Sunday, June 30, 2013

Federal Judges Upset By Inaccuracies in Portrayal of Their Secret Court

The Washington Post has the story here. In particular, the judges are upset by the suggestion that they are collaborators rather than independent arbiters of Executive Branch requests for orders to amass vast amounts of e-mail data from American citizens. They should be upset, but they shouldn't be surprised. One of the disadvantages of a secret court is the likelihood that its work will be inaccurately characterized by journalists and others, who are deprived of access to information about its actual operations.

What should upset the federal judges more than allegations than that they are hand-in-glove with the Executive Branch is the fact that they are operating a secret court, like England's Star Chamber, which was abolished in 1641. The standard justification of a secret court is to avoid tipping off potential subjects of investigations, including would-be terrorists. I've never seen an argument, however, as to why secrecy would be more effective (let alone more legitimate) than making sure that potential terrorists know that they are being closely watched. True, they might stop using e-mail and telephones as methods of communication, but wouldn't that, in itself, disrupt their planning efforts? After all, if they are forced to resort to carrier pigeons or hand-carried messages to conspire, would that itself seriously erode their capabilities?

So, to all the politicians (including the POTUS) who are adamant about the importance of secrecy in the process of tracking terrorists, I pose a simple question: Why are you so sure that complete secrecy is preferable to loudly publicizing (or even exaggerating) our technological ability to intercept the communications and disrupt the activities of terrorist organizations? Please explain your reasons to us. Don't simply insist that secrecy is necessary and that the program has disrupted several planned terrorist attacks. We already know that you prefer keeping secrets from the electorate just because you can. But that is not a reason to do so.

By the way, throughout this post I have accepted as given that the NSA's secret information collection is entirely about protecting the US from terrorist threats. But if that's the case, why has the NSA allegedly been bugging EU offices in the US and engaging in cyber-attacks against EU organizations (see here)? And, assuming the allegations are true, were those activities approved by the completely "independent" federal judges serving on our government's secret court?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

US News Rankings v. the Miss America Contest

Which contest has the better rankings system? They look pretty similar to me. But I'm not sure which law schools look best in evening wear.

Scoring for Miss America Finals (see here)
Composite Score - 30% (Top 16)
Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit - 20% (Top 16)
Evening Wear - 20% (Top 10)
Talent - 30%  (Top 8)
On-Stage Question (Top 8)
Final Ballot – Each judge ranks the Top 5 contestants in the order he/she believes they should each finish.  The outcome of the pageant is based solely on the point totals resulting from the final ballot.

Scoring for US News Law School Rankings (see here)
25.00% - Peer Assessment Score
15.00% - Assessment Score by Lawyers/Judges
14.00% - Employment Rate 9 mos. After Graduation
12.50% - Median LSAT Scores
10.00% - Median UGPA
9.75% - Average instruction, library, and supporting services
4.00% - Employment Rate at Graduation
3.00% - Student/Faculty Ratio
2.50% - Acceptance Rate
2.00% - Bar Passage Rate
1.50% - Financial Aid
.75% - Library Resources

First Stage Insanity

This was the Tour de France not on PEDs but on hallucinogens.

First, with the peloton fast approaching, a team bus got stuck under the finishing line banner; they cleared the bus as the peloton approached the 6 km mark, but before that mixed information was sent out about where and how the race would finish. The organizers first announced that the race would end at the 3 km banner, but that seemed a recipe for disaster because of a sharp curve immediately following that point on the road. Meanwhile, at the 6 km mark, a huge pile-up collected most of the top sprinters and green jersey contenders, including Cavendish, Greipel, and Sagan. That crash and an earlier one that took down Johnny Hoogerland seemed to have been caused by barriers put up by the race organizers that not only kept away the spectators but also narrowed the road for the riders. Finally, with the surviving peloton about 5 km from the original finish line, the bus was disentangled from the banner and moved out of the way, so that the stage could finish as originally planned. Argos-Shimano's Marcel Kittel took advantage of the depleted field to take the stage and the first yellow jersey of the competition.

As for all the riders who went down at the 6 km mark, the race organizers, in their omnipotent discretion, gave them all the same time as the first man to cross the line. Aside from the fact that the race organizers were responsible for most of the day's problems, the rule is that riders get the same time only after the 3 km mark before the finish. The only reason I can imagine for giving the same time to all those who crashed were to prevent yellow jersey contenders who crashed, such as Alberto Contador, from losing time on the first stage. Seems like an arbitrary and uncalled for decision to me. It will be interesting to see if the organizers are consistent in their decisions over the next three weeks.

Imagine what might have happened if race radios had been banned from the race, as the race organizers would like, making it impossible for team managers to inform riders of the initial decision to move back the finish line and the subsequent decision, just a minute later, to keep it at the original position?

I've never seen anything like it; and hope never to see anything like it again. No doubt the French media will blame the stupidity and chaos on Lance Armstrong.

100th Tour de France Begins Today (Under Clear Skies but a Cloud of Suspicion)

The Tour begins with three stages in Corsica, a French Island the Tour never has visited before. This year's Tour route is brutal, featuring Mount Ventoux and not one but two climbs up Alpe d'Huez. As usual, the Tour organizers disclaim any responsibility for encouraging cyclists to dope, despite creating a course that virtually requires PEDs.

Meanwhile, an NBC race commentator made the lamest argument I've yet heard for believing that the peloton is cleaner this year: the riders are so outspoken about not doping. If that's the metric, then Lance can't have doped (despite his recent admission) because he was always so outspoken about not doping. By the way, why no discussion in the pre-race show about Lance's call for a "truth and reconciliation" (T&R) panel for cycling? NBC devoted a segment to Lance's disgrace, and notably left him out of the list of previous great Tour champions (most, if not all, of whom doped).

