Monday, July 27, 2009

Breathtaking performances and thoughts on science funding

On a whim, R- and I went to see the ballet of Midsummer Night's Dream yesterday at Lincoln Center. And while all were quite good, one performer was breathtaking, even for a complete ballet novice like me. And apparently, it wasn't I alone who thought so, given the audience response to his solos and the couple in the seat next to us who came just for him. It reminded me of our recent trips to the opera, most of which were simply whelming, but one performance of La Boheme had a lead that was once again breathtaking (a view confirmed by the nytimes review we read later). And finally, our trip for the year to see the symphony, to see Joshua Bell perform a violin concerto, again breathtaking. Note, it's not like we do this a lot, these are among the handful of times we've been to Lincoln Center, but I expected in every case that these are among the world's best performers, they surely must all be at a level where a novice like me couldn't tell them apart, but there is still clearly a scarcity of true breathtaking talent.

Which again reminds me of my response to all those who constantly call for more scientists and engineers. There isn't much evidence that we need more of either. Both are good at producing new stuff for cheaper, but not at all clear I need any more stuff. (New health stuff is still genuinely useful, but there is already vast funding for health, not at all clear that more money could be efficiently spent).

Maybe what we need are more ballet teachers, and opera singers, and violin teachers. Gladwell's Outliers eloquently makes the point that genius is not born, it is made. And there are no doubt lots more out there who could achieve at such a level. And while we're at it, why not more chefs and artists and designers (I always use the example that it wasn't the iPhone's engineers that made it a hit--Apple is still paying off a patent infringement lawsuit to Creative who had the technology long before--it was its designers). Or even better, government bureaucrats shouldn't be deciding what we need, instead we should maybe let markets figure it out (of course market failures should still be addressed).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Political Theory works: Stop blaming Obama

David Brooks echoes the sentiment of many pundits, that Obama is letting Congressional Democrat leaders determine the agenda, and moving policy far left instead of keeping policy near the center.

This is as dumb as the folks who complained about Bush for moving policy to the right.

Basic median voter agenda setting theory (specifically Cox McCubbins) explains why.

I still believe that both Obama and Bush have policy views close to the median voter. Presidential politics pushes presidents in that direction.

Congress looks like this: (you may recall my past such diagrams here)

<----D------m------R---->

With D representing the Democratic median (and thus the Democratic leadership). R the Republican median (and thus the Republican leadership), and m representing the country median (and roughly Obama and Bush).

Under Bush, Congress was mostly under control of R and while the president has some ability to hold policy to the middle through veto threats, in general, R will be able to pull policy to the right. We will denote policy from the Bush years as q.

<----D------m----q-R---->

In this case, Democratic leaders who get to propose the alternative under our system of government, can basically get their way, and propose something far to the left (denoted p), and Obama will go along, even though he might personally prefer something more centrist, he'd still support a far left policy over the current right leaning status quo.

<----D--p---m----q-R---->

Obama may wish for a policy that is more centrist, but our system of government prevents him from achieving it. (And similarly, Bush was forced into more conservative policies than he would have liked, by the same logic)

Of course, there's a lot more theory can say. For a more thorough analysis, see this article, by my classmate, Jonathan Woon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

wise latinas do make better decisions

It is a shame that Judge sotomayor felt compelled to retract her statement that wise latinas, through virtue of different life experiences, could make better decisions than the current status quo of white men. Scott Page argues convincingly that diversity leads to better decisions.

It is an easy argument to make. All humans make mistakes (only God is perfect). Given that we are the product of our experiences (see Gladwell's Outliers), likely a latina woman will make different mistakes than a white man. Thus it makes sense to have both when making those decisions.

I'm normally sympathetic to the reverse discrimination criticisms, but in this case, what Sotomayor said is so obviously right, I don't understand why it is so hard for her and others to defend it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Two recent comics that amused me

This first is a mixture of romance and complete dorkiness which is exactly why I like xkcd.

