Thursday, September 29, 2011

Can we forget about the 2007 Mets now?

From Nate Silver:

“The following is not mathematically rigorous, since the events of yesterday evening were contingent upon one another in various ways. But just for fun, let’s put all of them together in sequence:

• The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3.

• The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.

• The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.

• The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the 9th, with Johnson also down to his last strike.

"Multiply those four probabilities together, and you get a combined probability of about one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together in quite this way.”

Nate speculates that the outcomes might have been correlated rather than independent, although this might have to depend on statistically hard-to-support claims about systematically "clutch" and "un-clutch" behavior. But he also offers an amusing stick figure illustration, entitled "All Sports Commentary," in which the first person says: "A weighted random number generator just produced a new batch of numbers."

The second one replies: "Let's use them to build narratives."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tales from (near) the Vienna Woods

Last Tuesday night I flew to Vienna to teach a 4-day, 3 hours per day International Tax Policy class to students in a new doctoral program at a tax institute among the economics and business programs at Vienna University. The students are mostly lawyers, but also include people with degrees in economics, business administration, and someone with accounting as well as law. We're halfway done now, with a break for the weekend.

One of the best things about teaching this class is that there's no exam. Instead, the students will write papers. And while it's true that writing exams and grading them are the two worst tasks in a law professor's job, that's not even the main reason it's so incredibly refreshing not to have to do it.

I've assigned a bunch of readings (all by me, including unpublished book chapter drafts, except for the Tax Notes versions of Kleinbard's Stateless Income), but I don't feel I have to lecture on them. If on a given day I think it would be more instructive or fun to discuss X, Y, or Z (provided they are pertinent to the class's topic), that's just fine. No one is wondering about whether that's on the test, or whether stuff in the readings that I'm not discussing is on the test.

Obviously, the danger in such a situation is that the students will be unmotivated. But apart from the fact that they have to write papers, they're only in this program (3 years, but they're just starting) because they're interested in international business taxation, and in some cases possibly in academics or government policy jobs. They all have good work experience and would be insane to do this unless they were highly motivated.

When I teach the Tax Policy Colloquium at NYU, I get the same benefit of students who can take an interest without having to worry about the exam. (I of course don't blame students for worrying about exams when given; it just makes the experience much worse both for me and for them, and makes it much less genuinely educational apart from the admittedly important motivation it provides to take a class seriously.)

Of course, the colloquium is 14 weeks long, and the students have lots more going on, including other classes, family life, and job search. Plus, their opportunity cost is much lower, taking as given that they've decided to go to law school (or to add an LLM degree). Thus, the average level of commitment in the colloquium is bound to be less. But this is not to complain - I've been very happy with my colloquium students over the years, and I believe I've had some success, via various measures, in getting enrollees to self-select for being genuinely interested. It's been a true pleasure to get to know all these students (as one does a bit more in the colloquium than the lecture hall setting), and to learn from as well as teach them.

Meanwhile I've been touristing up a storm, so to speak, in Vienna, to the extent that I am feeling run-down and borderline sick. On Wednesday, after arrival, I went to the Schlossburg Palace & its grounds, including the Vienna Zoo, followed by 3 modern art museums in a complex called the Museum Quarter, topped off with dinner at one of the stalls in a place called the Naschmarkt (best translated as Nosh Market).

On Thursday after class, Demel's and Hotel Sacher's pastry shop followed by the delightful Albertina Museum (also with lots of modern stuff). I may go to an obscure American film there tomorrow (George Ray Hill's The Driver).

On Friday after class, the Kunsthistorische Museum (main Vienna art museum for the Renaissance and surrounding periods) followed by the Natural History Museum, then dinner with my host at a very non-touristy and authentic Vienna restaurant right on the edge of the Vienna Woods.

Today I took a train (1 hour each way) to Bratislava, Slovakia for a day trip. Charming town now that it has recovered from the horrid drabness and failure that the Communists imposed on it. Lots of charming and deliberately whimsical town squares, a few museums, a castle, some towers, coffee and a pastry on the town square, etcetera. Bratislava also has the Danube flowing through it, though it looked green rather than blue. At lunch, a very good Slovakian meal that (along with the pastry that followed) will also serve as my dinner.

As it was sunny and nice and everyone around was having a beer, I decided to do so at lunch as well, although that's certainly not my usual practice (too much the puritanical American, I suppose). Pilsener Urquel was prominently listed on the menu, but I was wondering (since I've heard of it in the US) if it is below the top local standard. I asked the waitress if it was good, and she frowned and said "It's Czech." So I got a Slovakian dark beer instead.

Tomorrow, another art museum & park called the Belvedere, then maybe that George Roy Hill movie. This leaves only Monday and Tuesday after class (I leave early on Wednesday).

I've brought work here, and I certainly could use the time doing it, but somehow when one's away from one's usual places and also has touring opportunities (cue the Puritanical sense of duty again, I suppose, although I really do enjoy it & find it interesting), I just can't find the motivation to do any of it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Go big" letter on deficit reduction

I am one of the more than 60 signers (or, if you prefer, signatories) of a letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that urges the Committee to "'go big' and develop a large-scale debt reduction package sufficient to stabilize the debt as a share of the economy."

With the studied generality that was needed to get so many signatures, which range across the ideological spectrum from about the medium left to the medium right, the letter continues:

"We believe that a go big approach that goes well beyond the $1.5 trillion deficit reduction goal that the Committee has been charged with and includes major reforms of entitlement programs and the tax code is necessary to bring the debt down to a manageable and sustainable level, improve the long-term fiscal imbalance, reassure markets, and restore Americans’ faith in the political system.

"While we have differences of opinion about the specific policies that should be included in any plan, we all agree that a large-scale, multi-year debt stabilization package is necessary to deal with the fiscal challenges facing the nation."

I was willing to sign the letter because it doesn't contradict (although it also doesn't endorse) the view I share that in the short run we need to boost consumer demand. Also, I certainly agree about the need for entitlement reform and tax reform, although (as discussed here) I would not include rate reduction in the latter.

And while I am very skeptical that anything good is likely to come out of the current political environment in which the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is operating - requiring me to swallow some qualms about the "go big" advice in signing the letter - I concluded as follows:

(1) waiting for the political environment to improve is not very promising, as it may just keep on getting worse, and

(2) as I discuss here, the threat of fundamental political dysfunction leading to default is great enough that it wouldn't be prudent (as Bush Sr. might have put it) to favor sitting tight and waiting for a more propitious time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Tax planning by video game developers

Interesting NY Times article about how video game developers such as Electronic Arts have combined aggressive tax planning with equally aggressive lobbying to pay no U.S. tax on $1.2 billion of global earnings, which I would guess were as a fundamental economic matter nearly all generated by talented employees who were living and working in the U.S.

One supplementary fact, not included in the article (reflecting that the information would be hard to find), but of interest substantively, is what taxes were paid on the owner level, given that one of the main tax provisions employed by Electronic Acts (according to the article) was deductions for employee stock options.

Still, even looking at both levels of tax, I rather suspect that Electronic Arts did pretty well.

The article spends quite a lot of time discussing the "architect" of Electronic Arts' strategies in recent years, "Glen A. Kohl, a tax lawyer colorful enough to publicly compare himself to Bruce Springsteen and to joke in the pages of The Wall Street Journal that his dog, Rubin, shared the name of the Treasury secretary under whom he served (Robert E. Rubin).

"After working in the Treasury Department during the Clinton administration, Mr. Kohl entered the private sector and became head of E.A.’s tax department in 2004, leading the company as it aggressively lobbied for a federal tax break on domestic production and set up a matrix of offshore subsidiaries, many in low-tax countries."

Kohl appears not to have been interviewed on the record for the article, but he is also discussed at length later on. It mentions that, before joining Electronic Arts in 2004, he "co-authored a widely-cited proposal urging the federal government to crack down on corporate tax avoidance, warning that 'the tax shelter problem is simply too detrimental to the tax system not to act.' As head of tax at Electronic Arts, he became a noted expert in using foreign subsidiaries to legally, and sharply, cut a corporation’s United States tax bill. As a co-chairman of the Silicon Valley Tax Directors Group, he also moderated a seminar in 2010 that showed technology companies how to use offshore subsidiaries to reassign the licensing of their intellectual property and, in some cases, reduce their effective federal tax rate substantially from 35 percent."

So it's a classic praise / pan, in some ways making him look great (smart, important, influential, creative, effective) but also no doubt prompting invidious musings from many readers about what might underlie the change in persona that appears to have taken hold around 2004 or so.

I should put my own cards on the table here and note that Glen and I are old law school classmates, and that I consider him a friend (hopefully, notwithstanding my topic choice here). Few if any in my law school class were so charismatic, energetic, or widely known and liked. For that matter, he was (and no doubt remains) far less self-important than Bruce Springsteen. Closer in intellectual outlook to Stephen Malkmus minus the diffidence, and coming from me that's high praise.

But the story of his evolution pre-2004 versus post-2003 certainly reflects the sort of incentives people face in the tax and business world - not just financially, although that's obviously very important, but in other ways as well. There are only so many ways to hit the really big leagues, develop and showcase your professional talents, and express your intellectual creativity, especially if you don't choose (or it isn't quite your thing) to toil in the obscure groves of academe, laboring to develop what you consider insights that maybe 300 people will download and 40 or so truly appreciate. And there may be unfortunate social byproducts to how talent thus ends up being directed.

Call it a cautionary tale, with an individually but not socially happy ending.

Friday, September 09, 2011

New article published on SSRN

I have just published on SSRN an article draft that I prepared over the summer, entitled Tax Reform Implications of the Risk of a U.S. Budget Catastrophe.

The link for downloading the article is here.

The abstract is as follows:

"Despite the demographic causes of the long-term U.S. fiscal gap, only severe dysfunction in our political system, abetted by malfunctioning and discontinuously responsive global financial markets, could lead to a U.S. budget catastrophe. Unfortunately, the risk of disaster appears to be alarmingly high. The rising danger has implications both for income tax reform and for the possible adoption of new tax instruments.

"For income tax reform, the main implication is that base-broadening should be undertaken without accompanying 1986-style tax rate reduction. The threat of a fiscal catastrophe also raises concern about otherwise desirable but potentially revenue-losing reforms, such as to the rules for corporate and international taxation.

"A number of tax instruments not currently used in the U.S. might be appealing even if the reform that included them was revenue-neutral overall. These include a value-added tax (VAT), a carbon tax, and a financial activities tax (FAT), although in my view a financial transactions tax (FTT) would not have comparable merit. All of these instruments potentially gain appeal if they could be used to ease the political prospects for raising overall U.S. tax revenues, and thus for reducing the risk of a budgetary catastrophe."

A few words in further description: I prepared this short article draft pursuant to my obligations as a speaker at the University of Louisville Law Review Symposium on Federal Budget and Debt Reduction, which will be held at the University of Louisville Law School on Saturday, October 22, from 10 am to 4 pm. A link to this conference is available here. The rule for article submissions was 25 pages tops, so my article tries to cover a lot of ground very fast, and inevitably a bit superficially (or at least relying on conclusions from elsewhere that are not substantially defended in the text). That said, it does offer a general perspective on tax reform issues (pertaining to both the existing income tax and possible new instruments) in light of the fiscal dangers that we face.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Is Social Security a Ponzi scheme?

Since Rick Perry keeps calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, let's examine the accuracy of this characterization.

A true Ponzi scheme has two main elements. First, new investors' contributions are used to pay old investors' benefits. Second, an exploding or unsustainable growth rate is needed to keep the promised or expected benefits coming. (A chain letter where you ask six people to send you a dollar, and they then each ask six people to send them a dollar, is a classic example.)

Social Security has the first of these two elements, reflecting program cash flows and the initial decision, made when the program was started during the Great Depression while millions of seniors faced ineradicable poverty, to start paying benefits to retirees who had not significantly contributed to the program.

This alone, however, is not problematic in the way that the term "Ponzi scheme" inevitably suggests. If you think it is problematic and thus justifies the label, here's another non-exploding and seemingly Ponzi-like scheme for you. My family, like many others, has for countless generations been running this incredibly Ponzi-like scheme called "parenting." As a baby you get these free benefits, paid by your parents via their labor in raising you. Then when you grow up you pay in to the plan (if you have children) by raising your kids.

Surely this is even worse than Social Security. After all, at least in Social Security you pay your taxes before you get your benefits. Here, you get your benefits first! But there's still the key feature that you don't self-finance, i.e., raise yourself from infancy. Instead, each cohort relies on an adjoining one to pay it. Yet somehow this audacious scheme has proved sustainable over time.

So there really is no Ponzi scheme unless an exploding or unsustainable growth rate is needed to keep the promised or expected benefits coming. How does Social Security rank in this regard?

As it happens, the program does not have a well-defined relationship between taxes paid in and benefits that are promised. This depends on how the payroll tax rate and base on the one hand, and the benefit formula on the other hand (each subject to statutory modification at any time), happen to play out given birth rates, life expectancies, wage growth, employment levels, etcetera.

