Saturday, October 31, 2009

Economist Levitt Skewered by Geophysicist for Bogus Climate Claims

The blogosphere is already abuzz with reports about the climate science and policy chapter in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's new book Superfreakonomics. I have not yet had an opportunity to read the chapter, which has been panned by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for American Progress, among others. Now, Raymond T. Perrehumbert, Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences and Levitt's colleague at the University of Chicago, has published a devastating open letter to Levitt at that not only trashes Levitt's analysis but questions his basic math skills!

I was a fan of the original Freakonomics, which was based on intensive and careful research Levitt had conducted over many years. I wonder how much time or effort either Levitt or Dubner devoted to studying the complex issues in climate science before writing their new book. Based on the arguments of Perrehumbert and others, it seems that their approach to this very large, important, and complicated problem was far too casual.

North London Derby

Arsenal 3 - Tottenham 0. Cesc Fabregas scored a goal-of-the-year candidate with a brilliant solo run from the middle of the field. The Gunners have scored 20 goals in 5 home games so far this season. They look set for a strong run at the Premiership title.

Best Halloween Costume

I saw a bunch of people on TV dressed as professional baseball players  - at the end of October! And they were actually pretending to play a game! Ridiculous, and hilarious.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize

Since the announcement was made that Elinor Ostrom would receive this year's Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel, I have been struck by a couple of different aspects of the responses: (1) the knee-jerk reaction of several ignorant economists, and especially economics graduate students, expressing incredulity that someone they had never read, and a non-economist to boot, could possibly win the Prize; and (2) the way ideologues on the right and left have interpreted the meaning of the prize, apparently without having read Lin's work. Left-wing analysts noted with delight one implication of her work: that private property regimes and markets are not always the "best" solution, all things considered, for common pool resources (CPRs). Commentators on the right, by contrast, have focused exclusively on the implication of her work for government  ownership and regulation: that they may be neither necessary nor sufficient for sustainable use of CPRs. But, because of their ideological blinders, both groups have failed to grasp the essence of what Lin is saying: "there are no panaceas."

First, in an effort to correct those (including Hardin) who perceived only a binary choice between private property/markets and government regulation/socialism, Lin offered the empirical example of common-property regimes, in which groups of private resource users are sometimes able successfully to conserve CPRs over very long periods of time.

Second, Lin's work demonstrates that no single, first-best set of institutional arrangements - including property regimes - exists for conserving CPRs across all dimensions of concern, in all sets of circumstances. In making this argument, Lin follows the lead of her fellow Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, who will be celebrating his 100th birthday in 2010. In a relatively obscure discussion paper from 1964, Coase noted that all of society's mechanisms for organizing social relations - including markets, firms, and governments - are failures. For Coase, the lesson was to choose that mechanism that, in the circumstances, was least likely to fail or likely to fail the least. I take that pragmatic suggestion to be Lin's advice as well (albeit with regard to a larger set of institutions and organizations than Coase's work addressed).

Ultimately, Lin's work is important not only for (a) showing that common-property regimes sometimes (but only sometimes) succeed in conserving CPRs over long periods of time but also (b) explicating the multitudinous array of complex factors that explain institutional success or failure in conserving CPRs and (c) providing analytical structures for identifying, studying, and assessing those factors. She is not an ideologue, but a social scientist par excellence.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ageism & Despotism Live at Indiana University

The Dean of the IU School of Law - Indianapolis, Gary Roberts, will be forced to resign within two years, simply because of his age. That is the decision of IU President Michael McRobbie, pursuant to an ancient University policy that provides for mandatory retirement of administrators at age 65. In this day and age, such a discriminatory policy should no longer exist at all. Not only does IU's policy persist, but it is not even applied consistently. To the contrary, the President McRobbie seems to have unfettered discretion to apply the rule arbitrarily. Having recently waived the mandatory retirement rule for Dean Brater of the IU Medical School, President McRobbie now intends to apply it to Dean Roberts of the law school, who arrived in Indianapolis only 3 years ago. If  he is forced to resign, it would be very bad news for my law school, which more than anything else needs an extended period of the kind of consistent and steady leadership Dean Roberts has provided. Unfortunately, President McRobbie seems to care more about asserting his authority than the institutional best interests of the IU-Indianapolis law school.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How Economic Benefit-Cost Analysis Figures in Political Benefit-Cost Analysis

1. How does the proposal fit with my priors?
2. "Just give me a number!" (from economic benefit-cost analysis)
3. Consider expected effect on contributions/budget.*
     a. increase = benefits
     b. decrease = costs
4.  Consider expected effects on votes.*
     a. increase = benefits
     b. decrease = costs
5. Weigh together (via some mysterious and uncertain calculus) results of steps 1., 3., and 4.
6. Net out total expected costs and benefits.
7. Make decision based on the net.

*Notice that in political benefit-cost analysis expected effects on contributions/budgets do not necessarily equate to effects on votes, reflecting the supposition that in some cases money may be more important than votes, and vice versa in other cases.

A bit of eye candy/bike porn to start the morning

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In memoriam: John H. Barton

I just learned that Professor John H. Barton of Stanford Law School died in a bicycling accident (possibly a hit-and-run) in August. John, who bridged the gap between law and science, was an expert in International Law relating to technology. He also served as my dissertation supervisor. John was a great teacher, always insightful, and a constant source of encouragement. Without that encouragement, I probably would never have completed my dissertation and first book. I will always be in his debt, and will remember him fondly.

An Interesting Natural Experiment?

Now that the State of Indiana has two "official" license plates - the regular plate with the symbol from the state flag and the "In God We Trust" plate - it would be interesting to see which set of drivers, on average, have (a) the most accidents, (b) the most tickets for traffic offenses, and (c) the highest number of recorded incidents of road rage. I have a hypothesis, but as I have no time or funding to undertake the empirical study, there's nothing (but the ire of some potential readers) to be gained from disclosing it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Digitizing LPs

I've started digitizing my collection of LPs. First in line are favorites including: Back to the Drawing Board by the Rubinoos; Nick Lowe's Pure Pop for Now People (released in the UK as The Jesus of Cool); Rockpile's eponymous album; and Pete Townsend's solo album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.

Winter Training

Winter training starts this week at Nebo Ridge. Two eight-week sessions of two evenings per week. 45 minutes of core work, followed by an hour of spinning and power intervals on the bike. During winter training, our normally very nice team coaches, Steve and Bob, morph into sadistic drill sergeants. They seem to take pleasure in bringing me to tears. But even that would be tolerable, were it not for Coach Steve's penchant for playing ELO and ELO-covers throughout the sessions. I'm no expert in human rights law, but I believe that violates the Geneva conventions.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Books I am currently reading

Paul Collier, Wars, Guns, and Votes (Harper 2009): Interesting, but not up to the brilliant standard he set in The Bottom Billion (Oxford 2007). The analysis and arguments aren't as well thought out, and the writing is quirky.

Janos Kornai, By Force of Thought (MIT 2006): A memoir of the great and iconoclastic Hungarian economist, who plainly deserves a Nobel Prize for his work on soft-budget constraints and shortage economies. It is a rich and thoughtful autobiography.

Vol 1 of the omnibus collection of C.P. Snow's series of novels Strangers and Brothers (Scribners 1972). Snow, who achieved renown as both a physicist and a novelist, most famously wrote about the unfortunate divergence of the "two cultures" of science and humanities. The Strangers and Brothers series is made up of more than one dozen novels, published over the course of several decades, but which he always considered as comprising a single work. Many of the novels are set in Cambridge, which gives them special interest for me. Volume I of the omnibus edition includes the following novels: Time of Hope, George Passant, The Conscience of the Rich, and The Light and the Dark.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What the Political Spectrum Quiz Says About Me (I don't think it's accurate)

My Political Views
I am a center-right social libertarian
Right: 1.03, Libertarian: 4.05

Political Spectrum Quiz

Some Reassurance re: Obama

At a conference on benefit-cost analysis earlier this week in Washington, DC, I was on a panel with Michael Greenstone, Chief Economist of the President's Council of Economic Advisors. It was reassuring to be reminded that there are really smart people advising the president on the economy, even if he doesn't always take their advice.

Slow Progress

I finally finished a draft of the new version of Chapter 1 for my restructured climate policy book, to be published by Cambridge University Press if and when I finish it. The next chore is to integrate parts of the old Chapters 1 and 2 into the new Chapter 2.

Miserable weather for riding

I'll  ride when its cold and windy. I'll ride when it's cold and drizzling. I'll ride when it's drizzling and windy. But I will not ride when it's cold, windy and drizzling. It's a matter of principle.