Friday, July 31, 2009

Are Lotteries Just?

John Goodman asks readers to consider some facts about lotteries and asks a question:

* One person becomes extremely rich.
* The winner's riches come at the expense of everyone else - the vast majority of whom have below-average incomes and many (maybe most) are actually poor.
* The winner did nothing to deserve, merit or earn his reward - everything he has is the result of sheer luck.
* In one single drawing this lottery produced more inequality (among the participants) than any act of Congress or private sector venture ever could.

So why is the left so blithely acceptant not just of lotteries, but of state-created-monopoly-lotteries? Why do columnists who become apoplectic about the salaries of CEOs ignore those whose riches are the result of random chance?

To start, I see nothing inherently unjust with lotteries, but I also dismiss arguments about relative wealth (I think absolute wealth is far more important) so my speculation is probably wrong.

That notwithstanding, I think many on the left see wealth created through business as a zero sum game. As such, the winnings go to those who started in the best initial position (through family connections or natural intellect) and the poor are victims who started at a disadvantage. The initial position is based on luck, but that luck favors certain groups. The lottery, however, has little favoritism. Everyone's ticket has an equal chance of winning. And if there is a bias to certain groups, lottery winners tend to be those who started from weaker positions in the business game (as poor people are more likely to play the lottery). So because everyone has an equal start, and the lottery frequently rewards poor people, wealth generated by the lottery is acceptable. It doesn't hurt that a portion of lottery revenue goes to the state. That the lottery makes many other poor people worse off is excusable because "they don't loose that much, only a couple bucks a day".

That's my two cents. As lotteries do not create wealth, they merely redistribute it, I support high taxes on lotteries and lottery winnings, but maybe that's just because I don't play. Would a highly taxed free market in lotteries be better or worse than the current government monopoly?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Most Interesting Typo I've Read Today

Matt mistakenly calling F.A. Hayek's paper "The Use of Knowledge is Society." Think about it.

Perspective on Pittsburgh Sports

I am 20 years old, meaning I was born in the year 1989. In my lifetime, the Pirates have had 16, soon to be 17, consecutive losing seasons. They also had a losing season in '89. They won more games than they lost in the years 1990, 1991 and 1992.

In my lifetime, the Penguins have won 3 Stanley Cups (91, 92, 09).

In my lifetime, the Steelers have won 2 Super Bowl Championships (06, 09).

Each of those franchises has also lost one Championship (Pens in 08, Steelers in 95). Each has lost in their respective Conference finals, each has gone through a sub-.500 rebuilding phase. Through all of this, the Pirates have maintained a consistent record of futility.

In my lifetime, Stanley Cup championships are exactly as common as winning baseball seasons. Super Bowl championships are nearly as common. Wow.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Usefulness of Twitter

So I am also on Twitter now. I'm still skeptical about twitter's usefulness. How much vital news exists which is transmitable in under 140 characters and unlikely to be covered by the MSM or google news or the blogosphere or facebook status updates or texts from my friends or handwritten letters from my mother? I have found my first such piece of news:

Its official, today is david beckham is scared of shaq, day, he should b scared, he can never score a goal on me,

Monday, July 27, 2009

Quaterback Insurance

Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy have both taken out insurance policies to hedge against a career ending injury in the upcoming season.

The way the article is written, it seems like the Texas star is paying a larger premium for his insurance policy than his Oklahoma counterpart. Is this because McCoy was sacked twice as often as Bradford, because McCoy has greater earnings potential, or because Sam Bradford's father is an insurance specialist?

Where would you assess the probability of a career ending injury to be? And as an insurer would you charge a higher premium to McCoy, Bradford, or Tim Tebow?

(HT: Nick Dipillo)

Erik on Hayek

The summation of "The Use of Knowledge in Society" and The Sensory Order (which I'm proud to say we finished today):

"No Free Will. Only Prices."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

My Most Famous Classmate

I was certain the most famous person from my high school would be either actor Brennan Kelleher or musical genius Kai West. While each has garnered a modest amount of fame (see here and here), I was wrong. The most famous person from my high school can be found by googling "naked wizard".

At a California music festival, an officer requested that my former classmate put his clothes back on. He refused, so three officers helped him put his clothes back on using nonlethal force. Some of the onlookers felt the force was excessive (don't festivalgoers think all force is excessive?) and courageously helped their fellow man by filming the incident on their cell phones.

