Monthly Archive for November, 2014

Two Questions for Bob Murphy

Bob Murphy objects to my recent defense of Jonathan Gruber. I have two questions for Bob.

Suppose a newly elected Republican president wants to exempt all investment income from taxation. There are two ways to do this:

1) Retain the income tax, but exempt all interest, dividends, and capital gains (while also abolishing the corporate and estate taxes).

2) Scrap the income tax and replace it with a national consumption tax.

The president’s chief economic advisor, like all economists, is well aware that these two policies are essentially equivalent in the sense that, once prices, wages and interest rates adjust to the new policies, each individual taxpayer is burdened exactly as much by policy 2) as by policy 1). More precisely, at least following an initial adjustment period each individual taxpayer enjoys exactly the same lifetime stream of consumption under policy 2) as under policy 1).

Let’s suppose also that the chief economic advisor believes that policy 1) is vulnerable to scurrilous class-warfare-themed attacks and therefore cannot be sold to the American people. Policy 2), however, stands a chance of passage. He therefore goes around honestly touting what he perceives to be the clear virtues of policy 2), choosing not to mention that it’s equivalent to policy 1).

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More Thanks

Yes, I’ve already got one Thanksgiving post up. But we should not skimp on gratitude, so here’s another:

Today I am thankful that I live in a time and a place where indictments are handed down (or not) by grand juries that have weighed a wide range of evidence, and not by angry mobs.

I’m thankful too for all my readers. Have the very best of holidays.

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Day of Thanks

This is a slightly revised version of my Thanksgiving post from five years ago. I think it bears repeating:

After the philosopher Daniel Dennett was rushed to the hospital for lifesaving surgery to replace a damaged aorta, he had an epiphany:

I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

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Borderline Disorder

Here’s one difference between me and Paul Krugman: He enthusiastically supports President Obama’s new immigration policy, which he calls a matter of human decency. I grudgingly support President Obama’s new immigration policy, which I call a bit less indecent than the policy it replaces.

krugHere’s another difference between me and Paul Krugman: I believe it’s the job of an economics journalist to call attention to unpleasant tradeoffs and offer frameworks for resolving those tradeoffs. Krugman apparently believes it’s the job of an economics journalist to sweep all tradeoffs under the rug in the name of advancing your policy agenda — appealing, if you will, to the stupidity of the American op-ed reader.

Krugman, for example, tells us that he opposes deportations because they’re cruel, but also opposes open borders because they’d make it both economically and politically impossible to maintain the modern American welfare state.

In furtherance of which, he offers this kind of claptrap:

Second, there are large numbers of children who were born here … but whose parents came illegally, and are legally subject to being deported.

What should we do about these people and their families? There are some forces in our political life who want us to … deport the undocumented parents of American children and force those children either to go into exile or to fend for themselves.

But that isn’t going to happen, partly because, as a nation, we aren’t really that cruel

Dammit, I hate this stuff. Krugman says (and I agree with him) that it’s cruel to deport people. He ignores the fact that it’s also cruel to keep other people out. Krugman says (and I agree with him) that letting more people in would put pressure on the welfare system. He ignores the fact that allowing people to stay also puts pressure on the welfare system. Why should we prioritize kindness to those who are already here over kindness to those who are clamoring to get here?

There might be a really good answer to that question, but you’d never know it from reading Krugman. In fact, the takeaway from Krugman’s column is that the cruelty of deportations is unacceptable only because Krugman says so, and the cruelty of closed borders is a necessary evil only because Krugman says that too. So the next time you want to know whether some other policy is unacceptably cruel or not, the only way to find out is to ask Paul Krugman.

And then there’s more:

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Who I Hope We Are Not as Americans

So let me get this straight. We drew this imaginary line in the desert. We’ll no longer use force to move people from this side to that side, but we will still use force to prevent movement from that side to this side.

This is good news for the people who are on this side at the moment, and I share their joy. But it does little for their less fortunate cousins who never made it here in the first place.

The president talks about “who we are as Americans”. I’d have hoped that we as Americans were not so basely hypocritical as to find it imperative that we stop bullying Group A (i.e. those who are here), but equally imperative that we continue to bully the even less fortunate Group B (i.e. those who aspire to be here).

This is a day to celebrate and a day to mourn.

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In Defense of Gruber

Regarding Jonathan Gruber and the Cadillac tax, I think a little historical context will be useful:

1) Our tax system subsidizes employer-provided health insurance. That’s dumb. Pretty much all economists agree that it’s dumb.

2) On the other hand, it’s politically hard to eliminate a subsidy once people get used to it.

gruber3) In 2008, we had an election. The candidates were named Barack Obama and John McCain. Exactly one of those candidates took the politically courageous step of proposing to eliminate the subsidies (and replace them with other subsidies, far more sensibly designed). The other candidate took the low road, leaping to the defense of subsidies he had to know were indefensible, playing to the crowd, and staking all on what could reasonably be called “the stupidity of the American voter” (though I myself would prefer to call it “the inattentiveness of the American voter”). That candidate won in a landslide.

4) Once elected, President Obama’s demagogy came back to haunt him. On the one hand, he knew that you cannot have sensible health care reform without curtailing those subsidies. On the other hand, he’d publicly committed himself to preserving them.

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The Generalist

groth2I never met Alexander Grothendieck. I was never in the same room with him. I never even saw him from a distance. But whenever I think about math — which is to say, pretty much every day — I feel him hovering over my shoulder. I’ve strived to read the mind of Grothendieck as others strive to read the mind of God.

Those who did know him tend to describe him as a man of indescribable charisma, with a Christ-like ability to inspire followers. I’ve heard it said that when Grothendieck walked into a room, you might have had no idea who he was or what he did, but you definitely knew you wanted to devote your life to him.

And people did. In 1958, when Grothendieck (aged 30) announced a massive program to rewrite the foundations of geometry, he assembled a coterie of brilliant followers and conducted a seminar that met 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, for over a decade. Grothendieck talked; others took notes, went home, filled in details, expanded on his ideas, wrote final drafts, and returned the next day for more. Jean Dieudonne, a mathematician of quite considerable prominence in his own right, subjugated himself entirely to the project and was at his desk every morning at 5AM so that he could do three hours of editing before Grothendieck arrived and started talking again at 8:00. (Here and elsewhere I am reporting history as I’ve heard it from the participants and others who followed developments closely as they were happening. If I’ve got some details wrong, I’m happy to be corrected.) The resulting volumes filled almost 10,000 pages and rocked the mathematical world. (You can see some of those pages here).

I want to try to give something of the flavor of the revolution that unfolded in that room, and I want to do it for an audience with little mathematical background. This might require stretching some analogies almost to the breaking point. I’ll try to be as honest as I can. In the first part, I’ll talk about Grothendieck’s radical approach to mathematics generally; after that, I’ll talk (in a necessarily vague way) about some of his most radical and important ideas.

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The Rising Sea

grothAround 1970, Alexander Grothendieck, the greatest of all modern mathematicians and arguably the greatest mathematician of all time, announced — at the age of 42 — the official end of his research career. Another great mathematician once told me that he thought he knew why. Following two decades of discoveries and insights that, one after the other, stunned the mathematical world, Grothendieck had, for the first time, achieved an insight so unexpected and so consequential that he himself was stunned. Grothendieck had discovered his own mortality.

I am told that just a few hours ago, his vision proved accurate. But the notion of Grothendieck as a mortal seems hard to swallow. He dominated pure mathematics not just through the force of his ideas — ideas that seemed eons ahead of everyone else’s — but through the force of his personality. When, around 1960, he announced his audacious plan to solve the notoriously difficult Weil conjectures by first rewriting the foundations of geometry, dozens of superb mathematicians put the rest of their careers on hold to do their parts. The project’s final page count, including the twelve volumes known as SGA (Seminaire de Geometrie Algebrique) and the eight known as EGA (Elements de Geometrie Algebrique) approached 10,000 pages. The force and clarity of Grothendieck’s unique vision scream forth from nearly every one of those pages, demanding that the reader see the mathematical world in a new and completely original way — a perspective that has proved not just compelling, but unspeakably powerful.

In Grothendieck, modesty would have been ridiculous, and he was never ridiculous. Here, in his own words — words that ring utterly true — is Grothendieck’s own assessment of how he stood apart (translated from French by Roy Lisker):

Most mathematicians take refuge within a specific conceptual framework, in a “Universe” which seemingly has been fixed for all time – basically the one they encountered “ready-made” at the time when they did their studies. They may be compared to the heirs of a beautiful and capacious mansion in which all the installations and interior decorating have already been done, with its living-rooms , its kitchens, its studios, its cookery and cutlery, with everything in short, one needs to make or cook whatever one wishes. How this mansion has been constructed, laboriously over generations, and how and why this or that tool has been invented (as opposed to others which were not), why the rooms are disposed in just this fashion and not another – these are the kinds of questions which the heirs don’t dream of asking . It’s their “Universe”, it’s been given once and for all! It impresses one by virtue of its greatness, (even though one rarely makes the tour of all the rooms) yet at the same time by its familiarity, and, above all, with its immutability.

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Post-Halloween Mystery

So apparently there was this pumpkin……

A colleague spotted it on the floor in front of my office door on Sunday afternoon and was intrigued enough (or weirded out enough) to snap a couple of pictures:

Unfortunately, by the time I came into work on Monday, the pumpkin had mysteriously disappeared. And I didn’t cross paths with my colleague until late this afternoon, which is when I first learned that there had ever been a pumpkin.

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Now What?

It was the election of 1994 that knocked the idealism out of me. Republicans ran on a national platform of reform, they won — and nothing happened. My recollection (someone correct me if I have this wrong) is that a series of substantial reform bills passed the Republican house in short order, and all of them died in the Republican senate. My guess (without having thought too hard about it) is that this is the natural order of things because Senate campaigns are so expensive that no matter what legislation the House sends up, there’s always some committee chairman with a large donor who opposes it.

There is no reassurance to be had from the identities of the likely new chairmen-to-be: Thad Cochran at Appropriations, Pat Roberts at Agriculture, Jeff Sessions at Budget, Orrin Hatch at Finance. Even aside from the question of what you can or can’t get past the White House, these are not the sort of people I want rewriting the tax code; they are not the people I want setting agricultural policy; they are not the people I want in charge of immigration reform.

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Quote of the Day, Election Edition

From Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times, writing with no apparent sense of irony about Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Serena Mancini:

She favors raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, for example, and opposes making Rhode Island a “right to work” state. Her chief focus is creating jobs.

If you doubt the existence or direction of bias at the New York Times, ask yourself when you’re next likely to read a Times piece that says something like:

She favors widespread deregulation, for example, and opposes all taxes on capital income. Her chief focus is alleviating poverty.

Wait, that’s an imperfect analogy, since (unlike the passage from Ms. Seelye) it actually makes sense. Let me try again:

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