Monday, 26 March 2007

... and a great article by [copy][paste] Zbigniew Brzezinski on the War on Terror. I couldn't agree more:

Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum. The terror entrepreneurs, usually described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats."
The Economist assesses Iraq as a disaster. This is, I guess, the closest we'll ever get to an admission of error. The Economist threw its weight behind the invasion, swallowing the phony "evidence" for Saddam's possession of WMD. It has its own small share of the blame for the subsequent disaster.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Progress on the model. I've now managed to prove that if the democracy makes it more costly to immigrate... then fewer people migrate. Never let it be said that formal theory can't generate powerful counter-intuitive predictions.

(Why isn't this trivial? Well, substantively it is trivial of course. Formally, the problem is that migration is partly a collective decision. If you think lots of skilled workers are going to migrate and increase the democratic tax base, then you as an unskilled worker might want to migrate with them. Skilled workers face slightly more ambiguous incentives: if many of them are migrating, the tax base will increase but that might also give the unskilled median voter an incentive to put taxes up. So, before I can say anything about how migration costs affect the game, I have to work out the equilibrium.)

The next step is showing more interesting things. The essential idea is: if there are a lot of unskilled workers in the dictatorship, the democratic median voter will put immigration costs up to deter them from coming (while allowing some skilled workers to come). Then the dictator will take advantage of his subjects' reduced incentives to leave by increasing taxes.

I lost a day this week. I woke up today and wondered why my alarm hadn't gone off. Then my phone told me it was Saturday. Where the hell did Friday go? Apparently it was so like Thursday (and the day before that...) that I didn't even notice it. Give me my day back, dammit!

Friday, 23 March 2007

the sky is falling, grab your nuclear umbrella

It's 11:30 and I am just finishing a lemma, I'm sitting here in the kitchen thinking: "hey, this Bud Light isn't really so bad". That's how low I have sunk.

Brainless chicken-licken cliche of the moment: Europe is being overrun by muslim extremists!

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

I'm tired and working too hard and haven't been sleeping too well. Anyway, term is now finally over - I handed in a not very good paper proposal for my political economy class. Still, it helped germinate some ideas which may bear fruit sooner or later. Now, for the next week, I'm going to work on migration, which will bear fruit.

Something that comes through in the debate between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris (see last entry) is the difference in registers. Sam Harris is overwhelmingly focused on a scientific idea of truth, and his problem with religion is that it does not meet these standards. Andrew Sullivan embraces a broader idea of truth, and talks about the emotional resources that religion provides him with. I think this is true of atheists and religious moderates more generally. It is not a criticism of atheists: the criterion of scientific truth is arguably the clearest one we have got, and abandoning it bears heavy cognitive costs. However, I do think that a challenge for the current wave of non-religious and anti-religious thinkers is to give an account of what, in a secular world-view, can replace the ethical framework provided by religion. Atheism's dirty secret is that the extant secular answers to that are not very convincing.

(But then nor are the extant religious justifications for morality. There is a notorious problem in explaining why we ought to obey God's commands unless they are independently justifiable; and if the latter, why bring God in?)

Question for today: what would a modern and unillusioned set of reasons for ethical behaviour look like? Not, I think, very much like a watertight argument that moves from premises to conclusions. I'll stop there and get back to work.

NP: Os Mutantes Le Premier Bonheur du Jour

Monday, 19 March 2007


Went and had dinner with the Janes' which was nice as usual. This weekend I have mostly been stressing about a not (particularly important) paper proposal I have to write. (This is the cheap talk thing I've mentioned here.) I think overall I haven't found anything particularly profound from the deep economic theory point of view... but maybe I do have a straightforward formal approach to ideological categories, utilising pretty standard cheap talk games. In other words, if I can find some useful applications it might go somewhere. Meanwhile I am just going to write something up and maybe a small example.

This exchange between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on religious faith is worth reading. Sam Harris is hilarious:
"Needless to say, I believe you have given the Supreme Pontiff far too much credit as a champion of reason. The man believes that he is in possession of a magic book, entirely free from error."
I also read Dawkins' The God Delusion over Christmas. I thought it was a bit disappointing: not enough intellectual meat. For example, he takes up a (to me) very interesting argument by a prominent theologian, that the law-governed nature of the universe (as discovered by science) is evidence for a divine creator, and dismisses it too quickly. And he uses probabilistic arguments about the unlikeliness of God, without really going into what probability means when taken out of its normal scientific context - a long-running philosophical question.

Saturday, 17 March 2007


Up late last night (and early this morning) studying for my last exam - analysis 321. I spent most of the evening going over Fourier analysis. Fourier analysis came up in a big way, and I learned that I still don't get it. No matter.

Now I am writing my paper proposal for cheap talk - it's due in on Friday. I can see my way to a simple demonstration game, but I suspect that it is NOT INTERESTING. Boo.

Rolando very kindly took me out for lunch to the Peruvian place in Roger's Park - to "his people" as he might put it ;-) - and we ate ceviche and discussed academic politics - he's about to start teaching a nursing degree. I'm taking care of Bluebell, Rolando and Pilar's dog, over the weekend because they're away. Bluebell is fat, friendly and wholly delightful, although she tends to get excited when she sees me, and pee herself.

It's kind of flattering, I mean, she doesn't pee herself for just anybody. She's never done it for Shyanmei.

Anyway. SPRING BREAAAK! And I will go wild with... completing the migration model. Then Miami in a couple of weeks. If I live that long without any cash to eat. The scumbags at US Bank charged me $90 because a check put me in overdraft for one day. I went to complain and got a lecture about managing my finances. I'll move accounts if I can - all banks are thieves, but at least I can reward them with disloyalty.

Thursday, 15 March 2007


Got talking to a homeless guy on the L-train. He was a very fat black man with a loud cackle and a strongly expressed dislike of Christian Republicans. Turned out to be a fairly thoughtful chap. He touched me for cash and, with queasy inner relief, I told him I was broke this month. (Of course, the definition of "broke" depends on where you are standing.)

A few days ago, while I was walking with the beautiful blondes on the golf course, I came on a little jury-rigged tent by the train track, with an American flag and someone inside. I said hello, what brings you here, to which he murmured "sleeping" so I left him to it - the theory being, by the way, that a rough sleeper probably welcomes his sleep more than he will welcome your company, no matter how well-intentioned you are.

Work with the model continues, nothing to report, though I have stripped it down a bit. Stripping down models, God, that sounds so much better than it actually is. Saw Kemal on Gmail and said hello. Exile has turned me into an internet chat addict, using a combination of Skype and Gmail. It's nice but conversations are dreadfully slow and I tend to end up browsing the web while I chat.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Migration: so I simplified the model a bit, on a suggestion from Guy, and it now looks more tractable. The aim is just to show that the larger the initial difference between a democracy and a dictatorship, in terms of citizens' productivity, the higher the barriers set to migration by the democracy's median voter, and the higher the resulting tax/theft rate of the dictator. I was spending too much time fiddling with the question of whether the dictator might not be better off setting up a Singapore-style tax haven for rich democrats. Sometimes that will happen, but it's not a central concern.

So I'm just going to assume that migration is one way; and I'm going to have only two types of workers (high and low productivity), with different mixes in each country. Then the democracy's median voter always has an incentive to bring in high productivity workers - up until they are just a bare minority, so that the unskilled still control the political outcome. Having only two types makes it easier to parametrize differences in productivity between countries, and that's what I need to get some comparative statics going.

Cheap talk/ideology: still no traction. I need a way for message meanings to be fixed in some sense, and that is hard in a model where players are rational.

Life: I am utterly, utterly skint. I can't even buy myself a coffee at the moment. God knows how I'll survive until hitting Miami (w00t!) at the end of the month.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Trying to post more regularly

Today I've been struggling on with the model. At the moment I am trying to get some comparative statics out of it. I seem to be spending too much time focusing on the decision problem of the dictator (who maximizes revenue with respect to a proportional tax and universal flat rate benefit) and not enough on that of the citizens. It may be time to try a different and simpler approach to getting at the intuitions I want.

Recovered enough from my flu to go swimming again for the first time in 10 days. I've been doing 20 lengths a day - the pool here is huge and free, they even give you a free fluffy towel on your way in, and you never have to share with more than one other person per lane. Came out and the spring evening light reminded me of home: even the people walking had an English look.

