Thursday, December 8, 2016

Not speaking the same language

A federal investigator stopped by the Economics department this afternoon, making routine inquiries about an alumnus who had applied for a job that involved some level of clearance.

He talked to two of my colleagues, then me.

An unremarkable process (I was quite direct about how little information I had about the student - basically, I wasn't aware of any negatives, but wasn't really in a position to vouch for much of anything).

As he was packing up, he was describing his day: this place, then over to that place, then back to Pennsylvania.

"You must put a lot of miles on the car."

"It's a diesel, so it's not so bad. I get 55 miles per gallon in the summer; in the winter it's in the low 40's."

And then some engineering talk that was interesting to me, about why diesels run more efficiently in warmer temperatures, which led him to describe how he tweaks some elements of the engine to increase the fuel efficiency. (I think it was the intake and something else, but I don't know enough about car engines to have retained what he said in passing.)

"And I figure, if I'm burning less fuel, I'm polluting less. If I was using a gallon to go 40 miles, and now I'm using a gallon to go 55 miles, that's got to be putting out less pollution."

In the back of my mind I'm wondering if his tweaks may result in more soot or certain other combustion products, but I don't know nearly enough of the details of how diesel engines work to know that - it's just a question that occurs to me. So I stick to what I do know:

"Well, at a minimum, you're emitting less carbon, since the CO2 is pretty much a linear function of fuel burned."

I thought I was building a bridge of common understanding. But it turned out, I had just started pulling the boards off of a bottomless chasm of mutual incomprehension.

"The plants could use the CO2," he responded.

"The plants have more than they can handle," I say - presumably, the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are evidence that the plants can't keep up with what we're putting out.

His response is that, "I read that CO2 levels were higher in the Middle Ages than now."

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A small data point

There's a car on campus that I'd noticed during the fall, sporting a "Make America great again" bumper sticker.

I noticed it partly because I didn't see many bumper stickers around campus for either candidate.

And partly because there were other interesting bumper stickers on the car (and I mean interesting in a neutral sense, not "interesting").

And partly, of course, because I disliked the candidate whose slogan that was.

I saw the car today - I'm sure it's the same car, because of those other interesting bumper stickers.

And the "MAGA" sticker was gone.

The bloom didn't stay on that rose very long.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Grappling with bias

The following was written in response to a student's paragraph on this article. The student allowed as how economists likely knew more than him, but that he didn't agree with their negative assessment of Trump's fiscal proposals, as described in the article.

He also characterized the New York Times as incredibly biased against Trump, like CBS news.

I knew that my response would be longer than it was sensible to write in my red-pen chicken scratch, so I drafted an email. It came out longer than I expected.

You're right to recognize that professional economists may have an edge on you in this discussion.

At the same time, my profession hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in terms of seeing what was coming back in 2006-08, or in analyzing it since then. Paul Krugman recognized this back around 2005, when he took questions from the audience after a talk. The question was something like, "You say that current conditions suggest a devaluation of the U.S. dollar. When do you think that will happen?" And his answer was, "According to my model, about 18 months ago." In other words, our models are imperfect. And as it's impossible to completely separate economics from politics, we economists, of various political persuasions, are vulnerable to the risk of seeing things a certain way because we want them to actually be that way.

It's a matter of balance. On the one hand, recognizing that other people may have more experience and/or expertise than you in a given area. On the other, not giving anyone a pass and accepting what they say on their authority simply because they're an expert.

The key for the layperson is to try to understand the argument a given expert is making.

The key for the expert, when talking to the general public rather than to his or her peers, is to communicate in a way that can be understood by an intelligent reader / listener who isn't already initiated into the field's way of thinking and talking.

Then all that we can hope is that the public will be open to hearing different arguments and weighing them with an open mind.

Which brings us to the subject of bias.

There's a risk that the word comes to mean, "Presenting a view I don't agree with."

But if it's going to have any useful meaning, it has to be tied to issues of whether information is true, contextualized, and proportionate.

Monday, November 21, 2016

“We’ll just have to see.”

This past weekend, my parents and I stumbled into a conversation with a Trump supporter.

“The media was so biased against him, they took what he said and presented it out of context to make him look bad. I want to keep an open mind. We’ll see what he’s actually going to do.”

“What about his appointment of Steve Bannon?”

“Well, I’m not a big fan of that, but we’ll just have to see.”

“They’re still talking about a ban on Muslims, and justifying it by saying it’s not as bad as the internment camps where we locked up Japanese-Americans during World War II.”

“It’s not going to come to that.”

“But what will you do if it does?”

“It won’t.”

“A lot of decent Germans didn’t think Hitler would go as far as he did. By the time they realized what he was doing, it was too late.”

“I’ve read lots about German history. Hitler locked up his opponents and shut down press freedom.”

“People at Trump rallies chanted, ‘Lock her up!’ and Trump egged them on.”

“Well that I would agree with.”

“Locking up Hillary?”


“For what crime?”

And from there the conversation pretty much ground down in a pointless circle. But she didn’t have an answer for my Dad’s question, “When will you have seen enough?” She simply was sure that Trump didn’t intend to do anything too bad.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A piece of the puzzle?

How did this happen?

Just in terms of the math, from what I understand, Clinton did pretty well in turn out among demographic groups favorable to her, but Trump simply crushed it with his base. Nate Cohn (cited by Josh Marshall) referred to what he described as the white working class voters, who make up more than 40% of the electorate.

