Curatorial malpractice

Chris Burden put himself on the map a few decades ago with some rather puerile enactments of risk.  He had himself shot in the arm with a .22, and nailed through the hands to the back of a VW beetle while its engine raced for a couple of minutes. A nail between your phalanges, and a small bullet that doesn’t hit your humerus (as it apparently didn’t) are not the same as being crucified or being seriously shot by someone who really means you ill, not at all; painful, but pretty certain to heal properly. This is the stuff of kids playing dare games, dressed up in arty garments for business.  No, we do not learn about real violence, nor Hitler’s ‘people’s car’, nor automobile culture [ideas critics have tried to extract, from, or inject into, them] from this stuff, any more than we learn much about someone from an armful of tattoos acquired in a youthful failure of judgment.  Nor does the medium/style really point anywhere: is the next development having an arm amputated, or an eye put out, or…or…I know, an ear cut off!  If a couple of the people who will commit suicide next year orchestrate it as a work of art, will our culture have advanced?

Burden has not gone in that direction, but moved on to sculpture of the sort that you don’t have to really see to experience; the common theme is to inflate a fairly simple and long-familiar idea into a very large, heavy realization.  The current show that fills the New Museum, where he is billed as one of the most important American contemporary artists,  is nothing like that early stuff, though it has a similar flavor of immaturity, now unleashed by adequate funding.  He is now much into big scale models of bigger things, especially Meccano/Erector set models of bridges, and I should note that unlike (for example) Mark di Suvero, whose enormous pointless assemblages of stuff lack any discernible craft or understanding of the nature of his materials, Burden’s work is competent and craftsmanlike.  I would have been proud of the bridges had I made them at the age of 12 or 13.  I couldn’t have, because they require a lot of custom parts in the style of Meccano elements, nor did I have a big enough set, so I’m envious of his resources for this kind of thing, but that doesn’t feel like a considerable response for large works of art. Continue reading “Curatorial malpractice”

Art prices

An interesting, but probably not immortal, Bacon sold for $142 million at auction yesterday. Note that it’s a tryptych, which might (depending on the droit d’integrité laws in effect where it winds up), be broken up and treated as three paintings, so maybe this wasn’t the high point being proclaimed: asterisk  in the record books. This got a work of contemporary art (well, less than half a century old) on the front page of the NYT along with a story that said nothing, not a word, about it as a painting, and then went on to wallow in miscellaneous additional art price porn and celebrity collector gossip.

OK, I guess the important thing here is the transaction.  What happened here?  First, it was a transfer in which practically no real economic resources were consumed. The painting went from someone’s wall or storage to someone else’s.   This is a very different matter from commissioning a work, or building an office building. About a fifth went to Christie’s, which is a nice hourly rate for the use of the hall and gavel. Continue reading “Art prices”

Radix malorum est cupiditas

It seems I’ve been channeling the Bursar this evening.

Are you looking for a prestigious internship for your teenage child? Are you worried that, despite your best efforts to make Junior respectable in public, the interview skills aren’t quite where they need to be? Do you think s/he would benefit during a college admissions interview by referring to “that time [I] interned at an energy consultancy”?

You’re in luck!

My high school, Westminster School, is offering internships at auction as a means to raise funds for its capital building projects and its Bursary Programme. On offer are internships in retail, finance, law, energy, and consultancy, among others. Fabergé? No problem. Coutts Bank? Roll up! We can serve all your needs here.

Ok, you’re interested? Great! All I’ll need is for you to 1) cough up hundreds of Her Majesty’s Pounds Sterling (I know, I know, can you really put a price on your child’s future? It’s priceless, after all. But then again, in addition to being a self-evidently valuable life experience, why not show people how valuable these internships are by making them prohibitively expensive?), 2) be a “member of the Westminster Community, aged 18 or over, unless previously notified otherwise. This includes Parents, Former Parents, Old Westminsters, Staff and Former Staff.” After all, if you aren’t somehow attached to the School, your money clearly doesn’t have the same pretty lustre to it. Marvellous, I’m glad you understand.

What’s that, you say? There might be a problem of nepotism? Some people who might otherwise be qualified might not be able to participate in the auction?  And some pupils who are attending the School on the Bursary Programme (designed as similar to a need-based stipend) for which the auction is intended as a fundraiser might themselves struggle to afford the internships?


