Thursday, May 31, 2012


Krugman notes the real reason Conservatives love austerity:

So why have so many politicians insisted on pursuing austerity in slump? And why won’t they change course even as experience confirms the lessons of theory and history?

Well, that’s where it gets interesting. For when you push “austerians” on the badness of their metaphor, they almost always retreat to assertions along the lines of: “But it’s essential that we shrink the size of the state.”

Now, these assertions often go along with claims that the economic crisis itself demonstrates the need to shrink government. But that’s manifestly not true. Look at the countries in Europe that have weathered the storm best, and near the top of the list you’ll find big-government nations like Sweden and Austria.

And if you look, on the other hand, at the nations conservatives admired before the crisis, you’ll find George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer and the architect of the country’s current economic policy, describing Ireland as “a shining example of the art of the possible.” Meanwhile, the Cato Institute was praising Iceland’s low taxes and hoping that other industrial nations “will learn from Iceland’s success.”

So the austerity drive in Britain isn’t really about debt and deficits at all; it’s about using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs. And this is, of course, exactly the same thing that has been happening in America.

My emphasis. As I've said before, arguments about economics tend not to be about science, but about morality. Krugman and Keynes point has been endlessly demonstrated in the data, and the objections fail on logic as well.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Political Dialog

R: Obama is the most extreme leftist to ever be President of the US.

D: You are one ignorant, stupid, racist MoFo*

The above sample dialog is probably not the best way to start a mutually enlightening political dialog - unless you consider fist fights to meet that criterion.

Haidt, I think, might suggest a reply more like:

Why would you say that?
*MoFo - believed to be an abbreviation for Moss covered Fossil.

Haidt Comments

A special thread for those reading the book, seeing other versions of Haidt's work, or just wanting to make comments on general principles.

Book Preview

...He loaded the hay into the wagon.

...He poured the water into the glass.

These two construction look very similar. We can capture the same concept as the first sentence in the following:

... He loaded the wagon with hay.

So what about:

... He poured the glass with water.

If you are a native speaker of English, the latter will probably clunk in your head like a bowl full of rocks.

So what's up with that? According to Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, the answer tells us a lot about language and even more about how the mind works. I won't try to explain the somewhat complicated answer, at least not at this early stage of my reading, but it has to do with the way our brains model the world.

Our minds contain an innate model of the physics of space, time and other matters, he says, and that model has a lot to say about how we think and speak.

Team Play

One repeated Haidt theme is that our morality makes us team players. Our opinions on a whole range of questions that might seem to be independent are largely determined by what team we see ourselves playing for. Thus opinions on Keynes and Krugman today are largely determined by whether one sees oneself as liberal or conservative. Ditto gay marriage, welfare, civil rights and global warming.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Physics One: Shocking Results

Luboš Motl gives us a nice physics problem:

Yesterday, I experienced something that I've gone through many times in my life and probably regularly (at several "best points"): when I ride my mountain bike which has a hole in the seat and a metal right underneath (which may probably be in contact with my slightly wet shorts), I am terrified by an electric shock – some tingling comparable to a dozen of stinging ants attacking a square decimeter of my skin – for a second when I am crossing some high voltage power lines – maybe 400 kV or so – perpendicularly.

It seems clear that passage under the power lines has induced a charge separation between bike and rider, and that the electric fields induced by the power lines create the charge separation, but what is the mechanism?

Ideas? Can the bike be considered grounded?

Book Review: The Righteous Mind:

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is a highly readable yet still scholarly look at the foundations of human morality. His point of view is essentially that of evolutionary psychology: that our moral systems evolved in order for us to live in highly cooperative communities not composed solely of close kin – the only animals who can do that. Haidt describes his starting point as that of essentially a conventional liberal, scornful of conservatives and persuaded that their success was based on fraudulent appeals.

His story of scientific discovery, then, is not just a scientific one but of a change of personal perspective, to that of a self-described “centrist” with a lot of admiration for conservative thinkers but not much for the modern Republican Party. He is a story teller, and he weaves together themes from familiar and unfamiliar philosophers – his original major in college was philosophy – to ethnography and especially experimental psychology. Philosophers who flunk the test of experiment include Plato, Bentham, and Kant, while Hume and Durkheim are golden. For me, at least, he makes a convincing case that our moral principles grow out instincts shaped and refined by our hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, living in small communities.

These instincts are realized in the mind, he argues, as “modules,” which serve as mental templates upon which our varied moral structures can be built, much in the way that we have language templates that are suitable for building the whole range of human languages. He thinks that he has identified about six of these, which we may call “care,” “fairness,” “loyalty,” “authority,” “purity/divinity,” and “individuality.” He makes the case for each of these, without pretending that they are either monolithic or complete. Their central shared characteristic is that each can be shown to function to facilitate communal living, human style.

There are several excellent reviews out, as well as book jacket endorsements by a number of my personal intellectual heroes, including Steven Pinker and Edward O. Wilson. Amazon reviews are generally favorable, but I like to look at the "one stars" – the people who hated the book. Somewhat to my surprise, except for one eccentric whose politics I could not identify, all were from disgruntled liberals, angry that he was not condemning conservatives. My personal favorite, as an example of the genre:

This book is hopeless because it starts off with a fatally flawed premise. Good people are *NOT* divided by politics. In fact, politics can show us who the good people are and who the bad people are. In fact, here's the truth in two simple sentences:

Good people are liberals. Bad people are conservatives.

Whether the author was tongue in cheek or not, this cracked me up. I heartily recommend the book to anyone who is interested in a deeper understanding of human moral psychology, moral and political divisions, or who just wants a darn good read. Every chapter contains terrific insights and experimental results. What’s the point of tattoos, male circumcision, or facial piercings? Haidt can give you a plausible answer. You might find that it opens your eyes. It did mine.

