Friday, May 30, 2014

Who killed federal cap-and-trade legislation?

Yesterday on NPR, Robert Siegel interviewed C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel to George H.W. Bush, about the history of cap-and-trade legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions. Gray completely bamboozled Siegel about the Republican position on climate change policy and the history of the legislation. 
SIEGEL: This was something that was developed for a Republican administration. You're a Republican. How did this go from being a Republican idea to being almost a litmus test - if you're for Cap and Trade, you're banned from certain, you know, talk radio shows?
GRAY: Well, I think what happened is the Obama administration, when it came, anticipated generating very, very large revenues by doing something that had not been done to auction off the original allowance levels. And it was not a, I think, smart thing to do politically. It was unnecessary from an environmental point of view. And the money was going to be spent, no one really knew how. And that's what caused the thing to collapse.
Yeah, sure, except that climate bills featuring cap-and-trade and co-sponsored by those well-known leftist radicals McCain and Lieberman were defeated in 2003, 2005, and 2007, by votes largely along party lines. My memory is not what it used to be, but I'm thinking somebody else was president back then. And the Republican position has only hardened since.

C'mon Siegel, do your homework!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eric Dolphy

Like listening to Louis Armstrong... you hang on every note. Hat tip to Ben Ratliff for bringing this performance to my attention. After a spirited post-stride solo by Jaki Byard, Dolphy steps in around 4:30 and deconstructs Strayhorn for the next four and a half minutes. The dude was visiting from some other planet and did not stay here for very long.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I think it's probably OK...

... if pet ferrets are no harder to acquire than guns. After all, “Evidence shows ferrets do not bite more frequently or severely than other pets the same size.” What would be the same size... guinea pigs? Maybe a squirrel?

The college earnings premium

Dean Baker suggests that the evidence of a huge average earnings premium associated with a college education does not provide unambiguous support for the idea that most everyone should stay in school. For men in particular, he notes, the earnings of college graduates exhibit a high dispersion around the mean, so that "near one in five recent male college grads earned less than the average high school grad." For these individuals, he infers, college may not pay.

This claim rests, of course, on an implicit counterfactual—namely, that these men in the lower tail of the college pay distribution would have been able to earn near the mean of the high-school distribution if they had not gone to college, and therefore that they did not gain from having graduated college. This assumption is quite likely incorrect. Even within occupations considered low-skilled, there is a college premium. And even if some percentage of men did not gain economically by graduating college, we can only judge that college was a bad decision for them ex post; this did not make going to college a bad decision ex ante, when an individual is unlikely to know whether they will be among the unlucky losers in the earnings lottery.

There is abundant evidence that a college degree pays off for otherwise identical individuals. I am unaware of evidence suggesting that these gains do not apply to folks in the lower tail of the earnings distribution. This post by Dylan Matthews provides a nice summary in layperson's terms of the studies showing that the return to college is not simply a spurious correlation based on differences between college-goers and non-college-goers in terms of family background or intelligence; rather, a wide range of studies provide convincing evidence that the return to college is causal, in the sense that a given person can expect to earn substantially more with a college degree than they would without one.

Count me among the people who get pissed off when I read people saying that college doesn't pay. College is expensive and not a certain bet, but it is a very sound investment even from a purely financial point of view. And those of us in the college business also like to think that college has a sizable non-pecuniary payoff. I'm with Autor:
“Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea,” says David Autor, an M.I.T. economist who studies the labor market. “Not sending them to college would be a disaster.”

Sunday, May 25, 2014

With a name like Petro...

... you might have thought that the billionaire Ukrainian president-elect Petro O. Poroshenko had made his billion as an oil magnate. But NO... he's a chocolate magnate!

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Was in the mood for some Granados solo piano pieces tonight. My recording is by Alicia De Larrocha. For some reason Sonos decided to replace almost every missing piece of album art in my collection with this... an excellent album cover, no doubt, but it doesn't look much like Alicia! It still sounded like her, though...

"Ich sehe ein Stück Spinat in den Zähnen stecken"

Friday, May 23, 2014

Hunan Garden, RIP?

We've been eating at Hunan Garden for many (~20?) years. Reliably tasty Chinese food in a pleasant space at a good price. The kids grew up eating the pea greens, and the flounder in spicy salt, learning to manipulate chop sticks and appreciate tofu and hot pepper, and drinking a Shirley Temple as a "special" treat every time (a Tsingtao for Aidan after age 21). The fried tofu in a mildly spicy soy broth arrives at the table as a lagniappe every time as well. And the owner Simon knows your name and inquires after the kids every visit. We know it is his business to remember, but we appreciate the effort nonetheless: Yes, it is commerce, but it is community too.

