Pur Autre Vie

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

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Economic Heterodoxy

There's been a lot of discussion about heterodox economics, set off by an article in The Nation. There are reactions from Rodrik, Cowen, and an assortment of people (including Krugman) at the TPM Book Club (a scurrilous rival of the Society). I haven't read all of the posts, so I won't say too much now, but I'm inclined to agree with Krugman that neoclassical economics is a big tent that market skeptics will find commodious. I should also say that I've worked with heterodox economists before, but I was too young and immature to gain much by it. Anyway, heterodox economics is what Tarun's dad does for a living, so at the very least it paid the bills and brought Tarun to the US.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Churchill Was A Terrorist Sympathizer

Nevertheless, this short-lived legislature left behind it a monument. It passed a Habeus Corpus Act which confirmed and strengthened the freedom of the individual against arbitrary arrest by the executive Government. No Englishman, however great or however humble, could be imprisoned for more than a few days without grounds being shown against him in open court, according to the settled law of the land. Wherever the English language is spoken in any part of the world, wherever the authority of the British Imperial Crown or of the Government of the United States prevails, all law-abiding men breathe freely. The descent into despotism which has engulfed so many leading nations in the present age has made the virtue of this enactment, sprung from English political genius, apparent even to the most thoughtless, the most ignorant, the most base.

-Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Upside of Monopoly

So here's a neat model I've been taught twice in law school. I don't know where it comes from, so alas I can't give credit.

Imagine you have a market with three television stations. There are different kinds of programming, with the following number of viewers for each:

Reality singing contest - 10,000
Police procedural - 7,000
News - 4,000
Political debate show - 1,000

Now imagine that if two networks are showing the same show, they split the viewers evenly. The question is, should we prefer independent ownership or a monopoly?

In this particular model, we want monopoly. If the stations are independently owned, they will show 2 reality singing contests and a police procedural, with total viewership of 17,000. This is because the third station to choose programming will do better to take 5,000 from another station than to get 4,000 with news programming.

With a monopoply, each station shows unique content - the top three categories are all aired, for a total viewership of 21,000. The monopolist has no desire to rob 5,000 from himself, so he airs news on the third channel.

So this is mildly interesting for telecommunications policy. For me, it's more interesting as a counter-intuitive model that captures a market failure. I'll post more thoughts on that soon.

(What's) Up With Capitalism?

Brad DeLong links to Jim arguing that technology won't destroy capitalism. I tend to agree, but I don't have quite the unclouded optimism that Jim has.

Jim is attacking a piece by Bruce Sterling. I have to be honest, though, I couldn't make myself finish the Sterling piece, so I don't quite get what Jim is trying to prove. He leaves a lot of things implicit, which makes it hard to know what he means. It reminds me of a global warming skeptic who appeared on the Daily Show:

Note his claim that polar bears can swim. Fair enough, but so what? What he leaves implicit is that polar bears won't drown because of global warming. Why would they drown - they can swim! If you confronted him with the fact that they can't swim forever, he would acknowledge it, and claim that he never said otherwise. He's counting on the fact that most people won't confront him, and many will take his implicit conclusion at face value (Jon Stewart certainly won't push him - this clip is good evidence of my long-standing belief that Jon Stewart is not good for the liberals).

Jim isn't nearly as bad, but it would be easy to come away from his post with the idea that technological progress doesn't threaten to make us worse off by destroying some markets that currently benefit us. If that's his point, then I think he's wrong.

The typical market involves exchanging some bundle of rights for money. I sell you a copy of my music CD without the right to copy and distribute it. Alternatively, for a much higher price, I might also sell you the right to copy and distribute. Now, imagine a technology comes along that makes music easy to copy and distribute, and that the law can't effectively stop the activity. I now have no choice about which rights to sell: all the rights have been "bundled," not because that's what I want but because it is now impossible to sell one thing without the other.

The effect has been huge so far - a rare high-quality Slate piece describes the changing music industry. Now, commerce still exists - which is all that Jim literally defends in his post - but society is (arguably) worse off because the market for music that can't be copied has been destroyed. Mutually beneficial transactions have been blocked. I assume Jim is against this generally - so why isn't he against it when the transactions are blocked by technology instead of by an intrusive government?

