Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Trump's narcissism

This somewhat longwinded post by David Auerbach captures pretty well my own working understanding of the Donald Trump phenomenon, as well as the cultural moment in which he could rise to power. It leaves unanswered two pressing questions: If Trump is not a conventional demagogue, of which we have ample historical examples to study, how can we predict what a Trump presidency would look like? And given that his campaign is not about ideas, and that attacks on his character are absorbed as if praise, what can be done to defeat him?

Friday, July 22, 2016


Last night I dreamt I was riding a crowded school bus, the venue for a debate between the presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Joseph Stiglitz. Trump was standing at the front, tall with an improved haircut, sounding thoughtful and presidential. "Stiglitz," a short disheveled man with a gray mustache, was seated nearby, mumbling. He did not look at all like the real Joe Stiglitz. At one point he stood, interrupting Trump, and started a rambling professorial disquisition, something about inequality, but difficult to follow. From behind me, a couple of bros heckled him. "Trump is going to win," I said to myself.

I was awakened by the garbage truck, making its Friday morning rounds.

Monday, July 11, 2016


Illuminating our path above the beach at Pacifica. Probably one of ten days per summer that the place is not socked in with fog...

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Proud to be an American...

Redwood City's 4th of July Parade attracts a lot of people, but it still has a small-town vibe. The crowd reflects the diversity of the city itself as well as the surrounding Bay Area: many colors, many languages, many American flags; Girl Scouts followed by Mexican folkloric dancers followed by synchronized Falun Gong-ers.

After the parade... classic cars lined Broadway. Congresswoman Speiers's gun regulation sit-down in front of the old Fox Theatre attracted a small crowd, but the macarena (!) was booming from the sound system directly across the street, it was hard to hear, and most folks seemed more in the mood for a taco and a Bud than politics.

A larger audience assembled to see Stanford and UC-Davis square off in a battle of the marching bands (I use both "marching" and "band" loosely here). I'm afraid the Aggies came in larger numbers and readier to play, although the Stanford tree gave it his all. Both sides were passing around plastic "water" bottles, containing some liquid that only helped the musicianship up to a point.

I thought the best politics of the day was implicit in that patriotic rainbow crowd... you shoulda seen it, Mr. Trump. Then again, I suspect your presence might have soured the festive mood.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Those crafty, evil Canadians

The Donald seems very concerned about the Mexicans and the Chinese, but meanwhile he is largely ignoring the more serious threat from north of the border. Not only are the Canadians our top trading "partner" (globalism! bad!), but it seems that their primary objectives are to take in scary Muslim refugees and make us look bad and ashamed of ourselves while they're at it. Not to mention that their PM has a very French-sounding name. Something needs to be done! Canuxit!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Marshall on economic freedom

Here is a nice post by Tim Taylor quoting Alfred Marshall at length on competition and economic freedom. Marshall expresses some views on "backward people" using language that we would not choose today, but his observations about the traits of deliberation and trustworthiness exhibited and reinforced in modern market societies are nuanced. I was reminded of this famous paper measuring prosocial behavior across cultures, which finds that "the higher the degree of market integration and the higher the payoffs to cooperation in everyday life, the greater the level of prosociality expressed in experimental games."

This felicitous view of economic freedom is not shared by all... e.g., Marx and Engels:
The bourgeoisie... has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Gender-neutral gender bias

Here at Santa Clara University, we are (in my view) justifiably proud of our generous parental leave and tenure-clock policies for faculty. A full academic term of paid leave and a one-year extension of the tenure clock are automatic for new parents. The policy is gender-neutral. In addition, birth mothers qualify for paid pregnancy disability leave of up to 12 weeks.

Sigh. This recent post by Justin Wolfers has drawn attention to an interesting research paper revealing an unintended but not entirely unanticipated consequence of gender-neutral parental tenure clock extension policies: They help men and hurt women. Using data from top-50 economics departments, Antecol et al show that after an institution implemented a gender-neutral tenure clock extension policy, the average rate of achieving tenure increased by about 20 percentage points for males and decreased by a similar amount for females. Why? Quite likely, to put it starkly, many dads took advantage of their extra year to push out some more articles, while many moms devoted their extra year to what it was intended for: childrearing.

When women (and some of us men) advocated for more family-friendly policies, we knew this outcome was possible, but the size of the effect the authors find is well beyond what I would have expected: a widening of the gender gap in tenure rates of about 40 percentage points. That's huge, and hugely discouraging.

Of course, this is just one study, looking only at economists... maybe things are not so bad elsewhere. But to me the message is pretty clear, and accords with common sense. When women's advancement in the professions is hindered by societal gender roles, gender-neutral policies in the workplace may not reduce inequities, and may in fact increase them.

So... what to do? There appear to be four options.
(1) Strong gender-neutral policies (our status quo), which may well have paradoxically gender-biased implications.
(2) Gender-conscious policies: parental leave for women but not men. Politically touchy, and too bad for the handful of progressive dads.
(3) Gender-neutral policies with strict rules and enforcement. Surveillance cameras can ensure that dads on parental leave are playing with junior rather than running regressions. Non-starter.
(4) Narrowly targeted gender-neutral policies: e.g., subsidized child care. Universities would do well to identify, assess, and support such initiatives.

Monday, June 27, 2016


As expected, my visit last week to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park evoked mixed emotions. The Diggins is a large (by historical standards) pit mine in the gold country northeast of Sacramento, where hydraulic mining was used to blast away whole hillsides in search of the gold. Large volumes of water were diverted and collected uphill and then piped down to the mine, where thanks to gravitational force the water could be sprayed at high pressure and volume through impressive cannon-like monitors to wash away the gold-bearing gravel sediments. The resulting gravel slurry then flowed through large sluices where the gold settled out, often with mercury added to aid the separation.

The removal of whole hillsides and the erosion that followed were undoubtedly an environmental disaster, at least locally. But the impact was felt far more widely. The large volumes of waste mine tailings were washed down into the local watersheds (in the case of Malakoff, this meant the Yuba River). Havoc ensued downstream in the rich Sacramento Valley farming region, where the sediment covered farmland, clogged waterways, and induced flooding. The farmers sued the mine, and in 1884 the Sawyer decision largely put an end to the practice.

Despite the mess, one can't help but admire the ingenuity and resourcefulness of human beings driven by greed. They got the job done. And the Diggins are beautiful in their fashion, having been compared, aptly, to a miniature, human-made Bryce Canyon.

But for me, the most heartening aspect of my visit was seeing nature take back the Diggins. The floor of the pit is covered over with pines and manzanita at the margins, thickets of willow in the flats, and a marsh of reeds and water plants at the lowest point. Within another century or so, I suspect the "canyon" walls will be obscured behind the trees, and visitors will wonder what all the fuss was about. The mercury contamination will, of course, be with us for a good while, as will the changes in the Yuba.

Color contrasts between the sediments are striking:

Here's a monitor, taking aim:

The Hiller tunnel allowed the tailings to wash from the basin into the Yuba watershed:

I wouldn't want to swim in murky Diggins Lake, but the vegetation seems satisfied with the accommodations:

Nature takes back the metal pipes, too:

Humans are helping out a little with the recovery. Here a "brush box" does its job of slowing the erosion process and trapping soils, allowing saplings to take root: