Saturday, December 28, 2013

It's wishful thinking...

... to suppose that food will bring peace between Jews and Palestinians. But if anyone can do it, Ottolenghi and Tamimi got the goods. Clockwise from lower left: Root vegetable slaw, chicken with clementines and arak, cook, book, and the cook's Tartine country loaf.

How concerned should we be about rising income inequality?

I basically agree with Lane Kenworthy here, who argues that claims of the dire consequences of income inequality for other social desiderata are often overstated. Many of the arguments against income inequality that are floating around these days would work better if they instead targeted poverty, or inequality of opportunity, or racism, or barriers to full political participation. Instead, there are shaky claims that inequality in itself is bad for economic growth, opportunity and mobility, health, democracy, etc.

The best argument against income inequality qua inequality is, in my view (and Kenworthy's as well, I think), based on some version of fairness or justice theory. Most days my version is pretty much garden variety utilitarianism, backed up by a Harsanyi/Dworkin style argument from behind the veil of ignorance. The worst thing about the rich getting richer is, basically, that there are much better things that society (we the people) could be doing with rich people's money than they are choosing to do with it themselves (Bill Gates is an outlier, remember). "But it's their money!" you reply? No it's not... but that's an argument for another day...

Disclosure of potential financial conflict of interest...

... seems like such an obvious tenet of sound professional ethics in academic work to me. But apparently not to Professor Pirrong of the University of Houston Finance Department. Still, even if he prefers not to offer full disclosure, he might consider adding a footnote at the beginning of each paper or powerpoint deck on topics related to the industries that pay him big bucks... In fact he has written it already, in response to a reader who questioned his objectivity: "Uhm, no, dipstick... I call 'em like I see 'em." I'm reassured, aren't you?

Friday, December 27, 2013

My dialect map...

... definitely nails my time in southern New England: eastern Conn., ages 7-17, plus another five years in western Mass. Grinders and sneakers seem to be enough. But Wisconsin? Hmmm. Maybe from my mom, who was a kid there. Then again, she says grinder and sneaker too.

Update: Took it again. Most of the questions were the same, as were my answers, but somehow there were enough changes to eliminate the Wisconsin anomaly...

Marry me, Mary, and we will be merry!

I agree with Krugman on most things, including this... although apparently it is not just New Yorkers who historically have differentiated the pronunciation of these words: New Englanders do (or did) as well. Also, his pronunciation guide at the bottom of the post necessarily exaggerates the differences, methinks. And don't get me started on which vs. witch...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 35

Not sure what I'm doing yet...

Splitting the cost of carbon

Eduardo Porter has an interesting column about the issue of how to split the costs of carbon between "producers" and "consumers." From an economic point of view, the question has a simple and elegant answer: a uniform, global (harmonized) carbon tax would split the cost between producers and consumers in an efficient manner. Since the supply of most manufactured goods is probably quite elastic, much of this tax would be passed onto consumers. The exception would be the countries reliant on producing and selling fossil fuels: they would be hammered. Additional distributive questions would remain: Would it be fair to demand "reparations" for the West's historical carbon emissions? Should richer nations redistribute some of their carbon tax revenues to poorer nations? And the overriding question of who will exercise the necessary political will and global leadership would remain as well.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

One thing leads to another

Donna Tartt is the author of The Goldfinch, Michiko Kakutani's favorite book of the past year. That's enough of an endorsement for me, but being a cheapskate, I'm waiting for the paperback. So I gave Tartt's first novel, The Secret History (1992), a try. If you have not done so, you should do the same.

The Secret History tells the story of a peculiar group of friends at a small New England college who decide, for reasons revealed in the book, to murder one of their friends. (You find out about the murder in the first sentence, so I am not spoiling anything here.) The story is told in a straightforward first-person narrative by one of the students, the last to join the group and thus an insider with something of an outsider's perspective. No fancy-pants modernism for Ms. Tartt; the plot proceeds quite linearly in a style that one of the cover blurbs describes as owing more to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth. I can't disagree, but this is nineteenth-century style of the very highest order--think Henry James--but done up with southern Gothic flare.

Narrative. As in, "one thing leads to another," and indeed it does, with a vengeance. Tartt takes her time telling the story--the novel weighs in at just over 550 pages--but the pace is anything but leisurely. We move from one set piece to another, from creepy to funny to tragic and back. The descriptions are crisp, precise, and startling... at the burial, for example, the mother of the victim and one of his brothers: "Patrick offered her an arm and she slipped a gloved hand in the crook of his elbow, inscrutable behind her dark glasses, calm as a bride" (418). Now there's a simile that knocks you upside the head. You are tempted to stop reading and think about that one, but your eyes race ahead to find out what's coming next.

There's much more to praise. Critics loved her clever literary allusions; I was equally impressed with her dead-on depictions of hangovers... one suspects she knows of what she writes, which makes you wonder what other skeletons reside in her closet.

Just read it!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Four colly birds

At a caroling party tonight, someone asked me, what is a calling bird? The answer always seemed obvious enough-- namely, any old bird singing. Wrong!

Wikipedia tells us that "...the line commonly sung today as 'four calling birds' is believed to have originally been written in the 18th century as 'four colly birds,' an archaism meaning 'black as coal' that was a popular English nickname for the Common Blackbird."

The common blackbird is a European thrush not closely related to our New World blackbirds, but in the same genus as our American robin, which in turn is not related to the bird Europeans call a robin. Got it? The colly bird is the blackbird Paul sings about in the beautiful Beatles song. Thrushes are generally wonderful singers. New World blackbirds... not so much.

What is your health insurance premium?

