Monthly Archives: July 2009

Line of the Day: Delong on Sotomayor

Brad Delong has a long and winding post with lots of digressions (which I appreciate, being a chronic digressor myself). He has this to say regarding former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

And this then led me to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Buck v. Bell (1927):

Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman who was committed to the State Colony…. She is the daughter of a feeble-minded mother… and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child…. An Act of Virginia, approved March 20, 1924, recites that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives….

The attack is not upon the procedure [i.e., due process] but upon the substantive law…. We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson. v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Google Image Result for

Just as young men can be drafted and compelled to give their lives for the health of the state (or is it the volk?) in war, so feeble-minded women can be drafted and compelled to give their fertility for the improvement of the genome.

Let me say that this is a case where I suspect that a wise Latina justice might have been more able to consider the proper equities than Justice Holmes was.

It would have been perhaps politically risky but I also shared the thought that Sotomayor should have defended her statement. Perhaps it was a poorly worded sentiment but in the light of American legal history it is certainly defensible. Can you think of other landmark legal precedents where Sotomayor’s statement might well have been true? I can think of at least five.


Another Requiem Post

This is John Rutter‘s Requiem, based on Psalm 130; I was introduced to it several years ago and always marvel at how bright and vibrant it is. It is one of my two favorite pieces of choral music; Mozart’s Unfinished Requiem (k 626), which is a far more intimate work, is the other. I own this copy, featuring the London Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Cleobury.

Roubini on Bernanke

Nouriel Roubini recommends that Ben Bernanke be retained as chairman of the Fed. As the economist who (perhaps) most accurately forecast the housing bust and subsequent recession, I expect his opinion will carry considerable weight. A quick excerpt:

Mr. Bernanke understands that in the Great Depression, the collapse of the money supply and the lack of monetary stimulus during contractions worsened the country’s economic free fall. This lesson has paid off. Mr. Bernanke’s decision to keep interest rates low and encourage lending has, for now, averted the L-shaped near depression that seemed highly likely after the financial collapse last fall.


To be sure, an endorsement of Mr. Bernanke’s reappointment comes with many caveats. Mr. Bernanke, a Fed governor in the early part of this decade, supported flawed policies when Alan Greenspan pushed the federal funds rate (the policy rate set by the Fed as its main tool of monetary policy) too low for too long and failed to monitor mortgage lending properly, thus creating the housing and credit and mortgage bubbles.

He and the Fed made three major mistakes when the subprime mortgage crisis began. First, he kept arguing that the housing recession would bottom out soon (it has not bottomed out even three years later). Second, he argued that the subprime problem was a contained problem when in reality it was a symptom of the biggest leverage and credit bubble in American history. Third, he argued that the collapse in the housing market would not lead to a recession, even though about one-third of jobs created in the latest economic recovery were directly or indirectly related to housing. Mr. Bernanke’s analysis was mistaken in several other important ways. He argued that monetary policy should not be used to control asset bubbles. He attributed the large United States current account deficits to a savings glut in China and emerging markets, understating the role that excessive fiscal deficits and debt accumulation by American households and the financial system played.

Link here.

An Observation with Great Explanatory Power

With healthcare costs currently a volatile political and economic topic, surprisingly few people are arguing that perhaps some of the locus of the healthcare problem is not just the large number of aging Americans or expensive though perhaps unnecessary treatments, but rather the sedentary American lifestyle. One side of the problem is of course that the low-income part of the demographic distribution finds it difficult to find the information necessary to compute the costs and benefits of different lifestyle choices; on the other hand, it’s hard to believe that all lifestyle choices are difficult to evaluate. For instance, I regularly see people taking the elevator to go up or down ONE floor; presumably people think the marginal costs of negotiating stairs exceed the marginal benefits of exercise. Given the long-term health costs of obesity, you’d think that more people would decide to walk a little more when they have a low-cost option to do so.

How much money would the country save on healthcare  if Americans walked a mile more a week? Do people who think the same way I do have an implicit fear of voicing this advocacy because they’re afraid of offending overweight people? Perhaps we should be more vocal; after all, one of the ways we can think of universal or government-sponsored healthcare is that it is a transfer of wealth from healthy people to sick people.

Update: Why Southerners are so Fat (Time).

What I’m Reading

1. Funkbrother Rick Puig got the Truman Scholarship and is running for the vice-presidency of the Young Democrats of America. Previously Rick interned for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and current Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill.

2. I should move to Manhattan to be around people who are just as good-looking as I am.

3. The Farnsworth-Munsell Hue Test is devilishly hard. Details here. Here is an abstract for a paper that uses fMRI to image brain function during the test to determine where our brain processes color.

4. The Economics of the World Cup.

5. Is there a connection between Riemann-Zeta, prime numbers, and quantum physics?

Competition in the Music Business

Alex Tabarrok at MarginalRevolution posts recently about Deloitte’s recently released Shift Index, an empirical study of long term economic trends. He particularly notes that:

As a result of increased competition and also, I believe, greater wealth and reduced interest rates, the economy wide return on assets has decreased by 75% (see the report).

If the return on assets has decreased but productivity and wealth are up then where has the wealth gone?  To consumers and the creative class.  Thus, increased competition in the economy has driven down the return to capital and at the same time has increased the return to the complementary input which is in greatest fixed supply, creative labor.  More data in the full report.

