From the monthly archives:

June 2013

The obesity paradox paradox

by John Q on June 19, 2013

I see lots of stories made up of handwringing over the “obesity paradox”, normally presented as saying that even though obesity is a risk factor for all kinds of diseases, obese people appear to have lower mortality than others. A typical finding is the one reported here

being overweight or slightly obese was linked to about a 6 percent lower risk of dying, compared to people considered “normal weight. Being severely obese, however, was still tied to an almost 30 percent higher risk of death.

People are tying themselves in knots over this, but it doesn’t seem to me that there is any paradox to be explained. The obvious reading of the data is that the Body Mass Index.[^1] ranges used for the various categories (20-25 Normal, 25-30 Overweight etc) were set a bit too low when they were originally estimated, or rather, guessed. From my quick look at the data, if you bumped the ranges up by a couple of points, the paradox would disappear. People at the bottom of the current normal range, who tend to have high mortality, would be classed as underweight, while those currently classed as slightly overweight would be reclassified as normal, and so on.

Am I missing something?

[^1]: This point is logically separate from the general problems of the BMI, regarding muscle mass and so on.

As soon as the Edward Snowden story broke, retail psychoanalysts in the media began to psychologize the whistle-blower, finding in his actions a tangled pathology of motives. Luckily, there’s been a welcome push-back from other journalists and bloggers.

The rush to psychologize people whose politics you dislike, particularly when those people commit acts of violence, has long been a concern of mine.  I wrote about it just after 9/11, when the media put Mohamed Atta on the couch. [click to continue…]

John Maynard Keynes met Franklin Roosevelt on Monday, May 28, 1934. Both afterward said polite things to Felix Frankfurter, who had urged the two to confer: Keynes described the conversation was “fascinating and illuminating,” while Roosevelt wrote that “I had a grand talk and liked him immensely.”

But the best-known account is probably that of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who wrote in her memoir, The Roosevelt I Knew,

Keynes visited Roosevelt in 1934 rather briefly, and talked lofty economic theory.

Roosevelt told me afterward, “I saw your friend Keynes. He left a whole rigmarole of figures. He must be a mathematician rather than a political economist.”

It was true that Keynes had delivered himself of a mathematical approach to the problems of national income, public and private expenditure, purchasing power, and the fine points of his formula. Coming to my office after his interview with Roosevelt, Keynes repeated his admiration for the actions Roosevelt had taken, but said cautiously that he had “supposed the President was more literate, economically speaking.” He pointed out once more that a dollar spent on relief by the government was a dollar given to the grocer, by the grocer to the wholesaler, and by the wholesaler to the farmer, in payment of supplies. With one dollar paid out for relief or public works or anything else, you have created four dollars’ worth of national income.

I wish he had been as concrete when he talked to Roosevelt, instead of treating him as though he belonged to the higher echelons of economic knowledge.

In Perkins’s story, Roosevelt did not grasp economic theory, and would have done better with a less figure-laden account of Keynes’s prescriptions. Historians often recycle her description as evidence of Roosevelt’s “limited understanding of some of the matters he had to deal with as president,” as Adam Cohen writes.

And yet we have evidence that Roosevelt was quite happy dealing with economic theory and a rigmarole of figures.

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by Jon Mandle on June 17, 2013

Several years ago, I was at a conference in Krakow. The organizers put together a couple of excursions for the participants. One was to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and one was to Auschwitz. I was with my wife and daughter who was 6 at the time, so we went to the salt mine. It was pretty spectacular, much better than in pictures, and I didn’t regret the decision. Several friends who went to Auschwitz described the experience in pretty much the same terms: they were glad that they had gone, but never wanted to go back. I recently was in Krakow again, and this time I took the drive – about an hour – out to the camp.
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Rights of Labor < Tyranny of Capital

by Corey Robin on June 17, 2013

Remember that National Labor Relations Board regulation instructing employers to post notices in their workplaces informing workers of their right to organize under the law? I described this regulation last year:

This is just a requirement that employees be informed of their rights. It doesn’t impose costs on employers, restrict their profits, regulate their operations: it just requires that working men and women be informed of their rights.

