Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday grab-bag

I read too much of the Internet this week. Here are five of the better things I came across:

● Crooked Timber’s John Holbo (whom I used to know when we were undergraduates at the University of Chicago) meditates on moral revolutions, moral complacency, and how notions of honor underpin changing norms. (HT Brad DeLong) His starting point is his anticipation at the prospect of reading Kwame Appiah’s TheMoral Code, but for my money, Holbo says more in this blog post than Appiah said in his whole book.

● Back in the 1770s, the United States was the most egalitarian place on Earth – yes, Southern slavery notwithstanding. It no longer is.

● It is however, a place where it is easier to buy an assault rifle than it is to vote.

● The costs of college are so out of whack, and there’s so much bullshit and make-work masquerading as education, that it’s tempting to conclude that it’s all a con. Nevertheless, according to WonkBlog, the evidence strongly supports the notion that college yields significant financial benefits, and that they come from what you learn, not just from signaling.

● Yeah, but at this point, learning is practically an unintended side effect. Too much of what happens in higher ed is still basically a con.

Bonus 1970s video of the week: If you end up in a sufficiently outré location some Saturday night, you may find yourself singing a karaoke version of "Suspicious Minds." I should know; it happened to me recently. This, for the record, is what you should be aiming for:

White jumpsuit optional, of course. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sandusky effect

This past weekend, the small world of American fencing was rocked by the news that Penn State University had fired Emmanuil Kaidanov, longtime coach of the school’s exceptionally successful team. Coach Kaidanov led the team to 12 NCAA championships over 31 years and a cumulative win record of 832-89, as the Centre Daily Times notes.

Penn State declined to comment on the reason for the firing, calling it a “confidential personnel matter.” The school apparently did not even announce the termination as such, merely confirming it after Kaidanov’s name was removed from the team website and rumors began to fly.

So what the heck happened? According to this letter, authored by PSU and fencing team alum Chris Balestracci and dated Monday, Kaidanov was let go because of a "heated discussion":

A situation occurred back in February, in which a staff assistant anonymously reported the possible possession of an illegal substance by a member of the Varsity Fencing Team. The accused student-athlete from the Varsity Fencing Team disproved ALL allegations by VOLUNTARILY undergoing immediate drug testing. The results of this drug test were completely NEGATIVE!
Subsequent to this, Coach Kaidanov had a rather heated discussion with the staff assistant stating that he believed that she should have reported the incident to him first and, as head fencing coach, he should have been the one to report the allegation in question, which proved to be unfounded. No name calling, threats, or intimidation of any kind were made. No action was even recommended by Coach Kaidanov against the staff assistant, nor was any retaliation taken against this staff assistant by Coach Kaidanov directly or even indirectly; he only had this one discussion with this staff assistant and did not even know that the phone call of the report of suspicious activity was anonymous.
The University’s decision was – As per Policy AD67 Disclosure of Wrongful Conduct and Protection From Retaliation states: Any member of the University who retaliates against any individual in violation of this policy will be subject to disciplinary sanctions, which may range from a disciplinary warning to termination or expulsion from the University.

If anything like the above is true – and it sounds plausible – it appears Kaidanov overreacted somewhat to an instance of perceived insubordination, and Penn State grossly overreacted to that by firing him.

I don’t think anyone can avoid seeing the long shadow of Jerry Sandusky here. It’s well-known that assistant coach Mike McQueary reported one of Sandusky’s alleged rapes to Joe Paterno in 2002, and that the incident was subsequently buried and forgotten in a flurry of bureaucratic buck-passing. It’s not unreasonable that university officials would get a little nervous at the spectacle of another head coach insisting that he, and only he, had the right to pass on allegations of criminal misconduct within his sports program.

But if Penn State swatted a fly with a hammer here, surely the people who gleefully piled their notions of collective guilt on the university share the blame. Sandusky’s crimes were heinous: he deserved severe punishment, as did those who aided and abetted him by turning a blind eye. Throw the book at them. But there was a need to be judicious and proportional. The majority of people in the Penn State athletic community, and in the university as a whole, had nothing to do with the matter. Those folks didn’t deserve punishment.

But they sure got it. After the Sandusky verdict, the NCAA lashed out with the institutional equivalent of saturation bombing: a $60 million fine (even in the world of college sports, that’s real money), 112 wins vacated, a four year bowl ban, etc. etc. Those sanctions weren’t authorized under a widely recognized and pre-existing judicial process: they were made up on the fly, and imposed under questionable legal authority. Coming from the NCAA – an organization hardly known for its secure grasp on moral high ground – they looked vindictive and opportunistic.

Right now, Penn State is shellshocked. The environment in which it operates has become dangerously unpredictable. It can’t afford even the hint of a fresh scandal, so it is jumping at loud noises and reacting to minor errors of judgment as if they were Class A felonies. That isn’t healthy and it isn’t right.

This, in a nutshell, is why power relationships need to be mediated by systems of regulations – aka the rule of law. As the NCAA is to Penn State, so is Penn State to Kaidanov and Kaidanov to his unnamed female assistant. People within organizations, and the organizations themselves, deserve due process. When you do something wrong, your punishment should not be “a high-handed, unaccountable authority gets to do whatever it wants.” That’s what tyranny looks like.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday grab-bag

Some odds and ends from prowling the Internet this week:

● What is the role of math in economics? According to Noah Smith, the main purpose is to impress and intimidate other people and give the field a bogus aura of “real science.” Paul Krugman says no, the stuff is useful: when you argue in words, you can smuggle in hidden assumptions and conceal contradictions, whereas math forces you to be explicit, for your own good and everyone else’s. 

Robert Waldmann basically sides with Smith – economists’ mathematical hocus-pocus distracts from their absurdly unrealistic assumptions and simplifications – which are made in part just to render the math tractable. Bryan Caplan says economic intuition is the thing – and that when economath contradicts common sense, it’s generally the economath that’s wrong. (Does that mean that economic intuition = common sense? I imagine Robert Waldmann's "economically illiterate man on the street" would have a few pointed comments to make about that.) 

Lastly, Smith notes that he was talking about his personal impressions, and points to his earlier blog post arguing “the more real successes economics achieves, the more good math it will use.”

● What a pity I discovered David Roberts at Grist via his column announcing he is taking a year off. Check out his posts on conservative antipathy to climate science and the ongoing below-the-radar dominance of coal as a global fuel. That’s some good blogging, that is.

● Is the modern economy full of bullshit jobs or does it just look that way because we’re all small cogs in the great machine? (See also Robert Waldmann’s post in the comments on the latter piece.)

What better way to end than with something completely different – a cheesy 1970s-era video of "Since You've Been Gone." I always thought this piece of power-pop bubblegum-for-the-ears was written by Loverboy Rainbow, the band that indelibly imprinted it on my generation’s collective unconscious in 1979. But it turns out the writer was Russ Ballard, seen here performing it in 1976:

Peppy, ain’t it? The circles of flame are a nice touch. Ballard, by the way, was also vocalist on Argent’s immortal “Hold Your Head Up,” apparently while wearing the same shades. Dude got around. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Your WTF chart of the day

Take a good long look at the chart below. That’s annual world GDP from the year 0 to 1998. Pretty remarkable, isn’t it?

Yesterday I blogged about the overall level of misery in the world of the early 1700s. The chart shows what I was talking about. The world of 1700 was only modestly richer than the world of the Roman Empire. It still ran on human and animal muscle power, supplemented modestly by wind, water, wood and coal. Humanity still lived within the confines of the “Malthusian trap” – sure, we had invented agriculture, metallurgy, and some other pre-industrial technology, but the modest productivity gains they made possible were quickly swamped by our species’ fecundity.  

I thought I would easily be able to find a chart like this on the Internet, but Google as I might, everything I found had the wrong time scale, or was disaggregated, or was per capita.* So I worked up what I wanted on my own. The data comes from a paper by Angus Maddison, an economist (now deceased) who headed up what apparently is the sole initiative to gather economic data on a world-historical scale. (That seems to me to be a really important project, and one that would attract the interest of more than a tiny handful of scholars, but what do I know?) 

Maddison included his own graph of his data in his paper (it's Fig. 5 in the PDF), but he plotted GDP on a logarithmic scale, not a linear one. Collapsing the Y-axis that way shows more detail, but it doesn’t convey the sheer mind-blowing magnitude of our post-1820 expansion. (Similarly, plotting GDP per capita reduces the dramatic effect. We haven’t just increased people’s incomes – we have a hell of a lot more people, too.)

The bottom line is that the world we take for granted – a world in which many people remain terribly poor, and many others feel they’re poorer than they ought to be – is, nevertheless, not just richer than the pre-industrial world, but insanely richer. That’s something we should feel in our bones. But we don’t, as I discussed yesterday.

A reasonable followup question might be: How did we get here? The chart at right (source) shows a large part of the answer. We did it – we do it – with energy, especially fossil fuels. The slope in this chart isn’t quite as “holy crap!” as the previous one, but it’s close. My guess is that technology gets us most of the rest of the GDP slope – not only do we use vastly more energy than we used to, but we also use it much more efficiently.  

And that, in a nutshell, gets us to the dilemma we face going forward. Historically, the one way we’ve discovered to raise people’s standard of living substantially is to uncork huge quantities of fossil fuels – but if we do that on the scale needed going forward, we will cook the planet. (And no, that is not in dispute.) If we don’t, on the other hand, we’ll be headed back into the Malthusian trap – only this time, with a population of more than 7 billion, many of them heavily armed.

Small wonder that many people, faced with that dilemma, either deny the reality of climate change, or massively underestimate the difficulty of shifting to renewables at the speed we'll need. But the dilemma is as real as can be.  

*This chart from Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms came close, but it's per capita and splits into a Y after 1820.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Of pirates

Well, I’m back, as Sam Gamgee says to his wife at the end of “The Lord of the Rings.” Spent a lovely, relaxing week in Puerto Rico seeing the sights of Old San Juan, trying to photograph the elusive avian life of El Yunque rainforest and turning my back and shoulders scarlet on Luquillo Beach.

