Month: September 2006

Defining Terrorism Down

Would you believe that the median sentence length given to a terrorist has fallen since 9/11?  In fact, it’s fallen by a lot, from 41 months of prison time to just 20 days of prison time.  Have we gotten soft on terrorism?  Of course not.  In my judgment, sentence length has fallen because in an effort to increase the terrorism stats and scare us all into compliance the FBI and other government agencies have defined terrorism down. The situation has gotten so absurd that in recent years Federal prosecutors have declined to prosecute approximately 90% of the international terrorism cases brought to them by the investigative agencies.

Read the whole report here.

I am at least heartened by the fact that our decentralized system of justice means that prosecutors need not feel that they must march in lockstep with the agencies and the administration.  This is another reason to oppose abandoning the traditional American system of justice for "military tribunals" and other dependent courts not subject to checks, balances and review.

Hat tip to Boing Boing Blog.

Me on China

There is more to talk about than just food:

The trade effects of a revaluation of the yuan are unlikely to be
large, in part because many Chinese exporters specialize in assembly. 
China sends out money buying components like semiconductors and turns
them into finished goods, thereby running a trade deficit with East
Asia.  A new and higher value for the yuan would largely be a wash for
these activities.  With a stronger currency, China would have a harder
time selling its electronic goods, but this would be offset by its
greater purchasing power over the semiconductors.  It would not do much
damage to the Chinese competitive position.

The Chinese keep the yuan low, relative to the dollar, by buying up United States Treasury
securities; as of early 2006, the Chinese central bank held up to $470
billion in Treasury securities.  This huge accumulation of relatively
low-yielding assets is the investment strategy of risk-averse
bureaucrats, but it may bring longer-term benefits.  Those assets can
someday be sold or otherwise transferred to underdiversified Chinese
financial institutions.  The accumulation gives the Chinese a stake in
American prosperity and signals that the Chinese are committed to
long-term participation in the global economy.  On the American side,
the Treasury market is more liquid and the budget deficit can be
financed at lower cost.

Here is the full argument.

What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

I did enjoy and indeed finish it.  The book defends the liberal nature of the university but more importantly it has an excellent discussion of "the postmodern novel" (the author’s field, apparently), including a brilliant take on William Dean Howells and a good discussion of The Great Gatsby.  Its portrait of the American university, however flawed, is closer to the truth than what one finds in the right-wing scaremongers.

But reading this book shows me — contrary to the author’s intentions — why so many college students have turned to the so-called "Right."  Michael Bérubé, the author:

1. Believes that David Horowitz is a very powerful man.

2. Claims that libertarians are simply ignorant of poverty and therefore wrong.  At least libertarians are "quite smart now and then" and yes that is a quotation.

3. Repeatedly rejects political views by citing the (supposed) moral failings of their undergraduate proponents.

4. Claims conservatives hate social security "because it works."  By the way, that is also why conservatives hate universities.

5. Argues that "the real scandal of public universities is that they have become increasingly beholden to right-wing demogoguery…"

6. Believes that he is holding genuine dialogue with alternative political views.

If we bundle this all up and put it against the "…the world is a fragile place and liberty is dear.  Let us start with an ethic of individual responsibility, family values, strong national defense, low taxes, and a deep belief in the sacred nature of mankind, and no we cannot elevate every injustice," I know which vision the American people — including their undergraduates — will choose.  (For new MR readers, I should note that those are not exactly my views, it is just one shorthand description of parts of the American right.)

Bérubé, by the way, has a brilliant performance art-worthy fantasy segment on why 50 percent tax rates would not (should not?) deter anyone from working or producing.  Excerpt:  "I find it hard to imagine a Clever Entrepreneur who thinks, "Well, I’ve made ten million this year, but if I make another two million I only get to keep one million of it, so I’m going to stop developing and promoting my product right now."" (p.286).  Ah, if only all taxes fell on pure profit.  It is even sadder to learn that many wealthy people are "hoarding it [their money]," rather than creating jobs with it.

I consider American universities to be a marvel of the modern world.  And yes diversity does mean that not every outcome can be controlled.  I remain grateful for this freedom, while admitting its external costs.

One of my favorite professors edited a book called The Essential Stalin, and yes he was sad he had to cut some pieces from the selection.  He was the guy who introduced me to Melville and Hammett and Lem and Stapledon.  I’ll never forget the last day of class when one mousey, dewey-eyed girl in the back of the room finally raised her hand and said in a mix of shock and exasperation: "But Dr. Franklin, those are all the Communist countries!"

