Author Archives: jtellerelsberg

Cheap justice (habeus corpus too expensive for GOP)

My wife and I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper yesterday. Out of respect for the paper’s request that submitted letters be otherwise unpublished, I won’t copy it here, but I will spell out some of what we were writing about.

So it started with an article about the recently successful filibuster by Senate Republicans, to prevent a vote on a bill that would allow Guantanamo Bay detainees, and other prisoners in the “war on terror,” to have access to the court system for review of their cases; that is, to return to them the right of habeus corpus that was stripped in previous legislation. (We read it in our local Valley News, but it was originally from the Washington Post.)

A Republican filibuster in the Senate yesterday shot down a bipartisan effort to restore the right of terrorism suspects to contest in federal courts their detention and treatment, underscoring the Democratic-led Congress’s difficulty with terrorism issues.

The detainee rights amendment was an effort to reverse a provision in last year’s Military Commissions Act that suspended the writ of habeas corpus for terrorism suspects at the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other offshore prisons.

The authors of last year’s bill said that advocates of such rights would open the federal courts to endless lawsuits from the nation’s worst enemies. “To start that process would be an absolute disaster for this country,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an Air Force Reserve lawyer who was instrumental in crafting the provision in question in last year’s bill. …

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Yesterday’s rate cut by the Fed

As was more-or-less expected, if not exactly at that precise moment, the Federal Reserve has cut both the “discount (interest) rate” and its target for the “federal funds (interest) rate.” Most stock markets around the world have reacted with big increases. Does this mean a rising tide for the foreseeable future and beyond? A couple of responses from outside the cheerleader squad.

Dean Baker: ‘…According to much of the coverage, the markets soared yesterday because they are now confident that Bernanke will move aggressively to try to counteract a recession. A bit of history would have been useful to include in this context…’

Jennifer Waters, MarketWatch: ‘…”It will help those who need it the least,” said Richard Hastings, an analyst at Bernard Sands LLC. “But for those who need the most help, this does nothing for them. The Fed cannot help them at all.”…’

econospeak on carbon tax / permits

Peter Dorman at Econospeak has a good conversation going on the advantages of controlling carbon emissions through auctioning off limited permits rather than using a tax on consumption of carbon fuels. Naturally, this reminds me of my implied plug for permits in my review of Peter Barnes’ Capitalism 3.0 [parts 1 and 2]. Regardless, Dorman is on the money when he concludes

Folks, this is a very important issue at a very important time. In the next year the contours of the national debate over climate change policy will be set. Huge ecological consequences — and gobs of cash — are on the line. It is essential to start off in the right direction. I’d like to see enough clarity and truculence in the activist community that journalists are forced to take notice.

On Freeman Dyson’s “Our Biotech Future”

In last month’s New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson leads off with an essay on “Our Biotech Future“. He predicts that biotechnology will, in this new century, become relatively cheap and widespread in a similar way to the cheapening and spreading of physics-based and computer technology over the past several decades.

It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. Two facts about the coming century are agreed on by almost everyone. Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.

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On the one hand… on the other hand… on both together

Heterodox Economist reminds us of a useful point: Wall Street types might deserve to eat a bear market in some sense of getting their just deserts, but the connections between the financial world and the rest of the economy (including millions of working stiff jobs, etc) mean that the bear is likely to be shared around with plenty of people who don’t deserve the downside. The system as we know it is rigged in favor of the owners. Because they own, they cannot be allowed to suffer for their suffering trickles down much faster than any of their advantages. He also talks about Rosa Luxemburg, which is cool.

Uneconomic: marriage and civil union stuff

A couple weeks ago, the NYTimes had an article about weddings that turn out to be legally invalid, perhaps. (“Great Wedding! But Was It Legal?”, first SundayStyles page, 8/5/07; reposted here.) I’m a “minister” in the Universal Life Church myself, and have performed four weddings and have been asked to perform another next summer. My wife (ceremony performed by her cousin empowered by the ULC) also clicked the “make me a minister” button on the ULC website so she could perform a wedding for a friend of hers. So we take our possibly invalid weddings very seriously here in the Teller-Elsberg clan.

