31 March 2011

Sonic Pick-me-up

I'm in the weeds work-wise.  The situation calls for more coffee and a rock and roll power up.

The Rockford Mules, "Ma, They Broke Me."

30 March 2011

Reserves

Russ Roberts has a good post about how Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has been unable to impose top-down solutions to the fuel shortages in northern Honshu which are crippling the ability to get food and supplies in to refugees.

To summarize briefly, refineries are required to keep 70 days worth of fuel on hand for emergencies. But this limit was only lowered to 67 days in the wake of the disaster. A couple of weeks later it was lowered to 45 days.  The same sorts of top-down limits are in place for other resources, including at least use of main roadways, leading to other misallocations.

If this isn't an emergency that makes it necessary to use emergency supplies, I don't know what would be. It would be tasteless to say Godzilla, so... an alien attack?

This is, incidentally, exactly why I am not so sanguine about one of the most popular solutions for averting future financial crises, increased capital requirements. In order for them to work you must have a wise and benevolent enough regulator who can lower the requirements in during an emergency to the appropriate levels with the appropriate alacrity. Otherwise they do you as much good as the reserve fuel sitting in refinery tanks in Japan right now.

Perhaps an illustration is in order.

Imagine regularly wanting to buy a sandwich but not having any cash. So a rule is imposed: you must have $20 on you at all times. Next time you walk by the sandwhich shop you think, marvelous, I will spend some of the $20 in my wallet on a tasty lunch. But then you have only $15 left in your wallet, putting you afoul of the "capital requirement." So even with the new rule, you must have $25 in your pocket in order to get your sandwich. But if you couldn't keep yourself $5 over the minimum when the minimum was zero, why will you be able to stay $5 over the limit when the minimum is $20?

The number and complexity of various "emergency provisions" you need to make a system like this operate quickly takes reserve requirements from the realm of "obviously beneficial" to "potentially workable."  Either that, or you abandon rules for discretion and pray you have the right philosopher prince in charge when things go pear shaped.


Edited to add [3 Apr '11]David Henderson draws the same parallel I did, with an easier to state analogy.

Filmstrips

I'm crazy about these old instructional filmstrips.  I don't know what it is about them, but for all our modern pedagogy and graphics technology I rarely see a contemporary demo that makes me sit up and go "OH! That's how that works!" the way these do.

This one about differential gearing is making the rounds in the last 24 hours:



Some previous favorites are this one about how a mechanical watch movement operates...



... and this series from the US Navy about mechanical computers. I knew they had these things called 'fire control computers,' and I knew they were made out of shafts and gears and other physical widgets, but I had never really thought about what they were trying to do, to say nothing of how they managed to actually do it.







Those are the first three clips. (NB The last one uses differential gears to do addition.) There are four more: four, five, six, seven.

By the way, does anyone else keep a mental list of things that would be important to remember if they get sent back in time?  Sometimes I see something and think "remember that, it might come in handy one day."  But sometimes I think "remember that, it might come in handy if you get transported into the past."  The latter only carries slightly less weight than the former for me.

I blame S.M. Stirling.


PS I'm also filing this stuff away under "potential science fair projects for future offspring."

29 March 2011

Libya

Peter Suderman has a very good critique of Obama's attempted defense of the Libyan Quasi-War.

This passage stuck out:
Obama may not have been able to justify the mission, but he assured Americans that it was done in cooperation the international community.
This is a baffling sentiment to me, for all its popularity. To be sure, it is impractical to go galavanting around the world like the Lone Ranger, as Bush seemed willing to do. But while you can argue the approval of the "international community" is necessary, it is very far from sufficient. Relying on it to justify a war is just morality-by-popular-acclaim.

"Why did you hit him?" "Because lots of people said it was okay." That's what using the assent of "the international community" the amounts to. And this is, lest we forget, an international community that has spent the last decade kissing Gaddafi's ass. Take that in to account when assessing their moral relevance.

This also worries me:

Obama asserted on multiple occasions that it was in our “national interest” to intervene in Libya. Why? Well, it’s still not entirely clear. Obama warned that had we not acted, Gaddafi might have gone forth with a “massacre” that would have “stained the conscience of the world.” But massacres—terrible, tragic, and barbarous as they are—have happened before, and will almost certainly happen again, without U.S. intervention. What makes this one different? Obama never offered a convincing explanation, probably because there isn't one. Even his defense secretary, Robert Gates, admitted just a few days ago that America does not have a “vital interest” in Libya. Instead, the president fell back on assertion: “When our interests and values are at stake,” he said, “we have a responsibility to act.”
We get a different message from the administration seemingly everyday. This is a national interest, but not a vital national interest. It's a war, but not a war-war. We need Gaddafi to go, but the goal isn't regime change. We stand behind the rebels, but not enough to actually communicate with or arm them. They stand for freedom and peace, but we aren't really sure who they are. Between the White House, State, Defense and Joint Chiefs you're getting conflicting stories all the time. I don't care as much about what your philosophy or plan is as much as I care that you have a philosophy or a plan.

~ ~ ~

W. James Antle also unleashed a broadside:
He offered no coherent argument for this intervention that wouldn't in principle commit us to intervening all over the world, yet at the same time suggested he would not even see this intervention through if it cost too much or took to long. [...]

So which is it? The United States must intervene militarily to avert any humanitarian catastrophe anywhere in the world or else betray our values. But at the same time, we are not going to pursue regime change, we are not responsible for the forces that our interventions unleash and we are not going to stick around as long as that Bush guy did in Iraq. Obama tried to rally the country around the flag as if we are at war, yet continued to pretend we are not at war, refusing to even utter the word. Obama is trying to split the difference, as if war is something that can be handled by focus groups.
This is exactly what has always made Obama a formidable speaker. He says two contradictory things in such a way that you hear what you want and miss the rest. It's a wonderful trick.

It reminds me of a recent storyline in Parks and Recreation, in which Rob Lowe's character broke up with his girlfriend so nicely and with such positive language that she did not realize the relationship was over. That's Obama.

~ ~ ~

Nick Gillespie's commentary is nothing you wouldn't guess Nick Gillespie would say, but it is worth reading for an outstanding deployment of the word "jesuitical."

~ ~ ~

Other than slandering bocce and using "neoliberal" as a way to refer to the contemporary American Left, I agree with the overall thrust of this piece.

~ ~ ~

Depressing story: "Libya may make defense cuts a no-fly zone"
For once, the unthinkable in Washington seemed within reach. From liberals to tea party conservatives to a defense secretary who served in a Republican administration, all agreed — it was time to begin reining in the Pentagon budget.

Then along came Libya.

Just as the debt debate ramps up on Capitol Hill, the lead role the United States is playing in the military action against Libya threatens to scramble an emerging consensus over the need to trim defense to reduce the deficit. Despite the broad coalition targeting the Pentagon budget, cuts were always going to be a tough sell at a time of two wars — let alone as the military intervenes in a third country.
Gaddafi and the Libyans have gone and screwed up my budget cuts. Damnit.  Now this is more likely.

There is one thing that the US military can do that no else can (except maybe the Brits in a way) and that is to fight a battle anywhere on the face of the planet. It is imperative that we hand over policing of the areas immediately adjacent to Europe to the Europeans. Let them pay to play sheriff in their own backyard.

PS This story also introduces Douglas Holtz-Eakin as "an economist with close ties to congressional Republicans." I suppose that's true, but wouldn't "former head of the Congressional Budget Office" be a little less biased?

~ ~ ~

Just for shits-and-giggles:

HuffPo | Stan Lehman | Gaddafi's Plastic Surgery: Brazilian Surgeon Claims He Operated On Dictator

Sao Paulo — It was well past midnight when the Brazilian surgeon says he was escorted deep inside a bunker in the Libyan capital.

