Archive for October, 2005

Retiring early, relatively speaking

Tuesday, October 25th, 2005

Not getting to bed till 5.30 in the morning is bad for my:

a) eating habits
b) complexion
c) short term memory
d) attention span
e) wakefulness during classes
f) general sense of well-being
h) circardian rhythms

I’ll write a play-by-play of the past 24-hours sometime tomorrow, after I’ve recovered from writing the Justice paper due in about 14 hours….  But first, I’m going to get some sleep.

Retiring early, relatively speaking

Tuesday, October 25th, 2005

Not getting to bed till 5.30 in the morning is bad for my:

a) eating habits
b) complexion
c) short term memory
d) attention span
e) wakefulness during classes
f) general sense of well-being
h) circardian rhythms

I’ll put a play-by-play of the past 24-hours sometime tomorrow, after I’ve recovered from writing the Justice paper due in about 14 hours….  But first, I’m going to get some sleep.

And I thought I would go to bed early!

Sunday, October 23rd, 2005

As I wrote to Will later:


“There’s no way I expect to be able to come up with a unifying principle for morality that’s universal and absolutist, secular and humanist but also convincing and flawlessly prescriptive (not to mention in some ways very different from theories we’ve studied so far).  I can try though 🙂  And I think I’m intuitively right, but of course don’t we all?”


Yes, this is definitely part of why I love being here.  (Aim screennames have been edited, very very slight other content editing has been done as indicated.)



j (4:05:45 AM): [Telling] the truth would [in all cases] be the moral course because you cannot be *expected* to compromise morality in the name of morality.  I say that is a logically/morally false claim.

W (4:06:49 AM): what if there were a situation in which by telling a lie, you would ensure that no one else ever told a lie

W (4:07:22 AM): but by telling the truth you would ensure that the world devolved into a mass of people who had no regard for truth

W (4:07:27 AM): then

j (4:07:30 AM): As a head of state you are supposed to do everything within your rightful power to achieve your society’s goals.  I do not think society can delegate the right to lie to the president, so it is not his right to do so.

W (4:07:52 AM): assuming that is the situation

W(4:08:33 AM): is it the moral course to tell the truth and by so doing cause the moral downfall of the whole world? […]

j (4:12:07 AM): I know this is interesting to you, but my answer is going to be the same, again and again.  You, as an individual, as president, as imperial dictator for life over all the universe, do not have the moral right to lie, cannot be delegated that right by others who do not have it either.  You are hence not morally responsible for any situation that arises from something that could not have been stopped save by lying (or any other action you do not have a right to).  Referencing my email conclusion, if a doctor arrives on the scene and the victims could only be saved if the doctor did something morally wrong (eg. kill one to use for parts for the rest), s/he cannot be morally expected to do so.  It is as if the doctor arrived too late to save anyone.

j (4:13:21 AM): In other words, you did not “cause” anything by not lying, in the moral sense.

j (4:13:58 AM): Yes, there are things you could have done, but they are not moral actions, you cannot be expected to do them, you have no right to do them.

Celtics v. Bulls

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

Yesteday the Dins spent a couple of hours getting to and waiting at an open audition to sing the (American) national anthem for the Boston Celtics.  After hearing many, many increasingly tiresome renditions of the Star Spangled Banner (we were group number 111), we finally got our chance onstage.  I guessed the judges liked what they heard, because they invited us to sing for them…  tonight.  So in a couple of hours I will go sing with the Dins at a Boston Celtics v. Chicago Bulls pre-season game.  I have to admit that the coolness of all this is slightly wasted on me since I have never seen an entire basketball game, nor have I ever really wanted to.  But we get a free pair of tickets each, so I guess I’m going, at least for a little bit 🙂

And of course what I really want to do tonight is think about how different theories of international law and international relations can “shed light” on the extradition cases of Pinochet from the UK to Spain and Hissene Habr

Libertarian Perspectives on Economic and Social Policy

Friday, October 14th, 2005

Wow, this class really gets me fired up, largely because I am sooo incredibly skeptical about the things the professor argues for.  And the scary thing (to me, at least), is that so many students just eat it up, and uncritically accept claims like “Even in countries like Singapore with strongly enforced drug prohibition, the numbers show no significant difference in substance abuse with the US or elsewhere.”* and “Economic analysis shows that recycling is usually about equal to or even worse than new production in terms of cost and pollution.”**  Arghh.  Admittedly I respect his far greater experience and knowledge, and also his good faith effort to be even-handed in presenting and answering the counter-arguments.  Yet I fundamentally think limited and democratic paternalism can be a very good and economically efficient way of ordering society.

