August 30, 2004

Trying to Think Like an Economist

There was a bit of discussion long ago (two weeks is an eternity in blogging) about this post by Alex Tabarrok about how "nonwaivable warranty of habitability" makes renters and landlords worse off. Alex argues thus:

Let's suppose that after much bargaining the tenant and landlord have agreed upon the rent and the amenities - each party to the contract is profit maximizing, doing as well as they can given market conditions and the interests of the other. Now suppose that tenants value the hot water benefit at $100 and that it costs the landlord $150 to provide the hot water. At these prices the tenant does not buy the hot water. The law is passed; by how much does the rent increase?... Suppose that the rent increases by $120. Then the tenant gets a benefit worth $100 at a price of $120 and is worse off by $20 and the landlord gets a benefit of $120 at a cost of $150 and so is worse off by $30. The law makes both the landlord and tenant worse off!

(It's left to the reader to realize that, if the tenant values hot water at more than it costs the landlord to provide it, then the landlord would provide it law or no law.)

Daniel Davies discusses it here, Atrios (an econ PhD) here; Brad DeLong endorses Atrios's position here (while suggesting that he, Brad DeLong, is the only person qualified to express an opinion on public policy).* Tabarrok responds here and here. In this one Tabarrok points out that there are features that can make the law benefit tenants; if tenants undervalue hot water (or if hot water has a positive externality), or if tenants want to keep out the poor. (I have more comments on this after the jump.)

But it seems to me--and I'm not an economist, so this might be completely wrong--that these laws could benefit tenants even in a perfectly functioning market.

The trick is in Tabarrok's assumption that there's one tenant, and one landlord. Suppose there are ten tenants, who each value hot water differently. Nine value hot water at $150/month, one values it at $100/month, and it costs $140/month to put in. There is also one landlord with ten apartments, identical until they have hot water installed (or not); all ten tenants value the apartments at $300/month without hot water. Without the law and absent transaction costs, you will have nine tenants paying $450/month for apartments with hot water and one tenant paying $300/month for an apartment without hot water.

Now suppose you have the same tenants, plus an enforced law requiring hot water. You'll have ten identical apartments with hot water. How much will they rent for? As I understand economic theory, the assumption you make is that they will all rent for the same price. Suppose that the one tenant who values hot water at $100/month will just move to another city if forced to pay over $430/month. (To be explicit; she prefers paying $430/month for an apartment with hot water to moving to another city, but she would prefer paying $300/month for an apartment without hot water to both of those.) Suppose that it's better for the landlord to rent at $430/month than to let one apartment lie fallow.

Then, if I'm right about how economists think, the rent for all ten units should be $430/month. The landlord loses $190/month ($20 for each of the nine apartments that were already heated + $140 for installing heating in the tenth apartment - $130 extra rent for the tenth apartment). The one tenant loses $30/month (she's paying $430 for an apartment she values at $400). But the other nine tenants each gain $20/month (they're paying $430 for apartments they value at $450).

Now, the net loss for everyone is $40/month, the difference between the one tenant's valuation of the hot water and the cost it takes to install it. But the tenants, as a group, have a net gain of $150/month. So the new law does benefit tenants as a whole, even given perfect markets, because the landlord winds up absorbing more of the cost of hot water.

At least, so I think--I'm not an economist, and I may have overlooked something. (It could be said that a direct cash transfer from landlords to tenants would be more efficient, but I hope that's not the best response.)

My further comments on when these laws benefit the tenants: Atrios seems to have it exactly right here:

When I go and look for an apartment, I don't have to spend the time to determine whether every apartment I visit has a working toilet, has hot water, has a working and safe electrical and heating system, and a whole set of charateristics which are roughly what we consider to be the basic necessities for modern life. In addition, there are the costs of writing and understanding a contract which spells out in great detail what the landlord will and won't guarantee. Having some bare minimum set of characteristics for an apartment takes all that off the table.

Or, as the great Katherine says in d-squared's comments:

people tend to sign contracts with a general assumption that the other party won’t be allowed to really screw them over. There is little scrutiny of the fine print, and little actual bargaining.... And before conservatives start in on renter’s “personal responsibility”, they should note that it would actually be much more inefficient to spend a lot of time bargaining in these situations than to assume that people want heat and hot water.

Bernard Yomtov in the same place:

this sort of rule is valuable when an apartment suddenly loses hot water, because the water heater fails, for example, since it forces the landlord to repair the situtaion in some sort of timely way.

Now, I'm pretty sure Alex Tabarrok recognizes at least some version of these points; as Kimmit points out, Tabarrok's course will go on to cover "asymmetries, transaction costs, externalities, and other relevancies." And he probably wanted to start off the term with a striking and counterintuitive example. But he should've come up with a striking example that actually works. The rental market with informational asymmetries (when you're looking at an apartment in July, it may be hard to check whether the heater will work in the winter) and transaction
costs (I suppose there are worse pains in the ass than moving, but I've hardly encountered one). In what I think is also an informational asymmetry, I've often been unable to examine the exact terms of the lease until after informally agreeing to take an apartment, and on one occasion not until showing up; it would have been very inconvenient to have looked for a new one at that time.

So this is a market where you should expect failures--of the sort that could be remedied by legally requiring the sort of minimum standard that almost everyone will want reliably delivered. Tabarrok's using this as a case of regulation creating a deadweight loss (have I got that term right?) seems designed to bias students toward knee-jerk libertarianism.

*Well, I'm exaggerating, and I assume Brad is too, but if it's true that "[i]f you're an economist but not a left-of-center one you don't believe in market failures" then economics is worse off than the worst thing anyone's ever said about literature departments, and with much worse effects.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:45 AM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2004

Another Two-Envelope Problem

Brian Weatherson blogs a paper by Josh Dever and Eric Schwitzgebel on the two-envelope problem, and thinks their solution can't handle this case:

Consider the following example. God partitions the reals in [0, 1] into two unmeasurable sets, S1 and S2. He picks a real at random from [0, 1]. If it’s in S1, He puts $10 into a red envelope, if it’s in S2 He puts $20 into that red envelope. He then rolls two fair and independent dice. If they land double-six, he puts an amount into a blue envelope equal to the amount in the red envelope plus $5. Otherwise, he puts an amount into that blue envelope equal to $5 less than the amount in the red envelope. Got it? (It’s easier with tables, but tables are hard in blogs.)

You are not told which number He picked, or how the dice landed, but you are told all of the above. You are then given a choice of the red or blue envelopes. How should you choose?

I take it that it’s obvious you should pick the red envelope. After all, whatever is in it, you have a 35/36 chance of getting $5 less with blue, and only a 1/36 chance of getting more. So I say, pick red.

I asked myself--how do the various solutions to the two-envelope problem that I proposed handle this? It turns out they do pretty well.

The Chronological Ordering Principle:

Suppose that probability space is partitioned by performing process Q, which has an infinite number of outcomes, and then process R, which has a finite number of outcomes. Let PQ be the partition induced by the outcomes of Q alone--that is, two ultimate outcomes are in the same cell of PQ iff they result from the same outcome of Q. Suppose that, in every cell C of PQ, strategy S yields a higher EU than strategy T given that you're in C. Then strategy S is preferred over strategy T

should take care of it, with an easy modification--for "finite number of outcomes" substitute "finite number of outcomes with well-defined probabilities," and for "infinite number of outcomes" substitute "not [what I just said]." Then God's initial pick can be treated as process Q, the throw of the dice can be treated as process R, and you should pick the red envelope because no matter what the outcome of Q picking the red envelope has a higher EU.

(In fact, Brian's case is basically the Extra Coin Flip, with a process involving undefined probabilities substituted for the initial St. Petersburg.)

So I rule OK. I don't think that my solution runs afoul of Brian's stricture against attempts to resolve the two-envelope paradox by EU reasoning, because I only invoke EU reasoning for finite processes with well-defined probabilities; and anyway Brian's point is that those attempts can't handle this case, whereas my solution does. Perhaps he'll disagree.

Also, I have a quicker answer than Brian does to Eric's response (in Brian's comments) that the reasoner should use subjective decision theory--I do have a problem with subjective decision theory. But since many won't find that convincing, I'm glad that Brian has a more substantive answer.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:06 PM | Comments (2)

Top 1% Income Poll Was Urban Legend

In comments at Asymmetrical Information, Daniel Davies debunks the story about how 19% of Americans think that their incomes are in the top 1%:

What happened is that there was a tax proposal which would only (or chiefly) benefit a particular set of high earners, about 1% of the population. Someone asked "Do you think this proposal will benefit you?" to a sample of people. Nine [recte: 19] per cent said "yes". This was then reported as "10% [recte: 19%] think they're in the top 1%", rather than "8% [recte: 18%] don't understand this tax proposal properly".

