Pur Autre Vie

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

Monday, February 27, 2006

Oh, That Ethical Issue

So, obviously abortion is a controversial issue. People have serious moral sentiments on both sides. Arguably it isn't ethical to use sex-selective abortion to ensure a steady supply of girl scout cookies for the parents. What interests me is that some feminists are bothered by selective abortion as practiced in China (and elsewhere, I presume). In those cases, abortion reduces the number of girls born. Is it consistent for a pro-choice feminist to be bothered by these selective abortions? Here are a few thoughts.

1. The feminists might object to the social forces that bring about the abortions, not the abortions themselves. In this view, an abortion is a valid choice for a woman to make, but the fact that women selectively abort females reflects society's misogyny. In this view, feminists shouldn't oppose the abortions themselves, but should try to address the underlying cause.

2. Feminists might support abortion under some circumstances, but not for such a trivial purpose as sex selection. They balance the harm of abortion against the benefit to the mother. This balance causes them to support legal abortion, but not to condone it when the benefit is small. The problem is, what exactly is the harm of abortion? If the fetus isn't a person, it's hard to see much harm at all. If the fetus is a person, then the harm seems very serious. It's difficult (though not impossible) to think of a harm that is big enough to cause feminists to oppose some abortions but small enough for them to remain pro-choice overall.

3. Feminists might worry about the effect of sex-selective abortion on gender ratios. In this theory, the women who are born face difficulties because there are fewer of them than there would be otherwise. This is plausible, I suppose, though I tend to think that the opposite effect is more likely. With women being scarce, the women who do exist have greater bargaining power in the marriage market. This is a more serious point than it might seem: it lets women delay marriage with less risk of losing the option entirely. It lets women leave bad marriages more easily. Facing this possibility, husbands will have no choice but to respond to their wives' wishes. On the other hand, there will be fewer women voters down the line (not a concern in China, perhaps). So I guess feminists can make an argument along these lines, but I don't find it very persuasive.

I'm open to other arguments, but for now I don't find pro-choice feminists very compelling when they condemn sex-selective abortion.

It's a Girl! Or It Dies

So I've decided that I want to have daughters, not sons. The reason is simple: it's the only way to make sure I get girl scout cookies every year. Boy scouts sell shitty stuff like popcorn, and anyway I wouldn't let my son participate in a homophobic organization like that.

The problem is, you can't really control the sex of your child. The solution is selective abortion. I'll simply force my wife to have an abortion every time she gets pregnant with a male, until finally I get some daughters. This is roughly the opposite of what they do in China, and it seems to be working okay for them.

My roommate pointed out that there might be ethical issues. I don't really see the problem, though. I'm not stealing the girl scout cookies. I'm paying for them fair and square. As for the abortions, it won't come as a surprise to my wife. I'll let her know before we marry exactly what I expect of her. I bet lots of women would jump at the chance to have only daughters, and lots of girl scout cookies.

Only in Dreams

I like it when I have dreams that put me in unrealistic situations. I feel as though I learn something about myself by the way I respond. For instance, last night I dreamed that a woman would let me do whatever I wanted with her, but only underwater. What I learned about myself is that I can hold my breath for a really long time when necessary.

P.S. decide for yourself what was unrealistic about the dream

Thursday, February 23, 2006


So I urge everyone to give generously to MassEquality, a group that is working to keep gay marriage legal in Massachusetts. Until the end of February, I believe, your donation will be matched 2 for 1, so a $100 donation gives MassEquality $300. Since it's a political organization, it's not tax deductible.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

VP Rubin?

So everyone is saying that Obama is the inevitable choice for the vice-presidential nomination in 2008. The thinking, I presume, is that he'll be a great addition to any ticket, but it's too soon for him to run for president outright. In my view, though, it's too soon for Obama to leave Illinois. The Vice President doesn't traditionally yield much opportunity to demonstrate leadership or mastery of policy, and should the Democrats lose it could derail his career (though probably not).

A better choice, if he would accept it, is Robert Rubin. Rubin is the epitome of competence, and he's not ideological in the way that most career politicians are. Nominating him for VP will show that the Democrats are serious about good economic policy and achieving something, not just scoring symbolic points in a culture war. Rubin represents what was best about the Clinton administration, and though he hasn't demonstrated a lot of charisma, his reasonableness and intelligence should shine through.

Of course, all of these are political reasons, but the real reason to nominate Rubin is that he has demonstrated considerable skill and dedication as a public servant. He is basically the polar opposite of Cheney, and his presence in DC should help produce a culture of pragmatism and cooperation. I hope that whoever gets the nomination sees his potential.

Things I Learned on the East Coast

I took a trip to Boston and DC last weekend. I actually learned quite a bit, so I'll share the points that seem most relevant.

  • If you are smart, it's easy to get college girls to show you they titties (source: an otherwise reliable homeless man in Cambridge).

  • Bars are much more enjoyable when smoking isn't allowed.

  • You don't always have to fuck her hard; in fact, sometimes it's not right to do (source: Tenacious D).

  • Munchkins aren't nearly as good as traditional glazed doughnut holes.

  • Winning a state lottery game (keno) isn't nearly as fun once you realize that you're taking money out of the local public schools.

  • There's nothing in the woodshed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Blank Slate

So there's a piece by Daniel Akst in Slate today about optimal charity giving. The piece, "Bang for your Buck," is a perfect illustration of what a superficial, prurient, self-congratulatory mess Slate has become.

The premise is actually an interesting one. You have $1 to give to charity, what's the best place to spend it? This is certainly worth thinking about for anyone in a position to give away money. Given the massive suffering in the world today, it's also a serious topic. This makes it a perfect candidate for the Slate treatment: do no real research, jot down your casual thoughts, insert a few jokes, assert a bold conclusion with much more confidence than it merits, and sum it all up with a headline attractive to people who need to be spoon-fed their opinions.

Akst follows this formula slavishly.

On the environment:

"The problem here is one of scale. Spending a buck to somehow ameliorate global warming, for instance, would seem silly."

Well, yes, spending a buck on anything seems silly. If you take your premise that literally, you can make any philanthropy seem pointless. Having dismissed private efforts against global warming as "probably not the most cost-effective place to put your money," Akst moves on. That actually doesn't exhaust all the important environmental issues, but we wouldn't want to bore the reader.

On funding a prize to spur scientific research:

"A decent prize will attract lots of attention and seduce contestants to invest irrationally in winning."

Akst sees this as a good thing. Later he notes that the likelihood of a useful discovery being made are "presumably remote." So scientific prizes induce other people to spend their money irrationally, independently pursuing a scientific discovery without sharing data, with a high likelihood of all those resources having been invested in vain. Akst likes it! So why isn't this a good place to direct your charitable giving? "But of course, $1 is no help here."

Akst finally concludes by endorsing micro-lending, which does in fact have a good track record. I'm not sure any of the operations will take $1 donations, but Akst isn't concerned. He's spit out a simple opinion pre-chewed for any impressionable reader who takes this crap seriously. His only failure is to use a mind-numbing headline like "How to Save the World with a Dollar."

Sadly, Slate used to be pretty good. It still mixes in the occasional thoughtful article, but mostly it's Akst clones who apparently think all their readers are stupid. If they keep this up, pretty soon they'll be right.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Clive Thompson You Fool

So Clive Thompson wrote the cover piece for New York Magazine, called Blogs to Riches. It purports to explain the business of blogging. A few general comments, and then I'll rant for a bit.

The piece is about twice as long as it needs to be, and Thompson bizarrely repeats himself. He concentrates on the experiences of individual bloggers rather than the institutions that surround them - the mainstream publications, the blogads, the free blog publishers. Fine, I guess that's his choice, but the piece is pretty one-dimensional as a result.

Thompson consults a sociologist (good choice Clive!) to explain why there are a few blogs with lots of hits and lots of blogs with few hits. The sociologist's name is Shirky - I'm not making this up - and he thinks there is a "scientific explanation." His shocking conclusion: on average, the more links to your blog, the more hits you will get.

[A quick side note: Paul Krugman has written me a personal note assuring me that sociology does have merit. Bowing to his judgment, I can only tell you what Shirky said in this case and let you draw your own conclusions about this particular sociologist.]

Shirky invokes the concept of an information cascade, in which people gain information by observing the decisions of others. Since some blogs get lots of links, people think they're high quality, and so there's an element of self-perpetuating popularity. Interesting, and probably true to some extent, but Thompson comes tantalizingly close to a better explanation and then shies away. Here's Shirky:

"It’s not about moral failings or any sort of psychological thing. People aren’t lazy—they just base their decisions on what other people are doing. It’s just social physics. It’s like gravity, one of those forces."

Yeah, one of those forces. Except this doesn't explain the ability of new entrants to make rapid progress, as noted later in the piece. It doesn't explain why there have to be so few "winners," since links aren't inherently scarce.

What is scarce is time. People who read blogs can't read every blog they'd like to, there are simply too many. Meanwhile, apart from time spent, blogs are virtually costless to view. In this kind of market, economists aren't surprised when "superstars" emerge and dominate. This is because if you're 1% better than the next guy, there's no reason you can't steal all of his audience. This is true in mass media generally, because of the low cost of adding another viewer. The resulting "market for superstars" is characterized by fierce competition, a few very rich individuals, and many disappointed aspirants. Examples are Hollywood, music, and professional sports.

This is in contrast to, say, the market for surgeons (example from a paper by Schleifer). A surgeon who is 1% better might be able to charge higher prices, but he is limited in his output and can't dominate the whole market. In contrast, where output limitations are negligible, we can get a market for superstars. This is exactly what is going on with blogs.

If Thompson wants to write a good piece on blogging, I urge him to do what his parents did: get an economist, sir. Until then, stay out of the blogosphere, deadbeat.

My Struggle Against Racism

So I called up Edwardo's last week, hoping to capitalize on their Tuesday family special: a medium stuffed pizza and four cans of Coke for around $20 (including delivery fee). The girl who took my call, who happened to be black, told me that Edwardo's doesn't deliver south of 61st St.

What you have to understand is that 61st St. is something of a cutoff between mixed-race, prosperous Hyde Park and mostly black, poor Woodlawn (technically the cutoff is at 60th, but whatever). Edwardo's is located on 57th St., so distance clearly isn't the decisive factor here. Edwardo's is essentially profiling against Woodlawn on the basis of its demographics, and, in fairness, possibly as a result of bad experiences.

Now, admittedly I feel a little odd portraying this as a racial issue, but I don't think it's relevant that I'm white and the Edwardo's employee was black. Edwardo's as a business has decided to draw a distinction that is closely bound up with race and class, and by a quirk I've been lumped together on the wrong side of 61st St. Until Edwardo's changes its policy, I'm boycotting it. Whether this is because of laziness or principle I leave to you to judge for yourself.

[UPDATE: fixed a few grammatical errors]

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Made Glorious Summer by Economics

This crappy weather calls for something fun, which is why I'll be posting several items over the next few days about my favorite social science. The first is an interview of Paul Romer by Reason Magazine, a sort of libertarian thing that I don't read much. I'll explain my distrust of libertarianism later.

For now, enjoy the awesome interview with Paul Romer. My favorite part (not representative of the rest):

Romer: On any conceivable horizon -- I’ll say until about 5 billion years from now, when the sun explodes -- we’re not going to run out of discoveries. Just ask how many things we could make by taking the elements from the periodic table and mixing them together. There’s a simple mathematical calculation: It’s 10 followed by 30 zeros. In contrast, 10 followed by 19 zeros is about how much time has elapsed since the universe was created.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Except for Every Other

I completely agree with Matthew Yglesias when he writes that the Mohammed cartoons aren't really much of a challenge to basic liberal principles. I've been avoiding reading Andrew Sullivan for about a week precisely because his response is so predictably asinine.

