Month: July 2007

Is it bad to become like your parents?

Ask your mother what she did to avoid turning into her mother!

Who, after all, has faced a more similar problem?  Of course do exactly what she says.

Alternatively, probably you are already like your mother.  Almost certainly you are very much like some time-slice version of your mother. 

How would the younger version of your mother have felt about how she turned out, if that younger version could look ahead in time and see her 2007 self?  Your words suggest "not so happy," when you write "the prospect of me ultimately turning into her also scares me to death. Frankly, I do not think she would like it either."

So deviate from her, and deviate from how she would have felt at your age.

In other words, embrace turning into your mother.


What’s wrong with Harry Potter (no spoilers)

Bad economics, says Megan McArdle.  Excerpt:

The low opportunity cost attached to magic spills over into the
thoroughly unbelievable wizard economy. Why are the Weasleys poor? Why
would any wizard be? Anything they need, except scarce magical objects,
can be obtained by ordering a house elf to do it, or casting a spell,
or, in a pinch, making objects like dinner, or a house, assemble
themselves. Yet the Weasleys are poor not just by wizard standards, but
by ours: they lack things like new clothes and textbooks that should be
easily obtainable with a few magic words. Why?

Addendum: Here is the nerdiest sentence Ezra Klein will ever write.

How to avoid Harry Potter spoilers

Highly capitalized and reputation-conscious mass media will give you warnings in advance.  Clicking on links — yes and that includes innocuous-looking links — is the most dangerous thing you can do.  Just don’t click on links or MP3 files for a while.

While we are on the topic of links, here is a great post on why doomsday analysis is wrong.  (There are no HP spoilers behind the link.  Seriously.  Really.  I mean it.  It’s statistics, Bayesian approaches vs. frequentism, and when the world will end.  It’s Andrew Gelman, who can’t even send a text message.  I can’t either.)  So please do save for your retirement.

Comments on this post are…um…open. 

The wisdom of Hal Varian

For decades, many of the brightest graduates in economics sought their fortune in finance.  In coming years, they will seek it in marketing, as the Internet gives all companies the information-rich environment once available only in financial markets.

There is much more here; Varian of course is now working full-time for Google.  Thanks to Chris F. Masse for the pointer.

MarginalRevolution book forum

OK people, we’re going to do an MR book forum on Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.  Pre-order it, get it July 27.  (Guess whose book you can buy it with, for a two-fer discount?)  We’ll start the first chapter or so about a week after that and I’ll discuss the book sequentially.

The New York Times calls this book "the next blockbuster in economics"; here is my column on the book.  Here’s the book’s home page.  Arnold Kling has had some very good posts on the book as well.

And yes I will play the role of helpful critic.  Keep marginalism in mind.  Contrary to what many of you suggested, my view is not that all criticism is worthless.  I said "use Google" but that means you are indeed Googling to something by a critic and then reading it.  You are reading "critics" on Amazon as well.  It remains very likely, however, that the marginal act of criticism isn’t worth very much, relative to using Google.

But ah…which act of criticism is the marginal one?  Can we be infra-marginal?  Here’s hoping the world googles to our forthcoming symposium, and perhaps Greg will join in.

I may soon pick a work of fiction as well, though I am less sure that will work.  In the meantime, please don’t discuss Clark’s book in the comments, we’ll save that for the future.  And I would be curious to hear what kind of pace you could bear for the forum.

If the forum goes well, I’m thinking of doing Keynes’s General Theory, chapter by chapter (no, wise guy, that’s not the work of fiction!), but first I want to see if there is interest in the forum for an easier book of more general interest.

Addendum: Last I looked Greg’s book rose from about #10,000 on to #169 today, and was still rising, so I am glad some of you seem to be interested…

Netherlands fact of the day

Some 12,000 more people have registered as organ
donors in the Netherlands since a Dutch TV hoax that featured a
"competition" for a kidney.

The Big Donor Show was revealed to be a hoax as the fake donor was apparently about to reveal her choice of patient.

But Dutch media say the number of people registering as
organ donors has jumped since the hoax. The usual monthly figure is
just 3-4,000.

Will this greater interest in organ donation last?  Here is the link and story.

Economists who collect art

Here is the story, here is one bit at the end:

Now that the Bhagwatis have acquired a strong collection, they have decided to shift their focus away from expanding their art holdings.  The couple will be working more with charities and philanthropy.  Ms. Desai is also writing her 10th book, which is about America and the opportunities it offers to reinvent yourself. 

Thanks to David Quinn for the pointer.

History lesson

The Aztecs were soon dominating Central Mexico, and overawed others as they built and extended their empire.  While the capital city housed over 200,000, the valley and its surroundings held an addition million people.  Thousands of public buildings, canals, and causeways impressed everyone who came, including the Spanish. 

Here, or try Charles Mann’s 1491, one of my favorite books.  Try reading him on the selective breeding of corn, still one of mankind’s most impressive scientific feats.  Or:

The Maya, Inca, and Aztec empires [were] greatly advanced in the topics agriculture, writing, and engineering and astronomy.

