Tuesday, December 30, 2014


We watched HP and the Half-Blood Prince (No. 6) again the other night. Pretty good movie. The book was even better, of course. Was Ms. Rowling aware that muggles was slang for marijuana back in the day? Did she know Armstrong's 1928 recording by that name, with its short and exquisitely economical trumpet solo? Nah. Maybe? The great wheel of popular culture spins on.

Forgot about this one... mighty fine...

"A lotta people ask me, why I started rapping... I say I dunno, it just kinda happened..."

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Big Eyes": a review

There should be a new, stronger word for when a movie is both bad... and dull... it's b'dull!
Hat tip to:

Friday, December 26, 2014

Anderson Collection at Stanford

Basically it's a near-perfect survey of postwar American art, including excellent examples of most of the big names. The Andersons had excellent taste and the resources to back it up. A very fine Pollock was hanging in their daughter's bedroom. Thankfully she never spilled anything on it (or maybe she did...). They got to know Nathan Oliveira, who apparently helped them pick some very good stuff, including some of his own best work. This Franz Kline was my favorite picture on my first visit to the gallery today. You can go see for yourself why it is so extraordinary next time you are in the Bay area. The museum warrants a special trip, and admission is always free. https://anderson.stanford.edu/

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Quasi-feminist Christmas musings

Baking Mexican wedding cakes tonight... also known as Russian teacakes, or in my family, growing up, pecan sandies... A very pleasing activity: grinding the pecans (don't overdo it!), rolling the buttery dough balls (like snowballs or play-doh), and then once they are baked and fully cooled, rolling them again in confectioner's sugar. The house is filled with that nutty smell. This is quite possibly the best cookie in the world, and the recipe is foolproof. Every manly man should have the opportunity to make these for family and friends. Feminism is win-win!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Spanish trapper and his children taking muskrat pelts into the FSA (Farm Security Administration) auction sale which is held in a dancehall on Delacroix Island, Louisiana. The fur buyers come from New Orleans. See general caption no. 1. Marion Post Wolcott, 1941 (?).

Happy Hanukkah!

Howie's makes the best pizza in Palo Alto. They also have an excellent selection of beer on tap. And two days a year, they serve latkes for Hanukkah. I had not had them until tonight. They are fantastic.

Nothing new under the sun

This Chris Mooney blog post reports on a startling new "discovery": White racial prejudice appears to be greater in states that have a higher percentage African-American! Chris calls for more research: "... there is still more research to do in order to further home in and refine explanations for the striking pattern shown in the map at the start of this article." He suggests that such research might include seeing whether the geographical pattern holds at the county level as well.

Hmmm... that sounds familiar. Perhaps it's because people have been looking at this question for over half a century. Social psychologists have been talking about a "threat effect" of large numbers of minority members since the work of H.M. Blalock and Gordon Allport in the 1950s. Various studies have employed county-level data. Why, I even did so myself in the context of examining the racial wage gap.

The issue is complex and ambiguous, for obvious reasons: exposure to "diversity" may increase familiarity and reduce prejudice, but once the percentage minority is sufficiently large, whites may perceive minorities as a threat, leading to increased racism, discrimination, and potentially collective action. Of course, historical and cultural context are important. But my read is that the net effect in the United States, at least within the South, is that the threat effect dominates. Furthermore, given a distribution of white prejudice, an increase in the percentage black leads to more blacks coming into contact with prejudiced whites for employment and other social interactions. The result, as Gary Becker hypothesized and Charles and Guryan (JPE 2008) and I (JEH 2007) showed, is that discriminatory outcomes are more likely in places with relative more minority members, even holding racism constant.

See Chris? All it takes is a little search on Google Scholar!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

EPI Top Ten Charts of 2014

All ten are interesting, if pretty dismal... one example below. EPI does important and very careful work: a labor-oriented think tank run by people who care about getting the facts straight. As the tax year closes, send them a little money.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

NY Times front page

Good job Barry. But the eye-catching advertising in "global warming red" suggests you've got your work cut out for you making more progress on some policy fronts...

Thursday, December 11, 2014


"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that’s all."
Unlike President Obama, Mr. Brennan pointedly refused to say that the methods — including waterboarding, shackling prisoners in painful positions, and locking them in coffin-like boxes — amounted to torture.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 51

Is there a more exciting piece of recorded music than "Right Off?" Miles sounds great, but Cobham and Hancock sound even better, and John McLaughlin... ouch.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Just when you thought it was safe to read the paper again...

... Dick Cheney is back. Of the American torturers he says, "They deserve a lot of praise. As far as I'm concerned, they ought to be decorated, not criticized." Indeed... and if so, he should be proud to have their exploits brought to light, for all Americans to observe and praise. Nothing to be ashamed of, right Dick?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Suzuki Method

Apparently Mark O'Connor has some problems with Shinichi Suzuki's violin method, and some doubts about Suzuki's professed biography. I have no knowledge of Suzuki's personal story, but I do know something of the Suzuki method and its place in violin pedagogy. My son Alexi learned from the Suzuki books when he started violin at age 4. Suzuki's idea was that little kids could learn to play by ear and from memory before they were able to read music. To me it is a very sensible concept, although in my son's case he started reading musical notation almost from the very beginning. No harm done: the Suzuki books do have written music, so a precocious reader can learn to play both ways: by ear and by note. And that, of course, is how it must be for any serious classical musician. From there, it was on to the student repertoire and then Mozart and Vivaldi.

Any "method" is at best a useful tool in the hands of a gifted teacher, and a resource in the hands of an enthusiastic young violinist. Natasha Fong was the gifted teacher, and Alexi Kenney the young artist. It was a good match. Suzuki is a "good" method if good teachers find Suzuki books good for their students: full stop. It seems that many do.

O'Connor is disdainful of Suzuki's beginning lesson based on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (which my son sang as "Kappa Maki Sushi, Kappa Maki Sushi..."):
In a recent interview, Mr. O’Connor explained the goals of his own violin method, which he calls “an American school of string playing,” and spoke excitedly of his hopes of inspiring a new generation of players. He took out his violin to demonstrate why he thinks “Boil ’Em Cabbage Down,” the fiddle tune that starts his book, is superior to the well-known “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Variations” that the Suzuki book begins with.
I find this somewhat amusing. If the "American school" of string playing is supposed to appeal to today's American kids, then violin transcriptions of Katy Perry or Drake are in order. I see no harm in that. But any kid can also learn the fun and beauty of Twinkle Twinkle, or Vivaldi, or maybe even the Bach Double. And every interested kid deserves the chance to give them a try. Mark, if that is your goal, more power to you. But there's no need to throw Suzuki under a bus in the process...

