Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the president of the United States can do any damn thing he wants to, regardless of the law. Where were these guys when Nixon needed them?
George Johnson of the New York Times writes that:
In a saner world, where science and the law meshed more precisely, a case like Firstenberg v. Monribot would have been dead on arrival in court.
Arthur Firstenberg, you see, is suing his neighbor, Raphaela Monribot, for bombarding him with photons from her iPhone, her WiFi connection, her dimmer switches and her fluorescent bulbs (all as side effects of her ordinary use of these devices). Mr. Firstenberg believes (or claims to believe) that said photons are damaging his health — a belief with essentially no scientific basis.
Mr. Firstenberg requests $1.43 million in damages, so perhaps we should think of this as an exercise in bosonic “ka-ching” theory. The case has gone on for five years, and might be headed to the New Mexico Supreme Court. Estimated court costs so far exceed a quarter of a million.
It would be easy — in fact, Mr. Johnson of the Times finds it extremely easy — to see this case as nothing but a minor tragedy with comic overtones. But the issues it raises are deeper than that.
Is it only me who is driven crazy by the American Heart Association’s campaign against “added sugars”, and the attendant campaign to label foods for their added sugar content?
Look. I am no expert, so correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I can tell from a trip around the Internet, sugar is sugar. More precisely, fructose is fructose, glucose is glucose, and so it goes. The fructose in an apple is exactly as bad for you as the fructose in a Cola drink.
Now an apple provides all sorts of good nutrients and fiber that are missing from the Cola drink. But if you want to send that message, the way to send it is to advertise that apples provide all sorts of good nutrients and fiber that are missing from Cola drinks — not to suggest (nonsensically, as far as I can tell) that the “added sugar” in the Cola drink is somehow different from the non-added sugar in an apple. If your main concern is to watch your sugar intake, the distinction doesn’t matter. If your main concern is, say, Vitamin C, then sugar counts are irrelevant anyway. If you care a little about a lot of things, then it’s good to know sugar contents, vitamin contents, and a whole lot more. But I cannot imagine any individual, in any state of the world, who is better off counting added sugar than counting total sugar.
Christopher Ingraham, writing in the Washington Post, points with alarm to a 20-year gap in life expectancies between the poorest and the richest Baltimoreans. This begs the question of whether that gap is too small or too large, or better yet, what the optimal gap would be. Surely it is not zero, which is to say that longevity is only one of the problems poor Baltimoreans face, that directing more resources to life extension means directing fewer resources elsewhere, and that redirecting enough resources to close a 20-year longevity gap would almost surely leave poor Baltimoreans worse off than they are. Even if we were prepared to spend whatever it takes to close that gap, it’s not implausible that most poor Baltimoreans would rather have the cash.
More striking is Ingraham’s observation, in the same article, that in some Baltimore neighborhoods, life expectancies are lower than they are in North Korea. Poor Baltimoreans are certainly wealthier than average North Koreans, so you’d expect them to live longer. Unless there’s some other variable at play (like, for example, a Korean genetic predisposition to long life), this suggests either that poor Baltimoreans die too young or that North Koreans live too long. It’s not clear which.
I just spent a little while trying and failing to construct a homework problem for my honors class. Although it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, I thought it might serve as a good illustration of how economists (often) think about income redistribution.
The idea is that different people are born with different talents, and that if it were possible for us all to meet in a shadowy pre-birth world (what the philosopher John Rawls called “behind the veil of ignorance”), we’d want to insure against landing in the shallow end of the gene pool — so we’d probably agree that the lucky ones — those with a lot of talent — would help to take care of the rest.
The further idea is that because we’d presumably all have voluntarily signed on to such an agreement, there’s at least a plausible case for enforcing it. (I’ve argued elsewhere that this plausible case does pretty much nothing to justify the actual sorts of redistribution that are practiced by, say, the United States government — but for present purposes, that’s neither here nor there.)
The big problem is to figure out exactly what terms we’d have all agreed on. Jim Mirrlees won a Nobel Prize for a major attack this problem. But I don’t want to ask my college sophomores to digest a Nobel-worthy body of work, so my goal is to construct a sort of baby version of the Mirrlees approach — which I hope might also interest at least one or two blog readers.
Now if governments were omniscient and omnipotent, the problem would be pretty easy — you’d take a whole lot from the rich and give a whole lot to the poor, and you’d forbid talented people to respond by working less.
In practice, though, governments face a lot of constraints. The one I want to focus on is that our talents and/or incomes might be at least partially invisible to the government. You can’t “take from the rich” if you don’t know who the rich are.
