been listening to

My favorite world music recordings of 2008

My services as an aggregator are probably of most value in this area, if only because there are so few other reliable aggregators.  I very much liked the following:

The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru; I bought it in 2008 at least.

Un Dia, Juana Molina.  Quirky, oddly textured songs from Argentina.  She’s not just a one-trick pony but she now has a string of excellent albums.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Gurrumal.  Aboriginal music from Australia, on acoustic guitar, truly moving.  I don’t regret having paid $40 for it.

Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar, by Debashis Bhattacharya.

Anything from Network Medien.  Anything.  They’re the single best and most useful music label today.  The picks on any of their collections are impeccable and always worth the price.  This year I’ve been enjoying their Music of the Americas, Desert Blues (multiple parts), Golden Afriques Part II, and Sufi Music, among others.

Here are other world music picks.

On the popular music front, I’m now listening to Fleet Foxes at least once a day.  I’m also starting to like the new Bon Iver and the new Kanye West.

Credit Card Crunch?

Frankly, I am tired of this topic but every time I try to check the data – as best as I can – it doesn’t seem to support the rhetoric we are hearing from people at the top [despite real problems blah, blah, blah].  Here’s Paulson today:

At least some of the remainder [of the bailout money], Paulson said, should be used to
reinvigorate the market for credit cards, student and auto loans —
which combined account for some 40 percent of consumer credit.

"This market, which is vital for lending and growth, has for all practical purposes ground to a halt," Paulson said. (emphasis added)

I’ll focus on credit cards.  It is true that credit card offers, i.e. junk mail, is down:

…one billion fewer offers mailed during the course of the year.
Households with incomes under $50,000 will receive about 700,000 fewer
offers in 2008 compared to 2007. These households account for the
majority of the cutback and clearly indicate a major change in strategy
by card issuers.

"The souring economy and industry consolidation have driven volumes
down to levels not seen since 2003 [Crisis! AT]" said Andrew Davidson, Vice
President of Competitive Tracking Services for Synovate’s Financial
Services Group. "Card issuers are taking a more cautious approach, with
lower income and high risk households receiving fewer offers or no
offers at all."

But even so:

Despite the decline in offers for new cards, US consumers still
have access to an increasing amount of credit. Household credit lines
across all cards edged up to an average of $27,626 per household (YTD
3Q 2008) from $26,902 in 2007 despite evidence that issuers are cutting
credit lines on certain customers.

…"Much has been reported about issuers reducing credit lines for
certain customers but this is not the case for the majority of people.
Across the industry as a whole, we continue to see credit access and
usage at record high levels" said Davidson.

By the way, after listening to Tyler and me debate this topic Bob Murphy and Megan McArdle decided to run some tests.  So if you prefer your data by anecdote you can read Bob’s results here and Megan’s here.  I am partial to Megan’s hypothesis #5.

Resume normal programming

I’m now done with my week guest blogging.  The week has flown by.

My final observations are about econo-blogging:

  1. It has been fun. Thanks for listening.
  2. The intertubes can be an interesting and challenging place for discussing ideas and economics.  This might be obvious to you, but for many of us in the ivory tower, the seminar room and the printed page remain our primary fora.  Not coincidentally, they are also where the strongest career incentives lie.
  3. I’ve loved being welcomed and challenged by the Pareto Optimists here at MR.
  4. I’ve been amazed by how much work blogging can be.  More than anything else, this past week has simply increased my admiration for the work that Alex and Tyler put into this site and our community.

I’m still thinking about how my experiences this week will shape my own future views about the who/what/when/where/why of both doing economics and communicating findings.  I’ll be sure to report back if I figure out how one should deal with the (many) alternatives.

So, let me end on a personal note, albeit quoting:

I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
But goodbye’s too good a word, gal
So I’ll just say fare thee well

How much music is enough?

I’ve been sampling the Bach box and I pronounce it worth buying.  Compared to the available full-price recordings, I give it a 7 out of 10 and that is for 65 cents per disc.  The sound is generally quite good, the performances of the chamber music are excellent, the harpischord occasionally stale (I prefer Bach on piano), the masses and passions are above average, and most of the cantatas are "good enough."  It won’t displace my very favorite Bach recordings, but these make good second choices pretty much across the board.  To be frank, even among experienced classical music listeners, no more than one person in ten can tell the difference and yes that means you.

Yesterday Jane Galt asked "how much music is enough."  Ha!  But two days earlier, after receiving the new Amon Tobin CD, I vowed not to buy another CD for an entire year.  It’s not a question of money, rather I am looking for a new listening experience.

Let’s see how long I last, I’ll let you all know when I snap.

Why don’t redistributionists like big band music?

Gabriel Rossman writes to me:

A few days ago there was a discussion on this blog about the book Conservatize Me and more broadly, about taste and politics.  Many of the questions can be answered systematically since in 1993 the General Social Survey included a list of questions about musical taste.  The simplest question to ask is how different types of music correlate with ideology (polviews).  Generally speaking, the stereotypes hold up.  Country is correlated with the right whereas classical, rap, rock music, and heavy metal are all correlated with the left.  Opinions about folk music aren’t correlated with politics.  Note though that even the strongest correlations are relatively weak (r<0.20) so there are plenty of liberals out there listening to country and no shortage of conservative rap fans.

Another way to look at it is to break politics into two dimensions.  Let’s treat whether the government should reduce income differences (eqwith) as a measure of economic attitudes.  Folk, classical, and big band music are very unpopular with redistributionists.  (I guess nobody dreamt about Joe Hill the night before the survey).  Rap, metal, and blues are popular with redistributionists.  Country, rock, and bluegrass aren’t correlated with fiscal attitudes.  For social attitudes, let’s use opinion of sex before marriage (premarsx).  Folk, country, classical, bluegrass, and big band fans tend to disapprove of fornication, whereas rap, rock, metal, and blues fans think it’s fine.  (If you substitute gay sex for premarital sex the pattern is the same, except for rap fans who tend to oppose it).  I experimented with looking for distinctively "libertarian" taste patterns but couldn’t find any.

This is all back of the envelope stuff.  A more sophisticated analysis would use factor analysis on dozens of attitudinal questions and find corresponding patterns in them.

You can find the 1993 GSS at Princeton’s Cultural Policy and Arts National Data Archive.  http://www.cpanda.org/codebookDB/sdalite.jsp?id=a00006.  There’s a self-explanatory web engine that allows you to compare any two variables.  (Want to know how many opera fans have been in fist fights?  Or how people who have paid for sex feel about nuclear power? Now is your chance.)  More advanced users can download the full dataset in SPSS, ASCII, or CSV and do whatever they want with it.

Gabriel Rossman is very smart.  Here is his home page.  Here is a summary of his dissertation.  Here is an abstract of his paper on the Dixie Chicks and where they received less play time.  Here is his paper on "Who Picks the Hits on Radio"? 

Addendum: Here is Benny Goodman on YouTube.  Here is Stan Kenton.  Here is Count Basie.  I could give you more.

Joe Stiglitz watch

Let me start with the concessions.  Joe Stiglitz is one of the most brilliant economic theorists of the last thirty years.  The current Bolivian distribution of wealth is drastically unfair and is a legacy of prior and indeed ongoing theft and oppression.  Large enough resource confiscations, as occurred when the Saudis nationalized Western oil interests, can make a people better off. 

Now let’s move to the train wreck, quoted from The New York Times Book Review, written by Alma Guillermoprieto:

Stiglitz and his wife first visited Bolivia four years ago, and returned in May. "Morales’s election was such a big thing," he said in a recent phone conversation, "that we decided to make the effort to go down there and take a look."  He spent one day of the visit listening to Powerpoint presentations by members of Morales’s economic team, most of whom are academics who at some point have studied abroad.  He found his interlocutors thoughtful and impressive, he said.

In May, Evo Morales decreed the nationalization of the energy industry…In July, Stiglitz, who has written about energy resources and how they are used, did not seem to find the policy startling or irrational, even though it has enraged the representatives of the companies that have invested in Bolivia’s tempting deposits of natural gas.

It should be noted that the Bolivians were receiving only 18 percent royalties on these resources, and that figure was calculated on a base lower than market prices might imply, given that the country is landlocked and does not receive market prices for its gas.  So yes it is unfair.

But under the new regime, the gas yields only $820 milliion in revenue a year.  That is over $100 a person a year.  Lots of money for a poor Bolivian, but hardly enough to retire on or hardly enough to then stagnate.  And Bolivia wrecks its credibility with foreign investors.  And a renegotiation of the deal with the private companies would have been possible.  And most state energy companies are very badly run.  And energy and indeed natural gas shortages are already popping up in Bolivia.  And many people in the wealthier, eastern part of the country (e.g., Santa Cruz) opposed nationalization; they are keen to do business with Brazil.  And few poor countries — dare I say any? — have done well going down the route of economic populism.  And if we are going to be populist, is anyone — read: Stiglitz — calling for that money to go directly to Bolivia’s citizens?  That includes the indigenous ones who live on the barren altiplano and even now don’t control the government and probably never will.  Yup, those people.  (I might add that I have such a hat, which I cherish, although Natasha asks I do not wear it in the United States.)

Addendum: Here is Brad DeLong on Paul Krugman’s economic populism: "…when I read Paul’s call for "smart, bold populism," I am reminded of earlier calls a couple of decades ago by Milton Friedman, Marty Feldstein, and their ilk for smart, bold conservatism or smart, bold libertarianism.  But they did not get what they ordered: on the economic policy front the policies of Reagan and of Bush II have been a horrible botch.  What populist policies that we can think of would be smart?  And how can we make our high politicians allergic to populist policies that are stupid?"

Edward Lazear

Ed Lazear has just been nominated to be Bush’s new CEA head.  Lazear deserves a lengthy, link-rich post, but sadly from northern Mexico he is not going to get it.  Here is a home page.  Here is a speech praising Ed.  Here are his most cited pieces on the web.  A few points of mine:

1. He has pioneered the theory of tournaments with Sherwin Rosen.  The key point is that you should compensate people for their performance relative to their peers (rather than for their absolute performance) only under specialized conditions.  Most importantly, there should be general shocks to labor productivity or your ability to measure labor productivity.  In other words, if you are not sure how good your exam is, or how well you taught the class, grade your students on a curve.  This will help some of your mistakes wash out.  I think of this as his best-known piece, although there is much competition.

2. He has a seminal piece on why law firms are organized as partnerships, and on other "up or out" schemes, including tenure.  Such contracts are sometimes more incentive-compatible.  A firm will always want to cut your wages, if it can get away with it.  But with "up or out," they only want to get rid of you if in fact you stink.  This can lead to greater harmony on both sides of the relationship; you also might invest more specialized human capital in the value of the firm.  Lazear has applied similar insights to issues of mandatory retirement.  Here is an interview with Ed on personnel management.

3. He has argued that piece-rate incentives may boost productivity significantly.

4. His recent work tries to establish the conditions under which The Peter Principle will hold.  He is a famous economist, capable of earning huge sums by consulting, but he has not "cashed in" intellectually.  In his late fifties, he remains at the top of his profession.

5. He headed Bush’s recent tax panel, which produced a remarkably well-reasoned and non-partisan document.  He appears to have rejected supply-side ideas that cuts in income tax rates are self-financing and he has not caught the obsession over a flat tax.

6. He has studied culture and language.  He believes that diverse immigration is better than concentrated immigration from a few locales.  He is quite capable of incorporating behavioral assumptions into economics and moving beyond the simple rational man model.  Nonetheless he sees considerable scope for economic reasoning; here is his piece on economic imperialism.

7. He has argued that unemployment insurance should become more like a loan program.

8. Lazear defends high executive salaries as a means of stimulating competition for the top jobs.  This is an offshoot of his work on tournaments.

9. Here is a summary of his work on how class size affects the quality of education.

10. Here is his recent piece on the efficacy of educational testing, a matter of interest to the Bush Administration.  The bottom line is somewhat complex, read it.

11. Here is his piece on when retail stores dominate auctions.  This is a favorite for those of us who like micro puzzles.

12. A long time ago he wrote this piece on social security and pensions.  Too bad I can’t open it on this old Mexican Adobe Reader.  Maybe a reader can offer its bottom line in the comments section.

The bottom line: Lazear is a superb economist.  I do not know him, but I often hear him spoken of with a more general respect, and not just for his intellect.  The key question is who will be listening… stay tuned, and comments are open in case you have additional remarks on this appointment…

Musical chairs

I’ve been listening lately to Jeff Tweedy’s group Wilco, a group with a very high “critical praise to sales ratio”. Here is the Coase theorem in operation:

[Jeff] Tweedy’s canonization doesn’t actually happen until 2001, when he records “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel,” an ambitious, often gorgeous album that is famously rejected as too obscure by Warner/Reprise. Tweedy buys back the album for $50,000, sells it to the far smaller Nonesuch Records and becomes a folk hero, especially to major-label haters, when critics decide that “YFH” is pretty much a masterpiece. (Never mind that Nonesuch is actually another subsidiary of Warner. )

Here is the full story.

Markets in everything, yet again…

Now you can get paid to hear ads and take telemarketing calls:

Adnoodle has signed up 15,000 consumers who have agreed to listen to recorded telemarketing pitches, speak with telemarketers and respond to e-mail solicitations — for a price. He says 500 to 1,000 people are enrolling daily, and he is planning a promotion campaign on college campuses this month before he “hard-launches” the program this spring.

“It’s all about getting value for the consumer — because consumers have value, right?” says Shifrin, 35, whose other company, AutoWraps, pays consumers to put advertising on their cars.

To enroll, consumers go to adnoodle.com and decide the minimum per-minute payment they would accept — generally, the lower the payment, the more companies will contact the consumer. The recommended range is 10 cents to $1.20, but registrants are advised that “bids” of 10 to 50 cents are likely to draw more ad calls. Participants also have the option of being paid in entries to a $5,000 Adnoodle sweepstakes.

Registrants also choose the ad vehicles — telemarketing, e-mails, or both — and they can choose the window times they’ll receive the ads. They complete a survey that asks gender, age, number of children, interests and consumer behavior, so companies can target products and services.

The typical Adnoodle sales call is a recording and states upfront its cash offer for listening. Not enough coin? Too busy right now? You can accept or decline — no obligation. Each ad runs a minute or more. The consumer must correctly answer a multiple-choice question at the end to get paid. “Knowing that the person who heard that message understands the content is really a leap in advertising,” says Shifrin [emphasis added].

At the end of the call, consumers can opt to receive a coupon for the advertised product or talk to a live representative — or hang up. Payment is via PayPal, the online payment company.

“For 2 1/2 minutes a day, if your average price is $1 a minute, you make $80 to $100 a month,” says Shifrin. “Not bad, right?” Actually, it’s more like $75.

In other words, it pays better than blogging. Here is the full story. Here is the website, if you want to sign up.

My take: If you think the idea can work, you have a very cynical view of human nature. You must think that people, listening to ads only to earn some money, nonetheless cannot resist buying the product. On second thought, does that sound so wrong? On the plus side, pricing ads and customer time has long been a theoretical dream of economists. That being said, I’ll bet against this project lasting, especially once word gets round and the pool of applicants changes. A sufficiently hardened idiot or curmudgeon can’t be convinced by anything. Or how about outsourcing the receipt of the phone call? And you will recall that pay-to-surf web sites bombed in the 1990s.

Victory songs are for the birds

Sports fans are not the only ones to celebrate a win with a rousing tune – a chirpy African bird does the same, researchers have revealed.

Mate pairs of the tropical boubou belt out their special victory song after they have deterred would-be invaders from their territory, suggest Ulmar Grafe and Johannes Bitz at the University of Würzburg, Germany.

The discovery was made by accident, the scientists happily admit. They were investigating the birds’ musical repertoire in the Ivory Coast when they noticed that whenever they packed up their equipment and left the bird territories, the birds would trill a particular tune.

To investigate this further, Grafe and Bitz then tried broadcasting recordings of the duets commonly used by boubous in territorial confrontations. They found most mate pairs that stood their ground against the recorded intruders burst into song shortly after the tape was switched off.

“There’s a whole neighbourhood of birds listening into these conflicts, so it’s important to advertise a victory,” says Grafe, a behavioural ecologist. “We think it’s not only to let the loser know they’ve lost, but to let others know that one has been victorious – it serves to lessen further conflicts over territory.”

He adds that there are few animals which vocally celebrate a win in this way. And the tropical boubou is the first documented to perform a duet. “It’s sort of like a rugby team, a whole team display – I don’t know of any other animal example,” he told New Scientist.

I’ll really be impressed when they can hum “We Will Rock You.”

Here is the full story. Thanks to Spitbull.com for the pointer.

The further decline of the mass audience

Total U.S. movie box office just barely held its own for 2003, as reported by the January 5-11 issue of Variety (not on-line). The number of moviegoers declined by three percent. A few major movies, such as “Finding Nemo” and “Return of the King” did very well, but the overall picture was flat. Elizabeth Guider writes: “…unleashing dozens of $150 million films aimed at the global mainstream audience is an increasingly losing proposition.” Audiences for network TV have been poor as well.

Where is everyone going? Are you all reading blogs instead? That I doubt. The big cultural winner for this year is the DVD:

Check the year-end reports from the various sectors of the entertainment industry, and it’s clear that DVD stands alone as an unqualified sensation. It’s such a success that it might even be eclipsing – and cutting into – other leisure pursuits.

Total DVD revenue last year hit $17.5 billion – $12.1 billion in sales, $5.4 billion in rentals – according to new industry totals from market tracking firm Adams Media Research. That surpasses the most optimistic expectations and overshadows spending on movie tickets, music CDs and video games.

Here are some numbers from the side of the consumers:

Hours spent with home video increased 18% from 1997 to 2002. For the average person that means an increase to 58 hours each year, while time spent listening to music, watching network TV and reading books, magazines and newspapers dropped.

This year, movie fans spent an estimated 67 hours watching discs; that is expected to jump another 46% over the next four years to about 98 hours per person per year…nearly a DVD a week…Meanwhile, total TV watching is expected to rise only 3% (with network TV dropping 3%) and moviegoing 8%. Listening to music is expected to fall 19%.

So what does this mean for culture? People are watching the same movies over and over again. Over time we can expect movies to stand up better on multiple viewings, which is the whole point of the DVD format. Movies should become deeper. It is an open question whether the number of movies issued will rise or fall, but I am an optimist. On one hand repeated viewings mean less time to sample extra titles. On the other hand, the compact and popular DVD format gives filmmakers a new way of reaching audience. It will benefit the blockbusters, such as Nemo, but also will help niche films. For instance many people now order otherwise unavailable foreign movies through netflix.com.

Addendum: Do you resent your loyalties to DVDs? Here is a lengthy and excellent post, from Michael of www.2blowhards.com, on how to think about and revitalize your reading. However his remarks will spur your further interest in cinema as well.