Dean Baker makes a crucial point about the affordability of health-insurance premiums, referring to a NY Times article today. People who have insurance policies through their employer usually share the cost of the premium, with the employer often "paying" a greater share. "Paying" in quotes here, because who really pays for the insurance depends on what the wage or salary would have been in the absence of the insurance benefit. This is a question of incidence, as economists put it, and as Baker points out, most economists believe that most of the incidence of a tax or charge on labor, or a benefit, falls on the worker side. In other words, a worker whose employer "pays" most of her insurance premium is actually paying most of that herself, because her take-home pay is less than it would have been without the insurance benefit.

Consequently, as Baker shows, a couple with the U.S. median two-earner income would in effect pay nearly 20 percent of their income for the average family policy provided by American employers. This may be small comfort to the couple in the Times story, who would have to pay about 12 percent of their annual income for a policy from the individual marketplace under Obamacare. But it places the affordability of Obamacare in a rather different and less alarming light.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dry December

Still, there was a little water rushing down Webb Creek as we made our way up the Steep Ravine Trail from Stinson Beach. Even on a cool morning you work up a sweat on this relentless climb up and over the ridge to Muir Woods.

Fall colors are looking a little bleached out...

... and the oyster mushrooms that popped out after last month's meager rains are getting crispy and yellowed. Would probably be good in a soup...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Crow at play

Having observed crows keel and swoop through the air for no obvious reason but it must be a gas to be able to do it, it comes as no surprise to me that one would figure out how to snowboard.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Skynet is...

... Google!
Although the videos frequently inspire comments that the robots will evolve into scary killing machines straight out of the “Terminator” movies, Dr. Raibert has said in the past that he does not consider his company to be a military contractor — it is merely trying to advance robotics technology. Google executives said the company would honor existing military contracts, but that it did not plan to move toward becoming a military contractor on its own.
Why am I not completely reassured? Maybe I'll let them know my concerns about what I saw on these youtube videos... send them a link to this blogger post... from one of my gmail accounts... on my android phone... busy day, better check my google calendar...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 34

Stevie sings some samba for ya...

Game of Thrones

Never cared much for that uncle, really.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Giulia Valle...

... is a jazz bassist from Barcelona. We were in San Francisco tonight looking for something to do and dropped in on her quintet's show at SFJazz, in the intimate Joe Henderson "lab." I was skeptical at first, as the band opened hesitantly with a new, tango-inflected piece... but after that they found their groove and took the audience on a musical journey through Valle's intricate and fascinating compositions. Special kudos to her pianist, Marco Mezquida, who has a classical touch but plenty of funky rhythmic intensity. And Valle herself, a musician and composer to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Big Star

I came of age musically in the 1970s, a nerdy jazz fan whose college friends taught him about rock and pop, from prog to punk. But Alex Chilton's band Big Star, darling of the critics and later generations of garage bands, passed me by. Listening to #1 Record and Radio City today, I don't get what's the big deal. Competent power pop, but dated in a way that some of their more famous peers are not, to my ear anyway... say the Byrds, Creedence, or the New York Dolls. I suppose it would grow on me, if this were 1974 and I had all the time in the world to listen and sing along. I don't.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

If I were a bell...

... I'd be ringing!

A fine quandary for left liberals

This provocative column by Paul Collier offers up an object lesson in applied ethics. Collier argues that liberals who advocate open immigration usually overlook or undervalue the adverse impact on less developed countries of self-selective migration: emigration drains away the brightest, most ambitious, hard-working, and talented individuals, harming the home country even as it helps the migrants and their families.

Let's grant for now his factual premise, which is that for small countries at least, the brain/ talent drain of emigration imposes a real net cost on those left behind. Do liberals concerned about helping the "bottom billion" then have a duty to oppose liberal immigration policies, at least with respect to immigration from smaller countries vulnerable to the brain drain? If the answer is in the affirmative, we must live with our message to the would-be migrants: You will be forced to stay where you are, for what we judge to be the good of your countryfolk.

From the perspective of distributive justice-- say a Rawlsian stance-- we may be tempted to concur with Collier that it is worth sacrificing the interests of the better-off of the poor to help the worst-off of the poor: maximin is a demanding taskmaster. I am generally down with Rawls, but why then my discomfort at Collier's conclusion? We needn't look far: Let's consider a bright and ambitious young African-American woman from the South Side of Chicago. She earns a scholarship to an Ivy League school and leaves town, never to return. So much the worse for the South Side. Should Yale or Princeton have ignored her application... or should Connecticut or New Jersey have declined to issue her an "interstate visa," in the interests of economic development on the South Side?

These Nozickian worries impose themselves whenever I think about immigration policy. Collier is a smart rhetorician, and he smartly pushes some liberal buttons: Allowing the most talented of the poor to immigrate, he writes, "appeals to economists as efficient, since the [migrants] are indeed more productive in the rich world than the poor.... It appeals to libertarians as freeing human choice from the deadening weight of bureaucratic control." He need not add: "Too bad it hurts the poorest of the poor."

Well played, Paul, but must the Rawlsian throw in the towel? Let's not forget that Rawls himself insisted on the "priority of liberty." If we require freedom of movement for a Chicagoan, why not a Ghanaian? Is that national border not "arbitrary from a moral point of view," as Rawls would put it? From behind the veil of ignorance, would we not place a very high value on guaranteeing a person the opportunity to escape from poverty, and pursue their life plan where it had a good chance of succeeding? Ultimately, Collier's argument demands an answer to the vexing problem of borders: What is so important about national sovereignty that it can trump the requirements of justice?