Month: March 2004

Rich nations can conserve water

Efforts to conserve water – from low-flush toilets to more efficient power plants and crop irrigation – are working so well that Americans use less of it than they did 30 years ago, a report issued Thursday by the federal government says.

The flat trend in consumption came even as the USA’s population grew and electricity production, the largest user of water, increased.

The study from the U.S. Geological Survey says consumption is largely unchanged since 1985 and is 25% less than the 1970s, when it peaked.

Here is some more evidence:

The biggest savings have been by industry. And that is a result of water-saving technology driven by energy-saving and environmental protection laws passed in the 1970s. Utilities that once needed huge amounts of water to cool electrical generating plants in “once-through” fashion now conserve water by recirculating it in a closed loop.

The report says the USA consumes 408 billion gallons a day. Homes and most businesses use 11% of that. Nearly half, 48%, goes to power plants. Watering crops takes 34%. The remaining 7% includes mining, livestock and individual domestic wells.

Here is the full story, which also ranks states by water use. Here is the original report. On a global scale, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water use, which indicates further room for conservation. It is indeed a problem that rich nations use ten time more water per capita than poor ones. But in a time when people are talking seriously of nanotechnology, can cheap desalinization be so far on the horizon? Read here on a recent Israeli effort.

What do we know about the children of gay parents?

Not much, according to this incisive article on Slate.com: “The existing science is methodologically flawed and ideologically skewed.”

Here is another major point:

…the defensive goal of proving sameness is almost a guarantee of weak science. (The hypothesis that both groups of kids are alike is hard to rule out, but that doesn’t mean you’ve established that there are no differences.) That “heterosexist” bias, Stacey argues, has also encouraged researchers to fudge results, anxiously claiming homogeneity where there’s actually some variety. Why, she asks, buy into the view that “differences indicate deficits”?

And consider the following:

Digging around in the existing data on kids of gay parents leads the authors and others to similarly rosy speculations that these children are unusually open-minded. Some studies, for example, show boys playing less aggressively and behaving more “chastely” as youths, while girls’ early interests are more androgynous and their adolescence evidently somewhat more sexually adventurous. On the hot topic of sexual orientation, the only long-term study of lesbian-headed families reports 64 percent of the young adult children saying they’ve considered same-sex relationships (compared to 17 percent with heterosexual parents)–although the percentage of those who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is the same in both groups.

Here is a survey of some reader reactions.

The bottom line: We need some good labor economists, or demographers, to tackle this problem. That being said, the policy-relevant comparison is not “gay parents” vs. “straight parents.” Rather it is gay parents vs. an orphanage, or gay parents vs. not having been born in the first place. I’ll put my money on the gay parents.

Are bubbles good for economic development?

Fools rush in, but should we mind?

…when it comes to transformative technologies, overoptimistic investors are actually working for the common good–even if they don’t know it. We can be glad that investors financed the construction of thousands of miles of track in the middle of the nineteenth century, despite the fact that most of them dropped a bundle doing it. The same goes for overoptimistic investors who poured money into semiconductors thirty years ago, financed undersea fibre-optic cables in the late nineties, and now are poised to lose their shirts in the coming nanobubble. In the dreams of avarice lie the hopes of progress.

The full story concerns the nanotechnology bubble, by the ever-intelligent James Surowiecki, writing for The New Yorker.

My take: The real story of the invisible hand is that many of the rewards offered by the capitalist system are illusory in value. Ayn Rand had a point that the world rests on the shoulders of the talented few. She forgot that those people often aren’t very rational.

Securitizing human education

MyRichUncle is not a lender. MyRichUncle is a network of investors, “Rich Uncles” if you will, interested in financing the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students.

MyRichUncle provides students with Education Investments–funds for school. Upon graduation, students pay a fixed percentage of their future income for a fixed period of time. At the end of the period, their obligation is over regardless of what they have paid.

Education Investments are not loans. That means there is no principal or interest, and there is no obligation to payback the amount initially received. At the end of the payment period, your obligation is over, regardless of what you’ve paid.

Education is the greatest investment one can make toward his or her future. It is the key to opportunity. MyRichUncle is here to make sure everyone can afford it.

In other words, investors give students money and hold equity in their future income performance. Payments range from one to three percent, over a ten to fifteen year period. This is an onerous burden over time but the marginal tax rate is not so large to make the person stop working. Plus there is a 2.5 percent service fee on what you borrow.

Here is their web site. Here is an article on the involvement of Michael Robertson, the MP3.com guy. Here is a Cato policy analysis on the idea.

My take: Why not try this? It will help some people go to a better school. True, the offer will take in some high time preference suckers, who don’t really need the money, but those people already have enough paths to ruin.