This article in the New York Times is a pretty good story about an industry in which this is particularly true: the music business. Specifically, it details how increased competition in how music is marketed and sold changes the dynamics of the music game, allowing musicians to garner greater returns on their valuable human capital assets.

Much of that has to do with the rise of the Internet as a means of promoting and distributing music. Physical album sales fell 20 percent, to 362.6 million last year, according to Nielsen, while sales of individual digital tracks rose 27 percent, to 1.07 billion, failing to compensate for the drop. Mindful of these changes, in the last few years marquee musicians like Trent Reznor, the Beastie Boys and Barenaked Ladies have created their own artist-run labels and reaped significant rewards by keeping a larger share of their revenue.

Under the Polyphonic model, bands that receive investments from the firm will operate like start-up companies, recording their own music and choosing outside contractors to handle their publicity, merchandise and touring.

Instead of receiving an advance and then possibly reaping royalties later if they have a hit, musicians will share in all the profits from their music and touring. In another departure from tradition in the music business, they will also maintain ownership of their own copyrights and master recordings — meaning they and their heirs can keep earning money from their music.

“We are all witnessing major labels starting to shed artists that are hitting only 80,000 or 100,000 unit sales,” said Adam Driscoll, another Polyphonic founder and chief executive of the British media company MAMA Group. “Do a quick calculation on those sales, with an artist who can tour in multiple cities, and that is a good business. You can take that as a foundation and build on it.”

Pretty sweet. I think there are some very worthwhile lessons here for journalists…

Line of the Day

My favorite foreign policy wonk, Daniel Drezner, live-blogged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Wednesday speech to the Council on Foreign Relations here. The speech seems to have been a good one and Drezner’s commentary is always enlightening. I was most amused by this quip:

1:47 PM:  Point-blank question about whether George Mitchell allowed that the completion of in-construction housing settlements in the occupied territories would be permitted.  Clinton ducks the question faster than Peyton Manning facing the New York Giants pass rush.

That’s probably the first time Clinton’s been compared to Peyton Manning.  By comparison, I think the witticism works a lot better than Sarah Palin’s tortuously metaphor-ridden speech (full text here) where she said she was planning to resign as Alaskan governor.

Quick Literature Bleg

Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times blogs about the 61 essential reads of postmodern literature. I’ve read some of the list and here’s my take.

Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” is a wonderful book, probably her best. Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” is romantic and Calvino is one of the unique sensibilities in all of literature. I liked Umberto Eco’s “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” but found it a little too densely allusive; I prefer “Name of the Rose”. Dave Egger’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is always recommended. Faulkner’s “Absalom! Absalom!” is difficult to read but Faulkner is always worth the effort; it is worth noting that Faulkner is one of the few authors who is truly inventive with language. “Hamlet” and “Metamorphosis” are of course two centerpieces of all literature.  Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” is Nabokov at his wittiest, and of course Nabokov is unbelievably lyrical, a master the language dance.  Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” is difficult but beautiful. And “Slaughterhouse Five” is a must read from Vonnegut.

I might add a few, like Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”, or more Faulkner, or Nabokov, or Atwood, or Joyce, but the list is an excellent one as is. Here is Bookslut, one of my favorite literary blogs.

Great Econ Line of the Day

Tyler Cowen posts an excerpt from an NYT story about a man who enjoys being stood on. It is a very strange story and indicates to me that the long tail of the distribution of weirdness in humans is very long indeed. Here is Tyler’s section of the post, with my favorite part highlighted:

His standard rate is $200 “a session,” he seems to enjoy the work, in some situations he values the situation as a fetish, he once had ten women stand on him, and the market structure appears to be one of duopoly.  Here is more and I thank Jeffrey Valentine for the pointer.

Only an economist would ever read that story and think to say that. Well played. Here is the wiki on duopoly.

Existential Questions

Why are there so many bad movie/television interpretations of the Authurian legend? I can list at least 5. I am also positive there are more.

On the other side of the media divide, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King remains one of the gems of 20th century English literature. Also recommended: Le Morte d’Arthur.

Tagged ,

Words from Nabokov

Some words I found in Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: fubsy, joggle, glebe, harridan, lavabo, crepitated, oriflamme.

Next week: love words.

Tagged , ,

What I’m Reading Lately

1. The irrepressible Brian Leiter ranks law schools by SSRN downloads. Dream school U. Chicago is #1 to Harvard in per capita downloads. Yale is #8. I shouldn’t be surprised at the strength of a number of large state schools, but I kinda am.

2. Roger Martin in the Financial Times argues for ending the use of shareholder value theory and stock-based compensation alignment theory, which incentivize executives to game the expectations market at the expense of real market performance. Registration may be required. HT: Shawn Borich.

3. Grad students use computer program to successfully submit spoof paper to academic journal. Link here.

4. Research in everything: This blog trolls the dark abysses of PubMed, looking for those research papers that are at least a little strange/silly/weird/etc. Well worth the break from whatever you’re doing. Also useful if you doubt your research ideas might be worth funding.

5. I want to watch the rest of this movie.

6. NBER Economic Indicators.