It occurred to me that I know hardly anything about Caribbean history, so after I got back, I checked a couple of books out of the library, a short general history of the region and Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates. The history book is pretty colorless, but TRoP is just terrific – a vividly narrated story full of larger-than-life characters and improbable incidents – as solidly “stranger than fiction” a work of nonfiction as you’re likely to find.

Pirate culture, as Woodard explains in this NPR interview, was “extremely egalitarian.” Crews elected their commanders and booty was distributed fairly equally. 

In the legitimate world, by contrast, absolutism was at its zenith and the lot of the average person was as miserable as could be. Here’s a passage that struck me especially strongly (the italics are mine): 
It’s a wonder any sailors survived. Mortality rates among the crews of vessels employed in the African slave trade were comparable to those of the slaves themselves. It was not unusual for 40 percent of the crew to perish during a single voyage, most from tropical diseases against which they had no resistance. About half the sailors pressed into the Royal Navy died at sea. (p. 43) 
A couple pages before that, Woodard notes Samuel Johnson’s observation that the lot of a sailor was “very much the same as that of a prisoner, only with the added possibility of drowning.”

I think most people underestimate how awful life was for almost everyone before the advent of modern technology. Our vision of the past abounds with kings and queens, wealthy gentlemen and highborn ladies – the masses of overworked, starving peasants fade into the background. We think of episodes like the Black Death or the Irish potato famine or the Inquisition as aberrations, not as just somewhat intensified versions of standard conditions. We project middle-class sensibilities backward, and think of merchants and landowning farmers as being average people, rather than members of the small, privileged elite they were. Virtually everyone we “see” in the past was part of the 1 percent – for the 99 percent, life was one long* stretch of subsistence-level misery.

The 99 percent were not distinguished by race or nation – you could be miserable and oppressed no matter what color you were. I think sometimes in our (laudable) desire to condemn the horrors of Western colonialism and American slavery, we forget that wealthy elites despised and mistreated, well, everybody, white people very much included
Watching workers load cotton onto a steamboat, [noted 19th-century landscape architect] Frederick Law Olmsted was amazed to see slaves rolling the bales down to Irishmen doing the more dangerous job of stowing the bales on the ship. When he asked for an explanation, Olmsted was told, “The n-----s are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard, or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.”**
We have a long way to go on poverty, inequality and inhumanity, but sometimes it's worth reflecting on how far we've come. 

*Or short, more often than not. 
** The quote is from Olmsted's "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States." 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Monday, August 5, 2013


Paul Krugman on the emerging “superstar” dynamic in journalism:
"It’s true that information technology makes it increasingly easy to carve out your own brand; I’ve done some of that myself. But it also makes monetizing information harder; I believe that Arcade Fire makes a lot of its money from live performances rather than record sales, and in any case they have not become wealthy. This is OK for music — great music can be made without super-profitable record companies — but not so OK for journalism, which relies on a substantial infrastructure of non-superstar reporters. …
"Somehow the economics of this new world have to be worked out; but they are definitely problematic. Someone like Nate [Silver] can become a celebrity and cut free of the middleman; but the people reporting on City Hall can’t, and we need those people too."
We do indeed. With all due respect to Matt Yglesias’ notion that we live in a golden age of journalism, the daily-grind, non-literary, nuts-and-bolts sector of the profession is really struggling.

More broadly, few things in American culture drive me crazier than the widespread notion that everyone needs to turn free agent, develop a personal brand and become a superstar, and that anyone who falters, or who declines to play the game, deserves whatever calamity the winds of economic change might blow his or her way.

Didn't it use to be a problem that every high school kid in the country thought he was going to be the next LeBron James,  or Bill Gates? Whether in journalism, or business, or any other activity, a few people are going to be terrific, but most are going to be mediocre. That’s what the word “mediocre” means. Only in Lake Wobegon can all the children be above average.

I have no problem with the best and brightest rising to the top – that’s where they should be. But there’s a strain of chest-thumping rhetoric in America that seems to reject the notion that hardworking average people deserve a chance at a decent life, or really any sort of respect at all. This kind of rhetoric drives me nuts:
"Wanna ensnare a superstar? Offer him exposure in all venues. Cut him a great deal. And know that he’s boss. If you’re not kissing the ass of talent, if you’re not giving it all it wants and deserves, you’re destined for the scrapheap."
Um, no. Kissing ass is a recipe for enabling assholes, for inflating the egos of arrogant, entitled jerks. And that is something that healthy societies try to avoid.  

When talented people think their shit doesn’t stink (to continue with Lefsetz’s piquant imagery), that’s when they begin running roughshod over everyone else, serene in the knowledge that their self-aggrandizement is for our own good. (This is not to say that Nate Silver is an arrogant, entitled prick; on the contrary, from his articles and TV interviews, he seems like a pretty good guy.)

Healthy societies admire humility as well as ego, and maintain some concern for the interests of everyone, and the common good. I think we’ve been pathological in this regard for some time now. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Real life intervenes

Going to be light posting if any through Sunday ... got other things to attend to.