Month: February 2010

*The Rational Optimist*, the new Matt Ridley book

The subtitle is How Prosperity Evolves and you can buy it here.  The book is due out in May.  Excerpt:

In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret human society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls "bubble-up" evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism.  I have tried to show that, just as sex made biological evolution cumulative, so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men discernible beneath the chaos of their actions.  A flood tide, not an ebb tide.

This book will be adored by fans of Julian Simon.  Ridley is an optimist about the year 2100 and one of the final sections considers whether Africa and climate change will be exceptions to the generally optimistic trends.

Charlie Brooker on eBooks

Anyway: eBooks. They're the future. The only thing I'd do to improve them is to include an emergency button that automatically sums the entire book up in a sentence if you couldn't be arsed to finish it, or if your plane starts crashing and you want to know whodunit before exploding over the sea. Ideally it'd shriek the summary aloud, bellowing something like "THE BUTLER DID IT" for potboilers, or maybe "THE SCULPTRESS COMES TO TERMS WITH THE DEATH OF HER FATHER" for highbrow fiction. Which means you could effectively skip the reading process entirely and audibly digest the entire contents of the British Library in less than a month. That's ink-and-paper dead, right there.

The article is here and hat tip goes to The Browser.

Ferran Adrià confuses us

He now states that El Bulli will not close permanently but rather after a hiatus it will become a foundation.  Kottke parses.  My theory is that he doesn't know what he is going to do, but in the meantime he wishes to avoid negative publicity or seeming irrelevant.

Don't take this personally my foundation-employed readers but…um…I don't feel you have the appropriate organizational form for running the world's best restaurant.  When it comes to the $300 meal, I'll stick with the for-profits.  Maybe someone needs to give Adrià a copy of those Fama papers from 1980 or so.

Joel Mokyr on living standards during the Industrial Revolution

One of the notable arithmetical truths about the period of the Industrial Revolution is that it is quite possible (if not certain) that biological living standards in both urban and rural areas rose and yet average living standards declined.  This can happen if urban living conditions are significantly worse than rural ones, and the proportion of people living in cities is rising because of migration from the countryside to the towns.  It seems likely that the biological measures of living standards were especially sensitive to urbanization.  While urban areas may have offered some positive amenities (such as entertainment and more choice in shopping), healthy living conditions were surely not among them.

That is from Mokyr's new and notable The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850.  The obvious question of course is why so many people moved into cities.  Did "new goods" make the urban living standard higher than some measures might suggest?  Was it to avoid boredom?  To avoid "rural idiocy" and invest in future IQ externalities for children?

Here is my previous post on the book.

From the comments (at EconLog)

Daniel Klein writes:

The wise man expunges "positive v. normative" from his vocabulary. Ises and oughts are easily and naturally translated into one another, based on the purposes of the interlocutors and the discourse situation.

The words "positive" and "normative" do not mean nothing, but what they mean can always be expressed in better terms. "Normative" often means outspoken, unconventional, strident, etc. It can also mean loose, vague, and indeterminate.

Tell me "positive" or "normative" for each of the following:

(1) The minimum wage ought to be repealed.

(2) I think the minimum wage ought to be repealed.

(3) The minimum wage reduces social welfare.

(4) Wise people oppose the minimum wage.

The primary verb of (1) is an ought, while the primary verbs of (2), (3), and (4) are ises. But all four statements are really the same.

Coase used the term "affectation" for posing as "positive" and not "normative."

You will find varying points of view elsewhere in that same comments section.

Less is more?

I found this, from Ric Bucher, on ESPN:

…the harsh reality, says one GM, is that winning a championship this year is not a priority over keeping free-agent-to-be LeBron James. In fact, there's a concern that if James wins a title this year for the Cavs, it might be easier for him to go elsewhere. The best scenario, then, if the Cavs want to make it hardest for LeBron to leave, is give him everything he wants and have their title chase falls short. And if you question valuing LeBron over a title, forget it. James roughly doubles the value of the Cavs' franchise, according to league sources. It might offend winning-is-everything sensibilities, but the truth is $200 million (the value James adds to the Cavs) means more."

What is the implicit model?  Is it a behavioral claim about James, namely that he dislikes frustration and wants to finish the job in Cleveland?  Or is it about the bidding behavior of other teams, namely they want him most (and there are more dimensions to a deal than just salary-capped $$) if he wins a title and less if they think he will quit on them too?

What are the most borrowed books from UK libraries?

Circa 2009, three out of the top four are by James Patterson.  Eventually Ian Rankin and Ruth Rendell make the list.  Dan Brown I believe too many people have bought or already read.  None of the Booker Final Six from the previous year make the list.

Catherine Cookson used to dominate these metrics but she has been swamped by American popular authors and is down to number ten for the decade.  Number one for the noughties is in fact Jacqueline Wilson. That's an odd status to hold: "worth reading, just not worth buying."

A broader point is that non-fiction does very poorly on the "most borrowed" list.  I'll offer up the hypothesis that low-brow fiction is what most people actually want to read, whereas many people will buy but not read non-fiction, for purposes of affiliation with the author or the concepts associated with the book.

Overall borrowers are more conservative than buyers, in the literal sense of wanting to borrow the same authors over and over again, yet in different titles.

Hat tip goes to the always-excellent Literary Saloon.

What happens when you get drunk?

Malcolm Gladwell presents a hypothesis which I hadn't heard before:

Put a stressed-out drinker in front of an exciting football game and he’ll forget his troubles. But put him in a quiet bar somewhere, all by himself and he’ll grow mare anxious. Alcohol's principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision.

It causes, “a state of short- sightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion." Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the in the background disappear. That’s why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.

The gated link is here.  One of the associated researchers with this point — Claude Steele — is the twin brother of Shelby Steele.  Robert Josephs has done some of the related work with Steele.  You can buy their core piece for $11.95.  Here is an interesting piece by Steele on how "drinking away your troubles" works.  Here is a very useful survey piece by Josephs (and others) on the "alcohol myopia" hypothesis.

Here is an hour-long interview with Steele (which I have not heard).  Steele is now Provost at Columbia University.

Why was El Bulli losing so much money?

Leigh Caldwell offers an analysis.  Here is one bit:

…why is it losing so much money when demand is so high? The 48-seat restaurant has a six-month season with about 8,000 covers a year. It receives 300,000 applications for those seats [though this article says a million and this one two million], selling out the whole year's reservations on the same day that bookings open for the season. Why wouldn't they bump up the price from 230 to 330 euros, to simultaneously manage demand and eliminate the losses? Price elasticity can't be that high.

My hypothesis is that the restaurant was never intended to turn a profit, but rather it was a loss leader for book sales, endorsements, lecture fees, TV contracts, cookware lines, and so on for Ferran Adria.  Even if higher prices could bring in a twenty percent rate of profit, it wouldn't — at this point — be worth keeping the place up and running.  Adria already has a reputation as the world's greatest chef, running the world's greatest restaurant.  It's best to quit while ahead and branch out into food-related money-making ventures.

The low prices make going a hard-to-obtain event, open up the restaurant to more people than just the very wealthy, and maximize the publicity value of Adria's name.

He won't and can't stop cooking forever, but cooking six months a year is probably not an optimum for him at this point.  The real profit and loss calculation for El Bulli has to include the shadow price of his labor as an important variable.

Health insurance and mortality follow-up

On health insurance and mortality, you'll find Megan's further thoughts (which I agree with) here (and now here).  Neither of us is saying the real net effect is zero.  Also check out Matt, Ezra, Austin Frakt, all of whom make good points. 

Overall I'd like to see more numbers in the health care debate.  If the Obama plan spends $90 billion extra a year on coverage and saves/extends 10,000 lives a year (a plausible estimate, in my view), that is $9 million a life, a rather underwhelming rate of return.  That's a very gross comparison because life extension is not the only benefit and the $90 billion is not the only cost.  Still, as a starting point for analysis I don't think it makes the plan look better.  Keep also in mind that many of the newly covered people are bumping others back into the queue, since the overall supply of medical care isn't going up and may even be declining.

If you did a simple cost-benefit comparison, the Obama plan vs. a simple extension of Medicaid, more R&D through the NIH, and some targeted public health expenditures, I believe the latter would win hands down.  And the latter seems more politically feasible too.  It avoids the mandate, the unworkable and ridiculously low penalties for those who don't sign up for insurance, and the awkwardly high implicit marginal tax rates imposed by the subsidy scheme.  It probably involves fewer corporate and "back room" deals.

In its favor, the Obama plan makes it easier to become an entrepreneur without losing health insurance coverage.  I doubt if that's enough to swing the balance, but in any case it's worth thinking about.  

Please don't argue that the Obama plan saves money.  Even if you believe that (I don't), here we are talking about the marginal impact of one subcomponent of the overall plan.  That subcomponent does cost money.

When it comes to the Obama plan, the easy targets are stupid or hypocritical Republicans.  The hard target is why the plan should beat the alternative reforms I've outlined above or perhaps other ways of spending the money.  I'd like to see more people take on the hard target rather than the easy.

America’s best BBQ?

Could it be Lonnie Ray's BBQ, in Harrisburg, Missouri?  That's about half an hour outside of Columbia, Missori.  I ate there yesterday and I am still staggered by the encounter.  It is one of the two or three best barbecue experiences of my life and possibly #1.  It doesn't seem to be written up by any of the standard sources (here is one good web review).

The proprietor, Mike, is also a true scientist and scholar and gentleman.  He studied with Mike Mills and he will engage you at length on how to render fresh lard, why Kansas City barbecue has declined, and the importance of the wood source.  He has studied — and I do mean studied — Texan, Kansas City, and even North Carolina styles.  The pulled pork was my favorite dish and I usually don't like pulled pork much at all.  Both the sauces and the atmosphere get an A+ as well.  He is now studying how to cook tamales.  If only everyone in the scientific community had his attitude.

I am serious in my claims for this place.

Here is their Facebook page, you know what to do.