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Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Posted by erweinstein on November 8, 2016

My favorite verse from “Mrs. Robinson” (1968), featured in the hit Mike Nichols movie The Graduate (1967), arrives near the end:

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon
Going to the candidates’ debate
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at it you lose.

The song continues, quite memorably, with the mention of a famous baseball star:

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away

Joe DiMaggio was reportedly somewhat confused when he heard the song, as he was 16 years past his retirement from Major League Baseball but was still well-known for the records he set (including his still-unbroken record of a 56-game hitting streak) and because he had been the second husband of the late Marilyn Monroe. Friends told DiMaggio that the song didn’t seem to be intended as a criticism of him, and an eventual meeting with songwriter Paul Simon allowed Simon to explain that the lines were not meant literally. Rather, that part of the song relates to (among other reasonable interpretations) a metaphorical absence of heroes and role-models in 1967-1968 and to the disillusionment of younger Americans with the ideals and virtues of the older generation that worked, fought, and started their families in the immediate World-War-II-era.

After the death of Joe DiMaggio in 1999, Paul Simon explained his respect for DiMaggio and the purpose of his reference to Joltin’ Joe in the song (especially considering Simon had previously admitted that his first choice for a baseball player to mention in “Mrs. Robinson” was Mickey Mantle, but that name didn’t have the right number of syllables). Simon wrote in the New York Times:

In the 50’s and 60’s, it was fashionable to refer to baseball as a metaphor for America, and DiMaggio represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life. It was said that he still grieved for his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, and sent fresh flowers to her grave every week. Yet as a man who married one of America’s most famous and famously neurotic women, he never spoke of her in public or in print. He understood the power of silence.
In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.

For all that has lamentably not been improved about our politics and our national discourse since Simon wrote those words about “Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters” in 1999, we should at least consider ourselves fortunate that we GET to choose, however poor quality the options.

And although we might be dissatisfied, and perhaps with good reason, we should not be so eager to declare our contempt for what is best about our nation. In the face of adequate warnings and the lessons of history, doing so would take us down a dark and dangerous path. The United States would re-create the experience of mid-20th Century Argentina, complete with open, organized violence between political left and political right and the nearly unprecedented self-inflicted destruction of substantial economic prosperity (Argentina was in the top 10 world economies by GDP per capita before the First World War, but lost this status and has experienced nearly a century of minimal net economic growth amid continuing post-dictatorship political turmoil and institutional decay).

Our nation, though flawed like all human endeavors, is already great. Angry extremists of the far-left and (particularly this year) the far-right show they either don’t understand, or actually disagree with, the sources and the nature of that greatness. There will always be those who profit from scaremongering and scapegoating, those who benefit from the creation of dysfunction and disorder, and those who just like to watch things burn. An especially pernicious form of this behavior consists of telling those who are hurting something like, we’ll solve your problems, it’s simple: we can tear everything down, and then everything will be rebuilt, but in the process we can make sure to exclude certain groups of evildoers living among us whose perfidy just so happens to be the cause of your social and economic pain. (Well, what do you know folks, that solution is terrific! It’s great, so simple that our previous leaders, whatever their party or ideology, must have been stupid or crooked for not figuring it out…)

To those who have been ignored and feel betrayed by the status-quo, this siren song can sound so persuasive that the would-be destroyers don’t even need to be subtle, proclaiming they really do want to “burn it all down”. The proposed remedies of the destructive charlatans are to our body politic, at best, alchemy–of the turn lead-into-gold variety–and at worst, medieval bloodletting. Such “cures” are far worse than the vastly exaggerated disease, and the process of enacting them would cause us to lose something essential and valuable about being the United States of America. For those who don’t like what we are, who promise to lead us back to a greatness they say we lost an undetermined number of decades ago, who relish the chaotic retribution they will get to unleash upon disfavored groups in order to supposedly bring us there, that’s probably the point. We must reject their narcissistic carnival of institutional pyromania, and mock the pretension that they speak for some greater good as boastful foolishness, because that’s what it is.

As Benjamin Franklin was said to have warned, the nation that declared its independence in 1776 and that created its Constitution in 1787 will be, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It”.

Let’s keep it, and work on ways to make it better.

Posted in Arts and literature, Music, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Protected: Donald vs Hillary, Now What? Part 2

Posted by erweinstein on July 14, 2016

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Protected: Donald vs Hillary, Now What? Part 1

Posted by erweinstein on July 14, 2016

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‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world

Posted by erweinstein on August 31, 2015

Five years ago, I wrote a post marking my “Five-Year Blogaversary”. That five-year mark was measured from August of 2005, when I originally began blogging, posting on politics and current events as part of a now-defunct group blog. (I explain a bit more about this in the Five-Year post and in the About the blog page.) Recognizing that these milestones are dated a bit arbitrarily, I still feel a need to note the passage of another five years.

Calling this post my “Ten-Year Blogaversary”, even with the tongue-in-cheek awareness of what a blogaversary is or might be, strikes me as inappropriate. Two main reasons:

  1. I have not been actively blogging for most of the last four years. I allude to this in my About recent changes page. There are quite a few reasons why I haven’t kept posting, but they fall in to two broad types: the good (e.g., I had some other really important and rewarding things occupying my time) and the bad (e.g., I anticipated being in a very different place with my career–one that would present a natural synergy between me doing my actual work and me blogging about some of my favorite topics). Either way, this reflects a kind of failure, as I like writing on self-imposed deadlines and I would benefit from doing more of it. As I mention a bit mysteriously elsewhere, this will change in the near future (maybe not exactly in the form of more blogging like this, but that’s still a possibility).
  2. My wife and I just had our first wedding anniversary earlier this month (we were married in August of 2014). Going forward, this will continue to be a time of year when I celebrate important anniversaries, but the non-blog one is the more important of the two. Indeed, the difference is so vast, the juxtaposition so staggering, that mentioning a blogaversary (except perhaps briefly in jest) in this context is disrespectful. Not to mention weird. What even is a “blogaversary” anyways? I understand what it means by analogy to “anniversary”, but…did I make up that concept as a joke once and now I’ve been utilizing it for over 5 years?

I’m a bit impressed that anyone still visits this site, because I haven’t posted with discipline and regularity (here or on other sites like Facebook or Twitter) since the primary elections in 2011-2012 that determined Mitt Romney would be the Republican candidate to challenge President Obama in the 2012 US Presidential Election. However, some reflection on the past five years is needed.

My discussion of the political beliefs of William Shatner (the incomparable actor known for his portrayal of Captain Kirk, TJ Hooker, Denny Crane, The Priceline Negotiator, among others) remains by far my most visited and most searched-for post. In this spirit, I promise that to the extent that this blog continues in any fashion whatsoever, I will ensure that it remains a leading source for information on William Shatner’s views on politics. I vow that there will be more discussion of William Shatner, not less.

Yes, I remember the valuable insight of The Simpsons on the nature of promises (especially political campaign promises) embodied in the speeches given by the aliens impersonating politicians:

Tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom…

Even so, the people demand more blogging about William Shatner, so that seems like as good a topic as any (especially when it connects the arts, broadly defined, to politics, again broadly defined).

As for topics other than Shatner, I feel that I had a good run of reasonable and interesting posts in the year or so immediately following the five-year blogaversary. I’m fond of my two-posts series, “How terribly strange to be seventy” celebrating the 70th birthday of pioneering musician Bob Dylan, and then the 70th birthday of his slightly younger peer and sometime-rival musician Paul Simon. In hindsight, I think the one about Dylan is too dry and terse, while the one about Simon is too personal and discursive. I also feel that my post about the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War was very timely and necessary, and while I’m proud of it, I appear to have written it with the wrong tone, in that I sounded much more hesitant that my knowledge of the subject necessitated and more casual than the gravity of the situation deserved.

Objectivity regarding one’s own writing is difficult (understatement of the year, nominee). However, combining the metrics of: 1) how important was the information I conveyed, 2) how useful was the analysis I presented around that information, and 3) how well did I express myself via the written word, I would say that the best blogging I did in past five years would be found in my posts about prominent economic commentators weighing in on the second “Quantitative Easing” debate and about Arnold Kling’s thoughts on the solvency of Social Security. Please note that Arnold Kling blogs at a different site now from when I was quoting him then.

While I’m sorry for the mistakes I made that reduced my potential blogging time and output over the past few years, I’m not ashamed of what I did get to write, and I’m very glad that I have the chance to do even better going forward.

There will be new and interesting things coming to this site (or equivalent) soon. Thanks for your patience, and please stay tuned! Some of the pseudo-mysterious ways that I’m hinting at changes (mainly to this blog) will only make sense with some time.

And because important milestones in my life always seem to connect to the works of Tennyson somehow (although fortunately not The Charge of the Light Brigade, in this instance), here’s the inspiration for the title of the post, from the famous final third (public domain, via Wikisource) of Tennyson’s Ulysses:

   There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Posted in Announcements, Arts and literature, Personal | Leave a Comment »

In front of the screen: Roger Ebert dies at 70

Posted by erweinstein on April 4, 2013

The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Roger Ebert has died. Ebert, the world’s most prolific film critic, and the first ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, had only two days ago announced that the cancer he courageously fought for years had returned.

Although I have been taking a (self-imposed) hiatus from blogging for the past year-plus, I would be remiss not to mark the passing of Roger Ebert. The very first actual blog post that I ever wrote, originally posted on Mankind Minus One way back in 2005, was a short piece marking the unveiling of a star for Ebert on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. At that time, I lauded his genius, declaring that, “there are many movie reviewers, but only one Ebert.”

Ebert published two books containing the least favorable movie reviews he ever wrote, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and Your Movie Sucks. The latter, which still sits proudly on my shelf, contains some of the most entertaining writing I have ever had the privilege of reading. The highlights of that compilation are Ebert’s zero-star review of Freddie Got Fingered, as well as Ebert’s review of Wet Hot American Summer, which is written entirely in verse.

For anyone who didn’t grow up reading Ebert’s film reviews every week, or for anyone who wants a more thorough overview of this amazing man’s work, I strongly recommend the collection Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, published by the University of Chicago Press (hardcover in 2006 and paperback in 2008).

Here is a collection of some of Ebert’s most famous and amusing quotes.

Farewell, Roger Ebert. Whenever I see a movie that is truly outstanding, like The Social Network, or a movie that is profoundly disappointing, like Pearl Harbor, I’ll think of you and your lifetime of wisdom.

Rest in peace.

Posted in Arts and literature | 1 Comment »

The 2012 Illinois GOP Primary

Posted by erweinstein on March 20, 2012

Voting is currently underway here in Illinois for primary election day 2012. While Democrats are voting to select candidates for various local and state offices, national attention is focusing on the Republican voters who are having their say in the tightly-contested race to select a presidential candidate to challenge President Obama in November’s general election.

The once-crowded GOP presidential field has narrowed to the “Final Four”– Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. In keeping with my previous assessment of those candidates, I am somewhat dismayed by their lack of electoral prowess. In particular, these Final Four candidates compare quite unfavorably to the Republican Final Four from four years ago. In 2008, the Final Four were Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Ron Paul. While Romney and Paul are essentially offering the same set of leadership qualities and issue positions as they did four years ago, Santorum is a poor imitation of the charismatic Huckabee as the religiously-inspired social conservative in the race, and Gingrich can’t measure up to McCain’s record of military and government service even as he tries to fill the same role of a maverick, shoot-from-the-hip, idea- and principle-driven candidate.

With the presidential primary race almost half-over, Ron Paul has yet to win a single state, and Newt Gingrich has only won two (South Carolina and his native Georgia). In contrast, the front-runner Mitt Romney has prevailed in fifteen states and four US territories. To the extent that anyone could theoretically beat Romney, only Rick Santorum even has a shot. Santorum has won primaries or caucuses in ten states. However, the conventional wisdom holds that Santorum can’t possibly win enough of the remaining states to actually win the GOP nomination. Santorum and Gingrich hope that by earning enough delegates in primaries and caucuses they can prevent Romney from winning the 1144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination outright. Presumably Santorum and Gingrich think that one of them would then be chosen at what is known as a “brokered convention“, where backroom deal-making and not a simple vote of the delegates determines the party’s presidential nominee. There has not been a true brokered convention since 1932, and no GOP primary race has been indecisive (as Santorum and Gingrich hope this one will be) since 1976.

There are fifty-four GOP delegates at stake in today’s Illinois primary election, but they are not awarded on the basis of the statewide popular vote. Instead, each US Congressional District directly elects GOP delegates loyal to one of the candidates. Due to organizational missteps, the Santorum campaign was unable to file slates of delegates in four Congressional Districts, depriving them of the ability to earn ten of the fifty-four delegates.

Polls suggest that Romney will win big in the “Chicagoland area”, the region consisting of Cook County, which contains the city of Chicago, as well as the “collar counties” that surround Cook County. However, Santorum could easily pick up delegates “downstate”, in the central and southern regions of Illinois that are often politically opposed to Chicagoland interests and that bear more socioeconomic similarity to neighboring states of Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky than to northern Illinois.

The Illinois GOP primary looks like it will be a close race, with many delegates at stake (the most since the January 31 Florida primary) and some significance to the national primary race. Check the cable news channel of your choice for updates on the Illinois results throughout the evening.

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The GOP 2012 Presidential Field

Posted by erweinstein on January 2, 2012

The first actual voting in the 2012 United States presidential campaign will take place tomorrow evening in Iowa (the immediate neighbor to the west of my home state of Illinois), which hosts the Iowa Republican Presidential Caucuses. I am long overdue for some commentary on the 2012 GOP presidential candidates, so I have written this extremely long post (helpfully divided into sections) explaining my thoughts.

After following the major media coverage of the Republican presidential candidates, and especially after watching the televised debates, I am very disappointed with and dismayed by the GOP candidates lining up for the chance to challenge President Obama in the 2012 presidential election. I don’t like any of the major candidates, and with only one exception (Jon Huntsman) I don’t like any of the minor candidates either. When I was watching a televised debate (which was held on Thursday, August 11, 2011), I tweeted that the candidates were “losers and nutcases”, by which I meant that some are losers and some are nutcases, not that all are both. I will give two rundowns on the candidates and my opinions of them, one brief, and the other more detailed.

Brief Rundown:

Mitt Romney (Businessman/former governor)– panderer, flip-flopper, inauthentic, some good policy ideas, mixed record as governor, VERDICT: competent and not crazy but an overall weak candidate

Rick Perry (Governor)–Tea Party supporter, some highly extreme comments, mixed record as governor, VERDICT: dangerously extreme and unintelligent

Michele Bachmann (Congresswoman)–Tea Party leader, many extreme comments and positions, paltry legislative record, no executive experience, VERDICT: dangerous extremist

Ron Paul (Congressman)–supporter of Austrian economics, many extreme comments, possible racist, no executive experience, VERDICT: dangerous extremist

Herman Cain (Businessman)–some extreme comments, possible racist (against Arabs & Muslims), no executive experience, VERDICT: semi-dangerous extremist

Newt Gingrich (Former Speaker of the House)–smart but not that smart, showed poor leadership during later Clinton years, very poor campaign management, VERDICT: intelligent but dangerously incompetent

Rick Santorum (Former Senator)–social conservative, many extreme comments and positions, possible homophobe, mixed legislative record, VERDICT: semi-dangerous extremist

Jon Huntsman (Former ambassador & governor)–substantial resumé, many sound domestic policy proposals, questionable foreign policy, positive record as governor, VERDICT: competent, not crazy, but not extreme enough or pandering enough to win primaries

My detailed rundown is after the break.

Read the rest of this entry »

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No Hiding Place

Posted by erweinstein on December 15, 2011

…for Jacques Chirac. The chauvinistic, anti-American, womanizing, corrupt former president of France was convicted of embezzlement and other political malfeasance earlier today. Chirac’s crimes date back to his tenure as mayor of Paris, between 1977 and 1995, during which he was found to have embezzled public money and abused his office by creating fake jobs. Chirac diverted the salaries for these made-up jobs into a fund that backed him in the French presidential elections, which he won, serving two terms as French president from 1995 to 2007. For his offenses, the 79-year-old Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence. Chirac is the first French head of state to face criminal trial since Philippe Pétain, the decorated military leader who served as president of pro-Nazi Vichy France, was tried and convicted of treason in 1945. While Chirac’s actions do not even remotely resemble those of Pétain, Chirac’s misdeeds are par for the course in modern France’s extremely corrupt political system, and not, as some have claimed, a case of a single greedy old man tarnishing his party’s (and his country’s) sterling reputation.

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Timeless Wisdom

Posted by erweinstein on November 30, 2011

Economists are quick to speak of ‘market failure’, and rightly so, but a greater threat comes from ‘government failure’. Because it is a monopoly, government brings inefficiency and stagnation to most things it runs; government agencies pursue the inflation of their budgets rather than the service of their customers; pressure groups form an unholy alliance with agencies to extract more money form taxpayers for their members. Yet despite all this, most clever people still call for government to run more things and assume that if it did so, it would somehow be more perfect, more selfless, next time.

That is from The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley (page 182 of the US paperback edition), which I recently finished reading, and which economist David Henderson likes for other reasons. World-renowned economist Gary Becker expounds upon these same ideas on his blog.

Ridley’s astute observation could and should be a rallying cry for today’s free-market economists, moderate libertarians, economic conservatives, and centrist pro-market incrementalists. It’s certainly a much better starting point for lovers of liberty than the scorched-earth, radical sham-libertarianism of Ron Paul and his followers. Unfortunately, Ron Paul’s version of libertarianism is currently receiving much national attention, and as Will Wilkinson discusses in this article for The New Republic, the Paulite creed is both embarrassing and counterproductive to the cause of liberty (incrementalist or otherwise). Do read the whole thing, but Wilkinson is right on the money when he says,

If you were an evil genius determined to promote the idea that libertarianism is a morally dubious ideology of privilege poorly disguised as a doctrine of liberation, you’d be hard pressed to improve on Ron Paul.

I’m sure to get some flack for condemning Ron Paul (or I would, if anyone actually read this), but between Wilkinson’s TKO of the Paulite ideology and Ridley’s positive alternative, I am content to do so.

If, on the other hand, you enjoyed this criticism of Ron Paul, stay tuned for my upcoming post on what I think of the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential candidates, which will be posted in time for the start of the primary election season.

Posted in Economics, Politics | 2 Comments »

Obama’s Tax Proposals

Posted by erweinstein on October 30, 2011

President Obama has been touring the country to promote his “American Jobs Act“, along with a package of tax increases designed to pay for that jobs bill. Pundits have been debating Obama’s proposals for the last few months, but the best commentary on the president’s tax plan comes from the September 24 issue of the British newsweekly The Economist.

On taxes, Mr Obama has stapled together a clutch of previous proposals: returning tax rates on the wealthy to where they were before Mr Bush cut them in 2001, and curbing deductions such as those for municipal-bond interest, mortgages and charitable giving. He proposes a new “Buffett” tax, named after the billionaire investor who has protested against the injustice of paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. It would require anyone earning more than $1m to pay a tax rate equal to that of the middle class, though how that could be done is completely obscure.

Republicans accused Mr Obama of class warfare; he responded that “this is not class warfare. It’s math. The money is going to have to come from someplace.” But that is disingenuous. Maths demands that substantial money should be raised, not that it should all come from the wealthiest 2% of citizens, nor that Mr Obama should stick to his promise that 98% of households must never pay higher rates.

[emphasis added]

As I will (probably) say several times in future posts over the next few years, America is in deep fiscal trouble and to get out of it we will all have to bear some of the burden of higher taxes and reduced spending. Those on the left shout that we can’t “balance the budget on the backs of the poor”, but it is equally true that we can’t balance the budget on the backs of the rich. (As this article explains, it is not only true that we shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of the rich, for reasons of economic efficiency and growth, but it is also true that we literally can’t balance the budget by hiking taxes on the rich, as the amount that would be raised by Obama’s potential tax increases is only a small fraction of what is needed to close the US budget deficit.) While wealthier Americans will pay proportionally more under any revenue-increasing tax reform (just as they pay proportionally more under our current system), Obama’s idea is to force high earners, small-business owners, and large corporations to bear virtually all of the burden of paying for our nation’s out-of-control spending. As The Economist continues,

Billionaires and secretaries will both surely have to pay more taxes; record deficits have long since replaced the surpluses of 2001, thanks in large part to Mr Bush’s across-the-board tax cuts. Yet Mr Obama is going about it in a clumsy way. Consider those millionaires he is insisting should pay more: there are 433,000 of them, or 0.3% of all taxpayers, according to the Tax Policy Centre, a non-partisan research outfit. On average they pay 20% of their income in federal income and payroll taxes, while the median taxpayer pays 11%. Just under a quarter of the millionaires pay as little, or less, than that median, a phenomenon almost entirely due to the lower rate levied on capital gains and dividends.

A far more efficient way to collect more taxes would be a genuine tax reform that maintained or lowered marginal rates while curbing the exemptions, credits and deductions that cost $1 trillion a year, including the lower rate for capital gains and dividends. This would boost productivity by making the tax code more efficient, while shifting more of the tax burden to the rich who now benefit disproportionately from such exemptions and account for Mr Buffett’s sub-secretarial tax rate. A lower corporate rate would offset the harm of higher capital gains and dividend taxes.

Or, as they will teach you in any public economics class, the solution is to “broaden the base and lower the rate”. While I don’t agree completely with The Economist‘s prescription (Milton Friedman persuasively argued that corporate income should not be taxed at all), it is far more reasonable than Obama’s proposals. The president can say a million times that his ideas represent “common sense” or the “balanced approach”, but that doesn’t make it true.

Posted in Economics, Politics | 1 Comment »

How terribly strange to be seventy (part 2)

Posted by erweinstein on October 13, 2011

Today (October 13, 2011) marks the 70th birthday of the chart-topping singer-songwriter Paul Simon. First gaining fame as one-half of the folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, Simon wrote several #1 hits including “The Sound of Silence“, “Mrs. Robinson“, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water“, the latter of which edged out The Beatles’ “Let it Be” on the US and UK charts in 1970. After “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (and the release of the album of the same name), Simon & Garfunkel disbanded, and Simon went on to a highly successful solo career, which included the critically-acclaimed albums Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints that both topped the UK charts and eventually received multi-platinum certification in the US and the UK. Simon has received 13 Grammy Awards, is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he was awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Paul Simon is, by a large margin, my favorite contemporary popular musician. In my personal ranking, he sits just beneath The Beatles and Bob Dylan as the third-greatest popular musician or group of any era. Even so, I recognize that his music, while it ranges widely across styles and topics, isn’t for everyone. Simon’s best songs are outstanding, but much of his music isn’t as accessible as that of Lennon and McCartney. A large part of what attracts me to Simon’s songs is his overt intellectualism. Simon, who once rhymed the word “thirteen” with “mezzanine” and “St. Augustine”, is one of the most intellectual popular songwriters in human history. His songs, dating back to the 1960s, have repeatedly explored psychological themes such as Freudian analysis, social influences on behavior, and disorders like depression and anxiety. Simon’s more recent songs have pondered the ideas of love, faith, God, man’s place in the universe, and finding integrity through one’s work. Simon’s songs are always about something, even if that something is an abstract concept like pain or loneliness. As Don Shewey wrote in Rolling Stone reviewing Simon’s 1983 album Hearts and Bones,

In an earlier era, Paul Simon would have written for Broadway, a craft that demands that a song tell a story or define a character. But like any youngster in the Fifties, he got hooked on the sheer sexual energy of rock & roll — not so much the guitar-based electricity of Chuck Berry, Elvis and the Beatles, but the dreamy soulfulness of groups that euphemized their teenage romantic longings in nonsense lyrics. The trouble was that Simon was too clever for either kind of rock & roll. The words always came first for him, the music was secondary, and the rock & roll he loved — the delicate Spanish guitar, the hushed doo-wop harmonies — lingered faintly in the distance like a disembodied ideal.

As is appropriate for a songwriter who prioritizes the words over the music and the rhythm, Simon has contemplated many issues of great importance to the American (and the Jewish-American) experience, while rarely being overtly political. A few of Simon’s songs represent the straightforward protest sentiments that birthed the folk-rock movement, particularly “The Sound of Silence” from his Simon & Garfunkel years and “American Tune” from his solo years. But the more important thread running through Simon’s music is the transformation of alienation and skepticism into searching and agnosticism, and eventually the transformation of searching and agnosticism into faith and self-acceptance. Simon & Garfunkel music is often considered to epitomize teenage and young adult feelings of loneliness and alienation, so much so that Simon’s songs with Garfunkel were mocked for this quality in an episode of That ’70s Show (from season 4, if I’m not mistaken), as well as in last week’s episode of the recently-debuted comedy New Girl. As his career progressed, Simon’s modernist skepticism, demonstrated in “The Dangling Conversation” from the 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and his doubts in (and disdain for) religion seen in several songs, including “Ace in the Hole” from the 1980 album One-Trick Pony, eventually softened into a neutral agnosticism.

