31 May 2011

Went to the movies last night

(1) They have some of those ATM-like devices for ordering and printing tickets, without having to wait in line to see one of the people behind the ticket window. I do not understand why any theater of this size (20 screens) would still bother with human-run ticket booths. I would rip ticket counters out entirely and replace them with a wall of ticket machines.

Maybe you leave one human ticker seller for the luddites, but the margins for a theater owner are pretty slim. This seems like a no-brainer profit enhancer to me. What am I missing?

(2) I would also sell drinks and popcorn through the ticket machines. It would be like ordering sandwiches at a Wawa. Punch in what you want, pay for it in a single transaction with your ticket, and collect a receipt with your order number. Then proceed to the concession stand to pick up your salty goodies.

This way I don't need to wait in line twice, or spend time paying twice. The theater owner doesn't have to pay credit card fees twice, pay someone to wait on me twice, have people skipping buying snacks because they don't want to wait twice. Plus he would need fewer man hours of labor, nd the hours he did use would be more productive, since many employees would have only to prepare orders, not take them and process payment as well.

25 May 2011

"Do Something!" laws that can't even do that.

Reason: Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | Be Thankful You Can Still Buy That Jumbo Bottle of Tylenol

But I guess I should consider myself lucky that I can still, in the Land of the Free, waltz into a Walmart or Costco anytime I feel like it and load up on as much acetaminophen or aspirin as I want. That is not true of Brits with headaches, as Stephen J. Dubner recently explained at the Freakonomics blog. A 1998 law aimed at preventing suicides limits sales to 32 tablets per transaction in pharmacies and 16 in other retail outlets.
This is the sort of law that really grinds my gears. Forget about libertarianism. This is a stupid law if you're the sort of person that believes that if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.

Let's just say that the State needs to protect people from their own suicidal feelings by limiting sales of certain drugs. That's the goal. Why, oh why why why! would you place different limits on the number of tylenol someone could buy in a drug store than they can elsewhere?

If more than 16 tablets are dangerous, why make them legal at pharmacies?* If >16 tablets aren't dangerous, why make them illegal at groceries?

(* And frankly, it is dangerous, though no more so than dozens of other compounds you can buy without restriction like drain cleaner.)

This not only fails to stop the potential suicide who is too lazy or inept to go to more than one store, it fails to stop the person who refuses to shop at a pharmacy.

Even assuming that the liberty to buy acetaminophen is too hot for our hands and too cold for our spines, this law doesn't even succeed in protecting us from ourselves.

In which I full-heartedly, 100% agree with Obama on something

The Daily What | Time Traveler of the Day

While signing the guestbook at Westminster Abbey today, President Obama botched the date, writing 2008 instead of, um, ah, 2010. 2012? Anyway, the date is wrong.

People focusing on the flub are overlooking a far worse infraction: The European-style date format. What’s next? The metric system? I’d rather die.

Bullshit. This is a far superior system to the standard M/D/Y arrangement in America, and unlike the metric system, it's trivially easy to adapt to. I've been using it for over ten years and never confused anyone.  Big-endian dates makes sense (actually more sense, if you're going to be sorting), little-endian makes sense (like Obama did here), but this zig zagging month-day-year thing people in this country do has absolutely nothing to recommend it.

Not Curious

Imprint: Daily Heller | Steven Haller | A Curious Similarity

I don’t want to trivialize the inhumane horrors that African slaves endured on slave ships (above) destined for the Americas. But after a recent airplane trip, sitting tightly next to my neighbor in steerage seats, I feel the discomfort and pain endemic to the current air experience has certain curious similarities.

Ever notice how similar the seating plans of airplanes resemble the more horrific layout (yet efficient design of those slave ships)? Could airplane designers be unconsciously influenced by them?
No. One thousand times no.

This is about as curious as the observation that reams of paper and cinder blocks and cases of wine get packed on to pallets in roughly the same way. Which is to say, it's not curious at all. Comparing airliners to slave ships is about as relevant as claiming I should build a shed out of wine, or feed bricks into my printer.

Function constrains form. Sailing ships and jetliners are both trying to move through fluids, so their general shape ought to be the same: long, rounded on the front, perhaps slightly tapered. They're also trying to move physical objects efficiently (whether whether those objects are willing or not). That almost always means you put things in rows. (Unless the objects in question are spherical, then hexagonal packings can also be used. Also assuming we're in three dimensions here; higher dimensional closest packing problems give me headaches.) I challenge you to design an efficient plane that doesn't put passengers in rows. Go ahead.

Via The World's Best Ever

23 May 2011

Blame Gatsby

Reason: Hit & Run | Tim Cavanaugh | Froshes Can't Handle Queen's English: Blame Gatsby (or Wolfsheim)

College comp teacher Kim Brooks has an ancient complaint: The kids these days don't know a participle from a predicate.

But her diagnosis in this Salon essay is new: High school teachers wasted time with literature when they should have been teaching students to read and write. Brooks writes:
[In high school] I lived for English, for reading. I spent so much of my adolescence feeling different and awkward, and those first canonical books I read, those first discoveries of Joyce, of Keats, of Sylvia Plath and Fitzgerald, were a revelation. Without them, I probably would have turned to hard drugs, or worse, one of those Young Life chapters so popular with my peers...

Only now, a decade and a half later, after seven years of teaching college composition, have I started to consider the possibility that talking about classics might be a profound waste of time for the average high school student, the student who is college-bound but not particularly gifted in letters or inspired by the literary arts. I've begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write...

Was it really so essential that these students read Faulkner? Most of them, frankly, seem to struggle with plain old contemporary prose, the level of writing one might find in, say, the New Yorker. Wouldn't they have been better off, or at least better prepared for the type of college work most will take on (pre-professional, that is), learning to support an argument or use a comma?
I’d go further than Brooks. I question whether teaching “canonical” books and teaching English usage are part of the same general subject area.
Agreed. Paul Graham had a good essay on this a few years ago.  His thesis was that it is historical accident that we teach literature and language in the same classroom, and the two ought to be separated.

I would guess that how you feel about the relative merits of teaching high schoolers literature and language correlate strongly with whether you think education should be primarily consumption or investment.

I was discussing the place of lit in English classes with Mrs SB7, who has just started her career as a high school English teacher.  She was asking me what sorts of things I remembered (and remembered fondly) from my high school classes.

It occurred to me that a great majority of the assignemnts I received in English class could be broadly called literary criticism or analysis. There were a few exceptions — one one-act play, a biographic speech, a handful of poems — but nineteen assignments out of twenty were literary analysis.

And yet we had read absolutely no literary analysis! There was nothing at all to learn from. I might as well have had an art teacher who never bothered to show us a painting, or a journalism teacher who neglected to show us a newspaper.  We were attempting to do this analysis completely blind, and I think it is the cause of a lot of the frustration I, my classmates, and the students in Mrs SB7's school feel.

Not only did we not read literary analysis in English, I think I hardly read any non-fiction in school at all. (Not counting text books, which are really a class unto themselves.) Isaac's Storm was one of the optional books on one summer reading list. We read one biography of our choosing, once.* Other than that... nothing.

Everything I wrote in high school English, History, Civics, and so forth — excepting those three assignments mentioned above** — was non-fiction. And everything I read was fictional.  What was I supposed to be learning from? What was my reference? How are you supposed to get better at writing if you never read, and read the sorts of things you are trying to write? Reading Shakespeare is fine, but you can read the entire first folio front to back four times over and it won't give you any idea how to comment on Shakespeare, to say nothing of doing so intelligently.

* I went with Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and still remember it fondly.
** We were assigned to write a one-act play without ever having read one of those either.

PS Later in his post Cavanaugh talks about a profile of David Mamet and his opinions about education and literature and writing and his politics.  By coincidence, I just mentioned this memo from Mamet to the writers of The Unit to Mrs SB7.  It is the sort of thing I should have been shown by an English teacher in high school if they were going to have me spend that much time analyzing drama.

Even the mighty

Just what it says on the tin.

I love the sound track from about 20 to 26 seconds. "There he is! Wooooo! Yeah!" KERTHUNK. "Owwwwwwwwwwww. Hehehehe."

Come to think of it, that's a decent description Obama's presidency to date.


Maybe I wouldn't be so acerbic if instead of zipping off to Europe the POTUS was back here attending to satisfying the Wars Powers Act.

(Via The Daily What.)

Frames of Reference

Political Calculations | Ironman | The Right Frame of Reference

How does today's U.S. federal government spending compare to the levels recorded before the recession?

That's an important question to ask because a lot of politicians and bureaucrats have a pretty large stake in keeping federal spending at elevated levels. How elevated those current levels of spending are with respect to what was typically recorded in the ten years before the most recent recession began [pdf] is the subject of our data visualization exercise today!

[...] The period of 1998 through 2007 makes for a very nice comparison because it contains both a period of time in which the U.S. government ran budget surpluses (1998-2001), a period of recession with an extended period of recovery (2001-2003), and also a period of time where the government ran what were considered for the time to be record high budget deficits (2002-2007).

Oh for those days! We suppose a good question for those politicians seeking to keep the federal government's spending so permanently high is why shouldn't the U.S. go back to those levels of spending recorded from 1998 through 2007, which just about everybody else in the world would call "normal" levels of spending for the U.S.?
Why indeed?

I've said over and over that 2007 was a pretty fine time. All I'm asking is to return to 2007 levels of spending. I'd even go for 2007 levels, adjusted up for population growth and inflation. But as soon as you propose that the big spenders tell scare stories about old people dying in the streets and children starting on street corners.

Obama promises "targeted and temporary" spending at the onset of this recession. That was a complete lie.

Omnia mutantur

The Big Questions | Steven Landsburg | Who Owes Whom?

Under the headline “Ultimatum Holding Up Trade Deals”, the New York Times reports that:
The Obama administration said on Monday that it would not seek Congressional approval of free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea until Republicans agree to expand assistance for American workers who might lose jobs as a result.
I have said this before and I will say it again: Anybody who loses his job because of a free trade agreement was overpaid to begin with. The $20-an-hour American who loses his job to a $5-an-hour Colombian is an American who has spent the past few years charging his countrymen twenty dollars for something they ought to have been able to buy for five.
I'd never thought about it quite like that, though I have had similar thoughts about unemployment (and especially the way unemployment insurance is organized).

Companies are often pilloried for laying people off. Paradoxically, they seem to be more heavily criticized the longer their workers have been employed. And woe to the firm which fires people whose parents (well, fathers only, in practice) also worked for the same firm.

I think this is a special sort of status quo bias.  What the firm is doing when firing people is not upsetting the state of nature, it is returning to it.  People see the resting state of the system as "however things were yesterday" and so firing people is a shift away from "the ways things ought to be."  But the natural state is to not be engaging in a particular trade.  There are uncountably many transactions that could be occurring in the economy; the default state is for each of them to not be occurring.  It is the hiring and continued employment that are the aberration, not the termination of employment.

I know emotions are high when jobs are terminated, but as impartial bystanders we should not blame companies for ending employment, we should be happy they created it in the first place.

19 May 2011

von Trier

AP/Yahoo News | David German | Cannes bans Lars von Trier after Hitler remarks

Von Trier told reporters at the 'Melancholia' news conference that he had some compassion for Hitler.

'What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. But I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end,' von Trier said. 'He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews. ...

'I am very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass.'

Von Trier went on to say he also admired Hitler aide Albert Speer."
I can't stand von Trier. The Dogme 95 manifesto and "vow of chastity" that he co-wrote are pretentious and arrogant, and fundamentally misunderstand Art. His films are over-rated and self-indulgent.

But all of that is hard to explain to people and doing so makes me look like a jerk. So I'm pleased from now on that I can answer "Why don't you like Lars von Trier" with the much more concise "He's a Nazi sympathizer."

PS I find it amusing that this assemblage of artists, claiming to value free expression, questioning of society's rules, outsiderness, etc. has decided this utterance is over the line. Everyone has sacred cows, even the people who pride themselves on skewering sacred cows.

18 May 2011

Steven Levitt takes paternalism rather explicitly

The state is not your daddy.
EconLog | David Henderson | Steven Levitt's "Daughter Test"
It wasn't until the U.S. government's crackdown on internet poker last week that I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity?

If the answer is that I wouldn't want my daughter to do it, then I don't mind the government passing a law against it.
This is from Steven D. Levitt, "The 'Daughter Test' of Government Prohibitions (And Why I'm so Angry About the U.S. Internet Poker Crackdown)."

What if I followed that test? I wouldn't want my daughter installing a nose ring. So if I followed Levitt's test, I wouldn't mind the government passing a law against nose rings. I could multiply the examples. The fact is that I'm fairly conservative in my tastes. So if I followed Levitt's test, I would not object to a whole lot of things governments want to do to people.

What's missing in Levitt? The whole idea of tolerance. It's easy to tolerate people doing what you would do and approve of. It's harder to tolerate what you don't approve of. It's even harder to tolerate activities and behaviors that you find disgusting. Levitt has just confessed that he's intolerant or, at least, that he won't object to a government that's intolerant. That's disappointing. I had expected better of him.
I hadn't expected better of Levitt. He can be tremendously sloppy. What I didn't realize was just how immature he could be. One of the marks of growing up is learning to accept that other people like different things than you do, and accepting that you can not stop other people from doing things you find icky. Where "icky" might be drinking, smoking, serving transfats, having gay sex, gambling, speaking foreign languages, hiring foreigners, wearing religious apparel, or eating bacon-wrapped hot dogs prepared on sidewalks. The impulse towards "There ought to be a law" in which Levitt is indulging is tremendously immature.

I don't want Steve Levitt (or anyone else) telling me what to do. But just as importantly, I don't want to tell other people what to do either. Levitt has no such compunction.

Science != Engineering

Singularity Hub | Peter Murray | Eight Out Of China’s Top Nine Government Officials Are Scientists

Did you know that the president of China is a scientist? President Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer. Likewise his Premier, Wen Jiabao, is a geomechanical engineer. In fact, 8 out of China’s top 9 government officials are scientists.
Hold the phone. Hu Jintao is a scientist. Trained in hydraulic engineering. Which is it? Scientist or engineer? You can be both. But they aren't the same thing.

This is a bit like saying "Did you know the mayor of Frosbite Falls is a poet? It's true: he has published seven novels."  The mayor could be a poet and a novelist.  I have an engineering degree but am a scientist by vocation.  Perhaps Hu took a similar path.

I'm all for more scientists and engineers in government, but let's maintain a bit of linguistic clarity, shall we?

(Via Marginal Revolution)

Brin's Pareto Pipe Dream

Daily Kos | David Brin | The "No-Losers" Tax Simplification Proposal

There is nothing on Earth like the US tax code. It is an extremely complex system that nobody understands well. But it is unique among all the complex things in the world, in that it's complexity is perfectly replicated by the MATHEMATICAL MODEL of the system. Because the mathematical model is the system.

Hence, one could put the entire US tax code into a spare computer somewhere, try a myriad inputs, outputs... and tweak every parameter to see how outputs change. There are agencies who already do this, daily, in response to congressional queries. Alterations of the model must be tested under a wide range of boundary conditions (sample taxpayers.) But if you are thorough, the results of the model will be the results of the system.