The business lobby, led by the Chamber of Commerce, has been challenging this regulation in court. Last year, it persuaded a Republican-appointed federal judge to strike it down. Last week, it had more success, persuading an even higher level of the judiciary—a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals—to strike down the regulation as an unconstitutional infringement on the liberty of employers. And it turns out that last month another court of appeals panel, made up entirely of Republican appointees, ruled even more expansively, claiming the same way.) that the provision violated employer free-speech rights as they are said to be protected by § 8(c) of the National Labor Relations Act. [click to continue…]

Urbanization in China

by John Q on June 16, 2013

The NY Times has an interesting, but unsatisfactory, article, on government attempts to promote urbanization in China, with a target of 70 per cent by 2025. The story is mostly about farmers whose land has been acquired by fiat, which fits into well-established journalistic frames. The bigger issue, buried right near the end, is the fact that, under the hukou system of registration, people classed as rural can’t legally live in the city. So, while about 35 per cent of the population is legally urban, the true figure is more like 53 per cent. That makes nonsense of the figures quoted at the beginning of the article, and the suggestion of forced urbanization on a historically unparalleled scale. In reality, the announced target implies a modest slowdown in rural-urban migration, which occurred despite official disapproval.

The big question, at least from the viewpoint of rural Chinese, is whether China can shift to a universal social welfare and retirement income system to replace the workplace-based system of social welfare, of which hukou was part, and which made sense with comprehensive state ownership. This topic is touched on in the NYT article, but in a fragmentary and confusing way, and it’s one about which I know little. I’d be grateful if anyone could point to a more comprehensive treatment.

From an Australian point of view, the continued construction of high-rise apartment buildings, highlighted in the article, is a big deal, since it drives much of the demand for steel, and therefore iron ore and coking coal, that has underpinned our amazing run of good economic fortune, along with the willingness of both Australian and Chinese governments to implement large-scale fiscal stimulus at the time of the global financial crisis.

Update Paul Romer makes much the same points, from a more informed perspective than mine.

Annals of anti-egalitarian hyperbole

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2013

Remember when Robert Nozick wrote in Anarchy State and Utopia that income taxation is akin to forced labour? Well it turns out that that is far far worse than that. Taxing the 1 per cent would be like the state forcibly ripping out their spare internal organs! At least that’s what Gregory Mankiw thinks. His paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Perspectives also includes a thinly-disguised rehash of the Wilt Chamberlain parable, but no proper acknowledgement to Nozick (suprising that the referees or editors at JEP didn’t make this point).

Follow the Turkish protests on Twitter

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 15, 2013

I know philosophers who are skeptical about the value of Twitter — they think it’s merely a time sink, or they make even more ridiculous claims, such as that it is undermining genuine social relations and friendships. Oh Boy. Right now it is an amazing source of information on what is really going on in Turkey – and that doesn’t really look good when I am typing these words. The police is very violently cleaning Gezi park where citizens of all ages have been peacefully protesting. According to various Twitter sources the police is also attacking the hotels in the area which have taken in wounded people. TV coverage (at least in my country) is short and rather superficial — but luckily there is the internet with blogs, online newspapers, citizens’ radios, and twitter. The quickest source of information on what’s going on are live stream coverages like Gezi Radyo and Twitter, where also many pictures can be found. If you want an easy entry point into the tweeps to follow, start with Dani Rodrik and follow those whose tweets he forwards, like Zeynep Tufekci.

Consider this an invitation to post links to more direct sources of information, and also as an ‘open thread’ to discuss what’s happening right now in Turkey.

Iraq 2003, looking back

by Chris Bertram on June 15, 2013

British Tory MP and former diplomat Rory Stewart starts speaking at about 1h 30 minutes. Definitely worth a listen, particularly as we hear the usual suspects crank up enthusiasm for war again.
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And (thanks to Chris Brooke) for those who would prefer just to read, the Hansard transcript.

