Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gillespie and Dean

1.  Something akin to a tornado ripped through Granby last night--I spent two hours this morning with my trusty chainsaw clearing out fallen branches.  This is the sort of information which is of no use to anyone.  It is thus the sort of information which would normally be used as a Facebook status update.  But, since I have yet to ever have a Facebook status, I didn't update it there.

Ah, but given that this isn't Facebook, I can add a moral lesson.  I just had my chainsaw chain sharpened.  A sharp chain makes for a happy chainsaw.

Just try to post that sort of fascinating tidbit for the day on Twitter...

Oh, and we were without power for 7 hours, which would have been a greater inconvenience if I had been dong something other than sleeping.  I know now, however, that when one is asleep, it really doesn't matter if there is electrical current in your house.

2. In the last few days I have been to one of Clara's softball games and one of her band concerts.  Now, I like baseball.  I also like music.  But, while I thoroughly enjoy watching Clara's softball team play, I find her band concerts to be very, very tedious.  Why is 10 year old softball worth watching, but 10 year old band not worth hearing?

[On the title of the post, you can waste some time looking  here and here.  Both of the Dizzys were worth watching--but were they both worth watching when they were 10?]

3. And, I might as well add a book review so that this post will have some reason to exist.

But, come to think of it, does a blog post need a reason to exist? Does a blog post actually exist?  If so, where?

But, for the book:  Euripides, The Trojan Women was a bit of a mess.  It was the tale of the women of Troy (hence the name) after the Trojans had been slaughtered; in the play, the women are being hauled off by their captives.  We see their laments.  The play was a sustained argument that the Greeks are rather barbaric monsters who don't seem to care about their captives.  Hector's young son (age 3 or 4?) was stripped from his mother and thrown off the walls of Troy.  Mothers and daughters are enslaved to different masters.  Nobody in the whole play is happy. (The only Greek we see is a rather depressed low-level messenger--he may be depressed, though, because he doesn't seem to get a slave woman of his own).  And it is all the Greeks' fault.  What is odd is that this play was written for a Greek audience in the midst of a later war. If the modern Left still know how to read and didn't immediately condemn everything old as racist and sexist and so on, then this play would have been staged on every college campus during the Bush administration, with Iraqi women as the main characters and the name "Bush" being substituted for the name "Odysseus."  A good time would have been had by all.

That being said, the most interesting thing about this play is its existence--as far as Euripides goes, it's not one of his best.

4. Speaking of Presidential Administrations: James Carville (James Carville!) is complaining that Obama is being insufficiently  proactive in the oil spill, is naive, and is politically ineffective.  The slow death of the Myth of Obama continues apace.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Same Song, Second Verse

A few posts ago, I noted that Thaler and  Sunstein's Nudge advocated for something they called "Libertarian Paternalism."

I was reading Hayek this morning, and he was discussing a book by Dickinson entitled The Economics of Socialism. Dickinson is what Hayek called the third wave of socialists, who mask their real program under the guise of using competitive processes to achieve socialist aims, but in the end want to use government processes to acheive socialist aims.  The part that made me smile:  Dickinson is arguing for what he calls, I kid you not, "Libertarian Socialism."

Now, was it Thaler or Sunstein who read Dickinson?

[And, Sunstein now works for the Obama Administration.  But, surely this is all just a coincidence, right?]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Exile on College Street

Summer is now officially here.  I turned in the last of my grades yesterday.  Graduation was on Sunday.  The campus is rather quiet today.

1. Graduation was bittersweet as always.  On the one hand, it is exciting to see everyone graduate.  On the other hand, a whole bunch of people with whom I have spent the last four years talking are now off to other parts of the world.  Happens every year, but even still, it's an odd feeling every year.

2a.  The ceremony was pretty good.  Joanne gave the single best speech I have heard her give in her entire time as President.  Now she is leaving.  I assume there is some connection between those last two sentences, but I have not yet been able to figure out how.  On the whole, she was a very good President: she raised lots of money and left me alone (which are, of course, the two most important things in a college President).  Until Sunday, I thought she couldn't give a decent public speech.  She never really connected with the students, so they have generally not been her biggest fans.  But, overall, she was quite good for Mount Holyoke.

2b. Gail Collins was the primary speaker at graduation.  Tired, old-style feminist drivel.  Tired, old-style feminists seemed to like her talk.  By the way, for the Collins-like people out there, why is it that a man who provides all the income for his family but does less than half of the domestic child care is a lousy husband who is not contributing his fair share to the family?

3. Graduation weekend was great, as always.  This school really knows how to organize such things.  Not only is it a great chance to meet the parents, but the reunions are great too.  It is always nice to see all my old students again.

4. Speaking of my old students, Mallory answered my question about responding to questions on the blog.  In her inimitable style, she told me that it is a simple matter of good manners to answer a question if someone asks.  Desiring to be well-mannered (a noble goal to which we should all aspire in all things), I  will henceforth reply to all queries on the blog.

5. One lesson learned this weekend--I really need a better answer to the question, "What books would you recommend I read?"  I get asked that a lot, and I was asked that a bunch of times this weekend.  I think people assume I read a lot of books.  I never know what books to recommend--I don't have a list of generic book recommendations.  If someone tells me what sort of book they want to read, I can usually give a suggestion or two.  But, in answer to the generic question, I am always stumped.  How many books is it proper to list?  One, two, five, a dozen?  Fiction or non-fiction?  Deep, thoughtful books or quick, lively books?  Classics or modern?  Tragedy or Comedy?  Books I recently read or books I read a long time ago?  And, how often does my list of generic recommendations need to be updated?  Can I just recommend P.G. Wodehouse all the time?  This is seriously troubling me.,  I always feel like I am being a horrid conversationalist when I am asked that question and end up just standing there muttering.

6.  A set of recommendations for the moment:
The perennial:  P.G. Wodehouse--anything at all
Classic fiction, widely known: Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
Classic Fiction, little known: Stenger, Angle of Repose
Modern Fiction, serious: Helprin, Winter's Tale
Modern fiction, humorous: Buckley, Little Green Men
Classic non-fiction: Augustine, Confessions
Modern non-fiction, Murray, Real Education
Classic Economics: Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty
Modern Economics: Sorkin, Too Big to Fail
Classic Poetry: Byron: Collected Poems (or Don Juan if one wants a specific poem)
Modern Poetry: Juster: The Secret Language of Women
History: Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Science: Faraday, The Chemical History of a Candle
Biography: Teachout, The Skeptic
Philosophy: Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Religion: Chesterton, Orthodoxy

7.  There is nothing particularly significant on the selection in the items in #6.  If I was to make a list next week, I think only 3 of those items would still certainly be on the list.

8. I am listening to Exile on Main Street while I type this.  The new version of Exile has been fascinating to read about--from what I can tell, none of the new songs are really all that interesting, yet everyone seems to be all excited about the idea of those new songs.  It is reminding me of the releases from the Jimi Hendrix archives.  Sure there are lots of tapes of these old guys, but, there is a reason the songs on those tapes never made it onto an album.  So, if anyone has actually listened to the new Exile tracks, I'd be very interested in knowing if they are actually even remotely as good as anything on the original album.

9.  Exile on Main Street is by the Rolling Stones.  In case you didn't know.  Often considered their best album, I am not convinced it was.  I like Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers better.  But the best Stones thing ever was the Singles Collection: The London Years, having all their singles from the beginning through 1971.  That is, by the way, when the Stones were really good.  Exile came out in 1972.  In the next 40 years--yep, 40 years--they have managed just a handfull of decent songs--and they haven't had a decent new song since 1982.  Yet, they are still on tour.  Go figure. 

10. I recently found out that one of my new colleagues did not know who Mick Jagger is.  Now that is depressing.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Holy Economics, Batman!

I like economics.  I also like comic books.  So, when a publisher sent me a copy of The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume One: Microeconomics, I was expecting to be mightily pleased.  Expectations, meet Reality. What an utterly dismal and depressing book.

How does it depress me?  Let me count the ways:
It isn't funny.  At all.  The best joke in the whole book is having a Pirate introduce the subject of Maarrhginal analysis.  (I'll pause while you compose yourself from the hysterical laughing in which you are currently engaged.)  But, I was being deceitful two sentences ago--that is not the funniest joke in the whole book.  It is neither funny nor a joke.

