Saturday, May 27, 2017

What Did Communists Use for Light Before the Candle?

A couple weeks ago I wrote, "When the EMP finally sends us back to the Stone Age...." When I wrote it, I paused and asked myself, "To what age would an EMP really send us back?"

I stuck with Stone Age because I think our bronze and iron manufacturing processes involve electricity, so they will be rendered futile. Of course, you don't need electricity to make bronze (which is why the Bronze Age came about when it did, long before the Industrial Revolution), but the world will have to reconfigure our bronze industry to use non-electronic manufacturing methods.

It would probably be more accurate to say that an EMP would send a targeted area back to the Stone Age with artifacts of more-advanced periods, and this condition would persist until new electronic equipment can be imported from non-targeted areas. But here's the next question: is advanced civilization a stable equilibrium, or an unstable one? Would we all calm down until the boats from Asia and Europe arrived with replacement equipment, or would be go full Thunderdome in a weekend?

My money's on Thunderdome.

PS: The post title is from a joke, which my students in China didn't understand.

Friday, May 26, 2017

"I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means"

Economist Paul Romer has been involved in a Deep State battle of his own, trying to get World Bank staff reports to limit the use of the word "and" to 2.6% of the text. (Seriously.) And, because it hurt the feelings of the poorly-communicating economists, he's been removed from managerial duties. (Double seriously.)

But here's why this has become the topic of a blog post here at A Random Stranger: because Romer wrote a blog post wherein he says "I slaughter kittens in my office."

Am I the only person who reads that and thinks of this meme?

Talk about an inelegant choice of words! Now who's the one in need of better communication skills, Paul?

Seriously, though: Deirdre McCloskey has written much about economics becoming intentionally inaccessible to preserve the mysticism of what economists do. While Robert Lucas famously said he didn't really understand something until he could write it in a model, someone else (sometimes said to be Albert Einstein) has said you don't really know anything until you can explain it to your grandmother. On this Lucas/Einstein spectrum, McCloskey and Romer would side with Einstein. The World Bank underlings would side with Lucas. (Shocker.)

In the old system (pre-1990s?), the underlings would dislike their boss and do things his way. But now, they got their boss reassigned.

This is related to other thoughts I have had this week about the Trump administration and leaks to the media, but I woke up late today (double-overtime victory for the Penguins last night!), so I'm trying to get back on schedule, which means keeping this blog post to one short idea. And that idea, evidently, is that Paul Romer might be sending us a cryptic message that he masturbates in his office.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Asian Communists: More Sexist, or Less Sexist?

One question I had before going to China was this: will I see more sexism or less?

China is in Asia, where cultures exhibit more misogyny. (Remember the wisdom of Austin Powers, who notes that in Japan women come second, "or sometimes not at all.") But China is Communist, and Communist societies exhibit less misogyny. (What matters to a Communist government is how good of cannon fodder its citizens are, and ladies can serve in human waves just as well as dudes.)

What I saw in China was an Asian level of misogyny more than a Communist level of misogyny. Husbands and wives out for a walk "together" would be walking in single file, with the man in front. Home production and childcare were the province of women, even if they also had professional responsibilities outside the home. My school had boys sports teams but it had never crossed anyone's minds that girls could play sports, too, until the Western teachers started teams for girls. And during the after-school play periods, football was exclusively for boys, walking laps of the track was exclusively for girls, and a small group of intrepid girls would join in an ultimate frisbee game.

What do I make of this? Well, maybe it's just further evidence that China isn't as Communist as they think they are. (Like when my students thought a regressive tax code was a good idea because it provided incentive for poor people to work harder, which isn't exactly a sentiment Karl Marx would have endorsed.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Maybe Drugs Are the Answer

Some of you maybe have picked up on the fact that I've been having an especially-difficult time these past 10 months or so. It has led to my paused-but-not-scrapped plan to cut all ties with pre-existing friends and family. How this summer turns out will be the deciding factor, I think.

Now, I never had any desire to try any drugs in my life, but that all changed when I saw Limitless. If I had access to Bradley Cooper's drug, I don't know what I'd do. (If I didn't have kids, I would take it with probability P > 1.) And with the success I'd have with it, the motivation for the friend-clearing plan would go away, so really my friends should be encouraging my drug use.

Two months ago, though, a second type of drug use became very appealing to me. Based on the strength of the recommendation in the lyrics to "Can't Feel My Face" by The Weeknd, I found myself wondering, "How would a guy like me even begin using heroin?" The good news is: I have no idea. I guess I'd find a marijuana dealer and work my way up? Sherlock seems like a totally respectable bloke and he's figured it out somehow, so it can't be impossible.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Net Social Loss of Toll Road Construction

I've written before about the inequality-increasing nature of toll road construction (everyone suffers inconvenience now, but only the prosperous get to enjoy the benefits later), but this past weekend, as I was delayed by toll road construction in Orlando, I realized that the total social benefit of toll road construction is negative.

