Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rampant Use of Ethanol Pushing Food Prices Upwards

Maybe. First saw this on the TV this morning and the reporter didn't sound too sure about it, though. Another great example of the law of unintended consequences.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Universal Health Care, California Edition

Reuters has a story about the struggles of the new plan for universal health care in the state of California. I did some more reading and found a Times article from the early stages of the plan's development, as well as Health Care For All, the homepage of the plan's major supporters. Here's what I've taken from my reading:

I like the idea (from Reuters) that a tax on cigarettes would help to fund this system. Smokers are more expensive from a health care perspective, and this is an easy way to ensure that they contribute their share.

I also like the idea of focusing on preventative care as a way to lower costs. Of course, I wonder about preventative care as something that could be abused, i.e. people taking doctor's visits more often than they need because it's "free."

"This component seems intended to give employers an incentive to offer health insurance, and to level the playing field between employers that do not offer insurance -- and are therefore essentially paying lower wages -- and those that do." This is from the Times article. It seems to be saying that this plan artificially raises some wages compared to others. Making workers more expensive without adding to their skill set leads to lower overall employment (some workers will get fired because these small businesses cannot afford as many workers at the higher wages), and what good is universal health care if you don't have a job or source of income?

Finally, I don't like the assertion (on Health Care For All) that planning will lead to lower costs and bureaucratic cost controls will be beneficial. Bureaucracies by nature are cost-maximizing, because any money that is unspent is lost after the next reallocation of funds, while companies that operate by profit practice cost minimization and pocket the difference. To suggest that a bureaucracy can truly keep costs at a minimum just doesn't sit well with me at all.

Only In America?

I'm not sure what to say about this story other than I'm shocked to see that it's in Europe. Maybe sometimes the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans are overstated.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Warning: Stolen Content Ahead

Found this article recently while browsing the web. I'd say that Roberts' ideas about systems that result from human action but not human design certainly apply to global climate change, our favorite topic of the moment. Alex Taborrak also gets at the same subject, his point being more that you get unintended consequences when a fairly simple system (government) tries to regulate a complex one (the economy). So assuming that we're looking for different government regulations to tackle global climate change, is there any way to prepare for the unavoidable consequences?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reflecting On the Bush Tax Cuts

This paper, whose co-author is an acquaintance of mine and a Mason student, summarizes the effects of the Bush tax cuts, and adamantly argues that they should be renewed.

A couple of interesting tidbits:

"When the capital gains tax is cut, asset holders are inspired to sell." I wonder if there's a way to truly maximize revenue by raising and cutting the capital gains tax (it would have to be done without a recognizable pattern, but I tend to think the tax being lower causes people to sell).

“Germany, Switzerland and many other countries do not tax capital gains at all.” America as the nation with the highest taxes - what kind of backwards world is this?

"Seventy-nine percent of all returns reporting capital gains were for households with incomes below $100,000 and half had incomes below $50,000." So it's not just a tax cut for the rich - those calling for the return of the tax to higher levels ought to read this.

My Letter to Thomas Sowell

Dear Dr. Sowell:

In your Primary Dilemmas column (1/18/08), I couldn't help but notice that there were two candidates whose names were never mentioned -- and to me these candidates seem to cause the greatest dilemmas for conservatives.

You never mentioned John McCain, and his win in New Hampshire has created quite a dilemma. He has been strong on winning the war in Iraq, but is weak on almost everything else. In a Random Thoughts column, you once lamented the idea of a McCain – Clinton presidential election, saying you wouldn’t know whether to vote independent or move to Australia. Maybe the best way to keep him out of the general election is to not talk about him, in which case the omission was a good one.

What interests me more is that you did not mention Ron Paul, in fact, to my knowledge you have never mentioned Ron Paul in a column. Ron Paul is strong on all the fiscal and economic policies that classic liberals support, and to that end it seems Hayek and Von Mises would have supported him (Bastiat certainly would have) – it is also the reason he will never be president. True, he is no Reagan on foreign policy, but he does acknowledge that terrorism is a different kind of threat that Soviet Russia, and his foreign policy is at least based on reason (though possibly flawed) instead of empty rhetoric.

