28 September 2011

Digest: 28 Sep 2011

The Daily Caller | Matthew Boyle | NC governor recommends suspending democracy to focus on jobs

As a way to solve the national debt crisis, North Carolina Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue recommends suspending congressional elections for the next couple of years.

“I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won’t hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover,” Perdue said at a rotary club event in Cary, N.C., according to the Raleigh News & Observer. “I really hope that someone can agree with me on that.”
Right. Because Congress, having gotten us into this mess, needs in order to lead us out is LESS ACCOUNTABILITY. That's the ticket!

via TJIC

Cato @ liberty | Dan Mitchell | Explaining the Perverse Impact of Double Taxation With a Chart

the chart is a little rough around the edges, but it's an important message. If I had more time I'd clean this up. Maybe add in some icons to show income shrinking along each step. Or if I was very ambitious (and very less busy) I could set up a little applet to show how different rates of different taxes affect things.

Rhymes with Cars and Girls | Sonic Charmer | If you don't like rainy day funds, quit doing rain dances

I think Charmer (slightly) misdiagnoses the cause of corporations "sitting on piles of cash." But the overall importance of asking, as he does, "why?" can not be understated.

If you ever ask why a broad class of people is doing something and the best answers you can come up with are "because they are stupid" or "because they are evil" then you are almost certainly wrong. And I say this as someone who tends to hold people's decision making skills, intelligence, and moral fortitude in low regard. Nevertheless idiocy and moral turpitude are not good enough answers for questions like "why are business manage holding cash reserves?" Keep asking why.

PS Great post title

The Awl | Michael Brendan Dougherty | Dear Conservative Movement: Stop Ruining My Life

Interesting rant, especially for someone like me who has grown out of their former conservatism.

I want to highlight this bit as a parallel to the previous item:
Though a minority of us still read and adhere to some hearty theology, Dutch Calvinism, Tractarianism or Latin-Mass Catholicism, you've abandoned your charges and America to Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend style mega-churches. If the choice is between listening to the wisdom of Kirk Cameron and singing Jars of Clay songs and pledging our virginity versus going to college, reading Kant and fornicating? I can tell you, categorically, we'll be going at it like heathens and Democrats.
Once again, "because they're stupid" and "because they're immoral" are not good answers to "Why do kids like drinking and smoking and screwing?" I see too many conservatives act as if those are answers. (I see the same from some liberal nannyist organizations like MADD.) If you think these things are problems then you must come to grips with the fact that people do them for actual reasons. Maybe you think they are bad reasons, but you must first understand what the reasons are from the viewpoint of the person making the decision.

SMBC | 28 Sep 2011

Ha! I'm always up for a good simulated-universe joke. Plus I'm reading The Magician King — which I can not recommend too highly — and one of its themes is the effective equivalence between sufficiently advanced technology, magic and divinity.

∞ Not sure who to credit for this one, but I found it by way of Cafe Hayek.

I have no further comments about the Elizabeth Warren thing.

Marginal Revolution | Alex Tabarrok | Why they call it Green Energy: The Summers/Klain/Browner Memo
In short, the Shepherds Flat [wind farm] project was corporate welfare masquerading under an environmental rainbow.

So are you surprised to learn that shortly after the [OMB/Treasury] memo was written the Shepherd Flats loan guarantee of $1.3 billion was approved? Of course not; no doubt you also saw that the memo authors were careful to inform the President that the “338 GE wind turbines” were to be “manufactured in South Carolina and Florida.” Corporate welfare meet politicized investment.

In the Solyndra case just about everything went wrong, including bankruptcy and possible malfeasance. Caithness Energy and GE Energy Financial Services are unlikely to go bankrupt and malfeasance is not at issue. As a result, this loan guarantee and the hundreds of millions of dollars in other subsidies that made this project possible are unlikely to create an uproar. Nevertheless, the real scandal is not what happens when everything goes wrong but how these programs work when everything goes right.
So I can expect all the Occupy Wall Street Ragers to show up in front of the White House to protest this any day now, right? Right?

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Russ Roberts vs. the Great Whatever
Just about every journalist, and even most economists, talk about cross-sectional slices of the income distribution at different points in time as if they were trends among cohorts. Thus, if you say that "real incomes of workers with only a bachelor's degree declined over the past ten years," that sounds as if a particular cohort of college graduates experienced a decline in real income. In fact, what it says is that in a cross-section of workers in 2010, those with a college education have lower average real incomes than those in a cross-section in 2000. In theory,the following could have happened: [...]
This is just a follow up to the post-script point I made in my post earlier this week about the costs of raising children.

Julian Sanchez | “Hypocrisy” and Government Largesse (A One-Act Play)

This won't make sense unless you read Sanchez's parable, but I would argue that Darrell, the person who objected to ordering pizza, is the only person who deserves to eat it. This is the exact opposite of what people's moral intuition seems to be in the wild.

I wish this existed a few months back (last year?) when there was much hallabaloo about Ayn Rand accepting Medicare benefits.

infin; Reason: Hit & Run | Emily Ekins | On What Do You Think The Government Spends the Most Money?

I don't even know where to start.

With voters like these...

WSJ | Andrew Fergusson | Shovel-Ready Shibboleths

I'm always up for a good lambasting of Thomas Friedman.

Kindle News

The Atlantic | Alexis Madrigal | Amazon Fires Barrage at Apple: Cheap Kindle, Touch Kindle, Tablet Kindle
Let's start with the bottom line: Amazon's announcements this morning were the most important in the gadget world since Apple announced the iPad on January 27, 2010.
I believe that.
With the announcement of a $79 regular Kindle, $99 touch-enabled Kindle, and $199 Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon set itself up for a Christmas clash with Apple's iOS juggernaut. While many tablet contenders have come at Apple, few can throw as many punches as Amazon.

Amazon can hit Apple high with the Kindle Fire, which is the first non-Apple tablet that will offer as integrated a media service as Apple's ecosystem does. And it even comes with a hard-to-believe-but-awesome-if-it-works feature that Apple doesn't have: cloud-enhanced web browsing. The Fire will supposedly offer better mobile browsing because it offloads the computationally intensive bits off to Amazon's cloud computing service.
That is an awesome idea.
Amazon can hit Apple low with the $79 Kindle. Because so many gadgets are sold to price-insensitive early adopters, we all tend to underestimate the effect that a sub-$100 price has. [...] For people who don't own an e-reading device, a device that is substantially below the $100 barrier may be just the move they need to make the switch to digital reading.
I'm hardly the typical consumer, but I feel the need to get this out there anyway. A $79 reader is super cheap. We agree on that. But most e-books I'd want to read on it are still about $10, which is not cheap. Well, sure, it's cheap next to a hard-back, but how often do I rush out to get the hard-back? I read a lot, but I can only think of a couple of times in the last several years I've done that. (Given the choice between one book published recently, and 2.5 books published previously, I always go with more, older books.) And $10 is more expensive than a lot of paperbacks.

Plus most of the books I read I get for free from a library.  (Like, 19 out of every 20.) The books I do buy fall into two categories. Category 1 is the books I get used, through Amazon, for about $4 a piece. An e-book is no substitute for that. Category 2 are the books I've already read but want as part of my collection, sitting solidly on my bookshelves. Again, an e-book is no substitute.

Again, I know I am not typical, so perhaps this a pointless excercise. I feel like I am swimming against the tide here. But I am so often left wondering why should I pay even $79 for the privelege of paying $10 for books that I had to say this.

27 September 2011

Digest: 27 Sep 2011

Is This Blog On | Carin | Ford Pulls Ad Critical Of Auto Bailout
Did they get a call from the White House? Why yes they did. Detroit News’ Daniel Howes:
Because Ford pulled the ad after individuals inside the White House questioned whether the copy was publicly denigrating the controversial bailout policy CEO Alan Mulally repeatedly supported in the dark days of late 2008, in early ’09 and again when the ad flap arose.
You corporatist shitbirds. Sorry for the profanity, but I have zero patience for this right now. Everyone involved in this can go get bent.

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | What's Wrong With the Buffett Rule?
Even if you dismiss the above as so much airy fairy theorizing in the face of REAL WORLD PROBLEMS, the fact is that as far as I can tell, the Obama Administration itself has not outlined anything of the sort. At least in the White House document that I read, I saw no proposal to set some sort of AMT on millionaires. Instead, it claims to do this, while rehashing a bunch of things that the administration has long proposed
This is a great example of Obama's go-to play. He is so damned good at getting people to think he's proposing different policies than he actually does. During the '08 campaign he regularly managed to disagree with his interlocutors while making them think he agreed in the same sentence through some very deft verbal pivoting. It's part of what allows people to project whatever they want onto the blank canvas he provides.
You cannot build a tax code on the principle that no millionaire, ever, should ever have an effective tax rate lower than their secretary.
Within the paradigm of income and investment taxes? No, you can not.* If we shifted to consumption taxes, I'm not so sure.

* I believe you could prove it as an extension to the Free Lunch Theorem. If the people who care about these things actually bothered with things like theorems, that is.

∞ iSteven | Steve Sailer | Obama's experience

Obama is at an extreme disadvantage here, but it seems like the problem Sailer identifies (of not having had time to build up reliable allies and contacts) would apply to any governor-turned-president. Maybe the governor's office has made him generally better at screening out bullshitters, but how many people does Rick Perry have who he can reliably turn to for no-spin advice on monetary policy or Afro-Chinese relations?

Gonzalo Lira | What I Learned At Dartmouth

As if I was not blisteringly mad already.


The American Scene | Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry | A Long Disquisition on the Death Penalty that Ultimately Doesn't Solve Anything

I think PEG is wrong about the death penalty, but he is right that most of the arguments against it are flimsy-at-best.

National Center for Policy Analysis | Laurence Kotlikoff |
Is the Corporate Income Tax Regressive

Answer: yes.

The Hipster Libertarian | Bonnie | [no title]

Costs of Procreation

Hey, It's Noah | Noah Brier

Compare this chart on the rising cost of raising a child to the chart about stagnant incomes over the last 30 years - http://pco.lt/oy9mot - and you don’t get a pretty picture.

(via Cost of raising middle-income child in USA increases by 40% in ten years – Boing Boing)
I'd be interested to see what is driving this. Obviously tuition costs have gone up, and I believe food prices have as well. But I suspect a big cause of this trend is simply the wealth effect. As people felt richer from 2000 to 2007, did they decide to spend more on their children? How much of this trend is a result of rising prices, and how much is a result of parents buying more things or a different selection of things for their children?  That is, how much of this is unavoidable for new parents, and how much is essentially voluntary?

NB: The vertical axis starts at $150,000.  That makes a 37% increase look more like a 300% increase.

PS The income chart Brier links is also deceptive in its way, because the median earner in 1967 is not the same person as the median earner in 2010. Because of lifetime earning effects, population growth, and immigration it is possible (likely, even) for the median income to remain the same but the majority of people to experience rising incomes.

26 September 2011

Digest: 26 Sep 2011

Julian Sanchez | Living High and Letting Die

Good god this Blitzer/Paul thing keeps coming.

Pajamas Media | Zombie | Day of FAIL: Nationwide anti-capitalist revolution flops
In earlier times, the communists and the anarchists hated each other; they are natural enemies. But in recent decades they have formed an uneasy and deeply unstable alliance; since they both hate the status quo of American capitalism, they feel they ought to band together and smash the system as a unified front, and worry about how to pick up the pieces later.
Weird bedfellows. Of course, as Hoffer observed 60 years ago, disaffected radicals from opposite ends of the ideology-space have more in common with each other than they do with moderates who are theoretically their allies. Radicalism is a more important dimension than beliefs.

Lapham's Quarterly | Paul Collins | Trust Issues
As the trustees of an increasingly vast fund, Holdeen’s descendants would gradually control ever-larger swaths of currency. The Holdeen Trusts, he argued, would grow until “They would absolutely own the world.” [...]

More ominously, in 1958 the IRS had clashed with Holdeen, arguing in court that it had rightly demanded taxes off of what it considered an invalid tax shelter. The trusts, the IRS argued, would in any case wreck “the tax base of the nation, if not the world.”
I don't really understand how these "Methuselan" trusts are supposed to bankrupt the world though. Perhaps I'm not understanding this correctly. But they are invested in productive assets, right? The wealth of the nation should be growing right along with the trusts, right? If I socked some money away for a thousand years whoever got it at the end would be rich, but wouldn't that only be because the rest of the world is rich as well?  How could you possibly end up owning more than the society you live in?

If I was a fiction-writing man I would file this idea away for use in a story reminiscent of Anathem (but with monasteries full of capitalists rather than scientists).  Perhaps with something like Vinge'e Qeng Ho or Sterling's The Investors.

ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | Do Millionaires really make more than secretaries?

He is actually asking if millionaires pay less in taxes than secretaries. (They do not.)

Of course it is important to ask how much millionaires make, since their wealth is what makes them millionaires, not their income.

Greg Mankiw's Blog | The Progressivity of the Tax System

Remember, there is no debate about whether the tax system should be progressive or not. That is a done deal. The debate is over how progressive it should be.

Reason: Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | Washington's Favorite Budget Gimmick

The Spectator | Alex Massie | Who Benefits from School Choice? The Poor.

Julian Sanchez | Why Yahoo’s “Occupy Wall Street” Block Actually Matters

This would also make for a good plot device.

The Economist: Democracy in America | W.W. | Bipartisan corporatism — Class war!
There is a class war in this country, a war between the subsidy barons, the regulatory arbitrageurs, the patent monopolists and the rest of us. Mr Obama is a class warrior. The trouble is he's on the wrong side.
Damn right that's where the battle lines are.

Marginal Revolution | David Henderson | Be Safe, Break the Law

Forget climate change. Politicians put the recommendations of their traffic cops over their civil engineers when they set speed limits is the sort of "anti-science" stuff I care about.

Search Engine Land | Danny Sullivan | Dear Bing & Yahoo: Pushing Deck Chairs Around Isn’t A Good Plan
Suffice to say, after witnessing the circus this week in Washington DC, seeing first hand how lawmakers have no idea what they’re supposed to be potentially regulating in an area I know extremely well, I’ve come to realize how deeply they probably screw up all those other areas that I don’t know well but still had some faith that they would have researched carefully. Sigh.
+1 for self-awareness of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.

L.A. Liberty | Arrests and Brutality during “Occupy Wall Street” Protests
The images of non-violent people being rounded up and brutalized are disturbing. To state-sympathizers, these events have been shocking; but to libertarians who have documented the long history of police brutality against peaceful people, it is not unexpected.

Here’s one point I hope the protesters don’t miss: they were not aggressed against by Wal-Mart managers, McDonald’s franchise owners, bank executives, wall street speculators, or corporate CEOs - they were aggressed against by agents of the state. [...]

Clamoring for a bigger role for the state to play in order to ostensibly “control capitalist greed” only gives the same greedy corporatists the very system and mechanisms they use to extract more wealth and protection for themselves.
Here's the thing with using politicians to control capitalists' greed: what are you going to do about the politicians' greed? And the bureaucrats? And the police? And the voters? Because greed isn't a thing capitalists have, it's a thing people have.

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | Solyndra Was Just a Bad Bet From the Beginning

Related to the last item: if you took all the people at the Day of Rage Wall Street Thing, how many of them will look at this Solyndra debacle and support Obama more, and how many of them will support him less? I'd bet you'll be hard-pressed to find someone there who would criticize him for getting us into that mess.

Cafe Hayek | Don Boudreaux | A Quick Question

Talk is cheap.

Bring on the driverless car!

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Driverless car navigates Berlin streets
It can talk, see, drive and no longer needs a human being to control it by remote. The car of the future — completely computer-controlled — is on the streets of Berlin.

All summer, researchers from the city’s Free University have been testing the automobile around the German capital.

The vehicle maneuvers through traffic on its own using a sophisticated combination of devices, including a computer, electronics and a precision satellite navigation system in the trunk, a camera in the front, and laser scanners on the roof and around the front and rear bumpers.
This is working — now — all we need is to have the price tag fall from 400,000 euros [$539,000] to a bit lower. It’s already safer than human drivers. The article is here, hat tip to Steve Silberman.
I have little doubt wide-spread adoption of this is going to be technologically feasible within a couple of years (if, indeed, it is not already). The obstacle is going to be entirely social/political.

That made me pretty pessimistic about their rate of adoption. However, is that bar set by the most willing country? That is, if Germany or Japan or Singapore or Sweden allow these on the roads, does that mean the US will have to follow suit quickly? What other consumer technologies have been demonstrated safe in one nation but not allowed in others? Let's ignore something like the erstwhile Irish ban on condoms, where the objections were never safety-related. Many medical innovations are disallowed after having been adopted in other countries. The objections seem to primarily be to keep costs down. The FDA is also better able to hide behind FUD when it comes to advanced cancer treatments than something like an automated car which can be seen and understood by the common man.

As to the economic obstacle, how much lower would the price really need to get? For consumers, very much lower of course. But what about for taxi companies? The median American cabby makes $31,500. Figure it costs the cab company 25% more than that in insurance and other overhead, so they spend $40k/year per driver. (Is there usually one car per driver? Maybe not in NY, but based on personal anecdotal experience in DC I think there typically is, so I'll assume so.)

The median car in America is eight years old. The average cab probably wears out sooner, but a computerized driving system would likely be able to put less wear-and-tear on the car, monitor itself for preventive maintenance better, etc. So let's say you've got an eight year lifespan on your cab.  (And that the electronics kit that automates the car can't be pulled out of it and put on another vehicle when the original vehicle wears out.) So the cab company is paying $320,000 for drivers over the life of a car. The automated driving system also probably gets you better fuel economy. Plus the dispatch system could be fully automated. Plus you would never have to worry about drivers not wanting to go make an inconvenient pick-up.

The savings for the cab company could easily be $400,000 already. With a little exchange rate movement this could be within practical range rather quickly.

Browncoats vs Academia

Regarding a professor with a Mal Reynolds poster on his office door, with the caption "You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed."
Popehat | Ken | I Swear By My Pretty Floral Bonnet, I Will Censor You

But this is modern America. In modern America, the Browncoats are people who like to use vigorous figurative language to speak their mind, and they are often outnumbers and outgunned by the Alliance, made up of silly, professionally frightened moral and intellectual weaklings who see expressions of dissent (particularly dissent rendered in vivid figurative terms) as upsetting and potentially all terroristy.

So naturally the campus police at University of Wisconsin-Stout went all Mrs.-Grundy-With-A-Gun-And-A-Badge on Professor Miller. They threatened Prof. Miller with criminal charges for disorderly conduct citation [...]
I see "disorderly conduct" charges bubble up whenever the real offense is "angering the guy with the badge/the guy with the badge's boss." Shouldn't there need to be some actual disorder occuring to warrant this charge?  (Ideally, I mean. In a better world. Not in America, 2011.) How can your conduct be "disorderly" if the most that happens is an uptight guy walks past your door and sneers while thinking angry thoughts to himself?

~ ~ ~

Oh, also, this reminds me of something that's been bugging me for a while. I've been told all my life by the Very Smart People In Authority that non-verbal communication is very important and that "what you say" and "how you say it" are coequal. Context, and tone, and all the rest matters. I was informed, for instance, that saying "Yes, Mrs. Gomez" to my teacher might still get me in trouble because even though I said the right words, I didn't say them the right way. (That is, I did not fake the correct outward displays of emotion, but the difference between inner thought and outer manifestation, and the requirements of the latter as if they were supposed to create the former, is a whole other ball of wax entirely.)

This is all good and well so far. Words are indeed given new meaning depending of the circumstances and methods of their conveyance.

But then these same Very Smart People In Authority also claim that certain verbal utterances can be interpreted devoid of context. Like Dr. Miller's poster, for instance. Or the comments of the professor which ended with Sarah Grunfeld's undies in such a twist. As soon as someone says something that conflicts with the VSPIA's world-view, context goes out the window. They claim the exclusive right to autistically* interpret words without regard to other information and conclude, for example, that a professor might mean to shoot people because he has a fictional gunslinger on his wall.  Later he was reprimanded for "mentioning violence."  Mentioning it.  Not actually doing it, not threatening it, not even approving it.  Just claiming it exists.

(* Apologies.)

The area this really bugs me is college sexual behavior rules. Non-verbal communication goes right out the window there. But once again, that is a whole kettle of fish I don't have time for.

Louis CK on 20 year-olds and jobs

This is the opening of a recent episode of Louie (s02e12, "Niece" IIRC).

It should be played at all high school and college commencement ceremonies to balance out all the "now go out there and save the world, you magical little snowflakes!" bullshit that gets blown at graduates.

22 September 2011

Getting rich on your own

P.E. Gobry quotes Elizabeth Warren:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Warren is right. Sort of. Individual action is necessary but not sufficient for production. However...

(1) Yes, the rest of us paid for those roads. But so has the factory-builder. Before the factory-builder has gotten rich or even built the factory, he's chipped in for roads just like the non-factory-builders. And as he's been paying taxes to pay for them ever since. Having done something productive with the roads doesn't necessarily obligate him to begin paying even more for them than he was.

(2) "The rest of us" who pay for these things is an increasingly small portion of the population, so Warren really ought to say "some of the rest of us" paid for these things. I don't see any reason to believe this trend is reversing.

(3) It's one thing to ask the factory-builder to help pay for the things which make it possible for him to produce, but he is also asked to pay for the things which make it difficult for him to produce. Taxing him to build roads to bring goods to market is very different from taxing him to give a subsidy to a politically-favorable competitor or to administer licensing regimes which stand in his way.

(4) Warren's argument, narrowly interpreted, is that you should pay for the public goods that you've used.* Okay. But this argument quickly degenerates into a blanket presumption that the factory-builder should be taxed more.** Every time the state writes checks it can't cash, just go back to the factory-builder. He didn't get rich on his own, after all!

It quickly ceases to be about making him pay for the public goods he benefited from, and becomes about finding someone with deep pockets to pay for whatever it is we decide the state ought to be doing. Look at how gas taxes, which are supposed to pay for the very roads Warren cites as making production possible, have been funneled to pay for luxury rail lines and inefficient-but-photogenic trolleys.

(* If that's what she wants, surely she should support privatizing some of those functions? Or shift many of them to a pay-for-use system so no one can free-ride?)

(** Maybe Warren wouldn't do this, but most of the people who enthusiastically quote this passage will.)

(5) The definition of the "Big Hunk" the state gets to take keeps changing. And rather arbitrarily, I would add. In Warren's conception, it's whatever the political elite feel to be your "fair share." The size of the hunk you get to keep doesn't change as a function of how much society has done to support your production, it changes as a function of political mood and how much the state finds itself desiring your money to direct for its own purposes.

(6) Warren's statement overlooks the fact that the goods from this factory are already making life better for "the next kid who comes along." The benefits of this production are accruing to people besides the factory owner through his voluntary transactions with them. In fact the factor-builder's richness is evidence that he satisfied a huge amount of consumer demand — and thus has already enriched others!

(7) If you ignore (6) it looks like a decision between letting the factory-builder keep the fruits of his work and taking some to improve the lives others. But that's not the case; the factory owner is already benefitting others. Is the state going to make better decisions about how to do that than he is? Who is going to benefit society more by controlling those resources, the politician with his mastery of electoral politics and popularity, the technocrat he appoints, or the man who already got rich satisfying other people's demands enough that they have given him their money willingly?

(8) Don't forget the time factor! Under what set of circumstances is that factory going to come into existence? And the next factory? Warren seems to be operating under a presumption that government provisioning of public goods is currently so low that the next generation won't be able to build productive investments of their own without increased taxation now. I worry about the opposite: that taxation —both pecuniary and regulatory — is already high enough now that the next generation won't want to build productive investments.

Edited to add — (9) Everyone has access to these same roads, fire and police squads, educated workers, etc. as the factory-builder.  But not everyone does something productive with them. It's a odd position to claim that the factory-builder, by virtue of having made productive use of societal resources and thereby expanded the wealth of society at large, deserves to bear the burden for providing further societal resources.* Couldn't one argue that it is more just to direct our opprobrium, administered by the tax man, towards those who have failed to put these resources to productive use?

Such a theory puts us in tricky and uncomfortable territory, but I believe those problems are resolved by looking at the other side of the ledger, that is, basing our decisions about the deserts of taxation on consumption rather than production.

(* I describe this as "odd" because I do not think it is necessarily wrong, but it is certainly not obviously, prima facie correct either, which is something which Warren and others seem to take it to be.)

21 September 2011

riot police

twitter | BrazenlyLiberal

If you need riot police outside the building where justice is being served, maybe what you're serving up isn't exactly justice. #troydavis
Okay, fine. That's fairly clever, and maybe it's a good rule of thumb to make you stop and do a smell test.

But what's the logical conclusion of this sentiment?  That justice is served when no one is angry? Or the least number of people are angry? Isn't this just morality-by-popularity?

The mob is hardly a good indication of what's just and what's unjust either. In fact, it's probably a pretty terrible indicator. Let's add up all the mobs that have ever formed in history. How many of them were on the side of Justice? And how many of them were just mobs?  Have the riot police been on the unjust side of the balance more or less than half the time?

Long-time readers will know I don't have much love for the police.  But I don't have much love for masses of people either.

Edited to add — I should make clear that this is not a commentary on the Troy Davis situation in particular. I have zero idea if the state is being just or not here. My bias is that it's not, but I have literally zero bits of information about this case.

As a general rule I oppose the death penalty not because I have problem with homicide as a punishment, but because I have no faith in the state to make the decision on my behalf about who should live and who should die.

Deus ex forum

Forum? Fora? My Latin is rusty. Oh, forget it; my Latin was never any good to begin with.
The Economist | Free Exchange | Deus ex machina: Faith in the free market

File this under heterodox economics:
About one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and champions the free market as a matter of faith.

"They say the invisible hand of the free market is really God at work," says sociologist Paul Froese, co-author of the Baylor Religion Survey, released today by Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"They think the economy works because God wants it to work. It's a new religious economic idealism," with politicians "invoking God while chanting 'less government,'" he says.

"When Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann say 'God blesses us, God watches us, God helps us,' religious conservatives get the shorthand. They see 'government' as a profane object — a word that is used to signal working against God's plan for the United States. To argue against this is to argue with their religion."
This is so deeply weird.

These people are missing the entire concept of the "invisible hand" metaphor. Smith's point was that markets work despite not having a single locus of organization. "Oh, what's that? Markets work as if there is a benevolent, omniscient director? That must be because there is a benevolent, omniscient director! I will call him Jehovah." How facile.

Look, I think that the market system which mediates voluntary transactions between strangers is fully consistent with Christian teaching.  (I don't have time to discuss this.  See, perhaps, here and here.)  Market economics work because they're elegant systems which can use local knowledge to guide a global system.  It's a beautiful set up.  Maybe God set the universe up to make this possible, maybe not. But either way there's absolutely no need to think he's theistically pulling strings day by day.

Also, also, also... Smith was as close to a heretic as the Scottish enlightenment got. (Well, that's a bit of a stretch. His quasi-mentor, Hume, was actually denied professorships for his heterodoxy, so maybe Smith is in second place?) One of the main thrusts of Smith's work, as well as Hume's, was figuring out how to explain the behaviors of men without having to resort to "God makes it happen."  If you support markets because you think God is pulling the levers behind the curtain you are missing the whole point.

On the other hand, I really dislike this "dog-whistle" analysis. I don't like commentators telling me some candidate or media figure didn't really mean what they said, it was just a wink-wink, nudge-nudge secret coded message to their supporters to communicate a more sinister idea. (1) It's a little arrogant to continuously claim you know what people really mean. (2) It's trying too hard. The overt message here plays to a crowd well. Why posit a covert message as well? (3) It's a non-falsifiable theory. (4) It's overly broad. I can always claim every one of my opponents' utterances actually means something else.

Furthermore, the government is profane by definition.  It's certainly not sacred, right?  That only leaves one option.  "Put not your faith in rulers, or in the offspring of man, in whom there is no salvation." You may disagree, but it's hardly a fringe position, theologically, to claim that the state is profane. Even the Papacy, back when it was most enamored of mucking about in politics and governance during the Renaissance, maintained that spiritual and secular authorities were two different things. They of course claimed the the latter must be subordinate to the former, but they still maintained they were two different things. "Two swords," Boniface VIII Gaetani called it.

20 September 2011

Digest: 20 Sep 2011

YouTube | Buchan39 | Tom Selleck's Mustache Super Cut


Envionrmental Graffitti | Michele Collet | Exploring the Secret River Flowing Beneath London

"The"? secret river? Aren't there a dozen of these culverted things?


Remind me of Neverwhere. And TMNT.

(Did you know Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry did a Neverwhere graphic novel? It was pretty good stuff. I'd recommend reading the novel, but this is a good way to revisit the story later without having to re-read the whole thing.)

Rhymes with Cars and Girls | Sonic Charmer | Environmental Pet Peeves

I actually got the third of these through to an environmentalist friend of mine this weekend. Of course, he's of the old-school conservationist sort, who's fine with things like (actually) sustainable logging.

The Big Questions | Steve Landsburg | Compassion Play

This is too good to excerpt. Not to be missed.

The meaning of peace is the absence of opposition to socialism. ~ Karl Marx
Puts all the "Work for Peace and Justice!" stickers in perspective. Peace = shut up and agree with me.

This is such a perfect encapsulation of how many people I run into on the Left act that I suspect it might actually be fake.* Too good to check (more thoroughly), though.

* I also suspect that if I lived in the Bible Belt I would feel differently about who likes to play the "let's all lay down our arms and do what I want" gambit the most.

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Do all serious economists favor a carbon tax?

Also a very good post.

The Economist: Free Exchange | G.I. | Who wants to tax a millionaire?

I'm surprised to see The Economist being as hard on this proposal as they are.

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | The Bizarro Blitzer Interview

This Blitzer/Paul thing has got a surprising amount of legs.

Reason: Hit & Run | Shikha Dalmia | Nice Try Libs, But Social Security is no 401-k

I'm getting tired of saying this, but not to tired to repeat it one more time: Social Security ought to be a much, much bigger deal for my age cohort. As Dalmia points out, it's existence is inseparable from demographics. That ought to interest the demographic group who's going to be left holding the short end of the stick.

Hipster Libertarian | Bonnie


iSteve | Steve Sailer | Asians, aptitude, and achievement: a positive sum reform proposal

I first came across this idea in relation to lending standards, but I think it applies to education as well. Any theory about the gap between caucasians and blacks & latinos based on privilege and oppression and racism must also attempt to explain why the the dominant racial group would build a system in which Asians do ever better than them. I'm not saying this can't be done, just that I rarely even see it attempted.

Blog Maverick | Mark Cuban | The Most Patriotic Thing You Can Do
Bust your ass and get rich.
i.e. produce more than you consume.

I don't know about this "patriotism" talk though. Someone getting rich through production is good for the whole world, not just the people with the same passport as the rich guy.


I made a similar point several years back:
Is [my paid tutoring job] "community service?" Almost everyone would say no, of course not you capitalist lout, you got paid. Okay, let me put it another way. Was that work making the community a better place? I argue it was. A member of said community was willing to part with some of their wealth in order to see it happen, so to them, I was improving the community. What ever consumer surplus existed in my tutoring transaction is a community service. And since there is no collective democratic consciousness deciding what counts as improvement and what doesn't, and all we have (or should have) are individual decisions and peaceful arrangements between consenting parties, I argue that's as close to serving the community as anything else.

So my advice to all the potential servitors is to forget the volunteering, and get a job, sir. Deliver a paper. Mow a lawn. Paint a house. Sling some fries. Forget about asking what you can do for your country, and start asking what you can do for another individual. Maybe they want to compensate you for it, maybe they don't. That's between you and them, and that kind of individual, private transaction is what really improves society, not "national service" or "community-based experiential learning" or "moon shots" or five year plans. Tell McCain, and Obama, and "the community" they can all go screw.
Above the Crowd | Bill Gurley | Understanding Why Netflix Changed Pricing

By the way, we would all do well to recall Paul Graham's advice on pricing. Paraphrasing: set your prices so your customer complain but keep buying. Right now Netflix has lost some customers, but six months ago they weren't complaining enough. It's possible they've made a big mistake, but it's also possible they're slightly over-charging now after having been drastically under-charging.

19 September 2011

Digest: 19 Sep 2011

NFL television broadcast maps from the506.com

I'd love to know how these things are determined.

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Two Questions for People Who Respect the Law

I am with Caplan. Law and morality are completely orthogonal. When I talk to people about this I describe actions as existing in all four cells of two-by-two matrix: legal-moral, legal-immoral, illegal-moral, illegal-immoral. People seem to accept this when I describe it that way (or at least don't have any objection) but still persist in analyzing things as if only legal-moral and illegal-immoral actions exist.

io9 | Cyriaque Lamar | Pranksters add Conan the Barbarian to the faculty of Irish college
He completed his PhD, entitled "To Hear The Lamentation of Their Women: Constructions of Masculinity in Contemporary Zamoran Literature" at UCD and was appointed to the School of English in 2006, after sucessfully decapitating his predecessor during a bloody battle which will long be remembered in legend and song.
The Money Illusion | Scott Sumner | Tax rates on all T-securities now exceed 100%

Spousonomics | Jenny | Economists in Love: Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers
The U.S. has a household-based taxation system which subsidizes married families when one person stays home and taxes most people extra if they choose to marry and both work full-time. The average tax cost of marriage for a dual-income couple is $1,500 annually. [...] Truth is, I find it offensive that the tax man treats me differently according to a very private decision—whether I marry or not.
The family is a really poor unit of analysis. The individual is what matters; that ought to be the basis of our legislation.

This is also an immoral system, IMO, even when couples don't earn similar incomes. Just for different reasons.

Via Scott Sumner, who comments:
By the way, both the Dems and GOP support me and my wife having to pay far more in taxes than Wolfers and his partner–even with identical incomes. It’s not even controversial in Washington. And yet nearly 100% of Americans are outraged when they find out about the marriage penalty. Most don’t even know why it exists, why their reps support it.

Just one more reason why academics should pay no attention to “public opinion” polls. There is no such things as public opinion, there is only election results. No one knows what Americans would believe about Medicare if that sat down with all the government programs and tax revenues in a spreadsheet front of them, and told they had to equate the NPV of all future taxes with the NPV of all future spending. We simply don’t know. And anyone who argues otherwise isn’t thinking deeply enough about the issue.

Whether you want more or less money spent on Medicare, I guarantee that I can frame a poll question that gets the result you want.
I said before that asking people poll questions without having them assess trade-offs is fundamentally irresponsible and dishonest.

Overcoming Bias | Robin Hanson | Are Nations Tribes?
But a great many ill, collapsed, etc. folks in the world are largely left to die, at least if curing them costs anything like a US hospital stay. Ezra argues above for “decent” national care, not global care. And even libertarians wouldn’t leave family members to die. So everyone agrees that we heroically help some, and leave others to die. We only disagree on who falls into which category. [...]

To criticize libertarians effectively, you need to make clear why exactly “we” are a nation, rather than the entire world, or close family and friends.
Once again, individuals matter. Lines on maps do not. "The Nation" has no more moral standing with me than "The Family."

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | How many unemployed teachers are there?

Reason: Hit & Run | Shikha Dalmia | Social Security is Not a Ponzi Scheme, Mr. Perry

"It is much worse."

Popehat | Ken | Complain About Being Sexually Assaulted By A TSA Thug? THEY’LL SUE!

I don't think I've called for rope in over a year. I'm not saying this thug ought to swing, but if there's something to make me consider it, it would be using your authority to publicly sexually assault someone who criticizes you and then have the temerity to sue them for calling you out on it.

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Reflections on Rod Long's "Libertarian Three-Step Program"

Further consideration of the Wolf Blitzer / Ron Paul exchange.

If I am allowed to include bad luck then I can always craft a hypothetical which will make any ideology or government policy look bad at first glance. Especially in a situation like this (a contemporary televised, presidential "debate") which is specifically designed to favor the seen over the unseen.

"Aha! But your policy will have some bad consequences for some unlucky people who we know ex post made the wrong decision!" is about the lamest criticism I can think of.

Votes must learn to accept that there will always be bad luck, that there will always be unfortunate outcomes, that there will always be consequences to decisions, and that policies can attempt to insulate us from bad consequences, but they can never be eliminated.


The Thinker | Jeffrey Ellis | A Comedy of Asshats

Sarah Grunfeld is a jerk. There are two rules of polite discourse: don't give offense unnecessarily, and don't take offense unnecessarily. The second is usually ignored, but it is equally important.

Eight Netflix Thoughts

Wired: Epicenter | Mike Isaac | Meet Qwikster: Netflix Spins Off Discs-By-Mail from Streaming Video

(1) I don't like the idea of having to work two different interfaces on two different websites with two different sets of reviews. That seems counter to the way the tide rolls on the web, with increasing integration. (Many people, myself included, installed things like Greasemonkey scripts to more tightly link Netflix with IMDB or Amazon for just this reason. It seems like the Stack Exchange team has spent most of the summer trying to link up user accounts on their various sites.)

(2) I can only assume this is the preparatory step to spinning off the DVD business, which has possibly peaked.

(3) Users' personal rating of movies are one of the most valuable things Netflix owns, together with the Cinematch algorithm to process them.  If there will be two sets of independent ratings for New-Netflix and Qwikster then I guarantee they are looking to sell Qwikster and are probably already in the process of doing so.

(4) As with the pricing changes this summer, Netflix can do whatever it wants. This isn't some sort of moral affront to users.

(5) Reed Hastings knows more about how to run an internet movies service than I do.  If I was a stock-buying man I would put some money down on $NFLX now.  They know what they're doing, and even if they don't I think people are over-reacting.

(6) The only time I think Netflix has really disappointed me was last winter when I discontinued my DVD service to save some money. I assumed it would be like when I had previously suspended my account, in that I could still read and edit my DVD queue. I could not. I think I should have been warned about that beforehand so I could save a copy. For all I know it has been entirely deleted. I'm not paying to get DVd service back to find out. I assume that if it has not been deleted already it will be once they transition to Qwikster.

(7) Seriously? "Qwikster"? That would have sounded dated in 2002.

(8) I see a lot of talk about how the Kindle is "killing" books (and bookshelves). I am more interested in how digital delivery is "killing" DVDs. I've never been one to buy DVDs. My home has at most a couple of dozen, and most of those were my wife's. My motivation to re-watch movies I've already seen is very low, even for movies I really like. I used to have friends with hundreds* of DVDs in their collection. I wonder if they, and people like them, still grow their collections.

* Several thousand, in one case, but that's only because his father regularly traveled to the Pacific Rim on business and would bring home stacks of discs for him — of dubious-at-best legality of course.

[Update: Julian Sanchez agrees that streaming may primarily displace DVD sales rather than rentals.]

17 September 2011

College Football Saturday

Something for you to read during commercial breaks and halftime:
The Atlantic | Taylor Branch | The Shame of College Sports

A litany of scandals in recent years have made the corruption of college sports constant front-page news. We profess outrage each time we learn that yet another student-athlete has been taking money under the table. But the real scandal is the very structure of college sports, wherein student-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves. Here, a leading civil-rights historian makes the case for paying college athletes—and reveals how a spate of lawsuits working their way through the courts could destroy the NCAA.
I don't think I'm going to like the perspective of a civil-rights historian framing this with a lens of oppression, but it looks like it has good information based on the excerpt I saw.

I think my feelings about the NCAA are about the same ones I have about the United States. I love my country, and hate my government; I love college athletics, and hate the NCAA.

Two highlights from that excerpt:
Amazingly in retrospect, most colleges and marketing experts considered the advent of television a dire threat to sports [in 1951]. Studies found that broadcasts reduced live attendance, and therefore gate receipts, because some customers preferred to watch at home for free. Nobody could yet imagine the revenue bonanza that television represented.
Just keep that in mind when people tell you the internet is going to destroy whatever business they have interests in. Or when anyone complains about any impending economic dynamism, for that matter.
With clunky new TV sets proliferating, the 1951 NCAA convention voted 161–7 to outlaw televised games except for a specific few licensed by the NCAA staff. All but two schools quickly complied. The University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame protested the order to break contracts for home-game television broadcasts, claiming the right to make their own decisions.
How did I get through four years of Notre Dame without ever hearing of this? I must have had several hundred conversations about ND football TV contracts, and as many more about the NCAA generally. I want to know more about this.

It is now time to go turn on College GameDay.  G'Irish.

~ ~ ~

Via Skip Sauer. Which actually reminds me, my friend Skipper (different guy completely) pointed out a couple of days ago that the entirety of Rudy is available on YouTube now. If the ND/MSU game gets too depressing I may have to watch that instead. Or I could finish reading "Near-Saddle-Node Bifurcation Behavior as Dynamics in Working Memory for Goal-Directed Behavior." Both are good options

16 September 2011

Digest: 16 Sep 2011

The Atlantic | Derek Thompson | How Hollywood Accounting Can Make a $450 Million Movie 'Unprofitable'
Most corporations try to make a profit by limiting costs. Movies corporations manage to record a loss by maximizing costs.
Back in undergrad I heard a talk in one of my film classes by a dual film and accounting major about these bookkeeping shenanigans. It was the first, and I suspect only, time I have been fascinated while learning about accounting.

Ars Technica | Timothy B. Lee | Judge worries recording police will lead to excessive "snooping around"

More evidence of Posner being a blockheaded fool about recording police:
[Posner] was particularly worried that allowing recording would impact police work. "I'm always suspicious when the civil liberties people start telling the police how to do their business," he said. He speculated that gangs would love the ACLU's argument because recordings would make it easier to discover and retaliate against informants.
I want a time machine so I can go tell James Madison to just leave out the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. After all Richard Posner, in all his boundless judicial wisdom, is "suspicious when the civil liberties people start telling the police how to do their business." The whole god-damned point of a constitution is to allow The People to tell The Government how they may do their jobs!

I do not have the patience to read any more about this.

Cafe Hayek | Don Boudreaux | The State Isn’t Us
[Eugene] Robinson is appalled by Paul, accusing him of being part of an “immoral” movement that would interpret the Constitution’s Preamble to read “We the unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another...”

It’s a mistake, however, to classify coerced ‘giving’ as “compassion,” and downright bizarre to accuse those of us who would rely more upon genuine compassion – evidenced by people giving from the goodness of their hearts rather than from a desire to avoid imprisonment – as endorsing a society without compassion.
Taxing people to pay for social programs is compassionate in the same way sending other men to war is courageous.
To the extent that government programs such as Medicare and Social Security were enacted, and survive, because the beneficiaries of these programs support them, then even on Eugene Robinson’s own premises they cannot be said to reflect “compassion.” Quite the opposite. To that extent these programs reflect greed: give me what you have because I want it and I’m willing to hire people with jail cells and guns to take from you what I want for myself.
Isn't Eugene Robinson on my People Never to Trust list? If not, he is now.

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Owning Solyndra

Meyer planes Kevin Drum, but the reason the thing I want to excerpt is this aside:
I have written before about how much expertise about business tends to be claimed by liberal journalists and places like Think Progress. I had a funny thought trying to imagine the Think Progress business school and what it would teach. Might be a parody I need to write sometime.
That's something I really want to see. It brings to mind Radley Balko's "Protest Proof Grocery Store."

Think Progress | Matt Yglesias | Stanford’s ‘Engineering Everywhere’

(a) This Standford program sounds great

(b) This is very true:
But one way or another, the current paradigm, where it’s cheaper and easier than ever to learn something but harder and more expensive than ever to get a degree, isn’t going to persist.
(c) What does this mean?
[Engineering Everywhere, MIT Open Courseware, etc.] doesn’t really function as education.
Emphasis his. I mean this non-snarkily: what does this mean? How does Yglesias define education if this isn't it? To me these things help me acquire new knowledge or skills, therefore they are education.

MIT 6.893 Philosophy and Theoretical Computer Science

MIT 6.089 Great Ideas in Theoretical Computer Science

Speaking of which, one of my lab mates just pointed out these two courses to me. He had just heard of Bostrom's Simulation Argument and was fascinated.

Once I get passed my dissertation proposal I think I'm going to work through some of these courses. My statistics needs work, and my numerical methods is almost non-existent. Even if I don't learn that material well, I will at least learn what there is to learn.

Reason: Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | How Can You Believe in the American Dream Anymore When People Have to Pay Cash for Their Vacation Condos?

15 September 2011

Misc: 15 Sep 2011

∞ Washington Examiner: Beltway Confidential | Timothy Carney | Stop coddling Warren Buffett
Buffett Profits from Taxes He Supports

Buffett regularly lobbies for higher estate taxes. He also has repeatedly bought up family businesses forced to sell because the heirs’ death-tax bill exceeded the business’s liquid assets. He owns life insurance companies that rely on the death tax in order to sell their estate-planning businesses.
∞ The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | Solyndra Gets More Scandalous
The reason that [the Solyndra scandal] doesn't look good is not, as some conservatives seem to be dreaming, because it exposes some deep corruption at the heart of the Obama administration. Rather, it exposes how badly these things can go wrong when government bureaucrats are assigned to make political dreams come true with Other Peoples' Money.

The problem with Solyndra is not George Kaiser. It's the whole concept behind a program which is supposed to enable politically favored technologies, using loan guarantees that look cheap when they're issued, and end up costing us half a billion dollars because we rushed the due diligence to make sure top officials got a good photo op.
The problem isn't that the wrong guy is holding the reins, the problem is that the reins are hitched to too many horses.

∞ Reason: Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | Judge Posner Fears 'Snooping Around by Reporters and Bloggers' If People Are Allowed to Record the Police

Ummm.... yeah Posner, that's the point. What is he afraid of, citizens finding out what the authorities are doing? That sounds SO HORRIBLE! Next thing you know citizens will be demanding to have speedy and public trials or to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects. We can't possibly have that, can we?

Cafe Hayek | Don Boudreaux | Jim Crow 2.0

NY Times | Rachel Donadio | Austere Italy? Check the Traffic
Comitini, Italy — With only 960 residents and a handful of roads, this tiny hilltop village in the arid, sulfurous hills of southern Sicily does not appear to have major traffic problems. But that does not prevent it from having one full-time traffic officer — and eight auxiliaries.

The auxiliaries, who earn a respectable 800 euros a month, or $1,100, to work 20 hours a week, are among about 64 Comitini residents employed by the town, the product of an entrenched jobs-for-votes system pervasive in Italian politics at all levels
Question: did ambitious people like my grandfather's family high-tail it out of southern Italy because it was this dysfunctional then, or is it this dysfunctional now because ambitious people got the hell out of Dodge a century ago?


Tate Shots | Tate at the Venice Biennale 2011

The Money Illusion | Scott Sumner | Does libertarianism mean we have to pay for everything?

The blogger Sumner is responding to is working on fundamentally the wrong level of analysis. (As, to a much lesser degree, is Sumner.) Wait, I take that back. Not wrong, but one which is far less interesting and important IMO. I do not care what the price of water fountains or park benches is. I care how the procedure used set the price of water fountains and park benches is determined.

The Agitator | Radley Balko | Everyone With an Online Dating Profile Could Soon Be a Felon

This is an idea whose badness transcends ideology. This makes no sense in any way other than naked power grab by making it easy to criminalize every citizen.

The Bluth Company | Mister Banana Grabber Tattoo

I am so pleased to live in a world where things this absurd exist

14 September 2011

Links: 14 Sep 2011

Washington Examiner | Gene Healy | Obamaphiles still longing for Camelot

Popehat | Ken | But — but — but — we meant so well when we passed that law!

Surprise! Screwing around with the age minors get drivers licenses doesn't work!

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Making Astrology Look Respectable

The Economist: Babbage | APPlied logic

This is awesome: using camera-enabled smartphones on just a handful of vehicles to build a model of traffic camera patterns in a city. This allows, among other things, very accurate predictions about red and green lights, which in turn caused significant drop in fuel consumption.

Efficient transportation is about more than just vehicles. Sadly, the US government takes exactly the opposite approach, spending our money on bullshit boondogle white elephant pork barrel subsidies instead of actual public goods like intelligent intersection management.

Speaking of which...

TED | Gary Lauder's new traffic sign: Take Turns

The Money Illusion | Scott Sumner | Warren Buffett faces a 90% plus tax rate

Marginal Revolution | Alex Tabarrok | Cities as hotels

Privately built and owned private cities are arriving. (Well, towns anyway.) Diamond Age here we come!

Steve Allen | Some jobs bill arithmetic
You can then calculate how much it costs (in lost revenue or greater expenditures) to create a job [under Obama's new proposal]. The numbers are sobering: $233k per job for the payroll tax cuts and $350k per job for the infrastructure spending. And these jobs would only be around for the duration of the new stimulus package!

My plan for zero unemployment: There were 14m unemployed workers in August. The $447b stimulus package could be used to generate a check of almost $32,000 to each and every one of them. As a condition of receiving that check, they would be asked to work at some organization, for profit or nonprofit, for one year.
Sounds fine to me, though I have the same concerns I have previously voiced about officially sanctioned volunteer work. Also, it kind of shafts anyone who already has a job earning less than $32k, no?

Three more charts

From Daniel J. Mitchell, by way of Jeffrey Ellis:

They each give different, not mutually exclusive, accounts of this data. I will let you chew on this:
"In an attempt to Do Good for All, [FDR] ... saddled our country not only with "social programs," but with the deeper, unconscious legacy of belief in Social Programs, irrespective of their effectiveness.  Roosevelt's great domestic bequest was this syllogism: If anything called a Social Program fails, expand it."

— David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge
Update: Tim Worstall argues, convincingly, that it is worthless to compare poverty numbers through time because the the measurements have changed (or more accurately, the way the measurements interact with anti-poverty programs has changed).

~ ~ ~
Cafe Hayek | Russ Roberts | Crumbling

Whenever someone writes about infrastructure or bridges, they always use the word “crumbling” and say that we have neglected our infrastrucutre. We have to spend more, we’re told.

It is good to remember this picture from David Leonhardt’s November 2008 column on infrastructure that shows that federal spending on infrastructure as a proportion of GDP was actually higher in 2008 than it had been any time since 1981.
But the bigger problem has been an utter lack of seriousness in deciding how that money gets spent. [...] Government agencies usually don’t even have to do a rigorous analysis of a project or how it would affect traffic and the environment, relative to its cost and to the alternatives — before deciding whether to proceed. In one recent survey of local officials, almost 80 percent said they had based their decisions largely on politics, while fewer than 20 percent cited a project’s potential benefits. [...]

They help explain why our infrastructure is in such poor shape even though spending on it, surprisingly enough, has risen at a good clip in recent decades. Spending is up 50 percent over the last 10 years, after adjusting for inflation. As a share of the economy, it will be higher this year than in any year since 1981.

~ ~ ~

"Reason: Hit & Run | Nick Gillespie | How Much Will Obama Spend to Replace the 1 Percent of Schools That Principals Say Are Actually Falling Apart?"

PEG links

I have three tabs open in my browser to P.E. Gobry's blog, all of which point to interesting things.

Thing Number One: Grilled Cheese Entrepreneurship!

~ ~ ~

Thing Number Two: Felix Salmon on what it takes to get licensed to process payments.

Some of my personal favorite flaming hoops of bureaucracy to jump through:
  • In order to check whether a given Social Security number belongs to a dead person — a basic security check — the US Department of Commerce will charge you rates starting at $995 per lookup, and rapidly rising to as much as $14,500.
  • When companies ask for a driver’s license, they currently have no way of checking online to see whether that license is valid.
  • Of the 50 states, not one yet has a web-based license application process.
  • Universities’ money-transmission programs, like [Notre Dame's "Domer Dollars"], are also unlicensed. “Consequently,” writes Greenspan, “the presidents, provosts and trustees of every private university in the nation with such programs (which are exceedingly common) are unknowingly committing federal crimes, and could be incarcerated.”
  • Maryland’s license fee is $4,000.00 in even-numbered years, but $2,000.00 in odd-numbered years.

~ ~ ~

Thing Number Three: Andrew Biggs on teacher salaries.  Thesis: you can not compare teachers to private sector employees by holding educational credentials constant.
Education majors enter college with lower SAT scores than students majoring in other fields but leave college with higher GPAs. Unless something truly magical happens in education schools, we can only conclude that Education is simply a less demanding course of study. As Koedel points out, this lack of rigor undermines rewards to students who work harder, makes it more difficult for schools to distinguish good teaching candidates from poor ones, and may contribute to a professional culture that cares little about standards of quality. [...]

Put bluntly, public school teachers enter college with below-average SAT scores, major in the easiest undergraduate course of study, take Master’s degrees in education that have no appreciable impact on teaching quality, and then wonder why they’re not as well paid as someone who got a Master’s in chemical engineering. They shouldn’t.
Much to discuss here, but I want to comment on just the passage I highlighted. This effect is particularly bad news with the tenure system public schools have adopted. I am told (and I agree) that it takes a couple of years for new teachers to find their sea legs. They deserve some experience before being evaluated. But in many districts teachers receive tenure after two years, at which point they can't really be re-evaluated. (Not with the most important consequence, anyway.) As a result the initial hiring decision is the only one that gets made. Our schools are banking on never making a mistake there. And that decision is being made based mostly on educational record, which doesn't seem to carry a lot of information.

This is not something it is popular to say amongst teachers, but it should only be resisted by people who suspect they should not have made that initial cut.

HPV, Smoking and Sinning

Mrs. SB7 and I were talking last night about the Rick Perry/HPV vaccine brouhaha that has flared up recently.  I am told that some people are of the opinion that vaccines against STDs "encourage promiscuity" by lowering the costs of sexual activity.

This seems to be an opinion held by socially conservative Christians. [Many] Smart Liberals seem to think this is absurd.*  But I want to point out that our very own FDA, as well as liberal anti-smoking groups, apply the exact same thinking to electronic cigarettes. (See here, here and here.) Just last year the FDA attempted to ban them because they reduced the harm from tobacco use. Things like this, and NIH banning smoking from outdoor areas on its campus even while admitting there was no health reason to do so, make it clear that this is essentially a religious issue for many.  It is not the adverse consequences of tobacco use they wish to minimize, but the sinful use of tobacco itself.

*And indeed it is. Not because it recognizes incentives, but because it conflates goals.  If you think sexual activity leads to bad consequences then the goal should be to reduce the bad consequences, not to reduce sexual activity itself.  (And if you think it's the sex itself which must be avoided for its own sake, then the cancer risks, along with other consequences, are irrelevant.  Also, please come out and say that.)

13 September 2011

I can be anything...

A Toothpaste For Dinner comic which is loosely related to the final chart and addendum of the previous post

Some Charts

I've got a major piece of work due in about six weeks, so I think blogging will continue to be light around here. Besides that, I have a big stack of new books from the library,* and those are a lot more interesting to me right now then rehashing internet squabbles about whether social security is or is not Ponzi-like (it is), how we have reacted in the ten years since 9/11 (poorly), how the GOP candidates looked at their most recent "debate" (goofy), or Obama's latest bloviation event ("a jobs plan that was only designed to produce one job — a second term for Barack Obama").

(* Including The Magician King, Just My Type, several volumes of Kurt Busiek's Conan series,** The Secret Knowledge, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer and one other volume I should be writing about shortly.

** Hey, I'm a guy who needs his pulp entertainments too.  Also, this series has some decently scholarly essays in the backmatter, complete with excerpts from Conan creator Robert E Howard's correspondences. That's not something you see in sword-and-sorcery comics.
Instead I'm goign to try and post some link digests, and maybe some short snippets and such that strike me, and leave more lengthy commentary until such a time as it strikes me, which will probably be November.  Unless, of course, I change my mind.)

So here's a few of charts I'll pass along with minimal comment.  The first two are from Mark Perry.

"Consumption Has Recovered, We've Got a Sub-Par Recovery Because of Weak Investment Spending"

"A Tariff-Reduction Plan for American Jobs"

This one I've seen posted in a lot of places.  I'll just pick Jeffrey Ellis to link to.  It shows the use that the Patriot Act's "sneak and peak" warrants, which were supposedly going to protect us from nefarious terrorists, have actually been put to use on.

Finally, Coyote Blog has a good chart on the bubble in student loans:

We can not continue to pretend that a degree in chemical engineering is as productive an investment as one in poetry.  I don't think anyone really thinks they are equivalent, but we continue to order our affairs as if they were.  Is there a word for the condition of a society knowing something is false but collectively agreeing to pretend otherwise?

Addendum: I should be clear that by "productive investment" I mean that the average chemical engineer will have an easier time repaying a student loan than will the average poetry major.  I am not claiming that one is inherently more valuable than the other.  (That is something I believe, but not something which is relevant to this discussion nor that I am interested in defending right now.)

I do not think anyone would disagree with the notion that the CHEG will be better situated to repay the investment in his education than will the poet.  There is a reason we have no stereotype of a "starving chemist." And yet loans can not be priced to reflect this knowledge.  This disruption of the price signal is a destruction of information, and I believe is caused by people conflating changing a measurement (the price, which they can do) with changing reality (the repayment rates, which they can not do).

I think this whole issue is wrapped up in another bottom elephant of mine, which is the distinction between higher education as consumption and higher education as investment.  People are simultaneously told to take on debt as if all courses of study were equally good, and valuable investments, but then incentivized choose their courses to maximize their personal consumption.

And just like that, my commitment to not doing any longer commentary went out the window.