Pursuit of Truthiness

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Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Cool Papers!

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The Location of U.S. States’ Overseas Offices, Andrew Cassey

A paper can do many pages of analysis but often the most interesting part is a simple fact that the author did not discover.  In this case, the best part of the paper was learning that the state of Pennsylvania operates 17 overseas offices to promote the exports of Pennsylvania comanies.  40 U.S. states operate at least one office.   No one in Oklahoma can remember whether their offices opened in 2002 or 2003 (I actually went to a presentation on the history of Oklahoma’s Vietnam offices a couple years ago but I also fail to remember when they said it opened).  The most interesting methodological choice in the paper is to ignore Public Choice and assume that bureaucrats, at least in the Departments of Commerce, have the primary goal of minimizing private transactions costs.

Corruption in Iraq: Conflict, Costs and Causes, Frank Gunter

The author was in charge of U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Iraq and the paper is part of an upcoming book on the political economy of Iraq, making this a very cool paper.  On the other hand, listening to the paper was one of the more depressing half-hours of my life.  It seems that corruption is everywhere and every attempt to change it results in spectacular failure.  Even  worse, the corruption is largely of the “dishonest”, wealth-destroying type rather than the “honest” kind where bribed judges stay bought and corruption is a way of getting things done in the face of crushing regulation.  Of the ten or so causes of corruption identified in the literature, Iraq basically has all of them- including a very high rate of cousin marriage (as high as 60% ?!).

Bailouts and Bankruptcies, Y.J.  Yoon.

Another paper where the facts were the interesting part.  In 2005, there were more bankrupcies than divorces in the U.S.  This is hard to see personally because bankruptcy is socially stigmatized yet relatively easy to hide; when people divorce their friends will almost certainly know but no one talks about going bankrupt.  Another interesting fact is that bankruptcies were high in boom years as well as in recessions.  Yoon dismissed my suggestion that rising end-of-life medical costs could be responsible for rising bankruptcies but he didn’t seem to have looked at the data (not that I have either).  It occurs to me that banks and credit card companies have probably done a lot more research into personal bankruptcy than academic economists have.

The Growth of Social Security: Dynamic Effects of Public Choice, Youngshin Kim

This job market paper was not especially interesting but did prove conclusively that some people at George Mason do math and econometrics.

More facts:

Shrimp fishing is the largest US fishing sector (really?) and yet 85% of shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported.  U.S. shrimpers have to use “turtle excluding devices”.

Spreading the Wealth Around, Greg Mankiw

The paper is online here.

Mankiw examines the philosophical underpinnings of wealth redistribution.  Economics is utilitarian but most people’s moral intuition is not.  Mankiw proposes a “just desserts” theory in which justice means that people are paid the marginal product of their labor (their ‘innate’ MPl, or their MPl with the institutions of a society? “that’s the next paper”).

In the course of the talk, Mankiw claims that he personally is not in the top 1% of the top 1% of the U.S. income distribution.  So I guess even a best selling principles textbook can’t make you $11 million a year.

“Education is like a wonka bar.  A few people find it gave them golden tickets that give them unimaginable opportunities.  But every gets to enjoy the delicious chocolate of knowledge.”

Mankiw identifies a seeming paradox.  Most people think it is good to tax rich Americans at 33% to support poor Americans, but very few (practically just Peter Singer) think it is a good idea to tax the rich of the world (ie almost all Americans) at 33% and redistribute the money to to poor of the world.  Whatever philosophy these redistributionists have, it can’t be utilitarian (again excepting Peter Singer).

Agent-Based Computational Models

One of these was part of a project to build a model of the Pashtun tribal group, who are of great interest to those trying to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The actual model was so far unimpressive, but the presentation did feature the sentence “in our model women do not have any purpose except to marry and make children”.

Another model attempted to simulate agents with limited cognitive capacity, who can consider only six strategies at a time.  It was hard for me to evaluate how well the model worked but it did convince me that the field is worth looking in to.

Better Living Through Economics, John Seigfried

Ok, this is a book not a paper.

It tells 12 stories about how economists changed policy for the better.  Most surprising to me was the extent to which economists were involved in ending the military draft.

While talking about matching markets and signalling, Seigfried gave a great quote from Al Roth (who designed the credible signals in the economics job market and who is at Harvard, and is “normally a humble guy”): “We wouldn’t hire anyone who used a signal on us.  We know you would work for us.  Wasting a signal by signalling up shows you are a bad economist.”