Have you not mentioned Ron Paul because we can only “choose from the available options” and you do not want to alienate the electorate when he doesn’t get the nomination? Or is there something else? The Republicans have no front runner because they have no strong candidates, at least Ron Paul is putting thought back into the political process. Maybe conceding ‘08 to support a true limited government candidate, gaining ground in the ideological discourse, and making a stronger run in ’12 would be the Republican’s best play…if an Barak or Hillary America could survive that long.

Thank you for your time,
Josh Knox
George Mason ‘10

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The End of Growth

I was recalling today a conversation I had with a friend from my hometown over break. He is a British citizen whose family moved to America about ten years ago, but he still maintains close ties with Britain. We spent some time talking about politics, economics, etc... One thing he said really stuck out.

He agreed that capitalism is the best economic system to promote growth, but he then said that he would rather see higher taxes and more socialism because we're at the point where we don't need to grow anymore.

I immediately countered with the fact that we have no cure for cancer, and he relented that growth in medicine was still necessary, but then we both just kind of dropped it. I would add to my argument that with the constant concerns over global warming, we certainly need growth in all the processes that cause pollution.

Growth, and its potential results, are unknowable by their nature. Will there ever be a point where we no longer need growth? I'd answer with a resounding "no."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer is Dead

I'm not sure why it matters, but I find myself feeling disappointed. I can't understand how someone who is so brilliant (this story says his IQ was higher than Einstein's) can waste their time promoting racism and hatred.

Also, I am a regular reader of Marginal Revolution. I love their Markets in Everything series, which shows up every few weeks with a random news story. Here is a link of every one they've done - I definitely recommend perusing the couple hundred entries up so far.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The American Poor

I was combing back through what I've missed at EconLog a few days ago, and I found this post. The post itself isn't what interested me, though - look through the comments. You'll see a debate concerning who the poor are in America. I'm very curious as to what everyone else thinks. What groups of people comprise today's poor? Do they have certain distinguishing characteristics (i.e. single mother, high school dropouts, etc.)?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

That's What She Said...

Hillary Clinton raised the eyebrows of America recently by saying that "it took a president" to realize the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King. Tactically, this statement makes no sense, which makes it all the more interesting (remember the tears everyone believes were calculated?). And although there is some merit to the idea that it takes two to tango, I tend to believe that it would be a lot easier for someone else to replicate Lyndon Johnson's actions than for someone else to replicate Dr. Martin Luther King's role.

Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" comment about the Obama campaign has also shocked many citizens. He recently went to Al Sharpton to apologize. This called to my memory a recent South Park, in which a character uses the n-word on a TV game show, then goes to Jesse Jackson to apologize, only to find out that he is still ostracized in the town, because "Jesse Jackson isn't the emperor of black people."

Whether or not we're ready, race is finally out in the open. Is it better for the Democrats to have race come out now? Will it cushion Barack - if he wins the nomination - from an all-out Republican attack? Why do so many people see Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as the leaders of some non-existent black community, and will they be viewed as such for as long as they live?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Why Bother With State Governments?

The new legislation that's about to be phased into the American government is the Real ID. It's my understanding that this will more or less turn our state driver's licenses into federal ID cards - good to see the federal government is continuing to overstep its boundaries. How did it get passed?

"Unlike the USA Patriot Act and other politically sensitive pieces of legislation, Real ID has not made many headlines. Last fall, it was voted down. But then it was reintroduced, and tacked onto the 2005 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Defense, the Global War on Terror and Tsunami Relief. (Real ID hence superseded conflicting portions of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.)

It would have been a serious political liability for a congressperson to vote against funding for the war on terror and tsunami relief. So it is not surprising that there were no debates, hearings or public vettings of the act."

"Significantly, those [proposed radio-transmitted] signals would allow the government to track the movement of our cards and us."

Fantastic. Allow some extra time in airports, I suppose, and keep in mind you will also need a Real ID for banking and other activities. "And, somewhat ominously, Homeland Security is permitted to add additional requirements -- which could include "biometric identifiers" such as our fingerprints or a retinal scan." Good to know that government knows what is good for us, because - silly me - I don't even know that I don't know!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Colbert and Stewart Return!

Okay, so maybe their performance isn't worth too much excitement. My dad made fun of me for being excited about their return, in fact, telling me I ought to be able to make fun of politicians on their own. Personally, though, I enjoy their commentary on a nightly basis.

