When my sister and I were little, our Dad would challenge us with riddles and word games. I mentioned three in my eulogy for Dad:
1. Imagine a two-volume dictionary sitting on a shelf. Each volume has 500 pages. A bookworm is on the first page of letter A. It wants to eat its way to the end of letter Z as fast as possible. How many pages does it need to eat?
2. Should you walk to work or bring your lunch?
3. Is it warmer in the summer or in England?
Dad used the first to show the perils of leaping to conclusions. The second introduced basic economics. As far as I can tell, the third is just amusing; if you see a deeper meaning, please let me know.
My dad died unexpectedly last Friday. He lived a remarkable, generous life. Obituaries in Bloomberg, NYT, and WSJ give a taste of his success in business, charity, and the arts. He was truly a self-made man.
Some of my favorite memories, however, are of my dad’s rare failures. His unsuccessful effort to hurdle my sister’s cello during a game of chase. That time we got ejected from Yankee Stadium for throwing paper airplanes. The one and only set of tennis I ever won from him.
It’s difficult to believe he’s gone. Dad brought such vigor and energy to life. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that we rocked to Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. You should have heard him sing “Movin’ Out”. If I make it to my 80s, I’d be thrilled to have half his energy and sharpness.
Health issues brought me to New York City often this past year. They proved a blessing in disguise. My sister Jennifer and I got to see much more of Dad than usual. We hung out in his office, grabbed a few dinners, and celebrated both Dad’s and my birthdays. We feel fortunate we had that time together.
Dad was an inspiration and a great deal of fun. It’s an honor to bear his name.
A bit of personnel news from my day job at the Urban Institute and the Tax Policy Center:
First, I will be moving upstairs (both figuratively and literally) as the Urban Institute’s first director of economic policy initiatives, starting in June. I’ve loved my time at TPC, but this is a great chance to work with colleagues throughout Urban on an even broader range of economic and fiscal policy issues. And I won’t be leaving TPC entirely; as an institute fellow affiliated with the center, I will continue to chime in on tax and budget issues. With luck, I will also get time to do more writing, including for this blog.
Second, I am thrilled that Len Burman will be returning as TPC director. Len is currently the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Professor of Public Affairs at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, but his real claim to fame is being one of TPC’s founders and its leader through 2009. TPC wouldn’t be TPC without Len’s vision and effort, and I consider it a real coup to get him back.
Why did Homer immortalize the “wine dark” sea rather than, say, the “deep blue” sea? Was Greek wine blue?
That’s what we thought back in high school. But over at Radiolab, Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, and Tim Howard offer a different hypothesis: Homer didn’t have a word for blue. Indeed, William Gladstone–yes, the British Prime Minister–poured through The Odyssey and The Iliad and found no references to blue whatsoever.
And Homer wasn’t alone. Many old texts in many languages don’t reference blue.
Radiolab offers two hypotheses to explain this.
The first is essentially commercial: blue is extremely rare in nature and hard to synthesize. Red dye easy, blue dye hard. So people didn’t often encounter blue in their daily commerce. As a result, “blue” shows up in most languages later than other, easier-to-experience colors.
The second involves perceptual psychology. At the risk of oversimplifying, you don’t see what you don’t have a name for. So, in a sort of perceptual positive feedback, cultures develop words for “blue” once they start seeing it, and vice-versa. As Robert Krulwich puts it, “weirdly, color is a loss of innocence.”
Listen to this segment here (particularly if you are thinking “wait a minute, what about the sky?”):
Among my idiosyncracies are two footwear anti-fetishes: I hate flip flops and high heels. I have never mastered the dark art of walking in flip flops, and I have always been troubled when women teeter at the edge of falling because of shoes designed for fashion (allegedly) rather than function.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed Thursday’s Wall Street Journal piece about the engineering, some would say architecture, of contemporary high heels. I was also pleased that columnist Christina Binkley emphasized some of the negatives early in her piece:
High heels can exact a heavy toll on the body, pushing weight forward onto the ball of the foot and toes and stressing the back and legs. Most doctors recommend a maximum height of 2 inches.
But with heels, many women trade comfort for style. Women spent $38.5 billion on shoes in the U.S. last year, according to NPD Group, and more than half of those sales were for heels over 3 inches high. High heels are seen as sexy and powerful. Stars on the red carpet clamor for the highest heels possible–leading designers who want their shoes photographed into an arms race for height.
That “arms race” comment got me to thinking. Perhaps there’s an externality here? Are women trying to be taller than other women? If Betty has 2 inch heels, does that mean Veronica wants 2 and a half inch heels? And that Betty will then want 3 inch heels? If so, high heels are an example of the kind of pointless competition that Robert Frank highlights in his recent book, “The Darwin Economy“. As noted in the book description
[Such] competition often leads to “arms races,” encouraging behaviors that not only cause enormous harm to the group but also provide no lasting advantages for individuals, since any gains tend to be relative and mutually offsetting. The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone.
Hence today’s question: Are high heels an example of such misguided competition? If so, should we tax them? (Bonus question: Should we tax noisy flip flops?)
P.S. The book description is not correct about the absence of “painful sacrifice.” Someone out there will still purchase such goods (otherwise there would be no revenue to “eliminate government debt”), and there’s a good chance they will view their tax payments as a sacrifice.
My recent post on “tribes” inspired some thoughtful reader comments about natural selection and stereotyping, and two book recommendations to steel yourself against your brain’s instinctive us vs. them wiring:
NPR aired an interesting trio of segments this morning about inconsistency and flip-flopping. I particularly enjoyed Alix Spiegel’s report on Jamie Barden, a psychology professor at Howard University. Barden’s work considers how “tribal” affiliation affects our perceptions of inconsistent behavior by politicians. In one experiment, Barden asked students their view of a hypothetical political operative named Mike who crashed while driving drunk and then, a few weeks later, gave a speech against drunk driving:
Now obviously there are two possible interpretations of Mike’s actions. The first interpretation is that Mike is a hypocrite. Privately he’s driving into poles. Publicly he’s making proclamations. He’s a person whose public and private behavior is inconsistent.
The other interpretation is that Mike is a changed man. Mike had a hard experience. Mike learned. Mike grew.
So when do we see hypocrisy and when do we see growth?
What Barden found is that this decision is based much less on the facts of what happened, than on tribe.
Half the time the hypothetical Mike was described to the students in the study as a Repubican, and half the time he was described as a Democrat.
When participants were making judgments of a Mike who was in their own party, only 16 percent found him to be a hypocrite. When participants were making judgments about a Mike from the opposing party, 40 percent found him to be a hypocrite.
I suspect this is the same phenomenon that leads sports fans to systemtically disagree with referee decisions against their favorite team.
My Sunday reading turned up three examples of glaring numeracy errors. I make plenty of my own errors, so I have sympathy for the perpetrators. But I did want to highlight them as examples of what can happen when quantitative thinking runs off the rails. And the need to remain mathematically vigilant in your daily life.
So please take this short numeracy quiz. My answers after the fold.
1. How much has teen drinking declined?
In today’s New York Times Magazine, Tara Parker-Pope makes the case that teenagers are more conservative than their parents were. For example, the fraction of high-school seniors who reported that they had recently consumed alcohol fell from 72% in 1980 to 40% in 2011.
I have no beef with those statistics (or that trend), but I do wonder about the chart used to illustrate it. Do you see anything wrong in this visual?
2. What’s a fair way for students to hedge their bets on today’s Super Bowl?
A few pages later (in the ink-and-paper edition), the NYT’s Ethicist, Ariel Kaminer receives a letter from a parent whose child was offered a bet on the Super Bowl … by their school. Leaving aside the propriety of book-making in the class room, what do you think of this wager?
My school charged a dollar for students to bet, or “predict,” which team would win the Super Bowl. It was $1 for one team, and if you won, you would get a candy bar. If you bet $3, you could choose both teams and guarantee your candy bar. Is this legal or even morally right?
3. How much does federal compensation exceed private compensation?
In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, finally, Steve Moore makes the case that federal workers are overpaid. What’s wrong in the following excerpt? (ht: Brad DeLong)
Federal workers on balance still receive much better benefits and pay packages than comparable private sector workers, the Congressional Budget Office reports. The report says that on average the compensation paid to federal workers is nearly 50% higher than in the private sector, though even that figure understates the premium paid to federal bureaucrats.
CBO found that federal salaries were slightly higher (2%) on average, while benefits — including health insurance, retirement and paid vacation — are much more generous (48% higher) than what same-skilled private sector workers get.