Archive for the 'Musings' Category

Amazon’s Bargemen

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.

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Discussion Question

Imagine a world where everyone is equally risk-averse, and where there are two assets available: You can hold stock in an umbrella company, or you can hold stock in a sunscreen company. Depending on the (quite unpredictable) weather, one of these stocks is sure to gain value at 100% a year while the other is sure to lose value at 95% a year, but it’s impossible to know which is which.

Given this, the smart thing to do is to hold a balanced portfolio of the two assets and earn a comfortable 5% per year. Most people in this imaginary world are smart enough to figure this out. But a small number are stupid enough to put all their eggs in one or the other basket. Half these people are quickly wiped out; the other half become super-rich.

Now we have a society in which nobody smart is especially rich, and everyone rich is especially dumb.

Question: Does this parable contribute anything useful to understanding some aspect (obviously not all aspects!) of the wealth distribution in the world we inhabit? Discuss.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

Chips off the Block

Last week, I wrote to condemn the gang of angry yahoos who have piled onto Walter Block for making a perfectly reasonable argument about slavery, involuntary association, and Civil Rights legislation. Today I write to give Walter’s argument the respect it deserves by trying to pick it apart.

It’s important to recognize that Walter wasn’t making a formal argument. Instead, he was offering a rhetorical framework to clarify some of the issues. His (informal) argument, if I understand it, comes down to essentially this:

Look. We all agree that slavery is bad. And when you think about it, pretty much all of the badness stems from its involuntary nature. This should make us wary of involuntary associations in general, and hesitant to impose them. This applies, for example, to laws that require restaurant owners to serve people they don’t want to serve.

Now I happen to be quite sympathetic to that argument (indeed, I’ve been known to make essentially the same argument myself). In fact, I’ll go further and say that I think any reasonable person ought to be at least somewhat moved by that argument. But I can see where it’s not airtight.

To see why not, let’s take a pass at formalizing this:

1) Slavery is bad.
2) For a thing to be bad, some aspect of it must be bad.
3) Slavery has no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.
4) From 1), 2) and 3), we can deduce that involuntary association is a bad aspect of slavery.
5) From 4), we deduce that involuntary association is bad.
6) Involuntary association is an aspect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
7) Anything with a bad aspect is at least partially bad.
8) From 5), 6) and 7), we can deduce that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at least partially bad.

Now let’s see where the problems are.

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The View From Olympus

Correct me if I’m wrong here:

1) In Russia, there is a law against so-called “gay propaganda”. Reasonable people (including me) consider this a regrettable curtailment of liberty. Some of those reasonable people also believe that it contributes to a culture in which violent acts against gay people are condoned or encouraged. This, if true, is sickening.

2) In Russia, there is also a law requiring most male citizens to serve at least a year in the military. Reasonable people (including me) consider this a regrettable curtailment of liberty. It is widely reported that conscripts are routinely subject to violent hazing that has been characterized as rising to the level of torture. News reports suggest that hundreds of conscripts die every year as a result of this hazing. This, if true, is sickening.

3) Conscription affects far more people than the anti-propaganda laws. In most cases, it also affects them far more severely. (If you doubt this, try asking your friends which they’d prefer: avoiding public discussions of homosexuality or serving a year in the Russian military.) Conscription is therefore, on both counts, the (far) greater outrage.

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Blinded By Prejudice?

I’ve been reading about the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which, in its original form, banned racial segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels (though by the time it was passed, almost all of the content had been stripped out). There’s a part of this history that makes no sense to me and I’m wondering if someone can explain it.

Remember first that this was at a time when several southern states enforced laws that mandated segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels.

It was also at a time when, as I understand it, the outcome of the legislative battle was very much in doubt, so that each side feared the worst and was eager to compromise. Supporters weren’t sure they could beat a filibuster, which meant the bill might never even come to a vote. Opponents feared a filibuster might be beaten and the bill passed without amendments.

Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader of the Senate, wanted above all else to avoid a major fight, and was eager to facilitate any compromise both sides could agree on. He floated several compromise proposals and actively solicited others, from legislators, attorneys, and everyone else he could think of.

