Month: February 2007

Medicare Loops

"Medicare for Everybody" is becoming a slogan in the left-wing blogosphere.  Does it sound so bad?  Surely private insurance deserves a whacking for its high overhead costs and its general willingness to not cover people, screw people over, and deny just claims. 

But also recall it was only a few years ago that the federal government expanded Medicare coverage to prescription drugs.  Private insurance has been covering prescription drugs for — what — about twenty-five years?

I do not need to repeat to loyal MR readers that prescription drugs are about the most useful and most life-saving of all forms of treatment.  Loyal readers also will know that greater Medicare access, as measured by more doctor visits, doesn’t seem to improve health care outcomes.  But drugs do.

So when it comes to the one thing that really works, government insurance was twenty or more years behind private insurance.

In case you didn’t already know.

Are you familiar with the early musical works of Steve Reich, you know the taped loop recordings, like "It’s Gonna Rain"?  A phrase is repeated over and over again.

The next time you hear "Medicare for Everybody" I want you to also hear:

"So when it comes to the one thing that really works, government
insurance was twenty or more years behind private insurance."

"So when it comes to the one thing that really works, government
insurance was twenty or more years behind private insurance."

"So when it comes to the one thing that really works, government
insurance was twenty or more years behind private insurance."


I thank a loyal MR reader for making this point to me.

Oh, had I mentioned that the 21st century is supposed to be the century of the biomedical sciences?

Speaker fees

Here is a good question:

This reminds me of something I don’t really understand: why affluent people will pay unbelievable amounts of money to attend a lecture so they can bask in the (one would think) unedifying physical presence of somebody like Tom Friedman, whom they can see for free on television practically every week.

I take this to be a signaling problem.  The quality of the speaker signals the quality of the event, and most of all the quality of the other attendees.  Wealthy people and successful people don’t want to go to an event full of losers, why should they?  So the organizers seek quality speakers, so as to attract quality participants.  Such valuable signals have to be scarce by their nature, and that means that the best known speakers earn high rents from their physical presence, whether or not they are edifying.

On related matters, Greg Mankiw posts on live performance.

What does society overcomplicate?

Here is Ben Casnocha’s list, to skip the explanations:

1. Losing Weight
2. Becoming a Better Writer
3. Becoming a Better Entrepreneur
4. Becoming a Better Parent

Ben says they are hard, but also simple.  I view #1 and #2 as simple, for reasons similar to Ben’s.  The hardest thing about being a parent is knowing when to punish and when to ignore.  The hardest thing about being an entrepreneur is, I suspect, other (competing) entrepreneurs.  I will nominate being happy as overcomplicated by society.  Your thoughts?

Addendum: Bryan Caplan — a man who does not overcomplicate — chimes in.


John D. Freyer decided to sell everything he owns — yes everything — on ebay.  Stage two is to visit those objects in people’s homes around the country and record their tales.  Stage three is to publish this book

When Oh When will people appreciate how deep Seth Roberts’s self-experimentation concept runs?  Descartes started with the idea that we know only ourselves, Seth realizes that the self is often the last thing we know and discovering the self is the highest stage of science not to mention performance art.  The innovation of hermeneutics (as found say, in Paul Riceour) was to set the self apart from the social world and trace the implications of a dualistic and indeed interpretative social science.  Seth reestablishes methodological monism by turning the world-self distinction on its head, relocating the self in the world of science.  Add to that mix a working knowledge of experimental psychology, insights from neurodiversity (the meticulous recording of self, the focus on detail, plus the deeply autistic speak of the self in the third person as an external object to be observed; are they so wrong?), and sugared water, for a potent mix.

Virtually all of you — that’s right you — underinvest in self-experimentation at the relevant margin.  Status quo bias is one reason, plus we fear negative feedback about who we are and what we are doing.  Who wants to learn that his or her **x life (family blog!) could have been 63 percent better for the last fourteen years?   

Scientists should spend at least one-third of their time with self-experimentation.  Robin Hanson lectures us on bias, favoring one’s self excessively, failing to agree with smarter or better informed others, and intellectual hubris.  We need to correct for these flaws, just as we might wipe the dirt off the lens of our microscope.  Good luck.

A’la Heisenberg, measuring the self does not differ in degree from constructing the self.  Seth thus solves the age-old problem of avoiding the collapse of German Idealism into German Romanticism and then into complete subjectivity.  The construction of the self is brought squarely into the realm of science; this integrates the two sides of early Wittgenstein, namely the affinity for the mystical and the analytics which gave birth to logical positivism. 

Did I mention politics?  Wilhelm von Humboldt, a descendent of the Romantics and forerunner of Mill, portrayed self-experimentation as the essential outcome of freedom and the ultimate justification for a free society.  Plato saw the same in Book Eight of The Republic, where it is argued that the life of a philosopher (i.e., critical self-examination) can flourish only under democracy.  Dan Klein’s paper is called "Go Ahead and Let Him Try."

Of course it was Goethe who understood most of this, and even put it into verse, but that is another post altogether.  Nor are Jung and Nietzsche irrelevant.  Seth Roberts is my new ersatz Continental philosopher.

Here is my previous post on Seth, you can use Google for Alex’s posts too.  Here is Seth’s blog.

Addendum: Seth responds

MarginalRevolution peddles fakes

I found the following in my email a few days ago:

I regularly surf in google, and I came across The Marginal Revolution, where there is a painting and a nice comment of yours about Pedro Figari [TC: the link is mine].  This is enough motive for me to write, but more precisely because the painting is a Figari fake (coincidentally I own the legitimate one!).  My current life and whatever is left of it you can appreciate in  If you have any doubts, suggestions, questions, feel free to email me, and I will be only too pleased.

