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.