Note: the previous paragraph was based on my impression Wednesday morning when I was writing this. It turns out that turnout was down, and particularly in states that Clinton won. According to 538, it was highest in competitive states, and Trump won most of those, so the underlying point of the first paragraph likely stands: the demographic favorable to Clinton didn't turn out to the extent as did the demographic favorable to Trump.

In county after county that is white rural or white working class, Trump solidly outperformed Mitt Romney's results from 2012, and the turnout in those places was higher than in 2012.

That added up to a series of losses—some small, but still losses—in state after state that Clinton couldn’t afford to lose.

Most people who were pro-Clinton, or at least anti-Trump, will have their own explanation as to why this demographic came out in such numbers and went so strongly for Trump.

In presenting the numbers below, I don’t claim to be discounting other explanations—racial resentment, fear of cultural change, …—I don’t even claim to be right. I’m just putting this out there for reflection.

First, turn to the World Wealth and Income Database, set up by Thomas Piketty and colleagues. The site has compiled data on shares of income going to different slices of the population (e.g., the wealthiest 0.01%, the wealthiest 10%), and average incomes for people in those same slices.

Here’s the story for the shares of income in the U.S. (Note that the orange line for the top 10% is graphed on the right axis, while the other two slices are on the left.)
Starting roughly around 1980, shares for the upper slices of the income stack started rising—slowly at first, then an odd jump in the late 1980s, and continued strong growth after that.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Rhyming history

This afternoon I came across a passage concerning labor conditions in German agriculture in the 1890's, and it struck a chord. Conditions on farms in the eastern part of the country were harsh, and wages were quite low. People emigrated to the western part of Germany, and to America, so the great landowners had trouble getting enough labor to work their holdings.

First there's the familiarity of the complaint and the type of remedy proposed:
For a time, the Agrarian, or Conservative Socialist party, to which the great landowners belonged, was wholly in favor of reactionary measures, such as the limitation of the right of free migration, higher protective duties upon foreign produce, and more stringent legislation against breach of contract on the part of domestic servants and farm laborers.
The blogger Atrios often highlights examples of businesses complaining about the lack of available workers, when what they really mean is that they're having trouble hiring good people at the wages they're willing to pay.

If you can't get people to stay and work on your farm for the wages you're paying, then you need to pay more. If you can't afford to pay more, then someone is doing a better job of producing food than you are. And if you can afford to pay more but just don't want to, perhaps out of a sense that "those people should know their place," then it's not really an economic problem.

The second resonance with the present came a little further down the page:
With regard to the east, on the contrary, Dr. Weber point out ... that unless some means can be adopted for checking the outflow of the German population, there is every reason to fear that their places will be supplied by an inroad of Slavs, and that thus an element of disintegration already existing will be increased.

First you pay crap wages, so that the local population has better things to do than stick around and get a miserable reward for their hard work. Then people come in from the neighboring country, where farm labor is paid so poorly that even the crap wages you offer are an improvement, an opportunity. And you complain about them sullying your population.

It's hardly a new phenomenon for people to want something without having to pay for it - to want people to grow their food while hardly paying them enough to live on.

And racial anxiety about dilution of supposedly superior groups by immigration of "inferiors" is also an old idea.

But it's a bit rich for people to simultaneously complain about the difficulty finding workers willing to work at crap wages and complain about the racial or ethnic unsuitability of the folks who are willing to work for so little.

A bit rich, but sadly, also not new. Welcome to America of the 21st century ... or Germany of the 1890's.

Excerpted passages from Royal Commission on Labor, Foreign Reports: Germany (London, 1893), p. 52, reprinted in Theodore S. Hamerow, The age of Bismarck: documents and interpretations, Harper Torchbooks, 1973, p. 186

Sunday, August 21, 2016

There's refugees, and there's refugees

Today is the 48th anniversary of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. This military action put an end to the Prague Spring, the effort by reformers within the Czechoslovak Communist Party to create "socialism with a human face," i.e., socialism with real respect for human rights and democratic norms.

Following the invasion, about 200,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled the country.

"In a refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Austria," from
Since the eruption of the refugee crisis in Europe last year, the Czech Republic has been in line with its fellow post-communist neighbors in being very reluctant to accept refugees. The issue hasn't been as dramatic as in Hungary, which found itself part of the refugees' land route from Greece to Austria and Germany, but there have been anti-refugee demonstrations, predictably vile verbiage in newspaper comment sections, and arson committed against a non-profit that serves refugees.

A common refrain in the online discourse is, "Why don't they stay and fight for their country? What a bunch of cowards."

Today, the online news site Britské listy published the following.

Just an impudent observation on August 21st, writes Iva Pekárková on Facebook.

I look at how many people to this day complain that the Americans didn't come to our aid back then - whether by fault of the Yalta agreement, or because they just turned their backs on us. In the course of a few weeks, refugee dorms and encampments in countries to our west began bursting at the seams with the influx of Czechoslovaks and they didn't stop bursting at the seams for at least a year. Just about the whole world, including some fearless Russians, expressed solidarity with us. (A few years ago I met an aging Indian, still to this day proud that back then he wrote in to an Indian newspaper, saying how much he didn't like that occupation.)