Month: February 2008

Which work of American liberal political thought has held up best?

Having said A, one must say B.  Ezra Klein poses this question and receives many responses.  I’ll nominate William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy, Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Richard Rorty on cruelty, Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice, and Harold Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.  Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail deserves consideration although it does not exactly fit the category.  Rachel Carson wrote an important book but not really a good book.  Carol Gilligan is an interesting dark horse selection.

Jane Jacobs, by the way, might win either prize if you are allowed to count her as either a conservative or a liberal.  But which is she?  John Dewey and Walter Lippmann are two other figures who could be nominated for either prize.

If you think this list beats the conservative one, you are right.  Note, however, that the conservative list excluded economics (and libertarians), which is where most of the contributions have come on the Right over the last fifty years.  Plus the all-important Chicago School focused on ideas and articles, not books.  So the comparison is not as lopsided as these posts, taken alone, might indicate.

Just a few weeks ago, Bryan Caplan and I decided that Rawls’s Theory of Justice wins the prize for "least Hansonian book ever."  For all the evident philosophic care, in the final analysis Rawls was just making stuff up.

What are your nominations?

Addendum: Thinking back, Wilson’s On Human Nature might be a good pick for the conservative prize, even though I do not believe Wilson is himself a conservative.

Who hates inequality?

Chimpanzees are highly sensitive
to inequity, and typically refuse to continue in interactions in which
they get less than a social partner. However, chimpanzees from stable social groups
do not respond negatively in situations in which their partners
received better rewards, whereas chimpanzees from less-established
groups show rejection rates as high as 60 percent.

Here is the full story, interesting throughout; the hat tip is to Mark Thoma.

Nazi Literature in the Americas

Part of Bolaño’s genius is to ask, via ironies so sharp you can cut
your hands on his pages, if we perhaps find a too-easy comfort in art,
if we use it as anesthetic, excuse and hide-out in a world that is very
busy doing very real things to very real human beings. Is it courageous
to read Plato during a military coup or is it something else?

That’s from one review of the newly translated Roberto Bolaño book.  (Might it have been titled "Conservative Fascism"?)  This work is not a structured narrative but rather a series of impressionistic portraits of how easy it is for some people to slip into being horrible and stay that way.  Imagine a fictional bestiary of creepy aesthetes who are playing at human relationships, sleepwalking through their dreamlike yet trivial obsessions, and in the meantime pledging allegiance to tyranny.  Literature is a "surreptitious form of violence" throughout.

Here are excerpts from other reviews.  At this point it goes without saying that everything by Bolaño is essential reading; however you may find many parts baffling if you don’t have a strong background in things Latin American.

Forward markets in everything, restaurant edition

Jason Kottke relates:

The Riverdale Garden Restaurant in the Bronx is trying out a novel way of staying in business: they’re asking for their regulars to pledge $5000 in exchange for a year of free dinners.

The problem of course is obvious.  First, you probably won’t get your money back.  Second, if everyone paid up, the restaurant has a weaker incentive to serve good food.  And which customers do you think will receive the best treatment?  The ones who put up nothing per each meal?

Suicide fact of the day

Glen Whitman reports:

I went back to the original data source (imagine that!) and found that the stereotype is dead wrong: suicide rates are notably lower for teenagers than adults…Suicide rates do rise throughout the teen years, but they plateau at about age 20 and remain flat throughout the years 20 to 65. Then they jump again for the 65+ demographic.

In case you’re wondering, teen suicide rates have not been rising, either. They’ve been in decline since the late 1980s.

Yet these teens still take the most risks.

Which 20th century classic of American conservative political thought has held up best?

We discussed this question over a group dinner Tuesday night.  I opined that none have held up particularly well, mostly because they underestimated the robustness of the modern world and regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be.

By stipulation, this universe of books does not include Milton Friedman or pure economics.  It does include Russell Kirk, John Flynn, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, and William F. Buckley, among many others.  You can nominate grumpy Brits and Europeans who settled in the United States, so yes Road to Serfdom is a contender, even though its main empirical point (socialism leads to loss of political freedom) would seem to be refuted.  You can try Albert Jay Nock or Eric Voegelin but Rothbard and Rand do not count as conservatives.  Your answer cannot come before the 20th century, so no Federalist Papers and no Tocqueville.

Leave your answer in the comments and also say why.  At some point I’ll offer up my pick as well.

New roots for the Irish miracle?

By the turn of the century [2000], according to some reckonings, 70 percent of Irish manufactured exports were by US-owned firms…

This was, of course, encouraged by tax breaks and a form of industrial policy.  But part of this process was a shift away from English investment:

Between 1960 and 1970 British-owned companies represented 22 percent of new industrial enterprises in Ireland.  But by 1980 they accounted for less than 2 percent.  Significantly, the proportion of exports to Britain from Ireland halved between 1956 and 1981.

In other words, Ireland found a more complementary economic partner, namely the United States.  The Irish economic miracle is in part the American economic miracle.

That is from the often interesting Luck & the Irish: A Brief History of Change from 1970, by R.F. Foster.  Here is a previous MR post on the Irish economic miracle.

William F. Buckley has died

Here is one account.  I never considered myself a Buckleyite conservative but as a kid I was much taken by his show Firing Line.  It is the first time I was exposed to Hayek (I recall that Buckley blew apart his critique of social justice with a single question), or for that matter Milton Friedman, or for that matter Johann Sebastian Bach.  Here are many obituaries.  Here is lots of YouTube, recommended.

Addendum: Here is Ilya Somin on Buckley.

Daylight savings time increases energy usage

There is a natural experiment from the recent switch away from DST in Indiana.  Matthew Kotchen and Laura Grant report:

Our main finding is that–contrary to the policy’s intent–DST increases residential electricity demand. Estimates of the overall increase range from 1 to 4 percent, but we find that the effect is not constant throughout the DST period. There is some evidence of electricity savings during the spring, but the effect lessens, changes sign, and appears to cause the greatest increase in consumption near the end of the DST period in the fall. These findings are consistent with simulation results that point to a tradeoff between reducing demand for lighting and increasing demand for heating and cooling. Based on the dates of DST practice before the 2007 extensions, we estimate a cost of increased electricity bills to Indiana households of $8.6 million per year. We also estimate social costs of increased pollution emissions that range from $1.6 to $5.3 million per year.

In other words, with DST less is spent on light but more is spent on air conditioning.  Here is a summary article on the work, from today’s WSJ.  Do note this:

There may also be social benefits to daylight-saving time that weren’t covered in the research. When the extension of daylight-saving time was proposed by Mr. Markey, he cited studies that noted "less crime, fewer traffic fatalities, more recreation time and increased economic activity" with the extra sunlight in the evening.

Tyler and I Have a New Business

Mike Moffatt has signed up with to try to lose some weight and he wrote to Tyler and myself.

I need to find people to give the money to if I fail, so I
thought I’d ask the Economics blogging community for help.
If you agree then if I fail at my goal, I will pay Marginal Revolution, or the charity
of your choice, $100. 

Here is my response to Mike:

Hmmmm….I am not sure whether to be pleased at the prospect of a free
$100 or upset that you consider $100 in our hands to be such good
motivation!  Speaking personally, however, I understand the difficulty
of losing weight thus I want you to know that if we receive the $100 we will not send it to India, we will not give the money to cancer research, we will not give the money to any cute
animals instead we will use your money to squash the poor, to fight
against universal health care, and to gas up our Hummer.  Moreover, we
will do this while drinking fine wine, smoking cigars, eating foie gras
and laughing uproariously.

There that ought to help.

If there are other left-wingers out there who would like more motivation to accomplish their life goals then do know that Tyler and I are here to help.

Moral puzzles about collective action

If I don’t fly from London to my sister’s
wedding in New Zealand she will be upset, I will cause her pain and so
that’s morally bad. If I do fly to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand I
will put about four tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which
will contribute to climate change, which, according to the World Health
Organisation, already causes about 150,000 deaths every year. Clearly
that’s also morally bad. Which is the morally correct thing to do?

That question is considered by Will Wilkinson.  Don’t argue the facts of carbon emissions (you can choose another scenario if you wish), focus on the moral dilemma.  Will says fly, the plane is going anyway.  That makes my brain hurt with game theory and the probability of threshold effects and triggers.  (Isn’t there some chance that your patronage, eventually, sets another flight in motion, if only stochastically?)  Under an alternative approach, say you are allowed some quota of carbon emissions; otherwise suicide or residence in Iceland as a pedestrian would be required.

Your net carbon impact depends far more on the number of children you will have than any other variable; remember good environmentalism uses a zero rate of discount.  So people with no biological children should be allowed to fly a lot and people with lots of biological children should not get to fly so much at all.  Is that so far from the reality we observe?

Here is a good new piece on our carbon footprints.

Barack Obama’s economic advisors

Here is the story, by Noam Scheiber of TNR, hat tip to Greg Mankiw.  Excerpt:

Like Bill Clinton in 1992, Obama’s campaign boasts a cadre of credentialed achievers. Intellectually, however, the Obamanauts couldn’t be more different. Clinton delighted in surrounding himself with big-think public intellectuals–like economics commentator Robert Reich and political philosopher Bill Galston. You’d be hard-pressed to find a political philosopher in Obama’s inner wonk-dom. His is dominated by a group of first-rate economists, beginning with Goolsbee, one of the profession’s most respected tax experts. A Harvard economist named Jeff Liebman has been influential in helping Obama think through budget and retirement issues; another, David Cutler, helped shape his views on health care. Goolsbee, in particular, is an almost unprecedented figure in Democratic politics: an academic economist with a top campaign position and the candidate’s ear.