Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Be a Man

It's time to share a few tips that will help you cope with life as a modern man.

  • You don't get your hair cut anywhere without a barber pole, and you never pay more than $10 in 1995 dollars. If they don't break out the shaving cream and straight razor to clean up the back of your neck, you've been cheated. If your new cut looks at all stylish, you've been duped.

  • If your girlfriend says she needs some breathing room, respond, "Isn't that what Hitler said Germany needed?"

  • You don't have to use a separate pot for tomato sauce. Just throw the spaghetti in the collander and then put the sauce in the pan. Go ahead and throw at least half the jar in there, you'll be needing it.

  • Check the weather forecast online. Then, throughout the day, confidently predict whatever it says to whoever will listen.

  • The Constitution is for pussies.

  • House? No. This Old House? Hell yes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


So I'm sitting in class, my anger subsiding under the influence of the professor's jokes, and crushing sesame seeds between my thumbnails. I take the oil and spread it out on the wood desk in front of me. I'd like to think the oil is somehow good for the wood, but I have no idea. The sesame seeds are all over the floor, someone must have eaten a bagel here. It's kind of painstaking, and it makes the wood smooth and shiny.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Serious Feminism

So economists sometimes have a tendency to take their models too seriously. I'll write another post on this topic, but for the moment note that many models don't purport to use realistic assumptions about the world. Instead, they isolate interesting phenomena and then look for real-world examples. All too often, though, an economist will start making normative claims based on models that should be taken as explanatory and tentative rather than predictive or authoritative.

Economists have nothing on feminists, though. I haven't studied much feminism, but for whatever reason feminists publish and tolerate, or even celebrate, absolutely ridiculous ideas. Take, for instance, this paper on objectivity in science. Sample passage:

"We, the feminists in the debates about science and technology, are the Reagan era's 'special interest groups' in the rarefied realm of epistemology, where traditionally what can count as knowledge is policed by philosophers codifying cognitive canon law. Of course, a special interest group is, by Reaganoid definition, any collective historical subject which dares to resist the stripped-down atomism of Star Wars, hyper-market, postmodern, media-simulated citizenship."

So first of all, clarity is clearly masculinist and the enemy of feminists everywhere. More importantly, though, what I've just done is too easy. It's too easy for people who don't like feminist ideas to point to absurd crap and mock it, painting feminism with one brush. If there are good feminist ideas out there, and there must be, feminists should sort the wheat from the chaff and not let their critics conflate the two. Instead, though, absurd bullshit gets taken seriously by feminists, and therefore feminism gets taken seriously by no one.

Finally, feminists see enemies everywhere. Objectivity is bad for women. Free markets are bad for women. Sex is bad for women. This would be tolerable if women weren't suffering real subjugation and hardship in much of the world. As it is, those evil men and women who use objective science, western medicine, and economics to address the world's problems are doing vastly more for women than academic feminists. That "feminism" has become a distraction from, and in many cases an attack on, such constructive work is what is most galling.

Education and History

So I had been planning to write a paper on temple-building in medieval south India. The paper is for the workshop on law & economics. Unfortunately, historical data from the time period is sparse, and I was unable to find enough support for my hypothesis.

Luckily, I've been working on a fallback topic, and I've made a big breakthrough. The basic idea is to look at foreign aid spending as a function of the scope and quality of history education. My theory is that broader and deeper education in history results in more political support for foreign aid. Foreign aid is really just a proxy for a nation's engagement with the world, which is why this work is relevant today.

Unlike my last topic, this one has plenty of data. TEXT/TRACK is a national database of the full text of textbooks for primary and secondary education. It goes back all the way to the early 1900's, and it has a huge amount of data, all searchable and suitable for statistical analysis.

People have looked for the effect I'm describing before, but without much luck. I think this is because most of them are sociologists. Economists are just better trained to think clearly about the use of statistical evidence.

My methodology was simple. I looked at foreign aid and found that, as a percentage of GDP and as a fraction of tax revenue, foreign aid was more generous in the two decades after World War II than in the two decades after World War I. Then I turned to TEXT/TRACK. The results were stunning.

I searched TEXT/TRACK for the years 1920-1940. The very first term I tried turned out to be pure gold. I searched for the phrase "World War I," and I got literally zero hits. I tried other possible formulations like "WWI" and "World War One," and still found nothing. Then I tried searching for "World War II" in the years 1945-1965. I got tens of thousands of hits, and even more when I included other formulations. Not only that, but the textbook publishers had learned their lesson: I got nearly as many hits for "World War I" as I did for "World War II."

Now, I do recognize that there's a problem with this data. Spending on foreign aid shouldn't track education immediately, because most of the elementary and high school students can't vote and have little influence on policy. There should be a lag between the improvement in education and the increase in foreign aid. Clearly some of the causality isn't so simple. A country that is more outward-oriented will also pay attention to its history education. I'll have to account for this factor, but I bet my results will still be strong. Such a drastic shift in educational standards has to have a profound effect on society.

The really neat part of this paper is that it allows us to see the way that history feeds into education, and then education feeds back into history. If we are as careless as we were after World War I, we may face a generation that doesn't understand the world and thus fails to engage it productively.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


I saw "Syriana" last night with Seth. It was pretty good, although I admit I'm not smart enough to follow all the plot twists. One thing I liked about it is that much of the dirty stuff that happens is entirely plausible. Too many movies attack "social issues" by demonizing certain targets, usually corporations, portraying them as cartoonish evil-doers. It's difficult to dramatize the truth, so Hollywood takes the easy way out.

The reason this is galling is that corporations do in fact cause lots of human suffering. When they are simply painted as evil, though, it is too easy for their defenders to debunk the attacks and their critics to miss the point. The really horrible things they do are mostly legal and mostly accessible to anyone who reads the Wall Street Journal, or really any good paper.

So I guess I wish there were more movies like "Syriana," at least in the sense that our problems are explained as the result of complicated interactions between the imperatives of wealth, religion, and power.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Free as a Bird

So tonight I told a girl I liked her. She responded, as they all do, by saying that I'm a great guy but she's not interested.

I thought I'd write a long post about it (and I promise to post more soon), but for now I'll just note the remarkable coincidence that every girl I've asked out thinks I'm a great guy. The odds seem to be heavily against this. After all, bear in mind that none of these women actually wants to go out with me. Somehow, I've identified the narrow segment of the female population who think I'm great but don't want to go out with me, and I've asked them all out. I must be some kind of genius.

Also, I have to admit that I've been holding back a bit, not posting my crazier thoughts in an attempt to seem, well, quasi-normal. That's over now, as I don't have anyone in particular to impress anymore. I'm free as a bird, you might say. The first thing this bird needs to do, though, is sleep. Vaya con los lobos, my old friend.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Worthwhile Google Initiative

So my antitrust (and secured transactions) teacher, Professor Picker, loves Google Book Search (which kicks the shit out of Amazon's crappy, no-good version) and has been thinking a lot about it (post on Google Book Search - and another post on Google Book Search). I stumbled upon another awesome Google service today: text messaging for information. Using your cell phone, just send a text message to 46645 (the numbers corresponding to GOOGL). Google will respond with a text message within a few minutes (a few seconds, in my experience).

So for instance, if you send a text message to 46645 with the message, "100 USD in Indian rupees," you will get a text-message a few seconds later saying "Currency Conversion: 100 U.S. Dollars = 4410.92144 Indian rupee." You also get a legal disclaimer message a few seconds later (speaking of which, I'm not liable if you use this information, which is stale by now).

Better yet, if you enter "pizza 60637," it will return a listing of restaurants serving pizza in the zip code 60637. Same with movies, movie times, directions, etc. Here's a how-to page.

