Month: December 2006

Legistorm Storm

LegiStorm is a web-database with information on the salaries of all Congressional staff.  (It was started by a friend, Jock Friedly.)  You can find data, for example, on which representatives spend the most say on press secretaries.  The salary data has always been "public" on paper, but now that it’s available on the web staff are comparing salaries and wondering why it is that that cute intern is paid so much more than the rest.  Of course, the politicians are not happy and are trying to shut Legistorm down.

NYT — The Year in Ideas

As usual, I read through the entirety of this survey.

Here is one good bit on how people can be too far-sighted and not party enough.

Here is the hidden fee economy; here is an earlier MR take on the same.

Read this on shipping containers.

I liked this article: "”It’s not that we enjoy disliking people,” Bosson, a social
psychologist at the University of South Florida, says. “It’s that we
enjoy meeting people who dislike the same people.”"

How to read fast

I am unfamiliar with speed reading techniques, so I cannot evaluate them.

The best way to read quickly is to read lots.  And lots.  And to have started a long time ago.  Then maybe you know what is coming in the current book.  Reading quickly is often, in a margin-relevant way, close to not reading much at all. 

Note that when you add up the time costs of reading lots, quick readers don’t consume information as efficiently as you might think.  They’ve chosen a path with high upfront costs and low marginal costs.  "It took me 44 years to read this book" is not a bad answer to many questions about reading speed.

Another way to read quickly is to cut bait on the losers.  I start ten or so books for every one I finish.  I don’t mind disliking a book, and I never regret having picked it up and started it.  I am ruthless in my discards.

Fairfax and Arlington counties have wonderful public library systems, and I go about five times a week to one branch or another.  Usually I scan the New Books shelf and look at nothing else.  I can go shopping at the best store in the world, almost any day, for free. 

I am both interested and compulsive.  How can I let that book go unread or at least unsampled?  I can’t.

Virtually every Tuesday I visit the New Books table at Borders.  Tuesday is when most new books arrive.  Who knows what might be there?  How can I let that New Books table go unvisited?  I can’t.  About half the time I buy something, but I always walk away happy.

Here is another reading tip: do less of other activities.

Blogging hasn’t hurt my writing, it has helped by non-fiction reading, but I read fewer novels.  That is the biggest intellectual opportunity cost of MR, though for the last month I’ve made a concerted effort to read more fiction.  But it is not like the old days when I would set aside two months to work through The Inferno, Aeneid, and the like, with multiple secondary sources and multiple translations at hand.  I no longer have the time or the mood, and I miss this.

Here are two earlier posts on time management.

Addendum: Jane Galt comments.  And here is Daniel Akst.

Five macroeconomic myths?

Here is Ed Prescott’s list.  Here is the thumbnail version:

Myth No. 1: Monetary policy causes booms and busts
Myth No. 2: GDP growth was extraordinary in the 1990s
Myth No. 3: Americans don’t save
Myth No. 4: The U.S. government debt is big
Myth No. 5: Government debt is a burden on our grandchildren

Where to start?

In my view #1 is 53 percent true, not a myth, #2 is a debate over semantics, #3 is indeed a myth though we should save a bit more, interpreted literally #4 is myth but let’s not forget the real problem is forthcoming demographics combined with Medicare, and #5 is mostly a myth although the illusory "government debt is net wealth so let’s spend more than we ought to, thereby reducing the capital stock" effect is not zero.

Against organic farming

Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug,
the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize
and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to
increase crop yields.  He claims the idea that organic farming is better
for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces
lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to
produce the same amount of food.  Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr
Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and
2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%.  Using
traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to
supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a
tripling of the area under cultivation.  The more intensively you farm,
Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

Read more here.

Addendum: Speaking of The Economist, here are their book recommendations for the year.

Economics for children

A loyal MR reader asks:

I would like to start introducing my daughter (age 8) to the concepts
of economics.  She is a voracious reader so I thought that might be a
great place to start her thinking like an economist (on the other had,
she dismisses anything her father tells her out of hand)


Do you have any suggestions on books that would be great for a 3rd or 4th grader?

Any suggestions?

My favorite things New Jersey

1. Music: There is Count Basie, Lauryn Hill (download "I Just Want You Around"), Paul Robeson, and Deborah Harry’s best songs; my favorite is the reggae-inspired "The Tide is High."  Paul Simon was born in New Jersey, and of course there is sax player Wayne Shorter.  Even at age 44, I’m still not into Frank Sinatra.  Bruce Springsteen I now find mostly unlistenable (monotonous rhythm sections), but parts of Born to Run still send a thrill through my heart.

2. Author: Philip Roth is the obvious pick, but I prefer Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, a neglected masterpiece, and the first half of his Executioner’s Song.  Stephen Crane is from the state, but somehow he doesn’t count in my eyes as a New Jerseyan.  Mencken had the bottom line on James Fenimore Cooper.

3. TV show: Duh.  I still don’t get the appeal of The Wire; for obvious biographical reasons, I’d rather watch white New Jerseyans kill each other than black Baltimoreans.

4. Poet: William Carlos Williams, here is a quickie poem.

5. Comic: Jason Alexander, by far the funniest guy on that show.  Bud Abbott is another pick.  James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) can be funny when they let him.