In Master of the Senate, the third in his three-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro describes a vast number of compromises that failed before the passage of the final successful compromise.

Now here’s what astonishes me: Here you had all these lawyers and politicians, desperately trying to find a creative compromise — and yet, as far as I can tell, nobody ever proposed the compromise that seems (to me) to be obvious. The Republicans and northerners wanted mandatory integration. The southerners wanted to maintain mandatory segregation. The obvious compromise, I should think, would be to have neither — the northerners agree not to pass a federal law, and the southerners agree to repeal some state laws.

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A Sip of Monstrous Moonshine


You and a stranger have been instructed to meet up sometime tomorrow, somewhere in New York City. You (and the stranger) can decide for yourselves when and where to look for each other. But there can be no advance communication. Where do you go?

Me, I’d be at the front entrance to the Empire State Building at noon, possibly missing my counterpart, who might be under the clock at Grand Central Station. But, because there are only a small number of points in New York City that stand out as “extra-special”, we’ve at least got a chance to find each other.

A Schelling point is something that stands out from the background so sharply that we can expect people to coordinate around it. Schelling points are on my mind this week, because I’ve just heard David Friedman give a fascinating talk about the evolution of property rights, and Schelling points play a big role in his story. But that story is not the topic of this post.

Instead, I’m curious about the Schelling points that say, two mathematicians, or two economists, or two philosophers, or two poets, or two street hustlers might converge on. Suppose, for example, that you asked two mathematicians each to separately pick a number between 200 and 300, with a prize if their answers coincide. I’m guessing they both go for 256, the only power of two within range.

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Thought for the Day

If I could choose any name I wanted and require everyone to call me by that name, I think I would probably go with something considerably more creative than “Francis”. Just saying.

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The Most Important Date Ever

I am not one of the public intellectuals who were queried by The Atlantic (link might require subscription) as to which date most changed world history — but on the Internet, you can always spout off without an invitation.

It’s hard to argue with Freeman Dyson, who nominates the day an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, clearing the evolutionary path for the likes of you and me.

(Actually, it’s remarkably easy to argue with Freeman Dyson. I know this, having done so over tea in Princeton, many years ago. He made it very easy indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he was 100% right and I was 100% wrong.)

At the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum, the standup comedian W. Kamau Bell, after lamenting that there’s no way he can get this right so he might as well punt, nominates the day Michael Jackson first performed the moonwalk on national TV. Unfortunately, his intent to give the most ridiculous possible answer is thwarted by one Neera Tanden of something called the Center for American Progress, who, with an apparently straight face, nominates August 26, 1920 (the day American women gained the right to vote) — an answer that begins by placing 20th century America at the center of the Universe and proceeds downhill from there.

Other 20th-century answers (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union) are at least more serious, and I think that Anne-Marie Slaughter‘s nomination of the still-very-recent-by-historical-standards signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 is even defensible. But then what about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which arguably laid the political and intellectual groundwork that made the Declaration possible?

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Enough Already!

Today’s email brings a gripe from Mark Skousen, the irrepressible impresario behind FreedomFest, who could have avoided this problem by being born in the old Soviet Union:

I was in the large Stop & Shop grocery store here in New York to buy some items, including a new tube of toothpaste. I like Colgate, but I can never seem to get the same toothpaste product.

Now I know why. Guess how many different types and sizes of toothpaste Colgate sells?

Ready?

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Late Night Thoughts on Determinism

Last week, we had some discussion of free will, which prompted some comments about determinism. I’m not convinced that determinism has all that much to do with free will one way or the other, but since the topic’s been raised, here are a few bullet points, jotted down late at night, which I hope will still make sense in the morning.

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The Long Now

Here is a link to my piece in today’s issue of Time.com; and here’s the executive summary:

Deep inside a West Texas mountain, engineers are building a clock designed to click for 10,000 years. Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos has sunk $43 million into this project and that’s just a start. What’s the purpose? “To foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”, say the organizers.