The man is a descendant of Figari, but most of all a lover of art.

What I’ve been reading

1. Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice, edited by Ed Stringham.  712 pages of debate about libertarian anarchy, just about everything intelligent written on the topic, and then some.  The book has two essays by yours truly on why libertarian anarchy cannot avoid reevolution back to government; you’ll also find them on my home page.

2. Daniel Drezner, All Politics is Global: Explaining International Regulatory Regimes.  An underexplored topic in public choice, Dan shows it still all boils down to national politics.  Here is chapter one.

3. Dan Simmons, The Terror.  One of his best books, a thrilling Arctic adventure, well-paced, 769 pp., but ultimately not conceptual.  My decision to stop reading at p.200 or so marks a watershed in my life.

4. Christoph Peters, The Fabric of Life.  A German vacationer witnesses a murder in Istanbul and delves into seamy society to figure out what happened.  It is so hard to get a translation into English published these days that a rule of reading only translated contemporary literature is one of the better filters.  Recommended.

5. Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows.  Reader’s feast of subtle and penetrating observations, dysfunctional family, etc.

6. Spence on Schelling, via Greg Mankiw.

7. Maybe I’m Amazed.

The best John Amaechi bit I read yesterday

He [Amaechi] writes that the pros play the game for a lot of reasons–money, fame,
groupies, self-esteem–but that very few NBA players love basketball. 
"The fan sitting at home … wants us to love the game like he does," he
writes.  "If he knew why we really play the game, for the most part, he
might not love the game.  He might not even watch it."  The average fan,
gay or straight, will probably find that contention more troubling than
a former player’s homosexuality.

Here is more.

Thai X-ing

Four chairs, one table, A+ decor, and the best Asian food in D.C.  Nothing nearby comes close.  Staff = 1, so you must call not only for reservations, but indeed hours in advance with an actual order so he can start making your food.  I loved the salmon in red curry sauce, the pad thai, the larb, and some amazing chicken dish with the guy’s last name on it; the drunken noodles are recommended as well.  But I am not not not saying the other dishes are worse.  515 Florida Avenue, NW.

I’ll never view the theory of the firm in the same light again.  Monitoring doesn’t work, and who needs division of labor anyway?  The coolest place in DC right now, by far.  Here is the menu.

The Economics of *Lost*

I start with the obvious: he is 51 and never married.  So the "foreign woman" bit probably is an artifice to avoid admitting bachelorhood is his preferred long-run equilibrium.  Beyond that, he should seek out a reliable third party certifier.  One is Uncle Sam; Natasha was a longstanding U.S. citizen when we married.  But if he seeks a non-citizen, parents are possible certifiers.  He should go to India but not even try to meet Indian women.  He should try to meet Indian parents.  Yes he may be given the worst daughter but at least he gets someone who is still part of her family. 

What traits should he look for in a foreign woman?  He should avoid countries which lost the Cold War.  Avoid women met in hotels or hotel rooms.  Avoid countries which generate large amounts of spam.  Hepatitis counts as a minus.  How about a plus for women who work in agriculture?  Any other advice?  Readers, feel free to pile on…

Addendum: Here is an excellent article on seeking a bride in the Ukraine, via Jason Kottke.  It does not refute my hypotheses.

China fact of the day

In parts of China, black ants are sold by the bagful to be steeped in tea or soaked in liquor as a natural remedy for ailments such as arthritis.

Wang sold packages of ants to the investors for up to as much as 10,000 yuan ($1,290) when they were only worth 200 yuan, China Central Television reported.

Here is the story, the sentence is death.  The total con is estimated at $387 million, what would Gary Becker say, in any case that is a lot of imaginary ants.

Markets in everything, Beethoven edition

A company called Life Gem is making three diamonds out of DNA taken from Beethoven’s hair, allowing a few lucky people to walk around with literally a piece of the famous composer on their hands.  Creepy.

The company can also make diamonds out of less famous corpses, allowing you to carry around a piece of your departed loved one in bling form forever and ever.  Or at least until you croak and get turned into a diamond.  It’s the circle of life!

Here is the link.  And while we’re on the markets topic, here is a neat idea from Japan.

Life Among the Econ

Axel Leijonhufvud’s satire of economists, a fun read; excerpt:

The facts (a) that the Econ are highly status-motivated, (b) that status is only to be achieved by making “modls,” and (c) that most of these “modls” seem to be of little or no practical use, probably accounts for the backwardness and abject cultural poverty of the tribe.  Both the tight linkage between status in the tribe and modlmaking and the trend toward making modls more for ceremonial than for practical purposes appear, moreover, to be fairly recent developments, something which has led many observers to express pessimism for the viability of the Econ culture.

Or try this:

The young Econ, or “grad,” is not admitted to adulthood until he has made a “modl” exhibiting a degree of workmanship acceptable to the elders of the “dept” in which he serves his apprenticeship.  Adulthood is conferred in an intricate ceremony the particulars of which vary from village to village.  In the more important villages, furthermore, (the practice in some outlying villages is unclear) the young adult must continue to demonstrate his ability at manufacturing these artifacts.  If he fails to do so, he is turned out of the “dept” to perish in the wilderness…Once elected an elder, the member need do nothing and will still be well taken care of.

Of course in the mid-seventies the "tribe of Walras" had more status than it does today.  The pointer is from Peter Klein.  Here is another Peter Klein post on economists.