Orthogonal Projections

Biased but consistent commentary on economics, politics, sports, and life.

Intergenerational Transmission of Knowledge

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Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the first war-time use of a  nuclear weapon in the history of the world. As the number of living witnesses dwindle,  a concern is that the memories of the horrifying consequence of the use of such powerful weapons will be lost. To combat this possibility, the Japanese have established a formal program of memory storage wherein people are appointed to transmit the memories across time. Specifically, these official “guardians of memory” learn the memories of the survivors and continue to retell these stories after the actual survivors lose the ability to retell them.

This is a fascinating program that goes beyond the typical oral history projects typically conducted and archived university libraries. Oral  transmission of memories across generations is uniquely human and it is interesting to know that such ancient forms of maintaining the historical record has not completely gone by the wayside in this technologically driven world.

I wish some of the amazing watershed events in US history were recorded in this way. As someone who spent a lot of time listening to my grandfather recount to me a broad array of historical events that he witnessed – MLK marching in Chicago; Ernie Banks’ first game with the Cubs; the battle of Iwo Jima, for some examples – I find archival recordings to be a little sterile.

Written by marcdcase

August 7, 2015 at 9:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Pawnshops for Rich People

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The Wall Street Journal published an interesting story a couple of months ago about  a company  serving as a pawnshop for the rich. Specifically, they allow individuals with high – end assets such as luxury cars and expensive jewelry to borrow up to millions of dollars against these assets without credit checks, like a pawnshop. Of course, this type of borrowing is more expensive than borrowing from the bank with interest rates climbing near 25 percent in some cases.

The interesting thing about this business is that it took so long to establish something like it for the wealthy. As banks have become more sophisticated about credit decision making, the days when people with expensive assets can easily acquire a line of credit at a bank are probably long gone. This difficulty in obtaining large amounts of credit is probably doubly true for the growing number of self-employed consultants and technology entrepreneurs who face considerably uncertainty over when the next check is coming: three weeks or three months from now.

Of course, there is always those people for whom this new way for people to get in debt is a bad thing. But I say this is a considerable improvement over the past options — loan sharks and such — where the high interest was typically coupled with the specter of pain or more upon default. People of all backgrounds and stripes will always need short term loans. Where there is demand, there will undoubtably be someone to supply it.

Written by marcdcase

July 28, 2015 at 9:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Working Vacations

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After some time, I have decided to return to regular blogging. I’m in the throes of the two-sided coin that is summertime for an untenured academic: I have enormous amounts of unstructured time since I am not teaching or engaged in committee work; Unfortunately, almost all of it is spent working on research.

Hence, the blog — a useful respite from coding and writing if I am stuck in front of the computer anyway.

Stay tuned.

Written by marcdcase

July 10, 2015 at 10:24 am

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Morality and Upward Mobility

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In a recent blog post Noah Smith wonders about the connection between the “loss of morality” and many of the social ills cited in a recent NY Times column penned by David Brooks.

Brooks presents an argument similar to the one pushed by Charles Murray and others: the problems faced by the poor and less educated in US society are largely a function of the decline in appropriate social norms. The successful in society have chosen the “right” course in their own lives but, in abiding by the liberal ethos of avoiding judgment of the behavior of others, no longer attempt to promote such values and norms among the less successful. As a result, the differences in lifestyles and outcomes between the affluent, educated classes in US society and others are not only growing, but are becoming intractable.

Smith argues that if a loss in morality is indeed the root cause of this rising inequality, then why do we see such improvement on all these other social indicators. As Smith notes:

In other words, Americans are becoming better and better behaved in almost every way.

Although the statistics he cites could all be a function of more restrictive laws, increased policing, and more punitive laws, I’m inclined to agree principle with Smith here. All of the markers of societal decline cited by these commentators have always been present among the wealthier and poorer segments of society. Plenty of richer people have drug and alcohol problems, self-control problems, children out of wedlock, and so on. Rather, the interaction of wealth and such behaviors in a world of growing inequality, leads to wildly different consequences and outcomes. Wealthier people can more easily weather any mistake by virtue of more money and social capital than poorer people. Recall the particularly egregious example  the “affluenza” case; society is just more sympathetic to the wealthy and educated.