His assignment: to shave years off Moammar Gadhafi's appearance by removing fat from his belly and injecting it into his wrinkled face. The Libyan leader also got hair plugs.

The secretive four-hour procedure in 1995 was done, at Gadhafi's insistence, with local anesthesia because he wanted to remain alert. Midway through, the Libyan leader stopped to have a hamburger.
It is imperative that we not forget what a farce the world regularly serves up for us.  To that end, check out this gallery.

(Yes, he pinned a snapshot to this bosom before meeting with Berlusconi.)


25 March 2011

"Should I have..."

I noticed this yesterday:


That's the list of things Google will autocomplete for you when you ask "Should I have..."

If you need to ask the internet any of those questions, the answer is "no."

I am not sure which is least disturbing. "Should I have ... a cookie," presumably, but even then, how unsure are you about your desire for something simple like a cookie? That is not a momentous decision; the outcomes do not demand careful consideration or gathering of outside opinions.

The bigger or smaller the stakes of the "should I have ..." question are, the weirder it is to have to ask.

GE's taxes

In the last five minutes I've seen three links to stories about GE not paying any tax last year despite recording profits of $12M.  There are exactly two ways people will respond to this.

Here is the first (Ken Layne in Wonkette)
This is going to get repetitive, we’re afraid, but every aspect of the “financial crisis” in the United States is due to corporations not paying taxes and the very richest .01% individuals not paying taxes. That’s it, that’s the whole thing — your crumbling schools, your sinkhole highways, your abandoned state parks, the laid-off city maintenance worker who leaps to his death in Costa Mesa after half the town’s workforce is replaced by hourly contractors and the mayor hires a $12,000-a-month P.R. manager, everything. General Electric, America’s largest corporation and the second-biggest company on Earth, simply does not pay any taxes at all. You try that!
(Emphasis in the original.)

That, by the way, is accompanied by a picture of protestors bearing torches. Pitchforks are implied, though not in evidence.

Here is the second possible response (Henry Blodget in Business Insider)
First, the inability of poor little companies like ours to afford huge "tax departments" that can figure out how to make sure we pay no taxes like GE.

Second, the patheticness of laws that allow global multi-national corporations like GE to make $12 billion in profits--including from vast US operations--and not pay a penny in US taxes. These laws seriously hurt the competitiveness of companies that don't happen to be global multi-nationals with huge tax departments (like us, for example). They also deprive our Treasury of revenue it desperately needs to close an absolutely humongous budget deficit.

So who are we pissed off at when we pay the tax bill on our puny $2,000 of profit and ~$3 million of capital and read articles about how GE pays no taxes?

Our government.

Screw you, fellas. Hope you enjoy your schmoozy dinner with GE's lobbyists tonight.
I respond the second way (i.e. the "don't hate the player, hate the [guy who sets the rules of the] game" veiw).

I do not think I will ever be able to see eye to eye with people who respond the first way.  I think it's probably not even worth discussing tax-related or even broader economic issues with such people because we see the world too differently to be able to have fruitful discourse.  Until we settle the who do you blame when the dog eats the meatloaf you left on the floor? issue, I don't think there's much else to be done.

~ ~ ~

I want to write more about Obama's buddy and GE CEO Immelt, and being "pro-business" vs. "pro-market", and tax reform, and what is either a massive prevarication or (if I'm being generous) unintentional conflation at the end of Layne's post, and some other more minor errors Layne makes, and Leonard Hand, and the necessary differences between how we treat individual and corporate taxes and some other things besides, but instead I am going to go back to thinking about competitive dynamics in neural networks without the use of lateral inhibitory links.  Fun!

PS File this Asymmetric Information post about corporate taxes under that list of things I would have mentioned if I had time to write a whole big thing.  Also, go read it currently.

In the shade


BBC Sports | Artificial clouds could help cool 2022 Qatar World Cup

Scientists at Qatar University claim to have developed artificial clouds to provide shade for stadia and training grounds at the 2022 World Cup.
I have a different solution than Qatar U: don't hold outdoor spectator sporting events in deserts.  Problem solved.

I got heat sick at a world cup game in DC for chrisake. I can only image what it would be like in Doha.

Also — that is not a cloud. Not even remotely.  Call it a "flying parasol" or "floating awning" or "mega-scale powered shade kite" or something, but it has no more in common with a cloud than a frisbee does.

Here's another idea.  Rather trying to support a shade device with propellors and lift and aeronautical whatnot, how about we support it from the ground?  It's something that might be familiar to fans of the Atlanta Falcons, the Dallas Cowboys, the Detroit Lions, the Minnesota Vikings, the New Orleans Saints, the St. Louis Rams, the Houston Texans, the Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Seattle Mariners, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Houston Astros, the Tampa Bay Rays, FC Schalke 04, Vitesse, Consadole Sapporo & the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fortuna Düsseldorf, and Galatasaray S.K. — it's an advanced piece of architecture called "a roof."

That is all.

24 March 2011

Up from the comments, a new Rule

In my "Anti-Poverty" post, Peter W. very astutely commented:

Joseph Epstein's book snobbery contains a discussion of moral snobbery in which he offers the following anecdote:

"I once found myself in a mild political disagreement with a middle-aged physician. I cannot now recall the matter we argued about, but when it became apparent that, as in most political arguments, no winner was going to emerge, he said with a complacent smile, 'Oh, you may be right, but all I know is that I care deeply about people.'"

It's perfectly true that it's not enough to have good intentions; one has to care about the effectiveness of one's actions at bringing about the intended goal. But it's also true that people who only care about their good intentions doesn't even have good intentions. If they really intended to, say, reduce poverty they would show some signs of wanting to know the most effective way to do that.
I like the emphasized sentiment immensely.

Which makes for a punchier aphorism?
If all you have is good intentions, your intentions aren't that good.
or
If all you have is good intentions, you don't even have those.

Marshmallow Taxes

The Money Illusion | Scott Sumner | The Marshmallow Test

I am a libertarian, but I am also a utilitarian, so I don’t really object to reasonable “nudge” policies like making the 401k plan the default option for new hires, or having banks warn people who rely too much on expensive overdrafts.

What bothers me is when I see attempts to redistribute wealth from the two marshmallow eaters to the one marshmallow eaters. [...]
Here Sumner is referring to Mischel's famous experiment about self-control:
Forty years ago Walter Mischel, an American psychologist, conducted a famous experiment. He left a series of four-year-olds alone in a room with a marshmallow on the table. He told them that they could eat the marshmallow at once, or wait until he came back and get two marshmallows. Recreations of the experiment on YouTube show what happens next. Some eat the marshmallow immediately. Others try all kinds of strategies to leave the tempting treat alone.

Nothing surprising there. The astonishing part was the way that the four-year-olds’ ability to defer gratification was reflected over time in their lives. Those who waited longest scored higher in academic tests at school, were much less likely to drop out of university and earned substantially higher incomes than those who gobbled up the sweet straight away. Those who could not wait at all were far more likely, in later life, to have problems with drugs or alcohol.
It's a fascinating piece of work. Here's a good RadioLab episode about it.

Anyway, back to Sumner:
[...] For instance, by the time I retire in 6 years I will have probably averaged about $80,000/year over my working life, which makes me comfortably upper middle class. Because I am a two marshmallow personality, I’ve probably saved about half of that income. So I’m doing fine. Most Americans with similar incomes are one marshmallow types, and save something closer to 10% of their incomes.

What do we do if Social Security needs to be trimmed in order to balance the budget? I hear lots of talk about cutting back on benefits for those who “don’t need it.” That would be people like me. Here’s why I don’t trust the Dems—I see them as the party of one marshmallow eaters. They represent people who have less self-control. I fear they will cut my benefits, but not cut the benefits of people who didn’t save for retirement. I fear they will use “wealth” as the criterion to determine who is needy and who isn’t; not lifetime wage earnings.

In my view there is nothing egalitarian about redistributing income from two marshmallow eaters to one marshmallow eaters. [...] I’m not saying that the rich shouldn’t be the ones who accept cutbacks in Social Security to save the system, that is a defensible argument (although interestingly many progressives oppose the idea, hoping that Social Security doesn’t become seen as “welfare.”) But if you are going to do means-testing, it should be on lifetime wage income, not wealth.
It has bothered me for years the way people conflate high wealth with high income. I don't think I need to go into why this bothers me.  (Stocks-vs-flows, rates of change, time effects, life cycle income patterns, etc. you fill in the rest.) As soon as you hear someone say the phrase "the rich" immediately put yourself on alert for which of these two categories they are referring two.  Often it is one when they are giving you the pathos and the other when giving you the logos.

But Sumner raises another concern which has crossed my mind but never really pinged my awareness in a big way until now: the difference between wealth and lifetime income.

I think I argued a while back that annual taxes are a poor idea. At the time I said taxes should be calculated from a moving window, say, the previous decade. That's the only time I can recall considering the difference between wealth and the sum of income. Of course, lifetime is even more complete of a look than a ten-year period.

Sumner is also the first person I think of with respect to replacing taxes on income and saving (both things we want to encourage) with taxes on consumption (something we want to discourage). Consumption is, of course, the difference between wealth and lifetime income.

~ ~ ~

PS I can already feel someone starting to object about how it wouldn't be fair to cut the benefits of the one marshmallow folks right before they retire because they had been "counting on" those benefits when they made their previous marshmallow eating decisions.

That really isn't the point of Sumner's post, but okay, fine.  The SSA does go out of its way to tell everyone that your benefits are not guaranteed and could change at any time.  And sure, every piece of financial advice I've ever seen has explicitly advised people against relying on SS.  The writing is clearly on the wall and people ignore it at their own peril, but whatever.  Let's not even worry about all that.  I agree we ought to have a couple of decades of lead time before any qualitative changes go into effect.

But that just makes it more imperative that we figure out what those changes will be right away.  Meanwhile we have Very Serious People like Harry Reid saying we ought to leave the program alone for twenty years and figure out what to do right before the plane flies into the mountain.
"Two decades from now, I'm willing to take a look at it," said Reid, 71, in an interview to air Wednesday evening on MSNBC. "But I'm not willing to take a look at it right now."
Read: "Two decades from now, when I'm out of office and probably dead, Congress can start to give people bad news. Until then refill the punch bowl with koolaid and keep the party going."

Who puts people like this in charge?  Seriously, I'm looking at you, Nevada.  Which of you twits keep pulling the lever for this clown?  STOP IT.

Anti-Poverty

Last week there was an assembly at the school Mrs SB7 works at to promote some anti-poverty group.  Knowing the school system, and having sat through those sorts of things dozens of times when I was a student there, I knew even before seeing the organization website that their proposals would all be a bunch of zero-sum-fallacy, feel-good-accomplish-little, doesn't-work-but-"raises awareness" claptrap.

Putting aside my knowledge with the school system who hosted this event, and even school systems in general, I would have guessed an anti-poverty group making such a presentation would be leftward.  They own this issue, despite the fact that the measures they advocate haven't done much good over the last several decades.

I'm thinking back to the post a few days back about libertarianism and callousness:
Many people think higher minimum wages and higher tariffs and opposition to Walmart is good for the poor. I disagree with them about all these things. One possibility reason I disagree, and the one many of my friends even latch on to, is that I do not care as much as they do about the poor. The other possibility is that I care just as much as they do but disagree about the effects of these policies. I take an opposite position on all these issues specifically because I do have the same concerns for other people that they do. We just disagree about how to get from here to there.
I think what pro-market/libertarian/classical liberal/whatever types need is a very visible, vocal, anti-poverty organization of our own.  Partially to help people, of course, but also to prove to people that we care.  I think fighting the image of us as cold-hearted Scrooges would do more to get our policies listened to and accepted than would more direct advocacy.

We already push for things like free trade or immigration liberalization which reduce poverty, but we don't typically bill them as such. If I had millions and both cared about poor people and advancing libertarianism I'd be branding those efforts specifically as a way to fight poverty.  We make presentations at schools, and put ads on buses, and hand out fliers at street fairs and farmers markets, and sell those donation coupon things at grocery store check-outs, and partner with clothing stores for specially branded benefit apparel,* and all of that stuff.

(* Actually, wait.  I hate those things like the "(RED)" project.  Well, the companies that make them are alright by me, but the people who buy them rub me the wrong way.  The producers are doing good, but they can only do so by playing to people's vanity.  If you want to help, then make a donation.  If you want to help and let other people know how much you care, then go to the mall and buy the special edition shirt which proudly proclaims to the world how much you care.

[Edited to add — 24 March — I'm talking about things like this.  Hats off to them for raising so much money, but who's buying these bracelets instead of just donating the money to the end recipients?  It's not like it's hard to figure out how to get money in the Red Cross' hands. Someone help me understand why people feel good about doing this.])

Here, by the way, is David Henderson reporting on an informal poll of his colleagues about what they would do to reduce poverty around the world: part one, part two.  These are economist from the Naval Postgraduate School of varying political/ideological leanings.  None of them would give money to AID, or the World Bank, or the UN, or any foreign government.  Several recommended investing (for-profit!) rather than donating.  Has that approach ever even been mentioned at an MCPS-sponsored anti-poverty assembly?  I don't mean has it been advocated or even discussed seriously.  Has it ever been mentioned as an option?

22 March 2011

Tax Choice

EconLog | Arnold Kling | A Whiff of Liberaltarianism from the Lef

Cait Lamberton writes,
Promote the concept of tax choice. What exactly is tax choice? Simply put, it is a policy that would permit taxpayers to allocate a percentage of their income taxes to any portion of the discretionary federal budget. In a tax choice program, a taxpayer who wishes to support public education, for example, could send some of her income tax dollars specifically to that part of the federal budget, while a taxpayer who feels strongly about the military could allocate a portion of his income tax payment accordingly."
That actually sounds like a terrible idea to me.

First of all, votes are already completely unaware of how much money is being spent on what. Why give people with an ignorance of the current allocation the ability to change the allocation?

Secondly, this will end up funneling more money to the popular and sexier programs rather than to necessary or efficient ones. Space exploration will get extra lucre, but who will be the ones checking off the box on their tax forms for sewage treatment or the department of weights and measures?*  Observe the same effect in fund-raising for disease research: most diseases raise money out of proportion to their lethality.

(* Legislators could attempt to minimize this problem by underfunding NASA in favor of NIST, knowing people will voluntarily give more to support the former when Tax Day comes.  But then what's the point of tax choice if the budgets can be made in advance to anticipate it?)

This brings us to the third point: if you want more money to be spent on X, then donate your money to a group which addresses X. No need to have the IRS take it from you.

Tax choice sounds like a nice way to sidestep the poor decisions of legislatures, but in binding their hands I think you'll end up with more problems than you started with.  Various California budgetary rules have had the same effect.

This is one place I am distinctly not in favor of choice. I think the federal budgeting process is a complete mess, but it at least hints at sober adults making considered judgements. At its worst it becomes largely uninformed people making highly emotional judgements. They way to address that is not tax choice,  because that is also uninformed people making emotional judgements.

21 March 2011

Sunday Round-Up

Alex Massie notes a spectacularly bad piece of science journalism: "How Journalism Works, Part XXXVII"

~ ~ ~

Tim Hayward weighs in on the glory of The Sandwich, a creation which all righteous men agree is the best of all food genres. His favorite is a wondrous opus hitherto unknown to me, the shooter's sandwich. This looks like just the thing for a tailgate.


~ ~ ~
PEG 2.0 | Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry
Society rewards extroverts. They get the job, the money, the girl (or boy), and the front page. Fortune 500 companies are run by 499 extroverts, plus Bill Gates.
— 'The Tyranny of the Extroverts' (via mlherold)
It’s true. Which is why, instead of bitching, introverts should simply learn to enjoy extroversion. Trust me. It’s hard. But it’s the best of both worlds.
Telling introverts to be extroverted is like telling depressed people to be happy. It's nice advice, but it's not going to get you very far either because it does't change the underlying psychological reality.

~ ~ ~
That's from Mark Perry. Something to keep in mind.

This article points out that the single deadliest power generation disaster isn't Chernobyl but the 1975 Shimantan/Banqiao dam failure, by several orders of magnitude.

And of course if you haven't yet seen the chart of radiation exposures that Randall Munroe put together a couple of days ago, go take a look at that.  Relating to the chart above, note that living within 10 miles of a nuclear plant will give you about one third as much radiation as living that close to a coal plant.  My favorite bit was that I got almost as much extra radiation by living in a concrete and brick apartment building for the past year as I would have if I lived in a wood building within ten miles of Three Mile Island.



~ ~ ~

Via Alex Tabarrok, here is a great excerpt from Myrhvold, et al's Modernist Cuisine about the interplay of food safety and culture.  Thesis: food safety is not determined by science or fact.  I don't know why I'm the slightest bit surprised.  It is just another type of public policy, and so is a product not of science, but of politics.

Also: I should not be nearly so concerned when my pork chops come out under-done.

~ ~ ~

Braak on Sucker Punch and Zach Snyder.  Say what you will about Snyder's movies.  At least they are extremely Zach Snydery.  Even if I don't always care for the product, at least he brings some authorship to what could easily otherwise be styleless camp in someone else's hands.

~ ~ ~

Jeffrey Ellis responds to some of my friendly neighborhood Walmart haters.  Their new location on Georgia Ave can't open soon enough for me.  (I need to hold my horses; they haven't even broken ground yet.)

~ ~ ~

David Henderson makes some cogent observations about "mandatory"/"entitlement" and "discretionary" spending.  More importantly, someone has finally come up with a good alternative name for the "mandatory" spending which is not at all mandatory: automatic discretionary spending. Words mean things. Use the right ones.

~ ~ ~

I agree completely with Ross McKitrick's comments on Earth Hour. Remember this next weekend.

Here are his full comments, in PDF. Here is an excerpt.
The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity. Earth Hour celebrates ignorance, poverty and backwardness. By repudiating the greatest engine of liberation it becomes an hour devoted to anti-humanism. It encourages the sanctimonious gesture of turning off trivial appliances for a trivial amount of time, in deference to some ill-defined abstraction called “the Earth,” all the while hypocritically retaining the real benefits of continuous, reliable electricity. People who see virtue in doing without electricity should shut off their fridge, stove, microwave, computer, water heater, lights, TV and all other appliances for a month, not an hour. And pop down to the cardiac unit at the hospital and shut the power off there too.
Secular religious ceremonial bullshit.

~ ~ ~

David D Friedman on Libya, Chamberlain and interventionism. Do not miss.

"Incompetently executed interventionist policy not only did not prevent the second World War, it helped to cause it."

~ ~ ~

Here is an interesting article about the Sultan of Brunei's brother's car collection, which is being left to rot in the jungle heat and humidity, quite literally, because he has no money for maintenance after being nailed for fraud.

What strikes me is the utter lack of taste here. I can kind of understand spending billions on cars. (I'm not a car guy, but watch as many episodes of Top Gear as I have in the last two months and see if you don't start to revere them a little more than you thought you would.) But this guy collected cars with absolutely no soul. Hardly anything within spitting distance of being a classic. It isn't even the best of or most interesting or necessarily even the most expensive cars. He would just buy up a handful of identical late model Mercedes just to have some. (Entire garage floors of 1995-97 Merc 500s). If I could draw up a fantasy multi-billion dollar wish list of cars there would of course be the Ferraris and Astons. (But not all late-model!) But just as importantly would be Zondas and Koenigseggs and an Ascari and an Ariel and a Caerterham and a Morgan and some old Alfas and Austin-Healeys and and and and ... and of course a Veyron. Obvi.

~ ~ ~
Instapundit | Glenn Reynolds

Inflate that higher-ed bubble: “The best economic policy is one that produces more college graduates.”

Another violation of Reynolds’ Law, which reads: “Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.”

Here’s the original passage:
The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
I don’t think Obama grasps this.
Thinking we can get more productive workers by handing out diplomas is a bit like thinking you can make immature, philandering people more monogamous and committed by giving them wedding rings. College may be necessary for most productive jobs, but it is far from sufficient.

Furthermore, if you are looking to use higher education as an economic engine then stop subsidizing college-as-consumption and only subsidize productive degrees.

~ ~ ~
Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Wisconsin Officials Rushing to Prove Why Public Unions Are A Problem

So the Republicans in Wisconsin eliminated collective bargaining for public unions except on wages. The Democratic Secretary of State, fully within the law, is delaying making the law official for 10 days. This 10 days is giving us a great picture of the problem with public unions.

Why? Because the 10 days was explicitly to allow cities and counties to cut new deals with unions, since all deals before the law is passed are grandfathered. The fact that many city and county governments are rushing to take advantage of this window just proves that public collective bargaining is broken — no one is looking after the taxpayers. [...]
Quite so. This is the final demonstration (if indeed one was needed) that there is not a competitive relationship between public officials and public unions, even though that antagonism is the conditio sine qua non of trade unionism.

~ ~ ~
Reason: Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | Obama: Better Background Checks Would Stop Future Loughners

Obama regrets that "a man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence, was able to walk into a store and buy a gun." But people who are rejected for military service or thrown out of community college are still allowed to own firearms, and Obama does not propose changing the factors that disqualify people from buying guns. [...] In short, the president's solution would not have stopped Loughner, and it would not stop similar assailants in the future.
Not only is Obama fighting the last battle, he's proposing a strategy that would have lost the last battle.

~ ~ ~
Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Haitian Update

Has a new dystopian form of urban organization been invented, or rather reinvented in the Western hemisphere, namely the aid-supported tent city?:
A large but unknown number of people in the camps are choosing to stay in them. Life is better there than in the sprawling, gang-infested slums. Camp-dwellers pay no rent. Nor do they have to pay for sanitation, because latrines are often provided by the aid agencies, or clean water, since that is often supplied by the agencies or by the government. Medical services are also easier to find and, again, probably free, courtesy of agencies like UNICEF or charities like Médecins Sans Frontières. A cholera epidemic makes that all the more vital.
Things like charter cities don't need to be perfect, they just need to be better than the alternatives. If a (unsustainable) tent city is better than the alternative, would letting Singapore or Sweden or even Walmart take a spin at running a town be such a terrible idea?

~ ~ ~
"The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Barack Obama, 2007.
Old boss, new boss, don't get fooled again, etc, etc. You can fill in the details.

~ ~ ~

Sonic Charmer's open letter to the principal anti-war Left is what I wish I could have brought myself to bother writing last week.

~ ~ ~
BBC News | Steve Fritzinger | Factories in decline? It's OK, services will do nicely

The Worrying Class in developed countries laments: "We don't make anything any more." [...]

The United States alone produces roughly 20% of all the world's manufactured goods. We may not make many toys or cell phones any more, but we do make most of the world's artificial knees and hips, medical scanners and jet aircraft. Those sound like good jobs to me.

Manufacturing fetishists also ignore the fact that many factory jobs were actually not very good jobs at all.
The whole thing is worth a read. His quote of Don Boudreaux is especially good: "The value of a dollar’s worth of cloth is exactly the same as a dollar’s worth of web design. One dollar."

~ ~ ~
Reason: Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | America's Incoherent Approach to Health Care

From a Kaiser Health News interview with former Congressional Budget Office director and current American Action Forum president Douglas Holtz-Eakin:
Fundamentally, what we have in all our health programs is the following: We say to beneficiaries, you can have all the highest quality medical science that we can provide. And we say to [medical] providers, ‘God, that’s expensive! Stop it!’ And we cut back their payments or tell them not to do stuff. Then the beneficiary says, ‘But you said,’ and we go back and give it to them. It’s incoherent.
That's what we get when our rulers can't admit to the existence of trade-offs. (And our voters would insist on free lunches even if they did.)

20 March 2011

Some Anniversaries

Cafe Hayek | Don Boudreaux | An Anniversary of A Regrettable Movement

2011 is the 200th anniversary of Luddism. Hopefully one day protectionism will be embraced by no more than the small number of historically uninformed or deleriously romantic persons who today embrace Luddism.
Amen. Though I would satisfy myself with finally putting Luddism well and truly behind us.

~ ~ ~

Via 3 Quarks Daily:

Philosophy Now | Howard Darmstadter | David Hume at 300

Enter David Hume. Born May 7, 1711 of respectable parents in the Scottish Lowlands, his early life was outwardly uneventful. After leaving Edinburgh University, he at first contemplated a legal career, and briefly worked as a clerk for a Bristol merchant. But in his late teens Hume was seized by ideas that “opened up to me a new scene of thought.” He decided to become the Newton of the moral sciences.

Newton had shown that all of the material world was governed by the same mechanical laws. Hume’s great project was to base the study of man and society on similar universal principles. Indeed, the Treatise of Human Nature bore the subtitle Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.

In the Treatise, Hume tried to formulate the laws governing the succession of our thoughts. The result was a long and generally unconvincing exposition of numerous rules said to direct our mental life. But intertwined with this failed attempt at a complete theory of the mind, and at times buried by it, is Hume’s development of the startling implications of a scientific view of man. His two later Enquiries brought these implications powerfully to the fore.

~ ~ ~

March 17th was the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. Sort of, anyway. It was actually the proclamation of Victor Emmanuel II as King.

Here's "The Cranky Professor" on the differences he noted in celebrations in Torino and Rome.

The Economist also has a very good animated graphic about regional differences. It harks back to Massimo d'Azeglio's observation in 1867 "Italy has been made; now it remains to make Italians." Making Italians appears to be an ongoing project to this day.


We tend to think of nations, especially Western nations, as these atomic and permanent units. But they are very much the result of historical accident. I would like it if we were not so resistant to dividing them, shifting them, mutating them, and dissolving them. Nation states are a pretty modern thing, so don't be so attached to them when some weirdo like me advocates sea steading and all that libertarian exotica.

War Protests

Daniel Ellsberg, War Protesters Arrested Outside of White House
I saw that headline on DCist, and thought "Oh good! It looks like some folks on the Left are bothering to object to Obama's new war."

And then I clicked through to the NBC story DCist was writing about, and saw their headline:
Iraq War Protesters Arrested in Front of White House
Oh. Nevermind then. Not a single mention in the story about Libya. All about Iraq.

~ ~ ~

Bonus points: I find this line in the DCist post deliciously ironic:
"The protesters were arrested Saturday, singing 'We Shall Not Be Moved,'..."
Nice sentiment protestors, but maybe you should have gotten some lyrics for 'We Do Not Want To Be Moved But Are Being Moved Nonetheless'

Arab League tries the ol' one-two

Books, Bikes, Boomsticks | Tam | There's just no pleasing some people...

The Arab League, the very folks who were originally clamoring for a "No-Fly Zone" over Libya to protect civilians from Kha... Qa... Gaddafi's army, is now protesting the airstrikes on Libya:
From the start we requested only that a no-fly zone be set up to protect Libyan civilians and avert any other developments or additional measures," Mussa added.
Apparently they flipped out when cruise missiles, anti-radiation missiles, and laser-guided bombs started pounding Libyan ADA sites, airfields, and command & control facilities.

"We didn't mean that kind of no-fly zone!" comes the Arab League response. What did you think we were going to use to ground the Libyan air force? Drum circles and folk songs?
I call bait-and-switch. The Arab League planned this response from the beginning. Now they've got a nice external enemy to unite behind, and they can try and take the focus off discontent with their own autocratic regimes by getting their subjects riled up about Western Zionist American Crusader Imperialist Aggression (TM).

18 March 2011

Libya. Nah. Not Libya.

I feel like I should be writing a "Hey anti-War movement, why so quite today?" post, but I just don't have it in me. Ditto as "Where are all the 'No Blood for Oil' Stickers?" post, a "Three Wars at Once has got to be a record for Peace Prize laureate" post, a "Kipling obviously forsaw the UN when he was writing 'Tommy'" post, a "Why get involved in this conflagration but not these other ones in Bahrain and Somali (again) and who knows where else?" post, and a "whatever happened to actually declaring war?" post. Not to mention a "What does 'all necessary measures' mean?" post, a "Isn't the UN still mucking about in Bosnia and Kosovo a decade plus later?" post, a "This is in the EU's backyard almost literally, how about they take care of this one?" post, and a "Who's paying for this?" post, a "Where are the goalposts?" post, and a "How is everyone pretending they haven't been coddling this insane dictator for years?" post. (And the corollary to the final one, a "Did the UN just condemn one of the countries they bent over backwards to put on their "Human Right Commission'?" post.)

But it's been a long week and I just can't bring myself to shout in to the vastness of the internet right now. So screw it.

So instead, I'll tell you to go do yourself a favor and play SpaceChem. Thanks to Warren Meyer for sending out the suggestion. It is the best game I have played in a while, and far and away the best game you will see based on chemical and industrial engineering.


I played through all the demo levels and then went back to optimize my solutions and push for better scores.  Bonus points to the designer for including both time and space complexity in the scoring (in a manner of speaking).

16 March 2011

Zoetropes!

This one wins points for being a DYI jobby based on a bike wheel. I think that would make a sweet science project for the offspring one day.



This one wins bonus points for using excellent projection-mapped light effects.



Both via The Daily What — former and latter

Assumptions

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Agent-Based Modeling: Promises and Pitfalls

What excites me about [Agent-Based Modeling] is that you are not constrained to model only those dynamic elements that yield close-form solutions using standard mathematical techniques. In some sense, ABM still boils down to a set of equations, but the equations can be ones that cannot be solved without the help of a computer.

What concerns me is that simulated results can be difficult to communicate and to understand. When you create a simulation, you can pick arbitrary rules. For example, you could leave out prices altogether. That is what the "Club of Rome" did in the 1970's, when they simulated a doomsday scenario based on resource exhaustion.

I suppose that when you do standard formal mathematical modeling, the rules are also arbitrary. But because the assumptions are more visible, I think that you understand them better.
I'll admit to not having experience doing any of this sort of mathematical modeling for economics. (I've dealt with a lot of people in my fields of Neural Networks and Cognitive Modeling who were doing the same thing, which I think of as "trying very hard to be physicists by using differential equations.") But I do have a fair deal of ABM experience, in cognitive science, biology and business applications.

Contra Kling, it's been my experience that assumptions are almost always more explicit when you're doing ABM than equation-based modeling.

They assumptions are clearer to the programmer, at least.  If you are assuming that some variable will be normally distributed with a mean of μ and a standard deviation of σ then somewhere you're going to have to actually type out x=randnorm(μ,σ) or some such.  There's no shifting the assumptions back to the theorems and corollaries in the literature where they came from — you've got to type them all out right there in your code.

(Incidentally, this is one reason I think learning to code is excellent for honing your analytical abilities generally.  When you have to make every step or a process explicit, lay down exactly what the pre- and post-conditions are, write out all your assumptions, etc. you become much better at examining those sorts of things even when you're not coding.  When you are interacting with something as unforgiving as a CPU there is very little ability to hide behind vagaries and assumptions and intentions.)

How well the programmer communicates their assumptions to their audience is another matter all together. Communicating the assumptions of an ABM can be trickier than communicating the assumptions of an equation-based model. I think a lot of the difficulty in that communication is a result of the format of academic writing. You are typically not given much space by editors to explain the gritty details of a model. They prefer overall discussions about motivation and form. Technical appendices giving details about the algorithm and parameters should be much more common.  And of course sharing and publication of code itself should be more common, but I am not holding me breath on that.

Bottom Elephant: Wages are still prices

Something that I think forms an important foundation stone for how I see things, especially in the wake of the recent trade unionism dust-up — prices for labor are still prices.

Wages, just like the prices for corn or pencils or shoes, are not determined based on how we feel about the person getting paid.  They are an information-bearing signal based on supply and demand and the ability of the seller to satisfy the desires of the buyer.  They are not a function of philosophy or morals or warm and fuzzy feelings. (Or cold and bitter feelings.)

This also applies when the conversation shifts to farm subsidies (*ahem* Mr Vilsack!), or trade barriers, or the minimum wage.  Liking teachers or farmers or waiters or poets is not a reason to adjust the prices of their output.

15 March 2011

Athlete Workers

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | The Last Frontier in Worker Exploitation

Name a multi-billion dollar industry where all the competitors in the industry have formed a single cartel. This cartel performs many functions, but one of its highest profile functions is to aggressively punish any member who pays its employees more than a cartel-enforced maximum.

Believe it or not, there is such an industry in the US… college sports. The cartel is the NCAA, and whenever the NCAA makes the news, it usually is with an enforcement action punishing a school for allowing any of its athletes to make more than the agreed maximum salary, which is generally defined as free tuition. [...]

Even the Olympics finally gave up its stupid distinction of amateur status, allowing the best athletes to compete whether or not someone has ever paid them for anything. This only makes sense – we don’t have amateur engineers who work for free before they give up their amateur status for the professional ranks. I can still continue to earn my degree at college in programming while being paid by outside companies to do programming.[*] I can still participate in the school glee club if I make money in a bar singing at nights. I can still be student council president if I make money in the summers at a policy think tank. Of all the activities on campus, the only one I cannot pursue if someone is willing to pay me for the same skill is athletics.
(Emphasis mine.)  The equivalence between college athletics and non-monetarily compensated labor became very clear for me as a senior at Notre Dame.

Mrs. SB7 was a scholarship athlete at ND. Her senior year she quit the team she was on for reasons which are not germane to the discussion at hand.  (I should note this was a decision I was and am fully behind.  She was simply not gaining enough utility from being on the team to justify the temporal and psychological sacrifices.)

She was able to keep most of her tuition scholarship if she agreed to take an office job for the Athletic Department. In her case this was editing the media guides and programs.

So from the AD's point of view, it didn't matter whether she was running around on a field playing ball games or sitting at a desk typing. It's all labor to them. There's no reason we shouldn't treat playing sports as another form of labor as well.

Now I like college athletics as they are. I find them more enjoyable than the professionals almost all the time. (Baseball, for instance, is an exception. As is golf.) I'm not advocating any particular course of action vis-a-vis paying college athletes because I don't know what should be done. But the first step to figuring out what to do is recognizing and admitting the status quo is flawed.


* I actually got a degree in computer science from ND while being paid by ND to do computer science. The funding doesn't have to come from outside the school in non-sports activities.

14 March 2011

Let's give one team a major advantage and then acted shocked when they run up the score.

I posted this earlier today:
EconLog | Arnold Kling | No Prayer, Sorry

I think that (non-classical) liberals and libertarians see the problem of “special interests” differently. Liberals view special interests as exogenous to the policy process. You have to overcome special interests to create good policy. Libertarians see special interests as endogenous. Policy is what creates them.
The end of that post is this:
Most important, liberals will always say that we need government involvement in food policy, energy policy, education policy, health policy, etc. When they observe that a particular policy serves only special interests, they may appear to side with libertarians by supporting a rollback of the offending program. However, while the libertarian will put forth the notions that public policy is often self-defeating and that it is impossible for policy to be immaculately removed from special interests, the liberal is never going to concede those points.
Now, keeping that in mind, do read this post at Boing Boing.  Be sure not to miss the comments.
Boing Boing | Rob Beschizza | $10 drug now $1500 after FDA grants monopoly

A progesterone hormone injection, used to prevent preterm labor, used to be $10 a shot. Now that the FDA has assigned an exclusive right to create the easily-made formula to one company, KV Pharmaceuticals, the price has risen to $1500. Almost all of it is pure profit, and KV Pharma did not develop the drug or pay for its trials: the taxpayer did, via the National Institute for Health. It is said to be the only drug proven to prevent pre-term birth, and an expert cited by ABC News suggests that the profession was snookered into supporting the assignment as a quality standardization measure.
To a first approximation, all of the comments are screaming about how terrible capitalism is. No concern is paid to this being a government program to circumvent competitive market forces. The idea that central planners can ensure quality control by eliminating competition was disproved by the end of the Stalinist era, at the latest. (Really, this was one of the half dozen or so pillar reasons central planning was supposed to be more efficient than the stochastic, iterative chaos of the market.) Yet here the FDA is trying that strategy again. And when it backfire, who's to blame? Surely not the people who used their coercive power to rig the system. No, no, no, it's the market and those nasty people engaged in for-profit medicine.  How dare they?!

I have no idea how KV Pharma got this deal.  Maybe luck, maybe graft, maybe some other rent-seeking.   I don't want to let them off the hook.  But if you put a meatloaf on the ground and the dog eats it, whose fault is that really? Sure, you yell at the dog, but what the hell were you thinking making it possible for the mutt to misbehave like that? The FDA freely and willingly gave them a monopoly, and KV Pharma took it.  How is the FDA not to blame for that?

And what the hell did the FDA expect was going to happen when they did this?  If the agency is that short-sited or unimaginative or ill-prepared or incompetent why am I possibly supposed to trust them making all of my medical risk-benefit assessments for me?


Edited to add (16 Mar '11)Alex Tabarrok has a different view about KV and why the FDA granted them a monopoly.  In brief, this is a result of a well-intentioned but poorly executed orphan drug act rather than a quality control measure, as I had read.  He also links to Derek Lowe's comments, which are good.  He says that he major value-add KV has brought to Markena through this program is the ability to put "FDA Approved!" on the label.  You tell me who pushes that as a valuable thing more, the pharmaceutical industry, or the FDA.

Assortment

The coverage of Fukushima seems to vascillate, depending on time and who you read, between "That was a close call but there is little to be concerned about moving forward" to "ZOMG! SKY IS FALLING!!"  Since the bias in reporting is obviously towards writing stories on the sky-is-falling end of the distribution, I place my money on the nothing-to-worry-about side.

More than anything I wish reporters knew a tiny bit about how nuclear power worked.  Just a little bit.  I lost track of how many times I have seen someone write something like "we may be looking at another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island."  Those events have almost nothing in common beyond an extremely superficial level.  This is the equivalent of saying "we may be looking at another assassination of John F Kennedy or shoe thrown at George W Bush."

The single best explanation I have seen of the situation is here: Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors. The same description is posted here, along with some helpful pictures: Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation.

