Wednesday, December 28, 2011

junk science and arson

People seem so shocked that people have trouble accepting science, say in climate change, but its amazing how much professional practice is based on folklore. This interesting npr story notes that arson investigation was based entirely on folk lore and the use of science is only a decade or two old. The story notes many past cases where people were found guilty based on folklore, that would be vindicated today. But this is not isolated. I have noted before that even in medicine, the use of "evidence-based medicine" (i.e. science) is relatively new and still not entirely uncontroversial. And even in economics, where typically empirics is king, but in areas where data does not exist (e.g. in large important macroeconomic counterfactual questions), we fall back on instinct and folk wisdom, which can often be right but has also been devastatingly wrong.

The larger and more important point is how much pseudo-science pervades everything we do, even for important policy questions like what food to eat, or what to do about the environment, and the pseudo-science is pervasive. the media likes to paint it as a republican thing but everyone uses pseudo-science when it suits their interests. A recent npr story highlighted how obama has largely continued the bush era policies on political editing of "scientific documents" despite all his campaign rhetoric. Even scientists use pseudo-science all the time when it suits them.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Play Reviewlet: She Kills Monsters

Watched, the D&D inspired off-off-broadway play She Kills Monsters this afternoon, and it was awesome. I was really impressed how effectively this off-broadway production was able to bring bugbears, beholders, gelatinous cubes and even a dragon, to life, while telling a really touching story about a woman who really gets to know her younger sister after she dies in a car accident, through the D&D module she wrote before dying. While the show still sports a relatively inexperienced cast, the show deals with death and grief and love and how much dungeons and dragons means to so many and sadly reminds us what is lost when we move from table top to online.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

NYC Food Recommendations

A friend recently asked for food recommendations in NYC. These were my thoughts:

Yes the highline is a good bet. That's our standard go-to place for out of town guests. Other places to eat around there is Chelsea Market (home of the food network), Soccarat (only place I've gotten good paella outside of Spain), Mary's Fish Camp (creative fish shack). There's also Spotted Pig (the original NY gastropub, by April Bloomenfield, though we like her two new places both in the Ace Hotel in midtown better (John Dory for seafood and the Breslin for more pub-y food). 

The NYTimes recently recommended one of the Momofukus as the most definitive "only in NYC" restaurant experience these days and I would tend to agree. dishes can be hit or miss, but still a unique experience.

for expensive-ish but but not crazy expensive and relatively easy expectations, I like Marea (great italian seafood place, especially love its pasta in central park south), and Aldea (for contemporary Portuguese near the highline sortof--its chef Sam Mendes was on top chef masters--for that matter the winner of top chef masters has Red Rooster up in harlem for Ethiopian-Scandinavian fusion which I haven't been to, though I used to like his earlier restaurant Aquavit a decade ago)

for super haute, I used to love Blue Hill, haute place on John D Rockefellar's farm one hour north of the city, for the ultimate in farm to table cuisine, we've gone 3-4 times now, and last time unfortunately was a miss, so its lost its luster a bit. its also lost its buzz although for a while it was a contender for best in the US.

amongst the 3 michelin starred places, in the city, i sort of like le Bernardin, R- I think prefers Per Se. 11 madison park is the new kid in town and maybe the most innovative. Jean-georges for me has always been an old standby and still solid after maybe nearly a dozen visits... 

wd-50 is the city's molecular gastronomy stop, but that's sort of old hat by now.

plus lots of hot places in the lower east side and the village as well as brooklyn and queens that have gotten buzz recently that we're just not as familiar with. contemporary-filipino seems to be one emerging trend...

Hope that helps.

my old profile - retired now with the merger to google plus

economist (political economist socio-economist behavioral economist educationalist teacher) former (i-banker policymaker) dabbler (in photography, art history, comic books, musical theater) from (new york paris morristown palo alto baltimore ithaca) independent (northeast neo-conservative liberal confuscian taoist social welfare maximizer)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

the 1%

There was more outrage on NPR the other day about CEO salary (about $11 million on average for the 500 or so fortune 500 CEOs, according to AFLCIO), though the 400 or so NBA players (average salary to be $8 million in the current agreement) are feeling justified to go on strike. I couldn't find the numbers, but the top 500 movie and tv stars easily average above $11 million (Rupert Grint alone made $30 million).

I suppose it is no coincident that the philosopher most known for his defense of income inequality always used Wilt Chamberlain as his example, since people rarely begrudge the salaries of celebrities.

I feel compelled to defend the 1% because pretty much most of my friends if they aren't in that 1% now, will likely at some point be at or close to the 1% at some point in their life. The number people tend to use is $340,000 for joint household income in 2009. Or $170,000 per person in a two-earner household.

Also, someone who turns down a $200,000 a year to work for a non-profit or start a family should also properly be counted as earning $200,000 because by revealed preference, they are getting at least that many dollars of hedonic value from the less renumerative jobs they have taken.

I think few of my friends like to think about this fact. I agree it is somewhat troubling.

Also, that's just 1% of the US. To be in the top 1% of the world only requires $34,000 a year.

Monday, November 28, 2011

comparative advantage, relative wages and marginal product: or I like programming

I got to program today. It always reminds me how much I enjoy it. These days I program once a year or so. I only do it now because I have no RAs to do it for me. To be honest, its much faster doing it myself. I spent 3 years of meetings helping teams of RAs do what I probably could have done in a week or so myself. (training RAs is part of the job)

I know it is immodest to say but I happen to be a very good programmer. Well at least in some dimensions of programming (who knows how well that translates into big corporate projects), I probably am a relatively better programmer than an economist. Part of it is the 10,000 hours of practice thing.  My mom had me programming BASIC when I was 5. I copied code from 3-2-1 contact magazine and library books until I could write it myself. In middle school I wrote computer games for myself because I wasn't allowed to play any I hadn't written.  I took theoretical comptuer science courses when I was 14. In my 4 years at MIT, 2 of my degrees were in CS and received commendations in my CS classes even though it was relatively low priority. I walked into a programming contest for the MIT team that regularly competes at the international level on a lark, and did reasonably well.

So it feels a shame I don't get to do it any more, something I enjoy and something I'm good at. I suppose such is the nature of programming. Even if I had chosen a more CS focused career path, it seems few people actually program for very long.

we have plenty of oil?

It's funny how memes ebb and flow in pop culture. Just a couple years ago, it seemed like the popular idea that you constantly saw in the news and popular discourse is how the world is running out of oil. Which is why I was surprised by the recent spate of stories (e.g. this one in npr) about how due to recent fracking technology, the US and also the world has plenty of oil. These technologies aren't new, they've been around for a long time, and I've been pushing back against the peak oil chicken littles as long as I've been studying oil markets (since 2006 or so). I suppose it just reflects the price of oil, which mostly has been moving based on global gdp growth rather than actual oil trends. Which is sad because you'd hope that media coverage should be based on facts as opposed to just popular psychology. Which I guess is why I've been studying media coverage trends as well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Judge Not Joe Paterno?

Milgram’s Expermients showed that ¾ of people will kill someone if someone in a lab coat tells them to, the experiment was a test of Arendt’s banality of evil on Nazi behavior. Which led to Ross’ and the Fundamental Attribution Error that in general many choices are dictated by situation (structure) even though we think it is disposition (agency). It's amazing how quick people are to forget lessons that have been taught for thousands of years. Bottom line: Judge not lest ye be judged. Or let he who is without sin...

I'm not saying what he did was by any means right. I just don't like the judgy done of so much of the coverage.

Friday, October 28, 2011

United States of Europe?

Planet Money has a story about how Germans feel obliged to bail-out Greece because of guilt over World War II. For me, the story is simpler than that, it is because at least some class of Europeans now identify as European before they identify as German or French or Spanish. You can see it in the film Auberge Espagnole (nominally about a bunch of pan-European kids living in a hostel together in Barcelona, but actually about the dream of European unity as seen by the seemless integration of these young people), you can see it in the graduate schools and research centers, where at least in economics, the lingua franca in the most prestigious european research universities is English, and seminars and research groups are organized along research lines rather than national lines. Finally you see it in a few surprising conversations I've had with Europeans recently from various countries that sounded something like:

European: It's impressive how in the US, New Yorkers are happy to spend money helping flood victims in South Carolina.
Me: Really? You think Parisians wouldn't want to help flood victims in Marseille?
European: Well sure, but people in Berlin would not.
Me: ???

It was surprising how for these Europeans (perhaps the academic-y types), the analogy between New York and South Carolina was Berlin and Marseille.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

college nostalgia

Reading Ready Player One reminded me of Real Genius, which was set in a Cal Tech like school, but still was the reference of what I was in the back of my mind at least when I got to MIT as a freshman. Which in the end, like most of the campus with the exception of the media lab, felt decidedly normal. Though thinking about it now, if you strung together the highlight reel, it wouldn't seem that different--a friend turning orange as he experimented with vitamin supplements; we often seemed to have liquid nitrogen around that people stole from their lab used for shattering vegetables or making jello shots; filling a pumpkin every halloween with gasoline, sneaking to the roof and tossing it off setting it on fire; speed chess marathons with the constant clicking of chess clocks, talking until the sun comes up about topics ranging from free will to building a gravity powered train through the center of the earth; and the constant buzz of start-up machinations at the height of the dot-com boom. Good times.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ready Player One: nostaligia porn for the 80's geek

My review in epinions for Ready Player One reprinted here

Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s new novel that basically proves that dork culture is officially mainstream, or mainstream enough for a novel like Ready Player One to get glowing reviews from both Time magazine and the NY Times.

I suppose the fact that pretty much every summer blockbuster these days is an Nth degree superhero sequel, the biggest thing in chick flicks is vampires and werewolves, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy wins Oscars shows dork ascendance in pop culture. Novels is the latest frontier.

The premise of Ready Player One is that it is the year 2030, and the inventor of the virtual reality universe that everyone now lives in (because an energy crisis had created a permanent global economic recession) dies and leaves all his money to whoever can find the easter egg in his virtual reality world. The working class nerd boy heroes have to search his VR universe (which includes of course a Star Wars sector, Star Trek, Firefly, Goonies, Dr Who, etc. etc. etc.) to finish the quest. So in this sense, the book follows the classic James Campbell hero cycle that defined many an 80’s epic.

But really the story is just an excuse to relive all the 80’s media that dorks of a certain age grew up with. It references pretty much every geeky movie, video game and D&D product from the 80's that fits into its 300 odd pages. Part of what makes this the most fun I have ever had reading a book is it made reading an amazingly visual and visceral experience, triggering images and flashbacks to scenes and experiences that defined my childhood.

For example, the first quest item the heroes have to find is within the most famous D&D adventure, the Tomb of Horrors,  and can only be obtained by battling the lich king in a game of Joust (the game with the flying birds). Starting with the first paragraph where the chaos of the world is described as “dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria” which brings up images of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, the book allows the reliving memories like placing quarters on arcade games to get next in line, getting lost in a maze of twisty passages in Zork, quoting lines of movies you’ve seen a million times like Monty Python, to dreaming about the technology of Max Headroom. Especially satisfying are the obscure references that resonated with me, like reading BASIC programs off a cassette drive, learning the president and vice president of VR space is Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton, hearing the voice of his AI was briefly Majel Barett, or taking a test as hard as the Kobayashi Maru. Often,  find myself thinking something like—that character is just like Jordan in Real Genius—when on the next page, Cline writes, "just like Jordan on Real Genius."

While satisfying, it also feels a little pathetic. The players spend 100's of hours of their lives watching and re-watching, playing and replaying 80's media to solve the quest, which sounds painful and pathetic until I realize I've read and seen pretty much everything they have. Which in the end reminds you that you are not alone. The author, the reviewers at Time and NY Times, and all the readers who have pushed this book up best seller lists probably did the same thing.

Admittedly, there is little depth here. For trashy sci-fi that provides enough thought provoking material to fill a graduate seminar, I turn to Neal Stephenson. But the reading and story is appropriately satisfying. It is also impressive that despite the fantastic premise, it is actually quite plausible. Most of the VR technology mentioned—like spheres that let you jog in, glasses that project images onto your retina, haptic gloves—exist today, and the social structure of the virtual world is similar to Second Life today. The real world economics a bit off, the prices of virtual goods should be much closer to marginal cost (i.e. zero) than they are, and the predictions of the world’s gasoline running out abruptly so that people had to abandon cars on the highway is simply ridiculous. But these are minor and besides the point.
The point of the book is to share in the joys of the media so many of us consumed in our childhood. Ready Player One provides an amazingly visceral reading experience and more importantly helps all of us who loved these dorky things feel a little less alone. The genre I suppose is not new—the NY Times aptly pointed out Kevin Smith has been doing this for decades—but this is the first I’ve seen in novel form, and this is seriously the most fun I’ve had reading in a very long time.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

extreme correlation between social groups and behaviors

A colleague mentioned the other day when we were talking about adopting google calendar, "doesn't everybody use gmail" which reminded me that yeah, pretty much everyone I know uses gmail, which is interesting because overall, gmail only accounts for 7% of email accounts, and even amongst online e-mail services, gmail is third behind hotmail, and yahoo mail (4th if you count apple mail which has 11%).

The example I use in class is NASCAR. Since no one in the classes I teach watch NASCAR even though by some measures, NASCAR has the highest attendance of any sport in the US.

Class warfare without Class and the Virtue of Laziness.

Time TV critic argues that class warfare has returned to TV by citing two examples: Two Broke Girls where two well off college educated girls live as broke hipsters in Williamsburg. You can tell they are hipsters because they constantly make fun of hipsters. The second example is Revenge, about an upper class girl who decides to take revenge on the upper class neighbors who destroyed her life.

To say these shows are about class is plainly absurd. In both cases, it is about upper class girls who happen to be without money at the moment, but not having money does not make them lower class. For Bourdieu, class is about habitus, or having the cultural capital to be able to move unnoticed in an upper class world. That is clearly true for Two Broke Girls (college by itself puts you in the top half of the income distribution and one went to Wharton), and that is the premise of Revenge.

In economics there is a similar concept when we speak of wages. People routinely mistake how much money you have for how well off you are. However, someone's wages are properly how much money they could be making, not how much they actually are. A fresh grad who turns down a $50,000 a year job doing something unpleasant like accounting, to get paid $10,000 making cupcakes or pickles in Williamsburg, is actually making $50,000 per year, its just $40,000 of that compensation is being paid in the form of the non-pecuniary benefits like hanging out with hipsters.

This is important because as Joel Stein noted in the same Time magazine issue, we as a nation have become generally more lazy. We are retiring earlier, we are asking for less responsibility on the job, we are willing to carry less. A farmer who decided to forgo Mexican guest workers to hire some of the many local unemployed had most of them quit the $10.50 an hour job in the first six hours.

Despite Obama complaining that we've been getting Soft, that's actually a good thing. I've calculated that I've turned down quite a substantial amount of money to have a job where I can set my own hours, work on the projects I want and live in an academic environment. It shows that we as a nation have gotten to the point where we appreciate that money is not the most important thing in the world.

What's important about this macroeconomically speaking is that these non-pecuniary shifts have largely gone unmeasured as we point to wage figures that appear to show stagnation. It's funny that those very people that complain that people care too much about money are also the ones who complain that wages are not growing fast enough.

Monday, October 17, 2011

obama memo on killing a us citizen

Just another example of how policies do not really depend on the president as much as we would like to believe.

Monday, October 10, 2011

spontaneous order and the provision of public goods

A couple interesting examples on planet money recently on what the economist Sugden calls spontaneous order, or probably more accurately how the philosopher Dewey envisioned Democracy, not as voting which is deeply problematic but of group decisions made through some percolating consensus of the masses . One is the hacker group Anonymous that just meets in a massive chat room where people non-hierarchically just throw out ideas of who to attack next until some kind of vague consensus emerges and the other is the Occupy Wall St group which I haven't been able to figure out what they want, and I guess Planet Money's point is that they don't know what policy they want but they want some consensus based participatory democracy where you get a mass of people together and a group consensus somehow emerges. Reminds me of the Prairie dogs who "vote" where to move based oh where heads are facing.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The problem that is Ken Burns

"How could a nation built on rights go so wrong." Referring to Prohibition. I see that ad on the subway nearly every day for Ken Burns' new PBS documentary. Watching it now makes my respect for Burns and TV documentaries and PBS plummet (it had been quite high before). It makes me appreciate how much smart sounding Public TV is as nonsense filled as a typical Michael Moore movie. I thought PBS was above that. It's not at all clear that Prohibition was bad, and doesn't seem so different than many anti drug laws we have today, which is perhaps the point, but it's just really poor social science. I was thinking this even before my friend Emily Owen's (who does research in this area) wrote her commentary for the NY Times.

Friday, October 07, 2011

How bad is the energy apocalypse?

A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction and non-fiction coming out recently premised on the world running out of energy/oil (e.g. the 80's dorky nostalgia fest Ready Player One) and even though I don't buy that premise--people have been predicting the end of oil for a hundred years, while new technology has led to reserves growing not shrinking in that time--even if it were true, it's worth soberly noting just how bad it could be. The US spends about 10% of GDP (about $1 trillion) on energy. If we ran out of fossil fuels there are literally dozens of sources of renewable energy that could be tapped to replace fossil fuels if we're willing to pay twice as much. A trillion dollars is a whole lot and so we shouldn't jump into it lightly. But at the very worst, it will cost a trillion dollars per year. That would set back GDP by about 10% (or about 5 years of GDP growth) but that's about it. We're talking 5 years, not mad max in thunderdome.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Most science is wrong

More evidence that published results are not to be trusted published in Nature. Ionnides found long ago that a large fraction of top medical studies are reversed in five years, and now a study finds that a majority of medical studies in top journals cannot be replicated. Bem's recent demonstration of psychic powers in Cornell undergradutes published in the top psych journal has forced to re-evaluate all experimental data, precisely because he did everything by the book. I've long found that more and more well established results esp in psychology have not held up under scrutiny. Johnathan Schooler has argued the absurdity in Nature of all places this is because the universe reacts whenever humans discover something, when the far more obvious conclusion is that biases in scientific publishing lead us to over-report false positives.

I would like to think economics does better, just because the standards (at least at top journals) are so high that people take years to publish, but I'm sure that if it is better, its only marginally better.

I suppose the only defense I have for Schooler's idea is that this was the premise of Second Foundation, the Asimov sci-fi book that helped inspire me to become an economist, whose precedent was that a bunch of meddling mathematicians (i.e. economists) were secretly manipulating the universe, so the rules of the universe did seem to react to human discoveries. And I suppose even less crazy, since Edmund Phelps won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing that the Philips Curve (relationship between unemployment and inflation) stops working once people become aware that the Federal Reserve is aware of it. But there the mechanism is clear.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Reviewlet: Spider man : the musical

Surprisingly (or not) Spiderman's already half priced at tkts, so after Anything Goes sold out minutes before we got there, (an hour before curtain) we got Spiderman instead.

And surprisingly, the musical really was as bad as everyone said it was. Like any origin story, the prologue was slow and tedious. The music was mostly forgettable, like all the b-side U2 songs that never get played. The much vaunted flying was surprisingly boring, and compared quite unfavorably to even the first movie (I guess that would be impossible to live up to) or say Cirque du Soleil, mostly just people swinging back and forth slowly on long ropes, with no sense of speed or acceleration. The only redeeming feature was the sets (Julie Taymor lived up to her hype on that one) which were probably the most clever I've seen out of many clever broadway sets. Nice use of video, and skewed geometries that nicely capture the juxtaposed 2d-3d representational tension inherent in the comic book form (how's that for BS) with deeply skewed viewing angles. Costumes a bit silly, (Adam West Batman style homage to 4-color comics, but worked). And the big finale worked ok, since it really is Amazing to see people fighting midair above you. So I left satisfied but mostly a meh experience.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

us education rankings

It's become a standard talking point that the US education system ranks low in international test scores. I guess I always had a problem with that stylized fact. First of all, there's always an issue of who gets tested--the US has less tracking than other countries where people often get shunted off into vocational education at an early age--though the tests are supposed to account for that. There's also the question of what gets tested. In a (admittedly less reliable CivEd test of civics education), the US ranks quite high, despite conventional wisdom. Finally there's the question of why focus on Math and Science scores alone. The same advocates who use these math and science rankings are also often the same ones that lament education reforms that focus on math and science. What about music and art and sports and things that foster teamwork and innovation and creativity. Where are the rankings for that? By revealed preferences, there is greater movement in the world toward the US style education system than away from it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

nice npr article on civil liberties on otm

It's nice that 10 years on, to hear someone (again at NPR) correct the record on what happened with civil liberties. This is one of the first stories I've heard that noted that things weren't that bad, after a long string of stories in the past 10 years that made the ridiculous claim that W Bush was the worst president in terms of civil liberties ever (Excuse me? FDR and Japanese internment? Lincoln and habeas corpus?), noting for example that Obama has invoked the state secrets clause to avoid disclosure more than any other president. The point being, not that Obama is secretive, but that presidential policies are mostly the same, and our beliefs otherwise are just another example of fundamental attribution errors.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

surrounded by crazy...

You hear interesting conversations while working in coffee shops.

Just today, a writer/director talking about the music for his new play. They started talking abot Jung's ideas about archetypes and moved on to talk about the soundtrack of his play. He has a little device that generates random numbers that deviates from the mean when near humans, especially at plays which generate collective consciousness. He has hooked the digital output to a sound generator and hence crowd generated music.

A rabbi, at least based on his beard and habit, talking about turning people into super conductors to channel spiritual energy, in something he would like to patent, to increase their GC current (like AC, or DC) but GC for godly current (i think, he used a lot of hebrew words). using things like the god particle - the higgs boson - to supress beta waves reducing alpha and omega resistance to zero using room temperature ceramic super-conductors, to increase your alpha to generate spiritual healing.

As a reader of Alan Moore's comics (that imagination must transcend the physical realm Promethea (Book 1)) and Foucault (that our perception of reality is socially constructed ) and Dan Brown (pure crazy: The Lost Symbol) and Neal Stephenson (that the only way to reconcile free will with physics is some kind of supernatural power Anathem), I'm actually quite sympathetic to finding sympathy between magic and science and human-generated reality.

Still interesting how common it is. There's a growing literature in psychology on magical thinking, and I've often pondered my own relationship with luck. I imagine there is a useful theory paper here, combining behavioral models of risk with story based reasoning if I ever have time write it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Krugman frustrates me

"Unfortunately, Krugman himself is no longer able to separate his own disgust for anything done by someone who labels them self conservative from objective analysis of a situation. "

This post probably is the best summation of why Krugman frustrates me, and probably most economists.

Monday, September 12, 2011

why time warner cable sucks

Finally got our 4th new cable box, in about as many months. I finally decided to replace the old Scientific Atlanta cable box, which we've had for years (the store is just a 2 blocks from where we live), as the old box would regularly only record half of shows, and was ridiculously slow, fast forwarding or rewinding or just changing channels. Figured summer when no new shows were airing and our dvr queue was as empty as it was ever going to be, was a good time. And we were told there are new model cable boxes available.

Hoping for an upgrade that an earlier salesman had promised me, but the store said they only stock the old used scientific atlanta boxes, I was still relatively happy with the new box (Box 2), for about a week, things worked well until it crashed and would not recover from a reboot. Figured calling a technician (using the online chat which I do really love) would get us a  better box, but instead it got us the same old Scientific Atlanta model. Box 3, worked pretty well except every day or so, one of our DVRed shows would only record the first minute. Sort of annoying when you are forced to miss episodes.

So finally, I went to the store, fortunately, someone else was in there trying to score one of the new black samsung boxes, so the stock guy was out, and he promised to hide a couple in back for us. I went back to the store, and amidst lots of people swapping out boxes, I alone was able to walk out with a shiny new samsung box (though the clerk tried giving me another scientific atlanta box, until I insisted the stock guy had stashed one for me).

Things seem to be working for now... relatively snappy. I appreciate that these boxes allow software upgrades, but the old boxes that seem over a decade old can't handle the current software, not to mention failing hard drives.

Makes the idea of cancelling cable altogether like I did in Ithaca sound more and more attractive. You can buy a lot of shows on iTunes for the $1,500 a year we are forking over. Not to mention netflix streaming.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Very good sentence: on the World Trade Center

From Amy Waldman's latest novel about an architect and 9/11
He had been indifferent to the buildings when they stood, preferring more fluid forms to their stark brutality, their self-conscious monumentalism. But now he wanted to fix their image, their worth, their place. Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, they were living rebukes to nostalgia, yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations; it came to seem as natural as a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space had reversed time.
(I also think brutalism is one of the greatest names for a style of architecture.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

combat hospital on ABC

The new abc summer  filler show, looked to be a MASH meets Grey's Anatomy replacement, basically Afghan military hospital, but the multi-racial cast, with several asian and indian doctors (impressively realistic) and mutl-national cast, and the damn earnestness quickly demonstrated its Candian provenance. (impressively, this is the first non-American show I can think of that airs without adaptation on a US network)

The fascinating thing is the show is often about allocation of scarce resources, where often the right decision is to let somebody die in order to save the greatest number of lives. This is very very much at odds with pretty much all American medical dramas where the right answer is always to do everything possible (see House or Grey's Anatomy of Star Trek) to save a single life.

An interesting reflection of the different health care systems.

Friday, September 09, 2011

patent wars: a new hope

Although my main portfolio was Energy, I also happened to be the patent economist when I was at the White House, and back in 2006, I remember discussing the idea of modeling patent wars with the chief economist at the FTC. This summer, the idea seems to have gone mainstream. The idea is that patents are no longer used to protect innovation in the tech industry, their main use in fact is to use as ammunition in legal battles.

HTC just retaliated in its patent war against Apple who was suing HTC because the HTC tablet looks like an iPad. HTC retaliated by saying the iPad looks like something from the movie 2001, hence prior art. They also just acquired some patents from google to counter sue Apple for patent infringement. The whole patent war issue seems to have gone mainstream this summer, with several multi-billion dollar acquisitions of companies not for technology, but only for patents to be used as ammunition; ostensibly defensively, like some kind of patent WMD. You sue me, I sue you back.

This American Life / Planet Money had a nice show about it, which pointed out amongst other things that the great "innovator" Nathan Myhrvold's new idea lab has not many any money from any of its inventions. It in fact makes all its money from sueing people using patents it acquires.

Do Republicans need more Econ 101

Justin Wolfers on Marketplace:
"But the idea that in the midst of near-record unemployment that what we should do is cut back on government spending and fire more teachers and policemen is completely absurd. Never in my life have I felt a greater disjunction between the standard approach to economics and political discourse."

But what if you took econ 101 (I literally teach econ 101) and learned about ricardian equivalence, or used the standard 101 textbook by Mankiw who argues that the multiplier for spending is much lower than the multiplier for tax cuts, and hence cutting spending to finance tax cuts is a net benefit for the economy. And then, you listen to mainstream economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin who argues that what matters is not consumer confidence but producer confidence, and producers worry about long term deficits, and thus cutting deficits can increase investment and job growth?

Are doctors paid too much?

A recent health affairs study has been asking if doctors are paid too much?

R-'s and many others reaction to the story was that doctors have to be paid more to pay off student loan debt, to which I say, bah. Doctor salaries in the US are roughly twice what they are in other countries. Which means roughly an extra $100,000 a year. or maybe $60,000... after taxes. Doesn't matter how gigantic your student loans are, that's more than enough to pay back those debts in just a few years.

I agree though that doctor salaries alone dont explain healthcare costs. the truth is, nothing by itself does. Everything in the US is more expensive. end of life care is more expensive, but so is non-end of life care. Doctors are more expensive but so are nurses and administrators. Liability is more expensive, but by itself only accounts for a tiny fraction of healthcare costs. In the end there are no easy answers.

Even though the question itself is important since it is probably the only part of the US budget problem that doesn't have an easy solution.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Why I'm an Optimist

Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist was highly recommended by one of my favorite economics blogs. It basically says what I would say if I had to defend my optimism. 

Esp the chapter based on John Stuart mills quote from the 1700s

“I have observed that not the man who hopes, when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

He does a good job documenting the history of pessimism in every generation for hundreds of years from Malthus and beyond. Even though statistically pretty much everything has been and is continuing to get better. The book is more of a string of anecdotes than data, but I do think his argument is right. It is rare to find a book in the book store that is optimistic (another favorite of mine, Lomborg's Skeptical Environmentalist is an exception that proves the rule--it got him widely and unfairly smeared by error strewn ignorant articles written in Scientific American and other venues). 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Compromise is good? Compromise is Bad.

I just read another op-ed about how Obama compromises too much so that we don't know what he stands for.

While I disagree with the premise that Obama compromises too much an W Bush never compromises (I can think of many counter examples of both, and think such choices depend more on political circumstance than politician character) I am amused that the media narrative under an Obama administration is that compromise is bad while under the Bush administration compromise is good. Just another example of confirmation bias in the media.

Kudos again to NPR's linguist for pointing this out for also noting our schizophrenia about compromise.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

yes, farm subsides can't explain obesity

This npr story illustrates another of my typical rants, and on the list of "everything that I rant about, probably most economists rant about too."

The issue is whether farm subsides affect obesity (like Michael Pollan and even some economists insist). It illustrates a mistake that even economists make, of confusing an effect that directionally exists with one that has what we call economic significance.

The problem with blaming farm subsides on obesity (and on the national debt as has also become popular) is that farm subsides only add up to about $20 billion a year, which is a lot of money but tiny compared to the size of the debt and tiny compared to the size of the global food market. Americans spend over a trillion dollars on food each year. Those $20 billion are unlikely to have any significant effect.

Especially since most of the time pundits are complaining that food prices of staple grains are too high due to ethanol (also not true), we now have similar pundits complaining that food prices are too low due to subsides. Both can't be true.

Anyway, kudos for npr for being the first news story I've heard to get this right.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

reporters report gaffes to fit their narrative

Nice Washington Post article, on something I've been ranting about since the days of Dan Quayle. People love telling stories about stupid things politicians say, but the reportage is highly skewed. In short, reporters suffer from confirmation bias. There are too many facts in the world that could possibly fit into an article, so reporters (as the nytimes motto goes) chooses all the facts they deem fit. This choice inevitably means choosing facts that fit their pre-conceived narrative. So when people like Dan Quayle, George W Bush and Sarah Palin say something dumb (like we all do all the time), then that story gets repeated. It doesn't mean there isn't truth in these narratives have no truth to them, just that they distort the magnitude of the difference. There's some nice footage here of Obama talking about campaigning in 57 states, that no one reported on at all. I remember one analysis of the Palin-Biden debate where Biden made more factual errors, but of course Palin was already painted as dumb. And finally, Al Gore has built this image as the Nobel Prize winning genius who invented the Internet, although his GPA in college was worse than Bush, and Gore failed out of two different graduate schools with C's and F's.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Our Sorry Paper in the WSJ

Our paper was mentioned in the Wall Street journal Week in Ideas

using political economy to sell insurance

a very convincing subway ad that uses political economy to sell insurance

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Restaurant reviewlet: Mission Chinese

waiting in line for the foodie destination du jour, the elevated but respectful take on Chinese food at Mission Chinese, a pop-up restaurant cohabiting the space of a traditional chinese take-out joint.

we put our name down on the list with a crowd of people out front and 15-20 tables ahead. the estimate was 3-5 min per table and sure enoug we were seated about 70 minutes later.

kinda curious why sf tolerates waiting, walking around we saw long lines for ice cream joints (humphrey slocum, birite) and bakeries (tartine), and even organic vegan mexican (gracias madre), a contrast to nyc where such lines are rare, (except maybe at magnolia, which is mostly tourists, since locals all seem to agree their cupcakes mostly suck).

the food was quite yummy. definitley not fusion, and definitely not contempo, but also not quite chinese. mostly a healthy respect for the original recipe and no fear of szcecuan peppercorns.

the tea-infused eel was yummy, wrapped in cheung fun, and with a nice duck fat crunch.

the egg custard was a tofu clone, a play on textures with exploding salmon roe, but a bit odd flavor wise.

the mapo tofu and salt fish fried rice and mustard greens and garlic were all fairly chinese, the rice nicely dry and separated, the mapo nicely ma as well as la, the greens nicely cooked but mostly traditional.

the only real failure with the lamb noodle soup, with flavor profile much like the taiwanese beef noodle soup i grew up but over reduced so very very salty. the lamb tho was incredibly tender.

anyway, good food, worth the wait and much of the hype, and we got to contemplate the sf foodie caste amiably chatting on the sidewalk outside, and compare and contrast with the ny scene.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

the purpose of the debt ceiling

A lot of people have complained that politicians have been using the debt ceiling to debate long term budget issues when instead, we should just have a "clean" bill that simply raises the ceiling. But this view demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of what the debt ceiling is. The ceiling is a self-imposed rule that Congress put on itself. If it wanted, with a simple majority vote it can get rid of it. But it doesn't. Why? Because the purpose of the rule is to force Congress to debate long term priorities before taking on more debt. This is a useful debate because it helps control long term debt, which should give lenders more faith in the US government not less. It is reasonable to question the outcome of the debate, but totally nonsensical to question the debate itself.