Other comments I've made on the book can be seen here.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition

Tim Worstall, writing in Forbes, sees Spain Circling the Drain. The problem isn't really contagion, he claims. It's really small regional banks, and the Spanish Regions, that got zapped by the property bubble.

All of which leads to an uncomfortable political truth. What’s happening in Spain is not contagion, therefore it is not a sufficient solution to provide a financial firewall through the ECB or some such. The place is going bust because of its own actions, not as a result of some infection from Greece. So a solution to the Greek problems, whichever way that works out, will not become a solution to Spain’s problems. And it’s very difficult from here in Europe to see anyone acknowledging that fact.

This is about 50% nonsense, the rest truth. It ignores the fact that all Spain's economic problems are greatly exacerbated by Euro austerity. It also ignores the fact that much of the money to inflate that property bubble came from Germany. Nonetheless, it seems increasingly possible that the Euro is already dead - it just doesn't know it yet.

It seems that nobody, in Spain or Germany, was inquisitive enough about the soundness of all those property loans. Where was that Spanish Inquisition when they really needed it?

Moral Evolution

Major social revolutions on questions of morality are rare, and we appear to have lived through one quite recently - the transition to widespread acceptance of gay marriage. As such, it provides a natural laboratory for the ideas Jonathan Haidt has described in his book, The Righteous Mind. Gay marriage presents a fundamental collision between the two pillars of liberal morality - care and fairness - and a third fundamental moral module which is much more important to conservatives - the purity/sanctity module.

Purity/sanctity can be considered to be concerned mostly with societal "rules of the road," regulations which have an element of arbitrariness to them, like the rule for driving on the right side of the road (in most countries) but are necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Such rules are given moral weight by embedding them in a moral/religious matrix.

One effect of having read The Righteous Mind is that I can now articulate the conservative arguments against, say, gay marriage, better than I have heard them do so. The most fundamental conservative argument is that morality is a crucial but vulnerable element of what is required for us to live together in groups, and tinkering with crucial elements of it is dangerous. No element of social morality is more crucial than marriage, so tinkering with that is pretty momentous and potentially disastrous.

The liberal rejoinder, I suppose, is that we have been tinkering with marriage for a long time - true enough, and whom does it harm, anyway. America, and much of the developed world, seems to have concluded that the liberal argument is more persuasive.

Friday, May 25, 2012

What I Think This Blog Needs

More argumentative people.

In the Socratic or Jewish tradition of intellectual argument, that is. I don't find insults that instructive, and they tend to undermine my judgement.

Dumb Money

I borrowed this title from Wolfgang.

I keep reading that Facebook botched its IPO, e.g.

The botched offering of Facebook stock has raised several troubling questions, but at least we don’t have to worry about the one that plagues many IPOs: How are a few select investors able to buy in early at lower prices and then pocket huge profits when the trading frenzy begins? Among the many apparent missteps in its public debut, Facebook is accused of setting an opening price that was too high. Instead of spiking on the first day, shares inched up just 23 cents, to $38.23. The stock has mostly fallen since.


Do they think Zuckerberg's job was to set the price low enough so his underwriters and early buyers would make a big profit? No. His job was to sell the company's stock for as much as the market would bear. Looks to me like he did a heck of a job with that.

Of course Wall Street may not love him, but that might not have been a big priority for him either.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Aggregate Demand

If everyone has exactly what they need and want - if everyone could look into the Mirror of Erised and see themselves exactly as they are - economic activity would cease.

Conversely, if nobody had anything, then nobody could afford to purchase anything, and economic activity would similarly cease.

Each of these is an example of lack of aggregate demand, in the first case, because nobody wanted anything, and in the second, because nobody could afford to buy anything. Demand requires both the desire to purchase something and the means to do so.

Unless you are a strict practitioner of the Chicago faith, you probably understand that depressions represent failures of aggregate demand. It might occur to you that there is at least one more way that aggregate demand would fail - when you have a population consisting partly of class 1 and the rest of class 2. But that would take us on a different journey.


Wolfgang is thinking about Loschmidt's paradox.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Political Genes

A small number of genes turn out to be correlated with which side of the liberal - conservative divide one winds up on. A couple of them turn out to be related to neurotransmitter details. Liberals, it seems, tend to be more sensation seeking and less sensitive to risk. Conservatives tend to be opposite.

I haven't taken the genetic test, but on those grounds I should probably be a conservative.

Physics 0

Capa da Roca in Portugal is the extreme Western projection of the European continent. While we we standing on an overlook, watching huge breakers crash ashore, someone asked: "How do the waves know which way to go."
Because if you're on the other side of that same ocean, you will see similar breakers crash ashore.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Genealogy of Morals

Morality is herd instinct in the individual............. F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science
distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful! ........F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nietzsche's penetrating insights go exactly to the heart of the matter. He didn't approve of conventional morality. He probably didn't realize it, since such things weren't known in his time, but he wanted people to be more like Chimpanzees or perhaps Lions.

That instinct to punish is one of the key elements of human morality - in particular the instinct to punish free riders and others who would prevent group selection from doing its work. Of course human "groupishness" is far more elaborate than simple herd instincts, and requires multiple adaptations that herding animals lack. Haidt tends to call it our "hive" mind, since our social powers go far beyond herds and packs, and only bees and a few others can be considered equally groupish.

If Nietzsche had been able to bring himself to comprehend Darwin, he might have seen further.

Being and Nothing

Seinfeld, a show allegedly about nothing, featured four infantilized adults on the verge of middle age leading lives of little consequence. It was brilliantly written and executed and became perhaps the most successful show of all time. It was cloned to make Friends, a much worse but occasionally funny show on the same theme. There are approximately three hundred similarly themed shows today, each showing the inevitable noise and copy errors of repeated cloning. They all stink.

