The Golden Age Is In Us

Walking through Central Park a week or so ago, a perfect summer afternoon. Here are the trees, the birds, people playing frisbee, reading, walking dogs, picnicking, the rollerbladers performing by the bandshell, a woman working on an oil painting of Turtle Pond, a pickup soccer game. And look: nothing is for sale, no one is giving orders. But this isn’t passive, private leisure: All around is activity, often intense, focused; all around people are cooperating, being together, in a thousand different ways.

Like here, just past Sheep Meadow, where two middle-aged men are performing intricate classical and baroque pieces arranged as saxophone duets. They’re playing just for themselves, they don’t even have a tip basket. But they’re good, they’re tight; they must have been playing together for years. I’m walking somewhere but not in a hurry. I stop and join the two or three other people leaning against the fence and listening.

Is there any music recording, any music performance, that compares to the music that emerges, unexpectedly in the middle of something else? Is there ever a better performance than the one that’s not for any audience?

In The Ring of Time, E. B. White describes watching a young circus rider practicing some “elementary postures and tricks” in a back lot of the Ringling Brothers’ winter home in Florida:

The ten minute ride the girl took achieved — as far as I was concerned, who wasn’t looking for it, and unbeknownst to her, who wasn’t even striving for it — the thing that is sought by performers everywhere, on whatever stage, whether struggling in the tidal currents of Shakespeare or bucking the difficult motion of a horse. …

Long before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given. Under the bright lights of the finished show, a performer need only reflect the electric candle power that is directed upon him; but in the dark and dirty old training rings and in the makeshift cages, whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources — from the internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth. It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars.

This saxophone duo was the combustion of stars. The ten or fifteen minutes I spent listening to them I felt so purely happy, I almost cried.

We don’t need to build socialism, or not from scratch. It’s here all around us. We just have to scrape away the other crap.

A modest proposal: No more *s

Proposed for discussion: We should all stop reporting regression results with one or more asterixes for significance levels, and just give standard errors instead.


First, because use of the stars confounds statistical and economic significance, as then-Donald McCloskey so nicely put it in that classic article. An estimate may be more than two standard errors from zero, but still too small to be economically important. Conversely, it may be less than two standard errors from zero, but still convey useful information, since zero is not necessarily the relevant null. (And this is leaving aside the problem that standard errors become increasingly hard to interpret the more regressions you run, and these days people run a lot of regressions.)

Second, and even more seriously, because it leads to a focus on qualitative rather than quantitative results, as Deirdre McCloskey so damningly laid out in this recent pamphlet. I reckon tehre are far more interesting economic questions that take the form of how much rather than whether, but the habit of reporting significance levels rather than standard errors implicitly assumes that you are only interested in whether questions — specifically, whether or not the effect predicted by theory exists. Significance levels don’t give you any help in determining whether two estimates are consistent. They’re suited for qualitative, abstract-formal work but not for concrete, historical or policy-oriented work.

I don’t claim any of these observations are original. I’d even say they were commonplace — except why, then, do people insist on scattering those stupid little stars all over their tables, instead of just reporting the (much more informative) standard errors?

Frontiers in securitization

The prospect of industrialization in Africa is certainly thrilling. That’s perhaps the part of the world where the need for (and meaningfulness of) economic growth is clearest. It would be nice to see the term “developing” go from a bad joke to a neutral descriptor.

And, the questions Rajiv Sethi raises about history and convention (or expectations) as two distinct alternatives to an equilibrium approach to macroeconomics are very interesting.

But I can’t help it, the proposal to “securitize” future foreign aid flows makes my skin crawl. It’s not just doubts about whether the one-time windfall would be used to finance “big push” public investments, as opposed to tanks and palaces and Swiss bank accounts. It’s not just a suspicion that the foreign exchange earnings of most African countries are more than sufficient to finance the capital-goods imports needed for industrialization, if they were simply allowed to impose exchange controls (as almost all late industrializers have.) It’s not even the general observation that when the previously non-marketable assets of the poor are commodified, the usual long-term outcome is simply the transfer of those assets to the rich, without any additional cash in the hands of the poor. (There’s a reason we don’t allow people to sell kidneys.)

No, it’s just the idea that whatever hold Africa’s poor have on the world’s conscience is supposed to become one more natural resource, to be stripped off and sold to the West. Because what else does securitizing aid mean except, Give us the money upfront and then, if people here still end up starving, you don’t have to feel guilty?