I’m Back

April 30, 2004

I’m back, having taken my oral exam. It’s hard to know exactly what to share about such a… um, humbling… experience. Luckily, President Bush, in his brief public comments yesterday about his 9/11 testimony, provided an excellent template for commenting on such matters. So taking his lead, I’d like to say:

The Vice President and I just finished a good conversation with the 9/11 Commission MIT Condensed Matter Theory Part III Oral Exam Committee. It was wide-ranging, it was important, it was just a good discussion. And I appreciate the members.

I want to thank the Chairman and Vice-Chairman for bringing the commission committee here (just like the 9/11 Commission conveniently came to the Oval Office, my committee nicely came to the conference room just down the hall from my office) and giving us me a chance to share views on different subjects. And they had a lot of good questions. I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I took the time. This is an important commission committee, and it’s important that they ask the questions they ask so that they can help make recommendations necessary to better protect our homeland improve my physics education. It was — I enjoyed it.

I was never advised by my counsel not to answer anything. I answered every question they asked. Really — probably best that I not go into the details of the conversation; let them incorporate into their report. There was a lot of interest in — about how to better protect America gapless bosonic excitations like the Goldstone modes at a 2nd order phase transition and magnons on a Heisenberg spin chain. ( Condensed matter theory isn’t all about metals and semiconductors anymore.) In other words, they’re very interested in the recommendations that they’re going to lay out. And I’m interested in those, as well.

And we discussed a lot of things… a lot of subjects. And it was a very cordial conversation. I was impressed by the questions and I think it helped them understand how I think…

…Look, if we I had something to hide we I wouldn’t have met with them in the first place. We I answered all their questions. And as I say, I think I — I came away good about the session, because I wanted them to know how I set strategy, how we run the White House, how we I deal with threats problems for which I don’t immediately know the answer…

But it was — you know, the commissioners committee members will speak for themselves over time. They will let you know whether they thought it was a fruitful series of discussions. I think they did. I think they found it to be useful.

Remember that bumper sticker about how “I dream that someday schools will get all the money they want, and the Air Force will have to hold bake sales to buy a bomber.” Yeah, it’s kinda silly since, after all, textbooks, pencils, chalkboards, etc. are a heck of a lot easier to make than a B2 bomber that has a length of 20.9 meters and a wingspan of 52 meters, yet has a radar cross-section of less than 0.75 meters-squared. But I see what the bumper sticker is getting at, and in that vein, I offer: “I dream that someday politicians will be questioned as rigorously as lowly grad students are.”

[Speaking of the B2, can anybody explain what’s going on in this photo?


(Click to enlarge. Source: AirlinePictures.net, specifically this link)

I know there must be some innocent explanation for this—e.g., flying over the ocean, the B2 causes a small fog cloud of water vapor to condense around it, which at least is enough to screw up high-speed photography. But let me just say that I can see where all those Area-51-conspiracy-philes get their ideas that the B2 was reverse-engineered from that alien starship that crash landed in Roswell.]

[…especially when no business cycle recovery in the post-WWII era has had its gains so skewed toward corporate profits and away from labor compensation]

Brad DeLong, UC-Berkeley Economics Professor and Blogger Extraordinaire, today highlights the following shocking fact from this week’s Economic Snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute [which, until today, I shamefully forgot to include in my list of “News Sources (Off the Beaten Path)”]:

The rise in the stock market over the last year reflects spectacular growth in profits but not a generally healthy economy nor sustainable growth. Profits have never fared better, nor wage and salary income so poorly for this period of the business cycle [namely, 11 quarters after the last business cycle peak during any cycle in the post-WWII era]. Since the last expansion ended in the first quarter of 2001, corporate profits in the United States have expanded by 57.5%. Meanwhile, private wage and salary income has contracted by 1.7% and total labor compensation has increased by a meager 1.5%.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then the following two pictures should be worth writing “Holy s#!t” a thousand times:




(Click on either picture to enlarge to full-size.)

