Pur Autre Vie

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Silly Executives

I like this New York Times article in which Bush "called on corporate boards to hold their chief executives more accountable by tying their pay to performance". I know exactly how Bush feels - leaders should be held accountable for their mistakes. Otherwise all kinds of bad things can happen.

Monday, January 29, 2007

It Also Explains Chihuly

So I'm ashamed that I still read Slate, but I thought this slide show about the de Young museum in San Francisco was pretty good. I'm proud that I recognized it from Demetri Martin's awesome Comedy Central special "Demetri Martin: Person." You can see the museum in some of the webisodes, which you can find at this weird Microsoft marketing site.

Demetri Martin is crazy awesome. Here's the final shameful fact, though. Once I realized that Demetri was in the de Young museum, I couldn't help sharing that with the world. It's not particularly interesting, it's just that the museum is rather distinctive. Oddly enough maybe that's the real key to success as an architect or an artist. It explains Gehry.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Price of Ideology

This article about American refusal to fund state-owned factories in Iraq disgusts me, all the more so because the problem has been apparent since at least 2004 (see below).

The basic idea is that Saddam had a bunch of state-owned factories making stuff like sinks and tomato paste. The Americans decided that state ownership is a pretty poor way to run an economy, so they shut down the factories and waited for the invisible hand to work its magic. The factories are still closed, and the unemployment rate runs between 30 and 60%. The Americans still aren't keen on funding the factories, although they appear more open to the idea now. Naomi Klein was writing about this way back in September of 2004.

To me this illustrates two related mistakes we've made in Iraq. The first is that we've set really bizarre priorities. Even if you believe that the factories are in some sense inefficient, it would seem worth it to keep lots of Iraqis employed even if they're not being particularly productive. This leads right into the next mistake, which is the elevation of ideology over everything else. If I had to guess, I'd say that the people who designed this war and ran the reconstruction were steeped in market fundamentalism. They're probably the sort of people who think that Keynes was a charlatan or worse, that anything but a flat tax is creeping socialism, etc. Thus the seemingly innocuous Republican insulation from mainstream economics comes back to bite us in the ass.

In April 2005, Matthew Harwood wrote an article for the Washington Monthly called, "Pinkertons at the CPA", subtitled, "Iraq's resurgent labor unions could have helped rebuild the country's civil society. The Bush administration, of course, tried to crush them." Again, you can make an argument in the abstract that unions are bad for the labor market, but in a situation like Iraq such considerations are secondary at best.

So I guess the lesson is that economics really does matter. If you believe that progressive taxes and labor unions lead to serfdom, then you might actually prefer a strong insurgency and sectarian violence to an Iraq that is unionized (I'm not saying that was the choice, though I think at the margin we did make that tradeoff). More importantly, if you start out with crazy assumptions and partisan commitments, you will be unable to identify and correct flaws in your plan. Rebuilding a country is a pragmatic exercise that calls for flexibility and a willingness to abandon ideology. Unfortunately for us, and more unfortuantely for the Iraqis, the Bush administration is in charge.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ideology and Engineering

I often find myself mired down in interests/ideology when I'm reading academic work, judicial opinions, etc. So for instance, it seems to me that the debate over executive compensation is driven in large part by ideology, even if on the surface the debate is conducted in the language of economics. If you look hard enough, you can see an ideological angle to almost anything, and I think this poisons the atmosphere. On the other hand, we shouldn't be blind to reality, so it's a delicate balance.

I think history provides a pretty good example of what I mean. The Romans built aqueducts to bring water from far away. The water carried sediment with it, so it emptied into giant settling tanks, from which it was distributed to the citizens. The pipes leading out of the settling tanks were arranged so that the top two pipes went to temples and private houses (I've forgotten which was on top), while the bottom pipe went to public fountains for everyone's use.

So the question is, why were the public fountains supplied from the bottom pipe? The optimistic answer is that in times of scarcity the bottom pipe would be the last to be cut off. The pessimistic answer is that sediment settles to the bottom, so the lowest pipe would provide the lowest quality water. Obviously these things are not mutually exclusive, but the engineering decision was probably driven by one or the other.

It seems to me that if you're drawn to the former explanation, you're likely to appreciate the great advantages of the way our society is organized, including the market, the rule of law, and democracy. If you're drawn to the second explanation, you're likely to see the world in terms of power struggles among interest groups, with the spoils going to the rich, the powerful, or the politically adept.

What I don't know is how to balance these impulses. I guess it's one of those areas where you just have to keep all the arguments in mind and do your best, which isn't a very satisfactory answer.

