Month: April 2007

Why has opera singing declined?

Bryan Caplan has been lending me CDs from the splendid series Lebendige Vergangenheit (and here), so I’ve been hearing or rehearing the best opera singers from the past.  I’m no cultural pessimist, but I share the common opinion that opera singing has declined since, say, 1935.  Why might this be?

1. Opera is less culturally central, and so the best voices do something else, or they are more likely to be narrow technicians rather than inspired musical creators and interpreters. 

2. The best voices grow up watching TV, rather than reading Romain Rolland and Thomas Mann.  The Zeitgeist makes them dull.

3. The average voice is much better, there is simply less individuality in approach and thus lower peaks.  This sort of culturally mysterious process also seems to be governing fiction.

4. The best voices came from Germany and Italy and Austria, and World War II destroyed the musical and vocal training networks of those countries.

5. Conservatories and agents choke off musical individuality in the interests of technique and conformity.

6. Opera is now more heavily subsidized and more organizationally bureaucratic.  The programs, while still excellent, are biased against individualistic, crowd-pleasing singers and biased toward singers who don’t make many identifiable mistakes.  It’s a bit like the advent of peer review in economics.

Your thoughts?

The Power of the Family

Alesina and Giuliano report:

The structure of family relationships influences economic behavior and attitudes. We define our measure of family ties using individual responses from the World Value Survey regarding the role of the family and the love and respect that children need to have for their parents for over 70 countries.  We show that strong family ties imply more reliance on the family as an economic unit which provides goods and services and less on the market and on the government for social insurance.  With strong family ties home production is higher, labor force participation of women and youngsters, and geographical mobility, lower.  Families are larger (higher fertility and higher family size) with strong family ties, which is consistent with the idea of the family as an important economic unit. We present evidence on cross country regressions.  To assess causality we look at the behavior of second generation immigrants in the US and we employ a variable based on the grammatical rule of pronoun drop as an instrument for family ties.  Our results overall indicate a significant influence of the strength of family ties on economic outcomes.

Here is the link.  This topic remains understudied by economists.  Biographically speaking, our political views often spring from our experience of our families and our views of what kind of family structure is acceptable.  That is partly why true Russian liberals are so hard to find, and also why Russians are not obsessed with the welfare state.  Libertarians tend to be family-ornery; compared to their conservative brethren, they are less willing to knuckle down and admit the morally binding power of irrational family obligations.

Addendum: Will Wilkinson has a good post on family.

Michael Crichton on Robin Hanson

I think what this post is really telling you is that an individual’s sense of clinical judgement is overrated to the point of being dangerous.  A similar circumstance applies to psychologists, who are most accurate in making diagnoses when they are young, and tend to rely on checklists.  Later, as experienced practicioners, they rely on clinical judgement and misdiagnose.  This means that psychologists become demonstrably less skilled as they become more experienced.  A sort of inversion of expertise. See Robin Dawes, House of Cards.

Here is Robin’s post that evoked the comment, here are the comments.  Here is the recommended book.  We cannot be sure this is the Michael Crichton, you know, the Jasper Johns collector…in any case my favorite Michael Crichton novel is Sphere.

Should endangered antiquities be leased out?

Michael Kremer has another neat idea:

Most countries prohibit the export of certain antiquities.  This practice often leads to illegal excavation and looting for the black market, which damages the items and destroys important aspects of the archaeological record.  We argue that long-term leases of antiquities would raise revenue for the country of origin while preserving its long-term ownership rights.  By putting the object into the hands of the highest value consumer in each period, allowing leases would generate incentives for protection of objects.

I’m all for trying this, as I see no major downside.  But I don’t think it would have a large positive effect.  Collectors, being irrational creatures and "completists," wish to own rather than lease, even if the lease extends past their expected lifetimes.  Museum donors wish to fund museum acquisitions more than museum borrowings.  Similarly, it is much easier for a non-profit to raise money for buying a building than leasing one long-term.  So the demand for leased antiquities won’t be all that huge.

This is either the worst or the best news I have ever heard

European astronomers have spotted what they say is the most Earth-like planet yet outside our solar system, with balmy temperatures that could support water and, potentially, life.