Saturday, December 6, 2014


"By any standard I can think of, the Obama-era job recovery has been stronger than the Bush-era job recovery." So writes Professor Krugman, and the graphs are clear enough. But shouldn't some consideration be given to the depth of the trough? A job recovery from 6% unemployment simply has less far to go than a recovery from 10% unemployment. By the time the economy returns to full employment, total job gains will necessarily have been considerably greater, because Obama started much lower.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Slurp... slurp...

... OK, maybe you can't really hear the trees sucking up all that water. But it's hard not to project a sense of relief, even exuberance, as one walks through misty Huddart County Park after a week of plentiful rain.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 50

It seems only fitting that installment #50 should be a piece by one of my all-time faves, David Murray. The man is nothing if not prolific... just how many DM albums are there? The amazing thing is that even a middling Murray CD is excellent by most standards. And a first-rate Murray album, such as some of his octet recordings is, well, exquisite.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Yes, this is that desperate e-mail about Data Assignment #8...

So begins an email from a student. I try to be sympathetic. Especially because the wording reminds me of one of the great funny but heartbreaking scenes in Magnolia... one of so many...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

P.D. James, RIP

Collectively, her books have given me as much reading pleasure as any author's. And never a guilty pleasure. Quite simply, the best.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Who knew?

That Elizabeth Bishop wrote a poem about lichens? Well, not really– it's entitled "The Shampoo"– but has there ever been a more lovely, or apt, description?
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday--I suspect many other Americans feel the same way. Sure, it is built on a myth (i.e., lie) of pilgrim-native camaraderie that kind of glosses over that whole genocide thing. Still, it is a holiday with its heart in the right place. As nation-creation myths go, it is an admirable one.

We have developed our own little traditions for Thanksgiving... inviting members of our adopted west coast "family" to join us for the meal is an essential aspect, and I always read a poem, sometimes to the groans of the assembled guests. This Thanksgiving story of Korean immigrants in Hibbing, MN, is heartwarming, and features the roast turkey. But I am here to tell you that turkey is not essential. Last year in my house it was paella, and this year lasagne. Next year, perhaps, in honor of my Korean friend, bibimbap? I'll leave him in charge of the kimchi.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Henry Coe State Park

You seek solitude? California's second largest state park, Henry Coe is only an hour's drive from the heart of Silicon Valley, but on a Monday in November, you might as well be in the Trinity wilderness or the middle of the Mojave. It's not a spectacular landscape, but spectacular is not why you are here. As you tramp up and down the folded ridges, you picture a California before the settlers, before even the internet. The tree-sized manzanitas, with their voluptuous whorls and knots; a mint blossom that has no idea what month it is; a varied thrush alighting in a black oak, its leaves muted gold. Before the settlers, these Eurasian grasses would all have been forbs and native bunch grasses, like the patch of blue-green California fescue that has somehow reclaimed the top of Middle Ridge. You will return.

A little Schubert for y'all

Played by my son's band.
Schubert: Symphony no 9 in C major, D 944 "Great"
NEC Philharmonia, cond. Hugh Wolff, 6 November, 2014

Monday, November 24, 2014

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 49

When the composition achieves perfection, does it follow that any performance of it must fall short? I reckon not.


First-person headline firsts

When was the first time the venerable NY Times referred to the article's reporter in the first person in a headline? Perhaps in columns it's been happening a while. In this case, a worthwhile development.

David Carr: "Calling Out Bill Cosby’s Media Enablers, Including Myself"

Friday, November 21, 2014

Open access... for some!

Am I wrong in finding some irony in the news that Bill Gates, Windows/ MS Office IP multi-billionaire, is insisting on nearly the most open of open access for research funded by the Gates Foundation? Anyway, good on you, Bill and Melinda. Why not provide a similar CC license for Word and Excel while you're at it?

Thursday, November 20, 2014


My Dad is a plastics expert, among other things. But that's not the only reason I love this scene, from a movie that must rank among the great creations of American popular culture. RIP Mr. Nichols...

You go, Barry!

I like his strategy of piling up ambitious executive actions on climate, immigration, and... use your imagination! Daring the Republicans to sue his ass, or run on it in 2016. If the American people don't like it, they've always got Rick Perry or Chris Christie or Sarah Palin... bring it on!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Wish I'd-a been there

Kenny G blowing... no, not that Kenny G, THE Kenny G...

Friday, November 14, 2014

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 47

From the very first guitar riff, Nevermind announces itself as rock for the ages. Bombastic, somehow indelibly of its time, it remains as fresh, hard, painful, and lovely as ever. Not to mention the all-time classic album cover.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Night Fever

What are the words to this song? I do so enjoy the Bee Gees, but damned if I have any idea what they are singing about. I could look up the lyrics on-line, but that would take all the fun out of it, don't you think?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

So, let me get this straight...

... we should be worried about the U.S.-China climate plan because it may not require China to do enough, and because it may be too ambitious for China to achieve...?
Still, many questions surround China’s plans, which President Xi Jinping announced in Beijing alongside President Obama after months of negotiations. In essence, experts asked, do the pledges go far enough, and how will China achieve them?
Realism and skepticism are warranted, of course. But I can already hear the GOP and carbon lobby talking points. There is a natural progression of arguments from the people who would prefer to do nothing about climate change: from denial of warming, to denial that humans are causing it, to it's happening but it's too costly to do anything about it, to we could do something at reasonable cost but the Chinese won't, so why bother? The next step, logically, is to claim that whatever China agrees to do will fail regardless. Sigh.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pulgas Ridge

Dry as a bone. But the slanting afternoon light works wonders on the thickets of poison oak canes, blue oak bark... the rat nests and orb webs.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

You know you're getting old when...

... this makes you titter like a guilty high-schooler...
“I think people underestimate cannabis,” Mr. Browne said. “You wouldn’t walk into a restaurant and say, ‘I’ll have the wine.’ So why would you assume people would do that for cannabis? In the same way that pinot grigio and pinot noir may sound similar but are completely different, names like Lemon OG and Lemon Skunk are very different strains with very different flavor components and completely different highs.”

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Adolphe Sax probably never imagined this...

... but he surely knew he was onto something good when he stuck a vibrating reed onto the end of a conical brass tube. Here is jazz in later Coltrane take no prisoners mode. But whereas Trane's sound had a clean, cold-steel edge to it no matter how "out" he went, David S. Ware's almost always retained a fat Ben Webster warmth. Perhaps the greatest of the post-Coltrane sax players... gone way too soon. With his first solo, Matthew Shipp almost steals the show. Almost... until Ware channels some alien heavy-metal version of "Angel Eyes" starting around 28:00.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Still celebrating Mr. Sax's birthday...

Cooling things down a little after yesterday's Parker speed-fest...

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sax!

Your strange creation, in the hands of its greatest master...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tom Magliozzi, RIP

Truly there are two kinds of people (at least NPR people): those who love Car Talk and those who hate it. Count me among the former. It always puts me in a good mood. Tom's ridiculous but sincere snorting guffaw was a big part of it. Their love of science and wonder at the mysteries of the human heart and the aging, ailing automobile. The puns.

Postscript: A degree in economics, among other things, from MIT. That ain't shabby.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Little worlds

Our pitiful rain showers last week were enough to refresh some lovely, tiny things.


I quite enjoyed it. Our auteur Iñárritu drops you right into his little New York theatrical alternate universe, and from that moment on you barely have a moment to stop running and catch your breath, struggling to keep pace with the maladjusted non-superhero, played superbly by Michael Keaton. In fact, the movie suffers somewhat from its hyperactivity... enticing plot twists are introduced, then never to be heard from again. What seems at first to be an ensemble is in the end a supporting cast for Keaton. But that's OK... you can't take your eyes off it... nor your ears: The soundtrack, by Antonio Sanchez, is worth the price of admission.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Move along, nothing to see here...

"U.N. Panel Warns of Dire Effects From Lack of Action Over Global Warming"
Thank goodness the GOP will be taking over the government soon and we can finally get something done about climate change... such as accelerating it...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

SFJazz Collective

We caught them at the SFJazz Center last night during their four-day fall residency. With this octet, you pretty much get what you expect: modern jazz playing of the very highest order. It is not exactly a working band, because they come together only intermittently, but it is not a one-shot all-star band either. The music, composed or arranged by band members for the group, is complex and seems to be exceedingly difficult. I say that both because it sounds really hard to play, and because even these guys, the best in the business, look like they are sweating some of the changes and time signatures.

Minor complaints: I wanted more swing, and more Latin groove, and I especially wanted longer, looser solos from these masters. But minor. The band is definitely worth seeking out. For me, the revelation was Warren Wolf on vibes. The guy plays with such velocity, precision, and harmonic inventiveness. But especially welcome was the bluesy feel of his solos... not so easy on the vibes, and reminiscent of Milt Jackson. He is a worthy successor to Bobby Hutcherson, who was with the Collective last time I heard them.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mt. Davidson

Botanically speaking, San Francisco's Mt. Davidson is kind of a disaster, much of it overgrown with invasive English ivy, thickets of weedy blackberries, privet, and eucalyptus trees. Still, it's a primal place, sticking up from the middle of the city, with the chilly marine mist blowing through the tall trees and across the twisted outcroppings of red Franciscan chert.

When and if the fog clears a little, the views from the top are splendid. And the lichen-lover will not be disappointed...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Here's another thing that doesn't change...

... kid-drawn stick figures. This one from medieval Russia. Interestingly, if you add up the fingers, they appear to have the correct number between them.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

“Doctrine doesn’t change, but it is understood in a deeper manner”

So said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, with reference to the wishy-washy conclusion of the synod on the family. May the good Lord help them deepen their understanding sooner than later with respect to gays and divorce, not to mention the role of women in the Church and society...

Helping industries

Here's a very nice piece of righteous indignation from Dean Baker about Airbnb and related sharing services. Like Baker, I have read my Adam and believe in mutually beneficial exchange as the cornerstone of a modern economy. But even Adam thought trade should occur within a structure of rules, and it seems reasonable that everyone should follow the same rules when operating in the same markets. His little analogy about Sovaldi allows him to ride one of his favorite hobbyhorses once again, but it has a particularly nice sting in this context.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What Paul K said...

In Defense of Obama...
I'd say Paul kind of lets him off the hook on the security state stuff. But on the whole the assessment seems fair and accurate to me. Who would have done better?

Friday, October 10, 2014

More El Paso!

Another outstanding version of my favorite song!


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Snakes... eek!

I remember reading somewhere that human nightmares about snakes may be hardwired from our earlier evolutionary days avoiding lethally venomous bites. I find snakes really cool and admirable... I seek them out when I am hiking– even rattlesnakes– at a respectful distance. But I do have snaky nightmares, which are genuinely scary. Still, they are most extraordinary creatures. The sidewinder is one of nature's exquisite dancers. Watching the ugly, ungainly robot try to emulate the motion can only increase one's admiration...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pre-def TV

The NY Times predicts that it will be a few years before most folks own a 4K, ultrahigh-def TV, but own them they will. "According to the Consumer Electronics Association, it took six years of high definition TVs being on the market — from 2003 to 2009 — before 50 percent of American households had them. Now, nearly 90 percent of households have one."

I'm in that 10 percent residual. Indeed, our TV is not just low-def, but pre-def... a full-blown old-format, cathode-ray tube Sony Trinitron that I bought off Steve at work for $200 after his kid graduated to a flat-screen about a decade ago. It's a fine machine. It fires up with a guttural electronic thud, followed by the program audio, and some seconds later the picture, which is quite good if you ignore the cropping of anything wide-format. And really, who needs to see the weatherman gesticulating from stage right when the weather map is right there in the center of the screen? X-Files and Buffy were made to be seen on a device like this, and that's good enough for me.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

my back 40 (feet) is back

I was delighted to discover that after about a year layoff, Chuck B. started blogging again in June: my back 40 (feet). He has not lost the knack for color and pattern in gardens and in his stomping grounds of Bernal Heights. Just check out the delphiniums here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

More shameless cat blogging

Hot in here today, especially if you have luxurious fur, but still nice to have a quick snuggle. This being an educational blog, I refer you to this information about cat coat genetics and how these two came to be such a lovely, motley pair...

Cat and beer blogging

Hardly original, I'm sure, but nonetheless it is Friday evening and I think I have earned the right. Satsu is cute as hell, and the beer, available at your local Trader Joe's and other purveyors of Lagunitas brews, is outstanding, dog label notwithstanding...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


I do like this tune, and I like the beard... though they could have turned up the mic on the clarinet.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

One of my favorite Kreislers...

Joshua Bell recently returned for another engagement in the DC subway, to a little more fanfare than his first attempt. Here he is a while ago playing one of my favorites... The video is cheesy in parts, but who could play it better than Mr. B, besides Mr. K himself?

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Negroes speed war work for Tennessee Valley Authority. Alonzo Bankston is a furnace operator in the TVA plant producing carbide for use of plants manufacturing synthetic rubber. Alfred T. Palmer, 1942.

Frank Ramsey's philosophy of life

I love this quote, which is the closing passage of the Epilogue to Ramsey's The Foundations of Mathematics and other Logical Essays and was written in 1925. Five years later the body that housed this incredible mind would expire, at age 26.
Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone. 
My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits. I don't really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn't. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one's activities.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Muscle Shoals

Clocking in at 111 minutes, the documentary Muscle Shoals is a good 20 minutes too long. The story of how a little Alabama backwater became a soul and pop recording Mecca is compelling, but whether out of completism or a misplaced desire to appeal to the "young folks"(?!) the filmmakers add way too much footage of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Stevie Winwood and Bono. So unless you really dig "Sweet Home Alabama," you can fast-forward after the Stones roll through town.

Highlights: Rick Hall, the taciturn, embittered protagonist, who through pure grit, racial tolerance, and exquisite taste rose from poverty and repeated personal tragedy to record some of the most fantastic, soulful music ever made; the Swampers, the local white dudes Hall recruited to become the studio musicians behind funky soul classics like "Land of 1000 Dances" and "I Never Loved a Man," and who then betrayed their mentor and muse by striking out on their own to produce many more great records in their own studio; Keith Richards, the erstwhile guitarist and substance abuser who is never less than riveting on screen, if utterly ridiculous at the same time; the incredible beauty of the Tennessee River; and of course the Muscle Shoals sound.

Did I mention Aretha? The story behind "I Never Loved a Man"– especially Spooner Oldham's spine-tingling intro on the Wurlitzer electric piano– seems too good to be true, but so good it almost has to be true. She blows everyone away.

What was it about little Muscle Shoals? The movie half-heartedly tilts toward a woo-woo explanation drawing on Native American legends about the song of the river. One might as well say the stars aligned... and I suppose they did, when these talented and ambitious small-town white boys figured out how to bring out the very best in the greatest African-American artists of their generation.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"... running a so-called negative split...

"... by covering the second half of the course 33 seconds faster than the first half." The first half being 13 F-ing miles, in just over one hour. Then Kimetto apparently decided to step up his game. Mind-boggling.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Every acorn is a beautiful thing, but the acorns of the valley oak (Quercus lobata) are particularly lovely, with their graceful elongated olive shape and variable coloration. Not to mention that each one has the potential to grow up to be California's most beautiful tree.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Dominic should be a most impatient dog, so eager is he to get on with his adventures and to experience everything the great wide world has to offer. But he is a very good listener and will take a pause from his journey for as long as necessary to help a fellow creature in need. One such was Barney Swain, a wild boar who had scrimped and saved for his wedding and honeymoon, only to have it all stolen by the wicked Doomsday Gang...

Dominic is happy to share his own fortune and save the day. And how did Dominic, a dog of modest means, come to acquire his extraordinary riches? By providing care and comfort to a lonely bedridden stranger, Mr. Bartholomew Badger (a pig), during his final days. In gratitude Mr. Badger has left Dominic directions to his buried treasure, before departing this mortal coil. Dominic weeps for his friend, but he is irrepressible:
Dominic couldn't abide being in the doldrums for long. The doldrums were dreary, and Dominic's spirit was sprightly, it liked to rollick. So he had to get moving. He shook off the dumps, and since he was still holding the shovel with which he had buried Mr. Badger, he went to dig up the treasure.
William Steig's Dominic is a masterpiece... how did I miss it when my kids were the right age? But what is the right age? Here is a novella of 146 pages, including Steig's humble but evocative ink drawings. There are big words and subtle ideas, and a touch of the sadness that permeates his picture book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. But overall this is a joyful book, perhaps even ecstatic, with a delightful fairytale ending. It is also alive with poetic, richly descriptive language, appealing to all five senses–especially Dominic's most powerful: smell.

Economics Nobel Prize

Here's the case for Tony Atkinson. An excellent economist, but not really Ken Arrow material... then again, who is? I doubt he'll get it.

If it were up to me, I'd go for a three-way split between Sam Bowles, Herb Gintis, and John Roemer. These guys have kept Marxian economics alive, against all odds, through sheer creativity, brilliance, and relevance. Each has repudiated the master in his own way, whether by way of evolutionary or ethical theory, or libertarianism. Each has enriched the discipline of economics at the edges, like Marx himself. And as Piketty proves, Marxian themes are ripe for a comeback.

Banerjee and Duflo are the other obvious choices to me, but it's unseemly to give the prize to someone 10 years younger than the all-time youngest recipient. That would be Professor Arrow, of course.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dismal climate realities

Initially I read this article by Robert Stavins the way he must have intended it: realistic, and profoundly pessimistic. Nobody knows climate policy and climate economics better than Stavins, and most of what he says is indisputable. But upon re-reading, some of it started to rankle...
In the United States, the issue is mired in partisan politics, and the outlook is not promising for an effective national climate policy that would encourage carbon-friendly innovation and cost-effective emission reductions by putting a price on carbon emissions — either by taxing them or using a national cap-and-trade system that would make it more expensive to pollute. Rather than rewarding today’s voters with benefits financed by future generations, as Congress typically does, solving the climate problem will require costly actions now to protect those who will follow us. 
Making matters more difficult, climate change is essentially unobservable by the public....
Well, something here is not quite right, Bob... not quite "realistic." Your paragraph elides the partisan congressional gridlock on climate policy on the one hand, and the public-goods problems that make climate action so challenging on the other—viz., the costs are mostly in the present, and the benefits mostly in the (distant) future; and the benefits are shared, and thus subject to free riding. But you see, the thing is this: there was and likely still is a (big-D) Democratic majority for cap-and-trade, despite the clear obstacles to building political support that you so clearly identify. The proof is in California. Meanwhile the handful of former Republican supporters (e.g. John McCain) have largely abandoned ship. In the United States, at least, the political divide is between those who acknowledge the problem and its challenges and those who either deny the problem or cynically obstruct progress for short-run political gain.

I suppose Professor Stavins is thinking that by bending over backwards to appear politically neutral, his legitimacy, prestige, and expertise may in some small way help win back the necessary Republican minority support for what needs to be done. But his willingness to obscure history, if not rewrite it, is troubling. Not to mention unrealistic.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pegu Club

More a wine and beer man myself, but this cocktail is just about as good as it gets... Kind of like getting the best of a martini and a margarita all in one...

My version (for 2) was:
5 oz No. 209 gin
3 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. lime juice
a few dashes angostura bitters

Shaken with ice until very cold. Yum.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Overlooked again...

... for a MacArthur genius award. Dammit! The annual condolence email from a friend got me wondering... should I have stuck with the sax instead of economics? By my count some 7 of 41 geniuses in music are jazz saxophonists. This year, the deserving Steve Coleman was added to the list, which also includes Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, Ken Vandermark, Miguel Zenón, and John Zorn. Changing my name to Zundstrom might improve my odds as well...

Monday, September 15, 2014

Hottest August on record

Globally, that is. But if you look at the map of temperature anomalies, you can see that the United States was largely spared. It's almost as if God were giving the Republicans another excuse to ignore the problem... as if pure ignorance and greed were not enough.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What could possibly go wrong?

Those ISIS guys do seem to be very bad guys. But... but... 
President Obama’s determination to train Syrian rebels to serve as ground troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria leaves the United States dependent on a diverse group riven by infighting, with no shared leadership and with hard-line Islamists as its most effective fighters.... 
“You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don’t exist,” said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is a very dirty war and you have to deal with what is on offer.”

We're in the top 25 for salary growth!

Santa Clara University, that is, in terms of the difference between median starting salary and median mid-career salary. Well, we're exactly #25, according to this graph from the Washington Post. Outstanding career preparation, or something to do with location...?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Jesse Rothstein on teacher tenure

Here's a short interview with Rothstein, an economist doing interesting work on teacher quality and education. I like this closing passage:
Everyone agrees that the goal should be to make teaching a respected profession, a profession that talented and able people want to enter. So far, I've heard you say that there's not a lot of evidence suggesting ways that that could be accomplished effectively. Is there one policy that we haven't discussed? 
We could double teachers' salaries. I'm not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn't even enter the conversation tells you something about what's wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it's just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions. They're looking for easy answers, not hard answers.
My son has just started his first teaching job in a very challenging middle school environment, working with a disadvantaged population. In other words, he is doing "God's work," if you ask me. He is putting in about 80 hours a week, and is stressed out just about every waking moment. I'm not sure I would trade places with him for twice my salary, never mind twice his. So sure, take away teacher tenure... but double their salaries. That sounds like a good start.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Amazing R Markdown

I teach a new basic econometrics course using R, and I am quite proud of my Guide to R for SCU Economics Students (available here), which features a series of instructive tutorials with accompanying R scripts and data. I revise it and revise it and revise it, using one of humankind's most infuriating creations, Word. If I change the code, or a graphic, I have to run the R and print and paste the results into the script. Then, make sure Word has not gone and F-ed up the formatting, then print to pdf and upload.

But lo and behold: R Markdown. Simple text entry, intuitive formatting, embedded R code that will run and show the code and/or results in your document, formatted for optimal clarity. Saved automatically to HTML. Post and fuhgeddaboudit. Open source and free. Seems almost to have been designed with my needs specifically in mind. Outstanding. The sooner I can move my Guide to Markdown the better.

Bill Gates, you really are a good man. But I will gradually wean myself from your bloated annoying products, I swear I will.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

More fungus news

Taking a stroll at Foothills Park today, what looked like a volleyball at the base of a pile of wood chips caught my eye... apparently the western giant puffball, Calvatia booniana. It's been such a dry year it's hard to believe anything could be growing in early September, especially something as large and fleshy as this, but maybe some moisture hitchhiked in with the wood chips. (Speaking of large and fleshy, my hand is not actually that color... usually....)

Photo: LMK.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fungus news

The butter bolete Boletus regius is now Butyriboletus autumniregius! Helluva good-looking mushroom, regardless of the name. And tasty, they say.

Photo credit: Michael Wood.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Greg Brown, RIP

Palo Alto, where I have now lived for more than 20 years, must have the most atrocious public art of any affluent town in the country. I could go into a number of specific examples, but why dwell on the incompetence of our Public Art Commission? Accentuate the positive, as the song says. And the positive is that a number of the city's buildings are graced by the whimsical murals of Greg Brown, who died recently, too young, at 62. These life-scale paintings, whether at street level or tumbling trompe l'oeil from a window or balcony, can still catch you by surprise, even when you have seen them dozens of times. Here he is touching up Spiro Agnew, who happens to be pushing an alien in a stroller. It's hard to imagine that anyone has brought more everyday joy to Palo Altans.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 46

Possibly the most beautiful song about bitter class resentment ever recorded.



Confirmation or falsification?

Many economists are trained to believe that when they do empirical work, they are– at least ideally– engaged in "Popperian" falsificationist methodology. That is, evidence can never prove something to be true, but it can prove something to be false. And using classical statistical methods, it's easy to convince yourself that this is what you are up to, because the whole enterprise involves seeing whether you can reject a hypothesis. But in this post, Andrew Gelman explains quite clearly why we are generally not falsificationists, but rather confirmationists... or at best that we "bounce" between the two. He goes on a bit, but here is the money section:
Deborah Mayo and I had a recent blog discussion that I think might be of general interest so I’m reproducing some of it here. 
The general issue is how we think about research hypotheses and statistical evidence. Following Popper etc., I see two basic paradigms: 
Confirmationist: You gather data and look for evidence in support of your research hypothesis. This could be done in various ways, but one standard approach is via statistical significance testing: the goal is to reject a null hypothesis, and then this rejection will supply evidence in favor of your preferred research hypothesis. 
Falsificationist: You use your research hypothesis to make specific (probabilistic) predictions and then gather data and perform analyses with the goal of rejecting your hypothesis. 
In confirmationist reasoning, a researcher starts with hypothesis A (for example, that the menstrual cycle is linked to sexual display), then as a way of confirming hypothesis A, the researcher comes up with null hypothesis B (for example, that there is a zero correlation between date during cycle and choice of clothing in some population). Data are found which reject B, and this is taken as evidence in support of A. 
In falsificationist reasoning, it is the researcher’s actual hypothesis A that is put to the test. 
How do these two forms of reasoning differ? In confirmationist reasoning, the research hypothesis of interest does not need to be stated with any precision. It is the null hypothesis that needs to be specified, because that is what is being rejected. In falsificationist reasoning, there is no null hypothesis, but the research hypothesis must be precise. 
In our research we bounce 
It is tempting to frame falsificationists as the Popperian good guys who are willing to test their own models and confirmationists as the bad guys (or, at best, as the naifs) who try to do research in an indirect way by shooting down straw-man null hypotheses. 
And indeed I do see the confirmationist approach as having serious problems, most notably in the leap from “B is rejected” to “A is supported,” and also in various practical ways because the evidence against B isn’t always as clear as outside observers might think. 
But it’s probably most accurate to say that each of us is sometimes a confirmationist and sometimes a falsificationist. In our research we bounce between confirmation and falsification. 
Suppose you start with a vague research hypothesis (for example, that being exposed to TV political debates makes people more concerned about political polarization). This hypothesis can’t yet be falsified as it does not make precise predictions. But it seems natural to seek to confirm the hypothesis by gathering data to rule out various alternatives. At some point, though, if we really start to like this hypothesis, it makes sense to fill it out a bit, enough so that it can be tested. 
In other settings it can make sense to check a model right away. In psychometrics, for example, or in various analyses of survey data, we start right away with regression-type models that make very specific predictions. If you start with a full probability model of your data and underlying phenomenon, it makes sense to try right away to falsify (and thus, improve) it. 
Dominance of the falsificationist rhetoric 
That said, Popper’s ideas are pretty dominant in how we think about scientific (and statistical) evidence. And it’s my impression that null hypothesis significance testing is generally understood as being part of a Popperian, falsificiationist approach to science. 
So I think it’s worth emphasizing that, when a researcher is testing a null hypothesis that he or she does not believe, in order to supply evidence in favor of a preferred hypothesis, that this is confirmationist reasoning. It may well be good science (depending on the context) but it’s not falsificationist.
P.S. for all you smug Bayesians: Read on. You're not off the hook.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mohsin Hamid

Around this time every year the people in the dean's office ask business-school faculty for their summer reading recommendations, which are posted on our web site. Mine tend to be novels, or occasionally nature books relating to simple organisms like slime molds or lichens. This year it was only novelists. Having already blogged two of my three recommendations (here and here), I limit myself to the third here, with some augmentation (the excerpt in particular). But all you really need to know is: Read these!

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid

These are the two most recent novels by the brilliant young Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. They are both coming-of-age stories, the protagonists South Asian men negotiating the rapid, radical, and often contradictory changes occurring in their homeland, or coming to terms with life as a dark-skinned émigré, post-9/11. As a writer, Hamid is at once poetic, efficient, and brutally honest. He never allows you, the reader, to avert your eyes from what is ugly or unpleasant, but he often adds some subversive irony or humor to help you nervously laugh it off... or not. For example, the unnamed second-person narrator of How to Get Filthy Rich, in the context of how he came to be the educated sibling, describes the fate of his older sister:
She was told she could go back to school once your brother, the middle of you three surviving siblings, was old enough to work. She demonstrated more enthusiasm for education in her few months in a classroom than your brother did in his several years. He has just found employment as a painter's assistant, and has been taken out of school as a result, but your sister will not be sent there in his stead. Her time for that has passed. Marriage is her future. She has been marked for entry.
Ouch, that stings. But in spite of it all, Hamid is a romantic, and a humanist. These are both love stories, after all. And a side note to business readers: Hamid is the rare novelist who writes cleverly about the realities of business and economics. He’ll make use of Keynes for a literary allusion. And those fundamentals? They just might be financial rather than religious.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The kittens have gone completely batshit insane...

... listening to Buck Owens. That is all.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 45

One of the great things about America is that for every Andy Williams there is a Stevie Wonder... which is not to say there's anything wrong with Andy... but...

I'll be browning my Brussels sprouts in bacon fat...

"People who avoid carbohydrates and eat more fat, even saturated fat, lose more body fat and have fewer cardiovascular risks than people who follow the low-fat diet that health authorities have favored for decades, a major new study shows." (NY Times)

"So, how tall is Serena, anyway?"

From the service return side of the net, I'd say about 8-5, maybe 8-6...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What dilemma?

Philosophers are fond of hypothetical moral dilemmas, whereby you test your moral theory or code against some nasty decision. A famous one is the so-called trolley problem. Ingrid Robeyns offers up another one, tailor-made for economists, because of the element of uncertainty...
Case A: Rescuing the miners:  
Imagine 100 miners who are stuck in a mine. They are divided in two groups. You can either rescue 50 (with certainty), but then the other 50 will be lost (this is strategy 1). Or you can try a different rescue strategy, which may potentially save all of them, but only at a 50% probability; there’s another 50% chance that all will die (strategy 2). Which strategy would you choose? 
The people around the table had conflicting views, and the reasons we believed to have for a certain view did not convince the others at all. My choice was for strategy 2, since that gives everyone an equal chance to be rescued, and thus treats the miners morally equally in a certain sense. But Robin said that miners themselves would choose strategy 1, since they have a strong collective ethos/identity which includes that you save whom you can save. He claimed that we can deduce this empirical claim from some accidents that happened with miners who were actually locked up in a mine. (this is my recollection of the discussion, but Robin is very welcome to correct me !) 
In the case of miners, we are dealing with adults and respecting their agency could plausibly be taken to overrule other reasons to choose for a certain strategy. But what if agency didn’t play a role? We could change the example, by turning the people-to-be-rescued into babies, who are too small to have anything resembling group-identity and agency: 
Case B: Rescuing the babies:  
Suppose 100 babies are stuck in a mega-crèche which is on fire. They are two floors with 50 babies on each floor. There are two rescuing strategies. Under strategy 1, you can rescue 50 babies for sure, but the other 50 will die. Alternatively you can try another strategy in which all 100 babies have a 50% chance of being rescued (strategy 2). 
Which strategy do you choose, and why? And if you choose differently in case A and case B, then why so?
It's most interesting as a dilemma if we assume that the two groups have been selected at random. That is, there is no known systematic difference between the ones who will die and the ones who will live under strategy #1. In that case, for a one-shot deal, risk aversion clearly favors #1. But what rule would you choose if you knew this kind of dilemma would arise repeatedly? Say, if you were choosing a rule from behind the "veil of ignorance"? Well, it seems to be a total toss-up. In the long-run, over many decisions, half the miners and half the babies will live, and half will die, either way. So flip a coin and don't look back...?

Still, because it's a wash for the unfortunate victims, the only factor that might tip the scales would seem to be the feelings of the decision makers and the witnesses to the decision. So, maybe, ask people to vote for the strategy that will make them feel less bad? Odd morality, that...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The NY Times book critic Dwight Garner suggested that David Shafer's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot might be the "novel of the summer." A well-written paranoid near-future thriller with a sense of humor? That sounds like my dream summer escape novel, and I'll confess, Shafer had me by the balls for the first 200 pages or so, which is about 50 pages longer than Donna Tartt did with her overpraised The Goldfinch. But somewhere right around page 212 Shafer jumps the shark, and the book kind of fizzles.

