Archive for June, 2008

Pushing and Pulling towards Taiwan

June 29, 2008

I am taking advantage of my summer vacation to read up on the economics of migration, the topic on which I am going to write my master’s thesis.  Today I read part of one of my adviser’s papers about the effects of migration on fertility.   The underlying factor driving migration in her model is the differential in wages between rich countries and poor countries.  The idea is that the larger income increase an individual can get from migrating, the more likely he is to go.

The idea seems straightforward enough, but then I thought about my adviser herself.  She got her PHD a few years ago from UCLA, and for academics with American degrees there are few barriers to migration.  Combine this with the fact that teaching in Taiwan pays very, very little compared with an American university position (~$30,000/year vs. $94,000/year), and it seems like my adviser’s model would have a hard time explaining her own behavior.  Moreover, every single one of my professors last year at National Taiwan University had an American degree.

I suppose that proximity to one’s family or living in a familiar culture could also be considered wage factors, but with such a large nominal gap, one would not expect so many professors with American degrees to teach at NTU.

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Elections and Torture

June 27, 2008

Last night my family and I had a discussion about whether or not it makes sense to vote.  I was arguing that since state or national elections are never decided by one vote, it doesn’t make sense for any individual to vote since voting is costly in terms of time.  Although our family friend Craig Ostrand, a Republican, was thrilled that I was thinking of not voting, the rest of my family chimed in with the usual argument: My point is correct for an individual, but if everybody thought that way then no one would vote. Therefore, everyone should vote to prevent the outcome in which no one votes.

The whole discussion reminds me of Derek Parfit‘s Harmless Torturer story.  Even if each torturer adds an unnoticable amount of pain to a victim, since together they cause pain what they are doing is still bad.  I often think of this example when confronting moral problems.  A single person littering, for instance, may not make the streets of a city noticably filthy, but the behavior is still bad.  Similarly, I don’t expect the meat industry to close down since my decision a few months back to become a vegatarian.  But I still think that being a vegetarian is good.

Voting seems like a similar case.  My family was right to point out that if everyone thought that voting was irrational and didn’t vote, then elections would cease to work.   Of course, once few enough people were voting, a rational person would begin voting again since a single vote would be worth more, but that is beside the point.  The most important difference between Parfit’s torturers and voters is that we all agree that torturing is bad, but it is not necessarily true that voting is good.  Without getting into a discussion of the moral status of voting, it is at least plausible that an intelligent person might consider voting amoral.  If voting is not good or bad in a moral sense, than one is free to decide whether the cost of taking time to vote is worth the expected impact of one’s vote on an election without considering the moral implications of everyone else not voting.  On the other hand, if one believes that voting is virtuous and not voting is wrong, than one has a responsibility to vote.

When money becomes meaningless…

June 24, 2008

Maybe the residents of Zimbabwe should think about cowry shells or gold coins…

My First Earthquake

June 2, 2008

Petek and I were just getting to sleep last night when the walls started shaking.  We jumped out of bed, but before we could figure out what to do it was over.  The shaking lasted for about ten seconds, and there were several noticeable aftershocks over the next hour or so.

According to the news, the earthquake registered 6.0 on the Richter scale.  The epicenter was near Ilan, about 20 miles away from our apartment.  This was a moderate to strong earthquake and frightening enough, but it was (of course) dwarfed by the size of the Sichuan earthquake last month.  Since the Richter scale is a logarithmic measure of shaking amplitude, last night’s earthquake shook us 1/100th of the amplitude that the 8.0 Sichuan earthquake shook the Chinese (10^(8.0-6.0) = 100).  Making the comparison more complicated, the power of earthquakes apparently scales at 1.5 on the Richter scale, so last night’s earthquake was 1/1000 as powerful as the Sichuan earthquake ((10^(8.0-6.0))^1.5 = 1000).

The most surprising thing about the experience was that no one mentioned it this morning.  When I brought the earthquake up, my classmates told me they felt it but thought nothing of it.  Foiled again by habituation.