Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A riddle: Hats and signalling

Some of you may know this one already, but a here's a favourite riddle of mine.

Four prisoners are blindfolded and arranged as follows: Three of them are lined up one behind the other (i.e. facing the same way), while the last prisoner is placed on the other side of a screen. A hat is then placed on each of their heads. When the blindfolds are removed...
  • Prisoner A can see B and C in front of him, but not D.
  • Prisoner B can see C, but neither A or D. 
  • Prisoners C and D can only see the screen.
  • None of them is able to see what colour hat they are wearing themselves.

    The prison warden then announces his beastly scheme: "Each of you has either a red or a blue hat on your head. There are two hats of each colour. One of you will be able to say -- with 99% certainty -- what colour hat you are wearing. Moreover, you should be able to do so within a minute. Should that person call out the correct answer, you are all free to go. Failing that, you are all to be sentenced to death!"

    [Cue: Dramatic music]

    Which prisoner calls out the correct answer and how is he able to do so without resorting to a 50/50 guess? (Rest assured, this a puzzle of logic and so there are no petty tricks like whispering to each other, turning around, mirrors, peaking over the screen, etc.)

    Solution below the fold!

    Monday, May 30, 2011

    Bleg - LaTeX (plus Linux)

    So, I'm thinking of making the big, bad move over to LaTeX. The document style and structure simply look too good for me to keep plugging away at Microsoft Word. Further, it seems that anyone interested in producing "academic" documents has to embrace the way of LaTeX, or go the way of the dinosaurs. (At this point I should say that, for all those not sure what I'm talking, just Google "LaTeX" and you'll see the awesome document format that characterises most research papers nowadays...)

    Unfortunately, it's turning into a rather confusing move to make. In particular, it's hard to evaluate the trade-offs involved in choosing different TeX editors when you aren't necessarily sure what those trade-offs mean! Of course, I could go for "faking" the LaTeX design using different fonts and so on in MS Word, but that just seems to be delaying the inevitable and more time consuming in the long-run.

    After some research then, I've decided to give LyX a go, as I believe it's a simplified extension of the LaTeX system and doesn't require intricate knowledge of  typesetting and so on. However, I believe that LyX can also make it difficult for other people to edit the document (e.g. co-authors), since they can't compile the source code in different (non-LyX) LaTeX editors... At least, that's what I understand at this point.

    Does anyone have any advice on the matter? Is LyX a good place to start for a novice like me, or should I bite the bullet and go for something more advanced?


    Beyond that... I'm also contemplating the need to sever broader ties with Bill Gates and co. by embracing the world of open source computing. For instance, I have a couple of friends that use Linux operating systems and they all rave about it. Only problem is that they are all either of a strong technical persuasion, or naturally predisposed to swimming against the stream (which makes me suspicious that they might overstate the benefits of turning one's back on Microsoft and the like.). 

    However, I am told that Linux's Ubuntu OS doesn't require for you to have something resembling a BSc in Computer Science to operate. Supposedly, it's actually very user-friendly for the average punter like myself. Anyone out there in a position to confirm?

    Computationally Confuzzed. Lisboa.

    Sunday, May 29, 2011


    In a few hours, the start to the 86th Comrades Marathon will sound off. This year is an "up run", as 18,000 runners of all race, creed and nationality set off from Durban, slowly tracing their way over 90-odd km of undulating hills until they reach the nearby city of Pietermaritzburg.

    It seems an odd thing to write a post about a race that I have never run (even if an ultra). However, while I may be many thousand miles away from home, there are few things that strike me as more quintessentially South African -- in a good way -- than Comrades.

