Month: November 2005

What is wrong with American food?

Kevin Drum asks:

What’s the scoop here? Why is it that even with lots of money and chefs who clearly know how to produce three-star food, American restaurants still can’t measure up to their French counterparts?

The context is the new Michelin guide, and whether four New York restaurants deserved three stars.  (BTW, even if you think they were deserving, as I do, count the relative number of stars in NYC vs. Paris; NYC does top San Sebastian, Spain, but not by so much).  His commentators make many good points, most of all about differences in ingredient supply networks. 

The better pure ingredients in Paris include amazing cheese shops, perfect bread, and fresher strawberries.  On the macro scale, this translates into superior haute cuisine.

America, in contrast, excels in multi-dimensionality.  Move away from refined Michelin-style cooking, and New York City is usually better than Paris.  We have better Indian food, Columbian food, Afghan food, Chinese food, sushi, burger joints, street pretzels, and so on.  Yet there is probably no single cuisine where NYC is #1 in the world, precisely because American ingredients are not up to scratch.

It is no accident that France specializes in uni-dimensional food competition, whereas the United States scatters its culinary energies in many directions.  By choosing food networks which emphasize speed, reliability, and cheapness over perfection, the U.S. makes possible many more ethnic cuisines, and it also guarantees a better shot at cheap prices.  In short, New York offers more choice. 

Unlikely film adaptations, part II

Leonardo DiCaprio is to play a man with a particular gift for reading body language in the forthcoming adaptation of Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller about how people make snap decisions. The writer-director will be Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of 2000’s drug trade film Traffic. "[Gaghan] came to me out of the blue," Gladwell told trade magazine Variety. ‘He thought there was something in the book that was a movie. We took one chapter from the book and fashioned a story out of it. But most of it is something we dreamt up together."

Thanks to, now touring Asia, for the pointer.  Here is updated information on a previous installment in this series.  So who will star in Freakonomics?

Why do parents talk with their childrens’ friends?

As a teenager, some of my friends became quite chummy with my parents.  But usually teenage children want their parents to stay quiet.  Why might a parent wish to talk to other teenagers?

1. The parent seeks to estimate the quality, or at least the politeness, of the child’s friends.

2. The parent wishes to feel connected to younger generations.

3. The parent is nervous and wishes to relieve the tension of quiet.  And not speaking is seen as an abdication of parental responsibility.

4. The parent wishes to establish the authority to do something the child does not like.

5. The parent finds those children genuinely interesting.

6. The parent wishes to pretend a reasonable relationship with the peers of their child, either to feel involved or to pretend that everything will be OK.

None of these motives are popular with the sons and daughters of the conversing parent.  If a put on my technocratic Paretian hat, this is sooner an activity to be taxed than subsidized.

Tyler Cowen pretends he is a Democrat

If I were a Democrat…

First, I would not cite evidence about how Western European countries spend less on health and are healthier than U.S. citizens.  This data set, if you take it seriously, also implies that the marginal product of more health care, adjusting for income and a few other variables, is zero.  Expanding health care would not be important.  Now I believe this is an incorrect conclusion, but that is what shows up in this data.  We should not invoke this data selectively.

Second, I would recognize that American policy generally works (or doesn’t work) by building upon existing institutions.  The most likely form of national health care — for better or worse — would extend a version of Medicare to more people.  This would not lower health care costs, whether in gross or quality-adjusted terms.  Keep in mind that negotiating price reductions does not per se lower real resource costs at all. 

I would disaggregate health care systems and see where we could do the most good:

1. Step up R&D subsidies through the NIH and our university system, both high quality institutions.  Their autonomy and micro-fiefdoms provide a good framework for risk-taking and innovation.  The returns to medical R&D are extremely high.  Furthermore the case for market failure, based on the inability to capture the full social gains from a new idea, is simple. 

2. Redo the Medicare drug bill so that people can understand it (even I can’t, nor does my mother), and so more people benefit.  If need be, we can do this in budget-neutral fashion.  The Bush plan is a mess.

3. Invest in local public health systems.  Preventive care is important, especially for the poor.  Price can be an obstacle but often the relevant constraints are behavioral in nature.  Public health care systems should be easy and inviting, and they have to become part of life routines.  Government can be part of the solution.  Strong local public health care also will improve surveillance and later surge capacity if a pandemic comes along; this added benefit is significant.

4. Borrow a page from the libertarian litany about the FDA.

5. Institute prizes for successful vaccines.  We have been discouraging vaccine production when we should be encouraging it; Michael Kremer has some intriguing proposals.

All those options are doable.  All would save lives.  None are fiscal disasters.  They offer something for both rich and poor.  They lay out a positive and constructive role for government, while keeping room for the private sector.  None raise the prospect of excess bureaucracy or discourage innovation.  None rest on the questionable belief that government as single supplier or payer would improve efficiency.  And they are all areas where the Republicans are dropping the ball.

I would cut talk of national health insurance.  I would cease obsessing over the number of "40 million uninsured," however good a debating point it may be.  Many of these people are either linked to immigration or get decent medical coverage in any case.  I would admit that we cannot take care of everyone and that we face tough trade-offs.

Hmmm…these counterfactuals are fun.  What should I try next?  Pretending I am a Republican?  But for now, it is back to normal life…and so we return to your regularly scheduled programming.  But comments are open, in case Kevin Drum’s readers wish to pretend they are libertarians…

Do cellphones have a role in education?

As a recording device, or for taking down illustrations or graphs, the multifunction mobile phone rivals, or will soon rival, the iPod. Few seem to have noticed, but a whole generation of students have taught themselves shorthand (texting, that is). This has not been exploited educationally.

Ringtone interruptions in a teaching or learning situation are, of course, intolerable. And having to overhear one-sided mobile chatter is as blood-boilingly irritating in the library or computer cluster as it is in the railway carriage. But texting enables rapid notetaking to oneself, silent interchange between auditors at a lecture, or participants in a seminar. Used conscientiously, even today’s generation of phones could be used for teaching purposes – to foster uninterruptive cross-interaction, rapid access to outside information sources, or simple queries ("what the hell did he just say, I missed it?")

I’d be a lot more confident about our universities’ ability to absorb the Gates tablet if, in the lecture hall, the signs on the wall said: "Please turn your mobile phones on".

My predictions: Using cell phones to record lectures is easy, and the playback should speed up the pace.  Might the linked information technology improve the lecture by adding material or explanation?  How about phones which flash red whenever the instructor says something questionable or controversial?  How about phones which monitor the reaction of the individual listener and send this message to the other listeners?  So if everyone else is sleeping, upset, or sexually excited, you would know about it.  Overall, I do not expect the balance of power to shift in favor of the lecturer.

Here is the source link, and thanks to you-know-who for the pointer.  Comments are open if you wish to offer your own predictions.

Kevin Drum leaves out the words “single payer”

Read him here.  Canada, North Korea, and Cuba have single-payer governmental systems.  If you know of others (I believe there are some), please leave them in the comments.  The successes, or supposed successes, of most West European systems do not constitute evidence that a single payer system is a good idea.  This is one of the most commonly overlooked points in the debate over health care.

The economics of web subscriptions

Are you impressed that TimesSelect has attracted "approximately" 135,000 paying customers?** At $45 a head (halfway between the introductory price and the regular price) that’s $6.1 million. Bigger than Arianna! But if someone–say, Richard Mellon Scaife–had come along a year ago and offered the NYT $6.1 million to radically limit the reach of its (largely) liberal columnists, would the paper have taken the deal? … P.S.: And is the future subscriber trajectory really up, up, up, as the Times’ columnists fade as personalities on the Web and get replaced by other, freer popular writers? …

That is from Mickey Kaus.

Could I ever become a Democrat?

Here is a symposium on whether progressives can believe in economic growth as a primary value.  The impetus is Gene Sperling’s new and intelligent book The Pro-Growth Progressive.  Here is a summary of the book.  Here is a recent Sperling article.  Scroll down MaxSpeak for left-wing criticism of Sperling.