*This is outright wrong if you believe the 2005 UN World Drug Report 

—> The professor was arguing that all drugs should be legal and treated like any other consumer good (how can crack cocaine be a “good”??!) like blue jeans or toaster ovens.

** Well, except that recycled paper/cardboard pulp is now the largest US export good by volume, and recycling aluminium reduces the need for horrifically damaging aluminium ore mines.  Clearly there are many economists (like the ones at these highly profitible recycling firms) who think the economic analysis is in favor of recycling. 

—> The professor’s position was that compulsory residential recycling programs are silly since market incentives will lead to optimal behavior as necessary.  Which is an ok position at first glance, but ignores possibilities like the negative incentives for people to sort their trash, and also the important potential for government-mandated programs to capture economies of scale.  For example, Harvard pays something like $80/ton of trash that’s landfilled, but gets paid $60/ton of paper it sells to a recycling firm.  Clearly few Harvard students are going to be persuaded to sort all their trash by any monetary reward because it would probably be about $1 per person per semester, or even $6 over 16 weeks if that student throws out 100kg or 220 pounds of paper.  Yet Harvard (20,000 students, not including staff) cumulatively throws out hundreds of tons of paper every semester, which could either mean a huge landfill bill, or a very sweet profit for the school.  This is ignoring any environmental benefit like the reduced need for forests to be turned into wood-pulp plantations etc.

This was the “short” email I tried to write to him, but just couldn’t stop myself from turning it into a fairly lengthy response on what I thought were some of the bigger problems with what I heard in class today.  As background, today we talked about environmental protection, and the relevant point the professor was arguing for is that “in most/many cases, private contracting and other market mechanisms can usually help to internalise externalities and achieve a socially optimal situation, if only there were clear property rights to environmental goods like clean water, clean air, silence etc. etc.”

Dear Professor M,


As discussed after lecture today, could I (and the rest of the class) have access to a couple of sample mid-terms and final exams from last year?  This coming Monday is the add/drop deadline, so it would be particularly useful if students could have access to these past exams as soon as possible.



Concerning today’s lecture, my intuition is that people have a limited amount of money, and face many potential harms, which together lead to logical/practical difficulties in applying Libertarian Land principles generally.  Starting with the infinite number of negative environmental externalities we face, just for water pollutants we have to consider lead, mercury, arsenic (and many other heavy metals), PCBs, all manner of pesticides, all types of bacteria etc. etc.  Taken case-by-case, people would probably be willing to pay significant amounts of money to prevent each one of these pollutants from being in their drinking water.  But summed over all the many externalities and sources of externalities that people might have to consider in environmental pollution (eg. not just arsenic, but arsenic from all kinds of different industrial/agricultural sources which would each expect compensation to not produce/dump their waste in the river), the cost per person/household seems like it would be extraordinarily high.  (This is my hunch, even if each potential source of harm were to be each compensated by just a dollar or even a cent per household.)*Because there exists a virtually infinite number and sources of harmful externalities, it seems that one of two things might happen – either people would have to “be rational” and scale back what they would be willing to pay to protect themselves against these externalities (e.g. Q: “How much is not suffering long-term arsenic poisoning worth to you?”  A: “Only $0.00001, because I cannot afford anything more.”).  


Alternatively they would simply come up with a final “bill” that would be well beyond anyone’s means.  So even in theory this does not seem like a principle that could be viably applied in a general fashion.Yet the reality is that we *can* afford to have all these harms at the low levels of the status quo (assuming our water is safe to drink right now, for example), the prima facie proof being the status quo.  You said after lecture that the costs are just being pushed around because these costs are somewhere out there but I’m not certain this is true.  On one level it seems possible that these costs are partly being borne in the form of foregone economic development, for example (which society can afford, as opposed to paying sums of money we do not have).  Alternatively, it seems as if many of these costs just don’t exist in reality.  Recalling the dorm room example, in the status quo no exchange of money would be necessary so neither of us would incur any monetary costs.  We would rely instead on systems of reciprocity or fuzzy “social capital” (Putnam, 2000) or mutual respect or some moral principle or mutually-agreed guideline.**


