Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in the Digital Commons

England's Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific publisher of the world's oldest peer-review journal, has decided to make its entire archive, going all the way back to the first issue published in 1665, freely available to the public. The archive includes Ben Franklin's reports on his original kite-based experiments on electricity, Sir Isaac Newton's first published scientific paper, and an early paper on geology by Charles Darwin. It is a treasure trove for historians of science and anyone interested in the history of scientific publishing. The announcement is here; and a search page is here.

America's New Gilded Age

An excellent essay in Der Speigel (here) on the rise of oligopoly in the US.

Hat tip: The Brower.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chelsea 3 - Arsenal 5

I didn't get to see the match, as I'm in the midst of a conference. I certainly hope that it will be replayed on TV so that I can watch it when I get home; it appears to have been a fabulous match, and not only because the Gunners prevailed. Of course, the victory is the most important so far this season for the Gunners. It should give them great confidence going forward. Van Persie scored three goals, giving him 28 in 27 matches in 2011. Arsenal need to get him tied down with a new long-term contract.

UPDATE: I did get to see a replay of the game on ESPN3. After a defensively shaky first half, Arsenal shored up the back line in the second, and pretty much everyone played very well. Having slammed Theo Walcott after his performance last week, I have to give credit where it is due, and acknowledge that he had an excellent game, particularly in the first half, where his crosses were sharp and accurate (two of them should have, but weren't, converted into goals); and he scored a beautiful goal of his own on a great individual effort in the second half. Aaron Ramsey was also excellent, and Mikel Arteta continues to grow into his role, game by game. Gervinho is consistently dangerous on the wing. As I said earlier, this win is very big for the Arsenal.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On the Road

Heading to Atlanta today for a "roundtable" at Emory Law School on "Climate in a Time of Dissensus." I've been busily scribbling a belated paper for the conference on recent game theoretic articles offering strategies with the potential to reduce free-riding in international climate negotiations. More specifically, I'm focusing on a recent paper by Geoffrey Heal and Howard Kunreuther, avaialable (behind a paywall) here, assessing prospects for "tipping sets" to more negotiations to a more cooperative equilibrium. I may post my comments later, after getting some feedback at the conference, which should be useful. Other participants include Harvard Law Prof., and former #2 in the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, Jody Freeman, my good friend Jonathan Nash and his Emory colleague Bill Buzbee, Ann Carlson (UCLA), and Andre Greene (Toronto).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Winter Training Season Begins

Hard to imagine on a day when temperatures soared into the mid-70s, but winter training officially started today.This evening, in Indy, many of my cycling buddies gathered in the gym with Coach Bob to begin the first of two eight-week sessions of core work, stretching, spin-ups, pyramids, threshold tests, sprints, killers, stomps, and various other kinds of torture that make us stronger cyclists (by increasing our threshold power) for the next season.

Now that I'm living in Bloomington, I had to make alternate plans. I've joined the IU gym, and signed up for "Little 500" power training on Tuesdays and an ordinary spin class on Thursdays. The first "Little 5" training session was this evening - one old man and a small group of 20-somethings. Definitely felt strange not training (and trashing talking) with the usual suspects, but I did get a good work-out.

Justice Stevens on the Supreme Court

I just finished reading Justice Stevens highly readable, insightful, and surprisingly substantive book, Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir (Little, Brown 2011). Always an engaging writer, Justice Stevens provides a highly personal account of his tenure on the Court, organized around the five Chief Justices with whom he served. Along the way, we learn about his personal history and path to the Court, how the Court functions on a day-to-day basis, the almost invariably warm personal relations among the justices (which doesn't prevent Stevens from taking issue with several of his colleagues or pointing out their endearing or not-so-endearing character traits), and Stevens's views about various landmark cases decided by the Court, while he was a member. This book is highly recommended for all readers with any interest in the US Supreme Court and constitutional, regardless of prior expertise. It should be required reading for all law professors and students.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Ride