Why are we still pretending that it was a dirty Lance versus a clean sport, when that plainly was not the case (as proved by the fact that no cyclists were named to replace Lance as champion for 1999-2005 because so many of the other race leaders were implicated in doping)? Just yesterday, Lance repeated his call for a (T&R) panel and asserted, quite rightly in my view, that it would have been impossible for him, or any other competitor, to win the Tour in the years he won it without doping (see here). It was probably impossible to do so when Coppi and Merckx (universally acknowledged as the greatest professional cyclist in history) were racing, and it could well be true even today. It's worth remembering that doping in the Tour de France goes back to the very beginnings of the Tour in the first decade of the 20th century (see here).

I suspect the peloton is cleaner overall this year if only because, for the time being, the anti-doping agencies seem to have caught the dope-makers in the constant battle for advantage. Eventually, of course, the dope-makers will create new technologies and masking agents, which will require fresh reactions from the regulators. It is analogous to the battle between computer hackers and security software manufacturers in the world of wired and wireless technology. Finally, just as in this year's edition of the Giro d'Italia, we should expect at least a few desperate riders to be caught doping either during the race or shortly after its conclusion.

But, no matter. It's the Tour de France. We should enjoy it for what it is, and worry less about who is taking what substances either to win or merely to survive what is the most difficult and beautiful bike race in the world.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pete Townshend's Autobiogaphy

I just finished reading Who I Am, almost an ideal antidote to jet lag and exhaustion following back-to-back trips to Europe. I don't usually read rock star or celebrity autobiographies. Aside from the fact that the authors are usually narcissists, if not solipsists, writing for self-serving purposes, I just am not that interested in the details of their lives.

Townshend's book is a bit of a special case, however, because I have been a huge fan of The Who, as well as his solo-work, since I bought the LP of Tommy back in 1971 - it was the second album I ever purchased (after the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Inner Mounting Flame, which I purchased that same year on the advice of my percussion teacher). To this day, I consider Quadrophenia to be among the great musical achievementes (in any genre) of the twentieth century.

I found Townshend's autobiography at once enjoyable, painful, and pathetic. The de rigueur accounts of rock-star excess and stupidity (belying Homer Simpson's belief that rock stars know everything), the book is leavened by an unusually large dose of humanity and fellow-feeling, even for those who crossed or otherwise fell-out with Townshend. In particular, I could not help empathizing with him and, especially, Karen in their long (and ultimately unsuccessful) struggle to preserve their marriage.

Throughout most of the book, Townshend's narrative was more pedestrian than I had expected; much of it seemed like day-by-day accounts taken more or less straight from a diary, without much effort at artistic rendering. Only occasionally did I come across descriptions (mostly of nature scenes) that seemed written with the more creative pen I expected to be held by such a thoughtful and creative artist.

I cannot say that it's up there with the other biographies I've read so far this summer (of Frank Ramsey and Albert Hirschman); but I never expected it to be in the same league as those, and I did find it therapeutic in a way, as well as nostalgic - bringing back fond memories of a much younger self I hardly recognize.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Judge Posner Slams Conservative Judicial Activism in the Supreme Court

Here, at The take home point comes at the very start:
Shelby County v. Holder, decided Tuesday, struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act (the part requiring certain states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain federal permission in advance to change their voting procedures—called “preclearance”) as violating the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” of the states. This is a principle of constitutional law of which I had never heard—for the excellent reason that ... there is no such principle.

President Obama's Climate Action Plan

The President made a speech on climate change yesterday. I did not watch it because I've seen enough of his speeches, and have been waiting for him to take action on climate change. The "Climate Action Plan" on which his speech was based can be read here. As noted in an earlier post (here), the centerpiece involves regulation of existing power plants under the Clean Air Act, a very good idea which could, if designed and implemented properly, provide greater carbon dioxide mitigation than any other country has yet achieved, including the European Union via its Emissions Trading Scheme combined with member state-level "policies and measures." The big question, of course, is whether EPA's regulations of carbon from existing power plants will be properly designed and implemented.

So, I will avoid further comment on the president's ostensibly bold new initiative until I see the actual regulations that EPA promulgates, which are bound to involve some compromises with the power industry, and could prove almost as toothless as its regulations of carbon emissions from new power plants, which hardly deviate from business-as-usual given the current low price of natural gas (as against coal).

I will, however, make one point in reference to complaints by politicians from coal states that the president's new initiative amounts to an "attack on coal" (see here). That claim is nonsense. Any coal not burned in the US pursuant to this initiative will be sold (that is, exported) to other countries, particularly in Asia. Indeed, coal exports already are at record levels because more and more power plants are using cheaper natural gas (see here).

From a climate perspective, this is hardly good news. By regulating coal-burning by US power plants, the US will mainly be exporting carbon emissions that would otherwise come from the US. This problem is known as "leakage." And there is no way around it, except to the extent that the long-awaited resumption of US leadership on climate change mitigation spurs other countries to similarly restrict emissions of greenhouse gases. I suspect that if EPA issues regulations that have read bite, other recalcitrant major-emitting countries, including Canada, will follow suit. And more bilateral agreements with the Chinese on climate change will be facilitated. But those are empirically testable hypotheses, which assume actually-enforced hard caps on American power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide. Time will tell, first, whether that assumption is warranted, and then whether other countries follow suit.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Supreme Court Decisions are Flying Fast and (Literally) Furious

I haven't had time to read any of the new rulings yet, but would note that: private property owners were 3-0 before the Court this term in takings cases; the Court struck a major provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (only 38 years after its enactment); and issued an ambiguous non-ruling on affirmative action in higher education.

In sum, the conservative revolution on the SCOTUS continues but remains inchoate. Affirmative action persists, Obamacare survived judicial review, and Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. Meanwhile, Justice Alito has come in for some well-deserved ribbing for his disrespectful behavior when "Liberal" justices read out opinions with which he (obviously) disagrees (see here).

For a full run-down on the latest rulings, I recommend the SCOTUS blog (here). I might (or might not) have something more to write about the takings rulings (and any environmental decisions) later.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Homeward Bound from Europe with Plenty of Summer Work Awaiting

For the second, at last, time this summer. Aside from a weekend in Chicago visiting father of Cyclingprof, I plan to keep my nose to the grindstone in Bloomington until school starts, except for a possible short trip at the very end of summer to escape the heat. I have plenty of writing projects to keep me busy for the rest of summer, including
  • completing a chapter on climate change for a book on shared responsibility in international law;
  • lead authoring an article on the revised Social-Ecological Systems Framework, with application to Hardin's 'Tragedy of the Commons;'
  • co-authoring an article on the evolution of a polycentric management system for irrigation water governance in Kenya;
  • co-authoring an article introducing the new Program in Institutional Analysis of Social Ecological Systems (PIASES) Framework;
  • organizing and editing a 4-volume collection of Lin Ostrom's major works, which is due to be published in 2014;
  • and, if time permits,  
    • working on a monograph on the use and abuse of emissions trading in climate change;
    • completing a co-authored piece on the problems of environmental taxation in China.
I have a couple of other works-in-progress as well, but no hope for getting to them this year.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Reminder that Academia Can Be a Mean and Nasty Profession

I got a good reminder yesterday just how mean and nasty academics can be in the brief question period following my presentation at ISNIE. I was asked to make a presentation about how researchers in the Ostrom Workshop are carrying on Lin's legacy after her death. Among the various projects I might have discussed are the current study, under grant from the NSF CNH program, to study and compare institutions and institutional-change under climate change among snowmelt-dependent agricultural communities in Kenya, Colorado and New Mexico. Instead, I chose to present work I am currently doing, along with a couple fellow Workshoppers, on a  more ambitious project to improve Lin's two major analytical frameworks: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework and the Social-Ecological Systems Framework. I knew it would be a challenge to present that rather complex work in a relatively short 20-minutes to an audience that presumably only knew about Lin's field studies, as described in Governing the Commons. But I underestimated the extent of the challenge.

After my presentation, in the brief question period, a very prominent European economist, best known for his "happiness" research, castigated me for focusing my presentation ongoing efforts in the Workshop to revise Lin Ostrom's frameworks, rather than on her field work. In his view, Lin's singular contribution to economics (and social sciences more broadly) was her focus on local communities; her efforts to construct cross-disciplinary analytical frameworks he characterized as a mere sideline or diversion, which he implied was neither useful nor important. His accusations were warmly applauded by many in the audience of 200-300 conference participants.

It's been a long time since a presentation of mine was so strongly attacked and thoroughly misrepresented. But the "happiness" economist's diatribe did present me with an opportunity to explain that Lin's local field research and efforts at constructing analytical frameworks were not at all separate projects, but part of the same enterprise. Her goal was not simply to understand local collective-action problems and solutions in isolation - that would hardly differentiate her from thousands of anthropologists - but to understand diverse local problems and solutions with an eye towards identifying commonalities (and differences) across cases, so as to be able to specify conditions under which existing institutional structures are likely to be robust or fragile (e.g., Lin's "design principles" from Governing the Commons). Such endeavors require more than collections of information from discrete localities; they require analytical devices that facilitate comparison, for purposes of meta-analysis, and ultimately prediction.

Moreover, Lin strongly believed that a full understanding of local, regional, or global problems (and solutions) could not be gained from any single disciplinary approach, whether political science, economics, anthropology, geography, or any other social science. She embraced a multidisciplinary approach with a capacious tool box of methodologies ranging from thickly descriptive field studies and lab experiments to meta-analyses, agent-based models, and large-n quantitative studies, In order for such a multidisciplinary effort to succeed, however, Lin early on recognize the need to develop a common terminology reflecting agreed-upon understandings of concepts and variables so that scholars from various disciplines could, in the first place, communicate effectively with one another, and in the second place carry out their field work, lab experiments, etc., in such a way that their results could be useful for scholars in other disciplines. This was a lesson impressed on her during the writing of Governing the Commons, when she found that so many of the cases she had collected were useless for the meta-analyses she was conducting because of severe terminological and analytical differences.

Thus, the chief goal and primary importance of her Institutional Analysis and Development and Social-Ecological Systems Frameworks, however successful or not those frameworks turn out to be in practice, is to provide a common analytical system within which researchers (in the field, lab, or library) can operate.
The frameworks are designed to be compatible with a wide array of operating assumptions, theories, and models, facilitating testing across theories and models.

The same goal animates ongoing efforts by Workshoppers (including myself) to further develop and refine Lin's frameworks. Those efforts may or may not prove successful - the ultimate test will be whether we can provide a framework that is both useful and actually used by social scientists from various disciplines. But no one who really understands and values Lin's work would claim that the efforts are either unimportant or not in keeping with Lin's legacy. Meanwhile, of course, Workshoppers are still amassing a great data in local communities (relying on Lin's analytical frameworks to ensure that it is useful for meta-analyses). The Workshop will always be a place where careful empirical work is combined with multiple theories and methods under common analytical frameworks.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Best Transfer in Arsenal History, 18 Years Ago Yesterday

On June 20, 1995, Arsenal bought Dennis Bergkamp from Inter-Milan for the then-lofty fee of £7.5 million. What a steal for the Gunners. ESPN FC has the full story, here. The author of the piece, Sam Limbert, insists that he's not trying to get our hopes up for this year's transfer market. After all, the very best players on the market in any given year have a vanishingly low probability of being as good as Bergkamp, one of the best number 10s in the history of world football. But Limbert has a point about using the transfer market to make a statement of club ambition.

When Arsenal signed Bergkamp, they were a defensively-minded club, and why not with one of the best back-fours to ever step on a pitch.The famous chant from Gunners fans was "1-nil to the Arsenal," which perfectly capture both their regular scoreline and their lack of offensive ambition. The signing of Bergkamp changed all that, and Limbert's piece in ESPN FC suggests Arsenal can do likewise with the signing of Higuain or a similar big-name player today.

I'm not so sure. In the first place, Arsenal remain the same kind of offensively-minded, club they were with Bergkamp (along with the likes of Marc Overmars, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddy Ljungberg,  et al. They just lack the kind of quality in depth that is required to compete for titles. What was the signing of Santi Cazorla last year, if not a signal of intent to continue playing attractive, offensively-minded football?

By all means Arsenal should sign Higuain, a defensive midfielder, another pacy winger, another defender, and anyone else Wenger thinks can bring more quality and depth to his side, while ridding the side of washed up and surplus players such as Arshavin and Squillace, who were merely taking up space on the bench along with millions of pounds of pay for non-service. But let's not expect a sea-change at Arsenal by the signing of a single player. There are no Bergkamps available, and there is no need to change the strategic orientation of the squad.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The New Obama Climate Initiative: Regulate Emissions from Existing Power Plants

The New York Times is reporting (here) that the Obama Administration is preparing to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from existing power plants for the first time. As a matter of policy, this step makes sense as existing electric power plants are the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the US and worldwide.

As the story notes, this would be the most costly and politically contentious regulatory step the Obama Administration has yet taken on climate chnage; it would impact primarily on coal-fired power plants and everyone who gets electricity from those plants. Depending on how the regulations are structure, their main effect could be to cause coal-fired power plants to retrofit co-generation technologies, which would enable them to substitute natural gas, which currently is less expensive than coal and which is on net a less troublesome GHG (methane is a more potent GHG than carbon dioxide but resides in the atmosphere less than 1/10th as long).

Normally, it takes EPA 1-2 years to promulgate a major new rule on a contentious issue such as this. But I wouldn't be surprised to learn that staff at EPA have been working on the rudiments for a new existing source rule for some time already.

One Free Morning in Firenze

I have a bit of free time in Florence this morning - the ISNIE conference begins later this afternoon. If you haven't been here before in season, it's a wonderful place to come to see humans; but not so great to view the admittedly magnificent architecture and art. The winter is a much better for viewing art and architecture.  Even then, it's usually crowded enough to put off people (like me) who hate crowds.

The other great thing about coming to Florence in late June, aside from joining a hundred thousand other tourists, is the heat. By noon, temps are climbing into the mid-80s, on their way to the mid-90s later in the afternoon. The heat serves to amplify the odors of this always malodorous city, where the density of building and tightness of streets obstructs even the stiffest wind  from clearing the air at street level.

This morning, I walked my wife and son over to the Uffizi Gallery, so they could stand in long lines - not the longest lines but the slightly shorter long lines for those already possessing ticket vouchers - and enjoy partial views of magnificent works of art obstructed by thousands of other visitors. After leaving them, I found myself a nice air-conditioned internet cafe on the Dei Servei, where I'm sipping on an espresso, while catching up on emails.

I should add that, regardless of heat and tourists, eating in Florence is always a pleasure. We had a wonderful dinner last night at a small place in a non-fashionable neighborhood not frequented by tourists, the Trattoria Acquacotta on the Via del Pilastri. It's a small, family owned and operated place with truly excellent food and house wine. High recommended.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Italian Hotel Code Words to Watch Out For

In Florence at least (based on n=2 *** hotels):

"Character" means that the hotel room will have high ceilings, be decorated with old furniture of questionable quality from various periods, have beds of stone, and grimy little bathrooms.

"Free wifi" means that wifi might occasionally be available for short periods of time, depending on where you happen to be sitting or standing in your room or in the hallway, and the insouciance of the service provider.

Huizinga's Erasmus

However much trouble I'm having finding enjoyment reading fiction this summer (see here), I've been hitting the jackpot with intellectual biographies. Having already praised to the skies recent biographies of Frank Ramsey (see here) and Albert Hirschman (see here), I've gone old school, back to Johan Huizinga's 1924 biography, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation

I'm about half way through the book, and am amazed not only by the author's famous erudition but his remarkably balanced approach to his subject. Whereas most biographers seem to either love or hate their subjects, Huizinga presents a fully human Erasmus, possessing not just a brilliant mind and skillful pen but various character flaws from which ordinary humans suffer, including jealousy, pettiness, and an over-weening pride. However, instead of using Erasmus's flaws to denigrate him as a man and/or scholar, Huizinga merely presents them in a way that allows the reader to see beyond the saint-like scholar who inhabits Holbein's famous portrait. The result is an intellectual biography of a real man, rather than the platonic form of a biblical humanist that usually comes to mind when the name Erasmus is mentioned.

ISNIE - Florence

From: Florence, Italy To: Wrocław, PolandOn my way from Wrocław to Florence (via Munich) today for the annual meeting of the International Society for New Institutional Economics (ISNIE) (see here). I don't often attend ISNIE, although it's a group towards which I have natural sympathies, as it was co-founded by Doug North and Ronald Coase. But it grew very quickly and became a bit clubbish for my taste.

This will be my fourth or fifth time attending the conference, and my first as an invited plenary speaker to honor my late colleague Elinor Ostrom. I will be talking about work that Lin started with Mike McGinnis, and which Mike, Graham Epstein and I are carrying on, to improve and combine Lin's two major frameworks. Lin and Mike's initial efforts in 2009-2010 to develop PIASES (the Program in Institutional Analysis of Social-Ecological Systems), did not get very far. We have restarted and somewhat redirected the effort, and are currently working on the first set of articles elaborating the framework. I will be talking mainly about the dynamic time-flow diagram we have created, which combines and elaborates features of Lin's IAD (Institutional Analysis and Development) and SES (Social-Ecological Systems) Frameworks.

Keynote speakers for the conference are Eric Maskin and Samuel Bowles. The other speaker on my plenary panel is Marco Janssen  (from the Ostrom Workshop's sister center at Arizona State). Another plenary panel will feature Italian economists Maristella Botticini and Nicola Persico, discussing their contributions to advances in the economics of institutions.

The rest of the conference is chock-full, as always, of interesting panels and papers. Several concurrent sessions are also dedicated to Lin's memory. Another is an 80th birthday tribute to Oliver Williamson, a past ISNIE president and co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics with Lin Ostrom. Aside from those panels, I'm particularly looking forward to others on "Endogenous Property Rights," "The Emergence and Evolution of Institutions," "Institutional Change: Causes and Consequences," "Property Rights and Development," "Public Goods and Commons," "Institutions and Ancient Economies," "Liberalism and the Social Order," and "Federalism." A complete list of parallel sessions, papers, and presenters can be viewed here.

Given the quality of the conference, I probably won't get much sightseeing done in Florence, but that's okay; I did the Uffizi a couple of years ago, when I was in town for another conference. My wife and son will take in the sights for me. In any case, I'm sure I will eat nearly as well in Florence as I have been in Wrocław. In particular, I'm looking forward to the gelato.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

David Brooks Is a Cartesian Dualist

See his column (here) in today's New York Times. But I suppose most people, like Brooks, continue to distinguish the mind from the brain. It's not altogether clear what Brooks considers the "mind" to be, in distinction from the brain; his main complaint with neuroscience seems to be that it is not already more advanced because it cannot yet distinguish adequately between the various functions in which specific parts of the brain engage. He notes, for example, that "the amygdala lights up during fear, happiness, novelty, anger or sexual arousal (at least in women). The insula plays a role in processing trust, insight, empathy, aversion and disbelief. So what are you really looking at?" But the limits of current neuroscience and associated technologies (MRI machines, etc.) hardly mean that something outside the brain must play an important, controlling role. This is akin to the argument that because evolutionary genetics cannot yet explain everything about the origins of life and human development, there must be a god.

My question for Brooks and other mind-body dualists is how would they explain the profound character, emotional, and other personality changes that individuals go through after suffering traumatic brain injuries?

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Free Ride Is Coming to an End

With more and more news sources going behind pay-walls, including the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the Telegraph, it appears that the era of free-riding on e-news has just about ended, at least for those not content with the Daily Beast. I may very quickly go from spending nothing on news to spending $20/month or more. Instead, I could freely use agglomeration services to which my university subscribes, such as Factiva or Access World News, but they are not very user-friendly.

In any case, I might be better off just ignoring the daily news. Already, I spend a good deal of money on cable television, which provides several poor television news channels I rarely watch.

Justice Holmes never read the newspapers, but seemed to be a pretty knowledgeable and au courant fellow.

What's in a Headline?

A couple of headlines in this morning's Guardian caught my eye:

"Universities 'Failing' on Equal Access": The headline suggests an egalitarian goal for universities that is dubious as a matter of policy. Should we really want everyone, regardless of intelligence and prior educational achievement, to have "equal access" to higher education? If so, the implications would be serious. It would be easy enough for universities to accept all comers who are willing to pay a certain price, but that price would have to be much, much higher than the current price because demand now is limited to students who meet certain criteria. If the quantity of demand increases, and the supply of places remains limited, the laws of supply and demand dictate that price will have to rise. In addition to higher price, students (especially brighter students) would bear a substantial cost to the quality of education (as well as their university's reputation for educational quality), if they were forced to admit and teach the dim and dumbest as well as the best and brightest.

"Never Trust Anyone Who Is Rude to a Waiter": This strikes me as a very wise aphorism, albeit one of limited applicability. I would carve out an exception, however, for waiters who are rude first.

I hasten to add that my comments are based on the headlines alone, and not on the articles that accompanied them.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reflections on Wrocław, Poland

I returned "home" to Wrocław (pronounced, Vratswaf), Poland this past week for the first time in eight years. Actually, it's my wife's hometown, but when we were first married, and until our kids got to high-school age, we came here every summer for three to twelve weeks.

I actually made my first trip to Wrocław in December of 1988, shortly before I met my wife, and a dreary place it seemed then. But it blossomed quickly after the fall of communism. Each year positive changes where evident. First, air quality and infrastructure began to improve; streets were less dusty, and the shops were better stocked with goods. Then, I began to notice people driving newer model cars, and shopping malls sprouting up around town. This time, the changes are even more shocking and impressive because it's been so long between visits. While much of Europe has been in recession since 2008, Poland has not (in part because it is not part of the Euro Zone), and it shows in Wrocław, where a development boom has been going nonstop in the midst of economic busts elsewhere.

Sitting in the very heart of Europe (situated about halfway between Warsaw and Prague), Wrocław has been a truly international city since it was first chronicled (as Wrotislava) in the 11th century. Founded as a Bohemian enclave, it subsequently came under first Polish, then German control. For 700 years, the city's official name was the Germanic "Breslau." But as the historian Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse chronicle in their excellent 2002 book, Mircocosm: A Portrait of a Central European City , the city was long inhabited by a mixed population, including Czechs, Poles, Jews, Slovaks, and various smaller minority groups.

At the end of World War II, when Allied leaders at Yalta redrew the map of Europe, they moved Poland's eastern and western borders to the West. Consequently, cities that were officially Polish before the war, such as Lwów and Wilno, became Lviv, Ukraine and Vilnius, Lithuania, respectively. On the other hand, what had been Breslau, Germany became Wrocław, Poland. Only now it was an almost exclusively Polish city, as the entire Jewish population had been murdered by the Nazis or driven into exile, and its German population forcibly repatriated beyond Poland's new border with (East) Germany. The Germans were replaced not just by local Poles but by others forcibly relocated from formerly Polish cities in the East. My mother-in-law's family, for example, came from Wilno.

Here is how much of the city looked at the end of Second World War:

second world war 0009 PAP B 14398 3 Downtown Wroclaw, Poland in 1945.

As with Warsaw and other decimated Polish cities, the People's Republic of Poland rebuilt Wrocław after the war, but unlike in Warsaw, Wroclaw's architects didn't hew so closely to the old plans and photos. They wanted to "de-Germanize" the city as they rebuilt it. Regardless, like most other cities under communism, Wrocław hardly flourished. At the end of the communist period, when I first saw it with my own eyes (December 1988), it was a pretty dreary place (and not just because it was winter). Here is an image from 1988 of the Plac Solny, near City Hall. The architecture looks to have quality, but those are really just facades (like Hollywood sets) erected in front of basic concrete block buildings, which appear drab and grey.

Below is basically the same view (a little closer up) 25 years later, and 24 years after the fall of communism. The buildings have been renovated and updated, and the facades appear much more colorful.

The same kinds of changes are evident in the Rynek (the main old-town square adjoining the Plac Solny), Plac Grunwaldzki, Dworzec Główny (the main train station), and all over town.

Below is a photo of Wrocław's new airport terminal (named for Nicholas Copernicus, who lived in the city for some time):

It takes less than an hour to fly to Wrocław on Lufthansa from Munich:

And here's the city's newest skyscraper, the "Sky Tower," which is the tallest building in all of Poland.

The new developments are not detracting from Wrocław's old-world charm. As new buildings go up, old ones are being carefully renovated. The job is not yet complete, but the pace of (re-)development (including cycling paths all over town) is awesome.

Unlike Kraków, which is maintained virtually as a museum, Wrocław is a living and breathing city, full of young people (many of whom attend one of several universities in the city). This evening, as on most Saturdays during the summer, thousands of people massed in the old town square, shopping, eating, and listening to live music performed in the Rynek, at the newly renovated Opera, at a festival in a park north of old town, and in Ostrow Tumski (the oldest part of the city, with churches dating back to the 12th century). Here is pretty much how crowded the Rynek was yesterday (although it's not a photo from yesterday):

My 16-year-old son love it. He was wondering around on his own, checking out the concerts and the young female population of Wrocław. He later said that if he lived here, he and his friends would only hang around the Rynek and the various parks around town. It would be nice if that could happen. My wife and I would very much like to spend more time here, as we did when we were first married. It really is an attractive place to visit and to live.

The Big Switch

As US power plants increasingly switch from coal to natural gas for purely economic reasons (see, e.g., here), we should not be quick to conclude that this is good news for the climate. For one thing, as many others have pointed out (see, e.g., here), incompletely combusted natural gas emits methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide, the main GHG emitted from burning coal. However, methane remains in the atmosphere only about 10% as long as carbon dioxide, so the switch to natural gas is probably a net gain for the climate.

What many commentators fail to note, however, is that while the switch to natural gas has reduced overall US emissions of GHGs (see, e.g., here), we are still digging just as much coal out of the ground as we always have done, only instead of burning it ourselves we are exporting it to other countries to burn. See the chart below from Reuters.

Of course, coal exports are subject to fluctuation (just like many other goods) based on season or supply gluts. Just yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported (here) that exports of coal dropped 31% from March to April this year (which is less than the heating bill for my own house dropped during the same period). But the overall trend is clear: the coal we are not burning ourselves, we are exporting to fast-developing countries in Asia and elsewhere, for which coal still remains the cheapest, and dirtiest, source of energy.

We are not reducing the climate costs of coal by switching to natural gas; we are simply exporting them. The only way to fix that problem is to increase the price of coal as it comes out of the ground, e.g., via a tax on the carbon content of coal at the point of extraction. Of course, if other big coal using/exporting countries do not impose a similar tax, we would simply be shooting our economy in the foot, with no net effect on climate change, which remains very much a collective-action problem - a problem that cannot be resolved by one country acting alone.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

RIP Robert Fogel, 1926-2013

The great economic historian Robert Fogel has died. Fogel, who was co-recipient with Douglass C. North of the 1993 Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, was most famous for his book (co-authored with Stanley Engerman) Time on the Cross (1974), in which he argued that slavery in the American south had been an economically efficient institution. That argument, which remains controversial on its own terms, was unfortunately construed as a defense of the "peculiar institution," which it certainly was not. Fogel's critics failed to distinguish, as Fogel himself did, between economic efficiency and morality. Fogel responded with a two-volume historical study, Without Consent or Contract (1994), which explained that slavery was abolished in the US not because it was inefficient but because it was immoral. As he often observed, what is economically efficient is not always moral, and morality is more important than efficiency.

Even before his works on slavery, Fogel was challenging the conventional wisdom. In 1970 he published Railroads and American Economic Growth, which questioned the widely held belief that railroads were the main driver of economic growth in the US in the nineteenth century. He found that their development contributed not more than three percent to GDP, far less than any economist at the time supposed.

My personal favorite among Fogel's books is the relatively recent The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World (Cambridge 2004). In it, Fogel demonstrates the great value of economic history for demonstrating longitudinally how institutional and technological changes affect people and how they live in the world. In this case, he showed how the development of modern agricultural techniques contributed to healthier, larger, longer-lived, and more productive people, capable of overcoming many of the limitations that nature previously had imposed upon them. It is a short but very powerful, valuable and, what is rare these days, optimistic work.

Fogel's works should be better known than they appear to be among all social scientists and historians. Hopefully, they will become more influential as his legacy lives on.

No IP Rights in Human Genes

The US Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that a naturally occurring gene segment cannot be patented. In Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. (the slip opinion is here), the Court carefully distinguished naturally occurring gene segments from genes that are manipulated to produce something not found in nature. The very sensible decision, authored by Justice Thomas, derails efforts by some labs to claim property rights in naturally occurring genetic materials in order to shut down research elsewhere.

This decision gives reason to hope that the Supreme Court, which has acquiesced in virtually all prior efforts to expand IP rights, has finally recognized the problem of too much property in knowledge.

Protecting Public Property through Information

Thomas Jefferson observed that "information is the currency of democracy." It is also a source of power, especially when it is withheld, as we've been reminded in recent days by the exposure of the NSA's domestic surveillance program. And "private information," as Oscar Wilde noted, "is practically the source of every large fortune."

All three of those descriptions of information - as the currency of democracy, as power, and as a source of wealth - are on display in the ongoing battle between coastal property-owners in  California and other citizens over beach-access rights. Today's New York Times has an interesting story (here) about one citizen, Jenny Price, who has developed a smartphone app disclosing the existence of publicly-owned beaches over which private landowners are trying, through various legal and illegal means, to maintain private control. In these disputes, the normally very powerful California Coastal Commission has proven unusually impotent at protecting public rights of access.

Public ownership of seashores has a very old pedigree, going back at least to the Institutes of Justinian, compiled in the first century of the common era. Under Roman Law, resources such as the air, water, seas, and seashores were considered res communes omnium, the common property of all, meaning that no one could exclude anyone else from access and use. At English common law, the beds and banks of navigable water bodies, including seashores up to the mean high-tide line, were considered freely accessible public property. When the American colonies seceded from the UK, property rights in the beds and banks of navigable water bodies vested in the colonial governments; and under the constitutional "Equal Footing Doctrine," new states entering the Union gained the same public property rights. Finally, under the "public trust doctrine" of American common law, states may not alienate equitable title to publicly owned beds and banks, but must forever maintain that equitable title in trust for their citizens.

In the case of valuable beach fronts in Malibu, there really is no disputing the state of title. Below the mean high-tide line (which is variable), the public owns the beaches. Efforts, including by some ego-maniacal Hollywood bigwigs, to prevent the public from accessing those areas are wrongful, and should be treated as such by the Coastal Council and the State of California.

Jenny Price has done the true owners of California's beaches a real service, providing them with the information they need to reclaim their public property.

Charles P. Pierce on the First Requirement for a Self-governing Society

Here in Esquire. Hits the nail on the head with a powerful hammer.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

You Cannot Prove a Negative: Why Cycling (and Other Sports) Will Never Be Dope-free

Team Sky cyclist Chris Froome claims (here) that his results, including his general classification victory in the Dauhpine today, "prove" that professional cycling has changed since the days of Lance Armstrong's US Postal Service Team (all those many years ago?). I guess we'll just have to take his word for it. Just like we accepted claims that cycling changed completely after the Team Festina affair in 1998 (see here and here).

Perhaps I'm overly skeptical, but doping will never leave cycling or every other major sport until the money and glory go away. In fact, the fewer the number of dopers the more incentive there is for a few cyclists (or athletes in any other sport) to take dope to gain an edge, so long as the marginal value of that edge exceeds the probability of detection multiplied by the magnitude of the punishment. And if a few successfully dope, then others will come under greater pressure to follow suit. That's why I would expect doping to cycle (no pun intended) in waves. We may be at low ebb right now in cycling (though reason exists to doubt that), but the tide always comes back in.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Saturday Ride

I finished off my week between trips to Europe - which turned out to be my best week of riding so far this year - with a 44-mile hilly ride with Dr. Jim this morning. We rode both shores of Lake Lemon, then headed back to Anderson on Shilo Rd., so we could hit Beanblossom and the Forest Rd., before heading back home on Old 37, featuring climbs up to Hindustan and Firehouse Hill. Total climbing on the ride was somewhere around 2300 feet. Total miles for the week = 150.1. That's the most miles I've logged in a week of riding since moving down here in 2010.

Off to Wroclaw, Poland tomorrow, then to Florence, Italy for the annual meeting of the International Society for New Institutional Economics (ISNIE). After two weeks off the bike, I'm sure I'll feel like I'm starting from scratch when I get back.

Ceding the Moral High Ground on Cyber-espionage

As the American president met with the Chinese premier this week, cyber-attacks and -security were at the top of the agenda (see here). It will not have been lost on the Chinese premier that the same US president urging China to stop its cyber-espionage against the US government and American private enterprises has, at the same time, approved a massive spying campaign against his own citizens (subject to what he assures us are "adequate safeguards"). The Chinese premier will also have noted  that the American government has been drawing up its plans for offensive cyber-attacks against other countries (see here).

Under these circumstances, if you were the Chinese premier, how would you respond to the American president's exhortations to stop your own cyber-espionage program? Three answers spring to mind (all of which amount, in essence, to the same thing): (1) deny that any such program exists, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding; (2) assure the American president that you will play more nicely in the future, but keep your fingers crossed behind your back so that your promise doesn't really bind; or (3) point out to the president the hypocracy of his demands, and tell him that you'll reform China's behavior when he stops spying on his own citizens and curtails development of US cyber-weaponry.

What might Obama's responses be to any of these answers? General references to the "rule of law" and "adequate safeguards," including review by a secret court? Such responses are not bloody likely to carry much weight with the Chinese.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

I Was Wrong about "Justice Obama"

I used to think he was better suited to the Supreme Court than the Presidency. I was wrong; I now believe him to be unsuited to either position. Apparently, as far as he is concerned, the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution provide no real impediments to Executive power, whether the issue is drone strikes against Americans abroad, the treatment of all Americans who travel abroad as presumptive criminals upon their return to the US, the Justice Department's seizure of press reporters' phone records, or the establishment of a massive surveillance state keeping tabs on every phone call (and perhaps every email message) we make, regardless of warrant. As a self-described "constitutional lawyer," he should be ashamed of himself (and of his Attorney General).

UPDATE: I don't know about anyone else, but I feel so much better after having President Obama's assurances (here) that the surveillance program, which amounts to the US government spying on its own citizens, is "necessary" (and therefore constitutional?) and that adequate safeguards (against?) are in place. After all, the president has everything in the Executive Branch under control these days, doesn't he?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The US Government Has Revised Upwards Its Social Cost of Carbon Estimates

The long overdue document can be viewed here. The government's revised estimates of the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC), based on peer-reviewed literature, are substantially higher than its initial estimates, published in 2010. Here are the new numbers:

Taking the 3.0% discount rate average as central, the new estimates are more than 50% higher than the 2010 estimates below:

This is not unexpected, but reflects several critiques of the 2010 estimates, as well as newly published research on the SCC.

Hat tip: ThinkProgress

Disappointing Writing (Or, Perhaps It's My Reading)

I've recently read (most of) two of the more lauded new works of fiction this year: William H Gass's Middle C (Knopf 2013) and James Salter's All That Is (Knopf 2013). Both books left me cold. Don't ask me how they ended; I didn't finish either. Perhaps my tolerance for fiction has diminished. I also recently started, but could not finish, Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now [1875]. So, Gass and Salter are in good company.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Qualitative Easing

That's the theory I've constructed around recent writings on both sides of the stimulus v. austerity dispute in macroeconomics.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Congratulations to Gerard and Preeti

The Maglioccas were wed yesterday evening in a brief ceremony, presided over by the inimitable Judge Guido Calabresi, in a lovely setting at the White River Gardens in Indianapolis. Families and friends came from India, New Jersey, California, and other far-flung parts to wish the newlyweds a long and happy life together.

My wife and I have known Gerard ever since he first came to Indianapolis a decade ago, and he is a dear friend. Now, his wife Preeti is as well.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Post-Travel Ride

Finally got home last night at about 10:30. After a decent night's sleep, I headed out with Dr. Jim on an "travel-recovery" ride this morning. Out with the airplane air and in with the good. After 26 miles on the bike,  it's time for a nap.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What's Great About Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport

I've always like Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, where even the security personnel are friendly. But I discovered an aspect of it today that raises it to another level in my subjective rankings of airports.

I cab-pooled to the airport early this morning with a colleague, who had an earlier flight, only to find that my own flight was delayed by three hours, which left me a full five hours to kill. After grabbing a bite to eat (at a half-decent airport restaurant), I discovered that Mercure has a hotel smack dab in the middle of the airport terminal. So, I went in and took a look. Not more than 50 feet from where thousands of people are noisily making their ways from one place to another, Mercure has a set of small, but clean, comfortable, and most importantly quiet, single and double rooms with full baths, a desk to work at, free internet, and TV/entertainment systems. So, I took a room for three hours (at a price of $125), relaxed, actually napped a bit while listening to violin concertos by Brahms and Berg, and had a quick shower after awakening to freshen up before walking the half kilometer or so to my gate.

Obviously, I could have saved money had I simply checked my flight on my cell phone before leaving the hotel in central Amsterdam for the airport. I could have let my colleague take a taxi alone, and come to the airport myself later. But finding myself at the airport with so much time to kill, having a nice clean, private, and comfortable space to myself for a few hours was a positive luxury, and more than worth the money, especially considering alternative opportunities, which included wandering aimlessly among the Duty Free shops, buying a day-pass to an airline lounge (for about half the price of the hotel room), or sitting in the terminal surrounded by thousands of people and all the noise.

Schiphol is tops.