Now. I'm told (by some people who know about such things) that it should be easy enough to create a program that will take the tax code and cybernetically experiment with zeroing-out dozens, hundreds of provisions while sliding others upward and then showing, on a spreadsheet, how these simplifications would affect, say, one-hundred representative types of taxpayers.
No. This is not possible. It is an extremely appealing vision — Pareto improvements! provability! the frailty, irrationality and narcissism of human lawmakers replaced by impassionate math! no difficult sacrifices or hard decisions or political bargaining! — but it is a pipe dream.

I do not have the patience to explain why. I will simply point you to the Wikipedia article on The Curse of Dimensionality and leave you to it.

That is the only nail you need to close the coffin on this proposal, but I will give you some more.

This is very, very wrong:
But [the tax code] is unique among all the complex things in the world, in that it's complexity is perfectly replicated by the MATHEMATICAL MODEL of the system. Because the mathematical model is the system.
Many things are equivalent to their mathematical models, and yet doing complex calculations on them is extremely tricky and often impossible. Computer programs are equivalent to their models, and yet analysis of them is maddeningly complex. Despite the perfect congruence between programs and their models some questions are provably impossible to answer. (See, for instance, The Halting Problem.)

The tax code is not equivalent to a mathematical model of the tax code, because so much of it is vague or outright undefined. Those aren't provisions that lend themselves to mathematical analysis.

Brin is succumbing to the comforting illusion — quite popular now — that we can avoid raising taxes by instead "closing loopholes." The bad news for these folks is that all those "loopholes" were put there on purpose. Maybe for selfish purposes, but commonly enough for altruistic ones. They aren't accidents. Very vocal groups care very much about them, and the law of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs makes them devilish to get rid of. Then there is the meta-problem: assuming you can find a significant number of loopholes and eliminate them, how will you keep them from re-arising?

Now I would rather like to eliminate all such special provisions, raze the personal income tax code to the ground, sow it with salt and start over with a flat consumption tax, but Brin dismisses that as "utopian fantasy." Quite the reverse, I say: the goal of building a plan around identifying "loopholes" that no one cares about is the real illusion.

We ought to aim for a tax system which is machine operable, but let's not pretend we're close now.

(Via io9)

Edited to addWarren Meyer points out another crippling error in Brin's proposal that I completely missed: taxing human activity isn't a static operation.  People's behavior will change in response to changes in the tax code.  Brin is assuming that you can twist any of the numerous knobs on the tax side of things and you won't see any changes in the activities being taxed.

Popularity is orthogonal to morality

Reason: Hit & Run | Damon Root | Can't We Just Abolish the Supreme Court Before It Abolishes ObamaCare?

Lithwick says she’s been tempted to abandon judicial review by the arguments of New York University law professor Jeremy Waldron, who thinks “judges should not be allowed to have the authority to strike down legislation, period.” Here’s how she summarizes Waldron’s siren song:
Allowing judges to have the last word on the constitutionality of gay marriage, abortion, or capital punishment, he wrote, is fundamentally undemocratic. In countries that do not permit judicial review, the citizens themselves are allowed to decide whether such laws are permissible. Judicial review, he wrote, undermines democratic values "by privileging majority voting among a small number of unelected and unaccountable judges."
Let’s say that judicial review does “undermine democratic values.” Are those the only values that matter? A majority of voters in the Jim Crow South would have supported racially segregated public schools in a 1954 referendum. Does that mean we should criticize the “unelected and unaccountable” justices who handed down Brown v. Board of Education in 1954? What about the unelected justices who overturned an anti-Catholic, Klan-supported Oregon law banning private schools in 1925's Pierce v. Society of Sisters? Both Brown and Pierce could be accurately described as “fundamentally undemocratic” since they violated the wishes of the voting majority. But so what? Democracy can be a wonderful thing, but it also has its limits.
Voting does not actually define what is Right. It is a mechanism — a noisy and unreliable one — for approximating what it right. It works better than other mechanisms, but it is still an approximation, not a definition.

This is obvious to anyone if they care to take a moment to think about it. If 99% of people, in a free and fair election, decided to kill every newborn baby and sacrifice them to the volcano god, infanticide would still be wrong. A panel of "unelected and unaccountable judges" who forbade infanticide would no be "undermining democratic values." Or if they were, those are not values worth having.

Incidentally, this is exactly why judges shouldn't be elected. Their whole purpose is to make unpopular decisions. Their role is to follow the rules whether people like the results or not. If they were supposed to be enacting the will of the populace we wouldn't need them.

You can either try to make everyone rich, or no one rich.

Popehat | Patrick | [no title]

Perpetual Doomsday prophet Paul Ehrlich (most famous as the loser of a sucker’s bet) whines that the world’s worst problem is that there are too many rich people in it. Funny, I always thought the world’s biggest problem is that there aren’t enough rich people in it.
Ha! That's a fundamental division in the way some people think, right there.

The Draft and Slavery

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | How Could the Draft Not Be Slavery

It's tempting to dismiss all this as doublethink, but after many years of reflection I think I finally figured out what most people are thinking. Namely: They implicitly regard slavery not as mere involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude. Since most of us honor, respect, and even adore all our soldiers, conscripts have high status - and therefore can't be slaves. From this point of view, saying 'conscription is slavery' isn't righteously standing up for the rights of conscripts; it's wickedly denying them their high status. Sigh.
I reached the same conclusion when I was reading the 'graph he quoted immediately preceeding this, from White's decision in Arver v US:
[A]s we are unable to conceive upon what theory the exaction by government from the citizen of the performance of his supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude in violation of the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are constrained to the conclusion that the contention to that effect is refuted by its mere statement.
The key line is "his supreme and noble duty." To White, and most others, conscription isn't something that will require men to kill or face injury and death, it it something which allows him the opportunity to be noble and honorable.

Of course you could define anything as "supreme and noble duty" and reach the same conclusion, treacherous as that might be. It is supreme and noble to help feed your hungry neighbors, so you may be drafted into plowing fields and harvesting crops. It advances "the honors of the nation" to build monuments to our rulers, so you may be drafted to build triumphal arches and funeral pyramids. It is honorable and right to usher in new generations of citizens, so you may be drafted to bear and raise children for the state.

Another important line from the decision is "it may not be doubted that the very conception of a just government in its duty to the citizen includes the reciprocal obligation of the citizen to render military service in case of need and the right to compel." You can do the same flim flam hand-waving there. The government has a duty to its citizens to provide them with safe and efficient roads, so obviously there is a reciprocal duty of citizens to render grading and paving services, and such a duty can be compelled in time of need. Etc.

~ ~ ~

PS Semi-related: Fernando Teson on "Analogical Slavery" and whether Cuba is a slave society. Spoiler: it is. I would say any other society in which the rule is "he who does not obey does not eat" is a slave society as well.  Excepting, of course, situations in which people have freely chosen to enter into obedience, such as military volunteers or those taking religious vows of obedience. In those cases the Catholic Church is right: the decision to forgo freedom can itself be an expression of freedom, and servitude, if freely chosen, can be liberating.

16 May 2011

Warrants are so quaint

Kentucky v King, in which eight of our most wise and distinguished jurists decided that the police can manufacture their own exigency, is outrageous. (Read about that doozy here, here and here.)

What scares me is that it's not even the basest violation of the 4th Amendment in the last week.
Popehat | Patrick | How Could I Go Back To School After That And Pledge Allegiance And Sit Through Good Government Bullshit?

According to the Indiana Supreme Court, these words:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
are an inkblot on the Constitution, a random jumble of squiggly lines which mean nothing.

How else to explain Barnes v. State, in which the court upheld a battery conviction against Richard Barnes for shoving a police officer who had entered Barnes’ home illegally? The court held that society’s interest in peaceable relations between ruler and subject outweigh Richard Barnes’ right to be secure in his person, house, papers, and effects.

Apparently Barnes should have called the police to report that a strange policeman had broken into his home.
Scott Greenfield, to whom Patrick links, has this to say:
The case involved a domestic dispute, where the defendant was confronted by police outside his home. There was no basis to arrest him, any more than there is a basis to arrest a man any time he and his wife have an argument, and so the defendant went inside. He refused the police entry, and when they forced their way in, pushed an officer up against a wall. For that, he was charged with misdemeanor battery.

In defense to the charge, the defendant relied on his right to resist an illegal entry into his home, whether by police or anyone else. But the the entry was by police, officers of the state, made it of particular significance. This was the core evil against which the Fourth Amendment protects. Note the use of the past tense.

But this has now been declared archaic, a relic of a past age, of which modern man, and courts, no longer have need. The court says we have other, better, options than to resist: the exclusionary rule, internal police department review and disciplinary procedures and civil remedies. Perhaps this is a penumbra of the "new professionalism" we've heard so much about, and have yet to enjoy for ourselves.

The gist of the court's ruling, however, is that they're doing this for us, for the children, to safeguard us from violence. Resisting the police escalates violence, and enhances the likelihood that someone will be hurt. They just don't want us to get hurt, and if the front door to our homes is the cost of our safety, then so be it. As the court tangentially notes, it's not like law prohibiting police entry actually stops the police from doing as they please, so better to eliminate the law than mandate police adherence.
This is the same circular logic in Kentucky v Kling. Once the police have made a mistake, far better to let them continue with the mistake and trample on citizen's privacy than forcing them to deal with the original mistake.

It's the same reason we're told no-knock raids need to be used even for nonviolent offenses.  (The police choose to bring weapons in to the situation.  Once the weapons are there there is a risk of violence.  So better to use shock and awe to end things quickly.)

It's the same reason we're told we shouldn't be able to video record police on the job.  (Recordings of police misconduct erode public faith in the police, making crime more likely.  No, the misconduct isn't what erodes trust, just people knowing about it.)

In any of these situations the supposed problem could be solved if the police stopped screwing the pooch.  Instead we're told to surrender our rights to protect them from their own mistakes.

Lexicon Bleg

I was all in the mood to polish up and publish some of the huge stack of draft posts that have been backing up recently when Blogger shit the bed last week.  I decided to spend the time I wouldn't be blogging polishing up my overly rusty C++ chops, so I turned my attention to writing a program that would generate crossword puzzles. (Just fitting answers into a gird, not writing clues for them.) It's something I got assigned to do way back in undergrad, but I never had the time to do it right, and as a result I've wanted to revisit it for years.

After a surprisingly few hours over the weekend and it's working pretty well now. The key, as is so often the case, was having the right data structure to store the lexicon of possible words. It only needs to support one basic operation: determine if there is an entry n letters long which begins with a certain prefix. It's a bonus if you can populate the lexicon from an unordered list quickly, but you don't need to worry about deletion or insertions more generally.

I'm still playing around with some optimizations, like trying to fill the cells in Cantor diagonal order rather than row-major order, and perhaps incorporating letter frequency.

I think the biggest thing holding it back right now is the lack of a big enough list of words to choose from. Right now I only have 58,000 options to slot in to a puzzle.  Longer words are in especially short supply. Does anyone have an idea where I can find a plain text file with English words? Preferably lots and lots of words.  Most of the things I've found are aimed at linguists, so they're annotated with all sorts of parts-of-speech and pronunciation information that I don't want to have to deal with.

Bonus points if you know where I could find a list of phrases and names and idioms and other sorts of potential answers, but right now I'll settle for simple words.

Here are a couple of samples my system has come up with:



Some of the words in there are admittedly odd — "ide," "ye" — but they're in one of the word lists I'm working from, so the fault is there and not my algorithm's.  On the other hand some of the words are great — "gnu," "mesons," "infanta" — so I'll take the strikes with the gutters.

13 May 2011

"The Not-Too-Rich"

National Review Online | Reihan Salam | Blame the Not-Too-Rich - Reihan Salam

It is widely understood that the American middle class has fuzzy boundaries. Many relatively poor and relatively rich people identify as middle-class. In an ambitious 2008 survey, the Pew Research Center found that an extraordinary 53 percent of Americans described themselves as middle class.
Is that really so extraordinary?

Let's say you want to divide things up into three groups. Certainly putting them in three equal bins is one way to do that. But is putting the middle two quarters in one bin, and the upper and lower quarters in the others so unreasonable?

Since we seem to love quintiles so much when it comes to income, I wouldn't even find it that weird to consider the three middle quintiles the "middle class" and lop off the upper and lower quintiles as separate. (At this point it becomes important what options Pew's survey takers were given. Did they have a chance to describe themselves with high or low granularity?)

I wouldn't even find it unusual if 68% of people considered themselves in the middle of some distribution. That would be everyone within a standard deviation of the mean of a Gaussian, after all.

I would find 33%, 50%, 60% and 68% to all be pretty reasonable numbers. (And that's before we consider the cognitive difficulty people always have in assessing their place in an ordering of damn near anything, to say nothing of something which is taboo to talk about politely like your salary.) Before you claim 53% is "extraordinary" you tell me: what would ordinary be?

PS This is actually a decent piece, but it sure gets off to a rocky start with that opening. The final two paragraphs are the best.

PPS There is still a lot of verbal confusion by Salam — and he is certainly not alone in this — between current annual gross income, the summation of income over time, and the summation of income minus consumption over time. Be careful of flipping back and forth between those, especially when considering the slippery notion of "class."

PPPS Another inaccuracy: as much as I dislike the mortgage interest deduction and agree that it benefits mostly the wealthy, it does not "cost the Treasury" anything. Failing to take taxes from people is not a "cost" to the fisc, unless you think that all money ultimately belongs to government and they just deign to let you keep it in certain circumstances. I know I sounds like a stickler for this sort of linguistic thing, but if even conservative people like Salam use language with such collectivist connotations what hope does the overall debate have of staying accurate? I want to get rid of many of the "tax expenditures" that Obama does, I just think the name "tax expenditures" is a bold-faced lie.

11 May 2011

"DOJ Wants to Make ISPs Keep Data on Your Internet Use"

Reason: Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | DOJ Wants to Make ISPs Keep Data on Your Internet Use

Politico reports that the Justice Department wants Congress to make Internet service providers store data about their users for a specified length of time to facilitate federal investigations:
I find it deliciously ironic that the DOJ is aftercompanies like Google and Yahoo and Apple for collecting data about users without their explicit approval while simultaneously requiring ISPs to collect data about users without giving them any choice in the matter.

Sullum's conclusion is on-point:
Opponents of the Clipper chip, an encryption system with a government-held key that the Clinton administration wanted to mandate for telecommunications, used to ask whether we should all be forced to hand over over house keys to the local police, just in case they need them, or keep our window blinds up at all times to facilitate government surveillance. If those demands are unreasonable, why is it OK to insist that our ISPs keep track of us and save the records, just in case the government wants them? The argument for CALEA was that the government just wanted to keep the capability it historically had to listen in on phone conversations upon obtaining a warrant. Yet the statute now applies to email and other forms of communication that did not exist when wiretap law was developed. Likewise the DOJ's new legislative proposal. Why assume that Internet users must be trackable simply because phone lines used to be tappable?

Theology and Progressivity

Reason: Hit & Run | Mike Riggs | Catholic University of America Profs Accuse John Boehner of Hating Life

House Speaker John Boehner is set to jaw at Catholic University of America's commencement ceremony this weekend. But first he must be flagellated by a group of entitlement-loving CUA profs:
More than 75 professors at Catholic University and other prominent Catholic colleges have written a pointed letter to Mr. Boehner saying that the Republican-supported budget he shepherded through the House of Representatives will hurt the poor, elderly and vulnerable, and therefore he has failed to uphold basic Catholic moral teaching.

“Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings,” the letter says. “From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress"
I'm going to go ahead and stop right there.

(1) The GOP is, unfortunately from my point of view, advocating rolling back spending to levels not even to 2007 levels.

The US did plenty to support the poor four years ago. In fact 2007 was arguably a better time to be poor than any other time in US history. Going back to that situation is not an abandonment of some responsibility to the poor on behalf of the state.

(2) Let's assume, arguendo, that "those in power" are coincident with The State, and that The State has a responsibility to forcibly shift resources to the poor. (I assume that's what "preference the needs of the poor means.")

(a) We already do that.  This is an argument framed, as many often are, over whether policies should be progressive or not progressive.  Since policy is, on net, already progressive, the true distinction that needs to be made is whether they should be more progressive than they already are, not just whether they should be progressive at all.  I don't see how you get from what the CUA faculty wrote to there.

(b) The existence of a responsibility does not make that responsibility open ended. There are limits placed on that by how many resources the State, and eventually society, actually has. No matter how much we want to increase spending on some poor-benefitting program we must do that within the framework of what is possible, not what we desire. We can not have all the things we want. Merely arguing that we, and John Boehner specifically, ought to want more is irrelevant.

I saw this particular non sequitur a lot during the HCR debate.  Merely asserting a responsibility to make open-ended promises to provide health care does not make it possible.  We can not spend all available resources on health.  As much as we may philosophically want to be able to give people as many health resources as they desire without their having to pay does not make that a feasible plan.

(3) Catholic theology has been honed over thousands of years by some of the brightest minds in the West.  It is worth paying attention to.  But those bright minds spent those thousands of years in societies largely without economic growth or development.  Their ideas are born of a zero-sum world.  As such I think the Church has far less to teach about these sorts of issues than they do others.

For instance, the Church has not to the best of my knowledge developed an intellectual tradition which recognizes that a high growth policy which is less preferenced towards the poor today may lead to much better worlds for the poor in all future generations.  Nor has it ever had to.  But that's the world we live in now.  Just like the Church is feeling its way through how to deal with new concerns like STDs, it's going to need time to figure out what to do with economic development.  Rome didn't deal well with Galileo.  I would say it has done just as poorly assimilating Smith.

(4) I would assume that if "the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor" then these faculty members donate all of their compensation over and above the poverty line, or at least above the median wage level.  If not then I can't take serious their claims that there is a moral imperative to do this.  For it there was it would be a strange imperative indeed: one that they are not conscientiously obligated to obey even though they believe it exists, but all others should be compelled to obey by force even though they disagree.

(5) I know some of my good friends who read this both know more theology than I do and have come to different conclusions.  So you guys tell me: where am I wrong?

The age you get SS benefits is not a retirement age

Older workers: Take this job and retire from it | The Economist

I like this Ezra Klein post on Social Security, and I especially appreciate this thought:
Most opinion elites — [Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission Co-Chairman Alan] Simpson being one good example, and the U.S. Senate being another — show a very strong preference for working as long as possible. Most Americans show a very strong preference for retiring as early as possible. Elites who enjoy their jobs need to be very careful about generalizing their experience to people who don’t enjoy their jobs. More bluntly: Raising the retirement age is the worst of all possible options for reforming Social Security. It’s not only regressive, but it also falls most heavily on those with the worst jobs. Means-testing would be much better.
[...] Workers seem to be demonstrating that they put a substantial value on earlier retirement, which means that a rise in the retirement age would have a bigger negative impact on utility than you might imagine.
Now hold on just one second.

(0) I'm all for means-testing, as long as it is done based on lifetime earnings and not savings.  Social security is a welfare program, plain and simple, and it ought to act like it.

(1) Of course people show a preference for retiring — i.e. not working, i.e. continuing to consume without producing — earlier. That's a bit like observing that students show a preference for not having to go to class. People always show a preference for getting free lunches. That's not a serious argument for giving out free lunches.

(2) The age you are eligible for social security checks is not a minimum retirement age. You can retire whenever you damn well please. It is extremely unwise to do so until you have reached a point where your savings can cover your expected future consumption. But when that point happens and when SS checks start coming your way are two independent things.

No getting largess from the state is not the same as being forced to continue working. Getting largess is not the same as being prohibited from working.

Your actual retirement age is a function of the difference between your earning and your consumption. It is not legislated by congress.  Many acts of congress do change when people can amass sufficient savings, and perversely, many of them delay that point. (I'm looking at you, capital gains taxes.*)

(3) Society does not owe anyone the opportunity to stop producing and continue consuming, especially not if they are still able to work. Someone who is producing doesn't have a duty to turn over some of their fruits to their neighbor just because the neighbor has blown out their 62nd or 65th or 70th birthday candle.

A 65 year old who is unable to provide for themselves through some disability may deserve our help, but that is equally true of a 45 year old or a 20 year old.

(5) Taking care of those unable to help themselves is fine and admirable. Maybe we even want to mediate such charity through the state. But basing the discrimination of the deserving from the undeserving solely on age is a tremendously noisy and inefficient way to do that. Born before the threshold? Have some free lunch. Under it? Tough shit. That's not even a decision making process. It's a stump.

* Also things like this pension tax in Ireland, which is supposed to be temporary but I would stake good money will not be.  I also predict it is coming to America.  Krugerrands are looking more attractive to me.

10 May 2011


Growth Matters | Clement Wen | An Introduction to Crowdfunding

It's an amazing time to be alive. From the Boston Herald on crowdfunding (via Instapundit):
In fact, it’s what you do — or plan to do — that can make or break success in the world of “crowdfunding,” which allows anyone to raise money with online video and blog pitches. Through sites like Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com, the top crowdfunding conduits in the U.S., donors big and small can contribute to projects that catch their eye.

“At a time when it’s very challenging to get money, it democratizes the process,” said Tory Johnson, 40, a small-business expert and founder of Spark & Hustle. “People you don’t even know will give you money.”
Crowdfunding is pretty cool, but here's what I think is weird about it.

I can watch some guy's pitch for a new FOO and decide to give him $1000 to help him along. Just give the money away. But I am legally prohibited from giving him $1000 in exchange for a stake in FOO because I'm not sophisticated rich enough for Uncle Sam to feel comfortable letting me make decisions like that with my money. Weird, right?

(benefit > 0) does not entail (benefit > cost)

David Henderson excerpts the following passage from John Nyman's "Is 'Moral Hazard' Inefficient? The Policy Implications of a New Theory" and argues -- correctly I think -- that it is a non sequitur
The new theory suggests that health insurance generally makes the consumer better off. Therefore, the subsidies that encourage consumers to purchase insurance voluntarily, or a national health insurance program for the entire U.S. population, would improve society's welfare.
That is indeed an error in logic on Nyman's part.  But there is another error that Henderson did not point out, and this one is an economic error. important economic error Henderson did not mention.

Just because something is beneficial does not mean we should spend more money on it. More money spent on health insurance, even taking as a given that that makes consumers better off, means less money spent on other things. I have no reason to believe those other things don't also make consumers better off. More money spent to capture the benefits of health insurance must displace other benefits. Whether the final mix of spending and benefits is better than the status quo ante is an entirely different matter from whether health care spending is itself beneficial.

(Furthermore, if health insurance makes consumers better off, why are greater subsidizes needed to encourage its purchase?  I do not need subsidies to convince me to buy pizzas, or winter coats, or iPods, and all of those things make me better off.  Perhaps this issue is addressed elsewhere in the paper — Henderson mentions some hand-waving about positive externalities — but I have an inkling it is not.)

~ ~ ~

See also, this letter form Don Boudreaux:
Economically literate opponents of the Detroit bailout never denied that pumping hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into Detroit automakers would restore those companies to health. Instead, they argued, first, that bailing out Detroit takes resources from other valuable uses. Because he doesn’t even recognize that other valuable uses were sacrificed by this bailout, Mr. Dionne offers no reason to think that the value of saving Detroit automakers exceeds the value of what was sacrificed to do so. No legitimate declaration that the bailout is successful is possible, however, without evidence that the value of what was saved exceeds the value of what was sacrificed.

09 May 2011

Grand Bargains

The Washington Post | Ezra Klein | Some deficit real talk: "The wish for a grand bargain that’ll take care of the deficit all at once is probably just that: a wish. The likelier outcome is a slew of deficit-reduction measures passed over the next decade or so. That’s even truer for health-care spending, which is both the biggest fiscal problem we face and the one that most requires a decades-long process of trial-and-error in which we test out new ways of delivering care, of paying for care, of separating useful treatments from useless ones and of modernizing the sector’s IT infrastructure."
Klein is probably right that a grand bargain is unlikely to impossible.

But it's funny that Klein should bring up health care, because my concern with the incremental approach to budget balancing is the same reason many ObamaCare advocates gave for why we needed to jump in feet first and pass one great big whopper of an HCR bill rather than trying out some components first, and reforming the entitlements we already have, and testing and revisiting the matter in a couple of years when we know what the regulations will actually be and how they work.

Their concern was once there was some law which people could label "Health Care Reform" many of the fence-sitters would lose their appetite for reform and not be willing to come back to finish the job. I have the same concern with budget balancing: once there is something out there called "deficit reduction" the wind spills out of the sails.

I think the problem is actually worse for deficits than HCR though, because at least HCR was a mix of dessert and vegetables. Deficit reduction is all brussel sprouts. True, many people desperately want us to eat our sprouts, but if few congressmen were looking forward to the opportunity to return to their constituents session after session to announce a new serving of dessert-plus-veg, how many of them will be excited about announcing nothing but vegetables year after year?

That's why I think a "grand bargain" is unlikely, but it's still something we ought to push towards. We won't be able to tackle this in one go, but we should try and keep it down to as few large bites as we can.

~ ~ ~

In concrete terms, this leads me to some mixd feelings about these debt ceiling negotiations. Part of me would want to use this as an opportunity to push for an agreement which, while not a grand bargain, would at least be the first big bite of the solution. Another part of me thinks the whole notion of a debt ceiling that keeps getting kicked down the road is a farce, and should be abolished all together. (Why give congress the power to fool people into thinking its hands are tied when they can — and do! — untie the knots at will?) On the third hand, playing hardball by linking extending the ceiling to a broader negotiation seems pretty transparently like a bluff to me, so maybe I lean towards just nixing the whole thing.

In any event this sort of political horse race maneuvering really isn't my thing, so ... forget it.  Back to work for me.

When unintended consequences aren't

The Thinker | Jeffrey Ellis | The original progressive architects were partisans of human inequity
Moreover, the older progressive habits of thought have not completely died out, especially when the interests of foreign or immigrant workers are at issue. For example, opponents of liberalized international trade claim that such trade improperly allows multinational corporations to “exploit” unskilled workers in labor-intensive industries in impoverished countries. Exploitation, in this context, seems to have no specific definition beyond “we don’t think they are getting paid enough.” Yet, basic economic theory suggests that if one substantially raised the wage levels of such workers, without improving their productivity via capital investment or otherwise, their employers would become less competitive and their jobs would be terminated. Given that calls for tighter trade rules are rarely accompanied by plans to increase the productivity of the workers allegedly suffering “exploitation,” the implicit argument is that it is better that the jobs held by these workers not exist at all.
I really have to object to this last sentence. The authors are saying that progressives must want foreign workers to not have jobs, since the end result of forcing higher wages is that their jobs be terminated due to poor competitiveness of their employers. But this presupposes that progressives actually understand that loss of jobs will be the end results of their actions. Really, this is about as fair as progressives saying that conservatives must want poor people to starve to death, or as fair as conservatives claiming that liberals must want to wreck the economy. These types of claims violate the principle of reciprocity because they unfairly impute bad motives on groups of people. When I see a statement like this at the end of an otherwise seemingly well-written paper, I have to question how much of the preceding was biased as well.
I have to disagree with Ellis' criticism. I think there comes a point at which the "unintended" but entirely foreseeable consequences of actions no longer can be counted an unintended.  And at that point we come back to a prior Bottom Elephant — if all you have are good intentions, you don't even have those.

Let's say everyone walks around carrying an egg in their hand. Some group of reformers wants people not to have one hand tied up in egg-holding, and advocates that everyone drop their egg. The reformers don't want broken eggs all over the ground, they just want everyone to have two free hands.  But broken eggs are the inevitable outcome of their policy.

Should I claim the reformers want to break eggs? That's not their explicit desire, but that is what will happen. Their ignorance of the way gravity will act on eggs to cause their acceleration and ultimate destruction is not an excuse. They may not understand that eggs will break, but they should.  I think, therefore, that it is fair to blame them for wanting broken eggs.

~ ~ ~

See also:
WSJ | Jason Riley | Race, Politics and the Minimum Wage: Minimum-wage proponents argue that a higher wage floor will improve the standard of living for poor families. The reality is that higher labor costs reduce employment, especially for young black men.

[...] Minimum-wage proponents argue that a higher wage floor will improve the standard of living for poor families. The reality is that higher labor costs reduce employment, especially for younger workers, and the greatest amount of pain is felt by black men. The Even and Macpherson study finds that among whites males ages 16-24, each 10% increase in a federal or state minimum wage has decreased employment by 2.5%. For Hispanic males, the figure is 1.2%. "But among black males in this group, each 10% increase in the minimum wage has decreased employment by 6.5%."

The effect on the black community is so pronounced, write the authors, that "employment losses for 16-to-24 year-old black males between 2007 and 2010 could have been nearly 50% lower had the federal and state minimum wages remained at the January 2007 level."

It gets worse. Not all states were fully affected by the federal minimum wage increases because some already mandated a minimum wage above the federal requirement. But in the 21 states that were fully affected, about 13,200 black young adults lost their job as a direct result of the recession, versus 18,500 who lost their job as a result of the minimum-wage mandates. "In other words," write Messrs. Even and Macpherson, "the consequences of the minimum wage for this subgroup were more harmful than the consequences of the recession."

06 May 2011

"When We Tested Nuclear Bombs"

No time for blogging today. Instead, here's a link to a cool set of pictures on the Atlantic about nuclear weapons testing.

This is the first:

My grandfather was an engineer on the Army's nuclear artillery project.  It's a pretty insane weapon when you think about it, but it sure would make me think long and hard about trying to push my way through the Fulda Gap.

04 May 2011

Two Charts on Inequality

The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | Rich and poor, growing apart

Think income inequality growth is primarily an American phenomenon? Think again:

American society is more unequal than those in most other OECD countries, and growth in inequality there has been relatively large. But with very few exceptions, the rich have done better over the past 30 years, even in highly egalitarian places like Scandinavia.
I don't have much to say about this chart in particular, but I do have something to say about the metric it uses.

I do not like the Gini coefficient. Well, specifically I do not like it for income distributions. It's served me well in some Machine Learning applications, but that is not the point.

(1) Contra some libertarians, I do believe relative income levels are worth considering, but I still think they are not as important as absolute income levels. These sorts of comparisons of Gini coefs completely disregard absolutes. For instance, even a purely Pareto improvement can result in a "worse" Gini coefficient.

(2) Measuring changes in Gini over time is especially tricky because it ignores lifetime effects. The median person ten years ago is not the same as the median person now. I would hope that there is inequality between me-right-now, while I'm a research assistant, and me-in-ten-years, when I've got my doctorate.

(3) Gini coefs reduce a curve to a scalar value. Indeed, that's their whole point. But that unavoidably entails a huge loss of information. Be wary.

(4) This isn't specific to the Gini coefficient, but I am distrustful of measures of household rather than individual income. Actually, distrustful isn't the right word. I find them irrelevant for normative purposes. And even for positive purposes, they are fraught with complications, especially when making comparisons through time.

(5) Gini coefficient charts are always presented, often explicitly, with an interpretation that higher is worse and lower is better.

But — and this is my main point — that isn't true. A society with Gini=1.0 would be terrible. But a society with Gini=0.0 would also be terrible.

Some people are more talented than others. Some are more conscientious. Some place higher value on income than leisure, or vice versa. These people should be earning different incomes. That will make the Gini coefficient greater than zero.

I have a particular cousin who is a narcissistic, profligate wastrel. He is Aesop's grasshopper. He is Sumner's One Marshmallow Eater. We all know someone like this. Do you want that person to have the same income as you? As Sergey Brin? As JK Rowling? That will make the Gini coefficient greater than zero.

What is the "American Dream" to you? To me it is the goal of providing my children with a more comfortable life than I had. I believe many others share my goal. For this to be possible the correlation in intergenerational income must be positive. (I don't want peoples income to be perfectly correlated with their parents — my wastrel cousin's father is hard-working and has achieved much financially, for instance — but it shouldn't be strictly independent either.) That in turn requires some people will have higher incomes than others, and that will give us Gini > 0.

So the "desired" Gini coefficient is somewhere between 0.0 and 1.0. I don't know where it is. But I do know that you can't assert that a Gini cofficient rising from x1 to x2 is bad unless you know the "correct" level is less than x1.

Robert Frank and I arent going to agree what that right level is. He would guess it's higher than I would. Neither of us is right. (Or rather, neither of us is Right.) There is no single, correct, moral value for a Gini coefficient.

And even if one of us were right the "correct" value changes over time. Technology will change. Culture will change. Our ability to produce and to consume will change. That will lead to a different level of inequality, maybe for the better, and maybe for the worse.

(A world with a Cure for Cancer will see, I would imagine, better compensated oncologists.  Ceteris paribus, that will lead to a higher Gini coef.  And I'm cool with that.)

Furthermore why the "correct" level changes through time matters. Has inequality changed because of fiddling with the the tax code to advantage the relatively wealthy? (*Ahem* mortgage interest deduction *ahem*) Is it due to assortive mating? Immigration? The first we ought to shut down, the second I would say we ought to ignore, and the last we ought to celebrate.

All that gets lost when people start fretting about the US having a Gini coefficient of .37 while Sweden's is .27.

~ ~ ~

Here's a chart I find much more interesting.

It still has drawbacks, of course, but overall I find it much more illuminating that one based on Gini coefficients. (This chart was posted back in January and I never got around to commenting on it.)
Economix | Catherine Rampell | The Haves and the Have-Nots

I had a review this weekend about “ The Haves and the Have-Nots,” a new book by the World Bank economist Branko Milanovic about inequality around the world. My favorite part of the book was this graph, next to which I actually wrote “awesome chart” in the margin:

Here the population of each country is divided into 20 equally-sized income groups, ranked by their household per-capita income. These are called “ventiles,” as you can see on the horizontal axis, and each “ventile” translates to a cluster of five percentiles. [...] Now on the vertical axis, you can see where any given ventile from any country falls when compared to the entire population of the world.

Brazil’s bottom ventile — that is, the poorest 5 percent of the Brazilian population, shown as the left-most point on the line — is about as poor as anyone in the entire world, registering a percentile in the single digits when compared to the income distribution worldwide. Meanwhile, Brazil also has some of the world’s richest, as you can see by how high up on the chart Brazil’s top ventile reaches. In other words, this one country covers a very broad span of income groups.

Now take a look at America.

Notice how the entire line for the United States resides in the top portion of the graph? That’s because the entire country is relatively rich. In fact, America’s bottom ventile is still richer than most of the world: That is, the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants.

Now check out the line for India. India’s poorest ventile corresponds with the 4th poorest percentile worldwide. And its richest? The 68th percentile. Yes, that’s right: America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest.

03 May 2011


ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | Dodd-Frank's Combat Mineral Disclosure Mandate Slams US Business

Congress seems to love what I call Kumbayah laws. Everybody on the Hill gets around in a circle, holds hands, condemns some (often admittedly heinous) abuse, sings a couple of choruses of Kumbayah, and then dumps the problem in somebody else's lap. Congress gets to feel good, NGOs pat them on the back, and it costs Congress nothing.

But somebody pays. Consider, for example, the mandate in Dodd-Frank that companies "certify that their products contain no conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.) and adjoining countries." BNA reports that this mandate is going to prove hugely expensive for companies--especially tech companies--and amount to a de facto embargo on such minerals:
Rick Goss, vice president for environment and sustainability at the Information Technology Industry Council, said that the Dodd-Frank reporting requirements could end up becoming a de facto embargo on mineral imports from the D.R.C. because it is extremely difficult if not impossible to know if someone in a long supply chain is contributing directly or indirectly to illegal armed groups in that country. ...
(1) "Kumbayah Law" is a great name. I will need to be using that.

(2) If we want to bar firms from buying assets whose sale contributes to funding for "conflicts," shouldn't we ban them from holding US Treasuries?  (Just kidding.  But not really.)

Not to be a downer about Osama...

...but Balko is sort of right about this. We just ended the match (or the round, really) but we didn't necessarily win it.
The Agitator | Radley Balko | He Won:

In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.

Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of Obama’s first term, we’ll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.

We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how we’ve changed since September 11 [...]
In contrast, SonicCharmer takes the opposite view. Worth reading, though I think he is a little too literal in interpreting what Osama "wanted." Some good points though. I would disregard whatever Osama bothered to put in his little manifestos though when considering his desires. I think, at the end of the day, he wanted to be important, and the shake things up. And he got that.  (But how do you beat someone who's goal is to get you to fight him? (I'm not sure, but I think you could write some good Batman comics around that theme.))

All in all my interpretation is that just because Osama died, or "lost," doesn't mean we necessarily "win."

PS This Sonic Charmer post is only partially related, but a very good point.

02 May 2011

Planners: the Few, the Many

Keynes on planning, coda — Marginal Revolution: Russ Roberts responds, and from the comments, Lawrence H. White reports:
In his famous letter to Hayek regarding The Road to Serfdom, after asserting that greater central planning would enhance efficiency, Keynes wrote:

“I should therefore conclude your theme rather differently. I should say that what we want is not no planning, or even less planning, indeed I should say that we almost certainly want more. But the planning should take place in a community in which as many people as possible, both leaders and followers wholly share your own moral position. Moderate planning will be safe if those carrying it out are rightly orientated in their own minds and hearts to the moral issue.”
[Emphasis mine.]

This is the heart of my opposition to centralized planning: the planners are not "rightly oriented.  I have no experiential reason to believe planners are so oriented, and indeed I have theoretical framework to suggest we should not expect them to be.  Assuming they are is a flaw right from the foundation.

But even if you call that cynicism (and it certainly is, though in the original sense of doubting others' stated motivations) I have a fall back position. Suppose the planners are generally "rightly oriented." What happens when they are not? What is the failure analysis?  Where is the fall-back position? How is the planners' failure in orthodoxy recognized, diagnosed, and corrected? What is the mechanism for correcting breaches of orthodoxy in those correcting breaches by the planners? And so on...

Relying on morality and altruism from the powerful and privileged, even assuming that it is possible to get such behavior, is an extremely static and brittle position to put yourself in.

~ ~ ~

Side note:  If you want "as many people as possible" involved in the generation of plans, as Keynes claims to, what better way than markets?  I mean that as a serious, non-rhetorical question.  Show me a way to harness the decision making power of so many people and I will certainly take notice.

And not just for philosophical  reasons, either.  A continuing thread in my computer science research is harnessing the power of many, limited, fallible elements to make better overall decisions.

Uncle Sam & Property Management

NY Times | Terry Pristin | U.S. Government Faces Criticism on Management of Real Estate

For more than six years Akridge, a developer in Washington, had its eye on a 10-story office building in Bethesda, Md., which had been vacant since the National Institutes of Health moved out in 2002.

But the federal government did not put the building on the market until November 2009. By then, of course, the real estate market had slumped. Akridge and its partner, Rockwood Capital, a real estate investment fund in White Plains, finally bought the building last October, paying $12.5 million, less than the $14 million asking price.

In a report last October Republicans in Congress pounced on the long delay in selling the Bethesda building — and the discounted price — as an example of how the federal government has been mismanaging its real estate holdings.
That lead has been getting some exposure in the blogs I read, but I think this is the paragraph that must be considered:
For one thing they must first be offered to other federal, state and local agencies. Officials also have to ascertain if the building has a community use — say, for a homeless shelter.
GSA has to jump through a lot of those legislation-created hurdles, like offering the space to "community service" organizations, and groups which provide services for the disabled. My friend in GSA's real estate arm says that's why they sat on the former NIH building in Bethesda so long.

I'm not sure whether this makes me feel better or worse about the situation. On the plus side, the wasted time and resources aren't simply the result of incompetence or carelessness, which is reassuring. On the minus side, it means this lengthy, inefficient procedure is actually intentional, which is scary.

But either way, that's the situation that needs to be addressed. Just saying "let's be more efficient about this, let's get serious" is not a solution. The analog to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission strikes me as a very good way to clear up the current mess, but what is going to be changed to stop it from recurring?

I think the requirement to offer unused federal buildings to homeless groups is a good example of why the state should not be pulling every available lever to attempt to achieve social goals: they end up pulling on some very inefficient levers. In isolation, every policy like this, or the rule that federal building should lease X% of their space to businesses run by the blind, etc., seem okay. But you put them all together and you get an byzantine mess. If you want more homeless shelters (and I do), allocate some money for more homeless shelters. Don't squeeze pro-homeless shelter rules into unrelated sections of the code.

~ ~ ~

Two other points:
In 2008 Congress authorized the General Services Administration to solicit bids for redeveloping the [Old Post Office in DC], but the requests for proposals went out only in March.
That sounds like the bureaucracy I know.

I propose a measure of bureaucratic inefficiency that might actually be possible for the public to measure. We ought to track how long it takes to get a response after submitting job applications to the OPM's centralized usajobs.gov site. I have multiple friends who have gotten responses -- not decisions, just a response like "you are qualified for the next round of our candidacy process and your application will be given further review" -- over a year after submitting their applications. If you can't even hire a new office staffer within six months, there's no way you'll be able to redevelop a historic building in a timely way.

(While a lot of that is just the bureaucracy moving glacially, a lot of it is also due to the same sorts of mandated hurdles and hoops that slow down the process of selling off government buildings.  Once again, I'm not sure which one of those causes is worse.)

This is hilariously self-serving quote that the Times utterly fails to call out:
Jeffrey D. DeBoer, the chief executive of the Real Estate Roundtable, a Washington trade group that represents industry leaders, described the proposed board [to manage the sale of unused government buildings] as a “positive idea.” But he urged the government to restrict its sales efforts for now to stronger markets with relatively low office vacancy rates, like Manhattan, the Back Bay area of Boston, Washington, San Francisco and the West Side of Los Angeles.

“Our concerns are about the unnecessary dumping of assets in some markets that are oversupplied because of economic conditions,” Mr. DeBoer said. “We want to make sure we don’t make weak markets weaker.”
"We" want to? Who is this "we"? What DeBoer is really saying is "I really, really don't want Uncle Sam to do anything that will depress the prices of the goods I deal in, but that sounds nakedly self-serving, so I will frame it as if I am actually looking out for the common good."

~ ~ ~

At least the GSA has an accurate inventory of federal buildings. New York State can't even manage that basic task.
The state of New York wastes an awful lot of taxpayer money on empty space, among other things:
More than a million square feet of state office space, roughly enough to fill the Chrysler Building, sits vacant, yet some state agencies were signing new leases as recently as December.

State agencies are paying millions of dollars to operate 850 toll-free numbers, almost half of which have not been dialed in months.

And while the government’s four major computer data centers are supposed to back up one another in the event of a crippling natural disaster or a terrorist attack, there is just one problem: All of the centers were built within a few miles of one another. Two are within sight of the State Capitol. [...]

Some of the problems became clear to the administration before it took office, when Mr. Cuomo’s transition team moved to the vacant half of a floor leased in a building on the Upper West Side by the State Department of Taxation and Finance.

Curious about why the department had so much excess space, Mr. Glaser asked state officials for an inventory of all real estate leased or owned at taxpayer expense. The answer: No such inventory existed.

Rich is Rich, sort of

Thing Progress | Matt Yglesias | Rich is Rich

Everything about multi-millionaire congressman Denny Rehberg (R-MT) pleading that he and his wife “are struggling like everyone else” because he’s “land rich and cash poor” is ridiculous.

Everything to the extent that I would go further than Steve Benen:
The notion of being “land rich and cash poor” — or in some areas, “house rich and cash poor” — is legit. A family may have wealth from real estate, but not a lot of money actually sitting in the bank. I get that. [...]
I think accepting this kind of principle into our public discourse is a mistake. If you have $2 million in cash in the bank, that makes you rich because with $2 million you can buy $2 million worth of goods and services. If instead of $2 million in cash in the bank you have $2 million worth of Treasury bonds, that makes you rich because you can exchange it for $2 million in cash with which you can buy $2 million worth of goods and services. Or if you have $2 million worth of Apple stock, that makes you rich because you can exchange it for $2 million in cash with which you can buy $2 million worth of goods and services. And by the exact same token, if you own $2 million worth of land, that makes you rich because you can exchange it for $2 million in cash with which you can buy $2 million worth of goods and services.
In broad strokes, I think Yglesias is right, but in particulars, he's wrong. It's not that someone like Denny Rehberg with his millions of dollars in land isn't wealthy. But those four situations he described are not equivalent.

If you have $2M in cash, you can exchange some of it for $50k of goods and services, and still have $1.95M in cash.

If you have $2M worth of Treasury bonds, you can exchange some of it for $50k of goods and services, and still have $1.95M worth of Treasury bonds.

If you have $2M worth of Apple stock, you can exchange some of it for $50k of goods and services, and still have $1.95M worth of Apple stock.

If you have $2M worth of land, you often can not exchange some of it for $50k of goods and services, and still have $1.95M worth of land. You have far less granularity when your assets are in property.  You are constrained in a way that people with other asset classes are not.

Monday Morning Pick-Me-Up

I have nothing to say about OBL being dead other than (1) this is great news, but (2) this is not "the end of an era" or any such thing.  Next week will be just like last week even though that villain's heart has stopped.  I'm not sure if that last is a happy or sad thing, all considered.

So instead of commentary I offer you this.  Just because it reminds me of the ridiculous, giddy persistence of my old friend Gus.

Via The Daily What

PS My two favorite responses to Osama getting offed —

Patton Oswalt: Oh shit -- AP reporting Bin Laden has regenerated as Tom Baker.

My friend DR: This is what happens Osama... this is what happens when you f*** the United States in the