Now I have to do something for Marco Battaglini's class - a paper proposal. I'm interested in trying to model ideology, something that economists have had less success with than modelling institutions. (There are actually plenty of models out there but none of them have really "caught" and given us a basis to go forward with.) The basic ideas behind analysis of ideology and discourse seem to be as follows:
  1. People describe states of the world in discrete, lumpy categories.
  2. These categories influence how they perceive the world.
  3. Their categories also influence how they act.
  4. Categories are contested - fought over, manipulated for strategic purposes etc.
Most theorists of ideology back these claims up with one of two positions: (A) social reality is created by our ideological categories, and there is no truth beyond them ("social constructivism") or (B) categories inescapably limit our perceptions of reality ("conceptual schemes"). I don't find either of these very appealing. Position (A) is, frankly, mad. Position (B) is not mad, but it has severe difficulties (see Davidson, "On the very idea of a conceptual scheme" - I don't claim to have any thoughts beyond this, so if you still prefer (B) then don't let me stop you). Methodologically, I also dislike the notion that analysing linguistic categories should tie you into any non-trivial metaphysical position. (Science should be unified, of course, but as the programmers say, "think about loose coupling".)

A simpler backup, with less hostages to fortune, would be (C1) finding out about reality is costly; (C2) we find out about reality partly in order to communicate with others; (C3) we can choose what to look for in our perceptions; and (C4) our categories for communication are determined for us beforehand by a general purpose language, rather than worked out ad hoc for every speech act. (C1-4) will, I think, give us what we need to understand that discursive categories influence perception. The rest follows.

A good starting point in modelling terms is cheap talk signalling games. These have 1 and 3 of my four numbered points but not so much 2 and 4. The main problem is that in these games, equilibria are usually conceived of as unique to (and perhaps optimal for, allowing for the different interests of sender and receiver) a particular signalling situation. That's what I want to get away from: political communication is much more stereotyped than that. But it would be nice to find a way to do so simply, without e.g. having to have message categories evolve in some complicated scenario.

My current plan is to let people look at reality (a continuous variable) by specifying a set and in effect asking nature "is it in the set"? That gives you 2. Then they can tell other people what they find, take actions themselves etc. Perhaps it will be enough to find multiple equilibria, which benefit different groups differently. That gives you 4.

Of course, there's a 90% chance that there is nothing interesting to model here, as is so often the way. The key is to find a simple application and show that "categories matter" and that formal analysis can extract some insights. It would be good if, eventually, dialogue between formal theory and applied research could become as productive as it is for the study of institutions. That day is a long way off.

Monday, 5 March 2007

The people spoke

... and Laurence listened.

toxic media

Tara Wilson on Toxic Wives in the Telegraph - this is a classic of its kind. The trick is: invent a phenomenon, give it a catchy name, call your friends for quotes, pretend you've spotted a trend, and hope people pick up on it. It's all good sport and provides us with some small talk.

Then India Knight blatantly nicks the idea. (Also, not as funny.)

Seriously, this is what's wrong with Old Meeja. I read that and feel conned, and not even in a clever way. The same when they take two-day old internet things and pass them off as news. It's like the girl with last week's gossip.

(End of cliched blogger rant. Obviously, it's not like I am a trove of top quality content. By the way, the masses demand BRING BACK HORTONL NOW.)

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Our Empire Story

"I had been appointed military attache in Khartoum; it was a pleasant prospect of better pay, promotion and diplomatic privilege in a land which I liked; I was summoned to the War Office to see a staff officer who dealt with such matters. The officer in question was a friend of mine and I was in a buoyant mood; I filled in the normal form, and in the paragraph headed 'Purpose of visit' I wrote, 'To be instructed on how to bite an ostrich in the arse without getting a mouthful of feathers.' A messenger took the form away and after a long wait returned to usher me into the office of an affronted and angry looking general who rose from behind his desk; he looked from me to the piece of paper in his hand and then said sternly: 'It's actually top secret, but I think you do it like this.' Then puffing out his cheeks he blew into the air and his great front 'snappers' clanged together. 'Quite easy but you must be damn quick, what else can I do for you?'

-- Hilary Hook, Home from the Hill