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Written by James Bailey

April 4, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Posted in Economics, inequality, Iraq

A Simple Theory of Dick Cheney

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It is at least a year too late for people to really care about Cheney analysis, but when I think up something that seems obvious but hasn’t been said before there is only one thing to do.

There are lots of simple theories that people throw out for the actions of their opponents.  Some popular postulates are crazy, stupid, evil, corrupt, misguided, or power hungry.  Evil and power-hungry were probably the top Cheney explanations; think of Jon Stewart’s portrayal of Cheney as Darth Vader.

“Misguided” is an easy word to use, but the process by which people become misguided is important and presumably complicated.  How did Anakin Skywalker turn into Darth Vader?  It took several films for Darth to become “misguided”.

Cheney’s story is indeed long and complicated, though it is also interesting and important.  It is told well by Barton Gellman in Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.  (Professor Buckley recommended the book, saying “read it in a well-lit room with your back to a wall, it is quite frightening”).

The short version, however, is indeed short.  Cheney didn’t have to be evil, corrupt or power-hungry to do the things he did.  All he had to be was the one thing his critics rarely called him: stupid.  Not even really stupid, just possessing one faulty logic circuit.

Cheney always talked about the “threat”.  He took pride in being the one who was always thinking about America’s enemies and how to stop them.  And in a zero-sum world, an obsession with thwarting the efforts of enemies might even be healthy.  But of course we are not in a zero-sum world, and “how can we make things worse for America’s enemies” is not the same question as “how can we make America better off”.  And the latter is the question the vice-president should always be thinking about.

But can we really have common interests with our enemies?  Is foreign policy really a non-zero-sum game?  In the Cold War it certainly was.  A major nuclear war would be very bad for the Soviets but also bad for us.  Similarly, the Iraq war and the torture policy were bad news to some of America’s enemies (Saddam’s regime and any terrorists we capture) but were probably also bad for us, given the expense in lives and money of the first and the reputation hit and enemy radicalization of the second.

I suppose the real lesson here is that politicians should have to study economics and listen to economists, to whom game theory, non-zero-sum thinking, and marginal (rather than black-and-white, all-or-nothing) thinking are second nature.  It should be now surprise that it was an economist (Petraeus) who turned things around in Iraq by finding common ground with some former enemies (non-zero-sum thinking applied to Sunni tribal militias) and using incentives to change behavior.  I know everyone thinks their own field is more important than it is in reality (that’s why they choose it, right?) but it seems like economists are more rational in some important ways, and they are probably the best group we’ve got until professional rationalists come into their own.

Written by James Bailey

January 12, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Would Edmund Burke have opposed the war in Iraq?

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Edmund Burke, the 19th century British statesman and writer, is something of a patron saint to conservative intellectuals- the same people who spent countless hours arguing about whether the war was a good idea, the same people who largely decided that it was. So I was quite surprised to realize that I’ve never heard this question asked before.

Burke’s most celebrated book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, put forward the most basic conservative idea- that human institutions have evolved as they have for good reasons, and even seemingly unjust and arbitrary institutions should be changed gradually rather than completely overthrown. It is not obvious why overthrowing a government and trying to rebuild a country from the ground up is a better idea in the Iraq of 2003 than it was in the France of 1789. There are arguments to be made, of course, for why this time is different; but, by and large, they were not made. The problem was ignored.

Less famously, Burke was a leading anti-imperialist of his time, advocating a lighter hand in Ireland and India, and supporting the American revolutionaries. He was not a man to easily support the occupation of another nation.

This is the problem with having dead heroes. When they would agree with you, you take comfort in the fact and proclaim it. But when their condemnation should ring loud and clear, we do our best to silence their nagging voice.  When people we claim to respect cannot speak with their own voice, we must remember their words, whether they are convenient for us or not.  This sort of intellectual honesty, practiced widely, could have made for some very different recent history.

Written by James Bailey

July 14, 2008 at 4:19 pm

The successes of the Iraq War…

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I’m sure it’s helped cull our army of some people who were cut out for a different world.

Imagination and irresponsibility collide with a brilliant flash.

Written by James Bailey

July 19, 2007 at 2:05 am

Posted in clever and bored, Iraq

Maliki on Iraq

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Iraq’s Prime Minister writes about his country’s past and future in the Wall Street Journal.

There’s a lot of fluff, but also a lot of badly needed perspective.

Written by James Bailey

June 14, 2007 at 2:41 am

Posted in Iraq, military, Politics