Given that sad situation, I thought the least I could do is suggest an alternative or two. Today's entry is NBT, or Next Big Thing, about four nerdy engineering undergrads at a prestigious East Coast school determined to come up with the next big thing and become zillionaires. Let's call them Josh, Erica, Thad, and Mark. They struggle with their ideas, worried helicopter parents, demanding classes and professors, and trying to find girls who will date them.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Your Morals and Mine

It's easy to conflate the concept of morality with our own personal moral beliefs. That's a mistake, from the standpoint of descriptive moral psychology. If morality was designed by evolutionary processes to permit groups to compete more efficiently with other groups, it's well to remember that our innate morality gives rise to religious and racial prejudice, war, and genocide as well as altruism and other qualities we may regard as more admirable.


Via Paul Krugman.

The printing press was used in China and Korea for centuries before Gutenberg. Chinese, though, with its zillions of characters, is not really suitable for movable type. Consequently, the invention probably had its greatest impact in late adopting Europe.

Collective Phenomena

“It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” -- Michael Tomasello, expert in Chimp cognition.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012-03-13). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (p. 204). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Collective phenomena in micro physics are a property mainly of bosons, which can share the same quantum state. On a larger scale, collective phenomena like galaxies and ocean waves depend on longer range forces like gravity or viscosity which unify the motions of components otherwise disposed to go every which way. The sociological equivalent of bosonization is shared intentionality, the ability of different people to share a common purpose and communicate it to each other. This ability is not shared by any other primate.

Shared intentionality is key to any kind of cooperative work, and it plays the fundamental role in Haidt's theory of morality. There is persuasive evidence that there are triggers for turning on our latent "groupish" sentiments. Outstanding examples include collective motions like dancing or marching, rock concerts, and religious ceremonies, especially those that include music and/or dancing. Most of these have been systematically devalued in our Western and radically individualistic societies, but if dancing is pushed out of religion, then it's not surprising that it pops up in clubs, parties, and raves.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Group Selection

Darwin postulated that their might be both individual natural selection and group selection. With his customary penetration he saw precisely why the notion was problematic and clearly identified the conditions for it to take place. Less careful thinkers ran wild with the idea until the 1966, when George C. Williams wrote Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought. In it, he used a gene centered approach to demolish almost all ideas of group selection, sending them into a long limbo. He was as clear as Darwin on the exceptional circumstances needed for group selection to actually occur, but apparently didn't think they occurred in nature. Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene helped publicize these ideas.

Jonathan Haidt argues that precisely the exceptional circumstances Darwin and Williams foresaw occurred in human evolution, and makes a very strong case. Essentially the mechanism needed is one to punish those who aren't team players. Haidt argues, persuasively I think, that exactly that is the point of many human moral ideas.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Morality and Economics

It's immoral to take money from those who earned it and give it to those who didn't.


It's immoral to adopt policies which impoverish your fellow citizens

Most people, I guess, would subscribe to at least one of these, and many, like myself, would find that both resonate. In a sense, though, they are the opposite sides of the same argument. Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain find themselves in economic fixes that are at least partly of their own making. How much help, if any, does the rest of Europe owe them?

Both statements, by the way, grow naturally out of fundamental aspects of human morality. Moral dilemmas grow out of conflicts between various aspects of our inherited moral principles. Ditto political conflicts, and at least some aspects of economic arguments.

It's more complicated than that of course. If the European periphery implodes, there will likely be widespread damage to the rest of Europe and the rest of the World, so Germany and the rest arguably have a selfish interest in preventing that eventuality. There is also the question of whether anything can be done and if so what. I find it highly interesting that opinions on that question break sharply along ideological lines.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Nietzsche's Other Idea

Nietzsche had a special hatred of the "slave morality" which valued compassion for the poor and oppressed. He attributed it to a sort of conspiracy against the strong, perhaps due to the Jews. He saw the mob rising against the mighty hunter or conqueror. It's a fact that our closest relatives, the Chimpanzees, tend to be very hierarchical, with the Alpha male being not so much a leader as the biggest bully on the block.

Human hunter-gatherer societies aren't like that. Instead they are highly egalitarian, without chiefs or subordinates. How did this transition happen? Nobody knows, but there are some clues, including the fact that given the right circumstances humans do form hierarchies rather easily. The biggest clue, though is the way hunter-gatherers deal with those who overstep and bully and dominate. Gossip and shunning is step one. Sometimes the offenders are driven out. Egregious offenders are killed. Haidt discusses the case of a Bushman who was executed by the community after killing three people. Men fired poisoned arrows into him until he "looked like a porcupine. Then, as he lay dying all the men and women stabbed him with their spears to make it clear that it was a community decision.

The most popular theory holds that when humans developed tools, and language, and became hunters, it became impossible for a bully, or a bully and a confederate to dominate the group. Spears, language, and cooperative hunting techniques make bullies very easy to dispose of.

This has some resemblance to Nietzsche's notion, only it developed when humans became hunters, and learned to speak - and long before slavery and slave religions.

Liberals are Losers

... in the political wars, at least recently.

Haidt plots importance of five "morality modules" against position on the political spectrum from very liberal to very conservative and finds a striking result. Only two of the modules (care, and fairness) are very important to the most liberal, and their importance declines with relative conservatism, while the other three (loyalty, authority, and purity/divinity) increase with increasing conservatism, until all are of essentially equal importance to mainstream conservatives.

This fact says Haidt, gives conservatives a built in advantage in that they can appeal to all five of our these root moral modules.

Snakes on a Plain

...or anywhere else.

Our brains and the brains of many other animals come pre-equipped with modules for recognizing and fearing snakes. and snake like objects. There are lots of other "modules" too, and Jonathan Haidt believes that he has found several that form the basis of our social morality. These modules are templates, not fully formed at birth, and their malleability, he believes, accounts for the variety of our moral systems. The templates themselves appear to be universal, except in pathological cases like psychopaths.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Old Keynesians

The history of market economies tends to show that they are unstable. There is a strong tendency for nearly all resources to accrue to a few, and that destabilizes the society. The ancient Mesopotamians dealt with this with occasional cancellations of all consumer debts, an idea taken over by Judaism in such traditions as jubilee. Those techniques are pretty disruptive on their own account, since credit is going to dry up any time a forgiveness looms.

The Egyptians invented another method, or so I hypothesize. I call it the Old or Original Keynesian method. The essential idea is to employ, feed, etc. agricultural workers by having them erect vast public works in the off season - originally pyramids, but later other works. This distributed the surplus accumulated by the wealthy, and kept the populace fed and out of trouble. Similar devices were employed by subsequent civilizations, and the Romans even improved on the idea by building useful public works: roads, aqueducts, fortification, and so on. Of course they also depended heavily on warfare, which might have been one reason that their civilization proved so much less enduring.

Subsequent civilizations have adapted similar tactics, not always with happy. Cathedrals were pretty harmless, but as Wolfgang has pointed out, the public works projects of the Easter Islanders may have hastened their cultural collapse.

Nowadays Keynesian ideas are again having a tough time, mostly because they are counter-intuitive, and a lot of people still believe that anything which doesn't match their intuition must be wrong.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

WEIRD Psychology

Another tidbit from Haidt:

Most psychological studies are done on people who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD for short. This has resulted in some profound selection biases, especially when you consider that an awful lot of subjects are students at elite universities, and hence the WEIRDest of all.

A Quiz

For any reader who takes an interest in the frequent debates over Krugman here, especially WB.

(1) Overall opinion of Paul Krugman as a diagnostician and prescriber of economic policies for the US and Europe.

(2) Primary reason for agreeing/disagreeing with PK. Some possibilities to follow.

(3) His policies would help/hurt everybody, including those he wants to help.

(4) His policies would help/hurt those who behaved properly, and hurt/help those who behaved badly.

(5) His policies would help/hurt me individually.

(6) His policies would help/hurt my family, professional group, or nation.

(7) There is/is not a fundamental intellectual flaw in his economic analysis. Specify.

(8) Other. Explain.

The Team

One of the more surprising findings about political opinions found in Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind:

...political scientist Don Kinder summarizes the findings like this: “In matters of public opinion, citizens seem to be asking themselves not ‘What’s in it for me?’ but rather ‘What’s in it for my group?’ ”36

Haidt, Jonathan (2012-03-13). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (p. 86). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Perceived self interest seems to be less important than the interest of some group of which one is a member. This finding is a little less startling if you think of political opinions as badges of team membership - public postures, if you will.


Everyone has a purpose in life. For some it is to serve as a negative example to others.

Krugman Wins?

Peter Coy, writing for Bloomberg’s Business Week:

The Financial Times reports today that Germany’s central bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank, “has signaled it would accept higher inflation in Germany.” The newspaper story says this would be “part of an economic rebalancing in the euro zone that would boost the international competitiveness of countries worst hit by the region’s debt crisis.”

Coy finds this move obvious:

If the euro area is going to hang together over the long run, you have to undo those competitiveness gaps that have been created,” says Schoenholtz. The peripheral countries need to lower their prices relative to Germany’s. If Germany had very low inflation, those countries would require outright deflation, which is extremely painful. If Germany accepts somewhat higher inflation, primarily via more generous wages to workers, the rest of Europe can have a low but still positive inflation rate.

Says Schoenholtz: “To anybody who’s a monetary economist, this isn’t news.”

Of course it’s definitely news to anyone who has been listening to Trichet, Merkel, etc.

It’s not good news to people with a lot of money tied up in money – as opposed to people with money tied up in other stuff. Of course Keynes (and Krugman) would say that those are exactly the people who needed to be prodded to get up and buy something, whether cars, villas, or factories.


Physics seems to be wandering off into domains where I can't follow, such as the pressing question of why there is something rather than nothing, while Lubos has become fascinated with fruit flies, so my interests have turned to morality and the question of how we come by our frequently conflicting moral views. This interest is prompted by Jonathan Haidt's new book: The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion.

It's pretty easy to collect folk theories on the above topic. Liberals are immoral. Conservatives are unevolved, or maybe just dumb. These theories are not too enlightening.

Haidt, however, takes a point of view that I find congenial: he studies the questions experimentally and systematically. In particular, he has looked in detail at moral views of peoples and cultures from all over, and experimentally probed how people make moral decisions. The methods are fascinating in themselves, as are the results. I am only about four chapters in - you know I can't finish a book before I start writing about it - but he is also talking about how people change their moral views - more on that later.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Still More Rombully

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justices sake...

Charles M. Blow in the NYT on why this isn't just about what happened forty odd years ago:

In an interview with Fox Radio on Thursday, Romney laughed as he said that he didn’t remember the incident, although he acknowledged that “back in high school, you know, I, I did some dumb things. And if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize.” He continued, “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far. And, for that, I apologize.”

There is so much wrong with Romney’s response that I hardly know where to start.

But let’s start here: If the haircutting incident happened as described, it’s not a prank or hijinks or even simple bullying. It’s an assault.

Second, honorable men don’t chuckle at cruelty.

Third, if it happened, Romney’s explanation that he doesn’t remember it doesn’t ring true. It is a searing account in the telling and would have been even more so in the doing. How could such a thing simply melt into the milieu of other misbehavior? How could the screams of his classmate not echo even now?

Fourth, “if someone was hurt or offended, I apologize” isn’t a real apology...

The man was a bullying skunk then and he is an uncontrite skunk and liar today. Not that I think these things will influence many people.

More on the Rombully

Some of Romney's "hi-jinks," like tormenting the two effeminate kids, seem motivated by his desire to force everyone to fit his image of what a student at his elite school ought to be. Others, like running the blind teacher into glass doors seem more purely mean spirited. Andrew Sullivan is eloquently incensed:

...there remains something raw about the violence of Romney's assault on a gay kid and his humiliation of a blind man that goes beyond pranks against teachers.

One of the key tests for me of anyone's character is their response to cruelty. Cruelty I would describe as the punishment of the weak by the strong. At Cranbrook, Romney had everything: the father who was a former the sitting governor of the state, a sharp intellect, a classic handsome face, charming, and to the manor born. And yet when he saw a younger effeminate kid with a non-conformist look, he felt no compunction in assaulting him with a pair of scissors, cutting off clumps of his hair. He saw a blind man and tormented him. Today, he favors balancing the budget entirely on the backs of the poor, while cutting taxes further for the rich, and as a Bain consultant posed for a photograph with dollar bills stuffed all over his body.

This tells you something about a man's character. And how he would behave as president. It sickens me.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Prep School Prankster, Bully, Hate Criminal?

A popular senior at an elite prep school becomes publicly incensed at the appearance of an effeminate fellow student and gathers up a posse of fellow students, who assault, tackle and pin the student as he screams for help while the senior hacks off his hair. The senior, who was the son of the current governor of the State, was never punished. His victim was later expelled for smoking a cigarette.

By the standards being applied today in New Jersey, the perpetrators committed a hate crime, one in some ways more heinous than that which led to the NJ student's suicide. Although five witnesses and perpetrators clearly recalled the deed forty some years later, the ring leader denies remembering it, but still apologized for "youthful hijinks."

That was a long time ago, so should the bully be held responsible for those long ago acts, even if they inflicted a lifetime's worth of damage on the victim? I don't know, but as Andrew Sullivan has said, it fits well with the general lack of compassion shown by "I like to fire people" Romney in other contexts. Maybe the skunk doesn't change his stripes.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Common Ground?

I'm going to put forward a couple of ideas that I think my commenteriat and I mostly agree on. If I'm wrong, let me know.

The core problem for all the troubled Southern European countries is that they aren't living within their income.

They got in this fix mostly through debt - government, business, or private.

We deeply disagree about how they can get out of their respective fixes.

The US has the same problem, if not the same urgency.

Reasoning and Justifying

Reasoning is largely done by automatic pattern recognition somewhere in our brains submerged beneath conscious thought. Justification of our conclusions is another matter, and requires our conscious and verbal apparatus. This is one of the themes of Jonathan Haidt's fascinating new book: The Righteous Mind. It sounds likely to me.

I going to speculate that when Wolfgang reads Krugman (if he reads Krugman) he doesn't need to do line by line textual analysis to decide Krugman is wrong. Contrariwise, when I read Krugman, my subconscious pattern recognizers can tell right away that he's probably right, as usual. It's when we try to convince each other that our rhetorical brains get involved.

If persuasion were impossible, most speech would be superfluous. It it were easy, most would be unnecessary. People do change their minds, even about very important things, but not very easily. I've seen a few such changes propagate across the nation during my life, and that process has been glacial, but at an individual scale, sometimes not.

When I was a high school student I attended a summer speech camp, as it was called, where various students yakkers from around the State and country were drilled on the finer points of debate, and various other rhetorical activities. One student, from Georgia, walked into our first dance party and discovered that the entertainer was Black. This, recall, was back in the days of hard core segregation in the South, and he immediately stormed out in protest.

For reasons that I don't recall, he wound up in my dorm room, pursued by a dozen or so of our colleagues. He proceeded launch angry racist rhetoric, including stories of how he chased Blacks away from his fathers restaurant, and the rest of us, or at least the more articulate among us - not me - proceeded to challenge his racism with logic, persuasion, and appeal to humanity. Somehow it seemed to work. He calmed down, listened, and even bent a bit to the persuasion. I might be wrong, but I had the impression that he left our Summer camp a few weeks later with a considerably revised world view. It took the country a few years more, but it changed too, not completely, but largely.

Another story of similar theme was one I heard told by an older southern man. He had always been a hard line segregationist, he said, and strong backer of racism. That began to change, he said, when he got two half-black grandchildren. These kinds of profound changes are very gradual, and usually have deep emotional roots.

So how *does* persuasion work? Darned if I know. But if Wolfgang becomes a Krugmanite, I'd surely like to know why.

Adios Athens?

Kevin Drum thinks Greece may be gone, and screwed.

Bottom line: The German public is tired of Greece. The rest of Europe increasingly thinks of them as a special case and doesn't think Greek exit from the euro would produce insurmountable contagion to Spain and Italy. In addition, since the troika [EU, IMF, ECB] already owns most Greek debt, default wouldn't have much impact on EU banks. In other words, quietly but steadily the rest of Europe has been preparing itself for Greek default and exit from the eurozone. The only real reason to avoid it is that it wouldn't solve any of Europe's structural problems anyway. But German leaders don't seem to be buying that argument at the moment. A eurozone crackup is hardly inevitable, but it's becoming an ever more tolerable possibility with every passing day

They probably also think Greece will be an object lesson for others who might be tempted to bail.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Question for Mitt Romney

Which no one in the press will dare to ask.

If you lack the guts and character to call out a nutjob at a campaign rally who calls the President a traitor, how can we expect you to show any courage or character when you face real threats to America?

Buying From Amazon

One advantage of buying an electronic book from Amazon - they will remind you that you already bought that book if you try to buy it again. Of course it would be nice if it were more obvious that I already had the book on my Kindle.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Tanks for the Memories

When Sauron put on the Ring of Power, he was revealed to Celebrimor, and Celebrimor heard him say:

One Euro to rule them all,

One Euro to find them,

One Euro to bring them all,

and in the darkness bind them.

