Anti-DC interlude

The Washington Post reports that the D.C. metro area picked up 7,000 people aged 25-34 during the recession. What do they come up with?

“It’s the economy and hipness,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, who analyzed the census data comparing the 2005 to 2007 period with 2008 to 2010. “Young people are going to places that have a certain vibe. If there’s a recession, they want to ride it out in a place like that. And Washington has the extra advantage of being a government town that’s not as hard-hit by recessions as others.”

Now compare that with this:

Bert Sterling, who scours census statistics to compile lists of the best places to live — and who lives in Portland — said he expects the Washington area eventually will revert to a more traditional role, as a place to establish a career and eventually move on.

“Washington is known as a center for power and, during the recession, has taken on the image of a place where the jobs are,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone say Washington is hip and cool. But I don’t know if you want your seat of government to be too cool and quirky.”

(It boggles the mind why William Frey would say that D.C. is hip at all. The only thing I can think of is that he presumably lives inside the Beltway and, as such, barely has an idea that there’s a world outside of it worth living in.)

Rather than acknowledge that economic emergencies are great times to get government jobs, as 15 minutes on the Reason blog will tell you, the WP gives us this.

Languages, languages, especially English

I’ve often wondered how exactly English came to be so dominant as a world language. The British deserve the credit for getting this started, but after that it’s a little fuzzy. Other countries, most notably Spain and France, had empires as well. The French language is spoken, at least by elites, in many countries, but most of these are former colonies. Spanish is spoken by a large number of people as well, but mostly as a first language. Yet English has by far the largest number of non-primary speakers, over a billion.

The long history of the British empire, as I said, got this started. But before they were dominant there was the Spanish empire, which now pales in linguistic influence. The relevant difference may be that Spain’s empire was (relatively) geographically concentrated, while Britain’s possessions were far-flung across the world.

One key component in the 20th century is the fact that two great-power nations used it. There are other great powers, but no two with a language in common. In a case of 2 vs. 1 vs. 1…, it looks like the language shared by two powers wins. (Austria-Hungary and Germany shared a language, but I have trouble classifying Austria-Hungary on the same level as the US and UK, and even within Austria-Hungary most people would have preferred speaking another language than German.)

I still don’t have a great answer, but a study mentioned in Die Welt today says that English is the most efficient language, so perhaps that’s another reason.

Adjusting to grad school

The round of midterms in my first semester of the Ph.D. program is done. I did ok, not fantastic. It’s alerted me to a problem of mine: I hardly know how to study. I have never really done it before. I mean, sure, a little here, a little there, but only on an ad hoc basis. I suppose everyone in grad school thinks he or she is the smartest one in the room, but I honestly can’t imagine that some of the folks outscoring me on the midterms are actually smarter than I am. What I can obviously see is that they are the kinds who have a much more organized approach to academics than I have. And that this is really the superior approach to graduate school, and that I will have to adopt this approach immediately.

Tipping is not (yet) a city in China

The Wikipedia article on tipping indicates that there’s no clear trend worldwide about tipping; it doesn’t seem that it started in one culture and then carried on in places where that culture had influence. Hong Kong, which like mainland China has no native tradition of tipping, has begun to see it under Western influence, but in Australia and New Zealand, obviously culturally Western places, it’s very rare. Jordan has a culture of tipping, Belgium does not. In many places, again on something of a checkerboard pattern, tipping is not the norm, but will be used to reward exceptional service, so that it is a known but not everyday phenomenon. One common practice is a third way in which many places have a “service fee” or some such thing that includes the money Americans would leave for tips as part of the bill.

(I have a humorous recollection of being in Uruguay with some other Americans asking our local friends how to say “tip” in Spanish. We had to explain what it was, and all they could think was why in hell you’d leave money after you paid. There is a word, actually, but it’s not used there!)

