Saturday, September 30, 2006

More from that Will Wilkinson article: here's the classic case against democratic paternalism.
In any case, if you really think people make systematic "mistakes" in judgment and choice, there is no reason to believe that democratic voters --who have less at stake when casting their ballots than when choosing what to have for lunch -- will be especially good at populating the government with Spock-like rational legislators interested in tweaking cognition through expertly targeted policy rather than with well-coiffed primates interested in hoarding status and power.
I do believe people make systematic mistakes (without quotation marks). I suspect that, if pressed, Wilkinson would admit he believes this too. Moreover, by the reasoning quoted above, any good argument for more paternalism is necessarily a good argument for less democracy. Isaac Asimov took such arguments and followed them to the conclusion that we should look forward to a future in which a benevolent, meritocratic elite subtly governs humanity while giving us the illusion of freedom. In one version, the elite were artifical intelligences. In another, they were a priesthood of "psychohistorians," where psychohistory is to neuroeconomics as quantum mechanics is to Plato's physics. Asimov was always fun to read, but after I would finish a book and think about it, his notion of dialectical progress towards perfect technocracy would rub me the wrong way. I suppose it comes down to how much one believes Lord Acton's dictum.
Reading Will Wilkinson's response to John Cassidy's article on neuroeconomics, I was most intrigued by the following description of research into how, at the neurological level, it could be rational to be irrational.
Cassidy's article flirts with an empirically credible notion of rationality when he discusses the work of neuroscientist Paul Glimcher, who writes, with his co-authors Michael C. Dorris and Hannah M. Bayer, "There is, for example, no evidence that there is an emotional system, per se, and a rational system, per se, for decision making at the neurobiological level." And that's right. Glimcher's pioneering approach assumes that computational resources are scarce, and that the brain must allocate them according to the expected payoff to the organism. In some contexts of choice, the expensive computational processes of the deliberative pre-frontal cortex come online. In others, the brain defaults to more frugal processes involving quick "gut" judgment.

Glimcher's approach doesn't attempt to integrate economics and neuroscience by simply comparing (and judging) actual human behavior against the rarefied standards of economic theory, tempting the conclusion that individual behavior and market outcomes can be "improved upon." Instead, it applies economic theory to the way the brain itself allocates its scarce resources, which helps explains why real behavior -- and embodied, ecologically embedded rationality -- cannot correspond to a (therefore inapplicable) standard of rationality that assumes an unbounded budget of cognitive resources.

Unfortunately, Cassidy brings up Glimcher's work only to allow the economist George Loewenstein to airily dismiss it. Cassidy incorrectly writes that Glimcher's work "might undermine a lot of neuroeconomics," when in fact Glimcher's work integrates economic theory and neuroscience at the most promising level. It is neuroeconomics. (Glimcher's groundbreaking book Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain is subtitled The Science of Neuroeconomics.) The point is not to understand how real behavior is anomalous relative to economic theory, but to use economic theory to help us understand real behavior by illuminating the economizing functions of the brain. But missing this point allows Cassidy to preserve his story's strained "reason-versus-passion" narrative frame, and all the tantalizing policy implications that fall out of it.

Someday I must learn more about this.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

If I could wave a wand and change high school cirricula, I'd require a lot more statistics. This isn't about raising a generation of bean-counters; it's about not raising a generation of suckers. Some more economics education would be nice too, at least for the future voters.
Continuing my thoughts from my previous post, what would happen if the intelligent design advocates "won"? Imagine over 90% of biologists despaired of enough intermediate forms ever being found in the fossil record, and also concluded many protein pathways really are irreducibly complex. Let's go further, and imagine over 90% of biologists also became professed theists. What would happen next? They'd go looking for other theories to describe the origins of life, and the successful theories would be just as naturalistic as the theory of evolution. The God-in-the-gaps people would eventually wind up just as alienated from science as before.

Among the more (but not the most) tragic characters in this scene is the man who thinks he needs intelligent design to keep his faith. Such a man is missing the fact that if humans were designed, then our specs include a yearning to explain what we observe. On a subconscious level, I'm predisposed to look for patterns simply because I'm human. On a higher level, I believe God did not create the universe with caprice, and he did not create it to be inscrutable. Moreover, I believe he wants us to understand ever more of it, and I interpret Genesis 1:28 as further evidence of this.

String theory and intelligent design are both attempts to describe aspects of the universe. Neither is feasibly falsifiable (yet). Why does the former attract so many more scientific minds (and more funding)? It's about explanatory power. Scientists may pursue idealistic ends like knowledge for its own sake, but they're very practical about their means. String theory at least promises to lead to an elegant, unified explanation of fundamental physics. Intelligent design, at least as I understand it, offers "the designer did it," which is a dead end when unaccompanied by a program for describing how the designer did it.

