Month: August 2005

Diet Pork

The Washington Post reports a record pork feast today

President Bush signed into law a massive $286.4 billion transportation
bill Wednesday that includes more than 6,000 pet projects of lawmakers
across the country that range from a crucial parkway linking two
interstates in Illinois to a snowmobile trail in Vermont. … Keith Ashdown … said the distribution of the money “is based far more on political clout than on transportation need.”

Such waste may seem inevitable; how else can congressfolk claim credit for “bringing home the bacon” to their district? But consider this alternative:

Allow federal tax rates to vary by congressional district.  Given this, taxes would suddenly become a concentrated benefit.  Incumbents could brag about how much lower taxes were in their district, and challengers could complain how high they were.  Incumbents would have clear incentives to trade votes to get taxes lowered in their district.

With “diet pork” on the menu, politicians would have a healthier way to feed their need for concentrated benefits.    (I’m leaving comments on for a change.)

Perceptive Plato

My colleague Bryan Caplan has emphasized for years that people treat politics differently from other topics.  This has seemed to me a deep insight, and I’ve long puzzled over it.  Wouldn’t you know it, Plato noticed the same thing (Protagoras, translated by Benjamin Jowet):

Now I observe that when we are met together in the assembly, and the matter in hand relates to building, the builders are summoned as advisers; …  And if some person offers to give them advice who is not supposed by them to have any skill in the art, even though he be good-looking, and rich, and noble, they will not listen to him, but laugh … But when the question is an affair of state, then everybody is free to have a say–carpenter, tinker, … and no one reproaches him, as in the former case, with not having learned, and having no teacher, and yet giving advice; evidently because they are under the impression that this sort of knowledge cannot be taught….

Our human willingness to have confident opinions on topics where we are poorly informed seems to me a key problem in politics.

Inflating Boltzmann’s Brain

Thermodynamics lets us make engines, refrigerators and much more.  But why does it work?  The usual answer is that physical changes are deterministic (i.e., one-to-one), and the early universe was highly ordered (i.e., flat).  But why was the early universe so ordered?  Various new fundamental principles have been proposed to explain early order, but so far these have not been fruitful.

A century ago Boltzmann suggested that the order we see (billions of light years of flat space) is a rare random fluctuation in a much larger universe.  One might hope that observer selection could explain why we see such a rare event; only if there is a big fluctuation can there be observers to see it.  But observer selection predicts a fluctuation just big enough to make one observer.  This is the “Boltzmann’s brain paradox;” the order we see is much larger than is needed to explain just your brain.

Andreas Albrecht explains that while technical problems remain, it now seems hopeful that inflation is the missing key here (along with assuming the universe is large).  Since early order is required to create inflation, inflation cannot by itself explain the order we see.  But inflation can eliminate the difference between brain-sized and visible-universe-sized fluctuations.  A fluctuation that creates inflation is more likely than one that just makes a brain, and any fluctuation big enough to make inflation creates order on the scale we see.

Perhaps we now just need ask: why is the universe so big?

New Zealand regulations which no longer exist

1. Horses and cows could not mate within sight of public roads (this remained on the books until 1950)

2. Until the mid-1970s, you could not buy margarine without a doctor’s prescription.

3. Nabokov’s Lolita was banned.

4. School milk was free, but you had to drink it.

Those are from James Belich’s insightful Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000.  Today, of course, New Zealand is one of the least heavily regulated OECD countries.

You are happier when your party wins

The unjustly-banned-in UAE Will Wilkinson directs our attention to an interesting paper:

We include in our partisan happiness equations a variable that measures
the ideological position of the government in power. It indicates that
when the government leans more to the right ideologically, right-wing
individuals tick up their happiness scores. In the same periods,
left-wing individuals declare themselves to be more dissatisfied with
their lives. The size of the coefficient is large and highly

Will comments:

My favorite hypothesis is that coalitional success enters directly into
the welfare function. Now, this is fascinating for all sorts of
reasons. For instance, it would seem, then, that the need to maintain a
distinct and coherent coalitional identity will limit median-voter
convergence…The general application of this kind of thinking is that partisans will
try to convince their side that being out of power is really
depressing, with the result that no matter who is in power, half the
population is really depressed.

My take: Government funding of the arts is one example.  In many countries the mere existence of government arts programs does more for citizen utility than the results of those programs.  People enjoy being affiliated with a government that has artistic or aesthetic aspirations.  I don’t intend this as a reductio ad absurdum.  It could well be that arts spending is a relatively cheap way of "buying off" these feelings.  For instance, the relevant alternative might be an obnoxious form of patriotism, or perhaps higher levels of government spending on more costly (i.e., universal) areas.

That being said, I am not convinced by the result more generally.  You are supposed to pretend you care about your candidate, but this might be a framing effect.  You adopt a happy or unhappy stance, partly to signal group loyalties, but your daily happiness is fairly robust to who delivers the State of the Union addresss (policy effects aside, of course).

Look at me, I am happy, and the U.S. does not have Donald Brash running for Prime Minister.

