Month: May 2005

Star Wars: Another Straussian Reading

Tyler’s artful reading of Star Wars inspires my own Straussian reading.

The Star Wars saga consists of 6 chapters.  Six equals 2 times 3. Three is now and for
quite sometime has been considered a good number, as in the holy trinity, but in former
times it was also and even primarily considered an evil number, as in three makes a crowd. So
‘twice 3’ might mean both good and evil, and hence
altogether; a balance of good and evil, surely the central theme of the entire saga.

The public choice economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading

The only spoilers in this post concern the non-current Star Wars movies.  Stop reading now if you wish those to remain a surprise.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:

1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.

2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.

3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.

4. The Jedi can’t even keep us safe.

5. The bad guys have sex and do all the procreating.  The Jedi are not supposed to marry, or presumably have children.  Not ESS, if you ask me.  Anakin gets Natalie Portman; Luke spends two episodes with a perverse and distant crush on his sister Leia, leading only to one chaste kiss.

6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of “Jedi” Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)

7. At the happy ending of “Return of the Jedi”, the Jedi no longer control the galaxy.  The Jedi Council is not reestablished.  Luke, the closest thing to a Jedi representative left, never becomes a formal Jedi.  He shows no desire to train other Jedi, and probably expects to spend the rest of his life doing voices for children’s cartoons.

8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage.

What did Padme say?: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

Addendum: By the way, did I mention that the Jedi are genetically superior supermen with “enhanced blood”?  That the rebels’ victory party in Episode IV borrows liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”?  And that the much-maligned ewoks make perfect sense as an antidote to Jedi fascism?

Will China revalue the yuan?

The US Treasury, in its twice-yearly report to Congress on exchange rates and trade, stopped short on Tuesday of accusing China of currency manipulation but made clear it expected revaluation within six months.

That is the FT, read more here.  What does the betting market say (scroll down all the way)?  With a deadline of December 2005, the chance of revaluation is running in the 58 to 76 percent range.  Thanks to Chris Masse for the pointer.

Brad Setser offers an excellent analysis of whether revaluation would be good.

Loan markets in everything

A man who lost part of his finger in a workplace accident was the source of the fingertip used in an alleged scam against Wendy’s restaurants, and gave it away to settle a debt, his mother said…

Shouey, of Worthington, Pennsylvania, said her son, Brian Paul Rossiter, 36, of Las Vegas, lost part of his finger in December in an accident at a paving company where he worked with James Plascencia, Ayala’s husband. His hand got caught in a mechanical truck lift, she said.  She said he gave it to Plascencia to settle a $50 debt.

Here is the story.

Why should a woman take her husband’s last name?

So asks Eugene Volokh. His commentators adduce a number of reasons involving children, or a desire to change an ugly last name. 

The cynical economist looks for signaling explanations for why the practice persists.  By taking a man’s last name — a costly move — a woman signals her long-term commitment to the relationship.  The real question is why the man does not take the last name of the woman.  Yes this is disruptive of the man’s career but that is precisely the point.  And don’t more men wreck marriages than do women, thereby implying they require more constraint? 

Some men do take their wives’ last names, and more choose a hyphenated version of the two names.  But do they not signal weakness in a bargaining game?  (Do you see any professional wrestlers named Smythe-Thomson?)  Could signaling strength in bargaining games be worth more to men than to women?

Will Europe comply with Kyoto?

Christopher Horner, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, reports 2010 projections (the source is Brussels, published in Washington Times, 16 May)  How much will various countries be above their promised target levels?

Portugal: 77 pct. above

Spain: 61 pct. above (their greenhouse gas emissions have increased forty percent since 1990)

Greece: 51 pct. above

Ireland: 41 pct. above (NB: This number is where the U.S. will likely end up!)

Luxembourg: 31 pct. above

Finland: 26 pct. above

Italy: 13 to 23 pct. above (the number went up once Italy submitted its official estimate)

France: 19 pct. above, with Belgium at 16 pct. and Netherlands at 10 pct.

The bottom line is that few countries will adhere to this unworkable treaty.  Here  is my previous post on global warming.  Here is a more general article on where Kyoto is headed.

Why is slow life history correlated with intelligence?

…corvids and psittacines [have cognitive powers superior to most apes].  That’s really the culmination of studies beginning in the
1970’s (most famously Irene Pepperberg’s studies on grey parrots and Herrnstein’s on pigeons) and is something that has only just become, I think, mainstream biological thought around now: but it rests on as firm experimental obsrvation as any studies of primates (certainly of orangutans).  Corvids and psittacines simply outperform even chimpanzees in many ways.  …On the other hand, the selective pressures on birds are pretty nasty. Their biochemistry seems a hell of a lot better than ours (witness the longevity of these things).  So perhaps it’s an alternate route to great intelligence: if you know that say four out of five young are going to die anyway you can take the risk of 80% of the offspring being quickly developed morons.  I don’t know enough about the field to validate that but I think it’s an interesting idea.