The key thing to remember is that free speech is a legal right to publish your views, not a right against criticism of those views. It is perfectly consistent to say that someone has a right to publish something but that you wish he wouldn't. I don't like to see racially offensive material published in the US, but that doesn't make me an enemy of free speech. I also like to see productive criticism of institutions like religion, but that doesn't mean I have to celebrate every sloppy, humorless swipe at Islam.

I also don't think it's a stretch for liberals to condemn violence, especially when that violence is meant to intimidate free speech. If anything it's conservatives who should be explaining why faith, which is such a wonderful thing, leads people to respond so poorly to provocation.

Now, it may come as a surprise to liberals that some Muslims will use violent methods to react to perceived threats. Once again, though, is this really a challenge to liberalism? Might the West's religious diversity, secular government, and distrust of authority be better protectors of human rights than enforced religious homogeneity?

The only hard part for liberals, it seems to me, is figuring out how to defuse the situation now that it's gotten to such a state. That's not a problem unique to liberals, though, and I suspect that in the long run a liberal program of democracy, free speech, and respect for minority viewpoints would prevent such nonsense.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Breyer on Activism

Justice Breyer gave a talk at the law school today. His topic was activism and interpretation, and it was pretty interesting. He took questions at the end, and a very interesting topic came up.

The question was why, if the Court is not activist, we so often see predictable splits and feel comfortable describing justices as liberal or conservative. Justice Breyer answered that the Court isn't political in the partisan sense, or even very political in the ideological sense. His contention is that justices have different backgrounds and assumptions about the world, and this explains a lot of the divergence.

He came right out and said that in his years on the court he has never seen a decision reached on political (in the sense of partisan) grounds. Then he said there was one exception, which he could discuss at length. He didn't name the case, though. It took me a while, but I think I've figured out which case he meant.

American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Michigan Public Service Com'n upheld a Michigan law charging trucks a $100 annual flat fee for intrastate shipping. Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion.

Both Scalia and Thomas filed concurring opinions, but they made clear that they agreed with the result only. Scalia wrote:

Unlike the Court, ante, at 2423, 2425-2426, I reach that determination without adverting to various tests from our wardrobe of ever-changing negative Commerce Clause fashions...

Of course, Scalia is known for his sarcasm, but this is over the top. I can see why Breyer would still bear a grudge and consider this the one partisan decision from his time on the bench. Still, it's good to know that the one political decision was decided on relatively technical grounds and didn't seem to have huge consequences for the nation as a whole.

[UPDATE: edited for clarity]

Monday, February 06, 2006

Fuck Everything

Sadly, Slate columnist Seth Stevenson already beat me to the punch on this one, but Gillette has announced a new 5 blade razor. It actually has 6 blades, which just shows how innovative the Gillette Company is (one of the blades is on the back). The new razor is called the Fusion, which was a little confusing for me and Steve. My own view, which prevailed, is that the razor is a fusion of comfort and precision.

Anyway, in a year of pathetic Super Bowl commercials, this was definitely the one that made me and Steve laugh the hardest. As a society, we're on the edge - the razor's edge - and I feel like dancing.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bewildering Tragedy

According to the New York Times, 73 Filipinos died in a stampede of people hoping to be on a game show. The real puzzle, of course, is how such things happen and why crowds are so dangerous.

Another puzzle, though, is why the prize on the game show is $19,230. Why do other countries use such weird numbers? I mean, I guess any prize is going to be somewhat arbitrary, but at least in the United States we use nice round numbers. This is just another example of how much the developing world still has to learn from us.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Worthless Adversary

So, motivated in part by Stephen Colbert and in part by this post on deliberation, I'm launching a new blog feature called Worthless Adversary. I will pair a thoughtful liberal with an intelligent conservative, give them a topic, and see what happens.