~ ~ ~

<pedantry>

On similar lines, I received an email this weekend from some university official who felt it was necessary to make sure every knows UMD is against natural disasters. It began "Another disaster of unprecedented proportions has struck the Pacific Rim..."

Isn't it impossible to have another event which is unprecedented? Isn't the preceding disaster by necessity a precedent?

</pedantry>

~ ~ ~

Wait, wait.  One more thing:  "tremblor" is not a word.  You may mean "trembler."  You probably mean "temblor."  But you do not mean "tremblor."

~ ~ ~

Will Wilkinson is of the opinion that most superhero comic books these days are ugly, especially when it comes to coloring.  I concur. That's one more reason I am more open to B&W comics than most seem to be.

~ ~ ~
The Fourth Checkraise | Ilkka | Because reality doesn't have a doubling cube

I really hate to sound like an Ayn Rand hero delivering a lecture dangling a dollar sign cigarette between my fingers, but in their youthful ignorance, these protesters demand the very things that cause the problems they now protest against. Like all good little social democrats, they want to force employers to pay all their workers high salaries and make it nearly impossible to ever fire anyone... and then they can't find any jobs. They consider college education a basic human right for everybody... and then they are puzzled why a college degree no longer guarantees employment.
Young protestors in most of Europe and increasingly in America do not understand the world enough to know they are agitating against themselves.

My age cohort will end up getting steam-rolled by one of the worst intergenerational injustices in modern history because too many of the "activists" are actively aiding older people in transferring money from the young poor to the rich old. Not through a conscious choice, mind you, but through the conservatism and status-quo bias of self-styled revolutionaries: far easier to continue protesting for the things your parents and grandparents protested for rather than examining the effects of those movements.

~ ~ ~

An awesome and frightening collection of before-and-after photos from Japan. Viewing them, no word came to mind so much as "erased."

~ ~ ~

I rarely read many straight news stories any more, preferring to let commentators act as my filters and aggregators. (If interesting people do not have anything interesting to say about a story, it is not a story than will matter next month or next year.) The earthquake has dragged me back in to reading news through morbid curiosity, and predictably it has made me disenchanted with the way journalism is done and stories are written.

The Economist's Babbage columnists writes from SXSW about one aspect of my annoyance with contemporary journalism.

~ ~ ~
EconLog | Arnold Kling | No Prayer, Sorry

I think that (non-classical) liberals and libertarians see the problem of “special interests” differently. Liberals view special interests as exogenous to the policy process. You have to overcome special interests to create good policy. Libertarians see special interests as endogenous. Policy is what creates them.
Bingo. It's a Bottom Elephant: all politics is special interest politics. And as PJ ORourke taught in In Parliament of Whores "When the legislature controls what is bought and sold the first thing that is bought and sold is legislators."

~ ~ ~

Via Stephen Bainbridge:
Concurring Opinions | Gerard Magliocca | The Wisconsin Senate

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me that what happened over the past few weeks in Wisconsin is no different than what happened last year with health care reform. The minority party exercised its rights to block the bill under the prevailing supermajority rule (cloture in the U.S. Senate and the need for a quorum in the WI Senate). The majority party then used a procedural tactic to get around the supermajority rule (budget reconciliation in the U.S. Senate and the stripping of fiscal aspects of the collective bargaining bill in WI).

What’s the difference?
See also "The Extreme Bill in Wisconsin That Would Put the State’s Public Sector Collective Bargaining Rules Roughly In Line With Half the Other States."

~ ~ ~
Kids Prefer Cheese | Angus | Welfare or Insurance?

Bob Samuelson and Mark Thoma are at it again. Samuelson claims that Social Security is welfare, while Thoma says that it's just plain old insurance. He repeatedly compares it to fire insurance.

Let's start with a list of "Why Social Security is NOT like fire insurance":

1. It pays off the same amount whether you need it or not.

2. The "premia" are not risk based in any meaningful way.

3. If you don't "buy" it, you go to jail.

4. There is only one company that "sells" it.

5. The "insurer" can unilaterally change the terms of both the premia and the payouts with no recourse for the "insured".

Ok, so it's not really insurance. Then what is it?
Like Angus, I would be happy with a neoliberal social insurance scheme, but that scheme should look almost nothing like the Social Security we have now. Do read the rest of his post.

I wrote about this "it's insurance/no it's welfare/no it's insurance" flimflammery several years ago; it continues to annoy the bejesus out of me.

~ ~ ~

Amazing collection of the cutting edge in computer graphics each year since 1988.

To give you a flavor, this was the best IBM could do in '89:



(File under "Evidence against The Great Stagnation".)

~ ~ ~

Rand Paul had some tough and accurate words to say about the budget on the Senate floor. Good for him.

Nick Gillespie picks out some of the best bits here.

I am asymptotically approaching being a single-issue voter for the foreseeable future, and this is my issue. I worry that Paul is right to say that even plans which are considered "too bold" are not nearly enough.

~ ~ ~

Megan McArdle lays out the case for why teachers should be easier to fire.

~ ~ ~

I thought I knew about the In-N-Out Burger off-the-record menu, but I was only scratching the surface. Check out this slideshow for the full deal.

Next time I'm out west I'm going whole grilled onion.

~ ~ ~

James Sommers on some of Paul Graham's rhetoric and the phrase "it turns out."

~ ~ ~

Arnold Kling on historical narratives of the Great Depression:
4. Those who can tell stories with heroes and villains have an advantage over those who do not. Roosevelt is made out to be overly heroic, and Hoover is made out to be overly villainous. The standard history treats Hoover as a cold-hearted, simple-minded liquidationist, with Roosevelt a sophisticated Keynesian. However, Roosevelt was not Keynesian at all, having campaigned against government deficits and essentially sticking to balanced-budget orthodoxy. Apart from the policies on the gold standard, there was actually a great deal of continuity between the Hoover Administration and the first few years of the Roosevelt Administration in their approaches of trying to treat the Depression through industrial co-operation intended to reduce the harshness of competition.
Emphasis mine.

~ ~ ~

Don Boudreaux writes eloquently against the collectivist legerdemain of EJ Dionne.

~ ~ ~
Ben Casanocha | Being Wrong vs. Realizing You're Wrong
Most profound (to me) question at TED: "What does it feel like to be wrong?"

audience answered: bad, embarrassing, awful, etc

"You're answering a different question: what does it feel like to *realize* you're wrong?"

Actually *being* wrong doesn't feel like anything at all. It feels just like being right.
Via Fourth Checkraise and Jeffrey Ellis

Antitrust

Antitrust subcommittee to examine Google search ranking system
Let's put aside the fact that Google is nothing like a common carrier and has zero obligation to present "fair" search results, however you define that. Let's also ignore that doing algorithm design by way of legislators, attorneys and courts is absurd. "Let's adjust the learning parameter to .00125 and the momentum factor to .022." "Sure thing, but we better run that by Legal first." There's a recipe for success.

Someone tell me the last time one of these federal antitrust investiagtions into some tech giant actually helped customers? Certainly not IBM. The DOJ was a day late and a dollar short to that. (Well, several years late, but who's counting?) The Microsoft burhaha of 1998-04? Again, pointless. Here's what I wrote about this three years ago, when the feds were first considering action against Google:
All three of these companies [IBM, Microsoft & Google] rose to prominence by besting their competitors, and all three of them were (or will be) driven back to the margins by someone else out-competing them. The antitrust goons could have pretended IBM and MSFT didn't exist, and they still would have been preempted by the competition. The same is true of GOOG.

This spurious antitrust crusading is especially galling in technology cases, because the forces which knock off the current king of the hill not only move faster than the current champion can keep pace with, but they leave the DOJ in the dust. The latter of two big antitrust cases against IBM (US v IBM) took 14 years (!!), concluding in 1983. MS-DOS was released in '81, at which point IBM's fate was more or less sealed. US v Microsoft was filed in May of '98, just four months before Google was incorporated, and did not conclude until June '04, just two months before Google's stratospheric IPO. In that six year period, who do you think did more to benefit consumers and curb Microsoft's dominance, the legal eagles of Justice Department, or a bunch of geeks in Mountain View?

