hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Saturday, May 28, 2011
Doctor Science - Joplin
. . .[Jeff] Masters calls it "The most remarkable audio I've ever heard of people surviving a direct hit by a violent tornado". What's notable about it to my mind is how it's *not* like a movie. Yes, people are crying, screaming, praying. But they're also taking care of each other while they're all crammed together in the store's walk-in fridge, trying to make sure no-one is being crushed. Speaking of love.

Be careful out there.

Echidne of the Snakes - Med school admissions in milieu of reform (by Skylanda)
. . .As it stands today, medical students take four years of undergraduate courses (in any field, though including the core science courses), then complete two years of pre-clinical studies, two years of clinical rotations, and a minimum three-year residency. Of these minimum eleven years of study, you may be surprised to know that fully half (the undergraduate and pre-clinical years) are only tangentially related to what a medical student ends up doing with their life; the rest are an amalgam of requirements and hoops that largely defy any utility to the task of medicine. . .

. . .in my experience, it is often the burn of the residency years that fundamentally shapes many physicians’ attitudes toward work, burnout, reimbursement, and debt. You cannot repay what young physicians endure during residency; most take it back the only way they can – monetarily. . .



"I come at this from the perspective of a bio teacher who gets those pre-meds in their first few years. And, yes, who's one of the "executioners" in the weed-out classes. I couldn't agree more with what you say here.

Time and again, I'd see bright, kindly students come in with "Doctor" written all over them. And then they'd get a "C" in O_Chem and be toast. O-Chem which, as you say, they are never going to use in their professional lives. Meanwhile, society has lost yet one more person who would have made a good doctor. . .The weed-out course work very well at weeding, but they're getting rid of the orchids . . ."


"I was lucky - I went through pre-med as a "post-bacc", that is, I already had a degree and just needed to fill in science classes, at a big state school. I went through with a cohort of like minded people - we were older, pragmatic, supportive, and went through it together...I cannot imagine going through that in a cut-throat environment as a 19 year-old. The competition is just so unnecessary, as I very well found out - not only philosophically unnecessary, but literally unnecessary: all of us who stuck it out did well at the admissions process, without torturing ourselves or each other along the way."

Catherine Rampell - Once Again: Is College Worth It?
. . .Lots of people (~48%) would have changed their major, or done an internship, or started looking for work sooner while enrolled. Did you notice what category of regrets got the lowest share of responses?

Wishing they hadn’t gone to college.

I wonder if that points to the possible desirability of something like a 30-100K all-you-can-learn-buffet, i.e. flat-fee pricing instead of billable units.

Reihan Salam - Garett Jones and Lane Kenworthy on Taxes, Scandinavian Exceptionalism, and Much Else
Garett writes

"Scandinavian-Americans are about 50% more productive than Scandinavians. That’s pretty close to the naive tax-based prediction of Prescott–his rule of thumb, mentioned in his Nobel speech, is [loosely] that a 1% rise in taxes causes a 3% decline in labor supply. I suspect Prescott is wrong about that 3% estimate—surely labor laws and generous unemployment benefits are part of the difference. . ."

. . .this suggests that Danes and Swedes *might* do better under a more work-friendly tax regime, with “do better” understood as “engage in more productive economy activity,” which is of course different from doing better in some spiritual sense. . .

This seems to me remarkably weak tea. Indian-Americans are more productive than Indians, but no one is suggesting that India's low taxes (~20% of GDP) compared to the US (~30%) has anything to do with that. . .except, perhaps, you could argue that an oligarchic, rentier-based economy, with light taxes on the rich, will do worse than a middle-class based economy, with moderate taxes on the rich.

It seems to me that a good political order is one where everyone has some amount of freedom/security, no matter how poor, and where everyone faces some level of discipline/accountability, no matter how rich. The flaw in laissez faire-royal libertarianism is that it leads to a system of insufficient freedom/security for the poor, and insufficient discipline/accountability for the rich. Socialism is worse, it leads to a state where no one has freedom/security, and where the mechanisms of discipline/accountability are arbitrary and unpredictable. Which is why both socialism and royal libertarianism do not work, while the mixed economy, depending on the specifics, can work.

comment to Reihan Salam's "Megan McArdle and Kevin Drum on the Impact of Marginal Tax Rates"
Kevin Drum has been reading a survey of the literature on the elasticity of taxable income. He draws conclusions that Karl Smith suggests are basically right. Megan McArdle draws different conclusions, which I endorse. . .

"Given the record poor economic performance over the past decade with asset inflation bubbles and massive malinvestment and the worst decade of job growth in the nation's history, one must conclude from the above that taxes were hiked drastically soon after 2000, while in the early 1990s tax rates were slashed to produce a huge boom in extremely productive investment that led to record high employment."

Nick Kristof - Raiding a Brothel in India (and comments)

Rick Perlstein - Hubert Humphrey, America's Forgotten Liberal
. . .Segregationist Southerners threatened to walk out, a move that could have paralyzed the entire fragile Democratic coalition and handed the White House to the Republicans. The Democrats’ first presidential defeat in 20 years might have been laid at the feet of this ambitious 37-year-old. . .

. . .“To those who say this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights,” he thundered from the convention podium, “I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The motion carried. The Southerners walked out and ran Strom Thurmond for president. When Harry S. Truman won nonetheless, Democrats were on their way to becoming the party of civil rights. . .

. . .Liberal policy, he said, must stress “common denominators — mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.”

In 1976 he joined Representative Augustus Hawkins, a Democrat from the Watts section of Los Angeles, to introduce a bill requiring the government, especially the Federal Reserve, to keep unemployment below 3 percent — and if that failed, to provide emergency government jobs to the unemployed.

It sounds heretical now. But this newspaper endorsed it then, while 70 percent of Americans believed the government should offer jobs to everyone who wanted one. However, Jimmy Carter — a new kind of Democrat answering to a new upper-middle-class, suburban constituency, embarrassed by industrial unions and enamored with the alleged magic of the market — did not. . .

Felix Salmon - The Fed’s secret giveaway to European banks

One thing I find infuriating is the way the political system meekly accepted the premise in the AIG counterparty bailout that contracts are sacred, and must never ever be modified or disrespected in any way, or else the whole capitalist system breaks down, yet completely abandoned that principle of the sacredness of contract when it came to government and union worker pensions. My view is that if we can modify government and union pensions (and I think we should be able to, if the circumstances warrant), we should have been able to modify the contracts of AIG counterparties, and made the bailout selective and conditional, rather than an no-questions-asked open-ended raiding of the government till.

Atul Gawande - Cowboys and Pit Crews
. . .When I was in medical school, for instance, one of the last ways I’d have imagined spending time in my future surgical career would have been working on things like checklists. Robots and surgical techniques, sure. Information technology, maybe. But checklists?

They turn out, however, to be among the basic tools of the quality and productivity revolution in aviation, engineering, construction—in virtually every field combining high risk and complexity. Checklists seem lowly and simplistic, but they help fill in for the gaps in our brains and between our brains. They emphasize group precision in execution. And making them in medicine has forced us to define our key aims for our patients and to say exactly what we will do to achieve them. . .

(via Ezra Klein)

Karl Smith - Corporate Governance and the Plutocracy
. . .Investors with an interest in actually allocating capital are a key part of this whole capitalism thing. That almost necessitates a concentration of wealth. . .

I guess my two questions for Karl Smith is that 1) Einhorn, the hedge fund manager in the piece, seems to favor shorting as a key money-making strategy. Shorting is a zero-sum activity that's not insurance, so how can it increase welfare? 2) The hedge fund model seems to depend on promising investors a 15-20% return, in exchange for exhorbitant fees. How can that be possible, for a scalably large number of people, using honest means, when the underlying economic growth does not justify those returns? And what are the potential dangers of a system that seems to be based on managers overpromising, attracting lots of capital based on those promises, then (inevitably) either under-delivering or rent-seeking?

Jared Bernstein - This Excess Capacity You Keep Talking About…What is It?

An interesting post by Bernstein, but doesn't seem to answer, at least in so many words, the question of how much money we are leaving on the table, i.e. What are the range of estimates of the gap between what is and what could be?

Karl Smith - You Can’t Overwork Yourself By Smoking Joints and Watching Too Many Episodes of Jersey Shore
. . .This is why it makes no sense to say that a recession is inevitable because we overconsumed. Because we bought too much it is now inevitable that we work less? Why does that make fundamental sense? Surely something is going wrong. Shouldn’t we be working more to pay for all the stuff we bought? . . .

. . .If we consumed too much then shouldn’t we need to work extra hard? Why is society working less? What about spending too much money implies that the natural reaction is that people should go home and sit on the couch?. . .

Tyler Cowen - Open entry schools, the university as forum
I’ve been reading the fascinating A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander et.al., a book which I recommend to all urbanists, all architecture fans, Jane Jacobs fans, and Hayekians. . .(The book is in large part about how the organization of space and construction shapes spontaneous orders.). . .

Ta-nehisi Coates - Evolutionary Psychology
Michael Dickerson:
". . .Our society has become OBSESSED with data, and in particular quantitative data, in a way that often leads to misleading conclusions. . ."


One on my favorite essays on the theme of too much reverence for numbers is John Bogle's "Don’t Count On It! The Perils of Numeracy".

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