Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Good-Bye Michael Scott

I've heard that this upcoming season of The Office, season 7, will be the last for Steve Carell's character Michael Scott. This is clearly a very sensible career move for Steve Carell. In movies like "40 Year Old Virgin", "Dan in Real Life", and "Despicable Me", he has shown himself to be a compelling leading man. Contrarily, The Office of the last three seasons were clearly inferior to the first three seasons. Some of the late episodes of Season 5, those dealing with The Michael Scott Paper Company, were some of the best in the show's history. But Season 6 was fairly lackluster. The Jim and Pam story is pretty boring these days, Ryan's character isn't particularly interesting either. Michael and Dwight basically carry the show, and I would say that Michael carries more of the load than Dwight. I don't know if the show will go off the air after Michael leaves, but I think it should. It's already lost a lot, and it's hard to see how it would be even reasonably good without Michael (unless something crazy happens, like they hire Tracy Morgan).
I hope The Office ends on a high note, with a great Season 7. And I hope Carell goes on to a great movie career and avoids a Will Farrell/Adam Sandler style I-don't-give-a-crap-anymore mid-life period.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Law school starting salaries

This is a pretty scary chart for those considering law school.

It would be nice to see a chart that is the same except that it includes only the top 14 or so schools. In that case perhaps the two humps would be a little closer together.

I'd also like to a see a chart for salaries 5 or 10 years after law school. I don't know what that would look like, but it might look a little less bimodal as people at the high-end start dropping out of their lucrative jobs due to a desire for more work-life balance and people at the low-end get raises.

One bright-side: it looks like something like 1/5 of the new lawyers were making between $75k and $125k. So those are fairly lucrative jobs, many of which might not be quite so hellacious as the Big Law jobs in terms of time and stress.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What happens when the poor get richer?

I was recently discussing with some friends the issue of increased wages in the developing world. I may be misremembering the conversation, but I think the idea was brought up that higher wages in the developing world could be worrisome for Americans, because we'd have to pay more for the goods we purchase from those countries (whether as final goods or inputs, I suppose). I've heard this sort of argument before. It is related to the idea that we rich nations rely on the labor of poor nations, and without them the whole global capitalist edifice might come crashing down. Once one area becomes rich we "need" to find another poor area. (Taiwan becomes rich, so China starts making plastic toys. China becomes less poor, so Vietnam starts making cheap goods.) This view is actually fallacious, even when stated in less dramatic terms. It is true that a poor country will have a comparative advantage in something vis-a-vis the US, so we will find it worthwhile to trade with them. However, we'd benefit even more if they were richer (almost always, but maybe there's some exception I can't think of).

First of all, higher wages in China does not automatically imply that goods bought from China will be more expensive. Higher wages usually means there has been some productivity gain. The worker gets paid more than before, because he produces more than before. E.g. Maybe he's making twice as many cars per hour as had been before. He might get paid twice as much per hour, and in that case, he's getting the same payment per car. So, the labor cost of building the car has not increased, even though the laborer is getting paid more per hour than before. (Why is he twice as productive now? Maybe he works harder than before. Or maybe he has better tools or knows more.) A simple example can illustrate this. If we should worry about wage increases abroad, we should also worry about them at home. So, someone might say, "Yeah, I'm making ten times more than my great grandfather, but almost everyone else is also making way more than he did. So, I'll just be paying 10 times higher prices. So, I've made no progress." The situation described just now would be true if the entire gain in income were due to inflation (i.e. more dollars chasing the same number of goods.) But in real life, much of the change in income since your great grandfather's time has been due to productivity gains (i.e. is "real" rather than merely "nominal.") In other words, there are more goods being produced per person, and thus there is a higher standard of living and not just higher price levels. I don't mean to say that higher wages never means higher prices, but I think it's generally not a big worry in the long-run.
See the fascinating chart about 40% down the page for historical evidence: http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/StandardsofLivingandModernEconomicGrowth.html
You can see that even though wages have gone up, we can still buy things more cheaply than before. (I'm assuming most of these goods are produced in large part in high income countries such as the US. It's possible that this is incorrect, but I think my point would hold if you stuck to American goods. If you are skeptical, look up average US income in 1908 and divide it by the price of a Model T. Then divide the average income now by the price of a typical American car--which, in any case, is a way better product than the Model T. You'll get basically the same result the above chart got.)