Another beautiful fall day in South-Central Indiana (and indoor training starts tomorrow evening), so I decided to make time for a ride after the noon Workshop colloquium (a terrific presentation by Russian economist Leonid Polischuk on the rise and relative effectiveness of homeowners associations in two Russian cities). That was a good decision. No so good was my decision to try riding up Mt. Gilead Rd. toward Lake Lemon. With legs still aching from the longish ride on Saturday on the flats northwest of Indy, there was no way I was going to be able to climb up one side, turn around, and climb back up the other side on the way home. If I had tried, I probably would have ended up here:

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Arsenal 3 - Stoke City 1

This was predictably a hard fought match. Stoke always defend deep and in numbers, making it very hard for the Gunners to break them down. Arsenal had the lion's share of possession, and deserved the victory, but once again they conceded a goal on a set piece, which has been their greatest (but certainly not their only) defensive weakness over the past couple of seasons.

Gervinho, who scored the first goal and set up the other two for Van Persie, was the man of the match, always looking dangerous on the wing. Mikel Arteta finally looks like he's growing into the quarterback role, managing the offense. Alex Song played his usual strong game, shoring up the midfield. On the other hand, Theo Walcott, who announced this week that he wants a new contract, just seemed to be taking up space. The few times he did get involved in the play, it was to no useful purpose. His game, and his career, seemingly have plateaued; on the evidence of his play this season, he does not deserve a new Arsenal contract.

The victory moves Arsenal up to 7th in the League table, just six points out of a Champion's League qualification spot.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Saturday Ride

I got up to Indy this afternoon for a 50+ mile ride with the old group. It was a gorgeous day for a ride, upper-50s to lower-60s, and just a mild wind from the SW. We rode out a long way west from Trader's Point before riding back in to Lebanon and then back to the start. It was a fairly big group, including a lot of friends I hadn't seen in quite some time, including Adam, both Brians, and Woz. Everyone looked and rode great. By the end of it, though, I was suffering like a dog. For the rest, it was an "easy" ride. Go figure.

Tomorrow looks to be a carbon copy of today - perhaps a bit warmer. But I'm not planning to head back to Indy; I'm too worn out from today's ride. I'll try to get some recovery miles (perhaps with a few hills through in) around home, instead.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Enlightened by Jonathan Israel

Oxford University Press has just published the latest book in Jonathan Israel's impressive series on the intellectual history of the Enlightenment, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790. Needless to say, I've bought it, but I won't be reading it for a while because I have to read his earlier installments first, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford 2001) (which I've only just started reading) and Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1750 (Oxford 2006).

Israel, who is Professor of Modern European  History at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, is an amazing scholar. His books are to intellectual history what William Cronon's books are to environmental history, though perhaps a bit more demanding of the reader. Ranging from 700-1000 pages each, Israel's tomes are monuments of erudition with references to so many major and minor scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is hard work keeping track. The books are not dry or especially difficult to read, but it is easy to get lost in the detail. This is not a criticism; arguably, authors should demand more of readers than they typically do. Israel's books represent the kind of meticulous and comprehensive scholarship that all scholars, myself included, wish we could write.

Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Report Confirms Climate Science

For those who have not yet seen it, the report as well as all the data can be viewed here. The study was headed up by former climate skeptic Richard Muller (his research team included Saul Perlmutter, who just received the Nobel Prize in Physics) and funded by a variety of organizations, including the uber-conservative, climate change-denying Koch Foundation. As Muller promised at the outset, the study was comprehensive and even-handed, and it strongly confirms the work of other climate scientists, as the chart below indicates.

It is too much to hope that this will mollify the climate deniers, especially those with financial ties to the fossil-fuel industries. As Upton Sinclair wrote back in 1935, "It is hard to get a man to understanding something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." But for the rest of us, this report represents a tremendous vindication of climate science and the scientists who have been working on it over the course of many decades.

Davis, Peters, and Caldeira on "The supply chain of CO2 emissions"

A compelling, open-access article in the new issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Here is the abstract:
CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are conventionally attributed to the country where the emissions are produced (i.e., where the fuels are burned). However, these production-based accounts represent a single point in the value chain of fossil fuels, which may have been extracted elsewhere and may be used to provide goods or services to consumers elsewhere. We present a consistent set of carbon inventories that spans the full supply chain of global CO2 emissions, finding that 10.2 billion tons of CO2 or 37% of global emissions are from fossil fuels traded internationally and an additional 6.4 billion tons CO2 or 23% of global emissions are embodied in traded goods. Our results reveal vulnerabilities and benefits related to current patterns of energy use that are relevant to climate and energy policy. In particular, if a consistent and unavoidable price were imposed on CO2 emissions somewhere along the supply chain, then all of the parties along the supply chain would seek to impose that price to generate revenue from taxes collected or permits sold. The geographical concentration of carbon-based fuels and relatively small number of parties involved in extracting and refining those fuels suggest that regulation at the wellhead, mine mouth, or refinery might minimize transaction costs as well as opportunities for leakage.

Worth Reading

Daniel Kahnemann, the psychologist who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2002 for his contributions to behavioral economics (challenging mainstream conceptions of rationality), has an interesting column in today's New York Times (here) on the "hazards of confidence." Here is an excerpt:
The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.

I coined the term “illusion of validity” because the confidence we had in judgments about individual soldiers was not affected by a statistical fact we knew to be true — that our predictions were unrelated to the truth. This is not an isolated observation. When a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with general knowledge, the impression commonly prevails. And this goes for you, too. The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.

Meanwhile, future Nobel laureate (for contributions to environmental and energy economics), William Nordhaus has an interesting essay (masquerading as a book review) on energy in the New York Review of Books (here). Here's an excerpt:
If we look at actual taxes in the energy sector, they are far below the calculated external costs. In 2007, for which we have complete data, after discounting the net of energy subsidies, the money paid in total federal energy taxes was $21 billion, or less than one tenth of the level necessary to price energy at its social costs. Virtually all of these taxes were gasoline taxes—devoted to building roads so that cars could drive faster and farther! So Graetz is correct in his assertion quoted above that the US has failed to charge the full cost of its energy consumption; it is not even close.

A second point is that environmental taxes can play a central role in reducing the fiscal gap in the years to come. These are efficient taxes because they tax “bads” rather than “goods.” Environmental taxes have the unique feature of raising revenues, increasing economic efficiency, and improving the public health.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Profile of Rebecca Zink

Former teammate and still good friend of Cylingprof, Rebecca Zink, is featured in a rider profile at Peloton It's great to see Rebecca getting recognition for the success she has earned through several years of hard work. Here's one of the cool photos from the profile:

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Did Van Gogh Commit Suicide?

Until now, most of the world simply presumed that he did, but that presumption is being questioned in a new book alleging that he was accidentally shot and killed either by the teenage brother of one of his friends, who enjoyed tormenting the mentally ill artist, or by a couple of local kids who were playing with a malfunctioning pistol. The Pulitzer Prize-winning duo of Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith make this claim in their new book, Van Gogh: The Life (Random House 2011). Perhaps they should have called it Van Gogh: The Death for all the attention being paid to the issue of his demise, as if it has any bearing on the artist's life, his art, or his reputation. Jonathan Jones, at his On Art Blog for The (here) raises questions about the new claims and argues that, ultimately, it just doesn't matter whether Van Gogh offed himself. Even if he didn't kill himself, he wanted to, and for Jones that is what counts. I'm not so sure. I mean, just because a guy cuts off his own ear, why should that lead anyone to believe he'd have suicidal tendencies. This brave new book by Naifeh and White Smith casts grave doubt on the entire "Van Gogh Suicide Industry," which would have us believe that the man was a great artist because he committed suicide. The only thing that is clear now is that, if Van Gogh did not kill himself, he can no longer be considered a great artist.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What, No Hilly Hundred Post?

Actually, I didn't ride the Hilly this weekend. My wife returned home yesterday after nearly three weeks in Poland, so both of my days this weekend were spoken for.

I hope everyone who participated had a good and safe ride. The weather seemed to cooperate pretty well. It was blustery, but a bit warmer than usual.

I confess to being a bit disappointed that none of my friends from Indy who drove down for the ride got in touch for a post-ride beer.

The Strangest Question I've Read in Some Time

From Joachim Radkau's biography of Max Weber (p. 444): "But just how rational was the Israelite conception of God?"

What can "rational" possibly mean in this context?

Arsenal 2 - Sunderland 1

Arsenal should have won this game in a walk, but once again the fragility of their defense and overall lack of team confidence saw them just holding on to a 2-1 victory at the Emirates. In the first fifteen minutes of the match, it looked like Arsenal were going to run away and hide. Van Persie scored just 20 seconds in the game, and squandered two more gilt-edged chances seemingly before Sunderland ever had possession of the ball. Sunderland eventually settled into the match and tied it, unexpectedly, on a beautiful free kick by former Arsenal-man Sebastian Larsson. Once again, the Gunners proved susceptible to a set piece. That goal visibly deflated the Arsenal team's confidence, and only a fine save by Wojciech Szczesny kept them level at 1-1 as they limped into halftime.

In the second half, Arsenal dominated possession almost as much as in the early going of the first half, but Sunderland looked more dangerous throughout on the counterattack. Finally, Van Persie gave Arsenal the victory with a beautifully taken free-kick from just outside the box, after he was fouled. The Dutchman, who outperformed every other player on the pitch, is looking more and more like Dennis Bergkamp (which is about the greatest compliment I could bestow on any player). But going forward this season, he's going to  need more help. The young Gervinho looked good in the first half; and second-half sub Andrei Arshavin looked like he's finally beginning to round into some decent form. Alex Song provided strong presence in the middle of the field, although his passing was a bit off today. I'm still waiting for Mikel Arteta to show a bit more offensive aggression as he settles into his job as midfield quarterback for the Gunners. But I've long since given up waiting for Theo Walcott's game to mature. They say you can't coach speed. In Walcott's case, apparently, you can't coach passing or shooting either. I think it's time for Wenger to give the younger and more promising Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance on the wing.

Arsenal are still in search of a comprehensive victory to boost team confidence and their prospects for a Champions' League place for next season. Their home game next Sunday at Stoke should provide a decent opportunity.

The Moral Economy of Football (Soccer)

As a regular viewer of European football matches, especially from the UK and Spain, I have been fascinated by (among other things) the post-match interviews and analyses, which seem to me to differ markedly from those of American sporting events in one vital respect: in Europe, a great deal of attention is focused on the moral desert of a victory or loss, as if whether a win, draw or loss was "earned" matters as much as the final scoreline. Did the winning club play well enough to "deserve" its victory? Did the losing club perhaps "deserve" a point or to get "more from the match." This kind of post-match analysis is endemic. Listen to any post-match interview with a team manager or media analyst, and you will like hear a discussion of whether the match result was or was not a "fair" reflection of the game, among other moral issues. A team that ties a match might be considered morally victorious, if they were expected to lose or if they were expected ex ante to have been "content with a draw." A team that wins as expected, may not get full credit if their quality of play, or the extent of the victory, did not meet some (or someone's) presupposed standard.

In the US, as a rule, the final score seems to be all that counts. This is reflected in the traditional response of a winning player to trash tack from the other team: "SCOREBOARD!" While the final score might is explained in post-match analyses by various factors affecting the outcome, it is rarely interrogated for its rightness or fairness.

If I am right that this difference exists between European and the US, when it comes to adjudging the outcomes of sporting events, I can only wonder at the reasons for it. Does it boil down to differences in social psychology or mental models of the world? Is it a consequence of different cultural histories? Does it reflect different attitudes about markets or the "rules of the game"?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Indy Star Rarely Misses An Opportunity to Create a Misimpression

A headline from today's edition (see here): "House blocks EPA on coal ash." In case anyone was confused by this, allow me to clarify. The House of Representatives voted to block EPA's proposal to increase regulation of coal ash, which is a by-product of electricity generation from coal containing toxic chemicals. However, the House vote cannot, by itself, block EPA's regulation. That would require a corresponding vote in the Senate, plus the President's signature (or a subsequent super-majority vote in Congress to override a presidential veto). So, the bottom line is that, contrary to the Star's headline, the House has not blocked the new EPA rule.