I wish Simon's son Jarvis well in his new venture as he tries to update this comfortably predictable establishment: We owe him our business at least a couple times. I hope Simon will be there when we come... He and I are strangers in almost every way that matters, but one: We have seen each other pass the torch to the next generation. That makes us brothers, in a way.

Una más

Ni pa'ca ni pa'lla

Señor Rodriguez está en la casa...

Miguel and Danilo...

... Zenon and Perez, that is, played SFJazz tonight. Zenon is wrapping up his "residency" at SFJazz. He is a saxophonist with few peers. He plays fluid, melodic lines, fast and clear; precise, but lovely. His compositions are gorgeous. Much the same could be said of his virtuosic mentor, Perez, on piano. Together, magic. If you have the opportunity, you should go out of your way to hear this collaboration. I haven't had as rewarding an evening of jazz in a long time.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Case for Reparations

Plenty of people will be reading and talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates's new article in the Atlantic. Of course you should read it too. I don't have much to say at the moment, except to note that his case for the enduring importance of racism in the postwar period is if anything an understatement, because it focuses almost entirely on inequality and segregation in housing, enforced by both legal and extra-legal means. This is a crucial and underappreciated story, but there is much more that he leaves out. Looming large in my mind would be the role of the criminal justice system and incarceration in reproducing and reinforcing racial injustice. It's something Coates has written about, and I presume it will be part of his account if and when there is a book-length treatment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The ash heap of history

The rapidity with which these wonderful changes have occurred still boggles my mind...
Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania said Wednesday that he would not appeal a judge’s ruling striking down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage.
With the decision, Pennsylvania became the 19th state, along with the District of Columbia, where same-sex couples are able to marry. Judge John E. Jones III of Federal District Court on Tuesday became the latest judge to throw out a series of state bans around the country, writing, “It is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”
Thanks, Governor. Congratulations, Pennsylvanians...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Magical thinking

I suppose the laws of physics could be considered "very prejudiced" against my desire to click my heels together three times, repeat "I can flap my arms and FLY!" and jump off the top of Half Dome... but then, the new national science education standards are not stopping me from trying...
The standards “handle global warming as settled science,” State Representative Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle, told The Casper Star-Tribune. “There’s all kind of social implications involved in that, that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.” Although oil companies like Exxon and Chevron have publicly supported the Next Generation standards, Mr. Teeters told The Star-Tribune that such teaching could wreck the economy of Wyoming, the country’s largest energy exporter. Mr. Teeters, who declined requests to elaborate, was joined in his objections by Ron Micheli, chairman of the State Department of Education, who called the standards “very prejudiced, in my opinion, against fossil fuel development.”

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Oprah and Starbucks...

... the pairing seems so natural as to be almost inevitable... I have to say the marketing is lovely to look at, how Oprah's classy outfit matches the color of the chai latte...

(Photo credit: The Sistah Vegan Project blog... As you might or might not guess from the blog title, the post raises some well-taken notes of skepticism about Starbucks' motives...)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"... came up with the idea of a carbon tax..."?

Bill Nordhaus? Um, no. Great economist. Important work. A bit cautious on climate policy—the discount rate he uses is too high, I think—but careful and smart. But came up with the carbon tax? I think that would have to be Arthur Pigou, even if he didn't know CO2 was a form of pollution back in 1920...

This too shall pass...

Hey, I'm all for learning basic computer coding. I do some myself, and I teach a little to my students in my econometrics class. Algorithmic thinking... very good for the brain. But for every kid in elementary school? Oh, I suppose I'd place a high priority on that... right after reading, writing, math, science, literature, music, visual arts, physical education, second language, nutrition, financial literacy, appreciation of nature, conflict resolution, cooking, gardening, home repair, etiquette...

Monday, May 5, 2014

Carleton Watkins

Stanford's Cantor Arts Center is exhibiting selections from its magnificent collection of Carleton Watkins photos. Many were taken in Yosemite during the 1860s; there is also a nice selection from Oregon and Washington.

Photography in the 1860s was not a matter of point, click, and upload. Watkins made colossal negatives on glass, using a collodion wet plate process that required exposing the plate quickly and developing the negative immediately in the field. Hence he had to haul a payload of glass, chemicals, and darkroom materials on mules up into then-remote Yosemite.

The results were glorious in their composition and detail, and played a major role in fostering public and political support for protecting and preserving Yosemite. Thus these photos are of historical interest not just as artwork and technology, but as political and cultural artifacts as well.