But in Paul Samuelson's famous conceptualization of Social Security in a classic 1958 article, we can think of the program as one in which everyone would get back exactly the amount they paid in if, among other simplifying abstractions, wages and population were constant over time and everyone's life consisted of a fixed "work period" followed by a "retirement period." Throw in population growth and rising real wage levels, and Samuelson foresaw a positive rate of return to Social Security retirees (possibly exceeding the real interest rate, in a Peter Diamond extension of the model) that depended on those two factors. That is, if we imagine payroll taxes being handed over to retirees in a strict pay-as-you-go system, the amount available to be paid over rises if the workforce grows along with wages that are subject to the payroll tax.

There's nothing Ponzi-like about that; it's entirely sustainable. But in actual Social Security, two things went "wrong." One was the baby bust after the baby boom, while the second, more important change was rising post-retirement life expectancies. Having retirees live longer was equivalent to having more of them, and had adverse effects on worker to retiree ratios even if each demographic cohort was larger than the one that came before.

Does this mean that Social Security became a Ponzi scheme after all? Strictly speaking, absolutely not. If we think of Social Security retirement benefits as being adjusted to reflect changing payroll tax revenue levels (even though this is only true, if at all, over the long run), then we'd say that retirees hold an implicit financial instrument, the payoff on which depends on wage and demographic trends. So all that rising life expectancies does in this scenario is cause the payoff to be lower rather than higher than it would otherwise have been. But that's in the nature of the implicit financial instrument - a built-in feature that does not cause Ponzi-like collapse, but merely affects the actual payouts from a program that can keep on running anyway.

This brings us to the point that comes closest to justifying Perry's angry braying about Social Security. The program's retirement benefits do not automatically adjust for these demographic changes. Instead, barring Congressional legislation, they proceed on statutory autopilot (albeit depending in practice on demographic and macroeconomic outcomes). So if adverse demographic changes do not lead to immediate tax or benefit changes, you get a program shortfall that emerges over time, and currently promised benefits become eventually unsustainable without new financing.

That, however, is merely lag in adjusting the actual rules on the books to keep on track with the Samuelson structure that is implied by having a largely pay-as-you-go scheme. And it does not mean that the program will collapse - merely that benefits will need at some point to be adversely adjusted (say, to the tune of 20 or 30 percent) in the absence of increased financing.

Perry is right (words that I must confess I hate typing) insofar as his point is that the current scheme requires adjustment, and that people won't get the full benefits promised by present law unless there is extra financing. But he is very substantially wrong in comparing this to a Ponzi scheme in which, as we well know, the investors (except for the lucky ones who got out fast) end up with nothing.

It would be more accurate to compare Social Security to an investment that has historically produced one rate of return, but which in fact appears likely to offer you a lower rate of return. E.g., suppose stock prices have historically appreciated, over a long period of time, at about 2% annually in real terms. You now hold stocks and are hoping to earn that rate of return. But suppose we can see the future well enough to anticipate that, in fact, you will end up learning less than that (and perhaps even a zero or modestly negative rate of return). That's too bad, but it doesn't make stock market investment a Ponzi scheme.

The negative adjustment to expected returns also obviously does not make mandatory retirement saving (a key feature of Social Security) a bad idea, given that lifetime consumption smoothing is necessary unless you're happy to have two houses and two dinners a day now, followed by none of either when you're old.

In sum, "Ponzi scheme" is really out of place as a description of Social Security, even though the program has financing problems. It's true that there have been some negative shocks to expected returns from the program, and that since it doesn't automatically self-adjust there will be a rising expected long-term program deficit until Congress gets around to adjusting things. But this is way out of Ponzi territory.

What about Medicare? That program is best described as Samuelson-plus. Program participants "bet" not only on economic and demographic trends, but also on the trend in healthcare expenditure relative to GDP. (When that rises, the program becomes costlier under constant benefit design.) What makes Medicare far more fiscally unsustainable than Social Security is the fact that healthcare expenditure levels have been significantly rising relative to GDP - and unsustainably so whether there is a government financing role or not.

Medicare is closer to Ponzi territory if we posit an implicit commitment, not just to the current statutory design, but to covering so large a percentage of seniors' healthcare outlays under a system where they so frequently can get the best procedures that are technologically available at a given moment. The built-in unsustainability comes from purporting to guarantee something that is itself growing at an exploding rate. But that is a piece of the broader healthcare problem that we face, more than an aspect of Medicare as such. So calling Medicare a Ponzi scheme (which even Perry does not seem inclined to do) is less illuminating than saying that healthcare generally is on an unsustainable growth path in our society, that we will need to address in one way or another.

UPDATE: Looking at Perry's statement more closely (although in this post I was more interested in the pervasive "Ponzi scheme" meme than in his murky mental processes), I see that his operating definition appears to be that, if the system is going to go kaput and pay you zero, then from your standpoint it is a Ponzi scheme. That is certainly a reasonable way to define Ponzi schemes. But of course it is wildly inaccurate as applied to Social Security, which is projected to be able (based on expected future Trust Funds) to pay about 75 percent of future retirees' benefits. So he is using what we will charitably call his own facts, rather than the actual ones, in calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme.

Interesting point about Perry: While he obviously feels entitled to his own facts, rather than the actual ones, on global warming, evolution, Keynesian stimulus, Social Security, etcetera, he apparently caused his last two gubernatorial campaigns to run very serious empirical tests regarding how alternative types of campaign expenditures and activities actually contribute to electoral success. See the NY times blog article here. In other words, this would appear to be a guy who (contrary to so much evidence from his cheap talk) actually knows and cares about expertise and empirical proof, in cases where there is something in it for him. But if there is no direct personal benefit to him, then he evidently doesn't care.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

What would Nixon do?

The opening of today's New York Times article on President Obama's forthcoming jobs package really turned my stomach:

"The centerpiece of the job creation package that President Obama plans to announce on Thursday — payroll tax relief for workers and perhaps their employers — is neither his first policy choice nor that of many economists. But it is the one that they figure has the best chance of getting Republicans’ support."

So typical of this Administration. They decide up front to advocate what they agree is very far from being the best available, policy - in order to give themselves "the best chance of getting Republicans’ support."

All this notwithstanding that the Administration's actual chance of getting that support is zero. Not 0.00001%. Zero. At least, leaving aside the payment of substantial ransom such as extending the high-end tax cuts. With or without payroll tax relief as a core feature, the Republicans will not agree to pass this legislation. So why would the Administration proceed as if winning their votes was the core design question? (Actually, I'll suggest a rationale below, but it isn't good enough.)

Let's turn our minds back to early 2009 and the big (such as it was) stimulus package. This included lots of tax breaks that the Administration, through its economists, knew would be less effective than alternative programs. They put these in to get Republican support. They got zero Republican support. They kept the tax breaks in anyway, and then of course grossly oversold an inadequately sized package as providing enough to get the economy back on track. Then, when the recovery fell far short of the rhetorical expectations that had been created, the Administration had encouraged the retort that stimulus just doesn't work (as opposed to its having been too small).

Now once again we have a flurry of proposals that are going to be too small in aggregate and deliberately poorly designed, in the hope of getting Republican support, which they have zero chance of getting.

But why did I title this post "What would Nixon do?" OK, I have keen memories of the old Trickster, though I realize that he is ancient history to anyone under the age of 45. But bear with me. One thing we know that Nixon absolutely for sure would have done (because he did it) is use every possible tool he had to push the Fed towards a more stimulative policy. Obama utterly failed to do this, whether through appointments or private sit-downs or public jawboning.

But there is also another standard Nixon trick that, sleazy though it was in context, the Obama Administration ought to think about. Nixon was a big fan of proposing legislation that he knew couldn't be passed, specifically because if it wasn't passed he would get a campaign issue. E.g., supposedly in 1970 he was disappointed by his success in getting the Democratic Congress to pass a tough crime bill that contained provisions that, under the quaint standards of the time, were considered odious by civil libertarians. Nixon had deliberately put these things in the proposed legislation, although they were largely symbolic and expected to have little actual impact on crime, because he wanted the Democrats to refuse to pass the legislation, whereupon he would make it a campaign issue and blame rising crime levels on them. They took the issue away by acceding.

How would such a scenario play out today? If Nixon faced Obama's current political circumstances, he would not be trying actually to enact stimulus legislation. He would know that he had zero chance of getting anything that would make a significant difference. He would want to propose something that the opposition WOULDN'T pass, and that he could then campaign on. (And it is clear this time around, unlike with the 1970 crime legislation, that the Congress won't accede in order to take away the issue.)

We could use a bit of that thinking today. Why not propose something that is actually big, dramatic, and well-designed? And why not make reasonable, economically supportable arguments about why and how much it might actually help? Then Obama could rightly criticize the Republicans and blame the labor market on them when they fail to pass it.

This would not just be Nixon-style maneuvering. It would also help make the correct point that, since at least mid-2009, we have actually been following Republican budget policies and they haven't worked. As things stand, by repeatedly acceding to them, even in what he proposes, he accepts a state of affairs in which they actually set the policy yet he takes the blame.

Meanwhile, Obama is collaborating in basic miseducation of American voters, by adopting all kinds of false or grossly overstated Republican claims about how regulatory burden and budget deficits are responsible for the jobs situation.

If people want Republican policies, they will pick Republicans to implement them. An abler, more courageous, and more farsighted politician than Obama would recognize the importance of laying the intellectual groundwork for good policy over many years.

OK, time is short and it's a bit late for all that now. So admittedly there is one clear political calculation that might explain how Obama is proceeding in his jobs proposal. If he proposed big infrastructure and public spending ideas to hire lots of workers and help get us out of the doldrums, and the Republicans refused to enact it, at least they would have a very strong case that they were acting in good faith. Rather than inviting the campaign charge that they are deliberate economic saboteurs, they would be following their own long-enunciated policy preferences in opposing the legislation. (McConnell has already previewed this by saying they won't enact failed policies, harvesting the legacy of Obama's 2009 overclaiming for the stimulus legislation.)

But even if the Republicans convincingly argued good faith in opposing such a proposal, Obama could still reply that they are wrong, and that they shouldn't be elected in 2012 because they will follow the wrong policies.

Don't call it stimulus, of course - call it creating jobs by hiring lots of people to build things that we need. Don't rely in public rhetoric on Keynesian multipliers that are counter-intuitive. Force the Republicans to argue that there will be no net job creation due to indirect effects - a freshwater economists' claim that is counter-intuitive wholly apart from whether it is right or wrong (and with the collapse of consumer demand I would say that it is clearly wrong).

By instead proposing watered-down, maldesigned, too-small Republican-style jobs legislation, Obama may hope to strengthen the claim that the Republicans are acting in bad faith when they inevitably reject it. But accusations of bad faith, which he will of course make extremely decorously if at all, will only go so far with the voters - especially once he has conceded that in general we need Republican-style policies, which they of course are the better-situated party to keep on providing.

And the reality is even worse. One lesson that voters might very well draw is that, if Republicans engage in bad faith obstructionism whenever a Democrat is president, we'd damn well better put them in charge so that they will have the right incentives. It doesn't make them nice people, but if they will make sure that things go worse when they are not officially in power than when they are, voters could very rationally view this as a good reason for electing them.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The New York City subway system is way too metaphysical for me

Apologies if I offered approximately this entry a year or two ago - I had the same experience and it struck me the same way, and I don't recall if I posted about it. But anyway.

Last night I had to take the F train all the way out to Coney Island for a Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball game. Today I had to take the F in the other direction, to Roosevelt Island for some early morning tennis.

Each time, a train that was NOT labeled an F train approached on the F track - a D train yesterday, and an E train today.

Each time the garbled PA system said something like the following: "This is a [D/E] train traveling on the F track." I had to make a snap decision: do I take the train or not? The trains that they were labeled as would potentially take me to the wrong place (actually, the D might have worked yesterday, but definitely not the E today). In each case time was of the essence. So should I board the train or not?

Each time I did and it worked out for me. But my view was that, if these trains were traveling on the F track and making F stops, then they were F trains. They were not, at least for the duration of the journey, D or E trains traveling on the F track. A train is defined by the stops it makes.

The MTA, by contrast, appears to be essentialist (is that the right word here?) about train definitions. It thinks of a train as a D train or an E train, if that is its nature or how it is labeled, even while it is traveling on the F track and making only F stops.

Perhaps they could have clarified things a bit, without necessitating the metaphysical dispute, had they said that the trains were "traveling on the F track and making all F stops." Then I would still disagree with them about what the trains really were, but it would have been immaterial instead of causing initial anxiety.

Then again, perhaps I am over-thinking the whole situation a bit.

Alice in Wonderland riddles solved

In Alice in Wonderland, as Alice falls down the giant rabbit hole at the start, she keeps asking herself "Do cats eat bats?" And, since she can't answer it anyway, also "Do bats eat cats?"

A definitive evidence answer to the first of these two questions is now available right here.

Another famous riddle from Alice is the Mad Hatter's query, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Though both he and the March Hare profess to have not the slightest idea when Alice gives up, some decades later a Lewis Carroll fan (I forget who it was), gave what strikes me as the best possible answer: "Because there's a b in both."