The second, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, is a comic I just started reading and impressively manages to put up consistently funny usually dorky (often dark) punch lines on a daily basis.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

My interview for Seed Magazine

I just noticed the article from my interview for Seed Magazine got published a few months ago on behavioral economics and climate change. I'm glad I don't sound like an idiot. Though I have no idea who actually reads Seed Magazine, it's certainly not the New York Times but who's counting (the other two junior economists in my department have both recently been written up here and here).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

New Tv Shows: Virtuality and Glee! (and effortless diversity)

Been taking advantage of hulu recently, given I cancelled cable. And watched two very promising pilots.

Virtuality (watch on hulu) is BSG creator Moore's latest creation, full of sci-fi tropes--a ship alone on a 10 year mission in lonely space (like that kids in space movie from ages ago whose gimmick was a starship on a decades long mission of sub-light travel, so the ship is crewed by children so that they will live long enough), mega-corporations, a creepy corporate man ala Aliens, Star Trek's holodecks, a ghost in the machine ala ghost in the machine or 2001, and Matrix questioning of what is reality, or space as hell like Solaris or more trashily Event Horizon)

I dig the effortless diversity, with blacks and a gay couple and asians, effortlessly integrated, and unmentioned, like Glee. (a huge change from just a few years ago, when West Wing was introduced, when network tv had zero non-white stars, and Dule Hill was later added as token black guy, playing the part of the dutiful servant of course, ironic that even such a liberal show had an all white cast).

The reality tv angle was cool. The conceit is that the megacorporation financing the expedition had made a reality show to help fund the trip. The intro of the show looks like the Real World, and the show is complete with a confessional room.

Given the virtual reality look of the show, gives it a cinema verite. I appreciate that it takes AI to a sophisticated new level (something I'd expect from the BSG creator). But also shows some psychological depth if only cursorily. And given the long format, may be able to explore the big questions about reality that Matrix raised, and actually do them justice.

Hopefully both of these shows will catch on. Virtuality seems to be worthy bsg replacement but currently looks unlikely. Like Whedon's move to the big leagues with Fox, that move is fraught with peril for the smart sci-fi show. Glee has a better chance, and I look forward for its post-cynical take on high school.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Read this article! Finally, a reasonable answer to the health care crisis.

Apparently, this New Yorker article by Atul Gawande has been getting a lot of attention, circulated amongst doctors, and pushed by Obama's team, and frankly I am heartened, because it is the most reasonable response to the health care crisis and the puzzle that I normally devote a lecture of my classes to: Why does US healthcare cost so damn much. Written by Atul Gawande, a Harvard surgeon and long time New Yorker columnist, I've loved his books Complications and Better, because he is a doctor who appreciates the views of economists, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.

To save you some time, Gawande's answer is that the high costs are due to excess healthcare (too many scans, too many procedures, too much surgery). I can believe that, though it may be too simplistic an answer, but I have long argued that the traditional reasons people give for excess costs don't hold up to scrutiny--medical malpractice, insurance administrative costs, paper records, emergency room visits, excess end of life care, these all do lead to waste, but none come anywhere close to explaining why the US spends pretty much twice as much per person more than any other country.

Gawande then argues that as a result, the left's solution--government paid healthcare, and the right's solution--individual paid healthcare, won't work. Since neither gets the incentives right. Gawande is a bit too dismissive of the profit motive--nothing wrong with the profit motive if the incentives are properly aligned as in most industries. But his solution is reasonable nevertheless.

All that said, Gawande doesn't provide any evidence to back up his hypothesis beyond charming anecdotes. There is still reason to believe that actually the US is underspending on healthcare, because while we're spending a lot, we're actually getting a lot of value from it despite what others may claim. However, at least unlike just about everybody else out there, he's not pushing an argument that I know for a fact is patently wrong.

Also, a cool aside on the small world of academia, even though this isn't my field, I know half of the academics he cites in this paper, I happen to know them all pretty well actually. Kate Baicker I worked with at CEA. Amitabh Chandra I chatted with a long time when he came to visit Cornell, and he once co-authored a paper with R-'s classmate. And Woody Powell, I took two seminars with at Stanford.

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