Sunday, March 25, 2018

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 80

Só Danço Samba. A cliché, but no less perfect for that...

Francis Bator, RIP

His article “The Simple Analytics of Welfare Maximization” (1957) presents the graphical version of basic welfare economics that many of us have taught to our undergrad intermediate micro students pretty much ever since. I doubt that it's been improved upon.

Taking a quick look after many years, the following passage from Bator's discussion of the utility-possibility frontier (p. 28) jumped out at me:
To designate a single best configuration we must be given a Bergson-Samuelson social welfare function that denotes the ethic that is to "count" or whose implications we wish to study. Such a function– it could be yours, or mine, or Mossadegh's, though his is likely to be non-transitive– is intrinsically ascientific.
The only "Mossadegh" I know of is Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was the prime minister of the democratically-elected Iranian government that was overthrown in 1953 with the help of the CIA, to be succeeded by the Shah. Given that non-transitive amounts to irrational, is this a racist dig, or am I missing something?

Bator was very clear on the importance of distributional questions, as well as market failures due to externalities and non-convexities. Yet the beauty of the efficiency properties of markets under ideal conditions easily distracts our attention from these problems, as if they were second-order. For this reason, the very effectiveness of his masterly exposition may have contributed to the tendency of well-trained economists toward free-market ideology. We can give Bator himself the last word here: "The Pareto conditions are necessary, but never sufficient" (p. 58).

Trouble in Paradise

The title makes no sense at all, but this 1932 Ernst Lubitsch comedy is justifiably considered a great one. Pre-Code, it is full of good-natured sexual chemistry and innuendo. The cast is great, the dialogue witty, the scenes well-paced. We saw it last night at the Stanford Theatre, where it played in December 1932 along with a vaudeville program. That must have been a fun night out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

They Feed They Lion

Written 50 years ago.


One of the funniest poems I know of, but also wistful and sad and, in the era of Trump, depressing, because the simple wisdom of Levine's coming of age story is lost on the boy-men who never came of age and now run our country.
.... Ahead
lay our fifteenth birthdays,
acne, deodorants, crabs, salves,
butch haircuts, draft registration,
the military and political victories
of Dwight Eisenhower, who brought us
Richard Nixon with wife and dog.
Any wonder we tried gin.

The Poetry of Jazz

I heard a segment about this collaboration of the late poet Philip Levine and jazz musician-composer Benjamin Boone yesterday on NPR. I have been a fan of Levine's poems for a while... Boone's music was a revelation. I was able to listen to about half of the album on Spotify yesterday before heading out to dinner, and it had me in tears. Levine was in his mid-80s when he recorded it, and he sounds old, but not at all antiquated. There is very little artifice in his readings, but there is understated musicality and energy... the jazz of poetry is in the words on paper but also in his voice. The selection of poems is wonderful, ranging from Levine's gritty depictions of the working life from his days in Detroit, to celebrations of jazz, to his lyrical songs to the California Central Valley– in fact it was at Fresno State that he met Boone.

As for Boone's settings of the poems, they are, so far, perfection– this is not your father's beat poetry recited to a bongo and bass, but full-on modern jazz composition. Boone recruited some of the top musicians in jazz to take a solo– or should I say a stanza?– on several tracks: Tom Harrell, Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, and Chris Potter among them.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Sierra Vista

My friends from Mountain View (get it?) suggested a Sunday hike at Sierra Vista, a preserve in the foothills east of East San Jose. I'd never been there. My first impression was... meh... exposed grassy hills with plenty of cow patties... commanding views of the Bay Area were a plus, but those can be had elsewhere as well.

Things improved decidedly when we set off down the Kestrel Trail on the ridge above Upper Penitencia Creek, a rugged canyon lined with classic California chaparral.  Highlights for me included my first (to my knowledge) sighting of Lindley's blazingstar (Mentzelia lindleyi), a spectacular wildflower growing in abundance in places along the steep slope; gooseberries in the shade of an old oak; rock outcroppings made of thick layers of fossilized mollusks; and– yeah, you know– some excellent lichens.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"Testilying" in reality and fiction

This NY Times article about cops cutting corners or flat-out lying to get a conviction should offer no surprises to readers of crime fiction or students of human nature. I just finished reading Denise Mina's fine The Red Road, the plot of which turns on an egregious example of testilying. Mina is a great writer of crime novels for a number of reasons, including her command of the language, plotting and pacing, ability to get inside the heads of her characters, and sympathy for the bad guys as well as the good guys. Sympathy, that is, with one pretty consistent exception: She– like her detective hero Alex Morrow– has no sympathy for the testilying cop. In the interest of fictional even-handedness, perhaps she should. In the interest of justice, she cannot.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Save the akikiki?

As an atheist deep, deep-down in my bones, I harbor no illusion that a Creator intended for the akikiki bird to survive or even exist in the first place. It has no more cosmic claim than any bird, mammal, tree, virus, or stone for that matter. As an economist, I appreciate that constrained optimization is a tough taskmaster: We will have to make some hard hard choices about which endangered organisms we save, and which, ultimately, we let go. But I have tramped through a corner of this drab little critter's turf, the Alikai Swamp on Kauai. Humans, inadvertently for the most part, have reduced her odds of survival nearly to nil. Habitat destruction, rats, malaria. Her existence serves no more useful human or even global ecological purpose than the existence of, say, the Virgin of the Rocks. Which is to say, my godless heart thrills to the fact that a bunch of people are wasting precious time and money trying to protect the precious little akikiki from annihilation. Photo credit.


Yes, it is, very... also sad... at all hopeful?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Still Crazy After All These Years

Recognizable upon the first note or two for that classic Fender Rhodes sound, played in this case by Barry Beckett, one of the Muscle Shoals Swampers. The instrument has its own interesting story...
Like a piano, it generates sound using keys and hammers, but instead of strings, the hammers strike thin metal tines, which are then amplified via an electromagnetic pickup which is plugged into an external keyboard amplifier and speaker. 
The instrument evolved from Rhodes' attempt to manufacture pianos to teach recovering soldiers during World War II under a strict budget, and development continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Happy 242nd Birthday, WoN!

That is, Adam Smith's An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published on this day in 1776. I often tell my students that this was the most important event of that year.

Smith was undoubtedly a libertarian of a sort, but also a pragmatist with a definite progressive streak. His support of free markets depended on competition reining in the tendencies toward collusion, and nowhere was he more eloquent on the threat of collusion than in his excellent Chapter 8 (on wages). Monopsony (buyer-side market power) is, for Smith, the natural state of affairs in the labor market:
What are the common wages of labour, depends every where upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour. 
It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him, but the necessity is not so immediate. 
We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is every where a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things which nobody ever hears of. Masters too sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people. Such combinations, however, are frequently resisted by a contrary defensive combination of the workmen; who sometimes too, without any provocation of this kind, combine of their own accord to raise the price of their labour. Their usual pretences are, sometimes the high price of provisions; sometimes the great profit which their masters make by their work. But whether their combinations be offensive or defensive, they are always abundantly heard of. In order to bring the point to a speedy decision, they have always recourse to the loudest clamour, and sometimes to the most shocking violence and outrage. They are desperate, and act with the folly and extravagance of desperate men, who must either starve, or frighten their masters into an immediate compliance with their demands. The masters upon these occasions are just as clamorous upon the other side, and never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combinations of servants, labourers, and journeymen. The workmen, accordingly, very seldom derive any advantage from the violence of those tumultuous combinations, which, partly from the interposition of the civil magistrate, partly from the superior steadiness of the masters, partly from the necessity which the greater part of the workmen are under of submitting for the sake of present subsistence, generally end in nothing, but the punishment or ruin of the ringleaders.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


Still, not the most lucrative line of work once you count the costs (source).
A researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says he's revising a study he co-authored after admitting that "criticism is valid" of initial findings that Uber and Lyft drivers are making a median pretax profit of $3.37 an hour and a vast majority are making less than minimum wage.
Uber said the working paper had "a major error in the authors' methodology."
Using one new method of calculating the median profit that incorporates Uber's criticism, the figure "rises to $8.55 / hour from the $3.37 initially reported," the lead author Stephen Zoepf wrote in a statement posted to Twitter on Monday. And using another alternate method, the median profit goes up to $10 an hour.