Saturday, May 27, 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Monday, May 15, 2017
Friday, May 12, 2017
We're approaching 10 years of public debate on government healthcare policy. Or are we? Debate is usually a process where claims are made and either supported or refuted. Instead, we've had nearly a decade of baseless statements.
Here are two facts that have been in the news lately that should have been publicized years ago: most people don't value healthcare, and some healthcare spending is unnecessary.
Possibly 70% of low-income people don't value health insurance at the cost of its provision. We can save a lot of money by giving uninsured people the cash equivalent of their personal valuations instead of giving them insurance. Why has this never been a component of the public discussion? (I know why, but it's a question worth making sure we all ask ourselves.)
Somewhere around $400 billion is spent every year to mitigate the effects of one lifestyle choice: carbohydrate consumption by those with Type II diabetes. This is like free lung transplants for unreformed smokers. Nihilism has made us think we can't possibly require behavior changes by those receiving public assistance. Annihilism is trying to make us think it is actually a good idea to funnel money to those making self-destructive choices.
It's ridiculous that it's taken nearly 10 years to have these things said aloud, but it's encouraging that they are finally being discussed.
Thursday, May 11, 2017
Last night, I attended my son's Blue and Gold banquet, which did serious violence to the word "banquet." But as I've written before, considering the professional, educational, familial, and personal complications they have going on in their lives, I am appreciative that the women who run our ward's Cub Scouts program have it running at all.
But I want to reflect for a moment on why Cub Scouts is run exclusively by women, and how that undermines the entire purpose of the program.
Scouting is supposed to make men of boys. I didn't appreciate that as a boy; I thought it was supposed to provide boys with entertainment and I thought they picked some cut-rate entertainment to provide. ("Seriously, was there ever a time when knots were entertaining? Get some video games up in here, stat!" - 14-year-old me.)* This is why I tell people that I didn't like Scouts that much as a boy, but as a parent I like it a lot. I want my boys to grow up to be good men, and Scouting is designed to do that.
To work properly, though, manhood has to be modeled. Sometimes in Boy Scouts the problem is lurpy** leaders who aren't models I want my sons to emulate, but the problem in Cub Scouts is that there are no men around at all, lurpy or not.
I understand why this happens, I guess: we don't have enough male leaders to serve in areas where they aren't needed.*** But instead of a program that models manhood for boys to emulate, the boys get to see their mothers wait on them hand and foot (as usual), only in exotic settings ("She's never cleaned up after me in a church before!").
This isn't just a problem in Cub Scouts, but in all aspects of raising boys. It is referred to as "the death of masculinity" and it shows up in all kinds of surprising ways. Recently, I had to interact with a Millennial male who, despite his full beard and visible tattoos, was, in voice, mannerisms, and behavior, a post-menopausal woman. Schools select for this because neutered men are more docile, and schools favor docility. Ideally, Scouting counters this societal trend instead of reinforcing it.What can be done? Well, in a ward with a shortage of men who will take callings, we can't do anything, I guess. Cub Scouts will continue to be run by women and Boy Scouts is where you'll have a steep learning curve when mamby-pamby boys get thrown into the world of men. (Except increasingly the Boy-Scout version of "the world of men" is the world of poor leadership and video games, as my older son's Boy Scout meeting was last night.)
I guess I could go to my bishop and volunteer for a Cub Scout calling, but I'm loath to do that because those boys are TERRIBLE. They don't sit, they don't listen, they don't clean, they don't serve, they don't do ANYTHING except exactly what they want to do. Case in point: last night's "banquet." While the MC was speaking the boys began a chant of "Pizza! Pizza!" Then they were first to get food (instead of allowing their leaders and guests to be served first), first to get dessert, and first to leave the room when it was time to clean, leaving all cleaning to the women leaders.
Maybe the problem is that Cub Scouts is run by their own mothers. But what other women will take that calling? My wife said, "Thirty years ago we could have called some of the older women in the ward to Cub Scouts because back then boys would listen." Of course, people will say, "Children have been misbehaving since the beginning of time," but when we were children there were repercussions to misbehavior. Now misbehavior is just a manifestation of a learning disability and I'm being insensitive for not recognizing that.
Scouting is a program that society has left behind, and I wish there was a way of preserving it, but I don't see what that way is.
* = I recently read a blog post about better style formatting for blogs, and the woman recommended using bold instead of italics because it's easier to notice on a computer screen. So I'm trying to make the transition, but I'm very used to typing the italics tag, so it might take me a while to change.
** = A family word that means sort of doing what you're supposed to, but doing a real poor job of it. From the noun "lurp" comes this adjective "lurpy" and the verb "to lurp," as in, "That lurpy lurp is just lurping it up on his cellphone while his kid is performing in the talent show." A bad dad wouldn't be there, while a lurpy dad is there but might as well not be. The problem with a lurp is he thinks he should get credit for his half-assed efforts.
*** = We have a priesthood leader moving out of the ward in a month and there is NO ONE to replace him.
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey yesterday. There are a number of ways to look at this, none of which is good for Trump.
