Month: January 2006

My misguided and delusional plan to visit every major urban area in the New World

I am willing to fly to Nova Scotia for the heck of it.  There is a direct flight from Haiti to Suriname.  I expect Colombia will be the hard part.  Salvador, Brasil is the outstanding gem.  I’ve heard Villahermosa is lots of concrete and not so much fun.  Honduras is only a matter of time.  Santa Cruz, Bolivia to northern Argentina can be done overland; I love Latin American buses.  Santiago, Cuba will require a Democratic President.  I wonder how easily you can get from Guyana to French Guiana.   I have never visited Birmingham or Mobile, Alabama.

Is the Steve Levitt meme spreading?

Here is today’s story from The New York Times.  They say "yes."

By the way, I am at a Liberty Fund conference, enjoying the company of Daniel Drezner, Megan McArdle, Virginia Postrel, Nick Schulz, and Grant McCracken, among others.  The topic is the eighteenth century critique of luxury, and the responses from Adam Smith, David Hume, and Bernard Mandeville.  Tomorrow we consider Bob Frank’s critique of status-seeking.  Hermosillo and brain tacos come Sunday.

Addendum: Here is Hollywood does Freakonomics, starring Will Ferrell, Chris Rock, and Steve Martin.

Why I never believed James Frey

I never believed James Frey because of the Economic Way of Thinking – I refer of course to Paul Heyne’s book and not just the method.  In one of the chapters of the EWT, Heyne covers basic public choice.  Business people are always lobbying the government to regulate their rivals and when they do so they always have a public-interest story to sell.  Heyne, however, cautions skepticism.  One of his examples, is about veterinarians who lobbied the government to crack down on unlicensed canine tooth cleaners because, the veterinarians argued, unlicensed cleaners might subject the dogs to unnecessary pain.  Heyne replies (I quote from memory) "Now, if you were cleaning a dog’s teeth would you subject it to unnecessary pain?"

Frey’s story about undergoing two root canals without drugs was obviously false.  Not because such pain cannot be endured but because no dentist is going to risk his fingers in the mouth of someone who hasn’t had an anesthetic.

The economics of relativity

An excerpt from a work in progress (by me) on the appropriate choice of discount rate:

Looking to physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests there is no fact of the matter as to what time it is. Any measurement of time (when is “now”?) is relative to the perspective of an observer, and to the velocity of that observer, relative to the speed of light. In other words, if you are traveling very fast, you are moving into the future at an especially rapid rate. Yet it seems odd, to say the least, to discount the well-being of people as their velocity increases. Should we pay less attention to the safety of our spacecraft, and thus the welfare of our astronauts, the faster those vehicles go? If for instance we sent off a spacecraft at near the velocity of light, the astronauts would return to earth, hardly aged, many millions of years hence. Should we – because of positive discounting — not give them enough fuel to make a safe landing? And if you decline to condemn them to death, how are they different from other “residents” in the distant future?

I am told that L. Ron Hubbard considered the related question of what a currency should be worth in a very fast spaceship.  What about the term structure of interest rates?  Uncovered interest parity?  To be fully general, must we add a "speed" term in addition to the usual "risk premium"?  Comments are open.

Donald Tovey on Mozart

my mind, no one has done a better job of concisely explaining what makes Mozart
Mozart than Donald Tovey,
whose essay on the G Minor Symphony, K. 550, the greatest of the minor-key
works, is a convenient starting point. Tovey offers a
seeming paradox that will startle many readers: “We can only belittle and
vulgarize our ideas of Mozart by trying to construe him as a tragic artist.”
What could he possibly mean, especially with reference to the G Minor Symphony,
still widely regarded as the locus classicus
of tragedy in music? The answer, Tovey replies, is that
Mozart was up to something altogether different: “Mozart’s whole musical
language is, and remains throughout, the language of comic opera.”

bald-faced assertion, so surprising at first glance, turns out on closer
inspection to be all but self-evident. From the rush and bustle of the outer
movements of the G Minor Symphony (whose compositional language Tovey likens to Rossini’s Overture to The
Barber of Seville
) to the wittily “theatrical” exchanges between
soloist and orchestra in the later piano concertos, one finds in Mozart’s
mature instrumental works an abundance of proof that he thought of all his
music in dramatic terms–and that the kind of “drama” he had in mind was
18th-century opera buffa,
abstracted at times to the point of sublimity but still essentially comic.

Here is the Commentary article which cites Tovey.  The article also offers a useful discography of Mozart in minor keys; it was Alfred Brendel who said:

The pieces in the minor
do more than just present a dark backdrop to Mozart’s brilliance. . . . I know
of no other composer fundamentally transformed while writing in minor keys.

Happy Birthday Mozart!

The best sentence I read yesterday, a continuing series

Jess tells me that enthusiasm is more important than definitive knowledge, that many diners simply want a server to help them get excited about something.

The article had two good runner-up sentences:

"Some people are interested in having the experience of being disappointed," Tina says.


"People [in restaurants] are hungry, and then they’re drinking," he noted. "Two of the worst states that people can be in."

The article, which concerns a restaurant critic working for a week as a waiter, is interesting and humorous throughout.

My favorite Mozart

The Operas: The peaks of his achievement.  For Figaro I recommend Carlos Guilini or Rene Jacob, for Cosi Fan Tutte, Karl Boehm, here is my post on Don Giovanni, and Klemperer is a sure thing for The Magic Flute.  For The Abduction from the Sergalio, how about Beecham with a nod to Krips?

The String Quintets: Grumiaux’s group, with Takacs as a good runner-up.  Most of the string quartets are boring.

Symphonies: I am courting hate mail, but 38-41 will suffice, toss in the first movement of 29 if need be.  I like von Karajan for the last two symphonies (not everyone does), and there are many good versions of the others.

Piano Concerti: Focus on 20-27; I grew up with Casadesus and Szell but you have many good choices.  Few areas of the repertoire have been better covered.

Piano sonatas: Uchida all the way.  They start getting good around K311.  Here are bloggers on the sonatas.  As a general rule, Mozart before K300 is not so special.

K563: Mozart’s least-known masterpiece, go for Grumiaux.  Even better is the currently unavailable L’Archibudelli version.

If you own these you have a decent chunk of the essential Mozart.

Most overrated Mozart: The Violin concerti and then the Requiem.  Contrary to cliche, Suessmayr ruined the ending.  The Clarinet Concerto was once wonderful, but it has been overexposed in muzak, Nordstrom, and overpriced faux Italian restaurants.  By the way, it won a listeners’ poll as "best Mozart," the Requiem came in second.

Most underrated Mozart: The violin and piano sonatas, and the short, comic vocal pieces.  Try also the Piano and Wind Quintet, K. 452, the Clarinet Trio, K. 498, the Piano Quartets (with George Szell as pianist), and the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581.

Comments are open, do offer your opinions…

Should You Treat Your Marriage Like a Job?

Scott Haltzman, a psychiatrist and Brown University professor, has been studying marriages good and bad for a long time, both in his clinical work and via his Web site, . His new book, "The Secrets of Happily Married Men" collects what he says are the guy behaviors that lead to happy marriage…

Haltzman believes conventional marital therapy often tries to make men more like women — you know, getting in touch with their feelings, talking about their feelings, feeling their wives’ feelings, etc. But this approach is doomed to failure, he says, largely because men and women are equipped with such different hardware from the neck up…

Use the male habits and male skills that serve him well at work, at play, in competition, in the field and in other venues where he thrives. View marriage as your most important task, Haltzman urges men, and pursue success as you would anything else that matters. The assumption is it’s a lot more pleasant, and the payoffs far greater, to live with a woman who is satisfied, secure and feeling loved compared to one who is none of the above. Make this your job, he says.

Here is the full article, noting that some of the specific recommendations ("gather data" on your wife) are excessively mechanical. 

The key question: if a man at times undervalues a happy marriage and happy wife, how can he act to undercut or avoid this weakness of character?  If you think male infidelity is the main potential problem, "taking pride in your instrumental rationality" is not going to do the trick.  Alternatively, you might think that male emotional withdrawal is the main problem, in which case instrumental rationality, and subsequent attention, might be an acceptable (partial) substitute for many women.

Under another scenario, the problem is that men stop trying because they feel their wives expect too much.  If you are damned anyway, at the margin why bother?  This book is useful for telling men their efforts can matter, even if they can’t.  The very act of trying confers a positive externality upon your wife.

