Niall Ferguson, queer theory, etc.

Niall Ferguson, a conservative historian, was recently in the news because schadenfreude. This started a train of thought to far away places, and I’d like to take you on the journey.

In The Stanford Daily‘s coverage of said schadenfreude, they mention another time that Ferguson put his foot in mouth, back in 2013. Ferguson had claimed that the famous (liberal) economist John Maynard Keynes didn’t care enough about the future because he was gay and childless.

Point in fact, Keynes was bisexual, married a woman, and tried to have children, although they had a miscarriage. Also, it’s not clear that Keynes didn’t care about the future.

Niall’s remark was clearly in response to Keynes’ famous quote, “In the long run we are all dead.” I immediately saw the connection, as this is a household quote and in-joke between me and my fiance. We say stuff like, “That may help in the long run, but you know what they say about the long run.” But it’s not really an expression of disregard for the future. It would help to see the quote in its original context: [Read more…]

Is grad school doing what you love?

Many people place a special value on “doing what you love”. Should you become a corporate tool, or a real-life scientist? “You should do what you love” is the reply. And it’s a reply that is detached from any real cost-benefit analysis. Like, maybe you only sorta love being a real scientist, and maybe you don’t love the working conditions of a scientist, and maybe the salary of a corporate tool is so much higher that it enables you to do other things that you love. But you can’t make a snappy motto out of such considerations.

The problem with “doing what you love” is that it doesn’t come for free. If academic institutions need a certain number of grad students,* then they need to provide incentives for just enough people to apply. “Doing what you love” is one incentive, and it takes the place of other incentives that academic institutions could have offered instead. In other words, they don’t need to pay you well, or treat you well. However much grad students are willing to tolerate in order to do what they love–that’s how much they end up having to tolerate.

*I’m only talking about Ph.D. students and not Masters students. I’ve never heard anyone describe a Masters degree as doing what you love.

In economic terms, we can speak of the “marginal” grad student (a concept similar to the “swing voter”). For the marginal grad student, the expected costs and benefits are exactly equal, such that the decision to go to grad school could go either way. It may be that the marginal grad student thinks they would love being a scientist, but this is exactly offset by the costs. So for some people, grad school may be a good deal. But the deciding factor is not merely whether you love grad school, it’s whether you’d love it more than the marginal grad student.

Beyond that, I think even the marginal grad student is getting a bad deal. The marginal grad student expects they would love grad school, but ends up loving it less than they predicted.

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Republicans screwing over grad students

For those of you who are in grad school, you’ve likely already heard that the Republicans’ proposed tax plan hurts grad students. Specifically, grad students would be taxed on their tuition waivers. On top of being bad for grad students, it simply doesn’t make sense to me. As far as I’m concerned the tuition waiver is just an exchange of money between the grant providers and my university. I never see the money. So why should I be taxed on it?

I intend to graduate before any of this could possibly affect me personally. But I went ahead and estimated how much additional tax I would have to pay. In 2016 I earned about $33k, and paid $3k in federal taxes. I had a tuition waiver of $13k, so the proposed tax plan would treat my total income as $46k. My marginal tax rate was 15%, so if I paid taxes on the tuition waiver, my taxes would go up from $3k to $5k. Now, I’m omitting some details, as the tax proposal also shuffles around tax brackets and deductions. But some students at UC Berkeley made a calculator, and it comes out the same.

For some grad students it can be even worse. For example, the calculator estimates that for a typical MIT student, taxes would go up by 240%, amounting to more than a third of their true income. The reason is that MIT has a higher tuition than my own public university.

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The joys of not being a music critic

What are the qualities that are desirable in a music critic (or a movie critic, or video games reviewer, or book reviewer)?

Generally, the very first thing we want is that they review music that we have a chance of listening to. Maybe we’re considering whether to buy some music, and need some help to make a decision. Or we’re looking around to discover new music that we might like. Or we’re already listening to the music and want to reflect on the qualities of that music.

That means that we want music critics who like some of the same music we like. And since music critics usually wish to reach a sizeable audience, that means music critics have to like a lot of different things. Their tastes should be eclectic. Or, if a critic’s tastes are more particular, there needs to be an easy way to match them up with an audience with similar tastes. Music genres usually fulfill this purpose. For instance, if a reviewer only really likes post-rock, they can advertise themselves as a critic of post-rock.

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Taxation, theft, and “deserving”

Let us consider an idea that perhaps isn’t really worthy of consideration, the idea that taxation is theft. This is a common idea in certain libertarian political philosophies, so I don’t really need to reinvent the wheel. I found a perfectly good rebuttal upon a basic search.

The article suggests three different ways to interpret the claim that taxation is theft:

  1. Theft is a legal crime, and so is taxation.
  2. Taxation is morally wrong for the same reasons that theft is morally wrong.
  3. Taxation is pragmatically bad for the same reasons that theft is pragmatically bad–e.g. claiming it depresses GDP.

I skimmed the comments to see if there were any other interpretations, and concluded we should add one more:

4. Taxation resembles theft in that there is an involuntary exchange of wealth under threat of force.

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But is it really capitalism?

A few years ago at a conference about queer video games, I said to an acquaintance, “It seems like there are some financial barriers to creating good queer video games.” My acquaintance says, “Yeah, well that’s capitalism.”

But is it? Is it really???

Sure, capitalism makes it hard to make well-funded games catering to a minority group. But it’s pretty hard to imagine an alternative economic system where we decide to invest a disproportionate amount of resources for the cultural benefit of a minority. Of all the problems created by capitalism, I’m not sure this is one of them. If anything, I would blame… eh… utilitarianism.

Capitalism vs utilitarianism

You may have heard that, in the simple case, a “free” market maximizes the good for the greatest number of people–that is, it’s the most utilitarian economic system. It chooses the optimal pricing and product allocation, eliminating “deadweight loss”, which is an angry red triangle that inhabits the supply/demand curves. There are of course, a lot of issues with this claim, most of which are beyond the scope of this post. The currently relevant issue is that hardly any markets qualify as simple.

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Paper: Overbooking flights

In recent news (cn: autoplay), a United Airlines passenger was unwillingly dragged off a plane to make seats for employees. The incident was partially blamed on the common practice of airlines to deliberately overbook flights in order to make up for all the no-show passengers.

While I won’t discuss the particulars of this incident, I am willing to do something that most journalists are not: read relevant academic literature. I just picked one paper that appeared to have a sufficiently broad perspective:

Marvin Rothstein, (1985) OR Forum – OR and the Airline Overbooking Problem. Operations Research 33(2):237-248.

The basic problem is that many people who buy airplane tickets don’t show up. In 1961, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) reported that 1 out of 11 ticket sales were no-shows. These numbers are about the same today, with 7-8% no-shows. The airlines could create wait lists to fill the empty seats, but it would be impossible to contact the wait-listed customers in a timely fashion unless they were already present at the gate.

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