Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Link Exchange: Making Holidays Less Fun Edition

Whether railing against Thanksgiving as ritualized commodity fetishism or condeming the imposition of the Atlantic economy on a native population or questioning the motivation of the Protestant religious fanatics who landed on our shores in the seventeenth century, academics can even take the fun out of Thanksgiving. Oh, believe me, we've already done a number on Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day and the Fourth of July.

While I believe in being critical of tradition and trying to understand it in a certain context, I am perfectly capable of leaving that hat in the library or lecture hall, pulling up my sleeves, tucking into enough food to feed ten normal people and try to care about the Detroit Lions.

Economists, unlike historians or cultural critics or anthropologists or others, at least try to have a little fun with the holidays. The preachiness is more missing, and people are considered amorally (as in without moral judgement) for their choices and preferences. That is what draws me into economics as a field of interest.

Anyway, here are some economic takes on the coming holiday:

Enjoy the holiday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Chuckwagon: Chicken Adobo, Filipino Style

When one is terminally short of cash, one is always on the lookout for cheaper ways to do things. Thus it is with cooking.

Being stony broke forces one to become rather creative when it comes to food. One must use cheaper cuts of meat, more spices and different cooking methods. I find it to be rather an interesting challenge.

Let's see how little I can spend and still eat well?

That's why I love when I come across recipes like this one. It is cheap (you probably have most of this stuff sitting around), flavorful, aromatic and easy to make.

You might think that adobo would be a dish from the Spanish speaking world, and you'd be sort of right. The Spanish ruled the Philippines for hundreds of years, so something was bound to rub off besides the love of plaster statues of saints.

Adobo, in the Filipino context, refers not so much do a dish but to a method of preparation, which you will see below.

As with any recipe, alter the amounts or ingredients to suit your tastes. Some might like it sweeter, others tangier, others with more, less or different vegetables or meats. It's all up to you. That's another great thing about this recipe: flexibility.

  • 1/2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into pieces
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 medium onion, sliced
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 1/3 c. vinegar
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 c. water
  • Black pepper to taste


  • Mix all ingredients in medium-sized pot. Stir and let sit for 5-10 minutes
  • Cover and cook on medium heat for 30-40 minutes or until chicken is done
  • After about 20 minutes, check the level of liquid in the pot. Add more soy sauce or water as needed.
  • Great over white rice.

Friday, November 20, 2009

In A (Not So) Big Country

People seem to love smaller versions of larger things. The human brain seems to be hard-wired to be drawn to the miniature. The examples are legion: babies, Matchbox cars, puppies, cocktail hot dogs, Danny DiVito.

For me, I have always been fascinated with small countries, formally known as microstates. Or, to put it in terms both crude and politically geographical, when it comes to countries, I am not a size queen.

I guess this fascination started by playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? on our good, old Apple IIE (yes, they DID make something before the iPod) back in 1987. I could not believe that a places like San Marino or Andorra were real countries.

My fascination was fed by many early watchings of the great 1959 Peter Sellers movie The Mouse That Roared, that details the trials and tribulations of the microstate of Grand Fenwick.

I suppose it culminated with a visit to the 1994 American Numismatic Association convention where I actually shook the hand of an actual government official from a microstate (the director of the San Marino Monetary Authority).

Yes, if you were wondering, this whole being nerdy is far from being a new thing...

So, what is the draw of these places? Why are they at all interesting?

First off, the sheer lack of size in comparison is a good jumping off point. The entire country of San Marino has about as many residents as the Chicago suburb where I grew up. You could comfortably fit the entire country of Liechtenstein within the bounds of the City of Madison, WI.

Great, so what? These facts lead one to wonder: how did these tiny countries slip through the cracks? How did they remain independent even when their large, powerful neighbors fought bloody wars, shifted borders and coalesced into nation-states?

I think in a lot of cases, these places were just too small, remote and unimportant in the grand scheme for the great powers (such as they were) to expend the effort to crush and subdue them. They are not a threat, so why bother?

The flip-side of this is also interesting. The people of these microstates could have easily appealed to become parts of their larger neighbors, to grab the coat-tails of a European up-and-comer, to be a part of a unified, powerful nation. But they didn't. The spirit of independence, pride and sheer bloody-mindedness appeals to my political sensibilities.

These places are also pleasingly anachronistic in all the best ways. Because of their remotness and relative unimportance to wider political, economic and social forces, the past lives on in these places more than most.