Colbert is selling the portrait from his studio mantle, and he said on the show that last year's portrait sold on eBay for $50,000. The proceeds went to Save the Children. I wondered to myself: do you think the fact that the money goes to charity has any effect on memorabilia prices?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

If You Could Be President for a Day...

Steve Levitt, the renowned economics professor at the University of Chicago, is struggling to allocate the open spots in his popular "Economics of Crime" course. He discusses how a student who has a spot in the class is trying to auction it off to the highest bidder - what a lovely example of supply and demand in action. However, Levitt speculates that the University will not look kindly on selling class registration. My question is: if you were in charge of making the decision, would you allow a student to sell his (or her) spot in a course? Does the fact that it's an economics course have any effect on your decision?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Sports, Part IV: American Gladiators

I didn’t want to drag down the integrity of this blog by complaining about something I saw on TV, but if this blog can be used as a forum to gripe about our favorite sports teams, then I guess I can’t hurt it all that much.

So as anyone who knows anything about anything knows, tonight was the NBC premiere of the new and improved American Gladiators. As a fan of the show growing up, I had high expectations. I can remember being in the first grade and contentedly eating a big bag of potato chips while I watched American Gladiators. As I settled into my seat at 9:00 tonight, I was overcome with a feeling of nostalgia. When I got out of it at then end of the show, I was left with one feeling – disappointment.

Reasons why I didn’t like American Gladiators:

1. Too much trash talk.

It seemed like part of the contestant contract was to say something edgy in the buildup to every event. How can you call out a gladiator when he weighs 80 pounds more than you? Oh yeah, I’m sure he was real intimidated. And they even miked up the gladiators so they could have trash talk solos. One solo that stands out as particularly bad was when gladiator “TOA” started talking trash in what sounded like jibberish. What’s the point of talking trash if they other guy can’t understand you? A little trash talk is part of the game, but too much is just unsportsmanlike

2. Where’s Nitro?

Nitro was the cornerstone of the old American gladiators, how come he doesn’t have a place in the remake? I would love to hear Nitro explaining the events with an insider perspective the same way Terry Bradshaw explains football at halftime. If Nitro is not in American Gladiators, then it’s not American Gladiators. And while I’m at it, the new gladiators leave a lot to be desired. Wolf? I watch Gladiators for the spectacle of pure, steroid infused American muscle, not to see some human-animal hybrid howl on a Hollywood set. And am I supposed to believe this guy refuses to cut his hair, but is perfectly okay with waxing the rest of his body? Another example of a failed gladiator is Helga. If there is going to be a Hellga gladiator, there might as well be a Nurse Ratched.

3. The Eliminator is too long.

There is a reason nobody watches marathons. The finish isn’t very dramatic when both contestants are so tired that they exhaustedly drag themselves over the finish line. And for that matter, races aren’t exciting when the winner wins by virtue of being the only one capable of completing the course.

4. Terrible camera editing.

I know it’s supposed to be an exciting show, and I know the producers anticipated a minimal viewer IQ, but a viewer would be hard pressed to find a camera shot lasting for longer than two seconds, and there were several two second intervals with four or more camera shots. For a prime time show, American Gladiators had some terrible camera work, with very bland camera angles.

Of course, I know it’s just a TV show. What’s more, there are many worse shows on TV. And there are even worse concerns that could be raised about the show itself (Is it appropriate in the wake of the Mitchell Report?) But what really matters is despite my concerns, will I watch the next episode when it airs tomorrow? No, I’ll be watching the National Championship Bowl like everyone else so that on the next day I can complain about what team really deserved the title of national champions.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Returns to Normalcy

My new mental exercise is try to imagine how we will view the current point in American history fifty or a hundred years in the future. I studied American history extensively a couple years ago, and as I have been recalling the analyses of different elections, I cannot help but feel like this is the kind of election that ought to be a "return to normalcy." The Bush Administration has been with us since 9/11, and presided over the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and the firing of justices for political purposes, among other events. Before that, we had the Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton's administration. To me, this is time to return to a President who serves the Congress, rather than one who cuts off relations with it.