By 1983’s Hearts and Bones, Simon’s certainty in his own intellectual prowess was waning, as exemplified by him having not one, but two songs proclaiming that he “Think[s] Too Much”. It is clear that Simon was realizing that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy. The turning point arrived with Simon’s 1986 album Graceland (which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year), as Simon began to accept spirituality as a mode of expression. In the title track, he famously sings, “Maybe I’ve a reason to believe / We all will be received / In Graceland”. As reviewers noted, Simon had turned the final home of the bloated and drug-addled Elvis Presley into a “holy place”, a symbol of potential redemption for himself, his son, and his fellow Memphis-bound pilgrims. As he highlighted the injustice of South African apartheid and bolstered the stature of the nascent genre of “worldbeat” with the success of Graceland, Simon continued to become more open to faith and spirituality. This is further demonstrated in his 1990 follow-up to Graceland, entitled The Rhythm of the Saints. In the opening track of that album, “The Obvious Child” (which received much airtime in the US and reached #15 on the UK charts) Simon asserts that faith is, if not a certainty, then at least a possibility. In the third song on The Rhythm of the Saints, “The Coast”, Simon makes what amounts to the most earnest and heartfelt case a New York Jew could possibly make for Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic variety that predominates in Brazil. (After Paul Simon gave a recent live performance, Paul McCartney, who had been watching the show and was struck by the prevalence of Christian themes, came backstage and asked Simon, “Aren’t you Jewish?”) Although Simon attacks and partially dismantles this case for faith in the next song on the album, “Proof“, I (myself a Jew from a major northern US city–Chicago) have always been left with an appreciation for the immense beauty that Simon spins into “The Coast” and intertwines with his interpretation of Christianity.

Simon’s next studio album, You’re The One, reflects an understanding of both the positive and negative qualities of religious faith, especially in the song “Señorita with a Necklace of Tears”. On his 2006 album Surprise, Simon again makes statements of both faith and of skepticism. The skepticism appears in the somewhat-obviously-titled “I Don’t Believe”, and the song “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” demonstrates how religion can divide us, but Simon also portrays the more positive aspects of religion in a few songs, especially the hauntingly beautiful “Wartime Prayers”, and the final verse of “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean” (my favorite track on that album). Fully half of the songs from Simon’s most recent album, So Beautiful or So What (released earlier this year), contain references to God, religion, or other faith-related concepts. More importantly, these concepts are presented in a mostly-positive manner. While the song “The Afterlife” presents, well, the afterlife, as a bureaucracy where “You got to fill out the form first / And then you wait in the line”, and the song “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” presents God as somewhat of a trickster, several songs, including “Love and Blessings” and “The Afterlife”, associate God and His Love with music, something that Simon strongly believes (as he illustrates in many songs, including “Ace in the Hole”) can provide redemption. Simon also makes the point throughout So Beautiful or So What that God, and not just the Devil, is in the details, and that we can find indications of a higher power in fleeting moments of everyday beauty. Simon’s transformation, over the course of his career, from an angst-filled modernist skeptic hostile to religion into a musical wise-man who shows us the positive sides of religion, faith, and spirituality as well as the negative, is remarkable, and I find the arc of his career to be personally inspirational.

It is hard to believe that Paul Simon, who once sang, “I started to think too much / when I was twelve going on thirteen” (in the song “Think Too Much (a)” from Hearts and Bones, which I often consider to be a personal anthem) is now a septuagenarian. Fittingly, however, Simon predicted his own senescence in the song “Old Friends”, which Simon sang, along with Art Garfunkel, on the 1968 album Bookends:

Can you imagine us
Years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy

Happy 70th Birthday, Paul! I hope that you have a great day, and that you can spend it with your wife and children, and not sitting on a cold park bench with Art Garfunkel.

Posted in Music | Comments Off on How terribly strange to be seventy (part 2)

Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims share Economics Nobel

Posted by erweinstein on October 10, 2011

The 2011 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was jointly awarded today to Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims “for their empirical research on cause and effect in the macroeconomy”.

Thomas J. Sargent, currently a professor at New York University, is a macroeconomic theorist who has contributed substantially to the fields of pure macroeconomic theory, monetary theory, and economic history. He was one of the leaders of the “rational expectations revolution” in macroeconomics and his work helped to establish the New Classical School of economics. More recently, Sargent has also developed economic models that incorporate learning and bounded rationality. Here is Tyler Cowen explaining Sargent’s contributions to economics.

Christopher A. Sims, currently a professor at Princeton University, is a macroeconometrician who led the profession in applying the technique of Vector Auto-Regression (VAR) to empirical macroeconomics. He also pioneered the use of impulse response functions in macroeconomics. Here is Tyler Cowen explaining Sims’s contributions to economics.

Although it is sometimes a mistake to interpret the Sveriges Riksbank Prize through a political lens, in my opinion today’s award represents a partial vindication of the free-market “freshwater approach” to macroeconomics (associated with the University of Chicago, the University of Minnesota, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Rochester) whose reputation has been unfairly dragged through the mud during the recent financial crisis. It equally represents a rebuke to the dirigiste “saltwater approach” to macroeconomics (associated with Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley, among others) and especially to the pre-1980s “dinosaur Keynesianism” espoused by Paul Krugman, who was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in 2008 amid what many said was an ideological victory for Keynesian Economics over Classical Economics. With today’s prize award, the wheel has turned. The “rational expectations” economists, led by Sargent and his allies Robert E. Lucas, Nancy L. Stokey, and Edward C. Prescott, proved that Keynesian Economics had an unsound theoretical foundation, while Sims demonstrated empirically with his VARs that the prevailing (Keynesian) economic models of the 1970s had mediocre predictive power. Today’s prize honors the contributions of two preeminent economists, and reflects the shift in the economics profession ushered in by their contributions.

[cross-posted at]

Posted in Economics | 4 Comments »

End of line: Steve Jobs dies at 56

Posted by erweinstein on October 5, 2011

Major media outlets are reporting that Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple, has died at age 56.

There is very little that I can add to the tributes and obituaries that have already been published. Although Jobs himself denied that technology has the power to substantively change the world, this claim, coming from Jobs, is self-refuting. We are living today in a world fundamentally shaped by the innovations Steve Jobs pioneered in the fields of computing, animation, consumer electronics, and personal media consumption.

Here is a video of Jobs giving a moving and inspirational commencement speech at Stanford University.

