From today’s Irish Times, another eggcorn:

Forget what the ads for cleaning products would have us believe, bacterial micro-organisms are crucial for our wellbeing …… The human body is a busy place teaming [sic] with alien life. Right now there are about 100 trillion micro-organisms inside you, tiny creatures that are living, dying, feeding, fighting, multiplying and happily occupying your inner space.

Not as classic an eggcorn as the last one I flagged, but yet another howler from Tara Street.  And they got the spelling right later in the article, which almost makes it more annoying.

Another item to be filed under “Am I the only person who finds this bizarre?”

According to the most recent Register of Interests of Members of Dáil Éireann, our Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, thinks it is a good idea to own German Government bonds.  Under the heading “Shares”, this is what he discloses for holdings at 31 December 2010: 

    1. I-shares FTSE 100 ETF;
    2. Lyxor  Eurostoxx 50 ETF;
    3. SPDR KBWUSBanks ETF;
    4. Lyxor MSCIIndia ETF;
    5. Lyxor ChinaEnterprise ETF;
    6. Ipath S&P 500 VIX ETF;
    7. German Government Bond 1.75% (15/04/2020);
    8. SPDR Metals & Mining ETF

So, besides some exchange-traded funds, the only investment Mr Noonan holds is in a bond issued by another member of the Eurozone.  He is in fact sacrificing quite a yield difference by holding German, as opposed to Irish, government bonds.  Does he know something we don’t?  I think we should be told.

Seriously though, at a time when the Irish Government is trying to stem the flow of deposits from Irish banks, and the flow of money out of Ireland generally, it’s bizarre that Mr Noonan sees nothing wrong (apparently) in this state of affairs.  Here we have the Minister for Finance keeping a chunk of his money in what has become the safe haven of choice for those who fear for either the solvency of the Irish State, or our ability to remain in the Eurozone.  What a message!

Incidentally, his register of interests as at 31 December 2009 shows no holding of German Government bonds, so Mr Noonan actually bought them last year, at a time when he was opposition spokeperson for Finance, and when capital flight from the banks and the country became a serious issue.  What a depressingly stupid thing for him to do.

 À propos my previous post, may I introduce a member of that (seemingly) rare breed, a humble economist.  Unlike our home-grown celebrity versions, I see that Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, is prepared to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers, or even some of them.  Compare and contrast with (for instance) Morgan Kelly.

Recently, Mankiw wrote this in The New York Times:

After more than a quarter-century as a professional economist, I have a confession to make: There is a lot I don’t know about the economy. Indeed, the area of economics where I have devoted most of my energy and attention — the ups and downs of the business cycle — is where I find myself most often confronting important questions without obvious answers.

Now, if you follow economic commentary in the newspapers or the blogosphere, you have probably not run into many humble economists. By its nature, punditry craves attention, which is easier to attract with certainties than with equivocation.

But that certitude reflects bravado more often than true knowledge……. If you find an economist who says he knows the answers, listen carefully, but be skeptical of everything you hear.

Amen to that.  Mankiw is obviously more of a fox than a hedgehog.

For sure, attention is easier to attract with certainties than with equivocation, and this point has not been lost on contributors to the Irish debate on our economic future (“….lacking the means to make reasonable opinions interesting, [they] must resort to unreasonable opinions in order to get the reader’s attention”).  What a pity editors and producers fall for this every time.

From a review in the Financial Times of Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway, by Dan Gardner.

Part of the problem, Gardner explains, lies with a lack of accountability within the [economics] profession itself. Make a bold prediction and the journalists and TV cameras come running; no one remembers when it fails to come about. Following Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated distinction, Gardner divides pundits and forecasters into two kinds of beast – the fox who knows many different things, and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. Hedgehogs, he says, have a narrow range of expertise and tend to arrive at bold, bullish predictions. The forecasts of hedgehogs are simpler and more entertaining, so they soak up all the media attention. But they are much more likely to be wrong than foxes. With a wider range of data and disciplines to scavenge from, foxes tend to be more careful with their predictions, and to fare better as a result.

Morgan Kelly: definitely a hedgehog.


 I was reading Simon Blackburn’s review of How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One and the closing paragraph struck me as noteworthy. Blackburn talks about

…… one of Fish’s favorites, the final sentence of Middlemarch, contrasting Dorothea’s quiet future with the idealistic visions of doing good with which she started life: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

I have never been an avid reader of “The Classics”, so I have (so far, anyway) no opinion on George Eliot.  But that sentence from Middlemarch has a weight and a rhythm, and a message that resonates. 

In fact, in times of economic depression and hardship such as we are going to experience in Ireland (I use the future tense because the economic correction has unfortunately only just begun), Dorothea’s behaviour could be a guide for how to conduct ourselves so as to retain our dignity and our sense of self-worth and fulfilment. We may be broke, with the Celtic Tiger lying in ruins, but we can still be nice to each other, and seek no reward for doing so.

Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.  ~Alexander Pope, Epilogue to the Satires, 1738

I know, I know, I have become a grumpy old man banging on about declining standards in the print (and all other) media.  The Irish Times is a particular bugbear, on the basis that we are (we were?) entitled to expect reasonable grammar, punctuation and editing standards from the so-called Paper of Record.

My previous post referred to an article published recently in the Irish Times which was critical of celebrity economists.  That article had this howler:

On a faithful [sic] night in September 2008, the then minister for finance urgently needed advice. Astonishingly, he knocked on David McWilliams’s door….

What are editors/sub-editors for? 

 Coincidentally, I had recently been reading about this particular solecism, which has been bestowed with the useful name “eggcorn”.  Wikipedia tells us that, in linguistics, an eggcorn is an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar or identical in the speaker’s dialect. The new phrase introduces a meaning that is different from the original, but plausible in the same context, such as “old-timers’ disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease”.

There is even an online database of such eggcorns here (I like damp squidthrows of passion).  Enjoy.

Well done to Richard Tol for putting the boot into celebrity economists.  His piece in the Irish Times (here) compared for various economists the ratio of the number of citations in the popular literature and the number of citations in scholarly literature – on the basis that, in Tol’s words, “media exposure should be commensurate with expertise – the mouth should not be larger than the brain”. 

The table which was carried in the newspaper does not seem to be available in the online version, but is available here.  Let me mention some of the results.

Hardly surprising that top of the heap is our hyperactive old friend (and Brian Lenihan’s) David McWilliams with a ratio of 27.0, although, to be fair, David has a second career as a popular author and one-man stage performer.  Dark and gloomy Constantin Gurdgiev  comes in at a hefty 6.65.  Down the other end of the table are Alan Ahearne (0.13), Richard Tol himself (0.04),Philip Lane (0.01) and Jim Markusen (0.00).

Celebrity economists are a group about which I have blogged previously

Whenever I hear somebody described as a “well-known economist”, I think of the expression “celebrity chef”. Usually the latter is somebody who is too busy being a celebrity to devote sufficient energy to getting the chef bit right. The drug of fame and the lure of publicity seem often to eat away at the proper exercise of the very craft in which they made their name.

Incidentally, Richard Tol, who works for the Irish Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) is, according to Wikipedia, among the US Senate Republican Party’s “list of scientists disputing man-made global warming claims”, which stated that Tol “dismissed the idea that mankind must act now to prevent catastrophic global warming”.  Village magazine did a hatchet job on him earlier this year.  Tol, however, characterises his position as simply arguing that the economic costs of climate policy should be kept in proportion to its benefits.

Morgan Kelly‘s latest episode of “The Sky is Falling” appeared in Saturday’s Irish Times (here).  The opening sentence says it all: “With the Irish Government on track to owe a quarter of a trillion euro by 2014, a prolonged and chaotic national bankruptcy is becoming inevitable.”

I took refuge in Seamus Coffey’s “Economic Incentives” blog, which was more measured and thoughtful.  I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting a few paragraphs.  His analysis helps me to get a clear picture of the components and dynamics of our indebtedness as a nation, and underscores the fact that the cost to the taxpayer of the bank bailout(s) is responsible for only a minority of the debt mountain we are bequeathing to future taxpayers.  The real issue continues to be the chasm that exists between tax revenues and government spending, a problem that we have barely begun to fix.

Starting with the €154 billion GDP outturn for 2010, and assuming moderate nominal GDP growth rates of 1.0%, 2.0%, 3.0%, 3.0% and 3.0% between now and 2015, means that the debt ratio in 2015 will be around 120% of GDP using the General Government Debt measure.  By just looking at the money that would actually have been borrowed by then the debt-to-GDP ratio will be around 108%.  Higher nominal GDP growth would reduce that but there is little sign of that at present.

If the country had avoided assuming the debts of the banking sector the GGD ratio in 2015 would still be around 95% of GDP, which is better than 120% but would not eliminate the fear of default because of the annual deficits……

Servicing the €205 billion debt mountain we have created will cost about €10 billion a year and this will consume close to one-fifth of government revenue.  The actual servicing cost will depend on the average interest rate.  This is a huge burden for the country to carry and one that will require further adjustments just to keep expenditure constant.  It will be just possible to manage this but it may be decided that this is a burden that the country should not carry…..

If the option to default is to be taken those to suffer will be holders of Irish government bonds.  It is more than a little incongruous that those who invested in our delinquent banks are getting their money back while those who invested in our country may be forced to carry losses.  As with a lot of things in this crisis, this just does not add up.

The other day, I was prevailed upon to give a tenner to “sponsor” an acquaintance who is undertaking a mountain biking, trekking and rafting trip to Tibet and the Himalayas next August. Now I don’t usually pay for holidays for people who are not members of my immediate family (and not always then either), but this was in a Good Cause as the “proceeds” were going to the Irish charity, Concern.

Ever since I was parted from my hard-earned money for this “Tri-Adventure Challenge”, a niggle of resentment has been afflicting me.  Not because I have anything against giving money to charity – in fact, I give rather a lot – but because I am simply browned off at being asked to pay for exciting trips for people to far-flung destinations, with an unspecified (and probably negligible) quantum of the money eventually finding its way into the coffers of the charity itself. 

I want all of any donation I might make to go directly to the charity, and not to have most of it spent in flying (with attendant carbon footprint) an army of under-occupied do-gooders to the ends of the earth, where their energies will be dissipated in pointless activities that serve no purpose, and where no doubt many a pleasant evening will be spent relaxing and socialising, all at my expense.

I was musing on this last Saturday when I opened the travel section of the Irish Times and found an article entitled “Charity begins away”.  Here I read that “It’s supposed to begin at home but charity can also take you abroad to some of the world’s most exciting places. It’s the ultimate win-win so Sandra O’Connell rounds up some great holidays for worthy causes”. 

At least the article doesn’t pretend that the trips are not holidays.  Here is a sample of the sort of trips somebody with time on their hands could undertake under the guise of charitable endeavour [my comments added]:

Walk the Great Wall  Easily one of the wonders of the world, the 6,400km Great Wall of China stretches from the Gobi Desert to the mountains of Korea. Happily, you’ll only be taking in a tiny bit of it [must leave enough time for sightseeing, after all]……Once you’re off the wall there is a guided tour of Beijing, including Tiananmen Square, the Olympic Park and the Silk Market, as well as free time to undertake your own excursions [that’s more like it].   Charity: Irish Cancer Society. Event:Great Wall of China Trek. Date: October 14th to 23rd, 2011. Sponsorship required: €4,500.

Grand Canyon trek   Children’s charity Barnardos already has a full quota for its big trip this year [I’m not surprised] but if you fancy giving yourself plenty of fund raising time for next year, check out its Grand Canyon Trek which takes place in June 2012.    Fly to Las Vegas [party!], transfer over the Hoover Dam into the Lake Mead National Park for an acclimatising walk. By day three you’ll be spending your first full day on the trails, with an early start [not too early, I hope] into the Hualapai Indian reserve and a trailhead that overlooks the Grand Canyon.  From there you begin your descent along remote paths past waterfalls with the Colorado River snaking far below. You continue down the canyon, crossing creeks and waterfalls and pitching your tent at night.  Expect to walk around 15km a day [OK…but let’s not overdo it], taking in highlights such as the “wet route” to Beaver Falls, swimming through to a subterranean cavern under the first tier of the waterfall, before jumping 5m into a frothy pool below.   Charity: Barnardos. Event:Grand Canyon Trek. Date: June 2nd to 9th, 2012. Sponsorship required: €4,600.

Make for the Cape   A much gentler option open to volunteers of all fitness levels [now you’re talking] is a nine-day meander [a good stress-free word, that] through South Africa, helping to raise funds for people with disabilities back home.  The walking tour of Cape Town and the surrounding countryside includes treks through the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens and the Silvermine Nature Reserve, enjoying views out over both the Atlantic and Indian oceans on the Cape of Good Hope peninsula [mustn’t forget my camera].  Equally unmissable is the panoramic views of Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain [wonder what the suckers back home are up to?] , a visit to the penguin colony at Boulders Beach and an exploration of Stellenbosch in the country’s winelands [yes!].  You’ll also get to take a boat over to Robben Island for a guided tour of the former prison Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in [can I skip this bit? –  sounds boring], now a Unesco World Heritage site.      Charity : Rehab. Event: South African Challenge. Date: November 2011. Sponsorship required: €4,950.

If I’m going to subsidise somebody to take part in a trip or an event, I want the sponsored efforts to have tangible beneficial results in themselves, and not be just a diversion or holiday for the participants.   Why not a sponsored clean-up of Dublin parks and canals?  A sponsored cook-in for homeless people? A sponsored house clean for sick and elderly people?  A sponsored day out for handicapped children?

In the Sunday Times, Daisy Waugh has similar feelings:

…. I’ve made it a rule never to contribute to fundraising efforts where fundraisers are simply finding a moral high ground from which to bore us all about a new personal hobby.  So: premenopausal ladies struggling with weight issues, wanting sponsorship to run half-marathons: forget it.  Ditto middle-aged fathers demanding money for week-long bike rides in exotic and manly places.  Not a chance. In fact, now I think about it, any begging communication at all which uses the words “challenge” or “fun” – or which suffixes their named endeavour with a facetious “athon” – doesn’t even make it to my Maybe One Day pile.  No matter what the cause.  It goes straight in the bin.

Her article appears under the headline “Nobody’s having fun at my expense”.  Join the club, Daisy.