Here is the story.  That planet is only about twenty light years away.  Are earth-like planets so common?  That probably means lots more civilization-supporting planets than I had expected.  But where are the alien visitors?  As suggested by the Fermi paradox, we must revise our priors along several margins, one of which is the expected duration of an intelligent civilization.

We already have a civilization, so the added optimism on that front doesn’t help us much.  On the other hand, we don’t know how long our civilization will last, but now we must be more pessimistic. 

I might be happier if I were more altruistic toward possible alien races; right now my appreciation for them is mostly aesthetic (modally speaking, that is), not empathetic.  All you alien altruists should be jumping for joy.  Holders of selfish, planet-based moralities should despair.

No matter what the proper galactic welfare function, I suppose I should be wracked with emotion.  I’m not.

Joshua Angrist writes to TNR on Levitt

In "Freaks and Geeks" (April 2, 2007) Noam Scheiber praises my work with Alan Krueger on the economic effects of compulsory schooling but argues that economics Ph.D. students today are obsessed with headline-grabbing trivia of little substantive importance.  The root cause is said to be excessive attention to a good or clever research design at the expense of the relevance of the underlying question.  Scheiber’s story is engaging and he lands a few punches, but his account is misleading in two important ways.  For one thing, he exaggerates the problem of small-bore studies.  America’s half-dozen top Ph.D. programs produce scores of Ph.D. students every year.  Most of this work is still on traditional topics.  At MIT (where Levitt studied), we continue to supervise empirical theses on, among other things, health insurance, immigration, unions, and human capital.  High-quality research on these traditional topics gets students high-quality jobs.  I’ll plead guilty, however, to being especially pleased when students manage to come up with clean identification–that is, they have a convincing strategy for uncovering causal effects.  Clean identification is not a fetish; without it, little of value is learned.  On this score, our students typically do better than the empiricists of H.G. Lewis’s generation.  In two of the most dynamic empirical microeconomics subfields, the economics of education and economic development, there has been a virtual credibility revolution, with the increase of randomized field trials as well as compelling natural-experiments research designs (see, e.g., the work done at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab).

Second, in his rush to tar some up-and-comers with the "cute-o-nomics" brush, Scheiber misses a central feature of the clean-identification research agenda, best explained by example.  One of the enduring scientific and policy questions in Labor economics is the sensitivity of hours worked to changes in pay (this matters for tax policy, for example).  The best evidence labor economists have on the relation between wages and hours worked comes from a small experiment (by Ernst Fehr and Lorenz Goette) involving the wages of bicycle messengers in Switzerland.  The second best comes from a study of stadium vendors by Gerald Oettinger.  Who cares about the riders of Veloblitz or snack sellers at Camden Yards?  We care because economics is predicated on the notion that a few simple principles explain behavior in many settings.  These studies produce results that are convincing and may well be general, though, as always in science, it will take replication to know for sure.  Some of the studies Scheiber dismisses can be understood in this spirit.  Finally, as to the merits of Freakonomics the book: My 17-year old daughter picked it up on her own last year.  She never knew economics could be so cool.  Even better, she now asks me what I’m up to.  So I tip my cap to Dubner and Levitt–I hope to see many of their readers in an economics classroom some day.

JOSHUA ANGRIST is a professor of economics at Massachusetts Institute

That is from TNR on-line.  Here is Alex’s earlier post on the Scheiber piece.

The best paragraph I read today

Singing together, working together against tangible adversaries, melds us into one whole: we become members of the community, embedded in place.  By contrast, thinking–especially thinking of the reflective, ironic, quizzical mode, which is a luxury of affluent societies–threatens to isolate us from our immediate group and home.  As vulnerable beings who yearn at times for total immersion, to sing in unison (eyes closed) with others of our kind, this sense of isolation–of being a unique individual–can be felt as a deep loss.  Thinking, however, yields a twofold gain: although it isolates us from our immediate group it can link us both seriously and playfully to the cosmos–to strangers in other places and times; and it enables us to accept a human condition that we have always been tempted by fear and anxiety to deny, namely, the impermanence of our state wherever we are, our ultimate homelessness.  A cosmopolite is one who considers the gain greater than the loss.  Having seen something of the splendid spaces, he or she (like Mole [in The Wind in the Willows]) will not want to return, permanently, to the ambiguous safeness of the hearth.

