Month: October 2004

Halloween Banned!

A school in Puyallup Washington has banned all Halloween activities. Why?

“We have been contacted by followers of the Wiccan religion, and they indicated they have been offended after seeing elementary school depictions of witches with long noses, warts, cauldrons and such,” said Tony Apostle, the superintendent who banned Halloween.

Halloween activities have also been banned elsewhere in the country but for a different reason:

Complaints about Halloween from Pentecostal parents in Texas have forced a significant number of that state’s school districts to cancel in-school parties, said Richard W. Stadelmann, a professor of religious studies at Texas A&M University.

There is a geographical pattern to the grumbling, according to Stadelmann and others. Christian complaints come mostly from the South and Midwest, whereas Wiccan complaints are more likely to come from California and the Pacific Northwest.

The Social Security Burden

Andrew Samwick, who has written extensively on the issue, lays out some of the mathematics of social security debt at Vox Baby.

At present, the Social Security actuaries project an unfunded obligation of $10.4 trillion in the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program. This number comes directly from the 2004 Trustees Report released in March….Note that this is the unfunded part of the obligations–it is over and above all of the payroll taxes (12.4 percent of taxable payroll) and income taxes on benefits that go to support the program under current law….

Is having so much implicit debt a problem? I think so, and the reason is that, just like explicit debt, we accrue interest on implicit debt….if we have an implicit debt of $10.4 trillion, and the real interest rate is 3 percent, then next year, the implicit debt will grow by 0.03*10.4 trillion = $312 billion, up to $10.7 trillion, if the assumptions underlying the projection stay the same….[B]oth the President and Senator Kerry have repeatedly stated that they will not cut benefits for those at or near retirement age. …This, in turn, means that each year that elapses without reform causes the burden of financing the unfunded obligations to be shifted away from one more birth cohort that crosses the threshold of being “at or near retirement.” The more we wait, the larger the burden on future generations…

If I were running the show, both Social Security and Medicare (which has even larger unfunded obligations) would be reformed so that under current law and reasonable economic and demographic assumptions, they are projected to have zero unfunded obligations. This means changing current law to reduce future benefits, raise future taxes, or both.

See also my earlier post, The US Government is Bankrupt.

The proverbial free lunch?

Why stop at voluntary tipping? Why not run the entire restaurant this way?

The current edition of Restaurant Magazine has an article on a restaurant in the suburbs of London where there are no prices on the menu. Customers pay what they think the meal was worth. It is called Just Around the Corner and has been around for 17 years. From what I saw when I went to help photograph it for the magazine, it serves old fashioned French food of an average standard (soup, chicken supreme, profiteroles…).

Here are some interesting quotes from the owner:

“In a cheaper area the restaurant wouldn’t survive because people wouldn’t pay the money I expect and in a busier, more central area, we couldn’t build up the trust.

When people don’t pay what the owner thinks appropriate (about £20 a head) We just thank them nicely and give them their money back. These people know they don’t belong here, they try you out and by giving them their money back nicely, you ensure that they never return.”

That’s from Peter Rossi, libertarian chef in London.

Markets in everything, Indian style

At the Imperial Hotel in Delhi the attendant in the men’s room turns on the water for you, puts the soap on your hands, and dries your hands (including the crevices between your fingers) with a towel when you are done, all in the hope of a tip. Another man watches him, presumably to see how well he is doing, or perhaps if two customers were to come along at the same moment.

Kiss of Fire

First, full disclosure: Barbara Nitke is my friend.

Barbara is an exquisitely sensitive photographer whose self-imposed mission is to record lovers at the precise moments when they exchange power, trust and intimacy. Her work (best exempified in her book Kiss of Fire) is not porn; her photos are tinged with sexuality but they’re rarely overtly sexual. On the other hand, they won’t be easy for everyone to look at. Often they depict dominance, submission and pain. Always they depict love. It’s not the naked bodies that jump out at you; it’s the naked souls.

Barbara’s new show, Illuminata: Are You Curious?, opens on Thursday, November 11 at the Art At Large gallery in New York. If the photos aren’t to your taste, you can still go to support Barbara’s courageous lawsuit against John Aschcroft and the Communications Decency Act.