I know it’s got little to do with economics, exactly, but nonetheless, this article has got me thinking: all the recent debates over same-sex marriage (and/or civil unions) have served to make it clear that states should not approve or disapprove of any marriages whatsoever, regardless of who officiates. When the state’s acknowledgment of the legality of a marriage depends on the opinion of government officials regarding what is and is not a legitimate religion, or who is and who is not a legitimate minister within an otherwise legitimated religion, it is clear that the separation of church and state has been breached. Religious groups and organizations are the appropriate bodies to establish marriages, as marriage is clearly a union formed within a spiritual tradition, with all the benefits and burdens that that entails. The state, on the other hand, should only perform civil unions, whatever the sexual mix of those joining in blissful union.

Now all we need is a constitutional amendment.

NPR: “Stuck and Suicidal in a Post-Katrina Trailer Park”

I try to follow the rule that blog posts should be more than just a “hey, check this out,” and a link. But I guess some rules are made to be broken. I don’t have much to say about this, but it is definitely worth listening to., August 8, 2007 · The first morning of my visit to Scenic Trails, I was walking the path between some trailers when I bumped into a man named Tim Szepek. He was young, tall, and solidly good-looking. I asked if I could speak to him for a moment and he agreed. We found a spot of shade beneath a tree, and I started with what I considered a casual warm-up.

“What’s it like to live around here?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied, “I’ll be honest.”

“Ain’t a day goes by when I don’t think about killing myself.”

And so began my time in Scenic Trails, a FEMA trailer park deep in the Mississippi woods where 100 families have lived in near isolation for close to two years.

[cont’d and audio versions]

Nancy in the Nation… and a Nobel pet peeve

I forgot to blog this previously, so sorry for the delay. Anyhow, our own Nancy Folbre had a letter to the editor in the July 16, 2007, issue of The Nation. It’s a response to Christopher Hayes’ “Hip Heterodoxy.” As usual, she’s witty and wise.

The letters section is for subscribers only, so I hope The Nation won’t mind my taking just a minor liberty to quote Nancy’s letter.

Let me add one flourish to Christopher Hayes’s thoughtful and endearing description of hip heterodox economists [“Hip Heterodoxy,” June 11] and introduce one complaint. A mainstream economist who had downed too many free drinks once asked me what my department was like. When I described it as heterodox he was confused, and informed me rather soberly that there were no homosexual departments. Of course, neither the orthodox nor the heterodox are orthosex. But sessions organized by the International Association for Feminist Economics have enlivened economics conferences for many years now. I’m disappointed by Hayes’s failure to mention this, or to interview even one feminist economist for his story. Does he consider us unhet or just unhip?

Following Nancy’s letter was another that pushes one of my pet peeve buttons:

Christopher Hayes deftly spells out confusion in the field of economics. He avoids, however, two critical questions. First, is the “dismal science” science at all? Many find it nothing more than fancy (if not fanciful) statistics, not much different from actuarial studies. Insurance underwriters recognize that a person with a life expectancy of 74.5 years may live to be 100 or die at 50. Yet neoclassical economists seem surprised when the real world doesn’t perform according to their theories. Witness the 2004 election and how many people voted against their own economic self-interest, violating neoclassical theories.

Second and more disturbing, Hayes uses the term “Nobel laureate” to identify various prominent economists. The so-called “Nobel Prize in Economics” is not one of the five awards stipulated in Alfred Nobel’s 1896 will. It arrived nearly seventy years later, first awarded in 1969. It was instituted by the Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) “in memory of Alfred Nobel” as an effort to legitimize economics. Many physicists and mathematicians bristle at this award, claiming economics is not a science at all but uses mathematics to camouflage unproven and unprovable theories. Even Nobel’s great-great-grandson Peter criticizes the prize as “illegitimate–a PR coup.”