That is by Yi-Fu Tuan, discussed by Virginia Postrel.

The music of Edward Cumberbatch

My Eddie Cumberbatch CD came today (markets in everything, indeed), courtesy of  Eddie sings tenor and lead role on Samuel Felsted’s 18th century Jamaican oratorio Jonah.  I’m not crazy; although the music is not to my taste Eddie is as good as I had remembered him.

Here are also some MP3s, truly brief, stirring at times, but shakier in quality and sound; thanks to the ingenious Chug for the pointer.  Here is my previous post on Edward Cumberbatch.

Protection Racket

Who is protecting borrowers from "predatory lending"?  The trial lawyers!  Feel better?  I didn’t think so.  Ted Frank, writing in the Wall Street Journal has the story.  Yours truly makes an appearance.

The trial lawyers’ entrepreneurial solution is to go
after the deep pocket. And so we have lawsuits alleging that the
investment banks providing financing to the mortgage banks are "aiding
and abetting" the alleged fraud through securitization.

What would be the upshot? If an investment bank is
potentially liable for every conversation and every phone call involved
in the underlying mortgages, the costs of due diligence becomes
prohibitive, far outstripping the fees it can bring in for packaging
the loans…The securitization
simply will not take place….

To make matters worse, the House Financial Services Committee held
hearings last week on writing this judicial mistake — and more — into
federal statutory law. Committee Chair Barney Frank (D., Mass.), wants
to hold not only the packagers of mortgages liable but also the purchasers in
the secondary market. "Anybody, including the original borrower, can
make a claim, and the liability would go up the chain," Mr. Frank told
the press….

It is not speculation to say that the results will be disastrous if
such a bill becomes law….the 2002 Georgia Fair Lending Act created unlimited liability
to purchasers of mortgages for any legal violations by the loan
originator…all three of the major credit ratings agencies (S&P, Moody’s, and
Fitch) announced they could not rate any securitization containing any
loans subject to Georgia law for fear that the entire security would be
tainted by unquantifiable liability. Liquidity for the state’s mortgage
market disappeared and the Georgia legislature quickly repealed the
worst parts of the law to restore access to credit.

The Myth of the Rational Voter, part II

1. Bryan shows that education is the best predictor of what makes a person think like an economist.  This will create problems for his next book, which is a critique of education.  He also urges professors to teach better; he is again putting his faith in education.

2. I’m amazed that the public is as rational and smart as it is.  Few people demand that our leaders resort, say, to the tools of superstition, even though many people believe in astrology.  Our political irrationality is highly selective and self-serving in a "feel good about ourselves" way, rather than indiscriminate.  I don’t understand what, in Bryan’s theory, prevents voters from satiating in irrationality, with truly dire social consequences.  He writes of "a demand for irrationality" in stripped down Beckerian fashion, but the model in the back of his mind has a great more structure in it than the book lets on.  The sheep on the cover, for instance, do not play a formal role in the model of the book, even though conformism both eggs on and constrains real world political irrationality.

3. Voters are less irrational in many northern European countries.  I don’t agree with their socialistic view of the world, but in epistemically procedural terms they are making a much greater effort to get at the truth and put that truth into their vote.  What accounts for such a difference?

4. Bryan comes dangerously close to agreeing with me on broad matters of politics.  I think public opinion, for better or worse, is often a constraint on what is possible; that is why Henry Farrell described my view as "big government libertarianism."  Bryan sees opinion as a variable to be manipulated, but he could equally well consider it as a constraint.  His proposal to take more matters out of democratic hands begs the question of how this could be possible, given current public opinion.

5. Bryan underrates the irrationality of many private decisions.  He views "decisiveness" as the most important quality in predicting the quality of an individual choice.  I think that even if our elections were up to one decisive voter, that voter would still choose lots of batty policies or politicians.  I view pride and self-image as the most important features in predicting the quality of an individual choice.  When our pride is at stake, we often self-deceive and make bad and irrational choices, even when we are purely decisive.  I’m not convinced, for instance, that most people make very rational decisions about marriage.  Or status goods, or giving to charity.  In these cases people often "look the other way" when they should be exercising their critical judgment.

Here is the book’s introduction.  Note that my criticisms, even if they are correct, do not puncture the major theses of the book.