Monday, August 08, 2011

S&P ratings and the Sovereign Ceiling

One feature of the S&P rating adjustment is that it defies one of the old rules I learned on the Fixed Income trading floor in my brief banking days. That a company's bond rating can never be better than the bond rating of the country it is based in, because if the country defaults, chances are the economy in that country will go to crap causing all the companies within to likely defualt as well.

Thus Pr[company default] = Pr[country default] + Pr[company default | ~country default ] > Pr [country default]

The recent downgrade of the US seems to violate that precept. I suppose the rule was absolute, and US companies are global enough that you could imagine situations where the US defaulted but Microsoft or Exxon did not. It just struck me as odd and notable that no one has mentioned it.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Planet Money: The State of the Economy is Strong

R- once asked, if you know so much about fixing the economy, why aren't you out there fixing it? The answer is that I don't need to be because the ideas I have are already represented because pretty much all economists think very much like. There is more unanimity in economics I feel than in any social science. NPR's Planet Money often reminds me of this, most recently by airing an episode that echoes something I rant about often. I really respect the show for doing the best job in all media of airing the economists viewpoint.

This episode's premise: the state of the US economy is strong. For educated America, even in the recession, unemployment is under 2%. That US manufacturing is still the strongest in the world, its just now powered by machines, and the educated people who fix the machines.

That the rest of the economy can be fixed if we just fix education, the deficit, and healthcare, and that these are easily fixed. That most of the deficit (except Medicare/medicaid) can be made to go away through simple cuts like raising the retirement age to 70.

On all this I very much agree although  a couple quibbles--e.g. head start hasn't worked, and while I agree employer driven healthcare is dumb, and I was there for the big Bush push to get rid of it, it probably isn't the main problem with healthcare costs.

R- cleverly followed up her question with a tougher one, if all economists know how to fix the economy, why are things in the economy still broken. Much to her pique, I had an answer for that too: which  can be found in the field of political economy and the class I used to teach.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The professor and the policy maker

This video was not especially funny but very true.

I've been on both sides of this. A week or so before No Child Left Behind was to be re-authorized, I asked a friend who I had seen present perhaps one of the the most carefully done evaluations of the educational impact a year before for the latest draft of her findings. She said sure, let me just clean up a few things and I'll send it next week. Next week became next month, which became next month, I got it about 6 months later, long after Congress was done with the issue.

Also quite true that your paper having 20 citations (meaning maybe 10 people read your paper) is probably more helpful to tenure than actually helping to change policy.

And finally, I am often reminded, especially reading papers written by students but also articles in the popular press, that people outside the field can't tell the difference between good work and bad, so that a white paper published on the website of the Center that Advocates Whatever, is treated as equal in value to a paper published in the American Economic Review.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Debt Deal and the Presumption of Decency

The problem I have had with lots of the anti-republican commentary on the budget crisis (all the budget related posts on my facebook feed are anti-republican)  is what Ed Glaeser called in his npr this I believe note, a belief in the presumption of decency. A belief that while the other side may hold different opinions, they are still decent people. A belief that we should empathize with those we disagree with. A belief that if the same tactics were employed by people you agreed with, they would be seen as courageous. And finally, these commentaries all bothered me for buying into the histrionics, that this crisis may precipitate the end of the world, when not a single person with money on the line actually thinks so if you look at US interest rates which have largely been falling.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Accidental airline tax holiday and Tax Incidence

NY Times article on how an accidental Tax Holiday created by a deadlocked Congress for airlines is entirely absorbed by the airlines. A nice illustration of one of the fundamental principles of public finance on tax incidence, that is the person who is levied the tax is not the one who pays for the tax. You hear evidence of this misunderstanding a lot when people say we should tax oil companies.

Typically its the party with less flexible (elasticity) that bears the burden. In airlines, in the short term, passengers are locked into their travel and firms are not competitive (no flat supply curve) so it makes sense that consumers bear most of the burden.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Carmageddon or More evidence on Downs paradox

So apparently, Carmageddon was supposed to be last weekend in LA when they shut down a highway for the weekend for repairs. And apparently not much happened. The big economics lesson I take away from here is more evidence for the Downs paradox which basically argues that in many cases highway capacity has no effect on travel time. People adjust their driving habits to the amount of highway capacity available. Lots of recent research seems to back this up as well. The marginal effect of building an extra lane of highway on travel time is zero, since more highway capacity just causes more people to use the highway until the same equilibrium travel time is reached.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Annoyances with the Apple Pricing Model

Apple MacBook Air MC505LL/A 11.6-Inch LaptopThe new Macbook Air's today reminded me that something always bothered me about the simple transparent pricing schemes Apple uses. I finally figured out why. I suppose the pricing schemes make it more obvious (at least to me) that they are using monopolistic price discrimination, as opposed to what is typical is the highly competitive consumer electronics market which tends to price at cost. This is especially evident in the iPad prices where an extra 48 GB of memory which costs $80 more if you look at SD card prices, leads to a $200 higher price (and apple design always makes it so that consumers cannot upgrade the memory themselves).

Monopolistic pricing basically transfers surplus from consumers to profits for the firm.

I actually don't mind when this is done in other industries like airlines (where I normally defend their pricing) because there I know it increases social welfare, and airlines just use this technique to cover their fixed costs, as they are just barely profitable.

To Apple's credit, I buy their products anyway, which means they create enough surplus through great design that I still choose them over the competitively priced alternatives. (though I still maintain they are not especially reliable products as my macbook pro just broken down after only 11 months, and I have had several iphones die, one melted).

Do supermarkets improve our diets?

