Month: June 2010

Berlin notes

Living here feels natural.  I am happy but oddly unfascinated.  Most of all, I notice the changed routines of my life.  Every day I take mass transit and have cheese for breakfast, rather than the car and cereal.  I am more likely to take in information by walking around different parts of town than by reading.  I have only five CDs, a Kindle, and a few paperbacks, including the new (and good) David Mitchell novel.

The Berlin newspapers seem uninterested in the collapse of Greece and the future of the Eurozone; that probably reflects the preferences of their readership.

They have a whole shop, on my street, for books about the German train system; there is another shop just for books about miniature model boats.

There are many more photocopy shops here than I had expected; I wish I could short the sector.  The Berlin Zoo has a "gay night."

There is a not-very-bohemian part of town, a somewhat bohemian part of town, and a "supposedly to be really bohemian but actually still quite German" part of town.  A funny kind of pointless Tiebout competition reigns.

Berlin is a big playground with relatively little busines life or production, lots of space, and amazingly low rents.  You can buy a good gelato for less than a Euro.

The vegetables are superb.

Sometimes you can't tell which national cuisine the Asian restaurants are serving and I don't mean that as a compliment.  Sri Lankan food is one of the best respites from the oppression of food preparation in Deutschland.

If there is one overriding principle of German food, it is to avoid anything in a sauce.

The Turkish integration into Germany and German life is a major postwar success story, yet it is not much reported on.

The musical life and museums are first-rate, yet the real sight here is simply Germany itself.

From the comments

…in 1981 Margaret Thatcher cut UK government spending in the middle of a recession, and against the advice of 391 economists that it would worsen the recession, and UK GDP started its recovery the same quarter. In 1991 Ruth Richardson in NZ cut government spending against the advice of 15 economists, and NZ GDP started its recovery the same quarter. There are a number of other cases of expansionary fiscal consolidations, and there's a causal theory to explain why this can happen – see (shortly, it's that cutting government spending improves people's expectations about the future of the economy and taxes, so they start investing more right now). Of course, correlation does not prove causation, and perhaps there is something about the EU countries now that is so different as to the cases I cite as to make those results no longer likely to hold, but Krugman writes as if he has forgotten entirely about the 1980s and 1990s.

That is by TracyW.  Later in the thread she refers us to this paper, on how "contractionary" fiscal policy can be expansionary, and vice versa.

Kidnap Radio

The first rule of kidnapping insurance is that you don't talk about kidnapping insurance.

That's Seth Gitter summarizing some of the economics of kidnapping insurance over at the Blog of Diminishing Returns.  Seth also points us towards a story about Caracol Radio, a radio station in Colombia that broadcasts messages from families to hostages every Saturday night:

The show is called Voces del
Secuestro, or Voices of Kidnapping. (There are several other stations
in Colombia that send messages out on other days of the week). The
host, Herbin Hoyos, is a journalist who started this program in 1994,
after he was briefly kidnapped…

For more, see Tyler's excellent analysis of the economics of kidnapping insurance.

A philosopher dedicated to clear exposition

In 1984, my marriage to Cindy was in serious trouble. I had started once a week therapy with a McLean Hospital based psychiatrist named Lenore Boling, and I used the sessions really just to give voice to my unhappiness with what my relationship with Cindy had become. Despite the unhappiness, I do not think I ever shed a tear in those sessions over the shambles of the marriage. One day, however, I started talking about my work. I tried to explain to Dr. Boling that in all of my writing, whether it was on Kant's First Critique or Hume's Treatise or Das Kapital, my goal always was to plumb the depths of the author's central idea and recast it in a form so simple, so clear, so transparent that I could hold it before my students or my readers and show them its beauty. As I said these words, tears started to well up in me, and I finally had to stop talking because I could not finish. It was the only time in twenty years of psychotherapy that I cried openly in a session. Ever since that day, twenty-five years ago, I have understood that it is this intellectual intuition of the transparent beauty of an idea, not the desire for status or recognition or money, that has throughout my life been the driving force behind my writing and teaching. This is why it makes little difference to me whether reviewers agree with what I say, and it is why I am made somewhat uncomfortable by praise. The intrinsic beauty of the idea is the focus of my concern. It seems that I am, after all, more capable of shedding tears for the central argument of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding than I am for a failed marriage or even for a deceased parent. I am not at all sure that is admirable, but it is closer to the truth about myself than I have ever come before.

That's from Robert Paul Wolff, hat tip goes to The Browser.

Is multi-tasking and modern information technology bad for us?

Here is one litany of complaints.  Nicholas Carr speaks to the issue and he recommends this summary piece, to defend his view that the internet is in some regards making our thoughts less focused and more superficial.

I've read the piece and I don't yet see the evidence.  There are plenty of studies where the experimenter imposes his or her own version of multitasking on the participants and then sees their performance fall.

I'm simply not convinced or even moved in my priors by these studies.  I can't operate a German Waschmaschine (imposed on me), and that's without an internet connection running in the background.  Nor would I do well if confronted by, say, the open internet windows of Brad DeLong, or his devices, whatever they may be, and in the broader scheme of things surely he counts as intellectually close to me.  Yet overall my life runs quite smoothly.

To sound intentionally petulant, the only multitasking that works for me is mine, mine, mine!  Until I see a study showing that self-chosen multi-tasking programs lower performance, I don't see that the needle has budged.

I do see stronger evidence (as cited) that video games make people more aggressive.  I also see overwhelming evidence that the internet gets people to read and write more.  The latter is probably a good thing.  I also believe the internet leads to less interest in long novels and more interest in non-fiction.  I won't judge that one, but it's misleading to cite only the decline of interest in long novels and by the way don't forget Harry Potter, the form is hardly dead.

I do, by the way, ban laptops in my smaller classes.  But that's paternalism, and the desire to produce a class-level publc good, not fear of my students' cognitive decline.  I can well imagine that they are processing more information, and doing it more effectively, when they are not listening to me, and the other students, so intently.

For extensions of my argument, see my book Create Your Own Economy, soon to be released in paperback with the new and superior title The Age of the Infovore.

My favorite things Berlin

1. Movie, set in: One, Two, Three captures a bit of comedy from the Cold War and shows Jimmy Cagney to be a surprisingly versatile actor.  Wings of Desire has stunning moments, most of all in the Staatsbibliothek with the angels and in the indie music club.  Goodbye, Lenin! shows German movies can be funny, as does Run, Lola, Run!.  I don't like films about either the rise or fall of the Nazis and I couldn't get through Berlin Alexanderplatz.

2. Essayist: Kurt Tucholsky.  He is hardly read by Americans, and perhaps does not translate well, but is arguably one of the most eloquent and also funniest essayists of his century.  Heinreich Heine also spent time in the city, although he is not a "Berliner" in the same way.

3. Painter: George Grosz and Otto Dix have lost their shock value.  I'll pick Lucien Freud, who was born in Berlin, though he ended up in England.  Käthe Kollwitz deserves consideration, as well as for sculptor.

4. Symphonic performance: Furtwängler's 1942 performance of Beethoven's 9th, recorded live.  Has to be heard to be believed.  Obviously there was a lot at stake and furthermore Hitler was in the audience.  This performance will terrify you.

5. Sociologist: Georg Simmel, especially his book on the philosophy of money.

6. Political philosopher: Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action, which to this day remains one of the best statements of libertarian political philosophy.  

7. Playwright: Lessing's Nathan the Wise is a beautiful plea for tolerance.  Bertolt Brecht was a compelling writer despite his communist politics. 

8. Architect: Walter Gropius or Erich Mendelsohn.

9. Philosopher: Schopenhauer and Hegel both taught in Berlin.  Even Hegel, while he is full of gobbledy-gook, is brilliant on a frequent basis.  Don't start with Phenomenology of Spirit.  At the very least, read Schopenhauer's aphorisms.

10. Film director: Ernst Lubitsch was born there, and filmed silents there, though he later had to leave.  His Trouble in Paradise (1932) is today an under-viewed movie, plus his later romantic features, such as The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait, and To Be Or Not To Be, all merit attention.

11. Non-fiction book, about: Two that come to mind are Richard Grunberger's The 12-Year Reich and Anthony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945.  I do like books about the rise and fall of the Nazis; I just don't think the topic lends itself well to film.

12. Novel, set in: Uwe Johnson, The Third Book About Achim [Das dritte Buch über Achim] and John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

13. Poet: Rilke.

Kurt Weill belongs somewhere, as does Christopher Isherwood, Gustav Grundgens, or for that matter E.T.A. Hoffmann.  In popular music there is Ricardo Villalobos (born in Chile, but a Berliner), Einstürzende Neubauten (start with Halber Mensch), and Peter and also Casper Brötzmann.  I confess that most Mendelssohn bores me.

The bottom line: How many countries could beat this line-up?  And most of it comes in a relatively short period of time.

Wikipedia on A.J. Ayer and Mike Tyson

He taught or lectured several times in the United States, including serving as a visiting professor at Bard College in the fall of 1987. At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson harassing the (then little-known) model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: "Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men." Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

The link is here and the pointer is from Daniel Klein.

Flypaper effects?

State lawmakers approved $775 million in cuts and other savings from New York’s health care budget on Monday after Gov. David A. Paterson inserted the reductions into emergency spending legislation submitted to the Legislature to keep the state government from shutting down.

If it is the case that the Obama reforms provided more health care than voters wanted, we can expect a partial clawback at the state and local levels.  The full article is here.

My favorite things *Modern Principles* (Cowen and Tabarrok)

I'm writing to thank so many of you for your interest in Modern Principes: Microeconomics, Modern Principles: Macroeconomics, and the two-in-one edition.  Alex and I have been pleased to see how many of you have adopted the book or shown interest in it; all the books are doing great and thanks to your interest.  Translations to other languages are already in the works.

Here are a few of my favorite things Modern Principles:

1. It has the most thorough treatment of the interconnectedness of markets and the importance of the price system; most texts only pay lip service to this.

2. It is the most Hayekian of the texts on micro theory without in any way ignoring the importance of externalities, public goods and other challenges to markets. 

3. It has an entire chapter on ethics and economics.  We do present economics as a value-free science, yet we all know how much ethics shapes people's economics views.  The book helps the student sort out common confusions and explains the ethical presuppositions behind many "economic" arguments.

4. It has an entire chapter on incentives and incentive design (e.g. piece rates, tournaments, pay for performance).  Oddly, many micro books do not discuss this crucial topic.

5. International examples–from Algeria to Zimbabwe–are written into the core of the book and not just ghettoized in a single "international chapter."

6. It is obsessed with the idea of teaching students to think like economists.

7. It is grounded in the belief that reading an economics text should be fun, not a chore.

8. It has balanced coverage of neo-Keynesian and real business cycle approaches.

9. It covers Solow "catch-up" growth, and Paul Romer's increasing returns, much more thoroughly than do the other texts.  The macro book (section) starts off with the idea of why growth matters and is central to macroeconomics.

10. The financial crisis was written into the core of the book, rather than being absent or treated as an add-on.  This means for instance plenty of coverage of financial intermediation and asset price bubbles.

11.  The book's blog, a teaching tool with lots of videos, powerpoints and other ideas for keeping teaching exciting, is lots of fun and updated regularly  (FYI, this is a great resource for any instructor of economics.) 

In addition, of course, there is a full range of supplements including lecture powerpoints, test banks, student's guide, Aplia support and coming in the fall EconPortal (even better than Aplia, IMHO).  

Christopher Hitchens markets in everything test

From a recent interview:

I trust you answer the e-mail of your friends at no charge.
I haven’t got to the point yet where phone calls and e-mails are billable, but I am working on it. That would be happiness defined for me. What I’m hoping is to get a 900 number, so I can tell all my friends, “Call me back on my 900 number: 1-900-HITCH22.” I can talk for a long time.

But who would want to listen?
That would be the 900-number test.

For the pointer I thank Hugo.  He asks me: whose 1-900 number would you like to ring?

Addendum: Here's Felix Salmon on Hitchens.