Unfortunately, I don't see any of the candidates as returns to normalcy. Barack or Hilary would bring about radical change to our perception of the Oval Office, Huckabee wants to overthrow the tax system, Ron Paul wants to overthrow everything, and Guiliani would be a return to 9/11. Could Edwards or Romney be returns to normalcy? Am I wrong in thinking that we even need a return to normalcy - e.g., do the actions of recent Presidents merit the election of someone who isn't a middle aged white guy?

Sports, Part III: The Steelers

As a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, I suffered greatly after watching the Steelers snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Jacksonville. Mostly, I want to use this forum to complain.

1. The officiating was awful. Giving that the catch by Wilford (Jax receiver) being called a trap offsets the Santonio Holmes (Pgh receiver) catch being called a trap - which it doesn't - the officiating was still very slanted toward the Jaguars. The holding call on Sean Mahan (Pgh center) on the two-point conversion was atrocious. The announcers looked at it once and then dropped it. This is always a sign of a terrible call. I can remember seeing James Harrison (Pgh LB) being held by a fist full of jersey and not called for holding, which makes it unbelievable that they could call Mahan for holding on that two-point conversion. Also, on Pittsburgh's last punt, Carey Davis was pushed over from behind by two men. Again, this when uncalled. I didn't review the game video or anything, but I feel strongly that the officiating was embarrassingly bad.

Also, shouldn't the NFL be using teams of officials that have worked together all year? They mix up the officiating crews for the playoffs. I don't like this decision at all.

2. Pittsburgh's special teams are awful. They have been the entire time I've been watching the team. It is a huge mystery to me that the team can't find 10 players who can even pretend to execute punt or kickoff coverage. When you allow the other team to start at the 40 and you're lucky to not fumble punts and kickoffs, you make it impossible to win.

3. Mike Tomlin has his work cut out for him. I don't see anyone on the offensive line who has a job this year. Tyrone Carter played his worst game as a Steeler, and with Anthony Smith already having proven that he's terrible, that means they have definite problems in the secondary. A healthy Troy and a healthy Ryan Clark *should* fix a lot of those problems, but if they don't, the Steelers are in big trouble. Pittsburgh's schedule next year is absolutely brutal. 9-7 will require a lot of good luck in my opinion. The good news - he has a franchise quarterback, one of the league's best running backs, a good defensive line (assuming Aaron Smith returns with no problems), and a pretty good set of linebackers. The bad news - the special teams, the offensive line, the secondary, the receiving corps, and the lack of depth at EVERY position.

Thank you for entertaining my rant. Luckily for me, there's always next year!

Sports, Part II: Hockey

I am a huge hockey fan, probably due to the fact that I played all through high school or the fact that I hail from the adopted hometown of Sidney Crosby. I loved the Winter Classic in every sense. Anything that can bring hockey to the American public is okay with me.

ESPN's John Saunders suggested, as most writers have, that the Winter Classic should be played regularly. I think he has had the best suggestion for how to do it, though, considering that it should be played in many markets but also probably needs the greatest star power the NHL has to offer to attract the most viewers. Make the All-Star game an outdoor event!

It works well for the hockey purists, who say that it's too much of a gimmick to do in the regular season. It ensures that Crosby and other superstars will always be involved, but doesn't keep all the attention in Pittsburgh. Playing exhibition hockey outdoors is one way hockey could really improve its standing in America. Anyone have any other ideas of how to bring hockey to the masses?

Sports, Part 1: College Football

I've tried to avoid posting about sports thusfar on this blog, but I heard some great comments that I'd like to share. This is the first of a three-part sports series.

Beano Cook, longtime sports journalist from Pittsburgh, did a radio interview yesterday and discussed the current state of college football. The ongoing controversy, of course, is that college football uses the bowl system instead of a playoff system, and thus does a terrible job of crowning a national champion. Also, many detractors contend that there are vastly too many bowls.

Beano said that the number of bowls is actually good, because when you think about it, the bowl games are for the students. If college football is truly about the students, then you want as many bowls as possible, because all students will remember that experience for the rest of their lives. Nobody forces you to watch all the bowl games, so pick and choose what games you like to watch, and ignore the rest.

The bowl system still isn't the right way to crown a national champion. But maybe it is a better system for the students than anyone ever credits it to be.

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty