Pur Autre Vie

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

Monday, May 29, 2006

Modeling as a Waste of Time

I actually think that modeling is a hugely useful way to understand the world, but sometimes you do it just to waste time.

Tiffany and I have been e-mailing back and forth about bankruptcy (or complaining about casebook editing... yeah, mostly complaining about casebook editing). I noticed something about the e-mail exchange. Here are the sizes of the e-mails, in kilobytes:


Notice anything? They're getting bigger exponentially! I think. It's been a while since math class.

Now, unfortunately there's a very boring explanation. We're both just hitting reply and not deleting the old portions of the e-mail, so each message carries all the others with it. Still, that should be linear, right?

Well, almost. Cmail adds > before each line for old material, so if I wrote something 5 e-mails ago, it should now be behind ~10 >'s (5 from her and 5 from me, or whatever). So you can see how that would be exponential: each time there is new text, plus the old text, plus a bunch of new >'s (and more >'s are added every time).

I'm not sure that accounts for all of it, though; that's not so many characters to add to an e-mail. Anyway it would be much more interesting if conversations naturally grew exponentially until entering some kind of supernova phase. I mean, if a conversation starts at 11:00 and doubles in magnitude every minute, and the conversation kills you at noon, when were you half dead? 11:59!

One final point of maximum nerdiness: I wrote this post before replying to the latest e-mail so that I wouldn't get another e-mail that might mess up my data. This is how science fails! Not with the big scams, but with the little data nudges.

The Impossibility of Editing

I have noticed that casebooks, particularly securities casebooks, have a tendency to be poorly edited. All of the following material comes from pages 121-122 of Broker-Dealer Regulation: Cases and Materials, by Thomas Lee Hazen and David L. Ratner:

"As noted above, the SEC does not require registration of intervals who are employed by broker-dealers. In contrast, the NASD (and the states require registration of both firms and most of their individual employees)."

"For example, An owner of a broker-dealer firm or a branch office, must qualify for registration as a principal."

"As of January, 2002, the chief compliance officer of a registered broker-dealer must be registered with the NASD as a principal. NASD."

None of this really keeps me from getting the point, I hope, but it makes already dense material that much harder to read. Mistakes are inevitable, but it's clear that no one read this book to find errors before publishing it. Even a mediocre editor could recognize the errors in the excerpts above.

Why not? My guess, which is perhaps uncharitable, is that it was simply too expensive to hire an editor. When I say "too expensive," I don't mean that you couldn't profitably publish a well-edited securities textbook. I mean that the incentive to publish a well-edited book is insubstantial. After all, the students don't choose which book to read. The professors who do choose the textbooks either don't read them or don't read every new edition. Every dollar spent on editing, then, is a dollar less for everyone else. The annoyance of students just doesn't enter into the equation.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Dignity and Dating

So the other day a woman asked me if I would like to go on a date sometime. I told her if I had a nickel for every time a woman had asked me that, I would have too many nickels to count. What I didn't tell her is that I have thousands of nickels, so my statement would have been true even if no one ever asked me on a date. I keep a big bucket full of nickels precisely for this purpose.

It got me thinking, though. I think the reason dating can be so humiliating is that it asks us to do something we almost never do otherwise: sell ourselves. We are essentially making claims about our own quality and then waiting for other people to react to those claims. In most of our activities we are protected by legal rights and strong social norms. Our treatment by society is dictated by our status as humans and nothing more. Well, our status as humans and our wealth, race, and sex, and nothing more.

In dating, we are products. We are entitled to nothing whatsoever, and our success will depend entirely on judgments about our worth. It's bad enough to be a salesman. When the product is you, and every rejection is a comment on your value, it's degrading.

Imagine being denied a library card because you have an annoying accent. Imagine a judge saying, "Your 4th Amendment claims are persuasive, but I'm allowing this wrongfully obtained evidence to be presented at your trial because I don't like what you've done with your pubic hair."

I can see why some people are opting out of sex altogether. These people are called beta males, although I suppose females could do it too. The idea is, why subject yourself to the humiliation of looking for a sexual partner when you can have a great time playing video games? Exiting the market entirely is a pretty extreme response, but it actually makes a lot of sense. I'd long assumed that the "market" for sex had broken down, that the social norms that allowed young people to pair off and exchange fuck faces had eroded. What if it's always been this way, though? What if the big difference is that now we have alternatives that will allow us to enjoy ourselves without companionship?

At first I chortled a bit at the thought that women will have to compete for fewer males, now that beta males are exiting the market. So you're too good for me? Enjoy crippling loneliness, then! That'll take them down a notch. On second thought, women are victims too. The reason people are going lonely generally isn't arrogance, it's a horribly dysfunctional social system. I might write a few posts about ways to improve the situation, or I might to to Atlantic City with all these nickels. Come to think of it, I bet in Atlantic City I could find some companionship...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Defective by Democracy

I don't know much about intellectual property, so I don't have much of an opinion on the big debates on copyright/copyleft, digital rights management, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or whatever. My worry is that, whatever the merits, the outcome will be determined by idiots. I have similar feelings about most issues, actually, but I get particularly upset when I see empty rhetoric being thrown around and repeated by sanctimonious self-styled rebels fighting against what they see as corrupt, oppressive interests that are holding back the Truth.

It generally bothers me when people feel strongly about an issue but can't be bothered to understand it. Of course, I don't know what's really going on with these people, but their use of the vapid slogan "Defective by Design" doesn't bode well. Let's quickly deal with their point and then consider how political decisions get made.

The notion of defective by design, I take it, is that sellers of certain products have purposefully reduced the functionality of those products. This is part of DRM (digital rights management). It involves expending extra effort to make a product that is harder to copy. A hypothetical example would be a CD that can't be burned onto a hard drive.

The problem is that such "defects" often serve the greater good of society. You can buy fuel made from ethanol, but they mix in some nasty stuff so that you don't drink it. That's a defect, in a sense. The producers are going out of their way to modify a product so that it can't be used in a particular way. Ultimately, it's probably a good thing that desperate addicts can't get drunk/high off lighter fluid (or whatever the stuff is used for). Professor Picker points to the example of governors on car engines that prevent them from going above the speed limit. It's a "defect" that in most cases is good for society. My understanding is that some guns are manufactured to be semi-automatic simply by adding components that prevent them from being fully automatic. Once again, the modifications render these guns "defective," but you are unlikely to hear copyleft demagogues arguing that they aren't good for society.

Professor Picker explains why DRM might also be good for society. I'll leave the details to him, merely noting that of course creative workers are free to allow everyone to copy their works (they can simply not exercise their intellectual property rights). The question is what to do when authors and musicians want to be able to distribute their work in a particular way but can't without DRM (and, perhaps, legal protections).

Serious arguments can be made against DRM, the DMCA, and copyright in general. In fact, I'm not entirely persuaded by Picker's substantive arguments. What's important is that the debate can happen on an intellectual level, but that nevertheless we get crap like "defective by design." The question is which form of persuasion actually ends up making more difference in a democracy. I suspect that simplistic arguments and emotional manipulation win out in the end. This is not to put social science on a pedestal (more in a later post). Academics can get things badly wrong. In academia, though, at least there's a semblance of a truth-seeking process. Better ideas on average, over time, gain consensus. In the Fox News, "defective by design" world of truthiness, the only thing that counts is the quality of your propaganda.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Zoroastrian Baseball

Last night Steve and I watched the Sox teach the Athletics a little lesson about who's who in baseball. It makes me want to see some more games, but it's exam time, and then I leave for New York.

That brings me to my solution: who wants to come with me to see some baseball in New York? I can still get tickets for the Yankees vs. the White Sox in mid-July. There's a game on Sunday, July 16th, around noon. I'm not positive that's the one I'll be attending, but it seems likely. Let me know!

Drop Your Sox

I'm generally in favor of innuendo in advertising, except when it's creepy. In New York I saw a sign advertising trips to Brazil with the slogan: "Brazil: It's different down there."

I have mixed feelings about penis size innuendo though. More precisely, I hate it when companies imply that bigger is better. I think the movie Godzilla used the advertising slogan "Size does matter," or something along those lines, and I never saw the movie. I just don't agree with the message.