From Marginal Revolution: Do supermarkets improve our diets?: "
Maybe not:
Better access to supermarkets — long touted as a way to curb obesity in low-income neighborhoods — doesn’t improve people’s diets, according to new research. The study, which tracked thousands of people in several large cities for 15 years, found that people didn’t eat more fruits and vegetables when they had supermarkets available in their neighborhoods.
Instead, income — and proximity to fast food restaurants — were the strongest factors in food choice.
The original piece (gated) is here."
I have been ranting about this too for a long time. People that say the reason low income people are obese is because the evil market has denied them access to healthy food supermarkets. When in fact, that's the opposite of how markets work. Obese low income people do not have access to healthy food because they don't demand healthy food. You need to change those demands. Vegetables and salads are inherently much cheaper to produce than hamburgers, the only reason they tend to be expensive is because they cater to high income people who demand those things. NPR made a great point a while ago that if you want to see low income people buying cheap produce, just go to chinatown.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Economist on real chinese food

The economist magazine recently reminded people that most Chinese food you get in say an American Chinese restaurant is mostly American, and only partially Chinese, but that authentic Chinese food which used to be available on the Chinese only menu is becoming more common (one of my main motivations for learning to read Chinese is to be able to order from these menus). Most people are surprised that good real Chinese food is surprisingly hard to get in New York's Chinatown (you used to have to venture to Flushing where my grandmother lives to get the good stuff). Xian famous--as recently profiled by WSJ--is a good example, with the ABC business major son of the owner, helping the noodle stand to ride its feature on Anthony Bourdain's show which brought in people like R- and me, to build a food empire, expanding from its Flushing basement food stall, to shiny new holes in the wall in Chinatown.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

From NYTimes: The Light-Bulb Mandate Endures

For those who don't know, regular lightbulbs will be illegal in the US in the next year or so. For the record, I did my small part to prevent this stupid regulation from being passed back in 2007. It's actually not so bad, it does spur innovation, but it is mostly stupid because the environmental externality from light bulbs is tiny even in aggregate, while the inconveniences of alternatives (high cost, slow turn on, ugly light) are real and palpable.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Greif et al were all wrong?

Havent thought about Economic history since grad school but I came across this paper arguing that the empirical basis of Milgrom north and weingast and greifs community responsibility system that private order
was the basis of medieval trade was all wrong. This was a bit disturbing as I still talk about how the medieval champagne fairs and private law was the basis of international trade in class and seeing the animatronic law merchants in provins France is still one of my best vacation memories. The authors have another paper trashing greifs magrhibi traders paper. And I have thought of north and weingast (on how parliament's ability to tie the king's hand by forcing the king to pay back its debts allowed England to borrow lots more money and thus win its wars) a lot recently in face of recent sovereign debt defaults and the current debt ceiling silliness but I remember that the empirical basis of their story was wrong too.

I wonder if this is just the normal dialectic of history scholarship or is everything we learned from analytic narratives all wrong?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

NY Times Riffs

I like the new Format for the NY Times magazine (the only reason I subscribe to the print edition). I like how they finally got a new ethicist who didn't seem overly righteous about questinable decisions, but I mostly like the new Riffs column, where writers basically participate in the sophomoric silliness typically found in blogs or college dorm rooms (my cousins call it masturbatory writing).

3 recent ones that stood out, a meta-meta-meta-memoir--the editor's memoir of
reading the reviewer's memoir of the memoir by Luca Spaghetti about being in the Eat Pray Love memoir. Or, a call to take back the word c**t while adhering the NY times rules from using that word, or even referring to it. Or, a crit theory analysis of Pretty Women.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

latest star wars mmorpg trailer

What amuses me about the star wars cartoon is how it continues to use catch phrases from the original trilogy on a regular basis. "I have a bad feeling about this" etc. How many could there be to use in nearly every episode without getting old.

Though I guess catch phrases from the bible or Shakespeare have become part of our language so why not star wars.

I was amused but not surprised when even Nytimes movie critic ao Scott cited star wars as the most influential movie he ever saw as a kid (also unsurprisingly manolo dhargis cites is obscure French new wave films like trufault or Jules et Jim.)

What amused me about the latest trailer is how many scenes from the old trilogy they fit into a 6 minute clip from blasting out of the death star to navigating the death star trench to the
Turret guns in the falcon to the death of kenobi to vaders force duel with space debris to the roguish smuggler. And while it was blatantly obvious the appeals to nostalgia were surprisingly powerful in making me want to buy this game.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Audacity of Literary Theory

If people think economics is audacious in applying it's tools to areas far beyond it's purview is nothing compared to the audacity of literary theory that applied the logic of literature to explaining reality. (see batman the dark knight returns for example).

But I still miss it (see this recent NYTimes article analyzing thelma and louise and pretty woman). Used to read a fair amount for my education policy classes but hardly any now for many years.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Time Magazine doesn't want me to get "Gypped?"

Just surprised the word "gyp" is considered acceptable by a major magazine. It was used in a recent article about home buying, on how to avoid getting gypped. I was never even aware of the proper spelling of the word (used to assume it was spelled Jipped) until I heard Southpark's Cartman using the term Jewed all the time. Curiously, this article came out at the same time as some politician was asked to resign because he used the word Jewed.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Reviewlet: X-men First Class

X-Men: First Class [Blu-ray]Watching the previews it's pretty amazing how many B-list super heroes movies are coming out this summer, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, etc. Always hanging out at the edge of my awareness growing up, but never enough for me to actually read a single issue. These are more surprising that the D-list heroes (Wanted, Kickass) that have popped up in past years that at least have indie cred.

But the A-list is still here, with the latest x-men installment which may be the best of the series, if not one of the best of the genre, at least in terms of art direction. I was eager to see it given the hype from friends and critics and impressively it lives up to high expectations.

It evoked two genres that never get evoked in super hero movies, the history channel war documentary (with its rendition of the Cuban missile crisis which was fun to watch after seeing the recent JFK biopic on the topic), and the recent genre of bad-ass Jew killing Nazies Holocaust revenge film which curiously is a popular sub-sub-genre these days (The movie also included a preview of The Debt).

But most notably it had the most savvy art direction of any super hero movie I have ever seen in a comic book movie, with the same attention to 60's detail as Mad Men, from the ever presence martini glasses, to the casual mysogeny. But also, the over the top Sean Connery James Bond / Dr Strangelove US and Soviet War Rooms, or the Austin Power style villain interiors, and montages. Most impressively, like the perennial problem of the super hero costume, it does all this with a wink, but without the Camp.

I also liked the ensemble case. Not quite the star power of the recent X-men franchise, but they all looked like they belonged in the time, perhaps because they starred in Mad Men. And James McEvoy really works reprising the dorky super-hero role he did so well in Wanted.

And of course it rewarded us X-men fanboys out there, by staying true to the original X-men themes of outsideness and persecution, the original 60's silliness and cold-war mentality, and throwing in plenty of inside references, and recurring throwaway characters.

