February 25, 2018

QotD: Trade deficits

Filed under: Economics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

No economic statistic is reported more dolefully these days than the country’s trade balance.

Ever on the alert for signs of impending economic disaster, the press routinely couples reports of record monthly trade deficits with warnings of experts and Government officials of the dangers of the deficit.

Just what is so dangerous about receiving more goods from foreigners than we give them back is never actually explained, but it is often suggested that that it causes a loss of American jobs.

News reports sometimes even provide estimates of the number of jobs lost owing to every billion dollar increase in the trade deficit. Heaven only knows how these estimates are made, but presumably they are based on the assumption that imports deprive Americans of jobs they could have had producing domestic substitutes for the imports.

It almost seems tedious to do so, but it apparently still needs to be pointed out that buying less from foreigners means that they will buy less from us for the simple reason that they will have fewer dollars with which to purchase our products.

Thus, even if reducing imports increases employment in industries that compete with imports, it must also reduce employment in export industries.

Moreover, the notion that the trade deficit destroys domestic jobs is contradicted by the tendency of the deficit to increase during economic expansions and to decrease during contractions.

The demand for imports rises with income, so imports normally tend to rise faster than exports when a country expands more rapidly than its trading partners. The trade deficit is a symptom or rising employment — not the cause of rising unemployment.

That balance-of-trade figures are misunderstood and misused is not surprising, since their function has never been to inform or to enlighten. Their real purpose is to provide spurious statistical and pseudo-scientific support to groups seeking protectionist legislation. These groups try to cloak their appeals to protection with an invocation of the general interest in a favorable balance of trade.

David Glasner, “What’s So Bad about the Trade Deficit?”, Uneasy Money, 2016-06-02 (originally published in the New York Times in 1984).

February 24, 2018

QotD: The use of the [awkward silence] in conversation

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

And then there’s [awkward silence]. I learned this one from the psychoanalysts. Nobody likes an awkward silence. If a patient tells you something, and you are awkwardly silent, then the patient will rush to fill the awkward silence with whatever they can think of, which will probably be whatever they were holding back the first time they started talking. You won’t believe how well this one works until you try it. Just stay silent long enough, and the other person will tell you everything. It’s better than waterboarding.

The only problem is when two psychiatrists meet. One of my attendings tried to [awkward silence] me at the same time I was trying to [awkward silence] him, and we ended up just staring at each other for five minutes until finally I broke down laughing.

“I see you find something funny,” he said. “Tell me more.”

Scott Alexander, “3/4”, Slate Star Codex, 2016-07-12.

February 23, 2018

QotD: Cosmopolitans, as viewed by non-Cosmopolitans

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… it’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe: because that means our leaders can’t see themselves the way the Brexiteers and Trumpistas and Marine Le Pen voters see them.

They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.

They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

Ross Douthat, “The Myth of Cosmopolitanism”, New York Times, 2016-07-03.

February 22, 2018

QotD: The importance of defining your terms

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

If you don’t understand these [gun-related] terms already, why should you care? You should care because when you misuse them, you signal substantially broader gun restrictions than you may actually be advocating. So, for instance, if you have no idea what semi-automatic means, but you’ve heard it and it sounds scary, and you assume that it means some kind of machine gun, so you argue semi-automatics should be restricted, you’ve just conveyed that most modern handguns (save for revolvers) should be restricted, even if that’s not what you meant.

It’s hard to grasp the reaction of someone who understands gun terminology to someone who doesn’t. So imagine we’re going through one of our periodic moral panics over dogs and I’m trying to persuade you that there should be restrictions on, say, Rottweilers.

Me: I don’t want to take away dog owners’ rights. But we need to do something about Rottweilers.
You: So what do you propose?
Me: I just think that there should be some sort of training or restrictions on owning an attack dog.
You: Wait. What’s an “attack dog?”
Me: You know what I mean. Like military dogs.
You: Huh? Rottweilers aren’t military dogs. In fact “military dogs” isn’t a thing. You mean like German Shepherds?
Me: Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody’s trying to take away your German Shepherds. But civilians shouldn’t own fighting dogs.
You: I have no idea what dogs you’re talking about now.
Me: You’re being both picky and obtuse. You know I mean hounds.
You: What the fuck.
Me: OK, maybe not actually ::air quotes:: hounds ::air quotes::. Maybe I have the terminology wrong. I’m not obsessed with vicious dogs like you. But we can identify kinds of dogs that civilians just don’t need to own.
You: Can we?

Because I’m just talking out of my ass, the impression I convey is that I want to ban some arbitrary, uninformed category of dogs that I can’t articulate. Are you comfortable that my rule is going to be drawn in a principled, informed, narrow way?

So. If you’d like to persuade people to accept some sort of restrictions on guns, consider educating yourself so you understand the terminology that you’re using. And if you’re reacting to someone suggesting gun restrictions, and they seem to suggest something nonsensical, consider a polite question of clarification about terminology.

Ken White, “Talking Productively About Guns”, Popehat, 2015-12-07.

February 21, 2018

QotD: Regulation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… “regulation” could also be described as high-handed and ignorant interference in the mutually advantageous deals contracted voluntarily among the miserable serfs of the state, interference at best inspired by antique theories of natural monopoly and using antique policies appropriate to obsolete technologies, and at worst by conspiracies to benefit existing rich people, backed by state violence. Much of regulation, looked at coldly, would fall under such a definition, if not immediately on its passage, then after a few years of technological change or regulatory capture.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality, 2016.

February 20, 2018

QotD: Kindness

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

Be kind. Mean is easy; kind is hard. Somewhere in eighth grade, many of us acquired the idea that the nasty putdown, the superior smile, the clever one liner, are the signs of intelligence and great personal strength. But this kind of wit is, to borrow from the great John Scalzi, “playing the game on easy mode.” Making yourself feel bigger by making someone else feel small takes so little skill that 12-year-olds can do it. Those with greater ambitions should leave casual cruelty behind them.

Megan McArdle, “After 45 Birthdays, Here Are ’12 Rules for Life'”, Bloomberg View, 2018-01-30.

February 19, 2018

QotD: Experiencing an earthquake for the first time

Filed under: Quotations, Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

I have experienced a couple of earthquakes in my life. Most of them were so tiny I didn’t notice, but a big one happened in Scotts Mills, about 15 miles from the home in 1993. The quake was 5.6 on the richter scale, and did some damage around the town, although little if any that I could see in the house.

I left the house when it started, in my bathrobe. At just before 6:00 it was just getting light in March and cool outside, but I was alone. I stood there, as the rumbling stopped and the movement died down staring at the ground.

What was once so solid and trustworthy, wasn’t any more. All the terms you use to describe something absolute and reliable: rock solid, rock bottom, foundation, all of them presume the place you can go for safe stability is the earth its self. Now it was moving around, it couldn’t be trusted. Suddenly the world felt… untrustworthy. I was filled with a queasy sense of unease and uncertainty. There’s simply nowhere else to go when you can’t trust the solidity of the planet beneath your feet.

Christopher Taylor, “ROCK SOLID NO MORE”, Word Around the Net, 2016-06-13.

February 18, 2018

QotD: The “rules” of Twitter

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

• How dare you talk about A when B is infinitely more important?

• If I disagree with you, you’re almost certainly arguing in bad faith and probably evil as well.

• You are personally responsible, in toto and in perpetuity, for everything that your friends, colleagues, and/or ancestors have ever said, done, or thought.

• Sentences #2 and #3 do not apply to me.

Terry Teachout, “Twitter, in four sentences”, About Last Night, 2015-06-22.

February 17, 2018

QotD: Modern forms of argument

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

I’m not sure whether this is an example of Argumentum ad anus extractus, which is the logical fallacy of pulling stuff out of your ass, or Argumentum ad feces fabricatum, which is argument by making shit up.

Tamara Keel, “News to me”, View From The Porch, 2016-06-13.

February 16, 2018

QotD: It’s not economics, it’s magic!

Filed under: Economics, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

People who really believe that trade restrictions prevent domestic unemployment or raise domestic wages – people who really believe that minimum wages raise the incomes of low-skilled workers without causing any loss of employment or worsening of other terms of these workers’ jobs – people who really believe that government-mandated family leave leaves workers better off – are like people who attend magic shows and really believe that the magician causes a rabbit to materialize out of the thin air within the magician’s hat.

“Wow!” exclaims an audience member. “I saw with my own eyes the magician pull a rabbit from a hat that only a moment earlier was empty! And also, the magician assures me that that’s what he did. He wouldn’t lie to me. So it must be true that the magician pulled a rabbit miraculously from his hat – that he bends reality to his will. I’m impressed!!”

These people believe their eyes. And why shouldn’t they? The empirical record, after all, is stuffed with rabbits being pulled from magicians’ hats – hats that audiences saw were empty just moments before live rabbits were pulled from them. What’s not to believe?

Don Boudreaux, “Do You Believe in Magic?”, Café Hayek, 2016-06-22.

February 15, 2018

QotD: Computer models

Filed under: Economics, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

How can one be certain about outcomes in a complex system that we’re not really all that good at modeling? Anyone who’s familiar with the history of macroeconomic modeling in the 1960s and 1970s will be tempted to answer “Umm, we can’t.” Economists thought that the explosion of data and increasingly sophisticated theory was going to allow them to produce reasonably precise forecasts of what would happen in the economy. Enormous mental effort and not a few careers were invested in building out these models. And then the whole effort was basically abandoned, because the models failed to outperform mindless trend extrapolation — or as Kevin Hassett once put it, “a ruler and a pencil.”

Computers are better now, but the problem was not really the computers; it was that the variables were too many, and the underlying processes not understood nearly as well as economists had hoped. Economists can’t run experiments in which they change one variable at a time. Indeed, they don’t even know what all the variables are.

This meant that they were stuck guessing from observational data of a system that was constantly changing. They could make some pretty good guesses from that data, but when you built a model based on those guesses, it didn’t work. So economists tweaked the models, and they still didn’t work. More tweaking, more not working.

Eventually it became clear that there was no way to make them work given the current state of knowledge. In some sense the “data” being modeled was not pure economic data, but rather the opinions of the tweaking economists about what was going to happen in the future. It was more efficient just to ask them what they thought was going to happen. People still use models, of course, but only the unflappable true believers place great weight on their predictive ability.

Megan McArdle, “Global-Warming Alarmists, You’re Doing It Wrong”, Bloomberg View, 2016-06-01.

February 14, 2018

QotD: Portuguese quality of life … or “Is Portugal a shithole?”

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

You see, you can judge a country’s status as an … ah… excrement sinkhole by figuring out “Migration out or in?”

In Portugal this picture is complicated. They are suffering “brain drain” as their youngest, brightest and most educated decamp for Germany, England, or even Brazil (where the picture is also complicated) but at the same time they receive immigrants from Africa, Brazil, South America, China and, weirdly, Russia (I’ve never figured out if these are descendants from people who took their crappy cars when the wall came down, and drove until they hit the ocean (or drove/walked till they hit the ocean) or whether they’re a fresh migration. I know the first existed, but I haven’t sussed out the other particulars.)

So, Portugal is not a shithole. What it is is a country so tied down by regulations, rules, and the ever present weight of tradition (Portugal, like many Baltic countries produces way more history than it can consume locally) that it works at cross purposes to itself.

Looking at what Portuguese (at least some) can do abroad, in terms of insane amounts of work and sometimes success, one assumes that if Portugal could eschew its perennial fascination with socialism, it would … well… I don’t know, but it would be scary for good or ill.

I mean for a country tied up with socialism (first national, then international) for the best part of a century, it’s not doing badly at all. Look at it this way: it hasn’t gone Venezuela. And the gentleman in the back who just said that’s because they can’t do anything efficiently, not even socialism, is just being mean. Yes, the Portuguese have been locked in a tragic fight throughout history with their traditional enemies, the Portuguese, but that’s no reason to look down on them.

Sarah Hoyt, “On Shaking The Dust From One’s Sandals”, According to Hoyt, 2018-01-17.

February 13, 2018

QotD: Mark Twain on Indian weather

Filed under: Humour, India, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.

Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, 1897.

February 12, 2018

QotD: Science on the brink

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Present reality is that science is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That’s the not-so-tongue-in-cheek message in Science on the Verge, a new book by European scientist Andrea Saltelli and seven other contributors. Science on the Verge is a 200-page indictment of what to the lay reader appears to be a monumental deterioration across all fields, from climate science to health research to economics. The mere idea that “most published research results are false” should be cause for alarm. But it is worse than that. The crisis runs through just about everything we take for granted in modern science, from the use of big data to computer models of major parts of our social, economic and natural environment and on to the often absurd uses of statistical methods to fish for predetermined conclusions.

Terence Corcoran, “Science is on the verge of a nervous breakdown”, Financial Post, 2016-06-13.

February 11, 2018

QotD: British Socialism in the 1930s

Filed under: Britain, History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937.

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