Month: June 2013

Micah Tillman defends Edmund Husserl

I allowed him three paragraphs, and he emails me the following:

Husserl was a mathematician whose desire to understand how (and why) mathematics actually works turned him into a philosopher of logic, science, language, and mind. Without the movement he inaugurated, Heidegger (and therefore everyone who followed Heidegger), Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Levinas, and Derrida (and even John Paul II) would not have become the philosophers we know them as today.

Husserl was inspired by Hume and Kant, but believed both made a fundamental mistake. Empiricists like Hume became skeptics after concluding that all we truly know are our own sensations; we never experience the “real things” we think we do. Idealists like Kant essentially agreed (we experience only phenomena, never noumena) but believed that at least we could discover the universal rules of the human mind.

Husserl argued that the “things themselves” actually show up for us through our experiences and therefore we can learn about the real world through a study of the structures (patterns, types, and forms) of human experience. In the process, he reconciled empiricism and idealism. The empiricist insistence on experience over speculation is central to phenomenology, as is the idealist claim that the study of the mind is the path to knowledge of ultimate reality. With the combination of the two, every area of the world, and every part of life, became a subject for philosophical investigation, and philosophy experienced a kind of second birth.

Earlier I had named Husserl as “the worst philosopher.”  But of course I am delighted to present a contrasting view.  Micah is a professional philosopher and an adherent of phenomenology, his web page is here.  His recently completed dissertation was “Empty and Filled Intentions in Husserl’s Early Work.”  He describes the “things themselves” — in less than 140 characters — here.

How much should we be fearing “resets”?

It is a common observation that nominal wages are sticky but let’s not forget that real wages are often sticky too (and in fact nominal stickiness tends to matter much more when accompanied by real stickiness, but that is a point for another day.)  That means many labor market changes will be slow to manifest themselves in the real world.  Furthermore you often will see them first for new jobs, for the young, and for new labor market entrants (usually but not always the young).

To cite one example, commentators are debating whether Obamacare will induce employers to “shed” insurance coverage, given that the workers can be picked up by the subsidized exchanges (and the fines, where applicable, are relatively low).  Probably we won’t know the size of this effect until we have had a fairly full set of job “turnovers” in labor markets, as many employers will be reluctant to upset previous explicit or implicit deals.

Circa 2013, I fear many of the pending reset deals in labor markets.  Insiders are often treated quite well, but the next generation of outsiders may never reattain such privileged positions.  The average doesn’t change very rapidly, because most of the employed still are insiders.  Still, we can see that the reset may be a doozy.  After all, labor’s share as a percentage of gdp has been falling in many of the advanced economies around the world.

Even putting cyclicality aside, Greek and Italian youth worry about exactly this problem.  Any aspiring academic in the United States should worry about the reset too, with or without MOOCs.  Especially in the humanities, the old privileged positions simply aren’t being replicated because for most schools those positions no longer make economic sense.  At the same time, few if any tenured professors are taking significant real wage cuts.

Resets show up more quickly in some sectors than others, most of all they come quickly when buyers and sellers have only sporadic and perhaps even anonymous contact with each other.  In other words, the reset comes more slowly for the mistress than for the street prostitute.  And when you see youth losing relative ground in labor markets, that is another signal that you should be worrying about resets.

Fear the reset.  The world will continue to produce much more value, and much more gdp, but who will capture that value is already changing dramatically and will continue to do so.

Addendum: Here is commentary from Ashok, and also from Luis Pedro Coelho.  And from On Demand.

How to save the world — earn more and give it away

Dylan Matthews reports:

Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn.

The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer.

Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan.

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.

He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

…In many ways, his life still resembles that of a graduate student. He lives with three roommates. He walks to work. And he doesn’t feel in any way deprived. “I wouldn’t know how to spend a large amount of money,” he says.

The full story is here.  Here is commentary from Salam and Sanchez.  And I have just received the new book by Michael M. Weinstein and Ralph M. Bradburd, The Robin Hood Rules for Smart Giving, an analytical treatment written by two economists.

Assorted links

1. Student debt in Sweden is high, even though school is free.

2. The normative force of the Leontief production function, as illustrated by one consumer in Japan.

3. Kotlikoff on Reinhart and Rogoff.

4. Asimov short story — “Sally” — on self-driving cars.

5. opscost.com now has added features, including that patients can share their hospital bills with others.

6. Technological advances in trains, and has Sarkozy ever tried alcohol?  Carla says no.

Don’t eat there (further lessons in adverse selection)

The restaurant Spoleto told every female customer she didn’t have to pay for her meal as long as she could affirmatively answer the question, “Are you beautiful?”

It is a Brazilian fast food chain, so just stop in for a drink.  By the way, they report that sales that day were up 35%.

Here is more, including an illustrative video, and for the pointer I thank Donnie Hall.

Do Japanese companies have banishment rooms?

This seems speculative, but of interest nonetheless:

Basically, banishment rooms are departments where companies transfer surplus employees and give them menial or useless tasks or even nothing to do until they become depressed or disheartened enough to quit on their own, thus not getting full benefits, unlike if they were actually let go. Imagine having to stare at a TV monitor for 10 hours at a time each day, in order to look for “program footage irregularities.” Of course companies would not admit to doing this, and instead will make up generic (or even creative) titles and department names like “Business & Human Resource Development Center” or “career development team”. And it’s not small companies that are doing this, but big ones like Hitachi Ltd., Sony Corp., Toshiba Corp., Seiko Instruments Inc., a NEC Corp. subsidiary, and two subsidiaries of Panasonic Corp.

A public relations from the main office of Panasonic said that the BHC section is “training employees to acquire new skills so they can work at different sections,”. 468 employees were added to this department in April, mostly coming from sections that were doing poorly. In short, 1 in 10 workers at the company are at the BHC. So far, only 35 employees have left the company while 29 got transferred to other departments.

Via Mark Thorson, the story is here.  Here is another article about banishment rooms, with more documentation and more legal detail about the difficulties of firing employees.

Elsewhere from Japan, a new and possibly very effective malaria vaccine has been invented.  Here is electronic Samurai sword quick draw and cut trainers.  Here is an argument that competitive vending machines make Japanese inflation more difficult to achieve.

How much do narcissists benefit from recent technological advances?

Michael Makowsky writes me an email about a conference he was invited to:

Predictably, the lineup of speakers are people who no one cares about, but tickets remain $45. This is analogous to something in stand-up comedy and music called a “bringer show” i.e. you can perform if you sell X tickets, thus “bringing” a crowd. At least, this is my suspicion.

But it got me thinking about your various “benefit to infovores” theories of recent advances in technology. I think you have underplayed the other side of that coin – that recent advances are also especially valuable to *narcissists*. You can foster a sense that a people are watching/care about you much easier than 30 years ago. The market for enabling narcissism is…substantial. I actually expect TedX and similar bricks and mortar portings to lose money. But that is besides the point. Vanity presses and the such have existed on the periphery forever. The internet is a vanity press upped several orders of magnitude. My point is that this is, I think, a near perfect inversion of the “infovore” concept, but with the identical result. It’s an advance that yields tons of consumer surplus, but little additional opportunity to increase anyone’s marginal product, i.e. help the labor market.

There is something almost recursive about an academic building a theory around the demand for enabling narcissism.