On balance I think technology is improving our lives. What needs to be recognized, though, is that this result is contingent. We face very real tradeoffs, as some markets are opened up and others are closed down. How you react to these tradeoffs is a personal thing, but it seems unwise to ignore them.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Green Bush

It's worth remembering that Bush isn't as anti-environment as you might think. He's not great, but he's made several decisions that will help the environment, that could easily have gone the other way. See also fisheries.

It strikes me that, of course, one could characterize Bush as getting a few little things right while failing to address the looming global climate crisis. Still, you need a model to explain why Bush is getting anything right at all, and it strikes me that maybe he just cares more about the environment than you would expect given his other policies and the way he presents himself.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

You Don't Know Me

So I don't know what to make of this, especially since I answered that my favorite color is blue:

Which God or Goddess are you like?
Your Result: Goddess Sekhemet

You are Sekhemet. You are loving and caring, but when need be, you are fierce and protective. You love the color red and you are no vegetarian. Your feirce nature makes you somewhat like a rebel, but you like it that way. Congratulations!! You are Goddess!!

God Zeus
You are your own God or Goddess
The Christian God
Goddess Bast
Which God or Goddess are you like?
Make Your Own Quiz

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

It's Out There in Video Form

At some point I'm going to have to get around to Noble Lie vs. strategic simplification, but for now, watch Matt Yglesias and Dan Drezner discuss the whole thing.

I should say I think their analysis gets pretty speculative. Blinder is discussing trade publicly because he wants to bring about the welfare state? I'm not confident in that conclusion. Anyway, more later.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

NYTimes Tempting Readers to Read Something Else

I really don't understand the NYTimes. Nowhere on the front page of their website can I find the scores from last night's NBA playoff games. Meanwhile, here are the three sports headlines on display:

"Devil Rays Tempting Fans With a Field Trip"
"Giants 9, Mets 4: Errors Lead to Giants' Big Inning and Doom Mets"
"Foes Wary of Street Sense in Preakness"

What the fuck?

Monday, May 07, 2007

My AmeriCone Dream

It's fairly amazing how the internet is changing the way we get information. Now, I should admit that I'm indulging myself here, because I hate the way a lot of bloggers engage in triumphalist gee-whiz bullshit about the internet. Moreover, my example is trivial. It's exactly the kind of thing I hate. But...

I am a fan of the Colbert Report. I've been wanting to try Stephen's new Ben & Jerry's flavor, AmeriCone Dream. I've checked several times at various supermarkets, to no avail. I decided to contact Ben & Jerry's and express my frustration.

However, their website contact section directed me to a FAQ on precisely this subject. That directed me to the No Fact Zone, a Colbert fansite. The No Fact Zone people have set up a Google map so that people from around the country can post locations at which they've found AmeriCone Dream. Turns out they stock it at a small mart in a university building here, so I am now the proud owner of some AmeriCone Dream. It's quite good, although I have to say the waffle cone bits are a little soggy. Oh, I like it soggy. I don't care how fucking soggy it is. Other people might not like the sogginess, though.

Anyway, the internet worked pretty damn well for AmeriCone Dream location, thanks to a mix of corporate and individual efforts. Bringing people together, that's what the internet is all about. That, and bringing people quality ice cream.

Everyone Laugh @ ... the WSJ?

From a story on the intertwined destinies of baby boomers and Hispanic immigrants:

By 2020, they will be 55 to 74 years old, with most boomers on the brink of retirement or about to plunge into it.

[me again] So first of all, I question the classification of people born in 1965 as "baby boomers." More importantly, though, what's the difference between being "on the brink of retirement" and being "about to plunge into it"? I suppose the phrases don't necessarily have the exact same meaning, but the difference is eluding me.

I'm also not sure I buy the piece's premise, that seniors will benefit from the economic success of Hispanic immigrants, but that's certainly a possibility.

Everyone Laugh @ Slate

Slate is at it again, proposing ways to reduce your carbon output. I've blogged about this before - the problem is that most advice is worthless when it comes to actual decision-making. As an example, consider Slate's advice that you wear more cashmere. That's great advice, except that goats are voracious consumers of plants, and tend to leave a denuded, dust-storm-prone desert in their wake. Or so I'm told. The point is, it's very easy to get one dimension right and another dimension horribly wrong. This is how we got MBTE and, if Yglesias is right, earthships.

