Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived
A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?
Update: seemingly not
Update: Oh yeah!
Monday, May 22, 2006
Sraffian sidebar update
I have added another name to my short link list. It's the Robert Vienneau blog, in the vague hope that its presence there will remind me that the original purpose of D^2D was heterodox economics. Robert Vienneau is (more or less) an economist of the Sraffian persuasion. Economists are in general rather wary about Sraffians, because we have a nagging suspicion that they might be right, which would be irksome if true as it would involve chucking away everything we did in grad school and learning a lot of really complicated and tedious maths instead. Sraffians also have a frightening habit of creating "simple examples" to illustrate their system; this is Sraffian for "something which starts off by calmly claiming that there are two goods called corn and iron, and five minutes later has ballooned into a wretchedly complicated optimisation problem with no differentiable production function, no equilibrium and all sorts of strange terminology, illustrated with a graph that is if anything more incomprehensible than the model". There used to be lots of Sraffians (or at least, neo-Ricardians) in British universities in the 1970s; I think Andrew Glynn and Paul Ormerod at least got their toes wet in corn-iron models. But these days, not so many.
I have tended to have good luck in conversation with Sraffians by a) agreeing with everything they say and b) learning to say "yes, of course, that follows from the properties of a linear programming system" in a tone of voice that implies I know what it means, all the while backing toward the door and/or looking for a weapon. Anyway, Robert's blog is good reading; in particular, he regularly has a good old go at Gregory Mankiw (Thank You Mr Mankiw) from time to time, which is a salutory reminder that Mankiw's textbook is, as more or less the standard work on neo-classical economics, full of rather more and more serious fundamental mathematical errors than the profession would care to admit.
this item posted by the management 5/22/2006 12:55:00 AM
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Nukes and Nukemen
Blair has lost it.
I am now prepared to say that it is time to stick a fork in the Blair administration; it's done. The reason? The decision this morning to approve in principle a load of nuclear power stations, based on "a first cut" of the DTI's review of energy policy.
It seems a bit harsh to write someone's political career off entirely on this basis alone, particularly when it is probably quite sensible to have a few more nuke stations as part of energy policy going forward (quite apart from anything else, it would make us less dependent on a big natural gas pipeline with Vladimir Putin at the other end of it, albeit that we are not exactly going to discover North Sea Uranium any time soon). But I have my reasons.
I grew up in North Wales, at a point roughly equidistant from the Wylfa and Trawsfynydd nuclear power stations and on the northern edge of the Chernobyl cloud (Update: thinking about this it can't be true; the Chernobyl cloud passed over Cumbria. I suspect I was actually smack bang in the middle of it. I don't have superpowers or anything). Because of this, as an inquisitive teenager, I made it my business to find out a bit about nukes and nukemen.
In my experience, nuclear advocates don't half talk an awful lot of bullshit. Not very many of them are actual liars (unless the context is a leak they are trying to cover up), but there are an awful lot of Walter Mitty characters and chancers in the field. I think that this is a constitutional problem for nukemen, mainly because the lack of power plant building in the UK over the last twenty years means that almost all of their knowledge of nuclear reactors is theoretical (or at best, based on presentations of other people's nuclear reactors) rather than hands-on practical with their own kit. In general, all the problems of nuclear reactors have been solved, in principle. The problem comes when you have to put them into practice, because most nuclear engineering solutions rely on being able to make very big things, machined to incredibly fine tolerances.
(Somewhere in North Wales, there used to be what amounted to a big lead-lined swimming pool, which had a teeny tiny hairline crack which was only noticed when something very nasty indeed began to leak out of it. It is powerfully difficult to weld these things once they are in place, so the main safety response to this problem was 1) a fence, which was moved back a couple of feet every year, and 2) a small laboratory that as far as I know, may still to this day be working hard on the problem of designing a robot that can carry out precision welding in very hostile conditions. While we're on the subject of fun nuke anecdotes, did you know that there are farms in Caernarvonshire that still aren't allowed to sell their lambs, because the Geiger counter still goes click a bit too often?).
Big things are expensive, and fine tolerances are expensive. Nukemen have a really bad habit of forgetting this fact. This is why, in general, nuclear projects tend to go over budget in such an extravagant, life-affirming, joyous kind of way. Also, partly because of the ill-informed criticism that they often get from well-meaning crusties, nukemen are constitutionally inclined to always minimise the dangers of radioactive waste. This habit of mind tends to feed off the first one, in a kind of chain reaction; because they are trying to tell the public that most of the waste from a nuclear plant is basically less radioactive than Cornwall, they find it difficult to admit to themselves or the budget committee that you need to spend millions and millions of pounds on building a special facility to deal with the teaspoonful or two of high-grade waste, which tends to fall into the category "Very Very Very Not Safe".
What I am trying to say here is that the nuclear lobby systematically puts out estimates of the efficiency and safety of its industry which are genuinely laughable, even by the standards of long-dated projections in general. They always, until their backs are absolutely forced up against the wall, give projections which are based on the perfect nuclear project which exists in their mind rather than anything that could actually be built. They tend to assume that every stage, from putting a fence round the site to lowering the rods, will be completed in the most efficient way possible, rather ignoring the fact that the typical big construction project looks a lot more like Wembley Stadium, and nuclear power stations are more complicated. At present, they appear to be pushing the idea that you can basically buy nuclear reactors off the peg from Westinghouse or Areva. Remember, these are the guys who kept on insisting that BNFL could be a viable independent privatised company, right up to the point at which someone reminded them that a prospectus is a legal document and people who fib in them go to jail.
So what I'm saying here, is that the fact that our Prime Minister has taken at face value a "first cut", which of necessity reflects the barely filtered optimism of the nuclear lobby, is as good an indication as I need that his judgement is shot. Britain may or may not need nukes. I am certain, however, that its politics does not need nukemen.
this item posted by the management 5/17/2006 01:56:00 AM
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
The Forehead that Ate London
Alright you bastards; I'll get this in myself before anyone else does. My picture is now up on the Guardian website. I am not bald; that is just unfortunate cropping of the photo I sent them, although I have to admit that my forehead is, if anything, slightly bigger than the photo implies (at one point, my nickname was "Mask). The rather strange facial expression would be more explicable if you could see I was holding a baby at the time; thankfully, the innocent child has been cropped out of the picture too.
this item posted by the management 5/09/2006 04:10:00 AM
Monday, May 08, 2006
Mrs Digest noticed this one:
Have they ever appeared on stage together?
this item posted by the management 5/08/2006 05:58:00 AM
Thursday, May 04, 2006
My Election Diary
(note: everything below is "morally true", by which I mean that much of it is a pack of lies, but it all ought to be true as it reflects deeper insights into electoral psychology. I daresay I will cough up the literal truth if bullied assiduously enough in comments)
1845 Knock off work, having realised that the polls stay open until 2200 and I don't have to vote at lunchtime, thanks to a helpful commenter on my original Commentisfree piece.
1850 While riding the Tube home, I suddenly get horrible pangs of guilt at protest voting. Can't stop thinking about the old Onion joke "at last, our long dark night of competent local administration is over". Camden is an odd place, and rather too keen on chucking ASBOs about, but it does basically work in the sort of way that Lambeth doesn't. It would be pretty hard luck on the users of council services if they ended up being mismanaged because of protest voters.
1900 Arrive home, having rationalised the decision. Most of the services are managed by contractors anyway and most of the rest are staff jobs. All the actual council does is "set policy", which as far as I can tell from the Camden New Journal they regularly fuck up in the most grandiose way possible and the sky does not fall in. So protest it is then.
1905 Missus goes off to vote. Rationalisation process now working apace. Anyway, if the council is hung, New Labour will have to be nicer to us to win it back. This will be good for the working class of the borough as it means that Milliband will have to cough up that �300m worth of housing stock improvements that he is currently withholding as a bribe to make the council tenants vote to transfer their stock to a housing association. I personally think that the tenants are being a bit bloody minded in their refusal to consider a housing association, but they keep voting to turn down the plan, so it is a bit rough to deprive them of their improvements. Ah yes, protest voting is the right and even the moral thing to do.
1935 Missus comes back. My turn to vote. Stomach now churning at the thought of voting out Pat Callaghan, popular local Labour councillor, who I like.
1936 Fortitude, Davies. You knifed Frank Dobson despite him sorting out that parking ticket and you can do this now. Pro-test! Pro-test!
1940 Arrive at polling station. Small kerfuffle relating to the can of lager I am sipping from, resolved amicably.
1941 I am apparently at the wrong polling station. I heard "the school" and went to my son's school. Apparently that is in a different ward and my polling station is the posh school up the road. Small kerfuffle related to this, also resolved amicably.
1942 Receive friendly admonishment from Labour teller about the "Street Drinking Prevention Zone" which I will have to walk through to get to the polling place. Fuck New Labour. Fuck them. Filled with petty anarchistic rage.
1944 Doubts recur. I actually think that the no-drinking zone is probably a good idea given the state of the Market these days, and most of the ASBOs Camden has handed out have also done quite a bit of good by chucking the crack dealers out (presumably onto some other poor bugger's patch, but such is the way of the world). Slight concern about all the posters up saying "164 drug arrests were made in this area last month", "Our sniffer dogs can find minute traces of ecstasy", "Zero tolerance for cannabis" etc � the local economy is on its uppers already without frightening off the tourist trade. But I suspect that this was the idea of the Met rather than LBC.
1945 Arrive at correct polling station. Small kerfuffle about the can of lager I am sipping from, resolved amicably. Oh look, we use the old-fashioned metal ballot boxes, how cute!
1946 Hell is this? Apparently I get three votes. Every time I get the hang of democracy, they bring out a new version with a more complicated interface. It's a bit like Microsoft Flight Simulator. I am damned if I'm voting again.
1947 Well, isn't that neat? I cast a vote for Pat, and then for two randomly selected Lib Dems. Bad news for Jake Sumner, who seemed like a nice enough lad on the one occasion I met him, but a) not nice enough to overcome the urge to protest vote and b) I am probably doing him a favour by dissuading him from a career in New Labour politics.
1948 Democracy served for another year. Back to drinks and telly. Consider painting my index finger purple as a meaningless gesture of solidarity with democrats everywhere, but then realise that it would actually be a(genuinely, as nobody would understand it) meaningless gesture of taking the piss out of some of my weblog enemies.
Epilogue: And as you can see, I was not just blowing smoke about being the median voter �the ward of Camden Town with Primrose Hill returned � Pat Callaghan and two random Lib Dems! My middle class guilt is also largely assuaged, since I don't think that the fall of Camden to NOC can credibly be blamed on the likes of me. Gospel Oak, which is two-thirds council housing, returned three Tories (almost certainly an opportunistic piece of electioneering over the housing transfer thing). Kilburn did three Lib Dems and so did Cantelowes, while Kentish Town did two. Labour did not hold onto the working class vote at all well as far as I can see.
this item posted by the management 5/04/2006 11:09:00 PM
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Because I always like to take the unpopular side ...
Brad DeLong passes on a thought experiment from John Tierney's column about immigration reform, and the fact that it gives great opportunities to Mexicans, while probably depressing wages for US-born unskilled labourers by about 8%.
Here's another thought experiment, which raised a heck of a kerfuffle when I suggested it at Arnold Kling's site:
Imagine that I have invented a new kind of robot, one that will allow jobs in agriculture, construction and domestic service to be carried out much cheaper. In order to build it I need a special metal which is only mined in developing countries, so they will get rich out of my invention too. But this robot promises so many benefits to rich Americans (cheap domestic servants, bigger profits for real estate firms and farm owners) that this doesn't matter. All I need is a hell of a lot of money for development costs.
Would your reaction to my good news be "Fantastic, Danny! And furthermore, I know exactly what the fairest way would be to finance the development of this new technology; we can levy an 8% income tax on the working class!"
(the point I am trying to make here is not really about immigration at all; it's just to point out that economists of the neoliberal stripe are very good at talking about "the economy as a whole", benefits to "consumers" in the aggregate and even Hicks-Kaldor compensation gains. But not so very good at writing the fucking cheques.)
this item posted by the management 5/03/2006 01:53:00 AM
Friday, April 28, 2006
Humanitarian intervention by one of the great countries of democracy
French troops and warplanes tell Chadian rebels to knock it off. These Chadian rebels are the ones that the Sudanese government is accused of supporting. Note that France is not really making many friends for itself in Chad by this action; Idriss Déby is pretty unpopular. He is not a tyrant, but surrounded by the usual corruption allegations and he harasses the opposition; he's a solid mid-table kind of Bolton Wanderers of African strongman. On the other hand, he's almost certainly better than becoming a secondary theatre of the West Darfur civil war, and it's not like taking a few pot-shots at the rebels is going to lead directly to Abu Ghraib, so well done France I say.
Of course, this presumably means that I am an anti-American and a hypocrite, because ... well hey it's France, and it is canonical that the EU is doing nothing about Darfur. This was all in the Economist last week by the way, so I count it frankly surprising that people are still pushing the line that the Yanks are the only ones who care, on the strength of Colin Powell having used the g-word in a speech a year ago and done nack-all since.