The School has already issued a clear statement that such apprehensions are unwarranted:

The option of including work placements was raised early on by our donors, and in the end it was felt that as this had for some years been a common practice by other organisations and as the places offered would be in addition to, and not in place of, existing positions, we would go ahead.  Each work placement donor was asked if they would be willing to provide 2 places - one to be auctioned and one for the School to pass along to a pupil at one of our partner state schools - and some have chosen to do so. While these places have been created solely for the auction, we are hopeful that the businesses will be inspired to maintain these new positions and will openly recruit for candidates going forward.

Fine, fine, I suppose that statement wasn’t entirely convincing for all involved. I suppose that the fact that one high-profile bank has withdrawn its internship offer in response to the bad publicity (Exhibits A, B, and C) means that we can’t please everyone. But look, at least the School has had a dedicated commitment to social mobility in the past, yes? Surely this doesn’t set back all the positive gains that have been made thus far? I really don’t think Nick Clegg’s vocal opposition to internship culture in the past has anything to do with it. Nor does it matter that he went to Westminster. Or that he acquired an internship through nepotism himself.

[Calls off, stage right]

Junior, remind me: what is it you said you wanted to be when you grow up? A lawyer, eh? Yes, yes, don’t worry. Daddy will take care of it.

Breaking character: No, I won’t be giving them money — for an auction or as part of alumni giving — until I’m convinced they have their act together.

EDIT: On reflection, the title of the post is rather OTT. But it was ringing in my ears, in the voice of my English teacher from Westminster, when I read about the auction.

Leave Agribusiness Lobbyists ALOOOONE!!!!

Agribusiness is Very Sensitive
Agribusiness is Very Sensitive

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Obama Administration’s effort to change outrageous and wasteful food aid rules that line the pockets of agribusiness and shipping companies.  The more you look at the absurd policy preventing USAID from purchasing food locally for famine relief, the worse it looks: it wastes money, it prevents getting food to people that need it, it undermines local agriculture, and it despoils the environment.

I didn’t think it could get any worse.  But the lobbyists have outdone even themselves this time!  Reuters has the story today:

A White House plan to modernize the major U.S. food aid program, by donating cash rather than American-grown food, is in trouble after fierce lobbying by farm groups, food processors, shippers and others who set out to sink the idea months before it was unveiled in President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget…

In pressing the case to shift more aid to a cash system, the White House and the U.S. Agency for International Development have highlighted the potential ability to feed up to 4 million more needy people each year at a lower cost. Several major aid groups, including Oxfam America and CARE, favor such changes….

Commodities shipped under the Food for Peace program “currently account for less than two tenths of one percent of U.S. agricultural production and about one half of one percent of U.S. agricultural exports,” the White House estimated.

“Exports via food aid are a small drop in the market,” said Veronica Nigh, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Our concern is less about decreasing an important revenue stream for U.S. agriculture. It’s more about the loss of a sense of pride.”

Well, how touching.  All these commodity groups, agribusinesses, shippers, and food processors don’t stand to lose much money, and they admit it.  But you see, they will lose their sense of pride.   Obviously, then, 4 million people should go hungry.

What’s more outrageous?  That we have such a policy; that those who support it can so blithely make these kinds of arguments; or that they might still win?  Inquiring minds want to know.  In the meantime, this is a no-brainer: the current system is about the purest form of special interest legislation conceivable.  In Kevin Drum’s words, “Call your congress critter today and tell them, for once in their benighted careers, to just suck it up and do the right thing.”


Why Inequality Matters

Screen Shot 2013-02-01 at 2.08.03 PM

In his most recent post, Matthew Kahn describes me as someone who believes that people want to keep up with the Joneses.  But I’ve never felt comfortable with that way of characterizing people’s concerns about relative income, because of its apparent implication that inequality wouldn’t matter if only people could learn to ignore negative emotions like envy and jealousy. Yet relative income matters for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with such emotions.  That’s because our ability to achieve important life goals often depends strongly on how much we spend in relative terms.

If you’re applying for a job, for example, you’re advised to look good when you go for your interview. But looking good is an inescapably relative concept. If other applicants spend more on clothing, your best bet may be to spend more as well, even though your likelihood of a callback won’t rise if all spend more.  Yet if others spend more and you don’t, your odds will fall.

Similarly, the relative amount you spend on housing affects your ability to send your children to good schools, because a good school is also an inherently relative concept. In almost every local environment, the good schools tend to be those located in more expensive neighborhoods. To send your children to one, you must outbid others for the relatively expensive housing in the neighborhoods they serve.

Failure to recognize the instrumental role of relative spending explains why many fail to recognize that rising income inequality has imposed large economic costs on middle-income families. The problem stems from a multi-step process that Adam Seth Levine, Oege Dijk, and I have called expenditure cascades. The first step occurs when people at the top spend more, which they’ve been doing simply because they have so much more money. When they build bigger mansions, they shift the frame of reference that shapes demands for those with slightly lower incomes, who travel in overlapping social circles.  The near rich respond by building bigger houses as well, which shifts the frame of reference for others just below them, and so on, all the way down the income ladder.

This cascade is the most parsimonious explanation for the striking fact that the median new single-family house in the United States, which stood at 1,570 square feet in 1970, had grown to more than 2,300 square feet by 2007.  That growth cannot be explained by growth in the median wage or median family income, which changed by much smaller amounts during those years.

What changed dramatically was the context in which the median family’s housing choice was made.  Any family that failed to rent or purchase a house near the median of its local price distribution would have had to send its children to below-average schools.  So a family that was determined not to see its children fall behind had little choice but to keep pace with what similarly situated families were spending on housing.

The figure at the top of this post (an updated version of one described in more detail here) shows how much more difficult keeping pace has become for the median family. Taking the implicit monthly cost of a house to be roughly one percent of its purchase price, it plots the number of hours each month the median earner would have needed to work to meet that cost during the last 60 years.  During the immediate postwar decades, when the income distribution was stable, the median burden of homeownership varied little, and was actually slightly lower in 1970 (41.5 monthly hours of work) than in 1950 (42.5 hours).  But as income inequality began rising sharply in the 1970s, the toil index rose in tandem. By 2010, the median worker had to work 82.9 hours a month—almost twice as many as in 1970—to put her family into a house of median price.

Housing is of course not the only expenditure that is sensitive to context.  Explosive income growth at the top has also spawned similar expenditure cascades for items such as clothing, gifts, birthday parties, and other celebrations to mark special occasions. In these domains as well, the median earner must now spend more than before or else endure significant adverse consequences of one kind or another.

Of course, Matthew Kahn would be correct to note that not all such spending has been purely wasteful.  Although the utility conferred by a diamond ring may depend largely on its relative size and quality, for example, even the lone resident of a desert island might take additional pleasure in the way an absolutely larger stone refracts the light. Yet surely much of the extra spending of recent years has been a relatively inefficient source of extra utility.  The average American wedding now costs almost $30,000, nearly twice as much as in 1990. Does anyone believe that the extra spending has made couples and their families any happier?

Higher outlays of this sort crowd out other forms of spending that would produce real improvements in the quality of life.  If houses grew less rapidly, for example, we could invest in mass transit systems that would yield shorter, less stressful, commutes that would free up more time to spend with friends and family.  Or we could support medical research and safety investments that would reduce premature death.  The list goes on.

Inequality apologists like to remind us that the poor now enjoy many conveniences that even the very rich didn’t enjoy earlier.  But saying that rising income inequality has imposed enormous costs on middle-income families is not the same as saying that such families were better off a century ago.  Absolute income also matters, and everyone is indeed better off in many ways because it is so much higher now than in the past.

Saying that inequality has been costly is also not the same as saying that the optimal amount of inequality is zero. Few people would work if everyone were guaranteed an equal share of the national income irrespective of effort, in which case we would all be poor in absolute terms.

Yet precisely because relative spending power is so important for instrumental reasons, even very small absolute income differentials are sufficient to stimulate high levels of effort. There is no credible evidence that national income would fall if income disparities were to shrink substantially from today’s levels, and there is actually considerable reason for believing that it would be higher.

Many of the substantial costs associated with high income disparities are thus completely gratuitous. When the wealthy all build bigger mansions and stage more elaborate parties, they succeed only in raising the bar that defines adequate.  The associated waste is all the more troubling because it would be easy to eliminate so much of it with some simple changes in tax policy.

Quantum field theory explains SCOTUS Decision on Health Reform

A Feynman diagram explanation of the Supreme Court

Last week the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Ex ante, legal scholars across the political spectrum considered this a straightforward case. ACA (including its individual mandate) is obviously constitutional based on seventy years of established precedent. After Supreme Court oral argument, however, it was apparent that things would be much closer.

As it turned out, the Court upheld ACA, but also imposed novel constraints on the federal government’s powers through the commerce clause. More mysteriously, Roberts apparently wrote both the majority opinion and much of the dissent Roberts also took a few potshots at academic economists:

“To an economist, perhaps, there is no difference between activity and inactivity; both have measurable economic effects on commerce. But the distinction between doing something and doing nothing would not have been lost on the Framers, who were ‘practical statesmen,’ not meta­physical philosophers…..”

Ironically, Roberts himself resembled no one so much as meta-physical philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard would write under a pseudonym to savagely review his own works.

You may be confused by all this. Fortunately, this week’s apparent discovery of the Higgs Boson brings clarity to the situation. Once again, the formalism of quantum field theory brings clarity to hitherto unexplainable developments in public policy.


The Feynman diagram conceals some of intricate calculations.  But the intuition is clear.

The key step is the Roberts-Roberts particle interaction. A Roberts- particle interacts through the logical contradiction annihilation operator to become a Roberts+. Then, one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second later, this interaction then produces spontaneous pair creation of a Breyer+ and a Scalia-, shown above. To simplify the mathematics, it’s sometimes useful to consider the Scalia particle to be a Breyer moving backwards in time.

Conservation principles lead many scientists to theorize the emission of a taxino particle, which is essentially massless by the hardship exemption theorem. Experts differ regarding whether this particle has been experimentally observed.

One more reason why Justice Scalia is an oxymoron

From the Associated Press (h/t Sullivan):

“If the government can do that, what else can it do?” asked Justice Antonin Scalia, referring to the individual mandate portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. He then questioned whether Congress could also require individuals to buy vegetables, such as broccoli.

There is a straightforward answer to that question: the government can do anything that does not “shock the conscience” unless it is prohibited by another clearer provision of the Constitution.  That is the basic answer for any substantive due process question.  Now, Scalia hates substantive due process because it is so formless.  That’s why — he claims — he thinks that there is no right to privacy in the Constitution.  But now, suddenly, he is just so very, very concerned about unenumerated rights.

Note that this has absolutely nothing to do with federalism or the scope of the Commerce Clause.  This is a garden-variety substantive due process case dressed up as a federalism case.  Scalia’s question demonstrates that he understands this.  He just doesn’t care.

Romney’s 50% tax rate

Mitt Romney usefully points out that his tax rate is more like 50% than 15%, because the corporations from which he got his capital gains paid a corporate income tax of 35%, more or less.  Good point! Anyone whose income comes from the private sector  can add 35% to his actual tax rate, and should (of course, Mitt is still in a sweet spot comparatively).  But that’s not all; everyone who bought the stuff these companies sold paid income tax on the money they bought it with, so there’s another 20% or so, often sales tax to boot, and their salaries were paid mostly by companies that paid corporate income tax….My God, another 35%: we’re up to 105% average tax on American incomes; no wonder the country is going down the drain.

Of course, government and non-profit worker parasites like me, and folks who work for companies that are losing money, we get an incredible deal, because the Romney multiplier doesn’t apply.  And that’s the mechanism that’s driving America into socialist hell!

You read it here first, folks.  See you at the barricades.


Sunscreen, CYA, and skin cancer

Here is some new level of nuts.  It’s not what I expected to reflect on first after two weeks of exploring the soybean/corn/cattle/forest frontier in Brazil, though there are two distant links.  For some obscure bureaucratic reason, sunscreen costs about five times as much here as in the states, so I was the bearer of a bunch of it as little presents for people we interviewed).   Second, Brazilian  social conventions are touchy.  People have trouble explaining some things without putting a hand on your shoulder, and it’s quite agreeable.

Skin cancer is not nice; I’ve had two, one of which would have killed me if my dermatologist hadn’t noticed it in time, and the other that turned my poor nose into a disaster area of topical chemotherapy for six weeks.  Both are probably the fruit of childhood sunburns before we understood the situation. These Maryland officials are poster kids for the worst kind of defensive, wrong-kind-of-lawyer-driven policymaking.  On the one hand: kids need hugs and touching. Everybody does.  Also,  see above re skin cancer.  So implementing this wretched rule damages tens of thousands of kids psychologically on the spot and perhaps  thousands physically years later; that would be too bad.  On the other hand: some kid will be inappropriately touched, maybe actually sexually assaulted in summer camp (no matter what dumb rules we make) but with rules like this, we won’t lose a lawsuit, maybe.  Well, maybe we will still face such a suit, but it won’t come back to Mitchell’s office.   This is a clear choice (from the point of view of the DOH bureaucrats) between “something that might be very disagreeable for us, and something that would be quite damaging, occasionally fatal, for a whole lot of other people”, and I guess if comfort is what you live for, the choice is clear.

Sexual abuse of minors is very bad, but we don’t need to make them sick to prevent it; we need to learn how to hug them and put on sun goo and also keep them safe from mistreatment.  Not that hard, actually.