Thursday, September 29, 2016

They'll love us, won't they?

They feed us, don't they?

Randy Newman's own version on Sail Away is the best, but this has its jaunty appeal.

Chris Ware does it again

New Yorker covers are often kinda clever or pretty. Ware's make me stop and say wow. Not a single line or stroke is without deep intention.

John Quiggin on homesteading and property rights

He notes an obvious but delicious irony of the claims of the Bundy clan...
In the US context, ‘homesteading’ has a specific legal and historical meaning. It refers to the granting, by the US state, and subject to a range of conditions, of land previously expropriated from the indigenous inhabitants. The classic piece of legislation was the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 acres of public land to any US citizen willing to settle on and farm the land for at least five years. Among the beneficiaries of this government largesse were the forebears of Cliven Bundy, who homesteaded land in 1877.
Bundy’s claim is that, having inherited land received as a conditional grant from the state, he should now be free of those conditions. This is the same claim made by the great majority of propertarians: despite their belief that the state which created and enforces the property rights system under which we live is an organized system of theft and enslavement, they believe that the property rights they claim should be given to them free of the obligations (for example, the payment of taxes) under which they were granted.
And he arrives at a bottom line I share: "The justice or otherwise of a set of property rights can’t be assessed separately from that of the social structure of which it is a part. To the extent that the social structure is just or unjust, a property rights system that effectively supports and reinforces that social structure shares that character."

Which is not to deny that a stable and enforceable system of property rights can be a very desirable feature of a just social structure.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why Study Economics?

A nice address by Stanley Fischer to the Howard University Economics Department. He answers the question posed, and then goes on to make some excellent observations about the need for greater diversity in the economics profession.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

My Gerhard Richter phase

Also known as my accidental photo of the sidewalk phase...

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Eating out in Palo Alto

Yeah, I guess I have some sympathy for restauranteurs in Palo Alto, where rents are astronomical, and Google and Palantir hire away your best line chefs. On the other hand, the answer to a labor shortage is... Econ 101 students? Excellent answer, yes, higher wages. And thus, higher prices for the consumers. We can afford another dollar or two for our artisan pizza. Still, the best restaurant in town, aside from the impossibly loud and overpriced Evvia, is one of the cheapest, Tofu House. Dinner for two with all the fixins, and you're out the door for $30. That is, if you can get in the door in the first place.


During my recent visit with my parents in Florida, my (formerly?) Republican father tried to goad me a little bit, as he usually does. "Here's someone I bet you and I disagree on: Edward Snowden. Good or bad?" I suppose he thought I'd side with Obama on this one. More good than bad, I replied, moderating my actual view, which is way more to the good than the bad side. Dad agrees.

Finally watched the movie last night. I know Laura Poitras is anything but impartial, but when all is said and done, it's hard to think of Snowden as anything but heroic.

I do love Obama, but security and intelligence issues are a serious blemish on his record. Barack, a pardon for Snowden would be courageous, the right thing, and good for your legacy. Bring the boy home. He can do more good here than in Russia. You can wait until after the election, of course.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 73

Mostly Other People Do the Killing is the most consistently exciting working jazz group of recent years. Their latest album Mauch Chunk is quite accessible... well, at least by MOPDtK standards. I like everything they do, and I'm especially fond of Jon Irabagon on alto. Every tune is a winner, including this one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ben Bernanke on Fed policy

A clear and cogent column by Professor B, per expectations. Ben thinks negative policy rates ought to be taken more seriously here, but the bottom line seems to be that we couldn't push the nominal rate much below -0.5%. That's a pretty limited scope for monetary policy, but given the apparent difficulty and uncertainty of managing inflation expectations, a viable option. Et tu, Janet Y?

Friday, September 9, 2016

Offspring plays Janáček

One of the greatest string quartets... the world in 24 minutes...

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Mr. Robot

Both visually and aurally arresting, Mr. Robot is avant-garde filmmaking masquerading as TV crime drama. Yes, sometimes they try too hard, and by now I really have no idea what the F is going on, but I don't care, I wouldn't miss an episode. And the cast. There are at least five or six you hope will appear in the next scene, and the next. I never cared much for Meryl Streep (sorry), but her lookalike daughter Grace Gummer kills it, with her naturalness and wry humor. Michael Cristofer, the perfect corporate Satan. Portia Doubleday, with her 20 different variations on deer in the headlights. Even annoying habitual over-actor Christian Slater, born to play a schizophrenic's hallucination (maybe). And Rami Malek, the bug-eyed schizo icon for our time.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

More vacation reading

Waiting at SFO for my flight to Orlando, I nearly missed the last boarding call, so engrossed was I in E.L. Doctorow's first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960). It is a western– violent and uncharacteristically misanthropic compared with the humanism that typifies so much of Doctorow's oeuvre. The villain is satanic, but overall it is a ferocious Old Testament God who seems to rule the day. Highly recommended.

I also re-read A Perfect Spy, said by some (including the author) to be LeCarre's best. It is a great psychological thriller, a kind of double-biography, but as with Welcome to Hard Times, a very cold wind blows through the whole thing.

A colleague gave me a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I tried to get through it on the return flight from Florida, and he had me for the first third or so. The claims about early human (pre-)history seem cautious and balanced. He is particularly good on the agricultural revolution and its quite likely adverse effect on most aspects of human well-being in the transition from a gatherer society to settled peasantry. Harari writes that "the agricultural revolution was history's biggest fraud," although nobody could see it coming at the time. And one's overall assessment hinges not only on how you view the modern societies that followed on the agricultural revolution, but also on whether you want to be an average or total utilitarian. Under settled agriculture, mean utility u was surely lower: more work, poorer health and nutrition, drudgery as opposed to physical and intellectual stimulation. But N increased many-fold, so total utility U = Nu might have been higher... assuming it was positive on average!

From there, downhill. A kind of pop sociology begins to dominate, and real history fades into the background. Functionalism is the order of the day: Harari is no Marxist, but for him as much as Marx and Engels, religion is the opium of the masses and serves to keep the peasants toiling down in the muck while the elites build castles and employ artists and composers. How exactly did the elites pull off this monumental con? I'm not saying they didn't, but a historian is obliged to provide the sequence of events, not a just-so story.

Indeed, for Harari, all human institutions are a form of "imagined reality"– mythology, really– and at some ontological level all are equally vaporous. That rock you just dropped on your toe was real, and it obeyed objective laws of physics. That money you just laid down for a bottle of Advil to treat your toe-ache, however, was imagined, the same kind of thing as the mischievous god who directed the rock toward your toe instead of the neighboring tuft of grass. Well, err, no, Professor Harari! The money is no less objective than the law of gravity. You know from longstanding personal experience, and in fact we can confirm using careful observation and data analysis, that you can expect to receive the bottle of pills when you hand over a valid debit card. The fact that you are reasonably expecting a standard and predictable behavioral response from another Sapiens is quite similar to expecting the rock to fall downward rather than upward. As Harari correctly notes, trust often plays a role here, and trust may depend in part on "belief"... but it is not merely trust. In fact there are plenty of transactions where trust is quite minimal, but we expect exchange to take place because of mutual self-interest, fear of retribution or punishment for non-compliance, etc.

Perhaps the book's speculative final chapters on the future of our species would have been worth the effort, but I threw in the towel before I got there, and turned instead to cracking the medium sudoku in the Hemispheres magazine. I have to agree with Galen Strawson's review in the Guardian: "Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism."