Month: February 2007


Cialdini asked his subjects to read a short biography of Grigori Rasputin, the notorious monk who served as an adviser in the court of Czar Nicolas II, and to give their opinion of him.  The biography depicted Rasputin as a mendacioius and manipulative villain.  In half the cases Cialdini had adjusted Rasputin’s birthday so that it matched that of the reader.  Those subjects who shared a birthday with Rasputin were ovrewhelmingly more likely to rate him positively — as a strong and effective leader with many redeeming qualities.

That is from Jake Halpern’s Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction.  By the way, Bob Cialdini’s Influence is one of my all-time favorite books, if you don’t already know it you should.

The greatest women artists of the 20th century?

David Galenson gets out his measuring stick:

A survey of the illustrations of the work of women artists contained in
textbooks of art history reveals that art historians judge Cindy
Sherman to be the greatest woman artist of the twentieth century,
followed in order by Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and
Frida Kahlo.

We need to distinguish between fame in books and fame in the art world, not to mention fame with the general public.  Textbooks pass through a "least common denominator" filter, which includes the need to appear balanced and representative.  Cindy Sherman is unique and memorable, and her work reproduces well on the printed page.  Frida Kahlo was of course Latina.  O’Keeffe, Hesse, and Susan Rothenberg are better candidates for the top slots., with the German Hesse as my personal favorite  I’m also a fan of Rachel Whiteread, Agnes Martin, and Kiki Smith (this one too).  Quiltmakers, as a category, deserve top recognition, although there is no dominant name linked to the field.  If we are talking about the general public, Grandma Moses (overrated), Yoko Ono, O’Keeffe and Kahlo all do well.

Perhaps the more important observation is that women have done best in the arts (and, for that matter, in economics) precisely when we left the era of "The Great Artist."

The Lives of Others

That’s the new German movie with the rave reviews and the foreign language film Oscar, but don’t be fooled.  The movie is technically excellent, but not thoughtful.  It is part of a more general, and disturbing, trend in contemporary German culture to whitewash the past.  The film shows many small acts of defiance against the Stasi, as if to redeem an otherwise sorry East German record.  Last year — fortunately I cannot remember the title — we were shown the German martyrs against the Nazis. 

Don’t economists emphasize the marginal unit?  Can’t we have at least one movie about small acts of defiance?  In principle yes, but characters implausibly discover the brotherhood of man and viewers are fed uplifting final homilies, a’la Schindler.  Natasha, who lived with her equivalent of the Stasi for many years, had a similar reaction of partial disgust and incredulity.

My friends consider me a cultural Germanophile (I could do "My Favorite Things German" for weeks), but I tend to be a cynic about the blacker historical episodes in the German past.  I used to hate the slow, tortuous, and pretentious Nazi-Angst movies of Fassbinder and his ilk, but they’ve aged surprisingly well, and they came much closer to striking the appropriate tone.

Addendum: Here is one good review (spoilers); by the way if you know the Hong Kong original, Infernal Affairs, you’ll find The Departed almost impossible to watch.  I walked out.

Markets in everything, German edition

Man schickt eine SMS mit der
Bezeichnung des Straßenzuges und der Uhrzeit, und zehn Sekunden später
geht das Licht an – gesteuert wird das über ein Empfangsmodul, das in
die grauen Schaltschränke eingebaut wird.  Auf der Teststrecke, die wir
eingerichtet haben, ist es dann fünfzehn Minuten lang hell.  Das sind 30
Laternen auf 2,5 Kilometer.  Den Nutzer kostet das 20 Cent, plus die
Kosten für die SMS.

In other words, you pay, using your cell phone, to have the street lights turned on.  That is for the town of Lemgo.  Here is the home page of the start-up.

Thanks to Martin for the pointer.

The Black Swan: read vs. unread books

Should your library consist mostly of read books, or of unread books?  The avid and loyal MR reader will already know we are adjusting for "number of books read" in posing this query.

If you own mostly read books, you use your library for reference and remembrance.  Your collection is like Proust’s madeleine.  If you own mostly unread books, your library yields exciting discovery but also lots of clunkers.  Each step to the shelf offers a chance to redefine your life and your loves in unexpected ways, or perhaps crashing disappointment.

My (small) personal library is virtually 100 percent already read books, plus Gone With the Wind and Shantaram, both of which I am saving up for long plane trips to distant climes.  But I think of my real library as the local public library, which is still mostly unread books.

If you are one of those Austrian economists who believes in the all-importance of unquantifiable Knightian uncertainty, I hope your shelves are full of unread books (we now, by the way, have the means to make this otherwise murky concept operational).  Otherwise you are livin’ a dirty, stinkin’ lie.  Karmic retribution will be swift and, yes, certain.

For further musings on this topic, see Nassim Taleb’s new The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a stimulating look at surprise.


Minimum wage and EITC

David Neumark, this time with William Wascher, continues his reign of enlightenment:

We study the effects of minimum wages and the EITC in the post-welfare reform era.  For the minimum wage, the evidence points to disemployment effects that are concentrated among young minority men.  For young women, there is little evidence that minimum wages reduce employment, with the exception of high school dropouts.  In contrast, evidence strongly suggests that the EITC boosts employment of young women (although not teenagers).  We also explore how minimum wages and the EITC interact, and the evidence reveals policy effects that vary substantially across different groups.  For example, higher minimum wages appear to reduce earnings of minority men, and more so when the EITC is high.  In contrast, our results indicate that the EITC boosts employment and earnings for minority women, and coupling the EITC with a higher minimum wage appears to enhance this positive effect.  Thus, whether or not the policy combination of a high EITC and a high minimum wage is viewed as favorable or unfavorable depends in part on whose incomes policymakers are trying to increase.

Here is the paper, here are non-gated versions.  In short, the standard liberal recipe of boosting the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit is probably good for women, bad for men.  The interesting question is what kind of model could rationalize this result…

Trudie on dating multiple men

Trudie related her answer to me:

The deadly clinker is that "nothing untoward" is going on.  If nothing else, sex in a relationship can serve as the equivalent of an "up or out," (no pun intended) rule, as in the principal-agent literature.  You don’t make partner in a law firm after some number of years, good-bye.  You don’t get academic tenure within six years, good-bye.  It’s not quite "three dates or marriage," but at some point a guy is either better than the available competition
or he is not.  It is not necessary to have sex within a month, but the couple should be on such a path, or at the very least engaged in a puritanical erotic blaze of repression and restraint.  And that must be done monogamously.  If she continues to see three dullards on such distant terms, each of whom has nothing better to do than to date her, we can narrow the options as follows:

a) she is afraid
of rejection, and uses the guys to hold each other at a distance, if
only in her own heart.

b) she is afraid of rejection, and seeks out the worst imaginable dullards.

c) she is the worst imaginable dullard.

These alternatives are not mutually exclusive.

The socially optimal policy is for her to see a fourth and yes indeed a fifth and possibly sixth dullard, if only to soak up their time and stop them from bothering other people in any way whatsoever.

Tyler adds that if he were seeing a woman under those terms, he would prefer that she were in another relationship, if only to rationalize her apparent total lack of interest in him.  The best case scenario is if the guys are assuming she is lying to them, think she is having bizarre sex orgies on the other nights, and believe she is holding them in some sort of frustrating but worthwhile queue.

And this "best case" scenario is not really all that good.

Addendum: If you are new to MR, here is one Trudie post, here is another, here is the first in the series, here are two others.

I would like to see data on this

…a principal reason for greater income volatility is both simple and benign–motherhood.  In the 1970s, a minority of mothers were in the workforce and their pay was relatively low.  By the 1990s, a majority of mothers were in the workforce and their pay was much higher.  Because women today have a much more prominent role in the economy, their movements in and out of the workforce to take care of children are having bigger impacts on income volatility.  When mothers re-enter the workforce, family incomes increase.  This also counts as income volatility.

That is from The New Rules Economy.  Have any of you seen more on the topic?

Game theory and the American-Israel relationship

Here are a few views:

1. Economizing hand motions is the key, so just leave it "as is" when done.  It might be needed in that same position again.

2. Such matters should be arranged to please your wife.  It is signaling and a symbolic recognition of her value.  The only question is what you get in return, but if you get anything at all it is worth it.

3. Avoiding midnight surprises is the key, which means always leave it down.

4. Many women don’t like the idea that guests could show up and see the insides of their toilet bowls. 

#2-4 all point in the same direction, and I don’t give a damn about #1.  But somehow I, like many other men, fail to optimize on this question.  The more interesting question is why this remains a issue.  Here goes:

1. Women keep it an issue, rather than delivering decisive argumentation, to test their men and their sense of commitment.

2. Men cannot help but rebel against the female ethic of caring, especially when it concerns something so infantile as a toilet seat.

3. Existential freedom.  I once had a European roommate, and it drove me crazy that he closed all the doors around the apartment. Perhaps an occasional open seat is a quixotic demand that our universe show true randomness and openness.

4. Men prefer to focus more intensely on a smaller number of issues and this isn’t one of them.  But obviously that explanation can no longer apply to me.

Addendum: Mikhail directs my attention to this paper.


The subtitle says it all: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both.

My reading of such books follows a formula.  Pick up said charge that voluntary individual behavior is leading to a crisis.  Sort author’s mush into a rational choice model with either social externalities or imperfections within the self.  Evaluate said model using evidence, in particular whether the other implied predictions are plausible.

So why might young women choose too much casual sex?

1. Their discount rates are too high.

2. There is an "arms race": the looseness of one woman makes the "putting out"  requirements more extreme for other women, but no single woman takes this effect into account.

3. Obsession with school work is the real problem.  Casual sex takes less time than a boyfriend, but girls overvalue how much good grades matter and underinvest in serious relationships.

4. Women are bad at estimating what will make them happy, a’la Daniel Gilbert.

5. Women underestimate the strength of their own addiction to causal sex.

6. Matters are efficient, but men are earning all the surplus.  Easy birth control allows men to use "loose women" as a threat point in the bargaining game.  (But hey, these *are* the loose women!)

7. We pursue the feeling of "being in control," even when it does not benefit us.  Women want to feel they are in control of their sex lives, and to feel they are not bound by social convention, although this is an illusory gain.

#1 and #4 are true but not essential to the question at hand.  #2 and #5 seem  inconsistent with the evidence — found in this book — of women pushing for a loosening of general standards.  The women are not supporting a local cartel of tighter sexual standards, quite the contrary.  #3 seems efficient to me, not a mistake.  I can see truth in #7, a quintessentially Cowenian theme.

Overall on this matter I am a Coasian who sees a Nash bargaining solution at work.  In other words, don’t worry.

Which doesn’t mean I am going to show this book to Yana.

Which is perhaps more evidence for #7.

Here is one insightful look at the book.  Note also that the author never adds up the welfare gains of the young men involved…

Wise words from John Quiggin

Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age, but you couldn’t measure height directly.

One way to respond to this problem
would be to interview groups of children in different classes at
school, and asked them the question Don suggests “On a scale of 1 to
10, how tall are you?”. My guess is that the data would look pretty
much like reported data on the relationship between happiness and

That is, within the groups, you’d find that kids who
were old relative to their classmates tended to be report higher
numbers than those who were young relative to their classmates (for the
obvious reason that, on average, the older ones would in fact be taller
than their classmates).

But, for all groups, I suspect you’d
find that the median response was something like 7. Even though average
age is higher for higher classes, average reported height would not
change (or not change much).

So you’d reach the conclusion
that height was a subjective construct depending on relative, rather
than absolute, age. If you wanted, you could establish some sort of
metaphorical link between being old relative to your classmates and
being “looked up to”.

But in reality, height does increase
with (absolute) age and the problem is with the scaling of the
question. A question of this kind can only give relative answers.

Here is the link.

Addendum: Here is Will Wilkinson on same.