29 April 2011

Royals: okay if they are a long time ago or far, far away.

I like it preppy

My future queen.
I have no damned queen, and I never will. Thank God for it.

I was never in danger of being one of those people freaking out about how exciting today’s royal wedding is. On the other hand I didn’t want to be one of those people freaking out about people freaking out about the wedding either, but dammit, this little "future queen" comment tipped me right over the edge.

I find the whole royalty thing fascinating with all the uniforms and ceremonies and protocols and such, but only in the same way I find the operation of a ballistic missile submarine fascinating. They’re both kind of neat, but they’re also both rather gruesome, and I’d vastly prefer to keep both of them far away from me at all times. My chances of leading a good life can only go down if it becomes expedient or necessary to concern myself with what is happening in either Buckingham Palace or the USS Maryland.

Like Tam said yesterday, a hereditary monarchy in the 21st century is literally retarded.  (Retarded: having failed to progress; not advanced.)  I take these clowns no more seriously than Emperor Norton I.  Unlike the Windsors, at least everybody knew that Norton's claim to rule was based on nothing more than empty, self-aggrandizing delusions, and that his continued "reign" was contingent on the people being willing to humor him, in no small part for their own amusement.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that!
But an honest man's aboon his might --
Guid faith, he mauna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities, an' a' that,
The pith o' sense an' pride o' worth
Are higher rank than a' that.
I'm going back to doing some Science now. I expect the next hour of my life will result in more honest work than the current crop of self-appointed English royals will produce all month.

28 April 2011

Keynes vs Hayek Round 2

Yeah, so I'm probably the millionth blogger in my section of the ideologyspace to post this, but it's too awesome not to.
The economy's not a car;
There's no engine to stall.
No expert can fix it,
There's no
it at all.
The economy's us,
We don't need a mechanic.
Put away the wrenches:
The economy's organic!

(PS I'm only seeing 301 views on this, so either there's another, more popular version of this uploaded by someone other than EconStories, or I'm not as behind trend as I thought I would be.)

Women in Computing

Jezebl | Anna North | Why Women In Computer Science Matter

Anna North — Last week, Harvard celebrated a record number of female students declaring a computer science major. But the school — and the field — may still have a ways to go.

The Crimson reported last Wednesday that of 51 sophomores who declared computer science this year, 21 were women, up from just three women two years ago. The paper credits Harvard's introductory computer science course with attracting women and getting them excited about the field. But in an editorial today, the Crimson's Irene Chen points out that sophomore declarations aren't the whole story. She writes,
The rise of women concentrators in computer science is thrilling because it indicates an expansion of fields where women dare trod now. However, female computer science participation at Harvard still has a long way to go. For example, while the gender ratio in the concentration hovers tantalizingly close to 50 percent among sophomores, the gender disparity in more advanced computer science courses like Computer Science 124: Data Systems and Algorithms remains enormous. Though the increase female computer science concentrators indicates an increase of role models for future classes, what does the dismal lack of such role modes in higher level computer science courses tell contemplative freshmen?
I'm going to stop right there, because that criticism I highlighted is just that useless. If few women were starting along the CS path a couple of years ago, then obviously few women will be further down the path now. What does the lack of women in higher level courses tell freshmen? Rathering than just fretting, why don't we ask the current freshmen.  They didn't seem to be turned off by it.

You want to know why women in Computer Science matter? Because Computer Science matters.

That's it.

It's a shame anyone declines to dive in to CS because they feel uncomfortable with their peers and faculty.  I want more women studying CS for the exact same reason I want more men doing so.  The future of computing is too important to throw only half of the available minds at it.  I want anyone who is capable and interested in CS studying it, regardless of gender, nationality, height, handedness, or anything else.  That is the beginning and end of everything you need to know about why more women in CS is important.

26 April 2011

Higher Education Bubble

Think Progress | Matt Yglesias | Higher Education Fact Of The Day

Malcom Harris in n+1:
If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges.
Folly. Madness. Lunacy.

I trust I do not need to say why.

(BTW: K-12 schools have this problem as well, and it is just as foolish there.

According to Wikipedia, Chicago Public Schools has 43k employees, 21k of whom are teachers.  Montgomery County Public Schools, where I live, has 22k employees, 11.5k of whom are teachers.

I don't remember the numbers exactly from a story I was told a couple years ago, but I have the magnitudes roughly correct. Chicago public schools had about five times as many students as Chicago parochial schools. The public school have about ten thousand administrative staffers in their HQ while the parochial schools have three. Not three thousand. Three.  Parochial school outcomes are almost certainly no worse than public school outcomes, and depending on who you ask, they are much better.)
I don’t agree with the entirety of the analysis, which I think makes too much out of the details of student loan financing and does too much bending over backwards to avoid offending the sensibilities of college professors and wannabe professors, but this is dead on:
These expensive projects are all part of another cycle: corporate universities must be competitive in recruiting students who may become rich alumni, so they have to spend on attractive extras, which means they need more revenue, so they need more students paying higher tuition. For-profits aren’t the only ones consumed with selling product.
A thousand times Amen. There is not meaningful difference between a non-profit and for-profit school. Here's an anecdote from Phil Miller I've shared before:
Being non-profit does not mean that you don't have profits as an objective. All it does is restrict what you can do with earned profits, meaning that they can't be dispersed to shareholders. As I was told at a meeting when I jokingly brought up the fact that my university is a non-profit, I was told by an older gentleman at my table "Oh, we get plenty of profits. We just make sure we spend it all."
I think this opens the door for a university (even a "non-profit" one) to position itself as "the high-value university." Lower price tag, fewer amenities (which most students don't make use of anyway), a curriculum focused on teaching productivity-enhancing skills (e.g. distribution requirements which make students take basics of accounting and intro to IT rather than Rocks-for-Jocks or Jazz Appreciation), and a focus accepting applicants who are academically talented and competent rather than the other non-academic skills and experience than most "top" schools value.


ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | NFL lockout lifted: Some thoughts from a non-labor lawyer

US District Court Judge Susan nelson has granted a preliminary injunction lifting the NFL's lockout of its players. I must confess that this is not my area of the law, but I'm struck by a couple of things.

First,the judge insisted at p.47 that the NFLPA's decision to decertify is a two way street. Yes, the NFL could not lock out the players once the union decertified, but the players no longer have the right to strike:
The League objects, arguing that the Players cannot just flip the “light-switch” and disclaim the Union. But again, employees have the right not to be a union as much as they have the right to be or organize as a union. Moreover, if negotiating as a union has proven unsuccessful, such organized employees also have the right to terminate the union. There is nothing inherently unfair or inequitable about a disclaimer effecting an immediate termination of the framework of labor law. Such an election cannot be viewed as mere gamesmanship, because it only comes with serious consequences to the Players making the election.The Players no longer derive the negotiating benefit of collective bargaining or any of the other rights they had enjoyed while they were unionized.35

35. For example, unionized employees have the right to strike as the counterpart to management’s right to lockout its unionized employees. But once the Players have renounced their Union, they could not engage in any meaningful “strike.” The League could simply fire them all for failure to show up for work.
The absurdity of the Boeing/WA/SC factory thing was what finally put me over the edge into concluding that trying to analyze contemporary labor relations and legislation as if it were a rational edifice is foolish. So really I shouldn't even be bothering to apply any real thinking to a labor situation like this, but it's football, and that means I am compelled to consider it.

Okay. Bainbridge comments:
But is the right to "fire" Peyton Manning or Tom Brady really a very meaningful one? It's not exactly like firing the proverbial "Joe Six-Pack," after all. Those of us of a certain age are old enough to have seen scab football and it wasn't pretty. In this rather unique context, decertification clearly was pure gamesmanship, designed to produce precisely this legal outcome so as to give the "union"negotiating leverage. So there does seem to be something inequitable here. The NFL has lost the ability to lock out the players, but the players can still de facto strike and shut down the league.
I don't think you would have to fire Manning or Brady if you're an owner. There are a lot of players and hence a lot of members of the (former?) NFLPA who could be fired and easily replaced. How many guys can you name on your favorite NFL team? Maybe two dozen, if you're a big fan. Meanwhile there are 53 guys on the roster. There are more players you wouldn't notice missing than those you would. And for every one of them there are two or three more guys who narrowly miss out on making the team during training camp who could be doing those jobs pretty damn well.

Let's say the owners decide to fire the fifteen or twenty guys who are least likely to be missed by fans. (Note that a subset of those guys are the sorts of on-the-bubble itinerant players who may not have had a job with the team next season anyway. I'm not sure if this matters, but keep it in mind.) Do you think the NFLPA — and the Mannings and Bradys in it — will be able to shrug that off? For the sake of solidarity they need to treat that situation as seriously as if they themselves just got fired as well. So I think the ability to fire players is a stronger tool than Bainbridge does because it gives an owner the ability to make Tom Brady act (and vote [wait - now that they're decertified is there still voting going on?]) as if he could be fired even though he likely won't/can't be.

What I'm trying to say is that you don't actually have to fire a Tom Brady to influence the collective decisions of the players.*  You can fire a couple of Ryan Kuehls* instead and get a similar result.

(* This is assuming there is still a collective decision to be made.  This whole decertification thing confuses me and I've made no efforts to figure it out.)

(** Oh, you've never heard of Ryan Kuehl?  Yeah.  That's sort of my point.)

~ ~ ~

Okay this is starting to make less sense even to me. My latest batch of simulations just finished and is demanding some analysis, so I'm posting this and then ceasing to think about it. Before I do though here's my NFL labor dispute question:

Assume there is no NFL season this fall. You are a college athletic director. Under what circumstances do you consider switching a game to Sunday when there will suddenly be significantly less competition for TV viewership? What factors do you consider? And what sorts of schools are most likely to reschedule in this way, if any?

Polls: ignore them.

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | *Compassion, by the Pound*

That is the new book by F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk, and the subtitle is The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. A few facts:


2. Fifty-five percent of Americans believe that housing chickens in cages is not humane (p.344).
I believe it is socially irresponsible to conduct surveys and publicize the results if the question presuppose the fantasy that trade-offs do not exist. A question like that must take a form similar to "The cost of cage-raised and cage-free chicken averages $X and $Y per pound. Is it morally acceptable to raise chickens in cages?"

If you don't admit the existence of trade-offs in poll questions than you can't interpret them as "Z% of Americans think we should..." but only as "Z% of Americans think it would be swell if..."

I have not read this book, nor the research it draws upon, so perhaps the authors involved have not made this error, but certainly many do and this is as good a time as any to point it out and bitch about it on the internet.

This is just one more reason my default setting is to disregard polls. The Economist had another one last week:
The French seem simultaneously to hold two conflicting views. When asked if they backed the strikes [protesting raising the retirement age], a majority said yes. When asked in the same poll whether raising the retirement age was “responsible towards future generations”, 70% also said yes. In other words, the French temperamentally liked the idea of protest, not least as a way of snubbing Mr Sarkozy. But, at the same time, they knew that raising the retirement age to 62, when the Greeks were being told to stay at their desks till 65, was the reasonable thing to do. “Public opinion”, comments Ms Lagarde [France's Minister of Finance], “is much more mature than people think.”
Emphasis mine.

And hold on one hot second. Holding completely conflicting views is "mature"? I suppose demanding to both have and eat one's cake must be the height of adulthood then.  God protect me from unnecessary exposure to politicians, the French, and especially French politicians.

Assuming a Free Lunch exists, why haven't we eaten it already?

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Where is My Free Lunch?

Mark Thoma writes,
It seems to me that there is far too much discussion of cutting services, and not enough about how to control costs without affecting services (e.g., using the government's purchasing power to reduce the amount the government pays for drugs, reducing the cost of insurance companies fighting over who pays bills, etc.). Costs that can be cut without reducing services need to come first, then, when those efforts are exhausted, we can think about the services themselves. But that doesn't seem to be how we are proceeding.
In other words, let's find the free lunch first, before we have to pay for lunch. Here are my remarks:
Kling has seven points about why this sounds better than it really is, and they are all good points. I think there is a very important one he misses, however: why haven't we done these things already?

If there is so much fat in the system as to allow significant cuts in spending without affecting service, why have those cuts not been made already? What combination of mechanisms and institutions and incentives has led us to a situation in which such fat is allowed to continue existing? What are you going to change about those mechanisms/institutions/incentives to enable us to move away from this situation and make it likely that we will stay away? What will your reform change to make waste that was possible and tolerable up until now impossible and intolerable in the future?

I need a better answer to these questions than "this time we're serious about trimming down."

Dream Country

Book Club: Neil Gaiman's 'The Sandman: Dream Country,' Part One : Monkey See : NPR

I don't think I mentioned it, though I meant to weeks ago, but NPR's pop culture blog has selected one of the collections of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman as the next book in their online book club. (You can get it at Amazon or Heavy Ink for $12.)

If you haven't read comics before, this is a great opportunity to try some out. Linda Holmes, the blogger playing the role of discussion leader here, is self-admittedly unfamiliar with the medium, so it's a great and safe way to get your feet wet. She enlisted the help of Glen Weldon for his comics experience.

And of course The Sandman is truly a staggering work of genius, so it's got that going for it. This particular collection (Dream Country) isn't my favorite, but I completely understand why they chose it for new readers.  Give it a try.

Space Shuttle Resting Place

The Economist: Babbage | N.V. | The space shuttle: The Difference Engine: Houston, we have a problem...

A score or more of museums and other institutions around the country competed for the honour of having a shuttle in their permanent collection. Apart from offering an appealing display, each had to be ready to stump up $28.8m to cover the cost of preparing and transporting the winged spacecraft to its new location. Of the three other remaining shuttles, Discovery is destined for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum annexe outside Washington, DC. After the launch in late June of the 135th (and last) mission in the shuttle programme, Atlantis will remain in Florida to be exhibited at the Kennedy Space Centre’s visitor centre.
(There was also, IIRC, a requirement that the museum be adjacent to a runway so they could transport the thing. That rules out most museums.)
Meanwhile, after its own final mission later this month, Endeavour, the youngest of the shuttles, will be ferried to Los Angeles to end its days in the California Science Centre, alongside existing exhibits of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, and close to the old Rockwell plant in Palmdale where the shuttle was developed. Meanwhile, just up the road, at Edwards Air Force Base, is the runway where nearly half of all shuttle flights touched down.

So, three shuttle exhibits on the East Coast, one of the West Coast, and nothing in between. The good citizens of Houston are rightly indignant about being deprived of their space-age heritage. And it is not just Texans who are irked by NASA’s seemingly bizarre decision. Jason Chaffetz, a Congressman from Utah (not Texas) has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would “restore common sense and fairness” and send one of the shuttles to Houston rather than New York. “Instead of relying on political guidance systems, these decisions must be steered by history and logic,” Mr Chaffetz insists.
Yes yes! Let's remove politics from the process BY SETTLING THIS IN CONGRESS! Surely there is no less political, more rational and objective entity in all the land than the esteemed and honorable United States Congress.

This, ladies and gentleman, is why I do not put much faith in things like the IPAB Obama is pushing for. As soon as they come up with a decision someone doesn't like we'll get nothing but hue and cry that the decision was "politicized" and our politicians must "FIX IT!"  Our politicians can not make a good faith guarantee that they will not meddle in the results of "independent" technocratic committees.

And if this space shuttle wasn't a big enough farce already, lets not forget this:
For the record, it should be noted that Houston only became the home of mission control as a result of political wrangling at the highest level in the early 1960s. The original mission-control centre was at the Cape. But a bigger site was sought to accommodate the testing and research facilities needed for the Apollo mission to the Moon. The Houston proposal met only half the criteria set for the new location, while several other sites had better qualifications all round, especially the Boston area of Massachusetts. However, back-stage bullying by Lyndon Johnson—as the Senate majority leader from Texas and later as Vice-President and subsequently President—won the day for Houston. The Manned Spacecraft Centre, which opened there in 1963, was renamed the Johnson Space Centre in 1973 in honour of its political patron.

22 April 2011

Excavators: more mobile than Daleks

When you were a kid did you think engineering vehicles were awesome?

Of course you did. Because they are.

Seven-year-old-me would have flipped out over this video:

(Via 3qd)

Price gougers and speculators are the new witches

I actually wrote the previous post mentioning the speciousness of gouging/predatory pricing accusations last night but never got around to publishing it. This morning I woke up to this story about Obama and Holder demagoguing high gas prices:
Chicago Sun-Times | Julie Pace | Obama aims to ‘root out’ cause of high gas prices

RENO, Nev. — President Obama said Thursday that the Justice Department will try to “root out” cases of fraud or manipulation in oil markets, even as Attorney General Eric Holder suggested a variety of legal reasons may be behind gasoline’s surge to $4 a gallon.

“We are going to make sure that no one is taking advantage of the American people for their own short-term gain,” Obama said at a town-hall style meeting at a renewable energy plant in Reno. [...]

Obama, decrying such levels as yet another hardship “at a time when things were already pretty tough,” said Holder was forming the Financial Fraud Enforcement Working Group. The task force will focus some of its investigation on “the role of traders and speculators” in the oil-price surge, Obama said. The group will include several Cabinet department officials, federal regulators and the National Association of Attorneys General.

In Washington, Holder said he would press ahead with the investigation, even though he did not cite any current evidence of intentional manipulation of oil and gas prices or fraud.
This makes as much sense as saying that since your children are running fevers you will be launching a preemptive, evidence-less investigation into the thermometer manufacturers to make sure they aren't manipulating temperatures for their own selfish, short-term gains.

And by the way, you also hold the power of life and death over the thermometer industry.  But not big deal, it's just a fact-finding investigation.  You're totally not trying to intimidate or scapegoat anyone.

Holder did generously admit the following though:
“Based upon our work and research to date, it is evident that there are regional differences in gasoline prices, as well as differences in the statutory and other legal tools at the government’s disposal,” Holder said in a memo accompanying a statement announcing the task force. “It is also clear that there are lawful reasons for increases in gas prices, given supply and demand.”
So he has apparently re-discovered some bits of the Arrow-Debreu model regarding commodities in different places needing to be treated independently, and also tacitly acknowledges that on occasion markets may behave the way they do even without sinister Robber Barons pulling all the strings. How gracious of him.

How much previous "work and research" did it take them to figure this out?  Anyone who has taken a road trip could have told him that.  Anyone who has ever had a conversation about gas prices could have told him that.  Anyone who knows that refineries are not uniformly distributed across the country and that it takes effort to transport liquids could have told him that.  Anyone who knows the country is chopped up into different regions in the regulations governing refining and distribution of petroleum products could have told him that.

Matt Welch sums this up well:
Here's your federal energy policy: Do nothing significant to increase domestic supply, create mandates to have XX% of future supply come from magical green leprechauns, then when prices (surprise!) go up, you know what to do: Blame the "speculators".
If you don't get why I find this so absurd and ignorant listen to this EconTalk about price gouging with Mike Munger, and read this very comprehensive Coyote Blog post about oil speculation.

Let's be clear about one other thing: "speculation" just means making a bet about what the price of something will be in the future. When you bought your house, or signed a multi-month lease, or waited to buy a car, or contributed some money to your 401k plan, or sold your extra tickets to a football game, or bought your ham for Easter dinner a week ago, or bought swimsuits at then end of last summer YOU WERE SPECULATING.

Prices are dynamic across time. Buy cheap; sell dear. We all do it. There's nothing malevolent about it. Quite the contrary, it does everyone else a favor by shifting consumption of goods from when they are predicted to be (relatively) scarce to when they are thought to be (relatively) abundant.

The SWPL/Bobo Grocery Store

One of the first thing I remember from EconTalk when I first subscribed years ago was Mike Munger talking about how a business is stuck between a rock, a hard place, and some other hard place when it comes to avoiding criticism from anti-market demagogues. If you set prices higher than your competitors, you're accused of gouging. If you set prices the same as competitors, you're colluding. And if you set prices below your competitors, you're predatory.

I was reminded of that lesson when I read Radley Balko's wonderful "How To Run a Protest-Proof Grocery Store"
This piece from my colleague Michael Moynihan about a Whole Foods protest in Boston would be amusing if it weren’t so infuriating. Seems that a group of activists are trying to block a Whole Foods from opening in a gentrifying part of the city. The problem? As we’ve seen with similar efforts to stop Walmart from opening stores in urban areas, the people the activists claim they’re protecting actually want the store to open. Silly poor Latinos. Don’t they know what’s good for them?

I pointed out during the last backlash against Whole Foods (because CEO John Mackey dared to have non-leftist opinions about health care) that the evil corporate giant treats its employees far better than grocers with union labor, or in this case, the quaint neighborhood store everyone is trying to save.

So what’s the problem? I’d say the left’s hate of Whole Foods is pretty neatly summed up in this Alternet piece: It’s Mackey’s libertarian politics, the company’s opposition to unionization (which is quite different than how it treats its employees), and its general “bigness” and “multinational” status. In other words, it’s nothing that the company actually does. It’s more about what it represents. Everything big is bad. Except for government. Or something like that. [...]

All of which got me wondering. What would it take to run a grocery store that’s immune to progressive protest? I came up with this checklist:
  • You must pay your employees a high wage and provide them with excellent health insurance. However, you may pay them crappy wages and offer fewer benefits so long as you let them unionize. Bonus points if they’re required to divert a portion of those crappy wages to union dues.

  • You must offer organic food, and cater to alternative diets. You should probably also offer ethnic food. But don’t get too big.

  • You must insist that your suppliers adhere to strict standards about the treatment of animals and the environment. You should buy local. You shouldn’t sell anything that can only be shipped by jet or tractor trailer. We don’t want our enjoyment of our shade-grown, fair-trade, organic morning roast with hints of chocolate, currant, and elderberry ruined by a giant-carbon-footprint finish. But remember, you still need to cater to a wide variety of diets. And have good selection. And not charge too much. [...]

  • Just a reminder: You must do all of these things while keeping your prices low. But not so low that you might cause a rival locally-owned store to go out of business. [...]

  • You should invest in urban areas, but any profits should only come from suburban stores with predominantly white customers. Otherwise you’re taking advantage of people of color.

  • Actually, strike that. Morally, you should really only be making just enough money to keep the lights on. Maybe enough to also provide yourself with a modest, progressive urban lifestyle. Anything more is greed. If you’re doing well enough to actually open another store, not only are you making too much money, you also are now a “chain”. And chains are inherently evil. [...]
Don't miss the rest of the list of requirements. The ones for distilled alcohol particularly are particularly good.

21 April 2011

Two Charts: Energy and Largess

From Political Calculations:
We're referring to more than $1.789 billion dollars of corporate welfare that was authorized by the law for the purpose of subsidizing the health care expenses of the early retirees whose benefits are paid by corporations, unions and state or local government agencies, who would otherwise have had to continue paying these costs out of their own pockets—just as they did before the law's passage.
The rationale for this program completely eludes me. People have chosen to retire early ... and that makes their formerly employer-provided health care the responsibility of people like me who are still working how exactly?

By the way, calling this "corporate welfare" is a curious choice, since out of the top ten recipients only three are corporations. (Six are public sector unions and the other is the UAW, which since 2008 I have considered quasi-nationalized.)

~ ~ ~

Changing gears, here is a chart of US energy sources from LLNL, by way of Jamul Blog

I wish the boxes representing sources had their areas scaled to be proportional to their capacity, but otherwise this is pretty informative. I wouldn't mind a breakdown on what constitutes the "rejected energy" either. Nonetheless, a good graphic.

Butter knives and glue

Via my bud S.A.D. —

I have stepped in the foolishness. I mean, I have taken the UMD Sustainability Quiz.

I was just spammed by the UMD Office of Sustainability to take a quiz about ... "sustainability."

Normally I would immediately delete such requests for my time, but this one comes with a chance to win some burritos, and it's almost lunch time and I'm hungry and man does a burrito sound tempting to me.

Taking the quiz was a big mistake. It was the most economically illiterate thing I have been exposed to all week, and I've read some dreadful things this week.* I may yet get free burritos out of this deal, but I'm not sure it will be worth exposing my mind to such silliness.

Here's the quiz, go see for yourself. It reads like one of those indoctrinating "assignments" I took endlessly in public schools. You know the sorts of things, with the leading questions and false choices that are supposed to make you "learn" while being tested. Things like "Alcohol is (a) completely and totally harmless no matter how much you drink; (b) a drug; (c) an excuse for any behavior no matter how outrageous." (That wasn't from this quiz, obviously, just something I would have had to answer in school. I can't go back and get the actual quiz content now that I've submitted it. (Or I could, probably, if I bother to fire up Tor and pretend to be someone else, but I won't. Even though that would take less effort than explaining this. Oh well.))

One of the questions on this quiz boiled down to, essentially, is recycling good or bad? There was no way to say something like "that depends on the material: recycling aluminum is a good idea, but under current conditions recycling colored glass is nothing more than a resource-wasting act of quasi-religious obedience." The way the question was worded was great if the point is to reinforce the social pressure to recycle everything, but it was terrible if the idea was to be accurate or scientific in any way.

To top off the economic ignorance and patronizing tone, it was a good example of how environmentalism has sadly become another branch of the wider Left secular religion rather than a movement or goal in its own right. Why does the author of this quiz about sustainibility feel it is appropriate to hector me about not shopping at Walmart and buying Fair Trade instead, or about the importance of providing employer-mediated health care plans to manufacturing workers? What does that have to do with the topic at hand?

I love Nature, and I think conservation is important. But unfortunately most other people who do have a tightly correlated cluster of beliefs which include a bunch of other nonsense, and feel the need to lump them all together rather than letting them be orthogonal to each other.

The universityadministrationscreams bloody murder every time the legislature cuts doesn't increase their funding enough. Professors are being furloughed. I haven't gotten the annual raise I was told to expect since 2006. But there's money in the budget for the Office of Sustainability to hold an Earth Day Festival with a Fair Trade Marketplace giving away free Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

* Speaking of which, I was reading The Forever War last night, because I've been hearing it recommended constantly for years, and a copy finally became available at the 'brary. It's good, and Haldeman clearly knows his physics,** but I just got to the point where the protagonist returns to Earth after decades away (only a couple of years for him, due to relativistic time dilation) and has to deal with everything that has changed while he's been away. This is the point where economics become relevant, and honestly, everything goes to shit. Took me right out of the story. Good for Haldeman for recognizing how widespread black markets become in the presence of top-down rationing, but Haldeman does know the Lump of Labor Fallacy is a fallacy, right? I can accept faster-than-light travel, and all the rest of the military sci-fi gimcrackery, but I can not suspend disbelief enough to accept Malthusianism and the rest of the zero-sum silliness.

** I will give lots of credit for noticing that when a warship travels at relativistic speeds it will arrive at its destination and have to fight enemies who are effectivelyfrom the future (from the ship's frame of reference, of course). That little wrinkle of R&D and relativity is something I had never thought of or read before.

PS The author of this quiz — Perhaps a Mr. Mark Stewart, Sustainability Manager, who signed the email informing of it — as well as Joe Haldeman, ought to read this 2010 article by Ron Bailey, "Sustainability Semantics."

PPS Failing that, they should read these two posts by David Friedman, which more directly get to the point of the uselessness of "sustainability" as a word and concept.
My university is very big on sustainability. A quick search of its web site failed to produce any clear definition of the term, but I think a reasonable interpretation, based on the word itself and how I see it being used, is that it means doing things in such a way that you could continue doing them in that way forever. If so, the idea that sustainability is an essential, even an important, goal strikes me as indefensible.
The first post begins, quite appropriately for this circumstance:
To see why, imagine what it would have meant c. 1900. The university existed, it had a lot of students and faculty. None of them had automobiles. Many, presumably, had horses. Sustainability would have included assuring a sufficient supply of pasture land for all those horses into the indefinite future. It might have included assuring a sufficient supply of firewood. It would, in other words, have meant making preparations for a future that was not going to happen. [...]
Here is part of second post:
A commenter on my previous post informs me that:
The generally accepted definition comes from the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
There are two problems with this definition. The first is that implementing it requires us to predict what the future will be like in order to know what the needs of future generations will be. Consider two examples [...]

Generalizing the point, "sustainability" becomes an argument against whatever policies one disapproves of, in favor of whatever policies one approves of, and adds nothing beyond a rhetorical club with which partisans can beat on those who disagree with them.

20 April 2011


Easily Distracted | Timothy Burke | Two Cups Short of a Full Service

If I gave you an unlimited line of credit and carte blanche to run everything your way, do you think you could make a single secondary school work? I mean, really work so it was beyond reproach, was by almost any measure superior in outcomes and character and ethos to any alternative? Now what if I took away from you the choice of where your school was located and restricted you to pupils who lived within 30 miles of your school? Now what if I required you to obey all relevant national and local laws addressing education? Still confident? Now what if I made you operate within a budgetary limit that was generous by local and national standards but not unlimited? Getting harder yet? Now what if I put your school in a location with very little infrastructure and serious structural poverty?

The point here is that when one crucial task like that is hard enough, we should be deliriously happy to see a person dedicate their life and money and effort to make that task work.
No. We should be deliriously happy when someone does make that task work, or work better. We should be supportive and appreciative but ultimately unimpressed when someone makes an effort to make it work.

Development and charity and reform projects are, in the long-run, poisoned by people's acceptance of effort in place of results.

Efforts are laudable, but we need to be able to admit when something is not working and move on to the next approach, rather than patting ourselves on the back for how hard we've worked and feigning insult and indignation when someone points out that nothing has been accomplished.

19 April 2011

Bad Luck

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Medicare and adverse selection

Brad DeLong attempts a Theory of Mind task:
Tyler Cowan [Cowen] would probably say: tough. If you were born with a tendency toward high cholesterol you ought to have known that by age 20 and been busily saving all your life in order to pay the extra expected costs of treating your heart diseases. But I don’t think the rest of us are willing to say that a bad dice roll in the genetic lottery plus an absence of foresight should doom you to an early, untreated death.
Since I believe none of that, I will offer no grade. Nor do I believe in privatizing Medicare, as another part of Brad’s post (“In Tyler Cowen’s world, those who want to buy Medicare almost surely cannot. The market to sell and buy medical risk is unlikely to exist.”) seems to suggest and it was only last week that I distinguished my view from this, endorsing the Yglesias-Krugman argument that privatized vouchers bring higher costs.

I do believe in a core set of Medicare services, topped off with the ability to choose how much of your extra benefit comes in the form of either Medicare or Social Security benefits (cash). It is nonetheless an interesting question whether that system would encounter adverse selection as a major financial problem. A few points:

1. When it comes to the elderly, adverse selection as a problem is overstated. [...]

6. The general approach of “give everyone some basic benefits for free, and then allow everyone to top off at some opportunity cost” applies to food (food stamps), education (free K-12), housing, and now, with ACA, to health coverage for the non-elderly, among other areas. And yet many people think the approach is morally outrageous. The correct way to proceed is not to lash out, but to start by admitting in which spheres the approach makes sense, and then seeing how far outwards those arguments can radiate.
Trying to build an observation around a Brad DeLong post like building four castles on a swamp, but here we go nevertheless.

(1) What portion of health resources are expended making up for bad genetic luck? It is not a priori obvious to me that this is significantly bigger portion than the resources expended making up for poor lifestyle choices.

Requiring people to deal with the consequences of genetic predisposition for high cholesterol is a harder sell than requiring people to deal with the consequences of smoking, riding motorcycles, or eating fast food daily. Differentiating between these two categories is difficult, but that is no reason to act as if everything is the result of fate.

(2) What DeLong calls "absence of foresight" others might as accurately call "irresponsibility." No matter what we call it people must sooner or later be responsible for decisions of that type.  We can have a debate about how paternalistic we should be to shield people from their own absence of foresight/irresponsibility, but let's be honest that that is what we are trying to do.

(I did not see many people during the HCR debate making what I believe is an honest and consistent argument for the expansion which happened, which is "The American people are too feckless to provide for their own healthcare, so they we must take their money and do it for them." That is something I do not agree with but I respect, and with which I can engage.)

(3) Regardless of #1 & #2 I concede that genetic bad luck leading to higher lifetime healthcare resource consumption is something society may want to share the burden of alleviating. What I want to know, and have wanted to know for years without hearing a satisfying answer — or even an unsatisfying attempt at an answer — is why do we have an imperative to shield people specifically from bad luck relating to health but not other forms of bad luck?

That's why I include Cowen's sixth and final point. We don't feel a societal imperative exists to protect people from bad luck when it comes to, for instance, depression, or dyslexia, or tornadoes, or shortness (which negatively affects lifetime outcomes for men at least), or neglectful (but not criminally so) parents, or infertility, or a failed attempt at entrepreneurship, or any number of other things which can drag down lifetime outcomes?

Why do we feel a need to make sure that old people feel no financial consequences of bad luck when that bad luck takes the form "genetically susceptible to higher cholesterol" or "slipped, fell and broke hip" but not when it takes the form of "house struck by lightening resulting in loss of all personal property"?

I would feel more comfortable with a guaranteed minimum income — potentially with some of it paternalistically earmarked for housing, health, food, etc. — and leave it at that then I would with our mishmash of current jerry-rigged programs where we protect you from...

  • certain health risks (but only if you meat certain age or income thresholds and where your preferences align with the universal ones set out by the cost-benefit analyses of various advisory boards or committees)
  • natural disasters (but only certain types and in certain places like floods of the Mississippi but not other rivers, fires in the South West but not elsewhere)
  • accidents and attacks that Ken Feinberg has had a hand in distributing victim compensation for but not other disasters with less media attention
  • falling housing prices but imperfectly and exclusively when your legislature is pitching a fit about housing
  • rising rents in some jurisdictions, but only if you're lucky enough to win the pseudo-lottery for the limited housing stock
  • job loss some of the time, especially if you are part of a concentrated, highly-visible set of people who lost their jobs all together (even better if it was a blue collar job and the loss can be blamed on foreigners) but not at all if you are self-employed or part-time
  • &c.

"Flying Hair"

Why is hair and fur so difficult to model well with computer graphics? You need particle systems with a complicated set of interactions and constraints and collisions and that results in a whole lot of data about each incremental length of each hair with regards to its position and acceleration and velocity and relationship to the length of hair above it, and you end up having to do a quadratic number of calculations to...

You know what? Take a look at this and then tell me if you think modeling hair would be easy.

Via The World's Best Ever

18 April 2011


Reason: Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | America's Tax System In Just 72,536 Easy Pages

How many pages does it take to lay out the insanely complicated rules and requirements of our tax code? According to tax publisher CCH, the total number of pages devoted to federal tax code rules, IRS rulings, and regulations has grown to 72,536:

It's no wonder that even the government's own experts and officials can't figure it out. Any system of rules that requires in excess 72,000 pages to explain and understand borders on useless. At this point it might as well be Calvinball.

Via Cato's Chris Edwards.
Can you imagine trying to maintain a codebase that was that large and growing at such a pace? And one that was written in something resembling an esoteric language? And that had not as much as a single unit test or assertion to ensure anything resembling consistency or reliability? And that was being interpreted by non-deterministic, error-prone humans rather than a compiler? And whose design was being set out by politicians instead of engineers?

I would rather gouge out my eyes than work in that sort of mental space.

Don't get me started on the ability of mere citizens to comply with a library worth of tax law.

"Into the Mystic"

Van the Man has a back catalog which is inexcusably under-covered.

Funded vs Unfunded vs N/A

EconLog | Arnold Kling | My Perspective on the Budget Fight

I don't think of the long-term budget fight as being between Democrats and Republicans or between rich and poor. I look at it as a fight between people with funded retirements and unfunded retirements.

If I have saved enough to support my lifestyle in retirement, then I have a funded retirement. If my neighbor who teaches in public school wants to support a similar lifestyle based on her pension, then she has a retirement that is somewhat unfunded. That is, as of now, her pension plan has only about fifty cents for every dollar of promised benefits.

Social Security and Medicare also are unfunded. Their "trust funds" consist of government bonds. If I took care of my own retirement the same way, the drawer where I keep statements from mutual funds that I own would instead be filled with IOU's from myself. More important, the actuarial shortfall in Social Security and Medicare, like that in my neighbor's pension plan, is very large.

Down the road, someone is going to get the shaft. It could be my neighbor, it could be me, or it could be both of us. That is, people who are relying on the unfunded systems--public sector pensions, Social Security, and Medicare--might find their benefits cut. Or people who are relying on personal savings could wind up having those savings taxed away in order to address the shortfalls in the public systems. Or all of us could have our savings eroded by inflation, from which we may not be able to protect ourselves.

Have a nice day.
Recall the One and Two Marshmallow Eaters.

I would add a wrinkle to Kling's analysis which strikes me as very important, perhaps because I am younger than he is.

In this struggle between those with funded and unfunded retirements, with whom will people who have not yet had a chance to fund retirements throw in? Let's say people with an age less than 30, including those with a negative age.

(Sidenote: the not-yet-conceived have got to be the single most unrepresented, powerless group in contemporary democracies.)

I fear my generation and the ones behind us will throw in with the unfunded retirements, because (a) it is the trendy and cool and progressive thing to do, (b) we are not as willing to fight for our generation as the Boomers are, and (c) most of my cohort do not want the opportunity to save for their own futures because that entails the responsibility to do so.

No matter who we throw our collective lot in with, and what method of retirement financing other people choose, we will be the ones who will have to consume less than we produce to make retirement possible for those older than us. This will be easier or harder depending on how much more production than consumption (and thus investment) they have chosen to do, but any way you slice it we're the ones who will have to do the excess production. This ought to be a much bigger issue for my generation than it is.

15 April 2011

Medicare Objector

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | A Christian Scientist’s guide for opting out of Medicare

You will find it here (pdf), and the broader set of links is here, some of the key material starts at p.10. There is some general background here. You can’t get your “money back,” but you can have the payments transferred to a qualified Christian Science care facility. In other words, Medicare will pay for prayer. A few points:

1. It would be easy to generalize this idea, and also easy to give people — whether or not they are Christian Scientists — some of their money back in return for forgoing higher levels of care.

2. American society recognizes the right of Christian Scientists not to pursue traditional forms of Medicare. Can not that principle be extended, and in a way which saves money?

3. There is no public outcry about the horrible life outcomes, and endings, suffered by older Christian Scientists (there is a justified outcry about foregone treatments for the children). It is not obvious that they have worse or less dignified deaths. [...]

4. In any case I see no obvious moral repugnance, or public unacceptability, to giving people more money, in return for the equivalent of Christian Scientist health outcomes at later ages.

5. That said, taking the money instead of the Medicare does not (at all) require you to consume zero subsequent health care. [...]
I see parallels of extending the ability of members of recognized Peace Churches to apply for conscientious objector status to the current Selective C.O. system.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind in this discussion is that the current all-you-can-eat system is not sustainable no matter what. Someone, somewhere, will have to get less medical resources provided for them at no cost. Maybe it's higher eligibility ages, means-testing, rationing by commissions or trade groups, market-allocation, etc. but something absolutely must give. Bearing that in mind, why not make this sort of option available to people who are willing to take it?

To address the problem I discussed yesterday (the inability to to credibly commit to letting people who have opted out of the system go without care) I would propose a paternalist modification to the to the option Cowen offers.  Rather than giving people a lump of cash in exchange for withdrawing from the program, I would give them some cash along with a catastrophic insurance plan (i.e. actual insurance against low frequency, high impact events, and not the insulation scheme posing as "insurance" we have now).

14 April 2011

A diet plan that involves eating more food and exercising less

National Journal | Tim Fernholz | CBO Says Budget Deal Will Cut Spending by Only $352 Million This Year

A comparison prepared by the CBO shows that the omnibus spending bill, advertised as containing some $38.5 billion in cuts, will only reduce federal outlays by $352 million below 2010 spending rates. The nonpartisan budget agency also projects that total outlays are actually some $3.3 billion more than in 2010, if emergency spending is included in the total.
"If emergency spending is included"? Why would it possibly not be included? If money is going out the door — for emergencies or crises or trivialities or entirely foreseen circumstances or whatever other conditions — I want it counted.

Via Russ Roberts


The Economist | Philip Coggan | Falling short

When Gertrude Janeway died in 2003, she was still getting a monthly cheque for $70 from the Veterans Administration—for a military pension earned by her late husband, John, on the Union side of the American civil war that ended in 1865. The pair had married in 1927, when he was 81 and she was 18. The amount may have been modest but the entitlement spanned three centuries, illustrating just how long pension commitments can last.

A pension promise can be easy to make but expensive to keep.
Via P.E.Gobry, who comments:
I wonder if someone would calculate the net present value of that annuity. Given the low discount rate, I assume it’d be pretty high.

Related: if we must have pension benefits (why?) why not give them as lump-sum payments?
I think Gobry knows exactly why they aren't lump-sum payments. Because we'd be back to the unspeakable truths that many people would taste the money, and that we would be unable to protect people from the consequences of having done so.

No one is willing to give a pensioner a lump-sum because that would require them to tell all the people who were profligate with their lump to go pound sand when the money ran out.

powerful interests

A government is basically a means through which powerful interests protect themselves from unpleasant change.
That's a very good line from the Economist's Free Exchange today.

I would add an important caveat: there are far more "powerful interests" than most voters think of. GE and the SEIU, sure, but also...
  • doctors
  • farmers
  • old people
  • teachers
  • workers in shrinking industries (in terms of employment or output)
  • people who like any of the types of people listed above
  • "Concerned Parents" and other people worried about "The Children"
  • "The Middle Class" — whatever that means
  • people who like to see their nation as the biggest, baddest dog on the block, either militarily, economically or culturally
  • professional sports teams and leagues, and their fans
  • people with a specific vision for what other people's preferences should be regarding:
    • use of intoxicants
    • religion
    • mode of transportation
    • type of community lived in
    • sexual activity
  • etc.
You know what, scrap Free Exchange's original quote. It's an important thing to keep in mind, but not nearly as complete as I thought. Government isn't a way people protect themselves from change, it's a way for people to project their own desire of what society should be into reality.  This often has a small-c conservative prevention of change aspect to it (from both the Left and Right), but not always.

Uncomfortable Truth; Cash Grants

I read an interview with Peter Thiel last week (perhaps this one, though perhaps not) in which he said he thought political correctness was the biggest problem right now. I thought that was pretty crazy, until I read his explanation that he did not mean things like whether you call the head of a committee the "chairman" or the "chairperson" but instead he meant there were many important and true things which a politician can't say (and expect to remain a politician for long). I'm thinking of things like "housing prices will not go up forever / buying a house is not a guarantee you will make money on it" or "not everyone is cut out for college" or "the world is a risky place; the government will not be able to protect you from every conceivable act of terrorism" or "if you ever want to retire you will have to consume significantly less than you produce when working." These are true things that are rarely said by the Eloi, and less rarely acted upon.

So, that brings us to this:
Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Cash grants instead of Medicare?

Matt Yglesias tweets:
Yes, I think converting Medicare into a straight cash grant to seniors makes sense.
They might rather have a servant, or a better car, or an apartment which doesn’t require them to drive, or to eat a better diet or join a better gym. Or maybe they would rather live it up, travel, and perhaps die at a younger age. That’s what pro-choice means.

On the public choice side, this suggestion would turn seniors into an active constituency for health care cost control.

Nonetheless I propose a more modest version of the idea. When people turn a certain age, allow them to trade in the current benefits package for a minimalistic package (set broken limbs and offer lots of potent painkillers), plus some of the rest in cash, doled out over the years if need be. For some people, medical tourism will fill the gap.

But if a person wishes, he or she can keep the extant benefit structure and forgo the cash altogether. No one is forced to take this deal.

Objections? You might think that “health” has a special moral status of some kind, but keep in mind “health care” is only one way of many to better health care outcomes, so you still can favor increasing the degree of choice.
I think the first objection most people would raise to this would be something like "So if someone takes the cash payment and then gets cancer, you're really not going to give them chemo and radiation and operations and the rest and let the die?"

What does this have to do with Thiel? I think one of the most important things that is danced around without being said is that it is impossible to fully shield people from the consequences of their own decisions, or from their own irresponsibility.

If someone has been presented with Cowen's choice and taken the cash and blown it all on a trip to Vegas and then later wants extensive hospital services, there's a point you need to say "Sorry, pal, you had the option to protect yourself from bad luck and you didn't. Now you have to live with the consequences." Now this is a pretty morbid and extreme case of that, but it's something we're habitually reluctant to say even when the stakes are low. (e.g. Sorry, people who wrote willingly for HuffPo for free, you're S.O.L.)

The only way around this is to not give people choices which would make us feel mean when we had to enforce the consequences of them. But that exposes the ugly reality that the only way to shield people from the consequences of their choices is to take away their ability to choose. That's something no one wants to say out loud.

13 April 2011


Philip Greenspun's Weblog | Understanding Congress’s solution to the federal deficit problem

Let’s start with federal spending. The FY 2011 federal budget is approximately $3.82 trillion (3.82×10^12). Of that, approximately $2.17 trillion will be paid for by taxes collected and the remaining $1.65 trillion will be borrowed from our grandchildren.
[Digression: To be clearer, I think that should read "$2.17 trillion will be paid for by taxes collected this year and the remaining $1.65 trillion will be paid for by taxes collected from our descendants." Just to drive home the point that someone is paying taxes for this sooner or later.  Increased spending IS increased taxes: there is no option where taxes aren't collected to pay for the goodies.]
If we divide everything by 100 million, the numbers begin to make more sense.

We have a family that is spending $38,200 per year. The family’s income is $21,700 per year. The family adds $16,500 in credit card debt every year in order to pay its bills. After a long and difficult debate among family members, keeping in mind that it was not going to be possible to borrow $16,500 every year forever, the parents and children agreed that a $380/year premium cable subscription could be terminated. So now the family will have to borrow only $16,120 per year.
That is a pitiful performance. They can ratchet up spending by a trillion or so without really trying, but shaving off some pocket-change worth of cuts is a months-long trench war.

And it's mostly smoke and mirrors at that:
Reason: Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | Billion-Dollar Budget Cuts, We Hardly Knew Ye

Yesterday, I noted that the GOP's budget cut promises from $100 billion to $61 billion and then resulted in a deal party leaders claimed cut $38 billion but really cut just $14 billion. I ended the post with a question: "Any bets on how many days before the cuts disappear entirely?" I didn't intend the question to be taken literally. Perhaps I should have: The Congressional Budget Office now says the deal will reduce the budget deficit by just $353 million.
So Greenspun's fictional family really cut their spending by the cost of a single Metro ride.  Bravo, leaders.