11 March 2011

(Other people's) reflections on ideologies

Do not miss Tyler Cowen's critiques of common mistakes of Left and Right/Market-Oriented economists. Very good stuff there.

~ ~ ~

I find Bryan Caplan's defense of Libertarians from a charge of callousness related, and also very interesting.  His conclusion:
The reason why people call libertarians "callous," then, is that they're asking awkward questions instead of kowtowing to the people that mainstream intellectuals say they should feel sorry for. What's the solution? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that we should keep asking our awkward questions until we get some decent answers.
I think much of the reason we are viewed as callous is that disagreements which are about effects and methods are viewed as being about values and goals. Many people think higher minimum wages and higher tariffs and opposition to Walmart is good for the poor. I disagree with them about all these things. One possibility reason I disagree, and the one many of my friends even latch on to, is that I do not care as much as they do about the poor. The other possibility is that I care just as much as they do but disagree about the effects of these policies. I take an opposite position on all these issues specifically because I do have the same concerns for other people that they do. We just disagree about how to get from here to there. It is cognitively easier to assume someone else's morals and goals are lacking than it is to examine whether your own beliefs about causes and effects are the only or best way of achieving your goals.

All that said, I think there is a non-negligible portion of libertarians who have adopted the philosophy as a way of justifying their callousness. Libertarianism does not make you callous, but the callous are proportionally more likely to seek out libertarianism. Similarly being a policeman does not make you a bully, but bullies are more likely to want to be police. Being a tenured civil servant does not make you lazy, but the lazy are more likely to want to be tenured civil servants. Being a Leftist does not make you envious, but the envious are more likely to gravitate to the Left.  &c.

Cato Multimedia

I like this video comparing school district's claimed spending per pupil and the actual money going out the door once you factor in expenditures from sources other than the general education fund. (Things like capital improvements and maintenance and debt service.)



It turns out DCPS understates it's spending by 60%. If you factor in all spending you get to $28,000 per student. For comparison, tuition at Sidwell Friends is $30k.

Lack of spending is not the problem with schools.

~ ~ ~

This look at the puny budget cuts proposed by the GOP is melodramatic, but makes a good point clearly.



One thing they did not make clear: even if the GOP gets $61B in cutes, spending will still be higher than last year. (By a quarter of a trillion dollars, give or take.) This is not a cut in spending, it is just increasing spending less than the alternative. They're still stepping down on the gas pedal, just a little less hard than Obama wants to.

If I was trying to sell these cuts I would grab all the sound-bites I could of Obama promising the stimulus was going to be temporary and then start talking about how we need to roll things back in the direction of pre-stimulus levels.

Japan

The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | Disaster in Japan

Today's biggest news is the occurence in Japan of a massive, 8.9-magnitude earthquake centred off the coast of Japan, which triggered tsunami that struck the northeastern portion of the country and have impacted many other points around the Pacific. The damage appears to be catastrophic in places, and we can only be thankful that the quake did not strike a poorer and less prepared country.

The early market reaction is concern for global growth. Equity indexes are down, commodities are down, and the dollar is up. Japan is the world's third-largest economy, and a serious disruption there could have a significant effect on world output. But Japan is also rich, and the clean-up and reconstruction that follows could have a stimulative effect that offsets some of the losses associated with the disaster.
NO! BROKEN WINDOWS ARE NOT STIMULATIVE!

This is a disaster FULL STOP. There is no net benefit to pouring resources into recreating things that existing in perfect working order yesterday.

People of Japan and the Pacific Rim: Godspeed in your recovery efforts.

Neo-Keynesians around the World: Knock it off. There is not a bright side to this.

10 March 2011

Page Numbers on Television

Via Tyler Cowen:
Cheap Talk | Jeff | Page Numbers Are For Wussies

I don’t have a Kindle but I noticed that people were complaining so much about the absence of page numbers on early versions that Amazon has restored page numbers in the latest Kindle software. This adherence to tradition (in which I include prudish Professors and Editors who demand precise page references in Bibliographies) destroys a unique advantage of eBooks that could make them more than just a fragile, signal-jamming replacement for old fashioned pulp.

Suspense requires randomization. If you are reading my paper-bound novel and I want to maximize your suspense I am constrained by your ability to infer, based on how many pages are left, the likelihood that the story is going to play out as staged or whether there will be another twist in the plot. It is impossible for me to convince you of a “false ending” if you are on page 200 out of 400. The bastard publisher has spoiled it for me because 1) he has, without my permission, smeared page numbers all over my handiwork, and 2) refused to add bulk by randomly insert blank pages at the end to help me fool you.

Now Kindle, and eBook readers in general allow me to shuck that constraint. I can end the novel at any point and you would never know that the end is right around the corner. I could make it 1 page long. Imagine the effect of that! I could make it grind to a halt on page 200 only to surprise you with a development completely out of the blue that takes another 200 pages to resolve.
I made the same argument some ways back about video entertainment moving online. I am looking forward to the day when TV shows are freed from the half-hour and one-hour blocks they get on broadcast. It is too limiting.

If I sit down to watch an hour-long cop drama at 9:00, and by 9:25 they have some suspicious guy in custody and all signs point to him being the bad guy, I know he isn't the bad guy. At least not the only one. Or there is some other wrinkle going on.They still have 35 precious minutes to fill up. No way is this the real ending of the story.

But if TV moves to an on-line, on-demand medium episodes can be however long you want them to be. You don't have to fill up exactly 42 minutes (an hour less commercials) with content. Somedays you could tell 35 minutes or story, and some days it could be 67. Do whatever you want. And I won't know what's coming.

09 March 2011

I'm a step ahead

Me, writing in 2009:
The plan is that the USPS set up a way to buy stamps online, sort of like Stamps.com, but forget about actually printing any stamps out. What customers do is log onto their account, and indicate that they're ready to mail a letter, and input the zip code of the recipient. The postal service then gives them a very large random number, and deducts the price of a first class stamp from their account. The customer writes this number on the envelop in the place of a stamp. The postal service scans the envelop upon receipt, and reads the number. If the number on the envelop corresponds to a number they have sold, and the zip code on the envelop matches the zip code associated with the number when it was activated, the letter gets delivered. If not, return to sender.

By selling only a small fraction of the potential numbers in the range being used, and selecting them randomly, you prevent people from guessing a number and taking their chances on not paying. By associating it with a zip code, you prevent people from stealing the number on someone else's outgoing mail to use for themselves (unless the thief also happen to want to send a letter to someone in the same zipcode, in which case you could associate the mail number with the street address rather than just the zip code).

Furthermore, because every letter mailed in this way has a unique identifier, this can function as a built-in tracking number.

The big benefit over Stamps.com is that you don't need a printer. All you need for my scheme is a web-enabled device and a pen. Customers never have to worry about running out of stamps, or loosing them. The postal service doesn't need to worry about printing and distributing real stamps. Boom. Victory.
Coming soon to Sweden and Denmark:
Snail mail is about to move out of the dark ages.

The Swedish postal service is planning to do away with stamps, replacing them with a text message payment system instead.

Customers will send a text and receive a code in response that will be written on a piece of mail to show the postage had been paid.

The system will work for packages weighing up to 4.4 pounds.

"We are very interested and are just now looking into a solution," Anders Asberg of the Sweden's Posten AB told the Sydsvenskan newspaper.

No date has been set to introduce the new system, but Asberg said he thought it would likely begin over the summer.

A similar system is set to begin in Denmark in April.