And this seems to be exactly right, according to this op-ed by Brookings Institution folks Carol Graham and H. Peyton Young:

An October 2000 Time-CNN news poll showed that 19 percent of Americans thought that they were in the high income group that would benefit from proposed tax cuts - defined as roughly the top 1 percent of the distribution.

If the poll had asked "Are you in the top 1%?" there would be no need to define this group at all; so it seems like the poll must have been as D-squared describes.

This disturbs me from the point of view of the epistemology of testimony (to put it in a highfalutin way)--I believed this non-fact, and saw it passed around by commentators I usually trust (DeLong, Kleiman), but it just didn't hold up. It's David Brooks' fault, but we should all have known better than to believe him.

One problem is that (as Kleiman notes) it's durn hard to find the results of specific old polls on the net; at least, I couldn't do it with this one, and I tried fairly hard. Anyway, I wanted to record this, in the hope of fighting the urban legend a bit.

Two notes:
--There probably are theories of propositional attitude ascriptions on which, given that only the top 1% would benefit from the tax cuts, "19% of Americans think they're in the top 1%" comes out true in some contexts. But it should come out mostly false.
--I'm not sure it's quite fair of D-squared to say that the claim entailed "that 22.5 million people held wildly delusional views about matters which were right in front of their noses." My income is right in front of my nose, but the percentile of my income is not; all I can say with confidence right now is that it's below the median household income, and I follow these things more than the average.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:35 PM | Comments (2)

Grackle Rules OK

I had been wondering about the syntax and semantics of "Grackle rules OK" since re-reading Talking to Strange Men, which contains that statement. John Quiggin suggests a possible analysis, but I hadn't really thought of it as a question. Further comments from native speakers would be welcome.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:08 PM | Comments (4)

August 24, 2004

Another Day, Another Dollar

Does the following sound funny to you?

(1) When Paul says "The CD costs 20 dollars," what he says is true, but the CD doesn't cost 20 dollars.

[My answer below.]

It sounds funny to me--which is possibly too bad, because it certainly can be true. The thing is, Paul is a Canadian, so when he says "The CD costs 20 dollars" he means that it costs 20 Canadian dollars, which is less than 16 US dollars. When the USian who utters (1) [call her Laura] says "The CD costs 20 dollars," she means 20 US dollars. So she can acknowledge that Paul speaks truly while denying what (it seems) Paul said, in Paul's words.

Is it that "dollar" is ambiguous? I don't think so, because this sentence is acceptable:

(2) The CD costs 20 Canadian or 16 US dollars.

If "dollar" were ambiguous between Canadian and US dollars, (2) would at least sound funny, like this:

(3) ??The bench is located between the savings and river banks.

Perhaps "dollar" is akin to a multiply referring proper name, and (2) is akin to the following:

(4) In this course, we will read books by Kingsley and Martin Amis.

There are probably other ways to account for "dollar"--perhaps it behaves like "enemy" (he says, maintaining a prudent silence concerning how "enemy" behaves)--but I'd like to highlight a hypothesis that maybe doesn't settle the semantics. Namely, when we discuss "dollars" we're usually doing so in a context in which only one nation's currency could be in question. So when we have a conversation in which there are two kinds of dollars involved, it sounds kind of funny, as in (1). But there are devices (as in (2)) that let us clear up what we mean, at the cost of a little extra breath.

What I have in mind here, of course, is the word "know." Cappelen and LePore use examples like (1) to argue against the context-sensitivity of "know":

(5)*When Paul says "I know that the Flyer stops in Chicago," what he says is true, but he doesn't know that the Flyer stops in Chicago"

sounds very bad, whereas truly context-sensitive terms should admit of similar negated disquotations:

(6) When Paul says "I am forty-three years old," what he says is true, but I am not forty-three years old.

((6) may be a bit funny because of the use of "but," but that's not what at's issue.)

My thought is that perhaps "know" behaves a little like "dollar." Take for granted what many contextualists and subject-sensitive invariantists agree on: that the amount of evidence required for knowledge can vary with the stakes of the question at hand. Perhaps our use of the word "know" is generally governed by the assumption that the stakes that set the standards for knowledge will be the same for everyone in the conversation. (This may sound implausible, but take Edward Craig's view that the point of knowledge ascriptions is to identify good informants. Then, even if the point at issue doesn't matter to a person, whether we think she has enough evidence for knowledge can depend on how much it matters to us--since we're thinking about asking her about it.)