The service is free beyond whatever your phone company charges for text-messaging. It's awesome stuff like this, I presume, that is driving Google's stock price through the roof, though this doesn't seem to get them any revenue. By the way, you can text-message 46645 with the message "goog" and see a (not necessarily up-to-the-minute) price for Google stock (works for any stock). 466.25 (not liable)! Holy shit.

[UPDATE: added links]

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Rare Yglesias Screwup

Once again, Matthew Yglesias is a smart guy who mostly writes reasonable things. When he slips up, though, you've got to come down hard to keep him in line.

He wrote this about the prospects of an "Arab Sharon":

"The underlying assumption on which the contention that two hard-nosed realpolitikers could make peace [is based] is that in some sense there isn't really a conflict of interest here."

As I noted in his comments, this is absurd. The United States and Canada have conflicts of interest, but I feel as though continuing peace is at least a possibility. The only thing required for peace to be possible between "two hard-nosed realpolitikers" is that there be some advantage from peace that can be shared between the two parties. For instance, the current situation might suck for Palestinians, but it would probably suck even worse if open warfare broke out. Thus a pragmatic Palestinian leader should be willing to make some concessions to preserve peace.

There are complications, of course. One is that this is a bilateral monopoly. Whatever surplus is to be had from peace must be shared in some fashion, and each side wants to play chicken to get as much of it as possible. That's problematic, but it doesn't lead inevitably to war or even to violence.

In short, one of the great advantages of modern governments is that they can channel conflicts into productive competition (free trade), or at least toward solutions less costly than war. The world would be a much worse place if Yglesias were right.

[UPDATE: fixed link]

MLK and the Government

So in class today, I argued that most people should fear private intrusions on their privacy more than government intrusions. The exception, I said, is that political, religious, and other minorities are often the targets of government surveillance. As an example, I said that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s privacy was under greater threat from the government than from private citizens (initially I just said that he was under greater threat from the government, but I meant his privacy, not his physical safety).

I got the feeling that most people disagreed with me, so here is my reasoning.

1. The government was extremely suspicious of MLK. He was black and his politics were dangerous to the status quo. He opposed the war in Vietnam.

2. The government had the means to invade his privacy in ways that private groups did not. The only exception would be where private groups like the KKK had infiltrated government offices, including law enforcement. In those cases, I suppose you could argue that it wasn't really the government violating his rights (although of course the mechanisms of government would be used).

3. In any case, the most severe intrusions that we know about were perpetrated by the federal government, which at the time was very antagonistic toward the KKK. The government taped King's sexual infidelities and shared the tapes with King's friends and family, as well as the media. I know of no evidence that anything similar was perpetrated by private groups.

If the question is who hated MLK more, the contest might go the other way (although plenty of people in the government hated him). Still, I think it's pretty clear that as far as privacy, the government was a much bigger threat to MLK than private citizens.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hating on James

So lately everyone has been hating on me, which is deserved. The weird part is that everyone is hating on me all at once. It's as if they've overcome transaction costs and inaugurated a Coasean dystopia, descending on me like vengeful rational actors with transitive preferences and unsatiable desires.

As I said, though, it's well-deserved, so I can't really complain. Normally, though, there's a sort of statute of limitations. People "forget" things that happened long enough ago, or prior to a dividing line like an apology. This isn't for the same reasons as the legal statute of limitations (peace of mind, stale evidence). I think it's about marginal deterrence. If people actually held me accountable for all the crap I've done, they would inflict maximum punishment and have no marginal ability to influence my behavior.

I feel like a sinner who has been forgiven too easily for years, but who is finally paying the full price for his misdeeds. There's something bracing about it.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Rethinking Kelo

So the Kelo decision, in which the government's ability to use eminent domain was upheld, has sparked quite a backlash. Everyone seems to think that Kelo was in the right and the government was too intrusive. What most people don't realize is that, right from the start, Kelo invoked the Fifth Amendment in all the courts. What are you hiding, Kelo? If you're just an honest homeowner, why do you have to take the 5th? This is the kind of thing the mainstream media (MSM) ignores, which is why you have to turn to blogs like this one to discover the truth.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mankiw Gets It Mostly Right

Matthew Yglesias has basically the right response to Gregory Mankiw's list of new year's resolutions. I would just add a few things.

