Month: July 2007

The future of blogging

Imagine a full extension of property rights and a closing off of the "commons" problems known as the comments section of a blog.  Marc Andreessen writes:

The first time I met Dave Sifry,
over three years ago, he told me that conversations on the Internet
would eventually all revolve around every individual having a blog,
each individual posting her own thoughts on her own blog, and blogs
cross-linking through mechanisms like trackbacks and blog search
engines (such as Dave’s Technorati).

The advantage of this new world, said Dave, is that each individual
(anonymous or not) would be publicly responsible for their own content
and in charge of their own space — substantially reducing the risk of
spam and trolls — and the communication would flow through the links.
There would still be the risk of link spam, but at least this new world
would make people more responsible for their own content, and that
would tend to uplevel the discourse.

But how will readers know which blogs and which comments to visit?  I fear that tagging (and related acts of evaluation) is an underprovided public good.  How can we compensate effective taggers for their efforts?  And do you not enjoy the weaving back and forth of discussion in a single blog thread?

My prediction of the future equilibrium is…the current equilibrium, like it or not.

Here is an article on the future of search.

While we’re at it, I’ll repeat the norms of this blog: it’s fine to be humorous, but don’t treat the other commenters, or for that matter bloggers, in an insulting manner.

An exchange about health care

Charles W. Tidd, Jr., Newtown, Conn.: Your column today
continues to avoid a central issue: a great number of Americans do not
trust the government with their health care. This mistrust is not the
result of television ads by insurance companies but follows from
increasingly frequent routine encounters with the government: waiting
for a passport, figuring out the tax law, having an intelligent
conversation with someone at the DMV, listening to the news – Hurricane
Katrina, the federal prosecutors, the pardons by both Clinton and Bush,
immigration. The list goes on and on.

Why in the world do you want to trust the nation’s health care to the government?  He who pays the piper calls the tune.

I write you because there is no question that our health system
needs to be fixed, but until the issue of public mistrust of government
is addressed, any sort of universal health care will be shunned by many

Paul Krugman:: Do people really distrust the government? I
think we have this program called Medicare, which most people seem to
like. On the other hand, maybe people don’t know that it’s the
government: former Sen. John Breaux was famously accosted by a
constituent demanding that he not let the government get its hands on

Here is the link

People like Medicare because it pays some of the bill, while keeping interference in the medical process to an apparent minimum; admittedly non-interference is in part illusory because the indirect effects of Medicare (e.g., it drives up prices) have become enormous.  Almost all government payments of this kind are popular, whether or not the programs are a good use of scarce resources.  People are looking to get something from their costly government, and not necessarily because they trust it.

As Medicare expenditures rise, this illusion of non-interference will become much harder to maintain and indeed Medicare itself may become less popular.  I am always curious to hear — from single-payer proponents — which interest groups they think will have a decisive say over the system, and how those interest groups differ in America vs. Western Europe.  That is one reason why we cannot simply replicate the VA approach writ large, or for that matter the French system.  For a sobering wake-up call, compare the flood defense policies of the Netherlands to, say, Louisiana.

The Last Novel

By David Markson, fun, fun, fun.  Excerpt:

Curiously impressed by the fact that Auden paid everyone of his bills — electric, phone, whatever — on the same day that it arrived.


We evaluate artists by how much they are able to rid themselves of convention.
Said Richard Serra.

Is this a novel or a book of aphorisms?  Could it be a set of blog posts spread out over 190 pp.?  Who cares, I finished it.  Or:

A woman’s body is not a mass of flesh in a state of decomposition, on which the green and purplish spots denote a complete of cadaveric putrefaction.
An early critics presumed to inform Renoir.

China and Industrial Policy

Brad DeLong’s post on China and industrial policy combines a deep knowledge of history, politics and economics.  It’s a superb post, one of Brad’s best ever so do read the whole thing then come back here for some minor quibbles.

Brad goes over the top for Deng Xiaoping ("quite possibly the greatest human hero of the twentieth century.")  Without denying Deng’s importance, I would say that China’s great leap forward came with the death of Mao Zedong.   Once Mao – quite possibly the greatest human killer of the twentieth century – was dead, China could almost not help but improve.

Second, the Chinese people, especially the peasant farmers, deserve a huge amount of credit.  Here’s a couple of paragraphs I wrote recently:

The Great Leap Forward was a great leap backward – agricultural land was less productive in 1978 than it had been in 1949 when the communists took over.  In 1978, however, farmers in the village of Xiaogang held a secret meeting.  The farmers agreed to divide the communal land and assign it to individuals – each farmer had to produce a quota for the government but anything he or she produced in excess of the quota they would keep.  The agreement violated government policy and as a result the farmers also pledged that if any of them were to be jailed the others would raise their children.

The change from collective property rights to something closer to private property rights had an immediate effect, investment, work effort and productivity increased.  “You can’t be lazy when you work for your family and yourself,” said one of the farmers.

Word of the secret agreement leaked out and local bureaucrats cut off Xiaogang from fertilizer, seeds and pesticides.  But amazingly, before Xiaogang could be stopped, farmers in other villages also began to abandon collective property.

Deng and others in the central leadership are to be credited with recognizing a good thing when they saw it but it was the farmers in villages like Xiaogang that began China’s second revolution.

Addendum: For the story of Xiaogang I draw on John McMillan’s very good book, Reinventing the Bazaar.

The critic as the handmaiden of Google

What are critics good for anyway?

I look for one main piece of information from a review: is the name of the product or artist worth Googling?  Yes or no.  That is a binary decision.

Once I have the answer to that question I usually stop reading the review.

I look for one main piece of information from Google: is the product worth buying, on Amazon or elsewhere?

Once I have the answer to that question I usually stop pawing through Google.  That’s another binary decision.

Imagine that.  The critic as the handmaiden of Google, and Google as the handmaiden of Amazon.

To me, the most valuable critics are those who can be disposed of most quickly.  Is it any wonder that so many critics do not like the Internet and bloggers?

Sometimes I think it is enough to simply list how many of the book’s pages I bothered to read.

Should all patients be treated the same?

If a woman is a lawyer, or the wife of a lawyer, does she get better treatment?  Lawyers seem to be regarded by doctors as especially litigious patients who should be treated with caution when it comes to risky procedures such as surgery.  The rate of hysterectomy in the general population in Switzerland was 16 percent, whereas among lawyers’ wives it was only 8 percent — among female doctors it was 10 percent.  In general, the less well educated a woman is and the better private insurance she has, the more likely it is that she’ll get a hysterectomy.  Similarly, children in the general population had significantly more tonsillectomies than the children of physicians and lawyers.  Lawyers and their children apparently get better treatment, but here, better means less.

That is from Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings: the Intelligence of the Unconscious.  It is a good microeconomics question to ponder the conditions under which a) this is efficient, and b) you would rather be the poorer patient or the non-lawyer than the lawyer. 

The Romers of Berkeley, on fiscal policy

…tax increases are highly contractionary.  The effects are strongly
significant, highly robust, and much larger than those obtained using
broader measures of tax changes.  The large effect stems in considerable
part from a powerful negative effect of tax increases on investment.  We
also find that legislated tax increases designed to reduce a persistent
budget deficit appear to have much smaller output costs than other tax

Their work is of the very highest quality, and not to be confused with many of the more dubious claims made about taxation and investment.  In particular they make a point of isolating exogenous changes in the tax code.  Here is the paper.  Here is a non-gated version.

Live, or Die Free

Johnson & Johnson has proposed that Britain’s national health service pay for the cancer drug Velcade, but only for people who benefit from the medicine, which can cost $48,000 a patient. The company would refund any money spent on patients whose tumors do not shrink sufficiently after a trial treatment.

The groundbreaking proposal, along with less radical pricing experiments in this country and overseas, may signal the pharmaceutical industry’s willingness to edge toward a new pay-for-performance paradigm – in which a drug’s price would be based on how well it worked, and might be adjusted up or down as new evidence came in.

More here.  Contingency fees for doctors and pharmaceutical companies are a very good idea (one I have long supported).  For more see Hyman and Silver’s excellent paper.