Kevin Drum comments today on an article set to appear tomorrow in the Washington Post arguing that despite the fact a large majority of people describe themselves as "moderate", political polarization has significantly increased and "political segregation"–i.e., people living and working disproportionately with people of similar political views–has also significantly increased.

Mr. Drum seems to take the latter finding as true and people’s self-described moderation as basically self-delusion based on comparing themselves to their increasingly segregated peer group. I’m not so sure, and am willing to take people at their word when they describe themselves as moderate. That is, I don’t believe that most people truly want to choose sides solidly on either the liberal or conservative ends of the spectrum. Rather, the problem is that they are forced to choose sides because in what passes for political debate today compromise has ceased being anything worth having. Instead of compromise being what is should be—both sides getting most of what they want—it has become both sides getting none of what they want beyond the other side not getting everything it wanted.

Money is really not the critical stumbling block to designing compromises where most everyone leaves basically happy. The real stumbling block is the Apocalyptic fervor (often figurative, but alas, sometimes literal) that colors the thinking of the partisans of both sides. To say the least, the belief that the Second Coming is either metaphorically or truly imminent isn’t conducive to sound public policy. Or, to quote Yeats’s "The Second Coming", which says it infinitely better than I ever could, such beliefs curse us to live in times when:

The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The gigantic Medicare prescription benefit bill is an excellent case in point. It’s stunning in and of itself that a majority of Congress would even consider spending a whopping 400 billion (now likely 550 billion) dollars in the next decade on the issue, for this is an amount roughly 4-6 times greater than the expected outlay that actually goes to defray the estimated drug costs of the expected 40-50 million Medicare recipients in this time (see Mark Schmitt’s excellent back-of-the-envelope calculation). It’s even more stunning that the "compromise" bill that passed not only doesn’t solve the prescription drug problem, but also manages to leave all sides disgusted.

This all underlines the necessity for thinking about a true grand bargain between liberals and conservatives (see the reading list in my last post) so that compromise can once again mean both sides get most of what they want, and we don’t all need to be conscripts in ideological wars begun by zealots.

#1 Idea: Continuing to blog when you have a PhD qualifying oral exam in 5 days.

Hence, the blog’s going to be on hiatus until Thursday, April 29th or so, when I’ll start tackling some big questions like (1) what a grand centrist compromise between liberals and conservatives might look like and (2) a common sense guide to contemplating interpretations of quantum mechanics without going insane.

If you want to do some background reading on these topics…


(For Topic 1 – On Radical Centrist Reform of Government)

My starting point is the proposal of Matthew Miller, which can be found on his blog and in his book The 2% Solution, which gets its name from the notion that by returning the size of government to 22% of GDP (the average during the Reagan-Bush years) rather than the 20% of GDP now, we could implement a comprehensive domestic policy including universal health care, lifting the working poor out of poverty, comprehensive education reform, and public financing of political campaigns. If all that sounds really lefty, note that the execution of all these ideas is done in ways conservatives should consider “market-friendly” and “freedom-promoting”.

My main contention will be that for a real grand centrist bargain between liberals and conservatives, a bit more is going to have to be on the table. Notably, major tax reform is going to have to be on the table, which is something Miller neglects. (NB: I said tax reform, i.e., changes to make tax law simpler, more enforceable, and less prone to promulgating perverse incentives, and thus make the economy more efficient, which we really can’t afford not to do anymore… not to be confused with tax cuts, which at this point we sadly can’t afford to do anymore). For ideas, consider:

Joel Slemrod and Jon Bakija Taxing Ourselves: A Citizen’s Guide to the Great Debate over Tax Reform, 2nd Edition (Cambridge, MA – MIT Press 2001)

The various works of Dale Jorgenson, Professor of Economics at Harvard on “Efficient Taxation of Income” (e.g., the following… which are listed in order from most to least difficult):

Efficient Taxation of Income, with Kun-Young Yun, (November 15, 2002) [a long, technical journal paper]

.pdf Slides to the Office of Tax Analysis, August 2, 2002. [a technical presentation]

A Smarter Type of Tax, Financial Times, June 19, 2002 [an op-ed piece]

Efficient Taxation of Income, Harvard Magazine, March-April 2003: Volume 105, Number 4. [a bit of Harvard alumni propaganda]


(For Topic 2 – The Fundamental Nature of Reality or The Lack Thereof)

For laypersons:

John Polkinghorne’s stunningly concise and remarkably non-misleading popularization Quantum Mechanics in Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introduction” series, which is full-text viewable at Amazon.com

For technical readers with positivist proclivities:

Are you the type of guy or gal who thinks the following?

