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*A Life of Experimental Economics, volume I*, by Vernon Smith

I learned a great deal from this stimulating and highly unorthodox biography.  Here are a few points from the book:

1. It offers a brief but excellent early economic history of Wichita, where Vernon grew up.

2. Vernon, at the time, was very critical of the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, which he considered to be a disproportionate use of force.

3. In the 1940s he became active in CORE and its fight against racial discrimination.

4. In 1948 Vernon was an antiwar pacifist and a supporter of Norman Thomas.

5. At MIT, Paul Samuelson was a show-off lecturer, according to Vernon.

6. The book has plenty of sentences like: “Grandpa Smith and Uncle Norman were always a delight to have around — lots of jokes, wisecracks, and laughs.”

7. pp.163-164: “The details, as we came to know them, were not the least bit complicated…It was at first thought that she had considered using the knife on herself, but apparently the knife was there because she considered cutting a length from a nearby piece of rope.  Instead, she used a chain.  It was so like my mother — a clean job with no mess.  Everyone who knew her knew that she would never have used the butcher knife.  Even the hanging could never have occurred in the house.  No fuss, no mess; a clean job, with no room for error.”

8. On attention-switching: “I have always had what my mind has gradually come to recognize — by comparative observation of others — as a brain task-switching problem.  When I am thinking, writing, or composing, I pass into another world of experience, a world that is isolated from my surroundings…I experience many chaotic but loosely connected thought.  One, then another, rises and there emerges a hint of how they are to come together.”  He notes that interruptions are very costly to him, and he much prefers one-to-one conversations rather than group dialogues.  Furthermore, he argues that his capacity to “hyper-focus” is more valuable than his measured IQ of 130.

9. There are considerable and interesting discussions of autism, Asperger’s and ADHD.

10. The book offers an excellent account of why Purdue was an important economics department in the 1950s and 1960s.

11. In 1957, Vernon considered going to work for a private railroad and leaving Purdue for St. Louis.  He didn’t.

You can buy the book here, vol.II is good too.

Why I disagree with Scott Sumner on China

U.S. government investigators increasingly believe that Chinese state hackers were most likely responsible for the massive intrusion reported last month into Marriott’s Starwood chain hotel reservation system, a breach that exposed the private information and travel details of as many as 500 million people

Story here.  And:

Armed with a rich array of personal data, an intelligence agency can also tailor an approach to a person to see whether the individual can be recruited as a spy or blackmailed for information. The passport data, which is not often collected in data breaches, probably was a particularly valuable find for the hackers.

You will note that no one is trying to sell the data.  And this:

The report, citing two people briefed on the investigation, reported China had launched an intelligence-gathering campaign which included hacking into health insurance companies and hacking security clearance files of millions of people living in the U.S. The New York Times reported the hackers are believed to be employed by the Ministry of State Security, which is China’s spy agency. The paper noted that the revelation that China was behind the Marriott hack comes as the U.S. government is gearing up to launch actions against China’s trade that include indicting Chinese hackers that work for the government. The New York Times noted the Marriott hacking isn’t expected to be part of the indictments but does add a sense of urgency to the moves the White House was mulling.

The Trump administration is also planning on declassifying intelligence reports that show China had been trying to create a database of American executives and government officials that have security clearances, reported The New York Times.

I could go on.  I am genuinely unsure what are the economic costs of these mischievous activities, but would note simply that it is sometimes necessary to punch back.  The choice is not free trade vs. protectionism (I strongly suspect Scott and I agree on the economics of trade), but rather a partial return punch now vs. a worse situation much later on.

Does Macron have any new ideas to save the moment?

My opening line for Bloomberg:

The sorry truth is that both progressives and neoliberals still don’t get it, and that seems true in France most of all.

Part of the argument:

In response, people want something beyond more income redistribution (what the left is offering) or more globalization (what the pre-populist right used to offer). People want ideas and inspiration, and when no good new ideas are put forward, the current default seems to be nationalist ideas, including of the less tolerant variety.

Macron doesn’t have any new ideas or vision, however much you might like the old ideas he has embraced. And so, however promising it might have seemed at first, his tenure has accelerated the collapse of the traditional European liberal order. For some time, his approval ratings in France have been lower than those of U.S. President Donald Trump.

And here is the least central paragraph:

The one intellectual group that really gets what is going on right now are the much-maligned libertarians. For decades they have been told that they are too analytical, that they lack empathy, that they don’t have much to offer the public in the way of inspiration. For all the (mostly failed) attempts to pretend otherwise, that is mostly true — and libertarians have to hope that analytical perspectives become more ascendant.

Oh, and don’t forget this:

A quick comparison with 19th-century French culture, with its emphasis on progress, utopia and the rationalization of social systems, shows just how much the forward-looking perspective is lacking.

Recommended.

Sorry people, but I will always be an independent…

Senate Democrats are pushing back against attempts to pass a compromise bill in the lame-duck session that could speed the introduction of driverless cars onto U.S. roadways, saying it lacks safeguards that would protect drivers.

Link here, and I’m sure you know the House Democrats don’t want to pass the new NAFTA.

Elsewhere, in Chicago, the war on democracy continues:

To get on the ballot, Krupa was required to file 473 valid signatures of ward residents with the Chicago Board of Elections. Krupa filed 1,703 signatures.

But before he filed his signatures with the elections board, an amazing thing happened along the Chicago Way.

An organized crew of political workers — or maybe just civic-minded individuals who care about reform — went door to door with official legal papers. They asked residents to sign an affadavit revoking their signature on Krupa’s petition.

And the background?:

The David is David Krupa, 19, a freshman at DePaul University who drives a forklift part time. He’s not a political powerhouse. He’s just a conservative Southwest Side teenager studying political science and economics who got it in his head to run for alderman in a race that pits him against the most powerful [Democratic] ward organization in Chicago.

Here is the story, it’s not just North Carolina where electoral law is treated with less than the utmost respect.

p.s. if you think or write “false equivalency” in response to this post, you fail the Intellectual Turing test.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Alex Zook tweet storm review of Stubborn Attachments.  Opener: “longterm-ism can be founded on many grounds, ranging from compounding economic growth to physics to intuitions about how to treat future generations. this felt *very* natural to me, and held stronger ground than typical moral philosophy arguments grounded in toy worlds”  And another review.  And here is the DC filtering of the Stubborn Attachments book party.

2. The new Hollywood trailer with Godzilla, Ghidrah, Mothra, and Rodan.  Let’s hope it is sufficiently morally serious.

3. AlphaFold.

4. Better not to know?

5. Addis Ababa photo fest.

6. New list of unacceptable French thinkers.

Don’t arrest Chinese CFOs and CEOs

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is just one short excerpt:

In the longer run, bringing charges against Meng is likely to accelerate the division of the world into two competing systems of law, technology and commerce — namely those of China and the U.S. That will encourage international relations to develop along the dimension of power — what can you get away with? — rather than law or orderly cooperation. The West’s dirty little secret is that the rule of law works well only when tempered with a high degree of discretion.

And:

At the margin, the legal reach and police power of the U.S. can always be invoked to fight another crime or resolve another corruption problem. Don’t like how FIFA — the international soccer federation — is being run? Get the U.S. in on the act. There are in fact laws that gave the U.S. jurisdiction over bad FIFA practices (wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering), and the Department of Justice led a successful anti-corruption case starting in 2015.

That enforcement action seems to have gone fine, but where to stop? There a lot of wrongdoers who are connected, in one way or another, to the U.S. financial system. But America has more credibility as global policeman when it focuses on only the most pressing cases, such as when innocent victims are being killed.

Best yet, I offer remarks on Brexit as well.

Best movies of 2018

In the order I saw them:

Annihilation

A Quiet Place

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Three Identical Strangers

Crazy Rich Asians

Widows

Free Solo

Roma

You will find my reviews behind those three links.  Overall, you could take this year and multiply it by 2x, and still have the worst year for movies in my adult life.  If anything special comes out between now and the end of the year, as it often does, I will be sure to let you know.

I also saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time on a large screen in a long time, review here, Barry Lyndon too, they are two of the best movies ever made though not on your TV.

Tom Lehrer, man ahead of his time

Ever since I was a young teenager I loved Tom Lehrer (thanks to Ken Regan, by the way), and I thought I would re-listen to some fresh.  I tried the Copenhagen concert, a good overview of his work and with good visuals.  I was struck by the following:

1. Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

2. Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.

3. He is very interested in language and the question of how words are used in the public sphere, and how words are used to obfuscate.  Might that be the central theme in his thought?

4. He often sneaks China into the cultural references, for instance: “And I’m learning Chinese, says Werner von Braun.”  He seems to think it is a much more important country than Russia, although this concert was from 1967 and often was drawing on songs which were older yet.

5. He is much more interested in math and science than current comedians, for instance his “Elements” is a classic [22:54], and redone here with an Aristotle coda, mocking The Philosopher.  His audience seems to take this interest in stride.  This song is yet another example of inverting what should be said, or not.

6. Yes I know the tunes sound derivative, but most of them are original.  And as music…they’re a lot catchier than most of the other musical theatre of his time and I think of many of them as minor classics.  I still enjoy hearing them as music.  And other than Sondheim and Dylan, how many better American lyricists were there?

7. When he wants to get really gory, he doubles down on mock sadism (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”: “…we’ll murder them all with laughter and merriment…except for the few we take home to experiment…”).  He once said: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

It would be hard to pull this off today.  Yet, when I listen to Lehrer, perhaps because I know the historical context, I am not offended.  Plus he is flat-out funny.  He cited losing his “nasty edge,” and starting to see things in shades of grey, as one reason for what appeared to be a quite premature retirement.

8. He wore a white shirt and his tie was tightly knotted.

9. He’s one of America’s great comics, and the material is idea-rich to a remarkable extent.  He hardly ever sung about social themes or person-to-person social interactions.

10. Many of the songs of his that you never hear are in fact commentaries on various folk song movements.  Circa 2018, few can understand their references, but they do showcase Lehrer’s extreme idealism.

11. He was at first a math prodigy and later in the mid-1950s, as a draftee, crunched numbers for the NSA.  He remains alive and turned 90 earlier this year.

 

Sunday assorted links

1. Buju Banton returns to Jamaica, released from prison.

2. China thread.  How China does and does not want to change the rules.

3. How and why Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are becoming less violent (The Economist).

4. It seems there are atheists in foxholes.

5. Does adult guardianship differ from slavery? (NYT)  Currently the number of Americans under guardianship may range between one and three million.  And: ““It’s worse than incarceration,” she said. “At least in prison you have rights.””

6. “Researchers disagree on whether loneliness is on the rise, in part due to the difficulty in identifying who is lonely and who is socially isolated…”  And here: “Why, then, all the assertions that loneliness has increased and now constitutes an epidemic?

Popular music CDs from 2018

The two CDs I enjoyed the most this year were both sound worlds, and silences, from the distant past:

Brian Eno, Another Green World, and

van Morrison, Astral Weeks, fifty year anniversary for that one, and I hadn’t realized how closely the lyrics were tied to details of Belfast.  Next up will be the quieter cuts on Electric Ladyland.

The Beatles’s White Album tapes were a revelation, but it is enough to hear them once or twice.  I learned that the album was remarkably well-produced, no less than Sgt. Pepper, to get that under-produced sound.  “I Will” came directly from “Blue Moon” (!), and “Blackbird” came from Bach’s Bourree (less surprising).  Classic Beatle songs such as “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” and many others were basically written by 1968, making 1966-68 a truly remarkable period in their songwriting output.  “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was better in its early acoustic version.  Some of my best Beatles listening was to track down their most Cage-Stockhausen-influenced passages, such as Paul’s acoustic fade-out at the end of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” or the instrumental close of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Paul’s new album Egypt Station does not have much ear candy, but it does reveal his longstanding status as a very horny dude; listen to his much earlier Temporary Secretary for something unacceptably obscene (and creative).  Then go back and re-listen to his early Beatle lyrics through this lens.  The best argument for LSD I’ve heard is simply that it got Paul to stop singing about girls for a few years, so it must be pretty powerful.

I got sick of hip-hop this year, so of the new releases I’ve been most intrigued by:

Lush, Snail Mail (at least three excellent songs)

Low, Double Negative

Mitski, Be the Cowboy

But it is too early to judge their staying power.  Sitting in the “I still haven’t listened to this yet pile” is:

Aphex Twin, Collapse EP (too many other CDs piled on top of the record player!)

Autechre, NTS Sessions, an 8-CD set.

Self-recommending is Desmond Dekker: Action!/Intensified

What do you all recommend?

Saturday assorted links

Kenneth Tynan on Alec Guinness, circa 1952

He can — and this is rare — act mind, and may be the only actor alive who could play a genius convincingly: Donne, for instance, Milton, Pope, or even Shakespeare…would be comfortably within his grasp.  But he is not, and never will be a star, in the sense that Coward and Olivier are stars.  Olivier, one might say, ransacks the vaults of a part with blowlamp, crowbar, and gun-powder; Guinness is the nocturnal burglar, the humble Houdini who knows the combination.  He does everything by stealth.  Whatever he may do in the future, eh will leave no theatrical descendants, as Gielgud will.  He has illumined many a hitherto blind alley of subtlety, but blazed no trails.  Irving, we read, was rapt, too: but it was a weird, thunderous raptness that shook its fist at the gods.  Guinness waves away awe with a witty fingertip and deflects the impending holocaust with a shrug.  His stage presence is quite without amplitude, and his face, bereft of its virtuosity of make-up, is a signless zero.  His special gift is to imply the presence of little fixed ideas, gambolling about behind the deferential mask of normality.  The characters he plays are injected hypodermically, not tattooed all over him; the latter is the star’s way and Guinness shrinks from it.  Like Buckingham in Richard III he is “deep-resolving, witty”; the clay image on whom the witches work.  An innocence, as of the womb, makes his face placid even when he plays murderers.

Whether he likes it or not (and I suspect he does), his true métier will continue to be eccentrics — men reserved, blinkered, shut off from their fellows, and obsessed.  Within such minority men there is a hidden glee, an inward fanatical glow; and in their souls Guinness is at ease.

That is from Kenneth Tynan, Profiles, which is in fact a remarkable and remarkably good book.