Jon Stewart noted the other night that German banks had done what German tanks had managed 70 years ago, bringing Europe to its knees.

Recent elections seem to indicate that the dominant mood in Europe is now "anyone else but our current government." Voters voted for right wingers and left wingers. Greeks voted for ex-communists and neo-Nazis. Who can doubt that mischief is afoot?

Libertarianism: Rentier Religion?

Who is not a Slave?

Cicero declared that any man who works for wages makes himself a slave. Certainly Walmart thinks so. By a slight extension, those who sell the product of their work are equally enslaved. A couple of thousand years later, libertarians discovered that anyone who paid taxes was a slave. Whom is left? Only rentiers - those who live solely by the labor of others - who don't pay taxes. Mitt Romney, for example.

Given the above its not surprising that many of the rentier class worship at the libertarian altar. It's less clear why others do. Humans, as I keep saying, are social animals, and as such we live in a network of mutual obligations and duties. The tension between community and liberty is a dominant theme in human morality and all our moral dilemmas. Libertarians resolve that tension by rejecting community and making liberty the be all and end all. In doing so, I argue, they reject a fundamental component of human nature and expose themselves to a deserved opprobrium. Is that too harsh?

Modern society is fractal enough to have niches for a lot of radical individualists, but many of its institutions don't. Most enterprises require team work, including sports teams, military units, and most businesses. Those who lack team mindedness are a threat to the organization, and often become the target of persecution. This too is human nature - sometimes ugly, but well grounded in evolutionary necessity.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Krugman on the Euro

Wolfgang asked me what Krugman thought should be done about the Euro. I guessed inflation. Krugman makes it official.

... as I emphasized in that post earlier today, that German success story was based on a (modestly) inflationary boom in much of the rest of Europe. Give the peripheral countries a comparably favorable external environment — or actually a more favorable one, since they’re much deeper in the hole — and maybe there is a way to make this work. Let Spain regain competitiveness by inflating more slowly than Germany, rather than by deflating, and this whole thing might, might, become feasible.

But this means, yes, overall inflation in the euro area significantly higher than the less than 2 % target. It certainly means a lot higher than the 1.5% the market currently expects.

Don’t like that? OK, so no euro. It’s that stark.

If he's right, that means the choice is not between punishing borrowers vs savers, but between punishing savers vs everybody, including and mostly likely especially savers who lose really big on massive defaults.

Libertarian Reality

Let's add an element of realism to the libertarian fantasy of the previous post. We shall make our ten castaways, and on exploring the island they find themselves on, our hero, (whom I will rename from Able Abel to Cunning Cain), happens upon a pool of a stream, which teams with delicious fish and shrimp. He declares the pool to be his by right of discovery, and proceeds to profit mightily from its bounty. The rest manage to eke out a meager existence by gathering roots, berries, and grubs, except for hapless Hal, who broke his leg during the difficult landing.

Cain loafs a lot, and trades a bit of his excess bounty for the better tasting berries and the sexual favors of the more attractive castaways, and generally has an easy life while Hal starves.

We may apply again our libertarian questions:

1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Cain's surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Cain only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Cain to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Cain's surplus to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Cain only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Cain to work more to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

This scenario more closely matches the reality of a society where the wealthy live mainly by extracting rents.

I don't want to indulge in the arcane business of adjudicating fairness libertarian style, but I will say how real groups of humans tend to deal with similar situations. Either Cain will make a deal to share at least part of the bounty, or the others will band together to kill Cain or drive him from the pool, at which point a few other possibilities occur, but if there really is bounty for all, it will likely become a common resource.

Libertarian Fantasies

Every once in a while, when I'm not annoyed enough by ordinary life, I read some Libertarian nonsense. Bryan Caplan can usually be counted on to give me that feeling. From the link, here is a meme apparently circulating in libertarian circles:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day's work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day's work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can't produce any food at all.


1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

Needless to say, the only politically correct answers in lib land are no's.


But #1 and #3 arguably turn Abel into a slave. And #2 and #4 clearly turn Abel into a slave. I suspect that plenty of non-libertarians would share these libertarian moral intuitions. At minimum, many would be conflicted.

One secret of intensifying any argument is to put it in an artificial situation with nearly all elements of reality removed, and then attach some emotionally loaded words in manifestly questionable ways. "Taxation is theft and slavery" is the libertarian standard, but I'm sure you can think of others. As I have noted previously, taxation is actually taxation, theft is theft, and slavery is slavery. There are some points in common but lots of differences.

The core of my gripe with libertarians is the way I think they ignore human nature. Humans are social animals, and if you throw away our network of mutual obligations - as they do - I think you throw away human nature.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Future Of Higher Education

It's been clear for a while that the internet had the potential to revolutionize higher education, and not just by providing students with a vast pool of essays to plagiarize. Early attempts to exploit its potential mostly made the classic error of trying to force the new into the Procrustean bed of the old - essentially just treating the net as a way to deliver lectures at long distance.

The real potential comes from harnessing artificial intelligence to do the scut work of testing and grading. The pioneers of this approach have come from the world of artificial intelligence, and the first really impressive stuff seems to being coming out of Stanford. Udacity and Coursera are now offering online courses with very serious pedigrees. Each offers courses from real experts at an unbeatable price point - free - as well as certificates of accomplishment. MIT's Open Courseware was probably the first offering from a top ranked university, but it seems to have now fallen well behind the power curve, offering only course materials. MIT is clearly trying to play catch-up, and has partnered with another local school - Harvard - to offer more full-featured offerings in something called edX. The two schools will bring serious money, prestige, and hard-to-match faculty to courses like those offered by Coursera.

Coursera has an early start, an impressive course lineup, and its own murderer's row of prestige: Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Michigan. At this point, any top-line school not yet in the game ought to be getting nervous about missing the bus.