His right to be naked at a music festival can be debated, as can the officer's right to fire his taser gun. I believe a person in an altered state of mind does not deserve the same benefit of the doubt as a sober person, and no permanent damage was done to the wizard, so it is hard for me to be outraged.

My former classmate is fine, except he is now facing charges for disorderly conduct. He makes a living selling light toys (poi balls and rave accessories), I wonder if he could boost his sales by branding the incident. I'd much prefer to buy Naked Wizard Glowsticks than some knockoff brand.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Freegan Living

Freegans are people who refuse to participate in monetary society and sustain themselves on only what they can freely acquire. There was a National Geographic special on them a while back, and a post about one of them was recently linked on Marginal Revolution.

Daniel Suelo has been living without money for nine years and has a rather extensive blog and website which he updates from public libraries. I have no plans of following his lifestyle, but it is remarkable to see a man following his convictions.

Here is a sample of his writing on pilfering food from dumpsters:
Often when you are caught at a dumpster by store owners, you are treated with contempt. What is contemptible and inexcusable is the waste, and what is both contemptible and ridiculous is locking up your waste (called anal retention) to keep hungry people from eating, and having the gall to act self-righteous in the process. This is mental illness, institutionalized and whitewashed. Notice how they almost always tell you it is "for your safety". Notice that tyranny in all its forms all over the world is almost always done "for your safety", "for your security". The corporate tyrant is turning the tables to look like the compassionate one, the intelligent one. The tyrant is telling you you are not smart enough to take care of yourself. Simply because the tyrant is a have and you are a have-not somehow makes the tyrant worthy to treat you like a child, when in actuality it is the tyrant who is living in ignorance and needs educating.

More Educational Rap

I stumbled upon more educational rap music. Rhythm, Rhyme, Results (Tripple R) has tracks explaining Math, Science, English, and US History-- to my surprise the music is very well produced. Triple R is like Schoolhouse Rock, if Schoolhouse rock grew up in the streets.

I particularly enjoyed (Pump up the) Volume, where a Snoop Dog beat informs:
Next is the cylinder, but don’t be scared
It’s just the height times π times the radius squared
For the Volume of a cone, division is key
You take the height times πr² but then divide it by 3
Last but not least we’ll examine a sphere
Like the sun or the moon or the bubbles in your root beer
After our research, we must conclude
That it’s 4/3 × πr³
Certainly this information is better acquired from a chart, but if it makes the learning fun, then it's successful, right?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yeah, I'm Two Days Too Late

But this article from The Times of London offers the best perspective I've read on the impact of the Apollo missions.

I am intrigued by the fact that a publication not written by Americans offers the greatest insights on one of America's greatest accomplishments. This is a must-read.

Bold Claims About Scarcity

Courtesy of Dr. Tyler Cowen:

“Along a certain dimension, there’s no scarcity,” he said. “The problem is how to find good stuff.”

Taken out of context, but nonetheless, this statement resonates about the direction the world is heading. Full text here.

Can Costs be Subjective?

I was listening to a presentation yesterday for an experiment to try to uncover some of the reasons we treat intellectual property with different norms than we use with physical property. We also read an excerpt from The Economic Structure of Intellectual Property Law by William Landes and Richard Posner.

Posner and Landes raise some interesting points, though much of their stuff seems nonsensical upon further review. One claim I enjoyed was that, "Many authors derive substantial benefits from publication that are over and beyond any royalties," such as pecuniary income, prestige, etc.

One of the claims proposed by the experimenter was that intellectual property "costs a lot to create." This is supported by Posner and Landes, who claim that there is a two-tiered cost of intellectual property: the "cost of expression," for which there are no returns, and the "cost of making copies." But I'm not sure this is exactly right. For the publisher, the cost of expression can be measured in terms of dollars, but separate out the artist. For him or her, I think the cost is much more subjective, and said cost needs to be thought of as a value to be better understood (similar to the way a "wage" should be thought of as a "cost (of labor)" when plugged into an SD graph).

We see this phenomenon developing before our very eyes: software programmers collaborating to create an operating system that rivals the best operating systems available for purchase and making it available for free to all; bloggers synthesizing content and publishing original ideas for all to use; even musicians are moving towards this trend as they move away from big record companies and toward independent labels. This last movement shows that the cost of expression, for them, is probably fairly low, because they continue to produce music even as it suffers from piracy across the internet.

Posner and Landes make one other interesting claim: that close examination of historical authors, such as Shakespeare, show that much of their work was borrowed almost exactly from their predecessors. Shakespeare wrote in the age before copyright laws, and perhaps this allowed him to be creative in ways we cannot today, as we are restricted by risk of plagiarism or violating copyrights. All the new mediums of expression (see Tyler Cowen's fascinating Create Your Own Economy) are growing rapidly, and if copyright laws cannot keep up perhaps we will be allowed to borrow more from others and we will see creativity manifesting itself in new ways.

Am I the only one who believes costs can be subjective, or is this a new way to look at intellectual property in the modern world?

Frances Hutcheson Weighs In...

On the history of property. Stephen Buckle quotes a passage of his:

when once Men become so numerous, that the natural Product of the Earth is not sufficient for their Support, of Ease, or innocent Pleasure, a necessity arises, for the support of the increasing System, that such a Tenour of Conduct be observ'd, as shall most effectually promote Industry; and that Men abstain from all Actions which would have the contrary effect. (An Inquiry Concerning Beauty and Virtue)

Buckle claims this passage shows that industry forms as a response to scarcity, and further that self-love inhibits industry without well-defined property rights. Thus property rights come about as soon as scarcity does. I find this history to be very compelling, but clearly it isn't complete, because writers after Hutcheson have tried to modify his theory. So I ask: what is missing from this brief history of property rights?

Monday, July 20, 2009


My sister has introduced me to a group of rapping doctoral candidates in the Economics Department at UC Berkeley:
The Gang's latest rap song takes the Jay-Z single "99 Problems" in a new and proudly nerdish direction, with locations in Evans Hall stairwells and downtown Berkeley landmarks, and rhymes celebrating the peculiar joys of a sometimes-maligned social science:

If you're having research problems I feel bad for you, son
I got 99 problems, econometrics ain't one. ...

Other Metrics Gang hits include an econometric take on Kanye West's Stronger, as well as a non-rapping (I Can't Write No) Dissertation

Cap-and-Trade: A Failure of Democracy?

The Economist has a special report on business in America that provides some interesting insights into my favorite issue: how to deal with climate change.

One of the main points I took from this report is that climate change seems to be, in many ways, the natural result of living in a democracy. Why? Climate change requires policymakers and citizens to simultaneously make long-term commitments to lifestyle changes. For example, citizens will only put up solar panels if they can sell surplus electricity to the electric company, otherwise it is not cost-effective for the average citizen to switch to solar. However, electric companies can reduce bills to zero, but cannot buy electricity from citizens. Change this policy - allow citizens to sell to the electric company - and you'll see more people, especially in places like Arizona or New Mexico, switching to solar power.

Is this the kind of idea that will get people elected and re-elected? Well, probably not. Solar energy is expensive and requires subsidies to be cost-effective, as the Economist points out. So it very well could be that a politician is forcing the majority (middle class) to pay for the minority (upper class) to use solar power and reduce his/her energy costs. This is not an electable position and politicians realize they will be better off pursuing pork in a cap-and-trade bill.

I'm not sure, but I suspect that the short terms served by most politicians make it much more difficult for them to adapt the long-term policies needed to solve the climate crisis. It seems the only way to fix this is to suspend the rules of democracy for a while or have the solution come from the Supreme Court (who are unlimited by problems such as elections and terms). Neither one seems imminent, unfortunately for us all...

Time for Affirmative In-Action

Interesting Op-Ed in today's New York Times. The recent confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor have shed new light on the history of affirmative action in America, but this piece looks the opposite way: toward a future where white is a plurality, rather than the majority, in the United States.

I must admit that I am, for the most part, not interested in affirmative action. I do not claim to be completely colorblind, but I cannot think of a time in my life when I have seriously discriminated against anyone because of race. Perhaps I am naive, but it seems nearly everyone of my peers has grown up in this same type of world. Yes, there are still bigots and racists in this world, but it is my belief that it's now socially unacceptable, and affirmative action is in fact no longer necessary. In places such as academia, social stigma has a far greater effect than legislation. It's time to move toward a world without affirmative action laws - hopefully Sotomayor is ready.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Incentives Matter

Excellent post from Environmental and Urban Economics.