[UPDATE: More embarrassment. "In fact, demand for organic cotton far outstrips supply—only 6,577 acres of certified-organic cotton were planted in the United States last year, less than 0.05 percent of cotton acreage overall."]

Realism About Theory

So, the point of this post can be made effectively simply by quoting at length from a paper by Louis Kaplow and Carl Shapiro. What I'm getting at is the importance of empirical work and a sense of the appropriate level of confidence in our theoretical results. Here's the passage:

Economists have long recognized that there exist certain prerequisites to successful collusion. The classic modern reference is Stigler (1964). Green and Porter (1984) embed these issues in a supergame context. The key elements are (1) reaching consensus: some understanding must be reached among the otherwise-competing firms regarding what conduct is permitted under the terms of the collusive agreement, such as the prices that the firms will charge; (2) detection: some reliable means must exist by which departures from the agreement can be detected; and (3) punishment: some credible mechanism must be established by which such departures are punished if and when they are detected. Specifically, the prospect of detection and punishment must be sufficient to deter individual firms’ proclivity to cheat on the agreement, typically by cutting prices in the short-term, hoping to reap greater profits through a higher market share, at the expense of the other firms, before they can respond. Related to the need to reach an agreement is the problem of (4) inclusion: a means of inducing participation by a sufficiently large number of incumbent suppliers so that competition from non-participants does not undermine the profitability of the collusive agreement. Lastly and relatedly, the incumbent firms must be protected by (5) entry barriers: there must not be so much competition from quickly arriving new entrants so as to undermine the effectiveness of collusion.

Some economists consider these requirements to be so daunting that cartels are either unable to form or quick to collapse, even in the absence of antitrust laws designed to stop collusion. For example, when OPEC first arose, some confidently predicted its immediate demise. However, the experience with OPEC and empirical evidence on price-fixing more broadly does not support this optimistic view. For example, in the past decade, the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has broken up many large, international cartels that had operated for years (despite the fact that they were illegal under the antitrust laws) and successfully reaped hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in profits.

Which War Matters?

As I said in my last post, we face a tradeoff between tinkering with policy and fighting off the protectionists (and other enemies of free markets). Consider the contrast between the way we discuss economic issues and the way a law firm functions. Internally, lawyers might have sharp disagreements about the merits of various legal positions. They need to discuss these legal issues in order to give good advice to their clients. However, they do not air these disagreements in public, much less in the briefs they submit to the court. They don't want their own internal arguments cited back to them by the opposing party.

In economics, though, there is much more transparency. Anyone with internet access can download a pretty wide range of econ papers. People like Dani Rodrik write blogs about economic policy. In fact, there is a fairly smooth continuum from completely ignorant people to economists who write highly regarded papers. Policymakers tend to listen to the economists, but arguably not enough. Meanwhile democratic pressure is brought to bear, so that it helps if voters understand the basic issues.

In other words, we don't have the privilege of running our society like a law firm. The debates that are internal to the field of economics are freely available to people outside economics. That's why there's a tradeoff between tinkering with the machine and preventing an idiot from smashing it with a hammer.

My inclination is to see the protectionist risk as low. To be precise, the effect of the low-level debate is small, and the effect of its misuse of high-level arguments is even smaller. In contrast, the risk posed by well-organized interest groups is acute, but that's another story.

Meanwhile, I put a high value on the kind of dissent expressed by Rodrik. This stems in part from my understanding of research on how groups make decisions, but I also have a general belief that dissent is valuable. This stuff matters. For years, the "Washington consensus" - that the path to prosperity is through free trade, privatization, and free flow of capital - governed development policy. It has recently fallen out of favor, but the point is that the consequences of ideas are very real. It matters that the case for free capital markets is different from, and probably weaker than, the case for free trade in goods and services. It matters that free trade isn't as good as advertised. It matters that cartels are much more prevalent than some people once thought (I'll write a post about this soon).

We can figure these things out, and make better policy, but only if people like Rodrik voice their doubts.

I suppose I'll have to write another post on the public discussion of economics, but that might have to wait.

Which War Are We Fighting?

More Dave-James meta-economics. In this post, I want to spell out what I mean by "the last war."

As I've said all along, socialism will never go the way of crossing the T. The proper scope of markets and their relation to the other institutions of society are being hammered out all over the world. In China the state is gradually leaving more and more decisions up to the market. France just had an election in which the level of regulation was a major issue. You could easily find dozens more examples in the news.

This isn't one huge undifferentiated fight, though. Some fights are among sophisticated academics, who assume a base level of common knowledge and tend to argue about incremental changes in implementation. Others are public debates, often ill-informed, in which markets themselves are attacked, often on specious grounds.

My contention is that this second war is over in the sense that the bums have lost. It's not that people don't fight about this stuff, but that policy is firmly in the hands of professionals. These professionals might be bought off, as is so often the case with trade policy, but the outcome of the low-level war doesn't affect them much. The protestors in Seattle didn't have the ear of Clinton, for instance. To call the war over may be an overstatement, but I'm confident that in 10 years the United States will still enjoy free, if imperfect, markets.

The sophisticated war rages on, and in fact has been heating up. I'll write another post on the progress of that war, but the main point here is that academics continue to publish papers in which markets are depicted as imperfect. For instance, I'm taking a seminar on antitrust policy, and we've read several papers describing ways in which unconstrained markets don't maximize social welfare. Economists are trying to create a cohesive body of knowledge that will allow us to improve our society. This is a complicated undertaking, and no doubt there have been mistakes, but it seems crucial to me. One might doubt that this war has any influence on policy, either, but I actually think it does.

The intersection between these two struggles seems to be the problem, and I'll address it in another post. Just to sketch out the tradeoff, though, I think it is this. People like Rodrik can be open and honest in their critiques of, say, free trade, and it will improve our understanding of trade policy. Alternatively, Rodrik can self-censor, or at least use very careful phrasing, so that protectionists can't misuse his ideas. I think Dave and I disagree in part because we attach different weights to these consequences.

A Walk-on Part in the Last War

I had written a fairly lenghty post about an argument Tyler Cowen excerpted from Daniel Klein, namely that minimum wage laws are coercive. I'll try to be more concise, because there are actually a lot of issues here that I don't need to get into.

Klein's argument is lengthy, and I've only read the segment quoted by Cowen. My reaction is basically the same as that of Cowen's first commenter - all laws are coercive, so this doesn't constitute an independent reason to oppose minimum wage laws (coercion is a cost that has been factored into our background understanding of law). In everyday life, though, coercion is seen as a bad thing. Thus, it's unsurprising that economists don't want to use the word, just as legal scholars prefer "anti-majoritarian" rather than "undemocratic" when discussing judicial review. Klein is (or seems to be) taking advantage of the difference between the literal meaning of a word and the feelings that it arouses in the casual observer. In another context, one of my professors has pointed out that divergences from absolute priority in bankruptcy have been given the label "deviations," which is literally true but is needlessly pejorative.

This might give us some traction on the James vs. Dave meta-economics debate. I think Dave is saying that people like Rodrik and (at a much lower level) me are using the Klein tactic. Literally, there are all kinds of ways free markets can malfunction, but in real life they're the best thing we have. The theoretical critiques are needlessly pejorative. I'm going to have to revisit all of this soon, but I really do think it comes down to what war you think you're fighting.

[UPDATE: Here's another example of needlessly pejorative treatment. The Washington Post criticizes John Edwards for not having fresh anti-poverty ideas. As Yglesias points out, so what? Why does freshness even matter? If it does, why has it been elevated above "smart"? I'd rather have a smart anti-poverty policy than a fresh one. It may be true that Edwards has no fresh ideas, just as it's true that in some sense minimum wage laws are coercive. It's just irrelevant.]

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Pipes The Pipes Are Calling

After reading the blog exchange on trade, Dave comes to the conclusion that Dani Rodrik is a jerk. I had pretty much the opposite reaction, so let's dig deeper. [Perhaps I should disclose that Rodrik is a former colleague of a friend of a friend, though I've never met him and he has no idea who I am]

Dave writes (in comments):

That Rodrik even raises the price level argument to begin with stinks to me. He's taking advantage of the imprecision of the popular understanding of the case for free trade (that it lowers prices); the actual economic meat of that argument is not that free trade causes deflation(!!) but that free trade increases real wages (Mankiw makes this point quite well).