On the other hand, I like it when I'm told that size doesn't matter. Last night at the Sox game (Sox won 9-3), a sign above the urinal informed me that bigger isn't better. I think it was advertising car parts, which I don't buy a lot of, but I still give the company credit for speaking truth to power.

I'm not sure why it works so well. Maybe it's because I hope that enough repetition will make it true. If I were a woman, I'm not sure how I would react to the Dove True Beauty campaign. On the one hand, I agree that true beauty comes from inside or whatever. On the other hand, most women don't seem to want to be truly beautiful, they want to be hot. There's something of a selection problem: the women most likely to buy into the campaign emotionally might be the least likely to be hot. Knowing this, women won't buy Dove products. "Oh, that campaign is so great. Not for me, though; I'm too hot to need true beauty."

The same rationale ought to apply to penis size. I should wear a Godzilla watch and drive a Hummer or something, occasionally peppering conversation with commentary along the lines of, "This auto parts company doesn't think size matters? How quaint."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Poverty: The Modern Surplus

As I worked on my big paper this quarter, something struck me. A theme that I've seen many times in history is that political authorities skim off the surplus from economic activity, mostly farming. As representative governments emerged, though, the surplus could be split up a new way: some kept by the citizens, some spent on programs approved by the voters. As a result, for a given level of production we should see a higher standard of living as the surplus no longer supports a parasitic upper class. I'm sure this isn't a new point, but I don't think I've seen it spelled out anywhere in particular.

Of course, it's not so simple. To start with, the "surplus" isn't necessarily all food production above subsistence level. It's determined by a function in which the kings (or whoever) maximize their revenue, subject to the behavior of the peasantry. If kings can maximize revenue by taking a smaller percentage of the farmers' income, they will do so. This might be because farmers will work harder if they get to keep more of their crop yield, or it might be because farmers will exit the arrangement entirely if they have better options elsewhere. The actual tax rate appears to have been pretty high, though, at least in South India.

Another consideration is how the surplus is spent. Of course, kings who maintain lavish lifestyles for themselves are basically wasting the money, but that's not all kings did. They spent money to defend their countries and maintain the public order (this, I think, is where Hobbes comes in, though you might wonder how much peasants care to be "defended" from one parasite by another). In South India, they also gave a lot of money and land to temples, which then built magnificent structures and provided religious services and entertainment for the people. The temples also spent a lot of money on irrigation projects. The increased yield from these projects was split between the cultivators, the temple, and certain temple donors. We can see that the king's disposal of the surplus wasn't always wasteful.

Finally, representative government comes with its own distortions. Governments spend money to please particular constituencies for electoral purposes, even when in the aggregate such spending isn't beneficial. Knowing this, citizens expend effort to change political outcomes, effort that otherwise could be used for economically productive activity. Worse, even with costly citizen activism, governments are partially insulated from political consequences and thus function, at times, a lot like the old feudal states. Perhaps most importantly, populations have exploded, so that the average standard of living hasn't necessarily increased.

Still, I think we can draw at least two lessons from this. First, representative governments seem to reduce waste and distribute wealth more evenly. If that's so, then it's another reason to support democracy (more in another post), and it should make us sensitive to the consequences of government structure for the allocation of the surplus. Representative government is pretty new in much of the world, so there might be reason for optimism.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hog Butcher, Tool Maker

It's a little silly to argue about what is American and what isn't, since part of the greatness of the United States is that there is no single way to be American. Still, something about Chicago captures the American spirit, I think. In a sense this city is a microcosm of the United States, a living testament to our ambition, our brashness, our vigor, our repudiation of class and the status quo. Philadelphia is too class-conscious, LA is too warm and easy and spread out, Boston is too erudite, New York comes close but has an effete, pampered feel (almost Old World). Carl Sandburg summed it up in his poem Chicago. The essence comes in the final stanza: proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, and so on. The poem revels in the same aesthetic as the 1930s Soviet conception of progress through industrialization and technology, but with raw striving capitalism taking the place of the New Man and state primacy.

Of course, all cities are beginning to look alike, and Chicago is no longer as distinctive as it once was (because of economic geography?). What remains, I think, is that Chicago is proud to be the City that Works. Chicago isn't in thrall to the past, it is a city where you tear down and build new. It is a city of ambition and restlessness and progress.

So far as I know, Chicago is unique in its ability to engender such pride (as displayed in this post). Don't get a Chicago native started about his city: he'll talk your ear off about its architecture, its parks, its universities, its sports teams. A legend says that this is why Chicago is called the "windy city," but in fact that doesn't appear to be the straight dope.

So if you understand the United States in terms of its ambition, its newness, its lack of pretension, and its pride in all of the above, then Chicago is in fact the most American city. For better or worse, our nation is a nation of Hog Butchers and Tool Makers, "with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning."

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Colbert Rapport

I had been thinking a bit about the state of persuasion in the United States when I saw a post by Matthew Yglesias (guest blogging at talkingpointsmemo, sort of) about Mike McCurry and net neutrality, something I hope to learn more about next year. Anyway, the gist is that McCurry made some (allegedly) bad arguments. This would have flown with traditional media, the story goes, but bloggers have expertise and bullshit filters and whatnot.

It's true that we live in a bullshit culture. People don't feel the need to make honest arguments, or good arguments. They depend on the ignorance of their audience. They provoke emotional responses to shut off rational thought.

A bit of a backlash has arisen. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report basically make their living mocking the absurdity of the media. In particular, Fox News and its imitators are easy to deride because they are so close to self-parody. A little nudge is all it takes.

Still, I'm not sanguine about the power of blogs to rise above the morass. Sure, as Matt points out, bloggers in the aggregate tend to have wide and deep knowledge. The problem, as always, is sorting that knowledge (the pervasiveness of the problem and Google's ability to overcome it probably explain a lot of the Google enthusiasm we see). Comments sections tend to have a very adverse ratio of knowledge to dreck, so wading through them generally isn't advisable. Expert bloggers tend to have ideological axes to grind, and anyway it's not easy for a layman to tell an expert from a fraud.

I do feel that a defining characteristic of our age is the extent to which low-level propaganda has saturated the arena of persuasion, which itself has swallowed up almost everything. I'll post more about this, but the essential insight is that everything is up for grabs. On one level it's appropriate for everything to be subjected to scrutiny, but people are sufficiently ignorant that this "scrutiny" often turns into an ideological attempt to skew perceptions. This is how evolution becomes controversial. I have a friend who is getting his PhD in biochemistry (I think - something along those lines), and he believed that sperm could get through an unbroken latex condom. A fortiori, then, HIV could get through, and the Catholic Church wasn't lying when it said condoms were ineffective against HIV. That a biochem grad student can believe this is a testament to the power of propaganda.

Conservatives have been better at waging this propaganda war in recent years, but there's no reason to think that it has an inherent ideological valence. Anti-corporate and anti-market rhetoric can be just as poisonous and seems to be gaining traction. The problem is that each side has an incentive to engage in deceitful, disingenuous arguments. Conservatives undermine science and medicine when it suits them; liberals do the same to mainstream economics (economics does demand scrutiny because there's a lot of wacky stuff out there, but I'm talking about standard economic logic). We would all benefit if we agreed to lay off the bullshit, but there's no way to enforce such an agreement.

And then there are the people who really make you slap your forehead, who probably actually believe the shit they're spewing (and the sheer venom in lots of comments sections is unbelievable). So yeah, I'm skeptical about the ability of anything (other than very careful and active reading on the part of the audience) to stop this culture of bullshit. Am I underestimating people? Do most Fox News viewers take it all with a grain of salt? If so, why don't they just turn on NPR instead?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Telephone Doesn't Scare Me Anymore

Matthew Yglesias has a post on NSA data mining over at tpmcafe. It reminds me of a debate I heard about at nationals a long time ago.

The setup is that you are a good person about to be given superpowers, and your enemy will get whatever powers you accept. I've forgotten the precise question, but basically you want to figure out which powers to take.

It made for an insanely stupid debate round, but I think it's a very good question to ask when you're designing your government. When you grant the government authority to do something, you are unleashing potential for both good and evil. In a sense, you are creating a superhero and a supervillian with the same powers. I don't mean that some elected governments are good and others are evil, though that may be true. What I mean is that even within the same administration there will be impulses both to use power and to abuse it. We aren't looking for cartoonish villains in the administration (though I bet we could find a few in this one). We are trying to guard against the natural inclination to use the tools at hand to achieve personal or political ends.

In practice, of course, we have safeguards that limit the potential for wrongdoing while allowing the good projects to go forward. Those safeguards aren't perfect, though, which is why I think Matt's post is so smart. When a program has a very limited upside, but huge potential for abuse, it seems like the kind of power you would never want to accept, given that the villian will get the same power. Under superhero analysis, then, it's the kind of thing we don't want the government to be able to do (unless we really trust our safeguards).

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mugabe, Take Note

So Brad DeLong has a post about Zimbabwe's decline under Mugabe. I couldn't help thinking of a surefire way for Mugabe to salvage his reputation among leftists: criticize Bush.

You might say, "But no one would be stupid enough to excuse his human rights abuses and his disastrous economic policies just because he hates Bush, and Bush hates him." Maybe, but it's worked pretty well for Hugo Chavez, asshole president of Venezuala. Mention his horribly misguided economic policy to a liberal, and you're sure to hear, "Yes, but..." or, worse, a substantive defense.

I don't have all the data in front of me, and I don't have time to find it (paper due tomorrow), so I'll just mention two things about Chavez that lefties like to ignore.

First, he tried to take over the country in a failed coup of his own. This doesn't justify the later coup attempt against him, but neither does that later coup attempt mean that Chavez has any respect for democracy.

Also, enjoy this Chavez quotation (from tpmcafe): The world has enough for all, but a minority, the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of those who cast out Bolivar from here and also crucified him in a way in Santa Marta, over in Colombia--a minority has appropriated the riches of the world, a minority has appropriated the gold of the planet, the silver, minerals, water, good earth, petroleum, wealth, and has concentrated it in a small number of hands.

Some liberals, including Rick Heller (who wrote the tmpcafe post), have rightly condemned the comment. Others, incredibly, have defended it. Several American and Venezualan Jewish groups have actually argued that he didn't mean the Jews, he meant the white imperialists who colonized Latin America. You know, the ones who killed Jesus.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Great Library

An article in the New York Times Magazine examines the effort to put the contents of all books online in a searchable form. I haven't actually read the article, since it's a typically massive piece, so I apologize if anything that follows is redundant. Also, I sent an e-mail to my brother, noting that this will make a great World Wonder for the next version of Civilization.

Anyway, the timing of the piece is excellent, because I have just been struggling with the non-searchability of some books for a paper I'm writing. I read a passage about Jains in one book, and remembered a similar point in another book. I couldn't just search it for "Jains," as I could if it were online. Actually, the index can be seen as a crude way of making a book searchable. I went through the index and flipped to each mention of Jains in the book.

The problem is that with a computer search, you can play around with the terms to narrow your search. In my case, I wanted the term Jains within the same sentence or paragraph as "political upheaval" or some similar term. Once again, indexes try to approximate this by breaking down major topics so that you could look up Jain, and then under that look up "political upheaval and." In this case, the index didn't have that feature.

I guess my point is that indexes are quite crude for these purposes. Even for books that I already possess, searchability will be a great time-saving feature. I can't wait for the future, when I should be able to enter the 5 or 10 books I'm working with into the service, and then search them all at once for any particular topic I like.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Joseph Heller Still Survives

My favorite author is newly relevant, as I realized the other day.

Catch-22 is traditionally seen as an anti-war book, but it's actually more complicated. Either way, though, its depiction of a gleefully stupid, incompetent, perception-obsessed establishment rings true today. It also contains my favorite commentary on farm subsidies.

Picture This, a much less famous work, examines the parallels between the Peloponnesian War and the Cold War. Its cynicism and great-power skepticism are highly evocative, especially given our recent... adventures.

History repeats itself, and old lessons become new again. Welcome back Heller.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Social Entrepreneurship

Aplia's blog has a new post about social entrepreneurship. The idea, so far as there is one, seems to be that people are applying business lessons to nonprofit work.

Now, businesses have a lot to teach the nonprofit sector. For instance, businesses have gotten very good at logistics, which is a weak point in disaster response. Businesses are generally innovative in their use of technology, and nonprofits could benefit from that as well.

But charities have always learned from businesses (and vice versa). Nonprofits are often corporations, and they have boards and CEO's and performance reviews. Shipping companies like DHS send their managers to do stints at nonprofits, sharing their expertise and gaining experience. Charities can always be improved, but there's nothing new about the idea that business practices can be usefully applied to humanitarian problems. This is all to say that "social entrepreneurship" takes traditional philanthropy and adds what b-school students do best: buzzwords.

More on Housing

Gentrification has become a dirty word, and my recent post on housing shows why that can be the case. Effectively what's going on (sometimes) is that rich people are moving in, driving up prices, and driving poor people out. This isn't pleasant, especially if you are renting and don't profit from the increase in real estate prices.

A few points should be made. First of all, gentrification takes many forms. Sometimes what's called gentrification is really just the re-integration of a neighborhood. White people are finally moving back into areas that became heavily black after restrictive covenants were struck down. The increase in property values is a mixed blessing, but it does mean more taxes for the schools and it probably means more attention from the city. It's unlikely that the neighborhoods will re-segregate, that is, become so expensive that all blacks are driven out.

Also, it's important to recognize the chaotic/multiple equilibria nature of housing. A neighborhood happens to have good schools, so the houses are worth more, so rich people move there, so the taxes are sufficient to improve the schools, and so on. This is a coordination game, where accidents of history determine which areas will be rich and which areas will be poor. When there are multiple equilibria, shifts can be sudden and unpredictable (I haven't read The Tipping Point, but I have to assume this is the kind of stuff Malcolm Gladwell gets off on).

If you had enough money and skill, you could probably make a lot of money predicting and precipitating equilibrium shifts. This must be what some developers try to do. Anyway, the unfortunate thing is that as long as good neighborhoods are expensive because they keep poor people out (the point of my earlier post), we are just shifting things around, not really addressing the issues of poverty. On the other hand, if we made sure that all schools were good and all neighborhoods safe, we might see the distinction (and price difference) diminish. Ultimately that should be our goal.

[UPDATE: fixed typo]

Fun with Catholics

A while ago Andrew Sullivan had a few posts about the odds of a fertilized egg failing to implant and grow into a fetus. He took some flak for asking the question, but let's go ahead and play through the logic.

To a Catholic, a fertilized egg is a human being (a deeply flawed one if it's gay, but still human). When one fails to implant in the wall of the uterus, it's just as tragic as when a five year old gets hit by a car and dies. Actually, it's more tragic, since a fetus is innocent and can't protect itself. Imagine that a relatively high percentage of eggs (say 5%) get fertilized but fail to implant when a couple is having sex regularly. This means that if you have unprotected sex, and you know biology, you are recklessly killing a child on average every 20 months. Similar behavior (say, driving drunk or hitting kids on the head really hard, potentially killing them) would be considered sinful. Unprotected sex is therefore sinful.

This means that a century ago, Catholics couldn't ethically reproduce (evidence suggests that many Catholics have children, but this is a grave sin). Today, you could fertilize an egg in a test tube and then implant it manually, assuming the risk of failure is sufficiently low. Now, it's immoral to masturbate, so the sperm would have to be extracted directly from the testicle with a syringe. All possibility of orgasm would evaporate (except for nocturnal emission). This isn't so tragic, though, since orgasm is already immoral for gays and women who need clitoral stimulation to climax.

Catholics might not like this rule, but they can't be "cafeteria Christians" and select the moral doctrines they happen to like. It's wrong to kill, and having unprotected sex kills innocent little babies. I eagerly await the Vatican pronouncement banning all sexual intercourse. It would be hypocritical not to issue such a command, and you don't think the Vatican is hypocritical, do you?

[UPDATE: my sister, a med student, tells me that as many as 1/3 of fertilized eggs are miscarried]

Housing and Poverty

I should read more about this, but here are a few speculative (HA!) thoughts on the housing market and its relation to poverty.

