Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Good Morning, Worm, Your Honour

Judges at the Hong Kong High Court,
Bewigged and in Red Regalia

Hong Kong, the former British Crown Colony, continues to cling to at least some of the old ways.  Of course, the tiny quasi city-state reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 after more than 150 years under the British, but apparently, some old habits die hard.

In the High Court, as is the case in many former (and current) British territories, judges and barristers (lawyers who have been admitted to the bar, and are permitted to argue in the Court) wear white, horse-hair wigs.  

Many Americans (and no doubt, others as well) find the tradition to be somewhat bizarre.  But the wigs apparently confer a certain status, and one that lower-tiered attorneys would like access to.  

In the English legal system, there are the aforementioned barristers, and a second type of lawyer called a solicitor: a person who is engaged directly with the clients and argues only in the lower courts.  By tradition, solicitors in Hong Kong are not permitted to wear wigs in the court, a privilege that is reserved to barristers and judges.

Well.... time marches on.  In the UK itself, solicitors these days are permitted to wear wigs when acting in circumstances where they (the wigs) would be worn by people admitted to the bar.  

According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong's solicitors would like to join their English compatriots under the white Thunderdomes.  

Their recent request has been denied.

According to the article, the reason that the solicitors want access (and barristers want to deny it) to the wigs is one of prestige, if not gravitas.

According to a spokesman for the solicitors called Dieter Yih (unfortunately, no photo), 
We're worried that in jury trials there might be a perception that someone wearing a wig is better...The wig makes you look more serious. It looks more professional.

Barristers are, of course, having none of it. Lawyer Jackie Lai sums his feelings up thusly
When I wear my wig, I know something big is going to happen.  It makes me feel like I have more responsibility. I think I exude more energy than without it. It's magical.
Solicitors should not wear wigs. If we have two professions, we have to represent their demarcation by something obvious, like a wig,  People like the wig. Some may say it's ridiculous, but others see it as an icon of a people who—under the wig—are thinking in a logical, authoritative way. 
It's hard to argue that.  I know when I see a grown man in a white, powdered wig, I, too, know that something "magical" is about to happen.

Of course, maybe plain-spoken Thomas Jefferson might have a different view, should he be alive today.  On the headpieces, Jefferson opined
For heaven's sake, discard the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats.
Uneasy, apparently, lies the head on which the wig rests. 

Monday, 29 April 2013

Hail, Stanford, Hail

Stanford University seal 2003.svg
Where the rolling foothills rise
Up towards mountains higher,
Where at eve the Coast Range lies, 
In the sunset fire
The opening lyrics of the Stanford alma mater are, unsurprisingly, focused on the geography and natural gifts of the campus situated on the San Francisco peninsula, about 40 miles to the south of the city by the bay. (Note bene: Stanford, despite a common misconception, is not located in the city of Palo Alto - in fact, the school pre-dates the city by three years, is entirely beyond the borders of the city - which I discovered once when trying to enter Foothills Park, a 'private' park that Palo Alto jealously guards lest any undesirables from Mountain View decide to try to sneak in - and in fact, has its own post office and ZIP code, segregated from PA).

When the school was founded in 1891, it was almost quite literally off on the edge of the world, on a horse farm owned by the former Governor of California (Leland Stanford), with practically nothing more than the trees which later gave Palo Alto its name, the foothills in the song, and a couple of meandering creeks in its midst.

Thought of that as I came across this piece, published in the Stanford Review.

Stanford, like many other schools that range from Ivy League universities, Ivy wanabes (e.g., Rice), and Pac-10 party schools (Oregon, U Arizona), has a "confessions" WIKI page, where students can post, anonymously, on various topics.

The Review recently did a back-of the-envelope analysis of what is on the collective minds (pun, partially intended) of the students on The Farm, in comparison to some of their peers.

Stanford students apparently are not terribly concerned about partying (Stanford students talk less about partying than any other schools in the group not having the letters B, Y, and U in them.)  That list is topped by Oregon (who knew?), UCSB, and UVA.  As an aside, Oregon students, seem quite interested in the arts of Bacchus, leading all others in discussions of partying, drinking, and recreational drug use.

Stanford - I suspect largely due to the prominence of its graduate schools - has something of a reputation for nerdiness.  Both Larry Page AND Sergei Brin are alums of the grad programmes in CS, and the University (according to Wikipedia) boasts 30 billionaires as alums. So it's not surprising that partying is not a popular pastime.  Or at least, not something students talk about, even anonymously.

What may strike readers as odd is the relatively low frequency with which classes and schoolwork are discussed - again, Stanford students are towards the bottom of the list.

To my mind's eye, what is the most striking - and to me as a former student, 'aha' - item in the survey is that MONEY is a very, very frequent topic of conversation, as is loneliness.

When I was a graduate student at Stanford (more than 20 years ago; the words "start" and "up" had not yet entered the lexicon as a complex noun), the undergrads in my lecture session were incredibly grade-focused.  Few students I lectured (and graded) would be considered "eggheads" or intellectual grinds.  Many, on the other hand, were quite interested in what they needed to master to score well on the exams, and on more than one occasion, would come to my office hours to try to finagle an extra point or two on their homework or exams.

Now, Stanford at that time had a policy by which students were allowed to drop a course, with no penalty, right up until the hour the final examination sat.  Additionally, letter-grades were assigned as A, B, C, or D.  Students receiving an "F" simply had a "no credit" attached to their records, with no penalty in terms of GPA.  A student failing a course could take the F, have it not count against his record, and simply re-take the course.

In fact, I had a student write on his final paper, "If you are not going to give me an A, please fail me."


Stanford is incredibly competitive as an institution, and is also incredibly expensive.  The students at the time were aware of the value of their golden tickets (if anything, this has gotten even worse), and were, additionally, aware of what came next - in 1992, that meant Yale Law School or Harvard Med - and their grades thus meant more or less everything.

Apparently, nowadays, the top students are equally mercenary, if the data are to be believed.

And I guess that is also why, in addition to money and income driving the conversations, there is a sense of isolation and loneliness.  Hours spent cramming for an exam, where the kid next to you is a competitor, tends to produce such a mindset.

Combine that with the sort of edge of the world, foothills and sunset fires emotions captured in the alma mater, and "die luft der freiheit weht" takes on a bit of a different tone.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Three Weeks In

Blue Jays are now about three weeks into the 2013 season, with 22 games under their collective belts.  The season started with high expectations - a blockbuster, multi-team trade that brought Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, and Josh Johnson in from Miami, and another big trade that send prospect Travis D'Arnaud to the Mets for reigning Cy Young pitcher R.A. Dickey.

The Yankees, aging to begin with, started the campaign with a host of injuries and looked vulnerable, and the Red Sox are rebuilding, so there was hope that this year, Toronto might finally, finally contend after two decades of futility.

Hasn't exactly worked out.

Dickey has had some control issues (not shocking for a knuckle ball pitcher), Brandon Morrow has looked less than spectacular - is he maybe the next Melido Perez?  The defenders have been awful.

Put it all together (second worst batting average in the American League, spotty pitching), and the team is 9-13 to start.  That includes an extra-innings win today in Baltimore, courtesy of a bases loaded walk to Maicer Izturis, who was hitting all of a buck sixty nine.

The game ended the Orioles' 17-game extra innings win streak, which is apparently the longest such streak in 54 years.

The Blue Jays have played now in seven series, winning one (against Kansas City), losing five, and splitting a four-gamer versus the White Sox.

They're actually lucky to be 9-13, if one looks over the wreckage of April.

In the 22 games thus far played, Toronto's opponents have scored first in 16 of the games.  Historically, the team scoring first wins about two-thirds of the games.  On that number, Toronto would project to be about a game or two worse than they stand.

Even better, in the 22 games, the Blue Jays have trailed at one point or another in all but three.  Only three times have they scored first AND not at some point relinquished the lead.

Put another way, in 19 of 22 games, the Jays have found themselves behind.

More, the Blue Jays have allowed 30 runs more than they have scored.  The SABREmetric "Pythagorean" rule (ratio of square of runs scored to sum of squares of runs scored and runs allowed) projects the Jays to be a game worse at 8-14.

They are simply going to have to do a lot better than this.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Baseball Sees "Diversity" Issue. Is Nothing Safe?

I read on ESPN today that Major League Baseball has commissioned a panel to study "how to increase diversity" in its players.  In the same month that the new movie "42" about Jackie Robinson debuted, Commissioner Bud Selig has discovered that professional baseball lacks "diversity," at least so far as the number of black players is concerned.
"As a social institution, Major League Baseball has an enormous social responsibility to provide equal opportunities for all people, both on and off the field," Selig said in a statement.

According to the data from MLB, about 9% of the players are identified as "African-American."  That compares to a figure of 19% in 1995 (though figures from 20 years ago included black players from Latin America; a fact that Selig et at ignore in stating that the rates have fallen by half).

This figure strikes me as low - part of that is perception, no doubt.  When I watch professional baseball, I don't really try to parse the races of the players, but I would certainly consider, say, Big Papi (David Ortiz) to be "black," though he counts as "Latino" in the MLB survey, as he comes from the Dominican Republic.

As whole, when the demographics of the US are parsed - blacks not of Hispanic origin separated from blacks, Hispanic - black people make up 12 per cent of the total.  Thus, the MLB figure of 9% is low, but not shockingly so.

(For the record, the makeup of MLB according to Selig is about 61% "white," 27% "Latino," and 9% "African-American."  No mention is made of Asian or "other" races).

One thing I find particularly galling about this "story," aside from the ugly, unnecessary injection of race and politics into sport, is how ridiculous and biased the methodology and language are.  Does baseball really lack "diversity," when the distribution is pretty damned close to the makeup of the country?  It's certainly far, far closer to the real distribution than, say, the NBA, which is overwhelmingly black.  The most recent data indicate that among professional basketball players, 83% are black.  Of the 17% ostensibly "white" players, I wonder how many are actually, in the parlance of Bud Selig, "European Americans?"  A significant number of players are from Europe, even if we include Steve Nash - a Canadian - among white Americans.

Statistically speaking, the probability of coming up with an 83-17-0 (Black-White-Hispanic) sample from a population of 63-12-21-9 (White, Black, Hispanic, Other) is orders of magnitude less likely than what is seen in baseball?

Is anyone calling for an investigation into the lack of 'diversity' in the NBA?  Such a suggestion would be considered laughable.

Part of the perception, I think, that baseball lacks diversity is not because the number of black players is low compared to the population, but rather, because the number of black players in MLB is low compared to the number of black players in the NBA.

This is, indeed, low.  But is this really the standard one should use?  What presumptions about such a yardstick are presumed and not said?

Second, does anyone really, honestly believe that professional baseball is not offering equal opportunities for black players?  That there are institutional roadblocks to keep black players out?

Professional sport is incredibly competitive; the difference between the best player in the league and a marginal one, along the total distribution of abilities, is miniscule.  Teams look for the tiniest advantage in an attempt to win.

An entire genre of strategy, books, and films - "Moneyball" - has arisen with clever ways to gain a small advantage.

I wrote some time ago about the phenomenon of Jeremy Lin; Lin created a sensation in the NBA when he briefly stepped in to a void created by an injury.  Lin has faded back into obscurity - as a Harvard grad, he was an unlikely star.

The bottom line is that MLB should just let us fans watch the games and stop badgering us with diversity nonsense.

As Jackie Robinson attested, can we just watch the best players play and leave it at that?

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est la Meme Chose

If the world can tolerate one last post about the former PM of Great Britain Margaret Thatcher, I have one last thought.

I've written here and here about how and presumably why (in my view) the Left hated and continue to hate Mrs Thatcher, even in death.

Yesterday, Americans suffered another terrible terrorist bombing - this time in Boston.  As the annual Boston Marathon was coming to a completion, two bombs exploded at the race's finish line.  Thus far, three have been killed - one an eight year old boy who had gone to cheer on his father, and was, according to reports, at the exact scene because the father had just completed the race, and the little boy - Martin Richard was name - had run out to hug his father.  The boy's mother underwent emergency brain surgery to save her life, though the final outcome is not as of right now; known.  This story is here.  More than 140 others are injured, some gravely.

There are many reasons given for the hatred of Mrs Thatcher, some perhaps more valid than others.

One often-given reason was the former PM's refusal to re-classify IRA terrorists as "political" prisoners.  Recall that, from the late 1960s through the 1998 Belfast "Good Friday" accords of 1998. (Note: some of the so-called "Real" IRA still refuse to acknowledge the truce, and violence will crop up from time to time).  Several IRA members, in the infamous Maze Prison for various crimes, took to hunger striking in an attempt to have their status as common criminals changed - ironically, a status that they had enjoyed in the early 1970s under a previous Conservative government, and one which was removed under Thatcher's predecessor, James Callaghan.

Mrs Thatcher refused to be cowed at the time under intense pressure - much of it from places like Boston as the fates would have it.  She was having none of it.  Many Americans would have us believe that the IRA were more than just common, bomb-throwing gangsters.

Thus far, there is no official word as to just who planted the bombs in Boston; why really doesn't much matter in my view, and and to even ask seems as a sort of cruel madness in the light of an eight year old who has lost his life as he hugged his father, for some imagined "cause."

What Mrs Thatcher did, in effect, was to tell the IRA and by extension, its supporters, that planting bombs that certainly will kill innocent people - as the IRA did with some regularity, including a bomb planted in Harrod's Department Store the week before Christmas in 1983- is not a political act.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Figures Don't Lie, But Liars...

A Little Statistical Alchemy Can Solve Many Problems

Mark Twain offered his decided opinion on maths, stats, and "figures" on more than one occasion.  Famously, he opined that figures don't lie, but liars figure.  There are myriad other quotes, of course (lies, damned lies, and statistics is perhaps the most famous), a fact of which I was reminded when I came across an article this weekend in the New York Times.  The author, Claire Cain Miller, weighs in on one of the current flavours of the month - "Big Data" - and more specifically, how the current Comstock Lode of data of all sorts (patient records, consumer purchasing habits, web site visits) is opening vast new opportunities when coupled with ever-expanding computing power.

Ms Miller's thesis is that the explosion of data "ore" has created a large demand for analytically-minded people, quoting a recent Harvard Business Review article that "data science is the sexiest job of the 21st century"
Data scientists are the magicians of the Big Data era. They crunch the data, use mathematical models to analyze it and create narratives or visualizations to explain it, then suggest how to use the information to make decisions.
The article goes on to cite the growth in universities (Columbia, North Carolina State, USF) who offer a catalog of degrees and graduate programmes in data analytics.  According to Ms Miller, schools cannot mint people fast enough to meet the rising demand.

As a person who makes my living (and a very good one) as a data science "magician," I am of course sceptical of much of the hoopla.

Since much of my work deals with creating economic models, I am quite familiar with what is called (in econometric theory) "revealed preferences."  Simply put, we can say what we value as often as we like, but what we truly value is revealed by how we allocate our resources.

To anyone who lives (or has lived) in Silicon Valley, or works in a scientific company (I work in "Big Pharma"), think about who in your circle of colleagues or within your company really gets the big money.  In economics, there is never really a "shortage" of anything - if the thing exists, supply will meet the demand at the given price.  If there is a temporary insufficiency, prices will rise (quickly, perhaps) until either the supply is increased, or the demand decreased.

THAT, and not effluvia about "Big Data" will allow you to judge the validity of this statement.

Have wages in data analytics risen dramatically?  How do they compare to other similarly demanding fields?

I wrote this piece - tongue somewhat in cheek - nearly three years ago to the day about the value of an MBA. It was a reflection on another piece in HBR.  I'm reminded of it again, as I consider the puff piece on "Big Data."

It all boils down to one simple data point - a nugget of silver, if you will - hidden in the article: the typical salaries offered to data "magicians."

From the article:
North Carolina State University introduced a master’s in analytics in 2007. All 84 of last year’s graduates in the field had job offers, according to Michael Rappa, who conceived and directs the university’s Institute for Advanced Analytics. The average salary was $89,100, and more than $100,000 for those with prior work experience.
$89,100 is nothing to sneeze at; $100k is even better.  Both are well above the median income in the US.

But I suggest a proper yardstick would be to compare the salaries (starting, and with experience) against those of people with a master's degree in business - an MBA.  How many top-level MBA holders with "prior work experience" would consider a salary in the $100,000 range to be a serious lure?

From the excellent blog "Poets and Quants," I offer the following analysis:

Median Starting Salaries, MBA Grads, 2002-2012

Interesting. These are median salaries, not means, so it's not an apples-apples comparison, but essentially, a new MBA will start at about $1000 per year more than the graduate in the "sexiest" field of the 21st century - one where schools putatively cannot turn out grads fast enough.

I don't have any data, but I suspect that that difference gets larger as time goes by.  Take a quick look around the executive suite and see who is in there.  The guys running the company - and this includes the famous "Lean In Gal" (Sheryl Sandberg) are not "data magicians," despite working for tech companies.  Of course, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page are all technical people, but I suspect that the lesson here is, if you want to be the big cheese at a tech company, either actually create the product, or get a marketing degree.

As blogger Steve Sailer commented, analysing data is fine work, and you can do well with that if you've an analytical mind.  Just don't expect to get paid like the sales guy.

Friday, 12 April 2013

All Work and No Play, or Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar

I'm a fan of the writer Stephen King, and have read his classic book The Shining more than once.  I am also a big fan of the 1980 movie of the same name, starred Jack Nicholson and Shelley DuVall.  ("Oh, and just when do you think maybe he should see a DOCTOR?!?").  It's a tour de force for Nicholson, really.

Why Don't You Go and Check Out the Snow Car?

So it came as a surprise to read that there is a documentary film called "Room 237," in which a debate swirls around just what the meaning of the movie is, including apparent hidden meanings about the genocide of American Indians, arguments about how the 1969 moon landings were faked, and the like.

It's a paranormal film to be sure, but much of the "evidence" is the sort of "Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theatre; Kennedy was shot in a Ford product" reasoning.  Examples like the placement of a can of Calumet brand baking powder, the fact that Danny (the little boy in the book/movie who can see and converse with the dead) walks backwards, and the seeming contrast of the yellow VW Beetle the Torrances drive up to the hotel in with a crushed red VW later, seen in a snow storm when the cook is attempting to reach and help Danny.

The New York Times last week dedicated several hundred words to the topic.  Slow news day, I guess.

I dunno.... In the end, Paul was in fact, not dead; the mid-1960s number plate (28 IF) was just an odd (and wrongly made) coincidence, and walruses are not neo-pagan symbols.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Another View of the Anti-Thatcher Castor Oil

Yesterday, I wrote this piece in which I opined on why many on the political Left - particularly, the sort of Champagne Socialists like Glenda Jackson, a Labour MP and former actress who represents a like-minded constituency in Hampstead.  Hampstead is one of those in-a-bottle sort of "villages" that are adored by neo-urbanists.

Think of Marin County, California, or perhaps Westchester.  The sort of place where the well-heeled, self-identified "Creative Class" can go to live close to the city, but not so close that the "irritations" of city life actually touch them in any real way.  And they're expensive enough that the sort of people folks like Glenda Jackson mawkishly speak of in their noblesse oblige speeches are priced out of.

From Wikipedia:
Part of the London Borough of Camden in Inner London, (Hampstead)  is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland. It has some of the most expensive housing in the London area. The village of Hampstead has more millionaires within its boundaries than any other area of the United Kingdom.
In my experience, people like Glenda Jackson like "the people" in theory, and like "the people" significantly less in practice.

Looking over the varied media today, I came across the following quote from famed British physicist Freeman Dyson
In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class.…I learned to look on the commercial middle class with loathing and contempt. Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher, which was also the revenge of the commercial middle class. The academics lost their power and prestige and the business people took over. The academics never forgave Thatcher….
 It's an interesting, somewhat orthogonal view.  And it holds a certain sway for me.

One reads frequently of "the creative class" - almost always inclusive of writers, musicians, actors, professional intellectuals, and interestingly, commercial people from the right professions.  The heads of various internet companies (Google, Facebook, and Twitter leap to mind), while the heads of more traditional industries (Ford, BP) typically do not.  The leaders of my industry - pharmaceutical research - most certainly fall beyond the Pale.

The French emperor Napoleon famously dismissed the English thusly
L'Angleterre c'est un nation de boutiquiers (England is a nation of shopkeepers)
That ethos is alive today in pop culture.  In film and book, the protagonist of the story will invariably be the guy who runs the neighbourhood coffeehouse - decidedly quirky, and most assuredly not Starbucks; the 20-ish woman who runs a collective nonprofit; the couple (unmarried, no kids) who head a small furniture store making and selling chairs out of reclaimed wood.  The middle-aged guy who owns a factory or works in a bank will nearly always turn out to be a malign character.

Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocery store owner, most assuredly non-creative.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Oh Maggie, What Have We Done?

Baroness Margaret Thatcher in Death Provokes
Differing Reactions as She Did in Life
Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the first female PM to lead a Western European nation (and the Anglosphere, including the US, Canada, and Australia) died earlier this week of a stroke at 87.  Her passing has provoked multifaceted responses - those on the political Left still apparently hate her with a venom that is hard to describe, whilst those on the right look at the mess in the Euro zone, and take a plainly more favourable view of her time in Downing St.

Pictured above in a signature blue suit (in the UK, the Conservative banner is blue, whereas the Labour party follow a red standard, the opposite of the US colouring scheme), Mrs Thatcher has been a polarising figure since she led the Conservatives to victory in the 1979 national elections, besting Labour and their leader, "Sunny" Jim Callaghan.

Reading the comments across the net, which represent a spectrum from the ridiculous (the buffoonish and generally un-funny Russell Brand) to the sublime (Glenn Greenwald, a leftish blogger), one sees that the Left still harbour an almost stomach-eroding biliousness.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, and am familiar with the pop culture of that era (Pink Floyd's album "The Final Cut" was a sort of concept album repudiating Thatcherism, and the pop singer Morrissey used Thatcher as his angry muse for much of the seminal songs of the band he fronted, The Smiths).

There are many reasons, some more valid than others.  

To me, it boils down to a simple concept, and this is why, all things considered, I have a tremendous admiration for Mrs Thatcher.  And that is, she saw the trajectory of Britain - recalcitrant public unions in denial of reality, a bloated welfare state made ever fatter by sloth and fraud (even Brand himself, in his whinging attacks on the former PM, actually discusses his time as a heroin addict gaming the public till as if that militates for his anti-reformist, collective view), and decline - and said "No."

Mr Callaghan, the Labour PM whom Baroness Thatcher replaced, is remembered for his comment that the late 1970s were a "winter of discontent," much akin to another failed leader, Jimmy Carter, who talked of a malaise.  

It's difficult, in the 21st century, to state clearly enough how bad the problems of the 1970s were.  England, like much of continental Europe, was plagued by strikes and discord and cronyism.  

Soon after the 1979 elections, Callaghan was out and was replaced by a much more doctrinaire and angry leader, Michael Foot, who advocated ever higher taxes and more intervention by government in the economy.  Foot led a Labour Party that lost the 1983 elections with the lowest vote total in its history.  Subsequent to his death, Foot has been implicated in the memoirs of former KGB agents as facilitating their efforts in the UK.

Without Margaret Thatcher, Michael Foot might have actually been the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Personally, nothing illustrates to me this point more directly than the demise of the British auto industry.  As I've written here before, I'm the owner of a 60+ year old MG.  MG (Morris Garage) was a proud badge manufactured in Abingdon, England between 1924 and 1980.  As much as any other brand, MG helped to drive the open, two-seat roadster market in the US and abroad.  

It's hard to believe, but in the early 1950s, England was the largest exporter of cars in the world.  

Today, the factory in Abingdon is a police station.

The decline and fall of the auto manufacturing industry in Britain has many villains, of course, but ultimately, what was illustrated is that the basic laws of economics are not subject to vote.  In the end, MG (like its domestic competitors Triumph et al) were turning out vehicles that actually cost more to make than they were sold for, and no amount of government "help," restructuring, bailouts, and cajoling (some would say, mollycoddling) of the unions could put off the inevitable.

The Left hate Thatcher because she actually saw the inherently unsustainable nexus of government and public employee unions; and yes.  By 1975, MG workers were public employees - the auto industry having been nationalised, along with the railroads, energy, and a host of others.  

Simply put, the Labour party were formed as a voice for unions - not in and of itself dangerous or particularly bad.  But what to do when the putative spokesman for one group (unions) becomes simultaneously the advocate for the other - the government, and by extension, the taxpayers of England?  How does one represent the interests of both employer and employee?  Can a group with directly conflicting fiduciary responsibilities actually "negotiate" in good faith with itself?

The fact that MG no longer exists is empirical evidence that the answer is "no."

Mrs Thatcher is hated because she was right.


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The New Stepinfetchits

                Is You Is, Or Is You Ain't My Baby, with a Modern Twist, Courtesy

                    of Current Manufactured Flavour of the Month Lena Dunham

It may seem an odd comparison to put the now painfully racist image of actor Lincoln Perry - better known as the self-described "Laziest Man in the World" Stepin Fetchit - next to the currently uber-hip actress Lena Dunham, writer and star from the uber-hyped HBO show "Girls.  But a recent column by writer and classics professor Victor Davis Hanson more or less does just that.

Perry made an enormous amount of money 80 years ago - allegedly becoming the first black entertainer to make a million dollars - playing to white stereotypes.  He got rich at, arguably, the expense of other black people of whom ugly stereotypes were re-enforced on the screen.

Well, Dunham and other hipsters have similarly traded on their fame to push forward the meme that the modern, re-distributionist Democratic party is the party of the young, when in fact, the policies advocated by President Obama, Senator Harry Ried, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi - the latter two decidedly not young or particularly 'hip' - are retrograde to the real interests of young people.

It's true that the Republican Party - called "the Stupid Party" by Gov Bobby Jindal (R-LA), and not without accuracy - take social stands that have frankly been rejected by the young.  On virtually all social issues:  same-sex marriage, gun control, drug decriminalisation, the environment, the Republicans are at odds with young voters.

But Hanson rightly points out that, while these issues are not - and should not - be seen as trivial or unimportant, it's reasonable to ask just how centrally they ought to be placed by young people who are simultaneously being asked to accept a large and growing burden of debt caused largely by IOUs paid to wealthier, older voters and poorer job prospects largely caused by and increasingly difficult regulatory climate and immigration policies that promote the ludicrous idea that what our post-industrial, 21st century, knowledge-based economy needs to be competitive is a continuous flow of poor, uneducated high school dropouts.
(T)he new liberalism in all its economic manifestations is reactionary and anti-youth to the core. The administration seems aware of the potential paradoxes in this reverse “What’s the matter with Kansas?” syndrome of young people voting against their economic interests. Thus follows the constant courting of the hip and cool BeyoncĂ©, Jay-Z, Lena Dunham, Occupy Wall Streeters, and others who blend pop culture, sex, youth, energy, and fad — almost anything to avoid the truth that today’s teenagers are starting out each owing a lifetime share of the national debt amounting to more than three-quarters of a million dollars. Those who ran up the debt enjoyed the borrowing, but won’t be around to pay back their proverbial fair share.
Dunham et al, from their comfortable sinecures are lending their cache to politicians who are essentially mortgaging the future of the very people they portray on stage and screen, for amounts of money that would make the collective heads of "the 99 per cent" explode.

My question is, at some point, these self-deluded consumers of political bunkum will wake up and smell the over-priced latte.  Won't they?

Monday, 8 April 2013

Get Me to the Church on Time

Lisa the Iconoclast2
 Not Sure if Miss Hoover Attended Princeton...

Lisa, this is nothing but dead white male bashing from a PC thug.  It's women like you who keep the rest of us from landing a husband

Came across this op-ed in the NY Times this weekend by the redoubtable Ross Douthat.  In his piece, Douthat points his analysing eye at a recent kerfuffle at Princeton University.  One of its alumnae wrote a letter to the Daily Princetonian, in which she offers the following advice:

Forget about having it all, or not having it all, leaning in or leaning out — here’s what you really need to know that nobody is telling you.
For years (decades, really) we have been bombarded with advice on professional advancement, breaking through that glass ceiling and achieving work-life balance. We can figure that out — we are Princeton women. If anyone can overcome professional obstacles, it will be our brilliant, resourceful, very well-educated selves.
The letter generated the usual intramural food fight about the patriarchy, proper "gender" (sic) roles, sexism, and the like.  We can (and probably will) argue about what women "want" until the end of time.  I thought that the Mel Gibson movie might be dispositive, but then Mel sort of imploded in a froth, so...

But Douthat actually raises the more interesting and truthful discussion.

That women now have more choices than they did 50 (or even 25) years ago is undeniable.  Few - including the writer of the letter, a Susan Patton - would argue that a woman needs to be married to lead a fulfilling life, which is the straw man (straw woman?) self-identified feminists raise.  But few people want to spend their lives single, even "strong women."

Take a quick survey of your closest friends and colleagues - how many of them, all else being equal, would choose to remain single?  Any hands up?

In my admittedly selective sample space, I know of very, very few woman who want to be with a partner who is less educated than they are.  Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, once commented something to the effect that no Chinese man wants to marry a woman with more education than he has.

In the US, it seems that the converse is true - few women are willing to marry a man of lower social stature than she has.

As another quick thought exercise - think of the entire set of female friends and colleagues who surround you.  How many of them married "down" - to a man with less education, less social stature, and frankly, less financial earning potential?  Any hands still up?

What that means to the undergrads at Princeton (and Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.) is both obvious and determined.  These people see themselves, right or wrong, as a sort of elite, master class.  Thus, by necessity, for a Princeton alumna to marry someone of her own social class rules out the overwhelming majority of potential mates.  And thus, Patton's statement - that if a Princeton alumna wants to get married, her single best set of prospects surrounds her during her time as an undergrad.  This fact should be spectacularly uncontroversial to anyone who spends more than three seconds considering it.

Douthat raises this point, and then takes it further into an exposition on class and status in the US.  The replies on the comments page attacking him essentially prove the point that Patton was making.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Baseball Is Back (At Last)

Yep; today starts the month of April, and aside from the arrival of taxes, that means only one other thing.

Baseball is back.  (caveat: the first official game was actually last night, in March.  The Houston Astros began life in the American League after 51 seasons in the NL.  Even stranger, they won).

Some random thoughts.

  1. The Yankees have been crushed, 8-2, in their opener.  Sporting a starting nine that includes Jayson Nix, Vernon Wells, and Kevin Youkillis (with Lyle Overbay brought on as a PH to add even more spice), the Bronx Bombers could actually be in for a very long season.

  2. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs have just wrapped up a quick 3-1 affair, won by the Cubs.  The game featured nine hits and 26 strikeouts.  Ouch.

  3. The New York Mets started their season in convincing fashion, with an 11-2 trouncing of the San Diego Padres.  Normally, I could take or leave the Mets, but this off-season, they were the other half of a perhaps pivotal trade with my team (the Toronto Blue Jays); the Jays sent top prospect Travis D'Arnaud to the Mets for 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.  Dickey starts tomorrow in the SkyDome, and D'Arnaud did not play today, so the evaluation has to wait at least one more day.