Now thinking and responsibility are two different things, but it’s hard to see how this project is likely to encourage either. Re thinking: The question of what we owe to future generations is subtle and difficult and requires close attention to difficult arguments; it’s hard to see how a ticking clock will do to foster that kind of effort. And as for responsiblity — if responsibility means making a better life for our distant descendants, then Bezos’s $43 million would almost surely be better spent on lobbying for lower capital taxes. Whether the goal is thinking or responsibility, a giant clock seems like a giant waste of time.

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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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Another Nightmare

nbcYesterday’s nightmare scenarios triggered some good discussion, so let me throw out another one, which I think will help to isolate some of the issues that came up yesterday. Sometime next week I’ll try to summarize the best of the comments and ponder what we’ve learned.

 
Today’s Dilemma

In front of you are two childless married couples. For some reason, it’s imperative that you kill two of the four people. Your choices are:

A. Kill one randomly chosen member from each couple.
B. Kill both members of a randomly chosen couple.

All four people agree that if they die, they want to be well remembered. Therefore all four ask you, please, to choose A so that anyone who dies will be remembered by a loving spouse.

If you care about the four people in front of you, what should you do?

 

Argument 1. For goodness’s sake, they’ve told you what to do. If you care about them, of course you should respect their wishes. Choose A.

Argument 2.Once the killings are over, Option A leaves two grieving spouses, whereas Option B leaves one relieved couple. Surely two dead plus two happy is better than two dead plus two sad. Choose B.

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Nightmare Scenarios

scream

Here’s a question to ponder:

Question 1: If forced to choose, which of these nightmare scenarios would you prefer?

Scenario A: An evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he destroys all human life; otherwise he goes home.

Scenario B: The same evil alien flips 7 billion coins, one for each person on earth. He destroys anyone whose coin comes up heads.

I’ll tell you in a minute why I ask, but first let’s consider arguments in each direction:

Argument 1. In scenario A, I have a 50-50 chance of death, and a 50-50 chance of continuing my current life. In scenario B, I have a 50-50 chance of death, and a 50-50 chance of a life in which half my loved ones are gone. Surely I should take A.

Argument 2. In scenario A, there’s a 50-50 chance that all future generations will be destroyed-in-advance. In scenario B, even if the coin comes up heads, people will continue to be born, and in the very long run, the evil alien will be a forgotten memory. Surely I should take B.

Your answer to this question, I think, is likely to reveal a lot about how much you think we owe to future generations. If you think we owe them nothing, then Argument 1 is definitive. If you think we owe them the same respect we owe our contemporaries, then Argument 2 is definitive. If you think we owe them something in between, you might waver.

Now that sort of question might strike you as nothing more than Sunday-afternoon dorm room fare, but I don’t believe it can be dismissed so easily. It is pretty much impossible to take a coherent stand on issues ranging from Social Security reform to environmental conservation without first deciding how much we are obligated to care about future generations. A lot of people seem to think those issues are worth debating, which pretty much forces us to face up to the fundamental issues.

On the other hand, come to think of it, I suppose a person might prefer Scenario B to Scenario A for reasons that have nothing to do with future generations — namely the desire to be remembered. Is that something we care about? To focus on that issue, here’s another question:

Question 2: Suppose you’re happily married. If forced to choose, which of these nightmare scenarios would you prefer?

Scenario A: An evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he kills you and your spouse; otherwise he goes home.

Scenario B: The same evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he kills just you; if it comes up tails, he kills just your spouse.

Here again we have:

Argument 1. In scenario A, I have a 50-50 chance of death, and a 50-50 chance of continuing my current life. In scenario B, I have a 50-50 chance of death, and a 50-50 chance of a life in which my beloved spouse is gone. Surely I should take A.

Argument 2. In scenario A, there’s a 50-50 chance that my spouse and I will both be dead and unremembered (or at least unremembered by anyone who knows us as intimately as we know each other). In scenario B, however, we each get to live on, at least in the memory of a loved one. Surely I should take B.

