Month: January 2007

My favorite things Colombia

1. Literature.  Here is my previous post on Garcia Marquez; I forgot to mention Love in the Time of Cholera.

2. Painter: Fernando Botero.  Most of the Boteros you are likely to see are very weak, but his early work can be stunning; at ArtFair in Miami I saw a watermelon still life from the 1950s.  Rest assured, he was once a painter of genius, but I cannot find a convincing reproduction on-line.  I don’t think he sold out, rather he felt compelled to paint as much as possible, I don’t know why.

3. TV show: Betty La Fea, I have yet to see the U.S. "Betty the Ugly."  Here is what the actress really looks like, or try this one.

4. Music: I don’t feel ready to judge Aterciopelados until I see them live.  Yana has played plenty of Juanes for me, it is good Latin pop with hooks.  Afro-Colombian music is noteworthy, here are some styles.  I’ve never found a really good CD of Cumbia.

5. Movie: I thought Maria Full of Grace was overrated — too predictable, yes cocaine mules run great risks — but it is the only one I know.

6. Continental Liberator: Simon Bolivar.

7. Blogger and sociologist: Fabio Rojas, occasional guest-blogger here at MR.  Here is his page on art and music, recommended.

8. Random category: Sofia Vergara ought to count for something.  Often she dyes her hair dark to look more Latina for U.S. roles.

The bottom line: My knowledge here is patchy, and that is one reason why I am visiting.  By the way if you live in Bogota, do drop me a line.

I genuinely wish to know

Matt Y. writes:

…the forces of progress are fated to an arduous generational struggle against the health care industry [TC: not just private insurance?] and there’s not much to be done about it.

Now I can understand the view that market forces are doomed to failure in the health sector and that government is the best of a bad set of choices.  That is not my opinion, but I grasp why someone might believe that.  I wish to ask all you single-payer advocates — in absolute terms — how good (bad) do you think it will be?

Let’s rate "the paper clip industry" as a 9 out of 10.  Paper clips are pretty cheap and usually they work.  Let’s rate the better federal agencies as a 6.5 out of 10.  Let’s rate HUD as a 2.5 out of ten.

How will national health insurance do, keeping in mind that U.S. doctors do not wish to have their wages cut, Americans want the right to choose their doctors, and the U.S. is a huge, messy, decentralized, federalistic country with lots of cheats and massive, hard-to-eradicate inequalities at many different levels.

I give it about a 3.  How about you?

And what are your views on the likelihood of today’s flawed system improving without drastic single-payer reforms?

Services as gifts

A friend of mine told me about a gift she’d just received that’s a
perfect example of this kind of generosity.  Her friend told her, “For
Christmas, I’m going to replace every burned-out lightbulb in your
house.”  And she did.  She went around the house, took out every
burned-out bulb, went to the hardware store to buy replacements, and
put fresh bulbs in every empty socket.

That is from The Happiness Project.  I told Yana that for my birthday this year I want a working TiVo system, that means time on the phone to their help desk, we will see what I get.

Bonuses lead to more wage inequality

Thomas Lemieux strikes again:

An increasing fraction of jobs in the U.S. labor market explicitly pay workers for their performance using a bonus, a commission, or a piece rate.  In this paper, we look at the…growing incidence of performance pay on wage inequality. The basic premise of the paper is that performance pay jobs have a more competitive. pay structure that rewards productivity differences more than other jobs.  Consistent with this view, we show that compensation in performance pay jobs is more closely tied to both measured (by the econometrician) and unmeasured productive characteristics of workers.  We conclude that the growing incidence of performance pay accounts for 25 percent of the growth in male wage inequality between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, and for most of the growth in top-end wage inequality (above the 80th percentile) during this period.

This economist deserves…um…a bonus.

Does politics reflect personality?

A new article in Psychology Today suggests the following:

†¢    Liberals are messier than conservatives. Their rooms have more clutter, more color.  Conservatives’ rooms are better organized, more brightly lit, and more conventional.  Liberals have more books and their books are on a greater variety of topics.
†¢    Compared to liberals, conservatives are less tolerant of ambiguity, a trait researchers say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, "Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think," and "I’m the decider."
†¢    Conservatives have a greater fear of death.
†¢    Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.
†¢    Conservatives are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, rule-following, duty, and orderliness.
†¢    Conservatives have a greater need to reach a decision quickly and stick to it.
†¢    When people are prompted to think about death–a state of mind  psychologists call mortality salience–they actually become more conservative.
†¢    Conservatives are more likely to have been insecure as kids, whereas liberals are more likely to have been confident as kids.

I can assure you my room is messy, and I wonder if more finely grained categories would have been useful.

The real questions behind global warming

The key issue is what we can expect from China and India.  As I understand the evidence, if China and India continue to grow, the United States cannot succeed in much limiting global warming on its own.  Let us assume, somewhat dubiously (many European countries are further from Kyoto targets than is the United States), that Europe is already on board, what are the options?

1. China and India are less locked into fossil fuels than is the United States, and as Brazil has done they will take the lead in moving toward energy alternatives.  America does not need to get them "on board," and given their cooperativeness American energy policy will matter at the margin.

2. We can cut a deal with China and India at a suitably presented international convention.  China and India will enforce this deal and abide by it, overcoming previous problems they have had ruling their provinces and avoiding excess decentralization.

3. Forget about the international conference, we can pressure China and India by twisting their arms.  Like we’ve done with the Chinese currency.  We also can threaten them with trade taxes, as has been discussed in Europe.

4. We are best saying nothing to China and India and calling no conference.  There is some chance they will act unilaterally, out of pride and the desire to upstage the United States.  External pressure will be counterproductive, remember British imperialism and the Opium Wars?

5. China and India will continue to be major polluters.  If we tax American-generated carbon we pay a big price in terms of economic growth but make no real progress on global warming.

6. We do not know what China and India will do, but the United States is a world leader and ought to move first, set a good example, and do the right thing.

Do we know the relative merits of 1-6?  I don’t.  Keep also in mind that what works for China may not work for India, and vice versa.

Of course #5, however ignoble it sounds, is the most serious argument for doing little or nothing.  #6 sounds good, but at what point is the chance of #5 high enough to scare us off?

What would it cost China and India to make progress on global warming?  Yes Stern estimates it would be a relatively small percentage of gdp, but that is naive.  A major problem is institutional, not technological.

I am reminded of some estimates of the costs of cleaning up avian flu in Asia.  Measure how much it costs to kill (or vaccinate) one chicken.  Not much.  Multiply by the number of sick chickens.  You have your number.

Not.  Many Asian countries simply can’t get rid of avian flu.  Their institutions are too weak, too lacking in transparency, too decentralized, and too lacking in accountability.

Or how much would it cost to improve the standard of living in Haiti?  A few cops, some rule of law, free trade at the ports, and set up some real schools, right?  Under one plausible view of the world, that is only a few billion dollars or so.  But if we consider some of the very tight institutional constraints faced in Haiti, most of all the almost total unwillingness of the elites and the common voters to support a better politics, the price can seem almost infinite.  Which perspective is correct? 

The bottom line: When it comes to global warming, the most important question is how China and India will behave, and what kind of leverage "the good countries," if indeed there are any, might have.  The correct answer is not a simple matter of fact, but rather rests upon deep questions of how to measure the costs of institutional change and what we can justifiably take as an open variable amenable to change.

All other issues aside, that is why global warming is such a tough problem.  I don’t like #5, but if you want to sell me on your solution, talk to me some sense about China and India.

Addendum: Jane Galt has a lengthy post on discount rates.

My Law and Literature reading list

Bible, Book of Exodus

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Ambler, Eric, A Coffin for Dimitrios

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Saramago, Jose, Blindness

Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast

J.M. Coetzee, The Life and Times of Michael K

Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Kafka, Franz, Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, translation by Neugroschel

Verissimo, Luis Fernando, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans

Year’s Best SF9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

White, T.H. The Once and Future King

Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, Perennial Library edition

Glaspell’s Trifles, on the web

Moby Dick, excerpts, on the web, the parts of the common law of whaling

Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Depending on time we will view some movies, start by buying Double Indemnity.

The reading list is much changed.  There are fewer classics, more genre fiction, and more Latin fiction.   On the plane back from Miami I reread Eric Ambler’s Coffin for Dimitrios; few people know this novel but it is one of the best spy/detective stories, period.


Made by the director of
Office Space, this politically incorrect dystopian comedy portrays a future where dysgenics
have made everyone a moron.  It should appeal to those who enjoy
watching stupid people behave stupidly, not to those who demand
legitimate filmmaking.  In other words, it’s pretty damn funny.  There
are some classic lines, like "Welcome to Costco, I love you."  DVD only.

Terminating private health insurance: inadequate counterincentives edition

[California] businesses with 10 or more workers that choose not to offer [health insurance] coverage would be required to pay 4 percent of their total Social Security wages to a state fund that would be created to subsidize the purchase of coverage by the working uninsured.

…The plan…would also require doctors to pay 2 percent and hospitals 4 percent of their revenues to help cover higher reimbursements for those who treat patients enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.

Here is the full story.  I can’t imagine that the state of California has the fiscal wherewithal to deal with the inevitable results of these incentives.