What went wrong? First, the book's appealingly flawed heroes are battling an evil conspiracy that amounts to thinly fictionalized versions of Google and the NSA working together to corner the information market. Sure, it's scary, but if you follow the headlines I'm afraid it's also a bit ho-hum. Second, Shafer does satire better than he does suspense or sci-fi. So when it comes time for the plot to really kick into gear, he has to tone down the funny, and his writing loses its edge. Third, there's what happens on page 212, when a certain woo-woo element is introduced to the plot. I won't give it away, but suffice to say that here's where attention to the hard sci-fi could have helped a lot. The Google conspiracy is highly believable because it is highly realistic. So to introduce something really weird is jarring unless you can convince the reader it has some minimal plausibility. No attempt is made. Maybe we will learn more in the sequel. And a sequel there must be, given the unsatisfying and inconclusive ending of this novel. Harrumph.

Regulation and pollution havens

One concern about environmental regulation is that "dirty" industries will simply move to less-regulated countries (so-called pollution havens). For example, metal smelting could move from the United States to China. If so, the United States would be cleaning up at the expense of China getting dirtier. Now if China were willing to put up with the pollution for faster economic growth, we might view the situation as win-win... assuming the Chinese decision-makers represent the interests of their people, more or less. But even under that rosy scenario, it's not necessarily win-win if some of the pollution has global impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Then the United States still suffers from China's emissions.

If the pollution haven effect is empirically important, it should be the case that much of the reduction in pollution in, say, the United States, is the consequence of a shift in the composition of U.S. output away from dirty industries toward clean ones, with the dirty products now being produced abroad and imported. Contrary to this hypothesis, however, the evidence suggests that the lion's share of pollution reduction in the United States has occurred within industries, through changes in technique, as is shown quite elegantly in a new paper by Arik Levinson. (Access to the paper is by subscription, but you can view the abstract here.) As Levinson writes in his conclusion:
This simple exercise demonstrates a remarkable change over the past two decades. Air pollution emitted by US manufacturers has fallen by two-thirds, and that cleanup has almost entirely come from reductions in emissions intensity of each of the more than 400 industries that comprise the manufacturing sector rather than from shifts in the shares of those industries in overall manufacturing output – from technique rather than composition...
... the finding runs counter to perceptions about the effects of environmental cleanup in US manufacturing. While I don’t assess the cause of that cleanup here, one natural speculation would be that it has resulted from environmental regulations. If so, those regulations have not worked by reducing the share of polluting industries in the US manufacturing sector – driving those industries overseas or reducing consumption of those industries’ products. Instead, they have worked by reducing the emissions intensities on an industry-by-industry basis. That finding should be welcomed by anybody concerned that US regulations might appear to be succeeding, but only by reducing the menu of products available to American consumers or by shifting pollution from the US to other countries. The results here directly refute that concern.
In other words, while there are good reasons to be deeply concerned about pollution in China (and elsewhere), for the sake of both the Chinese and ourselves, concern that domestic environmental regulation is being nullified by global trade is probably misplaced. Which is good news.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 44

There are so many things I love about this song. The obvious things: Gladys is a great singer; the Pips and their moves; it's a fantastically simple but hooky love song. The less obvious things: not only is it a great pop song, but it also captures a particular personal decision at a particular moment in historical time... the Great Migration and the subsequent reverse migration by some; the conventional pattern of call and response, in which we expect the Pips to echo, accentuate, or comment on Gladys's lyric, is often reversed, with the Pips moving the story along by anticipating Gladys's next line: "He kept dreaming (Dreaming); Ooh, that some day he'd be a star (A superstar, but he didn't get far); But he sure found out the hard way that dreams don't always come true, oh no, uh uh." Yessir, this one is perfect.

In my imagination...

... I am hitting my backhand exactly the way Stan the Man does. A thing of beauty. But even in my fantasy world, mine does not quite average his 76 mph...

Friday, August 22, 2014

Satsuki and Mei


Health coverage news

The California Department of Managed Health Care has ruled that my university must offer insurance coverage for any abortion legal under California law. This is welcome news to many at Santa Clara U.... perhaps even to our President, in his guarded moments... he faced another tough year with the faculty if he had been allowed to follow through with his decision to limit coverage starting in 2015-16. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that abortion opponents in the Church, emboldened by Hobby Lobby, will push for a court challenge on the grounds that the State of California has violated "our" First Amendment rights, whatever the California Constitution provides. Now there's an interesting federalist showdown, albeit one I hope not to witness...

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Fragrant [your occupation here]

China has its Fragrant Concubine, it seems... I don't suppose I would want to be known as the Fragrant Professor, but perhaps that's better than the Fragrant Wastewater Engineer, or the Fragrant Mink Rancher. Or the Fragrant Software Engineer, for that matter.

P.S. To be clear, I am not approving of concubine as a profession.

As a frequent data janitor myself...

... I feel their pain.
Data scientists, according to interviews and expert estimates, spend from 50 percent to 80 percent of their time mired in this more mundane labor of collecting and preparing unruly digital data, before it can be explored for useful nuggets.
The worst is when you get it all cleaned up and there are no useful nuggets to be found...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

No taste for discrimination?

These poor fellas are victims of exquisitely bad timing, given events in Ferguson, MO. "Taste for discrimination," Gary Becker's locution, never sounded serious enough given the subject, but to translate, what Gary really meant was that people can be bigots, and act on their beliefs, and other people will suffer for it. But he also suggested that markets might undermine the effects of bigotry. I think the statistical evidence for "taste discrimination" is pretty solid, but there may be settings where its effects are minimal, perhaps even, as these authors suggest, fantasy football (that's English for soccer, you gringos).

Anyway, back here in the real world, unarmed youths get shot and killed, and it has something to do with race, and thank you, Captain Ron Johnson: treating people with respect, compassion, and dignity makes you a true hero in this strange country.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

I've been to Walmart twice in the last 2-3 weeks...

... and both times found exactly what I was looking for... good quality, good price. Am I a bad person? My reading of the evidence is that when Walmart comes to town, working folks' wages go down but the prices they pay for stuff go down enough to compensate. I love the rainbow of people I see and hear at my Mountain View store. I don't think Walmart competes with mom and pop in Mt. View... more likely Target and Kohl's. But if I'm going to continue to shop there, maybe it's about time I ponied up some money to UFCW's organizing efforts. Everyone deserves a living wage.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 43

Benny Carter was so cool, and you have to dig those pants. 1977, man! That's the incomparable Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen with the swift little fingers, looking and sounding extremely snazzy. Ray Bryant and Jimmie Smith rounding out the quartet on piano and drums.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Robert Solow...

... is coming up on his 90th birthday. Hat tip to Brad DeLong for bringing this excellent 2012 essay by Professor Solow to my attention. Is it politically incorrect of me to say that I hope when I am Bob Solow's age I can guide a spoon to my mouth, nevermind write insightful essays about 20th century political economy...?

The BIG picture

A Basic Income Guarantee is the natural policy for implementing an eg-lib (egalitarian-libertarian) political philosophy, if that appeals to you as it does to me. The idea is neither more nor less than what it sounds like: the government would guarantee each person a basic income, financed through taxation. BIG redistributes income no questions asked and lets you decide what to do with the money. Of course there are some details to work out: most importantly how much, and with what kind of taxation to fund it, but also whether the payment will go to individuals or families, etc.

Milton Friedman was famously an advocate for a version of BIG– which is known as the negative income tax (NIT) to economists– on sound libertarian grounds: if you must redistribute income, do so in a way that minimizes market distortions and paternalistic meddling.

Uncle Milty notwithstanding, BIG generally has received more support from the left than the right in the United States. Take a glance at the U.S. BIG network's advisory board and you find such lefty stalwarts as Fred Block, Nancy Folbre, and Frances Fox Piven (her first name misspelled!). But BIG has apparently made a comeback among some of the free-market crowd, as indicated by this recent CATO essay by Matt Zwolinski. Zwolinski sees BIG as a "pragmatic" replacement for most of the modern welfare state, one which could accomplish the redistributive goals of the welfare state at a much lower economic cost.

At an abstract level, Zwolinski's claim relates to an idea from economic theory known as the second fundamental theorem of welfare economics: the efficiency of the free market system can be consistent with income redistribution, so long as you redistribute resources "lump sum" and then leave prices and quantities free to adjust. This compatibility between leveling and the market led Amartya Sen to suggest that the second theorem "belongs to the revolutionists' handbook."

In the real world, the second theorem could never be fully operationalized, because any form of redistribution that pays attention to people's position in the income distribution is not "lump sum," and therefore creates inefficient incentives. In the real world, furthermore, the conditions for the market to achieve efficient outcomes are generally violated by a variety of market failures, such as externalities (e.g. pollution).

So, in the real world, we must decide between complex and imperfect alternative arrangements for redistribution and government regulation. Benefits and costs must be estimated and compared, and political feasibility and stability considered. Regarding the net benefits from replacing the welfare state with BIG, Mike Konczal has a pretty convincing take-down of Zwolinski's claims for BIG savings. Basically, the U.S. welfare state doesn't have all that much fat, so there's just not much to be gained. The EITC (earned income tax credit) is already a variant of the NIT, with a work requirement added on. Programs like EITC, Medicaid, and SNAP (food stamps) operate effectively with admirably low overhead. Disincentive effects are likely modest. Near-universal public social insurance programs such as Medicare and Social Security may, for reasons of scale and state compulsion, overcome some market imperfections that would likely afflict a fully privatized system of social insurance under BIG transfers. So we can't be confident that a BIG would make matters better rather than worse, even from a pure efficiency standpoint.

As a stand-alone substitute for the welfare state, BIG suffers from other criticisms that can be leveled against libertarianism. Some people are simply not capable of making good decisions for themselves: young children, addicts, people with severe emotional or developmental disabilities. Libertarians love to level the charge of paternalism against liberals, but nearly everyone agrees that (gender-neutral) paternalism may be called for in some cases. And not all children or dependents are blessed with a qualified or benevolent "pater" or "mater" to spend their BIG for them; who else is there, if not the state?

Political feasibility and stability are further concerns. Political support for Medicare and Social Security spring in considerable part from the view that people pay into the systems and are entitled to take benefits out. The sense of entitlement that follows from payroll contributions is a feature of Social Security by design, according to a well-known quote attributed to FDR:
“We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.”
BIG, transparent dole that it is, may be politically vulnerable in the long run. (A partial exception would be a BIG based on shares of a commonly held resource, such as dividends on the Alaska Permanent Fund, directly linking the payment to property rights.)

Having acknowledged all these drawbacks of the BIG idea, I still can't help thinking it deserves a bigger place in our political landscape. Politically, it represents a potential source of common ground between the liberal left and libertarianism. Is that enough to reconfigure our heavily polarized political space? By itself, no... but throw in immigration reform, personal and civil liberties, and anti-militarism, and who knows?

Economically, I have read enough sci-fi and witnessed enough advances in computing and robotics to agree with those who are seriously concerned about a future in which capital, with its highly concentrated ownership, displaces much of the demand for labor. No, not technological unemployment... just technological immiseration. Making BIG part of the mainstream political agenda now is a way politically and institutionally to set the stage for decoupling income and private property. Friedman meets Marx... why not?

New Air

Henry Threadgill and Cassandra Wilson should hang out together more often. That's Fred Hopkins and Pheeroan akLaff on bass and drums.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

If I were a religious person...

... I could at least have some hope that Bush and Cheney will burn in hell for their sins. But I'm not, and I don't...
Now, the Kurds have been battling a group of militants from ISIS who are using powerful American weapons they took from the battlefield, left by the Iraqi Army.
“They are literally outgunned by an ISIS that is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi Army who abandoned it,” Mr. Khedery said.
"Jihadists Rout Kurds in North and Seize Strategic Iraqi Dam"

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

I average one of these summer comic-book blockbusters a year. I enjoyed this one more than most. Too much noise and mayhem, but that comes with the territory. The dialogue, such as it is, is generally witty; the pop soundtrack is programmed to appeal to the baby boomers (e.g., me) in the audience, presumably attending with their grandchildren; and the visuals are often arresting: my advice when you get bored with the action sequences is to treat it as an art film, ignore the plot, and let the colors and geometries wash over you.

Good: Chris Pratt, the only person who is acting here... cute, relaxed, and charming; Groot, the tree guy played (supposedly) by Vin Diesel... nice to know that he can be propagated from a cutting.

Bad: The wise-ass talking raccoon; Glenn Close's hair; lame and uninteresting villains.

Ugly: Preview for the latest Dumb and Dumber sequel. We have the drones... why can't we take out Jim Carrey?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Climate myths

Nice of Bob Frank to "shatter" six myths that he claims are holding back action on climate change, but frankly (ha ha), they've been shattered countless times before. No amount of scientific consensus or reality checking is going to move the Republicans on this issue, so any progress at the national level will continue to consist of executive action, which of course is vulnerable to presidential elections and Supreme Court constraints. The best hope is that state and local governments, and idiosyncratic entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, continue to push the envelope on policy and technology solutions. Slim hope, to be sure.