If that's the case, then we shouldn't be too surprised when "know" behaves oddly in cases in which the stakes are not the same for the people participating in the conversation and the subjects of the knowledge ascriptions. To somewhat awkwardly extend the dollar metaphor*, knowledge has a different value for the ascriber and the ascribee, though it is the same kind of currency for both. If we really want to be perfectly clear about whose standards are in play, we have to use devices to make the standards explcit, of the sort that Peter Ludlow has discussed. (Analogous to specifying whose dollar you're discussing.)

But in most cases, everyone participating in and discussed in the conversation is working with the same currency of knowledge. So it doesn't cause much harm that knowledge ascriptions typically use a word that doesn't sound as though it can pick out more than one epistemic standard, but really does; just as "dollar" sounds as though it picks out one kind of currency, but really picks out several, depending on which country you're in.

At least, that's one position. Have at it, if you've reached this far.

*This is not the worst split infinitive ever**, but it's got to be close; still, I kind of like its self-reflexive quality, so I'm leaving it. Plus I'm too lazy to rewrite the sentence.

**Scroll down to the comments.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:58 PM | Comments (0)

Disturbing Court Decision on Academic Freedom

via Michael Froomkin, the Pink Bunny of Battle discusses academic freedom. That David Horowitz is a jerk will surprise no one, but I found it incredibly disturbing that the Fourth Circuit Court has ruled (and the Supreme Court declined to review) that academic freedom pertains to institutions, not individuals. [So the Pink Bunny describes it, and Pitt law professor John Parry said the same thing here; I can't find that language in the apparent decision itself.]

That would mean that, in theory, any of your superiors at a university could order you not to pursue a certain line of research--and, as should be obvious, that's not academic freedom at all. Perhaps such abuses are in general forestalled by academic contracts; the law professors (Brian Leiter too) I've seen link this post haven't commented on the legal aspect.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:35 PM | Comments (1)

August 23, 2004

I Don't Understand This Sentence Fragment


"But with Open Water getting critical praise and comparisons to The Blair Witch Project...."

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:39 PM | Comments (0)

John Collier Update

Mom, still refusing to comment, reports that an Amazon blurb says that if you like Collier, you'll enjoy "Roald Dahl, Charles Beaumont, Stanley Ellin and Fredric Brown". Dahl I already thought of, Ellin is an excellent choice (his short stories, anyway); I don't know Beaumont and Brown but I'll check them out.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:13 PM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2004

Inference, Perception, or Something Else?

Read this passage from Ruth Rendell's Talking to Strange Men (the recommended way to do this is by reading the whole book. It's one of Rendell's best, which means it is one of the best mystery novels ever). Part III, Chapter 6:

A middle-aged ordinary-looking man and a young pretty woman. How had he known they were police? For he did know it from the moment they stepped out of that anonymous lamp-less unmarked car. Perhaps it was because the driver remained behind, impassive at the wheel, reminding John of police drivers from that time sixteen years before [a previous occasion on which John's house had been visited by police].

Leaving aside the use of "know" here, I want to ask: What is the basis for John's belief that they are police?

Is John's belief simply acquired through perception? I think that this is harder to sustain in this case than in the well-known cloud-chamber case, in which we say that a properly trained physicist can simply see a thingumbobby particle in the tracks of a cloud chamber, where the layperson would see only tracks in clouds. John doesn't have any sort of special training here. The physicist presumably doesn't go on to ask herself, "How do I know that that's a thingumbobby? Because it left this kind of track."

Is John's belief inferred, with "The driver remained behind" as a premise? Obviously it's not a conscious inference; John doesn't even think about the driver until he's already identified the two coming up the walk as police. If it's subconscious inference, the inference seems to be buried very deep.

Or is John's belief neither perceptual or inferential, but one which depends on perception and on the fact that the driver stays behind in some third way? If so, it would be nice to have an account of what that third way is.

To some extent the issue here shouldn't be to slot this belief into some neat category. It should be to say--is it more like cases that are obviously cases of perception or more like cases that are obviously cases of inference? Here I'm inclined to say this: Obvious perception happens all the time; I'm forming a lot of plain unquestionable perceptual beliefs right now, as I look out the window. Obvious inference may be pretty rare; most of us don't go through life constantly saying to ourselves "This, therefore that." But we may more often say to ourselves. "This, that."

That is to say: We may note one fact, and then note another fact, which in fact is supported by the first fact. That's what Fred is doing in the following passage:

Fred saw the middle-aged man and the young woman coming up the walk. The driver remained behind, impassive at the wheel. They were the police, he thought. That was how the driver had behaved sixteen years before.

I think Fred's case is very close to an obvious case of inference; if we change a sentence to "So they must be the police" it becomes an obvious case of inference. And I think John's case is very close to Fred's. John and Fred both have a belief P that supports a belief Q, but whereas Fred thinks first P and then Q, John's belief that P does not become conscious until he has already formed the belief that Q.

(I could be getting into a sorites here; it shouldn't be hard to form a chain of cases, each very like the one before, that culminate in a case that's obviously a perceptual belief. Left to the reader.)

I'm thinking about this because people thinking about testimony often worry about whether testimonial beliefs are inferential, or directly obtained through testimony. Here, for instance, I think part of what Jon Kvanvig is worried about is that a belief will not be purely testimonial if it is obtained by inference from another belief (in Jon's case, one that overrides a defeater of the testimony). My take on this is that purely testimonial beliefs can be like John's (in the Rendell book); so if John's belief is inferential, purely testimonial beliefs can be inferential as well. The hearer's beliefs in the teller's honesty and authority can stay in the background, as John's memory of the previous police driver stays in the background until after he has realized that it is the police visiting him.

(This is a follow-up to this post, kinda.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:08 PM | Comments (2)

Something Neat

Amazon's "Search Inside This Book" feature can be incredibly helpful for spot-checking references in books when you don't want to go over to the library. I thought I'd mention that.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:18 PM | Comments (0)


Matthew Yglesias captures my mood. I gave a lot of money a while ago and am in the midst of about 3 months without a paycheck, but I'll be doing some volunteering right soon. This Swiftboat Veterans thing is disgusting--pay attention to it for half a second and you'll see that the Swiftboat Veterans are lying in their teeth (is this link even necessary?), and the Bush Administration is at the very very very least encouraging them by their silence. (And not just that.)

(BTW, as you can tell the no-politics guideline for this blog is completely kaput. That applies to comments too. I may let politics, and even personal insults, in even on unrelated threads. But I reserve the right to cut off debate if I think it's getting unhelpful. In particular, I won't have any compunction about deleting or editing political comments on the philosophy threads.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:21 PM | Comments (0)

August 18, 2004


I hope you read Fametracker regularly.

This movie, like its title, feels like it was spat out by a computer. Computers are totally mocking us at this point. Once they beat us in chess, they lost all respect for us.

It's because of this site that I can talk so authoritatively about how much certain movies must suck without having ever seen them. If you think the last sentence was aimed at you, you're probably right.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:56 AM | Comments (4)

Ascribed Quantifier Restrictions

Way down in the comments to this entry, Brian Weatherson makes an interesting claim:

I think when we’re reporting other people’s beliefs using restricted quantifiers, it is our domains that matter, not theirs. So consider the following case. A, B and C are hosting a party. A wrongly believes that there is some Glenfiddich in the kitchen cupboard. In fact there is no whiskey of any kind in the house. Now consider the following dialogue between B and C, who are working out what drinks are available for guests:

B: Is there any whiskey?
C: A thinks there is some Glenfiddich.

I think that C correctly reports A’s belief, and correctly reports a false belief. That is despite the fact that it is surely true that there is some Glenfiddich somewhere. The tacit quantifier restriction to in the house or available to drink attaches to the content of the belief, and makes it a report of a false belief.

A problem with this is that (as Angel Pinillos more or less points out in the next comment) it doesn't seem to settle whose domain is relevant. If A's domain were relevant to the ascribed belief, C would still be reported a false and relevant belief of A. But we can fix that: Suppose that there is Glenfiddich upstairs, and A knows this. B and C are discussing what's in the cupboard, because they're only allowed to drink what's in the cupboard. Then if the same dialogue ensues:

B: Is there any whiskey?
C: A thinks there is some Glenfiddich

C (it seems intuitively) has falsely reported A's belief, even if A is at this moment repeating to himself, "There is some Glenfiddich, there is some Glenfiddich." The belief C is ascribing is false; the belief A has is true; so they're not the same beliefs.

What interests me here is how differing quantificational domains, and similar things, might affect things like free indirect discourse and fulsome de re belief ascriptions.

Take the fulsome de re as described by Ken Taylor, which combines de re belief ascription combined with a description of how the believer thinks of the object of the belief. So if the amnesiac war hero Heimson thinks (reading his biography) "Heimson deserves a medal," we could report it de re by saying

Heimson thinks that he, who he thinks of as "Heimson," deserves a medal.

Now apply this to a domain restriction. Suppose that we're of a school where only Plato counts as worth talking about--so when we say "the philosopher," it refers to Plato. And we read the scholastics who refer to Aristotle when they say "the philosopher." The scholastic Eco says:

(1) No dialogues by the philosopher survive.

We can't report (1) by saying:

(2) Eco believes that no dialogues by the philosopher survive

because that would ascribe to Eco the belief that no dialogues by Plato survive. But we can go fulsomely de re:

(3) Eco believes that no dialogues by Aristotle, whom he thinks of as "the philosopher," survive.

So far so good. But in free indirect discourse, it seems to me that it's correct to let the ascribee's usage rule:

(4) Eco pored over the writings of Aristotle. What did this mean? Now he understood what the philosopher was saying.

(I've just read Spiderweb by Penelope Lively, which has a lot of FID passages in which two characters think of their mother as "she." I think that's a similar phenomenon--it's the focus supplied by the characters' context that matters, and their mother is the woman who is always in focus there, so "she" always refers to their mother in free indirect discourse from their point of view.)

I don't have a grand moral here--it just seems like domain restrictions might provide some interesting supplements to the data we get from indexicals when we're discussing belief ascriptions.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:37 AM | Comments (0)

August 17, 2004

Why Can't We Have a Press Corps That's More Responsive to My Needs?

My old friend Sam Turich is starring in a new play (Armless by Sebastian Jarrow) as a man who plans to cut off his arms with a saw.* The accompanying NY Times article is mostly about the saw.

Anyway, if you're around New York, check it out; Sam and fellow cast member Gabrielle Reznek are great actresses as well as cool people.

THUR 8/19 8:45pm
FRI 8/20 12am - special midnight show
SAT 8/28 7:45pm
SUN 8/29 4:45pm

The Plaza Cafe at Pace University
3 Spruce Street, East of Park Row
near corner of Gold Street

*Both arms? How do you do the second one?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:34 PM | Comments (0)

Abu Ghraib Whistleblower in Protective Custody 2532 E. Brady St., Milwaukee, WI 53202. (Kidding, kidding, I'm pretty sure that address is in Lake Michigan.)

via hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, a GQ article about Joseph Darby, the soldier who turned the Abu Ghraib pictures in to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. Darby is the only confirmed hero in this story (he was in no way involved in the torture), and he has been pretty much forced to flee his hometown. I hope that he is rewarded for his heroism in the end (I wouldn't mind seeing him as a US Senator from Pennsylvania, especially considering who we have now).

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:19 PM | Comments (0)

August 16, 2004

That's Where You'll Find Me

In very interesting comments to this very interesting post, Delia Graff points out that "here" doesn't act much like a referring expression, and opines that this sentence

(1) Here is where the pilgrims landed

is an inverted pseudo-cleft construction, like:

(2) Unusual is what John is. (3) Before you is when I said I’d be there. (4) In the front row is where you’ll find him.

These correspond to

(2a) John is unusual (3a) I said I’d be there before you (4a) You’ll find him in the front row (1a) The pilgrims landed here.

Delia comments that "The phrases in subject position [in 2-4] are not referring expressions, but are allowed because they’re of the right syntactic type to form a clause with the material complementing the wh-phrase" and that "the verb phrases in the inverted pseudo-clefts are not normal predicates"; hence the acceptability of (1) doesn't show that "here" is being used as a referring expression.

For what it's worth (I really don't know if it's significant), similar constructions that don't contain wh-phrases seem somewhat acceptable in some cases:

(1b) Here is the place the Pilgrims landed (2b) ?Unusual is the way John is (3b) ??Before you is the time I said I'd be there (4b) In the front row is the place you'll find him (5b) Down Lake Drive is the way to Bayview

Now sometimes these noun phrases look like they act like wh-phrases; "knowing the way to San Jose" seems to behave like "knowing how to get to San Jose" every which way but syntactically. Perhaps that's what's going on here. Or perhaps not.

And now for an important question--can you tell me why so many of the top hits for the Google lyrics to "Over the Rainbow" refer to this guy?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:56 PM | Comments (0)

Why Does Jodi Wilgoren Still Have a Job?

Quoth she:

Mr. Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, made a similar goof a few weeks back, when she tried to get points in Cleveland for being from Pittsburgh, perhaps forgetting the Browns-Steelers and Indians-Pirates rivalries.

The Indians and Pirates play in different leagues. They'd never met in a real game until interleague play started, and even so I don't think Pirates fans have any particular animus against the Indians (the Braves and Mets would be my two most hated NL teams, with the Astros my least favorite division rival).

The Steelers-Browns rivalry is of course quite heated, but she got the order wrong. (And the Pittsburgh-Cleveland rivalry goes beyond sports.) So Wilgoren is completely right on the substance. As if that were an excuse.

Also in the same article--how do you pronounce "Nevada"? Wilgoren says "(it's Ne-VAH-da, not Ne-VAD-uh)," but Dave Beisecker busted me for pronouncing it Ne-VAH-da. Is there just more than one pronunciation?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2004

What's Like John Collier?

A friend to whom I recommended John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights wants to know if there's anything else like it. I recommended Roald Dahl's short stories. Anyone else have any more suggestions?

What's that you say? You can't answer the question because you haven't read John Collier. Read John Collier. Now! There will be a quiz.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:43 AM | Comments (2)

Could Be Trouble

I've often thought that part of the reason the Clinton years were so vicious was that many Republicans simply couldn't accept Clinton as the President. GHW Bush seemed to be so invincible after the first Gulf War, that Republicans came to see his re-election as inevitable, and felt cheated when he did win--especially because of the Perot factor. So some people didn't feel as though Clinton should have the opportunity to govern.

(I've heard of an interview with Robert Bartley, then editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, where someone said to him (quotes approximate) "Sometimes it seems as though you don't consider Clinton legitimate," and Bartley responded, "He didn't win a majority." I was shocked when I heard this.)

So I'm disturbed to see this poll reporting that Republicans expect GWBush to win by a margin of 76% to 7%. Perhaps this is mere home team rooting, of the kind I do myself; but if people haven't accepted that Bush might lose reelection, I fear a Kerry victory will lead to some extra nastiness, particularly since Democrats are pretty ticked off as well. And I don't know how much more vicious our politics can get.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:41 AM | Comments (0)

August 10, 2004

Now Let Them Enforce It?

I don't speak law, so perhaps there's a good reason that this Phil Carter post hasn't been picked up in the blogosphere. But it seems like a big deal.

The Supreme Court has ruled that detainees have some rights to habeas corpus hearings. The Bush Administration, unsurprisingly, is unhappy with this ruling, and, also unsurprisingly, is going to use procedural issues to delay the hearings. But if I read Phil correctly (citing SCOTUSBLOG), he's saying that the Bush Administration is trying to get courts to rule that the habeas corpus hearings don't matter--that they will take place after military tribunals are concluded, and that they won't overrule the tribunals.*

That sounds perilously close to ignoring a ruling of the Supreme Court. And, as Phil says, you can't do that. (Imagine what would've happened if the Florida Supreme Court had ignored Bush v. Gore.)

I could easily be reading this wrong. Maybe this isn't "The Supreme Court has rendered their decision; now let them enforce it"; maybe it's throwing ordinary procedural roadblocks in the way of a decision you don't like, the way "with all deliberate speed" was exploited in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Then the failure to give detainees hearings would constitute ordinary contempt for the rule of law rather than unprecedented contempt for the rule of law. I hope that's what's happening.

*But maybe I'm reading "defer" wrongly.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:34 PM | Comments (0)

August 08, 2004

Too Much Information (Dept. of Laundry)

If you want to read some silly personal stuff, click on the extended entry link. The point of the post is really to link to this Heather Havrilesky strip. I need to figure out how to work more of that in.

[UPDATE: Serendipitiously, just before this linkfest Heather put op one of her rare new blog entries. You can see that she's a big influence on me. At least, that's my excuse. Some philosophy soonish, maybe.]

So while researching the previous post, I discovered this (from a strip about alternatives to dating):

Nothing tells you more about a man than the way he handles his laundry. Does he have a plastic laundry basket (a wee bit anal retentive, no?), a wicker basket (gay?), or a drawstring canvas laundry bag (manly!)?

and discovered to my annoyance that after getting my PhD I went from manly to anal retentive. Here's the thing--the real man doesn't do his laundry so often that it can fit into one laundry bag. And carrying around several laundry bags is protesting your manliness way too much. (Also, the baskets help me sort whites from colors in advance--which is what it takes to be mature enough for a long-term relationship. I think there's something deep about tradeoffs going on here.)

Anyway, my fans will be happy to know that I am back to manly--until the moving company brings my plastic baskets and the rest of my clothes. As Heather says: "There's so much information available here — too much, really."

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:54 PM | Comments (1)

I Thought About You

I was thinking about this construction before I moved, but now there's a quasi-timely news hook (hat tip: Michael Froomkin):

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we," Bush said.

"They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

Now, the first time I saw this quote it was reported as saying that the administration will "never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people," and I was prepared to leap to the defense of Bush's usage. But now it looks like he's committed zeugma. Because, as far as I can tell, there are two senses of "thinking about," and in one it's perfectly unobjectionable to say that you're thinking about new ways to harm the American people.

Compare these:

(1) I'm thinking about how much I love Sally.

(2) I'm thinking about asking Sally to marry me.

In (2), there's something that I'm considering doing--asking Sally to marry me. In (1), there's nothing that I need be considering--all that's stated is that one of my thoughts concerns how much I love Sally. (These examples are fictional, BTW; don't despair, readers! Or, if you're mom, despair, I guess. Or if you're the vast majority of Opiniatrety readers, remain completely indifferent. Where was I?)

I think of the sense at issue in (1) as the sense of "ideation" kind of as ideation is used here--a thought related to something is in your mind, but that thing needn't be something you're considering doing.*

So it makes sense for Bush to say he's thinking about new ways to harm America. He can be having ideas about new ways to harm America ("Hey, there's a new way to harm America! What can I do about it?") without planning to harm America himself. Compare "I will never stop thinking about new threats to America"--that's clearly ideative.

The problem is that Bush's original quote coordinates his thinking about new ways to harm America with our enemies' thinking about new ways to harm America. And the enemies are clearly thinking about those ways in a way that is not merely ideative--they're planning to carry them out. So it sounds as though Bush's administration is also planning to harm America.

I think either sense of "thought about" can take either a noun phrase, a wh-clause, or a participle. Compare:

(3a) I'm thinking about my old Kentucky home.

(3b) I'm thinking about a flight to Kentucky.

(4a) I'm thinking about what Kentucky is like in the summer.

(4b) I'm thinking about how to get back to Kentucky.

(5a) I'm thinking about making a fool of myself in class yesterday.

(5b) I'm thinking about apologizing to class for what happened.

All the a's are ideative; all the b's express courses of action under consideration.

I don't know how to handle this question, but it strikes me that Bush's original saying may contain an ambiguous hidden pronoun. Consider:

(6) Our enemies are thinking about ways to harm us.

That seems as though it might (I'm not sure) be spelled out a bit as

(6a) Our enemies are thinking about new ways [PRO] to harm us

where the PRO has to refer to our enemies. But if Bush says

(7) I'm thinking about new ways to harm us

for (7) to be ideative "harm us" has to have a subject other than PRO (if I'm correct that PRO has to refer to the subject of the original sentence). Perhaps that's not possible, and Bush's original statement is a gaffe no matter how it's thought about.

*I am probably misusing "ideation" here--"suicidal ideation," surely the fons et origo of this use, seems to be used by psychologists to mean the "wish for oneself to die, without active plans to facilitate the process"--so there's some sort of pro-attitude toward what's being ideated here, whereas in my use any sort of attitude, pro or con, is sufficient for ideation. On the other hand, any link to Heather Havrilesky is a good link. Here's the beginning of the strip I linked, and Step One of the dating how-to is here.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:49 PM | Comments (0)

August 05, 2004

Boo, Federalism

When you move around a lot, you realize this: It is a massive pain to have 50 different systems* for licensing yourself as a driver and registering your car. I don't suppose that there's any chance of centralizing this (for one thing, I imagine that the DMV is a profit center for states), but it would be nice.

Also a pain:

Drivers new to Wisconsin are required to apply for a Wisconsin driver license within 30 days of establishing residency.
The following documents are acceptable proof of Wisconsin residency when they include your current Wisconsin residence street address:
...A utility bill for water, gas, electricity or land line telephone service at least 30 days old
An account statement at least 30 days old from a Wisconsin financial institution [emphasis added]

A signed lease does not establish residency. A pay check establishes residency, but I won't be getting one of those until Oct. 1. Maybe UWM will put my street address on my ID (though I don't see why they would).

*51 counting DC, I suppose.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:59 AM | Comments (1)