Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Bull Shit: When Bull Shit has meaning.

While this article is a little harsh on the rarefied obtuse language favored by the literary theorists, it's still an interesting article.

While it is true that the language of literary theory is often obfuscating and it is often hard to tell good theory from bad theory so long as the same fancy words are used, as demonstrated by the column's writer, or by the physicist (Alan Sokol) that got what he called mumbo jumbo published in a literary theory journal, that doesn't mean it is all bad, it just means that it is an inexact art.

Reading what Sokol wrote which tried to combine ideas from quantum physics with words from literary theory, I actually think it contained useful ideas despite the author's protestations, and it doesn't demonstrate that literary theory is all bull shit.

What literary theory taught us is that the meaning of a work can be disconnected from the author's intentions. And many novels, works of music, paintings, have power and meaning far beyond what the original author foresaw. And there is nothing wrong in that. There is beauty in the stars without the need for intention (unless you want to claim that the beauty of the stars is evidence for God).

Also, I recently came across the Journal of Wine Economics (I was shocked that such a thing existed) and read an article on how in randomized controlled experiments, nearly all the judges at the most prestigious US wine competition gave identical wines significantly different scores, even when tasting then from the same flight. (This was a useful antidote from having to worry too much about taking wine too seriously).

However, while this study shows that taste is inexact, it doesn't show that there's no such thing as good wine and bad wine, just that there's a lot of noise.

And so just like it may be hard to judge good vs bad literary theory, it doesn't mean that all bull shit is without meaning.

(I've been meaning to read the book On Bullshit, been carrying it around, but haven't gotten around to it yet).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It isn't Easy being Green: and how feel-good environmentalism is usually dumb

In class, I talk about how hard it is to figure out which activities are good for the environment, once the entire supply chain is factored in. And how common strategies to reduce your footprint are often dumb. In class, I talk about how ridiculous policies like banning bottled water (ala San Francisco) or banning air conditioning (Japanese government) are just incredibly dumb.

Part of the problem is that once you calculate the entire supply chain, it is unclear what practice is better for the environment. This recent nytimes article argues that steel water bottles are better than disposable plastic if you use it at least 50 times, though if you read the article carefully, if you wash your water bottle with hot water, then there is no benefit at all. The same is true for local food. Though you are not shipping your produce from Mexico, the fact that local food is often brought in smaller trucks and you drive more to buy it, means it is often worse for the environment.

The other part of the problem is that there are much cheaper and simpler ways to help the environment. For example, for about $20 you can take a ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Companies like Terra Pass will take your money and use it to plant trees or reduce landfill emissions or buy more fuel efficient stoves in poor countries.

So yes, you can reduce your carbon footprint by about a ton a year if you give up meat, or you can achieve the same effect for $20. If you value meat at less than $20 per year, than go ahead, but otherwise, that's not the best approach. There are of course other reasons to be vegetarian, just like I love local food.

Given the complexities, how do we make figure out what's right. Of course the easy economic approach is to make sure you pay for the carbon you are responsible for. This can be accomplished most simply with a carbon tax, or a little less simply with the cap and trade proposals currently on the table. That way all you have to worry about is the price, which encapsulates all the environmental costs within it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Obama = Bush on trading liberty for safety

I have often used this forum to note that Bush = Gore and Bush = Kerry (note by transitivity, this implies that Obama=Bush=Gore=Kerry). Or in other words, people tend to commit the fundamental attribution error when evaluating presidents. They tend to attribute actions by presidents to the president's disposition, when in fact president's actions are often determined by circumstance, and thus different presidents often will make the same decision.

For example, while Bush was much lambasted by the media and by Obama for warrant-less wiretapping, presidential signing statements, extraordinary rendition, etc. Obama in his first few months have not only continued all of those practices by expanded their use.

Some are concerned, if not outraged and terrified. Though my interpretation is that if there is action (like warrant-less wiretapping) that two seemingly very different president's both agree on once in power, then maybe they have information on this we don't, and therefore maybe that means it is a very good idea.

For those concerned that we are trading "essential liberties" for "temporary safety" as Ben Franklin admonished, I just say the definition of essential is a mutable term, and is reevaluated with each generation. Just like our freedom of speech has been modified and adjusted over the years (you can't yell fire in a crowded theater, you can't threaten the life of a president, you can't spew racist speech, you can't libel, etc.) other rights are similarly re-evaluated with each generation. The constitution provides the president with the power to test these limits, though of course, it also provides for checks on this power.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

new policy wonk blog

Keith Hennessey, someone I used to work/with for at the White House (also a Stanford alumni) has been making the morning talking heads circuits recently. He was the National Economic Adviser, the position that Larry Summers now holds. To complement his punditry in today's new media age, he has a new blog.

This is his blog entry on gas prices based on a memo I wrote.

His latest entry on counting the under-insured is quite interesting, and contains lots of the other side of the story that we worked on producing under the W White House, but rarely gets play in the press. For example, he notes that of the 45 million without insurance, about a quarter are non-citizens, another quarter are automatically covered by government insurance even though they may not know it know it, but would if they walked into any hospital, and another quarter are young or with above average income.

Reminds me of another useful stat we found on minimum wage. Of those making minimum wage only 20% are in poverty, and only 20% of those in poverty make the minimum wage. Essentially most are well-off teenagers or people who may not really need the money.

Monday, April 06, 2009

An Economic Theory of Super Villains

Watching Watchmen (my Watchmen review here) recently reminded me of a theme of Batman (at least of the higher brow batman) found in Miller's Dark Knight Returns, and the more recent movie version, The Dark Knight, is that Batman "creates" his enemies. In Miller's Dark Knight Returns, it was a post-modern form of creation, a Hegelian thesis creating its antithesis (this was in the heyday of post-modernism, when people believed that the rules of literature could somehow be applied to reality). In Burton's film, it was a literal creation, Batman, dropped Jack Nicholson into a vat of chemicals, that turned him into the Joker. In the recent movie with Heath Ledger, it was somewhere in between, less literal, but also less literary, more sociological perhaps.

But I was wondering, could we have an economic theory of super villains. What would happen in our society if a super hero suddenly showed up. Can we think about this, Gary Becker Economics of Crimes and Punishments style. In some sense, a Batman, would effectively massively up the productivity of crime fighting technology, putting most crooks out of business. Essentially, by shifting up, the marginal cost of crime, Batman reduces the quantity of crime, but that also increases the marginal benefit of crime. Then, it becomes quite plausible that if the payoff to crime has gone up, the impact of Batman will cause talented people in other fields to shift professions, to take advantage of the high marginal benefits. Thus creating supervillains, villains who would have stayed out of crime before because the competition with the small time crooks kept profits in the crime industry too low.

This makes us wonder if it is possible then, that Batman actually makes crime worse. In a static world no. We are still at a low equilibrium for the quantity of crime. However, if talented people (who would otherwise have been at hedge funds or something) have now shifted to crime, and find that they are exceptionally good at it, thereby shifting the MB curve out, or the MC curve in, then maybe Batman can make things worse.