Take San Marino, for example. They are probably the oldest constitutional democracy on Earth, having been so since 1243. Their military consists mainly of a corps of crossbowmen.

Or Andorra. Their government is a relic of a fight between Spanish and French nobles over a chunk of the Pyrenees in the thirteenth century. Andorra has two heads of state, descended from the successors to those noble claims: the Bishop of Urguell in Spain and the President of France.

In a larger sense, though, I must consider that I look at these places as a native of a "big country," one of the great powers. Some in this position might look at places like Monaco or Malta and think, "well, who dives a good goddamn about little, piss-ant countries that time forgot? What did they ever do for history. They are the places that don't matter."

Not me, however. I see these places as interesting experiments, tested by history. In isolation and ignorance of the powerful, these countries made it work. They kept their independence, ran their lives and moved at exactly the pace at which they felt comfortable, not driven forward by the inexorable forces of geopolitics through the ages.

They also provide interesting examples of how sovereignty can operate on a small scale and how democracy can function best when it functions smallest. What I mean is that when the government and politics of a place can be tailored closest to the needs and wants of the people who live there, things tend to work out better than national-level decision making.

As a libertarian with strong anarchist leanings, this notion appeals to me greatly. Think a small piece of territory cannot be sovereign and survive? Think again.

More than mere geographical or historical curiosities, the microstates of the world offer a window into a different way of life.

Maybe I believe, at least where governments are involved, that small is indeed beautiful.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wait a Minute...Herman Who?

Today, the news broke that the leaders of the twenty-seven EU member states selected the first full-time President of the European Council and the first permanent High Representative for foreign affairs.

If you are unclear about what these positions are, what they do and how the EU functions in general, well, join the club. But for a good introduction, click here.

Who are the lucky winners? Who are the latest unelected people to be chosen to influence policy and procedure in the EU, a regional alliance that has been growing in power and influence, most recently with the Lisbon Treaty?

Why, it was Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rampuy and EU Trade Commissioner Baroness Catherine Ashton, of course.

Don't panic. I had never heard of either of them before today myself.

The big talk in the run-up to this decision, and the position taken by the British government, was that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was all but a shoo-in for the job. Tony least a guy that more people have heard of.

So, what happened? What led the leaders of the EU member states to choose two politicians who are virtual unknowns, who are thought to be "consensus builders," and neither of whom have much foreign policy experience?

Well, let's think about this.

It is no secret who are the "big dogs" when it comes to the member states of the EU. This position belongs to France and Germany, and most specifically, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy. These states and their leaders stand at the center of the "European project."

Why? Well, it is simple (at least to me). They both realize that to consolidate their relative positions economically and politically on the Continent, they need each other to survive. Furthermore, they need the smaller states of the EU to consolidate this position through offering attractive incentives (development money, union-wide institutions that could save individual states money) in exchange for tacit leadership by the larger states in the union.

What about Britain, then? To put it simply, the French and Germans don't trust them. The reasons are historical and, well, sort of cultural. Historical because there had been an aversion among British politicians to join the union and the corresponding rejections of British membership led by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960's. Cultural because, more than any other people who are members of the EU, the British really don't (and never have) considered themselves Europeans. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Britain is in Europe, but not of Europe.

So, back to today's decision (which was a unanimous one among the 27 member states). Merkel and Sarkozy knew that a big-name British politician like Tony Blair could prove to be much more of a problem than some Belgian guy and an EU commissioner who is a Brussels insider.

They also knew that in no way, shape or form do they have to give any part of a shit about what Gordon Brown, the current British PM, wants. It is pretty clear that Brown and his Labour Party will not be in power (or at least not in a majority in the House of Commons) for much longer. Brown pushed for his old boss Blair to get the job, but he really has no bargaining position.

What are the larger implications of this? For one, anyone who tries to tell you that the EU marks the end of old, nation-state based politics in Europe is just plain wrong. The EU is just another forum for the various states of Europe to seek their own interests. It doesn't get rid of the game; it just provides a different playing field.

Another larger point that this reinforces plays to the nature of the EU itself. I believe it is a fundamentally undemocratic institution and this decision just further proves that. This decision does nothing to make the EU's institutions more representative. All it does is preserve the status quo, mainly in favor of France and Germany.

Everything I say here is debatable, and I might well be wrong. What I do think I have right, though, is the notion that the states of Europe and their leaders will use international institutions to pursue the interests of their own states.

