All-purpose questions

by John Quiggin on June 12, 2009

While Michèle Lamont is visiting us, and talking about cross-disciplinary comparisons and interactions, I thought I would raise a question about questions.

As background, my first “real” job was in a government research agency. Seminars were part of the process, and the norm was that senior staff would open the questions. In this context, it was almost invariably safe to ask “What are the policy implications”. That’s still true for some of the seminars I attend, but in others (economic theory, for example), such a question would be at best a faux pas, and the all-purpose question might be something like “Does this work in a monetary economy?”.

So, what are the all-purpose questions in different fields (or are there fields without such questions), and what, if anything does this reveal about those fields?

Smoking bans and public norms

by Henry on June 12, 2009

“Marc Ambinder”: offers this general meditation on the changing politics of smoking.

That process has accelerated dramatically since 2004 when New York City essentially banned smoking in bars and restaurants. It seemed so wild at the time. Chris Hitchens wrote a hysterical Vanity Fair piece on his attempts to defy the ban. It seemed radical, the odd teetotaling of a mayor who also pursued trans fats with a vengeance. Now, of course, smoking bans are everywhere and while the libertarian in me finds them irksome, the fact is that the public has not revolted and tossed out politicians who impose them. Trans fats are under siege, too.

Consider it part of the beauty of federalism. The small ideas that incubate in laboratories of democracy, as the former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called the states, have grown wildly. Causality is the hardest thing to trace. But I suspect without the heavy-duty smoking bans begun in earnest after 2004 in Mike Bloomberg’s New York, you wouldn’t have seen the conditions change so dramatically that the passage of FDA regulation of tobacco is a relatively minor story.

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The BNP and the Egging Laffer Curve

by Daniel on June 12, 2009

And still they come … in response to the latest pieing episode (actually an egging of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party), the usual crowd of wowsers and pursed-lip good-government types come out of the woodwork, sorrowfully wagging their fingers and telling us “this is just what the BNP want”, and “this sort of thing makes people sympathetic to the BNP”. And once more I say “where’s the evidence?” Nick Griffin certainly doesn’t look like he’s executing the culmination of a cunning master plan to gain favourable publicity – he looks like he’s being egged and not enjoying it. And I really don’t understand the sort of mind that would look at the chubby fascist with yolk running down his coupon and say to themselves “gosh they must have a really important point to make if the so-called anti-fascists have to stoop to these depths to silence them”. Rather than, say, my own reaction, which was roughly “Cracking shot, sir!”. As I’ve noted before, there’s a Laffer Curve implicit here. If nobody ever egged Nick Griffin, then he’d never get egged, which I presume nobody wants. On the other hand, if he was egged every single time he went out, then he’d never leave his house – result, no eggings. But I really don’t believe that we’re on the right hand side of that Laffer Curve, not yet.

And in this particular case, the egging itself is actually a very important speech act and a significant contribution to our national debate. Based on the fact that they got two MEPs elected, non-white British citizens might justifiably be looking with suspicion at their white neighbours today, thinking that a significant proportion of us were secretly harbouring fascist sympathies. In fact this isn’t true; the absolute number of BNP votes was slightly down on 2004, and their electoral success was purely an artefact of overall low turnout. It’s therefore an important point to be made, to our own population and to the world’s watching media, that Nick Griffin isn’t in fact a newly popular and influential political figure; he’s a widely reviled creep who not only doesn’t lead a phalanx of jackbooted supporters, but actually can’t even set up for a TV interview without being pelted with eggs. The voice of the British populace does not shout “Hail Griffin!”, it shouts, “Oi Fatty, cop this! [splat]”. And the only efficient and credible way to demonstrate to the world that Griffin is regarded as an eggworthy disgrace, is to actually and repeatedly pelt him with eggs.

One does worry about the “heckler’s veto”, however. Repulsive as the BNP’s message is, they do have a sacred democratic right to make themselves heard, and it would be a shame if the praiseworthy efforts of the egg-throwers were to stray into the excessive and unacceptable territory of silencing them from the debate. I therefore suggest the following compromise – Unite Against Fascism ought to agree to allow Nick Griffin to give his press conferences in peace and without interruption, and in return the BNP ought to schedule an opportunity at the end of each press conference for their leader to stand around being pelted with eggs.

Larry Elliott (the Guardian’s economics editor) is in my view right to say that a lot of modern macroeconomics has gone off the rails pretty badly and that most general equilibrium models are a tragic waste of time. But I think he (and most other similar critics of excessive maths in economics) really badly misidentifies the nature of the problem, and his choice of an example of a worthless piece of mathematical formalism is quite unfortunate and unfair. Let’s see if I can explain what “Generalised non-parametric deconvolution with an application to earnings dynamics” is, and why someone might care about it.
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