Overall Grade: A

Thursday, June 09, 2011

memories of food

This npr story on a chef/artist/protege of jose andres (of course) trying to make food more memorable. They cite science that says that taste is our least memorable scent, in part because we lack the words to describe it, and there is nice evidence that the words we have for things like color affects our ability to perceive color. (For example, many languages like Russian don't have separate words for blue or green.)

So I think about this, since we spend lots of money on very expensive meals, but often I do forget the taste of the food. R- is better. In some ways, it is nice to embrace the fleeting ephemeral nature of the experience, but on the other hand, it also justifies the BS foodie banter we often use to describe the meals.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

ridiculously blatant product placement

Seems to be getting out of hand lately. In several recent episodes of Bones, the two main characters just stop to talk about the features of the car they are driving. Like, gee Bones, did you know my Prius can park itself (cut to clip of car parking itself), or gee Bones, doesn't your Prius have a nice GPS system?

I guess I can't blame them since I only watch pre-recorded shows these days.

I did like hulu's old model which forces you to watch 1 30 second ads for each commercial break. That seemed appropriate. Now that they switched to two though, they are starting to annoy me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

chicago tribune on apologies

I was interviewed the other day for the Chicago Tribune

Please accept my apologies for bringing this sorry subject to your attention (May 10, 2011)

Monday, May 16, 2011

The curious thing about chain e-mails

I have never gotten a chain e-mail offering advice (health or viruses) that was true. (Ok, maybe 1) but 99% seem made up. And every single one of these showed up with a quick google search that usually points to

So as an economist, this is curious for two reasons.

1) There are certainly legitimate health warnings or virus warnings out there. How come none of them get spread?

2) I could imagine if there were some probability that messages were true, that people would find it costly to tell the difference, and I could imagine an equilibrium existing where a mix of true and false messages co-exist. But it is harder to imagine such an equilibrium when 100% are false.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others DieA past co-author of mine, Chip Heath has actually studied these things (at least the first one). I haven't read those papers yet, though I am reading his popular book Made to Stick.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

reviewlet: Name of the Wind II: The Wise Man's Fears

(Edited: penny arcade also noted that the most notable feature of the book was all the sex)

I got tricked into reading name of the wind, for all the hype it was getting from friends but also penny arcade. I didn't realize it was just part 1 of a new series. Given I haven't read much fantasy in like a decade, I have
lots of choices of complete series, but I was left stuck with the old problem (like with George RR Martin) of reading and waiting for years or decades for the series to finish.

It was quite a good book. Not great literature by any means, and not especially deep, but a richly constructed world, with believable magical technology, and a carefully thought out social structure.

Also, nice lyrical writing: "It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts."

I always liked bards in D&D, and the main character is basically a bard, complete with spells, and now some monk levels. The book has a somewhat satisfying love story, and uses the device that since this is the heroes' autobiography, its "ok" if it becomes cliched. I appreciated that the book was self aware enough to acknowledge these cliches, and excuses them as the liberties taken by the bard.

The Wise Man's Fear (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 2)Book 2, The Wise Men's Fears, got somewhat tepid reviews, but I quite liked it. The writing is smoother this time (much like how rowling got smoother with each book) and while it got a bit self indulgent with the sex stuff, I appreciated that it tried. Some of tt was a risk, and a risk that didn't quite payoff, but a bold risk.

It had an extensive trip to the east (it is interesting that like Feist, the part of the fantasy world that is clearly inspired by the east--budghism, taoism, yoga--is populated by white looking people). But it was an interesting reminder of eastern philosophy and a nice new way to look at it.

All in all, the book is populated by charming characters, particularly the women (an affectation that the book acknowledges--one character interrupts the narrator to note that somehow all the women in the story are beautiful). A favorite  is Auri, (Rothfuss' version of Rowling's Luna Lovegood). Book 2 was a satisfying continuation of the story. Nothing mindblowing. But can't wait for the hopefully final installment.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Economists' View of the World and Planet Money

The Economist's View of the WorldR- once asked me, when I was ranting about about some government policy, if you're so smart, why don't you go fix it. And my answer is that I don't need to, since I just think like an economist and all economists (including all the ones in gov't) pretty much think the same way. (The other tricky question is all economists agree, why don't those policies get enacted, but that's another story). This is especially stark with the recent trend of behavioral economics, where you have people trained in other disciplines, like Dan Ariely, talking about economics, and while Dan calls himself a behavioral economist, he is only an economist by subject matter. I had a conversation with Dan on his paper on stealing. He was noting the huge economic consequences of stealing, whereas actually to an economist, stealing by itself is not bad for welfare, it is only at transfer of wealth that leaves the total sum unchanged. Stealing is only quantitatively bad in the costs people incur to prevent theft and the impact on incentives. But if firms don't care about the theft, (as in the shrinkage that most retail firms expect, the problem is not so costly). Ariely is an excellent scholar, and even an excellent behavioral economist, but he is not an economist.

By economist, I mean PhD economist trained at most mainstream universities. We all largely learned from the same textbooks, read the same literature. There is shocking uniformity in the profession, and though outsiders often think there are large divisions say between keynesians and moneterists, on most issues, there is impressive uniformity on the epistemic basis of knowledge--in terms of which statistical tools and models we consider legitimate--which gives economics I think more coherence than other social sciences. A primer explaining economics to non-economists that I came across in grad school (The Economists View of the World) explains this well.

Probably to non-economists the distinction is subtle. Lots of pundits on tv or writers of popular books claim economic knowledge, but are not economists. Finance people on the whole often think nothing like economists (the very notion that you can make money by trading stock runs counter to central tenets of the economist world view), Black Swan writer Taleb Nassim is a good example of a finance person peddling economic ideas, but not the ideas of economists.

As a result, the vast majority of economic reporting in the news is not really economics. One of the few exceptions to this is the Planet Money Podcast (offshoot of my favorite radio show, This American Life).

I've noticed this acutely recently because I teach a class on How to Think Like an Economist.
 As I catch up with old podcasts, I find that unwittingly, a lot of the topics covered in class (How politicians's don't really create jobs, using externalities to explain npr funding, the economic implications of the japanese Tsunami, for example) were covered by Planet Money. This by itself is not so surprising since the topics were topical, but what was surprising is that they were covered in largely the same way.

In a news environment where the economists' voice is rarely heard in economic reporting, this is really refreshing. Planet Money doesn't always get it right, but it usually does.

I should acknowledge that I'm not saying this uniformity is a good thing, just that it is. Sociologists study the process of professionalization, and I often worry about blind spots it may create. For example, one of our central tenets that free trade is unambiguously good, may not be so unambiguous. After many years of pondering, I have come to believe the benefits of the coherence of the economics edifice outweigh the costs, but that is the subject for another time.

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