I'm Baal Bedwards

Public radio is basically the best thing in the world. If you have time, check out the January 5th episode of This American Life. In particular, the story starting at 27:45 (right after the Star Wars music) is excellent. It reminds me a bit of Tarun.

p.s. - Steve introduced me to this episode.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Economics in Public Discourse

I've been thinking about a problem that I think is pretty serious: how to conduct debate on economic matters. A big problem is allocation of the burden of proof. So for instance, many economics students would like the burden of proof to be on anyone who wants to curtail the market in any way. This is questionable, for two reasons. First, economics itself recognizes all kinds of exceptions to free-market doctrine, so it's unclear why we would start with a presumption that it is correct. More importantly, though, economics is a messy business. All too often you hear arguments along the lines of, "We know the minimum wage is bad, just look at this supply and demand graph." Economics shouldn't proceed deductively from the assumptions underlying some of its models. Those assumptions are methodological shortcuts, not empirical commitments. The best way to tell the effects of the minimum wage is to roll up your sleeves and do some empirical work.

On the other hand, I admit that in my own mind I use the market as a starting point for thinking about most policy questions. Time is scarce, and people need a way of organizing their thoughts about policy. Among organizing principles, "First consider the market solution" isn't a bad one. Where exceptions are known, they can be explained and debated. It should be noted, though, that the average person (or voter) isn't going to devote the time or attention necessary to understand all the exceptions to the efficiency of the market.

So I don't really know what to think. Simplistic economic arguments seem to dominate public debate, to the point that Democrats are called "unprincipled" for supporting a minimum wage increase. This seems crazy, but I just don't know how average people should think about economics. Sometimes it's useful, sometimes it's just a cudgel used to intimidate liberals. I don't know how to get the good without the bad, although it couldn't hurt for liberals to get comfortable with economics and use it to defend their policies.

Representation is for the Innocent

You really couldn't do anything better calculated to piss off lawyers than to suggest that it's wrong to represent Guantanamo detainees. Yet this is exactly the stance taken by the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, Charles D. Stimson. He recommends that major corporations make sure not to do business with law firms that represent detainees. Other conservatives are in agreement. Robert Pollock, on the WSJ editorial page, quoted a government official saying, “Corporate C.E.O.’s seeing this should ask firms to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists.”

I don't really have much of a comment, except that this strikes me as an argument you would only make if you were crazy or arguing in bad faith. I think what's going on is that you have a rabid base of true believers, a layer of profit-takers ready to capitalize, and a government ready to take advantage of the whole structure. You have to wonder whether this pushes conservatism too far, in the sense of making it repugnant to reasonable people.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Google Etymology

So a while ago I read The Professor and the Madman, about the Oxford English Dictionary (which apparently Helen craves). If you're not familiar with the OED, perhaps its signature feature is its inclusion of early uses of lots of words. My understanding is that they don't always go for the earliest use, but they do try to include early uses to illustrate the emergence of the word. Very often the earliest known use is included.

Anyway, the book explains how the process once worked. Amateurs like "the Madman" (Dr. William Chester Minor) would scour through old books, looking for early uses of words. They would fill out slips of paper including the passage, the publication, etc. and send the slips in to the OED people. I don't think they were paid for their services.

Anyway, it seems to me that this sort of thing could work much better today. Google should start a service called Google Etymology that allows you to search for the first use of a particular word. For works that haven't been digitized, it could include a wiki to allow people to submit early uses. After all, the process described in The Professor and the Madman seems pretty similar to the Wikipedia model, except on a much smaller scale.

After doing some research, I see that this is already happening with something they call BBC Wordhunt. Very well, but I think there's room for a Google version, which would reach a larger audience, enlist more volunteers, and presumably have better features.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

If It Bends It's Funny

So I think this Dinosaur Comic on laughter identifies something true about comedy. The key line is, "The more obscure a joke is, the less [sic] people there are who'll get it, but the MORE they'll find it correspondingly HILARIOUS."

I think this is true in a general sense. It fits with my sociobiological explanation for laughter. Basically, the idea is that laughter is used to signal awareness of something. This in turn signals mental ability, knowledge, or whatever. So for instance, irony is often funny. We notice things that are different or unexpected and we laugh at them. This is a good way of signaling that we can identify things that don't belong.

So this fits with T-Rex's theory. The fewer people know something, the more valuable it is to convey that you know it. It doesn't do you much good to signal that you know that cats like to sleep a lot. It does you more good, in terms of demonstrating your knowledge, to signal that you know that a Bordeaux is a claret.

Now, obviously this simple explanation doesn't predict all the forms of humor we see. I do suspect that most laughter is best explained on the genetic level as a form of signaling, if we bear in mind that comedy is a function of the underlying genetic tendency to laugh and the specific cultural practices that have developed around that tendency.

Also, T-Rex's observation might help explain the crappiness of most TV humor. The economics of advertiser-supported television drive networks to appeal to a wide swathe of viewers. However, the more people you have to amuse, the less funny your jokes can be (if T-Rex is right). Clearly there's more going on, but I think this is probably some of what's driving it.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

He's Also Not Tall

In an article about Apple's new iPhone, the AP writes: "iPhone is 11.6 millimeters thin, thinner than almost any phone on the market today."

The "11.6 millimeters thin" formulation seems very strange to me. It's the kind of thing you normally see when talking about age ("He's 76 years young"). I really don't know what to make of it, except it's humorous to imagine an AP staffer shamelessly using a news column to plug a product.