They are also having elections in Chad the week after next, which are obviously contributing greatly to the overall instability, but they might paint people's fingers purple, which would be nice.
this item posted by the management 4/28/2006 01:38:00 AM
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Links, that's what the Internet is about!
I have added a further two links to my link list. Their positioning at the top of the list reflects my perception that I would be less likely to break the whole template like I did last time rather than any endorsement, although frankly "Bitch Lab" is probably better than any of the other crap that you read these days. I have been promising to put that link up for a while, and now I have, so enjoy the ocean of nuts, trolls, ne'er-do-wells and single issue cranks that constitutes my clickthrough stream. (Btw, I have considered having adverts on this blog for a while. I do not really object to them on ethical, aesthetic (much) or general punk rock grounds, but they have not gone up because a) it looks like work and b) I really could not face google constantly reminding me "People who read this blog also purchased a blow-up doll, three kilos of sausage meat and a chainsaw" all the time)
"Aaronovitch Watch" is me, (or at least, I have currently forgotten that I am meant to be pretending it isn't) plus a few other Big Name Bloggers, who all have more sense than me when it comes to keeping their Big Names quiet. Oh except Dave who I think is more or less out of the closet. Basically if you like astonishingly wordy and temperamental attacks on Nick Cohen or if you like sarcastic nitpicking at David Aaronovitch, we're your men and women. Oh alright, men. There are no women involved with Aaronovitch Watch. Are you happy now?
I'm having a bit of a vague kind of day today. Are any readers having a vague kind of day? Still, it's better than whatever I was on when I had a go at Andrew Anthony the week before last. In case anyone's wondering, the "very nasty remark" I was holding in reserve and didn't get a chance to use was to suggest that AA had been intellectually flat out writing the "Clothes For Chaps column and that the leap from talking about tweed collars to the epistemological status of moral statements had been a bit much for him. It was a bit unfair but certainly not as unfair as this blatant baiting of David Hirsh, who I think may be getting to that point people often reach in discussions with me where they start applying for a shotgun permit. Hirsh is (whisper it) actually one of the more reasonable Decents who is nobody's idea of a pro-Israel bigot (he has actually been there which puts him in a clear lead over the average online Israelophile) and has written some intelligent things in the past. But the ENGAGE attempt to launch the Big Chief Eye Spy Guide To Finding AntiSemitic Implications in Everyday Phrases is hilarious and I frankly can't see myself not finding it funny for a while.
More Levitt coming soon ... (yes it is, do you think I'm lying or something).
this item posted by the management 4/26/2006 11:47:00 AM
Monday, April 24, 2006
A puzzle, for residents of St James' and Mayfair
Just two questions, possibly for those of my readers who work for the Economist or have other occasion to be walking up and down St James's. Or who are art consultants or have some other way of finding out.
1. What the fucking hell is that thing of a statue outside the Economist building at the moment?
2. Is there any feng shui type significance to the fact that its arsehole is, as far as I can see, pointed directly at the Carlton Club?
 you would not imagine the combinations of search terms I went through trying to find that picture.
 Or possibly Brook's, but I don't think so. It's not like I took a theodolite sighting or anything.
this item posted by the management 4/24/2006 06:07:00 AM
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Slouching Towards Decency
I must say, I regard the "Euston Manifesto" as an entirely positive development for the Decent Left for at least two reasons:
1. They are at least now more or less admitting that the Iraq War was a bloody disaster. Thanks guys, only took you three years. A baby step in the direction of reality.
2. As far as I can see, their document has about as many signatories as it did when it was called "Unite Against Terror", but importantly, far fewer of them have decided to accompany their signature with a pissy little 200-word rant about their enemies on "The Left". This has to be counted a baby step in the direction of civility; soon, perhaps, they will be able to hear the phrase "anti-imperialist" without accusing anyone of being an apologist for mass murder.
However, it is always a matter of "two steps forward, one step back", and the attempt by the Decents to reach out to the other 99% of liberal opinion (I calculate this on the basis that they have c650 signatures, the charitable assumption that each signature represents 10 people who agree with them but haven't signed for some reason or other, and the combined readership of the Guardian and Independent is about 650,000. Sorry guys, if you have more than 1% of the column inches of those newspapers you're over-represented, not under) has had as an unfavourable consequence the rather ludicrous assertion that they are not "the pro war left".
