Month: May 2008

Allocating the Arctic

Today’s declaration said that all five nations would abide by the 1982
Law of the Sea, which determines territorial claims according to
coastlines and undersea continental shelves.

Here is the full story.  The good news is that unclaimed territories, historically, have led to violent clashes.  Settling the property rights in advance minimizes the chances of global instability.  The bad news — if you think the cost of fossil fuels is too low — is that supply restrictions are far more effective than a Pigouvian tax on carbon.

Questions that are rarely asked

This time it’s Robin Hanson’s turn:

…why exactly would learning that
the world is a brutal place make one less interesting in learning more
about that world?  Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality?

That’s in response to Paul Graham, who had written:

We want kids to be innocent so they can
continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of
knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re
going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying
to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last.
Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more.

Very smart adults often seem unusually innocent, and I don’t think
this is a coincidence. I think they’ve deliberately avoided learning
about certain things. Certainly I do. I used to think I wanted to know
everything. Now I know I don’t.

Japanese cooperation

The cliche is that the Japanese are more cooperative than Westerners
but I don’t quite believe that as stated.  For instance early twentieth
century Japanese labor history is rife with conflict and the Japanese
Communist Party considered starting trouble as late as the 1960s.  Today in new or surprising situations many Japanese will simply giggle
or get nervous or do nothing rather than helping to solve the problem. 
When cooperation breaks down it seems to break down altogether.

In my alternative mental model the Japanese have specialized in
the use of explicit focal points.  They reaffirm these focal points repeatedly, to
an extreme, by the use of rituals, particular forms of relational address, and
almost absurd degrees of politeness and apology.  When the
focal point is explicit the cooperation works very very well.

But precisely because the Japanese are so good at using explicit
focal points, the culture seems ill-suited to improvising or dealing with
implicit or shifting or ambiguous focal points.  When the focal point becomes unclear or is placed in danger, they are not very good at finding a new
one on the spot.  That is why the Japanese are either extremely ordered and
cooperative in their behavior or extremely ineffective and chaotic.  Of course since a new or unexpected situation creates a dilemma, there are social pressures to avoid such states of affairs.  That dynamic strengthens the explicit focal points further, but makes it even harder to change focal points in the longer run. 

The idea of a society investing in a particular "technique of cooperation" I find to be a powerful one.

Addendum: This hypothesis may also help explain why the Japanese travel abroad so often in groups.  It’s not just a lack of language skills but the group leader also supplies codes of conduct for unfamiliar situations.

A Cowen-Caplan dialogue

Bryan cites one from years ago, but in reality we reprise it in many different forms, about every three days or so:

Tyler: People like to think they’re special, but we’re all pretty much the same.

Me: No we’re not.  Some people are really great; others are simply awful.

Tyler: That’s just the kind of thing people say to make themselves feel special.

Me: You don’t really believe that.

Tyler: Do too.

Me: What if we use the metric of your willingness-to-pay to spend an hour with a person?
There are a few awesome people you would pay thousands of dollars to
meet. But you’d pay hundreds of dollars to avoid an hour with most

Tyler: [3-second hesitation.]  Well, it’s not clear why that should be the relevant metric.

Me: But it’s your metric!

Tyler: What’s so special about my metric?

Me: What’s so special about it? By definition, that metric
captures everything that you think matters. And by that very metric,
people are not "pretty much the same." They’re incredibly different.

It’s funny how Bryan thinks he can cite my actions as evidence against the correct belief.  That’s absurd; for instance I also don’t act as if determinism is true, but citing that doesn’t settle the matter.  I sometimes describe Bryan’s most basic world view as the belief that what is good is very very good and what is bad is very bad indeed.   I am more likely to see endowment effects at work.

So You Think You Can be President? Revisited.

Last year, I argued that instead of debates presidentidal candidates should have to compete in a series of games.  The problem with debates is that most of the time voters don’t know what a good answer is.  Thus…

…what we need is a way of conveying information to uninformed,
unsophisticated voters in a way that is entertaining yet produces
information about politicians that is correlated with real skills.

I suggested a game show, So You Think You Can be President?, which with different segments would test the candidates ability to solve real problems.

The idea seems to be catching on, as this piece in the NYTimes illustrates.  Frankly, the segments I suggested plus the many excellent comments from MR readers were quite a bit better than those in the Times but it’s good to see that the idea is going mainstream.

Thousand Mile Song

Roger Payne loved those 1960s songs so much he lamented their passing: "Today’s humpback whale songs pale beside those of the sixties," he recently wrote in an open letter to the youth of Japan.  "The North Atlantic is so musically lackluster today."  I don’t think Paul Knapp would agree.  Today, there might be more beats, maybe fewer legato passages.  We may like the beat more than melody today, and it might be the same with the whales.

The subtitle of this excellent book is Whale Music in a Sea of Sound and it is by David Rothenberg.  Here is David’s previous excellent book, Why Birds Sing.

The globalization of barbecue?

Here is a neat but somewhat foggy blog post on barbecue:

The word out of the 2008 World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest,
the world’s largest pork BBQ contest held last weekend in Memphis, is
that the globalization of barbecue is in the "embryonic" stages.

Why is this foggy?  Well, barbecue went global some time ago, whether it be Maori "Hangi," indigenous Mexican cooking under the ground,  or North African nomads roasting a lamb.  Slow cooking at low heat is the formula in each case and usually smoke plays a role too.  The author notes that soon the Chinese will be in on it but has he ever had traditional Chinese short ribs?  By the way, the best barbecue town in America — Lockhart, Texas — draws heavily on German techniques for smoking its meats.

The pointer is from Henry Farrell.

What should be an allowable non-profit?

In a ruling last December that sent tremors through the not-for-profit world, the Minnesota Supreme Court said a small nonprofit day care agency here had to pay propery taxes because, in essence, it gave nothing away. 

…Almost 88 percent of overall nonprofit revenues in 2005, the most
recent year for which figures are available, came from fees for
services, sales and sources other than charitable contributions…Nonprofit
health care providers, day care centers and retirement homes, among
others, are often difficult to distinguish from their tax-paying

…the Mall of America, a major tourist attraction, was seeking tax
exemptions as part of its plans to expand, arguing that it aids the
state economy by drawing visitors.

Here is the full story, interesting throughout.  I would say the Mall of America no, hospitals no (any subsidy to care should be more selective), the AAA club no, universities yes (ideas are public goods), and charities yes.  And here are important new developments in the world of Harvard philanthropy.

The ethanol program is even worse than you think

Thanks to the inflating cost of popcorn, the price of movie tickets is
expected to skyrocket by as much as 30% this year, according to Ricard
Gil, a University of Santa Cruz economist who studies the business.
"You’re going to see a one- to two-dollar increase in the price of a
movie ticket," he said. "And that’s being conservative."

Here is the link.  So what model is required for this to be true?  If movies and popcorn are complements, you might think that higher popcorn prices would imply lower movie prices, to partially restore the cheapness of the overall bundle.  But more realistically, the movie is a loss leader to attract buyers of high-margin popcorn.  If popcorn gets priced out of buyers’ range, movie prices will rise to make up the difference since cheap tickets no longer bring in so much extra revenue at the concession stand.

Thanks to John de Palma for the pointer.