Posted in Technology | Comments Off on End of line: Steve Jobs dies at 56

Never Forget

Posted by erweinstein on September 11, 2011

World Trade Towers, 9:03 am EDT, 9/11/2001

The Pentagon, 9/11/2001

United Airlines Flight 93 Crash Site, Shanksville, PA

Posted in Announcements | Comments Off on Never Forget

How terribly strange to be seventy (part 1)

Posted by erweinstein on May 24, 2011

Today (May 24, 2011) marks the 70th birthday of the legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. For anyone who listens to popular music and wants to understand its history, Bob Dylan is without a doubt one of the three most important figures to study (the other two are John Lennon and Paul McCartney). As University of Chicago economics professor David Galenson wrote in his 2009 article “From ‘White Christmas’ to Sgt. Pepper : The Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music”:

During the mid-1960s Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney created a new kind of popular music that was personal and often obscure. This shift, which transformed popular music from an experimental into a conceptual art, produced a distinct change in the creative life cycles of songwriters.

For more information on what it means for popular music to be transformed from an experimental into a conceptual art, consult that article (search Google Scholar for “The Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music”, including the quotes) as well as Galenson’s “Understanding Creativity” (Journal of Applied Economics, Volume 13, Issue 2, November 2010, pgs. 351-362). From that latter paper comes an excellent quote from Bruce Springsteen, who at Bob Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, said:

Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual.

In honor of Dylan’s birthday, Tyler Cowen, another economist who studies arts and culture, discusses the highlights of Dylan’s career.

What strikes me the most about Bob Dylan is how incredibly young he was when he made his biggest contributions to popular music. Only 23 when he released “Blowin’ in the Wind” (ranked #14 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”) and was acknowledged as the king of the American folk music scene, Dylan was 24 when he precipitated the “Electric Controversy”, and later that same year he released “Like a Rolling Stone” (ranked #1 on the aforementioned list). It’s worth excerpting Galenson again to explain the importance of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

“Like a Rolling Stone” rejected the traditional clarity and universality of popular music, using a novel synthesis of folk music, blues, and Symbolist poetry to create a personal, complex song that became a radical new model for rock music. It led directly to the introspective and elusive imagery of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and inspired generations of singer-songwriters.

Reading Galenson’s papers (or quickly reading his Wikipedia page), it is clear that Dylan’s relative youth during such transformational events is no accident. Dylan is a conceptual innovator, like Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and Orson Welles, who starting innovating young, made art by synthesizing other art forms and works, and broke the rules of his art in such a fundamental way that everyone else had to take notice. Like other conceptual innovators, Dylan peaked early, which is not to say that his later work is worthless, but rather that his most influential songs and albums were from the mid-to-late 1960s. Here’s Galenson one more time:

In 1966, when Robert Shelton asked Dylan if his songs were influential because he broke the rules, Dylan responded, “I don’t break the rules, because I don’t see any rules to break. As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t any rules.”

With the inescapable benefit of hindsight, it is sadly too easy to understate the magnitude of the impact Bob Dylan had on the development of popular music. (I originally phrased that last sentence wrong. Thanks, Language Log!) We’re still living in the musical world created by Dylan’s innovations.

So, Bob, how does it feel to be seventy? I don’t expect you to answer any time soon, but until then, many more happy birthdays!

Posted in Music | 1 Comment »

And the Rock Cried Out, “No Hiding Place”

Posted by erweinstein on May 2, 2011

Last night, President Barack Obama announced that Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden has been killed in Pakistan by US forces.

Osama Bin Laden, reportedly in poor health and no longer the operational director of Al-Qaeda, was nevertheless the inspiration behind the 1998 US Embassy Bombings in East Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, and of course the 9/11 hijackings and suicide attacks.

The peoples of the West as well as residents of free, democratic, capitalist societies across the world will rest easier knowing that this unfathomably ruthless butcher is dead. While the universe may not have an inherent sense of justice, there does seem to be reversion-to-the-mean, and whether you call it karma, luck, or something else, no one can evade the tides of fortune forever. Osama Bin Laden and his army of deranged fanatics are on the losing side of history, and it was only a matter of time before justice of some form caught up to him.

I will leave you with an excerpt from an old gospel song (based on the Book of Revelation 6:15-17), as transcribed by author and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, from which I have derived a series of posts on this blog entitled “No Hiding Place”.

Well I went to the rock to hide my face

But the rock cried out, “No Hiding Place”

The rock cried out, “No Hiding Place”

“There’s no hiding place down here”

Posted in Politics, Religion | 3 Comments »

The Guns of Charleston and the House Divided

Posted by erweinstein on April 12, 2011

150 years ago today, the American Civil War began when forces loyal to the Confederate States of America bombarded United States federal troops garrisoned at Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. That event, known as the Battle of Fort Sumter, is considered to be the first military engagement of the Civil War, and it was both a cause and a consequence of increasing tensions between the newly-seceded Southern states, and the federal Union government headed by recently-inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln.

As Lincoln himself prophesied in a speech given in Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858,

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.

Although Lincoln went on to pay the ultimate price for his resolve in preserving that government, he left as his legacy a house that was no longer divided by the question of human enslavement. Unfortunately, the United States was divided by the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, as deep social and economic differences between the North and the South persisted for over a hundred years, well into the Twentieth Century. These divisions, and how they have recently begun to heal in earnest, are the subject of an excellent article in The Economist from two weeks ago.

It is also worth noting that the question of slavery in the United States was only resolved through the deaths of 620,000 soldiers (from the Union and the Confederacy combined), including 3,654 dead on a single day at the Battle of Antietam. While these counts are dwarfed by, say, the number of Russian deaths during World War II, they represent a staggeringly large fraction of the population of the United States at the time of the Civil War (total Civil War deaths amounted to around 2% of total US population, by my quick calculations).

Today, and for the next four years, we remember the American Civil War and those who died to settle the differences between the North and the South over slavery and states rights.

If anyone cares to comment, what does the legacy of the Civil War mean to you? What does it suggest to you about the way substantial political, social, and economic divisions, like those between the North and the South circa 1861, can be resolved through discourse or violence?

Posted in History, Politics | Comments Off on The Guns of Charleston and the House Divided

Festival of Links: The Best of March

Posted by erweinstein on March 31, 2011

The top stories from this past month that you probably didn’t hear about from your other blogs:

1. The King James Version of the Bible turns 400.

2. Will Wilkinson gives “A Scornful Review” to the new David Brooks novel The Social Animal.

3. “Illinois has 11 working nuclear reactors at six sites, more than any other state [in the USA]…”

4. Soon there will be no hiding place for Jacques Chirac.

5. Megan McArdle argues that “We Don’t Need More Stigma for Overweight Kids“. Excerpt:

But it seems to me that we frequently mix “healthy” up with “thin”.  Most people who switch to eating an actual healthy diet–little processed food, a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, less salt and sugar–won’t end up thin.  Most people who exercise won’t lose much, if any weight without calorie restriction.  And most people who try to restrict their calories below what their body wants fail over the long term–eventually, their appetite wins.