Apparently, there were lots of them who were opposed to the Iraq War at the time, but who have been sooooo disgusted with the rest of us and our cheerleading for the bombers and beheaders that they have lost all hope in the Left. Yeah, right, whatever you say.
The fact is that this is a "pro war" document. It says
"If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a "responsibility to protect"."
For native speakers of English, it is not difficult to work out that "intervention", "rescue", "protect" and such terms, mean war. It is perhaps surprising that a document drafted by so many people who claim to be admirers of George Orwell, uses so many weaselly circumlocutions to avoid writing down the simple declarative English sentence: "We are in favour of fighting wars to remove tyrannic regimes".
So it is a pro war document. I mean this in the sense that it is substantially more in favour of war than the founding documents of the United Nations. The Nuremberg Principles and the Convention on Genocide are what I am thinking about here; the first puts a blanket prohibition on "aggression", while the second allows an exception to this blanket prohibition when the UN as a body acts in cases of "genocide". Genocide is defined for the purposes of the Convention in a really quite precise manner:
"In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Norman Geras (for it is he; I have been having this argument with him in slow motion for the last two years) wants to substantially lower the bar for fighting wars of aggression; in favour of the precise and restrictive test of the genocide convention, he wants to substitute a rather more subjective "threshold of inhumanity". It is not made clear in the Euston Manifesto, but you should also be aware that there is a very odd approach to the statute of limitations on "inhumanity" in this case; Norman does actually believe that Saddam Hussein's atrocities in 1992 formed part of the case for the war in 2003. There is a certain logic to this; after all, it is unsatisfactory to allow a regime to nickel-and-dime its population to the brink of extinction, never quite reaching the threshold which would justify a genuine "humanitarian intervention" (itself a marked weakening of the original UN charters on wars of aggression, an entirely controversial and ambiguous field of international law, but one that the EM crowd clearly want to further weaken, because nobody considered Iraq to have been a humanitarian intervention). But I bring it up to establish the point that this new doctrine of "internationalism" is not very clear at all on the subject of cost benefit analyses.
In a post defending his doctrine, Norm makes a small baby step in the direction of feasibility; he admits that the "duty to protect" should not be translated into action if the consequences would be a nuclear catastrophe. For which, I suppose, much thanks. On the other hand, it's still a long way from the threshold of "can it reasonably be expected that this war will make things better rather than worse?" which appears to be the principle underlying the UN conventions. I personally would say that this is the only sensible threshold to have when you are setting out general rules; it is all very well to hypothesise general "duties", but the point of politics (and the reason that there is a difference between political theory and moral philosophy) is that you actually do have to think about the effects in the real world.
To take the example from Norm's post, if it happened to be the case that someone had a really bad relationship with their mother, that every time they visited their parents there was a massive and vicious fight, putting strain on their mother's weak heart and leaving the crockery all smashed, then we wouldn't talk about "setting aside the prima facie duty of filial piety, in cases where doing so would involve some massive disbenefit"; we'd say that the sensible thing to do was to always not visit home, except when it was clearly obviously the right thing to do. Which is, roughly, what the UN conventions actually say about wars. Since one important difference between visiting your mum and starting a war is that one of them necessarily involves killing people, I think that this is actually quite important.
And this is why neither I nor anyone else on the anti war (as in, roughly believing that the UN in the 1940s got it right about wars of aggression, as the Decents apparently believe they got it right about human rights) are likely to stop "picking over the rubble" of the Iraq war any time soon. Or for that matter, the Vietnam War or any of the other wars of aggression that have ended in disaster. Wars of aggression have a really really bad track record; that's why they were banned in Nuremberg.
This counts as me "engaging" with the Euston Manifesto, by the way. I don't believe there was any obligation on me to do this; I have been arguing with these people for two years on all of these subjects, and the fact that they have written their views down after meeting in a pub is an event that cannot be expected to loom larger in my life than in theirs. But there you go. I have put this on my own blog, and written something with a joke in it for the Guardian website by way of trying to redress the cosmic balance.
 By the way, the statement in the EM that human rights are "precisely" defined by the UN Convention is bad news for our mates the gays, is it not? I don't think that abortion rights are in there either.
 690 signatures today, but lots and lots of them appear to be Americans, which means that using the column inches of the Guardian and Independent as the benchmark for Decent coverage becomes a less and less valid basis. Decentism gets huge amount of coverage in the States, and to claim that this doesn't count is, of course, anti-American.
this item posted by the management 4/23/2006 09:24:00 AM