third Worlders who are relegated to dire poverty by American trade and immigration restrictions. I’ll take the homophobic free trader over the protectionist crusader for sexual equality every single time.

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Kindle Update

The all-new revised edition of The Armchair Economist is now available in a Kindle edition (as well as paperback) here.

As of this writing, the Amazon page still says you are buying the 2007 version, but that’s wrong. The version you’ll get is the new 2012 version.

Barnes and Noble still has the 1993 version for the Nook. This will be fixed in a day or two.

The Number Devil

devilIn the comments section of Bob Murphy’s blog, I was asked (in effect) why I insist on the objective reality of the natural numbers (that is, the counting numbers 0,1,2,3…) but not of, say, the real numbers (that is, the numbers we use to represent lengths — and that are themselves represented by possibly infinite decimal expansions).

There seem to be two kinds of people in the world: Those with enough techncal backgroud that they already know the answer, and those with less technical background, who have no hope — at least without a lot of work — of grasping the answer. I’m going to attempt to bridge that gap here. That means I’m going to throw a certain amount of precision to the winds, in hopes of being comprehensible to a wider audience.

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Hang On There ….

Edited to Add: These problems are fixed now! The electronic versions are correct. They are still advertised as November 2007 editions, but they are in fact the May 2012 edition. You can now trust the links at http://www.TheBigQuestions.com/buy .

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hangToday (May 1) was the official publication date for the all-new revised edition of The Armchair Economist. (Read the preface here.) Unfortunately, we had a major communication screw-up and purchasers of the electronic editions (Kindle, Nook, etc.) are still receiving the 1993 edition (which is labeled the “2007 edition” because that’s when it was converted to an e-book). This will be fixed in a day or so. I’ll post to let you know when it’s safe to buy.

Meanwhile, if you’ve recently purchased an electronic Armchair Economist, I encourage you to return it, wait just a day or two till you see the announcement that all systems are go, and then buy it all over again.

I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am about this. There is at least one very particular head I’d like to see roll.

Thanks for bearing with the glitch, and watch this space for the big announcement that all systems are go.

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