First, as useless as the penny is, getting rid of it is not really on the same level as freeing trade and eliminating farm subsidies.

Second, I wish Mankiw's last point were true. I'll elaborate later, but basically there are two problems. One is that good government by itself isn't sufficient - we need norms and values that support a commercial, literate, equal society. Another is that the market is prone to certain systematic problems, and in any case doesn't do all the work we want our economy to do.

Normative Economics

Check out this piece in Slate on economics and health care decisions. I will comment more fully later, but a few quick notes.

  • Landsburg, I seem to recall, is basically a nut. He's surely not good at rhetoric.

  • His framing of the issue doesn't seem helpful.

  • I hate contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism, except when I do it.

  • Still, it's worth thinking about. How do we make these tradeoffs?

[UPDATE: fixed a spelling error]
[UPDATE: Becker and Posner discuss the same thing this week, in the context of a market for organs.]

Monday, January 02, 2006

Government Failure and Wiretaps

At some point, some people argued for unfettered markets. They used economic analysis to argue that markets were a superior method of resource allocation. Then, as economics progressed, it became clear that this must be qualified in many cases (this was probably clear all along to most economists). We started to talk about "market failure" and the need for government intervention.

This pissed off conservatives, so they started grumbling about "government failure." The argument goes, "Sure, markets are imperfect, but the solution is always worse than the problem, because the government is incompetent."

It's a decent point, though of course it's overstated. The government has strengths and weaknesses just like the market. At times I'd prefer an imperfect market solution to an imperfect government solution, but at other times the government is better.

Anyway, conservatives are remarkably blind to government failure in the areas of law enforcement, rights protection, and national security. Lately we've been getting a bunch of arguments about how the government (particularly the executive) should be unfettered in its espionage, detentions, coercive techniques including what most of us would call torture, etc. There is a certain logic to their arguments, since we have enemies who would love to destroy us.

The problem is that governments don't stop failing when national security is on the line. Martin Luther King, Jr. was taped and blackmailed by the FBI for no legitimate law enforcement or national security purpose. The question, then, is not how much power we would give the government in a perfect world, but rather how much power we want to give to an institution with a history of serious abuses. Conservatives can grant all of this and still argue for broad executive power, but they shouldn't pretend that government failure only applies to economic policy. They should show that the abuses we know are likely to follow are tolerable and worth the purported gain in security.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Things You Should Know

So the first thing you should know is that I've had quite a bit of alcohol this evening. It's 2006, which I predict will be a much better year than 2005. I was talking to my psychiatrist in November of 2004, and he said it wasn't a good week to gauge the effectiveness of antidepressants. It was the week George W. Bush was re-elected.

The second thing you should know is that Auld Lang Syne was transcribed by Bobby Burns from an ancient Scottish song. The melody is not the same as the original, but that's fine because even Burns acknowledged that the original melody was crap. Here is my favorite verse:

We twa hae paidled in the burn
From morning sun til dine,
But seas between us braid hae roared
Sin auld lang syne.

It means:

We two have paddled in the stream
From noon til dinner time,
But seas between us broad have roared
Since times gone by.

It reminds me of "Across the Sea," a song by Weezer about being separated from someone you love.

I have Scottish blood, which probably doesn't matter (I'm not a believer in eugenics... or am I? see below) but anyway I'm proud of Auld Lang Syne. It's so beautiful I can't express it. As Bobby Burns said, light be the turf on the person who conceived this glorious song. By the way, the Indian military plays the song as a farewell, as when the troops march out from the parade grounds. Even the colonized can take the truly beautiful from the colonialists. Also parliamentary democracy.