John Timmer has conducted an interesting little survey of scientists' use of falsification.

So, let me get this straight. In enforcing laws against marijuana, we endure tragic consequences like this, in order to mitigate bad outcomes like this? Please convince me I'm beating a strawman here.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Via Nobel Intent, I found a neat time-lapse video [52MB] (more here) showing the activity of Mount St. Helens from June 23 to September 5. (Back in my high school days, I hiked up to the rim of Mt. St. Helens, which was then dormant; at least during the summer, it's a very easy hike relative to view you get at the end.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I just had a thought about a post of Greg Mankiw's on social multipliers. They provide a way to dress up in fancy economic terms an argument for the blue laws of old: leisure is probably more valuable if we all take our leisure at the same time. (I very conservatively used "probably" because of things like congestion costs.) I'm wary of blue laws for the same reasons I'm wary of the state in general, but voluntary coordination of leisure time is a good thing that most of us already do on the scale of personal acquaintences. Coordination among larger groups, such as the many Christians who observe a Sunday sabbath, produces bigger social multipliers. This all seems so obvious; surely there's already an economics paper out there that's done some rudimentary quantification of the social multiplier benefits of Blue laws in comparison with things like their productivity costs? In the comments, Mankiw states that this sort of problem is still open to the best of his knowledge.
The most surprising thing I've read today is that there is a liquid CO2 lake under the Pacific Ocean. There is also a brine lake under the Gulf of Mexico.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Put off refueling you car if you can. (Yes, that link is five days old, but the NYMEX futures price hasn't changed much.)
I finally got around to reading Peter Berkowitz's review of Revolutionary Characters by Gordon Wood. I must add this book to my (too long) to-read list. Just reading the review reminded me of great questions I've been bouncing around in my head for years. Which is more corruptible, the meritocratic elite (Jefferson's "natural aristocracy"), or the masses? Which kind of corruption is more dangerous? How much credit does the Constitution deserve for restraining abuses of power by both groups, and how much credit should go to American mores?

I'll limit my excerpting of the review to a paragraph on Washington that sums up why I think him America's greatest president. Perhaps my audience is already familiar with this bit of history, but a good retelling is a good retelling.

In a wonderful chapter on Washington, Wood shows that of all the founders, none made the cultivation of character and a reputation for public virtue more central to his life, and of all the founders’ achievements, none were more dependent on excellence of character than those of Washington. Wood concedes that there was something unlikely in Washington’s attainment of heroic stature in his own lifetime. He was not a learned man, he was not a military genius, he was not a great orator, and he was not a brilliant statesman. Rather, “he became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation.” Washington stunned the world a first time after leading the Continental Army to victory. Even as many of his countrymen would have welcomed a military dictatorship under his command, and to the astonishment of Europeans who could not conceive of a victorious commander doing anything other than seizing political power, Washington resigned his commission and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon. He stunned the world a second time, and for a similar reason: After having twice won election to the office of what many in the United States and Europe were prepared to view as a constitutional monarch, Washington announced that he would not seek a third term as president of the United States. In both of these acts of splendid renunciation, Washington confirmed his own public virtue as well as the principles of popular sovereignty and liberty under law for which his soldiers had fought and bled and died.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The progressive case for Wal-Mart (pdf), featuring much data. (Hat tip: Eric.) The bottom line:
WalMart's low prices help to increase real wages for the 120 million Americans employed in other sectors of the economy. And the company itself does not appear to pay lower wages or benefits than similar companies, or to cause substantially lower wages in the retail sector. Although there may be a dispute about the magnitude of the cost savings for consumers, no one disputes that they are large. In contrast, the effect on workers is relatively smaller and far from obviously negative.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pseudorandom throw-away line: Hedonics sounds like something juicy, but it's really quite dry.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lawrence Kaplan makes the moral argument to stay in Iraq a while longer yet.
With militiamen loose in their streets, even the Sunni residents of insurgent strongholds now look to the Americans as their protectors. During a recent U.S. operation in Baghdad's Amiriyah neighborhood, terrified Iraqis emerged into alleys to beg for the Americans to stay. As one put it, "If you leave, every people here will kill each other." Fully 88 percent of its residents claim to feel safest in the presence of the Americans, and for good reason: Far from the reactionary enterprise imagined by so many Americans, the U.S. military is the most progressive force in Iraq.

