Archive for January, 2013

Over at Kids Prefer Cheese, Angus posts an interesting chart that shows a dramatic increase in Chinese coal consumption since 2000:

277xNxchinas-soaring-coal-consumption-poses-climate-challenge_1_jpg_pagespeed_ic_xddsn5yNvwAngus then proceeds to suggest – accurately – that this is big environmental problem that can’t be solved by one of the most commonly discussed panaceas for climate change .  As he argues, “One thing is for sure: a rich world carbon tax is not going to do much, if
anything at all, for the environment. Unlike acid rain, carbon dioxide emission is a global externality, not a local one.”

Now to be fair to Angus, this is a post focused on climate change.  But I’d like to compliment his post by highlighting that this chart also has a good news side (that I’m sure he understands but just isn’t focusing on here).  Namely, all that coal consumption is happening for a reason: Chinese economic activity has shot up and thus China needs a heck of a lot more energy to power that expansion.  This is, of course, great news for the people of China and the world.  Sure, it has the downside of creating more environmental problems for all of us.  But it is a sign of a massive increase in the well-being of hundreds of millions of people.  So two cheers for China’s coal use.

Now, like Angus, I hope that we can figure out a way to help power all of that economic activity with cleaner sources of energy (without squelching growth, ours or theirs).

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Several of my progressive Facebook friends posted about Gabrielle Giffords’ testimony before Congress about gun legislation, editorializing that we/they should pay close attention because of her personal experience as a victim of violence. Now, I understand why some criminal courts allow victim-impact statements: before deciding what sort of punishment should be meted out, it’s relevant to see how the crime has had an impact on the victim. But Congress isn’t in the business of punishing particular offenders – its function is to create legislation for the good of the country. (Yes, I’m rolling my eyes too, but let’s stipulate this arguendo.) So the relevance of victim-impact statements in this context is…what? This strikes me as legislating the ad misericordiam fallacy, using raw emotion as a substitute for rational analysis. But what’s especially irritating is that the last big example of this was when the other party was in power, and the party in power always has a predictably selective memory. After 9/11, emotions were pretty raw. A lot more pain and suffering that day than after any of the recent mass shootings. What was the result? A decade-long war in Afghanistan. Rampant abuse of executive power. Indefinite detention without trial. Lost privacy rights. The TSA. Kill lists. Mass shootings are to the left what terrorist attacks are to the right: emotional outcry by the public leading to grandstanding by whichever party is in power, and increased erosion of liberty. This is what happens when you legislate based on raw emotions, and disregard both the Constitution and the very idea of rational analysis. Let’s not keep making the same mistake.

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I’m sure this is George W. Bush’s fault:


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It’s not all-politics-all-the-time. Today in my “Happiness and the Meaning of Life” class I showed them an episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog. In “Dog for a Day,” Emily Elizabeth’s friend Charlie complains about having to do chores. He notices Clifford playing with his friends Cleo and T-Bone, and it occurs to him that dogs don’t have to do chores, but in fact do nothing besides play and sleep and eat. He wishes he were a dog. That night, he dreams he is a dog. At first, he is delighted! He doesn’t have to do chores! He goes to play with Clifford. At first it’s fun, but Charlie realizes quickly that he can no longer ride his bike, play soccer, talk to his dad or to his friends – even school. In short, he misses all the constitutive elements of a human life. Clifford notes that they get to roll in the sand and dig for bones and chase their tails, but Charlie finds this not entirely satisfying. He realizes, as Aristotle noted long ago, that human happiness is distinct from the happiness of other animals. Each type of thing has a different nature, and so flourishes in a different way. To be sure, the human good is itself pluralistic: Charlie and Emily Elizabeth may have distinctly different modes of flourishing. But the human good is generically different from the canine good. Clifford doesn’t quite get why Charlie isn’t satisfied with dog-pleasures. But Charlie gets it very quickly: despite the necessity of doing homework and chores, the human life consists of all sorts of pleasures that dogs do not appreciate. When Charlie wakes up from his dream, he is happy to discover he is still a person, and runs to find his dad so he can help with chores. His dad is surprised at this turn of events and comments “you don’t seem yourself.” Charlie replies “no Dad: I am myself!” Lesson learned.

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I got into an argument with a structural engineer the other day. I was saying that it would be really cool if the Navy had something like the Helicarrier used by SHIELD in the Avengers movie. He was trying to say that it “wouldn’t work” for some kind of technical reasons, like there’s no known power source that could make something that big hover and also be on the thing, and that even if we had one, the blast from the turbines would be so powerful that it would destroy any buildings it happened to fly over. But I replied that this was just his opinion. In my opinion, it would be terrific, and these “technical” objections really shouldn’t override how awesome it would be to have a Helicarrier. He kept insisting that, unlike me, he had spent years studying physics and electromagnetism, and that therefore his “opinion” as to what was or wasn’t technically feasible was better justified than mine, and that my aesthetic preferences really didn’t amount to much in the absence of good reasons. I replied that he doesn’t have perfect knowledge, so my opinion should count just as much, and I reiterated how great it would be: it would greatly enhance naval effectiveness and air superiority, plus it would super-cool so we should just do it and make it work. Who’s to say we couldn’t possibly make it work? He kept going back to the theme that I’m not really qualified to say what would work, whereas he actually was an expert on these things. He said he realized it sounded arrogant when he put it that way, which he didn’t intend, but that he did actually have a PhD from Cal Tech, and that he was only bringing it up to help motivate the point that I didn’t have a rational basis for arguing with him about this.

The above anecdote is fictional, of course, yet it’s analogous to the kinds of arguments economists and political philosophers often find themselves in. The word “rights” can’t just mean whatever you want it to mean, and not every conception of rights will be coherent. In a democratic society, everyone is entitled to have their voice heard, but it’s a mistake to infer from this that everything is up for grabs, that Locke and Marx (or Keynes and Hayek) are “just different opinions.”

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Noon Links

  • Cats kill 1.4-3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 mammals in the U.S. alone every year, according to a study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which makes them “the top threat to US wildlife.” The number of free-ranging cats in the U.S. has increased about 200% since 1970. My previous post on cats and conservation here.
  • Bible Quiz – a new documentary about high school Bible Quizzers in the U.S. It was surreal to see this link come up on BBC News. I participated in the same Bible Quiz program featured in the film. It was an intense experience. We went to National Finals four years; the highest we ever finished was third. Although my views on various theological and religious issues have changed since those days, I look back on them fondly.

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I appreciate Jason’s post. I have been giving the same advice to my students for some time (although few listen, alas). I can usually draw on whatever search we are conducting and give them a sense of the numbers. This year, for example, we had a tenure track search.

  • Number of applicants: 188
  • Number of applicants invited to interview on campus: 4

Off this pool, my guess is that the same 20-30 PhDs will compete for all the decent tenure track jobs. A few applicants will get multiple interviews and offers. But most will never get anything but a form letter thanking them for their interest.  The odds are the worst if you are coming from anything but a top 20 program and are not a member of an historically underrepresented group (and no, this category does not include Christians, Mormons, libertarians, natural law theorists, etc., etc.).

But the issues go well beyond the abysmal market that current exists. There have been down markets before and “lost generations” of academics. But there have been good markets as well (even though, under the best of circumstances, I would guess that most PhDs will never get placed).

The other day, one of my colleagues asked: “How long do you think tenure will exist?  Do you think we are the last generation?” Interesting questions. The current model may not be sustainable in the long-run, and there are so many incentives to hire adjuncts instead of tenure track faculty. I am quite dubious of the merits of tenure, by the way, even if I am quite happy to have tenure and an endowed chair that supplies me with a decent research budget.

But the real disruption is on the way. As I noted to my colleague, so many universities are now providing courses free on the internet (In the past year, I’ve watched a course on game theory from Yale, a course on political theory from Oxford, and a number of assorted lectures from a variety of universities. All were excellent. All were free and available on my iPad). As soon as some enterprising organization decides to allow students to take whatever courses they want online, administer exams, and credential students, the prevailing model of higher education will find itself under a significant assault. Certainly, there will always be wealthy parents who want their children to attend a “name brand” university or elite liberal arts college largely as a means of signaling their social status to their peers (those university stickers really dress up that old Volvo). But I am dubious that these institutions will still see the merit of tenure, and even if they do, there will be far fewer positions available to the stunning number of PhDs who are on the market.

A few days after my conversation, I followed a link from Marginal Revolution and discovered that the new model is being rolled out. Under the University of Wisconsin’s “Flexible Option,” students will be able to “complete their education independently through online courses, which have grown in popularity through efforts by companies such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.” You can read the full story here (WSJ).

Bottom Line: follow Jason’s advice.

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