I actually believe that Murray, Brooks, and others understand this. And I agree with them insofar as that avoiding some of these behaviors is certainly a necessary condition – though far from sufficient –  for being upwardly mobile. But I  believe that for them to admit that people are people and that many differences in observed outcomes may be partly due to initial conditions is a little dangerous to their social program. In their view, wealthier, educated people got there by inherently being smarter and better people; poor people  would be ok if they just get with the program. The evidence supporting this view seem to be rather thin.

Written by marcdcase

March 28, 2015 at 11:22 am

Posted in Economics, Policy, Social Science

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Public Housing Shortage?

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Something odd is going on at the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Apparently CHA, in a rare situation for a public agency, is running a surplus– after bolstering its pension funds.

Unfortunately, this development has been met  with disappointment and even anger in some circles.  This anger stems from a belief that the current administration does not care that Chicago has a serious public housing shortage and the CHA neither seems to be bringing new units on the market nor the filling existing units in some areas.

Ultimately, whether this a “bad” thing or not is a, is a matter of perspective. It is well-known from public goods theory in economics that such goods, in this case high – quality public housing, will likely be underprovisioned in part because it requires a fair bit of redistribution (via taxes) to match people’s preferences. Plus, the below market prices will generally induce a lot of people into the market leading to about who is entitled to it since you have taken away price as the chief rationing mechanism.

Certainly, the current situation is a bad thing if you have difficulty obtaining market-level housing as more units available means you have a higher probability of obtaining one and if there are negative externalities (more crime, disease, and so on) arise from housing shortages. Alternatively, using some of the money to bolster the pension fund and pay down debt probably contributes to the agency’s long-term solvency. Given that most public agencies, especially in Chicago, have little to no reserves and are running red and that expected future funding for public projects is probably declining, it makes sense. Plus, with respect to public housing in very desirable areas, a question arises with respect to allocative efficiency. Though the welfare of citizens who would live in places like the Lathrop Homes or places like them might be improved by the the prosperous neighborhoods around it, it comes not only at the direct cost of management and maintenance but at the opportunity cost of taxes on residential and commercial real estate lost because the projects are there. These funds could potentially contribute to improving quality of life and public goods in other parts of the city.

Written by marcdcase

March 22, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tom Magliozzi, 1937-2014

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So many great Saturday mornings were spent listening to this man spar verbally with his brother. And I didn’t own a car until I turned 27.


Longreads Blog

Tom Magliozzi, the popular co-host of the public radio show Car Talk, passed away today at the age of 77. In 1999, Tom and his brother Ray gave a commencement address at MIT. Tom talked to the graduating class of engineers about a Latin mantra, non impediti ratione cogitatonis, which means “unencumbered by the thought process.”

TOM: I was once trapped by the scientific, logic, left brain life. I graduated from here and I went to work as an engineer. And I will tell you about my defining moment. I was driving — I lived in Cambridge at the time — I was driving from Cambridge to my job in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and I was driving in a little MG. It weighed about 50 pounds and on Route 128 I was cut off by a semi and I almost, as they say, bought the farm. And as I…

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Written by marcdcase

November 5, 2014 at 6:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ex-post outrage

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Ray Rice had his contract with the Baltimore Ravens terminated and was suspended indefinitely as a result of the release of video details the domestic violence incident that left his fiancee – now wife – unconscious. The video shows him striking her in the face and knocking her into the wall of the elevator — it is amazing she was not hurt more. After knocking her unconscious, in possibly the most disturbing part of the video, Rice dragged her out the elevator.

It is a harsh, though deserved punishment. A question arises, of course, as to why the NFL had to go through this twice. It doesn’t take much imagination to surmise what must have happened in the elevator as reports of Mrs. Rice being knocked unconscious were well known. If they thought the act merited serious punishment, they should have done it initially, not after this video surfaced; even if the concern was the public relations, they should have meted out strong punishment at first with the option of walking it back later when things were a little less hot, so to speak.

Instead, they have made a mess of it. Their actions in response to this video make them seem less concerned for Janay Rice than for the NFL. Many of its formal and informal spokespeople are outraged — now.  Rather than making a point, they reinforced the cynical opinion of them that they only care about profits and image. Probably because it’s true.

Written by marcdcase

September 8, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Crime, Tragedy, Uncategorized

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