...Withdrawal advocates who wear the position on their sleeves as if it were a badge of heightened moral awareness seem to forget that, as theologian Kenneth Himes wrote in Foreign Policy, "The moral imperative during the occupation is Iraqi well-being, not American interests." Having invoked just-war tradition to oppose the war's cause, they completely disregard its relevance to the war's conduct--namely, the obligation to repair what the United States has smashed. The particulars of that tradition mean leaving Iraq with something better--or, at least, not worse--than what went before. That does not mean staying in Iraq forever. It does mean staying until Iraqis have the means to restrain the forces unleashed by our own actions.

I agree with Kaplan's argument, but oh, how my patience is tried when I read things like a tale of thousands of Iraqi residents unwilling to stand up to a dozen militants. This is why I've talked up partition in the past, even though it would mean great hardship for mixed cities like Baghdad. We can't wait forever (think January 2009) for Shia and Sunni Iraqis to live in harmony, especially when there are plenty of reasons to think they never will.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Inequality, material vs. nominal.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The joy of sprawl

No, this post isn't about zoning laws. Over in Slate, Paul Boutin extols big monitors. If you want to make the upgrade, but are on a budget, then I recommend multiple monitors. I'm composing this post through Blogger in a Firefox window on my center monitor. On my left monitor is another Firefox window showing Paul Boutin's article. On my right monitor is another Firefox window showing my Gmail inbox, partially covered by terminal windows showing me things like my math department email via pine. Yes, I've three monitors, each a 17" LCD, connected to a single computer, with a combined resolution of 3840x1024. (My picture on the right, being two years old, shows the center monitor before I found him friends.) These three monitors are a vertical extension of the desk on which they lie. Most obviously, the three monitors' combined width approximately equals that of the desk. Also, just as I've three disorganized stacks of paper side by side on the desk, each of my three open Firefox windows has many, many open tabs. (And then there's all the other open windows....)

Having recommended multiple monitors, I should add that unless you know what you're doing, I'd advise trying two monitors before getting a third, especially given the great selection of dual-head graphics cards out there. (I use three single-head graphics cards, one AGP and two PCI; xinerama puts it all together.)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

David Greenberg reminds me why I so admire Calvin Coolidge.
Tom Lutz expounds on one the key reasons I look forward to an academic career: flexible hours.
But we academics do have something few others possess in this postindustrial world: control over our own time. All the surveys point to this as the most common factor in job satisfaction. The jobs in which decisions are made and the pace set by machines provide the least satisfaction, while those, like mine, that foster at least the illusion of control provide the most.
Lutz, implicitly promoting his book, goes on to paint a picture I hadn't seen before of late 19th century American manufacturing workers as a bunch of drunken loafers who demanded to come and go from work as they pleased.
American manufacturing laborers came and left for the day at different times. “Monday,” one manufacturer complained, was always “given up to debauchery,” and on Saturdays, brewery wagons came right to the factory, encouraging workers to celebrate payday.
During much of the 19th century, there were more strikes over issues of time-control than there were about pay or working hours.
It's good that Monday is no longer given up to debauchery, but something I'd like to see just once in my life is a brewery wagon drive by on a hot Saturday afternoon. It could be like an ice cream truck, perhaps with German music...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I plead busyness for forgetting to have read Cato Unbound's August discussion on Mexican immigration since August 20, but I'm now caught up. I particularly liked Stephen Trejo's essay. My position on immigration has been softening for a while now. My policy preferences on border control haven't changed much, but over the past few years I've moved from having at least some sympathy (however short-lived) with Samuel Huntington's views to sharing Trejo's informed optimism about long-term assimilation of Mexican Americans.
I'm quite pleased to learn that Battlestar Galactica is back early, with "webisodes." (Hat tip: Tyler Cowen). I justed watched the first one; it was an interesting little three minutes, but there wasn't enough going on to do more than whet my appetite for the actual third season. (Extrapolating from these three minutes, if you haven't seen the second season, then these shorts would probably just confuse you.)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Kerry Howley argues that since sex ed hasn't proven to be at all effective, why bother to teach in school at all?
At the end of 259-page book on the subject, Luker can't find a single study robust enough to back. She sighs, "We are looking for an outcome, teenage sexual behavior, that is affected by many forces, only one of which is sex education, during a period of tremendous social change, which has surely had some independent impact on such behavior, and we are looking at everything from one class room period to a semester's worth of classes, all in the service of trying to see if they affected the outcome."
The question that springs to my mind is, what do private schools tend to do? That seems a good test of what parents really want (assuming the relevant preferences of private-school-paying parents are not too different from those of other parents). I don't know if there is data on this question, but I'll bet the answer is that private schools don't tend very strongly towards any one way of teaching or not teaching about sex. Chalk this up as another reason to have more competition in K-12 education. With increased ability to shop around, there is less need to spend time and money on hostile political campaigns.