Learning to Love Bollywood

The Indian entertainment industry at the beginning of the twenty-first century is worth $3.5 billion, a minor part of the global $300-billion entertainment industry. But it is the world’s biggest movie industry when it comes to production and viewership. The 1,000 feature films and 40,000 hours of TV programming and 5,000 music titles that the country produces are exported to seventy countries. Every day, 14 million Indians see a movie in one of 13,000 theaters; worldwide, a billion more people a year buy tickets to Indian movies than to Hollywood ones. Television is galloping in; the country has 60 million homes with TV, of which 28 million are cabled, bringing to city and hamlet alike a choice of around a hundred channels…Hollywood films make up barely 5 percent of the country’s market.

That is from Suketu Mehta’s excellent Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

If you don’t already know Indian movies you should. Go to your local Indian grocery or spice market. Ask the proprietors which movies you should rent; most of the DVDs will have subtitles in English. Don’t think that Lagaan (or Satyajit Ray, for that matter) is the real thing, or that Blockbuster will do you any good.

Don’t be put off by the three hour length. Watch them in bits and parts. Cut to the songs. The use of color, cinematography, and orchestration of scenes will blow your mind. Allow yourself to be mesmerized. Compare them to your dreams at night, not to other movies you know, and pretend it is the only air-conditioned place in town.

How much does a gallon of pickles cost?

A gallon-sized jar of whole pickles is something to behold. The jar is the size of a small aquarium. The fat green pickles, floating in swampy juice, look reptilian, their shapes exaggerated by the glass. It weighs 12 pounds, too big to carry with one hand. The gallon jar of pickles is a display of abundance and excess; it is entrancing, and also vaguely unsettling. This is the product that Wal-Mart fell in love with: Vlasic’s gallon jar of pickles.

Your guesses please…

Margins of Error

The usually indispensable, which I check eagerly every morning, today contains the following howler:

Remember that Zogby saying PA is a (47-47) tie means the pollster is predicting that there is a 95% chance that the true score for each candidate falls in the range 43% to 51%, no more and no less.

Of course it means much more; for example it means that the candidates are substantially more likely to be about one point apart than to be about four points apart. But compounds the error:

All the battleground states are statistical ties. A couple of percent lead means nothing

Acutally, as no reader of will need to be told, the candidate with a 2% lead among those surveyed, if that lead is within the reported “margin of error” has less than a 95% chance, but still greater than a 50% chance, of having the lead among the public at large (ignoring, of course, all of the potential problems with surveys other than sampling error.)

Since everyone knows this, it’s hardly worth pointing out, except for the fact that these silly statements about margins of error have become ubiquitous in the press, and it’s worth asking why. Surely it must be obvious to all reporters and most readers that it’s better to have a two point lead in the polls than a two point deficit. So why does everyone keep saying otherwise?

Gladwell on Prescription Drugs

In the latest New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent article on prescription drugs. In a heartless and cruel post earlier this year I wrote:

People talk about the high price of pharmaceuticals as if high prices lasted forever. In fact, within a year of the expiration of a pharmaceutical’s patents, prices will typically fall by more than 50 percent as generic producers enter the market. Patents nominally last for 20 years but the effective patent life is much lower because patents are typically granted years before a product has cleared FDA review. The effective patent life of the average new pharmaceutical in the 1990s averaged just 12 years (see here for some references)….people who are demanding price controls are not simply asking for lower drug prices they are asking for lower prices on the newest drugs. Lower prices for drugs introduced 15 years ago are already here.

Gladwell gives a nice example:

If you are taking Mevacor for your cholesterol, the 20-mg. pill is two-twenty-five in America and less than two dollars if you buy it in Canada. But generic Mevacor (lovastatin) is about a dollar a pill in Canada and as low as sixty-five cents a pill in the United States…so many other drugs are going to go off-patent in the next few years–including the top-selling drug in this country, the anti-cholesterol medication Lipitor–that many Americans who now pay more for their drugs than their counterparts in other Western countries could soon be paying less.

Generics are often good substitutes for brand-name drugs but because neither the patient nor the doctor typically pay the costs we don’t choose the cheaper generics as much as we should (see here for more analysis).

