Month: August 2007

Are we winning the fight against earmarks?

Maybe not:

Eight months after Democrats vowed to shine light on the dark art of
“earmarking” money for pet projects, many lawmakers say the new
visibility has only intensified the competition for projects by letting
each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving…

The earmark frenzy hit fever pitch in recent days, even as the Senate passed new rules that allow more public scrutiny of them.

from causing embarrassment, the new transparency has raised the value
of earmarks as a measure of members’ clout. Indeed, lawmakers have
often competed to have their names attached to individual earmarks and
rushed to put out press releases claiming credit for the money they
bring home.

Here is the full story.  A simple model is that such transparency imposes a large, one-time cost on lawmakers and a public relations hit.  But once this hit is taken, the new marginal calculus still brings lots of earmarks.  The "good" news is this:

…the Democratic totals are less than half  the record set by Republicans when they controlled Congress in 2005, but they are far higher than the levels just 10 years ago.

Russian restaurants around the world

Here is the website, yes there are four in Cambodia and one in Laos.  Even better, here is their list of unusual restaurants, some examples:

Auction-like sale of dishes (Malaga, Spain)
All staff are midgets (Cairo, Egypt)
Three robots greet guests and take orders (Hong Kong)
Restaurant for anorexics (Berlin, Germany, now closed, more information here)

The same link lists the world’s best (supposedly) 24 restaurants.

Here is restaurant trivia in Russian.

Where do I disagree with Robin Hanson?

A few days Robin wrote in the comments:

As you well know, I am sensitive to the fact that on facts people disagree too easily, and so I try to disagree reluctantly if at all. But this doesn’t apply to disagreements about styles or personal values. So I accept that we have different styles and place a differing value on overcoming bias. But if there are factual disagreements central to the position of mine you see yourself rebutting, then I would love to see those stated as clearly as possible. I won’t limit your word budget.

For background here is Robin’s home page

Of a randomly chosen three hundred persons, I am probably closer to Robin’s views than anyone else in the group.  It is also common at lunch that he and I gang up together on Bryan and Alex (can you guess on which issues?).  And I’m already on record as citing Robin as one of the most important thinkers of our day; keep that in mind throughout this discussion.  But we have many differences.  Here’s a non-exclusive list of my disagreements with Robin:

1. I see the chance of people becoming uploads — even within centuries — as less than one percent.  Apart from the technical issues (ever get a flat tire?), I think it is easier to graft greater intelligence and computational abilities onto already-existing biological beings.

2. I don’t think that futarchy — using betting markets to shape government policy — can succeed on anything but a very partial basis.  I stress the expressive function of democracy, and its ability to maintain public morale and cohesion, rather than the computational abilities of the system to find and implement the best policies.  I would bet against the future of futarchy, or its likelihood of succeeding were it in place.  Robin says "vote on values, bet on beliefs," but I don’t think values and beliefs can be so easily separated.

3. Robin is much more attached to the fact-value dichotomy than I am, and he is also more attached to seeing facts and theories, or facts and frameworks, as logically separable.  Robin therefore believes all meaningful claims can be stated very precisely in terms of basic facts.  This is his logical atomism.  Reread the comment from Robin at the top.  He suggests that our most important differences are simply those of "style," as though he might like frilly hats and I might carry a purse.

4. I see "overcoming laziness" or "overcoming fear" or even "overcoming inadequate love of Sichuan chili peppers" as often a more important problem than "overcoming bias."  Bias is one fault of many, and I believe Robin’s dislike of bias is indeed biased, more aesthetic than pragmatic.  Robin seems to admit this (above), but he is mentally downgrading this as a mere difference in tastes.  In reality the difference reflects our very distinct analytical engines; mine is more pluralistic.

5. Robin wrote: "If your head is cryogenically frozen today, you will be alive in 2100."  [In fairness to Robin he only seems to assign this sentence a truth probability of 5/14, under one reading of his presentation.]  I assign this a "p" of under one in ten thousand, basically for the reasons that a stupid person would give.

6. Robin thinks we could privatize all law; I don’t.  I believe some public goods require government provision and I think libertarian anarchy would devolve into either chaos or oppressive mafias.

7. Robin believes in the "many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics."  I don’t reject the possibility but I’ll accept the estimate of the professional community of the relevant experts and not raise my "p" or betting odds any higher than that.

Robin frequently and correctly asks disagreeing others to boil down disagreements to their fundamentals.  I would describe this difference as possible:

"Robin is very fond on powerful theories which invoke a very small number of basic elements and give those elements great force.  He likes to focus on one very central mechanism in seeking an explanation or developing policy advice.  Modern physics and Darwin hold too strong a sway in his underlying mental models.  He is also very fond of hypotheses involving the idea of a great transformation sometime in the future, and these transformations are often driven by the mechanism he has in mind.  I tend to see good social science explanations or proposals as intrinsically messy and complex and involving many different perspectives, not all of which can be reduced to a single common framework.  I know that many of my claims sound vague to Robin’s logical atomism, but I believe that, given our current state of knowledge, Robin is seeking a false precision and he is sometimes missing out on an important multiplicity of perspectives.  Many of his views should be more cautious."