The price level shtick is just this side of a strawman, and it's hard to believe it doesn't have the same deceptive intent on some level.

[me again]

So I guess I don't know what to make of the "strawman" argument. Classically, a strawman argument is one that falsely attributes an absurd position (a strawman) to the other side and then knocks it down. The question is whether refuting an argument actually made by the other side can ever constitute an abusive debate practice.

The answer isn't obvious. On the internet, you can find someone making just about any argument in complete seriousness. Selecting a particularly absurd idea and then demolishing it might be "just this side of a strawman."

Even if that kind of abuse is possible, I don't think that's what's going on here. Rodrik was responding to a point made by Daniel Drezner, a respected blogger and Tufts professor who used to teach at the University of Chicago. Daniel Drezner is taken quite seriously - his book U.S. Trade Policy: Free Versus Fair was published by the Council on Foreign Relations (he also wrote All Politics is Global: Explaining International Regulatory Regimes and Sanctions Paradox: Economic Statecraft and International Relations). We have a public intellectual who has written a book on trade policy making an argument about trade, and then we have Rodrik pointing out that the argument is false.

So I don't know what to make of this. My inclination is to give Rodrik a pass on the strawman charge. It's not his fault that someone as highly regarded as Drezner made an incorrect economic argument.

More importantly, Rodrik doesn't ignore the "real" argument for free trade. Dave writes, "the actual economic meat of that argument is not that free trade causes deflation(!!) but that free trade increases real wages." In fact, this is the point of Rodrik's post. Rodrik tackles the argument head on, noting that free trade does not always increase real wages. As Rodrik notes later, Mankiw studiously avoids making the claim that free trade always leads to increased real wages, because he knows it isn't true.

I'm not a huge fan of armchair psychology, but I think the difference between Dave's reaction and my reaction stems indirectly from our politics. I imagine both of us are supporters of free trade. However, my support for free trade is based not on its theoretical purity but on a very pragmatic concern. As Krugman writes, "The moral case for open markets is their importance to poor countries: America would do OK even in a highly protectionist world, but Bangladesh wouldn't." As I've noted before, I think some quotas are defensible.

I don't know what Dave's thoughts are, but I would speculate that he thinks one of the following:

1. The theoretical case for trade is actually quite strong.

2. The theoretical case for trade may be weak, but that's all the more reason not to air our dirty laundry in public. Trade is a good thing in the real world, and it doesn't really matter that you can come up with models in which it's not. This only gives ammunition to protectionists, who are either self-interested or deluded.

I'm sympathetic to #2, but it all comes down to context. Anyway, I suppose this post is already egregiously long, so I'll address the "Noble Lie" vs. "strategic simplification" debate later.

Pink Shirts and Poor Journalism

I never know quite what to make of articles like this one, about a bar for rich assholes. On one hand, it's amusing, particularly when they brag about what they think are elite colleges. On the other hand, it's disgusting the way the Times casually reports about their lives, as if it's normal and acceptable for people to behave this way. It reminds me of a piece about women who drink while pregnant (I think it was in the Times, but I'm not sure). The piece was infuriating in its tone. It wasn't a news story about how some women are irresponsible bitches. Rather, it was a lifestyle story about "the way we live." Their behavior was reported the same way you might report that more and more people are trying yoga.

On some level, maybe it's all ironic, and I just don't get the joke. I don't think so, though. Either way, one effect of this kind of blowjob coverage is that it makes rich people look worse than they are. Plenty of rich people live their lives without making asses of themselves, but they don't get profiled in clever little lifestyle stories.

Maybe it's a New York thing. Oh, well. Another reason to hate the city.

Test Yourself

I've been linking to Dani Rodrik a lot, and I'm not ready to back down. He has posted a quiz question: would you rather be rich in a poor country or poor in a rich country? More specifically, would you rather be in the bottom decile in a top-decile country, or top decile in a bottom-decile country? Assume you only want to maximize your own consumption. Anyway, feel free to post your answers here as well as on his blog. I don't really care if this is a scientific survey, so I might as well make a guess. My guess is that it's better to be rich in a poor country. Rodrik says it's not even close, but it does seem like a close question to me. I must be missing something.