Everyone suffers inconvenience now, so our social welfare declines. But in the future, the convenience is only available to those who pay for it, and with variable-pricing toll roads (as the lanes in the median of Interstate 4 will be), motorists will pay for the entire value of the convenience they experience. So even if I'm rich enough to pay for the toll roads, I receive no net benefit by doing so. Thus, my lifetime value is still negative (loss during the construction phase and no subsequent offsetting gain).

So not only do toll roads increase inequality, they also decrease welfare for all existing motorists.

EDIT (5/26/17): Upon further reflection, I guess this is only true for the marginal user; with a downward-sloping demand curve, there will still be those who value the toll lanes more than the price they pay to use them.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

This Complaint Is REALLY About Rexburg

Two weeks or so ago, I was tricked by my wife into complaining about Rexburg when the problem was actually happening in Provo. But now I have a problem that is happening in Rexburg. My 17-year-old niece arrived in town a month ago, having graduated high school early. Now she has a 21-year-old boyfriend.

Look, I'm all for adulting like you can't believe, but not until you are an adult. Yes, college kids shouldn't be playing video games in giant mixed-sex groups until their thirties, but they also shouldn't be pairing off with children who would normally still be in high school now.

Economics as Self-Help

A few weeks ago, I was trying to stress to my macroeconomics class the distinction between nominal and real variables and why money is neutral in the long run. I said, "Real things matter." I realized that I was sounding like a self-help guru. Then, later that day in microeconomics, when I was trying to help them understand the concept of Nash equilibrium, I said, "You can only control you."

Maybe there's a book to written there: Economics for the Soul. It could include something about sunk costs, too ("You can't get back the past").

Copyright pending or something.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Distribution of Talent: Bug or Feature?

In Richard E. Wagner's To Promote the General Welfare, he writes

Criticism of such distributional outcomes [singers and athletes receiving more income than others] is ultimately a criticism of people for liking to watch singers and athletes perform, as well as possibly a criticism of God for restricting the supply of such talents. [p. 23]
Has God ever given us a reason for His restriction of talent? Possibly, when He said "this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted in that the rich are made low."

God could solve poverty, but so can man. "For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves." Inequality is the beginning condition, but it's not God's desired ending condition. In fact, the presence of economic inequality is the foundation of sin. Our continuation in inequality disqualifies us for spiritual blessings we would otherwise be experiencing.

As Marion G. Romney said in 1966, "What prohibits us from giving as much in fast offerings as we would have given in surpluses under the United Order? Nothing but our own limitations." God's uneven distribution of talent isn't a bug of the human experience, it's a feature, and one that makes it possible for us to sanctify ourselves. We shouldn't criticize God for creating an initial endowment we have the power to alter, and we shouldn't use the threat of violence to take from others or force them to give under duress. All I can justly control is myself.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Practical Uses for Secondary Languages

When my wife and I want to communicate without our children understanding, we use Spanish. This is sometimes difficult because I've never actually studied any Spanish, so we are limited in what we can say, and it only continues to work because our children don't know Spanish, but it has gotten us through this far, so we'll keep using it. (The only time it didn't work was once our daughter learned that "helado" means "ice cream.")

However, yesterday I was out with my wife and I wanted to say something to her about the women next to us in the store. I couldn't use Spanish, though, because the one woman was speaking Spanish on the phone. (In fact, what I wanted to say was that I didn't know the origin of the one woman's unusual Spanish accent.) I couldn't use English because the women were speaking English to each other. I've tried before to use German with my wife, figuring it's pretty close to English so maybe she can figure it out, but she just asks, "Are you speaking German to me?", and doesn't even try to understand.

Good thing we both know a little Chinese, right? Herbert and Lou Hoover used Chinese to speak in front of White House staff they didn't want eavesdropping. So I began, "Tā shuō Xībānyáyǔ, kěshì--" but my wife interrupted me to say, "Are you speaking Chinese to me? I can only count to 10, you know?" Since I wasn't trying to say something about a number less than 10, I had to stop.

Aside from private conversations with your spouse, all secondary languages are pointless. You can accomplish the same result with just speaking your primary language slowly and excessively loudly.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"What's His Name, Uh, Mumbly Joe, Uh, I Saw Him on TV the Other...."

Our oldest son, Articulate Joe, has never really been big on verbal communication. (In fact, his blog nickname was originally Mumbly Joe because of his insistence on only communicating through guttural tones, but when he finally started using words at age three, I upgraded him to Articulate Joe.) Since speech is how most tests of memory arise, it appears he has a poor memory. In reality, his memory is awesome, but his ability to express it in words is pretty poor.

Once we went to the home of some friends and our kids spent four hours or so playing with our friends' kids. When we got home, my wife and I were talking about Articulate Joe's ability to remember names. I called him in the room and asked, "What were the names of the two boys you played with all day?" He immediately answered, "Don't Know and No Idea."

This week we've started watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, which is proving to be quite popular with our kids. The only problem is, Articulate Joe can't remember the name of the show because he can't remember the name of the actor. In fact, the first time he tried to talk about it, he also couldn't remember the name Mary Poppins, so he ended up saying, "The show with the guy from that movie."

He's improving, though: yesterday he called it The Bert Show.