The art is horrid.  Truly wretched.  The four color graphs of cost curves in the standard intro textbook are more interesting to gaze upon.

The organization is a mess.  I cannot imagine that anyone could actually learn anything about economics from this book--it jumps from the most basic ideas to rather complicated ideas like some jack rabbit on hot asphalt.

There are a couple of really odd things about this book:
1. The publisher obviously intends for professors to assign this book as a supplement to the standard intro textbook--which is why they are sending me a free copy.  But, it is organized all wrong for that purpose--the material is in a thoroughly unconventional order, and thus by the time one gets to chapter 3 in the standard textbook, the reader needs to have read the whole cartoon book, including coverage of all the material that won't show up until double digit chapters in the standard text.  I cannot see how this book can be used as a supplement.  Why didn't the authors simply mimic the standard textbook organization?

I assume the publishers are just hoping that book will be assigned by lousy, humorless professors who never understand why their students think they are boring.  Such Professors will see "Cartoon Economics" and think, 'Wow.  My students are too benighted to understand me, but they do like cartoons, so I will assign this book and then they will learn something and then they will like me."  It's not going to work.  Students, even the worst students, are going to hate this book.

2. The book is written by Grady Klein (the artist, who one only hopes mailed this in because he realized the book was going to be a failure and thus wasn't worth this time) and "Yoram Bauman, Ph.D., The World's First and Only Stand-up Economist" (yes, that is his name on the cover of the book).  So, we know the book is supposed to be funny.  So, again, our boring, humorless professor will assign this book thinking, at least students will laugh at something in this class.  Again, I have a hard time thinking that anyone, anyone, will laugh.

Yoram Bauman can be moderately funny, by the way.  He has a bit where he makes fun of the most popular intro textbook (Mankiw's).  If you are an economist, you can watch it here or read it here. If you aren't an economist, I have no idea if it will be amusing or not.  Bauman clearly wanted to spin that clip into something that might actually earn him some money, but, alas, he picked the wrong format.  (And, by the way, to get those links, I Googled him, and saw another YouTube clip where he gives a routine at a stand-up comedy club--painful.  I won't link to it so that you aren't tempted to endure 8 minutes of painful attempts at humor.  Bauman is apparently a one-joke guy.)

An utter disappointment.  Now, I'll have to go read some Batman comic books.  (And for those who appreciate the title of the post, you'll enjoy this.)  Well, I'll get to Batman after I finish Hayek.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Gimmick Book

I finished this book some time ago, and it has been sitting on my desk waiting to be reviewed herein, and so at long last I am getting to the review.  The reason that the foregoing fact is worthy of note is that the delay in reviewing it is inherently related to the nature of the book itself; indeed, this book present a rather challenging problem for composing a satisfactory review.

The book?  A.J. Jacobs, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.  This book was given to me by Janet for Christmas.  Determining why, out of the universe of books, Janet would pick this one is left as an exercise for the reader.  That being said, I enjoyed reading it, and so the solution may simply be that Janet knew I would enjoy reading it.

This book is part of what I will hereby dub the genre of Gimmick Book.  Gimmick Books are epitomized by the most well-known book in that genre Julie and Julia, in which one woman sets out to cook every recipe in a famous cookbook and spins said rather pointless activity into a book and then a major motion picture starring an A-list actress.  Jacobs' Gimmick is to read the Encyclopedia Britannica, all of it from A-ak to Zywiec.  He did it, and wrote a book about it, but I have heard no tales of a forthcoming movie in which Jacobs is played by Matt Damon. 

The book itself is organized alphabetically.  Entries for the encyclopedia form the sections in which we are told either curious facts about said entry or tales from Jacobs' life which somehow relate to the entry in question.  Jacobs is a pleasantly amusing writer; it is a casually fun book.  And it is packed with a huge assortment of oddly curious facts.  There are a lot of oddly curious things in this world. That is the reviewing problem--how does one summarize a book in which the predominant pleasure is derived from reading strange things which do not stick in the memory.  Or at least my memory.  Jacobs recalls some of the things he reads, and he relates highly amusing tales of how he trots out useless facts at assorted dinner parties, after which his wife tells him he needs to stop relating so many useless facts at dinner parties.

So, what did I learn?  I really can't remember.  The most memorable story in the book was Jacobs telling about how his father, who was fond of rather odd jokes, would, when asked by his host at a cocktail party what drink he would like, ask for a Yellow Lightning.  The host, having never heard of said drink would ask what it was, to which Jacobs' father would say that it is two-parts Lemon Kool-Aid and one part Tequila.  His theory was that nobody in the country would have both of those ingredients.  Nobody ever did.  What surprised me was the realization that I think I could make a Yellow Lightning for him as long as he wasn't a connoisseur of Kool-Aid like drinks--we generally have some variant of Kool-Aid (but not necessarily the Name Brand) in the house, and I also usually have Tequila.

And therein lies the problem with the Gimmick book.  It's a Gimmick.  Why would anyone want to read the Encyclopedia?  Was it just so he could write a Gimmick book?  (I think it probably was.) And, why does he think doing so makes him smarter?  Isn't that confusing intelligence and knowledge?  Does anybody know the distinction between those two things anymore?

All that being said, Janet was right in buying the book--for reasons I cannot explain, I did enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Words Without Thoughts Never to Heaven Go

A matched pair of book reviews:

1. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection
As a book, this is a bit of a mess.  Teresa, a 16th century nun, was asked by others to write a book on prayer, and this was the result.  It takes her about a third of the book to even get to a discussion of prayer--as she notes repeatedly, she is writing smaller bits per day, and she never quite seems to get around to the subject.  When she finally does start discussing prayer, the discussion takes the form of a commentary on the Lord's Prayer.  (She also promises to discuss Hail Mary, but never actually does.)  Thus, if one is looking for a straightforward discussion of prayer, look elsewhere.  That being said, her ruminations are quite interesting, if at times convoluted.  Janet really likes Teresa of Avila, by the way--she's read not only most of Teresa's writings, but a biography as well.  So, if you have any questions about Teresa, ask Janet.  (But, come to think of it, don't tell Janet I said to ask her--I am not sure she would be happy knowing I wrote about the fact that she likes Teresa.  I have no idea why writing that Janet likes Teresa would be objectionable--after all , liking a Saint is hardly some act of moral degeneracy.  But, even still, I have a nagging feeling in the back of my head that if Janet knew I said to ask her about Teresa, she would be annoyed with me.  And we wouldn't want that.  So, if you do ask Janet about Teresa, just pretend it was a question coming out of the blue because she seems like the type of person who would like Teresa.) (Also, by the way, Janet never reads this blog.  None of my kids read it either.  For some reason, none of them are at all interested in what I have to say.  Go figure.)

2, C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
A book of letters from Lewis to his friend Malcolm in which, as the subtitle suggests, the topic is primarily the nature of prayer.  This book is short and I have read it a couple of times before.  It is probably the most interesting book on prayer I have ever read.  But the part that interested me the most this time had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the book.
I found out between the last time I read it and this time that Malcolm does not exist; the book is in the form of letters to Malcolm, but there is no Malcolm.  I was shocked to discover this--the book is utterly convincing that you are reading one-half of a conversation in letters.  After I discovered this, I have mentioned it to others who have read the book, and everyone to whom I mentioned it was also shocked.  So, reading it this time I was acutely aware of the literary style which makes the letter-form so convincing.  The literary structure is brilliantly done.

After reading these two books, I can still unequivocally say I don't really understand prayer. Fundamentally, I have a hard to figuring out why an omniscient God wouldn't be utterly bored by prayer--I get bored when people spend a long time telling me things I already know unless there is some literary or aesthetic merit in the telling.  Therein lies my problem of course--a) God isn't much like me and b) understanding the motives of God is impossible.

(Speaking of not being like me: last night I was involved in one of those general discussions with a half-dozen people and I casually mentioned Batman as illustrating some point or other.  Lily, who was also part of the conversation, immediately exclaimed, "Dad!  You are such a loser!"  I was (and still am) puzzled.  Is mentioning Batman in a causal conversation really that odd?)

On my list of books which I might get around to reading this summer is Philip and Carol Zaleski's Prayer: A History.  It looks like a wonderfully constructed academic exercise exploring the nature of prayer--in other words, it looks like the type of book which is designed to explain prayer to people like me.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Should This Be in the Comment Section?

Dilemma of the Day:  (Now that it is summer, I have time to ruminate about things that might seem trivial to the rest of humanity (that last bit is not the dilemma of the day (primarily because it isn't actually a dilemma)).)

Occasionally people have posted comments on assorted posts on this blog.  Until now I have not responded to any of the comments.  Why not?  I don't really know--mostly, I suppose, because I didn't want to feel like I needed to comment every time someone commented, but perhaps also because when I started this blog, I wasn't actually expecting anyone to ever comment on it, so I never gave much thought to my policy on commenting on comments, and undoubtedly in part because I never spent much time thinking about my policy on commenting on comments (and, yes, one needs a policy on such things--otherwise life is far too ad hoc (I like rules--but I doubt that comes as a shock to anyone)).

But now Angloyankophile (aka Jamie (unless I am sorely mistaken)) has forced the issue and has caused me to realize I need a Policy on Commenting on Comments.  A few days ago she asked in a comment about ages of the Hartley Children.  Now, that is a perfectly reasonable question and one to which I would normally be happy to respond, but I am unsure in which format I need to respond.  Do I start a new post entitled "Ages of Offspring" and note that as of June 19, Emma will be 17; Lily will be 15 and Clara will be (and already is) 10?  Or do I simply comment on the comment? Or do I e-mail the answer directly to Jamie?

So, obviously now I need a policy.  (Though note the remarkably clever way I answered the question prompting this quandary in the last paragraph which delays for a time the moment in which I must actually make a decision in this matter.)  And, I am having a hard time articulating a policy.  Just answer direct questions?  But, that will involve some measure of interpretation as some questions are rhetorical and other questions may be in the  form of a statement (do I respond to the objective question form or do I seek to divine the original intent of the commenter?).  And, then, once I have decided to respond to questions (either direct or implied), what is the rationale for not commenting on other interesting observations?  And, what about the times when the comment leads to another reflection on a matter which does not rise to the (admittedly low) standard of being worthy of its own post?  Should the comment section include a sort of miniature blog post?

The worst of it is that I am pretty sure that the proper etiquette in such matter has yet to be determined, and in a case in which there is no Manner Proper to Civilized People, how one answers such questions will carry with it some underlying societal statement, but I am not entirely sure what such a statement would be (are those who comment on their own blog particularly narcissistic or boring or witty or post-modern?).  The longer I type this post, the more the questions multiply.  A thousand small deliberations, and all that.  And, I still don't have a Policy on Commenting on Comments.

Breathe Easy; the World is Now Safe

To mark the start of summer, I read Robert Ludlum's The Sigma Protocol. The plot, you ask? Evil Conspiracy threatens to destroy all Good Things in the World; Our Heroes (who are just regular people, well except they are beautiful and brilliant and very, very wealthy and rather clever and brave and have lots of friends who can do huge favors for them whenever it is needed, but other than that they are regular people) thwart the international Evil Conspiracy (which has, naturally enough, unlimited resources and near-omniscience (near-omniscience, and not complete omniscience, only because the Evil People suddenly have lapses in knowledge at convenient plot points)).

That is of course the plot of every Ludlum novel.

I am not sure why I can tolerate Ludlum novels--I liked them a lot more back when I was in high school and had only read a few of them. They are all the same. But, I will add that The Sigma Protocol gets bonus points for having a quotation from "Gerontion" in it.

One thing that puzzles me about this sort of novel--the one I just read was 650 pages long. It was just too long. But, this sort of too-longness has become quite common. Why? Are people who buy cheap genre fiction more likely to buy a 650 page novel than a 300 page novel on the "it's more pages for your dollar" theory? Is it too hard to write well enough to get a cohesive plot in 300 pages, so the authors aim for an incoherent plot in 650 pages, hoping nobody notices the disconnect between what happened on page 100 and what happened on page 523?

One other puzzle--what is the enjoyment of reading cheap genre fiction? That isn't a sneering question--I read it and enjoy it (well at least some of the genres--I have never read anything in the Romance genre (should I correct this lapse in my education?))--but for the life of me I can't figure out why I just read a Ludlum novel--I knew it would be painfully long, rather silly in the end and have absolutely no literary merit, but I still read it and I enjoyed it. So why?