* This also assumes that the “property right” for clean water or the right to dump waste in a river is privately owned, e.g. by industry, rather than held in common by the relevant community, e.g. the town council.  (Which reminds me of my concern that companies/individuals that don’t value/care at all about the environment can hold everyone else hostage as long as they hold a property right to something other people value.  A frightening example is PCBs, which persist in the environment over many human generations and concentrate in our bodies to cause developmental disorders.  Any company could then potentially hold the world hostage if they owned the right to dump PCB waste in the ocean.)  But technically I’m not sure this assumption matters because the logic seems to work in reverse too – if companies had to ask communities what they would expect to be compensated for every single type of harm that the company might generate to residents, the amount demanded may well be absurdly high since residents cannot rationally say “The increased risk of developmental defects in future unborn children due to your factory emissions over the next decade is worth…. $1,000 total.”  If the questions were posed this way communities would likely list a higher number, and in total the costs to companies would likely be prohibitive.My reflexive theory about this is that collective bargaining and “bundled” negotiations (such as when the government makes standards decisions for everyone, or when companies simple abide by existing zoning laws), where many different externalities are tied together (e.g. “emissions” rather than individual pollutants), helps many of the externalities and costs to be hidden/overlooked/forgotten.  Which is another way of saying that transaction costs are lowered because there are fewer elements to each transaction.


** We probably have a greater store of reciprocity or respect (ie social capital) to dole out or bargain with (since we create this instantaneously and almost without costs in many cases) than we do actual cash.–I would not be surprised to learn that I’m missing something important about the way the Libertarian system of almost total property rights would work, but in my mind not only are the logical implications impracticable (or at least inconvenient), but there are also huge problems surrounding the initial execution of the system.  How would the property rights to silence or clean air or a healthy ecosystem be divisible or enforceable?  And how will these rights be distributed, and who will have the right to distribute them (intuitively it seems that you can’t give away rights to things you don’t own to begin with)?  Will it be decided by an international system of law, the federal government, indigenous peoples?)



I would love to hear your thoughts on these fundamental issues, and I look forward to looking at a couple of sample mid-term and final exams from previous years of the course. 


Thank you for your attention.



Tidying = guilt-free procrastination

Sunday, October 9th, 2005

Fall is definitely here.  The temperature plummeted about 15 deg F last night, leaving us in the 50s.  I can’t say I’m complaining – it had to happen sometime or other.

I finally gave the fluffies a bath, swept and mopped my floor and packed up all my stuff.  I can officially say that I feel moved-in, finally.

I guess that means I should start doing work now.

Random thoughts of the moment

Saturday, October 8th, 2005

I am extraordinarily content right now.  Even though it’s been uncomfortably muggy and almost constantly rainy.  Even though I’m really quite behind on reading for oh, all my classes.  Even though I haven’t had time to clean my increasingly-unsanitary room or give the fluffies a much-needed bath.  Even though….  but all that’s not important right now.

I had a really convivial dinner tonight, completely unexpectedly, at 9 Taste (which is still not great) with Adam, Jhosh, Steve and Chrix. This after we sang a very tender gig at an alum’s surprise wedding proposal.  This was at the must-visit Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, MA where celebrity chef Ming Tsai (!!!) presides. *warm fuzzy glow*  I feel slightly recovered from yesterday’s shame, never mind about _____ and _____.  As I told Doug or Woj at some point last week, being a junior has had a powerfully comforting effect on me in terms of feeling comfortable and self-confident and internally-secure.

Ryan and I made a trip to Trader Joe’s today, in the rain, which reminded us of the last time we went there in a huge storm just before the summer with our golf umbrellas whipped inside-out by the absurd winds.  We stocked up on nice wine and interesting beer (I got the wine, Ryan got the beer).

I pray that I will muster up some inner drive to do work before this precious long holiday weekend is over.

Mid-week breather

Wednesday, October 5th, 2005

As I type this I can hear the fire alarm going off in a nearby building, probably Dewolfe.  That would make it the second time for Dewolfe in about a week, I think.  And today when I arrived at Sander’s with Ryan to attend the Justice lecture (early, for once!), we ended up having to stand outside for about five minutes because the fire alarm had been activated there too.

Wednesday is a great day for me, schedule-wise.  I have all of one class, from 11am-12noon.  Whee!

9.50am – Gets out of bed, writes various emails, feeds fluffies, dresses for class
11am-12noon – Justice lecture, which was extraordinarily engaging and thought-provoking
12noon-1.50pm – Stands in the sun outside Science Center discussing Justice related topics with Will (for whom I have a lot of esteem) – Libertarianism, property rights, paternalism, Nozick’s theory of self-possession
1.50pm-2.10pm – Post office errand
2.10pm-2.50pm – Eats lunch and reads a couple more pages of Nozick.  Also snoozes briefly.
3pm-5pm – Gives slightly-unfortunate campus tour (tries to convince school group of first generation immigrants from near Mexican border that Harvard is diverse and accepting while wearing Gucci visor, only meeting tall blond people like Chrix and walking past bunch of uber-preppy kids lawn bowling (?!?!) in the Yard; I suppose I should be slightly thankful it wasn’t a HRC croquet party.)
5-6pm – Leisurely dinner with Devon, Matt, Woj, Andrew and John
6pm-present – Reads, tidies, types blog

Essentially, not all my days are like Monday.  Oh, but Monday, Monday!!  Every Monday this semester will be like that.  Oh well.

Monday, Monday

Monday, October 3rd, 2005


Last night, after a very busy HUCEP night (six calls, including the first man we’ve ever walked) I went to bed at 3am.  This morning, I ignored my 7am alarms and slept right through to 9am, when my essay was due.  I wrote a pretty perfunctory two pages before turning it in at 10.30am, which left just enough time to get dressed and leave for class.  (I seem to have lost my bike, which I carelessly forgot, unlocked, on the street outside the OCS building.  Very unfortunate.  I pray I find it somewhere around.)

During Justice I half-snoozed, quarter-read various things for French and quarter-took notes.  When class ended I was desperately ready for a nap.  But instead I decided to be conscientious and watch Mon Oncle for class.  Which brings us to the present, as I sit here in Lamont watching the (slightly bizarre) movie while typing this and (very illegally) eating a spicy chicken calzone from the Greenhouse Cafe.  Here’s the plan for the rest of the day:

12noon-1pm : Watch Mon Oncle (which is two hours long)
1-2.30pm: Attend make-up Gov 1740 section
2.30pm-3pm: Take desperately needed nap
3-5pm: French 167
5-7pm: Read remaining six articles for class/take nap/have dinner
7-9pm: Class at MIT


Are we there yet?

Saturday, October 1st, 2005

It feels like it’s been a month since I last posted anything.

Oh, and did I mention…. ?  Yup.   That’s right.  Two of them.  Just like I always said I would.

The Dins held auditions this past week, which means that many of my good resolutions died simultaneously.  I had to stay up to 3am, 4am, 5am and then all night.  I skipped a class (to meet with an auditionee who eventually chose to join another group.  I ate lots of junk food I’ve not had in up to a year – oreos, pizza, hint of lime tostitos. 

The new Dins are a great lot, and that’s certainly something to be excited about.  At the same time, in many significant ways the group is either the same, or distinctly worse off as the year unfolds.  Oh well.  Next stop, world tour.  Well not quite the next stop, but we’ll get there before we know it.

I look forward to spending the next week getting back to good academic place, especially important in view of the looming concert rehearsals.

In other news, my classes for the semester have pretty much been decided:

Gov 1740: International Law (1)
Econ 1017: Libertarian Perspectives on Economic and Social Policy (2)
French 167: Parisian Cityscapes (3)
MR 22: Justice (4)
11.373: Science, Politics and the Environment (at MIT) (5)

(1) pro: I love the Professor’s lecture style; con: the reading is literally thicker than a stack of four large phone books
(2) pro: Engaging, engaged professor with interesting, radical views; con: I’m not sure I buy the conclusions of the analysis
(3) pro: Prof Conley’s urbane approach to understanding the urban environment; cons: actual work in a French class (*tremble*)
(4) pro: possibly one of the most famous and certainly the most popular Harvard classes (over a thousand students enrolled this semester!); cons: I have to read Mill and Kant, which I’m sure will give me headaches
(5) pro: one of the most fascinating discussion classes ever; con: holding my own against fifteen other Masters and PhD students.


Oh, and the people that matter either think my new hair is natural (eg “Jason, you stopped straightening your hair!”), or actually think it’s quite flattering.   Everyone else’s opinion I will simply discount as uninformed or uneducated until further notice.  *beams*



And if you haven’t guessed, I finally got my new desktop system up and running.  I am pleased thus far.