You might think that some kind of dysgenic breeding has kicked in since, but a) there is zero evidence for that, and b) it is more plausible to cite a few negative supply shocks.  You know, like the pandemic that wiped out 90 percent of the Aztecs or more, their virtual enslavement by the Spanish, the move from trade-based cities to the isolated hacienda system, and the subsequent malnutrition and demoralization and cultural devastation, all of which amounted to perhaps the most extreme destruction of a civilization ever seen.

James Heckman, Nobel Laureate writes:

This paper develops a model of skill formation that explains a variety of findings established in the child development and child intervention literatures.  At its core is a technology that is stage-specific and that features self productivity, dynamic complementarity and skill multipliers.  Lessons are drawn for the design of new policies to alleviate the consequences of the accident of birth that is a major source of human inequality.

Try these papers too, plus previous MR posts on the Flynn Effect.  IQ is worth talking about, but compare Heckman’s models and data to much of the IQ literature — those models are not very well specified, nor given our current state of knowledge about either growth or IQ can they be — and you’ll see I do mean what I am saying. 

If you do wish to try a "genetic argument," there is much more evidence for the "predisposition to debilitating alcoholism" claim.  I’d estimate that half of the adult males of Oapan — the village I cite and direct descendants of the Aztec empire I might add — are debilitated alcoholics.

Please leave your comments on the already-active previous thread.

MR book club

I’ve thought of running a week-long or five-day MR symposium of a book of general interest to MR readers.  Each day I would "review" one part of the book, in sequence.  You could read along and of course comment, but the posts also would be fully intelligible to people who weren’t reading the book at all.

If we did this, which book would you like to have covered, not counting some of the books we discussed yesterday…?

What I haven’t been reading

1. Taxi: A Social History of the New York Cabdriver, by Graham Hodges, 44 out of 240 pp.

2. Kim MacQuarrie, The Last Days of the Incas, 169 out of 522 pp., it is actually quite good.

3. Kiwis Might Fly, by Polly Evans, 1 out of 310 pp.

4. Gold: The Once and Future Money, by Nathan Lewis, 13 out of 447 pp., some of you will love it.

5. Cosmonaut Keep, by Ken MacLeod, 77 out of 352 pp., sorry guys.

The World Without Us

To this day, nature hasn’t come up with a microbe that eats it [a tire], either.  Goodyear’s process, called vulcanization, ties long rubber polymer chains together with short strands of sulfur atoms, actually transforming them into a single giant molecule.  Once rubber is vulcanized — meaning it’s heated, spiled with sulfur, and poured into a mold, such as one shaped like a truck tire — the resulting huge molecule takes that form and never relinquishes it.

Being a single molecule, a tire can’t be melted down or turned into something else.  Unless physically shredded or worn down by 60,000 miles of friction, both entailing significant energy, it remains round.  Tires drive landfill operators crazy, because when buried, they encircle a doughnut-shaped air bubble that wants to rise.  Most garbage dumps no longer accept them, but for hundreds of years into the future, old tires will inexorably work their way to the surface of forgotten landfills, fill with rainwater, and begin breeding mosquitoes again.

In the United Sates, an average of one tire per citizen is discarded annually — that’s a third of a billion, just in one year.

That is from Alan Weisman’s truly excellent The World Without Us.  Here is my previous post on the book.

FDA Delay

Last year the Abigail Alliance won a stunning decision from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals that dying patients have
a due process right to access drugs once they have been through
FDA approved safety trials.  Here’s a sad update from Kerry Howley writing in the Aug/Sept. issue of Reason Magazine (not yet online):

After last year’s ruling in the alliance’s favor, the FDA argued that the group no longer had legal standing to sue it, since none of the patients who had signed the original affidavits were still members.  They were all dead.

See for more on the FDA.

IQ and the Wealth of Nations

How many more times will someone suggest this book in the comments section of this blog?  I like this book and I think it offers a real contribution.  Nonetheless I feel no need to suggest it in the comments sections of other peoples’ blogs.

I do not treat this book as foundational because of personal experience.  I’ve spent much time in one rural Mexican village, San Agustin Oapan, and spent much time chatting with the people there.  They are extremely smart, have an excellent sense of humor, and are never boring.  And that’s in their second language, Spanish.

I’m also sure they if you gave them an IQ test, they would do miserably.  In fact I can’t think of any written test — no matter how simple — they could pass.  They simply don’t have experience with that kind of exercise.

When it comes to understanding the properties of different corn varieties, catching fish in the river, mending torn amate paper, sketching a landscape from memory, or gossiping about the neighbors, they are awesome.

Some of us like to think that intelligence is mostly one-dimensional, but at best this is true only within well-defined peer groups of broadly similar people.  If you gave Juan Camilo a test on predicting rainfall he would crush me like a bug.

OK, maybe I hang out with a select group within the village.  But still, there you have it.  Terrible IQ scores (if they could even take the test), real smarts.

So why should I think this book is the key to understanding economic underdevelopment?

Addendum: I am sorry there have been too many nasty comments, so I have taken the comments down.  They aren’t deleted forever, I like to think that I will have time to pick out the bad ones and put the thread back up.  I do understand that most of you (and not just on one side of the debate) are capable of discussing this topic with the appropriate tone.