6. Director: Steven Spielberg, AI is about how morally superficial people can be; Sugarland Express and Close Encounters (director’s cut) are other favorites of many.  There is also Brian de Palma, his best film is the Hitchcockean Dressed to Kill.

7. Non-fiction writer.  John McPhee has raised the bar for all of us.

8. Painter: Jacob Lawrence, especially the early works.  There is also George Inness, who painted Montclair, and Ben Shahn, here is my favorite of his.

9. Sculptor: George Segal I am not so fond of, but otherwise I draw a blank.

10. Economist: Milton Friedman.

11. Movie, set in: Here is a list, plus there is Clerks and other Kevin Smith creations, not to mention Big (Tom Hanks) and Buckeroo Bonzai.  I opt for Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.  What else am I missing?

12. Mom: Mine.

The bottom line: Too obvious to state.

The second bottom line: Population density is a wonderful thing.

Got Milk?

The Washington Post has a great front-page article on the milk cartel and how they crushed a competitor.  Titled "Dairy Industry Crushed Innovator who Bested Price-Control System," it lays everything out from the law and its history to how the system really works e.g. campaign contributions, Innovator: $172,900, Dairy Industry: $7,577,409.

In the summer of 2003, shoppers in Southern California began getting a break on the price of milk.

maverick dairyman named Hein Hettinga started bottling his own milk and
selling it for as much as 20 cents a gallon less than the competition,
exercising his right to work outside the rigid system that has
controlled U.S. milk production for almost 70 years. Soon the effects
were rippling through the state, helping to hold down retail prices at
supermarkets and warehouse stores.

That was when a coalition of giant milk companies and dairies, along
with their congressional allies, decided to crush Hettinga’s
initiative. For three years, the milk lobby spent millions of dollars
on lobbying and campaign contributions and made deals with lawmakers,
including incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

March, Congress passed a law reshaping the Western milk market and
essentially ending Hettinga’s experiment — all without a single
congressional hearing.

Read the whole thing.

Silly guessing games, part II

Go to an old-style movie theater where you can tell which are the people coming out of the feature you wish to see.  As they file past, make a guess about their personal qualities.  Possible guesses are "immature," "pretentious," "dopey," "sad sacks," "not very attractive," and so on.

Then pick up the mirror, so to speak, and start believing that you hold this same quality more than you used to think you did.

I played this game last night at Bergman Island (recommended, the best part is when he calls bad conscience "a petty conceit"), with distressing results.

Here is the previous installment of Silly Guessing Games.

Does “doing time” harden prisoners?

Wunderkind Jesse Shapiro says yes:

Some two million Americans are currently incarcerated, with roughly six hundred thousand to be released this year.  Despite this, little is known about the effects of confinement conditions on the post-release lives of inmates.  In this paper we estimate the causal effect of prison conditions on recidivism rates by exploiting a discontinuity in the assignment of federal prisoners to security levels, and find that harsher prison conditions lead to significantly more post-release crime.  We check our identifying assumptions by showing that similar discontinuities do not arise in a control population housed separately from other inmates, and that predetermined correlates of recidivism do not change discretely around score cutoffs.  We argue our findings may have important implications for prison policy, and that our methodology is likely to be applicable beyond the particular context we study.

Here is the paper.  The authors also argue that these peer effects appear large, relative to the deterrence effects of sending people to nasty prisons.  Here is a good recent article on the prison economy.

What I’ve been reading

1. Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World.  A best-seller and critical rave in Germany, but it is dull.  Did it succeed because Germans are overreacting to a "normal" (read: non-Nazi) novel about their history?

2. Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, by Esther Perel.  This is the most dangerous book I read this year.  The main thesis is you keep your sex life alive through anger/arousel and distance, not intimacy.  Here is a review

3. Kathryn Davis, The Thin Place: A Novel.  She is a consistently intriguing writer who finally wrote her breakthrough book; one of the best-reviewed novels of 2006.

4. Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock: Stories.  I’ll put her with early Pynchon, Coetzee, Rushdie, Saramago, Sebald, and Pamuk.  A wonderful collection, but read this "roots approach" last, not first.  You might start here instead, be ready for lots of Ontario.  A big dose of her is the easiest way to make Philip Roth look overrated.

5. Javier Marias, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear.  Spain’s best-known current writer, but ignored by Anglos.  Here is a good article on him.  The English-language translation is first-rate, but the story doesn’t click with me.

6. Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, by Joshua Foa Dienstag, interesting from beginning to end: "Freedom for the pessimists is not merely a status but an
experience that a time-bound person can aspire to through a certain
approach to life.  As I will elaborate later, the pessimists have
tended to see this approach exemplified in questing figures like
Columbus or Don Quixote."

Negative real rates of return, part II

Apocalypto, yes storage costs for goods are positive in the movie.  The film is about theology; virtually frame-by-frame it is commentary on Passion of the Christ, the Bible, or both.  Call it mishnah, if you wish; the reviews I read didn’t get this at all.  The movie’s central question is what the idea of a miracle, or salvation, can mean in a non-Christian world.  I found it remarkable, but I can’t imagine it drawing many viewers beyond the curious, the omnivorous, the Mayan, and the deeply committed.

Here is my previous post on negative rates of return.  Comments are open, but if you wish to simply complain about Mel Gibson, please use this old space.

Addendum: Here are reviews.