It’s ingrained enough into US culture that there’s an exemption from the federal minimum wage for it. What I wonder is if a culture that does include tipping would ever phase it out. I can think of:

  1. Enough people migrating from a non-tipping area to a tipping area to change the balance. This is unlikely for large countries like the US because if it became uncommon in some zone it would still be common in others around it.
  2. Included fees becoming common enough that people stopped tipping overall. I could imagine restaurants being hard-up and sneaking extra fees onto the receipt, but adopting this would have to happen very quickly over a wide-spread area. Maybe it would be a gradual lowering of the gratuity limit (from large groups to mid-sized, one or two people at a time, and then just an expected part of a meal).
  3. People becoming more rude overall, although old folks complain that this is happening already, and it hasn’t led to tipping being phased out.
  4. The nuclear option: the US government drops the minimum wage exemption. People now know that restaurants are paying full wages to servers, and correspondingly they stop tipping either from increased food prices, the reduced social obligation, or both. I don’t know for sure, but I’m told some places in the US have a city or state minimum wage that doesn’t have a service exemption, e.g. Portland, so I wonder if people are gradually tipping less there. This could be counteracted though, as mentioned in point 1.

On the contrary, tipping in the US seems to be subject to “inflation”. It used to be 15% as a general standard, as far as I’m aware, and now I see tip calculators and receipt suggestions for 18% and 20%.

Cultures with strong concern for social obligations (e.g. by having popular welfare state policies, or high charitable giving, or some kinds of proxies) don’t seem to have correlations with the prevalence of tipping.

I’m sure this has been amply covered elsewhere, I just haven’t read those sources yet.

Non-monetary campaign contributions

I’ve been thinking about Warren Buffett lately. He’s on record saying that he should be paying a larger percentage of his income as taxes. Aside from the fact that for people who really believe they aren’t paying enough there’s already a place to send that check to, the reaction to his comments is very interesting. Political expediency rules the day, or, as an economist might look at it, naivety.

Let’s step back a moment for a glance at some facts. Fact 1, Warren Buffett clearly has business genius to a very rare degree. Fact 2, he endorsed Barack Obama and made campaign contributions to him for the 2008 election. Fact 3, he knows that his words carry great financial value—just ask for a free copy of his report. It’s unlikely that this tax is going to go through, so essentially Warren Buffett is gambling. If the tax passes, well, he loses, although it’s not that big of a deal to him. He already has more money than he can spend, and has already announced he’s not passing on his massive fortune to his children. If the tax does not pass, he gave politically valuable support to Obama at essentially no cost to himself—a non-monetary campaign contribution.

What nobody seems to have said so far (unless I missed it) is that there’s no way he doesn’t think Obama will remember this later.

The hazards of government employment

This should surprise no one, but the Wall Street Journal blog reports that “Public Sector Workers Much More Likely to Get Sick, Hurt at Work”. I suppose that this includes people like firefighters, who have a genuinely risky occupation, but surely they couldn’t entirely account for a difference of 5.7 instances of injury or illness per 100 full-time workers vs. 1.8 in the private sector.

The JFK Assassination, pt. 3: Dallas

Another angle to the JFK story to consider is that whoever the conspirators were, and whatever their motives were, Dallas was the place where they acted.  One has to assume that the plot was not cobbled together on the morning of the visit.  Thus the conspirators waited until Kennedy was in Dallas.

What follows from this?  Either the conspirators were based in Dallas (such as Oswald), or they traveled to kill Kennedy, or a combination of the two.  This would cast extra suspicion on people who knew or presumably had access to knowledge of Kennedy’s whereabouts.  This hardly narrows it down, however.  Various US government officials knew this, but from them informants could send this information outward to foreign governments, the Mafia, or any group sufficiently capable of maintaing some kind of intelligence service, broadly defined.

It also follows that the conspirators believed they could get away with the assassination in Dallas.  (Maybe they could have gotten away with it anywhere, and Dallas just happened to be the spot where they did.  Or maybe there was something special about Dallas.)  In planning beforehand, they’d have to have a strategy for dealing with the authorities–either eluding the massive law enforcement presence or corrupting part of it.

The JFK Assassination, pt. 2: Motives

On the heels of the first piece, a short note about motive.  With a crime like this, there has to be a motive.  But when the victim is the president of the US, there are so many people and so many motives as to make it bewildering to think about.  Anti-Castro Cubans felt betrayed.  Pro-Castro Cubans had a motive too.  The Soviets had a hundred different reasons.  The Mob had their own.  The CIA had a motive.  Lyndon Johnson had a motive.  The military (and the rest of the military-industrial complex) had a motive.  And almost all of these were organizations that essentially killed people as part of the business model.  Unlike a detective novel where we can limit the suspects based on motive, almost anybody evenly remotely suspect had a sufficient motive.  In short, deducing anything based on who had a motive is a pointless task.