The third thing you should know is that some people are just too good for this life. It so happens that most of the ones I know are Indian, but that must be some strange coincidence. I don't believe in eugenics (or do I? see below). Tarun and Amrit are the most notable examples, although Tarun's mom and dad also come to mind. As do Jayati and Janavi, neighbors of Tarun. We were at a party, and some guy said that a director made such wonderful films, he felt great sympathy for the characters. Jayati said, "I've seen his films, and my sympathy was entirely with the audience." She was a Rhodes scholar and a brilliant economist. My only wish in life is that I might be worthy of having worked with her and Tarun's dad. So brilliant!

Janavi, meanwhile (a girl, daughter of Jayati), was an accomplished liar, much like Tarun. We played a strange version of bullshit, the card game, and she did very well. She was the child of two Rhodes scholars, Bengali's I suppose, because her nickname was Potu. If she doesn't get a top-notch education and impress the world, like Tarun, it will be a tragedy beyond comprehension.

Speaking of Tarun, I don't understand it. I tell people about him, and they don't believe me. I try to get people to meet him, and they resist. They might be wise, though. Once you've met Tarun, you can never harbor the illusion that you are the best person in the world. You can only hope for second-best, and you suspect that you are behind an entire nation of Tarun-like awesomeness. That excludes you from the top 1/6 of the world's population, and even more if you count Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

The fourth (forth? I'm drunk) thing you should know is that Wes Anderson makes brilliant films. Jason Schwartzman is incredibly lucky to have been in both "Rushmore" and "I [heart] Huckabee's," two of the most brilliant films ever made. The guy who made "I [heart] Huckabee's" is a genius, and an Amherst alum. See all his movies or be deprived. Also see "Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." No one need sympathize with the audience.

Another thing you should know is that champagne comes from northern France, in a region where the grapes don't always ripen fully by the time they are harvested. The grapes are thus augmented by sugar, which is introduced in a mixture of sugar and yeast. This may or may not be a legacy of French colonialism (sugar from Louisiana, purchased by Jefferson, birthplace of William Jefferson Clinton). The bottles are filled with the stuff, then turned upside down. The dregs are removed and the bottle is corked. The resulting wine is so delicious that you can't help drinking massive amounts of it every chance you get, including New Year's Eve.

The remarkable thing is that the carbonation was initially a mistake. The winemakers were ashamed, but the drinking public (British, mostly, I think) were delighted. This goes to show two things. First, often our flaws are what make us great. Second, that the British are an enlightened and wonderful race (though I don't believe in eugenics... see below).

Another thing you should know is that a good bedside manner is important. Not just for doctors, and I'm not making a crude sexual joke (although a good bedside manner couldn't hurt there either). My dad, an infectious diseases doctor, has an excellent bedside manner. My mom, a transplant surgeon, not so much. She took away my painkillers the day after I got my wisdom teeth removed, for fear that I would get addicted. Oh it hurt so much. But she's an excellent surgeon. We lived in Peoria when I was very young, then in Little Rock for about 13 years. When we went back to Peoria, a patient requested her for his transplant. She had been the surgeon for his original kidney transplant, and he wanted her again because she did such a good job.

Finally, the good things in life aren't cheap, but they aren't expensive either. A loving spouse, a comfortable home, children to love and cherish. I think I'll have to adopt my children, because I don't want to pass on my genes to anyone. I've drawn an analogy to apple trees in the past, but for now it's sufficient to note that no one should be as miserable as I've been. It's odd, because I'm the kind of liberal who hates the notion of genetic superiority, yet I suspect that my misery is somehow in my genes.

I want to adopt an Indian or Bangladeshi girl and name her Parvati. It's such a beautiful name. The only problem with raising a girl is worrying about how she'll deal with the iniquities of sexuality. So many women are raped, abused, or driven to self-destructive behavior by our culture of starving supermodel lust-objects. Boys live in the same culture but are spared the worst indignities.

So that's what you should know. The most important thing is love. Love and skepticism. Love, skepticism, and empiricism. Which is to say, be like the British, or better yet, be like Tarun. He's the best this world has to offer.