Did Henvy V Prevail at Agincourt Because the French Were Weighed Down by Heavy Armor?

So claims an interesting new study by exercise physiologists reported on at Scientific American (here).

Himalayan Glaciers, the Tour de France, Thongs, and Climate Change

In response to my recent post about the retreat of Himalayan Glaciers since the early 20th century, Coach Bob mounts what could be one of the strongest and most heartfelt pleas not just for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions but reversal of global-warming trends:
You can watch footage of the TdF from the 80s and note that the mtns were covered in snow back then. People on the slopes were bundled up in jackets, sweaters, and even coats. Nowadays, you see people in thongs; sadly, men, too! If for no other reason than to get men out of thongs, we've got to reverse the climatological change!!
Well said, Bob. Well said.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Social Cost of Carbon at ABA SEER

The American Bar Association's Section on Energy, Environment, and Resources (ABA SEER) is holding its annual meeting in Indy this week. Yesterday, I was on a really fun panel on the social cost of carbon (SCC), which the federal government set at $21.40 per ton for 2010 (rising from that year to nearly $50 per ton by 2050). The only legal significance of the SCC at this point is that federal, executive-branch agencies must use the cost figure in calculating costs and benefits of proposed regulations. This has a salutary effect of forcing agencies to at least confront the problem of climate change in everyday rule-making activities (except to the extent they farm out preparing of CBAs to outside consultancy organizations). But no one on the panel thought that incorporating the SCC into regulatory decisions would significantly shape those decisions; the consensus, on the panel at least, was that the federal government's SCC is too low to do that, and also lower than it should be.

The federal SCC has virtually no current implications for lawyers outside of federal agency/regulatory practice. For that reason, I was somewhat surprised to see that the (fairly large) room was pretty well packed for the panel. During the question/discussion period, it became clear that a number of those in attendance were there just because they were interested in learning more about the problem of climate change and the challenge of climate policy. Of course, some corporate lawyers might have attended because they foresee a time when the SCC will have relevance for their companies, e.g. in the form of a carbon tax.

Here is the outline of my own presentation from the panel:
Presentation on the SCC.aba SEER.oct 2011

This afternoon, I'm heading back to Indy because the I.U. Maurer Law School is hosting a reception for its alums and current students who are attending the conference. (A bit of irony here, as I moved to Bloomington to avoid the commute from Indy. Indeed, I have to go back to Indy a third day in a row on Saturday to pick up my wife at the airport).  

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Regulatory Cost-Benefit Analysis and Collective Action

A new, expanded, and improved draft of my paper of that title can be downloaded from SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This updated draft paper explores the significant role Regulatory Cost-Benefit Analysis (RCBA) plays in facilitating or impeding collective action. Through case studies, the paper shows that well-constructed RCBAs have (1) facilitated collective action (including in cases where explicit consideration of costs is legally prohibited) by muting political opposition; and (2) helped to obstruct welfare-reducing rules from being promulgated. RCBAs can of course be manipulated to obstruct social welfare-improving collective action or to promote inefficient policies. However, the fact that RCBAs require transparency makes those efforts liable to discovery and disclosure, as in the case of the Bush Administration's failed "Clear Skies" initiative. The paper concludes with an assessment of implications of the case studies for our understanding of the role of RCBA in the regulatory process, and with a call for more qualitative and quantitative empirical research on the use and abuse of RCBA as a political tool in legislative and regulatory processes.

Climate Change Revealed in Photos of Retreating Himalayan Glaciers

Sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, photographer David Breashears sought to replicate photos from the first decades of the 20th century. His photographs are revealing and disturbing.

Hat tip: The Wonk Room.

Australia's House Enacts Carbon Tax

John Quiggin has the story (here) over at Crooked Timber. The tax is set at $23 (AUD) per ton, which is comparable to the the median of the trading range of EUAs on the EU ETS and to the social cost of carbon (SSC) adopted by the US government last year. The conservative party have vowed to repeal the tax when they take office, but they may find it difficult to do so, given that proceeds from the tax will be used to raise the income tax threshold from around $6,000 to around $20,000 (AUD), which should create a sizable constituency for retaining the carbon tax. Although I would personally prefer offsetting tax cuts for all taxpayers (except, perhaps, those at the very top of the income ladder), I am heartened to see that governments are finally figuring out how to tax bads like pollution instead of goods like income.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why Isn't the Conversion of Public Property for Private Use a Compensable Taking?

The Taking Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution provides, "not shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The text makes clear that compensation is required for takings of conversion of private property to public property, but not vice versa. It's worth considering why the Taking Clause operates in only one direction, despite the fact that privatization of public property clearly imposes costs on the public.

Just last week, for instance, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Golan v. Holder,  concerning a federal statute that confers copyright protection on works already in the public domain (Congress passed the law to comply with the Uruguay Round Agreements of the WTO). Putting to one side the merits of the statute, it is clear that the act of privatizing works already in the public domain imposes costs on consumers of music and literature by limiting access and use. Why shouldn't those consumers be compensated for the costs they suffer as a consequence of the appropriation of their property? (This is not a novel question but in similar contexts throughout history. See, for example, E.P. Thompson's Whigs and Hunters, which chronicles the history of the enclosure movement in early eighteenth-century England.

Offhand, a few plausible answers (or parts of a single answer) come to mind:

(1) The framers of the Fifth Amendment were myopic because, when it was written and enacted, the costs (to the public) of privatization were relatively low because resources were, generally speaking, abundant relative to demand.

(2) Majoritarianism was then (but no longer) thought likely to preserve socially-valued common-pool resources. By contrast, Madison was explicitly concerned that majoritarianism might lead to widespread deprivation of private property.

(3) The costs of privatization are diffuse and thinly spread among the population. The transaction costs of providing compensation may exceed the value of the compensation received by each member of the affected public.

Modern scholars understand acts of privatizing the public domain as "givings," the obverse of takings. It remains unclear to me, however, why they should not be thought of simply as a taking in the opposite direction, especially when the resource's prior status as public property is well-defined and legally recognized.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Eye Candy for Cyclists

Now that I live in Bloomington, I've been thinking of buying a super-light bike for the hills. The current leading contender (although not on price) is this gorgeous Bianchi Oltre Nero. With Campy Chorus 11-speed, HED Ardennes wheels, and Speedplay pedals, total weight would be just over 14 pounds. Bianchi, for those who don't know, is the world's oldest bike maker in continual existence, founded in 1885 in Milan. My trusty 2001 Bianchi XL Boron still is a lot of fun to ride, and gets me kudos from mechanics and steel-is-real aficionados.

Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims Share Nobel Prize in Economics

This is a surprise considering the current economic circumstances. Sargent and Sims are both macro-economists, and if the global financial crisis has taught us nothing else, it is that the state of our current models of the macro-economy, however formally consistent and mathematically elegant, are not up to the tasks of predicting, explaining, or providing solutions to the problems we are confronting today.

I don't know much about Sims' work, but Sargent is best known for his important and influential contributions to the rational expectations model, which adds to the irony of today's prize announcement because that  model holds that individuals possess the capacity to foresee and rationally predict future circumstances and that their predictions are largely accurate. Many social scientists have raised profound questions about the rational expectations model, and empirical evidence does not appear to support it. Already, rational expectations seemed to be in retreat back in 1995, when Robert Lucas, one of its originators, won the Prize. The recent financial crisis has done little to enhance its reputation.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Quote of the Day - Rick Reilly on Andrew Luck

Regular readers of this blog will know that, since it became clear that Peyton Manning would not be quarterbacking the Colts through most (if not all) of this NFL season, I've been rooting for the Colts win the big prize - not the Super Bowl or even a single game, but the right to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck (see here and here). It won't easy for the Colts to beat out the likes of Kansas (the team they play today) and Minnesota by losing the most games, but if they want to avoid 10 years or more in the quarterback wasteland after Manning finally calls it quits, this may be their only chance.

As Rick Reilly of ESPN notes in his column today (here), Luck is by consensus the best quarterback to come through the college ranks since Manning himself. Today's quote of the day comes from Reilly's article:
Luck is so indescribably good, I fully expect somebody to lose in their bye week.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The 2011 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics

This coming Monday, the Bank of Sweden will award the 2011 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. As always, I am hoping (almost without hope at this point) for Janos Kornai, who made fundamental (and immensely useful) contributions to our understanding of why socialist economic systems are doomed to failure, with his conceptions of "the shortage economy" and "soft-budget constraints." I would also be happy to see an award to Marty Weitzman, perhaps with William Nordhaus, for important contributions to environmental economics. You can see a list of favorites here (pursuant to an algorithm Thompson Reuters developed, which is based on factors including predictor prizes and citation counts).

Prisoners of Their Own Models

John Kay has an interesting and provocative blog post about prominent and influential economists who have, to borrow Alfred Korzybski's memorable analogy, confused their maps with the actual landscape. They are like the character in Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily? who, when presented with a floor plan of Shepard Wong's house, says "He lives in that piece of paper?"

Kay's post tackles a puzzle I have been pondering for some time, since well before the financial crisis caused rational expectations economists to engage in all kinds of reality-denying, mental gymnastics to save their model. Why do very smart, creative, and obviously able economists become so attached to their models that, whenever some conflict arises between their models and events in the real world, the models must prevail? This is true, for example, of the many economists who insist on applying the "Coase Theorem" to problems in the real world, despite the fact that Coase himself told us, as soon as he created the model (purely for analytical and pedagogical purposes),* that its assumptions made it useless for understanding transacting in the real world.

Kay's analysis of the puzzle and its causes certainly is deeper and more illuminating than any I can provide. The only thing I can add is a bit of emphasis to a point Kay only hints at near the beginning of his analysis, where he notes that all science relies on simplifying models. The basic axioms and assumptions of neoclassical economic theory unquestionably take us a good way down the road of understanding how the social world works; they have substantial, but far from complete, explanatory and predictive value. Alternative models of economic behavior that excluded basic insights relating, for example, to price theory (as in at least some versions of the so-called "post-autistic economics") are so impoverished as to be useless. They would throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is a long way, however, from recognizing the substantial utility of necessarily simplified models of the world to supposing that such models - even those as powerful as neoclassical theory - could ever provide a sufficient, let alone a complete, explanation of the social world. Crossing that gap requires a thoroughly unscientific leap of faith.

Finally, I will take issue with Kay on one point, which is his needless denigration of logical consistency as a goal in model-building. Without logical consistency, any model of the world (and any work of creation) would lack coherence; arguably, it would not even count as a model. Contrary to Kay, I believe logical consistency was a primary virtue for the likes of artists such as Mozart and Shakespeare; their creations complied (though not blindly) with basic rules of composition that impose a logical consistency. In any case, the minimal requirement of logical consistency does not require anyone to blindly follow unrealistic models.
*Coase would likely  insist that he did not "create" the model, which George Stigler coined the "Coase theorem;" it was merely Coase's restatement of the neoclassical model that many economists since Alfred Marshall had contributed to building.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Solow on Nasar's "Grand Pursuit"

I was thinking of reading Sylvia Nassar's new economic history book of that title, but after reading Nobel laureate Robert Solow's insightful review (here), I think I'll pick up Agnar Sandmo's Economics Evolving instead.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How to Dissolve Gold

A great piece at NPR about how Neils Bohr and Georgy de Hevesy kept Nobel prize medals out of the hands of the Nazis. Here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

New Books I'm Reading

Every year or two, UCLA legal historian Stuart Banner comes out with a great new book. The latest, American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own (Harvard 2011) is one of his best (though I seem to say that about every one of his books). This book may become a centerpiece of my Property Theory Seminar in the Spring.

My good friend Shi-Ling Hsu has just published The Case for a Carbon Tax: Getting Past Our Hang-ups to Effective Climate Policy (Island Press 2011). In it, he argues for a carbon tax as preferable to cap-and-trade, traditional regulation, or alternative energy subsidies for curbing greenhouse gas emissions because it is simpler to design, implement, and administer. His arguments are entirely persuasive. Although, I'm not sure it makes a carbon tax any easier to actually enact as a political matter. In fact, I'm not sure that policy makers (aside from the bureaucrats of the European Commission and, perhaps, the State of California) are ready to institute an effective climate policy of any kind.

Tough Commuting Weather

Yesterday, it was 39 degrees for the morning ride to school. By the time I rode home, the temperature was in the lower 70s, and my messenger bag was stuffed full of the winter cycling clothes I was wearing for the morning ride. It was easier last week, when it was consistently chilly all day. Same weather today as yesterday, but I'm driving in.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tottenham 2 - Arsenal 1

After a less-than-convincing mid-week win at home in the Champion's League, Arsenal still cannot get a proper foothold in the Premiership. Yesterday, they lost away in the North London Derby 2-1. Trailing 1-0 at half time, after another lapse in the center of defense, featuring the unusual pairing of Per Mertesacker and Alex Song, Arsenal scored early in the second half and controlled possession for the much of the half, with Tottenham only threatening on the counterattack. But a fine long-range shot by the unsung Kyle Walker, and an uncharacteristic miscue by goalie Wojciech Szczesny, undid all the good work.

To add injury to the insult, Bacary Sagna left the game in the second half with what turns out to be a broken leg. He will be out of action at least through the end of this calendar year, and will be sorely missed. Arsenal's  already shaky defense is on the brink of toppling over. 

If not for his contribution to the defensive lapse that led to Tottenham's first goal, Alex Song may have been Arsenal's man of the match. He seemed to be all over the field (which admittedly might not be wanted from a  central defender), and he played with all the energy and aggression that others, such as Mikel Arteta, seemed to lack. Once again, Theo Walcott showed that he lacks a fast footballing mind to accompany has fast footballing body. The forward combination of Gervinho and Van Persie is not yet clicking on all cylinders, but continues to show promise. That promise will need to pay off sooner rather than later, however.  Arsenal currently sit in 15th place in the Premier League table, taking just 7 points from the first 7 games. They are two points above the relegation zone. Just so we're clear about this: the manager is not to blame. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Congratulations to Adam Leibovitz

The current national champion in the pursuit (a track event) just signed a pro contract to ride for Team Garmin's developmental squad. In addition to training with the likes of Dave Z., Tyler Farrar, Christian VandeVelde and many other experienced pros, Adam will be riding mostly races on the UCI's continental circuit in Europe this coming year.

I heard the good new from Adam and his folks last night during a lovely soiree at Dr Karl's house in Indy. I'm heading back to Indy this afternoon to ride with several of the guys who were at the party.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The University, Then and Now

Miri Rubin, a historian of the middle ages, explores the ways in which the nature, structure, and problems of the first universities are  relevant to higher education today. The piece is here in the Times Higher Education supplement.  

Hat tip: The Browser

Max Weber Biography

I'm halfway through the English translation of Joachim Radkau's recent biography of the great Greman social scientist Max Weber (Polity 2009), but I'm not sure I'll make it to the finish. Much of the book is excellent, but the author has too much of a taste for psycho-biography for my liking. His various surmises and speculations relating to Weber's lifelong struggles with depression, relationship with his mother (did she, rather than a hired nurse, beat him as a child?), preoccupation with nocturnal emissions, and the breakdown that interrupted his career, tell us as much or more, I think, about Radkau than about Weber.