The JFK Assassination

Lately I’ve been getting interested (again) in the JFK assassination and aftermath.  While I’ve watched the Zapruder film and read a little bit before, I never got too far into the research and the theorizing and whatnot.*  I can almost see why some would spend a career reading and writing books on the subject–it’s really fascinating–but this makes getting into the subject difficult for beginners.  The danger is that, with the rather overwhelming amount of information, the novice would be likely to get overly swayed by the first serious treatment that he read and use that as the yardstick for later materials, rather than adding it to his store of knowledge without necessarily buying it.  On top of that, the amount of material is staggering, and there has to be some kind of mental guide to sort out the trash from the treasure.  I’ve thought of a few principles to keep in mind.  Please note that these guidelines do not refer to any specific proposal.  They ought to be true for any plausible explanation; they are a minimum threshold.

Starting with the observable facts, the Zapruder film seems to be the pretty fundamental starting point.  It’s the fundamental “text” of the subject.  What happened before and after are clouded, but this we can observe, hoping to work our way backwards and forwards.  Any theory that conflicts with what’s visible on film should go right out the window.  (I think specifically of the Lone Gunman.)

But wait, didn’t the Warren Commission find that there was only one shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald?  Well, they did.  That brings me to the second point.  Government agencies and government officials generally do not tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, especially not the top secret ones.  There are degrees; a low-level government employee such as a Seaman Apprentice is more likely to be telling the truth about something not widely known or knowable (like the color of the sky, or what time of day it is) than a high-level one like an Admiral, ceteris paribus.  As for the FBI or CIA, forget it.  Agencies that operate by secrecy have a motive for and an institutional culture of giving away as little true information is possible.  Sometimes this means avoiding detection in the first place, and sometimes evading a question or answering “That’s classified.”  Sometimes it means giving false information.

That is not the say any particular agency or agent was responsible.  Rather, one needs to take their words with spoonfuls of salt.  Their stated job is to protect the US government, not to tell the public the truth, not to be loyal to anybody in particular.

A corollary to this is that government inquiries are not meant to produce the unvarnished truth.  They are meant to preserve the basic stability of the political system.  Sometimes they do this by releasing bits of truth to the public, but this is not at all an essential feature.  A researcher would get a lot farther assuming a cover-your-ass motive than a sincere one.

The third point is that, if there were multiple shooters (and this hardly seems arguable), we’re necessarily dealing with a conspiracy.  By definition.  At least two people (realistically, more than two) planned ahead of time to kill Kennedy.  Oswald is only one person.  Clay Shaw was not actually accused of being a shooter.  Thus, at least one shooter left the scene never to deal with US law enforcement agencies over this incident.  Any other accomplices likewise have not been dealt with by the criminal court system.

It’s important to note that with a task of that magnitude, not all of the people involved with the operation would necessarily know any more than their small parts, not even what the ultimate purpose was.  This does not apply to a small conspiracy, but the larger it gets, the more disconnected ad hoc cells can fit into it.  This is a partial solution to a fundamental problem with conspiracy theories: the larger of number of people that know something secret, the easier it is for that secret to get out.  But it is only partial; I’d gamble, for instance, that right now thousands of federal agents know some certain set of non-trivial facts that I would never find out even if I tried.

In a way, my limited amount of knowledge of the specific theories is a good thing, at least for constructing these guidelines.  I don’t have any pet theories that I am psychologically biased to want to confirm.  As I noted before, these suggestions form a metric to judge ideas against later down the line.  There are many other points we can deduce, but these points can be established without any specific reference to suspects, motives, or secondary events.

* I wrote a brief post once explaining how the USSR had the motive and the capacity for the assassination, and how the aftermath would make sense given what we know about the behavior of governments, but it was more of a back-of-the-envelope idea than any solid theory.


Welcome to my blog.  I blogged at Catallarchy/Distributed Republic for several years, but after the closing of that blog and my starting the Ph.D. program in economics at George Mason University I’ll be blogging here.  Obviously, economics is an interest of mine, as is classical liberalism.  I hope this project will be enjoyable for me and for you, whoever you may be.