Everyone Laugh @ Thomson-West

From page 227:

The magistrate also noted that the imposition of expanded successor liability to trade creditors would make it more difficult for an insolvent business to be sold as a going concern, increasing the likelihood of a piecemeal sale of assets at a lower price and thus reducing the amour available to creditors.

A Wag of My Finger

It's time to heap a little more scorn on Thomson-West, publisher of The Law Of Mergers And Acquisitions Third Edition, by Dale Oesterle. Here's an excerpt from page 226:

The general rule on asset acquisitions has always been subject several new exceptions have emerged in the case law. Some of the are in state law...

Friday, May 04, 2007

Dani And Me, We Gonna Fuck You Up

I'll do a more complete post with my thoughts on trade policy later. For now, I'll just note that Dani Rodrik seems to share my distaste for per se rules:

Our professional training prepares us to be analysts who can make contingent statements. Policy A is good if conditions X, Y, and Z are in place. Rule-of-thumb economists sweep all the caveats under the rug, and in the end, are not true to their training.

More WSJ Doubts

The WSJ has a story today about home buyers who are trying to get out of their contracts. It's a pretty interesting article, but this passage jumped out at me:

Newly constructed homes make up only about 15% of total home sales. But a wave of building helped fuel the run-up in housing prices during the real-estate boom, especially in Florida and California.

[me again] So this seems like an... unorthodox model, in which an increase in supply led to increased prices. One would normally expect the opposite causation - the higher prices would be expected to lead to a wave of building. The wave of building should, other things equal, lead to lower prices.

I actually think I could come up with a coherent model in which this makes sense, but I don't think there's any way such a model would describe the real world.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Wolf in the Henhouse

I am reminded by William Easterly that Paul Wolfowitz's predecessor at the World Bank was James Wolfensohn. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Not unless you're thinking that Edward Wolff is a sure thing.

Fighting Another War Over The Last War

So Dani Rodrik and Tyler Cowen have been replicating a debate that Dave and I had (sort of). Here's a rough sequence of events:

1. Rodrik argues that trade doesn't affect the price level.

2. Cowen argues that trade is usually good anyway.

3. Rodrik isn't so sure, and proposes a summary of the discussion. Rodrik suggests in another post that blanket free-traders are fighting the last war (sound familiar?).

4. Cowen asks Rodrik whether the politics of trade are fruitful and suggests that the last war is the one we should still be fighting.

5. Rodrik argues that things aren't so simple and suggests tinkering with political institutions to bring about the desired results.

Various other countries are heard from, including Greg Mankiw and Paul Krugman. This is one of the first times I've seen blogs actually perform a valuable role in bringing about thoughtful debate. As usual, though, I suspect that to resolve the debate you would actually need to know a lot about economics. Still, it's useful for people to be exposed to ideas all along the spectrum, or at least along the narrow spectrum of reputable American economics.

[UPDATE: here's DeLong, who links to an apparently exhaustive compilation by Mark Thoma.]

In My Day, Comments Sections Were For Shit

One other thing I've been thinking about a bit. It's not exactly a problem on this blog, but on popular blogs there's a real problem with too many comments. In a sense I suppose it might not be a problem, but here's my point.

If I see that there are dozens of comments, or even 20, I'm very unlikely to read any of them. It's just not worth reading all the moronic ones to reach the few good ones. On top of this, people use comments sections in really crazy ways. Sometimes you have people post things like, "First!" for the first comment, with nothing more. Other times you effectively have 2 or 3 people going back and forth in a debate that is almost always worthless. As the comments pile up, new commenters haven't read the old comments, and you get a lot of repetition.

It becomes a selection problem - the only people with time to read the comments are very much the opposite of the kind of people who have useful things to say. As bad as most blogs are, the real madness emerges in the comments sections.

One solution, by the way, is to either patrol the section yourself (impractical) or allow users to "rate" comments and then push highly rated comments to the top. This destroys chronology, though, and makes the comments into an indecipherable mess.

Anyway, I'm sure there's a smart way to do it, but I haven't seen it yet. As it is it's deeply frustrating to deal with comments at all, except on smaller blogs where the comments are mostly reasonable.

[UPDATE: having read through the comments on the crazy Yglesias post about the morality of deficits, I see that several commenters made exactly my point. This is typical, though. There are often good comments interspersed among the crazies. This is precisely why it's a shame that comments sections are overrun with crazies.]