~ ~ ~

Oh, and I see Obama has finally entered the ring on this fight.  That's good.  It's too bad he had to be brought kicking and screaming by Paul Ryan of all people, but at least he finally showed up.  I mean really, how long ago did the Simpson-Bowles report get released, and he's getting around to his take on it just now?  And if these are such great plans why weren't they in his budget this winter? This is not something he wants to be doing.

And the best he can muster is some promises that a committee will figure out how to cut Medicare spending at some point in the future in some as-of-yet undetermined ways, and some easily side-stepped restrictions on Congress that they will inevitably exempt themselves from.  That's weak sauce.

I would rant some about how clueless he either is or is pretending to be about the institutional incentives and Public Choice aspects involved with this, but screw it.  I'm not wasting the effort.  I'm going to go enjoy my book.  Good night.


"Old Typewriter" by Todd McLellan, on sale at 20x200.

I always associate typewriters with tagging along with my grandmother when she went to work in the office of the Church across the street from our house. I didn't know how to read, much less write, at the time, but I could be kept occupied all morning literally banging away on her typewriter.

This also reminds me of Damian Ortega's "Cosmic Thing," one of the most memorable contemporary sculptures I've seen recently.

Marketing & Parenting

Smithsonian Magazine | Jeanne Maglaty | When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?:

Gender-neutral clothing remained popular until about 1985. Paoletti remembers that year distinctly because it was between the births of her children, a girl in ’82 and a boy in ’86. “All of a sudden it wasn’t just a blue overall; it was a blue overall with a teddy bear holding a football,” she says. Disposable diapers were manufactured in pink and blue.

Prenatal testing was a big reason for the change. Expectant parents learned the sex of their unborn baby and then went shopping for “girl” or “boy” merchandise. (“The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell,” Paoletti says.) The pink fad spread from sleepers and crib sheets to big-ticket items such as strollers, car seats and riding toys. Affluent parents could conceivably decorate for baby No. 1, a girl, and start all over when the next child was a boy.
Paoletti is a historian at UMD specializing in children's clothing. She might be quite good at that, but the final quote above strikes me as poor understanding of business.

Yes, the more you differentiate your product lines, the more individual products you can sell, but the smaller the market for any one product becomes.   One strategy is to sell parents two sets of baby products differentiated by gender. Another perfectly viable strategy would be to sell a line of un-differentiated products, thereby doubling the potential number of buyers and more importantly driving down costs and thus improving profits on each sale.  Those are both equilibrium strategies, AFAICT, so there's no cause for invoking the specter of Big Business to explain why parents would voluntarily transition from one set of preferences to another.

For a similar issue of the intersection of commerce and children, see Bryan Caplan:
EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Is Capitalism Pro-Kid?

I'm pro-capitalism and pro-kid, and I'd like the two to be complementary. So I have to smile when Corinne Maier, author of No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children, blames capitalism (plus the French government) for high birth rates:
Maier's concern is that no one is doing anything to temper the idealised view of motherhood perpetuated by two equally potent forces in France: the State, which wants lots of babies to pay for future pensions, and greedy capitalist enterprises, which make a fortune selling baby clobber to gullible parents.

"I blame the State, which encourages a certain idea of the French family, because this is a way of defending our national system," she says. "Second, I blame capitalism, which encourages people with its seductive advertising because having babies creates big consumers who buy a lot, who need bigger apartments, bigger cars, new washing machines..."
I wish she were right, but she's not. Empirically, relatively capitalist countries have much lower fertility than the Third World. And Maier neglects a basic fact: Advertising can be used to push anything. If people didn't have kids, they'd have more disposable income, and advertisers would desperately struggle to attract their euros. Instead of big SUVs, they'd push two-seat sports cars; instead of new washing machines, new plasma TVs. And while it's true that people with kids want more living space, how often do you see ads for real estate on television or major magazines?

"Are you in?"

I'm going on a limb and saying Mike Flugennock is not in.


Mobile Opportunity | Michael Mace | The Real Lesson of Cisco's Billion-Dollar Flip Debacle

Presenting a stationary target is enough to doom any consumer electronics product. For example, what would have happened if Apple had stopped evolving the iPhone after version 1? You'd have no app store, no 3G. Today we'd be talking about iPhone as a cute idea that was fated to be crushed by commodity competition from Android.

Just the way we're talking about Flip.
This is a very interesting piece.

Personally I think Mace is smart to reject the "smartphones killed Flip" story line that seemingly everyone else is pushing. For one thing, he is correct to identify that explanation as the cause being given for pretty much every change in consumer electronics, and smartphones can't explain it all.  It's too facile an explanation.

For another, my three closest family members use Flips semi-regularly, and none of the ways they use them are amenable to replacement with smartphones. Mrs. SB7 isn't going to have a student record her lesson as a student teacher on their phone and send that to her supervisor. That's not going to work for several reasons; she needs a dedicated camera.

Now maybe my wife and parents are atypical and people like them don't comprise a big enough market to make the Flip a success, but I think it establishes that there is at least a basis for a market of people for whom smartphone are not an acceptable substitute, but prosumer-grade video equipment like a EOS 5D Mark II is overkill.
That's not an unusual story. It's almost impossible for any enterprise company to be successful in consumer, just as successful consumer companies usually fail in enterprise. The habits and business practices that make them a winner in one market doom them in the other.

The lesson in all of this: If you're at an enterprise company that wants to enter the consumer market, or vice-versa, you need to wall off the new business completely from your existing company. Different management, different financial model, different HR and legal. [...]

The other lesson of the Flip failure is that we should all be very skeptical when a big enterprise company says it's going consumer. Hey Intel, do you really think you can design phones? (link) Have you already forgotten Intel Play? (link)

I'll give the final word to Harry McCracken (link): "You can be one of the most successful maker of enterprise technology products the world has ever known, but that doesn’t mean your instincts will carry over to the consumer market. They’re really different, and few companies have ever been successful in both."

Right on.
I think this is actually a lesson the Big Three ought to learn.

One of the anecdotes that stood out to me in The Lords of Strategy was the disdain Ford, GM & Chrysler had for understanding their customers. Because they are prohibited from selling directly to car owners* they came to treat the dealerships as their "real" customers. As I see it, that pushes them further toward being a enterprise systems company like Cisco, and further from being a consumer company like Pure Digital was, even though their products are ultimately consumer goods.

It's not a perfect analogy, granted, but I think you see a lot of the problems in Detroit that Cisco seemed to struggle with when it came to the Flip: long development times, little innovation, attempts to shoe-horn things in to what they already know and do rather than search for new opportunities, a focus on lower volume higher margin products resulting in an inability to produce high-volume, low-cost products as well (video conferencing equipment for corporate clients in Cisco's case; trucks and SUVs in Detroit's).

(* And seriously, how much bullshit is that? It's easier for me to pick up a 911 from the factory floor than a Focus. I know dealerships are hugely influential ith Congress, but if we were so concerned with the state of American-founded car companies wouldn't step #1 be to let them sell directly?)

12 April 2011

A small step towards free trade within the US

Dave McIntyre's WineLine | Dave McIntyre | Maryland Enters the Modern (Direct Shipping) Era

Finally! After years of waiting, Maryland wine lovers will soon be able to send wine home from their California vacation, thanks to a new law approved by the state legislature in the session just ended.
It's not a total victory - we can't order wine from out-of-state retailers, for example. And the legislature wouldn't approve corkage bills that would have allowed diners to bring their own wine to Maryland restaurants. But we'll take it.
This is a very small step to post-Prohibition sanity, but I'll take it too.

11 April 2011


I was out of town for a wedding this weekend, but from what I have gathered since returning my reaction consists largely of a bored yawn.

It's been sound and fury about nothing more than nibbling around the edges.  A good student of CS should immediately recognize the circus surrounding this deal as premature optimization of the worst and most destructive sort, the sort which was correctly identified by Knuth — hyperbolically but usefully — as "the root of all evil."

~ ~ ~

Don Boudreaux correctly labels this situation "a joke."
Suppose that in a mere three years your family’s spending – spending, mind you, not income – jumps from $80,000 to $101,600. You’re now understandably worried about the debt you’re piling up as a result of this 27 percent hike in spending.

So mom and dad, with much drama and angst and finger-pointing about each other’s irresponsibility and insensitivity, stage marathon sessions of dinner-table talks to solve the problem. They finally agree to reduce the family’s annual spending from $101,600 to $100,584.
Harry Reid is busy patting himself on the back, but I would prefer he and his colleagues took off their red rubber noses and giant shoes and stopped clowning around.

~ ~ ~

Somebody wake me when there are adults in Washington willing to deliver painful news to their voters. Ryan comes closest so far. Say what you will about the specifics of the plan or the outlandish employment figures he drummed up to sell it, he is at least willing to tell people they will not get a limitless supply of medical services in their dotage. Shame on the people who attack this by sputtering "but this will cut Medicare spending!" Yes. That's rather the point. Now can you come up with an alternative better than "don't turn right!"? NB: Only taxing "the rich" is not a viable option.

(Digression-from-the-digression: health insurance plans for older people are not expensive for reasons of chance, fate, or greed. They are expensive because old people tend to consume many resources in the form of health care. There is no conceivable policy which will somehow make insuring them less expensive without limiting the amount of underlying resources being consumed. The price of the insurance is a sideshow.)

It is heartening to begin hearing things like this from congressmen ...
I mean on the one hand this is the single largest year-to-year cut in the federal budget. Frankly, in the history of America in absolute terms, and in inflation adjusted terms, it’s the biggest since World War II. Probably for that we all deserve medals, the entire Congress. Relative to the size of the problem, it’s not even a rounding error. In that case we probably all deserve to be tarred and feathered.

Jeb Hensarling (R-TX)
... but I want to see Hensarling go home to Texas and tell people that the MID is going to end, the Dept. of Education is being shuttered, and Medicare is no longer an all-you-can-eat buffet at the next generation's expense. I'll believe statements like the one above when I see them being backed up by policies angering specific constituencies.

You should hear Caleb Brown interviewing Sen. Bob Corker about the budget last week. Corker talks a good game about budget cuts, but when Brown asks him to name a specific programs he would cut Corker can't identify a single, solitary thing. Not a thing. It was a shameful, shameful performance by Corker.

~ ~ ~

I wish DC had billboards just so we could post these across the street from the Senate and House office buildings.

Via Coyote Blog, Cafe Hayek, and various including P.E.Gobry

07 April 2011

Shutdown pt 2

One more post worth quoting in total:
ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | Patriotism, the shut down, and the eye of the beholder

Mark Kleiman on "Patriotism":
If the Republicans don’t get their way about denying women reproductive choice and fouling the air, they’re willing to let the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan miss their paychecks. Yes, the pay will be accrued, waiting for the soldiers whenever the Republicans decide to grow up. But in the meantime, rent checks will bounce, credit card payments will be missed, bank fees will pile up, and utilities will be cut off.
It all depends on your point of view, doesn't it? For example, I would just slightly tweak Mark's post:
If the Republicans Democrats don’t get their way about denying women reproductive choice killing babies, funding NPR's liberal propaganda, and fouling the air letting the EPA wreck the economy, they’re willing to let the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan miss their paychecks. Yes, the pay will be accrued, waiting for the soldiers whenever the Republicans decide to grow up. But in the meantime, rent checks will bounce, credit card payments will be missed, bank fees will pile up, and utilities will be cut off.
Hmm. I think I like my version better. But your mileage may vary.
Think of this next time you pull up behind someone with one of those "if you want peace work for justice" stickers.

The problem isn't that some people care about justice and others don't, it's that people fundamentally disagree about what is just.

Similarly here it is not that some people care about {soldiers, women, children, nature, mom, apple pie, baseball, art, truth, education, ...} and others don't. It's that they disagree about what is best for those things and how much money to tax and spend on them. No one's political party has a monopoly on caring and love and morality.


Kids Prefer Cheese | Mungowitz | Pelsmin: Bad That It's True, But Worse That Obama Likes It

From KPC uber-friend Pelsmin:
In Obama's statements about the dangers of a shutdown, he ranted about how the economy would be crushed if the Federal Government stopped its work. He then gave a list:

  • People couldn't sell their homes to other people.
  • Small businesses couldn't secure loans to expand
  • Companies couldn't proceed with new plants or expansion plans.

He is basically arguing that individuals can't engage in private transactions with each other unless the Federal Government is there to let it happen.

The scary thing is, he may be right.

  • FHA handles 40% of all home purchase mortgages
  • SBA and other programs make up a large proportion of small business loans
  • EPA has a choke hold on any plant expansion and "environmental impact" hurdle that must be cleared before a factory can be built.

I guess the scary thing isn't that he believes this to be the case, but that he's comfortable with the fact that it IS the case.
It is interesting: for our President, the government actually IS the economy.
Apologies for quoting the entire post, but I think this is worth seeing in its entirety.

I think it is related to — but much more nuanced and correct than — the refrain I have heard many times in the last few days and wanted to respond to. That refrain goes like this: "So what if they shut down non-essential government operations? They shouldn't be going anything non-essential anyway."

I agree with many people who have been saying that the State has expanded well beyond it's necessary and reasonable bounds, but "non-essential," for the present purposes, is not particularly congruent with "things it is 'proper' for the government to do." (However you might define 'proper.') The provision of various public goods, for instance processing of patents or maintenance of transportation infrastructure, will AFAIK, cease during a shutdown. Many things I do not want the government to be doing, like controlling interstate alcohol transportation, will continue.

I agree with the small-government sentiment here, but it is sloppily expressed. Contrary to the standard M.O. in politics, I think it is more important to be critical of your allies' arguments than your enemies.

Spotted in the campus parking lot

A bumper sticker reading "Honk if you believe in Jesus the Riemann Hypothesis."

That wins the crown for geekiest bumper sticker I have seen, besting previous champ "If this sticker is blue you are driving too fast."  (It's only funny if you know it's a red sticker.  And you're a huge nerd.)

06 April 2011

We will distribute the evacuation plans after the ship has sunk AND is resting on the bottom

My friend at the GSA reports that they were instructed by the White House to begin telling people what to do if there is a shutdown.

And then less than 24 hours later the permission was rescinded.

Transparency! Openness! Leadership!

05 April 2011

We will distribute the evacuation plans after the boat has sunk.

I have it from a well-placed source in the GSA that they have been forbidden by the White House to mention the possibility of a shut-down to their employees. Literally, they can not even admit to their employees that it is possible, despite the fact that it is widely reported across the length and breadth of the land and everyone knows it to be true. It's a first-rate Emperor's New Clothes situation.  The only way this makes sense is if federal shutdowns are like Beetlejuice, and invoking their name causes them to exist.

Apparently the GSA communications division was attempting to prepare a FAQ for their people about, for instance, what do you do if you're out of town on federal business and the government shuts down? Nothing about budgetary policy, political opinions, or likelihood or shutdown, or prognostication. Just what to do if it happens.  These are things which are part of federal law and regulation, enshrined in the appropriate public documents, and they were attempting to publicize them to their employees.  This factual briefing was prohibited by the White House, presumably because they thought it might provoke the wrath of the Shutdown Demons or something.

To top it off, my friend at the GSA was told that they would be allowed to distribute the information about what to expect if there is a shutdown after a shutdown occurs. Except, of course, no one will be able to access the official channels to send out or receive that info once the shutdown has happened.  And it will be useless.  Until then they are instructed to put their heads in the sand and pretend that there is nothing to see. Which is exactly what you would expect in the new era of transparency and openness in Obama's Washington.