Hanged for Accuracy

Alex posted a few weeks ago about India prohibiting competing monsoon forecasts.  I came across an even more dramatic example of such thinking in Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995:11-12):

Returning home victorious from Gibraltar after skirmishes with the French … the English fleet … discovered to their horror that they had misgauged their longitude … the Scillies became the unmarked tombstones for two thousand of Sir Clowdisley’s troops.  [Admiral Sir Clowdisley] had been approached by a sailor,  … who claimed to have kept his own reckoning of the fleet’s location during the whole cloudy passage.  Such subversive navigation by an inferior was forbidden in the Royal Navy, as the unnamed seaman well knew.  However, the danger appeared so enormous, by his calculations, that he risked his neck to make his concerns known to the officers.  Admiral Shovell had the man hanged for mutiny on the spot. … In literally hundreds of instances, a vessel’s ignorance of her longitude led swiftly to her destruction.

Even though shipmates had a strong common interest in knowing their longitude, other social incentives apparently prevented them from sharing their information.   As a consultant on the use of prediction markets within organizations, I’ve also noticed that managers are often surprisingly uninterested in the prospect of more accurate forecasts and more informed decisions.  Could these phenomena have similar explanations?

Nanotech Vision Visualized

Eric Drexler‘s vision of nanotechnology was once the main such vision, before nanotech became a popular buzzword, debased to mean anything with nanometer scale structures (enabling a huge national research initiative on the topic to be funded by just relabeling existing research).

Drexler has continued to elaborate his vision, and he now has a (86MB) movie to help you visualize it, available free to download.  Beats the summer SF flicks as a thought-provoking vision of the future.

The Wisdom of Your Crowd pitches their prediction markets by saying “Our decision markets let you aggregate the wisdom of your crowd”, riffing on previous Marginal Revolution guest James Surowiecki‘s provocative book The Wisdom of Crowds.  But it is worth noting that we often fail to use much simpler ways to draw on the wisdom of our crowds.  When we make our biggest choices about careers or significant others, we rarely consult more than a few of our closest associates, and often not even them.

Having just got tenure here at GMU economics, I tried to seek the wisdom of a larger crowd on my first big post-tenure project.  I wrote up a paragraph on each of ten options, and emailed the set to lots of friends, family, and associates, asking for advice.  56 wrote back, and I coded each response as assigning a number from zero to one for each option.  Four different ways of weighting the responses gave the same answer: writing a book on disagreement was just a bit better than writing a book on idea futures.  And so that is what I will do.

No one I’ve talked to has heard of anyone doing anything similar.  Why?  I can think of two reasons:

  1. Asking widely for advice is taken as a sign of weakness and ignorance.
  2. Asking someone for advice on an important decision is taken by them as a signal of intimacy; ask too many people and you are an advice “slut.”

Some people did think doing this reflected badly on my character, and some were miffed when they found out how many people I had asked.  So why did I do it?  I feel like the father who has more children than he can afford to feed, but can not bear to be the one to choose who must go out into the cold.  Like a politician afraid to make a risky decision, I choose to delegate instead.

Addendum:  My original email and the numerical scores are here.

The quest for economies of scale

Is it disadvantageous to be a small country?  Singapore seems to have done just fine.  But if economies of scale matter for geographic (as opposed to legal) reasons, we might expect small countries to cluster their populations in one central location.

In the case of New Zealand, Auckland became the largest city in 1886.  Since then it has grown in size relative to Christchurch, Wellington, and Dunedin.  In 1951, Auckland was only 50 percent larger than Wellington.  By 1996, Auckland was three times as big as either Wellington or Christchurch.  The Auckland metropolitan area now accounts for about one third of the country, in either population or economic terms, and is likely to grow in relative terms.  It is considered New Zealand’s major city.

The above facts are from James Belich’s Paradise Reforged: A History of New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000.

Why isn’t your cell phone service better?

Matt Yglesias offers part of the answer:

One major impediment to better wireless service — be it for cell phones or broadband internet — is that right now we have television broadcasters squatting on two different swathes of the radio spectrum. One is used for digital television broadcasts and one for analog broadcasts. This came about as part of an ill-advised congressional giveaway in the mid-1990s. The good news is that half of that spectrum is scheduled to revert back to the federal government which will then auction some of it off and let the rest operate as "unlicensed" spectrum, like the spectrum block that current WiFi application sit on.

The bad news is that if you do that, the approximately 13 percent of households that currently rely on over-the-air (OTA) analog television suddenly can’t get any channels. That’s not going to sit well with the voters. So there’s an impulse in congress to push the transition date backwards and hope more people switch to cable, satellite, or HDTV by then. The problem here is that the spectrum in question would be really, really useful to wireless providers and would let them build various cool and awesome things for people to buy. Even better, the spectrum is so useful that the government will be able to get a lot of money auctioning it off. Way more than enough money, in fact, to give OTA households free conversion boxes to ensure that their TVs still work and still have money left over for something else. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, however, congressional Republicans don’t seem to like this idea and are therefore delaying the advent of better wireless.

As long as we are complaining, most other countries are on a compatible (GSM) system for international cell phones but the U.S. is not (addendum: Many of you have written to note that Cingular is one exception to this claim).  I can buy a cell phone and sim card in Dubai and use it in Australia or New Zealand but not in Peoria.

Why don’t American teenagers have better test scores?

On those international tests they take, nothing is at stake.  They do much better when something is on the line, here is the story.  There is nothing at stake in Japan as well, so this suggests that American kids are the consummate period-by-period optimizers.

By the way, I am in New Zealand now, don’t be thrown by Alex’s mention of Australia.