Month: March 2006

Assorted links

1. Economists agree that stadium subsidies don’t pay for themselves.  I am on board though I worry that not all these studies account for the indirect benefits of having a team in your area to root for.  Go, Gilbert.

2. Markets in everything: Flushable toddler urinals, why make them sit?  Thanks to Carrie Conko for the pointer.

3. Robin Hanson’s recent talk on the economics of robots.  He is speaker number three, skip ahead if you wish.

4. The most expensive cars, $440,000 and up.

5. AARP list: the sexiest people over 50.  But where is Mitsuko Uchida?

What is the most absurd claim you believe?

Bryan Caplan says my most absurd view is philosophic pragmatism.  I say Robin Hanson’s most absurd view is to overestimate the chance we all become uploads in the next century.  I am not sure Alex has a most absurd view, except perhaps his notion of what my most absurd view is (hint: "one in twenty").

What is your most absurd view?  Comments are open.  Yes your comment should be crazy but serious too.  It should refer to a view which you actually hold, but many other smart people consider untenable and bizarre.

Tyrone on single-payer health insurance

"Any dummkopf can see we should value human life at replacement cost, not willingness to pay in a market setting.  (If P > MC, due to monopoly, MC is the correct measure of value, especially if we can produce more of the stuff.)  And what is the replacement cost required to get another baby into the world?  A pittance.  We should spend half as much on health care as we are doing now, perhaps less. 

Let’s institute rationing, and yes nationalization of either insurance or service provision are possible means to that end.  Let’s give everyone access to basic preventive care but limit or perhaps even ban all expensive life-prolonging procedures.  At the same time, our other policies should be pro-natalist, and that includes a favorable environment for religion and restricted vacation time, not just dollar bonuses for kids and free public education.  No good utilitarian can resist that conclusion.

Yes, that treats human lives as interchangeable, but if you don’t buy that, you have no business defending the economic approach to human life in the first place.  (The Devil in Goethe’s Faust: "Warum machst Du gemeinschaft mit uns, wenn Du sie nicht durchfuehren kannst?")

By the way, let’s drive down pharmaceutical prices.  Subsidizing babies is a cheaper way of producing more years of life.

Yup, it’s all about churning out those Quality-Adjusted Life Years.  Current unborns may feel hypothetical or contingent to you, but I tell you, they are just as real as I am.  And when those people come into existence — if they come into existence — they will be more real than I am.

At best, even assuming away the usual market failure issues, market-driven health care allows people to invest too many real resources keeping themselves alive.  You can kick and scream all you want, but at the end of the day you cannot escape this obvious overinvestment.  The problem is that the market works, in the sense of getting people what they want.  And if government involvement can save on insurance company overhead at the same time, or alleviate adverse selection, so much the better."

Tyrone is so depressed, and so unhappy with who he is, that he comes up with drivel like this.  Why did I even pass on the request?  After jotting down these notes, Tyrone told me that if push ever came to shove, I should not spend more than $8000 keeping him alive.  Of course I refused to agree; what would I do without him?  What would my wife do without him?  And what kind of person would you think I am, to sell him for mere dollars and cents?

Addendum: Here is Will Wilkinson’s health care plan.

Le problème du pain

Bread is one of the great pleasures of Paris.  The croissants melt in your mouth, the tarts have a crust that is to die for and when you break a baguette the bloom crackles perfectly and yet the inside is moist and chewy.  Moreover, I’m not talking about the best bread in Paris (which is likely the best in the world), I’m talking about the bread that you can find in any of thousands of neighborhood boulangeries and patisseries.  Why is the bread in Paris better than any that I can find in Washington?

Two answers come quickly to mind.  First, competition is intense.  Every neighborhood has at least half a dozen shops to buy bread.  Second, the French are used to high quality and will reject anything of low quality so tourists benefit from the informed local demanders.

I find both of these explanations wanting.  We do have artisanal bread in the United States and take a look at your local supermarket, competition on bread quality is intense.  At my local supermarket, there are dozens of different breads all of which compete with an on-premise bakery.

Furthermore, isn’t bread making about knowledge? – i.e. the paradigmatic example of a public good and one that is supposed to diffuse easily around the globe.  How difficult can it be to follow the recipe?  (I know, that is my point.) 