Your answer to Question 2 will tell me something about how much being remembered matters to you, which will help me interpret your answer to Question 1.

The original version of this post included several more followup questions. But I suspect these two are grist enough for a day or two of discussions. I’ll post the followups after those responses start to peter out.

Related post here.

Neutrinos and Appomattox

Scientists at CERN have found apparent evidence that neutrinos can travel faster than light.

Suppose that tomorrow historians at Harvard find apparent evidence that the South won the American Civil War — not in some metaphorical “they accomplished their goals” sense, but in the literal sense that it was actually Grant who handed his sword to Lee at Appomatox and not the other way around.

Question: Of which conclusion would you be more skeptical?

Of course your answer might depend on exactly what this new “apparent evidence” consists of. So let me reword: As of this moment, which do you think is more likely — that neutrinos can travel faster than light, or that the South won the Civil War?

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Looking Forward to Looking Backward


Each generation wishes it could go back fifty years and shake some sense into those people who were so bound by unnecessary customs, and so blind to the options they could have chosen and the changes that loomed on the horizon. As I said on Tuesday, this was Edith Wharton’s theme when she wrote in 1920 about the 1870′s, and it’s the theme of Mad Men, written in 2010 about the 1960s.

I invited you on Tuesday to speculate about which of our own quirks will trigger this sort of bittersweet nostalgic frustration among our descendants fifty years from now. There were some great responses in the comments.

Here are some predictions of my own that I think are least plausible — some moreso than others, but I’ll throw them out in no particular order.

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Thanksgiving

When I review the blessings of my extraordinarily blessed life, this one always appears near the top of my list: I am an adult male who has never been to war. I have always assumed — without thinking about it too hard — that in the historical scheme of things, this is a great privilege, and a great rarity.

Am I right about that? Over the course of human history, what is your estimate of the fraction of males who have reached adulthood without participating in a military conflict?

(Obviously, there’s some fuzziness about what counts as military conflict. I’m thinking here not about the occasional street fighter, but about the guy living in mud and getting shot at for weeks at a time — or things equally dangerous/traumatic/uncomfortable.)

Miscellany

1) I just had an extremely pleasant walk around the Beale Street area in Memphis, which strikes me, roughly, as Bourbon Street without the urine. (Also without the trash and the high general level of obnoxiousness — though also of course without the magnificent architecture, etc.) Yes, I realize it’s also a different musical genre (though in both cases it’s a sub-genre of “too loud”). But it’s astonishing to me how clean the streets are here, and how well-behaved the crowds, compared to what I’ve seen in Louisiana. If they can do that here, why can’t they do it there?

2) This weekend marks the anniversary of a world-changing event — an event that might be of particular interest to readers of The Big Questions, both the book and the blog. Who can tell me what event I have in mind? (Hint: It’s an anniversary ending in zero.) I’ll blog the answer on Monday.

3) The discussion of the Allais paradox rages on in comments on multiple posts. For the few of you who have not yet tuned this out, my latest comment is an attempt to cut through the fog and identify the locus of some commenters’ confusion, or disagreement, or both. I think it will very much help focus the discussion if the dissenters could tell us where they stand on these questions. (My answers are all “yes”.)

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Efficiency Experts

Is it better to tax consumption or to tax income? Is it better to tax carbon or to mandate fuel efficiency? Is it better to foster global competition or to protect local industries?

Today, I will attack none of these questions. Instead, I will attack the meta-question of how to attack such questions. For economists evaluating alternative policies, the industry standard is the efficiency criterion, also known as the welfare criterion. (I’ll illustrate what that means as I go along.) But now comes Princeton Professor Uwe Reinhardt with a piece in the New York Times that questions the orthodox approach found in virtually all modern textbooks (including one in particular).

Let’s first dispense with the straw man. I’ve never heard of an economist who believes that every efficient policy is good, and I’ve heard of very few who believe that every inefficient policy is bad. It’s true that most economists do seem to believe that any good policy analysis should start by considering efficiency. That doesn’t mean it should end there.