Why the Chets Get on Top

A correspondent writes to Brad DeLong, Why do the Chets of the world get on top?  You know the type, she writes,

Chet is a hail-fellow-well-met sort, cracking jokes all the time… Chet is tall, probably tan, and has big white teeth like a mouthful
of chiclets…. Chet is a member of country clubs, and has a thin wife, and two
adorable kids…Chet has an incredibly high opinion of himself. He is confident to
the point of arrogance, but friendly, outgoing. There is one thing Chet is not,
ever, in my experience, and that is particularly bright.

I like Brad’s answer:

… there are four relevant human capabilities here: the ability to master
details, the ability to quickly grasp what the salient issues are and follow
them through to their conclusion, the ability to work like a dog, and the
ability to size up people–figure out quickly who will actually produce
something useful and who will not, who will hang tough and who will easily bid
more, who will soften if wooed and who will stay hard-nosed. Next to nobody has
all four or even three of these capabilities in world-class measure. Fewer
people than you think have even two. And for someone who has one of the other
three–mastery of detail or skill at analysis or the ability to work like a dog
for ungodly periods of time–mastery of Chet-hood is a very valuable and
lucrative skill.

The correspondent is asking about investment bankers but the discussion applies equally well if not better to politicians.

Pushing the model a bit further I suggest that detail mastery, analytical thinking and working like a dog are more open to meritocracy than sizing people up because to size people up it helps to get them to like you and that is more culturally bound than the other skills.   Minorities may rise to the top more quickly in fields that emphasize the first sets of skills than in those that emphasize the latter.  Birth in general, connections etc. are also more important for the latter set of skills.  Thus in America, it’s Chet not Vijay even though Indian Chets surely exist in just as high a proportion as WASP Chets. 

The costs of Sith

Challenger Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm, estimated that 51 percent of people attending opening day would be full-time workers, costing employers as much as $627 million in lost productivity.

Here is the story.  And will it also be a slow day in the economics blogosphere? — "Nobody contacted for this article wanted to discuss their planned absences."

The General Theory on-line

Here it is, that maddening yet brilliant book. 

The worst part is the talk about the socialization of investment.  My favorite parts — not the same as the best parts — are the notorious chapter 17 (remember all that talk of "own-rates of interest"?), the discussions of "animal spirits," and the short notes at the end about mercantilism and Silvio Gesell.  This book is more poetic, and more image-rich, than just about any other economics tract.  That is one reason why it it has been read in so many contradictory ways. 

What is, after all, the central message?  That aggregate demand matters?  That wages and prices are sticky?  That wages and prices are not always sticky but ought to be, to prevent an ever-worsening downward spiral?  That monetary factors prevent the rate of interest from equilibrating ex ante savings and investment, thereby requiring income adjustments to equilibrate them ex post?  That the rate of interest is simply too high?  That the stock market can screw everything up?  That expectations are the key to the macroeconomy?  All of those?

Keynes’s great contribution was to create an economics in which a persistent Great Depression was possible.  But on policy recommendations, I would stick with Milton Friedman, or for that matter Keynes’s earlier Tract on Monetary Reform.  We can recognize the dangers of deflation without embracing Keynes’s seductive yet unworkably byzantine analytical framework.

Thanks to Brad DeLong for the pointer.

Why aren’t you a zombie?

Christof Koch, in his The Quest for Consciousness, claims that dual strategy beings can outcompete zombies.  Yes parts of the brain are designed for rapid, single purpose use, as you might find in a zombie.  But other more integrative and judgmental parts require more powerful central processing units, namely your conscious mind.  In his view consciousness is not just an epiphenomenal feeling, as in much analytical philosophy, but rather it is a functional set of qualia.  In other words, consciousness helps you interpret "meaning" and thus use information about the natural world more effectively.  Consciousness allows you to summarize the present state of the world in abbreviated fashion and to make plans on that basis.  Consciousness is a sometimes-slow but always flexible strategy. 

Here is one good summary of the argument; read this excerpt:

Consider the following situation: You see an outstretched hand, but instead of shaking it immediately, which instinct would dictate, you are required to close your eyes and wait several seconds before doing so. Koch and Crick suspect that without a short-term memory, a zombie could not do this task, or any other in which an artificial delay was imposed between “an input and the associated motor output.” Absence, like presence, has a neurological signature, and Koch imagines a kind of “conscious-ometer” that could be used to measure who and what is consciously aware.

Note also that efficient zombie-like behavior often requires conscious learning in the first place.  Isaac Stern might best play the violin by "letting go," but he first needed many hours of conscious practice to reach this state.  So consciousness and zombie behavior are often complements rather than substitutes.

If you are interested in these issues, this book is the place to start.  Try also this skeptical response.