    In the Met game, the Mets pounded out 13 hits, with eight of the nine starters each collecting at least one hit, including starting pitcher Jonathan Niese.   The only Met not to reach safely was Ike Davis, who not only went 0-5, but struck out four times.  A Golden Sombrero.

  4. The Giants and Dodgers continue their 137-year grudge match in LA.  The Dodgers feature a roster that truly spared no expense, adding Josh Beckett, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and Carl Crawford.  The LOWEST contract on that payroll is Greinke, a bargain at $14MM.  That's an awful lot of green to make up the Dodger Blue.

  5. The Blue Jays season, as mentioned above, starts tomorrow, much as it did in 2012 with the Cleveland Indians.  This year, the teams face off in Toronto instead of Cleveland.  The Jays are actually hopeful of competing this year for the playoffs, something they have not done in two decades. No; not that they haven't made the playoffs since then - though that, too, is true.  The Jays have not contended in any real sense in twenty years.  The "highlight," such as it were, was seven years ago, when the team went on a hot streak at the end of the year to nip Boston for second place in the AL East.  Even then, the team wound up 10 games out of first.
Should be fun.

Water Water Everywhere; Let's all Have a Drink

Read The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner more years ago than I care to remember, but still remember the so-called money shot from the story.

I was thinking of it as I read an editorial in Yesterday's NY Times, penned by the economist Greg Mankiw.  Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, was an adviser to President George W Bush.

Much has been written about our current state of financial affairs; the yawning deficits.  The crushing debt.  Sequestration.  The sustainability (or lack of) for Medicare and Social Security.  Pensions.

All told, it's more a current state of financial disrepair.

But Professor Mankiw raises an interesting point, and one I think many ordinary Americans do not grasp.

Fundamentally, the DEBT (the accumulated amount of money our government - we, in a sense - owe) is somewhat beside the point.  Plainly, with public debts in the multiples of trillions of dollars, the debt as it now stands, of course will never be repaid.  Even the deficits, in absolute terms (simply put, the difference between the amount of money collected by the government and the amount of money spent) are of secondary concern.

Mankiw makes the point reasonably well, but perhaps a bit opaquely.

In my day job, I am responsible for creating economic and epidemiological models to simulate patient pathways from health to sickness and back to health (or, mortality).  In my science, one invaluable tool is the stock-flow model.

From these models, we derive what are called the "incidence" and "prevalence" of disease (among other things).  Incidence is, essentially, the number of people who newly are afflicted with a given illness.  People who last year did NOT have lung cancer, for example, but who now do have lung cancer.  Its cousin, prevalence, is the total number of people who right now have the disease.  This is all the people who had lung cancer last year, and have not died, PLUS the people who are incident this year (very, very few people are "cured" of lung cancer, but of course, in a broader sense, people who are cured of a disease move out of the prevalent pool).

Within the prevalent population, there may be different stages of disease, but that lesson can be left to the side for another day.

If we think of a stock-flow model as a sort of bath tub then, the water POURING INTO the tub (new patients with a condition) represents the incident patients.  Patients in the tub represent the prevalence.  Some patients may be escaping the bottom of the tub (death; cure).  The tub may come to represent a certain equilibrium if the number flowing in (incidence) is roughly equal to those flowing out.

In terms of economics, I feel that these concepts translate naturally thusly.

The bathtub is our national economy.  The water IN the tub is our debt.  Water pouring into the tub each year then represents annual spending.  The bottom of the tub, from which water is escaping, represents revenues (taxes).

If water is pouring into the tub faster than it is escaping, then the level of water in the tub rises - our government is running deficits and the debt is increased.  If water is escaping out of the drain faster, then the government are running surpluses, and our debt is shrinking.

We reach catastrophe if the tub overflows - if we default.

Now, the argument that Mankiw and others rise is this:  If the tub EXPANDS, then the amount of water pouring in can increase safely.  That isn 't necessarily good or bad, of course.  But simply running deficits is not in and of itself dangerous.

The tub, then, can be thought of as national GDP.  When it is growing, then our capacity to take on debt grows.  On this, Mankiw (and the president) are correct, as Dick Cheney before them were.

The problem that Mankiw (and President Obama and VP Cheney) miss is that the presumption that our GDP will ALWAYS grow is flawed.  If the tub stops growing - or worse, shrinks to the size of the bathroom sink - then we have a big problem.

During the past decade, the tub has not kept pace with historic growth and worse, the tap is now wide open and no one is thinking to put a hand on the spigot, let alone reduce the flow.