Friday, May 14, 2010

The State of First Things, May 2010

A. Must-Read Articles
1. David Hart, "Believe it or Not"
This is a short version of his recent book Atheist Delusions, which is a review of the New Atheist literature (Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al.). He starts:
"I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County."
His analysis is quite perceptive, and one has to admire him for wading through the tiresome drivel passing for Avant Garde Atheism these days. It is quite sad that the New Atheists can't even be as good as the Old Atheists. Hart does conclude with the fact which cannot be emphasized enough--if one wants to be a serious atheist, one must first wrestle with Nietzsche, who more than anyone else willfully faced the horror of a world in which there is no God.

2. Goldman, "Quantum Leaps"
A rather interesting review of George Gilder's work, in particularly his latest book, The Israel Test. Gilder is one of those authors I want to like, but always just annoys me in the end--he is far too glib. In many ways, he is less an articulate thinker and more an enthusiast who writes well. Goldman does a great job putting Gilder's recent book in the context of his earlier books to show it is just one more example of poorly thought out enthusiasm masking as rigorous analysis. It's been a while since I read Gilder with attention; Goldman convinces me a) I haven't missed much and b) I should feel in no rush to reintroduce Gilder to my Reading Life.

B. Worth Reading
1. Weigel, "Truths Still Held"
This was interesting in that sort of way that makes you say "That's curious" before moving right along to the next article. Weigel look back at John Courtney Murray' s We Hold These Truths, and shows that it was a rather perceptive and prophetic analysis of the problems arising in American democracy starting in the 1960s. Murray identifies the inherited, foundational truths of the American Proposition: 1) God is sovereign over the nations; 2) All government exists by and with the consent of the government; 3) The state is distinct from society; and 4) Virtue is necessary for freedom. None of this is novel with Murray, but Weigel does a nice job showing the problems that arise when each of these propositions no longer is widely believed. The major limitation of this essay is that Weigel begins by noting that Murray is one of those people who has been claimed by all sorts of people, so Weigel claiming him now leaves one wondering just how true to Murray Weigel is.

2. Wyschogrod, " A King in Israel"
The general proposition that Israel should reestablish itself as a Monarchy is interesting--this is the first time I have seen an argument for Monarchy in a long time. (By the way, I became a Monarchist during Clinton's Impeachment hearings--I figured if we are going to elect buffoons as President, there isn't much harm in just having a buffoon for a King , and at least then I won't have to lament the fact that the leader was actually elected--there is something nice about the idea of blaming the incompentency of the Executive on a bad gene pool instead of on the limited judgement of the voting population. Incidentally, nothing since the Clinton Administration has caused the seductive appeal of Monarchy to lessen.) I was really annoyed at this article in the end, though, when Wyschogrod backs off arguing in favor of going and getting a new King in Israel and instead just argues for having an elected Regent to stand in for the absent King. Seriously, if you want to advocate monarchy, why not just advocate getting a new King?

3. Eastland, "O Homer, Where Art Thou?
A review of Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel. Notable only because it made me think that Mason's book might be worth reading, emphasis on "might be." This is now on that list of books that if I keep seeing favorably mentioned, I'll pick up some day, but if I never hear of it again, it will vanish into the parts of memory dedicated to forgetting.

Generally, in this series I haven't listed all the mediocre articles or the bad ones, but this issue had one of those articles that really, really annoys me. Riechert's "Bitter Pill: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Contraception" was literally sophomoric. It was posing as rigorous economic analysis, but it was instead painful to read. The sad thing is that I don't really disagree with the conclusions, but the analysis itself is the sort of thing that gives Christian Economists a really bad name.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

When is a Paternalist not a Paternalist?

On the grading front: the end is in sight.

One housekeeping item from the Spring semester is a review of Thaler and Sunstein's Nudge, which I assigned in my intro to microeconomics course. Sunstein now works in the Obama Administration in a job designed to implement the sort of polices discussed in this book, so we have here a policy-relevant book. Well, at least it would be a policy relevant book if it had any, actual, well, policies to implement. And therein lies the tale.

Nudge is a hybrid book--one part discussion of some of the behavioral economics literature, one part recommendations for how to solve all the problems in the world. The behavioral economics part is good--behavioral economists are those people who go around and run and experiment on 25 undergrads to find out what makes them happy or act in the bizarre ways that undergrads and normal humans behave. Some of the experiments in that literature are fun, and thinking about happiness always makes me happy, so I like it.