It would have been interesting to see Watkins's prints set alongside those other iconic photographs of Yosemite, by Ansel Adams. Watkins was careful in composing his pictures: he had to be, because the process meant every shot was precious. The prints often feature dark and contrasty foregrounds--water, rocks, or vegetation--with the slightly hazy, brightly lit monuments of El Capitan or Half Dome rising in the background. This is Yosemite Valley as one experiences it in person. Adams was careful about composition as well, obviously, but as the wizard of the darkroom he was after something else: a Yosemite no human eye has ever experienced, a kind of Platonic form of perfection in granite and light.

Which Yosemite is better? Both are indispensable. I am always shocked when I speak with a Californian who has never been there. Say what?

Photo source.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Gary Becker, RIP

One could certainly defend the claim that Gary Becker was the most important and influential living economist at the time of his death Saturday, and it would hardly be outrageous to say he was the most influential economist since Keynes. He was pathbreaking on important dimensions of economics conventionally defined, such as human capital, and he was the discipline's great imperialist, seeking to extend the methodology of microeconomic theory to topics generally claimed by other social sciences: discrimination, marriage, and fertility, to name three. I didn't care much for his politics, and his insistence that rational choice models could account for every aspect of human behavior was narrow, if not the dead end that some behavioralists seem to think it is. The attempted colonization of sociology and political science by economics will ultimately, I think, prove to be as productive as it is unsuccessful. In the shorter run, Becker's brilliance and bull-in-the-china-shop confidence in the superiority of his own methods contributed to the attitude of condescension if not outright contempt economists often exhibit toward the other social disciplines, an attitude that has probably set back the cause of developing a unified science of human behavior by a generation or more.

Rational choice theory a la Becker does not inevitably lead to conservative or libertarian policy conclusions, Becker's personal politics aside. There is ample room in the real world and in rational choice theory for market failures and a concern for distribution, both of which can justify activist government intervention in markets. And Becker was a leading figure in extending rational choice models to other-regarding (in his case, specifically, altruistic) motives. Altruism, perhaps paradoxically, is itself a cause of market failure.

My favorite Becker paper is number one on Tyler Cowen's list of neglected Becker papers: "Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory" (JPE, 1962). In it Becker shows that some fairly strong behavioral predictions of rational choice theory would also be exhibited on average by individuals who behaved in an extremely irrational manner--namely, people who made completely random choices. For instance, standard micro theory predicts that individuals will reduce their purchases of a good when its price increases, even if they are fully compensated for the loss of purchasing power caused by the price hike. This substitution effect follows from rational economizing behavior. But Becker shows, with an elegant diagrammatic argument, that even random consumers, when compensated, will also cut their expected (average) purchases, because of the pivot in the set of affordable bundles of goods. Here it is, his Figure 2; I leave it as an exercise for you to back out how the points p and p' clinch his argument.

This is a great paper for undergrad intermediate micro students, because it can be used to illustrate a couple of important points: (1) Rational choice may serve as a model--or perhaps better, a metaphor--for predicting behavior arising from a range of behaviors, including non-rational behavior; (2) Much of the "action" in the rational consumer model is a result of shifts in the budget constraint, not the specific rules that govern choice along that constraint. But Becker took it a little further, writing that "households may be irrational and yet markets quite rational" (p. 8). One must be careful not to read too much into this claim. If markets being "quite rational" means that in the aggregate, the compensated demand curve will slope down, as it would for an individual rational consumer, yes. But one might also take "quite rational" to be a statement about the efficiency of the resulting market allocation from a normative perspective. And here the rationality or irrationality of the agents makes all the difference. The Pareto efficiency of market allocations requires optimizing (rational) individual behavior--and selfish behavior to boot: no rational economic man (sic), no market efficiency.

Any trained economist will recognize that I liked my Becker best when he was at his least Becker-esque. But he was a giant of our field whatever the shape of your preferences.

Orestimba Wilderness hike

Orestimba is a particularly remote section of the enormous Henry Coe State Park, which lies east of Morgan Hill, CA. Henry Coe is not far from Silicon Valley as the crow flies, but in some ways it might as well be the Yukon Territory. Public roads barely pierce the perimeter, and visitors are relatively few. Our guide, Ron Erskine, seems to know this country as if it were the city block he grew up on, even though the park encompasses nearly 90,000 acres. (Kudos to Bay Nature, the fine magazine and nonprofit that sponsored the walk.)

These hills, part of the Diablo Range, have a specific muted color palette that is difficult for a snapshooter to capture. So I abandoned color, and focused on the textures of the photogenic blue oaks...


with a return to color for portraits of a couple of native reptiles...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist"

I found myself pretty quickly tuning out the Bundy and Sterling stories... the easy, self-congratulatory outrage from all quarters nearly as tiresome as the endless media repetition of the ugly statements from the principals. Mr. Coates has something more useful to say, in typically eloquent fashion.