The recommendations of this book assume that you screw up the means-ends relationship with your wife, rather than undervaluing the end of a happy marriage (or overvaluing some other competing end).  Misesians, Beckerians, and other partisans of rational economic man shouldn’t bite.  Behavioral economists, step on board.

Comments are open…and you can buy the book here.

The new Vanderbilt Ph.d. in law and economics

W. Kip Viscusi and Joni Hersch, law and economics scholars at Harvard Law School, will join the Vanderbilt University faculty later this year as the law school launches the first program of its kind – a Ph.D. in law and economics.

By successfully recruiting two of the nation’s premier scholars in law and applied economics, Vanderbilt Law School has embarked on the next generation of law and economics education: a combination of professional and academic degrees that will train scholars not only for academic positions, but also for legal practice, policy-making and public interest work.

Here is the story, and comments are open for those who know more about this.  Thanks to David Bernstein for the pointer; also read the comments on his post.

Bush’s new health care proposals

The Washington Post reports:

President Bush will propose that Americans be allowed to take tax deductions on more of their out-of pocket medical expenses, as part of an initiative the White House believes will rein in soaring health costs by shifting responsibility toward individuals, according to congressional and other sources familiar with the administration’s thinking.

The new tax breaks for personal health spending, to be included in the 2007 budget Bush will release in less than two weeks, are designed to help the uninsured and to allow people with insurance to write off a greater portion of the money they spend on co-payments, deductibles and care that is not covered. Under current tax rules, people can deduct medical expenses only if they exceed 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income.

This idea is slightly funny.  The premise is that people don’t pay enough of their medical bills when they have private insurance.  The way to get them out of insurance is to…um…pick up part of their medical bill.  Admittedly the percentage of third-party payment would fall, at least if this works as planned.  But note we are making the government the new insurer.  I also predict the tax deduction will evolve into a credit which will evolve into…Yikes!

That is not all.  Health savings accounts will be expanded and:

Bush intends to propose changes to allow people to keep their insurance, without extra cost, if they change jobs or decide to start a business, building on a decade-old law that was designed to make health coverage more "portable."

I have no idea what is the underlying premise as to whether people overinvest or underinvest in private sector health insurance.  I will blog more details of this as they become available.  In the meantime, Arnold Kling shares my doubts.

Private vs. government funding of science

Arthur Diamond offers this abstract:

Regression analysis is used to test the effects of funding source (and of various control variables) on the importance of the article, as measured by the number of citations that the article receives.  Funding source is measured by the number of prizes and the number of government grants mentioned in the acknowledgements section.  The importance of an article is measured by an "early" count of citations…and a "late" count.  Using either measure of article importance, the evidence suggests that private funders are more successful than the government at identifying important research.

This paper is worth a look, but I have some worries.  First, private funding may have a better chance of picking the "cream" of private researchers, but without helping them much.  Second, if you are famous it is easier to run up your number of private funders than to run up your number of government funders.  Third, even most cited research has no real impact.  We should be concerned with the extremes of the distribution, not mean citations.  Fourth, private foundations may take greater care to seek out measurable outputs.  Whether this helps or harms the quest for the extreme successes is hard to say. 

A separate question is not which form of science funding is better, but rather how the two can best fit together.  I put this and related questions into the "grossly underexplored but extremely important" category.

Here is the paper, and thanks to Daniel Klein for the pointer.  Here is Art Diamond’s blog.

Addendum: Jonathan van Parys recommends this paper on the topic; the abstract is right on the mark and the authors are excellent.

The economics of Mozart

This is a reprise from  Excerpt:

[Mozart] ran into another problem for an artist dependent
on an aristocractic audience: war. An unpopular war with Turkey that
began in 1788 limped on through 1791. Opera production virtually halted
and concert activity plummeted as the aristocracy, fearing conscription
into the army, headed for the provinces en masse. For Mozart, the
consequence of these economic reverses was, as Maynard Solomon notes,
something close to a total breakdown, leaving him deeply depressed and
impairing his productivity.

By the way, here is my earlier post on Mozart and Baumol’s cost-disease.  Here are Mozart’s economic insights, excerpted from his diary.  Under the fold, you can read Mozart on income and substitution effects…