I spent the weekend in Peoria celebrating my birthday. To get to Peoria, I took a city bus to Midway and then a commercial bus to Peoria. On the bus to Midway, there was a lot of passenger turnover, and two of the people who sat next to me smelled strongly of urine. It was unpleasant.

When I got to Midway, I couldn't help thinking about how unlikely it is to fly next to someone who smells like urine. True, passengers sometimes don't smell entirely pleasant, but it's just much less likely to sit next to someone reeking of urine.

The difference, I would imagine, is the kind of person who flies versus the kind of person who rides a city bus. The average flier (I'm guessing) is richer and better educated. There's nothing the matter with riding a bus, it's just that airlines inadvertently screen out poor people by charging prices that are high relative to a bus fare. They also give discounts if you buy your ticket online, but that's a secondary factor.

Anyway, all of this plays into how housing works, I think. Of course, everyone wants a nice house or apartment with lots of space and whatnot. Another thing that people want, though, is to avoid unpleasant neighbors. You could achieve this several ways, but one way is to price them out. Some suburbs require that every house sit on a 4-acre plot. No poor person could afford such a house, so they are effectively barred from living there.

It's not that all poor people make bad neighbors, it's just that statistically they're more likely to. This is called statistical discrimination. It occurs when the cheapest way to sort people is by some factor other than the relevant one. This can be odious, as when race or gender is used as a proxy for something else. If you could come up with a better-tailored test for good neighbors, you could avoid screening out teachers, policemen, and other (relatively) poor people who make good neighbors. One big factor for parents is finding a neighborhood with other children so their kids will have friends. The nightmare, of course, is that your kids will fall in with the wrong crowd, which is a very strong motivator to move somewhere without a lot of bad influences.

So I think people buy housing that is more expensive than they would otherwise prefer to avoid poor neighbors. This results in a misallocation of resouces. In short, the market is somewhat competitive. If I'm going to pay 20% extra for my house, this won't just make the builder richer. Builders will compete away the extra price by installing (inefficiently) expensive features. Society thus squanders some of its resources on housing that no one would pay for if the neighbor problem didn't exist.

Another problem (probably the more important one) is that poor people end up living in areas of concentrated poverty. They suffer higher crime, more pollution, worse access to jobs and government services, and lower property tax revenue for their schools. All of this is because the price of housing is artificially inflated.

I don't know a good solution, and I haven't read very much on the subject. There might be some offsetting advantages of our system, but I can't think of any. As boring and empty as many suburbs are, they exist for perfectly rational reasons, and their anti-poor policies are not accidental. I'll ask Professor Strahilevitz what ought to be done.

Friday, May 05, 2006

This Is a Post for the Ladies

But fellas, listen closely.

Today in the WSJ is the best news I've read in a long time. Their regular "Science Journal" feature is titled, "Darwin Revisited: Females Don't Always Go for Hottest Mate."

The topic is sexual selection, which is actually a neat concept. Imagine that you're a female trying to maximize the chances of survival for your genes. One way is for your sons to have a lot of sex, and thus a lot of children (the article calls this the "sexy son hypothesis"). Success becomes self-reinforcing: a male who screws lots of females becomes, by that very fact, more attractive to them. Certain traits help males have a lot of sex, and those traits don't necessarily have to do with individual survival.

In fact, the very nature of sexual selection allows for absurd results. Say that females randomly like males with slightly long tails at some point in time. Females can do well by mating with males with long tails, simply because other females will favor their sons. As a result, not only do long tales get "selected for," so does the desire to mate with a long-tailed male. Over time, females want longer and longer tails, and males supply them.

Sexual selection helps explain why attractive men can have a lot of sex (also successful men: as Jon Stewart quipped when George Clooney won an Oscar, "That's the kind of thing that could really get a guy laid.").

That's why the column is such good news. It says that females can actually maximize reproductive success by having sex with ugly males. "The studs were so busy mating that they had no time to raise offspring," the column notes. Whatever maximizes reproductive success, meanwhile, will prove irresistable to females as a result of natural selection. So there you have it: according to the Wall Street Journal, I'm irresistable to the ladies. Finally, the mainstream media takes note of what I've been saying all along.