29 May 2013

Live by the paint, die by the paint

BBC News | German railways to test anti-graffiti drones

These drones are just going to have IR cameras to detect trespassers in rail yards.

I was really hoping for quad-rotors mounted with paintball guns to give the hooligans a taste of their own. What a wasted opportunity.

10 May 2013

New on the curriculum in Suffolk, VA: there is no difference between a thing and a representation of that thing

via Hit & Run:
CBS Local / AP | 2 Va. Boys Suspended For Using Pencils As Guns
Holy shit! How did they figure out how to turn a wooden writing implement into a firearm?! I can see maybe a bow and arrow, possibly, if you have a very bendy pencil, but they used them as guns?!! How do you even... oh wait... hold on a second...
A Suffolk second grader has been suspended for making gunlike noises while pointing a pencil at another student.
See, when you said "used pencils as guns" I thought you actually mean those words and not "pretended one thing was actually another thing using their imagination." I get it now.
Suffolk Public Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw says a pencil is considered a weapon when it's pointed at someone in a threatening way and gunlike noises are made.
Ooooh! Ooooh! I like this game! Let me play a round of "redefine a word to mean something completely different so I can justify my own pusillanimous idiocy and abuse of authority." Here goes:

A public school system spokeswoman is considered a weapon when she opens her dumb mouth and says something so daft that it overwhelms the listener with her contempt for boyhood, the intelligence of everyone listening to her, and the very nature of language and semantics.

I win! Okay Bethanne Bradshaw — get the hell off school property. No weapons (err, "weapons") allowed here.

"Some children would consider it threatening, who are scared about shootings in schools or shootings in the community," Bradshaw said. "Kids don’t think about 'Cowboys and Indians' anymore, they think about drive-by shootings and murders and everything they see on television news every day."
Yes, perhaps some children would consider having a pencil pointed at them while a classmate says "bang!" scary. But:
  1. These two boys were playing together voluntarily, so I think we can presume they weren't feeling threatened.
  2. They were both suspended, so they are each somehow both the perpetrator and victim of this apparently heinous crime.
  3. To the extent children think of drive-by-shootings it's because timorous nitwits like Bradshaw are running around screaming about how the world is a terrifying place full of demons, and policies like this only encourage such fear.
  4. Children are also afraid of monsters in their closets and under their beds. The proper reaction to a child who is afraid of a pencil is not to ban the pencil, it's to teach the child that a pencil is a pencil, and they have nothing to be afraid of.
  5. They weren't playing "Cowboys and Indians," they were playing "Marines and Bad Guys," because one boy's father was a Marine. Marines shooting "bad guys" is very much a real part of this boy's life, while drive-bys and school massacres are part of the confabulated world that school administrators attempt to construct for him.
These sorts of policies may be great for CYA, and they make people like Bradhaw feel better about exerting some agency over what is ultimately a chaotic world, but they also engender the very terror they claim to protect us from. They teach children to not only be afraid of violence, but to be afraid of the very idea of violence, the very imagining that violence occurs, the very possibility that someone somewhere may be doing something less gentle than Tinkerbell doing a trust fall into a pile of giggling Care Bears.

Rearden Hammers

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Public vs. Private Sector Compensation: A Case of Curious Controversy

Bewerunge and Rosen's working paper on public- versus private-sector compensation begins with a discussion of recent controversy:
... Exploring [compensation parity] is challenging for two reasons. First, the human capital of public and private sector workers may differ. If, for example, public sector workers have more education than private sector workers, then it is neither surprising nor objectionable that they earn higher wages. This is precisely the argument made by former White House budget director Peter Orszag
On the one hand, yes. On the other, no.

The yes is obvious, so why the no? Because adjusting for education is a measure of inputs, and what we're really concerned with is outputs.

What if every hammer the government owned cost $1000, when private sector hammers cost $50? That's outrageous, right? The Government is drastically overpaying for hammers! Taxpayers are being cheated!

Then along comes the White House to explain that no, no, no, it's perfectly reasonable for federal hammers to cost more because they're made of mithril. Mithril is more expensive than steel, so the gov't is totally justified in paying more. Once you do the proper regressions and clean the data up just so... presto bango! the government is paying a reasonable price for its hammers.

But do they need a mithril hammer? Is the mithril hammer doing a better job of driving nails? Are they getting things built any faster with the mithril hammers? Are their buildings more robust? Are they hammering adamantine nails into cavorite boards? Or are they just banging things with top-of-the-line, A1 grade, gold star, best-in-class, Hephaestus-approved, super-premium, special reserve edition Mjölnir-class mallets for shits and giggles?

If thisis getting the job done fine, you don't need one of these. Which, by the way, is $200 and made of solid titanium.

To a first approximation you should definitely account for things like education when doing these comparisons. But keep in mind that's just an approximation. It's assuming an implicit conclusion: that the government needs all the highly credentialed people it hires.

For example, the number of K-12 teachers with advanced degrees has ballooned to 48%. Are we getting any better education with all those MAs we're paying for? When even the Center for American Progress says no I think the answer is pretty clear. (HuffPo and NPR are also in agreement, so this is clearly no radical capitalist thing.) Statistically "correcting" for the education level of half of the teachers in the country seems reasonable until you stop to ask whether those extra years of schooling are actually providing any extra benefit in addition to their cost.

PS I expect everyone in this debate who's putting such high stock in accounting for human capital to do the same when the topic of conversation turns to, for example, pay disparities by gender & race, or comparisons between CEO and average employee compensation.

PPS It's important to note the actual thesis of Caplan's post: despite Orszag's assertive claims, the literature completely disagrees. This just goes to show that if you speak in a confident enough voice and start your sentences with some version of "Studies have shown..." you can get away with making almost any claim.

Of course, it helps immensely to have a sufficiently sycophantic or credulous audience.

07 May 2013

Matching Problems

Center for Immigration Studies | David North | America Has More Trained STEM Graduates than STEM Job Openings It has become quite clear that America has more high-tech college graduates than needed to fill high-tech jobs now and, importantly, the nation will keep producing many more such graduates than job openings in the future — so why the shrill calls from the industry that there is a shortage?
The senior class at Analogy High School has 300 boys and 200 girls. Who's more likely to get asked to the homecoming dance by a senior boy: the 200th most attractive senior girl, or the single most attractive junior girl?

Do I really need to spell out why an employer would prefer the best foreign-born worker they can find to an American in the 33rd percentile?

Does it need to be said that STEM grads are not uniform round pegs and STEM jobs are not uniform round holes?

06 May 2013

It's a short step from local sales taxes to local licensing requirements

In fact it's not really even a step between them. More of a phlegmatic shuffle. The kind that obese women in air-brushed cat sweatshirts always seem to do right in front of me in airports when I'm most in a hurry. But I digress...
Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Licensing is Anti-Consumer

That is an advantage of the Internet I had never considered -- it allows new businesses to challenge old ones without harassment by local licensing and zoning authorities.
This is, in one sentence, why I oppose an internet sales tax. I'd rather see far more government revenue be consumption taxes, so to a first approximation I ought to support this. But I don't. It is a bad idea.* (I don't know how to say it any better than that.)

Internet companies aren't beholden to local busybodies, and we need to do whatever it takes to keep that camel from getting its nose under the tent. One of many lessons from ObamaCare ought to be that the line between a ban, a penalty, and a tax is blurred to the point of irrelevance.

One idea I think I could be convinced to back would be a single, Federal-level internet sales tax. Then online companies still have to collect sales taxes, so physical sellers aren't at a permanent price disadvantage, but you don't have the same distortions or little-guy crushing regulatory burdens that we're going to get from the plan Congress is working on.

* See Megan McArdle:

Calling something "social insurance" doesn't make socialized costs any less socialist

Bloomberg | Josh Barro | Why Cash Can't Replace Health Insurance

The Douthat and Yglesias plans would each make insurance against catastrophic losses universally available and provide redistribution from the rich to the poor, but they would do much less than Obamacare (or even the status quo) to redistribute from the healthy to the sick.

