Feed on

Petard Hoisting

Via an old friend:

it has been the alt-right that has most effectively used postmodern ideas to “deconstruct” what it sees as a distinctly liberal hegemony

That was always the major criticism of postmodernism I was familiar with, that there is no reason the very ideas could not be turned on themselves, especially if they were successful. More here.

712 Years Ago Today

Via Jerry Coyne,

1305, William Wallace (FREEEDOM!) was executed for high treason; and by “executed” I mean hanged until he was nearly dead, emasculated, disemboweled with his intestines burned in front of him while he was still alive, and then decapitated. People were cruel in those days.

Among the many things in life that I have never said, “man, I regret spending time on THAT!” is reading Jonathan Swift. Here’s a delightful little ditty:

Big fleas have little fleas

Upon their backs to bite ’em

And little fleas have lesser fleas

And so ad infinitum

Actually, the ditty above is from mathematician Augustus De Morgan and is based on Swift’s original from “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” which I very much like better:

The vermin only teaze and pinch
Their foes superior by an inch.
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

I was in the midst of my high school formative years when a couple of watershed moments in world history happened, and these had fantastically powerful and lasting impacts on me. I grew up in New York City during the Cold War, and there were nuclear fallout shelters in our little Catholic school, and the specter of hiding beneath our desks when the Russians decided to drop the nuke on NYC loomed very frequently.

Then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Then the Soviet Union whimpered to a collapse on Christmas Day 1991.

This video and song got a lot of airtime, and at the time gave me great chills (cheesy, I admit):

Just before I graduated high school, I decided to read some more on what exactly happened behind the  Iron Curtain. Why? Well, every image I saw after the fall of the wall was of people with bursting joy at their newfound “freedom.” It was hard to appreciate. So, the first book I picked up was Robert Conquest’s classic on Stalin. It almost made me puke, several times. While in school we read books like Hiroshima and we read books like Night with all of their horrors and disgustingness, those were episodes that I was familiar with and had been popularized long before I read any systematic books about it, it never occurred to me that some horrors would be happening under an alternative political system. And there were no singularly horrific “events” that we learned about as kids that would make us aware of it.

That all changed with Conquest’s book. One of the most memorable stories, now, to me was the treatment of the plant botanist, Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov was a visionary, and arguably one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Among his major accomplishments was establishing one of the world’s largest and most diverse seed bank programs. Of course, Stalin did not think much of the very time-consuming processes of developing crops via the scientific method and Mendelian genetics. When famine “struck” or more precisely, was inflicted upon, the Soviets in the early 30s, instead of turning to the likes of Vavilov for solutions, instead Stalin called upon the “barefoot scientists” (quack agriculturalists) to solve the crisis. It all failed horribly of course.

And as was common, and only got worse as Stalin aged, anyone who disagreed with him didn’t just get a nasty post on Twitter or Facebook, nor did they get doxxed. Nope. They got sent to the Gulag and killed. And in the case of Vavilov, Stalin accused him of “sabotaging Soviet agriculture.” Strictly speaking, that is right. Soviet agriculture was no such thing, and using the scientific method to promote plant development was certainly in stark contrast to what the Soviets was doing. Ultimately, what happened to Vavilov is sickening, and I remember feeling sick when I read it. So, not only was he  jailed for his “subversion”, but then he was subsequently ignored by his jailers, and in perhaps the sickest irony of the anti-human, anti-science nature of this collectivist nightmare, Vavilov – a man dedicated to feeding humanity, died of starvation.

One great century of communist collectivism is now in the books, can’t wait to see what treats it has in store for us in the next century.

We would evaluate their success based on how well they could be fit to past economic observations. To the theory nerds out there, do you know of ANY economic models that have not, ex post, been able to back-forecast what has already happened?

Here is Noah Smith on trade,

The development of these new models is good news for the economics profession. It means that mainstream economists are diversifying their approaches, supplementing their old simple models with new ones that recognize the fantastic complexity of the real-world economy

You mean, like Hayek and most real economists? Maybe the devil is in our differing interpretations of “mainstream?”  It would also be lovely to see a deeper discussion of where the desire for diversification versus total specialization blurs. After all, banking and finance theories do not encourage specialization at the product/investment/capital levels. And in 23 years in economics, I cannot recall ever reading something that said, “Country X should really just spend most of its time doing Y, that is a good way to develop.” Who said that? What books is that in? That seems to be a monstrous misapplication of simple comparative advantage, or a clarion call to the problems with representative agent, simplistic macro models.

The piece ends with:

Old development strategies based on simple approaches like deregulation and free trade might turn out not to be enough.

It is written to be a pragmatic statement. Perhaps I am too sensitive but I read it as combative and uncharitable. Maybe my reading, too, is uncharitable. But column space is limited and perhaps there was no room to elaborate or add nuance because again, I’d love to go find anywhere in any of the papers or texts I was provided with in both my undergraduate and graduate training that have as policy proscriptions, “deregulate! free trade!” … if you find those terms, you will surely see them with many caveats, with calls for appreciating the rich institutions those are embedded in, that a term like deregulate doesn’t exactly have clear meaning, and if indeed some author were promoting absolute laissez-faire, which almost none do, then the effect (or reason) for doing so is precisely because laissez-faire lets the so called thousand flowers bloom, and not the hyper-specialized problem-child development that the article is writing about.

In discussing kidney donations, I’ve encountered the argument that offering compensation to donors would be problematic, not just morally, but because it may reduce incentives to donate due to intrinsic motivation declining with payment.

That’s a fine argument, and we’ve seen monetary incentives backfire for sure especially when we try to apply it to non-traditional settings, like perhaps securing a kiss from your date, performance at certain tasks, and so on.

On the other hand, I have also been in conversations with folks who argue that K12 teachers should get paid more because they are so passionate, committed and intrinsically motivated that it is just the right thing to do. Actually, not only is it the right thing to do, the fact that we “underpay” our teachers is emblematic of how far off the rails our society’s priorities have gone. In other words, the intrinsically motivated deserve the highest monetary rewards.

Aside from pointing out the obvious here, I had two beer-ponderance questions: first, would the sentiment about kidneys be symmetric? How would people feel if the default policy was that people paid larger income and estate taxes if they were not kidney donors? From a monetary perspective, such a policy would be the equivalent of “paying” kidney donors, but I am pretty sure that we would see both a different behavior response and moreover we would see a sharper moral philosophical response, with some mental jujitsu saying that this is actually not the same as paying people.

Similarly, is the education argument symmetric? Suppose that rather than paying teachers more, we docked everyone else an additional X% of their income with the exception of teachers. Would this be viewed (as it actually is) as rewarding teachers? Would this undermine the intrinsic motivation for people to become teachers?

Any good theories on: (1) why the case of kidneys and teachers are treated differently? and (2) why the seemingly symmetric questions would likely (in my view) produce different reactions?


My faith in humanity is being regularly rocked, but perhaps that is just too much of an overreaction to current events. But for the sake of intellectual consistency, will those folks delighting in the tarring of the entire classical liberal program through dark and nefarious long arcs of the work of James Buchanan now be happy to tar and delegitimize the entire modern liberal program due to the long (and very much out in the open) arc of Woodrow Wilson and others in his circle?

Or how about WNY’s own beloved Susan B. Anthony? We have a large dorm named after her on campus. It is pretty clear that she held pretty mainstream white superiority views at the time, she opposed the 15th amendment (because well, if blacks win the right to vote and not women, then she cannot support it), and so on. So, while I do very much believe that more of that part of her story and the entire 19th century suffrage movement should be told and understood, does it follow that the modern feminist movement is illegitimate?


I’m too lazy to extract the data, but roughly speaking, in the mid-1950s, the federal government spent between 17% and 20% of GDP.  Of that percentage, between 80% to 85% of that spending was discretionary. What this means in an 8th grade sort of way was that there was lots of money to quibble over and to be allocated to public goods.

Move forward to today, where for the last decade or so the federal government has spent between 20% and 25% of (a much larger) GDP. Of that percentage, about 33% of that is spent on discretionary funds, with the lions’ share of that being allocated to Defense.

The “lock-in” of entitlement spending is happening at the state and local level and in some sense was at one point “discretionary” too.

On Blackpacking

First off, Backpackers in South America (and I assume other regions) are the least diverse group of people that I’ve ever come across. Pretty much everyone is white. Like super white

Go check out the musings of a terrific former student, who spent a couple of years trekking around South America.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »