Friday, April 27, 2012

Is There A Tradeoff Between Helping The Poor And Protecting The Environment?

See Brazilian Forestry Legislation Advances By JOHN LYONS of The Wall Street Journal. It is about a law that Brazil just passed. Excerpts:
"The law, which eases restrictions for forest set-asides on farms and waives some fines for past clear-cutting, was backed by a new generation of lawmakers with links to Brazil's economically vital rural hinterlands. Farmers there long complained that existing laws were so strict as to classify the majority of farms as illegal and their owners as criminals."
"At the heart of the bid to update the law is an unsettling fact for environmental groups: Much of the Amazon forest slashed and burned in past decades is today extremely productive farmland."
"The controversies reflect a broader political dilemma for President Dilma Rousseff. Many of her left-wing Workers Party supporters also back environmental causes. At the same time, her administration is seeking to develop Brazil's vast natural resources to speed growth and help fund programs to lift millions of poor into the middle class."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Does Neuroscience Prove That You Should Follow Your Bliss?

The Freakonomicis guys, STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT wrote an article in 2006 in the NY Times magazine called A Star Is Made. In it, they discussed the research of Anders Ericsson, a 58-year-old psychology professor at Florida State University. Here is a relevant passage:
"Ericsson's research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better."
See Never Too Late to Learn. It is a book review from Saturday's WSJ. The book reviewed was Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus. Here is the passage:
"Brain scans show that musicians' new neuronal connections vary according to the instrument they play. Violinists have their signature brain changes, brass players theirs. Loving what we do helps to form these new connections, because the same dopamine chemistry that gives us the pleasurable rush of reward consolidates new brain connections."
Of course, mythologist Joseph Campbell said "follow your bliss."

What does it mean to follow your bliss? In general, it means three things:

1. Money and material things are secondary (Campbell, 1988, pp. 148,229). The following is dialogue between Joseph Campbell and Bill Movers from The Power of Myth (1988,p. 148):

C: My general formula is "Follow your bliss." Find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it.
M: Is it my work or my life?
C: If the work you're doing is the work that you choose to do because you are enjoying it, that's it. But if you think, "Oh, no! I couldn't do that!" that's the dragon locking you in. "No, no, I couldn't be a writer," or "No, no, I couldn't do what So-and-so is doing."
M: In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we're not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.
C: But in doing that, you save the worm (emphasis added).

Elsewhere, Campbell says that the savior is the one who can transcend the pairs of opposites (Briggs & Maher, 1989, p. 45). This means going beyond the duality of individual and group that is stressed in socio-economics (Campbell 1988, p. 229):

C: Each incarnation has a potentiality, and the mission of the life is to live that potentiality. How do you do it? My answer is, "Follow your bliss." There's something inside you that knows when you're in the center, that knows when you're on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you've lost your life. And it you stay in the center and don't get any money, you still have your bliss.

Finally, Leeming sums up the Jungian importance of myths:

The person who lives without myths lives without roots, without links to the collective self which is finally what we are all about. He is literally isolated from reality. The person who lives with a myth gains 'a sense of wider meaning' to his existence and is raised 'beyond mere getting and spending" (Leeming, 1973, p. 321).

2. If you follow your bliss, doors (opportunities) will open up for you where they would not have opened up before. They will also open up for you where they would not have opened up for anyone else (Cousineau, 1990, p. 214). This echoes one of Campbell's favorite writers, Goethe:

Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elemental truth-the ignorance of which skills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred (Catford & Ray, 1991, p. 5).

3. Following your bliss has to be contrasted with following a system or a social system. A system creates roles for us that are not of our own choosing. This dehumanizes us (Campbell, 1988, p. 143-144). The following is also dialogue between Joseph Campbell and Bill Movers from The Power of Myth (pp. 143-144):

M: Do movies create hero myths? Do you think, for example that a movie like Star Wars fills some of that need for a model of the hero?
C: I've heard youngsters use some of George Lucas' terms-"the Force" and "the dark side.' So it must be hitting somewhere. It's a good sound teaching, I would say.
M: I think that explains in part the success of Star Wars. It wasn't just the production value that made that such an exciting film to watch, it was that it came along at a time when people needed to see in recognizable images the clash between good and evil. They needed to be reminded of idealism, to see a romance based upon selflessness rather than selfishness.
C: The fact that the evil power is not identified with any specific nation on this earth means you've got an abstract power, which represents a principle, not a specific historic situation. The story has to do with an operation of principles not of this nation against that. The monster masks that are put on people in Star Wars represent the real monster force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual. What you see is a strange and pitiful sort of undifferentiated face.
M: What is the significance of that?
C: Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He's a robot. He's a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system gong to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? How do you relate to the system so that you am not compulsively serving it? It doesn't help to try to change it to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is to learn to live in your period of history as a human being. That's something else, and it can be done.
M: By doing what?
C: By holding to you own ideals for yourself and, like Luke Skywalker, rejecting the system's impersonal claims upon you.
M: When I took our two sons to see Star Wars, they did the same thing the audience did at that moment when the voice of Ben Kenobi says to Skywalker in the climactic moment of the last fight, "Turn off your computer, turn off your machine and do it yourself, follow your feelings, trust your feelings." And when he did, he achieved success, and the audience broke out into applause.
C: Well, you see, that movie communicates. It is a language that talks to young people, and that's what counts. It asks, Are you going to be a person of heart and humanity-because that's where the life is, from the heart-or are you going to do whatever seems to be required of you by what might be called "intentional power"? When Ben Kenobi says, "May the Force be with you," he's speaking of the power and energy of life, not of programmed political intentions.

In the movie Star Wars, Luke Skywalker turns off his computer (the impersonal system) and relies on the "Force" or his intuition to destroy the Death Star.

Generally speaking, following your bliss unlocks your creative potential because you separate from your community or system. "You can't have creativity unless you leave behind the bounded, the fixed, all the rules" (Campbell, 1988, p. 156). Attaining the joy of being a creative, spiritually fulfilled person is probably the best thing we can do for ourselves.


Briggs, D., & Maher, J.M. (1989). An open life: Joseph Campbell in conversation with Michael Toms. New York: Harper and Row.

Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.

Catford, L., & Ray, M. (1991). The path of the everyday hero. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

Cousineau, P. (1990). The hero's journey: Joseph Campbell on his life and work. San Francisco: Harper.

Leeming, D.A. (1973). Mythology: The voyage of the hero. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

You've Heard About Death And Taxes, But What About Taxes And Death?

See Fatal car wrecks jump on tax day by Aaron Smith of CNN. Excerpts:
"The odds of getting into a fatal crash increase by 6% on tax filing day, according to a study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association."

""One explanation is that stressful deadlines lead to driver distraction and worsen short-term human error," Dr. Redelmeier told CNNMoney. He said that sleep deprivation, greater use of alcohol, lower tolerance for other drivers, and the "unwanted distraction" of filing taxes could all contribute to a jump in accidents."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Should the unemployment rate be lower given the current job-vacancy rate?

See On Jobs, No Time for a Celebratory Beveridge by JUSTIN LAHART of The Wall Street Journal. Excerpt:
"There were 3.5 million job openings at the end of February, the Labor Department said Tuesday, up from three million a year earlier. The job-vacancy rate, which measures job openings as a percentage of total jobs in the U.S., was 2.6%.

In the seven years before the recession, a vacancy rate of 2.6% was associated with an unemployment rate of about 5.7%. Now, the unemployment rate is much higher—it was 8.2% in March, down from 8.3% in February. That may augur a disturbing shift in the labor market that will keep more people out of work, slow the economy and make U.S. companies less profitable.

High job-vacancy rates come about because employers are having a hard time filling jobs. So they are associated with low unemployment rates. When vacancy rates are low, the opposite is true. Plot out unemployment rates against vacancy rates, and you get what is called the Beveridge curve, a downward-sloping line named after the late British economist William Beveridge.

But the Beveridge curve, nearly three years after the economy began to recover, looks different than it did before the recession struck in late 2007. Unemployment rates are much higher versus vacancy rates than they used to be. Shifts like that in the Beveridge curve suggest the labor market has become less efficient at matching workers with jobs, something that can happen when workers don't have the skills that employers need."

The problem could be a mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and the skills employers want (this is an example of structural unemployment). For those workers, they could be unemployed for a long time.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What’s the Easiest Way to Cheat on Your Taxes?