I’m no great fan of neoclassical economics, and I probably agree with Boyle on most political issues. Even so, I feel I must point out that Boyle is off the mark in more ways than one. To begin with, neoclassical theories do not posit that people will or should vote in favor of politicians who will promote the voters’ economic self interest. Economic well-being is only one of many dimensions of life. So, even accepting neoclassical assumptions of rational persons making choices for their own benefit, such rational persons will have to weigh the pros and cons of all the aspects of their lives that they value–including such things as cultural values. If there are people who hate gay marriage more than they like a middle-class economic standard, then it is rational for them to vote for politicians who are homophobic and simultaneously pro-business/anti-union, etc. Neoclassical economic theory does not claim to be able to judge which desires and preferences will be stronger in any individual or group of people–in fact it is famously agnostic about preferences: one of the main complaints against it is that it ignores the ways that power structures, especially power structures built into the economy itself, can mold and shape the preferences of the people who then act rationally or otherwise in response. That is, in technospeak, neoclassical theory generally ignores the fact that economic preference formation is endogenous–internal to–the economy, and not something “given” from outside the realm of economics.

But that’s not my actual pet peeve. What gets under my skin is this non-issue of the Nobel Prize for Economics being somehow illegitimate. True: Alfred Nobel did not establish a prize in his name for economics. Also true: Alfred Nobel did not establish a prize in his name for biology. As I’ve read (though I’m sorry that I can’t recall where), his express reasoning was that he did not think biology was a real science. Biologists of his day were not in a position to do experiments in a convincing manner like the chemists and physicists that he did choose to honor. So does that mean that Alfred’s opinion of the status of sciences should be the final word for all time? Should administration of biology at universities be transferred to the Dean of Humanities? Does Boyle doubt the scientific bona fides of evolutionary theory any more than she does of economic theory? (Oh, and while neoclassicists do tend to win most of the economic Nobel prizes, not all the winners are beholden to that approach. Some, like Sen, are versed in alternative approaches including Marxian political economy. And folks like Stiglitz and Kahneman won the prize largely for their work in debunking the notion of rational actors in economic life.)

And the notion that the existence of a so-called Nobel Prize in Economics makes pretty much any difference in the world, beyond the lives of the individual winners and the reputations of the schools where they work, is hard to believe. Walk down the street and ask random people to name a single winner of the economics prize (or ANY Nobel prize for that matter). I’d be shocked if even 1% could do so. Survey Congress and the President and see what they answer: again, I’d bet that less than 20% of this elite, policy-making crowd could do so.

So the physicists and mathematicians bristle at the existence of a Nobel Prize in Economics? Big whoop. (And why would the math geeks care… they don’t have a Nobel Prize, so maybe it’s just jealousy.)

Much of economic policy deriving from economic theory has had as much or more negative results as positive, of that there’s no doubt. But Nobel’s prizes were supposed to be awarded “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” I think it’d be hard to claim that all the winners of physics or chemistry (or peace) Nobel prizes have actually conferred much real benefit on mankind. Take, for example, the 2006 award “for [the] discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation” which supports the Big Bang theory. Ummm, I think the Big Bang theory is really cool, and I like phyics (I grew up worshiping Isaac Asimov’s essays), but how exactly does mankind significantly benefit from the discovery of blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation? If humanity never enjoyed the existence of a Big Bang theory, the quality of our lives would be changed hardly a bit. We’d still have poor people and rich people and powerless people and powerful people and racism and sexism and wars and malnutrition and loving neighbors and beautiful sunsets. Intellectual discoveries are wonderful and inspiring, but they rarely actually matter THAT much.

Oh, and one of Nobel’s descendants doesn’t like the economics prize? Since when do readers of The Nation endorse nepotism? What makes one great-great-grandson’s criticisms so impressive? According to the Nobel Prize website, many of Alfred Nobel’s family members have failed to endorse Alfred’s desires w/r/t the prizes. “His family opposed the establishment of the Nobel Prize, and the prize awarders he named refused to do what he had requested in his will. It was five years before the first Nobel Prize could be awarded in 1901.” Since Alfred isn’t here to answer directly, who’s to say that this particular great-great-grandson represents the true ideals of Alfred any better than others of Alfred’s progeny who think the Economics prize is a-ok?

My conclusion: the Nobel Prize in Economics is as legitimate as any other memorial prize and anyway doesn’t much matter regardless of its legitimacy. It just doesn’t do much of anything that really matters in the grand scheme of things.

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