Tyler asked why other institutions don’t arise to substitute for the cost-control of first party payment. Gladwell notes that such institutions are starting to evolve.

Pharmacy Benefit Managers, or P.B.M.s…build incentives into prescription-drug plans to encourage intelligent patient behavior. If someone wants to take a brand-name oral contraceptive and there is a generic equivalent available, for example, a P.B.M. might require her to pay the price difference. In the case of something like heartburn, the P.B.M. might require patients to follow what’s called step therapy–to try the cheaper H2 antagonists first, and only if that fails to move to a proton-pump inhibitor like omeprazole.

A good idea, especially if PBMs focus on pay for choice rather than restricting choice. I also worry that liability problems will plague PBMs just like they have HMOs and don’t forget that the lack of incentive to choose drugs with an eye to cost will get much worse when the new Medicare drug entitlement program kicks in.

Are Indian voters irrational?

India has been a functioning democracy since Independence, so why does it not have a higher standard of living? Why haven’t Indian voters opted for the kind of wealth-maximizing policies that have vaulted Singapore to a much higher standard of living? Have they in recent times, or are Indian voters especially irrational among democracies?

Here are a few hypotheses:

1. The real economic problem is local. Good policy at the national level won’t solve India’s fundamental problems, which include poorly defined property rights and corruption. Indian voters choose good leaders, but real change will require much slower piecemeal reforms at the micro-level.

2. Indian voters are just simply, plain, flat, downright irrational.

3. Indian voters seek to perpetuate the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty in some form. This leads them to choose from a narrow subsection of the elite. Indian economic policy has improved as this elite has moved away from socialism and has had greater exposure to market-based ideas.

4. Centrist Indian voters have evolved into rationality. Indians once elected socialists, but the current Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is arguably the best man in the world for the job [TC: he wasn’t exactly directly elected…]. India does not improve more because Singh is constrained by other parties, which court irrational views at the fringes.

5. Singh is an accident, and India will likely return to leaders who reject the idea of wealth creation [but do note that Rao and Rajiv Gandhi were also pro-market reformers to some extent].

6. The real democratization story concerns the rise of “lower-caste” politicians in the 1990s, and the waning power of the Anglicized Brahmin elites. This will mean either:

a) The lower castes will choose future leaders unwisely and pursue a politics of resentment.

b) The lower castes will be forced to “own” Indian government to a greater extent. Their politicians also will be led toward pro-market reforms, given the nature of the problems they will face. India will become stronger and more unified in the long run, thereby making market reforms more wide-ranging and also more durable.

Yes many of these are contradictory but can they all be true?

Tale of two condiments

Why has mustard in the United States improved so much, but ketchup has stayed largely the same? Why are some sectors more prone to innovation than others? What constrains innovation from the consumer side?

Here is Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent account from The New Yorker. Here is an archive of his writings for the magazine; he is also author of the best-selling The Tipping Point. Check out Gladwell’s work if you don’t already know it.

The Difference Between Men and Women

What’s the most effective pickup line on a college campus? Psychologists Elaine Hatfield and Russ Clark had actors (independently judged to be attractive) approach students of the opposite sex with a variety of lines and recorded their success rates. The lines were:

1) I’ve been noticing you around campus and I find you attractive. Would you go out with me tonight?

2) I’ve been noticing you around campus and I find you attractive. Would you come over to my apartment tonight?

3) I’ve been noticing you around campus and I find you attractive. Would you sleep with me tonight?

The success rates, as reported separately in two of my favorite popular science books, Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works and David Barash and Judith Lipton’s Myth of Monogamy:

Will you go out
with me tonight?
Will you come over to
my apartment tonight?
Will you go to bed
with me tonight?
Male Respondents 50% 69% 75%
Female Respondents 50% 6% 0%

Shocking if true

…what a day for science – a discovery that’s been hailed as the most significant find in the past 100 years. A team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists has unearthed the skeleton of a new species of human in a cave on the remote Indonesian island of Flores. Less than one metre tall, it’s been nicknamed the ‘Hobbit’ and it’s estimated to be 18,000 years old. Its discovery suggests early humans branched into more forms than previously thought and that there was a time, not so long ago, when two very different human species walked the planet.

That is from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, here is the full story. Here is New Scientist.