Taxation and fairness

1. What Greg Mankiw said

2. What Lew Frankfort said: "I don’t think it is
unreasonable…for the C.E.O. of a company to realize 3 to 5
percent of the wealth accumulation that shareholders realize.”

Background: "Mr. Frankfort, the 61-year-old Coach chief, took home $44.4 million
last year. His net worth is in the high nine figures. Yet his pay and
net worth, he notes, are small compared with the gain to shareholders
since Coach went public six years ago, with Mr. Frankfort at the helm.
The market capitalization, the value of all the shares, is nearly $18
billion, up from an initial $700 million."

3. What Matt Yglesias said: "The economy grew at a perfectly rapid clip in a broad-based manner in the 1950s and 60s."

4. What L. Ron Hubbard said: "…one of the greatest single moves which could be made to advance and vitalize a culture such as America would be to free, completely, the artist from all taxes and similar oppressions."

5. What Tyler said: "If you believe in the integrity of personal identity over time, the greatest unfairness is when people die young.  Let’s start by taxing the lucky old.  If you believe in the time-slice view of identity, the very old have a rough time of it.  Let’s start by taxing hipsters."   

What I’ve been reading

1. Vie Francaise, by Jean-Paul Dubois.  He is the French Philip Roth; the bottom line is that I finished it, and not just because of the occasional mentions of Adam Smith.

2. Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, by Gerd Gigerenzer.  The author is a smart guy and an accomplished scholar, but despite his best efforts this book is a few years too late.

3. Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang, by Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok.  Inflation vs. cyclic theories, the latter help you stay an agnotheist by resolving the Goldilocks problem; only some of the universes through time have order as we know it.  I enjoyed it, even though I am sick of popular physics books.  It’s also the first time I’ve understood anything about the Higgs field debates.  Recommended.

4. The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society, by Mark A. Smith.  The main thesis is that right wingers have made America a more conservative society by framing issues in terms of economic reasoning.  Maybe I am too close to the topic, but I didn’t learn anything from the book.  At the very least it should interest progressives looking to mimic the successes (?) of the right wing.

5. Blankets, by Craig Thompson.  This I loved and read in one sitting; it is a very good introduction to graphic novels, especially if you are not thrilled by Alan Moore.

The best mid-sized chunk I read today

…the fraction of Kenyans who are satisfied with their personal health is
the same as the fraction of Britons and higher than the fraction of
Americans.  The US ranks 81st out of 115 countries in the fraction of
people who have confidence in their healthcare system, and has a lower
score than countries such as India, Iran, Malawi, or Sierra Leone.
While the strong relationship between life-satisfaction and income
gives some credence to the measures, the lack of such correlations for
health shows that happiness (or self-reported health) measures cannot
be regarded as useful summary indicators of human welfare in
international comparisons.

That is Angus Deaton, here is more, and here.

Sentences of…something or other

If those of us who profess to value public schools and the principle of democratic access they uphold cannot find the courage or the motivation to fight in their defense, we may soon wake up to find that they have been replaced by wholly owned subsidiaries of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wal-Mart.

That is Jonathan Kozol, writing in the August 2007 issue of Harper’s.  Note that while there are some good (though in my view not decisive) arguments against vouchers, Kozol instead focuses on reminding us that corporations are greedy profit-maximizers.  Nor does he mention that in America’s inner cities, "democratic access" to good french fries far exceeds democratic access to good schools.  And might not Louis Vuitton join Wal-Mart in educating some of our children?

Kozol does (correctly, but without explanation or analysis) describe the results of U.S. voucher experiments to date as "very mixed."  You might think that means our attitude toward vouchers should be "very mixed" but alas not.

Impeach Jonathan Kozol, impeach him now.

Addendum: Believe it or not, this post isn’t Alex.

Meta Performance Art

I’m not a huge fan of performance art but I love this piece of meta performance art.  Damien Hirst (whose work features chopped up animals and maggots and flies) recently unveiled the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever, a skull encrusted with millions of dollars worth of diamonds.  In response, "Laura" created a similar skull using Swarovski crystals and in the middle of the night she dumped it outside the gallery along with a pile of trash.  Priceless.