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Archive for the ‘Random Thoughts’ Category

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.

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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 »

Remark of the Week: Theory and Policy Edition

Posted by erweinstein on July 18, 2010

In a week relatively devoid of memorable quips (post a counterexample in the comments if you think I’m wrong), this week’s Remark of the Week goes to George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel, writing in the New York Times:

As policymakers use it to devise programs, it’s becoming clear that behavioral economics is being asked to solve problems it wasn’t meant to address. Indeed, it seems in some cases that behavioral economics is being used as a political expedient, allowing policymakers to avoid painful but more effective solutions rooted in traditional economics.

The op-ed is filled with interesting (if perhaps overstated) examples, so read the whole thing.

Here is Tyler Cowen on Loewenstein and Ubel. Tyler writes,

Often there is no nudge-based free lunch and we need a straightforward relative price shift

Here is Erik Voeten from The Monkey Cage on Loewenstein and Ubel. Erik elaborates,

Ultimately, changing relative prices is much more likely to meaningfully impact behavior deemed socially undesirable. So, making healthier foods cheaper is much more important than labeling unhealthy food.

Loewenstein and Ubel’s op-ed is mostly aimed at warning people that behavioral solutions are no panacea.…Yet, it strikes me that if they are right, their argument is really quite damning for the behavioral economics revolution. Essentially, they assert that traditional economic analysis has ultimately much more relevance for the analysis of major social problems and for finding solutions to them. Behavioral economics can complement this but cannot be a viable alternative. Within political science and other social sciences the insights of behavioral economics are sometimes interpreted as undermining the very foundations of classical economic analysis and warranting an entirely different approach to social problems. At the very least, the op-ed is a useful reminder that careful scrutiny of effect sizes matters greatly.

Although Loewenstein and Ubel may not have intended it as such, their op-ed provides even more evidence that mainstream economics offers useful and robust solutions to many pressing policy issues, and that challengers such as behavioral economics serve up “corrections” to the mainstream models that are limited in practical use. While there are some insights to be gathered from behavioral economics (especially when combined with experimental methods, such as John List‘s tests of prospect theory), as a movement it is unlikely to do much to revolutionize economics because it does not posit critiques of mainstream methods that are both novel and useful, especially concerning policy applications.

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Remark of the Week: Opera Edition

Posted by erweinstein on July 4, 2010

This week’s Remark of the Week comes from John von Rhein, the classical music critic for the Chicago Tribune, reviewing a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert of Wagner highlights at the Ravinia summer music festival:

One’s pleasure in hearing one of the world’s great Wagnerian “pit” bands playing this glorious music from center stage, along with the full-throated singing of the soloists, was mingled with dismay at the smallish audience. Wagner remains a tough sell on the North Shore [of Chicago]. The “Ringheads” in attendance cheered lustily, as if to compensate for the acres of empty seats.

I can offer only speculation as to why “Wager remains a tough sell” for the people of the northern suburbs of Chicago. That speculation is twofold: 1) The North Shore of Chicago is known for its substantially above-average prevalence of Jews, as well as high levels of social and political support for tolerance and diversity among the general population (although there are some areas, such as ultra-wealthy Kenilworth, that reliably vote Republican). 2) The music of Richard Wagner is still tainted by its associated with Nazi Germany–where it was highly popular with Hitler and other Nazi leaders–as well as the perceived anti-Semitism of Wagner himself (note the controversy caused by Daniel Barenboim’s performance of Wagner in Israel). Putting together 1) and 2) leads me to conjecture that the North Shore has a higher-than-average number of people who consider Wagner distasteful for political reasons, leading to a below-average popularity of Wagner’s music among the population in that area.

Also, I didn’t know that fans of Wagner’s Ring Cycle had a special name (“Ringheads”), although a quick Google search demonstrates at least two different instances of using “Ringheads” to denote Wagner fanatics.

As always, thank you for reading my random musings on subjects like the relative popularity of Wagnerian opera. For my friends, family, and other American readers, Happy July 4th! Here’s to an excellent rest of 2010!