I’ll ascribe objective reality to a system’s wavefunction with respect to a given observable only if when…

1) … I have a single rendition of the system, and…

2) … I don’t have full a priori knowledge of the system’s preparation, yet…

3) … I can still somehow determine what the wavefunction is without changing it in the process

(I impose this final condition since if it’s inevitably changed, how could I know I really had it and my measurement wasn’t a fluke? I want to be able to repeat my measurements to my heart’s content until I satisfy my inner Bayesian conscience—no matter how neurotically exacting it may be.)

Then you probably should take a look at Quantum Measurement of a Single System by Orly Alter and Yoshihsa Yamamoto, which is also full-text viewable at Amazon.com, because it strongly argues that quantum mechanics will never satisfy your criteria for objective reality. The book proves that quantum mechanics as it’s currently known will not allow you to obtain *any* information about a system’s wavefunction without changing the wavefunction *unless* you have full a priori knowledge of a system’s preparation. (For example, say you’re told that a system has been prepared in an definite energy eigenstate, but you don’t know the full Hamiltonian of the system. There’s no way you can determine what the eigenstate from a single copy of the system without changing the state, no matter how slowly—adiabatically–you perform your manipulations. Or, say you’re given a spin and told it has a definite orientation, but you’re not told what it is. There’s no way to determine the orientation of a single spin without changing it unless you already know what axis it lies on.)

For technical readers fond of noumenal notions:

The following is the most straightforward and sensible thing I’ve come across about the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum mechanics (which, in case you haven’t noticed, underlies the joke that gives this blog its name)

Max Tegmark, “The interpretation of quantum mechanics: many worlds or many words?”, Fortschr. Phys. 46, 855-862 [downloadable Postscript file]

(His webpage devoted to Many Worlds http://www.hep.upenn.edu/~max/everett.html is worth a look too.)

For mathematically minded readers who want to codify a logical system that would encompass all possible interpretations of quantum mechanics that do not involve wavefunction collapse:

Does the following sound like a good idea to you?

… quantum mechanics is not about physical systems that exhibit a peculiar and elusive ontology, but rather about physical systems with a non-Boolean property structure. The problem is then how to make sense of a quantum world in which the properties of systems ‘fit together’ in a non-Boolean way.”

How about when it’s expressed technically?

The actual properties in a classical world are selected by a 2-valued homomorphism from a set of alternatives defined by a fixed Boolean algebra — the Boolean algebra of subsets of the phase space of the classical world — representing the same collection of possible properties at all times. The actual properties in a quantum world at time t are selected by a 2-valued homomorphism from a set of alternatives defined by a dynamically evolving non-Boolean sublattice of all subspaces of the Hilbert space of the quantum world. So the actual properties in a classical world evolve in a fixed Boolean possibility space, while the actual properties in a quantum world evolve in a dynamically changing non-Boolean possibility space. Classically, only the actual properties are time-indexed; quantum-mechanically, both the actual properties and the possible properties are time-indexed.

Modulo the usual philosophical worries about modality, there is nothing inherently strange about the notions of possibility or actuality in quantum mechanics. Once we have a precise handle on what is possible and what is actual, and how change proceeds, the rest is calculation. So measurement comes out as a process internal to the theory, on the basis of the dynamics alone, without requiring any privileged status for observers.

If you answered yes to either question, and especially if you answered yes to the latter question, you should really read the book from which they came:

Jeffrey Bub, Interpreting the Quantum World (Cambridge Univ. Press, corrected edition 1999), which, you guessed it, is also full-text viewable at Amazon.com.