In My Day, Moral Philosophers Were For Shit

Yglesias is making almost no sense about the morality of deficits. He claims that there is no moral dimension to budget deficits. I was on board at first, but when he didn't go on to proclaim normativity's death, I got off the train before it reached its final destination of Crazytown.

The weird thing is that he doesn't really make a moral argument at all. He just tells us the following:

Think about an individual taking out a large loan for some reason or other -- a mortgage to buy a house, say. This may be a prudent investment, or it may be a foolish one. Whether or not the loan amounts to an "unfair financial burden" on future versions of yourself isn't an additional issue on top of the issue of how well your investment performs.

[me again] This is crazy. If I sign a contract obliging the future me to do a bunch of onerous work, that's not morally problematic. If I sign a contract obliging another person to do a bunch of onerous work, that is problematic. It seems unwise to extrapolate from one to the other as if they were equivalent. In fact, it seems downright crazy.

All of this comes after Matt divulges that he is "a moderately trained moral philosopher," which I guess constitutes more evidence that moral philosophy is a pile of shit.

Keep Your Money

So MassEquality has been running ads that say "It's wrong to vote on rights." MassEquality is a group devoted to preserving gay marriage in Taxachusetts. The situation is this: the courts legalized gay marriage a few years ago, finding it to be a right guaranteed in the state constitution. The only way to get rid of gay marriage now is to change the state constitution. This requires a referendum to be authorized by the legislature.

MassEquality opposes the authorization of a referendum, apparently on the grounds that it's unfair to vote on this issue. I bring this up for two reasons. First, I think it shows how advocacy groups can get too caught up in winning battles at the expense of winning the war. As a procedural matter, almost certainly the right thing to do is let the citizens of Taxachusetts have a vote. In fairness, if all you care about is gay marriage in Taxachusetts, and you're confident that you can bottle it up in the state legislature, then I guess this strategy makes sense. I'll note, though, that if gay marriage can't survive a vote in Taxachusetts, then I don't think it can win a vote anywhere in the US.

The other reason I bring it up is that I've given money to MassEquality in the past, and now I regret it a little. I thought I was giving money to help gay people, and now they're spending money putting ads in the New York Times that argue that gay marriage isn't a voting matter. This is crazy no matter what, I think. If your purpose is limited to marriage in Taxachusetts, then don't advertise in the New York Times. If you have ambitions to help gay people outside of Taxachusetts, then don't take such a counterintuitive and antagonistic position about marriage and democracy.

It's exasperating, so I guess my advice is to be cautious in giving money to advocacy groups. They can easily pursue an agenda that you don't support.

Hire A Freaking Proofreader

I don't understand why it's so difficult to publish a book without major errors. These two sentences appear within 2 pages in my The Law of Mergers and Acquisitions textbook:

1. "Corporate codes did not seem to require any shareholder approval by the shareholders of either firm in asset acquisition acquisitions unless the selling firm dissolved."

Arguably an asset acquisition acquisition is the acquisition of a corporation by means of an asset acquisition, but I'm skeptical.

2. "The additional of the qualified 'statutory' distinguishes the concept from the mean sing of the word 'merger' in other contexts, antitrust, for example."

This is a train wreck - I count three glaring errors. Also, you can't tell from the way I've punctuated it, but in the original sentence "statutory" was in double quote marks and 'merger' in single ones.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Nothing Cooler

Is there anything cooler than the ability to track packages? I ordered a book for a friend, and it has been making its way from Edison, NJ to Destination X (the book is a surprise, though I doubt my friend reads this blog). Anyway, it is completely awesome to track the package. I don't really know how to convey why it's so awesome, so I'll just answer the question I opened with.

No. There is nothing cooler than the ability to track packages.

Bye Bye Ms. American Pie

News Corp. is trying to buy Dow Jones, which publishes WSJ. This is a sad moment for me, because the WSJ is one of my favorite newspapers, and I will be a lot less likely to trust it if it's published by Murdoch. On the other hand, another way to look at it is that the WSJ has always been published by conservative assholes, and the news pages have stayed fairly good so far. Another issue is that I just don't want my money going to News Corp.

On the other hand, maybe my admiration for the WSJ is misplaced.