Posted in Arts and literature, Music, Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Remark of the Week: Opera Edition

Not from The Onion

Posted by erweinstein on June 28, 2010

…but from the BBC, this past Friday:

‘Psychic’ octopus predicts Germany victory over England

Here’s more:

When consulted, Paul the octopus chose a mussel from a jar with the German flag on it ahead of one in a similar jar bearing the cross of St George.

The two-year-old cephalopod has a record of predicting past German results in this manner, his owners say.

Paul has so far correctly predicted all of Germany’s results in South Africa.

By the way, the octopus was right again, as Germany beat England 4-1 yesterday.

Posted in Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Not from The Onion

Remarks of the week

Posted by erweinstein on April 11, 2010

While both of these stories have already seen some coverage on more popular blogs (most notably on my favorite blog Marginal Revolution), they both express important points about social change.

1. The aging of humanity, from NewScientist:

In 19 countries, from Singapore to Iceland, people have a life expectancy of about 80 years. Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now. Meanwhile, women around the world have half as many children as their mothers. And if Japan is the model, their daughters may have half as many as they do.

2. Avoiding nostalgia for a mythical age of lost liberty, essay by David Boaz at

If you had to choose, would you rather live in a country with a department of labor and even an income tax or a Dred Scott decision and a Fugitive Slave Act?

Boaz’s exhortation to remember the freedom-crushing injustices of the past–like slavery–is even more relevant in light of the controversy over Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) declaring April to be “Confederate History Month”, without making any reference to slavery.

As they say, “Demography is destiny”, and “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

To cite my sources, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution linked to story 1 here and to story 2 here.

Posted in Politics, Random Thoughts, Science | Comments Off on Remarks of the week

Not from The Onion

Posted by erweinstein on March 14, 2010

…but from the Wall Street Journal:

Bank Sorry for Taking Parrot

[Insert your favorite parrot joke here.]

Fortunately, the parrot was not harmed and has been reunited with its owner.

Posted in Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Not from The Onion

Remark of the week

Posted by erweinstein on February 28, 2010

This week’s “Remark of the week” is for fans of ABC’s hit TV show Lost. As E! Online’s Kristin Dos Santos reports, last night the cast and crew of Lost answered many fan questions at the William S. Paley Television Festival in Los Angeles. Lost co-creator and executive producer Damon Lindelof responded to a question about a possible Lost-themed ride at Disney World. Lindelof said that to create such a ride it would be unnecessary to build a replica of the show’s mysterious Island:

Just put people in a black room, spin them around and punch them in the face and tell them “You just had the Lost experience.”

Posted in Arts and literature, Random Thoughts | 3 Comments »

Anecdote of the week

Posted by erweinstein on January 24, 2010

Earlier this month, economist Steven Horwitz and his wife went shopping for new cell phones. Here is an amusing (to me, at least) anecdote taken from Horwitz’s blog post about the cell-phone-buying experience:

We were talking with the salesman (from whom we have bought every cellphone we’ve ever owned) about the pricing of Blackberrys and he pointed out that Jody’s Storm was half the price of my Tour, even though the Storm is the fancier model with a touch screen and the whole iPhone feel to it.  He said “it might seem strange that the newer, fancier phone is cheaper” but before he could say anything, I quickly said “well I’m sure the Tour is in demand from business users who don’t want to learn the touch screen and want the latest of the more ‘traditional’ BB, while the Storm is for people like Jody who might get an iPhone or Droid instead.”  He said “yup.”

I quickly replied:  “it’s just like staying over a Saturday night for plane tickets – segmenting your market by price elasticity.”  He gave me that sad, shake of the head that economists often get from people when we go geek.

Posted in Economics, Random Thoughts | 1 Comment »

Remark of last week

Posted by erweinstein on December 20, 2009

Although I’m somewhat late in posting this, here is an excellent passage from Megan McArdle, pondering the future of the Democratic Party:

I was talking to a libertarian friend yesterday who is a professor in the midwest, and we were marvelling at just how delusional many Obama voters seem to have been about what he was going to accomplish.  Don’t get me wrong–I certainly don’t approve of everything Obama has done.  But the guy got elected to be president of the United States, not Prime Minister of Sweden.  Anyone who seriously entertained the notion that the procedural obstacles to enacting legislation in the United States would suddenly fall away–along with the essentially center-right politics of the American voter–is probably not mature enough to be driving.

I should note that McArdle often wrote approvingly of Barack Obama during the 2008 election. As someone who was deeply troubled by the fanaticism of many Obama supporters (especially here in Chicago) and the cult-like belief in “Hope” and “Change”, I should say “I told you so”, but that would be rude. Instead, I will say that I think President Obama is doing about as well as could reasonably have been expected given the problems he inherited from the Bush administration and the constraints of the office. In fact, my opinion of Obama is higher today than on election night last year, because of the many highly competent moderates he appointed or retained in crucial economic and national security posts. But as the passage quoted above illustrates, the problem is that the expectations placed on Obama going into his presidency weren’t reasonable, and the Democrats must now re-acclimate themselves to political reality.

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Remark of last week

Posted by erweinstein on June 21, 2009

Last week’s Remark of the Week should have gone to Arnold Kling:

Getting people to reduce their use of medical services is the spinach of health care reform. Expanding insurance coverage is the dessert. The Democrats want to enact dessert now, and worry about spinach later.

Just something to keep in mind as you read or watch coverage of the incipient health care reform bill. Kling’s co-blogger Bryan Caplan adds more here.

Posted in Politics, Random Thoughts | 2 Comments »

Remark of the Week

Posted by erweinstein on April 26, 2009

One of Andrew Sullivan‘s readers writes:

The idea that eradicating the drugs will solve the drug problem is the lie at the root of the War on Drugs. Drug addiction is never about the drug, it’s about people coming to grips with the pain of existence.

As they say, read the whole thing.

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Remark of the Week

Posted by erweinstein on February 22, 2009

This week’s Remark of the Week is from Mark Thompson:

By treating any and all social safety nets as irreversible steps on the Road to Serfdom, we [libertarians] allow liberals and progressives to shape those policies in ways that are inefficient, ineffective, and overbroad – even though Adam Smith, Hayek himself, and Friedman each advocated for a form of social safety net, demonstrating that social safety nets can be consistent with libertarianism.

Part of a continuing conversation about the future of libertarianism that includes, among others, Virginia PostrelWill Wilkinson and Ross Douthat.

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The Five Presidents

Posted by erweinstein on January 7, 2009

Like a Doctor Who special, the three living former presidents of the United States reunited to hold a lunch meeting with the current president and the president-elect. George W. Bush hosted President-elect Barack Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter at the White House earlier today.

Obama said he received “advice, good counsel, and fellowship” from this rare gathering of presidents, which culminated in a cool photo-op.

The BBC has the story and video here.

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Somewhat-timely links

Posted by erweinstein on October 25, 2008

1. Greg Mankiw on health insurance policy, last year and this year. See also here.

2. Christoper Buckley endorses Obama. One of Obama’s former professorial colleagues does not.

3. How Canada is relatively untouched by the financial crisis (free registration required).

4. A new essay by Nassim Taleb.

5. Efforts in the UK to improve their government-run health care system by using advanced information technology are falling short.

6. Tyler Cowen takes an overview of our economic situation.

7. As the ruling Kadima party fails to assemble a governing coalition, Israel is headed for elections.

Posted in Festival of Links, Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Somewhat-timely links

The man ain’t got no culture

Posted by erweinstein on September 8, 2008

And by “the man”, I mean search engines.

Earlier today, I was searching the online archives of The Economist (the British newsweekly) to see if they printed an obituary for Welsh poet Ronald Stuart Thomas, who died a few months before I began reading that publication. The Economist now allows users to search the archives either via Google Custom Search or via their own internal search. Using Google for “Ronald Stuart Thomas” only returns a dozen or so unrelated results (or zero, searching for exact wording). Much to my surprise, using their internal search gives me either zero or one result, but also this:

No further comments, except that it turns out they did not run an obituary for R.S. Thomas in The Economist.