    I can clearly remember being very young and waking up at what seemed an impossibly early hour, to tune in for the start of the race... Sharing in the nervous anticipation of the runners, a bundled mass in the morning dark, waiting for the ceremonial crow and gun shot that signals the start of every Comrades. I would sit transfixed for much of the day with the rest of my family as we watched the lead runners relentlessly beat down the 90km tarmac with superhuman stamina and speed to the finish line... To the absolute drama of a few hours later, as the cut-off shot was fired; the back of the designated official turned dispassionately away from the frantic last rush of stragglers. Would the man wobbling in a dangerous haze, blinded by exhaustion, stumble his way across the line in time? Had those runners, who still looked in good shape but were yet outside the stadium, mistimed their run by a crucial few minutes? And, perhaps most emotive of all, could those shouldering the weight of complete strangers out on their feet, find the strength for two people over the agonizing last few metres? Had they cost themselves a finisher's medal through their spirit of comraderie? In that case, did it matter?

    I've run a good number of half marathons and a full in my time, but, as mentioned, Comrades is still on the to-do-list. Indeed, I sometimes feel a compulsion that I have to do it one day. (Well, provided that my knee comes right from its current state of persistent injury!) One of my favourite Comrades anecdotes, though, relates to someone that I met while travelling in Tanzania in 2008. The story may require a bit of background, but essentially I was in the middle of a Cairo to Cape trip at the time... Actually, it's probably best just to quote directly from the group email that I wrote back then:
    [...] Something that you realise doing a trip like this, is that there is always someone just a little bit more hardcore than you. Niall [i.e. friend I was travelling with] and I met perhaps the most obvious such candidate on the stretch from Arusha to Iringa. 
    Andy is a Scotsman who had come down solo from the UK, through Europe and the Middle East, and then on to the same Cairo-south route as ourselves. Seeing as we were cycling too, he was keen to join up for the company for a while. He mentioned that he was heading down to Durban. When I asked why he didn't "just" continue on through to Cape Town, he dropped the bombshell: He was cycling down to Durban to run the Comrades Ultramarathon...
    Um. Come again? 
    "Yes, this year I think I'll cycle 18,000km -- by myself -- and then celebrate by running a 90km ultra at the end." 
    Every morning, he wakes up early, runs anything from one to three hours, and then gets on his bike for a regular 100km cycle. Madness. This, after Niall and I had been debating whether it was too taxing too do some press-ups before a day's cycle... 
    Andy, we salute you!
    [Note: I'm happy to report that Andy did manage to finish his race before the 12-hour cut-off time that year. This is all the more impressive for the fact that he found himself short on time to reach Durban once he hit Malawi. If I recall correctly, he had to do the last 2,500 km in under 20 days, which I can promise you is a big ask...]

    Thursday, May 26, 2011

    Cover Thursdays - Justin Vernon edition

    Coming at ya live outta southern Denmark[*], a (very) quick Cover Thurdays edition to keep you interested.

    Most of you probably know Justin Vernon as the brains, voice and talent behind Bon Iver. If you didn't, well now you do.

    [Note: I was tempted to say "shame on you", but we're trying not be judgemental here at The Corral. However, I highly recommend that you remedy any unfamiliarity with today's subject ASAP. Seriously. Start here and then head here to get idea of what we're dealing with. You can thank me later]

    Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, Nic R showed me a very cool cover of Sade's "By Your Side" by Gayngs, which is another Justin Vernon project. However, since I've made it a habit of putting together a pair of songs for these CT posts, I've been waiting for the right companion piece before posting it...

    Now, thankfully, the wait is over. Earlier this week on the Jimmy Fallon Show, Justin delivered a quite sublime performance of the Bonnie Raitt classic, "I Can't Make You Love Me". With apologies to Jónzi Birgisson (Sigur Rós) and Matt Bellamy (Muse), you won't have been this moved by a falsetto, since the first time you watched Saturday Night Fever...


    [*] As mentioned previously, I'm here for an econometrics conference. I'm not expecting this to be barrel of laughs, but looking forward to some feedback on a paper I've been working on and will be presenting. More importantly though... Legoland IS JUST DOWN THE ROAD! Yes, my friends, childhood dreams do come true...

    Sunday, May 15, 2011

    Cover Thursdays - Leonard Cohen edition

    [NOTE: This post did originally appear on a Thursday (May 12, to be exact), but has since been "moved" following the blogger spaz out over the weekend. Just in case you were wondering. Glad we got that out of the way.]

    I'm all kinds of short on time right now, so unfortunately this is going to be an fairly light treatment of a notably complex artist: Leonard Cohen.

    His quintessentially understated singer-songwriter style may not be to everyone's taste, but as a musical poet he is all but unmatched. You would find little opposition to the claim that he is among the top two Jewish(-born) lyricists to emerge from the 1960s folk scene -- which, of course, would place him high in the running for the title worldwide and for all of time. The other claimant to the throne being a certain Robert A. Zimmerman. (At least that was the handle his loving parents gave him, but he never had much use it for himself...)

    Like Dylan, Cohen has proved an irresistible inspiration for covers. The reasons, I would venture, are fairly straightforward and do not require deep analysis. Hypnotically simple melodies, profoundly beautiful lyrics that are endlessly evocative yet uncomplicated at the same time, and -- most controversially -- a sense that these songs could be improved by a different voice. It's hard to touch on this last aspect without further explanation. I'll try and be blunt: I believe that other artists have felt "comfortable" singing the songs of Dylan and Cohen because they sensed that they had an advantage in the vocal department.

    How wrong they were. The litany of wretched attempts to "cover" a Dylan or Cohen song is testament to this hubris. However, even the underlying notion that there was something that needed improving was misguided from the outset. It does not matter, for example, that Dylan was never the vocal equivalent of Donovan, or even Eric Burdon. That wasn't the issue. Rather, it was about crafting songs that played to his own abilities and strengths. More to the point, find me someone that has come close to singing "Ring Them Bells" as perfectly as Bob Dylan's original cut and I'll eat my words. (Sufjan Stevens, for one, had to reduce the song to a strange carnival jingle to even get it out the door.)

    But enough about Bob. This is a post about Leonard Cohen and I should say right now that I do not consider them to be anything near equals in terms of vocal ability, let alone tenor. I was just trying to illustrate the point that it's easy to overlook how central Cohen's voice has been to his music. And, yes, how good it is even. A suitably great paragraph by the brilliant George Starostin, discussing Cohen's debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen:
    Me, I happen to be more attracted to Cohen for the hypnotizing sound of his voice rather than the deep mesh of symbolism in the actual lyrics, and so for me, Songs is the freshest and henceforth the quintessential Cohen to own. The melodies are, of course, the weakest part: simplistic, almost identical, tune after tune, all of them lightly strummed on an acoustic guitar which the man could never even master on a Bob Dylan level, let alone Nick Drake. But then he never really tried, either; being a visionary, for Cohen, never implied being a musician as well. It didn't imply being a singer, either, although Songs certainly show that any complaints you occasionally hear about the man's voice are grossly overrated. Instead of singing, he goes for what I'd call 'melodic declamation', softly, silkily purring out his words the way a classic European "bard", be he French or Russian, would always do if he accepted the fact that it was a long way from out there to Shalyapin. But those few notes that he does 'sing', in a way, he sings decently, without getting out of tune; he knows his limitations and he doesn't try to jump over them and get whacked by the cross-bar.
    Right, so with those notes out of the way, let's get down to it... because there certainly have been some brilliant Cohen covers over the years despite the many pitfalls. To highlight the obvious example, Jeff Buckley's take on "Hallelujah" may be the most achingly beautiful rendition of another artist's creation in the history of modern music. However, I've somewhat less lofty ambitions here. Let's just try and go for something novel that you might not have heard of, okay?

    1) This first little find comes via G.R. (Poncey to his mates) on Twitter yesterday.[*] The Lemonheads (featuring Liv Tyler nogal) sink their teeth gently into "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye":

    2) Next, an oldie that my dad used to break out every so often... Judy Collins slips into "Suzanne".

    [And you thought the first video's "picture" was bad...]