The Cuban guy in the room did not approve, but that’s part of education too.  My rather excellent paper on the labor theory of value received only a B, due to its conceptual errors in characterizing the transformation problem (and not because this was a freshman class in English literature).  But at least with that professor one knew where one stood.

Has serendipity disappeared?

Terry Teachout writes:

I take a look at the financial woes of Tower
Records and the wider implications of music downloading.  One frequently
overlooked effect of downloading on the culture of music is the extent
to which it discourages in-store browsing, and the serendipitous
discoveries that can only be made by wandering at will up and down the
aisles of a deep-catalog record store.

I am (surprise) less pessimistic.  I see one kind of serendipity as replacing another.  The new serendipity relies on Internet browsing.  Which CDs can be described in an intriguing way on a blog or an Amazon listing?  The old serendipity depended more on the quality of the album or CD cover.  I see the new serendipity as favoring the tastes of the highly literate, and as favoring artists with interesting biographies.  Older methods favored groups with good album art, which tends to be correlated with a sense of the unusual or outrageous.  I do not see why the new serendipity should be worse than the old, although admittedly it discriminates against those with Internet connections.

Addendum: Terry Teachout asks that I link to his longer discussion.


Jacob, one member of the class of the loyal, asks:

I have only two questions.
Was Thomas Robert Malthus a classical liberal? What were his major
contributions to classical liberalism?

Of course I turn to my colleague David Levy and his co-author Sandra Peart, here and here.  Levy and Peart read Malthus as defending the ability of poor people to elevate themselves through moral restraint, criticizing the use of paternalistic experts, and rejecting eugenics.  He was neither a pessimist who thought mankind was doomed to subsistence, nor an idiot who failed to grasp technological progress.

I view Malthus as a tempered social revisionist who knocked down myths, thought in terms of social science mechanisms (he had both supply and demand and Keynesian macro in surprisingly sophisticated forms, not to mention an early form of Darwin’s theory of evolution), and was painfully aware of the importance of contingent human choices.  He is one of the five most underrated, and also least understood, economists.  To be sure, he favored small government and opposed the Poor Laws.  But he was skeptical enough about the notion of a voluntary self-regulating order that I would not quite call him a classical liberal.  I read his economics as starting with the Bible, and asking whether any mechanisms might bring us to a less tragic outcome than what is found in the Old Testament.  He was never quite sure of the answer, and his mix of moralizing and skepticism later attracted Keynes.

What does voice pitch indicate?

Women in almost every culture speak in deeper voices than Japanese women.  American women’s voices are lower than Japanese women’s, Swedish women’s are lower than American’s, and Dutch women’s are lower than Swedish women’s.  Vocal difference is one way of expressing social difference, so that in Dutch society, which doesn’t differentiate much between its image of the ideal male and the ideal female, there are few differences between male and female voice.  The Dutch also find medium and low pitch more attractive than high pitch.

That is from the new and interesting The Human Voice: How this Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are, by Anne Karpf.  Here is an interesting dissertation abstract on voice pitch, some of which relates to economic ideas on signaling.

Selection bias

Who shows up for experiments?

Peer nominations of pathological personality traits were collected on
1442 freshmen participating in a study regarding personality and 283
students who initially provided consent to participate but failed to
show up for the assessment.  Ten peer-based personality disorder scales
and eight IIP-64 scales were entered into two separate multiple
logistic regression procedures to predict the probability of
nonparticipation.  There was a significantly higher probability of
participation if peers nominated someone as having more histrionic,
obsessive–compulsive, self-sacrificing, and intrusive/needy
characteristics.  Students were significantly less likely to participate
if peers nominated them as being higher on narcissism or
non-assertiveness.  Results suggest it may be more difficult to obtain
sufficient numbers of people high in narcissistic traits than
individuals with other personality traits.  Researchers may need to
employ novel strategies to recruit individuals with narcissistic traits
for experimental studies.

By the way, I’ve never showed up for any experiments.  I would think the procedure also discriminates against the anti-social, a trait which may be to some extent correlated with narcissism.

The link is from BPS Digest, which also informs us that people born in late winter are smarter; I can only imagine how smart tall, left-handed people, born in late winter [alas, I am not tall], must be…

Are new concert halls worth it?

Here is a good NYT article, and here is my favorite part:

“This is all redistributing people’s expenditures from one activity to another,” said David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago who focuses on the arts.

Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and the
author of “Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts
Funding,” said there was little solid research measuring the economic
impact of arts centers on a city, although there was for sports
stadiums. Such research shows no benefit for a city’s growth, he said,
adding that he was skeptical about economic claims for new concert

“The glorious tales are typically exaggerations,” said
Mr. Cowen, who also contributes a monthly economics column to The New
York Times.