Posted in Arts and literature, Random Thoughts | Comments Off on The man ain’t got no culture

Remark of the Week

Posted by erweinstein on September 1, 2008

This week’s winner is previous winner Tyler Cowen, a prominent blogger and economist specializing in government, culture, and the arts.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the exact predictive powers of climate models, or for that matter economic models, but uncertainty about outcomes should make us worry more not less.  Uncertainty usually has two tails, not just one.

Cowen’s comment illustrates why, although I am somewhat skeptical of many claims associated with anthropogenic climate change and very skeptical of the specific predictions of most climate modelers, I favor moderate but immediate action to reduce carbon emissions and to prepare fail-safe measures for climate-related natural disasters. Provided, of course, that we can listen to economists as well as climate scientists and design policies with cost-benefit analysis in mind. On this subject, see William Nordhaus’ excellent book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming and Freeman Dyson’s comments in his essay/review of that book.

Happy Labor Day to all my readers, and on this US holiday the thoughts and prayers of myself and my relatives go out to the residents of the Gulf Coast who have been separated from their homes, friends, and families by the hurricane-related evacuation.

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

Remark of the Week

Posted by erweinstein on August 10, 2008

The clear winner of the Remark of the Week for August 4 through August 10 is Roger Ebert.

The [“Sex and the City”] ladies should fill their flasks with cosmopolitans, go to see “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” and cry their hearts out with futile regret for their misspent lives.

That’s from Ebert’s movie review for “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2”. He gave that film 3 Stars, while rating the “Sex and the City” movie from earlier this year at 2 Stars.

Yes, I often read Ebert’s reviews of movies that I would never actually be interested in seeing. In my own estimation, I have two clear reasons for this behavior: 1) Ebert is the mainstream movie critic whose recommendations closest match my own tastes, and 2) He is an exceptional writer, the first ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, who frequently deploys clever and memorable phrases to share the highlights and lowlights of his movie-viewing. While he certainly has “off days”–reviews where he is clearly uninterested and forcing himself to write, oversimplifying in the process–and has had more since his recent illness, Ebert’s reviews of excellent or “classic” movies as well as those of movies he greatly dislikes are works of art. He even wrote a review of “Wet Hot American Summer” in verse, which can be sung to the tune of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”.

On a somewhat-related note, prolific musician Isaac Hayes–the original “Soul Man”–died earlier today.

On a unrelated note, I apologize for the gap in posting. I haven’t been feeling well the past three weeks due to an injury I sustained right around the time of the Modus Operandi show described in the July 17 post (which went awesomely, at least from this bass player’s viewpoint). Fortunately, I am almost completely better, and I am returning to a more normal schedule, which will include more time providing my readers (whoever you are) with links and commentary.

Only 12 weeks (and change) until Election Day!

Posted in Arts and literature, Music, Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Remark of the Week

The “$900 Dutch urban street bike”

Posted by erweinstein on July 9, 2008

The Executive Director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation bought one–manufactured by Jorg & Olif–and is now using it as his primary means of transportation. Listen to the news story here.

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A good prediction

Posted by erweinstein on June 24, 2008

On January 9, 2008, I wrote (regarding Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama):

…the two well-known and well-funded rivals have a long fight ahead to win their party’s nomination for the 2008 presidential election.

I don’t like to brag, but in hindsight that statement (and the predicted nature of the primary campaign implied by the phrase “well-known and well-funded”) sounds pretty cool, especially considering that many (including Senator Clinton) said the primaries would be finished by February.

Happy first week of summer! Only 19 weeks until Election Day!

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Department of Meta

Posted by erweinstein on May 25, 2008

Nowadays, polls are so common that a telephone poll was done recently to estimate how often individuals are surveyed (the answer was about once per year).