Keep in mind this is an insurance scheme, not just a loan market or a way to go through school. If it turns out that you are less smart or less hard-working than you thought you were, you pay less back. The self-confident may refuse to buy it, which leaves the fearful dominating the market. Think of this as stupidity insurance, or laziness insurance, packaged under a more marketable and flattering guise (“You too can go to school…”). Of course it is a central question in economics why markets provide so little insurance protection for long-term risks. Let’s hope this instrument is the start of a new trend.

Thanks to Paul Edwards for the pointer.

How bestsellers have changed

Here are some basic facts:

The popularity of religious titles has soared. Books such as Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the first in a popular series and No. 61 for the decade, used to be sold primarily in Christian bookstores. Now they’re stacked thigh-high at discount stores such as Wal-Mart.

Self-help, always a fixture of best-seller lists, is shifting the focus from improving people’s lives to improving their health as many baby boomers pass 50. [Diet books, most of all Atkins-related, have become especially popular.]

Brand-name series grabbed a growing share of the list. Chicken Soup for the Soul begat Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul, which begat Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. All were among the decade’s 100 most popular titles.

With 12 novels on the list of 100, John Grisham staked out a nearly permanent spot on the weekly best-seller list. Only the titles changed. But if the familiar was popular, there were a few surprises. Previously unknown novelists such as Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) and Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) ended up among the decade’s best sellers.

Fiction, led by thrillers, staged a comeback, accounting for 72% of last year’s weekly best sellers, compared with 59% in 1998.

Here are other facts of import:

1. Never have so many books been published: in the U.S. more than 1,000 new titles a week, nearly double the rate in 1993.

2. Aggregate book sales are flat.

3. “last year the average American spent more time on the Internet (about three hours a week) than reading books (about two hours a week). And…the average American adult spent more money last year on movies, videos and DVDs ($166) than on books ($90).”

4. Bestsellers (top ten in the major categories) account for only 4% of book sales.

5. Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com and BookSense.com account for 8% of U.S. book sales.

6. Discount stores and price clubs account for 11% of U.S. book sales.

7. Humor books have fallen from 5.3% of the bestsellers market in 1995 to 0.6% today.

8. The Cliff Notes version of The Scarlet Letter outsells the real thing by 3 to 1.

9. In August dictionaries are 77% of all reference book sales. Otherwise they run less than five percent of the total.

Here is the the full story, noting that some of the facts are found in the paper edition only.

The bottom line? The book market works wonderfully. If you have any complaint, it should be with the quality of public taste.

USA Today (from Thursday) offers a list of the 100 best-selling books of the last ten years (not on-line). Once you get past Tolkien and Harry Potter, there is little to interest me. That being said, I find it easy to walk into my public libraries and every week find numerous good new books to read.

They should have blogged

In Dry Holes in Economic Research (Kyklos subscription required) David Laband and Robert Tollison find that a large fraction of economics papers (26%) are never cited and despite large increases in resources devoted to publication this percentage has not changed in decades.

Between 1974 and 1996, there was a substantial increase in the emphasis on academic research in universities located in the United States and elsewhere throughout the world. This increased emphasis was, and continues to be, reflected in a variety of increased incentives for faculty to produce research, including higher salaries, reduced teaching loads, increased money for travel, on so on. Yet, as we report in this paper, during this time period the rate of uncitedness of economics papers remained constant (at 26 percent). Clearly, universities and taxpayers/supporters of universities are obtaining no enhancement of research output (in terms of citations) from the increased subsidy to faculty research. We discuss the implications of this result for the publication and organization of economic research. In particular, we discuss the fact that resources devoted to up-front screening of papers by authors and journals have risen substantially over this period, but to no avail with respect to reducing the incidence of dry holes.

Copyright protection for folklore?

Two days ago I asked whether we should extend copyright protection to folklore. Thank you all for your interesting and informative replies.

Here are some possible answers which I don’t find sufficiently forcing:

1. Folklore has already been produced. TC: Of course you could say the same for a good deal of music. Why treat folklore differently?

2. Most folklore is very old and copyright protection would have expired by now anyway. TC: Folklore is not so old and musty; rather it evolves frequently and changes rapidly. Here is one source on contemporary folklore, here is another. Here is a brief account of contemporary Haitian folklore.

3. Folklore could never have evolved in the first place, had much earlier folklore received copyright protection. TC: This point is true, but you still could have copyright protection against for-profit uses of folklore. Author Edwidge Danticat can publish and copyright a processed version of folklore. Since those books bring in money, the law could stipulate that some royalties go back to the folklore creators.

4. Copyright is an incentive for future production, and we’re not going to have much future folklore anyway. TC: Hard to disprove a claim of this kind, but I don’t believe it. Arguably folklore has never been more vital than in today’s world.