Everyone thought that housing prices would only go up - this is not a new insight. However, I never thought of the problem by comparing the housing market to the stock market (as they do). People who believed housing prices would go down had no way to short the market and express that fear - the housing market was in fact a very one-sided thing! Not sure how I missed this insight but thanks to those guys for pointing it out to me.

Guess this is why I am still - and truthfully, always will be - a student.

F.A. Hayek is Smarter than You

I present as evidence his classic work, The Sensory Order, which I am reading because (of course) I am a huge masochist. This post will naturally be written in the subconsciously condescending tone preferred by Hayek.

Note: I have only read through Chapter 3. I will probably post something actually related to the book at an as-yet-to-be-determined later date.

I think one of the awesome insights from this book is in the first chapter. In Hayek 1.20 (yes, he does use numbered chapters and verses, not sure if he meant to parallel the Bible), he talks about the fact that organisms use their minds to take the information they have about the world and project it so that they can have representations, or models if you prefer, of their environments within themselves.

Hayek gives away his background as an economist at two different points: in 2.1 he talks about an "order than appeared," a.k.a. spontaneous order, and in 3.49 he talks about collections of events that are interconnected and through webs we cannot see they bring about certain other collections of events.

I think Hayek's non-psychology is what allows him to write The Sensory Order. He is able to escape the traps that plague the behaviorists (who he absolutely rails on) and other schools of thought circa 1952. He also recognizes the interconnectedness of everything - every thought, every neural impulse; literally everything - with everything else. This insight derives itself, at least partially, from examining the interconnectedness of every event in an economy (and then praising the price system which allows us to synthesize it all).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Top 25 Econ Blogs

The Wall Street Journal has posted the 25 top Economics blogs, observing that Econ blogs have risen in popularity in the wake of the recession. The article is good, though I am confused by the rankings.

I understand the ranking of originality (though I may not agree with it) but how do they measure Geekiness? Freakonomics receives a score of 1 calculator, while Marginal Revolution gets 5. How does that work when Freakonomics is based on a book almost completely about complex statistical regressions? And as for Readability, if a blog is given 5 reading glasses, does that make it is more or less accessible than a blog with four reading glasses? It seems the most readable blog would require no reading glasses.

...I feel like Andy Rooney.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Who Should Pay?

Yesterday, a website set up to defray the extra city costs associated with Michael Jackson's memorial was shut down by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It appears LA is too classy to accept donations. Said the mayor, "This is a world-class city, and we provide fire and police protection, period."

Admittedly, the memorial's public costs ($1.4 million, including $1.1 million in police overtime) pale in comparison to city's budget ($7 billion for FY09-10) and donations from the website ($35,000 at the time it was shut down) would not likely have covered them in full. But why keep citizens from paying?

Those who enjoy the benefit of something should also bear its cost-- otherwise there is an incentive to over consume at the expense of others. City funds spent on extra police protection benefited those who attended the memorial, but others in Los Angeles will have to bear that cost in fewer future public services or increased taxes. It is difficult to separate those who benefited from the Jackson memorial from those who did not, but the donation website allowed a few of those who benefited to identify themselves and voluntarily contribute to the cost of the event. This is far superior to compulsory taxation.

So who should pay? I say allow people to donate as much as they like, and tax cable news for the rest.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"How Dysfunction Helps the GOP"

I read this article last week but chose to skip blogging about it - the more I think about, though, the more I enjoy the fundamental idea.

It's stupid to elect Republicans because, well, their incentives are for government to fail. In order to get elected, they want government to not work; therefore, even while in office, they should be expected to purport a certain amount of failure. Then they can point to their own mistakes and say they should be elected because government is evil.

Just when I thought I was getting away from dull libertarianism, I realize it's an infection I may never be able to cure.

I Thought I Was Good at Jeopardy

IBM is making a computer that will put me to shame. Department of WOW!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

iPhone Jailbreak

The Wall Street Journal has a profile on hacker "Arix", iPhone jailbreaker-- jailbreak enables users to install software onto their iPhones (particularly software unapproved by Apple). "Arix", also known as 15 year old Ari Weinstein, began hacking Apple code to download free games for the iPod touch he received at his bar mitzvah. The story of his early exposure to computers is highly entertaining:
Ari became interested in technology as a preschooler, when he would flip through the manual for a cable set-top box and change the settings on the family computer. "I remember it being a big relief when he went to kindergarten," says his mother, Judy Weinstein, 43, a social worker.

At age 7, Ari teamed up with two other boys to create playing cards, decorated with hand-drawn characters, to sell online. The business never took off. But Ari says he learned to build Web sites, among other things: The site he created wasn't on the child-approved list of his AOL Internet service, he says, so to access it, he had to figure out how to get around AOL's parental controls.

"That's when we knew we should start teaching him ethics," says his dad, Ken Weinstein, 45, a real-estate developer.

Jailbreaking an iPhone violates the terms of use, and voids the warranty. Apple is trying to take legal action by filing a claim with the US copyright office that modifying phones is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Is this claim outrageous in that the physical equivalent would be buying a book and gluing or ripping select pages, or does it have merit as ad revenue and app sales are part of the iPhone's pricing model? The ruling is scheduled for the fall.

Watch the video after you read the article, it is a great illustration of how medium impacts the perception of its subject.

Sent from my iPhone

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Econometrics at University of Oregon

I found out University of Oregon professor and Economist's View blogger Mark Thoma posts his class lectures on Youtube. He says that these videos should be used as complements instead of substitutes to attending his class. As sitting in isn't an option for me, I'll be forced to go the substitute route. I do not plan on watching the eighteen lectures consecutively, as Thoma says a few habitually truant students have tried, but hopefully I'll learn a little. It'll be interested to see how lectures at the University of Oregon compare to lectures at George Mason University. Why aren't any Mason professors recording and posting their lectures?

The Fascination with Causation

Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, offers up a very interesting insight on causality.

"The more you scrutinize causality, the less sense it makes, and some philosophers have suggested that science should just kiss it goodbye."

Fascination with cause-and-effect began with David Hume's Treatise on Human Nature and has only increased since the 18th century. In my far-too-close reading of Hayek over the past 24 hours, I've pulled a couple more nuggets on causality:

"It does not matter for him why..." and "causes... are of no interest to him". Both quotes are taken from The Use of Knowledge in Society. "Him" is the agent responding to prices. Basically, according to Hayek, the price system makes causes irrelevant for human beings; it allows us to respond to changing circumstances without ever knowing the root causes of a change in price.

With all of this in mind, why are we so fascinated with causality in our lives? How would science - especially social science - be different without it?

Hayek on China

From Competition as a Discovery Procedure:

"A high growth rate is more a sign of of bad policies in the past than of good policies in the present."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Top Ten!

Pittsburgh has two of the Top Ten in ESPN's Ultimate Team Rankings! They are the only city with two franchises in the top ten, though it is worth noting that Ducks are number 11 and the LA Angels are number 1. The reality is that both of these teams belong to Anaheim and are great franchises.

Being from Pittsburgh means that I have the Steelers in my bloodstream, and winning the Lombardi trophy this year was awesome. Still, as an avid hockey fan and part-time player, I count the recent Stanley Cup victory among the greatest thrills of my lifetime. It is quite gratifying to see the Penguins represented eighth on this list; the Steelers have been perennially among the top ten, but the Pens have not (until now) gained that sort of respect.

Aside: Please ignore number 94, if you are perusing the list from top to bottom. Apparently they are including minor league baseball franchises, as well; the Pirates are an embarrassment to all that is black and gold.

Myers-Briggs Tests Actually Work!

I've been feeling awfully Socratic lately - it's a phase I go through every so often, where I have learned a lot in a short period of time and become somewhat forlorn over the fact that I seem to know less than when I started.

It seems the older I get, the less sure I am about what I want to do when I grow up. This is the opposite of the way it is supposed to work. I was expressing this frustration to a friend, who asked what my M-B personality type was. I guessed it was ENTJ (didn't really remember but that seemed right) and I'll be damned if the first page turned up in a Google search isn't my biography.

University professor is still a possibility, but it looks like I am destined for the corporate wasteland.

The Unthinkable

Today, I discovered The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why, by Amanda Ripley as well as her related blog. I found her analysis of the recent DC Metro crash enlightening, and am adding The Unthinkable to my summer reading list. This real-time map of emergencies and disasters is also interesting.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Is The American Empire Bankrupt?

Kyle Murphy asked for my thoughts on Chris Hedges' column, The American Empire is Bankrupt. The article morns the dollar's passing as the world's reserve currency, and predicts increasing inflation as foreign central banks divest themselves of the dollar. Alarmist would be a good description, it closes:
The cost of daily living, from buying food to getting medical care, will become difficult for all but a few as the dollar plunges. States and cities will see their pension funds drained and finally shut down. The government will be forced to sell off infrastructure, including roads and transport, to private corporations. We will be increasingly charged by privatized utilities—think Enron—for what was once regulated and subsidized. Commercial and private real estate will be worth less than half its current value ... America will be composed of a large dispossessed underclass and a tiny empowered oligarchy that will run a ruthless and brutal system of neo-feudalism from secure compounds. Those who resist will be silenced, many by force. We will pay a terrible price, and we will pay this price soon, for the gross malfeasance of our power elite.

I think US fiscal policy gives cause for concern, but I don't believe the situation is as dire as Hedges forecasts. I'd like to take HIST 302, GMU's only class on ancient Rome, to better understand America in the context of an overextended empire. On a lighter note, today's Dilbert could also be a response to Chris Hedges' essay.

Better Reading in Bed

I like reading in bed. It's comfortable. The only problem is that if I lay on my side (as I prefer to) it is impossible to hold a book open so that both pages are readable. You must either rotate your book, or (my solution) rotate your body from shoulder to shoulder in a stationary shrimp. Neither solution is completely satisfactory, and one aspect of the Kindle that intrigues me is odd and even pages appear in the same place, making it easier to read in bed.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I read about Randall Munroe's attempts to use his Kindle in bed. The XKCD author found it was difficult to prop the Kindle up while keeping a finger on the next button. Undaunted, he took a steel coat hanger and twisted it to create a Kindle stand for reading in bed.

This is a great Kindle accessory, and knowing how to make it I am more likely to purchase a Kindle. Some people commented that Munroe should mass produce his invention. It is truly a niche product, and I wonder how large the "kindle owners who want a better way to read in bed but are too lazy to bend their own coat hanger" niche is.

The only other Kindle accessories on sale seem to be cases and memory cards. Are there other accessories being overlooked? I think a Kindle case with a small light built in for reading in the dark might be marketable.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Americans Spend Too Much on Medical Care

How can you tell? Time-series and cross-sectional data. Milton Friedman's How to Cure Health Care offers an insightful diagnosis and prescription of the current Health Care situation. I plan to write more about it in the future, but for now I found it satisfying to recognize the econometric techniques used in the analysis.

Cross-sectional data:
Time-series data:

Environmental Philosophy

Bloggingheads has a diavlog today between Jay Odenbaugh and Craig Callender on Environmental Philosophy. A couple excerpts:

(6:30) How much consideration do animals deserve? Using a thought experiment, where you are the last human on earth and about to die, would there be something wrong with using all the world's nukes to blow up the planet? Assuming the answer is no because there are other living things on the planet, should non-humans be given moral standing?

IMHO, destroying the world would be unacceptable because it would be impossible to know for certain that you were the last living human. The world is too big. I find nothing objectionable to launching one nuke just for the explosion, as you could be certain no people would be harmed and the property would have no value (happy 4th of July).

Also, I think the experiment may show other sentient beings have value, but it leaves room for humans to be absolutely more valuable. In that case, animal rights would be irrelevant so long as human welfare was at stake. A more revealing experiment would be a man and his spouse in a bunker, who need to launch a nuclear arsenal to eradicate an infectious disease which has killed the rest of the human race but has not affected some other animals. Other humans may or may not be in other radiation proof bunkers. Is it ethical to launch the bombs?

(44:04)There is also a good discussion of what we owe future generations. Should there be a discount rate like we use with bank loans and credit card payments? If so, what should that rate be? Or should we use a Rawlsian veil of ignorance to claim that we have no right to leave the environment any worse than it was when we were born.

Friday, July 3, 2009

55 Fiction

My local, independent paper, New Times, sponsors an annual 55 fiction competition. 55 fiction is the art of crafting a story in 55 words or less. It is a terrific writing exercise, particularly in editing and brevity (more information here).

Here is a story I've been building the last few days and plan on entering:

Child’s Play

He followed as the bubble whimsically floated up, settling carelessly next to a butterfly and some flowers. Little Alan squinted at the fragile orb: imagining. A door, a window, a chimney, he developed a rainbow-glass house for the butterfly.

What opulence!

The child laughed. The bug fluttered away. The housing bubble burst.

Muslim Students Want Religious Holidays

Wish I had a shorter headline - here is the article in the New York Times. My question - which isn't raised in the article - is why we cling so closely to the three-month summer schedule. Students in New York city, as well as those in the suburban sprawl, clearly aren't spending those three months plowing the fields; the historical grounding for such an arrangement has disappeared. Mayor Bloomberg is concerned that students will no longer be spending time in the classroom but he could easily increase class time by shortening summer to one month off instead of three. Oh, and wouldn't having time off for religious holidays be an educational experience in itself? Promoting tolerance is as important as ever in modern America (sometimes it seems so few nations are doing it elsewhere).

Shortening summer vacation is a sensible reform that has yet to gain any traction. Another sensible reform being ignored is having high schools start their days later. Why is the educational system to static and resistant to change?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Credit Card Companies Foil Congress

From the Washington Post:
Credit card companies are raising interest rates and fees seven months before new rules go into effect that will limit their ability to do so, much to the irritation of Congress and consumer advocates.

Regulation: meet Rational Expectations.

Blogging: A History Lesson

11D offers a very well-written history lesson on blogging as she enters her sixth year in the blogosphere. I can attest to the feeling of burn-out and the time spent, not because I've been busy the past month, but because of the previous year I spent with Zach at RotoNomics, blogging about fantasy baseball. It was a rewarding experience, to be sure, but required a fantastic daily time commitment and provided little external reward.

She also offers some advice on how to make it in the modern blogosphere: "Use your blogs to target particular audiences and have a clear mission, and you'll get a following."

I can only hope to live up to that. So far, this has been an experiment in trying to blog again, only with a much broader framework than "daily fantasy baseball updates and analysis." I'm still trying to find my focus.

In a related post on the future of the blogosphere, Tyler asks how you can combine blogs and Twitter to make your daily intake of information more efficient.

(Wanted to leave this as a comment to your post, Josh, but it was a little too long. Sorry)

But It's Value Can Only Go Up!

It's no secret that California is at a low point, and Governor Schwarzenegger has his share of critics.

One critic
claims that the state is in the current mess because the governor is lockstep with his big business campaign donors and is refusing to consider budget alternatives:
This column and others have detailed how merely changing the rules under which some real estate is not reassessed to current market values on changing hands would provide between $3 billion and $12 billion in new state money each year. All that would take is a majority vote of lawmakers and a Schwarzenegger signature.

This solution seems a little disingenuous. First, if it were so obvious and easy, what has prevented a simple majority of congressmen from getting behind it? Are they all in the pockets of the real estate lobby? And second, wouldn't reassessing property values only increase revenues if property values went up? The article itself acknowledges it has been a tough year for real estate, but only to claim, "Competitive pressures in today's miserable real estate market make it doubtful most owners of properties that have long enjoyed the no-reassessment loophole could pass their expense on to tenants or customers." I thought housing prices dropped in miserable real estate markets.

I am intrigued by Bill Lockyer's solution to the budget stalemate, though I doubt it will garner popular support.

Learning from Bits

Cleverly titled RSSted Development, Ben Casnocha has an essay in The American about the blogosphere, attention spans, and Tyler Cowen's new book. The essay discusses how ideas are acquired and processed in the information age, especially how we weave pieces from information streams (like blogs and social networks) together to form our own personal narratives. It considers the effects of receiving our information in bit form on our learning and focus.

A couple quotes I liked:
Self-education has gone from being like a loner sitting in a bar sparsely populated with hazily attractive women to being in the center of a packed, rocking night club where the women are wearing mini-skirts and the guys’ shirts open up several buttons down.

The glorification of “focus” is the second problem with the criticisms of bit-consumption and technology use in general. While some amount of focus is necessary, it is not the case that sitting alone in a quiet white walled room with no beeps or buzzes is the ultimate day-to-day environment for deep, creative thinking. Sam Anderson in New York Magazine summarized research that says un-focus is actually an important part of creativity—random meanderings and conversations can trigger important creative insights.

I enjoyed the review and look forward to reading Create Your Own Economy. Interestingly, it took me two sittings to read the whole article and I found myself repeatedly scrolling to the bottom to see how much was left.

Oh yeah, it also had this line:
I had not read any books or taken any classes on the subject [libertarianism]. Names like Hayek and Nozick were as foreign to me as the concept “moral hazard” is to President Obama.


Owen Good reports some Xbox Live news:

The Michael Jackson Grief-a-Thon rolls into its fourth big moneymaking day. Except that "Thriller" is being offered free for the rest of the weekend on Xbox Live Marketplace. Ordinarily it goes for 160 Microsoft points.

"Beat It," "Smooth Criminal" and "Billie Jean" join Thriller in the top 10 of the Most Popular in XBLM's Marketplace right now. The former three videos are the standard 160-point price. They're all in standard def.

With all respect to this week's events, grief-a-thon seems a strangely appropriate word for the current news coverage. I think of children getting donations and walking in circles to raise money for their schools, and then I think of the media pundits running in circles and giving up-to-the-second reports on departed celebrities to raise money for their networks.

Note: Most of Michael Jackson's music videos are accessible for free in slightly less than standard definition.

Italian Economy is a Joke

I'm back from Rome but can't give up reading about the Italian economy quite yet. Found the Doing Business Project and it ranks Italy as, well, not that bad as a place to do business. So even though I spent my time in Italy getting progressively more depressed about the business climate there - and looking at the OECD region, they definitely still have plenty of room for improvement - it seems like things just aren't as bad as Aldo made them out to be.

How to Fix the Auto Industry, Part II

As I find these, I am going to continue to link to them. I'm sure President Obama doesn't have me in his RSS, but he needs to get the message that his plans for the auto industry are doomed to fail. Some highlights:

"Politicians are addicted to CAFE standards because they create an illusion of doing something sometime in the future without voters experiencing the slightest inconvenience in the present."

"If consumers keep refusing to buy enough small cars from GM and Chrysler to allow them to meet the CAFE rules, how are those companies expected to pay the fines?"

Well-written summary of the many pitfalls of CAFE standards. Definitely worth reading even if you know them already.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What's Wal-Mart's Angle?

Neil Trautwein, of the National Retail Federation, is "flabbergasted" by Wal-Mart's recent letter to President Obama, voicing support for mandated employer health care. (interview here) How could Wal-Mart, leader in low prices, do such a thing?

A few suggestions:
1) (interviewer) Wal-Mart is in cahoots with SEIU and the Obama Administration. Quid pro quo is that if Wal-Mart helps health care reform, the others will soften on unionization.

2) (Neil Trautwein) Wal-Mart could use supply chain to get competitive advantage in health care costs, but if not, the move at least improves public relations.

3) (The Distributed Republic) Wal-Mart is obviously signing onto this because a mandated health care regulation would stifle small businesses.

4) (The Hill) The only sentence in the letter that actually mentions the mandate states: “We are for a mandate that is fair and broad in its coverage, but any alternative to an employer mandate should not create barriers to hiring entry level employees,” The Senate Finance Committee is considering a policy requiring companies to pay for a portion of their workers’ Medicaid costs. Wal-Mart would be particularly affected by such a requirement because its workforce consists largely of low-wage employees, therefore it is attempting to present a more favorable alternative.

Four seems most convincing to me, though I'm sure knowing the good publicity that would follow (everywhere except Fox News) didn't hurt the decision. Three is a little disappointing to me because it is such a knee-jerk libertarian reaction, stated with such complete confidence, and with such a small grasp of the facts. It doesn't appear the commenter even looked at the letter. Besides, as I understand it, employer mandated health care would only affect large firms, giving smaller firms an advantage.

"The American Rome is Burning"

I'm more interested in the title than the article itself. In my time in Italy, I heard plenty about ancient Rome, and it seems like the Roman Empire and modern America have a whole lot in common. Both stole many of the interesting aspects of their life from other cultures (see: Greek mythology and architecture in Rome, cuisines from every nation in the US), though in many ways their role as an aggregator made life there as interesting as anywhere in the world. If I remember correctly, the Romans were great conquerors but terrible at governance... America did pretty well on the offensive in World War II, but hasn't done so well at "keeping the peace" in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. since.

I think there's a lot to learn about the direction America *could* be heading from a good history of Rome - anyone able to recommend one?

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