Written by Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman.

Also read Lance Fortnow, a Northwestern University professor of theoretical computer science, complaining about this issue and the related matter of self-selected sample bias.

Meta-curiosities aside, Gelman’s statement is part of a very interesting blog post (and follow-up) about whether or not it is rational to vote given the low probability of one vote being decisive.

Gelman and his colleagues blog at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, one of the most consistently-educational and useful academic discipline blogs. Although some of the posts discuss very specific issues in applied statistics and are not intended for lay audiences (I don’t know R, although I hope to learn one day, so I have to skip the posts about statistics coding), Gelman often links to and explains his own research. The papers analyzing voting, districting, party affiliation, and other political issues are especially interesting (and timely, considering that we’re approaching a potentially historic presidential and general election season in the US), and he also throws in posts about methodology/philosophy in statistics and social sciences for variety. A new book summarizing his applied research on US elections and voting behavior, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State (see here also), is due to be published this fall.

P.S.: Thanks to Eli for pointing out in an unrelated conversation a few months ago that meta is Greek for “after”.

Posted in Politics, Random Thoughts, Science | 2 Comments »

Remark of the Week: “Peak Oil” Edition

Posted by erweinstein on May 18, 2008

There is also every reason to believe that gas prices will be lower in the future than they are now, in spite of the peak oil rhetoric.

Steven Levitt, the Alvin H. Baum Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and author of Freakonomics, discussing a scheme through which Chrysler pays for some of its customers’ gasoline. Here is more of Levitt criticizing the “peak oil” assertions.

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Remark of Two Weeks Ago

Posted by erweinstein on April 20, 2008

Sorry for the unscheduled absence. I took a vacation at the end of March, but since I’ve been back in Hyde Park, I haven’t been feeling well. I think I had some sort of stomach flu…

Here’s the CAJ Remark of the Week for the week of April 7, 2008:

In deciding how to vote, I ignore purely theological issues (e.g., whether the Mitt Romney’s LDS view of the afterlife is more plausible or less plausible than John Kerry’s Roman Catholic view), but I consider the extent to which the candidate’s religious philosophy may (like any other part of the candidate’s worldview) influence his or her public policy decisions.

That’s David Kopel at the Volokh Conspiracy, discussing the recent scrutiny of religious leaders who support or endorse the presidential candidates. The ideas in the above section are very similar to my own views (indeed, friends and relatives may have heard me use similar words when discussing Mitt Romney’s religion speech). Kopel continues,

In my view, it is relevant that a candidate has chosen spiritual mentors who are bigots or who are hostile to constitutional rights. Senator Obama’s close relationship with Rev. Pfleger makes me less confident that a President Obama would be a strong defender of the entire Bill of Rights and of civic tolerance.

As they say, read the whole thing.

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

Remark of Last Week

Posted by erweinstein on February 11, 2008

“And when rational individuals face a miserable set of choices…they cannot do better than pick the best of a bad lot. We will not solve social problems if we pretend that they are caused only–or mostly–by the mad, the stupid, and the morally degenerate. But nor should we shrug our shoulders and declare that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I hope that this book will show that although people tend to make smart choices, it is possible to offer them better ones.”

Tim Hartford, from his insightful and engaging new book The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World. Hartford, a Financial Times columnist and editor and formerly an economist for the World Bank and Royal Dutch/Shell, draws on recent and important research from economics, psychology, sociology, and history to explain the social-scientific logic behind problems ranging from gambling and annoying coworkers to racism and political instability. As they say, read the whole thing.

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen is hosting an online book forum about The Logic of Life. Cowen gave the book as favorable review, as did Nobel Prize winners Gary Becker and Tom Schelling.

Note: posting will continue to be light due to a combination of a heavy workload and some ill health the past two weeks that put me behind on said work (don’t worry, it’s not anywhere near as bad as the bizarre and debilitating intestinal infection I had a year ago). There may be a few more short or pre-written pieces like this, but mostly I’ll be busy. Have a nice week everyone!

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