So we are left with the following:

5. With folklore it is harder to define a clear line between copying and independent discovery. Similarly it is hard to draw a clear line between general inspiration and outright borrowing. Borrowing in general is harder to trace, a given derived story could have come from numerous sources. TC: This argument carries real force with me, although how different is music, consider George Harrison.

6. A culture is better off if other cultures can borrow its tales and “memes” without restriction. TC: Copyright holders could always waive their rights if that were beneficial, though admittedly there is an externalities problem for a culture as a whole. And again, you could apply the same argument to music.

7. Folklore is collectively produced, ownership is hard to assign, and there are no relevant corporate entities in most cases. Entrusting copyright ownership to “tribes” will encourage politicization and rent-seeking behavior. TC: Hard to argue here.

8. Folklore rarely offers a final, set, canonical, or well-defined final product. TC: I wonder if digital technologies will move other art forms in this same direction.

All interesting hypotheses. Many of them might be true, I still can’t get past “I don’t trust the courts in these other countries to enforce copyright in folklore, it will just lead to rent-seeking.” See my earlier post, at the first link, for further clarification.

I hope to soon consider other angles on related problems, such as whether there is a right to cultural privacy.

Markets in everything, in the subjunctive…

Here is a new way of organizing peer groups and your Friday evening out:

The ability to track the locations of people has a lot of other applications of course. As the tracking devices become smaller and cheaper expect to see parents putting them in their children both to protect their children from kidnapping and also simply to find out what trouble the kids are getting themselves into.

Another possible interesting application would be to manage affinity groups. Imagine a traveller who is cruising down a road trying to decide which night club to try out. If people registered with an affinity tracking service then a traveller could choose a club or restaurant whose currently present patrons fit some desired demographic profile. One obvious problem with such a service is that just because one person likes a particular type of person doesn’t mean that most who fit a desired profile will like that person in return. Look at celebrities for example. They are loved by all sorts of people who the celebrities would very much like to avoid. So a service would need to develop eligibility criteria that require matching of preferences in both directions before that person driving down the street would get a flashing light on their car LCD pointing them to a particular bar or night club.

That’s from Randall Parker, read his longer discussion, which focuses on GPS monitoring of criminals.

The costs of corruption

More corrupt states have lower credit ratings, even after adjusting for other determinants of creditworthiness. What is the economic impact of a one standard deviation increase in the public corruption index above the national mean? Over half (0.58) of a Moody’s credit rating.

Here is the original research. Here is an earlier MR discussion on which is the most corrupt state.

Hot potatoes

I am delighted that I can now buy irradiated beef at my local supermarket. It’s safer than regular beef but I would buy it just to spite the anti-science hysterics who kept this technology off-the-shelf for decades. Irradiation has recently been approved for Hawaiian sweet potatoes – the expense of the previous technology, methyl bromide fumigation kept these purple spuds out of mainland markets.

Of course, the mainland-based U.S. Sweet Potato Council is worried about competition. Mainland growers produce 1.3 billion pounds annually and Hawaiian output is only 1.8 million pounds leading the Potato Council to a unique argument for protectionism, “Hawaiian production is a mere pittance . . . and therefore, Hawaii should be able to consume every sweet potato they produce and then some.”

Road to Serfdom, 60th anniversay

BBC informs us that this is the 60th anniversary of the publication of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. In memoriam, here is a fact sheet about the book.

I have always seen huge pluses and minuses in the work. On the down side, mixed economies did not lead to fascism, communism, or totalitarianism, as Hayek had feared. On the plus side, Hayek offers his strongest and clearest case for liberty. Only rarely is political decision-making about trying to do the right thing. His analysis of the dynamics of political power remains a “public choice” classic to this day.

Thanks to Ray Squitieri for the pointer.

A rant against Gateway service

I’m off to the North Carolina beach so expect reduced blogging from me. Ordinarily, I would holiday-blog when my wife wasn’t looking but my portable refused to boot more than two weeks ago. It was obviously a hardware problem so I knew the otherwise capable techs at GMU couldn’t fix it but before taking it to Gateway I needed their authorization. That took a few days. After a week of sitting on the bench, the Gateway store in Fairfax ran a diagnostic and realized that they couldn’t fix it either. They promised to expedite it to the main service center. A week later I found out they were still waiting for, get this, a box to be sent to them so they could send the portable to the service center. A box#$*! (Worse yet, I gave it to them in the original box it came in – foam included.) So finally the computer makes it to the main service center and now I am told it is waiting for a part!##!@! Now, wouldn’t you put your service center and parts warehouse close together like say in the same phrelling place?