8. I believe Robin does not agree that is the main difference between us.

Addendum: Here is Robin’s response.

Move south to live longer

Cold kills you more than does heat:

These longevity gains associated with long term trends in geographical
mobility account for 8%-15% of the total gains in life expectancy
experienced by the US population over the past 30 years.  Thus mobility
is an important but previously overlooked determinant of increased
longevity in the United States.

Here is the paper.  Here are non-gated versions.

Bookforum update

You may recall that we are having the first MarginalRevolution BookForum on Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.  Here is my previous post on the book and how the forum will work.  It’s a great book and I recommend it highly.

Orders from loyal MR readers have been very strong, and many (all?) of you are receiving emails from about publication delays for the book.  The publisher assures me that they are working hard to fill all orders in a timely fashion and the final delay is likely to be a slight one rather than a long one into October.  Early September is looking like the time we will start discussing the book.  But I’ll keep you posted as we hear more…

Are economists just dirty, stinkin’ liars?

I loved this post.  Excerpt:

AAARGH!!! Foreign Policy, the People magazine of international affairs has produced a column entitled "5 Lies my Economist Told me". The problem is, they are either not really lies or else not really what a professional economist would say!!

The dissection then proceeds.  How about this line?

I think there are a lot of countries in
the world who’d be thrilled to have a financial crisis because it would
mean they had experienced some foreign investment.

Get my book for free

Yes my book is out today (B&N here) but you don’t need to buy it.  You can get it here for free.


It is simple.  Just write in the comments section some reason why you should get my book for free.  I will mail free copies to the first fifteen commenters to meet the following conditions:

1. Your comment must offer a reason why you should get the book for free.

2. You must explain that reason in a moderately-sized paragraph or more.  "Just cuz" does not qualify.

3. Your paragraph must address why you should get the book and why you should get it for free.

4. You must believe your reason.

Then email me with your mailing address (to my normal gmu email, and so I know you are you please put your real name on your posted reason as well) and I will send you a copy, through Amazon, at my own expense.  You know, at first I thought I would get the publisher to put up copies for this but then I realized no, I ought to be paying for the books myself.  I’m not even using an author’s discount.

I wish I were a wealthier man, but I am offering only fifteen copies right now.  Any future copies will be offered abroad, not in the U.S.

I am very interested in the idea of what it means to have a reason.

Sadly, no matter how good your reason, I cannot send more than one copy to you.

Addendum: This offer is restricted to the United States and Canada.  I am worried that the first copies to go out otherwise would end up in the hands of a single Nigerian spammer, plus Amazon does not ship worldwide.  Nonetheless I hope to make a similar offer to the broader world in the future, with appropriate safeguards.

Second addendum: The first fifteen slots have now been awarded…

Can you judge a book by its cover?

I read Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, by Gerard Prunier, and was quite impressed.  I thought "what a smart and unbiased introduction to such a difficult topic."  But why was I impressed?  I don’t know nearly enough about the topic to judge the material.

I was impressed because the author sounded so reasonable and so intelligent.  But I can’t cite any really good reason to believe this was more than a trick.  Prunier sure didn’t seem as if he were trying to talk me into a hidden agenda.

Bryan Caplan offers his heuristics for trusting a source or not; here’s Arnold Kling on the same.  Here’s David Henderson’s podcast on disagreement.

I tend to trust sources who use their intelligence to point out flaws in their own positions.  But is this more than an aesthetic preference on my part?  What’s so trustworthy about that?  Maybe I’m just looking for people who remind me of myself, and what’s so good about me anyway?

If my trust standard works, it is only because not so many people use it.  If more readers trusted on the basis of "using intelligence to publicly question one’s foundations," that standard might be too easily to manipulate.

In other words, it is the stupidity of much of the audience (they can be fooled by simple tricks, complex tricks are not needed) which makes it possible for the more sophisticated readers to read signs of intellectual dishonesty and get closer to the truth.

Let’s say you have a medium — call it a blog — which is read only by very smart people.  Simple, relatively discernible tricks won’t be used.  Should those readers then have a special distrust of the authors? 

The Bottom Billion

Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion is the best economics book not written by a dear friend that I have read this year, it’s full of serious, important ideas and the writing sparkles.

You won’t find a better explanation of the time consistency problem, for example, than this brief bit on the Chad-Cameron pipeline.  As you may recall, the World Bank lent Chad money for the pipeline on condition that the money would be controlled not by the government but by an independent panel, the "College," with members drawn from civil society. 

The deal was that the government of Chad would pass a law establishing the College, and in return the oil companies would sink $4.2 billion of investment into oil extraction.  Now ask yourself which of these is easier to reverse, the law or the investment.  Once you have answered that, you have understood the time consistency problem…

Brilliant.  Collier then goes on to make the important point that the idea of giving control of resources to independent service organizations rather than to governments is in many cases a good one but the idea applies better to aid than to oil because…

With aid you do not have to sink $4.2 billion in order to get started.  It is just a flow of money that can be switched off, unlike the flow of oil.  Knowing this, the government has no incentive to tear up the deal.

Here is Tyler on the Bottom Billion.