Sperling pushes for markets and trade, but gives government a greater role in insuring against risk.  This includes "wage insurance," more job training, and managed forms of free trade and globalization.  On net his influence will be positive, but I have the following problems with his arguments:

1. He assumes that spending more on education will result in a better educated and more productive populace.  The U.S. data do not support this view, although he does adduce some good evidence on the benefits of preschool. 

2. He assumes that government-sponsored job training — including "pre-emptive" training (i.e., before you lose your job) — is effective.

3. He never puts on his right-wing public choice hat to consider what his proposed policies would end up looking like in the real world.  He feels no shame in postulating dozens of finely honed micro-interventions, all implemented by ugly and brutish politicians and interest groups.

4. We are never told what we must forego to do all this.

5. He ties himself in emotional knots anytime his preferred policies are not unanimous pure Pareto improvements.  He has to get over the fact that Democrats hurt people too.

6. When arguing against the Bush budget deficits, he ignores Cowen’s Third Law: "All propositions about real interest rates are wrong."

He does nail market-oriented views on the issue of risk; we don’t have a good explanation of why private insurance markets do not function better.  But since single-payer national health insurance violates every economic law known to mankind, I am again unsure how I could leap on the Democratic bandwagon.

By the way, here is Reihan Salam on where the Republicans should go (Matt Yglesias comments here).  He is another smart guy, but I just don’t believe that any political party can be mass-captured by the intelligent and brought around to sanity.  Parties exist, in part, to enforce feelings of interpersonal solidarity and to make people forget about critical thinking.  We cannot avoid parties in a democracy, but there is already too much interest in parties as a vehicle for ideas.   

Has the Doomsday Argument been refuted?

Randomness seems to confound us. For example, we have a tendency to infer non-randomness from apparent patterns in random events (witness the incorrigible optimists who spot trends in the spins of a roulette wheel or the ups and downs of the FT Share Index); at the same time, the history of statistics suggests that, when random samples are required, we often mistake the merely haphazard – or whatever happens to be near at hand – for the truly random. As I will show, the Doomsday Argument’s fundamental mistake is to rely on the intuitive but misguided notion that we can in general take ourselves to be typical humans, and thus, in effect, random samples of the species.

Here is the paper.  If you are familiar with the core argument, scroll down to p.9 "We are necessarily alive…" for the beginning of the bottom line.  I have never been persuaded by the Doomsday Argument, if only because it does not specify the appropriate reference class of self-observing agents.  I now see further reason to be skeptical.  Comments are open, and thanks again to the what-would-I-do-without-it for the pointer.

More men should wear hats

I tend to put on my right-wing public-choice hat here, and side with GooglePrint. The private beneficiaries from assigning too much of the value of innovation to the dead hand of old property rights are concentrated. The private beneficiaries of assigning too little of the value are diffuse. In a public-choice world ruled by lobbyists, there will be strong pressures on legislation and law to overprotect existing property. And it is the duty of intellectuals seeking the sweet spot to push back–to be an anti-lobbyist lobby.

That is Brad DeLong, here is a longer son & dad discussion.

Who are the most cited economists?

1. Robert Keohane

2. Kenneth Waltz

3. Alexander Wendt

4. Samuel Huntington

5. John Mearsheimer

6. Joseph Nye

7. Robert Jervis

8. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

9. Bruce Russett

10. Robert Gilpin

When I see a list like this, I realize just how much of an economist I am.

Addendum: This may be further information, and perhaps the poll was restricted to the field of IR.

The earthquake that is Germany, a continuing series

After one female employee refused to smile all day at work, a German IT company banned grumpiness in an effort to promote a more congenial atmosphere, according to The Australian.

The new policy requires employees at Nuzwerk (search), in the German town of Leipzig (search), to sign a contract requiring them to remain in a good mood all day at the office and leave complaints and gripes about co-workers and work conditions at home.

"We made the ban on moaning and grumpiness at work official after one female employee refused to subscribe to the company’s philosophy of always smiling," office manager Thomas Kuwatsch told The Australian.

"She used to moan so much that other employees complained about her complaining. Once it was part of the contract, however, our employees really started to think positively," he told the paper.

Here is the link.  Here are links to previous posts in this series.  Speaking of Germany, Gordon Craig just passed away.