One solution is, instead of taking directly from the rich, to tax things that only rich people buy.
So my idea was to imagine that everyone has a natural talent, and an associated natural income, ranging from 0 to 1. You can spend all your income on corn (in whatever quantity you can afford), or you can spend part of your income to buy a car, for a price of 1/2. Obviously, only people with incomes over 1/2 can even consider buying a car, and even some of them might prefer not to.
If Jeb Bush is elected president and appoints me Secretary of State, the first thing I will do is set up a private server to handle my official email correspondence. This is not because I expect to have anything to hide, but because I expect my email to be important, and I do not want my service to depend on the whims of the sorts of aggressively incompetent nincompoops who, in my experience, tend to populate the IT departments of large institutions.
The University of Rochester, where I work, provides email services to all its employees. I do not use those services. Instead, I own several Internet domains and manage my own email For all I know, the University IT center might currently be 100% nincompoop-free, but all past experience suggests that it’s unlikely to stay that way very long.
Yes, I realize that one is still at the mercy of one’s upstream providers. But I am here to tell you from experience that the frequency of outages and other disasters is now about 10% of what it was in the years when I was at the mercy of the IT managers.
Larry Summers, writing in the Washington Post, tells us that:
While the recent decline in energy prices is a good thing in that it has, on balance, raised the incomes of Americans, it has also exacerbated the problem of energy overuse. The benefit of imposing carbon taxes is therefore enhanced.
He might have an argument in mind, but he doesn’t seem to have presented it.
The benefit of carbon taxes, as Summers says, comes from “the recognition that those who use carbon-based fuels or products do not bear all the costs of their actions.” In other words, without a tax, people use more oil than they should. I’m with him so far. Now what Summers appears to be thinking is that when the price of oil falls, people use more oil, which increases the gap between what they do use and what they should use. What this overlooks is that when the price of oil falls, there are increases in both the amount people do use and the amount people should use — and hence no particular reason to believe that the gap has grown.
Having made such an argument, one should draw a picture to make sure it’s right. Here are the demand and supply curves for oil. Points on the demand curve show the value to consumers of individual gallons of oil; points on the supply curve show the cost to producers of supplying those individual gallons; points on the social marginal cost curve show the cost to society (including pollution costs) of supplying those individual gallons:
Ideally, oil would be supplied only up to the point where demand crosses social marginal cost and no further. Unfortunately, it’s supplied up to the point where demand crosses supply. Those excess gallons create social losses measured by the skinny rectangles in the left-hand panel (the social loss from a gallon of oil is equal to the social cost of providing that gallon, minus its value to a consumer). These add up to the area labeled X on the right. The value of an appropriate-sized carbon tax is that we’d avoid that social loss. That is, the benefit of a carbon tax is measured by area X.
Now suppose oil becomes available more cheaply. This shifts both the supply curve and the social marginal cost curve vertically downward by the same amount and shifts area X to a new location. As you can see in the picture, there’s no particular reason to think that the area’s gotten any bigger:
So President Obama finds it remarkable that he’s been mistaken for a valet driver and a waiter.
I have some questions for my readers:
Here we have six and a half minutes of Representative Trey Gowdy badgering Jonathan Gruber while studiously avoiding any form of substance.
There’s a lot Gowdy could have asked, like “So, is it actually the case that a tax on insurers is equivalent to a tax on the insured?” or “Can you explain why those taxes are equivalent?” or “Are there any important ways in which the two policies are not equivalent?” or “Why do you think a tax on `Cadillac plans` was good policy in the first place?”
Instead, all he can think of to ask — over and over and over and over and over and over and over again — is, “Why did you call the American people stupid?”, as if there were anything useful to be learned from the answer.
I see one possible explanation here. Apparently Gowdy believes his constituents prefer mindless bullying to policy enlightenment. In other words, he acts on the assumption that the American voters are fundamentally stupid. Maybe someone should spend six and a half minutes asking him why.
Edited to add: I said this in a comment, but want to add it to the post. It either is or is not important to determine the truth of the matter regarding the issues on which Gruber spoke deceptively — e.g. in what sense are these two taxes equivalent, etc. If these questions are not important, why are we having this hearing in the first place? If these questions are important, then why is Gowdy so uninterested in them?
Edited to add further: I said this also in a comment, but want to add it here. Gruber is lying. Gowdy has a chance to question him. Gowdy can use that chance either to chant the equivalent of “Liar, liar, pants on fire” or to pin him down on the substance of what he’s lying about, e.g. “Do you or do you not stand by the statement that a tax on insurers is equivalent to a tax on the insured?”. I assure you that Gruber prefers the former, and that’s what Gowdy is giving him. Presumably that’s because he thinks voters are too stupid to appreciate the latter.