The beauty of these courses, aside from the price tag, is the fact that a single course can serve thousands of students, in their homes or wherever, all over the world, simultaneously. The sponsors have a powerful incentive to keep their courses rigorous, and if they do, those certificates might well take on a value comparable to a degree from one of the prestige schools where they originate.

Anti-Immigrant Fever

Sometime this year the Supreme Court of The American Plutocracy will rule on the constitutionality of the anti-immigrant legislation of Arizona and Georgia. Of course they won't be ruling on the merits of the laws, but only on whether they embody proper powers of the States as opposed to the federal government.

Perhaps the city of Denver hasn't joined the anti-Im fever, because I got this ad on my blog interface.

How Much Carbon Can The Oceans Store?

At first sight, a lot. The oceanic reservoir of carbon is about fifty times as large as the atmospheric store, and much larger (ten times) than our available store of carbon in fossil fuels. So is there any reason to think that the ocean can't just go on packing away the excess CO2 we pump into the atmosphere? Well, yes.
Most of that oceanic CO2 is stored in cold deep ocean water where it is largely isolated from the year to year or century to century exchanges with the atmosphere. The near surface waters, which do readily exchange CO2 with the atmosphere constitute a reservoir only 1/3 larger than the atmospheric reservoir (1000 Peta grams, AKA giga tonnes, vs 750 Pg.) It is this reservoir which largely controls the rate of exchange with the atmosphere. Other things being equal, we could expect new carbon contributions to the atmosphere to reach a quasi-equilibrium with this reservoir in which the proportions were similar.
Other things are not equal, of course. For one thing, the solubility of CO2 in water decreases with increasing temperature, so warmer oceans (near surface waters) will hold less CO2 at comparable vapor pressures, not more.
Some have argued (not to mention any Czech names) that because the ocean currently sucks up about 2 Pg of the excess CO2 we dump into the atmosphere, we can expect it to keep doing so. I think that this view ignores the underlying physics, which is that the ocean surface waters fairly rapidly (years or decades?) equilibrate with the atmosphere and are best seen as adjusting their concentration in response to changes in atmospheric concentration. The ocean will continue to absorb more CO2 as long as atmospheric concentration increases. Then, should atmospheric concentration start decreasing, the ocean will give back what it borrowed.
It's also true that there are certain inherent hazards in packing ones ocean full of CO2. The evidence now seems to show that it was CO2 driven ocean "acidification" that did the dirty Permian extinction deed.

Friday, May 04, 2012

How Minds Work

The NYT has this fascinating story on how the study of infant cognition is illuminating some of the deepest problems of psychology and philosophy.

“When people ask Liz, ‘What do you do?’ she tells them, ‘I study babies,’ ” said Steven Pinker, a fellow Harvard professor and the author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” among other books. “That’s endearingly self-deprecating, but she sells herself short.”

What Dr. Spelke is really doing, he said, is what Descartes, Kant and Locke tried to do. “She is trying to identify the bedrock categories of human knowledge. She is asking, ‘What is number, space, agency, and how does knowledge in each category develop from its minimal state?’ ”

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Brad DeLong Notes That

Most Berkeley Students Do Not Know That 2^5=32 and 2^10≈1000 How can they expect to survive in the modern world without knowing these things? And why haven't they learned them?

And how many know that 13^13 = 3.02875107 × 10^14, approximately?

Why Argue?

Somewhere in Surely You're Joking, Feynman writes about attending a meeting of the Great Men of American physics where strategies for some crucial ingredient of the nuclear bomb program were debated (separation of U235?)> Compton may have been the chairman. One by one, each advocate gave a description of a proposed method. Feynman, still a grad student, was soon beside himself with frustration. Couldn't they recognize that the best idea had already been presented?

Finally the presentations finished, Compton looked up and said: "We can all see that idea X is the best," and all concurred.

These were indeed great men, concluded Feynman.

It might be nice if more arguments went like that, but they don't. Mostly we get distracted by ideology or ego and fail to recognize the best arguments. We may not be bright enough to recognize the best chain of logic. Or, we may just differ so much in fundamental world view that our assumptions lead inevitably to different conclusions.

I still find arguing with intelligent people very useful. At the very least they should challenge and expose the weaknesses in one's own logic. That may not change my conclusion, but it at least helps me understand the issues better. Lee, for example, is particularly good at finding places where my facts or logic are shaky. I remember that I happen to owe him some facts, for example, so I guess he is winning our latest dispute ... at the moment.

On The Manufacture of Sausage

Nick Confessore in The New York Times

Being elected President in the US now requires stroking the rich and super rich.

With a little help from their friends on the Supreme Court, they have become the College of Cardinals for the American presidential election.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


What would Europe look like minus the Euro? Is conducting business across the EU really that much harder for non Euro-zone countries?

Sure banker's computers might need a few extra cycles, but how hard is that anyway?

Just wondering.

Euro Solution XXIV?

Having despaired of the ECB's Euro Solution, failed at explaining Krugman's Euro rescue and understanding Kantoos' I have decided to deploy my own.

Each Northern European Euro zone resident should be required to take an annual one month vacation in some combination of Greece, Spain, Portugal, etc. until fiscal balance is restored.

Social Animals

People are social animals, of course, but it seems we might have more in common with cockroaches than ants and bees.

Euro Future

Wolfgang is a very reasonable fellow, but he's not above a little rhetorical slight of hand. In a recent comment on his blog he says that Krugman says that Spain, Portugal, etc. should leave the Euro. A couple of excerpts from what Krugman wrote today:

Nobody — certainly not me — believes that, say, Spain or even France can simply go back to Keynesian policies unilaterally. Instead, the point is that if European leaders want the euro to survive, they have to recognize that the austerity thing isn’t working, and offer Europe-wide alternatives. ... For in the end, Spain and others do have an alternative to endless austerity, one that may be forced on them by events: exit the euro, with all the financial and political fallout that follows. And on the current course, that’s what’s coming.

Predicting an earthquake is not the same thing as causing or even advocating one.

Are there suitable Europe-wide alternatives? Via a Tyler Cowen, this from Kantoos Economics:

In my view, the optimal policy – taking ECB policy as given – is to add monetary and fiscal stimulus to the periphery (only), as far as that’s possible, such that the period of adjustment is less painful, and limit the overheating of the German economy. I want the stimulus necessary to produce 0 + ε % inflation in Spain, and whatever inflation is necessary in Germany to result in 2% overall, for example 3% (Germany is a big country).

I couldn't really follow his suggestion as to how this could be effected, but:

Stimulus in the periphery is hard to accomplish, but the ECB could loosen policy (LTROs is a case in point) at the same time that Germany tightens lending standards, imposes higher transaction taxes on property, unilaterally increases capital requirements in banking etc. Regarding fiscal policy, my hope is an independent European fiscal policy fund, where each country has an account of, say, 20% of GDP that needs to be repaid in (AD-wise) good years, which are defined by above-target core inflation rates. This (jointly guaranteed) fund can be drawn on, much like the IMF, in return for some jointly agreed reform packages and ways to spend the stimulus. Any thoughts on this?

What an LTRO is is explained here.

Blow The Man Down

Something like 1% of the Solar energy Earth receives is converted into kinetic energy. Some fraction of this can plausibly be captured by wind turbines and the like, and wind power represents a rapidly growing fraction of our energy supply. A teapot sized tempest has been raised by some measurements which tend to show that wind power generation causes some local warming.

Lumo takes a look, but can't resist some of the usual nonsense, apparently intended to show that warming due to wind power could plausibly compete with that due to CO2.

The authors of the Nature Climate Change article have used satellites to look at the West central Texas as its climate evolved between 2003 and 2010. This place is where some of the world's largest wind farms are located. They found out that the warming trend converted to the usual "units of trend" used at this blog – degrees per century – is as large as 7.2 °C per century in the places with wind farms. One shouldn't automatically believe the centennial extrapolation of the trend.

Well, duh. In fact the physics make it perfectly clear that believing in a centennial trend here would be transparent idiocy. Whereas CO2 added to the atmosphere will linger for tens of thousands of years, wind turbine effects will dissipate within hours of turbine shutdown.

Consider that physics. Earth is a big heat engine, powered by the Sun, with excess heat absorbed in tropical regions being transported poleward where it is more easily radiated into space. Tapping into wind power slows that transport, so there is a first order effect which could be expected to cause some warming. Feedback type effects are another question, but the first order effect is very small even for rather large increases in wind power consumption.

The local effect has a different mechanism. Ground is a more effective radiator than the atmosphere, so the surface usually cools a lot more than the atmosphere, especially on dry, clear nights. Wind turbines stir the lower atmosphere, mixing warmer night air down at night. This can produce significant local warming, affecting irrigation needs and crop choices. It also produces a small global cooling effect, by bringing the warmer air into contact with the radiating surface.

Bottom line: if you are a farmer down wind of a wind farm, the effects may be important. Globally - not so much.

Jobs II: A View From 30,000 Feet

whoever gives his labor for money sells himself and puts himself in the rank of slaves........Cicero, in De Officicus

A central problem, or maybe The Central Problem, of a civilization is figuring out how get a large group of people more interested in cooperating than killing each other. An early and crucial invention in that regard was the market economy. At some early point, selling ones labor became part of that market economy, though not a very prestigious part, as Cicero's remark indicates.

Today most of us have put "ourselves in the ranks of the slaves," but that's a moderately new phenomenon. In earlier times, workers were often independent artisans, or bound in quasi feudal relationships with those whose lands they worked. If most of us are to be suppliers of wage labor, then the supply of customers for that labor becomes a crucial ingredient of civilization.

Working for wages is really tough when slavery is permitted and slaves with valuable talents are available. The rapidly increasing talents of robots are threatening to bring that time back.

Theory of Jobs

There seems to be a world wide shortage of jobs, and the question of how best to promote jobs is a vexing one for governments almost everywhere. Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans promote a view that can be summarized as "more money for rich people." I don't want to get into the mystical foundations of this view, but it seems that the problem has probably been around for a long time. Most civilizations seem to eventually face the problem that most of the wealth ends up in a few hands leaving a large fraction of the population feeling that said civilization is a bad deal for them.

One popular answer, with a long history, is the public works project. The idea is for the government to collect enough taxes to keep the populace employed. The pyramids are one of the more spectacular results. Perhaps even older and more frequent is war and colonization. This double barreled strategy both employs and destroys excess labor supply.

But why do we wind up with excess labor anyway? One can imagine a sort of ideal economy in which everybody can do something valuable enough that someone else is willing to pay him for it, but in practice, it rarely works out that neatly. Variations on the theme of Mercantilism - selling a bunch of stuff to other countries - have proved temporarily successful for a number of centuries, notably for China and Germany in recent years. It's an asymmetric strategy though, and one country's profit tends to be another's debt burden.

The asymmetry is a clue, I think, reminding us that we are all, ultimately, in competition for a share of the same finite planetary resources. The market economy can soften that harsh face of nature, "red in tooth and claw," but that reality lurks always below.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


OK, I finally jumped through all the hoops Google insisted on before letting me sign on - mainly getting and entering a text message to my phone which was about 7000 miles away from my location. I wasn't able to post anything from Spain, which may have been just as well, since I was miserably ill and probably wrote nonsense anyway. I don't intend to let that stop me though - I will post some as soon as I figure out how to move it from my Ipad to Chrome.