    My old man reckons that this is the best version of "Suzanne" out there and, while I personally much prefer the original, I felt that I had to include it here... If for no other reason than the fact that I need to wrap this up now and get back to work! [UPDATE: Some controversy in the comments here, as the old boy claims he always held Nina Simone's cover as the best. Now, this one may actually top the original.]

    Anyway, hope you enjoy these two and feel free to add any suggestions of your own...

    [*] In fact, I would be lying if that wasn't what prompted today's Leonard Cohen theme in the first place! Well, that, and the fact that another friend, Bloomsboy, had already made Cohen's presence explicit in the first Cover Thursdays post here at The Corral. Quoting the late Stephen Watson: "Whenever an artist chooses to appropriate the work of another, he is obliged to both adapt it and improve it. One example where I think this was achieved is in Leonard Cohen's appropriation of Federico Garcia Lorca's poem Little Viennese Waltz."

    Saturday, May 14, 2011

    The back burner

    That special time of the year has arrived, when I'll be foregoing the pleasures of summer and reaping the rewards of procrastination. Yup, it's exam time for monsieur Stickman. Not only exams, but I have the added joy of finishing some final reports and -- the big one -- typing up my thesis. (I'll be presenting a paper on it at an econometrics conference in southern Denmark in two weeks, which is probably going to be even wilder than it sounds. /sarcasm)

    So, if you don't hear from me all that regularly over the next week or three, you know why. Even as I write this little post, I'm missing out on the Eurovision Song Contest finale.

    I know, tragic.[*]

    [*] How this steaming pile of tripe manages to captivate an entire continent is beyond me. Clearly, it must be some kind of sophisticated test to sniff out foreigners

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Being back Bri'ish & other immigration debates

    There's a lot of talk about immigration policy these days.

    I wonder, however, how many of you have ever found yourself on the wrong side of the, er... immigration line? Well, I have, my friends! Many a time, in fact. That is the joy of travelling abroad on what is affectionately dubbed the "Green Mamba"... A South African passport does not open up many doors. Virtually every country seems to demand a pre-arranged travel permit. The upside is that -- if you're lucky enough to travel a lot -- your passport pages get filled with cool looking stamps and visas. The downside is the administrative shlep that comes with any travel plans (say nothing of the massive handbrake on spontaneous trips) and the not-insignificant amount of money that I've had to sink into obtaining said visas.

    Today is a good example. I spent the better part of five hours queuing in the Portuguese Immigration Service's charming Lisbon offices, forking over €146 -- €146!--  at the end to secure a six week extension to my student exchange visa. (Whatever happened to student prices?) As they say: the service wasn't great, but at least the waiter was rude. Prior to this I had, over the course of the last month or so, visited several disparate immigration offices/affiliates to obtain "essential" documentation for my big moment today. Needless to say, I am deeply humbled by the benevolent authorities' decision to graciously extend my visa so that I might actually sit exams now. I would also like to voice my appreciation for the selfsame authorities who, in their infinite wisdom, only allocated a three-month visa at the outset of my trip. I would mention that I've already been vetted with a two-year residency permit by a fellow Schengen country, but you know me.. I don't like to complain.

    Anyway, I was thinking of this and immigration policy in general when I came across this video, which features an amazingly erudite individual from the British Defence League:

    "Muslamic Ray Guns".

    Via 6000, who also includes this disturbingly catchy auto-tuned version:

    Churchill wept... Although, to be fair to lad, he'd probably sunk a good few cans of Stella prior to the interview.

    Not too long ago, I was chatting to a relative of mine about migrants to the UK.[*] His basic position was that the UK has got itself into all kinds of social and economic trouble, because it has opened the floodgates to huge numbers of people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. This horde of foreigners are eroding the fabric of British life.[**]

    I nearly choked on my tea and scones.

    My reply was something along the lines of: "Are you kidding me? The Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and co. (say nothing of the eastern European immigrants from Poland and elsewhere) have become the lifeblood of the British economy. In some areas, they're about the only people that actually work! The UK's biggest social problem, may very well be that they've been raising a generation of yobs and chavs... I've lived in countries where social welfare systems work very well (i.e. Scandinavia), but I'm afraid that Britain does not fall into this category. Immigrants are an easy scapegoat, but the British people need to take a long hard look at themselves to get to grips with their problems."

    I think I'll be forwarding these videos on...

    Anyway, I really just wanted to moan about immigration red tape and perceptions. Not that I want to come across as too much of an ungrateful gobshite, mind you; I've been very fortunate to travel widely. Studying, working and living abroad are luxuries that few get to experience and I'm well aware of that. Still, it would have been easier if I had dual passports.

    THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: The grass isn't always greener on the other side, but it's nice to be able to take a look once in a while. Even if they have Muslamic ray guns.

    [*] At this point, I should say that I lived and worked myself as a "migrant" for two years and continue to visit regularly to see friends and family.
    [**] I'm using the UK and Britain interchangeably here just to catch the spirit of the argument. Of course, they aren't quite the same thing... Especially if you happen to be from Northern Ireland.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011

    A thought on supply-side *micro*...

    The Financial Times ran a story yesterday about Britain and Switzerland closing in on a deal regarding the taxation of the undeclared assets of wealthy individuals:
    Britons to be taxed on secret billions 
    Britons with billions of pounds hidden in Switzerland will pay tax at 50 per cent under a groundbreaking deal that will legitimise their undeclared assets, according to a source familiar with negotiations between the Swiss and British governments. 
    The agreement, which is expected to be announced this month, marks a shift in emphasis in the international crackdown on tax havens. Over the past two years, the focus has been on lifting bank secrecy and exposing evaders.
    Very interesting and, as a quoted expert says later in the post, a development that would have seemed "unthinkable" only a few years ago. Now, I don't plan to go into the merits of tax havens per se, but the article reminded me something that crossed my mind a few weeks ago...

    I was having a conversation with a (non-economist) friend about the mass protest against spending cuts that rocked the London in late March. In part of his email, my friend wrote:
    [...] The gaping hole in my knowledge is the financial sector. I keep getting told about the importance of investment and the relative freedom for banks (as a cornerstone of any wealthy, growing, capitalist economy) but even so I cannot see how, in a country like England which is on the brink of executing drastic, unprecedented cuts across the public sector, how it is preferable to let the financial world 'off lightly' at the expense of the average, working-class man. If Philip Green is able to legally divert billions of pounds off-shore to avoid paying tax there has to be something wrong with the system. Surely. There is way too much freedom for greedy bastards like him. And I'd be very interested to see roughly how much money could be consolidated by tightening up these freedoms[...]
    The quip about Philip Green[*] got me thinking... Has anyone ever done a "micro" study on individuals like him, looking at how their spending and investment habits differ from other high net-wealth individuals that aren't as firmly ensconced in tax havens? Do they employ as many people (both in an absolute and before-and-after sense)? Do they invest more in expanding productive capacity or research? Do they contribute more to philanthropic ventures? Etcetera, etcetera. In effect, I was guess you could say that I was thinking about whether we could design and carry out a sort of case study on supply-side / trickle-down economics.

    Part of the reason that I thought this idea might be promising -- in its own little way -- is because you could analyse very similar individuals from the same country, which are effectively paying different tax rates at the same time. Unfortunately, think about this type of study for a little while and you can already list several potential stumbling blocks that threaten to derail any serious attempts to carry it out. How to find individuals that fit the bill, monitor their personal spending and investment, etc.

    Still hasn't found what he's looking for
    What about companies then? Well, I'd imagine that they would offer you a more promising option in terms of data at least; provided that they have publicly-available accounts. With firms, you could look at both financial indicators (e.g. share price), as well as other "social good" criteria (e.g. do firms head-quartered in tax havens pay their staff higher wages on average). Corporations would not only make for a potentially interesting study in of themselves, but could also stand as reasonable proxies for individuals in certain cases. Sir Philip and Topshop, for instance. Although, I can think of a few more fun examples. Like... Did Bono increase his charitable activities (ahem) after U2 Inc's much publicized relocation from Ireland to tax-friendly Holland?

    Looking over this post, I'm not sure how much of a point I'm trying to make... For one thing, the empirical case for (simplistic) supply-side economics -- i.e. that lower marginal tax rates will automatically boost economic performance -- has long since gone the way of the dodo as far as I am aware. Still, I've already written this whole thing out and damned if I'm going to erase it now. Judge me as you wish blogosphere!

    [*] For those who don't know, Sir Philip Green is the billionaire owner of, among other things, Topshop. He has long been criticised for tax avoidance and his stores were particularly targeted by demonstrators during the aforementioned protest.
    "And then I said, 'Does this smell like chloroform?'"

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011

    The awesomeness of Frightened Rabbit

    Commentator Dave asks a question on this post; what album would I consider worthy of the title "2008 Album of the Year"? (See the post for date context.)

    I didn't even bat an eyelid in answering: "Frightened Rabbit's Midnight Organ Fight by a country mile". 

    By coincidence then, I see that my mate Nic has just posted a song off their (equally-as-good) 2010 follow up, The Winter of Mixed Drinks, on Facebook. Being the perceptive reader of signs that I am, I do not wish to anger the blogging gods by refusing a post on, arguably, the best thing to emerge from the music world over the last five years.

    Since this post is largely directed at those among you that don't know Frightened Rabbit already... I can only repeat a comment that I saw the first time I ever watched one of their videos. And I quote: "Go out and buy their album now. It will change your life for the better with its infinite awesomeness."

    Pretty profound piece of folk wisdom there[*] and, what's more, not one word of lie! Seriously, go out and get your hands on their stuff. I'll start you off with this, which is where I began:

    [Please note some NSFW lyrics. Although, what's few cuss words between friends?]

    Actually, just buy the albums. Trust me, they will improve your life with their infinite awesomeness. 

    [*] The best music endorsement that I've yet heard was spoilt for the fact that it was describing a Björk concert; an artist that I simply cannot stand. Asked how the experience was, the reply came: "Like losing your virginity to God". Such a good chirp and more's the pity that it was wasted on that little Icelandic oddity!

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Sustainability - Robert Solow's take

    I wrote the bulk of the previous post before (re-)reading a Robert Solow essay that I'd largely forgotten about, Sustainability: An Economist's Perspective.

    Please do yourself a favour and read it. It's a great piece of writing that is not only concise, but remarkably prescient and even funny. More importantly, Solow essentially makes all of the points that I tried to convey in a far superior manner. I'm pleased to say that he even mentions the Hartwick Rule and compares Norway's management of its oil wealth to that of its less prudent North Sea neighbour, Britain.

    For what it's worth, if you're interested you can see my basic take on Thatcher, as well as Blair and co's, spendthrift approach to the UK's North Sea oil resources here. You'll also get the chance to see a reactionary libertarian response for free![*]

    [*] Freeman, if you're reading this, just kidding bud. Although...

    Sustainability: Defining the undefinable

    What does it mean for something to be "sustainable"? Does the term, as it is widely used in the public lexicon today, contribute anything useful to our everyday lives, or even those of future generations?

    David Friedman, scion to the more famous Milton, thinks not. He has written several posts that have received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere recently by attacking our fixation with "sustainability". Without trying to paraphrase too loosely, he essentially argues that the concept of sustainability is mostly vacuous and -- to the extent that it does contribute anything original to discussions of how humankind might plan for the future -- this new contribution could only result in some "indefensible" policy decisions if taken seriously. A paragraph to illustrate:
    Making sure we can continue our present activities into the indefinite future makes sense only if we believe that we will be doing those things into the indefinite future. Judged by what we have seen in the past and can guess about the future, that is very unlikely. [Note: In an earlier paragraph, Friedman cites the futility of preserving pasture land in the early 20th century for horses that were ultimately replaced by automobiles.] We do not know what the world of forty or fifty years hence will be like, but it will not be the same as the present world, hence it is very unlikely that we will be doing the same things in the same way and requiring the same resources to do them with.
    I agree with many of the points that Friedman makes. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that most development and environmental economists (say nothing of practitioners in related fields) have conceded these issues long ago. For example, the first time I ever came across the famous Brundlant Commission's definition of "sustainable development" -- i.e. "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" -- was in an undergraduate class on environmental economics. I recall my lecturer saying something along the lines of: "Nice concept. Pity that it's too vague to be of any real use." Similarly, here's a fable about sustainability from a more recent class that I took on energy economics:
    Some two centuries ago, a farmer in Ireland calculated how much peat he and his family needed to subsist. He then marked out fields for a maximum number of generations that could subsist from the peat available on his land and made a vow not to take more than his share. His son did the same, as did his grandson, and his grandson's son. But one day there was no more peat dug up and, yet, there was still plenty left.
    It wasn't only peat farmers that were caught out this way. William Stanley Jevons, the pioneering co-founder of the "marginal revolution" in economics, pondered how Britain might best use its precious, yet limited, coal resources in his 1865 treatise, The Coal Question. At the end of his book, Jevons confronted the fact that Britain's use of coal was on an unsustainable path relative to its supplies. Given coal's central importance to the British economy, he was left to conclude that the country faced an uncomfortable choice in prolonging the lifespan of its reserves: "We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity."

    Of course, looking at these two stories, we can now see that two key components were missing from the analysis, namely: i) Substitution, and ii) Innovation. I won't comment in-depth on either of these aspects, except to say that, yes, they have absolutely and continually expanded the boundaries of our horizons.

    Now, going back to Friedman's posts, it should be clear from what I've already written that I and (I believe) many others are already largely in agreement with him. But not completely. I have some nagging issues with his criticism, which might explain why I don't think that the ideal of sustainability should be discarded...

    1) The historical precedent of technological innovation and/or new resource discoveries in some cases offers no guarantees that resource limitations will be overcome as easily (or fortuitously) in the future. The peat farmer would have appeared more sage in hindsight had he lived, say, 500 years earlier. It might not be that -- as Friedman says perfectly reasonably -- that we should expect to be doing the same things indefinitely into the future. However, that is a very poor argument for unchecked profligacy. It's clear that we live in an age of increased technological breakthrough and, yet, not every generation can simply rely on the timely discovery of fossil fuels, or whatever the relevant equivalent is. Actually, if we're talking historical precedent, then I should say that the historical record makes this rather clear... Take a look at Jared Diamond's Collapse to get an idea of how societies through the ages have brought about their own downfall by failing to adequately respect (and adjust to) their natural environment. Similarly, this post discusses what imperfect substitutability between different goods might mean in the context of climate change.

    2) Since I don't believe that sustainability is about us "doing the same activities into the indefinite future", let me briefly explain what I think it should be about. To the extent that substitution between goods is possible, sustainability is concerned with the transformation of wealth into... well, sustainable forms of wealth. A famous example from own my specialisation of resource economics is the so-called Hartwick Rule. Put simply, this is an investment rule that says you should invest the profits from non-renewable resources into renewable forms of capital. At its heart, the Hartwick Rule is thus about preserving some form of intergenerational equity. The sovereign wealth funds of many resource rich countries are based on this logic... For example, Norway's "Global" Government Pension Fund, which invests the country's petroleum income in equity shares and stocks around the world.

    3) Unlike conventional planning (which takes place at the individual, household or firm level), to me "sustainability" confers something on a grander scale. This may seem an amorphous concept, but it needn't be. Looking at things from the societal level means that you are forced to factor in future generations in locations that may be far removed from your home town or area of influence, precisely because these people may still stand to be affected by our actions today. So, it's not that sustainability is about dismissing the fact that people and companies already make important decisions about trade-offs and opportunity costs. Rather, it concerns the fact that we may need to incorporate additional trade-offs, which are easily overlooked simply because they are far-removed from our current circumstances. Sustainability should therefore be about expanding the scope of people's (and society's) immediate concerns to include things like public goods. An obvious candidate is climate change and I think that this is one area where Friedman gets his criticism badly confused.[**] His argument actually fails to acknowledge the fundamental concern of climate change economics, which is to evaluate the costs and benefits in equalised terms, both geographically and inter-temporally. Again, uncertainty about how mankind's future welfare or technology will develop is not a license to profligacy. Yes, we may be wrong in our projections of what the world will look like in a hundred years, but that hardly means that we should abdicate responsibility in making reasonable investments and sacrifices based on our best estimates. I also wonder why people think that we won't be able to shift goal posts as the game changes and new facts emerge? The idea that we might be paralysed by the fear of making mistakes (in our predictions of the future) is analogous in its intellectual poverty to the Luddite idea that we should leave the earth exactly as we found it. These are empty false choices.

    THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: I left a comment under Friedman's second sustainability post, concluding somewhat tongue-in-cheek: Given the vagueness of existing definitions of "sustainability", couldn't we just invoke Potter Steward's famous quip about (hard-core) pornography: "We may not be able to define it, but we'll know it when we see it."?

    More seriously, sustainability may be hard to pin down and even counter-productive if taken at the absolute literal level, as some have defined it. However, I think that we've long since moved passed the peculiar notion that we should expect to do the same things, or use exactly the same resources, indefinitely into the future. Sustainability will probably remain an inevitably vague concept, but that doesn't mean that is without value. It is about understanding how our actions today may affect those in the far-off future, or in far-off places, and applying equal weight across those dimensions. It is about acknowledging both the possibilities and limits of substitutability or technological innovation. Lastly, being "sustainable" doesn't mean that we must impoverish ourselves today for the benefit of future generations, any more than it means that we can enrich ourselves at the expense of those future generations. We should expect that people will be "wealthier" than us in the future, just as we are largely better off than our forebears. That seems to be a trend worth preserving.

    [*] Having said all this, you could argue that Friedman actually draws up a straw man caricature of these what these naive "sustainability-types" believe... However, I think that we would be an uncharitable reading and, to be fair to Friedman, there are a large number of armchair adherents to the sustainability mantra that comfortably fit the mantle as he's described it.
    [**] He writes: "[C]onsider the issue of global warming. Assume that it can be slowed or prevented, but at the cost of slowing the development of much of the world. To make the point more precise, suppose that global warming imposes an average cost on future generations of 10 utiles (or whatever unit you prefer to use to measure the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), but the policies that prevent it impose a cost of 20. Is permitting global warming sustainable? Is preventing it?"

    Sunday, May 1, 2011

    More of this please...

    Steven Landsburg writes:
    When something is wrong on the Internet, bloggers love to pounce. But since no blogger is infallible, most of us can find ample fodder in our own past writing, if we go back and reread it with a sufficiently critical eye. Over the next few weeks, I plan to revisit some things I got wrong the first time around. [...]I hope others will be inspired to do the same.
    Hear, hear. I've not been blogging long enough (or even regularly enough) for my most egregious mistakes to become self-apparent... yet. I really like where Landsburg is going with this, though. I'm dismayed at times by the tendency towards completely irrelevant ad hominens in the economic blogosphere. Instead of debating person A on matter X, simply dismiss what they have to say on the basis of them being wrong on matter Y several years ago. The Internet may not forget, but it will create a poor environment for intellectual development if we keep getting hung up on hundred percent track records. In a very related note, I wrote this a little while back on blogging under a pseudonym:
    I'm also put off by the idea of people being able to trace almost all my thoughts on past matters back to my future self. [...]On the academic and professional front, while I'm reasonably confident of the views that I hold on -- what I perceive to be -- important topics, I like the idea of being able to sound out ideas without being beholden to them.