6. A study released by a think-tank affiliated with the German Social Democratic Party (Germany’s large center-left party) reveals that nearly half of Germans believe that Israel is attempting to exterminate the Palestinians, and a slightly larger proportion of Germans agree with the statement “Jews try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era”. As Tyler Cowen would say, “Yikes!”

7. Scott Adams gives his assessment of Charlie Sheen. That’s all the Charlie Sheen blogging you will get from me.

8. Rabbi Richard Jacobs is elected as the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

9. Economist Steven Horwitz, whose writings on cell phones I have previous blogged, cites telephone service as an example of an industry where cost has fallen and quality has risen (both dramatically). In other words, there is no great stagnation.

10. Vanity Fair’s offbeat interview with Paul Simon.

11. Very short Newsweek interview with Larry Summers. As some other bloggers have noted, the best line from Summers is, “I’m one of the few people who went to Washington to get out of politics.”

Posted in Arts and literature, Economics, Festival of Links, Music, Politics, Religion, Technology | Comments Off on Festival of Links: The Best of March

Remark of the month

Posted by erweinstein on January 31, 2011

Happy 2011, everyone!

The best remark made on the blogosphere this month comes from Russell Roberts, professor of economics at George Mason University. He writes:

We do not expect a biologist to forecast how many squirrels will be alive in ten years if we increase the number of trees in the United States by 20%. A biologist would laugh at you. But that is what people ask of economists all the time.

I find this idea to be a very useful corrective to the sentiments of many (including some economists) who have condemned the entire discipline of economics for, say, not predicting the recent financial crisis. However, Roberts makes a larger point that economics has gone astray though pretensions of “scientism”–the belief that economics resembles hard sciences like physics. As he says in his follow-up post,

The problem is that too many economists and others treat it [economics] as if it were like physics.

I think that Roberts overstates his case, but it certainly is interesting to read his half-defense, half-indictment of economics. Roberts repeatedly asserts that economics is closer to evolutionary and ecological biology than to physics. I find this argument particularly appealing because, as readers of my post on Leigh Van Valen will recall, evolutionary biology was my first intellectual love. At this point, I can’t directly rebut Roberts’s argument comparing economics to evolutionary biology, but I can say that there is another possibility, namely, that economics is  young science, closer to physics in the late 19th Century than to modern physics.

Here is Arnold Kling commenting on the same Roberts post.

In somewhat related news, here is an online mini-symposium, hosted by The Economist, regarding whether or not the economics profession should adopt a code of conduct.

Posted in Economics, Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Remark of the month

Apologies for the lack of posting

Posted by erweinstein on December 31, 2010

Like the title of this post says, I’m sorry for the lack of posts this month. I have been far busier than I expected to be, even during my vacation. However, I have some good stuff prepared for this blog in the new year, so check back over the coming weeks and months for some actual content.

Have a safe and excellent New Year’s Eve!

Posted in Announcements | 1 Comment »

QE2 Roundup

Posted by erweinstein on November 30, 2010

A prominent topic of conversation among the political and economic cognoscenti is the second round of major quantitative easing recently enacted by the US Federal Reserve under the leadership of its chairman, Ben Bernanke. This second round has been (somewhat humorously) nicknamed QE2. Below are some collected links of interest regarding QE2, with brief comments.

1. Robert Barro, a Harvard University economics professor, offers a brief explanation of QE2 followed by a critique of the Fed’s proposed “exit strategy”, hosted by The Economist.

2. Greg Mankiw, also a Harvard economics professor and one of the most popular economics bloggers, has a short post that places him mildly in favor of QE2.

3. Megan McArdle, business and economics editor for The Atlantic, explains why China doesn’t like QE2, and why they’re being hypocritical (and we are too).

4. Scott Sumner, an economics professor at Bentley University and a standard-bearer for mainstream (albeit slightly-right-of-center) monetary economics, provides seven reasons why conservatives should support QE2.

5. Gary Becker, economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Richard Posner, judge on the 7th Circuit US Court of Appeals, offer some contrary opinions here and here.

6. A handful of conservative economists signed an open letter to Ben Bernanke opposing QE2. This is primarily what Sumner is reacting to in the link above. Paul Krugman, a Princeton economics professor and New York Times contributor, attacks these signatories from the left, here and here. John B. Taylor, a Stanford economics professor and the most influential monetary economist among the signatories, defends the letter here.

7. Also from The Economist‘s Free Exchange blog, here are two short posts, the first on why QE2 skeptics are wrong to worry about runaway inflation (at least so far), and the second about some “inside baseball” at the Fed, particularly whether or not support for QE2 will remain when a new group of officials rotates onto the Federal Open Market Committee next year.

8. Paul Krugman also notes that inflation is low, and seems alarmed, here and here.

My own position on QE2 is closest to Sumner’s. While Becker and Posner make pretty convincing arguments that QE2 will have little positive effect, I prefer Sumner’s reasoning that nominal GDP growth is too low, and that QE2 is a relatively low-risk way of addressing that problem. However, part of me disagrees with Sumner in that  I suspect that the current recession has a large real component, as Arnold Kling and (to a lesser extent) Tyler Cowen have argued.  I think that one’s position on QE2 is largely influenced by whether one believes inflation is a bigger threat than deflation, or vice-versa. If you believe that (potentially massive) inflation is lurking in the US monetary system, then you are likely to oppose QE2 on the grounds that it might unleash inflation that the Fed will be unable or unwilling to rein in. Those who worry more about deflation tend to favor QE2, even if (like me) they are also concerned that real aspects of the downturn make government policy–both fiscal and monetary–nearly useless. As you may have gathered from the links I chose above, I am not concerned about short- or medium-term inflation, so I view QE2 as a low-risk method of potentially boosting the economy.

Posted in Economics | Comments Off on QE2 Roundup

More Kling on Social Security

Posted by erweinstein on October 24, 2010

Last month, I highlighted the comments of economist Arnold Kling regarding the Social Security (and Medicare) trust fund. I recently finished reading Kling’s book Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. Chapter 1 of that book contains the best discussion of the causes of the financial crisis that I have read, and I highly recommend it, even though I do not endorse all of Kling’s diagnosis of or prescription for what is wrong with American democracy. Today, I am more interested in his comments on Social Security, which appear on pages 99-100 of the hardcover edition of Unchecked and Unbalanced.