But, as a straight review of the sort of thing behavioral economists like to do, there are better books (Ariely's Predictably Irrational, for example). This book gets it's kick by reframing the question. They start by talking about Choice Architects--people who frame choices for other people. Choice Architects are everywhere, literally everywhere--every time you do something which influences other people's choices, you are a choice architect. Thus, for example, if you ask someone what they want to do, you are being a choice architect--the way you ask that question can influence the choice being made. (Do you want to go see that surely most excellent and wonderfully reviewed movie Iron Man 2, the sequel to one of the best superhero movies ever made, or some movie called something like Letters to Julia or Juliette or Julie or some such name which is like the names in Julie and Julia and which I gather is some sappy romance like lots of other sappy romances, and everybody seems to hate it or at least they probably should hate it because it is probably just some grown-up version of Twilight, but there are probably lots of good seats available in the theater?) In other words, being a Choice Architect is easy; nothing too shocking here.

So, starting with this banality, Thaler and Sunstein proceed to advocate for framing all sorts of choices--dozens and dozens and dozens of choices. Underlying all of it is an argument for, and this really is the term they use, Libertarian Paternalism.

And Libertarian Paternalism is the punchline of the book. Thaler and Sustein are paternalists--the know what is best for you. But, they don't want the government to tell you to do what is best for you. They want the government to construct your choices in such a way that you will choose what they know is best for you, which, in order for this whole thing to make any sense, must be different than what you think is best for you. So, everything is nicely libertarian because the government doesn't actually require you to do anything. And everything is nicely paternalistic because, well, Thaler and Sunstein are going to trick you into behaving properly.

So, how do you pull off this nice trick? Ah, glad you asked. I have no idea either. The whole thing comes apart when you start reading the details. Credit cards companies trick people into paying too much in interest. So, the government will nudge you into using your credit card more responsibly by making the credit card companies use a bigger font on the statements showing you what you are paying in interest. Then, with the bigger font, you will notice you are paying lots of interest and suddenly you won't use your credit card so much. Simple, right? Except, one might wonder whether the bigger font on the statement will make any difference at all, in which case the nudge may not actually do anything. Then what? Even bigger font? Red ink? (As an added bonus, if you look at your credit card statement, you'll see that there is a box with a bigger font telling you about interest payments--you can thank Sunstein for that bigger box--and if you hadn't noticed it before now, well, you should send Sunstein a note telling him that his nudge didn't work too well since you didn't even notice it.)

Ultimately the libertarian paternalism shtick is relatively harmless in itself. But, what happens when a libertarian paternalist finds that the libertarian part doesn't get people to act in the right manner? We'll find out in a year or so when Sunstein and Obama get really frustrated that you still aren't acting in the right way.

All that being said, the book is thus a mixed bag--the behavioral economics part is mildly interesting, some of the nudges are cute, but in the end, it is not a very satisfying book.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Addition by Subtraction

In Sports News:

1) I have been a Raiders fan for a long time now. I cannot remember a day when I felt such an overwhelming sense of relief. The Biggest Bust of All Time was just cut. Good riddance.

It has actually been a remarkably good past few weeks for the Raiders; my hopes for next season have skyrocketed. The Russel Saga is over; Jason Campbell is at least an average QB; their draft was fantastic; Hue Jackson sounds like the real deal as an offensive coordinator. And Davis seems to have finally seen the light--what was that about old dogs and new tricks?

Maybe, just maybe, they are a .500 team again. And .500 teams sometimes go 9-7 and make the playoffs. And sometimes 9-7 teams win Super Bowls.

Don't laugh. I can feel it.

2) Clara's team won their first softball game. She has a very good team. The coach is great--he really likes to win, and teaches the girls a lot, but he also realizes it is just a game and is supposed to be fun.

I love going to Clara's games. There is very little that is as relaxing as sitting out on a sunny day watching your daughter play softball.

3. If, given the choice between the Raiders having a good year and Clara's team having the good year, I would pick the Raiders, does that make me a bad father?

In non-sports related news, the last day of classes was yesterday. By next week, the bulk of my grading will be done. Summer is almost here.