IAS Egalitarianisms

by Henry Farrell on June 14, 2013

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton NJ will be inviting twenty visiting scholars to participate in a year-long program next year, and is particularly interested in applicants focusing on different forms of egalitarianism.

bq. What exactly is political equality? We have come to think of this ideal as consisting primarily of voting rights and the right to run for elected office.These political rights are, of course, fundamental.The carceral state draws our attention to that point, but voting rights are only one of the instruments available to be directed toward the egalitarian empowerment of a citizenry. How do political equality, social equality, and economic equality (and the corresponding inequalities) relate to each other? Are they separable or necessarily interdependent? What has been their historical relationship? How do questions of economics, law, institutions, social structure, culture, psychology, and human development intersect with the empowerment (and disempowerment) of individuals and collectivities? How have these intersections differed depending on time and place? In the current context, how do forms of global governance and democratic deficits relate to projects of empowerment at other levels? How have notions of empowerment differed in different historical and cultural contexts? Is it possible to articulate a clear definition of equality or should we think in terms of varying languages of egalitarianism? What have been the critiques of political equality? Must egalitarianism be understood in relation to democracy? How should we think about non-democratic egalitarianism? We encourage applications that are at once aimed at the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of these questions, as well as applications that offer concrete examples of different practices and definitions of equality.

Obviously, these are questions that many CT readers are very interested in. I’ve been to the IAS for weekend workshops, and it’s a wonderful place – spending a year there with a bunch of smart people interested in these questions would be a lot of fun. If you’re interested in applying, “further information can be found here”:

This is a guest-bleg, inspired by Quiggin’s Zombie Economics project.

I teach in NYU’s Journalism department, where we have strong concentrations in both business and science reporting. I’m looking for some way to label and describe a particular flavor of bad economics reporting, so as to make the students more alert to it, as consumers and possible producers of such reporting.

Here’s the backstory. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Tamar Gendler introduced me to the the problem of easy knowledge, the notion that if you believe a particular assertion, you can produce inductive chains that lead to overstated conclusions. “I own this bike” can be seen as an assertion that the person you bought it from was its previous owner.

But of course you don’t know if that guy in the alley had the right to sell it, so an assertion that you own the bike can generate easy knowledge about whether he did. Instead, “I own this bike” should be seen as shorthand for “If the guy in the alley was the previous rightful owner, then I am its current rightful owner.” (Oddly, this also describes the question of the Elder Wand in Harry Potter Vol. 7, pp 741 ff. Tom Riddle died of easy knowledge.)

I was reminded of easy knowledge while reading Thomas Edsall’s “NY Times column”: on
Can’t We All Be More Like Nordics? Asymmetric Growth and Institutions in an Interdependent World, a paper by the economists Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson and Thierry Verdier. (Acemoglu goes on to discuss this work in a post titled Choosing your own capitalism in a globalised world?.) [click to continue…]

Insubordination and the surveillance state

by Chris Bertram on June 13, 2013

Responding to concern about PRISM and the issue of whether intelligence collaboration with the US enabled British agencies to circumvent legal restrictions, Foreign Secretary William Hague told us that “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to fear. Not only do I not wish to be the kind of person Hague thinks of as “law abiding”, more generally it is social movements that willfully break the law that are most likely to bring about change and to threaten established power and privilege. And it is just such movements, and their leaders, who are at risk from pervasive state surveillance of our communications.
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These columns are discussed in the first part of _Cugel’s Saga._ The villagers of Tustvold, sprung from the dubious stock of fugitives from the Rhab Faag, have a curious social structure in which the women do all the work, and the men spend their days at the tops of columns whence they “absorb a healthful flux from the sunlight.”

>”The higher the column the more pure and rich is the flux, as well as the prestige of place. The women, especially, are consumed with ambition for the altitude of their husbands.”
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Using Metadata to find Paul Revere

by Kieran Healy on June 10, 2013

A small demonstration, from the 1770s.

Freedom is slavery

by John Q on June 10, 2013

In August 2012, the US House of Representatives voted 414-0 against governments trying to control the Internet

The House resolution calls on U.S. government officials to tell the ITU and other international organizations that it is the “consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control.”

I wonder if we will see more resolutions like this. It wouldn’t surprise me.