I think economists are right to emphasize efficiency, and I think so for (at least) two reasons. First, emphasizing efficiency forces us to concentrate on the most important problems. Second, emphasizing efficiency forces us to be honest about our goals.

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Causation versus Correlation

phonesex

Data from 9,785 users of the dating site OKCupid reveal that iPhone users have 50% to 100% more sex partners than Android users, at every age.

This graph combines men and women, but the same pattern holds for each gender separately.

Explain this to me!

More info here (if you scroll down a couple of screens).

P, NP and All That

The really big news from Hewlett Packard this week was not the dismissal of CEO James Hurd but the announcement by HP Labs researcher Vinay Deolalikar that he has settled the central question in theoretical computer science.

That central question is called the “P versus NP” problem, and for those who already know what that means, his claim (of course) is that P does not equal NP. For those who don’t already know what that means, “P versus NP” is a problem about the difficulty of solving problems. Here‘s a very rough and imprecise summary of the problem, glossing over every technicality.

Deolalikar’s paper is 102 pages long and less than about 48 hours old, so nobody has yet read it carefully. (This is a preliminary draft and Deolalikar promises a more polished version soon.) The consensus among the experts who have at least skimmed the paper seems to be that it is a) not crazy (which already puts it in the top 1% of papers that have addressed this question), b) teeming with creative ideas that are likely to have broad applications, and c) quite likely wrong.

As far as I’m aware, people are betting on point c) not because of anything they’ve seen in the paper, but because of the notorious difficulty of the problem.

And when I say betting, I really mean betting. Scott Aaronson, whose judgment on this kind of thing I’d trust as much as anyone’s, has publicly declared his intention to send Deolalikar a check for $200,000 if this paper turns out to be correct. Says Aaronson: “I’m dead serious—and I can afford it about as well as you’d think I can.” His purpose in making this offer?

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HP Falter

hpHow important is it to hire the best person for the job?

Here’s a data point: On Friday, Hewlett Packard’s CEO Mark Hurd resigned unexpectedly — and pretty much instantly the value of HP stock dropped by about $10 billion. If we assume Hurd would otherwise have been around for another 10 years or so, that means shareholders think his departure will cost the company about a billion dollars a year. Which, incidentally, makes his $30 million or so in annual compensation look like a hell of a bargain.

Now maybe some part of that $10 billion reflects expected short-term losses due to the turmoil of an unplanned transition. But even if that turmoil were to cost HP a full month of revenue (which seems like a pretty extreme assumption), that’s still less than a billion — leaving over $9 billion to represent the difference between what the market expected from Hurd and what it expects from his successor.

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More Wives are Unsafe Wives?

One argument that’s often made against legalized polygamy is that rich old men will marry lots of women, leaving lots of poor young men both single and sexually frustrated—-and that’s bad, because poor young single sexually frustrated men are prone to criminal acts of violence.

Over at Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson objects that if people really believed this argument, they’d want to criminalize lesbianism and extramarital affairs, both of which also contribute to the problem of men-without-partners.

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Riddle Me This

qA few years back, when Google acquired YouTube, I was heard to remark that the deal seemed kind of…imprudent. Given YouTube’s potential as a lawsuit generator, the best owners might not be the guys with some of the world’s deepest pockets.

A colleague points out that it seems equally odd for a company with pockets the depth of BP’s to be engaged in as risky an activity as deep water oil drilling. Why wasn’t this project sold off to someone with a lot less to lose?

Maybe BP expected to be protected by laws limiting its liability, but surely it was foreseeable that those laws might be circumvented, as it appears they’re about to be. So if that’s part of the answer, it’s only a small part.

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What’s Worse Than An Oil Spill?

Let’s try for a little perspective. The BP oil spill threatens to cause something like $10 billion worth of damage. That’s pretty bad. By contrast, an extra trillion dollars worth of federal spending threatens to cause something like $300 billion worth of deadweight loss (that is, underproduction due to tax avoidance and disincentives to work). That’s 30 times worse. How is it that so much angst about the former seems to be coming from people with a history of shrugging their shoulders at the latter?

Both $10 billion and $300 billion are extremely rough guesses, but the $300 billion figure comes from the widely cited estimates of Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, according to which a one dollar tax increase triggers about 30 cents in deadweight losses. Since a trillion in new spending means a trillion in new taxes (either now or in the future), we get $300 billion in deadweight loss.

Of course $10 billion worth of oil-related damage is still big enough to be worth a goodly dollop of angst. But keep these things in mind:

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Diagnosis

dsmThe Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, widely known as the bible of psychiatric medicine, is under revision and the American Psychiatric Association is accepting public comment at a new website.

Medpage Today reports that the revision has already been changed several times in response to these comments. These include several areas within the Sexual and Gender Identities categories, and modifications to the criteria for adjustment disorders and eating disorders.

By contrast, the American Physical Society is not asking the general public to weigh in on the prospects for supersymmetry, nor is the American Economic Association surveying the general public on the properties of dynamic stochastic general equilibria. So much for any pretense that psychiatry is a science.

Hat tip to Tom Amoroso, who called this to my attention though he might not endorse this commentary.

Absentminded Musings

Here are some thoughts on last week’s absent-minded driver problem.

First a recap of the problem, with a bit more detail than last week:

Each day, Albert leaves his office (at the bottom of the map), gets on the Main Highway and attempts to drive home to his house on Second Street. If he turns too soon (onto First Street) or if he overshoots (going all the way to the north end of the Main Highway), he is mauled by dinosaurs.

Obviously, Albert’s best strategy is to go straight at the first intersection and turn right at the second. Unfortunately, both intersections look identical. Doubly unfortunately, Albert can never remember whether he’s already passed the first intersection.

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Civil Rights Act—Some Final Words

One final word on this 46 year old topic:

Monday I insisted that all reasonable people should be at least mildly disturbed by the diminution of property rights implicit in a ban on whites-only lunch counters.

Tuesday I cited an excellent comment from Jonathan Pryor suggesting that a whites-only lunch counter is itself an indirect assault on property rights insofar as the owners expect taxpayers to foot the bill for enforcement of the whites-only policy (say, by calling the police when unwanted visitors show up).

There are circumstances in which I think Pryor’s argument clearly applies. I cited the case of the man who keeps a barrel of Hershey bars on his front lawn and expects the police to stop children from filching them. Surely this man is imposing a burden on the community over and above the assertion of his own property rights. But I also gave several other examples that gave me pause about the applicability to lunch counters.

This in turn brought forth an insightful comment from Ken B, who points out that the Civil Rights Act itself called for a lot of taxpayer-financed enforcement. The act was passed, blacks sat down at lunch counters, owners attempt to evict them, the police were called.

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Civil Rights and Wrongs

I had planned to get back to our friend the absent-minded driver today, but yesterday’s post on Rand Paul garnered (at least) one comment so good that it deserves to be highlighted.

I said yesterday that the 1964 Civil Rights Law (forbidding racial discrimination in places of public accommodation) infringes on property rights and that all reasonable people ought to be disturbed by that, even if their ultimate judgment is that the benefits of the law outweigh its costs.

Our commenter Jonathan Pryor responded, in effect, as follows (I am paraphrasing):

When you open a restaurant and announce that you won’t serve blacks, you’re not just announcing that you won’t serve blacks. Instead, you’re implicitly announcing that whenever a black person comes in and asks for service, you’re going to call the police and ask the taxpayers to subsidize the cost of your taste for discrimination. You have no property right to those taxpayer dollars.

My first reaction was: This is an excellent point, which I haven’t seen raised before. For the most part, that’s still my reaction. Still, this argument cannot be definitive as a matter of principle, because the same argument applies in many cases where we clearly reject its conclusion. After all, when you open a restaurant, you’re implicitly announcing that whenever a naked person asks for service you’re going to call the police and ask the taxpayers to cover the cost of removal. For that matter, you’re going to call the police every time you get robbed. But we don’t conclude that it should always be illegal to open a restaurant.

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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.

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