Comments are open if you have some ideas about why bread isn’t nearly as good in the United States as in Paris.  But you might also have guessed that I have a larger point in mind.

Le problème du pain is this – if it’s difficult to spread the art of bread making from Paris to Washington then how can we ever hope to spread democracy from Washington to Baghdad?

Opening up iPod

French parliamentarians finished drafting a law on Friday that would open up Apple’s market-leading iTunes online music store to portable music players other than its popular iPods.

The new law, now set for a vote on Tuesday, would allow consumers to
circumvent software that protects copyrighted material — known as
digital rights management (DRM) — if it is done to convert digital
content from one format to another. Using such software is currently
illegal in much of the world.

This is expected to pass, here is the article.

My take: The French are probably still at the point where the songs aren’t making money but rather serve as loss leaders for the hardware.  A legally forced unbundling could induce Apple to leave the market, if only to send other governments a message.

More generally, song prices are relatively low early on to induce people to lock into the technology.  If you forbid lock-in, early period song prices and indeed hardware prices will be higher than otherwise (think of market exit as the limiting case).  But will forced unbundling make prices lower in the long run, due to the growing competitiveness of the market?  My guess is no.  Something better than iPod will come along within five or ten years, so the relevant form of future lower prices is "higher quality."  Allowing monopoly profits, rather than confiscating them, is the way to get there more quickly and more decisively.  By enforcing interchangeability at such an early stage in the process, the French will more likely get a lame rather than a cool version of a universal access platform.  How’s that for lock-in?

The new Rand health care study

The authors offer up two main points:

1. We get only 55 percent of recommended medical attention [TC: hey, didn’t an earlier Rand study show us that more care doesn’t translate into better health care outcomes?]

2. "Those with annual family incomes over $50,000 had quality
scores that were just 3.5 percentage points higher than those with
incomes less than $15,000….insurance status had no real effect on

This should make everyone uncomfortable, but most of all those who think that access to health insurance is a panacea.  Here is the press release, the piece is in The New England Journal of Medicine.  Am I supposed to believe the following?:

  • Overall quality scores for blacks were 3.5 percentage points higher than for whites.
  • Overall quality scores for Hispanics were 3.4 percentage points higher than for whites.
  • Blacks had higher scores than whites for chronic care (61 percent vs. 55 percent).
  • Blacks had higher scores for treatment than whites (64 percent vs. 56 percent).
  • Hispanics were more likely to receive screening than whites (56 percent vs. 52 percent).

The authors say yes this really is true.  Previous studies usually focused on expensive and invasive one-time procedures, such as bypass operations, where whites do have a (narrowing) advantage.  If nothing else, this piece should convince us how little we understand the health care sector.

Three of my Favorite Things (for travelling)

Here are three items I always bring on long trips.

1.  Kensington noise canceling headphones. Headphones These are much cheaper than the heavily advertised version by Bose and they work very well.  With the headphones on you can actually listen to music on an airplane, but don’t think that you are going to sleep all that much better.  One AA battery will get you there and back although I always bring a spare in case I forget to turn off the noise canceling switch.

2.  Paul Fredrick Non-Iron Dress ShirtShirtAlthough not sold as a travel shirt this non-iron shirt looks almost as good on the second wearing as on the first and you can wash it in the sink, hang it to to dry and wear it again on day three.   I have "non-iron," and "wrinkle-free" dress shirts from other manufacturers but none are as good as the Paul Fredrick.

3.  Kodak DX7590 digital camera.  There are plenty of things wrong with this camera – like almost all digitals it’s slow to start and has a long refresh rate between pictures (and thus is not good at capturing action) and it’s bulky.  This camera, however, has two redeeming features.  First, and most importantly, it has a 10 times zoom and not a useless digital zoom but a real 10 times optical zoom.   The zoom makes all the difference when you want to get the close-up of that gargoyle on top of Saint-Chapelle.Garg2_1

As noted, the real lens makes the camera bulky but do you want to impress your friends with your "cute camera" or do you want to impress your friends with your photographs?  (Also, if you want impress your friends with your photos be sure to delete 80 percent of them.)

The other redeeming feature is the battery life.  With an additional 256mb memory card I can take well over 100 pictures, about right for a week trip, and can leave the battery charger at home.

Sentence of the Day – French Edition

Unexpected violence broke out in Lyon when a march of about 2,500 Turks
protesting against a memorial to Armenian victims of a 1915 massacre in
the then Ottoman Empire crossed paths with the anti-CPE demonstrations.

(From Reuters
regarding today’s huge protests in France against the new bill allowing
firms to fire young workers in their first two years of empolyment if
they don’t work out.)

John Rawls, anti-capitalist

This is from his correspondence:

The large open market including all of Europe is aim of the large banks and the capitalist business class whose main goal is simply larger profit. The idea of economic growth, with no specific end in sight, fits this class perfectly.  If they speak about distribution, it is most always in terms of trickle down.  The long-term result of this which we already have in the United States is a civil society awash in a meaningless consumerism of some kind. I can’t believe that is what you want.

So you see that I am not happy about globalization as the banks and business class are pushing it.  I accept Mills idea of the stationary state as described by him in Bk. IV, Ch. 6 of his Principles of Political Economy (1848). (I am adding a footnote in §15 to say this, in case the reader hadnt noticed it). I am under no illusion that its time will ever come certainly not soon but it is possible, and hence it has a place in what I call the idea of realistic utopia.

For more see CrookedTimber.  The real question is how much this should cause us to downgrade his moral philosophy.  I say "a lot."  I used to think there was some deep argument of consilience behind "maximin," but now I am ready to classify it as a simple mistake, akin to a person who doesn’t understand what drove the flow of traffic across the Berlin Wall in one direction and not the other. 

Philosophical implications of inflationary cosmology

Recent developments in cosmology indicate that every history having a nonzero probability is realized in infinitely many distinct regions of spacetime. Thus, it appears that the universe contains infinitely many civilizations exactly like our own, as well as infinitely many civilizations that differ from our own in any way permitted by physical laws. We explore the implications of this conclusion for ethical theory and for the doomsday argument. In the infinite universe, we find that the doomsday argument applies only to effects which change the average lifetime of all civilizations, and not those which affect our civilization alone.

Got that?  Here is the paper.  Here is brief background.

It seems if you count all possible universes (or call them parts of our multiverse, whatever) as normatively relevant, none of your actions matter in consequentialist terms. 

As to how our world, and our decisions, matter at the margin, we delve into the murky waters of infinite expected values.  With an infinity of alternatives out there, our little add-on doesn’t seem to make any difference for the grand total.  Why should even you raise the average outcome across universes?  (TC yesterday: "No, Bryan, we are not leaping up Cantorian levels of infinity, it is just one version of you getting another Klondike bar.")

One option is that only our universe, or some other "in-group," matters.  The other universes cannot count for less, rather they must count for nothing.  I recoil at such a thought, but it does avoid the mess of infinities.  Alternatively, we might embrace some version of Buddhism. 

On the bright side, philosophic talk about modality is no longer so problematic but rather refers to facts about other existing universes.  Since that problem threatened to bring morality to its knees anyway ("what do you mean, you "could" have done something different?  You did what you had to do."), maybe I don’t feel so bad after all.  And who should care if I do feel bad?  The other me feels fine.  Infinity has its benefits, and there are many worse problems.

You should lower your probability that God exists, since the Anthropic Argument will dispense with the Argument from Design.  Only the ordered pockets of the multiverse can wonder about why we are here and why things seem to run so smoothly.

That’s a lot to swallow in one day, but it seems the probability of all those propositions just went up.

Addendum: Have I mentioned that inflationary cosmology and its implications fit my crude, pathetic intuitions?  Since we have a universe, I feel it must somehow be a kind of cosmic "free lunch."  And once you open the door for free lunches, why stop at just one?  There is no good reason to rely on our locally-evolved common sense intuitions when doing philosophic cosmology.

Fluctuating inflation field

This is cosmology, not monetary policy.  Guth’s theory of inflation has just received a big boost from the data.  Here is Andrei Linde’s portrayal of how an inflationary field fluctuates.  Here is a slower version with higher resolution.  Here is Linde’s home page, which has many other time wasters.

Addendum: Best sentence I read today: "Galaxies are nothing but quantum mechanics writ large across the sky," by Brian Greene.