[NB: Bub boasts the stunning academic lineage of being a student of physicist David Bohm and philosophers Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos.]

Critiques of “Mainstream” Economics

In case you haven’t noticed, my blog is meant to be an outlet for constructive procrastination… mostly for me, its author… but also for you, gentle readers. On that note, let me begin what I am sure will be a long, long series of ideas for constructive procrastination.

I’ll start with one of the most outstanding outlets I’ve found: critiques of “mainstream economics”.

Before continuing, let me emphasize why I put “mainstream” in quotes. As a friend of mine who’s in Stanford’s PhD Economics program rightly reminded me a few months ago:

In many ways “mainstream economics” is a very rickety and much abused straw man, and no one really does it any more. I think the basic tenets of modern economics are:

a) It is useful to assume that in making decisions, individuals are maximising something, given their limited information and cognition.

b) Equilibrium is a useful way to study behaviour.

Apart from this, everything else is open season. When doing policy, you have to either agree that

1) People are stupid, or

2) Society and its institutions are evil.

When thinking about policy, I tend to be more comfortable with (2): the idea that institutions (including markets) fail more often than not, but individuals do the best they can given the circumstances. Of course, behavioural economists are more willing to believe the people are stupid thesis.

But the much-maligned “mainstream” economics has not been studied, at least in active research institutions for quite some time. Doing it is not likely to get you published in a top journal. However, even then, there are a few people around, particularly in France (and amongst my old buddies in Cambridge, England), who feel that there is a lot lacking from the way economics is approached today. Their main concern is that we are too mathematical in our approach, thus confining the questions we ask. After all, Adam Smith and Ricardo did not use Kuhn-Tucker theorems or dynamic programming to find their insights. For more on this, it’s good to check out www.paecon.net.

With those requisite words of caution from a professional out of the way, let’s start the critiques. I’ll start with the best one I’ve found and understand: Section 6.14 of Herb Gintis’s Game Theory Evolving. It’s short, sweet, comprehensive, rigorous, chock-full of “news-you-can-use”, and diplomatic to boot. As he writes:

6.14.1 Costless Contract Enforcement: Achilles’ Heel of Neoclassical Economics

At the heart of neoclassical economics is the notion that the price mechanism equates supply and demand. The Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics, in particular, says that in a general equilibrium model, under appropriate conditions every competitive equilibrium is Pareto-optimal, and every feasible distribution of utility among agents can be attained by a suitable initial distribution of property rights, followed by competitive exchange (see Section 3.19). There have been many critiques of this model, and despite its enormous contribution to economic theory, it is no longer on the cutting edge of research these days. (Sidenote: That it is still taught to students as the “ideal case” from which the real world is an imperfect realization strikes me as scandalous.) Nonconvexity, externalities, multiple equilibria, and the absence of equilibration mechanisms entailing local stability, as well as other arcane issues, are often mentioned as the problem with the neoclassical model. But the biggest problem, easily trumping the others, is that the model assumes that agents can write costlessly enforceable contracts for all goods exchanged on markets. This may be reasonable for standardized goods (for instance, raw materials, basic chemicals, and easily graded agricultural goods) but, as we have seen, is misleading when applied to labor, credit, and consumer goods markets.

And then Gintis goes on to emphasize the key thing about labor, credit, and consumer goods markets that causes neoclassical economics to be misleading is that they are contingent renewal markets (i.e., an essential aspect of them is they’re repeated games in which the principal can tell an agent to take a hike if the agent doesn’t satisfactorily keep a promise). In particular, Gintis claims that the salient points about contigent renewal markets are:

In general, intuitively, “where product quality cannot be ensured by explicit contract, goods are in excess supply.” [Gintis, p. 138]

And specifically:

a) “In a Nash equilibrium of a contingent renewal market, there is an excess supply of agents.” [Gintis, p. 137]
b) “Contingent renewal markets do not clear, and in equilibrium they allocate power to agents located on the short side of the market.” [Gintis, p. 139]

Such facts make a lot of things that are actually observed in real-world labor, credit, and consumer goods markets a heck of a lot more explicable theoretically, so much so that Gintis believes the contingent renewal market model should be the second thing taught in any introductory economics class, right after supply and demand. Alas, it isn’t, and thus introductory economics courses have an annoying side effect of producing 19 year old libertarians who think the question of what constitutes the optimal society is a long-settled one (and worse, think that the pro-business wing of the modern Republican party is basically libertarian).

