Month: October 2009

*From Eternity to Here*

The author is Sean Carroll and the subtitle is The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.  This book-to-appear offers a very good summary of the paradoxes of time.  The new contribution (new to me, at least) is to offer an integrated discussion of the multiverse, the law of entropy, de Sitter space, and the foundations of the so-called "arrow of time."

Carroll argues that the invocation of baby universes clears up a lot of apparent puzzles:

The prospect of baby universes makes all the difference in the world to the question of the arrow of time.  Remember the basic dilemma: The most natural universe to live in is de Sitter space, empty space with a positive vacuum energy…most observers will find themselves alone in the universe, having arisen as random arrangements of molecules out of the surrounding high-entropy gas of particles…

Baby universes change this picture in a crucial way.  Now it's no longer true that the only thing that can happen is a thermal fluctuation away from equilibrium and then back again.  A baby universe is a kind of fluctuation, but it's one that never comes back — it grows and cools off, but it doesn't rejoin the original spacetime.

What we've done is given the universe a way that it can increase its entropy without limit.

…[pages later]  In this scenario, the multiverse on ultra-large scales is symmetric about the middle moment, statistically, at least, the far future and the far past are indistinguishable…[yet] The moment of "lowest" entropy is not actually a moment of "low" entropy.  That middle moment was not finely tuned to some special very-low-entropy initial condition, as in typical bouncing models.  It was as high as we could get, for a single connected universe in the presence of a positive vacuum energy.  That's the trick: allowing entropy to continue to rise in both directions of time, even though it started out large to begin with.  There isn't any state we could possibly have chosen that would have prevented this kind of evolution from happening.  An arrow of time is inevitable.

Is it all true?  Beats me.  But if you read this book you will come away more hopeful about the prospects of a relatively simple "theory of everything."

Here is the author's home page; he teaches at Cal Tech.  Here is his personal page.  Best of all, here are his talks.  His Twitter feed is here.

Assorted links

1. Advice for holiday shopping: buy it, don't wait.

2. Rich Germans demand higher taxes.

3. A Georgist approach to financing health care reform: tax water.

4. Don Boudreaux defends insider trading.

5. A simple look at dark pools and high-frequency trading.

6. Essay on Freakonomics and other popular economics books, as they relate to the economics profession.  How fun is economics really?

How an insurance mandate could leave many worse off

Here is my NYT column this week and not surprisingly it covers health insurance.  Excerpt:

At this point, it seems more plausible that the cost of health
insurance will keep rising, just as the costs of health care services
have continued to climb. The upshot is that the burdens of mandatory
purchase, the subsidy costs and the associated implicit marginal tax
rates will all increase, eventually to the point of unsustainability.

A further problem is “mandate creep,” which we’ve seen at the state
level, as groups lobby for various types of coverage – whether for acupuncture, alcoholism and fertility treatments, for example, or for chiropractor services or marriage counseling.

There are now about 1,500 insurance mandates among the various states,
and hundreds of others are under consideration. The dynamic at work
here is that the affected groups have a big incentive to push for
mandates, while most other people are unaware of the specific issues
and don’t become involved.

Because mandates don’t stay modest
for long, health insurance would become all the more expensive. The
Obama administration’s cost estimates haven’t considered these
longer-run “political economy” issues.

There is more to the argument and I urge you to read the whole thing.  Do not forget my penultimate paragraph:

We’re often told that America should copy the health care institutions
of Western Europe. Yet we’re failing to copy the single most important
lesson from those systems – namely, to put cost control first. Instead,
we’re putting our foot on the gas pedal and ratcheting up the fiscal
pressures on the system, in the hope that someday, somehow, it will all
work out.

Of course much of this piece also can be taken as a plea for more government-supplied insurance; that debate didn't fit in the 900-word limit.  The more important lesson, for the time being, is that we're on the verging of passing a policy that simply cannot and will not work.

How to flip a coin

Chris Blattman reports:

Using a high-speed camera that photographed people flipping coins,
the three researchers determined that a coin is more likely to land
facing the same side on which it started. If tails is facing up when
the coin is perched on your thumb, it is more likely to land tails up.

How much more likely? At least 51 percent of the time, the
researchers claim, and possibly as much as 55 percent to 60 percent –
depending on the flipping motion of the individual.

The original research is here.

Questions I haven’t made much progress on

1. If you are in a liquidity trap, is your exchange rate indeterminate?  Under what conditions?  Along what range?

2. Does it matter if the other currency is also in a liquidity trap?

3. What will result from the intersection of two possible trends: insistence on a greater equality in health care outcomes, and the development of new technologies — some at the genetic level for the individual — which will lead to a greater inequality of health care outcomes?

Norway Tax Data Now!

It's the moment nosy Norwegian neighbors have been waiting for — the release of official records showing the annual income and overall wealth of nearly every taxpayer in the Scandinavian country.

In a move that would be unthinkable elsewhere, tax authorities in Norway have issued the ''skatteliste,'' or ''tax list,'' for 2008 to the media under a law designed to uphold the country's tradition of transparency…

Many media outlets use the tax records to produce their own searchable online databases. In the database of national broadcaster NRK, you can type a subject's name, hit search and within moments get information on what that person made last year, what was paid in taxes and total wealth….

The information had been available to media until 2004, when a more
conservative government banned the publication of tax records. Three
years later, a new, more liberal government reversed the legislation
and also made it possible for media to obtain tax information digitally
and disseminate it online.

There has got to be more than one dissertation here.  Aside from the obvious issues of studying the distribution of wealth over time and cross-sectionally the three year break raises possibilities such as testing whether making salary and wealth information public encourages people to work more or less and  whether public information about income increases or decreases inequality.

Perhaps most interesting–does conspicuous consumption fall and efficiency increase in a society in which income is conspicuous?

Dining tips for Manhattan

JonSanders, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I read "Discover Your Inner Economist" (as well as "Create Your Own
Economy") and I want a little more help with the Manhattan dining tips
you covered. Care to help someone on a serious budget, like say, an
undergrad at NYU? Staying off the main avenues is useful, but it is
still hard to find dirt cheap authentic food from most cultures. More

I'm was in New York yesterday and I despaired.  Short of dropping $50-$70 or more for lunch, it's hard to get a good meal in most of Manhattan.  Greenwich Village went mainstream long ago and the overall problems in Manhattan are high rents, rising tourism, and the importation of growing numbers of people from U.S. regions with lesser food taste (can you guess where?).  That's a triple whammy.  I recommend the following:

1. Eat on the far west or far east side, like 9th Ave. or The Bowery.  The East Village hasn't been ruined.  The West Village still has some quirky places near The Village Vanguard, usually further west off the main paths.  There are good places near Hudson St., the neighborhood Jane Jacobs wrote about.

2. Eat on the way to or from LaGuardia in Flushing, Queens, in superb Chinatown.  If you try the Chinatown in Manhattan, go for breakfast — not dinner — for the best chance at quality.

3. Look for obscure ethnic places in the mid 30s, on the streets, not the avenues.

4. The best food reviews are in New York magazine, by far. 

5. Two of my reliable stand-bys are Ess-a-Bagel and Shun Lee Palace, both in East/Midtown.  They're both pretty tired in terms of concept but the quality still is excellent.  I enjoy them every time I go.  Shun Lee Palace would not count as dirt cheap, however.

6. Get to Brooklyn or Queens.  Or (gasp) New Jersey.

What advice can you give this poor fellow?

Sentences to ponder

Experts are more
persuasive when they seem tentative about their conclusions, a study
soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests. But
the opposite is true of novices, who grow more persuasive with
increasing certainty.  In one experiment, college students were
randomly assigned one of four variations of a restaurant review,
praising a local Italian spot. In some versions, the reviewer was
described as a famous food critic; in others, he was a technology
worker at a local college with a penchant for fast food. Each of the
critics expressed positive certainty about the restaurant's virtues in
one variation, and tentative praise in another. Asked to evaluate the
restaurant, the students who read the expert's review liked it much
better when he seemed tentative; the opposite was true of the novice…

The story is here.  Of course I'm not sure you should ponder these sentences.  Maybe you should, maybe you shouldn't.  If that.

I thank John De Palma for the pointer.

Health Data Now!

It's well known that medical spending is highly variable but so are medical outcomes.  Here is Begley and Interlandi in Newsweek:

After we interviewed dozens of oncologists, pored over published papers, and obtained outcomes data that cancer centers have never before made public, it became clear that for these cancers there are indeed significant outcome differences depending where you are treated.

Five years after surgery for prostate cancer, for instance, 72 percent of men treated at leading hospitals are alive, compared with 62 percent of those treated elsewhere. Scrutinizing data from specific cancer centers reveals even greater gaps. Five-year survival for stage IV prostate cancer is 71 percent at Fox Chase, for instance, but 38 percent nationally. For stage IV breast cancer, the respective figures are 28 percent and 19 percent–an almost 50 percent edge. For stage IV cervical cancer, five-year survival is 33 percent at the Cleveland Clinic vs. 16 percent nationally.

Some of this is probably due to differences in patient characteristics but it could go either way – the better hospitals often get the hardest to treat cases.

Many hospitals hide this data (or "fail" to collect it which amounts to much the same thing) but there are some good rules of thumb such as looking for hospitals that specialize in certain procedures and thus perform many of them (there are large economies of scale in quality).  Patients can also find information about which hospitals closely follow best practices (kudos to Medicare for this data and see here for a mashup with Google maps) although the measures used are probably the ones that are easiest to collect and not the ones that correlate best with mortality.

Nevertheless, providing information does seem to drive change if only from the shame that a hospital receives when it is found not to be following best practices.  It's true that report cards can cause problems when the drive to get a better score causes hospitals to be more reluctant to treat sicker patients but better data on patient characteristics (stage of cancer etc.) and better process/treatment information can alleviate this problem. In fact, all hospitals should be required to provide standardized information for all patients on patient characteristics, treatments and outcomes.  Only by making outcome information public will hospitals have the incentive and researchers have the ability to develop more accurate report cards.  In short, I cannot think of a simpler change that would improve health care to as great an extent as freeing the data.

Gone, gone, gone

At BofA and AIG close to a majority of the top executives whose salaries were to be cut have already left.  Nuff said.

"There's no question people have left because of uncertainty of our ability to pay," said an executive at one of the affected firms. "It's a highly competitive market out there."

At Bank of America, for instance, only 14 of the 25 highly paid executives remained by the time Feinberg announced his decision. Under his plan, compensation for the most highly paid employees at the bank would be a maximum of $9.9 million. The bank had sought permission to pay as much as $21 million, according to Treasury Department documents.

At American International Group, only 13 people of the top 25 were still on hand for Feinberg's decision.

A big hat tip to Ryan Lee for the link.

Assorted links

1. 4500-page Thesaurus: "The draft thesaurus was almost destroyed in a fire in 1978, but despite
the building being gutted, a metal filing cabinet protected the files."

2. Markets in everything: who said resources are not mobile in Germany?

3. Hayek opposed deflation; he said the same in MTaTTC too.

4. Donate your organs by iPhone.

5. Why so few DC residents are married.

I'm still looking for an ideal "economics" link on the Catholic-Anglican development.  Do you have one?

Thomas Pynchon

One of the recent reader requests is to give my opinion of him.  It's pretty simple.  The first half or so of Gravity's Rainbow is extraordinary.  V is a superb novel, his most consistent work, and it is best read by not trying to make much sense of it.  The Crying of Lot 49 feels like an excellent novella but over time it slips away from you and is probably a minor work.  The rest of it I cannot finish — or even get far in — and my best guess is that it is wheel-spinning and it will not last.  I haven't tried the latest book and it is not high on my list.  He's certainly an important figure and worth reading and indeed rereading.  But I view him as belonging to the somewhat distant past.

Here is the Twitter stream on Thomas Pynchon, as good a place to start as any.

The request by the way comes from this blog.  Here is a post on Vincent Ostrom, husband of Elinor, and an oddly neglected figure in recent times.