Some people have the misfortune to have chronic illnesses -- diabetes, HIV infection, kidney disease -- that can cost thousands of dollars a year to treat. A system of catastrophic-only coverage, say one that only covered health expenditures exceeding 10 percent of income, would leave these people poorer while making healthy people better off, even if it came with cash grants funded by the savings from reduced health-care costs.
Some people have the misfortune to be dumb or unmotivated or have poor impulse control. This makes those people thousands of dollars poorer than they otherwise would be! The system Barro advocates here would allow these people to continue to be worse off than people who are smart, industrious and disciplined. What injustice!
Comprehensive insurance that covers routine care is not “insurance” in the sense of covering expenses that are unexpected at the individual level. But it is social insurance that covers the unexpected event of being a person with high ongoing needs for routine care.
I don't want to be one of those people that screams "Socialism!" at the slightest provocation, but that's what Barro is advocating here.

Look: some people are going to have bad luck or make bad choices. Those people will have worse outcomes than people who got a better roll of the dice or made better decisions. Some of that luck or those decisions will fall under the very broad domain of "health." It doesn't make any sense to protect people from every small negative consequence of bad luck/decisions in health but not everything else.

By all means, let's protect people from the most severe negative consequences. That's called a minimax objective, and it's what the catastrophic insurance schemes that Douthat and Yglesias advocate would do. You can't just wave your hands, slap the label "social insurance" on anything health-related and thereby make it everyone else's responsibility to deal with bad consequences.
Maybe [only partially socializing the costs of chronic diseases] is an acceptable outcome. The government does not enact policies to compensate people for every instance of bad luck. Doing so for poor health might be especially wrongheaded, since it often arises from a mix of luck and choices; offsetting the financial penalty associated with chronic illness may be reducing people’s incentives to stay healthy.
What the...

At first I thought Barro simply didn't see the flaw in his thinking. Plenty of people treat health expenses like some sui generis thing that we need to analyze in its own little moral bubble. But then Barro went and stared right at the flaw, admitted it existed, and then goes back to completely ignoring it.

How do you do that? What kind of anti-Mentat mind calisthenics enable you to handle that level of cognitive dissonance?
And if health-care costs continue to rise faster than overall inflation, a universal guarantee of comprehensive coverage would require ever-higher marginal tax rates and eventually become untenable.
This is the best chance I think there is for convincing anyone on the Left that socialized health insurance insulation is a bad idea. Not the higher tax rates part: they love that idea.

What I mean is that very soon we're going to face the trade off between, say, protecting everyone from having to pay for their own z-packs and progestin, or protecting a few very unfortunate people from, say, being born to deadbeat meth heads. Are you going to make sure that a thousand people don't have to pay for their own annual tooth cleaning, or are you going to make sure one kid gets fed, clothed and educated? Because sooner or later (hint: sooner) we'lll be facing those sorts of trade-offs.

And no, "make the rich pay" isn't an answer. There's a finite supply of resources owned by rich people but an infinite demand to get other people to pay for stuff.

02 May 2013

Absurd Pitches

Marginal Revolution :: Tyler Cowen :: Absurd pitches (pull out the Hayek and Polanyi lesson)

Facebook - the world needs yet another Myspace or Friendster except several years late. We’ll only open it up to a few thousand overworked, anti-social, Ivy Leaguers. Everyone else will then join since Harvard students are so cool.

Mint - give us all of your bank, brokerage, and credit card information. We’ll give it back to you with nice fonts. To make you feel richer, we’ll make them green.

Instagram - filters! That’s right, we got filters!
These are funny. I really should resist the temptation to take these jokes seriously, but I'm not going to.

You can make a lot of things seem ridiculous if you ignore the point (e.g. Mint, supra).
Tesla - instead of just building batteries and selling them to Detroit, we are going to build our own cars from scratch plus own the distribution network. During a recession and a cleantech backlash.
I would add: "But it's okay, the DOE is giving us a sweetheart deal on half a billion taxpayer dollars, which is about what the entire equity stake of the company is valued at."
Dropbox - we are going to build a file sharing and syncing solution when the market has a dozen of them that no one uses, supported by big companies like Microsoft. It will only do one thing well, and you’ll have to move all of your content to use it.
Wait. Doing one thing very well is a fine thing. Especially when you're surrounded by a bunch of lumbering mastodons who do many things moderately poorly.
Twitter - it is like email, SMS, or RSS. Except it does a lot less. It will be used mostly by geeks at first, followed by Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen.
Any mass-market internet company's description probably ought to read "it will be used mostly by {geeks; Bobo teens; hipster/yuppy crossovers*} at first."

(* By which I mean people who buy into hipster aesthetics but still have careers.)