Want Another Pick-Me-Up?

April 20, 2004

Okay, I admit my last post wasn’t all that good of a pick-me-up. After all, it’s hard to wring anything but extremely nervous laughter out of the fact that some conscientious double-checking by Russian radar operators and (probably more importantly) the supernatural ability of Boris Yeltsin’s liver to keep him (barely) functioning despite 1-2 liters of vodka in his bloodstream were the only things that kept the world from being destroyed on January 25, 1995 from a Russian nuclear strike that was nearly accidently launched in response to a research rocket being launched from Norway.

But I promise you, this next thing really is hilarious…

By way of Billmon, behold the following result from an April 15-18th Washington Post poll:

Q: Overall do you think George W. Bush has done more to unite the country, or has done more to divide the country?

Unite: 50%
Divide: 48%
Don’t Know: 2%

[Or: 3377 days without a nuclear near-Armageddon.]

Are you finding April is turning out to be the cruelest month yet again?

Are you having trouble dealing with the fact that this month of April to date has seen more American casualties in Iraq than during the entire initial invasion in March-April 2003?

Are you drowning in doubt due to dubious deals and dysfunctional decision-making now diligently documented by Bob Woodward?

Are you just plain annoyed by all these lilacs breeding out of the dead land?

Or maybe all this mixing of memory and desire?

Or perhaps you’ve just run out of dried tubers?*

In short: Do you need a pick-me-up?

Well, here in the greater Boston region, it’s not hard to be happy. The weather is fabulous. The Boston Marathon today was swell. The Red Sox have beaten the hated Yankees 3 games to 1 in the just completed 4 game series at Fenway. Plus, with the 229th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington this Patriots’ Day, perhaps the rest of the country is even looking a little more fondly on Massachusetts’s infamous liberal revolutionary fervor.

But outside the “Hub of the Universe” as we Bostonians still hubristically call our now second-tier metropolis, you might find things a tad more dreary. So let me share with you a secret that never fails to provide me with at least a temporary pick-me-up:

As of today, the world’s gone 3377 days without a nuclear near-Armageddon.

You may be thinking that I’ve mistyped the number. 3377 days is only about 9.25 years. Am I implying that the world nearly suffered a nuclear Armageddon back in January 1995?

You bet your not-nuclearly-vaporized ass I do.

Back on January 25, 1995, an in-all-likelihood-inebriated Boris Yeltsin was informed that Russia’s early warning radars were tracking an incoming missile coming down from the Arctic Circle. For the only (publicly disclosed) time in history, the Russian nuclear “football” was opened. (In the US, the large briefcase with the launch codes and the radio equipment to signal a nuclear launch order that is always within easy reach of the President is called the “football”. I don’t know what they call it in Russia.) Supposedly, the Russians realized what was actually going on—namely, that the incoming rocket was actually just a research probe being launched from Norway—sometime around 3 minutes before they had to make their final decision whether to launch full scale nuclear retaliation or risk being utterly incapacitated by this apparent US first strike. The next day, according to Interfax, Yeltsin tried to put the best spin on the situation by claiming that, before this incident, people doubted the Russian early warning radars were good enough to even register, let alone track, an object as small as the research probe that was being launched from Norway. Boy, were those nay-sayers wrong! (Now that’s some good, shameless spinning.)

I don’t know why (especially since we and our Russian friends still have several thousand nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert), but that anecdote always brings a smile to my face.

Hopefully, it does the same to yours.

Well, nighty-night. Sleep well. 🙂

[*Hey, you try working in better comedic allusions to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” It’s not as easy as it first seems.]