Social Security does not incur investment risk. That is because Social Security taxes are not invested at all. They are paid to beneficiaries. Until this point, taxes have exceeded benefits, and excess revenues have been spent on other government programs. This excess spending is tracked in an account called the Social Security Trust Fund, which can  be thought of as a collection of IOUs from the rest of the Federal government to Social Security recipients.

Within a few years, Social Security benefits will start to exceed tax revenues, and the government will have to make good on its IOUs. Later this century, depending on how demographic and productivity trends play out, the Trust Fund will be exhausted, and the government will have to raise additional taxes to pay for Social Security benefits.

I would go so far as to say that thinking about Social Security with the image of money (or bonds) in a trust fund somewhere is downright pernicious. There isn’t any money stored away to pay for Social Security–just a promise by the government to repay the money it “borrowed” from Social Security excess revenues and in fact spent on other things. As I wrote in my previous post on this subject, Thomas Sowell once said that no one can borrow and save the same money simultaneously. To the extent that the Social Security Trust fund exists, it is a promise by the government (specifically Congress) to take money out of general revenues and spend it on Social Security benefits when the time comes that–as Kling described–benefits start to exceed revenues. I will conclude by stating what many others have written, namely that if you’re in your twenties or younger, don’t expect the government to keep its Social Security promise to you. One or both of the following will be the experience of my generation: 1) substantially higher taxes during our peak earning years as we (via the government) pay for the retirement and health care of our Baby Boomer parents, and 2) drastically reduced benefits from government programs like Social Security and Medicare when we’re old enough to receive those benefits.

ADDENDUM: Gregg Easterbrook lays out the facts on Social Security here. Also, in the October 2010 issue of The Atlantic, Michael Kinsley argues that the Baby Boomers should redeem themselves by turning down the Social Security largess about the be lavished on them and by helping to pay the way out of our nation’s fiscal hole.

Posted in Economics, Politics | Comments Off on More Kling on Social Security

Leigh Van Valen (1935-2010)

Posted by erweinstein on October 21, 2010

Leigh Van Valen, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, died last Saturday, October 16. An internationally renowned evolutionary biologist, Van Valen was the originator of the “Red Queen hypothesis” and a founder of the field of paleobiology.

From the official University of Chicago press release:

In his most famous paper, “A New Evolutionary Law,” published in 1973, he introduced novel observations and a radical interpretation that together continue to shape the field. The first, which he labeled the law of constant extinction—often called Van Valen’s Law—states that the probability of extinction for species and larger evolutionary groups bears no relation to how long it may have already existed. The fossil record, he argued, shows that lineages become neither more extinction-resistant nor more vulnerable over time.

To explain this surprising pattern, he proposed the Red Queen hypothesis, a model of co-evolutionary interaction, and one of the most enduring metaphors in modern biology. It holds that the struggle for existence never eases up, so that no species or lineage ever pulls ahead for long. Instead there is a constant arms race among species or larger groups, such as a community of competing lineages or parasites and their hosts. In a world with a fixed amount of energy, each must continually develop new adaptations, weapons or defenses to keep up with the other, a prolonged sequence of mutational one-upmanship.


Considered unconventional even by eccentrics, Van Valen had a wide range of interests, spanning the history of all life forms. “I don’t work linearly,” he explained in a note to his department chair. “I am a generalist and tend to open new approaches more than fill them in. What I work on changes irregularly and unpredictably with the progress of theory and knowledge.”

“Leigh Van Valen was an unbelievably broad thinker, uniquely so,” recalled his colleague David Jablonski, the William Kenan Jr. Professor in Geophysical Sciences. “The breadth of his work was staggering. He was interested in big questions—in everything, actually—but especially in topics like how diversity came about, how it changed over time.”

The picture that emerges of Van Valen is that of a divergent, even radical, thinker. Although capable of specific, technical, and highly theoretical research, he had the soul of a generalist, as evidenced by the wide range of interests he possessed (not to mention his own statements, seen above). As his colleagues and former students attest, he was a unique scientist, and he stood out even at a university that is known for having more than its share of offbeat and eccentric professors.

Van Valen’s work, as transmitted through his greatest popularizer–British science journalist Matt Ridley, was hugely influential on my own worldview and my scientific ethos. I read Ridley’s book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature my junior year in high school. I was enthralled by Ridley’s account of the development of modern evolutionary biology, and fascinated by the exciting yet painstaking research of Ridley’s protagonists, including W.D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Donald Symons, and Leigh Van Valen. Even more than was already the case, scientists became my heroes, and professors became the men (like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking) and women (like Rosalind Franklin and Jane Goodall) that I esteemed. Although I soon decided that I found history far more interesting than biology (and would later decide that I found economics even more interesting than history, as my favorite parts of history tended to be economic history), I remained committed to the idea that I would dedicate my own life to scholarly inquiry. Thus, I owe the direction of my academic career to my reading of Ridley’s The Red Queen, and that book truly would not have existed but for the contributions of Leigh Van Valen.

Bryan Caplan has written (on more than one occasion) that he misses Julian Simon, even though he never met Simon. Well, I can say the same thing about Leigh Van Valen. Even though I (probably) never met you, I will miss you, Professor Van Valen!

Posted in Science | 2 Comments »

Remark of the Week

Posted by erweinstein on September 5, 2010

This week’s Remark of the Week comes from economist Arnold Kling, who previously won Remark of the Week in June of last year. Kling writes, regarding the Social Security and Medicare trust funds:

In fact, we could immediately put $100 trillion gazillion dollars in the trust funds from the general budget, and then they would have enough money to pay Social Security forever. Supposedly.

The trust fund is a measure of what we are promising to pay future Social Security recipients. To me, it is nothing more than that. But what is going to fund Social Security down the road is not the promises that we pour into it today. It is the taxes that people will pay in the future.

Kling simply and eloquently makes a point that I have often found myself struggling to articulate–that the trust fund is an accounting fiction. As for Kling accusing Paul Krugman of not understanding the overlapping generations model, remember that–to paraphrase Thomas Sowell–no entity, not even the government, can borrow and save the same money simultaneously.

Posted in Economics, Politics, Random Thoughts | 1 Comment »