International relations theorists can say all they want about mid-level explanations of interstate relations, or cosmopolitanism, or cooperation. Perhaps I look at this with the jaundiced eye of the historian, but I just don't see that at work here. Feel free to prove me wrong.

Oh, and this destabilizes domestic politics in Belgium, but really, who gives a shit?

Link Exchange

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Lecturer as Rock Star?

One thing I have never had a problem with is speaking in front of groups. I have always found it hard to believe that lots of people fear it more than death, but this seems to be the case. Jerry Seinfeld even joked about it: "At a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy."

So, in my current line of work, it has been helpful not being a glossophobe. In being a TA and now a lecturer, I have to be in front of people as the central part of my job. This will be the case for my entire career.

In addition to this, I have always been somewhat aware of the performative aspect of education. A successful lecture or discussion section is built as much on the presentation as on the content. I actually will paraphrase former president Ronald Reagan here when I say that I don't know how anyone could go into education without having acting experience.

I never really had this awareness of performance and education brought home or clarified, though, until a recent conversation with my brother. For those of you who don't know him, my brother has been a musician, in one way or another, since he was in the fifth grade. He has performed in school bands and orchestras, pit orchestras for the stage, heavy metal bands, jam bands, bar bands and impromptu jam sessions of all sorts. I (and I might be showing family bias here) think he is quite an accomplished performer.

Recently I was talking to him about my frustration at sometimes not being able to tell if my students are getting it. I was frustrated that the best that I can do is see if they are obviously asleep or obviously surfing the web on their laptops.

My brother then drew the paralell between teaching a class and performing live on stage. You need to feed off the audience, drawing your energy and directing your performance in the direction of the audience. You have to try to keep the "diehards" going strong while drawing in the people who seem not to care or not to notice that there is a performance even going on. You need to constantly relate to your audience, establishing this connection so that the exchange can be mutually beneficial.

I was taken aback. Hell, he's absolutely right. They ARE pretty similar.

I had to counter with something, so I pointed out that while you mostly play at bars and music clubs, the lecture hall is a much different forum. He admitted that this was true, but that they were still people and they still act the same when something is going on in front of them on a stage.

Additionally, he said that the fact that the crowds at the average gig might be intoxicated (in one way or another) might be a double-edged sword. It might make them more "in to" what you are doing, or it might make them more ignorant, and you can never really tell.

Nail on the head, I'd say. This was not really shocking, though. My brother is in front of crowds at least four times every week and has been for most of his adult life.

So, does this mean that I think that lecturers and rock stars are the same? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the fact that they are both performers of a sort that depend on audience reaction for the energy behind their performances. No, in the fact that rock stars' performances are in the "entertainment" part of one's life, lecturers much less so.

It is drawing these paralells between the linements of human endeavor that I think lead to the deepest understanding of human behavior and the human experience.

So, if you'll excuse me, I have finish getting ready to rock Humanities 1131 with a blistering set of culture in interwar Europe.

Or, if you like, less people yelling, "play 'Freebird!'" than yelling "show us how culture influenced and was influenced by the dissolution and horror following World War I!"

Rock on, indeed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Chuckwagon: Fried Rice

Madison is a great eating town. For a city its size, the dining options are legion. Especially notable is the wide array of cuisine from cultures around the world that can be had in Wisconsin's second largest city. Peruse this website to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

There are two sorts of Americanized, bastardized ethnic foods, though, that Madison just can't seem to do right. These are standards in the American food pantheon, and I was surprised when I moved here that I could not find anything close to the standards that I was used to in the Chicago area.

I guess I am just an Americanized, bastardized ethnic food snob.

Oh, the two that I am talking about are pizza and what you might call American Chinese food.

Pizza is for another time, but suffice to say that Rosati's Pizza is just O.K. back in the Big Chi, but it is just about the best thing here.

I find it hard to believe that I cannot find take-out, white folded container, huge menu, kinda greasy Chinese food anywhere near the order of the places that I ate in the Chicago area. To put it in South Suburban terms, none of these places in Madison should be mentioned in the same sentence as Dragon Palace.

So, after a while of thrashing about, I decided to take matters into my own hands and make my own American Chinese favorites.

Fried rice is hearty, economical, a great way to use up leftovers, quick and tasty. This recipe is especially open to tinkering, so feel free.

Fried Rice
  • 1-2 green onions
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • Black pepper to taste
  • Olive oil (or vegetable oil would work as well)
  • 4 cups of cooked rice
  • Soy sauce to taste
  • Any sort of meaty add-ins: pork, chicken, shrimp, basically whatever you have
  1. Wash and chop the green onions
  2. Beat eggs with salt and pepper
  3. Heat some oil (the two-times around the pan thing should be sufficient) in a large frying pan
  4. When the oil is hot, add the eggs and lightly scramble
  5. Remove eggs and set aside
  6. Add more oil, rice, green onions, anything else and break up rice clumps with spoon
  7. Add soy sauce to your taste
  8. When heated through, add egg, mix and serve.

Link Exchange

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Incentive's Always Waiting at the Liquor Store for Me

Those who know me know that if I believe any one thing unshakably, it is that people respond to incentives. Incentives and people's choices when faced with them show their preferences, and these preferences are a window into the sort of person they are.

We make choices constantly. It seems that we are hard-wired to be decisionmakers. Just think for a moment how many choices you make before you leave the house for the morning, and you'll see what I mean.

I have long been fascinated (and even worked for a time) with people's behavior in retail outlets, especially grocery stores. Grocery stores are where most people have their longest contact with the economy, so it is a place where competing preferences and incentives are constantly in intricate interplay.

Now, there has been a lot of interesting work done on people's retail behavior, including (but not limited to): how to pick the fastest checkout lane, price discrimination (getting people to pay different prices for the same stuff), and the deadweight loss of Christmas.

One sector of retail behavior that has always fascinated me is people's behavior in liquor stores (or the liquor sections of grocery stores). I have been observing this behavior (and admittedly participating in it) for some time, and I wanted to offer a few observations.

First, I think there is a lot of signalling involved in buying liquor. The particular liquor one chooses conveys information about that person. The bunch of dudes with a cart full of thiry-packs of PBR is sending a different message than the old codger with a liter of bourbon or the couple with pretentious eyewear with the wine from somewhere foreign.

I think much of this has to do with brand image and how this relates to one's own image. It is the ultimate victory of the advertising industry, in my opinion. You don't want to send the wrong message, especially with a product that, in a lot of ways, sends negative messages anyway.

This is, of course, silly. A consumer product is an inanimate object, devoid of moral force. It is simply another commodity, and what it says about you should not be a factor in your incentive calculations. But, the problem is that, well, this seems to be true. We fall for it all the time and liquor is no different.

Second, the mantra, "incentives matter" plays out in interesting ways in the liquor store. I see this operating in two ways:
  1. The person who seems to float between different sections and different potent potables, seemingly in a quest for the most "bang for the buck," as it were. These are incentives at their most pure: what am I getting for what I am giving up? To put it another way, what is the opportunity cost of going for a lot of cheap booze or a little better stuff? To put it yet another way (the way the most calculating and hardened drinkers think about it, I imagine) what is the highest alcohol content per volume that I can get at a certain price?
  2. The items left in the liquor department of grocery stores often tell an interesting (and occasionally depressing) story about people and incentives. I've seen discarded packages of diapers, allergy medication, coloring books, contraceptives, bread, milk and motor oil in liquor departments. Liquor went up against all of these things and (seemingly) won out. This might say more about the person than their purchases, but that's the whole point. By making this choice, they convey information about themselves.

Lastly, it is fascinating to me to conjecture on how people change their liquor buying decisions based on external factors. Of course, there are the people who will buy the same thing no matter the time, place or company (people who respond to the whole brand image thing I talked about earlier).

I wonder, though, how people's liquor buying decisions are altered by the people around and the time of day and also the place itself. The crowd at the average liquor dispensary is very different on a Tuesday afternoon than it is on a Friday evening. To give but one possible scenario:

You are standing in front of the beer case at your favorite liquor emporium. You are ready to go the "most bang for buck" route and grab the one thirty-pack of PBR that those dudes left behind. All of a sudden, an attractive (depending on how you define this) person walks up next to you and appears to engage in the same behavior.

The question becomes: do you change your PBR decision and go for a twelve of Stella Artois? Or a local microbrew? Or an armful of forties of Steel Reserve? How does the presence of this other person influence your beer incentive scheme?

Well, enough of this talk. I am going to pour another beer from the $6.99 case that I bought this afternoon.

Go ahead. Pick out my signalling, analyize my decisions and figure out my incentive scheme.

You know you want to.

Oh, and cheers!

Friday, November 06, 2009

Link Exchange

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Chuckwagon: Guinness Beef Stew

I have thought about this a lot, and I have concluded that I am much more a winter food person.

Now, before you throw your barbecue tools at me, hear me out. I would never turn my nose up at a brat, burger, ribs, chicken or a steak the size of a garbage can lid off the grill.

When it comes to variety, though, I have to say that once you cycle through all your grilling choices, you find your self repeating yourself repeatingly redundant.

Winter food, though, is a more open playing field. You could go a month and eat nothing but variations on the casserole. I don't recommend that you do this, but if you are from Minnesota, you probably do this anyway.

One of my favorite food categories with a million variations is the stew, otherwise know as soup's brawnier brother. It is the simplest of foods, invented by cultures the world over through the centuries. Meat, vegetables, liquid, heat. Everything else is completely up to you.

A favorite in the English-speaking world is beef stew. From Dinty Moore to the Lancashire hot pot, it never fails to deliver that stick-to-the-ribs warming feeling that is one of the reasons I like winter food.

This recipe is one of my favorites. I first ate it about a year ago, and have made it several times since. It is easy and delicious. In fact, when I served it at my St. Patrick's Day extravaganza last year, it was gone before the corned beef was.

You do need a CrockPot, but if you don't already have one, pony up and get one. It is well worth it.

So, here you go (with a tip of the tweed pinch cap to Julie Norkus).

Guinness Beef Stew
  • 3 tbs. olive oil
  • 3 tbs. flour
  • 3 lbs. beef stew meat
  • 1 medium bag of baby carrots
  • 6 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 onion, cubed
  • 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 2-3 cups of beef broth
  • 1 7oz. can of tomato paste
  • 16 oz. of Guinness
  • 2 cups of green peas
  • thyme
  • oregano
  • parsley
  • salt and pepper

1. Thickly dredge beef in flour and fry in olive oil until brown

2. Put ingredients into CrockPot in this order: potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, meat, Guinness, broth and tomato paste (mix together first), generous sprinkling of thyme, oregano and parsley

3. Cook on High for six hours.

4. With about an hour and a half to go, stir and add peas

5. Give yourself about forty-five minutes-hour leeway to make sure everything is done.

Oh, you might want to leave the house while this cooks...the smell of it all day will drive you mad with desire.

Link Exchange

  • Bryan Caplan on libertarians quoting Trotsky. No, this is not fake.
  • Athletes, performance, signalling and "excessive celebration," from Robin Hanson.
  • In the next week, we celebrate twenty years since Die Berliner Mauerfall. Links, all good, from Cato@Liberty. I particularly like the one about "paradise imposed at gunpoint."
  • Interesting map of the Biblical flood that shows a lot about faith and science in the seventeenth century.
  • Exploring the pros and pitfalls of Wikipedia. I think the demographic data is particularly illuminating.

Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand, Everywhere

With two new books out about her, sales of her books higher than ever, and new interest in her philosophy in the world's largest democracy growing, it might seem that we are living in a Randian moment.

Love her or hate her, it is hard to ignore her and her ideas, her strange personality, her evangelical followers (even though they would hate that phrase) and her vehement detractors.

I intend this post as a collection on some recent, useful writing on the subject for the curious. I have already made my opinions known here at COTL back in 2005. Read those here.

Now, the reading list (which is by no stretch of the imagination exhaustive). Oh, and if you don't throw up a little at the (thankfully fake) picture in the GQ article, you might not be human.

  • The Reason Foundation's "Rand-a-Palooza." You might expect Reason to be chest-thumpingly adulatory, but they do complicate this expected bias towards Rand and her ideas.
  • According to GQ, "The Bitch is Back," apparently. For some, she never left. More a personal reflection for, well, the sort of people who read GQ.
  • Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution's take. I especially like his ideas about Rand and a modern virtue ethics.
  • Article in New York about Rand's personality and its relationship to her ideas. I particularly like the notion of the unreality of Objectivism.
  • NYT book review that details Rand's difficult relationship with conservatives. I would add that this difficulty extend to libertarians, liberals...pretty much everyone who didn't accept Objectivism whole and uncut.
  • A bit of humor mixed in with the criticism. Murray Rothbard's delightful one-act play entitled, "Mozart Was a Red." This zeroes in, with humor, on one of the things that I find most objectionable about her philosophy.