14
Nov
11

All linky, no thinky

Longer title: “Things I wanted to blog about this weekend but couldn’t be bothered to write 500 words about.”

——

First we have an impressively clear and impressively technical article from Karl Smith on the subject of recessions:

This is an example of where theory shines: Smith cuts through all of the emotionally compelling yet practically misleading stories about the credit crisis, the long slog of a recovery, the impending euro-tastrophe, and so on.  His basic principle is simple, but “simple” doesn’t usually mean “easy”:

I can’t hammer this home enough. A recession is not when something bad happens. A recession is not when people are poor.

A recession is when markets fail to clear. We have workers without factories and factories without workers. We have cars without drivers and drivers without cars. We homes without families and families without their own home.

Prices clear markets. If there is a recession, something is wrong with prices.

(Emphasis added.)

Pop quiz: What’s wrong with prices these days?

——

Next, Mike Konczal writes about the student loan market and, in particular, charts the nondischargeability of said loans:

As with most easily-captured regulatory rents, this one was a bipartisan fuckup stretching all the way back to 1976.

Konczal also suggests applying the same regulatory shenanigans that allowed Goldman-Sachs and Morgan Stanley to continue business as usual in late 2008 to student loan borrowers:

Why not also do a “deathbed conversion” on those who are suffering under the burden of heavy student debts and low incomes and let them immediately refinance all their student loan rates at the current ultra-low discount window rate? Mass refinance all student loans into the current low rates the financial sector enjoys. This would give the 99% of Americans just a hint of the kind of total government support places like Goldman Sachs have gotten.

I… yikes.  That would certainly be an exciting thing to do without detailed knowledge of where, how, and to whom those student loans have been sold (if you have evidence that student debt has never been repackaged into securities, please share: it’ll help me sleep at night).

Spoiler warning: if your answer to Karl Smith’s pop quiz doesn’t include Konczal’s “deathbed conversions” somehow, you’re doing it wrong.

——

Our third article is Robin Hanson being quintessentially Hansonian:

He references David Brooks and lists four forms of (generally) socially-acceptable inequality:

  • academic credentials (I think this has more to do with David Brooks’s, and perhaps Robin Hanson’s, social circles rather than applying as a general rule: “casually” mentioning my Ph.D. wouldn’t get me much traction among many of Alberta’s relentlessly pragmatic self-made businessmen, or for that matter any dive bar not near a university campus)
  • fitness (it’s hard to argue with the idea that people with more muscle and less fat tend to look better and are encouraged to flaunt it; however, scarecrow-gaunt endurance athletes and shirt-filling powerlifters may have trouble with this one)
  • sports fandom (this one’s tricky; no-one likes a Yankees or Patriots fan except Yankees or Patriots fans, but Green Bay retains their scrappy blue-collar fuhboh image despite going 8-0 with a high-powered passing offense.  Sports fandom is built around mythology more than it is actual performance)
  • technological prowess (again, context: many non-nerds flaunt their lack of techiness as a signal of how not-nerdy they are; conversely, my brief obsession with the Hindley-Milner type inference system never got me laid)

He concludes:

A world that disapproves of most all superiority displays could be one with a distaste for overt inequality, and sympathy for the less fortunate. In contrast, a world that disapproves of only some superiority displays while relishing others looks more like a world where folks with some types of excellence have won a battle to be seen as higher status than folks with other types of excellence.

(Emphasis added.)

Calling these things “excellence” is a curious choice of words: sports fandom is at best excellence once removed and more often a function of where one happened to grow up or how one was first exposed to the sport in question.  (This latter is perhaps the only explanation for how I became a Bengals fan.)  Fitness in particular is strongly influenced by genetics: a man with broad shoulders and a high metabolism will have a much easier time maintaining a fit appearance.  With these things in mind, I’m gobsmacked that Hanson didn’t sneak in a reference to Mankiw and Weinzierl’s The Optimal Taxation of Height.

——

Our penultimate link points to a controlled demolition of one of my favourite hobby-horses: Seth McKelvey reports on yet another meta-analysis showing that reducing salt intake does little or nothing to reduce morbidity and mortality:

McKelvey quotes from (other journalists quoting from) three studies, all of which show that reducing salt intake may slightly reduce blood pressure but does not reduce death rates.  This is consistent with the trends in the graphs I showed a while ago.  Of course, that’s not stopping the people who’ve made careers out of hectoring people to eat less salt:

Those involved in steering policy recommendations, however, do not seem particularly open to debate:

“The question is not ‘should’ we reduce salt intake, but ‘how’,” said Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular medicine and chairman of the World Action on Salt campaign group, who said he strongly disagreed with Graudal’s findings.

Franceso Cappuccio of the World Health Organization is apparently too busy promoting his cause to stop and consider the evidence, saying the study “should not distract our attention for implementing salt reduction policies at population level globally, as directed by national governments, the World Health Organization and the United Nations.”

If harping on salt reduction policies pays your (heh heh) salary, you’re not likely to be terribly responsive to mere scientists with their so-called data.

——

Finally, Almulhida tells the story of how she lost religion and found morality:

It was a couple of days after I left Islam that I was sitting in a classroom in highschool waiting for everyone else to get there, as I had arrived early. While waiting, I realized there were no angels sitting on my shoulders, recording everything I did. It was pleasant to realize I’m not being watched, and that I was truly alone in that moment. As I let the thought seep into consciousness, I realized something else: I could steal anything in the room, and the only deterrent was the risk of getting caught. This troubled me. What reason did I have to be good if I didn’t fear God’s punishment? I didn’t have an answer.

As I continued to think about this, I came to realize something horrifying: if I were to wrong someone, I could never take it back. I used to believe that God was watching out for humanity in some way; that if I wronged someone God would be there to pick up the slack and make that person whole. But there was no God. There was no punishment for people who did wrong, no reward for doing good, and worst of all, no cosmic restitution for those you’ve wronged.

This sat in my stomach like a stone. Whatever the liabilities of a religious morality, it does provide security in the belief the world is basically just. Without the religious edifice I realized for the first time just how high the stakes were in how one treats others.

(Emphasis added.)

I came to much the same realization about the stakes of human action over two months of reading Sartre and Kierkegaard in an intro existentialism course in undergrad.  (People seem to like to blame Nietzsche for this sort of thing, but I find I read Nietzsche mostly for his occasionally-scathing aphorisms and one-liners.  Come to think of it, it’s probably more efficient to get that fix from Dorothy Parker and P. J. O’Rourke.)

Yes, folks: Life is a game you play for keeps, with no mulligans and no take-backs.

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