Second, as people in China get richer, they can buy more of our goods. So, our exports increase, which leads to a higher GDP for the US.

Lastly, as they become wealthier, we can likely expect them to produce more scientific research and more inventions, both of which could benefit us greatly.

Here's an excellent essay on this topic: http://www.economist.com/economics/by-invitation/guest-contributions/important_thing_chinese_productivity_rising

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What's the difference?

I recently attended a debate between libertarian students and conservative students. They were supposed to argue in general about why their respective sides had the better political philosophy, but they tended to get bogged down in the "weeds" of drug policy (pun intended) and other overly superficial issues. Not that drugs are unimportant, but you can find conservatives who are against the war on drugs (e.g. some folks at National Review). And I don't think the debaters did a good job explaining why this issue really illustrates a fundamental divide between their ideologies (if indeed they thought so). Litmus tests may not be the best way to look at this divide. I've trying to think of a way to understand the difference between the two philosophies, and it's not so easy to come up with a concise, satisfying answer. I haven't fully thought through this question, but I think a good starting point is to say that American conservatives and libertarians often do not come up with radically different policy proscription, but they have pretty different intellectual approaches when considering a problem. Libertarians tend to be very into casuistry: i.e. find a general principle and then apply it to a specific problem. So, there's a "correct" libertarian answer on drug policy, immigration, etc., and this answer would be correct in almost any time or place. [As a side note, I would say that I find it puzzling that, based on anecdotal evidence, that libertarians are in many cases atheistic/agnostic (and hence probably materialists.) So, it's not clear exactly how it is that so many of them believe in universal, objective truths. For that matter, how can they believe in liberty? After all, matter is not free. I will concede that there are some libertarians who will say things along the lines of: "I don't know what a good policy is and neither do you. So, let's just live and let live." But they seem to either be a minority of libertarians or a silent majority that is too lazy to leave the basement long enough to become political activists.]

In contrast, conservatives are less doctrinaire. Russell Kirk said that "conservatism is the negation of ideology." That might be too strong, but it does have a kernel of truth. Sometimes people say that conservatism is more of a temperament than a philosophy. There's also the famous Lionel Trilling quote that conservatives tend to express themselves with "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." Again, I wouldn't fully endorse that notion, but it does strike a chord. If you're a conservative and it doesn't strike a chord, maybe you need to think about yourself and your friends a little more carefully. Now, most conservatives do embrace some doctrines, as any sane person would. But I think that, at least in the political realm, they do so about far fewer issues than libertarians do. For example, I can imagine circumstances in which I'd support fairly strict immigration laws. I could also imagine situations in which I basically support open borders. There are probably circumstances in which I'd take a laissez-faire political stance towards drugs, but there are also situations where I'd crack down hard. Conservatism is largely about prudence and judgment. We ought to seek to serve the common good, and there are many ways to do that.

Lastly, I'll say that it sometimes seems that American conservatives are not even all that conservative. I think they in many ways resemble some of the classical liberals and Whigs of old. After all, Edmund Burke was a Whig and Hayek called himself a Whig as well. Who is cited more often as an influence among conservatives in America? Burke, Locke, Smith, Madison, and Friedman? Or, say, Disraeli, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, and Christopher Dawson? For better or worse, doesn't it sometimes seem that we are long on Whigs and short on Tories? Yes, some of this is semantics, but not all of it. Does this idiosyncrasy make us incoherent? Should we be citing Aristotle more and Jefferson less?