THE COMPETENCE ANGLE: Word is no one at the White House thought this was going to be a big deal. If that's accurate, these people are even more out of their league than I previously thought. Also, it's said there's no replacement plan in place yet, and the paper trail was created in the past day. When the best-case scenario is "the boss decided to fire a high-level official on the spur of the moment," you have some competency problems.
THE LEGAL ANGLE: This is a red herring. Trump supporters are talking about the president's prerogative* to fire Comey, and it's true that Trump has that prerogative**. But just because a guy can legally do something doesn't mean he should, because....
THE RUSSIA ANGLE: I have to admit, Trump's Russia connections first struck me as less important. However, the more we look into the connections, the more Trump tries to cover them up. Just about the only consistent position of his presidency so far has been impeding the investigation into his Russia connections. This makes it look a lot worse than it looked back on Monday.
THE CONGRESSIONAL ANGLE: Remember, Congress can make law without the president's involvement, or even over the president's objection. So this shouldn't really derail any investigation. If it does, it means Congress has decided to not cross a weak, unpopular president. Why? Does Trump have dirt on them? How many models must have peed on Congress to make THIS the expedient course of action? Like, a million?
THE MANCHURIAN ANGLE: What if Trump wasn't Russia's guy all along? What if Trump is just the patsy that makes it so Putin's ACTUAL preferred candidate, Mike Pence, ends up president? (This is probably not true, but it would be a fun "twist" ending to the American republic.)
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the history books covering the Trump presidency will be fascinating.
* = Thanks, SpellCheck.
** = Now that I've learned how to spell "prerogative," I'm going to use it as many times as I can in this post. Prerogative.
Tuesday, May 09, 2017
We live quite close to a Winn-Dixie location that never seems to have that many shoppers in it. However, it is across the street from a senior living facility, and many of those senior residents frequent the store.
This week, Winn-Dixie announced a plan to close the location. The local news had a story about how residents were experiencing "outrage" and preparing a petition.
Winn-Dixie is in business to make money for the shareholders, not to provide convenient groceries for members of the community. "That's what's wrong with capitalism!" No, your expectation that Winn-Dixie would provide groceries to you even if they lose money in the process is what's wrong with society.
How about asking Winn-Dixie to take a loss as a form of community service? How about asking the city to subsidize the Winn-Dixie location? How about asking the city to work with another grocery store to quickly fill the vacancy? These were the historic responses to this situation. But now we get out our outrage and think that's going to get someone to do us a favor.
Winn-Dixie owes you nothing. Some people keep this in mind when interacting with others, while others rely on outrage to get what they want. My feeling is that the outrage contingent is a quickly-growing segment of society.
Monday, May 08, 2017
Here's a TED talk from a guy advocating Universal Basic Income. In it, he argues that people will not stop working because most of us have natural human ambitions for accomplishments.
I agree we all want to do something. But I think the modern entertainment-based world allows us to categorize non-productive accomplishments as achievements. Think of the feeling of achievement you get when you finish a show on Netflix, or (for those of us old enough) the feeling you got when you freed Princess Toadstool from Bowser.
How many people derive self-worth from food production? Some, sure, but as many as it takes to produce the food necessary to sustain all human life? I think a world that doesn't require work for sustenance will be a world with an overabundance of mediocre art, literature, and music, and a shortage of food, clothing, and shelter.
Friday, May 05, 2017
EDIT (5/8/17): Now my wife tells me that the homeschool discussion group commenters were complaining about BYU-Original Recipe, not BYU-Idaho. I blame my wife's inherited ability to ambiguously use every pronoun she utters (when my mother-in-law says "she," it could be in reference to any woman she's thought about in the past two weeks).
My wife belongs to some online discussion groups for homeschoolers. In one group this week, an intense discussion erupted regarding the desirability of sending your kid to BYU-Idaho. Some of the group members said the faculty at Rexburg is indoctrinating students in socialism.
When my wife shared this with me, I told her I think there are three possible things going on here.
- Students who are unclear about the differences between socialism and Zion are hearing about Zion and thinking, "What's with these socialists?!"
- Parents who are unclear about the differences between socialism and Zion are hearing about their kids hearing about Zion and thinking, "Glenn Beck was right about the dangers of college!"
- Faculty members who are unclear about the differences between socialism and Zion are indoctrinating students in socialism because they think they are doing God's work.
One, two, or three of these things could be happening at the same time. As a professor, I'm aware of students' ability to hear what they want to hear (last week I got an e-mail from a student who wrote, "I know you said you drop the lowest homework score," when I have, in fact, said nothing like that). Also, a friend I have who teaches at BYU-Idaho is definitely enamored of socialism because he seems to think the godless aspects of the Republican Party imply the opposite of the Republican Party must carry God's favor.
Because this is related to my dissertation, I had previously printed a copy of Marion G. Romney's 1966 General Conference talk "Socialism and the United Order Compared." Elder Romney said, "The United Order is implemented by the voluntary free-will actions of men,.... On the other hand, socialism is implemented by external force, the power of the state." But the end goals could be the same, so we cannot reject something like Universal Basic Income merely because it looks a lot like socialism. At the same time, we shouldn't accept UBI because it looks a lot like Zion. My family functions along many of the principles of Communism, but I'm not a Communist. If we voluntarily redistribute our resources along socialist lines, we don't necessarily need to be socialists. Elder Romney said, "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."
In his conclusion, Elder Romney prayed for three things, the first of which was "that the Lord will somehow quicken our understanding of the differences between socialism and the United Order and give us a vivid awareness of the awful portent of those differences." Perhaps the BYU-Idaho faculty could use a better understanding of the differences, but it's also possible the students and their parents could use a better understanding of the similarities, as well.
Tuesday, May 02, 2017
For a number of years, I've been reading the blog Temple Study. I have found it interesting and informative, and I can't remember ever reading anything there that struck me as questionable. Recently the blogger, Bryce Hammond, has created a new blog, Thy Mind, O Man. This one is still interesting and informative, but when I read it I feel like I do when listening to evangelical radio.
See, I have a personal policy that, when scanning radio stations, I will stop and listen to any preacher until he says something that I can definitively say is untrue. Sometimes that takes 30 seconds, but sometimes it takes half an hour or more. My reasoning: truth comes from many sources, and injecting a little extra devotional listening into my life is desirable. But there's no need to listen to something obviously wrong, so when we cross that line, I move along.
Here's a recent example: the other day I heard a preacher making the case that fear is the opposite of having faith in God. I listened to some really good ideas for about five minutes or so, until he went into a wrong interpretation of what Paul means when he talks about "the third heaven." I said, "I gave you a wide berth because you had some good ideas, but now you're well past my line."
The result is that I end up listening with a more-critical attitude than I otherwise would; I sort of expect something to go wrong, and I'm just waiting until it comes about.
This is how I've been reading Thy Mind, O Man. First, there's a lot I can value. I can appreciate that there's value in meditation. The number of church leaders who have spoken highly of meditation far exceeds the number of regular church members who speak of meditation at all, even though the first group is tiny and the second group is huge. I can agree that manifestations of God occur in our minds. I can believe our experience right now is "all in our minds" (i.e.: we are living in a simulation). And when Hammond writes about these things, I find it edifying in the true sense of the word: I contemplate ways to become a better person.However, God is a distinct consciousness, not another manifestation of my consciousness. I find Hammond is unclear on this point, seemingly thinking "the jury's still out" on this one. It's not. In Doctrine and Covenants 130, we read
the idea that the Father and the Son dwell in a man's heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false.and
The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man'sI can believe that God's reality is so complex that we cannot comprehend it with our limited, imperfect, mortal minds, so God presents things to us in ways we can understand. Think of how you explain stars to a young child. A star is like the sun, but really far away. Okay, but what's the sun? Well, it's a ball of fire. Good enough? For a kid, sure; for an astrophysicist, not at all. It's highly likely that the explanations we get of spiritual, infinite principles are profound simplifications meant for our limited understanding.
This creates the possibility that we reject the deeper reality in favor of the simplification. I'm reminded of something I read once in a blog post by (I believe) Dan Peterson, where he was paraphrasing a point by (I believe)
Sidney Sperry. (How's that for narrator reliability?) [EDIT: Long-time reader Stephen found it for me--see his comment below. I searched Dan Peterson's blog and Interpreter's website, but because I was wrong about Sidney Sperry, I couldn't find it. It turns out it was Stanley Kimball.] Anyway, as I remember it, Sperry said that there is the basic level of church teaching, what we might consider "Sunday School answers," like "go to church" and "say your prayers." There is a deeper level of "warts and all" church teaching, and then there is the deepest level of church teaching, where the context of the warts, so to speak, is included. The point is that once you've advanced to the deepest level of church teaching, the basic truths are pretty much the same as they were at the most-superficial level.
In the original context in which I read this, it was presented as questioning the obligation we have to lead people to the deepest level when we know that some of them will be lost by exposure to that middle level. In the context of Thy Mind, O Man, I wonder what is the value of plumbing the depths of the human mind in a gospel context if the only result will be including quotation marks around the word "saw" when we say Joseph Smith saw God.
Monday, May 01, 2017
My oldest son, Articulate Joe, is a fan of Arsenal Football Club. He came upon this allegiance quite simply: the first Premier League game he ever watched was Arsenal against Queens Park Rangers, and Arsenal won. (This experience also made him hate hoop-stripe jerseys, no matter the team wearing them.) Anyway, he's been an Arsenal fan ever since.
When we were coming home from church yesterday, I said, "What do you think happened in the North London Derby?" He said he didn't know. I said, "I think it's 2-1, Tottenham. Arsenal's down to ten men because Koscielny got a red card. The two Tottenham goals are Dele Alli and Harry Kane. Kane's was a penalty that came with the Koscielny red card." We came inside and I checked the score on a soccer scores app. It was scoreless at halftime.
Later in the day, I checked the score again. Tottenham had won, 2-0. And the two Tottenham goals? Dele Alli and a Harry Kane penalty kick.
So, as you can see, just like Sex Panther cologne, 60% of the time my prognostication works every time.