So let's start with something fairly topical, the Court's decision in Kelo. Basically, the government can use the power of eminent domain to seize property for the public use. The government must compensate anyone whose property is seized. The question is how broad this power is. In Kelo, the Court allowed eminent domain to get land for a future private development (the city has no current plans on how to use the land). At issue today is not the Constitution, but what the right policy is regardless of what the Constitution says. In other words, starting from scratch, how should society use and restrict the power of eminent domain?

Conservative James: Well, Kelo was a horrible decision. The government tramples on liberty and then claims that there's some public use! Ridiculous!

Liberal James: Are you so sure that you want to interpret "public use" narrowly? The theory behind eminent domain is that sometimes it's hard to assemble large plots of land. It only takes one holdout to exercise monopoly power and drive prices up far beyond their market level. By market level, I mean the price each plot of land would have sold at by itself, in the absence of any attempt to assemble a larger plot.

CJ: Yeah, I get that. You shouldn't ignore subjective value, though. It's simply impossible to know what price the landowner would have demanded. Many of the landowners aren't "holdouts" in the pejorative sense, they sincerely want to keep the land at the "fair price" the government is offering. Old people who have lived there forever! People who were born there! [waves hands]

LJ: True, and the government should be sensitive to that in calculating "fair market" value. Still, the point is that projects that would otherwise go forward are blocked because of the monopoly power exerted by a few holdouts. These concerns about subjective value are not unique to situations in which the land is then given to private corporations. Subjective value is always a problem in exercising eminent domain. Are you suggesting that it should never be exercised?

CJ: That does seem to be the position of some conservatives. Not me, though. Still, are you really suggesting there's no difference between a railroad and a strip mall?

LJ: Ah, okay. Railroads are a classic example because they have to be continuous and relatively straight. Without eminent domain it could get very expensive, and some railroads probably wouldn't have been built. The Kelo case is particularly galling because the city had no plan for the land, it just wanted to make it available for commercial development. Still, the possibility remains open that large plots of land are necessary for projects that are valuable to the community. We don't really know whether railroads are more or less valuable than factories or whatever. Strip malls, of course, shouldn't require large plots of land, so that's a bit of a red herring.

CJ: How do we know that these projects are worth it, though? Eminent domain is being exercised by local government. How can we be confident that the government isn't simply responding to the needs of wealthy corporations? Be realistic! Also, a factory? A private factory? How is that public use?

LJ: A factory is public use because its presence benefits the public. In fact, it's funny to hear conservatives such as yourself arguing that private companies don't benefit the public, but government buildings do. Of course, you have to be careful about which segments of the public benefit, but in general these projects aren't golf courses, they're businesses that provide lots of jobs. As for the corruption concern, it's definitely a problem. Still, that's really a question about how eminent domain is administered, not about its scope.

CJ: Nonsense! When the government seizes land to use for a courthouse or something, it does so because it needs a courthouse. There's not some big lobby out there pushing the government to build more courthouses. When the government seizes land to turn over to a business, that business has a lot to gain and will lobby hard. Public use should mean uses that aren't subject to such intense pressure from private groups.

LJ: Good point. Still, I think the real consideration here is the value of the projects that are going forward. This is the source of much of the outrage over Kelo: for whatever reason, the local government adopted an admittedly horrible plan. If the land had been used for a high-tech company that brought in lots of taxes and high-paying jobs, we might feel differently. In fact, I think basic Rawlsian analysis works here: from behind the veil of ignorance, we want to maximize overall welfare subject to some distributional concerns. For really valuable projects, public or private, we don't want an individual's property right to stand in our way.

CJ: I like it. But this seems to call for substantive review of the project, which is beyond most courts.

LJ: Well, I would be amenable to political controls through a transparent process and public input. The courts don't need to get involved.

CJ: Will you throw in a premium above market price to reflect subjective value?

LJ: I will.

CJ: Well, it's been good talking to you. You, sir, are a Worthless Adversary.