Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Neither programmer nor coder am I, but I am trying to teach my econometrics students how to fix problems when their R code fails. Curious, I googled debugging, and not surprisingly the word has a colorful, if contested history. Here's a picture of the very bug that started it all, in legend if not in fact.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Dedicated to you, Mr. T.

With any luck, we will soon be rid of you. And sorry very very much to anyone offended by the language in this profane but irresistible song...

The best thing you can buy at Costco right now

OK, I suppose that's hyperbole, as I confess I have not purchased and tested every item for sale at Costco. Still, I know a thing or two about noodles. I eat a lot of them, and I have made my own pasta on numerous occasions. And these are some noodles.

The secret to good fettuccine is (1) fresh ingredients and (2) development of the glutens (sorry gluten-free people!) through repeated stretching, which imparts the chewy, elastic texture that every great noodle requires. The "fresh" fettuccine one buys at the grocery store is almost always worse than the dried stuff, probably because it is extruded through a machine rather than rolled and stretched. Furthermore, it is rare to find a blend of spinach and flour noodles that works, because the spinach noodles are more fragile and cook too quickly. Somehow the Monte Pollino people got everything right. These noodles are dried, and rolled into "nests" that separate quickly in boiling water. Good with any pasta sauce you can think of. About $3 per pound, in 3-pound sacks. That comes to about $1 per person per meal, depending on how hungry you are. Believe me, you are worth it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Andy Stern on basic income

Sure, organized labor has sometimes been a mixed bag, but we need it more than ever, and Andy Stern has been a force for good in the modern labor movement. I think his views on the future of labor and the need for a universal basic income (UBI)– what I have previously referred to as a BIG– are spot-on, as is his sober realism about the political prospects of getting there anytime soon. Like young Payton Foy, seventh grader, Andy worries about a Hunger Games future...
Q: If we don’t implement something like a UBI, what does work and the middle class look like in 30 years? 
Andy Stern: It looks like the Hunger Games. It’s more of what we’re beginning to see now: an enclave of extremely successful people at the center and then everyone else on the margins. There will be fewer opportunities in a hollowed out and increasingly zero-sum economy. 
If capital trumps labor, the people who own will keep getting wealthier and the people who supply labor will become less necessary. And this is exactly what AI and robotics and software are now doing: substituting capital for labor.
Andy is less pessimistic than some about how Americans will fare in a world without wage labor...
Q: Work has always been tethered to identity in this country. Do we have to completely rethink the concept of work in this new world? 
Andy Stern: Women have always worked historically raising families, which everyone sees as a great value, but it was not paid work. UBI will solve this problem. 
People have always taken care of their parents, which in some cases is a paid job and in other cases it’s not paid work. The same thing is true about tutoring your child, or volunteering at a hospital or as a Little League coach or with any other service organization. 
We need to decide that creative activity, such as learning a language, painting, writing plays or books, is work. Or that trying to build a business or solve a problem or learn new skills is work, even if you’re not being compensated. 
We’re also going to need to appreciate that there are many other things that people can do to self-actualize, which may be the most important adventure that people can travel to make life fulfilling, and it may not be what we now call work.
Something here rings a bell... The German Ideology...
... in communist society, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. 

Kids say the darnedest things

“I believe if Trump is elected, it’s going to be like ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” said Payton Foy, prompting nervous giggles around the room. “I’m not trying to be mean to Trump. I just really believe that.”

I hear you Payton.

Source: "Teaching Seventh Graders in a ‘Total Mess’ of an Election Season."

Monday, October 17, 2016

Tale of Two Clones

Tim Taylor reports on the latest take on U.S. income inequality by the labor economist Richard Freeman. Freeman notes that rising wage inequality coincides with rising inequality of wages across firms, which in turn coincides with growing inequality in productivity across firms. Thus two equally skilled workers might be paid vastly different wages depending on whether they happened to land a job at a high-paying or low-paying company.

This is an interesting and important recent finding about inequality. What is unclear to me is the extent to which the inter-firm wage differentials reflect differences in firm-specific productivity versus firm-specific rents. A firm can afford to pay a worker more to the extent that the worker adds more to output, but also to the extent that the revenue earned from each unit of product is greater. Differences in both productivity and market power in the product market could contribute to divergent wages across firms.

Here's the illustrative example Freeman provides, quoted by Taylor:
[C]onsider two indistinguishable workers, you and your clone. By definition, you/clone have the same gender, ethnicity, years of schooling, family background, skills, etc. In 2006 you/clone graduated with identical academic records from the same university and obtained identical job offers from Facebook and MySpace. Not knowing any more about the future than the analysts who valued Facebook and MySpace roughly equally in the mid-2000s, you/clone flipped coins to decide which offer to accept: heads – Facebook; tails – MySpace. Clone’s coin came up heads. Yours came up tails. Ten years later, Clone is in the catbird’s seat in the job market — high pay, stock options, a secure future. You struggle.
Fair enough. But is the difference between Facebook and MySpace a consequence of Facebook's much superior technology and organization– i.e., its productivity? Or were the initial differences in productivity somewhat marginal, and then the dynamic of network externalities led to a divergent, winner-take-all outcome? In the latter story, the lucky workers at Facebook are earning higher wages in large part because the winner, Facebook, is earning monopoly rents and sharing them with the workers. Why firms might share rents with workers is an interesting question, but there are certainly plausible reasons they might.

Whether it is productivity or rents driving interfirm variation in wages does not much matter for the argument that it is "luck" that accounts for the difference in fortunes of the clones. Whether, how, and how much society should reduce inequality arising from pure luck remain essential questions.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Beautiful Highway 198, western portion

An out-of the-way east-west road through remote territory between two out-of-the-way places: King City and Coachella. It warrants going out of your way. The stretch east of King City slowly ascends a winding valley between bleak, pale, rolling hills, and soon enters a landscape typical of the Diablo Range in the vicinity of Pinnacles: this time of year, the color palette is especially appealing, featuring the seafoam green of the gray pines, the gold of the European grasses, the rusty spikes of chamise, and the vibrant burgundy of the mature flower heads of California buckeye.

Heading farther east from Coachella through the flat farmland... well, you must be on your way somewhere...

Here's a view west from one of the crests.

California's dust bowl

The Okies migrated here to escape the Grapes of Wrath. Time to move back? Driving the 30-plus miles of Manning Avenue between Selma and San Joaquin today, we were buffeted by horizontal streams of dust the entire way. At this crossroads near Raisin City (!), that may or may not be oncoming traffic to my left above the side-view mirror. With visibility down to 20 feet at times, you hold your breath and speed across.