Month: April 2010

Ed Glaeser on historic districts in New York City

Here is his bottom line:

It’s hard to fault the Landmarks Preservation Commission for stopping development in historic districts. That’s its job: to “safeguard the city’s historic, aesthetic and cultural heritage,” as the city’s administrative code puts it. The real question is whether these vast districts should ever have been created and whether they should remain protected ground in the years ahead. No living city’s future should become a prisoner to its past.

Here is the article.

Bryan Caplan on adoption

I am now more rather than less puzzled.  Bryan writes:

On adoption: I think that adoption is a noble, generous act, and admire those who do it.  But I personally don't want to adopt. 

I can't disagree with any word in that first sentence, but it leaves me uneasy.  Bryan's forthcoming book — Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids — is about…selfish reasons to have kids.  (It will, I promise you, be very interesting and make a splash.)  So here is my challenge to Bryan: write down the ten most important selfish reasons to have kids and then ask how many of them apply to adopted children.  Most of them will.  Which isn't to say those are the only reasons to adopt (or have) kids, but they are real nonetheless.  So why do the adopting parents seemingly get described as selfless martyrs?  It's almost as if the selfishness, without the replication angle, has to be stuffed into a box somewhere.  Do all those selfish reasons for having kids require replication as a kind of amplifying mechanism, without with we are left with the slightly underwhelming purely altruistic motives?  

I think Bryan understands the selfish reasons for having children differently than I do, though I will defer to his own statement of his view.  I put a big stress on how children help you see that a lot of your immediate concerns aren't nearly as important as you might think, and how spending time with children brings you closer to — apologies, super-corny phrases on the way — The Great Circle of Being and The Elemental Life Force.  In some (not all) ways, adopted children may be teaching you those lessons more effectively than do biological children.  It's an oversimplification to say that "children make you a better person," but they do, or should, improve your ability to psychologically and emotionally integrate that a) you want lots of stuff, b) what you end up getting remains, no matter what, ridiculously small and inconsequential, and c) you can't control your life nearly as much as you think.   

I would sooner say that these realizations are gifts which children give to us rather than calling them "selfish reasons" to have children.  The concept of selfish requires an understanding of our interest and children, very fundamentally, change our understanding of our interests rather than fulfilling our previous goals.  That, however, is a moot point and I do understand why Bryan's title packs the proper punch.

(I might add that the cross-sectional variation — who actually has more kids — suggests that religious reasons persuade people more effectively than do "selfish reasons," noting that the religious reasons may well have a significant selfish component.  Bryan portrays himself as an intellectual elitist, but he has an oddly unflattering portrait of the elite.  When it comes to the dreamworld of political debate, elites are relatively rational but that is exactly the sphere in which individuals are least decisive over actual outcomes.  When it comes to the really big, important decisions, such as how many kids to have, individuals in the elite are highly decisive in steering outcomes yet quite irrational.  They underappreciate the joy of kids.  On net, it would seem that the rational ones are the poor, the undereducated, and the highly religious, at least according to Bryan's latest book.  Bryan is a fascinating mix of an anti-elitist elitist, or should I say an elitist anti-elitist?)  

I can see why Bryan is keen to have more children of his own, given his charm, intelligence, enthusiasm, and general good-naturedness; free will or not, those qualities likely are heritable to some degree.  I might add that his current children are very appealing.

But I still don't grasp why, within his own framework, he is reluctant to adopt and to adopt for (partially) selfish reasons.  If you want "similarity," adopt a boy.  You can adopt an older child too.

It's not either/or.  What about when the pump runs dry or some other obstacle intervenes?  What if it's an adopted kid at the margin or just staying put with what you've got?  Why not take the plunge?  Is an adopted kid so bad on average as to negate the postulated large selfish returns from children?  Which of the selfish reasons to have kids are actually most important?  Are the selfish reasons so dependent on framing in terms of the Darwinian urge to replicate?

I await enlightenment from my very dear friend.

*The Dead Hand*

The author is David E. Hoffman and the subtitle of this recent Pulitzer winner is The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy.  I recommend it highly, especially if you are too young to have remembered the middle years of the Cold War.  I hadn't thought of this before:

"The Russians sometimes kept submarines off our East Coast with nuclear missiles that could turn the White House into a pile of radioactive rubble within six or eight minutes.  Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to release Armageddon!  How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?"

That's a quotation from Ronald Reagan.  There's also this bit:

…Guk [a KGB leader] was told that an "important sign" of British preparations for nuclear war would probably be "increased purchases of blood and a rise in the price paid for it" at blood donor centers.  He was ordered to report immediately any changes in blood prices.  

If you want to feel better about today's world, I recommend you read this book.  Until the last section or so, at which point you will feel worse about today's world again.  I shuddered at this sentence:

In the Soviet system, people were under stricter control than the fissile materials.

Parisian women and behavioral economics

Psychology is also at work when you look at the women of Paris. The principle at work here is the assumption of style and the amplification of grace. Because you are in Paris, you assume that women are fashion-aware, which colors all your judgments about dress, hairstyle, and other factors of appearance. Because you suppose the most stylish of intentions behind whatever the actual outcome, you will find seductive and ennobling qualities behind almost everything and anyone. What would be a dowdy old hag or a trampy termagant in the wrong part of Baltimore is suddenly the epitome of French cuteness. It’s a sophisticated variant on the “Emperor without cloths” syndrome.

That's from jfl at Ionarts.

Say’s law when aggregate demand is too low

Supply can still matter.  In a world of unemployed resources, imagine a company called Apple invents a device called — improbably — an iPad.  That's a positive supply shock.  People will be led to spend more money.  The inventors and their employees will have more money to spend.  There will be a positive multiplier throughout the economy, as analyzed by W.H. Hutt.  First aggregate supply went up and then aggregate demand went up.  It's all one step on the way to economic recovery.

Starting with insufficient aggregate demand does not cut off this process.  Starting with a liquidity trap, in contrast, would prevent this multiplier from picking up any steam, if you could sell the iPads in the first place that is.

One bottom line is that aggregate supply still matters when aggregate demand is insufficient.  Another lesson is that positive supply developments can increase output and employment.

A mini-revolt against computers in chess

Mikhalchishin is not an advocate of too much computer use. ‘Engines like Rybka, although very strong, can be also very dangerous, because after an hour of a computer analysis the player is completely under the Rybka’s guidance and can’t invent anything, just follow the machine. They can analyse some position, but it is very difficult to get a valuation of a position with Rybka – there is always something unclear, you never know what the real variation is. Rybka takes a lot of mental energy. Computer analysis switches off the brain. I enjoy seeing how the brain works, not computers.’

There is more here, for instance:

…he feels that an interesting trend is taking place in the chess world presently: a new generation of players, that he calls ‘post-Carlsen generation’, is coming up; young players who are not so much dependent on computers and are more practical, ‘hand players’. Carlsen may even become a world champion, but at this moment, a new generation is growing and training. ‘Richárd is one of them; then there is Nyzhnyk, a very interesting player from Ukraine, Berbatov, a very talented young player from Bulgaria. But the leader of this generation I would say is Wesley So. He is extremely talented and has produced some very interesting games, like his wins against Ivanchuk at the World Cup. These post-Carlsen players have a different style and attitudes. They are not obsessed with the opening theory, like their older predecessors. They are looking for much more practical play and are very aggressive. They are not necessarily a computer generation, as Carlsen’s generation was. Computers came with their powerful programs and chess players wanted to try them. But I feel this trend is finishing now.’

I wouldn't put too much stock in this as a practical development (Carlsen's the guy who's #1), but it's an interesting point about the roots of creativity and independent thought.

From the comments

Natasha C. writes:

I have not seen this mentioned in any comments (or Tyler's post) but consider this: there are at least some men who would support the idea of cloning themselves, I doubt there are many women who would do so. Are men more narcissistic or is there something else at work?

One possibility is that men are more insecure about paternity than women are about maternity, and so they demand greater similarity.  The lower variance of female reproduction results is related to this, noting that the would-be male cloners are outliers of some kind rather than the median.  What other explanations can you think of?

A theory of California governmental failure

Jeff writes:

The underlying problem here is that California is simply a beautiful place to live.  It’s not just the climate, or the people, or the geography.  It’s that something floating around in the air that just makes you happy all the time you are there.  And then the second problem is that there is free entry.

So it really doesn’t matter what you do with the constitution.  You can fix the referendum system, you could change the budget process,  you could turn the government into Singapore.  But that only means that something else has to get hosed to bring the quality of life again back down to the level that maintains the zero-rent equilibrium condition with free entry.

Given that the question boils down to which part of California do you want to screw up in order to achieve that?  This is mostly a distributional question.  Bad state government saps rents in one way.  Give those back and bad local governments will do just fine to take up the slack.

Of course all that is really required for equilibrium is that the quality of life of the marginal resident (or resident-to-be) is sufficiently low.  This is completely consistent with high average quality of life but its not clear to me why a well-functioning government would be better at achieving such a distribution than the one they’ve got now.  That is, who but the marginal resident is more affected by high taxes and dysfunctional government?

(The cheapest way to target the marginal resident is to make it infinitely costly to enter.  But that gives huge rents to those lucky enough to live there already and the temptation to take those away would be too great for any government.)

Daniel Okrent’s *Last Call*, a history of prohibition

My review, in the latest Business Week, is here.  Excerpt:

Last Call does a lot to help situate the impulses of the era, and yes, make them seem a little less crazy. At the same time as temperance was flowering, so were crusades for clean water and sanitation, which saved millions of lives. Alcohol, seen as a major scourge of civil society, looked ripe for a once-and-for-all ban that would put mankind on a new course. "Figuring per capita," Okrent writes, "multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you'll have an idea what much of the nineteenth century was like."

The introduction of the income tax made Prohibition fiscally feasible. Women's suffrage made it politically feasible. World War I created a surfeit of patriotism, a willingness to sacrifice, and an embrace of the expansion of federal power. By 1920 everything was in place for a bold new government intrusion into everyday life.

The end of my review considers in more detail why so many drugs are still illegal while alcohol is not.  You can buy the book — which is very good — here.