Click here to read this NY Times Magazine article. The easiest way is:
"Run your own company. More specifically, as Greg Kyte, a Utah C.P.A., puts it, be the sole proprietor of a Schedule C business. Then you can buy stuff for yourself and probably write it off as a business expense."

Other excerpts:
"When the modern income tax was created in 1913, the code was 27 pages long. Last year, it was 5,296 pages."

"“I’ve seen people with infant children claiming that their kids are doing work,” says Howard Rosen, a St. Louis-based C.P.A. “I’m talking about a 3-year-old doing filing,” Rosen says. “He didn’t even know the alphabet.”"

"For 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, the I.R.S. collected 86 percent of what it was owed in taxes. Most of this $385 billion shortfall came from underreporting income, which is often more creative than it sounds. Gambling winnings, for example, are taxable..."

"Loop­holes will cost the gov­ern­ment rough­ly $1 tril­lion in lost rev­e­nue this year..."

"The mortgage-interest deduction, which lets people deduct the interest they pay on their mortgages, requires the government to essentially write an annual check to everyone with a mortgage. The incentive was supposed to encourage more people to buy houses, but there’s not much evidence for this..."

"It does, however, encourage people to take out even bigger mortgages. It will cost the government an estimated $84 billion this year."

"Why is the tax code so complicated? The answer, according to most accountants, is simple: “exceptions to the exceptions,” which, typically, are extremely complicated."

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Keynes As An Investor

See Keynes: One Mean Money Manager by Jason Zweig of The Wall Street Journal. This generated many comments and Zweig's response to them is at Keys to Thinking About Keynes. But not everyone thought Keynes was a great investor. See Was Keynes really a savvy investor? by Greg Mankiw of Harvard.

Here are excerpts from Zweig's article:
"From 1924 through 1946, while writing numerous books and overhauling the global monetary system, Keynes also found time to run the endowment fund of King's College at Cambridge.

Over that period, according to Messrs. Chambers and Dimson, Keynes outperformed the U.K. stock market by an average of eight percentage points annually, adjusted for risk.

Such great investors as Benjamin Graham, Peter Lynch, John Templeton and Warren Buffett beat the market by an annual average of three to 13 percentage points over their careers. Most of them, however, didn't have to cope with the Great Depression or World War II.

How did Keynes do it?

Flexibility, resilience and independence.

Keynes began as what we would today call a "macro" manager, relying on monetary and economic signals to rotate in and out of stocks, bonds and cash. He traded foreign currencies and commodities. As a director of the Bank of England, Keynes was privy to inside information about interest-rate changes, although there isn't evidence that he traded on it.

But Keynes wasn't a very good macro manager. He lagged behind the British stock market miserably until 1928, and he had 83% of his primary portfolio in stocks going into the fall of 1929.

"It's hard to time the markets," Mr. Chambers says. "Keynes struggled with it, and then he missed the 1929 crash—even with an unrivaled network of information sources."

So Keynes made a series of radical changes: He switched from being a "top down" asset allocator to a "bottom up" stock picker. He tilted sharply toward undervalued small and midsize companies.

Keynes also made titanic bets on industries he thought were cheap..."

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Are Monkeys More Rational Than Humans?

See The Hard Science of Monkey Business by AMY DOCKSER MARCUS of The Wall Street Journal. It is about the research that Yale professor Laurie Santos and the economic experiments she does with primates (Capuchin monkeys). Excerpts:
"The primate lab is home to 10 "shockingly smart" brown Capuchin monkeys trained to trade tokens for food. It was a short leap for Dr. Santos and her team to decide to study how monkeys make decisions about money."

"In one experiment, they gave each monkey a wallet filled with 12 flat aluminum tokens, monkey money that the animals could trade for food. Right away, the scientists saw the similarities to human behavior. When researchers slashed the price on certain foods, the monkeys sought out the best deal. They also typically spent all their cash at once and didn't bother to save.

Then researchers decided to test a more complex economic theory which shows that people do not judge price in a vacuum. Sitting with the team at the coffee shop, Dr. Santos could see how the concept worked in her own life. Many days, she feels guilty about spending $2.20 on a cup of coffee. But when she looks up at the chalk board listing drink prices, the Nutella Latte goes for $3.85 and the Ginger Snap is $4.15. "My $2 cup doesn't seem as expensive anymore," she said.

Monkeys make similar assessments. In one experiment, a researcher showed a monkey two pieces of apple but handed over one in exchange for a token. A second researcher showed one piece of apple and gave the slice to the monkey for the token. The monkeys strongly preferred to trade with the second researcher. They did not like being offered two apple pieces and then only getting one."

"Researchers wondered whether monkeys, like humans, desire an expensive item more. For the same number of tokens, the monkeys could choose whether they got a tiny square of blue Jell-O or a big chunk of red Jell-O. Later, the monkeys were allowed to choose which kind they wanted. If the monkeys were like humans, they would have gone for the blue Jell-O, the more "expensive" choice. But the monkeys gorged happily on both.

The researchers are still gathering and analyzing the data. One possibility: Human taste preferences are based on many factors, whereas the monkeys' are not. Some might argue that human economic behavior is more advanced since it includes "culture and meta-awareness" in decision-making, said Dr. Santos. There's another, less flattering possibility too. "The monkeys," she said, "are more rational.""

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Which Type Of Unemployment Is The Biggest Problem?

Ben Bernanke raised this issue in a recent speech. See Fed Signals Resolve on Rates: Cheap Credit Still Needed Despite Recent Employment Gains, Bernanke Says by JON HILSENRATH And KRISTINA PETERSON of the Wall Street Journal. Excerpt:
"The Fed chairman took on some thorny economic issues in making his case for low rates. Among them is the question of whether the nation's still-high unemployment rate represented a so-called cyclical problem that can be resolved simply by encouraging economic growth with low interest rates, or a fundamental structural problem in the labor markets that growth itself and the Fed can't fix.

Mr. Bernanke came down on the side of those who argue the problem is predominantly cyclical and low interest-rate policies are helping to alleviate it. But many economists disagree with him, and he acknowledged the matter isn't settled.

The debate about cyclical and structural unemployment has been going on for a couple of years. Economists generally say cyclical unemployment is caused when weakness in the overall economy pushes down demand for goods and services and therefore the need for workers that provide them. Structural unemployment reflects deeper problems, such as a gap between the skills workers have and those that employers want. Structural problems don't necessarily disappear as the economic recovery gains traction.

Mr. Bernanke—in making his case for primarily cyclical unemployment—pointed out that newly unemployed workers and long-term unemployed workers all experienced diminished prospects of getting new jobs during and after the downturn. That suggests the job market hasn't punished one group of people disproportionately to others. Instead, he said, there weren't enough jobs for a wide range of workers in a wide range of industries. "The fact that labor demand appears weak in most industries and locations is suggestive of a general shortfall of aggregate demand, rather than a worsening mismatch of skills and jobs," he said.

But some economists disagree and the stakes are high. "You could be seeing a policy error in the making," said Wells Fargo economist John Silvia, who lists an array of factors that he says point to structural problems in the job market, which he says faster economic growth can't resolve.

Employment of college graduates is up 5.8% in this recovery, while employment of high school dropouts is down 3.9%, according to Labor Department data. This suggests that low-skill workers are having a harder time finding work.

Mr. Silvia also notes that unemployment is especially high in certain occupations, such as construction. It is also high in places, such as Nevada, where many people can't move because they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. He worries that the Fed's low-interest-rate policies might cause inflation and do little to resolve deeply embedded unemployment problems."

The WSJ also had an article called Time Not on Side of the Jobless. It mentions:
"But some economists argue that in the wake of a severe recession, the lines between cyclical and structural unemployment can become blurred. Workers who lose their jobs because of cyclical factors—a factory that lays off workers, a restaurant that closes, an office that decides to go without a front-desk receptionist—might stay out of work so long that they become effectively unemployable. Their skills erode, they fall behind on the latest technologies and industry trends, or they become stigmatized by employers who assume there must be something wrong with anyone who's been unemployed so long."

I discussed similar issues in one of my earliest posts from back in 2006. It was called Edmund Phelps, Meet Harry Hopkins. Phelps is a Nobel prize winning economist and Harry Hopkins was an adviser to FDR

Other related posts:

Structural Unemployment In The News

Untangling the Long-Term-Unemployment Crisis

A Reversal Of Structural Unemployment?

Robot Journalists-A Case Of Structural Unemployment?

Some Reasons Why Firms Are Not Hiring