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The president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, proposed to set a reunification tax, a tax that will fund the reunification of the two Koreas. Analysts fear that the cost of uniting the poor North with the rich South will be huge, and that the South won’t be able to bear it.
Next to the ventilator in my cozy home I wonder why the South’s president made this proposal.

1) Most South Koreans do not want to fund the reunification; so this does not sound like a good idea if Lee wants to be re-elected.

2) The North has made an angry response to this idea of the president; so this idea does not draw the two Koreas closer to each other.

3) As a veteran of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, I put my money that even if the president of the North, Kim Jong-il, dies without preparing his son for succeeding him, the military rule in the North will go on.

4) Even assuming that the Koreans are more sensible than the inhabitants of the middle east, and that once the current dictator of the North joins his ancestors the North Koreans will start marching towards the south, trampling the soldiers that will try to stop them, the amount that the South will be able to raise in taxes until the ailing Kim Jong-il dies will not be enough to make any difference.

5) The people in the North who may be encouraged by this proposal will know nothing about it.

6) So I am left with only one reason for this tax: Lee really thinks about the future. He believes that in 10 or 20 or more years the two countries will be united, he believes that the cost of unification will be huge, and so he tries to prepare for it. So that in 30 years, when the line between the two Koreans is suddenly deleted, the South will be able to fund the unification without any effect on its economy. If this is the case, I salute President Lee. I wish that we, in the middle east, had leaders with such a vision.

Poll results are ubiquitous in political discussions. This morning, liberal columnist Frank Rich quoted a number I’ve heard a lot lately, “41% of Republicans believe President Obama is not a citizen.” Well, hold on a second. Forty-one percent told a pollster that they believe that. Why would they tell the truth? If I happened to believe (as most Republicans presumably do) that the president’s policies are a dire threat to the country, wouldn’t I be morally as well as practically compelled to give whichever answer would make him look as bad as possible? I might think that higher poll numbers for the non-citizenship claim would lend it credibility, which I would like. Actually, the correct strategy for Republican respondents isn’t clear here – the contention that Obama is not a citizen may be so absurd that it discredits his opposition. The general point remains.

Of course, another phenomenon that is probably more important is psychological rather than strategic: once people join a side, they are likely to believe anything that is good for their side and bad for the other. Just using no-stakes anonymous polls, this is largely indistinguishable from the strategic poll responses I talk about above. You could try to distinguish the two by putting stakes on “correct” answers, but most poll questions are too subjective for that. Even in the objective example of Obama’s citizenship, deniers would be unlikely to pay up their bets based on birth certificates or newspaper clippings. One thing that might actually help distinguish strategic lying from partisan beliefs is using human pollsters vs. automated systems. People might be embarrassed to lie to a human pollster. Further comments on this are encouraged.

A topic of much-discussed frustration in these poll-happy times is that polls are, to say the least, not a great way to determine policy. My point here is that polls may not even be a great way to find out what people think.
A note to non-technical readers about the title: “Incentive compatible” is a term used in the theory of auctions, matching and voting to mean that it is in each person’s best interest to tell the truth. So if you wander into an economics talk and hear someone say “the IC constraint is binding,” they are just saying that we have to worry about whether people will tell the truth.

A popular phrase in the run up to the recent supreme court hearings. But, what exactly is the criteria for a legal mind to be considered brilliant? I’ll pass over the question of what makes a mind legal.

When one says Smythe is a brilliant mathematician, it is expected that one can point to some mathematical Everest that Smythe has scaled. For example, Smythe solved the Kyzckmaski conjecture. Or, Smythe introduced the notion of mother functors which turn out to be very important in the analysis of toposes. In short, Smythe is the author of  a significant idea, thought or perspective  original to her.

Perhaps, mathematics is not the right comparison. What about history? What sets one Historian above another?  An original view of matters, the ability to marshall and synthesize the evidence in support of it, conveyed in language to make the blood sing. Ok, I’m describing Macaulay who would give Herodotus a run for the title of Father of Lies. But even with brilliant historians, there is a body of work that one could point to whose originality in either perspective or subject sets them apart.

If one BINGs the term (note the product placement) brilliant legal mind,  a host of entries pointing to Kagan, Posner, Scalia and a placement firm show up. Beginning with Kagan, evidence offered in support of her brilliance is slender. Most of it is the reverent authority variety. She is brilliant because she was top of her class at Princeton, Oxford and Harvard. She is brilliant, well, because I say so and I am acknowledged to be brilliant. Indeed, in the twelve years prior to becoming Dean, she had published only 7 journal articles. I will not dwell upon my prejudice that law review articles are little more than after dinner conversations with footnotes.  I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one in the classroom.

What do eminent lawyers have to say about this record?  The most positive I know of makes an argument based on the paper with largest number of cites (10 times the average of the others). Interestingly this paper was published after she received tenure at the U of C. This reviewer does not point to a particular idea or thought in that paper deserving of attention, only the large number cites. The most negative offers a review of Kagan’s contributions that reminds one of Clive James’  remarks on Khruschev’s memoirs:

Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.

Turning to Posner, the case for brilliance seems clearer. The record exhibits enormous industry and erudition. He is credited with being one of the central figures in the introduction of economics as a lens through which to analyze the law.

Scalia is another popular choice for brilliant legal mind. Incisive prose and a sharp tongue. An original idea? By his own admission his role constraints him from having them. His task is to channel the dead. If Scalia, is to be believed about the role of Supreme Court Justice, brilliance is the very last quality one would want of a justice!

Scalia has written about what a legal education imparts (see the book `A matter of interpretation….’). He identifies two skills. The first is  the ability

to think about, and devise, the “best” legal rule………..

The second is the technique of distinguishing between cases. Neither of these seem unique to the Law. Which raises another question, what makes a brilliant legal mind different from a brilliant mind full stop?

In 1921, Emile Borel claimed that the mimimax theorem is false for symmetric zero-sum games with a finite number of actions greater than 7. He didn’t see the need to actually give a counterexample, since “it is easy to see that, once n exceeds 7,” there may be no mixture holding the other player to 0. Oops. This makes me feel a little bad about asking people to prove the theorem on the qualifying exam, but hey, we did go over the proof in class.

For the curious, a translation by the well-known translator L. J. Savage was printed in Econometrica, Jan. 1953, 97-100. While giggling at the error, we also see that Borel gets credit for describing iterated dominance and mixed-strategy equilibria well before Von Neumann-Morgenstern.

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