In yesterday’s post about Eric Garner, I wrote:
Suppose you are a typical street vendor of an illegal product, such as, oh, say, untaxed cigarettes.
Suppose the police make a habit of harassing such vendors, by confiscating their products, smacking them around, hauling them off to jail, and perhaps occasionally killing a few.
I have good news: The police can’t hurt you.
Here’s why: Street vending can never be substantially more rewarding than, say, carwashing. If it were, car washers would become street vendors, driving down profits until the rewards are equalized. If car washers were happier than street vendors, we’d see the same process in reverse. (The key observation here is that it’s very easy to move back and forth between street vending and other occupations that require little in the way of special training or special skills.)
Because police harassment of street vendors has no effect on the happiness of car washers, and because street vendors are always just as happy as car washers, it follows that police harassment has no effect on the happiness of street vendors.
So if you’re a street vendor, the police can’t hurt you. On the other hand, when the police go around putting people in deadly chokeholds, they’re clearly hurting someone. So the question is: Who?
Answer: Not the vendors, but their customers. Fewer vendors means higher prices. That hurts consumers, and the sum total of that harm adds up to the harm that we see in the viral videos.
Several commenters jumped in to question the claims that:
I’d like to thank those commenters — particularly David Sloan, Keshav Srinivasan and Eric — for keeping me honest and for persisting when I was initially too quick to dismiss their questions.
With regard to the first point, what I actually should have said was:
That’s because harassment causes street vendors to move into a great many other occupations, one of which is car washing. For every displaced street vendor we get, say, 1/2000 of an extra car washer — bringing wages ever so slightly down in the car washing industry and therefore making both car washers and street vendors ever so slightly worse off.
I do not consider this a significant correction.
With regard to the second point, it would have been more accurate to say this:
More precisely, if we consider the harassment equivalent to a tax of T, then the burden on producers tends to grow linearly in T while the burden on consumers in the harassed industry tends to grow quadratically in T.
However, here are two points I now realize I’d overlooked:
Here’s an explicit model:
If you asked me to make the best possible argument in favor of the police action that led to the death of Eric Garner, it would go like this:
If you asked me to make the best possible counterargument, it would go like this:
That is, every protection racket needs an enforcer. When shopowners don’t pay up, the enforcer has only two options: Walk away or resort to violence. To walk away would sacrifice credibility. Therefore we cannot fault the enforcer for resorting to violence. Sometimes violence gets pretty messy. So it goes.
The force of that reductio ad absurdum depends on the analogy between taxation of cigarettes and the demand for protection money. I think that reasonable people can disagree about the depth of that analogy.
But the lesson remains that every law must occasionally be enforced through potentially catastrophic violence, or, to put this more succinctly, all legislation is deadly. Violence is part of the cost of making laws, and it’s a cost the makers of new laws would be well advised to contemplate.
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).
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.
This is a slightly revised version of my Thanksgiving post from five years ago. I think it bears repeating:
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.
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.
Here’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:
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.
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.
3) 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.
I 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.
Around 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.
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.
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.
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:
That was the day Father had told the Burdens that Cash Benbow would never be elected Marshal in Jefferson. I don’t reckon the women paid any more attention to it than if all the men had decided that the day after tomorrow all the clocks in Jefferson were to be set back or up an hour.
|—William Faulkner, The Unvanquished|
In early 20th century China, goods were frequently transported by barges pulled by teams of six men. The men were paid only if they delivered their goods on time. Therefore they all agreed to pull as hard as possible.
This is a classic example of what economists call a Prisoner’s Dilemma — a situation where everyone wants to cheat, regardless of whether he believes the others are cheating. Any bargeman might reason that “If the others are pulling hard, we’re going to make it anyway, so I might as well relax. And if the others are not pulling hard, we’re not going to make it anyway — so I still might as well relax .” Therefore they all relax and nobody gets paid.
According to my late and much lamented colleague Walter Oi, the bargemen frequently solved this problem by hiring a seventh man to whip them whenever they appeared to be giving less than 100%. You might suppose, at least if you’re a person of ordinary tastes, that hiring a man to whip you is never a good idea. There’s a sense in which you’d be right. But hiring a man to whip your colleagues can be a very good idea indeed, and if that requires getting whipped yourself, it might prove to be an excellent bargain.
If I’d lived in China a hundred years ago, I believe I’d have gone out of my way to buy goods from the teams with whipmasters — partly because that’s where I’d expect the best service, but also partly because I’d feel a certain combination of admiration and loyalty for the teams who were working so hard to earn my business.
That’s how I feel about the folks at Amazon. Based on the fabulous service I’ve been getting, I’m confident these people are knocking themselves out to do a good job for me. In fact, it’s been widely (and perhaps accurately) reported that during a heat spell a couple of summers ago, workers in an un-airconditioned Pennsylvania warehouse continued to fill orders even as several were being treated for heat sickness.
There’s a narrative going around that tries to paint these workers as victims, though I’ve heard no version of that narrative that makes clear who, exactly, is supposed to have victimized them — the stockholders? the management? the customers? the do-nothing Congress? But there’s little point in trying to make sense of this narrative, since it’s so obviously wrong to begin with.
Imagine a team of ambitious but relatively low-skilled workers. They know that if they all push themselves to the limit, they’ll all be more productive and therefore earn higher wages. They also know that if they all promise to push themselves to the limit, they’ll all break their promises, figuring that success or failure depends almost entirely on what the others do.
One hundred years ago today, in a back room on the second floor of a middle class row home in the Welsh city of Swansea, Dylan Thomas issued his first demand for the world’s attention. His cries, I feel sure, struck onlookers as both profoundly expressive and infuriatingly difficult to understand. It was a schtick he spent 39 years refining.
I believe that Thomas at his best was the finest lyric poet ever to write in English, and at his worst a pretentious windbag. The best is more than ample compensation for the worst. At age 12, he won a prize for a poem he’d submitted to a children’s magazine, and as an adult he kept a copy of that poem, cut from the magazine, pasted to his bathroom mirror. Only after he died did some literary detective discover that Thomas has plagiarized the poem. But before he was out of his teens, he wrote the superb and brilliantly original “I See the Boys of Summer”, which I am quite sure nobody else could have conceived or executed.
Because this is Thomas’s birthday, and because every blogger is entitled to an occasional bit of self-indulgence (how else could you explain Bob Murphy’s karaoke posts?), I present here a recital of the best of Thomas’s several birthday poems. For balance, you’ll find below the cut a recital of Thomas’s finest death poem (no, it’s not “Do Not Go Gentle”), and two more of my favorites on the recurrent Thomas themes of birth and the passage of time.
(Related: My 90th/96th birthday appreciation.)
(If you have a problem with the flash video, try clicking here — or right-click to download and save.)
The winners of our crossword puzzle contest are:
—Todd Trimble (3 mistakes)
—Eric Kehr (4 mistakes, but he corrected them all by email almost immediately)
—Serge Elnitsky (5 mistakes)
—Paul Epps (5 mistakes)
(There were supposed to be three winners, but since there’s a tie for third place, we have four.)
For all those who struggled and want to see the answers, I’m temporarily posting the solution here, but might take it down after a little while in case others want to try the puzzle without being tempted to peek.
Each winner is entitled to a copy of one of my books, with a personal inscription acknowledging your brilliance. If you’re a winner, please send me your mailing address by email and book choice by email or by commenting below.
The choices are:
The Armchair Economist — the principles of economics, applied to everyday life. Available both in the original (1993) edition and in the updated (2012) version. The latter is (I hope) a little better and a lot more up-to-date, but available only in paperback. The Wall Street Journal review is
here. You can read the preface to the 2012 version here.
Fair Play. The argument of this book is that we tend to think most seriously about issues like fairness when we’re explaining them to our children — so we should listen to things we say to children, draw lessons from them, and take those lessons into the marketplace and the voting booth. The Washington Post review is here. You can read a sample chapter here.
More Sex is Safer Sex. A compendium of surprises from economic theory, including how you can do your part to fight STDs by having more sex, and why you should contribute to only one charity. The Financial Times review is here. You can read an excerpt here.
Four years ago, roughly two dozen economists and financial theorists signed an open letter to Ben Bernanke urging him to back off the policy of quantitative easing, citing, among other things, the risk of inflation.
Bernanke was apparently unmoved, and quantitative easing went ahead as scheduled. Inflation has not materialized. This raises a number of questions for the signers of the letter. Should they be ashamed? Do they have anything to apologize for? Should they renounce everything they thought they knew about economics and relearn the subject from scratch?
Cliff Asness, one of the signers, responds here. This is a terrific essay, not just on the specific topic of quantitative easing but on the general topic of the lessons we should and should not learn from our mistakes and/or from concerns that don’t materialize.
Postscript: True to form, Paul Krugman concludes that Asness, because he disagrees with Krugman, must be entirely ignorant of all the macroeconomic literature on liquidity traps. I wonder if Krugman wants to draw the same conclusion about Asness’s fellow signer John Taylor, whose likely future Nobel prize, unlike Krugman’s (who won for trade theory and economic geography), will recognize Taylor’s widely acknowledged first-rate scholarship and influence in the field of macroeconomics.
As recently as a few months ago, doctors were held in high esteem and educated people believed that medicine could be useful. All that changed, of course, with the medical profession’s stunning failure to prevent or even predict the breakout of ebola in West Africa. Worse yet, many doctors to this very day cling to their old ways of thinking, writing prescriptions, setting broken bones, and performing surgery in bull-headed defiance of the urgent need to jettison everything we know about medical practice and start over from scratch.
Nobody, of course, writes such nonsense about medicine. Why, then, do so many write equivalent nonsense about economics?
Most economists failed to predict the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession for pretty much the same reason most doctors failed to predict the 2014 ebola epidemic — their attention was, quite reasonably, directed elsewhere. It’s easy to say in hindsight that if economists had paid more attention to the shadow banking system, they’d have seen what was coming. But attention is finite, and if economists had paid more attention to the shadow banking system, they’d have paid less attention to something else.
For a little perspective, have a look at this chart showing U.S.~per capita income in fixed (2005) dollars:
That little downward blip you see near the top is the recent crisis. The somewhat bigger downward blip in the 1930s is the Great Depression. The moral is that in the overall scheme of things, recessions don’t matter very much. At the trough of the Great Depression, people lived at a level of material comfort that would have seemed unimaginably luxurious to their grandparents. Today, while Paul Krugman continues to lament “the mess we’re in”, Americans at every income level live far better than Americans of, say, 1980. If you doubt that, you surely don’t remember what life was like in 1980. Here’s how to fix that: Pick a movie from 1980 — pretty much any movie will do — and count the “insurmountable” problems that the protagonist could have solved in an instant with the technology of 2014. Or reread any of the old posts on this page.
Which is better — an electric car (like, say, the Nissan Leaf) or a gas-powered car (like, say, the Nissan Juke)? There are innumerable websites to help you decide, but an awful lot of them seem to repeat the same bizarre logic.
Take, for example, the comparison page at CleanTechnica. Here we have, in the pro-Leaf column:
The benefits to…public health as a whole from not emitting the pollution that would come from burning gas.
This is immediately followed by a cost comparison, which counts (again in the pro-Leaf column) the $7500 tax credit for electric vehicles.
Sorry, but you can’t have this both ways. My friend Alice believes that when you shop for a car, you should respond to the incentives you’re faced with, and not worry about spillover effects on others. She, therefore, cares not a whit for public health benefits, but is very impressed with that $7500 tax credit. My friend Bob, on the other hand, has a highly developed social conscience. He, therefore, is very much concerned with his neighbors’ health, but correspondingly reluctant to lift $7500 from his neighbors’ pockets.
The CleanTechnica page, then, is addressed neither to Alice nor to Bob, nor, apparently, to anyone else with a coherent philosophy, but only some moral schizophrenic who cares passionately about the state of his neighbors’ lungs but not a fig for the state of their pocketbooks.
When the Greek goddess Hera wanted to know who enjoys sex more, men or women, she had the good sense to ask Tiresias, who had lived as both. (She did not, however, have the good sense to accept Tiresias’s answer).
When sociologist Kristen Schilt wanted to know why men and women succeed differently in the workplace, she had the good sense to ask workers who have lived as both. I’ve read only a fraction of Schilt’s book, but I learned a little about it from Jessica Nordell’s thoughtful writeup in the New Republic. The upshot seems to be that when women become men, they feel that they’re taken more seriously, whereas when men become women, they feel the opposite.
As Nordell points out, this really is a cool idea because a change in gender doesn’t change your skills or education, so when we track people’s experiences before and after their crossings, we’re holding a lot of relevant variables constant.
On the other hand, as Nordell also points out, there’s at least one important variable that’s not being held constant, and that’s testosterone level. When you go from female to male, you acquire a lot of testosterone; when you go from male to female you give up a lot. That opens up a lot of possibilities. Maybe testosterone makes you more effective at work, which leads to better treatment. Or maybe the treatment doesn’t change at all, but your testosterone level leads you to perceive it differently. (Likewise, of course, for a variety of other hormones.)